Monday, June 30, 2008

"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad

Date of publication: 1899
Genre: fiction, novella, adventure,
Setting and time: The River Congo, end of the 19th century
Themes: colonialism, capitalism, civilization vs. barbarism, darkness vs. light, degradation of human morality

Plot: (*may contain spoilers*) Marlow, is the commander of a riverboat looking for ivory to trade in the Belgian Congo. His journey into the heart of the Congo is both a thrilling adventure and a symbolic excursion into the depths of the human psyche to confront the evil that exists there. Marlow's encounter with the mysterious and corrupted Kurtz, who has become a sort of deity for the African people, is the key moment of the story. The ‘horror’ that Kurtz claims to have found in the Congo allows Marlow to go back to England, but he’s not able to leave this terrible experience behind.

Some thoughts: I don’t want to write an essay on Heart of Darkness; too much has been written on this book (even though Calvino said that ‘a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’). It is a metaphorical, ambiguous, highly symbolic and complex story about the moral degradation of imperialism in Africa.
However, I cannot see how this novella can be considered postcolonial, because Conrad criticizes European colonialism using the rhetoric of racism. I can see why Chinua Achebe denounced the novel as racist (read his essay here). African people in Heart of Darkness are just ‘limbs and rolling eyes’, even ‘cannibals’ and ‘savages’. They don’t have names and they don’t speak (and if they do, they say ‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead’!). In other words, they are barely human! Conrad’s only intention is making them mysterious and morbidly fascinating. As Achebe wrote in his essay, it can be argued that the attitude to the African is not Conrad’s but his fictional narrator’s, Marlow. The narrator behind the narrator clearly serves the purpose of creating a distance between the moral message of the story and the author. If this was Conrad’s intention, however, he fails to hint at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the opinions of the characters. Sure, Conrad wrote this novel in 1899 and I live in 2008, but I find quite alarming that the text is studied so much without acknowledging that! Of course I value the symbolism and the ambiguity of the tale, but I find it terribly dated.
I also didn’t like the end of the story, when Marlow lies to Kurtz’s girlfriend about his last words. I have the impression that Conrad was a male chauvinist (is that the right word in English?). I quote directly from the text: ‘It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are’. When Marlow suggests that women have to be sheltered from the truth in order to keep their own fantasy world from ‘shattering before the firs sunset’ I was very offended!
Nonetheless, I admire Conrad because English was not his native language: he began learning it at 21 and yet he’s one of the most significant authors in the Western canon. He writes very well and his narrative is engaging, but I can’t really say that I enjoyed this book. Maybe my expectations for this classic were too great, but I can't be the only one with this feeling of uneasiness about it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Orange Prize for Fiction 2008

The Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the UK. It is awarded every year for the best novel written by a woman in English. Among previous winners: Zadie Smith (On Beauty), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun) and Andrea Levy (Small Island).

The winner this year was Rose Tremain's The Road Home. The plot is quite interesting:

"Like so many others, Lev is on his way from Eastern Europe to Britain, seeking work. He is a tiny part of a vast diaspora that is changing British society. But Lev is also a singular man with a vivid outsider’s vision of the place we call home.
Lev begins with no job, little money and few words of English. He has only his memories, his hopes and a certain alarming skill with the preparation of food. Behind him loom the figures of his dead wife, his beloved daughter and his outrageous friend Rudi who – dreaming of the wealthy West – lives largely for his battered Chevrolet.
In front of Lev lies the deep strangeness of the British: their hostile streets, clannish pubs, lonely flats and their obsession with celebrity. London holds out the alluring possibilities of friendship, sex, money and a new career; but, more than this, of human understanding, a sense of belonging."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Il Barone Rampante" (The Baron in the Trees) by Italo Calvino

Date of publication: 1957
Genre: fiction, historical novel, fairytale / magical realism
Setting and time: Ombrosa, a fictional small town in the north west of Italy, near Genoa, in the late 18th and early 19th century
Themes: anti-conformism, role of individual and community, family, environment, romance.

About the author: Italo Calvino (1923-1985) is one of the most important contemporary Italian fiction writers of the 20th century. Calvino's first novel, Il Sentiero dei Nidi di Ragno (The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1947) depicted resistance movement, seen through the eyes of a young boy and in Neorealistic manner. The work became famous for its fable-like twists in the narrative. Il Visconte Dimezzato (The Cloven Viscount, 1951) marked Calvino's break with the common themes connected with the experience of war: it is the story of a man cut in half by a cannonball during the Turkish-Christian war. It is the first volume of a trilogy dedicated to 'the ancestors'. The novels that follow are Il Barone Rampante (The Baron in the Trees) and Il Cavaliere Inesistente (The Nonexistent Knight, 1959). These fantastic tales, hovering between allegory and pure fantasy, brought him international acclaim and reputation. Le Città Invisibili (Invisible Cities, 1972) is a surreal fantasy in which Marco Polo invents dream-cities to amuse Kubla Khan - a city on stilts, a city made of waterpipes, a spiderweb city, a city that cannot be forgotten and so on. Of Se una Notte d’Inverno un Viaggiatore (If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, 1979) Salman Rushdie declared: ‘He is writing down what you have always known except that you've never thought of it before’. The story alternates the opening chapters of 10 different novels, opening with a man discovering that the copy of the novel he has recently purchased is defective, a Polish novel having been bound within its pages. The book includes a discourse on the experience of reading and writing. Calvino died in 1985 in Siena.

Plot: (*may contain spoilers*) Cosimo Piovasco is the son of a baron and leads an aristocratic life in a small Italian town called Rondò. One day he argues with his father and climbs a tree, finding a good shelter from the worries of life. He then decides to live the remainder of his life on the trees, finding a new perspective on the world. He leads a life full of passions, bonding with both his family and the townspeople. His life features a passionate love story, involvement in politics, encounters with famous people and some unlikely adventures.

Some thoughts: It is hard to define The Baron in the Trees in terms of genre or even intent of the author. At times, the story is similar to a fairytale, at times it is more realistic. Calvino’s fiction is sometimes labelled as postmodernism or magical realism. In my opinion, this label would apply for his later fiction, that can be compared to that of Borges and Cortazar, but the ancestors’ trilogy is different from everything else. Maybe only Buzzati would make a decent comparison.
Going back to the novel, I really liked the fact that the whole stories is not told from Cosimo’s point of view, but from his younger brother’s: it is a way of being detached from the story, but not too much. It is in large part Biagio’s re-telling of the stories Cosimo recounts on himself. You can never be sure when Cosimo is exaggerating his adventures and when his tales are real. In other words, you're dealing with an unreliable narrator à la Henry James. It’s funny how Calvino can make Cosimo interact with historical characters such as Diderot or Napoleon. Actually, the interaction between fairytales and historical novels is unusual, if not unheard of. Cosimo’s eccentric life on the trees reminds me of Shakespeare's ‘though this be madness, yet there is method in't’. In fact, Cosimo’s choice of living in the trees is dictated by the understanding that his parents’ priorities are not what he wants from life (his father chases ideals that no longer exist while his mother commemorates long-forgotten battles). It is a book about philosophy and existentialism, about alternative lifestyles and the value of community. How else could Cosimo survive on the trees without the help of his townspeople?
I was wondering if Calvino is appreciated outside Italy. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is one of my favourite Italian novels of all times. There’s a recent novel that has a connection to this book: Kiran Desai’s Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998), about an Indian boy trying to avoid the responsibilities of adult life and thus starting an eccentric life on the trees, like Cosimo. Did Kiran Desai read The Baron in the Trees? I think so. Did she attempt to rewrite Calvino’s book from her point of view? I don’t know. Desai’s novel is as grounded in a small Indian village as much as Calvino’s novel is grounded in the northwest of Italy. Comparative literature is indeed an interesting subject!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

“A Distant Shore” by Caryl Phillips

Date of publication: 2003
Genre: fiction, drama, travel
Themes: interracial relationships, migration, racism, loneliness, friendship, old age
Setting and time: 20th-century England and a nameless war-torn African country

Commonwealth Writers Prize, 2003

About the author: Caryl Phillips was born in 1958 on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts and brought up in Leeds. He is the author of several novels and non-fiction books, but he has also written for film, television, theatre and radio. Much of his writing focuses on the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences for the African Diaspora in both Europe and the Americas. His novel The Finale Passage (1985) broke new ground as the first second-generation Black British novel to return to the experience of the so-called ‘Windrush generation’, that is to say the first post-war West Indians to arrive in England. Phillips is a diasporic writer, whose work rejects investment in national belonging, preferring instead the border spaces of the black Atlantic contact zone at which Africa, America and Europe uneasily encounter one another. Phillips is therefore concerned with ‘the gift of displacement’ and ‘the high anxiety of belonging’. One of his most interesting novels is called The Nature of Blood (1997) and tells the stories of a German Jewish girl during World War II, a young Ethiopian Jewish woman resettled in Israel and an imaginary Othello, portrayed as an African general in late-16th-century Venice. His most popular novel to date (shortlisted for the Booker Prize) is Crossing the River (1993), a series of journeys across the Atlantic and an exploration of the legacy of slavery. Because of his concerns for the narrative structure of migration, Philipps shares many similarities with other key diasporic writers, such as David Dabydeen and Salman Rushdie.

Plot: (*may contain spoilers*) It is the story of two people, an old English lady and an African refugee. Apparently, they don’t have much in common, apart from the fact that they both live in a new housing estate in the north of England. In reality, they are both extremely lonely and desperate to find somebody to talk to. They slowly bond, but are haunted by their past. Dorothy has just walked away from a thirty-year marriage, a couple of love affairs gone wrong and the death of her sister. Solomon has escaped his country because of the war that has killed his family and he hopes that his new country will provide him with a safe haven in which he might enjoy the decent behaviour and graciousness that he believes the English habitually practice. Unfortunately, Solomon’s expectations clash with the prejudice of the people in the small English village he has just moved to.

Some thoughts: The book is most of all an exploration of isolation and consolation, of friendship and loneliness. It is a sad story, even depressing at times. Postcolonial writers have explored prejudice and racism in all their facets, and yet there is much to write about it. Those of you who know the northeast of Italy may understand why the themes of the book are not unknown to me. Nonetheless, I feel that sometimes the whole thing is dealt with in a simplistic way: Solomon’s thoughts and opinions are often omitted or very briefly explained, while the thugs’ motivations for discriminating Solomon are completely left out. However, I liked the part about Solomon's journey to England as an illegal immigrant, because it shows the human tragedies that lie behind this phenomenon. I also appreciated the idea of a male writer using a female protagonist and the unusual connection between the loneliness of an old English lady and the same feeling experienced by an African refugee in a somehow-hostile English village. This relates with the title of the novel: England is ‘a distant shore’ for an African man, both in the geographical and the metaphorical meaning. The aloof manners of English people become a burden for both Solomon and Dorothy, who are unable to understand that they can help each other. And when they do, it is too late. I wonder why Phillips, a West Indian by birth, made Solomon an African man, though. It would have been much easier to use his own heritage and let Solomon have deeper thoughts on the differences between his country and England. In terms of style, the language is simple but the structure is a bit problematic. The story is not told in chronological order and the narration constantly shifts from one character to another, with the risk of confusing the reader. I’ve read that a complex narrative structure but a relatively simple language is a characteristic of Phillips's writing, so I take it as a stylistic choice, rather than as a fault of the novel. This novel was on a reading list for a university course on Black British writing alongside Small Island by Andrea Levy and The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon. Giving that, I feel that other novels by the same author might have been more enlightening on the subject. I really liked the idea behind the novel though, especially the unexpected and unexpressed link between the two main characters. I am very curious about The Nature of Blood, which also features some interesting connections between the characters. I have always been fascinated by Othello and how he came to live in Venice, so I'll put it in my want-to-read list.