Monday, April 26, 2010

All the Names - Jose Saramago (Portuguese)
Despite the title, all but one of the characters are nameless. The protagonist is Senhor Jose – no last name. The woman he searches for is “the unknown woman.” There’s “the lady in the ground-floor apartment.” Saramago takes the nameless of the world as his subject. Senhor Jose doesn’t have any heroic qualities; but anybody, explored in depth, becomes exceptional. The plot – a sort of metaphysical mystery – is convoluted (and inconclusive in any concrete sense). Saramago has an innovative style, dense and intricate. At times I felt lost. But throughout the book the same warning is reiterated: when you venture into dark places you must take with you Ariadne’s shining thread. I did find myself emerging, with a feeling of relief, from areas of morass and returning to a world I could comprehend. Though what I comprehended often had a dreamlike aura (such as the graveyard scene, with the shepherd and his silent dog). This novel, written by a 75-year-old man, exists on a borderland between life and death, and death is the dark place from which no shining thread can lead one back.

The Woman Who Walked Into Doors - Roddy Doyle
This was painful to read. Which speaks to how effective Doyle is in letting Paula tell her life’s story. She emerges as a flesh and blood creation – somebody I cared about. It isn’t until page 162 that we’re given more than glimpses of what she went through. The last sixty pages are filled with graphic descriptions of the horrific physical and emotional assault inflicted on Paula – again and again and again – by her husband, Charlo. I was left with a number of disturbing questions, and one bleak conclusion. Why did Paula marry a man who was notorious for being violent and dangerous? When the beatings began (shortly after their marriage, during her first pregnancy), why didn’t she leave Charlo? Why did she endure the abuse for seventeen years? Why did she allow her children to grow up in a house filled with brutality, pain, fear? Why didn’t someone intervene and help her? Was everyone – family, friends, neighbors – blind? The evidence of what was being done to her was on her face. How could the doctors and nurses in the ER, to which Paula was constantly being taken, not have known what was happening? She wanted desperately for one of them to take her aside (away from the lurking, solicitous presence of Charlo) and ask, “How did you really get these injuries, Mrs. Spencer?” No one did. Why? Was Dublin in the 1980s in the Dark Ages? Maybe these questions have answers, ones I can’t comprehend (or accept). But, at any rate, here’s my bleak conclusion. Paula is telling the story after Charlo is dead; she’s carrying on with a difficult life. She can be upbeat, hopeful. But there’s no hope for her. She’s too damaged emotionally. She has a severe drinking problem, one she’s trying to control. She’ll lose the battle. This is a sad and upsetting novel. The burden of it won’t easily be lifted, so reader beware.

Roughing It - Mark Twain
It’s hard to describe what this is, because it’s so many things. Twain set out for the western territories in 1861, when he was in his twenties; he relates what he does and sees in the next seven years. The book is quite long and contains a wealth of material that’s of anthropological and historical interest. I believe in the truth of Twain’s observations and conclusions; he reveals the falsity of much that is commonly believed about the Wild West. For example, there are no quick-draw encounters on the main street between the Good Guy and the Bad Guy. The bad guy shoots his victims in the back. Yet the populace holds these cold-blooded thieves and murderers in high esteem. We have Twain the moralist looking at a lawless society and finding it deplorable. The anger he directs at various injustices is often delivered with humor. In his view of human nature Twain is a cynic along the lines of Voltaire. But he’s thoroughly American – his voice is the colorful, raw, earthy voice of our new country. As for that humor, never have I read anything by him where it was so brilliantly on display; it sometimes skewers but is often simple, innocent fun. It can be found in a unique use (or misuse) of a word, or in a long account in the vernacular (Jim Blaine’s story about his grandfather’s ram is a masterpiece). An irony is that the book is classified as an autobiography; that’s one of the things it is not. Throughout his adventures (or, more often, misadventures) Twain discloses almost no intimate feelings. I found him to be a thoroughly entertaining companion, but I would have liked to get to know him better.

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