“Do you touch yourself with your hands?”
“Every day! How many times?”
“I don’t keep count… Many times…”
“That is a grave offence in the eyes of God!”
“I didn’t know, Father. And if I put gloves on, is it still a sin?”
“Gloves! But what are you saying, you fool? Are you trying to make fun of me?”
“No, no…” I murmured, terrified, working out that in any event it would be very difficult to wash my face, brush my teeth or scratch with gloves on.
“Promise that you will never do that again. Purity and innocence are the best virtues in a girl. You will say fifty Hail Marys in penitence so that God will forgive you.”
“I can’t, Father!” I replied, because I only knew how to count up to twenty.
“What do you mean, you can’t!” roared the priest, and a rain of saliva crossed the confession box and fell down on me. I ran out.
I love the magical realist novels of Isabel Allende, and I had read almost all of them, except for some reason this one. Isabel’s father was the cousin of leftist Chilean president Salvador Allende who was overthrown and killed in a CIA-backed military coup in 1973, leading to an ugly dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet. The skinny country is one of my favourites in the world – the landscapes are stunningly beautiful and I found the people lovely, so I still find it inexplicable how some of them could treat their fellow citizens so brutally during the military dictatorship.
Eva Luna is a born story-teller, a South American Scheherazade; she tells the story of her family, which she decorates with whimsical fantasies (unless she is recounting reality). She is in love with a guerrilla fighter living in the mountains. Her life passes through encounters with a Thousand and One Nights cast of strange characters.
The novel is full of bizarre and sometimes funny characters and situations. But there is so much reality in their unrealness. Despite the dark and rocky personal and political history it covers, it is made palatable – more than palatable, delicious – by the resilience and humour shown.
I didn’t find it as perfect as The House of the Spirits (La Casa de los espíritus), one of my favourite books, but the writing is beautiful and I still loved it.
ALLENDE, Isabel (1942 – ), Eva Luna, Barcelona, Plaza & Janes, 1991, ISBN 84-01-42268-X
Should you read the blurb on the cover before reading a novel? I can’t help blaming my slight disappointment with ‘Reef’ on the blurb, and its shortlisting for the 1994 Booker Prize. Don’t get me wrong – the story itself is very readable and well-written. But it is quite lightweight and to compare it to Greene, Naipaul, Narayan and even Shakespeare’s Tempest (as in the quoted reviews) seems quite ridiculous. The blurb touts it as a love story – well the protagonist Triton doesn’t get any (unless you include mentoring). In fact it’s basically about his love for being a super house boy, for a marine biologist – although it’s obvious from his intelligence and fast learning that he will have a lot more to offer the world. He seems to totally miss the dangerous currents swirling around him in the ‘real world’ of the island. The endangered reef that the scientist is studying is obviously a symbol for the fraught political situation facing the country.
Its language is simple but sensuous:
Most of all I missed the closeness of the tank – the reservoir. The lapping of the dark water, flapping lotus leaves, the warm air rippling over it and the cormorants rising, the silent glide of a hornbill. and then those very still moments when the world would stop and only colour move like the blue breath of dawn lightening the sky, or the darkness of night misting the globe; a colour, a ray of curved light and nothing else. The water would be unbroken like a mirror, and the moon would gleam in it. At twilight when the forces of darkness and the forces of light were evenly matched and in balance there was nothing to fear. No demons, no troubles, no carrion. An elephant swaying to a music of its own. A perfect peace that seemed eternal even though the jungle might unleash its fury at any moment.
There are pearls to admire such as the Sri Lankan take on the Biblical flood legend.
As one who has experienced how bizarre Christmas is in Sri Lanka (even more so than here in Australia), I couldn’t help laughing at the experimental cooking of the turkey, with the Professor’s scientific input and Triton’s instinct.
Or is the novel like a reef, and did I just miss the profundities hiding beneath the surface? Perhaps I should re-read it… which will be no hardship.
GUNESEKERA, Romesh (1954-), Reef, London, Granta, 2014, ISBN 978-1-78378-030-3
‘Mother, I’ve come to find out what’s happening. For a few days now, people have been coming and going here. Especially Old Gôro whose shadow hovers over all the marriages in the village. Have you been charged with preparing a marriage without telling me?’
’It’s because of you, my daughter. Only because of you’ answered the mother after a long silence.
’Because of me, mother? What’s it got to do with me? No one has spoken to me of marriage here, not even my friends.’
’That doesn’t surprise me, my daughter. That’s because it’s a matter of your own marriage’, her mother sighed.
Fatou and Karimou are lovers and want to get married, but Fatou’s mother doesn’t like him and forbids her only child from wedding him. Her parents force her to marry the ‘Koumandaw’ (the regional authority) against her will – her weak husband Old Mazou having been bribed by giving him his dream of a hajj to Mecca – but she quickly escapes him and her drought-desiccated village for the city, where she is taken under the wing by a house of kindly prostitutes and grows into an independent young woman. When Fatou and Karimou meet back in the village, they find they have grown apart. Fatou, like everyone, has to find a way of accommodating the pressures of family and of changing ways of life, and she does.
It is a slim novel, but I loved it! It’s such a shame that it (or any other of Amadou Idé’s novels) hasn’t been translated into English.
IDÉ, Amadou (1951 – ), Misères et grandeurs ordinaires, Ciboure, Le Cheminante, 2014, ISBN 978-2-37127-016-9
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)
Here I am at country number fifty, about a quarter of the way through my quest!
Raja’s mother had abandoned him on the parade ground of Tundikhel on a misty morning before Kathmandu had awakened, then drowned herself in Rani Pokhari, half a kilometer north. No one connected the cries of the baby to the bloated body of the woman that would float to the surface of the pond later that week.
I couldn’t help being a little disappointed with this book. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it very much. I just didn’t feel that, despite being a full-length novel, it had the depth of Upadhyay’s “Arresting god in Kathmandu”, a collection of short stories that I found as wonderful as its title. Upadhyay was apparently the first Nepalese writer to be translated into English. It was after reading “Arresting” that I felt I needed to read more of his work, and chose this one when I changed the intention of my reading criteria to exclude short stories.
This is one of those luscious subcontinental family sagas I love so much. It centres on two Nepalis who we first meet as boy (Raja) and girl (Nilu). Only the boy, Raja, is a true orphan – the book starts with his mother drowning herself. He is taken in by a homeless man, Bokey Ba, and a footpath corn seller, Kaki; as he grows, the once unwanted boy becomes the object of a tug-of-war among those who care for him.
Nilu is only an orphan in the sense that she ends up despising and being estranged from her alcoholic, snobbish mother Muwa. Raja and Nilu become friends, are separated, fall in love, marry, separate, come together again…
The story takes place against the background of Nepal’s tumultuous recent history, beginning under the unpopular ‘King M.’ and following through his overthrow. Raja has a part, but only a very minor one, in the events – perhaps foreshadowed by Bokey Ba’s trying to dump him in the palace (leading to his name), and Raja’s chewing on a button with the King’s portrait. Raja takes part in demos against the monarchy without telling his wife, though she spies him at one. When their young son is taken gravely ill she is held up by a demo (which Raja isn’t at) and he dies. This leads to their estrangement.
I found it a totally enjoyable read, so please don’t let my slight tinge of disappointment put you off. I suspect Upadhyay might become one of the great subcontinental writers; as to whether his forte is in fact in short stories rather than novels, well, I’ll just have to read more of him to find out, which will be no hardship!
UPADHYAY, Samrat (सम्राट उपाध्याय) (1963 – ), Buddha’s Orphans, Boston/NY, Mariner, 2011, ISBN 978-0-547-46990-4
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. the bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens… They’d said Laura had turned the car sharply and deliberately, and had plunged off the bridge with no more fuss than stepping off a curb.
Moving on from a tale of two brothers, in my Iraqi book, I come to this tale of the equally fascinating relationship between two sisters. I’ve long been intrigued by this book – even more than by its intriguingly paradoxical title, because of its cover, featuring a slinky woman in an elegant ‘20s party dress, with only one arm. Or so I thought… Now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading the book, as well as studying the cover closely, I see that she does actually have two arms! It’s true, you can’t judge a book by its cover! However, the female characters in this novel, especially the central two sisters, really are endlessly intriguing.
This is clever, finely written novel. I love the narrator’s (Iris’) cynical, sarcastic take on her family’s trials, and on the world in general. It is interwoven, matryoshka-like, with a science fiction/fantasy story (’The Blind Assassin’ proper) supposedly improvised by a pair of lovers (who in turn tell each other a pulpy SF story), that the dead sister was writing. The complicated relationship between the two sisters is wonderfully portrayed. Atwood’s intricate plotting is rife with clever devices. In fact it has so much in it that it’s hard to grasp everything at a single reading, and it is continually leaping across genres – family history, science fiction, detection and romance, so trying to categorise it would be hopeless.
This is one that I will definitely read again, as soon as possible! And I will have to read more Atwood!
ATWOOD, Margaret (1939 – ), The Blind Assassin, New York: Anchor, 2001, ISBN 0-385-47572-1
[originally published 2000]
Light from the burning city filled the sky as far as human eye could reach. The moon rose large and full from behind the mountains, and inflamed at once by the glare took on the colour of heated brass. It seemed to look with amazement on the world-ruling city which was perishing. In the rose-coloured abysses of heaven rose-coloured stars were glittering; but in distinction from usual nights the earth was brighter than the heavens. Rome, like a giant pile, illuminated the whole Campania. In the bloody light were seen distant mountains, towns, villas, temples, mountains, and the aqueducts stretching toward the city from all the adjacent hills; on the aqueducts were swarms of people, who had gathered there for safety or to gaze at the burning.
I found it surprisingly hard to decide what to read for Poland! Finally I defaulted to Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), who justly won the 1905 Nobel Prize for Literature. Quo Vadis (Latin for ‘Where are you going?’) is his best-known work, except perhaps in Poland itself, where his trilogy on 17th Century Polish history, With Fire and Sword, is more famous.
Now normally I try to choose a novel which will teach me as much as possible about the country it represents here. This majestic tale of the Roman Empire under the emperor Nero (in the first few years of the Christian Era) might seem to have nothing to say about Poland, which didn’t even exist at the time (and was one part of Europe which the Empire never reached), but you can see the persecution of the early Christians as a symbol of the suffering of this most Catholic of countries under the boots of its surrounding empires. Like the Christians under the Roman Empire, the Poles have had to fight long and hard to maintain their distinct culture, language and religion under constant occupation (or threat) by their neighbours, and have miraculously succeeded.
The main characters are the true-life novelist and courtesan (and finally victim) of Nero, Petronius, who seems able to control him for a time; the mad mercurial emperor himself who is infamous for having set his city alight and blaming the Christians for his crime; and the fictional young lovers Lygia and soldier Marcus Vinicius – she converts him to Christianity. If you know anything about Roman or early Christian history you know that this is not going to end well…
You get a fine feeling for the precariousness of life lived under a dictatorship (or even democracy?) under the whims of a demented despot, even for those close to the source of power. Perhaps not so irrelevent to our times after all? What a pity that this great, majestic work isn’t read enough any more.
SIENKIEWICZ, Henryk (1846 – 1916), Quo Vadis: a tale of the time of Nero, translated by Jeremiah Curtin, Mineola NY, Dover, 2011, ISBN 978-0-486-47686-5 (originally published in Polish 1896)