Sunday, December 29, 2013

Peru: "Who Killed Palomino Molero?" by Mario Vargas Llosa

In my imagination, I see Vargas Llosa and de Recacoechea in a bar sipping pisco and making bets about which can write a better noir novel, or whose novel will be picked up for film rights, or which one does a better job telling a story about his country in less than 175 pages. Since Who Killed Palomino Molero? appeared in 1987, and de Recacoechea's Andean Express came out in 2000, it is more likely that the Bolivian writer paid homage to Vargas Llosa. As a reader in 2013, however, I experienced something similar to double-feature at the movies.

Pictures of Talara - Traveler Photos
This photo of Talara is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Vargas Llosa's book takes place in the very north of Peru in the early 1950s. The plot revolves around two police officers in Talara seeking the truth behind the grisly murder of a young man posted to the nearby airbase. While some reviews say it is a tightly crafted murder mystery, I have to confess that I knew who did it as soon as we meet the offender -- and I knew why. If you, too, have a deep background in Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell, or Laura Roh Rowland, this might not be the intellectual puzzle you seek, but it is still worth the time to read as a psychological study of power, if nothing else.

Talara is on the coast near oil fields, with the airbase, and serves as the headquarters for an administrative district, all of which play a role in the story. Descriptions of life of the time appear sparingly amidst the dialogue that moves the tale along. Here, the police lieutenant and his assistant head to a cafe for their dinner.

"They walked out, locking the station door...There was a full moon. The bluish light of the sky illuminated the street. They walked in silence, waving and nodding in response to the greetings shouted to them from the families congregated in the doorways. Off in the distance, above the throbbing surf, they could hear the loudspeakers from the outdoor movie--Mexican voices, a woman weeping, background music." (p. 115)

While the author might or might not have intended commentary on gender relations, women are depicted as victims and as manipulative objects of men's desires: a grieving mother, a child-like waif, a voluptuous cafe owner. To be fair, the male characters, except for one, also have very little independent agency, being molded into specific roles by their place in the social hierarchy and their degree of authority over others.

For a glimpse of life in mid-20th century Peru, for the reality of the social divisions between "purebloods" (those presumably of 100% Spanish descent) and everyone else, and for some descriptions of the landscape, this is a good, quick read. The book contains subtle political commentary, as one expects in Vargas Llosa, about the abuses of power and the pure-heartedness of the common people. One summary says it is about the difficult life of an honest man in a corrupt society. Indeed, the lieutenant is a cop who insists on paying for his meals and in the end, he pays for that integrity.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

South Africa: "Kafka's Curse" by Achmat Dangor

After reading this book, I've decided I must read several more books from South Africa, including at least one by a black writer and another by someone who self-identifies as white, and preferably at least one written recently. Kafka's Curse appeared in 1997 and was hailed by some as among the first "post-apartheid" literature, although it deals entirely with apartheid. As with post-Nazi Germany, I think it will take generations for South African writers to wrestle with the realities and pains of their country's past and some of the nation's present, as well.

Dangor writes of a period leading up to 1994 and considers relations between so-called "white" and those considered "colored"* according to the labels created in 1948 by apartheid. A central character begins life as a Muslim and reflects,

"In those days--the old South Africa, you remember?...Reality, then, was exactly what you saw. Nothing more than 'face value'. I was fair, and why not, my grandmother was Dutch. This oppressive country had next-to-Nazis in government, yet had a place, a begrudged place but a place nevertheless, for Jews. Can you believe it? For that eternally persecuted race?
  Because they were white." (p. 33)

To advance in his chosen profession (architecture) and leave the impoverished township to which "non-whites" were restricted, Muslim Omar Khan becomes Jewish Oscar Kahn with the complicity and assistance of his wheeling-dealing father. However, at his mother's death years later, brother Malik shows up to take Omar/Oscar to the funeral and sets in train a series of unmaskings that defy description.

The jacket flap uses the term "magic realism," which is apt for at least portions of the book, but for other parts, assuming it is ONE story and not separate stories about characters with the same names, the more apt term might be screenplay. In sections dealing with a character named Amina, parts of the book reminded me of Robert Altman's 1992 movie The Player.

My bewilderment with continuity and relationships began before I even started the text, as I scrutinized the family trees in the beginning. Lines denoting parentage make it seem that a brother marries his sister. A man whose dates appears with his wife's family and in his own dies in two different years. In the third family depicted, Ibrahim Schroeder marries a woman with the Arabic first name of Rehana, which is certainly possible but struck me as odd for circa 1925.

I am not the only reader who is confused. This review from The New York Times also bemoans the "muddle" of families and loves. The Times's reviewer considers the tales to be separate, each dealing with a metamorphosis, building on the Kafka title. Chapters definitely deal with adaptations that people make to cope with ever-changing circumstances. Throughout, physical violence, psychological abuse or perversion taints human relationships: marriage, parent-child, sibling, lover, employer-employee, and even causal passers-by who are swept into sea while sitting on the embankment in Cape Town.

Kafka's Curse revealed what must be some of the constant stress and feelings of self-loathing with which people had to live during the period of apartheid. The novel also sensitized me to the vastness of the country. A family travels 18 hours by train from Cape Town to Johannesburg; people can tell where you live based on vowel pronunciation; and there are vivid contrasts between the extensive coastline and the dry interior. This book does not deal with contemporary South Africa, the HIV/AIDS crises (one in 10 people carry the virus, with a disproportionate share among Blacks), or any of the political, economic, or social developments since 1994. For those, I will need a more recent work.

* Dangor has just two minor characters in this work who would be considered "Black" under those laws.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Tahiti: "Frangipani" by Célestine Vaite

When I stumbled upon a Tahitian author writing about mother and daughter relations, I headed to the library just as fast as I could. By some lights, Tahiti doesn't qualify for this project since it is still tied to France, but I decided to add it anyway. The novel Frangipani depicts a period in Tahitian life of adjustment to changing rules, especially as they relate to options available to women. 

Célestine Vaite writes of Materena and her daughter Leilani. Materena knows the ancestors and the many, many rules of traditional Tahitian life, including how to greet relatives (whom you invariably encounter whenever you go anywhere), how to conduct Welcome to the World rituals, what to say in the Welcome to Womanhood talk, and more. But she doesn't know why it doesn't snow in Tahiti, how to calculate the diameter of a circle, or how to ask a doctor if an illness is contagious. Materena is "Old Tahiti" and she is raising Leilani in the "New Tahiti," with education and confidence in herself, along with a smidgen of reverence for the old ways.

We watch Leiliani from before birth to about age 20, as she grows within her immediate family with two brothers and in an extended family with innumerable aunties, uncles, and cousins, plus grandmothers, neighbors, and more. When Leiliani is about 16, Materena seeks counsel from the wisest woman she knows, the Virgin Mary, Understanding Woman.

"She's here because she's that close to throwing her daughter into the street!'s not natural for a mother to want to throw her daughter into the street...once linked with the umbilical cord, we're linked for the eternity. But...

  Aue, Virgin Mary, what is the challenge you're giving me? She's pushing me, that girl, she's doing everything for me to. . .to. . .want to shove her clothes and her books in plastic bags and kick her into the street. Then she's going to see where not respecting your mother takes you." (p. 132)

As her daughter matures and seeks her own path to self-fulfillment, Materena looks for another purpose, besides motherhood, and finds it in a non-traditional way -- she becomes a radio host. She says on air,

"I'm so proud to have been born a woman...I'm calling on all the women listening right now to share their stories on the radio for other women to learn something and be inspired. People say, 'I've got nothing to say,' but that's not true. Every single woman has something to say. A story. A story about mistakes, obstacles overcome, discoveries, a story. A story that will help another woman take a step forward. A story that will warn another woman before she takes a step backward. A story to reassure all of us that we are not all alone. . ."  (p. 284)

The book itself is a response to Materena's request for stories. Each chapter is a little story of its own and they string together like the traditional shell necklace given when someone leaves the island.

As for learning about Tahiti, I was astonished to see the extent to which this family relied on imported canned goods from the "Chinese store," rather than local fish or produce. At various online sites, I see this is not unusual for Pacific islands, possibly because steep volcanic hillsides mean little arable land. Less surprising, as it is similar to what I saw when I lived in France, is that Materena's man, Pito, works in a factory and spends his non-working hours hanging with his copains (buddies), drinking, or watching le foot (soccer). This seems perfectly normal to Materena, although teaches her sons how to do useful things at home, including their own laundry after they are 14 and doing things a mother shouldn't have to know about. Perhaps the least surprising thing I read about was the easy acceptance of sex and sexuality. This is consistent with what Margaret Mead told us (although some dispute) about Samoa and what Paul Gauguin depicted about Tahiti 100+ years ago. There are glimpses of coupling in a bar, in a car, in a garden, and elsewhere, with shame associated only with men's adultery (the women in this story were one-man women). Even a person born as George who lives life as Georgette is accepted as she is and incorporated into the women's rituals.  

One more thing. For photographers, the accepted images of Tahiti pretty much all show only a vacation paradise, with nubile women and tattooed, muscular men if there are any people at all. It was extremely hard, even using extensions for France, Australia, or other sites, to find pictures that depict anything like what might be "normal" life for an average-income resident of the island. Even the real estate ads at ".pf" sites show mostly luxurious vacation homes with ocean views, swimming pools, and deluxe amenities. The book depicts a clan that lives with a view of the airport in homes that are described as "fibro shacks" (mobile homes in the U.S.?), with colorful curtains but definitely not on the tourist itinerary. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Poland: "Castorp" by Paweł Huelle

This book is set in Danzig, the name by which Gdansk was known when it was governed by the German Empire in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Castorp depicts a bygone era with slightly rose-colored lenses and it is the "prequel" to Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. The author, Paweł
Huelle describes a city in about 1904 that was still dominated by shipping, as it had been centuries before as part of the Hanseatic League.  Here is the protagonist Hans Castorp arriving after a North Sea and Baltic Sea voyage from his home in Hamburg toward the university where he wants to study the family business of shipbuilding:

"As the Aquarius sailed along the middle of the canal, passing the spire of Danzig Fortress he had no trouble recognising the characteristic ring of fortifications...there was a true revelation awaiting him around the bend of the Mottlau [a river], where the left wall of the waterway was lined with granaries very similar to the Hamburg variety, while on the right there were mediaeval [sic] gateways, towers and the fronts of narrow little tenements, with a huge, squat crane pushing in between them, probably built here in the year Christopher Columbus sailed for the New World." (p.31-32).

We follow shy, self-effacing Hans as he enrolls in the then-brand new Polytechnic Institute, deals with his very odd landlady, and eventually, develops an infatuation with an older, "exotic" woman he sees at a seaside resort. If you've read the Magic Mountain, this last theme will seem familiar. Castorp likes his food, and Huelle describes meals so well that one becomes hungry while reading. He likes Maria Mancini cigars and pursuit of this particular brand is a factor in the action, which is very slow-paced. He enjoys a good porter (beer) with a meal. These themes pre-figure the Castorp who appears in Mann's novel, which is set a few years later (and is several hundred pages longer).

Huelle also briefly touches on social class and relations. Danzig at the time had many ethnic German residents, who looked down on the Poles, who in turn looked down on the Kashubians, whose ancestral lands are to the west and north of the city. Russians, especially Jews, were leaving their homeland, and their presence in the city is also noted. The harbor, of course, has sailors from the world over, a fact Castorp enjoys as he listens to them during his trips to a port tavern.

For me, the real pleasure in the book came from descriptions of the city. Castorp tours on foot and by bicycle in all seasons. We read of autumnal leaves and grey skies; perfumed breezes and bird song in spring; and hot beach sand around the time of the Feast of St. John the Baptist. Castorp views the town hall spire, historic gates and markets; he dines or takes coffee in various cafes; he travels by the tram and takes the boat crossing to a seaside spa. Each action is described closely by Huelle, so we hear, see, smell and almost taste and touch what our hero experiences.

The book, nominally about a man, is also about a place. Neither made it to our era. The Danzig of of 1905 did not survive the World Wars and while it has been rebuilt, it seems to me that part of Huelle's point is that the past of a place cannot be recaptured any more than the life of a man can be saved from the fates.*

* Mann's character leaves the Swiss sanatorium for World War I, and we presume, death in the army.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Uruguay: "The Tree of Red Stars" by Tessa Bridal

What does it take for someone to become a revolutionary?  Tessa Bridal gives us a long look at a young woman's growth from privileged daughter of the landowning class to someone actively protesting the military dictatorship that ran her country from 1968 to 1984. The Tree of Red Stars is a poinsettia -- which can grow to 4 meters (about 13 feet) in its native climate -- but it is also a symbol of protest.

The narrator, Magdalena, perches in a poinsettia tree in front of her house from age 5 onward. From there she and her bosom friend Emilia learn almost everything of importance in their lives. They spot the arrival of Gabriela, who lives in a hillside shack with her children and comes down to the city to collect the cast-offs of the wealthy. They hear about Magda's much older cousins and their plans for the future during a period of 400% plus inflation. They watch the handsome boys--later young men--of the neighborhood as they find (or are forced into) their place in the relatively small society (3.4 million people now in the entire country).

They fear whatever it is that keeps Emilia's mother, Lilita, out late at night and learn that the neighbor Francisca has guns hidden in her house. They befriend Cora, whose parents were saved from the Nazis in Holland and settled in this new land, where they just want to be left alone.

Magda, as a young adult, meets up with Cora again and learns even more about the resistance movement she has covertly observed.

" ...I felt like a person marooned on a desert island, receiving, instead of sending, bottled messages. A whole underlayer of society, of people working to change the world, had been revealed to me. I felt that Gabriela, Lilita, señora Francisca, the students who helped after Che's speech had been trying to tell me something...Everything I'd heard and seen until that moment started falling into place...and I didn't want to just absorb it any more. I wanted to act. I started to understand that if people like me stopped to think about why Gabriela lived as she did, about why a woman like señora Francisca hid guns in her house, about why Lilia's friend Juan was tortured, about why a group of students would be chased by policemen ... if we only stopped long enough to think about such things, perhaps the world would change. I was young enough to think I could change it..." (p. 211-212) 

Magda, for family reasons, had been sent to a school where she learns English and this puts her in a position to work for the U.S. Information Service circa 1970. While there, she learns of the horrors committed by a man whose kidnapping and execution play a central role in the story. This event in the novel is based on a real event (as is a later kidnapping and release of a British official). The man was a sheriff in Richmond, Indiana in the 1950s and was recruited by the CIA and/or FBI to train military and police forces in Latin American countries in torture and "interrogation techniques."

The turning point for Magda from casually political Uruguayan into enraged revolutionary comes when she sees the effects of this man's work. Her reaction is an affirmation of the statement that all politics are personal.

In some ways, this novel depicts a 20th century "Great Game" played out in Latin America between the United States and Soviet Union, while each sought to keep the other from being "the Power" in the region. We read Magda's observations of the U.S. while living in Michigan as an exchange student and her commentary about the death of Salvador Allende in Chile.  We see the tensions of a landowning class that sells its beef and mineral rights to the North and the survival efforts of people as the country is weighted down by international debt and more.

It is also a loving description of daily life, national traditions, historical events and more that shape the Uruguayan culture. This includes everything from how the maid serves tea and the proper way to drink mate (a traditional infusion) to relations between women and men and parents and children. The chapters are like wooden beads, each self-contained as a very short story, but linking together to make a strand that connects generations as Magda searches for justice for her country and for her love.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Morocco: "Secret Son" by Laila Lalami

After reading about wealth in Pakistan, I wondered how ordinary people or poor people viewed those who were in power there. This book provides a bit of an answer.

In Secret Son by Laila Lalami, Youssef El Mekki is raised in near-poverty by his presumably widowed mother. As he enters university, he discovers that his father is, in fact, a quite-alive philanderer of the upper class. Youssef manages to meet his father, Nabil Amrani, at the same time that Nabil learns that his only known child, a 20-year old daughter, is creating her own life in the U.S. Thus, Nabil is casting about for someone to inherit his portion of his family's hospitality empire.

Youssef moves to his father's private apartment. He is at first very uneasy in this world of wealth but becomes accustomed to at least some of the privileges: material goods, the ability to attract young women and take them out (and take them to bed), and more. Yet he longs for his childhood home, his three comrades from the old neighborhood, and his mother's daily presence.

In time, Nabil offers Youssef a ground-level job at a luxury hotel. But Youssef declines because he is still in school.

"'It's for your own good,' [his father] said at last. 'You know as well as I do that your university degree alone won't lead anywhere in this country.'
     Again there was that needless reminder that, despite all the effort he might put into it, his schooling would amount to nothing. Real jobs were for people who went to higher institutes, or engineering school, or medical school--or anywhere abroad. For Youssef, there was only the prospect of a degree and maybe a third-rate job, if he was lucky."

After a year or so of juggling work and school, Youssef is suddenly turned out of the job and the apartment. He returns to the slum and in his despair about losing his father and his future in one blow, he is recruited by the only entity in the community that is trying to bring any kind of change. "The Party" provides a medical clinic, distributes free food, runs a community center with a tea shop and shows movies (followed by religious lectures).  Hatim, leader of "The Party" says,

"Our community's fall into disgrace started with our political leaders...They promised to build schools and hospitals, create jobs for the young, and improve our economy. Of course they did none of that. The years come and go, governments follow one another, but our literacy rate stays the same, our hospitals remain ill equipped, and our economy still depends on agriculture and tourism. Like sheep, our foreign-educated elite want to do whatever France or America wants them to do, without regard for whether it is good for the rest of us...They are a small number of people, those decadent few, but they are the real obstacles to progress."

Hatim demands that Youssef decide his loyalties--to his (deceitful but loving) mother and all she represents, including a suddenly revealed Berber heritage; or to his (corrupt and distant) father and all he represents. Youssef decides, with irreversible consequences.

"It occurred suddenly to Youssef that his innocence was irrelevant. It served no purpose in the overall plot ... He could see clearly now that he had been a small actor in a big production directed by the state."

Youssef likens himself repeatedly to film heroes, yet he realizes finally that scriptwriters are his mother, who controls his life story, and his father, who comes up with plan after plan that suits HIS needs but never considers Youssef's potential as a writer or reporter (his father has connections to an important journalist) or in any role other than "the son" to train to inherit. Hatim, the party leader, works on the plot, too. The right to self-determination never was Youssef's.

In addition to state-level constraints and societal expectations of individual actors, the theme of familial control has recurred in my reading as well. The uncle in Nervous Conditions is assigned a role that he seems to like by birth order and social pressure. The women in Masks create an elaborate charade to continue a family "bloodline."  The terrorist in House of Splendid Isolation acts in part for revenge for family. The grown children in Children of the Jacaranda Tree continue the struggles begun by their parents 30 years earlier, perhaps sometimes against their own preferences for an easier way.

As someone raised in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, when it seemed that except for the small biases imposed on short women, my right to self-determination was nearly limitless, it is important that I learn more about how people succumb to, cope with, or break out of these combined forces of state power, social pressure, and family obligations.  

Monday, December 16, 2013

Zimbabwe: "Nervous Conditions" by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Nervous Conditions is more than a novel. It is an historical artifact, born of the life of the author and her peers growing up in the 1960s and 1970s as Africans in what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. Ms. Dangarembga describes life on a family homestead in the eastern part of the country, near the border with Mozambique. Her descriptions are detailed enough that anthropologists could use the work as an example of field notes. She narrates death and birth rituals, elaborate kinship terminology, how to cook using flat stones around the fire, how children entertained themselves, and methods of familial judgment and control of the extended clan.

The protagonist is Tambudzai, a girl whose life we learn of from the time she is about 5 and through her second year of high school. The tensions of the novel are two-fold. The first lies in Tambu's determination to defy tradition and go to school, as far and as long as she can, despite cultural values that limit formal education to boys. The second is the racism in Rhodesia. In response, some Africans sought the benefits (education, access to employment, even tap water) offered by the colonial powers to "good Africans" who played the game by the whites' rules, even cowering or cringing to appear less than they were. The protagonist LIKES those benefits but realizes the costs, psychologically and physically. She will learn, and love learning, but will never again be happy in the dung-floored, thatched roof homestead where she played happily as a child and survived on a diet mostly of sadza (cooked cornmeal), vegetables, and occasional milk.

Tambudzai's uncle--her father's oldest brother--clings to his traditional, highly respected role as head of the family, which imposes tremendous financial and time burdens. He also incorporates, and somewhat imposes, the new Christian faith that made possible his own education in South Africa and England. His two children, Chido and Nyasha, straddle the tightrope between "African" and "English" after living in England during their grammar-school years.

The societal and family tensions heighten as Nyasha, increasingly analyzes and criticizes the power of the white government and the missionaries. In this, she challenges her father, who is headmaster at a Protestant missionary school. This is a quadruple crime: child challenging elder; female challenging male; person who questions Christianity questioning Christian teaching; and someone who rejects the English system challenging someone who accepts it.

The opening epigraph reminds us"The condition of native is a nervous condition," citing Franz Fanon's study of the negative psychological effects of colonization in The Wretched of the Earth. Affirming the truth of this, two women important in Tambudzai's life succumb to "nervous conditions" that now have DSM-5 codes: depression and bulimia/anorexia, although a white psychiatrist consulted by her relatives asserts that Africans "did not suffer in the way we described" (p.201).

Tambu herself endures but we mourn the fate of the many in Zimbabwe who, since this book appeared in 1988, have continued to suffer. One site I consulted considered this book one of the top dozen novels of Africa. I found it fascinating but it ended too quickly. We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo appeared in May 2013 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This new work might provide the antidote I seek after the abrupt ending of Nervous Conditions.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Bolivia: "Andean Express" by Juan de Recacoechea

It's 1952 and Ricardo has just graduated from high school (note, in January, as that is when summer begins below the equator). He takes the train from La Paz, Bolivia to meet his parents for a beach vacation in Chile. Andean Express is a "film noir" novel of that journey, with deftly drawn characters, beautiful description of the (very) high Andean Plateau on the Bolivian side of the mountains, and cinematic dialogue, plot, and pacing.

The movie references are deliberate, from the title to quips in the text. Ricardo says at  one point that the journey resembles a Billy Wilder comedy. As of 1952, Wilder's films did not yet include Some Like it Hot or The Apartment, although he had made Ninotchka, Double Indemnity, and The Lost Weekend.  If anything, this book combines elements of all three of those film classics.

I cannot discuss the plot without creating spoilers. But the title reference to express deliberately evokes Agatha Christie, and parts of the story are similar to a transcontinental railway journey in one of Dick Francis's books, The Edge.

Descriptions of life of the time appear suddenly and are brief. Ricardo leaves the first class carriage for the second. De Recacoechea writes,

"There was a wide range of odors in second class despite the country air that penetrated the few open windows. Ricardo saw construction workers, contraband dealers, and illegal immigrants..." (p. 40)

The diversity of cast(e) includes the first class passengers, too, who range from a high-society mother travelling with her 18-year old daughter and the much older mine owner the girl has married, to a person introduced as a Franciscan priest who might or might not be travelling with a circus contortionist. We also meet a member of the Bolivian Congress, a nightclub owner, a retired madame, and a one-legged alcoholic. A poker game among the adult men is central to the action, and one is left wondering about who is directing all of these players.

Journey's end is Arica, a port town with regular departures for the U.S. and Europe. Ricardo and his family encounter some of his fellow passengers at a hotel.

"It was high season and the hotel mainly received businessmen from the south of the country, Peruvian and Bolivian tourists, government workers from Santiago, and the occasional military man with wife and children...At the head of the room was the orchestra, which consisted of a pianist with an ample mop of white hair, a violinist with a thin face, and a bored-looking accordionist...The band started up with a Viennese waltz and the conversation flowed pleasantly." (p. 157-158)

South American, European-tinted gentility to the end.

At 160 pages with significant leading between the lines, this makes a very enjoyable winter-by-the-fire read, with glimpses of a Bolivia of a half-a-century ago. For those who might be thinking of young readers, there is one scene that would generate an R rating in a real movie, for explicit sexuality.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Reflections on the voyage so far

Since mid-October, I've read about 20 books, or 10% toward the goal of about 200. So it seems time for a check-in.

I've learned (re-learned) at least five important truths that seem to apply nearly worldwide.

1) Mothers, at least in novels, do darn near everything to keep their families going. This is true in Wild Ginger, Children of the Jacaranda Tree, Guardian of the Word, This Earth of Mankind, Bone China, Masksand others works. Step-mothers, not so much.

2) People of high wealth, at least as described by novelists of unknown wealth, live very insular lives. The high-wealth people in these books have almost no clue about the difficulties of daily living or about the anger and hatred that is often surrounding them. I saw this in Moth Smoke, Born of the Sun, The Unwanted, and Bone China. In these books, the wealthy relied on gates, barbed wire, thugs, guns, and more to preserve their life of  "privilege," with parties, imported goods, and very loose sexual mores (read, unpunished rape, widespread adultery, and the perception that access to prostitutes or gigolos is a sign of luxury).

3) People who are subjected to the power of the wealthy in one regime become tyrants--and often corrupt tyrants (one wonders if there is a non-corrupt tyrant?)--when they are handed any level of power by a new regime. This occurred in Wild GingerChildren of the Jacaranda TreeKrik? Krak!Moth Smoke, and Autumn Quail.  Note that raising the "underclass" to power has been a strategy both of Communism and fundamentalist Islam, not to mention whatever "Papa Doc" was when he took over Haiti.

4) Networks of kinship usually help, but networks of friendship matter most in successful survival. Forming bonds of solidarity mattered to Muronga in Born of the Sun. Extensive networks built by Sundiata in his youth helped him prevail in Guardian of the Word. In The Unwanted, for all of her faults, Nguyen's mother has loyal friends who help her, some with more success than others, even when her own sister tolerates almost unbelievable cruelty.

5) There is widespread fear of "the other." This usually appears in complexities of how cultures treat people who are somehow different from whatever is determined to be the correct or powerful norm. It takes many forms, though. Nguyen in The Unwanted has lighter hair, eyes, and skin tones and is victimized. He still is "better off" than two girls in Nha trang, his town, whose American father(s) were black. Their own mother kicks them.

Bias against dark skin plays a disturbingly important role in Black Gold of the Sun, especially in Eshun's youth in England, and in Potiki and Born of the Sun.  Members of the De Silva clan in Bone China struggle to make a go of it in England, where their many accomplishments and social standing from Sri Lanka count for nothing because of their skin tone.

There are other types of discrimination, too. Sundiata in Guardian of the Word is tormented by his mother's co-wife because of his early lameness (Toko in Potiki is not, though he is also affected by weak legs and a heart defect). In Ghana, Eshun is treated differently because of his Englishness -- he was not Ghana-enough.  Rose in The Beggar Maid keenly feels the socio-economic class differences that separate her from others, even as she herself climbs that ladder through education and effort. Even the differences between people of Lithuanian, Polish and Belorussian language and heritage mattered, in the stories of Colours of the Native Country, because of long-standing animosities and centuries of experience fighting over control over resources.

I'll leave for another time my reflections on the gender politics revealed in these and future novels on my list. Be assured, they are as powerful as anything else. I'm in the middle of Nervous Conditions now, a novel about then-Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In it one of the characters says,

"This business of womanhood is a heavy burden...How could it not be? Aren't we the ones who bear children?...When there are sacrifices to be made, you are the one who has to make them...And these days it is worse, with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other. Aiwa! What will help you, my child, is to learn to carry your burdens with strength."  (p. 16)

While my life has been of ease and privilege in comparison, the advice to learn to carry your burdens with strength--to which I would add learn the strength of your friends--seems sound to me in any culture in any place at any time.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Vietnam: "The Unwanted" by Kien Nguyen

This memoir begins in 1972, with the fifth birthday party for a boy whose mother is a wealthy Vietnamese and whose American father has left. We know from the back cover that Nguyen came to the U.S. He tells us in the afterward that when he completed university and dental school, he began to wrestle with experiences and memories from the dreadful years from 1975 through 1984 when he emigrated. That wrestling resulted in this book, The Unwanted.

In 1975 Nguyen's mother tried to get her family out of the country at the last minute, but a series of circumstances that must be read to appreciate led to disaster on the roof of the U.S. Embassy, just as the North Vietnamese army marched into Saigon.  From there, every step became one of survival.

Nguyen's mother, siblings, and grandparents are "unwanted" because of his mother's entrepreneurial success (including banking) before the take-over by the Communists, and his grandfather's service in the South Vietnamese army. He and his younger brother are additionally "unwanted" by the culture at large and his aunt's family, in particular, because they are "half-breeds."

Several of the scenes in this memoir recall novelized versions of Communism's impact on family life as told in Wild Ginger, down to working at a fish market in bitter weather, often for very small pieces of change. His mother turns to exchanging her personal favors for help for her family, sells her blood to raise funds, and tries to start a little business in textiles, with very difficult consequences for the children when she is caught, and they are alone for many days. The nail-biting scenes at the end, as the family is granted permission to leave but must have several documents signed by petty officials, kept me up way past my bedtime in order to find out how they managed to meet the flight.

This work has led to reflections on several "big lessons" from the reading so far, about which I'll write separately. The short summary, though, is that people can do terrible things when they have unrestrained power over others, especially over others perceived as "different."  Building some kinds of natural restraints into governmental processes, social relations, religious mores, and elsewhere seems to be a major contribution of "civilization."

Saturday, December 7, 2013

New Zealand: "Potiki" by Patricia Grace

Get this book!  It is an antidote to oppression and depression of other colonization stories read so far in this series. Potiki describes strengths of Maori culture, as it was lived in 20th century New Zealand (and one hopes, still is). The outcome of the major drama of the tale affirms that at least some times, right(ness) prevails.

Patricia Grace is, says the book cover, "of Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Toa, and Te Ati Awa descent," and her descriptions and use of language transported this reader to the shore where the family of Roimata and Hemi live, to the meeting house (wharenui) that holds their stories and the communal dining hall (wharekai) where their extended clan gathers for meals.

The editor's note says the name Potiki has dual meanings. The first is a demi-god named Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga and the second is the youngest child. In this tale, a child nicknamed Toko plays play central role as the potiki in both senses, as a special person who hears the stories of the past and foresees the changes in stories to come.

Carvings in the wharenui are visual memories of the past stories, going back centuries, and so are perhaps similar to religious icons in Western European tradition.  The importance of oral tradition and story-telling is emphasized in the entire book, with major clan meetings including storytelling, current affairs given meaning by reference to stories of the past, and children educated by collecting news articles to create a "book" that narrates important events in the family's life.

It is hard to select just a few passages to share as examples of Grace's writing. I've tabbed nearly every page. She reveals different voices and perspectives through several of the narrators we encounter. Here is Hemi, adoptive father of Toko, reflecting on cultural transitions that occurred in his lifetime (roughly since 1945, as the book appeared in 1986).

"Kids were different these days. They wanted knowledge of their own things, their own things first. They were proud and didn't hide their culture, and no one could bullshit them either.

In his day they had been expected to hide things, to pretend they weren't what they where...Funny how you came to see yourself in the mould that others put you in, and you began not to believe in yourself.  You began to believe that you should hide away in the old seaweed like a sand flea, and that all you could do when disturbed was hop about and hope you wouldn't get stood on. But of course you did get stood on."  (p. 65)

The tension in the novel is the desire of someone named Dolman, nicknamed Dollarman by Hemi and his relatives, to get access to the shore by going through the Maori community, even relocating the wharenui and the clan's cemetery. The people want none of that, not for love or money, as the saying goes. Dollarman says, "I really believe that you people...have come a long way..."  and Uncle Stan answers,

"Wrong again. We haven't come a long way at all. All we've done, many of us, is helped you , and people like you, get what you want. And we've been all left out of it in the end. We've helped build a country, all right. Worked in the factories, helped build the roads, helped educate its kids. We've looked after the sick, and we've helped the breweries and the motor firms to make their profits. We've helped export our crayfish and we've sent our songs and dances overseas..." (p. 93-94)

Dollarman is behind an act of arson intended to intimidate Hemi's group. The people put out the fire but the entire wharenui is burned, with the exception of one poupou (standing figure). Toko describes the destruction like this.

"The walls had fallen...taking and changing the tipuna of the people--the loving, warring, singing, talking, shouting, guardians of the night and day. Taking also the patterns belonging to the lives and deaths of people, the stories and histories of people, and the work of hands and minds. Taking the people's place of resting, their place of learning, of discussing, singing, dancing, joy, sorrow, renewal, and whanaungatanga. Taking the world inside which all else may be left behind, as dust is left on shoes beyond the door." (p. 136) 

The next-to-last chapter is called simply, "The Stories," and an omniscient narrator summarizes for us. Toko's older brother has learned the ancient carving art, remaking poupous for a rebuilt wharenui. We read
"The young man did not tell his story in words but gave it to the people as it was, chiselled into shape at the base of the tree.

It was an old story, an ancient story, only now there was a new phase to it, an old story beginning with the seed that is a tree. ...

It was a story that opened and put its seed into the time of remembering. It became a people story through wood, both people and wood being parented by the earth and sky so that the tree and the people are one." (p. 177) 

Toko, as Potiki, has the last word, which is in Maori. I don't trust Google to translate that but I trust that if I understood it, it would make me weep.

Quotations are from Grace, Patricia. 1986. Potiki. Honolulu: University of Hawai'1 Press.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Cuba: "Singing from the Well" by Reinaldo Arenas

Many of the books I get for this project come from the clearance shelf at Half Price Books. Perhaps they are affordable because they are so depressing that no one else wants to read them?  Singing from the Well is a now-recognized classic of Cuban literature, an example of magical realism in the Latin American style, and the first novel of a writer, Reinaldo Arenas, not much honored in his lifetime for his genius. It is, as most reviewers acknowledge, not for the faint of heart.

Arenas, who was born in 1943, wrote the first version of the novel in his early twenties. He revised it after landing in the U.S. on a boat from Mariel in 1980. It is thought to be at least semi-autobiographical. This book is also the first of five that Arenas wrote depicting the "secret history" of his country. Some commentators have said that the novel is an allegory for the Batista regime (overthrown, with Arenas' full participation, in 1959 to put Castro in power).

In this work a boy lives with his mother, grandparents, and an aunt in rural Cuba, in a region frequently shrouded in mist. Subsistence farming is the only way to get by. They all work the corn field; he is charged with rounding up the cattle at milking time and carrying water. The lyrical passages that mark Arenas' style describe the countryside and the boy's interaction with nature. This is not the most lyrical example but it give you some sense of the voice of the boy.

"...I can't see anything. Not even myself. I just squint into the big fog that splits open once in awhile and then closes right back up again, thicker and whiter than ever. And all I can hear is the sound of the birds singing uncertainly and flying off in lord knows what direction... The sound of the birds and Celestino whacking on the trunks of trees. And I don't worry anymore about how long it might take Celestino to write that poetry. Sometimes I don't want him to ever finish. I wish both of us could die and the poetry could keep going on and not ever finish." (p. 126).

Celestino is described as the boy's cousin, but might be his alter ego. We never know for sure. He writes poetry, actually carves it, onto the trunks of trees and later scratches it onto leaves because the grandfather has chopped down all the trees with of his grandson's crazy, suspicious words on them. The boy wishes for death because the brutal grandfather rules the family with a switch, sexually abuses his own daughters and the farm's draft animals, and shows no concern for anyone but himself. He is also the only adult male character in the novel. The neighbors know he is loco and avoid the entire family, further isolating them.

The grandson(s)--the boy and Celestino, who might actually be one person--live for poetry and nature and the pure freedom of being off on their own in the almost magical woods and scrub. They encounter or imagine witches, ghosts of their dead cousins, and real animals, birds and flowers. They build a "castle" of red mud and populate it with kings and queens made of the jars and containers they filch from their grandmother's storeroom. They swim in the river, pick the flowers and watch the clouds. It sounds like an idyll, except for that grandfather.

The grandfather exists to keep existing. His entire focus is on food production.The grandfather severely beats the boy for failing to be attentive enough at herding cattle, weeding corn, or hauling the buckets. His wife and daughters, the boy's mother and aunt, follow suit. They yell at the boy, throw boiling water at him, and commit other forms of emotional and physical abuse. His mother says several times, "I should have died before I was born rather than have a son like you."

In one of the very few examples of human tenderness in the novel, the boy's mother strokes his hair after he falls in the mud while carrying water from the well.  He treasures that memory and lies in the mud again just to recreate it. He so desperately wants nurturing in his life that he cares (repeatedly) for baby birds, either those nesting in the thatch roof of the house or a tree, or one he "rescues" from its nest to bring home and keep in his bed. Suffice it to say, that none of the adults around him notice anything about the boy other than an extra pair of hands to abuse and an extra mouth to feed.

If this is autobiography, then Arenas' departure to attend school in the city must have been an overwhelming relief. He went on to study literature and work in Havana before being condemned for his sexuality and later exiled to the U.S., where he committed suicide in 1990 rather than die from AIDS (with which he had been diagnosed). The 2000 movie Before Night Falls is based on his autobiography of the same title.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Belarus: "Colours of the Native Country: Stories by Byelorussian Writers"

This edited volume of stories translated from Byelorussian appeared in 1972 and spans roughly 1920 to the late 1960s.  It is not available commercially now, although interested readers might be able to request it via Inter-Library Loan. The copy I borrowed came from Harvard U.

The authors of these stories played by the rules in force in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic of their time. The men are all strong, the women virtuous, the children above average. Men work in honest jobs on the railway, as official soldiers against the fascists (Germany in WWII) or later, as guerrilla forces ready to take a stand against the "capitalists" (Western Europe in the 60s). Women are left behind to bear children, toil the fields, grieve, or be killed by the enemy of the moment.

The tales read like fables, with stock characters played by people, not animals, and tidy, moralistic endings. The first story is an actual fable, with a not-so-wise crow and some migrating storks who really know something about arboriculture (the issue is a dying oak tree). A story about soldiers is one of the few with character development: A stolid big fellow reacts quite logically (if passive aggressively) to the continual sharp criticisms of his much smaller, impatient commanding officer. Near-disaster ensues but the big guy triumphs through his dedication to the well-being of the team.

Significant portions of the stories focus on Belarus's natural assets, including several major rivers. In a nation not much larger than the state of Kansas, two of those major rivers are separated by less than 200 km (about 125 miles), yet flow in opposite directions. The Pripyat near the southern border flows eastward to join the Dnieper, on its southward journey to the Black Sea. From roughly the center of the country, not too far from Minsk, the capital, the Neman (also called the Nyoman) starts a journey westward toward Lithuania and ultimately connects Belarus to the Baltic Sea.

The nation also has extensive forests, and several of the stories related directly or indirectly to woods. One of my favorite sections describes the trees the narrator observes along his walk to visit an unusual woman:

"There is a great deal in the autumn wood that interrupts one's quiet flow of thoughts...The leaves of the beautiful birch tree lay scattered around it in the shape of a remarkable fan, shining like tiny gold coins on grass still green...The leaves of the oaks make a soft dark-brown bed under their parent trees....A maple leaf, sparking like a star from out of another universe suddenly appears in front of me on the road...How did it get here? Ah! Over there--a little maple tree..." (p. 45, in a story called "A Plain Woman" by Ivan Shamyakin).

Modern Belarus is described by some as the last hold-out of the Soviet republics. Alexander Lukashenko is the strong man in power (since 1994) and various indexes put the country last among European nations for democracy and personal freedoms. In addition, the southeastern portion of the country remains severely affected by fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The curious might want to check the blog of world-reader John Brookes, describing  The Trace of the Black Wind, his book of choice for Belarus.