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Archive for January, 2010

Divisadero

Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero is an emotionally intimate story full of prose so sumptuous that one must ponder the question of how writing can be both frugal and expansive at the same time.  The story begins in the 1970s, on the bucolic California farm inhabited by a cobbled-together, family-like unit of Anna, Claire and Coop, and their father-cum step-father.  For Anna’s mother died in childbirth, and so his father takes home both her and the unclaimed Claire – feeling that the hospital ‘owed him’ after the death of his wife – to be raised as sisters.  Coop, an orphan of a neighbouring family murdered on their farm, is also brought up by the father.  The children grow up together, yet it is not a real family – the father takes an annual photo of the family to mark the passage of time, yet Coop is never in it.  It is the first hint of the stark and violent alienation that follows when Coop and Anna become lovers when Anna is sixteen.  The father finds them together, naked, and beats Coop to within an inch of his life, and is perhaps only then stopped when Anna stabs him with a shard of broken glass in his shoulder.  It is this naked violent event that splits this faux-family apart, sending the three children whirling off in different directions, with Anna leaving the farm that night, and Cooper saved by Claire in the blizzard that marks the event, after which he too departs.  Names are changed.  Lives are indelibly marked.  As Anna later narrates:

The discovery of us in each other’s arms, under that green sky, a father attempting to murder a boy, a daughter trying to attack a father, is in retrospect something very small, something that might occur within just a square inch or two of a Brueghel.  But it set fire to the rest of my life.

Coop soon becomes caught up in the netherworld of gambling in Tahoe and Vegas, and becomes a card ‘mechanic’, able to deal hands to himself and others at will and above suspicion.  We soon follow his path in an elaborate sting; it is a section of the book in which the prose is particularly alluring.  And it is here where Ondaatje pulls off quite a conjuring trick, for we see Claire, on a work trip to Tahoe from San Francisco, stumble upon Coop as she comes off a pill she took the night before.  In this hazy state, she wonders whether it really is him, or whether her mind is conjuring up a ghost from her troubled past.  But it is him, living off the gains of his sting, but pursued now by his fame and caught by a nefarious group who want his services as a mechanic and will use any means necessary to persuade him, even using a drug-addicted singer to prise open his emotional layers.  He falls for this irresistible girl, not knowing her connections, and again suffers the fate of an ill-conceived desire, for he refuses to be a part of their operation.  On his refusal they beat him so fiercely that he suffers from amnesia and when Claire intervenes, he mistakes her for Anna – just one example of many in which one character mistakes the identity of another throughout the novel – and they return to the farm to repair relations with Claire’s father and recreate Cooper’s mind.

We find Anna in rural France, years later, writing a biography on writer and poet Lucien Segura, and living in his last home.  So tortured is Anna’s memory, so splintered has her life become, that she feels herself to be an orphan:

Those who have an orphan’s sense of history love history.  And my voice has become that of an orphan.

She then ponders the meaning of her street’s name back in San Francisco – Divisadero – “from the Spanish word for ‘division’ … Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance.’ … It is what I do with my work, I suppose.  I look into the distance for those I have lost, so that I see them everywhere.”   And this is how the second and third portions of the book reveal themselves; surrounding the life of Segura, we see the lives of those in the distant past, informing and reflecting the lives of Anna, Claire and Coop.  We see the recurring themes of illicit love, sibling rivalry, rickety identities and splintered lives.  We follow Segura’s childhood, the loss of eyesight in one of his eyes in another violent episode that Ondaatje seems drawn to – this time in the form of a rabid dog who shatters a glass window, whose shards penetrate into the young boy’s eye.  He is treated by his mother, and his neighbour Roman and his wife Marie-Neige, who is of a similar age to himself.  Before this accident, Segura had read Dumas to her, and now she learns to read so that she may read to him in his convalescence.  It is a shared world of Musketeers, The Black Tulip.  Later, we find Segura the writer, in a failed marriage, and obsessed with Marie-Neige – it is she on whom Segura bases the heroine of his pulp-thrillers.  It is Marie-Neige who haunts his life, who saves him in the depths of the fever of diphtheria on the World War One battlefields, who he returns to on a furlough – and possibly infects – as they consummate their love, tragically, exquisitely.   He then returns to her after the war, where he finds her on her death-bed, in the haze of fever, in which she mistakes Segura for her husband Roman.  Again, we see Ondaatje probe the meaning of identity – its fragility and recurrence.  The depiction of this illicit love is vivid and haunting, and is recollective of Ondaatje’s other great doomed love – that of Almásy and Katherine in The English Patient.

There are many literary references throughout Divisadero, hardly surprising considering Lucien Segura’s occupation, and that a notable portion of the later part of the story deals with his life.  There is the shared love of Dumas that exists between Segura and Marie-Neige.  There is the Balzac of the battlefield.  There are the poets of Segura’s life – including a son-in-law who carries on an affair with Segura’s other daughter in yet another illicit love.  There is Anna’s pondering of the street name in Paris in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in which Jean Valjean hides from his pursuers.  And the quote of Anna’s noted earlier that highlights the small matter that may be found in a Brueghel reminds me of W.H. Auden’s famous Musee des Beaux Arts:

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Divisadero cracks Brueghel’s mystery, for it manages to be both the amazing and leave us in no doubt that we are witness to it.

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

Bloomsbury

ISBN: 9780747592686

285 pages

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Juliet feels the inexorable pull of Guernsey and these friends as she exchanges letters, laughs and literary loves with the society members.  We also feel her pain at the disappearance of the fearless Elizabeth – a woman she only knows through the second-hand tales of others – who was sent to the mainland and imprisoned after being caught harbouring one of the Todt slave labourers whom the Germans had brought to the islands in order to fortify them.  More and more, Juliet wishes to visit these people that she feels she knows and loves, and at the same time escape the overtures of the glib, rich and suffocating Markham Reynolds.

We are constantly drawn back into the horrors of war; there is always the sense that whilst the war is history, it is not yet over.  Amelia writes to Juliet saying that ‘life does not go on’, rather, “It’s death that goes on”, but she also glimpses ‘small islands of hope’.  And out of the ashes of war come tales of good Germans, such as the doctor, Captain Hellman, who befriends Dawsey and falls in love with Elizabeth.  They have a child, Kit, who now grows up without her parents, but with all the members acting as her guardians.  When Juliet travels to Guernsey, she quickly takes to Kit, and Kit to her, and all of a sudden Juliet sees her life through the prism of her existence on Guernsey rather than her flat in London.

We are obliquely offered the Society’s members’ views on a varied group of literary authors throughout the book: The Bronte sisters, Seneca – a Roman philosopher, Charles Lamb, Shakespeare, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales amongst others.  There is much mirth surrounding the impact these authors and books have on the various members’ lives.  There is also the delightful – and naturally lively – appearance of Oscar Wilde who soothes the broken heart of a young girl on the island after her cat is killed.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is suffused with wit and verve, much in the vein of Jane Austen.  Indeed Juliet’s love interests in the form of the slippery Markham and the strong, silent Dawsey clearly mirror Wickham and Darcy in both name and nature.  It does not shy away from the harsh truths of war and the fate of Elizabeth is keenly felt by all; in this sense – the weaving of light and dark – it escapes being a mere romantic whimsy.  However, much in the way of Pride and Prejudice, we are left with a very happy ending, as befits this charming read.

It is a perfect book club choice, and it also proves the magic of life – for it is Mary Ann Shaffer’s only book, written aged 70, written with the cajoling and encouragement of a group of her friends and writing-group companions, and published only after her death with the final touches of her niece Annie Barrows.  It is a testament to perseverance, joy, the creative spirit, and the encouragement that only the best of family & friends can provide us.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9781741758955

265 pages (with Authors’ Acknowledgements and Afterword)

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Teaser Tuesday Time!  A couple of spoiler-free sentences, randomly chosen from my current read: Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero:

“When she saw him through the windshield, she thought he was dead.  Then his hands twitched in the ochre of her flashlight.” 

Short and sweet this week!  What are you reading?

jb

PS: Teaser Tuesday is a bookish meme hosted by shouldbereading.

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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

What would you write if, God forbid, you were faced with the task of writing a letter to a young son you knew you would not live to see grow up?  Words of advice, wisdom, heartfelt love, and farewell.  Perhaps you would also explore and explain family history and the links you had to a place, in this case, to the secluded town of Gilead, Iowa.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 & the National Book Critics Circle Award in the same year, Gilead is this letter, the fictional autobiography of Reverend John Ames who, knowing he is dying of a failing heart at the age of 76, writes this autobiographical letter to his son, who is aged ‘nearly seven’.  In the Bible, ‘Gilead’ means ‘hill of testimony or mound of witness’, (Genesis 31:21), and is an apt title for the Reverend’s testimony of a life lead from the pulpit.

For those of you who love to read a writer at the very top of their craft, one who creates and inhabits such a distinctive and pitch-perfect narrative ‘voice’, then Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is for you.  Set in 1956, the letter recalls the Reverend’s life and his memories of his father and grandfather – both of them preachers.  There are tales of his gun-toting grandfather, a radical abolitionist, who served as a Chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War, and his pacifist father.  Needless to say these two characters rarely saw eye-to-eye.  Indeed, early in the story, the Reverend recalls his and his father’s search for his grandfather’s lost grave, a search that his father feels compelled to undertake owing to the final harsh words between them.  Robinson’s drawing of characters is superb; the grandfather is “a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard, like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer in it.”  Many of the early highlights of the book relate to the grandfather’s eccentricities, including his constant pilfering of family monies to give to the poor, even when his own family had nothing to give.

This is a tale of fathers and sons, both human and religious, as the Reverend relates his own family’s relationships as well as those of his neighbour and good friend, Old Boughton, also a minister.  We follow the Reverend’s internal struggle with his theology, revealed through a number of stories, such as his brother Edward’s atheism and his father’s loss of faith – both of whom leave this ‘backwater’ of a town.  The Reverend also recalls the loss of his first wife and child through illness, and his childhood loneliness, which are set against the bounty of Old Boughton’s growing family.  Yet the counterpoint to all this loss is the love the Reverend finds with a young woman, a woman who becomes his wife and bears him his own son, the son for whom the letter is addressed.

There is a recurring sense of the Prodigal Son too, as Old Boughton’s estranged son and the Reverend’s namesake, John Ames Boughton, better known as Jack, returns to the town.  It is the arrival of Jack together with a past that still casts shadows over the two families that drives much of the tension in the story.  We read the Reverend’s exploration and struggle of what Jack means to him, as a man of the cloth and, more directly, as a man.  He tries not to judge Jack, tries to forgive him his past actions, but he struggles with his presence, his perceived meanness, and his past – a past that stretches back to his earliest days, for it was the Reverend John Ames who baptised the infant Jack.  He is even moved to consider at one point whether it was a ‘cold’ baptism, one that in some way affected the person that Jack was to come, and is so doubting that he decides that he carries a burden of guilt about it.   The Reverend is troubled by the nagging question of whether he should warn his wife and his son about Jack and the harm he might do them, as he notes the growing relaxation that Jack and his wife share; it is, for Jack, a state of being that is unique to her presence.  Even Jack’s father, old Boughton, comes over to warn the Reverend, for ‘something is not right with him’.  But it is Reverend John Ames who eventually, after several failed attempts, finds out the secret truth of Jack, a secret so powerful that it cannot be shared with Old Boughton in his frail health for fear it might kill him.  And it is this truth that finally enables John Ames to forgive Jack and to settle his own stresses, both theological and familial; they become reconciled enough for the Reverend to offer Jack a blessing before his final entries in this diarised story are made.

Gilead has a wise and slow rhythm, and it takes a little time as a reader to fall into step with a book-long letter, but once made, the full splendour of the narrative – and its layering – can be experienced.  There is such lucid beauty in the writing, in its contemplative exploration of being, and the pensive faith and doubt of Reverend John Ames.  The ending is touching, the last few lines of a long letter to a son who may grow up to want to leave this little town of Gilead, just as the Reverend’s father left, just as his brother Edward left too, indeed just as many have left.  And that is ok; but for the Reverend John Ames, he will gladly sleep within its soil, for it is a place he loves.  It is apt that the Reverend’s thoughts often revolve around ‘grace’, the grace of the world where “there are pleasures to be found wherever you look”, the grace of being – for it is grace that is to be found on every page of Gilead; it is a wonderful book.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Virago

ISBN: 9781844081486

282 pages

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Current Green Portion of the Rainbow

I’ve taken a quick snapshot of the current green portion of the bookshelf rainbow.  I’m somewhat limited in my ability to capture the full rainbow as most of my books are in storage at present… but judging by the quality on offer in this very small selection, a green spine would not be a bad choice for any aspiring writer! 

Other colours of the rainbow will be seen in the future.  I’m thinking Orange next…

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The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

 Desai’s 2006 Booker Prize winning novel tells the story of a teenage girl, Sai, her grandfather – a retired judge – and their cook, set in a border region of the Indian Himalaya, a region in which the British did ‘such a poor job of drawing borders’ when they left the country behind that a Nepali separatist movement has taken up a violent struggle that progressively worsens throughout the book.   The story also traces a relationship between Sai and her tutor Gyan who becomes embroiled in the separatist movement, as well as the fate of the Cook’s son Biju, who has travelled illegally to the US for a chance of all the freedom and wealth that nation promises, only to find a much different reality.  It is the intertwinning of these lives that moves the story forward.  But it is also in part the weight of these various strands that renders the book less than I’d hoped for.   

The story opens thus:

All day, the colours had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths.  Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.

When I read this, I got comfortable, sure that I was in the best of hands.  And for the most part I was.  Desai writes with a lyrical verve; she is poetic, her descriptions are detailed and alive, and her characters are well drawn.  (I did find her fliting from one story arc to another perhaps a little too frequently however).  There are many delightful passages and images, such as the entire village watching India beat Australia in a test match on a tv powered by a car battery becasue there is yet another black-out.  But here’s the rub, as I was reading this a friend of mine said she’d found it “underwhelming”, and I might have to agree, for at times my interest stalled and the story seemed lacking in something.  It has its humour, yet it lacked the fizz inherent in the best Indian work such as Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, or Rushdie at his imperial best.  Of course there is a reason for this – the brutal truths of poverty and separatist violence, as well as the frustrated parallel tales of the Cook’s son Biju’s immigrant hopes in the US and the reminisced history of Sai’s grandfather, who recalls his own frustrations about being a foreigner in England and then the unfortunate fate of being a foreigner in his own country upon his return.  

But as I read, I struggled to put my finger on why, despite my best attempts, I did not love this book.  Perhaps I’d seen this collision of East & West before?  Perhaps I was getting tired of it.  I cast my mind back to other similar tales – The God of Small Things, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (which also has a fundamentalist story angle), Salman Rushdie’s East West, and others besides.  It is the delightful East West of Rushdie, a series of 9 short stories – three under the banner or ‘East’, three under ‘West’, and the final three – and best – dealing with the ‘East West’ conjunction – that sets such a high bar and provides a wonderful foray into the lives of those who live under such foreign skies – and cultures – simultaneously.  

And so, as I went further and further into the Inheritance of Loss, I felt I was losing something myself.  I had sat down and made sure I had a pencil at hand to underline what I was sure were going to be numerous examples of luminous writing.  And they were there, and any lover of good literature will find them and enjoy them, but, sadly, I did not need to sharpen my pencil once and my interest stalled in the middle of the story.  It is perhaps because of the desperation and failure and loss inherent in the story – and present in the ending – as well as the weight of so many story arcs trying to intertwine, that rendered the whole less than the sum of its parts.   

The Dilettante’s Rating: 3/5

jb

For a perhaps more professional review of The Inheritance of Loss, see Natasha Walter’s Guardian review.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141027289

324 pages

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What could be a more beguiling place to start my ‘musings’ than a pondering of Roberto Bolaňo’s Amulet, a short book of only 184 pages or so, yet one that is by no means a light or flimsy work.  Far from it.  It is a distilled essence that resonates strongly.  It is not a humorous work like his The Savage Detectives, yet it is a wonderful read all the same.

Much acclaim has been laid at the feet of Bolaňo since his premature death.  By way of introduction, John Banville provides the following assessment of his impact:

“The strength and originality of his vision lies in the devastating scepticism which he brought not only to magical realist methods but to the very springs of fiction itself. His work is the crossroads where Márquez meets Burroughs and Borges meets Mailer, resulting in a riotous dust-up.”  As Bolaňo was quoting as thinking that magical realism “stinks” and preferring the work of Borges, Banville’s summation seems well made.

And now to Amulet itself.  Preceding Amulet is a quote by Petronius:

In our misery we wanted to scream for help,

but there was no one there to come to our aid.

And this is indeed the position the protagonist and narrator Auxilio Lacouture finds herself in, alone and with no one around to come to her aid as she opens the narrative thus:

This is going to be a horror story. A story of murder, detection and horror.  But it won’t appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller.  Told by me, it won’t seem like that.  Although, in fact, it’s the story of a terrible crime.

We are immediately placed into the confines of this oblique, melancholic and hallucinatory ‘horror’ story.  The ‘horror’ is the invasion of the university by the army and in 1968, the rounding up of all its personnel, and the Tlatelolco massacre, a government massacre of student and civilian protestors in the Tlatelolco district of the city on October 2, 1968.  (The official death toll was 30, though many accounts point to a likely 200-300 deaths).  But we are not witness to this.  Rather, Auxilio skirts around this obliquely; she tells us of how she found herself in a nook of safety in the stalls in the female bathroom on the fourth floor of the Literature and Philosophy faculty of the university when it is stormed by the army.  She glimpses her friends and university personnel being hoarded into trucks and taken away to God knows where. She chooses to resist, and stays in the bathroom for twelve days.

From early on in the story we witness the beginnings of Auxilio’s time shifting, a displacement that has Auxilio travelling both backward and forward in time from her precarious, confined safety in the university bathroom, including questioning what year she arrived in Mexico City in the first place.  She ‘recollects’ how she, the “mother of Mexican poetry”  befriended poets and lecturers in the university – including Arturito Belaňo who appears occasionally throughout the book, the alter-ego of Bolaňo himself.  She foresees the loss of her teeth and how she holds her hand up to her mouth when she speaks or laughs in one of the many bar scenes she imagines living through.  The time-shifts place the reader in the same sense of unease and displacement that Auxilio finds herself in.  We are confined with her, we travel the many hallucinatory pathways her mind wanders during those twelve days.  Later, we see her doubt her motherly position of the poets, as well as doubting many other things besides.  Her visions and travels become stranger and stranger, from the cafes and bars of the city, the people she meets – one of whom she saves from death with the help of a Belaňo returned from Chile – and her self-confessed bohemian and itinerant lifestyle, to mountains of ice and great chasms and grand, sweeping valleys as she watches the youth of her age march toward the abyss.  There is a sense of menace that constantly percolates to the surface of her visions and recollections, impossibilities and madness, a madness reflecting the unseen massacre, the madness of the loss of youth.  One of the more striking and uneasy images that Bolaňo leaves us with is:

“Death is the staff of Latin America and Latin America cannot walk without its staff.”

As noted above, Auxilio’s meetings with Belaňo also tell the tale of his transformation.  This gives us a Bolaňo himself obliquely placed into the structure and horror of the story, and allows Auxilio to describe the change in him after he spends time in Chile before returning to Mexico City.  Here the poets all see the change that comes from knowing death, and both Belaňo and Auxilio are called on to save a man they find while trying to help a friend.

The scenes of horror and angst that churn the surface of Auxilio’s hallucinatory visions accumulate to create the ghost-song of the generation of young Latin Americans lost in “sacrifice”.  It is a song that reverberates in Auxilio’s ears, a song of “courage and mirrors, desire and pleasure.”  This seems at first read an odd note on which to draw the final pages together given the trauma of these disappearing youth.  Yet it is redolent of the defiance of the young and their passion for life and each other, the defiance that Auxilio shows together with her frailty, the defiance that should always speak and sing louder than violence ever can.  I found this book to be a wonderful and evocative picture, an oblique look at horror, yet one that resonates with a real truth because of this very obliqueness – for our ability to rationalise such events is limited.  Indeed, we simply can’t; we instead tread warily around its edges lest we become dragged into the heart of its maelstrom.  And at our most pressured, we fuse a massacre with a march, and a song of lament becomes an amulet we carry to remind ourselves of what it means to live.

… And just as this unforgettable song becomes the amulet in Bolaňo’s final – and I think – wonderful line, I hope that my thoughts become, in some small way, an amulet for my own nascent journey through the vivid worlds of all our writers’ genius – a song and life of courage and mirrors, desire and pleasure.

Amulet is a wonderful book, and an excellent (and short) introduction to Bolano’s longer works.  I’m looking forward to The Savage Detectives and 2666!

For more on Bolaňo’s life and work, read the excellent piece written by Daniel Zalewski in The New Yorker.

For more on Amulet: see: Banville’s Guardian review.

And for a really erudite review, see Eli Evans’ review on bookslut.

Amulet by Roberto Bolano

Picador

ISBN: 9780330511834

184 pages

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… the love of a good book … and the love affair with great ones: for a perfect illustration of the joy of reading, and the magic that a great read can inspire – and what this blog will seek to capture, have a look at the following vid by hte NZ Book Council.

jb

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