Varamo concerns a day in the life of a hapless government employee. After being paid by the ministry in counterfeit money, our unfortunate bureaucrat,Varamo concerns a day in the life of a hapless government employee. After being paid by the ministry in counterfeit money, our unfortunate bureaucrat, Varamo, wanders around all night, then sits down and writes the most celebrated masterwork of modern Central American poetry, "The Song of the Virgin Boy". What is odd is that Varamo, at fifty years old, "hadn't previously written one sole verse, nor had it ever occurred to him to write one."
Among other things, this novel is an ironic allegory about inspiration, the poet's vocation, the subtlety of artistic brilliance, and our need to give literature an historic, national, psychological, and aesthetic context. But Aira goes farther still by laying out the pathos of the man who between one night and the following morning is touched by genius. Once again Aira surprises us with his unclassifiable fiction. Original and enjoyable, Varamo invites the reader to become an accomplice in the author's irresistible tale.
It's an ordinary day for fifty-year-old public servant Varamo in the city of Colón, Panama, in 1923, until he goes to pick up his salary and is handed two one-hundred peso bills. The amount is normal, as is the denomination, but even before Varamo automatically takes hold of the notes, he knows that they are counterfeit.
Thus begins an agonising evening for this bachelor. He can't use the money, because it's fake, but he can't give it back either, now that he has it. At home, his mother - a Chinese immigrant who never fully assimilated - is screaming at the neighbours because of a poison pen letter. He tries to indulge in his new hobby, taxidermy, but after some time inhaling chemical fumes he has one very sorry looking fish who will never be able to play the piano, as he'd wanted to pose it doing, because he only now realises it doesn't have arms. Though perhaps eating it for dinner isn't the best idea, either.
Like clockwork, he walks to the cafe he frequents for his nightly drink and discussion, and on the way again hears the voices talking gibberish in his head and then witnesses a car accident involving a top government official. Getting caught up in the aftermath solves the mystery of the voices, but how does any of this lead to this uncreative, talentless bureaucrat penning, in a single night, the most celebrated work of Central American poetry ever written?
Varamo is an interesting, short work of experimental literature, historical fiction masquerading as biographical fact, a dense novella that is by no means a quick read. In it, Aira contends that he is writing about a real person who wrote a real poem, but it is in reality pure fiction. I've never read anything by Aira before but a cursory look at other reviews by people who have show that being conversant with his body of work would give greater insight into what he aimed for and achieved here. Not having that background, I could only read Varamo on its own merit, and take from it what I could without a broader context. Bear that in mind, that reading a book like this without a background in César Aira's work will give you, not a poor reading or a wrong one, but a narrower reading.
There is a lot packed into this slim volume, as Varamo expounds on many anxieties and the author launches into an interesting but unusual lecture on "free indirect style" and injects himself into the middle of the story. As intriguing as I found his discussion on this writing method (I hadn't heard the term before but I recognised the style), it does jolt you out of the story and the more Aira claims to be describing historical fact, the less believable it all became. It's an interesting paradox, that novels, fiction, is more believable and realistic as fiction than when you learn that it's based on a true story, or is a true story. Well maybe that's just me, and maybe that's why I by far prefer to read fiction than biographies.
From the very beginning of Varamo, we are told certain things: that Varamo will, that night, sit down and write Central America's greatest epic poem ever; and that he has never before written anything creative. This creates the story's tension and momentum, because naturally we want to find out how this plebeian could, all of a sudden, come to write something so amazing, or to write anything at all when he's never had the inclination previously. I personally was also curious about how his poem came to be so famous and well-studied in schools, but this was not part of the story, as it turned out. Neither do we ever get to read any of said poem, though it is described to us - and going by the description, it sounds absolutely dreadful.
This is a comic story, with moments of humour - like his taxidermy experiments and other moments of irony, not to mention that the whole premise has a hint of Monte-Python-esque ridiculousness to it - and moments of real, human dilemma, as with Varamo's predicament with the counterfeit notes. It is also a very intelligent book, but as is often the case, it tended to be a bit too clever for its own boots. Aira often lost sight of making a convincing plot in favour of tangents into theoretical propositions that sounded clever but didn't add all that much - not if you're reading Varamo for the story, as I was. I'm not much of a fan of having things spelled out for me, of mixing critical theory directly into a story - much more interesting to deduce theory from a story and how it's written. Not that Aira's theories and insights weren't interesting, just that they are, you'd think, better suited to an essay, or an afterword - paired with the story, but not interrupting it.
One more observation, to conclude: it has been said, though I'm not sure how true it is, that the ultimate achievement in literature is to make the content resonate somehow in the form. I think it would be hard to find convincing examples, and much harder still to arrive at any kind of objective certainty. But in this case it is heartening (though perhaps spuriously so) for the critic to note that the subject of Varamo's anxiety in the hours leading up to the writing of the poem was money, and that the method adopted here to communicate his state of mind is free indirect style...since there is a fundamental congruity, which no one can deny, between that style and money. Just as free indirect style is the reason behind (and explanation for) ever discursive move in this text, so money is what ultimately moves the world, in the depths of they psyche as well as on the surface. Free indirect style and money, are, in their respective domains, causes that operate at a level apart, above or below the other causes. A feature of free indirect style that limits its effectiveness, although writers do not always take this into account, is that it leads to abstraction. As for money, one need not be a philosopher to see that what it does to society is to infect it with abstraction, which is hardly surprising, because money is abstraction, and that is precisely why it is useful. In fact, if this were a novel, its principal shortcoming would be the cold intellectual abstraction pervading its pages, which is produced by the use of free indirect style to create a point of view at once internal and external to the protagonist, who as a result becomes a discursive entity, drained of life. The only possible, though very tenuous, justification lies in the fact that the counterfeit bills, precisely because they are counterfeit, bring an element of irreducible materiality to a space of abstractions and equivalences. On the other hand, it would be quite reasonable to criticize the hypothetical novel for resorting to the device of forgery, which has been overused in contemporary narrative, and, as a metaphor, is now rather obvious. [pp.46-7]
I did enjoy the way Aira pokes ironic fun at his own novel, but his open self-reflection doesn't dissolve or cancel out the criticism itself, one that he himself shone a spotlight on. I do have to agree, though, that I love a book that's written in such a way that complements and resonates with the content - I have read a few such books, though I've often been disappointed to learn that the author always writes like that (for example, Cormac McCarthy's The Road), which rather diminishes the effect.
What's especially amusing to me, is that I probably wouldn't have enjoyed this, or been stimulated mentally by it, had Aira not interrupted his own story to theorise and conjecture about the mechanics of his story. The story of Varamo itself was - and remember that this is a novella - very slow and long-winded. It takes pages of self-reflection, exposition and description just for Varamo to walk across a city square. There is some delight to be had in all the detail, and irony and comic effect appear frequently, but there are also many tangents, some of them sadly dull, and I found the ending - or rather, what prompted Varamo to turn his hand to writing - to be a bit anti-climactic and weak. It felt a bit contrived and rushed, as if, after all this writing, Aira suddenly remembered the plot and that he had to quickly find a reason for Varamo writing a poem. It was all a bit clumsy.
I do have another novel by Aira - another novella-style book, though these are too dense and intricate to feel like novellas - called The Seamstress and the Wind, which I still plan on reading. It will be interesting to read it, having read Varamo and knowing more what to expect with Aira's writing style and self-analysis. I didn't dislike this book, on the contrary it's rather entertaining, often funny and provides much food for thought and discussion. But as a whole it was too choppy and contrived for me to like it more than I did. It was too many things all at once, within the same 89 pages, to be satisfying or conclusive as a novel. Or history, as Aira pretends it to be....more
Several years ago I read Looking for Alaska and was more annoyed than impressed. Didn't stop me from reading this one, though. While it was much lesSeveral years ago I read Looking for Alaska and was more annoyed than impressed. Didn't stop me from reading this one, though. While it was much less annoying and depicted believable characters in heartbreaking situations - I can't imagine what it would be like to know that you've got such limited time left (it's the knowing that is especially awful, aside from the diminished able-body-ness that the narrator, Hazel, must accept on a daily basis) - it still didn't wow me the way it has many other readers. I was mostly afraid it would be self-indulgent, sentimental and emotionally manipulative. It isn't, not much anyway. Hazel's first-person narration is part of the success of the novel, and it can't have been easy to get inside the head of a young girl slowly dying of cancer. Green manages to bring her to life and let her breathe (ooh ouch the irony) on her own.
It's a story about living life to the fullest and what that actually means for quiet, ordinary people like Hazel. It was easy to forget that she was dying, or ill, even. She's a brave soul and that just makes it harder: you so want her to live. It's not just her story, though: it's also Augustus', and his is even more tragic. Predictable, but no less tragic for it.
To be honest, I just don't have much to say about this book. It's got humour and intelligence, but oddly enough (considering how readily this happens), it didn't make me cry. There's just something missing in Green's writing that would enable me to connect better with his characters. It's like ... it's a little too ... polished, a little too ... neat and tidy. Hard to put my finger on it. It's been a couple of months or so since I read it and it isn't sticking in my mind like good books usually do. It's not that I didn't enjoy it, or didn't care about the characters - I certainly did. It's just that, as a novel, it didn't work magic for me, and that's that special quality that readers are always looking for, aren't we?...more
Jeong Ji-won's boyfriend of seven years, Seok-ju Han, has left her for the ex-supermodel, Se-yeon Lee, who had attended Jeong's cooking classes. EveryJeong Ji-won's boyfriend of seven years, Seok-ju Han, has left her for the ex-supermodel, Se-yeon Lee, who had attended Jeong's cooking classes. Everything is in tatters, and Jeong sinks into depression with only Seok-ju's dog, Paulie, and her crushed love for company - both neglected and equally depressed. Jeong can't relinquish her love of Seok-ju, can't even hate him for sleeping with Se-yeon when they were still together - something she witnessed once. Seok-ju, an architect, had encouraged Jeong to leave Restaurant Nove, where she'd worked since she was twenty, and start her own cooking school from home. They had even designed the perfect kitchen together, and had plans for the perfect house. With Paulie, they had a life Jeong loved, and then suddenly, it was gone.
Waking from her fug, Jeong returns to Nove to beg Chef for a job, and gradually falls back into the rhythms of working at the popular Italian restaurant, travelling to Singapore for a week-long industry conference, all while nursing her love for Seok-ju and her pain at losing him. Paulie fares worse: neglected and depressed, he starts urinating all over Jeong's apartment, until Jeong insists Seok-ju take him home, despite Se-yeon's dislike of dogs. But when Paulie dies - a horrible, unnecessary and, Jeong suspects, non-accidental death - something in her dies a bit too. And when she sees an article in her friend's magazine about the top-rate cooking school Se-yeon and Seok-ju plan to open together, in the kitchen she had designed with him, something in her snaps, and she plans a revenge befitting of a great chef.
This Korean novel has a distinctly western feel to it; I often had to remind myself where it was set (Seoul), because aside from the characters' names (which aren't overly used), you can easily forget. Jeong works in an Italian restaurant, and aside from one reference to Korean pickles, there's nothing specifically Korean about this novel - not the plot, nor how the characters behave, not what they eat or how they go about their day. The details are so culturally non-specific, I have to wonder if it was a deliberate move on the author's part to make it more universal, or to show just how universal a story a spurned lover nursing her pain really is.
There was, however, a faint hint of that Asian horror-fest that the Japanese and Koreans are so phenomenally good at. It's hard to describe, but I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something quite horrific to happen. When Paulie dies, I wondered if that were it, but actually there's worse to come. This atmosphere - a subtle underlying tension and faint ominous presence - is brought about by having a very narrow focal point in terms of plot and characters, of having a story with very little plot at all in fact, and letting it all build up like something under pressure, till you know something has to change, or snap, because it just can't go on like this. But I also wonder, writing this now, how much of that tension I brought to the novel, how much of it was a cultural expectation on my part. Because if they're not writing beautifully poignant stories, they're writing horrifying psychological thrillers?
It was a bit hard to be sympathetic of Jeong. I read this not long after reading The Hypnotist's Love Story which is about a woman who stalks her ex-boyfriend and becomes completely obsessed with him. In that novel, the stalker is someone we come to understand and even sympathise with: she has good reasons for feeling so totally out of whack. In Tongue, though, it's pretty near impossible to understand why Jeong loves Seok-ju, what she sees in him, or why on earth she'd want him back. The guy was a dick. And post-breakup, he treats her with barely concealed dislike and even contempt. She never gives us any reason for her blind love or why she persists in thinking that he'll come back to her. It makes it hard to care, and makes it easy to get impatient with her.
What makes this particular story of heartbreak unique and different - and, ultimately, interesting - is the important role food, cooking and the culinary arts play. Jeong fills her narrative with anecdotes and fables around the origins of certain food, analogies linking humans to food or some related cooking process, snippets of history or little insights and asides into what we eat and why, and being a professional chef at a busy restaurant. While a few of the things she says rang false for me, thus undermining everything else she says (just how much of a reliable narrator is she, really? Because she's a bit nuts, too), it was all very interesting and gave the story an extra layer of depth and breadth that it wouldn't otherwise have had.
The question of why I became a cook is almost unanswerable. It's the same as asking, Why did you fall in love with that man instead of all these other men? Of course you can't give a clear reason. This is unexplainable even to the person you've fallen in love with. I can give an example. Let's say you're the sun. The sun takes the purest and lightest particles of seawater and lifts them into the air. Salt is left behind because of its weight and heft, a product of these solar movements. If this is to be an adequate example, I have to talk about the sun's passion and motive in making salt. Creating salt is sort of the ultimate fate for the sun. The importance of salt naturally elevates the sun's value in the world of gourmandism. Every human act is only a dream at first. That dream comes to you sometimes like fate, other times like coincidence, and it can be achieved in unbelievable ways. [p.45]
The obsession over food is tenacious. The eighteenth-century writer Nicholas-Thomas Barthe, who wrote Les Fausses Infidélités, had the habit of eating everything on the table. Barthe did not have good eyesight and was fearful that he wouldn't be able to see all the food and might miss some of it. He would hound his servants, asking, Have I eaten this? Have I eaten that? He died from indigestion. King Darius, who liked beef, put up curtains to hide from the others as he ate an entire cow. Balzac, a coffee addict, drank forty to fifty cups a day and died of gastritis. The philosopher Democritus, upon realizing that his life was coming to an end, deprived himself each day of one food until there was only a jar of honey left. He stuck his nose in the jar and smelled the honey, and as soon as the jar was taken away, he died, at the age of 109. [p.168]
All these snippets and insights, anecdotes and asides, are what keeps you reading, because as I said, there isn't really much of a plot here. There is some movement, there are a few decisions made that propel the story forward, but they are not the star attraction. Making food and eating such a focal point of the story isn't irrelevant or filler or a distraction from an otherwise empty story: it's pivotal. It's who Jeong is, but more than that, it makes her and her culinary revenge - or as the blurb aptly puts it, "culinary seduction" - make complete sense. It also makes you wonder just how unhinged Jeong really is, or how unhinged her ex-boyfriend made her, if you can actually blame someone for how we react to heartbreak.
Yet it was all a bit much, in the end. With the over-abundance of food stories in one hand, and the lack of any real sense of Korean culture on the other, the story as a whole rather lacked identity and waffled too much. Jeong was not a terribly sympathetic character, and then her final act at the end was a clear indication that she'd lost the plot - all over a guy who just wasn't worth it. I felt that Kyung Ran Jo was maybe trying a bit too hard. It's a fairly ambitious novel, especially as I believe this was her first published novel, and I'm not sure that it was entirely successful in its aims. While it did engage with my emotions - that was never the problem - it too often felt like hitting a dead end, or wasn't able to give my feelings any room to breathe and develop: much like Jeong herself, who remains quite stunted, emotionally, and doesn't progress (and when she talks about food, as above, she doesn't really sound like the same person who's narrating her own personal story). There were times when I enjoyed it, but overall I was more disappointed with it than entertained. ...more
The nameless narrator of I Have the Right to Destroy Myself has an unusual job. He seeks out people - or lets them come to him - who need help, who arThe nameless narrator of I Have the Right to Destroy Myself has an unusual job. He seeks out people - or lets them come to him - who need help, who are in a rough spot, who contain within them the germ of death but who need just a bit of help getting there. His clients kill themselves, and his kind of therapy helps them do it. He's no murderer - in that he has never killed anyone himself, he's never passed over the bottle of pills or slit any wrists - but he's there, with them, in their final hour. Someone to say goodbye to perhaps. At the end of each "job", he takes a trip, sees another European country - he must make a lot of money from this "career".
He styles himself as a kind of god, or a god in the making. He seeks to give these poor souls a voice, and writes a novel recording their stories - and their deaths. And so we learn of Se-yeon, also known as Judith because of her resemblance to the Judith in Klimt's painting - at least, that is how C sees her when he walks into his apartment after his mother's funeral to find his younger brother, K, having sex with her on his lounge room floor. Se-yeon/Judith is a runaway, an abused teen being constantly taken advantage of. She possibly has an addiction to sex, which also bore her, and seems to be a compulsive liar. She almost always has a lollipop in her mouth - making sex with her dangerous unless you didn't mind losing an eye, or so C thinks. Both brothers are sleeping with her, but neither of them seems to really care about her - but both are lost when she dies.
C is an artist who works with video, and for an upcoming exhibition at a local gallery he meets a performance artist, Mimi, who's never been filmed or photographed and who uses her naked body to paint canvases. She agrees to let C film her and create a piece of video art to complement her own live performance, but seeing herself on film robs her of her soul and she too seeks death.
The narrator, meanwhile, takes a trip to Prague where he meets a young, cynical woman at a museum, looking at Klimt's painting of Judith, and starts one of his short holiday affairs with her. She only drinks Coke, lots and lots of Coke, and sees water as poison. Finally she tells him the story of why she can't drink water, a shocking and possibly true story that deeply unsettles him. But he writes his novel, prints it out and submits it to a publisher only with a kind of memorial sentiment.
When I finish a job, I travel. When I come back I write about the client and our time together. Through this act of creation, I strive to become more like a god. There are only two ways to be a god: through creation or murder.
Not all executed contracts become stories. Only clients who are worth the effort are reborn through my words. This part of my work is painful. But this arduous process bears witness to my sympathy and love for my clients. [p.10]
This was Kim's first novel, published back in 1996, and was received very well apparently. For myself, it was just plain disappointing. I loved the beginning, it started with such promise and a deep and eery atmosphere - that sensation of possibility, of speculation, of wondering and feeling like you're on the edge of something dark, Murakami-style. I would have loved a bit of magical realism or something, to give it that kind of edge. Instead it turned out very pedestrian and rather dull.
The narrator was the only mildly interesting character, though the woman he sleeps with in Europe was rather curious too, in a manic, obsessive kind of way (she was a bit scary to be honest). You never really understand these people or even what exactly is going on. It's not that the story isn't told with the right details in the right places or that the non-linear structure is confusing - it isn't - but it just, ironically perhaps, lacked soul to me. It was superficial, aiming at the kind of writing that says a lot with few words, but failing to make any real connection or insightful commentary. I couldn't have cared less about these people, though I did feel sad for them, in a detached kind of way. The superfluous details in a "tell" style - and the narrator's habit of linking everything to famous old (European) paintings - seemed to be trying to get across a kind of meaningful, philosophical or at least a poetic kind of understanding, like reaching to deeper meaning through mundanity, but never offered any deeper meaning to me. The only thing to come over strongly was how depressing it all was.
C thought back to that snowy day. Judith, who had disappeared five months ago, riding away on the snowplow, seemed more and more real. He felt her absence infiltrating his life, though he hadn't thought about her in months. He burrowed into the sofa and tried to remember Judith. But he couldn't remember anything specific, not even her face. Instead, images of the North Pole, Chupa Chups, a snowball and dull sex circled in his head. [p.80]
At the front of the book are numerous quotes from journals and magazines from around the world, praising the novel and the author for "his amazing imagination", "uncommon creativity" and "grotesque images", his "joyful cynicism", for being "manipulative and twisted" and "cool, urban and very clever". One in particular struck me: "Fast-paced, comic, slick, and heavily under the American influence." Going back and reading these after finishing the book, I had one of those moments of feeling completely confused. We really do all read in different ways, and it's great that this book connected so vividly and richly with other readers/reviewers, but sadly it did not happen with me. It lacked in so many ways, failing to resonate with me or even impress me - I don't know how much the translation affects this, but I didn't even think the writing was particularly good (even when I dislike a book, I can still be impressed by the writing; not in this case).
All sorts of things could have made this book work better for me, including a stronger sense of atmosphere or even a Korean experience - this book could have been set almost anywhere, for the city was as faceless and nameless as the characters. I often wonder, with books like this, whether that's the author's intention, but even if it is it doesn't make this an interesting or particularly insightful read. The social commentary taking place didn't interest me, not because I'm not interested in what makes me people take their own lives, but because Kim made it really rather boring and uninspiring (of intellectual thought and even emotion). It's a subject matter that, when handled well, can be powerful and disturbingly beautiful, but in this case is rendered almost ordinary - not in a commonplace way, but in a (shrug) "so they're dead, who cares?" kind of way. And that glimpse of something dark and edgy in the beginning - that vanished, and the narrator too became just an ordinary, if slightly creepy, onlooker. In the end, it just wasn't creepy enough, atmospheric enough, insightful enough, to offer anything new. Such a disappointment. ...more
Dimmy is twelve and lives with his father, three uncles and his grandmother in her crappy old house in the fictional town of Aresendegem, Belgium. SinDimmy is twelve and lives with his father, three uncles and his grandmother in her crappy old house in the fictional town of Aresendegem, Belgium. Since the four brothers are serious beer drinkers who live to drink - and watch Roy Orbison on the telly - the house is filthy and Dimmy has grown up sleeping in the fug of his father's drunken breath, ever since his mother left and they moved here. His uncles - Heavy, Herman and Girder - are all pretty interesting blokes, and Dimmy loves them all. But at some point, he grows up to realise that a life of drinking, fighting, smoking, sleeping and then starting it all again the next day isn't for him.
It wasn't until I was about halfway through this relatively short novel that I realised the main character and narrator had the same name as the author - I know, how could I have missed that?! Once I did notice it, the novel shifted its footing from fiction to memoir, and I've no idea how much of this really is based on the author's life - I got the feeling quite a lot of it is (promotional material for the book described it as "semi-autobiographical"). I also started to wonder, especially by the end, whether this book slotted in amongst the author's other novels, something that needed to be read in conjunction with all his novels, in order to get the full picture: the fact that, towards the end, he skips over a great deal and leaves out a lot, left me sadly disappointed and dissatisfied at the end (though I would also say that he knew when to stop, and that's something I sometimes wish more writers would learn).
The Misfortunates is highly entertaining, quite funny, rather sad but always honest and surprisingly upbeat. This isn't one of those "oh woe is me" memoirs or novels of childhood abuse and addiction. The Verhulsts are quite proud of their drinking, and they're living the life they want to live. As Dimitri describes the homes he's lived in with his father, and his father's convictions - such as they are - you get a clear sense for this family and what Dimitri's life was like:
It's like this: I spent my first years with my parents in Kanton Stret on a tiny courtyard with a communal water pump and a communistic toilet - a hole in a plank, directly above the septic tank. Water ran down the inside of the living-room walls and we stuffed balls of newspaper into the worm-eaten window frames to keep out the wind. My father always spoke of the inconveniences of our residence with pride - longing for an easy life was a clear sign of inadequate masculinity - and when we finally moved to Mere Street [his grandmother's house] it was only to be even worse off. Our new toilet was a hole in a plank as well, but this house had the advantage of a leaking roof. [...] And we cherished the rotten, mushroom-sprouting death trap of a staircase over the cellar as a prime example of proletarian architecture. My father was a socialist and went to great lengths to be recognized as such. For him, possessions were nothing more or less than extra dusting. You didn't own them, they owned you. If a burst of unexpected thrift put us in danger of reaching the end of the month with a financial surplus, he hurriedly plundered the bank account and drank his entire pay packet to protect us from the temptations of capitalism. Unfortunately my mother revealed herself more and more as a bourgeois cow: she was too vain for worn-out shoes and filed for divorce after just ten years of marriage. When she left, she took everything that wasn't nailed down, thus granting my father ultimate bliss. [pp.2-3]
Translated by David Colmer, an Australian, the story reads extremely well and has wonderful flow. There's a great deal of humour, though it's often of the sardonic, ironic or "black comedy" style, the kind of humour that makes the realities of the story both easier to read about and that much more tragic and heavy-of-heart. I initially wanted to read this because I was looking for a book set in Belgium, but I don't know if it's because of the translation or because this is indeed reflective of life there in the late 20th century and it just happens to be all-too familiar, but it was easy to imagine I was reading a book set in Ireland, say, or Manchester or many other places where men go to the pub in the evening and poverty's a bitch you can't escape (or a lifestyle that becomes ingrained).
Dimitri recounts certain chapters, or vignettes, in his life, moving back and forth in time sometimes, but deftly creating a clear picture. The chapters each focus on a memorable time in Dimitri's life, like when his cousin Sylvia and her mother came to stay to escape her abusive father, or the summer he and his friends hung out on the pond rumoured to be where a crazy old lady drowned all her babies. The time his uncle Girder, only sixteen himself, he devised a Tour de France of drinking is quite the story: five miles equaled one beer, and there were certain drinks that had to be consumed on particular legs, and different jerseys to win. Girder ends up in the hospital for that one, and we never do learn who won the race. In fact, many of them end up in hospital after drinking too much - his uncle Herman for the contest to win a Guinness World Record, and his own father ends up voluntarily entering a psychiatric clinic in order to stop himself from drinking. It's rather vague whether that worked or not, in the end, but it's clear what led to his decision.
We knew that thoughts come at night, in bed, and we suspected that my father had lain awake in mortal fear, feeling the pain in his body, in his liver, his stomach, his chest. And that he, alone with his thoughts, lost his brave acceptance of physical deterioration. We couldn't exclude the possibility that he had licked his sopping hands, discovering to his horror that he had started to sweat alcohol, that his body was defeated and no longer knew how to get rid of all that fluid, that it had started to leak it out of all possible pores and holes. My father now tasted like beer and his armpits smelled like it too. Maybe he had already noticed the whites of his eyes growing yellow, his steady loss of weight. A drinker's coffin is seldom a heavy burden, undertakers are always glad to carry them, and our family would have saved a lot of money if we'd been able to pay for our funerals by the pound. Did he think that night about the worms that were besotted by the deliciously fermenting bodies of dead soaks and made the soil of our graveyard so rich that the gravediggers spent their working hours growing carrots and spinach between the collapsed and forgotten tombstones of a previous generation of chain drinkers? [p.100]
I was very absorbed in this story, which is why I was so troubled in the last two or three chapters when it started to skip around in Dimitri's adult life, completely skipping over what I would have thought were pivotal moments in his life, just abruptly dumping us in a new scene without any kind of transition, or not following-up on a previous story to tell us the outcome. True, the focus on the story turned out to be the four Verhulst men and their drinking, their lifestyle and Dimitri's memories of them, but the connection between them and Dimmy's decision not to follow in their footsteps (not that he abstains or anything), is not present in this story. It disrupted the flow and made it feel like I was missing a section or two.
This is indeed a story of the misfortunates, those who "have a more realistic view of the world" [p.129], and Dimitri's love for his uncles and father. It's also a story of Dimitri's childhood, sharing certain chapters from his life that paint a clear and interesting portrait of his life growing up in this small, run-down town, in a decrepit house with a fiercely loyal family. There's nothing self-indulgent about this story, nothing melodramatic - it's tone is one of wry humour, deep affection and pride, as well as a shake of the head at the waste and foolishness. It is a refreshing read after the more bleak stories Australian and Canadian writers produce, or the more self-indulgent and "uplifting" stories from America. It left me with questions, true, but that doesn't take away from its attributes. A wonderful story, wonderfully told.
They also made this book into a movie; you can see the trailer for it here....more
It's 2003, and Sandra is at a crossroads in her life. Having supported her husband, Graham, in his rock band her marriage fell apart when he started cIt's 2003, and Sandra is at a crossroads in her life. Having supported her husband, Graham, in his rock band her marriage fell apart when he started cheating on her with the new bass player, Peg. Then she's in a car accident on the highway and has to spend several days in hospital with a concussion. The woman in the bed next to hers, who's had to have surgery that will mean she can never have children, tells her about her plan to join an aid group and go to Sudan. Seeing the article in the magazine about Sudanese women from the south who were taken to be slaves in Arab homes in the north, Sandra becomes somewhat obsessed with finding the woman in the photograph; as soon as she's released from hospital, she starts searching for an aid organisation that will take her on as a volunteer.
In 1995, Adut was one such woman. Married only four years and with a young son called Khajami, her village is attacked and many are killed. The women are rounded up, tied one to the other, and force marched for a long time without food and water. Khajami, running free, tries to keep up despite Adut's efforts to make him go back, and soon he falls behind and she never sees him again. Sold to a wealthy Arab called Saleh, Adut finds a friend in another of Saleh's slaves, a Dinka boy from a village not far from Adut's called Nyikoc. He was captured by Saleh on a raid when just a small boy and was told that his village is gone, his family all killed, so he stays with Saleh willingly, believing he has nowhere else to go.
Adut spends eight years as a slave in the compound, washing dishes and clothes all day long, and has two children by Saleh, who rapes her in the small concrete washing room at night (he has many wives and children already). She tries to escape once, and nearly manages it. And then, one night, an unexpected gift arrives and her slavery is over.
Told from the very different perspectives of Adut and Sandra, Adut speaking from the present (April 2003) as she retells her story, Sandra telling her own story from her makeshift cell in Saleh's stable where her only company is a snake and the few visits from Nyikoc who comes to bring her food, where she is slowly dying from dysentry. Sandra, a fairly ordinary white Canadian woman from Toronto, represents the ignorant white person, completely out of their depth, caught up in politics and war in Africa where the colour of her skin can't protect her. Adut is a young Dinka woman who, now a widow with two small children with lighter skin, Adhar and Rith, is struggling against tradition that would see her married to her husband Tobias's brother, Ringo. It takes great courage for her to approach the white aid workers, two women who give out food in the town nearby, who have plans to resurrect Adut's original village as a safe place for women to learn skills and trades.
This is one of several books set in Sudan that I've been reading this month, February 2013, as part of the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge (I've clearly abandoned the idea of a mere "twelve" books ;) ), and I'm getting a pretty good idea of what it's like in Sudan now - considering my starting point was almost complete ignorance. Between the long-running civil war between north and south that ended with the creation of South Sudan in 2011, and the genocide in Darfur to the west between the Arab-controlled government and the traditional tribespeople of the region, it is a violent, bloody, terrible place - yet the events of recent decades can't fully smother the beauty of the place either, the pride and honour of the people, the almost gentle, harmonious lifestyle that they had known for millennia - this being a land where nothing had really changed until the 20th century, and where the people are about three centuries behind in terms of industrialisation and development. What is particularly special and important about this novel is that, rather than yet another book about a Lost Boy, in While the Sun is Above Us we get a distinctly female story. Considering that many of the accounts have been given by former Lost Boys who were given refugee status in places like America, the female perspective has largely been missing from the narrative. Adut fills that empty place admirably.
Adut quickly became a favourite heroine for me. She is a stronger character than Sandra, we spend more time with her, though that's partly because Sandra is a familiar character, being a white woman from Toronto, and the focus of the story is her time in Sudan. Schnell easily captures Sandra, the kind of woman she is, painting in the necessary details with deft brush strokes to fill out her background, history and personality so that her trip makes sense. I could well believe it. What Sandra does is almost a cliche in white western countries, though what makes Sandra refreshing is that she doesn't want to go to Sudan to "do good" in a broad sense, but in an almost selfish, narrow sense of wanting, needing, to be a hero, a saviour, to someone. And her ignorance and lack of respect for the country she finds herself in indirectly leads her to her predicament. She is the bumbling colonial, and yet Schnell still makes her sympathetic and holds back from making Sandra a stereotype, a buffoon, or a complete fool.
Juxtaposing Sandra and Adut's journeys, their trials and tribulations, adds another layer to the perspective that you wouldn't get without Sandra's part in the story. And putting Sandra in Adut's place, in a way, makes the contrast even stronger, starker, as well as adding a level of danger that Schnell's white western readers can better connect with. Sandra provides a kind of conduit for us to really be present in Sudan and Adut's story, and it's a device that works well.
But it is Adut who carries the story, who draws the reader in again and again. There is nothing western about her: she reads authentically as a tribal Dinka village woman, married as soon as she gets her first period to an older man, Tobias, who already has several wives - but Adut is his favourite. Her story begins in a rather scattered way, flitting back and forth through time and memory and story, and her words carry a deeply poignant beauty, a connection with the earth and the movement of the seasons that Sandra can never have. Adut and Sandra both speak as if they are speaking to each other, a stranger they saw but never actually met. Adut calls Sandra khawaja; Sandra has no word for Adut, only hopes.
Please forgive this talk of my dreams, khawaja. It is simply that once I awaken from a dream, there is nothing but the night to face, and nothing to tend to but my own rapid thoughts and this heart that hammers. The black night taunts me as it looks in at me through the small window above this bed. It tells me I will find no more sleep this night.
It was only in the nights that my beloved grandmother would tell me the stories I begged for as a child. She swore to me that telling stories while the sun was above us was a sin. It is most necessary for the proper telling of these stories that the night be alive in its darkness, when they can float down unseen from the powers. [p.24]
Adut's life, the attack on her village and her eight years of slavery, is a story you won't forget, and the contrast of cultures between her and Sandra is pronounced. Sandra, for example, hopes and expects Adut to tell someone where she is, what's happened to her, so that she can be rescued. But Adut is from a vastly different culture and world. To her, being locked up is a sad fact of life when you fall into the wrong hands, so while she wonders about Sandra she isn't particularly worried. Also, she doesn't tell anyone because of the shame it would bring her father, or his name after he dies. In this culture, this tribal life, family is everything. At first I, with my white, western sensibilities, couldn't believe Adut wasn't going to tell anyone, wasn't going to tell the other white women near her town (one of whom is the woman Sandra had shared a hospital room with - it gives a small sense of satisfaction to see that she has done what she wanted to do, and come into her own in a way that Sandra never did). But Schnell does such a great job of crafting Adut's character and representing her culture in a way that felt realistic and genuine, that I came to understand. With that understanding, came a new fear: it seemed like Sandra was well and truly going to be left where she was, to die in a stable while being held prisoner.
This is a deeply moving story that can't fail to connect with you. It opens up a whole other world in more ways than one, shedding light on the life of a traditional Sudanese woman in the south as well as the female experience during the civil war. You become completely immersed in Adut's world, her land and culture and the laws they live by, that Sandra becomes an even greater fish-out-of-water. It is a story rich in small details and big concepts, one that skilfully balances two vastly different narrative voices that drift about in time and space but never lose you on the way. I can see why this book took Schnell ten years to write and many trips to Sudan. It is powerful storytelling at its best that can't fail to leave you untouched. ...more
When Holly and Tom Corrigan move into their country house outside London, it's the completion of Holly's five-year plan: Find a boyfriend; find a gallWhen Holly and Tom Corrigan move into their country house outside London, it's the completion of Holly's five-year plan: Find a boyfriend; find a gallery to exhibit her artwork; get married; establish a client base to buy her artwork; earn enough to give up her day job; and move to the country - and she's still got six months left of that five years. Now Tom, a thirty-two year old investigative journalist, broaches the idea of a new plan with super-organised Holly: have a baby.
But Holly remembers all too vividly her own childhood and her useless parents, her teenaged mother who loathed her daughter with an ill-disguised passion, treating her to neglect and verbal abuse before finally leaving when Holly was eight. Her father was a non-entity who taught her to cook - basic things like baked beans - so that he didn't have to. Holly's always believed she doesn't have a maternal instinct because she wouldn't have inherited one, but also, she's deeply afraid of turning out like her own parents. The idea is left hanging, and Holly turns her attention to unpacking and overseeing the renovation of the outhouse which will be her studio while Tom makes an attempt to clean up the overgrown, nettle-infested garden.
When Tom's work goes through a restructuring and Tom is sent to Belgium for six weeks, Holly is left almost alone in the house, an old gatehouse that is all that is left of Hardmonton Hall, which burned down several decades before. The local village contractor, Billy, uncovers a box from the wall of the outbuilding and inside Holly finds the cogs and pieces that accompany what they thought was a sundial in two parts in the garden. With the help of the labourers they get the stone piece onto the plinth, and Holly assembles the puzzle of metal and puts it in place. But it isn't until Jocelyn, an old woman from the village who used to live in the gatehouse a long time ago, pays her a visit that Holly learns it isn't a sundial but a moondial.
On the night of a full moon, the dial seems to call to Holly. By putting a small glass sphere into the metal claw-like grip, something very strange happens. Holly is transported eighteen months into the future, to a world with two very drastic differences: she and Tom have a month-old baby daughter called Libby, but Holly has died in childbirth. The shock is staggering, but having bashed her head on the plinth when the moondial became active, Holly is sure she must be hallucinating. Still, the sight of a grief-stricken Tom shakes her to her core just as the small baby, who alone can see her, bonds with Holly instantly.
The next day, Holly puts the worst of this out of her mind, but she cannot forget Libby. The connection with the baby gives her the inspiration needed to work on a commission project for the rich young wife of a much older man who wants to immortalise her new baby boy in a sculpture for her foyer, something Holly has been struggling with because of her trouble understanding the mother-child bond. Jocelyn proves to be a close friend who visits every Sunday, and slowly over time Holly learns the devastating history of her friend's life in the gatehouse, and the part the moondial played.
Now convinced that the moondial really did transport her to the future, Holly is left to face a decision which has taken on a whole new importance: to give up Libby forever and the chance to ever have a baby, or to go ahead with the pregnancy knowing that she won't survive, won't be around to watch her grow up, and would be leaving Tom, her best friend and love of her life, alone. Several more trips to the future through the moondial, unable to resist the chance to see Libby again, show Holly clearly just how much Tom is grieving, how much he needs her. The choice seems obvious: don't get pregnant. Don't have Libby. But as Holly's bond with Libby grows ever stronger, the decision doesn't seem so straight-forward anymore, and Holly learns the most important lesson that any loving mother knows: sacrifice.
I was initially hesitant to accept this book for review, because after reading the synopsis my first thought was, Oh god no, I can't read this, it'll break my heart. It sounded so sad. But I couldn't get it out of my head either, and as much as stories about mothers and children affect me so much more strongly now that I'm a mother myself, I gravitate to them too. And I wasn't far wrong, either: by page 55, when Holly travels for the first time, I was crying. I cried for this sweet little motherless babe. I cried for Tom who lost his wife and looks so hollow and empty. And I cried for Holly and her fate. I would not want to know the future, I would not want to be in Holly's shoes at all, I can't think of anything more terrifying than learning you're going to die in a year and a half, and how - leaving so many people behind. It's the foreknowledge that's terrifying; obviously, if you're dead, you can't think or feel either way.
Brooke, who wrote the book as a kind of legacy to her son who died of cancer when he was just three years old, successfully captures, with great emotion and realism, Holly's journey through a rainbow of emotions: denial, fear, shock, anger, love and more, and her path towards her decision to have Libby, which we know is the decision she makes thanks to the prologue. Knowing that she decides to go ahead with the pregnancy despite knowing the outcome adds an extra layer of tension and something that I can't quite name, a blend of mystery, danger and ... something else. The atmosphere Brooke created here is just slightly menacing, with a strong sense of time-running-out and other-wordly mystery. There is a back-story to the moondial that fleshes out that side of the plot, keeping the mystery but making it plausible.
It is interesting, actually, just how much you connect with Holly and feel for her, considering the narration has a touch of distance to it. It is more of a narrative than a descriptive story, telling us what the characters do and see and think rather than showing us, and yet it works. It felt rather like watching a story through a magic glass ball, and then falling through the ball into the story itself and being, like Holly in the future, there but invisible, a powerless voyeur. The story focuses on the lives of Holly and her frequently-absent husband, the sculpture Holly is creating, her investigation into the moondial, and her friendship with Jocelyn.
This is an emotional story, one that will wring you out whether you have children or not. I read this in a day (not in a single sitting though) and was drawn in by the speculative nature of the plot's time travel as much as by the intrigue and Holly's conflicting desires, wanting both her husband and her baby, and not wanting to put Tom through the pain of losing her. By the end I was crying so much, I felt so shaken, I needed a big hug from my other half. This isn't a book you'll want to read on the subway or at work, I don't think! The way it played out wasn't what I expected when I read the blurb the first time, but was much better. And the resolution was unexpected right up until Holly was ready to go to hospital to have the baby - I honestly hadn't thought in that direction. I was so caught up in the way Holly was thinking and feeling that there was no room for anything else, for the longest time.
A truly gripping, deeply emotional and moving story about the mother-child bond, the joy a child can bring to your heart, and the realisation of what it means to be a mother. Even though this left me drained and hollowed-out, it also left me feeling so thankful for my healthy son, my own life and family, and the gift of storytelling. I can see myself being drawn to read this again, because there are times when I want, need even, to feel so strongly - especially for other people. It somehow clears up my brain and makes me feel more deeply connected to the world around me and the people (and other animals) that inhabit it, and reminds me of the beautiful things in the world, things worth living for.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. ...more
When Amelia Hayes decides to get a part-time job, working as a cashier at Coles after school, she's just thinking about having some money of her own aWhen Amelia Hayes decides to get a part-time job, working as a cashier at Coles after school, she's just thinking about having some money of her own and helping to alleviate her mother's burden. Meeting Chris is a bonus. He's a uni student, and twenty-one to her fifteen-going-on-sixteen, so she knows she doesn't stand a chance. She's not just young, she's too young. But Chris, who takes the newbies - whom he calls "youngsters" - under his wing, is so personable, friendly, charming even, in a laid-back way, with a smile that won her over from the first moment of meeting him. He talks to her as if she were older, even helps her with her homework and lets her rant into his ear. But Amelia doesn't deceive herself about having anything more than friendship with him.
Chris is still obsessed with Michaela, who spent a semester at his university in Sydney before going back to Perth. It was long enough for a relationship to develop, one that took over Chris' life and which he still holds up as the golden standard - even though he learned afterwards that she not only went back to her old boyfriend, Brad, but she had never broken up with him at all. Crushed, and definitely not over it, Chris is on the look-out for the perfect woman, as well as some direction in life. He's nearly finished his degree, and what then? He still spends his money on beer, his spare time going to parties, doing some weed, or avoiding his patronising, provoking uncle at home, where he still lives with his parents.
Amelia and Chris may be different people at different times in their life, but they are both trying to figure things out in their own way. And as much as they stand alone, independently of each other, they also teach each other a great deal about love, life and getting along, and having a good laugh about it along the way.
Two years after debuting in Australia, Good Oil was finally released in North America under this new name - a title I actually really like, especially considering how much of it is set inside a supermarket (which is Woolies - Woolworths, that is - in the original; since we also have Coles in Australia, I'm not sure why they changed that). Reading this book reminds me how much I love Australian writers, and how differently Australians write. You could never mistake this for an American book, for example. From the tone to the banter to the relationships between people, the way people react to things, how the story evolves and develops to the outcome, everything about it made me feel like I was home again. Pure comfort zone. For that alone, I loved it, no matter how many little things - words and spelling - had been changed.
Amelia narrates, and we quickly get to know her as a fairly shy, reserved, quiet girl who yet has moments of great confidence and courage, and who hides some powerful opinions and empathy behind her "mousy" looks and demeanour. She's no popular girl, she has one best friend, Penny, and her home life is a bit rocky, not in a sensationalist way but in an everyday, middle class way. Her mother is a teacher at what is known as the worst school in Sydney and always looks tired and miserable. Her father is a director - plays, TV etc. - who is often away from home for months at a time, and when he is home he rarely helps around the house, for which Amelia resents him. Both of her parents smoke inside the house, despite Amelia's asthma and her two-year-old sister Jessica, and it's hard not to hate them for that, too. Her older sister has moved away for university in a town outside the city, and Amelia misses her a lot. And now she's fallen in love with Chris - unrequited love, the most painful kind, as she listens to him discuss his plans for getting Kathy, an older girl who works with them, to go out with him. She's very realistic, and perfectly captures that time in your adolescence when you were teetering between an almost childlike naiveté, and adult insight.
Chris narrates too, in a way, through diaries he writes. This is how we learn about Michaela and get to hear his thoughts on Amelia herself. It was quite beautiful, watching everything unfold in such a natural, realistic and effortless way - Buzo is an excellent writer and captures the characters, the lifestyle, the humanity within the story so perfectly. Chris is a funny guy, very engaging, and though we never really learn what he looks like - all Amelia really notes is his wonderful smile, and after that his personality takes over - he's likeable but flawed, and so very human for it. No one is perfect in this book, just as no one is in life, and I think every reader will find someone to identify with here, or at the very least, recognise.
This story reminded me of other Australian books and TV shows, with its nicely balanced mix of realism, heavy issues dealt with with a light touch, personal relationships explored, and humour. There's a particular flavour of tone and direction that I've only ever really found in Australian (and New Zealand) storytelling; read enough of them (or watch our good ABC shows) and you'll see what I mean. Buzo follows that tradition, adding an excellent story to the canon, one that reminded me also of the YA novels I read as a teen, Aussie books dealing with teens with alcohol abuse problems, teens realising they were gay, all sorts of everyday issues that were explored in this fashion, combining an understated drama with humour (sometimes skipping the humour, but you can't have everything). Following on from this long tradition of realism, Love and Other Perishable Items is a very mature story, very lifelike, that doesn't hold back on delving into adolescent and university life - even when it doesn't bring to mind your own memories, it still feels very familiar.
Flipping between Amelia's younger, almost tentative narrative voice and Chris's boisterous, engaging style, Buzo shows her talent at capturing her characters' idiosyncrasies as much as their everyday mundanity, their unique voices and their personalised thought processes. I loved the way Chris called the supermarket, in true ironic fashion, the Land of Dreams. He had joke names for many things, and without his lively take on life, it would have been a much duller book. If Amelia had fallen for some brooding, moody uni student, it would have made for a much more depressing book, I'm sure. Chris saves the story from slipping too far into morbid territory, and it's easy to see why Amelia loves him. Here are Chris' early thoughts on her:
Exhausted and a little in my cups. Worked four to nine this evening, training a New Little on the registers. She's one of the more interesting New Littles out of the bunch they just hired. Her name is Amelia, and what a funny little youngster she is. She demonstrates an advanced-level single-eyebrow raise. She's amusing - all frizzy-haired and fiery. I suspect she can, like, construct sentences and read books. Here's hoping she will go a little way toward Amelia-rating the vacuousness of her chain-smoking fifteen-year-old cohorts (Ameliorate - get it? Oh, there's nothing like your own jokes, is there?) She's a healthy mess of contradictions. Sense of humor? Check. Very articulate for a youngster. She hasn't developed the ability to see past her own nose yet - takes everything seriously. Oh, adolescence, how much I don't miss you. She's smart and has reason to carry herself well. But she has this way of crossing her arms, gripping her elbows and looking down and sideways that screams "ill at ease!" to the world. Maybe all she needs is a good sensei to instruct her in the ways of, like, stuff. Maybe I'm the man for the job. Or maybe I couldn't be bothered. [pp.42-43]
One of the things I loved was that Chris's narrative doesn't just echo Amelia's but from his perspective - he shares things that she didn't, and vice versa. Little details or incidents that were more important to one of them than the other. Also, telling the story this way fleshes it out and, especially, fleshes Chris out. Too often, the male love interest in YA stories remains almost transparent throughout a book and you can't see the appeal, let alone the chemistry. Here, there's buckets of tension and great atmosphere. The story skirts close to a moral grey area and could have gone south in an icky way, but following that realistic trajectory, it doesn't. The ending is very right and even hopeful, and makes you like the two of them even more.
I did, on the other hand, have a wee struggle getting into it at first. It starts off slow. It took me a while to get a "feel" for Amelia, and to connect with her - sometimes the realistic style can be a bit off-putting, and sometimes it's a matter of flow, or lack of. Amelia narrates, at first, a bit all-over-the-place, and it takes her a while to settle down. Once Chris enters the picture - and when we start hearing his voice - things pick up quickly, though not plot-wise. This is a character-based story, not a plot-based one, which I liked. I also liked their debates about feminism, and I really liked Amelia's argument that feminism had made her mother the tired, unhappy, over-reached person she is in the story - though I was surprised to hear Buzo, through the characters, say that Australia men hadn't picked up the slack. I know it's been a long time since I lived there (soon to be rectified, yay!), but I had always been proud that Aussie men were more involved in running a household and a family than they used to be. Has that slowed down, stopped even? So disappointing. I hold out hope for us yet.
Overall, a truly wonderful story with a heart of gold - no really, corniness aside, it does! An artfully constructed, engagingly realistic and always hopeful story about two people finding their way in life, about the best kind of friendship and the first blush of love. A growing-up story, a growing-pains story, a coming-of-age story for both Amelia and Chris, one that takes an adult reader back in time and will, no doubt, really click with an adolescent one. Definitely recommended....more
In 1985, the civil war being fought between the northern, Muslim government in the north of Sudan and the non-Muslim souThis review contains spoilers.
In 1985, the civil war being fought between the northern, Muslim government in the north of Sudan and the non-Muslim south came to the village where eleven-year-old Salva Dut was at school. With the sound of gunfire in their ears, the entire village and the school children who come from the surrounding villages all ran into the forest, fleeing the violence but with nowhere to go. Salva is alone - all of his family members are at his village which is in the direction of the fighting. Falling in with a group of people who let him tag along, they are held up by some rebel soldiers who take the men and older boys but tell Salva he's too young. Staying with the remnants of the group he first fled with, he wakes up one morning in a barn to find himself completely alone: they have left him behind, no doubt feeling that he is too young to keep up.
After a few days of helping the woman who lives nearby in exchange for some food, a small group of people from his own tribe, the Dinka - though not his village - come along the road and grudgingly agree to take him with them. As they progress, the group grows larger, and one day Salva is excited to find his uncle with them. Armed with a gun and experience as a soldier, Uncle becomes their unofficial leader and with his help and encouragement, Salva manages to keep up with the adults as the cross the Nile and then desert, walking ever onwards to the Ethiopian border and the refugee camp there. But arriving is not the end of his story.
Salva's true story, as told to author Linda Sue Park, is juxtaposed against the story of eleven-year-old Nya from the Nuer tribe, a rival tribe to the Dinka, who must go several times a day on a long walk to the pond to collect water for her family. It is her main job and keeps her occupied, but it's a very hard job. The only reprieve is when the tribe moves to camp by the big lake, but they can't live there all the time because of the fighting with the Dinka, who also come to the lake during the dry months. Everything changes though, the day some strange men come in a jeep and show them where they will dig for water.
The two stories of Salva and Nya don't fully connect until the end, when we see the fruit of Salva's life journey and the task he has set himself: to return to Sudan as the leader of an aid organisation that provides wells for villages like Nya's. Salva was one of thousands and thousands of "Lost Boys", boys who walked through the desert to reach refugee camps. After years in the Ethiopian refugee camp, there was a change of government and it was suddenly, and violently, closed. Salva ended up leading a group of several thousand lost boys to another refugee camp, this time in Kenya. Displaced and orphaned, many of them died on the journey, and life in the refugee camps was merely bearable. With no home to go back to, and their own complex tribal histories preventing them from simply moving somewhere else, only the healthiest were granted asylum in places like the United States, where Salva eventually finds himself, taken in by a couple and their four children in Rochester, in the state of New York - his first experience of snow and real cold.
Nya is a composite character: not someone based on one individual, but a character based on the lives of many girls just like her who are sent to fetch water every day, a long and perilous trek. The task also means they never receive an education, and the contaminated water means many children and sickly adults die from parasites. A well with a pump in her village means big changes for Nya and everyone else. Freeing so many children from carrying water all the time means they can go to school - and can even enable a village to concentrate their resources and build a school. We take our clean and cheap water supply for granted, but elsewhere it is appreciated as the precious resource it really is.
Told in a simple style accessible to children as well as teens, Park provides some basic, comprehensive background to the conflict - a completely separate one from the ongoing genocide in Darfur. The Civil War started in 1983 and continued for a couple of decades, as the south - where the people are from different tribes with their own beliefs - fought against the government which wanted the whole country to be Muslim. It's a simple overview but by its very simplicity makes it accessible to young readers. There are signs, scenes, which show that both sides were equally vicious - it's never a matter of south=good, north=bad. But the focus is on Salva's personal story of survival, not the political and religious agenda causing the conflict. Coming from a position of pretty much complete ignorance (I hadn't even realised there were two separate, unrelated "wars" in Sudan), this was a good starting point for me and gives me a solid foundation upon which to learn more.
The simplicity of the narration didn't detract from the truly tragic and horrifying situation Salva and so many others found themselves in. The only other book I've read that was similar was A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, which is set in Sierra Leone. The sad fact is, Salva's story is almost a common one in Africa. So many countries being torn apart by tribal, religious or ethnic conflict, often motivated or exacerbated by the plundering of resources. It doesn't help that the countries like Sudan are merely colonial, or European, constructs, often forcing warring groups within the same border. Reading about an individual like Salva really helps to personalise and humanise what otherwise can seem confusing, overwhelming and utterly alien to us in the West.
For such a short book, it packed quite the emotional wallop and certainly did not leave me dry-eyed. I loved how the title refers not just to Nya's endless walk to water but also to Salva's own walk to water: his long walk to safety which was little more than a mirage; and his life's journey to find a way to help his people by returning to establish water wells. A great introduction to the Lost Boys and the civil conflict in Sudan for children, and one I recommend to readers of all ages as well....more
When the civil war between the north and the south of Sudan reaches Achak's far western Dinka village of Marial Bai, he is a child of about seven yearWhen the civil war between the north and the south of Sudan reaches Achak's far western Dinka village of Marial Bai, he is a child of about seven years old who still spends most of his time with his mother, or playing on the floor of his father's general store. He did sometimes go out with the others boys, including his friends William K and Moses, to watch the cattle, but he is with his mother the day the government helicopters come, killing indiscriminately, which was only the beginning. When the villagers didn't leave, the government-backed murahaleen - Arabs on horses - come sweeping in to finish the job. It is the last time Achak sees his mother, and he has no idea what fate has befallen any of his siblings or stepmothers. He can only flee, running as far as he can.
He finally comes upon a large group of boys like him being led by his old teacher, a young man called Dut Majok, who has a tendency to lead them in circles but never stops looking out for the boys and sees them, after months of walking and encounters with lions, crocodiles and hostile villagers, to Ethiopia and the refugee camp called Pinyudo on the Gilo River. When a change in government comes to Ethiopia - otherwise known as a military coup - the refugees are violently driven out, many killed by soldiers and many others lost the river they are forced to cross, or the crocodiles that live there. It takes a year for the survivors - including thousands of "Lost Boys" like Achak, to reach Kenya, where a new refugee camp is constructed at Kakuma, which basically means nowhere - a hot, dry, dusty desert land that no one wants, no one except the local tribespeople that is.
There Achak spends many years until, finally, towards the end of 2001 his name if finally called to be one of thousands of Lost Boys and Girls being relocated to the United States. A new beginning and many hopes and dreams that he has barely dared to entertain before suddenly seem possible. After all this time of dodging bullets and starvation, Achak is sitting on the plane in Nairobi, along with a group of other young men like him, when the news comes through: no planes will be leaving. New York has been attacked, the Twin Towers are burning, get off the plane. If you can think of anything that could go wrong for Deng, it happened. But he does finally make it to the city of Atlanta where he meets his sponsors and starts working on his goal of getting a degree - which turns out to be much harder and more complicated (and costly) than he ever thought possible.
This is the first book by Eggers that I have read, even though I have three others already (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Zeitoun and A Hologram for the King), so I was able to read this purely as Deng's story, in Deng's voice. Deng is a strong, vivid character, and his personal story comes truly alive in the creative hands of Eggers. Not being able to tell where Eggers' voice and writing style intrudes on what is, essentially, someone else's story, it read smoothly and convincingly. Full of details, historical context, explanations skilfully woven in, as well as philosophical, moral and ethical ponderings, and an intense emotional engagement and humour. This is a man - one of many - who was shat on by life and circumstance, who questioned his belief in his god many times, but who persevered and struggled on. For the Sudanese, his is just one story of thousands like it, indistinguishable most of the time, and certainly nothing special, but for us, it is a hero's story, and a bold, honest, brutal one at that.
It begins in the present day and is told in present tense, and introduces us to Valentino Achak Deng as he answers his door to a couple of black Americans who proceed to rob him at gunpoint. It is no coincidence that Eggers chose to start here and have Achak tell his story over the course of 24 hours as flashbacks to the past: contrasting the violence he experiences in America to that of Sudan is very telling. As the African part of the story unfolds, it casts a harsher and brighter light on the working poor and the criminally-minded of America, a critical eye and a disgusted shake of the head.
A recurring theme in the story of his past is one of inflated hope and disappointed expectations. The Lost Boys come from primitive villages and they know nothing about the world outside of Dinka land. They can't even conceptualise what Ethiopia is, the idea of another country, but they build up grand expectations in their heads, which are based on nothing more than wishful thinking in the face of extreme privation. Moving to America, the refugees are possessed of even more fanciful imaginings, the kind that are limited to your scope of experience but also take them to the heights: servants, bowls of oranges, palaces and so forth. It's not their fault they had no real ability to grasp what it would be like, or their lack of perspective. They learned quickly, but not all of them were successful in their new home.
By many we have been written off as a failed experiment. We were the model Africans. For so long, this was our designation. We were applauded for our industriousness and good manners and, best of all, our devotion to our faith. The churches adored us, and the leaders they bankrolled and controlled coveted us. But now the enthusiasm has dampened. We have exhausted many of our hosts. We are young men, and young men are prone to vice. Among the four thousand [that emigrated to America] are those who have entertained prostitutes, who have lost weeks and months to drugs, many more who have lost their fire to drink, dozens who have become inexpert gamblers, fighters. [pp.475-6]
I rather think he's a bit hard on himself, or society is. Take a group of people from a primitive place with little to no creature comforts, who have endured things for years that we can barely fathom, and leave them more-or-less to their own devices in a strange new world full of new temptations - and let's face it, the United States is proud of the "freedoms" it offers - and you'll get instances of abuse in many forms. You can't fast-forward industrialisation, progress and change in all facets of life like that without some repercussions. That's a lot to take in. Even us westerners who grew up with the advanced technology and conveniences that we're used to, aren't dealing with it very well.
Deng's story is a long one, and it's by no means a quick read. Highly involved, reflective and introspective, it more-or-less flows chronologically but not always, and dates are fluid - not surprisingly, since they didn't keep calendars and don't use our system of months and days (they would know what season they were born in, and can count backwards to know how old they are, more or less, but couldn't tell you their date-of-birth by our calendars). His story fleshes out the horrors of the Sudanese Civil War more than any other book I've read, and makes a long-lasting impression on you intellectually and emotionally.
One of the philosophical musings is captured in the title, What is the What, which comes from a Dinka legend about God and the first man and woman. God offers the Dinka people a choice: they can have cattle, or the What. They choose the cattle, and consider them the blessed, favoured people, for their cattle are everything: milk, food, wealth, land. Meanwhile, God gives the What to their Arab neighbours. Whenever Achak had heard this story in the past, the What is simply why the Arabs are inferior. "The Dinka were given the cattle first, and the Arabs had tried to steal them. God had given the Dinka superior land, fertile and rich, and had given them cattle, and though it was unfair, that was how God had intended it and there was no changing it." [p.63] But when his father tells it to some visiting Arab merchants months before the war arrives, he leaves is open-ended, and leaves his young son thinking. Achak finds himself asking people on his long journey, what is the What? What did God give the Arabs that he didn't give the Dinka? The answer is never given but it is implied. The sense that I got is difficult to articulate but it goes something like this: the Dinka got a harmonious, largely peaceful way of life, left intact for millennia, with no ambition or curiosity about the world. The Arabs got the ambition and curiosity, a drive to better themselves and an unending sense of dissatisfaction. The What was the apple of knowledge in Genesis' garden of Eden.
I would love to hear the story of how Achak Deng met Dave Eggers, how the plan for the book - the proceeds of which go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which builds schools in South Sudan - came about. When we leave Achak in Atlanta after his harrowing 24-hour ordeal, he has made some important decisions and revised his aims and also seems to be possessed of a new kind of conviction, but it sheds no light on what happened next. Clearly, or so it seems to me, it wasn't Deng's determination to get a degree that made things happen for him so much as the book, this book, and all the work he did to promote it. The job of starting a charitable foundation and getting things done is a daunting one to me, but I am full of admiration for the people who come from nothing and successfully do it (the subject of Linda Park-Sue's fictionalised memoir for children, A Long Walk to Water, Salva Dut, also began a foundation to bring water to South Sudanese villages).
This is a hard book to read and an equally hard one to talk about. There's a lot going on and I can see why there are so many reading guides floating around the web. I loved it on many levels, even though it's not an enjoyable novel - though there are moments of humour, it's so interwoven with tragedy that it's hard to crack a smile. It's a powerful novel for the way it tells the story, and for the story itself. It's a deeply human story, shedding light into the cracks and crevices of a part of Africa that we generally don't spend much time thinking about. Checking out Deng's foundation website, it stirred me nearly to tears to see the progress he's already made on the beautiful school in Marial Bai, to read about the school farm and so on. This is a life, and what a life! ...more
After the death of her mother, Camille Werner is going through the condolence letters when she comes across a letter that is rather strange. First ofAfter the death of her mother, Camille Werner is going through the condolence letters when she comes across a letter that is rather strange. First of all, it's not addressed to her - the envelope is, but the contents aren't. There's no return address. And it doesn't read like a letter, but embarks on a story. The writer, Louis, tells of meeting and befriending Annie as a child in the village of N. in 1933. He was twelve, Annie was ten, and the world was changing.
Camille thinks at first that the letters have been addressed to her by mistake, that there must be someone else in Paris with the same name as her - but she can't find one. The letters keep arriving, the story keeps unfolding. Louis moves forward in time, to meeting Annie again in 1943, when she tells him what really happened with Madame and Monsieur M, a young bourgeois couple who move into a big house in the middle of the town.
Annie becomes a frequent visitor to Madame M, who encourages her passion for painting. But when Annie is fifteen she leaves for Paris with the couple; Madame's husband, Paul, a journalist, later joins the war effort and is sent to the front. Louis tells Annie's side of the story, and as it unfolds Camille becomes more invested in discovering who Louis is, and what it all has to do with her. Louis reveals one truth, and then another, the words of Madame M, but it is Camille herself who comes to understand the last, shattering, heart-breaking piece.
There is a lot to recommend French author Grémillon's debut novel, which is on the surface of things a simple, even predictable story of a family secret and the lives it affected. Touching on themes of motherhood, social pressure and identity, as well as the damage that lies, secrets and betrayals can inflict, this is a realistic, deeply human story taking place against the backdrop of Germany's invasion and occupation of France.
Divided into two parallel time frames, 1975 and the 30s and 40s, the focus is on the past, with the "present" scenes of Camille's life sketched out with telling details that flesh out her character and her life - she's fallen pregnant by a man who doesn't want children, and decides to keep it; she's lost both her parents and has only her brother, Pierre, left; and she works as an editor at a publishing house. Grémillon employs a "less is more" tactic with Camille's side of the story, ensuring that Louis' story takes centre stage and doesn't get overshadowed by anything from the "present"; in fact, I sometimes forgot all about Camille, which actually made it easy to switch between the two. The book also used the visual device of drastically different fonts - Camille's first-person sections were set in something like Arial, while Louis' letters were in your standard bookish font (much easier on the eyes, too).
The parallels between what Camille's going through in her own life, and the events that unfold in Louis' story, allow Camille - and the reader - to empathise with both Annie and Madame M (you won't be able to sympathise with Madame M until you hear her side of the story, but it will come). The theme of motherhood and the pressures not just of society but from our own selves, is a strong one throughout. As Camille says,
I used to think abortion was a good thing: progress, a woman's free will... Now I find myself struggling in a trap which, like every trap, once smelled sweetly, in this case of freedom. Progress for women, my arse! If I keep the child, I'm guilty vis-à-vis Nicolas, who doesn't want it. If I get rid of it, I am guilty vis-à-vis the baby. Abortion may claim to rescue women from the slavery of motherhood, but it imposes another form of slavery: guilt. More than ever, it is on our own that we handle or mishandle motherhood. [p.89]
Through this lens we watch Annie, at fifteen years old, offer to be a surrogate for the baby Madame M has spent years trying to have, having put herself through treatments both bizarre and extreme. For much of the book, I didn't find the outcome necessarily predictable, because it seemed, for quite some time, that the truth could go either way. Still, if you go into this expecting a clever mystery you will probably be disappointed - this isn't so much a puzzle to solve, even though that's the structure of it, as it is a tragic story of two women in isolation, wanting the same thing, ready to do something extreme to get it. It is this human story that really reaches deep and holds you fast to the book; in fact, it's a quick and riveting read, one you can easily read in a day if you have the time.
Where the novel suffered a bit was in the writing; for a debut novel, it's good, and yet it's also a bit of a mess at times. I got the feeling the translator made an effort to stick to a literal translation as much as possible, rather than doing the extra twist of interpretation to make things work better in English. Take this paragraph, for instance, telling us the story of what happened to Annie's father while she was in Paris with Madame M:
On 3 June 1940, the guards had thrown them into the prison courtyard. The government didn't want them to fall into German hands. The Germans would have released them for sure. Ever since the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, the Communists had been in the Boches' good books. They were being moved to another prison, they had to walk quickly, the guards were hitting them, shouting at them. It was late morning, they were on their way through Paris, when a guard suddenly pushed him out of the group and told him to get the hell out of there and fast, opportunity never knocks twice at anyone's door. They had let him go, and he still could not fathom why, but he was free, that was all that mattered. [pp.102-3]
This made absolutely no sense to me when I was reading the book, and when Annie says to Louis in the retelling, "His story made no sense to me at all" I was relieved - only, she meant that she couldn't believe her parents had become separated; that was her sticking point. Even later, after finally understanding that he had been locked up because he'd once been a member of the Communist Party, the passage doesn't really make sense. It skips over his arrest, which is key to understanding the passage, since the last we saw of him he was living in his own home with his wife. It also skips over the fact that it was the French who'd arrested him, and why it was a crime. For the sake of context, these are small details that could easily have been included to prevent me from getting a headache.
Aside from some odd phrasing, and the kind of writing mistakes that are pretty basic but hard to say whom they belong to, author or translator, the prose was very readable and skips along at a merry pace. Sometimes things don't make sense at the time, because certain details have been left out which are revealed later on for a "A-HA!" moment, but when the narration is following a continuous, chronological story-telling pattern, it's smooth and riveting.
It was quite refreshing to have the war in the background rather than the foreground - it wasn't about the war at all, there just happened to be a war at the time these characters were living their lives. Yet it's not an incidental war: it impacts the characters, and adds a level of tension and atmosphere that gives events an extra layer of fear and uncertainty.
The ending was what really got to me, when reading this book. After reading the last few lines, I actually sat up straight, looked up and said something like "Oh wow." I'd become so caught up in the story of Annie and Madame M, that I hadn't been thinking of the present day, or the possibility that Louis was wrong about what happened to Annie. I love that feeling, when something comes out of nowhere and hits you on the head (not literally - I don't enjoy being hit on the head by anything!), giving you one of those "ahhhhh" moments of satisfaction at a story well ended.
Even before that, though, I enjoyed the murky greyness of Annie and Madame M's stories. Neither is a bad or a good woman. They are human, and they are mothers, and the moral murkiness of it all is both thought-provoking and entertaining (not in the sense that I enjoyed it at their expense, but in the sense that I enjoy having my conscience engaged as much as my intellect). I'd love to go into details, but I didn't want to give away any more of the plot than my edition's blurb did, lest I spoil the reading experience for anyone else.
For all its sometimes-confusing narration, The Confidant was a haunting and emotional - but not at all melodramatic - exploration into the hearts of women who yearn for a child, and the lengths they'll go to to have that child, love it and protect it, all told against the backdrop of a war that took the lives of millions of people, and the French government's public announcements that the people have a duty to have more children. ...more