Saturday, October 29, 2011
Early evening, a woman's husband comes home, greets her, goes up to their bedroom and dies. She spends the night by his side, looking back on their happy marriage.
That's the plot, such as it is, to author Lily Tuck's "I Married You for Happiness."
Philip and Nina are worldly, educated, and well-traveled so that the stuff of their otherwise anonymous lives does not weigh the reader down in boring, quotidian minutiae.
She is a painter. He is a mathematician specializing in the field of probability. The novel is peppered with lectures on this topic, some to his students, some to his wife. These can be interesting or opaque and difficult to understand.
Even in the latter case, Tuck manages to make it sound good and it's not beyond reason to suspect there was something in the language associated with probability that she found pleasing to the eye and ear.
As Philip's examples and scenarios accumulate, it seems the author is trying to say this happy marriage, with its ebb and flow, glories and pratfalls, was something that might or might not have occurred given the laws governing chance and that, even though it panned out, it was not meant to be forever.
Ms. Tuck is a prior winner of the National Book Award and her command of craft is patent in "I married you for happiness."
The remembering takes place as the night winds on. The reader is kept abreast of the changing light outside, the passing of cars, and barking of dogs. You know Philip is dead and the recollections are more poignant because you know this woman will have no more of them.
There is no chronology. The memories are placed by the author in places she needs them most, the musings on probability the same, yet for all this temporal disorder, an overall impression of control seeps from this thin tome.
Maybe it's the two lives detailed that imposed the order.
Those with happy marriages can mourn along with Nina, even apply the exercise to their won coupling. Those less fortunate can indulge in a kind of guilty pleasure, absolved, up to a point, by the underlying theme of chance and likelihoods.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
"The Train of Small Mercies"
doesn't take one any place in particular, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Author David Rowell has applied a subtle hand in portraits of people living places through which the train carrying the slain Senator Robert Kennedy passed.
His chosen cross section for illumination include a white housewife, a black Pullman porter, some middle-class suburbanites with a pool, and a young man who lost a leg in Vietnam.
This is time (1968), place (eastern seaboard) and class (working) literature nicely confected. To have lived through some of what Rowell renders is to be transported anew, something we ask of good literature. One can hope a like feeling affects those born in later years.
You do not have to be a fan of Bobby Kennedy, or even know who he was, to appreciate this novel, which is more about the backdrop than the foreground. Rowell, a journalist, keeps his distance, avoids the trap of Kennedy hagiography, and places the senator in the lives of his characters, uses him more as a giant, temporal bookmark.
You will not know by the end why so many people viewed Kennedy's campaign as a high-water mark in American political life, but you will know they existed and what some of them were like.
Still, there is a positive glow to the senator's swan song, not in some passionate elegy from the writer, but in his descriptions of the faces in the pictures of thousands who lined the train route that sad June day.
Kennedy was killed and the train tracks became a place of gathering and space for shared grief, and the point of focus to a curious, low-voltage novel.
There are clean easy prose and a sense of incompletion to "The Train of Small Mercies," not technically the author's fault. He delivers on the title's promise: A story about a train.
We do not follow the people we've come to know in Delaware, New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania once the casket is pulled from the last rolling car in Union Station.
Instead, we get off the train of the story with them and are left to guess not only what will happen to them, but ponder how Kennedy's assassination will alter the course of their lives.
If it has not already done so by story's end.
Según Jorge Castaneda, México es como un niño olvidado quien ha desarollado ciertos mecanismos para sobrevivir, pero que ya no le valen en el mundo moderno.
Los Mexicanos, por ejemplo, resultan ser individuales que acuden muy pocas veces a los proyectos colectivos como puede ser construir un estado de derecho o una sociedad civil.
Es lo principal y aqui dicho por Castaneda, "La supuesta devoción mexicana por la democracia choca con el individualismo de los mexicanos, y con su rechazo categórico a cualquier red horizontal de solidaridad, asociación, trabajo voluntario o forma simple de organización. El país presenta altos grados de desconfianza hacia sus instituciónes; carece de un sentido de la representación política y muestra un sentimiento profundo de ineficiencia e intolerancia politíca, ademas de un desapego generalizado respecto a la ley y una concomitante propensión a la corrupción."
Mucha palabrería, pero traza bien las fronteras de la propuesta encontrado en "Mañana o pasado, el misterio de los mexicanos."
Este deseo solitario nace de muchas cosas, entre ellas una "completa desconfianza mexicana hacia el gobierno y las instituciónes" en un país donde "la posesión de una parcela de tierra sigue representando la mejor defensa frente a un mundo exterior predatorio," opina el autor, un ex-ministro de asuntos exteriores en la administración de Vicente Fox.
Pero México anda camino hace el nuevo mundo. Castaneda nos informa que, "Para al final del periodo de Felipe Calderon, la población del país será, más o menos, dos terceras partes de clase media con todo lo que ello impílica política, económica, y socialmente; pero tal vez no, desafortunadamente, en terminos culturales."
Otro imperfección, o sea cosa poca perfecta, es la tendencia de esquivar el enfrentamiento.
Para el mexicano, "El único benefício posible derivado del la confrontación directa es que alguien pierda y alguien gane, y casi siempre, el que pierde va a ser mas 'mexicano' o mas' 'popular' que el ganador."
O, dicho de otra manera, el mexicano piensa que "Es mejor decir aquí corrio, que aquí murio."
Se tropieza con este tendencia en los ambitos de la economia, la política, los sindicatos o los medios de communicación.
En lo que se refiere al la democracia, los mexicanos lo valúa como un instrumento para "permitir y promover la convergencia entre fuerzas políticas" en ver de guarantizár que las divergencias "permanezcan en el rango de las resoluciónes pacíficas," tal y como el autor lo prefiere.
El país también sufre de una concentración del poder, poca sana para el futuro de la sagrada clase media.
Sugiere el autor que estas actitudes son arraigadas en la historia indígena de Mexico, "un tanto distinta de las otras por que la víctima es rey, la derrota es glorificada y las influencias y agentes extranjeros son decisivos e implacable," dice Castaneda.
El autor utilíza tal cantidad de datos que casi se aburre al lector, salvo que estos ejercícios académicos son compaginados con otros pensamientos mas curiosos, si no tan empiricos, como puede ser lo significado del cantor Juan Gabriel, el arte de Cantinflas, o el por que la selección Mexicana de futbol no vale diez pesos.
Un tóque suave ejerce Castaneda aqui. No grita, no insiste, sino sugiere y hasta entretiene con sus propuestas para México que, si no resuelven las grandes cuestiones aquí enumerados, abren camino hacía posibles debates y respuestas.
Para los que se interesan, quieren o aman a México, merece la pena sorber algúno de los pensamientos aquí presentados.
Ariel Dorfman's dissection of exile doubles as a portrait in unrequited love.
In Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile the Chilean playwright, novelist, and essayist -- exiled voice of the anti-Pinochet resistance throughout the 1980s and '90s -- blows long on the strange forces that subvert the expatriate's efforts to reconstruct a life.
But "Feeding on Dreams" is also a story of rejection. The Chile of revolutionary struggle and progressive experimentation Dorfman was forced to flee is gone once the dictatorship is lifted and he returns.
His adopted country's embrace of neo-liberal policies during the author's 20 years in the hinterlands changed Chile for good, structurally and spiritually. We learn from this account that the literal massacre of the left opposition is an act with permanent ramifications.
As Dorfman worked abroad to keep the dead and deposed president Salvador Allende's ideas alive, while exposing the Pinochet dictatorship's chronic addiction to murder, the country had moved on.
Written over a backdrop of big history, a U.S.-backed coup and narrow escape into exile, "Feeding on Dreams" is really a tale of subtler things. Dorfman lost a country and status and he writes of the slights and adjustments endured.
Trying to shield their children from the fear of capture or murder beclouding their lives, mother and father eventually learn they have done nothing of the kind. That they live in danger, insecurity, and their children are fully affected by them.
Dorfman is something of a relic: the engaged leftist intellectual who uses his art to further the working class cause, while actively pursuing goals in the political arena. They just don't make them like this anymore.
His time is one when the world was split into two large camps represented, more or less, by their choice of economic religion. Dorfman's crowd was typical of the post-war left, rainbow in aspect, but driven by communist discipline, numbers and money.
He survives exile thanks to the assistance of countless solidarity groups spawned by the socialist and communist parties around the world. Their tenacity and commitment are noteworthy and detailed.
The good and the bad.
Residing in Holland thanks to assistance from some local and left-wing outfit, the author runs afoul of a good friend and ally through some strange misappropriation of money he was given.
The help was firm, but the qualifying criteria stringent.
Dorfman made two returns to Chile, once during the dictatorship and then post-Pinochet. Neither went well. There was a nagging guilt at having escaped what became a rather expansive concentration camp. There is the change in once-idealistic allies' more cynical view of politics and its purposes.
Having not lived the fear, Dorfman stakes his claim to a rightful place in the Chilean intelligentsia by writing a play that gets up everybody's noses. Those who have lived the horror have agreed to not talk about the horror, to try and leave it behind.
Dorfman's play, successful in other places, fails miserably in Chile. They are not ready for his in-depth accusatory. He has no constituency there and ends up in North Carolina.
The author is humble, bemused, and possessing of aplomb throughout this difficult account of a man slipping, stubbing, and stumbling across the planet. He is frank about his self-assessment when it came to marketing his writings on Chile to the top newspapers in the U.S. and aware the value his personal tragedy gave that work.
He is a writer and given to metaphorical flight. Be prepared to know that a stick of a tree growing somewhere in Santiago actually signifies exile and return, a long-ago friend who has held the flame of continuity even as the spurned son floundered on foreign shores...
But we jest. The literary insight to the things Dorfman has seen open up broader vistas, engage the spiritual as much as the factual.
He writes lovingly of the place and longingly for the politics of solidarity that put him at the maelstrom of Chilean history. His pain is clear, because he confronts it in this book.
Child Wonder: A Novel (The Lannan Translation Series263)
is the story of a boy, his widowed mother, and her reckless decision to take her stepdaughter into their household.
There is something not quite right with the little girl: "Linda was not of this world," the child narrator, Finn, tells us, "one day I would come to understand this -- she was a Martian come down to earth to speak in tongues to heathens, French to Norwegians and Russian to Americans."
Her ailment is developmental, in the head, but never fully revealed by the author, a practice he applies to other issues haunting the family throughout the length of the piece.
Sensing the profile of these issues, while never being fed a full rasher of details, creates a degree of dramatic tension, though the real purpose may be to put us on equal footing with the story's children, around whom it truly revolves.
The kids do not know everything that goes on around them, nor does the reader, which may or may not be a good thing.
There is not much of plot to "Child Wonder." It covers the year after Linda moves in, measures the growing distance between Finn and his inscrutable mom, and their interaction with a lodger whom circumstances have forced upon them.
The book wanders, meanders, not tied down to the usual overarching plot and cohort of subtexts; a series of events that unfold and build up, sort of, to the ending, and author Roy Jacobson is in no hurry to divulge them.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just so you know.
If you've read your fair share of dysfunctional family dramas, the real novelty to "Child Wonder" may turn out to be where it is situated. The novel unfolds in Norway, which renders it, for the uninitiated, something of a passport to a small country not very much in the headlines, but worthy of revelation to the curious among us.
For certain, you'll not recognize "the old style swimming belts, lined with reindeer fur," nor the heavily public and collective way people exist with one another, in the 1960s, as post-World War II Europe begins to spread its economic wings.
The translation's English is England's English. You may have to skate over the fact Finn has a "quiff," although this and other expressions not common to stateside usage lend a touch of color to the white, frozen, and crystallized backdrop across which the tale is writ.
"Child Wonder," will not blow you away, shock you out of your shoes, or haunt you long. It's impact is indirect, its motives and purpose well below the surface of the page, working hard to demonstrate what becomes of our hearts and souls with age.