Thursday, 29 September 2011

Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink | The Odyssey revisited

Books about books have always had a strong appeal to me. Perhaps because it makes me feel less of a geek when I'm in the presence of similar spirits, as in people who are as fascinated by stories as I am. It also allows me to think about some of the things we discussed at Uni about stories (yes, I do miss literature studies!!).

In Homecoming, the narrator as a child comes across parts of a manuscript in his grandparents' house. The end of the story, the conclusion to the Odyssean story of homecoming, is missing. As an adult, Peter Debauer is still curious about the ending of the story, and starts trying to discover the secrets of the text.

The homecoming motif is emphasised throughout the novel. In Peter's own life, there are homecomings upon homecomings. The issue of what happens when the man returns to his woman after a long separation is a central conflict in the text, and all the "endings" to that exact story are different. Peter becomes obsessed with the Odyssean story of homecoming and the story without an ending. He analyses his own behaviour according to the Odyssey in an attempt to make sense of his life and situation, but all it does is allow him to stay in a place of inaction, of postponing the inevitable homecoming.

Eventually it becomes clear that the manuscript is directly linked to Peter himself. The writer turns out to be his elusive father, a man Peter never knew. Peter finds other texts by his father, more political texts with a rethoric Peter finds provoking, where evil acts justify a good end. Peter becomes increasingly aggressive as he learns more of this man, and before he can truly be "home" and marry his girlfriend Barbara, he has to try to get to know this man.

Post-war Germany is a backdrop to the events of the narrative. The border issues, issues of collective guilt and identity are connected to this and gives the novel further depth.

As a narrator, Peter both analyses himself ruthlessly at times, and brushes acts off as mere details at other times. On his final "quest", he admits to not knowing what exactly it is he wants, but at the same time he is unable to tear himself away from the approaching train crash and just go home. Considering the events that finally lead to his inevitable homecoming, it is almost as if Peter is waiting to have his worst hopes (or fears?) confirmed.

I found this novel very interesting. The mystery surrounding the manuscript and the slow path to finding out more intrigued me. The many layers of homecomings also gave the story more depth. If I were to read Homecoming against The Odyssey this could probably be a very long essay, but my reading of The Odyssey was negligent at best. I prefer this modernised version (no offense to all the literature scholars who think this is blasphemy).

Thursday, 22 September 2011

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut | The Silence and the Border

I should have read this novel a year ago. In a Strange Room was one of the major South African novels last year, but I remember getting the impression that this was "intellectual work" (and rightly so!), so I avoided it. Only now, when I'm in Norway, and the novel has been translated into Norwegian, do I decide to read it.

The novel is divided into three, and each part is a journey undertaken by Damon. The narrator at once identifies and distances himself from Damon the protagonist. Sometimes he refers to Damon as "he", whereas in other places the narrator uses "I". This really reminds me of J M Coetzee's autobiographical novels Boyhood and Youth (and the similarities do not end there).

In the first journey South African Damon and German Reiner, who hardly know each other, decide to hike around Lesotho together. There is a strange power struggle in their relationship. On the overt level the story is about their hike, but on the covert level the journey is into their relationship. The power is especially connected to finances, and the one with the money sets the agenda.

Dialogue in the novel is not marked by quotation marks, which works both to underline how little talking there actually is in the novel, as well as to suggest that the author is paraphrasing. Additionally, it blurs the boundary of who's saying what.

The end of the first part is strangely anti-climaxtic (Coetzeean as such), and the narrator admits that silence and uncertainty is the only closure to this story (kind of like life).

In the second part, Damon is travelling through parts of Southern Africa with some random backpackers he ran into. In the group, it is very clear that Damon is kind of an outsider. The tourists are mostly European coming to Africa for leisure, who ignore the social problems of the region. Being South African, Damon can't as easily submit to merely the pursuit of pleasure.

In the course of the journey, there are a number of border crossings, both geographical and symbolical, and Damon emphasises the difference between those who need a visa to cross the border and those who do not. Damon admits to being afraid of crossing borders, and leaving the safe behind in favour of a space beyond where anything can happen, but he also says that this is why he travels. It turns out that nothing is impossible in the borderland.

In this part of the novel there is also a strong emphasis on the distance between words and meanings. Damon meets a young European whose English is quite bad. In order to communicate properly, they need an interpreter. However, the presence of the interpreter is seen as intrusive, and their clumpsy attempts at speaking English together is mere mimickry of proper speech, where the European resorts to stock phrases and direct translations from the dictionary. Similarly, Damon is at some point denied entry in a country, and the official is hinting for a bribe, but Damon does not pick up on the hint until it is almost too late.

After the journey in Southern Africa comes to an end, Damon decides to visit Jerome, the European, in Switzerland. The visit is a good one, but Damon is confused as to Jerome's wishes for them. As Jerome is away in the army during the week, Damon eventually leaves and has very little contact with him for quite a long time, as he travels around in Europe by himself.

Once more the ending is filled with disappointment, and even grief, perhaps anticipating the actions in the third part in the novel. Damon is left with questions of whether or not he could have acted differently.

In the third part, Damon brings a close friend, who happens to be suffering under a very strong depression, to India with him. It quickly becomes apparent that the friend he used to know has transformed into a stranger after the illness took hold of her. Once more there's a power theme at work, and a question of who's in power of the situation of the two. The situation grows worse and worse until it reaches a crisis. Once more there is also a conflict with language, and, as Damon underlines, an insufficiency of language. His friend has entered a terrain where words have no power, and she has forced Damon to follow her there.

The three parts together make up a sort of journey into the self, into the deep dark Damon. His powerlessness, his perhaps petty victories, his insecurity, his fears. And while it is a strange room, it is also a familiar room. The familiar room where you are forced to question yourself and you don't necessarily like what you see. The familiar room of the confrontation you fear. This is a novel that really makes you think and reflect.

I loved being in Damon Galgut's strange room. I will probably revisit it often.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne

I just read the Norwegian edition of The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne, successful author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (which I haven't read). This is apparently Boyne's first "adult" book, and I have to say he's done a great job at this novel!

The novel is about Georgy, the peasant youth who suddenly finds his own situation elevated to that of bodyguard of Alexei Romanov, the heir to the Russian throne. The country is at war, though, and in the midst of this, Georgy soon has to battle with his own loyalty to the throne, and the increasing internal Bolshevik threat. For Georgy the choice is simple, though: he is in love with the Emperor's youngest daughter Anastasia, and he will do anything to protect her.

The narrative is split in two. On the one hand we have the story of Georgy as a young man serving the Russian throne and trying to keep his relationship to Anastasia a secret from her parents. On the other hand we have Georgy's present story (1981). He is now an old man living in exile in London with his wife Zoya, who is dying of cancer. The story swaps between the "youth Georgy's" story, and "old Georgy's" story. Whilst the events revealed of "youth Georgy's" story follow a chronological sequence, the events of "old Georgy's" story gradually go backwards in time, so that at the end of the novel, the two stories meet, before finally reaching a climax in the present tense. This narrative technique keeps the suspence longer. In "old Georgy's" story, he might refer to an event that has happened, but it's only later, as he returns to the time of the event that the reader fully grasps why the event turned out to be so important. For instance we learn that Georgy and Zoya lived in Paris for a while, but that they left because of what happened to a friend of theirs. What exactly it was that happened is only revealed when the story has regressed so far back in time that they are back in Paris once more.

I often find that reading is a learning experience. I have to admit that I know very little of the Russian Romanov dynasty and the Russian revolution. But in reading this novel I became quite interested in learning more. So I did some research whilst I was still reading it, and learned that the whole royal family were killed during the revolution, including Anastasia, who Georgy loves. So then comes the mystery of Georgy's wife Zoya, who could only be Anastasia, and the question of how she came to survive. Whilst we do get an answer to that question, some questions remain shrouded in mystery at the close of the novel.

I really loved The House of Special Purpose. The complexity of the narrative made it more interesting. The story of the poor peasant who finds himself in the lap of luxury is fairy-tale like and fascinating, and Georgy's experience of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg makes it accessible to the reader. The story of love and loyalty through the ages is beautiful and touching. I also love that Georgy is so human in his complexity. He embodies both bravery and cowardice, strength and weakness at the same time, and the dichotomy between power and helplessness is very present in him, as well as working as a sort of theme in the story as a whole. This is visible through how the Emperor, who supposedly was chosen by God, is eventually rendered powerless to protect his family against the Bolsheviks.

This is also a story of loss. We learn that Zoya and Georgy have a daughter who passes away, leaving her young son Michael behind. Whereas Zoya and Georgy grieve the loss of their daughter, Michael has to learn to live without his mother. And, when Zoya is diagnosed with cancer, Georgy has to start preparing himself for a life of solitude. The loss of your country (and your identity) through exile is also a strong presence in the story. Zoya and Georgy's visit to Russia later in their life proves the thesis "you can't go home again".

The House of Special Purpose is well-written and well composed. You come to really care for the main protagonists and you believe in their story. If you're easily moved, like I am, be sure to be armed with Kleenex, at least for the final pages.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Gyldendals XS - LIKE!

I just started reading the Norwegian translation of Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room. Gyldendal, the Norwegian publisher, has decided to publish the book in their XS-series, a series that appeals to me both esthetically and thematically.

The XS-series are translated hardcover titles in a smaller format, so they fit nicely inside my handbag, and look super cute lined up on a bookshelf together.

I also love the XS conept (freely translated excerpt from Gyldendal's website):
The XS - series consists of books which might not be physically big, but which still has a large literary potential.
The XS-series houses original, "genreless" works which brings new perspectives, thoughts and literary images into Norwegian literature.
The titles are innovative and the reader will not have encoutered such a book before.

XS can stand for excess, as something that transgresses borders.
XS can stand for extra large, or extra small, and this dichotomy fits the series.

The design is also pretty awesome. Small, cute and clean. I like a lot.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna | The Indian Tragedy

Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna is truly a Bollywoodesque tragedy of a Devdasian calibre. Devdas being one of the most tragic, melodramatic Bollywood movies I have ever seen. Here the tears are shed among the men as well as the women, the impossible love as heart-wrenching for the parties involved, as well as for those responsible for inflicting this pain.

And I have to say, Indian authors truly know their tragedies. A Fine Balance, An Atlas of Impossible Longings, The Palace of Illusions, and Evening is the Whole Day are just a few of the Indian novels I've read that spring to mind. From the back cover blurb, I knew that the story would be sad: "a decision that has heartbreaking consequences for generations to come...". Duly warned, but warning ignored.

The story even starts with foreshadowing. As Devi is born, her mother knows she is special. The several omens gives the story a fairy tale-like effect, bringing to mind The Palace of Illusions, which is the rewriting of an Indian myth. Devi's mother fastens an amulet on her daughter to keep the evil eye away from her. In many ways I am tempted to read this novel as a sort of Indian Things Fall Apart, as the society described is one where the tension between Indian tradition comes into conflict with "modern" British culture. The story is set in at the end of the 1800s to the early 1900s, a period of growing nationalism in India. The political unrest, however, is a mere backdrop for the story itself.

Devi gains a brother when a mother in the community commits suicide, leaving her son Devanna behind. Devanna and Devi grow up practically as brother and sister, doing everything together. Devanna is satisfied with only Devi as his companion, but the wilful Devi wants more. When the first tiger is killed in decades, and Devi attends the "tiger wedding" to celebrate the hunter, Devi's life suddenly takes a new turn, and destiny makes her strong presence on the scene. Devi knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that this is her man. Machu, the tiger killer, however, sees Devi as only a child.

Nine years pass before Devi once again sees Machu. Nine years of waiting and being convinced that if he only sees her - because she has turned into an unparalleled beauty in the mean time - he will also know that they belong together. Devi is so focussed on Machu that she is blind to the fact that Devanna, her brother in all but blood, nourishes as strong a conviction that she belongs to him. As events unfold, it becomes more and more clear that there will be no happy ending, and destiny weaves a web of secrets, unhappiness and suffering that the characters must go through.

After reading this story, I wrote a somewhat detailed summary of the plot for my boyfriend, whose response was: "these people have terrible communication skills. It's ridiculous". He's so right. Many times in the novel, I thought to myself, if they could only talk to each other, tell each other what's wrong, then things wouldn't have turned out this way. The author mentions that people from Coorg are notoriously proud, so there seems to be a reason behind their lack of communicating shame and pain, hopes and dreams deferred. And at the same time, I am also aware of what kind of book I am reading. This is a tragedy after all. What can go wrong will go wrong, and most of the time it'll be a lot worse than the reader can imagine.

What's fascinating about the story, is how matter-of-factly the tragedies occur. The author does not brood on these events. People die without the last forgiveness, the last spoken acknowledgement. So-and-so dies, and then life goes on. So-and-so has a stroke, and then life goes on. So-and-so is abused, and then life goes on. Because life has to go on. That's what happens in Coorg. In contrast to this, the book also asks the question: "how do you grieve what you on paper have no right to grieve?", and "how do you live a lie so completely that it is your entire life?".

None of the characters are saints, or demons for that matter. You sympathise and critisise all of them. Devi, although the heroine, is both selfish and cruel. Devanna, who is kind to a fault, is too kind, too quiet, too scared of confrontation. Machu, the man of action, shows himself to be passive and blind. The author shows us all the reasons, all the whys of every antagonist's action. I find that to be a very interesting approach to the story. It does not excuse the actions, but it shows us how that action came to be.

There is a lot of symbolism in this story. The omens that foreshadows tragic events. The parallel stories that shed light on people's relationships in the book. The garden at the Tiger Hills estate, and a special Bamboo flower. Fragile earrings made from wings for a very fragile beauty. All coming together to make a very neat story. Additionally, the author writes beautiful prose that makes the landscape, the scenes and the people truly come alive.

Tiger Hills consumed me whole. I was sucked into the story, heart and soul, and it's been a long time since I was this engulfed by a novel. So many stories of love and loss make up this book, and Mandanna makes me want to know more of all of them. As I read the end, page 591, I really wanted there to be about another 100 pages left. I might have read the book to the end, but I am not nearly done with it yet. Not by a long shot.