Água Viva – Clarice Lispector

LispectorÁgua Viva

Clarice Lispector

Translated by Stefan Tobler

88 pages

New Directions Books

Although Água Viva is officially classified as fiction, it is likely to appeal more to those with a taste for poetry than to those who prefer the more familiar manifestations of prose. Água Viva lacks narrative structure: in fact, one reviewer described it as “non-narrative fiction” — whatever that means. For the most part the author betrays even her own basic construct, which is that this work has been written by an unnamed narrator — a painter who is exploring the artistic possibilities of the writing medium for the first time — to a lover from whom she has been temporarily and unwillingly parted.

Despite the wrench she claims to feel at his departure, the “other” to whom the writing is ostensibly addressed is not important to this work. For most of Água Viva, the narrator seems to be speaking only to herself, and when she does speak of the one who is away, it is not to provide us with any information about that person or his relationship to her, nor even to engage with him in any concrete way, but only to more fully explore the meanderings of her own thought processes. I often found myself thinking that the work would have succeeded equally well as an interior dialogue. The narrator seems to agree: late in the book, she says, “We will meet this afternoon. And I won’t even talk to you about this that I’m writing and which contains what I am and which I give you as a present though you won’t read it. You will never read what I’m writing. And when I note down my secret of being—I shall throw it away as if into the sea.”

But when read as a series of meditations, or linked poems, rather than than as any kind of coherent conversation, Água Viva is frequently stunning, often lovely and nearly always stimulating. (Like most internal dialogues, it is also occasionally boring.) It contains meditations on many subjects, among them flowers, music, days of the week, God, sleep and mirrors (“a tiny piece of the mirror is always the whole mirror”). It is a meditation on writing (“So writing is the method of using the word as bait: the word fishing for whatever is not word. When this non-word — between the lines — takes the bait, something has been written”).

But primarily it is a meditation on time. Lispector’s narrator says, “I want to grab hold of the is of the thing…. I want to possess the atoms of time. And to capture the present, forbidden by its very nature: the present slips away and the instant too, I am this very second forever in the now.” And then, “Is my theme the instant? the theme of my life.” Observations and ruminations such as these cause the reader to stop, sometimes with a sharp intake of breath, to admire and re-read. Lispector is intelligent, insightful, and a brilliant wordsmith. (“Then I live the blue daybreak that comes with its bulge full of little birds.”) She is a poet.

Clarice Lispector, who wrote in Portuguese and has been been by turns acclaimed as one of the most important Jewish writers and one of the most important Brazilian writers, can be frighteningly dark. Some passages are so infused with nightmarish imagery that they seem suited to musical treatment by Diamonda Galás:

The liturgy of the dissonant swarms of the insects that emerge from the foggy and pestilential swamps. Insects, frogs, lice, flies, fleas and bedbugs – all born of the corrupted diseased germination of larvae. And my hunger is fed by these putrefying beings in decomposition.

Lispector was born in a Ukrainian shtetl in 1920. Her family fled soon after to Brazil to escape the atrocities to which Jews in Ukraine were subjected following the first world war. Her mother, paralyzed, had been raped in the pogroms, and died when Clarice was nine.

Given the appalling events that marked her early life, the miracle of this book is not its darkness, but its joy. The work opens with hallelujahs and concludes with the narrator’s determined resolution to be joyful (“Because it’s too cruel to know that life is just one time and that we have no guarantee outside our faith in shadows – because it’s too cruel, so I respond with the purity of an untamable happiness”).

The narrative curve of Água Viva not is not described by plot, but by emotion. It begins on a peak, with the kind of elation that can sometimes be torn from parting, then wends its way down and around the inside of a self through the darkness, chaos, and questions that one can experience only in solitude, to emerge with the narrator’s hard-won but powerful decision to live, to love and – most of all – to be happy.

“I am ferociously alive – and I lick my snout like a tiger who has just devoured a deer.”

In Lispector’s prose, as in good poetry, those readers who are willing to work for it will find elation, despair, kindred-spirit-hood – and maybe even anthems.

The Round House - Louise Erdrich

ErdrichThe Round House

Louise Erdrich

Harper Perennial

Paperback, 321 pages, 2013

As happens with many coming-of-age novels, as we read The Round House we are lulled by the maturity of the language into thinking that the book is about the adult characters. And yet as the story unfolds we are inevitably drawn into the realization that the novel is, and must be, about the young narrator, about the effects on him or her of the milieu and the events that are being revealed to us, and about how those circumstances have forever altered his or her view of the world.

In this case, the narrator is Joe, a bright and perceptive 13-year-old boy whose mother Geraldine has been brutally attacked as the novel opens — an event that causes Joe’s hitherto safe and comprehensible world to collapse, pulling apart its seemingly secure framework one piece at a time. We see the struggles of Joe’s father –sense his dignity, pain, intelligence and bewilderment — and of Joe himself, and of other members of their closely knit community, as they try to help Geraldine rebuild her life in the aftermath of this horrific event. We recognize the silent agony of Geraldine herself: she will not name the perpetrator of the crime, or share the details; for a long time, it seems that she has decided not to mend, but simply to die.

But the novel isn’t about Geraldine; it is about the effect of his mother’s pain on Joe, and his growing awareness of the inability of the adults to help her ease it.

The Round House, Louise Erdrich’s fourteenth novel, is about justice and injustice, focusing specifically on the hopelessly tangled set of laws that emerged when the Europeans began to decide what property in North America was going to belong to whom – and, in fact, to decide what the word “property” itself would mean in that context. In so doing, they erased the rights and livelihoods of thousands of Native Americans, of which Louise Erdrich is one. In this novel, she has brought to life a community of diverse and intriguing characters who help her build a powerful message and increase our awareness of the history, plight and deep spirituality of her people.

Joe and his friends are wonderful incarnations of the restless balance between angst and silliness, maturity and childishness, that coexist in the minds and bodies of young teenagers everywhere. Joe’s grandpa, Mooshum, is an Ojibwe elder with chutzpah, knowledge, and the links to the past that Joe needs to understand before he can begin to fully realize the extent of the legal no-mans-land in which he and his people have come to live, and the losses they have suffered to get there. Joe’s father, a lawyer and tribal judge, who interprets the laws for Joe (and us), is a proud man who still believes that, given time, the white man’s statutes can be whittled away, eroded and rebuilt until justice for his people at last emerges. Joe does not have that kind of patience: he wants revenge, and he wants it now.

As did several others in the Goodreads group that suggested this book to me (The Literary Award Winners Fiction Book Club: thank you!), I found several essential plot points in The Round House disappointingly convenient, given the scope, depth, and achievements of the novel as a whole.  But Erdrich’s language is so strong, so lovely and precise (“Linda Wishkob was magnetically ugly”) and her characters so compelling that we are drawn forward despite the infelicities of the plot. We want to keep reading and reading, to stay inside this compelling world.

Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett

Skin Lane

SkinLane

Neil Bartlett

Serpent’s Tail

Paperback, 344 pages, 2007

A Psychological Drama Unfolds into a Mystery

I have no idea where I got the idea that I should read Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett. A few months ago, I was flipping through a book I had purchased about ten years ago that I hadn’t liked very much, thinking of taking it in for recycling, and I found a scrap of paper stuck between its pages that I had obviously used as a bookmark. It contained, in my handwriting, the words

Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett

 

That was all.

I tried to throw this piece of paper into the garbage, but it wouldn’t go there—at least not right away. I could not get the idea out of my head that if I didn’t read that book, I might miss out on the most fantastic novel I had ever had the opportunity to read. So after fiddling with the corner of the little note off and on for a week or so, I ordered Skin Lane from AbeBooks. Then I threw the scrap of paper out.

The book arrived.

I devoured it.

*

Skin Lane is a short masterpiece, a compelling psychological drama with all of the page-turning attributes of a good mystery. Neil Bartlett, its author, is a prolific playwright as well as a novelist, and his focus in this story is a 46-year-old man whom we know mostly as Mr. F. He is one of the last generation of skilled cutters who worked for the 300 furriers who plied their wares on Skin Lane and neighbouring streets in the City of London in the first half of the 20th century. As the novel opens, Mr. F. has lived the same unfulfilling, solitary, virginal life for three decades, going by train to work each day at the same time, home again each night, wandering the city or visiting art galleries on the weekends–his routine unbroken, his mind numb even to its tedium.

It is the mid-sixties and it is London: and we can see that all around him the world is changing. His generation and those who have gone before may be mired in tradition and obligation and doing what is right and proper, but young people are ignoring all the rules, breaking them at every turn. It appears Mr. F. has been left behind, has missed his chance at… what? That is the question he must ultimately answer – although for a long time it seems he doesn’t even know there is a question, and that he doesn’t really care.  But we soon learn that he is watching, from the corner of his eye, from beneath his lowered lids: he sees the life that pulses just beyond his grasp in the taut bodies of the young.

Mr. F. starts having a recurring dream that appears to have its roots in his childhood reading of Beauty and The Beast. The dream, a nightmare really (except that there is something deeply compelling about it too – as there are in so many good nightmares) begins to wake him up to his own sexuality, but in a dark way: intertwining it with the bloody work he does.

Anyone who has dreamed about a specific person and known that he or she must have seen that other person in real life, but can’t remember where or when, as I have done, will recognize the central mystery in this novel: Who is the young man who figures in Mr. F’s nightmares, dead, beautiful, hanging upside down, apparently murdered in Mr. F.’s own bathroom? And what do the dreams portend?

Skin Lane is a gripping read, building in intensity, and while we are compulsively reading forward in spite of our dread of the outcome, we are also absorbing the smells and fascinating facts about a world even now just newly dead – where in a whole “Hidden World” of London, through winter’s cold and summer’s heat, men on the top floors of a narrow building cut the skins of animals to pieces, and sewed them into expensive new skins that men would later use to decorate their most prize possessions: their wives and mistresses.

Bartlett’s clever conversational tone and his apparently infinite capacity for detail draws us in to his confidence. It convinces us that this writer has the inside track on this world, and on the enigmatic man he has created—just one example of the millions of people in the world who lead outwardly unremarkable lives but who (we know) must be capable of anything.

*

I am grateful to my self for leaving myself a note all those years ago, and to my present self for trusting that I knew what I was talking about back then. I am also grateful to whomever it was that recommended the book and made me write its title down on a piece of paper—I’ll never remember who it was. As Bartlett himself might say in the voice of Skin Lane’s narrator: maybe it was you.

1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

1Q84

Haruki Murakami

Translation: Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel

Alfred K. Knopf

Hardcover, 925 pages

Moons and Recollections: A Novel to be Savoured

*

“The wind rushed between the branches of the zelkova tree, making a piercing howl, like the coldhearted breath leaking out between the teeth of a person who has lost all hope.” (p. 750, 1Q84)

*

Out of the (metaphorical) corner of my eye as I was reading 1Q84, I was noticing that Haruki Murakami’s new novel was not getting universally positive reviews. I didn’t read the reviews, and I won’t until I finish writing this, but as I moved from page 300 to 400 to 500 I wondered if maybe it was the sheer length that was turning other reviewers off a bit – perhaps along with Murakami’s tendency to describe apparently plot-irrelevant incidents in a cool and detached but very detailed manner, such as how exactly a character prepares his meals from the washing of the vegetables to the stir-frying of the shrimp. I’ve noticed since I first encountered Murakami’s writing in  Norwegian Wood that he has a thing for describing food preparation, and in 1Q84 there are also drawn-out descriptions of traffic jams, apartment buildings, rooms in extended-care facilities, train rides, and interior monologues … especially interior monologues: “Should I do this?” “I wonder what would happen if I did that?” “Maybe that other character is thinking such and such.” That kind of thing.

In this 21st-century world of ours, where most experiences that we tune into have been created with our increasingly short attention spans in mind, it can be difficult to read a novel that is 925 pages long, in which most of the activity is about as dramatic as one’s own daily life (an illusion, but it seems that way). We are being trained by digital media to consume events quickly quickly quickly, so we can get on to the next. Murakami does not let us do that. He starts off slowly, and he continues slowly. We want to say, “Hurry up! Hurry up!” But Murakami does not, and gradually, gradually we slow down too.

We are drawn in to the mysterious world he has created, where there are two moons, and a beautiful young best-selling author who seems to come from another world – not our world, not even Murakami’s fictional world, but another one. Gradually the two main characters, whom we thought we might not even like that much for the first two hundred pages or so (although we could not stop watching them anyway, to see what would happen to them next) begin to draw us in, to appeal to us. We feel increasingly affectionate towards them and want them to overcome their (serious and even potentially fatal) problems. We want them to be happy.

The plot is straightforward enough: Tengo and Aomame, both rendered social outcasts as children by the peculiarities of their parents, met and connected on a very deep psychic level in elementary school but were separated soon after. They never forgot one another. Now, at the age of thirty, the two of them end up – for very different reasons that may or may not be connected by an omniscient or non-omniscient overseer – in a parallel universe in which they (still both in their own ways social misfits) seem to have been given one final opportunity to reconnect.

The parallel universe is the one where the young writer comes from. Her real name is Eriko Fukada, but she is known as Fuka-Eri. She is just 17 and she has written what appears to be a fantastic tale called Air Chrysalis, which has been submitted to a well-regarded literary competition. There, Komatsu, the respected editor who supervises the competition, recognizes Air Chrysalis for its compelling and utterly unique voice and narrative, but knows it needs rewriting.

“The overall plot is a fantasy,” he says, accurately describing the writing of the author who invented him as well as Fuka-Eri’s, “but the detail is incredibly real.”

Komatusu asks Tengo, one of the readers for the competition – he is now a math teacher and an aspiring novelist – to improve the writing of the novel so that it will win and, making a decision the ethics of which will bedevil him for months to come, Tengo agrees. He meets with Fuka-Eri who also agrees to the scheme, but almost lackadaisically, as though she doesn’t really care.

Aomame has a different set of ethical questions to wrestle with. She is a highly tuned, self-trained, physically fit killer-for-hire. Not only does she commit her murders without leaving a single trace that the victims died of anything but natural causes, she only kills people who have been vetted and judged to be deserving of their fates by “The Dowager” – a wealthy, careful woman with a judicial agenda that is based on her own daughter’s abuse and death. Aomame’s victims have committed heinous crimes who, without Aomame’s intervention, would never have been brought to justice. But Aomame’s latest assignment in the bizarre two-moon world causes her even more difficult questions than the ones Tengo needs to face.

As the novel gradually unfolds, the question arises as to how much of Air Chrysalis is true, and how much of it is fiction. For a long time, the chapters alternate between Tengo and Aomame, and we recognize that there is a connection between the two, and that their experiences in the world they’ve unintentionally entered are bringing them closer together. But how? Where did the young author come from, and why is she so emotionless and uncommunicative, almost robotic? Was it some traumatic incident in her childhood? Did she even have a childhood? And who is the mysterious but obviously very powerful, even super-human, latest target of Aomame’s deadly talents? Could he have come from the world Fuka-Eri has “invented”?

At the centre of the novel (as if within a chrysalis) there comes the novel within the novel, Air Chrysalis itself, and when we come upon it, it is like a mysterious hard evil Norse myth in the midst of all that detailed, almost dispassionate prose: bright and black and shining and primitive—and scary as hell. The eyes of a dead goat glitter in the moonlight and small creatures march in a line out of its mouth to begin their dark work. Adding to the ominous impact of the story is our growing suspicion that every word of it is true – including the parts that Tengo added. That changes everything. Echoes begin to bounce off the apparent realities in the two-mooned world in which Tengo and Aomame have found themselves, threatening to prevent their ever reconnecting.

Murakami’s writing is only simple on the surface. His sentences and paragraphs twist and turn with apparent ease and before you know it, deliver judgment as accurately and chillingly as a weapon filed to a sharp point by Aomame. Like this:

“Unease and expectation and fear scattered to the farthest corners of the spacious classroom, and hid themselves in the room’s many objects like cowardly little animals.”

Or this:

“The clouds continued to scud off toward the south. No matter how many were blown away, others appeared to take their place. There was an inexhaustible source of clouds in some land far to the north. Decisive people, minds fixed on the task, clothed in thick, grey uniforms, working silently from morning to night to make clouds, like bees make honey, spiders make webs, and war makes widows.”

Reading him is a process and experience. You immerse yourself. You give him the freedom to tell you details you don’t think you really want to know – details so apparently irrelevant you wonder why he didn’t edit them out  – but gradually you realize he is not being self-indulgent. He is building an entire world, and it has you in its grip.

The worlds he creates are as familiar as they are strange. When I read Murakami, I am usually aware of cultural differences between Japan and Canada, but this time I also noticed many similarities: how our health-care systems operate, the climate, the procedures required for doing things like renting an apartment or transferring funds from a deceased parent to the hands of the surviving child. An apartment in which Ushikawa, one of the novel’s least appealing characters, hides out for a while, as he too attempts to puzzle through the stories of Tengo, Aomame and Fuka-Eri, could quite easily be found anywhere near where I live right now:

The dark corridor inside had that special odor you find in older apartment buildings. It is a peculiar mix of smells – of unrepaired leaks, old sheets washed in cheap detergent, stale tempura oil, a dried-up poinsettia, cat urine from the weed-filled front yard. Live there long enough and you would probably  get used to the smell. But no matter how used to it you got, the fact remained that this was not a heartwarming odor.

Those who hunt through literature for themes, leitmotifs and symbolism will have a field day with this novel. Decades of field days, in fact. One of my favourite recurring images is the extended metaphor of passages, closed and open: stairways, comas, the town of cats, the mouth of the dead goat, vaginas, the chrysalis. If I were to write a review that did any actual justice to this novel, I would need to write at length about this and many other issues that the novel is obsessed with:

  • religion (a major theme in this novel — cults, witnesses, gods, acolytes: there’s even an immaculate conception)
  • recollections – individual and collective memories – their validity, their power
  • music — Janáček’s Sinfonietta is a recurring piece, but Murakami loves music and the characters are also treated to a wide range of other, mainly Western music, particularly jazz
  • justice – Is Aomame’s vigilante justice right or wrong? Are Tengo’s contributions to Fuka-Eri’s novel justifiable, given the result?
  • truth and apparent truth – “Learning the truth would just hurt you. And once  you do learn the truth, you end up having to take on a certain responsibility for it,” Ushikawa tells Tengo

The novel is set in the year 1984 – deliberately, it is clear, for the echoes of Orwell’s novel by that title. However, it is also a handy year in which to have set this story, because easy solutions to the mysteries that each of the characters is attempting to resolve – right down to the most basic, which is Tengo’s and Aomame’s search for one another – cannot be addressed with DNA testing, cell phone calls, police surveillance or internet connections. Even photos must be taken on film and printed.

There are so many memories from this novel that will last as long as my own memory lasts (I hope. I don’t have time to read it again. Although I’d like to. Right now, in fact. Maybe I will) – the comatose father, the train rides, the house in the mountains where Fuka-Eri lives with her foster father, the television fee collector, the town of cats. I feel as though I’ve been there, but have become disoriented on the journey – I don’t understand exactly where I’ve been, and I know that it was fantasy, but the detail made it real.  That is Murakami’s power.

“If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation,” Tengo’s father tells him. Not everything in 1Q84 can be explained, and it doesn’t need to be.

Part mystery, part fantasy, part romance, part allegory, part everything and anything, IQ84 is in sum a literary tour de force that will have readers and critics talking for a long, long time.

Last Man In Tower – Aravind Adiga

Last Man in Tower

Aravind Adiga

Knopf

Kindle Edition (400 pages in hardcover)

Putting A Price on “Home”

When I was looking for a novel to read on the long plane ride to India for my first visit there last month, a friend recommended Last Man in Tower, Aravind Adiga’s second novel. It was a fine suggestion: I am a long-time fan of Indian writing, which is one of the reasons I wanted to go to India, and I had enjoyed The White Tiger ― Adiga’s first novel, which won the Booker Prize in 2008. As it turned out, I didn’t start reading Last Man in Tower until after I arrived in Delhi and set out on my overland trip to Mumbai, where the novel is set. In fact, most of the plot is set in the slums that border Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, so I felt I could look right down on “the tower” as I flew out of India’s largest city en route to Goa at the end of my Mumbai visit.

Last Man in Tower is the story of the residents of a 50-year-old apartment building, Tower A of the Vishram Co-operative Housing Society — a six-story building that has for many years been an island of respectability amid the slums that surround the domestic terminal of Mumbai’s airport. Now that the land around the airport is becoming more desirable, businessman Dharman Shah wants to purchase Towers A and B of Vishram Society, tear them down, and build a shiny new structure in the image of those he’s seen in Shanghai ­­– a city he admires so much that he is going to name his new complex after it.

In addition to his desire to make money and expand his empire, Shah wants to challenge the supremacy of another Mumbai construction magnate, J.J. Chacko of the Ultimex Group, who has just offered a ridiculously high amount (81 lakh [8.1 million] rupees) for a single slum property -apparently just to attract attention. Shah is so intent on the role the Vishram project can play in this pissing contest with Chacko that he is willing to risk his life for it, ignoring the advice of his physician who tells him that his lungs are so bad that if he doesn’t leave Mumbai, the pollution is going to kill him.

Vishram Society Tower A is occupied by about fifteen middle-class families, most of them parents with children still at home, working in such fields as hardware, finance, real-estate and social work. They come from a range of religious and cultural backgrounds: their ability to live in relative harmony despite their differences is a quality I learned even during my short visit to be one of the many admirable characteristics of the Indian people.

The most respected resident in Tower A is the retired teacher Yogesh A. Murthi, “Masterji,” 61, whose apartment is filled with memories of his recently deceased wife and his beloved daughter, who died in a train accident several years before. His son – impatient, ungrateful – and daughter-in-law, Sonal (a “hyena” to him, Murthi says) live closer to downtown, with his grandson, whom he loves, and Sonal’s father, who suffers from dementia and for whom Sonal must care. Masterji takes a few of the edges off his empty days by teaching “top-up” science to the children of Tower A and eating his meals with the Pintos, but now that he is retired and alone, it is a struggle every day to avoid caving in to the siren calls of gravity and indolence.

Tower A is affordable, and it is home, but the residents long ago resigned themselves to the fact that it is less than a perfect place to live: the elevator rarely works, there is running water only for two hours in the morning and ninety minutes in the evening, the building needs many repairs that are never going to get done, the guard drinks, the secretary is lazy, and day and night low-flying planes shake Vishram to its core.

Shah and his henchman, Shanmugham, believe that it is going to be a simple matter to buy out the owners of the Vishram Society – in fact, Shanmugham is distressed at the price that Mr. Shah is offering: he is certain that the residents would take much less. The residents of Tower B﹣most of whom have lived there for less time than the denizens of Tower A ﹣ quickly agree to Shah’s offer, celebrate their good fortune together, and then head off to their new, more affluent lives. The fact that Mr. Shah pays the Tower B owners the second, “move-out-on-time” installment of the agreed-upon sale price early is not missed by the owners of Tower A. But all of the residents of the tower must agree before the deal can go through, and a few of those in Tower A have issues to deal with before they can come to a final decision.

The novel concerns the process of bargaining that will ultimately see Mr. Shah win or lose his prize and the glory he believes will accompany it. Several Tower A residents move quickly to support the sale of the building, most notably Mrs. Puri, who without this windfall faces a lifetime of cleaning up after and caring for her 18-year-old son who has Down Syndrome and is frequently incontinent.  Others take longer to persuade.

Masterji heads the resistance movement − at first primarily in defence of the Pintos: Mrs. Pinto, the oldest woman in the building, is nearly blind and fears she will not be able to find her way around a new apartment. But as time goes on, his wish not to lose his last contact with his wife and daughter, his indignation at reprehensible tactics of those who are trying to secure unanimity – including his son and Sonal, who urge him to sell—his sense of self respect and his respect for history and ethics, all begin to influence his decision. Gradually the community begins to disintegrate as neighbours turn on neighbours, form factions, and work against one another behind the scenes. One by one they turn on the man they have always held in the highest respect.

Last Man in Tower has power and many strengths. As he did in The White Tiger, Adiga has created believable characters with human problems that are exacerbated by their circumstances. He has a keen ability to portray India’s complex cultural relationships so that those of us who do not live there can relate totally to the issues at hand. The story is funny and moving by turns, and it is grounded in its setting, which gives it an external validity that is both pleasing and interesting to non-Indian readers.

In addition to being a storyteller, Adiga is a fine writer. Some of his insights made me stop and reread them several times simply to enjoy them over and over again. Here’s an example of his keen eye:

A cow had been tied up by the side of the fried-snacks store, a healthy animal with a black comet mark on its forehead. It had just been milked and a bare-chested man in a dhoti was taking away a mildewed bucket, inside which fresh milk looked like radioactive liquid. Squatting by the cow a woman in a saffron sari was squeezing gruel into balls. Next to her two children were being bathed by another woman. Half a village crammed into a crack in the pavement.

I was not particularly keen about the ending of Last Man in Tower. It seemed to me as though the author had been unable to wrap things up and had just gone on and on until the characters came to some kind realization about what had happened﹣almost stumbling on awareness rather than drawing any direct line to it from their experiences. But I have been thinking about endings a lot lately, of films I’ve seen and novels I have read. I’ve been thinking about how life doesn’t come to any neat conclusions either. Maybe if a book or movie is interesting and fulfilling, the ending doesn’t need to be as tidy as I’d like. Like my trip through India, the experience of Last Man in Tower will ultimately have more effect on my view of the world than will the fact that I made it to the end.

Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

 

Freedom

Jonathan Franzen

HarperCollins Publisher Ltd.

Hardcover, 562 pages

*

Freedom: The rope with which Franzen’s people hang—or save—themselves

One of the many strengths of the great 20th century novelist John Updike was his ability to create gripping, funny, dramatic, heartbreaking, thought-provoking fiction out of domestic relationships involving ordinary people. In this, Jonathan Franzen is a worthy successor and his newest novel, Freedom, has in the minds of many reviewers already accorded him lofty status among the younger fiction writers of the new century.

Freedom concerns the lives of the members of one small family—Walter and Patty Berglund of Minneapolis-St. Paul and their two children Jessica and Joey—and that of the musician Richard Katz, Walter’s best friend since university. After arousing our curiosity with a reference to Walter’s fall from grace twenty years later, the novel opens in the mid-1980s, when Patty and Walter—part of the cutting edge of the revitalization of a central St. Paul neighbourhood—are doing their best to raise their two children perfectly. Their parenting efforts are conducted under the disparaging scrutiny of their neighbours, who feel that Patty in particular is far too earnest and focused on her children—especially her son.

Franzen opens with one of the book’s many funny-because-they’re-so-true lists, in this case concerning the kinds of details that young parents of the Berglunds’ demographic were obsessed with in the Eighties:

[… W]hat about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead?

But despite how we can relate to the Berglunds’ efforts to “get it right” as parents and community members, we soon share not only the neighbours’ disdain for Patty, but also their subsequent schadenfreude when her precious and precocious teenaged son moves in next door with the only family on the block that even Patty looks down on.

As he proved in The Corrections, one of Franzen’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to remind us not to judge anyone exclusively on the basis of their behaviour. In the second section of the book, we become privy to a memoir that Patty has written in an attempt to heal a depression that began with Joey’s flight from home. We begin to appreciate how she first came to live in the Twin Cities with Walter, with no connection to her family on Long Island or even her friends from university. We learn how her dysfunctional passage through adolescence and young adulthood drove her to the good intentions that have now begun to derail her life and those of her children and her husband. We find ourselves unexpectedly in her corner – and, in my case at least, also admiring the facility with which Franzen can write from a female, first-person point of view.

As the Berglund story continues to unfold, we are also offered the opportunity to see the family’s little world from various other points of view as Walter, Joey and Richard Katz take their turns as protagonists. Katz, like many artists, can love only in the abstract; he may be a song-writer but his real-life relationships with human beings, not to mention with such words as “loyalty” and “honesty,” are precarious at best. The close connection between the vastly different Richard and Walter is important to both of them, but it is complicated by an attraction between Richard and Patty that can only lead to trouble. How this attraction destroys the Berglund family unit becomes the plot’s driving force, leading straight through to the novel’s unexpected and successful conclusion.

Franzen’s choice of the word “freedom” as the title of the novel provides an intriguing thread as the plot unfolds, for it is during their moments of  freedom – sometimes offered to them by those closest to them, sometimes taken, sometimes merely the result of their having too much time on their hands – that each of the characters in turn makes decisions or takes steps that alter their lives permanently. Occasionally the choices they make are ones that enrich their lives, but more often the consequences are negative and far-reaching. Thematically, Franzen also seems intrigued by relationships between people who are in love with people who are not in love with them, and what happens when the objects of their affection stop fighting and succumb.

As Updike did before him, Jonathan Franzen is capturing an era, detailing its public upheavals and personal concerns in ways to which readers can easily relate—at least those of us who have been (white) middle-class adults since the century began. Freedom is a long book, much of it focused on personal minutae, and it is a testament to Franzen’s talent that its pace rarely lags. Inasmuch as fiction writers can contribute as much as their non-fiction colleagues to the chronicle of the times in which they live (which obviously is true), Franzen is a worthy contributor to ours.

The Act of Love – Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson
The Act of Love
Penguin Canada, 2009
Softcover, 308 pages

The Masochist: Inside Out

 

Well, here is a peculiar situation. I have just read a book I didn’t much like, one that left me with somewhat ambivalent feelings about the man who wrote it. But that book has also tempted me to read more works by the same author: I’m fairly sure I’ll like his others better.

The Act of Love is the tenth novel and 14th book by British writer and academic Howard Jacobson. My interest was piqued by an interview I read last fall with Jacobson about the book, and I was surprised I hadn’t heard of him before. He is an award-winning author whose 2006 novel Kalooki Nights was long-listed for the Man Booker prize, and he’s a regular contributor of opinion pieces to major British newspapers. According to Wikipedia, his propensity for creating fictional doppelgangers of himself and for writing comic novels involving Jews have earned him comparisons to Philip Roth.

The protagonist of The Act of Love is the singularly unsympathetic owner of an antiquarian bookshop in the Marylebone district of London by the name of Felix Quinn. Felix has come to believe that the search for pain is fundamental to human nature, deriving his evidence primarily (and at some times more convincingly than others) from the literary and visual arts. He also believes that of all human activity, love offers the most opportunity for pain, and he sets out to explore his own masochistic tendencies by turning himself into a cuckold. In the depths of misery, jealousy and humiliation he is certain he will find fulfillment.

“No man has ever loved a woman,” he insists, “and not imagined her in the arms of someone else…. No man is ever happy—truly genitally happy, happy at the very heart of himself as a husband—until he has proof positive that another man is f***ing her.” [asterisks mine]

Previously unlucky in love, Felix has managed to win the sophisticated, aloof and beautiful Marisa away from her first husband—partly thanks (he says) to his exceptional ability to carry on an intelligent discussion, and partly because he knows the location of the neighbourhood’s best restaurants. Marisa is so lovely and so self-possessed that one would think that the very fact of being in love with her would in and of itself have been enough to bring Felix to his knees in exquisite agony. However, he discovers that the usual piquancies of married life will not be enough for him when, during their honeymoon in Cuba, Marisa falls ill and is attended by a physician who touches her breasts in Felix’s presence as part of the examination. This sets Felix off on his marital mission (or obsession)—one that eclipses all of his other interests—which is to secure the perfect lover for his wife.

After a few false starts, during which Felix leaves the selection of the lovers to Marisa, he decides that a man named Marius, whom he has previously met at a funeral in Shropshire and who has now come to live in Marylebone, will be the ideal instrument to assist in his own betrayal.

“He was handsome, if you find high and hawkish men handsome. As a non-predatory man myself, I felt intimidated by him. But that’s part of what being handsome means, isn’t it: instilling fear.”

Felix is no voyeur: he has no interest in actually seeing his wife physically engage in the act of love with another man; rather he gains his pleasure (or at least the pain that masochists define as pleasure) first by imagining and later by hearing Marisa relate the intimate details of her passionate afternoons with Marius.

“I ceded preference to Marius. I liked following him. It satisfied my sulphurous desire to be demeaned, the last in a line of obscene pursuit—Marisa laying down her scent, Marius tracking her, and I trailing in the rear of them both, like a wounded dog.”

How charming.

The perambulations Felix must go through to bring this relationship to fruition (according to the rules he has invented for his game, Marius and Marisa must fall for one another of their own accord) would surely be enough to discourage most mortals, even the obsessive ones. But Felix takes as much pleasure from the challenges of accomplishing his mission as he does in its achievement.

As his scheme gradually unfolds, Felix regales us with a list of his literary and artistic predecessors—which includes not only those with clearly masochistic perspectives, such as Georges Bataille, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the artist Pierre Klossowski, but also the less obviously complicit—Vladimir Nabakov, James Joyce, George Eliot and Charles Dickens to name a few. Felix even argues at some length and with a fair degree of success that Shakespeare’s Othello was driven by a lust similar to his own (‘“I had been happy if the general camp had tasted [Desdemona’s] sweet body,’ Othello says”). And yet we feel that the most appropriate fictional counterpart to Felix’s efforts to deploy Marisa and Marius in the fulfillment of his twisted fantasies can be found in Dr. Hannibal Lecter (to whom he also refers)—for his erudition as well as his cruelty. Felix Quinn is so intelligent and sly, and so manipulative, that we suspect that he may even be aware that he is a literary invention himself, and be looking forward to assuming a position of prominence among the great sexual masochists of world fiction.

Felix is a highly unreliable narrator. He keeps readers on our guard, constantly forcing us to step back from the tale to assess whether the information he conveys to us is something he could actually know or not. By the end of the novel we are so uncertain of our footing that if Felix were to tell us that the entire affair he has so carefully engineered between Marisa and Marius had been a fabrication (and indeed, he does hint that this may be the case), we would not doubt him for a moment.

Well, at least not at first. Later, maybe we would. Later still, maybe not again.

As uncertain as we may be about the reliability of the stories Felix tells us, The Act of Love is a novel, not a reality show, and we never feel (as we might with a newer or less talented writer) as though our ambivalence been achieved with anything less than deliberate manipulation on the part of the author. Furthermore, as unpleasant as Felix is, Jacobson has created a highly sympathetic character in Marisa: beyond her beauty, aloofness and betrayal of her husband is an obviously kind and conscientious person, a woman who protects those she loves even from her own pain. It is not easy to create a sympathetic character through the eyes of an unsympathetic one: it takes talent to do that.

The scope of the philosophical deliberations into which Jacobson invites us are also tantalizing. Among the moral issues we consider as we read The Act of Love is whether Marisa’s willing participation in the betrayal makes Felix less of a scoundrel for having engineered it. Further, we wonder whether Felix should still be defined as a masochist if he has facilitated the affair…does he not thereby become a sadist? Finally we ask ourselves whether Marisa’s relating the details of her dalliances in Felix’s ear, because she knows it gives him pleasure, does not transform her betrayal into its own act of love.

The questions and issues Jacobson raises are intriguing on artistic as well as ethical levels. At one point, Felix asks us to consider whether some of the great novelists have not been masochists. He compares himself, for example, with Thomas Hardy who first creates the lovely, trusting, innocent Tess—and then defiles and destroys her.

Ultimately, the formality of Felix’s prose and his endless self-analysis create such a distance between him and the reader that we feel no empathy or even sympathy for him, nor do we experience any satisfaction when he is finally discovered and handed his just desserts. But Jacobson is a writer of no small talent and interest. His narrator is very funny when he’s not being repulsive, and there is a way in which this entire novel can be read as a black comedy — a twisted mockery of romance.

And so, although in the end I wasn’t all that keen on The Act of Love, I’m glad I read it. Next I think I’ll try Kalooki Nights.

White Noise – Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo
White Noise
Penguin Books, 1986
Softcover, 326 pages

Laughing all the way to the end

 

Recent comments about White Noise (first published in 1984) have pointed out Don DeLillo’s prescience in relation to the acts of terrorism and environmental disaster—even school shootings–that have riddled American history in the interim. I contend that if you try to list every possible potential cause of death and you have a great imagination, you are certain to sound as though you can predict the future. As they say, even clocks that have stopped ticking are accurate twice every day.

Not that DeLillo should be in any way compared to a stopped clock. If anything, the writing in this novel can best be described as “timeless,” dealing as it does with the ultimate ironic quandary of all thinking humans—i.e., how our awareness of our own mortality can overwhelm our attempts to fully be alive.

A friend of mine bought White Noise for me in 1987 and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. I felt no reluctance to read it—I always thought I would. I just didn’t get around to it till now. (I have quite a few books like that: fortunately for my relationship with her, the same friend didn’t give all of them to me.)

When I finally did start to read DeLillo’s eighth novel (he’s published six more since), I regretted that I had left the pleasure so long—but it is hard to stay regretful when you are enjoying yourself so much. DeLillo is a wonderfully funny writer and several times I had to stop reading White Noise on the bus because I was afraid my bursts of laughter might irritate (or alarm) my fellow travelers. But he is also insightful and compassionate, and his deep love for the characters he has created—quirky though they all are—is one of the great strengths of this novel.

Jack Gladney, the novel’s protagonist, is a professor who has cleverly created a scholarly niche for himself by establishing the first Hitler-studies program at a U.S. university. Jack is also the custodial parent of three offspring from his previous four marriages (which included two to the same woman). He and his fifth wife, Babette, are raising these three and two of hers, and all of the children, like Jack and Babette themselves, are masterful fictional creations. I grew particularly fond of Heinrich, Jack’s 14-year-old son, who in typical fashion for his age defeats every opinion his father ventures with his deadly adolescent capacity for fact-retention.

The long-suffering Babette (“tall and fairly ample. There is a heft and girth to her”) stoically trudges through her days, mothering the children, looking after Jack, trying to tame her figure by running up and down stadium steps every morning, and teaching old people how to keep their balance. (Which occasions one of my many many favourite one-liners in this novel: “We seem to believe we can ward off death by following the rules of good grooming.”)

Babette is being watched very closely by her daughter, Denise, who believes her mother is popping mood-altering pills. The girl nags Jack into investigating what Babette might be taking, which leads him first to attempts to get some of the drug for himself, and then to examine her relationship with her “pusher”— adding another whole dimension to this intriguing plot.

First and foremost, this book is about death and all the subtle ways it can sneak up on us: Jack and Babette are both obsessed with mortality in general, and specifically with which of them will die first. But the novel is also about the white noise of the title. The tv and radio are always on, always providing a backdrop to the routine of the Gladney family—from the drama of breaking news to the inanity of commercials. Those same media focus the family’s alarmed attention during the central event of the novel—which is the accumulation of a black cloud of deadly chemicals over Iron City following a train accident. In that pre-Internet era, the citizens of Iron City are evacuated to makeshift accommodations just outside of town with little real sense of what is happening to them, how serious the risk may be, or how far the the danger extends.

During the crisis, Jack is exposed briefly to the vapours from the poisonous cloud: the potential effects on his health seem to be largely unknown but are much theorized, and everyone in authority seems to agree that at some point in his life, Jack is going to die. His new mortality may differ very little in actual substance from his mortality before the toxic exposure, but his fears of death are mightily compounded–and that makes a big difference.

There are so many quotable quotes in this book that there was no point in copying them all down. I’m sure it is more pleasurable anyway to simply re-read the novel every couple of years and let those brilliant thoughts, observations, and witty lines rise up toward you and surprise you once again.

However, I did find one entire passage near the end of the book so delightful—and so typical of the wry knowledge and humour that distinguishes White Noise, that I reproduce it here in part. It is spoken by a nun who, Jack Gladney discovers, does not believe in God. In response to Jack’s amazement that members of religious orders may not be believers, she says,

Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.

It is no wonder White Noise was recently named one of the top works of fiction of the past 25 years in a poll by the New York Times. It is powerful, brilliant and courageous—not to mention funny as hell.

The Elephanta Suite – Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux
The Elephanta Suite
McClelland & Stewart (Emblem), 2007
Softcover, 274 pages

A Sermon Does Not Good Fiction Make

 

The Elephanta Suite is a collection of three novellas connected by a theme, a few recurring minor characters, and the hotel rooms of the title. All three stories concern the experiences of Americans encountering India for the first time. Their motives and situations vary, but they share a fundamental, and ultimately dangerous, lack of knowledge about the country they are visiting.

In the first novella Beth and Audie Blunden, a wealthy middle-aged couple, have come to India to stay at an Ayurvedic spa. Protected from the political and economic realities of India by the luxury of their accommodation and the efforts of their hosts, both are drawn by the mystique—the very notion of “being in India”—to commit infidelities. They soon discover the error of assuming that nobody matters but them, and that they are safe as long as they keep their indiscretions from one another.

The second novella concerns a Boston lawyer and businessman, Dwight Huntsinger, whose company develops outsourcing opportunities for American businesses. His first one-week trip to Mumbai is an utter horror. (“He had dreaded it, and it had exceeded even his fearful expectations—dirtier, smellier, more chaotic and unforgiving than anywhere he’d ever been.”) But on his next trip, he is lured into paying for sex with a young girl, and gradually he finds his own dark nature seeking its level, drawing him back and back again to relish the power he believes his money gives him over a small group of impoverished residents of the backstreets of Mumbai.

The third story tells the tale of a young woman, Alice, who has come to India from Providence with a university acquaintance. Their plan is to tour the country and then spend time on an ashram but Stella falls in love with a young filmmaker in Mumbai and decides to stay there. Determined that she has the strength to face anything alone, including India, Alice sets off by herself on an adventure that will find her putting her own talents and a hefty dose of misdirected feminism to use in ways that will ultimately bring her down. Like the characters in the previous two stories, she falls in love with India but fails utterly to understand it.

Over and over again in a dozen different ways throughout this book, Theroux reminds us that the longing of Indians for the perceived wealth and ease of the American way of life does not mean that they want to be Americans, or that they even like Americans. He points out the fallibility of westerners who come to India believing they are invisible and free and can therefore do whatever they want, and/or (to add to the confusion) that when they get into trouble, Indian society will deploy the same ethical and legal principles as the ones they might find at home. He demonstrates the ways in which Indians resist western ignorance: through subterfuge, lying, disappearing, ignoring, pretending—all behaviours that reveal their basic lack of interest in and respect for visitors to their country. Their concern is for themselves.

Theroux also wants us to know that only a very small part of India is reflected in the romantic, colourful, mysterious depictions of that country that we receive from other writers—including many of India’s own expatriates—to realize that up close it is for the most part a desperately poor nation where each day millions wage unsuccessful battles to find enough to eat. His message is effectively conveyed: as an avid reader of books about India who has longed for years to go there, I am now convinced to travel there with utmost caution, and to keep in mind that there are many, many boundaries that foreigners cross only at their peril.

Unfortunately, in The Elephanta Suite the message does nothing for the medium. All three novellas seem to have been set up to convey the author’s central lesson, and as a result their plots feel awkward and contrived. The second novella is the most successful–Dwight’s gradual recognition of his own emptiness and ignorance, and his ultimate awareness that the only way to redeem himself is to disappear, also redeem the ending. In the other two cases, the outcomes simply seem manipulated, unsatisfying—even a little old-fashioned.

Theroux is a gifted writer. As in his previous novels, his writing here is evocative and effective—rich in the endlessly fascinating details that seem to distinguish all books about India. He also successfully probes the minds of diverse American characters, although he makes no real effort to delve into the perspectives of the dozens of Indians he writes about; of these, indeed, only two can even be considered genuinely kind.

The Elephanta Suite serves as an easily digested (if unpleasant and disturbing) warning to those who would attempt to get a close-up view of India. However, Theroux’s apparent need to steer his characters in directions that will deliver this message undermines the quality of the fiction.

The Enchantress of Florence – Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie
The Enchantress of Florence
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2008
Hardcover, 356 pages

Mostly Bewitched, But Also A Bit Bewildered

 

I am an enthusiastic fan

I am an enthusiastic fan of Salman Rushdie’s writing. I have read most of his novels and many of his essays. In my estimation, he is one of the top five fiction writers in the English-speaking world, and the publication of his latest novel is an event I greet with credit card extended: there will be no waiting for the paperback for me.

Consequently, when I say that The Enchantress of Florence is not Rushdie’s greatest book, my assessment is based on a whole different measuring system than I would apply to almost any other writer. I have no doubt that this man’s grocery lists are of superior literary quality to much of the writing being published today, and my remarks are offered in that context.

The six pages of bibliography at the end of this novel, which is Rushdie’s tenth, indicate the amount of research that went into The Enchantress of Florence. The resources that have been consulted span subjects from the obscure to the panoramic—Italian witchcraft, the Medici, the Renaissance, the history of India, the Ottoman Empire, the reign of the Mughals and the life of Amerigo Vespucci being just a few examples.

This reference list may also suggest the source of the novel’s most significant flaw: there is just too much unanchored detail in this book. Those of us who are not steeped in the history in which Rushdie has immersed himself (which, at least in the Western world, must include most of us) frequently find ourselves politically and even geographically adrift. The construction of entire paragraphs out of details that are basically irrelevant to the plot do little to draw the reader in:

“[Akbar] also sprang by direct descent from the loins of the man whose name was Iron. In the language of his forefathers the word for iron was timur. Timur-e-Lang, the limping iron man. Timur, who destroyed Damascus and Baghdad, who left Delhi in ruins, haunted by fifty thousand ghosts. Akbar would have preferred not to have had Timur for a forebear. He had stopped speaking Timur’s language, Chaghatai, named after one of the sons of Genghis Khan…” (etc, etc)

I do not expect to be a passive participant when I am reading, and I often have atlases and other references at hand so that I can better understand the context of a novel, but in this case I would have been grateful for some help from the author: the weaving in of a few explanations regarding the physical extent of the Mughal empire (at its peak in the mid-1500s, which includes the time frame of this novel, it encompassed 1.5 million square miles of the Indian subcontinent), historical connections among the Turks, Persians and Mongols, the history of contact between European royalty and the Mughals, and a few other bits of background would have been a help. And where in the world was Sikri, the city that Akbar built, which is where most of the “present” time frame of the novel takes place? (I know the answer now. I recommend that you find it out before you start to read.) A map or two would have also been most welcome.

The need to wade through paragraphs

The need to wade through paragraphs of historical detail which offer all of the excitement of the “begats” in Genesis may be a chore that is reluctantly assumed, but it is also one that is forgiven each time we come across an example of Rushdie’s flair for the evocative, of which there are hundreds in this book. Take his description of emperor Akbar’s longing for genuine intimacy. Akbar is the central character of this novel—a man so powerful, Rushdie tells us, that despite the fact that his name means ‘great,’ it was considered no redundancy to call him “Akbar the Great.”

After a battle in which Akbar kills an opponent with whom he might under other circumstances have enjoyed a stimulating conversation, he reflects on the isolation his eminence has conferred upon him. He considers the joy he would feel were he able speak of himself in the first person singular rather than the formal “we,” or to be addressed informally by others. “Might that little word, that tu turn out to be the most arousing word in the language?” he wonders. “‘I,’ he practiced under his breath. Here ‘I’ am. ‘I’ love you. Come to ‘me’.”

In those few sentences, the reader gains an appreciation not only for Akbar’s almost mythic stature and the loneliness to which it has condemned him, but also the extent of his longing to be loved by someone who is his equal. Akbar has gathered around him the most brilliant and talented men as his advisors, and the most beautiful and interesting women as his wives, but he remains a man without intellectual or visionary equal. Even Jodha, the woman he loves most in the world, the “scholar of his need,” is unable to appreciate, much less satisfy, his longing for fundamental intimacy—which is ironic since the emperor has invented her.

Jodha embodies Akbar’s concept of perfection—“She was immortal, because she had been created from love.” She haunts the corridors of his palace, freed by her provenance from the confines of the women’s quarters but also utterly alone, ignored by the rest of the court when Akbar is away at war, envied and hated because of her pre-eminence in his affections when he is at home.

Into this situation

Into this situation comes a man from the west who calls himself the Mogor dell’Amore, the mughal of love, who claims to be the emperor’s uncle. To support his claim, he begins to relate the story of the Enchantress of Florence, aka Lady Black Eyes (aka Qara Köz, aka Angelica)—a woman with superhuman powers who was considered the most beautiful woman in the world, and was beloved by a succession of powerful rulers and worshipped by entire populations.

Qara Köz was a magician and a temptress and clearly her powers have extended beyond the grave for, as the story of Mogor progresses, everyone in Sikri falls under the spell of the Enchantress. Even Akbar’s love for Jodha is fatally compromised. Furthermore, in the Mogor, the emperor believes he may have found a man who, unlike his sons, will be able to provide him with a trustworthy and appropriate successor. (“His sons would grow up into glittering heroes with excellent moustaches and they would turn against him, he could already see it in their eyes. Among their kind…it was customary for children to plot against their crowned sires, to attempt to dethrone them, to imprison them in their own fortresses or on islands in lakes or to execute them with their own swords.”) This kind of thinking about the Mogor does not contribute to peace in Akbar’s kingdom, of course, and it ultimately leads to power struggles, wars and the devastation of Akbar’s wondrous city.

It is a hallmark of Rushdie’s narrative style that magic realism meets myth meets history in a way that allows the reader to catch glimpses of the possible through the gauze of the fantastic. In one scene, the kingdom’s pre-eminent vocalist is badly burned when he sings the song of fire—the Deepak raag—so beautifully that he causes the lamps to burst into flames. “In the ecstasy of the performance he hadn’t noticed his own body beginning to show scorch marks as it heated up under the fierce blaze of his genius.” The magical is always deliciously inseparable from the real, and both metaphorical and concrete interpretations come together seamlessly. In the case of Jodha, not only are we uncertain whether the other members of the emperor’s court actually see her or whether it is merely Akbar’s power which causes them the desperate need to do so, we also understand that it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.

This is a book about

This is a book about the nature of love, but it also reflects deeply on the importance of narrative. The redemptive, transformative and even life-saving power of storytelling is a subject that has intrigued Rushdie in the past, and he returns to the theme again and again throughout this book. When the Mogor is imprisoned in a dungeon, we are told that “he felt his story slipping away from him, becoming inconsequential, ceasing to be. He had no story. There was no story. He was not a man.” The sign of his return to life and health is the return of his voice. The ability to tell story is essential, Rushdie suggests, to being human and alive.

Not only does Rushdie explore the power of story, he also shows by example how powerful a strong narrative can be. Although the novel’s multiplicity of facts are (I am sure) historically correct, those same details also so successfully support the metaphorical and magical aspects of the narrative in such a way that they all come together with a satisfying chunk at the end—like the grooves and tongues in a solidly constructed cabin.

Rushdie’s strengths as a story-teller and a writer are everywhere in The Enchantress. He is open-minded, wise and visionary. He is hugely intelligent, of course: trite is not his currency. He deals in larger issues (“Maybe there was no true religion,” Akbar considers. And later, he says, “Only when we accept the truths of death can we begin to learn the truths of being alive.”)

In The Enchantress of Florence, as always, Rushdie is the consummate feminist. His female characters are strong, resilient, inventive—even inspiring to the female reader, which is always a nice bonus in a book by a male writer. Whether they live in 16th-century Florence or 21st-century New York, Rushdie’s women always take a firm hand in deciding their own fates.

As Sir Rushdie himself has stated recently to the press, he’s also funny: “When [Akbar’s aunt] Gulbadan started climbing the family tree like an agitated parrot there was no telling how many branches she would need to settle on briefly before she decided to rest.”

His writing appeals through its liberal perspectives, its powerfully strong characters, and the way he makes words dance. But perhaps what I like best about Rushdie’s writing is its energy. It is always clear that he is excited about his story, and that he exults in the challenge of getting it down for us to read. In his role as author, he is as enchanting as is Lady Black Eyes.

By the way

By the way, each chapter in The Enchantress of Florence takes as its title the chapter’s first few words. I like that idea. It draws the reader in.

In fact, I like a lot about this book. (More, now that I’ve reread sections in order to write this essay than I did before I started!) But if you are afraid of reading Rushdie, as many people are—perhaps concerned he will be too difficult—don’t start here. Read The Ground Beneath Her Feet, or Shalimar the Clown. They are better introductions to the innumerable pleasures of reading Rushdie.

The Enchantress of Florence is a book for those already held in Rushdie’s sway. These are the readers who are prepared to pick away the inessential threads until they find the tapestry. The tapestry itself is marvelous, and more than worth the effort.

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