Friday, July 2, 2010

The Famished Road - Ben Okri
This long novel is written with passion, but undisciplined passion has its drawbacks. Okri’s prose is often overwrought, his characters flounder in inconsistencies, he prolongs scenes beyond their effectiveness. Though modern Africa is fertile ground for the excesses of magic realism, the lushest imagery is devoted to the dubious world of spirits. These were problems for me, but not huge ones. I stayed engaged from the opening declaration of the first person narrator: “One of the reasons I didn’t want to be born became clear to me after I had come into the world.” Azaro and his parents live in a laborers’ compound (the center of which is a bar run by the hugely imposing Madame Koto); his father is a beast of burden, his mother hawks goods at the market. The father isn’t a bad man, but dissatisfaction causes him to succumb to alcohol (or to wild dreams, such as finding fame and fortune as a boxer known as Black Tyger). The mother copes and the boy takes it all in. Okri presents us with a Nigeria beset by crooked politicians who make no attempt to alleviate the suffering of the impoverished masses. The hard life in the compound and the relationship between the members of the family are what mattered to me, and these aspects of the novel prevail. Crude and inchoate, colorful and teeming, The Famished Road is a rich feast. That’s a virtue which passion can impart. *

Sagarana - Guimaraes Rosa (Portuguese)
Rosa takes us to the fecund backlands of Brazil and the larger-than-life characters who inhabit it. His prose is like an exotic plant growing wild. The stories, too, are allowed to grow wild. As a result they lack focus; this is most evident in the endings, which simply trail off. Only “Duel” holds the line it sets out on, with the conclusion being the deadly outcome of the beginning. I wouldn’t want Rosa to harness his prodigious talent, only rein it in a bit. Based on these stories, I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to get this author’s novel, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. I believe it will be imposing, difficult and, possibly, astounding.

The Native - David Plante
The psychological complexities in this book are conveyed in a prose that’s economical yet highly atmospheric. Plante concentrates on his four main characters’ dark sides; some cope with it, some welcome it, some resist it, some resign themselves to it. The darkness is a force emanating from the brooding heritage of French Catholicism, which exists alongside the bright modernity of Providence, Rhode Island. The book opens with a daughter (Antoinette/Toinette) half-heartedly trying to commit suicide; her father pulls her from the bathtub, and his feelings are rage. We’re immediately immersed in intense emotions without knowing any of the dynamics. Slowly these dynamics emerge, and they’re convincing. Plante artfully compressed much density into this novella. He doesn’t waste a word. *

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