Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Category: Novel (Page 1 of 7)

On a Rereading of “The Name of the Rose”

When it’s cold, dark and rainy or I’ m just tired and I just want to cuddle up with a book and a blanket, I choose to read a book – preferably a novel – that I know and I like. In one of these dark, wet and rainy evenings, as I was looking for a book, the cover of The Name of the Rose caught my eye.

I first read Umberto Eco’s bestselling book in 1985, in Greek translation. I read it again, around 2000, the English translation this time, and, while I was learning Italian, I made an attempt to read it in its original language, albeit unsuccessfully. I don’t think I read more than 20 pages. I went back to Greek and English translations.

The Name of the Rose_ The 1985 Greek edition.

Needless to say, I love this book.  A monastic library built as a labyrinth in Italy during the Middle Ages, a lost book of Aristotelian philosophy devoted to laughter and comedy, raging theological debates over the question of ownership of property by Christ and the apostles and a series of murders that the Franciscan monk, William of Baskerville attempts to solve with the help of his young student Adso of Melk. The highly intelligent, curious, and voracious reader William of Baskerville is essentially a medieval Sherlock Holmes in a monastery, and Adso, his Watson. What’s not to like!

The Name of The Rose is a book about books. It’s also about people, men in particular, with their weaknesses and failings, their desires and fears, their ambitions and passions, men who have dedicated their lives to knowledge and they are ready to do anything in order to put their hands on a certain, rare book.

“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”

The Name of the Rose is not an easy book. The first 100 pages are particularly difficult. You need a good Latin dictionary and some working knowledge of the politics of the papacy to understand the diversity and the complex political structure of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Celestine V was succeeded by Boniface VIII, and this Pope promptly demonstrated scant indulgence for Spirituals and Fraticelli in general: in the last years of the dying century he signed a bull, Firma cautela, in which with one stroke he condemned bizochi, vagabond mendicants who roamed about at the far edge of the Franciscan order, and the Spirituals themselves, who had left the life of the order and retired to a hermitage.

After the death of Boniface VIII, the Spirituals tried to obtain from certain of his successors, among them Clement V, permission to leave the order peaceably. I believe they would have succeeded, but the advent of John XXII robbed them of all hope. When he was elected in 1316, he wrote to the King of Sicily telling him to expel those monks from his lands, where many had taken refuge; and John had Angelus Clarenus and the Spirituals of Provence put in chains.

Reading this passage, I couldn’t help but wondering if I had I understood anything of this when I first read the book, in 1985, without internet and google search to help me find information about certain people and places. Luckily, I had been taught Latin at school and I was able to understand  some of the – many – Latin quotes.

The Name of the Rose is an amazing and enjoyable book. Read it as many times as you wish, in any language, it never disappoints. It is one of these book that makes you want to start reciting the words of Thomas à Kempis “In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro.”

Little Nothing by Marisa Silver

“Think of a flower blooming,” says the midwife to Agata. “A rose opening, the petals pushing out ….out …..”

But childbirth is not as gentle as the opening of a rose, and the baby girl is not the perfect baby, her parents have dreamed.  She looks “like a rag doll sewn together from cast-off parts,” cries the mother. The baby girl is a dwarf, a disfigured little thing with a big head and short limps that smells of roses. The mother called her Pavla, which literally means little.

Pavla lives in a small village somewhere in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s, at the turn of the century, perhaps. When her parents let her attend school, the other children call Pavla Little Nothing and they assault her in a deliberately humiliating way. These humiliations prepare her for the struggles that await her in the next years.   As she matures, something enticing happens, ‘an unmistakable loveliness reveals itself.’ Her beauty agitates the villagers, makes them wonder if she is really real.

Fearing for their daughter’s future, her parents visit local doctors looking for a treatment to her dwarfism. It is when one of these “doctors” slowly stretches her apart that Pavla’s physical form makes a radical change, the first of several body transformations that seem to be motivated by some existential experience: life and death, meaning and happiness, good and evil.

“How easy is to admire evil, to become entranced by its singularity of purpose and its amoral beauty.”

Little Nothing reaches back into a magical and horrified world of gypsy curses, circus shows, werewolves, war and rural poverty. It a story about love, but it is not a love story, not in the classic sense anyway. It is a love that exists beyond the realm of the physical, it is a love that motivates, it is a way to find out who you are.

Marisa Silver’s writing is raw, intense and vivid. Little Nothing is not an easy book, the impossibility of some of the events may not appeal to everyone.  It is a thrilling and wonderful book, an allegorical, complex and ambiguous fairy tale about metamorphosis.

“Marcus fell silent. Danilo looked at the sky and watched the sound disappear into the vast emptiness where nothing and everything exists and where all stories begin.”

“Forgetting is as integral to memory as death is to life.” – The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine

Jacob, an immigrant gay poet of Arabic origin, lives in San Francisco.  Born Ya’qub in Yemen, his mother was a prostitute in an Egyptian brothel and his father a wealthy entrepreneur from Lebanon. He lived in Cairo and Beirut, where his Lebanese father consigned him to an orphanage run by Catholic nuns. He later moved to San Francisco, where he has watched his six friends die during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. All that left to him are scars and memories, and an unbearable sense of loss. Thirty years later, he is still grieving the deaths of his friends, and talks to his dead lover, Doc.

I lie on my side, head sunk in the pillow, waiting for first light, for the lift of the curtain, waiting for you, how your right hand used to entwine with my left in the universal slow dance, how our bodies fit in bed, yet you didn’t show up.

The Angel of History is framed around the single night Jacob spends in the waiting room of a mental health facility somewhere in San Francisco. Mostly, it takes place in his head. Depressed and paralysed by grief, Jacob mixes his memories with his deepest desires and feelings. He feels that he has lost the capacity to be in control or function in the everyday world. He feels that his life in no longer worth living.

It is then that the Angel of History makes his appearance. It is Satan, Iblis in Arabic. He wants to bring Jacob back in life by urging him to remember. He battles with Death who wants Jacob to forget. The angel of remembering an the master of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.

“Death can ruin everything with a single touch. Oblivion is his trade,” says Saint Catherine of Alexandria

It is during that night of waiting that the painful past rose vividly before Jacob. Remembrance would be his salvation. But at what cost?

The Angel of History is a story of one life. A journey through love and sex, religion and war, death and loss and the need to remember.  As in Walter Benjamin’s essay with the same title, The Angel of History, is about how one looks back in order to live again.

His face is turned toward the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Illuminations, 257-58)

Fourteen saints of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origin come to help Jacob. Yet their message is unclear and their power is limited. They are caught between hope and catastrophe. Present but transient, hilarious at time.

Rabih Alameddine has written a novel unlike any other. This is not a book about identity politics, although it can be seen as political. It is a book about a single person that fights his own demons and saints. It is not an easy read. It is beautiful and moving. At the same time, it is also dirty and horrified. Highly recommended.


*Featured image: A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus”.

Human Acts by Han Kang

Very rarely a book pervades my dreams. Human Acts is such a book. I was deeply affected by it, not because it is unfathomable to me that humans are capable of acts of inhumanity on an unimaginable scale, history is full of horrible acts of human violence, but because it is such a powerful book. It is done perfectly. It is deeply moving and disturbing. It is beautiful, on the outside as well as the inside.

I am not sure I have the right words to describe Human Acts. To me, it is a book that feels, it is alive. It feels pain, not just physical pain, but also emotional. It is a trauma that takes many forms, you can’t run away of it, you are the victim but you are also the source of all that pain.

Human Acts explores the traumatic legacy of the Gwangju massacre, in South Korea in 1980. In 1979, the then military dictator Park Chung-Hee, was assassinated by his protégé  General Chun Doo-Hwan.  Park Chung-Hee, was the father of the ex-president Park Geun-Hye who was impeached by the National Assembly in 2016 and she is now an inmate  at Seoul Detention Center. Using the excuse of rumoured North Korea infiltration, Chun Doo-Hwan extended martial law across the country, closing universities, restricting freedom of press and banning political activities. In the southern city of Gwangju there was a student uprising that lasted a few days before crushed by the army. Thousands of people have been killed, injured, arrested and tortured.

Han Kang focuses on the feeling of being. What it means to be human. What humans do in the face of such violence. And if violence is part of being human, how can we accept that we are or can be one of those human beings that inflict such a terrible pain to others.  There are a lot of questions  but don’t expect to find answers.

The stories in the book are intertwined but on different timescales, from the time of the massacre to the present day.  As in The Vegetarian, violence is at the centre of things, but in Human Acts Han Kang further explores human strength and dignity, as well as the impact on the lives of those being exposed to violence.

Human Acts has been translated wonderfully by Deborah Smith.

Bold, intense, unsettling – Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante

It’s been more than a year since I read Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. I’ve read all four book in less than two weeks and I was impressed by her forceful elegance, the way she captures complexities and contradictions of Naples, and the unusual perspective on friendship. It got me wanting to read more of her work.

This week, I decided to read her debut novel, Troubling Love, an absorbing story that explores the complex relationship between mother and daughter. It is a bold, intense, unsettling and sad book that reads as a psychological thriller.

Delia, the protagonist and narrator, finds out that her mother Amalia, has drowned on her way to visit her, in Rome. The strange circumstances of Amalia’s death, set in motion a series of events that leads Delia in a journey back in time, in the poor and oppressive neighbourhoods in the ­periphery of Naples, where she was born and grew up. It is a journey motivated by memories of her own past, the dark background of the mother-daughter relationship, an exploration of the self.

Delia traverses Naples in search of clues, she tries to trace her mother’s final days and what led her to take her own life.  Revisiting As she moves from one place to other Revisiting places that used to be with her mother as a child and excavating her childhood, a sense of disgust, suffering and fear emerges. She relives, the violence, the sexual aggressions and the horrors of her family life. Through her eyes and through her body, we get the portrait of Amalia, a beautiful and vibrant woman, who has been abused and humiliated by a pathologically jealous husband.

“It wasn’t innocent blood. To my father nothing about Amalia ever seemed innocent. He, so furious, so bitter and yet so eager for pleasure, so irascible and so egotistical, couldn’t bear that she had a friendly, at times even joyful, relationship with the world. He recognized in it a trace of betrayal.”

The only way to evade the cruelty and daily violence in a society shaped by a viciously patriarchal culture, was to get away.

“..the alley is certainly an ancient relic and a precious one.” Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz, one of the most prominent literary figures in Egypt, became known with the publication of The Cairo Trilogy in 1957 and acquired international recognition when he awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Through his novels, Mahfouz chronicled the historical and social issues of his own time in Egypt, and in Cairo, his city, in particular.

Midaq Alley, written in 1947, is an extraordinary depiction of the microcosm in a poor alleyway in Cairo during World War II. It is an engaging book that revolves around the people living and working in this old alley.

“Many things combine to show that Midaq Alley is one of the gems of times gone by and that it once shone forth like a flashing star in the history of Cairo. Which Cairo do I mean? That of the Fatimids, the Mamlukes, of the Sultans? Only God and the archaeologists know the answer to that, but in any case, the alley is certainly an ancient relic and a precious one.”

The inhabitants of the Midaq Alley live in ‘almost complete isolation from the surrounding activity’. But the World War II was a period of social transformation in Egypt. Strong emotions and feelings, poverty and gossip keeps them closely connected and alive, but the political turmoil and the changes brought by the war and the British Army, entice them away, it feeds their aspirations and hopes of material gains and a new comfort life, away from the alley. Their dreams and ambitions make the reality  in the alley all the more difficult.

The emotions, the motivations, the desires and the strangles of the characters make the novel timeless. Among them are the middle-aged, homosexual and hashish-smoking cafe-owner Kirsha, who lives with his fiery wife and  his cynical and materialistic son. There is also the pious mystic Radwan Husseini, and Zaita, a dirty, old beggar whose specialty is creating other beggars.  Salim Alwan, an elderly and rich perfume merchant with a voracious sexual appetite, has an intense lust for the young Hamida, the beautiful daughter of Umm Hamida, a marriage broker in her mid-60s. Hamida, driven by ambition and a desire for beautiful clothes and wealth, falls for a pimp who turns her into a prostitute. Moral depravity is her rebellion against poverty and lower-class life.

Midaq alley is a wonderful and rich novel.  Morality, depravity, class conflict, politics, corruption, and oppression are exposed calmly and with subtle humour. Women are empowered, they have a voice and the capacity to make decisions and fulfill their aspirations. Naguib Mahfouz does not judge the choices his characters are forced to make. Dispassionately, he presents their idiosyncrasies, their desires for money and sensual pleasures and the  consequences of their actions. Despite the tragic events Midaq Alley survives, the next day, and the next. Life must go on.

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