Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Child In Time by Ian McEwan

Stephen Lawes appears to be pretty well-heeled. His successes seem remarkable. He is a successful writer of children’s books. He is acquainted with Charles Darke, who is apparently being groomed for a ministerial position in government. Via this connection, Stephen also sits on a Whitehall committee to examine policy options on childhood, children, education and related issues. He himself also seems to have the prime minister’s ear. He has a wife, Julie, who loves him and beautiful little three-year-old daughter, Kate, whom he worships. But then one day Kate is no longer there. On a trip to the shops with her father, there are events that take her out of her parents’ lives.

In her absence, Stephen continues to worship her, to see her walking along the street, in a school playground, perhaps everywhere he tries to look. Meanwhile life goes on, but for Stephen aspects of it begin to disintegrate. The child has stopped his time. There follows, in Ian McEwan’s novel, The Child In Time, an examination of childhood. 

In various guises, this biologically-fixed but socially-defined state is seen to influence and control the lives of the book’s characters. The fact that children are sexually and physically immature human beings whose characteristics are still developing seems pretty immutable. But what is it that demands they should eat special foods from special menus? Is it essential that the experience of childhood should be always multi-coloured, perhaps as a preparation for the unending greyness of adulthood? 

And why, in the twenty-first century is it deemed that children should not work, when in the nineteenth it was considered desirable, perhaps even essential for everyone’s greater well-being? If we are stressed in our daily lives, how much of our ability to cope, or not cope, stems from our ability to re-invent a child’s curiosity and enthusiasm, not to mention naiveté? And is this state also perhaps a place of protecting retreat? 

And how exactly did we manage to create this space? The Child In Time examines several strands of thought relating to infancy, childhood and dependency via the assumptions and reactions of adults. It is a novel with multiple parallel strands, more of a meditation on a theme than a focused, linear progression. It always plays with its ideas. But not all of them work. 

Charles Darke’s adoption of a second childhood, whether conscious or not, as a means of protecting himself from himself, is compellingly credible. But the presence of licensed beggars in a society not located in any particular time or any declared political ideology simply doesn’t wash. This science-fiction element of the book asks a sound but imagined question about our attitudes toward childhood, but jars with and detracts from the rest of the book’s recognisable landscape. 

 As ever, Ian McEwan mixes concepts of philosophy and sociology with the minutiae of daily life. Stephen Lawes does not seem to be wholly credible, however. His mix of interests and capabilities seems to be a tad too eclectic, too widely and thinly spread for him to come across as convincing in any discipline. At times, he seems even peripheral, dashing from one event to the next merely to witness what the author wanted to illustrate. But these are small criticisms of a magnificent book. Eventually the novel provides an uplifting experience. 

It takes the reader to places where the characters find themselves, places where they also want to be. Then, having reached their goal, much of what went before falls into new perspectives, and the whole process might just be ready to start again, but this time in socially-changed garb. It’s a bit like life, really... See this book on amazon The Child in Time

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Steps Of The Sun by Caroline Harvey, aka Joanna Trollope

I approached The Steps Of The Sun not knowing what to expect. Its author was listed as Joanna Trollope writing as Caroline Harvey. I had previously read nothing in either name. But it struck me that if you wanted a nom de plume, then Non de Plume was not a good choice. I persevered, however, largely because I have also never read a novel set in the Boer War. The Steps Of The Sun presents life amongst a middle-class set whose lives are turned upside down by the conflict. Matthew Paget is a college lad, son of a churchman, and he is seeking something exciting out of life. His passions sometimes take him that step too far. He enlists to fight in South Africa without his family’s backing or even knowledge. Will Marriott, his cousin, is a military type and also thinks that way to boot. He performs his duty when required and is proud to represent his country in battle. Hendon Bashford is the obvious cad. He’s half Boer but considers himself true-blood English. His contribution to the conflict will always be against his own people, which ever side he joins. 

There are women in The Steps Of The Sun. Adelaide is the most interesting. She flirts with pacifism, even meets journalists. But then she assists the war in her own way. Matthew’s sister, Frances, tends to the prissy. And then there’s a Boer girl who is twice excused her fate. First her home is not burned down – at least today – and second, apparently unlike all other Boer women, as we are told, she is not pregnant. There are some interesting aspects to the book. A description of the war’s concentration camps is welcome, as is Adelaide’s conflict of interest. But overall what promised to be an intriguing read tended to gloss over the military, fragment the history and barely visit the country. The Steps Of The Sun was still worth reading, but its high points were quite well buried.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Arabia by Jonathan Raban

At the end of the seventies Jonathan Raban wandered across the Middle East. Arabia was the book he wrote after impressionistic visits to Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan and, briefly, Lebanon. Paradoxically, the book starts and finishes in London, because it was there that questions about Arab identity and culture arose in the author’s mind. 

 In Earls Court the author muses on the question, “Who are the Arabs?” At the time in common prejudice they had a reputation for association with terrorism, being fundamentally religious and having uncountable wealth. So it seems that times have not changed that much… So Jonathan Raban resolved to find out for himself. Unlike most authors of travelogues, however, Jonathan Raban saw his first task as learning the language and, as a result of this laudable approach, Arabia is perhaps more of an achievement than it otherwise might have been. 

In a nutshell, he found Bahrain seedy and Qatar rich but built in a scrap-yard. Abu Dhabi was new and squeaky clean, eager to impress, while Dubai seemed to be populated by business sharks, opportunistic, pragmatic but obsessively driven and eager to excel. All Yemenis appeared to be overactive dwarves on a spending spree. Egypt was big and scruffy, and Jordan was like Switzerland with parties.

You will gather immediately that Arabia is not an in-depth study of Arab culture, society or indeed anything else. Its pages are heavily populated with stories of expatriates, the sort of people who might be eager to talk over a drink in a bar. Though he quotes Thesiger, Jonathan Raban seems to have neither the inclination nor the means to follow the explorer into the desert. This is not a criticism. He also quotes Alice, but does not venture into wonderland. But there again, perhaps he does precisely that, especially in Abu Dhabi. 

Thirty years later, a casual visitor to the places Jonathan Raban frequented might have similar impressions, except the places and the associated reactions would all be much bigger. Bahrain’s planned causeway was built and at weekends there are even more Saudis doing what Saudis do at weekends. Abu Dhabi is vastly more splendid, and Dubai is still trying to be the tallest, biggest, the best in something measurable and sellable.

Jordan may well be significantly poorer than the country Jonathan Raban found. It seems he may have found it difficult to escape the swish diplomatic and international resident areas, and he never made it to Wadi Rum or Petra, so didn’t even have a tourist experience to relate. I have never been to Yemen or Egypt, so I cannot comment on them. One thing that always comes across in Jonathan Raban’s work is a willingness to engage with people, very often over a whisky! And, though Arabia might only make a very light scratch across the surface of its subject, its focus on individual vignettes makes it a highly entertaining and engaging read. The region is no doubt still host to many others like them. 

The book is also mildly informative. And, on a weekend where debates rage on the proposed construction of a mosque in New York, it is interesting to reflect how little attitudes towards the book’s subject seem to have changed.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan

Usually – if such a word can be applied to rare events – Nobel Laureates are recognised towards the end of a lifetime’s achievement. The true significance of work has to be established before it can be recognised. Michael Beard, modifier of Einstein’s photovoltaics, producer of the Beard-Einstein Conflation, or should that have been the Einstein-Beard Conflation, seemed to receive his ultimate recognition a tad early in life. Surely it would have been the proposed grand application of his work that swayed the judges rather than the mere realisation of theory. So if there is to be a criticism of Ian McEwan’s novel, Solar, it is precisely this. 

But then Michael Beard always was a precocious winner, after coming first in a beautiful baby award. So there. This is my only criticism of Solar. I thought that Ian McEwan would never write anything to challenge the intensity, complexity, ease of expression and irony of Saturday. But Solar achieves all of this and much more.

In his professional life, Michael Beard is a scientist, a physicist with an interest in light. Energy becomes his focus and, via his photovoltaic conflation, he begins to address energy production for a warming planet. Or does he? Does he receive rather than initiate? And does he acknowledge? Both meticulous and precise in his professional guise, Michael Beard is a sybaritic, lecherous slob in the private domain. 

We meet him first upon his fifth wife, Patrice. With her he has at last found happiness – at least when they are together. Periods apart find him pursuing anything available before or after a half a bottle of Scotch. Unknown to him, Patrice is doing precisely the same, but remaining sober. From Michael Beard’s conventionally misogynist standpoint, this seems unfair and he calls foul. Aldous is just the sort of bloke that – all things being equal (which of course they are not!) – Michael Beard would both ignore and avoid. He’s big, hefty, wears sandals and a pony tail. 

His apparently laid back approach to life is surely anathema to Michael Beard’s internally perceived order. After all, didn’t a youthful Beard sport a jacket and tie with pens in the top pocket right through the 1960s? How times change, he might reflect, on pushing aside a pile of unwashed dishes mixed with general detritus in his London flat. But besides threatening, Aldous is also brilliant. He is a young post-doc recruited to assist Michael’s research. 

And then there’s Tarpin, a builder decidedly not of the same social class as the venerable academic. Things come together at the end of the book’s first part. Suffice it to say that Michael Beard’s involuntary circumcision at the hands of frost while taking a leak somewhere near Spitzbergen might just have been Mother Nature getting her own back, her feminist equaliser before the stronger opposition has even scored. Unfortunately for Michael Beard, however, his tendency to spread himself too thinly provokes the termination of his Government-sponsored energy research. The director, Braby, sacks him, an act that injures pride. Michael internalises the rejection not as a failure but as an opportunity, given his multiple avenues of interest. How can it offend him? He’s won a Nobel Prize. Can’t he do precisely what he wants, even beyond criticism? 

 Beard is confronted with alternative views of both life and the universe. Everything follows. Later he is apparently committed to just one woman, Melissa, but without marriage, mutually-agreed. But he is constantly pulled elsewhere. His logical-positivist assumptions are questioned, both at home and abroad. People can lie, deconstruct, reconstruct. So can he. The only consistency in his personal life is its inconsistency, constantly inconsistent. But his professional assumptions are questioned by social constructivism, by phenomenological attack on the universality he assumes. The consequence is an irrational but wholly real reconstruction of a reality he thought he had both defined and described. His method of coping is enigmatic and inventive, but its public expression is totally uncontrolled, misconceived. 

 Michael’s research points to a breakthrough in energy production. He can split water using sunlight and catalysts that promote artificial photosynthesis. He can truly harness the sun. Perhaps it vies for the centre of his universe. The results can burn carbon-free to power the world. His new daughter calls him a saviour. But his business brain shares his scientific nodes. He has patents. He hires Hammer to deal with detail, a task he accomplishes supremely until just before the scheduled switch on of the prototype in the New Mexico desert. 

The rest is history. Solar presents a multiplicity of themes. But I think its main plank is an age-old conundrum. In an address presenting the Nobel Prize to Beard, a professor refers to Feynman’s illustration of the elegance of Beard’s Conflation. Tangled, knotted strings that dancers further complicate can, under the right conditions, with the right foresight, fall to a simple untangled simplicity with a single tug. Thus Beard had taken a knotted intellectual theory and let it fall free of its complications. In his private life, however, Beard truly found complication. What was simple he knotted by quirk, by over-indulgence, by ill-discipline and by visceral opportunity. 

If the beautiful but independently-minded Melissa was temporarily unavailable across an ocean that provided the vacuum, then the fiftyish, flabby Darlene, a waitress in a New Mexico diner, provided the pressure. But she took her temporary role seriously, an attitude that Michael Beard never expected. No matter how complicated our lives become, no matter how intertwined, no matter how independently we present identity, career, research or discovery, ultimately they all reduce to a simple cocktail of body fluids, desires – usually only partly fulfilled - and ultimately a resort to self-preservation, a fundamental state that can be obscured by our relentless pursuit of receding detail. 

Thus Ian McEwan presents a contrast between potentially enduring rationality that seeks out permanence and base, immediate desire driven by instincts we cannot even recognise, let alone control. At the last, it is illusory permanence that presents the true delusion. And what about constancy and the enduringly rational? Ask me tomorrow. See this book on amazon Solar

Friday, August 13, 2010

Tree by F Sionil José

Having just re-read Ngugi’s A Grain Of Wheat, I decided to visit Frankie Sionil José’s novel Tree. Ngugi described a struggle for freedom that succeeded. The perspective he chose was that of poor people caught up in events. Francisco Sionil José, on the other hand, describes the aftermath of a national struggle that failed, and from the point of view of the middle classes who may even have benefited from the USA’s initially opportunist snatch of victory from the nationalists. 

In the Philippines, the struggle was against Spain, and it was won. But then Spain collapsed and the USA intervened and a new war had to be won. From the point of view of Filipinos, perhaps it was lost. Four hundred years in a convent followed by fifty in Hollywood is how Filipinos often sum up their history. 

In its own way, Francisco Sionil José attempts a description of that history via his sequence of Rosales novels. Tree covers the period from the 1930s to the 1950s, and follows the growth of its main character from a child to a freshman medical student. It describes the Philippines from Commonwealth to independence. Crucially, when the latter arrives, it is hardly celebrated. The social order has long since been cemented and our family in Rosales are on the landowners’ side. Independence brings the Huk rebellion and a dangerous challenge to their status. 

 Tree is a novel that is not strong on plot. It is almost possible to read its chapters as a series of short stories, portraits of the people and events that filled its narrator’s life. In concept, the Rosales novels have something – only something, I stress! – in common with Anthony Powell’s Dance To The Music Of Time. They bear witness, but only rarely interpret. In the centre of Rosales, a small town in Pangasinan, north of Manila, is a large, old and rambling balete tree. It seems to be indestructible. Even when an American soldier with an excavator runs into it, the tree survives. The excavator is ruined – the hardware, not the person – and hangs around until locals cut it up for scrap. Now there’s a comment on the USA’s legacy in the Philippines. Spain’s colonial legacy survives in the form of vocabulary, names of dishes and of people. 

What’s in a name? The answer is a culture – a landowner versus a peasant, a Catholic versus an Aglipayan, not to mention a new-fangled follower of Iglesia Ni Kristo. Tree, essentially, is an impressionistic picture of a small society. There are hints at conflict, suggestions of the unrealised, usually centred on lack of rights to land, to produce, to opportunity. In microcosm, Tree suggests what the Philippines might have been, but never achieved. Crucially, had it done so, its main character would probably never have the chance of entering medical school. It is also important to note that beneath the balete tree nothing grows. Now most tropical earth stays blank when it is denied light. In Tree, F. Sionil José uses this image to suggest that, left to its own device, maybe the Philippines might have prospered – but then maybe not. After all, the tree was indigenous. 

Tree is a novel replete with cultural experience mixed with personal reference. Its lack of linear plot has to be accepted and not criticised. It’s just not that kind of book. And, as with most things Filipino, there’s much more going on under the surface, despite the fact that under the tree there’s nothing but bare earth. View this book on amazon Tree

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Grain Of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Returning to a masterpiece to re-examine its brilliance is always a risky business. There is always the threat of disappointment, a gradual realisation that an earlier decade’s evaluation might now reveal merely one’s own naiveté, a contemporary – and no doubt illusory - sophistication of falsely-assumed wisdom. Perhaps it might all be just appear a little mundane from new detachment.

So it was with some trepidation that I again began A Grain Of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I first read it in the 1970s when I lived in Kenya. In those days, the author still answered to ‘James’ and the novel was on the Literature in English syllabus for the East African Certificate of Education. Our students came from a poor area, weren’t the most academic and studied in their third language. I wonder daily at their commitment, hard work and achievement. A Grain Of Wheat is not an easy book. Over-simplification of a complex world was not amongst its author’s intentions.

I read it again a couple of times a decade later. Then I found layers that as a relative youngster I had missed. This was no longer just a work of historical fiction offering illustration and interpretation of Kenya’s struggle for independence. It was now also a committed political novel, never a polemic, however, since it was via the actions of its characters that the images and relationships were defined. And this time, nearly twenty more years on, I find the book’s stature has grown again. Not only has it passed the test of time, its themes have, if anything, become even more pertinent. And this time, confirming the book’s now unquestioned status as a masterpiece, I find yet another strand of meaning laced into its construction. It is not merely a masterpiece. Indeed, it ought to required reading for British students, just in case there might be anyone left with any doubts about the reality of colonialism.

A Grain Of Wheat is a novel. It is set in Kikuyuni, ridges rising north from the Nairobi area towards Mount Kenya, Kirinyaga, Girinyaga. The setting is real. Its story is placed firmly within a particular place and time. We are in the last years of Kenya’s struggle for independence, the goal of Uhuru. But Ngugi describes and illustrates this history via the lives and experiences of characters who inhabit a small town, Thabai. History tells us blankly the sum of their efforts, the eventual victory against the British, the lowering of the Union Jack in December 1963 and its replacement by Kenya’s black red and green. But via fiction, Ngugi gives us far more than this. We feel history develop via the experience, the detail, the suffering, the commitment, the inadequacies and the treachery of people who lived through the time.

Thabai has a small town’s usual share of freedom fighters, collaborators, colonial officers, whites of both sexes, beautiful girls, ambitious men. There are Christians, traditionalists, traitors, old codgers and plenty of others who claim to be human. Acts perpetrated by the colonial administrators and their lackeys are sometimes nothing less than raw sadism. They seem to be motivated by a keen, though unjustifiable sense of superiority, an apparent mission to Anglicise an unwilling world. Ngugi could have concentrated on these acts, vilified their perpetrators and thus created simple bad-boys to serve his plot. But A Grain Of Wheat is much more subtle than that. In many ways, these people are victims as well. Their only advantage is that, for a while, they have power on their side. And it is the struggle of motivated people that must wrest this advantage from them.

A Grain Of Wheat presents characters who suffer for what they do, struggle to achieve what they want to become. They want to remain faithful to their convictions, but in a time of strife motives are often provided by the most pressing influence, and often that does not have right on its side.

What comes across this time from reading A Grain Of Wheat is the book’s intense Christian allegory. Joseph and Mary here are Gikonyo and Mumbi, perhaps an original coupling of legend. He is even a carpenter and Mumbi’s child actually belongs to someone else, Karanja. He is a man tainted with the sins of a previous age and surely he has passed these on to his child, who is born with their originality. And as far as Gikonyo is concerned, Mumbi’s child is a virgin birth.

The child, of course, is the new Kenya, born with all the injustices and sins of the past, but charged with its own independence, its potential to develop into its unknown future. The fact that it will be offered in sacrifice on the cross of capitalism is a reality lived in Ngugi’s later work.

A Grain Of Wheat not only bears re-reading. It is a powerful enough vision to sustain re-interpretation, though of course only at the level of detail. The book’s message was always clear, though always subtly drawn. It is a great, great achievement.

View A Grain Of wheat on amazon
A Grain of Wheat (Penguin Modern Classics)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Coasting by Jonathan Raban

Jonathan Raban’s Coasting is a book that defies labels. It’s not a novel. It might be a travel book. It might also be an autobiography, or even a politicised journal. What it is not is dull. Back in the 1980s, Jonathan Raban decided to chill out on a boat. He found the Gosfield Maid, a hearty, old-fashioned wooden thing that could chug along at a few knots and decided to circumnavigate the circumnavigable Britain. He failed. He opted out of the northern challenge and took the easy route through the Caledonian Canal. None of this is at all relevant to the book, by the way, because it’s not a travelogue. And who cares if, on a quest to record the intricacies of an island’s coast, you miss out a bit? 

 But Jonathan Raban does travel Britain’s coast. And here and there he describes experience, recalls memories and reacts to current events, but in no particular order. He is particularly enamoured with the Isle of Man. Its insularity seems to mirror, perhaps concentrate, the insularity of the English. The Isle of Man’s microcosm occupies much of the early part of the book, so much in fact that the reader wonders how the author will manage to cover the rest. Rest assured, however, for he has no intention of doing that. 

The book might also not be an autobiography, but we learn a lot of the author’s parents and family life in the Raban household. They started as fairly conventional Church of England vicar and vicar’s wife cassocked and aproned in rural serenity. We meet them later, slightly hippied, father bearded and radicalised, both CNDed and residing alongside Pakistani grocers and amidst less salubrious activities along the Solent. The author’s school years also figure. He was unlucky enough to attend a less than prestigious public school. For Americans, for whom the label will be incomprehensible, I qualify that in England public schools are private. Don’t ask. But they are renowned for their unique, often idiosyncratic cultures. 

 Jonathan Raban regularly found himself at the fag-end of upper middle-class society, but without the personal economic base to back up his pretensions. Coasting, by the way, is not an autobiography. Neither is Coasting a memoir. But Jonathan Raban calls in at Hull on England’s east coast. He finds a largely forgotten city that once fished. By the 1980s its giant fish dock was deserted, its trawlers chased out by Britain’s defeat in the Cod war with Iceland. He went to university there and befriended one of the nation’s great poets of the century, Philip Larkin. Their meeting is precious. He had also conversed with Paul Theroux along the way. 

 Coasting is also not a political book. Jonanthan Raban, however, does record some detail of Margaret Thatcher’s conflict with the Argentine over The Falklands and with the English over coal mines. Coasting is also not a personal confession on identity, but the author clearly does not number himself amongst the victorious Tories who idolised their imperatrix. Coasting is a compelling read, a snapshot of personal and societal priorities from 1980s Britain. If you lived through the influences and references, the book presents a vibrant commentary on the period. If you didn’t, either because you are too young or not British, it’s a good way of learning how history surely does repeat itself. Coasting is a book that can become almost whatever you want it to be. It is superbly written, journalistic in places, poetic in others. It’s a travel book that goes wherever it wants. View this book on amazon Coasting (Picador Books)