§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: January 2008

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander

I have been interested in “the disappeared” (Los Desaparecidos ) of Argentina since I visited that country in the mid-90ies several times and saw the mothers marching in the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada (pink house, president’s residence and seat of government). That’s what drew me to this book.

The setting is Buenos Aires in 1976. The main characters are Kaddish Poznan and his wife, Lillian. They are not only Jewish, but Kaddish is literally a hijo de puta (son of a whore) and his “job” is defacing gravestones in the Jewish cemetery for whores and pimps for their descendents who want to erase their past, free their identity from the stain of their ancestors. And erasing the past and transforming identity are major themes in the novel. Lillian is a more conventional Jew, belonging to the “respectable” Jewish congregation. She works for an insurance agent, actually the main support of the family. Kaddish and Lillian have a son, Pato, who’s a university student. Kaddish and Pato battle constantly. On the day that Pato is arrested, Kaddish in his fury tells his son he wishes he’d never been born.

Kaddish and Lillian are both devastated at the arrest of their son, especially as they realize no official of the government will admit that Pato is even in custody or in fact ever existed. They handle their grief and frustration so entirely differently that the conflict between them deepens. Lillian assumes there are government channels one has to go through to get information. She soon knows every police station in the city intimately and sits every day at the Ministry of Special Cases hoping for a hearing. Kaddish’s strategy is less straightforward. In one of the more hilarious (in a book that’s basically painfully tragic) incidents of the book, before his son disappears, Kaddish is owed money by a plastic surgeon whose family graves he has “disappeared”. The doctor convinces him to accept payment in kind and Kaddish negotiates nose jobs for himself, Lillian and Pato. Pato refuses—not wanting to change his identity. Kaddish volunteers to go first and gets a first rate job; Lillian, whom he was trying to protect by going first, gets an intern and her new nose falls off and has to be redone—which Kaddish manages to badger the doctor into doing. Changing the nose, especially for a Jew, is tantamount to changing identity; Lillian, who is now beautiful, is devastated when a policeman to whom she shows a picture of her son, says it can’t be her son with that big nose.

A Kaddish is a prayer in the Jewish liturgy and the term is especially associated with a prayer of mourning. Both the history of Argentina of this period and Kaddish’s name warn the reader that Pato will never be found alive. Students and intellectuals were targeted by the regime and most often “disappeared”. Kaddish eventually encounters a navigator who, full of guilt in his role, tells him how the regime disposes of the disappeared, pushing them out of airplanes into the river delta. That convinces Kaddish that Pato is dead, but when he goes to the rabbi to arrange a funeral, it seems that Jewish practice doesn’t allow that without a body. Lillian throws him out because he won’t keep the faith that Pato is alive and coming back. She has met a priest roaming the Ministry of Special Cases who tells her that a great amount of money can buy information about the disappeared and sometimes even a release. Pato, not believing in her solution but realizing he can’t live her lie and can’t live without her goes back to the plastic surgeon who advises him to kidnap someone himself and demand a ransome. That Kaddish’s conscience cannot tolerate but he can “ply his trade” and steal the bones of a prominent family from the famous Recoleta cemetery and hold those for ransome…

This novel was not entirely successful. The marriage of Jewish tradition and Argentinean history of the 1970ies just doesn’t work. The saga of a disappeared son is too painful to be contemplated, and Englander doesn’t succeed completely moving the reader from the literal events to the larger concepts he seems to be trying for. There is no ending to Pato’s story—the mothers still march in the Plaza de Mayo (which practice is not, by the way, featured in the novel)—as the reader knows neither he nor his body will be found and that tragedy trumps all the richness and the humor of Kaddish and Lillian’s story.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

I bought Independence Day some time ago and was considering The Lay of the Land when a friend said I should read the whole trilogy in order so I started on The Sportswriter. I was initially drawn in by the writing style: informal, slightly comic, completely honest. This is one of the most interesting novels of “everyday life” I can think of; it’s also a novel that gives me real insights into how men think. I’ve never got into Updike’s Rabbit novels, figured they must appeal primarily to men, but this one did interest me.

Frank Bascombe became a sportswriter when he reached a point in his writing career—he’d published one book of stories—when he decided he didn’t have enough to say. It was a compromise that he accepted whole-heartedly. He’s not exactly gung ho, but he takes his job seriously. He also doesn’t let it define him, preferring to live in a small New Jersey town rather than in New York, to choose the sports he writes about, and not be defined by his job.

The action takes place on an Easter weekend, when he meets his ex-wife to visit the grave of their son, and plans to have Easter dinner with his girlfriend, a divorced nurse named Vicki. He also meets with a man from his divorced men’s group, someone he doesn’t know well but who adopts him as his “best friend”. The guy is stressed out because, while his ex-wife went to Bimini with her man friend, he went home with another man and had sex with him and can’t reconcile himself to what he did. There are some flashbacks: Frank’s divorce, the death of his son, college in Ann Arbor where he met his wife, conversations with a palmist, a Detroit trip with Vicki to interview a ballplayer now confined a wheelchair. Throughout Frank is self-effacing, philosophical, warm, decent and humane.

By the end of the weekend Vicki has dumped him (after punching him out) and his friend from the divorced men’s group has committed suicide and left the note for him. At loose ends on Easter night he boards the train on a whim and goes to his Manhattan office where a young female intern turns up in his office and he starts a relationship with her. In the weeks following everything changes, but Frank seems still the same decent guy.

Now I’m definitely going on to Independence Day and The Lay of the Land. This is one interesting guy.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

Kanai and Piya (short for Piyali) meet on a train heading for the tide country southwest of Kolkatta (Calcutta). Both are Bengali, but live their lives at a fair distance from their roots. Kanai lives in New Dehli, running his own successful translation business that caters to a growing business community. Piya grew up in Seattle where her parents immigrated and she never even learned to speak Bangla. Kanai is going to visit an aunt he hasn’t seen since childhood when he was banished to her town in the tide country because of insolence and misbehavior at school. Now she wants him to go over some papers of her deceased husband, Kanai’s uncle. Piya is a cetologist who studies river dolphins of which there are supposed to be plenty in the river delta country toward which they are heading. Kanai, a bachelor and womanizer, finds Piya attractive and a good prospect for a holiday affair. Piya is somewhat turned off by Kanai’s sophistication and air of superiority, far too independent to fall in with his plans. But he has one thing she doesn’t have—fluency in Bangla, as well as connections in the islands.

The story introduces a part of the world I didn’t know anything about, hadn’t in fact ever heard of, though I had heard of floods in Bangladesh. It’s the mouth of the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and some other rivers too at the top of the Bay of Bengal. The “tide country”, including some of both India and Bangladesh, is a series of low-lying islands called the Sundarbans. So low-lying that in order to be inhabited, they need to have embankment’s behind which it’s safe to build; otherwise just ordinary tides would flood houses and businesses. Huge crocodiles inhabit the waters and tigers roam the uninhabited land and visit civilization often enough. And like the Mississippi Delta in the US, the land is subject to powerful storms, called cyclones, not hurricanes, in Asia. The human settlements in the Sundarbands are isolated and deaths from crocodiles and tigers are common. Cyclones wash over entire islands and rearrange the land, wiping out one island and creating another. There’s much emphasis on preservation of the wild environments, sometimes to the exclusion of the people who live there; the government isn’t particularly concerned about death by tiger or even by cyclone. In a sense the lives of the tigers are more valuable to India than the lives of the people.

Piya has studied river dolphins in the Mekong and other Asian locations and is used to working alone. She hires a boat run by the militant forest police and ends up regretting it. After she’s thrown off in an unfortunate accident she hooks up with a crab fisherman and his son in a small, unpowered boat. They have no language in common, but manage to make themselves understood and under Piya’s instruction, Fokir uses the boat to track the paths of the Irawaddy Dolphins they find there. They stay out for several days and collect significant data. Piya sees a project worthy of her life’s work in describing the lives and habitats of these dolphins. She’s used to living for days in primitive conditions, consumes mostly nutrition bars and bottled water wherever she is. Fokir turns out to the be perfect research companion.

Meanwhile back at Lusibari (Lucy’s Island as named by the British, though this one is a fictional island) Kanai is focused on his uncle’s papers and the uncle, Nirmal’s, fight for the displaced people living on one of the deserted islands, Morichjhapi. Kanai’s interest is peaked because as a young boy he’d met Kuma, a young woman at the time, who’d worked with his aunt. Kuma is one of the leaders of the protest on Morichjhap who turns out to be Fokir's mother.

Separately Piya and Kanai become emotionally involved with the islands and their people, he by focusing his uncle's manuscript and on Kuma and the past, she by focusing on Fokir and the present. The climax of the book is a trip on the boat of Fokir’s uncle, with Piya along to direct the research and Kanai to translate.

Ghosh skillfully weaves Piya’s story and Kanai’s together and at the same time weaves together the fabric of the past and the present of the Sundarbans, science and literature, politics and business, public and private life.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

One Christmas in Washington by David Bercuson and Holger H. Herwig

I enjoyed this book. It focuses on Churchill’s trip to the US with his advisors to plan out the course of WWII. He came, virtually uninvited, after his “joy” at Pearl Harbor, which he, not surprisingly, saw as salvation for Britain. It covers the period from the first wartime meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt at Placentia Bay, where Churchill arrived on the warship HMS Prince of Wales and Roosevelt arrived on the USS Augusta at Naval Air Station Argentia, a US naval base on Newfoundland territory (then not part of Canada). Both Roosevelt and Churchill had “cover stories” when they left, for security reasons, but also because the US was not yet at war. Their meeting was known as the Atlantic Conference—held on two ships anchored in the Atlantic—and produced the Atlantic Charter which laid out the vision of a post war world—in broad terms.

Then after Pearl Harbor, Churchill rushed to fill in the details and come up with a joint war effort that he saw would be lead by the US and Britain—and Russia too, once Russia had “saved itself” from immediate annihilation. The US was completely unready for war—actually producing fewer planes than was Britain, with a small army, and a population that was, after Pearl Harbor, just awakening from isolationism. The meeting was difficult on many fronts. Roosevelt and Churchill meet every day, sometimes long into the night as Churchill and his immediate party were staying in the White House (where Churchill rejected the Lincoln bedroom and wandered down the halls to find a more suitable one). Both were strong personalities with common objects and incredibly different styles. Eleanor didn't much like Churchill, though he was a bad influence on Roosevelt (late night carousing and drinking. Her goal for the war was to extend liberal democracy and definitely not the shore up the British Empire.

The service chiefs from both countries met but had misconceptions and prejudices about their opposite numbers. The British were stuffy and uppity and bent on ceremony. The Americans were crude and uneducated and didn’t even know how to fly. Both leaders recognized they needed each other, but Churchill was far more knowledgeable about war than Roosevelt. Roosevelt was suave and charming but Churchill had to learn that he nodded and said “yes” to whatever you said but that didn’t mean he agreed.

It was on this trip that Churchill made his famous speech to Congress in which he began, “I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way around, I might have got here on my own.” He helped Roosevelt light the White House Christmas tree. After Christmas he took off a few days to go to Ottawa and address the Canadian parliament, but he made much less effort with MacKenzie King, Canada’s wartime premier, than he did with the man in the White House. I learned relatively little new from this book, but enjoyed the detail enormously especially the difficulties that individuals and groups had coming to their decisions, which included appointing a joint commander in the Pacific theatre.