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

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński

Kapuściński was a Polish journalist who died in 2007, and who spent time in Africa between the late 1950ies and the 1990ies. Africa was not his only beat, but when he spent time there he spent time with the people and shared their lives when he could. He was the first Polish foreign correspondent to cover Africa and he was always seriously underfunded compared with those representing the big European and American publications and agencies. What he lacked in funds he made up in ingenuity and a willingness to share in the lives of Africans with the result that he got the big stories (a coup in Zanzibar is the subject of one piece) but also the stories about the little people. He went to visit friends in remote villages where there wasn't enough to eat. He traveled in war zones. He met the dictators and sadists who were independent Africa's first rulers. Once traveling with Greek correspondent in the region of Lake Victoria, he took refuge in a hut where he collapsed, exhausted, into a bunk only to discover a huge Egyptian cobra coiled underneath. He and the Greek threw their weight behind a huge metal container (their only weapon) and tried to crush it. The canister did not cut into the snake and they had to wrestle it to death. He got cerebral malaria, nearly died, and lived with the after affects for years.
The pieces in this book are beautifully written, undoubtedly due in part of the translator. Not like journalistic pieces one usually reads, with their pyramid structure and journalistic phrases and short cuts. Kapuściński's scope was broader, from the latest war or coup to serious attempts to characterize African people. He put himself on the line in every piece—it was personal, heartfelt and wise. He engaged seriously with people, didn't just watch from afar or "interview the participants".
One learns a great deal about the history of Africa—and why in a sense there was no history until the Europeans started to divide Africa up into colonies and zones of interest. Why there'd never be a history because there were no documents at all, only the oral stories the people told. The chapter on Rwanda is worth the purchase of the book alone: Kapuściński put the genocide in a context which none of the several books I read on the subject of the Rwandan genocide was able to do. Similarly, another long chapter on a visit to Liberia developed a context for the awful civil wars which began when an army sergeant took charge and carved up the President in his bed—without even a plan for what he'd do when he became leader—and was eventually carved up himself. That essay ends when Kapuściński is allowed to travel up country and meet the tribal people (which the ruling Americo-Liberians called aboriginals when I visited in 1965). They are coming into Monrovia across a bridge and Kapuściński sees a naked man with a Kalashnikov, the others carefully stepping out of his way. "A madman with a Kalashnikov" is how he, quite appropriately, ends the essay.
Kapuściński's focus in this book is mostly East Africa and the Sahara and Sanhel, a few mentions of West Africa, not much of Southern Africa. Not much about the more "civilized" parts of Northern Africa.

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

Venice is the city of falling angels—literally carvings falling off of buildings, possibly on your head if you weren’t careful. The main focus of the book is the fire that burned the Fenice opera house, the reactions of Venetians and those from outsiders like the Americans in Save Venice, the non-profit organization that raised funds for restoration of Venetian art and architecture, as well as the following investigations, legal battles and eventual restoration. The author functions as a sort of informal detective—since the cause of the fire was first judged to be carelessness and then arson—but he can’t do what Venice itself can’t do, determine the cause and assign blame, make a restoration plan. Since the author was living in Venice much of the time between the fire and the restoration (1996-2003) he comes to know the place and the people increasingly well and the book is not strictly that of the fire, the quest to assign blame and the restoration, but about Venetian history and life now.
I got bored with the American socialites who jockeyed for power and acceptance by Venetian society, but the story of the theater itself was interesting, the legal battle to assign blame frustrating, and many of the other stories, particularly that of Ezra Pound and his companion of 50 years, Olga Rudge, and their “hidden nook”, fascinating.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

I enjoyed this book without finding it a masterpiece. Perhaps because of the Booker Prize, I was expecting too much. The novel is a first person narrative by Balram Halwai who was a poor kid from “the Darkness” (rural, undeveloped parts of India) who wangled a job as driver in Dehli for one of the landlord class from his village. He’s supposedly writing memos to the Premier of China, Wen Jiabao, who, it’s been reported in the Bangelore (where Balram currently lives) newspaper, will shortly visit India. Balram writes to “advise” on things Indian and to express his solidarity with an important leader of the yellow and brown peoples who are destined next to run the world. The Chinese premier never replies.
Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don’t have entrepreneurs. And our nation though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs.
Balram is clever and amusing and calls himself an entrepreneur. He always write his memors in the middle of the night. The reader suspects he’s running some company that provides technical or customer support for US companies in the middle of the night in Bangelore. Which is correct, but not exactly what the reader is initially led to believe. Relatively uneducated, from a school where the teacher embezzles the money for uniforms, food and books, Balram was supposed to be the son who lifts the family out of the darkness into the light. His skipping school seems to put an end to that. He’s put to work, with his brother, in the tea shop. There, though, he uses the ambiance provided by the customers to begin understanding the “light” world (that of the educated Indians living in cities) and finagling a job for himself as a driver for the son of a land owner who has just returned from the US. Throughout, Balram refers to Indians from the poverty-stricken rural places as from the “darkness” and those middle class Indians from the city as from the “light”. The dichotomy is frequently also expressed in terms of those with big bellies and those with small bellies. Social mobility does exist for the fortunate—or ruthless enough—few and Balram not only yearns, but feels it his duty to his dead father (who died in a government hospital waiting for a doctor who didn’t come), to move up.
Balram’s is a sordid tale, as becomes apparent even before we learn that he’s killed his former boss, but his charm—and his social criticism—keeps us reading and reassures us that author and narrator are not the same. In Balram’s world, servants lie, cheat and steal to get and keep jobs and to assert themselves, however pathetically, in the face of appalling condescension on the part of their employers, and the employers are involved in bribery and corruption the like of which Ashok, Balram’s boss who returned to India with his American wife, finds distasteful and degrading—at least at first.
The problem with the novel is that while the charming tone is sustained to the last, Balram leads us into some pretty dicey situations. He’s proud of the wanted poster on which he appears looking like just about every other Indian and about the fact that it’s unlikely he’ll ever be caught, but evidently 17 members of his family have been killed in retaliation and he muses that he may eventually have to kill the nephew who lives with him—when he finds out. There’s a limit to how much violence his charm will allow us to swallow, even when we know his social criticism is justified.

Jan 5th:
I had a hard time with the book because although I sympathized with Balram initially and even managed to hang on through his confession that he killed Ashok, by the time he described how he actually did it and certainly when he told us (indirectly) that 17 members of his family were killed for what he did and that he may have to kill his nephew, I've turned against him. I felt the author couldn't sustain sympathy to the end, but as I've mulled it over in my mind, I'm thinking that my reaction is just what Adiga wanted. HIS goal is to highlight the corruption that runs India and show how it perpetuates itself.

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Barry’s last book, A Long Long Way, was initially impressive—largely because of his skill with language—but I lost interest and put it down. This one might have met the same fate had I not agreed to discuss it with a book group. It’s beautifully written, but frankly I’m tired of skillful Irish narratives about the plight of the poor in Ireland, the abuse of women by the Church, and the consequences of “the troubles”. It’s as if, each in his or her own way, generations of Irish novelists have walked in Joyce’s footsteps without long enough legs to climb out on their own territory.

The best thing about this book is Rosanne’s narrative. The book consists of two intertwined narratives: the story of her life that Rosanne, a 100 year old inmate of a mental institution in Roscommon, writes and hides under a floorboard and that of Dr Grene, the hospital’s psychiatrist, who has to determine which inmates could be released to the outside world. Grene, is Irish, but grew up in England and has an English accent. He’s 65 years old, recently widowed from a wife from whom he’d been estranged even as they lived most of their lives together. He visits Rosanne’s room frequently, drawn to her and suddenly, after 30 years, interested in her story—how and why she ended up in an asylum. Rosanne is not forthcoming to him, but she is to the “unknown reader” who will find her manuscript.

Rosanne was raised a Protestant. She adored her father who was always suspect in Sligo because of his religion, who may or may not have been police under English rule and who was relegated to jobs like cemetery keeper and rat catcher (she tells a harrowing tale of how he eliminated rats in an orphanage with something that was flammable and how a rat, coming down a chimney into a fire, fled burning, igniting a fire in which 20-some young girls were killed). Her father is eventually killed by his enemies and Rosanne is left alone with her mentally ill mother. She takes a job in a tea shop to support them both. Because she’s a beautiful girl, the local priest wants to find her a husband—to marry her to a Catholic and render her, and the community, “safe”. She refuses and eventually marries Tom McNulty who doesn’t care that she’s protestant. His mother does—it’s an old story—and connives with the priest to have the marriage annulled. Years later, Rosanne bears a child out of wedlock after spending one night with her husband’s errant brother (hero of an earlier novel). She appeals to Mrs. McNulty for help, is turned down and bears her child on the beach in a storm. An ambulance materializes to rescue her but not the child and she’s committed with her mother to the Sligo Asylum (and eventually moved to Roscommon).

It’s an old story—that of the priest so frightened of a young woman’s beauty that he has to do her in, acting in concert with an oh-so-pious mother, but it’s been told again and again. This one has a completely unbelievable twist at the end that’s all the more unforgivable because the discerning reader figures it out before the end.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

Compelling. I had to read it to the end, though I’m not sure I actually made sense of it. The main character is Skip Sands, a good American boy who follows his dead father’s brother (“the Colonel, Francis Xavier Sands) into the CIA and into PsyOps. After getting his feet wet in southeast Asia with the Colonel’s operations in the Philippines, Skip, something of a linguist, goes to Monterrey to learn Vietnamese in preparation for going to Vietnam. But he’s not the CIA type. He’s more of a scholar who tackles new languages with gusto and, stationed in the home of a dead French eye doctor, spends his time reading and studying in his library. Neither action nor deception come naturally to him. He’s, moreover, idealistic, hooked on the idea of “serving his country” as did his father who died at Pearl Harbor and his uncle. He always wants to “know the truth” and doesn’t take naturally to the Colonel’s sense that loyalty (to one’s buddies, one’s unit, one’s leader) is the primary virtue.

The Colonel is a CIA operative turned rogue. His plan (named “tree of smoke” from several Old Testament passages) is to run a double agent back into North Vietnam, convincing the leadership that the US plans a nuclear attack. One review was entitled “Bright Shining Lie” and while it didn’t reference Neil Sheehan’s famous book, my first thought when I met “the Colonel” of Johnson’s novel was Sheehan’s version of Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Van, an outspoken army field adviser who criticized the way the war was being waged, ignored his superiors and leaked his pessimistic assessments to the U.S. press corps in Saigon.

In Viet Nam, Johnson’s Colonel Sands dies before his plan becomes operational, dies but no one ever knows definitively how or why. Many assume he’s still alive in hiding somewhere; others assume the CIA killed him off. From the first when a priest is assassinated in the Philippines, it’s clear that Skip is not the man to deal with the Colonel’s PsyOps programs. The Colonel has supposedly chosen him because he’s family and will be loyal. He doesn’t understand Skip any more than Skip understands the Colonel. There’s a girl too. Kathy Jones. A Canadian who comes to southeast Asia with her Seventh Day Adventist husband who dies in the Philippines, she stays on as a nurse and then in programs to adopt children out of the area. Overworked with practically no support she’s alternatively ultra religious and ultra skeptical. She and Skip have a brief affair. She writes to him at the language school and he ignores her letters; in the end he writes to her and says he loved her and missed his chance.

Two other Americans are the Houston brothers, Bill and James, a sailor and a soldier who seem to represent the kind of recruits who didn’t die in southeast Asia, but who learned how to become savage. There seems no redemption for them; they return home to end up rootless, in and out of jail. Kathy barely survives a plane crash (with a load of orphans) and ends up crippled in mind and body. Skip's fate is the worst.

The plot of this novel is elliptical and tortured. Critics see an analogy between it and the labyrinthine Viet Cong tunnels that figured prominently in that war. The writing is occasionally brilliant and moving, but mostly not.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

I was indifferent when I read Lahiri’s The Namesake, but I really liked this book. Possibly she’s better at short fiction—I note her new book is short fiction again.

The stories focus on Indian-Americans, primarily those like the author who are second generation, who have become Americans in ways their parents have not. In the title story, the main character is a taxi driver/tour guide, trained as a linguist and translater whose other job is interpreting for a physician who doesn’t speak all the languages of India. The patients tell him their symptoms and stories and he translates for the doctor. In the story he’s taking an Indian American family to see some monuments. They are visiting parents and feel compelled, by custom rather than personal interest in their origins or in the monuments themselves, to see the sights. The family is well dressed and presumably economically successfully. The boys have braces on their teeth—something which seems unfamiliar to the interpreter of maladies. The parents bicker; the children fuss—they’re relatively unattractive as people, almost the stereotype of Americans abroad—herded through ancient monuments they knew nothing about, carrying their ubiquitous cameras and plastic bottles of water. They ARE Americans of course and the fact that they have Indian parents seems to count much less than their lives “back home” in New Jersey. Meanwhile the interpreter of maladies fanaticizes that Mrs. Das will fall in love with him and enable him to be magically lifted out of his hum drum and difficult world into hers.

In another story a little girl speculates on the visitor to her home who stayed a year. It was in the 1950ies and he’s on a research grant from his country, but from the part of Pakistan that was at war and then broke off to become Bangladesh. He worries about his family in Dacca with whom he’s lost contact. He’s in a difficult position, on a grant from a country he no longer belongs to. Lilia, the girl, reports his behavior without understanding the political situation. In another story I liked a lot, an eleven-year-old boy goes to a babysitter’s after school. Mrs. Sen is an Indian woman who’s not really accommodated herself to New York—she can’t drive, despite lots of lessons—and calls her husband at work when she needs something though he tries hard to make her more self sufficient. But she and Elliot, the boy, who lives with a divorced and dispirited mother, form a significant bond and when Elliot is taken away after Mrs. Sen finally drives to the fish market with him and has a minor accident, both lose out to the more conventional ones—Mrs. Sen’s husband and Elliot’s mother.

In most of the stories at least one character seems out of step and Lahiri zeroes in with a great deal of feeling and absolutely no sentimentality.