sábado, 4 de julio de 2020

Imaginings of Sand by André Brink - masterpiece

Imaginings of Sand by André Brink is, simply put, a masterpiece. Not only does it bring convincing characters to life, flesh out the history of a people, portray the fortunes of a family coping with imposed and unwanted change, it also addresses one of the main political events of the late twentieth century. And André Brink´s novel does all this without the slightest recourse to polemic or posturing. Its themes and statements emerge from the shared lives of its characters. This is subtle authorship at its most accomplished. How many novels might aspire even to one of these achievements?

We are, as in many works by André Brink, not only in South Africa, but also within the Afrikaner community.  We see things through the eyes of Kristien, who is clearly named after her grandmother, the dying Ouma, who is called Kistina. The difference between the names is both slight and significant. They may be separated by time and by political difference, but by the time history has had a chance to view them both, they may be much more similar than first sight might suggest. They are undoubtedly cast in different landscapes, not only in time, but also in terms of the landmarks that might endow their individual sense of permanence. Not only do their values seem different, surely they conflict, given their different politics and ages. Mid-thirties Kristien, of course, has been politically active, while her grandmother has lived on an Afrikaner farm all her life.

Imaginings of Sand begins with Kristien being summoned back to South Africa, because her grandmother is dying. In London, Kristien has had ties with the African National Congress and has campaigned against Apartheid. Her family, with roots stretching back to the original Voortrekkers are, on the face of things, conventional Afrikaner farmers, complete with black servants and employees alongside attitudes that accept without question the supremacy of the Dutch Reform Church, allied to supreme white skin and thus Apartheid.

The message to Kristien in London arrives as South Africa faces change, just before its first multi-radial elections. Apartheid is already a thing of the past, but not yet officially. Political transition is feared by the Afrikaners and there has been much talk of feared violence, even of bloodbath. Kristien´s family house has been attacked and set on fire. Ouma was very old and perhaps frailer than she liked to admit, but now trauma has taken her close to death. Her doctors expect it to be just a few days hence. Her granddaughter insists she should die at home. She has the place cleaned up and made habitable enough for herself and her grandmother, plus, of course, the servant family.

Once home, Ouma Kristina begins to tell her granddaughter the family history and her own life story. How much of it is truth neither Kristien nor we will ever know. Whatever racial or cultural purity the family in theory might claim, Ouma´s history of their ancestry identifies the inevitable complexity. But a thread that runs throughout is the central vulnerability of women. Sweet children, then playthings and finally enforced child-bearers seems to be the repeated and indeed only pattern. Any deviation assumes a break from both culture and identity, but it is a break that anyone from an Afrikaner community finds almost impossible to accomplish. Publicly condemned for any expression of independence, women are equally damned for any sign of disloyalty to community or family or husband, no matter how inconsiderate, lascivious or even violent he may be. For the first time, Kristien comes to terms with the life her own mother led before she died all too young.

History seems to have repeated itself a number of times. Anna, Kristien´s sister, seems to be respectably but unhappily married to Casper, who is both Boer and boor. When he is not chasing a woman´s tail, he is busy organising what can only be described as a vigilante force to anticipate problems of majority rule. They seem determined to get their retaliation in first.

And so the tale of family and national history unfolds. The politics of state, community, family and sex develop and intertwine. Race, gender and class play their roles as well. But yet this novel never descends into polemic. It is never less than credible, never less than real. Its style, indeed, in often an African variety of magical realism that both amplifies and enlivens the already fantastical stories of Ouma Kristina. The plot always surprises, even to the very end, but none of these events, however, bizarre, is anything less than credible, From the start, it is a masterpiece.

viernes, 3 de julio de 2020

Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse

I can remember the days we used to sit around in South Kensington when I was a student talking about the latest Hermann Hesse we had just read. It’s over 45 years ago…and I´ve not read much of his work since then.

Beneath the Wheel is an early work, his second novel, published in 1906. Strangely, it does not feel like the work of a young man, despite dealing with adolescence as its central theme.

Hans is a studious young man from a modest background who outperforms his own estimation in entrance exams. He gets his place. He becomes very studious indeed and seems certain to graduate with sufficient achievement to become a pastor. Whether this is his own ambition is never particularly clear. But the assumption follows him around as he studies.

And then there appears Hermann, who may or may not be named after the Germanic opponent of the Roman Empire. Hermann is a direct, experience-led, let’s go for it type, the very opposite of Hans. They become friends. There is at least a suggestion that the thought of homosexuality, rather than the reality, formed part of their process of mutual change. Their relationships with their own intellects change, however, as does the way that intellect is approached by others. Hans is destroyed. But he is happier, we might think, than he would have been had his life never contained risk.

At least that’s one way of looking at things. It might also be read as a warning, a morality to encourage the young to stay on the straight and narrow. One might conclude that at the time Hesse himself was aware of a dichotomy within his own thinking, and this might have been his way of writing what he saw as a demon out of his system.

The style was recognizable from early on. There is a detachment about this writing. Dialogue usually seems said and difficult, and the roundness of the experienced is tempered by the fact that it seems rather removed from the reality in which it participates. Didn’t expect it to enthrall, but it did.


jueves, 2 de julio de 2020

The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

This proves to be a surprisingly good read. He contrasts hunter-gatherer societies, especially those in New Guinea, with WEIRD societies – white, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. A taste…

P174 Even studies of child development that claim to be broadly cross-cultural – eg comparing German, American, Japanese and Chinese children – are actually sampling societies all drawn from the same narrow slice of human cultural diversity…. As a result, those and other state-level modern societies have converged on a small range of child-rearing practices that by historical standards are unusual.

P300 real difference between hunter gatherer, traditional societies and WEIRD ones is that the traditional society allows you to have sex whenever you want, but you really worry about where the next meal is coming from…

P301 describes practise of pooling food resources in traditional societies... Even those who have not participated in the foraging or hunting get a share.

miércoles, 1 de julio de 2020

An Inquiry into the Permanent Causes of Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations by William Playfair.

Perhaps the less said the better… It’s long, at least we can all agree there. He seems to have a problem with selling things on credit… He also seems to be incapable of imagining a circumstance whereby a growing United States might just outgrow UK not only in size but also economic capability. He sees the growth of the US as a means of assuming the continued dominance of UK manufactures for decades to come. Maybe he was right. On the whole, however, neither an edifying read, nor a memorable one.

It may be a big work, but it richly deserves its thin reputation.

lunes, 29 de junio de 2020

Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

 A book started with much excitement and anticipation was finished with a whimper of "Why did he bother?"

We have Axl and Beatrice, a devoted elderly couple, ancient Britons who have lived amongst Saxons for almost as long as they can remember, decide to set off to search for a long-lost son who lives they know not where. Somehow, they will find him. Along the way they encounter Sir Gawain of the Green Knight, various young people, several older people and a few religious types. Sword-wielding warriors play their part, as do various ogres, pixies and a dragon. One monster turns out to be a dog.  A dog? With how many heads, how many eyes, and does it live up a donkey's arse?

Sorry to sound cynical, but if this book is really about the loving relation ship between the elderly couple, or indeed something related to the inevitable passing of time, then it is doubly unsuccessful. Rarely have I been so disappointed by a book from an author who can actually write.

Perhaps Isiguro suffered from writer's block, and this was his way of overcoming the problem. His wife, apparently, recommended the first draft for the bin. A woman of taste. Fantasy, it seems to me, is always an excuse for lack of imagination. How many legs shall the beast have? And just how I'll-defined do you want the threat? How many clichés can you take?

It is only my opinion. But it was a true waste of time.

domingo, 28 de junio de 2020

Family Album by Penelope Lively.

One comment that is often made about many writers - usually women - is that all too often the material does not venture beyond the garden gate. Domesticity rules, reigns and all too often stifles. Except, of course, when it falls into the grasp of a truly expert writer, when these self-imposed limits open up a veritable universe of experience.

In Family Album, Penelope Lively often gets far beyond the garden gate, but strangely, she convinces us that in the minds of her characters, that limit is a permanent horizon, the crossing of which will never be possible. The garden gate in question gives us open access to Allersmead, a sprawling three story Victorian middle class dwelling, perfect for a large family with live-in staff. And, on opening the front door to be greeted by the ubiquitous smell of fine family cooking, it is this arrangement that we encounter. Charles, aloof, bookish, perhaps a snob and utterly dedicated to the pursuit of pseudo-academic, self-defined literary explorations in his study, is married to Alison, the wife and mother. They have uncountable children -  is it five, is it six? - and also host a Scandinavian maid-cum-nanny-cum-home-help-cum-whatever-else, as we will learn.

Allersmead, the Victorian pile, is witness to the myriad of events, games, meals, relationships, disputes, treaties, failures, successes and accommodations that family life inevitably entails. Penelope Lively seems not to claim that these people are anything special, though they clearly are. By virtue of their individuality and personality, they are unique, both as individuals and as a family. They are nothing special. But then everything about them is special. Just how does Charles manage to keep writing books that sell? What is he actually doing behind that closed sturdy door? And what do the children get up to when they disappear to play in the cellar? And from where does Alison draw her inspiration for all those delectable table treats? It is, perhaps, a mystery.

Do not expect a plot. There is none. But who needs a plot when lives are drawn as perfectly as this? The lives themselves, the family life indeed as a character in its own right become the plot. We are drawn in as a guest and observer, possibly even participant. And it is the accuracy, poignancy and precision of observation and expression at which we marvel. This is writing of the utmost beauty and skill. Every word seems crafted to supply a detail that would be lacking in a thousand pictures. Genius at work.

At least that's how Charles might see it. Ingrid, the Scandinavian maid, moves out for a while and family hiatus ensues. She returns and lives are picked up where they were left off. Except that perhaps some family members have picked up more than they knew. Lives diverge. Children grow up  and start to assert their individuality, their personal priorities. Where will it lead than? And will it be where they wanted to go. Only time will tell.

Family Album is one of the most beautiful, most moving books it is possible to imagine. Be drawn along with these lives, and there will be no consequences, for there perhaps never are. We become what we are, we aspire to what we imagine, and we achieve precisely what we achieve. Our goal is to be human, though not all of us achieves that particular end. We err. We lie, perhaps. We deceive, do we? In Penelope Lively's Family Album we will find all the snapshots, all the pictures that tell the story, but it's the words that count, so few, saying so much, each one worth a thousand pictures.

sábado, 27 de junio de 2020

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain is a deceptively complex book. The deception is borne of its author's skill to render complexity in a subtle, sensitive and simple way. Simplicity comes from the focus on a small group of families who interact in many of the ways acquaintances do. This is small town Switzerland, where perhaps very little of the unexpected ever arises. Complexity arises, however, from the ubiquity of sexual relations, passing lives, an approaching world war, with its persecution of Jews and a need to adopt neutrality.

The neutrality arises from the book's setting, which is Switzerland. But even in a land of clockwork, nothing is straightforward or predictable. Even time is not linear. When we start, we encounter Gustav and Anton, two young friends forging a relationship together. Their families are also close. They go on holiday together. The boys form a bond.

Then some years earlier, we encounter Gustav's mother, Emilie, as a teenager, still a maiden as Rose Tremain describes her, at a festival in her home town of Matzingen. It's an ordinary place, between the Jura and the Alps, not mountainous, not clockwork-pretty, just local. Both local and personal considerations fill the consciousness of Emilie, who instinctively knows the time is right. Erich was in the police and she was much arrested. A marriage ensues, and there are children. But there is little that is conventional about the eventual birth of Emilie’s son, the Gustav of the book's title. Rose Tremain would surely point out that in life little is ever predictable.

The Gustav Sonata is a book whose plot consists of the substance of people's lives. Any review that describes their relationships is pure spoiler. Even a list of elements might come too close to detail best left to the reading. But suffice it to say that there are multiple elements of interrelation between the families we meet in the book. Erich has a superior in the police. The boss has a wife. The Second World War turns everything upside down. Jews need to escape from neighboring countries. Emilie and Erich's close friends are Jewish. They have a son called Anton. Anton and Gustav are friends.

There is insubordination, sexual dalliance, splits and reformations.  There is time spent back at home with mother. Disgrace appears in its ugliest form, and destruction ensues. Ambition drives achievement, but careers never quite materialize.

The Gustav Sonata is a beautiful book because its characters come to life. Their experiences are particular, but always credible. They almost tell one another what they want, but gaps will inevitably widen, and misunderstandings, deceptions and outright lies breed in the void.

What is so refreshing about this book is that none of these people ever achieve greatness, and none of them fall to complete destitution. Events remain local, personal or familial. And precisely because of that, everything remains credible. The effects are magnified by their closeness to home.

Throughout Rose Tremain's always surprising but always simple and free-flowing prose provides the perfect vehicle to communicate these complex relationships in their simplest, yet most vivid form.