Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Category: Novel (Page 2 of 6)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad is an allegorical story that mixes the surreal with the real to create a powerful novel that highlights the struggles of the black people against slavery, against fear, against dehumanization.

Cora is a determined enslaved young woman on a plantation in Georgia, in the 1880s. She attempts to escape slavery using the underground railroad that transports fugitive slaves to freedom.  Cora, as all fugitives before and after her, is transported in the darkness of the underground railroad, and from one station to the next. There is no final destination, no certainty, no safety, no promise to freedom.

 “The problem is that one destination may be more to your liking than another. Stations are discovered, lines discontinued. You won’t know what waits above until you pull in.”

As Cora travels through tunnels from place to place, we travel with her. We see all the horrible things, the grotesque brutality, and the atrocities committed against black slaves. The commodification of human beings, the effort to control the black population growth with forced sterilization of females and infection of males with syphilis – a reference to North Carolina’s eugenics program and the notorious Tuskegee experiments, almost a century later.

 “Every state is different …… Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you’ll see the breadth of the country before you reach your final stop.”

Cora finally arrives in the black community in Valentine’s farm, a place of refuge, a safe “pocket of blackness” in a hostile white world. But safety is an illusion. The farm is a utopia, a delusion. It does not last. It’s only a brief distraction from ruthless mechanisms of the world. At the end, each person is “on their own, as they ever had been.”

This is a book that makes you think about what humans being are capable of. It is not just a book about slavery, but about all kinds of oppression. It is a book about American history and about race. It is upsetting and intense, full of a mixture of despair and hope.

Everything is illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything is illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer’s literary debut,  is a book composed of two narrative voices, Alex form Ukraine and Jonathan from America. Jonathan Safran Foer – the author has given his name to one of the main characters in the book – is an American young man that aspires to be an author. He is confused about his own past and he goes to Ukraine to search for Augustine, a woman who fifty years ago saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He also hopes to find material for his first book.

Alex is from Odessa. He is about the same age as Jonathan and he accompanies him as an interpreter and tour guide, in his search for Augustine and his grandfather’s village, Trachimbrod. Alex is desperate to leave Ukraine and go to live in America with his little brother. He dreams about America but in a materialistic way. The reality is that the country remains a mystery to him.

Both men are struggling to express their feelings. Alex, does not know enough words to express himself  – ‘My second tongue is not so premium’ he concedes.   His narrative, at the beginning, is almost impossible to read. It is hilarious and thrilling the same time. As time goes by, his vocabulary improves, his narrative becomes more clear and stronger, reflecting, one would say, the gravity of the subject.  This creative use of language in the story, is fascinating.

Jonathan, on the other hand, knows a lot of words, but he is struggling to overcome the personal and cultural barriers to express his emotions. The cultural chasm is deep and the Ukraine he is dreaming, exists only in his imagination. He is confused, he wants to learn about his family’s past, but everything is so strange. He remains a helpless onlooker, unable to connect to his family past.

Everything is illuminated is a mystical book about love, a human all-consuming love.   Structurally, it is strange and complicated yet it is this strangeness that make it such an interesting and imaginative read.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

As soon as it hit bookstore shelves Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders went to No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. It has been one of the most eagerly anticipated works and it has been considered a masterpiece.

But why I can’t see it?

It is not that I didn’t like it. I really enjoyed it. But it didn’t blow me away.  Lincoln in the Bardo is a different book, an interesting experiment. It is a very quick read, in dialogue form. It is a serious book. It is clever and funny, a bit sentimental, perhaps.

Is it a book that changes the literature as we know it? Well, I wouldn’t go so far. It is readable. It is brilliantly done.  It has great rhythm, but to me it lacks structure. I am not even sure this is a novel.

An audacious, daring book. I enjoyed it but it didn’t move me.

Homesick for another world by Otessa Moshfegh

Homesick for another world is an extraordinary book of short stories that skilfully balances sympathy and disgust.  The main characters, the narrators of the stories, feel that they don’t belong in this world. They are not exactly trapped or miserable, they are misfits in one form or another, lost with the world, but in truth lost with themselves.

Otessa Moshfegh’s stories are full of ugly, sad, grotesque moments. At the same time, there are also sweet moments; in a way, these are the weirdest moments in the book.

The characters, narrators of the stories, are remorseful, self-loathing, even disgusting.   They seem angry, but in fact this anger is misdirected hopelessness – hopelessness at ever finding the beauty or the happiness that should exist in the world.

What they really want, is to be happy, but they don’t really know how to pursue their own happiness.  Therefore, they look for a place to hide, desperately they seek for another world. But can you ever be truly happy in this or another world?

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The Dream of a Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

This is a fascinated story of a complex man who lived an extraordinary life as a hero of human rights only to die as a traitor in the eyes of British officials.

Roger Casement was born in Kingstown, County Dublin, to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. He was secretly baptised into the Catholic faith by his mother at the age of four but for most of his life, he considered himself as a Protestant and only a few weeks before his death, he was formally converted to Catholicism. In his youth, Casement worked briefly as a clerk for a Liverpool shipping line, before he moved to Africa in 1884 to work with Henry Morton Stanley, where later as British Consul, began investigations into slave labour in Congo. His report on the atrocities to the indigenous people by the Belgian Force Publique was published in 1904 and it caused a public outrage all across Europe.

In 1910, Roger Casement was sent by the British government into the Amazon jungle to investigate alleged abuse of workers in the rubber industry in the region of the river Putumayo, a no man’s land between Peru and Colombia that today belongs to Colombia.  At the end of the nineteen century, a Peruvian merchant called Julio César Arana, taking advantage of the rubber boom, begun to collect wild rubber in the disputed region of Putumayo. Before long his Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company became million-dollar company and Arana decided to registered it in London in order to attract more capital.  Soon, the alleged atrocities to indigenous populations and to British subjects, such as the Barbadians, by the employers of Casa Arana, forced the British Parliament to order an investigation.

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Not to have a choice is also a choice – ‘Here I am’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

Here I am by Jonathan Safran Foer, is one of the most powerful books that I read in a long time. It is a beautiful, elegant, spiritual, funny, and daring book.   It explores the life of a secular American Jew family, their dilemmas, their relation with religion and Israel and the freedom of choice.

The main character, Jonathan, is a man in his early 40s, a television writer, husband, and father of three boys. The show he is working is not really ‘his show’, and Jonathan spends a lot of his time imagining “the perfect show”, while he is writing a massive and complicated autobiographical show with detailed instructions for each of each character.

Jonathan is a vain man, he desires to be someone else, but lacks the strength to do it. He is also a fearful man; he avoids intimacy with other people. Only his wife Julia, manages to penetrate his cover and reveal his weakness and fears. They know each other terrifyingly well, their marriage – or I should say partnership? – is efficient, almost perfect. They love each other, they have their rituals, they talk, they share, but they are not given to themselves space to be themselves. They keep secrets from each other, they become cruel to each other.  Even their silences are concealing, distracting.

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