Autopsy of a Father

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What we have in Pascale Kramer’s “Autopsy of a Father” is a failure to communicate on a familiar and societal level. Set currently in and around St. Etienne in south central France near Lyon, it was a region near the center of the Vichy government during World War II. Not a liberal region, the father, Gabriel, was a liberal journalist, whose defense of two local boys who murdered an immigrant from Comoros, is reviled by his former colleagues, and quietly supported by his neighbors. He is found dead, purportedly a suicide, soon after his estranged daughter and deaf grandson visit him. The daughter, an intellectual and social failure in the eyes of her egotistical and narcissistic father, is divorced from a Balkan Muslim, who unexpectedly shows up for the funeral preparations, along with the father’s controlling ex-wife from a locally superior economic and political class, and her brother. There is some financial issue about a Degas that has gone unaccounted for from the estate.

Death can bring out the worst in families, particularly when it is dysfunctional in life. The lack of communication breeds distrust, and communication feeds the flame.

This short novel starts a little slow, but rapidly becomes a page-turner. Ms. Kramer builds and maintains the tension throughout, with the politics of prejudice being an undercurrent. It indirectly raises the question whether prejudice more easily evolves when one bears the brunt of immigration, then those who unaffectedly theorizes about the impact of immigration on local communities. It is unclear, whether the victim was in France illegally or was an African legally living in predominantly white rural France. It is unclear if he was Muslim as most are. The murder was clearly unprovoked and there is no mention about what impact immigration had on the community, other than the resulting prejudice. These questions are left for the reader.

The prose is in service of the story and character development. A third-party narration, the novel is told from the daughter’s perspective. I have read a number of publications of Bellevue Literary Press. They tend to publish good works.

I recommend this novel.

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Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes

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Tamar Yellin is an excellent short story writer who was Longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. “Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes” references the ten lost tribes of Israel: Reuben; Simeon; Dan; Naphtali; Gad; Asher; Issachar; Zebulun; Ephraim; and Manasseh. Each chapter is entitled one of the lost tribes and is prefaced by quotations about one or more of the tribes, from the Bible or theological studies about the lost tribes. Apart from this Jewish theme, these integrated biographical short stories about the fictional narrator are universal. They embrace the psychologically displaced, culturally foreign and mentally isolated.  The first story, Reuben, begins with the narrator as a boy. He is influenced by his uncle, a globetrotter in stories, but in reality an impoverished, sedentary man, whose life is financed by the narrator’s father. In Simeon, the narrator, still a boy, is on a low-cost voyage on an unscrupulous steam line that has a history of losing ships in the Mediterranean. The globetrotter here is Nikos, the sympathetic steward who tries to look after the passengers. Dan is about the narrator’s father, who squandered his money to buy the perfect book for his collection, and the entrepreneurial bookseller, who is more than willing to accommodate him. In Naphtali, the narrator tries to impress his uncompromising but fragile linguistic professor himself in search of the lost language of his parents. Gad is about the narrator’s black-sheep aunt who never had the nerve to leave. In Asher, the narrator tries to befriend an isolated elderly neighbor who is waiting for the Messiah. In Issachar, the transient narrator, now a professor, has a relationship with his student, whose  unmemorable physical characteristics leaves her beyond recognition. In Zebulun, he is a caretaker of an elderly wealthy man, who is a prisoner in his own surroundings. In Eprhraim, he runs across a former student whose goal of having his perfect book published is realized in a local bookstore of a small town. In Manassas, he has journeyed downstream with his African guide in search of a person never seen, but who is legendary. It is the summation of the earlier stories and raises the question whether the lost tribes were not lost, but depleted in number and in memory.

My feeling after reading this book is that the author may be trapped in the genre where she has found success. The preface to each chapter and the title of the book enables her to keep her audience, but the writing has the broader appeal she could have. You might find it so.

Compass

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Non-Fiction  and fiction are fused in Mathias Enard’s “Compass”, a complex visitation of 19th Century Orientalism told through the relationship of an emotionally sedentary Austrian musicology professor and his intellectually adventurous, but distant, love interest whose esoteric academic interests border on the morbid. This immensely researched novel is today arcane. Its breadth is jaw-dropping: music, history, literature, philosophy, religion, anthropology, archaeology, and biography. A recipient of the Prix Goncourt Prize and Short-Listed for the Man Booker International Prize, this novel is not an easy read, and probably warrants a second-reading.

I looked at other published reviews of this book as I am not sure anyone could capture it and I did not think I could do it justice. One reviewer suggested that you might need a PhD in the subject area and the L.A. Times’ reviewer  (Justin Taylor) summarized my feeling about the book.

Compass‘ is as challenging, brilliant, and – God help me – important novel ans is likely to be published this year, but there was more than one occasion on which I had to stop myself from throwing it across the room.”

You might want to read Joshua Cohen’s New York Times review of the book as it is a fair synopsis: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/30/books/review/compass-mathias-enard.html.

Mr. Enard is coming to my local bookstore at the end of the month and  I hope to see him. I cannot find his biography and  I would like to know if this novel was a product of life long interests and intellectual study or of having the benefit of researchers. French by birth, fluent in Arabic and having traveled throughout the Middle East he has some background, but his enterprise required more than this.

Orientalism is an anachronistic description of a world where the Levant for Europeans was an exotic escape. The search for “otherness” was not possible then, nor now, except for the few remaining remote tribes yet touched by civilization. There is relativity to culture. It both escapes as you try to approach another society, and infuses itself in both. The novel’s principal characters would argue that the Arab/Persian cultures had a strong influence on the development of Europe’s, despite the colonial perceptions. This was particularly true for the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Germany and France.

I was intrigued and overwhelmed by “Compass”, but have not decided whether it is an excellent work of literature, or a non-fiction mind-dump within a fiction vessel. I am leaning toward the former. You will have to judge for yourself. It is worth the try- but in small doses.

Human Acts

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I dislike characterizations of authors as fearless. Unless writing in a regime where censorship can result in incarceration or death, writing is not a fearless act. The subject of written work can be fierce. Capturing the event(s) in context and exploring the emotional consequences of them is an art form of an accomplished writer.

Han Kan, the Korean recipient of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for “The Vegetarian” is such an author. “Human Acts’ recounts the Gwandju Uprising in the southeastern South Korean City that started on May 18, 1980. The Introduction by translator Deborah Smith is interesting not only because it summarizes the military crackdown on dissent by Chun Doo-hwan after the coup overthrowing Park Chung-hee, and discusses nuances  in translating the Korean language into English.

The Uprising is viewed from the perspective of the active student participants in the protest, bystanders, their friends and families, and a later editor’s compilation of recollections of the event. The traumatic memories, particularly of torture, maintain the fierceness of these events. A majority of innocents who are swept up in these events because political fear is the goal regardless of facts. North Korean Communist infiltration was the trumped excuse for the expansive martial law imposed on the more democratic Gwandju metropolitan area. Gwandju is relatively far from Seoul and the DMZ. In the increasingly industrial important southeast of Korea where there were later uprisings in Bosun (then Posun) and Masan, control was important to the new central government. Gwandju, now the 6th largest city in South Korea, is still under central government control, unlike the more conservative and larger Bosun.

The core of the plot is the death of a middle-school boy, Dong-ho, who because of his youth was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The other students involved in the protest or handling the corpses for family viewing at the University gym, considered him too young to be there. Few were political. The irony of youth is that they were only three years older, than Dung-ho and should also not have been there. They did not understand their youth and vulnerability.

Recurring themes in the novel are the separation of body and soul and the meaning of humanity. There are probably no answers for the latter, but Ms. Kang has an interesting twist on the former.

This is another work in the unfortunate “I Will Bear Witness” genre. It would be nice if humanity could extinguish the need for such works.

Exit West

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Deservedly Short-Listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” traces the displacement of a muslim couple, Saeed and Nadia, from an unnamed country beset by militant muslim fundamentalism across the West. The author refers to them as migrants, not refugees. The artifice for transportation are doors, ignoring the travail of the journey, and focusing on the personal and cultural divide of displaced people in a foreign environment. This teleporting, like Alice through the Looking Glass, is what makes this novel arguably experimental, in a year in which playing with the novel format seem to matter for the Man Booker Prize jury. The novel form is intact unlike other candidates which alter the life path of the principal character, or are more stream of consciousness. The others for me were more gimmicks, but here it maintained the focus on the characters and the universality of the refugee condition. I am more concerned with the author’s description of them as “migrants” and not “refugees”, as the theme, in part, is “Here, but for the Grace of God”. The doors are not a one-way ticket.

There is also strong character development. Saeed and Nadia are different people who manage to stay together despite, or perhaps because of, the pressures of their circumstance. Time and environment do however take their toll.

LIke other candidates for the Man Booker Prize this year, Mr. Hamid is a successful and well-known author who has been Short-Listed for the Prize before, as well as having been a recipient of other literary prize.

I have been rather disappointed by this year’s selections for the Man Booker Prize, although I have not read all of them. Some were good books, but not ones I thought were exceptional. One, which I partially reviewed, I could not get through at all.

I enjoyed this novel and its fresh approach toward the refugee crisis.  You might too.

Judas

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Amos Oz’s “Judas” was on the Man Booker Prize Long-List, but did not get selected for the Short List. The premise of the novel is that Judas was not a betrayer of Christ, but his most fervent  believer and promoter. Judas thought a more humane Judaism would flourish if Christ was martyred. The argument is that Christ only believed he was a Jew, was not the Son of God, was not trying to create a separate religion and was reluctant to leave the countryside for the city as he was unsure of himself and of the consequences. Judas as a promoter convinced him otherwise.

“But Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He was born and died a Jew. It never crossed his mind to found a new religion. It was Paul, Saul of Tarsus, who invented Christianity. Jesus himself says explicitly, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law’. If only the Jews had accepted him, the whole of history would be different.”

The plot that is created to promote this theme is the story of Schmuel, an innocent young man with perhaps with some Christ like characteristics, who after losing his girl friend goes to work taking care of an elderly man who questions nation-states and Israel in particular. His son was killed in the War of Independence and he lives with his rather cold daughter-in-law, who becomes a love interest for this young man and his predecessors. Her father opposed creation of the State of Israel and was considered a traitor. Schmuel composes a thesis that espouses a view that the author found in some non-fiction works: “Jesus in Jewish Eyes”; “Who Crucified Jesus?” and “Jesus in the Jewish Tradition”. While unorthodox, the author is not mining new ground.

The novel is an enjoyable read, but I was surprised to see it on the Long List. The Long List this year seemed to be dominated by established authors and those whose work might be considered experimental. One work which made the Short List, I partially reviewed because I could not continue reading it. Another, which I will review shortly, is in my opinion deservedly on the Short List.

4321

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If length is the criteria for this year’s Man Booker Prize, then at nearly 900 pages Paul Auster’s “4321” justifiably is on the Long list. Otherwise this coming of age third person narrative that chronicles post-World War II American history through the eyes of a liberal Jewish boy growing up in the Metro New York City area is not deserving. is journeyman prose and unrealistic protagonist(s) with literary aspirations, is complex, but unsympathetic.

The twist is that there are actually four principal protagonists intertwined with essentially the same ensemble of characters, each with slightly different life paths. If you had not read any reviews of this book, the book jacket, or the last six pages of the book, you would think that the editor and author missed a lot of logical and factual inconsistencies throughout the book. In the novel there are no clear lines of demarcation between each variation of the lives of the principal character, Archie Ferguson. Sequential flashbacks complicate the reading of this novel. Neither the experimental nature of the organization of the novel, nor the theme that each of our lives can take different paths, warrant the inclusion of this novel on the Long List.

For baby boomers who have lived through the American history that the lives of Archie Ferguson trace there is no new information to learn from this book.

At about half the length the book may be tolerable. For me it was a waste of time.

Autumn

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“Autumn” by Ali Smith is the only work of hers that I have read. She again is Long Listed for the Man Booker Prize. I have no idea why, except that it is a novel of British nostalgia and currency in a year the Long List is dominated by established writers. The platform that Ms. Smith uses for this tour is the life-long relationship between a British child,Elisabeth, and her elderly neighbor,Mr. Gluck, who expands her life horizons despite the obstacles of her mother. These obstacles include the generational conflict about Brexit, including immigration. The child become woman is the narrator. There are also vignettes about Christine Keeler, Pauline Boty and Pop Art and musings about life as Mr. Gluck lays dying. Ms. Keeler and Ms. Boty connection is the latter’s work “Scandal ’63” which captured the Profumo Affair which involved Ms. Keeler.

I previously reviewed “Days Without End” which is also Long-Listed this year. It is far superior work of literature.

Days Without End

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Long Listed for the Man Booker Prize this year Sebastian Barry’s “Days Without End” is a saga about survival and savagery of mid-19th century America toward Native American Sioux and Yurok, and each other through the beginning of Reconstruction in West and border states of Tennessee and Missouri. Told in first-person narrative by Thomas McNulty, it traces the harsh life he and his lover John Cole led from homeless Irish orphans to drag performers and soldiers in Union army.

In part it is a tale of Irish immigrants who survived the Potato Famine. The author is no flatterer of Irish prejudice, even among the morally pure. It can be learned merely by living, not only by the Irish.

” I don’t trust anyone. What we walked through was the strike-out of her kindred. Scrubbed off with a metal brush like dirt and dried blood on a soldier’s jacket. Metal brush of strange and implacable hatred. Even the major. Same would be if soldiers fell on my family in Sligo and cut out our parts. What that old ancient Cromwell come to Ireland he said he would leave nothing alive. Said the Irish were vermin and devils. Clean out the country for good people to step into. Make a paradise. Now we make this American paradise I guess. Guess it be strange so many Irish boys doing this work. Ain’t that the way of the world. No such item as virtuous people.”

The author has a gift with language. It almost masks the brutality. Thomas McNulty is a narrator who is both gripped and numbed by war and survival. The novel builds to a more emotional conclusion, narrowly circumventing some movie-like pathways.

I have not read the other Long Listed novels, save for one I am in the middle of. This novel is far better and is worthy of being Short Listed.

Sudden Death

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About 80% through “Sudden Death”  the author, Álvaro Enrigue, admits he does not know what his book is about. He just knows he was mad. Mad because in every game the bad guys have the advantage.

This too, is probably not true.

He does tell you it isn’t a book about Caravaggio or Vasco de Quiroga; Cortés or Cuauhtémoc; or Galileo or Pius I; although they are all characters. The book is not about the birth of tennis, although Caravaggio and Quiroga are engaged in a duel by tennis, the reason for which they were both to drunk to remember. It is not about the Counter-Reformation, the Council of Trent, or Carlo Borromeo, although the period of the novel is a bookend that squeezes the life out of the Renaissance. It is not about the ironic use of Thomas More’s Utopia by the conquistadors in New Spain.

It ends with art maybe being the salvation of history.  The ending, maybe the only weak part of the book in my view.

The inspiration for the novel was the exhibit at the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City, “El vuelo de las imágenes. Arte plumario en México y Europa 1300 – 1700” [Images take flight: feather art in Mexico and Europe]. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPZxD9D84ZI 

This novel is a work of  incredible imagination.  Scalped hair is substituted for feathers in the composition of the tennis ball. It is made from the hair of the beautiful, but unlucky, bride of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn. The scapular worn by Cortés and ultimately by Quiroga in his tennis match, was cut from the hair of the emperor Cuauhtémoc after Cortés had him killed.

The author dedicates the book to La Flaca Luiselli. This is likely intended affectionately to his wife, the author Valerie Luiselli, the other half of this esteemed Mexican literary couple. I previously reviewed her experimental novel “The Story of My Teeth”, a collaboration with factory workers.

Carlos Fuentes, who I think writes some of the best first paragraphs in modern fiction, has an apt description of “Sudden Death”.

“Enrigue belongs to many literary traditions at once and shows a great mastery of them all… His novel belongs to Max Planck’s quantum universe rather than the relativistic universe of Albert Einstein: a world of coexisting fields in constant interaction and whose particles are created or destroyed in the same act.”

The novel is part art criticism of Caravaggio’s paintings. Some real, some imagined. “Caravaggio was to painting what Galilei was to physics: someone who took a second look and said what he was seeing, someone who discovered that forms in space aren’t allegories of anything but themselves, and that’s enough; someone who understood that the true mystery of the forces that control how we inhabit the earth is not how lofty they are, but how elemental.”

This novel is a whimsical romp through late Renaissance political, art, Catholic, and social history with a tour through Spain’s vanquishing of the Aztec empire in Mexico. They are equally bad guys to the author.

The chapter “Regarding Most Popes’ Utter Lack of a Sense of Humor” is about Cardinal Montalto.

“… Montalto also spent those years planning how the city would look it really was the center of the world- a plan he executed with violence and perfectionism once he was named Pope Sextus V. He invented urbanism, though his name wasn’t Urban. It goes without saying that he never played pallacorda. The fact that no subsequent pope was called Sixtus after Montalto, who was the fifth, is proof that the Catholic Church is an institution without a sense of humor.”

The novel was awarded the Herralde Prize in Spain and the Elena Poniatowska International Novel Award in Mexico. Forget get the awards. If you admire good con- artistry and illusion you should read this book. It is fun, entertaining and educational in the same time and space.