Friday, July 25, 2014

The Dog Stars

Peter Heller's post-apocalyptic novel grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. It took a few pages to get used to the style -- paragraphs with extra separation and sentence fragments. But these are graphic and linguistic representations of the fragmented world left after a virulent flu and blood disease have killed most of the planet's inhabitants.

The first-person narrator, Hig, is himself fragmented. Much of what he cherished has been destroyed, but he goes on surviving without being sure why. He put a pillow over his wife's face at her urgent request to end her suffering at the end and has been emotionally shut down since then. Such consolation as there is comes from his dog, Jasper, and some activities that were hobbies before and now are useful survival skills -- hunting, fishing, flying.

He lives in a hangar at a small airfield in Colorado and patrols the "perimeter" he and his partner, Bangley, have set up in an ancient Cessna. For mankind has been reduced to savagery in a truly kill or be killed environment. Intruders are killed without any questions asked. Hig worries that Bangley, a weapons expert with an uncertain past, will eliminate him if he outlives his usefulness as a comrade in arms.

What disrupts this dystopian existence is a cryptic radio call he intercepts in the plane one day, indicating there may be a functional settlement in Grand Junction. Eventually, Hig sets out to track this signal and has his first encounter with other people that does not end in death for one side or the other and rekindles long-dormant emotions.

The first-person narration works well in this context. There are so few people, there is little for an omniscient narrator to know. Hig's flat, fragmented narration is nonetheless eloquent, sometimes lyrical and often poignant, without any pretension or artifice. The reader's enormous sympathy for his plight and the suspense of the story propel you through the book.

Heller, a product of the Iowa Writers Workshop as well as a magazine writer and author of several nonfiction books, has a disciplined command of language. The prose, the story, the narration are extremely lean, trimmed of any distraction or unnecessary detail -- a kind of post-modern Hemingway.

Can a post-apocalyptic novel have a happy ending? Everything is relative when people are stripped of civilization. Suffice it to say Heller's view is ever so slightly more hopeful than that of Cormac McCarthy in The Road -- but there are no guarantees.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Bitter Cross

Simon Mawer's historical novel, his second, is a grim portrayal of corruption and betrayal. As with his later The Gospel of Judas, it is about an illicit love affair involving a man of God who betrays his vow of celibacy, giving the lovers a shred of happiness but dooming them to death and separation.

What's evident already in this early work is Mawer's wonderful command of language, a diction that is rich -- perhaps a little over-rich waiting for the discipline of later works -- and a literary quality that gives his prose a texture even as he tells a compelling story.

The story here concerns Gerard Paulet, one of handful of English Knights of Malta to survive Henry VIII's persecution of Catholics, who along with his comrades ends  up in exile at the order's headquarters in Malta. The Knights of St. John themselves are in exile, having been driven out of Rhodes to the small island in the Mediterranean that Mawer describes with the scorn of one who actually lived there.

His details of the knights, their galleys, their ships, the geography of the Mediterranean match a David Mitchell or Patrick Leigh-Fermor in their precision and arcane knowledge. Presumably the history, too, is accurate. It makes for a colorful background for the tortured affair between Paulet and the widowed princess of the island, Vittoria Pignatelli. It is, as with the affairs in Gospel and The Glass Room, an irresistible passion that brooks no denial -- not a choice, but a destiny. There is nothing Platonic about it, the happiness comes from carnal knowledge in defiance not only of Paulet's vows but the rigid social convention, which, as Vittoria's brother patiently explains to Paulet, does not allow a noblewoman like his sister to have an affair with someone below her station, for the knight is only "gentle."

The two lovers remain true to each other but there is distrust, which feeds on the betrayal of those around them as they are caught up in the intrigues of Renaissance Italy, the fight against the Turks for the control of the Mediterranean and Europe, and the dying throes of a crusading military order that has outlived its purpose.

There are intimations of the denoument because the story is told in the first person by an aged and broken Paulet, living out his days peacefully in the knights' priory in Rome. The author skillfully weaves the story backward and forward in time, maintaining the suspense not of what happens, but how and why.

Paulet is convincingly complex, torn as the protagonist in Gospel not only by the broken vows but the loss of faith as the joy of human coupling undermines belief in a religion that demands celibacy for its holy men. He nonetheless tries to preserve a certain semblance of honor, though his ambivalence in the climactic end of the novel leaves the reader uncertain how far he succeeds.

Much of the plot turns on his suspect "adoption" of a Muslim boy captured during a raid. His account of why and how he took the boy as his ward seems incomplete -- there is no sufficient motivation given. Later, given the turn of events, the reader begins to suspect that he is in fact an unreliable narrator, that he has not told the whole story.

The book is a downer. The cynicism is all-pervading, leavened with only the faintest glimmer of hope that the shared passion of Paulet and Vittoria is sufficient for redemption. It is, in the moral morass of Renaissance Europe, a true emotion, however many vows and conventions are broken. It sets the themes that run through Mawer's later novels, different as they are in setting and context.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Anthony Marra doesn't make it easy for the reader in this masterful novel, an amazingly accomplished work for a debut novel by a young author. But the payoff is there -- it is a truly moving, enlightening trip to hell and at least part of the way back.

The fact that his novel was passed over for both the Pulitzer and National Book Award shows the futility -- and perhaps the corruption -- of these literary prizes. Whatever merit one finds in the winners, it's worth keeping in the mind that the best books often get overlooked.

Marra leads the reader unflinchingly into the very depths of the inferno, describing five days at the very low point of the rebellion in Chechnya. The reader sees, feels almost, the deprivation, the misery, the fear, and ultimately the harrowing pain of people caught up in a war they never asked for.

Marra brings it down to a single village and town, to six main characters, and tells their story over the five days, flashing back to the past, and, innovatively, into the future. There is Akhmed, the incompetent doctor and would-be artist; Sonja, the ever-so-competent Russian surgeon; Natasha, her sister, sold into prostitution and addiction; Khassan, the local intellectual who treats Akhmed like his son; Dokka, Akhmed's neighbor and friend; and Ramzan, Khassan's son, who turns informer for the Russians.

The narrative shuttles back and forth through time and the reader has to fit the pieces together as they become available. In our book group, someone mentioned that Marra had been criticized for coincidences. But they were not coincidences, only cause and effect, as would have been clear in a chronological narrative. It is a narrative full of artifice, but so artfully done that the reader scarcely notices, caught up in the characters and their harrowing passage.

What is hardest for the reader is not this literary challenge, however, but simply the horror of the Chechnyan rebellion -- the torture, the maiming, the amputations, the "disappearances," the daily terror, the frightening randomness of life and death. It is the complete breakdown of civilized life, with familial devotion and some sense of honor the only threads that keep one going.

The title refers to a medical dictionary's definition of life as a constellation of vital phenomena and that is Marra's whole point. Life does go on, even in these horrific circumstances. There is a past, and there is a future, and the author gives glimpses of both. This is simply a very bad passage in that sweep of individual history. Half of the main characters survive and live on into quieter times; the other half are victims of fate's arbitrary hand. None of them is in control of their lives; they are only, barely, in control of their response to the hands they are dealt.

One of our book group members said he stopped after reading four-fifths of the book because he simply could not face going back to the Landfill -- the open pits where the Russians kept their Chechnyan prisoners for torture -- a second time.

When Marra has his characters look back to a time when buses arrived at busstops to take people to work, where the local hospital had one of the best oncology departments in the Soviet Union, when the deprivation of war makes one pine for "the relative generosity of totalitarianism," he raises the question of whether freedom is always worth it. It is not a rhetorical question. Were Chechnyans better off in the Soviet Union or even under the yoke of the Russian Federation? Were Iraqis better off under Saddam Hussein? Were Egyptians happier under Mubarak?

In our group, a recent visitor to Cuba said many people there had told him they were quite happy under Castro. The had the basic necessities of life and as much as their neighbors.

Marra doesn't broach any of these questions. He tells a story about people. But in showing every painful detail of their lives, he plants the questions in the mind of the reader. His characters are too busy surviving to philosophize. That is left to us after we've put the book down and taken a deep breath.