Wednesday, April 28, 2010

4. “The Sun Between Their Feet. Collected African Stories Volume 2” by Doris Lessing

Year of first publication: 1973
Genre: collection of short stories
Country: UK / Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)

When I first bought this book I was excited, but then I started to read the first story and I was somehow disappointed: there was little Africa in “Spies I have known”. Of course I was wrong: there is a lot of Africa in this collection, but it’s not the kind of Africa you’d expect. The Sun Between Their Feet, in fact, details the life of white settlers in Southern Africa. You can often detect some superiority towards white Rhodesians (and Colonials in general) in her stories: she seems to think that they are provincial and conventional. What I adored about this book, however, is the quality of the writing, in other words Lessing’s gift for storytelling, which is what every author should have. In one of the book’s endorsements (in the version published by Harper Collins) Jacky Gillott from The Times says something I agree with: “Doris Lessing can take what appears to be commonplace, mere passing anecdote and turn it deftly until its inner light is released: one feels that she has gazed upon the stories in her mind until that peculiar angle of vision, the angle that pierces obliquely but clean to the heart of a thing, has finally been found”.
The first story fits nicely into the author’s Communist phase (read below). The narrator tells about some spies he has met in his life, but the main bulk of the story is about a man working for the central post office of Salisbury, the capital of Rhodesia. He’s assigned to read the mail for the censorship, and he also attends some meetings of the Left Club. His boss asks him to spy on the communists, but he’s too honest and can’t cope with the fact of lying to anybody. His substitutes are Harry and Dick. Dick is un-intellectual and thinks that the people at the Left Club are “unRodhesian”. He asks them if they think that communism will be good in a country like theirs that has to cope with the “white man’s burden”. Dick thinks in fact that “the natives” should not be advanced too fast for their own good. The communists of Rhodesia think that the wealth should be shared among the whole population of the country, but this excludes the black majority. They are abhorred by the idea that they should mix with them. Dick eventually goes on with his political career and becomes a Member of Parliament, an authority especially regarding “the natives”. “Spies I have known” is Lessing at her best. She describes without exasperation or sentimentalism the racism of the white settlers in Africa (the story could easily be set in South Africa and/or written by Nadine Gordimer).
Some of the other stories deal with the loneliness of women on big farms in the middle of the African veld and with their attempts to adapt to the rough life they are forced to live (“Lucy Grange”, “The Trinket Box”, “A Mild Attack on Locusts”), which is something that Lessing herself experienced in her life. Some other stories, instead, deal with childhood or adolescence in a way reminiscent of Janet Frame’s short fiction (“Traitors”, “The Words he Said”, “Flavours of Exile”). One of the stories I liked the most is “The Black Madonna”, maybe because one of the main characters is an Italian, like me. In the story, Michele, an Italian artist and a former war prisoner, is asked to build a fake German village for a demonstration of shell-fire in a small community of white settlers in Zambesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). Michele is friend with a British officer who’s married to a white girl whom he seldom visits. Instead, he sleeps with some native girls. Michele is compared to “the natives” for his laziness, but actually he’s only eager to enjoy life, something that the British settlers are not able to do. For example, Michele is not ashamed of crying out of nostalgia for his country, while the stiff British officer cannot do that, until after he’s had a nervous breakdown. As a matter of fact, Michele builds the fake German village and even includes a church. Inside the church he paints a black Madonna, which shocks the Captain. It’s the halo that unsettles him, but also the fact that the picture reminds him of his favourite native girl. Michele teaches the Captain to let off of his emotions and to come to terms with the fact that his marital wishes didn’t come true. “The Black Madonna” is one of those deeply psychological stories that you need to interpret and reflect upon.
“Hunger”, however, at novella-length is in my opinion the most interesting piece of the collection. The main character is a black African man, Jabavu, who’s always hungry, not only for food but also for the life of the white man. He taught himself to read and decides to leave his poor village to find a job in the white man’s town. He walks for many days and he’s almost recruited by some people who want him to work in the mines of Johannesburg, but finally he reaches his destination. He manages to get a permit to seek job in town but gets involved with a beautiful girl called Betty who’s in a gang. After having been warned by a certain Mrs Kambusi who runs a shebeen, he runs away from her and goes on to meet Mr Mizi, a leader of the revolutionary movement. Jabavu likes Mr Mizi and his people, whom Mrs Kambusi calls “the people of light”. He wants to be like them, but he keeps on switching from “the people of light” to the gang (he’s a gifted thief and finds out that he can make a lot of money in that way). Jerry, the leader of the gang, is jealous of Jabavu and forces him to steal in Mr Mizi’s house. Jabavu, however, awakes Mr Mizi to warn him about the robber. This reminds me of Dickens’s Oliver Twist, to the point that I think the story could be read as a sort of African version of the novel (which also deals with social issues). “Hunger”, however, ends in a different way: Jabavu is arrested and Mr Mizi won’t help him in the trial. He’s redeemed anyway, because he finally feels part of a “we” in a way that was not allowed to him in the village. In other words, he’s become a man and his hunger has eventually gone.
By the way, it's curious how much the metaphore of hunger is recurrent in literature and cinema (just recently, I came across it in Anita Desai's Fasting, Feasting, in Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali and in Deepa Mehta's Water).

About the author: Doris Lessing was born of British parents in Persia (now Iran) in 1919 and was taken to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when she was five. She spent her childhood on a large farm there and got her education in Salisbury (now Harare). She got married and divorced twice before going to England for the first time, in 1949. She brought with her the manuscript of her first novel, The Grass is Singing, which was published in 1950 with outstanding success. Since then her international reputation not only as a novelist but as a non-fiction and short-story writer has flourished. Back in Rhodesia she became involved with the Left Book Club, a communist book club. Because of her campaigning against nuclear arms and South African apartheid she was banned from that country and from Rhodesia for many years. Her fiction is usually divided in three phases: the Communist theme (1944-1956), when she was writing radically on social issues, the psychological theme (1956-1969) and finally the Sufi theme, which she explored in a science-fiction series. Her switch to sci-fi was not popular with the critics, though. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

Friday, April 16, 2010

3. “Il Colore Viola” di Alice Walker

Anno di prima publicazione: 1982
Genere: romanzo epistolare
Paese: USA

In English: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Celie è una donna afro-americana nella Georgia degli anni ’30. Il sud degli Stati Uniti d’America è segregato: il mondo dei neri e quello dei bianchi sono distantissimi, non c’è quasi nessun contatto. Celie, e in generale tutti i neri descritti da Alice Walker (con qualche rara eccezione come Shug Avery), vivono una situazione disperata: violenza domestica, incesto, alcolismo e razzismo sono solo alcune delle piaghe della comunità nera del tempo. L’autrice non ha nessuna pietà per la brutalità di alcuni membri della sua comunità, specialmente per gli uomini: spesso violenti, cattivi, prepotenti, pigri e dispotici. Per questo motivo, si tratta di un libro dai tratti forti, anche se scritto con un linguaggio molto semplice, che rispecchia quello della protagonista.
Nella vita di Celie, violentata e messa incinta dal padre, in seguito venduta ad un marito che la usa come una pezza da piedi, entra Shug Avery, inspiegabilmente amante del suo impossibile marito. Lei è bella, ricca e sa come trattare gli uomini: con aria di superiorità e con disprezzo, tutto il contrario di quello che hanno insegnato a Celie. Persino il figlio di primo letto del marito di Celie, Harpo, non riesce a non picchiare la moglie Sofia, perché questo è quello che ha sempre visto fare in casa (persino Celie gli consiglia di menarla per farsi rispettare!). Tra Shug e Celie nasce prima una relazione affettuosa e poi un amore lesbico, germogliato in Celie a causa del disprezzo per tutti gli uomini prepotenti che ha conosciuto. Tuttavia non si tratta di un libro sull’omosessualità femminile, ma di un libro sulle scelte che le donne possono fare nella loro vita. Celie impara poco a poco a non essere sottomessa al marito, grazie soprattutto a Shug Avery, una cantante per di più considerata una poco di buono in paese anche per i suoi costumi sessuali.
Il romanzo è in forma epistolare, è cioè costituito dalle lettere che Celie scrive idealmente alla sorella Nettie, da cui è stata costretta a separarsi a causa della gelosia del marito di Celie che non riusciva a possederla sessualmente. In risposta, Nettie scrive delle lettere alla sorella, che però il marito non le consegnerà mai. Nettie parte per l'Africa con una famiglia di missionari. Nei suoi racconti sull’Africa si vedono le similarità tra la cultura Olinka africana e quella dei neri in America: gli uomini sono dispotici e dispongono delle mogli solo per farle lavorare e generare figli, mentre le ragazze sono promesse molto giovani a uomini più vecchi di loro. Gli Olinka hanno più di una moglie, ma le mogli si sostengono l’un l’altra e passano poco tempo con il marito (una situazione simile a quella che descrive l’autrice in America, dove Celie e Shug sono per lunghi periodi entrambe mogli di Albert, anche se non ufficialmente). Quello di Nettie in Africa è una sorta di viaggio all’inverso rispetto a quello che hanno fatto i suoi antenati quando sono stati venduti come schiavi, forse dagli stessi Olinka.
Il colore viola del titolo è prima il colore della violenza che le fa odiare tutto, specialmente gli uomini, e che le impedisce di amare la vita. In seguito il colore viola è descritto come il colore di un campo di fiori: se ci passi di fianco ti devi fermare a guardare, perché altrimenti Dio si arrabbia (sono parole di Shug). Significa che la vita deve essere vissuta, si deve amare e fare quello che si vuole, altrimenti non si vivrà mai appieno.
Nonostante a prima vista Il Colore Viola possa sembrare un libro "misandro", cioè che odia gli uomini, in realtà non lo è. Gli uomini cambiano nel corso del libro, imparano a comportarsi meglio con le loro mogli e ad apprezzare il lavoro che fanno per mandare avanti la casa e far crescere i figli.

Se ti piace questo libro leggi anche: Amatissima di Toni Morrison, oppure Jazz, sempre di Toni Morrison. Da questo libro è stato tratto un film, diretto da Steven Spielberg.

Sull'autrice: Alice Walker, nata in Georgia (USA) nel 1944 è una delle più famose scrittrici afro-americane viventi. Durante la sua infanzia, vissuta sotto le cosiddette leggi di Jim Crow, riuscì a frequentare la scuola, nonostante l'ostracismo dei proprietari terrieri bianchi che pensavano che i bambini neri non avessero bisogno di un'istruzione. All'età di otto anni fu accidentalmente colpita ad un occhio da una pistola e rimase cieca da un occhio. Ciò le causò problemi di autostima, che però superò brillantemente. Nei primi anni sessanta incontrò Martin Luther King e a lui deve l'inizio della sua carriera di attivista politica. Nel 1963 partecipò alla marcia su Washington e continuò ad occuparsi di diritti civili. In tempi più recenti ha protestato contro la guerra in Iraq e ha sostenuto Barack Obama nella sua campagna presidenziale. Nel 1967 sposò un avvocato ebreo e la loro fu la prima coppia inter-razziale legalmente sposata del Mississippi (questo causò però minacce da parte del KKK). Iniziò la sua carriera letteraria con la poesia ("Once"), per poi passare anche alla prosa ("The Third Life of Grace Copeland", "Il Colore Viola", "Possessing the Secrets of Joy", quest'ultimo una specie di seguito de "Il Colore Viola"). E' stata la prima donna nera a vincere il Premio Pulitzer e il National Book Award.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

2. “The Romantics” by Pankaj Mishra

Year of first publication: 1999
Genre: novel
Country: India

The novel begins at a riverside temple in Benares, the holy city. It is the winter of 1989 when Samar, a young college student, asks the pujari for a cheap place to live. Panditji overhears and proposes a room at what he calls “Indian rent”. Panditji spends his days in a haze of opium and only wakes up to give sitar lessons to hippie-like Western students with long hair and dyed shirts. His wife is estranged from him and claims that she has never come downstairs in fifteen years. The other tenant in the house is a middle-aged English woman, Miss West. The name reminds me of Miss Quested from A Passage to India, or is it that every unmarried English woman in an Indian novel reminds me of her? Samar is eager to read in preparation of an important exam, thus Benares is the perfect place for him: it looks like the city encourages people do spend lazy lives or seemingly meditating periods that involve a certain nostalgia for the past.
The difference between the student and Miss West’s way of seeing things is soon set, when she asks why he chose to go to university to Allahabad (randomly mentioning that Kipling wrote for a newspaper published in Allahabad, as if that was the only thing important to mention regarding the city). He reflects on the fact that after his mother died, his father retreated to an ashram and nobody questioned him. In the same way, he went to university in Allahabad because three generations of his mother’s family had gone to university there. Miss Quested reveals that she has never gone to university because her father belonged to a generation who didn’t bother to educate girls. Samar is surprised because he had always thought that prejudice against female education was a prerogative of poor societies. He also wonders if his father couldn’t afford to send her to university.
The novel comes to a turning point when Miss West decides that she wants to give a party to celebrate the fact that summer has come. Samar has never been to a party and associated it with ‘empty frivolity and moral laxity’. A group of different people joins them: there’s Mark, an American who’s studying Ayurvedic medicine and has an impressive curriculum (he claims that he was a Tibetan Buddhist, that he has travelled extensively and that he has been a poet and a dishwasher); then there are Sarah and Debbie, two women who are interested in Buddhism and meditate on the ghats of the Ganges. Debbie tells of how much upset she was when she met an Indian scholar with a British public-school accent who asked her all sorts of aggressive questions on the fact that she was thinking of converting to Buddhism. He said that westerners have ‘misconstrued’ Buddhism, that their minds are unprepared for such a philosophy of privation and they can only be ‘part-time Buddhist’. He even asked her if she has come to India because she has read Herman Hesse (ouch!). There is truth on both sides: on one hand, it is true that in some cases the interest of Westerners for oriental philosophies is just a desire to experience something new and exotic or a desire for the spirituality that has been lost in western cultures. On the other hand, in the East people have the preconception that the western mind is not able to engross their philosophies, which is not always true. At the party there is also Catherine, a beautiful French woman who has a love story with a sitar player called Anand. Samar is immediately fascinated with Catherine, as other men in the group.
At this point the setting changes, because Samar and Catherine go on a trip to Mussoorie, on the foothills of the Himalayas. Here, they are no more in a chaotic city but in the woods. They reach a shelter and the only attraction there, apart from the landscape, is a small temple, where the priest tells them his story. Catherine thinks that his life of privations is sad and Samar understands that Catherine is hungry for love. Samar’s infatuation with Catherine doesn’t end up very well, because, after a trip to Pondicherry to visit his father, Catherine leaves India with Anand. Consequently, Samar retreats to Dharamshala (in northern India, close to the Himalayas), where he teaches in a primary school, spending a lot of time alone and trekking a lot. After seven years, the city calls him back. He is no more ‘scarred’ by the experience with Catherine, but still aware that the time spent in Benares was a time of loss, when he didn’t know what he wanted. Everybody leaves Benares after having realized that something is not going well: Miss West is leaving India for good with the realization that her sentimental life is completely ruined and Catherine left India for Paris with Anand, hoping that in France he could find a job as a musician. Even Mark has finally realized that his interests in life change as quickly as his love stories.
Flaubert’s Sentimental Education plays an important role in the book. Samar gives the book (and an essay) to Rajesh, one of his friends at university. He reads it and identifies with the protagonist, who originates from provincial France and ends up being a member of the middle class. All the characters are longing for fulfilment in a culture other than their own: Rajesh, from a poor background of deprivations and suffering arrives in Benares to study and make some money, Samar finally comes to live in a big city and all the European characters are looking for something special in India. This book is of course also a sentimental education for Samar.
The Romantics is a sensitive and introspective novel, but not a sappy one. It is a good reflection on the relationship between East and West and also an interesting journey through different parts of India.

About the author:
Pankaj Mishra was born in 1969 in Jhansi (Uttar Pradesh, India). His first book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. Travels in Small Town India (1995), is a travelogue that describes the changes of India in the new context of globalisation. He discovered Arundhati Roy, while working for the Delhi branch of Harper Collins. He writes for many English-language newspapers, such as The Guardian and The New York Review of Books. Among his books, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World (2004), which attempts to explore the Buddha's relevance to contemporary times. The Romantics (1999) is his first novel.