Monday, 30 April 2018

The Kites

This is another book that is hard to characterise quickly. It is French, of course, and Romantic – with a view of history that is decidedly Gallic. It is also based around an unrequired love story worthy of South American magic-realism, complete with an eccentric uncle who creates kites out of the highest hopes of France, so that he becomes a postman-celebrity-rebel and Auschwitz survivor. It is also an ironic story, opening with the memorable line: ‘Nowadays, the little museum in Cléry devoted to the works of Ambrose Fleury only a minor tourist attraction’ (p.1). Ambrose is Ludo Fleuro’s uncle; Ludo is the narrator and protagonist of adventures that include a trip to Poland just before the war breaks out, and a daring role in the French Resistance under the noses of the cultured Nazis who dine in France’s famous restaurant Clos Joli.
The idea of a poor boy falling in love with a cold yet alluring (gothic) rich girl draws something from Dicken’s Great Expectations, and like that novel, there is something redemptive about not only Ludo’s survival of his love, but of Lila’s eventual humbling, in this case in the aftermath of the German defeat, when rich women accused of cavorting with Nazis were subject to public shaming and head-shaving. Ludo, who has every reason to turn his back, instinctively comes to Lila’s rescue and looks after her, no matter what. In characterising at least one German officer in sympathetic terms – Lila's German cousin and would-be assassin of Hitler – Gary undermines any simplistic reading of the war. Rather, one feels, there is a nostalgia for the more glamorous times of the pre-war period, when rich men could be socialists, in thought if not in deed, and France could convince itself of the impenetrability of its famous Maginot Line. This nostalgia is not entirely innocent, then, given the tragic events about to unfold; nor can one be certain of what to make of Gary’s treatment of the passionate Lila, whose potentially feminist ambitions are to be famous in one sphere or another, and yet who seems to settle for the role of muse. ‘Love me, Ludo,’ she says, ‘That’s all I deserve. I’ll probably end up being one of those women who’s only good at being loved’ (p.85).
Given the kites, and the high-yet-ironic Romance, Italo Calvino also comes to mind (Baron of the Trees, for example). In The Kites there are Madams who save Jews, and Polish aristocrats who save themselves. Decadence is at the door – and yet, in both Ludo and his uncle, the kite-making Ambrose -- Romain Gary restores French pride by focusing on small rebellions that have lasting, symbolic meanings. Thus the story of the Kite flyer, told by his modest and suffering nephew is worth retelling. And translating, finally, in this colourful edition by Text. It’s a tragic story that lifts the spirits. It is a nostalgic story that doesn’t gloss over the wrongs of France, while still portraying everyday heroes – chefs, and drop-outs, and kite makers who resist in their own way in the bleak period of the 1940s when France was on its knees. 'And there isn't anything better to say than that' -- to let the novelist have the last word.   

Saturday, 28 April 2018

The Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao

For once I am at a bit of a loss as to what to write about a book. Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a complex and highly original novel, and yet I have hesitated to write about what it might all mean, as I considered how I might distil my thoughts about it into a few paragraphs. The result of this has been a pause been reading and an attempt to write – what follows, therefore, is but flawed thoughts on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Others – closer to the American and Dominican Republic contexts – can do much more.
On form – the novel opens in mock-essay form, as the narrator describes the concept of fukú – a sinister sort of karma – and connect this to the sense of comic-tragic tones of Oscar’s “brief wondrous life”, as well as the dictatorship of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. This is done via lengthy footnotes, in an extravagant manner that reminds me a little of Paul Auster’s Oracle Night. Chapter 1 then transitions from the narrator (‘Our hero was not one of those Dominican cats …’) to a third person view – in the main – of Oscar’s life, growing up in New York. As the novel proceeds, however, other viewpoints take over, including Oscar’s troubled sister, Lola, and her teenage adventures; Yunior, Oscar’s one-time room-mate and would-be boyfriend to Lola; and the story of Oscar’s family troubles in the Dominic Republic in the dictatorship years, particularly as relates to the fate of his grandfather and the story of his mother’s life.
On Language – The variety of viewpoints, and the changing of forms of narration, mean that the novel is full of rich and varied language. There is the colloquial, teenage slang in dialogue (What you doing? Like nothing. Like let’s go to a movie, then. Life OK’ (p.38). There is an ironic version of a Marquez family-narrative, in openings to chapters such as: ‘When the family talked about it at all – which is like never – they always begin in the same place: with Abelard and the Bad Thing he said about Trujillo’ (p.211). Then there are metafictional sections of commentary, such as ‘A Note from Your Author’: ‘I know what Negroes are going to say. Look, he’s writing Suburban Tropical now. A puta and she’s not an underage snort-addicted mess? Not believable. Should I go down to the Feria and pick me up a more representative model?’ (284). There’s more variations to explore in the novel, but this gives you an idea.
On Fukú – Ultimately this is a tragic story about the death of a young man – this is in the title – someone who is a misfit and a nerd, and whose generational story and coming of age story are told in a comic-tragic tone that befits the concept of “fukú”. There are several beatings in the story that are horrific, and if nothing else, the reader comes away with a better sense of how brutal life was under the dictatorship from the 1930s to early 1960s. This is possibly the part of writing about the novel I have baulked at – I know a little about the dictatorships in Chile and Argentina, and a little about the political forces in the South American continent at large. But of the Caribbean dictatorial regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, and Haiti and the Dominican Republic in particular, I am a lost Australian with few immediate cultural reference points. This is to point at my ignorance and not a criticism of the novel – which takes the unusual step of providing footnote material of an historical nature to balance out the dark and lightness of the narrative itself with a more objective set of facts. American readers, New York readers in particular, and people from the Caribbean and its diaspora will recognise many details without these footnotes, and see the tale in a more connected way to their cultural, historical and family stories.
It's a brief and wondrous life, and given the history of the period, this is unsurprising cornerstone of an original novel.