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Archive for February, 2010

A few years back, whilst the Dilettante was living in London, I was walking along a quiet street near Regent’s Park when who should I pass by but the man himself – Salman Rushdie.  Ironically, a woman walking in front of me stopped him to ask … for directions!  (Obviously not a reader then!).  Now, this was toward the end of the time under which the fatwa issued by the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini was active, and I must admit I was searching the street for open second-storey windows complete with the tell-tale glimmer of a reflected sun in a sniper’s scope, ready for MI-5 agents to appear from every direction – and this from someone who rarely reads spy-thrillers!  Fortunately for both of us, no glimmers were encountered, and a much-admired author lived to tell the tale.  For that is exactly what Rushdie is planning: a book about that long decade according to The Guardian

It will no-doubt be an interesting read from a master story-teller, though quite how it will play without his signature magic realism remains to be seen, although there is sure to be a surrealist edge to the bizarre and tragic cloud that he was forced to live beneath for those long years. 

Will you be one keen to read the story?  Let me know.

The D!

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I’m adding another reading challenge to the list for 2010 – the Aussie Author Challenge hosted by Booklover Book Reviews.

There are two levels: ‘Tourist’ at 3 books, and ‘Fair Dinkum’ at 8.  I’ll defintely get through at least three Aussie books this year, but not sure whether I’ll manage eight, so it looks like I’m a tourist in my own country :).

I’ve already read: Remembering Babylon by David Malouf.

Others on the cards:

  • The Trout Opera by Matthew Condon
  • Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
  • Breath by Tim Winton

Any suggestions?

The D!

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Like some of these other works, there are fantastical and absurd elements at play – such as the befuddled protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s abduction to the planet Trafalmadore where he is put on show in a zoo for its green inhabitants, as well as Billy’s time-shifting.  Billy has become ‘unstuck in time’ and travels to various, random scenes of his life, including his death; he has no control over which scene he will experience or re-live next.  (Billy’s time-shifting reminds me of Audrey Niffenegger’s best-seller (and very good) The Time Traveller’s Wife; I wonder whether she was inspired in her hero Henry’s own time-shifting by Vonnegut?).  There is an achingly poignant scene that evocatively relays the moral vacuum of war in which Billy watches a war movie backwards whilst waiting to be abducted by the Trafalmadorians – destruction is repaired by time flowing the wrong way, bullets are ripped out of fallen airmen, whilst fallen bombs are repatriated to their wings and later dismembered into their component metal parts which are shipped back to the mines from which they came and hidden “cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”  Billy extrapolates the movie further in his own mind: all these war-men were once babies, even Hitler.  Alas, time soon pivots and now flows forward, and fatalism once more knocks on Billy’s door.

It is a highly auto-biographical novel as Vonnegut himself, like Billy Pilgrim, was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and was locked in an under-ground meat-packing cellar known as ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ in Dresden during the infamous Allied bombing.  The sense of horror is dealt with obliquely; not much time is spent on the bombing itself.  All-the-same, we get a work narrated by a man who must surely be in the grip of post-traumatic stress.  He apologises in the first ‘introductory’ chapter for the story to come:

It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

Part of this jumbled autobiographical self re-surfaces when Billy finds himself in a POW camp.  He finds a latrine crammed with Americans suffering from food poisoning after a bizarre ‘welcome’ dinner put on by British soldiers who have stockpiled tons of foodstuffs over several years as a result of Red Cross overestimate of prisoner numbers.  As Billy looks at one poor soul who feels like he has defecated out his entire innards, including his brains, the narrator identifies himself as the suffering man: “That was I.  That was me.  That was the author of this book.”  The narrator pops up again as the POWs enter Dresden and admire its beauty.  These ‘interruptions’ are odd and, for me, superfluous.

Violence and death are ever-present.  Even God is at it as the narrator notes in the opening chapter: “I looked through the Gideon Bible in my motel room for tales of great destruction.”  Billy himself thinks of the crucifix of his childhood: “Billy’s Christ died horribly.  He was pitiful.”  There is no salvation, only a desperate sense of the recurring inevitability and awfulness of war, highlighted by the accent of the ubiquitous “So it goes” which litters the narrative after each mention of death, (appearing 116 times).  Fatalism is Billy’s curse and, surprisingly, his crutch too.  He takes comfort in the Trafalmadorian viewpoint:

When a Trafalmadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.  Now, when I myself hear that someone is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Trafalmadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes’.”

The Trafalmadorian concept of someone always existing somewhere in time, and thus never dying, is perhaps a natural response of someone who sees death everywhere – and, it seems, everywhen – and needs to believe that death is not the ultimate victor, that life continues on.

But amongst all the death are events so absurd and comical that chuckles and laughs are regular.   We have Billy in the POW camp badly needing new boots, and he tries on a pair of silver boots that were worn in a POW rendition of Cinderella and, magically, they fit him perfectly.  Billy becomes Cinderella.  We also have the embarrassed Trafalmadorians closing their hands over their eyes when they admit to Billy that they are responsible for destroying the Universe.  And we have Billy inveigling his way into a radio broadcast of a discussion of literary critics on whether the novel is dead, (‘So it goes’!), where he begins to talk of his experiences with the Trafalmadorians and the true nature of time.  Billy’s experience of time-shifting is a circular existence, shared in part with the Trafalmadorians who can “look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains … They can see how permanent all the moments are…”.

But many of the comic moments are also tragic.  We have Billy’s marital bed that is hooked up to a vibrator named ‘Magic Fingers’; poor Billy cries atop his bed unable to sleep, whereupon he turns on the Magic Fingers and is “jiggled as he wept”.  It is heartbreaking and comic, almost as if Vonnegut can compress time in parts of his narrative as a Trafalmadorian would – combining all emotions into one elongated moment, experienced as a whole.  As a POW, Billy recounts the story of the hobo who keeps saying: “You think this is bad?  This ain’t bad.”  Of course these are also, as it turns out, his final words as well.  Even some of the joyous moments in Billy’s life remind him of the war – there are orange and black stripes on the tent at his daughter’s wedding reception which are the same as the stripes painted on the POW trains.  Elsewhere, a four-man singing group give him palpitations at his anniversary party, reminding him of the guards that may have sung during the Dresden bombing.  Finally, there is the heart-breaking sight of Billy spooning the illicit honey-like malt syrup for himself in Dresden after which: “A moment went by, and then every cell in his body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause.”  Billy then spoons some for his fellow prisoner Derby who promptly bursts into tears.

Billy is put on display in a zoo by the Trafalmadorians, with furniture stolen from a Sears Roebuck warehouse.  He is watched by thousands of aliens who celebrate his every move, but struggle to understand the human concept of time.  Here Billy learns how the Universe ends – the Trafalmadorians blow it up by accident whilst experimenting with fuels for their space craft.  After explaining that they can’t do anything to stop this event happening, Billy concludes that “I suppose that the idea of preventing war on Earth is stupid too.”  The best thing that humans can do, explains one of the aliens, is to “Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.”

There has been criticism of Slaughterhouse-Five for its use of figures in David Irving’s 1963 historical book The Destruction of Dresden, which estimates the bombings caused 135,000 deaths.  This is juxtaposed with the deaths resulting from the Hiroshima atomic bomb of 71,379, serving to highlight the extent of the destruction in Dresden.  However, modern-day historians estimate a death toll between 24,000-40,000, and the city council of Dresden investigation in 2006 estimated a toll between 18,000-25,000.  It’s a shame that the figures available to Vonnegut when he wrote the book in 1969 were misleading, but whether the number is 20,000 or 130,000, the horror of this event lies in the fact that Dresden was arguably a civilian city, with no real military defences or presence.  I’m no military historian, and others can argue about the merits of the bombing and whether it helped to shorten the war in Europe.  Slaughterhouse-Five is not undermined in my view, for it uses the horror of Dresden as a proxy for the horror of war more generally, something that most of us can agree upon.

There is, however, a deep discomfort in the inherent fatalism of the story – that war is inevitable.  It is a discomfort borne of the belief that we can and should decide humanity’s fate in a better, more peaceful and productive manner, that we can affect our fate.  Our distress is made all the worse when we watch the nightly news, just as Billy does in Times Square – where ribbons of light describe “power and sports and anger and death” – for it seems, all too often, the madness of violence and death continue their arm-in-arm march unabated.

So it goes perhaps, but surely we can do better?

Slaughterhouse-Five is a great read, though it is a love-it-or-hate-it thing.  It is a tempting and natural tendency to compare a book with its peers, in this case other great anti-war novels.  For me, this means comparing it to the (incomparable!) The Tin Drum by Günter Grass – and its irrepressible midget protagonist Oscar.  But how do you compare greatness?  Is it right, or even fair?  A few months back I fell in love with little Oskarnello and now I’m in love with an altogether different, hapless, yet completely lovable character in Billy Pilgrim.  It is possible that the opening chapter and part of the final chapter – the two narrator-centric ‘bookends’ – are superfluous, (which sees The Tin Drum get my vote).  This is particularly true of the opening chapter, whereas the final scene rightly returns us to Dresden after the bombing, where Billy is charged with the futile task of digging up the countless corpses.  Thankfully we are left with a glimmer of hope in an ending the narrator promised us at the close of the opening chapter – the tweet of a bird as it speaks to Billy.  Let us hope that birdsong is a truth every bit as inevitable as war seems to be, for we need every counter-balance to despair we can muster.

You might also like to check-out the ABC’s excellent First Tuesday Book Club’s discussion of Slaughterhouse-Five here.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Dell

ISBN: 9780440180296

215 pages

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The Purple to Gold Portion of the Abbreviated Bookshelf Rainbow

An update to the Bookshelf Rainbow in honour of my recent completion of The Color Purple by Alice Walker

It is a fore-shortened snapshot of the current Purple-Red-Pink-Orange-Gold section of the rainbow.  You can find a slice of it on my home page header above. 

Ironically, The Color Purple’s spine is white so it misses out! 

The next slice of the rainbow might be the black-silver-grey-white… stay tuned…

Any comments on the spines of the rainbow?  Let me know…

The D!

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The Color Purple has been on my ‘To Be Read’ (TBR) list for some time and after another recent recommendation I seemed to see its name pop up everywhere as if some unseen force was urging me to read it once and for all.  Winner of The Pulitzer Prize and the US National Book Award, it is widely regarded as a modern literary classic.  It is the life of Celie as told by Celie in the form of diary entries, letters to God, and correspondence between her and her sister, Nettie, as Celie grows into womanhood in the deep south of rural Georgia.  In this setting of poverty, The Color Purple explores the social rank of black women, and the violence and exploitation they experience at the hands of black men and white-folk more generally.

In much the same way that the narrative ‘voice’ of Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is pitch-perfect, so-too is the narrative voice of Celie, an uneducated black girl of fourteen.  Set from the 1930’s onwards, Walker immediately sets a depth of meaning, setting, character and atmosphere in the harrowing opening.  We know where we are, and what trouble our protagonist is in.  Like many classics, the opening line is wonderful and memorable:

You better not never tell nobody but God.  It’d kill your mammy.”

This ‘advice’ from her father-figure ‘Pa’ inspires Celie’s letters to God, for she has no-one else to turn to, letters that begin with her harrowing rape as a fourteen-year-old girl by ‘Pa’.  It is an uncompromising opening.  Celie subsequently bears two babies as a result of these rapes.  Her letters continue as she tries to understand her life’s misery.  When her children disappear, Celie believes Pa has murdered them – that is until she meets a young girl sometime later in town one day who she believes might be her own Olivia.  Celie is forced to marry a man she refers to as “Mr ———.”  He originally wanted to marry her younger sister Nettie.  His treatment of Celie as his wife is terrible, often beating her, explaining to his sensitive son Harpo that he beats her “cause she my wife.”  Nettie comes to live with her married sister to escape the troubles of ‘Pa’, but finds life with Celie and ‘Mr’ no better.  ‘Mr’ tries to seduce her and upon failing, Nettie is forced to leave, promising to write to her sister.  Yet Celie never receives any letters and assumes that Nettie has died.

Meanwhile Harpo has married Sophia, a strong-willed woman, who fights back when Harpo tries to beat her – following the example set by his father.  For poor Harpo, who is portrayed as a real simpleton, (some would say, buffoon!), this is the expected behaviour for a husband.  But Sophia fights tooth and nail with him and he always comes off worse-for-wear.  Celie initially encourages Harpo’s behaviour; she is both envious and inspired by Sophia’s defiance, but initially envy wins.  Celie soon recognises her error and is indeed confronted by Sophia.  They soon become friends and Celie has a welcome ally.

But it is only with the arrival of Shug Avery, a showy singer and Mr’s lover – the woman he always wanted to marry – that Celie begins to see a different path for her troubled life open up before her.  Shug has arrived sick and initially treats Celie with the disrespect that ‘Mr’ constantly displays to her.  But when Shug finds out that ‘Mr’ beats Celie, she decides to stay and protect her.  Their burgeoning friendship, indeed love, finds root.  Shug stands up to ‘Mr’ and Celie is beguiled by this larger-than-life spirit that has come into their midst and the power she holds.  Shug helps Celie to realise her inner strength, her sexuality, and her spirit.  A great bond is built between them, a bond which is further strengthened and threatened by Shug’s later relationships with Grady and Germaine.

Things with Celie and ‘Mr’ reach a turning point after Shug asks Celie about her sister Nettie.  Nettie’s letters have been intercepted by the cruel ‘Mr’ and hidden in a trunk which Shug knows about.  The finding of her long-lost sister Nettie’s letters, so cruelly hidden by her husband ‘Mr’, is particularly moving, and marks a pivotal segment of Celie’s story.  Enraged by his deception, Celie is propelled to confront ‘Mr’, and with Shug leaves him, bound for Memphis where Shug sings and Celie begins to make money from sewing pants.  These pants are worn mostly by women reflecting their increasing power and status in a time when women wore dresses; it is a further emblem of their liberation.  There are other truths and Nettie’s stories of Africa in her letters, as well as other characters (such as Harpo’s relationship with ‘Squeak’ which further serve to highlight the gap between men and women) which I won’t explore here, leaving them for you to enjoy.

Much of the book deals with Celie’s path toward a more empowered life.  Much of it also deals with her search for God and a form of God that fits with her understanding of the world.  It is something she and the liberated Shug Avery talk about a lot:

“Well, us talk and talk about God, but I’m still adrift.  Trying to chase that old white man out of my head.  I been so busy thinking about him I never truly notice nothing God make.  Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?)  Not the little wildflowers.  Nothing.

“Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool.  Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr —–‘s evil sort of shrink.  But not altogether.  Still, it is like Shug say, You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.”

Celie’s ‘old white man’ contrasts with Shug’s view of God:

I believe God is everything, say Shug.  Everything that is or ever was or ever will be.  And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.”

It is an awakening that allows Celie to truly find her own liberated self and is a large part of Celie’s transformation.  At first, God is a separate male being from her existence, whereas in the end, God is an ‘It’ and is part of everything around her and in her.  Her letters stop being addressed to God and are instead addressed to Nettie, right up until the final letter which is again addressed to God, in thanks for her life and the good that has come into it.

So what of the colour purple itself? Why purple?  Purple is the colour of many subtle things in the novel – the eggplant bruises of beatings, the colour of Celie’s private parts (and thus a place of both violation and liberation), the colour of wildflowers in the fields, and the hinted-at regal purple of God too.  It is an undercurrent to Celie’s life and part of her final transformation noted above where she wonders at where this colour has sprung from.

Eventually, Celie and ‘Mr’ reconcile, and whilst he misguidedly asks her to ‘re-marry’ him, she declines, deciding instead for friendship, and so they sit on the porch and sew, he helping her with her endeavours.  The transformation or enlightenment of ‘Mr’ after Celie and Shug’s departure is stunning and raises some interesting debating points.  Indeed, the characterisation of men has been criticised by some for its single-dimension, portraying men as either abusive (‘Pa’ and ‘Mr’), or stupid (Harpo).  I’m wavering on this point – I feel as though the abusive behaviour of these men to the women in their lives is, unfortunately, convincing, albeit so universal, it seems, in all men.  However, I found the transformation of ‘Mr’ from mean-spirited bastard to cuddly, wisdom-sharing knitting partner of Celie as bordering on improbable, and wildly simplistic.

I also found the co-incidental view of God shared by both Shug and the distant Nettie to be a little forced, almost as if Walker’s view of God had to be shared by all her characters.  But this is a quibble, and acceptable given Shug’s free-wheeling exuberance and Nettie’s experiences of the Olinka tribe.  Also, for me, the section on Africa seemed overly long (though not indulgent by any means).  What it does offer though, is a different perspective on the theme of displacement – racial, economic, and familial.  The Olinka tribe, their view of God – the roof-leaf, so crucial to their sense of self, its destruction emblematic of their plight – allows Walker to explore the source of slavery and the disempowerment of a whole people – a disempowerment which in both Walker’s and my own world-view affects humanity as a whole.  But, all-in-all, these are very slight drawbacks for me.

For those who love a happy ending, particularly for a protagonist whose life is so ‘impoverished’ when we meet them, you will love The Color Purple.  It is beautifully written, and the female characters really ‘sing’.  It is suffused with a humour that perhaps only women can muster in lives of such difficulty.  It falls short of being a true masterpiece for me, but the story of Celie’s triumphant transformation, from uneducated, impoverished, and violated girl, to a woman of empowerment, independent economic means, and spiritual liberation is an inspiring one, full of the power of the human spirit, and well-worthy of the praise the book has widely received.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Phoenix

ISBN: 9780753818923

262 pages

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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award (2007) and The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2008), and, for what it’s worth, Time Magazine’s #4 rated book of the decade (2000-09), The Brief Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz came to me with a reputation very much proceeding it.  And right from the first few pages you know you’re in for one hell of a ride, with rippling humour, narrative pyrotechnics and boundless energy that draws you happily into Oscar’s life and the Dominican world: a world of fukú – the strange curse or doom that seems to plague most families, of the infamous and ruthless dictator Rafael Trujillo whose reign of violence terrorises the country, and the Dominican Diaspora.  It tells the story of Oscar de León and his continual failure to find a girl, his sister Lola, their fierce mother Beli – and her traumatic childhood in the DR – and the story of their family’s ‘Fall’ as depicted by the brutal demise of Beli’s father Abelard, a doctor, who tries to keep his family safe from the lecherous Trujillo, whose spies are everywhere.  And thus it is very much the story of the Dominican Republic and its fraught history.

Narrated in turns by Yunoir de Las Casas – Lola’s sometime boyfriend – and Lola herself, we witness the childhood of Oscar de Leon, a “fat, sci-fi-reading nerd” growing up in Paterson New Jersey, a unique and very un-Dominican Dominican male.  This allows Díaz to explore the theme of masculinity.  Oscar is so much of a nerd that he: “Could write  in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe that Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic.”  He is the ultimate outcast, shunned even by those who have similar interests and heartaches: he soon realises “his fucked-up comic-book-reading, role-playing-game-loving, no-sports-playing friends were embarrassed by him.”  It is his complete lack of success with girls – as marked by his early ‘golden age’ zenith when he is but seven, and a much slimmer version of the fat adolescent he would become, when he has a short ‘relationship’ with two girls at the same time – that continues to define his search for love in his teenage and college years.  In high-school Oscar falls in love with Ana, but she maintains her relationship with her Army boyfriend who continually beats her; Oscar can’t give her up.  Getting into Rutger College, nothing changes.  Not even the proximity of Yunoir – who volunteers to look after Oscar during college as a means of courting favour with his sister Lola – works.  It is this ongoing search for love that ultimately spells trouble for Oscar when he finally gets his girl.  He finds that escaping the grasp of history and cultural expectation is a tough and often impossible task.

We also trace the relationship between mother and daughter, Beli and Lola, how Lola finds her mother’s breast cancer.  Told from Lola’s point of view, theirs is a troubled relationship, Beli is very cruel, and it is Lola who brings up both herself and Oscar, though only because Beli is working multiple jobs.  Eventually, Lola runs off with a dead-end boyfriend to a dead-end town, until Oscar gives her away.  Lola is sent to her grandmother, La Inca, in the Dominican Republic as punishment.  It is here that we are drawn further into the distinctive Dominican world and the family history: the childhood of Beli and the father she never knew.  The portion of the novel that deals with Beli and her relationships, including her pivotal love of ‘The Gangster’, is particularly engaging; it alternates between witty-hilarious and fizzing violence.  The story of Abelard’s sorry fate – of being a father to attractive girls in the reign of Trujillo – is also wonderfully depicted though, perhaps if I’m allowed to split hairs, slightly long.

The narration is punctuated throughout by streams of colloquial Spanish and strides atop many various – and often long – footnotes which deal mostly with the terrible nature of Trujillo and his henchmen.  These historical notes bubble along beneath the surface of the Dominican story.  The Spanish that is liberally dispersed throughout might not be to everyone’s taste.  There were many times where I could have done with an English-Spanish dictionary or ready-access to babelfish  – I’m sure it would have added to the experience.  For example:

And then the big moment, the one every daughter dreads.  My mother looking me over.  I’d never been in better shape, never felt more beautiful and desirable in my life, and what does the bitch say?  Coño, pero tú sí eres fea. 

We non-Spanish speakers are left at a loss as to what Beli says to her daughter, though we can guess at its direction given our understanding of her character. (Roughly translated:  ‘Coño, but you are ugly’.  I’m still not sure what Coño means!).  In the very next paragraph we get another helping as Lola reflects:

Now that I’m a mother myself I realize that she could not have been any different.  That’s who she was.  Like they say: Plátano maduro no se vuelve verde. 

Translation: ‘(A/The) mature banana does not become green.’  This is a wonderful little expression, but unless we have our translation handy, we lose out.  This gives rise to a debate about how much a writer should demand of their readership.  The book would undeniably be lesser had it not contained the Spanish because it adds Dominican flair and personality to the story and its characters.  However, it does seem a little excessive at times.  But there is so much energy and heart in the writing, so much to admire, that you forgive the excess and are swept along in its dizzying force.  Yunoir’s narrative voice is particularly energetic and spirited, and of course, what with Oscar’s sci-fi interests, the literary and cultural references from the likes of: Star Trek, Star Wars, the Watchmen, Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, Ursula Le Guin, Akira & anime, DC & Marvel; the list just goes on and on, the references too numerous to note.  Even the title of the book is a nod to Hemmingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and Oscar’s pet name of ‘Oscar Wao’ is given to him in mock homage of Oscar Wilde.

Another point worth noting is the choice of the name Oscar.  It is perfect for the character, and makes me think of other famous fictional Oscars, such as the eponymous Oscar of Peter Carey’s Oscar & Lucinda, and the truly wonderful Oscar, (little Oskarnello!), of Gunter Grass’s mighty The Tin Drum; (apparently Carey loved The Tin Drum so there is no surprise he wanted to create his very own Oscar).  There is something in the name Oscar that attaches certain character traits to its owner without, it seems, the need for depiction – a certain amount of pluck and courage, the ability to ‘punch above one’s weight’ – (which for Oscar Wao is saying something!).  Of course, that could be just me!  What do you think?  I’d love to hear your thoughts – are there any other famous fictional Oscars?

Díaz reportedly took ten years writing this book, and I’m sure during that time there were moments of doubt regarding whether it would ever see the light of day, perhaps even whether a manuscript might be finished at all.  It is endurance – an endurance that Oscar’s family and all Dominicans have in abundance as they fight the scourge of poverty and the weight of history.  For those of us who love great reads, I thank him for persevering and showing us all what it sometimes takes to achieve a dream, to see a vision come to life.  As Díaz himself might write: The beauty!  The beauty!

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Faber & Faber

ISBN: 9780571239733

335 pages

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A few years back when The Dilettante was living in London I read an article by Neil Griffiths entitled ‘Top Ten Books about Outsiders’.  Included on his list were some obvious choices – Salinger’s ubiquitous The Catcher in the Rye – with the model of adolescent angst: Holden Caulfield, Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – which gives us two outsiders in Jane and Rochester, and The Stranger – or The Outsider – by Albert Camus.  The list also included Colin Wilson’s aptly titled The Outsider, and books on Beethoven and Jackson Pollock.  Remembering Babylon by David Malouf would sit comfortably on such an esteemed list.  Set in the mid-1840’s, it is the story of Gemmy Fairley, a boy washed ashore on the north Queensland coast at the age of 13 who is found and raised by a local clan of Aboriginals for 16 years until he tries to re-enter a nascent white settlement.  It is thus a story of a boy who is an outsider twice – first amongst the blacks, and then doubly-so when he enters the lives of the McIvor children: Janet and Meg and their cousin Lachlan who are the first to find him, cornering him atop a fence as their dog snaps at his alien heels.  It is this image of Gemmy – tottering above them as if fixed in mid air that is set in the minds of the children, particularly the eldest Janet, an image to which she returns to later in life with Lachlan, as they look back on the time spent with Gemmy in their midst.

This intersection of black and white Australia is of course nothing new in Australian literary fiction.  Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves (1976) comes to mind, particularly given its plot of a white woman, Ellen Roxburgh, the sole survivor of a shipwreck off the coast of Queensland, who is taken in by the local aboriginals who are also harbouring an escaped convict. Ellen eventually returns to the coastal fringe and re-enters white settlement, albeit much altered.  More recently, we have had Kate Grenville’s much acclaimed The Secret River, and there are numerous other examples of the black-white ‘collision’.  Remembering Babylon is a gem, short yet profound – a significant imagining of the ‘outsider’ in Australian terms.

Malouf’s prose is achingly beautiful throughout; his depiction of a variety of scenes, from rural Australian bush to the cobbled streets of London and a variety of social interactions, are detailed and pitch-perfect.  There are moments of such lucid beauty that you wish the story never ends.  Examples abound.  The haunting description of Gemmy washed ashore into the world of the aboriginals at the age of thirteen is both raw and beautiful – the aboriginals encounter him as a mystery; in time, it is a tale they tell as if it were a dreamtime story and had happened “ages ago, in a time beyond all memory, and to someone else.  How, when they found him he had been half-child, half-seacalf, his hair swarming with spirits in the shape of tiny phosphorescent crabs, his mouth stopped with coral; how, ash-pale and ghostly in his little white shirt, that long ago had rotted like a caul, he had risen up in the firelight and danced, and changed before their eyes from a sea-creature into a skinny human child.”  Yet despite him quickly attaching himself to the mob, they accept him “guardedly; in the droll, half-apprehensive way that is proper to an in-between creature.”  He has to fight for things.  His life is now defined by separation, and whilst he spends years with the aboriginals, we move quickly to the time he enters the white settlement, where he runs into the McIvor children’s company: “He was running to prove that all that separated him from them was the ground that could be covered.  He gave no consideration to what might happen when he arrived.”  The notion that ‘ground’ is all that separates Gemmy and the white settlers – or is all that separates any of us – is a painful irony, for there is always the ‘separation’ that exists between the members of a community and the outsiders who come into its midst, a separation that becomes all to clear to Gemmy with time.

We are soon witness to the white settlers’ fear of what Gemmy represents – the fear of being overrun by the blacks, for it had happened down at “Comet River – nineteen souls.”  It is the fear of the bogeyman come to life; Gemmy’s smell and movement are, for the community, reminders of this threat.  We see through their eyes their ‘horror’ of a face-to-face encounter with an aboriginal man, this ‘visible darkness’:

you meet at last in a terrifying equality that strips the last rags from your soul and leaves you far out on the edge of yourself that your fear now is that you may never get back.

And so Gemmy inhabits the space between two peoples, neither one nor the other:

It was the mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness that made Gemmy Fairley so disturbing to them, since at any moment he could show either one face or the other; as if he were always standing there at one of those meetings, but in his case willingly, and the encounter was an embrace.

There is a split in views as to how to deal with the perceived threat – with many favouring killing the aboriginals, whilst others favour a ‘softer’ approach of assimilation in which they envision them becoming de-facto slaves tending their crops on their plantations.  Gemmy quickly becomes aware of the hardline settlers’ real intentions – the hidden malice in their queries of him regarding his past life with the blacks, and gives them misleading information on the blacks’ numbers and whereabouts.  Gemmy’s fear and guardedness only serves to confirm the suspicions of the white men.  Even Mr Frazer, the settlement’s minister, whom Gemmy befriends and escorts on his ‘Botanising’ excursions, is held at arm’s-length.  Gemmy shows him plants the aboriginals use for food which Mr Frazer neatly draws in his book, and whilst Gemmy sees the black men in the trees and acknowledges them and their ‘claim’ so they let the two men pass, he does not tell Mr Frazer of their presence.  Malouf beautifully describes how the aboriginals would see these two white men: Gemmy would “have a clear light around him like the line that contained Mr Frazer’s drawings.  It came from the energy set off where his spirit touched the spirits he was moving through” whereas “all they would see of Mr Frazer was what the land itself saw: a shape, thin, featureless, that interposed itself a moment, like a mist or cloud, before the land blazed out in its full strength again and the shadow was gone, as if, in the long history of the place, it was too slight to endure, or had never been.”

Gemmy finds his way into the hearts of the McIvors.  He has been taken in by them, and sleeps in a lean-to set against their house.  He is particularly close to the precocious Lachlan, who has grand schemes of future expeditions he will undertake in order to find Leichhardt’s bones, and how he would take Gemmy with him and insist on having both their names inscribed on any monument subsequently erected in his honour.  But for Lachlan’s uncle – and the girls’ father – Jock McIvor, Gemmy’s presence is a fraught one.  He comes under pressure from concerned neighbours; in their eyes he has begun to “lose that magic quality”.  But outwardly he protects Gemmy: “Little defensive spikes and spurs appeared in him that surprised the others and increased a suspicion that they might somehow have been mistaken in him.”  Jock feels this scrutiny acutely.  His wife, Ellen, doesn’t escape either – the women with their afternoon darning sessions, “all barbed concern.”  Did she “really let him chop wood for her? Actually let him lose with an axe?”  Ellen feels enraged with their barbs, and yet, even for her: “there were nights, lying stiffly in the dark, hands clenched at her side, heart thumping, when she did not feel sure.”  Doubts reign supreme.

SPOILER ALERT:

Slowly, Gemmy becomes aware that he can no longer live in the settlement, even after moving in with Mrs Hutchence who lives on the road out of town.  This is the setting for some wonderful scenes of afternoon tea with Mrs Hutchence, the school teacher Mr Abbot, the McIvor girls and Gemmy, Leona – who lives with Mrs Hutchence – and Hec Gosper, one of the villagers.  The interplay between characters is superb.  Mrs Hutchence also introduces Janet McIvor to the world of bees and beekeeping.  We are witness to a beautiful scene of the bees from Janet’s point of view, and we see the bees as a metaphor for the aboriginals in a way too, for Mrs Hutchence and the hives “which looked so closed and quiet under the trees but were filled with such fierce activity – another life, quite independent of their human one, but organised, purposeful, and involving so many complex rituals.  She loved the way, while you were dealing with them, you had to submit to their side of things”.  Soon after, it is the sound of the bees and the making of honey which Malouf delightfully explores, culminating in the event that is the making of Janet.

Gemmy, though, living in a small room in Hutchence house, sees his separation grow larger.  He is separated from Lachlan and the division between them grows.  He feels his tale, which was dictated by Mr Frazer to Mr Abbot and written down on seven pieces of paper soon after he had arrived in the settlement, has begun to steal his spirit, and he sets out to find the pages again, to reclaim them and his spirit.  It is here we are reminded of his separation once again, for the mean-spirited Mr Abbot gives him seven pieces of paper which have school-children’s scribbles on them rather than his own story.  Being illiterate, Gemmy takes these with him into the bush thinking they are his story, where, in the first rain storm he soon encounters, the words upon them turn into wash and run off the page and they soon turn into pulp and dissolve in his hands, much as Gemmy has dissolved back into the bush himself.

The final chapter sees us transported years into the future, during the first world war, where the estranged Lachlan, now a minister in the government, and Janet, who has become a nun, are re-united because of a humorous scandal based on letters that Janet has sent a priest, written in the code of beekeeping which are misconstrued as the encoded work of a German spy.  It is once again proof that a sense of misguided panic and ignorance pursues many human encounters, be they the intersection of black and white, or the keeping of bees.  It is in this re-uniting that Lachlan and Janet recall the influence Gemmy has had on them.  For Lachlan, who has spent many years working on the coastal highway, it was the long search for Gemmy, and how he decided on one of these explorations that he had found his bones alongside seven or eight others, victims of a ‘dispersal’ – “too slight an affair to be called a massacre” and one the newspapers didn’t pick up; but now he realises he can’t tie Gemmy up like a loose end, for he had “touched off in them … (something) they were still living”, and would end “only when they were ended, and maybe not even then.”  For Janet, she is still fixated on the day that Gemmy first came to them, and the moment he had “hung there against the pulsing sky as if undecided as yet which way to move, upward in flight into the sun or, as some imbalance in its own body, its heart perhaps, drew it, or the earth, or the power of their gazing, downward to where they stood rooted”, and while he was up there on the fence, she realises that she has “never seen anyone clearer in all my life.  All that he was.  All.”  It is this moment of Gemmy held against the sky that they will both return to: “and stand side by side looking up at the figure outlined there against a streaming sky.  Still balanced.  For a last moment held still by their gaze, their solemn and fearful attention, at the one clear point, till this last, where they were inextricably joined and would always be.”

For me, this is perhaps where the book could have ended, two pages from its actual end.  It is my only ultra slight quibble and one that is eclipsed perhaps by Janet’s moving prayer on the final page where she asks: “Let none be left in the dark or out of mind, on this night, now, in this corner of the world or any other, at this hour, in the middle of this war…” for: “As we approach prayer.  As we approach knowledge.  As we approach one another.”  It is a prayer we might all share in our reflection on the intersection of black and white, of the treatment of outsiders, a prayer that goes beyond our remote borders, one that travels to the heart of all divisions, and how we might overcome them.

One other point worth noting is the beautiful cover art on this Vintage Classics edition.  It depicts, in a blue-porcelain-style ink, a scene of the established family of blue birds, the adults protecting their young, from a sole swooping orange-brown bird who, like Gemmy, is stuck their in mid-air, an outsider, attempting entry into a life once his that is now alien and unavailable.  It is the perfect cover art for this story, delicate, thoughtful and poignant; it makes a mockery of the often glib approach assumed by other covers.  Remembering Babylon is a book you want to hold in your hands and admire, literally, from cover to cover.

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

Vintage Classics (Australia)

ISBN: 9781741667684

182 pages

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Just released: Australian Book Review’s readers’ poll of favourite Australian fiction which lists the top 20 voted-for books.  Not surprisingly, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet tops the poll.  Number two is The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson, a trilogy The Dilettante is unfamiliar with, but must now be added to the TBR list.  The bronze medal as-it-were was given to Voss by Patrick White, a truly great read.  Polls like this are sometimes ‘polluted’ by more recent works which are fresh in the minds of readers, but are not worthy of such high placings on an ‘all-time’ list such as this.  Breath by Winton, for instance, places a very high fourth – it will be interesting to wait for the next such poll a few years down the road to see if this still rates so highly.  Good to see the much-maligned Patrick White has three works in the top 20.  Murray Bail, David Malouf, Kate Grenville, Peter Carey all get a slot in the top 20 too, although I’m disappointed Carey’s Illywhacker is not present as this is a personal favourite of mine. 

Of course, this is what these polls are all about – insight mixed with a bit of fun; a chance to debate and discuss.  For what it’s worth, my top three would be Illywhacker, Cloudstreet & Voss, but as to which order I would opt for, well that is too hard a decision for a Libran like The Dilettante to decide upon!; (I’d also add that David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon is quickly becomming a top three choice).

What’s your favourite Australian novel?  Let me know!

The Dilettante

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