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Book 107: Palestine (English) – Mornings in Jenin (Susan ABULHAWA)

 

So it was that eight centuries after its founding by a general of Saladin’s army in 1189 A.D., Ein Hod was cleared of its Palestinian children. Yehya tried to calculate the number of generations who had lived and died in that village and he came up with forty… Forty generations of living, now stolen. Forty generations of childbirth and funerals, weddings and dance, prayer and scraped knees. Forty generations of sin and charity, of cooking, toiling, and idling, of friendships and animosities and pacts, of rain and lovemaking. Forty generations with their imprinted memories, secrets, and scandals. All carried away by the notion of entitlement of another people, who would settle in the vacancy and proclaim it all – all that was left in the way of architecture, orchards, wells, flowers, and charm – as the heritage of Jewish foreigners arriving from Europe, Russia, the United States, and other corners of the globe.

This is a novel of bewilderment and betrayal.
In the year of the creation (or recreation) of Israel, 1948 – called here by the Palestinians the ‘year without end’ – the Abulheja family is bombed out of their home and village, and forced to live in the squalid Jenin refugee camp. One of the Israeli soldiers, Moshe, steals their baby Ismael (a name as close as you can get to ‘Israel’) for his infertile wife, renames him David, and they lovingly raise him as a Jew.
His mother goes crazy. As the hopelessness of the Palestinians’ cause drags on, Jenin becomes more permanent with the years. Youssef meets and is abused by the Jewish soldier who is his brother (now David), and his outrage leads him to join the PLO though he later leaves it, cuts himself off from his family and becomes more radical. Will he become a terrorist?
Most of the story is related through the eyes of the third child, Amal, the daughter born in Jenin. She later moves to the US where, although appreciative of the more comfortable and peaceful lifestyle there, can’t help feeling somewhat resentful of those born into a luckier world free from suffering.
Understandably, there is a lot of resentment expressed at the Palestinians’ unfair treatment. Why should they have to pay for the Germans’ sins against the Jews? Why should the latter treat the people living there so cruelly, throw them out and not even let them visit their ancestral homes?
Like in any good novel, the characters measurably change during the story. It’s a sign of hope that real people can change too, for the better.
The novel is interspersed with quite a few quotes from non-fiction sources documenting the history.
I only noticed one typo, but it was a whopper. On page 285 the azan (Muslim call to prayer: I proclaim that there is no god except Allah) is quoted in Arabic, but ‘illa’ (except) is left out which leaves an unintentionally blasphemous remainder!
Despite the roles the characters seem to be forced into by the political situation, there is still hope that they can recover their humanity and empathy. And for me both of these are what is most absent in the region at the moment and the only hope for the future. And thankfully Mornings in Jenin, which is mostly but not entirely seen from the Palestinian side, ends with a glimmer of hope for reconciliation. It is a beautifully written, powerful novel which won’t leave you as a bystander.

Abdulhawa, Susan (1970 – ), Mornings in Jenin, London, Bloomsbury, 2010, ISBN 9781408813553

Book 99: Dominican Rep. (English) – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot DIAZ)

 

 

His otherworldly advice was too terrible to consider. Exile to the North! To Nueva York, a city so foreign she herself had never had the ovaries to visit. The girl would be lost to her, and La Inca [Oscar’s grandmother] would have failed her great cause: to heal the wounds of the Fall, to bring House Cabral back from the dead. And who knows what might happen to the girl among the yanquis? In her mind the U.S. was nothing more and nothing less than a país overrun by gangsters, putas, and no-accounts. Its cities swarmed with machines and industry, as thick with sinvergüencería as Santo Domingo was with heat, a cuco shod in iron, exhaling fumes, with the glittering promise of coin deep in the cold lightless shaft of its eyes.

 

Here is one of several novels I’ve come across which have been bestsellers (or even cult novels), which haven’t really grabbed me. When that happens, I tend to blame myself. Maybe it was spoiled by hearing the revelation about Díaz’s personal misdemeanours shortly before starting it, but I didn’t really enjoy this book. I’m willing to admit that maybe I should give it another go. But there are so many great novels still to read and I still have about a hundred to read for this project!

The ‘hero’ Oscar is a fat nerd doomed to unpopularity, one would tend to assume because of his appearance and personality, but he himself thinks it is because he has been smitten by an old family fujú curse. But you can’t help admiring his resilience.

A large part of the story is actually about his hot sister, who is also a real character.

Oscar is a Tolkien fan (the only thing he has in common with me), but for him the DR dictator Trujillo is worse than Sauron. Maybe it was easier for Middle Earth to overthrow the Dark Lord than for the Dominicans to get rid of Trujillo, who was supposed to have created the perfect dictatorship. (Speaking of which, my preferred novel about the DR is La Fiesta del Chivo ((The Feast of the Goat)) by Mario Vargas Llosa, although he is not a Dominican, about this assassination). Trujillo’s sister is a character in Díaz’s novel.

There are lots of Dominican Spanish words, too many of which are not defined, although they certainly add colour to the text! (The unglossed ones in the quotation above are: country, prostitutes, shamelessness, cutie).

But don’t let me put you off – I’m sure many people will love the novel (it’s obvious that many did). It is often funny, the slangy language is alive and the characters are sculpted in high relief. Maybe it’s time to give it another chance myself…



DÍAZ, Junot (1968 – ), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, London, Faber and Faber, 2008, ISBN 978-0-571-17955-8 

Book 61: Taiwan (English) – Wild Kids (CHANG Ta-Chun)

A long, long time before that, just after [my kid sister] had begun nursery school, she loved to wear a certain kind of checkered cloth skirt. She liked yellow and white, red and white, pink and white, blue and white… in short, as long as there were two alternating colors and the checks were no larger than a fingernail, she would wear it. Mom also liked to wear checks, and the two of them together looked like a couple of perfume bottles from the same factory – one big, one little, but other than the size difference, all the other specifications were identical.

 

Wild Kids is a sort of double novel, continuing the story of a pair of siblings. (Unfortunately the first part of the trilogy, “Chang’s Big Head Spring trilogy” hasn’t been translated into English yet). It sometimes feels like an Asian version of The Catcher in the Rye, and I’m sure fans of The Catcher will love this one too. It gives a gritty, violent yet funny view of the underbelly of Taiwan. Both are told by the wonderfully named Big Head Spring.
The first half-novel (My Kid Sister) was my favourite, in which he provides a lovely portrait of his slightly weird sister – when she goes through feminist phase (and everything is ‘what’s the point?’). She wants to marry her grandpa (‘yeye’ in Mandarin) and asks why foreigners are always singing ‘yeah yeah’ in pop songs! They live in a dysfunctional family, and, as seen from the kids’ perspectives, their parents are at least as strange as children! Taiwanese (not only Taiwanese) are disillusioned and cynical.
The second half-novel (Wild Kids proper) is rather darker, as Big Head gets involved in Taiwanese gang ‘culture’. He gets mugged after winning at a rigged slot machine. It climaxes in orgiastic rampage with a crane! Just as well it is infused with humour, otherwise it would be a bit depressing.
Obviously, the Taiwanese are just like the rest of us – it’s hard to be an adolescent, and everyone, especially one’s parents, is weird! It is often very funny, sometimes a bit gross!, with a peppering of existentialism.
I’m looking forward to physically visiting Taiwan as my next port of call!

 

CHANG Ta-Chun (1957 – ), Wild Kids: two novels about growing up, New York, Columbia University Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0-231-12097-5

 

 

Book 45: Malaysia (English) – Garden of Evening Mists (Tan Twan Eng)

Movement high above us, higher than the heron, caught our attention. We both raised our faces to the sky at the same time. Aritomo pointed with the handle of his walking stick, looking like a prophet in an ancient land. In the furthest reaches of the eastern sky, where it had already turned to night, streaks of light were fanning out. I did not know what they were at first, but when I realised what I was looking at, a sigh misted from between my lips.
It was a storm of meteors, arrows of light shot by arches from the far side of the universe, igniting and burning up as they pierced the atmospheric shield. Hundreds of them burned out halfway, flaring their brightness just before they died.
Standing there with our heads tilted back to the sky, our faces lit by ancient starlight and the dying fires of those fragments of a planet broken up long ago, I forgot where I was, what I had gone through, what I had lost.

 

A rather tetchy retired High Court magistrate, lone survivor of a Japanese concentration camp during the Second World War, eccentrically decides to build, in memory of her sister who did not survive, a Japanese garden in the Cameron Highlands. She has a fascinating love-hate relationship with Japan, Japanese and Japanese culture, and although she is reluctant to admit to this love it is obvious in the way she lets it occupy her life. Even to the extent of volunteering for a sort of torture at the hands of a Japanese. To learn how to build her memorial she has to apprentice herself to a local Japanese settler, once Emperor Hirohito’s gardener. (One of the few obvious boo-boos is that a Japanese would call a deceased emperor by their reign name, not their given name, after their decease). I love books that connect some of the ‘smaller’ cultures of the world, as it were underneath the main current of world history. My favourite work in this genre is Amitabh Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, but this touching novel, with its surprising connections between Malaysia, Japan and South Africa is definitely up there. It is about flawed people living in a flawed world, trying their hardest to come to terms with the difficulty of existence.

 

ENG, Tan Twan (1972 – ), The Garden of Evening Mists, Newcastle upon Tyne, Canongate, 2012, ISBN 978-1-78211-017-0

 

Book 42: Canada (English) – The Blind Assassin (Margaret ATWOOD)

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]

Book 3: USA (English) – To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper LEE)

“If you had been on that jury, son, and eleven other boys like you, Tom would be a free man,’ said Atticus. ‘So far nothing in your life has interfered with your reasoning process. Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom’s jury, but you saw something come between them and reason. You saw the same thing that night in front of the jail. When that crew went away, they didn’t go as reasonable men, they went because we were there. There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads – they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.’

‘Doesn’t make it right,’ said Jem stolidly. He beat his fist softly on his knee. ‘You can’t just convict a man on evidence like that – you can’t.’

‘YOU couldn’t, but THEY could and did.’

A heartbreakingly beautiful book about justice (and the lack thereof) – like everyone else the US falls short of its ideals, but surely that’s better than not having those ideals in the first place. It’s a reminder that without some brave people to stick up for what’s right, the world would be even more screwed up than it is now. It is a desperate call for us as ordinary people to be heroes and to stand up for what is right, even if necessary against the prevailing order in our society and our own narrowly selfish interests, so that a better world will prevail. The judgement comes as a total shock, almost physical, and it will leave you moist-eyed!

Lee, Harper (1916-2016): To Kill a Mockingbird, London: Vintage, 2004, ISBN 9780099466734