Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"A Possible Life" by Sebastian Faulks

Can you not be sure of what's going on and still like a book?

The packaging of "A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts" hints at something other than a collection of short stories.

But after a pleasurable once-through, highwayscribery is not exactly sure what binds these otherwise tasty tales together.

In the fifth and final piece the narrator dwells on what might represent a common thread/unifying principle to the work under scrutiny here.

"I was almost sixty years old, but I didn't understand anything. It all in the end seemed to have been a matter of purest chance. But for a succession of tiny pieces of good fortune, I might never have had a glimpse of Weepah Way [his upstate New York farm], or Anya King [the subject of this tale]. Yet I also new that if any of those bits of luck had fallen out in a different way and I had had another life, it would in some odd way have been the same - my heart existing, as Anya put it, by a different name.

Or not.

Let's see. The first story involves Geoffrey, whose "middle rank" may have been the determining factor in his internment at a Nazi concentration camp. The harrowing portrait of that experience, and the gentler one of the peculiar life in prep school England stand out.

The second story involves Billy, who lives in England during the second half of the 19th century. Poverty might have been the overriding factor to his existence, save for his personal moxy, which sets up the kind of Horatio Alger yarn gobbled up so readily by we Yanks.

Guess our Protestant work ethic came from somewhere.

Here, author Sebastian Faulk's recuperation or remembrance of the workhouse where parents sent children they could not afford to feed and clothe is strong coffee, and will make you feel lucky (if you haven't been in a workhouse yourself).

"Elena" takes place in 2029 and, with the exception of a few "scanners" and some commentary on the rundown nature of an industrial democracy - Italy - fails for the most part as future lit.

It does set up the kind of face-off conjured by Herman Hesse in "Narcissus and Goldmund." Elena is precise, rational and scientific. Bruno emotional and feeling. These two youths struggle to find a common ground that will accommodate their strong mutual attraction.

The fourth story, or "part" as the author proposes it, features Jeanne, an illiterate, rural lumpen proletarian. She lives with a petit bourgeois family in provincial France and Faulks does a nice job of helping us see the world through the eyes of a person whose life is burdened with quite so many disadvantages, eyes lacking the clarity of enlightenment.

The fifth part is the story of Anya as seen through the eyes a successful musician of the 1970s rock and roll scene. It's a lovely recall of those buzzy fuzzy times and a remembrance of how the people then "lived" music as much as they listened to it.

Anya herself is something of a siren, a unique talent, if damaged goods thanks to an unsteady childhood, accessible, but alone as any ship on sweeping sea.

Perhaps these are all lives in which environment is the ultimate arbiter of life direction.

Or not.

Maybe you can figure it out. To be sure, the writer's clean prose and even-handed story-telling make the challenge worth a shot.

"Black Flower" by Young-Ha Kim

In general, this story has been told before. In particular, author Young-Ha Kim had his reasons for retelling it in Black Flower

This is a tale of misbegotten folk who were sold a bill of goods about a rich land where they could elevate their lives, erase their present miseries, and live prosperously.

The author's interest here is in the plight of approximately 1,000 Koreans who fled their crumbling kingdom for Mexico in 1905.

After a harrowing three-month journey in which disease overtakes the boat, they are sold to various hacienda owners in the Yucatan Peninsula and bound to a four-year contract.

The group is dotted with aristocrats, thieves, farmers and anything else Korea was producing at the time. Kim (Young-Ha?) makes threads of certain passengers' stories in varying degrees of detail.

There's a young aristocratic women whose scent of deer roe drives the male passengers to distraction, the solitary teenage boy who falls in love with her, a common thief, a disgraced Catholic priest, the last eunuch to serve a Korean imperial court, a reticent shaman, and a slew of former soldiers.

Back-breaking toil for paltry wages spent at the company store, physical abuse, evisceration of their own beliefs by Catholic maniacs, and death for those who escape, are the unfortunate pilgrims' lot.

Young-Ha provides nice historical backdrops both to the simultaneous subjugation of their Korean homeland by Japan (so that they've no place to return to), and the Mexican revolution, which upends the henequen haciendas in which they work and absorbs them in its senseless cycles of murder.

Sent to differing haciendas, theirs is the progress of a mini-diaspora that ultimately extends from San Francisco to Guatemala. Few come out of their contracts with enough money to return home. Some open small shops in Mexican cities. Others marry their indigenous coworkers and begin melting into their new land.

Another band join Mayan revolutionaries in Guatemala and found the nation of New Korea in the tropical jungle. Spoiler alert: It doesn't go well for them.

According to the back cover of "Black Flower," Young-Ha Kim is a popular and respected writer in South Korea. He'd heard the inklings of this story about a boatload of Koreans who disappeared into the Mexican landscape and took on the job of recuperating their memory through this narrative dramatization of their star-crossed plight.

"While I was writing," Kim explains in the epilogue, "I thought of myself as a sort of shaman. The desires of those who had left for a distant place and been completely forgotten came to me like letters in bottles cast into the sea, and I believed that the emigrants directed me to write their stories."

The translation is a straight-ahead, serviceable English stripped of literary device and much poetry. It does not lag, nor get confusing, and successfully imparts an interesting history lesson, a portrait of human cruelty, and cautionary tale for utopian seekers.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Monipodio's House: A Consideration of Cervantes' Villain

Back in the early 1990s, highwayscribery lived in Spain where he'd gone to write his novel "Vedette or Conversations with the Flamenco Shadows."

When the book was finished and the money gone, the highway scribe moved to Seville from Malaga to start a newspaper with Jose Pérez de Lama Halcón and Angel Delgado.

It was called "La Otra Orilla" and covered that part of Seville located on the right bank of the Guadalquivir River. The district was made up of two barrios, Los Remedios and Triana.

The latter whimsically declared itself a republic independent of the bigger burg while claiming to be the cradle of flamenco and the bullfight arts alike.

There are other barrios in other Spanish cities making like claims. But that's not the point. If you're from Triana the truth there is that they started "los toros" and "el flamenco" in Triana. Case closed.

The barrio was nothing if not historic and many locations were posted with ceramic-tiled signs explaining a particularly noteworthy event that had occurred there, or a person who'd resided and made art in the space.

"La Otra Orilla" ran a series called "Triana by Plaque" (Triana por Placas) whereing a reporter would delve into the person or event highlighted in greater detail.

In the piece below highwayscribery, together with Jose Pérez de Lama Halcón, set out to determine whether a location claiming to be the place where Miguel de Cervantes' "Rinconete and Cortadillo" was inspired, was in fact that place.

Specifically, the plaque (pictured here) claimed the Andalusian patio contained within served as headquarters for the den of thieves run by novela's the primary character, Monipodio.

We scribes turned to the actual text to determine the claim's veracity and have a little fun with literature in the process.

Monipodio's House

Obligated to Stay in Seville at the Service of Philip II, Cervantes Traveled to the Far Reaches of the Imagination

According to the plaque which concerns us this week, the house found at the corner of Betis and Troya served as redoubt for a brotherhood of thieves led by the infamous Monipodio of Miguel de Cervantes novela, "Rinconete and Cortadillo."

It is enough that a student of local cultural, such as our own staff writer Marco Severo, says that this is not the case for a brief investigation into the claim to be launched.

You'll see that this investigation did not permit us to reach a sure conclusion, but did invite an engaging comparison between the Triana and Seville of today with that of Don Quixote's creator.

Cervantes came to Seville against his wishes. His petition to King Phillip II for a post in the Indies having been rejected, the writer was sent to Seville with the charge of gathering provisions for "The Invincible Armada" that would suffer a famous route in the English Channel.

Requisitioning wheat and olive oil from an unwilling populace was apparently a disagreeable task. According to his biographer Professor Valverde, Cervantes was subject to such indignities as being thrown into wells and "other tiresome pranks."

In 1597, the bank where Cervantes kept his ducados went belly-up and he found himself, not for the first time, in jail. If his incarceration in Algeria did little to dim his passion for adventure, his majesty the king was no more successful in dampening his lust for life.

In jail, Cervantes did not travel to distant locations, rather to the boundaries of his own imagination. Perhaps it was in jail where he learned the peculiarities of Sevillan thievery so wonderfully detailed in the novela.

"Rinconete and Cortadillo" is written by an outsider with the understanding of a person who has lived their entire life in Seville. En these two lads, about whom we know, among other things, "that neither one or the other exceeded 16 years of age, both of good humor, but very raggedy, broken, and maltreated."

It is no surprise for anyone familiar with Seville that the boys' first lesson upon arrival in the Andalusian capital is that it is far from an open field. In fact, it is just the opposite. Even in the world of robbing and mugging there are customs and a tax, in this case the monopoly is Monopodio's (El monopólio de Monipodio).

Having just committed their first bit of pilfering, the pair are pinched by a youth under the command of the King of Thieves who recommends they go and "register" with Monipodio and if not, "that they avoid stealing without his blessing for otherwise it would cost them plenty."

Rincón and Cortado (whose names will later be refined by the very same Monipodio), decide to take the youth's advice and depart with him from Plaza de El Salvador toward a destination unidentified by characters and author alike.

Triana is not mentioned in the ensuing discussion, nor does the Guadalquivir River, which one must cross to get there, although Cervantes informs us that the walk lasted as long as the speech by Monipodio's pawn, Ganchuelo, "which was long."

The trip is one across the surface of the soul, eschewing descriptions of the actual landscape. Ganchuelo explains to them that he, too, is a thief, but "one who serves God and good people."

"It's news to me that there are thieves in the world to serve God and good people," responds Cortado and thus it would appear that in the 16th century, as much as today, those who come from beyond quickly learned the extent to which Seville is steeped in Catholic ways.

Finally, at Monipodio's retreat, Rincón and Cortado are left to wait "in a small brick courtyard, so white and scrubbed that it emitted the richest carmine scent. To one side was a bench three feet in height and the other a broken jar with a pitcher on top that was in no better condition. Elsewhere was some matting made of cat's tail and in the middle of it all, a flower pot with basil growing.

"The youths," Cervantes writes, "looked attentively at the treasures of the house as Monipodio came down. Marking his slow pace, Rincón dared to enter one of the lower apartments accessed from the courtyard and saw two fencing swords, two shields of cork hanging from four spikes, a giant chest with nothing covering it, and more Cat's tail mats laid about the floor. On the front wall was stuck an image of Our Lady, one of those low-grade reproductions. Lower still hung a wicker basket and encased in the wall was a basin. Rincón reasoned that the first was for charity and the second for holy water. And this was true.

It was Cervantes' intention through his first draft of "Don Quixote" to pen a simple novel during his stay in Seville. If "Quixote" is, in part, a parody of the wealthy society upon which artists of his time so desperately depended, it's not out of line to suggest we find a little bit of the same in "Rinconete and Cortadillo."

The epic tale about the Madman of La Mancha was dedicated to a Sevillan aristocrat in
an effort to curry favor, although it apparently did little to achieve the author's goal.

Rincón and Cortado find that the household of Monipodio is organized like that of a gentleman of the time, around a courtyard, mise en scéne and architectural symbol of the small aristocratic courts that marked the city.

In him they encounter a man who carries the contradictions of life itself.

Writes Cervantes, "The pair were in awe of the obedience and respect everyone in the house had for Monipodio, a man who was barbaric, rustic, and heartless."

Nonetheless, this Monipodio is capable of receiving guests "with much contentment and courtesy, because he was extremely well-bred."

And it is precisely with Monipodio that Triana possibly emerges for the first time in the story, because the man encompasses the same contradictions as the barrio that treasures both holy virgins and the flamenco ghost.

"And Escalanta, removing her clog, began to beat it like a tambourine. La Gananciosa took a palm broom laying about and began scratching it against the floor, making a sound that, although rough and grating, kept time with the clog. Monipodio broke a plate in two pieces which, placed between his fingers and clicked with grand dexterity, carried a counterpoint to the clog and broom."