Thursday, January 16, 2014

Dominican Republic: "In the Time of the Butterflies" by Julia Alvarez

This 1995 book presents the four Mirabal sisters, three of whom were nicknamed Mariposas (butterflies) in the early days of the revolution that ended Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship in 1961. Although In the Time of the Butterflies is a novel, one of Ms. Alvarez's declared purposes was to show us what life was like under Trujillo, who took power in 1930. This book is also another take on political protest, supplementing my earlier reading of Secret Son, Children of the Jacaranda Tree, Tree of Red Stars, and Krik? Krak!  Here, too, politics is personal. The women portrayed in this novel become involved because they and those they love endure "outrages and depredations" (a term from Secret River, my book for Australia).

The Dominican Republic, as you no doubt know, shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.  Ms. Alvarez begins in 1994, with the visit of a journalist who wants to interview the surviving Mirabal sister, Dedé. Through Dedé's recollections, we have the voices of her sisters Minerva, Patria, and Maria Teresa. Each sister sounds distinct and each segment of the book recounts fictional events from one character's point of view. We see them in youth on the family farm, during early romances and later in marriages. We see them caring for children and for their parents. We see them at worship and in school, at play with cousins at the beach, and hiding from the police.

Even in childhood, the family speaks of Trujillo or anything related to the government where they are certain they will not be overhead. They might whisper together in the farm truck or out in the groves or tobacco field. As far as the regime knows, the Mirabal family is on the right side. The family keeps El Jefe (the Chief's) photo on view, attends the many holidays declared in Trujillo's honor, and strives to avoid censure.

But then things change. The oldest, Minerva, catches the eye of Trujillo, who in true dictator fashion, tries to recruit her to his list of mistresses. She is revolted and with her father's help, leaves a party quickly. In retribution, Trujillo's generals arrest and imprison Señor Mirabal. He knows this is a likely consequence but he holds his daughter's honor dearer than El Jefe's power.

After lobbying for months to secure her father's release, Minerva has the opportunity to attend law school. There she meets and marries a fellow student active in the underground political movements. She participates and through her, two other sisters--Patria and Maria Teresa--and their husbands also begin to help transport and hide weapons and to be part of a network of cells planning a revolution. Thus is the fiction.

Now the fact: These three Mirabal women were involved in the resistance movement and were murdered, along with Rufino de la Cruz, their driver, by Trujillo's forces in 1960. The date of the assassination--November 25--is now the United Nations' International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Trujillo's regime is described in many places. I am not sure anyone actually knows what motivated Minerva, Patria, and Maria Teresa and their husbands. We do know that Trujillo suspended civil liberties, transgressed human rights, permitted rampant corruption, and authorized or even commanded what one website I consulted called "extra-judicial killings." In addition, it is as if he attended something like a "Dictator School" for extra lessons in how create a personality cult, amass wealth, impoverish a country, and compel women to be his mistress. More recent students at this hypothetical school might include the Kim father, son and grandson in North Korea; two Duvaliers in Haiti; and possibly even Mao in China.

Dictators in Latin American countries since the 19th century have been so numerous that there is a genre of fiction called the Latin American Dictator Novel. Along with works by Garcia Marquez and books about Peron in Argentina, this genre includes Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat, about the last days of Trujillo. I am far less interested in Trujillo's end than in the motivations for the people who ended him -- he was assassinated in 1961. Fiction is one way to consider those and provides insights, but I suspect I'm ready for some biography or even autobiography.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Norway and Sweden: "Out Stealing Horses," Per Petterson and "Astrid & Veronika," Linda Olsson

Two countries, twinned on the same landmass. Two books, pendants in fact, to use a metaphor from the arts. One deals with a pair of men; the other with a pair of women. I didn't begin with the intent to treat them together, but the books fell out that way. Astrid & Veronika appeared on the clearance shelf at Half Price Books a few months ago; and Out Stealing Horses was the Per Petterson title available in our public library. Sometimes happenstance leads to neat discoveries. Each book evokes a sense of place extremely vividly and tells the age-old tale of adjusting to the difficult circumstances of life. Each leaves the reader with some sense, but not a complete sense, of closure.

Both of these works have a frame story. Petterson's 2007 work is a classic "coming of age" story set within the larger frame of a voyage/quest as an 67-year old man seeks peace in the forest he hasn't known since boyhood. I could argue that it is the better book because it is more complex. Linda Olsson's 2005 novel, her first, is a "coming to terms" story set within a larger frame of humankind's mutual inter-connectedness, even when we want to deny that we are, in fact, linked with other people. In this book, a woman near 80 reveals her life's secrets to her new, much younger neighbor, and each shares tales of tremendous loss.

In each book, one character moves to a new home intentionally isolated from others, except for one other person across the way or down the road. Each pair of houses--one an hour's drive or so from Oslo (Norway), the other outside of Stockholm (Sweden)--sits on the edge of a forest, near a lake, within a short drive of a village with a general store/gossip center.

Isolation is a plot necessity. Without it Trond, the narrator of Horses, would not have spoken with his nearest neighbor, Lars, and Astrid, the older woman, would not have checked on Veronkia after not seeing her for a few days. By connecting with the other, each unleashes the memories and stories that form a substantial portion of the books.

Each book uses a similar structure, alternating between past and present. Each tells stories from the past from different people's viewpoints. We hear Trond's boyhood neighbor Franz tell the 15-year old Trond some truths about his father. We hear what Veronika's father said to her when they last met. We infer from her words how Astrid coped with her father's mis-use of her when she was a girl. Even Lars, almost mute in Trond's life, has a short narrative about his existence from age 10 to 20, being responsible for the family farm in his older brother's absence.

Descriptions of forest, snow, light, and even the scent of the area abound in both works.

In Horses, which begins in November with Trond meeting his neighbor:

"There had been days and nights of rain and wind and incessant roaring in the pines and the spruce, but now there was absolute stillness in the forest, not a shadow moving, and we stood still, my neighbour and I, staring into the dark." (p. 8)

In A&V, which begins with Veronika's arrival in March, under dark skies:

"She lay still, watching the shade of the ceiling change, her ears alert. The sounds of darkness were faint but familiar. She could hear the snow adjusting to the slowly rising temperature, the wind preparing to pick up, the rustling of small bodies scuttling across the hard crust of snow that had thawed and frozen over again." (p. 11)

Then later that year, in Sweden:

"Summer arrived abruptly...The birch trees went from sheet pale purple through shy green to full summer exuberance in a few days, and the delicate bluebells covered the meadows with a quivering brush of purple. The bird cherry trees blossomed and filled the air with perfume over a few intense days, then the petals fell like snow." (p. 88)

In one of his memories, Trond recounts a horse camping trip he made with his father in the summer of 1948:

"...we made up branches and twigs into two soft beds under the cliff, and it smelled good and strong...We fetched our blankets and lit a bonfire...and sat on each side of the flames to eat...we turned the horses loose. From where we sat by the fire we could only just hear them moving around on the soft forest floor...but we could not see them clearly for it was August now and the evenings were darker." (p. 212-213)

In their own late summer in this century, Astrid and Veronika set off for lingon berries:

"The dark forest gradually thinned as they reached higher ground. Eventually it gave way to tall pines, seemingly nourished only the the white moss that covered their roots. The trunks stretched straight and branchless toward the sky and the air was filled with the smell of resin and pine needles. The moss was dotted with small red berries and they began to pick. The berries grew in clusters...Veronika focused on her task, the sun warm on her back now. (p. 215)

I learned from these books that if you don't live in a city, it is imperative to know how to cook food and possibly heat your home with a wood stove, how to chop the wood and stack it correctly, and how to read weather signs for rain or snow. Living in one's mind also seems important, as these characters face potential days and nights of isolation, and their lives are joyous, at least sometimes, because of their memories of their own lives and of the stories of others they carry with them.