Saturday, January 29, 2011

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

This intense little book by Cesar Aira is compelling and mysterious. At 87 pages, it is more a novella than a novel. And, like the Clint Eastwood film "Million-Dollar Baby," it starts out as one story and turns into quite another story midway through.

That initial story reminded me in many ways of the Andrea Barrett novellas in Servants of the Map. As with the British surveyors mapping the Himalayas, the German landscape painter Johann Moritz Rugendas, an historical figure, is drawn to spend long years away from his native land chronicling the lush and exotic world of Latin America in his drawings and engravings. The author describes his fascination with the flora and fauna, the geology of the landscapes he visits in Mexico, Haiti, Brazil and finally Chile and Argentina, where the action of this story takes place.

From the beginning, however, Aira focuses on his own preoccupations -- how do we perceive the world, and how do our interactions with it shape those perceptions. Rugendas develops a style of landscape painting that his patron Alexander von Humboldt dubs a "physiognomy of nature," embracing the whole of the world reflected in the painting.

As the narrative proceeds and takes its turn, the role of our own subjectivity in these perceptions becomes paramount. How Rugendas perceives his surroundings and how he translates this into his art changes because of changes in his subjective view of the world. At this point, Aira informs us that Rugendas's "physiognomy" is what we would come to call "surreal."

Rugendas's fellow artist and faithful companion Krause is a foil for these reflections. He is a platform where the reader can seek refuge from the maelstrom presented by the changes in Rugendas.

The novel, while tracing the real career of an historical figures, veers into the surreal. When the two Germans are forced to stay in a hospital in San Luis in the Argentine pampas, Rugendas tells Krause he had a nightmare filled with strange monsters. His companion informs him that this was no dream, that these strange beings, "half-man, half-animal, the results of cumulative genetic accidents" really did inhabit this hospital in the middle of nowhere. It was a revelation to Rugendas. "What an amazing coincidence! Or correspondence: it suggested that all nightmares, even the most absurd, were somehow connected with reality."

The painter was fascinated by the idea of being able to sketch an Indian raid in the area of Mendoza, a provincial capital just below the foothills of the Andes. Finally, he gets his wish and is present when the Indians emerge from the forests to raid for cattle and women. "The morning was truly glorious, perfect for a raid. There was not a cloud in the sky; the air had a lyrical resonance; birds were combing the trees. The lid had been taken off the world specifically to reveal the conflict, the clash of civilizations, as at the dawn of history."

In the brief space of this novella, Aira is metaphysical, scientific, dramatic, and, at times, surprisingly comic. His story of Rugendas is profoundly unsettling and yet it opens the reader to a new awareness of how we perceive the world around us.

I bought this book because it was a staff pick at Politics & Prose. A short preface by the late Roberto Bolano, currently everybody's favorite Latin American author, describes Aira as one of the top three or four best writers working in Spanish today.

The Snake Stone

This is the second novel in Jason Goodwin's series about the Ottoman investigator Yashim, which I am reading before reviewing the most recent one, to be published in March.

There is little new in this novel beyond the themes and characters Goodwin introduced in The Janissary Tree. In fact, this book is almost a carbon copy of the previous one. Yashim visits the court -- the sultan is now ill, so the focus is on the valide, the sultan's mother. He eats and pals around with his friend, the Polish ambassador Palewsky, who once again save's Yashim's life by rescuing him from an otherwise fatal predicament. Yashim does some cooking and shopping, experiences once again a eunuch's frustrating yearning for a damsel in distress. The novel turns on one of Istanbul's historic sights -- the Janissary tree in the first book, and the serpent column in this one. And the climactic chase takes place in one of the city's distinctive architectural features.

The author's intimate familiarity with the culture and history of this fabulous city and his skillful prose bringing it alive are still what carry this series, though it is starting to wear thin and I wonder what he will do to pick things up in the subsequent novels. I know that the third book takes place at least in part in Venice, so we'll see what that brings.

Aside from the lack of novelty in this second installment -- other regular characters such as his transvestite entertainer friend and a fruit stall owner dutifully make their appearances here -- what is missing the most is more characterization of Yashim. In fact, after intimating some depths of character in the first book, Goodwin actually seems to pull back from going to deeply into his character. The reader's empathy for this unusual investigator becomes, I think, more attentuated, rather than less so, in this novel.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Help

Just because a book is a runaway bestseller doesn't mean it can't be good and Kathryn Stockett's phenomenally successful narrative about "colored" maids and their employers in 1960s Mississippi has somehow struck a deep chord in the country.

Boomers of course can still dimly recognize a familiar world from our childhood, though, as with "Mad Men," it's amazing to see how much attitudes have changed. Stockett's book may not be literature for the ages -- I doubt, for instance, that it will have the staying power of To Kill a Mockingbird -- but it is somehow comforting for our generation to see how successful the civil rights struggle has been.

It's timely, too, when you see Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's recent gaffe about racist city councils in his youth not being so bad -- some people still don't get it.

Reading this book has been a particularly interesting experience because I started the audiobook version on a long drive to North Carolina, but for various reasons got nowhere near the end and decided to read the hard copy to finish it. The novel, which features three different narrators -- two of the maids and a white woman, lends itself marvelously to audio treatment. The audio version had three different readers, whose speech and dialect perfectly matched the characterization of the novel. It was jarring, then, to switch to print and to see the Southern black dialect rendered in cold black and white after the comfortable, soothing voices of the readers.

The Help is about a young white woman's effort to write a novel about how the maids viewed their mistresses, an enterprise fraught with peril for all involved. The fear engendered by the racial oppression of Jackson society in the early 1960s is palpable throughout the novel and creates a constant tension. The three narrators -- Skeeter, the would-be author, recently returned home from college; Aibileen, an elderly, thoughtful maid; and Minny, a cantankerous, angry woman with a heart of gold -- tell the story in tag-team fashion, the one picking up where the other left off, providing three different views of the characters. All three are true heroines, though each flawed in her own way. The characterization of each is so sensitive, so detailed, and so well-rounded that all three come alive for the reader as real people.

Some of the other characters are less successfully rendered. Hilly Holbrook, the pushy president of the Junior League and a bigot without boundaries, would put the Wicked Witch of the East to shame for sheer meanness. There is not a scintilla of sympathy for this woman, whose cruelty is heartless and strikes everyone from her helpless maids to her hapless mother.

Other characters also have trouble emerging from two dimensions, though the author has some success with Skeeter's mother and her boyfriend, the son of a state senator. Celia Foote, a buxom rube marked as poor white trash, remains perplexing as a character, and her husband is a cipher. All of the men, in fact, are weak, bewildered creatures in this book club favorite.

The author maintains the tension, the sense of danger -- marked by cruel events such as the blinding of one maid's grandson and the jailing of another maid for petty theft -- until the climax. But then she seems to flinch, and the climax is somewhat anticlimactic.

The killing of Medgar Evers in Jackson and the assassination of President Kennedy are the historic backdrop for this novel of racism, as well as Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech in Washington. It is a time capsule that shows us how far we have come in race relations, and, in a way, how far we have yet to go. For many of these prejudices are still with us. The efforts of these three women narrators, though, inspire the hope that we shall continue to overcome them.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Death of Sweet Mister

Daniel Woodrell's totally original voice is experiencing something of a breakthrough after his Winter's Bone was made into a feature film. This book, which I bought on remainder some years ago, is being reissued in March, Amazon tells me, with a new foreword by Dennis Lehane.

Reviews compare him to Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy (in his southern phase?), but this Ozarks-based writer focusing on what he knows best is something new. In this novel, the narrator, 13-year-old Shuggie Akins, describes in unrelenting detail the sordidness of his life -- the very essence of poor, white trash -- in the fictional West Table, Missouri, right on the Arkansas border. He interrupts his narration with passing observations on the beauties and wonders of the nature in this backwoods, which stand in such contrast to this life.

Shuggie's (step)father, Red Akins, is one of the meanest cusses ever portrayed in literature. He has no redeeming qualities, as he bullies and beats his wife, Glenda (Shuggie's mother), exploits the youth by sending him into homes of invalids to steal their prescription drugs, and rousts about in a totally selfish existence, gambling, drinking and womanizing on a constant high.

But the centerpiece of the novel is the relationship between Glenda and Shuggie. The young adolescent is devoted to his mother, but dangerously aware of the slutty manner and behavior that makes her a permanent victim. Violence is in the air in this raw environment. In a masterful sleight of hand, however, Woodrell delivers the violence the reader expects, but offstage, and then slams the reader with another kind of violence that is not really unexpected but shocking nonetheless.

Someone mentioned Woodrell to me some years ago as a great read, and that's why I picked up the remainder. I grew up in part near the Ozarks, in Pittsburg, Kansas. Some of the telling details, such as Shuggie's pretending to sell the tabloid newspaper Grit as a cover for his home invasions, recall to me a world I've mostly forgotten.

The deft characterizations, lean plot, and gritty descriptions all make Woodrell well worth reading. But it is his language -- simple words, surprising metaphors, an easy virtuosity in using sophisticated language to describe painfully primitive scenes and emotions -- that mark him as a master. His books are compact -- this one is less than 200 pages -- and his oeuvre so far is relatively small, so it's an experience to be relished.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Janissary Tree

Jason Goodwin's debut novel with the 19th-century investigator Yashim Togalu won the coveted Edgar Award for Best Novel. I've had it on my shelf for a while, but wanted to read it after I was assigned Goodwin's latest novel to review for the March issue of the new Washington Independent Review of Books.

I'll keep this blog short and save more about Goodwin and his background for the review. The Janissary Tree is a very literate, textured novel, rich in detail about the exotic Ottoman court, the Sublime Porte, without letting any of it overwhelm a lean mystery. Goodwin's main gimmick is to make Yashim a eunuch and to successfully overcome a certain natural squeamishness about this subject. It enables Yashim to enter the titillating world of the harem, to consult with the sultan in the Seraglio itself, and to move easily in a demi-monde of ambivalent sexuality, while keeping him an outcast and a loner.

The plot in this debut turns on the possibility of a resurgence of the Janissaries, the elite palace guard that was brutally suppressed 10 years before the time of this novel in 1836. The plot is developed with panache and some suitably gory murders. Intimations of a three-dimensional Yashim also emerge in this debut, presumably to be amplified in subsequent novels, so that his castration is something more than a gimmick to get your attention.

Istanbul -- Goodwin usually refers to it by this name because he is writing from a Turkish point of view though it was known as Constantinople in Europe until Ataturk officially changed the name in the 1920s -- is a marvelous setting for any novel, and Goodwin knows how to use it to great advantage. It is a quick, rewarding read, and I look forward to the sequels.