Surviving Bad Books

I don’t often write negative reviews.  I try to avoid doing it .  But as a second generation holocaust survivor with a polish grandfather, the background against which this novel is written is something I know a bit about.  This is my history too. And whatever I was looking for in these pages, I didn’t find it.

Review :  Surviving the War by Adiva Geffen. Arrow Books.   Translated from Hebrew.

Set in the late 1930s and 40s against a backdrop of increasing pogroms, this story concerns the flight of a Jewish family from their village in the Lublin area of Poland, first to the ghetto of Ostrow Lubelski and then to the forest of Parczew to join the Jewish partisans fighting there.

According to the website of the US Holocaust Museum around 20,000 to 30,000 Jews fought in partisan groups based in the forests of Eastern Europe.  Few survived. Although in this story we see nothing true of their struggle – a missed opportunity in my view.

 

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It is one thing to research historical background accurately on the holocaust and quite another to write a convincing story of based on the suffering of those who lived and died in that time.   Perhaps because for most of us,  thankfully, such hardship is almost impossible to imagine.

So to the plot.  The chief character in Surviving is Shurka.  She grows up in a village not far from the Parczew forest against which – Peter style –  she is sternly warned about wolves.   Shurka is of course beautiful  and when she grows up she does what every well behaved and dutiful Jewish daughter does and marries handsome Avraham.  They have a chubby cheeked – equally dutiful daughter ‘little Irena –  who chases chickens round the yard of their perfect home in Glebokie while the grandparents beam with delight.   An excruciating scene takes half a page in which Shurka tries to tell her beloved Avraham that she’s expecting a baby but doesn’t like to use the word ‘pregnant’ so there is a lot of discussion about storks which he seems remarkably slow to catch on to.   Sentimental or what?

Surviving the War?  No.  What war? The war is off screen, manifesting only as sounds of gunshots heard  through a window, or rumours of shootings reported by a neighbour who heard about it from another neighbour and occasional shouts.  The characters have no interior lives of their own.

The omniscient narrator is constantly telling us what is going to happen and what the reader should think about it.  And in case we still don’t get it, there’s the exposition! Don’t even get me started.  Every piece of dialogue is there to inform the reader of things they can’t possibly be expected to glean for themselves or understand from a wider context.

Everytime a child is referred to they are ‘little’ as if the reader might suddenly imagine a newborn to be huge.  ‘Little Irena’ is followed by ‘Little Yitzhak’.     Various well meaning family members and neighbours warn the family that the war is coming closer and that ethnic cleansing of Jews has started and that the Germans are using Polish collaborators to identify the Jewish families.

The family is forced to flee – because they are Jews living in Poland and this is the 1930s and 1940s and anti-semitism in Poland is a grisly historical fact.  Eventually, more than half way through the book,  we get to the whole point of the story.  Polish collaboration.  Displacement.

The Orlitzky family goes to Ostrow Lubelski, the ghetto,  where they find an apartment.   Numerous new family members appear – many that the reader has not been introduced to including an (adult) younger sister of Shurka, called Devorah,  who is in love with somebody else we haven’t met.   Apparently Shurka has brothers too somewhere –   they are like film extras,  you never see their faces, not even while she is growing up. Although we do see the chickens.  And a doll called Alinka who gets referred so often it becomes irritating.   A crude effort to ramp up the pathos of a scene involving a child.   But to me the pathos of the plight of Polish Jews in history is a given.  It doesn’t need such artifice.

While the family is debating whether to move from the ghetto to the dreaded forest of Parczew, Shurka’s mother says:

“And what choice do we have?

To go like sheep to the slaughter?”

How could they know – the narrator asks/tells/instructs us –  that in no more than a month the whole ghetto would be cleared and the inmates taken to Sobibor.

Well they couldn’t.  That’s the point.  But at last we do have a point.

German Philosopher Hannah Arendt (14 October 1906 – 4 December 1975)

asks in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem:

“How could the Jews through their own leaders co-operate in their own destruction?”… “Why did they go to their death like lambs to the slaughter?”

A question for which Arendt received little gratitude, but which nevertheless remains unanswered.

I downloaded Surviving the War onto my kindle.  The publisher does not state the name of the translator.  The ‘Acknowledgements’ page mentions one Arlyn Roffman and ‘Zoe’ but fails to mention whether either or both of them were responsible for translating the book into English.

Thank you to  Meytal at Biblibio for hosting the Women in Translation  project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Narratives of Slavery

How do you escape slavery mentally even if you manage to physically? Do you ever? These are questions more relevant than ever in view of the events of recent weeks and the Black Lives Matter protests.  Colson Whitehead in his book The Underground Railroad (Fleet,2017) touches on this, with a speech by Lander, one of his characters, prefiguring Martin Luther King by a century.

In the first half of the 18th century, ideas of freedom were ever present. But an idea of organized freedom for enslaved peoples was then in its infancy.  The central characters in both books escape the plantations in the South where they are enslaved, by using a system called the underground railroad. But the conception of this system in the two books is different.

Avoiding the terminology ‘black’ and ‘white’, in Coates’ book The Water Dancer slaves are the Tasked and owners are the Quality.

“And what was this Underground? It was said among the Tasked that a secret society of colored men had built their own separate world deep in the Virginia swamps.”

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Thanks to The New York Public Library for sharing their work on Unsplash.

To enslave another race is an act of pure violence so therefore it is impossible to separate  cruelty from the slave narrative.  Coates’ book is more soft focus – the bad stuff happens but tends to happen off screen. In Whitehead’s book it’s a bit more in your face.  Coates book contains fantasy elements combined with its slavery narrative, and I wasn’t sure how well the two sat together.

At the commencement of The Water Dancer, the protagonist Hiram Walker is still a child, his mother is sold by her owner (also Hiram’s father) and the boy is left alone, then raised by a strange, solitary woman called Thena.

Hiram’s almost perfect recall ability indicates a mysterious power known as conduction which involves mysterious physical travel based on the power of memory.  This power relies on deep memory – specifically memories related to Hiram’s mother.

Not everything needs to be realist. But it struck me as a little incongruous to involve what is effectively magic and fantasy within a narrative of lives when all too often such things were woefully lacking.  This I found to be interesting – a dichotomy.  Fiction is fiction, yes you can make the whole thing up. But against such an historical background what are the duties and responsibilities of the writer?   It is an enquiry into the ultimate power of memory – perhaps.  If we can come to terms with our memories, that is itself a form of freedom.

Whatever questions The Water Dancer asks, and however lyrical its prose or rounded its characterization, in terms of its plot structure I found it  lacking. And because of this, I also found it difficult to believe in any real sense of risk to the protagonist, Hiram Walker.

The story is this.  Hiram is noticed by his slave owning father for having a photographic memory, he is taken up to the big house Lockless, as a servant and educated by his father. Hiram is ‘tasked’ with looking out for his half brother Maynard – heir to the fading Lockless estate – a duty in which it could be said he signally fails when, Hiram driving on the return from a trip to town – the carriage plunges into the river Goose and Maynard drowns. Hiram survives.

If you were a slave and driving the horse and carriage and took the master’s son with you into the River Goose – even though it wasn’t your fault – there would be some sort of penalty to pay, surely? Yet Hiram seems to escape retribution.  This was only one of the plot turns that I found less than credible.

Nevertheless enslaved  even in relative comfort is still enslaved. Taking the decision to run, Hiram gets himself into all sorts of difficulties and adventures before eventually finding those involved in the underground, the work of resistance and the abolition movement called the underground, a series of sympathisers, abolitionists and safe houses.

***

In Colson Whitehead’s book The Underground Railroad, the protagonist Cora is a very different person to Hiram.   Her mother has run off leaving her daughter behind aged 8.   Unlike Hiram, Cora has no-one to take on the role of her absent mother and is left to fend for herself on the plantation – coping both with the overseers and masters as well as the behaviour of other slaves.   She is old enough to carry the memory of her abandonment by her mother – whom she believes to have escaped to safety.

In this story the railroad is conceived as an actual railway, buried black and deep in the earth run by an eclectic and jolly mix of boy/men depositing frightened and starving runaways into abandoned mines, earthworks or ruined cottages.  A brilliant idea.  It is pure gothic. When Cora asks who built it, the reply comes the same people who build everything.

Because she has been abandoned by her mother she has difficulty relating to anyone at all, even her co-slaves.    She is not going to be anyone’s pushover though.  Even aged 8, Cora first shows her mettle when taking a hatchet to the property of another slave who has decided to build a kennel for his dog on her patch.  The dog escapes.  Just.

Cora comes from a long line of such hardship.

“Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times… passed between slavers for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase …”

In both books, we see the impossibility of escape, how well the opposition is organized using informers of all creeds and colours – whereas any organization on the slave side is left to a courageous few prepared to risk everything.

Who do you trust?  In both Virginia and Georgia as well as South Carolina and other places where these novels are set–– the slave system was buttressed not only by the masters and owners but by gangs of ruthless men who had nothing better to do than roam the land hunting down escaped slaves for the bounty money offered for their return. One such man is called Ridgeway – and he has a particular grudge against Cora.  We feel his malign presence throughout her struggle.

Colson Whitehead interleaves some of his chapters with excerpts from real ads taken from a Californian archive for the return of escaped ‘property’ in case any reader is inclined to think,  its just a novel.

If freedom is gained, then what? How are memories of persecution expunged?  This is the part of the story as yet unwritten.

I enjoyed both these books.  But for me Whitehead’s book has the edge in terms of delivering a believable narrative.  I am delighted to discover both these authors and will be looking out for more of their work.

 

 

The Stray Cats of Homs, Eva Nour (Doubleday)

Partly fiction, but mostly not,  the story charts Sami’s life a young man growing up – or trying to – in modern day Syria.

The protagonist Sami is a child when the story starts, a loved child of a good family.

‘On the surface, nothing was wrong or lacking. There were hospitals, schools, holiday resorts, churches , mosques.   The problem was the arbitrariness, that you could never know when the fabric would rip in two and reveal the other side.’

The fabric starts to tear shortly after Sami leaves University and is a little slow to sign up for his compulsory military service.  He is rounded up and carted off in handcuffs by the militia to endure two years of brutal military training which, though agonising, he survives.   When he is finally and belatedly discharged more than two years later he feels freedom beckons.

On the bus home, a sense of freedom filled Sami’s chest.  His body was no longer owned by anyone he was free to come and go as he pleased.  Outside the landscape rushed by, the air had a new edge of cold and the evening sun dipped the trees in gold.

This sense of freedom is shortlived.  In fact his problems are truly just starting.   By the time Sami receives his longed for discharge from military service,  his country has plunged into Civil War.

The regime would never dare, they said.  As soon as the first missile is fired, the US, France and the international community will react.  They said.

Assad’s regime forces and anti-government protestors battle it out over a red line which goes plum through the middle of Sami’s home town of Homs.  The international community sits on its sofa with a glass of wine and watches  as the bombs start falling.

Sami’s family leave but he chooses to stay.   More and more checkpoints are erected until fourteen city blocks are surrounded and those who have elected to stay are trapped.

The streets where he lived and attended school are reduced to white dust and rubble.   Food becomes difficult to find, then impossible.   Gradually his friends leave if they are able or some are killed either in the fighting or just because.  Sami starts to photograph the war, still believing that someone will care about these blatant abuses of human rights, this devastation by Assad’s forces of his own people.

This is not a political book.  It is a book about a humanitarian disaster.  If the author  makes judgement at all,  is of one of the tragedy of any civil war – when boys who were at school together, who ate in each other houses and played football round the streets, grow up and kill each other.    These days children play football among the ruins and a little girl wears a necklace made of spent cartridges.

Nour’s book is a book which celebrates small moments of freedom; it bears witness to our attempt to cling to some kind of normal domestic routines in the face of desperate odds.  It bears witness to our inability to rationalise such waste, such senselessness. 

He didn’t think about revenge or justice, only this one simple thing: that there’s a limit to what you can get away with.  That life couldn’t be allowed to continue as if nothing had happened.

May usually smelled of jasmine flowers, now it smelled of dust and fires.   Among all the other concerns, there is the worry about what to do with family pets when there is no-one left to look after them.

The book is levied with moments of humour as when Sami receives a letter from a German lady enquiring after Homs’ population of cats:

 I will try to shoot some more, he tells her.

No! The woman replied.  We must save the cats not shoot them.

I meant photograph them, Sami replied.

Sami is a beautifully realised character and I hope he is real and exists somewhere out there because that means there is hope for the rest of us.

Eva Nour is a pseudonym. A name taken to protect people in the book.   Whoever she may be, this author has penned a book that will do for the suffering of the Syrian people what Khaled Hosseini (an acknowledged influence) did for Afghanistan and Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak for Turkey.  Placing the Syrian people firmly in the centre of Western consciousness Nour’s quiet voice says:  look,  this happened. This is still happening.   What did you do when you knew?

***

 

 

#TheStrayCatsOfHoms #NetGalley  

My thanks to NetGalley and Random House (Doubleday) for this review copy.

 

 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous outshines anything else on my reading list.  In fact, I would go so far as to say it outshines anything else on anyone else’s reading list.  In whatever genre.  Forget genres.  Here is something new.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Vietnamese and from a refugee family which immigrated to the US when he was two years old,  the poet burst out of his allotted lowly refugee status and on to  the literary scene with a T.S. Eliot  prize winning poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry, 2017) On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel.

I do not know what there is to say about this book.  Next to Vuong’s poetry and prose any routine use of language that I might come up with would instantly collapse under the weight of its own inadequacy.

On Earth takes the form of a letter to Vuong’s mother who was violent towards him and who married a man who was imprisoned for violence towards her.  In short Vuong grew up surrounded by violence, whether or the domestic or other kind,  in Hartford,Connecticut

…where we made a kind of life digging in and out of one brutal winter after another, where nor’easters swallowed our cars overnight.  The two a.m. gunshots, the two p.m. gunshots, the wives and girlfriends at the C-Town  checkout with black eyes and cut lips who return your gaze with lifted chins, as if to say mind your business

… where entire white families, the ones some call trailer trash, crammed themselves on half broken porches in mobile parks and HUD housing, their faces Oxy-Contin gaunt

Thank goodness the author does not mind his business. Thank goodness for his genius to  humanise modern America, to bring the  worlds of Saigon, Dunkin donuts, food stamps and nail bars crashing together as the voice of his lived experience.    How Vuong skewers the appalling opioid scandal which has decimated the US and is making its way to the UK

“OxyContin, first mass-produced by Purdue Pharma in 1996 is an opioid, essentially making it heroin in pill form”.

If you find this a totally inadequate review, so do I.  “Brilliant “shattering” “luminous” “a masterpiece” are some of the epithets I took from the publisher’s  back cover.  But I would say this.  Ocean Vuong is a writer whose work will appear on exam syllabi into the future.  This is a writer whose work will be studied, written about, lectured on, whose work will be the subject of dissertations and doctoral theses.

And still no-one will know how he did this.

 

 

Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli (4thEstate)

This is a book born of heartache and a thousand acres of poetry.

Not for these children the blessing of growing up in a suburb somewhere,  getting yelled at about school work or too much screentime.    These are the refugee children, the anonymous ones, named only in the record of their deaths as if death alone brings an entitlement to recognition.  The right to a name is indeed hard earned for these refugee children trying to cross the desert,  to cross a long bridge in a good car and see tall glass buildings. To live in an imaginary world of light.

These are the universal siblings brought together by dire circumstances and the constancy and immanence of death.  They ride atop trains, jump off, run through thickets of gorse and stone, get scratched, bleed, or simply lie down and die of exhaustion and exposure.

“They had walked and swam and hidden and run. They had boarded trains and spent nights sleepless atop gondolas, looking up at the barren, godless sky. The trains like beasts, drilled and scratched their way across jungles, across cities, across places difficult to name. Then, aboard the last train, they had come to this desert, where the incandescent light bent the sky intoa full arch, and time had also bent back on itself.  Time in the desert was an ongoing present tense.”

And if the “barren, godless land” puts you in mind of Eliot, be assured, 21stcentury America  as portrayed in this book is The Wasteland made manifest.  In a nod to this Luiselli raises Eliot’s spectre in The Sixteenth Elegy.

“Unreal desert.  Under the brown fog of a desert dawn, a crowd flows over the iron wall, so many.  None thought the trains would bring so many.  Bodies flow up the ladder and down onto the desert floor.”

In one scene as children cross the desert  a plane passes overhead ironically full of other children.  They two groups will not know each other.   They will never meet.  But inside the plane a little boy sucks his thumb.  He is being  “erased from the fucked up country below him, removed.” As he drifts into sleep his thumb falls from his mouth.     “Finally he shuts his eyes, dreams spaceships.”

In a parallel storyline and universe  a (non-refugee) family try to make their way across the States in a bid to get from somewhere to somewhere else – to record the voices of the lost:  the Apaches,   the children.  A policewoman reprimands the family for breaking the law by letting their five year old travel in the back of the car without the correct designation of child car seat (the age limit is 7 not 5) because ‘we value our children’.   At the same time as someone else’s children are being shot at.

Somehow the author manages to make the book heart achingly sad but not at the same time depressing, perhaps because of the clarity of vision, the dextrous use of language which comes from a great deal of study and reading  thousands of acres of poetry.

But here is something else that occurred to me after reading this book.  For a project of my own I have been researching the teen fiction market. Coming from a poetry background it is not something I have ever felt the need to do before –  short of reading the obligatory Potter for my own kids.  But I asked around,   found some teen fiction titles and read them.

Why do we feel this need to categorise and make things generic for this age group, that age group?   Why do we assume that young people can only read a certain type of story?  But most of all I wondered how children can be allowed to die in the desert trying to get to a better life, but not be considered old enough or mature enough to read their own stories?

This is Book 5 of A Volatile Summer of Reading for my ten books of summer.