Thursday, January 28, 2010

Saint Augustine by Garry Wills – a biography of the early Christian saint.

A young African man with a taste for sex and a highly developed sense of both religion and mission travels across the Mediterranean. He decides to sail. Once in Italy, he communes with the rich and powerful and then, some years later, makes the return journey via the same means of transport, and thereby completes the sum total of his life’s travels.

We know a lot about the man, not only from his own writings which are both extensive and preserved, but also from the accounts of many of those contemporaries who met him, engaged in intellectual and theological debates with him, or merely reported. The Roman Empire had only recently espoused Christianity. It was an era when the young faith was divided by schism. A strength of this biography of Augustine is that it brings home the passion that characterised these differences. A weakness, however, is that the different variants of fourth century Christianity are not clearly delineated. This would, perhaps, be too much to ask in a short account of a life, but there are times when understanding of the text is compromised because of this omission. What does come alive, however, is how recent were the memories of persecution under Diocletian. It was a difference in attitude to some of those who succumbed to denial of their faith under that persecution that created one major schism.

Donatists refused to re-admit those who had renounced their faith under threat and were the main expression of Christianity in North Africa. Our young African man chose to ally himself with the Roman church, thus placing himself in a local minority. Pelagius who was around at the time denied the concept of original sin. Quite often it seems that he didn’t, then he did, and then he didn’t again. It was a heresy, needless to say. But, and I feel it might be an attractive concept even today, the idea that the Church was not full of sinners had its adherents. Arians stressed the humanity, not the divinity of Jesus Christ. This allowed them to avoid at least some of the problematic concept of three deities in one, a holy trinity. The concept has been a confusion and for many outside of Christianity it appears to be a wholly unnecessary complication. Arian thought, however, Gary Mills points out, is only reported by those who opposed them, so an accurate representation of their philosophy is difficult to establish. Manicheans, unlike Christians, saw the universe in black and white, a competition between good and evil. There were aspects of light and dark in everything and everyone, but it was the interplay between the two that determined where an individual might be placed in the overall scheme of things. Manichaeism has largely disappeared from world religion, its only remaining bastion being Hollywood, where it provides the basis of most films aimed at the popular audience.

All of these ideas, heresies and religions were themselves in competition in the homeland of Augustine of Hippo. And through Gary Wells’ book we gain an insight into how an individual thinker and philosopher grappled with the contradictions and tried to make sense of what he regarded as the correct line. The book is a window on Augustine’s thoughts , thoughts that often deal with the base as well as the obviously spiritual. Gary Wills provides real insights into Augustine’s charm, the magnetism of his rhetoric and the logical processes of his thought. And he manages to this in just 150 pages, pages that also include significant and poignant quotes from Augustine’s work. The stained glass analogy on religion applies. If you look at windows from outside, they are merely sold grey. On the inside, they reveal full and splendid colour. There might be many a modern reader who would be confused as to why it matters that a concept is associated with this or that belief. But for a Christian and certainly for someone who sees the windows in full colour it clearly does matter.

Gary Wills’s book brings the debates and issues alive even for the general reader, though it has to be said that sometimes the detail of the theological debate is less than penetrable. This is a book of many surprises. View the book on amazon Saint Augustine (Lives)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Don Quixote de La Mancha

I’d like some advice from other writers. I’ve just finished a book. It’s my fourth time through it. It might be a bit over-written, perhaps over-read. The writer found the manuscript on a stroll through a street market in Toledo, Spain. It was written in Arabic, a language of which the author only know a little, but he could see from page one that there was something special about this text. He translated it into Spanish, and then others rendered it in English. 

The book is a little less than five hundred thousand words. It has no plot, and little obvious characterisation. The style varies, and there are several quite glaring inconsistencies, most of which I just laugh off as inconsequential. There are no intrigues. There may be a few murders, but none within the book’s pages. There are no spacecraft, aliens, plots that threaten the earth, spies, terrorists or dog lovers. There’s not much sex, and what exists is largely imagined from afar and is unconsummated, or is very close at hand and is perpetrated by a hag with excess kilos and few teeth. 

There’s a lot of largely unintelligible games and role-plays, some fantasy, most of which is at the level of fairy-tale, some satire and a lot of innuendo. The main protagonists are rather sexist, racist and, by modern standards, religious bigots. Could anyone suggest a publisher?

On the other hand, I have a novel that contains such familiar scenes that a good proportion of the world’s population would recognise them. It’s accessible, written in an easy prose that makes few demands on the reader, and whose protagonists are just ordinary people, not unlike those who might read it. It features a man who is so obsessed with celebrity and deluded by popular culture that he believes he too can become a star. No-one, of course, in modern society would ever think that. And, incidentally, it’s been a best seller in multiple editions and languages for over four hundred years. Could anyone suggest a publisher?

I have just finished a fourth reading of Cervantes’s classic Don Quixote. I have now read it in two quite different translations, one via Wordsworth Classics and the other Penguin. The book is more like several years of soap opera episodes, series such as the Archers, Coronation Street or Emmerdale and definitely not Dr Kildare, Ironside or Kojak, let alone Dallas. It comes to an end because its author wanted to kill it off, since even in its own time it had become something of a cliché. In some ways it’s a book that’s so ‘modern’ it’s ahead of contemporary fiction. At the same time, its scenarios need footnotes because they are unfamiliar to us. After all, soap opera installments from a month ago are out of date. The ones in this book are four hundred years old. In essence, however, the delusion presented by popular culture is precisely the same.

At its core, we have a middle-aged, in his day perhaps elderly man who is obsessed with popular culture and celebrity. He doesn’t want to be a film star, footballer or pop singer. He wants to be a knight, travelling the countryside, doing good deeds that the role demands. One day he decides that this is the life for him and, to the consternation of his household, he decides he must live this life of fantasy. Unlike his heroes, however, his sports car is a clapped out old banger, his designer clothes are rejected junk from charity shops, and his millionaire’s mansion is the local pub. His contemporaries merely laugh at him, but he remains utterly convinced of his call to stardom. But, and this is the crucial fact, he never loses his wisdom, however false its basis might have been. Neither does he lose his faith, though misplaced, in his own superiority.

No-one else shares these faiths, except perhaps his travelling companion, Sancho Panza. He is a peasant, with a down-to-earth view of life and a thoroughly bucolic interpretation of its challenges. He proves, however, to be as wise as his master, a lord he hardly ever questions. No-one else shares this faith in the master, but then that’s the point. Life is once through. If we dream, it’s as good as any reality. So, after four times through this great novel, I have no more idea what it’s about, or what it says than when I started it for the first time. It’s funny, and in places it’s incomprehensible. It’s absurd. It’s serious. It’s stupid, inane, both intellectually challenging and inconsequential at the same time. I am also a few thousand words from the end of a modern parody of Don Quixote, which I hope is as focussed as its inspiration. Can anyone suggest a publisher?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Perilous transition – Imaginings Of Sand by André Brink

Imaginings Of Sand by André Brink was a second novel I recently encountered where an old woman, close to death, related a life story. The book’s central character is Ouma Kristina, an unconventional Afrikaner lady, bed-ridden and severely burned after her house was torched by raiders. André Brink has her relate a family history to her near-namesake granddaughter, a modern, independently-minded thirty-something, and in her own time and way also unconventional. She seems to have broken free from her past, perhaps even rejected it, has lived in London and has even joined the African National Congress.

Through her grandmother’s stories, the younger Kristien rediscovers her heritage, her family history and via that her people’s history. It’s a long story and is delivered, eventually, directly from the coffin. While Sebastian Barry’s heroine in Secret Scriptures relates a purely personal tale from her deathbed, André Brink’s Ouma Kristina tells not only her own story, but also that of the family ancestors, and always via a matriarchal lineage. It’s the women that make the history, and that history reflects the story of an entire people, spanning two centuries

 In both books, the scenarios lack credibility, but equally, once suspension of belief has been achieved, both work beautifully as literary mechanisms. In Brink’s novel, however, Ouma Kristina’s project is much bigger than telling her own story and eventually it even begins to illustrate how myth can create history and vice versa. Not bad for an old lady burnt to a cinder! Imaginings Of Sand is also for me a third recent novel examining the fears, hopes and realities surrounding South Africa’s transition to legitimate statehood in the 1990s. Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People dealt mainly with imagined fears alongside valued relationships, whereas J M Coetzee’s Disgrace encountered messy reality.

André Brink’s project in his novel is both more ambitious and more mundane, and it is also more successful. It concentrates on one family and its history, but it’s a history that mirrors that of the Afrikaner people. Young Kristien, newly returned from London where she lived a life that was perfectly inconceivable for her grandmother, her parents and even her own sister, learns much and understands more from her grandmother’s stories. We sense the widening perspective that she sees. We feel the character grow. Of course, the contemporary family also has its current issues. Caspar, husband of Kristien’s elder sister is a rampant Boer, a boer and a boor. He figures significantly in the book’s denouement, acted out as the old woman predictably and eventually expires, South Africa elects a new government and Kristien, herself, makes a decision she would not have thought possible just weeks before.

The subtlety of Imaginings Of Sand lie in how André Brink uses the family dispute as a metaphor for what is feared in the wider society. Suffice it to say that after a period of oppression and exploitation, it is possible that the repressed, guilt-ridden middle ground is the most likely source of over-reaction. The family’s history related by the dying grandmother might occasionally stray into too much detail, and sometimes the fantasy, the myth that André Brink seeks to introduce through their embroidery, might seem a tad false or confused. But then that’s myth, isn’t it? But Imaginings Of Sand is as close to a masterpiece of fiction as anything I have read in many years. Its successes are on many levels, across a multitude of parallel themes. It’s an historical novel. It’s a political novel. It enacts a subtly-constructed psychological drama. It also, ambitiously, sees everything from a female standpoint, thus binding both the reality and the myth of regeneration and reproduction into the fabric of the story.

The book is thus a novel that demands to be read by anyone with an interest in Africa, South Africa in particular, history, politics, psychology, women or merely people. And it you don’t fall into any of these categories, read it anyway! It’s a masterpiece.

View the book on amazon Imaginings of Sand