08 August 2011

Weekly Book Review: "An Object of Beauty", "Ocean Roads", and "Season of Migrations to the North"

Short this time - not much pleasure reading, since I am deep in some year-long projects in three of my classes.

An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin

Yes, it's that Steve Martin. It's pretty surprising that he has found a reserve of talent in himself even beyond his considerable skills as a comedian and actor, but this is a pretty good book.

It tells a very simple story about Lacey, an ambitious young woman who enters the art world by working at Christie's auction house. She eventually moves from seeing the paintings as "objects of beauty" to seeing them as "objects of value." She's a very simple character, not written very complexly, but with a quality of Gatsby about her.

The novel was less interesting for its actual story than for the intriguing look into the world of art collection. The more sallow elements are explored, such as the goofy eagerness of collectors who want to impress everyone - friends, visitors, and even the people selling them the paintings. The grungy workhouse of Christie's basement is contrasted with its glamorous upper floors; in the one, they crank through B-list work as quickly as possible and try to offload it onto various rubes throughout the world, while in the latter they strut with unbearable pretension but just as much avarice.

The writing is well-done, though we don't connect very emotionally with Lacey or the narrator. They're both just guides - the narrator guides us around Lacey and does a lot of telling to make up for the lack of showing, and Lacey guides us around the dysfunctional world of art as she takes her predictable course towards degradation.

It's a good book; check it out.

Ocean Roads, James George

Sometimes it's interesting to see the process a writer took to reach their final product. That's why scholars and critics spend a lot of time picking things apart: it's not just what you can take from a book that can be fascinating. It's also how it was made.

At the best of times, you can cut to the heart of some drivel and pull out the unwitting hidden thoughts of a bad writer, or you can trace the delicate stitches that a great writer used to pull together his final shining work. These best of times let you glimpse into another mind and see the lows and highs of which writers are capable.

At the worst of times, you just see a factory. Machines humming, inserting themes at regular intervals, re-arranging chronology mechanically, and clamping things down with literary devices like lumps of slag.

Reading Ocean Roads was the worst of times.

Did you see what I just did there? I took that last sentence, which would ordinarily have been the conclusion of the previous paragraph, and set it carefully aside in its own paragraph. This makes the reader unconsciously absorb what he just read and then move on to the next thought, which is actually a counter-punch that uses the full weight of an extended metaphor.

Ocean Roads does this.

A lot.

This isn't a bad technique. I use it a lot myself and there's nothing wrong with it. But in the hands of James George, it becomes a thick thudding metal-stamp, slamming down to leave an imprint: *stamp* THIS IS IMPORTANT. *stamp* THIS CHARACTER IS SAD. *stamp* PROFOUND REALIZATION JUST OCCURRED.

This wouldn't even be worth mentioning, except that the rest of the book is written with the same sort of mechanical assembly. Set predominantly in Auckland, it tells the story of three generations of a family touched by the nuclear age. The grandfather worked at Los Alamos, the son gets cancer from radiation exposure, and the mother was a child of Nagasaki. Possibly the most glaringly obvious choices that could have been made to emphasize a nuclear theme.

You will be familiar with many elements of this book way before you read it. You know the story of the war-scarred Vietnam veteran, the remorseful scientist, the survivor of a bombing. They're old stories and heavily-used. You know, without me even telling you, that the Vietnam veteran saw innocent children being killed - he tried to stop them and save the kids, but he couldn't!

These parts came off a shelf somewhere, ready-made, and are slotted into place by the author. A buzzing yellow mechanical arm comes down and stamps down the seams.

Stamps them down.

And then it's on to the next part. The book leaps around chronologically, of course, probably because there's a checklist somewhere that includes that instruction. And the themes! Holes are drilled and themes are inserted all over the place!

Light is a theme. One character is always shooting pictures, another is looking through a scope, another is a physicist talking about the properties of light, and so on. Someone regains their sanity when they see a scrap of dust suspended in a beam of light. There's a discussion about how radiation is actually just light. It's endless, and it thunders down like a jackhammer.

Ocean Roads is painfully mediocre. Competently but mechanically written, it offers the reader no story they haven't heard, no thoughts they haven't had, and it's presented in a way that's the same as a thousand others. Skip it.

Season of Migrations to the North, Tayeb Salih (trans. Denys Johnson-Davies)

Before launching into my review of this book - which ranks as a serious masterpiece - let me pause for a note on translation.

Translation is seriously under-appreciated. Taking a book and putting it into a new language is a hugely creative act that requires judgment, aesthetic sense, and an intimate understanding of the source. For most readers, your translation will be the only exposure they will ever get to the original text, and that is a great burden when it comes to a great work. And the end of this labor seldom yields much money or fame. So Deny Johnson-Davies, one of the most lauded translators of Arabic, deserves some part of the praise herein. It's impossible how much, but I want to acknowledge that there is an oft-overlooked collaboration at work here.

So Season of Migration to the North is pretty famous in western criticism as one of the most notable works to come out of Africa, and within the Arabic community Sudanese Tayeb Salih is probably one of the most famous writers of the past century. His stuff is in many collections of Arabic short stories, and when he wrote his novel Season of Migration to the North, it was immediately and widely hailed as a great work.

Unfortunately, many critics seem to place it as just a response to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and little more. And it is definitely a rewriting of Conrad, but to leave it at that would miss a lot. There are numerous other preceding narratives that Salih is referencing, as well as building a strong story of his own. And there are some singular images that are superb and that will stick in your soul.

That's not to say that Conrad isn't a big part of the conversation that Salih want to have. Salih doesn't have quite the beef with Conrad that Chinua Achebe famously expressed ("offensive and deplorable") but Salih definitely wants to build his tower from Conrad's stone. It's important to recognize that. But it's not the only quarry in town.

I don't often do this, but I would like to urge you to pause here and read this book, before the rest of the review. It is truly a great work, and I wouldn't want to diminish it for anyone with foreknowledge.

Season is the story of a man who comes back to his hometown in the Sudan after seven years in Europe. The narrator - we never learn his name - is smug and proud of his accomplishments, having earned a doctorate and seen the world. But soon he discovers that a newcomer to his hometown has also been to the west. Mustafa Said is the newcomer, and in an intriguing visit Said tells a part of his own story: how he too had earned a doctorate and in fact become a famous instructor and teacher of poetry at the London School of Economics, and how he had stood on trial for driving enraptured white Englishwomen to suicide, and how he had returned to try to find a new life.

Said's story lasts until dawn, though he tells only a short part of it. The narrator and he will never meet again, because Said dies during another one of the narrator's absences in the first third of the book. And so begins a growing obsession, one that will eventually threaten to consume the narrator.

This is a planned trap by Mustafa Said, a man whose fierce intelligence and manipulation were matched only by his deep-seated anger. Said designates the narrator as guardian of his two sons to draw the man in. And it isn't long before the narrator becomes snared. He becomes eager to learn the rest of Said's story, and he falls in love with Said's widow.

At the end, there is a confrontation of the narrator with himself, and he makes a choice. He swims into the river.

Halfway across, he finds he can go no further, and yet does not call out for help. He is stuck halfway between the south and north banks, unable to go forward or go back. He feels himself being drawn under. He cannot find the answer to the horrors forced on him by Said. Without an answer, he is unwilling to live.

This is the primary plot of the novel. It's a strong story, and it is written with a sparse delicacy that is marvelous to behold. The characterization is flawless and uncompromising, unafraid to face cliche and overcome its limitations. In another book, the rebellious white women could be too obvious and clunky, caricatures of the shallow liberal eager to prove their own virtue by loving a black man. Or they might be slightly more complex, brassily renouncing that caricature and confounding expectations in a better but inadequate way. Said's women embody the cliche and consume it whole, using it to build characters that both embrace the stereotype and exalt it into reality.

It is here we can also begin to talk about Conrad. Heart of Darkness leaves a lot unsaid. It's a very short book about a company man who journeys into the center of Africa to find Kurtz, another employee of the company who has "gone native." Though he finds the maddened Kurtz, who is worshipped as a god by his followers, the sickened Kurtz dies on the way home. At the end, he has a seeming epiphany, murmuring as his last words, "The horror! the horror!"

There are many similarities. In Season the narrator is unnamed, and just as in Heart of Darkness he is telling his tale to an audience of some kind (never shown, known addressed only as "Gentlemen"). Both Said and Kurtz are compelling and brilliant men, able to seduce followers and inspire the impression that they have grasped some hidden truths. And the narrators of both novels become trapped by those truths.

Conrad's book is a short one, though, and Salih goes on to tell us a further story. He asks the question, "What happens next?"

The key to much of the novel is found in a brief passage on page 108, when the narrator encounters a Bedouin in the desert. The account is tossed out like it is meaningless, but it unlocks the end of Season.

From beneath a hill there came into view a bedouin, who hurried towards us, crossing the car's path. We drew up. His body and clothes were the colour of the earth. The driver asked him what he wanted.

He said, "Give me a cigarette or some tobacco for the sake of Allah - for two days I haven't tasted tobacco." As we had no tobacco I have him a cigarette. We thought we might as well stop a while and give ourselves a rest from sitting.

Never in my life have I seen a man smoke a cigarette with such gusto. Squatting down on his backside, the bedouin began gulping in the smoke with indescribable avidity. After a couple of minutes he put out his hand and I gave him another cigarette, which he devoured as he had done the first. Then he began writhing on the ground as though in an epileptic fit, after which he stretched himself out, encircled his head with his hands, and went stiff and lifeless as though dead. All the time we were there, around twenty minutes, he stayed like this, until the engine started up, when he jumped to his feet - a man brought back to life - and began thanking me ans asking Allah to grant me long life, so I threw him the packet with the rest of the cigarettes. Dust rose up behind us, and I watched the bedouin running towards some tattered tents by some bushes southwards of us, where there were diminutive sheep and naked children. Where, O God, is the shade? Such land brings forth nothing but prophets. This drought can be cured only by the sky.

This is the meaning that Salih brings to answer the unvoiced accusations of Kurtz. It's why, even as the narrator of Season treads water in the middle of the river and feels himself slowly sink, he feels a "violent desire for a cigarette. It wasn't merely a desire; it was a hunger, a thirst." It's why he jerks himself back to life and screams for help.

I shall live because there are a few people I want to stay with for the longest possible time and because I have duties to discharge. It is not my concern whether or not life has meaning. If I am unable to forgive, then I shall try to forget. I shall live by force and cunning.

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