The Last World- Christoph Ransmayr

Nothing retains its form… 

Austrian novelist Christoph Ransmayr is the recipient of at least a dozen European literary awards (including the prestigious Franz Kafka prize in ‘95) as well as holding an Elias Canneti Fellowship. I only picked up his third novel, The Last World, as a follow up to my recent delving into Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as I had otherwise no intention of straying from my reading strictly older classic literature in an effort to ‘fill in the gaps’ of my reading background. I had long wanted to read a Ransmayr work, and understood this particular novel was premised on the roman poet’s epic that was still fresh in my memory… 

A windswept aside:
In my humble yet over privileged opinion, to appreciate the other five or so levels beyond the storyline, a first time reader should NOT read this without having read and have at least a basic understanding of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  A contemporary of Virgil, Ovid’s tour de force condensed greco-roman mythic history into 15  tightly constructed  books retelling the ages of man from creation to the then- contemporary Augustan Empire. The poem has resonated through the ages,  as references to it are found from Shakepeare, Chaucer and Dante to contemporary literature (see review of Cees Nooteboom’s The Following Story in this blog).  Ransmayr has provided an ‘Ovidian Repertory’ in the back of the novel which is helpful to reference the novel’s characters within the frame of the Ur text, but that said, the main mechanisms and structures of the novel are a subtext and they form the sometimes ironic, and often elegiac interplay against its backdrop. The overarching irony of the novel is so big, its easily missed. 

Viscera…
On the plot level it’s a literary detective tale, as the protagonist Cotta, ostensibly attempts to follow the leads to track the banished Roman Poet Ovid to his exiled home on Tomis (modern day Romania on the Black Sea) where he has disappeared. The reader soon realizes that the novel’s Roman Empire is not set in the beginning of the first millennium. The historical identifiers are few,  just enough to unmoor the reader’s (and the story’s) place in time. In Ransmayr’s  text  Ovid manages to burn the manuscript of his epic work upon learning that Augustus issued a decree to banished him, before the public had ever read it.

One of the more interesting skeletons…
On the basic  narrative level the story is immediately captivating. In the John Woods translation the prose is to savor and read aloud. As in Ovid’s text,  Ransmayr  makes extensive use throughout of the rhetorical device of ekphrasis in an attempt to dramatically reveal and define an objects essence through overlaying different mediums. The fictive present is a vague foreground against the backdrop of the ancient past. The resulting sense of historical depth of perspective is enigmatic and lends to the sense of dislocation. 

The text itself is a form of metamorphosis, or transformation. The many transformations of human characters into animals or stone in Ovid’s epic are largely in the form of punishment as deemed fit by the capricious Roman gods. In the novel’s world,  the gods are nowhere to be found, except in the form of grotesques. Ovid’s work of linked mini-epics and tales were all well known to his audience of the time, they understood his many ironic twists and adapted versions of the stories of gods whimsically toying with humankind’s heroic figures. In The Last World, the characters and their stories from the Metamorphoses exist in the quotidian level of Tomi, yet ironically they have no context, they are totally deprived of mythic proportions. Tireseas is the local butcher for example, and he is (as in Ovid’s work) married to Procne. His being a butcher is a pun on the Pythagorus section near the end of the Metamorphosis where he elucidates why the eating animal flesh is metaphysically wrong  as it  negates the possibility of reincarnation and is equated with basic greed… 

Of the sweeping winds of time…
As the tale unfolds the mystery of Nasso’s (derived from the poet’s middle name) disappearance, the readers as well as the protagonist Cotta’s sense of alienation and isolation grows and builds. Cotta’s search for Nasso becomes a quest also for his own identity and its place in ‘his story’. His displacement in this world is as a much a form of exile as the poets. The world of this exile is never stable, it is in a state of constant flux and chaos: nature has gone amok, and somehow the normal cycle of seasons have accelerated and are out of balance. The inhabitants we learn later are all exiles, and are at the mercy of the constant upheaval of the  four elements: Air, Earth, Fire and Water. These are symptomatic of the transformations that are taking place in the storyworld.The cycle is not an eternal one however, this is not just another phase in and endless chain, this is indeed, the Last World, the age of Iron as the last age of the Four Ages of Man as listed in the first book of Ovid’s work. The town of Tomi in the novel is always referred to as  “the city of Iron”. 

Since paradise ( the“golden age of man”) has been irrecoverably lost in time and the place, the question   becomes can it at least be held in the imagination, through the herculean efforts of the artist. Can the names in a reality recorded create a context for the exile, a last refuge, a Last World? There is a prophetic and haunting scene early in book 2 where Cotta is led by Pythagorus through the remote ruins of the poets last stand in the mountain heights of Trachila  and by candlelight finds what he gathers to be the epilogue from The Metamorphoses etched in partially buried stone hidden under a living carpet of slugs: 

I HAVE COMPLETED A WORK
THAT WILL WITHSTAND FIRE
AND IRON
EVEN THE WRATH OF GOD
AND ALL CONSUMING TIME 

 WHENEVER IT WILL
LET DEATH NOW COME
HAVING ONLY MY BODY
WITHIN ITS POWER
AND END MY LIFE  

BUT THROUGH THIS WORK
I WILL LIVE ON AND
LIFT MYSELF HIGH ABOVE THE STARS
AND MY NAME
WILL BE INDESTRUCTIBLE

There is no question Publius Ovidius Naso’s epic monument succeded, while
Ransmayr’s Last World may last a good while in its shadow

 

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Rituals- Cees Nooteboom

Rituals

Man is a sad mammal that combs its hair….

Recently in a lit forum, a poster started a thread bemoaning the lack of “Existential Novelists” in contemporary world literature. “Where are the new Sartres and Camus?”  he asked…
The Dutch Novelist Cees Nooteboom (pronounced Case Note-bom) won the Pegasus Prize for his 1973 novel Rituelen (Rituals in the English version wonderfully rendered by Adrienne Dixon). While I am willing to wager that Nooteboom would not be comfortable in going so far as to call this an ‘existential novel’, it most definitely takes the Big Absence question head on, even having one of the major characters quote the crusty (largely now  absent) author of Nausea repeatedly.

Viscera (aka Good Faith/Bad Faith)
Inni Wintrop our hero wanders Amsterdam in the book’s  three sections, taking place in the 60′s, 50′s and 70′s. We meet him after his wife Zita has left him for an Italian, and he botches a suicide attempt. The novel’s second section looks back at a younger Inni and his fateful encounter with the first of the two characters (or ‘Others’)  that will give the narrative its hinge points: Arnold Taads, one of the more intriguing characters in contemporary literary fiction. The last section’s narrative jumps to the 70′s and is centered around the enigmatic Philip Taads, (unacknowledged) son of Arnold.

Bones (aka Despair and Nausea)
This section was originally intended to be left blank by way of illustration, but I decided that like Inni Wintrop, amusement and distraction is helpful while floating detached above the void that is our existence. The 145 page novel is a condensed three movement work. Nooteboom places the named section Intermezzo first. The third person narrator, though unnamed, relates the story while drawing conclusions and observations in a wry understated voice as a self conscious teller of this tale. The tale teller distances the reader as an observer, which conducts the reader to experience Inni’s story with the same detachment as Inni’s experiences his world;

  
He refused to allow them in, that’s what it boiled down to. He might be sitting in the audience following the action attentively, certainly if the actors were as fascinating as this one, but really to be a part of it was impossible. He remained, even if he felt sympathy for the actor, an onlooker. If you kept silent, the stories would come all by themselves.

After his wife abandons him and his failure to cease existing, inertia is overcome only by gravity, and Inni’s  life somewhat reluctantly rolls along. We are not yet to judge Inni’s unwillingness to be an ‘actor’, to define himself (in the existentialist sense) since it is hinted that one has to allow that Inni is a most willing ‘experiencer’, open to the flux that is the possible. A friend comments to him that he does not so much live, as “allow himself to be distracted”. Time IS a major problem for Inni, more specifically, how he experiences it. As an unengaged reactant, he has little control over the tempo at which he is amused. Since he is open to the whims of chaos and uncertainty, (floating after all, does have its consequences) his attitude to the future is not so much dread as a helpless boredom. In an absurd version of ‘becoming’, Inni’s single ‘ambition’ is to interact, to connect with the sexual feminine. The unnamed narrator associates Inni’s act of climax as a twist on transformation in the spiritual sense. Since this carefully crafted novel explores rituals as a symbol of how three main characters relate to their idea of the world, physically and metaphysically, Inni’s conquests, of his tortured feminine construct is HIS ritual.

The Two Taads: (or East does not meet West)
Meeting Inni as a young man, the Sartre quoting Arnold Taads first trigger’s in our hero the idea of ‘Becoming’, that even the notion that one’s self could change, could transform, was a possibility. Arnold Taads leads a time afflicted monastic existence. He was raised a Catholic but estranged himself from the church after a sojourn into Sartre’s writings.
He has ritualized the basic functions of his existence, his eating sleeping and reading take place to the minute in his self imposed prison of time. Through Arnold Taads, Inni and the reader get a first hand penetrating exploration of one individuals grappling with the question of belief in a Godless universe. In a wonderful scene of dinner conversation between Taads and the Clergyman Monsignor Terrue , the exchange is acutely poignant overcoming its lighthearted tone. Inni distills from this the sense of utter isolation and loneliness of Arnold Taads:

He had discovered from this that a distance can exist between people which expresses such a terrible otherness that anyone witnessing it will almost die of melancholy. Everyone knows these things, but no one has always known them-upright walking creatures of the same species, who moreover use the same language to make it clear to each other that there is an unbridgeable chasm between them.

The last ‘Other’ that Inni’s self is reflected against is Phillip Taads, the estranged son of Arnold Taads who Inni meets by sheer chance when Inni is now a balding 40something dilettante art trader.
Like the father, the son is similarly isolate and lonely, literally a monk in an apartment. Nooteboom works in symbolism of the trinity and transubstantiation, examining the rituals of both Eastern ceremony, and orthodox mysticism in counterpointing the two Taads. Philip is a Japanese student who is a practicing Taoist. Ironically like his father, he embraces the suffering aspect of the self’s coping with the aridity of nonexistence (or existence in a Godless void). The Japanese Ceremony of Tea is compared to the ritual of the Catholic Eucharist. The rituals are an expression of each individual’s belief . They share the idea of  transformation. Wine into Blood is compared with the mixing of the tea in the sacred bowl in the eastern thought. This is ironically compared to Inni’s own ritual of transcendence, his epiphany of memory when he first drank malt whisky with Arnold Taads. For Nooteboom, this will to transform, or transcend as exemplified by the trinity of the Taads and the Monsignor are all in essence an expression of escape. Even to the extent of  equating it with the absurd escape of this world by suicide. Notably Nooteboom’s Rituals refuses to release Inni into the atmosphere of despair and alienation untethered. The loneliness of Father and Son Taads, itself is absurd:

The universe could do quite well without this world, and the world could do quite well without people, things and Inni Wintrop for a while. But unlike Arnold and Philip Taads, he did not mind waiting for events to take their course. After all, it might take another thousand years. He had a first class seat in the auditorium, and the play was by turns horrific, lyrical, comic, tender, cruel and obscene.

What I Took Away (to the background music of  Float On by Modest Mouse)

This novel has been I think rightly referred to as a fable. This maybe be the most thought-provoked-per-page of fiction I have read in recent memory. It contains enough quotable sentences to provide forum signatures for years. The remarkable part is that it manages be profound and penetrating while being accessible and eminently interesting. A lot of this has to do with creating characters as captivating as the protagonist and two major players as potent as the Taads. Certain swedes could do much worse than awarding Cees Nooteboom the holy grail of literary prizes.

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The Green House– Mario Vargas Llosa

 

Greenhouse

The prolific Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is according to many, THE Voice of Latin American literature. He is well known for his political activism and  has a long tenure as a high profile spokesman for Spanish language letters. In 1994 he was the recipient of the prestigious Miguel De Cervantes Prize. His oeuvre spans journalism, fiction, criticism and drama. Having only read his War at the End of the World oh so many years ago, I picked his second novel 1965′s,  The Green House to review. Some critics hold this up as his most important work. Being a glutton for punishment, I opted for it since its also thought of as his most difficult novel.

Viscera.
There is no single protagonist per se, rather there are intertwined narratives focusing around six major characters who are all inhabitants of the Piura region of  northwest Peru. Their story is gradually re-constructed in Llosa’s narrative kaleidoscope which I will visit in Bones. The novel’s plot, which as readers of Traces know by now usually is not summarized, is complicated. Suffice to say its synopsis would be a feat in itself…But since it IS a challenge, here is a rough sketch anyway:
In the rural village of Santa María de Nieva, lives Bonifacia, a young Aruguna Indian who is a nun-in-waiting. She lets two Aruguna Indian girls out of the convent’s enclosed yard to escape, as they were forcibly taken from their jungle huts by soldiers in an attempt to ‘civilize’ them. After she is expelled from the convent one narrative follows her trajectory from Nun to prostitute (as ‘Wildflower’) and her relationships that will affect the five other main characters. Meanwhile another storyline follows the life of Don Anselmo, a stranger who appears one day and endears himself to the townspeople, later he becomes the proprietor of The Green House, a brothel he has built at the edge of town. After a debacle and tragedy (no plot spoiled here) he undergoes a transformation of sorts and becomes a quasi-orphic figure known as ‘the harp player’. Simultaneously related is the story of the fugitive Japanese Trader Fushía and his part in the development of the region against the backdrop of the story of the Lituma, a soldier and local home town favorite who becomes a ‘cop’ and is sent by the corrupt Governor to put a stop to the exploitation by the Rubber traders (who compete with the equally corrupt Governor) of the indigenous Indian tribes. Then we have the side story of Lalita, wife of first Fushía, then Adrían Nieves, who uses the men as they use her. Lastly is the story of the river ‘pilot’ Adrían Nieves, whose actions interrelate with all the above mentioned as he is relied on as a navigator who plies his boat on the jungle rivers, facilitating at different points, both the illegal traders and the soldiers who will later hunt him.

Bones.
The overall structure is a montage that Llosa’s favorite American author Faulkner would have envied. The narrative jumps back and forth chronologically from a myriad of perspectives, and each section’s context only gradually makes sense as the collage is pieced together. Of the two main frames, one is an ongoing reconstruction of the past part the illustrious fugitive Trader Fushía played in his trade with the different jungle tribes, as he later relates to his only trusted fellow trader Don Aquilino , as he gradually fills in gaps in time where Aquilino was not present. Framed within their narrative, Llosa uses a “picture in picture” technique to flashback to dialogue sections in present tense to the actual scenes he is relating, ‘camera shots’ of exchanges of conversation. As if dramatizing, or ‘showing’ while simultaneously telling Fushía’s perspective of the same fictive events to Aquilino. The jumps are frequent and at first hard to follow, but later the repetitions of this device their context becomes apparent and resonate off each other. The second main frame narrative threads interleave the stream of consciousness sections focalized from many different characters, even peripheral minor players. These flashbacks serve to fill in the gaps in the six different stories.

Themes and Leitmotifs:
Llosa sets up dichotomies to function as a dialectics of forces at play in his re-textualizing a portion of Peru’s history. ‘Savage’ vs ‘Civilized’: the jungle is a central metaphor for complexity, disorder, savagery. As a symbol of growth uncontrolled it is also associated with inherent beauty, and its fecundity can not occur without death and decay, the life cycle is dependent on it. Two of the main six characters will suffer disease and ‘rot’. The region itself is at the junction of desert and jungle, at the mercy of the uncontrolled wild growth and the windswept sand that falls at night blown in from the high desert. The theme of the captive, as in enslavement to ‘civilization’ vs the fugitive as exemplified by the the Aruguna people as well as the Traders and soldiers.

To carry the idea of binaries further, the six protagonists can be separated into pairs counterpointing each other in terms of their part as either ‘betrayers’ or as ‘innocents’:

Fushía- exploiter of the native people vs Anselmo- exploiter of women and the weakness of men
Bonifacia- orphan whore vs Sergeant Lituma- ‘whore’ of his government
Lalita- betrayer of her lovers vs Nieves- the innocent scape goat

What I took Away
‘Disorder and early sorrow’ could summarize my reading experience. The reader can become accustomed to the split screen dialogue exchanges and one wishes the interior monologue sections were consolidated. Llosa’s ability to give life to the characters who must carry the story is not in question. The very bitter ironies Llosa develops come off brilliantly: who in Piura are actually the ‘civilized’ and who are ultimately the ‘savages’? Who are the real prostitutes: the ladies in the Green House, or the officials in power that are supposed to impose order? Where this ambitious novel falls short is in its diversity of narrative directions,  its parity in treating the separate stories dilutes its affect. There is no single personal fate or compelling idea rising above the narrative landscape or developed enough to focus Llosa’s collage. I would tend to believe that Bonifacia/Wildflower and Don Anselmo/the harp player are the two figures that Llosa meant to catalyze the story, but their momentum is never allowed to build. In the end, I would be hard pressed to say if the fates of the Piurans mattered enough to be memorable for this reader.

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting–Milan Kundera

Laughter

An all Windswept Bones review..*

Milan Kundera’s forth published book, 1978′s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is or is not a novel..

This and his The Unbearable Lightness of Being are considered his major works, of his ten published books of fiction. He has authored drama, poetry and most noteworthy many books of essays. His last published novel was Ignorance in 2000.

Philip Roth ( who became a friend of Kundera’s) helped introduce his works to US readers in the late 70′s in Penguins “Voices From the Other Europe” series which Roth edited. Pre -internet cross cultural literary discoveries were relegated to a few publishers or quarterlies, Penguin put Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kiš , and Bohumil Hrabal and Kundera on the world literature radar. From this series I had read Kundera’s The Farewell Party (now re-translated as The Farewell Waltz)  and The Joke.

The backdrop for our ‘novel’ up for review here is primarily the events just before and after the 1968 Prague Spring. We already notice something is a bit different by Part 1, entitled, Mama: when we find four of the nineteen  numbered sections are author asides, essay-observations of events and the political micro-climate surrounding the characters in the narrative. Later, even more strangely, the Kundera stand-in narrator sits next to us (without introduction) and ask us what we think about character’s feelings of shame toward  each other. But he doesn’t really direct his question to us, its more voicing his thoughts out loud as a story teller to himself as he works out the direction the story will take. As each Section closes with the end of that story and new characters and story are introduced in the next part it becomes evident that we are being taken gradually further and further away from the confines of the familiar form in each succeeding part. The pattern of intertwined authorial essays on political and historical philosophy continues throughout all seven parts and expands the book’s axis into realms where ‘novels’ customarily don’t tread form wise.

Try as I might to avoid reading novels that  aspire to be literature like one would pack undersized luggage, I often still find myself trying to cram my preconceived notions of what a novel should be into my figurative ‘traditional novel definition’ carry-on bag. Didn’t James famously call the novel that ‘loose baggy monster’? From Lawrence Sterne and Dennis Diderot I should have learned to leave such reader’s prejudices behind altogether…

Which segues into Milan Kundera’s proclamation in his The Art of the Novel, that Tristram Shandy and Jacques the Fatalist are the two greatest novels of the 18th Century. Coincidentally I had just read both last winter, so my memories of them were somewhat retrievable. Kundera was attracted to Shandy’s wonderful self aware endless digressions, (an anti narrative of sorts), and Jacques authorial asides commenting in the present tense on his own story, as exploding the traditional novel form. He commented that he could not believe that “no one [authors of fiction] followed them [Sterne and Diderot]”:

If you feel the tiniest bit obliged to me for what I have just told you, you should be infinitely grateful for what I haven’t said – Diderot’s narrator of Jacques the Fatalist

In Part 4, ‘Lost Letters’ Kundera-author opens with a paragraph informing his readers that:

I calculate that two or three new fictional characters are baptized here on earth every second. That is why I am always hesitant about joining that vast crowd of John The Baptists. But what can I do? After all, my characters need to have names. This time to make clear that the heroine is mine and only mine, I am giving her a name no woman ever before has borne: Tamina. I imagine her as tall and beautiful, thirty three years old, and originally from Prague

In for me the book’s most powerful part, Kundera the narrator- author relates an autobiographical account of his dying father’s coping with aphasia- (loss of ability to speak, to string words together meaningfully) he must interpret the last sentence his father could utter  “Now I know” pointing to a sheet of music as a revelation about why the composer Brahm’s focused on ‘variation themes’ near the end of his life. This to explain and expand in Diderot fashion, the bones of this book:

The book is a novel in the form of variations and follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single unique situation, the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance.

Since the book  has dispensed with the whole plot thing to hold it together in traditional novelistic sense ( though there are ‘plot lines’ in each of the seven section’s individual narratives). The form (if we grant Kundera the narrator his above claim) can be seen as repetitions developing his themes,  as in a late Brahms whatzit. The tableau’s are examined by Kundera the essayist while they are being created. They are meditations on personal/the individual vs cultural history. Kundera views it in terms of repetitions, as cyclical, at least collective European history. The comparisons are made, held up contrasting personal temporal history, vs the ‘public’ history… The line of sight’s of each character’s involvement in their time is one of farsightedness. “Mama” in Part Two can only see a” big pear in the foreground, and in the distance a Russian tank no bigger than a ladybug”.

Scattered in its reflections on the cultural ethos of the time, angles of view include a look at personal relations, there are predominantly male-female relationships in the book, including  the character’s sexual life and politics. Intercourse is a metaphor subtextually. Penetration, subjugation, the psychology of ‘power’ at the individual level, is foregrounded and associated with forceful will- to- power enacted, on the societal level, like in the takeover of the Czech regime by the Russians subsequent to the Prague Spring. The personal level depiction of sexual power politics is often blunt, male dominated and some may find it not to their tastes. As Diderot put it near the end of Jacques the Fatalist:

This chronicle will be either interesting or it won’t, though that’s neither here nor there. My intention was to be true, and in this I have succeeded

Its for each reader to decide.

 

*please refer to other reviews for their usage of ‘Bones’

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The Ghost Writer– Philip Roth

Ghostwriter

Where we can find an example of post modern inter-textual strategies as a common device used in  the reviews found in the World  Lit Blog, Traces is in the review of the Philip Roth/Nathan Zuckerman novel, The Ghost Writer. The reviewer (in his embedded textual self) explores the understanding of digital identity through impersonation of a reviewer for Traces, a Journal of windsweptfiction:

Ghost Written….

The problem I have with Philip Roth, the next writer on our pre-2009 Nobel review agenda is which of the 15 or so critically acclaimed books of his to review? He has won 20+ literary awards and 11 of his novels have won specific awards.

The Ghost Writer was suggested to me as the next novel to read after his gem of a first novella, Goodbye Columbus. TGW is the first novel of the Zuckerman Bound Collection -  which also includes Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson and The Prague Orgy -  sharing the alter ego Jewish American writer, Nathan Zuckerman as the narrator.

Viscera
In the first of the novel’s four sections, entitled Maestro, Nathan Zuckerman narrates his own Portrait of the Artist as a Young man as he reflects back 20 some years in time to the opening setting when as a new literary light he meets his saint, EL Lonoff, after receiving an invitation to the reclusive old writer’s Berkshire farmhouse. The model for Lonoff is reportedly Bernard Malamud, whom Roth met on several occasions and was an avowed admirer of. The master and (hopeful) apprentice carefully sound each other out, one with not much at stake other than a wasted evening, the other with his whole life’s calling hanging on every word. The exchange between the two is Jamesian. Significantly a topic the two discuss is the James short story ‘The Middle Years’ which reflects a similar artist relation to his work dynamic as our narrative. We witness three ‘portraits of the artist’ being painted simultaneously: Lonoff’s by Zuckerman’s imagined-Lonoff’s as well as his own. Lonoff emerges as being a Father figure for the narrator. Roth, painting with all three hands, works in two additional intertwined stories: Zuckerman’s recently strained relation with his own father, and the appearance of Lonoff’s young secretary Amy, who of course, is also a young writer-in-waiting.

Bones
As we navigate away from our plot summary – for one, most other book blogs take care of those duties, and two, I find it boring  and three, any more details and it will destroy The Ghost Writer for you if you have not read it….

TGW themes and modal devices.
A self consciously staged Bildungsroman, the novel more specifically examines of the writer’s process of development. Besides literary influences, the ineluctable  influence on an artist by his milieu. Roth’s Zuckerman does not deny his Jewish American heritage, but in comparing the older Jewish Lonoff to Zuckerman, Roth compares two counterpointed relations of the two artist’s to their work. Zuckerman’s approach to his writing is termed by Lonoff as ‘turbulent’ he  is willing to use his personal as well as his families’ ethnic engendered struggles and past actual incidents in his work even if it means damaging his relationships with his family and his own heritage. The almost ascetic self-restrained Lonoff would not go there, his fiction is disengaged from the messiness of his own personal affairs.

The nature of artistic identity. (the post modern part)… Roth’s Zuckerman dramatizes his own conflict of  identity as a writer– the predicament he finds himself in with his father’s and the jewish communities’ response to his short story manuscript, Higher Education- by converting it into the ‘provisional’ narrative of  the novel’s third section, Femme Fatale…In the novel, two identities, fictional guises coexist, each having claims to the ‘artist’s identity’. What Zuckerman finally does in his transformation, in sheltering an identity within a second one, is what Lonoff does in reality-moving away from his subject, figuratively as well as literally. How distance between the artistic self and its work is created, the form this takes is the difference really between Modernism -Lonoff, and the post modern strategy of Zuckerman..

What I took Away
Its seems one can’t mention Roth without gushing about his prose ( gems like : “In whose sea did Andrea bob now?”) or his ability to modulate the narrative in which ever way he chooses. In looking at my array of six adjectives to summarize a novel, I could not use ‘powerful’ to describe the tension created by the novels conflicts…though there are the poignant moments, overall  it is on the cerebral/literary side of the spectrum. But I would not be embarrassed to resort to beat-to-death-book-blurb:  ‘brilliant’.

 

As the above text exemplifies, the reviewer foregrounds his authorial identity as the writer of his own incoherent review, violating distinctions between blog text and reality…

Karma Chameleon (JM Coetzee)

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No Longer At Ease– Chinua Achebe

Ease

 

Na so dis world be…

Since it has a bearing on my review of Chinua Achebe’s 1960 follow up novel to his monumental first work, Things Fall Apart, I will confess here that my first reaction to reading Thing’s Fall Apart was a shrug of my mind’s shoulders…It struck me then as a tragic story admirably told, but unremarkable. For whatever reason, I had overlooked its subtleties, and Okwonko’s plight did not draw me in. It could have been that I was lulled by the narrative’s calm voice and simple seeming language…

The protagonist of No Longer At Ease, Obi Okwonko is the grandson of  the first novel’s protagonist, Okwonko. The setting has shifted two generations in time and 500 miles away from Okwonkos’ fictional Ibo village of Umuofia to Lagos, Nigeria. It’s third person narrator focused mainly from Obi, unfolds the story in chronological order AFTER the opening chapter. Or to put it another way, the entire narrative is one long flashback after the opening. The first section of the first chapter takes the reader inside a Lagos courtroom where Obi is on trial for bribery, and the third section is a scene where his Ibo kinsmen are holding an emergency meeting of the Umuofia Progressive Union to discuss their position on supporting their ‘prodigal son’. 

Where we then fade back to the Obi Okwonko’s apprenticeship…
Obi ‘has book’, he has been college educated, having been sent to England on a scholarship loan scraped together by the poor townsfolk as part of The Progressive Union, their attempt to give their kinsmen’s son’s and daughter’s a chance for a future in the ever changing society. Obi is outspoken and headstrong, like his grandfather. Attention is made to this by a tribal elder when he returns to his rural village in a hometown-boy-makes-good sort of welcome feast. In a doubly ironic application of biblical scripture that the Ibo repeat as their adherence to the old ways, while also a portent for later events:

“Remark him”, said Odogwu. “He is Oguefi Ogwonko come back. He is Okwonko kpom-kwem, exact, perfect”

Obi’s father cleared his throat in embarrassment. “Dead men do not come back, “ he said.

“I tell you this is Okwonko. As it was in the beginning so it will be in the end.. That is what your religion tell us”

Our hero’s education in the ways of the world of modern Lagos is a painful one. He has taken his degree in English rather than Law against the plans of his Ibo Union. He has widened his cultural perspective and with it, he has developed ideals about how to improve the system of Civil advancement in his Nigeria that is driven by bribery. We get a foretaste of it when a bus he is riding in is pulled over by young military ‘officers’ ostensibly checking the driver’s license. Obi asks the driver why he agreed to pay the bribe, the reply ‘Na so dis world be’…

The novel draws out the complexity of Nigeria’s state of flux, morally, spiritually, and psychologically.  More importantly Achebe manages keep authorial distance in a calm, wise voice…
Obi sees himself as a pioneer for cultural adaptation. His ideals are tested in a city that his Ibo kinsmen have warned him hold temptations too great for him. Achebe does a skillful job of balancing our perspective of the opposing cultural forces at play, examining the very human consequences at the intersection when two culture’s world views misunderstand each other. As in the earlier novel, wrestling is associated subtextually with confrontation on the deeper level, of struggling with old ways. Obi is seen by his clansmen as challenging his chi (personal gods) to personal combat. His clan’s forbearance with him is tested (its important to remember the blood ties here, he is under obligations to meet their expectations as their bright hope), at one point they call him a “Beast O no nation’…. Obi’s moral courage, his dignity of holding to his ideals is challenged by choices he is finally forced to make. He bears the shame and guilt of a betrayer, but he can be only be a betrayer: of either his ideals, or his clan’s tradition.

In moment of epiphany, Obi reflects on his mother and father, and compares his mother as woman who got things done, to his father, who is a man of thought.

These thoughts…seemed to release his spirit. He no longer felt guilt. He, too had died. Beyond death there are no ideals and no humbug, only reality. The impatient idealist says: “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth”. But such a place does not exist. We all stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace.

What I took away.
A new appreciation for an author and his culture’s struggles. Also an opinion that the two novels complement and resonate off each other, increasing understanding of each.  Achebe’s prose mastery is more apparent when comparing TFA’s adaptation to English the simple music in the language of Ibo’s tribal world,  held against the varied dictions he captured in the characters who came from heterogenous backgrounds of the modern colonial Africa of NLAE. One is struck by Achebe’s amazing ear to depict all.
Achebe does not resort to tricks and ploys so often encountered in contemporary literature. No sensory overload, no heaps of ironic aphorisms here. His muted voice moves at the pace of the earth. His controversial essay on Conrad is a Hot Button topic, and no matter which side of the fence your sensibilities lie on this, it should hopefully not influence a certain Swedish academy….

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A Wild Sheep Chase– Haruki Murakami

Sheep

 

Disclaimer to fans: A Wild Sheep Chase is the ONLY novel of Haruki Murakami I have read….

So back off….But seriously, I kept thinking something was missing from the book a day after I had completed reading it…Granted, there were other distractions going on in this narrative to keep my figurative head on a swivel, but besides the engaging storyline, ambiguous animal referents, cool aphorisms etc…It occurred to me and I did a thumb-lift, fanning the pages and there it was: Murakami forgot to name the characters…I felt sheepish.

Murakami by my reckoning, along with Roth, McCarthy and Atwood, is one of the most widely read of the possible 2009 Nobel candidates. Go to any major chain bookseller and you will likely find at least five of his novels in translation. There are those literary brow elevation types that find popularity off-putting, I guess their equation goes: widely read = trite, petty, superficial. Dunno about math, but I think Umberto Ecco manages to carry some weight in both popular and literary camps.

Viscera

A Wild Sheep Chase was first published in Japan in 1982. It was a third novel in the so called Rat Trilogy and the first two have not been translated into English as Murakami felt they are weak efforts. After boiling and simmering it can be reduced to a linear plotted mystery slash adventure slash quest that takes place in Tokyo and the wilds of northern Japan in the 1970′s. The holy grail of the quest is a singular sheep of unknown breed bearing a star shaped mark on its back.

Bones

The first person narrator, the unnamed protagonist, has been recently divorced and suffers from mild boredom to full blown angst. His is a highly sensitized imagination and allows Murakami full freedom in his narrative to range from miniaturist attention in painting details, to opening up into (the too abused term) Magic Realism terrain. Disarming and droll, reading the dialogue parts out loud,  the tone is something I could imagine hearing in personal casual conversation among friends. Its what we lit-crits like to call (to use a highly refined term) Laid Back Cool. Our erstwhile hero has the uncanny ability to frame things in glib generalities (this is even pointed out to him by other characters). As mentioned earlier, there are no proper named characters in the novel. Two peripheral character- friends are referred by a single letter ‘J’. Other than the narrator, the characters have titles: The Rat, The Boss, The Strange Man, The Chauffeur, my girlfriend, The Sheep Professor, The Dolphin Hotel owner and so on… Our disabused hero is in a state of spiritual resignation:

We can if we choose, wonder aimlessly over the continent of the arbitrary. Rootless as some winged seed blown about on a serendipitous spring breeze. Nonetheless, we can at the same breath deny that there is such a thing as coincidence. What’s done is done, what’s yet to be, is clearly yet to be. And so on. In other words, sandwiched as we are between the ‘everything’ that is behind us, and the ‘zero’ beyond us, ours is the ephemeral existence in which there is neither coincidence or possibility. In actual practice, however, distinctions between the two interpretations amount to precious little.

 

Buried under the petty surfaces, the multitude of references to mass consumables (beer, wine, 2 packs of cigs a day),  the icons of popular music, is a sense of a disconnection and isolation. Imagery of solipsism (fancy word meaning the theory that the self can only know its own reality) abounds, a severed whale’s penis in its own glass case, the aquarium images, all speak to each entitie’s  having a self contained reality. Enter the mysterious star-backed sheep into this vacuum. It is only until The Strange Man (functioning as a Mephistopheles of sorts) drops a figurative bomb to our hero that the Sheep’s function on a Uber level is apparent. Its so tempting (at least with my lazy readers mind) to quickly file it under “sheep = allegory for_______” and stow for later ‘use’. Like Kafka (to whom Murakami has openly said is a starting point for his fiction) and like an earlier reviewed Tatyana Tolstaya novel, The Slynx, its incorrect to pin the  ‘allegory’ badge to these works. These associations are ambiguous, and suggestive of multiple meanings. They are totally open to individual interpretations rather than a set of instructions. The associations are not meant to be ‘find the hidden idea/institution/concept puzzles’ put in by the authors. I disagree with one reviewer who has claimed The Sheep stands precisely for Right Wing Evangelical Christians. (I made that last part up- that’s actually what my knee-jerk find the meaning in the symbol reader-self did).

What I found most interesting is the book’s last section that takes part in the remote northern mountains. As our hero and his girlfriend with the portentous ears trek up to the last leg of the quest, their journey up the mountain to the high meadow is like a spiritual passage, they had to pass by the treacherous, windswept ‘dead man’s curve, where they topped out into the peaceful vast mountain meadow. There are several associations with  Shinto in this section: the animism of  ‘the sheepman’,  time is in temporary suspension (the grandfather clock needs winding) and the suggestion of a portal (the bedroom mirror). I am not up on my knowledge of Buddhism, but I am guessing digging in that direction would be fruitful.

What I took away.

First a mention must be made about this translation by Alfred Birnbaum. It is excellent. I have gathered translators of some of his other Englished novels is a mixed bag, and there is a controversy about how much finally was edited out of the English version of his most acclaimed novel,  The Wind Up Bird Chronicle… I have no problems with Murakami’s famous western pop culture references, indeed, without a few place names, the lion’s share of  this story could have taken place in California. Murakami’s narrator’s voice and sensibilities hit close to home, particularly the tone and take of his humor, and his zany more than slightly askew entry points into observations about his culture’s traditions, yet at the same time showing a tenacity in the face of gloom. Gloom IS a direction on Murakami’s compass, but using its magnetic point as a reference we think there are ways around it…. just stay away from those ancient cave openings.

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