Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book 42, Guadeloupe: "Who Slashed Celanire's Throat?" by Maryse Condé

This is a brilliant page-turner - a tale of bad-ass supernatural revenge from one of head honchas of postcolonial literature. Ripping stuff.

I chose it over Victoire: My Mother's Mother, which came out this year, because that's a family memoir just like Mr Potter, and anyway the first few pages of Celanire pretty much grab you by the throat.

I'd read about it on the Net before: it's inspired by a piece of news the author heard in her childhood, about the discovery of an infant with her throat slashed in the street: how she decided to take this horrific news and turn it into an almost burlesque thriller, by no means denying the oppression of Afro-Caribbean history but also venturing into the realms of aristocracy and early 20th century international travel: there's episodes that take place on Côte D'Ivoire and Montserrat and French Guiana and Peru as well as Guadeloupe. (Paralleling Condé's own international meanderings, may I add.)

And oh, what a wonder of a character Celanire is - yes, she evokes pity as the sacrificed infant, and she grows up to be a brilliant and beautiful (and bisexual!) educated and enlightened woman who seduces white fascist Governors and reduces them to Africanist opium sots; plus she has utterly contemporary ideas about liberated sexuality and women's education and infibulation bans. (Even quotes that Klingon saying about revenge being a dish best served cold.)

But she's also the vehicle for demons: just watch how she executes her revenge and rains down doom on whoever wronged her, however innocuous they may be.

Very much recommended. In other news, my good friend Shelbi only has two books left to go till she completes her reading challenge for the year! Go Shelbi!

Also, I have way too much translation and journalism work I should be doing, so I'd better stop distracting myself. Toodle-oo.

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Representative quote: In the meantime, Amarante stared at the dark curtain of trees beyond the illuminated podium. Darkness had locked the palace in its grip and would not let go fro some time. Not until throngs of seabirds, messengers of dawn, had begun to flock across the sky. Darling little Celanire, darling little Celanire. That evening she had been revealed to her, and her beauty struck her like the flash of a frigate bird. Svelte yet strong. Good-humoured yet serene. Knowing what she wanted in life and determined to get it. The glow in her eyes betrayed the passion burning deep down. Was it so that they could meet that fate had brought Celanire back to Guadeloupe?

Next book: Jean Rhys's Sleep It Off Lady, from Dominica.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book 41, Montserrat: "The Three Suitors of Fred Belair" by E. A. Markham

Yeah, I'm done with this book now. Don't read it.

Not that it's entirely unenjoyable. But it's basically the rather autobiographical scribblings of an old, very erudite, very privileged man making his way through an international academic world: Dublin and Paris and London and Boston and Amherst and DC, a few memories of the south of France.

The main character's a poet called Pewter (who somehow morphs into the author himself by the end of the book, with a eulogy to his brother etc). Bits about sestinas and Pliny the Elder. Not entirely uninteresting but he supplies very little reason for us to care about him. Pfah. The eponymous Winifred Belair appears at the beginning, a 40-something bachelorette French teacher who's lived in Martinique and Paris who puts ads in literary journals to meet some serious suitors: there's some nice fictional high-jinks involving strong, spirited women at the beginning, but then we're in the world of intellectual aristocrats again. Yawn.

(We never even hear what happened to her in the end, after she's held hostage in Martinique by her family when she announces her desire to adopt an African child. Really, you'd think this should have been resolved? But then Markham died a year before the book was published, so maybe this is just a scrap-heap of a volume?

I might have been much better off with his other volume, Meet Me in Mozambique, which seems to include a little more time in the West Indies, and actually precedes the events of this book. But then I didn't like the opening pages, so.)

Ah, something interesting: I couldn't tell what race Pewter and Fred Belair were for a lot of the book: they're just incredibly *white* in terms of their education and family status: tweed and hors d'oeurvres and quiet senescent neurosis and only the odd comment about Henry Louis Gates Jr or Ayaan Hirsi Ali thrown in. But they're black; that's made quite clear by the end. Odd that we're still at a point in our culture that we can't quite reconcile the image of the black man and the stuffy old fogey of a writer.

Also interesting, of course, is the fate of the fictional island of St Caesare, where Fred Belair lives. It's based on what happened in Montserrat: the capital was utterly destroyed in 1995, buried under volcanic ash, people evacuated to five continents and only returning in fits and starts, newly cosmopolitanised: a tale of international alienation happening on a not entirely developed tropical island in the Caribbean.

No tropical idylls here. Just post-apocalyptic exile and meanderings towards death.

And I don't mean that in a sexy way. Seriously. The book's not worth it.

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Representative quote: She still had friends, of course; from the good time that was pre-volcano. Now - well, now, was it something in the air; was it the volcanic ash that was addling their brains? Was it the sense that suddenly so much that you valued was taken from you, and you not exactly living in a war zone, you not being subject to some brutal human dictator with the sexual habits of a prophet? Suddenly, you had to reassess your life lived above the ash.

Next book: Maryse Condé's Who Slashed Celanire's Throat, from Guadeloupe. Next five authors are all world-famous literary heavyweights. It's gonna be good. :)

Monday, December 20, 2010

I'm back from Indonesia.

And I'm not going to finish my Montserrat book in time. Thought I might, but it's less easy reading than I thought.

On the topic of that, I've learned from experience that the following books are not easy reading when you're suffering from inexplicable diarrhoea in Yogyakarta:

1. Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
- His last full-length work, and the one he was proudest of. But not funny at all. Not even trying to be. He wrote it more or less as a hagiography dedicated to his daughter, who died at the age of 17.

2. Naomi Wolf's The Shock Doctrine
- Rather sensationalistically, Wolf pairs torture policies with destructive economic corporatist policies. But reading about the CIA's sadistic psych experiments on Canadian citizens is not gonna soothe your tummy.

3. Isabella Bird's The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither
- Fairly innocent stuff, but it gets dull after a while. And laughing at 19th century racial perspectives is less fun when you're sick and your Indian boyfriend is actually hurt by any sharings of said anecdotes of "the statuesque Klings".

Luckily, the 1001 Malam Hotel had a selection of books, so I eventually resolved on spending my time in the loo reading Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, which my sister recommended to me ages ago. (The movie didn't feature the bit in which he sexually experiments with himself as a 15 year-old. Obviously, an extended cut must be made.)

Still not feeling that great, but the obvious symptoms have gone. Back to work.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book 40, Antigua and Barbuda: "Mr Potter" by Jamaica Kincaid

Surprise! I finished this book just before I left Singapore, leaving me with just three hours' sleep before I took the plane to Indonesia. But I'm glad I pushed through: a book like this is too good to break into two sittings.

(Yeah, it's a lousy scan from elsewhere on the Net. When I get home I'll make a better one.)

Anyway! We're out slavery now, and into the realm of the contemporary in several senses of the word: Mr Potter himself lived from 1922 to 1992 and yes he really existed because he's Jamaica Kincaid's father; an absent father as his father was before him, scattering girl-children throughout the land but never even registering recognition when they stop him in the street and plead for money for textbooks. Not to say that he's cast as the prototypical bastard, though, because he's fundamentally a loser: no love in his life, no prospects, no wisdom: he didn't even know how to read.

(Also, he didn't leave Kincaid's mother. She left him, and stole all the money he'd saved up to buy a car of his own so he could set himself up with an independent business. I'd deep-six you too if you did that to me.)

Kincaid barely knew him, but she's created this creative non-fiction metanarrative based on this weird gap that lies between them, opening like a semi-traditional narrative on an average day in his working life around the time he met her mother, but spun only from the loose bits of oral history and conjecture she's gathered from family stories and interviews with folks on Antigua: the same details returned to over and over again, the way thoughts spin washing machine-style in your brain. Lovely prose, but how many new writers would get away with it?

Reads like a notebook, a rough draft of an unfinishable memoir more than the well-made novel, and that is the way it must be and it is good. It's like Virginia Woolf or Gertrude Stein in the Caribbean: entering and stepping back from/into other people's minds and her own: Mr Shoul, his Lebanese employer; Dr Weizenberger, the dentist he ferried back and forth in his car; his own mother who walked into the sea forever when he was five.

And of course the sorrow/angst/emptiness of being cut off from this logical part of your heritage: the same but different way so many of us Singaporeans are cut off from our own.

Didn't expect quite this from the author of the much more traditional (but still engagingly alienating) novel Lucy. Of course, that's about coming to America: coming home is always more bizarre.

And what fun not to be there for a while!

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Representative quote:
And Mr Potter died, so simple a thing, he died and will never be heard from again, except through me, for I can read and I can write my own name, which includes his name also, Elaine Cynthia Potter, and like him and his own father before him, I have a line drawn through me, a line has been drawn through me.

Next book:
E A Markham's The Three Suitors of Fred Belair, from Montserrat.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book 39, St Kitts and Nevis: "Cambridge" by Caryl Phillips

We might have a bit of a gap for a while, since I'm going to Jakarta/Bandung/Yogjakarta for a week come Friday, and I don't really feel like lugging my hardcovers with me. East Indies is East Indies and West Indies is West Indies, and never the twain shall meet.

And really, "Indies" is a good term to use in the case of this book, since Kittitian-British author Caryl Phillips never names the island where it takes place - it's some fictional spot in the Caribbean, in the mid to late 19th century, between the abolition of the slave trade and the actual abolition of slavery itself.

The truly awesome thing about this book, however, is that it's not just a historical novel: it's a historical novel written with the distinctive style of the documents of that era with astonishing verisimilitude of language and style. Sorry, Jean Heyn, this guy blows you out of the water.

Part One's told from the viewpoint of Emily Cartwright, the 29 year-old plantation owner's daughter who makes the sea crossing to manage her father's property, both in terms of land and human livestock. She fancies herself an intellectual: her diary records her anthropological observations of the slaves and their overseers - not unlike Isabella Bird's travel narratives, which I'm reading on my iPhone - and it's lengthy and verbose and flowery and terribly coloured by prejudice, but in the complacent, well-intentioned manner of a person who cannot fathom the idea of a black person as an equal: no demonstrations of excessive hatred, and observations objective enough that damn the slave community as uncivilised in our eyes. It makes us uncomfortable: we want to hate this woman as an oppressor, she even has thoughts of a future lecture tour around the British Isles defending slavery. But we can understand her discomfort and her inability to peer beyond the limits of her class and era.

Then Part Two - better put up a [SPOILER ALERT] sign, because we now find out the unfathomable truth behind a rather minor character, the old slave Cambridge. His section's written in the style of the old slave narratives: think Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Mary Prince: eloquent and demonstrative of intellect, but brief, summarising everything from his abuction in Guinea as a child to the present in a tiny pamphlet-sized section - but what a story it is! As a young man he becomes a slave in abolitionist England, learns to read and write and converts to Christianity, gains his master's respect, his freedom on his master's death, and gets married to his fellow servant, a white woman, becomes an abolitionist preacher - all the while mingling with the wide array of 19th century black British society, beggars and fops and doxies and merchantmen, barely conceivable to us except that we know that this historical research has been done, that there've been peoples of African descent in the British Isles since the Romans.

And then, when he's kidnapped and sold back into slavery in the Indies, it's his damnable Christian values and principles of propriety that prevent him from being the true rabble-rouser and rebel that the whites believe he is - reading this section we're screaming, don't be a dumbfuck, just kill your master, or at least tell everyone how educated you are, what happened to you! - but no.

And because of that, the tragic ending occurs without Emily even understanding the remarkable figure who's been at her side, who could have knocked some sense into her brain if they'd only talked for more than five minutes. [SPOILERS END]

There's a Section Three as well, but I won't bore you.

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Representative quote:
O lucky Isabella that she never lived to see these shores, never lived to witness the treachery of the negro that some would set free to wreak havoc upon our persons. Their lying subservience, their sly pilfering, their murderous violence, mark them out as very like the Irish, but of an even more childish character. If this overworked land possesses a soul it has indeed been profoundly abused and made to endure much that is evil.

Next book:
Jamaica Kincaid's Mr Potter, from Antigua and Barbuda.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Book 38, US Virgin Islands: "The Governor-General's Lady" by Jean Heyn

I'm a little tired, so I'll give this book a speedy review. It's a lightweight historical romance novel by an obscure American author; not really the kind of thing I'd have picked up if I'd understood what it was properly before reserving it at NLB, nor the kind of thing I'd have checked out if there'd been any better options.

Still, it is informative: it's based on the life of real-life 19th century Virgin Islander icon Anna Heegaard, a descendant of slaves and Danish colonists who passed through the hands of many men before ending up with a comfortable fortune of property and the love of Governor-General Peter von Scholten (of course he had a wife and kids back in Copenhagen, though, so he couldn't actually marry her).

Scholten also ended up emancipating the slaves of the entire island, providing the thrust of the story after Anna's well set up for herself. I'd had no idea of how tricky the business of freeing the unfree was: the different stages in history as slaves began to buy (or whore) themselves out of bondage, some reaching middle-class status on par with the whites, while being forced to carry letters proving their free status for generations in case they were stopped in the street; first a ban on the import of new slaves, then a proclamation that all those newly born to slaves would be free, and the institution of slavery falling in neighbouring island after island, with petition after petition by the Governor to the Danish crown before the proper rebellion broke out, birthing the declaration of freedom.

It's pretty entertaining, too: some bodice-ripping sex scenes, even as Anna and Scholten age into their fifties, and lush descriptions of architecture and clothing, jalousies and coral earrings, and a bit of native dialect too. But it's not truly well written - there's amateurish adverbs and excessively painstaking narration of historical fact in between the saintly portrayal of Ms Heegaard herself as a paragon of history.

Ambitious stuff, nonetheless. Pulp isn't necessarily easy to do. Would that I could write something as sensational.

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Representative quote: His voice suddenly grew soft and sinister. "These are perilous times, Madam, when accidents easily occur. I swear to you that one way or another, if he sides with the blacks, you will find yourself alone on your hilltop, your home in ruins. And what will you be then? I ask you. Not the respected widow of a Virgin Islands governor. No indeed. You'll be nothing but an elderly black whore! I suggest you use your influence."

Anna clenched her fists in outrage. Her voice was icy cold and carefully controlled as she answered him. "You were quite right, Mr Grimes, when you said your visit need not be long. I suggest you leave at once. Good day, Sir." She turned her back on him. With head held high she walked toward her villa. Not once did she deign to look back.

Next book: Caryl Phillips's Cambridge, from St Kitts and Nevis.