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Outside of literary circles, The Autumn of the Patriarch may be one of Gabriel García Márquez’s lesser known works, hidden behind the towering One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.  This is a great shame as this is no less a masterpiece than those two works.  However, part of its greatness is no doubt part of the reason it may be less fancied, for it is a reading challenge that will alienate many readers.  Intrigued?  Allow me to explain…

Those who are familiar with García Márquez’s style will know that he favours languid sentences and paragraphs, with minimal dialogue, written in trademark lyricism that, as Salman Rushdie says, “no-one else can do”.  It is perhaps no surprise that at some point he would take these traits to the extreme – and he does so in this novel.  Each chapter, each around 35-40 pages, is just one paragraph.  Sentences often go on for pages.  Within this stream-of-consciousness-styled narrative, the point-of-view switches, often rapidly, from third-person to first to third, and dialogue is subsumed within the prose without quotation marks.  It is suffocating just looking at the page, let alone reading it.  There is barely a chance to draw breath.  Indeed, one of his friends became upset with him as he was in the habit of sipping a glass of wine during his reads but could not find any gaps in this novel in which to indulge!*

Of course, this is a very deliberate choice on the part of García Márquez – as is the equally particular six-part structure of the novel, in which the life and tyranny of an ‘eternal’ dictator is retold in each chapter.  He said of this work that is was “a poem on the solitude of power”.  (What’s with all the solitude Gabito?!  It is, of course, one of his recurring motifs.)  Just as many great war novels are delivered through the prism of absurdity to heighten the sense of madness, so one could argue that García Márquez has devised a perfect format for the paranoia and stifling of freedom inherent in a dictatorship with this tightly-packed, recurring nightmare of a narrative, where the simple act of drawing breath seems like sedition.  There are the usual García Márquez signatures: the exotic, lyrical language, the surreal and distorted realities, the fusion of magical and real.  The result is an uncompromising yet marvellous read, a book that truly pushes the boundaries of what the novel is capable of.

The novel opens with the Generals’ ultimate death, then falls back to his ‘first’ death.  The narrative is subject to these regular leaps in time, back and forth, the likes of which Faulkner would be proud.  The main portion of the chapter deals with the ‘first’ death, which is really the death of his look-alike double.  Such is the conceit of the real despot, lurking in the shadows, that he is surprised when the sunrise still occurs the next day.  Apart from a couple of mourners, the city begins to celebrate his death.  Aghast, the dictator shows himself to those people who have gathered to “divide up amongst themselves the booty of his death”, and orders them to be shot as they attempt to flee.

The depiction of the deadly apparatus of power is a highlight.  Take for instance the General’s rigging of the weekly lotteries so only he wins.  He forces children to pick his winning numbers, and subsequently jails all two thousand of them.  When the truth outs, he transfers them in “nocturnal boxcars to the least-inhabited regions of the country”, whilst he declares the rumours of the children’s’ imprisonment to be “an infamous lie on the part of traitors to get people stirred up, the doors of the nation were open so that the truth could be established …”.  He invites the League of Nations to come and inspect the jails for confirmation.  It all sounds eerily familiar.  Whilst in exile, candy and toys are dropped to the children from planes to keep them happy while the General waits for a ‘magical solution’ to occur to him.  The magical solution is the order to “put the children in a barge loaded with cement, take them singing to the limits of territorial waters, blow them up with a dynamite charge without giving them time to suffer…”.  He rewards the officers who carry out the order with promotion and medals before having them killed for their crime.

Soon thereafter the tyrant survives a failed assassination attempt.  The suspect’s fate is a lesson in violent retribution.  At the annual dinner at which members of the military are honoured, where Major General Rodrigo de Aguilar gives his familiar toast to the dictator, the guests become concerned when the Major General fails to show – but he then enters “on a silver tray stretched out … on a garnish of cauliflower and laurel leaves, … ready to be served at a banquet of comrades by the official carvers to the petrified horror of the guests … and when every plate held an equal portion of the minister of defense stuffed with pine nuts and aromatic herbs, [the General] gave the order to begin, eat hearty gentlemen.”  It pays to stay on the General’s good side!

In the fourth chapter, we find the General mourning the death of his mother.  He tries to make her into a saint, organising for the Church to review her merits given all the miracles she has performed for the people, but the investigator sent by Rome finds out that these thousands of claims of miracles have been made by people paid for their false testimony.  The effort to have her canonised fails.  Not to be out-manoeuvred, the General proclaims the “civil sainthood” of his mother, declaring a national holiday in her honour, after which he declares war on the Holy See.  The property of the Church is nationalised and all the priests and nuns are forced to leave the country stripped of everything, even their clothes.

When she was alive the General’s mother wished he had learnt how to read and write.  He is later taught to read by his lover Leticia Nazareno.  He refuses to allow any interruption to his daily two-hour lessons even when rural people begin to suffer from ‘the black vomit’.  As always, it is the people who suffer.  In return for her lessons, Leticia convinces the General to have the Nuns and God allowed back into the country.  Ironically, the Pope awards the General with a sash and a medal – the “order of the knights of the Holy Sepulcher”.  Meanwhile, Leticia becomes pregnant with the General’s child, and forces him to marry her.  The General by this stage is so convinced he is God that he names his son Emmanuel.  As soon as he is born he is declared a Major General with full authority, and his mother takes him in his “baby carriage to preside over official acts as representative of his father”.  (Of course, this is only one of thousands of babies he has sired – all ‘seven-month runts’).  After one failed assignation attempt on both mother and son, they are eventually killed in a “hellish whirlpool” of rabid hunting dogs in a public market, organised by treacherous conspirators, which prompts a further round of revenge killings that even the General seems tired of, particularly when one of those killed turns out to be an aide he used to play dominos with.

The final chapter sees the General promoted in the final moment before his death to ‘general of the universe’, “to give him a rank higher than death”.  The chapter is partly narrated by a girl who is offered candy by the old General who then takes advantage of the twelve year old and has his way with her.  He dreams of eating the girl, seasoned with rock salt, hot pepper and laurel leaves.  The girl narrates this with fondness, even love, for the old man.  When he dies, she thinks on behalf of the people “we no longer wanted it to be true, we had ended up not understanding what would become of us without him”.  Thus begins a strong indictment of those who allow military dictators to enslave them.

The General learns that the information given to him all these years has been falsified.  One of the ironies of his newly acquired ability to read is the fact that the newspaper he reads is the only one of its kind, full of stories and pictures his hangers-on think he wants to read.  The real news is something else entirely – for not only is the nationa morally bankrupt but economically bankrupt too.  He and his cronies have driven the country into the ground, having sold off the farm as it were, forced to pay interest on borrowings taken to pay back other loans.  The only thing left to sell is the sea.  When faced with an ultimatum from the ‘gringos’ to allow the removal of the sea or face invasion by marines, the General relents.  The sea is taken, in numbered sections no less, back to Arizona, whilst the people won’t come out to protest despite the offered inducements because they have done so before and been shot, and won’t fall for the same trick twice.

Great polemic novels are a product of their time yet have the power and reach to become classics.  This is definitely the case here.  García Márquez began writing Autumn in 1968, and whilst he reportedly finished it in 1971, he continued to polish it until its eventual publication in 1975.  So it sits in between One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and his novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), which was followed by Love in the Time of Cholera (1985).  García Márquez was definitely at the height of his powers in these years.  Autumn is set in an unnamed Caribbean nation, and the General is installed with the help of the British, but the man Garcia Marquez most had in mind when writing it was Venezuelan dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.  García Márquez said the overthrow of Jimenez “was the first time we had seen a dictator fall in Latin America.”  The book was actually written in Barcelona in the autumn of the Franco’s brutal dictatorship, which also ended in 1975.  Barcelona provided stern resistance to Franco and endured much hardship.  Furthermore, Spain offered asylum to numerous ousted dictators including Jimenez.  So there was plenty of material and first-hand experience for García Márquez to utilise in constructing the General’s character and his apparatus of fear.  This extended to the persistent rumours of Franco’s death that dragged on much like the numerous lives of the General and very reminiscent of Fidel Castro.  Speaking of Castro, much has been made of García Márquez’s friendship with him, whom he has been quoted as saying is a “very cultured man”.  Cuban writer, Reinaldo Arenas recalls with justified bitterness in his memoir the 1980 speech given by Castro and attended by Garcia Marquez in which Castro painted the recently gunned-down refugees in the Peruvian embassy as ‘riffraff’.  Apparently García Márquez applauded the speech.  Perhaps in his mind a left-wing dictator like Castro is far superior than a right-wing version such as a Pinochet or Franco.  In any case, it seems a perverse act for the author of Autumn.  It is a shame that such a great writer became enamoured of the very type of man he ridiculed in his writing.  Perhaps it is the ultimate proof of the cult-like power such men possess and the eternal danger they pose.

Not everyone will enjoy Autumn, but it is, as they say, an important book**.  I am a bit sceptical when I see comments like ‘deserves to be read twice’.  I am not usually one for reading things a second time – unless they are truly special.  This is one of those books.  Whilst the novel is only 229 pages, it reads like a book at least twice as long.  Close reading is a must, and you need to plan your reading time; you can’t grab a few sentences during the advertisements in your favourite TV show; reading in bed is problematic if you wish to sleep; and reading on public transport is downright treacherous – you’re trying to find a break in the story when your stop comes along that simply doesn’t exist.  I dare say it will be a while before I return to it, my eyes will take a long time to recover(!), but I’m convinced I’ll discover so much more in a second reading that it’s tempting to start again now.

One last thing: spare a thought for the translator!  Can you imagine trying to translate never-ending swathes of narrative such as this?  Wow, I’m not sure if there are awards for translating, but if there is, Gregory Rabassa – also responsible for the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude – deserves it.

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabríel Garcia Márquez

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141032474

229 pages

* This was noted in García Márquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale which was intended to be the first of a three volume memoir, and covers his life up to the point he asked his wife Mercedes to marry him.  Unfortunately, the other two will not be completed.

** It is one of four of García Márquez’s works that sit on the (2008) 1,001 Must Read Books list, an honour he shares with: Austen, Calvino, deLillo, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Henry Green, Hemmingway, Henry James, DH Lawrence, Iris Murdoch, Nabokov, Rousseau, Tolstoy, and Virginia Woolf, and possibly others I’ve missed.  (Coetzee, Graham Greene, and Emile Zola have five!)  It’s pretty good company to be in and no surprise from the Nobel Prize winner (1982).  The Autumn of the Patriarch truly deserves its place on such a list.

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Jonathan Safran Foer took an introductory writing course whilst a freshman at Princeton ran by Joyce Carol Oates who took an interest in his writing, saying he had: “that most important of writerly qualities, energy”.  This observation is spot on – and for those readers who enjoy narrative pyrotechnics and manic energy in the style of Dave Eggers, Everything is Illuminated is most definitely the book for you.  Published in 2002, and winner of that year’s Guardian First Book Award, the story traces the journey of a Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer to the Ukraine, in search of Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Nazi destruction of his family’s shtetl – or township, named Trachimbrod – during WWII.  The search is facilitated by his local interpreter, Alexander, Alexander’s supposedly blind grandfather, and ‘Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior’ – the grandfather’s supposed guide dog – or “Seeing Eye bitch”.

The story is constructed in two arcs, with Jonathan Safran Foer’s high-energy magical-realist novel-in-progress – which tells the story of the people of the imaginary Trachimbrod in Ukraine where his forebears are from – and a straightforward, but equally humorous account of their travels, written by his interpreter Alexander, whose interpreting skills are not up-to-scratch.  He boasts that he is ‘fluid’ in English and each sentence is littered with wild attempts at writing good English, but they betray the use of a ‘fatigued’ thesaurus without any real, first-hand experience of English.  He is excited by the chance to work: “… I was so effervescent to go to Lutsk and translate for Jonathan Safran Foer.  It would be unordinary.”

There is much ‘reposing’ (sleeping), things are often ‘rigid’ (hard or difficult), ‘currency’ is used instead of money, and things are not so much wonderful as they are ‘majestic’.  Good things and people are ‘premium’.  And Alex signs his letters ‘guilelessly’ rather than faithfully.  And this is not even the ice atop the iceberg of translation transgressions.  This comical translation yields a great deal of fun, where absolutely nothing is ‘unordinary’, but some will find that Alex doesn’t quite ring true – a real person trying to learn English might make mistakes of tense and quickly ape any English they hear with their ear.  ‘Reality’ is sacrificed here for the sake of comedy, which I enjoyed, but others may not.

Meanwhile, Safran Foer’s story arc captures the hilarious and odd townsfolk of Trachimbrod, where there is a balance between the Jewish Quarter and the ‘Human Three Quarters’.  This arc commences with the death of Trachim B, in 1791, whose wagon has rolled on top of him in the river, pinning him to the bottom.  There is much debate amongst the people as to whether to proclaim anything – it seems proclamations are very important – the candy-maker saying they need a proclamation … “not if the shtetl proclaims otherwise” corrects another(!)  In amongst the wagon’s rising detritus a baby is found – none other than Safran Foer’s great-times-five-grandmother.

The two story arcs move in opposite directions: Safran Foer’s starts way back in 1791 and moves forward, whereas Alex’s begins in the present day and travels backward to find out the truth of what his grandfather did in WWII.  This structure and interplay works well and is one of the successes of the book.  Like Dave Egger’s A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, Safran Foer’s narrative bristles with verve, energy and wit.  Reading Safran Foer is like having a marching band trump through your room with symbols clashing and trumpets blaring.  No-one can deny the brash, brute-force energy of it and its willingness to test the limits.

Laughter is never far away when Jonathan arrives in Lvov on the train to be met by Alexander, who describes the meeting:

“Your train ride appeased you?” I asked.  “Oh, God,” he said, “twenty-six hours, fucking unbelievable.”  This girl Unbelievable must be very majestic, I thought.

The knowing and wink-wink letters from the ‘guileless’ Alex to the ‘hero’ are rife with suggestions on how to make the story better, as well as questions over whether the story should be so funny given the sad events it depicts.  Alex writes:

“We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes?  The both of us?  Do you think that this is acceptable when we are writing about things that occurred?” … and after suggesting alternatives, he adds: “I do not think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem.”

But the life of the story is not going to be easy or ‘excellent’.  When they arrive where Trachimbrod once stood, in the dark of night, Augustine says: “It is always like this, always dark”.  It is as if they are physically stepping into the dark past and the end of the shtetl.

Some sense greatness in Safran Foer’s style, whilst others point to a overuse of devices and pretension.  And yet others will sit somewhere in between, enjoy and go along with it to spot all the styles and cues of authors past – such as Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, Dave Egger’s narrative exuberance and pyrotechnics, and Günter Grass’s wonderful The Tin Drum whose protagonist Oskar hides beneath a relative’s skirt – just like a character in Safran Foer’s novel.  I find myself in the later camp, and whilst budding authors naturally tend to echo the styles of authors they in turn admire or borrow ideas or images to suit their own story, I’m less convinced of other reviewers’ claims of Safran Foer’s ‘startling originality’ and statements to the effect ‘that the novel will never be the same again’.  The Dilettante eschews such over-exuberance!  That said, there is much to admire, and given that Garcia Marquez and Günter Grass are two of my favourite authors, reading something excellently written, humorous and poignant that also reminds me of them was a very enjoyable experience.

It is a hard task to sustain such energy for the duration of a whole novel, but Safran Foer manages it.  His climactic remembrance of past evil is well executed, and the memory of it will live long, although others have pointed out that it reminds them of Sophie’s Choice but lacking its emotional knockout punch.  What does ring true is that whilst this is a story of Jewish history and the ‘Final Solution’ inflicted by the Germans upon European Jews in WWII, Alex’s grandfather rightly states at the beginning of this scene: “Just because I was not a Jew, it does not mean that it did not happen to me.”  For the truth is that when Evil occurs, it occurs to us all.

For a gushing review, see: The Times’ (UK): Luminous Talent in the Spotlight.

For a more balanced review, see one of the Guardian’s reviews.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141008257

276 pages

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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I’m a bit partial to magical realism and so relished the chance of tackling Japanese author Haruki Murakami.  In the case of Kafka on the Shore Murakami fuses magical realism together with fantasy, then adds a healthy dose of Kafkaesque surrealism, dashes of sex, horror, and well, talking cats, and characters in the form of Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders!  Welcome to the strange and mysterious world of Haruki Murakami.  For those who dislike magical realism and fear they might struggle with Murakami don’t give up – the fantasy quest, classical framework – in the form of Oedipus Rex – and thriller-style page-turning will keep most readers enthralled for the duration.  Only at the end will some of us wonder: what the hell just happened?  Cast firmly as a postmodernist, Murakami refreshingly states: “To tell the truth, I don’t really have a firm grasp of what’s meant by postmodernism, but I do have the sense that what I’m trying to do is slightly different. … I want to be a writer who tells stories unlike other writers.”  On that count most would say Murakami succeeds with some ease though he is of course following in the footsteps of Sophocles and Franz Kafka.  The book won the World Fantasy prize in 2006 and the Franz Kafka Memorial Prize, also in 2006.  

Kafka on the Shore commences by tracing two separate strands that eventually tie together.  We have the journey of Kafka Tamura, 15, who runs away from home to escape his father and finds himself in the Takamatsu prefecture, revelling in his freedom, narrating his adventure in the first person.  For many years he has held in his mind a photo of the private Nomura Library that is open to the public, a place he’d always wanted to visit since, and there he travels, building friendships with a girl on the overnight bus, and the helpful library assistant, Oshima.  But Kafka, as his name suggests, is no ordinary boy.  We soon discover that Kafka is a name he has chosen to hide his real identity.  We discover too, that he is cursed, although we don’t know how, and that he has a strange friend named Crow – or is it an alter-ego or some other personality? – who appears throughout to give Kafka advice.  The omen is very mysterious; Kafka refers to it casually, as if it doesn’t exist, for example: “I explain everything to her, from the time I left home.  I leave out the omen part, though.  That, I know, I can’t tell just anyone.”  You would think that such a dark omen would be one of the first things Kafka has to say about himself in the narrative, but Murakami deliberately obfuscates; it is all part of the ‘hook’ to keep our interest piqued.  This off-handedness is soon dusted off however, for as time passes the omen takes on more substance.   

We are also introduced at the start to a very strange event, in the middle of WWII, where a group of school children, out to pick mushrooms in the hills of rural Japan, simultaneously collapse into unconsciousness.  The military investigate, fearing a chemical weapon, but there is no explanation.  Of the sixteen children, only one does not regain consciousness and is whisked away to hospital.  His name is Nakata.  We then move to the present day where the strange Mr Nakata, cat-whisperer and storm-predictor, who is not very bright after his ‘childhood fever’ and who talks about himself in the third person, finds lost cats for an bit of extra money by interviewing other cats.  (This explains the black cat on the otherwise plain cover of the book).  Nakata has another problem – his shadow is faint, and after a while he realises he wants the other half back.  It seems that wherever he has been in this unconscious state, he has left half of himself behind.    

Meanwhile Oshima takes Kafka under his wing and soon Kafka is offered not just a job at the library but is allowed to live in a guest room adjacent to the library itself.  The way it is offered to him is odd though, for Oshima – who is not quite what ‘he’ seems – tells him he can become part of the library.  The word part is used several times as if to underscore some form of occult fusion about to take place.  Miss Saeki – the guide of the Nomura Foundation that runs the library – had released a single in the 1970’s and it was a smash-hit.  It’s name? Kafka on the Shore.  Not only that, but the room that Kafka stays in was the room of Saeki’s one and only love – her other half, a Nomura family member, killed when he was twenty.  Other connections become apparent too.  The mad Johnnie Walker turns out to be Kafka’s father, a world-renowned sculptor, and it is clear why Kafka would want to run away from such a beast.

All sorts of strange events take place.  Fish and leeches fall from the sky, seemingly following Nakata as he decides he must leave Tokyo and begin a quest of his own, helped by a truck driver named Hoshino.  Meanwhile, Kafka finds himself unconscious one evening, covered in blood, but unaware of how he came to be where he woke up and whose blood it is.  Pretty soon, we find Kafka playing Miss Saeki’s song and the lyrics – naturally bordering on the surreal – take on a special significance, including the ‘entrance stone’, gateway it seems to another realm and the archetypal fantasy device.  It seems Miss Saeki has found this entrance stone.   What’s more, Mr Nakata has determined after travelling from Tokyo toward Takamatsu – where Kafka is hiding out – that he too must find the entrance stone.  

A loop, where time folds in on itself and repeats seems to be at play.  But not just time, places too – there seems a parallel existence that people can come from and go to.  It is a place for lovers it seems, and as such, is a place of pain as much as pleasure.  But when Hoshino has an encounter with a black cat, we sense the loop begin afresh.  And so on one level we have a surreal fantasy quest – and it’s one wild and bizarre ride.  But on another, parallel level, we have Kafka living out the Oedipal story. 

Murakami dusts little wisdoms and philosophical ‘lessons’ into his writing like icing sugar.  There is Oshima’s advice to Kafka, when telling him of Plato’s The Banquet describes Aristophanes and his legend of how there are three types of people, and how God took a knife and cut everyone in half, so that they would have to spend their lives trying to find their other half.  The upshot is: “it’s really hard for people to live their lives alone.”  We have Mr Otsuka, a cat, talking to Nakata: “There are all sorts of cats – just as there’re all sorts of people.”  

And Yeats: “In dreams begin responsibility”. 

And Goethe: “Everything’s a metaphor.”

And Sophocles and TS Eliot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Berlioz – the list goes on, including a prostitute – pimped by Colonel Sanders no less – who quotes from French philosopher Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory, as well as Hegel.   In some ways, the educational aspect of all these historical and philosophical references reminded me a little bit of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. 

For me, one of the most interesting journeys was that of Hoshino – the young man who helps Nakata on his wandering quest.  His transformation from self-absorbed truck driver without an interest in books or music to the thoughtful man he becomes is convincing and wonderful.  At the end this process he says to himself: “I think that whenever something happens in the future I’ll always wonder: ‘What would Mr Nakata say about this? What would Mr Nakata do?’” 

In order to give you some idea of how bizarre the events are: the Japanese publishers set up a website for readers to post questions about the book.  Over the course of three months, over 8,000 questions were posted and Murakami personally responded to over 1,200!  On his English website.  Murakami states that the key to understanding the novel lies in reading it more than once:

Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren’t any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the kind of novel I set out to write.   

Of the song Kafka on the Shore, Murakami says that even he’s unsure what the lyrics mean(!).  (Music is a very important part of many of Murakami’s novels; for him, music is “an indispensable part of my life.”  Kafka on the Shore is rife with musical references: Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, The Beatles, Prince, Radiohead, and so on).  I think the mysterious events are best summed up in one character’s advice to Kafka at the end: “Better not try to explain it, even to yourself.”(!)

Symbols – such as the metronome, crow, labyrinth, and so on – are repeated as if some patterned underbelly of answers ties everything together.  But I’m not sure whether there is an answer.  The key question of why Kafka’s mother abandoned him as a four-year-old boy is not really answered.  There is the journey to forgiveness, but mostly, it seems to me, the story is about courage – the courage to overcome the burden of the past, no matter how cursed one might be. 

I don’t know if it’s a spooky coincidence or something more sinister – or indeed playful – at work, but as I finished reading Kafka I brought up the internet and on the first page I browsed there was an advertisement for … Johnnie Walker!! 

Oh, and for what it’s worth, dilettante is used by none other than Johnnie Walker when he says: “I’m not just some dilettante with time on his hands.”  Any book that uses a word that’s close to my heart deserves praise in The Dilettante’s humble opinion, although I confess to being rather concerned that Johnnie Walker has let the proverbial talking cat out of the bag in describing me perfectly: a dilettante with too much time on his hands!    

I’ll leave the last word to Murakami:

Every one of us is losing something precious to us … Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again.  That’s part of what it means to be alive.  But inside our heads – at least that’s where I imagine it – there’s a little room where we store those memories.  A room like the stacks in this library.  And to understand the workings of our heart we have to keep on making new reference cards.  We have to dust things off every once in a while, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases.  In other words, you’ll live for ever in your own private library.

What a nice life that would be!

The Dilettante’s Rating: 4.5/5

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Vintage

ISBN: 9780099458326

505 pages

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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I’ve been on a tear recently when it comes to knocking off my 1001 Must Read Books TBRs, with four in a row now, and six from thirteen read this year all up.  The highly entertaining A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka is a surprising addition to this list.  Engaging and often hilarious it was short-listed for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction and long-listed for the Man Booker in the same year, it did win the 2005 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing at the Hay Literary Festival, the 2005/6 Waverton Good Read Award, and the 2005 Saga Award for Wit.

The story explodes to life with the following opening:

Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée.  He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six.  She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.

We are thus immediately introduced to the main protagonists – Nadezhda, our witty narrator, whose father Nikolai announces that he his to marry a 36-year-old Ukrainian woman, Valentina.  He urges her not to tell her sister, Vera, with whom Nadezhda has a strained relationship.  Their mother died two years prior, but the dust is still settling between the sisters who argue over money and the legacy of their mother’s story.  We very quickly become aware of the dynamics in the family unit, a unit about to grow larger with the arrival of Valentina.  It is thus not just the family ‘ghosts’ who get a kick up the backside, but those still trying to find their way in the world.

Nadezhda narrates us through the history of the family including their self-sufficient mother Ludmilla – a product of the poverty, hunger and depravation of her country as it struggled under the iron-grip of Stalin – who brings with her the habits of her Ukrainian homeland to England – her vegetable and fruit garden positively brims with produce and provides a stark backdrop to the avarice of Valentina whose only ability in the kitchen is her boil in the bag and microwave dinners.  Nikolai’s early recollections of his homeland – its blue sky over the golden fields, reflected in the nation’s flag of blue over yellow – are juxtaposed with the modern realities of Soviet-style concrete tower blocks, an environment o that still reeks of poverty and from which springs Valentina who divorces her able professor husband in order to emigrate to the UK with her supposedly musically-gifted son Stanislav.  It all provides for rampant mirth and madness as Valentina begins to suck poor old Nikolai, a pensioner, dry.  He begins to borrow money of his children to pay for Valentina’s excesses, even so far as contemplating sub-dividing his land – selling off the back-garden, selling off the garden that Ludmilla had cultivated for so many long years of marriage.  Valentina begins to get violent too, berated Nikolai for being ‘mean’ with his money, pushing him and flicking him with the end of a wet towel.  It all proves too much for the children to bear, and they begin to rebuild their relationship in the face of a common enemy.  There are constant moments of humour, from Nadezhda’s description of her first meeting with Valentina and the incredible tension of their shared dinner-table to the inevitable and spiteful family interactions.

Nikolai tries to come to terms with the mistake he has made, but only acknowledges it when it seems all is lost.  In the meantime, he has begun penning his Opus Magnus – a short history of tractors, written in Ukrainian.  The history of the tractor is set against Nadezhda’s increasing interest in the history of her family and the plight of Ukrainians in WWII.  There are secret pockets of her family’s past that she only now explores as she and her husband Mike work tirelessly to save her father.  The short history is an increasingly poignant meditation.  Tractors turn into tanks.  The means of production transform into the means of destruction.  All of which occurs as Valentina seems determined on the destruction of the increasingly idiosyncratic, some would say senile, Nikolai.

Like the narrator Nadezhda, Lewycka herself was born in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, after WWII.  Her family then moved to England, where she now lives.  What must it be like for a little girl to be born into a refugee camp?  If some babies have auspicious stars and circumstance surrounding their birth, then others seem to get the short straw.  But maybe this short straw is the one that grows; maybe the miracle of such a birth, in such surrounds, is the true measure of an inviolate blessing.  For what we have as its product is Marina Lewycka – a gifted and comedic writer who has blessed us with A Short History of Tractors and has followed it up with equally well-received works such as Two Caravans and We Are All Made of Glue, both of which are now high on my TBR list.

I won’t spoil the fun and reveal how all of this mess is resolved.  It is a comedic feast, set against a dark and troubled history, a story of greed and the desire to escape places and lives that seem to have no hope, lives which, in the end, may provide much more were we to take note of what we have, rather than concentrate on how green our neighbour’s grass might be.

It will be interesting to see how this book ages and whether it justifies its place on the 1,001 Must Read list.  One thing is for sure, it will entertain many readers for many years to come.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141020525

324 pages

Source: Personal library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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Ah, a return to the bounty of Latin American magic realism, and not to just any book, but one of the banner examples of the genre according to some – at least that was the promise; the reality was slightly different.  The House of the Spirits is a sweeping family saga that (eventually) intersects with a crucial part of 20th Century Chilean history with devastating consequences.  In this sense, it gives us a dramatic insight into the history of Chile, a history that Allende’s extended family was a large part of – but more of this later.  Each page is packed with ‘story’.  For the most part, sentences are indulgently long and paragraphs are packed with all manner of story slivers that break-off from the main plot-line like shards of a broken mirror.  Written in flowing, accessible language, it is clear from the opening that Allende is a born story-teller and that this is a very personal story.  What is less clear is whether her execution matches up to the scale of her ambition.

What is immediately clear is Allende’s humour, use of magical realism.  We have one of our main protagonists’ Clara Trueba’s ability to move the salt-cellar across the dinner table, accompanied by her acutely sensed prognostications and general clairvoyance.  And we have her fantastic uncle Marcos whose failed serenade of his love throws him into a deep depression – but only for a melodramatic two to three days!  He then travels the world and upon his return constructs a flying machine; everyone turns out to see the spectacle of flight as Marcos elegantly takes to the sky and disappears.  Allende’s world is populated with such wondrous characters, events and humour.  On the flip side, deaths are gruesome; take Nívea’s – Clara’s mother’s – decapitation, foreseen in a dream by Clara, and the madcap search for her head.  Only Clara the clairvoyant can track it down days later whilst heavily pregnant.  Indeed, finding the head proves too much for her and she goes into labour.  Rushed back to the ‘big house on the corner’ – the rambling family pile and a character in its own right – she gives birth to twins whilst the startled eyes of her dead mother’s severed head look on.

It is the intersection of family and country – the political differences, challenges, and history – where the story tries to come to life.  Yet for most of the novel, the ‘nationalist’ angle barely simmers to the surface of things, yet we are clear that the seeds of betrayal and exploitation that Esteban Trueba sows in his rise to both familial and political power will be bear a most bitter harvest.  Esteban’s rise is accompanied by philandering and the rape and exploitation of the peasants on his hacienda, Tres Marías.  It is at the end of the novel that the Chilean historical angle is laid bare.  Before this, Allende’s feminism and sense of social justice is clear, from the discussion over women’s right to vote, to the growing unrest in the peasant populace over the distribution of wealth and the exploitation of workers’ rights.  It is this growing tension that plagues Esteban as he seeks to control everything in his domain – from the produce and workers of his hacienda to the all the women in his life.  Unfortunately for him, Allende’s leading lady Clara is more than a match.  She is never his to claim despite their marriage.  She never loves him, which only serves to increase his rage and desperation to possess her.

Given Allende’s leftist political connections, it is no surprise that Esteban – a Conservative – is such a thoroughly malicious character. The irony is that Esteban becomes almost sympathetic after he loses power, despite his conspiratorial plotting, particularly when he returns to Tres Marías to find it taken over by the peasants who once worked the land for him, whereupon they take him hostage.  But this slight reprieve cannot last, and we see the true terror Esteban unleashed come home to roost.  As he sips champagne at the moment of the coup’s success, members of his family – who have grown to admire more socialist and even Marxist views – are being tortured by the military.  Esteban soon learns the military have no intention of handing back Congress.  ‘The Poet’ – thought to be Neruda – dies and with him is buried democracy.  Soon after Esteban expresses his “regret that the Army’s action, whose purpose had been to eliminate the threat of a Marxist dictatorship, had condemned the country to a dictatorship far more severe, one that, to all evidence, was fated to last a century.  For the first time in his life, Senator Trueba admitted he had made a mistake.”

This is where the book becomes something altogether different, or attempts to, for its focus falls on the decline of nationhood and democracy after the military coup and the accompanied terror campaign.  It becomes an altogether different book.  But this is where it starts to struggle too, for it deals with this terror only at the end, it is the climax of the book, but the book which has been a family saga now becomes a form of historical fiction.  The writing itself changes too – gone are the long, sweeping and florid sentences that characterise the first 400 pages, and in their stead are now short, sharp, action-filled sentences that ripple with the tension of the coup and its terrible aftermath.  This section in itself works well, with the delightful rescuing of Esteban by Pedro Tercero Garcia in Tres Marías mirrored in the rescue of Pedro by Esteban.  But overall, it doesn’t seem to gel.  It tries to be too much.  There is so much going on in this story, it is a wonder that it comes together at all, (and it would be a mighty task to try to summarise the labyrinthine plot with the successive generations of Truebas, their loves, their lives).  You have to admire the scale of ambition shown by Allende, particularly given this is her debut novel, but the execution of the story is not, in my view, up to the task set by such vision.  It feels like an attempt to be a Chilean One Hundred Years of Solitude fused with a tense political thriller.  As a result, it feels disjointed, as if Allende was trying to write her way through to one storyline from another – perhaps a symptom of many a debut novel.  Perhaps even Allende herself recognised this afterwards, for she again turned her attention to the harsh reality of the Chilean dictatorship with reportedly better success in her third novel Of Love and Shadows.  But I’m sure others will find this fusion exhilarating, and interesting it certainly is.

I mentioned this was an intensely personal story for Allende.  Indeed, there is debate as to whether the story is a roman à clef, with ‘The Poet’ character being Neruda, and ‘The Candidate’ and ‘The President’ characters one in the same – and both Allende’s cousin once removed: Salvador Allende.  (Salvador helped to found the Chilean Socialist Party, a Marxist party that eventually won power in 1970.  The CIA then got involved to overthrow Allende who was indeed ousted and killed in a military coup in 1973, to be replaced as President by none other than the military dictator Augusto Pinochet).  The book is preceded by a dedication: “To my mother, my grandmother, and all the other extraordinary women of this story”, which is then followed by some of Neruda’s poetry.  All of which lends itself to the belief that indeed a hidden reality underpins the narrative.  This viewpoint is further bolstered by the portrayal of the right’s plotting to oversee the economic collapse of the country with the help of foreign “gringos” later in the story.  Allende herself was forced to leave Chile when she was added to wanted lists for helping others escape the brutal Pinochet regime.  It is not surprising that the heartfelt tragedy of her lost nation comes through so strongly in her writing.  She now lives in California, and owing to the success of The House of the Spirits – which she commenced writing on the 8th of January 1981 – she has started writing each of her subsequent works on the 8th of January too.

There are nice plot turns and sections of beautiful writing.  When Clara realises she is close to death and begins to put her affairs in order, her diaries are organised, and she finds all the jewels that she had put in shoeboxes and the like over the many years of marriage, placing them all in a sock and handing it to Blanca, saying: “Put this away, darling. Someday they may be good for something besides masquerades.”  You get the sense that we’ll see these jewels again and so it proves when Blanca is forced to sell them to make ends meet after Esteban turns his attention away from the upkeep of the house.  Clara is not perturbed by death; she sees it as merely a ‘change’, and because of her ability to confer with those who have passed over, she feels that she too will be able to communicate with those in the here-and-now, that “death would not be a separation, but a way of being more united.”  But Clara is the glue that had kept the big house alive, and with her departure the house begins an inexorable decline toward oblivion.  The decay of the house is well depicted; only Clara’s blue silk-covered room remains unadulterated.

SPOLIER ALERT IN NEXT PARAGRAPH ONLY

The depiction of Alba’s incarceration and torture is particularly affecting; eventually, she decides that death would be a welcome thing and stops eating, but Clara comes to her “with the novel idea that the point was not to die, since death came anyway, but to survive, which would be a miracle.”  She then tells Alba to live so she can write down the horrible truth of what has gone on so that everyone will know the story.  In the meantime, Esteban finds himself calling upon an old whore he once lent money to, Tránsito Soto, who pops up in the storyline every now and then.  It is she who finally helps Esteban to free his grand-daughter.  A circle is completed here in the history of the family and the nation – Esteban raped Pancha García, a peasant in Tres Marías, and the grandson of this rape now rapes Esteban’s grand-daughter in a wretched parallel.  This circularity is reflected in the way Alba reads again the first line of her grandmother’s Clara’s notebooks as a place in which to finish the story, just as it had started, and reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses.

OK TO READ FROM HERE!:

But aside from the finer moments, there were plenty of clunky ones in this edition, which I’ll put down to the Spanish-English translation and poor type-setting. Examples: “Amanda clasped him to his breast frenetically”, seems a poor choice, and: “… no-one could accuse him of any greater offense that tax evasion”, [pages 258 & 259 respectively, emphasis added].  It would be interesting to see how Allende herself – now fluent in English – would ‘translate’ her own work.  There are also small inconsistencies in the plot – on the one hand Esteban is shocked when the socialists win government, whilst on the next page he has supposedly foreseen this eventuality and has prepared for it in minute detail.  Why would he be shocked if he had foreseen it?

Elsewhere, parts left me under-whelmed.  Early parts are over-written and there was a little too much repetition; I felt myself wanting to skip ahead which I rarely do in books I’m enjoying. In short, the book could be shorter, tighter and more focussed.   But I ask myself: would more ‘focus’ take away from the sheer exuberance of the tale which is what ultimately sustains interest?  We’ll never know, but all I can say is that it is a worthy read and a fairly memorable story, but the problems of execution were a let-down for me, which means it does not rate as highly for me as it will for others.  But it is a great debut novel, and strongly persuades that Allende deserves to be read further.  More highly rated by my old copy of The Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide and also a 1,001 Must Read is Allende’s Of Love and Shadows which is on my TBR list.  I hope for a better read from an even more accomplished author.

There is much to admire both about The House of the Spirits and Isabel Allende herself.  For more on Allende, see her wonderful, impassioned TED talk on women’s rights.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Black Swan

ISBN: 9780552995887

491 pages

Source: Personal Library aka: the Bookshelf Rainbow.

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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 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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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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