Saturday, March 31, 2012

Toni Morrison on the Origins of American Racism

In her 2008 novel A Mercy Toni Morrison imagines a frontier Virginia of the late 1600s, a century before the American Revolution. She has found in this time and place valuable insights into the relationship between slavery and race, a relationship that is taken for granted but that is after all contingent.

Morrison is a keen student of history. Reading her 1992 essay Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, her brief for a background element of blackness as necessary for the construction of whiteness, I was directed by a footnote to discover William Dunbar, a Scottish settler and slave-holder in late 18th century Mississippi, who turned out to have such an interesting life that I've been gathering material for a project ever since. In the genesis of A Mercy she was inspired, she says, by Bacon's Rebellion, an uprising against the governor of Virginia in 1676 for his failure to retaliate against Indian raids on frontier villages. The rebels in fact forced the government to flee the capitol and conducted numerous attacks on Indians before being put down. Morrison noticed the composition of Bacon's rebel force: wealthy and poor, property owners and indentured servants, whites and blacks, all united to a common purpose by the perceived indifference of the English governor and the threat of Indian attacks.

There is evidence that colonial authorities took steps to harden racial divides in the aftermath of the rebellion. When it became established that whites had more impunity than blacks (in many areas a non-white had no legal protection from white violence) the relationship between blackness and slavery was cemented. This served the interests of the slave-owning planters by socially dividing not only black slaves but all blacks from the rest of the working-class population. In the creation of white supremacy Morrison sees a monstrous homogeneity replacing a dense heterogeneity.

In wilderness 1680s Virginia Morrison assembles a meticulously diverse group of people, that is to say women after the decent but vainglorious Jacob Vaark passes away leaving his widow Rebekka, a refugee from English urban poverty, Florens, a slave taken reluctantly by Vaark from a Portuguese merchant in partial payment of a debt, Lina, an Indian orphaned by plague and sold to Vaark "by Presbyterians," and the lowly Sorrow, who some say is the mixed-blood daughter of the captain of the ill-fated ship the wreck of which she is the only survivor...but this is only a bit much when I lay it all out like that. In a review by John Updike he opens with a mention of Faulkner. The way I would put it is that A Mercy is written more in the impressionistic, Modernist style of Morrison's masterpiece Beloved (1987) than any of the intervening novels. The wilderness suits this densely atmospheric style which is also, as Faulkner understood, appropriate for the internal narratives of poorly-formed people.

Florens is in love with a freeman, a blacksmith, that is a black man who works as a smith and a smithee of black men. He rejects Florens as too rough and uncultivated for him. As traumatic and even ruinous his rejection is for Florens, he is soon to experience a greater one, for no black man in the racist future will feel entitled to judge and be judged on the basis of character alone. As Florens experiences him he represents a future that will never arrive - not only her future with him but a future with proud black men unencumbered with racism.

Related books that have been the subjects of posts here include Edward Jones's The Known World and Marlon James' Book of Night Women.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bolano on a planet around a Distant Star

One of the most interesting things about Roberto Bolano is that, as one excavates and uncovers his reimagined history of violence in the 20th century, the novels keep being written earlier. That is, the first Bolano novel I read (and posted on) was By Night in Chile which was published in 2000, one of the last works of this novelist who died in 2003. After that I read The Savage Detectives, published in 1998 but translated into English only in 2007. Then I went for the masterpiece 2666, "released" in 2004 and translated into English in 2008. At this point a complete devotee, I then read Nazi Literature in the Americas and was impressed to learn that it was published early, in 1996, although Chris Andrews' English translation appeared in 2008. The reason that this is impressive is that it appears that Bolano had generated his alternative world, not that different from this none, early: he always had a vision of what he wanted to do.

Even so it is fascinating to read Distant Star, published 1996 and translated by Chris Andrews 2004, and exhilarating (I can't think of any other word) to see the scarey, radical coherence of his vision from very early in his novelistic project (Bolano was criticized for straying from the purity of his early obscure-poet vision and for writing popular novels). In Distant Star he fleshes out an idea that is presented in the end of Nazi Literature in the Americas, but the publication dates lead us to think that Bolano saw all of his arch-satirical narrative very early on.

The last Borgian "entry" in Nazi Literature in the Americas is the story of Carlos Ramirez Hoffman, young Pinochet loyalist who stages a party in his apartment where his bedroom is decorated with pictures of his victims; in addition to being a poet he sees himself as an artist of the existential arts of political torture and murder. Central to this is his seduction of the Venegas sisters, scions of a wealthy and liberal family.

Dark Star elaborates the story of this character, here known as Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, who changes his name to Carlos Wieder and who stages the party (his victims include the Garmendias sisters, now frankly murdered by Weider). The hapless protagonist of Dark Star is drawn in to a plan to track Weider down and kill him. Killing him is something of an act of exorcism here, but it is unsuccessful: there will be no freedom from the history of violence that is washing over the world.

Weider was a poet who worked in the medium of sky-writing, perfect for the ephemeral, willfully-obscure presentation that Bolano thinks is essential for honest poetry. Weider is a fascist assassin and a poet: tracking down obscure poems and obscure murders are similar obsessions. Most people will just forget both the poems and the killings as they fade into the air.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Half of a Yellow Sun

When I posted not long ago on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (2003) I found that novel to be well-constructed and a persuasive account of bourgeois Igbo life in contemporary Nigeria. It was impressive as an homage to Chinua Achebe and explored the same elemental themes of Nigerian conflictedness. Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) is much more ambitious and positions C.N.A. (at a level that Purple Hibiscus, for all its merits, did not) as potentially a novelist of historic importance and not just a Very Good Writer, of which Nigeria currently has quite a few.

It is an historical novel of the Biafran War (1967-1970) when the Igbo nation, tired of violent reactionary pogroms against the culturally strong Igbos from Hausas and other less dominant groups, tried to secede from Nigeria, declaring their southeastern homelands "Biafra." As anyone who lived through those years will recall, Biafra's almost total lack of international support (both the West and the USSR supported oil-rich Nigeria) resulted in a fearsome famine that was perhaps the first major famine to be widely televised across the developed world (not that that helped Biafra). The iconic famished infant with distended stomach, stick-like limbs and glassy eyes first became part of our collective conscience then.

C.N.A. writes again from the point of view of the Igbo bourgeoisie: Odenigbo is an Igbo nationalist professor at the university town of Nsukka. His lover is the beautiful sociology professor Olanna, the daughter of well-off parents. His houseboy is Ukwu, of humble origins but with good potential. Olanna's sister, Nainene, is harder and more cynical than Olanna, the businesswoman their parents wanted. Nainene's lover is Richard Churchill, expat Englishman who has come to see himself as a Biafran partisan and citizen.

The narrative circles around this core group of people as the war emerges and runs its course. The structure is a spiral: these comfortable people slowly and then precipitously see their lives deteriorate as the Biafran cause unravels. The author has compassion for her characters and doesn't take us to a horrorshow (although a novel of this time and place would be well-justified in taking that course), but the death, debasement and destruction are presented starkly enough to serve as the document the novel is written to be.

Several reviewers have mentioned Tolstoy, C.N.A. merits that, I think, by virtue of her erudition in the actual nature of the fighting, the politics and the neighborhood lifestyle of several classes of Nigerians. War and Peace is admirable in the sure handling of war and battle, and C.N.A. also gives careful attention to this material. The 543 pages kept me coming back during an otherwise very busy week, both emotionally and intellectually absorbing. We do indeed have a major talent on our hands.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The real Saint Patrick

This is the first time I've posted on two books together. They are a new edition of John Bagnell Bury's 1905 The Life of Saint Patrick and His Place in History republished in 2008 by Paraclete Press with excellent annotations, including boxes with explanatory and background material and quotations, by Jon Sweeney under the title Ireland's Saint: The Essential Biography of St. Patrick, and a 1998 Image/Doubleday edition of Patrick's Confession and the Letter to Coroticus, Patrick's only known writings, translated by John Skinner with a forward by John O'Donohue.

The real Patrick had very little to do with either snakes or drinking, but what is known about his life is positively cinematic and I'm surprised more novelists and film-makers haven't taken a crack at it. The son of a Latin-speaking, provincial Roman magistrate in western England, he was carried off by Irish (most likely Pict) slavers sometime around 405 AD, aged seventeen, and spent the next six years in Connaught, in the northwest (then as now with a reputation for natural isolation), mostly herding sheep. He then, by his own account, made his toilsome way by foot back to the east coast of Ireland (presumably having walked away from his servitude, although what his servitude amounted to is uncertain), where he took ship (after an initial rejection: a distinctly dramatic touch) and sailed, apparently, to Gaul (modern day France) and there had even more adventures as he and the vaguely threatening crew found themselves in the middle of a desolate wilderness, where Patrick performed a little magic involving a heaven-sent herd of pigs, before Patrick could, apparently, flee from the sailors. Finally making his way to the appropriate Church fathers, he obtains leave to proselytize the faith in Ireland, and begins the long trip back to his ancestral home and the preparations to return to Ireland.

All of that, mind you, is mere prelude to his return to Ireland and his role as self-appointed point man for the church (with quite a few more miraculous acts of magic along the way) for 12 years until his death circa 440, having firmly established the Roman church in Ireland. Late in his tenure as Bishop of Ireland he fell out of favor with the ecclesiastical authorities in England (it may have been a turf fight)and wrote for them the Confession, the basic source for the story of his life. It is more of an apologia than a confession as most would understand those terms: Patrick is at pains to convey all of the hardship and sacrifice he has endured in the service of the Church. He presents himself as someone with no interest in worldly power or things.

Bury points out that Patrick was relatively unlettered for a man of his rank owing to the exigencies of his life and probably insisted on speaking the local language. This may explain why his only two extant writings are Latin documents, written for official purposes to possibly unsympathetic readers, and why both are chronicles of hardships and injustices borne by Patrick and his followers. That is, the man may not have been as self-promoting as these writings make him appear. He wasn't a fluent writer of Latin, probably he rarely wrote anything at all unless forced to put pen to paper. The Letter to Coroticus was written after some of Coroticus' men had raided one of Patrick's ordination ceremonies where young men and women pledged chastity and service to God. Apparently the young men were killed and the young women sold into slavery. Patrick wrote the letter to denounce Coroticus (a Christian himself) and sent it back to England where he hoped it would be widely read. There is no record of its effectiveness.

Bury is at pains to show that, while Ireland was never formally part of the Roman Empire, Roman influence was certainly felt there by the fourth and fifth centuries. In fact people who lived on the other side of the Roman frontier were keenly aware of the great power, both hard and soft, that dominated their world. It would be a mistake to imagine a serenely pagan Ireland insulated from Latin influence, a temptation as Irish history tends to be romanticized. As to the pagans, local kings were sophisticated in dealing with Patrick and the Church, making deals and compromises; several of Patrick's monasteries were built on land provided by pagan kings, and any number of his converts were connected to ruling clans. The Druids, legendary pagan shamans, are said to have battled with Patrick in contests of magic (and the occasional assassination attempt). Patrick meets magic with magic, putting spells and hexes on his antagonists (he never shies from cursing his foes). We will never know what all that actually amounted to (movie directors: help yourselves!), but no doubt these episodes involved politics as much as potions.

In the end Patrick must be seen as an essentially conservative figure. He built up a system of monasteries and ministry that was within the catechistical bounds and under the ultimate control of the Roman Church (although the early Irish Church has a greater monastic component than is found in other regions, no doubt because there was a local culture that was already congenial to such behavior). He was an excellent organizer, a tireless trouper and with the visionary's single-mindedness. Part of his motivation had its origins in his early years as a slave; he probably didn't understand completely his own feelings towards the Irish (who were ethnically divided, in any case, between the Scottish Celts in the north and the Picts in the south). It is ironic that the actual life story of this very serious man is more fantastic than the facile legends that have grown around his name.

I strongly recommend Sweeney's annotated edition of Bury which is loaded with good information. Skinner's translation of the Confession and the Letter is clear, but there is almost no critical apparatus and John O'Donohue, who wrote the very brief forward, has a spacey Jungian vibe which is pleasant but uninformative.

Related topics of earlier posts include Thomas Cahill's essential How the Irish Saved Civilization, Ciaran Carson's recent translation of the Tain Bo Cualnge, and Philip Freeman's entertaining 2006 The Philosopher and the Druids (Freeman has also written a biography of Patrick).

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jude Dibia Unbridled

Unbridled (2007) is the Nigerian writer Jude Dibia's second novel. His first novel Walking With Shadows (2005;I have not read it) garnered attention as perhaps the first Nigerian novel to have an openly gay male protagonist. Dibia has since built up a reputation as one of a new generation of African novelists who write about traditionally "taboo" topics. He told an interviewer that he wanted to tell stories that "people are not bold enough to tell."

Unbridled won the 2007 Ken Saro-Wiwa Award and I probably noticed it on a list of contemporary Nigerian novels somewhere. On the back cover of my Jacana Media edition (it was originally published by Blacksands Books) it mentions that Dibia writes about gay relationships, so when I started reading this novel about an ill-used and long-suffering young Nigerian woman I anticipated a coming-out story, but no, this time the protagonist is not gay. She is an incest victim who is passed off to uncaring relatives and escapes to England only to find that her internet suitor, a white Englishman, is also abusive. She must reach down deep and find the resources to achieve autonomy.

Another surprise, for me, came about halfway through the book when I was checking to see how many pages it had and noticed in the "about the author" note that Dibia is male. I had assumed, reading the first half, that the author was a woman. Ngozi/Erika is entirely convincing, and the unflinching insight into how a certain amount of violence and exploitation is, apparently, essential to male nature is conveyed in language that is recognizable as the bitter tone of ill-used women.

Dibia writes about people, how they behave around each other and the conversations that they have. He can depict friendship and malice with equal deftness. He is not, at this point in his writing career, a writer of any great elegance or beauty, but his story is absorbing and the pace does not flag. An impressive accomplishment from a young Nigerian writer of great promise.

Other examples of books by the new generation of Nigerian writers that have been the subjects of posts on this blog are Chris Abanis' Graceland (2005), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (2003), which deals with very similar issues as Unbridled, and El-Nukoya's Nine Lives (2007).

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Roddy Doyle Plays That Thing

It's a surprise to realize just now that I read the first of Roddy Doyle's Henry Smart trilogy, A Star Called Henry (1999), back before I started this blog. (Doyle has called the trilogy "The Last Roundup.") That book, with its historically accurate and realistic account of the Irish "Easter Rising" of 1916 from the point of view of an Irish republican combatant, is quite vivid in my mind. The seizure and subsequent siege of the General Post Office in Dublin was memorably depicted. I think that that novel ranks with two other novels of historical and social realism that I've posted about here, James Plunkett's Strumpet City (1969), an account of the earlier dockworker's strike, and Thomas Flanagan's excellent The Year of the French (1979), a novelization of the ill-fated revolt of 1798.

In this second installment, Oh, Play That Thing! (2004), Doyle takes his project in a different direction. The project here is not so much historical fictionalization as it is a popular invocation of the spirit of a time and place, in this case the US in the 1920s and 1930s. Historical characters are freely woven into the story and the choice is made to pursue an epic story over any pretense to believability. Henry Smart is run out of New York by the local gangsters and almost run out of Chicago as well before he catches the eye of a young Louis Armstrong, who can use a white companion as he struggles with the racial barriers of the early 1920s pop music scene. Later on Smart is again saved, this time by Henry Fonda on location in Monument Valley: think E. L. Doctorow or T. Coraghessan Boyle.

Doyle has been criticized for trivializing the Henry Smart story in this way, but I think that his choices are defensible (although I don't think that Oh, Play That Thing! is as good a novel as A Star Called Henry). First, Henry Smart becomes, as Doyle widens his canvas, more of a symbolic character, a kind of embodiment of Irish toughness as a contribution to America. He's a caricature for sure, tough and rough and irresistible to women, a magnet for jealous mobsters, and pursued by shadowy Irish assassins who are (for somewhat under-motivated reasons) intent on hunting him down to the ends of the Earth. As to that, and secondly, Doyle finds Jazz Age America an intoxicating, phantasmagorical, you-can't-make-it-up kind of place, which it is, and so he decides to just let it rip. There's a little too much tough-guy masochism, and maybe one run too many at evoking the delerium of the hopping jazz club. Not Doyle's best but worth reading, I will certainly go on and read The Dead Republic (2010), the last of the trilogy.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Nazi Literature in the Americas

Previous posts on the blog have discussed (in the order that I read them of course) Roberto Bolano's By Night in Chile (1998), The Savage Detectives (2000), and 2666 (2000). Knowing those books made for a deeper appreciation of Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996). The student of Bolano sees first that he has recurrent themes and interests (poetry and the Nazis being the most prominent if improbable combination). Then it emerges that there are connections among the texts (a young police recruit in 2666, for example, is the bastard son of one of the protagonists of The Savage Detectives). Finally with Nazi Literature in the Americas the scope of Bolano's ambition becomes clear: he has created a parallel world, a fictional history, and interwoven that world with his and ours. The effect is to heighten the power of the fictional world and the ideas that have generated it: as it bleeds over into reality, Bolano's vision seems to establish a greater claim than most fiction does to being an authentic part of reality, an actuality. It is an unsettling effect; there is more moral urgency in Bolano than in almost any other contemporary writer of fiction I can think of.

Ironically the writer than one inevitably thinks of when reading this book is Jorge Luis Borges, that most detached and cerebral constructor of puzzles and games. Nazi Literature in the Americas is a compendium of potted biographies, some only a page or two long, some upwards of twenty pages, of fictional American (North and South) writers and their works. Some are completely obscure (literary obscurity is a strong fetish for Bolano), others are prominent and widely read. Some are poets, some are prose writers, some are genre writers and some are polemicists. The word "Nazi" is construed loosely: there are white supremacists and supporters of military dictatorship but also some whose "Nazism" is little more than conservative Christianity or reactionary nationalism.

Borges delighted in this sort of thing, inventing bibliographies and non-existent essayists and mixing them in with real people and books. Bolano does it throughout his works, The Savage Detectives has pages-long lists of poets and "journals" so obscure that only one mimeographed copy might exist, and 2666 mingles Bolano's invented incidents with the real history of the murders of women in Ciudad Juarez. While fictive scholarly apparatus is a "post-modern" trope it actually traces back in Spanish literature to Cervantes, with Don Quixote's displacement into the fantasy world of the picaresque and his glimpse of the printing press setting up the book in which he lives.

The endless appetite for reading, at times almost a mania for literate closure, that is pervasive in Bolano is also portrayed in Borges (for example in "The Library of Babylon" or "Funes the Memorious").

As an estadounidense reader I was impressed by the depth and breadth of Bolano's erudition for USA literature: he obviously loves the genre writing of the tough guy detectives but also the inventiveness of science fiction and he has apparently read everything from Gertrude Stein and Eudora Welty to Wallace Stevens and Wallace Stegner: about what one could reasonably expect of a typical English lit professor at a North American university (who was hip, of course, to poetry and the Beats).

Meanwhile there is The Theory, or at least my theory of The Theory. Bolano, I think, sees World War II and particularly the Nazis as an epochal upwelling of violent evil that then washes across the globe and the decades like a great wave. He seeks to explicate the violent history of Latin America, from the Cold War military governments of the 70s through the Central American political viciousness of the 80s up to the culture of homicide in contemporary Mexico as manifestations, aftershocks or tsunamis, of this great evil. Part of the message of Nazi Literature in the Americas is that this evil energy persists among us, close by and banal, nearer to eruption than we think.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fardorougha the Miser

William Carleton (1794-1896) was an Irish Catholic who converted to Protestantism, a middle-class man who presented himself as of Irish peasant stock. This contradictory character came to fame in 1830 with the publication of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry. With several other writers of the pre-famine early 19th century such as John Banim (1798-1842) and Gerald Griffin (1803-1840) he is part of what is sometimes called the "Pre-Yeats Revival," as these writers were, like their mostly Anglo-Irish counterparts a century later, concerned to develop a distinctly Irish literature (although they wrote for the most part in English). In my view they are interesting as a window onto an Ireland that disappeared during the horrific 1840s.

Carleton is an Irish version of a character who frequently turns up in African and African-American literature, and who I encounter here in Puerto Rico. He is loyal to his country and its people but he is deeply conflicted. He has taken pains to "civilize" himself (I read the novel before researching him and I would have guessed he was Anglo-Irish), taking on the burden of the colonizer's education and language. He wants to contribute to moral uplift, but in practice this means condemnation of the self-destructive mores of the poor and oppressed people he aims to reform. Like members of the later Irish Revival such as Synge he was criticized for being too rough on the Irish. I recognized some of my colleagues at the University of Puerto Rico who are much rougher on the students than we extranjeros.

In the present novel we have two moral teachings. First there is the tragedy of the title character Fardorougha O'Donovan, who brings terrible suffering and near-destruction on his beloved son through his pathological relationship with money. Second there is some acute commentary on the moral decadence of the "ribbonmen" or "white boys," members of secret societies that evolved to enforce Irish notions of justice in the face of English legal oppression and then devolved, as such groups tend to do, into vehicles for gangsterish violence. Even in his discussion of these groups and their loss of moral bearings Carleton makes points that have universal application.

The novel is also fine for dialogue rendered in the period patois with lots of Irish phrases woven in and even occasional footnote translations. Apparently Carleton wrote an essay on Irish cursing and I am certainly going to try to get a copy of that. He has the love for the language that we expect from the Irish writer even though his own narrative voice is a somewhat overbearing faux-elevated English.

Other books related to this period of Irish history that have been subjects of previous posts here are Thomas Flanagan's The Year of the French and Seamus Martin's Duggan's Destiny.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Malone Dies

Just about a year ago I posted here about Samuel Beckett's Molloy (1951), the first of the "Trilogy" that continues with Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnamable (1953). Then I put my Grove Press omnibus edition back in the Stack, and when I'm done writing this today I'll put it back in for another cycle. It's been very satisfying to reread these intense and excellently-written novels. Molloy made a bigger impression on me than Malone Dies, but the writing of Malone Dies entranced me after a while. I read someone somewhere saying that these books are best read in short bursts, but I found that Malone Dies gained structural cohesion when I read it fast (of course Beckett is challenging our conventional notions about structure and narrative: that's a big part of his exercise). I thought, reading this one, that these books are a great illustration of the fact that an artist needs a great deal of formal mastery before they can then break with traditional forms, that being one of the keys to modern poetry and to Modernists such as Joyce and Picasso.

As with Joyce, Beckett's Irish identity and sense of the Irish relationship to the English language makes him an inherently subversive writer; the subversiveness of the Irish Modernist is striking as an act of cultural subversion above all, and one that bears little similarity to typical cultural nationalism. Beckett's entire career, certainly including his plays, can be understood as a sustained interrogation (to use a litcrit phrase) of the idea of the narrator. The narrator is often simultaneously obliterated and globalized as the boundary between narrator and narration is blurred out through the technique of submerging the story in the subject (or something).

In the Trilogy this is achieved by a not-quite stream of consciousness depiction of the thoughts of destitute, deranged, and in the present case dying men, or one man who is variously represented by characters with Irish names starting in "M." Malone, who tells us he is dying on the first page, roams around a great deal of mental territory as he slips in and out of lucidity, and as his situation deteriorates. Sometimes it seems as if he is telling us about everything but himself and his condition, but this seems true to life as a depiction of the consciousness of someone in his condition. Beckett uses pathology as a device to open up dark and universal elements of soul, a technique that makes for difficult but rewarding reading.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Arrow of God

Chinua Achebe's first three novels are sometimes called "The African Trilogy." They are Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer At Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964). I read Things Fall Apart (probably the most widely read African novel) some time ago, I have not read No Longer At Ease. Most of Achebe's writing (and he has published a great deal of work) deals with the impact of the British colonization of the Igbo lands of northern Nigeria on traditional culture there and particularly with the loss of authority of African priests under pressure both political and religious. Both Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God present tragic protagonists who embody this authority, and in both books the human weaknesses and character failings of these men are presented as important elements contributing to societal collapse. This discussion of African weaknesses in confronting colonization, always in microcosm, is key to Achebe's success in illuminating the catastrophic 20th century history of the region: it is intellectually fruitful, provocative, and gives Achebe moral authority both in Nigeria and in the outside world (I was surprised to discover that Achebe, 81 this year, continues working as a member of the faculty at Brown University).

Arrow of God is denser with detail than Things Fall Apart, with a good deal more technical discussion of the rituals and concepts underlying Igbo religious customs and with a larger and more fleshed-out cast of characters. Ezeulu, priest of Ulu, the titular deity of a small and remote group of villages, nobly resists cooptation by the heavy-handed and not particularly competent British authorities. He is secure in his own identity and standing, a believer in his own authority and function. This gives him the instincts needed to resist usurpation but also clouds his ability to recognize that his tradition is under genuine threat. He commits two errors, first by sending one of his sons, Oduche, to become a Christian (Ezeulu sees this move as essentially strategic) and second by refusing to perform the ceremony needed to authorize the yam harvest while he is detained by the British, two overreaches that have disastrous consequences.

Achebe, who never patronizes his own culture, shows how rival priests (each with their own deity) function as political agents (what appear to be religious contests of magic have roots in disputes over farmland), and have shallower roots than their rhetoric implies (the religious disposition of Ulu goes back, not to the beginning of time, but to organizing against African slavers decades before). A cultural system, like an ecosystem, is deceptively fragile. Thus Achebe wields a double-edged sword: Britain is called to account for its immensely destructive imperial policies, but Africans are confronted with their own guilt for failing to criticize themselves and adapt to modern challenges.

Two contemporary Nigerian novels that each, in different ways, continue Achebe's examination of cultural erosion and that have been the subjects of posts here are Ben Okri's The Famished Road (1991) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (2003).

Friday, January 21, 2011

Boubacar Boris Diop's Book of Bones

As it happened I was attracted to the title of Boubacar Boris Diop's 2000 novel Murambi, The Book of Bones, and the high tone of that title (Murambi, le livre des ossements; translated into English by Fiona Mc Laughlin 2006 and published by Indiana University Press) is maintained throughout this excellent short novel. It is the best entry yet in a young genre of novels and memoirs that document the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when, following patterns of ethnic violence that emerged in Rwanda in the 1950s, elements from the poorer, majority Hutu group systematically killed somewhere around 800,000 of the socioeconomically dominant Tutsis.

G. and I had recently been really engaged by the 2004 movie "Hotel Rwanda," directed by Terry George and starring Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who sheltered hundreds of Tutsis during the genocide. That movie led to us getting a copy of Shake Hands With the Devil, the 2003 memoir by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, UN commander in Rwanda in 1993-4 (and the basis for the character played by Nick Nolte in the film). Before that I had noticed (again because of the title) We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, an actual fax message and the title of Philip Gourevitch's 1999 anthology of oral histories (and where the world first heard the story of Paul Rusesabagina).

Meanwhile in 1998 Fest'Africa, an African cultural festival based in France, organized a trip for ten established African writers to go to Rwanda with the expressed purpose of documenting and memorializing the genocide in African literature. Monique Ilboudo of Burkina Faso, Tierno Monenembo of Guinea, and Veronique Tadjo of Ivory Coast are members of "the expedition" who have subsequently published books, as well as this one from Diop.

The Book of Bones explores the possibility and responsibility of literature in the face of evil and suffering. The narrator, Cornelius, was an expatriot on Djibouti during the genocide and returns four years later. His own assurance about who and what he is, and his attitudes towards his country and what has happened, are tested as he finally confronts his own family's history. Diop also devotes the last quarter or so of this 181-page book to a discussion of French policies, which he not surprisingly depicts as cynical in the extreme.

A very good book, I recommend it if you are interested in this difficult subject matter.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in 1977 in Nigeria, the daughter of Igbo academics. She moved to the United States in 1996. Thirty-three years old today she is the author of two very well-received novels, Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006). She was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2008.

Purple Hibiscus is an accomplished first novel, expertly put together and well-written. It also hits quite a few of the tropes of contemporary African literature. I've been reading African (largely Nigerian) novels of the 60s and 70s over the past couple of years, many from Chinua Achebi's African Writers Series. In fact my novel before last was Onwora Nzekwu's Blade Among the Boys which has strikingly similar themes. It's interesting to see how much is the same and what has changed. The potential for cruelty inherent in a paternalistic society stands out as a motif of the West African novel from the 50s through today (Adichie is evoking Achebe's own seminal novel Things Fall Apart, 1958). The Nigerian novelist has also consistently tried to expose the role of the Christian church in the cultural excesses of colonialism (this theme is shared with the Irish writer). On the other hand the increasing menace of a strong national government, corrupt and militarized, is characteristic of more recent novels (Chris Abani, El-Nukoya).

Purple Hibiscus is structurally the coming-of-age story of narrator Kambili, a 15-year-old girl surviving through a time of family crisis, but at its core the book is a study of "Papa" Eugene, Kambili's father. He is a wealthy, self-made businessman, fanatically Catholic and dangerously conflicted. His religious righteousness has led him to cut off his own father and others. Out of the village, he rejects his own roots completely. He is motivated by powerful feelings of anger, guilt and shame. Eventually this evolves into monstrous behavior. It is impressive how well filled-in a metaphor for the modern Nigerian nation Papa is while still serving as a convincing portrayal of one man's pathology. The book is unabashedly vascular: everything is a symbol of everything else.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Durrell's Sicilian Carousel

Lawrence Durrell spent a good part of his life in the eastern Mediterranean, and most of his best work is set there: The Aexandria Quartet, of course, and one of my personal favorites, Reflections on a Marine Venus, also his most accomplished political work, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, the novels Tunc and Nunquam, and more. I naturally had high expectations for his book on Sicily. It was a bit disconcerting to start reading it and discover that he had never visited Sicily before the visit that is the occasion of this book, published in 1977 when Durrell was 65. He has been living alone in Provence since the death of his wife, and the passing of another old (female) friend, long resident of Sicily and long-entreating Durrell to visit, inspires him to leave his country house and go, too late to see his old friend Martine. Durrell is one of my very favorite writers and I open any of his books confident that the experience will be rich and pleasing, but still the realization that he has signed up for the "Sicilian Carousel," a guided group bus tour, comes as a bit of a shock: Durrell on a tour?

But the master, old, is still a master, and disarmingly humble at the same time. He does not pretend to be anything other than an older gentleman, alone now, and traveling with a group (he is recognized by several people along the way). He cannily fictionalizes the trip, which gives him liberty to send up some of his companions; the odious character is made more odious (and is the subject of a probably fantastic yarn at the end), the widowed, retired British officer with whom he buddies up is affectionately caricatured (he pores over the cricket scores at breakfast), the inevitable comely young German woman is sexed up a bit for some disruptive fun and the English, French and Italians are regarded in all their stereotypical glory.

Durrell has also studied, presumably for the trip although he doesn't say so, the classical history of the island and particularly the Hellenistic period (his love of Greece is deep and broad and he sees Greece everywhere in Italy). The tour concentrates on classical ruins, about which Durrell knows a good bit more than the guides although he is generous in giving credit when credit is due. Some of his expositions about the temple sites are the best passages in the book. He has some interesting remarks about the hybrid character of Sicilian architecture (a sensitivity to architecture runs through all of Durrell's work).

The book is late and slight. Recommended for Durrell completists and also not a bad background book for someone planning an archeological trip to the island. There is no deep insight into Sicilian society or any real attempt to develop Sicilian characters.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Onuora Nzekwu's Blade Among the Boys

Onuora Nzekwu is an Igbo intellectual from Kafanchan in northern Nigeria. He published several novels in the 1960s, the early post-colonial period and a time of great cultural ferment in Nigeria and other West African countries (the glory days of Chinua Achebe's African Writer's Series, including the present novel).

This period of Nigerian literature is preoccupied with cultural, social and religious themes. The urgent issue of the time is the construction of a new African identity, one that reestablishes traditional African mores and values while recognizing the importance and influence of the much larger world into which post-colonial Africa is thrust. It is a didactic literature with one eye on the edification of the youth and another on the image of Africa in the outside world. These novels have a certain innocence even as they typically portray lives of poverty and hardship; there is a deep sense of community and family that is no longer such a strong motif. They are also often philosophical, as young protagonists must make existential choices: the old ways or the new, the village or the city, Africa or "the West."

I've read quite a few of these fascinating documents now, and Blade Among the Boys is a very high-quality example of the genre. It is well-written and complex, artfully ambiguous and, like the best African writing of the time, a cautionary tale about character as destiny (I think this quality of moral parable has deeper roots in the rich African tradition of folktales and maxims). Patrick Ikenga, also from Kafanchan, is in line to inherit the post of ceremonial religious leader of his extended family, but his immediate family are also Catholic converts and he dreams of becoming the first Igbo priest. He does not realize the starkness of this choice. Indeed he shows curiosity and enthusiasm for the traditional rites even as he keeps alive his ambition for the priesthood. A talented young man, Patrick even appears to have a chance to bridge his two worlds.

Subtle flaws in Patrick's character, combined with the after all unbridgeable dilemma of two religious traditions, one native and one imposed, warp the life of this smart and competent person until his loss is total. Patrick likes the pomp and circumstance of Catholicism. He is vain. He is also selfish and not particularly a paragon of virtue, but he doesn't realize this. Even with these flaws he could have had everything he wanted if only he chose the traditional path. Fatherless, he lacks real guidance and is subject to the caprices of his paternal uncles who have more authority over his life than his long-suffering mother.

A particularly good aspect of the novel is the way the author weaves together the issue of cultural identity with the issue of sexuality. In turning away from traditional marriage and disregarding his mother's need for a son who is a father he causes grievous harm to himself and to people who he loves. In the end he is cast out of both worlds, literally walking out the door into a life unknown. It is a classic ending for a novel.

Related novels discussed in this blog are Francis Selormey's Narrow Path; Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure; Nkem Nwankwo's Danda; Asare Konadu's A Woman in Her Prime; Chukuemeka Ike's The Potter's Wheel; Cameron Duodu's The Gab Boys.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Marlon James' Book of Night Women

This blog is a reader's journal, going back now for four years' worth of novels. I only read books that I want to read. Usually they're either African novels, Irish novels, or novels that are getting good press or awards and that look like they're up my alley. The point is they're pretty much all novels that I enjoy (ones that are to my taste), and they're also mostly quite good, since they passed through a least a filter or two to get read by me and posted about here. Every now and then, though, a novel comes along that shows what a really good book is like. It stands out all the more from standing out in this group of good, personally-selected books. Marlon James' The Book of Night Women (2009, Riverhead Books) is one of these standouts.

This is an excellent novel that anyone with any interest in African-American literature or in the literature of Atlantic slavery must read. Set on a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the late 1700s it tells the story of Lilith, a young slave whose green eyes are a legacy of her father, a white overseer. It is a coming of age story as Lilith must learn what it is to be a woman, a black, a slave and a half-caste. She learns all of these things over the course of several years when she becomes a "big house" slave, learns about her family history, and lives through a bloody slave revolt. The story is riveting and I will resist the temptation to go over much of it here. I would much prefer that you buy the book and enjoy it for yourself.

Over the past several decades a great deal of research on the slave trade and on the communities of slaves and slave-owners has opened up this lost world to historians and novelists alike. Toni Morrison and Maryse Conde are two novelists who have pioneered reconstructive and reimagined work with this material, and they also happen to be two of the best writers working in North America today. Now Marlon James indisputably joins their company with his passionate dedication to getting it as right as possible. (Edward P. Jones' The Known World was the subject of an earlier post here, there is also a post on the period piece Sab by Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda.)

James has written this book using a seemingly omniscient narrator whose identity is revealed at the end of the book. This narrator uses an impressive reconstruction of the black Caribbean patois of the time. Reading the first page I thought I was in for a murky Faulkneresque experiment but in fact James pulls off the ambitious linguistic job ably. His research is most impressive, from African vodun to the structure of plantations and even the sailor brogues of the lowly white slavedrivers sounds startlingly authentic.

He also avoids, apparently without effort although in fact the effort must have been intense, sentimentalizing the blacks or presenting two-dimensional whites. Miss Isobel, the brilliant, psychotic Creole mistress, is one of the most memorable characters I've read in a long time, and the relationship between Lilith and Robert Quinn the Irish overseer captures expertly the hopelessness of both "lovers," stumbled in to an impossible love.

Really don't miss this one.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chloe Aridjis's Book of Clouds

I don't remember how I came to put Chloe Aridjis's Book of Clouds (2009) into the Stack, probably on the strength of a glowing notice somewhere. It is her first book, a fictional memoir of a woman in her twenties who spends five rather desolate years in Berlin from 2002 to 2007. It is full of observations of the city and of Germans, but the real topic is the ennui of an intelligent young woman who is solitary, who appreciates melancholy, who is content to drift but not so content as to have no self-doubts. She works for an elderly historian who does Walter Benjamin-like explorations of the city's forgotten spaces, and she has a brief relationship with a meteorologist who speaks eloquently about clouds. She is chronically disengaged, however, and her experiences are taken in as observations even when they are personally challenging (getting lost in the dark underground, making love).

This detachment is expressed in a cool, elegant, matter-of-fact prose. This is a book written "in the zone," the author maintains an atmosphere, channeling style from the emotional portrait of the low-affect narrator. It is a good, fast read even as it evokes a slow pace of life. Aridjis and her narrator both grew up in Mexico City and there is a Latin sense of the surreal that is nicely understated; she tends to think people are in disguise. I hope that her critical success with this book inspires her to write something more substantial because she does write very well.

Synge Travels in Ireland

I enjoyed the Irish Revival playwright J. M. Synge's The Aran Islands, the subject of an earlier post, enough to follow-up with Serif Press's very nice 2005 edition of In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara, originally published in 1911. The book includes engravings done by Jack Yeats, son of the painter J. B. Yeats and brother of W. B. Yeats, to accompany the original.

A good playwright must have the very finest ear for dialogue and it is this talent that makes Synge's Irish travel writings so good. In the first part of the book he is traveling in the Wicklow Mountains northwest of Dublin and paying particular attention to the local patois. Synge was accused of troweling things on a bit, for example with this alleged quote from a Wicklow village woman: "Glory be to His Holy Name, not a one of the childer was ever a day ill, except one boy was hurted off a cart, and he never overed it. It's small right we have to complain at all." The author of The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots at its premier for its searing caricature of marginalized Irish, is a legitimate object of suspicion, but I doubt he is distilling his material in a misleading way. In any event the flavor of the speech is clearly authentic and very charming to read.

The members of the Irish Revival were upper class people in a poor country, and most, like Synge, were Anglo-Irish. They were taken seriously as the gentry tend to be and the last section on Connemara was originally published as dispatches in the Manchester Guardian. Here we meet Synge the social reformer, getting in to quite detailed work on suggestions for the economic development of the "congested districts," meaning areas (mostly western, Irish-speaking areas) where there was not enough employment for the population. Synge is impressively perceptive and criticizes the governments' attempts to introduce new industries while ignoring some traditional ones (such as gathering kelp), showing how the Dublin bureaucrats had simply failed to think of the local industries as possibly worthwhile. He also criticizes the exploitation of poor workers and urges more economic justice as a necessary part of economic development. A worthy document that stands the test of time.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Colum McCann's Great World Spins

Let the Great World Spin (2009)is the third novel by Colum McCann, an Irishman who teaches at Hunter College and is a long-time New York City resident. He has the great idea to write a novel about various NYC denizens, their lives intertwining, on or about August 7th 1974, the day that Philippe Petit walked between the still-unfinished twin towers of the World Trade Center, two days before the resignation of Richard Nixon and eight months before the fall of Saigon. McCann has written a novel of social realism in the grand style, focused on a mother-daughter team of prostitutes in the Bronx, an Irishman who befriends them as part of his mission as a socially-active monk, his brother, and a group of women who have lost sons in the war in Vietnam. It is a novel of straightforward depiction; there is no mystery, no murder, no farcical or ingenious plot tying the novel together. 9/11 is left alone to resonate by itself, which it surely does.

This is a very ambitious book, and it reads well. I didn't leave it alone much until I was through with it. There is a ferocious focus on race mostly through the development of the stories of Tillie and Jazzlyn, multiple generations of the chronic underclass. The toll of the war, fought by conscripted soldiers, on families apolitical and otherwise is also a major theme. The novel belies the fashionable idea that modern novelists are lost in postmodernist, meta-narrative games; here we have nothing but earnest engagement.

Having said all that, I have my hesitations with this novel. The prose is good enough and one would not want to overwrite with this kind of material but the canvas is so large and ambitious that at times McCann can be heard grinding the damn thing out, executing the concept. Also the book is not quite the "novel of the city" that it purports to be: McCann is interested in human actions and responses and the reader looking for lyrical cityscapes will be disappointed. NYC is not quite one of the characters, seldom rising to more than stage and background. Nonetheless I do recommend this novel as an excellent example of latter-day social realism.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Francis Selormey's Narrow Path

The Narrow Path (1966) is #27 in Heinemann's African Writer's Series. It appears to be straightforwardly autobiographical, recounting the misadventures of Kofi (meaning he who was born on Friday) as he attends a series of Catholic schools in coastal Ghana in the 1930s and 40s, following his itinerant headmaster father, a loving but hardworking and strict man; also the childhood story of the book's author Francis Selormey (1927-1983). It serves as a document of life in rural Ghana at the time, without much commentary on larger issues or indeed much reflection. It is typical of the genre, recounting a strict regime that included corporal punishment and at times dire consequences for youthful transgressions, neither of which seemed to extinguish the protagonist's penchant for mischief, of which there is plenty.

The themes are: coming to terms with a strict father whose excesses reflect the hardships of earlier times; life as the headmaster's son and the new kid on the block; coming of age and attendant crises with honesty, school, money and romance; and the tensions that define the life of a young African student in the post-colonial era, caught as he is between traditional life and the brave new world opening up before him. Subjects of previous posts here that are relevantly similar are the much more philosophical (and Muslim) Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure (1962), the very similar but more intense Chukwuemeka Ike's The Potter's Wheel (1973), and the more recent and far more edgy El-Nukoya's Nine Lives (2007). For more of the persistent theme (also ubiquitous in Asian fiction) of the youth who is caught up (in this case) in the contingencies of rural west African culture check out Nkem Nwanko's Danda (1964), Buchi Emecheta's The Slave Girl (1977) and the excellent Ben Okri's The Famished Road (1991). The Narrow Path is worth reading for some local color and for impressive verisimilitude but a slight volume in the context of the AWS.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

O'Hanlon's Irish Antibildungsroman

Ardal O'Hanlon's 1998 novel Knick Knack Paddy Whack (the American title of his novel; the original title is The Talk of the Town, which was thought to have too many resonances, I'm guessing, with The New Yorker magazine for yanks), is that very rare book that didn't have to make it through my Stack. I was on vacation in Elk Rapids, Michigan, and finished the books I'd brought along when I spotted it at a book sale in the very beautiful little public library in that very beautiful little town.

O'Hanlon is a stand-up comedian and a television actor who is best known for his role as Father Dougal McGuire in the situation comedy Father Ted (I've never seen it). There are the usual glowing blurbs on the jacket but the book appears to be very little-known. It is written well enough (it's good but not great), but I think it is too squarely in the same ecological niche as too many other contemporary Irish novels to stand out. Of course that's what makes it interesting to the aficianado.

That niche is the Irish antibildungsroman. Boy meets girl, boy gets drunk and falls down, boy alienates/batters/loses/murders girl. There are violent political undertones, grinding poverty, kamikazee alcoholism, small-town gossip that ruins lives, and a titanic psychological war with Catholicism. The Irish, damaged beyond repair by the English, are now their own worst enemies.

All of these elements are present here. The protagonist Patrick Scully is in his late teens and experiencing that most painful phase when the lucky ones go to college and other worlds and in the process turn away from their old mates, now revealed as losers. Things are bad for him but not as bad as he thinks; his own hopelessness is what knocks him down. Maybe: the ultimate facts are kept ambiguous, to good effect. What is clear is that Patrick has lots of talent but through a combination of bad luck and his own internalized crookedness he is doomed. He compares unfavorably to his father, his brother, and his best friend, and in the claustrophobic world of small-town Ireland that is poison for an ambitious young man.

The book got me thinking about the antibildungsroman and how many of these books I've posted about here. O'Hanlon had a role in a movie production of Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy (1992), and although this is just speculation on my part I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he had thought of the book (his first and only, so far as I know) as a result of that experience. The basic trajectory is very similar. It also brings to mind Eamonn Sweeney's underrated Waiting for the Healer (1997) and is, in both its ideology and plotting, similar to Dermot Bolger's The Journey Home (1990). Sean O'Reilly's The Swing of Things (2005) tackles similar issues. Ken Bruen's 2004 The Guards is in some ways most similar of all as both writers are eager to share their impressions of popular Irish youth culture.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Synge's Aran Islands Journal

J. M. Synge was primarily a playwright, best known for his play The Playboy of the Western World, and one of the leading lights of the "Irish Revival" movement of the late 1800s-early 1900s. The Revival fixed on the Aran Islands as representing the pure, Irish-speaking world it sought to revive, and Synge, an Anglo-Irishman whose uncle had served as the Protestant clergyman to the islands almost fifty years before, went to Aran off and on during the years 1898-1902 to study the Irish language (his Irish is good). He was also an assiduous collector of stories, poems and other folklore, an activity greatly respected and eagerly supported by the islanders. He published The Aran Islands in 1907, the same year that Playboy was first produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

It is a fine little book, 136 pages filled with stories, both Synge's stories of his experiences and many stories told to him by islanders. There is no politics, no irony, no discussion of Synge's life before or after his time there, nothing about the Irish Revival. There is a great deal of discussion of the Irish language and much trenchant observation of the hard life on the islands, the dangers of putting to sea in the curaghs (large rowing boats), and vivid scenes of island life abound. The islanders are fascinated by Synge and expect him to entertain them, while he is quick to record everything he can about the "fairies," but it is clear that he achieved a measure of intimacy with these very rough people that few if any other outsiders have ever accomplished. An ancient stone lookout seat high on Inishmaan (an anglicization of Inis Meain, "middle island") is to this day known as Synge's Seat.

A nice little gem of a book, very little known. My Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics 1992 paperback edition has excellent footnotes and an extensive introduction by Tim Robinson (I always read the text before the introduction of any book, but in the case of non-fiction maybe that's not quite so important; in any event Robinson's apparatus is worth reading). Synge scholars can also identify sources here for several of the plays. Indispensable for the Irish literature enthusiast and certainly one of the best popular sources on the Arans.