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.

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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.

Light reading

I don’t do light reading very well. I’ve preferred challenging reads with engaging characters and creative (though not purple) prose for years.  As a teenager, I once picked up an Agatha Christie novel – I still recall the cover with an old-fashioned typewriter on it – hoping that it would be as good as some of the film adaptions I had already grown to love (I was a teen after all). About five pages in, I was bored rigid. It was simply too simple – the characters two-dimensional, the language too straight forward.

That incident was followed by decades of John Updike, A.S. Byatt, William Faulkner and the occasional dip into James Joyce. Added to this were some hefty works in translation from Dostoyevsky, Fuentes and Eco, to name a few.

A glutton for punishment? Quite the opposite. There’s an intense feeling of satisfaction that comes from working to understand a text – learning new words, decrypting the symbolism – while being entertained and moved by the story.

I’ve tried to lighten up over the years. When I was in the grips of insomnia, the doctor advised some light reading before bedtime. After I explained about Agatha Christie, John Updike etc., the good doctor offered a compromise with Jane Austen – reading that for modern audiences isn’t particularly light, and with well-developed characters, but which is more-or-less predictable, especially given the umpteen screen adaptations of each novel. It did help send me off to sleep. These days, I often have a non-fiction book by my bedside, such as travel writing or memoirs, that I can read in small bits without getting hooked into a red-eyed readathon.

To add to my light-reading credentials, I’ve read a lot of Marc Levy, described by many as a light read. The French call his books ‘romans des gares,’ train station novels, or ‘airport books’ for anglophiles. Levy’s works are light, but not simplistic. There are twists and turns and interesting sympathetic characters, but his books do read like rom-coms or thrillers, often with a dose of magical realism. Fine by me. But I probably wouldn’t be reading them in their English translations. Yes, dear reader, I tackle these light reads in French, which make them not such light reads after all, especially with the profuse colloquialism in the dialogues. I guess I can’t escape a challenge after all.

Of course, what’s ‘light’ for some might be ‘serious’ reading for others. There’s an element of subjectivity to consider. Or not – why even discuss the lightness or seriousness of books? This blog is usually about politics, literature, feminism, art and society. As I’m in the middle of several academic marking assignments and writing projects, perhaps I needed to convince myself that I could still engage in light writing.

Magical Realism, Women Writers and Brexit

I was not not not going to write about Brexit this week. I started out a few days ago writing on Jesmyn Ward’s moving novel Sing Unburied Sing. This was going to be about women writers of magical realism in honour of International Women’s Day – okay, a few days late as that was 8 March, but I was in Italy, where everything runs late.

Ward’s novel is set in post-Hurricane-Katrina Mississippi and is about a culture trapped in poverty that spirals into drug abuse, violence, imprisonment and broken families brought together by older generations raising their grandchildren. This grim narrative is lifted by tender moments between the children and between the grandfather and his grandson and by the writing itself. Often poetic in its descriptions, the story abounds with metaphors that run throughout its telling. I was also carried along in what was otherwise bleak by imaginative scenes that would place this work in the category of magical realism. At least for me. I haven’t seen this novel treated as magical realism in any review.

What is magical realism then? In literature (it’s also found in other art forms) it refers to fiction that is set in the real world, but has some magical or fable-like elements to it. It differs from Sci-Fi and Fantasy by being in a highly plausible world and one that the reader recognises, such as modern-day America. The magical elements in such fiction are understood by the characters to be real – that is not in dreams or hallucinations. Some well-known examples are the novels and short stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka and Salmon Rushdie’s’ Midnight’s Children.

Any online list on authors of magical realism tends to be a rather Y-chromosome affair. The exceptions are the odd book written by women writers, such as Allende’s House of the Spirits and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. There are plenty of women writers missing from these lists, including Ursula K Le Guin, who tends to be seen only for Fantasy, and Louise Erdrich, who gets lumped into Native American Literature.

Maybe these are just categories of interest to publishers and literary scholars, and ultimately they have nothing to do with enjoying such books. I accept that view. Yet, I wonder if magical realism has become a less-used category of writing because of the way modern readers are viewing the world around them. This is where Brexit reared its head. We live in an age of alternative truths and facticide, where magical thinking has become normalised.

Perhaps there is a danger in writing about magical realism while Parliament was once again voting against the government’s proposed Brexit deal. It appears as if a recurring dream, full of fanciful ideas and characters openly contradicting themselves with speeches of the sort found in Kafka’s The Castle. But we all know that these scenes are not from dreams or hallucinations.Brexit - next steps

The DRC: Another Chapter of The Poisonwood Bible

It’s hard to follow the elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo without a sense of disbelief coupled with exasperation. As I write, voting has ended, although millions have not been allowed to vote supposedly due to security issues and another outbreak of Ebola. While the votes are being counted, amidst rumours of fraud and both main parties claiming victory, Congolese officials have shut down the internet and SMS services. I feel as though I’m still in the storyline of The Poisonwood Bible.

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel is a heart wrenching and often humorous saga about an American family whose patriarch transports his family to the Belgium Congo to convert people to Christianity. Unfortunately for them it’s 1960, when the Belgians give the Congolese their independence after more than 100 years of oppressive, exploitative colonial rule, started by the notorious King Leopold II. The Price family, already having difficulties – many self-inflicted – with living in the Congo, become entangled in the hostilities against whites, while Belgium and American companies continued to have a stronghold on the rubber plantations and diamond mines. Tensions grow within the Price family following the death of one of the daughters and for the country after President Eisenhower had the CIA assassinate the first democratically-elected prime minister. The Congo becomes Zaire and the Prices split in several directions, some returning to America, others remaining in Zaire and elsewhere in Africa. All of them scarred for life from their time in the Congo.

The engaging narrative weaves together five monologues told by the four daughters and the mother. Each passage of monologue is marked by turns of phrase and the limited wisdom and naivete of each narrator. This made me think of my childhood growing up in America when I thought that Africa was a country prefaced by the phrase ‘starving people.’  Some forty plus years later, Africa is a continent and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a country still suffering under the weight of poverty while its mineral resources are now being drained by multi-national companies for use in high-tech industries. In the intervening years and since the publication of The Poisonwood Bible in 1998, the country has been through civil wars, outbreaks of Ebola and famine and large-scale corruption, essentially giving corporate sponsorship to territorial warlords. This week’s elections marred by violence and injustice are a testament to this oppressive way of life, but also to the resilience of its people.

This week as I watched television and read the newspapers, amidst the reports from the DRC, I saw the New Year’s fireworks and festivities at the usual places – London, Paris, New York, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Dubai, Hong Kong. But not one African capital. Our media coverage of world events makes Price family members of all of us.

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Last week, I visited Berlin with the intention of, among other things, dipping into the world of Cabaret and the writings of Christopher Isherwood. This might sound odd given that Isherwood’s Berlin was during the 1930s. But I haven’t been in this city since the early 80s, when I could only go to West Berlin, and I rationalised that the present day with a reunited Berlin might appear more like the days of Weimar Germany than my last visit.

We stayed in a hotel in the former East Berlin, with its 60s and 70s austere blocks of buildings and its wide roads, intended for tanks to topple any revolution. Aside from the timeless train stations and pillar boxes covered with posters, little else felt like Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher and his Friends or those iconic scenes from Cabaret. My imagination could have filled in the gaps if I hadn’t run up against a wall – the Berlin Wall, of course.

The remnants of the wall serve as reminders of the latter half of the 20th century and fears that the cold war would escalate into a combative war, or worse still, a nuclear war. My mind shifted far from the world of seedy night clubs and Sally Bowles. I was once again tainted by living in the age of Trump. With the reign of the 45th president, literal and metaphorical walls have become pervasive. While I write this, armed guards along the US-Mexican border have started using teargas against economic migrants and asylum-seeking refugees.  These acts seem that much more ludicrous in the knowledge that illegal crossings at this border are at their lowest since they peaked in the early 2000s (Source: USGov Border Statistics).

I’m reminded of a poem I first read as a child. Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall,’ pointed to the absurdity of such walls with obvious political metaphors:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.

The physical wall that Trump is trying to build has been drummed up with the president’s usual bluster and hate-filled rhetoric. More concerning to me are those other walls being built behind the scenes and not necessarily from Trump himself, but from the far-right that supports him and have been empowered by him. Again, I return to Frost:

I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

For Germany, and more importantly for western Europe, the tale has a happy ending. Not only did the wall come down – as ideological walls inevitably do – but it also helped to nurture the peace movement that continues in many forms across Europe today. One stretch of the old wall captures this spirit with paintings and graffiti.

As I return to life in France and England, I wonder what Christopher Isherwood, who became an American citizen and died three years before the wall came down, would have thought of all of this.