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.