Human Acts by Han Kang tr. Deborah Smith

Han Kang AuthorHuman Acts is the author Han Kang’s attempt to make some kind of peace with the knowledge and images of the Gwangju massacre in South Korea in 1980.

Her family had left that city just one year before, she was 10 years old when the 10 day uprising occurred, but she became aware of it through the overheard, whispered conversations of her family and the silence that surrounded them speaking of the home where they used to live. She learned three young people from that household had lost their lives, one, a boy Dong-Ho probably shared the same room she had lived in for many more years than the short time he had.

What made the events sear into her mind and perhaps permanently affect her psyche, was the forbidden photo book that was given to her family, books circulated secretly to let survivors know what had really happened, a book her parents tried to hide, one she sought out, opening its covers to images she would forever be haunted by.

At night, though, when all the grown-ups were all sitting in the kitchen and I knew I’d be safe…I crept into the main room in search of that book. I scanned every spine until finally I got to the top shelf; I still remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet. Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realised was there.

Asked why she felt motivated to write this book – which begins with the immediate after-effects of the massacre, the very real logistical management of the bodies, the bereaved, mass memorial rituals and the burials and goes on to enter the after death consciousness of one the victims, seeing things from outside his body – she responded that the experience of seeing those images left her scared, afraid of human cruelty, struggling to embrace human beings.

It left her with the two internal questions below, they became her motivation to enter into the experience and try to write her way out of it, spurred on by the events surrounding the 1980 massacre in her birthplace of Gwangju and then the more recent social cleansing that took place in the Yongsan area of Seoul in 2009:

1. How can human beings be so violent?
2. How could people do something against extreme violence?

Human ActsHuman Acts, which seems to me to be an interesting play on words, is divided into six chapters (or Acts), each from the perspective of a different character affected by the massacre and using a variety of narrative voices.

The opening chapter entitled The Boy, 1980 introduces us to Dong-Ho, but seen from outside himself, written in the second person singular narrative voice ‘You’. It is after the initial violence in the square and something has driven this boy, initially searching for the body of his friend who he witnessed being shot on the first day, to volunteer and help out, confronting him in a visceral way with so much more death and tragedy than he had escaped from on the day itself.

We meet the shadow of his friend in the second chapter, as he exits his body, but is unable to escape it, he tries to understand what is happening around him and observes his shattered body and others as they arrive, until something happens that will release him whereupon he senses the death of those close to him, his friend and his sister.

How long do souls linger by the side of their bodies?

Do they really flutter away like some kind of bird? Is that what trembles at the edge of the candle flame?

In another chapter, we learn one of the volunteers from the first chapter is an editor, we meet her again five years later in a short, violent episode, that is revealed in the seven days of healing that follow. Devastatingly brilliant, it delves into the cost of censorship and the risk of being anywhere near it.

She had no faith in humanity. The look in someone’s eyes, the beliefs they espoused, the eloquence with which they did so, were, she knew, no guarantee of anything. She knew that the only life left to her was one hemmed in by niggling doubts and cold questions.

The following chapters skip years, but never the prolonged effect of what happened, the events never leave those scarred by them. The narrative works its way back to the origins of the uprising, to the factory girl, the hard-working, little educated group of young women trying to improve their lot, to obtain fair wages and equal rights. They become bolder when they meet in groups and speak of protesting, they educate themselves and each other and feel part of something, a movement and a feeling they wish to express publicly, with the naive assumption they won’t be arrested or killed.

It brings us back to humanity’s tendency to group, to find common interests, to progress as a team with common interests, to support each other and to the tendency of those in power to feel angry, threatened and violent towards those who have an equal ability to amass support, regardless of the merits of their cause.

Deborah Smith’s translation with all the narrative changes and structural vagaries works so well, it’s only the names and the occasional script that remind us that this was a work written in a language, so very different in its structure and ability than English, a challenge Smith was very much aware of, but overcame in this stunning result. I can only imagine how it must feel to read it in the original language.

Han Kang so immersed herself in these stories and events, that it is as if we are reading the experience of a holocaust survivor, a torture sufferer; we know only a little of what it must be like to live with the memory and the reluctance to want to share it, the heavy price that some pay when they do.

Despite the suffering and proximity to events, I was riveted by this novel all the way through, reading it slowly, endeavouring to expand my awareness to try to comprehend where the artist is taking us, to try to receive the answers too to those questions that have haunted her for so long.

I was constantly racking my brains.

Because I wanted to understand.

Somehow or other, I needed to make sense of what I’d experienced.

I remember Primo Levi’s book If This is A Man: The Truce, a memoir, and his words, which could easily have been a guide for Han Kang herself, in the way she has approached this incredibly moving, heart-shattering novel. It seems a fitting note on which to conclude this review, to recall his words and his intention in setting things down on paper.

052812_1909_IfThisisaMa1.jpgI believe in reason and in discussion as supreme instruments of progress, and therefore I repress hatred even within myself: I prefer justice. Precisely for this reason, when describing the tragic world of Auschwitz, I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tones of the victim nor the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge. I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional; only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge. The judges are my readers.

Primo Levi

 

Further Reading

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Note: This book was kindly provided by the publisher Portobello Books.

 

Into The Magic Shop, A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James R. Doty

Into the Magic ShopJames Doty never really set out to write this book, but he told his story to so many people with whom it resonated and being one of the founding creators of CCARE (The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research) he was eventually convinced how many more people could be inspired by his story and learn about the amazing work being undertaken, that he agreed to share his experience.

Doty came from a poor background, raised in a dysfunctional family, his mother was frequently depressed and had suicidal tendencies, his father, who when he was sober he adored, often disappeared after one of his drinking bouts and when he did return was violent and abusive. Consequently, as a child he lived in a constant state of fear, in anticipation of when the next bad thing was going to happen, it made his heart race, his body tense and constantly made him dwell in anger and sadness.

The first major turning point in his life occurred in his early teens when he went to the local magic shop looking for a replacement thumb tip and there he met the mother of the owner, a woman named Ruth. Ruth recognised something in him and invited him to come to the shop every day that summer, promising to teach him a kind of magic he could use all his life. So he did.

She talked to him about different feelings and the emotions they stem from and taught him:
Trick 1. to Relax the Body,
Trick 2. to Tame the Mind,
Trick 3. to Open the Heart (the only one he didn’t learn) and
Trick 4. to Clarify your Intent.

She taught him to visualise and to never accept that something was not possible. He took the lessons and they enabled him to attain goals he believed would not have been achieved without the insights and practices that Ruth taught him. He went to university, to medical school and despite absences and the lack of excellent grades, became a doctor, a successful businessman and entrepreneur, a husband and father. But at a price, something he wouldn’t learn until many years later when he finally understood what the third lesson that he had failed to learn and practice was about and began to live and work in accordance with it.

Ruth was helping me form new neural connections in my brain. It was my first experience with neuroplasticity, well before the term was commonly used….Not only was Ruth training me to change my brain by creating new neural circuits but she was also training me to regulate the tone of my vagus nerve and, by doing so, affect both my emotional state and my heart rate and blood pressure.

James Doty became a neurosurgeon and shares a little of what he learned about the brain and uses it to explain how those early interactions with Ruth were changing and remapping his brain in a way that would help him in the future.

Neuroplasticity

In another turning point in his life, later when he has risen to great heights and achieved the great material success he believed was all he desired, he would come to learn how much more he was capable of with an open heart, he would bring together a group of people to scientifically research the effect of compassion and altruism on the brain.

As well as great scientific minds, he would meet with the Dalai Lama, who on listening to Doty explain his research and answering a number of questions, decided to support and sponsor the research with a significant and unprecedented financial donation, so impressed was he with the project.

When our brains and our hearts are working in collaboration – we are happier, we are healthier, and we automatically express love, kindness, and care for one another. I knew this intuitively, but I needed to validate it scientifically. This was the motivation to begin researching compassion and altruism. I wanted to understand the evolution of not only why we evolved such behaviour but also how it affects the brain and ultimately our health.

It is a wonderful, honest account, a compelling and easy read. Doty shares his story, flaws and all, sharing the beneficial effect on his life of the rare gift of meeting someone who shared those simple life resources with him at an early age, and importantly where he got it all wrong. Through this book he and many others hope that more people will have access to them, or at least become interested enough to find out more.

It is fascinating and heartening to see the increasing scientific development in the 21st century into understanding the effect of compassion, altruism and meditative practices on the brain through science, something that ancient Buddhist cultures have known, experienced and passed down the generations through practise for thousands of years.

Dr James R.Doty, MD Stanford University and His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Dr James R.Doty, MD Stanford University and His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera

I came across this title on the Goodreads List below, Anticipated Literary Reads for Readers of Colour which is an excellent source for finding out books that are due to be published soon that might be written by authors from different cultures and traditions than those we generally find on the bestseller tables in bookshops.

GR Cultural Reads 2016

Nayomi Munaweera’s novel, at Number 2 on the list, stands out immediately with one of the most enticing covers I have seen for a long time and it lives up to that promise of an alluring appearance with a dark, mysterious reveal.

What Lies Between UsThe cover is an apt metaphor of the book, where water plays a significant role in multiple turning points in the novel and the image of a woman half-submerged, reminds me of that ability a person has of appearing to cope and be present on and above the surface, when beneath that calm exterior, below in the murky depths, unseen elements apply pressure, disturbing the tranquil image.

The prologue mentions the maternal instinct of a mother, to sacrifice for her young, describing the aptly named moon bear due to the white shape on its chest, an animal that is hunted for medicinal purposes and capable of going to extremes in order to protect its young.

Structured into five parts, the book is written in the first person by an unnamed narrator, and opens from within a cell. We understand the protagonist is a woman who for her crime often receives hate mail from mothers and marriage proposals from men. She mentions atrocities from the civil war in her home country, stories she says she was detached from, suffering that was not hers.

‘They think that maybe growing up in a war-torn land planted this splinter of rage within me, like a needle hidden in my bloodstream. They think that all those years later, it was this long embedded splinter of repressed trauma that pierced the muscle of my heart and made me do this thing.’

From here, she begins to narrate her story, her confession:

‘…in the beginning, when I was the child and not yet the mother…’

tropical gardenWe arrive in a hill city of Kandy in Sri Lanka where she recounts her solitary, yet idyllic childhood, among the scent of tropical gardens, a big old house, ‘sweeping emerald lawns leading down to the rushing river‘ overlooked by monsoon clouds.

Her father is a historian, her mother elegant, beautiful, prone to mood swings, making her feel awkward, tongue-tied and self-conscious, unlike when she is in the garden with Samson, or in the kitchen with Sita, domestic servants with whom she feels more like herself.

Lulled by lyrical descriptive prose into this dreamy, idyllic childhood, albeit with somewhat detached parents, there develops a feeling of something being not quite right, the child’s perspective clouds reality, something haunts her and the reader, a sense of unease.

Tragedy hits the family and the girl and her mother move to America to live with her cousin, Aunt and Uncle.

‘How can I leave this patch of earth that has been mine? Samson taught me once that the hydrangea blooms in a range of shades depending on the soil it sinks its roots into. From faintest pink to darkest night blue, the flower reflects the acidity of its patch of earth. How am I different? This person I am, will I be killed in the transition across the planet? What new person will emerge in that other soil?’

Having always looked towards her cousin as the epitome of modern, something she aspired to, it is a shock to learn of her upcoming arranged marriage, she agrees to be bridesmaid, despite strong feelings to the contrary, grateful that her mother, though troubled, knows better than to push her daughter in this direction.

‘I am grateful for this. Amma might throw plates, lock herself in the bathroom for hours, and cut her wrists. She might scream and yell, but this is something she could not do, this selling of a child to the highest bidder. For once we are united.’

She will fall into the way of life of those who surround her, reinventing herself, almost becoming like one who was born there, if not for that backwash of childhood, that sometimes pushes its way back into her life, threatening to sweep her out of domestic bliss like a freak wave, dumping her mercilessly on the foreshore. As strange memories resurface, her carefully created new world begins to fall apart at the edges as she frantically tries to keep all that is precious to her together.

Nayomi Munaweera by Nathanael F. Trimboli

Nayomi Munaweera by Nathanael F. Trimboli

What Lies Between Us is a powerful, accomplished novel of parts that could be stories in themselves. Munaweera’s deft, lyrical prose lulls and transports the reader into an idyllic childhood of sweet-smelling tropical scents and beauty, open vistas, an enchanted natural world, only to be pulled up short by signs of disturbance, until in an instant they become tragic.

Slowly mother and daughter adapt to the new way of life, except the past will never leave them, it haunts them, consciously and sub-consciously, destroying precious moments and threatening to derail their lives completely.

Like Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child it is a novel highlighting the effect of childhood on an adult, how the past continues to affect the present and can take everyone along with it. It blinds us, and like an invisible cloak with far-reaching tentacles, it can reach into every pocket of our lives, dampening and rotting the good.

Heartbreaking, compelling, so unfair, it is also a story representing the very real cost of ignoring mild disturbances of mental health, portraying how easily they can evolve and transform into horrific tragedy, when left untreated or ignored, not to mention how unforgiving and despicable humanity can be in dealing with those affected by it.

Highly Recommended.

Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors was long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. It won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. I’ve ordered a copy and plan to read it this year as well. She and her family left war-torn Sri Lanka when she was three years old and moved to Nigeria and eventually to America.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors

 

 

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our NamesFinding a book like this on the English language shelves of our local French library, is one of life’s small pleasures in a world that offers few escapes these days from tragic reality.

A book like this, by an author named Dinaw Mengestu, winner of the Guardian First Book Prize for his debut novel Children of the Revolution, chosen as one of the 20 best writers under 40 by The New Yorker in 2010, born in Ethiopia and raised in the suburbs of Chicago – well I cast all other reading plans aside and jumped right in, relishing the feel of the hardback, admiring the simplicity of such a striking cover and anticipating a joyous, literary ride.

The title All Our Names, reminded me immediately of Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s  We Need New Names, hers a reference to the move to America, while Mengestu delves further back and makes us realise just how deep and far-reaching the naming ritual is.

“On the bus ride to the capital, I gave up all the names my parents had given me. I was almost twenty-five, but by any measure, much younger. …I tried to think of myself as a revolutionary in the making, though I had come to the capital with other ambitions.”

Library Entrance

The Library Where This Book Lives

Ill-prepared for the world that awaited him, he assumed the few Victorian novels he had read would prepare him for studying literature, having been inspired by reading of a conference of a group of African writers and scholars in a newspaper that had belatedly arrived in his village.

“No one I met believed I was a revolutionary, and I didn’t have the heart to claim I wanted to be a writer.”

Right from the opening pages, when he meets the young man who tells him his name ‘for now is Isaac’, we are made aware of the significance and dispensability of names.

“Isaac” was the name his parents had given him and, until it was necessary for us to flee the capital, the only name he wanted. His parents had died, in the last round of fighting that came just before independence. “Isaac” was their legacy to him, and when his revolutionary dreams came to an end, and he had to choose between leaving and staying, that name became his last and most precious gift to me.

UgandaThe story is narrated in alternate chapters, one entitled Isaac, the other Helen. Isaac takes place during a short period in the life of the male protagonist after he has left the family village somewhere in Ethiopia, planning never to return, arriving in Kampala, a city in Uganda where he hopes to study at the university.

It is there he meets the young man named Isaac, recognising in him a similar ambition and humble origins, though in his presence he is also aware of an undercurrent of fear and trepidation, not yet realising, but intuiting the dangerous depths Isaac is capable of descending  into in order to achieve that ambition.

The Helen chapters take place in a small midwest town in the US, Helen is the social worker assigned to him when he arrives from Africa; she installs him in accommodation and helps him to adjust to the new life as a foreign exchange student.

The relationship becomes complicated when boundaries are breached, as the two offer each other something of an escape from their very different pasts.

It is a simple story possessing its own undercurrent that pulls the twin narratives along, the emotional pull in Helen’s story, her struggle to navigate the space between her feelings for him and society’s expectations and in the Isaac chapters, a mounting tension as student protests and harmless revolutionary activities turn sinister and violence becomes the shortest and most effective negotiating tool to obtaining power.

Set in the 1970’s during the Ugandan post-colonial revolt, this novel was hard to put down and offered a unique insight into one example of the kind of experience that might have occurred to any refugee fleeing a violent uprising. Equally, it aptly depicts the discomfort of even the most liberal, unjudging character, raised in a quiet, conservative town, whose wavers between ignoring and following her instinct to abandon all she knows in order to follow her heart.

“I wonder whether, if before meeting Isaac I had tried to challenge the easy, small-time bigotry that was so common to our daily lives that i noticed it only in it extremes. I might have felt a little less shame that evening. It’s possible that I might have been able to release some of it slowly over the years, like one of those pressure valves that let out enough steam on a constant basis to keep the pipes from bursting. It’s also equally possible that such relief is impossible, that, regardless of what we do, we are tied to all the prejudices in our country and the crimes that come with them.”

The Burgess BoysIt reminded me a little of Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys (read and reviewed in 2013), which I was a little disappointed by, this is the kind of book I was expecting, but understandably, she wrote it from the perspective of the Burgess boys, whereas Dinaw Mengestu gives us both perspectives and the story is all the more powerful for it.

Mengestu writes in an engaging and flawless style, his storytelling and insights are enough to convince me I will definitely be reading more of his work soon.

 

Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk tr. Michiel Heyns

Marlene Van Niekerk was one of the ten nominees for the Man Booker International Prize 2015, before this prize joined forces with the IFFP (International Foreign Fiction Prize). The newly created prize will retain the name Man Booker International Prize, but will follow the format of the IFFP, which was to nominate a book published in the year of the prize, not an author’s oeuvre of work.

Finalists

I have been reading the work of Maryse Condé, one of the ten nominees and I chose Marlene Van Niekerk’s Agaat after reading Rough Ghosts excellent and enticing review, linked below.

Agaat is the name of the adopted daughter/maidservant, taken into Milla’s home at 4-years-old, in a state of neglect, her arm disabled, rescued from an abusive, dysfunctional existence that might fill the vacuum inside a barren woman allowing her to create a useful child/companion, trained in all aspects of family and farming life.

Milla is the only child of a farming family and set to inherit and work her own farm, she is poised to marry Jak as the book opens. The novel explores the growing tension in their relationship through Milla’s diaries and the effect of Milla bringing Agaat into their (at the time) childless marriage. Twelve years into that bereft marriage she gives birth to a son.

AgaatThe chapters alternate between life as it was on the farm and the present, when Agaat, now a mature woman is caring for dying 67-year-old Milla, as her body shuts down, paralysed, infirm, communicating only through her eyes with this character she “tamed” whom she is now dependent on for everything.

Agaat is set on a the farm Milla inherited from her mother in South Africa, from the early years of apartheid until its dying days, just as Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress come into power. Milla takes over the farm when she marries Jak, the couple seem well-suited on the surface, though cracks and resentments appear early in the marriage, deepening to suggest otherwise.

Agaat is witness to, victim of and in many ways, moulded by this relationship, the family and the farm itself. She will learn everything from Milla, all that is required to run the home, the farm ; she will  help raise the son and establish a unique bond with him, passing to him her own knowledge, a consciousness more rooted in the land and its culture than any colonising people are ever capable of embracing. Rarely rebellious, it is in small but important ways that Agaat subverts the intentions of her masters, she who will ultimately inherit all.

The novel is narrated from Milla’s shifting point of view, the present tense, first person (I) view, a stream of consciousness narrative, in the latter weeks of her life when she lies bedridden, almost paralysed, in advanced stage motor neurone disease; the past tense, second person (you) view as she remembers episodes from the past, no doubt prompted by Agaat’s reading to her from the bundle of diaries she has kept over the years, both the original entries and annotations written in at a later time. The novel is bookended by a prologue and epilogue that give voice to the estranged son, something of a mystery and strangely absent from much of the narrative.

Agaat has become Milla’s specialist nurse and caregiver, tending to her needs with a detached, precision-like efficiency, communicating through the eyes, blinking an intuitive, telepathic like conversation, the result of a lifelong, if at times acerbic intimacy, command and control. The roles are now reversed, the landscape has changed and we are uncertain whether these actions are driven by love, hate, a sense of duty, a learned, stalwart independence, revenge or the imagined interpretations of a dying, guilt-ridden patroness.

French Version Cover

French Version Cover

We never enter into Agaat’s perspective, we view her through her mistress’s interpretation and the more we come to know about their relationship, the less sure we are of Agaat’s motives and feelings, unsettled by all that has come before, as we become aware that Milla’s present day view has to a certain extent rewritten the past into a more easily digested form.

There is something that Milla wants from Agaat and it is this minor battle of wills that provides a dramatic thread throughout Milla’s dying days. Agaat avoids fulfilling the request, bringing her mistress everything but the things she wants, a set of maps of the farm, like her body, the thing she is losing control of and the maps represent her last effort at retaining some form of control.

For a long time after finishing Agaat, I was not able to adequately express what I thought of it, I found it very disturbing. It is a story that stays with the reader a long time and reviewing it required a lengthy incubation period.

I read reviews in the New York Times and Rumpus (see links below) where critics referred to it as an allegory, convinced that these characters represented an abstract idea, that of apartheid, that it was there to teach or explain some kind of moral lesson. Sarah Pett, in her academic article refers to it as an ‘unruly text’, something that upends and disturbs the reader and here I find more resonance, along with these words proffered by the author herself, suggesting that these characters and this story should invite questions:

“…novels are texts of structured ambiguity that enable many readings. My reading of the text is no more valid than yours at this or any other point.  What I am mainly interested in as an author is to complicate matters…in such a densely patterned way that the text will not stop eliciting questions and that it will refuse to provide any definite answers to questions such as the ones you (and I) might ask.” Marlene Van Niekerk

In my reading of the story, the focus isn’t as much an indictment of apartheid, as a portrayal of that aspect of humanity, in which people attempt to enslave, train and/or control the other for a selfish purpose, as with slavery, as we know of the past and now of the present, often disguised as something else, it can be what an employer asks of an employee, a parent of a child, a human trafficker of its victims, a husband of a wife and it can occur in the reverse, the victim becomes the oppressor.

UK Cover Version of Agaat

UK Cover Version of Agaat

What is portrayed between Milla and Agaat seems to me something other than South Africa’s political policy of the 1940-1980’s, for that would be to limit it, it is born of it for sure, it shows what we are all capable of, depending on what we are born into, what we are influenced by and how we respond to those things. It is about how we think things through, with whom we share, discuss and listen, igniting and strengthening those neural parts of the brain whose inflammation will solidify that thinking, strengthening the belief and justification in our resultant behaviours.

I disliked being witness to it, to the playing along with the way things were for Milla on the farm, fulfilling her familial and societal expectations, flaunting them by taking in Agaat and exploiting her, with ignorant, self-righteous justification. However I couldn’t help wondering if Agaat was equally capable of the same. Disturbing and difficult to write about.

The allegory, if it is so, lacks any moral message, true the victim may eventually inherit the earth, however she too seems as likely to become the oppressor, for it is not the colour of one’s skin that dictates moral or good, all are capable of the same, we are weights on the end of the pendulum and depending on which way it is currently swinging, and where we are positioned, we could all too easily become either victim or oppressor.

Do read Rough Ghosts’ review, his will convince you to read it.

Further Reading:

Rough GhostsAnd Her Name Was Good

Liesl Schillinger, New York Times: Truth and Reconciliation

Luke Gerwe, Rumpus: Agaat

Sarah Pett, University of YorkThe via dolorosa in the Southern hemisphere: Reading illness and dying in Marlene van Nieker’s Agaat (2006)

Lotusland by David Joiner

LotuslandLotusland starts out with the main protagonist Nathan, taking a long train journey from Saigon in the south of Vietnam where he lives, to Hanoi, the capital where he will visit his friend Anthony who he hasn’t been in touch with for some time.

Ironically, he reflects on the many things in his life that he perceives have always been a long wait for him. Ironic, because he is a character who has difficulty keeping a commitment, distracted too easily by the allure of the new and unknown, like the girl with the pink hair he meets on the train, or the attraction and undivided attention he gives to a new feature article he is asked to write, neglecting other commitments.

What follows is a well written story exploring the relationships between these two expatriate American men living in Vietnam, both their relationships to each other and the local women they marry/befriend and their contrasting attitudes to work.

Girl With a Fan by Công Quốc Hà Source: Wikipedia

Girl With a Fan by Công Quốc Hà
Source: Wikipedia

Nathan, a struggling writer, considers entering Anthony’s real estate business to make money, promising he is serious this time, though his word is rapidly thwarted by his developing relationship with the pink-haired woman, a traditional Vietnamese lacquer artist and gallery owner Le, in the weeks before he is supposed to leave Saigon and move to Hanoi.

“Somehow the mystery of the painting excited him even more than Anthony’s job offer. As he prepared to return to Saigon with the task of wrapping up his life there, the offer paled in importance to the chance he had of getting to know her.”

Anthony, now a successful business owner, husband and father of two small children he can’t communicate with, is barely in control of his rapid success or family life, unsure whether to rely on his friend, though it is clear he needs him for more than just work reasons.

The couples are like the escaped and the escapee, almost doomed from the beginning as they represent that often classic situation of the allure of a foreign culture, where the aims of the individuals are the opposite to each other despite their attraction.

Le has an interview at the American consulate for a visa and has made it clear to Nathan that that is the basis of her interest in him, a fact he seems intent on ignoring, preferring to pursue the illusion of a more intimate relationship.

“How’d it go?” He touched her hand, her arm, her cheek. “You’re still alive, and your body’s intact – all good signs.”

“It went okay,” she said, giving him a quick hug. “It’s hard to tell with Americans. They’re serious but also friendly. I don’t know what’s real. The worst part was dealing with the Vietnamese staff. They look down on people like me.”

It’s an often painful, uncomfortable read as David Joiner makes no excuses for his characters’ flaws and we witness that selfish aspect of humanity in which every person appears to want something from the other yet rarely puts the needs of the other before their own before acting or speaking.

Like a falling trail of dominoes, each person wants something from the next, though rarely is the desire reciprocated, individuals search for that thing just beyond their reach without appreciating what they have at hand. Blindness, illusion, disillusion, the impulse to escape.

It reminded me of a quote from Jamaica Kincaid’s expansive essay A Small Place, on her returning to the island of Antigua where she grew up, after many years of being away.

“That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go – so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

David Joiner excels in evoking the sense of being in Hanoi, a city I visited 20 years ago and adored (see my photos above). I was quickly transported back there through his ability to develop a vivid sense of place and found those passages where the action is accompanied by this strong sense of the surroundings captivating.

“In Hanoi the French presence could still be felt, preserved in the architecture and layout, whereas in Saigon the atmosphere still harked back 30 or 40 years to the American era, the notion of aesthetics crowded out by the practicalities of war.”

I was shocked to find myself at the final page, an abrupt ending that leaves the reader with much to think about and likely to provoke discussion about the mix of post-war opportunity, life in foreign cultures, immigration, freedom and entrapment, capitalism and whether and or how it is possible to overcome the clash of cultures within a relationship.

Hanoi by Cheong Source: Wikipedia

Hanoi by Cheong
Source: Wikipedia

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer tr. Shaun Whiteside

The WallHaushofer’s novel begins on the 5th of November, the day the protagonist, a middle-aged woman, begins to write a report of what has occurred over the last two years, since she became isolated in a hunting lodge in the Austrian Alps, where she had been visiting her cousin Luise and Luise’s husband Hugo.

Some kind of unwitnessed catastrophic event occurs, creating an invisible wall between that which lives and that which doesn’t.

As I started reading and then discovered what The WallWake Elizabeth Knox was, I recalled Elizabeth Knox’s Wake, where a similar event occurs, though rather than one woman as we observe in Marlen Haushofer’s modern classic The Wall, with Knox we followed what happened to a group of survivors adding elements of fantasy and horror that suspend belief  allowing the reader to interpret it more as the form of entertainment it was written to be.

In The Wall, Luise and Hugo walk to the nearby Alpine village one evening, putting them on the deathly side of the catastrophic event. Sending their dog Lynx home before them, he becomes one of the important and constant companions of this lone woman, who will learn what it takes to survive.

Eventually she realises she is living in the forest completely alone, she is joined by a cow she names Bella whom she hopes is pregnant, an old cat who will also give birth, and she finds a sack of potatoes she can plant and some beans which she will also use to create a crop. She is grateful to Hugo for his forethought.

“At the time everyone was talking about nuclear wars and their consequences, and this led Hugo to keep a little store of food and other important things in his hunting-lodge.”

The book recalls the days, the months, the seasons, the work she creates for herself, the relationship between her and the animals, her nurturing of them and attempt to protect them from the harsh elements of the environment and their interactions with her, that remind her of her duty to survive.

Lynx prodded me with his muzzle and pushed me sideways. Maybe he didn’t like the flood, maybe he also felt that I was miles away and wanted to attract some attention. As always on such occasions I followed him in the end. He knew much better than I did what was good for me.

It is written in a stream of conscious style that never becomes monotonous, despite the monotony of her days, she must live in the present to survive and that depends very much on caring for the needs of the animal life that support her. She must deal with her own mental turbulence and anguish, discovering that her manual labours and constant activity, though tiring, keep her from the dangers of over thinking and decline.

By cutting timber, in fact, I missed a very fine Indian summer. I didn’t see the landscape at all, obsessed as I was by the thought of stacking up a big enough supply of wood.  Once the last log had been stored under the verandah I had a stretch and decided to treat myself a little. It’s strange, in fact, how slight my pleasure is every time I complete a task. Once it’s out of the way I forget it,  and think about new things to do. Even at that time I didn’t allow myself much time to recover. That’s how it always was: while I was slaving away I dreamt about how I would quietly and peacefully rest on the bench, but as soon as I finally sat down on the bench I grew restless, and started looking out for new work to do. I don’t think this was due to any particular industriousness, since by nature I’m rather lethargic,  but was probably through self-protection, for what would I have done otherwise but remember and brood? That was exactly what I mustn’t do, so what was there to do but more work? I didn’t even have to look for work, it turned up insistently of its own accord.

EndlessI was also reminded of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days, another book of survival in the European forest lands, a novel that contains distractions other than just survival, it being about a daughter whose father has taken her off to survive in the forest.

Marlen Haushofer’s protagonist has no zombies or deranged father’s to contend with, purely one woman’s survival and existence alongside a select few animals.

I found it utterly compelling and could not put it down. It is a brilliant novel that strips away the noise and manic obsessions of society placing one woman in a basic situation that will exhibit humanity’s natural feminine instinct to nurture, to protect, to achieve and survive while intermittently falling prey to the melancholic tendencies of mind that threaten to derail us. It does this without the use of fantastical elements apart from the existence of the wall itself, making it feel realistic and believable.

Marlen Haushofer wrote the book in the early 1960’s and it wasn’t published until 1968, two years before her premature death at the age of 49. The book was resurrected 15 years later when discovered by the feminist and anti-nuclear movements and has since been translated into 18 languages and made into a major motion picture by the Director Julian Pölsler. Deserving of being categorised as a modern classic.

The Wall is a muted critique of consumerism and a delicate poem in praise of nature, a challenge to violence and patriarchy, an encomium to peace and life-giving femininity, a meditation on time, an observation on the differences and similarities between animals and humans, and a timeless minor masterpiece. Jerry Whyte , Film critic on Julian Pölsler’s film adaptation

Wall Movie

Highly recommended and thank you to Vishy (click here for his review) for recommending it to me.