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Bless the beasts and children by Glendon Swarthout – “Send us a boy – we’ll send you a cowboy”, they said

May 3, 2020 32 comments

Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout (1970) French title: Bénis soient les enfants et les bêtes. Translated by Gisèle Bernier.

One of the great pleasures of book blogging is doing readalongs. Reading is a solitary affair but there is something very satisfying in reading a book along with someone else and have the opportunity to discuss it with another reader who has all the details fresh in mind. Vishy and I decided to read along Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout and Vishy’s review is here.

Six teenagers, aged twelve to fifteen share a cabin at Box Canyon Boys Camp, Arizona. The oldest is John Cotton, from Cleveland. He lives with his mother, who’s already gone through three marriages and three divorces. Lawrence Teft III comes from NY and is testing is father’s patience as he doesn’t want to follow the designated path: go to Exeter and Dartmouth. Samuel Shecker, son of a Jewish comic who has a show in Las Vegas finds solace in food and in his father’s jokes. Gerald Goodenow suffers from school phobia and his stepfather decided it was high time he grew up. The Lally brothers come from Illinois and are raised by absentee parents who are not over their honeymoon phase and never added the parenting role in their couple.

The boys camp sounds like boot camp for teenagers or a school for alpha males. There are six cabins, five named after Native American tribes and the last one is named the Bedwetters. There is a competition between the cabins, with challenges, trophies, rules and a good dose of public humiliation for those who lose. Five trophies are animals (manly animals like a mountain lion) and the last one is a chamber pot. All the challenges are sports ones, of course. Weakness is not allowed at Box Canyon Boys Camp and our six protagonists, with their psychological issues and non-athletic physique are the Bedwetters. It makes them weak in the eyes of the other kids and the camp’s counselors. They are the misfits of this camp, all sent there by parents who wanted to get rid of them for the summer and teach them how to become men. More about that part later.

At some point, John Cotton had enough and decided to turn his roommates into a real tight-knit team. When the book opens, they are back in their cabin after a traumatic day. We don’t know what they witnessed but it was bad enough for them to leave the camp at night and go on a secret mission. We follow them as they take their horses to go to the nearest town, steal a car and go to the location where they witnessed something terrible. They are determined and will conquer their fears to achieve what they set up to do. I will discuss their mission later on, with a spoiler alert if you don’t want to know what they are up to.

Before that, I would like to point out an important aspect of this coming-of-age novella: what white America considers as “being a man”. When John Cotton decides to boost his roommates, how does he win his leadership? He smokes, he has a weapon, drinks a bit of whisky and imposes last names to address to each other. For this teenager, this is what a real man looks like. There is no room for feelings, weakness or compassion. His mission to dry out tears, fears and need for love in his teammates. This is also the message conveyed by their fathers or father figures: to become a man, you need to survive and conquer at Box Canyon Boys Camp.

The philosophy there is based on the Darwinism applied to humans: put up some competitive events to speed up natural selection. Allow the strongest boys to humiliate the weakest ones. They are not asked to help them to catch up, no, they are enticed to rejoice in their success and look down on others. There is no room for intellectual brightness, a man is someone who excels at physical activities. Intellectuals are not real men either.

The more I read American literature, the more I think that part of the white population of America has an issue with the definition of masculinity. The model of masculinity is the cowboy: a tough, silent type, who grits his teeth in adversity, defends himself with a gun and shows no emotion.

I am sure there were (are?) Box Canyon Boys Camps, just as there are dude ranches for adults. After all, the camp’s slogan is “Send us a boy – we’ll send you a cowboy”. The rules of the camp in Bless the Beasts and Children left me speechless. I have never heard of such camps in France, even in the fifties. What kind of education is that? They also reminded me a passage of Balakian’s memoir, when he compares his Armenian father’s parenting to the one of his WASP friends.

He makes the same comments as Roth when he tells about his childhood in the Jewish community in Newark. Their fathers didn’t have the same definition of “being a man”. They didn’t objectify women the same way or talk about them like connoisseurs of fresh meat, as Gary used to say. True, it was in the 1950s or the 1940s and Swarthout’s book came out in 1970. But Rick Bass mentions the same cowboy reference in his Book of Yaak published in 1996. (Upcoming billet). It is an issue that Gary questions in 1965 in The Ski Bum (in French, Adieu Gary Cooper). Sometimes I wonder if this long-lasting admiration for the cowboy model didn’t bring Trump to power. Bass and Gary think it has a negative impact on the way politics is done, because acting strong is acting like a cowboy and not negotiating or protecting the weak.

But I digress. Time to come up with the part with spoilers. You may wonder now what the beasts are and why there are bison on the covers. The children gave themselves the assignment to free a group of buffalo from a reserve in Arizona. Why? Because the day before, on their way back from hiking in Petrified Forest, they stopped by this bison reservation and stumbled upon the day of bison hunting, organized to monitor the population of buffalos. Hunters won tickets at a lottery and were allowed to shoot at close range on cornered animals. The Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) called it hunting. The children in Swarthout’s novella named it slaughtering and overcame their fears to stop it.

Bless the Beasts and Children is famous for being a book about animal rights. Swarthout shows the cruelty of men who enjoy killing for pleasure. He was well-informed and the cruel hunts he describes really took place. After his book went out and was made into a film, the AGFD had to change the rules of buffalo hunting.

And Swarthout seems to ask us: what’s better? The cowboy masculinity of these buffalo hunters or the children’s weakness and compassion for the beasts?

Highly recommended. Of course, published by Gallmeister in a revised translation.

PS: A question and a comment about the book titles, in English and in French.

Question about the English title: Why is it Bless the Beasts and Children and not Bless the Beasts and the Children? Why only one the?

Comment about the French title: In my opinion, it is not Bénis soient les bêtes et les enfants because in this case, bête is heard as someone stupid and not beast whereas Bénis soient les enfants et les bêtes immediately conveys the idea that bêtes are animals.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

October 12, 2014 10 comments

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. 2008 French title: Le premier qui pleure a perdu.

Alexie_DiaryI’ve already read Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie and I really enjoyed it. I thought I’d read another one by him someday. End of September, I discovered on Twitter that it was Banned Books Week, an event organised in the US to celebrate the freedom to read. Check out here the Top 10 of frequently challenged books. Browsing through the tweets, I became aware of two puzzling facts: there’s a need in the USA to organise such a week and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie was on the list of banned books in several high schools in Idaho, Missouri, Texas and other states  because it was judged offensive. Call it a pavlovian-voltairian reflex if you want, but when I hear about banned books, I want to become a knight in shining armour and rescue all these books in distress. (Yes, women have the right to picture themselves as knights in shiny armours, this is the 21st century)

So, on principle, because a big democracy like America shouldn’t need a Banned Book Week and because no writer deserves to be banned, I decided to buy The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and read it right away. That’s my way of protesting and I sure hope this billet will get retweeted and reblogged and advertised because the book community should be rebellious against censorship.

Imagine me starting Alexie’s YA novel, banned or challenged for the following reasons “Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group”. I expected some Indian Portnoy’s Complaint or some Justine or the unhappiness to live on a reservation or a Spokane On the Road. Actually, I’ve read the diary of fourteen year old Arnold Spirit, an Indian living on the Spokane reservation. One day, pushed by his math teacher, he decides to leave the reservation high school in Wellpinit to attend the high school outside the reservation in Reardan to have better chances to succeed in life. The novel relates his year as a freshman in Reardan, his struggle with his identity as he turned his back to his community in hope of a better future.

Traveling between Reardan and Wellpinit, between the little white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger. I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other. It was like being Indian was my job, but it was only a part-time job. And it didn’t pay well at all.

There’s no explicit language except one or two mentions of a boner and masturbation. But isn’t that part of adolescence, along with acne, squeaky voices and fear of blood stains on trousers? Arnold’s journey in Reardan is difficult due to his different background or to his poverty but nothing really bad happens to him in school. He’s not molested, bullied or insulted. There’s no more violence than on many TV shows. It’s a coming-of-age novel dealing with the usual dilemnas of adolescence. Who am I? Except that the answer is more difficult to find when you change of world. So what? Portnoy’s Complaint is not on the challenged books list and it’s a lot more challenging than Alexie’s book. Either these fools ban books they haven’t read or they’re not literate enough to notice there are lots of more explicit books about sex, booze or drugs than this one. Madame Bovary is more sexual than this!

My opinion is that Alexie’s tone bothers them. Arnold has a spitfire tongue, an incredible sense of humour and the novel is full of passages like this:

But she was lying. Her eyes always got darker in the middle when she lied. She was a Spokane Indian and a bad liar, which didn’t make any sense. We Indians really should be better liars, considering how often we’ve been lied to.

Or

“Jeez,” she said. “Who cares if a man wants to marry another man? All I want to know is who’s going to pick up all the dirty socks?”

Or

This guy was in love with computers. I wondered if he was secretly writing a romance about a skinny, white boy genius who was having sex with a half-breed Apple computer.

Or

Okay, so it was Gordy who showed me a book written by the guy who knew the answer. It was Euripides, this Greek writer from the fifth century BC. A way-old dude. In one of his plays, Medea says, “What greater grief than the loss of one’s native land?” I read that and thought, “Well, of course, man. We Indians have LOST EVERYTHING. We lost our native land, we lost our languages, we lost our songs and dances. We lost each other. We only know how to lose and be lost.” But it’s more than that, too. I mean, the thing is, Medea was so distraught by the world, and felt so betrayed, that she murdered her own kids. She thought the world was that joyless.

The last one stings a bit, just like the one questioning Indian’s habit to celebrate Thanksgiving. As Arnold points out: what should Indians be thankful for? I suspect these bigots can’t forgive Alexie for not using the mild Native American term or for bringing up topics they’d like to forget. –Note that Toni Morrison is also on the “challenged books” list. And she does exactly the same: her books give a voice to the history of black people in America.

Yes Alexie calls a spade a spade and he does it on a witty tone. When Arnold depicts Reardan, he sounds like the narrator in The Plot Against America when he describes the non-Jewish neighbourhoods in Newark. It’s genuine curiosity and he’s got the self-deprecating sense of humour one sees in Woody Allen’s films. Arnold has the exaggeration of a teenager; he’s loud, sends direct punches and questions the adults around him.

I’m against censoring books for teenagers. Everything can be read with the proper explanations. Personally, I put my hands on a Sade book in high school. Did it disgust me? Yes. Did it scar me for life? No. Thinking our teenage children don’t think or talk about sex is ridiculously naïve. (And forgetful of what we used to be) Thinking they don’t know about homosexuality is equally silly. Censoring a book that mentions the disaster alcohol brings on the reservation is plain stupidity. Teenagers will try alcohol, Sherman Alexie or not. And this book doesn’t mention under-age drinking but shows what kind of ravages alcohol do to families and lives. Isn’t it a proper message to convey to our children? And what about this:

“The quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence, regardless of his chosen field of endeavor.”

Is it bad for a teenager to read this? I don’t think it is. So I support Sherman Alexie’s book to the point of buying it again, in French, for my thirteen year old daughter. I can’t wait to hear what she thinks about it.

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

May 4, 2014 18 comments

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry. (1966) French title: La dernière séance. Translated by Simone Hilling (1972)

When I saw La dernière séance by Larry McMurtry on the display table of a book store, I didn’t think of the film but of the eponymous song by French singer Eddy Mitchell, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with the book. That and the fact that it’s published by Gallmeister prompted me to buy it.

Duanne and Sonny live in a small town in Texas, Thalia. We’re in 1951. They’re in high school and come from dysfunctional families. They are roommates in a boarding house and work after school to support themselves. Their circumstances don’t prevent them from being typical adolescents: school is barely tolerable, sport takes part of their free time, girls are the centre of their attention and the best moment of the week is Saturday night. We’re following Sonny’s point of view in this coming-of-age novel.

Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town. It was a bad feeling, and it usually came on him in the mornings early, when the streets are completely empty, the way they were one Saturday morning in late November. The night before Sonny had played his last game of football for the Thalia High School, but it wasn’t that that made him feel so strange and alone. It was just the look of the town.

There was only one car parked on the courthouse square—the night watchman’s old white Nash. A cold norther was singing in off the plains, swirling long ribbons of dust down Main Street, the only street in Thalia with businesses on it.

Sonny is coming out of the protective shell of childhood and starts confronting himself with real life. He didn’t have a sheltered childhood but he’s mentally shifting from innocence to realization that adult life isn’t that easy. He’s going through the motions of his life without parents. Duanne is his constant companion and he relies on Sam the Lion, an old man who owns the billiard in town. He’s taken in Billie, the simpleton of the town and watches the teenagers to make sure they stay on the right path. The boys play billiard, go to the cinema more to make out with girls than to watch the film and play in all the sports team of the high school. (It seems to have too little students per school level to have enough different participants in each sport)

McMurtry_livreThe Last Picture Show doesn’t have a clear plot with a beginning, events and a conclusion. It only describes Sonny’s days, his growing awareness that life is not a Hollywood film. He doesn’t have a clear future. College is out of the equation, no exciting job is waiting for him. He doesn’t intend to leave Thalia; he lacks confidence in himself, encouragement to be ambitious for himself and to expect more from life. He doesn’t have an adult role model to push him forward. He’s an intelligent kid but he’s drifting away, he lets the flow bring him wherever it goes. I couldn’t help but think that he was a young plant lacking the right fertilizer that good parenting can bring. The adults around him aren’t great role models, especially the coach at school. Sam the Lion keeps Sonny and Duanne on their toes and obliges them to behave because he doesn’t tolerate bad behaviour in his business. In a town like Thalia, you can’t afford to be banned from the billiard joint, there aren’t enough possible replacement places for enjoyment. Apart from that, the boys rely on themselves.

The town of Thalia is a character in itself with its colourful characters, its small town atmosphere. Thalia is oppressing; it’s small, isolated and doesn’t have a lot of employment opportunities. Some small town live thanks to an important factory settled on their territory. Not Thalia. Courtesy of small town world, everybody knows everything about everybody, gossips are the rule. But despite its small size, Thalia has its social barrier between people and although Duanne dates Jacy, the local high school beauty and celebrity, he doesn’t have the economic power to marry her. It’s also a decade where sex is a taboo and a hypocritical one in a don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of way, even if Thalia is not an overly religious town. It could be, we’re in the Bible belt after all. Larry McMurtry wrote at the beginning of the book: The Last Picture Show is lovingly dedicated to my home town. He was born in 1936 in a small town in Texas and he was 30 when this novel was published, which means his memories from his adolescence were fresh in his mind. This dedication is important because it sets the tone of the book with the word lovingly. Thalia is the kind of town an adolescent could loathe. It’s narrow-minded, small and boring. But McMurtry’s vision of Thalia is full of affection. Even if he doesn’t hide the drawbacks of such a tiny remote town, he’s nonetheless tolerant and forgiving.

I love cities and the anonymity they provide. I’m not fond of crowds but I like that they mean that people mind their own business and don’t notice if you change your car, your hair colour or of boyfriend. The Thalias of the world make me want to run to the other side of the country and I felt sorry for Sonny to be trapped in that kind of place. I wanted him to bolt and start afresh in the nearest city.

The Last Picture Show is a lovely book, a bit sad sometimes. It’s depicts well adolescence in small towns but shows that wherever you are, teenage angst is surprisingly alike. That comes with being human.

Teen without spirit

June 25, 2012 22 comments

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. 1987 French title: La ballade de l’impossible. 

That’s it, I’ve finished Norwegian Wood and I’m ready to write my thoughts about it.

When the books opens, Watanabe is on a plane, approaching Germany. Hearing Norwegian Wood by the Beatles triggers some memories of his youth. The memories flow out painfully.

Watanabe is 18, he’s moving in a student house in Tôkyô for his first year of university. When he was in high school, his best friend Kizuki committed suicide. Watanabe, Kizuki and his long-time girl-friend Naoko were often together, the three of them spending their free time together.

Naoko is also in Tôkyô now and she and Watanabe spend time wandering across the town in companionable silence. When Naoko turns 19, they celebrate together and one thing leading to the other, they have sex. Naoko leaves town and when Watanabe hears from her again, she’s in a nursing home. Naoko is unbalanced, her fragile mind hesitates on the verge of reason, on the verge of craziness, it depends of the day. Murakami describes Watanabe’s life in his student house and his later encounter with a fellow student Midori. She has her share of misery too: her mother is dead and now her father is dying too. She befriends with Watanabe; she craves for attention and Watanabe is hopelessly in love with Naoko. We also meet Reiko, Naoko’s room mate in the nursing house and Nagasawa, Watanabe’s friend at the university.

That’s basically all what happens, which is not a problem per se. I like contemplative books too. This one opens with melancholy and remains on a minor tone all along but I didn’t like it. Melancholy can be beautiful, here I found it flat and grey. This book is grey. Watanabe is numb, boneless. He winds himself up every morning – except on Sundays, he says – does what he has to do, studies, works in a music store, cleans his room, irons his clothes, eats, goes out with a friend, has flings. He’s on automatic pilot.

I know the main issues in this novel are depression, suicide, mental sickness and the difficulty to become an adult. Murakami succeeded in making me indifferent to his characters, in enveloping me in a cloud of grey thoughts, like Watanabe who tries to recover from Kizuki’s death. I felt as distant from him as he is from his life. I felt no compassion and that’s probably what bothers me. I could say it’s a coming of age novel but I’d rather say it’s a bildungsroman. It’s more appropriate as the whole story starts in Germany, as Watanabe studies German and reads The Magic Mountain. All the characters don’t “fit in”. They don’t feel “normal” and some manage better than others to cope with it.

I have difficulties with wimps, be it in real life or in literature. I wanted to shake Watanabe. In the three last Murakami I’ve tried or read (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, South of the Border, West of the Sun and this one), the men are pathetic. They don’t live their life, they put up with it. Even before Kizuki’s death, I imagined Watanabe as a follower, going where his friend went, playing gooseberry with Kizuki and Naoko, never thinking of refusing this awkward situation. He doesn’t have his own goals, his own wishes, his own hobbies.

On the back cover of my French edition, they compare Murakami to Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t see why. Fitzgerald’s prose is like champagne, sparkling, light and heady. Murakami’s style is dull in comparison. 440 pages of book and I have no quote to share, which tells everything. And, as I wrote in my previous post, I have the feeling that Murakami writes some Murakami, which is not fair for this book as it’s among his first ones. It’s the others which are repetitions of this one and not the contrary. How can I say it? There’s a feeling of déjà vu, of literary tricks already used — like the stories in the story — , of an atmosphere I’ve already met. It was novelty when I read his other books, it’s not any more. So yes, I’m disappointed, I expected better from someone who receives so much praise. Definitely not reading the long IQ84.

Bellezza organizes a Japanese Literature challenge, this is my first contribution to her event.

An Awfully Good Book

March 4, 2012 20 comments

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge. 1989 French title: Le Dernier amour du Capitaine Crochet (Out of print)

First thing, I wonder why the French publisher decided to give such a silly title to such a wonderful book. Of course, it is out of print! Who would like to buy a book entitled Captain Hook’s Last Love? A Disney fan looking for a spin-off of Peter Pan? Are there many such readers out there? To top it off, it relates to events that don’t happen until the last third of the book. But enough ranting, let’s talk about the novel.

The novel opens on an incomprehensible scene, a theatrical one, warning the reader that dramatic events just took place. Then the narration goes backward and starts telling the story.

Liverpool, early 1950s, Stella is 16. She lives with her Uncle Vernon and her Aunt Lily who run a small hotel, more a pension actually. Their clients are mostly tradesmen. Stella is a strange child, her schooling didn’t go well. She keeps to herself and often sounds off the mark. Uncle Vernon realised it was useless to force her into studying and called in a favor to have her hired at the local theatre. Stella took acting classes and she starts as an assistant. Meredith Potter and Rose Lipman run the theatre. It’s the beginning of the new season, other actors have been hired to set up a company. Except for Geoffrey, all were already actors before the war and some were even famous. All have issues, broken hearts, fears and some suffer from loneliness. They’re aging and seem a little ridiculous too.

We follow Stella who doesn’t act as a “normal” girl of sixteen would. Beryl Bainbridge drops hints here and there and we slowly get the picture. The girl’s mother is missing but why? Sick? Selfish? Run-away? Remarried? Stella discovers another world, helps with costumes, runs errands for the actors, plays small parts, performs in the backstage during the shows. She observes a lot and she’s quite disconcerting because she either has a flat mind and misses the obvious or happens to have an incredible insight on people. We witness the rehearsals, the nights at the local pub where the company meets and Stella progressively unfolds their lives. She has a crush on Meredith who can’t return the feeling, actually.

Stella had believed herself in love with him. Now when he allowed her so much of her time, she realized that what she had felt before was but a poor shade of the real thing. The very mention of his name caused her to tremble, and in his company she had the curious sensation that her feet and her nose had enlarged out of proportion. When he spoke to her she could scarcely hear what he said for the thudding of her lovesick heart and the chattering of her teeth. Often he told her she ought to wear warmer clothing.

Beautiful description of teenage crush. She worships him as a god and of course, he can’t be wrong, he can’t be mean and he has to be perfect in everything.

It’s a coming of age novel. Some company members try to educate Stella as she’s terribly ignorant or candid or innocent, whichever way you choose to look at it. Here’s a reporter taking advantage of her, as it happens several times in the story:

She tried to pull her hand free, but it was held fast. The protuberance under her fingers felt soft and hard at the same time, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Attempting to bring what Meredith would call a philosophical approach to her predicament, she pondered on the differences in men’s and women’s clothing. Trousers, she now realized, were so designed not because their wearers had funny legs but because men were constantly worried that an essential part of themselves might have gone missing. They wanted instant access, just to make sure things were in place. What was more puzzling was why they needed everyone else to check as well.

This passage also shows the author’s wonderful sense of humour. Actors and other theatre staff feel responsible for Stella. For example, an actress buys bras for her when she discovers she doesn’t have any. Bunny, Meredith’s right hand and stage manager, is a real keeper, following her at night from a distance to make sure she goes home safely. Uncle Vernon also cares about her a lot; he needs to let her grow up and it is difficult for him to adjust. I wondered why he insisted that she became an actress. At the time, it wasn’t a glamorous career for a woman. But that was all cleared up at the end of the book.

It’s also a book about how the past can backfire on you; how things you thought well kept in a box in the attic suddenly spring free and get back to you.

As an aside, An Awfully Big Adventure is a vivid picture of post-war England. The war isn’t the theme of the book but it’s unforgettable, it’s all in the details. People still suffer from war restrictions; Uncle Vernon’s hotel is an example. Hot water for a bath is a luxury. Clothes are expensive. Men are broken, physically or mentally.

Next door to the hotel was a garden laid out in memory of some worthy citizen of an earlier century, its beds planted with roses pruned brutally to the soil. The municipal railings had been taken away for the war effort and through the gaps in the makeshift fence of galvanized iron he saw a tramp in an army greatcoat sitting on a green bench.

The company’s state mirrors the city’s state. It’s a bittersweet tale, humans and city try to recover from the war, resume the occupations they had before these shattering years. It has left its marks and the reconstruction is slow.

I read An Awfully Big Adventure in English, in a paperback edition. Pff. I’m not good at British English, I’m sure I missed part of the fun. I couldn’t figure out the food they had on their plates. (What can be a buck rarebit?) It’s full of local expressions, some of them I knew, some other not. But I recently found a new teacher for purely British idioms, I should improve in the next months.

An Awfully Big Adventure was made into a film by Mike Newell in 1995. Hugh Grant plays Meredith (I don’t know why but I imagined Kenneth Branagh in that role) and Alan Rickman plays P.L. O Hara. Georgina Cates is a wonderful Stella. I watched it and it’s an excellent version of the book, really faithful.

Last but not least, this novel was among Guy’s virtual Christmas gifts. . Well chosen again, Guy, it’s three out of four now. Thanks for making me discover a new writer.

The weight of consequences

August 30, 2011 16 comments

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. 2008. 343 pages

« Deux désespoirs qui se rencontrent, cela peut bien faire un espoir, mais cela prouve seulement que l’espoir est capable de tout… » Romain Gary, Clair de femme. (1)

1983: Alice is skiing against her will, her father wants her to be a ski champion. She’s cold, sick and has a poo on herself with her clothes on. Ashamed and afraid of her father, she leaves the group, gets lost in the fog and has a serious ski accident.

1984: Mattia’s twin sister Michela is mentally retarded. He always needs to take care of her. For once, they’re invited to a birthday party. Mattia wants to go without Michela, to have a free mind. His parents refuse. He abandons Michela in a nearby park. She will never be found again.

After these tragic events, Alice and Mattia have to live with the weight of consequences. She’s lame and anorexic. He feels guilty and expresses it by cutting his hands with whatever he finds. Both have difficulties to trust other people. Mattia has a wide private space around him, he’s almost unreachable. He finds solace in mathematics and especially in algebra. It’s clean, logical and involves no emotion. They meet in high school and start an on-and-off friendship. We follow them at different moments of their lives but I won’t tell what happens to them, to avoid spoilers.

At once I was angry at those parents who don’t take their children’s wishes into account. Alice’s father doesn’t listen and imposes his will. She’s too scared to say she doesn’t like skiing or that she can’t swallow more milk. Her mother is inexistent. Mattia’s parents rely on him to watch Michela in school and ask him to take care of her. As they are twins, they’re in the same class and Mattia is always with her. His parents ask too much, make him take on the responsibilities of adults and don’t let him have the childhood he deserves. Either dictatorial or dismissive, these parents don’t play their roles as confidents, shields and gardeners of young beings. They let their children become dysfunctional adults. Alice’s parents are well aware that she doesn’t eat enough. They don’t react. Mattia’s parents don’t know what to do with that brilliant child who hurts himself.

I thought that Paolo Giordano drew a compassionate portrait of these two broken souls. They fight against a past that eats them alive. Their relationship is strong but complicated.

Giordano’s style is pleasant, sometimes inventive. He managed to avoid corny romance, useless pathos and implausible optimism. Something I can’t nail lacked in this book, I wasn’t really fond of Alice and/or Mattia. I missed the kind of bond you can create with such characters. That’s me, not the book. It’s a good read, it won the Primo Strega, a prestigious literary prize in Italy. I found a good review at the Guardian here.

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(1) Two despairs who meet can make a hope, but it only proves that hope is capable of anything…

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