Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The loneliness of men

Full title: Good Bones
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Fiction, collection of short-short stories
Attributes: 160 pages, paperback
Publisher: Virago (2010)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

What’s impressive at times in this collection of short-shorts is the extent to which men are left alone. In “Man at Sea”:
“women are replaced by water, by wind, by the ocean, shifting and treacherous.”
In “Alien Territory” (a story as dazzling as a birth), an alternative is on offer – the alternative to the patriarchal rise to prominence (the accepted version, that is). Here, too, men are alone in an almost odious invention of the species, alone and isolated, alone with nothing but their bare preconceptions:
“Five guys standing outside, pissing into a snowbank, a river, the underbush, pretending not to look down. Or maybe not looking down: gazing upwards, at the stars, which gives us the origins of astronomy.Anything to avoid comparisons, which aren’t so much odious as intimidating.And not only astronomy: quantum physics, engineering, laser technology, all numeration between zero and infinity. Something safely abstract, detached from you; a transfer of the obsession with size to anything at all. Lord, Lord, they measure everything: the height of the Great Pyramids, the rate of fingernail growth, the multiplication of viruses, the sands of the sea, the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. And then it’s only a short step to proving that God is a mathematical equation. Not a person. Not a body, Heaven forbid. Not one like yours. Not an earthbound one, not one with size and therefore pain.When you’re feeling blue, just keep on whistling. Just keep on measuring. Just don’t look down.”
So yes, indeed, these are stories in which, by and large, men get the sour end of the stick, if such thing could be said to exist; if anything else really exists beyond the unforgiving voice that’s telling their stories.
”I’m being unnecessariuly brutal, you say. Too blunt, too graphic.” (“Hardball”)
These are alternatives that have never been taken seriously, what with war and manly loneliness and pride and lack of sympathy, substitute-narrations which here and now are ceasing the day, stealing the show. “Why do men want to kill the bodies of other men?” A question – fundamental like a lot of other questions asked throughout the volume. And by way of a reply, a list of possible reasons (called “traditional reasons”):
“Loot. Territory. Lust of power. Hormones. Adrenalin high. Rage. God. Flag. Honour. Righteous anger. Revenge. Oppression. Slavery. Starvation. Defence of one’s life. Love; or, a desire to protect women and children. From what? From the bodies of other men.”
This is in the same story, “Alien Territory,” a text divided into seven parts, each with its own take on what a man’s body is or might be. A story which takes things so seriously they often seem comical, in their nonfictional plainness (and, of course, plenitude).
“Magazines for women have women’s bodies on the covers. Magazines for men have women’s bodies on the covers. When men appear on the covers of magazines, it’s magazines about money, or about world news.”
Margaret Atwood gives here away stories that read in the glimmer of a second or two. Half narrations, half riddles. Half serious nonfictions, half mad fantasy. Short-shorts, as many generic enthusiasts will call them; or incantations, poems-in-prose; but stories that feel seriously worked out (in the good sense of the word), their muscles sculptural and showing through, the artful hand of their author returned over and over upon their lambent bodies of words. Most importantly, though (as seen right here, one hopes) – with a style that grows contagious, a style that makes one speak with the cadences of the very stories one has just read. Good Bones. Very good Bones. If Bones were your dog, this would sound like an encouragement. Wouldn’t it?
“Today I speak to my bones as I would speak to a dog. […] Good bones, good bones, I coax, wondering how to reward them; if they will sit up for me, beg, roll over, do one more trick, once more.There. We’re at the top. Good bones! Good bones! Keep on going.”

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A quotable collection of wonders

Full title: For the Time Being
Author: Annie Dillard
Genre: Non fiction
Attributes: 222 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Vintage Books (2010)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

With Annie Dillard one learns how to wonder. She sees things in a light that must have been the light of their very beginning, the light of metaphors; as when she contemplates the excavation site for the unearthing of Emperor Qin’s terracotta army:
“We can see a half-dug horse, whose lower jaw dips into the ground as if the planet were a feed bag.”
Beautiful. Quotable. Memorable.
A book of travels, that’s what For the Time Being is supposed to be. And it is that. It is that and much more. Travels through poetry and philosophy, at the end of which we realize there’s only one thing we've really seen: the human species. Us, as we appear on earth in the short span between birth and death; us, through the statistics we make, through the mystical ecstasies that elate us, our poetical aberrations, our philosophies, our biological deformities and cultural imperfections. Us, the most fragile and at, the same time, perhaps the most promising creatures on earth.
Almost every time she quotes numbers (from sources rarely mentioned; but who cares, really?), Dillard gives the impression of an accountant keeping the books of the universe. Her numbers are always astonishing. They read like arguments that leave no room for retaliation. They hurt while enlightening; or is it the other way round?
“In our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are four hundred billion suns – give or take 50 percent – or sixty-nine suns for each person alive.”
This “give or take 50 percent” is a stroke of genius. Four hundred billion or two hundred billion (or to put it differently, 200,000,000,000 or 400,000,000,000) are, to the mind of an inhabitant of a one-sun universe, the true test of imagination. A test at which, if I’m not wrong, we fail. Who can imagine such calamities? Who can count to such a length? Who can cope with so much?
Precisely the point.

We will also wonder how slowly but surely sand and debris cover us all.
Source: National Geographic
But the shock of numbers isn't everything the book delivers. One falls in love with the way things are described, as in the case of the horse image quoted above. Of course, there’s more where that description came from. Like, for instance, this one, where we stand in a maternity ward and watch babies receiving their first baths:
“This is where they wash the newborns like dishes. A nurse, one or another, spends most of her eight-hour shift standing here at the sink.
Different nurses bring newborns, one after another, and line them down the counter to the sink’s left. The newborns wear flannel blankets. Knit hats the size of teacups keep sliding up their wet heads. Their faces run the spectrum from lavender through purple and red to ping and beige.”
Then, once she’s made poetry of our coming-about, she moves smoothly, gently, irrevocably to the other part of us: our going-away. Here’s one quote about it, borrowed by Dillard from Juan Rulfo, the Mexican writer. It stands to highlight one technical aspect of the book: the use of crude, unrefined, often uninterpreted quotes. In the novel Pedro Páramo, Rulfo makes a dead woman speak to her dead son thus:
“Just think about pleasant things, because we’re going to be buried for a long time.”
And thus death leaks into the text like rain finding its way into a room through the eaves of a water-proof house. It finds its way into the Chinese terracotta army, into Hasidic literature, into the theological-paleontological writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, into the fragility of those babies washed like dishes, into the natural history of clouds, into stories about sand and dirt. Death infiltrates every aspect of the book the way birth infiltrates it as well. So much so that nothing is truly dead, but everything is fully alive.
The volume is an intricate system, where texts speak to each other, in a networked mesh of images, concepts, colours, and flavours. Reading through these networks brings readers the pleasure of seeing diagrams unfolding. Most importantly, though, it turns everything into a huge quotable thing. It makes fans of the readers. All of them, one hopes.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The boy from the graveyard

Full title: M Is for Magic
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fiction, fantasy, stories
Attributes: 272 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Harper Collins; reprint edition (2007)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

This is a collection of stories by Neil Gaiman. The main ingredients are, therefore, to be expected. There’s fantasy, there’s imitation fairy-tale, there’s preternatural adventure and otherworldly quests, there are animals that talk and knights travelling to the twentieth century to sort out Arthurian problems. All of this (plus more) being the case, readers might find it close to impossible to isolate one of the texts and call it the favourite. But sometimes a reader’s got to do what a reader’s got to do. For this reader, the one with that extra something is “The Witch’s Headstone.” The longest story in this collection of republished work is also, in fact, an excerpt from the future Graveyard Book, Gaiman’s much-awarded fantasy novel of 2008. Which really makes it less re-published and more – pre-published.
Whatever the case may be, “The Witch’s Headstone” deserves a special place.
The protagonist, to start with him, is an eight-year old boy (calling him a ghost may be too much at this stage) by the name of Bod; short for Nobody – Nobody Owens. He’s, obviously, far from normal (does Coraline sound familiar?). He moves with equal ease in the world of the living as well as in the world of the dead. He lives in a necropolis of sorts, where the dead-and-buried teach him lessons about invisibility, and where he is part of a network of delightful, if quirky, Addamsian (that’s from the Addams Family, of course) characters. He comes to know a dead (but lovable) witch, Liza Hempstock, who, executed centuries ago, lies buried in the unholy ground next to the cemetery. She was put in an unmarked grave. And that’s an injustice Bod sets out to correct by ways he is incapable of handling. He goes to the nearby town to buy a headstone. And since there’s no payment he could possibly make for such an object (remember, he lives in a cemetery, among the long-deceased, who have no currency of their own), he manages to steal from a grave a precious ring, with which he hopes to pay for the headstone. The rest of the story is the narrative of Bod’s going to town and failing in his task. What causes this failure? Simple answer: human nature.

The Graveyard Book was later (2009) rearranged into a novel proper. 
Abanazer Bolger and Tom Hustings, a duo of Oliver Twist-like profiteers who eventually fall victims to their own greed, are given the narrative role of teaching Bod a few things about humankind. They imprison the boy, try to extort him of all possible treasures, threaten him with deeds of the worst criminal sorts. Once their miserable show is finished and Bod escapes, helped by none other than the witch once sentenced to death for her presumed pact with the devil, the balance of morality is readjusted. There’s this strong sense that, in this story at least, the world of the dead (the graveyard with its unsettling wickedness and its twice-told tales of death and ache) is preferable to that of the living. Moral message – check.
Fragment or not, “The Witch’s Headstone” is quite a piece of fictional work. An adventure in itself, one in which the reader grows satisfied by the very fact of their dissatisfaction, it demands a lot of readerly participation. One needs to sort out narrative puzzles, understand relationships between characters, figure out allusions, manage a lot of subtext. A paradoxical tale, one that ticks a lot of Gaimanian boxes, from pace and tempo to mood and personality: funny as well as grave, inspiring as well as heart-breaking. A story many may be inclined to call ‘complete.’ Paradoxically.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Two for one, and there's no border

Full title: Gaza Blues: Different Stories
Authors: Etgar Keret & Samir El-Youssef
Genre: Fiction, stories
Attributes: 180 pages, paperback
Publ.: David Paul (2004)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The volume is divided equally: almost the same number of pages to each author. But Samir El-Youssef features with one story, while Etgar Keret with fifteen. The number doesn't really matter, though. What matters is the symbolic nature of this ‘marriage’: an Israeli author and a Palestinian author dissolving political divisions and letting literature break loose.
Samir El-Youssef’s story, “The Day the Beast Got Thirsty,” is industriously dynamic. It describes a world full of small personal interests, some ridiculous, some innocent, some mischievous, some fairly dangerous. All of them put together make a history that comes at spectacular odds with grand narratives such as national identity, patriotism, political consciousness and so on. Big issues, however, are often on the lips of El-Youssef’s characters. Let us not forget, this is a Palestinian camp in Lebanon, where big things do happen, whether one wishes them or not: intifada, terrorists, illegal migration; things the world is afraid of, things that threaten and frighten. But they do not hijack the story. The story belongs to the small and the unimportant. Voices grow multiple and noisy, to the point where everything becomes a terrible cacophony: the cacophony of life taking care of its own business.
What’s even more interesting in El-Youssef’s story is the sense of constant competition. It happens between neighbours, between political factions, between ideas and ideals. The protagonists, intellectuals lost in the vortex of their very eventful lives, find time to behave like intellectuals, but there’s a sense that this matters less, that the physical world of daily resolutions gives them no chance; that the competition is too much for them.

Samir El-Youssef
Etgar Keret
Source (for both images): Siren
Keret’s stories are also minute universes. They are self-sufficient, well encased in their own nut shells, most of them with endings that are absolute and definitive. His topics are as various as they are surprising: a wife found stuck to the ceiling, a dog that refuses to die, the meaning of life found in a book about the meaning of life, a pipe in which things disappear (the narrator included).
From the point of view of Keret’s fine narrative prestidigitation, the story that stands out is in fact a cycle of three stories: “Shoshi,” “Shosi 2” and “Shoshi 3” (ironic even in the way they are titled). One finds in these stories a character who intrudes in the life of the author himself, trying to destabilize the very story in which he makes his appearance. The author, however, takes revenge by leaving the character’s last sentence unfinished. Very clever!
From the point of view of Keret’s tongue-in-cheekness (which is apparent throughout), the special one is “Surprise Egg.” A woman who had died in a terrorist attack is found to have been so full of tumors, she would have died anyway within weeks. Her death, however, poses a double problem: on the one hand it’s the conscience of the husband (who will blame himself: “If only I’d driven her. She’d still be alive now, sitting here in the kitchen with me.”), and on the other the conscience of the country (which needs martyrs in order to justify revenge). The dramatic accent of the story is in this dilemma. The only person who knows about the tumors (the doctor who had performed the autopsy), chooses to ease his own conscience. He takes a cowardly middle ground, which leaves the husband crying and the country glorious, the way they were in the first place:
“What is cancer, he thought to himself, if not a terrorist attack from above? What is it that God is doing if not terrorising us in protest against… something?”
In general, though, Keret’s stories stand out for their quirky twists, for the intrusion of fantasy in a reality that’s constantly destabilized. If El-Youssef’s story (whose realism is, up to a certain point, the dominant force) challenges the grand narrative of history, Keret’s stories challenge the very grounds of reality. And for this reason, they both deserve to be part of the same volume, as they are.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Stories treated like roses

Full title: Tales of Freedom
Author: Ben Okri
Genre: Fiction, collection of short stories
Attributes: 198 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Rider(2009)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

You pick up Ben Okri’s book, Tales of Freedom, and you soon congratulate yourself for having done so.
The first part, “The Comic Destiny,” with its absurdist turns and twists à la Eugène Ionesco & co., asks questions: about identities, about actions, about ontology, about language, about writing. It occupies more than half of the volume and looks, feels, and reads like a dramatic piece, with dialogues and stage directions the predominant fictional forms. The second part, made up of short-shorts that grow on the fantastic side of things (fairy-tale style), provides answers. But answers to questions not asked. What seems to best characterize these stories is their brevity. The author describes this part of the volume as a collection of a newly-coined genre. He calls his genre stoku: “an amalgam of short story and haiku,” understood not so much in terms of what it looks like but rather in terms of what it does:
“Its origins are mysterious, its purpose is revelation, its form compact, its subject infinite. Its nature is enigma as it finds tentative form in fiction, like a figure materializing from a cloud, or a being emerging from a vaporous block of marble.”
To get a proper understanding as to why these stories are so uniquely inclined towards brevity, there’s more to be read and understood in the author’s one-page definition:
“Stokus are serendipities, caught in the air, reverse lightning.”
They are ephemeral jolts of narration, as quick as the passing of an emotion; as hasty as eating your fill at a feast where others are waiting their turn (“The Mysterious Anxiety of Them and Us”); as sudden as the sight of a clock which can change the terms of a duel (“The Clock”); as immediate as the thought that there may be in France a fair “where books are treated like roses” (“The Unseen Kingdom”); as abrupt as saying the following, in a story called “Music for a Ruined City” (with all the burden such a statement would entail):
“But to hear Mozart in a bombed city: how much more beautiful it sounds, as if it were composed to somehow soothe the ruins, to promise a wiser future rising from the rubble.”
Everything short, sharp, and to the point. One can feel the blood of haiku rushing through these short-sentenced pieces, where there’s hardly any time or space to waste on details.

Stories with petals and Mozart
Source: Nikoleta Marina G
The stories hang on an image, on a reflection, on things that are fragile in themselves and which, if badly handled, may suffer. Suffer like people. Because “it doesn’t take much, does it, to unhinge a man.” As with stories, of course. As with transference in general, where what is passed on can cause damage or unwanted pain:
“Damn the favours one owes. They lead one into other people’s hell.”
But if one owes Ben Okri the pleasure of having read this volume, that should be enough to put hell on the list of things that can wait a little longer. Because there’s pleasure to be had and freedom to be gained. One story at a time.