Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Haiti: "Krik? Krak!" by Edwidge Danticat

My friend Miriam suggested this author, and when I searched for a title, I learned Ms. Danticat attended the college where my Daughter B is now a student. Do I get extra points for that?

Danticat lived in Haiti until she was 12 and then moved to New York City. Krik? Krak! is a story-telling motif in Haiti...someone calling for a story says, "Krik?" and the response is "Krak!"  This collection of short stories evokes life in Haiti, some of its beauty and some of the gut-wrenching pain. 

Written in the early 1990s, the title story reveals the human consequences of horrific political repression. In the story, a college student who agitates for political change on the radio escapes Haiti on a leaky boat, with 35 others. He writes "letters" in a notebook to his sweetheart back home. He hopes the boat will reach the U.S., or at least a U.S. Coast Guard ship. A girl in Port-au-Prince writes to her lover, whom she hopes escaped...but she just isn't sure. Still she writes, even as her family is menaced by the Tonton Macoutes, the dictator's personal "enforcers."

I put "letters" in quotations because, while each writes to the other, there is no exchange. We see both sides of this epistolary story, made even more compelling by the two distinct voices Ms. Danticat animates in her prose. The student writes of the pregnant woman, who gives birth on the boat; of the old man chewing on an empty pipe; of the tar used to patch the leaks; and of how hot he is and black he is becoming under the relentless sun. He also writes of his political views, how much he cares for the girl, and what he hopes to find in the U.S. The girl (and she is young, so the word is correct) writes of the day the Macoutes murdered her neighbor, how her family escaped, and what her father did to save the them and why. She also writes of the banyan tree where she finds a hiding place, what the house in the country looks like, and the butterflies that bring her messages of hope and despair.

Unlike Masks, in which two central characters obtain their deepest desire, neither one in this story does. The hardest part to read was how each accepted fate when it arrived.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Japan: "Masks" by Fumiko Enchi

This powerful work (synposis here) blends the psychological drama of Nō theatre, with a feminine twist on sexual dynamics both within and outside of marriage. In the latter, this work deliberately skews the classic Tales of Genji, which tells of the romances of an emperor's son. [Tales was written in the 11th century by lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu and is extensively reviewed in many places.]

Published first in 1958 in Japan, Masks tackles themes of family ties, revenge, and spirit possession. The four central characters share an interest spirit possession, as it is understood within Japanese history and culture.

When reading Masks, it helped immensely to have previously read Tales and to have some passing knowledge of spirit possession. The two men in Masks believe that the younger woman, Yasuko, is at least in part in posessed by her mother-in-law, Mieko.  The male characters even speculate that the two women, both widows, are lovers, to try to explain the peculiar closeness of their daily lives and actions. In our 21st-century American terms, we might consider their relationship one of co-dependency.

While I had knowledge of Tales and some acquaintance with spirit possession, specific masks of Nō were something new for me. Three mask names are chapter headings: Ryo nō onna, or a ghost woman; Masugami, or "a young woman in a state of frenzy," and Fugai, with sunken cheeks and blackened teeth. Ms. Enchi writes of Fugai, "The name can be either of written two ways: 'deep well' or 'deep woman.' It's used in roles depicting middle-aged women, especially mothers."  The image below is, I think, Fugai.

Yasuko says of Mieko, "...it seems to me she must be one of the last women who lives that way still--like the masks--with her deepest energies turned inward." (p 26)  A bit later in the text, Yasuko tells her (male) lover, again about her mother-in-law Mieko, "She has a peculiar power to move events in whatever direction she pleases, while she stays motionless. She's like a quiet mountain lake whose waters are rushing beneath the surface to a waterfall. She' s like the face on a Nō mask, wrapped in her own secrets." (p. 31)

Just what Mieko has masked and the extent of her power over others, is revealed near the end, which I won't spoil. Whatever Yasuko's relationship with Mieko, they both end up with a something vastly important to each.

Quotations from the 1983 Vintage edition, available in the Aventura series, the Vintage Library of Contemporary Writers.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Brazil: Clarice Lispector and "The Hour of the Star"

Decades ago, when I was grade school, we studied Brazil and the then-brand new capital, Brasília. A Jetson-style city rising out of nothing fascinated me. Little of that newness shows up in  The Hour of the Star,  a novella set in Rio de Janiero. This work encompasses strangely beautiful writing, odd rhythyms, and deeply moving themes about the role of creator and created, personal happiness, and the loneliness of poverty.

Among lines I marked are these:

The narrator: "And what I write is a moist fog. Words are sounds transfused with unequal shadows that intersect, stalactites, lace, transfigured organ music." (p. 8)

and again: "Since as I said the word has to resemble the word, my instrument. Or am I not a writer? Actually I'm more of an actor because with only one way to punctuate, I juggle with intonation and force another's breathing to accompany my text." (p. 14).  [In a post-script by the translator,  we learn that Ms. Lispector punctuated the way she believed the phrases sounded, not according to the rules of grammar.]

Now here is the narrartor part-way through introducing his young female character, Macabéa.

"...The girl didn't wonder why she was always being punished but you don't have to know everything and not knowing was an important part of her life.
     "That not-knowing might seem awful but it's not that bad becase she knew lots of things in the way nobody teaches a dog to wag his tail or a person to feel hungry; you're born and you just know...." (p. 20)

Then as the story reaches nears the climax:

"She stumbled out of the..house and stopped in the alleyway darkened by the dusk--dusk which is the hour of no one...So much richness of atmosphere received her and the first grimace of the night which, yes, yes, was deep and showy...Macabéa stood a little dizzy...since her life had already been changed. And changed by words--we have known since Moses that the word is divine." (p. 69-70)

There are more and more beautiful phrases and images than I can cite. As for the story, our narrator tells us that Macabéa lived as a child in the northeastern portion of the country, in the city of Maceio, capital of the state Alagoas. She moved to Rio for work when her guardian died. She gets a job, falls in love, and for the most part, she finds joy, with her spirit unhurt.

One review mentions that her name, from the Maccabees, alludes to a Jewish rebel army that wrested Judea away from a foreign emperor, circa 164 BCE.  The name comes from a word for "hammer."  But as noted in an earlier post, I am still deaf or blind or whatever it is to symbolism, so you can help me figure out what all of that might mean. I see more of the story of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge in the text than anything but I am well aware of my deficiencies.

Quotations are from the translation by Benjamin Moser released in the U.S. in 2011, published by New Directions Books.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Another world: Albania and "Agamemnon's Daughter"

Ismail Kadare wrote Agamemnon's Daughter circa 1985, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the beginning end of what we once called Eastern Europe.  It is simultaneously a depiction of the banality of political repression -- the way it seeps into every human interaction, even just seeing someone across a crowd -- and an evocation of the extreme horrors (sacrificing their own children) that those in power will enact to preserve and extend their grip.

The setting is Albania. If you need help to locate it on a map, look just above Greece, across from Italy's "heel." Maybe this will help.

Albania was Communist from 1942 to 1992. You can read more about the contemporary history of the country and its current governmental and "transition economic" systems at Wikipedia or other resources online. 

My recollections are that as Communist country, it was even more extremely controlled than most of the Eastern Bloc, with almost no contact with "the west." Kadare's manuscript was smuggled out bits at a time, in part because exporting works about Albania was prohibited. That tale is told in the preface to this volume.

Because I hope you will read the novella, I won't recap the story, although this site does a good job of doing so. This review is by Australian expatriate Geoff Pound, then living in the United Arab Emirates. 

Ismail Kadare is my father's age and lives now in France and continues to write and publish in French. I will be looking for more of his work, as the writing is lovely, even at he confronts the brutality of humanity.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Airport Stopover

After consultation with a travel agent (really, a good friend who reads widely and gave good advice), I decided to route this journey with a stopover only in Brazil for now. The symbolism or whatever of Manuel Puig's Blood of Requited Love is not there for me -- just a more brutal Lolita story. I guess I need to read more "high-brow" fiction to get it.

So, back to the old world, via Ismail Kadare's Agamemnon's Daughter.  More on that in a day or so.

And note, my blogging skills might be as high as my skills at understanding symbols.  So, while there is a Facebook page called International Reads, I haven't set up an icon for that yet.  For now, I can manage a link here.  I hope everyone will feel free to post their own thoughts and even failures for reading abroad. And if you are interested in guest blogging, well, that sounds great, too!

thanks for stopping by.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Canada: Beggar Maid, The (Alice Munro)

The first book of this project turned out to be The Beggar Maid, by this year's Nobel Laureate in Literature, Alice Munro. While not about Canada, this work takes place in Canada, with cameo appearances by the Toronto Train Station and Vancouver, B.C. and an entire episode in the town of Powell River, where the topography of the town itself matters. There are also brief mentions of Yellowknife and Yukon gold fields. Most of the work is set in fictional locales West Hanratty and Hanratty (west is "wrong side of the tracks"), Ontario.

While not about the geography of a place, this collection of closely linked stories is the geography of a mid-century Canadian woman's mental voyage, from childhood to middle age, told in the third person. We follow Rose from extreme youth on the poor side of town, which is just how life is - don't feel sorry for us, through the opportunities offered through education. She starts with a profound awareness of herself as a separate being, even as a child. Her education is less about growing self-awareness than it is about growing awareness that one can be an individual and also connected with others. For many of the tales, the two perspectives seem to be in tension although there are moments of resolution, when self and interpersonal connections are allowed to co-exist and even do so with joy.

The notion of the story is critical, both as a literary form and within the stories themselves, as story-telling plays an important role in how Rose forms and expresses her deep feelings about the world around her. She apprehends her world more through sensibility than sense, to borrow Austen's phrase.

I've grown up with tales of my own mother's life, of people's progress from rural and poor to less rural and less poor, and--oh what a wonder--free to make choices based on preference and possibly circumstance, less driven by what must be done to endure, to survive. One key difference, however, is the accepted rough brutality of Rose's childhood home (including, in order of appearance in Rose's awareness, child abuse, rape, "tribal beating" of a neighboring bad father, and bullying by school peers). 

The details in Munro's work are sharp and true.  Here is just one of the many passages I marked:

"For breakfast, they too had tea and porridge. Puffed Rice in the summertime. The first morning the Puffed Rice, light as pollen, came spilling into the bowl, was as festive, as encouraging a time as the first day walking on the hard road without rubbers [rainboots] or the first day the door could be left open in the lovely, brief time between frost and flies. (p. 41)"

I particularly love that last bit about the open door.

Another telling detail includes the fact that if you matter to Rose, you have a first name, and only a first name. If you are a secondary character, you have first and last names. Some characters have only a role, such as "Head Librarian" or "U.C. minister."  It is interesting to note the switches in the name game with regard to Patrick, who appears in the keystone story "The Beggar Maid."  I am really trying to avoid spoilers here.

Have you read The Beggar Maid, or any of the freestanding stories within it that appeared in the late 1970s in Viva, The New Yorker, Redbook or elsewhere?  What did you think? 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Around the world in 365 days - by book

So, I heard about this project "A Year of Reading the World" last week and decided to give it a go. But of course, it isn't enough to read what Alexandra read ... so I added some additional constraints, or opportunities, depending on how you think about things.  If you want to join me, please do, with your own lists, or suggest things below.

Firstly, I'm in the U.S., so we have different works available than U.K.-based Alexandra found, and possibly more are in translation here.  Secondly, I read in English and French, which opens some doors, especially for works from writers from countries in West and Central Africa and parts of Micronesia. If you  have more than one language, do your own challenge with works available. Thirdly, I'm most interested in works by women, although not exclusively. So I thought I'd try for at least 50 percent by women -- you've heard that we "Hold up half the sky," right?  Then I decided I should stick to things published in my lifetime, so last half of the 20th century until now. Sound fair?

Today I checked out the list of countries at Member States of the UN, but it didn't include places that I think of as having separate cultures, such as Scotland and Northern Ireland.  So instead of 193 nations, the starting list is 195. Perhaps we'll add more, too ...

Also, at our house, we already have books from about 45 of the countries listed, and in the interests of keeping the whole project manageable financially, I set a limit of $5 per additional volume. For titles not on our shelves, I'll see what I can borrow from libraries, then go for used copies, probably from Amazon or similar sites online. Although, I must say I found several works at Half Price Books in the Avon neighborhood yesterday, for $1 or less each.  What a great resource, even if the name ought to be Half Priced Books.

So, here's a global map and four pins to get started. Japan, Albania, Argentina, and Canada. Two men, two women. Mostly older titles, since -- as you might have noted above -- we have these books already at home.

To join, click on the map to open a new tab, showing this week's ideas. On the new tab, click on one of the green pins. A small tab within the map will open with author's last name and title of the book. Under that appears the word "link."  If you click that, you will see the  Amazon.com description of the book. These four are in print and used copies are available online. 

Next week four more titles, with a different color of pin. Maybe I'll figure out how to make an interactive map here, too.  Stranger things have happened.

Even if you don't read the books, please share your thoughts for authors to include!

Are you in?