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Rich pickings: Mohsin Hamid’s Asian satire

mohsin

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

By Mohsin Hamid             Hamish Hamilton $39.99

I’ve heard Mohsin Hamid interviewed a number of times on books podcasts and always found him considered and measured in his responses. The author of the best-selling The Reluctant Fundamentalist appears modest when contemplating that novel’s runaway success but also deeply saddened and somewhat jaded when discussing Pakistan, the country of his birth.

Hamid’s writing is clear-sighted, objective, satirical, humane. The Reluctant Fundamentalist was ostensibly a monologue on the effects of 9/11 on a high-achieving, liberal-minded Pakistani who once lived in the USA and whose return to Lahore has aroused suspicion. What singled the novel out was not only the elegance of the prose but that Hamid had dared to introduce the Muslim perspective to the 9/11 debacle. That was both brave and audacious and marked Hamid out as a writer to watch.

In How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (which I’ll abbreviate to “Filthy Rich”), he returns to territory covered in part by his first novel, Moth Smoke (2000), described as a “riches to rags” story of a Pakistani financier. Filthy Rich goes one step further in that it is a rags to riches to rags story with a twist – the novel itself is written as a “self-help manual”.

Set in an anonymous Asian country (which the reader infers is Pakistan) addressed to, and written in, the un-named second person “you”, Filthy Rich is divided into 12 chapters, each containing a Commandment and a lesson for the aspirational: Move to the City; Get an Education; Don’t Fall in Love; Avoid Idealists; Learn from a Master; Work for Yourself; Be Prepared to Use Violence; Befriend a Bureaucrat; Patronise the Artists of War; Dance with Debt; Focus on the Fundamentals; and Have an Exit Strategy. As Hamid writes: “A self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you….the idea of the self in the land of self-help is a slippery one.”

Still, by never naming his characters, Hamid implies they are societal archetypes or Everyman. “Your” story” is therefore “his”, “hers” and by implication Asia’s story. “You” in Filthy Rich is a child of extreme poverty and ambition who employs cunning and street smarts to clamber out of penury to eventual millionaire status. On the way he falls in love with the “pretty girl” from his wretched village who uses her looks to secure her status and sleeps her way to the top. Their paths cross, diverge and eventually coincide in a world that is noted for its unscrupulousness, corruption and vertiginous unpredictability.

In some respects. Filthy Rich is a dark, sardonic satire. Politicians can be bribed, competitors are disposable, police and officials are persuadable, everyone has a price. To leave the squalor of his situation behind, “you” isn’t afraid to bend the rules or flout them if needed. His first business is selling expired tinned food with falsified use-by dates and he then progresses – in entrepreneurial fashion – to exploit the rising middle classes’ fear of disease by boiling water, then re-bottling and re-labelling it as mineral water. His business empire expands until he becomes the Filthy Rich Asian of the title. To Hamid’s credit, the reader continues to find “you” likeable and sympathetic, despite his dubious business dealings, in no small part due to the way Hamid describes “you’s” miserable beginnings.

However, the book can also be viewed as a pure morality tale. No-one keeps their ill-gotten gains for long. Governments crumble, empires tumble and (SPOILER ALERT!) even “you” is not immune, losing much of his fortune by the book’s end. The greatest victim, Hamid suggests, is the human heart. There is little place for affection, love or compassion in an Asia where the only badge of achievement is economic success. It’s no accident that on this reading, the pretty girl is reunited with her nameless lover only after his business affairs collapse.

Filthy Rich is written at a cracking pace, and covers some 70 years in our hero’s life – from birth to death – in just under 230 pages. If the use of the second person occasionally jars, it’s more than made up for by Hamid’s laser eye for detail, bone dry humour and a storyline that is affecting and universal.

Read it: to become immersed in a satire of the Third World economic “miracle”.

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Monday masterpiece: Kenneth Mackenzie’s The Young Desire It

 

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The Young Desire It by Kenneth Mackenzie        Published by Text  $24.95

There is a black and white photograph taken of Kenneth Mackenzie in the 1930s, showing the author as a young man. It’s hard to resist that sensitive face, the sensual, perfectly curved mouth, the penetrating gaze. There’s a touch of Trevor Howard, of Oxbridge intellectual. Subfusc with absent pipe. A whole era is summed up in that image.

Yet Mackenzie was a Western Australian and his most famous novel, The Young Desire It, was published in 1937 when Mackenzie was 23. His life thereafter never reached the heights of that first, early success. Other novels were published, fizzed and faded. He married and had two children, but after a career that also encompassed poetry, journalism and the law, Mackenzie became a recluse, battling ill-health and alcoholism. He drowned in 1955 – the circumstances surrounding his death remain unknown.

I would probably have remained unfamiliar with Mackenzie had I not read critic Peter Craven’s fulsome review of The Young Desire It in the Australian Book Review recently, as it’s just been republished as Text Classic. I was also urged to read the book by WC Chong, Text’s head of design and illustration, whom I interviewed for a forthcoming Pageturners podcast.

Summed up, the narrative is conventional enough – a boarding school story, a 16 year-old boy’s rites of passage, the burgeoning of an adolescent love affair with a country girl. Erotically-charged yes, plot-driven, no. What impresses, as David Malouf writes in his excellent introduction to the new edition, is that it’s “perhaps the earliest novel in Australia to deal with the inner life in a consistently modernist way.”

One of the dominant features is the novel’s languid sensuality and lyricism and lush, haunting evocation of place. When the novel opens, the hero Charles Fox is about to go to boarding-school but before leaving indulges in a final walk, mushroom picking in familiar woods. Brought up alone and a child of nature, Charles is completely at one with the landscape. “Here the first mushrooms appeared, breaking through inches of half-softened crust from the moister warmth beneath, just as if for their pulpy, round heads it was no feat at all. They came up in a night: they seemed to come even as he walked about stooping with a knife to take them into the basket; against the darkness of the earth they shone like moons, and the pink flesh of their secret undersides was wonderful to see.”

This is gloriously poetic with obvious Lawrencian undertones, and indeed Mackenzie acknowledged DH Lawrence’s influence. When, later, Charles meets Margaret for the first time in his retreat in the woods, she appears almost like a spiritual emanation of nature, even before the second theme of love and sexual awakening is introduced. The reader has already been primed to expect the following: “Charles watched her…carefully seeing with a sort of delight that he had never known before that moment, the happy movement that turned her face away, and threw into full view the side of her head, smooth and fair, the one long plait near him fallen and hanging on her knees, and the soft curve of breast and arm. She was very beautiful, he thought.”

Towards the end of the novel when the two consummate their love over the summer, Mackenzie builds up the sexual tension between them with almost heart-stopping intensity. You feel the heat of the day, hear the beating of their hearts, witness their bodies’ abandonment to “the blind volition of their own single will”. What the young desire is not simply sex, of course, but freedom, independence of action and thought within the constraints of a conservative society, the need to be completely oneself. The novel aches with that passionate wish and struggle, which is tackled with fervour and immense literary sophistication and discipline, bookended by the largest chunk of the novel, which describes Charles’ time at school.

Modelled on an English public school, Mackenzie depicts the day to life of Chatterton as a factory for making English clones out of colonial country bumpkins. In this, the novel is quietly satirical. More graphic by far is the emotional and sexual life of the school. Charles’ instincts are completely heterosexual, but at Chatterton he discovers a hothouse of homoeroticism, veiled seductions and more obvious approaches, and his confusion at how to deal with this and survive is handled by Mackenzie with extraordinary sensitivity. The success of this section lies in part in its autobiographical content. In a letter written years later, Mackenzie recalled: “When I was at school I, being angel-faced and slim and shy, was apparently considered fair game by masters as well as certain boys. The boys were at least honestly crude in their proposals; but the masters – young men whom I thought very mature and wise – had a much better technique. They wooed the intellectual way, just at the very time I was beginning to comprehend something of literature and music, and so was most gullible.”

On his very first day, Charles is brutally gang-raped by a pack of boys under the pretext that he’s actually a girl. Later, he comes under the spell of Penworth, a young Classics master out from England, who is captivated by the boy’s beauty and love of learning. For Charles, Penworth is someone to look up to, a role model. When Penworth kisses him, Charles’ experience with Margaret has already laid the foundation for what he desires and his main concern is how to negotiate the inherent difficulties of the situation – rejecting Penworth’s advances whilst somehow managing to retain his favour in the classroom.

For the 21st century reader, this scene is truly shocking. Penworth’s action is a blatant betrayal of trust and we’re perhaps more aware of its lingering whiff of paedophilia and sexual abuse today than readers in the 1930s. Yet magnanimously, Mackenzie presents a predominantly sympathetic portrait of Penworth which is essentially non-judgmental, highlighting their similarities rather than their differences. Like Charles, Penworth is lonely, isolated, artistic. Penworth’s growing realisation of his own inner nature and his attraction to Charles – which both excites and repels him –  makes him one of the most fascinating characters in the novel. Again, for its time, the subject matter and the way it is tackled are groundbreaking.

The Young Desire It has all the hallmarks of a true classic – dazzling writing, deep insight and themes that are both of their time, yet timeless. As Malouf writes: “Among Australian novels it is unique and very nearly perfect, a hymn to youth, to life, to sexual freedom and moral independence, written in full awareness – and this is a second miracle – of the cost, both to others and to oneself.”

Read it: as an introduction to a largely forgotten Australian author who deserves full recognition.


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Bibliotherapy – novel cures for 21st century ailments

Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin

My thanks to Literature Works magazine for the following interview with ELLA BERTHOUD and SUSAN ELDERKIN who founded Bibliotherapy, an innovative, enchanting and obviously cathartic service. So what books would you recommend for the glum, the jaded, the heartbroken, or for those who wish to celebrate their joie de vivre?

Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin met as English Literature students at Cambridge University, where they began giving novels to each other whenever one of them seemed in need of a boost – or keeping on the straight and narrow. Ella went on to study fine art and become a painter and art teacher, while keeping up her intravenous diet of literature through constant reading and listening to audiobooks. She lives in Sussex with her husband and three girls. Susan became a novelist (Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains and The Voices, both Fourth Estate) and in 2003 was listed by Granta as one of the Twenty Best of Young British Novelists. She also teaches creative writing and reviews fiction for The Financial Times. She now lives with her husband and son in Connecticut, where she regularly kayaks with a novel in hand.

In 2008 they set up the bibliotherapy service at The School of Life in London, and since then have been prescribing books either virtually or in person to patients all over the world. Though they are now divided by an ocean, they still regularly send each other fictional cures to ensure they don’t come a cropper, or fail to live life to the full. The Novel Cure is their first book together, but they are already busy plotting the next.

http://thenovelcure.com

We were lucky enough to catch up with Ella and Susan to hear about the process of writing The Novel Cure.

The Novel Cure suggests literary remedies for a host of maladies, ranging from the humorous (baldness) to the more serious (depression). What inspired this book and how seriously should readers take it?

SE: The book was inspired by our mutual and absolutely serious recognition that reading the right book at the right time can be a really powerful thing, and we wanted to harness that power. A novel can keep you company, offer you an escape from yourself, give you access to the interior experience of others, which may chime with your own and help you not to feel so isolated. Are there any pills that offer so much? So yes we are completely serious about the underlying concept. We do have a lot of fun in our book with light-hearted ailments such as stubbed toe and being unable to find a decent cup of coffee – and we like to take a playful tone when ticking off people for their bad reading habits and so on. But even when we’re being tongue-in-cheek about the ailment – such as man flu – we still believe in the cure. Every novel that we write about in this book will have an affect on you, and is one that’s worth reading. Probably the majority of our ailments are serious, though, and certainly many are no laughing matter at all – such as depression, as you point out, and death of a loved one. We are completely serious when it comes to those. Reading allows you to experience what it’s like to be someone else – something that is actually very difficult to come by in normal life – and that can be a life-saver when you’re going through something intense and horrible, which even those close to you can’t really understand. When we were deciding what to prescribe for depression, we were aware that people who are really intensely depressed do not want to be jollied along, or teased out of their blueness by something light and breezy – they are beyond that. What they need is to be kept company in this dark place by an author who understands what it’s like.

EB We also felt that many people might enjoy a new way of looking at books – and a new way of addressing their problems. The classic non-fiction self-help book often takes itself very seriously, and it’s not everyone’s style to spend their lives chanting mantras to boost their self-esteem. Literature, at its best, offers a longer lasting, more intellectually satisfying and, frankly, more enjoyable way of opening yourself up to new ways of seeing the world, yourself, and others. Inhabiting the psyche of a character in a novel is a really powerful thing. But we also believe firmly in the importance of laughter as a cure for almost everything. We want our readers to have plenty to chuckle about when reading our book so that the act of reading it is a cure in itself.

The sheer volume of book recommendations included is impressive; how did you go about compiling this list? Was it difficult?

SE: We did not sleep for five years. Actually, that’s not true. We’ve both been avid readers since our teens and we’re in our forties now. You can accrue a fair number of books in that time. What was harder was working out what to leave out. We both have favourite reads which got axed during the editing stage – some Zadie Smiths,  some Cormac McCarthys, a David Foster Wallace. There are books we’ve loved which didn’t even get on the long list – the wonderful Microserfs by Douglas Coupland. (Hey, Ella, how did we manage to leave out Microserfs?!) Ultimately we needed a balance of classic and contemporary, obscure and familiar, and from a range of cultures. We’ve enough left over to do another edition probably.

EB: Yes! Douglas Coupland, what an omission! Actually, probably the most fun we had was at the beginning when we put our first list of ailments and cures together – a few wonderful evenings in Somerset aided by several bottles of wine – when we made a huge list of all the books we’d ever read, and started thinking about what they would cure. Our years as bibliotherapists at The School of Life certainly helped a lot – we have worked with several hundred clients now, and each one has provided us with an opportunity to trial a novel cure. Their feedback over the years has been invaluable. Then, as Suse says, the most painful part of the process was cutting out the books that we didn’t have room for. During the 14 months we spent actually writing the book, we called in a number of literary friends to test our cures too. If they didn’t work for others, they had to go.

You’re both Bibliotherapists for The School of Life – what benefits does this therapy offer? How is it different from simply suggesting self-help books?

SE: For some of our clients it is a reading-list service – people come to us who love reading but are, rightly, highly selective, and want ideas for books they may not otherwise find by themselves. We try to go against the grain a little in terms of what we suggest: if a novel is being read by all the book clubs, we probably won’t bother to recommend it – or I don’t, anyway (Ella you might do differently!) But for some it is more obviously a therapy – people come to us at a difficult time in their lives, or when they’re at a cross-roads. We often get people who are thinking about a change in career, and want fiction that opens doors, and encourages them to think outside the box. We also often get people who have been bereaved. Self-help books have their place, but literature is the place to feast on the really great minds.

EB: Yes I too avoid suggesting the obvious books to clients, as mostly they will read those books anyway without our intervention. We give tailor made eight-book prescriptions to our clients, and of course each prescription is different. So, for instance, for someone who is bereaved we may prescribe a couple of books which explore the feelings of a character in a similar position, and a couple of books which are pure escapism, in the genre they already like to read, be it literary fiction, historical fiction or sci-fi. Then we might give them a couple of books that open up some new, positive doors to help them move forward. We ask a lot of questions before prescribing so that we get a firm sense of what they will love. Reading time is hard to come by these days, and it’s really important to be selective and carefully about what you read. Often the clients come back to us and tell us how they have got on with their reading, and we suggest a new batch, and so it goes on. Sometimes these relationships can go on for many years. It’s really satisfying to watch someone be nurtured and stimulated by their reading life.

Is there a particular book which has helped you through a difficult period? Would you share it with us?

SE: When my father died I felt very numb and unable to feel – I think I had emotion overload and couldn’t cope, so everything just sort of shut down. But I didn’t understand this at the time, until I read – actually I was re-reading it, for The Novel CureMrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I love that book, and we had decided to use it as the cure for Monday morning feeling, which it’s great for. I had remembered Septimus, the young man who is suffering from shell shock after his experiences in the first world war, as the character who slowly goes mad. But I hadn’t realised until I re-read it that he experiences his shell-shock as a numbness. It helped me to understand that this is a way of the body protecting itself until such time as it can process what has happened. Septimus unfortunately didn’t have the benefit of reading about Septimus, as I did, and it doesn’t go well for him in the end; just as it didn’t go well for Virginia Woolf, who didn’t have the benefit of reading Virginia Woolf. I was luckier; for me it marked the beginning of being able to feel again.

EB: When I was studying Fine Art at the University of East London, my second degree, I went through a period of depression. I spent one summer mostly in a flat in Tufnell Park, hardly able to leave the house. Luckily, I still felt like reading, and I read a lot of Thomas Mann. His novel The Holy Sinner, which describes a man being so disgusted with himself that he chains himself to a rock in the middle of a lake, chimed strongly with the way I felt. Gregory, the man on the rock, is redeemed because some papal emissaries come to his lake-bound home expecting to find the next Pope. This didn’t happen to me (thankfully!) – but the way that he re-invented himself and re-discovered his love of both his own nature and humanity in general served as a catalyst to my return to my usual optimistic nature. I did an art project about The Holy Sinner which led me into my second year in a really positive way.


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Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists: Adam Foulds

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This overview of the work of Adam Foulds is the second in my survey of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 2013

How intriguing is Adam Foulds! Few writers today would choose to focus on an epic prose poem between two highly-acclaimed novels. Yet Foulds has done just that. He surprises. One minute he’s penning a funny, warm and fuzzy – and somewhat conventional – novel about two misfits. Then he’s charging into the dark story of Britain’s rule in Africa in the 1950s, before delivering a haunting, elegiac novel about the madness of the poet John Clare. Readers would be forgiven for asking “what’s next?”

What’s next is In the Wolf’s Mouth, due to be published next year. The new book takes place after the Second World War, particularly in Sicily and explores trauma and violence and the corruption that frequently follows armed conflict during the reconstruction of a country. You can parallel, says Foulds, similar attempts to do the same in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe this is the missing link in understanding his work: a desire to explore a time and a society through a series of highly-charged events, in which the prism of poetry intersects with traditional narrative.

Foulds came to prominence in his mid-thirties. After Oxford and completing the now famed Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia, he wrote quietly and consistently before The Truth About These Strange Times was published in 2007. In a Granta interview, he discussed the difficulty he faced before the accolades poured in. Many of his contemporaries were “successful” in traditional terms, lawyers, accountants, rising up corporate ladders. Foulds took menial, blue-collar jobs with little responsibility to allow himself the time and freedom to write and braved criticism from friends and family. Recognition was both welcome and unexpected.

The Truth About These Strange Times pairs two unlikely characters: Saul, a brilliant ten-year old who is unwillingly preparing for the World Memory Championships under the watchful eye of his over-protective and over-zealous parents; and Howard, an obese, unemployed Scottish labourer with whom Saul discovers the meaning of friendship, fun and lost childhood.  It is an endearing book. Saul and Howard are especially well-drawn and Foulds has an eye for detail, relishing descriptions such as the tedium of repetitive tasks on the factory floor, the tang of salt and vinegar potato crisps and the comfort of stodgy food. Less successful are the minor characters, particularly Saul’s parents, who are of the cardboard cut-out variety, pushy, controlling Yuppies with very little depth. A sub-plot involving Howard tricked into marrying a Russian woman who needs a Visa to settle in Britain, also feel awkwardly tacked onto the main plotline. Yet the enduring feel of this debut novel is one of charm and undoubted promise.

More ambitious by far is The Quickening Maze which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2009. Foulds’ novel has at its core a set of serendipitous circumstances. He discovered that the lyric poet John Clare was a patient at the High Beach Asylum in Essex from 1837-1841 and that at the same time the poet Alfred Tennyson regularly visited his brother Septimus, who was a patient there. The institution – very liberal for its time, allowing patients the freedom to wander through the ground and occasional furloughs into the neighbouring town – was run by an unscrupulous con-man, the Reverend Matthew Allen, MD. Allen tricked Tennyson into investing heavily in a hair-brained scheme for mass-producing furniture. When the scheme collapsed. Tennyson was unable to recoup his investment, leading to significant financial distress.

The heady mix of poetry, commerce, idealism and crass venality lies at the heart of this novel. Foulds blends extraordinarily vivid descriptions of madness and hallucination with an intense poetic scrutiny that imaginatively reconstructs a slice of history. Again, his grasp of the sensual – the tastes, smells, filth of Victorian England – is visceral in its immediacy. And there’s delicacy and trembling beauty, too, as the reader sees the countryside through John Clare’s eyes:

The forest was darkening. Winter was not far off. The black fallen leaves, plastered down by heavy rain, were silvered here and there with frost. The tree trunks were wet. They passed the hooked, blustery shines of a holly. Good snail weather. Their reins creaked. The bits clicked in the horses’ mouths as they breathed large clouds.”   Succinct, satisfying, highly visual, this is Foulds in full command of his material.

Equally impressive is Foulds’ epic poem, The Broken Word, subtitled ‘An Epic Poem of The British Empire in Kenya, and the Mau Mau Uprising Against It’. This won the 2008 Costa Book Award and the Somerset Maugham Award. Dazzling and an imaginative tour de force, The Broken Word feels as if Foulds were documenting the breakdown of a civilization with a hand-held camera.

Set in the last days of British Colonial rule in Africa in the 1950s, the poem is essentially a meditation on the loss of innocence. Young Tom comes out to Africa  to spend time on the family farm in Kenya before going to University. He becomes embroiled in the violence of the Kikuyu uprisings, as they struggle for independence against British colonial powers. The Kikuyu have slaughtered several Brits on neighbouring homesteads so a Home Guard is created to fight back. At his father’s insistence, Tom joins them – it’s time. I’m afraid, you know, to be a man and all that.’ British clipped upper-class speech patterns and casual attitudes to thuggery are faultlessly rendered, as is Tom’s growing descent into brutality. His, like Africa, is a “Broken World”, where killing becomes almost second nature and the ideals of public school lost forever amongst rape, torture and senseless killing.

‘In his rage, he forgot his training
and beat him

not with the butt but the barrel of his gun.
He swung and swung
across the breaking stave
of the man’s forearms and collar bone
until it seemed the prisoner shivered
and gradually fell asleep,
but Tom, Tom had too much energy and carried on.’

Returning to Oxford, Tom is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Africa has irreparably damaged him.  He has seen too much violence, is troubled by recurring fantasies of beating his tutor to death and even roughandles his girl, Eleanor. The poem ends in uncertainty. Tom may, or may not be able to face the realities of marriage and the mundane. The heat of the landscape, the heat of the moment, the heat of blood, the insistent burning in the brain – Foulds captures all this without partisanship or sentimentality and with admirable restraint.

The Broken Word also feels as if poetry is where Foulds appears to be truly at home. With his richness of language and the emotional power his words invoke, he expertly combines the lyrical with the epic. In the Wolf’s Mouth is definitely a book to watch out for.


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Roses with Thorns: a Text classic reprinted

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Rose Boys, by Peter Rose        Text Classics    $12.95

The Text Classic series is a wonderful initiative to reprint forgotten Australian literary masterpieces or highlight narratives that may have been published more recently but deserve a fresher scrutiny. Text has already reprinted novels such as Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom and CJ Dennis’ The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke.

Peter Rose’s Rose Boys was originally published to great acclaim in 2001. Ostensibly the memoir of his late brother Robert, Rose Boys won the 2003 National Biography Award and became a best-seller. It is not hard to see why.

For readers not from Australia, let me preface my review with a few words about AFL (not to be confused with American Football). Throughout the country, but especially in Melbourne, where I live, “footy” isn’t just a sport, it’s a religion. On Grand Final Day in September, the country comes to a virtual standstill. Every office runs its own sweepstake and the pubs are awash with punters predicting, reflecting, commiserating and jubilating.

Peter Rose was born into one of the greatest of sporting families in the state of Victoria. Both his grand-father and father were players and then coaches at the iconic Collingwood Football Club, one of the earliest clubs to be established in Australia and home to many footy heroes. The “Magpies” are known for their black and white sporting colours and courage on the field. Kicking a ball around the back yard with their Dad was one of Peter and Robert’s earliest memories.

Peter grew up to be bookish and literary-minded. After University, he became a bookseller and then worked for years in publishing, both at Oxford University Press in Melbourne, and now as editor of The Australian Book Review. He is also a poet and his last collection of poetry, Crimson Crop, won the 2012 Queensland Literary Award.

In complete contrast, Robert was a fine sportsman, both a footballer and a cricketer. He not only played for Collingwood but opened the batting for the Victorian state cricket team. Supremely talented, extrovert, handsome, recently married with a young daughter, Robert had the world on a string. But on Valentine’s Day 1974, a senseless, devastating car accident left him a quadriplegic. He would never walk again and spent the next 25 years of his life in a wheelchair until his death in 2000.

Peter Rose’s account of his brother’s life is immensely affecting. He writes simply and unsentimentally about the superhuman difficulties Robert faced. These were not only physical, but psychological. For any quadriplegic, the mental readjustment required to face a life of virtual immobility is extreme. But for a sportsman, this is almost overwhelming. Robert battled painful bedsores and lung infections, as well as boredom and depression. The extended family suffered, too. There was grief for everything Robert had lost but also insidious feelings of guilt. Rose’s portrait of Robert’s endurance and courage are recorded, as is the family’s despair and forbearance.  But there’s also anger and fear, and loneliness. Robert wasn’t a saint and the family had a roller-coaster ride battling both his and their fluctuating emotions over a long period of time.

Rose intersperses his narrative with snapshots of happier times, the brothers’ childhood, his parents’ courtship, the rise of the Rose sporting legend. Rose also reflects on his own life, his burgeoning literary career, his acceptance of his own homosexuality and individual path. His prose is restrained and as such, immensely evocative. I finished the book absolutely captivated and deeply saddened. The last 25 pages are especially distressing to read, as Rose gives us a blow-by-blow account of the final hours of Robert’s life, the futility and agony of his days in hospital, the eventual, blessed, release and the bureaucratic bungles that threatened to postpone his carefully choreographed funeral. Rose also includes his haunting poem I Recognise My Brother in a Dream, a tortured tangle of nightmare and beatific vision that sums up both Robert’s indomitable spirit and the unbroken love of brother to brother.

It is a memoir that captivates and involves the reader. With Peter Rose as our guide, we see Robert live again and get to know him. As Rose writes: “It is time to listen to my brother whose message, laconic but self-evident to many in his life, I somehow never fully heeded…I turn to the handsome lad, the vaunted youth, the rage recruit, and will him to speak to me.”

Read it: For an honest, warm and uplifting account of family life in almost unbelievable adversity.


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Literary time capsule: Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being”

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A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki    Published by Text, $32.99

Ruth Ozeki has always been a writer with a conscience. (It’s no accident that apart from being a novelist, she’s also a Buddhist priest.) In her first novel, My Year of Meats, she drew attention to the noxious additives and hormones used in raising livestock and meat processing; like Barbara Kingsolver and others, political agenda is deeply rooted in her fiction. Her latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, blends fantasy and history with Ozeki’s concerns about pollution and the environment. And for good measure, there’s a big dose of quantum physics, Japanese pop culture and Zen Buddhism thrown in.

Confused? Go with the flow. This is a fairy tale for our time. Time being the operative word. But I’ll get to that. This review, rather like the novel itself, may meander. And what is time anyway? A series of collapsible portholes through which to view the present and the past. (Ozeki’s obviously got to me, I’m going all Zen.)

On a remote island on the Pacific coast of Canada, Ruth, a novelist, lives with her husband Oliver. A keen beachcomber, she finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up onshore. Inside, there’s a diary written in Japanese. Luckily Ruth, who is half-Japanese herself, can read it. She discovers it belongs to a 16 year-old schoolgirl called Nao (pronounced ‘now’). Bullied at school because she has spent much of her childhood in America and deeply miserable, Nao intends to kill herself, but before she does she wants to recount the life of her beloved grandmother, the 105-year old Buddhist nun and feminist, Jiko.

Ruth, who is herself trying to write a memoir of her mother, becomes fascinated with Nao. Did she perish in the tsunami that followed the 2011 earthquake? If not, where is she? Ruth puts her own writing aside and embarks on a quest to find her. The novel interweaves Ruth’s Google searches and increasingly frantic emails to potential sources of information, with pages from Nao’s diary, which gradually reveal much about her family’s history. The reader finds out about Nao’s chronically depressed and suicidal father, and the uncle she never met, a kamikaze pilot during the Second World War. Part detective novel, part meditative Zen koān, the novel unfolds like a series of Chinese boxes, each theme opening up to the next.

Let’s look at “reality versus unreality” first.  The protagonist of the novel is called “Ruth”, like Ozeki herself, and the real Ruth Ozeki, like her fictitious counterpart, is married to a man called Oliver. Yet the fictional Ruth is not Ruth Ozeki, novelist. They look very different, and though they share a common half-American, half Japanese heritage, they are clearly not the same person.

So why does Ozeki call her leading character Ruth? Is it to draw attention to the novelist’s craft of fabrication and make-believe? Nao and her diary are clearly not “real” in a tangible sense, although they feel real in the time-zone of reading and the close bond forged between reader and writer through the pages of a novel. Yet Ozeki constantly pokes holes at this relationship by including copious footnotes painstakingly explaining references to Japanese culture, Buddhist practise and history – each time a footnote is looked up, suspension of disbelief is thwarted and the reader is jolted back to the present, becoming conscious that the work is one of fiction.

Another theme is that of time. The novel covers several time frames, Nao’s recent past, Ruth’s present, and even further back in history to the days of the Second World War where Nao’s uncle was a “sky soldier”. The preamble to the book is taken from a Zen Buddhist text saying that any Tom, Dick or Harry is: For the time being, the entire earth and the boundless sky.

This echoes the Buddhist belief that both the inanimate and the animate are inextricably intertwined. But it also introduces the theme of humans as “beings in time”. Nao (Now, get it?), Oliver, Ruth and all the characters in the book are “time beings”, who exist in their personal time zones and also elsewhere in the novelist and reader’s imaginations. Here, quantum physics comes in, in relation to the fact that particles can also behave like waves and can never be pinned down in time or space – the moment you try to do so, they behave like something else.

Nao’s diary is also – coincidentally or not – wrapped up in a faux cover – that of Proust’s epic novel, Remembrance of Things Past. Elusive, but potentially full of clues, one moment revealing its full text and then mysteriously showing Ruth blank pages, it behaves like a quantum physics particle, in, out and of its time.

Within this complex structure, Ozeki introduces themes of pollution and environmental catastrophe, as seen by the tsunami itself, oddly migrating bird species, unusual flotsam and jetsam, and the intricacy of global wave cycles.  It is also a critique of contemporary Japanese society, where the penalty for not being successful or fitting in with cultural norms has bred a generation of reclusives and a suicide rate among the under 25s that is three times higher than that of the USA. Yet within all this, Ruth herself seems little more than a catalyst for Nao’s overpowering story and cataclysmic life events. The more we get to know Nao, the less tangible Ruth seems, until she appears little more than a tangle of footnotes (163 to be exact), facts, emails and hypotheses.

It’s as if Ozeki were concentrating so hard on the novel’s many themes that she bypasses the narrative arc of one of her principle characters.  If A Tale for the Time Being leaves the reader up in the air, it is because the fictitious Ruth seems much less “real” than the fictitious Nao. But in the dynamics of quantum physics, that might be precisely Ozeki’s point.

LISTEN TO MY INTERVIEW WITH RUTH OZEKI NEXT WEEK ON MY PAGETURNERS PODCAST: I’LL POST A LINK ON BOOKS NOW!

 

 

 


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The cutting edge: the mysterious artist sculpting Scotland’s literary landscape

Who is cutting up the books of Scotland?

Book 4

Image: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World hollowed out into a mysterious sculpture – gift to the Scottish Poetry Library. Artist anonymous. Courtesy Scottish Books Trust.

There must be something in the water: a reclusive artist is blurring the boundaries between visual and textual artforms. Thank you to ABC Radio National for bringing this phenomenon to my attention.

Two years ago, unattributed book sculptures started popping up all over Scotland. They first appeared in March 2011, when an exquisite piece of cut-paper artistry, made from a book, appeared in Edinburgh’s Poetry Library. Nine more followed. In 2012 the artist reappeared, as part of Book Week Scotland, creating five special sculptures, hiding them in locations relevant to the books they represented, with clues left each day for someone to find them. All five were found: a mini Treasure Island at the Scottish Sea Bird Centre, a Robert Burns tribute at his Birthplace Museum, Peter Pan at J M Barrie’s birthplace.

The artist is female but little else is known about her.  She wrote this for the guardians of the Poetry Library to find, saying she was: “…a woman, who had been a girl, whose life would have been less rich had she been unable to wander freely into libraries, art galleries and museums. A woman who, now all grown, still wants access to these places and yes, wants them for her children…”

Other sculptures took their inspiration from the work of poets Edwin Morgan and Norman MacCaig. The 10 sculptures toured around Scotland’s libraries last year and have entranced all who saw them with their delicacy, intricacy and beauty. I reproduce some of the images here. It seems the artist has not been as prolific lately – but what do you think? Is this artistry or vandalism? Your comments please.

Poetree from Gifted: the Edinburgh Book Sculptures on Tour 2012

Image:  Tree made out of a book and leaves torn from books, accompanied by a gilded eggshell with a poem lining. Gift to the Scottish Poetry Library. Artist anonymous. Courtesy Scottish Books Trust.

Book 2

Image: Whiskey Galore by Compton Mackenzie. Found on Island of Eriskay, Scotland, at Am Politician Lounge. Sculptor anonymous. Courtesy Scottish Books Trust.

book1

Image: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson found at the Scottish Sea Bird Centre. Sculptor anonymous. Courtesy Scottish Books Trust.