Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Category: Novel (Page 1 of 6)

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.

“We have to become the people we always should have been” – The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

A wonderful, intimate and unsentimental novel about friendship, conscience and love.

The year is 1947, and in the small town of Matzlingen, in Switzerland, Gustav Perle, a five-year-old boy, meets Anton Zwiebel, a little Jewish boy of his own age, and a talented pianist tortured by extreme performance anxiety.  It is the beginning of a beautiful and turbulent friendship that lasts a lifetime.

The nature of responsibly – national and individual – lies at the heart of the novel. Just before World War II, Switzerland let the Jewish refugees, who were attempting to escape from Nazism, in the country. Soon this changed. A directive by the Swiss Justice Minister stated that all Jewish refugees, attempting to get to the safety of Switzerland, would be sent back. It is estimated that Swiss legalism turned away some twenty thousand Jews.

One of the main principles of Switzerland’s foreign policy is neutrality, which dictates that a country is not to be involved in armed conflicts between other states. During the World War II, Switzerland remained intact, despite the few airspace violations and sporadic bombing events.

Rose Tremain shows what the quest of neutrality and shelf-mastery do to a person and a country.  Conscience becomes an uninvited guest; it is this tortured conscience that leads Gustav’s father, a character in the background of the story, but also present all throughout the book, to help as many Jews as possible. He is no longer the man he thought he was, a man who reveres the laws of his country, and for that, he pays heavily. It is an act that will cause Gustav’s mother a lifelong hatred of Jews, and will determine her relationship with her son.

There is also some confusion about Switzerland’s banks handling of gold, paintings and other items that belonged to Holocaust victims. The Swiss banks failed to give a clear accounting of their transactions with Nazi Germany, fuelling, after World War II, a long and angry exchange between Jewish groups and the Swiss authorities. After the war, Switzerland emerged as a darker place, unsure whether there was a guilt to admit, a country that suffered from a moral illness.

Although beauty may give itself to everyone, it does not actually belongs to anybody.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima

On July 2, 1950, to the distress of many Japanese and art -lovers,  the Zen temple of  Kinkakugi in Kyoto, known as the Temple of the Golden pavillion, was burned to the ground by an unhappy and unbalanced novice monk, who “hated anything beautiful”, according to a report of his trial.

The Golden pavilion, a rare masterpiece of Buddhist garden architecture, was built by the Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the third shogun of the Muromachi shogunate, in 1398. Fortunately, it turned out that a team of engineers, who have partially dismantled Kinkakugi for repair purposes a few years before the fire, had created detailed drawings and with the support of the Japanese government and contributions of local groups, the temple was restored in 1955.

Yukio Mishima, born Kimitake Hiraoka in 1925, (Yukio Mishima was his pen name). He was a man of many talents,  the author of 34 novels, numerous plays, essays and books of short stories,  a film actor and director, a singer, a sportsman, a self-styled samurai. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prise in Literature three times. A literary  genius, a nationalist,  an attention seeking man, obsessed, during the last ten years of his life, with bodybuilding to an extreme. A man that glorified death. After a failed coup attempt at Japan’s military headquarters, he committed the act of seppuku – the ritual suicide of a samurai warrior.

Mishima wrote The Temple of the Golden Pavilion when he was only 34. It  is novel about beauty so perfect that it becomes unbearable and it has to be destroyed. It is focuses on the life of a young Zen Buddhist novice named Mizoguchi, a stutter who views himself as ugly and has been so obsessed with the beauty of the Golden Pavillion,  that he is feeling the urge to destroyed it.

“Beauty, beautiful things, those are now my most deadly enemies.”

The destruction of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion is presented as a decisive act of heroic pleasure of a tortured man. It is a pleasure that derives from “action in its perfection” and seen as such, destruction becomes  an acquired skill and an appropriate type of daily life.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is an engrossing , strange, detailed and complex novel with many layers that could only have written by a Japanese, one with a dark side, such as Yukio Mishima. It is an  impressive work of literary that established Mishima  as one of the outstanding writers of the twentieth century. I am looking forward to take a look at his other works.

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it

Autumn by Ali Smith

 “We are living in a time when lies are sanctioned”, said Ali Smith recently in  The Paris Review of Books.

Autumn 2016. Britain has voted to leave the European Union. A shocking event that revealed an ugly, deep rift in the British society. A result that turned the country into a different, unfamiliar place, in just a matter of days.

“It was the worst of time, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, ..”

As Brexit starts to happen, Elisabeth Demand, a contract art history lecturer in London, returns to her mother’s house to visit Daniel Gluck, an elderly neighbour, 101 years old, who is now in a nearby care home, and asleep most of the time. Daniel is an immigrant, art enthusiast, and Elisabeth’s unofficial babysitter when her single mother was absent. It is an extraordinary friendship, bound by their love for art and the stories they read and share.

“It isn’t that kind of relationship,” Elisabeth says to a lover. “It isn’t even the least physical. It never has been. But it’s love. I can’t pretend it isn’t. “

In Autumn, Ali Smith plays with time.  Daniel is old, then young, another life, another place, long-ago memories are still close and painful.

Elisabeth as a child, is trying to make sense of the world through art and literature. Then she is a young woman waiting in the village’s post office to renew her passport. She has an absurd, Kafkaesque encounter with the post officers that seem determined to stop her from leaving the country.

Both have a shared interest, the sixties pop artist Pauline Boty, an extraordinary woman, the first female and one of the founders of the British pop art movement whose career was tragically cut short when she succumbed to cancer at the age of 28. Smith has incorporated her short life into the storyline; it is one of the most interesting stories of the book.  Boty’s story remind me Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life: “It is not that we have a short time to livebut that we waste a lot of it.”

Autumn is multi-layered book. It is a book about Britain now. It is about zero-hours work, about those with no ability to plan ahead, let alone apply for a mortgage. It is a book about Jo Cox, the racial abuse and hate crimes that followed the results of the Brexit referendum.  It is also a book about the shortness of life, about love and friendship, about the beauty of art.

1876 by Gore Vidal

I regard politics of the country as an ongoing comedy, which, this evening, has suddenly sheered of into wildest farce.

Gore Vidal was feisty, elegant, clever and witty. A prolific, versatile writer. A notorious fueder. A giant of literature. Perhaps, the last of his kind.

1876, is the third volume of Vital’s Narratives of Empire, a series of books examining the history of America. Like his previous book Burr, is set mostly in New York City. It is a novel written as a memoir with Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, as a narrator.  Charlie has just returned to New York, with his daughter Emma, the widowed Princess D’Agrigente, after living in Europe for over 30 years.  It is the eve of the centennial year’s controversial election between Samuel H. Tilden, the Democratic Governor of New York and Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican Governor of Ohio.

The fact that I can longer tell a prostitute from a fine lady is the first sign that I have been away [from NYC] for a very long time.

Having lost all of his money in the Panic of 1873, the financial crisis that become known as the Long Depression, Charlie hopes to rebuild part of his fortune and secure a good marriage for Emma. Working as a journalist for the New York press, he moves around in the political cycles and in the American elite and wealthy class that owns vast sums of money. He witnesses the scandals of Grant’s second administration, and the financial chicaneries that often involved the railroad barons.

He chronicles the events, the tactics and the conflicted resolution that brought Hayes in the U.S presidency, despite the fact that that Samuel Tilden won the popular vote and led the electoral college. But the electoral votes in the three southern states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were disputed as each party reported its candidate had won the state. After almost four months, from November into late February, of increased tensions, the Congress established a 15-member Electoral Commission to resolve the issue of who was to become the nation’s next president.  The commission voted 8-7 to award the votes of these three states to Hayes. Money played a big part, too.

As the deals were hammered out to settle the election, Hayes agreed to end Reconstruction in the South giving the states the ability to treat African Americans as they saw fit. After leaving office, in 1881, Hayes devoted himself to the cause of educating African-American children in the South.

1876 is daring, beautiful, witty and insightful. Just how much of the account is historically accurate we do not know. But as Charlie Schuyler says, “There is not history, only fiction of varying degrees of plausibility. What we think to be history is nothing but fiction.”

It is remarkable that in a suit filled on December 2016 by a member of the Electoral College at disrupting Trump’s path to presidency, his attorneys made a reference at the turmoil cased in 1876 after “disputes concerning electors from multiple states dragged out for months after Election Day.’

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