Time to pop in at home on the way to my next exotic destination!
If you asked many Australians who is their country’s best writer, or especially their favourite one, I doubt if many of them would say Patrick White. In fact not so many of them have read him; he has a reputation for being difficult, and there are so many other great Australian writers, who are easier to read to boot! (It seems like Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet is the default choice for Australia). But I felt the compulsion to give him a go, and now was my chance.
This classic by Australia’s only Nobel Literature Prize winner is a fictionalised account of the last journey of Ludwig Leichhardt, who mysteriously died on his last audacious expedition trying to cross the continent from east to west. It seems to be a close portrait from what we know; White’s Voss (despite his Norwegian-sounding name) is, like Leichhardt, also a German, a loner, more comfortable in the bush than in society, a good bushman but an equivocal leader (as shown by a mutiny), who tried to maintain good relations with the Aborigines (two of whom travelled with him, and from whose skills he undoubtedly profited).
He himself, he realized, had always been most abominably frightened, even at the height of his divine power, a frail god upon a rickety throne, afraid of opening letters, of making decisions, afraid of the instinctive knowledge of mules, of the innocent eyes of good men, of the elastic nature of the passions, even of the devotion he had received from some men, and one woman, and dogs.
The back story of Voss is his unrequited romance-by-letter with a young Sydney girl, despite his cruelty to her (not least in deserting her for his doomed expedition):
With rough persistence he accused her of the superficiality which she herself suspected. At times she could hear her own voice. She was also afraid of the country which, for lack of any other, she supposed was hers. But this fear, like certain dreams, was something to which she would never have admitted.
I did enjoy Voss, which was a great psychological study of a loner who flees society and a loner who stays at home, and the surprising, tenuous but strong bond between them.
Time to finally get around to reading Cloudstreet!
WHITE, Patrick (1912-1990), Voss, Sydney, Vintage, 2012, ISBN 978 1 74275 688 2
(first published 1957)
Arid lands, riven by ravines and cut by cracks. Thin cattle, with downcast eyes, were here and there, with a barely believable desperation, licking at the slopes and wastelands of this sad spot. On the ground the skeletons of those that had already succumbed were bleaching, sacrifices of the saltpeter earth which had seized them until starvation, forgetting food; and great flocks of turkey vultures hovered over the stench of the carrion.
This is the classic novel of the Venezuelan Llanos (plains, prairies, steppes). It is one of those novels where the landscape seems to be the main character. But the grasslands are peopled by several memorable characters (even if their names seem a bit TOO obvious to contemporary ears) – the saintly would-be moderniser Dr. Santos, his nemesis the barbarous Doña Bárbara, the evil cardboard-cutout gringo with the unlikely moniker of Mr. Danger, and the ’child of nature’ Marisela, on whom Santos performs an Eliza Doolittle-like transformation into a polished lady. The setting is the lawless (yes, that includes the judges and lawyers) cattle country where rustling is a way of life, sanctioned by tradition and ubiquity. There is a Machiavellian power struggle between the great landowners, especially the cousins Dr. Santos and Doña Bárbara, by fair means and foul (and fowl!) Santos’ plan to fence off the llanos is inevitable but will see the llaneros’ way of life fade into history.
Doña Bárbara is an alpha female who dabbles in magic. No doubt if it was written today we would find a more sympathetic portrayal of the women (and city folk). We shouldn’t fall into the trap of extracting a work from the time when it was written. Nevertheless, both of the women are powerful (Doña Bárbara as much so as any of the men) in what must have been a man’s world.
While Gallegos sees the inevitability of progress, he is deeply nostalgic for the disappearing way of life of which he has a profound understanding. His attitude towards the burghers of Caracas reminded me of “Clancy of the Overflow” by the Australian bush poet Banjo Paterson:
“…And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall…”
While I think it would be wrong to see this as an early work of magical realism – there is plenty of magic, as practised by Doña Bárbara, in an overwhelmingly superstitions cultural world – the fact that this seminal work is so largely ignored by English readers is a tragedy that leaves a big hole in their knowledge of Latin American literature. The plot is not at all unrealistic.
The author himself is a fascinating character who became President of Venezuela.
GALLEGOS, Rómulo (1884 – 1969), Doña Bárbara, Madrid: Cátedra, 2014 [originally published 1929], ISBN 978-83-376-1539-4
My devastating Kenyan choice starts explosively with the protagonist being arrested for murder:
They came for him that Sunday. He had just returned from a night’s vigil on the mountain. He was resting on his bed, Bible open at the Book of Revelation, when two police constables, one tall, the other short, knocked at the door.
“’Are you Mr Munira?’ the short one asked. He had a star-shaped scar above the left brow.
’You teach at the New Ilmorog Primary School?’
’And where do you think you are now standing?’
’Ah, yes. We try to be very sure. Murder, after all, is not irio or ugali.’
’What are you talking about?’
’You are wanted at the New Ilmorog Police Station.’
’Murder, of course – murder in Ilmorog.’”
This is a much meatier and severer work than my Tanzanian book, Paradise. It is a searing endictment of a country newly liberated from colonialism, but now subject to injustices from its own leading classes. Someone obviously thought so – the author was imprisoned without trial because of it! It also has a much more bitter tone than Gurnah’s book.
Ngũgĩ is famous for having stopped writing in English. He highlighted the African writers’ dilemma of whether they should remain prisoners of their respective colonial languages, with the sugar of a vastly wider market and earnings, or should devote themselves entirely to developing their native languages, inevitably limiting themselves to a tiny market. If they do write in Kikuyu (Gĩkũyũ) (like Ngũgĩ; or whatever), and turn out a worthy work, they can probably be sure that it will be translated into English anyway, so it would seem to be better if the author himself writes the English version as well. But I have just read the bilingual In altre parole/In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, about her experience in learning Italian, and I’m no longer so sure. She deliberately didn’t translate the work, which she wrote in (what seems to me magnificent) Italian into her stronger language of English for a complicated set of reasons based on wanting to be faithful to the language of composition.
Back to Kenya: A poignant moment comes when the schoolteacher Karega is teaching Kenya’s proud (pre)history while remembering its sufferings at the hand of nature and man:
“These thoughts mocked at Karega as he was carried along by the grandeur of the people’s past, the great cultures that spread from Malindi to Tripoli. He confided: The Earlies Man, father of all men on earth, is thought to have been born in Kenya… Lake Turkana… and he stood back and expected a gasp of disbelief or a few questions.
‘Yes, Muriuki,’ he pointed to a child whose hand seemed raised.
There was a great rustling of books, noise from the benches, children clambering from their desks. Muriuki had fallen down.’
The boy had fainted from hunger.
There is an interesting introduction by the author of my Ugandan choice, Moses Isegawa (to follow).
Petals of Blood is a key work to understanding the continuing impact of colonialism on the African psyche. It’s a bit of a plod (compared to Paradise, for instance), angry and depressing and occasionally confusing. But considering its importance and how much its author suffered for it, it deserves to be read.
NGŨGĨ wa Thiong’o (1938 – ), Petals of Blood, New York, Penguin, 2005 (first published 1977), ISBN 978-0-14-303917-4
I still remember that dawn when my father took me for the first time to visit the Cemetery of Lost Books. The first days of spring, 1945, had worn off and we walked through the streets of a Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies and a steamy sun which streamed out over the Rambla de Santa Mónica in a garland of liquid copper.
‘Daniel, what you’re going to see today you mustn’t tell to anyone’, my father warned me, ‘not even your friend Tomás. No-one.’
‘Not even my mum?’ I asked, at half volume.
Catalonia isn’t independent, though many would like it to be, according to the controversial vote last month. So here’s a bonus read from one of my favourite cities, Barcelona (which here always seems to be shrouded in fog, like Holmesian London). A boy called Daniel uncovers a lost library and is permitted to extract a single title, which ends up changing his life, culminating in the obsessive search for a lost book and a forgotten writer. This beautiful novel is a paën to the world of books and to bibliophilia. As one who loves books for their own sake, working in a library which seems all too willing to discard books willy-nilly, I wish there really was a Cemetery of Lost Books where every last book is saved from oblivion! Ruíz Zafón is an addictive writer. If you haven’t yet discovered this wonderful book, I envy you your future joy!
Ruíz Zafón, Carlos (1964 – ): La Sombra del viento, Barcelona, Planeta, 2002, ISBN 84-08-04364-1
Book 32: Spain (English/Spanish) – (El ingenioso hidalgo) Don Quijote (de La Mancha) (Miguel de CERVANTES)
In a place in La Mancha, whose name I have no desire to recall, lived not long ago an hidalgo, one of those with a lance in the rack, an old leather shield, a skinny nag and a greyhound…
Having lost his wits, he stumbled upon the strangest thought that has ever occurred to anyone in the world, and he fancied that it was just and fitting, both for the furthering of his honour and for the service of his country, to make of himself a knight errant, going forth into the whole world with his arms and horse in search of adventures, and to put into practice all that he had read of what knights errant did – righting wrongs, and putting himself in peril and danger, and from these, having accomplished them, he would cover himself in eternal renown and fame.
I read this through in English, and also in Spanish (which I’m still plodding through – the Spanish is not too difficult, but it’s a big work).
How often does it happen that the beginning of a new endeavour seems to remain the greatest? Don Quijote is one of the first novels, and is still one of the best. It seems like a miracle that this work was written at the time it was. Though it looks back the dying age of chivalry (to the extent that it ever existed), in some ways it seems an incredibly modern (even Post-Modern) work. I love the way Cervantes does not take himself, or his creation, too seriously – there’s a lot of fun in the way he editorialises and sends up all and sundry.
The basic plot, where the eccentric would-be knight sallies off seeking adventures and is dragged home by his more prosaic friends, is too well-known to go into here. It is a satire of the chivalric romances which were on their last legs, but this spoof turned out to be the greatest of them all. Courtly love, which was really a ridiculous conceit when all is said and done, was just begging for a send-up. There is still the danger of taking literature too seriously (I have to plead guilty in the case of Tolkien) and living in a dream world which is more colourful and beautiful than the reality (instead of just visiting it), of seeing world as we want it to be.
Here the narrator can see all points of view, like us he clearly loves Don Quijote despite making fun of him, and takes him seriously. There’s a lot of tension between the narrator’s editorialising and the exciting tale. For example he cheekily interrupts the thrilling duel between Quijote and the Basque traveller in full flight because, he tells us, the narrative breaks off there. Fortunately for us, he does ‘find’ the ending later!
Cervantes has created three of the loveliest characters in literature. Though he lives in a dream world, is impractical and crazy, it’s impossible not to love and feel compassion for Quijote, the man who dares to dream the impossible dream. His page, Sancho Panza, is steady and steadfast, the mascot for all those priceless people in the world who sacrifice themselves to care for someone unable to look after themselves. And lastly, there is the ennobled nag Rocinante.
It is funny, touching, very clever. The main question I kept asking myself as I read this wondrous work was, why did I wait so long? If you haven’t tackled it yet, don’t deny yourself the pleasure any longer!
CERVANTES, Miguel de (1547-1616), El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, Ediciones Cátedra (Letras Hispánicas), Madrid, 1982, ISBN 84-376-0116-9 (2 vols.)
Set in an orwellian southeast Asian country which is a not really disguised Burma (the Irrawaddy of the title sort of gives it away!) it follows the wife of the country’s military dictator (an equally thinly-disguised U Ne Win), who has the book’s title as her unlikely nickname. Since it leaps from their first meeting to their married life, where she is already sarcastic and fearful of him, you are left with the question, why did she marry him in the first place? She seems pretty jaundiced almost from the beginning of her life, certainly about all her men, the political movements she comes into contact with, and the countries where she lived (Burma, the US and even Thailand!) and the whole book is quite bleak, for which you can’t blame someone who grew up under the dictatorship or was exiled from her country. Nevertheless Law-Yone is witty and often funny.
She compares her people to a column of caterpillars who found their way onto a pot:
“Following their leader, the insects had reached the rim and were making an endless circuit round and round the lip. Not for minutes, not for hours, but for days they circled that pot, unable to break out of their roundabout, even after collapsing periodically; even after – at long last – one member would actually strike out on its own.
In the end every adventurer returned to fall back in step with the column. And on went the march – an endless looping of the loop by witless troops who’d lost their leader but were simply unable to abandon their path.”
Another more sympathetic and heart-wrenching portrait of a beaten but dignified people comes in a picture of a robbed platform vendor:
“At one big junction we were in our seats, having a snack, when we heard a commotion on the platform. One of the food vendors, a girl about my age, was standing with a tray on her head, crying her eyes out. The tray was empty, but the girl – by force of habit, apparetly – kept it balanced on her head. The effort required an erect posture comically at odds with her misery.
The face under the tray was puffy and wet. Through her sobs, she was trying to tell some sort of story to the people who’d gathered around.
‘What is happening?’ Merc asked, in her quaint Daan, of someone below.
‘She has been robbed,’ said the person on the platform, in precise English. He had a plump mole in the middle of his chin out of which grew three luxuriant hairs. ‘They have taken everything. They have taken the food, they have taken all her money. Now she fears going home because she will be thrashed.’”
A cynical and bitter portrait of a downtrodden country which deserves better.
At the same time I was reading Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin as my travel book, which proved the perfect accompaniment. At first blush, Orwell’s stint as a policeman in the British colonial government might not seem to have much to do with his masterworks, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, but Larkin shows just how ‘orwellian’ the military dictatorship was at its height.
Wendy LAW-YONE (1947 – ), Irrawaddy Tango, Evanston, IL, Triquarterly Books, Northwestern University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8101-5142-1
“We were going down a heathery brae, Alan leading and I following a pace or two behind, like a fiddler and his wife; when upon a sudden the heather gave a rustle, three or four ragged men leaped out, and the next moment we were lying on our backs, each with a dirk at his throat.
I don’t think I cared; the pain of this rough handling was quite swallowed up by the pains of which I was I was already full; and I was too glad to have stopped walking to mind about a dirk. i lay looking up in the face of the man that held me; and I mind his face was black with the sun and his eyes very light, but I was not afraid of him. I heard Alan and another whispering in the Gaelic; and what they said was all one to me.”
Another classic that everyone else has probably read… I fell in love with RLS the man as a 21-year-old when I visited his moving hilltop grave “under the wide and starry sky” in what was then Western Samoa, but somehow missed this rollicking adventure story, so I seized the excuse to read it now. It is soaked in the atmosphere of heavy inter-clan rivalry and injustices suffered from the English. Stevenson is up there with luminaries like Dickens for creating some of the most memorable characters ever. Through the narrator, David (Davie), we follow a boy who is swept out of his comfort zone but revels in the thrilling adventures life throws at him. Some of the Scottish words were unfamiliar to me but it was often possible to guess their meaning and nothing holds up the impetus of the narrative. If, like me, you missed this wonderful book in your childhood, don’t dismiss it as a ‘mere’ children’s book, you will still love it!
STEVENSON, Robert Louis (1850 – 1894), Kidnapped, London: Vintage, 2009 (originally 1886), ISBN 978-0-099-51896-9