Monday, December 29, 2008

The Journey to Dermot Bolger's House

Dermot Bolger's The Journey Home was originally published in 1990 but not in the United States, apparently, until this University of Texas Press edition came out in 2007 (and kudos to UTP for publishing two Stack books in a row, that's more than coincidence). That was indeed something that needed rectifying, as Bolger has written a novel that epitomizes the concerns of contemporary Irish novelists; it's hard to imagine a more explicit rendering of the late 20th century Irish malaise than this one. To me, an American who lives in the Spanish Caribbean, with Irish Catholic ancestry from one parent and a WASP heritage from the other, Irish literature helps both to nurture my Irish identity and to appreciate the larger human condition. The Irish, like the Eastern Europeans, are Europeans who have the kind of rough history that one associates with less insulated parts of the world.

In the present case the central issue is universal. There is an old Ireland, but still only a couple of generations past, still alive in the memory and culture of today's Irish, but increasingly existing only in the collective memory, and then there is today's Ireland, quickly assimilating into the powerful forces of globalization that ravage traditional culture. Ireland's difficult history as an Anglophone country heightens sensitivity to the nihilistic power of "development." Bolger is clear on his emotional resistance to modernity, a reaction familiar to me both from Puerto Ricans and from my years in the Rocky Mountain west, two other wonderful worlds under siege by the present.

The old plazas in the center of Spanish colonial towns in Puerto Rico are largely dead zones today, the small businesses wiped out by the malls outside of town, malls that could just as well be in Minnesota or California or, say, Cork. It's hard to identify some specific, malevolent force driving modernization, Bolger resists the facile temptation to simply identify secular modernity with America (granting he's writing in the late 80s before Europe discovered this easy demonic Other), and he is far from unaware of the pathologies of the Old Country. In fact a striking feature of his work is an underlying insistence that Ireland (and Irish literature) must move forward into the future or risk becoming part of a cottage industry of nostalgia. He wants us to see an Ireland that we don't necessarily want to see.

As in John McGahern's Amongst Women, Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark, and the work of William Trevor and Roddy Doyle, there is anger directed at what the Irish Republicans made of their power to build a nation once they had it, a sense of debts incurred but never repaid. There is a strong sense of displacement such as we find in Anne Enright's The Gathering or the earlier Protestant elegy Langrishe, Go Down by Aiden Higgins. The vehicle here is a noirish story of the corruption of youth that reminds me of the under-rated Waiting for the Healer by Eamonn Sweeney. Bolger's high-concept achievement is to have written a novel that takes these themes to a sort of benchmark conclusion: he is the Irish novelist's Irish novelist.

As an artist Bolger is technically fine although I don't find his prose to be beautiful, his dialogue does not have a wide range (a common fault of didactic writers), and his exposition is unrelieved by humor (unlike so many of the best Irish writers). The structure is very interesting and well-done, the chapters comprised of five consecutive nights of the flight of Hano, the young murderer, narrating the backstory so that events spanning a couple of years are gradually unfolded. The construction is maybe a little too good, the climactic episode of violence has been built up to so well that it is inevitably a bit too predictable; by the end Bolger has lost the power to shock. This is a book for committed devotees of Irish letters, not one to introduce someone to the joys of Irish literature: one submits to an ordeal.

There is a question as to whether the novel is homophobic, as the villain Plunkett forces the young protagonists, Hano and Shay, into vile sexual encounters. This sexual exploitation is emblematic of the betrayal of the Irish working class by the new breed of capitalist roaders, a reasonable plot device, but a mention of Shay's "gay friends" late in the book feels like an acknowledgment by Bolger that he has perhaps gone too far in demonizing Plunkett's sexuality. Meanwhile the relationship between Hano and Shay is plainly homoerotic, a common trope in depictions of young adult men for whom "mates" are sometimes more important than families afflicted with deep generation gaps.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Gertrudis and Sab

I'm not sure where I got this copy of the University of Texas Press omnibus edition of Sab and Autobiography by the 19th century Cuban writer Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda y Arteaga (1814-1873). Occasionally I notice a book that's been on the shelves unread for a while, and that I don't have any clear take on, and add it to the Stack. Part of the way that the Stack (actually it's a shelf, actually it's books between bookends on top of a bookcase) works is that books come up to be read six months or so, I think, after I add them, I can't say exactly why I feel that pre-programming my reading in this way is a good practice but I do. It subtracts some willfulness from the activity, or something like that.

Anyway, what we have here is an anti-slavery novel written by a disaffected, expatriate, upper-class Cuban woman and published in 1840, early enough to be of some historical significance (although it is hardly, as a blurb-writer for the jacket states, "without a doubt one of the most important works of fiction in the nineteenth century," even if we limit our scope to Latin America). In its didacticism and formality it reminds me of W. E. B. DuBois' Dark Princess (1928). We value this kind of politicized cultural artifact more for what it represents, or for the fact that it simply exists, than we do for its purely literary merit.

Not that that is true of all historical writing with a strong social agenda, by any means. I don't think that Uncle Tom's Cabin (published, as the jacket points out, eleven years after Sab) is a great work of literature but it measures up to a lot of more popular fiction of its time. This edition of Sab has a photo of a black man posing in the stocks from 1850s Cuba, but don't look here for any unflinching depiction of the physical brutality of slavery. Rather this is essentially a romantic novel about a noble and competent "mulatto" (the author's word), a cousin in fact of the minor gentry to whom he belongs, and his doomed love for the planter's daughter - that sort of thing. The story does not even end in the violence with which the real-life version inevitably would have; the broken-hearted man just dies of a mysterious something.

Really, for the non-specialist, the only really essential period literature of 19th century slavery are the slave narratives themselves, the English-language ones have been well-excavated (although I'm sure there's more), and there is undoubtedly more than one undiscovered treasure written in Spanish or Portuguese, where there is much more work to be done.

What made this read most interesting to me was the inclusion of Autobiography, a short sketch of the author's life written close in time to Sab. Gertrudis Gomez has many admirable qualities, as we already know from the simple facts that she was appalled by slavery even though she was raised at the top of a slavery society, and that she resisted and in fact escaped arranged marriages and hypocritical respectability, and that she made her way to the literary salons of Europe where she promoted herself and enjoyed some recognition during her own life. But it's the less attractive, more contrary, more damaged side of Gomez that is more interesting to the reader. She has a strong pattern of becoming involved with men and then "discovering" that they are not what they seem: of poor character, manipulative, and false in love, is the basic indictment. She cycles through this pattern enough times that one comes to realize that she is her own issue. The Bronte sisters romanticized this type of alienated woman (and rightly linked her to social inequities of the time), but with Gomez we see her unvarnished, vain and difficult (more like the wonderful real-life Grimke sisters). This awareness (Autobiography is placed before Sab in the book) makes the text much more interesting, both politically and psychologically.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Importance of Being Oscar Wao

Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a gratifying book for several reasons, but the language is the key (I'll get to the passion in a moment). It is written in a variant of "Spanglish," a broad term that denotes any mixing of English and Spanish by bilingual speakers. By and large these have been native Spanish speakers in the English-speaking world, although now it is hard to miss the increasing presence of Spanish in North American English. Sometimes Spanglish is a matter of switching from one language to another; at committee meetings here at the University of Puerto Rico, some topics (grant proposals, say) are naturally handled in English, others (e.g., faculty politics) are obviously to be discussed in Spanish. I have heard students conversing in English and recounting conversations in Spanish: "And so I said, 'Que dices mi amor?' and then she said, 'tu me oyes,'" and so on. More commonly Spanglish drops words, phrases and idioms from one language into conversation in the other, as Diaz does.

In the present book it is thick enough that someone with no Spanish will have some trouble understanding everything that is being said, but for those who can handle it it's a fun read ("Oscar Wao" is how one of Yunior's Dominican buddies pronounces "Oscar Wilde"). Spanglish enjoys the benefit of being able to choose the word, phrase, or idiom from either language that is most appropriate for whatever is being expressed. It is particularly rich in profanity, an advantage that is not lost on Diaz, who writes an idiomatic, personal prose that is designed to convey the "street."

And what is this tragicomic novel about? It is about multiple generations of a Dominican family, from their professional-class origins in Santo Domingo in the early part of the century through their ruination during the Trujillo dictatorship up to their struggling incarnation in contemporary New Jersey, where their talents are slowly bringing them back from not-so-genteel poverty (Tio Rudolpho is a dope fiend, but Oscar and Yunior are aspiring writers and teachers, of English of course). It is a Murakami-like celebration of Anglo fantasy pop culture ("Anglo" rather than "American" because Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is one of the touchstones of the book).

Oscar and Yunior (who narrates) are devotees of fantasy and science fiction. The references to comic books, role-playing games, science fiction movies and the whole gamut of nerd escapism are as thick as the Spanglish, I think it's a good irony that Diaz's unconcern about whether readers will be able to follow him is what makes this a text that might endure. Oscar, the obese, obsessive, permanent-virgin protagonist, finds solace in escape into fantasy. Fantasy has become, more or less, his whole life, and his ultimate downfall. The dragons, monsters, and aliens of the fantasy world are comforting compared to the horrific reality of what one person can do to another in the real world.

Which brings us to the real topic of this novel, which is the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo over the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. The thesis of the book is that Trujillo was such a powerful force of evil that he has placed a "fuku" (a kind of santeria curse) over Oscar's family, over the DR and all Dominicans, maybe even over the United States. This is not a standard-issue indictment of the depredations suffered by Dominicans at the hands of perfidious yanqui. The evil is home-grown, the pathology is deep inside. Diaz has a burning anger about Trujillo, who he has obviously studied for years (a semi-comic device here is the use of footnotes, emphasizing the idea that we are being educated, a distinctively Caribbean Spanish trope of "telling it like it is").

There is a beef against Vargas Llosa, whose Feast of the Goat (that I enjoyed) is soft on Balaguer among other sins. Good writers are not afraid of taking us to the depths, where some good might be done, and the confrontation with the violence above all of wanton injustice is conveyed here with an unflinching rage. The combination of violent content with comic form is effective and deeply satisfying; I think this is the single biggest reason Diaz has received such critical acclaim (by the way the book jacket really does overdo things a bit. Publishers, I observe, are notably desperate these days to sell books).

Also worth mentioning is the treatment of sex and sexuality. Diaz walks a line here: on the one hand he buys into the stereotype of the Caribbean Latino as endlessly and irresistibly oversexed, a distracting theme also for the Cubans. On the other he has split himself into two halves, the hopeless onanistic Oscar, who falls in love with strange women on the bus, and on the other hand the "normal" Yunior, who can't hold his relationship together because he can't keep it in his pants for ten hours. And as in contemporary Cuban literature, so in Diaz sex is both an expression of the power of the powerless and simply something for the disaffected to do.

Diaz's first novel Drown received notices even more glowing than those for Oscar Wao; I'm going to Amazon a copy and add it to the Stack.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On My Third Murakami

I've been keeping this reader's blog since December 2006, not very long ago: I was surprised to realize that I read Haruki Murakami's 1994 masterpiece The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle before then. The novel seemed so fresh in my mind that it was hard to believe that it's been over two years since I read it. Yesterday I finished with After Dark, a lesser work from 2004, so now it's finally time to post about Murakami.

My first experience with Murakami was A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), which I subsequently learned was part of a larger series of novels. A big part of the experience of a North American reader with Murakami is the devotional and slightly obsessive treatment of American popular culture and of the place cultural America occupies in the Japanese social identity (I gather that for his Japanese readers as well he is memorable partially for this reason). Here is a young Japanese writer doing parody/homage to Raymond Chandler and the campiest conventions of noir, by way of leading us across a Pynchonesque townscape of vaguely realized paranoia. Here are young Japanese characters who grew up on Elvis Presley, Motown and The Beatles, but who are hip enough to prefer Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. The extent of exposure to and assimilation of American culture is surprising and raises questions. What sort of statement is Murakami making with this striking leitmotif that runs through all of his work? How does he relate to, say, French philosophers such as Bernard Henri Levy who stir things up by being openly pro-American, or European writers like Gunter Grass or Harold Pinter who exploit an anti-American shibboleth? Intuitively he seems to be expressing both his real affection for a popular culture of which he is indeed a full-fledged member, and the striking degree to which modern Japanese popular culture reflects the consequences of losing the wars of empire, now receding to oblivion in popular memory.

But as to A Wild Sheep Chase itself, I appreciated the improbable and slightly surreal plot about something in an old photograph that draws Big Labowskian attention, and Murakami's fascination with physical isolation, here represented as remote, snow-blanketed mountain towns. The penultimate image of the man in the sheep costume mysteriously moving about in the snow, although slightly Avengersish and Walruslike, finally struck me as a bit twee: pushed it a bit far.

Still I liked the book enough that I thought I'd give a whirl to what was generally reported to be his masterpiece, the 611-page, 1994 novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In that I was not disappointed. If I had only read A Wild Sheep Chase I would have thought of Murakami as a campy satirist with a penchant for upsetting preconceptions. With The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle this writer takes his achievement to another level.
Unemployed and floating away from his working professional wife (maybe being floated away, after all), our hero lives in his uncle's modest but comfortable house in the suburbs, on a quiet (running to silent), sun-bleached cul-du-sac. He is looking for his cat and gets a bit caught up in this landscape that is both fenced in and empty. He starts to explore and meets the only other inhabitant of this particular asteroid, a teenaged girl named May.

There is a recurring theme in Murakami of young women as diffident oracles, seemingly random confidants of slightly older and more floundering men. In W-UBC there are all sorts of women characters, including women possessed of magic powers. The women, maybe, are there to draw something out of the men. The men have lost touch with themselves and with their lives. This brings us back around to the war. There are really good, ambitious passages about a Japanese officer's adventures crossing the disputed Mongolian-Manchurian border in the middle of the desert (another place without people) during the war, and the atrocities that he witnessed there. Eventually this memory of war is too strong to be communally repressed and the young man must seek out an old veteran, on the pretext of one of Murakami's endless maguffins.

But my favorite part of W-UBC is definitely the well. Around the side of one of these close-to-deserted suburban houses is an old dry well, basically a very deep hole under a cover. May shows him the well, and the rope that is used to lower oneself in. It's not just the evocation of withdrawing and containing in order to escape. The subtler experience of the dreamy child, around the back of the garage, staring at that one little space where nobody ever goes, that sense that time stands still so long as we can linger in this microcosm, that is the moment when the quotidian meets the surreal, and Murakami works with the atmospherics of that moment of consciousness. The sense is of a unique effect achieved by art. Such a still surface to be roiled by memories of conquest, torture and war.

Alright, this week I've finished my third Murakami, After Dark (2004). It's the least of the three that I've read, but still worth reading. It does not go in for some of the campy, "postmodern" high-jinks of the earlier Murakami, but it is not without surreal elements. Mari is the smart young woman sitting in a Denny's (a 7-Eleven store is also a setting, and the Alphaville "love hotel"), who sets off on an adventure with a passing acquaintance, Takahashi. Takahashi knows Mari's older sister Eri. Eri is the "pretty one," Mari is the "smart one." But Eri has decided to sleep. She's not in a coma or anything, she seems to have simply made a decision to stay asleep (I thought of Oskar in The Tin Drum). Meanwhile a small number of characters wind in and out of each others' lives during the course of a night. I wrote that the book is slight (191 pages), but it is ultimately a meditation on the repression of young women and I don't think that I've seen the bottom of it. Murakami has a way of evoking a difficult truth under the surface; the use of vagueness is one of his most interesting techniques.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Savage Detectives and the Untamed Writer

I've just finished reading one of the best novels I've seen this year, easily one of the best five novels out of the past fifty or so that I've read. A few months ago when I read By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano I was enormously impressed by the literacy, the political engagement, the psychological insight and significantly by the attention to the pleasure of the reader. Talented and generous writers are rare. So I Amazoned up a copy of The Savage Detectives, the 648-page novel that established his international reputation virtually overnight when it was published in Spanish in 1998.

I read the 2007 English translation by Natasha Wimmer. I do speak and read Spanish fairly well, but ambitious novels with their slang, wordplay and dense vocabulary - lots of lampposts, boat keels, dustballs, grackles, rolling pins and so forth - are the last frontier for the non-native reader. Having said that, the Wimmer translation is delightful and obviously excellent, a serious literary novel in its own right, funny when it should be, disturbing when it should be.

Like the man says in Baby Snakes, what can I say about this marvelous elixer? Let me start with the heart of the matter: this is a novel about poets and about the practice of poetry. It's not about poetry. There are occasional snippets of poems, cited and invented, but these verses are presented without any pretention that they are necessarily good. Some of the most prominent "poems" are actually punning little line drawings of no great originality. There is much (endless) discussion of whether this or that character is a good or a bad poet, this or that poem a good or a bad poem. There are lists (at one point going on for pages) of poets, mostly actual poets. But it is poets, the practice of poetry and the cultural role of poetry that is the subject.
It is a long love prose poem to Spanish-language poetry, the product of an intense love-hate relationship with poetry and literature. A great joke is that poets are memorialized by having abuse heaped upon them (one minor character has a system by which he divides all Mexican poets into two categories: the "queers" and the "fags"). Poetry for these characters is something for which one gives up one's life, something more important than life itself, and the reader plumbs the text in increasing amazed realization that the author has, must have (Bolano died in 2003 at the age of fifty) thrown himself into this passion to bring this crazy testament back to us.

But that makes it all sound so serious. It's a bawdy picaresque about bohemian students, drifters and drunks, oversexed pot-peddling bums and mentally unstable minor literati at the very margins of the publishing industry, people who live in the bottommost depths of obscurity. They hang around cafes in Mexico City (this is a fantastic novel about Mexico City), wander around Europe working as dishwashers and night watchmen, float around South America, move to California with their mothers. They drink a lot, they smoke a lot, they have lots of sex. Years go by. It's really fun to read about. As I said, this is a remarkably generous writer. He's giving us everything he's got.

It's a novel about the written word, the word is more real than reality. Place names, for example, are handled with a lexicographic meticulousness: obviously the name of a place is one of the most important things about it. Oddly enough this cultish devotion to the Logos, self-consciously echoing Cervantes (or more accurately Don Quixote himself) is tied to the theme of authenticity (the defining obsession of the modern poet). Odd, also brilliant: the fictional Arturo Bolano and Ulises Lima as latter-day Quixotes reveal a gnostic, subversive Cervantes, the Quixotic champion of mythic culture vs. modern reality presented as a visionary rather than a fool. Public acknowledgement is corruption, the true artist (and the true philosopher) must defend their obscurity or lose their voice. And modernity, urbanity, secularism are the ultimate enemies of poetry: the heroic poet is Don Quixote, and that's not a windmill at which he is tilting, it's a dragon.

Speaking of bad attitudes, I've thought so far of two people who I feel I need to contact personally. One was Phil Lumsden who went to New College in Sarasota with me in the late 70s. Out of about 300 students we had a pretty good-sized contingent of poets, under the guruship of A. McA. "Mac" Miller, who only brought enough beer for himself to class in his six-pack-sized carrying case (we had to bring our own), an ex-military man with a complicated home life and a taste for Hughesian poetic violence. There were Southern boys who struck manly, racist poses, Bay Area-style hippies whose apartments would be condemned by the health authorities, do-it-yourself punkers who dutifully broke all of their empty beer bottles on the wall, the Russian literature professor was an incomprehensibe fanatic for structuralist theory, one of the English lit professors was on his second student wife and apologized to me for hitting on my girlfriend (he hadn't known she was, he explained to me), the other once had a conversation with me in the dark with his head face-down on his desk (I suspect strong drink), road trips to Tallahassee or Jacksonville to see Kesey, say, or Ferlinghetti (no, Ferlinghetti was a road trip to Buffalo when I was in high school), one night in a bar in Fruitville a drunken man started to recite The Wasteland much to our amazement as we were working through reading the allusions and Pound's editing with Mac - the man said he'd memorized it while he was in the state prison. Later I had to persuade him to get out of the car (of course we had invited him along) when he started to get violent and threaten the girls, I remember seeing him chasing the car in the rearview mirror.

The friendly neighborhood Marxist generally finds the local poets to be dilettantes, decadently apolitical, even frankly antisocial, lost in their cups, penniless moochers. All true. But there is something inevitably subversive about the poetic act, at least there has been since, say, the Industrial Revolution. Bolano recognized that poets in the developed world in the 20th century are crazy, useless, wretched: sacred.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Seamus Deane

Seamus Deane, born in Derry, is a professor of literature at Notre Dame. He is the author of several critical studies of Irish literature (among other scholarly works) and several volumes of poetry. In 1996, at the age of 56, he caused a minor sensation in the world of Irish letters with the publication of his first novel, Reading in the Dark. I confess that when I bought my Vintage paperback copy and added it to the Stack, the title and what I knew of Deane led me to believe that it would be something along the lines of a literary memoir or maybe a novel about a young Irishman reading (in the dark); I had tried to track down a copy of his out-of-print A Short History of Irish Literature (another book Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature is still available).

As it turns out this is not a novel about the sort of young man who reads much, although the protagonist's reading habits are not mentioned. His family definitely wouldn't encourage a lot of time for education, and particularly not about the family past. A twisted past it is, full of violence and betrayals stemming from the Troubles. I won't go into the specifics that hold up the labyrinth of shame and loathing that imprisons the family of the unnamed narrator, the plot (that is, the story of dark deeds of the past slowly and incompletely revealed) is interesting and complex but the real business of the novel is not to entertain us with lurid story but rather to meditate on the costs of collective and individual guilt to generations of families. The young boy himself is set up one day by a sadistic police sergeant who drives him around deliberately making him look like an informer, a casual bit of malice that blights the boy's life for years, but this is far from the worst of it for him and his already-marginalized family. Even when the sergeant returns years later to tearfully apologize the emotional atmosphere barely registers this ripple of contrition. The burdens of the past, and the lies that past forces on the boy's family, are much worse.

For that matter, the deep dark family secrets themselves are never revealed exhaustively. That too would be beside the point, as these people have suffered not from their own decisions but from the dark current of injustice that has maimed not only them, the "guilty" ones, but everyone else in their hopeless, paranoid community. Even the dignity of family loyalty is denied to the exploited and the poor.

The writing, meanwhile, is first-class, sustaining a lyrical tone and keeping the narrative focused on the gradual unravelling of history. It is a novel that does not wander one pace away from the story. Using the boy's relationship with his emotionally shattered mother as a broad, unifying allegory of his Irish Catholic identity makes for elegant symbolism, one of the hardest things to do in a socially-conscious novel. Very satisfying.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Mariama Ba

Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter (original French, Une Si Longue Lettre), 1980, is short, 89 pages: as advertised, it is a letter from Ramatoulaye, a Senegalese schoolteacher living outside of Dakar, to her friend Aissatou, who has gone on as a translator to a life in Europe and the United States. These are not impoverished people, they are professionals with houses, cars, and children in schools, but the reality of extended families, crowded communities and precarious good fortune insures that financially desperate characters are always in the mix.

The real issue here, though, is marriage. This book is a narrative of injustice based on Islam's acceptance of polygamy, something Arab evangelists of Islam had in common with African populations during the spread of Islam across that continent. Ramatoulaye is herself a Muslim with a strong spiritual practice, and her faith gives her the strength to come out into the light of forgiveness, firmness and integrity during her struggles. Ba does not inhabit a simple world. All of the characters are respected, there are some who have progressive ideas, others who are good-hearted, and this compassion extends to the older men and younger women who can make life such a hell for older women in a society where polygamy is accepted.

Aissatou's vengeful mother-in-law orchestrated a second marriage for her husband, the orphaned daughter of his uncle who his mother has raised explicitly for this purpose. Ramatoulaye, years later, essentially loses her husband when he marries one of her daughter's friends after twenty-five years of marriage, and quickly drifts away from the first wife who has had twelve pregnancies, and has nine children, by him. Both women are galvanized by the experience to develop their own lives and characters. The letter is written on the occasion of the death of Ramatoulaye's husband and the revelation that one of her daughters has become pregnant, which perhaps helps to explain the atmosphere of forgiveness and compassion that suffuses the book, although hard-won spiritual strength is clearly driving this narrative.

There is an interesting connection between writing quality and the quality of passion that a writer has. Many African novels that I read are engaging for place, for custom, and for history, but Ba's book stands out as particularly well-written, and one can't help but feel that the precision of the sentences is reflecting the author's passion to communicate the power of the injustice that she has seen and experienced. The heterogeneity of attitudes, opinions, and styles expressed by the various characters defy easy stereotypes. It is a great loss that Ba passed away after writing only two books. This one reveals talent to spare.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Aut Tunc, aut Nunquam

"It's now or never." This epigram from Nunquam sums up Lawrence Durrell's approach to both writing and living. A wondrous childhood in much-beloved India followed by a painful adolescence in much-despised England formed a man ravenous for cultural experience and obsessed with authenticity of feeling. Durrell wandered widely ("peripatetic" is the word), spending the last decades of his life in France, but the eastern Mediterranean, cradle and crossroads of the world, was his great love.

Exiled from Greece to Egypt by WWII, his first marriage breaking under the strain, he produced in 1957-1960 the novels collectively known as The Alexandria Quartet, a gem of bohemian sensibility and psychological style perfectly timed between the Beat 50s and the Psychedelic 60s (neither of which cultural movements Durrell, born in 1912 and the expatriot's expatriot, with little interest in the US, ever had much to do with). If you're going to read Durrell for the first time (lucky you) the Quartet is it. After that, much of his best writing is non-fiction, his writing about Greece is priceless and my personal favorite is Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953), a perfect little book that puts one in the company of about as good an evening's companion as you are likely to find. Also not to be missed are his humorous memoirs of working for the British diplomatic authorities in Greece after the war, Esprit de Corps (1957), Stiff Upper Lip (1958) and Sauve Qui Peut (1966).

So I added to the Stack The Revolt of Aphrodite, a 1974 omnibus edition of his second novel sequence Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970). This came up to be read just in time for our summer travels, a happy circumstance (at Christmas I ended up with Cormac McCarthy, not exactly festive).

To me "bohemian" means as much "worldly" as it does "arty," the timeless sensibility of the citizen of the world. Society at large moves through periods of relative liberality or prudishness, but the true bohemian lives outside of fashion, always creative, always subversive, always a mix of civility and uninhibitedness, in whatever city, in whatever time. Literateness, the ultimate product of true literacy, is prized above all: understanding is the savor of life. The true bohemian is their own life's work. The masterpiece is not a novel or a painting, but a conversation over a drink. This is the appeal of Durrell.

Having said that, The Revolt of Aphrodite is for established Durrell fans like me to move on to. It is not as good as the Quartet. That's hardly damning. The books are well worth reading. Tunc, the first one, is better than Nunquam, which works through the concepts and the business of Durrell's ideas, and thus lacks some of the character and color of the earlier passages.

Felix Charlock is a scientist and engineer by training, interested in the technology of audiology and the nature of speech. Thus are set up two of the major themes here, first the tension between the natural, intuitive artistic sensibility and the controlling, analytic scientific sensibility, and second the nature of memory and of the narratives that we construct to represent our lives and selves to ourselves and others. Charlock (perhaps resonances of Shylock, as in Shakespeare, but easier to feel resonances of Sherlock, as in Holmes) is a typical Durrell character, moving easily among an elite group of professionals and tattered scions of local nobility, starting the evening at the grand but crumbling villa before moving on to dusky bars and brothels, bedding the local talent with seemingly no effort (Durrell is old school so far as the libido is concerned). The city is Athens, later we are in a much more impressionistic Istanbul and much of Nunquam takes place in London.

Athens is true civilization, Turkey Asiatic barbarousness and England European soullessness. There is a good character named Caradoc, a brilliant but erratic architect. Charlock is engaged to record Caradoc's speech at the Parthenon; Hippolyta, a wealthy local, has organized the speech as a social event. I didn't expect Durrell to actually write the speech. This sort of thing is very difficult to do, as when an author has a character who is a great poet or scientist. The usual practice is simply to refer to the character's talents and let the reader imagine the rest. But Durrell gives us quite a brilliant disquisition on architecture, power, and mythology. There is a sense that Durrell wants to present some of his philosophical work. Many of the characters make pronouncements that are well-formed aphorisms.

Charlock becomes an employee of "the firm," a corporate entity, ostensibly mercantile, that has grown into a kind of secret society, controlling the lives of its members. The characters thus have a very literal version of the moral dilemma of integrity and autonomy vs. worldly success. In Nunquam we move on to heavier allegory, as one of the twisted Svengalis of the firm sets the project of constructing an artificial woman, a replica of the beautiful Iolanthe, a Greek woman of the streets who has become a film star and then died tragically. Durrell isn't interested in the science fiction possibilities here. He doesn't bother trying to explain how an artificial woman might be possible. He wants to think about the difference between our idea of a lover, or of an object of desire, and the real person (or the unreal person, for that matter).

As I said, Durrell is old school and it must be said that there is a fair degree of misogyny in the air. The women characters are physically beautiful but not personally so, although here as elsewhere (Justine) Durrell acknowledges women's sexuality with the same frank acceptance as men's. Part of the sense of rough treatment of women characters in Durrell stems from the fact that they fall into sexual liasons just as easily and naturally as the men, but that is perhaps closer to real life after all.
Last word on The Revolt of Aphrodite: if you already know that you like Durrell, you'll enjoy more of the same. First-timers, I refer you to The Alexandria Quartet.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Duodu's Gab Boys

In 1967, ten years after Ghanaian independence and within a year of the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in a military coup in 1966, Cameron Duodu published The Gab Boys (he went on to a long and distinguished career as a journalist and editorialist, most recently criticizing Robert Mugabe's destructive clinging to power in Zimbabwe). Duodu simultaneously represents two currents in West African literature of the time, on the one hand the exploration of cultural conflict and political corruption in post-colonial African society associated with novelists and playwrights such as Chinua Achebe and Ama Ata Aidoo, and on the other hand the optimistic affirmation of African cultural strengths found in poets of the time such as David Diop and Frank Kobina Parks. These themes come together in a very compassionate discussion of the way that individual people, rich and poor, are pushed to compromise themselves as they try to navigate a near-chaotic transitional society.

Unlike a lot of politicized African literature, however, Duodu writes in a comic spirit, and presents a world where young people cannot be prevented from having fun: a celebration of the indestructible joy of youth. Kwasi Asamoa is one of the "gab boys" (the name refers to their expensive gaberdine trousers), local youths who have been educated in the early years of independence, only to find themselves idle as the economy slips into kleptocracy. Both economically marginalized and despised as snobs by the uneducated, they loll about Pusupusu, their rural village, making wisecracks and causing trouble. Eventually the local lawmen devise a plan to drive them away by holding them liable to a tax that these teenagers obviously cannot afford, and Kwasi must run away first to a friend who drives a taxi in Accra and then to a job as a cleaner on the railroad. Trouble with the law, with money, with tough guys and with alcohol dog him as he tries to establish the most basic arrangements of work and shelter.

Tough as this is, Kwasi's narrative is the story of a young man having fun with his friends, with girls, and with discovering the world. The interlude with the taximen on the streets of the big city is particularly good, four men sleeping in one room and working all night are nonetheless having a grand time of it and acting as if they owned the city. Even the death of one of the gab boys in a railway accident is an occasion for a raucous road trip back to Pusupusu, as everyone comes together after various differences and the village elders are forced to admit that they were wrong to try to drive away the youths.

The mechanisms of informal democracy based on familial and tribal loyalty are well-depicted. The ending is unabashedly happy, with the young people learning to understand the traditional village drumming. There is good, sustained attention to the welter of local dialects and overlapping languages, with much discussion of words and rhythms. A most enjoyable book.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Ancient Celtic Tribes of Gaul

I recommend Philip Freeman's books for rigorous scholarship bearing fruit as an entertaining and interesting book. Freeman is the author of St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, as well as The Galatian Language (he does his own translations of the material from Greek, Latin, and various ancient Celtic languages), and several other books drawing on the latest philological and archaeological evidence to cast light on the Gauls and Celts of antiquity.

The present book, The Philosopher and the Druids: A Journey Among the Ancient Celts (2006) is focused on the Gaullic tribes in the first century before Christ, a time of expansion of the Roman Empire and increased contact for the two cultures. An Athenian-educated philosopher named Posidonius undertook a trip deep into tribal territory, recording some of the first known ethnological and cultural notes on the Celts in classical sources. You get the sense that a host who has his enemies' heads hung on the dining room wall might actually be the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with. The equally tough Celtic women are rightly emphasized, with some discussion of their cultish temple communities.

Freeman is scrupulously careful about sticking to the known facts which pays off with a sense of satisfaction that one has got a glimpse of them. The ending is poignant with a discussion of some recognizably Celtic elements found in Tomas O'Crohan's The Islandman (1937) and other early twentieth century Blasket Island sources. I very much enjoyed it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Enright's Gathering

This 2007 Booker Prize winner is maybe a little over-hyped, but that's the only bad thing I'll say about it. Anne Enright's style is both flowing naturalism and clipped impatience, psychological insight is achieved through a fearless candor and character development set on the frame of a very simple story. Veronica Hegarty is the eighth of twelve children of a lower-middle class Dublin family, born across the upwardly-mobile 50s and 60s from Ada and Charlie, the parents who grew up in another world.

It is a story about the anger of a modern Irish woman who sees a family of twelve children as, if not a crime, a towering negligence. Her mother's lack of self-determination, and therefore of responsibility towards her children, is what the daughter cannot forgive, and the central event of the story, now long past, adds a concrete dimension to Ada's guilt even as it reveals her as a victim of classic injustice. Now Veronica is in her late 30s, the wife of a professional man and a mother of two daughters of her own. The death of her brother Liam, next older than her in birth order and her childhood companion, precipitates her own confrontation with her unhappiness and disappointment as she retrieves his body from England and works through the reunion of her mother and the nine remaining siblings for Liam's wake and funeral.

Veronica is thoroughly modern, at least she certainly seems to be, but one is soon struck by how she epitomizes basic themes of twentieth-century Irish life. She is conflicted about and fixated on sex and particularly the sexual nature of the male, her consciousness of the male body around her brings to mind Molly Bloom's awful hatrack. There are even observations of rich and carefree Americans that could have been made thirty years before (I thought of The Quiet Man). A long-ago relationship with an American during her college years still haunts her as she wonders if he was her true love, but as with all such totems of memory this one has more to do with her present dissatisfaction than with anything else. The legacy of Irish history and the legacy of Catholicism cannot be left behind for her generation; she will leave her marriage but she will not leave Dublin or her family, although she is constantly physically acting out escape (her husband is by now used to her simply driving off after a fight).

This book is part of a discernible trend in recent Irish writing, an insistence that the Irish gaze must be turned now forward, a resistance to the traditional Irish trope of a longing backwards for a lost world and a new determination for reinvention. Another example published this year is Dermot Bolger's The Journey Home, also see Diarmaid Ferriter's The Transformation of Ireland (2004), a thorough history of the emergence of Ireland as a modern nation that also documents a forward evolution.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Farrell's Troubles

J. G. Farrell's Troubles (1970)is the first novel in his so-called "Empire Trilogy," followed by The Siege of Krishnapur (1973, Booker Prize winner) and The Singapore Grip (1978). Of course "Troubles" refers to the ongoing violence between Irish republicans and British security forces (the notorious "Black and Tans") in the early 20th century after the Easter Uprising of 1916 and during the subsequent Irish civil war, and then later between Protestant Unionists and the IRA in the middle decades of the century and sporadically until the present day.

Farrell, meanwhile, sees the fall of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in the wider context of the general collapse of the British Empire starting with World War I. Troubles is written from the perspective of these Englishmen whose world is rapidly collapsing, the "native Irish" are here seemingly passive but unmistakably menacing townsfolk, mostly offstage. The central allegory, and a brilliant concept it is, is the Hotel Majestic, a Victorian-era grand hotel on the Irish Sea coast near Wexford, the southeastern coast of Ireland (that is, looking towards England). The hotel is huge and was once magnificent, the scene of generations of memories of the grand old days of Anglo dominance, and the abode of a coterie of elderly ladies who have been there so long that they are part of the legacy.

The building, however, is falling down around their heads, as Edward Spencer, the proprietor, hasn't been able to summon either the money or the will to maintain it for years. Algae-filled swimming pools, handball courts used as pig sties, long-empty rooms full of mouldering furniture, and mysterious recesses known only to malingering, half-mad servants and feral cats: the crumbling old pile is the star of the book. Not that the book isn't filled with excellent human characters, in fact there is a large eccentric cast of people, centered around Major Archer, a veteran of the trenches who wanders out to Ireland at loose ends and drops himself off of the earth by becoming Edward's best friend and installing himself at the Majestic, where he whiles away the weeks playing whist with the "old ladies," as they are invariably called.

Of course this is a world out of time, drifting towards the falls, and things are going to end badly. The genius of the book (and this is one of the best Irish novels I've read, and if you look over this blog you'll see that I've read quite a few) is that it is, page after page, hilarious. It's so funny that one laughs out loud again and again. This humor is what makes the book powerful. It brings out the essence of tragedy, that is that it's the simple foibles and limitations of human nature that slowly lead us into inevitable moments of violent upheaval. The imperial madness of the English, defiantly asserting their cultural prerogatives against the background of a subjugated but overwhelming local culture that is only dimly understood, is brilliantly rendered.

I've Amazoned up a copy of The Siege of Krishnapur and will put it in the Stack.

Monday, May 26, 2008

O'Connor's Sea Story

Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea (2002)is part thriller, part historical fiction. Principally he has researched the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, and the emigration to America that happened at that time. In the early 1840s the population of Ireland was around four million, as it is today. By the later part of the decade it was less than half that, after somewhere around a million deaths and a similar number of emigrants, most to North America.

The phrase "potato famine" suggests that the catastrophe was due to natural causes but as O'Connor rightly emphasizes this was very much a human-caused event, tied directly to the feudal system of English lords and Irish tenants imposed on that society after Cromwell's depredations in the late 17th century. With food available, those without the money to buy it were allowed to starve, even as price-gouging merchants continued to display food in shop windows and the landed gentry suffered no interruption of luxury. In fact, the large textile fortunes of 19th century Ireland (Blarney for example) were established after the native Irish had been forced off of the land by deliberate rent increases to free former small farmlands for grazing. The human cost of this included trenches where tens of thousands of bodies were buried in mass graves, as England stood by with much lampooning of the supposedly inferior Irish in the London press. The famine was also arguably the fatal blow delivered to the Gaelic language, which was still widely spoken in the early 19th century.

Against this background O'Connor has spun a period drama involving the passengers on a refugee ship bound for New York in 1847, including Lord Kingscourt, heir to a bankrupt estate in Connemara, his family, and a number of Irish from the same place travelling in steerage, where passengers are dying rapidly of disease and starvation. David Merridith, Lord Kingscourt, is basically a refugee himself, a terribly damaged man with a morally compromised past, but a decent person. His stalker, Pius Mulvey, a dispossessed former tenant now the veteran of a life of crime and murder, is much the same. The aim of the novel is to show how an inherently corrupt system made monsters of these two.

Having said all that, I must add that I was inclined to review this book as a fine page-turning entertainment, which it is, with lots of action and finely-drawn characters. The main town near the estate is Clifden, where I found people named Lowry, the name of my great-grandmother Sabina, one of my ancestors out of Galway and Mayo (others were Eliots and of course O'Malleys). This one is good enough that I'm going to send a copy to Leslie Lee, a family friend who researches Irish history.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Buchi Emecheta

Some friends who had lived in Nigeria for a number of years extolled the writings of the expatriate Buchi Emecheta, and reading The Slave Girl (1977) I was not disappointed by their build-up. It is one of a series of novels on the theme of the subjugation of women in African society that she wrote in the 1970s (others are Second-Class Citizen, 1974, The Bride Price, 1976, and The Joys of Motherhood, 1979).

The story is about a seven-year-old Ibo girl who is sold into slavery by her brother after her parents die, in the early 20th century as Portuguese and British colonialism works through its endgame in upriver Nigeria. The writing is clear and direct, an omniscient narrator laying out the facts of the situation in a compassionate but unsentimental voice. It is not a horrorshow, although the slaves of a wealthy merchant woman are beaten and sexually abused. There is much humanity and Ojebeta returns to her home village after nine years in bondage, still a young woman and now determined to have as much influence in her own destiny as possible. She is like a Jane Austin character who happens to be an African from "the bush" with tribal scarifications on her face.

The pacing is excellent and I didn't put the 179-page novel down once I got in to it. It is didactic in a good way, with loads of information for non-African readers about village life along the river, the lingering influence of exploitative Europeans, class and tribal divisions among the Nigerians, and tribal customs around women and marriage. The critical appraisal of the status of women is aimed at Africans and non-Africans alike.

A long time ago in a "Philosophy Through Literature" course I assigned a novel by Tsi Tsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (1988), reputedly the first novel to be published by a Zimbabwean woman. It too deals with the stresses on young African women who have even the slimmest hope of economic and social advancement. The protagonist's struggle with an eating disorder was a good bridge between an account of post-colonial Africans and my mostly affluent students in Boulder.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Bolaño's Dark Night

By Night in Chile (2000) is one of Roberto Bolaño's last works, but it is the first of his novels to be translated into English (by Chris Andrews in 2003). His novel The Savage Detectives (1998), widely regarded as a masterpiece, has been published in an English translation by Natasha Wimmer in 2007 and I can tell you that it is going into the Stack as soon as Amazon sends me my copy.

When people talk about "Latin American literature" of course the first thing people think of is the "magical realism" of the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Guatemalan Miguel Asturias, etc., but Bolano is closer to the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa (Conversation in the Cathedral, 1969) or the Mexican Carlos Fuentes (Terra Nostra, 1975), a political writer whose canvas is modern intellectual life in the Spanish-speaking world (and a Chilean hybrid of these forms that is worth reading is House of the Spirits (1982) by Allende's niece Isabel Allende). His prose style certainly is exceptional, dreamy and impressionistic but highly literate and allusive, the easy fluency with high culture that the best Spanish artists make to look easy (one thinks of the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, the paradigm, or the contemporary Spaniard Javier Marias).

It's hard to imagine a more politically engaged novel than By Night in Chile. The protagonist, a dying priest named Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, relates a deathbed confession of horrific tragedy, but a tragedy that unfolds across his adult life, culminating in his complicity with murder and torture under the Pinochet regime. The blandly sinister agents of Opus Dei who suborn him send him off on a junket to Europe, ostensibly to research methods for preserving cathedrals. His findings are a bit more than just allegorical, as the priests there are using falcons to kill off the pigeons who defile the church. At one point a priest's falcon kills the dove who has been symbolically released at the beginning of a charity race. The priests are a bit chagrined in the face of the angry townspeople, but not too much. They apologize and serenely go on their way.

This episode foreshadows Father Urrutia's attending the legendary funeral of Pablo Neruda, just days after the military takeover of Chile following the death of Allende. There are hostile mutterings and even some shouting as Father Urrutia and his companion, a well-known conservative critic, are spotted in the throng, but the two men barely notice that these demonstrations of anger may be directed at them, and proceed along in their self-absorbed way. After all, they were on personal terms with Neruda, who used to spend weekends with them in the country.

Father Urrutia remembers Neruda as part of his literary life, his other acquaintance with greatness being Ernst Junger, famous for his glorification of war and rejection of democracy, although he also famously declined to participate in the Third Reich. Father Urrutia, who sees himself as a conservative, nonetheless has the intellectual gifts to see the corruption of Chilean society (he is recruited to teach a short course in Marxism to the Junta itself, only vaguely sensing that by assigning a Chilean woman's textbook on the subject he is condemning her to death. "Is she good-looking?" one of the officers asks. "Yes."), if only he could tear himself away from his fixation on high literature and see through his own privileged status as a conservative priest.

With this novel Bolano, who died in 2003 at the age of 50, fulfills the highest function of the novelist: no Chilean writer (no writer) who reads this novel will ever be able to look away from the historical crimes of his own time, his own bourgeoisie.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dolores Pessl

I put Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics in the Stack on the basis of rave reviews, and that it sounded like my kind of thing. And so it is, including literally scores of references to books literary and otherwise. The 36 chapter headings are names of canonical literary works, only one of which is fictitious (The Nocturnal Conspiracy, by Smoke Wyannoch Harvey), while the text is liberally sprinkled, Borges-style, with references to scholarly works (L. L. MacCauley's 750-page Intelligensia [1991]), B-list novels (Circe Kensington, The Crown Jewels of Rochester de Wheeling [1990]), and arcana running to the True Crime genre (Paul D. Russell's terrifying What You Don't Know About White Slavery [1996]), generally fictitious. The novel is crackling with the passion of brilliant young minds infatuated with learning, a celebration of the intoxication of liberal arts education - I loved it.

It also has a large debt to Nabokov, one can think of it as a kind of Lolita written from the point of view of the nymph, although Blue Van Meer the teenage heroine, like the tough guy shamus who never takes money, never has sex with anybody, something that can not be said of a single one of her friends and acquaintances, adult or otherwise. The real theme of Lolita, like all of Nabokov's novels (there are also prominent references to Ada, or Ardor, Nabokov's most ambitious novel, and the supremely disturbing Laughter in the Dark), is callous injustice, as Humbert Humbert steals Lolita's future along with her innocence (I was pleased to find this interpretation also in Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, another great story about young women empowering themselves through books).

The first fifty pages of Special Topics is the (slightly slow-moving) account of Blue's childhood with her peripatetic, widowed academic father, a scholar of revolution and revolt, who drags her across a Lolitian landscape of malled middle America to an endless series of obscure branch campuses (the University of New Mexico at Okush). If there is a serious side to what is a fun and funny novel, it is the theme of coming to realize that your father isn't Superman, a fact one has to grieve, and that one is going to have to move on to other things and other men. In this case we have a full-blown, grandiose, self-pitying teenage fantasy along those lines, as Dad slowly emerges as an essentially angry character, not what he seems, and even something of a monster, and Blue's transition to college and adulthood is literally his abandonment of her.

Along about the middle of this 514-page novel we also find ourselves in the middle of a fine, page-turning murder mystery, on which frame we are treated to a big helping of idiomatic, post-ironic, slacker teenage culture critique, commuting between CSI:Miami and Moliere, between K-Mart and La Scala.

I have to mention here another novel with uncanny similarities (no, not that uncanny!), and also well worth reading, Donna Tartt's The Secret History (1992). Both novels are written by young Southern women who have gone up North for exceptionally fancy educations, Quentin Compson-style, both are centered on tight-knit groups of highly charismatic and transgressive student friends (Tartt's is the dangerously precocious Ancient Greek class at a Bennington College stand-in), both use the plot devices of murder and suspicion thereof, both are ultimately moralistic Bildungsromans, both are very hip and funny, both are very, very good. I pray for nothing but success for both of these writers in the future (Tartt has written a well-received second novel).

Monday, March 31, 2008

Christopher Nolan

I recommend Christopher Nolan's The Banyan Tree to any reader who, like me, reads Irish literature for the pleasure of the Irish way with words. It's also quite a rewarding book if one wants to learn more about Irish life. But he does have a rare way with words, and his style of loosening up the denotative function, broadening it by feel, until the meaning is connotative, apparently owes much to his familiarity with Gaelic. His characters are modern people with roots in old country life; Gaelic is to them something that they remember from their childhoods, the way they remember nursery rhymes. The basic story is a sad family saga, the accounting of an old woman waiting for the return of her youngest son who she imagines will take over the old family farm, a fantasy that no one else believes. However there is no sentimentalism here, just a respectful rendering of an old soul fueled for decades by the memory of a long-dead husband and the good times she had with him, even as the reader is permitted to note much that Minnie O'Brien does not.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Hard Boiled Irish

As my St. Patrick's Day contribution I want to write about a few recent novels that I would describe as Hard Boiled Irish. Hard Boiled Irish can be variously seen as the fictional counterpart to the Harrowing Autobiography, an enduring Irish specialty, or perhaps as a reflection of the less heroic or romantic context of late 20th century Irish politics. Certainly there is a finely-honed noir sensibility after a century of literature engaged with The Troubles. The Irishman as literary rebel has always coexisted with the Irishman as social rebel, and both types draw on deeper cultural elements that create alternate possibilities to Anglicization.

I have to start by mentioning two books from the big bad 1950s, first Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy, his memoir of his incarceration after getting involved with the IRA in Liverpool in 1939 at the age of 16 (he had gone there looking for work). The reputation of the book is that it is another representative of the grim history of English depredation, but the book is far from didactic or even political. The teenager is briefly held at a hard prison where inmates are segregated by religion and IRA prisoners are hazed, and he shows the intense social pressure to make sacrifices from more hard-core nationalist prisoners. He is eventually sent to a rural reform school for boys.

But the surprise of the book is the abiding positive spirit that the young Behan displays. He is also unfailingly compassionate in his descriptions of people. Most of all, he has a fine gaelic-inflected patois. Listening to the speech of a tough-guy Paddy circa 1940 is one of the pleasures of reading the book. At the Irish Writer's Museum I saw postcards that Behan had sent to his brother in ireland while triumphantly touring the States (he's in LA doing the town with Harpo Marx). His repeated insistence that there's no reason to worry, he's not losing his touch with the folks, does not seem ironic even as he using his Irish gift of language to cut a swath through North America.

Borstal Boy was published in 1958, and the other book that I would mention from that time is J. P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man, originally published in 1955. Sebastian Dangerfield is an Irish-American studying at Trinity College, although we join him pretty much at the end of the line when it has been so long since he applied himself that he can no longer pass the exams. He can still brawl in taverns, run out on his rent, and "put the boot in" his long-suffering girlfriend as he anticipates a big inheritance from his rich, dying father back in America. The novel is a wonderful (and very dark) satire, examining among other things stereotypes about Irish identity (and the IRA is nowhere in sight).

The latter-day Hard Boiled Irish I want to mention aren't as funny as the 50s classics. They are, however, representative of a very sturdy and strong root of noir in contemporary Irish fiction. Brian Moore is a Belfast-born novelist who has spent most of his career in North America writing a long series of novels on Irish and Catholic themes, the best-known one might be The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. His short novel Lies of Silence (1990) is a thriller, a tense hostage situation as the IRA attempts to force a man to drive a car bomb in Belfast. A pointed message of the book is the extent to which nationalist fighting in Northern Ireland has become the province of an impoverished, marginalized few; the prosperous professionals in middle-class residential areas mostly couldn't care less about this old vendetta. The setup of the IRA men spending the night with the hostage bourgeois is cinematic.

Grittier (and not an IRA novel) is Eamonn Sweeney's Waiting for the Healer (1997). The Healer is a glass made up of all the porter left in the bottoms of glasses at the pub, given in the morning to a local alcoholic in exchange for, say, fetching the paper. In the dirt-poor ghetto where Paul Kelly is from the old men are in the square waiting for the healer early in the morning. He has fled this bleak world for England where he is successfully managing restaurants. The structure here is classic: Kelly must face down both his own demons and the dark forces of his homeland after his brother is murdered.

Finally I would mention Sean O'Reilly's The Swing of Things (2004), a more sympathetic IRA novel that nonetheless also sees the "hard men" as anachronistic, corrupt, and doomed. O'Reilly is the most ambitious of these writers in terms of Irish wordplay, and his conceit of a man with a history of involvement with the IRA in the North trying to save himself by attending college (and the pubs of Temple Bar) in Dublin is rich with possibility. It's a little high-concept, but well worth reading: it's a pleasure to see a young Irish writer step up to the plate and take a swing.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


I don't remember where I read about Sheila Heti's Ticknor. It's a born curiosity, written "in the zone," and I did enjoy it. It's slight, 118 pages that the author tells us in an afterward were partially cobbled together from various late 19th century and early 20th century writers. Heti, apparently, read the real George Ticknor's Life of William Hickling Prescott (1863) and was inspired to portray a fictional Ticknor who was distracted by envy of his former schoolmate, who sends Ticknor the occasional invitation out of propriety but isn't very interested in his low-functioning old friend. Prescott was the author of The Conquest of Mexico and The Conquest of Peru, still today one of the best English-language chroniclers of the Spanish Conquest (the phrase comes from his pen). The fictional Ticknor can't get over the success of his friend and his own marginalization: we have a nice exploration of the repressed narcissism of the envious man. Ticknor is not grandiose, rather he is self-loathing and paranoid. Meanwhile there are some loving invocations of Boston Brahmin society in the late 1800s. Heti has a nice light touch, never overdoing it or degenerating into the too-easy hyperbolic, feverish madman. For example she creates a nice effect by alternating between "I" and "you" both meaning Ticknor, but she has the self-restraint to use this device only twice. I'll add links to some other novels that use the technique of the unreliable narrator, it's one of my favorite devices.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Some years ago I read Petals of Blood (1977), the most famous of the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'o's novels. It is a very good book (I've been looking over it again this morning), using an emphasis on character, techniques from the mystery genre, and allusions to African folktales to create a book that is entertaining while sustaining a didactic, Marxist-inflected critique of the dictatorship of Jomo Kenyatta. Ngugi, generally recognized as the first black East African to write a breakout English-language novel (Weep Not, Child, 1964), is now equally important as a major novelist who writes in Gikuyu and translates the manuscripts into English. He was famously imprisoned in Kenya after Petals of Blood was published in 1977, and left his country in the 1980s; he now is a professor of literature at UC/Irvine.

The years (it has been 20 years since his last novel) and prosperous exile have changed some things, not others, as his recent novel Wizard of the Crow brilliantly shows. It is a huge novel (maybe a bit long at 768 pages), and its entertainment value still resides mostly in an easy development of interrelated characters and cinematic scenarios involving here the comically sycophantic men around The Ruler and the phantasmagoric progress of a couple of ordinary people who are fake-but-real, real-but-fake wizards. The didacticism is still there now extending to contemporary problems like AIDS and environmental pollution.

Ngugi is basically an urban writer and his minimalist evocations of the countryside are striking, in Petals of Blood it has a grayness and in Wizard of the Crow it is a great emptiness past the last backyard. Unlike Petals of Blood, however, Wizard of the Crow is humorous, farcical, and much more invested in the unique African style of "magical realism" (which in its African variant owes more to tradition than the less conservative Latin American style, which expresses a kind of multiple personality).

Another difference is the maturation of Ngugi's philosophical outlook. Ngugi's work in the 70s was significant for its criticism of the new, kleptocratic, post-colonial class of black African politicians in addition to the expected criticism of "the West" (Petals of Blood was partially written at Yalta, where Ngugi was a guest of a Soviet writer's conference). Now this perspective has lost some of the doctrinaire edge: both Africans and rapacious foreigners come under lampooning criticism, but it is greed itself, ignorance itself, that are the writer's targets. This worldliness is prophetic at this moment when familiar political problems (the president's refusal to acknowledge that he has not clearly won reelection) are neglected by the world press in favor of a "tribal war" interpretation of Kenya's problems.

The African wordplay is interesting and I would have enjoyed more of it; the technique of translating from Gikuyu creates an interesting texture suggestive of layers of meaning. A very entertaining, very interesting book.