Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes

As I was wandering through the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly the Presidential
Palace in Saigon) in December, I felt the urge to read something about the war -- the Vietnam War, or the American War, depending which side one was on.

I remembered reading glowing reviews of Matterhorn, and although I'd had non-fiction in mind, I reached for it. When I'd read A Tale of Two Cities, I thought it was about the best account of war I'd read in some time. We mustn't underestimate the truth of fiction.

Karl Marlantes was a decorated Marine veteran, and his experiences in Vietnam were the fodder for this novel. It took him 35 years to write this book, and his battle to complete it may have been on a par with the challenge of living it.

In his review of Matterhorn for the Guardian, Robert McCrum opens with Marlantes' drive to write the book.
In the summer of 1970, Karl Marlantes, a recently demobilised Vietnam veteran posted to US Marine Corps headquarters after 13 months of highly decorated active service, found himself walking some sensitive military papers across to the Capitol. He was challenged by a group of young anti-war protesters "hollering obscenities", chanting "babykiller" and waving north Vietnamese flags.
"I was stunned and hurt," he recalls, speaking to me during a recent visit to London. "I thought, you have no idea who I am… yes, I wanted to shoot them. Six weeks before, I was killing North Vietnamese guerrillas in combat." As his immediate rage moderated into puzzled anguish, Marlantes found himself wanting "to explain myself to those kids. I just wanted to tell my story."
"...rage moderated into puzzled anguish" -- the challenge of explaining the ferocity, intensity and insanity of his Vietnam experience to Americans who objected to the war on ideological grounds seems insurmountable. But then, Matterhorn (the code name for a mountain in northern Vietnam) also seemed insurmountable when the VNC had captured it and set up a base there.

Damn the war if you will, and damn the politicians who entered into it, Marlantes' account is one of the stunning, infuriating, gut-clenching accounts of combat that most of us will never experience. In his slower moments, he reduces us to tears with the relationships between soldiers.

We've all seen video footage of American troops pressing forward through the dense jungle, knowing that land mines, tiger traps, ambushes, venomous snakes and tripwires abounded. Add powdered Kool-Aid mix to compound the horror.
The point man would suddenly crouch, eyes and ears straining, and those behind him would bunch up, crouch, and wait to move again. They would get tired, let down their guard. Then, frightened by a strange sound, they would become alert once again. Their eyes flickered rapidly back and forth as they tried to look in all directions at once. They carried Kool-Aid packages, Tang — anything to kill the chemical taste of the water in their plastic canteens. Soon the smears of purple and orange Kool-Aid on their lips combined with the fear in their eyes to make them look like children returning from a birthday party at which the hostess had shown horror films.
Animals that serve in war-time are all in vogue now, and Marlantes gives us Pat, a service dog who accompanies the Marines as they trek through the jungles, sniffing for missing wounded and enemy troops. Pat is sent off for some R&R when he is too exhausted to function, but his handler, Arran, also pays the price of loyalty.
It was well known that Arran had extended his tour twice because the scout dogs couldn’t be transferred to other handlers, and when their tour was over, they were killed. Someone back in the world had declared them too dangerous to bring home.
Waino Mellas is Marlantes' protagonist -- a 2nd Lieutenant fresh out of Yale, struggling to find the balance between his intellect and his instinct. Neither he nor his comrades know where to place him at first. Can he function? Where does he fit within his unit? Can he fight? Mellas has none of the answers; he finds them as he goes.
Mellas was transported outside himself, beyond himself. It was as if his mind watched everything coolly while his body raced wildly with passion and fear. He was frightened beyond any fear he had ever known. But this brilliant and intense fear, this terrible here and now, combined with the crucial significance of every movement of his body, pushed him over a barrier whose existence he had not known about until this moment. He gave himself over completely to the god of war within him.
And then, after the fury and the fear comes the time of reckoning.
Victory in combat is like sex with a prostitute. For a moment you forget everything in the sudden physical rush, but then you have to pay your money to the woman showing you the door. You see the dirt on the walls and your sorry image in the mirror.
Marlantes excels at putting faces and souls behind the uniforms. The black Marines are huddling together, somehow connected to their brothers in the States, and their rage at their white commanding officers sometimes grows muddled during battles with the North Vietnamese. It's almost as if they're fighting a war on two fronts, unsure of who is the more menacing enemy. Goodwin is another lieutenant who refers to everyone, regardless of rank, as 'Jack'. It saves him having to remember names, which is probably a waste of time, especially in these circumstances. Goodwin doesn't have Mellas' academic background, but he has good combat instinct. Sometimes it's easiest not to know the historical details, or the political details.  
 “You’ve got to hand it to them little fuckers,” Goodwin said to Mellas, waiting for the next volley of mortars. “They’re fucking pros. Too bad they ain’t on our side.” 
“Just wait a while,” Mellas said. “They were on our side twenty-five years ago.”
“No shit. Who switched sides, us or them?”
“I think it was us. We used to be against colonialism. Now we’re against communism.” 
“I’ll be goddamned,” Goodwin said matter-of-factly. “Whatever we’re against, Jack, they’re fucking pros.”
And when he's in an untenable situation -- kill or be killed -- Mellas gets down to brass tacks. His commanding officers, at least one of whom is an incorrigible drunk, has sent his team on more than one wild goose chase in nightmarish conditions for self-serving reasons. Mellas is enraged; as his loyalty to his comrades intensifies, his hatred for others scatters like buckshot.
Mellas didn’t hate the NVA. He wanted to kill the enemy because that was the only way the company would get off the hill, and he wanted to live and go home. He also wanted to kill because a burning anger inside him had no place to go. The people he had hated—the colonel, the politicians, the protesters, bullys who’d shamed him in childhood, little friends who’d taken his toys when he was two—weren’t available, but the NVA soldiers were. At a very deep level, Mellas simply wanted to stand on a body that he had laid low. Watching Goodwin with more than a little envy, he had to admit that he wanted to kill because part of him was thrilled by killing.
The troops who were out in the field confronted the same natural environment, regardless of which side they fought on. It's popular myth that the Vietnamese were comfortable with jungle warfare. In fact they were an urban people who were as ill at ease in the jungles as the Americans. Mellas is adept at geography and cartography; he reads his maps almost compulsively, almost as a meditation. He achieves an all-encompassing vision of nature that is timeless. Distinctions vanish -- between us and them, us and the land, us and the sky.  For at least a moment, Mellas understands the utter absurdity and futility of the war.
He watched the mountains subtly change under the shadows of clouds cast by a waning moon as it moved across the sky until the shadows began to fade with the coming of light in the east. He tried to determine if there was meaning in the fact that cloud shadows from moonlight could move across the mountains and yet nothing on the mountain would move or even be affected. He knew that all of them were shadows: the chanters, the dead, the living. All shadows, moving across this landscape of mountains and valleys, changing the pattern of things as they moved but leaving nothing changed when they left. Only the shadows themselves could change.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New Year's Resolution 2015

During his sermon last Sunday, Pastor Peter tossed in a suggestion that reading the Bible a bit more
during the coming year wouldn't go astray.

There are many excellent reasons to read the Bible: read it as fine literature, read it as history, as spiritual guidance and inspiration, read it as a cultural icon. I haven't read enough of it, and I'm determined not to go to my grave a Biblical illiterate.

I've discovered many good programmes on-line for reading the whole Bible in one year, but I'm partial to this site:  the Online Parallel Bible, which let's me choose from 21 different translations (it's usually the King James for me, thanks), and for the more diligent scholars, the original Greek and Hebrew are there, too. I also appreciate that they offer numerous links to commentaries, and summaries for each book to put it into context.

Since moving to Cambodia in March 2014, my reading in general has decreased -- partly because I've been spending more time studying spoken and written Khmer, and partly due to sheer lethargy. I need to be more structured with my reading, establishing set times for Bible, Khmer and everything else. When I first moved here, I resolved to clean my floors every morning before having my coffee. I've managed to hold to that resolution, and now it's become habit. If I can't show the same dedication to the Bible as I show to my mop, I'm in trouble.

Master Georgie, by Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge has come to be known as the Booker Prize bridesmaid -- short-listed five times, but never a winner. In 1998, Master Georgie was her fifth novel to make the short list. I had mixed reactions to this novel, ranging from the vague sense that it wasn't much of a novel to the nagging concern that I hadn't read it with adequate attention. The Guardian reviewer noted that "Beryl Bainbridge has remarked that 'most people have to read [Master Georgie] at least three times before they understand it'."

This comment intrigues me, partly because I intuitively believe it to be true, but I can't quite put my finger on why. It's not a voluminous novel -- about 125 pages.  The writing style is straightforward. The trick, I think, is in the subtlety and artistry of the story's construction.  Each of the six chapters opens with the title of a photographic plate, the first being 'Girl in the Presence of Death', dated 1846. The narrator of that chapter is Myrtle, the adopted and adoring sister of George Hardy, or Master Georgie, the young doctor and amateur photographer. She is 12.

They live in a household that barely functions:  George's mother is chronically miserable, and he finds his father dead in a brothel.  Myrtle is slavishly devoted to him, and her upbringing is largely the combined efforts of George, Dr. Potter (the resident scholar) and Mrs. O'Gorman, the housekeeper. Theirs is not a unified approach to child-rearing.
The evening before, Mrs O’Gorman had trapped me in the scullery to acquaint me with the Assumption. She said someone had to school me, seeing I was being raised in such a Godless house. That was a dig at Dr Potter, for being under the sway of the new sciences. Dr Potter held that the world wasn’t created in six days; it was more like thousands of years. Why, even mountains hadn’t always stayed in the same place. St James’ Mount, which overlooks the sunken cemetery, may once have been a flat stretch of earth, grassless under a sheet of ice. It didn’t worry me like it did Mrs O’Gorman, who moaned that it wasn’t for the likes of her to doubt the permanency of rocks. But then, her rock was the Kingdom of Heaven and she didn’t want it shifted. 
Another character winds his way through the novel, narrating another chapter -- he is Pompey Jones, a lower-class photographer's assistant who pitches in to help George and Myrtle remove the body of the deceased Mr. Hardy from the squalid room where he died and return it secretly to his own bed. Pompey's relationships with George and Myrtle grow more complex than one might expect.
I’d seen that face on him once before, after we’d laid his father down and Myrtle had been sent off to the kitchens to fetch water for washing. He’d thanked me for my help and declared I was remarkably practical for my age and that he would never forget my kindness, nor my reticence. It was my intelligence, he said, that rendered me incapable of taking advantage of the present situation. His words, spoken with such apparent sincerity of feeling, took me aback. Up until then I’d been biding my time, having every intention of squeezing five shillings out of him before I left the house. We were standing on either side of the bed, his dead father between us, and for one warm moment I did indeed imagine I was possessed of a superior sweetness of character. ‘You’re a good boy,’ he murmured, and then he raised one knee on to the coverlet and hoisting himself up leaned across to touch my cheek. I knew instantly what he was about, and quit the room. I wasn’t a stranger to that sort of happening, nor unduly alarmed by it, and if he’d not laid on the flattery I might have indulged him - it’s not a vice restricted to any one class, though it’s my experience that the better off bend to it from inclination and the poor more often out of necessity.
As the novel progresses, George is married to Annie, but it's Myrtle who has borne his children. Dr. Potter is married to Beatrice Hardy, George's sister, and the five of them set out for the Crimea so that George can serve as a medic in the war effort. Here they're reunited with Pompey Jones, who reappears in spectacular fashion as a fire-eater, travelling with a troupe of performers.

When the situation worsens, Annie and Beatrice return to England with the children, leaving Dr. Potter, Myrtle, George and Pompey to narrate the final chapters.  The ferocity and madness of the war reveals each one's fundamental character.  Myrtle continues to doggedly trail her beloved George despite the horrors, and Dr. Potter retreats to the scholarly library within his head when he can no longer cope with them. The two of them ride their horses to a nearby hillside to collect some fruit, and when dismounted, Myrtle finds herself standing next to a severed human leg.
‘I wish to go back,’ Myrtle said, turning her white gaze from the thing at her feet.
‘Homer,’ I told her, ‘describes the Laestrigones as cannibals.’ She appeared too distressed to respond and rode on ahead. 
I wish to go back, too, and re-read this novel, and not simply because its author told me I should. I need to address that feeling that I missed too many connections on the first reading. To be continued.

Monday, December 29, 2014

An Experiment in Love, by Hilary Mantel


After reading Wolf Hall and declaring myself a Hilary Mantel devotee, I went back and began reading all of her works in chronological order. An Experiment in Love is her seventh novel, a genre-defying story about a group of young women who came through Catholic secondary school before they met at a London university in the 1970s. I still stand by my assertion that Ms. Mantel is constitutionally incapable of writing a bad book, but I felt almost a twinge of relief when I realised that I didn't love this one. I'd begun to doubt my objectivity, wondering if I'd become predisposed to wax ecstatic about each and every one of her novels. Saying that it's my least favourite of the eight of her books I've read so far is a far cry from criticism. I'd still kill to have written this book, and I still relished reading it.

Carmel is the daughter of a working-class couple in Manchester, and it's her Irish mother's dearest dream to send her daughter off to the Holy Redeemer.  And no one brooks Mrs. McBain when she's got her mind set on something.
I can see that my mother was, in herself, not exquisite. She had a firm jaw, and a loud carrying voice. Her hair was greying and wild and held back with springing kirby grips. When she frowned, a cloud passed over the street. When she raised her eyebrows – as she often did, amazed each hour by what God expected her to endure – a small town’s tram system sprang up on her forehead. She was quarrelsome, dogmatic and shrewd; her speech was alarmingly forthright, or else bewilderingly circumlocutory. Her eyes were large and alert, green like green glass, with no yellow or hazel in them; with none of the compromises people have when it comes to green eyes. When she laughed I seldom knew why, and when she cried I was no wiser. Her hands were large and knuckly and calloused, made to hold a rifle, not a needle. 
One of Carmel's primary schoolmates is Karina, the stoic and somewhat enigmatic daughter of Slavic immigrants. When Mrs. McBain convinces Karina's mother that she, too, should apply for a scholarship to the Holy Redeemer, Carmel is less than pleased. Both girls win their scholarships, and the two mothers take them into town with the school's detailed uniform specifications in their pocketbooks.
This was the first time I had ever been taken to a shop for clothes. Everything I had needed until this point had been manufactured by my mother. I looked at Karina to see if she was any more at ease in this situation. She was standing with her eyes closed, breathing in the deep scent of leather and polish. A saleswoman dressed in black minced towards us over the polished floor, like a panther who has spotted something juicy: like a panther who has spotted something slow.
My mother unclasped her handbag with a big snap and withdrew the uniform list, folded in four.
"The Holy Redeemer," the saleswoman murmured. She seemed to curtsey as she took it from my mother's hand and opened it. Her fingers brushed her smiling throat as she ushered us towards the curtained cubicles of her choice. The room was built up to its lofty ceiling in glass cabinets and deep wooden drawers, some of which other salesladies slid open enticingly, to reveal stacks of stiff shirts bound in Cellophane; from which they lifted jerseys with their arms strait-jacketed by cardboard, in every size from dwarf to gross.
"In here if you please," the saleswoman said, as if she were threatening us. The curtain swept behind her. I was shut up with my mother in my own cubicle, at dangerously close quarters. But she was all simpering smiles now: for the duration, I was her darling. She took off her coat and hung it on one of the hooks supplied, and at once her woman smell gushed out and filled the air: chemical tang of primitive deodorant, scent and grease of Tan Fantastic, flowery scent of face powder, emanation of armpit and cervix, milk duct and scalp.
I removed my clothes. I was pale as paper, my body without scent or flavour of its own. Each of my ribs could be counted; each vertebra was accessible to a casual eye. Around my nipples was a puffiness which looked like a disease. I had been worrying that I would have to undress in front of Karina, who was in advance of me, gently but definitely swollen. I knew I had to get a bosom, but I hoped it wouldn't come on too quickly, because when it did I'd need an 'A' cup, size 32 broderie anglaise bra. And my mother would say, All this costs money, and as we are scrimping and saving for your education . . . The flatter my chest stayed, the cheaper I'd be.
The items required for the Holy Redeemer were brought in one by one, stiff on their glossy wooden hangers, by the saleswoman in black. Only the winter tunic was an exception; she carried it across her arms, palms spread beneath it, as in certain statues and paintings Our Lady bears the weight of the body of her crucified son. The tunic was clay coloured, a stiff deep grey-brown. In the uniform of the Holy Redeemer this colour predominated, but it was offset by a solid purple-red called maroon: and sometimes where you would least expect it, these two colours would collide and form stripes. I slid my arms inside the chilly sleeves of a cream shirt blouse. My mother twitched the stiff collar into position and began to button it up; she was attending to me as if I were a three-year-old, impressing the saleslady with her maternal skills. When the blouse was fastened it came to mid-thigh. The cuffs hung below my hands as if I'd climbed into the body of an ape. "I'll move the button," my mother said. 
Grudging companions, the two girls pack up their regulation grey and maroon, put on their sensible outdoor shoes and board the train bound for the Holy Redeemer, where their new schoolmates are quite of a different class.
This was where we would be educated, Karina and I, among girls whose fathers were solicitors, factory managers, small businessmen and the more prosperous sort of shopkeeper. Their mothers stayed at home to construct Battenburg cakes and cut back hydrangeas. Their first memories were of garden ponds and weeping willows, of the wrought-iron balconies of Scarborough hotels, of the slippery leather of the back seat of the family car. When I think of the early lives of these girls – of Julianne, let us say – I think of starched sun-bonnets, Beatrix Potter, of mossy garden paths, regular bedtime, regular bowels: I see them frozen for ever in that unreclaimable oasis between the war and the 196os, between the end of rationing and the beginning of the end: fixed in time, their bodies scented with clover honey and Bramley apples: one foot daintily poised, one hand – as their ballet teacher prescribed – gesturing a charming invitation to the years to come. Life, do your worst; we are plump of knee and mild of eye, we are douce, glib and blithe: we inherit the semi, while others inherit the wind. 
Carmel, like so many of us who were brought up in a Catholic household, looks back on her childhood and adolescence and wonders if she'd really been as sinful as she'd been led to believe. As she progresses through the Holy Redeemer, though, and moves on to a London university (as does Karina, as well), her moral compass appears unreliable -- the result, I suppose, of having been told for so many years exactly what to do rather than learning to make sound ethical decisions for herself.
When I look back from myself now at myself then, I believe I was a diligent, quiet, undemanding child; hardly more trouble at sixteen than I was at ten. At the time, though – even after I had stopped going to confession and stopped examining my conscience every day – I believed I was a monster of egotism, an incipient tyrant, a source of trouble and agony of mind. My mother said I was, and I didn’t query it. I never tried to take out of her hands the direction of my life, or questioned why she and not I should have it. Inoffensive though I was, she treated me as what was known in those years as a juvenile delinquent. Everything I did was suspicious – at least, it aroused her suspicion. 
As their relationships with each other and with men come to prove, the young women who share a residential hall at the university are not what their mothers and the nuns had hoped for when they'd entered the convent school years before. They seem ill-equipped to confront the tangled issues of class, sex and friendship. The relationship between Carmen and Karina shifts from awkward to malevolent, yet their paths remain somehow knitted together.
It is a mistake, of course, to think that convent girls wait until they’re adults to disappoint the expectations of the nuns. In our generation, growing up through the sixties, we quickly developed our double lives. We were women inside children’s clothes, atheists at Mass, official virgins and de facto rakes. It was not deceit; it was dualism. We had grown up with it. Flesh and spirit, ambition and humility. It was time to make plans for the future; I swung between thinking I could do anything with my life, and that I could do nothing. I still fitted into the blazer bought for my first summer at the Holy Redeemer. My mouse feet had hardly grown, so my indoor shoes were still going strong, and had perhaps acquired a perverse chic. But my satchel was scuffed and battered, and inside it at the bottom corner there was a big ink stain, like the map of a new continent. Maybe the act of love came too late. As a career move, I should have lost my burdensome virginity at thirteen or fourteen, when there would have been no question of a lasting attachment and no desire for one. As it was, I shook when I removed my clothes and I cried after it was done, not out of pain or disappointment but out of an up-rush of muddling emotion which twenty-four hours later I was ready to call love. 
Carmen's whole youth might be termed an experiment in love, I suppose, but I don't think anyone would rejoice at her findings. Including Carmen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Water's Edge, by Karin Fossum

My journey into Nordic Noir started some years back after listening to a radio interview with Icelandic writer, Arnaldur Indriðason. He and Karin Fossum have become the authors I reach for when I want a crime story with heart and mind.  I've been working my way through Ms. Fossum's books in chronological order, and The Water's Edge, the eighth in her series of Inspector Sejer novels, takes a bold turn -- for the first time, Konrad Sejer and his partner, Jakob Skerre, confront a perpetrator who is not simply an average Norwegian who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, they are tracking a paedophile.
'The Storm', by Norwegian Edvard Munch

A couple out on their Sunday walk in the woods -- the domineering Reinhardt Ris and his obsequious wife, Kristine -- spot the partially clad body of a young boy lying face-down beneath a tree. Reinhardt concludes that the man who had rushed past them earlier must be the killer. He becomes obsessively thrilled with his own role in a  real-life crime investigation, and to Kristine's horror, Reinhardt pauses to snap photos of the dead boy with his mobile phone.

Many of Karin Fossum's characters are morally ambiguous.  Maybe a bit like Edvard Munch's paintings -- lines are blurred, and circumstances are often unclear. Her paedophiles are not entirely unsympathetic, her witnesses can be monstrous, and when a second boy disappears, we can feel the growing panic in the village and the pressure to solve the crimes. The temptation to jump to conclusions is intense. Trust between neighbours erodes, and formerly innocent associations come into question.

Inspector Konrad Sejer, however, will not be rushed, much as he would like this hideous crime behind him. He and Skarre, his younger partner, spend a fair amount of time discussing what might make a paedophile tick; they have divergent opinions on this, with Skarre noting that many of them were themselves abused as children and thus deserving of counselling as much as punishment, and Sejer staunchly toeing the line of Norwegian law -- their sexual drives are criminal, and if they can't control them, they must be incarcerated.  When the conversation comes around to why they're in police work, both men again reveal their distinctive motivations.
Sejer started rolling a cigarette. He allowed himself one only every evening, as befits an exceedingly temperate man. 'A nicer job?' he asked suspiciously. 'Like what?'
'Well, you could have been a pastry chef,' Skarre suggested. 'You could have spent your whole day decorating cream cakes. And making tiny marzipan roses.'
'I could never have been a pastry chef,' Sejer declared. 'Cream cakes are pretty to look at, but they have no stories to tell. What would you have been doing?'
'I would have been a taxidermist.'
'Someone who stuffs dead animals, you mean?'
'Yes. Squirrels, minks and foxes.'
Sejer instinctively picked up his dog and put him on his lap. 'So tell me this,' he said. 'Why are you interested in criminals?'
'It's possible that somewhere deep inside I might be just a tad jealous of them,' Skarre said.
'Jealous? Of criminals?'
'They do what they want. They have no respect for authority: if they want something they just take it and they have nothing but contempt for us. It's a kind of protest, a deep and profound disdain. Personally, I am extremely law-abiding, to the point where it becomes scary, if you know what I mean. Why do you think people are so fascinated by crime?' he went on.'Nothing sells better than murder and the worse it is, the more interested people are. What does that say about us?'
'I'm sure there are many answers to that,' Sejer said, 'and you're just as well placed to provide them as I am.'
'But you must have thought about it?'
'I think it has to do with the image we have of our enemy,' he said. 'All nations have an image of their enemy, you know, something that unites people. During the war we were united against the Germans. It gave us a sense of identity and camaraderie, it made us take action and behave heroically. People were forced to choose sides, and in that way we could tell the good from the bad. But in our wealthy western world where peace and democracy reign, criminals have taken over this role. Their misdeeds unite us, we enjoy plenty of peace and quiet, but we also need excitement and stimulation to make us feel alive. But it's more than that. Every time someone's killed, we experience a kind of fortuitous assurance.'
In their efforts to gain an understanding of what motivates a paedophile, Sejer and Skarre drop in on a man whom they'd caught years ago and who had returned to the community after serving his prison sentence. Again, Fossum takes great pains to make Åkeson an almost likeable fellow, pitiable in his loneliness. His answers to the officers' questions suggest that the sexual preference for small children is like that for the same sex -- it's not something that can be "cured", even though the paedophile might well wish to be rid of it.
'Can I ask you a very personal question?' Skarre asked.
Åkeson leaned forward. 'Of course you can, young man, fire away. I'm no weakling, I just look like one.'
'Have you ever had a relationship with an adult woman?'
Åkeson smiled coquettishly. 'Well,' he said, pausing theatrically as was his style, 'that depends how you define adult. Yes, of course I have. But I must add that she was a terribly delicate little thing. It didn't last very long, I think it was mainly a desperate attempt to be normal; there's nothing we would rather be, we would prefer to be like you. But, dear Lord, I'm a grown man, I turned fifty last year and I know who I am, it can't be denied and I don't want to either.
When the second boy, a morbidly obese lad taunted by his schoolmates, vanishes, Sejer and Skarre interview his mother and come away feeling uneasy about her new boyfriend who, they discover, has a criminal record for defrauding single women. Many people are mumbling about a teacher who receives students -- mostly boys -- at his home after school. Is one paedophile responsible for both crimes? It's difficult to say, as they have no idea where the second child is or who killed the first one, but the excitement and fear is palpable. And Reinhardt Ris is absolutely thriving on it, glued to the television, making multiple calls to the police with "new" information, and instructing Kristine not to discard his growing stack of newspapers.
'Don't throw them away,' he said. 'I need to cut out the articles.'
'What do you mean, cut them out?'She gave him a puzzled look.
'As a matter of fact,' he said solemnly, 'it's terribly interesting, for once, to follow a case right from the start, follow it week by week as it develops. It's like a discipline of some sort.' He ran his fingers through his hair. 'Perhaps I should quit my job at Hafslund and become a crime reporter. I think I've got the bug.'
Kristine shook her head in disbelief.
'When I think about it,' he reasoned, 'I realise that I have never read the news in this way before. I've been superficial. None of the world's misery has ever gripped me. But this has, it's a totally new sensation.' He let himself flop into a chair and grabbed hold of VG magazine.
'But why?' she asked.
'Because we found him, Kristine. It's that simple.'
'But we didn't know him.'
'I feel I know him now. I've been reading about Jonas for days. The whole sequence of events rolls before my eyes like a film.' ...
'Have you deleted all those pictures?' she asked.
He tossed his head. 'Why do you keep going on about them?'
'Have you shown them to people at work?' She moved the frying pan away from the heat.
'What if I have? I don't understand why you're getting so worked up about them, people are naturally curious.'
She turned away again before replying. 'They were never meant for public consumption,' she said. 'And who decided that?'
Suddenly she felt exhausted. She leaned against the cooker and felt the heat from the brown butter waft against her face. 'Common decency,' she whispered. 'Have you never heard of that?'
That's what I love about Karin Fossum's novels. Her characters are all over the common decency spectrum, and their motivations are rarely predictable. And yet, each and every one of them seems like someone who might be living next door.

I just read that Karin Fossum's seventh Konrad Sejer novel, The Murder of Harriet Crohn, published in 2004, has just this year been translated into English. Something to look forward to!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Danish Girl, by David Ebershoff

This is a gorgeous, thought-provoking historical novel, loosely based upon the life (lives?) of Danish painter Einar Wegener and his alter-ego, Lili Elbe. The historical record, which describes Einar/Lili as one of the first recipients of sex-reassignment surgery -- in its experimental stages in the 1920s -- provides the merest framework for the novel, and Ebershoff fills it out with richly textured atmosphere and emotions, respectfully and gently raising questions of what love entails.
Lili Elbe by Gerde Gottlieb

The real-life Einar Wegener was married to another Danish painter, Gerda Gottlieb; in the novel, his wife is American-born Greta Waud. One day, as Greta nears the completion of her portrait of an opera singer, the model fails to turn up. Greta turns to her slightly-built, blond husband, Einar, and asks him if he would kindly don her stockings, dress and shoes so she can finish the work on time. After a moment's hesitation -- it will take him away from his own work -- Einar complies.

One afternoon a few days later, Greta comes home to find her husband once again dressed and made up as a woman, and the shy, blonde visitor introduces herself as Lili. Lili doesn't stay long at first -- a few hours here and there -- but when she visits, she models for Greta. Over the next months and years, Greta's portfolio grows with ever more mesmerising (and commercially successful) portraits of Lili. Einar's career languishes as Lili appears with increasing frequency, because Lili doesn't paint.

Greta's relationships with Lili and Einar are fascinating and complex. Her love for her husband remains warm and gentle; her bond with Lili ranges from protective older sister to demanding employer, especially as Lili grows into the role of primary artistic muse.
Lili had begun to appear unannounced in the afternoons. Greta would leave the Widow House for an appointment. When she returned she'd find Lili at the window in a loose dress, the back buttons unfastened. Greta would help her finish dressing, clasping a string of amber beads around her throat. It never ceased to startle Greta, finding her husband like that, waiting with the neckline of a dress open across his pale shoulders. She never once said anything to Einar, or to Lili. Instead, she would always welcome Lili as if she were an amusing, foreign friend. She'd hum and gossip as she helped Lili into her shoes. Greta would tip a bottle of perfume against her forefinger and then run her sweet fingertip down Lili's throat and up the inside of her arm. She would stand Lili in front of the mirror and whisper, her voice the soft intimate voice of wedlock, "There now . . . so very pretty."
Gradually Lili begins to go out in public. Greta introduces her at social events as Einar's visiting cousin. Her concerns for her husband's emotional health drive Greta to consult a doctor, a man who is far less accepting of Einar's alter-ego -- after a full consultation, he strongly advises Greta to have her husband forcibly committed into a mental health facility, as he poses a threat to public order and decency. Greta responds by telling Einar that the three of them -- the married couple and Lili -- would be more comfortable in France. They pack up their painting supplies and move south. 1920s Paris is indeed more liberal, and Lili comes into her own.
It was what she liked most: her head gliding across the surface of the pool like a little duck; the other ladies in their wool bathing dresses watching her with their mixture of indifference and gossipy intrigue; the way she could pull herself from the pool, her fingertips pruned, and pat the towel down her arms as she dried in the glittering light that reflected off the Seine. She would watch the traffic across the river. And Lili would think that all of this was possible because she and Greta had left Denmark. She would think, in the summer mornings, on the lip of the pool filled with Seine water, that she was free. Paris had freed her. Greta had freed her. Einar, she would think, was slipping away. Einar was freeing her. A shiver would run up her damp spine; her shoulders would shudder. 
Einar and Lili are engaged in a quiet, heart-wrenching battle, finding it increasingly difficult to share the one body, especially with its undesirable accoutrements.
... if she was in a particularly strong trance about her life and the possibility of it all, she would let out a little gasp when she discovered that down there, between her white, goose-pimpled thighs, lay a certain shriveled thing. It was so vile to her that she would snap closed her thighs, tucking it away, her knee bones smacking; she could hear the muffled smack, and the sound of it -- like two felt-wrapped cymbals meeting in crescendo -- would remind Lili, would remind Einar, of the girl at Madame Jasmin-Carton's who had danced resentfully and snapped her knees together in such a harsh manner that he could hear the smack of bone even through the smudged glass. 
Ebershoff never paints Einar's and Lili's shared predicament as a pathology, but he makes it painfully clear that it is a conflict for which they both want to find a resolution. On a summer visit to Paris, Greta's twin brother, Carlisle, takes Lili to see another doctor who may be able to help. Einar's earnest desire for a solution paired with Dr. Buson's enthusiasm make this one of the novel's more chilling passages.
"And that leads me to my procedure," Dr. Buson was saying. "It's a rather new operation, one that I'm quite excited about because it's so full of promise."
"What is it?" Einar said.
"Now I don't want you to get too excited when I tell you, because it sounds more complicated than it is. It sounds drastic but it really isn't. It's a rather simple surgery that is working on people with behavior problems. The results so far are better than any other treatment I've ever seen."
"Do you think it would work on someone like me?"
"I'm sure of it," Dr. Buson said. "It's called a lobotomy."
"What is that?" Einar asked.
"It's a simple surgical procedure for cutting nerve pathways in the front part of the brain."
"Brain surgery?"
"Yes, but it isn't complicated. I don't have to cut open the cranium. No, that's the beauty of it. All I have to do is drill a few holes in your forehead, right about here . . . and here." Dr. Buson touched Einar's head, at his temples, and then at a spot just above his nose. "Once I've put the holes in your head then I can go in and sever some of the nerve fibers, those that control your personality."
"But how do you know which ones control my behavior?"
"Well, that's what I've discovered recently. Haven't you read about me in the paper?"
"It was a friend who sent us here," Carlisle said.
"Well, he must have seen the articles. There's been quite a bit of press."
"But is it safe?" Carlisle finally asked.
"As safe as many other things. Listen, I know it sounds radical. But I've had a man come to me who believed he was five people, not just two, and I went into his brain and fixed him up."
"How is he now?" Einar asked.
"He lives with his mother. He's very quiet, but happy..."
Although Carlisle feels that Dr. Buson is credible, Greta has been having conversations with a doctor, as well -- a German professor who is offering a surgical remedy that will not render Einar a vegetable, but will render him a woman -- Lili. Einar trusts his wife implicitly and is more inclined to place his trust in the German surgeon.

He reflects upon the impending death of Einar Wegener, painter, should he go ahead and become Lili. In a moment of delightfully farcical back-story, Einar recalls the beginning of his artistic career.

The man in the cloak spoke softly, and word spread through the halls of the academy that he was a dealer from Paris. He was wearing a wide-brimmed hat trimmed with a strip of leather, and the students could barely see his eyes. There was a little blond mustache curling down around his mouth, and the faint smell of newsprint falling behind him like exhaust. The acting director of the academy, Herr Rump, who was the less talented descendant of Herr G. Rump, introduced himself to the stranger. Rump escorted the man through the academy halls, where the floors were gray and unvarnished and swept clean by orphan girls not old enough to conceive. Rump tried to halt the stranger in front of the canvases painted by his favorite pupils, the girls with the wavy hair and apple-perky breasts and the boys with the thighs like hams. But the man in the cloak, who was reported to say, although no one could ever confirm it, "I have a tongue for talent," refused to be swayed by Herr Rump's suggestions. The stranger nodded in front of the painting of the mouse and the cheese done by Gertrude Grubbe, a girl with eyebrows so yellow and fluffy it was as if a canary had shed two feathers across her face. He also paused by the scene depicting a woman selling a salmon painted by Sophus Brandes, a boy whose father had been murdered on a ferry to Russia, due to a single leer at the murderer's adolescent bride. And then the man in the cloak stopped in front of Einar's little painting of the black bog. In the painting it was night, the oaks and willows only shadows, the ground as dark and damp as oil. In the corner, next to the boulder speckled with mica, was a little white dog, asleep in the cold. Only the previous day Herr Rump had declared it "too dark for the Danish school," and thus had given it a less-than-ideal spot on the wall, next to the closet where the orphan girls stored their hay-brooms and changed into the sleeveless apron-dresses that Herr Rump insisted they wear. "This one is good," the man had said, and his hand reached into his cloak and pulled out a billfold made of -- again, this was rumored too -- lizard leather."What's the artist's name?" he asked.
"Einar Wegener,"said Herr Rump, whose face was filling with the hot bright color of choler. The stranger handed him one hundred kroner. The man in the cloak pulled the painting from the wall, and then everyone at the academy -- Herr Rump and the students who had been watching from the cracks in classroom doors and the adminstratrices in their pinned-up blouses and the orphan girls who were secretly plotting a plan, which would later fail, to push Herr Rump from an academy window, and, last of all, Einar Wegener, who was standing on the stairs exactly where Greta would later kiss him -- had to blink.
Is it really a "brazenly American trait", the need to move abroad and reinvent oneself? (Well, it certainly seems so in my case.) What becomes clear, though, is that Einar's wish to transform himself comes from no innate love of change -- he simply can't cope any longer with existing as a man. Becoming Lili seems to be a biological and psychological necessity.
Greta would need to be alone in Denmark, relationless in Europe, in order to become the woman she saw herself as. She needed to put an ocean and a continent between herself and her family in order to feel that at last she could breathe. What Einar didn't understand then was that it was another of Greta's brazenly American traits, that bubbling need to move away and reinvent. Never before had he imagined himself doing the same.
So Lili boards the train to Dresden by herself -- she tells Greta that she can only do it alone. The fictional Lili dies not long after her fifth surgery, as the real-life one had, during which the surgeon transplanted a uterus in the hope that she might bear children. Much as she wanted it, her body rejected the organ. She is buried in Dresden, the city with the Elbe running through it. Looking out the window after her first surgery, Lili told the clinic staff that her new name would be Elbe. Lili Elbe.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

White Bird in a Blizzard, by Laura Kasischke


I reached for this novel after seeing the wonderfully quirky film adaptation of it. As I've written many times before, I'll almost always choose the book over the movie, but this one is a tough call... The screenplay stayed very close to the novel's plot until the end, when the film took a delicious and unexpected twist.  Laura Kasischke is a poet as well as a novelist, though, so the book has some exquisite passages that film just can't touch.  The opening paragraph is a sensory delight, ethereal meeting mundane, and introducing us to a teen-aged narrator who will prove as elusive and puzzling as her mother's disappearance.

I am sixteen when my mother steps out of her skin one frozen January afternoon -- pure self, atoms twinkling like microscopic diamond chips around her, perhaps the chiming of a clock, or a few bright flute notes in the distance -- and disappears. No one sees her leave, but she is gone. Only the morning before, my mother was a housewife -- a housewife who, for twenty years, kept our house as swept up and sterile as the mind of winter itself, so perhaps she finally just whisk-broomed herself out, a luminous cloud of her drifting through the bedroom window as soft as talcum powder, mingling with the snowflakes as they fell, and the stardust and the lunar ash out there.
Teen-aged narrator Kat gives us our only image of her vanished mother, a desperately unhappy suburban housewife who loathes her husband. Like most girls her age, Kat vacillates between utter self-absorption and sympathy for her mother.
 ... she planted petunias in our yard, and by July of every year they were dried out. Like complaints, or exasperation. Our house was stuck into some of the world's most fertile earth -- black and loamy and damp -- and anything could have grown there. A handful of it was as heavy as a heart, or guilt. As a child, I used to dig it up with a plastic shovel and pretend to bake cakes and cookies, shapeless pastries patted out of gravity. That dough, that dirt, was as dark as space. For thousands of years, our backyard had been ice, and when the Ice Age ended it thawed into a swampy dinosaur forest, and when the dinosaurs got zapped by whatever zapped the dinosaurs, farmers came and turned it into farmland and country meadows, which were later bulldozed to make way for subdivisions with names like Country Meadows Estates.
Anything could have grown there, but my mother grew petunias. I never knew what she wanted, but I knew it wasn't in Garden Heights, and it wasn't my father.
Kat's response to her mother's disappearance is disturbingly nonchalant. She and her father soldier on -- not bravely, really, but more indifferently, as if they'd always known Eve would vanish one day, or perhaps as if she'll return from whatever errand she'd gone off to do.  They file a police report, of course, and Brock takes and passes a lie-detector test. When her friends ask Kat if she thinks her father knows more than he is letting on, Kat is quick to assure them that he couldn't have had anything to do with his wife's disappearance -- he just didn't care enough.
These two decades, my father had also stayed slim. His face had aged well. He looked younger than fifty ... but also as preserved and eternal as some frozen-faced saint painted on the wall of a chapel during the darkest Dark Age days. Pale. Uninquisitive. A painted saint gazing without judgment, or interest, at centuries of women passing by, bearing candles, or babies, or flowers in their black habits, lace veils, go-go boots, and girdles. My father was the kind of man, like one of those expressionless saints, who sees a woman -- naked, or roped in pearls, tied to a stake, or shedding tears of blood -- and thinks, I wonder what's for dinner.
But what I think is this: She was a housewife, his housewife. For twenty years she served his dinner at six o'clock. Afterward, she washed the dinner dishes in Palmolive, to keep her hands soft. One Christmas when he offered to buy her a dishwasher she insisted she would never use it, that washing her husband's dinner dishes by hand was one of the greatest pleasures a woman could have. And he had no idea she was being sarcastic.
Precocious Kat seduces the middle-aged detective who is handling her mother's case. Is it because she wants to learn how his investigation is coming along? Not at all. She's just bored after the teen-aged boy next-door broke off their relationship when Eve disappeared. When she goes off to college, Kat's new friends inevitably want to know what happened to her mother.
"Where is she?" Cindy asked.
"Who knows?" I said. "I don't."
"She has to be somewhere,"Cindy said.
"Does she?" I said, spilling wine on my flannel nightgown. "Maybe she doesn't. Maybe she's nowhere."I smiled. But Cindy looked serious, and sad.
This exchange reminds me of an article I read about the mother of the teen-ager who gunned down the staff and elementary school students in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. She had convinced herself that dwelling in his perpetually darkened bedroom, changing his clothes many times each day, collecting an arsenal and insisting that particular foods be arranged in a certain way on his plate was normal behaviour for her son. A psychologist noted that when we're dealing with a mentally disturbed family member, we tend to just readjust our ideas of normality. What seems bizarre and alarming to most people simply became Nancy Lanza's "new normal".

White Bird in a Blizzard tells the story of Kat's "new normal". It's a potent reminder of how adept our minds can be when they want to maintain the semblance of normality, of how keen our vision can be in some regards and how utterly myopic in others. See the movie, and read the book -- they complement each other beautifully.