Microviews Vol. 10: Tahar Ben Jelloun, Silvina Ocampo

on Saturday, February 19, 2011
A Palace In The Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun

I am fascinated by the literature of displacement. Perhaps it is my own family history - having survived the Holocaust, my grandparents fled Czechoslovakia when the Communists rolled in and did their best to start anew in Australia. Whatever the reason, I seem to have an affinity for books that examine the way in which displaced persons come to understand and negotiate their adopted homelands, particularly when they remain spiritually tied to the country in which they were born. Tahar Ben Jelloun is himself an exile, forced to leave Morocco for France when his academic position became untenable under a new regime. It is this that makes A Palace In The Old Village most probably a work of metaphorical autobiography - Ben Jelloun is hardly an 'everyman' like Mohammed, but he understand his protagonist's situation perfectly. Mohammed has slotted into menial French life fairly well, but his hard-fought contentment is thrown to the wind upon retirement. Suddenly, he has too much time on his time to think or, more precisely, overthink his life. Spiritually anomie sets in, with Mohammed coming to realise that all he loved was a mirage. His children are French, his life is meaningless. In many ways, he is a Tevye figure - tragically left to sift through the ashes of his life. He longs for his old village, and decides to take whatever little wealth he has amassed to return and Morocco, to build the grandest house in his old village. Then his family will return, he figures, then his soul will find peace. While the first two thirds of the book is anchored in reality, the last third drifts into a sort of tragic magical realism. Mohammed roots himself to the chair in the middle of the house and awaits his children's return. They don't come home and he dies. Yet again, Tahar Ben Jelloun proves that he is amongst the greatest Arabic writers at work today. His sense of place and its relation to the core of a person's being is without parallel. This might not be This Blinding Absence of Light, but as a telling peek into the soul of the ageing immigrant it is truly remarkable.

The Topless Tower by Silvina Ocampo

Remember The Purple Rose of Cairo, that old Woody Allen film in which the hero steps out of the screen into real life and romances the chick watching in the front row? Or at least that Twisties ad that rips it off? And remember how it's a device done to death in all forms of artistic media? Well, here is yet another book with a similar bent. A boy draws pictures that come to life, rescuing him from the everyday doldrums of his Cinderella-like existence (pre-fairy godmother, that is). But before your gag reflex kicks in, stop a minute. This one is worth checking out. What sets it apart from many similar works is its artisitc authenticity, most likely the product of the environment in which its author was writing. Ocampo was the wife of Adolfo Bioy Casares, one of Argentina's great absurdist literary gods. Oh, and she was buddy buddies with the true master of the form, Jorge Luis Borges. Ocampo's short novel, while sufficiently distinctive to be more than homage, fits perfectly alongside the works of her more celebrated compatriots. Leandro has inadvertently caused his own imprisonment, by laughing at a man who might be the Devil. He is instantly transported to the Topless Tower with only an easel, paints and canvas to keep him company. Leandro quickly sets about creating a cast of strange characters to save him from this awful (for a little boy) solitude. While the book does have a certain Sendak-like air, it can equally be read as a metaphor for the process of artistic creation and it is to Ocampo's great credit that one is never sure if it was intended as a children's fable or an expression of the struggle of writing itself.

Microviews Vol. 9: David Vann, A.D. Miller

on Friday, February 18, 2011
It's been a while since I last posted and ages since I've whipped out a Microview. So killing two birds with one stone:

Caribou Island by David Vann

David Vann's 2009 collection of interlinked short stories, Legend of a Suicide, had many folks heralding the arrival of a new messiah. It was harsh, bleak and packed one heck of wallop... not unlike the works of the old literary messiah, Cormac McCarthy. Comparisons between the two were inevitable. Vann does with the frozen Alaskan plains what McCarthy has long done with the American wilderness; he uses the landscape to choke whoever is unfortunate enough to stumble upon it. Caribou Island is the chronicle of a marriage in freefall, punctuated by a brilliantly realised environment that can quite literally kill. Gary and Irene are building a log cabin on a remote island in an attempt to salvage their relationship. Unwise. Between the weather and the complete isolation, the difficulties are only magnified. Cabin fever sets in and the two unload all of their life's disappointments on each other. Back on the mainland their kids are living equally unhappy existences. Rhoda spends her time trying to please her unfaithful boyfriend in the hope that he might soon propose to her. Mark is a pathetic drifter who has given up on life altogether. Even the peripheral characters are unlikeable, beaten down by a brutally mundane reality. Life is hopeless, Vann seems to suggest, and anyone who thinks otherwise is either stupid or delusional. Caribou Island makes for a harrowing read but it lacks the oracular force of some of McCarthy's great work. Vann is certainly one to watch. The harshness of his Alaska almost explains the brain freeze that is Sarah Palin. But we need not be writing off the old messiah for now. To borrow from Monty Python, he's not dead yet!

Snowdrops by A. D. Miller

Despite the fact that he has consistently disappointed me since the sheer brilliance of his debut Ingenious Pain, Andrew Miller is one of those authors about whom I always get excited. Whenever I see he has a new book coming out I rush to my local store and put in an advance order. Then I count down the days til it arrives, drop everything when it does, and spend the next couple of days wondering why the hell I even bother. A few years ago I saw that he had a book coming out called The Earl of Petticoat Lane, a work of personal family history. Cool. Great name. Should be a little less disappointing. About half way through reading it, I realised it couldn't be the same Andrew Miller. The ages just didn't add up. I did a little digging and sure enough, it was another guy with the same name. I mustn't have been the only one, because now the second Andrew Miller has released his first novel and, to avoid confusion, has changed his moniker to A. D. Miller. Snowdrops is a slow-burning hymn to the corruption that has destroyed post-Glasnost Russia. Nick Platt, is the perfect patsy. A British lawyer living in Moscow, he get sucked in by the opulence of big Russian new money and hot Soviet sex vixens. He is also a massive dumbass. Even the most clueless reader will see that he is being played for a sucker by the girls who use him to facilitate a run of the mill property fraud long before it dawns on him. Ditto the oil field scam he gets caught up in professionally. Just like "snowdrops", the bodies of murder victims that only get discovered during the Summer thaw, these scams dawn on Platt when it's too late for him to do anything about them. There's an air of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels about this book, minus the comic brilliance of Steve Martin and Michael Caine. It seems the whole thing is leading up to a punchline but the joke is too long and when we finally get there we realise that we never really cared. Turns out both Andrew Millers can disappoint with equal gusto!

The Messenger by Yannick Haenel: A Case of Reflected Glory

on Monday, February 7, 2011
A couple of months ago, I was at a function for some Polish/Jewish reconciliation getup when a clearly frustrated Arnold Zable, grappling to find common ground with the misguided Polish apologist he was interviewing, mentioned a new book about the Polish resistance movement's greatest wartime hero, Jan Karski. The book, Zable suggested, was a daring attempt to refocus the lens on this forgotten giant of moral courage through a peculiar combination of non-fiction and fiction. It had already received several accolades in the French-speaking world and was about to be released here in Australia. Naturally, I was keen to get my hands on it, though I thought it would cause only a minor blip on the local publishing radar. How wrong I was. The Messenger, by Yannick Haenel, has been getting all sort of loving in the Australian press. Critics and other book-types alike have been falling over themselves, rushing to sing its praises. Indeed, you could easily be forgiven for thinking it should be held up there with Primo Levi's If This Is A Man and Elie Weisel's Night as one of the greats of Holocaust literature. Take a chill pill, folks. It isn't.

The Messenger is split into three sections. The first is a description and, to a lesser extent, examination of Karski's appearance in Claude Lanzmann's classic Holocaust epic, Shoah. It is an adequate, even moving, description but ultimately adds nothing to one's understanding of Karski himself. I've watched Shoah. All nine-odd hours of it. My grandfather sat me down as a kid and made me. I wasn't allowed to fast forward a single frame. The experience was truly harrowing, even more so for having shared it with a survivor. For those who haven't seen the movie, take my word for it. Shoah is unparalleled as an artistic response to the 20th Century's greatest crime. In it, Karski is an intersting, tragic figure, clearly haunted by his failure to succeed in convincing the allies to stop the killing machine. And herein lies one of the biggest problems with Haenel's book. Watching one minute of the interview with Karski will teach you more than reading the entire first part of The Messenger.

Part Two, rather oddly, is a summary of Karski's own book, Courier From Poland: The Story of A Secret State, in which he describes his terrifying experience in the Polish resistance movement - the beatings, the last-minute escapes, the secret sorties into the Warsaw Ghetto and a concentration camp so that he could bear witness and tell the Allies firsthand what he had seen. And, of course, his failure to achieve anything tangible. There is a degree of repetition, but it is through a new lens, Karski's own. Again, as a summary Part Two adequately fulfils its role, but the reader would be far better off tracking down the original.

Part Three is the most daring and, in my opinion, least successful. Haenel tries to enter Karski's mind and reflect, in first person, on his failed mission to Britain and America. Again, there is rehashing, the same images appear. "Karski" editorialises, commenting on the historical moments about which we have twice already been told. It is a passable attempt at ventriloquism, but having watched the man himself in Shoah, I just wasn't convinced that Haenel's Karski rang true. Perhaps it was my scepticism running on overdrive, but the narrative had a menial, workmanlike flow that never truly engaged me on a moral level.

I think those who have professed their love for this book might have been caught up in the very deserving glory of its subject. Jan Karski was an amazing man. His mission, though a failure, was noble and daring. His moral courage, his willingness to risk his own life to save a people to which he did not belong simply because it was the right thing to do will never receive enough praise. But just because he was great, it doesn't follow that any artistic response to, or interpretation of, him will be just as great. The Messenger is a decent book, but when all is said and done, Karski deserves much better.