Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tickets for Armchair Travel

I recently came across a blog that I admire. It's Mary Whipple's Seeing the World Through Books.

She says, "In recent years I have reviewed books set in countries from Afghanistan to Zanzibar, representing 132 of the 195 countries in the world.  My objective is educational.  The vast majority of books I review are literary fiction written by authors from other countries or set in other countries.  Since so many western readers have not traveled to many of the countries featured here, and since references are often made to particular places well known to readers from those countries, I often use small photographs to clarify and explain the references within the novels." As of today, there are nearly 590 book reviews on Mary's site, and they cover nearly every country on the planet.

I've always loved books which afford me the luxury of armchair travel or which impel me to buy airline tickets to see distant places for myself.  I've also been long obsessed with maps. You know, maps -- those diagrams of what is where, drawn by people who know.  

Another web site, They Draw and Travel, has expanded my definition of a map. Bandung, a former hill-station during the Dutch colonial period on Java, Indonesia, now draws compulsive shoppers, having converted its glorious old colonial buildings into factory outlets, selling the wares of Indonesia's clothing manufacturing trade at negligible discounts. Sensible people might use this map to find the glorious natural waterfall (on the left) and enjoy its beauty while their companions shop til they drop along the thoroughfares to the east.

Other maps include special interests, like the taco tour of Puerto Vallarta, or an aspiring vampire's map of New Orleans. There's even a map of street musicians in Cork, but unless Irish buskers are people of long-standing habits, that map may have an expiry date.

This map, 'Trulli and Silence in Italy', caught my eye first because it is beautiful, and second because I rarely associate Italy with silence or the tranquillity that this map evokes.  Maybe I should go to Trulli to investigate for myself. 

Postscript:  Trulli does not refer to a place, but to the buildings found there. According to Unesco, trulli, "limestone dwellings found in the southern region of Puglia, are remarkable examples of drywall (mortarless) construction, a prehistoric building technique still in use in this region."  Here is a photo from Unesco's page, but frankly, I think the map above, by Federica di Carlo, is more captivating.

Pearl of China, by Anchee Min

After what felt like an endless list of Og Mandino books to be recorded for Malaysian Association for the Blind, I was very cheered to move on. Pearl of China's cover suggested to me a lightweight novel for young readers, but I quickly realised my error. It is in fact a historical novel about Pearl S. Buck, told from the Chinese perspective, and told well. After several months of recording with little enthusiasm, I began looking forward to the hours in the booth with this book.  It took me half a session just to record the final chapter, having to overwrite passages read with a quavering voice.  

Pearl Sydenstricker came as an infant with her Christian missionary parents to Chin-Kiang (today Zhenjiang). Her parents sent her back to the US to attend college, after which she returned to China, where she stayed until the Communist Revolution in 1934. She was, culturally and linguistically, Chinese. 

Anchee Min, a Chinese woman who migrated to the US when in her mid-20s, is especially well-equipped to address the lives, loves and challenges of a bi-cultural woman. In terms of the novel's accuracy, she confesses that the Chinese narrator, Willow Yee, is a composite character whom she created from the identities of several of Pearl's Chinese friends, and she shifted the dates of a couple of events to aid the story's flow. Otherwise, she claims to have stayed very close to the historical record.  

Pearl's father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was a fiercely driven missionary who often disregarded the needs and wishes of his wife and daughters in his zeal to minister to the Chinese. Pearl returned to China after college with a new fiance in tow -- Lossing Buck -- and, to Willow's dismay, Lossing was the agricultural version of Absalom. He aimed to save the Chinese peasantry by introducing new, modern farming methods, and he expected Pearl to assist him in this mission, much as Absalom looked to his wife as a helpmeet. 

Their marriage, if Anchee Min is anywhere near the truth of the matter, was a predictable train wreck. Lossing admired Pearl's ability to speak several dialects, but he himself was tone-deaf so would never master any of them, making him entirely dependent upon her for interpretation and translation. He was no more at ease with the local customs: He couldn't abide the Chinese festivities at their wedding. He chased the children out from under the bed on wedding night, where they were hiding to promote fertility. Perhaps Lossing's most signal failure of assimilation was his rejection of Chinese culinary culture.
Lossing was disgusted when he saw all the chopsticks reaching for the same plate. He said he would rather starve... he didn't even notice what she cooked for him. Unlike the Chinese, who lived to eat, Lossing ate to live.
To Willow's further distress, Pearl followed her husband to China's poorest province, Anhui, because the Governor there felt he had nothing to lose by giving the foreign agriculturist's suggestions a go. Unfortunately, the farmers were less receptive.
"How is your agriculturalist?" I asked.
"Well, he is turning into a disillusionist," Pearl replied. "Lossing resents the attitudes of Chinese farmers. He feels less sympathy toward their misery because they are closed to his ideas. His efforts didn't succeed and the farmers quit his experiments." 
Pearl sympathised with the peasants who saw her husband as a foolish man."Lossing believes that if his method works in Iowa, it must work in Anhui."

Although Lossing's missionary vision was a failure (he and Pearl went their separate ways after a few years), Absalom's was not. Perhaps by his sheer force of character, determination and passionate faith, he converted first a few and then ever more Chinese to Christianity (or their synchretised version of it).  Carie, Pearl's mother, drew people to the worship of Christ by her gentle ways, music lessons, and first aid treatments.  The people of Chin-Kiang may have been in awe of Absalom's booming Old Testament patriarch's voice, but they saw Christ's words in action when they were with Carie. When the foreigners came under threat, first from the Nationalists following Chiang Kai-Shek and then from the Communists led by Mao, the people of Chin-Kiang defended their pastor's family. When Pearl and her sister Grace and their children finally fled Maoist persecutions in 1934, Pearl probably hoped to return to China in the near future. Absalom stayed behind with his church while his daughters sailed for America.  

For the rest of the novel, Willow and Pearl stay in touch by letters, for which Willow suffers persecution and imprisonment. Pearl is now rejected as a foreign cultural imperialist by Mao and his wife, who is spearheading the Cultural Revolution. Pearl Buck's application for a visa to return to China with President Nixon at the time of his landmark visit in the 1970s was denied. This, Anchee Min believes, was the handiwork of the vengeful Madame Mao. Pearl died a few years later, and in the very moving denouement, Willow brings some soil from Carie's grave in Chin-Kiang to scatter on Pearl's grave in Pennsylvania, marvelling at the Chinese landscaping and greenhouse full of camellias surrounding her best friend's American home.  By taking some soil from Pearl's grave back to China, she will have successfully reunited their souls.

In the Author's Note, Anchee Min says that although Pearl Buck's story has been written many times, it's always been from the western perspective. She wanted to write about Pearl and  the impact of her work from a Chinese point of view. Although many Chinese during those years following the Boxer Rebellion blamed foreigners for many of the evils that befell them (and often rightfully so), this is a very refreshing portrayal of a family of foreigners who earned the abiding respect and love of the people with whom they lived. 

Her name is very familiar to me, but I've not yet read any of Pearl S. Buck's novels.  The Good Earth won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1932, and she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. It's high time I read some of her work, and I thank Anchee Min for this historical novel to give me the nudge that I needed.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Laura Willowes is a spinster in post-WWI England, men being in especially short supply after the war. She's been shuttled dutifully from her late father's home to that of her brother and his family, where she becomes the quiet but helpful Aunt Lolly. As she reaches middle age, her family members forbear her mild eccentricities until the evening she announces that she is moving out. She intends to go live in a cottage in Great Mop, a village in the Chilterns, and perhaps even keep a donkey. Her sister-in-law (who believes that rain and falling leaves result in ill health unless one is safely in London) frets about the foul weather in the country. Her brother says, "It is not sensible. Or suitable."  For the first time in her 47 years, however, Laura Willowes takes charge of her life and sets out for Great Mop, population 227.  (She acquired this detail from the map and guide book she was mysteriously compelled to buy in a London shop, divining from it that Great Mop was where she must go.)

And so Lolly lets a cottage from Mrs. Leak. She takes long rambles over the hills and on the country paths. She collects herbs, listens to the wind and trees and falls down and weeps for joy in a field bursting with cowslip blossoms.
The weight of all her unhappy years seemed for a moment to weigh her bosom down to the earth; she trembled, understanding for the first time how miserable she had been; and in another moment she was released.
She revels in her sudden freedom to simply be -- she no longer needs to be of service to others to justify her existence. Her bliss is interrupted when her nephew, Titus, comes to Great Mop for a visit and decides to stay. Laura's exhilaration is shattered.
She had thrown away twenty years of her life like a handful of old rags, but the wind had blown them back again... And she was the same old Aunt Lolly, so useful and obliging and negligible. They were come out to recapture her, they had tracked her down and closed her in... they were all leagued against her. They were come out to seize on her soul.  
On a disconsolate walk through the woods, she cries out for help, for someone or something to alleviate her distress. When she comes home, she finds a small kitten in the cottage. How had it got in? The doors and windows were all closed. She realises, just as certainly as she'd known she must come to Great Mop, that the cat is her familiar, and she is a witch.  Her plea for help had been heard.

She is quite calm in her new role. Perhaps some newly discovered powers result in Titus leaving Great Mop, or maybe that was a coincidence. She doesn't want to wreak chaos or cast wicked spells -- she just wants to be left in peace.
When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded.... There they are, child-rearing, house-keeping, and all the time being thrust down into dullness. I tell you, that sort of thing settles down on one, like a fine dust, and by and by the dust is age, settling down... If they could be passive and unnoticed, it wouldn't matter. But they must be active, and still not noticed.  
And there you have it, the ageless definition of a witch: an old, unmarried (spinster or widow, it makes no difference) woman who would like to live a tranquil, independent and self-reliant life, allowing her intuition to synchronise with the natural environment around her.  In other words, a life neither sensible nor suitable.

Although I've made my own retreat to Kuala Lumpur, where I can live life pretty much as I choose (to the extent that the two cats, my own familiars, permit it), Lolly Willowes made me ache for the countryside -- hedges and coppices, rolling hills and seasonal flowers. I need to get out of the city more often.

My only grumble about this book was the copy I bought second-hand from an online seller who described it as being in "like new" condition. The cover was unscathed, but the young woman who last owned it annotated madly, underlining what seemed to be random passages and commenting with distressing frequency and large, juvenile letters, "YUCK" or "Hahahahaha" or "funny how all the houses have names." That's what they do in England, dear. She drew boxes around all the unfamiliar words, and since her vocabulary seems slightly less than that of a working border collie, the pages look like erratically tiled floors. I don't mind buying used books with annotations here and there, but these were an annoying distraction. I have no idea who the previous owner was, but a pox on her anyway.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Beginner's Grace, by Kate Braestrup

Kate Braestrup
Kate Braestrup's first book, Here If You Need Me, her account of her work as the chaplain for the Maine Warden Service, is the one book I have given as a gift more than any other. Whether or not you have any connection -- to Maine, game wardens, Unitarian-Universalist ministers, or God (in whatever form) -- I defy you to read this book and remain unmoved.

When I searched an on-line book site for yet another gift copy of Here If You Need Me, I spotted Kate's newest book, Beginner's Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life.  I confess, if anyone else had written a book with this title, I'd have clicked past it in a heartbeat, but given its author, I just as rapidly clicked it into my electronic shopping basket.  And she's done it again:  I would (and most probably will) give copies of this book to friends of all faiths and no faith whatever. In the latter case, I'll include a note directing them to Chapter 16: Prayers for Agnostics and Atheists.

Maine is a harsh place. Severe climate, vast expanses of wild space both on land (17 million acres of forest, give or take) and sea, and dire poverty in much of the state add up to a challenging terrain for a law enforcement chaplain. Yes, the Warden Service oversees fishing and hunting permits, but these are also the officers who get called in when people go missing in the woods or in the water, which they do regularly. It's Kate's job to provide spiritual comfort to the wardens, the survivors, and whoever has volunteered to step in and help in any given crisis. If this sounds like a tall order, it is. Staggering, in my view. Yet for all her remarkable qualities, the Dr. Reverend Kate Braestrup is pragmatic.
I accompany game wardens to accidents and drownings and search-and-rescue operations in the Maine woods. Regardless of the circumstances, community ministry brings us into close contact with people whose socioeconomic and religious backgrounds vary widely, and who may share with us little more than birth, illness and death -- the common features of human experience. Whatever theological or doctrinal systems a chaplain begins his ministry with, the work itself has a distinctly streamlining effect. A chaplain doesn't have a leisurely hour in which to explain God. The suffering is right there, and its urgency demands an immediate response. We don't give a lot of sermons out in the field or in the woods or streets. Instead we are called upon to offer the spiritual equivalent of triage. We're asked to pray.  
We certainly feel inclined to pray in moments of crisis and trauma, but she reminds us that in calmer moments, most of us will pray in some form or another to express a train of three thoughts:  "Yes. Wow! And thanks."
I won't claim that prayer can get you a new car or find the lover of your dreams. It won't help you gain status, assert your dominance, or otherwise please your ego. It won't even make life easier.
What it can do -- what prayer, at its best and at our best , has always done -- is help us to live consciously, honourably, and compassionately. Because I am not stronger, more self-sufficient, smarter, braver, or any less mortal than my forebears or my neighbours, I need this help. As long as prayers help me to be more loving, then I need prayer. As long as prayer serves as a potent means of sharing my love with others, I need prayer. 
Chapter 6 is 'Pausing on the Threshold for Prayer'.  In 1996, Kate's husband, a Maine State Trooper, set out from their house in Thomaston, just a few miles from where I grew up. His cruiser hit black ice on the bridge over the Georges River, and he died in the resulting collision. The author of this book knows what it means to see a loved go out the door on a normal day and never return. Will a prayer at the threshold prevent such tragedies? Of course not. But it will make everyone pause for just a moment and express love and appreciation for each other. One of her closest friends during Kate's teenage years was a Catholic, and she recalls waiting (impatiently -- 'the movie starts in 15 minutes!') while Natasha's father delivered his blessing, the same blessing he delivered every time a member of his family left the house.
"May the Lord bless you and keep you,
May the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you,
May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you
And give you peace."
As it was, dancing impatiently on the linoleum in the Belfiores' kitchen, my hand on the knob of their back door, I watched Natasha roll her eyes and submit to this exotic ritual: a father's blessing. I was envious. 
As Kate reminds us, "goodbye" is a contraction of "God be with you".  She is not particular about the wording you choose for such blessings -- she's rather fond of George Lucas' prayer, "May the Force be with you."  At their core, these prayers are all ways of telling someone, You matter. And I wish you well.  We often think these things, but we too rarely say them.

She advocates modifying or composing prayers as we need to. There are many childhood traumas which leave us viscerally averse to certain words and images, particularly if we've grown up in severe religious environments.  Maybe we are just desperate to get away from the image of God as the white senior citizen lounging upon a cloud. Kate is adamant that any prayer which "gives us the willies" needs to be changed. Because the bride cringed visibly whenever the Lord's Prayer was read aloud but acknowledged that her Catholic groom's family would expect to hear it at their wedding, Reverend Braestrup came up with the idea to read the prayer in the original Koine Greek, the language in which it was first recorded.
The bride's folks were charmed to hear the words as Jesus might have said them; the groom's mother felicitously recalled some Greek ancestors; and though "Our Father who art in heaven" made the bride tense and miserable, Pater h'emon, h'o en tois ouranois went down a treat.
On Mothers' Day, she led a church service as they prayed "Our Mother who art in heaven..." mostly because it expanded her experience of the prayer and reminded everyone that God has no gender.  I also like her adaptation of the 23rd psalm:  "You are my shepherd, I shall not want, for you make me to lie down in green pastures..." Who is 'you'?  In my case, I can say only that it's an ineffable, unknowable force which is far greater than I.

Many of us are squeamish about ideas and images of the divine.  Maybe we have a vague sense of some overarching power. As someone who often faces loss, death and tragedy, Kate Braestrup has more cause than most of us to visit the topic of theodicy -- why do bad things happen to good people? What kind of a deity would stand by and watch my loved one be murdered? You talk about mercy, and compassion and love, but where was God when my child fell through the ice?

Her answer: In any disaster, look for the helpers. Look for God in the ones who are coming out to do whatever they can to help. Tragedy happens. It always has and always will, and no amount of prayer will prevent it.  The sacred manifests itself in love. If you choke at saying "God" in prayer, for whatever reason, try substituting "love".
I believe absolutely, implacably, irretrievably and indefatigably that nothing matters more than love. I believe all human souls are called to become as loving as they possibly can be, given the limitations that time and luck will inevitably impose. Love is the point, the purpose, and the ultimate value; it is consciousness and empathy, alpha and omega, beginning and end. God is love. 
She talks about physicality in prayer. She cites the ritual prostrations of Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs. She talks about people who pray as they run. She mentions the story of Christ washing the apostles' feet at the Last Supper, and she talks about the simple, comforting gesture of laying a hand on the shoulder of someone who is suffering. We have bodies, and they too can be instruments of prayer.
You can just allow your body to arrange itself in surrender and allow yourself to yield before all that is vast, incomprehensible, and stronger by far than your own soft self.  
Lest her readers bend down to praise her as a saint, Reverend Kate freely shares stories to illustrate her very human proclivities. When her dentist confides that her ex-boyfriend is coming in to have a tooth filled, she encourages him to be stingy with the novocaine. When a colleague asks her to lead a prayer service at the Maine State Prison, she objects that it's full of convicts, and she is the widow of a State Trooper and a law enforcement chaplain -- "I don't do criminals".  But she does manage to choke out a vague prayer for the ex, and she pulls off the prison visit rather nobly.  And she speaks also of the times when it is appropriate to refrain from any words whatever, when just silently holding a hand is the best prayer for the occasion.

And for those of us who remain uncertain about what or whom we're praying to, here we find one gorgeous image:  we are crossing, very humbly and gently, a velvet bridge. We may not know precisely what's on the other side, but the crossing is the important part.
In a poem entitled 'On Prayer', Czeslaw Milosz answers an imaginary atheist with love, "You ask me how to pray to someone who is not," he writes. "All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge."
To set foot on that bridge requires not certainly but deep humility. If the other end of the bridge turns out to rest on nothing, well then, walking the bridge together in love shall be a fine and sufficient gift.

Postscript:  This is from Kate Braestrup's blog. If I failed to get the point across that this she a laugh-out-loud funny woman with a tremendous heart, read this.
It is fundraiser for The Community School, a place for kids who, for whatever reason, don’t or can’t manage at the regular local high school (kids like me, come to think of it!). It’s a good cause, for which eight local worthies (fire chief, police officer, restauranteur, et al.) are paired with real dancers. They are teaching us how to dance -- more or less -- and will perform with us so that, presumably, we don’t look completely ridiculous. When asked what sort of dance I would like to perform, my mind went completely blank. “Salsa?” the instructor suggested, and I said sure, why not? Here’s why not: The Salsa is a very sexy dance. And I am NOT a sexy person. (I’m a minister, for Christ’s sake!) So I did what I usually do in such circumstances: I complained. Christian Clayton, dance instructor at Swing-n-Sway dance studio in Rockland, had to listen to me whine as he commenced the mighty labor of creating a latin swan out of a teutonic, middle aged goose. Every week, I clomped grimly through my routine, an expression of acute disapproval on my face while Christian made encouraging noises in the sort of voice nurses use with the senile. From what I could see in Swing-n-Sway’s enormous, merciless mirror, the audience was in for a disappointing experience. (Fortunately, it will be brief: The whole dance only lasts a minute and thirteen seconds, and yes, I counted.) The spangled costume is not going to help. Then, during an Easter lunch at which I was enlivening everyone’s holiday repast by complaining, my friend Lucinda said, with her usual perfect calm and dry accuracy: “Well, luckily, this isn’t about you.” Ah! Right! It isn’t about me! Thank God! It’s about… love and service—and I can do love and service, even if I can’t do the salsa.

Goldfinger, by Ian Fleming

I've never been a fan of the James Bond films, and so I've never gravitated toward the Ian Fleming novels that inspired them. I was a little surprised to see that Anthony Burgess included Goldfinger in his list of 99 best novels.

I'm in the throes of drafting an annual report for a company whose two lines of business are well outside my range of expertise, so in addition to dealing with the normal corporate gobbledegook, I'm having to immerse myself in the jargon of the unfamiliar technologies. At the end of a day, a martini (shaken or stirred, I couldn't care less) and an action novel are in order.

Now, having read it, I'm still surprised that this book made Anthony Burgess' list. Then again, if he read it when it was first published in 1958, it may have seemed more radical than it seems to me today. Never mind. It made good reading for a mind that wasn't up to dealing with subtleties and complexities.

Agent 007 is, as I expected him to be, suave, cool under pressure, and irresistible to women. He is a man of his era who enjoys fast cars, fine liquor, gambling and golf.  He is not a philosopher. As Goldfinger opens, Bond sits in an airport bar and muses that killing people is an unpleasant but occasionally unavoidable aspect of his job as an MI6 agent. As "regret was unprofessional", however, he orders another bourbon on the rocks.

A Mr. DuPont introduces himself to Bond, saying that he'd observed him at a casino recently.  DuPont owns a luxurious hotel on Miami Beach, and he finds himself annoyed with a guest whom he believes is cheating him at cards.  Might Mr. Bond be willing to observe and expose the scoundrel in exchange for a stay at the resort and a nice bit of cash? 007 feels that a few days of seaside TLC would do him good, and if he can thwart this cheating canasta player, so much the better. The hotellier fills Bond in on the details of his nemesis, the guest who goes by the name of Mr. Goldfinger.
"You won't believe it, but he's a Britisher. Domiciled in Nassau. You'd think he'd be a Jew from the name, but he doesn't look it. We're restricted at the Floridiana. Wouldn't have got in if he had been."
This detail definitely took me back to the time of my early childhood, when hotels and clubs were often restricted to white gentiles, occasionally even to white Protestants. Jews were legally banned from all Miami Beach hotels until 1949, and it sounds like there were still restrictions in Ian Fleming's day.

Mr. Goldfinger's deadly sin is avarice. Specifically, his insatiable lust for gold. He just can't acquire too much of the stuff. He likes in in bars, in leaf, and in bed, coating the skin of his women. Mr. DuPont fails to see what Bond grasps immediately -- for the truly obsessive personality, there is no such thing as enough.
"What's he worth? Ha!" said Mr Du Pont explosively. "That's the damnedest thing. He's loaded. But loaded! I got my bank to check with Nassau. He's lousy with it. Millionaires are a dime a dozen in Nassau, but he's rated either first or second among them. Seems he keeps his money in gold bars. Shifts them around the world a lot to get the benefit of changes in the gold price. Acts like a damn federal bank. Doesn't trust currencies. Can't say he's wrong in that, and seeing how he's one of the richest men in the world there must be something to his system. But the point is, if he's as rich as that, what the hell does he want to take a lousy twenty-five grand off me for?"  
People talk about Bond girls, who are invariably lithe and sexy. I suppose there is also the typical Bond villain, and if so, Goldfinger meets my expectation for the role.  Physically unattractive, power-mad, and ruthless, with lots of nasty weapons and associates. Bond first sees Goldfinger lying on a lounger beside the pool at the Floridiana Hotel, a foil contraption reflecting the sun upward onto his face and neck.
When Goldfinger had stood up, the first thing that had struck Bond was that everything was out of proportion. Goldfinger was short, not more than five feet tall, and on top of the thick body and blunt, peasant legs, was set almost directly into the shoulders, a huge and it seemed exactly round head. It was as if Goldfinger had been put together with bits of other people's bodies. Nothing seemed to belong. Perhaps, Bond thought, it was to conceal his ugliness that Goldfinger made such a fetish of sunburn. Without the red-brown camouflage the pale body would be grotesque. The face, under the cliff of crew-cut carroty hair, was as startling, without being as ugly, as the body. It was moon-shaped without being moonlike. The forehead was fine and high and the thin sandy brows were level above the large light blue eyes fringed with pale lashes. The nose was fleshily aquiline between high cheek-bones and cheeks that were more muscular than fat. The mouth was thin and dead straight, but beautifully drawn. The chin and jaws were firm and glinted with health. To sum up, thought Bond, it was the face of a thinker, perhaps a scientist, who was ruthless, sensual, stoical and tough.
Oh, and unlike our hero, Goldfinger is short.
Bond always mistrusted short men. They grew up from childhood with an inferiority complex. All their lives they would strive to be big - bigger than the others who had teased them as a child. Napoleon had been short, and Hitler. It was the short men that caused all the trouble in the world. And what about a misshapen short man with red hair and a bizarre face? That might add up to a really formidable misfit. One could certainly feel the repressions. There was a powerhouse of vitality humming in the man that suggested that if one stuck an electric bulb into Goldfinger's mouth it would light up.
In what felt like an excessively long, 18-hole account of a golf match between Goldfinger and Bond, Ian Fleming nevertheless gives us a good look at the two rivals. Goldfinger can't help himself and, with the connivance of his caddy, cheats. Bond chooses to overlook the first few instances and focuses on winning the match by skill alone. Is this not a classic James Bond analogy?
As soon as Bond had hit the shot he knew it wouldn't do. The difference between a good golf shot and a bad one is the same as the difference between a beautiful and a plain woman - a matter of millimetres.
As I mentioned before, when it comes to women, gunshots or golf shots, 007 regards reflection and regret as wastes of time.
Bond never worried too long about his bad or stupid shots. He put them behind him and thought of the next.
Goldfinger's nastiest minion is the Korean martial arts fiend, Odd Job -- one of the few in the world to possess a black belt in karate (well, it was 1958, after all), and oddly dignified in his bowler hat (which has a deadly serrated blade in its rim).  These things sound a bit quaint in this age of cinematic weapons that vaporize victims in an instant, but Bond is genuinely afraid of Odd Job's skills, as any sensible person might be.

I was discussing the book with a couple of friends, both of whom had seen the film version many years ago. I mentioned Pussy Galore and her gang of lesbian criminals who team up with Goldfinger in his audacious plot to rob Fort Knox. "They were lesbians?!" my friends gasped. Ah yes, I suppose that would never have made it past censors in 1964, when the film was released. It's rather a marvel they allowed the character to retain the name that Ian Fleming gave her. In the novel, Pussy Galore ultimately switches sides -- first in helping Bond to overcome Goldfinger and then by falling into bed with him. The woman who resisted Bond's advances, on the other hand, pulls free of him during a chase scene, feeling she'll be safer with Pussy, and meets her death when Odd Job's hat sails into her neck. The message is plain:  Ladies, if you want to be safe (but not too safe!), stick with your man. Bond. James Bond.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinness

The "People's Palace", Bucharest
This novel was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. Julian Barnes' superb The Sense of an Ending won the prize that year, but I think The Last Hundred Days deserved at least a spot on the short list. Alas, I was not on the judging panel.

Remember Italo Calvino's book categories? Allow me to add one more:  Books About Places and Times You Would Never Choose to Visit But Which You Find Enthralling In Print. I was very pleased to join Patrick McGuinness on a literary joy-ride through the last hundred days of Nicolae Ceaușescu's rule. This highly autobiographical novel is an extraordinary tour guide for the armchair traveller. I could see, hear and smell 1990s Bucharest without actually getting my nose broken by the secret police.  I like that.

For the readers who protest that they have no interest in Communist-era Romania or the megalomania of the Ceaușescus, I submit to you:  It doesn't matter.  Patrick McGuinness could write a totally captivating user manual for a toaster oven. This man has style.

The unnamed narrator of The Last Hundred Days accepts a teaching post at a Bucharest university, although he's mystified how he got the job. There was never an interview, and his credentials are less than brilliant. But a job is a job, so why not? After the Romanian Customs officials unburden his luggage of his coffee, chocolate, AA batteries and duty-free cigarettes, our man makes his way to his apartment, which is fully and tastefully furnished to an extent that suggests its previous occupant, a Dr. F. Belanger, had simply evaporated the day before. Although the narrator gives the impression of bumbling through life and going where it takes him, he is a keen observer, and he knows his own blind spots:  "Someone arriving in a new place registers everything except what is important."

Dr. Leo O'Heix, another British professor and a Bucharest old hand, takes the new arrival under his wing and out for a welcome dinner after a bibulous cocktail hour. While most Romanians are queueing for bread, the party elite are gathered at Capsia, a fine restaurant with crystal, silver, and fawning waiters. Leo has the explanation for the contrast, as he does for most of the bizarre Bucharest phenomena.
"I blame Dynasty -- they've started showing an episode twice a week. A way of using up a quarter of the three hours of nightly TV. It's supposed to make Romanians disgusted by capitalist excess but all it does is give lifestyle tips to the Party chiefs. Suddenly the Party shops are full of Jacuzzis and ice buckets and cocktail shakers."
In Bucharest, the only certainty is deception. Even visiting dignitaries in motorcades are unwittingly observing elaborate stage sets.
First, the roads would freeze up, then diggers and cranes quivered and stopped dead like animals scenting danger. Men in suits appeared from nowhere, by which I mean everywhere, and broke up the food queues. Then you waited. Ten, twenty minutes, half an hour -- Then a faraway siren; faint at first, then stronger and stronger until you had to stop up your ears. And the cars. One, two, three, four -- six identical black Dacias with black-tinted windows. If foreign dignitaries were being shown Bucharest, police vans unloaded goods and stacked them in shop windows: bread and vegetables, cuts of meat and fruit most people had forgotten existed. The cars slowed down to take it all in. When they had passed the same vans took everything back again to the diplomatic and party shops.
The narrator's reflections on his lower middle-class English parents are spare, poignant and astute. I can see these people, and it hurts.
My father scraped the ceiling of his life, a life he thought he was too big for. But he wasn't too big: it had simply contracted around him from lack of use...
When she broke down that day she just stopped. It was as if she had died already but left us the body to help us acclimatise to her loss. That was typical of her -- the gentleness of her going...
Him I grew to hate, and it energised me. But I couldn't make a life out of it, or not a life that was my own. So I discovered forgiveness, and the secret malice of it: people forgive not out of grandeur of spirit but as a way of freeing themselves. The forgiver always floats free, the forgiven slides a little further down the soft shute to hell. Maybe that's why so many religions use forgiveness as a secret weapon. Thus I forgave him, and made sure he knew it.
In Romania, however, even history is unreliable. (As I look at the revisionism of the Malaysian history textbooks over the past decade, I think communism isn't the only butt of this joke...)
"You know the old joke: with communism the future is certain, it's just the past that keeps changing."
One thing -- perhaps the only thing besides deception -- that Bucharest residents can be sure of is heavy-handed oppression. The casual, matter-of-fact way in which the secret service agent delivers a nose-breaking punch to the narrator's face without missing a beat of his sentence caused me to gasp audibly. Mr. McGuinness gave no lead-up to that blow, and I'm sure it was simply routine to the thug who threw it.
It was a place where violence was not wreaked or loosed or unleashed, or any of those emotive, dynamic, driving verbs; violence here was administered.
Our narrator looks at his own dodgy academic and work history and can pretty well work out how he ended up where he is, but he wonders what other foreigners are doing in Romania. Leo, like many of us who wind up in odd places and are asked how it  happened, doesn't really have an enlightening answer.
After one of his guided walks through the disappearing city, I asked him how he had finished up here. The verb to finish up seemed appropriate when it came to explaining one's presence in the English department at Bucharest university in 1989, but never more so than when Leo used it: "One day I just woke up in my bed in East Molesey, and thought: 'Apart from a wife, two kids, mortgage, home and job, there's nothing holding me here' and now look: here I am, Comrade, here I am!"
The narrator makes a trip into the countryside, ostensibly to help some young Romanians defect across the border. Again, no one in this episode is what he seems to be -- our man is still taking people and things too much at face value. He gapes at the agricultural wealth in the rural fields.
After the grey privations of Bucharest, it was a shock to see such fertility. Everything grew. On all sides there were tomatoes, corn, cabbages; orchards heavy with fruit and bright fields of vegetables. The earth threw it all forth, and the sun ripened it generously. In the vineyards the fat white grapes hung on their boughs, the vines rising in perfectly aligned terraces. Melons the size of footballs lay on the earth, umbilicals ranging off across the dark soil; greenhouses and polytunnels stretched off into the distance. "All for export," Leo saw me scanning the fields, "most of the poor sods in the factories have never even seen a melon, except in Dynasty. This is naturally a land of plenty; it's the bloody destitution that's artificial."
Leo and the narrator, like most expats in Bucharest at the time, end up socialising at this foreign embassy or that one. Leo wheels and deals in the diplomatic circles for his black market business, and the narrator seems to come along primarily for the companionship and food. He's unimpressed with the young, officious British ambassador, Wintersmith, who doesn't really seem to have a good grasp of what's really happening in Romania.  The older and more seasoned Belgian diplomat, Ozeray, is amused by the Brit's naivete and recommends keeping to a course of quiet inaction.
"Ah yes, quite so. I could not help overhearing your wise analysis. I remember when I was just beginning my diplomatic career." Ozeray paused and closed his eyes, inviting us to join him in a prehistory where diplomats and dinosaurs roamed the same mirrored banqueting halls, "My mentor, Baron Henri Nivarlais -- a great diplomat, oversaw fifty years of the most radical change the world has known without batting an eyelid -- the Baron, he said to me: 'Young man, in diplomacy there are two kinds of problem: small ones and large ones. The small ones will go away by themselves, and the large ones you will not be able to do anything about. The biggest challenges in your career will come from the temptation to act. The test of your mettle will be how nobly you surmount it.' Very fine advice, Mr Midwinter, do you agree?"
"Well, that's not really what I meant, to be honest." Wintersmith was struggling. "I meant -- well -- there's plenty for the diplomat to do."
Ozeray's smile drained him of the will to go on. When the Belgian finally loosened his grip, Wintersmith backed off into the crowd, a beaten man.
Another of the horrifying aspects of communism, Romanian style, is the push toward homogeneity.  Cultures of ethnic minorities obliterated, eclectic buildings razed.  Anything that spoke of a unique identity was suspect.
...out in the provinces, in Sibiu, Timișoara, Moldova, areas where the minorities lived, all signs of different cultures were being eradicated. It was desolation: villages that had stood for centuries were bulldozed in a morning, to be replaced with high-rise blocks surrounded by scrubland or factory complexes that looked like abandoned galactic penal colonies. Romania was being turned into a huge, pastless no-place...
In Bucharest, Leo scrambles to record the historic architecture that is levelled on a daily basis, much of it to make way for the constant expansion of the People's Palace.  [Note: Leo refers to it as the world's largest structure, and that's not quite true. It's the largest civilian building; the US Pentagon is larger.]
"You see that?" Leo asked, pointing at the world's largest structure, the Palace of the People, an entire horizon's worth of concrete, steel and marble cladding. "That's the world's biggest mausoleum. When they've finished building it, the whole of communism will climb in there, shut the doors, and die. They think they're building the city of the future. What they've done is build their own tomb. The Megalo-Necropolis, the new city of the dead, waiting for its tenants."
The government, in a particularly vindictive gesture, decides not simply to raze an Orthodox monastery, but to blow the venerable building to bits before a gathered crowd of mourning citizens.
The monastery of Saints Cyril and Methodias had stood for centuries on the south-west bank of the canal. Now it was in the way, its four-hundred-year-old tower an offence against the new skyline. It had withstood earthquakes, fires, woodworm, the Turks, rot and neglect, but now it would make way for the "People's Leisure Park".
Everyone watches the growing civil disturbance in Timișoara with astonishment and hope. Ceaușescu had observed the collapse of other communist governments in eastern Europe and confidently asserted that his was not going anywhere, thank you. Yet protests were taking place, and the police were not altogether united in suppressing them.  Might the current regime be overthrown? The unthinkable was becoming less so every day.

Leo, ever practical, raises the topic that so many revolutionaries fail to consider:  What happens next? We are rid of the tyrant, but do we have a solid plan to put a working government immediately in his place?  A country in the wake of a coup d'etat is a jubilant place, but also a very dangerous one.  Nature abhors a vacuum, after all.
"There'll be time to address that in due course, but the moment the borders open and the government collapses, they'll be back".
"Who's they?"
"The gangsters, dealers, traffickers, the pimps and fascists, the Jew-haters and ethnic cleansers -- you've seen it starting already in Yugoslavia, or whatever it's called now, and it'll happen here."
The Last Hundred Days has both style and substance, and I'm pleased that I didn't toss it aside on the premise that I had no pre-existing interest in Romania. Patrick McGuinness built it for me as I made my way through his book.  I see that, besides being a professor of French and comparative literature at Oxford, Mr. McGuinness is also an award-winning poet. Poetry has never been my genre of choice, but maybe he can spark that interest, too.