Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sinclair Lewis - It Can't Happen Here

Image borrowed from Amazon

Bring out the old-time musket,
Rouse up the old-time fire!
See, all the world is crumbling,
Dreadful and dark and dire.
America! Rise and conquer
The world to our heart’s desire! (p.60)1

This final chorus of the campaign song for the 1930s nomination of Buzz Windrip as president of the United States of America pretty much sums up the mood of the supporters who put him into office, defeating F.D. Roosevelt. Buzz Windrip is the creation of Sinclair Lewis in his 1936 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, a sometimes-satirical, always-witty romp through the possibility of America blissfully, blindly wandering down the paths of fascism in Europe. What would it be like if enough Americans should embrace the option of fascism, of the clamp-down on the free press, of the legitimizing of personal armies, of the brutal suppression of opposition, of the seduction of the public with unfulfillable promises and, yes, of the substitution with “alternative facts” for actual facts?

A campaigning Buzz Windrip clarifies his platform in a letter to be read publicly by his deputy: “Summarized, the letter explained that he was all against the banks but all for the bankers—except the Jewish bankers, who were to be driven out of finance entirely; that he had thoroughly tested (but unspecified) plans to make all wages very high and the prices of everything produced by these same highly paid workers very low; that he was 100 per cent for Labor, but 100 per cent against all strikes; and that he was in favor of the United States so arming itself, so preparing to produce its own coffee, sugar, perfumes, tweeds, and nickel instead of importing them, that it could defy the World . . . and maybe, if that World was so impertinent as to defy America in turn, Buzz hinted, he might have to take it over and run it properly.” (p.62)

Turns out—according to It Can’t Happen Here—that it would rapidly turn into a blood bath; into the imprisonment, torture and execution of journalists, suspected communists or socialists, and finally, into internal party violence as members of Windrip’s cohort seek to satisfy their whetted hunger for power by eliminating one another. 

Naturally, a resistance would grow among intellectuals, journalists, some Christians and minorities as it became clear that in order to be a secure ruler over people, the opposition--plus those who could potentially become opposers--must be eliminated. Before Hitler actually began with a full-scale resorting to concentration camps in Europe, Lewis visualized their emergence in America as the means to “concentrate” potential push back by the confining of doubtful citizens, shooting them as necessary as an example to the whole country. 

Tacit permission is given to the “Minute Men,” the private, rabble militia of the president, to be ruthless in their arrests, searches, interrogations; Jews, authors, journalists, immigrants, pacifists, African Americans are high on the undesirable list. Book burning, of course, is a favourite means by which tyrants seek to suppress ideas and the search for seditious literature, the setting of huge bonfires becomes recreation for the M.M.
Doremus Jessup is the soft-spoken, well-read family man and editor of his own local Vermont newspaper, the Informer. “He was an equable and sympathetic boss; an imaginative news detective; he was, even in this ironbound Republican state, independent in politics and in his editorials against graft and injustice, though they were not fanatically chronic, he could slash like a dog whip. (p.23) Lewis's plot follows him through his removal from his own paper to his eventual role in the underground resistance, his arrest and imprisonment on charges of opposing the government and his escape to Canada where he feeds the resistance from a distance.

Interestingly, the vitreol against Mexico foreshadows (along with many other foibles of the tyrant, Buzz Windrip) Donald Trump, similarities that haven’t been missed by the literati in the USA. Lewis wrote a play based on his book which, although panned for it’s quality by some, toured the USA. It was a time when play goers would probably have seen in it the tyrants of Europe and missed the satire about American politics, would have believed in the literal import of the title: It Can’t Happen Here.  

After Trump’s nomination, the play was rewritten and has visited theatres in US recently, the issues updated to more current trends in US politics. I’d encourage readers of this to visit the New Yorkers article on the revival of It Can’t Happen Here. 2

Could it happen here? I’m led to ponder. Surely in an enlightened democracy the practical bounds of political deviation are known, the warning signs of left or right wing demagoguery familiar. But one has to wonder if, in fact, there doesn’t come a time when enough of the population of a country becomes angry enough to welcome tyranny and brutality. The kick-ass mood.

George Orwell in Animal Farm and 1984 did what he could to warn the world that IT CAN HAPPEN HERE. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here fits in that tradition; we do well to attend to the prophetic voices of our poets and artists.

P.S. An interesting side-note: Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway used the expression “alternative facts” to dispute public reports of the attendance at the Trump inauguration. According to one website,3 Amazon’s sales of Orwell’s 1984 have soared ever since. I leave it to those who’ve read Orwell to ponder the reason: “Newspeak” is a clue.
1 Page 60. All references are to the Feedbooks digital edition. (

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Mitchell, David. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. New York: Random House, 2011

Writing a contemporary novel in a setting familiar to the author may well require some research and exploration. Writing an historical novel, on the other hand, can consume an enormous amount of time digging through histories, sources, geographies and in the interviewing of persons versed in the times and places that are being recreated. At least if the writer feels bound to reflect the setting in time, places and events faithfully.
      Rudy Wiebe wrote The Mad Trapper, a novel about the reclusive Owen Albert Johnson (possibly; his identity is still shrouded in mystery) who holed up in his Arctic cabin and shot a police officer approaching to question him. In the following manhunt, pilot Wop May, renowned for his many kills in dog fights in WWII, was flying a bush plane overhead at the request of the RCMP while officers followed Johnson on foot across the frozen wilderness. In Wiebe’s novel, May photographs the event of Johnson’s killing; in the histories, he doesn’t. May’s extant relatives took serious umbrage at Wiebe’s temerity in altering May’s role in the capture of Johnson.
      When is an historical novel historical and when is it the product of an imagined world?
      I generally approach movies or novels claiming to be “true stories,” or “based on a true story” with considerable skepticism; that description attempts to give the impression that they’re something they’re not. My dubiety centres around difficulties that are obvious: 1) the internal dialogue that leads people to act is unknowable, i.e. thoughts, motives, dreams, impressions can be guessed at based on what actions are known about historical figures, but they are literally closed books; 2) private conversations among and between historical figures likewise are seldom on record and those snatches that are have been recorded by someone whose thoughts, motivations and impressions—likewise—are generally unknowable and must be guessed at. Add to this the paucity of unbiased historical record and it’s not hard to see that novels like Anne of a Thousand Days or even Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar are artful reconstructions at best, storytelling that might actually be a series of bad guesses and poorly-imagined filling of gaps in histories.
      When an historical reality presents the jumping-off point for a storyteller, regarding it as history is a literary misunderstanding; historical fiction is fiction, fiction is invention.
      Take, for instance, the conversation between Jacob de Zoet and Ogawa Uzaemon on page 157:

His neighbor clears his throat. “I am Ogawa, Mr. de Zoet,”
Jacob lurches and water spills. “Mr. Ogawa! I—I thought . . .”
“You so peaceful,” says Ogawa Uzaemon, “I do not wish to disturb.”
“I met your father earlier, but . . .” Jacob wipes his eyes, but with the steamy dark and his farsightedness, his vision is no better. “I’ve not seen you since before the typhoon.”
“I am sorry I could not come. Very many things happen.”
“Were you able to—to fulfill my request, regarding the dictionary?”
“Day after typhoon, I send servant to Aibagawa residence.”
“Then you didn’t deliver the volume yourself?”

Obviously, no scribe recorded this conversation as it occurred, and even that thought is a tautology since neither de Zoet nor Ogawa ever existed historically. Neither did the event giving rise to this conversation happen . . . historically . . . except,
      . . . except that there was an island off the coast of Japan which was the only place where foreign traders were allowed to trade with Japan. For 200 years, the Dutch East Indies Company occupied the island and Dutch traders met with Japanese officials to negotiate trades for valuable and precious metals with Japan, their purchases to be shipped to their East Indies headquarters in Batavia (Jakarta) where they would be repacked for shipment to Europe or traded again, often for silks and spices. During that time, many managers, clerks, servants and slaves came and went on Dejima, and there the interface between two very different cultures would (one supposes) generate interesting dynamics.
      Imagining these dynamics is basically what Mitchell set out, in part, to do.
"David Mitchell once stated that his intention was to 'write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives.'" (Discussion questions in this edition)

      Central character, Jacob de Zoet is the pivot point of the tensions that arise from inside the East Indies/Japan/Batavia/Europe trading world, as well as of the clash of cultures. A pious Dutchman with an uncompromising ethic of honesty in business, he is destined for trouble in the East Indies trading world where fudged reports and under-the-table dealing are common; it’s a cutthroat world. The cross-cultural motif has Jacob becoming enamoured with an exceptional Japanese midwife while his fiance back home waits for his return. These two main motifs are given equal weight raising the possible objection that in attempting to do both justice, they interfere with each other more than they complement. Normally, a novel has one main plot with minor subplots allowable . . . if they support the centre.
      Mitchell has pioneered some interesting new storytelling techniques. Especially noteworthy is his ability to knit together dialogue with the streams of consciousness of the characters. The use of italics to signal thoughts accompanying conversation and events works well, except that when you use italics for this purpose, what do you do with the need to use that convention for emphasis or for the inclusion of a word as object? The proliferation of ellipses, dashes, italics in such abundance takes some adjustment on the reader’s part . . . but it works.

Jubilant, Chamberlain Tomine enters. “A ship is sighted, your Honor!”
“Ships are entering and leaving all the—the Dutch ship?”
“Yes, sir. It’s flying the Dutch flag, clear as day.”
“But . . .” A ship arriving in the ninth month is unheard of. “Are you—”
The bells of every temple in Nagasaki begin to ring out in thanks.
“Nagasaki,” observes the lord abbot, “is in no doubt at all.”
Sugar, sandalwood, worsted, thinks Shiroyama, lead, cotton . . .
The pot of commerce will bubble, and the longest ladle is his.
Taxes on the Dutch, “gifts” from the chief, “patriotic” exchange rates . . . (358)

      A typical novel writing course would include, at least, these topics: character development, plot development, setting (in time and place), diction, point of view, tone, tense and theme. Mitchell’s novel abounds with characters, so many that particularly among the Japanese personalities, I had to keep checking back to remind myself which one was presently acting. In a way, this isn’t a handicap as much as an irritation; the main characters are, after all, the Dutch East Indies Trading Company, the island of Dejima, the slave/servant-function struggling to survive the crush between incompatible Eastern/Western cultures and, probably most significantly, the Japanese culture and polity of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Seen in this way, I would give Mitchell an A for character development.
      I’ve already mentioned that the two connected but essentially independent plot-lines were problematic for me. I think Mitchell would have done well to consider that there are really two novels here; one is based on the biography of a expat Dutchman, Jacob de Zoet caught by the conventions of a culture he doesn’t comprehend, the other based on Jacob de Zoet as protagonist in the story of intrigue and greed that was the sailing-ship trading world of the 18th and 19th Centuries in the East Indies.
      Beginning a novel with the premise that it will teach readers a lesson is generally a bad practice, a bit like attaching a text to a work of visual art explaining what it means. Theme means more than that; the primary theme of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is bound up in the skilfully imagined interactions among human beings in the space in which they live, something central to every lasting work of literary art. Manipulating characters in a deux ex machina manner in order to demonstrate a theme falsifies written art and makes of it a sermon. Sermons have their places, but should not be confused with the product of the creative artist.
      Mitchell’s novel transports us expertly into an exotic time and place and allows us to see ourselves in it. A most satisfying, novel adventure. I became Jacob de Zoet as I read. I’m reminded of the definition of stage art in Hamlet, where the protagonist says to the players:

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. (Hamlet III,ii,17-24)

Seeing the art of the novel as “[holding] the mirror up to nature” is in and of itself thematic; Mitchell’s novel excels in that—in my opinion. Those who prefer to be entertained by the antics of the players are not likely to pass the first few chapters of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
      All art, of course, owes a great deal to the talent and skill behind the brush, the pen, the chisel. Achieving an appropriate tone, employing a diction that perfectly matches the subject of the art doesn’t happen accidentally. Mitchell is an accomplished word-smith and there were times, for me, when the progress of the plot seemed secondary to the flow and cadence of the storyteller's voice. The concise, economical sentence, a sensitive ear for the rhythm and flow of English—in this case—separates good art from the valiant attempt. Mitchell is an artist who handles his pen well.
      The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet employs the third person omniscient point of view and is written in the present tense. Good choices both.
       Four point five stars of five.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Anthony Doerr. All the Light We Cannot See

Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. New York: Scribner, 2014

You might describe All the Light You Cannot See as an historical novel themed around the absurd tragedy of war. Someone else might see it as psychological realism; a story about the resiliency and tenacity of people in the throes of crushing horror. Both would be right; both assessments would be too simple.

Structurally, All the Light We Cannot See can be described as a sequence of triangles, their arms always converging at points. In fact, radio signal triangulation preoccupies the military strategy of the German Wehrmacht as it seeks to clinch its subjugation of France. Resistance movements were thorns in the side of German planning; broadcasting from remote, hidden transmitters, partisans were able to stymie the Germans again and again. New technology made it possible to triangulate the location of the transmitters, however, surprise the resisting civilians bringing the arms of resistance and of anti-insurgency to a point of reckoning.

The reckoning point in All the Light We Cannot See is Saint-Malo, a fortified town on an island off the French coast. Two central characters—a German Hitler-youth named Werner and a blind French girl named Marie-Laure—are followed through youth into early adulthood to a convergence in Saint-Malo just before the city is leveled by the American liberation. It’s through the eyes (the other four senses in Marie-Laure’s case) that we see the unfolding and conclusion of World War II: the excessive cruelty, the indifference to life that escalates and escalates as the world becomes first appalled, then resigned and finally, inured to death and destruction.

Werner and Maurie-Laure both become trapped in the rubble of Saint-Malo, he under a hotel that was communication headquarters for the Wehrmacht and she in the attic of a great uncle’s house where a resistance radio has evaded discovery. Using their skills and learning in new radio technology, they are destined to converge through that medium.

That Doerr is a skilled narrator—probably a writer who could teach Charles Dickens and Jules Verne some useful lessons in gripping, sensory prose writing—almost goes without saying, especially to anyone who’s enjoyed About Grace or The Shell Collector. His handling of structure here, however, amazed me. Disconcerted somewhat at first to recognize that All the Light We Cannot See was going to be told in non-chronological order, I soon came to appreciate the benefits of such a structure, particularly in a case where character-development is absolutely of the essence as it is in this novel. Sections are dated, a concession to the reader I found helpful.

Werner’s primary dilemma is illustrated in his experience as a cadet in a Nazi training facility (Schulpforta). A sensitive, brilliant lad, small for his age, he is cajoled into participation in cadets’ cruelties meant to harden them, and his failure to defend his best friend, Frederick, who is selected for beatings and tortures for his physical weakness will haunt him forever. But although there is no limit to the excesses of the training program, for a youth like Werner who grew up curious and creative, the complete brainwashing cannot necessarily be achieved:

It seems to Werner that all the boys around him are intoxicated. As if, at every meal, the cadets fill their tin cups not with the cold mineralized water of Schulpforta but with a spirit that leaves them glazed and dazzled, as if they ward off a vast and inevitable tidal wave of anguish only by staying forever drunk on rigor and exercise and gleaming boot leather. The eyes of the most bullheaded boys radiate a shining determination: every ounce of their attention has been trained to ferret out weakness. They study Werner with suspicion . . .. (Page 62, online edition)

For Marie-Laure, the struggle, beyond her survival, involves a rare, magnificent artifact from the museum in Paris, an object museum officials seek to protect from the marauding, hoarding German Reich. This object acts as a connecting link through the Paris and Saint-Malo phases of Marie-Laure’s story. Mysterious and unparalleled, she finds it her duty to protect the object from the shameless greed of Nazi officials charged with seeking out and confiscating national treasures. 

What exactly might “treasure” mean to persons who send youth to their inevitable deaths while ferreting through conquered lands, stealing art and handling it with kid gloves? Young Werner says it best:

For Werner, doubts turn up regularly. Racial purity, political purity—Bastian speaks to a horror of any sort of corruption, and yet, Werner wonders in the dead of night, isn’t life a kind of corruption? A child is born, and the world sets in upon it. Taking things from it, stuffing things into it. Each bite of food, each particle of light entering the eye—the body can never be pure. but this is what the commandant insists upon, why the Reich measures their noses, clocks their hair color. The entropy of a closed system never decreases. (Page 276, on line edition, emphasis mine.)

Werner’s sight and Marie-Laure’s blindness provide an enchanting, symbolically rich progression from the intriguing title onward: All the Light We Cannot See. One is tempted to say that it is only the blind who really see when the rest of the world is rendered sightless by madness. That would be too simple, but Marie-Laure’s blindness as summarized by the narrator must give us pause concerning light and darkness:

To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. (Page 390, online edition)

There is light to be had, but it does us no good if we cannot see it, if we’re blinded by the madness of greed, our propensity to follow cruelty and avarice into battle. All the Light We Cannot See.

To learn more about Anthony Doerr’s conception of the novel, the story he envisioned, hear him speak about the novel.

The online edition (and I presume the paper edition as well) contains helpful discussion questions for book club consideration.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

About Grace - Anthony Doerr

Another great read.
Doerr, Anthony. About Grace. New York: Scribner, 2004

“He called them dreams. Not auguries or visions exactly, or presentiments or premonitions. Calling them dreams let him edge as close as he could to what they were: sensations—experiences, even—that visited him as he slept and faded after he woke, only to reemerge in the minutes or hours or days to come.” (7)

Not exactly a story about the inevitability of the things that happen to us in life, About Grace nevertheless touches on the themes of fate, chance and the sentiment expressed so well in the paeon by Henley, “Invictus,”i that we all ponder from time to time. Winkler studies and photographs snowflakes and is amazed that despite them all being different (something we all learned in science class in elementary school), those that fall intact always have six points—not four, never five, always six.

Winkler’s friend, Naaliyah, becomes fascinated with small things as well and studies insects at university in Alaska. What governs the events of insects’ short lives? What governs ours?

And as indicated in the quote above, Winkler’s story turns on his observation that dreams he has—detailed and dramatic—are coming true. For instance, he dreams that a woman in a supermarket line-up will drop an object and he will pick it up. He dreams that a man is run over by a bus. The events happen shortly thereafter, exactly as he dreamed them. 

His conundrum is whether or not the predicted event has to happen, or if he has power to change or prevent it. In this light, the core event of the plot—a dream that their home will be flooded and that he will attempt to carry his young daughter to safety but will accidentally drown her—leads him to run far from home so that the instrument of his daughter’s death in the dream (himself) is not available to fulfill what he dreads.

Unfortunately, being far away in the Caribbean, he’s unable to know whether his flight has saved his daughter or not. The remainder of the story is reminiscent of the picaresque novel (although with relatively little humour) as Winkler begins a search for a lost family through the Caribbean, the contiguous states of the USA, Canada and Alaska. The journey is captivating; the characters encountered along the way memorable.

Because it leans so heavily on the reality of premonitions, many readers may have to suspend disbelief or assume they’re reading what’s called “magic realism.” I’ve had one experience that led me very briefly to the David Winkler conundrum. A high school friend stayed at my house on a weekend because we’d planned a trip to a national park. He related a dream to me as we drove. He’d been driving his truck (which he had to hot wire because the boarding school didn’t allow student vehicle use without special permission), had rolled the truck at the railway crossing and dented the roof. He’d searched for and found a jack to force back the dent in order to prevent detection.

A week later, my friend and his date were killed in a car/train accident at a that crossing.

I became convinced later that my mind had switched the sequence of events and that I myself had dreamed of my friend's dream after the accident. 

The shape of snowflakes, the life cycles of insects are determined in the structures of their cells. The butterfly cannot come before the caterpillar, the snowflake cannot have five points. I am a skeptic of things magical, like Winkler, particularly because of the observation that, in the human mind, these orders and laws don’t necessarily apply. Memory can reorder events as if we were living in a universe of magic realism. Hysteria, mental disease, even stress can cause the mind to imagine a universe so vividly that we can do nothing but take for granted that it’s reality.

And yet, like Winkler, I’m aware that this view of the universe might also be the result of a mental aberration.

And like Winkler, I want to know what laws govern events, what events are random. Chaos theory provides a good description of the way chance events change everything, all the time. That old idea that if one had stopped to talk to a friend for one minute longer, the accident would (or would not) have happened. Some people place God in that niche as the one who governs chance events; the overwhelming evidence, however, is that the suspension of stable, universal laws governed by the miniscule behaviour of cells, atoms, molecules, neutrinos, etc. are never tampered with by outside forces. If God is a handler of puppets, a controller of events, that control must most certainly be confined to the mind, the consciousness, of people and the actions that take or change courses as a result.

We are individually elements in the lives of every other being. The fact that we exist deflects the course of life for everyone else, sometimes infinitesimally, sometimes hugely, wonderfully—or catastrophically. We watched It’s a Beautiful Life a few days ago. The protagonist played by Jimmy Stewart concludes at one point that his family would be better off if he were dead. It’s this conundrum writ large that faces David Winkler in About Grace; what would we give up to save the life of a loved one? Jesus said, Greater Love hath no Man than this, that he give his Life for a Friend. (John 15:13)

Is it by design or by chance that we find ourselves in families? Have we the courage to take upon ourselves the nurturing of our families when only we can provide it, and at what expense? And how much are we prepared to give to gain back what chance has deprived others of?

For me, About Grace is a parable about family, about courage, about winning and losing and the indomitable perseverance of love. A terrific read.
i It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Shell Collector

Doerr, Anthony. The Shell Collector. New York: Scribner, 2002

A high school student once asked me, “So when is a story a ‘short story’ and when is it a ‘novel?’” I explained that it didn’t have to be either, that there were stories called ‘novelettes’ that fell somewhere in between and that lengths were arbitrary. I added that a ‘short story’ is a story that is short. No good. We finally agreed that a short story was one written to be read at one sitting and compared it to a movie which we watch all-at-once versus a series (like Downton Abbey) that we come back to a number of times. That seemed to satisfy students, but not me necessarily.

Anthony Doerr’s ‘short stories’ range from ten to thirty-five or so pages so at a modest reading speed of 300 words-per-minute, the shortest would take about twelve minutes to read; the longest about forty minutes. For slower readers—say 200 wpm, the range would be about eighteen minutes to around seventy.

So ‘short story’ fits.

Anthony Doerr’s books have fetched general acclaim and prestigious awards including the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for All the Light we Cannot See. I actually haven’t read any of his novels—yet—but About Grace is on the coffee table here at my daughter’s home in Panama, and will be my next read. Other novels by Doerr include Four Seasons in Rome and Memory Wall.

Reviewing a short story collection can become something akin to reviewing eight novels: what seems true about “The Shell Collector” needn’t be true about “July Fourth.” My choice is to talk a bit about one of Doerr’s stories, namely the last in the collection, “Mkondo.”

The plot follows a man by the name of Ward Beach who has been sent by a museum to Tanzania to collect a fossil of a rare, prehistoric bird-dinosaur. During his sojourn there, he meets Naima in the most bizarre of encounters; she’s running down the middle of a road so that he’s unable to pass her with his Land Rover. She finally stops, jumps onto the hood of his vehicle and says, “Keep driving, I want to feel the wind!”

Her wild energy captivates him and he begins to “court” her, driving over rough roads to the hut where she lives with her parents. But courting her isn’t easy; every time he visits, she challenges him to catch her and she takes off through paths in the forest with him in pursuit. She always outruns him; she’s too fast and there are too many trails criss-crossing. He goes on a fitness regime to the point where he can almost keep up with her until one day she leads him to the edge of a cliff where her footprints cease. Beach falls over the cliff and finds himself in a deep pool at the bottom where Naima awaits him. He asks her to marry him and she consents. It’s as if she wouldn’t have him until he proved himself able to take “the final step.”

But this is only background. This beautiful, wild creature doesn’t fare well in Ohio. Like a plant in a drought, she wilts from grief at the loss of the Africa she feels she’s left forever, the loss accentuated by the tamed grayness of Ohio. Finally, her despondency is so intense that Beach no longer tries to reach her, she no longer invites him to reach out to her.

Until she discovers photography, that is, a medium through which she reacquaints herself with clouds and skies, light and shadows to the point where she is obsessed with the possibility of reclaiming a world she’s left behind. Mastering the intricacies and excelling in the art she’s discovered gives Naima the courage she needs and she takes herself back to Tanzania and the house in which she grew up.
The story doesn’t end there, but as is typical of other stories in the collection, Doerr avoids the gratuitous supplying of meanings and outcomes, causes and effects, a skill that separates the seasoned storyteller from the amateur.

Doerr’s diction is highly accessible and evocative.

“The truck bounced over potholes, lilted into curves. Still she clung to the hood. Finally the road ended: there was a dense tangle of vines below a steep ravine at the bottom of which the rusting frame of a car lay mangled and bent. Ward opened his door; he was nearly hyperventilating (185-6).”

“Another year passed. He dreamed of her. He dreamed she’d sprouted huge and glorious butterfly wings and circled the globe with them, photographing volcanic clouds rising from a Hawaiian caldera, tufts of smoke from bombs dropped over Iraq, the warped, diaphanous sheets of auroras unfurling over Greenland (212).”

What is true of virtually all the stories in The Shell Collector is the uniqueness of the characters. Griselda is a gangly, six foot something high school volleyball player who marries a metal eater (he swallows razor blades, armours and is purported to have eaten—piece by piece—a Ford Ranger) as a touring show. And there’s Joseph Saleeby, an escapee from the brutal civil war in Liberia who takes a job as a caretaker of a millionaire’s summer home . . . and forgets to take care of it. The title story “The Shell Collector” is centered on a blind collector of shells—a former professor in his field—along the beaches and shallows of a marine park in the Lamu Archipelago in Kenya. The development of believable characters—especially the eccentric kind—is difficult without losing verisimilitude. Doerr amazes with his ability to create characters that live, and with an economy of brush strokes: a rare thing.

I’ve always been partial to short stories. I find most novels too long and you don’t come across many published novelettes anymore. As Anthony Doerr has demonstrated here, the short story genre is able to deliver all we expect when we eagerly pick up a book.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Samantha Power "A Problem from Hell"

Power, Samantha. “A Problem from Hell:”America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, 2002

I'd never thought about the 20th Century as an “Age of Genocide,” but a reading of Power's book makes it even clearer that the last 6 decades of that Century were possibly the bloodiest 60 years in history. We begin with the Holocaust in the 1940s followed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge's brutal purge of intellectuals, former officials and civil servants and anyone not fitting their image of the worthy citizen of a communist society. Then Power retells the stories of the gassing and relocation of the Kurds of Northern Iraq by Saddam Hussein, the brutal Bosnian Serb purging of the country's Muslims and Croats (remember Srebrenica?), the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis by the Hutus of Rwanda and finally, the brutal murder and eviction of the Muslim population of Kosovo.

Had Power written this in 2015, we would no doubt have a chapter on ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

But “A Problem from Hell” isn't primarily a history of the genocides of the last century. Power is an Irish-American who teaches human rights and U.S. foreign policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. She reported on the wars in the former Yugoslavia for the Boston Globe, The Economist and The New Republic from 1993-6. She is well qualified, therefore, to focus on what is her main thrust here, namely the U.S. responses (and non-responses) to the genocides. 

Not surprisingly, her country of adoption doesn't fare well and the thrashing she gives the Bush and Clinton administrations are at the core of her contentions that, a) the U.S. is by its history and placement the obvious world leader when it comes to foreign interventions and b), that the U.S. has repeatedly abrogated its responsibility to exercise that leadership when genocidal crises occur.

Obviously, any decision to send troops and military equipment across oceans to fight foreign wars is fraught with huge risks. In Power's assessment, the U.S. experience of defeat in Vietnam added to the reluctance to engage in Cambodia or Bosnia, for instance, and that's understandable since American politics is a near-continuous struggle for re-election and images of soldiers coming home in body bags don't function well in presidential or senatorial campaigns.

This represents the obvious risk.

But the risk goes both ways: if politicians are seen to be callous in the face of horrors occurring in, say Kurdistan or Kosovo, public opinion has been known to turn on a dime so that the juggling of risks becomes tricky to say the least. In Canada today, a single image of a Syrian child washed up in Greece has put the Harper government in danger of having its eyes blackened by public opinion.

Power has hopes that the reluctance to engage to prevent or mitigate genocides is not as marked as it once was, but that the interminable delays in acting quickly and decisively have cost hundreds of thousands of civilians their very lives. And if the moral, humanitarian reasons aren't enough, Power offers two good reasons for acting decisively when genocide looms its ugly head:

The United States should stop genocide for two reasons. The first and most compelling reason is moral. When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk, it has a duty to act . . . the second reason: enlightened self-interest. [Experts] warned that allowing genocide undermined regional and international stability, created militarized refugees, and signaled dictators that hate and murder were permissible tools of statecraft.(512)

In support of the first reason, Power offers a startling illustration: In 1994, Rwanda, a country of just 8 million, experienced the numerical equivalent of more than two World Trade Center attacks every single day for 100 days.(512)

Reading “A Problem from Hell” turned out to be a project for me. With 516 pages of densely detailed material plus 85 pages of notes, I had to renew the book at the public library to get it done. The nature of the content didn't help, but it's a dangerous world and I believe it's every citizens responsibility to arm himself with a knowledge of history; our collective futures depend on making wiser, timelier decisions.

If you've never heard the story of Raphael Lemkin (whom I mentioned in a post; click here), then a reading of the first 5 chapters alone would make a great project. Lemkin coined the word genocide and spent most of his life pushing the UN to adopt what became a convention on genocide, the foundation for legal interventions in, and trial of perpetrators of, genocide. In a recent visit to the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg, I noted a small display honouring the work of Raphael Lemkin.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man's Garden

Aslam, Nadeem. The Blind Man's Garden. Toronto: Bond Street Books, 2013

The West has dared to ask itself the question, 'What begins after God?'” (p. 319)
'No one from here can know what the Westerners know,' the man says. 'The Westerners are unknowable to us. The divide is too great, too final. It's like asking what the dead or the unborn know.'” 
(p. 350)

Set in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the “War on Terror” following 911, Aslam's superb novel takes us into the land that no Westerner can know, “the divide is too great, too final.” We are on the ground in the land of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, militant arms of Islam running for cover as American helicopters roar overhead. It's a land also of moderate Muslims, lapsed Muslims, Christians. The faithful see the world through the eyes of ingrained belief and the others have placed their confidence in bullets and bombs.

As much as no resident of Heer in Pakistan can understand what makes Westerners tick, so the pilots in those helicopters, the raiding, bombastic American soldiers blindly trespass among the peoples of cultures about which they are effectively clueless.

For the “ordinary” citizen of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the violent turmoil succeeding 9/11 is unfathomable. Loyal to the idea of a brotherhood under attack, young men sneak off to battle zones to fight the infidel, there to be killed in battle action or captured and sold to the Americans for a ransom by warlords with their private agendas. In such a place and time, it's difficult knowing who is brother, who is traitor, who is collaborator. Speaking becomes dangerous; who knows where the words will go to come back through the barrel of a gun?

The story revolves around Rohan who suffers daily with the loss and guilt over his beloved Sofia whose last words to him were that she had lost her faith. Rohan has a son, Jeo, who makes an ill-advised journey toward Kabul to practice his newly acquired medical skills in aid of wounded soldiers. Jeo leaves behind his young wife, Naheed, who was married by arrangement to Jeo while she was deeply in love with Jeo's foster brother, Mikal. In the family also are Yasmin and Basie whose lives are made more than normally precarious by their employment in a Christian school, a place viscerally detested by jihadists and a handy target for hostage taking and attack.

Rohan and Sofia founded a school in Heer meant to be progressive in a regressive society. But since Sofia's death and Rohan's retirement, darker forces have taken it over and turned it into a training ground for what the West calls terrorists, but whom its students would call freedom fighters. Rohan and his family have been allowed to remain living in their house nearby, a house that adjoins a wonderful garden from which the title derives. It's Aslam's sensitive and poetic depiction of the garden and what it means to live among the trees, birds and flowers that forms a fitting counterpoint to the chaos and murder all around.

A poignant interlude in a fast-moving, changing story of the family has Tara—a seamstress and Naheed's mother—taking on the job of sewing an American flag “. . . large, about the size of four bedsheets” so that it can be burned in a demonstration. “'It's for after the Friday prayers next week . . . make sure that it's of a material that doesn't burn too fast or too slowly? The flames have to look inspiring and fearsome in the photographs.” (p. 99) As she sews, Tara wonders about the meaning of the red, white and blue and the complicated design. “Are the white and red stripes rivers of milk and wine, flowing under a sky bursting with the splendor of stars? Or are they paths soaked with blood, alternating with paths strewn with bleached white bones, leading out of a sea full of explosions.” (p. 100)

I am, of course, a Westerner. To the people on the streets of Kabul, Peshawar or Heer, my faith, my culture, my motivations must be as inscrutable as theirs are to me. Westerners need to read Aslam's book, if only to give them a little more of the feeling of what it's like to live in a place where every disagreement with the rest of the world looks like an attack on Islam. Ignorance breeds contempt for the unknown; in The Blind Man's Garden, this tendency is illustrated best when an American soldier is rescued from death in the desert and found to have the Arabic for INFIDEL tattooed on his back. To a devout Muslim, this pride in being an unbeliever is a slap in Allah's face, a thing that cannot possibly be explained or excused.

Like me, you might come away from Aslam's book wondering: what in God's name have we done and are we doing in the Arab world?