Review: The Fourth Century

The Fourth Century

Title: The Fourth Century
Author: Édouard Glissant
Translation: Betsy Wing.
ISBN: 0-8032-7083-6
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press, 2001

“All this wind…”

These are Papa Longoué’s first words in The Fourth Century by Édouard Glissant. The wind is a constant theme in the novel. It is a wind of enormous force, a hurricane which carries off his silent wife, Edmée, to her death. It is the wind of history, of our own histories which if not known blows us all to our deaths, asleep. The Fourth Century awakens the dead and gives them voice. This is the African descendants’ history of Martinique. A history not written, not examined, trivialized by the French colonialists who, as the conquerors, the ones in power, annihilate the people they must control by annihilating their languages and histories.

History is written by the dominant culture and is primarily concerned with the battles and victories of the most powerful and wealthy in that culture. The Fourth Century departs from that paradigm and presents the oral history of the African descendants’ experience as slave, as maroon, as freed men and women, as toilers in the soil, as individuals and families seeking meaning and life on the island, while never quite able to forget or remember the “infinite country” from which they were torn.

Glissant’s stream of consciousness approach creates a prose poem of a novel, beautiful from the beginning to the end. In many ways it is incomprehensible for the non-African, non-Martinican, but what is gleanable, what is knowable, is so worth knowing that what is unknowable can only be mourned, not ignored. To read Glissant is to begin to scratch the back of the mirror, to see through the slivers to another world.

My rating: 5.0 stars

Book Review: Snow


Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Title: Snow
Author: Orhan Pamuk
ISBN: 0-375-40697-2
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
A novel about Turkey

Ka is a man on a journey who does not know where his next step will take him. He is a poet who can no longer write poetry, an atheist no longer certain of the absence of God, an observer incapable of seeing. He has outlived the reason for his exile, but has been so long away from Turkey that its cultural nuances escape him. Yet he has never learned the language of his adopted country and has spent his years in exile reciting old poetry to small audiences of ex-patriots.

It is his mother’s funeral that brings him back to Turkey, but it is on an errand for a newspaper editor that he travels to Kars. That, and love.

Kars is in Eastern Turkey, situated at a height of 1750 feet. Its winters are harsh and long and it is often isolated by snow. In fact Kars is snow in Turkish and is a shortened version of its original name, which meant snow-water for the ponds of water left by melting snow. It is an ancient city on the path between Armenia and the rest of Turkey, For more than 900 years, it has been an intermittent battleground for conquering armies of Kurds, Armenians, Russians and Turks. Pamuk frequently refers to the beautiful, empty, decaying Armenian buildings, visible reminders of one conquering wave. Mentioning these buildings is a controversial act as Pamuk is one of those who maintain the unpopular assertion that Armenian Turks met with genocide during the Crimean War at the hands of their Turkish countrymen.

Westerners have a tendency to view the east as mysterious, as if there is a veil of culture we cannot penetrate. Parmuk uses the substance of snow to symbolize that veil.

The snow of Kars enshrouds, isolates, mutes, silences. The veil at its most complete is a shroud that Islamic women wear to protect them. But the impoverished dead also wear shrouds to protect them from gazes they cannot return, and from the earth which surrounds them. We refer to things we do not understand or misunderstand as being shrouded in mystery. The greatest, most shrouded mystery is that of God by whatever name you use. The never-ending journey is the one toward understanding. The agnostic / atheist mistrusts the religious who claim to have knowledge of the nature of deity.

Snow enshrouds Ka on his journey to Kars and throughout his visit. The bus bringing Ka to Kars is the last one to arrive before the roads are closed due to the storm and though isolation due to storm may be an annual event in this remote city, it nevertheless has the effect of suspending the normal culture during Ka’s visit. Things happen when daily life is interrupted, when travel is restricted and work slows or halts altogether, when people with time on their hands look for ways to fill the time. There is a kind of constant snow in Kars and the countryside where unemployment is high. Restless men sit in tea shops, sit at the feet of holy men, join the military, ponder their unhappy plight and consider who is to blame.

In Turkey, the east meets the west and Islam meets Christianity. Urbanized Turks seem to have one foot in Europe while those further from Istanbul are inclined to fear that Europe will erase their culture.

Ka had escaped to the west (Germany) as a young man fleeing a crackdown on leftist radicals. While at university, he became an atheist which, in the eyes of many of his countrymen, marked him as an intellectual who has adopted the European/Western culture and, more importantly, as one who has rejected the Turkish/Middle Eastern culture.

The poet left his creative well in Turkey and cannot be a poet in another land. In all his years of exile he has not been able to write a single poem.

Ka is a name the poet chose for himself as a child. It is the primary initials of both his first and last names, which Ka disliked so much that he chose to use just the initials. Ka represents the life-force in ancient Egyptian religion and whether or not Pamuk named his main character for this reason, I am left with the sense that he is describing the life-force of Turkey as that of a flawed poet.

Pamuk’s Turkey is as ambivalent as Ka. Civically secular, it is also very much Islamic. Elements in Turkey have tried to maintain the separation between religion and state that Atatürk instituted as the first President of Turkey. But a significant faction in Turkey is not comfortable with this and constantly agitates for theocratic rule.

Ka’s religious ambivalence is revealed as he weeps in the presence of a holy man. He feels a yearning for Allah, but only in the holy man’s presence. Once outside of the apartment, where the faithful and the troubled come to unburden their hearts, he returns to his normal state of mind, re-entering, with some relief, the secular civic structure of Turkey. Though he is most comfortable in that secular environment, he remains wistful. Not only does a part of him exist on a spiritual level and his poetry flows out of that level, but it is possible that even as he is puzzled by them, he envies those who have no doubts.

Central to the plot is a theatre of the absurd. A coup literally staged by an aging itinerant actor and the local military corps aided by the police and the ever-present and distrusted secret police. He recognizes that Ka, as a poet and erstwhile reporter, is his best hope of immortality. He orders the poet brought into audience with him and uses him in his manipulation of events.

Snow is dialectic and the central dialogue occurs in a conversation at the Hotel Asia arranged by Ka, from which he is absent. Blue, the revolutionary accompanied by a chorus of Islamic radicals, argues with an adamant atheist, and the Islamic feminist daughter of the atheist. It is an Asian dialogue: Does commerce (social and economic) with the west contain the seeds of destruction of Asian culture. Does Turkey, by opening itself up to the ideas of the west, by embracing what the west offers, risk losing its culture, its unique identity? Will it lose God in the process? If it does not embrace the West and the EU, will it become irrelevant in the modern world? Will Turkey sink deeper into poverty? These are questions that burn under the surface, around which the dialogue dances.

Though Ka is not in the Hotel Asia, he does become entangled in this conversation because of the nature of the journalistic errand, which has brought him to Kars. It is a story of suicides of Islamic schoolgirls who have been forbidden to wear the scarf of the devout Muslim to school. What is the connection between these suicides and the edict which has banned them from wearing the scarf? An editor friend has asked Ka to make the journey to Kars and report on the phenomenon.

No one seems to know the truth about the suicides and no one seems to want to know. The young women appear to be unknowable. Their motives are hidden by the barrier of death and the lack of knowledge even their families appear to have about them, as if they are ciphers. At least one of the girls has become idealized.

Conversely, everyone in Kars knows why Ka is there. His every step, every interview is known. People seek him out and tell him that he must not believe this one or that one.

Blue is a rebel, an Islamist, fiercely opposed to secular government. He is the lover of Kadife, a young woman whose actions may have inspired the suicides. A man like Blue helps the disaffected to name who is at fault, what is at fault: the West, those who want to join the European Union and the secular state which orders that Muslim girls cannot wear scarves to school. Like everyone else with a point to make, Blue exploits the suicides. Though he is a wanted man in hiding, suspected of being behind terrorist attacks and assassinations, he demands an audience with Ka. Blue, in particular, wants to set Ka straight about the reason for the suicides, though it becomes apparent that he, himself, does not know.

Ka is also seeking love. He agrees to go to Kars not because he is intrigued by the story, but because he knows there is a recently divorced woman living there whom he knew at University. He remembers that she was very beautiful and although he was not interested in her as a youth, he becomes obsessed with her almost before he even sees her again. He pursues his obsession throughout the story. He believes that she represents his last chance at love, his last chance to avoid a lonely old age. He wants to bring her back to Germany to live with him. Ipek may symbolize Turkey and the hopelessness of a love affair with a country you can no longer call home. Ka makes love to her, believes he does love her, is almost convinced that she will love him and that she will leave with him. Ipek is nominally westernized. Her sister is Kadife (Blue’s lover). If Ipek symbolizes Turkey leaning westward, Kadife symbolizes Turkey leaning eastward. Both women appear rational and thoughtful.

In Kars, Ka writes poem after poem. Thirteen poems pour out of him almost whole. He is so focused on writing these poems down that he is distracted even occasionally from pursuing the object of his desire. Ka is removed, he is the journalist, the reporter, the observer. As an observer he is never completely involved in the scene around him. This makes him the ultimate go-between, the mediator and negotiator for the actor who is pulling the strings of the coup. But no matter how removed an observer believes himself to be, he impacts what he observes, and this Ka does in tragic ways.

Parmuk’s prose as translated by Maureen Freely is flawless, beautiful, hypnotic. He ignites a desire to know more about Turkey, to know what can be unveiled while understanding that language itself is the ultimate shroud, the guardian and container of culture.

My rating: 5.0 stars

Book Review

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

Title: The Space Between Us
Author: Thrity Umrigar
ISBN: 073946986X
William Morrow
A novel of privilege and poverty, of love and betrayal.

I was on the MAX, where I spend a good bit of my time, nearing my station, and I still had about five pages to go. I briefly considered staying on the train until I’d read those last few pages. I abandoned that in favor of sitting on a bench in Holladay Park, in the shade. There was no way I could wait until I got home. Breaking the spell with the bike ride and dinner just wasn’t an option. I had to know what choice Bhima would make.

Umrigar sets her story of love and betrayal in Bombay (Mumbai), India, a vast coastal city, in a country that has been a cultural crossroads for thousands of years. This portrait of two Indian women is evocative and moving; written with grace, humility, and compassion. Sera is a Parsi, descended from Persians who immigrated to India a thousand years ago and have become a wealthy and powerful class. What matters about her servant, Bhima, is that she is not Parsi. She is a lower-caste Hindu woman whose circumstances have gone from poor to miserable. Bhima is clearly the more sympathetic character even though she often reacts to turmoil by physically and emotionally attacking those she loves the most. She fears for them, and her fear causes her to punish them, because she truly doesn’t know what else to do. She reacts like a trapped animal, chewing at her own flesh to obtain freedom.

Umrigar’s novel deepened my undertanding of oppression and how very much prejudice is a vehicle for cruelty; an excuse for it. Deeply internalized prejudice distances the abuser from the object of abuse and this is the case with the antagonists in The Space Between Us. They cannot help knowing that they are being cruel, but they believe it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t because they are the “ruling” class. Ruling in the sense that their privilege gives them power over the classes beneath them. A power so nearly absolute that it may as well be such. Certainly the classes beneath them have a part in supporting the illusion of relative intrinsic worth. But their collusion is hardly voluntary. It is how they survive. They cling to the edge of life and anything can sever their hold.

Societal taboos are among the tools the ruling classes use to differentiate themselves from others and subjugate the workers. Since being a poor subject is generally a miserable way to live, poor subjects try to conform to the ostensible behavior of the ruling classes. But these efforts only succeed in the poor binding themselves more certainly into virtual slavery. Rejecting the social taboo and refusing to define oneself by the terms of the ruling classes is a step seldom taken without education. Ignorance has a deadening effect on the accomplishment of freedom.

Sera, the Parsi woman, wants to believe that she regards Bhima as no less human than herself, but finds herself unable to allow the servant to sit on her furniture or use her utensils to eat or drink. Yet, she does not see the contradiction in the fact that Bhima is the one who prepares the food the Parsi family eats and washes the utensils they eat it with. Nor does Sera fully recognize that paying Bhima is not an act of generosity.

Though devestating in its portrayal of oppression and exploitation, this is a story, not a diatribe. The Space Between Us is skillfully and vividly rendered. Simply, quite powerful.

My rating: 5.0 stars

18 months and a leg–NOLA blogger

Website: 18 months and a leg

Some of the best writing is coming out of New Orleans. If you are bored by restaurant reviews and hipster patter, go to this blog and be shaken out of your comfort zone.

Website: 18 months and a leg

Some of the best writing is coming out of New Orleans. If you are bored by restaurant reviews and hipster patter, go to this blog and be shaken out of your comfort zone.

Book Review: The Double by José Saramago

No writer has impacted me to a greater extent in the last four years than Jose Saramago. Blindness was a gift from a good friend and from the first I was captivated, by style, by substance, by story. The Double is the latest among several that I have read since receiving that first brilliant introduction to this nobel laureate.

Identity is an undercurrent in all of his books. A strong undercurrent. What do we know of ourselves, who do we become, when suddenly we and everyone else, save one, succumbs to blindness? And the minions of us recorded dutifully on birth and death records and in the cemetery registry, on the tombstone, if that is the only record of our existence, the sum of our lives, who will go searching for us among these breviary? What is the identity, the meaning of an entire city if its history is altered by one event? Suppose the ground beneath us begins to move and we who were peninsula become island and drift?

And suppose you are a history teacher, divorced, depressed, childless, in a relationship that you want to end and you discover that there is someone in the world, in your own city who is your exact double. Not your twin. Your double. A scientific impossiblity. A freak of nature. You and this other man. He is an actor who puts on other identities for the camera. A minor actor whose career has gradually ascended until he is on the brink of celebrity, but not quite there. Can you bear that he exists? Tertuliano Maximo Afonso cannot bear it. Identity becomes central in The Double.

Saramago is a master at creating tension, at making characters who, if these were horror stories, are bound to go into the “dark room”. It is an inexorable journey into the dark room. Tertuliano makes one step after another, this decision and that one. Most of his decisions are guaranteed to be disastrous. He discovers love and loses it. He discovers a capacity to destroy and a capacity to redeem. Ultimately, he discovers that his desire to be unique is futile, never to be realized.

If you have not read Saramago, you may well be confused by his style. Few writers would dare to use this form. To read Saramago is to adjust to a whole new way of regarding the printed word. It is like listening to a great story teller. Listen to him.

My rating: 5.0 stars

P.D. James, The Children of Men


The Children of Men, by P.D. James
Published in 1994 in the U.S. by Warner Books, copyright 1992 by P.D. James

P.D. James is an English author and is most well-known for her mystery novels. Several of these have been made into episodes for the BBC television series Mystery.

It has been twenty-five years since any human child has been born. The last generation drifts without purpose, alternately useless and violent. Enfeebled elderly are disposed of because there are not enough young people to take care of them. The countryside is emptying out as villagers move to larger metropolitan areas to maximize the shrinking labor pool. People of child-bearing age dote on their dogs and cats as they would have doted on their children. The main character of the book, Theo, is that saddest of men–an aging man responsible for the death of his only child in a world where there are no longer children. He bears an additional burden. His cousin is Xan the Warden of England, a more or less permanent position of ultimate power, whose directives are increasingly fascist.

James builds her provocative story thread by thread, carefully, skillfully. She draws you along with her deeper and deeper into her world as Theo is drawn into the plot of a group of resisters who call themselves the five fishes.

The Children of Men reveals James to be what her most devoted readers have always suspected; a brilliant thinker, a writer with uncanny reach. Her mystery novels are explorations of particular characters and the character of humanity in general. This novel deserves a place among the classics and it would be a shame if it is relegated to lesser status simply because James writes excellent mystery genre fiction and could thus be passed over by the arbiters of literature.

My rating: 5.0 stars