Crying in H Mart

Crying in H Mart is a raw and brutal account about salvaging a relationship with your dying mother and grappling with your mixed race identity with food bridging the gap to help you both cope with your loss and and straddle two cultures. Michelle Zauner is an indie rock musician of a band called Japanese Breakfast and this searing memoir is an extended version of an essay she wrote for The New Yorker in August 2018.

Michelle was brought up in Eugene, Oregon by her Korean mother and white American father. She had a troubled relationship with her mother Chongmi and it only became worse during her teenage years of rebellion. Everything changes when Chongmi is diagnosed, when she is fifty six years old, with stage IV squamous-cell carcinoma in her stomach. Michelle, who is twenty five at the time, realizes how much her mother means to her and suddenly the roles are reversed. She is her mother’s caretaker and through all the pain and suffering, she finds comfort in Korean cooking and bonds with her mother through food.

I recently lost my mother and I could relate to Michelle’s loss. I could see myself in Michelle- in the eagerness to please and also in the pain of seeing someone wilt before your eyes. She feels guilty about not appreciating her mother until it is almost too late. She tries to be more Korean than ever to make amends and to assuage the guilt, for a connection to her Korean heritage is by extension a connection to her mother.

Chongmi was far from perfect. She was critical, a perfectionist, a shallow woman who only cared about appearances. But yet when Michelle learns that her mother is dying, she transforms overnight from a rebellious youngster into a dutiful and loving daughter. She finds healing through food and specifically by exploring her Korean heritage through food. H Mart is a Korean grocery store chain. The book starts with her breaking down in the store as the aisles remind her of her mother’s cooking.  

“Food was how my mother expressed her love. No matter how critical or cruel she could seem—constantly pushing me to meet her intractable expectations—I could always feel her affection radiating from the lunches she packed and the meals she prepared for me just the way I liked them.” 

She wants to make it up to her mother before it is too late. I found it heartbreaking to see this young woman try so hard to win her mother’s approval. Interestingly, I discussed this book at a book club where there were many women of Asian origin. We were from China, Taiwan and India and we could all relate to the mother-daughter relationship. And all of us women unanimously declared that our emotionally distant mothers showed their love through cooking and feeding us. It seemed like there was some common cultural conditioning that resulted in our mothers’ attitudes and behaviors.

There are such vivid descriptions of Korean food in the book that if you are someone who enjoys the cuisine, it will leave you salivating. I think this memoir would have been perfect as a cookbook with personal anecdotes and stories accompanying each recipe instead of just an outpouring of grief. The writing is lyrical on the whole. One passage where Michelle Zauner compares the process of fermentation to stored memories, stood out in particular to me:

“I had thought fermentation was controlled death. Left alone, a head of cabbage molds and decomposes. It becomes rotten, inedible. But when brined and stored, the course of its decay is altered. Sugars are broken down to produce lactic acid, which protects it from spoiling. Carbon dioxide is released and the brine acidifies. It ages. Its color and texture transmute. Its flavor becomes tarter, more pungent. It exists in time and transforms. So it is not quite controlled death, because it enjoys a new life altogether.
The memories I had stored, I could not let fester. Could not let trauma infiltrate and spread, to spoil and render them useless. They were moments to be tended. The culture we shared was active, effervescent in my gut and in my genes, and I had to seize it, foster it so it did not die in me. So that I could pass it on someday. The lessons she imparted, the proof of her life lived on in me, in my every move and deed. I was what she left behind. If I could not be with my mother, I would be her.” 

Michelle captures the challenges of being a bi-racial kid who desperately wants to fit in with her American peers. She is the only Korean -American in her small rural town. One can sense the internalized self-loathing and shame about her race that she experiences during her teen years. She does not speak Korean well and is removed from her culture other than the annual summer trips to Korea where she spends time with her relatives. She moves to the East Coast for college and as a struggling musician in NYC blends in with her white peers and has a white boyfriend. Immigrants and their children know this feeling only too well- of belonging and yet not fully belonging.

I had spent my adolescence trying to blend in with my peers in suburban America, and had come of age feeling like my belonging was something to prove. Something that was always in the hands of other people to be given and never my own to take, to decide which side I was on, whom I was allowed to align with. I could never be of both worlds, only half in and half out, waiting to be ejected at will by someone with greater claim than me. Someone whole.”   

With her mother’s impending death, it dawns on her that she risks losing the tenuous link she has to her culture. She scrambles to learn the language and learns to cook following a YouTube blogger.

Michelle had a lot of resentment and anger towards her mother but now that she is dying, she sweeps everything under the rug and is filled with love and tenderness for her. I have to wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t suffered from cancer! It was painful for me to see her experience her grief but it was even more painful for me to see her idealize a mother who was flawed in many ways. To make her mother happy, she even guilt- trips her boyfriend into marrying her just because she wants her mother to attend her wedding before she dies. She even admits in the acknowledgements that she tricked her husband into marrying her.

Writing a memoir is tricky. It requires vulnerability, honesty and courage. And sometimes that means that you cannot refrain from airing your dirty laundry in public. I couldn’t help feeling that Michelle treated her father unfairly. He was an alcoholic and had many shortcomings but he had some redeeming traits too – he was the sole provider of the family who took care of their financial needs and he nursed his wife during her illness and loved her in his own broken way. Michelle reveals that her father had an affair and it makes me wonder if her mother would have liked this in the open. The dead are not there to defend themselves. And not unsurprisingly, she is now estranged from her father.

The book hit close to home for me. It appealed to me as I could relate to the perspectives of both the mother and the daughter. I could identify with Michelle’s grief and the realization that our mothers love us in their own imperfect ways and with Chongmi’s situation as an immigrant parent raising first generation American children caught between two cultures. Making peace with your parents is a wonderful thing but if only Michelle had acknowledged her mother’s flaws and recognized the emotional abuse and yet felt compassion for the woman withering before her, it would have been a much more introspective and nuanced perspective of their relationship!

Precious Bane

Recently I read a beautifully written book that is unfortunately underrated possibly because it is not well known. Published in 1924, but set over a hundred years before, at the time of the Napoleonic wars, Precious Bane by Mary Webb is the story of the trials and tribulations of rural folk in Shropshire, England, near the Welsh border. Usually when I read a book, I am at least subliminally aware that I am reading a made up story, however moved I might be by the characters and their issues. I was so immersed in this story that I almost forgot it was fiction. I was shaken to the core by a tragedy that befalls on the family and my husband was surprised to see me affected this deeply and had to remind me that it was just a story. If this is not the mark of a truly gifted writer, I don’t know what is.

I think one of the reasons the novel is not that popular is that the language is hard to get into as it is old fashioned with archaic words and employs dialect distinctive to the area. ‘Mon’ is the word used for man, ‘tuthree’ is a word to refer to two or three, ‘clemmed’ is a term for hungry, ‘bostin’ means wonderful and ‘ow bist’ is the expression for how are you and ‘durst’ for do you? But soon you will get the hang of it and you will know that ‘inna’ means isn’t, ‘canna’ can’t and ‘dunna’ don’t. I had to read with a dictionary next to me which annoyed me in the beginning but eventually I started savoring the language. My advice would be to persevere as it is worth it. The language adds authenticity. It is needed to evoke the rural atmosphere of the place and to transport us to another world where you can see the fields of sweet barley rustling in the wind and hear the thin notes of the willow wrens across the mere. Before you know it you will swept in the enchantment and will soak in the local color.

Precious Bane is the story of of a young girl, Prue, who is ‘hare shotten’- born with a hare lip disfigurement and for that reason she is believed to be a witch by her rural community. She has a desire for knowledge and learns to read and write from her neighbor Beguildy who dabbles in potions and is considered to be a wizard. When her father passes away, her brother Gideon takes over the farm. He is ambitious with his only purpose in life to become rich and acquire a house in town. He is in love with Jancis, the wizard’s daughter but money is his first motivation. He prevails upon Prue to pledge herself into a life of servitude on the farm with the promise that one day he will pay for an operation to mend her lip. They work very hard, depriving themselves of little pleasures. Then one day love walks into Prue’s life in the form of Kester Woodseaves, the weaver. But is she resigned to the life of a ‘spinster’ because of her deformity? Or will Gideon meet with success and liberate them from a life of poverty and hardship?

The oxymoronic title of the story is taken from lines in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book I, lines 690-692):

Let none admire
That riches grow in Hell; that soyle may best
Deserve the precious bane.

It refers to the love of money which is disastrous. Gideon’s story is tragic. He puts money above everything – above his dependent mother, his devoted sister and his loyal fiancée- which not only leads him to ruin their lives but also descend on a path to self-destruction. The title can also refer to Prue’s deformity which is a source of great strength and makes her the person she is. In the portrayal of the two siblings, we witness human nature at its best and worst. What Gideon believes to be precious becomes his bane and Prue’s bane ends up being precious!  

Prue is an unconventional protagonist because of her disability, but has become one of my favorite literary characters. She is such a breath of fresh air. The first person narrative makes it easy to relate with her. Not only was I rooting for this gentle and beautiful soul who deserved happiness, I found her personality to be very inspiring. She is kind, hardworking, cheerful and loving. She has reserves of strength and resilience in the face of misfortunes. She helps everyone around her even those who are mean and cold-hearted. She is surrounded by evil but she views the world around her with a child like innocence. She is a strong but kind female character who enjoys a spiritual communion with nature and often feels a mystical presence when alone in the attic, where she writes in her journal:

“I cannot tell whence, a most powerful sweetness that had never come to me afore. It was not religious, like the goodness of a text heard at preaching. It was beyond that. It was as if some creature made all of light had come on a sudden from a great way off, and nestled in my bosom…I cared not to ask what it was.”

Mary Webb evokes the countryside poetically whether she is describing dragonflies breaking out of their larval bodies and drying out their iridescent wings, or the changing reflections on the mere with its outer ring of bulrushes and inner ring of waterlilies. There are Biblical allusions throughout the book yet pagan symbols abound. Nature and the elements- the earth, water and fire play a pivotal role in the unraveling of the plot. There are whispers of witchcraft and wizardry among the local folk. Felena, the shepherdess dances naked by moonlight in a ring of cattle and sheep. Webb magically recreates a world of superstitions and small town gossip. I enjoyed learning about rural customs like ‘love spinning’ which is a gathering at which local women spin the wool that will be woven into the wedding fabric of the couple, the concept of ‘sin eating’ when a person takes over the sins of a deceased person for a fee, and the tradition of ‘telling the bees ‘when bees would be told of important events like birth and death in their keeper’s lives.

The book is filled with pearls of wisdom from the pen of Prue who is true to her name ( Prudence). Here are two quotes among many that struck my fancy:

For if you stop to be kind, you must swerve often from your path. So when folk tell me of this great man and that great man, I think to myself, Who was stinted of joy for his glory? How many old folk and children did his coach wheels go over? What bridal lacked his song, and what mourner his tears, that he found time to climb so high?”

I got together all the pails and buckets, and thought it seemed a pitiful thing that with all that great mere (lake) full of water we could only slake our fire with as much as we could get into our little buckets. And I’ve thought since that when folk grumble about this and that and be not happy, it is not the fault of creation, that is like a vast mere full of good, but it is the fault of their bucket’s smallness.

I enjoyed reading about a now lost way of life, a time when rural communities were isolated and on the cusp of change. Mary Webb’s writing is reminiscent of the works of Thomas Hardy and George Eliot though sadly she did not achieve their fame. The story is dark and heartbreaking for the most part but there is also a ray of hope in the form of a love story with a Cinderella touch. I was so moved by this sweet romance. If only Mary Webb had devoted more of the plot to it!

Precious Bane is a book that deserves a place in my own personal library. It is one of the finest books I have read. I’d lief read it again a tuthree times! 

World of Wonders

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments was Barnes and Noble’s Book of the Year 2020 and poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s first book in prose. One could call it poetry in prose as the poet’s touch is very evident in the collection of essays. In each essay or rather vignette, the author focuses on a specific natural wonder from the plant or animal kingdom and connects it to a personal experience in her life. The stunning cover and the gorgeous illustrations that accompany almost every vignette by artist Fumi Nakamura pair beautifully with the writing.

As an half Indian and half Filipino person of color living in the US, Aimee felt quite out of place in school and took refuge in the natural world around her. Her parents were educated professionals who moved around quite a bit within the US. It was nature that helped Aimee get through a lonely childhood whether in Arizona or Western New York, Kansas, Ohio or Mississippi. Life was difficult as a bi-racial first generation American and she recounts how her family was subjected to comments that ranged all the way from ignorant remarks and micro-aggressions to blatant racism.

Aimee makes her way through this hateful world with the help of nature. A tall catalpa tree with its giant heart-shaped leaves and long extending branches served as a green umbrella to provide shade to her and her sister from the sun in western Kansas and also to shelter them from unblinking eyes who were not used to brown-skinned people. The leaves could cover her face entirely if she needed anonymity. The distinctive smile of an axolotl which extends from one end of its face to the other is similar to her sheepish or rather salamander- like smile when a white girl at school tells her what make up she can wear and not wear on her brown skin.

In one of the chapters she describes how in an animal drawing contest at elementary school, she picked the peacock as her subject, inspired by the beautiful peacocks with their iridescent turquoise and jade feathers she came across in her father’s hometown in India. Her teacher told her sternly that she was supposed to draw only American animals as they live in ‘Ah-mer-i-kah’ and she had to abandon her animal of choice and pick another one. She drew a bald eagle perched on a cliff and added an American flag to the picture as well. She ended up winning first prize but the incident scarred her and she writes:

This is the story of how I learned to ignore anything from India….. But what the peacock can do is remind you of a home you will run away from and run back to all your life.

As an Indian-American, it pained me to see that a teacher caused her to reject her beautiful and rich cultural background. I would have rushed to set up a conference with the principal if my children had to deal with such a prejudiced teacher. But I understand that she grew up in the eighties in a small town and the only way to survive in those days was to ignore and fit in completely to be accepted. Eventually as she grows up, she learns to love what she pushed away with embarrassment during her childhood and on her wedding day chooses a peacock- hued saree as her outfit. The sarees on the dance floor worn by her and her guests flash in the light in reds, violets, teal and turquoise reminding her of a bird of paradise.

The essays are mostly in chronological order tracing the trajectory of her life as she completes her education and settles into a career, falls in love and marries, has children and finds a place she can call ‘home’. She has a strong bond with her family. It is the world outside that is hostile and frightening. Just like the red-spotted newt that spends years wandering the forest floor before it decides which spot to settle in, she wandered from state to state before putting her roots down in Mississippi.

For the most part, the author seamlessly weaves the natural world into her personal stories but sometimes the connections she makes between the exterior world and her interior state of mind are tenuous and facile. A corpse flower with its stinking smell reminds her how to clear out the weeds of the dating world or the touch-me-not plant teaches her to fend off predators by folding inward and shutting down. Her son opens his wee mouth in amazement and wonder and she is reminded of the ribbon eel drawing water over its gills to help it breathe. 

The first few essays were wonderful and informative. My interest was piqued when she referred to obscure flora and fauna. For instance, the colorful glass bangles that she got as a gift from her grandmother in India remind her of a comb jelly which flashes mini rainbows in the darkest oceans. I immediately googled the creature as I wanted to find out more about it. But unfortunately some of the later chapters had almost an encyclopedic feel to them and I felt I was reading a Wikipedia entry.

She also keeps hammering the point that she is brown-skinned. I can understand the trauma she must have endured as a child but why have a chapter entitled “Questions while Searching for Birds with my half- white sons…”? She has already told us she is married to a white guy. Is there any need to keep reinforcing the color of skin when there is no relevance? Also the writing evoked mixed reactions in me. It vacillates from lush and lyrical paragraphs describing succulent cara cara oranges or the chattering of bonnet macaques to clumsy phrases like “…after an especially plus amount of warm rain.” I am also nitpicky about grammar and some chapters have typos and errors like ‘another boatmen came up’ or ‘they busted out laughing.’ The book would have benefited from more fastidious proofreading and editing.

In spite of these annoying features, it is a gentle and meditative book that reminds us to savor the world around us. It is also a call for conservation entreating us to save our fragile planet. The author brings up the fascinating but sobering fact that fourteen new species of dancing frogs were discovered in Kerala, in southern India, only to be endangered almost as soon as they were discovered, due to erratic monsoon patterns. There are thousands of unnamed extinctions in the natural world when species become extinct even before they have had a chance to be discovered. She bemoans the fact that children have lost touch with nature and are glued to their phones or games. I was surprised when she mentioned that out of 22 students in her poetry class, 17 said that they had never seen a firefly although they lived in a town where fireflies were common. Aimee Nezhukumatathil asks us to slow down and look for fireflies:

I know I will search for fireflies all the rest of my days, even though they dwindle a little bit more each year. I can’t help it. They blink on and off, a lime glow to the summer night air, as if to say: I am still here, you are still here, I am still here, you are still here, I am, you are, over and over again. 

World of Wonders is a paean to nature and its amazing diversity as reflected in the millions of species that make up life on earth. If only we would also embrace this diversity within our own species!

Interior Chinatown

There has been a spate of violent attacks targeted against Asians and Asian- Americans in recent times. However Anti-Asian harassment is not new. Although exacerbated during the pandemic, the prejudice is rooted in a long history of discrimination towards Asian-Americans since the earliest Asian immigrants came to the US centuries ago. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2020, is a satirical novel on the Chinese-American immigrant experience. The most unique feature of the novel is its unconventional format.

The characters of the book are part of a procedural cop show called ‘Black and White’ and the book itself is written in the form of a screenplay for a TV show. It is divided into seven acts with scene headings and even presented in the Courier font used in scripts. ‘Black and White'(ostensibly a spoof of ‘Law and Order’) has a charismatic black man and a beautiful white woman in the lead roles of detectives. Willis Wu, a Taiwanese- American has the role of ‘Background Oriental Male’. He is relegated to the background as all Asian-Americans are in the formulaic world of Hollywood. They only get bit parts and are sometimes reduced to playing props and corpses.

Willis Wu mostly gets to play Generic Asian Man. If he is lucky, sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son. For now he is a bit player: but he dreams that one day he will be offered the most coveted role someone who looks like him might aspire to: Kung Fu Guy.

The Golden Palace restaurant in Chinatown serves as the set for the television show. Willis Wu, his friends and parents live in SRO ( Single Room Occupancy) apartments directly above the restaurant and are all Asian American extras. Their highest aspiration is to become ‘ Kung Fu Guy’ emulating an ‘older brother’, one of their gang who has made it. To land the coveted role of ‘Kung- Fu Guy’, Willis Wu practices martial arts and perfects his fake accent. In other words, he tries to fit his stereotype. He eventually makes his way up to ‘Special Guest Star’. Even Willis’ father’ Sifu’ was once ‘Kung Fu Guy’ but is now ‘Old Asian Man’ and his mother has been demoted from ‘Seductress’ to ‘Old Asian Woman’. These immigrants with their dreams and struggles are trapped in Chinatown just as they are trapped in these roles. The real world is only an extension of the entertainment world.

An elegant paifang or archway marks the official entrance to Chinatown in most cities. It is symbolic as an entryway for immigrants settling there. But the book cover design shows vertical bars that resemble a prison under the pagoda-like structure. The title Interior Chinatown is the description of the setting written on the script and could also refer to the claustrophobic lives of the residents living in humble conditions eking out a hand to mouth existence. They live in a physical and mental prison. And a metaphorical one too for they are also trapped in prisons of prejudice and stereotypes.

While reading the book there are times when you don’t know where the reel life ends and the real life begins. The boundaries are blurred between the two for Hollywood is nothing but the microcosm of the macrocosm. White people raise their voices and speak slowly to Asian people as if they won’t be able to understand anything they are saying. Asia is seen as a monolith. Every Asian is believed to be from mainland China. They are all lumped together just as all five of Willis Wu’s housemates are lumped together.

According to a witness, as the first man hit Allen in the temple, knocking him to the ground, they said, “This is for Pearl Harbor.” Young Wu thinks: it could have been him. Nakamoto says: it should have been him. All of the housemates realize: it was them. All of them. That was the point. They are all the same. All the same to the people who struck Allen in the head until his eyes swelled shut. All the same as they filled a large sack with batteries and stones, and hit Allen in the stomach with it until blood came up from his throat. Allen was Wu and Park and Kim and Nakamoto, and they were all Allen. Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam. Whatever. Anywhere over there. Slope. Jap. Nip. Chink. Towelhead. Whatever. All of them in the house, after that, they should become closer. But they don’t. They don’t sit around the table anymore, comparing names. because now they know what they are. Will always be. Asian Man.

Willis falls in love with Karen, a mixed race actress who used to play the role of ‘Ethnically Ambiguous girl’. They get married and have a daughter together. She receives an offer for a show of her own with a part included for Willis but he refuses to get out of Chinatown and give up on his ‘Kung Fu Guy’ dream. They get divorced and she moves to the suburbs with their daughter. When Willis eventually gets the coveted role of ‘Kung Fu Guy’, he wonders why he even wanted it. He will only be perpetuating the stereotype. How much of the racism has he internalized? In order to be accepted, you have to live according to the script. You live to fit into the stereotype and it then becomes a self -fulfilling prophecy. In his quest for the fake role of ‘Kung Fu Guy’, he has lost the real life role of family man. He leaves Chinatown to rejoin Karen and his daughter and is tried in court in the ‘Case of the Missing Man’ for running away from the role assigned to him with who else but his successful ‘older brother’ as his defense lawyer. The unusual court case culminating in the denouement is a brilliant tour de force by the author.

  The script format is occasionally interspersed with disturbing facts about the history of anti-immigration laws in the US and narration in the second person when Willis reflects on his life and on his parents’ lives. The use of the second person creates instant empathy in the reader. There is a moving passage where Willis’ father sings at the local karaoke bar. As an immigrant myself, I could relate to that feeling that even if you have left the country, it never leaves you.

If you don’t believe it, go down to your local karaoke bar on a busy night. Wait until the third hour, when the drunk frat boys and gastropub waitresses with headshots are all done with Backstreet Boys and Alicia Keys and locate the slightly older Asian businessman standing patiently in line for his turn, his face warmly rouged on Crown or Japanese lager, and when he steps up and starts slaying “Country Roads,” try not to laugh, or wink knowingly or clap a little too hard, because by the time he gets to “West Virginia, mountain mama,” you’re going to be singing along, and by the time he’s done, you might understand why a seventy-seven-year-old guy from a tiny island in the Taiwan Strait who’s been in a foreign country for two-thirds of his life can nail a song, note perfect, about wanting to go home.” 

Yu ingeniously exposes the marginalization of Asian Americans through the lens of ‘Black and White’, the clever title revealing how we view the world with no nuance, no shades in between. There were two things that bothered me slightly about the book; the first the implication that black people are more visible than Asians and are treated the same as white actors, and, the second, the focus on just the working class diaspora without any mention of the more successful Asian immigrants like the author himself. The only accomplished immigrant we come across is this mystical ‘older brother’ who seems to represent an ideal. In this aspect, the book seems a little dated in its depiction. Is the author guilty of the same kind of ‘Generic Asian Man’ portrayal that he is criticizing? Or was that deliberate to reinforce the premise of the book? Nevertheless, it is an ambitious and brilliant book both thematically and stylistically that makes us think more deeply about race, identity and assimilation.

The Three Theban Plays

“Laius,” she cried, and called her husband dead
Long, long ago; her thought was of that child
By him begot, the son by whom the sire
Was murdered and the mother left to breed
With her own seed, a monstrous progeny.
Then she bewailed the marriage bed whereon
Poor wretch, she had conceived a double brood,
Husband by husband, children by her child.” 

Oedipus Rex, Sophocles ( trans. Robert Fagles)

Note: There are spoilers in my post as I assume that even if people have not read the texts, they would know that all three plays being Greek tragedies, would end on a tragic note.

Thanks to Freud, everyone knows about the Oedipus complex which can be traced back to the myth of Oedipus, an age old tale about incest and patricide. I was always curious about the original story from where Freud got his inspiration to form his theory of psychoanalysis. Over the holidays, I read the three tragedies of Sophocles –Oedipus Rex ( also known as Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus The King), Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone- written in the 400s bce and referred to collectively as the Theban plays as they are all set in the city-state of Thebes and form a single storyline in spite of being written as three distinct plays. During my college years, I had studied Antigone in an English translation and I had also read the French adaptation by Jean Anouilh. I read the other two for the first time.

Though the plays are about the same characters, they were written at different times and were not intended to be a trilogy. In terms of their chronology, Oedipus Rex is the first, followed by Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. But Sophocles did not write them in that order. I am glad I read them not just for their importance in the western literary canon but also for the realization that the mythological Oedipus did not suffer from the complex named after him.

Oedipus Rex- The Oracle of Delphi reveals to the King Laius of Thebes that he will have a child who will kill him and sleep with his wife Jocasta, in effect his own mother. Fearing the prophecy, the King and Queen abandon their newborn son on a mountainside to die. A shepherd finds the baby and takes him to  King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth who raise him as their own. When as a young man, Oedipus learns from an oracle that he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother, he leaves his home in Corinth to avert the prophecy. He kills Laius in a scuffle on the crossroads not knowing that it was his father. Ironically he returns to the very place he was driven away from during his infancy. He is offered the city’s crown and queen after he solves the Sphinx’s riddle and liberates the people of Thebes from its hold.

When a plague ravages Thebes, the only solution to bring an end to it, according to the oracle, is to bring the murderer of Thebes’ last king, Laius, to justice. Oedipus resolves to find the killer only to discover that he himself is the unfortunate man. The unbearable truth leads to the suicide of his wife-mother and as for Oedipus, overcome by guilt, he gouges out his own eyes in desperation.

Oedipus’ story is tragic as he was not aware of what he was doing. He, in fact, did the right thing by running away from his city and parents to escape the prophecies of the oracle but his destiny caught up with him. So if the prophesies were intended to come true, was Oedipus responsible for his actions? If it was ordained from the moment of his birth itself that he would to kill his father and marry his mother, was there any way he could have escaped his fate?

Is his suffering self inflicted? Was his downfall due to hubris in wishing to subvert the will of the Gods? He was a noble king who wanted to help his people and remove the curse of the plague. His ‘hamartia’ or fatal error to borrow a term from Aristotle’s Poetics is his desire for knowledge and it is this quest for the truth that ends up being self destructive. The prophet Tiresias and the shepherd who saved him as a baby want him to abandon his quest for they know the truth already and know that it will have disastrous consequences. If he hadn’t urged the shepherd boy to answer his questions, and if he had listened to Jocasta’s pleas to drop his search for the truth, he would have perhaps lived in blissful ignorance. Or perhaps not. His fate would have caught up with him one way or the other.

As you can see, the mythological Oedipus did not suffer from the complex named after him. Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, believed that the Oedipus complex was ‘Freud’s dream’. Freud believed that infantile impulses of desire for the opposite gender parent and jealousy towards the same gender parent remain active in our unconscious. However Oedipus was abandoned as as infant and consequently did not form an attachment with his mother during the phallic stage. Queen Merope is the woman who raised him during his childhood. Whether Freud’s theory in general is valid or not is a matter for another discussion, but it certainly does not hold water in the case of the character who inspired it as Oedipus was not a mama’s boy, but a mere marionette in the hands of fate.

Fresco depicting Oedipus killing his father Laius, dating back to the second century A.D, the Roman dynasty. At The Egyptian Museum of Cairo

Oedipus at Colonus– The least well known play in the trilogy has a calmer and more meditative tone. The exiled and blind Oedipus is reduced to a life of wandering with his daughter Antigone by his side. They arrive at the town of Colonus, close to Athens and are at first viewed with distrust by the citizens and the members comprising the Chorus who know about Oedipus’ past but King Theseus offers them his unconditional support. The oracles had also prophesied that Oedipus would die in a place sacred to the Furies.

Meanwhile his daughter Ismene arrives and informs him that his two sons are fighting for control of Thebes. Polynices has been banished by his younger brother Eteocles but has raised an army in Argos and is preparing to attack Thebes. In a dramatic twist of fate, the leaders of Thebes want Oedipus back because they believe his presence would bless the city. Spurned in the past, he is sought after now. Oedipus refuses as he is still upset with his sons for not having prevented his exile. Creon, his brother -in-law and the King of Thebes, forcibly tries to take Antigone and Ismene as hostages but King Thesus comes to their rescue. Oedipus dies and is buried at Colonus and his tomb protects the people of Athens and brings them good fortune thereafter as predicted by the Oracle.

This play is Important as it is Oedipus’ chance to defend himself and restore his tarnished reputation. He is finally granted dignity in death. Oedipus knows he killed his father unknowingly in self-defense and that he unwittingly slept with his mother. Whereas he was consumed with guilt and shame before, he feels indignation now at the way he was unfairly treated. He is despondent but refrains from self- flagellation. He has forgiven himself and is forgiven by others. He has become a more humble person and the relationship between the old feeble man and his devoted daughters is very touching. When Oedipus had his sight, he was in the dark because he didn’t know the truth about his life. Interestingly, when Oedipus becomes blind, his vision opens up and he finally acquires wisdom.

Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust, Oedipus at Colonus (1788)

Antigone- Both Eteocles and Polyneices are dead. The former gets a proper burial but the latter is considered a traitor by Creon and is refused a burial. Antigone tries to convince her sister to help her defy Creon’s edict and bury the body. Ismene agrees with her sister’s views but cannot muster up the courage to act and remains passive. Antigone is now completely on her own but still as steadfastly dedicated to her cause and gives her brother the burial he deserves. Creon and Antigone resemble each other in that they are both headstrong and unflinchingly devoted to their principles. After all they have the same blood coursing through their veins. She is imprisoned and sentenced to be buried alive but the Chorus, Teiresias and Creon’s son Haemon who is Antigone’s fiancé, plead with Creon to release her. He eventually has a change of heart but it is too late. Antigone has hanged herself and her heartbroken fiancé follows her in death which results in his mother Eurydice taking her life too, leaving Creon bereft and defeated. The ending though heartbreaking is befitting of a Greek tragedy. What else could we expect for the entire accursed bloodline of Oedipus?

Antigone giving burial to Polynices, Sébastien Louis Guillaume Norblin de la Gourdaine, 19th century, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris

Antigone is my favorite play of the trilogy for two reasons. Firstly, it raises questions that are still relevant today in depicting the conflict between the individual and the state. She commits an act of civil disobedience in defying the edict of the King, analogous to the clash between authoritarianism and democracy we encounter in current times. The second reason I liked the play is that it is way ahead of its time in its feminist undertones. In refusing to kowtow to the wishes of an unjust man, Antigone rejects the traditional role of women. Ancient Greece was a patriarchal society where women were considered inferior and not consulted in matters of law or politics. Antigone stands up against tyranny in support of her moral obligations. No doubt her act is motivated by her filial love and loyalty to the men of the family, but by refusing to let herself be dominated by a man, she challenges the gender power dynamic. Interestingly, the play is named after her and not after Creon, the King.

 The main theme underlying all three plays is that of destiny and how we have to succumb to its inexorable ways. Even if you attempt to avoid the prophecies, your actions end up causing them to come about and they become what we refer to as self-fulfilling prophecies. So then we have to ask ourselves if everything is preordained, can we be fully responsible for our actions? And what is even the point of life and living if you pay a heavy price for exercising your free will?

I think the purpose of the plays was to emphasize that life is full of suffering and grief over which we have no control and all we can do is to cope with the cards dealt to us. You cannot control your fate but you can control how you respond to it. The plays were performed at the spring festival In Dionysus and were intended to be cathartic – to be a collective experience of shared grief which fostered compassion in the audience and enabled the release of their own emotions from the safe distance of their seats. The effect is the same on modern readers. The plays enhance our understanding of the human condition and of human nature and evoke the quality of empathy.

If ever we have a bad day, all we have to do is to think about poor ill-fated Oedipus and thank our stars!

 

Frankenstein

Illustration from the frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein showing Victor Frankenstein expressing disgust on seeing his creation.

Frankenstein is a story that has stood the test of time and a name that has endured in popular culture. It is often acclaimed as the first sci-fi novel and has given rise to countless Hollywood adaptations which apparently are nothing like the book. I am glad I read the book without having seen any of the film versions. But the story has become such a pivotal part of our culture that I, like many others, mistakenly believed that Frankenstein was the name of the monster. It is, in fact, the name of his creator but the confusion is an interesting one, albeit unintended, as one can argue that the creator himself was the monster.

First of all, I was blown away by the fact that Mary Shelley started writing this novel at the tender age of eighteen. Well, she was after all the daughter of two literary luminaries- the philosopher and writer, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecroft, a passionate advocate of women’s rights. The story surrounding the genesis of the novel is as fascinating as her creation. The prologue mentions how Lord Byron, John Polidori, Percy Bysshe Shelley (whom Mary married eventually) and Mary Godwin met regularly at a villa by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, in the summer of 1816. It was a season of especially inclement weather when they were mostly confined indoors. Lord Byron suggested the idea of writing ghost stories during a rainy and stormy spell. While the project was  eventually abandoned by most at the fireside, only Polidori’s The Vampyre and  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein saw the light of the day. Galvanism or the induction of electrical currents was a popular topic of discussion at the time and Mary was inspired by the concept to pen her story:

My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion …

The rest is literary history.

Frankenstein is the story of the brilliant Victor Frankenstein who as a young boy was drawn to natural philosophy, the term used at the time to describe the sciences. He particularly sought out the teachings of alchemists and ancient philosophers. He became obsessed with the idea of creating new life and devoted hours to his project, neglecting in the process, his family, friends and his own health. He went to great lengths to create a human form from old body parts and animal remains and imbued it with life. Yet he ran away from his creation the very day it came to life, as he was repulsed by the gigantic and grotesque monster he had created.

His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

He describes what happened next, to Robert Walton, a British explorer who rescues him from an ice floe near the North Pole while he was in pursuit of his monster. The explorer, in turn, describes the events in the form of letters to his sister Margaret Walton Saville in England. These letters form the outer narrative of this story within a story. And within the inner story are embedded the stories of the monster and of his neighbors.

It is interesting how Shelley weaves in the monster’s narrative as part of the novel. He discloses to Victor how he slowly became aware of who he was and lived in an abandoned hovel next to a cottage where he vicariously lived through the lives of the De Laceys, a family exiled from Paris for defending a Turkish man unfairly accused of a crime. He learned to read and write while eavesdropping on the lessons of the Arabian girl Safie, the daughter of the Turkish man and the guest at the cottage. Within his story is the story of De Lacey’s son Felix who loves Safie and reveals more about her and her mother. We have a tale within a tale within a tale like Russian matroushka dolls neatly stacked one within the other.

And like the narrative structure of nesting, the story is layered and can be interpreted in many ways. It raises many interesting ethical, philosophical and psychological questions.

First and foremost, it is a Promethean tale as indicated by the complete title: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Just like the Greek titan stole fire to help humanity, Victor kindles the sacred fire of life. However he does not understand the ramifications of his project and things go awry. Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about what could go wrong if we flout the natural order of things. The story is more relevant than ever in our modern world of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence and makes us ponder over the ethical implications of scientific progress.

The novel also addresses the loneliness that results from parental abandonment. Victor’s abandonment of his creature turns the latter into a monster vowing revenge on his creator. He goes on a murderous rampage destroying the people close to Victor’s heart. The monster is basically good at heart. He wanted to be loved and to belong. His maker did not even bother to give him a name and referred to him as a devil, a fiend, a demon. He was rejected only on account of his deformity. The novel addresses the nature vs nurture debate and seems to imply that our minds begin as ‘tabula rasa’, a blank state, and our environment has a great impact on our behavior as opposed to our biological and genetic predispositions.

Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding. I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion. But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness.’  

 

Woodcut from a 1934 edition, illustrated by Lynd Ward. Villagers stone the monster.

The novel made me ponder about our own creator and our place in the world. How could God create something and not take responsibility for it? For what purpose were we created if there is so much misery in the world? People who look different are discriminated against and the world is full of injustice. Are we abandoned by God too? The epigraph to the novel is a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost which describes the conversation Adam has with God after his creation.

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?”

The monster never asked to be created. But unlike Adam he has no Eve. His fate is even worse. Not only is he shunned from society but also faces the solitude of living without a companion.

Woodcut from a 1934 edition of Frankenstein, illustrated by Lynd Ward. The monster gazes into a pool.

Hateful day when I received life!’ I exclaimed in agony. ‘Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”

The unjust ostracization of the monster brings us to the question: Who is the real monster? Some critics have analyzed the novel through a Freudian lens and have proposed that Victor and the monster are the embodiment of the ego and the id, representing the conscious desires and the subconscious wishes of the same being. A careful reading will reveal how Victor could have averted the deaths of some of his near and dear ones. The monster is his doppelgänger and they are very similar in their insatiable thirst of knowledge, in their admiration of nature, in the unabashed outpouring of sentimentality and the isolation they experience whether self-imposed or by society. The main difference is that Victor grew up in a nurturing environment and should have been more sensitive to the monster’s feelings. The creature then is a reflection of Victor’s own ugliness, a mirror of his own evil character.

Equally interesting is a feminist reading of the novel. At first glance, the novel seems to be very male oriented. The female characters are all passive and submissive to their men. Victor creates the monster without the help of a woman and he also destroys the female companion he is in the process of creating for the monster:

Yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth.

She who, in all probability, was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation by being deserted by one of his own species.

Victor is afraid that she will enjoy autonomy and think for herself. His act is a blatant expression of the patriarchal repudiation of women and the fear of their sexuality and fertility. He is afraid of the child bearing abilities of women, their power to create an entire race of such beings and one of the horrors of the novel is making us wonder if science would eliminate the biological function of women. But Shelley highlights the misogyny to show the detrimental effects of envisioning a world without women for we see the terrible fate Victor meets with when going against nature. As a nineteenth century woman writer, Mary Shelley knew this misogyny all too well. Frankenstein was initially published anonymously because of her gender and some critics believed it to be written by Percy Shelley.

The portrayal of reproductive anxiety may have emanated from Mary Shelley’s own feelings of loneliness in life dealing with a loss of a mother who died from complications of childbirth, her own difficult pregnancies, several miscarriages and the tragedy of losing her children and husband. She wrote to exorcize her own demons and it is interesting in this regard to consider that Victor is her own creation just as the monster is Victor’s.

I admit the novel is not without its flaws. The whole education of the monster seems implausible. But I was struck by the complexity of ideas presented and captivated by the marvelous lyrical prose. I will be returning to this book over and over again to delve deeper into the themes for I have only scratched its surface. To write with such maturity and finesse at such a young age is nothing short of genius. Whatever be the fate of Victor’s mortal creation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has lived over 200 years and has attained immortality!

 

The Black Tulip

It is virtually impossible to grow a truly black tulip. Black tulips are never completely black but more of a deep purple or purplish-black hue. Yet, in the novel, “The Black Tulip”, by Alexandre Dumas, père, a tulip competition takes place to see who can create a jet black tulip which would be the first of its kind. Although the tale is more fiction than fact, it was inspired by ‘tulipmania’, a phenomenon that swept the Netherlands in the 17th century.

It was the golden age in Dutch history when its empire was the greatest power in Europe. It was also a time of prosperity when people indulged in luxury goods. They became fascinated with tulip bulbs and paid exorbitant sums for rare streaked and striped varieties. As the tulip market grew, people began speculating in tulip bulbs. The tulip bubble lasted for three years before the mania died abruptly and the market collapsed. With the backdrop of this event, Dumas recounts the story of Cornelius van Baerle, a horticulturist who dedicates his life to producing a black tulip. But before Dumas gets to the story of the tulip, he depicts another major historical event that took place in 1672- the lynching of the de Witt brothers in The Hague.

The first four chapters describe the horrific incident in gory detail. The de Witt brothers, the Dutch Grand Pensionary, Johan de Witt, and his brother Cornelis were much revered Republican statesmen who held influential political positions. Both England and France attacked the Dutch Republic and Johan de Witt was criticized for neglecting the army and relying solely on the naval strength of the nation. He was blamed for the ‘raampjar’, the invasion by Louis the 14thin 1672. He escaped an assassination attempt while his brother Cornelis was arrested for allegedly conspiring against William the 3rd, the statholder. When Johan went to visit his brother in prison, a crowd who supported the Orangist monarchy, had gathered outside and savagely attacked the brothers and ripped them to pieces. There are accounts describing how parts of the cadavers were sold as souvenirs and even eaten by the frenzied bloodthirsty mob.

Although gruesome, the historical background is crucial to the understanding of the story. Fiction blends with history when we are introduced to the fictitious grandson and namesake of Cornelis de Witt, a certain Dr. Cornelius van Baerle who gets embroiled unwittingly in the political intrigue. The Orangists had accused the de Witt brothers of treason believing their correspondence to the French king to be incriminating evidence. The letters were entrusted in the care of Van Baerle and he keeps them safely unaware of the contents. Meanwhile the city of Haarlem offers a generous monetary prize of 100,000 guilders to the person who can grow a purely black tulip. 

Dr. Van Baerle is a tulip fancier who believes that ‘to despise flowers is to offend God’. The tulip fanciers of the time added their own specific embellishments to the aphorism:

“C’est offenser Dieu que mépriser les fleurs.La tulipe est la plus belle de toutes les fleurs.
Donc qui méprise la tulipe offense démesurément Dieu.”

“To despise flowers is to offend God.The tulip is the most beautiful of all flowers.Therefore, the one who despises tulips offends God beyond measure.”

  Van Baerle works assiduously on cultivating the black tulip. It is on the verge of blooming when his jealous neighbor Isaac Boxtel, a fellow tulip grower who spies on him constantly, alerts the authorities and has him arrested for keeping the letters of the de Witt brothers. Boxtel covets the prize himself and resorts to all sorts of machinations to steal the bulbs and acquire fame and fortune for himself.

A distraught Cornelis manages to sneak in three cuttings of the tulip bulbs with him when he is arrested and continues to grow them in prison. Meanwhile he meets Rosa Gryphus, the guard’s beautiful daughter and the two fall in love. He teaches her to read and write and she helps him grow the black tulip secretly. Love blossoms too along with the tulip. The rest of the story is sappy and sentimental and different in tone from the first few chapters.

The black tulip needs the right amount of light and soil conditions to flourish. Love too will only develop with the right amount of nurturing and attention. Love faces challenges but never gives up and blooms in spite of all the hurdles in its way. The obstacles come in the form of Rosa’s own cruel and suspicious father and a mysterious visitor to the prison who takes more than a passing interest in Rosa and her tulips.

 The story lacks the depth of “The Count of Monte Cristo” or “The Three Musketeers”. The characters are portrayed with no nuance and belong to the distinct tropes of hero, villain or victim. My edition had notes on the historical details. Apparently Dumas got some of his facts mixed up. He confuses William the Silent with William the 3rd and some of the chronology regarding the de Witt brothers does not match up. Also, there are inaccuracies in the research on tulips. Tulips came from Turkey and not from Ceylon ( Sri Lanka) as Dumas claims. The sources he followed were not always accurate. Reading the notes took away a little from my experience but I found the fictional aspects of the novel to be entertaining and was happy to read a lesser known work of Dumas. 

I enjoyed the delightful lovers’ tiffs between the two. Rosa is jealous of the tulip and claims that Van Baerle loves the flower more than her. Of course Rosa is named after a flower herself and one can say that he is caught between the tulip and the rose.

Will the black tulip bloom? Will love triumph in the end? We hope so for after the misfortunes endured by the protagonists, we wish them all the happiness in the world for, “On a quelquefois assez souffert pour avoir le droit de ne jamais dire : Je suis trop heureux.” “Sometimes one has suffered enough to have the right to never say: I am too happy”.

Letter From Peking

I love diving into lesser known works of famous authors; you never know what pearls you might come up with. Letter from Peking is one such pearl of a book written by the legendary Pearl S. Buck. She is most famous for The Good Earth, a novel about rural pre-revolutionary China that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. She went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, earning the distinction of being the first American woman to be honored with the award. I may be one of the rare readers who preferred Letter From Peking to her popular and award winning novels. Letter From Peking, published in 1957, has an unusual plot and a sad and haunting tone. I was moved to tears several times while reading.

The story is about long distance love and a family caught between two countries, two continents and two cultures. The setting is Vermont and the novel is written in the form of a dateless diary with a lot of flashback to Peking. Elizabeth has been separated from her beloved husband for five years and has been raising their son alone on her family’s farm in Vermont. While studying at Radcliffe College, she had met Gerald MacLeod, a half-Chinese half-American doctoral student at Harvard. They got married and returned to Peking where they spent many happy years together until the rise of the Communist regime when it was no longer safe for Elizabeth and her son to stay there. Gerald is the President of the University in Peking and it is not clear if and when he will return to the US to join his family.

Elizabeth leads a quiet life in Vermont managing her farm and devoting her days to her son Rennie and Gerald’s father, Baba, a Scotsman from Virginia whom she is looking after in his old age. The caretaker of the farm and his wife, the single doctor who takes a romantic interest in Elizabeth and summer residents are among the few people who revolve in their orbit. She pines for her husband and reminisces about the beautiful love they shared. In fact, they were each other’s first love. “The first run of maple syrup, John Burroughs says, is like first love, “always the best, always the fullest, always the sweetest, while there is a purity and delicacy of flavor about the sugar that far surpasses any subsequent yield.”

Now she lives on the strength of her memories and on the hope that they will be reunited again which seems like a dim prospect in the political climate of the time. She reassures herself:“Gerald has not deserted me nor I him. We are divided by history, past and present.” Letters are the only form of communication between them. They have to be sent clandestinely as communication with westerners is banned by the Communists. At first fairly frequent, they start dwindling in number until a final one comes along. The contents of the last letter are not revealed till the end.

Although not a widow, the sad reality is that Elizabeth is one in many ways. I felt a lot of sympathy and compassion for her. Can you imagine not seeing your spouse for years and living life without knowing if you’ll ever meet again? There is so much uncertainty coupled with the loneliness but yet Eve as Gerald used to call his beloved Elizabeth, takes it all in stride with so much grace. There are men vying for her attention but she fends off their advances staying loyal to her husband. I think what appealed to me in the book was the gentleness in the tone despite the sadness. There is something very moving about Elizabeth’s serene acceptance of her situation and resignation to her fate. Her loneliness is described with poignancy:

Oh, the awful silence of the valley at night! No one comes near me and I am as alone as though I lived solitary upon a planet. Here and there in the distance a light burns. It means a house, a home, two people, perhaps children. The oil lamp burns yellow in Matt’s little house, and far down at the end of the valley the bright single light is the naked electric bulb that never goes out above the office door of Bruce Spaulden. I know, too, the intermittent flares of summer folk. None of them burns for me. Sometimes I light every lamp in my empty house and a stranger passing by could believe the house is full of guests. But I have no guests.”

I loved the Vermont setting and its juxtaposition with Peking; the grandeur of Chinese civilization offers an interesting contrast to the gentle beauty of Vermont and captures the essence of the novel. Elizabeth cherishes her husband’s Chinese heritage and wants her son to appreciate it too and wants him to have a life partner who would accept and understand it too. Baba lives in the past and still wears Chinese silk robes and reads Chinese books. As Elizabeth says, he still lives in the world of Confucius and Chinese emperors. I think that’s an important distinction- there is the grand old China- one of the oldest civilizations of the world and the new Communist regime which is entirely different. Her father-in-law is the only link to her husband and it is interesting that though Baba and Elizabeth are not Chinese by blood, they are proud to be linked to the rich culture.

Being quarter Chinese, Rennie, on the other hand, wrestles with his identity. Which country do you claim as your own when you can’t embrace both? It was a period of Sino-American geo-political tensions and there was a real fear of China and suspicion of anyone favorable to it and a similar distrust on the part of the authoritarian Chinese government towards Americans. Besides, in those days mixed families were not as common. Rennie has to choose between America and China and sadly between his mother and father. Unlike his mother, it is not so easy for him to forgive his father and it is safer for him to reject his heritage.

He falls in love with a girl in the neighborhood named Allegra and he is worried that revealing his Chinese identity will keep her from liking him. Elizabeth is harsh and judgmental about his relationship with the white girl. She wonders how Rennie could love a girl whose heart can “only hold one cup”. Pearl S. Buck beautifully depicts the complicated mother-son relationship.“Yet no mother can save her son. She can only watch and wait and wring her hands.” I thought her feelings arose from her loneliness. Her son was the only constant person in her life and she seemed jealous like any over protective mother. But later on I realized that maybe she was on to something as she seemed to readily accept his relationship with Mary, a girl she thought to be better suited to him and who would understand and embrace his Chinese heritage.

Gerald and Elizabeth’s relationship is tender and sweet no doubt, but I felt that she could have been idealizing it at times. Time and distance can make you lose perspective. When a person is absent, we tend to focus on their positive qualities and overlook their flaws. We only remember the good times. The bitter truth is that Gerald chose his country over her. Gerald’s patriotism and love for China prevented him from leaving his country. He had the opportunity to return to the US with her but didn’t and then it became too late. Even her son points it out to her but she is in some kind of denial mode. She continues to be fiercely protective of him.

I was struck by the dignity and poise Elizabeth had in the face of suffering but I do think she had a slight ‘holier than thou‘ attitude- she felt that no relationship could compare to this sublime love of theirs and she is steadfast in her belief that this true perfect love can withstand barriers of time, distance, race and culture. Her attitude seems like a coping mechanism. She needed something to cling on to, to give her hope to continue waiting.

In spite of some annoying traits, Elizabeth is on the whole a sympathetic character and I think it is because she is a lot like a modern day single mom who is self-reliant and has to raise her son singlehandedly. She is an independent woman who lives alone, works hard and makes her own money by managing a big farm by herself. She interacts mostly with men and like a single woman sometimes has to deal with their romantic interest in her. She also takes care of her father-in- law like a lot of women who end up taking the responsibility of caregiving. I am not going to reveal what happens in the end; what the final letter disclosed and whether Elizabeth is reunited with her husband. I hope I have piqued your curiosity enough to want to read the book.

When Pearl S. Buck died in 1973, former President Richard Nixon called her “a human bridge between the civilizations of the East and the West.”Though there are critics who believe that she perpetuated stereotypes about the Chinese, there is no doubt that she was instrumental in making China and the Chinese real and relevant to many people. This ‘pearl’ of a novel is more than a story about interracial conflict. It is a story about the love a woman is capable of- a love in its myriad complex forms-the undying love that she has for an absent husband, the protective love she has for her son, the filial duty and affection for her in-laws and most of all the love for a country that she has no ties of blood to but has embraced with her heart and soul. Imagine all this tumult of emotion soaked up in the quiet and gentle beauty of Vermont!

Have you read this novel or any other novel by Pearl S. Buck? And have you enjoyed reading any lesser known works of popular authors?

 

Whereabouts

Jhumpa Lahiri’s early novels and short stories explored the theme of displacement and alienation in the context of the Indian- American immigrant experience. In 2012, Lahiri moved to Italy and adopted the country and its culture. Not only did she learn Italian and become fluent in the language, she made the startling decision to give up writing in English. She wrote her first work in Italian in 2015, a non-fiction piece entitled In altre parole which was translated into English as In Other Words by Ann Goldstein. ( You can read my blog post on the book here: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2016/12/07/in-other-words-a-love-affair-with-a-language/ )

Dove mi trovo ( Where I Find Myself) is her second book in Italian and this time she has translated it herself into English as Whereabouts. She has also moved back to the US, coming out a little, if not wholly, out of her self-imposed linguistic exile. Though Whereabouts does not address the immigrant experience, the anxiety of dislocation–that feeling of being neither here nor there- is still the prevailing theme.

In a series of vignettes set over a year and spanning the seasons, Whereabouts chronicles the daily life of a middle aged single woman in an unnamed city, presumably Rome in Italy. The structure is fragmentary and there is no plot as such-in fact nothing much happens. The short chapters read like diary entries. From the few crumbs of details thrown at the reader, we guess that she is a professor at a university and has never been married or had children. She is aloof with her colleagues and her relationship with her parents is fraught. She describes herself as “Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around...” She may have some regrets in life but she seems content with her lifestyle despite her loneliness. She derives comfort from her mundane routine and rituals.

She wanders through the city and frequents its haunts as she goes about her day. You can find her on the sidewalk, at the trattoria, in the piazza, in the bookstore or at the museum. In fact these locations are also chapter titles. Sometimes the titles refer to the weather or the season (‘In spring’, ‘In the Sun’, ‘In August’). There’s one chapter titled ‘In My Head’ and another one called ‘Nowhere’. She moves in and out of these different urban spaces forming tacit and fleeting connections with the people she encounters.The specificity of the location is juxtaposed with the meanderings of the narrator’s mind which jumps between the past and the present. At times on the street, she runs into people she knows. But often she is only an eavesdropper, intrigued by strangers. She follows a couple having an argument and builds up a whole narrative in her head about their personal life based on the few words she hears them speak. She is a voyeur and so are the readers, privy to her innermost thoughts. She takes comfort in crowds but is a solitary woman who prefers being alone. “I eat alone, next to others eating alone”, she muses at a restaurant. She feels less alone in the company of people. She craves for connection but not of the close kind:

This evening as I read in bed I hear the roar of cars that speed down the road beneath my apartment. And the fact of their passing makes me aware of my own stillness. I can only fall asleep when I hear them. And when I wake up in the middle of the night, always at the same time, it’s the absolute silence that interrupts my sleep. That’s the hour when there’s not a car on the road, when no one needs to get anywhere. My sleep grows lighter and lighter and then it abandons me entirely. I wait until someone, anyone, turns up on the road. The thoughts that come to roost in my head in those moments are always the gloomiest, also the most precise. That silence, combined with the black sky, takes hold over me until the first light returns and dispels those thoughts, until I hear the presence of lives passing by along the road below me.

As she goes about her day, she reflects on her life and her relationships. She has had her share of men including married men and a two timing boyfriend. There is also her friend’s husband to whom she is drawn and he seems to be attracted to her as well but they never act on their feelings. She discovers that over time, this hypothetical affair, “which never took hold to begin with, loses its hold over me.” The narrator is prone to anxiety and suffers from tics, headaches, odd afflictions and mysterious pains arising out of the blue. Her mother who was codependent while married, is now a lonely woman who lives alone. Her father’s untimely death has left her bereft but she is not able to forgive him for not protecting her from her mother’s rages and cries out near his crypt: “ …but that magma never touched you, you’d already built yourself an enclosure that was taller and thicker than the marble that encases you now.” She was supposed to go on a trip with him to see a play but he died before that could happen. Her buried anger erupts : “I refused to unpack my suitcase for a month. I mourned those wasted tickets, and that trip never taken, more than I mourned for you.

The unnamed narrator who vacillates between the need to stay and to leave, to connect and to disconnect is a sort of an ‘everywoman’. It is easy for any city woman to identify with her. She is a flâneuse somewhat like her literary predecessor, Mrs. Dalloway, who ambles around the city, both part of the crowd and separate from it. I thought of how, like the narrator, we crave anonymity and blend in with the crowd but yet we shrink from total solitude. We are happy to sip our coffee alone with a book or our smartphone in a café but we derive a sense of security from the people around us. Even the narrator sees her double, a woman who looks like her and whom she follows and loses in the crowd. “ My double, seen from behind, explains something to me: that I’m me and also someone else, that I’m leaving and also staying.”“Did I imagine her? No, I’m certain I saw her. A variation of myself with a sprightly step, determined to get somewhere, just up ahead.” Variations of the narrator exist everywhere, caught in the hustle and bustle of urban loneliness.

The quiet story has a dreamlike quality and shifts between shadow and light, absence and presence, stillness and movement, till the narrator makes a momentous decision. When she was a little girl, she was afraid to jump from one tree stump to the other while playing with other children at school, but she finally takes a giant leap of faith. And like her protagonist narrator, Jhumpa Lahiri also reinvents herself by leaving her comfort zone to try something different. I appreciate her devotion and dedication to another language. It resonates with me personally, as much like Lahiri, I grew up exposed to many languages and was most fluent in English, which was not my mother tongue, but a ‘stepmother’, to borrow her analogy from In Other Words. I went on to embrace French, a totally different language I could consider my foster mother. I understand her relationship to Italian as I share her passion for living and breathing a foreign language. Yet I am left with ambivalent feelings on reading this book.

Does she have to give up one narrative style to find a new voice in her writing? Does she have to abandon one language to adopt another? I did not quite have the same intense and intimate experience with her Italian books as I did with her immigrant writing. There are a few poetic prose passages I savored, but on the whole I felt that some of her linguistic brilliance, so evident in English, is missing here as she is still in the process of perfecting Italian. I was mostly left with this agonizing question: Will we never get to read another Interpreter of Maladies or Unaccustomed Earth?

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

“I have not only occasionally made a confession of belief in essays, but once, a little more than ten years ago attempted to set forth my belief in a book. This book is called Siddhartha.” Hermann Hesse, My Belief, 1931

Published in 1922, after the First World War, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha struck a chord with Europeans looking for meaning in their lives. Writing this book was cathartic for Hesse too and part of his self discovery as he dealt with his own despondency and existential angst. The book became widely accessible after the 1955 translation into English by Hilda Rosner. It resonated with the hippie generation of the sixties, tapping into their alienation and giving them a flavor of the mystical practices of the East they were turning to for solace.

People mistakenly think that the book is about Gautam Buddha. The confusion arises from the fact that the protagonist’s name is Siddhartha which was the Buddha’s given name. The main character of the book is not the Buddha but a namesake who is a contemporary of the Buddha and whose path in life is analogous to that of the Buddha’s. Hermann Hesse deliberately gives him the same name to prove a point to which I shall return later in the post. Siddhartha is a coming of age story about the spiritual awakening of a man. In Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, Moksha or Nirvana is the awareness of the truth or the consciousness of existence residing within you which results in supreme bliss and leads to the ultimate liberation of the soul from suffering or the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Siddhartha is on a quest to attain this state of enlightenment.

Thangka of Buddha with the One Hundred Jataka Tales, Tibet, 13th-14th century

The novella traces the spiritual journey of the eponymous character through various stages of his life. As a young man belonging to the priestly high caste of Brahmins, Siddhartha is disillusioned with the ritualistic and dogmatic teachings of the people who surround him and decides to leave his home and his parents with his best friend Govinda to start a life as an itinerant ascetic. The young men join the Samana monks who renounce all material desires and embrace a lifestyle of severe austerity abstaining from all indulgences. They teach Siddhartha to think, to fast and to wait but this lifestyle of self denial and deprivation does not lead to the peace and happiness he sought. Shortly thereafter, he meets the Buddha and is awestruck by his effulgence and grace, but decides to follow his own path instead of becoming a disciple. I love stories where the Buddha makes an appearance. The scene reminded me of the Jataka Tales of ancient India where the Buddha appears in some form or the other in every story with a didactic message. This encounter with the Buddha is especially interesting as Siddhartha defies him and says it is futile to follow a predetermined path. Just like the Buddha he has to reach spiritual enlightenment on his own and not on someone else’s terms even if that someone else happens to be the illustrious and exalted Buddha. He parts ways with Govinda who is more conforming and continues to live with the Samanas.

Siddhartha goes from one extreme to the other and decides to indulge his ‘self’ instead of suppressing it. Consequently, he embraces ‘samsara’ or the world by taking the comely Kamala as a lover. The courtesan ( which is just a fancy term for prostitute) initiates and instructs him in the art of love and introduces him to a successful merchant named Kamaswami. Siddhartha becomes a businessman. He makes money and squanders it by gambling, partakes of forbidden food and wine, enjoys all the pleasures of the flesh till his hedonistic lifestyle fills him with nausea and disgust and he realizes that he has died spiritually. He leaves Kamala and her pleasure grove unaware that she is pregnant and he is on the verge of committing suicide by throwing himself in a river when he is saved by the primordial sound of the universe, the sound of ‘om’ resounding from the depths of his soul. Subsequently, he meets Kamala and their son who is left in his care for some time and he is reunited twice with his childhood friend Govinda. He decides to live with Vasudev, the wise ferryman who teaches him to listen to the river which is eternal and ever flowing and reflects the entire cosmos:

  Siddhartha listened. He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. He felt that he had now completely learned the art of listening. He had often heard all this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices – the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life. When Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this song of a thousand voices; when he did not listen to the sorrow or laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om – perfection. “

Minor spoilers follow:

When Siddhartha stopped seeking he found himself. He realized that the essence already exists within us and is present in the world in the here and the now. We are not the body- not intellectual or emotional beings but divine souls and the divinity within us is one with the Absolute or the ” Brahman’, the ultimate reality of the universe, ( not to be confused with ‘ Brahmin’ with an ‘i”). The individual self must be discarded to realize the universal self. It is only when the arrogant Siddhartha gets rid of his ego that he experiences that transcendent state of bliss. Govinda who focuses on the long term goal of nirvana fails to live in the moment and misses the tiny signs on the way. There is this climactic and sublime moment when Govinda asks Siddhartha to reveal the secret and when he comes close to Siddhartha’s face, he no longer sees the face of his friend but other faces which all changed and renewed themselves continuously and yet they were all Siddhartha. He saw the faces of aquatic creatures and animals, of a murderer and his executioner, of a newborn, of men and women in the transports of passionate love and faces of Gods.

And Govinda saw that this mask-like smile, this smile of unity over the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneousness over the thousands of births and deaths – this smile of Siddhartha – was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha, as he perceived it with awe a hundred times. It was in such a manner, Govinda knew, that the Perfect One smiled.

 In the beginning of the post, I pointed out the confusion that arises from giving the protagonist the Buddha’s childhood name. Apart from the name, there are many parallels to the story. Buddha breaks from the Kshatriya  caste of princes and nobles and Siddhartha from the privileged Brahmin caste of priests and they each follow their own individual paths to salvation. Interestingly, the name Siddhartha in Sanskrit means one who reaches his aim or goal. According to Hinduism there are four ‘purusharthas’ or goals in life ; dharma ( right conduct ), artha ( material prosperity), kama ( desire) and moksha ( liberation). Each has its place in life but moksha or salvation is the ultimate goal for every individual. Both the Buddha and Hesse’s Siddhartha go through and survive the vicissitudes of life before reaching enlightenment. Siddhartha, the Buddha left his wife and child and Siddhartha of the novel leaves the pregnant Kamala unaware of her condition. But the most obvious reason for the name choice is that the Buddha and the Siddhartha are one and the same- there is no difference between them. Nirvana is the realization of this undivided wholeness – the oneness of the universe -when everything and everyone, saint or sinner, merges into one.

End of Spoilers

Even the structure of the novella reflects Eastern philosophy. Siddhartha’s journey represents the four traditional stages of life of a Hindu; that of the student, the householder, the forest dweller and the recluse seeking enlightenment. The book is divided into two parts consisting of four and eight chapters respectively, to represent the Buddha’s teachings of The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path. Indian philosophy can be metaphysical and esoteric and Hesse has simplified it in the form of a fable which makes it more interesting than reading a non- fiction account. It is a great read for anyone who wants to acquaint themselves with Buddhism and Hinduism. The language is poetic and lyrical, suited to the philosophical tone.

When I first picked the book, I was a little skeptical wondering if it would be dated and just another European’s exotic account of eastern teachings. There are nuggets of wisdom that I will be pondering over but what appealed to me most about Siddhartha is probably what also appealed to the hippie generation- it is a tale of rebellion and non- conformity. It is still relevant- for in an era of religious fundamentalism, cults, conversions and brainwashing, it is refreshing to read the story of a man who decides to think for himself and who carves his own spiritual path.