Monthly Archives: August 2009

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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Aura– Carlos Fuentes

Aura

You open the thin book. You have heard much about this writer, this giant of Latin American fiction, disciple of Cervantes and Borges….In the first page, you meet the protagonist, historian Felipe Montero. You read further into the story,  you find that you are walking into the old section of the city after seeing an advertisement in a local paper offering 4000 pesos a month plus room and board to edit an old crone’s late husbands memoirs…..wait, You ARE Felipe Montero.

Not having read a novel narrated in second person since Robbe-Grillet, I took readily to being the hero of the story I am reading for a change. Carlos Fuentes novella  Aura, was the start of his named cycle of novels ‘El Mal del Tiempo’ dealing with the problem of time. In an early interview, Fuentes declared that this part of his vast cultural-historical ‘project’ was to examine and negate western linear time..”I want to announce that my concept of time is linear, also cyclical, also eternal returns, or sometimes a spiral…”  Once armed with this and a bit of biographical snippets hinting that Fuentes spent a lot of his life in libraries and has whole rows of cultural history probably committed to his memory, you MAY be right to assume therefore if a mention is made by the narrator that the street number of the decrepit mansion has been crossed out and changed to 815, then a faceless voice tells you in the unlit hallway that you must take 13 steps to the left and then 22 steps up, the numbers probably have symbolic importance.  And all the seeming innocuous details: species of plants, colors of the character’s dress…more than likely point to a subtextual layer,  a bit of delving may point to associations with the ‘White Goddess’ , allusions to Hecate, and Artemis and the tripartite aspect of the moon goddess of birth death and rebirth.

You (Felipe Montero) have already decided that this place and its widow/crone are beyond creepy and weird, but the niece, Aura…well that will be another story… The editing of the old General’s memoirs is gravy, you want to milk this to last long enough to pay for some ‘me time’ later…but there IS the matter of interior lighting, or lack of it…along with the fact that Consuelo, (the ancient widow) is often found kneeling down waving a fist in the air in front of a Christ figure carved in black wood surrounded by votive candles is a bit bewildering, but @ 4000 pesos a month you can put up with some infirmities..

But then you have those dreams, or are they dreams? There was or wasn’t something beheaded, as if in a sacrifice…the senses are gradually less sure of the interiors of this place..That moonlight….You have exchanged the “Gaze” mirada with the crone AND Aura… its as if its a portal between two worlds, and you know you are eternally bound… to find out the rest of the plot by reading… Aura.

What I took Away

The narrative reads like a story by Poe… the characters -other than Felipe of course- are as ethereal as they are of blood and flesh, which is anyway integral to the dual world Fuentes creates. When the jolt to our senses occur, when the realm of the fantastic intrudes on our ‘reality’ we are called to question which world we (Fuentes ‘you’)  are located in, disoriented by the intrusion of another reality. The question of sanity even becomes a matter of perspective!  But then again, it may have only been a nightmare…

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In The Skin Of A Lion– Michael Ondaatje

Skin of Lion

Lured by rumors of Michael Ondaatje’s heady prose and some popular as well as critical success, I had no qualms in grabbing his 1987  In The Skin of a Lion next out of the Nobel Prize candidate stack. There ARE other worthy Canadian candidates, Alice Munro and Margaret Attwood come to mind, but as a sucker for poetic-leaning narrative, I took the bait (putting to rest the lame fishing metaphor..)

Prior to opening this, Michael Ondaatje’s second novel, I was aware that its sequel, The English Patient had won a Booker prize, and also that he is noted to be an accomplished poet. One sentence bio: born in Sri Lanka, he moved first to England and then finally to Canada in1962 where he became a Canadian citizen….

Viscera:
Set in Ontario and primarily Toronto of the 20’s and 30’s the novels characters, (the ‘six stars and a moon’ referenced in the opening authorial aside) are immigrants who have roles to play out in the construction of the city. This aside to the reader is key to the conceit for the narrative’s style:

This is a story a young girl gathers in a car during the early hours of morning….she listens to the man as he picks up and brings together various corners of the story, attempting to carry it all in his arms. And he is tired, sometimes as elliptical as his concentration on the road….

It gives Ondjaate’s narrator a license to freely work and shape his memories, to “suggest order to the chaos” and create a history out of the backwoods immigrant Patrick Lewis’s story. As a young boy, we learn early on that he is acutely aware of minutiae in his surroundings… Nah, too much plot summary for this blog… you can wiki here  if you want it spoiled.

Bones:
The narrator is aware that he is linking together fragments of his memories as the narration occurs. Ondaatje uses a technique of narrative pull-backs, of creating two ‘present’ tenses in the story: time present in the darkness of the car ride, as well as the present tense in each storyworld scene as it occurs. The modal verb, ‘would’ (as in ‘years later he would…)  facilitates this pull-back device and is exploited freely to extend details in the story to bestow historical significance, since  the narrator is aware of his role as a teller of a tale, a choreographer of fate. I found what seems to set this novel apart ,beyond its stylistic elements, is its extreme ontological awareness. (apologies for the pretentious term), the cognition of place of each character in their historical-cultural landscape. So why should you care? Simply because what stands out in this tale, what seems to be a break in the magnetic attraction to doom: that its the opposite of the vast  majority of premises implicit in current literary fiction: do I need to even repeat the litany? inhuman, bleak, absurd, hopelessness and so (not) on. Ondaatje’s characters in The Skin of a Lion actually have an affect in their interaction with their landscape.They are actioners as well as reactioners. They are not all “unhistoric” (my favorite word in the novel):

This is what history means. He came to this county like a torch on fire and he swallowed air as he walked forward and he gave out light. Energy poured through him. That was all he had time for in those years. Language, customs, families, salaries. Patrick’s gift, that arrow into the past, shows him the wealth in himself, how he has been sewn into history.  

You would find (its addicting, this ‘would’)  if you read the novel, references to each character’s ‘horizon’, their centeredness in it at that particular time. Ondaatje’s links this sense of the characters individual horizon’s on a level outside, above the story level itself, to create a vast diorama of some criticial events in the construction of the  Toronto’s, polyglot cultural history. This linking of landscapes is one of the ways the narrator attempts to ‘gather all the corners of the story’.

The elliptical prose can be evocative and atmospheric as well as revel in minutia: it IS gorgeous. The depth perception enabled is impressive: between the close-ups lending a tactile quality, a felt texture to the story’s visible surfaces, to the sudden view from the heights. I at first admitted to a problem with some character dialogue pitched in the same register as the narrative. This especially occurs in exchanges between our hero, Patrick and his two haunting loves, Clara Dickens and Alice Gull. But a quick flip back to the all important open settled matters.

Skin:
In the epigram at the novel’s beginning, we see a translation from an excerpt of the Epic of Gilgamesh: “I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion…” a mention should be made to its connections in the text. I will crucify by oversimplification:  ‘Skin’s’ are a referent to the immigrant’s abilities to assimilate to their new landscape. It  is often all that exists between the self and its survival. It is not only a protector from the elements, it can often be a mask or a means also of escape from threat. The protagonist significantly works at one point for a leather goods manufacturer, and is cutter of raw unprocessed cattle skins.

What I Took Away:
The American novelist, Stanley Elkin once said that a novel either says Yes or it says No. Though doubtful character trajectories abound in the book and it is rampant with its hard scrabble times. The novel’s landscape, though not windswept, can be survivable, as long as one as a sense of their horizon…if You ‘would ‘ read this book.

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The Slynx– Tatyana Tolstaya

Slynx

Benedikt coughed politely to interrupt.

“My life is spiritual”

“In what sense”

“I don’t eat mice”

Having worshipped at the alter of some classic black-humor-slash-absurdist fiction back in the day, I was grinning like I was getting away with something most of time reading Tatyana Tolstaya’s first novel, The Slynx. Little did I suspect when I first dipped into this contemporary Russian writer’s book that at times it would shake out fond memories of Vonnegut, Robbins, and Harris. Though associating their wordplay, sheer inventiveness and bludgeoning irony, these guys played in a much shallower end of the pool than Leo Tolstoy’s great grand niece….

This novel was an on again, off again 14 year project, started when she lived in the USA and taught at Princeton during the glasnost and perestroika years, and finished in 2000.  Though I openly admit to being unread in utopian/dystopian fiction (not even 1984 oh snap), it seems as a given that books belonging to that genre are approached as line item allegories (This_______stands for That________) .. After finishing the last page ofThe Slynx, I searched for and read three online book reviews for the novel (something I normally don’t do) and found substantially three different interpretations of what the various  “this =” in the book….my grin broadened further. 

Mouse Meat.
The narrative is all Free Indirect (basically 1st person point of view that is made to sound like third person) from the protagonist, Benedict. Our 30something hero is a delightfully engaging pragmatic simpleton. In the two centuries after “The Blast” the inhabitant’s staple and currency is mice, which are eaten, made apparel and candles out of, and strings of them are the coin of the realm. Benedikt is a scribe, a copier of decrees ostensibly penned by the Ruler, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. Similar to Clockwork Orange there is a bastardized vocabulary that the Golubchik’s (comrades) use to describe everyday items. Most all Golubchiks have various mutations from radiation, called “Consequences”. There exists a small sub group, or class of those that have survived the Blast, called ‘Oldeners’ who mysteriously do not age, but have avoided the mutations, and are outsiders, dissidents of the post-apocalyptic society. In the remnants of culture the existence of books are just rumors.

Benedikt, though for the most part a happy camper, like all Golubchiks, lives a subsistence level life. He reasons by observing, and this empirical narrative lens lets Tolstaya direct the reader into the storyworld with the same wide eyed wonder. Our hero has been shown to have ‘pudential” some possibility of artistic talent, and unexpectedly marries above his class. His new Father In Law, is the Head Sanitorion, a government official in charge of ‘cleansing’, retrieving books surreptiously kept by Golubchiks. In the background lurking is the titular mythic beast, the Slynx .More detail than this would mess the plot.

Mutant Bones:
Scattered throughout the narrative, the many snippets of poems and allusions to great Russian poets: Pushkin (a looming figure in the novel), Blok and Pasternak serve as artifacts, fossilized bits from a pre Blast culture and are unidentified annotations for the ‘oldener’s introspections. Also, in a sense this is a warped Bildungsroman, as our practical hero has tasted art in the form of reading books and he quests to obtain more. His questing is confused, books for him are a form of living vicarious lives, simply another experience . He seems to only understand what he reads at the literal level. In a scene where he reveals to his oldener friend Nikita Ivaniich, that he has actually read  confiscated books,  Benedikt tries to impress by telling them he knew how “Freedom is made”, he read “Knitting and Plaiting  Sweaters” and it had explained a technique of stitching to create “freedom of movement”. Enlisted and tutored by  Nikita,  Bennedikt carves a wooden statue of Pushkin, and helps erect it at the village crossroads. His mentor has tried to explain Immanuel Kant’s discovery of the categorical imperative:

our inner moral law is inscribed in fiery letters in The Book of Being.. and our life young man, is a quest for this book..and Pushkin knew this!

I wish I could read Russian just to compare Jamey Gambrell’s translated prose with Tolstoya’s original, because the prose sings:

You’re born, you die, you get up, you lie down, you dance at your neighbor’s wedding, or in the morning in the stern raspberry dawn you wake in fright as though somebody hit you with a stick, like you alone remain alive on earth- and the stars are still there, always still there, pale, indistinct, eternal, silent.

What I took away
This was a sheer guilty pleasure to read. There are no brainer referents to modern Russian historical socio-political entities to the futuristic storyworld of The Slynx, but there are many ambiguities where as stated at the outset, if it was a straightforward allegory of this = that, why isn’t there a consensus what “that” is? It could be argued the narrative wandered a bit in a place or two, but with Tolstoya’s ebullient prose, one can only say, by all means..help yourself.

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