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Swami and friends by R.K. Narayan

December 28, 2014 33 comments

Swami and Friends by R.K. Narayan 1935 French title: Swami et ses amis (out of print in French, I think)

NarayanMaybe I’m sentimental but there’s something special about reading a book that has travelled half the world to get to you. My copy of this omnibus edition of Narayan’s work was sent from India by Vishy from Vishy’s Blog and I’m really grateful he made me discover this writer.

My copy includes four works by Narayan (1906-2001), all set in the fictional city of Malgudi: Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, The Dark Room and The English Teacher. Of these four novels, only The Dark Room is still available in French. So far I’ve only read Swami and Friends but you’ll be sure to hear more about Narayan in the coming year.

Swami and Friends introduces us to Malgudi where Narayan frequently set his novels; it seems to be his Wessex. Malguldi is not featured with pages of description but we get a strong impression of the city through passages like this one:

During summer Malguldi was one of the most detested towns in South India. Sometimes, the heat went above a hundred and ten in the shade, and between twelve and three any day in summer the dusty blanched roads were deserted. Even donkeys and dogs, the most vagrant of animals, preferred to move to the edge of the street, where catwalks and minor projections from buildings cast a spase strip of shade, when the fierce sun tilted towards the west.

I don’t know you, but I can imagine the heat, the blinding sun that weighs on one’s shoulders and make you want to crawl into shade and not move until it relents. Details add up until you have a sense of the place.

Swami and Friends relates moments of Swami’s life at the age of 10. (Swami is short for Swaminathan.) It’s not a story with a beginning, events and an ending. It is more composed of sketches about Swami’s life that give you a picture of the childhood of a middle-class Indian boy in the 1930s.

Swami lives with his parents and his grand-mother. His father is a lawyer and his mother stays at home to take care of her family. At the beginning of the book, Swami is an only child until he is informed that his mother has given birth to a little brother. Apparently, nobody told him about her pregnancy. He doesn’t know what to think of the little bundle that occupies his parents greatly. I loved the following paragraph:

Now he peered in and was disappointed to find the baby asleep. He cleared his throat aloud and coughed in the hope of waking him. But the baby slept. He waited for a moment, and tiptoed away, reminding himself that it was best to leave the other alone, as he had a knack of throwing the house in turmoil for the first half-hour whenever he awoke from sleep.

Poor Swami doesn’t know how to interact with this baby and he’s still adapting to all the changes his little brother brought to the family’s routine. It reminded me of my daughter’s puzzled look when she first saw her younger brother. She didn’t seem to know what to think of this strange thing lying in his crib.

Narayan_françaisEverything is described from Swami’s point of view so we see life through the lenses of a ten-year old boy. The narration is consistent with a child’s vision of time and life. He’s absorbed in school that gives rhythm to his life and his days are filed with children’s routine: school, homework, relationships with friends. He’s trying to be a good pupil but sometimes he gets bored. He’s afraid of some of his teachers but shows a great deal of character when confronted to adults.

The opinion of his friends is as important as the opinion of his parents. When a new boy comes to town, Rajam, everyone wants to be part of his crowd. He’s an important boy, his father is the new chief of the local police. He’s more sophisticated, he’s richer, he’s got nicer toys. Swami’s full of admiration for him and Rajam becomes popular and gets his power after leading a little war against the former popular boys.  Swami and his friend Mani befriend him after Rajam takes the power. Rajam will be the one to finance the creation of a cricket team. Swami plays well and is passionate about the game. It’s one of the most important things in their lives, something they’re ready to fight for, even if it means go and talk to a dreaded headmaster to secure regular practices.

Swami and Friends is about school, friends, cricket, the birth of a younger brother and Swami’s relationship with his parents. It is set in India but Swami’s main concerns are the same as any middle-class pupil of his time and ours. Of course, there are cultural differences. He learns how to count with mangoes when a European boy would have heard about pears and apples. And he plays cricket, a game almost nobody plays in France. (I’ve seen a team in a neighbouring town: all the players were of Indian or Pakistani origin). And for him Europe is as imaginary as Neverland.

He sat at his table and took out his atlas. He opened the political map of Europe and sat gazing at it. It puzzled him how people managed to live in such a crooked country as Europe. He wondered what the shape of the people might be who lived in places where the outline narrowed as in a cape, and how they managed to escape being strangled by the contour of their land.

I thought it was quite funny. But apart from local differences, it felt universal.

The fact that this is colonised India also seeps through the novel. For example, at the beginning of the book, Swami goes to Albert Mission School until his father decides to change him of school and make him attend the Board High School. The change came after a teacher denigrated the Hindu religion in class only to praise Christianism. And there is a protest march in Malgudi because a political militant was arrested in Bombay.

I read Swami and Friends at the same time I was reading My Ántonia by Willa Cather. Both relate childhood memories but I preferred Narayan’s tone. As it is Swami’s point of view, the reader can’t expect a deep insight on what’s happening around him. It is different when it’s an adult telling his story like in Cather’s novel. Narayan’s book has the warmth of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels. The two writers were contemporary. Small people come to life under their pen and the characters and places become familiar and loveable.

Thanks Vishy!

PS: Swami and Friends is out of print in French but I picked the French cover anyway because it’s a collection for young readers and I’ve discovered many great books in Livre de Poche Jeunesse. These covers belong to my childhood memories.

My Father’s Journal by Jirô Taniguchi

January 25, 2013 27 comments

Le journal de mon père by Jirô Taniguchi. 1995 Not available in English, I think.

TaniguchiAfter reading Max’s entry about a graphic novel, Richard Stark’s Parker by Darwyn Cooke, I remembered that the Japanese graphic novel Le Journal de mon père had been sitting on my shelf for a few years. I decided to read it for January in Japan and let’s say it right away, this is the Japanese book I enjoyed the most, apart from South of the Border, West of the Sun.

Yochan lives in Tokyo when his sister calls to tell him that their father is dead. She’s still living in their home town Tottori. Yochan hasn’t been back for 15 years and, pushed by his wife, he decides to attend the wake which takes place the night before the funeral. The whole family is there and he gets reacquainted with them. It’s the opportunity for him to remember his childhood.

The family’s life was changed after the great fire which destroyed half of Tottori in 1952. Two-third of the city had been touched by the fire, which made more than 21000 casualties. Yochan’s father was a hairdresser and he lost his shop during the catastrophe. His wife’s parents lend him money to start again but he doesn’t like accepting a loan from them as they suspected that he married their daughter for her money. As a consequence, he starts working like a maniac to pay them back as soon as possible and this attitude will cost him his marriage. His wife meets someone else, follows her lover and leaves her children behind. For Yochan, this is the moment when he disconnected himself from his family. He resented his father for not keeping his wife, for separating him from his mom and he grew up with the idea of leaving his hometown. That’s what he did. He left to study in Tôkyô and only came back once.

Taniguchi2Taniguchi relates how Yochan slowly starts to understand his father and realizes that he never knew him, that he probably misjudged him and that he was beloved in his community. He also recreates the life in a Japanese town in the 1950s: the small shops and factories, the American soldiers and their food, the family businesses.

I really had a great time reading this graphic novel. It’s 270 pages long. The pictures are all black and white and beautiful. Each chapter starts with a one page image and then the story is told in a succession of images with dialogues or descriptions like a voice over. The characters don’t look Japanese, especially since they have Western eyes, like in mangas. The graphic form was a good medium to access Japanese culture. Things that are common and probably not described or explained in a novel are “given to see” in a manga. I looked at the clothes, the houses, the funeral, the city streets with interest. (Call me naïve if you want, but that’s what I did) I found the clothes interesting: some characters wear traditional Japanese clothes when others like Yochan and his wife wear Western clothes. His sister is more traditional: pictures of her marriage, she’s in traditional Japanese wedding gown. Picture of Yochan’s wedding, his bride is in a Western dress.

Taniguchi conveys a lot of emotions in his drawings and the accompanying narration. He shows us Yochan’s childhood memories, his feelings as an adult who hears things about his father that he never imagined.

Taniguchi1This story is partly autobiographical. Taniguchi comes from Tottori and has also spent many years away from his hometowns, his family and friends before coming back after a childhood friend had contacted him. For me, this is totally incredible. The idea of living in the same country as my family, only distant by one hour by plane and not visiting for more than a decade is unimaginable. I would never never do that and my parents would never accept it. They would play the guilt card until I give in and come to visit, or send a plane ticket or I’d see them coming to me, unannounced to see how I am or where I live. Different culture, I suppose.

It’s difficult to review a graphic novel, I hope I encouraged you to discover Taniguchi. As odd coincidences tend to multiply, there is an article about France and mangas in this week’s Courrier International. (A weekly paper that publishes articles from foreign newspapers in a French translation) Originally published in The Asahi Shimbum, this article explains how mangas are widespread in France and how it became fashionable in the 1980s thanks to cartoons on TV. I don’t know how it was in other countries but we watched A LOT of Japanese cartoons in France when I was little. It’s true you have shelves of mangas in bookstores. I’ve never tried any, simply because I didn’t know where to start but the article mentions several of them and I’m tempted to try. Unfortunately, I’m on a book buying ban. Sigh. This is so frustrating.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein

September 4, 2011 22 comments

Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. by Peggy Orenstein. 2011

What do you think of this picture? It was taken in a souvenir shop in Paris. Shocking, isn’t it? This explains why I had to read Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein when I first heard about it on Caroline’s blog. The mother of a 10 year old girl and a 7 year old boy had to read it. Peggy Orenstein admits that she hoped to have a son because she didn’t know exactly how to put into practice the feminist approach of education she preaches. I liked her honesty and the general tone of the book, half-memoir, half-research. I agreed with almost all her views on what she wants for her daughter and how she wants to raise her. She started this book when her daughter Daisy was confronted to mass marketing for the first time. Her aim is to decipher the codes imposed on us when we raise a girl. She points out very well the impact of marketing, the tendency to gender division and the general ground swell that being a woman is being pretty, a shopping addict and a chatbox. I’m not going to repeat what Caroline has already summed up in her review. (As an aside, she published today my answers to her questions about this book.) I’m just going to comment it and share my thoughts. It’s only my experience and my opinion and it isn’t backed up by researches.

Orenstein’s first shock was when Daisy started pre-school and got interested in Disney Princesses. “Is that harmful?” she wonders. After all, they teach to little girls that their goal in life is to be pretty and rescued by a handsome and brave prince. And they’re everywhere. In Europe too. I paused to think about Disney Princesses in our family. My daughter has a towel, a plastic glass, a drawing notebook. She had a princess dress but not a Disney one. She loved her plastic heel shoes that make noise when you walk, like Mom’s shoes. But she never really identified with the princesses. We don’t have those Disney DVDs and as pre-schoolers, my children liked other cartoons. My son was more hooked by Lightening McQueen than she was by Disney Princesses. And that was perfect for me. As a feminist, I view Cinderella and Snow White as pretty housewives waiting patiently for a prince to rescue them. Not really the kind of active women who take their destinies in their hands I’d like my girl to become.

Is it worse than when we were children? Peggy Orenstein thinks it is. I’m not so sure. The media has changed but the message is the same. We were fed by the same stories, only they were in books. We also learnt that what you need most as a girl is to be pretty and gentle and that your best achievement is to catch a prince. And there was no Dora the Explorer. What has changed is mass marketing and the loss of decency and good sense. I was astonished by casual sentences like this:

“Meanwhile, one of her classmates, the one with Two Mommies, showed up to school every single day dressed in a Cinderella gown.”

Or

“About two-thirds of the audience at our local multiplex had been African American—parents with little girls decked out in gowns and tiaras—which was undeniably striking, even moving.”

When did costumes become regular outfits? In France, people will stare if your child is dressed as Cinderella, unless it’s Carnival. Don’t even think to bring your daughter to school in such attire. These clothes are not dresses, they are costumes. Children are smart. They make a difference between games and real world but if princess costumes become everyday clothes, it’s normal that they start thinking they are actual princesses. You don’t need a degree in psychology to figure it out. So you can say whatever you want about aggressive marketing, the Marketing VP of Disney is not the one who dresses your daughter in the morning, right? Just say No.

Then there’s the chapter on pink and how marketing imposes pink a THE girls’ colour. Incidentally, when I started reading the chapter about pink that I was wearing a fuchsia miniskirt with pink sandals. Am I a victim too? Pink is everywhere for little girls and it’s difficult to find cheap clothes that aren’t pink. Orenstein explains very well how splitting genders make families buy twice the same toy, once for their girl and once for their son. My daughter had her pink period but it’s over now.

I was appalled by the passage in the toy store in Manhattan, when Orenstein’s friend ends up spending more than $200 on toys. Again, the problem is not marketers, they’re doing their job. The problem is parents who can’t say no. In our family, children get toys for their birthdays and Christmas. In the meanwhile, they get books and small gifts on holiday. That’s it. If they ask for toys in a store, the answer is no. Always No. Even if they throw a tantrum and everybody looks at me like I’m Snow White’s wicked stepmother. Who said being a parent was always fun and nice? We have to hold our ground. We adults decide and frustration is part of growing up, part of life, actually.

Now about make up. I was surprised to read that “Close to half of six- to nine-year-old girls regularly use lipstick or gloss, presumably with parental approval; the percentage of eight- to twelve-year-olds who regularly use mascara and eyeliner doubled between 2008 and 2010, to 18 and 15 percent, respectively.” Call me old-fashioned, but for me, make up isn’t until at least 13 and the question “Should you let your three-year-old wear her child-friendly nail polish to preschool?” doesn’t require more than a 10 seconds thought. No is the answer. In France, girls don’t go to school with make up before Collège (Junior High)

How about this one: “So if a spa birthday party would make your six-year-old happy” In my experience, cooking a chocolate birthday cake with Mom and eat it with friends at her birthday party is what makes a six-year-old happy. Spa birthday parties are for teenagers at least and they’re toxic because they comfort girls in the idea that to be happy or feel good you have to do something for your body and because they promote non-mixed parties, as you can’t invite boys.

All these tendencies have strong consequences. First, “Both Princess and American Girl promote shopping as the path to intimacy between mothers and daughters”. And I think she’s right and this is a pity. I regretted that the author didn’t question more our consumer society. Everything is based on buying things. Becoming a woman is learning how to consume what marketing has decided to be woman-oriented goods and services. For me and Peggy Orenstein, raising a girl isn’t teaching her how to choose nail-polish. Second, it puts girls in ghettos and separates them from boys. She describes gender segregation in classes and there’s even a survey to try to develop mixed playing in school. In my experience, the segregation is not as strong here. Take birthdays. We’ve always had boys and girls at birthday parties. My daughter has boy-friends (in the sense of friends that are boys) and my son has girl-friends. I asked to other parents and we have the same experience. Things have also improved. My daughter plays football with boys in school. When I told her that when I was a girl, boys wouldn’t let girls play football with them she replied “They let me play because I’m good at it”. Sweet melody.

The following passage also struck me:

Hormones, genes, and chromosomes, then, aren’t quite as powerful as we tend to believe. And that has implications for how we raise and educate our children. “If you believe it’s all immutable, then what is the harm in plunking girls in a pink ghetto or letting boys get by without doing art or singing or all the things they used to like to do before they got associated with girls?”

For me, this is very American and I’m glad that Orenstein stands against it. From my French window and from books and films – how much they reflect reality is another debate – genders are more differentiated in America than in France. And there’s a deep tendency in America to believe in fate and genes are just a scientific name for fate. The difference between XX and XY is what defines female and male behaviours. Here, we tend to think it’s cultural. Of course men and women experience sex differently because their bodies are different but the way we raise children is what matters. I don’t believe that a girl is programmed to like pink, to chat, have mother instinct and other clichés about being female.

About growing up faster.

We have the impression that nowadays children grow up faster but I’m not so sure. I think we know better what they have in mind because they have a wider freedom of speech. True, they are exposed earlier to things like sex and sometimes school programs enforce the early knowledge. My daughter learnt everything about human reproduction in school. I didn’t have time to explain what periods are, the teacher beat me, he explained everything in class. (She’s 10, remember?) But do they understand it better than we would have at their age? Orenstein also notices:

As it is, girls are going through puberty progressively earlier. The age of onset of menstruation has dropped from seventeen at the beginning of the twentieth century to barely twelve today; pediatricians no longer consider it exceptional for an eight-year-old to develop breasts.

An acquaintance who lives in America told me that American paediatricians recommend giving organic milk to children to avoid the hormone doped regular milk. Early puberties can stem from too much of that milk and since American kids drink milk like ours drink water…

When I reached the chapter on social networks and on line BFFs, I was in an area I haven’t experienced so far. But I admit it worries me. I don’t know yet how we’ll handle that aspect of their adolescence and I agree with Peggy Orenstein when she states:

Gossip and nasty notes may be painful staples of middle school and high school girls’ lives, but YouTube, Facebook, instant messaging, texting, and voice mail can raise cruelty to exponential heights. Rumors can spread faster and further and, as the case of Phoebe Prince illustrates, there is nowhere to escape their reach—not your bedroom, not the dinner table, not while going out with your friends. The anonymity of the screen may also embolden bullies: the natural inhibitions one might feel face-to-face, along with any sense of accountability, fall away. It is easy, especially among young people, for behavior to spin out of control. Further, this risks exposing them to consequences they did not—or could not—anticipate.

That’s the cause of my worry. But let’s take one step after the other, right?

I thought Peggy Orenstein’s experience with looking for positive girl models in books and films fascinating. I never tried to look for them. Instead, I pay attention to buy neutral magazines and books. She isn’t satisfied by the experience either. The girls are strong and active but a little too active. They don’t need boys or men. They do everything on their own. It’s fine, but it’s not what she wants for her daughter.

I may want my girl to do and be whatever she dreams of as an adult, but I also hope she will find her Prince (or Princess) Charming and make me a grandma. I do not want her to be a fish without a bicycle; I want her to be a fish with another fish. Preferably, a fish who loves and respects her and also does the dishes, his share of the laundry, and half the child care.

That’s exactly what I want for my daughter too and I hope she has a good example at home.  

All in all, I think there are two different bad influences on our daughters’ development: the ones you can control and the others. I thought Orenstein talks too much about the ones you can, not avoid, but control: Disney Princesses, beauty pageant, make-up and sexualisation, Hannah Montana. As a parent, you have the power to say No. Plus, you are aware of these influences and you tend to think them through. As least I do. When my daughter receives a silly magazine named Julie which is a ten-year-old version of women magazines, I’m alerted and I talk about it with her. I’m not so preoccupied by those. It takes times and explanations. Yes, it’s not easy in everyday life and I don’t always spend as much time as I should talking to her. But then, do I want her to fear that every time she asks a question or talks to me, she’ll have a lecture?

I’m more concerned by the insidious representations of women that I don’t notice any more or those I can’t fight against. The T-shirts on the picture. Advertisements where half naked women seem always necessary to sell anything. The images in books in which the parent who cooks is always the mother. In cartoons and children albums, mothers wear dresses and are stay-at-home mummies. Fathers don’t wear pink shirts, work and don’t do housework. The neurologist Orenstein interviews explains that all these permanent images influence the way the connections are made in the brain in the same way that hearing French all the time makes of you a French native speaker who will never pronounce “th” like English-speaking people do. That worries me. A lot.

After reading this book, I’m decided to pay even more attention. It’s difficult to avoid constant lectures and not let it go at the same time. I didn’t succeed in explaining why I didn’t want her to subscribe to that Julie magazine. I don’t know what kind of adult she’ll be. I’m happy that she finds Hannah Montana uninteresting but I have to say no every day to gloss or nail-polish. Sometimes I think that my son has more pressure about what it is to be a boy. I’m also afraid that men are becoming as objectified as women, as the following picture shows:

It’s an advertisement and I took that picture in a grocery store. Men, fight against this!

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