Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Three-Cornered Hat - Antonio de Alarcon (Spanish)
A short folk tale, told with liveliness and simplicity. The characters are one-dimensional representations of some aspect of human nature. What mattered for me was the portrayal of true love – one grounded on trust and affection. I also liked the donkeys braying to each other.

A Crown of Feathers - Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish)
For many years Singer made his living by selling his work to Yiddish newspapers. He had to entertain, and he did. I wonder who his audience was – men? Women are frequently portrayed as threatening, both physically and personality-wise; many have facial hair (one has a full beard). The relationship between the sexes is fraught with discord; it can even turn murderous. Thankfully – since a little strife and hysteria can go a long way – this isn’t a major element in most stories. The quality level Singer maintains is very high (only two of the twenty-four stories don’t succeed). But it’s when viewed cumulatively that this collection takes on a unique power. What makes it unique is that Singer often approaches the big questions of life from a supernatural perspective. In “A Crown of Feathers” the conflict between good and evil is played out in the mind and heart of Akhsa. At one point she decides that the universe is ruled not by God but by the “black powers.” She swallows a potion to call the Devil to her; that night he comes. His attitude is both fawning and contemptuous. She has questions for him, ones that he finds amusing in their naivety. When she asks, “Where is the truth?” he replies, “The truth is that there is no truth.” *

The Big Money - John Dos Passos
This is the last of the USA trilogy; in all it makes up over 1200 pages. Dos Passos wrote, in a preface to the series, that America was “mostly people speaking.” He gives them a voice; the bulk of this book, and the other two, follows lives. People think, feel, act, talk; the narrative drive and authenticity is amazing. The time span covered by the trilogy – three decades – and the diversity of the characters give it enormous scope; this is as close as we’ll come to the Great American Novel. It has a strong element of protest – there was much injustice in the USA – but this isn’t a limiting factor; each book teems with human beings we can relate to. The Big Money succeeds as fully as the other two did. Dos Passos set out on a path he believed in; it was exactly the right path. *

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