Monday, March 19, 2018

Booker Book #9: Heat and Dust, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust is an excellent follow-up to J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur. Siege is about the Indian Rebellion of 1857. In it, a British official, the Collector, is able to imprison the local Indian prince and his prime minister. In Heat and Dust, the British and Indian rulers seem to be on more equal footing, but their dance is delicate and easily thrown off balance.  

Heat and Dust’s double narrative is original and thought-provoking. The frame story is that of an unnamed contemporary woman researching her grandfather’s first wife, Olivia. Olivia’s story takes place in 1923, in the uneasy decades between the Rebellion and Indian Independence ninety years later. The narrator makes clear from the first sentence that Olivia “went away” with the Nawab, the prince of the region next to the one that her British husband manages. The dual mysteries are how an Englishwoman came to such an extreme, and whether her step-granddaughter will follow in her footsteps.

Jhabvala constructs artfully parallel lives for the two women, yet with striking contrasts due to their differing times. The narrator seems to actually care about the natives, performing acts of charity that repel her higher-caste Indian friends, while Olivia seems oblivious to all Indians but her prince. The narrator is able to evict the parasitic Englishman Chid from her house, while Olivia must put up with both her husband Douglas, and her lover’s hanger-on Harry. Both women take an Indian lover, but their reactions to their pregnancies are diametrically opposed. Both stay in India. The narrator seems to do so out of love for the country, but it is unclear what Olivia’s motivations are: is she simply too humiliated to return to England?

Olivia’s prince is a pathetic character: he wants to lead a life of adventure, as his ancestors did, but instead is spoiled and dependent upon English people, like Harry, and English things, such as his wife’s two pianos, which are both ruined by the tropical climate. And it is the narrator who takes the initiative with her own shy Indian lover. However, after the military and class conflict of Siege, in which India is treated solely as enemy and servant, it was a great relief to read this more nuanced tale of two women truly interacting with “the Other.”

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Booker Book #8: Holiday, by Stanley Middleton

Two books shared the Booker prize in 1974: Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, and Holiday, by Stanley Middleton. The first is about South Africa, and who it really belongs to; the second is about one man, and whether he wants to make his marriage work.

Edwin Fisher has left his wife, and is spending a week in the seaside town where he lived as a boy. He happens upon his in-laws there, and meets other folks as well. By the end, he is surrounded by new friends, who seem to give him the strength to give his marriage another try.

I must disagree with other reviewers who have said that this book takes place “all in Edwin’s head.” It is true that Fisher feels profoundly alone at first, as reflected in this pathetic image: “…he must take pleasure in the exercise, march along these asphalt paths until he wanted nothing. No road had that length, so he made further along the promenade…” But I think what is important is Fisher getting *out* of his head, and meeting people in other circumstances: families with children (the Fishers’ son died at age two); lower-class families (he’s a professor); couples who might cheat on each other; couples who don’t; people who are planning for old age, and so on.

I like that Edwin is open to meeting all these folks and to learning something from them. What I don’t like about this book is that his wife Meg is truly unstable, yet Edwin seems to cater to her moods without urging her to get to the root of the problem. He and Meg’s father have much deeper heart-to-heart talks than husband and wife do. Meg, for example, is scornful of religion, while her husband finds comfort in the church, if not salvation. The couple hardly seems to know each other.

But the holiday proves healing for Edwin, and he returns ready to try again. He is able in these familiar surroundings to reflect on his childhood and earlier relationships. An exotic, far-flung voyage could not have brought him the same perspective, Middleton seems to say. Instead, Fisher needed to be immersed in Englishness, to rediscover himself and his past. This subtle portrait of a particularly English time and place must be at least part of what made this book appealing enough to award its creator equal space on the podium with the more political Nobel prize winner, Nadine Gordimer.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Booker Book #7: The Conservationist, by Nadine Gordimer

All the Booker books that I have read so far have been well written, of course, but Nobel prizewinner Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974) is the first that has made me stop and re-read a beautifully written passage. Take as a brief example this simile that I had to read twice: “…the sound of radio music winds like audible smoke in the clean fine morning: it’s Sunday.” Or the sensory richness of a long passage where our hero Mehring spends New Year’s Eve alone in a field, watching the lightning and fireworks, listening to insects, and smelling his absent son in a borrowed sleeping bag.

Mehring is a wealthy white man in South Africa who bought a farm, apparently on a whim, as a place to bring a lover, and now seems to feel alive only there. He becomes more and more withdrawn from his own social group, without ever fitting in with the colored (black or Indian) folks, either. His wife, lover, and son have all left him, but he stubbornly comes out every weekend to supervise his farm, earning him the title epithet.

The drama begins with a body found on Mehring’s land: most likely a black from the “location,” another term for township: a shantytown for blacks, rife with crime and bereft of the most basic amenities. The police find it inconvenient to transport the body, and simply bury it in the vlei (marsh) where it lies. To me, this unidentified victim comes to represent all the blacks of South Africa, how cumbersome and disposable they are to the whites. The locations have become holding pens for the indigenous, like Native American reservations, but more crowded. The whites see them as eyesores, cesspools. Mehring thinks he is a fair man doing the right thing, but we can tell that his more liberal lover and son both reproach him.

**spoiler alert**

Then he takes abominable advantage of a young woman on an airplane, and loses any respect I might have had for him. Symbolically, the country seems to do the same. A flood on a Biblical scale unearths the forgotten body, which must be returned to the earth, properly, in a coffin, and seems to become its new and rightful owner. Also during the flood, Mehring is feared dead, so his hired hands must manage the farm without him – which they do quite well. Finally, Mehring becomes the patsy in a scheme with a seemingly simple lower-class girl, whose race is unclear.

The tables are turned. But is justice served? Several times, Mehring remembers bits of conversation with his liberal lover, who ends up leaving the country – whether in flight or exile is unclear. She seems to think the whole system must be overhauled, whole new countries like Namibia established, while the Conservationist continues to repair, to shore up, to tinker, to distribute gifts and pennies without really changing anything. Will one captain of industry’s receipt of his comeuppance change anything either? It’s not clear.

**end spoiler alert**

I could keep writing: for example, the story is riddled with images of circles, in the form of eggs, rings, and peace signs. And I’m sure someone has written intelligently about this. It’s a deep and delicate novel worth reading, and reading again.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Booker Book #28: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle (1993) was one of the few Booker prize winners that I had heard of before this project, so when I told my neighborhood book club about the project, and they graciously offered to read a book with me, this is one that I suggested.

We begin the book in medias res: “We were coming down our road. Kevin stopped at a gate and bashed it with his stick.” Readers slowly glean that the narrator is a young boy, living somewhere in Ireland, who runs wild with a group of like-minded boys, shoplifting and playing variations on soccer, but always doing their homework. They also commit some atrocious acts of violence and cruelty, like making the narrator’s little brother take a capsule of lighter fuel in his mouth, and then lighting it. Fortunately, Paddy does become more aware and compassionate as the book progresses.

Because narrator Paddy is a child, we don’t really know where he lives, but we know all about the boys’ turf wars, which are exacerbated by the building of a whole new suburb around them. The boys play on construction sites as the formerly open spaces shrink. One of the most interesting aspects of the boys’ play for me was their nascent curiosity about language. They have two rituals involving language, one in which they chant new and unfamiliar words, like “trellis” and “substandard.” In the other, one boy hits the others on the back with a poker, and the curse word that the smitten boy blurts out becomes his name for the week.

But back at home, the unspoken conflict driving the book is the deteriorating relationship between Paddy’s parents. His father oscillates between normal dad and uncaring martinet, while mom tries to protect the four children. Paddy’s anxiety has become so fine-tuned to his parents’ moods that he thinks he can control them, by making a joke, or by staying awake all night. The discord at home leads Paddy to become dissatisfied with the balance of power in his play group. He discovers a desire to become closer to his brother – too late. Paddy then wants to run away, to be emotionally disconnected. But of course, the family structure is out of his control, and it changes before he can act.          

One of the book club members said that this novel “threw her off balance,” and I agree. That’s the genius of this book: Doyle is the consummate master of the oft-cited advice “show, don’t tell.” It’s a tour de force, to write an entire novel in the pure voice of a child, without the adult voice and the “I later realized…” bleeding through. Doyle tells us nothing, but shows us everything, through the mixed-up thoughts of an anxious little boy.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Now reading Booker Book #28!?!

No, you didn't fall asleep Rip-Van-Wrinkle style and miss 21 books. And I'm not backing out of my project, I promise! What happened is that I told my neighborhood book club about my Booker Prize reading project and they graciously offered to read one of my books with me. So I am skipping ahead to Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, winner of the 1993 Booker Prize. I'll get back to reading them in order after my book club meets on Monday.

Booker Book #6: The Siege of Krishnapur, by J. G. Farrell

EDIT: It might appear that J. G. Farrell was the first writer to win two Booker Prizes. He won in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur, and his novel Troubles holds that honor for 1970. However, the 1970 prize was retroactive. Due to changes in the rules, no prize was awarded for a book published in 1970, until a public vote rectified the situation in 2010. 

Both books are intimate accounts in the form of a microcosm that depicts British colonialism. Troubles takes place in a decrepit English-owned resort hotel in Ireland, while Krishnapur takes place in a “residency” owned by a British trade company at the beginning of India’s own troubles, and is based on actual people and events. Both stories throw strangers together in a siege situation in order to ridicule the notion that the British way is inherently better than the ways of its colonies.

In both the Hotel Majestic and the Residency, the walls literally crumble around the characters, who still absurdly manage to believe themselves better than their “inferiors.” Here, the microcosm is composed of The Magistrate, an atheist and rationalist; Fleury, the aptly named Romantic poet who believes that the most important aspect of religion is feeling; and The Collector, chief of the Residency and self-described “whole” man; as well as a priest, a military man, and two doctors opposed in their methods. Louise, Lucy, and Miriam fill the roles of virgin, whore, and Modern Woman.

The irony is introduced early on, as we find that the British are thriving due to their exports of opium to China – while they spread The Gospel in Asia. The Collector, the Magistrate, and Fleury all believe themselves to be men of ideas – until they are forced by siege-induced famine to daydream of food. Civilization at first seems to mean respecting others’ religions, but then necessity drives the besieged to tear down a mosque. Finally, all must question whether civilization is truly a source of progress, or simply a sign of decay, as all of their fine European belongings are sacrificed to reinforce the ineffectual mud ramparts. The Indian soil literally swallows up all the material things that its oppressors hold dear.

The dueling doctors show that the “superior” British civilization has its own superstitions and blind spots. The two physicians wage a war of ideas over cholera: one has grasped the modern notion that cholera is transmitted through contaminated water, and that the disease can be treated through rehydration. The other clings to the outdated notion that cholera is caught from the air, and can be treated with mustard and brandy. In a moment that had me mentally screaming “No!” the second doctor drinks a bottle of dirty water to prove his point. You can guess the outcome.

More than one of the main characters undergoes a shift in perspective thanks to their ordeal. One of the most enlightened, The Collector, even questions his ideas about the natural inferiority of women, and wonders what he is missing about Indian religion, but never goes so far as to respect the natives.

I enjoyed both books. There is a dry, black, absurdist humor to both, but especially Krishnapur. The bathos of the English aristocracy reduced to sucking on horsehide and shooting pieces of statuary out of their cannons brings home Farrell’s point with wry wit. If I had to choose one, it would be Krishnapur: it is wittier and more action-packed, as well as shorter. But I recommend both for their brutal post-colonial honesty.

PS: I've been reading Booker Books for one month now: 6 books in the month of February, or one book every 4.6 days. A little slower than my usual rate but still on target.