Friday, June 24, 2011

Blood Washes Blood by Frank Viviano

It’s ironic that a self-confessed loner like Frank Viviano should have become so engrossed in his family history. We should be thankful that this wanderer came to ground in Sicily to research his great-great-grandfather’s death, because his account, Blood Washes Blood, presents a beautiful, informative, engaging and emotional journey.

 Francesco Paolo Viviano, or Franky, was brought up in Detroit. He became a journalist, posted to many of the world’s most painful hotspots. There is much, but succinct reflection on these conflicts throughout Blood Washes Blood, an aspect that adds intellectual and emotional perspective to an otherwise private story.

Blood Washes Blood came about as a result of a grandfather’s whispered comments when close to death. Grandfather Francesco Paolo Viviano described his own grandfather, yet another Francesco Paolo Viviano, otherwise known as the monk, saying that he had been murdered by a member of the Valenti family. And that was all he said. 

Grandson Franky never forgot this confession, however. So some years later he set off to Sicily to immerse himself in a search to uncover a family history. What he discovered was no less than a family that lived the history of the Sicilian people. The phrase may sound strange, but a significant part of the argument of Blood Washes Blood – and it does have an argument – is the assertion that Sicilians are a nation apart, both separate from and often shunned by their Italian neighbours.

It is the culture of that society – especially its need to resist, to assert its identity against the constant pressure of foreign domination – that gave rise to bandits, freedom fighters and, eventually, a mafia. Frank Viviani details his arduous research to uncover the truth of his great-great-grandfather’s death and, in doing so, displays a journalist’s talent for accuracy, allusion, observation and not a little analysis. The author does eventually identify a plausible and documented series of events and, as a result of uncovering some quite breathtaking detail, realises that he, the loner, the wanderer, is nothing less than a lynchpin holding his family together, a peace-maker and peace treaty all in one body.

Blood Washes Blood is a fascinating juxtaposition of family history, political history, journalism and biography. No doubt every family has its own story, and they are all worth telling.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

When I read Snow by Orhan Pamuk a second time, I will pay more attention to its central character, nicknamed Ka. He is a poet, a Turkish émigré, fresh from Germany. He’s also a journalist and is travelling to Kars, a town in north-eastern Turkey (can the similarity of name be mere coincidence?) to investigate a series of crimes. It’s the detail of these crimes that give the book its poignancy, tension and fascination. 

Girls have committed suicide. These are crimes. In Islam suicide is a sin, eternally damning. So what drove apparently happy, conventional, balanced young women to take their own lives? On the surface there are some obvious candidates for the answer. Turkey’s secular though military state requires women not to wear a scarf, while their religion demands it. Could it be this political and cultural tension that has provoked these women, out of shame, to end their lives?

My review will not be a plot-spoiler. In the case of Snow, that would also be hard, because it’s the issues and contexts that matter, not the events. Suffice it to say that while in Kars, Ka meets many people who can offer opinion and proffer hypothesis on the town’s recent history. There’s a newspaper owner who, in order to promote circulation, predicts the news. There’s an old-fashioned communist, a one-time agitator, whose current activities appear to be thoroughly questionable. There’s a travelling theatre group who will play great roles in the plot. There’s an underground Islamist on the run. He’s called Blue, surely a reference to themes raised in My Name Is Red. Political associations of colour might be naïve, but might also be a tad revealing. There’s military personnel, policemen, secret agents, an occasional murderer. There’s also snow, and enough of it to cut off the town and prevent outside knowledge of a shooting coup where interests vie for control.

And if this were not enough, there’s a hotel owner with two daughters of stunning beauty. One, İpik, was once the apple of Ka’s desire. His return promises a long-deferred bite of forbidden fruit. But then there’s politics, history, culture, religion, rules, regulations, laws, even personal preferences that can get in the way. Snow is a complex novel whose density needs to be fully entered for a reader to share its preoccupations. It’s an intense experience, a miasma of contradictions, political, cultural, religious, the whole gamut. 

The only problem with Snow, in my opinion, is its central character, Ka. This is why next time I must be more careful to assess his sincerity. Unlike most poets of any worth, he writes from revelation, not from hard work, etching out a word at a time. For me, this does not seem genuine. But then, as the book unfolds, the reader realises that these are merely Orhan Pamuk’s own recollections of Ka, described from afar. Some years later, he has tracked the poet down to his apartment in Germany, soon after he has been murdered by an anonymous assassin. Now I wonder who that might have been? As ever in Orhan Pamuk’s work, Snow is deeply enmeshed within the characteristics and contradictions of Turkish culture and society.

Equally, as we would expect from Orhan Pamuk, it allows the Western reader (politically and culturally Western, not geographically) to appreciate how Western values, so rarely questioned on the inside of the argument, can be perceived as essentially imperial, colonial and perhaps oppressive. If you like your reading to provoke thought, please do read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

Like father, like son… This could be the motto that underpins Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. This might be a rather flippant way of summarising a novel approaching 250,000 words, and yes, there is much more than this in the Egyptian Nobel Prize Winner’s book. But it should be said at the outset that it is family relationships that dominate the book. 

The work has a broad canvas, but its substance is generally writ small, often within the walls of the family home. Palace Walk is the first of Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, a series that spans that spans Egypt’s twentieth century. It features the family of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al Jawad, a shopkeeper. Strangely, there seems to be little that is seen from his point of view, except of course that which he demands. Throughout he remains somewhat aloof, even inscrutable. I would not want to claim this to be a deliberate portrayal of paternal power. But whatever the case, planned or implied, these sketches of family relations are wonderfully credible as well as enlightening.

By contrast, we see much through the eyes of Amina, Ahmad’s long-suffering wife, who appears to tolerate her husband’s nightly excesses without either question or judgment. She even acts independently, just once, and is made to pay for it. There are two daughters, Khadija and Aisha. Khadija, the elder, has unfortunately inherited her father’s looks. Aisha, by contrast, is known for her beauty, and there is much discussion of potential husbands, associated with much anguish on the subject of who should marry first.

The sons are very different characters, but perhaps they each display different aspects of their father. The older ones of course develop an eye for the local talent and this leads to unexpected encounters with their father in unfamiliar surroundings in which he displays talents that no-one in the family suspected he had. The other talents on show are very much anticipated. When the youngest son befriends members of the British garrison in Cairo at the end of World War One, he is treated very much as a clown, a figure of fun, a role he seems to enjoy. This is clearly not dissimilar to the way the British appear to want to treat the country, not to mention the hated Australians.

Later, when this particular generation marches to demand political representation and power, it is British bullets that deny all rights. Like father, like son, the issues go round and round. Does anything change? If the reader approaches palace Walk as if it were a nineteenth century novel, its style, length and content will provide great enjoyment and insight. But don’t expect in this great work overt philosophy, analysis or comment. Egypt as described, especially within this family, was just not that sort of place.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Ladder Of Years by Anne Tyler

Delia, short for Cordelia, is the central character of Anne Tyler’s Ladder Of Years. As usual for Anne Tyler, Delia is a Baltimore resident, a wife, a mother and probably, at least from the outside, a pillar of strength and dependability in both family and community. The children are growing up. Which children don’t? Bet then it’s how they grow up that matters, isn’t it? 

Sam, the husband, is doing moderately well. Moderate seems to be the word, as far as Sam is concerned. He’s hardly made a success of the business he inherited from Delia’s father, but the family survives to inhabit a middle class, rather liberal niche in the common psyche. As Ladder Of Years opens, the family is holidaying by the sea and Delia is dressed, mentally, for the beach. And then, without warning, even to herself, she takes off. Just like that, whatever “that” might be.

She absconds. Goes missing. Disappears. There’s suspicion of drowning. A report appears in a Baltimore paper. The family fears she has come to harm. But no, she hasn’t. In fact, still dressed for the beach she is heading off to a place she doesn’t know with a stranger. It’s no particular stranger, just a stranger. Quite soon, and with new clothes, a new address and a changed life, Delia takes on a new identity. 

Though Baltimore wife and mother still lives in her head, she’s become a new Delia, single, independent and employed. In this new guise, she inter-reacts with her new community and gradually becomes part of it. Why did she leave the apparent safety, security and responsibility of her family? Not even she can answer. What slowly begins to emerge, however, is that Delia’s choice of opting out becomes increasingly one of opting in. 

By degree the characters in her new life start to become more demanding. Without needing to state everything explicitly, they start to assume Delia’s support and claim reliance upon her. She, of course, responds and finds that she now has two levels of responsibility created out of the demands of her new life and continued contact with her family. Interestingly, Delia, this pillar of support, never feels either at home or secure in either role. 

 And so it is via this scenario of identity change, relationships of dependency, insecure self-image, alongside a fixation of demand that Anne Tyler relates how Delia’s life unfolds. Delia notices a lot about people, but she’s no great analyst. Surely she’s the type to apologise before expressing an opinion, but would harbour unspoken bigotries like the rest of us. At the start of the book she seems confused. By the end, a few more rungs along the ladder of life, she apparently remains so. Perhaps the ladder is horizontal … and with irregular spacing… But then Delia has little time to consider such arcane ideas. After all, there are things to do, people to talk to, arrangements to be made, jobs to be done…

The Reader by Bernard Schlink

In his novel The Reader Bernard Schlink provides us with a pair of strong characters. As we get to know them, we find a challenge for ourselves. How would we have reacted in those circumstances? What would we have done? The challenge surfaces many times in the book and, by the end, the reader is probably confused by conflicting answers.

A review should not reveal plot. In the case of The Reader, this makes writing a review very hard, since what happens to these characters is the whole basis of the book. In some ways the relationship between them has to be interpreted and reinterpreted through a prism of what we know about them, and this should not be revealed. So what follows is mere outline. 

We first meet Michael Berg in his mid-teens. He’s a frail young man, rather disaffected and, as a result of missed time at school, an under-achiever. As the story progresses, he finds new energy and direction, completes a university degree, embarks upon a successful career and the usual muddled personal life. Michael, however, always wants to reflect, to analyse responses. At first glance Hanna is a rather different kind of person. She is in her thirties, has a son and works as a conductor on the trams.

One day she ups and leaves without notice, despite having been offered promotion by her boss. She resurfaces later, on trial in a distant future, accused of crimes from her past, crimes she shared with many others. Hanna seems to have an uncomplicated directness. It appears that she sees what she wants in life and pursues it. Michael and Hanna have a relationship. She is twice his age and in public everyone assumes that they are mother and son. But they have an intense, highly erotic arrangement. It changes Michael’s life, but perhaps merely occupies Hanna’s. At least that’s what we initially fear. 

When the couple are not coupling, Hanna demands that Michael read to her. He becomes her reader, and they spend many and regular hours at the pastime. When Hanna ups and leaves, Michael is devastated. They have had their arguments, but he cannot understand why she has gone. Then, years later, after lives have changed and they have drifted apart, Hanna resurfaces along with her dubious past. She is on trial.

Over a period of years Michael contacts her regularly. He makes sure she always has tapes of him reading to her. He makes no allowance for her taste, choosing to record what he personally wants to read. Hanna, it seems, cannot get enough of this. It is Hanna’s past that is on trial and the events in question are carefully documented and related in detail by those involved. But what were the motives? Why did these people do what they did? And exactly who might be culpable? And what would you have done under such circumstances? That is the challenge. By the end of The Reader, Bernard Schlink has turned our perceptions of these people onto their heads and back again. As you read, you, the reader, should always remember the book’s challenge. What would you have done?