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
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
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]
1. Palace Walk = Bayn al-qasrayn
MAHFOUZ, Naguib (1911 – 2006), Palace Walk, translated from Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins & Olive E. Kenny, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2001 (originally published 1956), ISBN 978-977-424-681-4
2. Palace of Desire = Qasr al-shawq
Naguib Mahfouz, Palace of Desire, translated from Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins & Olive E. Kenny, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2001 (originally published 1957), ISBN 978-977-424-682-1
3. Sugar Street = al-Sukkariyya
Naguib Mahfouz, Sugar Street, translated from Arabic by William Maynard Hutchins & Olive E. Kenny, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2001 (originally published 1957), ISBN 978-977-424-683-8
She woke at midnight. She always woke up then without having to rely on an alarm clock. A wish that had taken root in her awoke her with great accuracy. For a few moments she was not sure she was awake. Images from her dreams and perceptions mixed together in her mind. She was troubled by anxiety before opening her eyes, afraid sleep had deceived her. Shaking her head gently, she gazed at the total darkness of the room. There was no clue by which to judge the time. The street noise outside her room would continue until dawn. She could hear the babble of voices from the coffeehouses and bars, whether it was early evening, midnight, or just before daybreak. She had no evidence to rely on except her intuition, like a conscious clock hand, and the silence encompassing the house, which revealed that her husband had not yet tapped at the door and that the tip of his stick had not yet struck against the steps of the staircase.
(Palace Walk, translated by William Maynard Hutchins & Olive E. Kenny)
This is a very long family saga (trilogy), which took me ages to get through. I guess it’s Egypt’s War and Peace (although with not much war). It begins with a sequestered wife (Amina) waiting for her husband (al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad) to return home late and drunk. The women in this family have to bite their lips (mostly) and put up with an enormous amount of bad behaviour from their menfolk, right through the work. Whereas her husband, the family patriarch, is respected by everyone, even though, as we will learn, he has some shocking skeletons in his closet. The characters of their children reveal themselves wonderfully as generation follows generation – the garrulous Khadija, the lovely Aisha, the doomed Fahmy, Yasin, the pensive Kamal, not to mention their neighbours and colleagues…
The second volume, Palace of Desire, is perhaps the least interesting of the trilogy. Everyone seems to be behaving badly, even with the same woman! It is occasionally annoying where long periods, even whole chapters, pass with the ‘he’ not being named so you’re not sure who is being referred to!
I love Mafouz’s writing, although I prefer some of his other works (such as Arabian Days and Nights) to this, his undoubted masterpiece. It’s so multifaceted that it’s like a little world to itself.