THE PETCHARY’S BOOK REVIEWS
Most of these reviews have been published in the “Sunday Observer’s “BOOKENDS” section.
- “Breath” by Tim Winton Two teen surfing enthusiasts embrace life – and its risks – in Western Australia.
- “A Golden Age” by Tahmima Anam A widow tries to ensure her family’s survival in the upheaval of the Bangladeshi independence struggle.
- “Close Range:” Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx A collection of searing short stories, including “Brokeback Mountain,” reflecting the harsh, unforgiving landscape of Wyoming and its extraordinary people.
- Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano A delightful history of World Cup football, its skills, its players and its teams, from the Uruguayan writer (and football fan).
- “In the Country of Men” by Hisham Matar The experiences of a boy growing up in 1970s Libya, at the height of the oppressive Qaddafi regime,
- “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie A group of middle-class intellectuals confront the horrors of civil war during the Biafran conflict in 1960s Nigeria.
- “Serena” by Ron Rash A tale of greed, lust and revenge (with an environmental sub-text) set in 1930s Appalachia.
- “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz A roller-coaster of a novel, set in the Dominican Republic under the sinister rule of the dictator Trujillo.
- “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson An embattled reporter and a neurotic computer hacker team up to investigate a “cold” case in chilly Sweden. First in a trilogy.
- “The Informers” by Juan Gabriel Vasquez A Bogota writer investigates the past of his father, and finds that history – and memory- are not as clear-cut as they may seem.
- “The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo” by Peter Orner A charismatic young teacher and former revolutionary disturbs the lives of the staff and students at a remote Namibian boarding school.
- “The Vagrants” by Yiyun Li The story of a small Chinese town caught up in the democracy movement of the 1970s before the massacre at Tienanmen Square.
- “The Witch of Portobello” by Paulo Coelho The magical story of Athena, a loving, free and powerful woman.
- “Lost City Radio” by Daniel Alarcon. A radio program host tries to help others find their disappeared ones, and has her own personal quest to pursue.
- “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini The lives of two Afghan women become intertwined as they struggle for dignity, love and respect.
- “Three Junes” by Julia Glass A worldly story of family, New York, and love in its many forms.
- “What is the What” by Dave Eggers The bitingly real and stunning story of survival and redemption – the true story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys.”
- “The Banquet Bug” by Geling Yan A sharp story of the decadence, corruption – and appetites – of life in modern Beijing, where nothing is quite what it seems.
- “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini A childhood friendship in Kabul is destroyed by an act of betrayal – a poignant tale of redemption set against the violence of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ascendancy of the Taliban regime.
- “Seize the Day” by Saul Bellow Tommy Wilhelm is a gentle dreamer, struggling to keep his head above water in the tough, materialistic world of 1950s New York. By the Nobel Prize winner who grew up as the son of poor Russian Jewish immigrants.
- “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman A Brooklyn teen becomes a full-fledged sorcerer in a thrilling and vivid fantasy novel – Harry Potter on steroids.
- “Zorro” by Isabel Allende A richly described, full-bloodied version of the life and times of Diego de la Vega, of Alta California. Beautiful women, sword fights, gypsies, pirates and Native American shamans… Action!
- “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy The harrowing Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. A man and his son struggle to survive as they make their way through a dying, post-apocalyptic landscape.
- “The Death of Bunny Munro” by Nick Cave Another father and son story by the Australian rock band leader, composer and novelist. This time, the father takes his son on a crazy journey of self-destruction along England’s south coast.
- “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez A handsome young Arab merchant meets his inevitable fate in a small town on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, by the Nobel Prize-winning creator of “magic realism.”
- “The Patience Stone” by Atiq Rahimi An Afghan woman sits by the side of her wounded and unconscious husband, and looks back at her life.
- “The Yacoubian Building” by Alaa Al Aswany The seamy side of Cairo in the 1990s, written in elegant prose – the top-selling novel in Arabic that exposes the corruption and hypocrisy of Egypt under a dictatorship.
- “Full Dark, No Stars” by Stephen King. A disturbing collection of long short stories about the “other person” inside us all.
- “The Good Muslim” by Tahmima Amam. The second in a trilogy about a Bangladeshi family affected by the bitter civil war and its aftermath, focusing on daughter Maya and her encounters with Islam.
- “The Neruda Case” by Roberto Ampuero. A detective novel in which Cuban private eye Cayetano Brulé takes a sensual, adventurous journey from Allende’s Chile through Latin America and Eastern Europe in the Cold War era – on a quest set by the poet himself.
“Breath” by Tim Winton
The act of breathing and the object that is breath seem so close; but in fact one is mastery over the other. Breath is controlled, held in place – stopped, momentarily, or for always. It is the essence of our being, and remaining. For that reason alone, this essential breath is monotonous, predictable; even boring.
And boredom is one of the overwhelming emotions – if it can be so described – in the life of an adolescent. Brucie Pike and Loonie, two twelve year-olds living in a quiet town on the wild coast of Western Australia, are determined to keep that boredom at bay. They work at it together – at first, inseparable – with ever more thrilling escapades. Their fascination is with water; first the river, then the ocean, waiting its turn. They are impatient to take it on.
Pike is the quieter boy, with older, conservative but kindly parents; his mother makes scones for tea. Loonie’s family is less secure, and his spirit is unfettered. From the start it is clear that Loonie’s daring is more sharply honed, more refined than his friend, “Pikelet,” who observes, “He never backed away from anything or anyone; that was just how he was.”
The grace and beauty of surfing was never discussed between the boys; but it was all a part of the joy of daring, of “dancing on the water.” A large part of the enormous pleasure of reading this book was, for me, sharing this joy with them, through the gorgeously descriptive prose which begins with their first surfing experience. Winter storms, perilous rocks, swells and treacherous currents; the sea is beautiful and increasingly terrifying in its power. The sea roars and rumbles its way through the narrative, a restless companion for our fearlessly happy young surfers. You feel it with them when the salt water burns their sinuses, and they are tossed down to the sea floor.
It’s not just a pretty picture, it’s a raw sensation.
This could be a happy coming of age story; but we know this is not to be, from the disturbing prelude, narrated by Pike as an older man. Our young adventurers meet the old hippie Sando, and are drawn to the enigmatic man with a long grey beard and a carelessly bold style of surfing. Through their troubled, ambivalent relationships with Sando and his young, embittered American wife Eva, the teenagers venture further into strange and difficult territory. The risks become greater, the shadows lengthen, and the boys become old beyond their years – with no way home. They are literally out of their depth, their feet no longer touching the ground.
They are holding their breath.
Yes, another thing about breath – like surfing, it can be addictive. Whether it is his father’s mountainous snores at night, the boys’ childish underwater contests in the cold river water, or the much more adult pleasures taken at Sando and Eva’s house on the hill, breath and the control of it brings risk. The sour taste of real danger mixes deliciously with the oxygen-filled delights of the wave and its depths.
When I visited Australia last year, the surfers were there. They were there at Bondi Beach, boys and girls and men and women, floating on the vast blue and white moving patchwork of sea and foam; young men with bleached hair, peeling their wetsuits down to their waists in parking lots. At Byron Bay, they were fathers and sons, laughing together at a secret joke as they tucked their surfboards under their arms and headed home; and the lone surfers were out there in the glowing dusk (a time of day when the sharks come out), clinging to the waves as if they were catching the very last one to fall onto those silken shores.
We never spoke to a surfer, did not want to disturb them. They were in their own world. As Sando says (“hippie shit, mate,” scoffs Lonnie), “It’s about you. You and the sea, you and the planet.”
Author Note: Tim Winton was born in 1960 in Perth, Australia. He has been making his living as a writer since his first novel, “An Open Summer,” won the Australian/Vogel National Literary Award. He began the novel at age nineteen while taking a Creative Writing course at Curtin University, Perth. He also wrote “Cloudstreet” (1991), which was adapted for the theater and toured Australia, Europe and the U.S.; and “That Eye, The Sky,” (1986), which was adapted for the theater and made into a film. “In the Winter Dark” (1988) was also filmed. “The Riders” (1995) was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. After six adult novels, he wrote his first children’s book in 1988 and subsequently several others about a 13-year-old, Lockie Leonard. He is also the author of two short story collections, “Scission and Other Stories” (1987) and “Minimum of Two” (1987). His novel “Dirt Music” (2001) won several awards and “The Turning” (2005) tells seventeen overlapping stories. “Breath” (2008) is the winner of the 2009 Miles Franklin Award for Literature – Australia’s top literary prize – which he has now won four times; and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It is his first novel in seven years. Winton is active in Australia’s environmental movement, in particular the preservation of the marine environment. For more about “Breath” see http://breath.timwinton.com.au/
“A Golden Age” by Tahmima Anam
This is a first novel. Its title sounds rich with nostalgia; its gilded cover is as fine as a brocaded sofa. So, dear reader, as you take this book in your hands, you might expect to embark on a gentle and refined trip into a culture that may be exotic and unfamiliar.
But was there anything so sweetly reassuring about East Pakistan in the year 1971? Very far from it: this is a period that is drawing fast to a close; a time that rushes towards chaos; a moment in history descending into the confusion and cruelty that gave birth to the country of Bangladesh.
This is the story of one woman, devoted to her home, her family, her country. She draws it all to her, seeks to hold it all together, while all that is familiar steadily unravels around her, becoming strange and incomprehensible. However, our heroine, Rehana Haque, is not quite the selfless matriarch that she appears to be in the opening pages. In 1959, Rehana is a poverty-stricken widow in Dhaka, who sends her son Sohail and her daughter Maya to the faraway city of Lahore to stay with their aunt and uncle after she is deemed unfit to care for them. Now in the money (and that’s another story), she builds a house to rent, and calls it Shona: Gold, her fortune. She brings the children back; in 1971, they are university students with a reverence for Ché Guevara and Lenin. Almost instantly, they are caught up in the growing instability and the country’s fight for independence.
An aside to the reader: don’t read this book when feeling hungry. One of the comforts that Rehana holds dear is cooking. In her poverty as the story opens, she can only offer “weak, watery dal and some bitter gourd” to a neighbor. Later there is tamarind juice, biryani, spicy yoghurt, curried chicken, fried okra, sherbet. There are also lovely descriptions of clothes – egg-blue saris, pearls and embroidery, canary-yellow chiffon. And Rehana’s garden is alive, almost another character in the novel: filled with her favorite yellow roses and jasmine and hibiscus, fragrant with mango trees, lemon trees and lilies. Only the most vivid colors survive in Bengal’s climate.
Burning roofs; hooded torture victims; tanks firing into slum homes; and the sudden rattle of machine-gun fire begin, and continue to disrupt Rehana’s domesticity. Guns are buried in her garden. Her children and their comrades in arms come and go, red-eyed and dusty, wearing each other’s clothes; and she feeds them, her “hungry dreamers” who have become warriors. Eventually, a complete stranger comes into her house, with a wounded face and a broken thigh. She cares for him, too.
So, Rehana shifts gear; she turns her focus to the survival of her children. The nights are darker; familiar streets are hostile; old haunts are desecrated, and everyday acquaintances no longer trusting or trustworthy as ethnic divisions begin to smolder. Our heroine hardens. “To prove I belong here,” in solidarity with her children, she sews all the saris her husband gave her into blankets for refugees. She becomes a refugee herself for a while. She does what needs to be done; and as she confesses to the man she later begins to love, she can be hard and unscrupulous when she is in great need.
Later, she proves this to herself again – and to her lover, and to her family. There are some things she simply will not allow to happen. A new country emerges from the bitterness, and on the day the peace treaty is signed, Rehana sings the nationalist song: “How I love you, my golden Bengal.” But much has been lost.
The gold is that of the rice fields, ripening in the autumn sun. And Bengal is the mother.
Tahmima Anam was born in 1975 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She grew up in Paris, New York and Bangkok, because of her father’s position in the UN; and now lives in London. She attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and obtained her Ph.D. in social anthropology at HarvardUniversity in 2005. She maintains close ties with Bangladesh, where her father Mahfuz Anam edits the country’s largest English-speaking newspaper, the Daily Star. Published in 2007, “A Golden Age” is the first in a planned trilogy. Read more about Ms. Anam at http://www.tahmima.com/
“Close Range:” Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx
“Short stories are very difficult for me,” says Ms. Proulx. The reader may also find these stories tough going. These are tales of hardship, both physical and emotional.
Nor are they pretty Western stories, where the men look like Robert Redford, the girls are sweet, strong and dark-eyed, and even the animals look clean and well-scrubbed. “Close Range” is about survival in a harsh landscape of bitter snowstorms, grinding drought and dust, violent winds and drenching rain, burning heat and biting cold. The people in these tales never stop working: butchering cattle, mending acres of fences, fixing tractors, loading and unloading trucks, pumping gas, herding sheep, sleeping out in the cold. The smell of dirt, gasoline, sweat, dust, leather, cigarette smoke, blood and beer float up from the pages. There are accidents, gruesome deaths and terrible injuries.
The land and its population are in constant struggle. The land shapes the characters – not the other way round. Car Scrope in “Pair a Spurs” hangs on by his soiled and broken fingernails to a life turned sour and chaotic. In “The Mud Below,” the battered rodeo rider Diamond Felts confronts fleeting pleasure and physical pain head on, trying to relive the euphoria of the ride. Leeland Lee in “Job History” patiently works his way through family tragedies, births and deaths, doing the best he can and hoping for the best.
There is no room here for romantic love, quiet reflection, a harmonious family life or even the satisfaction of a job well done. Sex is an urgent, quick need, or a twist of character. The Dunsmire and Tinsley families in “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” share a kind of desperate fatalism: “Only earth and sky matter,” not people. The cowboys of Brokeback Mountain can neither understand nor articulate their aching loneliness.
The dialogue is terse and at times profane. Yet stories such as “The Blood Bay,” a short, brutal nineteenth-century tale, are laced with dry, sometimes macabre humor. Ms. Proulx’ world is peopled with extraordinary men (I think she prefers male characters) with names that fairly sing off the page: Leecil Bewd and Jim Jack Jett, Ennis Del Mar and Sutton Muddyman. It’s a man’s world, but there are some formidable women too: the wayward, no-holds-barred Josanna Skiles, and the hard-as-nails, whiskey-drinking, rather terrifying Mrs. Freeze. No delicate flowers here – and, it must be said, no truly lovable characters.
There are eleven stories in this collection, one only two pages long. The book begins with the disturbing, hallucinatory “The Half-Skinned Steer,” inspired by a trip to a 10,000-acre nature preserve – and an Icelandic myth. It ends with the quietly tragic “Brokeback Mountain” (the author considered the feature film an excellent interpretation of her relatively spare, yet intense story, and was deeply disappointed when it failed to win an Oscar for Best Picture).
It is always tempting to pick out favorites in a short story collection. The first and last shine out, but there is a lot of magnificent stuff in between. This is a challenging read, not for the faint-hearted. Tread carefully, for the language can sweep you away. There are searing descriptions of land and sky, for example: “Then the violent country showed itself, the cliffs rearing at the moon, the snow smoking off the prairie like steam, the white flank of the ranch slashed with fence cuts, the sage-brush glittering and along the creek black tangles of willow bunched like dead hair.”
When you plunge into the stunning geography of Proulx’ imagination, it will take you some time to come out from under it.
Author Note: Of French Canadian/American ancestry, Edna Annie Proulx (pronounced “Proo”) was born in Connecticut, the eldest of five daughters. She graduated in history from the University of Vermont, did her Masters at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University in Montreal, but did not complete her doctoral thesis. Before turning to fiction with her first short story collection in 1988, she wrote several books on cooking and gardening. In 1993 she won the Pen/Faulkner Award for her first novel, “Postcards”; in 1994 she won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for “The Shipping News” (also a 2001 feature film);and two O. Henry Awards for Short Stories (“Brokeback Mountain” and “The Mud Below”) in 1998 & 1999. She lives in Wyoming & spends part of the year in Newfoundland.
Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano
I am a football supporter. But “support” is not the right word. It sounds dry, and there is nothing dry about football. It is pure passion.
This passion Galeano feels. The daring and sheer beauty of a player who knows his relationship with the ball (that “crazy feeling”), who loves and dares it to do better, who turns on it and sends it far away, watching it take flight. The exhilaration of those improvised steps, back heels, feints, step overs, bicycle kicks – in all their impulsive, if well rehearsed, tricks and turns and tumbles.
Early on Galeano declares his disillusionment with the modern game: it has been destroyed, he believes, by the evils of commercialism, It’s a profitable spectacle: “a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.” This is all in keeping with his Latin American left-wing credentials, of course. He clings to the image of a group of boys kicking a ball in a dusty street, and afterwards singing: “We lost, we won, either way we had fun.”
Indeed, modern football is about money: sponsorship, fees, the trading of players. The individual player, the freedom, the delight in his skills is subservient to the almighty team. The team serves its manager – and its fans (not enough about the fans in this book, I felt. What would football be without us – imperfect, adoring creatures that we are?)
This book is successful at many levels: its graceful language; the short chapters with titles like “the man who turned iron into wind,” and “the perfect kiss would like to be unique.” The author illustrates each page with tiny, impish figures (the cover depicts “god and the devil in rio de janeiro”). Many chapters are simply headed “goal by zico” or “didí and she” (“she” being the ball), describing the extravagancies of a striker or goal-keeper.
Woven into the elegant descriptions of Platini and Pelé and Puskas (Galeano works from the first South American championship in 1916 right up to the 2002 World Cup), is a mixture of social commentary and world history in small chunks. A wry, oft-repeated refrain amongst these brief catalogues is: “Well-informed sources in Miami announced the imminent fall of Fidel Castro, it was only a matter of hours.” Mr. Galeano writes with reverent nostalgia about “spiky-haired, dark-skinned poor” of Buenos Aires, the Boca Juniors fans; and the “Black Marvel” of his native Uruguay, José Leandro Andrade. There is moral indignation about “soccer’s new monarch,” Sep Blatter, and “soccer for robots.”
These are the lights and shadows of football in the book’s title. But no – that joy of the people in their game is still there; it always will be. From my office window I look out on a narrow lane where, every afternoon after school, a football rises and falls above the zinc fences; I imagine shouts, scuffles, laughter.
This is the world’s game, and it will continue speaking its unique, universal, wordless language.
Author Note: Eduardo Galeano was born in 1940 in Montevideo into a middle-class family. He left school at age 16 and began a journalism career at age 20. He was editor-in-chief of the journal “Marcha,” the daily “Epocha,” and the University Press. After the military coup of 1973, he was imprisoned and then forced to flee Uruguay. He had meanwhile published a novel and several books on politics and culture. In Argentina, he founded and edited “Crisis,” a cultural magazine. “The Open Veins of Latin America” (1971), essays denouncing the exploitation of the continent by European powers, made Galeano famous. In 1976, a bloody coup in Argentina forced him to flee this time to Spain, where he wrote his famous trilogy “Memory of Fire.” In 1985 he finally returned to Uruguay, where he still lives. With other left-wing intellectuals he joined the advisory committee of TeleSUR, a pan-Latin American television station in Venezuela, in 2005. In 2006, he was among a group of writers and artists demanding sovereignty for Puerto Rico. Last year, he underwent a successful operation for lung cancer.
“In the Country of Men” by Hisham Matar
“Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
There’s that expression called “out of left field.” I have no real understanding of baseball, but one gets the sense of it: an event, a twist, that comes at you when your thoughts are elsewhere. The event is seemingly random. It is startling. It has no relation to your petty everyday life, except that it is there to disrupt, to corrupt, to spoil.
Then there is the “curveball” – or, in cricket parlance, the “googly.” This is a deception: it attacks, it spins you around on the spot, and there you are, open-mouthed, unprepared and on the losing end. Everything is turned on its head.
The people whose lives we become engaged with, in both these novels, are being stalked out in the left field. And the curveball/googly must arrive, sooner or later. It’s only a matter of time.
The reader senses it. But the characters in these novels are not prepared to face it – not yet.
In “In the Country of Men,” nine year-old Suleiman’s world is already filled with the alcoholic fears and insecurities of his mother, who obtains her illicit bottle of “medicine” under the counter at a baker’s shop. He is defined by his relationship with his mother. He protects her by pouring the medicine down the sink. Meanwhile, his father’s mysterious activities seem to exacerbate his mother’s condition – although her sense of self-preservation remains strong.
The clues Suleiman has to his father’s preoccupations are a manual typewriter, a house in Martyr’s Square with green shutters, papers and books, books, books (all of which get burned eventually, except one). The surviving book is called, tellingly, “Democracy Now.”
Suleiman lives in Tripoli, Libya, in the late seventies: a brutal and repressive period in Colonel Qaddafi’s rule. Telephone conversations with a sinister echo are interrupted by a mocking third voice; there are interrogations of traitors and spies on television – including one of a close family friend; neighbors eavesdrop on neighbors; neighbors inform on neighbors. As a sign of new-found devotion, the family is forced to hang an oversized painting of the Colonel on the living room wall: “The shoulders of his military suit glittered with golden decorations. The sky behind him cloudless, the blue luminous and sweet like candy.”
And then there is Sharief, the man with the pock-marked skin who sits in a car outside their house on a daily basis: an enigmatic figure, not as uniformly evil in the eyes of the nine year-old as you might expect him to be. He becomes familiar, and is the only person who answers poor Suleiman’s questions directly; but he asks a lot of questions in return.
And then the local imam tells him: “Have no cause to fear; only the guilty live in fear.” But poor young Suleiman does feel guilty: about the way he treats a sickly young friend, about his mother’s alcoholism and his father’s appalling treatment at the hand of the Colonel’s goons. His mother’s worst insult is to call someone a coward; even Scheherazade, the beautiful storyteller from “A Thousand and One Nights,” is a coward “who accepted slavery over death,” she declares.
But the overriding emotion in this novel is, inevitably, fear. Fear, occasioned by guilt – and all the confusion that engenders in a young boy who cannot change the cruelty of events.
“Half of a Yellow Sun” also opens from the viewpoint of a boy – Ugwu, a naïve thirteen year-old from a rural village, excited about his new job working for “Master,” fascinated by the electric light and running water and supply of fried chicken which the man who employs him enjoys as a matter of course.
With this book, we step backwards one decade further, and we move further south. “Master” is Odenigbo, an intellectual in 1960s Nigeria, a country already fraught with civil war. He wears a safari suit, a thick shock of hair and carries a powerful presence. He lives and teaches in the university town of Nsukka. He plays tennis and engages in other middle class pursuits, but his views are comfortably radical.
The beautiful Olanna, his live-in lover, is enthralled by him. But she is vulnerable and often regarded with suspicion – her beauty and her education get in the way. Her sister Kainene is a sharply angled woman, who sarcastically calls Olanna “the good one.” Kainene begins a precarious relationship with Richard, a diffident young English writer who suffers from chronic writer’s block.
The regular, alcoholic discussions with an additional cast of friends who visit Odenigbo are always enjoyable, but become gradually more heated as the conflict on the outside begins to tear at the edges of their comfort. Rumors sneak in – thicker, gaining speed, trickling into their comfortable existence like rivulets of dirty water that gradually become streams. While privileged Nigerians continue to enjoy rich meals, conversations touch on it: “There’s a little tension in the army, but there’s always a little tension in the army. Did you have the goat meat? Isn’t it wonderful?”
Then there are more than rumors. The shock hits each one of our small group individually, in different ways, in severe jolts. A train journey exposes the lovely Olanna, her eyes burning, to the horror endured by women and children fleeing the conflict; Richard encounters brutality in the form of soldiers with wild, red eyes while departing Kano Airport. At “Master’s”, Ugwu no longer serves his famous pepper soup to their few guests, and the evenings are quiet.
For less than three years, from 1967 to 1970, just a few years after Nigeria’s independence from Britain and after two coups and much unrest and ethnic conflict, Eastern Nigeria seceded. It became the Republic of Biafra, mainly consisting of the persecuted Igbo people; its flag was the “half of a yellow sun.” The rising, golden sun on a black, red and green background was very reminiscent of the UNIA flag.
My personal memories of this period are pictures of children of indeterminate age with large heads, swollen bellies, eyes filled with flies, mouths sticky with mucus…the first time I had seen such despairing images, and sadly, not the last.
So, led enthusiastically by Odenigbo and the university students, our friends become triumphant and defiant Biafrans, overnight. By this half-way point in the story, the reader is so entangled with the fortunes of our group of five human beings that it is impossible to let go. The reader is dragged along with them, as they run across streets for fear of air raids and push into long lines at relief centers, begging for dried egg yolk; as they endure personal betrayals and infidelities, losses and disappointments, anger, hunger and the deepest of pain.
The book is much denser than Matar’s novel, which describes dreadful situations in swift, sharp strokes. It is longer, and with the luxury of more detail in the characters and small vignettes of despair and deprivation. In desperation, a woman cooks soup with meat – the local dog, Bingo, which had a head full of sores, is in the pot. Old men and boys, including Ugwu, are forcibly recruited into the Biafran army.
Eventually, Olanna and Odenigbo return to their vandalized home and burned books, a place “shapeless and tangled.” But there is food in the market; Ugwu is the first to start cleaning and cooking, trying to untangle and reshape their lives again. Meanwhile, Richard had started writing. Including a poem entitled: “Were you silent when we died?”
A group of deer stand in a forest, quivering with the smell of danger – but unable to sense when it will arrive, or from which direction. The hunter may not reveal himself immediately, but the creatures have to choose a course, follow their instincts: should they wait a few more minutes, or should they break and run for it now?
Like the deer, our heroes and heroines must time it right, or they will be trapped among the bracken and ferns, in the minutiae of their lives, unwilling to let go. And once the danger has finally passed, and the hunter has gone home for dinner, they return to whatever they were doing before the danger arrived. But nothing is quite the same; life is not so certain any more.
Thus, the final chapters of both the books are imbued with feelings of acquiescence, muted sorrow, and a kind of emptiness that can only be filled by a rekindling of loving relationships. Perhaps not altogether satisfactory, but after so much turmoil, how else could their stories end?
After the horror and the pain, the mundane takes over. But there is always the lingering perception that perhaps the hunter will return, and they will be caught off guard again.
Author Notes: Hisham Matar: born in New York, 1970; his father was a Libyan diplomat. His family fled political persecution soon after returning home to Tripoli, Libya, and traveling first to Kenya and then to Cairo, where they settled. Matar moved to London in 1986 and studied architecture. His father, a long-time opponent of the Qaddafi regime, was arrested by the Egyptian secret police in 1990 and returned to Libya; he has not been heard of since. “In the Country of Men” (2006) won several literary prizes and has been translated into 22 languages. Read Matar’s personal story at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/hisham-matar-i-just-want-to-know-what-happened-to-my-father-407444.html Chimamanda Ngozi Adieche: born in Enugu, Nigeria, 1977. She moved to the United States at age 19. She has a Masters in Creative Writing (Johns Hopkins) and in African Studies (Yale). Her first novel “Purple Hibiscus” (2003) won the Best First Book in the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2006) won the Orange Prize for Fiction. “The Thing Around Your Neck,” a short story collection, was published in April.
“Serena” by Ron Rash
This is what my father would call “a cracking good yarn.” Dear reader, you will be tossed around on a surging current of emotions: anger, jealousy, greed, revenge, self-pity, lust, fear…but very little love.
The heroine – or anti-heroine – of this book, Serena, is ill-named. There is absolutely nothing serene about her; unless you can equate serenity with the calm – a kind of cold certainty – which shines in her eyes when she has just made up her mind to… But no, I had better not say any more. You will soon find out for yourself what Serena is capable of.
It is 1929. George Pemberton steps off the train in Waynesville, North Carolina with his new bride Serena, and the action starts. The story begins with a murder – the kind of killing that is committed deliberately to show dominance, the kind that is done with a swagger. Thereafter, the Pembertons waste no time in establishing their authority among the “highlanders” who work for them. They immediately begin planning their assault on the land: thousands of acres of untouched forest to be logged, gold to be mined, railroads to be laid. It’s all theirs for the taking.
The relationship between Pemberton and his wife is so close that it is almost stifling. Serena sets the tone from the outset: “That’s what I want, everything a part of you also a part of me.” She calls their love-making “a kind of annihilation.” To Pemberton, she is not only desirable; he is in awe of her, unashamed in his admiration.
Serena rides out to oversee the work on a white Arab horse and dispatches her pet eagle to kill all the rattlesnakes in the valleys. The workers quickly develop a healthy respect for their mistress with her men’s clothing and calloused hands. After saving his life, Serena develops a close relationship with one man in particular. He becomes a devoted follower – and accomplice.
Quite apart from the juicy story line and the terrifying heroine (I will reveal no more of the plot, which thunders along at a steadily accelerating pace) there are things to savor along the way. The everyday detail of the period is absorbing: a hunting knife with an elk-bone handle; an apple wood fire burning, with a cane-back chair by the hearth; a Bible wrapped in oilcloth; rhubarb and blackberry jam, buttermilk and whiskey; burlap sacks, gray cotton stockings, red handkerchiefs, tripod cameras. The not-yet-touched areas of the southern landscape are richly described; Rachel, the sweet but resourceful mother of Pemberton’s illegitimate child, lives closely with her environment, going into the woods to gather roots and herbs until sundown.
But, as George Pemberton discovers, and his men already know, the land is hard: it fights back against the attacks of saws and axes. The long cutting blades snap as the tree trunks resist their bite. A young man drowns in a crowd of logs carried downstream. Rattlesnakes bite fiercely. There are rumors of a mountain lion lurking in the hills. The men slip and fall in acres of mud; the rivers fill with silt and dying trout; the wind blows hard and the snow lies thick. There are terrible deaths and injuries. And the end result is the same: a devastated wasteland of tree stumps that grows wider, season by season. Meanwhile, a political battle looms between the loggers and a growing movement to create the first national parks.
Then one beautiful evening, on a meadow golden with brush sedge, George Pemberton confronts his darkest fears alone and reaches out…for salvation.
Author note: Ron Rash was born in Chester Springs, South Carolina, in 1953 and grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. He is proud of his Appalachian heritage which goes back 250 years. As a child, he spent summers at his grandmother’s home in the mountains of North Carolina. He has a B.A. and M.A. in English from Gardner-WebbCollege and ClemsonUniversity. He taught English at high school and at a technical college for 17 years. His first book of short stories, “The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth and Other Stories from Cliffside, North Carolina” was published in 1994. Since then he has published three books of poetry, three short story collections, and four novels. His poetry and fiction have been published in numerous literary journals: he describes himself as a narrative poet, influenced by traditional Welsh poetry. His 2008 novel, “Serena,” is, like his earlier work, set in Appalachia and echoes the environmental themes of his poetry collection “Raising the Dead” (2002) and his novel “Saints at the River” (2004). He currently holds the John Parris Chair in Appalachian Studies at WesternCarolinaUniversity, where he teaches Appalachian Literature and Creative Writing. He has won the Novello Literary Award, Foreword Magazine’s Gold Medal in Literary Fiction, the James Still Award of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and an O. Henry Prize, among others.
“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz
This story flies along like an Easter kite in the sky, tossing and trailing its ribbons behind it. I, the reader, hold on tight, trying to reel it in. But it breaks free, galloping away through the hot blue sky. I am taken along for the ride. Sometimes I feel dizzy, sometimes queasy, and sometimes a wild exhilaration takes hold of me. It’s a very uncomfortable flight with plenty of turbulence.
My advice is to throw caution to the wind when you open this book. I confess that when I finished reading, a tear actually trickled down my cheek. Such was the emotional impact: a feeling not merely of being hit by a freight train, but of being dragged along by it, mercilessly entangled in its wheels, until the driver slams the brakes on.
Well, it begins and ends with Oscar. Oscar as an over-indulged seven year-old growing up in Washington Heights, an Upper Manhattan neighborhood which has for decades been at least 50% Dominican, where Spanish is often heard spoken on the streets. Then Oscar as a young man, standing in a canefield near Santo Domingo on a beautiful moonlit night.
I must digress a little here: this Dominican language, with Spanish slang words and some profanities thrown in, careers along at a hectic pace and is the dominant speech of both the narrator and the characters, when they speak for themselves. Add to that frequent references to the graphic novels, fantasies and video games that Oscar immerses himself in, and we come across passages that include Dominican street talk (with one or two “bad words” perhaps), and comparisons to characters in “The Lord of the Rings.”
Let me find an example: the narrator, Yunior, comments succinctly, “But you know exactly what kind of world we live in. It ain’t no f….ing Middle Earth.” But once one allows oneself to fall into the rhythm of it, it rings naturally in your head after the first twenty pages or so.
I must also mention the fascinating footnotes – a rich tapestry of facts, myths and rumors largely focused on the characters that populated the Age of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. And from time to time, there are passages of clear insight and lyricism, and a stunning dash of magical realism. It all blends into a dazzling and irresistible whole: cruel, angry, hurtful at times, but also filled with rich humor, warmth, energy and moments of astonishing beauty.
One more tremendous flourish, a lyrical delight, is a sentence that flows on for a page and a half, describing Oscar’s return to the “surreal whirligig” of Santo Domingo after a long absence. Each phrase is a story, a paragraph in itself, and a joy to read.
Oscar expresses himself differently. He is a quaint figure, lost in the midst of his family’s turbulent past, present and future that make up a large part of the narrative. A gentle young man, he is an oddity among his fellow Dominicans. Oscar speaks in graceful, old-fashioned English: “My heart is overthrown,” he says, and he speaks about “having carnal relations” with girls. He is what is called these days a nerd, who is very conscious that he is very overweight; and whose eternal quest is for love – a pure, “all or nothing” kind of love that also includes losing his virginity. Or at least getting kissed.
Around the tragic figure of Oscar, the novel quickly builds into a powerful story: part family saga, part historical melodrama, part “coming of age,” part sociological commentary on all things Dominican, part immigrant story. The narrator’s voice is male, but at one point Oscar’s supportive sister Lola (herself not “typical” of her race) takes over for a while. The life and times of his mother Belicia, his grandmother La Inca and grandfather Abelard take us deep into the complexities of life on the island: the prayers and the curses, the fried fish and hot beaches and “love motels”.
The images are vivid: we can almost smell the flesh of a skinned goat hanging from a rope in the sun; women parade like birds of paradise at a ball; the gangster with “pouched gray eyes” who is loved by Belicia, sits in the El Hollywood club, the essence of cool. The three generations of Cabral women, all of whom are fiercely devoted to Oscar, almost jump off the page and wrap their arms (and legs) around us. The women fight and pray, they have sex, they suffer – but above all, like Oscar, they love deeply.
But over this love that never stops burning, over all of this there are two dark shadows looming – in fact, two shadows almost merged into one. One is the sinister, dreadful and all too real figure of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. His spirit hovers over the island, permeating in horrific and disturbing ways the lives of the Cabral family. We never meet him in person, but we meet many people who are his evil deed-doers, his lovers, his servants and his admirers. His oppressed people make up the total of everyone else in the Republic.
The second shadow is a supernatural creature: the fukú – at least as real as Oscar’s fantasy villains. The fukú is “specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.” Like Trujillo, it “always gets its man,” sooner or later. We are introduced to the fukú on the first page. At one point the narrator suggests that this creature and the evil dictator have much in common, and may contain elements of each other. Both are like cold fingers at the back of your neck.
Both, in the end, appear to triumph; but that very much depends on which way you look at it, dear reader.
Author note: Junot Diaz was born in 1968 in relatively impoverished circumstances in Villa Juana in the Dominican Republic. He lived with his mother and grandparents while his father worked in the United States; they migrated to New Jersey when he was six years old. The family again fell on hard times in the 1980s after his father left and his brother was diagnosed with leukemia. Diaz attended Kean College in New Jersey before transferring to Rutgers University, where he majored in English and joined a creative writing group. He worked at various jobs to support himself throughout his college years, and after graduating worked as an editorial assistant at Rutgers. In 1995 he obtained his Masters of Fine Arts at Cornell University. Diaz co-founded the Voices of Writing Workshop focused on writers of color. He has won numerous awards, including a fellowship at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1999 and the Rome Prize from the American Academy for Arts & Letters. He began publishing short stories in 1995; his fiction has appeared regularly in the “New Yorker” and four times in “The Best American Short Stories.” His first short story collection “Drown” was published in 1996 to rave reviews, became a best seller and won several awards. His first novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” published eleven years later in 2007, received unprecedented critical acclaim, and very recently received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Novel of 2007. It also won the “New York Times” Notable Book Gold Medal for 2007 and was selected by “Time” and “New York Magazine” as the best novel of 2007, among other prizes. Diaz has won numerous awards, including a fellowship at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Rome Prize from the American Academy for Arts & Letters. Diaz now lives in Boston and New York, teaches creative writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is fiction editor of the Boston Review. He co-founded the Voices of Writing Workshop, focused on writers of color.
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson
Beneath the icy surface of this novel, something is stirring. A mystery. Yes, a disappearance. On an island off the coast of Stockholm, accessible only by one bridge, a teenage girl has disappeared.
The man hired to look into this mystery (the Swedish equivalent of Hercule Poirot, perhaps), is Mikael Blomqvist, an investigative financial reporter in his forties, who specializes in exposing sleaze and corruption for a magazine he co-owns with his married lover. The only problem is: this is what they call a “cold case.” Harriet Vanger went missing forty years ago, and her great uncle, an elderly industrial magnate called Henrik Vanger, believes she was murdered. He has obsessed over it for years, and now wants our dashing Blomqvist to find out who did it.
So far, so good. After numerous cups of coffee (which recur throughout the story – I began to worry that Blomqvist was over-caffeinated, as well perhaps as over-sexed), our hero moves into a small house on the island, and begins to methodically sift through old family records, photographs and the like.
He “powers up his iBook” (frequently). References to computers also pop up regularly; one paragraph begins: “Unsurprisingly she set her sights on the best available alternative: the new Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHz in an aluminium case with a PowerPC 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity Engine…” You get the picture.
Blomqvist is unaware that he is being investigated by the eponymous tattooed girl, Lisbeth Salander. While Blomqvist begins to delve into the murky family history of the Vanger clan (sleeping with one of them en route, for no particular reason), Salander is doing investigative work for a security company. She is good at finding out people’s secrets, and her methods are ruthless; she is a computer hacker – so, more technological references. Eventually, she crosses paths with our hero and they combine forces.
At times Salander is almost appealing; we are told of her troubled childhood and history of abuse. Mostly, she hides behind a kind of defensive shield. Her defenses are only down when she is alone with Blomqvist, who seems to be a magnet for women – one wonders how/why. Her deepest expression of feeling is: “I like having sex with you.”
It is cold. Did I mention that already? The bitter cold of a Swedish winter seeps into the narrative, the stilted conversations, the string of sexual encounters – some of them pleasant enough, others violent and abusive.
As Blomqvist and Salander embark on their pursuit of the missing Harriet, they find corruption and intrigue, bitter family feuds and scandals. There are plenty of Vangers to get to know. Many of them still live on the island and come and go at all hours of the night and day. One is a recluse, the other an ex-Nazi. One is a “firebrand,” though we hardly get to know her. Most of the Vangers hate/avoid/ignore the existence of at least one other member of the clan. Blomqvist has a tough job ahead of him, and there are many twists that will appeal to the dedicated mystery lover.
I confess that I used to love mystery novels, of the old-fashioned kind. If this is the new breed of mystery novel, then it literally leaves me cold. About half way through the book I realized I simply did not care A) what happened to Harriet Vanger or B) whether Blomqvist and Salander lived happily ever after. I remain puzzled by the glowing reviews on the sleeve of the hardcover I read – from the likes of Michael Oondatje.
I guess I will have to go back to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Problem is, I’ve read them all.
Author note: Stieg Larsson was born in Västerbotten, northern Sweden in 1954. He worked as a graphic designer for a news agency from 1977 to 1999. He became well-known for his work against racism and right-wing extremists. In the mid-1980s, he helped found the “Stop the Racism” movement and in 1995 founded the Swedish Expo Foundation. According to its website at http://expo.se/about-expo.html Sweden was at that time “the world’s largest producer of hate propaganda.” In 1999, he became editor-in-chief of the Foundation’s magazine Expo magazine, which investigates right-wing organizations in Sweden. Meanwhile, Larsson was writing crime novels in his spare time, and delivered three manuscripts to his publishers before his sudden death from a heart attack in Stockholm in 2004. The first of these manuscripts in the “Millennium series” was “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The following two novels are entitled “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked Over the Hornet’s Nest.”
“The Informers” by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Translated by Anne McLean
It has been said that Colombian literature has been lingering too long in the towering shadow of Gabriel Garcia Márquez. He’s a hard act to follow, and he has been casting his spell of magic realism for decades. Now it’s time for the younger writers to emerge into the sunlight.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez is one of them, and with hardly a blink, he has hit the ground running. Not a trace of magic realism here. No levitations, no visions, no mythical figures. There is, however, much that is real, and much that seems to be real. The story is, among other things, a quest for the truth, for something that is solid, that you can touch and hold onto. It is also about the nature of memory, and the way we feel about our past.
The palette of Márquez is brilliant blue, sharp citrus, silvery white. In “The Informers,” everything is painted in delicate shades of gray – so many shades between black and white. Vásquez writes with an almost mesmerizing skill, with fine detail in dialogue and description, in beautifully nuanced, flowing prose (the translation by Anne McLean is superb).
This exploration of the past is something like an old sepia photograph. As you peer at it, you see there are blurred areas; a shadowy figure stands in the background; an enigmatic expression is frozen on a woman’s face; there is a half movement, an object you cannot quite identify. You cannot stop looking at it; you are drawn in.
Dear reader, you will also be drawn in, and held there.
The story begins in a heavy downpour in Bogotá; it is the early nineties. Gabriel Santoro is paying a rare visit to his estranged father, who is preparing for major heart surgery. At sixty-seven years, Santoro the elder afterwards sees his recovery as “a second chance” at life, an opportunity to correct past mistakes. But six months later he is dead, and his son begins a cautious, slow and ultimately deeply painful investigation into his father’s past.
Dr. Gabriel Santoro the elder had been a much-awarded, fervently applauded orator and intellectual, who spoke about lofty ideals and who, three years earlier, had delivered a public lecture on the city of Bogotá’s “political and moral reconstruction.” In that same year, his son published his first book, “A Life in Exile,” documenting the life and times of a Jewish German immigrant and old family friend, Sara Guterman, who was among many who escaped the rise of Nazism and settled in Colombia.
His father’s reaction to the book – a sarcastic rejection that stunned the city, and his son, with its viciousness – baffles the younger Santoro. In time, he come to realize that, in the process of describing a little-known and fascinating period in Colombian history, he had without knowing it disturbed a strange, tormenting secret that had been lying there quietly for years.
What is an “informer”? Is his role simply to offer information, or is it at times darker and more complex? Certainly there are several types of informers in this story, and in the son’s “book within a book.”
Gabriel himself is one. There are several women who provide him with information: Sara Guterman, his father’s young lover Angelina, a German bookseller, and a Colombian prostitute. Through them, Gabriel finds his way to the source of a cruel personal betrayal. Gabriel’s father offers a description of those informers who watched and denounced German immigrants who harbored Nazi sympathies, so their names were included on a blacklist: “None of you have felt that terrible power, the power to finish someone else off….The system of blacklists gave power to the weak, and the weak are the majority. That was life during those years: the dictatorship of weakness. The dictatorship of resentment…the hatred the naturally weak feel for the naturally strong.”
This is the bitterness, wrapped in a shroud of hypocrisy that keeps rising to the surface as the younger Santoro stirs the murky waters of the past. The story ends on a treacherous mountain road outside Medellín, with the smell of gasoline from speeding buses and the humidity of vegetation. And it ends with the thought that “nobody ever learns; that’s the biggest fallacy of all.”
Gabriel Santoro the elder was a great admirer of Demosthenes, and a quote on the flyleaf of this book could be his epitaph: “You will never wash out that stain; you cannot talk long enough for that.”
Author Notes: Juan Gabriel Vásquez was born in Bogotá, Colombia in 1973. He studied Latin American Literature at the Sorbonne in Paris from 1996-98. His stories have appeared in anthologies in Germany, France, Spain and Colombia. He has translated works by E.M. Forster and Victor Hugo, amongst others, into Spanish. In 2007 he was announced as one of the Bogotá 39, South America’s most promising younger generation of writers – all under 39 years of age (see list below). He now lives and teaches in Barcelona, Spain. “The Informers,” published in 2004 in Spanish, is his first novel to be translated into English and was published in the U.S. this year. His second novel, “The Secret History of Costaguana,” will be published in English next year.
Footnote: The city of Bogotá, the UNESCO World Book Capital 2007, and the Hay Festival—the international cultural organization which held its annual celebration in Bogotá that year – announced the Thirty-Nine Most Important Latin American Writers Under 39 at the Bogotá International Book Fair. The list was the first step towards answering the question: “Where is contemporary Latin American literature heading?” The 39 authors were selected from 200 finalists by a jury of three prominent Colombian novelists: Piedad Bonnett, Hector Abad Faciolince and Oscar Collazos. Over 2,000 editors, literary agents, authors, and readers voted. Among the young authors in the group are Daniel Alarcón (Perú), author of Guerra en la Penumbra (War by Candlelight, 2005); Claudia Amengual(Uruguay), the 2006 winner of the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz award for Desde las cenizas (From the Ashes,2005); Antonio García (Colombia) the Iniciativa Artística Rolex para Mentores y Discípulo (Rolex’s Artistic Initiative for Mentors and Disciple) winner, who is also Mario Vargas Llosa’s mentee, and author of Recursos Humanos (Human Resources, 2006); and Santiago Roncagliolo, author of the 2006 Alfaguara Prize winner Abril Rojo (Red April). Here is the complete list of the Bogotá 39 of 2007. A number of these authors are not yet translated into English.
- Daniel Alarcón (Perú)
- Gabriel Alemán (Ecuador)
- Claudia Amengual (Uruguay)
- Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro (Puerto Rico)
- Álvaro Bisama (Chile)
- Rodrigo Blanco Calderón (Venezuela)
- Pablo Casacuberta (Uruguay)
- João Paulo Cuenca (Brazil)
- Junot Díaz (Dominican Republic)
- Álvaro Enrigue (Mexico)
- Gonzalo Garcés (Argentina)
- Antonio García (Colombia)
- Wendy Guerra (Cuba)
- Eduardo Halfón (Guatemala)
- Rodrigo Hasbún (Bolivia)
- Claudia Hernández (El Salvador)
- John Junieles (Colombia)
- Adriana Lisboa (Brazil)
- Pedro Mairal (Argentina)
- Fabrizio Mejía Madrid (Mexico)
- Carlos Wynter Melo (Panama)
- Rolando Menéndez (Cuba)
- Santiago Nazarian (Brazil)
- Guadalupe Nettel (Mexico)
- Andrés Neuman (Argentina)
- Ena Lucía Portela (Cuba)
- Pilar Quintana (Colombia)
- José Pérez Reyes (Paraguay)
- Santiago Roncagliolo (Perú)
- Ricardo Silva (Colombia)
- Veronica Stigger (Brazil)
- Karla Suárez (Cuba)
- Ivan Thays (Perú)
- Antonio Ungar (Colombia)
- Leonardo Valencia (Ecuador)
- Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia)
- Jorge Volpi (Mexico)
- Alejandro Zambra (Chile)
- Slavko Zupcic (Venezuela)
“The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo” by Peter Orner
“The Namib was born of God’s forgetting. He’d always meant to come back and put something here, but alas, he didn’t.”
Where is this empty land? Namibia, (formerly South West Africa), was a German colony ruled by the apartheid regime of South Africa before struggling to independence. Like neighboring Angola, it fought a “proxy war” during the Cold War era: the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) continually fought against South African rule from 1960, becoming Namibia’s ruling party in independence in 1990. These are the early years, when stories of bravery and sacrifice along the Angolan border still echo across the arid, breathless landscape. But “Namibia never made the BBC.” Never remembered, always forgotten.
That is the “where” and the “when.” But who is Mavala Shikongo? She is a war hero, a former officer in the People’s Liberation Army. Tall, unsmiling, carrying a mustard-colored suitcase, she strides determinedly across the sand, into the lives of the staff and students of a remote boys’ boarding school, Goas Farm. She is the principal’s sister-in-law, a kindergarten teacher, returning to the school after a brief absence with an unlovable and unexplained infant son.
Her freedom fighter status lends her a mystique; her fellow (mostly male) teachers regard her with awe and admiration – and they fantasize about her. She begins an affair with a volunteer teacher from Cincinnati, Ohio, Larry Kaplanski, the sometime narrator. The narrative is broken into small, and even smaller, episodes, moving from one Goas inhabitant to another, their lives barely touching.
Goas is a lonely place. The teachers are all great storytellers, seeking to fill the void. Their stories are somewhere between fact and fiction. The Head Teacher, Obadiah, indulges in strange, elaborate monologues. “Why are there times,” he asks himself despairingly, “we’d rather want than grasp?” He yearns to resolve his unrequited desire for his wife Antoinette; she only cares for the boys, her sense of order, and God. The obese and often profane Math teacher, Erastus Pohamba tells wild, improbable stories; he regularly visits the local town, where he seeks to assuage his appetites. There are war stories, and drought stories. The silent, devout Vilho has stories of his own that he keeps to himself.
Mavala Shikongo does not tell stories. She reveals very little to her lover, whom she meets on weekdays by the graves of two Boers outside the school, which descends into a sweaty, uncomfortable siesta every afternoon. Their conversation is languid, overly sparse at times. “Her voice alone, I tell you, could slow an afternoon,” observes Larry.
Each chapter of their meetings is headed simply “Graves.” Not a promising place for romance to flourish. Mavala Shikongo remains as elusive and unconnected as the land – forever a land of tribulation. There are fierce winds, ice-cold mornings and melting hot afternoons; this is a climate of longing.
Goas’ far-flung neighbors – Auntie Wilhelmina and Krieger – are disturbingly eccentric. One day, a dog escapes into the veld, is stung by a puff adder and brutally euthanized by a man with a hammer. Life is harsh. But the teachers’ lives are laced with a wry humor that delights: during one of their regular power cuts, Erastus Pohamba uses a boot with the laces tied up tight as a candle holder. A visit from a political leader, former war hero (combat alias: Ho Chi Minh) and alumnus of the school is tinged with farce. The Principal tends a solitary patch of green in front of his house, which he calls “Ireland.” A neighbor drives across the middle of the football field while a game is in progress.
The book begins and ends with the pupils, the happily innocent, barefoot boys of Goas. They are referred to in groups, as the “Standard Fours,” the “Standard Sixes.” They are the continuous backdrop to the restless, episodic narrative of their teachers’ lives.
And does the drought lift in Goas? Occasionally, yes. But then…the long-anticipated rain leaves, “as if none of it ever happened.”
Author Note: Peter Orner was born in Chicago. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1990, took a law degree and participated in the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. He is currently an associate professor at San Francisco State University. His book of short stories, “Esther Stories” (2001) won the Rome Prize of the American Academy of Arts & Letters and the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction. His first novel, “The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo” (2006) is partly based on his own experience living and working in Namibia. It won the Bard Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Orner’s recent non-fiction book, “Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives,” is the third in the Voice of Witness series on human rights, focusing on illegal immigrants (http://www.voiceofwitness.org/).
“The Vagrants” by Yiyun Li
Some novels are perhaps most memorable for the dominant mood and context of the narrative than for the characters who people them, or the stories they tell. This, at least, is how I feel about this bleak, comfortless story, set in a small industrial town in China called Muddy River, built just twenty years earlier as part of a rural development program.
It’s actually not a bad little town; the seasons are beautiful, flowers bloom. The river is full of clean mountain water, not muddy at all. But the residents are mostly too preoccupied with their own survival – whether physical or spiritual, economic or political – to notice, or care.
The reader is immediately aware of the political and historical context of the story. This is China in 1979, in the post-Mao era when some economic and political reforms were being implemented by Deng Xiaoping. Students, workers and intellectuals wanted much wider political reforms – more “glasnost,” if you will; and the grassroots Democratic Wall Movement was born in Beijing. Of course, these hopes were literally crushed in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, where no one even knows how many protesters were killed by Chinese troops – maybe hundreds, maybe thousands.
It is a cold morning in March in Muddy River, and a “counter-revolutionary” – a once fanatical member of Mao’s Red Guard who became a pro-democracy activist – is to be publicly denounced and executed. Gu Shan is the 28-year-old daughter of a teacher and his wife, who are already mourning her in their different ways, separately and bitterly. The proceedings are smoothly and sweetly guided by Kai, a former opera star and now the warm-voiced purveyor of government propaganda. Kai is the same age as the convict, but unlike the despised Gu Shan, she is greatly admired by all – especially by her doting husband, Han. After the denunciation, and the execution (on a small island in the river reserved for such purposes), the mayor will host a celebration banquet for the “close-knit circle of status” to which Kai and Han belong.
As the townspeople flock to the highly anticipated event, we are introduced to several more Muddy River residents whose lives are affected by Gu Shan’s death in all its brutality (her vocal cords are cut prior to the denunciation ceremony, in case she makes an anti-government speech). Their lives also begin to intersect, at times rather awkwardly, as the narrative begins to move from one to the other. There is Tong, a seven year-old boy from the country who is eager to do the right thing (and his dog, Ear); Nini, a disabled girl with a large and uncaring family; Bashi, a social misfit; Jialin, a sickly dissident with nothing to lose; and Mr. and Mrs. Hua, the garbage collectors, who are as kind as they are poor. Their stories of faith and hopelessness are played out against the backdrop of the town: gossips in the marketplace, fiddle-playing beggars, sleeping couples, factory workers, boys getting into fights.
Pockets of rebellion begin to stir; there is an anti-government Rally. Innocent actions become transgressions; casual words transform into weapons; callous indifference sparks betrayal and revenge. There is cruelty towards humans and animals – we are not spared the details – and moments of sheer horror. Just now and then, we encounter kindness, warmth, even love in unlikely places. But, in this sparely written narrative, there is not enough love to go round. There are nameless, faceless men and women who are ready and waiting to clear away the remnants of that love, and of hope, at the end. The main characters are eventually stretched so thin that a fatalistic despair sets in. We anticipate the ending long before it arrives. As young Tong’s teacher says, “Some people’s deaths are heavier thanMountTai, and others’ are as light as a feather.”
Who are the vagrants in the title? The only vagrants in the true sense of the word are the Huas, who have never settled in one place for long. The others – like Teacher Gu and the disturbed Bashi – are impoverished, wandering souls, sometimes struggling against the tide, but mostly carried along by it, resigned to their fate.
It is a deficit of passion that concerns me. Of course, history tells us that theirs is a lost cause; but the motivation of our young counter-revolutionaries and the origin of their beliefs are never deeply explored, and the occasional discussions between them are flat and unconvincing.
Perhaps it is the dour tone of the book that squeezes the life out of them. “What I own is my fortune; what I’m owed is my fate,” Teacher Gu tells his grieving wife.
There is little comfort, here.
Author Note: Yiyun Li was born in Beijing in 1972. In 1996 she went to the United States to pursue a PhD in Immunology, but after three years gave it up to become a writer. She worked in a hospital for three years, and then obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 2005, her first short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award and California Book Award for first fiction. Her short stories have been published in the New Yorker among other publications. The Vagrants is her first novel, published in February, 2009. She lives inOakland,California, with her husband and two sons. Yiyun Li is Assistant Professor of English atUniversity of California,Davis.
“The Witch of Portobello” by Paulo Coelho
Halloween. A cackling woman in a pointed hat rides through aKansastornado on a broomstick, watched by young Judy Garland – fearful, fascinated. Black magic; white magic; black cats with glowing eyes; potions and brews; macabre mediaeval paintings of women burning at the stake.
Our heroine, Athena resembles none of these, though her life story is interesting enough. She is very human: born in Romania of gypsy descent, the adopted daughter of Lebanese parents, with a privileged upbringing inBeirut. She is divorced, and has a young son. She lives in Londonand works in a bank. Her real name is Sherine Khalil; she is still young. Yet she comes to exercise an extraordinary influence over those who are close to her – those who love, care for, guide and protect her.
We see Athena only through the eyes of these lovers, protectors, caregivers and guides: in short chapters, each headed by the name of the narrator, his/her age and occupation. We don’t know who transcribed these words until the end. A journalist whom she meets at a Bucharest café begins her story – a man who sees himself, wistfully, as only a “temporary inhabitant” of her world. Other voices chime in. Her ex-husband speaks; so does her priest, Roman Catholic – a religion she abruptly rejects; her Polish landlord; her employer in London; a Bedouin calligrapher; her Romanian birth-mother; a successful stage actress, who becomes Athena’s somewhat unlikely successor, continuing the journey. A French historian interjects a note on the growing popularity of pagan traditions: “Why? Because God the Father is associated with the rigor and discipline of worship, whereas the Mother Goddess shows the importance of love above and beyond all the usual prohibitions and taboos.”
Essentially, the book is about the power of the feminine; about the limitless sweep of love – a recurring theme – without boundaries; about teachers and followers, willing and unwilling. There are rituals – dancing to percussion music, staring at candles, long silences, nakedness. There is a lot of New Age symbolism: phrases like “channeling the Unity” and “I can see your aura,” and quotes from Jung and Gibran. Athena inevitably becomes a cult figure; she cannot “hide her light under a bushel” (the Biblical quote on the flyleaf of the book). She gains a certain notoriety as “The Witch of Portobello,” sparking protests from a reverend gentleman and his congregation. She suffers, acquiesces, learns, teaches, struggles, at times manipulates, does the best she can – and in the end departs the scene.
Yet, do we struggle with her? Hardly. She remains as distant and cool as a Greek statue of Athena herself, a vessel for the philosophy that the author explores. Although she evokes love in several (male) characters, it is hard to understand. And, after pushing the boundaries of our imagination so far and deep, the sharp twist at the end somehow seems contrived and banal. Yet there are many passages and observations that turn in one’s mind. “Human beings are still asking the same questions as their ancestors. In short, they haven’t evolved at all,” says one character. Athena simply advises her disciple: “Try to be different. That’s all.”
This book is eloquent in its complexity and challenging in its simplicity. It stretches you; and yes, at times it is magical – without any tricks.
Paulo Coelho is Brazil’s best known novelist. Born in Rio in 1947, he attended a Jesuit school, where his literary aspirations began. Because of his rebellious behavior, he was wrongly committed to a mental institution during his youth. Coelho became deeply involved in the hippy movement of the 1960s and dropped out of law school in 1970. He wrote lyrics for over 60 songs by rock musician/composer Raul Seixas, reaping great success. In 1973 they formed the Alternative Society and both were imprisoned briefly by the military regime for alleged subversive activities. Coelho traveled in Europe, where he dreamed of returning to the Catholic faith; his pilgrimage to Santiago, Spain inspired his 1987 novel “The Pilgrimage (The Diary of a Magus).” The next year his most famous novel “The Alchemist” was published – a story of achieving one’s “Personal Legend.” It was hugely influential, became one of the best-selling books of all time and was translated into 56 languages. In September 2007, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon designated Coelho as a UN Messenger of Peace.
Note: the book reviewed above can be downloaded online from Coelho’s Facebook profile; Coelho has also launched a collaborative online film project, “The Experimental Witch,” based on the book.
One of my earliest memories. I was in a large store (everything is large of course, when you are small) with my father, holding onto his hand, with tall people all around us. At some point, I looked up and realized that the man whose hand I was holding was not my father at all, but a complete stranger. The overwhelming despair of that moment remains with me. Daddy was found – I was found, eventually – but I can still feel the echoing loneliness and fear.
Being lost is a state of mind as much as a physical state. You are torn away from your moorings, at the mercy of strangers, alone with yourself and your memories, and smothered by that aloneness. But for those who have lost you, it is worse still. The bereft mother, or husband, or lover, cannot be consoled. The lost person is passive, needing help, not knowing where to find it. The bereft person is by turns desperate, angry, grief-stricken, accepting, not accepting. There is no end to it. Better to be lost than to lose someone, to fear their memory.
These tensions work their way steadily through this novel. It is set in an unnamed country where the citizens do their best to cope with losses great and small, ten years after a bitter insurrection and guerilla war. Nothing will ever be the same for the masses, the voiceless. Norma, a radio talk show host with a wonderful voice, tries to help them patch little scraps of their lives back together. Her talk show is not idle chatter; it is a program for missing people, every Sunday night, and it has the highest ratings in the country.
Many of Norma’s fellow journalists were locked up or disappeared at the end of the war (the theme that pervades the narrative…the war, the disappeared ones). But the poor and the deprived love her, celebrate her and are grateful for her help, whether real or imagined. This is what she does; and like everything in this novel, it is not done whole-heartedly. She is kind, but always tired, and hoping that one day her loss, the loss of her husband, will resolve itself. She is hoping for an understanding of that loss. She is hoping, faintly, that her radio program will bring her that resolution. That is what gets her up in the morning.
The book has been described as a “political fable.” It is really about how internal wars that “had long ago ceased to be a conflict between distinct antagonists” leave great holes in the lives of those left on the periphery. Gaps that are never filled; silences that are never broken with a laugh or a promise; empty chairs at a dinner that are never occupied; nights that float into days, unsatisfied. Norma’s husband Rey is already a troubled man when she meets him, screaming from nightmares and past sufferings, largely untold. He is one of the many disappeared ones.
The clue to Norma’s mystery is Victor, a frail, skinny boy from one of the humid villages (designated by numbers) that Rey had visited in his increasingly extended absences from the city. Victor appears at the radio station with a brief note from his guardian. So, like the restless Rey, the narrative begins to move back and forth, from the dirty city to the village of young Victor’s origin.
This novel tosses and turns – just like Norma’s husband when he has nightmares about his stay on “the Moon,” a terrifying place of torture; just like Victor’s guardian Manau, who suffers from skin disorders. Norma’s own life is “vast and blank, without guideposts or markers or the heat of human love to steer her in one direction or the other.” Everyone is haunted by memories of the war, as if they cannot leave it alone, just as Manau returns to his skin rashes and his itches. There were blackouts when the war began; there were burning buildings, ignored cries for help, dark explosions in the hills surrounding the city. In the villages, there were soldiers, casual in their arrogance, on unknown assignments; and helicopters. These shifting scenes are in themselves snapshots. They are impossible to fit together into a coherent picture, but all the more powerfully described because of it.
And Norma comes to realize something about the nature of loss. Impostors often call her program, pretending to be someone lost and now found through an earlier telephone call. At first disapproving, she begins to understand them: “There are people out there who think of themselves as belonging to someone. To a person who, for whatever reason, has gone. And they wait years; they don’t look for their missing, they are the missing.”
It can be dangerous to remember.
Author Note: Daniel Alarcón was born in 1977 in Lima, Peru and raised from the age of three in Birmingham, Alabama. His story collection, “War By Candlelight,” was a finalist for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award. “Lost City Radio” was published in 2007, when Granta named him Best Young American Novelist. Alarcón also recently edited “The Secret Miracle,” on the art of the novel. The Hay Festival Bogotá included him on their list of Best Young Latin American Writers. Alarcón’s work has appeared in several leading periodicals and he is the recipient of numerous honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007. He now lives in Oakland, California, where he has been the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills College and Visiting Writer at the California College of the Arts and is currently Visiting Scholar at the UC Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies. A former Fulbright Scholar to Peru, he is associate editor of the Peruvian magazine “Etiqueta Negra.” The “New Yorker” magazine recently named Alarcón as one of its “Twenty Under Forty” writers.
“Lost City Radio” is dedicated to Alarcón’s own uncle, Javier Antonio Alarcón Guzmán, who disappeared in 1989 and is still listed as being missing, not dead. Alarcón notes, “Politics in wartime is still politics, only more venal, more dishonest, and less courageous.”
The Good Muslim by Tahmima Amam
This novel is a sequel to “A Golden Age,” which I reviewed on an earlier page. “The Good Muslim“ continues the story of one family – an intense, deeply personal story of the enduring pain and sacrifice of a bitter civil war in Bangladesh. It is the second book in a planned trilogy.
It’s a story that, it seems, will not go away. Current events in that country have brought the narrative into even sharper focus. Just last week – and even today as I write – at least half a million protesters gathered in Shahbag, an intersection in the capital Dhaka. They are demanding justice for atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence from Western Pakistan and the death penalty for war criminals. The Bloggers and Online Activists Network organized the rally of mostly young people. According to the international blogging website Global Voices Online, the protests began “after the Secretary General of Bangladesh’s Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami Abdul Quader Mollah was found guilty of war crimes committed during 1971. He was sentenced to life in prison on 344 counts of murder, rape and arson by the International Crimes Tribunal on 5 February 2013.” According to protesters, Abdul Quader Mollah should receive the death penalty under Bangladeshi law.
I believe that Maya would certainly join the protests at what is now being called the Bangladeshi equivalent of Tahrir Square.
When we meet her as “The Good Muslim” opens in 1984, Maya has stayed true to the idealism of the war. A midwife by profession, she sits in the third-class carriage on her way back to the capital. She is returning after a long absence – several years – away from home. She has maintained an awkward, polite correspondence with her mother, Rehana Haque (the widow Rehana’s story of determination, sacrifice and patient love for her family is told in “A Golden Age.”) Maya had left Dhaka after the nine-month war of independence ended, to volunteer in refugee camps. She started her own clinic in the rural town of Rajshahi, working with and seeking to empower desperately poor women. But now, thirteen years after her country’s liberation, Maya’s liberal views are no longer quite so welcome in the town. She is forced to leave, followed by bitterness, anger and, above all, ignorance. She leaves with a scar, where a whip has caught her neck.
Dhaka circa 1984 has changed; the old city is festooned with huge posters of what the writer calls “the Dictator.” Maya returns to her once-beloved childhood home to find the kitchen filled with women in black burkhas, preparing to mourn the passing of her sister-in-law Silvi, whom we met in the first book. Silvi was one of the passionate fighters for the country’s liberation – one of the group of young people that Rehana worried about and cared for. Silvi married Maya’s brother, Sohail. And it takes a while for Maya to even find her brother, on her return. He is distant, in more ways than one.
Like Maya, we try to understand Sohail all the way through the book. After his belated return from the war, his mother and sister are grateful and happy; everything will be back to normal. But the beautiful, comforting routine of the house only returns in fleeting glimpses: The delicious meals, the nurturing garden, the love they shared. And by the way, descriptions of the landscape and people of Bangladesh – a trip down the Jamuna River, a walk through a Dhaka market – are finely drawn, although not as rich perhaps as in the first novel.
But why did Sohail change, soon after his long-awaited return from war? Why did he withdraw, burn his books and become a charismatic religious leader, “worshipped” by his followers?
The sense of unease persists through the novel. Maya continues her tentative efforts to draw closer to her ailing mother. She rekindles a friendship with Joy (in this case, a man’s name) – a friend of her brother’s who had also fought in the war, and who has lived in New York for a while, driving a taxi. And her heart is captured by Sohail’s son, the vulnerable and neglected Zaid, whom she protects and nurtures. Through these relationships, she tries to find her way back to her beloved brother, who used to wear jeans and fall asleep after late night discussions on politics. She has lost him, she believes.
But has she really lost him? Families are complicated. Siblings grow apart, then together again. Is there still hope for Maya and Sohail? They say blood is thicker than water…
As the story weaves back and forth, from 1972 to the 80s and back again (which I did find rather distracting at times) several female characters appear and disappear. These women, none of them fully fleshed out, serve to illustrate the oppression of women. There is their terrible suffering during the war; and afterwards, the growing and insidious pressure of religious fundamentalism on their lives. The seductive power of fundamentalist religion – alongside the pretentious cocktail parties of the middle class – are portrayed like small, sharply focused windows into the world of post-independence Bangladesh.
- Dhaka, Bangladesh. 11th February 2013 — Activist Lucky Akter shouts slogans as students from different institutions join the protest demanding the death penalty for all war criminals at Shahbagh in the capital. Many brought flags and banners to continue the four-day protest. — Shahbagh protesters have called upon their countrymen to observe a three-minute silence from 4:00pm to press home their demands for the death penalty for war criminals. (Photo: Demotix/Global Voices Online)
When I was at school, I loved to play netball. I was captain of the school team. Then, one day I fell and injured my knee. The wound refused to heal; it opened repeatedly, became infected over and over. My netball career ended, and when the wound eventually healed, I was left with a large scar. A small piece of grit is embedded in it that is there to this day.
Sometimes wounds never heal. And some revolutions are never resolved. The only thing we can be certain of is change.
- http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/02/14/bangladesh-unites-at-shahbag-for-42-year-old-war-crimes/ Bangladesh unites at Shahbag for 42-year-old war crimes: globalvoicesonline.org.
https://petchary.wordpress.com/book-review/ Petchary’s book reviews
Shahbag protesters versus the Butcher of Mirpur (guardian.co.uk)
With #Shahbag, Bangladesh Protest Movement Blows Up on Twitter (techpresident.com)
Portland to Shahbag: No War Criminal Can Escape (ireport.cnn.com)
With #Shahbag, Bangladesh Protest Movement Blows Up on Twitter (techpresident.com)
Shahbag, Dhaka: The Beginning of Another Tahrir Square? (aisjournal.com)
The war Bangladesh can never forget (independent.co.uk)
4 killed in Bangladesh violence (gulfnews.com)
War crimes trial reopens Bangladeshi wounds (nzherald.co.nz)
Tahmima Anam was born in 1975 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She grew up in Paris, New York and Bangkok, because of her father’s position in the UN; and now lives in London and Dhaka. She attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and obtained her Ph.D. in social anthropology at HarvardUniversity in 2005. She maintains close ties with Bangladesh, where her father Mahfuz Anam edits the country’s largest English-speaking newspaper, the Daily Star. Published in 2007, her first novel, “A Golden Age,” was the winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, and has been translated into 22 languages. Read more about Ms. Anam, at http://www.tahmima.com/, where the author gives you a short video tour of the city of her birth and discusses “The Good Muslim.”
“The Neruda Case” by Roberto Ampuero
On April 8, 2013, the Chilean authorities exhumed the body of the revered poet Pablo Neruda at his former seaside home in Isla Negra. Neruda died on September 23, 1973, just twelve days after the overthrow of Salvador Allende‘s socialist regime. Neruda was a close friend of Allende. Both his widow, before her death in 1985, and his driver were convinced that he was murdered by lethal injection in a hospital in Santiago. Was the poet assassinated during those chaotic days of the military coup that brought the much-feared General Augusto Pinochet into power? Or did he die of natural causes (he was believed to be suffering from prostate cancer)? We may not know for quite a while, as the Nobel laureate‘s body undergoes all kinds of tests. We may never know. But coincidentally, the passionate poet is the central figure in a novel that I just finished reading – and enjoyed so much I wished I had not finished.
As its rather plain-vanilla title suggests, this novel involves a mystery too, and an investigation. But the mystery is of the highly personal and romantic variety. The investigation is an adventure, deliciously laced with romantic dalliances and a certain amount of political intrigue and Cold War ideology along the way. The quieter, more subtle and tragic undercurrents are slow and well beneath the surface of the flowing narrative. But the quiet tragedy of the times does emerge in the latter part of the book.
The investigator is Cayetano Brulé, a Cuban who had settled in Valparaíso with his Chilean wife. This is his first case as a private detective, and the ailing poet is his first employer. As the story begins, Cayetano is sitting in a café in the coastal city. The reader spends a lot of time with Cayetano in cafés, restaurants and bars. A great deal of coffee, tortillas, crepes and sandwiches are consumed, as Cayetano considers his next move. So, too, is alcohol in many forms – including lots of whiskey, and a concoction offered him by the poet himself (“Don Pablo”) on their first meeting: “It’s good enough to make you suck on your mustache,” says Neruda. The reader is even introduced to some examples of Latin American cuisine – clams in parsley sauce, for example.
Inspired by the fictional, pipe-smoking Belgian detective Inspector Maigret, Cayetano learns on the job. His assignment is to find a certain Dr. Ángel Bracamonte, a Mexican oncologist – and he must keep his quest a secret. But it’s not as simple as that; before Cayetano has even figured out Don Pablo’s real purpose, he is already involved in an intriguing and complex journey that takes him from Chile to Havana, Cuba, Mexico City, Bolivia and even as far as East Germany. As he goes, he seeks to unravel a story that is like a tangled ball of string, full of knots and occasional loose ends.
Sometimes Cayetano gets distracted, and often these distractions come in female form. A parade of fascinating women float in and out of the narrative – including his estranged wife Ángela, who leaves him to do “political work” in Cuba but has a lingering fondness for Hermès scarves and Coco Chanel perfume. There are the two beguiling German comrades, Valentina and the “emancipated” Margaretchen, and there is Laura, a Chilean student with “deep-set eyes, like those of someone who slept very little because of insomnia or an excess of work or sex.” Like his employer Don Pablo, Cayetano has a deep appreciation of women, and he gets on well with them. Some of them help him along the way; others lead him down cul de sacs.
The women of Pablo Neruda’s past – some living, some dead, most lost – move through the story like ghosts, coming and going. During the interlocking conversations with Cayetano, Don Pablo takes erotic excursions, resurrecting memories of past sexual encounters and passionate love affairs, occasionally with regret. Many of these relationships inspired his poetry.
“The Neruda Case” is more than just a detective story, although it is one to keep you on your toes in the best Agatha Christie tradition. It is a sensual journey through Latin America in the Cold War. It is not only the characters who fascinate (they each have their own interesting story). As he moves from city to city on his quest for the truth, Cayetano moves from the decaying hills of Valparaíso, wreathed in sad sea fogs; to dusty offices in Mexico City; to the vibrant Caribbean island of his birth (where he meets a Jamaican called Sammy); to East Berlin, where much drama ensues; and to La Paz, Bolivia, where he is afflicted with altitude sickness.
“Detectives are like wine like wine, rum, tequila or beer, children of their own land and climate, and anyone who forgot this would inevitably fail.” Cayetano reminds himself of this as he sets off from Chile – grounding himself, so to speak. But many surprises and unexpected occurrences await him. He often finds himself far outside his comfort zone – and never more so than in Santiago at the time of Allende’s fall – a city echoing with gunfire, where the sun glints off soldiers’ helmets, as the military coup gathers pace.
At the core of the novel is the restless and regretful figure of the poet, sitting in his house floating high over the Pacific Ocean, fretting over his past and impatiently waiting for Cayetano to report back to him. During the author’s childhood, the poet was actually his neighbor in real life; while writing the book, he sat in Neruda’s living room, so evocatively described in the novel. The writer has, I believe, succeeded quite well in bringing the Nobel Laureate to life – not as a diplomat, a political figure or a poet, but simply as a human being.
“There are times when I simply tire of being human,” Neruda observes irritably. But I found enormous humanity in this novel. I understand there is a series, and look forward to meeting Cayetano Brulé again in the near future. I could really get to like him.
- Roberto Ampuero has published twelve novels in Spanish. “The Neruda Case” (2008) is his first novel published in English. It is translated by Uruguayan-born Carolina De Robertis, herself the author of two novels, including the best-selling “The Invisible Mountain.” Ampuero was born into a middle-class family in Valparaíso, Chile in 1953; he attended a German school there, and then studied Social Anthropology and Latin American Literature at the University of Chile in Santiago. He became a member of the Chilean Communist Youth and received a journalism scholarship to study in East Germany in 1973. He met his first wife there and they moved to Cuba, where Ampuero lived until 1979; he left disillusioned with what he saw as a dictatorship in Cuba and returned to East Germany, where he studied Marxism and enrolled in Humboldt University to do postgraduate studies. He moved to West Germany in 1983, where he published his first two novels in German, and married the Guatemalan Ambassador to Germany. Returning to Chile in 1993, he published his first novel in Spanish, introducing private detective Cayetano Brulé, for which he received the Book Magazine Award of El Mercurio. During a three-year sojourn in Sweden he wrote two more novels, including a harsh criticism of the Cuban regime, “Nuestros Años Verde Olivo” (Our Green Olive Years) He is a graduate of the prestigious International Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he currently teaches literature and creative writing. He also serves currently as Chile’s Ambassador to Mexico, sharing his time between Iowa City and Mexico City.
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/opinion/disturbing-pablo-nerudas-rest.html?_r=0 Disturbing Pablo Neruda’s rest: New York Times
http://blogs.nature.com/news/2013/05/tests-cofirm-pablo-neruda-had-terminal-cancer.html Tests confirm Pablo Neruda had terminal cancer: nature.com
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1971/neruda-bio.html Pablo Neruda biography: NobelPrize.org
http://www.marxists.org/archive/allende/1973/september/11.htm Salvador Allende: Last words to the nation: marxists.org
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/20/salvador-allende-committed-suicide-autopsy Salvador Allende committed suicide, autopsy confirms: Guardian UK
Longing with Pablo Neruda (petchary.wordpress.com)