Noonday

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Pat Barker’s Noonday is the final novel in her WWII trilogy. I previously read and reviewed Ghost Road, her Booker winning novel that was the final novel of her so-called Regeneration WWI trilogy. In both cases it is unnecessary to read the prior books in order to follow the plot. Pat Barker’s strength is character development: minor characters are not ignored in passing. In addition, her works capture the war genre from perspectives other than the battlefield. In Ghost Road it is the hospital in England where soldiers removed from the battlefield were treated. Their was also a cultural anthropology back-story in Oceania as part of one of the physician’s flashback. It was this element that made the novel distinctive. Noonday also has a subplot, but for me it was an unnecessary distraction. The novel’s venue is London during the Blitz and one of the characters is either a medium, a fraud, or a schizophrenic. The minor subplot is plausible, but in my view a more detailed examination of London during the Blitz is warranted instead. It is not that Ms. Barker does not cover the territory, but it seems superficial. The focus is upon the personal relationships of the main characters; doubtlessly a carry-over from the prior novels in the trilogy. In some respects it borders on a commercial romance novel, although I am overstating this. Catastrophes challenge marital relationships and this was certainly the case in WWII and other wars.The principal characters work as ambulance drivers and rescue wardens finding people injured or dead in bombed buildings. Ms. Barker covers the territory, and yet I didn’t feel the tension and fear in her writing. In defense, life goes on even in the worst of circumstances and there is the so-called British stiff-upper lip that might justify not overstating the tragedy that Londoners endured.

The book is a fast read and will likely entertain. It is just considerably below the standard she set in Ghost Road.

The Noise of Time

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“Lenin found music depressing. Stalin thought he understood and appreciated music. Khrushchev despised music. Which is the worst for a composer?”

Julian Barnes’ does not answer this question in his biographical fiction “The Noise of Time”, which examines Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich’s life and travails in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich is a facility for Barnes to question whether Art will ultimately conquer Power; the latter presumably being more fleeting despite its repetitiveness.

“What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves- the music of our being- which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.”

You can consider four personality types: believer; collaborator; critic; and martyr. Barnes’, or at least Shostakovich as interpreted by Barnes, viewed liberal critics of the Soviet Union, who criticized outside the reach of an authoritarian regime, to be no different from the autocrats who required propaganda from their artists. Shostakovich loved Stravinsky for his music, but thought no more of him and Nabokov for their criticism than he did of Stalin. Shostakovich, did not believe in the Soviet system, but did not martyr himself. According to Barnes’ his cowardice, protection of family, materialism, or wish to be left alone to be a musician, made him a collaborator.

This is not a particularly well written novel. It is principally based on Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. There is no real discussion or analysis of Shostakovich’s music.  It could be read as non-fiction, except some of its rare dialogue seems unrealistic. Shostakovich who fears the Stalin has ordered his death purportedly receives a call from Stalin requesting that he attend the Cultural and Scientific Congress for World Peace in New York. The dialogue has Shostakovich giving Stalin one excuse after another why he cannot attend: he is sick; he can’t fly; he does not have a tail-suit; that his music is not being played in the Soviet Union. It reads like a conversation between a teacher and a young student who has forgotten his homework. Worse, there is very little imagined dialogue in the novel. It is a narration as if it were non-fiction.

“The Testament of Mary” which I reviewed, imagined the cruxification of Christ from the vantage point of his mother, Mary. Colm Toibin’s biographical fiction, demonstrates imagination, not recounting of a secondary source work of non-fiction. As a character, Barnes’ did not create in my mind the fear of death that Shostakovich would have had waiting outside his apartment in anticipation of being taken away, tortured and killed.

I can’t subscribe to Art being immune from subjectivity and control outside of political power. There may be universality in creation for the sake of creation (without recognition), but that is individualistic and will not aggregate to be a “whisper of history”.

Julian Barnes has written better, and will write better than “The Noise of Time”.

 

 

Dermot Healy The Collected Short Stories

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Dermot Healy was well-regarded by other Irish writers. I am not Irish.

The collection i read selections from included his 1982 published collection “Banished Misfortune and Other Stories.” The Editors’ Forward was helpful in understanding some of the stories I read.

“First Snow of the Year” is a story about a jilted boyfriend who confronts the new love interest. There are two versions of this story, the original version being written in 1973. It won a Hennessy Literary award adjudicated by Edna O’Brien and V.S. Pritchett. The two versions are different structurally and substantively. The prose in the earlier version was cleaner than the later version. The latter is not experimental as “The Island and the Calves” which is dense and difficult to read and comprehend. After this story I decided to read only selective stories.

The stories are descriptive of rural Ireland and its locals. I was underwhelmed by what I read, the highlight being able to compare different versions of the same story. I wish readers had more opportunities to do so as it is a window into the writer’s craft during stages of the author’s career. It would be instructive to writers. The same would be true by seeing drafts to evaluate contributions by editors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silk

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This is a sensual gem. It is as relaxing as a good massage or warm bath or towel. A novella that if pages were compressed would be no longer than a short story. Composed like a fairy tale or fable, it has a chorus that repeats  a courier’s itinerary from France to Japan in the late 1800s. Due to disease affecting the silkworm eggs in France, resort to Japanese eggs was necessary even thought Japan had not opened its borders to foreigners.

Hervé Joncour is the courier for the commercially brilliant Baldabiou who employs Joncour on behalf of the silk industry that Baldabiou created in the environs of Lavilledieu, France and who with Joncour rescues that industry. Silk is a visual and tactile feeling.

This is a tale of love, passion and intrigue. It is an adult tale that surprises. The simplicity of the writing promotes the story and beautifully depicts a certain area of Japan during that period. Read the novella to the end even though three-quarters through some of the writing seems to be inconsistent and ill-placed with the rest of the novella. The story is as rewarding as it is intoxicating.

“Silk” was a best seller in Italy and has been translated into sixteen languages. Guido Waldman is the translator of the English version that I read. Alessandro Baricco’s earlier novels, in English “Lands of Glass” and “Ocean Sea”, won French and Italian literary awards. I am encouraged to read them because of this novella.

This would be a nice beach read.

 

Maps for Lost Lovers

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In May, 2015 I very favorably reviewed Nadeem Aslam’s “The Biind Man’s Garden. Nadeem Aslam is to Pakistan, what Jhumpa Lahiri is to India. At some point in his career I would not be surprised if he is awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature.

“Maps for Lost Lovers” is one of Mr. Aslam’s earlier novels. The venues are England and Pakistan. The heart of the story is an “honor killing”. Mr Aslam adroitly tackles Muslim  fundamentalism in this novel. Unlike in “The Blind Man’s Garden” this is not radical Islam. It is the societal and cultural restraints that orthodoxy imposes on families particularly when juxtaposed with alternatives in a secular country. Such honest and fervent belief is not unique to Islam. It is not without consequences.

Through characters Mr. Aslam presents alternative viewpoints. On the whole his writing does not invite a fatwa because criticism is balanced by praise. Shamas and Kaukab are the product of an arranged marriage. Shamas has a Hindu family lineage, but is Muslim. He masks his secularism in deference to Kaukab who is a very devout Muslim. Shamas is book educated. Kaukab has a limited education outside of the Koran. They live in a lower middle class immigrant Pakistani neighborhood in England. England is satanic to her. Kaukab’s orthodoxy has a disintegrative effect on her three children who migrate toward English white women and men in their relationships. The “honor killing” however, is to avenge cohabitation before marriage between two Muslims, one her son. Marriage is bondage to Muslim women. Husbands and their families dictate terms, and a wife’s failure brings disgrace on her family that impacts the future of younger daughters.

It’s as though Allah forgot there were women in the world when he made some of his laws, thinking only of men – but she has banished these thoughts as all good Muslims must.”

“.. she remember her mother stopping in her tracks and sharply telling her father not to play too enthusiastically with his little daughter lest he cause ‘irreparable physical damage to her private areas,’ having warned him many times before that ‘If a flower loses a petal it does not grow back!'”

“… the word sala – “brother-in-law- was a term of abuse all over the Subcontinent: to call someone sala was to say, ‘I fuck your sister and you can’t do anything about it,’ ‘You can’t stop me from trying my manhood on one of your women!’ What would be more humiliating to men who been brought up to defend their women’s honour above all else? A man’s brother-in-law was a swear word made flesh, and frustratingly , he had to accept it.”

The plot of this novel is like a murder mystery. The prose however is highly crafted and denser as Mr. Aslam imparts knowledge across a wide range of subjects. The author writes like a naturalist, with keen attention to flora, butterflies and moths, and birds. The writing is both metaphorical and relational, and is imbued with religion, culture, culinary arts, and history.

“The harsinghar tree in the courtyard, which dropped its funereal white flowers at dawn, had more flowers than usual under it during those mornings, as though the branches had been disturbed during the night. Shamas was no believer, but imagination insists that all aspects of life be at its disposal, the language of thought richer for its appropriation of concepts such as the afterlife. And so as he looked at the carpet of blossoms he couldn’t help entertaining the thought that during the night Izraeel, the Muslim angel of death, had wrestled in the branches above with the Hindu god of death for our father’s soul. Shamas looked up and imagined the branches twisting around the two supernatural beings, the flowers detaching from twigs and forming a thick layer on the ground.”

“He edges away from a small Japanese knotwood tree of whose pale cream flowers-looking as though dusted with custard powder- he had tried to discover the smell of a few years ago, and found himself taking in a lungful of decay, suppuration, the shock throwing him back on his heels where he had reached up with his neck stretched like that of a hanged man’s. Perfumes come from plants; its animals who produce disagreeable odours, humans included. Musk, honey, milk- these are as much an exception in the animal world as those tropical plants said to produce blossoms smelling of festering flesh or this Japanese knotwood around whose shimmering flowers he had capped both hands that day, the way a young man kisses his first girl. He’ll never now kiss her mouth again while his penis is engorged and sticky at the tip like a bull’s muzzle, or lie with her head on his chest while from somewhere nearby comes the summer noise of a bee that’s got stuck inside a snapdragon flower, a panicked wing-thrash, as it tries to back out. According to her, what she did with him was a “sin,” and she, according to her, will have to bear the “stigma” of that sin “till Judgment Day and after.” She’ll view the pregnancy as the beginning of her punishment.”

” ‘Do you know why paisley is so linked with Kashmir? No? Imagine two lovers quarreling in that region. Her footsteps formed paisleys when she hurried away from him in distress. He searched for her forlornly in the forest glades where luminous orchids arose from the ‘- it is too late for him to stop- ‘spilled semen of mating animals and birds, where the urge for existence forced creepers and vines towards faraway chinks of sunlight, where branches quivered with living songs and at sunset the sky turned red as though the departing sun had heaped rubies on the day’s shroud. And it was the paisleys imprinted amid the low flowers that eventually led him to her. He was the god Shiva, she the goddess Parvati, and when he found her he commemorated their union by carving the Jehlum river as it flowed- and still flows- through the valley of Kashimir in the shape of a paisley.'”

“.. only Allah is perfect and that we should acknowledge that fact when performing a task, that we should introduce a tiny hidden flaw into every object we make. ‘The Emperor Shah Jahan had made sure that there was a built-in imperfection in the Taj Mahal- the minarets lean out by three degrees,’ he said.”

These are but a few examples of the breadth of the writing intertwined with the plot. The overarching theme is how religious and cultural mores impede relationships and evaporate happiness. Shamas likes the paraket, because like Hiraman the paraket, it tells us what we should aim for, what is truly worth living and dying for. Prejudices abound. The Pakastani’s hope those in Bangladash will drown in the monsoon, because of the secret pact they made with the English that marked the beginning of the British Raj in India and the decline in Islam, and their breaking away from Pakistan. So much ignorance and lack of communication festers individual, societal and political hatreds by race, class, gender and belief.

Nadeem Aslam is not for everyone. For me, it is a marvel how he composes sentences and paragraphs that at times are lyric, learned and fluid. His characters are well-drawn and the plot, here languid at times, is engaging. He is someone whose writing you should experience at least once.

 

 

The Bishop’s Man

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Linden MacIntyre’s “The Bishop’s Man” is a Giller Prize winning novel. It revisits the sexual abuse controversy in the Catholic Church. The venue is predominantly rural Canada, whose historic local fishing industry is vanishing. It is narrated by a priest whose niche is investigating wayward priests so that they may be transplanted elsewhere by the Bishop. The priest who was relocated to Honduras for the benefit of the Church, has flashbacks to his relationship with a more revolutionary priest of purer faith and a woman, Jacinta, who challenged his celibacy. The latter, mixed with alcoholism, is a burden to him, as the weight of his depressing role takes its toll.

As “Spotlight” told the story from journalists’ perspective, this novel addresses it from the Church’s. It is not a unified perspective, although the consequences are uniformly damaging and deadly. Underlying the misdirection of mission, is a crisis in faith: a society that has bypassed the Church; the challenge of celibacy; the product of miscreant priests recruited from a less faithful pool.

This is a fast paced novel. It is pure storytelling. The author is a journalist, so the prose is straight forward. The novel is not illuminating, but is a pleasant read.

The Good Doctor

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Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize. I have not read other works on the Shortlist for that year, although Margaret Atwood’s highly regarded Oryx and Crake was also on that list. The very popular The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was Longlisted.

The venue is South Africa soon after the end of apartheid. The scene is a rural hospital that virtually has no patients or useful equipment. Some of the latter is stolen by one of the employees, Tehogo who along with the local military express some of the racial tension associated with change in power and outlook.

The principal characters are two doctors at the hospital. Frank, the long-time employee who has been promised leadership of the hospital after Dr. Ngema is promoted, is cynical or realistic depending on your point-of-view. Dr. Ngema is a bureaucrat and Frank is one in-waiting. He is the product of a very successful father and a broken marriage, and the hospital is a refuge. In contrast, Laurence is the young idealistic doctor, devoid of social experience, who in search of a challenge chooses this hospital, perhaps believing it had a patient base. Laurence energizes the hospital by trying to start a clinic in the villages in the bush. Unfortunately, it has no capability to service any medical condition that is more than minor. The interesting aspect of Laurence’s character is whether he is truly “good” or more passive-aggressive.

It is an entertaining read, but I doubt I would have Short or Longlisted it. Sometimes prizes are the product of the times.

 

 

 

 

Honeymoon

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I tried to read Patrick Modiano’s La Place de l’Étoile, which was his first novella and subsequent re-release as part of his Occupation Trilogy, better received, but I had to put it down. It had all the pretensions of a young writer doing a literary mind-dump about French collaborators during WWII. I subsequently came across Honeymoon which was his first novella after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Apart from the connection to WWII there is no comparison between the writing styles. The latter is more atmospheric and spare. The principal character and narrator Jean is captivated by a chance discovery of a suicide of a woman in his hotel, who turns out he knew, having spent time with her and her husband during WWII when the latter was sheltering her because of her Jewish religion during the war. In a French open marriage, the principal character abandons his career as a documentary film producer and hides from his wife and goes in search of the woman’s husband to uncover their history. All of this occurs in Paris where his wife is as if Jean is in an altered space and time. It is fitting that a Chirico graces the cover of the book, as there is a surreal feeling about the book. Jean, perhaps in a mid-life crisis, is bored with his life and existence and is in search of a spark through the mystery of a suicide.

It is the author’s style rather than the plot that makes this novella interesting. There is a quiet intensity even when there is no action. Modiano is a storyteller, but his mechanics are different. It is an interesting read in this regard.

 

Red is the new Black

Today I saw the videos of the police shootings of two black men. One in Baton Rouge and the other in Minnesota.

I am white. I have been ambivalent about Black Lives Matter. I am aware of the disproportionate police shootings of  mostly young black men. However, from the media attention paid to Black Lives Matter, it seemed they ignored the far more prevalent black on black killings that go on every day.  It is similar to the attention paid to assault rifle killings, when hand guns are the cause of more deaths. In each case one does not excuse the other. In the case of the police shootings, they often seem more complicated than the one minute clip I see on TV. There have been many acquittals. Some due in part to the criminal justice system, some due to the factual complexity. I am troubled by a number of these acquittals. Some seem racially motivated, others due to bad training and lack of understanding of the community. In a split second, a lack of the ability to communicate; the prevalence of fear on both sides; a sense of authority and a right to dominate; and weaponry, lead to deadly results.

I am familiar with life in a tough urban community. When I first moved into the area I now live in it was drug infested with automatic gunfire every night and constant muggings. There was black on black, and black on white killings. I never sought to own a hand gun, but I did carry a knife, as the walk from the subway to where I lived was not safe. I had guns pulled on me twice and survived a wilding attack. I know Giuliani did things that were not appreciated by the black community. He did make both communities safer than under Dinkins (although less in the black community).

There are bad cops, as there are bad people in every ethnic and racial community. Some people are more troubled by the Minnesota shooting then by the one in Baton Rouge. Both are troubling, but the Minnesota shooting is more complicated for me. I am not seeing the whole event. I am seeing a poorly trained cop. Is there racial bias involved. Like Minnesota’s Governor I suspect so. The victim correctly advised the cop that he had a license for a concealed weapon. I wonder if this made the cop more nervous. If the victim was alone I could imagine it, but a woman and a child were in the car. It is not unheard of for a cop to be shot under similar circumstances, but if he was in fear he could have asked the victim and the woman to each step out of the car and put their hands on their heads and then locate the weapon and obtain the ID he was asking for. Would any of this been deemed necessary from the cops perspective if the victim was white- likely not in my view. There is bias, fear and bad training involved here, but the fact pattern is more complicated than the Baton Rouge video. The latter shows the victim pinned to the ground by two officers, immobile on his back. One officer pulls out his gun (no audio so I don’t know why) and shoots the man point-blank. There is no fear here. You don’t need training to know that pulling out the revolver and shooting point blank is unwarranted. Unless you are a bigot, it is clear as day that this is murder. At best, the officer could say that the gun discharged accidentally, but it would not be believed.

Baton Rouge is mostly black with about 70% of its police force being reported as white. When I first moved into where I lived we used to have white police who lived in the suburbs police our area. No one walked a beat.They drove in their cars, scared of the neighborhood without knowing it. I would walk my dog, so I knew who was bad and who wasn’t. Black and white who were not bad, looked out for each other and their kids and the neighborhood, with much better policing, improved.

For families of victims the reason for the killing is unimportant. Dead is dead. For a community it does matter. There will always be bad cops, but there needs to be attitude changes in both communities. Communities and organizers that are trying to play gotcha with cops on video when circumstances don’t merit it, are no better than bad cops. Two recent examples in NYC. An Asian rookie cop kills a black man in a dark stairway in one of the projects. Absolutely no reason for the shooting other than that he was scared. Bad police management for him to be on such a patrol. He was acquitted to the family’s dismay. The latter is understandable, but it was not a racial shooting. The other day an off-duty cop gets into a road rage incident with a black man. The facts are still sketchy but the victim allegedly punches the cop in the face through the open window of his car while he is sitting in it. The cop apparently did not identify himself as a cop, pulls out his gun and shoots the victim. Clearly excessive force, but seemingly not a racial matter. The family, angry from the death say there is no excuse, even recognizing that the victim provoked the incident. This is not to say that Black Lives Matter is not concerned about non-white cops killing young black men. There is a police culture (even toward whites) that needs to be adjusted. Many fail to recognize that they are public servants, rather than the public serving them. Often they don’t follow the law that they are charged to uphold. Police need to learn to lead by example. Some do, more need to. For whites, when they don’t it often is an annoyance (although numerically, but not proportionally, police kill more white people). For blacks, particularly young black men, they pay for it with their blood.

It is past time to stop Red Being the New Black.

 

 

 

 

The Ghost Road

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Craiglockhart War Hospital was known for housing some of the best British World War I poets, including Wilfred Owen, a minor character in Pat Barker’s excellent and unusual war novel “The Ghost Road”. The Booker Prize winning author wrote two prior World War I novels before The Ghost Road, and I am inclined to read both Regeneration and The Eye in the Door.

Part a psychological study of the victims of gas, shell-shock, and what today would be considered PTSD, the novel is narrated by the historical doctor W. H.R. Rivers who treated patients at Craiglockhart, and Billy Prior, a bisexual officer, addicted to the War. Prior has relationships with Rivers and others during this closeted period which reflects the commonality of  the experience, even as he is engaged. The author reflects his involuntary revulsion when having sex with his fiancee, he sees in her face the face of a bosce he targeted.

The unusual aspect of this novel, is that Rivers had conducted an anthropological study of the headhunters of Melanesia prior to the war, and has flashbacks to these experiences as he treats soldiers on the ward. The shaman of the tribe, Njiru, is believed by the tribe to have connections with Ave. The shaman does not believe it to be so. Rivers is both fascinated and in fear of Njiru, as he is not sure if the tribe has abandoned headhunting even though the British had outlawed it.

“He was reminded suddenly of an incident in the Torres Straits when Haddon had been trying to get skulls to measure. One man had said, with immense dignity, ‘Be patient. You will have all our skulls in time.’ It was not a comfortable memory. He was not asking for skulls but he was asking for something equally sacred. He leant forward and their shadows leapt and grappled against the bush. ‘Tell me about Ave.’

Ave lives in Ysabel. He is both one spirit and many spirits. His mouth is long and filled with the blood of the men he devours. Kita and Mateana are nothing beside him because they destroy only the individual, but Ave kills ‘all people ‘long house’. The broken rainbows belongs to him, and presages both epidemic disease and war. Ave is the destroyer of peoples.”

Wilfred Owen was one of the heroes of the War.  In what is one of the scant references to battle in the novel, near the end of the war, Prior’s unit is commanded to undertake a near suicide mission. The soldiers know that the war is coming to a close and Prior remarks on it with the cynicism of a veteran. “I lay in bed last night and listened to them in the barn singing. I wish I didn’t feel they’re being sacrificed to the subclauses and the small print. But I think they are.”

In Melanesia Rivers shares the same cynicism about the Empire. He is discussing the consequences of the tribe violating the law by resorting to headhunting again.

‘Look you know what the penalties are. If they go on a raid there is no way the British Commsioner isn’t going to hear about it. And then you’ve got a gunboat off the coast, villages on fire, trees cut down, crops destroyed, pigs killed. Screaming women and children driven into the bush. You know what happens.’

‘Makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it?’

Ms. Barker writes both powerfully and with the humor of a sailor.

She sums up Craiglockhart.

“We are Craiglockhart’s success stories. Look at us. We don’t remember, we don’t feel, we don’t think- at least not beyond the confines of what’s need to do the job. By any proper civilized standard (but what does that mean now?) we are objects of horror. But our nerves are completely steady. And we are still alive.”

The wars and the technologies change, but the anxieties remain. “Murder was only killing in the wrong place.”

Even if you do not like the war literature genre, this is a novel worth reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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