at first it presents you with The World as It Should Be and Maybe Has Never Been but We Can Dream of It:
exhausted,...more this book is a brutal fairy tale.
at first it presents you with The World as It Should Be and Maybe Has Never Been but We Can Dream of It:
exhausted, traumatized, mutilated physically and spiritually by a brutal war, villagers come back to their destroyed village. the first are a couple of elders, who take on the essential job of burying the dead. soon more people return: families, ex-child soldiers, pregnant girls. The elders are the moral and civic center of the village and hold it together with storytelling. they understand the wounds of the returned and honor them with silence and kindness. secrets are never pried open, but storytelling turns them into parables (how many terrible secrets are there after all? the nature of a secret is not its unguessability but the holder's unwillingness to disclose it) and the community heals. gently, slowly.
the school re-opens. people find small jobs and rebuild their houses. there is a lot of poverty and hunger, but families support each other. they sit on their porches at night and laugh.
the school is run by a corrupt principal but what is new? this is sierra leone. corruption is the name of the game.
then, as always on the wake of war, international corporations come in. they don't know and don't respect the earth. they raze open the land to create streets the land is not ready to absorb. the land has its rhythms, its paths. these absurd, dusty, muddy, unwalkable streets plow right through the rhythms of the land. they violate the gentle communing between the villagers and their physical environment.
the corporation's riches are a scandal to the careful living of the poor villagers and their humble and generous sharing. SUVs travel up and down the new scarry roads and kids and teachers can no longer wear their regular clothes to school because they will be unwearable by the time they get there. instead, they pack their clothes in bags and wash and change once they get to school.
the mining corporation is manned by white men in dark sunglasses. these men are not human beings the villagers can relate to. we can't related to them either. they have no faces. they are machines who have checked their humanity at the front office. their cars run roughshod over people and their precious few belongings. if someone is hurt or dying, they don't stop. the complete disregard for the humanity of the villagers reminded me of holocaust narratives.
the villagers, though, have each other. storytelling is hard now, but there is still love, sharing, a community.
then the corporations steal villagers away from their humble but dignified jobs and lure them to work in jobs where, again, their value is only that of muscled machines. this lure is irresistible because families must be fed.
you know how this goes. you know it because you buy into it every day. you hear that garment workers are burned alive at their workplace in thailand. you stop buying gap or banana republic or macy’s for a week, a month. then you go back. the machine is amoral. the machine makes you amoral. this is not a story about africa. this is the story of a world of rich people with nice things and poor people whose existence is kept as hidden as possible from the rich people with nice things.
i read this story as being about me. about my phone and my computer and the metals needed to make them. these metals are under the homes and feet of villagers i come to love through books but are otherwise kept constantly out of my sight (out of sight out of mind).
and when i read this story i thought, what can i do? the answer is, as always, nothing. there is nothing i can do. i can't vote for politicians who won't invest in companies like this, or stop them, because the political system is owned by these companies. i can't stop buying computers and phones and other things whose prime components live under the feet of people whose land i have no business raiding, because the society in which i live has made them indispensable.
i am a man in a black SUV who wears dark sunglasses and sees the death of a child or a man or a woman by the side of the road, in a mine, or in a sweatshop just as a barely registerable accident. (less)
i am, doubtless, doing a grave injustice to this book, which will be probably rectified the moment i read reviews and secondary material on it. but i...morei am, doubtless, doing a grave injustice to this book, which will be probably rectified the moment i read reviews and secondary material on it. but i have a prejudice against alice walker. she seems to me, for an accumulation of reasons none of which sits discreetly in my mind, identifiable, a sloppy writer. say this book. the story is powerful and powerfully told. but then there's a whole lot of anthropology thrown in, and some etymology, and some sort of grand historical theory of patriarchy and the submission of women, and when you scratch the surface a tiny little bit you realize that it's made up. i didn't scratch the whole surface, so it's entirely possible that some of it -- the core of it? -- may not be made up. but when i scratched i found sloppiness or unabashed invention (some invention is openly acknowledged in the postscript) and, well, i am not sure i liked it.
i could be persuaded, but, right now, i don't see why alice walker needs to come up with an invented nomenclature (say) for stuff that truly exists. she doesn't offer any reason and i don't see a reason myself.
so this is what took the book south for me. the first part is beautiful, but then, well, i stopped being engaged, because i felt i was being taken for a ride, and i become unconvinced with everything. what is the relationship between adam and lisette all about? what is its narrative purpose? how do people (reviewers, etc.) know that tashi is treated by carl jung? are the clay figurines for real? do women really leave refugee camps because otherwise they'd be asked to work? what?
nice treatment of post-traumatic mental pain, and powerful, powerful indictment of genital mutilation. i thought i knew about it but i didn't know a thing. genital mutilation must stop. (less)
what i liked most in this book, what kept me electrified from the first sentence, is the language. i loved the language. wow. poetic passages with not...morewhat i liked most in this book, what kept me electrified from the first sentence, is the language. i loved the language. wow. poetic passages with not a shred of tiresomeness. originality of vision. beautiful.
in the last third, the story got in the way. truth be told, i was all about kweku. his tragedy, told almost indirectly, through his kids' stories, through the flashbacks he's having as he's dying, is powerful and delicate and so poignant. a brilliant man, an accomplished man, an african living in america: you know he doesn't stand a chance. you know the land of opportunity will chew him and spit him out.
the twins' story robs the limelight in a way that is not to advantage, in my opinion. maybe it belonged in another book?
but i read it breathlessly till the end, and if you like language half as much as i do, read this extraordinary book as well. (less)
i am not sure this book does or says something meaningful about the human condition*, but it sure is a hell of a read. it's divided in 4 related parts...morei am not sure this book does or says something meaningful about the human condition*, but it sure is a hell of a read. it's divided in 4 related parts, and while the set up in the first part is a bit slow (but the book is almost 500 pages!), the rest is really engaging and fascinating. post-apartheid south africa is a place where organized crime seems to have blossomed with great generosity, to the point that the international organized crime world sees it (south africa) as a nice safe haven. at least that's the sense i got. deon meyer, a white afrikaner, doesn't delve too much into social/racial issues, but he does show south africa from an afrikaner's point of view, which is something i had never gotten. it's amazing and crazy how insular race-based points of view can be. you think, south africa, totally mixed country, the cast is guaranteed to be mixed. and it is. but the point of view, and the main actors, are solidly afrikaner.
but then you think of america, of how racially diverse it is, and still white authors manage to write books without a single non-white character in them.
it's a crazy world, getting crazier every day.
anyway, let me re-iterate: really engaging, interesting, well-plotted, complex, and fascinating spy thriller. you won't guess anything. and that's part of the beauty. treat yourself.
*other than: people will rob you blind and, if they have to, will kill you, and all because of some very stupid thing like money or power or wanting to get ahead. and sometimes they'll be nice to you, but don't count on it because it hardly ever happens and when it does it's probably fake. which, all of the above, is the basic premise of any spy-thriller ever written. (less)
this book is good and engaging and fun and informative. it has the mainstay-ish worn-out alcoholic cop and the mainstay-ish young female victim, but u...morethis book is good and engaging and fun and informative. it has the mainstay-ish worn-out alcoholic cop and the mainstay-ish young female victim, but unlike in most american thrillers, the story is complicated by the interracial dynamics of post-apartheid south africa. also, the female victim (not the one they kill right at the beginning, the other one) totally kicks ass.
i didn't know many things about south africa and now i know some. they are pretty basic things, like that afrikaans is a language and those who speak it are called afrikaners (i thought the language was called afrikaan and the people afrikaans). it was pretty dumb of me not to know this but what can i say, i'm not proud. i also know that there are at least two black african ethnic groups: the xhosas and the zulus. yeah, i didn't know that either.
i think i want to see cape town. it sounds gorgeous from a natural point of view and interesting from an urban point of view. the downside is that it seems hot as hell. but the book is set in january so i can hope that the winters will be coolers.
mostly, though, i couldn't put the book down. it's 500 some pages but it went so fast. my days went smoothly because i knew i had this book to come back to. i'm going to read all of this guy's books. at the end, i'll know so much about south africa, i will know all about the various temperatures in the various seasons, languages, ethnic groups, history, the bar scene, traffic patterns, power cut patterns, slang. frankly, i can't wait. (less)
this in many ways remarkable novel begins as the story of the murder of tessa quayle at the hands, we quickly learn, of goons hired by big pharma with...morethis in many ways remarkable novel begins as the story of the murder of tessa quayle at the hands, we quickly learn, of goons hired by big pharma with the tacit cooperation of the english and probably a couple of other governments, but quickly turns into what the nineteenth century would have called the moral education of justin quayle, tessa's husband and an all-round lovely character.
justin is a handsome, eton-educated mid-level diplomat with a no-account job in the english foreign office in nairobi, where he lives with tessa, his much younger wife, a lawyer turned human right activist. a first brief-ish section describes the way in which news of tessa's murder is received at the english high commission. this gives le carré a chance to introduce us to the way in which justin and tessa are perceived by the english diplomatic community. tessa is immoral and reckless while justin's is a hapless, clueless, and spineless man and cuckold. soon, though, we find ourselves alone with justin and begin to learn how things really are. since what we learn about the criminal politics of big pharma in africa does not increase by much in the course of the novel, what the book really is about is, on the one hand, the truth of tessa's and justin's relationship, and, on the other, justin's personal evolution after tessa's death.
the former, the truth about tessa's and justin's relationship, is truly lovely -- i keep on using this word because it befits this novel, which is told from the point of view of the helplessly polite and kind justin. this relationship is as tender and free and respectful and, also, mysterious as all wonderful relationships are. the mystery that's at the center of it -- why is tessa getting herself killed fighting for justice while justin mildly tends to freesias and plants and absolves the inconsequential duties of his perfunctory diplomatic job? -- bothered me a bit, but i also liked it, because i am always intrigued, and humbled, by the realization that, not infrequently, interpersonal arrangements that look strange and even objectionable from the outside work quite wonderfully on this inside. still, i would have liked more from le carré about justin and tessa, because fiction has the advantage over life that it can spell things out and, if not tidy them up, at least make them more comprehensible, delve into their complexity, put words to what in life is very seldom expressed verbally. justin's relationship to tessa's activities and the people who variously help or hinder her is never explained to satisfaction; in particular, we are never told why tessa is quite happy to involve justin's recalcitrant colleagues in her plans but never justin himself, and why justin doesn't make more of an effort to overcome the sense of exclusion he clearly feels.
there are of course two dozen easy explanations that come to mind, but it would have been nice, i think, if le carré had pointed us in one direction, or at least acknowledged our discomfort at not having one. (there seems at some point to be a suggestion that tessa wanted to spare justin, but we are never told why; he is certainly not unequal to the task, and, in fact, tessa shares a lot of her work with him, and receives unstinting support from him. as for justin, i don't know... maybe inertia?)
justin picks up where tessa's left off. he retraces her investigations, discovers the same horrible facts, and does his level best to rectify the wrongs that had tessa up all night. in an afterward, le carré informs us that, compared to the evil perpetrated by pharmaceutical companies in the real world, the misdeeds described in this book are child's play. i have no trouble whatsoever believing him. there's plenty literature covering that big travesty and outrage that are drug trials in the first and the third world, one of which, mad in america, i recently read and wholeheartedly recommend. still, it's heartening to see a writer of the skill, intelligence and talent of le carré expose this shit compellingly and beautifully enough that it behooves hollywood to pay attention.
the last part of the book is what made me dock a star. the story has run its course, and, though there is a rather beautiful and important scene toward the end, we have learned all we need to learn about pharmaceutical malfeasance, the exploitation of the third world, and justin's transformation for mild-mannered gardener to fierce lone warrior for justice. the novel turns into pure action and that's a loss, because it is at its best, it seems to me, when it stays solidly inside justin's mind and heart. so i was left wanting to know more more more about what makes a man change, what tiny chemical reactions in his heart and brain and muscles give him the strength to turn intolerable grief into love for humankind -- if that is, indeed, what drives him. (less)
as best as i can judge, lawrence hill reproduces here the style and tone of the classic slave narratives, which he also credits at the end (in particu...moreas best as i can judge, lawrence hill reproduces here the style and tone of the classic slave narratives, which he also credits at the end (in particular, he directs to reader to The Classic Slave Narratives collected by henry louis gates in one volume that includes olaudah equiano's, mary prince's, frederick douglass', and harriets jacobs' autobiographies). i have taught a couple of slave narratives (douglass and jacobs) and i must say it was a labor of love, because, well, because they sound dated. their authors describe their lives in vivid and horrific terms, yet our contemporary sensibility, latched as it is to the psychology of the individual, relying as it does on introspection, inner conflicts, and psychic shadows, remains somewhat cool at these depictions. and then there's the fact that we are habituated to descriptions of horror. and the fact that we understand the pain of others only when these others are our friends. hundreds of people blown away on the screen don't move us unless: a) we have gotten to know and like at least one of them or b) there are cute animals involved. for some reason, the powers that manipulate the responses of our heart strings have not yet gone to work on immunizing us against the pain of animals.
but yeah, they have worked long and hard at immunizing us against the pain of the human "other," so narratives of slavery, the jewish holocaust, and various other genocides leave us a lot colder than they should.
hill cuts himself a pretty arduous task in writing a slave narrative using the classic conventions of the genre (if one can call it that) yet trying to make us feel what it is like. i think he succeeds.
maybe he should have abandoned the genre conventions, written a different kind of story, made the characters more tridimensional and complex and nuanced, instead of sticking to black-and-white (pun totally meant) representations, the way the original writers did. there are some efforts, especially towards the end, to penetrate motivations, ambiguities, and the power that political pressures have on personal motivations, but at heart this is a story of white people being horrible to black people.
if you have already read the classic slave narratives you'll appreciate this book better, because you'll see what hill is trying to do. if you are looking for a contemporary novel with all the hallmarks of the contemporary novel, this will let you down. well, except for the remarkable historical details, which, judging from the acknowledgments, have been researched with painstaking meticulousness.
okay, i've finished with my caveats. now to what i like about this book:
* aminata is a remarkably strong, vibrant, and sympathetic character. she's a leader and a role model and you will love her. the parts when she describes her present life give perspective to the parts where she recounts her story of slavery. put simply, sophisticated, multilingual, erudite, worldly, wily, skeptical, witty, and non-religious blacks are not part of the pop culture or even the high-culture canon of the western world (this is bound to change rather dramatically now that we are past january 20, 2009, a day that must have made lawrence hill deliriously happy).
* the subtleties of the politics of the slave trade and of all large historical events that subsume individuals and force them to collaborate are depicted mercilessly and in a savvy and clear-eyed way. this is also something that comes to fruition particularly towards the end.
* because he puts us inside the head of aminata better than douglass and jacobs (the only two ex-slaves whose narratives i've read) put us inside their own heads, hill makes us feel the pain of loss and dehumanization more strongly, to the point that, as someone else here on GR pointed out, we feel that this could happen to us. one of the reasons why white students tend to remain cool when they read douglass & co. is that it is abundantly clear to them that this is something that can only happen to "others." i almost feel that, having to choose one slave narrative for a class, this would be the one to choose.
* from the point of view of those interested in historical trauma, the african sections of the story are non-pareil. africa as it was when aminata was little is gone, never to return. it is the devastation, not only of one or many peoples, but of a whole continent, and it all takes place in the space of one generation.
* also from the point of view of trauma and survival, it is exceedingly moving that aminata's inner strength comes to her till the very end from the memory of her parents, even though she lost them when she was only 9.
* **MINOR SPOILER** the book analyzes very poignantly the dynamics of race and belonging. as an african-born, aminata is always considered different from her american-born fellow slaves, at least until she learns their language fluently. but it is not until she goes back to africa that her difference becomes a mark of her identity. in spite of her fluency with their language and, obviously, of her appearance, the villagers among whom she takes refuge are tempted to identify her as a white person instead of as an african: "In South Carolina, I had been an African. In Nova Scotia, I had become known and a Loyalist, or a Negro, or both. And now, finally back in Africa, I was seen as a Nova Scotian, and in some respects thought of myself that way too" (385).
rather than the psychological complexities of the contemporary novel, this book adds to the traditional slave narrative a transnational, multicultural, race-studies dimension. and i didn't mention that it is written beautifully and wisely and grippingly, and that i admire it very much.(less)
i was entirely captured by the first two sections of this book. unlike my good friend jeff, i found myself totally taken by pretty boys writing books...morei was entirely captured by the first two sections of this book. unlike my good friend jeff, i found myself totally taken by pretty boys writing books and talking music and philosophy in a villa on the italian riviera in the middle of the mediterranean summer. maybe it's because i know the mediterranean summer, though i have never spent it on the riviera or, for that matter, in a villa. there's some scott fitzgerald that takes place in a similar environs, and i dare same some hemingway. i thought i had had enough of decadent descriptions of life on the riviera in the summer, but nope, i hadn't and haven't.
this is all foil. the real story is the depiction of unbearable adolescent longing and lust, mixed with guilt, self-hatred, impossibility, and an overwhelming sense of doom. i found the subtle description of the tiny nuances of these complex feelings riveting, pitch-perfect, and heartbreaking (because, let's face it, none of us ever entirely outgrows his or her adolescence, the same as we never outgrow our childhood: rather, we pile all these former selves inside us, perching the adult precariously on top).
i lost interest, instead, when the novel moved into the third part. but this is probably me. after all that skin and sun, nighttime rome felt contrived to me. it is also more difficult to describe perfect happiness than perfect misery, and less interesting to read about it.
i would like to mention the fact that, to the best of my judgement, this egyptian author makes his protagonist italian (yes?), and that both lovers are jewish, one sephardic the other one presumably ashkenazi (aciman is himself a sephardic jew). quite a bit is made of the jewishness at the beginning; later, though, it gets dropped out of the novel. since the beginning is the part in which longing and loss are most prominent, this seems significant to me. elio's isolation (he doesn't have any friends, he spends all day alone with is music, his parents are worried about him, he is not much interested in girls) is a mixture of gayness, overcultivation (at some point oliver asks him, "do you know everything?" and, truly, he does!), and jewishness.
equally intriguing, in the same melancholy and doomed way, is the little girl vimimi (what kind of name is that???), who lives with her leukemia and her certain death like a top-notch stoic.
*** SPOILER ***
i'm angry at this book for the violence it consciously does to one's heart strings, and i'm particularly angry at the very last part, in which the description of failed lives made out of missed chances reaches a truly tragic pitch. but the first part, with all the sun and the lust, with the uncertainty and the despair and the intolerable longing, with the blind heartache that hits kids who haven't yet gotten used to life, that spoke to me.(less)
***finished this book, and this endless, sprawling review!***
i'm finding myself liking this a lot, yet also being a bit tired of it. i wish it were sh...more***finished this book, and this endless, sprawling review!***
i'm finding myself liking this a lot, yet also being a bit tired of it. i wish it were shorter. at the same time, i deeply enjoy the language and a part of me will be sad when this ends.
as people have pointed out here, soueif is consciously reprising the style of the massive 19th century novel centered around the plight of an unhappy heroine, and the references to Anna Karenina and Middlemarch abound. i have not read Anna Karenina, and i read Middlemarch some time ago, but my impression is that such novels pivoted on more stories and more narrative threads than Eye of the Sun. in fact, Eye of the Sun stays pointedly focused on its protagonist, Asya, who is almost the sole point of view. since the side-characters are multiple and potentially rich (the novel opens with a striking representation of asya's uncle, hamid, who however recedes to the background in the rest of the novel), you wonder whether she would not have done better to give them more room in which to expand.
but maybe the narrowness of the focus is the novel's point, and, if so, i most certainly do not feel in any position to say that soueif fails. this is a striking book in a number of respects, and i'm really looking forward to finishing it and being able to say more about the themes it covers.
let me now talk for a second about genre and audience. if amazon.com and goodreads are any indication, many people have read this book, which is encouraging. i wonder though about contemporary tolerance for the sprawling psychological/realist 19th century novel, with its pleasure in the act of storytelling, its desire to immerse us in the story, anticipating and meeting our delight in the scene, the texture of the moment, the substance of places, and, above all, the rich emotional and mental reverberations that are unleashed in the interaction between the characters, their stories, and their surroundings. maybe this is an outmoded way of telling stories, and not only because we have in the meantime picked up a variety of ways in which stories are told and transmitted. i wonder whether the outmodedness of the large realist/psychological novel, if there at all, is not due to a restlessness we have acquired with the act of deep, nuanced, and unrelenting psychological probing, its fixed focus on the characters' inner lives, its fascination with melancholy and pain.
i'm babbling. i'm probably entirely wrong. i'll come back to these thoughts. but i'm struck by simon's current impatience with fanny burney, and wondering whether we might not have outgrown the genre. which is not to say that all examples of it are outgrowable, and that there aren't superb and timeless models of this and any style. still, Middlemarch could not be written now, and neither could the Iliad.
-------------------------------- TAKE TWO *** spoilers ***
i'm almost at the end but i can't finish this book at this time. this is one painful book. soueif builds such a relentless, single-minded, deeply nuanced yet jaggernaut-like destructive path for young asya, i feel that i'm getting destroyed at the same pace as she is. even if she survives the book unscathed (and we know that, to some extent at least, she does), the psychic erosion she undergoes, the systematic emptying out of her self and her strength, the demolition of her life and vitality seem almost irremediable.
this book is most certainly about sexual politics (it is about sex), but i am not sure that, as edward said suggests in his write-up, it's specifically about the sexual politics of the arab world. asya, her family, her husband are deeply westernized people. in fact, the book takes great pains to represent them as sophisticated, erudite, and, to a large extent, liberated. they are the cairo elite, university professors enamored of english lit, and they consider themselves -- at least asya does -- pretty much bicultural. of course the arab influence is massive, and negotiating it while navigating the western world is one of these characters' most watchable enterprises. at the same time, though, it seems to me that what asya experiences, her sexual martyrdom, this terrible calvary, is something any western woman can relate to with great ease. at bottom, this is a novel of domestic abuse, seen from the p.o.v. of the woman. what's so remarkable about it (and it is a remarkable novel) is that the abuse is portrayed subtly and over such a large number of pages (soueif's narrative patience is astounding). asya is barely aware of it, and so are we. asya assumes much of the blame for it, and at first we are tempted to blame her, too. in other words, soueif does not even try to simplify the terrible situations men and women build for themselves and each other, often in perfectly good faith and equally perfect ignorance. asya's damnation is not the violence she endures, but her constant need to investigate, probe, understand. no one else in the book asks her or himself this many questions. asya is the book's relentless questioner.
i'm still a bit sorry that the book's secondary characters fall by the wayside, but asya's story is sure powerful, and has good and sturdy legs on which to carry this novelistic tour-de-force.
-------------------------------- and now that i've finished this, some words on what it's about. oh, it's about egypt and thriving/teeming/alive third-world cities. cairo surely plays a big role here, even though unfortunately much of the pleasures of the city are lost on me. but i love novels that celebrate cities: avenues, small streets, quarters, life-styles, old homes, poor homes, street vendors, shops, markets, monuments (the pyramids!), cemeteries, universities, botanic gardens, riverfronts, little niches where lovers kiss and passersby don't bother them. london is similarly celebrated, and england in general, which becomes delightful and alive in spite of its grayness and its mud the moment asif joins asya in it.
asif brings life with him. he also brings a peculiar death, the death -- for asya -- of foreclosed communication, the presumption that you know the other therefore do not need to listen to her, a misguided protectiveness, adoration, infantilization.
a lovely scene, towards the end, between asya and her mother; and a great celebration of women, mothers, non mothers, lovers, sisters, friends, beautiful and rash and smart and brilliant and oh so on top of everything, amazingly resilient.
and asya's resurrection (i didn't think it possible, but this is fiction and you can do anything you want), her return to her family, to egypt, which is however a transformed country, more westernized for sure but also changed by war, the constant strife with israel, the bullying on the part of the americans, the political imprisonments, the palestinian question, the rise of fundamentalism.... great book, not for the faint of heart. (less)