Klara And The Sun

Klara and the Sun is the latest novel of Kazuo Ishiguro and the first since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Regular readers of my blog will know that Ishiguro is among my favorite contemporary authors. I was eagerly looking forward to reading this book and unfortunately it left me a little underwhelmed. I didn’t have a great reading experience either with The Buried Giant, the book published prior to this one. I found it a laborious read and trudged along through the pages waiting for the novel to end. Klara and the Sun is not painstaking to read; on the contrary, it is fast-paced and a page turner. To me it seemed similar to Never Let Me Go; they are both sci-fi dystopian novels in a sense, and yet, I would hesitate to include them under any rigid genre categorization as they are also philosophical in tone and ultimately a meditation on the human condition and our existential plight. The same themes that we find in Never Let Me Go are rehashed and packaged in a new form in Klara and the Sun and although there are aspects to the book that are thought provoking, it falls far short of the former which packed great emotional force.

We are in an unnamed city in a futuristic world, albeit a foreseeable future. In a shop on a busy street, there are solar powered AF or Artificial Friends waiting to be sold. They are displayed in different areas of the store and get their turn at the coveted spot by the window to entice potential customers. Artificial Friends are robots created for the express purpose of providing children with guidance and companionship and to help them deal with their loneliness. They come programmed with a knowledge of many things. Yet they have very limited knowledge of the world outside. One of the AFs named Klara is different from the others. She is exceptionally observant and intuitive. She is purchased by a girl named Josie and moves to her house where she has to learn to understand her and the other adults of the house that include Chrissie, Josie’s mother and Melania, the hostile housekeeper. The only visitor is Rick the neighbor who is Josie’s childhood friend and current boyfriend. Josie is suffering from an unspecified illness which seems to be the consequence of being ‘lifted’. Her sister had apparently suffered from the same illness and died from it. Josie studies remotely at home on her ‘oblong’ with online tutors, an eerily timely detail in our post pandemic world. Other children are stuck at home too and have ‘interaction’ meetings arranged periodically by their parents where they learn to relate to each other.

There is all this new vocabulary thrown around. You wonder what ‘lifted ‘means and what an ‘oblong’ is. I actually looked up the dictionary in vain till I eventually figured out that these are invented words to describe this particular dystopian universe. An ‘oblong’ is something similar to an iPad or a smartphone. A child is ‘lifted ‘after having gone through the process of genetic editing which is an expensive procedure but popular with people of the upper classes to ensure that their children get into an elite university. Rick is not ‘lifted’ and due to his socio-economic situation he is doomed. We know that Josie’s parents are divorced and we learn that her father has been ‘substituted’ which means that he has lost his job and has been replaced by machines. Ishiguro does not explain any of these terms. He throws hints here and there and the mystery and suspense gradually build up. You know there is something sinister going on but have no idea what it could be. We are in a slow burn dystopia. Besides Klara is the narrator and we are seeing the world through her eyes and we have to piece together what’s going on through her limited understanding. As an AF her vocabulary is limited. I understand that a first person robotic voice would necessarily be devoid of elegance to fit the narrative, but I missed the beautiful prose of Ishiguro’s other novels.

Klara is convinced that exposure to the sun would help cure Josie of her mysterious illness. The sun assumes mythic proportions for her. It is interesting that Klara’s very name means brightness. Not only does she depend on the sun for nourishment and survival, she also endows it with divine energy and visits a barn which is almost like a pilgrimage place to make emotional pleas to the setting sun for Josie’s recovery. Robots have the same human propensities to pray and to bargain with the Gods. Klara with her caring nature and empathy, is humanized. She is programmed for servility and her unswerving loyalty and devotion to Josie remind me of Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day.

But on the other hand, we don’t forget that she’s a thing, an appliance. Rick’s mother, Helen, asks her: “After all, are you a guest at all? Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” She also reminds me of Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale but Offred was at least aware of her oppression. Klara has no idea that she is being used. She is obsequious and stands in a corner in the presence of other family members. She is often referred to in the third person. How fascinating then that an object of utility is more capable of unconditional love than Josie’s caregivers! The person who is the most human in the novel is not human at all. There are times we forget who she is and think of her as another human being but the illusion does not last long. For every so often the world becomes pixilated through her eyes devolving into cubes and cones and we are reminded that she is only a robot.  

Klara’s servility mirrors the racism and classism we see in the world. We dehumanize people below us and exploit them for labor. You can exploit those whom you love too like Chrissie whose maternal love is motivated by her own selfish desire. Chrissie was left bereft by the loss of her first daughter and doesn’t want to lose Josie as well. We know that she secretly takes her daughter for portrait sessions and there is something unsettling about the artist she has commissioned. Will Josie be saved? Will the sun listen to Klara’s fervent prayer? I don’t want to reveal more and spoil the fun for future readers.

The most interesting aspect of the book for me is that it makes us think about life and mortality and the ethical decisions we have to make with the advance of science and technology. Can a soul be manufactured? Can a human be replicated in entirety? My hubby laughs when I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to Alexa while giving her commands and reminds me that she has no feelings. But imagine a world where genetic editing is possible and where robots have feelings! What impact would such scientific progress have on division and hierarchy in society? Klara is just a product designed to be obsolete. She is a B2 model and there already exists a newer superior B3 model.

Is it far-fetched to imagine a time when artificial intelligence becomes so sophisticated that there is no demarcation between man and machine? Ishiguro portrays an alarming but a very possible futuristic world where no matter what scientific and technological advances we make, society will still be characterized by the same oppressive structures of race, class and inequality that will never be completely dismantled. This world, already disturbingly familiar, only becomes even more terrifying as we look into our future.

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents

As another year comes to a close, I reflect on the books that had the greatest impact on me in 2020. In the genre of non fiction, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson is the most powerful book I have read this year. The title itself piqued my interest. The premise of the book is that ‘caste’, a term traditionally associated with India, is a better word to describe racism in the US. As someone who has grown up in India, caste is not just a term I am familiar with, but something that has seeped into every aspect of my existence, knowingly or unknowingly. It is so deeply ingrained in the psyche that often people are not even aware of how they are perpetuating the caste system even if they openly and truly condemn it. In that aspect, caste is very similar to white supremacy and Wilkerson posits that African Americans in the United States are at the lowest rung in a hierarchy analogous to both the caste system in India and the Nazi rule in Germany. She claims that “Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste…. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”

One might wonder if these cross cultural comparisons have any merit for how do we compare 400 years of American history with 12 years of Nazi rule and 3000 years of a complex system of social stratification in India? The three share basic methods of subjugation and the underlying feeling of dehumanization is the same. So caste and not race is the lens though which we should view America, according to Wilkerson. It is not just a matter of semantics but a better framework to understand and analyze the inequities. Wilkerson says that Nazi Germany was inspired by American segregation laws and believe it or not, they thought the American system was too extreme. I have often wondered why people are only shocked by Nazis and their brutality when what African Americans endured as slaves was no less. Even the Nazis thought that determining the percentage of blood that made you black to be too harsh. It is only on reading this book I realized that there was no basis to the one drop of blood rule ( which even black people have come to believe- so deep is the brainwashing or rather whitewashing) and that theory was touted just to keep black people in their place.

Wilkerson delineates 8 pillars of caste that are common across the three societies and gives examples from each category to illustrate her point. Endomagy is one of the pillars of caste I found fascinating as a comparison. She equates the past ban on interracial marriages in the US to the control of marriage and mating in India where traditionally people married into their own caste. Alabama was the last state in the union to overturn the ban on interracial marriage in 2000, 33 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs Virginia that such laws were unconstitutional in all states. And yet, more than 40% of Alabamians voted against overturning it. Now, in the US and in India, legally you are allowed to marry any one you want. But only 10% of the population in India marries outside its caste and only 15% of marriages in the US are interracial. This number includes Hispanics and Asians as well. The percentage would be a lot lower if it were only blacks. Sadly, the figures speak for themselves.

Another pillar of caste that I found striking to compare is the emphasis on pollution and purity. Black people were considered impure and dirty just as Dalits who belong to the lowest echelons of the caste system in India and whose very shadows were once considered polluting and who often eat and drink from separate containers to this day. It was no different for black people till a few decades ago when they drank water from separate fountains and were not allowed to use swimming pools frequented by white people. Wilkerson cites the example of Al Bright, the only black child on the Little League Team in the town of Youngston, Ohio who was banned from using a swimming pool when his team went on a celebration outing. When parents and coaches protested, he was allowed to float on a raft without his feet touching the water, towed around the pool by the manager only after all the white kids had vacated the pool. This incident took place in 1951.   

The book traces the history of enslavement in the South from 1619 when the first Africans were brought to Virginia to the Civil War and subsequent period when the caste system was perpetuated through the Jim Crow South. Even after the abolition of slavery, the country found ways to keep black people subjugated. Wilkerson describes in detail discriminatory housing policies, unethical medical experiments and horrific lynchings where the white community would come to view the spectacle, collect body parts as souvenirs and send postcards of the event to family and friends. This was an astounding revelation to me for as a recent immigrant, I didn’t fully know or understand the extent of the horrors African Americans were subjected to in the past. I had always viewed America as the leader of the free world. But what a paradox then that the country that espouses the values of liberty and justice for all fails many of its citizens on just those counts? For unless the racism inherent in society is acknowledged and addressed, any claim to be the beacon of democracy rings hollow.

“Americans are loathe to talk about enslavement in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world. Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history, It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces.”  

We are loathe to talk about past horrors but events that happened long ago still color our thinking. The book depicts current realities too with the backlash to Obama’s election and the rise of Trump and Trumpism. Wilkerson believes that white voters vote against their own self interest when the power they hold is threatened for the reality is that in a few decades, they will no longer be the majority of the population. She goes on to ask this uncomfortable question: ”..if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” In the US, there is controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments whereas Germany has no statues or memorials to Nazi officers and looks back upon the Third Reich as a shameful part of its history. Americans not willing to dismantle monuments is emblematic of the larger unwillingness to dismantle the system.

Wilkerson lays bare some stark and painful truths about race relations with scholarly research and compelling personal anecdotes. She describes how she was viewed with suspicion while traveling business class. She was followed in the airport and questioned by agents on a car rental company’s shuttle bus and not one passenger came to her defense. Throughout the book she employs striking metaphors to drive home her point. She likens caste variously to the foundation of an old house, to a computer operating system, and to a staged performance. “Caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.”

There are some gaps in the arguments Wilkerson puts forth. She tends to view caste as a binary and has omitted the plight of Native Americans and other minorities and does not dwell much on how class operates within caste- for instance how do we explain the success of Asian immigrants in the US who are not white? Some of the comparisons of the treatment of African American to Jews seem tenuous too. The Nazis wanted to eliminate Jews and not dominate them while black people in the US and Dalits in India were needed by the dominant class for economic exploitation. 

In addressing the caste system in India, Wilkerson focuses mainly on Brahmins and Dalits but caste is far from a two tier system in India. It is an extremely complex dynamic whose definition is broader and more nuanced. There are four main castes or ‘varna’. Interestingly, the Sanskrit word varna itself means color indicating that originally skin color was used to determine place in a hierarchy. The four castes are Brahmin, Kshatriya,Vaishya and Shudra or the priestly, the warrior, the merchant and the laborer respectively and each caste is further divided into sub castes. Dalits once known as ‘ untouchables’ and whose work involves removal of garbage and animal carcasses, cleaning toilets and sewers, are the most oppressed group. They are even excluded from the traditional classification and form a fifth caste.

There could be more than 5000 castes and sub castes in India and often a subjugated group also subjugates in turn, those they perceive to be lower on the rung. Besides the caste system is not restricted to Hindus but is practiced in some form or other by Muslims and Christians too. Caste is not the exclusive domain of religion but has insidiously seeped into Indian culture. Wilkerson cites sociological research and discusses the activism of Dalit scholar B. R. Ambedkar but does not take into account current realities in India where the government has implemented affirmative action initiatives for the marginalized and where we witness the evolution of a rapidly growing Dalit political movement to fight caste hegemony and Hindu nationalism as they continue to be targets of lynching and rape.

Despite these shortcomings, the book is illuminating. It inspired me to do some soul searching about my own heritage and my complicity in keeping the machinery going. Call it unconscious or silent bias, in the end the discrimination whether in the US or in India is part of an underlying unspoken system of hierarchy. We have accepted this system and adapted to it. I naively believed that caste was not something that was all that prevalent in urban India where I grew up and was mostly confined to rural pockets of the country. I didn’t care what castes my friends belonged to or what last names they went by. Yet, I was guilty of not protesting when the domestic helpers drank water from separate glasses or were not allowed to use the bathrooms at home. Often in a high rise I would come across separate lifts- one for the residents of the building and one ‘ for servants and dogs’. I remember being shocked and angered by it but not enough to do anything about it. Not only do we need to have empathy but ‘radical empathy’, to borrow Wilkerson’s words, to bring about social change.

Caste is an eye opening book especially for those born into privilege who need to shoulder the responsibility for the inequities in society and work to eradicate the deeply entrenched social malady but the sad part is that not everyone is willing to open their eyes to the truth. Although the book ends on a note of hope, it is a long and tortuous road ahead. And there was a part of me that wondered despondently if it is truly possible to live in a world without any implicit hierarchy of race, caste or class!

The Goat Thief

Language is no bar when it comes to reading good literature provided one has access to excellent translations. I only have to think of all the Russian literature I have devoured without knowing a word of Russian. One area of literature that has remained relatively unexplored till recently is regional writing from India. The market is flooded with works by Indian writers writing in English but the rich range of works in local languages from India has only recently become accessible thanks to dedicated translators who have not only elevated translation to an art but have also made it an industry in its own right.

One such work that I read recently is a collection of short stories entitled The Goat Thief, written by the prolific Tamil writer, Perumal Murugan, and translated into English by N. Kalyan Raman. Set in rural Tamil Nadu, the stories paint a vivid picture of life in the countryside – the slow and languorous passing of the days, the sprawling rice fields under the scorching rays of the sun, mischievous children climbing up palm trees and the petty gossip of the villagers on the ‘pyol’. The everyday events describing family and village life sometimes take a dark and melancholic turn. It doesn’t take much for the ordinary to become ominous, the mundane to transform into the macabre.

In the Preface to this collection of stories, Murugan compares the art of writing a short story to designing a ‘kolam’ or floor art made with rice flour in many Tamil homes. According to him, it could be a simple design with just four dots by hand or a more intricate one but there is a geometrical pattern and if something is amiss, you fix the flaw by perhaps placing a flower on the design and you follow the same method with a story. Though his stories are very vividly described, I thought they were not developed enough. Murugan succeeds in creating an atmosphere of tension but there is no definite plot and the stories end abruptly. I am usually a fan of ambiguous endings. I don’t need all the loose ends tied up but I need something to work with. There should be some sort of a twist or an open ended conclusion at least. In my opinion, the ‘kolam’ pattern is left incomplete by Murugan in almost all of his stories.

Photo- Kolams of India Website

The stories are well-written and I was struck by the importance Murugan gives to inanimate objects. They are often anxiety provoking and they serve to define or explain the characters. They are endowed with human attributes and sometimes even with supernatural powers. In ‘The Well’, a grown man is having a delightful time swimming with a group of children but the story takes on a sinister turn. The well that ‘held a hoard of miracles within’, the well that was ‘full of compassion’ becomes a death pit. Even the innocent children turn into evil ‘demons’.

In ‘Musical Chairs’, an object becomes a bone of contention between a newly married couple. They have a peculiar attachment to a chair which the husband seems to monopolize and the wife insists on purchasing her own chair. He covets her chair too and what ensues is a battle of wills. In ‘Mirror of Innocence’, the parents and grandmother of a little girl are baffled by her constant sobbing in the middle of the night. She refuses to sleep and rejects all her toys. The parents finally realize that she is asking for a ‘uppu kundaan’ or a salt bowl which they use to scoop sugar. A worthless object becomes a source of agony for the child and her parents who pass a sleepless night. 

Murugan seems to have a strange fascination with excrement. Yes, shit. There are two stories in this collection dealing with the subject. He even penned an entire collection of stories centered around shit entitled Pee Kadaigal ( funnily, the Tamil word for shit is ‘pee’.) or Shit Stories and in the Preface he mentions that the book is often not included or mentioned in the list of books authored by him at literary meetings as people are embarrassed or outraged by the title and theme. I did not find the topic revolting as such but as his descriptions are so striking, I had a hard time controlling the urge to throw up. I could literally see and smell the shit while reading.

In ‘The Wailing of a Toilet Bowl’, a newly married lady is bothered by the foul smell emanating from soggy rice fermenting in the large vat of left over food in the kitchen. Yet she doesn’t reduce the quantity in her cooking in case unexpected guests show up. Her husband solves the problem by pouring the contents of the vat into the toilet bowl. Literally the rice is deposited in shit. The toilet bowl shrieks, screams and howls with hunger pangs every day in anticipation of the left over rice and becomes an insatiably hungry beast. It even assumes the shape of a skull. The lady is so frightened that the toilet or her ‘adversary’ would gobble her up that she doesn’t go to the bathroom when her husband is not home.

Then there is a story entitled ‘Shit’ about five bachelor men who live in a house in a remote suburb enjoying their independence. A horrid stench enters their rooms. The pipe from the toilet to the septic tank had broken in the middle and a shit heap has accumulated at the back of the house.  A sweeper is willing to remove it for 500 rupees but they are annoyed and bargain with him despite his protest: “ I have to put my hand in your shit, sir.” It is heartbreaking to see this man from a lower caste viewed with disgust and treated with derision when he is trying to solve their filthy problem. A tumbler that was a coveted object becomes one of revulsion when handled by the sweeper. This is a powerful story about caste dynamics and the best and the most complete in the collection. Murugan may have a penchant for writing scatalogical stories but unfortunately I don’t fancy reading them despite their brilliance: they are described in such graphic details and are so visually powerful that I could literally feel and smell the shit in a visceral way. My poor olfactory buds were protesting vehemently. Again, in the shit stories, the toilet bowl and the tumbler are objects imbued with symbolic meaning.

Many of the stories have a supernatural element. There is a sense of foreboding in the air. In ‘The Night The Owls Stopped Crying’, the night watchman in a farm house hears that a ghost of a young girl gang raped and killed resides on the property. He believes he senses her presence and starts having conversations with her.  

The stories also capture helplessness and the feeling of being trapped physically. In the title story, ‘The Goat Thief’ when Boopathy, the thief, realizes he is being pursued for stealing a goat, he jumps into a torrent of sewage water-  he is surrounded by all sides by the villagers and escape is impossible. There are thickets of sedge grass and snakes and insects in the water and he gets trapped in a patch of quicksand. His legs are buried deeper and deeper in the mire.

The remaining stories are snapshots of village life in Tamil Nadu. Whether it is the account of an old woman entrusted with the responsibility of looking after her great grandson in the summer or the incident when a grown man regresses to his childhood by playing with young children in the well or the story of an old man with a thatched shed who is tormented by jealousy on seeing a younger man build a house with a tiled roof, Murugan brings the bucolic countryside to life on every page.

The stories are evocative and awaken all our senses. They capture the local color very effectively. As an Indian and specifically as a Tamilian, I could relate to a lot of the cultural elements as observed in the behavior of the characters- applying holy ash on the forehead, praying to the local clan Goddess and believing in the power of the evil eye. The stories have a folktale feel to them- I can imagine them being narrated in the village square in front of a banyan tree. The translator has done an excellent job retaining the flavor of the original idiomatic expressions.

The stories were engaging but I felt they could have been developed further. They also did not resonate that much with me as I felt they were a little androcentric. I understand that they are penned from a man’s perspective but I think Murugan could have focused a bit more on the women and their issues. In some of the stories, he hints at the sense of loneliness and displacement felt by newly married women in their new homes. I wish he would have dwelt a little more on that subject. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to start with a collection of his short stories. Perumal Murugan is a prolific writer in all genres and most well known for his novels. I should get hold of one of his novels next for I have a feeling that the ‘kolam’ pattern may then turn out to be not just beautiful and intricate, but complete.

 

 

 

 

Olive, Again!

When you get old, you become invisible. It’s just the truth. And yet it’s freeing in a way…You go through life and you think you are something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something, and then you see that you are no longer anything.– Olive, Again

Oh Godfrey, our crotchety and cantankerous Olive is back and it is a pleasure to visit this old friend again, who, in the interim, has become even older and a tad wiser. Olive Kitteridge left us with a widowed Olive, estranged from her only son Christopher and enjoying a budding friendship with fellow senior citizen, Jack Kennison. You can read my blog post on Olive Kitteridge here: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/olive-kitteridge/

The dreary quotidian life of this retired high school math teacher resumes in this new book, Olive, Again which I wouldn’t call a sequel but a continuation for it picks up where Olive Kitteridge left and has the same flavor as its predecessor. The only difference is that the considerably older Olive suffers a lot more loneliness now and is faced with the frightening and impending prospect of death. She is still the same old opinionated and outspoken Olive who has retained most of her ‘oliveness’ but seems just a little more mellowed by life.

The structure of the new book is pretty much the same like the previous one- a series of stories or rather snapshots of life of the residents of the fictitious seaside town of Crosby, Maine, pivoting around the protagonist Olive, who, at times, only makes a passing appearance. These interconnected vignettes depict the ordinary lives of ordinary people who go about their humdrum lives and routines with aplomb but struggle and hide their sadness behind masks. In the course of the book, Olive Kitteridge ages from her seventies well into her eighties, becomes widowed twice and moves to an assisted living facility.

What do you do when life throws curveballs at you? The stories are about people struggling with alcoholism, infidelity, suicide, illness and the painful complexity of relationships. To add to those problems are the inevitable indignities of aging- from the nuisance and embarrassment of incontinence and buying adult diapers furtively to facing a decline in faculties and physical mobility and dealing with the ensuing isolation and depression. When Olive consoles Cindy Combs who is battling cancer, she says: “You know, Cindy, if you should be dying, if you do die, the truth is—we’re all just a few steps behind you. Twenty minutes behind you, and that’s the truth.” It’s not a matter of if but a question of when and what we can do to live our last days with as much dignity as possible.

Olive marries Jack, a former professor at Harvard who was kicked out on allegations of sexual assault. Along with the humiliation, he is now grappling with guilt for having cheated on his deceased wife. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander too. He is suddenly faced with the crushing realization that his wife cheated on him too. Olive herself admits that she had an ‘almost affair’ while married to Henry. Whether they cheated or were tempted to cheat, they still love and miss their former spouses. And that’s the beauty of the novel-it addresses all the grey areas and paradoxes of life. Olive and Jack are both grieving their spouses and come together in their loneliness. It is never too late to love even if age has taken a toll on their bodies- even if Jack admits that being with Olive was like ”kissing a barnacle covered whale” and even if he is mortified by his own expanding and very conspicuous girth.

Both Olive and Jack try to repair their fractured relationships with their children. The homophobic Jack comes to terms with his daughter’s sexual orientation. In “The Motherless Child”, Christopher visits Olive with his wife Annabelle and four children, in an attempt at reconciliation. Olive tries her best despite some uneasy moments and is frustrated that the grandchildren are not warming up to her. She overhears Ann call her a narcissist. Ann has recently lost her mother and Olive wonders if she herself raised a motherless child. She has become more self aware and introspective and confronts her own imperfections. Yet when she is hospitalized later, Christopher visits her so frequently that the doctor remarks that she must have been a very good mother to him, leaving Olive confused and unconvinced.

Olive has the capacity to make you laugh and to break your heart too. At a ‘stupid” baby shower where she shows up without a gift and is annoyed by the tacky modern rituals of youngsters, she helps a woman deliver her baby in the back of her own car. Olive visits Cindy Combs who is suffering from cancer and craves company. No one visits her out of awkwardness or fear. But Olive shows up and is there for her. In “Heart”, she suffers a heart attack and befriends two of the nurse’s aides who take care of her; Halima a Somali girl who lives in the nearby town of Shirley Falls where Somali refugees have settled and experience xenophobia and Betty, a Trump supporter who gets on her nerves. Olive is very kind to Halima and in spite of her political differences with Betty, she feels compassion for her when she hears that she has carried a torch secretly for Jerry Skyler all her life and wonders “the way people can love those they barely know, and how abiding that love can be, and also how deep that love can be.” And even Olive felt this love for Betty despite the bumper sticker on her truck.

In the end it all comes down to the power of connection- feeling heard and emotionally supported by another human being.When life doesn’t make sense, these bonds give a meaning and purpose to it. And sometimes you make the discovery that there are kindred spirits. Cindy Combs and Olive realize that they both have a similar appreciation for the February light in the winter sky. In “Helped”, Suzanne Larkins is adapting to the death of her father and is plagued with guilt over an affair she had. Her mother who is suffering from dementia makes a devastating revelation. She reaches out to her family lawyer Bernie Green in a moment of tenderness and they discover they have a lot in common. In “The Poet”, Olive has lunch with a former student Andrea L’Rieux who has become the Poet Laureate and who depicts Olive and her loneliness in a poem. Even if it is not a flattering image, Olive recognizes that:  “Andrea had gotten it better than she had, the experience of being another.”  

   After being widowed again, in her assisted living facility she befriends Isabelle Daigneault, a character from one of her previous novels, Amy and Isabelle and it is touching when the two ladies come up with a schedule of checking on each other twice a day to make sure they have not fallen dead or fainted in their rooms. Characters from other novels like The Burgess Boys put in appearances reinforcing the idea of a community of familiar people, that not only Olive bumps into in town but that the reader encounters again like a long lost friend.

 There are two stories that add a discordant note to the collection. In “Cleaning”, Kayley Callaghan, an eighth grader cleans house for Mrs.  Ringrose and regularly unbuttons her blouse for Mr. Ringrose in exchange for money. There is a hint of pedophilia and I can’t imagine a young girl enjoying doing this for a much older man. In “The End of Civil War Days”, a  daughter reveals to her estranged parents that she is a dominatrix and is going to star in a new documentary. One wonders why Strout felt compelled to add these two stories considerably different in tone from the others and in which Olive hardly plays a role.

The new book is very similar to the first one. Her creator herself exclaims: “That Olive! She continues to surprise me, continues to enrage me, continues to sadden me, and continues to make me love her.” Olive is unabashedly and unapologetically herself- a curmudgeon. The only difference is that “that old bag, ‘that pickle’ is just a little bit softer and reveals a vulnerable side to her. She has positively impacted students who still remember her little nuggets of wisdom. We’ve all encountered Olives. And who knows, maybe we have a bit of her within us too?

There is sadness pervading the whole work with little rays of hope here and there like the sunlight streaming in through the windows which seems to be a cherished leitmotiv in Strout’s works. Life is hard and we can only make it bearable seeking those few evanescent moments of love and connection and reveling in the beauties of nature. The beautiful cover with falling leaves illustrates the impermanence of life. Life is enigmatic and ephemeral just as each passing season in New England and the only thing we can do, to borrow the words of Suzanne Larkin in “Helped’ is “To bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.”

 

Olive Kitteridge

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Olive Kitteridge is a book that has been lying neglected on my bookshelf for years. I had always meant to get to it as I had heard a lot about it and it had even won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. I finally read it as I wanted to read the recently published Olive, Again which is not technically a sequel, but I thought reading Olive Kitteridge first would get me acquainted with the eponymous character. I have to warn you that it is not the best book to read during a global pandemic. In one word, it is DEPRESSING! 

Olive Kitteridge is a collection of thirteen disparate short stories set around the mundane lives of the residents of the fictional New England coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a grumpy retired school teacher who features in some form or the other in every story.  In some stories, she is the main character while in others she is a peripheral presence or just mentioned in passing. The structure is disjointed and the stories are not in chronological order. They span decades in the life of our protagonist- from middle age through old age- first as wife and mother, eventually caretaker of her husband who suffers a stroke and finally as a widow. More than stories, these are vignettes weaving a tapestry of senior life with its small town gossip, banal routines, simple joys and profound sorrows. If there is one overarching theme, it is loneliness…loneliness despite the presence of others. The reader is the voyeur who has a window into the unremarkable lives of these unremarkable people. 

Olive lives with her husband Henry Kitteridge, a pharmacist and her son Christopher, a podiatrist. She loves them both but she is unable to express her affection and treats them rather brusquely. In fact, she is a curmudgeon who is loud, aggressive and unkind to everyone in town. “She didn’t like to be alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people.”

She has a sadistic streak to her. In A Little Burst, on the day of her son’s wedding, she overhears her daughter- in- law Suzanne discussing her with a friend. In a fit of rage, she steals Suzanne’s shoes and bra and ruins her cashmere sweater and this surreptitious act is her ‘little burst of happiness’. In the story entitled Tulips, Olive visits Louise and Roger Larkin who lead a reclusive existence after their son was implicated in a murder. The visit is not that of a friendly concerned neighbor or even one prompted by morbid curiosity. She visits them in order to feel better about her own life. Louise is on to her and accuses her thus: “ You came here for a nice dose of schadenfreude, and it didn’t work.”

 How can a reader commiserate with such an intimidating and irascible woman? The stucture of the book is interesting as we get to see how Olive is perceived by the different residents of her town. As I come to know her better, I see her in a new light. People are complex and I was quick to judge Olive just as she is quick to judge others. She is capable of empathy for behind that mask of a cantankerous woman lie sadness, insecurity and fear. She is moved by the plight of an anorexic girl and bursts into tears:

Olive shook her head again, blew her nose. She looked at Nina and said quietly, ‘I don’t know who you are, but young lady, you’re breaking my heart.’
‘I’m not trying to,’ said Nina, defensively. ‘It’s not like I can help it.’
‘Oh, I know that. I know.’ Olive nodded.

  And she, very profoundly, adds: “We are all starving.” 

There aren’t too many older women depicted in fiction and it’s refreshing to get a peek into the autumn of life. We forgive Olive for although she is flawed, she is human. We feel sorry for the immeasurable loneliness she experiences in the emptiness of her home after Christopher moves away from her physically to California and then to New York and drifts apart emotionally too and when Henry is at a nursing home and after he dies. Along with Olive’s increasing self- awareness, the reader’s empathy and understanding deepen too. We learn later on that though Olive and Henry loved each other, they both had secret crushes on other people and were aware of it but didn’t talk about it. The truth is that there are a lot of Olives and Henrys around us, starved of attention and affection. 

On the surface, the residents lead a quiet life but delve deeper and you realize that the specter of death hangs over every story. Just like Olive, death is an omnipresent force that inserts itself insidiously in every story and in every uneventful life. Olive’s father had committed suicide and she herself has contemplated it on occasion. In Incoming Tide, Kevin Coulson, sits in his car near the marina, on the verge of taking his life. And then there are other sorrows like having a son imprisoned for stabbing a woman twenty nine times, finding out that your husband was unfaithful on the day of his funeral and being jilted at the altar by your fiancé. 

Life is difficult. And sometimes it is unbearably difficult. This is the human condition. In the midst of all the sorrow, there are a few moments here and there that provide a ray of hope like the sunlight that comes streaming in through the window slats of a dark home- a motif that recurs in this work. Ultimately, humans seek connection in a lonely existence, to make life slightly less unbearable. Olive, after the death of her husband, meets Jack Kennison and finds a new purpose in life. It is never too late to love. Lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies are as needy as young, firm ones, Olive thought : “But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union-what pieces life took out of you.”  

 Like Olive, the novel is not without its flaws. A Different Road stands apart from the other stories as its plot is implausible, in contrast to the stark realism of the other stories. The fact that Olive stops with Henry at a hospital to use the restroom and is forcibly examined by the nurses and that men armed with guns show up and hold them hostage seems too far fetched. This is the only ludicrous story in an otherwise brilliant collection. 

 There is a distinct New England sensibility to the work. The people reflect the weather and its moods, Yet, this small town is a microcosm of the larger world outside. We all inhabit this suffocating world and are familiar with its alienation to some degree. The beauty of this ‘novel in stories’ is how Elizabeth Strout with her lyrical phrases infuses the prosaic lives of these residents with poetry. 

 If I could paraphrase this book in one or two sentences, I would say: Don’t grow old along with me. The worst is yet to be. That’s how distressing it is! I certainly don’t look forward to growing old after reading Olive Kitteridge. Now on to Olive, Again. But before picking up that book, I need something lighter in the interim like a humorous Sophie Kinsella or a feel good romance novel. 

 

 

 

 

 

Flight Behavior

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Cluster of overwintering monarch butterflies in Pacific Grove, CA.   Photo Credit: Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History

” Just as the butterfly, I too will awaken in my own time. ” ~ Deborah Chaskin

I am mesmerized by monarch butterflies. They are charming creatures whose iridescent wings remind me of stained glass windows in an old church. More extraordinary than the graceful beauty of these winged wonders, is their unique phenomenon of migration. In North America, they overwinter east and west of the Rockies, in the mountains of Central Mexico and the central coast of California, respectively. It is amazing that they make the trajectory to the same destination where previous generations of monarchs have congregated, without ever having been there before. It is simply programmed in their DNA. Apart from the biological marvel of migration, their metamorphosis is a great symbol and inspiration for poets and artists.

I recently visited Pacific Grove in California, which is the winter migratory stop for hordes of monarch butterflies. Until recently, it was a veritable mecca for the monarchs. Now their numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate. While I was at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary there, a lady noticed my enthusiasm for the butterflies and suggested I read a book called Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. I hadn’t read any book by her although I had always been meaning to read The Poisonwood Bible. On my return, I immediately checked out the book from my library. Flight Behavior is a wonderful work of fiction which also addresses the pressing issue of global warming which results in migration collapse of the monarchs.

Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman who lives in the fictitious Appalachian town of Feathertown, Tennessee, is fleeing from her husband and family and is on her way to embark on her first extra- marital affair when she encounters a ‘miracle’ on the mountain where she is supposed to have a tryst with her would- be lover. She accidentally stumbles upon “a sea of orange fire”. The woman who was ready to take flight from her marriage is stopped in her tracks by this dazzling vision and returns home in a daze. She only realizes later that what she saw were millions upon millions of monarch butterflies. They were supposed to overwinter in Mexico as they usually do but instead take up residence on the Turnbow property in Tennessee, a site that could prove fatal to their survival. The locals interpret the off -course migratory pattern of the butterflies as divine intervention and Dellarobia, the witness to this supernatural phenomenon, returns, much to her surprise, to unexpected fame both in town and in the media.

As soon as I started reading the book, I was captivated by the poetic descriptions. Butterflies are beautiful creatures and Kingsolver endows them with even more beauty with her lyrical language which is as enchanting as the monarchs her protagonist happens upon:

“The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountains seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange glaze.”

“Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something. She could save herself.”

I was also intrigued by the unique name of the heroine- Dellarobia. Its meaning becomes clear as you read the novel. Dellarobia is a bright young woman leading a life of drudgery as a poor sheep farmer’s wife. Her husband Cub is a dull, unimaginative and passive man. They married at a young age due to an unexpected unpregnancy which subsequently resulted in a miscarriage. They probably wouldn’t have married otherwise. They stayed married and went on to have two more children, Preston and Cordelia. Cub is a decent and devoted man who cares about Dellarobia and their children. Yet she is unhappy as they are not compatible. Her in- laws who own the farm are struggling to keep it going. She maintains a cordial relationship with them but they have never warmed up to her. Her mother- in- law Hester is cold and sarcastic to her. Her only confidante and support is her best friend Dovey.

Dellarobia is a stay at home mother which “was the loneliest kind of lonely in which she was always and never by herself.” She has a roving eye and seems to be attracted easily to other men. She has had a lot of crushes but has not acted on them. How she longs to escape from the small town life, the gossip and the poverty!

Into her confined world, enters a charismatic African- American lepidopterist by the name of Ovid Byron who bears a likeness from his charming personality and erudition down to his initials to a former President although Kingsolver insists that any resemblance is fortuitous. He shows up in town with some post graduate students to study the erratic behavior of the butterflies and stays on the Turnbows’ farm. He sets up his RV in Dellarobia’s backyard and converts a sheep shed into a lab. Dellarobia herself is eventually hired to work on his project and her world view widens. Needless to say, our protagonist who has a propensity to develop crushes is immediately attracted to this young, intelligent and educated man. Along with giving her explanations about the behavior of butterflies, he also gives her butterflies in her stomach and makes her heart flutter.

Ovid Byron is the spokesperson through whom Kingsolver, who is a biologist herself, expounds her thoughts on climate change which could lead to the potential extinction of the butterflies. The only drawback to the novel is that at times Byron seems to be pontificating on the horrors of climate change which gives the novel a didactic and almost text book feel to it like it were a lecture from Biology 101.

Most of the people in the small town are suspicious of scientists. The locals interpret the vagaries of the weather as being in the hands of Providence. Biblical metaphors abound like Dellarobia’s Moses- like vision on the mountain and the massive floods reminiscent of Noah’s Ark to explain the people’s beliefs. There are two distinct worlds- the rural and  the God fearing community rigid in its views and the urban and progressive one aware of the dangers of climate change and Dellarobia bridges the two worlds. People who live paycheck to paycheck couldn’t care less about the environment. There is a funny and ironical moment in the story when an environmental activist reads out from a list the different ways to lessen your carbon footprint. Although ignorant about science, Dellarobia and her neighbors are so poor that they don’t really even have a carbon footprint.

Dellarobia is willing to leave her children and run away with someone. She seems flighty and impetuous, ready to ruin her reputation as good wife and mother but at the same time she is a caring and responsible wife and mother. These are inherent contradictions faced by every woman. Some act on their impulses or are close to acting on them while most of them carry on in their constrained and unhappy lives.

Dellarobia like the butterflies is undergoing a metamorphosis of her own. Dr.Byron is the catalyst to this awakening but does he reciprocate the ardent feelings Dellarobia has for him? Will this shepherdess in southern Appalachia leave her husband and move on to greener pastures? Will she burst forth from her cocoon in a blaze of glory and spread her wings? There is a moving scene towards the end where she appreciates her husband and knows that he will always be there for her. You feel sorry for him as he is a good guy. They are two decent people who just happen to be wrong for each other. There are two small plot twists at the end that I did not fully anticipate and that enhanced my reading pleasure.

I found this book fascinating as it addresses the larger issue of climate change within the smaller human dramas of family life and relationships. It asks two important but distinct questions: Do we as human beings have a responsibility towards our planet? Does a woman have a right to lead a fulfilling life and to indulge in her own ‘flight behavior’? It makes us ponder over them with the metaphor of the monarch butterfly which brings the two together. And what results is a brilliant novel as bedazzling as clusters of amber and onyx butterflies hanging from trees!

 

 

 

 

The Testaments: The Sequel To The Handmaid’s Tale

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I read The Testaments, the long- awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale and one of the joint winners of the 2019 Booker Prize vowing that I would cut the author some slack as sequels are seldom as compelling as their predecessors. Just think of Go Set A Watchman which was published decades after To Kill A Mockingbird, one of America’s most beloved classics and fell far short of the public’s expectations. One would have hardly imagined at the time of the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 that the dystopian fantasy would end up being prescient of the current political turmoil.

With the rise of the Christian Right and the misogyny in general of all organized religions, the novel has turned out to be hugely prophetic. In fact, in political rallies you often see activists dressed in the red cloaks and white bonnets of handmaidens to protest bills that would restrict abortions. The handmaid’s costume has also become a powerful symbol of the Me Too movement. Many women showed up in Washington donning the habit in protest of the swearing- in of the Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh.

The Handmaid’s Tale also resulted in a tremendously successful television series adaptation on Hulu ,which, incidentally, seems to have influenced the writing of the sequel. So Margaret Atwood had a lot to live up to and in spite of allowing for this latitude, I was still disappointed as the new novel which transports us once again into the totalitarian theocracy of the Republic of Gilead has an entirely different tone and structure from the original.

The Republic of Gilead portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale was founded on a literal and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible and emerged after the collapse of America in a society that witnessed a drop in fertility due to environmental reasons. Consequently, in this despotic society, women became prized for their fertility.

They were placed into strict classes with barely any prospects for mobility: the Wives or the spouses of the high-ranking commanders, the Marthas or servants, the Handmaids or former sluts forced into childbearing for other couples, the Pearl Girls or the missionaries, the Jezebels or the prostitutes, the Econowives or the wives of less wealthy and less powerful men, the Aunts or the moral guardians of the society who were the only women allowed to read and write and the most dehumanized of them all, the Unwomen or women like nuns and lesbians who could not perform any of the roles delegated by the patriarchy and were sent off to the colonies or forced labour camps where they died exposed to toxic levels of radiation.

Women were considered vessels and treated as chattel and often the Aunts and Wives were complicit in the oppression of their own gender. In the end and in their own way, both fertile and barren women were devalued and debased.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of one such woman told by a first person narrator threading together narratives from the past and the present. Offred, who has been stripped of her name and all her civil rights has forcibly been separated from her husband and daughter to become a reproductive surrogate. The Testaments picks up approximately 15 years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale when the pregnant Offred gets into a van and goes either on the road to freedom or to be arrested for treason. The novel ends on a ambiguous note and a lot is left to the reader’s imagination.

In The Testaments, the separate stories or testimonies of three different women come together in a three part narrative. We have the first person account of Aunt Lydia whom we remember as the cruel matron and moral guardian of Gilead and whom we had seen only from Offred’s perspective. The vicious and dreaded aunt who trains and indoctrinates the future handmaids in the role of the narrator we least expect is a brilliant move by the author. “I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woollen mitten…And I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch..”, she quips.

We delve into her past and Gilead’s emergence through her diary entries which she is recording for posterity and understand some of the difficult and duplicitous choices she had to make, her interactions with the other founder aunts which involved a lot of scheming and backstabbing  and how she eventually made her way to the top.  She is the mastermind that sets in motion the downfall of Gilead.

We also have the accounts of two teenage girls; the story of Agnes Jemima, a girl who grew up in Gilead and Daisy a girl who grew up across the border in liberal Canada. Daisy is raised by overprotective adoptive parents who end up being murdered under mysterious circumstances. After their death, she gets involved in the resistance movement despite herself and travels to Gilead. Agnes is raised by a loving foster mother in Gilead who succumbs to an illness and dies and is miserable when her Dad remarries a disagreeable and cold woman. She is about to be married off to a commander but on discovering that her birth mother was a handmaid, she sets out on a new path.

Both girls are on a quest to find themselves and their paths cross with each other’s and that of Aunt Lydia’s. It is interesting to see the contrast between Gilead and the life across the border in Canada. Organizations from both countries are working to lure or rescue the girls across the border. The weakness in the narrative structure is the fact that both girls have such similar voices that I could barely distinguish the two of them till more facts became evident.

The book is an entertaining page turner but the shift from the dark claustrophobic tone and setting of the original to an action- packed Hollywood style entertainer is jarring and robs the original novel of its seriousness and sobering message. Many of the plot twists seem predictable and hackneyed such as the revelation of Baby Nicole’s identity and that of the mother of the two teenage girls. I don’t even have to worry about revealing spoilers as I could see them coming a mile away. Yes, the book is that shockingly predictable.

While The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary tale, The Testaments ends on a note of hope. Although it is heartening to know that resistance is always possible and that tyrannical regimes do collapse, some questions are best left unanswered, some tales best left untold.  The Testaments doesn’t have the same bone chilling effect of its predecessor. The Handmaid’s Tale left me with a feeling of disquietude and despair. I shuddered with disgust and indignation. In short, I was shaken to the core.

The most frightening epiphany is that Gilead is not altogether dystopian.The story doesn’t feel dated or far-fetched. The novel is chillingly resonant in the current political climate characterized by the control of women’s bodies and reproductive rights. The character of the handmaid has crossed over from the realm of fiction to reality as symbol of dissent. Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer. The Testaments is a well- written and absorbing read.  I only wish she had left The Handmaid’s Tale as a stand alone novel. It would have been even more impactful and powerful like Orwell’s 1984.

Atwood has definitely shaken us out of our complacency that such events cannot transpire in our little worlds. Gilead exists in some pockets of society in every corner of the world. In some regions, women are banned from reading and writing; they are stripped of literacy, the ultimate instrument of empowerment. In other regions, they are not allowed to work, denied of their economic independence. All over the world, their bodies are objectified and subjected to violence, their voices silenced and stifled. In such an environment, things can escalate out of control in the blink of an eye. We only have to be reminded of Aunt Lydia’s ominous words:” You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Bluest Eye

 

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I recently read an article about a homeless woman sentenced to five years in prison for using her friend’s address to enroll her son in school. And last week I heard that a rich actress who cheated to get her child to college got away with just fourteen days and community service. Needless to say, the poor homeless woman is black and the rich celebrity is white. Racial discrimination is rooted in a long history of oppression that continues to this day in mostly covert but shockingly, on occasion, in overt ways too. Literature is a safe space for black people to express their grievances and angst. Ever since I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ve been drawn to narratives chronicling the experience of America’s ‘free’ but still bonded people. When I heard about the recent demise of Toni Morrison, I started reading the books penned by her that I hadn’t read yet. I wanted to read her in chronological order to follow her development as a writer and began with her debut novel, The Bluest Eye.

Set in Lorain Ohio, the author’s childhood home, the story begins with the perspective of a young girl Claudia who bemoans the fact that no marigolds bloomed in the fall of 1941. She adds that they thought it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds didn’t grow. Pecola’s father had dropped his seed in his own plot of black dirt and just like the seeds shriveled and died, so did her baby. What? In the beginning of the novel itself we are told that Pecola is going to be impregnated by her father and that her baby is going to die. What a punch to the gut!

At that point I wanted to put the book down. Actually I wanted to fling it away. I can handle pretty much any topic but incest and pedophilia are where I draw the line. Yet I persisted. The lyrical writing pulled me in. Besides I wanted to know what happened to the child. How did she cope and did she emerge a survivor? The defeated narrator declares: “There is really nothing more to say- except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” We already have the facts. We just learn the details as we move along.

Through different perspectives in a series of flashbacks, we learn about the events that led to the tragedy. Two young black girls, Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, live with their parents in Ohio. For a brief period they take in an eleven year old girl called Pecola Breedlove ( notice the ominous name) who comes from a troubled household. Her father is often drunk and her parents are physically and verbally abusive to each other and to her and her brother Sammy. She considers herself ugly and is perceived as hideous by her own community. She believes that if she were to have blue eyes, she would be pretty. If there is anyone more vulnerable than a black girl in our society, it is an ugly black girl.

But how exactly do we define ugliness? Eurocentic standards of beauty have been touted as ideal as a result of widespread colonialism and people who don’t live up to those ideals are conditioned to believe that they are inferior:

“You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. . ‘Yes,’ they had said, ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.”

Claudia feels anger towards the image of Shirley Temple, the quintessential pretty American child, staring at her from a blue and white cup and in a fit of rage, she dismembers her white doll. To be white is to be beautiful is the message screaming at her from billboards and magazines. There are very few white characters in this novel and they only appear in the periphery. The racism Morrison describes is internalized racism emanating from self-loathing. The book was inspired by a conversation she had with an African-American girl at elementary school who wished for blue eyes.

What prompts an Indian girl to stay out of the sun, a Nigerian girl to use skin whitening creams, a Chinese girl to consider eyelid surgery or an African-American girl to hide her naturally textured hair and go for hair straightening treatments? They have internalized all the messages of hatred they have heard throughout their lives. Even actress Lupita Nyong’o confessed that as a child she wished that she were not so ‘unbeautiful’!  It was not uncommon for me to see a dark-skinned girl in India treat someone who was darker with the same disdain she faced from someone who was lighter skinned. It is a vicious circle and this issue of ‘colorism’, ‘shadeism’ or ‘whitewashing’ or whatever else we may call it is far from black and white and is prevalent world wide across all races and cultures.

There is a character named Geraldine who calls herself colored as opposed to black as if color were on a spectrum. She thinks she is more cultured than other people of her race. Her son is not allowed to play with other black children. She unjustly accuses Pecola of killing a cat and calls her by a nasty racist epithet. A picture of Jesus on the wall looks down on this scene with sad and unsurprised eyes. Even God is helpless and unable to intervene. You would expect her to commiserate with people of her own race but her inferiority complex makes her treat with condescension people who are less powerful than she is.

One unforgettable scene that will stay with me forever is Pecola’s mother consoling and comforting the white child of her employer with affectionate words while she beats her own daughter for a minor accident. She is projecting everything she hates about herself on the little girl. In fact, just about everyone in town is guilty of doing it:

All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us–all who knew her–felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used–to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.” 

The inexorable passing of the seasons marks the progression of the plot but the narrative structure is disjointed as the point of view shifts continuously from character to character. There are different third person narrators and narrative insets by other characters in the first person. For me the most compelling part of the narration was observing the story through the eyes of another innocent child, Claudia. I wish Morrison had retained this structure for the entire story but the shifts in perspective may be to make us comprehend the behavior and motivations of the characters. She is not condoning their actions but wants us to understand what makes people who they are. In the afterword to the novel, she remarks in hindsight:

“My solution–break the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader–seemed to me a good idea, the execution of which does not satisfy me now. Besides, it didn’t work: many readers remained touched but not moved.”

Pecola’s parents led terrible lives too. Her mother escapes from her loneliness and her poverty by cleaning a white woman’s house. Vendors respect her when she shops for her white employers but she is invisible as a black woman. Pecola’s father was abandoned as a child and experienced sexual humiliation at the hands of white thugs. There is no excuse whatsoever for sexual assault and violence but could society have prevented this rape? If only the world had been kinder to these people dehumanized by society, maybe..just maybe Pecola wouldn’t have ended up being raped.

The Dick and Jane reading primer used in the forties and fifties in classrooms to teach students to read serves as a framing device to show the difference between what is considered the ideal family in America and the chaotic and uncertain world the girls live in. The Dick and Jane booklet of a happy and financially stable white family contrasts with Pecola’s dysfunctional family. Morrison uses the simple words of the text to show how a family disintegrates. As she shares passages from the texts through the course of the novel, the words are strung together in a smaller font, without punctuation and then without spaces between words. Eventually the grammar and sentence structure fall apart.

This is an excellent and hard-hitting first novel but it is definitely not for the faint of heart. I can see why it was banned in schools but I think it would fit well in the curriculum with To Kill A Mocking Bird and Why the Caged Bird Sings and can engender powerful conversations on race with older and more mature students. Through the intersectional prism of class, race and gender, we understand the complexities of power imbalances. Frieda is a black girl too and has an experience with someone touching her inappropriately but her parents who belong to a higher economic class protect her and throw the lecherous man out of the house.

I was curious about what happened to Pecola after the disaster. The girl who so yearned to be noticed is noticed alright but not in the way she wants and with devastating consequences. In her desperate longing for blue eyes, she seeks the assistance of the creepy Soaphead Church, a con artist and pedophile masking as a man of God, and eventually retreats into her own private world.

Children are the most powerless members of society. Pecola’s parents had failed her, her friends had failed her and the entire town had failed her. The novel ends on a note of despair. The soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers which will never bloom. But despite the despondent tone, one hopes that some progress has been made over the decades and that we can confidently state that maybe some marigolds will bloom after all in spite of the unyielding earth.

 

 

 

 

The Vegetarian: A Meaty Book

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Daphne becomes a tree- Artwork by Arthur Rackham

As a life-long vegetarian, I was immediately intrigued by The Vegetarian, the title of the three part novella written by South Korean author Han Kang. The story set in modern day Seoul recounts how all hell breaks loose in a family when a young woman makes the sudden and irrevocable decision to become a vegetarian. But the book is not a treatise arguing the merits or ethical considerations of a plant based diet. Vegetarianism becomes a metaphor for personal choice and rebellion against the patriarchy. It’s a book about the violence and brutality women experience at the hands of different men in their lives when they challenge the status quo and the heavy price they have to pay for non -conformity. One could easily substitute vegetarianism with any act of defiance but I think vegetarianism is an apt and powerful analogy to highlight the vile and base nature of human beings not just in regard to animals but towards their own species. The book was rather unusual and unlike any other book I’ve read but it was spellbinding and a page-turner.

After a blood-soaked nightmare triggered by a repressed childhood trauma, Yeong-Hye decides to become a vegan much to the consternation of her husband and the rest of her family. The structure of the book is tripartite; each part narrated from the perspective of a different family member. The first part recounts the story from the husband’s point of view and is written in the first person. The second part viewed through the lens of Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law is written in the third person and the third part is in the third person too but written from the sister’s frame of reference. In short it’s a woman’s story presented through the viewpoint of others. Although it would have helped to know the inner workings of Yeong-Hye’s mind ( which is only revealed in sporadic dream fragments), concealing her thoughts is an ingenious narrative device to bring home the point that her voice has been stifled. I found the changing of the narration from the first person to the third person to be slightly jarring but apparently these three parts were distinct stories that eventually coalesced into one novel.

The Vegetarian–  Mr. Cheong cannot come to terms with the fact that his compliant and submissive wife has started behaving strangely. And in Korea, deciding to stop eating and cooking meat is considered strange behavior. In fact he had married her for she was an ordinary and unremarkable woman- a non-entity who posed no threat to him. All this self-absorbed and uncaring man can think about is how the decision will affect him and his social life. Her family is not considerate either. Her father slaps her twice and forcibly feeds her meat which results in her grabbing a knife and slitting her wrist for which she is hospitalized. She spirals down a path of self-destructive behavior as she eats less and less and shows more and more signs of mental illness.

Mongolian Mark–  Yeong-Hye’s brother- in- law is an unsuccessful video artist who becomes obsessed with the idea of painting flowers on her naked body and filming her having sex. His fetichistic interest that slowly turns into a pornographic fantasy was triggered on hearing his wife say her sister hadn’t outgrown her Mongolian birthmark from childhood. While at first you wonder if he is showing empathy towards his sister- in -law, it becomes clear that he is using her in pursuit of his artistic vision and to give a boost to his flagging career. She is the characteristic woman who is depicted as passive to the active male gaze.

This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated … what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented.

The concept of the male gaze in the visual arts was developed by Laura Mulvey, the feminist film critic in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” who posited that Hollywood films depict women from a male point of view -in other words the male gaze is a sexualized way of looking that objectifies the woman. She was influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan who had delved into the concepts of  ‘Schaulust’ or the pleasure in looking and ‘scopophilia’ or deriving sexual pleasure from looking at nude bodies and photographs. In the end the male gaze reinforces the patriarchy. The brother-in-law is also taking advantage of a mentally ill woman irrespective of the fact that she consented to be his model. There is undoubtedly an underlying imbalance of power.

Flaming Trees- Through the eyes of In-Hye, we witness the slow disintegration of Yeong- Hye who goes from being a vegan to an anorexic and we learn about her childhood and the abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father. Her husband divorces her and her parents and brother abandon her. She is diagnosed with mental illness and hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. The only one who shows sympathy and takes responsibility for her care is her sister. I was moved by In- Hye’s account of her sister’s descent into madness and how she reflects on her own life choices and wonders if she was a coward compared to her sister:

Though the ostensible reason for her not wanting Yeong-hye to be discharged, the reason that she gave the doctor, was this worry about a possible relapse, now she was able to admit to herself what had really been going on. She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there…

Gradually In-Hye herself starts showing symptoms of mental illness and has suicidal thoughts, leaving the reader with the sobering thought that men are alike in their callousness and women in their misery.

Slowly as Yeong- Hye starts withering away, she expresses the bizarre desire to transform into a tree. I found echoes of both Kafka’s A Hunger Artist and The Metamorphosis in the novel. The ‘kafkaesque’ heroine is undergoing a metamorphosis of her own. The trope of the woman turning into a tree is an archetypal image that can be traced back to antiquity. In the Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid recounts how Daphne, the nymph of Greek mythology entreats the river God Peneus to turn her into a tree so she can escape Apollo’s sexual advances. The woman is safer as a tree in a vegetative state and in a non-human form. It is a defense mechanism to protect herself. A man leaves her with no choice than to regress and efface. As Yeong-Hye withers and wastes away she also becomes more taciturn. Her body, her voice and her mental faculties are all shrinking and becoming invisible.

This is a unique book with a lot lurking beneath the surface. Some people have explained it as an allegory of the political unrest in South Korea but I interpreted it to be a dark depiction of patriarchal hegemony. This book is graphic conjuring phantasmagoric images and the reading experience is visceral and hallucinatory, reminiscent of surrealist paintings. In less than 200 pages, it tackles serious issues like family dysfunction, gender relations, marital rape, body image, eating disorders, voyeurism, mental illness and suicide ideation.

Indeed, The Vegetarian offers us a lot to chew on. ( And yes, I have an affinity for puns however trite they may be!) Originally published in 2007, it won the 2016 Man Booker Prize after Deborah Smith’s translation made it an international success. Much as I was glad to have read the brilliant book, I found the utter despair without a flicker of hope or any chance of redemption difficult to digest. I confess that once I finished the book, I had to rush to read an Agatha Christie mystery to get rid of the bitter aftertaste.

 

My Life in Middlemarch: A Bibliomemoir or Biography?

Middlemarch

There are books that remain with us throughout our lives-books we return to time and again for solace and guidance. But wouldn’t it be hard if you were asked to pick a single favorite? I could name 10 or 12 titles that I love and that have touched me deeply. But it would be impossible for me to narrow down my list to one choice. That’s why they say that asking a bookworm to pick a favorite book is like asking a mother to pick a favorite child. Not for Rebecca Mead, a staff member of the New Yorker who has no trouble in professing a preference. For her it was just one book that had such a lasting impact on her- the nineteenth century novel, Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life, written by the English author George Eliot. She has been fascinated with the book her whole life, has re-read it many times and has written a bibliomemoir entitled My Life in Middlemarch detailing her journey with the novel, her affinity with the author and how she can relate to the characters and experiences delineated. In the beginning of her book, Mead makes this profound observation about reading:

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.

Mead’s perception of Middlemarch changed with age and maturity as the book helped shape her life through its various stages. But the book is not a primer on Middlemarch. Read it only after you’ve read the novel otherwise you’d be lost. I read it as a companion piece to Middlemarch right after I finished reading the mammoth novel.

I have to admit that I trudged through the first few chapters of Eliot’s sprawling novel numbering almost 900 pages and divided into eight books. I was familiar with George Eliot’s Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss from school days. I’m not one to be daunted by the size of a book. I’ve read the likes of Proust and Tolstoy. It wasn’t the size but the tedium of the first few chapters. There were too many characters and plots and an omniscient narrator with a didactic authorial voice with moral asides and digressions. But I was determined to persist as Middlemarch is widely believed to be among the 100 best novels of all time and I’m glad I did. The first three books were ponderous but once I started Book 4, I couldn’t put it down.

Eliot understands life in all its complexity- what we have on display is the full panorama of provincial life in Victorian England with piercing insights into human nature. Eliot highlights the preoccupations of the middle class- marriage, money and morals and skillfully captures the frailties and foibles of her characters. It is a vast canvas and a study of manners in the 19th century in the manner of Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine which also served as an inspiration to Eliot.

Virginia Woolf made the astute observation that Middlemarch is “…The magnificent book, which with all its imperfections, is one of the few English books written for grown-up people.” While a Jane Austen plot commences with a romance and courtship and ends with a marriage and a happily ever after, Middlemarch starts off with the idealistic Dorothea Brooke’s disastrous marriage to the scholarly and much older Edward Casaubon and continues with the equally idealistic Dr. Tertius Lydgate’s troubled romance and subsequent disappointment in marriage. Eliot dauntlessly subverts the commonplace tropes of Victorian novels. There are no characters that are inherently good or evil ; they are all flawed and human and therein lies the beauty of the novel. Each and every character evokes the empathy of the reader. I can understand how the book influenced the way Mead viewed life and how each reading left her with a new perspective. I am determined to revisit the book this year itself as it is the bicentennial of its publication and to re-read it slowly to savor the exquisite writing and reflect on the psychological insights.

Mead’s book is part memoir, part biography and part literary criticism. She dwells on George Eliot’s unconventional life and loves, her break with orthodox Christianity, how her writing developed and how she was perceived by her contemporaries. She was shunned by family and friends for her scandalous relationship with George Henry Lewes who was married to another woman and had a family. The book also details her emotional attachment to Herbert Spencer, the philosopher who believed in ‘meliorism’ and her marriage to John Cross, a man twenty years her junior who on their honeymoon in Venice jumped from the hotel window falling into the Grand Canal.

The book is replete with interesting details about Eliot’s personal life.  Eliot was renowned for her uncomely appearance lacking in feminine charm. In a letter to his father, Henry James described her thus : “She is magnificently ugly — deliciously hideous. She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth, and a chin and jaw bone qui n’en finissent pas (never-ending)… But there was

George_Eliot_by_Samuel_Laurence
Portrait of George Eliot by Samuel Lawrence, circa 1860

something disarming about her intellectual radiance for he continues to say,  “Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a few very minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced blue-stocking.” The most fascinating tidbit for me was learning about Eliot’s epistolary relationship with a Scottish fan, Alexander Main, who had a stalkerish obsession with her and even wrote a book entitled Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings of George Eliot reducing her literary lines into pithy aphorisms. Eliot seemed to have been flattered by his idolization and even encouraged the relationship.

Mead first read the book when she was seventeen. She grew up in a provincial setting not too different from the fictional Middlemarch and like Dorothea yearned to pursue her ambitions and make sense of her life.  And like the heroine of Middlemarch, she has a relationship with an older scholarly man. She compares her parents’ stable marriage to that of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth’s loyal relationship. Not only does she find parallels with the characters but also with Eliot and her life. Eliot thinks of Lewes’ three sons as her own and Mead herself marries a man who has three sons whom she adores. I felt this was the weak part of the memoir. Some of the links she establishes with her own life seem tenuous and although she provides us with juicy details about Eliot’s life, she doesn’t disclose much about her own which seems so lackluster compared to that of the author she reveres. I would say that a memoir is somewhat of a misnomer for this book and it would fit better under the genre of biography.

What I did enjoy was discovering a kindred spirit- an avid reader whose love of the written word shines through every page. She frequents libraries and book stores poring through manuscripts- she delights in reading lines changed later by Eliot and analyzes how they would have altered the import of the plot. She spends hours looking through Eliot’s notebook in the rare book collection of the New York Public Library and embarks on literary pilgrimages to Nuneaton and Coventry to inhabit the world of her idol. I also found Mead’s excessive admiration of Eliot endearing when she jumps to her defence for all the criticism she faced from her contemporaries for both her personal and professional life.

Mead’s book illuminates her own life along with Eliot’s and shows us how the fictional world collides with the real world. Life imitates art just as art imitates life. It added a new dimension to my understanding of George Eliot and Middlemarch.  I thought about my own favorite books and what they mean to me. What a beautiful feeling it is to connect with a writer from another time and space and equally beautiful it is to connect with a fellow bibliophile from another time and space!