Saturday, November 27, 2021

The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen

You, Ruben Blum, are out of history; you're over and finished; in only a generation or two the memory of who your people were will be dead, and America won't give your unrecognized descendants anything real with which to replace the sense of peplehood it took from them; the boredom of your wife--who's tearing your program up into little white paper pills she'd like to swallow like Percodan--isn't merely boredom with you or her work or with the insufficiency of options for educated women in this country; it's more like a sense of having not lived fully in a consequential time; and the craziness of your daughter isn't just the craziness of an adolescent abducted from the city to the country and put under too much pressure to achieve and succeed; it's more like a raging resentment that nothing she can find to do in her life holds any meaning for her and every challenge that's been thrust at her--from what college to choose to what career to have--is small, compared to the challenges that my boys, for example--whom she's been condemned to babysit--will one day have to deal with, such as how to make a new people in a new land forge a living history. Your life here is rich in possessions but poor in spirit, petty and forgettable, with your frigidaires and color TVs, in front of which you can munch your instant supper, laugh at a joke, and choke, realizing that you have traded your birthright away for a bowl of plastic lentils...

Ruben Blum is the only Jewish faculty member at Corbin University, a small liberal arts college in the vast icefields between Albany and Buffalo, and the only Jewish person--excepting his wife and daughter--in the town of Corbindale. He's treated well, though condescendingly, though no one else seems satisfied with this role: not his wife, Edith, shouldered into menial work at the college library, not Edith's cosmopolitan parents, who look at Corbindale as a site of rural horrors, not his own parents, who believe he has forsaken the Bronx community of Jews that raised him. And certainly not his daughter Judy, who--in one of the novel's most, but not only, shocking scenes, plants her face in front of a doorknob so that her noticeably Jewish nose will at last be broken and repaired. Into this ripe pit of dissatisfaction a group of strangers enters: the family of Ben-Zion Netanyahu, an Israeli historian interviewing for a position at Corbin, and whom Ruben has been asked to shepherd around campus.

The Netanyahus is based on a real anecdote told to Cohen by the late Harold Bloom, another Jewish scholar who left the Bronx behind for the cold wilds of Northeastern academia. Bloom really was asked to host Ben-Zion Netanyahu, whose middle son Benjamin would later become the longest-serving prime minister of Israel. Bibi plays a surprisingly small role in the novel: he and his brothers enter the Blum household like three tiny tornados, fighting among each other and breaking television sets. It's Ben-Zion who really threatens to upend the fragile balance of Ruben Blum's existence. He's irascible, self-absorbed, contemptuous of the job offer and the school, and of the life that Blum leads willfully in America (while presenting himself as a kind of exile). Ben-Zion's scholarship focuses on the Jews of Medieval Iberia, but this description is too narrow: because the Jews have been caught in cycles of expulsion and reabsorption, he argues, they have truly been outside of history. Only the creation of the state of Israel brings to the Jews the possibility of living within history:

The world is full of real events, real things, which have been lost in their destruction and are only remembered as having existed in written history. But Zion, because it was remembered not as written history, but interpretable story, was able to exist again in actuality, with the founding of the modern state of Israel. With the establishment of Israel, the poetic was returned to the practical. This is the first example ever in human civilization in which this has happened--in which a story became real; it became a real country with a real army, real essential services, real treaties and real trade pacts, real supply chains and real sewage. Now that Israel exists, however, the days of the Bible tales are finished and the true history of my people can begin and if any Jewish Question still remains to be answered it's whether my people have the ability or appetite to tell the difference.

A careful letter from a concerned Israeli scholar describes Ben-Zion as a zealot, a dangerous man, and when at last he arrives in Corbindale, this assessment is hard to doubt. The way "the Yahus"--Ben-Zion, wife Tzila, children Jonathan, Benjamin, and Iddo--thoughtlessly take over the Blum household provides the novel with a manic energy punctuated by tremendous comedy. But Blum is unsettled, too, by what Ben-Zion says. It is true that the faculty chose Blum to babysit the Netanyahus because he's Jewish; though he is a scholar of American history his Jewishness can be abrogated or activated by his superiors at will. Certainly there is something frightening in the way his daughter Judy wishes to erase the very Jewishness of her face. Is Dr. Netanyahu's zealous Zionism the only alternative to expulsion or erasure? Would anyone in Corbindale say to Blum, as Ben-Zion does--though they clearly dislike each other--"And if the situation were reversed and your feet were in my shoes and you came to Israel, I'm not positive I could get you a job, but I'd do absolutely everything to find you a good apartment, and in a war, I'd die for you?"

I would leave it to a Jewish reader to say whether The Netanyahus resonates with the dilemmas of Jewish identity in the 20th century, but for me it seemed like a plausible and powerful presentation of the question, "How should a Jewish person be?" It's funny how a book set in upstate New York manages to outline so deftly the way the project of Israel intersects and makes demands on questions of Jewish identity, ones that might seem--to us goyim--as simplistic or strange. The Netanyahus is on Blum's side, not Ben-Zion's, whatever that might mean, but it captures what is so urgent in that worldview.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Divorced, Beheaded, Survived by Karen Lindsey

Perhaps this is the reason Ann holds us in her spell even today. Pursued by a king whose advances she at first resisted, she turned the lust from which she could not escape into a means of achieving power for herself: captured, she became herself the captor. Even in defeat, she was never fully Henry's. Like the falcon she chose as her emblem, she was a wild creature used, curtailed, but never truly tamed; she was a sexual woman whose vitality belonged only to herself. For years Henry tried vainly to control that vitality; finally, unable to mold it to his purposes, he killed her.

If you know anything about Henry VIII, you know he had six wives. If you know two things, you know that his divorce from one, unrecognized by the pope, led to a schism with the Catholic Church and the formation of the Church of England, which pushed the Protestant Reformation into hyperdrive. For Henry, as with all his European royal contemporaries, marriage could not be separated from geopolitics, which meant it could not be separated from religion. But at the center of Henry's political and religious turmoil were six women, drafted into Henry's life with various levels of willingness and with various stratagems for keeping their own safety and autonomy. Karen Lindsey's Divorced, Beheaded, Survived tells the story of these six women through a "feminist" lens, meaning, perhaps, it tries to cut through some of the more aggressive propagandizing that surrounded Henry's wives and find the truth of the women beneath, who were constrained by the standards of their time, as well as their husband's monstrous ego and greed.

Catherine of Aragon, as Lindsey depicts her, was a loyal and shrewd woman who was in many ways a perfect wife for Henry: she loved him deeply, and was a capable politician and even military leader. She held her own while Henry tried for years to rid himself of her, never accepting the idea that she was anything less than the queen of England. (One thing I didn't know is that Henry married Anne Boleyn well before his marriage with Catherine was officially over.) For her part, Lindsey depicts Anne as a woman who did her best to repel Henry's lust for her, then, when she finally realized he could not be kept at bay, turned it to her own advantage. Lindsey doesn't claim that Henry's wives were without flaw: Anne has none of Catherine's stolidity, and becomes hysterical as her attempts to bear Henry a son unravel; Katherine Howard is exceptionally foolish. But for the most part, Lindsey makes it clear that part of the project of the book is to see these women in the best possible light, constructing inner lives that reveal their best personal qualities. The wives who come off best, perhaps, are Anne of Cleves and Katherine Parr, two practical and modest women who did not have the challenge of being primarily objects of Henry's lust.

Henry is the other side of the coin: to make the wives sympathetic, Lindsey constructs a description of Henry as an absolute monster, a cruel, fickle man who used religion to justify his immense lusts and obsessions. There's a real limitation to this method, I think. It's almost certainly entirely true; you don't have two of your wives beheaded because you're a good person. I'm less convinced that the portraits of the wives are always accurate, though they are very plausible. Lindsey's description of Jane Seymour, for example, founders against this personal touch, because we know so little about her: she was briefly married to Henry, gave him the son he wanted, and died. At times, Lindsey seems to reduce the story of Henry VIII's wives to one of powerful personalities in conflict. This method gives it a kind of pulpy readability, but it lacks any kind of larger analysis of the role of women in early modern society, or in the Protestant Reformation. A "feminist reinterpretation" ought to demand more than heroic women and a vile man, shouldn't it? Still, it had the effect of bringing these very remote figures into convincing reality, which I enjoyed.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

This Gun for Hire by Graham Greene

She never knew, he thought, that he had meant to kill her; she had been as innocent of his attention as a cat he had once been forced to drown; and he remembered with astonishment that she had not betrayed him, although he had told her that the police were after him. It was even possible that she had believed him.

These thoughts were colder and more uncomfortable than hail. He wasn't used to any taste that wasn't bitter on the tongue. He had been made by hatred; it had constructed him into this thin smoky murderous figure in the rain, hunted and ugly. His mother had borne him when his father was in gaol, and six years later when his father was hanged for another crime, she had cut her own throat with a kitchen knife; afterward there had been the home. He had never felt the least tenderness for anyone; he was made in this image and had his own pride in the result; he didn't want to be unmade. He had a sudden terrified conviction that he must be himself now as never before if he was to escape. It was not tenderness that made you quick on the draw.

Raven is a poor Londoner who has made an effective but fragile career out of contract killing: he has recently been tasked to travel to a foreign country and shoot an old minister. When he returns for his payment, he discovers he's been double-crossed: the bills he's paid with are reported stolen, and as soon as he uses them the police are on the trail. He pursues his double-crosser, a sensuous glutton named Cholmondeley, onto a train headed to a small town in the English Midlands. He evades capture by insinuating himself in with Anne, a young woman having left London to join a theater production, but he doesn't know that her fiance is the officer in charge of apprehending Raven.

This Gun for Hire is the most straightforwardly noirish novel of Greene's I've ever read. In fact, the UK title of A Gun for Sale was, if I remember correctly, changed in the US to match the title of the American film noir adaptation. Raven himself is a kind of anti-hero, a man whose harelip identifies him as lower class: he blames, with some good reason, all the frustrations of his life on it; he finds in his physical ugliness proof of his own moral ugliness. Anne surprises him with her failure to be shocked or disgusted by it, and in the face of her diffidence his carefully constructed ideas of himself begin to break down: is he really the person who he has said he is?

All of this takes place against a backdrop of mounting international tensions: the killing of the minister that Raven committed has been blamed on foreign agitators, and the world is ramping up for war. Everywhere Raven, Anne, and her fiance Mathis go, people are talking about the war to come, some with trepidation, and some with glee. When Raven finally tracks Cholmondeley to his employer, a shriveled old steel magnate named Sir Marcus, he discovers the truth: Sir Marcus has engineered the killing, and the incipient war, to increase the demand for steel. In this way Greene makes a shrewd illustration of the way petty crimes are punished in place of great ones. In one of the novel's most shocking moments, we learn that it was Sir Marcus who demanded the bills used to pay Raven be stole ones, saying, "[A] murderer should not be able to benefit from his own crime." The irony of this might be too strong or too obvious, if it weren't possible to think of a million ways this ideology remains a part of our political and moral culture.

As always, Greene talked a lot of guff about how his "entertainments" are distinguished from his more serious novels, but This Gun for Hire--surely one of the most "entertaining" in the sense he meant of of all his books--is full of the ethical, political, and religious complexities that animate all of his work. The scene where Raven takes a long tortured look at a creche--the novel is set at Christmas--is Greene at his Greene-iest.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin

"I sat there looking at his dirty hands. He was using them to hold on to the table like a railing as he walked, and then I saw his wrists. He had marks on his skin, lines like bracelets around his wrists, and a little above them, too, maybe left by the rope. 'It seems cruel,' said the woman as she approached, watching my reaction and David's next step, 'but we have to make sure that only the spirit leaves.' She caressed his wrists, and as if forgiving herself she said, 'The body has to stay.'"

All of Samantha Schweblin's short novel Fever Dream is a conversation between two people: Amanda, a woman who is dying in a rural Argentinian clinic, and David, a little boy. David is the son--sort of--of a local woman named Carla; Amanda was visiting their small town with her daughter Nina when she took sick. Together, Amanda and David piece together a hazy account of the events that led up to Amanda's hospitalization. David, understanding that Amanda doesn't have much time, keeps telling her that some things are not important, but she labors over every bit of the story, trying desperately to figure out what led her here, and what happened to her daughter.

What kind of story is this going to be? The strange interlocutory form--the mix of things they know for certain and things they do not understand--gives a surreal quality to the story that reflects the "fever dream" of the title. Amanda recounts to David the disturbing story she heard from David's mother, Carla: as a boy, David drank from a poisoned stream that killed the family's prized horse. Understanding that David too, would get sick, Carla took him to a healer who gave David only one option to live: his spirit would travel to another body, and thus be saved, but another spirit would enter. Desperate for David to live, Carla accedes, but the David that returns from the ritual is strange: his skin covered in spots, his diction become strangely formal, and having developed a peculiar intuition and empathy for the many dying animals around their home. Carla tells Amanda that she has come to fear her unheimlich son, or ward, or whatever he is.

The truth, or a truth unfolds over the course of Amanda and David's conversation: what has transformed David is not the soul ritual but the toxic chemical that has leached into the grass. The small town is centered on a vague refinery or chemical plant known as "Sotomayor's," which is responsible for the poisoning. It's the chemicals that have put Amanda in the hospital, and which may be affecting Nina--who, in the novel's most intense moment, may be subjected to the same desperate ritual as David.

What sets Fever Dream apart is how carefully it controls the release of information; only slowly does Schweblin reveal that it's a novel about ecological collapse. In fact, it reminded me of nothing more clearly than Joy Williams' new novel Harrow, another book that seeks out new forms that might do justice to the magnitude of the world's crisis (right down to the horse!). Here, sober realities are mixed with ritual myths and surrealism. Among other things, it reveals the way that ecological collapse creates generational divides, and captures the utter fear and panic that brings some people to decide it's immoral to bring children into the 21st century world. Throughout it, David's refrain--None of this is important, we're wasting time--begins to feel like a call to pay closer attention to the things that really matter.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

The world has suddenly turned upside down. Love? Love does not do this. This is hatred. I feel hatred and seek revenge; my adversary is within and I needs must confront him. Even so, there is still in my mind a modicum of sense that is aware of the irony of the situation. I begin from where Mustafa Sa'eed had left off. Yet he at least made a choice, while I have chosen nothing. For a while the disk of the sun remained motionless just above the western horizon, then hurriedly disappeared. The armies of darkness, ever encamped near by, bounded in and occupied the world in an instant. If only I had told her the truth perhaps she would not have acted as she did. I had lost the war because I did not know and did not choose. For a long time I stood in front of the iron door. Now I am on my own: there is no escape, no place of refuge, no safeguard. Outside, my world was a wide one; now it had contracted, had withdrawn upon itself, until I myself had become the world, no world existing outside of me. Where, then, were the roots that struck down into times past? Where the memories of death and life? What had happened to the caravan and the tribe?

An unnamed Sudanese man returns to the village on the banks of the Nile where he was born; he has been away in England, where he studied the life of an obscure English poet. The village is much as he left it, with one addition: a stranger named Mustafa Sa'eed who has come to settle there. The narrator finds Sa'eed strange and beguiling; while drunk Sa'eed rattles off an English poem that signifies to the narrator that Sa'eed is, like him, a former traveler in the "cold North." If so, how did he end up in this place? Even the narrator has no intention to stay long in his old village; soon enough it will become too constricting and he will flee to Khartoum. Eventually, Sa'eed agrees to tell the man his story: a gifted child, he was sent to school in England, where he became a renowned economist. He quickly discovered that English women were attracted to his exotic identity, but his seductions had deadly consequences: three of his lovers killed themselves, and the fourth he stabbed to death in a fit of anger.

Colonialism, Tayeb Salih illustrates, reaches into the most remote places. The village is not Khartoum, and English control--and flight--have not changed it much, but people like Sa'eed and the narrator bring the disease of the colonial subject with them, infecting the village in their fashion. Sa'eed's relationships with English women are based on the violent fantasies inherent in colonialism: the women are drawn to Sa'eed's exotic nature--something he plays up by inventing fake names and Arabic mannerisms--but their dalliance fails to fix whatever deep lack resides within them. Sa'eed kills his final lover, whom he marries, when the tables are turned: she withholds her love and body, while being continuously unfaithful; she is symbolic of colonizers' easily withdrawn promises. Sa'eed's life is an image of colonial interaction that is cataclysmic for both colonizer and colonized.

Halfway through the novel, Sa'eed disappears, likely drowned, by suicide or accident. He leaves a letter asking the narrator to become the guardian of his wife and children, saying that only the narrator will know how to explain to the children who their father was and how he became it. Along with the letter is a key to a locked room in Sa'eed's house, a blisteringly symbolic space that, when finally opened, turns out to be a study with a replica English fireplace. (Not so useful, one might point out, in the hot Nile basin.) The narrator is a poor guardian, spending all his time in Khartoum. He's caught off guard, then, when Sa'eed's widow is married off against her will, and then kills her new husband and herself. Her appeal as a wife is inherited from Sa'eed--his prestige makes her a prize, because she has been valued by a valued man--but she inherits also his violent indignation, How can the murder of a Sudanese man by a Sudanese woman be fruit of colonialism's pillaging?

Season of Migration to the North is a wonderfully strange and elliptical book. Sa'eed's death and disappearance unsettle the core of the narrative, and Salih amplifies the instability by cutting off Sa'eed's life story early, allowing the grisly details--the suicides and murder--to drib out little by little, as the narrator's obsession with Sa'eed continues to grow after his death. It's a wonderfully psychic and metaphysical novel, all the more convincing it situates madness in geography, in politics.

I've never read a book from the Sudan, so Season of Migration of the North represents the 54th country I've read. Nice!

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

By the time I was eighteen I was the veteran of many long and bitter campaigns. Mynes seemed entirely unaware of the tension, but then in my experience men are curiously blind to aggression in women. They're the warriors, with their helmets and armour, their swords and spears, and they don't seem to see our battles--or they prefer not to. Perhaps if they realized we're not the gentle creatures they take us for their own peace of mind would be disturbed?

In the Iliad, Briseis is a Trojan woman who is given as a slave to the conquering Greek hero Achilles when her town is sacked and destroyed. When Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, takes her from Achilles--he had to give his own prize back, because she turned out to be the daughter of a priest of Apollo--Achilles is so insulted he refuses to fight. Without their best warrior, the Greeks begin to lose rapidly to the Trojans. Only when Agamemnon returns Briseis does Achilles consent to return to the battlefield, and brings the war nearly to a close by the killing of the Trojan warrior Hector.

Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls tells this story from Briseis' perspective: a once noble woman who has become the pawn of powerful men. Her relationship with Achilles is a tortured one--she is essentially a sex slave, after all--but compared to the brutal Agamemnon, he's a kind master, and it is Patroclus, Achilles' beloved friend and male lover, who really takes the time to show kindness to her. Yet the differences between the men seem almost immaterial, when Briseis has no choice between them. Achilles' indignation is not about his attachment to her, but rather about his pride; Agamemnon, too, has no use for her, he only wants to hurt Achilles. Briseis is made an object, a spoils, her life circumscribed by the petty squabbles of powerful men.

One thing I liked about The Silence of the Girls is how thoroughly it shows us that Briseis' story is a familiar narrative in The Iliad and Greek myth. In her way Briseis is another version of Helen, the contested possession of whom started the whole war in the first place. And like Helen, when things go badly, it is the woman who gets blamed: When they finally make up, Agamemnon and Achilles make a public declaration that they wish Briseis had never been born, because she committed the unforgivable mistake of coming between them. The Silence of the Girls is filled with women whose lives and deaths are at the mercy of men's pettiness: Cassandra, Chryseis, Polyxena, Ihpigenia, Tecmessa.

The challenge for The Silence of the Girls is that, to tell the full story of Achilles as it appears in The Iliad, it becomes necessary to move away from Briseis' point of view. As the story progresses, Barker begins to alternate Briseis' first person narrative with a third person narrative that follows Achilles himself: his grief over Patroclus' death, his tortured relationship with his sea-goddess mother, his dishonoring of Hector's body, his premonition of his own death in battle. But as the novel becomes more and more a simple novelization of The Iliad, the power and interest of its feminist viewpoint becomes diluted. It becomes harder, too, to overlook the essential clunkiness of the novel's style, which has the most legendary warrior in ancient Greek literature saying things like "So now, I just think: Fuck it."

I think the whole "redoing classic literature from a woman's perspective" thing has a high bar to clear these days. Blame Jean Rhys. When The Silence of the Girls works best, it presents something overlooked and essential about these stories, which are perhaps the most beloved and most well-known, historically speaking, of any on earth, which in turn reveals something about ourselves. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano

Each person shines with his or her own light. No two flames are alike. There are big flames and little flames, flames of every color. Some people's flames are so still they don't even flicker in the wind, while others have wild flames that fill the air with sparks. Some foolish flames neither burn nor shed light, but others blaze with life so fiercely that you can't look at them without blinking and if you approach, you shine in fire.

"Through my writing," Uruguayan journalist and writer Eduardo Galeano writes in The Book of Embraces, "I try to express the magical reality, which I find at the core of the hideous reality of America." This writing he calls "Magical Marxism: one half reason, one half passion, and a third half mystery," and it's that mysterious third half that defines The Book of Embraces: a sense that life, especially in the Global South, is more full than it seems. Sometimes this superfluence of life is painful ("hideous reality") and sometimes luminous ("passion," "mystery"), but it is revealed through the voices of those most marginalized by dictators and plutocrats: martyred writers, the poor, the graffiti that appears on city walls.

The Book of Embraces takes the form of a series of vignettes, each no longer than a page, and often only a few short lines. In the compacted space of these vignettes all sorts of genres collide: journalism, history, autobiography, magical realism, anecdote. The first few vignettes suggest jokes, or maybe Aesop's fables, with their clever turns and fantastical air:

On his deathbed, a man of the vineyards spoke into Marcela's ear. Before dying, he revealed his secret:

"The grape," he whispered, "is made of wine."

Marcela Perez-Silva told me this, and I thought: If the grape is made of wine, then perhaps we are the words that tell who we are.

Characters troop in and out, performing singular rituals: a poor Cuban becomes a photographer in New York, where he takes a prize-winning photo of a murder where he "managed to photograph death." A visitor to Pablo Neruda's house witnesses a vision of an eagle flapping its wings. A woman named Helena "travels in a horse-drawn carriage to the land where dreams are dreamed." A man is befriended by a catfish. Some of these characters are quite famous: Neruda, Alistair Reid, Ernesto Cardenal. Some are the named or nameless poor: carpenters, beggars, shoe-shiners. "Helena" is Galeano's wife, and Galeano himself, after a while, becomes a character, skipping from city to city in his capacity as a writer and speaker, which gives The Book of Embraces a distinctly global flair.

Still, the book is really about Latin America. As it progresses, the lightheartedness of the magical realism drops away and the vignettes become more sober, turning to martyred journalists and political upheaval. The sanguine themes of freedom and expression become captivity and compression. Sometimes, the vignettes are much worse for it, when Galeano turns from the preciousness of fables to cheap sloganeering: "Politicians speak but say nothing. Voters vote but don't elect. The information media disinform. Schools teach ignorance. Judges punish the victims." But when the vignettes are strong, they make a powerful critique of the bloodiness of Latin American regimes, where, as in this description of Colombia, "rivers of blood merge with rivers of gold. Glories of the economy, years of cheap money: in the midst of euphoria, the country produces cocaine, coffee, and crime in insane quantities." Galeano argues that "Democracy is a northern luxury" while "In the southern half of the world, so the system teaches, violence and hunger belong not to history but to nature, and justice and liberty have been condemned to mutual hatred."

The Book of Embraces is a real bag of spare parts, and that's its strength as well as its flaw. It's a challenge to read straight through; better to read it perhaps one piece a day, like a Christian devotional. But when the vignettes are good, they speak with considerable power. They have numbered titles ("Hunger 1," "Art and Reality 3") that link them to prior pieces, and in this way make a kind of threaded pattern that binds the whole thing together into something valuable.

I've never read a book from Uruguay before, so this makes #53 in my project to read a book from every country.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Alice, do you think the problem of the contemporary novel is simply the problem of contemporary life? I agree it seems vulgar, decadent, even epistemically violent, to invest energy in the trivialities of sex and friendship when human civilization is facing collapse. But at the same time, that is what I do every day. We can wait, if you like, to ascend to some higher plane of being, at which point we'll start directing all our mental and material resources toward existential questions and thinking nothing of our own families, friends, lovers, and so on. But we'll be waiting, in my opinion, a long time, and in fact we'll die first.

Here is a sentence from Sally Rooney's novel Beautiful World, Where Are You: "When the burgers arrived, they tasted normal." When I lay my head down to sleep at night, this sentence haunts me. When I wake up in the morning, it's running through my mind. When the burgers arrived, they tasted normal. When the burgers arrived, how did they taste? Well, they tasted normal. I have begun to fear that when I am old and in the grips of dementia and all my capacity for speech has gone these will be the only words left to me: When the burgers arrived, they tasted normal.

This sentence--so purposeful, nearly aggressive, in its attempt at capturing the tedious detail of everyday living--is emblematic of the novel's style. Rooney's breakthrough novel was called Normal People, a title which might work as well here, given the intense normality of three of the four main characters: Eileen, an aimless thirty-year old who works in publishing in Dublin; Simon, her childhood friend and new lover; Felix, a warehouse worker living on the Irish coast. The fourth, Alice, is a little less novel, being a newly famous novelist (and obvious Rooney stand-in), but who has come to hate the pretensions of literary life. She says of her fellow novelists, dismissively: "And then they go away and write their sensitive novels about 'ordinary life.' The truth is they know nothing about ordinary life. Most of them haven't so much as glanced up against the real world in decades." For Rooney, the attempt to capture "ordinary life" entails describing in plain language what the ordinary characters are doing ordinarily: taking clingfilm off of bowls and microwaving food; scrolling through the apps and typing names of their exes into searchbars; waiting for their burgers to arrive, which then taste normal.

Is there a beauty in the world that is accessible to us, despite the ordinary stuff that seems to make up our lives? This is the novel's big theme, and it's one of the questions that Alice and Eileen take up in their emails to each other, which break up the novel's third person narration. I was grateful for these sections, which keep the novel from becoming unforgivably tedious, and show that Rooney has, in fact, a pretty decent ear for colloquial speech. The question of beauty is actually the least interesting or meaningful of those the old friends take up, which include the nature of sex and the modern novel and whether art is possible when the world is collapsing. But the epistolary structure makes it so that Rooney doesn't have to commit to any of these ideas, which are sort of incomplete and half-baked, as they would be, in the context of two friends just shooting the shit.

One of the biggest problems of this novel for me was the point of view. Rooney has no compunction about milking the third person narrator's omniscience, as in an early section where we are treated to an enormous information dump about the history between Eileen and Simon, but in other places the narrator becomes too coy to tell us what anyone is thinking or feeling, retreating into a strange half-position, like this:

For a few seconds then he held the phone out at arm's length, headphones dangling loose over the side of the bridge, and it was not clear from this gesture whether he was trying to see the existing image better, getting an ew angle in order to take a new photograph, or simply thinking about letting the device slip soundless out of his hand and into the river.

This was not clear to whom, exactly? Felix makes a cryptic gesture with his phone, but who exactly is providing the various interpretations as to what it is he's doing? Alice, talking to Felix, "seemed to have recognised a kind of challenge or even repudiation in his tone, and rather than cowing her, it was as though it hardened her resolve." She seemed to have done this? Seem means literally to be seen; what does it "seem" like when one recognizes a challenge or even repudiation in someone else's tone? This is probably not all that tricky for someone who doesn't teach about point of view for a living, but my god, it drove me absolutely bonkers. The problem is that it wants to have things both ways: to tell us what's going on in Alice's head and show us also that people are cryptic and difficult to figure out. But it's an unwalkable line; you just can't do both. You can make your characters cryptic or you can make their emotions clear.

By now I guess it's clear that I had a lot of frustrations with this novel. I wanted to see what the fuss is about, and I've got to say, Beautiful World, Where Are You is almost exactly what I expected it to be. But I didn't not enjoy it. For all its tedium, Rooney manages to make the central foursome compelling: aimless Eileen, stalwart Simon, chaotic Felix, neurotic Alice. Alice spends a lot of time complaining about her sudden literary fame in a way that might have been lighthearted ironizing about Rooney's own life, but which I suspect is actually a gauche defensiveness. (She complains, for instance, about the parasocial relationship her fans have with her on twitter--barf-o, Sally.) Yet she, like Eileen, Simon, and Felix, has a richness and complexity.

In the end, I think what made Beautiful World, Where Are You Not My Kind of Thing is not the tedious style, or the bad point of view, or the normal-tasting burgers, but the television-ness of it all: it reads exactly like a treatment for another limited Hulu series. Like some television shows, Beautiful World just believes that the will-they-won't-they drama of young hetero sex-havers is the most interesting thing in the world. No thanks.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Today Karanja was determined to find out the truth, an inkling of which he had once tasted, when, as a chief, he had been told that Gikonyo and the other detainees were coming back to the village. Now he would go to Thompson and say: Sir, are you really abandoning Kenya? Not that between Karanja and John Thompson there had developed a relationship that might be called personal; nor was the consciousness of dependency mutual; only that to Karanja, John Thompson had always assumed the symbol of whiteman's power, unmovable like a rock, a power that had built the bomb and transformed a country from wild bush and forests into modern cities, with tarmac highways, motor vehicles and two or four legs, railways, trains, aeroplanes and buildings whose towers scraped the sky--and all this in the space of sixty years. Had he himself not experienced that power, which also ruled over the souls of men, when he, as a Chief, could make circumcised men cower before him, women scream by a lift of the finger?

Ngugi wa Thiongo's novel A Grain of Wheat takes place during the days leading up to Kenya's independence from Britain: Uhuru Day. It's a time of great anticipation, as people wonder how the country will change as it returns to Kenyan hands, but also a moment of looking backward. For some, this means commemorating the great deeds of the Mau Mau and forest fighters whose successful rebellion brought the nation to the brink of independence; for others it means reckoning with vast stores of guilt over what the heat of the "Emergency" forced them to do. A Grain of Wheat follows three men who make this reckoning: Mugo, Karanja, and Gikonyo.

Mugo is a loner who has no family, no connections. His experience in the British-run detainee camps has left him broken, but unlike others, he had no wife or mother to return to when the camps emptied. He becomes withdrawn, isolated, but his fellow villagers interpret his silence as a kind of stoicism and modesty that turns him into a kind of folk hero. They urge him to make a speech at the Uhuru Day festival, but they don't know his deep secret: he was the one who betrayed the freedom fighter Kihika, alerting the British authorities to his whereabouts and leading to his murder.

Suspicion of this act has fallen instead on Karanja, a childhood friend of Kihika and Gikonyo who took a radically different path during the Emergency, allying himself to the white power structure, assuming it to be an irreversible feature of the Kenyan body politic. Karanja, who once was installed as chief and now functions as a kind of errand boy for the local British-run research station, is terrified by Kenya's upcoming independence. He watches without recourse as the "whiteman's" power dwindles in Kenya, and his white bosses make plans to leave the country, leaving him behind to face the consequences of his actions.

The third man, Gikonyo, is another former detainee, who throughout the six years of his detention and torture dreamed of nothing more than returning to his beautiful wife, Mumbi. When he returns, however, he finds that Mumbi has had a child with Karanja, his old rival. Gikonyo's anger consumes him; the life he had hoped to resume has vanished--what to him, one wonders, is a day of independence? He spills his cares to the silent Mugo, as Mumbi does, and many others. Against his will Mugo bears all the suffering of the village; in this way he fits into an archetype of the unwilling Christ figure--the role of Christianity in advancing, or rebuking, the Kenyan revolution is an important theme here--that reminded me of characters as different as McCullers' John Singer, Greene's Whiskey Priest, and Lagerkvist's Barabbas. But the role of a Christ figure cannot be complete until a great sacrifice is made; Thiong'o makes us wonder, will Mugo confess what he has done or let Karanja take the fall?

A Grain of Wheat was an interesting book to read alongside Imbolo Mbue's more recent How Beautiful We Were, a book I didn't like much at all. The time and setting are very different--we're talking about the other side of Africa here, so let's not press the connection too much--but both are preoccupied with questions about the ethical and practical response to the ravages of colonialism. The specificity and detail of A Grain of Wheat felt revitalizing after the veiled Cameroon-but-not-Cameroon of How Beautiful We Were. But perhaps more importantly, Mbue's novel has what struck me as a jejune belief in the power of personal charisma to bring change; a belief that is, in a way, satirized by the lionization of the tortured Mugo. Ngugi's novel is a compelling picture, rather, of what happens to individual men and women caught in the web of history: Karanja and Mugo make choices that strike us as pusillanimous, but who can say they would choose any differently? Ultimately, A Grain of Wheat is a novel about the limitations of revolutionary success: whatever happens on Uhuru Day, the scars of colonialism cannot easily be erased.

With the addition of Kenya, I have now read a book from 51 countries!

Saturday, October 30, 2021

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

We should have known the end was near. How could we not have known? When the sky began to pour acid and rivers began to turn green, we should have known our land would soon be dead. Then again, how could we have known when they didn't want us to know? When we began to wobble and stagger, tumbling and snapping the feeble little branches, they told us it would soon be over, that we would all be well in no time. They asked us to come to village meetings, to talk about it. They told us we had to trust them.

In the small village of Kosawa, in an unnamed African nation that presumably resembles author Imbolo Mbue's native Cameroon, the water and soil have been poisoned by an oil company called Pexton. The children of the village are becoming gravely ill, and often dying; pleas to the company to clean up the land fall on deaf ears, and the village chief is in the pocket of the oil barons. It's the town madman who pushes the village to finally take matters into his own hands: during a visit from Pexton's ambassadors, he nicks the key to their truck, knowing that for ritual reasons no one will dare touch him. Suddenly the town leaders find themselves having kidnapped three of the company's employees, a situation which presents both great opportunity and great danger.

This scenario, which I really liked, makes up the first third of the novel, and turns out to be rather inconclusive, as all kinds of real-world activism really are. The immediacy and intensity of the hostage scenario gives way to what I thought was a much weaker novel about the education of Thula, a young girl when the hostages are taken, who goes to America and comes back to Africa as a firebrand intent on bringing political change to her country. The bulk of How Beautiful We Were was, I thought, marred by bad literary choices, beginning with the novel's structure, which is composed of several first-person sections written by villagers. Their own stories can be detailed and engaging, but they felt to me ultimately a distraction from what's clearly meant to the main narrative, which happens at a bird's-eye view that robs it of specificity and detail.

Several of these sections are written from the perspective of "The Children," a collective of Thula's "age-mates." I really loved this at first, but over the course of the novel it forces Mbue into authorial positions that just don't work: she uses a series of ham-fisted letters from Thula to the Children in order to inform us of the progress of her education, for example. Later, when the Children splinter, having argued about the morality and efficacy of the violent methods the employ to supplement Thula's political activism, the internal logic of these sections breaks down almost completely.

I didn't think this book worked, honestly. But when it's at its best, it presents complex and interesting questions about how oppressed peoples in the Third World can and should fight back. During the hostage scenario, a team of envoys travels to the nation's capital to convince an American journalist to write about them; the outrage in the U.S. over the village's plight leads to an arrangement with the oil company and an NGO called the "Restoration Movement" that brings a measure of progress. But Thula returns understanding that only political change will make a difference; her non-violent campaigns are contrasted with the gun-happy "Children," in a way that seemed a little jejune to me but not without knowledge or understanding.

I have an ongoing project to read a book from every country. How Beautiful We Were falls in sort of a gray area: though born in Cameroon, Mbue lives in and wrote the book in America. But perhaps this is offset by the African setting of the novel, so I'm counting this for Cameroon, which puts me at 50 countries.