Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight

Having read The English Patient many years ago, I approached Ondaatje’s Warlight with an expectation of escapism, but not in the sense of escaping to mysterious places or futuristic backdrops. Quite the opposite. Warlight is set during the second world war and in the decade or so following it, periods of time much exploited by writers. Living in England, I’ve seen so many war films, series and documentaries on British television, it seems to be one of my remembered past lives. With this familiarity, I was gripped in the world of home front secret services and their accomplices drawn from some of the seedier elements of society.

This comfortable escapism also came about as it is set mostly in Suffolk, a county which shares part of its border with Cambridgeshire, where I live, and extends on to the North Sea coast. The villages and the coastline even today hold a feeling of remoteness embedded in the past. During the war, this coastal area was under constant fear of attack by the Germans, and while they were being secretly patrol by residents, the road signs had been removed in order to confuse any invading forces. I cannot imagine the sense of solidarity it must have brought to the local population, a shared purpose which the UK, even in the time of Covid-19 is lacking. While neighbours and friends are helping each other, the constant controversy over the easing and re-establishing of lockdown and the inconsistent messaging have stripped away any national unity. Perhaps Britain in the time of Warlight has filled a void for this reader.

The narrator in this story, Nathaniel, was 14-years old at the time his parents left him and his sister so that they could continue their work for the British government in Singapore. It is through his perspective that we experience these years and the emotions of being left in the care of their domestic servant and his group of criminal associates. Their activities appear to be in one line of work, but Nathaniel discovers later they were something else altogether, involving the defence of the home front. When his mother reappears, he is on the verge of becoming a young man and she is unwilling to reveal what she was doing for the government or the circumstances surrounding her now estranged husband. With some difficulty and amateur detective work, Nathaniel puts together some of the pieces of his mother’s life with what he has learned about the other characters.

Ondaatje gives his narrator the means to reflect on his ability to create these stories. He explains to the reader, ‘I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth. In retrospect the grains of sand had always been there.’

A great deal has been written in linguistics about how we create and present stories, both fictional and real. Reading this book, I was reminded of these constructs and the power of stories in our personal lives. They are not just about communicating ideas or entertaining a listener or reader. As Nathaniel explains, ‘We order our lives with barely held stories. As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken.’ For a casual summer read, this was escapism, but for this linguist, Warlight proved to be much more.

Reading Southern Gothic in the time of Black Lives Matter

While taking the knee is becoming a political statement de rigueur, I’ve been reading William Faulkner’s Light in August, set in America’s south in the early part of the last century.

It was impossible to read this novel without thinking about the stark differences in race relations between then and now. Along with the liberal use of the n-word, discrimination and violence against blacks was the unquestioned norm. Yet, at no point is the reader led to accept or even be dismissive of this world. It could have been written today with a liberal implied reader in mind.

One of the main characters, Joe Christmas, orphaned as a toddler, believes that he is of African heritage – his appearance is ‘white,’ but some characters say he ‘looks foreign.’ When background stories come into the fold, the reader learns that Joe’s biological father was of a mixed African-Mexican lineage. But given some unreliable narration, even this is uncertain. Nevertheless, Joe’s tragic life is shaped by his belief in his ‘tainted’ identity, along with the violence and cruelty of his childhood home, ruled by a staunch Calvinist. As a teenager, Joe runs away and becomes a drifter, unable to fit in with either black or white communities.

In a parallel storyline, another sympathetic character, Lena Grove, has also uprooted herself from her family home, where she was castigated for ‘being a whore.’ In contrast to Joe, she is not drifting but very much aiming for a target – the father of her unborn child with the naïve expectation that they will marry. Lena and Joe’s lives overlap without touching through the character of Joe Brown who works with Christmas (as he is often called) at a planing mill and later shares a house and moonshine business with him. Brown is also the drifter and shady character who made Lena pregnant.

With its interior monologues and experiments with narration, using multiple narrators, broken chronologies and some convoluted subplots, Light in August is categorised as modernist. It is a challenging read. But I found it worthwhile for its depth of characters and the ways it places extremes of human behaviour – racism and fanatical religiosity – side-by-side, exposing the irrationality and ability to destroy lives with hate that they have in common. Light in August 2

Although this story was written in 1932, it only has vague references to that time period and the decades leading up to it, and no precise year is ever mentioned. This helps to make the book feel timeless. Sadly, so too do the explorations of themes like racism.

Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers

Set on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s when it was a writers and artists’ colony, Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers has been my lockdown escapist’s treat.  The writing is delicious, a full-sensory experience of seeing the purple bougainvillea, inhaling the fragrance of the sea air and tasting the icy liquorice of the raki.

Borrowing from the true life stories of Hydra’s bohemian inhabits, the main story revolves around the narrator Erica, a new arrival to the island. Following the death of her mother, Erica, who’s in her late teens, and her slightly older brother have escaped England and their brutal dictatorial father. While her brother pursues the artist’s life, along with plenty of sun, sex and sand, Erica dabbles in writing and in her boyfriend. But she’s really on the island to talk to Australian writer Charmian Clift, who knew Erica’s mother. Charmian becomes something of a reluctant mentor to young Erica, scolding her for supporting her boyfriend’s creative aspirations over her own. In time Charmian recognises herself in this as she plays muse and literary coach to her husband George Johnson. Their real-life turbulent literary partnership is well documented.

A titillating subplot weaves its way through the narrative, involving a young Leonard Cohen at a point when he falls in love with Marianne Ihlen, who was on again and off again, though eventually separated from the artist Axel Jensen. Cohen and Ihlen’s relationship lasted many years, unlike most on this island of free-love, and has been immortalised by some of Cohen’s own poems and more recently by the Netflix documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love.

Sidebar: I’m not a Leonard Cohen fan. Can I say that without getting trolled? I like some of his songs and his poems even more, but I simply do not understand the cult-like adoration.

Back to Samson’s exhilarating and beautiful book. Ultimately, it is a meditation on creativity and relationships, showing how together they can take form, crack and break.

For writers interested in biography or fictions based on true lives, the acknowledgements at the end are worth reading. The author gathered materials from interviews, some on radio and TV, some of her own, pieced together with memoirs and other artefacts. Some of the characters’ dialogue comes from their actual words.

For you Cohen fans, I close on Cohen’s description of life in Hydra: ‘There is nowhere in the world where you can live like you can in Hydra, and that includes Hydra.’

Leonard Cohen with Marianne et al
Leonard Cohen, Marianne Ehlen (and her son), George Johnson and Charmian Clift. Photo by James Burke



A Dip into Biographies

Like many of you during lockdown, I’ve invaded my bookshelves to reread or finish reading books that have accumulated dust. Among these I uncovered a couple biographies. I had started reading Deidre Bair’s highly acclaimed biography of Simone de Beauvoir some twenty-five years ago when it first came out, but for some reason, I had abandoned it before the part where Simone meets Jean Paul Sartre. I’m past that part now and realise that this is a worthwhile read, especially since the author interviewed her subject on several occasions, something historical biographers can only dream of. Some of the best books I’ve read on the life of Shakespeare have been more about the socio-cultural and political context of the time than on the bard himself (such as works by  Anthony Holden and James Shapiro).

For me, the gems of these lockdown biographies can be found in biographical essays. I’ve recently read, from one of the musty half-read books on my shelves, an essay by Clive James on Mark Twain’s life as a journalist. Here you have the highly quotable James writing about the highly quotable Twain. Example:

‘Every subsequent American humour writer writes in the range of tones established by Twain. When Thurber says of his fellow economics student the football player Bolenciecwcz that ‘while he was not dumber than an ox he was not any smarter,’ he is in touch with Twain.’Biographies 2

Another biographical essay that’s come my way during the lockdown is from the New Yorker. Vinson Cunningham’s essay on playwright Lorraine Hansberry, best-known for writing ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ reflects on Hansberry’s life as a writer and political thinker, mixing biographical details with her writing output. Cunningham explains that when Hansberry discovered playwriting, ‘The theatre, with its urge to make the interior visible, and to force contradictions through the refiner’s fire of confrontation, was a perfect vehicle for her to develop both her politics and her art.’

Perhaps in their brevity, these essays have benefitted from needing to focus on one aspect or a certain time period of a person’s life. An issue I have with book-length biography and many a bio-pic is that they can suffer on trying to cover the full life, even the dull patches of childhood, in desperate attempts to explain how the notable person became notable. Clunky writing ensues.

When it comes to biographies, I’ve only dabbled in the essay form myself, including ‘Virginia Wolfe’s Teeth’ and an essay-type piece on C.S. Peirce for the Literary Encyclopedia. Even if the end product was small, writing such pieces was enlightening and gratifying. Despite having garnered no inspiration whatsoever from the lockdown itself, at least the circumstances have led to these stimulating pieces that make me want to pursue the biographical essay again.

Dear Reader, keep reading and stay safe.

Biographies 3
Lorraine Hansberry

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites

It’s a sad story that doesn’t make you miserable. Quite the contrary. I would even add it to the list of sad things that bring pleasure, up there with paintings by Edward Hopper and Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte.

Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites uncovers the life of Agnes, a murderess, sentenced to death in Iceland in the early 19th century. The illegitimate daughter of a poor servant, who abandoned her when she was a child, Agnes also enters a precarious life of service. The reader learns of Agnes’s early years in retrospect and interspersed with the novel’s present day, where the lack of prison facilities in sparsely populated Iceland means Agnes is sent to live with a local official and his family until her execution. The wife, Margrét, and two daughters, Lauga and Steina, take Agnes in as a matter of duty but grapple with their emotions, ranging from fear to fascination. During this time, Agnes is required to have her soul cleansed by the apprentice Reverend Tóti in preparation for her death, hence the title.

Despite the bleak setting, taking the reader from the short days of autumn to the even shorter days of winter, in a world where life is hard and death often brutal, this is a heartening tale, full of richly drawn characters and their inner journeys. The family and the reverend grow from their interactions with Agnes. As they share the harsh quotidian of rural life, Margrét and Agnes develop a sisterly bond. Reverend Tóti  soon realises that the fire and brimstone approach would never work with Agnes, who knows her scriptures as well as he does, and learns the power of listening and that much of what he thought was true was riddled with misjudgements and superstition.

While this book was first promoted as a kind of Scandinavian crime novel, the genre of historical fiction might be more accurate. This is based on the true story of the Illugastđir murders, with attention paid to the documents of record at the time and the detail of life among the Icelanders of that region. This includes the interesting fact that Iceland had high levels of literacy even in the early 19th century.

Some readers have compared this to Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace, whose fictional account of a true life murderess is set in Victorian Canada. In addition to the shared subject matter, both writers employ multiple narrators, where the first person account from the murderess stands in contrast to an omniscient third-person narrator, alongside other voices, such as those of poets and authors of official documents. Attwood’s use of this technique appears more forced and aesthetic, arguably pretentious in places with some of its textual choices. Kent’s retelling of an historical crime is more substance over style, a naturalism fitting the events and their time. Common to both novels is an awareness of the suffering of women for their intelligence. Attwood’s Grace conceals her intelligence to help her gain a pardon, while Kent’s Agnes is judged by officials as a clever woman thus capable of evil. I accept these depictions as true of their time (and to a lesser extent true today) – a sad truth, the type of sadness that is not pleasurable. As this point serves as a minor theme, the Kent book is nevertheless worth losing oneself in.

Burial rites 2
Painting by Icelandic artist Júlíana Sveinsdóttir – the type of image that came to mind while reading Burial Rites.

A Serial Killer Sister and Nigerian Fiction

In need of some dark comedy? Oynikan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer is, as implied in the title, comic, darkly comic at times. Yet, it’s not just comedy. I see it as dramedy, a character study that explores a sister relationship in a sexist and superficial world.

The narrator, Korede works as a nurse in a hospital in Lagos. She tells us from the start that her stunningly beautiful sister Ayoola is a serial killer. The reader might at first suspect an unreliable narrator faced with Korede’s nonchalance as she sponges up the blood, helping her sister to cover-up her third murder of a boyfriend in ‘self-defence.’ As the story develops, we see the plain but likeable Korede harbouring a crush on Tade, a doctor at the hospital, while Alooya enjoys the attention from social media once her latest boyfriend-victim is assumed to be ‘missing.’ Memories of the other victims mix in with a family saga involving the sisters’ recently deceased father, a brutish man and unfaithful husband. Korede’s dreams of being with Tade are scuppered when Ayoola drops by the hospital, turns heads and effortlessly charms Tade. This love triangle can only go one direction, and the reader fears that once again the gorgeous Ayoola will get away with murder.

Even though the story is set in Nigeria and is authored by a Nigerian writer, for much of my reading I didn’t see it as ‘Nigerian Fiction.’ The story could have taken place in any urban setting in any country. Its themes of sisterhood and womanhood are universal. The characters’ names and references to national food and clothing serve as subtle reminders that we are in Nigeria. One minor exception to this comes from the narrator’s memory of the time a wealthy tribal chief came to the family home with an interest in the beauty named Ayoola. Korede protects her sister and prohibits any possible union between Ayoola and the chief from ever taking place. This mini-story is more of a reflection than a subplot, but does serve as a reminder of the treatment of women in countries like Nigeria.Braithwaite

Braithwaite’s novel might not fit into categories used by literary critics to describe Nigerian fiction. It’s not Colonial, Post-Colonial, Liberation or Nationalism, thematic categories filled by Nigerian male writers and known mostly outside of Africa through the works of Chinua Achebe. I’d like to think Braithwaite’s modern story is not so much about being Nigerian as it is about being human, about familial relations and the objectification of women. Such themes have long been accepted in the blindingly white Western canon without the need to label a work by its nationality.

Dipping into British Herstory

In Bloody Brilliant Women Cathy Newman writes about one of my heroines, Gertrude Bell, with a couple of lively examples exposing male perspectives that has kept Bell out of the history books. In the film version of Michael Ondaatje’s fabulous The English Patient, there is a scene where British soldiers are examining a map, trying to find a way through the mountains. One says, ‘The Bell map shows the way,’ and the other replies, ‘Let’s hope he’s right.’ Newman remarks on this unconscious bias, the assumption that a map maker must be male, behind this scriptwriting. For me, the more astounding point is that this error went unnoticed and unchecked by the script editor and the director’s assistant as well and made it to the screen.

Having read some of Gertrude Bell’s travelogues and letters and having seen an excellent documentary-cum-docudrama about her, Letters from Baghdad , I was pleased by Newman’s find of a letter from Sir Mark Sykes (he of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved up parts of the former Ottoman Empire for the likes of Britain, France and Russia). Sykes wrote to his wife describing Bell as ‘a silly chattering windbag of a conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blithering ass.’ No need to deconstruct the misogyny here. Newman follows this quote with a simple ‘Wow!’ An example of the laid back journalistic style used throughout the book.

Newman’s version of herstory covers some familiar territory with Emmeline Parkhurst, Millicent Fawcett and accounts of women impersonating men in order to fight in wars. But it is well worth a read as the book explains the significance of these pioneering women in their pursuit for justice and equality given the socio-political and legal contexts of their time.

As much of my understanding of herstory is of a more international variety, I’m grateful to Newman for introducing me to a few personages that I would have otherwise missed, and who I now feel compelled to read or read about. There’s Dora Russell who championed contraception, recognising that childbearing wasn’t only controlling women’s lives, but also shortening them. Dora is otherwise known as the second wife of Bertrand Russell. And there is Claudia Jones, a journalist and activist, who founded the Notting Hill Carnival. I close with one of Jones’s most quoted remarks: ‘A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.’

Kang’s The Vegetarian and what it means to be different

It’s not just that Koreans are big meat eaters – which, yes, includes dog stew – it’s the extreme reaction to someone who doesn’t eat meat. I was often greeted with a blank stare, followed by a twist of the head and then a steely-eyed glare. Sometimes I would be asked ‘why not?’ ‘do you have an illness?’ By illness, I suspect they meant allergy. Eventually, I would fib and say ‘yeah, it’s like an allergy’ just for peace of mind. As a vegetarian who lived in Seoul between 1995 and 1998, I can relate to Han Kang’s award-winning novel, The Vegetarian, set in Seoul in the early 2000s.Korea vege 2 001 (2)

That’s not to say there aren’t any vegetarian dishes in Korea – the national dish, Kimchi, which can be eaten at breakfast, lunch or dinner is basically pickled cabbage and peppers. But too often at restaurants in Seoul, I would order a vegetarian side dish like kimchi but as a main dish, only to have it served with meat. I lost count of the number of times I’d ask for a vegetable soup, which would be placed in front of me with strips of beef surfacing to the top like pieces of driftwood. It turned out that the chef, seeing the white woman, assumed that I hadn’t realised that I hadn’t ordered any meat and had decided to do me a great favour. On occasion, a colleague would go into Korean on my behalf to explain to the baffled locals that I simply didn’t eat meat. At the time, there was no word in Korean for ‘vegetarian.’

In Kang’s novel, a young Korean married woman is terrified by a dream that causes her to become a vegetarian. Yeong-Hye’s conversion to vegetarianism isn’t depicted in anecdotes about the life of a vegetarian in Korea. This is a much more serious and complex story, where becoming a vegetarian, scandalous to her family, triggers a string of events that are dark, violent, sexual and surreal. The writing beautifully describes these consequences in patterns that develop into motifs and metaphors.

But the problem with Yeong-Hye isn’t so much her vegetarianism as it is her mental illness, even though the two are linked by the other characters. Once she is put into a mental institution, her husband leaves her. The reader is put into a position of wondering if the family’s reactions to Yeong-Hye’s eccentricities are what created her madness. This suspicion is heightened when her brother-in-law, a conceptual artist, also pays for his individuality and a brief extra-marital encounter with an arrest and an attempt to have him institutionalised. The vegetarian

Though it was a couple of decades ago, I do recall (and probably wrote about) a conversation I had with one of my Korean colleagues who spent many years in America. He explained to me that unlike Americans, Koreans do not celebrate the individual, the person who is too different. He said, ‘Same is good for us. Maybe…’ Korean’s use maybe a lot…’Maybe it is safe that way.’ Safe from what exactly was never explained, and after nearly three years there, I never figured it out.

For me these challenges to the individual were intimated in Kang’s novel, though another reader could legitimately see it as a struggle between traditional beliefs and a modern-reaching society.

Reminiscing about my time in Korea and coping with being a vegetarian there, I’m reminded of the ironic fact that one of the best restaurants in Seoul was the vegetarian one – the only one in those days. Run by a group of Buddhist monks, it was technically speaking vegan. The food was served on wooden platters with bamboo utensils to customers seated cross-legged on floor cushions. Writing about it now, I can smell the gentle aromas.  If you find yourself in Seoul, the restaurant is Sanchon in Insa-dong.

Atlas Shrugged and I Sighed

An advantage of writing a blog over a book review is that I don’t have to finish the book to write about it. Such is the case with Ayn Rand’s classic Atlas Shrugged. This philosophical/sci-fi/thriller/romantic fiction, written in 1957, is over 1000 pages. I got as far as approximately 300 pages (I was reading a Kindle edition) when I decided to press the home button and find another book.

With all the talk these days about Libertarianism, the name of Ayn Rand often comes up. The Russian-American philosopher developed the theory of Objectivism, which has influence the brand of right Libertarianism having some currency in the US. Rather than go on a philosophical tangent, I offer this image from the Objectivists’ website:

objectivism summarised

The other popular book by her is The Fountainhead, said to be a favourite of MP Sajid Javid (now Chancellor of the Exchequer), former US Representative Paul Ryan and – I know it’s hard to imagine him reading – Donald Tr**p.  All well-embedded in right-wing capitalism. I thought it best to stay away from that one given the current political climate – just another thing to get me angry.

In brief, Atlas Shugged is about the expansion of American industry, involving railways, metal mining, and steel production, to name a few. This is going on within plots straight out of romance fiction and thrillers, with a bit of a mysterious element to it. The science fiction label for this novel comes from the sense that this is in the not too distant future (for a 1950s readership). The enemy in this story is the government and its regulations on businesses.

I didn’t find the book particularly engaging at first. The prose is rather dry and the dialogue artificial at times, in the vein of 1930s film noir. But there was something a bit quirky about it that kept me going. The phrase ‘Who is John Galt?’ would pop up anytime a character was exhausted from talking about the state of the world. It clearly placed the novel in another time when idiomatic language has changed. I’ve discovered from reading proper book reviews by people who finished the book, I’d like to think, that John Galt becomes a main character two-thirds into the novel. Speaking of characters, I also liked that the main female character is a brilliant engineer and business woman named Dagny.

But even she wasn’t enough. My enthusiasm waned further when it became too obvious that this is one of these works of fiction which tries to espouse a certain philosophy. It explores reasoning and capitalism at the expense of good fiction writing. Too often characters engaged in speech-making and philosophising in otherwise casual conversational settings. It’s the old ‘show and don’t tell’ adage of writing. By contrast, some of the best philosophical works I have read have also been great works of fiction – Camus’ The Stranger, Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and Clarke’s Childhood’s End come to mind.

Perhaps this is just a third of a book review, but as a full blog its intention – or warning – is to inform writers on one way to lose their reader.

Thinking about Wolves

One of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had of late comes from a short book with a ridiculously long title – One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-first Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig.

The premise is a simple one – during a snow storm on the Polish-German border, a wolf is spotted heading towards Berlin. A motorist stranded in traffic takes a photo that soon goes viral. Written in a clear precise prose, reminiscent of Raymond Carver, the narrative is a patchwork of interlocking stories, the lives of characters who have seen or hear about the wolf.  This excerpt from a scene with a minor character shows the power of the narrative:

It was three o’clock in the morning when the woman on the balcony in Lychener Strasse stopped burning her mother’s diaries. She was standing in her coat and scarf on the balcony of her apartment. The two children hadn’t come back.

Then, down below, where Lychener Strasse ended abruptly with a fence, she saw a large dog, or as it seemed to her, a wolf.

Wolves in literature have had a mixed-treatment. In children’s tales, they represent evilness, consume children and grandmothers and where they are anthropomorphised, they are cunning. In other literary forms, such as Native American stories, wolves are seen as guardians, known for their loyalty to the humans, but who are ultimately savage and best kept at a distance. These characteristics have given wolves a cult status, emerging in kitsch posters and tattoos.Wolf 2

In Schimmelpfennig’s novel, which is more about people than wolves, the wolf is a solitary figure who comes into scenes of people’s lives, often at turning-points, touches them briefly and moves on. Is he a guardian? Or something that makes these characters think outside of themselves? At times, he is a camera lens of sorts, a narrator without a voice, taking the reader into the part of the story we need to discover next.

While the filmic structure of the storytelling and the appearance of the wolf lend themselves to parables, and indeed make this an enjoyable read, there is something deeper going on. That rests in the honesty of the narrator and the nature of the stories themselves – immigrants, runaways, characters broken by relationships and alcohol. To say more risks being a spoiler. I honour this short gem of a book with a short review.