‘A Girl in Exile’ by Ismail Kadare – Requiem for Linda B.

 

‘A Girl in Exile’ by Ismail Kadare   (2009) – 185 pages    Translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson

I was surprised to find that this is the fourth novel by Ismail Kadare that I have reviewed here at Tony’s Book World.  That fact alone does indicate the high esteem in which I hold Ismail Kadare as a writer of modern fiction.

Kadare spent much of his childhood and many years thereafter living in his home country of Albania then ruled by the Communist totalitarian regime of Enver Hoxha.  This life in a brutal repressive regime has been the main subject of Kadare’s fiction especially since 1991 when the Communist government in Albania collapsed.  ‘A Girl in Exile’ is another Kadare novel which deals with this terrible time in Albanian history.

The narrator in ‘A Girl in Exile’ is a writer – a playwright – much like Kadare himself.  Like Kadare, this playwright achieved great success at an early age and is held in watchful respect by the Communist Party.  However the Party does monitor his plays before allowing them to be performed, and that is one of the possible reasons the playwright thinks that he may have been called in to be interviewed by two members of the Party.  The other possible reason he thinks he may have been called in to be questioned is for a fight in which he has hit his latest girlfriend.

However the real reason he has been called in is neither his new play nor his fight with his new girlfriend.  Instead the officials are curious about another girl, Linda B., who has never met the playwright but who has one of his books which he had personally signed.  During the Communist years, certain families were forced into internal exile within Albania itself for the “crime” of being middle class.  These people who were victims of internal exile were forced to live in some remote town and were not allowed to travel within the country, especially not to the biggest Albanian city of Tirana where the playwright lives.

The playwright’s new girlfriend is a college age student who is a friend of Linda B.  He has taken up with this new young girl while his longtime paramour is away. This young girlfriend takes the book he signed to Linda B.   As I mentioned before, the playwright is worried that the authorities may have found out about his fight with this new girlfriend in which he hit her.  This playwright is no saint.  The Communist authorities allow this playwright to get away with much more than other Albanian people because of his world-renowned stature as a writer.  Linda B. worships him from afar because of his writing.  Linda B. has fallen in love with the playwright although she has never met him. Linda B. will do anything to get to Tirana to meet the playwright, even fake cancer.

So there are two themes in ‘A Girl in Exile’, the brutality of the Communist officials in imposing these internal exiles on their own Albanian people and the adulation by even the Communist authorities and everyone else of a major literary star.

I found the worship of this playwright by this college age girl Linda B. who never met him rather unbelievable and also hard to take.  Somehow I felt like all of this adulation for this playwright has gone straight to his head.

.

Grade :   B   

 

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‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna – Tracking the London Foxes

 

‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna   (2018) – 312 pages

I was very much anticipating reading ‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna after reading her excellent previous novel ‘The Hired Man’, and now after finishing ‘Happiness’ I can say that it has even exceeded those high expectations.  ‘Happiness’ is my favorite novel that I have read so far this year.

I defy anyone to read the first eight pages and not continue reading ‘Happiness’.  They are that good.  These pages about a wolf hunter in Massachusetts in 1834 are only peripherally related to the rest of the story, but they do set the stage.

The main story takes place in today’s London, especially on the streets of London, where the two main characters literally collide when they first meet each other.  The two characters, Jean and Attila, are both middle-aged; both have been married before but are single now.

The woman Jean is from Massachusetts but she is currently living by herself in London studying urban foxes.  Now that England has banned fox hunting, many foxes have taken to living on the streets of London, surviving to some extent on the food waste that is thrown away. Her passion for these urban foxes keeps Jean searching for them on the streets, and we get a street-level view of the city.  She has a network of volunteers to help her track the foxes.

The man Attila is a renowned psychiatrist from Accra, Ghana who aside from his regular work must also deal with immigration crises that arise for other Africans living in London. When a young Ghanaian woman gets swept up in an immigration crackdown, her young son goes missing.  By this time Jean and Attila are beginning their friendship, and Jean employs her network of fox watchers to help find the boy.

The gradual emerging of a close relationship between Jean and Attila is the centerpiece of this novel.  Its theme can perhaps be best stated by the following lines:

 “The reckless open their arms & topple into love, as do dreamers who fly in their dreams without fear or danger. Those who know that all love must end in loss do not fall but rather cross slowly from the not knowing into the knowing.”

Aminatta Forna writes her story in a clear, direct, and straightforward manner without resorting to any flamboyant language or tricks.  By capturing more than just what is happening on the surface, she achieves a depth that is missing from many novels.  She delves into several subtle subjects such as the starkness of nature and humans’ natural resilience to tragedy.

“What if by labeling our patients damaged from the outset, we not only condemn them to a self-fulfilling prophecy, but have overlooked a finding of equal importance? That the emotional vulnerability of trauma is oftentimes transformed into strength.  What if we were to have revealed to us that misfortune can lend life quality? Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger, yes. What if I told you that there are times when whatever does not kill me can make me more, not less, than the person I was before?”

Also Forna takes up a not new idea that is similar to one that has been intriguing me lately, hers being that we humans, like those urban foxes, are just as much a part of nature.

In my review of ‘The Hired Man’, I compared the writing of Aminatta Forna to that of Kazuo Ishiguro, and I still believe that comparison holds.

The best fiction excites and exhilarates us up to a place we have never been before, and ‘Happiness’ definitely did that for me.

 

Grade:   A+ 

 

‘Chicago’ by David Mamet – A Slug of Violent Cynicism Mixed with a Pill of Maudlin Sentimentality

 

Chicago’ by David Mamet   (2018) – 332 pages

“Jackie Weiss had died of a broken heart, it being broken by several slugs from a .45.”     

‘Chicago’ by David Mamet is an old-fashioned gangster novel that wears its all-pervasive cynicism and violence proudly. It is a tale of unending corruption written in Mamet’s distinctive tough-guy style.

The scene is the all too familiar one of Chicago in the 1920s.  Al Capone’s Italian gang runs the south side of town; Dion O’Banion’s Irish gang runs the north side. Mike Hodge is a hard-drinking reporter for the Chicago Tribune covering the action at all costs with his deadpan partner Parlow.

All the clichés of the era are here, the hooker Peekaboo with a heart of gold, the nightclub owner murdered by the mob using a Thompson sub-machine gun, the wise-guy reporters trying to write it all down by deadline.  The story morphs into a murder mystery when Mike’s so sweet love-of-his-life girlfriend Annie is gunned down as the couple sits in a restaurant.

The plot in ‘Chicago’ is about as clichéd as a story can get, and the characters are all trite stereotypes you would find in any old gangster movie or story. There are only two ways in ‘Chicago’ to react to anything that happens, either you are perversely cynical or you are maudlin with sentimentality.  What saves the novel to some extent is the energy of the writing.  As you would expect from the playwright Mamet the dialogue is vivid and engaging, though drop-dead cynical.  Here is a good example of this wise-ass style of writing:

“A newspaper is a joke.  Existing at the pleasure of the advertisers, to mulct the public, gratifying their stupidity, and render some small advance on investment to the owners, offering putative employment to their etiolated wastrel sons, in those young solons’ circuit between the Fort Dearborn Club and the Everleigh House of Instruction.”

“Well, fuck you,” Mike said, “as we said in the Great War.”

Mike often waxes sentimental about his days fighting and flying in World War I.  Why are the most cynical and disdainful of men also the most mawkishly maudlin and sentimental about the things that they themselves happen to like?

I had no problem reading this novel.  I sped through all the plot clichés, the shopworn unoriginal characters, the cynicism, the sentimentality.  However ‘Chicago’ left little of lasting value.

 

Grade:   B

 

‘Troilus and Cressida’ by William Shakespeare – A Decidedly Un-Heroic Play

 

‘Troilus and Cressida’ by William Shakespeare, a play  (1601-1602) – 114 pages

William Shakespeare started the drama ‘Troilus and Cressida’ in 1601 shortly after he had finished ‘Hamlet’ and only a couple of years before he started ‘Othello’, ‘King Lear’, and ‘Macbeth’.  There is little doubt that Shakespeare was operating at his peak during this period.  However ‘Troilus and Cressida’ has never attained the stature of these four other dramas.  Why not?  While I discuss ‘Troilus and Cressida’, I will attempt to answer that question.

‘Troilus and Cressida’ takes place in ancient Greek times during the seventh year of the Trojan War.  Besides Homer, one of Shakespeare’s primary sources for the play was the epic poem ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the mid-1380s.  In Shakespeare’s time, the Greek love story of Troilus and Cressida was as famous as that of Romeo and Juliet.

In the play, there are scenes of human passion and of human battle.  Neither in passion nor in battle do the characters act heroicly or divinely or even honorably.  In both cases, these people act all too human.  That is why ‘Troilus and Cressida’ is sometimes considered a modern play.

We start with the character Pandarus.  His name Pandarus is actually the derivation for the modern verb “to pander”. Pandarus is Cressida’s uncle.  After he finds out that Troilus has the hots for Cressida, he keeps praising Troilus to Cressida until he accomplishes his goal which is to get Cressida in bed with Troilus.  Afterwards Troilus and Cressida pledge undying love to each other.  However, soon Cressida’s father makes a deal with the Greeks to trade Cressida for a Trojan soldier held prisoner by the Greeks.  Cressida is taken to the Greek camp where she is warmly welcomed.  Unbeknownst to her, Troilus is watching as she becomes increasingly drawn toward one of the Greek soldiers Diomedes, and Troilus watches as she gives Diomedes the sleeve which Troilus had given her as a token of his undying love.  Troilus, of course, is outraged at her faithlessness.

At the outset of the battle scenes, the Greeks are depending on Achilles to lead the fighting against the Trojans, but Achilles just lays in his tent with his buddy Patroclus and has “grown dainty of his worth”:

“The Great Achilles, whose opinion crowns
The sinew and the forehand of our host,
Having his ear full of his airy fame,
Grows dainty of his worth,
And in his tent
Lies mocking our designs.  With him Patroclus
Upon a lazy bed the livelong day
Breaks scurrile jests.”

Instead the Greek leaders decide to pick the fool Ajax to lead the fighting in the hopes that Achilles will get jealous and step in to take over.

Meanwhile the Trojans begin to realize it is ridiculous for both sides to have so many men killed in fighting just for the sake of this one beautiful woman Helen.  The Trojans propose to return Helen to the Greeks and stop the war, but the Greeks don’t accept their offer.

The war continues and the Trojan warrior Hector defeats Ajax easily and among the scores of Greeks he slays is Achilles’ buddy Patroclus.  This finally rouses Achilles to battle.  However Achilles’ behavior is by no means heroic.  Achilles has his men attack and kill Hector while Hector is resting with his armor off.  Then he ties Hector’s body to the back of his horse and drags the body over rough land.

In ‘Troilus and Cressida’, there is no honor or fidelity in either love or battle.  This is Shakespeare’s most cynical but perhaps also his most realistic play. If people act so poorly, how can anything that happens to them be tragic? Joyce Carol Oates has written of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ that “no darker commentary on the predicament of man has ever been written”.

“There is no help;
The bitter disposition of the time
Will have it so.”

Why hasn’t ‘Troilus and Cressida’ achieved more popularity? Perhaps people are more comfortable and enthusiastic with the romance and undying love of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ than with the bitter cynicism and darker realism of ‘Troilus and Cressida”.

 

Grade:   A

 

‘Asymmetry’ by Lisa Halliday – An Asymmetrical Novel

 

‘Asymmetry’ by Lisa Halliday   (2018) – 271 pages

Am I the only one who found the novel ‘Asymmetry’ disjointed?

‘Asymmetry’ is divided into three parts. In Part I, we have the affair between a twenty-five year old woman named Alice and a seventy-two year old famous author who seems to bear a strong resemblance to Philip Roth. In Part II is the story of Amar Jaafari who is born to Iraqi Muslim parents but is a United States citizen by virtue of being born in the United States.  Part III is there seemingly just for fun and has the old author telling us his favorite music.

First let’s discuss the May-December relationship that is in Part I.

Do we even have to ask whether or not this old single man would jump into a relationship and into bed with this young woman?  For the woman this asymmetrical relationship is more questionable.  He has fame, prestige, and money.  She is a book editor and he is a famous author, so he is at the top rung of a field that she works in. He treats her very well. They both are avid Major League baseball fans, she for the Boston Red Sox, he for the New York Yankees. They seem quite compatible, but still…

Somehow her affair seems outside her real life. When someone asks the young woman if she is dating anyone, she tells them, “No”.  Only rarely does Alice have thoughts like:

“Dwarfed by the plane trees, he looked smaller and frailer than he did in the close refuge of his apartment, and for a moment Alice saw what she supposed other people would see: a healthy young woman losing time with a decrepit old man.”   

In this Part I, the writer Lisa Halliday has a light pleasant touch.  There are no angry or resentful arguments between this 72 year old man and this 25 year old woman.  The young woman is at least as happy with the affair as the man.

There is no lightness in Part II.  Amar Jaafari who is a citizen of the United States is trying to board a plane in London to return to his parents’ homeland of Iraq sometime in 2008 and is detained.  The United States is still fighting the needless tragedy of the Iraq War.  If Amar is detained much longer he will miss his connecting flight.

“My relatives would describe to me what Baghdad used to be like.  They told me that as recently as the Seventies, it looked like Istanbul does now: bustling with tourists and business people, a thriving cosmopolitan capital in an ascendant Middle East.  Before Iran, before Saddam, before sanctions and Operation Iraqi Freedom and now this, this too had been a country of culture, of education and commerce and beauty, and people came from all over the world to see it and be part of it.  And now? Do you see, Amar, this chaos outside our doors, this madness?”

The sentences are longer in Part II and much more serious.

There is no or very little connective tissue between Part I of ‘Asymmetry’ and Part II of ‘Asymmetry’.  Most reviewers were fine with that and connected the two parts under the rubric ‘asymmetry’ somehow. However I am not sure that the people who like the light romance of the May-December affair will like the heavy-duty story of the moral consequences of the Iraq War or visa-versa.

I had fun with Part III in which the old author from Part I is interviewed about his favorite music that he would take with him to a desert island.  It lightened things up again after the heavy-duty Part II.  Also it contained this excellent quote I had not heard before:

 “Wasn’t it Socrates, or one of his ilk, who said that the celibacy of old age is like finally being unwrapped from the back of a wild horse?” 

 

Grade:   B 

 

‘Berg’ by Ann Quin – A Captivating Sleazy Tale about Killing Dad

 

‘Berg’ by Ann Quin   (1964) – 168 pages

The late author Ann Quin left no doubt as to the plot of her novel ‘Berg’ with the following first sentence:

“A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father….”

The seaside town is unnamed but is probably Brighton, England, Quin’s hometown.

The father walked out on the mother and her small son many years ago, and what makes it even more annoying for the son is that his mother still speaks affectionately of the long-gone father.

“But I’m damned if I’ll allow the old bastard to get away with it, with the past.  I, the son, have every justification, people will sympathize, might even be considered a hero.”  

Now the son has tracked his father down to a broken-down hotel which is across the street from a dance hall, and it is the kind of hotel where men bring back women whom they have picked up at the dance hall.  The son gets a room adjoining the room where his father is staying with the latest of his many girlfriend flames who is almost as young as the son is, and the son can hear them through the wall in bed at night.

“Were they both just the other side, the old man, mole-like, crawling over her mounds of flesh?” 

This wicked novel takes another wicked turn when the son also winds up sleeping with his father’s young girlfriend.

The problem with murdering your father is that you have to get close enough to him so that you recognize the similarities between him and yourself.  As your mother used to say,

“You’re very similar in funny little ways, strange how it comes out like that, isn’t it.” 

‘Berg’ is seaside noir at its tackiest and most sordid. As a novel, I see ‘Berg’ as a cross between the writings of another Brighton writer Patrick Hamilton (author of Hangover Square, among others) and the romans durs of French writer Georges Simenon. It has the dark humor of the murder farce movie ‘Fargo’.  Yet ‘Berg’ has its own trashy magic.  ‘Berg’ was made into a not-very-good movie in 1990 called ‘Killing Dad’.

The author Ann Quin had a sad end.   During her life she had recurring bouts of depression and had endured electroconvulsive shock therapy.  She wrote three other novels besides ‘Berg’.  In 1973 at the age of 37, she walked off the Brighton Pier into the ocean.  Her body was recovered the next day.

Maybe if Ann Quin had lived, English literature might have been wilder, less cautious, and sleazier than it is today.

 

 

Grade:   A

 

Patrick White – One of My Favorite Fiction Writers of the 20th Century

 

Patrick White

Born:   May 28, 1912    Died:   September 30, 1990

Naming my favorite writers is kind of like populating my personal Mount Olympus with my own literary gods.  Each of the writers has their own special talents and strengths and weaknesses. Keeping with that Olympus analogy then my Zeus, my god above all gods, is Australian Patrick White.  If I can convey why Patrick White deserves this special place in my literary pantheon, I feel I will have accomplished something special.

First I want to say that White’s fiction has the vivid storytelling and the unique fascinating characters of traditional good fiction.  However he always attempted to go deeper into the human mystery and usually succeeded. Let me explain.

Let’s start with a couple of simple sentences from White’s story “Dead Roses” which is in his story collection ‘The Burnt Ones’

“If she had only been able to touch him, they might perhaps have pooled their secrets and discovered the reason for human confusion. But as that wasn’t possible, she went outside, into the garden.”

Patrick White is always striving to find that deeper visceral truth between people that goes beyond thinking or rationality.   For instance, let’s take any situation where two people meet.  Each of us has a whole lifetime of experiences that make us unique including our inherited traits, sex, babyhood, childhood, parents, surroundings, school, work, friends, and enemies.  Reason can only take us so far in understanding what exactly happens when any two people meet or collide.  There is always a strong undercurrent.

“I am interested in detail. I enjoy decoration. By accumulating this mass of detail you throw light on things in a longer sense: in the long run it all adds up. It creates a texture — how shall I put it — a background, a period, which makes everything you write that much more convincing.” – Patrick White

All of the concrete detail in his stories keeps White from becoming too abstract. He is a writer who relies on the intuitive rather than intellect.

“I have the same idea with all my books: an attempt to come close to the core of reality, the structure of reality, as opposed to the merely superficial. The realistic novel is remote from art. A novel should heighten life, should give one an illuminating experience; it shouldn’t set out what you know already. I just muddle away at it. One gets flashes here and there, which help. I am not a philosopher or an intellectual. Practically anything I have done of any worth I feel I have done through my intuition, not my mind – which the intellectuals disapprove of. And that is why I am anathema to certain kinds of Australian intellectual.” – Patrick White

Perhaps White’s best representation of this battle between the cold rational versus the warm intuitive occurs in the novel ‘The Solid Mandala’ which is the story of two dependent but antagonistic brothers.

The one thing that I have left out so far is the sheer pleasure and enjoyment I get from reading one of Patrick White’s many masterpieces. He has a vivid lively way of presenting his stories whether he is writing about an explorer in the Australian outback in ‘Voss’ or a powerful Australian matriarch in ‘The Eye of the Storm’. His novels are long but they are well worth the effort and the time spent.

Fiction by Patrick White that I strongly recommend:  I would recommend any one of his many masterpieces. Here is my personal list: ‘The Solid Mandala’, ‘Voss’, ‘The Eye of the Storm’, ‘Riders in the Chariot’, ‘The Vivisector’, ‘The Tree of Man’, ‘The Aunt’s Story’, ‘The Twyborn Affair’, ‘A Fringe of Leaves’, ‘The Burnt Ones’ (a short story collection).

Quotes about Patrick White

“Patrick White has the ability, for the reader who stays with him, to penetrate one step further into their interior.” – Nicholas Shakespeare

“Patrick White is a strongly individual, richly gifted, original and highly significant writer whose powers are remarkable and whose achievement is large. His art is dense, poetic, and image-ridden. It is always a substantial and genuine thing. At its finest it is one which goes beyond an art of mere appearances to one of mysterious actuality.” – William Walsh, in Patrick White’s Fiction (1977)

Quotes by Patrick White

“What I am interested in is the relationship between the blundering human being and God.” – Patrick White

“Human relationships are vast as deserts: they demand all daring, she seemed to suggest.”  – Patrick White, ‘Voss’

“Human behavior is a series of lunges, of which, it is sometimes sensed, the direction is inevitable.” – Patrick White

“Because he had nothing to hide, he did perhaps appear to have forfeited a little of his strength. But that is the irony of honesty.” – Patrick White

 

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