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The Firemaker by Peter May

September 23, 2016 20 comments

The Firemaker by Peter May (1999) French title : Meurtres à Pékin. Translated by Ariane Bataille.

MayThe Firemaker our Book Club read for August, so yes, I might be a little late with the billet. It’s going to be a quick one as well because I have a rather long list of upcoming billets and frankly, The Firemaker is not a book that pushes me to write a long, deep or even gushing billet. It’s honest Beach and Public Transport reading but nothing more.

It’s the first instalment of Peter May’s series in China. Dr Margaret Campbell is a medical examiner in Chicago and she arrives in Beijing to give lectures about her job to Chinese students. Li Yan has just been promoted as Deputy Section Chief in the Beijing police department. He accidentally meets Margaret on his way to his job interview and they start on the wrong footing.

The same day, three bodies are found dead in three different places of the city. The only common point between the three is a cigarette butt near the corpses.

Follows an investigation to discover who’s guilty of these murders. Margaret and Li are obliged to work together. She makes mistake after mistake in her interactions with Chinese people. Margaret and Li are madly attracted to each other but cannot really act on it. They get scientific results of sample analysis in record time, the cells don’t even have the time to multiply that they already have the report. Such performance sounds rather unrealistic.

It’s basically an American NCIS based in Beijing. It’s an easy read and I read it till the end but it’s rather stereotyped. The scientist imposed to the cop as a partner. A pair forced to work together that ends up falling in lust and then in love. Pointing out cultural differences. An American woman who doesn’t take time to read anything about the country she’s going to and offends everyone with her ignorance. A woman who flew to China to avoid her painful past. A man whose family has been hurt by the Cultural Revolution. Cardboard descriptions of Beijing. Some cultural nail polish to spice it up. And poof, 500 pages.

All in all, nothing to write home about. It could have been a lot better because the synopsis is a truly great idea. The problem is that it lacks finesse in characterization but it’s still a decent Beach & Public Transport book.

There’s a recent review in French by Bookmaniac here

Three Horses by Erri De Luca

June 25, 2016 37 comments

Three Horses by Erri De Luca (1999) French title: Trois chevaux. (Translated from the Italian by Danièle Valin.)

Une vie d’homme dure autant que celle de trois chevaux. A man’s life lasts as long three horses’ lives.

De_LucaThree Horses is a novella by the Italian writer Erri De Luca. The book opens with a foreword about Argentina to remind the reader of its geography and of few facts about its recent history. Argentina welcomed 7 million of immigrants before 1939 and half of them were Italian. From 1976 to 1982, it was governed by a lethal military dictatorship and 40 000 persons went missing. It ended in 1982 when they failed to invade the Falkland Islands, a territory under British rule and as big as half of Sicily.

The narrator is a fifty years old man who works as a gardener for an old friend. After the introduction, we know that the narrator something to do with Argentina. He’s a quiet and literate man who keeps to himself. He’s contemplative and seeks solace in books. It’s clear from the start that he wants a quiet life made of physical labor, simple food and lots of reading. We slowly learn about his past, discovering how he ended up as a meditative gardener. He’s Italian and fell in love with an Argentinean woman, Dvora. He followed her to Buenos Aires and married her. They settled there and were caught up by history; Dvora was killed during the dictatorship and he survived.

The narrator’s past, his beliefs and his personality slowly come to life through delicate sentences. He enjoys nurturing plants and takes pleasure in gardening. He befriends other lonely souls and immigrants and meets Làila who brings Argentina back into his life.

Elle ne s’efface pas de mon corps, l’Argentine, peu de poils ont repoussé sur l’ulcère de la guerre et des assassins. Argentina cannot be erased of my body. Little hair has grown on the ulcer of war and murderers.

He’s a survivor from grief and violence. He’s not healed and still lives in a survivor mode. It’s difficult to go further in describing the narrator’s life or his state of mind without spoiling the novel. So I’ll leave it at that.

It is a slim novel written in a luminous and poetic prose. I have a lot of quotes, all due to De Luca’s unique way with words. Here’s the narrator walking in the wilderness…

J’apprends à ne pas craindre les serpents, des bêtes sages qui lèchent l’air.

I learn not to be afraid of snakes, these wise beasts who lick the air.

…or waking up in his apartment

Oui, je me lève à cinq heures, mais volontiers. L’air de la mer fait parvenir ici un peu de son odeur.

La maison craque à cette heure-là, pierre, bois, bâillements. Puis elle se tait au parfum du café. Une cafetière sur le feu suffit à remplir une pièce.

Yes, I wake up at five a.m. but willingly. The air coming from the sea brings a bit of its scent here.

The house creaks at this hour, stone, wood and yawns. Then it goes quiet with the perfume of coffee. A coffeepot on the stove is enough to fill a room.

I could picture his early mornings in a waking house.

Three Horses is a deeply Mediterranean book. The narrator is in osmosis with his environment and he’s like a living part of the scenery. The setting is almost a character in the novella. The sun, the sea, laundry pouring out of windows and basil in pots. De Luca’s writing appeals to all the reader’s senses. It brought back memories of holidays in Sicily, on the French Riviera or in Greece. The scent of the sea is like an olfactory background melody. The sun heats up the vegetation and makes it exhale puffs of perfumes. Pine trees, wisteria or rosemary. De Luca makes you feel the sea breeze on your skin and the burning heat of the sun at noon. The reader hears the soothing sound of the waves and the cries of seagulls. The narrator cooks and it reminds you the taste of fresh tomatoes, olive oil and smooth cheese. Each time I’m in a Mediterranean region, I feel content. Each time I read a book set somewhere near the Mediterranean Sea, I long to be there with the characters. This one is no different with its powerful sense of place. I also enjoyed the slow pace of the narrator’s life, so far from my own.

Above all, I loved the narrator’s relationship with literature and books. Literature plays a central role in his life and I could relate to it.

Les jours se passent comme ça. Le soir, chez moi, j’écrase des tomates crues et de l’origan sur des pâtes égouttées et je grignote des gousses d’ail devant un livre russe. Il rend mon corps plus léger.

C’est ce que doivent faire les livres, porter une personne et non pas se faire porter par elle, décharger la journée de son dos, ne pas ajouter leurs propres grammes de papier sur ses vertèbres.

Days go on like this. Home at night, I mash raw tomatoes and oregano on freshly drained pasta and I nibble cloves of garlic in front of a Russian book. It makes my body lighter.

That’s what books are for. They should carry a person, not be carried by them. They should take the day’s load off one’s back, not add grams of paper on one’s vertebras.

Isn’t that the best thing after a long day? To unload the day’s thoughts and events on the wharf of a book cover and to sail away to the wind of a writer’s prose?

He also made me question my relationship with physical books.

Je lis des vieux livres parce que les pages tournées de nombreuses fois et marquées par les doigts ont plus de poids pour les yeux, parce que chaque exemplaire de livre peut appartenir à plusieurs vies. Les livres devraient rester sans surveillance dans les endroits publics pour se déplacer avec les passants qui les emporteraient un moment avec eux, puis ils devraient mourir comme eux, usés par les malheurs, contaminés, noyés en tombant d’un pont avec les suicidés, fourrés dans un poêle l’hiver, déchirés par les enfants pour en faire des petits bateaux, bref ils devraient mourir n’importe comment sauf d’ennui et de propriété privée, condamnés à vie à l’étagère. I read used books because pages turned many times and branded by fingers have more weight to the eyes, because each copy of a book can belong to several lives. Books should stay unattended in public places to move around with passersby who would take them for a while. And then they should die like people, used by tragedies, contaminated, drowned after falling off bridges with people who committed suicide, stuffed in a woodstove in winter, torn apart by children to make paper boats. In other words, books should die of anything but boredom and private property or condemned to serve a life sentence on a shelf.

Thought provoking, huh? Why do I keep all my books? Is it selfish to keep them on the shelf instead of giving them away? Most of them I will never read again anyway. Food for future thoughts.

Three Horses is a slim novel laced with the horrors of war, a man who still look for a way to live and thinks that literature is a wonderful crutch. Highly recommended.

PS: Update after first publication. I forgot to mention Caroline’s review of Three Horses. Her review made me buy it and you can see why here.

Quais du polar #5: Nineteen Seventy-Four by David Peace – 1974 shades of Noir.

March 28, 2016 26 comments

1974 by David Peace (1999) Translated by Daniel Lemoine.

Quais_polar_logoNineteen Seventy-Four is the first novel of the Red Riding Quartet by David Peace. The four books are set in Yorkshire between 1974 and 1983.

Edward Dunford is a rookie journalist, just hired as North of England Crime Correspondent at the Yorkshire Evening Post. The book starts on Friday 13 December 1974. Eddie’s father has just died and he’s attending a press conference at the Millgarth Police Station, Leeds. Little Clare Kemplay has been missing since the day before on her way back from school. Soon, her body is found in a nearby alley. Edward makes a connection between this murder and the murders of two other little girls. Jeanette Garland missing since 1969 in Castleford. Susan Ridyard missing since 1972 in Rochdale, in 1972.

Peace_1974Eddie starts digging. His colleague Barry Gannon is on a big case that he calls the Dawsongate. He’s investigating shady transactions in the construction business owned by John Dawson. He’s on the verge of getting the evidence he needs. He gets murdered on December 16th. Eddie inherits of his material.

Who is the link between the three murdered little girls? What was Barry about to reveal?

Ambitious Eddie will follow leads and from informative phone calls, to strange visits and police tips, he will start his journey to hell. Corruption is wherever you look. Among the police. Among the press. Among the powerful men of the territory. Eddie will be in the cross-fire between the three, trying to save his career and his life while attempting to discover the truth about these horrible acts.

Everything happens between December 13 and Christmas Eve. David Peace installs the nervous pace of his literary style from the first paragraphs:

‘All we ever get is Lord fucking Lucan and wingless bloody crows,’ smiled Gilman, like this was the best day of our lives:

Friday 13 December 1974.

Waiting for my fist Front Page, the Byline Boy at last: Edward Dunford, North of England Crime Correspondent; two days too fucking late.

I looked at my father’s watch.

9 a.m0 and no bugger had been to bed; straight from the Press Club, still stinking of ale, into this hell:

The Conference Room, Millgarth Police Station, Leeds.

The whole bloody pack sat waiting for the main attraction, pens poised and tapes paused; ht TV lights and cigarette smoke lighting up the windowless room like a Town Hall boxing ring on a Late Night Fight Night; the paper boys taking it out on the TV set, the radios static and playing it deaf:

‘They got sweet FA’

‘A quid says she’s dead if they got George on it.’

Khalil Aziz at the back, no sign of Jack.

I felt a nudge. It was Gilman again, Gilman from the Manchester Evening News and before.

‘Sorry to hear about your old man, Eddie’

‘Yeah, thanks,’ I said, thinking news really did travel fucking fast.

‘When’s the funeral?’

I looked at my father’s watch again. ‘In about two hours.’

‘Jesus. Hadden still taking his pound of bloody flesh, then.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, knowing, funeral or no funeral, no way I’m letting Jack fucking Whitehead back on this one.

‘I’m sorry, like’

‘Yeah,’ I said.

It’s a long quote but it gives the atmosphere of the novel in a nutshell. The ingredients are there. Eddie mourning his father but in competition with the star journalist Jack Whitehead. The fake camaraderie between the journalists. The show delivered by the police. The interdependence between the police and the press. The demands of Hadden, Eddie’s boss.

The loose use of punctuation gives a staccato rhythm to the book and it will follow us for the whole ride. I have to admit: Thank God I had this one in translation. I was already fairly lost in French, I can’t even imagine what it would have been in English. It’s a first person narrative, so we’re with Eddie the whole time. It’s violent because the methods of the police are made of beating and torture. There’s an urgency to the story that keeps you breathless. We’re walking in the dark with Eddie, trying to weave the threads of information together to create the tapestry of events. Not easy before computer and cell phones times.

I know that Nineteen Seventy-Four is loosely based upon the real case of the Yorkshire Ripper. I’m French and was still in diapers in 1974. I know nothing about this case. Just like I knew nothing about the Lucan case when I read Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark. I did a bit of reading on Wikipedia. This serial killer murdered prostitutes, not little girls. Fiction is mixed with facts. Edward Dunford is from Osset, like David Peace. The investigation on the Yorkshire Ripper was done by Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield who was highly criticized for his handling of the case. Here, George Oldfield is the name of the Chief Superintendent in charge of the investigation. I’m sure there are other parts of the novel that borrow to the real case. Does that bother me? Not really because it is not a novel about this case. It’s a novel about a similar serial killer and Peace probably used the information about the Yorkshire Ripper to give back the atmosphere of the time, the way the police worked and how the whole intelligentsia of West Yorkshire holds themselves together through shared secrets.

Nobody had interest in shaking the whole system and Eddie is a willing pawn. He’s not a likeable character either. Women are means for sex, however damaged they might be, he’s in this mainly for his own advancement and his competition with Jack Whitehead for the title of best crime journalist. He’s not a noble character fighting to right wrongs in a corrupt world. And yet he continues.

This is Noir, very very Noir fiction and Peace’s style makes it worth your time. Granted it’s not an asset for the Department of Tourism of West Yorskshire, even if it is set 40 years ago.

For another review, have a look at Max’s excellent post here.

 

Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. (Wow)

February 14, 2016 21 comments

Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien (1990) Translated into French by Elisabeth Guinsbourg, revised by Hélène Cohen.

I read Leaving Las Vegas last December and it’s still vivid in my mind. That in itself means something. How many times do we struggle to remember a book we read a few weeks ago? Leaving Las Vegas didn’t fade away, it left a lasting impression on me. Now if you wonder if it has anything to do with the eponymous film with Nicholas Cage, the answer is yes.

The novel opens with Sera, sitting on a sidewalk on Las Vegas Boulevard.

Sucking weak coffee through a hole in the plastic lid of a red and green Styrofoam cup, Sera sports a place to sit down. She has been walking around now for at least two hours and wants desperately to rest. Normally, she wouldn’t dare hang around this long on in front of a 7-11, but the curb looks high, and having recently accumulated a fresh coat of red paint, not too dirty. She drops down hard on the cold curb and hugs her knees, bending her head into the privacy of the dark little crave created by her arms. Her eyes follow the stream of light running between her two thighs, down to where it concluded in black lace, aptly exposed by her short leather skirt.

She throws back her head, and her dark brown hair fans around her shoulders, dances in the turbulence created by a passing Sun Bus; a window framed profile begins to run and vanishes in a cloud of black exhaust. In the red gloss of her recently applied lipstick there is a tiny reflection of the glowng convenience store sign, its cold fluorescent light shining much too white to tan or warm the beautiful face appealing beneath it. She modestly lowers her knees, only to have the black blazer fall open as she leans back in her elbows, revealing her small breasts under a sheer lace camisole. Making no effort to cover herself, she turns her head; her dark green eyes, protected by long mascara-laden lashes, scan up and down Las Vegas Boulevard.

Tadatadatacheeda tacheek tacheek sheeka she catches on her lips an unrefined tune, already in progress. All but inaudible, composed clumsily out of fragments overheard in casino lounges, it nonetheless seems to guide the passing traffic, coercing the rumble and whine of the street to perform in symphony with the slide and twirl that exist in her head. Across the street—not yet over the shiver, nor to the goods—a dormant construction side, populated with skeletal cranes raising adolescent towers, stands smugly, silently, and in dubious approval. It wears the gree and blue hues of the night. It knows not whence it came. It will lend her the benefit of the doubt. It will accompany her on the long, hard, painful ride in a car filled with chums. Sera’s arms are weak, but her pulse is strong. She smacks shut her lips and waits for a trick.

O'Brien_Leaving_Las_VegasIt’s a long quote, I know but it’s the only one I’ll be able to include in this billet, since I have the book in French and thus rely on the English kindle sample for original quotes. But apart from this practical issue, it serves my purpose. Now you know why I was hooked from the first page. Sera sits there, the city bustling around her and she wants to hide for a moment but can’t. She’s a hooker and dresses accordingly: she can’t hide. Either her top is revealed or her bottom. She’s so surrounded by the noise, the lights, the music that they become part of her and she becomes part of the city.

The first chapters are dedicated to Sera, her life as a lone prostitute in Las Vegas. The night we meet her will leave her bruised and battered both physically and emotionally.

Then we’re leaving Las Vegas for Los Angeles where we get to know Ben. He’s an alcoholic and he’s about to move out to Las Vegas for purely practical reasons: there, one has access to alcohol round the clock. He knows it’s the end of the road for him and he wants to spend his last weeks as easily as he can.

Ben and Sera meet and find in each other the compassion and human warmth they both need. Sera doesn’t try to save Ben. She doesn’t judge him. She stands by him. And Ben is past judging anyone. He knows what she does for a living and sees her as a human being, as an equal. That alone is a gift for Sera. Her life story is heartbreaking but what impressed me more was O’Brien’s description of alcoholism.

If you weren’t convinced that alcohol is a drug, read Leaving Las Vegas. We’ve all read books with drunkards as main characters. Post Office by Bukowski or Under the Volcano by Malcom Lowry are examples. Even if these books don’t shy away from the ugliness of alcoholism, none of them pictures the sheer physical dependency on alcohol the way Leaving Las Vegas does. Think more about books and films about heroin addicts. This is how John O’Brien paints alcoholism. Ben needs an alcohol fix at regular intervals. His life in Los Angeles revolves around alcohol. Which one to drink first thing in the morning without throwing it up. How to deal with an upset stomach and make it accept the substance. Where to drink in the mornings without catching too much attention. Where to drink in the afternoons. Where to drink at night. How to hide drunkenness not to be thrown out of the bar. Where to buy alcohol at night before it is forbidden by law. How to judge the quantity of alcohol to have at home to go through the night once it’s not allowed to buy some more until the next morning. It’s awful. Terrifying.

Ben lets himself die of alcoholism. He’s like a person with terminal cancer. Nothing can be done for him anymore and he just wants to end it as best he can. Las Vegas is that place for him. And Sera is his last companion.

Leaving Las Vegas is the gut-wrenching novel of two lost souls. They are swallowed by an artificial city whose main occupation is amusement and thriving on activities that are illegal in other States. Las Vegas is like the cupboard where you push all the mess in an attempt to let your guests think your apartment is clean and tidy. But Ben and Sera also find acceptance in Las Vegas. Here, in the cupboard of America, nobody pays attention to them. Nobody judges them. They have a right to be.

John O’Brien would know about Ben’s addiction. He was destroyed by alcoholism and committed suicide in 1994.

Highly recommended.

Wandering Star by J.M.G. Le Clézio

December 16, 2015 14 comments

Wandering Star by J.M.G Le Clézio (1992) Original French title: Etoile errante.

LeClézio_Etoile_erranteWandering Star is part of my #TBR20 project because it had been sitting on the shelf for a while and because I always need a little kick to start books about war and their consequences.

Wandering Star starts in 1943. Esther is 13. She’s Jewish and living as a refugee in a little village in the mountains near Nice, France. The Italians have the power on this territory and a whole Jewish community is settled in this village. Esther is in hiding and calls herself Hélène. Her father is with the Resistance and men pass through their house. The Germans arrive and the Jews flee to Italy through the mountains. Esther’s father disappears. After the war, Esther and her mother take the boat to settle in a newly founded country, Israel.

During her first months in Israel in 1948, Esther briefly sees Nejma, a Palestinian on her way to the Nur Shams refugee camp. Then, Le Clézio switches of point of view and Nejma tells us her story.

Wandering Star is the story of two young women, one uprooted by the Holocaust and the other by the foundation of the state of Israel.

The first part is rather bucolic –a little too much for my taste. Despite the war lurking above Esther’s life, she’s still a teenager, running around with other adolescents, experiencing her first attraction to boys. Being in this village is the first time she is uprooted. They used to live in Nice, by the sea and now they’re in the mountains. Esther will never stop being uprooted as her life takes her from France to Italy, to France and Israel. Her whole life will be influenced by war, in Europe first and in Israel later.

Esther’s journey to Israel and her first months there are full of dangers and uncertainty. Nejma’s circumstances are not better as Le Clézio depicts her life in Nur Shams. Life is dreadful there. People starve, die from various diseases in total indifference. I didn’t know this camp still existed. It was created in the 1930s by the British as a detention camp. According to Wikipedia, in 2007, 6479 people lived in Nur Sham. That’s the size of a small town. Some people have probably spent their whole life in what should be a transitory place. How do you grow up, live your life, feel grounded when you live in a place designed as a place of transit?

The reader switches from Esther to Nejma, follows their destiny. Le Clézio isn’t judging anything or anyone. This is not a political novel in the strict sense. He’s not picking a side, just showing the results of political choices and ideologies on the life of common people. There’s no gradation in misery; he’s not trying to say that Esther’s misfortunes are sadder or worse than Nejma’s or the other way round. He remains factual but not clinical. His writing has a lyrical side that emphasizes the horror of the situations he describes. It’s like a beautiful soundtrack on war images. It’s at odds with the hardship he’s showing us with his pen.

As in LullabyLe Clézio has a real sense of place and describes marvelously the nature of the Mediterranean region. The sun, the light, the sea, the wind. The characters make one with nature, they are influenced by the elements. The sun is either a caress or a burn. The wind whips them or tempers the heat of the sun. Nature has a permanence which is in contradiction with the uprooted lives of his characters.

I finished Wandering Star with a knot in my stomach because it puts the life and the feelings of refugees at human size. And when this come down from the generalities shown on TV to a more personal encounter, be it with a fictional character, it’s always a punch in the face. Granted, this is not fun to read but it’s Worth it. For the Nejmas who still suffer in Nur Shams, for the memory of the Jews who lost their country and their families in the Holocaust and for Le Clézio’s luminous prose.

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth – Part III

October 23, 2015 18 comments

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (2008) French title: J’ai épousé un communiste.

Roth_Communist_CoverThis is the last billet about I Married a Communist by Philip Roth. The first one is about the plot and the characters and is available here. The second one focuses on Communism and the witch hunt of the McCarthy era and can be read here.While the two first billets explore the topics underlying the title of the novel (marriage and Communism), the third one is dedicated to the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman.

At the beginning of the novel, Nathan stumbles upon his former teacher Murray Ringold. Nathan is now 64 and Murray is way over 80. When Nathan was in high school, Murray was teaching English. He was unorthodox and encouraged free thinking. He was the one to introduce Nathan to Ira, the Communist of the title. The two brothers had a key influence on Nathan’s growing-up. I Married a Communist corresponds to Nathan’s teenage years.

This is where I Married a Communist becomes a coming-of-age novel, focused on the education of the mind. It’s showing just beneath the surface. It doesn’t dwell on the hormonal part of adolescence and the discovering of the other sex. (Extensive rendition of the “body experience” can be found in Portnoy’s Complaint) It discusses how an adolescent becomes a man in his mind, not in his body. Nathan is around 14 when he meets the Ringold brothers.

I was sitting between two shirtless brothers well over six feet tall, two big, natural men exuding the sort of forceful, intelligent manliness to which I aspired. Men who could talk about baseball and boxing talking about books. And talking about books as though something were at stake in a book. Not opening a book to worship it or to be elevated by it or to lose yourself to the world around you. No, boxing with the book.

Murray and Ira challenge him, intellectually. They teach him to think out of the box, to criticize the books they read, to question what he hears. They come in his life at this transition period that is adolescence in anyone’s life. Nathan is starting to question his parents’ values and line of thinking. That’s the normal path to adulthood, as Roth beautifully puts it:

If you’re not orphaned early, if instead you’re related intensely to parents for thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years, you grow a prick, lose your innocence, seek your independence, and, if it’s not a screwed-up family, are let go, ready to begin to be a man, ready, that is, to choose new allegiances and affiliations, the parents of your adulthood, the chosen parents whom, because you are not asked to acknowledge them with love, you either love or don’t, as suits you.

How are they chosen? Through a series of accidents and through lots of will. How do they get to you, and how do you get to them? Who are they? What is it, this genealogy that isn’t genetic? In my case they were men to whom I apprenticed myself, from Paine and Fast and Corwin to Murray and Ira and beyond—the men who schooled me, the men I came from. All were remarkable to me in their own way, personalities to contend with, mentors who embodied or espoused powerful ideas and who first taught me to navigate the world and its claims, the adopted parents who also, each in his turn, had to be cast off along with their legacy, had to disappear, thus making way for the orphanhood that is total, which is manhood. When you’re out there in this thing alone.

There’s a lot in this quote.

As an adult, I remember that period of my life and I relate to the second part of the quote. It’s the time when you look at your parents with critical eyes and the curtain of blind love is removed. They become human. They become fallible. We all found ourselves these adoptive parents in our life. We threw away the part of our education we didn’t want. Religion. Political orientation. Vision of social life. We found help in thinkers and digested them before rejecting part of their instruction too.

As a mother, I love the first paragraph of the quote. That’s what I want for my children. I want them to separate themselves from their parents’ vision of life to build their own. I want them to question our opinions and values to keep what works for them. I want them to explore other paths in the process. There are beautiful passages in the novel about Nathan and his father, like this one, when he’s about to attend a political meeting with Ira:

My father didn’t want his son stolen from him, and though, strictly speaking, nobody had stolen anybody, the man was no fool and knew that he had lost and, Communist or no Communist, the six-foot six-inch intruder had won. I saw in my father’s face a look of resigned disappointment, his kind gray eyes softened by—distressfully subdued by—something midway between melancholy and futility. I was a look that would never be entirely forgotten by me when I was alone with Ira, or later, with Leo Glucksman, Johnny O’Day or whomever. Just by taking instruction from these men, I seemed to myself somehow to be selling my father short. His face with that look on it was always looming up, superimposed on the face of the man who was then educating me in life’s possibilities. His face bearing the wound of betrayal.

Mr Zuckerman Senior knows what’s happening. He knows that Nathan is about to choose Ira and Murray as adoptive parents. It makes him sad but he’s resigned; he knows he needs to lose his son temporarily to have him back again later. There’s a lot of tenderness from the son to the father in this novel. I don’t know how much Roth put of himself in Nathan this time but if he experienced what Nathan describes, then I Married a Communist is a nice tribute to Mr Roth Senior.

Years later, as Nathan reacquaints himself with Murray, his old professor has something new to teach him:

In Murray Ringold, I thought, human dissatisfaction has met its match. He has outlived dissatisfaction. This is what remains after the passing of everything, the disciplined sadness of stoicism. This is the cooling. For so long it’s so hot, everything in life is so intense, and then little by little it goes away, and then comes the cooling, and then come the ashes. The man who first taught me how to box with a book is back now to demonstrate how you box with old age.

And an amazing, noble skill it is, for nothing teaches you less about old age than having lived a robust life.

Nathan is now 64. He’s entering old age and Murray’s example is welcome, just as it was in his youth. Again, as I mentioned it as the end of my billet about the “Communism side” of the novel, we start with something—the wrong assumption of Communism, the importance of Murray’s teachings—, we follow a thought process and come back to the first point—the inexistence of natural brotherhood, the worth of Murray’s instruction. It gives a sense of accomplishment to the book, the feeling that everything is well orchestrated and yet not fake.

There’s a lot to explore in I Married a Communist. I wrote three billets and I barely skimmed the surface. It is not known as Roth’s best book but there’s still a lot to chew over.

Still highly recommended.

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth – Part II

October 21, 2015 11 comments

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth (1998) French title: J’ai épousé un communiste.

This is my second billet about I Married a Communist by Philip Roth. The first one focuses on the plot and can be read here. In this second post, I wanted to focus on Roth’s analysis of Communism as a political ideal and on his depiction of the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950s. Roth focuses on the global picture, the ideals conveyed by Communism, the witch hunt and the political climate of the time but also reflects on how this witch hunt has been possible, that is to say by the cooperation of individuals.

He tells you capitalism is a dog-eat-dog system. What is life if not a dog-eat-dog system? This is a system that is in tune with life. And because it is, it works. Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. It’s such a crazy fairy tale they’ve got to take people and put them in Siberia in order to get them to believe it. In order to get them to believe in their brotherhood, they’ve got to control people’s every thought of shoot ‘em. And meanwhile in America, in Europe, the Communists go on with this fairy tale even when then know what is really there. Sure, for a while, you don’t know. But what don’t you know? You know human beings. So you know everything. You know that this fairy tale cannot be possible. If you are a very young man I suppose it’s okay. Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, okay. But after that? No reason that a person with an average intelligence can take this story, this fairy tale of Communism, and swallow it. ‘We will do something that will be wonderful…’ But we know what our brother is, don’t we? He’s a shit. And we know what our friend is, don’t we? He’s a semi-shit. And we are semi-shits. So how can it be wonderful? Not even cynicism, not even skepticism, just ordinary powers of human observation tell us that is not possible.

Roth_Communist_CoverI have to say I quite agree with Roth. The idea of Communism is doomed from the start because it’s based on a fairy tale conception of mankind. I don’t believe in natural goodness and I haven’t in a long time. I remember sitting on a chair in my high school class, listening to the teacher explain Rousseau’s vision of the Good Savage and thinking it was utterly rubbish and unrealistic. Ingrained brotherhood and goodness do not lead to wars, rapes, pogroms, thefts and crime in general. And those have existed since the beginning of humanity.

Everything is clearer with hindsight but still, I never understood how a clever philosopher like Sartre became so engrossed with Communism and refused to see through the official curtain put in place by the USSR. Not only was the thinking flawed from the start because it’s based on an inaccurate assumption, but the implementation phase led to brutal dictatorship.

Roth depicts O’Day, the Communist who converted Ira to his “religion” as a zealot. He can be compared to a Christian zealot from the beginning of Christianism. He has an unbreakable faith in Communism, he’s ready to suffer for it and he’s ready to sacrifice any personal life for it. The older he gets, the more ascetic he becomes. He renounces to possessions, lives like an ermit and is only committed to preach Communism to the masses. That beats everything for a line of thinking that says that religion is the opium of the people.

Roth also describes the unhealthy climate of the McCarthy era and how the battle against Communism was a good opportunity or a good excuse to eliminate political opponents, gain political power, undermine liberal thinkers or simply get rid of a rival. Politicians used it as a leverage to win elections and be well positioned at the White House. Several examples are given in the book through the characters’ lives. Of course, Ira is a notable Communist and he was loud about his political ideas. He was bound to be in trouble for it considering the times. As a reader, I expected it. But it also touched other characters in an unexpected way. Murray, Ira’s brother was an unorthodox teacher (more of that in Post III) who pushed his students to think out of the box. He had the bad idea to go against his hierarchy. False accusations of Communism on top of his teaching methods were enough to put him out of a teaching job for a decade. He sold vacuum cleaners door to door for 10 years and his former dean was promoted. In his conversations with Murray, Nathan learns that he missed a grant to study abroad because his friendship with Ira was suspicious. He states:

I did not and could not have made crap of difference, and yet the zealotry to defeat Communism reached even me.

Roth wants to go further and endeavors to understand how common people denounced someone, how the American administration managed such an efficient witch hunt. He reflects on how betrayal became normal in those years.

To me it seems like more acts of personal betrayal were tellingly perpetrated in America in the decade after the war—say between ’46 and ’56—than in any other period of our history. This nasty thing that Eve Frame did was typical of lots of nasty things people did those years, either because they had to or because they felt they had to. Eve’s behavior fell within the routine informer practices of the era. When before had betrayal ever been so destigmatized and rewarded in this country? It was everywhere during those years, the accessible transgression, the permissible transgression that any American could commit. Not only does the pleasure of betrayal replace the prohibition, by you transgress without giving up your moral authority. You retain your purity at the same time as you are patriotically betraying—at the same time as you are realizing a satisfaction that verges on the sexual with its ambiguous components of pleasure and weakness, of aggression and shame: the satisfaction of undermining. Undermining sweethearts. Undermining rivals. Undermining friends. Betrayal is in the same zone of perverse and illicit and fragmented pleasure. An interesting, manipulative, underground type of pleasure in which there is much that a human being finds appealing.

I’m not sure about the comparison with sex but I think that Roth’s reflection on the personal motivation of people who were informers and betrayed acquaintances, family or colleagues quite interesting. It is applicable to other contexts as well, the Occupation in France, or the wide network of informers the Stasi had in the DDR. In a way, it brings us back to the first statement Roth makes: there is no such thing as natural brotherhood, otherwise this betrayal behavior wouldn’t have spread in the society as fast as the Spanish influenza.

I have not done extensive researches on the period. I can’t tell if Roth exaggerates or not and if the witch hunt infiltrated the society as much as he pictures it. I’m not here to say if he’s right or wrong. I do think that I Married a Communist tackles a difficult topic and Roth approaches it through different angles that give an interesting vision of it. He develops a consistent analysis of the phenomenon through a political, historical and philosophical perspective. And the multi-disciplinary approach is commendable in itself.

 

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