Friday, June 21, 2013

The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell

I converted my friend Mark into a Nordic Noir devotee, and he recently recommended this novel to me. I use these Scandinavian thrillers as literary detox.  Mankell, Fossum, Indridason and their mates are great story-tellers, but there is always a thought-provoking thread running through the blood trails.

The Man from Beijing opens on a winter night in a small Swedish village: a wolf finds a meal in the form of a human corpse lying in the snow.  A photographer soon discovers that all but three of the hamlet's residents have been massacred in their homes.  The nit-picky reader will question the logistical plausibility of this mass murder, but as with so many of the Scandinavian mysteries, the crime is not the nexus of the story. It's merely a catalyst, sending the protagonists off on the trail of larger social issues. In this case, Mankell has given his usual detective, Kurt Wallender, a break and instead entangles a middle-aged Swedish judge, Birgitta Roslin, in the complicated back-story of these killings.

Birgitta travels to the northern village when she realises that two of the victims were her late mother's foster parents. The police are understandably reticent to share information about the investigation, even with a judge. One of them mentions a red ribbon found at the scene of the crime, and Birgitta manages to trace it to a lantern at a nearby Chinese restaurant. The lead investigator allows her to have a diary from the foster parents' house and upon reading it, the judge learns that an ancestor of the victims had gone to the western part of the US in the 19th century to oversee the construction of the railroads, including, yes, Chinese workers.  (Again, it seems unlikely that the police would let the diary out of their own hands, and the connections to China are tenuous, but because there is a bigger story to be told, I'm willing to overlook these things.)

Mankell shifts to 19th-century China, where three brothers leave their miserable life in a feudal village, making their way to Shanghai, where they've heard there is work. What they find there is more dire poverty and starvation. They also get their first glimpse of a Caucasian and are properly horrified.
"The man in the sedan chair. Who is he?"
"A white man who owns many of the ships that visit our harbour."
"Is he ill?"
The man laughed."They all look like that. As white as corpses that ought to have been buried ages ago."
A fellow Chinese man, Zi, offers them work, and when they follow him toward the docks, his thugs kill the weakest of the three brothers and pack the other two aboard a ship bound for the US, where they are sold into indentured servitude to build the railways. Their brutal overseer is the Swedish diarist.

They finally finish their term, and both brothers begin their journey back to China. When in England, they meet some Swedish missionaries who are on their way to China as well. The Swedes seem like decent men. They convert the younger of the brothers, but he dies en route.  The surviving brother, San, is skeptical of their Christianity (and of them), but they treat him decently and fairly. In China, he agrees to work for one of them. He also begins to write his own life story.

While working at the Mission, San falls in love, but it ends in disaster; the missionary questions the extent to which San has embraced Christianity.  San does indeed have doubts:  "How could a God who allowed His only son to be nailed to a cross be able to give a Chinese peasant spiritual comfort or the will to live?"

Not long after this, San discovers the Swede's true duplicity when he finds and reads an unfinished letter lying upon the missionary's desk. San's chronicle now contains one more proof of white men's iniquity.
Elgstrand confided in his friend as follows: "As you know, the Chinese are incredibly hard-working and can endure poverty the same way that mules and asses can endure being kicked and whipped. But one mustn't forget that the Chinese are also base and cunning liars and swindlers; they are arrogant and greedy and have a bestial sensuality that sometimes disgusts me. On the whole, they are worthless people. One can only hope that one day, the love of God will be able to penetrate their horrific harshness and cruelty." San read the letter a second time. Then he finished cleaning and left the room. He continued working as if nothing had happened, wrote every night and listened to the missionaries' sermons during the day. 
The story then switches to present-day Beijing, where wealthy industrialist Ya Ru sits in his palatial office near the Forbidden City and re-reads his ancestor's autobiography.  This man just oozes vengefulness.

The most fascinating aspect of this story for me was the group of plutocrats who ostensibly run China from behind the scenes, elected Party officials notwithstanding. These people have come to understand that the biggest threat to the country is the widening economic gap between the rich and poor. The peasants, they fear, may once again revolt, and given their numbers, this would be catastrophic. An academic presents them with a solution:  Africa is enormous and has vast swaths of arable land, he points out, but neither enough people nor adequate knowledge to farm it effectively.  Hence, China should "export" millions of her peasants to Africa, where their farming expertise could help them and the Africans prosper. This would not be like the western powers' colonisation, they tell each other, but a more symbiotic action, beneficial for all concerned. We are not oppressors, but helpers, they maintain.

Whether the Chinese have ever really considered a scheme like this, I have no idea. Mankell makes it seem believable, though, and a delegation, including Ya Ru and his sister, Hong Qiu, go to Africa to look into it. Hong Qiu, unlike her brother, still actually holds socialist values and a sense of ethics. She questions the assertion that this is not simply another case of self-serving colonialism.
"Today I watched two men lift a sack containing over a hundred pounds of cement onto a woman's head. My question to you is very simple. Why have we come here with an armada? Do we want to help that woman to alleviate her burden? Or do we want to join those lifting sacks onto her head?"
Still, she sees very clearly that China faces a staggering threat, and it's not an external one. Their mission to Africa may be the best bet to avert the next civil uprising.
"This year the government has increased military expenditure by almost fifteen per cent," Hong Qiu continued. "In view of the fact that China doesn't have any real enemies close at hand, naturally enough the Pentagon and the Kremlin wonder what is going on. Their analysts can see without too much of an effort that the state and the armed forces are preparing to cope with an inner rebellion. In addition, we are spending almost ten billion yuan on our Internet surveillance systems. These are figures impossible to conceal. But there's another statistic that very few people know about. How many riots and mass protests do you think took place in our country during the past year?"
Ma Li thought for a moment before answering. "Five thousand, perhaps?"
Hong Qiu shook her head. "Nearly ninety thousand. Work out how many that is every day. It's a figure that casts a shadow over everything the politburo undertakes."
Still, unlike her brother, Hong Qiu regrets the ways in which the original goals of the Great Revolution are coming undone.
When she had finished eating she sat for a while at the bar by the swimming pool and drank a cup of tea. Some of the Chinese delegation got drunk and tried to make advances on the beautiful young waitresses moving from table to table. Hong Qiu was annoyed and left. In another China that would never have been allowed, she thought angrily. The security guards would have intervened by now. Anybody who got drunk and started throwing his weight around would never again have been allowed to represent China. They might even have been imprisoned. But these days, nobody pays any attention.
A Chinese interpreter steps up behind President Robert Mugabe as he prepares to give a speech, and Hong Qiu feels a rush of patriotic pride.
Hong Qiu had once heard that there wasn't a single language, no matter how small and insignificant, that didn't have qualified interpreters in China. That made her proud. There was no limit to what her fellow citizens could achieve -- the people who, until a generation ago, had been condemned to ignorance and misery.
A Zimbabwean spokesman assures the Chinese that the relocation plan is not only viable but desirable.  As I read this I wondered again, can it be true? Is it something that has ever been discussed?
"Later today we shall travel by helicopter along the Zambezi River, as far up as Bandar, and then downstream to Luabo, where the huge delta linking the river to the sea begins. We shall fly over fertile areas that are sparsely populated. According to the calculations we have made, over the next five years we will be able to accommodate four million Chinese peasants who can farm the areas currently lying fallow. Not one single person will be obliged to move. Nobody will lose his livelihood. On the contrary, our fellow citizens will benefit from big changes. Everybody will have access to roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, all the things that have previously been available to very few in rural areas and a privilege for those living in towns."
Hong Qiu still has reservations -- not about the plan to relocate a large portion of China's poorest population, but what would probably come after that.
There would be no problems, thanks to the friendship and will to cooperate; no conflicts would arise between the newcomers and those already living on the banks of the river. But nobody would be able to convince her that what she was now listening to was not the first stage of China's transformation into a predatory nation that would not hesitate to grab for itself all the oil and other raw materials needed to maintain the breakneck speed of its economic development.
Meanwhile, Mankell sends judge Birgitta Roslin to Beijing -- she is simply accompanying an old friend who has flown there for an academic conference -- and once there, she meets Hong Qiu. The threads between the China and Sweden of today and of the 19th century begin to connect. By the time Mankell comes back to the murders in the Swedish village, they seem almost tangential. For those who believe in karma, they are the ghastly manifestation of brutality inflicted and suffered a century ago, recorded and read by people on opposite sides of the world. Be careful how you treat those from other countries, Mankell seems to say, especially those who are commonly held to be inferior. Ill-treat them, and it may come back to haunt you.  Or your descendants.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Young Hearts Crying, by Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road (1961) was Richard Yates' first novel, and also the first of his books that I read, back in 2007. It blew me off my feet. Wanting more, I ordered used copies of The Easter Parade (1976), A Good School (1978),  Young Hearts Crying (1984) and Cold Spring Harbor (1986). Now, having read them all, I am still an ardent Yates fan. His later novels didn't have quite the punch of Revolutionary Road, but they are insightful and moving. The Richard Yates archive page has a select handful of quotes and blurbs about his work. There are only seven blurbs, all from highly reputable sources, and six of them refer to Revolutionary Road. That was a tough novel to top.

What I disliked most about Young Hearts Crying was its title, which drips of syrupy romance, but Yates is one of the world's great anti-romantics. He gives us characters who are excruciatingly realistic. They rarely see their own or each other's flaws until it's too late; the reader can predict that their love affairs and marriages will end miserably, but the characters themselves plow onward, vainly hoping that something will save them. As we do.  And it never does.

Here Yates gives us another man of his own era, Michael Davenport, who served as an air force gunner in World War II and then attended Harvard on the GI Bill.  He falls for Lucy, a Radcliffe student, and they marry not long after his graduation.  On their wedding night, Lucy informs Michael that she is worth $3-4 million.  Michael refuses her wealth and insists that he will support them as best he can as he pursues a career as a writer of poetry and plays.  He does manage to provide a reasonable if humble life for Lucy and their daughter Laura.

Michael thinks things are going along well enough in their marriage, until  he attacks the author of a book that Lucy is reading simply because the book is on the NY Times best-seller list, which, in his mind, signals its banality. Lucy, possibly envious of the author's financial success, suggests that someone who can write a book that a lot of readers want or need has accomplished something worthwhile.
"Oh, come on, Lucy, you know better than that. It's never been a question of what people 'want' or 'need' -- it's a question  of what they're willing to put up with. It's the same rotten little commercial principle that determines what we get in the movies and on television. It's the manipulation of public taste by the lowest common denominator. Oh, Jesus, I know you know what I mean."
There was a silence of ten or fifteen seconds before she said, "Yes, I know what you mean, but I don't agree with you. I've always known what you meant about everything; that's never been the trouble. The trouble is I've never agreed with you -- ever -- and the appalling thing is I've never even come to realise it until the past few months." And she stood up, looking defiant and oddly fearful at the same time. 
Part 2 focuses on Lucy and Michael after the divorce, including their various other short-term relationships, some intense, some frivolous, all failed.  Laura, their daughter, bounces back and forth between them, never seeming to get adequate attention from either.

Eventually, Michael marries again, this time one of Laura's former guidance counselors, Sarah, who is about twenty years younger than he. Although he had always rejected working in academia, Sarah convinces him to apply for teaching jobs at universities. The only offer he gets is from a small college in Kansas, so off they go.  It is there that Michael gets a call for help from Laura, who is destitute and desperate, living in a San Francisco tenement with a group of hippies. Michael finds her and brings her back to Kansas, where he and Sarah try to get her back onto solid ground. Michael loses his temper with his daughter one morning and is displeased to see Sarah frowning at him. Once again, he gives an 'I'm the man here,and I know what I'm doing' monologue.
"Do you know what you do sometimes?" Sarah asked him. "You let your own rhetoric run away with you until you don't even know what you're saying... I certainly hope you have better control than that in your teaching, or you may have a lot of very bewildered students on your hands."
After a little while -- however long it took him to decide not to be angry with her -- he said, "I think we'd better let the teaching and the students be my business, don't you?"  
Just as he either forgot or overlooked that Lucy had a Radcliffe degree in English when declaring himself the literary authority in the household, Michael forgets that Sarah was a professional educator before she married him. He congratulates himself for not losing his temper with her, but he fails to see that his condescension is just as corrosive. When Michael goes east to see about a position at Boston University, Sarah remains behind, her intentions unclear. Michael agonises about this. Briefly.
The bar at the hotel would be open for business; that was nice because it meant Michael Davenport could sit in its murmurous shadows, alone with his skepticism, and have a drink before going upstairs.
She might come and live with him; she might not; and then there was another dreadful possibility: She might come and stay with him only a little while, in a spirit of tentative compliance, waiting for her better judgment to set her free. "... Everybody's essentially alone," she'd told him, and he was beginning to see a lot of truth in that.
Defining success as an artist -- painter, poet, playwright, theatre director -- is something else with which Yates wrestles. Does commercial success equal artistic sell-out, inauthenticity and failure? Michael alternately adores and despises two painter friends, one of whom has achieved commercial success. Lucy has a disastrous fling with a summer theatre director who lets nothing or no one stand in his career path. Yates wasn't a nice guy, and neither are his characters, but the most compelling portraits are never airbrushed.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Spark

I have a list of books that I intend to re-read every ten years or so, mostly because I expect to react differently to them with each passing decade of my life. I've put The Girls of Slender Means on the list, but for a different reason -- I just wasn't in the right frame of mind when I read it this time. I enjoyed it, but it deserved more concentration and attentiveness than I had at hand this week.

"Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions". This sounds like the first line of a fairy tale, but to readers in 1963, the year the novel was published, I suppose the post-war privations may have seemed remote, well in the past. Some of the nice people in London are the young ladies who lodge at the May of Teck Club, a hostel of sorts for young women and a quartet of older ones who somehow managed to stay on.

Gentlemen who visit the May of Teck club invariably find themselves drawn to Selina, who is tall, cool, and elegant, except perhaps when she is squeezing her slim body through the upstairs bathroom window to sunbathe nude on the rooftop below.
Selina's long unsurpassable legs arranged themselves diagonally from the deep chair where she lolled in the distinct attitude of being the only woman present who could afford to loll.
If I recall nothing else from this reading of the novel, I will remember Muriel Spark's razor-like character sketches. An ear for current slang is a gift.
Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of debutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of these phrase-ripples of hers: "Filthy lunch." "Thee most gorgeous wedding." "He actually raped her, she was amazed." "Ghastly film." "I'm desperately well, thanks, how are you?" Her voice from the wash-room distracted Jane: "Oh hell, I'm black with soot, I'm absolutely filthington." She opened Jane's door without knocking and put in her head. "Got any soapyjo?" It was some months before she was to put her head round Jane's door and announce, "Filthy luck. I'm preggers. Come to the wedding."
Jane, the recipient of Dorothy's comments, is an overweight young woman who works for a struggling and slightly dodgy publisher. She justifies eating more than others and sneaking a bit more gas for heat -- all required to fuel her 'brain work'.  Jane, unlike Dorothy, very much wants to give the impression that she thinks, though the quality of her reasoning is dubious.  A shady acquaintance, Rudi, encourages Jane to put her literary talents to profitable use by writing letters to well-known authors in hope of receiving a personal reply.
The prison letter and the asylum letter were more liable to bring replies in the author's own hand than any other type of letter, but one had to choose an author "with heart," as Rudi said. Authors without heart seldom replied at all, and if they did it was a typewritten letter. For a typewritten letter signed by the author, Rudi paid two shillings if the autograph was scarce, but if the author's signature was available everywhere, and the letter a mere formal acknowledgment, Rudi paid nothing. For a letter in the author's own handwriting Rudi paid five shillings for the first page and a shilling thereafter... 
Bernard Shaw had in fact proved disappointing. He had sent a typewritten postcard: "Thank you for your letter in praise of my writings. As you say they have consoled you in your misfortunes, I shall not attempt to gild the lily by my personal comments. As you say you desire no money I shall not press upon you my holograph signature, which has some cash value. G.B.S." The initials, too, had been typed.
One day, on a brain-wave, she wrote to Henry James at the Athenaeum Club. "That was foolish of you because James is dead, by the way," Rudi said.
Jane is enamoured of Nicholas Farringdon, who has submitted a manuscript to her employer, but Nicholas has eyes only for Selina and takes to arranging illicit meetings with her on the rooftop; he gains access to it from the American intelligence agency next-door, and Selina slips out that narrow bathroom window.

One of the more senior residents (the women are supposed to move out at the age of 30) insists that there is an unexploded bomb in the garden, and she is proven right one afternoon when it at last blows up. As fire moves through the club, the action moves to the third storey bathroom, where Jane and the others are working frantically to extract the publisher's wife from the narrow window, which she'd tried to slip through on a lark. Once she is freed, Selina and those few who are slender enough can escape through the window, but the others must wait for firemen to break through the roof to extricate them. Nicholas, who is trying to help the trapped women -- either to slip through the window or to stay calm until the firemen reach them -- perhaps sees for the first time each one's true character.

As I said, the timing was off for me and this book. It happens. I look forward to reading it again when we can click properly.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Fludd, by Hilary Mantel

I have not intentionally gone on a Christian-themed reading spree. I was simply reaching for the next novel in Hilary Mantel's back-list, and it turned out to be Fludd, about which the author notes, "The Church in this story bears some but not much resemblance to the Roman Catholic Church in the real world, c. 1956. The village of Fetherhoughton is not to be found on a real map."  Mantel, however, stays much closer to the universe we know than, say, Philip Pullman's Oxford in Northern Lights.

The priest is a weary fellow who draws much more solace from whisky than from God. His housekeeper, Agnes, tries to hold things together. Theirs is a semi-functional, platonic marriage of inconvenience.
Father Angwin was a foxy man, with his dead-leaf-colour eyes and hair; head tilted, he sniffed the wind, and shied away from what he detected. Somewhere else in the house, a door slammed.
Consider Agnes Dempsey: duster in hand, whisking it over the dustless bureau. In recent years her face had fallen softly, like a piece of light cotton folding into a box. Her neck too fell in floury, scalloped folds, to where her clothing cut off the view. Her eyes were round, child-like, bright blue, their air of surprise compounded by her invisible eyebrows and her hair, a faded gold streaked with grey, which sprang up from her hairline as if crackling with static. She had pleated skirts, and short bottle-shaped legs, and pastel twin-sets to cover the gentle twin hummocks of her bosom. Her mouth was small and pale and indiscernible, made to ingest the food she liked: Eccles cakes, vanilla slices, miniature chocolate Swiss rolls that came wrapped in red-and-silver foil. It was her habit to peel off the foil carefully, fold it as thin as a pencil, twist it into a ring, and pop it on her wedding finger. Then she would hold out both hands -- fingers bloodless and slightly bent by incipient arthritis -- and appraise them, a frown of concentration appearing as a single vertical line at the inner corner of her left eyebrow. Then she would rest her hand on her knee for a little; then remove the ring, intact, and throw it on to the fire. This was Miss Dempsey's private habit, which no one had ever seen. Above her upper lip, on the right-hand side, she had a small flat wart, colourless as her mouth itself. It was hard for her not to touch it. She was afraid of cancer.
Father Angwin, we learn, has many crosses to bear:  his parishioners, the nuns at the village convent (most especially the mother superior), and the bishop, whom he refers to as 'His Corpulence'.  When the bishop arrives on short notice to bring the fruits of Vatican II to Fetherhoughton, Fr. Angwin is uninspired. He doubts his parishioners will profit any more from an English Mass than they do from the Latin one.
By the time the bishop came bustling in, Father Angwin had got over his hangover. He sat in the parlour, with his neat ingratiating smile. "Father Angwin, Father Angwin," the bishop said, crossing the room, and taking him in a grip; hand squeezing upper arm, hand pumping hand, quite beside himself with joviality, and yet those episcopal bifocals glinting and swimming with suspicion, and the episcopal head turning, turning from side to side, like a mechanical toy that you shoot for at a fair...
"Well," said the bishop, "have you heard of the vernacular Mass? Have you thought of it? I think of it. I think of it constantly. There are men in Rome who think of it."
Father shook his head. "I couldn't be part of that."
"No choice, my dear man, no choice; in five years, mark my words, or a little more than five --"
Father Angwin looked up. "Do you mean," he said, "that they could understand what we were saying?"
"Exactly the point."
"Pernicious," Father muttered audibly. "Arrant nonsense." Then, louder, "I can well understand if you think that Latin's too good for them. But the problem I have here is their little grasp of the English language, do you see?"
Fetherhoughton, besides being a notch or two below the neighbouring and downtrodden Netherhoughton, is a grim place.
The people of Fetherhoughton kept their eyes averted from the moors with a singular effort of will. They did not talk about them. Someone -- it was the mark of the outsider -- might find a wild dignity and grandeur in the landscape. The Fetherhoughtonians did not look at the landscape at all. They were not Emily Brontë, nor were they paid to be, and the very suggestion that the Brontë-like matter was to hand was enough to make them close their minds and occupy their eyes with their shoelaces. The moors were the vast cemetery of their imaginations.
Father Angwin insists that his parish is not fertile ground for the finer points of liturgical adjustment. There is no need to replace the incomprehensible Latin with incomprehensible English, as no one really listens to any of it, anyway. Unheeding, the Bishop then inspects the church and demands the removal of most of the statues. This, Father Angwin pleads, will throw the parishioners into fits. They adore their statues.
"We are not here for frills and baubles, Father," said the bishop. "We are not here for fripperies. We are here for Christian witness."
"Rubbish," Father said. "These people aren't Christians. These people are heathens and Catholics."
The bishop has one loyal fan in Fetherhoughton, and that is Sister Perpetua, the ferocious head of the local convent who would like nothing better than to see Father Angwin crucified. Her underlings are terrified of her. Her name is beyond the local abilities, so she is known to young and old as Sister Purpit.
Purpit was a stumpy woman, of middle years -- it is not proper to speculate about the exact age of nuns. Her skin was pale and rather spongy, her nose of the fleshy sort; she had a hoarse flirtatious laugh, and with this laugh, a way of flicking a corner of her veil back over her left shoulder; she had tombstone teeth.
Most of the nuns teach in the village school (caning wayward children is their only exercise), and one does her service to the Lord by preparing inedible and tooth-breaking food for the others. A young Irish sister, sent to Fetherhoughton after trying to pass off the dermatitis on her palms as stigmata, is Purpit's most vexing charge. When Father Angwin asks her if any of the nuns might be free to help dig a shallow grave in the cemetery for the statues the bishop had identified for removal, Purpit has just the woman for the job. Honestly, those Irish!
"I can lend you Sister Philomena. A fine strong girl. She can dig. A true daughter of the Irish soil."
"Oirish," she said; it was her little joke. You cannot expect much of the humour of nuns. ...
"She said she had the stigmata. She said her palms bled every Friday."
"And did other people see this?"
Perpetua sniffed. "Irish people saw it," she said. "Some senile old donkey of a parish priest -- forgive me, Father, but I always speak my mind -- who was foolish enough to fall for her nonsense. It caused a stir, you see, had a whole parish in a state of excitement. I'm pleased to say that when he took it further the pair of them were pretty soon stamped on. At diocesan level, you know. In my experience you can count on a bishop."
"So they sent her to England?"
"Yes, to get her out of that over-excited, unhealthy atmosphere. Well, I put it to you, Father, have you ever heard anything like it? Stigmata, indeed, in this day and age? Did you ever hear of anything in such poor taste?"
The bishop had also mentioned the possibility of sending a young curate to the parish, and everyone knows what that means:  someone to keep Father Angwin in line. When a young cleric shows up late one rainy night and introduces himself as Fludd, people assume him to be the new curate. As he joins in the chore of digging the graves for the statues, though, Sister Philomena gets a different sense, a most decidedly unclerical inpression of him.

Fludd shares his name with a 16th-century alchemist, and when he says things like "this is my nigredo, this is the darkest night of my soul", one senses that alchemy is still the business of the new 'curate'.  He certainly facilitates some remarkable transformations in the people of Fetherhoughton before he disappears.

So this was Hilary Mantel's first contribution to the genre of religious farce, and it's a smash hit. There are five more of her novels between Fludd and Wolf Hall that I've not yet read.  I think the woman is constitutionally incapable of writing a bad book, but there are five more chances to be proven wrong. I may just put a statue of St. Hilary on my writing desk in the meantime and pray for a fraction of her talent.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman

Although my willpower was adequate to postpone the delights of the second volume in the His Dark Materials trilogy, it could not stop me reaching for another Philip Pullman novel.

Over the last few years, I've re-read the four canonical gospels for the first time since my childhood, when I rebelled angrily against exclusionary teachings of the Roman Catholic catechism and the Church's insistence that I accept as historic fact supernatural details which are barely workable as metaphors.  A few years ago, a friend remarked how exquisite she found the Gospel of Matthew, and so I turned to it as a work of literature.  My friend was right -- the King James version is an especially beautiful book.  I was stunned by two things in particular:  the number of New Testament phrases that have become fixtures in our present-day English language, and how much I liked Jesus.

He preached tolerance for those of other faiths. He advocated poverty, humility and meekness. He condemned lust for power and control over others. He suggested that punishment for the wicked was a job for those who have no sins of their own on the books. He recommended praying privately, not making a public and ostentatious show of one's piety. He treated women with respect and compassion.

Time and time again, I read and admired Jesus' teachings and then wondered, so how did we get from this to  churches (of all Christian denominations) that proclaim who will and will not gain entry into heaven; that loudly, violently and even fatally condemn sinners; that are rolling in unimaginable (and untaxed) wealth... ?

And in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Philip Pullman concocts a fable that could well explain the discrepancies between the Christ and Christianity.  In his version, Mary gives birth (quite the normal way) to twins, whom she names Jesus and Christ.  As small children, Jesus is the more typical, always getting into scrapes, while Christ is the obedient, devout little tot.  As adults, however, it is Jesus who becomes the great prophet and teacher, attracting a huge following and ruffling the feathers of the Romans and Jews.

In his version of Luke 4:24, Pullman's Jesus has the nerve to suggest that simply bearing a certain title or belonging to a given group might not guarantee salvation. God's "chosen people"?  They are the good people, and they might not even be one of our clique.
When has a prophet ever been honoured in his home town? Consider this, if you think you deserve miracles because of who you are: when there was a famine in the land of Israel, and no rain fell for three years, whom did the prophet Elijah help, by God's command? An Israelite widow? No, a widow from Zarephath in Sidon. A foreigner. And again, were there lepers in the land of Israel in Elisha's time? There were many. And whom did he cure? Naaman the Syrian. You think being what you are is enough? You'd better start considering what you do.'
Meanwhile, Jesus' twin, Christ, begins following the crowd from place to place and writing down his brother's speeches just for posterity.  Soon a mysterious character approaches him and encourages him to continue in this effort and better yet, enhance the texts.  Miracles are, after all, great PR and so memorable!

The stranger (angel? devil?) is concerned that Jesus is likely to run into trouble with the authorities, and unless the chronicle is spiced up a bit, he'll be forgotten as soon as he's dead and buried.  (And wouldn't a resurrection be a nice touch?)
In helping me, you are helping to write that history. But there is more, and this is not for everyone to know: in writing about what has gone past, we help to shape what will come. There are dark days approaching, turbulent times; if the way to the Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaid of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was. I am sure you understand me.'
The Jewish priests, of course, find Jesus' teachings enormously disruptive.  First, they're shaking up the status quo, including their assumption that they are the chosen race and needn't fuss too much about entry to the Kingdom of God.  Second, Jesus and his hangers-on could be perceived as the beginning of a revolt against the Roman occupation, and that would likely result in a blood bath. With wonderful wit, Pullman reveals the historic realities of the period -- the priests knew that Jesus was a political liability, even as he preached obedience to a power higher than Rome.
'I don't understand what he wants. If we offered him a high position here, would he accept that and keep quiet?'
'He preaches the coming of the Kingdom of God. I don't think he could be bought off with a salary and a comfortable office.'
Meanwhile, the stranger continues to advise Christ as he records the speeches and events. A celestial editor, so to speak. He points out the need to be pragmatic. People are for the most part weak and stupid. It's best to give them sound-bites and rules, lots of rules.  A church will keep everything on the rails.
Perfection does not belong here; we can only have an image of perfection. Jesus, in his purity, is asking too much of people. We know they're not perfect, as he wishes them to be; we have to adjust ourselves to what they are. You see, the true Kingdom would blind human beings like the sun, but they need an image of it all the same. And that is what the church will be.
In his agony in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus imagines what this 'church' idea might come to and prays to God that if such a thing does come to pass, that it be an institution of compassion. For everyone who has ever raged against one Christian church or another, this passage reads like a bitter cup, indeed.
Was my brother right when he talked of this great organisation, this church of his that was going to serve as the vehicle for the Kingdom on earth? No, he was wrong, he was wrong. My whole heart and mind and body revolted against that. They still do. Because I can see just what would happen if that kind of thing came about. The devil would rub his hands with glee. As soon as men who believe they're doing God's will get hold of power, whether it's in a household or a village or in Jerusalem or in Rome itself, the devil enters into them. It isn't long before they start drawing up lists of punishments for all kinds of innocent activities, sentencing people to be flogged or stoned in the name of God for wearing this or eating that or believing the other. And the privileged ones will build great palaces and temples to strut around in, and levy taxes on the poor to pay for their luxuries; and they'll start keeping the very scriptures secret, saying there are some truths too holy to be revealed to the ordinary people, so that only the priests' interpretation will be allowed, and they'll torture and kill anyone who wants to make the word of God clear and plain to all; and with every day that passes they'll become more and more fearful, because the more power they have the less they'll trust anyone, so they'll have spies and betrayals and denunciations and secret tribunals, and put the poor harmless heretics they flush out to horrible public deaths, to terrify the rest into obedience. And from time to time, to distract the people from their miseries and fire them with anger against someone else, the governors of this church will declare that such-and-such a nation or such-and-such a people is evil and ought to be destroyed, and they'll gather great armies and set off to kill and burn and loot and rape and plunder, and they'll raise their standard over the smoking ruins of what was once a fair and prosperous land and declare that God's Kingdom is so much the larger and more magnificent as a result.

'Lord, if I thought you were listening, I'd pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should be not like a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood for the carpenter; but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place. Does the tree say to the sparrow, "Get out, you don't belong here?" Does the tree say to the hungry man, "This fruit is not for you?" Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?'
So, we wonder, were Christ and his advisor correct? If they had not jazzed up the gospels with miracles and established a church hierarchy to maintain them, would Jesus have been completely forgotten within a few years of his death, just another self-proclaimed prophet, come and gone?  The stranger, visiting the now elderly Christ (and helping himself very liberally to the bread and wine sitting on his table) suggests that their actions were justified. Before he vanishes, he asks one last chilling and provocative question.
But which is better,' said the stranger, breaking off some more bread, 'to aim for absolute purity and fail altogether, or to compromise and succeed a little?'

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Greatest Mystery in the World, by Og Mandino

This was, mercifully, the last of three Og Mandino self-help books that I was assigned to record for Malaysian Association for the Blind.

By the end of the book, I could see no connection whatever between the title and the contents. The only mystery in my mind is why anyone agreed to publish it.  My friend and fellow blogger, CovertOperations78, remarks that too many self-help authors are interested primarily in helping their own bank accounts, and this dismal exposure to three of his books convinces me that Og Mandino sits squarely in this category of financial self-service.

He published The Greatest Secret in the World in 1981, which was essentially a re-hash of The Greatest Salesman in the World (1968).  The same "wisdom from ancient scrolls" grew even longer in the tooth with the release of The Greatest Salesman in the World, Part II, published in 1989.

The Greatest Mystery in the World came out in 1997, and if the title shows a certain lack of imagination (Mandino also penned the Greatest Salesman, Salesman II, Secret, Miracle, and  Success in the World), the content shows even less. Many self-help authors give credit to the sources that have inspired them, and that's fine. If you can share wisdom that you gleaned from an archaic source and show that it's still relevant today, more power to you. The Mandino shenanigans that left this reader not only unimpressed but fuming are his tendencies to hide behind mysterious, supernatural characters visible only to him and to dumb down their imparted, pre-digested "wisdom" to a trite soup.

In this volume, he meets Simon Potter, "a 'ragpicker' and salvager of human lives". Simon is an angelic figure who possesses enormous wisdom and a library of self-help books, the best of which "are touched by the hand of God."  He goes about, disappearing in one place and appearing suddenly in others, often near Og Mandino, amazingly enough, and uses his accumulated wisdom to pull people out of the mire.  Although he is a guru in his own right, Simon never publishes his learning -- he just passes his material to "Mr. Og".

Simon used the material he gained from his 'hands of God' books to construct his Ladder of Life.  If a reader follows the rungs -- reading the chapter pertaining to each rung daily for one week -- he will at the end ostensibly have reached a heavenly state on earth. Each chapter or rung consists of highly edited excerpts interspersed with Simon's own parenthetic observations, duly punctuated and initialled.

Here Simon Potter (via Og Mandino, of course) explains to the reader his daring modifications to what is a largely forgotten volume.
(James Allen wrote those wise words more than a hundred years ago, and his tiny book from which they were taken, As a Man Thinketh, has been hailed by countless generations as one of the most powerful and relevant guidelines to a good life ever delivered to the inhabitants of this earth. There is only one hurdle to Allen's invaluable advice for the truth-seeker of today and that is his constant reference to humanity in general as "man", a common custom of his time. I have labored long to convert the brilliant author's words to the first person without altering his meaning in any way so that as you read each solemn declaration for a better life they will apply to you whether you are male or female. No one has dared to tamper with these powerful words for more than a century... until now. S. P.)
I daresay that a modern woman can read the generic term 'man' and deduce that it applies equally to herself. Thank you, Simon and Og, for the consideration, but it's condescending and idiotic. Next, in light of the fact that the book was published in 1902, I hardly think "countless generations" have hailed it.  Further, if As a Man Thinketh was in fact "the most powerful and relevant guidelines to a good life ever delivered to the inhabitants of this earth", why has  it sunk into obscurity, while the much older advice of Benjamin Franklin and Socrates still resonates with us earthlings (of both genders)?  No one has dared tamper...?!  No one has wanted to tamper with Allen's original text, perhaps, and certainly no one needed to.

The final ladder rung and the last straw is Simon's simplification of Oscar Wilde's story, 'The Happy Prince'. This chapter did not leave me in an elevated or heavenly state, it left me steaming. Keep your rag-picking hands off Oscar Wilde! For heaven's sake, of all the authors who need no simplifying, editing or explication...

I'm not averse to self-help books. Og Mandino's popularity, however, is a mystery to me. Not the world's greatest, but still pretty puzzling.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman

My blind audio librarian friend, Nicholas, was raving about the full-cast recording of Philip Pullman's Northern Lights (published in the U.S. as The Golden Compass). I'm sure the BBC 4 production, featuring Terence Stamp, Emma Fielding, Bill Paterson, Kenneth Cranham, and Ray Fearon is marvellous, but I reached for the e-book and was no less smitten.  As this is the first of the books in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, the other two are hovering in my future, and the anticipation is delicious.  I think I'll draw it out a bit, just as I'm waiting for just the right time to read Hilary Mantel's Bringing Up the Bodies, the second volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.  Gluttony is a deadly sin.  No gobbling allowed.

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, I was born in a far northern place, and now I'm settled in Malaysia, where January is indistinguishable from July. I never complain about the tropical heat, but I do miss certain aspects of life nearer the poles.  Another bookish friend who moved from Kuala Lumpur to Edinburgh insists that there is a certain northern psychology, a northern temperament.  He gave me two books to keep me in touch with my geographical roots, Moominland Midwinter by the Finnish artist Tove Jansson and The Idea of North by his friend and University of Aberdeen professor, Peter Davidson.

The Idea of North came out a decade after Northern Lights, but both authors borrowed the phrase that Glenn Gould, the brilliant Toronto pianist, coined as the title of his radio documentary on the place of the north in the Canadian mentality -- Davidson for the title of his book and Pullman for the second chapter heading of his.

In Northern Lights, characters are drawn to the polar realm by the mysterious forces and substances at play there -- faint images of an alternate universe can be glimpsed behind the wafting drapes of the aurora borealis, and the search for a magical substance known only as "dust" brings all the greatest forces of good and evil to the far north to battle for power over it.

As our young heroine, Lyra, leaves her home at Oxford, one of the dons gives her a brass object that looks like an elaborate compass, with many wheels and dials. He tells her it is an alethiometer -- a truth-telling device. Over time, Lyra learns to use the alethiometer by posing questions to it and then sinking into a deep, trance-like, meditative state as she watches the needles flutter around and point to one arcane symbol after the next.

In the introduction to The Idea of North, Peter Davidson explains how a very different compass gave him the title for his book.
The talisman that brought this book into being still lies in front of me. A working compass is set into a disk of cloudy Perspex (the occluded texture is like ice, like the milky air of Dutch snow paintings, like the smoke-pale sky of 1930s photographs of northern towns). On the Perspex is written The Idea of North. The compass is translucent, so that it can be held up to catch a landscape in its lens. Whatever place embodies your own idea of north, you can see it through the clear glass, with the red compass needle always indicating the north of what you see... This sculpture was made -- as a multiple artwork -- by the Scottish artists Dalziel and Scullion. It is simple, ingenious and eloquent.
The needle of traditional compasses unfailingly point north; the alethiometer looks like a glorified compass, and its needles indicate truth. Lyra and all the various characters who will assist and oppose her know that that the truth lies to the far north.

What child (of any age whatever) doesn't swoon at the idea of riding a polar bear? Iorek Byrnison is far from a cuddly parody of a bear. He would no doubt devour any Moomins he might encounter. As Pullman says in his introduction, this novel takes place in a universe like ours in many ways, yet different. Iorek is a very real polar bear in most ways, yet just different enough to win our undying love.

My favourite difference between the Northern Lights universe and our own is the fact that humans have daemons which take the forms of animals, almost always of the opposite gender of the human. The daemon stays very near its human (although witches' daemons can travel significantly longer distances), offering solace, advice and assistance. When Lyra has the misfortune of seeing a boy whose daemon had been severed from him, the sight sickens and horrifies her. Someone had surgically removed the child's soul.

Lyra's daemon is Pantalaimon, and because she is still a child, he can change forms. He flutters around her as a moth when the novel opens, but later shifts into a wildcat, a bird, a dolphin, as needs dictate. An old seaman watches Lyra as Pantalaimon frolics with a pod of dolphins and speaks to her of the time when her daemon will take a fixed form. What follows is possibly one of the finest descriptions ever of what it means to grow up.
"Why do daemons have to settle?" Lyra said. "I want Pantalaimon to be able to change forever. So does he."
"Ah, they always have settled, and they always will. That's part of growing up. There'll come a time when you'll be tired of his changing about, and you'll want a settled kind of form for him."
"I never will!"
"Oh, you will. You'll want to grow up like all the other girls. Anyway, there's compensations for a settled form."
"What are they?"
"Knowing what kind of person you are. Take old Belisaria. She's a seagull, and that means I'm a kind of seagull too. I'm not grand and splendid nor beautiful, but I'm a tough old thing and I can survive anywhere and always find a bit of food and company. That's worth knowing, that is. And when your daemon settles, you'll know the sort of person you are."
"But suppose your daemon settles in a shape you don't like?"
"Well, then, you're discontented, en't you? There's plenty of folk as'd like to have a lion as a daemon and they end up with a poodle. And till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they're going to be fretful about it. Waste of feeling, that is."
Take Mrs. Coulter, for example -- charming, brilliant, elegant and evil to her very core.  Her daemon is a golden monkey who is no less stunning and wicked than she is.  I love this illustration by Kate Baylay.  One day I would like to find an illustrated print copy of the His Dark Materials trilogy, though perhaps not Ms. Baylay's. Much as I think she's captured the essence of Mrs. Coulter and her monkey-soul, her style doesn't really suit the novel overall. (Her illustrations for The Great Gatsby, though, are a perfect fit.) This book is a classic, and well worth the investment in a lushly illustrated hard-cover for readers who live farther north. Alas, Malaysia has no polar bears, but we do have ravenous silverfish. The tropics are unkind to paper. Books need more than the idea of north -- they need the climate.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Choice, by Og Mandino

I'd like to find out who donated the full set of Og Mandino's self-help books to the Malaysian Association for the Blind and throttle him.  I can at least be thankful that, of the seven or eight books in the stack, I've been assigned to record only three of them, and they are short books.  
Read this book, or give it a miss?
Return it to the shelf, and EXIT NOW.

I'm a bit squeamish about deriding self-help books, because it implies that I believe myself to need no improvement. This is far from the case, and I'm always delighted to read a book that inspires me to do something better. On the other hand, it's ludicrous to propose that all self-help books are of equal virtue and value. 

I was lukewarm on The Greatest Secret in the World, and my feelings for this book take another dip.  The Choice is a largely autobiographical novel with the addition of an angelic character (who may, for all I know, have been very real to Mandino).  

The narrator is an enormously successful insurance executive -- workaholic and affluent. His wife and two sons are uncomplaining and constantly supportive of his efforts. One Sunday morning, as he's about to go off for his weekly round of golf with his buddies, he looks at his sons and has a lightbulb moment that he's not spending enough time with them. He speaks with his wife about his concern and, as always, she lovingly vows to support him no matter what he decides. He resists the pleas and offers of his bosses at the insurance company and quits to pursue a career as a writer.  The bosses genuinely care about this man and his family and question his financial situation. Does he have enough in savings, for example, to carry them through a few years, while he tries to establish himself in his new career? No, he does not. Does he have any connections in the publishing industry who might give him a hand? No, not one.  He has determination that it's time to exit the rat-race, and that is the choice he makes.  

He sells their suburban home and buys a rural house in New Hampshire from the widow of a recently deceased writer.  The widow, enchanted with the narrator and his family, leaves her husband's old manual typewriter behind. Using this, our man sets about writing his very own self-help book, which he will title A Better Way to Live.  While he and his unflagging wife are submitting the manuscript to one publisher after another, their funds dwindle. She takes an axe to the household budget; he takes on part-time work at the sawmill and the filling station.  Poverty looms, but there is never a hint of disgruntlement in the household. Everyone fully supports Dad's choice.

Then a small publisher responds with such effusively gushing praise for the manuscript that one can't help but thinking of a newly-struck oil supply. Why, this is the finest self-help book the man has ever seen. When it hits the market, the sales break every record on the books.  Printers can't keep up with the demand; booksellers can't keep the thing in stock. Money flows into the author's account like water. Fan-mail arrives by the sackload, and the author and his wife are determined to reply to each and every adulatory letter.  They notice one letter which has been delivered to them despite its incomplete address and lack of a postage stamp.  Written in beautiful blue calligraphy, it's an ambiguous message, signed A. B. Salom.  They attribute it to a crackpot, but they are also a bit unsettled by it.  

As the story goes on, the messages from A. B. Salom appear here and there, always inexplicably delivered, and warn the author that he will have a choice to make in the near future.  The wife makes the connection between the signature and the Biblical story of Absalom, who battled with the choice of saving his own life vs. that of his son.  Eventually, the mysterious prophetic calligrapher appears to the author (though no one else can see him) and informs him that he, too, will be required to make a choice between his own life and that of his younger son.  He is to announce his decision by wearing a tie of a certain colour at the final speech of his national book tour.  He dons the red tie to signify that his son should be allowed to live and gives a speech that brings all the audience in Yankee Stadium to its feet as if Babe Ruth had just hit one out of the park, although he spoke extemporaneously and has no subsequent memory of what he said.  (I'll let you read the transcript of the speech and decide for yourself how impromptu it sounds.)  The angel makes one last appearance to announce that there has been an unprecedented decision from above to let both the author and the son live.  

I'm not sure what Mandino wanted readers to take away from this book.  Quit your day job and pursue your dreams?  This novel's narrator took a huge leap with inadequate preparation or fallback plan, and it strikes me as nearly miraculous that he succeeded.  If Mandino advises others to follow in this man's footsteps, that must surely qualify as malpractice in the self-help author's profession. (I would also point out that once his book was published, the author's life was every bit as frenetic as it had been as an insurance salesman; he had merely traded one rat-race for another.)  And what message are we to take from the ethereal calligrapher, A. B. Salom and the Choice that he presents? That we must be willing to sacrifice our own lives to preserve those of our children? What kind of a message is that?  

It may not be the advice of the angels, but if you need guidance on making sound, well-reasoned and healthy changes in your lifestyle, this book should not be your choice.