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Posts Tagged ‘Magic Realism’

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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This delightful ‘fairy-tale’ is something for the young and the young at heart.  However, like all good fairy-tales, and given this is Salman Rushdie, there is a very serious thesis at its core.  Haroun’s father, Rashid, who goes by the name of the Ocean of Notions, or less admiringly: the Shah of Blah, is a master storyteller of Arabian Nights calibre.    Rashid is “stuffed with cheery stories” until his wife – and Haroun’s mother – deserts them.  In a flash, Rashid loses his story-telling powers and what comes next is a magical fantasy ride of strange creatures, figures, and places – a quest that Haroun and Rashid take to try to rescue the power of storytelling.

Haroun and Rashid travel to the ‘second’ moon Kahani, where Haroun plans to find the means to return his father’s story-telling powers.  However, the moon is in a turmoil of its own as Khattam-Shud, the master of silence and darkness has kidnapped the pompous Gup Prince’s bride-to-be.  Worse still, the shadows of Khattam-Shud – evil overlord of the Chupwalas – are poisoning the ocean which is made up of all the streams of stories, and are also in the process of plugging the wellspring where new stories are born.  Haroun and Rashid inevitably find themselves helping the good Gupees.

This slim and multi-layered book – perfect to read as bedtime stories for youngsters, (or perfect under-the-covers reading for the rest of us!), has a serious side, as all good fairytales do: stories vs silence – the battle to keep storytelling alive and vivid in the face of dumbed-down masses that live in the world of silence.  “Freedom of Speech” is a gift to be utilised.  Rushdie’s message is the power of fictional stories to frame and inform our understanding of life.

Like Rashid, Rushdie is a master storyteller – which gives rise to the very personal allegory involved here.  This is Salman Rushdie’s first book after The Satanic Verses – which had resulted in the fatwa for his ‘heretical’ story.  , Writing under the protection of MI5 and exiled from his son – to whom the book is dedicated, Rushdie in a way has had his own storytelling powers threatened and stolen – and he wants them back.  Like Haroun and Rashid, he battles a shadowy enemy: religious zealotry.

There are numerous examples of speech vs silence, light vs darkness, the material vs shadows.  The Gupee half of the moon is constantly in sunlight, whilst the Chupwalas are in constant darkness.  Furthermore, there is wall between their two worlds, named ‘Chattergy’s Wall’ after the Gup King.  This sense of the building of walls between vastly different cultures also has a basis in real life, with the invisible wall between the West and the Middle-East.

Magical things abound, such as the ‘plentimaw’ fish who travel in pairs and who talk in rhyming couplets; flying horse machines that talk and have removable brains that are the mythical creatures one uses to get to Kahani; water genies; floating gardeners; shadows who fight – and in some case separate – from their owners; the list goes on.  They all help Haroun in his battle against the dark-lord’s shadow.  All standard fairy-tale fare, but delivered with Rushdie’s playful and rampant imagination.  He adds layers that beg to be interpreted.  Names, for instance, are important.  Haroun and Rashid for instance, are taken from the “legendary Caliph of Baghdad, Haroun al-Rashid, who features in many Arabian Nights tales.  Their surname, Khalifa, actually means ‘Caliph’,” and there are many other examples.

I am a big Rushdie admirer, particularly his earlier books such as The Moor’s Last Sigh and Midnight’s Children and the short stories in East, WestHaroun and the Sea of Stories, written in 1990, sits firmly within the best category of this early work.  He has recently come back to something like top form, with the very good Enchantress of Venice after the less successful Fury and Shalimar the Clown (which I so wanted to love, but was a little let down by some aspects as well as the ending).  He recently was quoted as saying he would soon write the story of his exile under the fatwa.  I can only hope it is as adventurous and interesting as his finest work.

If you enjoy ‘adult’ fairy-tales with magic-realist elements (and what good fairy tale doesn’t have these?!), or are an avid Rushdie fan, then you’ll enjoy this.  If you have young kids, I’d recommend giving it a trial run on them … (unless they’re too busy twittering or facebooking of course!)

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

Granta Books

ISBN: 9780140140354

218 pages

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

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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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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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