2005 Premio Alfaguara winner: Graciela Montes and Ema Wolf, El turno del escriba

March 31st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Historical novels, especially those that seek to “recreate” key moments in time, are very tricky for me to review.  Verisimilitude often can get in the way of telling a particular type of story, either by forcing the author/s to devote so much effort to “getting it right” that the story suffers as a result or, conversely, that prior knowledge of what happened can interfere with the narrative that otherwise would work wonderfully for those readers with little to no prior knowledge of the events being told in novel form.  A good re-creation requires a strong story rooted in solid yet vivid historical detail, yet not so much that the detail chokes the vitality out of the story being narrated.

In Graciela Montes and Ema Wolf’s 2005 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel, El turno del escriba, Marco Polo’s life as a Genoese prisoner and his fateful encounter with fellow prisoner Rustichello of Pisa are narrated in exacting detail.  The authors, both of whom previously were better known for their children’s stories, meticulously describe the conditions of late 13th century Italy.  From the prison conditions to the stories that the writer Rustichello and the traveler Polo would know in common, Montes and Wolf establish a very vivid setting in which the confines of the prison serve as a contrast to the exotic lands that Polo had spent twenty years traveling through on his way to and back from the kingdom of Kublai Khan, which he narrates to Rustichello, who then proceeds to write them down in Latin on parchment provided to him.

Montes and Wolf’s descriptions of the two prisoners’ daily routines are very vivid, yet this attention to detail comes at a price.  The two main characters rarely take on an active role in their present (and past) lives:  they exist more to narrate Polo’s adventures than to describe their own selves.  This de-emphasis on the actors in favor of the actions that they witnessed weakens the narrative, making it feel at times a listing of chronicles more than a collection of fantastic stories.  However, even this occasional descent into list creation contains some fascinating elements, such as the tying together of several medieval chansons, such as those of the Matters of France and England, into the overall framework of the story that Rustichello is transcribing from his conversations with Polo.

El turno del escriba is an uneven work, as the occasional over-emphasis on the details overwhelms the flow of the story, rendering its characters curiously devoid of life while wondrous descriptions emerge from them.  However, Montes and Wolf’s limpid prose manages to overcome some of these structural weaknesses, making this 258 page novel a quick read.  Ultimately, however, the lack of character development robs this novel of the depth necessary to make this tale worth revisiting frequently.  It is a good novel but weaker than most of the other Premio Alfaguara winners.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848; revised several times in the 19th century)

March 28th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

“A specter is haunting Europe – the specter of Communism.”  With this line, one of the most famous and enduring political pamphlets, the 1848 The Communist Manifesto, co-written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, begins. So much is associated with Marx and Engel’s names, ranging from wars to authoritarian regimes to revolutionary zeal.  Leaving aside what was (and still is) inspired by their political writings, The Communist Manifesto may be the most important literary work of the 19th century in terms of its impact on socio-political thinking.

I want to begin with a few quotes from Section I of the Manifesto:

“Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power?  Where the Opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of Communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?” (p. 8)

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (p. 9)

“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe.  It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers.” (p. 11)

“The ‘dangerous class,’ the social scum (Lumpenproletariat), that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.” (p. 20)

With just a few twists in phrasing, each of these statements can find their mirror images in current political discourse.  From accusations tossed about by conservative Anglo-American political parties to their opponents who seek to establish/maintain national health care to the 2011 Occupy movements to the plight of teachers (and their occasional demonization by certain elements of society) to the xenophobic rhetoric that rises in times of economic hardship, each of these find a faint echo in Marx and Engel’s Manifesto.  Although Marx and Engels were influenced by Hegel’s thoughts on thesis/antithesis=synthesis, they altered this dialectic approach to fit in with the materialistic age in which they lived.  While The Communist Manifesto is more of a précis than a substantive thesis (for that, see the various volumes of Marx’s Capital), its concise, energetically-written summary of the plight of worker (proletariat) in the early Industrial Age introduced several concepts, especially that of class struggle, that have been influential ever since.

When I was studying history at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, it was impossible to avoid using Hegelian/Marxist dialetics in explaining what was transpiring in a particular age/country/village.  From the struggle to establish an official “language” to the use of riot as a symbolic and material expression of class discontent to evolving gender roles to the erosion of belief in the divine right of rulers, Marx’s marriage of change to material matters has proven to be enduring because it is the simplest and most effective means of describing what had transpired.  Even the weakest parts of the Manifesto, Sections II and III, are valuable in outlining the historical divisions of those who sought to change the emerging bourgeois model of power/production.  Although these sections were not as germane to my studies, they too were important in outlining the modes of opposition that Marx and Engels experienced in their lifetimes.

Should readers read The Communist Manifesto today?  It depends on how open-minded they are.  If they are able to divorce Marxism from the Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist warpings of Marx and Engel’s thoughts on how class struggle would proceed to proletariat revolution, then within their concise yet elegant arguments those readers might find elements of comparison to what is transpiring today on the streets and boardrooms of every major city (and most minor ones) in the world.  One does not have to agree wholeheartedly (or at all) with their prescriptions to see that their diagnosis of industrial society’s ills has had a profound influence on how we view those issues nearly two centuries later.

Okey Ndibe, Foreign Gods, Inc. (2014)

March 27th, 2014 § 3 comments § permalink

At their first meeting, Ike sensed that Bernita was trouble on two legs.  She walked up to him like an old acquaintance.  Without saying a word, she gathered up the folds of his agbada made of white brocade and lavishly embroidered.  She turned the fabric this way and that, trying to hold it to what light there was in the dully lit hall.  Then, after close to a minute, she finally looked up at him.  Her eyes, guileless and frolicsome, dissolved his half-puzzled, half-consternated expression.

“Where the brother from?” she asked, in a tone that was innocent and tactless.  “You from the same town as the dude in Coming to America?

He couldn’t help smiling.  Then he said, “I’m from NIgeria.  I don’t know the dude’s town.”

Ni what?” she said.  “Never heard of it.”

“N-I-G-E-R-I-A,” he spelled out.

“It’s where?”

“West Africa”

“Neat.”  She regarded him with blithe curiosity.”  “So you’s a king or what?” (p. 28)

Nigerian writer Okey Ndibe’s latest novel, Foreign Gods, Inc., is the rare sort of novel that straddles several narrative lines without teetering over to one side or the other.  It is an immigrant’s tale, but it is also a biting social commentary.  It narrates a protagonist in inner and outer conflict, but it also is a tale of imperialism past and present.  Yet these descriptors do not define Foreign Gods, Inc., as it is much more than the sum of its parts.

Ike (pronounced ee-kay, as he himself makes quite clear early in the novel) is a Nigerian taxi cab driver whose past dream of a career in finance has been dashed due to his Nigerian accent.  He has bounced from city to city along the east coast, trying to make ends meet, despondent over not being able to provide the “food money” that his relatives back in Nigeria keep asking him for in daily emails.  Recently divorced and hurting for cash, he turns to a shady rare items store, Foreign Gods, Inc., that offers quick cash for exotic foreign deities that are brought to their store.  Foreign Gods, Inc. is a narration of Ike’s attempt to bring his village’s war god, Ngene, to this store.

Foreign Gods, Inc. utilizes flashbacks, both to Ike’s earlier life and to the arrival of Europeans over a century before to his village, to narrate Ike’s efforts to steal Ngene.  Ike easily could have been a narrative cipher, a blank canvas for the action to transpire.  Ndibe, however, has imbued Ike with a personality that is complex and yet easy to relate to.  He is not the stereotypical immigrant dumbfounded by the wiles of America; he often responds in a sardonic fashion to those who consider himself so.  The passage quoted above, told in a flashback early in the novel, is about the first encounter between him and his recently-divorced wife, Bernita.  Her blithe ignorance, masked in uncouth directness, is played up in the few scenes where she appears.  Her taking of Ike’s money in the divorce settlement, a divorce triggered in part by Ike’s gambling and alcohol addictions, serves as the catalyst for his plan to steal Ngene.  Ndibe does an excellent job establishing Ike’s character traits and flaws, which makes the subsequent scenes more powerful as a result.

As Ike makes arrangements to travel back to Nigeria for the theft, his interactions provide subtle yet strong descriptions of the social milieu in which he moves.  We see haggling negotiations over material matters, both in New York and in Nigeria.  Graft and greed are always near and present.  There are times that Ike’s encounters take on a sarcastic mantle, as the latent seediness in informal money exchanges proves to be ripened fields for narrative harvesting.  There are moments where the story becomes a near-farce, as Ike struggles to make any headway toward collecting the money necessary to pay for his mounting bills, but by the novel’s end, a much more somber, sober tone has been established, albeit one that remarkably is in harmony with the earlier, more jocular tone.

Ndibe’s characters are well-drawn.  Characters that appear for maybe a handful of paragraphs have a depth to them that distinguishes them from the others around them.  From old, now-rich friends exploiting those around them under the guise of being a benefactor to grasping relatives who see Ike as more of a living ATM than as a blood relative, these characters possess a life of their own.  Ndibe’s prose is sharp and economical, telling an expansive story in 330 pages without feeling truncated or bloated.  This, combined with the vivid characterization, makes Foreign Gods, Inc. a delight to read.

There are few weaknesses to this novel.  Perhaps at times it seems certain themes are overly emphasized, but on the whole, Ndibe has written a novel that reads well not just for those from the Nigerian diaspora but also for readers such as myself who are natives of the United States.  Ndibe’s ability to make his characters relateable to a diverse readership makes Foreign Gods, Inc. an excellent read.  It is one of the better novels that I have read this year.

Kyle Minor, Praying Drunk (2014)

March 26th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

We begin with the trouble, but where does the trouble begin?  My uncle takes a pistol and blows his brains out.

Now we may proceed to the aftermath.  The removal of the body from his bedroom.  The cleanup.  The reading of the will.  The funeral in West Palm Beach, Florida.  The woman he wanted to marry, taking the ring he gave her and putting it on her finger after the death.

But the beginning is not satisfactory.  The mourners are now parsing their theories of why.  Did you know that he was brain-damaged when that city dump truck hit him twenty years ago?  Look at his children grieving in the front pew of the funeral room.  Why wouldn’t they visit him except when they wanted his settlement money?  Had his settlement money run out?  And where is his ex-wife?  Why couldn’t she love him enough to stay with him (for better or for worse, right?)  Do you think it’s true he was physically violent with her like she told the judge? (“The Question of Where We Begin,” p. 3)

Kyle Minor’s second collection, Praying Drunk, is not one of those collections where you can choose an interesting title at random and read out of ToC order.  He admonishes readers who are considering to do this in his introduction, noting that there is a careful arrangement of stories whose themes, situations, settings, and characters build a larger narrative and thematic structure with each successive story.  There certainly are resonances that can be found in reading these stories in sequential order that would be lost if the reader were to skip from the opening “The Question of Where We Begin” to say the opening section of Part II, “There Is Nothing But Sadness in Nashville,” a title that immediately grabbed the attention of this native of the metro Nashville region.  Tempting as it was to skip ahead, after completing the collection, it was worth it to hold off until the preceding stories had been read.

Praying Drunk is not a light-hearted affair.  The opening story, “The Question of Where We Begin,” immediately sets the mood for the collection with its description, through a backwards chain of events and questions, of a life “lost,” of all of the things that could have been and weren’t.  Minor early on discusses chance and this statement establishes the tenor for the following tales:

“But this, chance, isn’t story.  Chance doesn’t satisfy the itch story scratches, or not chance entirely.  Story demands agency.  But whose?” (“The Question of Where We Begin,” p. 4)

In subsequent stories, this issue of chance/agency is explored in several ways.  In the apparently autobiographical second story, “You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace,” Minor relates a tale of middle school bullying.  As he meticulously describes the torments and rages against this verbal and physical intimidation, the narrator makes the following observation years later as a friend of his dies:

“I didn’t want to know.  If this, dear reader, was a story like the kind I’d like to write, maybe there would have been a miracle.  Most likely.  Tony would die, but something else miraculous would happen.  There would be a turn toward beauty that would reflect the joy-from-sadness in the prophet Isaiah’s words, the comfort:  You shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace.

But I can’t do it.  Not this time.” (p. 26)

There are no easy outs for Minor’s characters.  Again and again, they go through life’s wringer, transformed into something else, not particularly better, if they survive.  Yet despite these travails, despite these losses of faith, despite the failures to communicate with those they most desperately want to connect, Minor’s characters persevere.  There is the sense of something that moves many of them to strive forward, to try to create at least the illusion of agency in their lives.  It is this quality that relieves the darkness, albeit temporarily in some cases, of their situations and makes these stories worth considering at length.

In reading the thirteen stories in this collection, I was struck by the thematic and stylistic similarities that these tales had with Flannery O’Connor, Brian Evenson, and Donald Ray Pollock.  In particular, the crises of faith that several of the characters have, such as the preachers who abandon their pulpits and perhaps their faith, reminds me in their execution of these scenes of several of O’Connor’s stories, especially “The River.”  Minor’s use of stark, often violent backdrops reminded me of Evenson and Pollock, particularly in the connections between violent ends and metaphysical matters.  The sharp, emotionally raw prose creates this sense of creeping apocalypse, of doom coming to the characters.  By the collection’s end, as Minor revisits some of the characters introduced beforehand, the reader is left feeling as though she has been on a harrowing and yet ultimately rewarding experience.  Praying Drunk, with its allusions to the unfocused faith of the semi-repentant sinner, is one of the more powerful collections that I have read in some time.  Highly recommended.

Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)

March 25th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Nobody ever warned me about mirror, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.  I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction.  Many, many me’s.  When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last.  The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton.  I felt the reflection at my shoulder like a touch.  I was on the most familiar terms with her, same as any other junior dope too lonely to be selective about the company she keeps. (p.3)

As a child growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one particular enjoyment my younger sister and I had was playing over and over again a recording of Disney songs and fairy tales on our parents’ stereo LP player.  Of particular interest was the tale of Snow White, which contained some variations from the movie version.  Yet there was always this mysterious mirror, mirror on the wall, telling whoever asked who was the fairest one of all.  At the time, six or so not being the sort of time where most young boys ask themselves how beautiful they are in relation to the world, questions such as this did not affect me.  Yet in looking back over thirty years, there is something about those scenes, especially in the cartoon movie version, that is a bit unsettling to consider.  What is beauty?  Is it in the eye of the beholder or within the ken of those to whom it is not an objective, distant object but instead something intrinsic to their very beings?  Do our desires, latent or expressed, to be associated with beauty affect or even define our relationships to others?

In Helen Oyeyemi’s just-released fifth novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, these questions are played out across a cultural landscape that is not as far distant as many of us would wish, that of segregationist America of the early 1950s.  Here, color becomes a driving factor.  I say this not just to reference the language of the time for racial difference, but also because of the key role it plays within the narrative.  The story of a wicked stepmother is a familiar one in Euro-American fairy tale traditions, but Oyeyemi’s marriage of that with fixations on color in race divides creates a tale that can make many of us uncomfortable to consider all of its import.

The story revolves around the first-person narrator, Boy, who marries a widower, Arturo Whitman, with a young daughter, Snow.  At first, the marriage is a happy one, until the birth of Boy’s first child, Bird, reveals a secret that Arturo and Snow had kept from her:  they were “passing for white.”  This development sparks a change in Boy, a change that Oyeyemi explores masterfully in the second half of the novel.  Through her questioning of herself and how her views do not jibe with the reality of the situation, Boy’s character is shown in a sympathetic yet ultimately negative way.  She is, after all, “the product of her times.”

Yet Boy, Snow, Bird is not exclusively about mid-20th century racism.  Through its use of sometimes magical events and especially through the metaphor of the mirror that haunts the Whitmans throughout the novel, it becomes several things:  a contemporary fairy tale, an exploration of the nature of beauty, and a look at the yearning that people have to be something different than what they are.  Oyeyemi delves into these themes with prose that is a joy to read, as each descriptive passage and metaphoric image build upon each other, like the gentle lapping of waves, until it finally crashes into the reader at full force.

It is difficult to pick out any structural weaknesses, as Oyeyemi does an excellent job with plot, characterization, prose, and theme.  Perhaps there is a surfeit of each, causing the reader to pause overlong at a passage, possibly missing some key element in her consideration of another, but on the whole, Boy, Snow, Bird is one of those rare novels whose exploration of touchy cultural issues does not overwhelm the intimacy of the characters’ situations.  It contains universal themes, yet without sacrificing the personal qualities that endear themselves to many readers.  It simply is one of the best novels released this year and deserves to be discussed at length by a wide diversity of readers.

2014 National Book Award Fiction longlist: Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans (2014)

March 25th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I knew the second Katka saw any of this onstage it would all be over, but I couldn’t think about that now.  Because for this moment Daniela looked as if she believed every word.  Or probably just wanted to badly enough.  Her gaze was fixed and wide, as if she were watching television.  I couldn’t tell which of us had scooted closer or if we’d done it simultaneously.  But she was so near our elbows were almost touching, and as I continued to talk, I wondered if any of what I was saying would begin to feel like the truth.  It didn’t yet, but I was just getting started. (from “The Quietest Man”)

From the time I first heard about her debut collection on The MillionsThe Great 2014 Book Preview back in January, I have been eager to read recent National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 author Molly Antopol’s stories.  The short description provided in the link above made me curious about how a relatively young writer would go about exploring those “characters lost in the labyrinth of history.”  What I discovered is that Antopol is indeed a rising talent, one whose stories contain fascinating characters placed in untenable situations.  Sometimes, these tales work wonderfully and, at worst, they merely explore already trodden ground.  But on the whole, The UnAmericans may be one of the strongest collections in a 2014 publishing year that has seen several excellent story collections (two of which I’ll be reviewing later this week).

The UnAmericans is a themed collection, revolving around the identity issues of those who consider themselves (or in a few, more sinister cases are considered to be such) to be “un-American.”  Whether the stories revolve around characters who live outside the US, in places like Belarus, Ukraine, or Israel or if they are immigrants to the US, each of the eight stories focuses on aspects of life or character that set these characters apart from their times.  Although there are times that Antopol comes close to repeating motifs explored in previous tales, for the most part, reading each of her stories led to a sense of reverie, albeit not a “pleasant” one.

Antopol’s characters are often simultaneously active and passive in relation to their environs.  Some, like the narrator for the first story, “The Old World,” find themselves caught in the confusion of the times, wondering if the world of which they were so certain was slipping past them.  Others, like the father in “The Quietest Man,” quoted above, seek to manipulate personal (and perhaps by extension cultural) history in order to present a desired narrative for others.  Yet ultimately there is this sense of each of them wallowing in a mire of the past and conflicted futures.

In the hands of lesser writers, this could lead to a narrative morass from which the reader might have to struggle mightily in order to escape.  Antopol for the most part manages to establish narrative bridges that enable the reader to focus more on the individual characters in relation to their plights and not so much on the murky plights themselves.  Sometimes she achieves this through the establishment of strong personalities whose force of will manages to captivate the reader.  Other times, it is just the simple beauty of her prose, the mixing of creative metaphors with direct, emotionally raw and honest discourse that carries the stories to fitting, if not always fulfilling, conclusions.

While there are occasions where the narratives appear to be straining to contain the disparate elements within them, on the whole The UnAmericans is a powerful collection whose weaknesses mostly can be excused as those of a newer writer finding her voice and whose strengths will make readers eager to read her next work, whether it be a novel or another story collection.  Certainly a writer worth paying attention to in the future.

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