In light of the epidemic of violence and political repression in Zimbabwe – and South Africa’s African National Congress’s insistence (until much of the damage had been done) that interference from “outsiders” was not welcome – avid fiction readers may want to revisit a sub-Saharan perspective on political misrule: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Writing here a couple years back, I gave the book a mixed review, finding some fault with the breadth of the satire. But, much as magical realism is said to just be called “realism” in Columbia, broad satire starts to seem awfully pointed the more one learns about the tactics of strongmen like Robert Mugabe. Which is to say, Mugabe’s decision to proceed with the election runoff in Zimbabwe borders on farce. As Ngugi shows, these antics can make for rich fiction. In life, of course, they are merely infuriating.
As I write this my old friend Cem is nearing home after almost nine months of traveling the world. Here’s a little note he sent me about Maqroll.i dont think ive told you. i never finished the book. i have been slowly savoringthe entirety Maqroll throughout the whole of this trip. i have managed to spreadthe 700 pages out, making the book my only constant through the time zones. thiswas partly an attempt to reflect the character himself, his love for that deadfrench scribbler whose name i cannot pronounce or remember, his careful rereadingof the text. another element of my devoted fanaticism is the habit i have developed of scratchingor writing certain quotes from the book certain places ive been. most of thesequotes have been the memorable bathroom wall etchings from ‘the snow of theadmiral’, and indeed some of these quotes have been etched onto the walls of filthybathrooms. under mattresses in the most tranquil places in southern thailand. i have been trying to put them in places where travelers and english/spanishspeakers might find them, but this has been somewhat difficult at times (easternmyanmar). im sure some people have seen them already. i did not limit thequotations with actual quote marks. after all of my bags have been unpacked, i will read the last 5 pages. then thetrip is over. Welcome back Cem!
My favorite book critic, Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, has put out his list of the year’s best books. He also takes the opportunity to make some comments about the National Book Awards controversy.My own view is that the literary judgment of the National Book Award panelists was clouded by their desire to Make a Statement (as, for that matter, was the judgment of their compatriots on the nonfiction panel), but it’s just my opinion and is worth no more than the paper it’s printed on, if that.He self-aware enough to note that books he has chosen are “by men, and mostly men of a certain age, which as it happens is an age pretty close to my own.” I’m not sure if the other litbloggers – who went to great lengths to defend the five NBA finalists – will jump on Yardley because he seems to say that the five women are not worthy, but my feeling is that he, at least, makes it clear that these choices are about opinions, and his opinion happens to differ from the opinions of the judges. Now, on to his book choices: An Unfinished Season by Ward Just, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (excerpt), Nothing Lost by John Gregory Dunne (excerpt), Roads of the Heart by Christopher Tilghman (excerpt), and Human Capital by Stephen Amidon (excerpt). Yardley also lists his non-fiction picks in the column.Also out: 100 Notable Books of the Year from the New York Times.
The public literary program, One Book One City, that is half-heartedly sweeping the nation apparently has an outpost in my new city. They are already on book seven, which means that Chicagoans are reading circles around my former city, Los Angeles, which, last time I checked, was only on book two. The latest pick for Chicago is In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. I’ll be looking out for it on the “L”. In other news, the first volume of Bob Dylan’s extremely long-awaited memoir finally has a release date. October 12th will see the release of Chronicles: Volume 1 as well as Lyrics: 1962-2002, both from Simon & Schuster. I think we know what Dylan fans will be wanting for Christmas.
I’m in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It’s an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: “The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes.” Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like “profiting from the hiatus.” The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene‘s, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the “civilized” is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can’t comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I’m only a little ways into the book, it doesn’t seem like this is a bad thing.