Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Paradise - Abdulrazak Gurnah
The novel begins: “The boy first. His name was Yusuf, and he left his home suddenly in his twelfth year.” The opening sentence is the only one that’s unusual in its construction. Also, Yusuf is not just first, he’s the middle and the end. He leaves his village when his father exchanges him to settle a debt. Aziz, an Arab merchant, takes the boy (who I assume is black, though Gurnah never states that directly) to work in his shop in a city on the Mediterranean. Aziz makes expeditions into the interior of Africa to trade with the natives; on one of these trips (a disastrous one) Yusuf accompanies him. This is a look at a continent that is indeed dark – a harsh, forbidding land – and the interaction between races and religions is deeply troubled. Islam plays a large role in the characters lives, though the universal force that motivates man is greed. There are acts of kindness, but cruelty is more prevalent. Yusuf is a muted presence, a quiet, gentle soul. He’s also beautiful, pursued by members of both sexes (there’s a casual, though snickering, acceptance of relations between males). At seventeen he’s still a virgin because he isn’t assertive enough to pursue women who attract him. Yet Yusuf isn’t a blank cipher; he was someone I cared about, and I wanted there to be a place in the world for him. In the last section Gurnah goes astray by introducing odd plot complications that weren’t in harmony with the solid reality of what had gone before. On the final page we lose sight of Yusuf: he impulsively runs off to join a column of Germans who had just completed a raid, confiscating men for their army (European colonization has come to Africa). Is it freedom he’s seeking? He won’t find it as a soldier under the command of the brutish Germans (and is anyone less fitted to be a killer of men than Yusuf?). Gurnah doesn’t show us what’s in store for his character; he needed to, even if it was painful. As for novel’s title, maybe the point is that paradise is not to be found on this earth.

Moral Disorder - Margaret Atwood
I tried to figure out what made the main character in these interconnected stories tick; I never could. Even her name is a muddle. When a first person narrator is used she remains nameless; stories told in the third person have her as Nell; in the last story, related in the first person, Atwood assigns the name of Nell to a horse. Still, it’s obvious that they’re all about the same person. They cover Nell’s life from age eleven to the brink of old age. The best ones (such as “The Art of Cooking and Sewing”) deal with her early years. Even the few that don’t amount to a whole lot are interesting. The adult Nell is often in emotional disorder. Though she carries on outwardly as if she were fine, she’s beset by feelings of dislocation and menace. Tig (the man she lives with/later her husband) is relegated to the background; because of Nell’s ambivalent attitude toward him I wanted more interaction between them. But Atwood withholds; she gives us intimations of her character’s inner life, but only so much, no more. I wasn’t annoyed – when done right, this type of omission can be intriguing.

Wrinkles - Charles Simmons
Unique isn’t a strong enough word to describe this novel; I’ve never read anything like it. The prose is straightforward and there are no weird characters doing weird things. Its uniqueness lies in how it’s organized. Each short chapter consists of one paragraph. They concern a topic – such as bosses or humor – and begin by telling who the nameless main character’s first boss was (his father), or what struck him as funny when he was a child; then we move chronologically through his life, exploring that particular topic until we come to the present, when he’s in his sixties. At this point he gives a summing up. Death seems imminent to him, which puts into perspective all that had come before; often his views reflect an elegiac resignation. Some endings have real impact – they’re incisive and revealing. This is an anti-nostalgic novel, devoid of a sentimental moment, and the emotion most often stirred by memories is regret. Through the numerous and varied topics we get an honest portrayal of a man and his life. The life isn’t a happy or satisfying one, nor is the man admirable. This isn’t a fault (how many of us would emerge unscathed from a warts-and-all examination?). However, there are degrees of unattractiveness. Simmons should have omitted two-thirds of the grubby sex; by making it play so large a role the main character comes across as a bit of a creep. Despite that glaring flaw, I recommend Wrinkles highly – its innovative approach, and the success with which it’s executed, make it quite special.

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