February 2, 2016 § 3 Comments
Title: Memory At Bay
Author: Evelyne Trouillot
Translator: Paul Curtis Daw
Publisher: University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville & London (2015)
ISBN: 978 0 8139 3809 7
Extensive reading is not necessary to understand that Haiti has a complicated and troubling history. The brutal sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue, a nation formed out of the world’s first successful slave revolt, decades of precarious and corrupt governments, a devastating earthquake in 2010…time and again this country has had major obstacles thrown in its path. And yet, despite multiple barriers, its impact and population have extended far beyond the borders of what is a relatively small, still developing, island nation. By its tenacity alone Haiti is a place that inflames the imagination.
Alain Mabanckou wrote in Black Bazaar what is perhaps one of my favorite quotes about the Haitian people: “…These Haitian writers are like hunted birds. They’ve had more than thirty-two coups d’état back home and not a country in the world has equalled this record yet. With each coup d’état, flocks of writers have emigrated. They left everything behind, setting out with nothing apart from their manuscripts and their driving licence. I wish I’d been born Haitian so I could be a writer in exile who understands the song of the migrating bird, but I don’t have any manuscripts, or a driving licence to become, in the worst-case scenario, a taxi driver in the streets of Paris …”
Evelyne Trouillot is a writer who didn’t leave home. She is, for all intents, Haitian literary royalty. The daughter of a Haitian intellectual & lawyer, the niece of a historian, sister to a writer, an anthropologist and professor – Trouillot resides in Port-Au-Prince and is herself a teacher, novelist, and playwright. With her daughter and brother she co-founded Pré-texte, an institution which holds literacy and writing workshops. Memory At Bay is her second book to be translated into English.
Her main characters – two living, one dead – are members of the vast Haitian diaspora Mabanckou describes. Rather than art they instead grapple with their roles as mothers, daughters and wives – the less glamorous, traditional roles of women. Marie-Ange, the younger of the book’s two narrators, is employed as a caregiver in a facility in Martinique. She is in mourning for her mother, whose voice we hear only through Marie-Ange’s memories. Together they left Haiti when she was a very small child. Now she is an orphan and her relationship to her childhood home is entirely colored by the memories her mother shared of surviving a corrupt and brutal dictatorship.
While still very young, I became an expert at choosing inoffensive subjects, ones that wouldn’t provoke a long diatribe from you against the Doréval dictatorships or those rare silences that were the precursors of your days of utter prostration. But today I wonder whether my ploy accomplished much at all. Whether you, Maman, didn’t carry an inexpressible sadness with you to your grave. And whether I who vicariously experienced the despotic regime won’t always have it under my skin. I’ve heard so much about those people since my childhood – not only the Doréval family, but also the notorious henchmen with their revealing or deceptive nicknames, still evocative of terrible anecdotes long after their time: Ti Baba, Captain Henry Tobias, Evaris Maître, Chief Lanfè, Lucien Désir, Colonel Britton Claudius. They’ve become elements of my universe, so powerful a part of my mental space and of my memories that it seems to me I’ll never be able to escape them and will always remain captive to their ghosts.
As she works through her grief Marie-Ange finds herself caring for a Haitian woman of roughly her mother’s age. Odile’s identity is not discussed at the facility (we are told this is for her own protection), but Marie-Ange soon realizes exactly who she is caring for. Odile is the widow of one and the mother of another Haitian dictator – closely modeled after Papa & Baby Doc Duvalier. Hers is the book’s second narrative voice.
These two women – Marie-Ange & Odile – provide alternating, individual soliloquies on the Doréval/Duvalier regime. Marie -Ange addresses her mother, Odile her past. Over the course of the book a dialogue between them begins to take shape without their ever engaging each other in direct conversation. Trouillot writes about a particularly complicated time in a country with a peculiarly complicated history. Marie-Ange’s memories are second-hand, the collective experiences and stories bequeathed to her by her mother. Outside of her duties in the care facility she shares very little of her life. As she expresses in the passage above, she is held captive by ghosts.
Odile’s memories are, by contrast, entirely singular and skewed. Her position as wife of the president was unique. Her life privileged and sheltered. She was, in a sense, the monster’s darling. Now at the end of her life, Odile finds a need to justify her actions or, at the very least, the actions of others through which she benefitted. Odile’s version of events, growing more and more desperate and defensive as the novel progresses, is ultimately meant for Marie-Ange. Or, more specifically, what Marie-Ange has come to represent: absolution. In a sense, both women are relaying false memories. It is only when taken together that their words form a story that more completely resembles the truth.
On bad days, Fabien would tirelessly repeat the names of all those he needed to eliminate. As if to dare his listeners to instigate a plot of some kind. The names rolled on, with no need to evoke at much length the circumstances attached to each: they all pertained to former friendships. A wife with whom she had discussed hairstyles and fashion, youngsters who had played with the Doréval children. Sometimes they would learn that the father of a child to whom they had just given a birthday present had taken refuge in a Latin American embassy. Had received a fusillade in the back while trying to escape arrest. Had perished along with his entire family during an abortive uprising in the course of which the VSN had again proved worthy of the president’s confidence. Over the years she had learned not to recall the sweet little faces, to close her mind’s eye so as not to visualize the expression of terror on a known face. She had put on the impenetrable mask of the photos and official ceremonies. Over the years it had become so easy. AS usual, she wanted to banish all nagging qualms and retain only the thoughts that would facilitate her journey back in time, but she could only manage to take the whole bundle of memories with her into an unquiet sleep.
As Marie-Ange comes to terms with her grief and Odile with her past, Memory At Bay attempts to come to terms with the Haitian diaspora. Or, at the very least, explore what it means to be far from a home which has become more to do with an abstract idea than a geographic place. Troillot thoughtfully deals with the question of how, when a third of a country’s population lives outside its borders, do Haitians define and maintain their relationship to Haiti? Paul Curtis Daw has thoughtfully translated two distinct, feminine voices – one old and the other young – which complement one another while retaining their individuality. Memory At Bay is a small masterpiece: a sensitive, skillfully written novel with nuanced and sympathetic characters which satisfies on multiple levels.
November 25, 2015 § 4 Comments
Title: The Sleep of the Righteous
Author: Wolfgang Hilbig
Translator: Isabel Fargo Cole
Publisher: Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 931883 47 4
In his introduction to Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous, the Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai wrote: “Many have thought and have said about him that because his fate and writerly art are so closely tied with Communist East Germany, Hilbig is just little more than a kind of chronicler of East Germany, a pale Kafkaist…” Krasznahorkai goes on to take what was perhaps originally intended as criticism and prove it to be the very thing that is most noteworthy about Hilbig’s writing. Hilbig, who was born in 1941 and died in 2007, was uniquely suited to write about Communist East Germany (also known as the German Democratic Republic) which was was founded and dissolved within his lifetime.
Fiction parallels real life. Raised by his widowed mother and maternal grandfather, Hilbig grew up fatherless in a coal town in the Thuringia region of Germany. There he received the full GDR experience – military service; working as a factory stoker; joining and being kicked out of a government sponsored writers’ group; interrogated by the Stasi; and finally leaving for the West on a one year Visa. He would travel back and forth between East and West – both physically and in his writing – for the rest of his life.
The world Hilbig describes in the seven short stories collected in The Sleep of the Righteous, brutal and bleak, read as part autobiography, part dystopian fiction. These linked stories are all told in the first person by the same unnamed narrator. Readers follow the boy as he grows into a man. Escape, the underground and disappearing are reoccurring themes. In the third story, titled “Coming”, the adolescent boy runs away. He is fatherless, a common state in post-war Germany. This boy – in the throes of puberty – flees the attentions of the women who’ve dominated his life. Their voices follow him like a Greek chorus, lamenting their helplessness and the behavior of the males in their lives. “The lake! they screamed, I’m going to throw myself into the lake! I’ll throw myself into the lake right this minute!”
“What pained them so was my apathy, which I took almost to the point of invisibility: I hunched speechless in some seat in the flat’s periphery, and my contours grew fainter and fainter.”
Every night, after the house has gone to sleep, the adolescent escapes to the lake of the women’s laments. The prose grows earthier and denser. The story’s entire tone changes –
“And suddenly I recalled a great mudhole, right in the center of the island, where we had sunned ourselves as children.
I recalled the sinful sense of well-being that came over me when I stripped off my clothes to stretch out in the thick black mud that filled the bottom of the hollow. It was grainy slurry of coal slack and sand in burnt-smelling water, whose surface, when smooth, showed yellow striations of sulfur…the oblong hole held the whole of my body, I ceased to move and waited until at last stillness came over me. Eyes nearly shut, I stared up into the sky whose rim was ablaze, and where the sun, straight above me, was an indistinct circle of white heat from which now and then, a drop seemed to fall… and a yellow cloud, nearly white, seemed to draw near this sun, touching the edge of its glaring gorge and beginning to melt.”
Most of The Sleep of the Righteous seems to be an attempt by Hilbig to understand his relationship to these women – aunts, mother, grandmother, wife, former lover – who dominate these stories. The few male figures are depicted as distant, often sinister. In the story from which the book takes its title the young boy is forced by his mother to share a bed with his grandfather. The two males sleep fitfully, one of them guilty (we are never told which) of murder. In “The Memories” a much older narrator recalls the boiler room stoker named Gunsch with whom he briefly worked the night shift. Gunsch is described as a modern German god of fire, grimy faced and inscrutable. In “The Dark Man’, the narrator is approached and confronted by a Stasi informer who reveals that he has for years been intercepting the narrator’s erotic correspondence with a former lover. The story is strange and surreal. The eventual outcome violent.
Strange and surreal describes Hilbig’s writing in general. All of the stories are set in a single town over a period covering decades – instilling the place with a lonely mysticism. The Sleep of the Righteous is a series of vignettes which together create a concrete sense of the period. The stories are gritty, roman noirs minus the criminal element. Calling them Kafkaesque (perhaps the most overused descriptor in literary criticism) isn’t entirely accurate. These stories have much more in common with the plain speaking narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Hilbig doesn’t push at the borders of possibilities like Kafka, or even Pynchon. He moves within them. And yet… Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation of the prose is slightly awkward in that it lacks any stylistic tics or flourishes. The use of the hyphen and the odd syntax result in hard, choppy sentences. Hilbig combines a romantic sensibility and understanding of harsh reality.
The factories were closed, keys rusting in distant safes in Munich or Dortmund until they were sold to a demolition firm. If they were lucky, and not yet too old, they might find a job driving one of the long distance freight trains transporting rolls of pink toilet papers or tins of condensed milk from Munich to Leipzig. – And looking ahead, they shuddered to think of their sons who went about with shaved heads, in combat boots and black bomber jackets, staring with alcohol in their eyes into a future that was none…
What anger and impotence the narrator might feel remains beneath the surface in these stories, residual paranoia and oppression left over from a former life under the Stasi.
In the second part of the collection the perspective shifts and expands. The child’s curiosity has been worn away by adult experience. The narrator returns to the town which has remained mostly unchanged in appearance, growing only emptier. The remaining inhabitants go about their business as if still being monitored by the Stasi. A certain level of fear has become normal, comforting because it is familiar.
What had spun out of control was my wife’s rage; she regarded us both, my mother and me, as people who were devoid of independence, eternally anxious to do everything right, and who for that very reason, because they were constantly trying to hide, to avoid reproaches… because they had no desires or questions… because they skulked about the house as though under some tyranny from which a devastating verdict might come at any moment – for that very reason did every possible thing wrong. – You people show no initiative, my wife said, all you’ve learned is how to wait for orders, you have no sense of self, and that’s why you can’t enjoy life in this little house of mine…
Dystopian has long been used to describe stories that fall within the genre of sci-fi or fantasy. Most dystopian authors insert a fantastical element into their narratives, designed to distract readers from the factual and familiar. And so they include elaborate death matches involving adolescents broadcast for public entertainment, the outside threat of zombies or of machines seizing control and enslaving the human race. Even Margaret Atwood included the laboratory engineered evolution of the human species in her Madd Addam trilogy. All are designed to allow readers to make distinctions between the book they are reading and world in which they live. It’s a sleight of hand drawing attention away from the recognizable components of a degrading society that every dystopian vision shares: a scarcity of resources, the collapse of the environment, poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth, the suppression of free speech, racial violence and existence under a police state. Hilbig, in contrast, includes nothing that might distract. As Krasznahorkai wrote, he was a chronicler of East Germany – a place that technically no longer exists. But that’s not entirely accurate either. More than a simple chronicler, Wolfgang Hilbig was also a witness.
November 15, 2015 § Leave a comment
No writer wants the defining trait of his or her novel to be that it reminds critics and readers of other best-selling and/or critically acclaimed novels. The Nigerian writer Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, does this from the first page… actually from the very first sentence.
I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet…
That is not Okparanta, but the famous opening lines of Isak Dinesen’s (or, if you prefer, Karen Blixen’s) Out of Africa. In the paragraphs that immediately follow Dinesen goes on to to describe the topography, the weather and the sounds of her home in Kenya. And say what you want about Dinesen – her politics, her character, her ability to run a farm – she could write. Those opening pages of Out of Africa are a sensory immersion, and the country of Kenya is as important a character in her story as any man or woman she introduces later in the narrative.
Okparanta also opens with her protagonist describing her home in Africa.
Midway between Old Oba-Nnewi Road and New Oba-Nnewi Road, in that general area bound by the village church and the primary school, and where Mmiri John Road drops off only to begin again, stood our house in Ojoto. It was a yellow-painted two-story cement construction built along the dusty brown trails just south of River John, where Papa’s mother almost drowned when she was a girl, back when people still washed their clothes on the rocky edges of the river.
Okparanta narrator goes on the describe her family’s compound, the wet versus dry season, the smells and noises, the life she lived as a child before the Biafran War interrupted in 1967 – a period of time notably brought to most Western readers’ attention by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half A Yellow Sun. But most of Under the Udala Trees takes place in the aftermath of that war. Nigeria is not a character, nor is it integral to her story. The plot momentum comes from it being a coming of age and a coming out story which could, unfortunately, have taken place in many African nations. The book purports to be about the relationship between two young girls, but is more about the sexual journey of only one of those girls. The narrator, Ijeoma, is a Nigerian girl who is attracted to women. And while her relationships are sometimes interesting – with her first love, her mother, her husband, her daughter – they are never explored enough to be moving. They lack depth. Their portrayal is only one-sided. We never get to see the world through anyone’s other than Ijeoma’s eyes… and she is not especially effusive or forthcoming with her emotions or opinions. For the kind of portrait Okparanta is trying to create, – a nuanced one in which even the book’s antagonists are sympathetic though misguided – having a reserved character such as Ijeoma at the center is an unnecessary obstacle. Under the Udala Trees would have benefitted from multiple perspectives. As it is, it lacks a strong narrative arc, reading more like a personal essay than a story designed to inspire empathy or a strong emotional response.
There is no way to tell the story of what happened with Amina without first telling the story of Mama’s sending me off. Likewise, there is no way to tell the story of Mama’s sending me off without also telling of Papa’s refusal to go to the bunker. Without his refusal, the sending away might never have occurred, and if the sending away had not occurred, then I might never have met Amina.
If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.
Ijeoma meets Amina while acting as housegirl for a schoolteacher and his wife who were friends of her late father. Her mother has sent her there while she rebuilds a life for them in Ijeoma’s grandparents village. The two girls share their quarters, become close and eventually fall in love. They are discovered and Ijeoma’s mother is sent for. An extremely religious woman, Mama takes Ijeoma away and spends hours instructing her that what she has done is unnatural and an abomination in God’s eyes.
This doesn’t change Ijeoma, it only teaches her that her relationships must be conducted in secret. At school she and Amina meet again, and are again separated (this time by Amina). The plot, narrated in Ijeoma’s voice, chronicles her journey to love and acceptance. Okparanta hits all the expected plot points: first love, exposure, betrayal, a more mature relationship, violent persecution, an attempt to lead a “normal” heterosexual life, and then the realization that road leads only to unhappiness for everyone involved. Ultimately, Ijeoma has a happy ending of sorts – one that is realistic in the society in which she lives.
For all the flaws in this novel, Chinelo Okparanta writes well, as befits her background. A Nigerian-American writer, who immigrated to America at with her parents at age ten, she attended Penn State, Rutgers and is an alum of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s been published everywhere you’d expect: Granta, Tin House, The New Yorker, etc. She’s held professorships and received fellowships and her book of short stories Happiness, Like Water, was well received. In Under the Udala Trees, her plain straight-forward prose style is interesting, sometimes even engaging. And there is no denying that she’s written a timely novel, one could even argue an important novel. But, unfortunately, it’s also an extremely frustrating novel. Her heroine is too hesitant and circumspect in what we are expected to believe are her innermost thoughts and desires. The words “suppose”, “might” and “perhaps” pop up often. Ironically, the one thing Ijeoma is quite definite about is her preference for women. Though she is frequently told that her feelings are wrong – as if love could ever be wrong – she barely struggles with them. She never seems torn or even confused by the fact that she is attracted to women, and yet at the book’s turning point she inexplicably turns her back on the woman she loves and instead marries a childhood friend (we assume to please her mother). This happens with no explanation as to why, no real foreshadowing and no insight into the pressure (we again must assume) she feels to conform. The actual decision is made between chapters. The actual undoing of that decision also happens between chapters. Okparanta seems to have an innate fear of climactic scenes. She may be the rare author whose work has suffered from too much editing. Under the Udala Trees has the skeleton of a great book in it, but sadly lacks the substance of one.
October 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
Title: The Brotherhood of Book Hunters
Author: Raphaël Jerusalmy
Translator: Howard Curtis
Publisher: Europa Editions, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 60945 230 8
The eighteenth century romance novel tradition with its lush descriptions of landscapes and settings is just one of the many threads Raphaël Jerusalmy weaves into a novel which features the 15th century French poet and rogue Francois Villon, a real-life figure with a shadowy historical record. Add to this the Medici family, a journey to the Holy Land and a Jewish conspiracy as fanciful and ambitious as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (minus the anti-semitism) and you’ll begin to get a sense of the scope of the author’s vision.
Slowly advancing across the still burning scrubland, through ravines over which darkness was spreading, Djanoush at last reached a promontory from which the outline of the lake could be seen in the distance. His traveling companions gazed down at the fabled landscape in silence. A sparrow hawk hovered, describing broad circles, weaving his flight in the invisible weft of the sky, patrolling the sheet of water in search of prey. The Sea of Kinnereth, as the Hebrews called it, stretched as far as the horizon, lined with wild rushes and willows. The white domes of Tiberias glittered on the western shore. To the east, the grim mass of the Golan rose into the clouds, covering the tranquil waters with its threatening shadow. Opposite, in the distance, where the haze of the lake gave way to a sand-filled mist, Judea began.
The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is a historical adventure story in the style of Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson or James Fenimore Cooper. Or, if we’re looking for more contemporary comparisons, with Michael Chabon’s 2007 novella Gentlemen of the Road, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas and, in a roundabout way, the short stories of the sci-fi/fantasy writer Fritz Lieber will do nicely. The basics of what ultimately grows into a rather complicated plot are as follows: François Villon is approached in prison by the agents of Louis XI. The French King wishes to shift the power between himself and the Vatican by encouraging the circulation of pamphlets challenging the dogma of the Catholic Church. To this end he tasks Villon with convincing printers & booksellers from across Europe to set up their shops in Paris. And once that is accomplished he sends Villon – accompanied by the poet’s friend Colin da Cayeux (Fafhrd to Villon’s Gray Mouser) – to the Holy Land on a mission to acquire rare manuscripts from the time of Christ which are guaranteed to undermine the Pope’s authority once distributed among the masses.
What the King & Villon do not realize is that more people are involved in this game of Renaissance intrigue than they know. The Medici family, backed by a shadowy organization known as the Brotherhood of Book Hunters, have their own plans for poor Villon. And no one seems to consider the possibility that Villon may just have a few plans of his own.
“What good wind brings you to the Holy Land, Master Villon?”
“Contrary winds. Zephyrs of escape and trade winds of fortune.”
Raphaël Jerusalmy has a true gift for sprawling scenic landscapes and carefully lit interiors – in this way he is the novelistic equivalent to the director John Ford. Often he spends more time on the particulars of a room than the people in it, leaving his characters emotions and motivations opaque through much of the book. There’s a noticeable absence of internal dialogue in the pages of The Brotherhood…, particularly among the main characters. This is a marked and noticeable contrast to the Franzen-style psychoanalytical navel gazing frequently found in contemporary literary fiction. But Jerusalmy seems to be after something else entirely. His prose is performative, delivering moments of deliciously decadent melodrama. Take for example the passage below in which Colin de Cayeux dramatically enters a tavern, summoned there by Villon.
The door of the tavern opened suddenly, blown inward by a gust of wind. Spray and hail crashed onto the flagstones, sprinkling the sawdust and the straw. The dogs growled, the drinkers bellowed, the cats threw themselves under the tables. Their shadows swayed in the red light of the newly fanned flames of the hearth. Threats and curses rang out. Framed in the doorway, dripping with rain, a man stood silhouetted against the whiteness of the hail. He was motionless for a moment, ignoring the tumult. A black velvet cloak floated around his shoulders like beating wings. Only two things were visible on this untimely specter: a wan smile and, below it, the milky reflection of a knife.
Cue the sinister music.
The Brotherhood of Book Hunters was released in English by Europa Editions in 2014, the second of Jerusalmy’s novels to be translated into English, and received moderate attention and lukewarm reviews. His tendency to view his characters with the same panoramic lens he uses for the scenery – zooming in only briefly to record a reaction or fleeting emotion before sweeping off to the next plot twist – is a deliberate, but perhaps not always successful, stylistic tick. His use of the third person omniscient narrator is masterful, but (perhaps as a result) his book is not character driven enough to appeal to the genre reader. Nor is his writing experimental enough to draw the attention of the die-hard translation crowd. What he has done is written a solid, entertaining and (admittedly) cinematic novel filled with lovely passages that fire the imagination – the perfect book for Fall nights curled up in a comfortable armchair under a warm blanket.
Federico checked on last time that the volumes were in good condition, then called the clerk and ordered him to wrap them. He walked Ficino to the door of the shop. The old scholar took off his hat to say goodbye to his host, then again pulled it down over his ears. The rain had stopped. The clerk arrived, holding the precious package at arm’s length, and was already rushing outside, forcing Master Ficino to gallop after him. Federico watched them scampering toward the rainbow that crowned the end of the avenue. He half expected to see them fly away on the horizon and whirl around amid steeples and towers, gaily beating their wings beyond the orange roofs of the city.
October 21, 2015 § 2 Comments
This week’s review can be found over at The Rumpus. Soundcheck: Tales from the Balkan Conflict is a book of short stories by Galician author & journalist Miguel-Anxo Murado, translated by Carys Evans-Corrales. This War of Mine is a computer survival game based on the Siege of Sarajevo. Each compliments the other – forcing readers (and players) to re-evaluate the way we think about war. Arguably in more realistic ways than we’re used to. CLICK on the cover to learn more:
Note: This War of Mine was created by the game company 11 bit studios. They’re currently developing a new version of the game which ups the ante even further by adding children to the group of survivors. I talk about the original game in the review – here’s a link to the homepage and trailer (you’ll need to scroll down) for This War of Mine: The Little Ones. No release date yet, as far as I can tell.