Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Flame Trees of Thika - Elspeth Huxley
These “Memories of an African Childhood” are narrated by a young girl, but it’s the adult the child will become who gives an unflinching account of a place and its people (on page two the mother, Tilly, dismounts from her horse and proceeds to “pop” the ticks that had settled on her clothing). Ticks are a minor annoyance compared to other hardships that confront the family in the African wilds in the early 1900s. The natives – mainly Kikuyu and Masai – are treated with understanding, but the book doesn’t shirk from describing practices and attitudes alien to our sensibilities (such as female circumcision and a complete lack of compassion for any animal). Not that the British and Dutch come across as pillars of virtue, though their vices are all too familiar. We’re presented with radically different outlooks on life. The Africans adapt to their surroundings while the Europeans try to alter it, mostly with the objective of making a profit. The persistence and resourcefulness of the settlers is amazing. Robin and Tilly (the child’s parents) are totally unprepared to farm the tract of land that Robin purchases, sight unseen. That theyre able to get by in the harshest conditions sometimes made me feel that I was viewing them through the baffled eyes of the Africans. The book’s diverse plot lines are made up of interactions the girl has with both whites and blacks (though her closest attachments are with animals); mostly she’s an observer, and some of what she sees is incomprehensible to her (but not to us; most significant is an ill-fated love affair). In this very odd childhood the oddest aspect is her relationship with her parents. They’re always referred to as Tilly and Robin; they’re not, in emotional terms, a Mother and Father to her. She isn’t mistreated, but merely taken care of in a matter-of-fact way. Though she displays no resentment, I was aware of the absence of warmth and affection. Despite all that she’s exposed to, some of it ugly and brutal, this unflaggingly resilient young girl develops a love for Thika. In a sense, this is a love story, with the object of love being childhood itself. *

Night Rider - Robert Penn Warren
In Warren’s first novel, written when he was in his early thirties, the talent and ambition that would culminate in All the King’s Men is evident. But ambition is a demanding virtue. The character of Mr. Munn (which is how he’s referred to in the third person narration) is key to the book; through him Warren explores the issues of power and violence. Mr. Munn is indeed a “Mr.” He has solidity, but it’s that of a figure carved from wood; for a while I thought he was real, until the inexplicability of his moods and actions accumulated; even the prose, which is generally straightforward, got dense and obscure when dealing with his emotional states. A shame, because Warren succeeds so fully in other ways: the secondary characters are strong and the rural setting has a deep-grained authenticity. The plot is based on a little-known episode in our history. In Kentucky and Tennessee in the early 1900s an Association of Growers of Dark Fired Tobacco was formed to force the conglomerates to pay a fair price for their product. But when the first step toward violence is taken, matters begin to spiral out of control; eventually night riders are terrorizing – and sometimes murdering – those who oppose them. Interesting material, but Warren passes the point where the story is completed and goes on for another hundred pages. Perhaps, being ambitious, he thought that a major first novel should be weighty in every sense of the word. What we get is Mr. Munn’s moral dilemma, which I had lost interest in, and a series of events that border on melodrama. As if to exacerbate my growing annoyance, Warren launches into a monologue (concerning the destruction of the west by the white man) from a saintly backwoods character named Willie Proudfit; we get twenty-two pages of this: “We got our’n and didn’t reckon on no end, hit looks lak. But a man’s that a-way. He sees sumthen, and don’t reckon on no end, no way, and don’t see it a-come-en. They’s a hoggishness in man, and a hog blindness.” Amen, brother.

Helena - Machado de Assis (Portuguese)
In his foreword to this early novel the author includes a disclaimer: “Do not blame me for anything romantic in it.” He also states that he holds a fondness for Helena, for in it he finds “an echo of youth and ingenuous faith.” (Youth? – he was thirty-six when he wrote it.) The book is radically different from anything else I’ve read by him; besides the romanticism, it has a conventional narrative and there’s a lavish amount of description. In the first chapter a wealthy man dies; in his will he reveals that he has a daughter, to whom he bequeaths a portion of his estate; he also asks his son and his sister to admit her to the family home and to treat her with “gentle care and affection.” Enter seventeen-year-old Helena – beautiful, vibrant, intelligent, and so agreeable that she even wins the heart of the doubting aunt. I was won over too – Helena is an enchanting feminine presence. And Estacio – what is to be expected of this young man? Though he refuses to acknowledge his true feelings, he comes to love her in a sexual way, and it’s clear that she reciprocates. Added to this dilemma – for they are brother and sister – something is oppressing Helena; since we’re in the mind of Estacio we’re barred from knowing what it is (though not for long; this mystery can be solved by using simple logic). In the last third of the book, when the various conflicts reach a crisis point, the tone of the writing changes. The intensity level is ratcheted up way too high as overwrought characters anguish over moral choices. What is the right thing to do according to the dictates of religion and the demands of a rigid code of honor? The only path open to Helena and Estacio is a narrow one. Too narrow – it constricts both them and the novel. I believe that the older Machado de Assis would have moved onto another path, into the brambles, and in doing so would have been truer to human nature, which is compelled not by considerations of propriety but by the cravings of the heart.

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