Kzradock The Onion Man and the Spring-Fresh Methuselah

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Author: Louis Levy (Tran. by W.C. Bamberger)
Publisher: Wakefield Press
Publication Date: 1910 (2017)

“Don’t believe all the tales your soul whispers to you! Don’t take them at face value before you investigate further…
And keep constant watch on your doubt; make sure that it doesn’t disappear” (127).

Cover of book

Doubt, truth, and reason are at the center of this amazing book from the Danish writer, Louis Levy. Dr. Renard de Montpensier is conducting seances with Kzradock and realizes he holds the key to a mystery. We are then off to a mystery which contains surrealist aspects (a man who lives with his tapeworm), gothic horror (a haunting asylum and a house with faces in the attic windows), and a tough-talking American detective and a smooth French detective. The question is, what is real and what is imagined?

Dr. Renard de Montpensier (he always refers to himself by his full name) struggles as his life gets out of control, but then realizes his relationship with Kzradock “was the struggle between madness and reason” (70). Levy takes us into the mind of the insane and questions was is reasonable and not reasonable. When the patients take over the insane asylum, Dr. Renard de Montpensier goes to intercede. “I knew well the fate of these people, and I understood them. It was as if I looked out on all the worries and suffering of the world” (56).

As the story continues to unfold (and I’m hesitant to spoil the storyline) the question of what constitutes truth and reason are pushed forward. The focus is on doubt.
“Oh, the modern soul is badly in need of help and support…
And is has that help within itself.
It can doubt” (126).

While I’m giving an admittedly thumbnail view I highly recommend reading the novel. It has many elements to offer and is often described as fitting into pulp fiction because of its melodramatic episodes, although that is often part of the gothic horror tradition that I see more at work here. Regardless of how you interpret the novel, the writing is addictive and you will leave challenged on what is real and not real.

Louis Levy
Louis Levy

Although published in book form in 1910, it was not translated into English until 2017. Why is not clear, but Levy is clearly not a writer who has garnered much attention. He does not even warrant a Wikipedia page! Wakefield Press, the publisher, offers this life synopsis: “Louis Nicolai Levy (1875–1940) was a Danish author, playwright, foreign correspondent, and theater critic who experimented with a wide variety of literary genres, from prose poetry to nursery rhymes to philosophical novels. Though a central literary figure and screenwriter in Copenhagen in the early twentieth century, Levy remains little known today.”

Read the book and make some noise — more attention to him is warranted!

Silence

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Author: Shusaku Endo
Publisher: Picador Modern Classics
Publication Date: 1969 (2016)

Note: This review contains spoilers since the ending is an important part of understanding the novel.

We Christians, like many of different faiths, love to play the martyr. Catholics make the martyrs saints, starting with the very first saint, St. Stephen (although the Holy Innocents are often called saints even though they knew not why there were being killed). The martyrs are those who face death instead of renouncing their faith, showing their belief in God’s word and promise of resurrection.

Shusaku Endo uses this concept as the basis for Silence, an outstanding novel that will make any Christian uncomfortable and let non-Christians in on the depth of faith for most believers. The story is set in 17th century Japan and the persecution of the Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians). We follow the story, partly by letters, of a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastiao Rodrigues (based on the real life Giuseppe di Chiara) who travels with another priest (Franciso Garrpe) in search of Father Ferreira. Once their beloved teacher, Ferreira is believed to have committed apostasy and the priests want to find him and serve the persecuted Christians of Japan.

For a while the two priests hide together in a hut, but eventually are taken to an island and opt to split up so they have a better chance to succeed in their mission. We follow Rodrigues as he travels a short time before being captured. Much of his time is spent in a prison where he is allowed to offer support to other Christians in jail, but all the time he is wondering when he will be taken to the “pit,” a gruesome torture that is said to have caused Ferreira to renounce his faith.

At one point Rodrigues is taken to a location where he sees Garrpe and other Christians being readied to be taken out to sea and drowned. They are wrapped up so they cannot move and will be dropped into the sea. Rodrigues is told that Garrpe can save the others if he renounces his faith. If he does not, they all die. Endo has changed the martyr narrative from one of giving your life for your faith to sacrificing others for your faith.

“‘Apostatize! Apostatize!’ He shouted out the words in his heart to Garrpe who was listening to the officials” (143). Rodrigues continues to silently encourage Garrpe to do this as all are put out to sea and drowned. Garrpe is now a martyr, but so are three others he could have saved.

Rodrigues’ faith, far from wavering, becomes stronger through this whole ordeal. He is routinely “interrogated” but only in the sense that they try to show him how his faith is either false or at least not one that will work in Japan. Instead, he begins to see Christ heading to the cross or crying tears of blood as he too felt abandoned. He realizes Christ is with him and has suffered as much as he can.

Rodrigues is at last brought to see Ferreira who indeed did apostatize and is now essentially a prisoner of the government. He has been given a house, a Japanese name, and a wife, whether he wants one or not. It is also announced that he is writing a book denouncing Christianity. The fact that he is kept under guard and not allowed to travel signals that even the Japanese believe he has not truly renounced his faith, although he is good to use as an example to others. Rodrigues does not seem to believe that Ferreira has truly renounced his faith, but he does not understand why he lives like he does.

Example of the pit torture
Example of the pit torture

Finally, Rodriques is taken to a urine-soaked cell where his willingness to die for his faith only increases. Indeed, he looks forward to the opportunity and refuses to renounce his faith to his interrogators. Finally, Ferreira is sent to talk with him and Rodrigues discovers the noise he is hearing outside his cell are the moans of those hanging in the pit where they are slowly bled to death. “Why must they suffer like this? And while this goes on, you do nothing for them. And God — he does nothing either” Ferreira tells him (179).

It is the silence of the title. The silence of God when his followers suffer, the silence of a God who does not answer prayers. Should Rodrigues match this silence and suffer a martyr’s death at the expense of three other people suffering? Finally, like Ferreira, he chooses not to let them suffer for his faith and he apostatizes.

He will continue to wrestle with if he made the right choice. “Lord, you alone know that I did not renounce my faith…I thought that if I apostatized those miserable peasants would be saved…I wonder if all this talk about love is not, after all, just an excuse to justify my own weakness”(186).

Or, perhaps, God is not so silent. It reminds me of the old joke about the man who was on the roof of his house during a flood and when a boat came to save him he sent them off saying God would save him. He sends away another boat and then a helicopter — and then drowns. When he gets to heaven he asks God why he didn’t save him. God responds that he sent him two boats and a helicopter, so what more could he do?

Ferreira's tombstone
Ferreira’s tombstone

Perhaps Ferreira and Rodrigues have been truer to their faith then Garrpe, who died a martyr’s death. They now live as an embarrassment to their faith, rejected by their own faith community, and forever imprisoned to serve as an example of the weakness of their faith to the Japanese. But what Rodrigues does learn as he continues to see the suffering Christ is that God may not relieve suffering, but we do not suffer alone. Endo does not provide any easy answers but he challenges those who follow his faith, as he was a Catholic in a modern Japanese culture where his faith was at time persecuted.

The novel has been made into a film three times. First, Masahiro Shinoda Masahiro Shinoda made Silence in 1971. Director Joao Mario Griolo’s Os Olhos da Ásia in 1996 used the novel as a starting point. Finally, Martin Scorsese made a version of the film, also titled Silence, in 2016. I have not seen any of the films, so I offer no recommendations on them. But I highly recommend this incredible novel for everyone.

Ghassan Zaqtan’s “Describing the Past”

Layout 1There are books in life that we read slowly for the pure pleasure of feeling the words in our mouths. Meaning becomes secondary as we are lost in the pleasure, a feeling that brings many us back to reading again and again. Not many authors have this gift. There are great writers with incredible books who cannot write like this. And there are writers, the French novelist and Nobel prize winner J. M. G. Le Clezio comes to mind, who in the midst of a story create passages and chapters so enticing that their context does not matter.

Ghassan Zaqtan is such a writer. There are many adjectives for Zaqtan we could put in front of “writer,” such as Palestinian, lyrical, narrative, political, personal, activist, Middle Eastern, and more. But, first, he is a writer. He breaks down the boundaries between poetry and fiction, creating prose that reads like poetry and poetry which tells a story. But the words themselves are a joy. A writer seeks to bring us into their world through words. They create portals into which we step without knowing where we are going, hoping to return different, and better, than when we left. Zaqtan is a writer who can take us deeper into our own lives but taking us along with him. And while his writing is transcendent enough to escape context, it is firmly rooted in experience and place.

While writers do not like always being linked to a place, Zaqtan’s background and current life are a central part of his writing. Although well known and highly respected in the world of Arabic literature, he is not as well known in the English-speaking world since only two of his works have been translated.  The first was a collection of poetry, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems, and just recently, the novella, Describing the Past. In Arabic we can find 10 volumes of poetry, more fiction, and plays and essays as well.
Zaqtan was born near Bethlehem and now lives in Ramallah. He has lived in Jordan, Syria,

zaqtan

Ghassan Zaqtan

Lebanon, and Tunisia, and is active in the struggle for  Palestinian freedom. He has edited the Palestine Liberation Organization’s literary magazine and is a leader in promoting literature in the West Bank. His political involvement has made international travel difficult and a trip to Canada occurred only after prominent writers spoke out for him after his visa to visit was initially denied.

He has lived much of his life as an exile and memory of this life is essential to understanding his work. His novel, “Describing the Past,” (written in 1994 and just published in English in 2016) emerges from his time as a child in the Karameh refugee camp near the River Jordon. The beautiful translation is by Samuel Wilder,  and there is an excellent introduction by Fady Joudah.

The story is told in the voices of three narrators: the author, his best friend, and a girl they love. But the story is not told in a traditional narrative sense, but instead, draws us in and slowly comes over us. Memories do not work like people often think they do. Our lives are not remembered as history but as moments and experiences. Zaqtan writes in this way so that we are brought into the experience of being young and awakening to the power and attraction of another. We are brought back into the sense of wonder and awe that we experience but do not remember.

“It was not easy at all. I had to return. There were so many things left to be done that could no longer delayed, places where one had to sit, surfaces and peaks of mountains to stare into with strength, narrow and wide roads to walk over, hands to be clasped, many words to be said. There were greetings to be exchanged and a hand with five kind fingers to be laid on your knee so you believe the speech in the air….

These opening lines set the stage for someone hoping to remember an experience, even though a phrase such as “five kind fingers to be laid on your knee” reminds us of what we do not forget. In his introduction, Joudah describes it better. “Zaqtan transports memory as dream narrative or, more precisely, as a state of being with altered consciousness. As if in a seance, voices appear and speak from a truncated time, resected and persevered in a jar.”

The book  emerges into different modes as it continues. It is a coming-of-age story, an elegy for a dead friend, a celebration of childhood, and a glimpse into the humanity of those called refugees. In a particularly moving passage, the writer sees the young woman they love walking toward him. She has a young boy with her:

“On her other side, he was walking in death. Behind him, on the road of dust, a strand of river water poured from his hair and body. He was silent. Behind us the Hadj walked. I slowed down so that she and he followed my lead, slowed down so that the Hadj could catch up to us. He was silent too. Three men surrounded her. All four of us kept climbing.

I was going off to die. That’s what I was told. She didn’t know this, but the two men did. We three dead men surrounded her as we climbed the narrow, straight road of dust.”

The past, present, and future become one and are impossible to separate. We are made up of all of these times and our past experiences do not leave us but shape us. Still, in a world always forward looking, Zaqtan understands the importance of remembering where we come from. The refugee camp he was in was destroyed and the physical memories are lost. But for an individual and a community to understand themselves, they must describe the past.

“I am compelled to speak now. You know the necessity of it here. Things evaporate and die if they don’t find someone to remember them.”

This is what Zaqtan accomplishes. He remembers, he reminds, and he lifts up the past which can shape our future.

Zaqtan is a gift and worth spending time with. Although best known for his poetry, Describing the Past shows his writing skills go beyond any one genre. If like me, you depend on the translations, we can only hope more of his writing is translated.

Like a Straw BirdIn the meantime, in addition to this book, You should read Like a Straw Bird It Follows me, and other Poems. The book won the prestigious 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize International Prize.

You can find some of his poetry at Poem Hunter.

The Poetry Foundation provides a biography and an audio podcast of Zaqtan and Joudah discussing Palestinian poetry with Ilya Kaminsky.

There is also a great review of Like a Straw Bird It Follows me, and Other Poems is on poet’s Ron Slate’s blog.

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

charming billy coverAlice McDermott can spin a tale. With each page you await a new turn, a new revelation, but she does this without the “aha” tricks of a lesser writer. Instead, as a storyteller, you await her unraveling of a tale that you know tells us more than it appears on the surface.

In Charming Billy, McDermott sets before us the death of Billy Lynch, an alcoholic with a broken heart and life. Still, he finds a patient woman to marry and lives out a life filled with late night drunken calls, failed attempts at reformation, and ongoing quick notes he sends to everyone. He thinks of others, yet cannot face himself.

McDermott gives us real characters. There are no villains or heroes, but people who make mistakes at times and help others the next day. Billy loves his wife, even as he misses the Irish girl from his youth. His cousin, and the father of the narrator, Dennis, is the stable one if the family. But he too has his faults to balance out his ongoing receipts of Billy’s late night calls, or calls to help get him in the house in another drunken stupor. As the family gathers for Billy’s death, the stories pour out about Billy and others. We see people who have been dealt the blows of life, recovered, and moved on. Lives intertwine, allegiances are called upon, and some secrets are left secret.

Even Billy’s drinking, while devastating, is put in context by another cousin after his death.

“What’s nonsense is all this disease business” he said. “Maybe for some people it’s a disease. But maybe for some there are things that happen in their lives that they just can’t live with. Thins that take the sweetness out of everything. Maybe for some it’s a sadness they can’t get rid of or a disappointment that won’t go away. And you know what I say to those people? I say good luck to those people.” He raised his glass, raised his chin. “I say maybe they’re not as smart and sensible and accepting as every one of us…but they’re loyal. They’re loyal to their own feelings.”

Loyal to his feelings is true Billy, but only to himself. Still, in a drunken ramble, as he talks about the death that has overshadowed his life, we find he is loyal to his faith as well. These are Catholic folks, and Billy is committed to his beliefs. It is not simply a matter of fulfilling the obligations of mid-20th century Catholicism, but of believing in his faith. He addresses the issue of death head on, not with a Sunday school faith, but of one willing to let his faith delve in the darkness as well as the light. Death is an injustice, and horrible interruption of life — not just a mere part of life.

“Our Lord knew it,” Billy went on. “Our Lord knew it [death] was terrible. Why would He shed His own blood if death wasn’t terrible?” There was another pause, another sip of whiskey. “You know what makes a mockery of the Crucifixion?” Billy said. “You know what makes it pointless? Anyone saying that death is just an ordinary thing, and ordinary part of life. It happens, you reconcile yourself, you go on. Anyone saying that is saying Our Lord’s coming was to no avail.” … “What do we need the Redemption for?” Billy asked him. “If death isn’t terrible. If we’re reconciled? Why do we need heaven or hell? It makes no difference. If death doesn’t trouble us, the injustice of it, then we don’t need heaven or hell, do we? If might as well be a lie.”

Lies are a part of Billy’s life, but he does not know it for many years. When he discovers that he has long been mislead, he simply returns to his life. Of course, inside, he still struggles. And that is where we are left guessing. Everyone is busy trying to understand Billy, because Billy lived his life without involving others in his thoughts and feelings. And everyone seems to know they were missing out as a result.

Alice McDermott, Bethesda writer.©Patrice Gilbert   May 2008301-270-4986McDermott is a great writer who incorporates faith into her stories. I also highly recommend her novel, Someone, which I read last year. She is someone I’ll be continuing to seek out. Just for the record, here is her publisher’s official author bio:

Alice McDermott is the author of several previous novels, including After This; Child of My Heart; Charming Billy, winner of the 1998 National Book Award; and At Weddings and Wakes, all published by FSG. That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and After This were all finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. McDermott lives with her family outside Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

 

 

The Fault in Our Stars

the fault in our starsWhile not usually one for young adult books, I read John Green’s The Fault in our Stars along with my 14-year-old for a summer read. The book has been getting a lot of press (and it is now a movie), and having lost my 6-year-old to cancer 14 months ago, I’m a bit attuned to cancer-related books. However, there are so many bad books out there, I was worried this would trivialize a clearly non-trivial topic.

While everyone’s experience with cancer is different, Green gets it. Sure, I could argue details and teens with cancer will surely find issues to challenge, but this is believable. What struck me was how much he gets how cancer impacts a community, and especially a family. While the two teenagers, Hazel Grace and Augustus, are the ones dealing with life and death issues of cancer, we also see how their parents and friends handle it. Or don’t. Toward the end of the book we hear about all these people showing support on Facebook, but it is clear they have been absent from the daily lives of these teenagers and their families.

As a result, and because of newly shared interests, the cancer community creates its own world. For nearly three years our family was part of that community at a Children’s Hospital, and when we lost our son, we lost that community. The rest of the world, frankly, just does not get it. Green sees this alienation, sees how families respond, and respects that new world.

The title is great, as it a play on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar  where Cassius says to Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Green is saying is that the lives of Hazel Grace and Augustus have been created by outside forces. However, they take that “fault” and refuse to let the cancer rule their life. Their trip to Amsterdam is a slap in the face of the victim mentality they could assume.

Most telling is when Augustus identifies himself with his cancer. “What am I at war with? My cancer. And what is my cancer? My cancer is me. The tumors are made of me. They’re made of me as surely as my brain and my heart are made of me. It is a civil war, Hazel Grace, with a predetermined winner.” This reminded me of the time my oldest son was asking my youngest son with cancer, Oliver, about what kind of robot he would be if he could be a robot. As they talked about the traits, my oldest said, of course, that Oliver’s robot would not have cancer. “Yes it would,” said Oliver. “The cancer is part of who I am.” In other words, cancer patients begin to live with, and not against, this horrible disease.

The book also captures the experience of grief, and I don’t think of giving away too much to say that in a book about cancer, there is grief. Hazel Grace describes it as when you are in pain and they ask you to rate it from one to ten. She never said ten. “I called it a nine because I was saving my ten. And here it was, the great and terrible ten, slamming me again and again as I lay still and alone in my bed staring a the ceiling, the waves tossing me against the rocks then pulling me back out to sea so they could launch me again into the jagged face of the cliff leaving me floating faceup on the water, undrowned.”

That is harsh. That is true. And that is why this book is worth reading, whether or not cancer has entered your life. You get a real sense of what it is to live with cancer as a patient and a family. And the cancer community loses people all the time, so they get grief.

If any part of the book could be changed, it is a sexual encounter between two teens that could have been avoided. It adds nothing to a connection that is already there, and does not send the best message to teenagers (call me a prude, but there are other options in life).

As a parent who has lost a child, the book had me early on, when Hazel Grace (who narrates the book) says: “There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer.”

Not my words, but my feelings.

Blood Meridian

Blood MeridianRarely, okay, never have I read a book which is so simultaneously abhorrent and appealing. Blood Meridian is a book that treats violence as a commonplace occurrence, and offers little respite in its continual assault on all (or anything, please anything) that is good in the world. The prose is stark, direct, and often undefinable (perhaps somewhere, but I often found words for which no definition can be found). The novel immerses you in a world of evil and violence far more terrifying than any post-apocalyptic book can create. And this, indeed, is how I came to this “masterwork” by Cormac McCarthy (bio). I’ve read a few of his novels, and consider “The Road” (blogged about here) one of my all time favorite novels.

This novel centers around “the kid” in the 1850s as he travels from his home state of Tennessee and joins up with the Glanton Gang, a real-life group of killers (there are probably more appropriate terms, but I’m calling them what they are) led by John Joel Glanton. Hired by the Mexican government to fight off attacking Native Americans, they killed any Native American they could since they were paid by the scalp. Women, children, unarmed men — it makes no difference. Even non-Native Americans were not exempt for their depravity as all of humanity appears to be at their disposal. What makes McCarthy’s descriptions so unnerving is the calmness and detachment used in describing the killings. You can almost read through some of them before the horror of what is happening dawns on you. I’m reminded of Tim O’Brien’s writing about the My Lai massacre during the American war in Vietnam. In the Lake of the Woods is a novel about a politician later found to have been involved in the massacre. But the most disturbing part of the book is not the fiction, but a chapter of excerpts from the actual court-martial records. What you see is this same dispassionate account of brutal abuse and killing. As if the event itself is not horrific enough, the presenting of it as a normal occurrence makes it even worse.

McCarthy’s prose is powerful. It can edge on the dramatic, and at times tips into the over-

Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy

dramatic category, but its power is clear.

Under a gibbous moon horse and rider spanceled to their shadows on the snowblue ground and in each flare of lightning as the storm advanced those selfsame forms rearing with a terrible redundancy behind them like some third aspect of their presence hammered out black and wild upon the naked grounds. They rode on.

The phrase, “they rode on,” is the perfect balance to that long, intricate preceding sentence. Language like his can be hard to follow in our quick read society, but a slow and thoughtful read pays off. Plus, he reminds you of the beauty of words (and perhaps I just tipped into the over-dramatic category).

While “the kid” is the anti-hero of this anti-western, it is the Judge who stands out as the most memorable character. A large, hairless, white man, he is often naked and always calm. He appears to be waiting for others as they come to him, and his intellect puts him ahead of both enemies and his fellow travelers. He makes observations in his notebook in order to understand and thus control the world, and is given to long, fascinating discourses on a variety of topics. He is both God-like and devil-like, omniscient and monstrous, and terrifying in his outreach.

Toward the end of the book “the kid” faces off with judge, the culmination of a relationship in which they dance around one another throughout the book.

The judge smiled. He spoke softly into the dim mud cubicle. You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgments of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledge a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise. Hear me, man. I spoke in the desert for you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.

It is as if “the kid” recognizes his role in evil, and by the recognition (for there is no repentance) he has broken the fabric of their community. He recognizes the judge as the one behind the evil, but he cannot separate himself. As the judge says, “What joins men together is not the sharing of bread but sharing of enemies.”

Clearly, this is a disturbing novel. The fact that McCarthy bases this on historical occurrences does not allow us to write this off as some post-apocalyptic fantasy. Instead, we have to face the judge and his comments about our own culpability in human affairs.

You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow.

My Name is Asher Lev