Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Ice Saints – Frank Tuohy
This is a Cold War novel without the espionage. Tuohy is concerned with ordinary people living in Poland in the 1960s, when it was under communist rule. A young English woman, Rose, travels to Biala Gora. Her sister is married to a Polish man, and a deceased aunt has left their teenage son a sizable amount of money. It seems like good news, but in Poland forces conspire to undermine anything that’s good. In this unrelentingly drab and dreary place even a stroll in a park reveals a squirrel with “thin fur and a degenerate face” and trees that show “the amputations of shell fire.” People long subjected to defeat and deprivation are resentful, suspicious, and their self-deprecating humor is a mixture of cynicism and defiance. Rose’s hope is that the son, Tadeusz (for whom she forms an immediate attachment), can escape to England; all he needs is a visa. Yet her plans turn out badly, and at the end the sister tells Rose “Just leave here as soon as possible. That’s all I want now.” Rose is appealing, and her imperfections are the sort that makes her easy to identify with. The prose seems made up of concrete slabs that don’t quite fit flush, but this wasn’t a defect; it conveys the unavoidable disorientation one feels in a foreign world. By keeping things grounded in the realities of everyday life, Tuohy gives us an honest look behind the curtain. In 1964, when this novel was published, it may have been important. Today, it’s still a good read.

An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro
In the first sentence the elderly narrator tells the reader “you will not have to walk far.” This personal approach is to be a constant, along with asides (“I believe I was recalling the events of that day last month . . .” or “It is possible, of course, that Mori-san did not use those exact words”). What Ono slowly reveals is the part he played in the nationalism that led to World War II. In his paintings he portrayed the New Japan as a militant force, and he became an adviser to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities. In 1948 (when events take place) some – especially the young – feel hostile to those who, in their eyes, caused so much misery. Ono can’t remain unaware of such an attitude because his daughter is of marriageable age; in the Japanese culture of the time, suitors hire investigators to check on the backgrounds of prospective mates, and Ono’s past may be an obstacle for Noriko. There are problems with how the story is told. The prose is smooth, unruffled; but people don’t talk that way, so Ono’s voice seems artificial. And then there’s what he tells the reader. For much of the book we don’t know what his “secret” is, even though he’s fully aware of it. To withhold information is a novelistic tactic that the author hangs on his narrator. Still, when we finally understand Ono’s involvement, Ishiguro rejects the simplistic path of presenting us with an unrepentant war criminal or a man wracked by guilt. Instead, Ono perceives that his actions were mistaken and caused harm, but he also knows that he was motivated at the time by sincere belief. We get acceptance instead of catharsis; the book turns out to be about an ordinary man contemplating his life from the perspective of old age. That he’s content at the end didn’t bother me. Others, though, may see it as an example of his callous obliviousness, and they may be right. When Ono’s daughter tells him that the role he played in the war was a minor one, he resists this evaluation. Is his desire to have been of importance a natural human impulse, or something more sinister? This is one of those books that can provoke argument, which is a strength.

To Have and Have Not - Ernest Hemingway
This book was depressing. Partly because of its content, partly due to the fact that everybody involved (including the author) had to know how bad it was. Maybe, if an editor had insisted on changes – that Hemingway take out the spite and make it a much shorter hard-boiled crime novel – it might have worked. It starts out pretty well, with Harry Morgan as the first person narrator. There’s far too much tough guy talk, but the voice is good, the action sequences move, and Hemingway’s knowledge of boats, fishing and Cuba adds authenticity. But Harry is a grim, oppressive presence, and I felt nothing but aversion for him. The back cover of the edition I have calls him an “honest man.” Honest? He agrees to smuggle some “Chinks” to Florida, but when he gets the dough he kills Mr. Sing by breaking his neck (“I bent the whole thing back until she cracked”); the Chinks get dumped back in Cuba. As for the above-mentioned spite, for long stretches Hemingway has other narrators take over; some are writers, and the only possible reason for their inclusion is to show how contemptible they are. So we swing from brutish Harry to Richard and Helen Gordon bickering: “I’m though with you and I’m through with love. Your kind of picknose love. You writer.” Eighty pages from the end I couldn’t bear to continue, though – having seen the movie and read the back cover (which claims that Harry will become involved “in a strange and unlikely love affair”) – I skimmed what was left, waiting in vain for Lauren Bacall to appear. Harry’s a family guy, but he exchanges about a half dozen words with his daughters, and his wife is merely a stooge whose purpose is to rhapsodize about what a man Harry is. He’s more of a man than other men, even after he loses an arm in a shootout and is left with a stub that’s “like a flipper on a loggerhead.” This grungy, sullen, blood and booze-saturated mess isn’t just a minor novel by a Nobel Prize winner; it’s a failure of character. The prose is careless, and the stream of consciousness sequences lumber along like Frankenstein’s monster: “You just get dead like most people are most of the time. I guess that’s how it is all right. I guess that’s just what happens to you. Well, I’ve got a good start. I’ve got a good start if that’s what you have to do. I guess that’s what you have to do all right. I guess that’s it. I guess that’s what it comes to.”

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