Friday, December 24, 2010

Love in the Time of Paranoia

Who shall live and who shall die
Who at the measure of days and who before
Who by fire and who by water
Who by the sword and who by wild beasts
Who shall have rest and who shall go wandering
Who shall be brought low and who shall be raised high.

Mitchell James Kaplan’s debut novel, which takes its name from the words of this sacred Hebrew piyyut , follows the fortunes of one man at a time of great social and political turbulence. 15th century Spain was the epicenter of some world-changing tremors – the conquest of Muslim-dominated Granada by Queen Isabel; the establishment of the Inquisition to reinforce the power of the Church while displacing thousands of Muslims and Jews across the world, and- that most famous of nautical goof ups, Christopher Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the New World .

Into these historical facts, Kaplan deftly weaves a story of a man caught in a crisis of faith. This is no ordinary man; Kaplan ambitiously chooses as his protagonist the powerful and charismatic Luis de Santángel, an influential member of the court, unscrupulous accomplice to King Ferdinand in his quest for power, and financier to the gamble that was Columbus’ quest for Asia. But Santángel was also a third generation converso, or New Christian-his forefathers having abandoned the Jewish faith - who was implicated in the murder of an Inquisitor and lost several members of his family to the Inquisition.

History shows that the conversos were never entirely accepted, their status as former Jews or Muslims always making them suspect .“You think you’re one of them…”, Santángel bitterly observes to his brother Estefan, a man who hides behind a boisterous show of Christian feeling. ”But neither you nor I shall ever be one of them, no matter how much we drink or take confession.”.

Kaplan interprets Santángel as a man whose revulsion at the horrors and hypocricy of the Inquisition gradually turn him from skeptical converso to covert Jew. (“ Where they see a conspiracy of New Christians,” he says, “I see… history. Shared history. And history, memories, how can you escape them?”) He turns to the comforting fold of his abandoned faith, secretly practicing Jewish rituals and studying ancient Hebrew texts with the help of a young scribe. When the scribe is betrayed and tortured by the Inquisition into confessing his ‘crimes’ and naming accomplices, Santángel has the Inquisitor murdered. He soon finds that his power and wealth are little protection, given his suspect status as a New Christian. He is arrested, before his proximity to King Ferdinand comes to his aid, but is helpless to prevent the punishment of his son and the torture and murder of his brother.

Running parallel to Santángel’s story is that of Judith Migdal, a young woman living in the Jewish quarter of the Muslim kingdom of Granada. Judith, a devout Jew, defies social convention by refusing marriage and single handedly taking over her murdered brother’s business and the care of his family. Santángel meets her on a visit to the vizir of Granada, but theirs is a romance doomed; Santángel is arrested, while the Christian occupation of Granada turns Judith and thousands of Jews like her into homeless refugees. Also playing a role in Santángel’s persecution is the Toledoth Yeshu, a Hebrew scroll of unknown origins, that Colon gives to him. Suggesting an alternate version to Jesus’ origins, the scroll ,though hardly comparable to the hate mongering of anti-Semitic propaganda like the Fortalitium Fidei ,has often been misrepresented as anti–Christian, and becomes, in this book, a powerful stimulus in Queen Isabel’s fanatical desire to conquer Granada.

The story moves seamlessly between theological debate, moments of intimacy and graphic violence, with the odd burst of florid prose'. Kaplan’s rendering of Santángel reminded me of Thomas Cromwell, flawed star of ‘Wolf Hall’, Hilary Mantel’s literary juggernaut – amoral, conniving, as much a power hungry opportunist as the monarch he supports, then blackmails. In Kaplan’s assured hands, however, Santángel is also an intriguing character, tortured by his love and the consequences of his beliefs. By contrast, Kaplan’s vision of Colon/ Columbus is far more flattering – devious, yes, in his single-minded dedication to his vocation, but also intellectually curious, and tolerant of cultures foreign to his own (in a sub-plot, he secretly supports Judith’s business at a time when anti-Semitic feeling runs particularly high).

But the character who stands out as truly heroic is one who starts off as an underdog - Estefan, a man who feigns an affinity to primitive Christian rituals, only to openly defy the Inquisition when his young nephew is arrested. “No one cares a straw what you believe, Luis,” Estefan tells his brother, rather prophetically, at the beginning of the book. “No one cares what I believe, in the black dungeon of my heart. That’s the outrageous joke behind this madness.” And later, “Where’s the other cheek?” he taunts the men arresting him for a drunken tirade against Torquemada’s ‘splenetic choirboys’ and their zeal for violence.”Where is He?” Needless to say, the Inquisition’s response is brutal.

By Fire, By Water’ makes for compulsive reading with its lucid prose and strong characters, in a narrative where the research never overpowers the story.

Thanks to Mitchell James Kaplan for sending Bookblah a review copy of his book.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Emma Freke.. as is everybody!

I, Emma Freke

Elizabeth Atkinson

Carolhoda Books

The best coming of age stories are often about great voyages and life-changing encounters, yet are really about internal journeys – about children making that first, significant step towards maturity, and away from the fears that have curbed them. ‘I, Emma Freke’ is about one such journey, and a girl’s struggle to find her place in the world.Released early last month, the book has already won a Moonbeam Children's Book award.

Emma Freke is smarter than anyone she knows. Right from the opening chapters of this story about a child’s quest for family and a sense of belonging, where she bemusedly endures a school counsellor’s ham - handed attempts to boost her ‘socialization skills’, we know she is different – knowing, self aware, and possessed of both the smarts and a wry sense of humour. And yet, she finds herself defined, and utterly trapped, by the connotations of her name.

For Emma would like nothing better than to be shorter, dumber and invisible. At twelve she is, by her own admission, the “..tallest, palest and saddest girl in all of Homeport.” Often mistaken for an adult, saddled with her awkward moniker, - “My mother forgot to say it out loud when I was born”, she explains to everyone who says ‘Am a freak’ for the first time - her alarmingly red hair and mortifyingly great height (“like a target visible from space”, she rues), school is an ordeal of sniggering classmates and insensitive teachers.

Sadly, home isn’t much better - a father she has never met but whose unfortunate name she is stuck with, a cranky grandfather she often has to look after, and a flighty irresponsible mother who will think nothing of passing her daughter off as an employee in order to hang on to a younger boyfriend. Worse, her best – and only – friend Penelope possesses everything she lacks – two doting mothers, a lovely house, irresistible charm and unwavering optimism. Is it any wonder that she desperately hopes she is adopted? But though her mother manages to shatter that one illusion as well, she does give Emma something else instead – a chance to meet the Frekes, her father’s side of the family.

What follows is an account, by parts sad and funny, of Emma’s discovery of herself among the Frekes . Surrounded for the first time in her life by people as tall , red headed and obsessive about order as she is, befriended and admired at last by girls her own age , Emma finally feels she belongs . Yet all is not well with the Frekes ; not only do they shy away from the family name (Frecky, they insist. Rhymes with Becky.) and cower before the family matriarch, they seem to dislike their own freaks too – short, dark haired and very irreverent Fred Freke. It will take a twelve year old’s wisdom and spirited stand in defence of a fellow freak for the Frekes to begin acting like a family, and for Emma to realize the worth of her own.

Atkinson keeps it real, and writes from the heart – reading this book, I was drawn right into Emma’s sad and lonely world, feeling all of her pain and heartache with her. Who, after all, has not felt this keen sense of isolation at some time or other in their youth? Emma’s is also a world sorely lacking reliable adults, save for the friendly neighbourhood librarian or Penelope’s mothers (a very matter of fact inclusion of an unconventional marriage in this story about embracing diversity, that had me nodding in approval as I read); yet, Atkinson’s crafting of these fumbling, fallible and very believable grown ups makes them difficult to dislike, be it Emma’s mom with her fetish for all things New Age, her elusive father or the domineering Aunt Pat. By the end, as Emma finally makes her way home and gracefully embraces her life (and name) for what it is – unconditionally her own, and defined not by other people and their ideas, but her own altered vision of herself - you realize that this simple action has changed their lives as much as her own.

Heart warming, self affirming, funny – a book for the freak in each one of us.

Thanks to Skye Wentworth sending me a copy of the book to review.

Crossposted here.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Things unsaid

Little Pieces – This Side of Japan

Michael Hoffman

Virtual Bookroom Publishing

This book has been a challenge to read and review. The stories it contains are rather like the dragonflies that appear in one of them – seemingly simple and light, yet elusive to the hand seeking to pin down and label them. If the art of a good short story lies less in the words it is made of than in the negative spaces between those words , then author Michael Hoffman is clearly an artist of considerable skill.

In these six spare stories set in contemporary Japan, Hoffman’s characters struggle with alienation, the claustrophobic binds of family and lack of direction. In stories like ‘The Miracle’ and ‘The Concussion’, both largely feverish monologues, we are led into the complex interior lives of their troubled protagonists as they grapple with their demons. Ambivalence is a dominant theme in these stories, as is a distinct preoccupation with violent death; characters either dream about bloody rampages, obsess over news reports of murders, contemplate (but step away from) suicide, or succumb to violence either as perpetrator or victim. The repetitive appearances of these little scenes through the book are one of the few things that rankle about this otherwise well written book. If these do not deter the reader, it is only because Hoffman’s gentle yet incisive eye ensures that these are neither dark stories nor repulsive characters.

First Snow’, which sets the tone and pace of this book, is a description of an encounter between a directionless, unemployed man and the woman who was once his babysitter. The evening progresses from reminiscence to confession; he dreams of escape, she seeks redemption for a past indiscretion. The falling snow seems to symbolize the freedom of unburdening for her; he realizes he needs to look inward for the answers he seeks. ‘It’s only when I open my eyes that I feel cold…” he thinks, poised on the threshold between his old life and the unknown new.

Dragonflies’ , the longest story in this collection, cunningly reveals layers of ideas as it alternates between the lives of Hiranuma and Sawamoto, both middle aged men who have been friends since childhood. One, a writer of some renown, struggles to write an essay on a revered peer, even as he puzzles over his wife Shizuko’s agitation over her music teacher’s seeming dalliance with a young girl. Her real reasons for her anger soon become evident, leaving him startled and hurt, yet also making him realize some important things about his own life. The other, Sawamoto, a philandering college professor and self confessed “bad man”, faced with losing his job to a more dynamic colleague, drunkenly ponders suicide and rues the pointlessness of love, only to go home and be surprised by its presence in his life. Running parallel to this story is a tale about a painting so aggrandized that it invariably disappoints the people who flock to view it. What this painting symbolizes – love, good reputation, Shizuko or even Sawamoto himself – is left entirely to our interpretation. So also the miracle in the story of that name, which could be any one of a number of things – the calm self assurance of Emi’s new friend; the hope he suggests for her future; the fact that, despite their darkest fears, neither Emi nor her mother is murdered by the end of the story. Or is it the metamorphosis of Emi’s mother from tormenter to protector?

My favourite story in the book – ‘Sonoko’ – is about a woman who escapes her colleagues, her overbearing mother and an ardent suitor, for the solitude of a hotel room, a book and conversations with her deceased father . ‘Sipping scalding tea with my eyes closed …. That is the greatest happiness we humans can know on earth,” she thinks, as she too, like Tamaki in First Snow’, turns inward for solace. Sonoko is, in direct contrast to Hoffman’s other female characters, at peace with herself and her devoted study of 12th century Japanese literature. Perhaps this peace is a result of her dying father’s last words to her, claiming to be an alien from another world . For she lives two lives, as he too claims to have done,switching periodically from ‘‘..modern, single, financially independent woman..’ to herself. Solitude is her true love - her Genji - for which she calmly chooses to embrace death (you guessed it, a violent one) through one last, socially appropriate gesture.

Crises of faith seem to be a strong subtext in atleast four of these stories. Nearly all of Hoffman’s central characters are Christian ( a curious fact given that Japan is predominantly Shinto). Emi in ‘The Miracle’ constantly dialogues with her God, as she struggles to keep her fragile hold on her sanity ; Stephen in ‘The Concussion’ turns away from Christ in a gesture of rebellion against his gentle missionary parents. Elsewhere characters debate God’s presence, cling to their pastors, obsess over death – clearly faith, in Hoffman’s Japan, is as much a source of distress as comfort. Even when a character isn't overtly Christian, Hoffman seems unable to keep him free of religious symbolism - Tamaki in 'First Snow' dreams of moving to India, 'a world of golden temples gleaming under a searing sun'; Sawamoto quips about travelling to India to bathe in the Ganges, an act typically associated with spiritual cleansing.

Hoffman also enjoys teasing his readers along. ‘The Concussion’ seems to doff its hat at Kafka with its opening lines – an elderly character awaiting trial for a crime he is unaware of – then follows in the wake of his reminiscences as he traces the path of his violent life – and his rage - back to a single childhood incident. Bit by bit, you realize that his prison and his captor exist entirely in his mind and what he really seeks is forgiveness for an entirely different crime. I also enjoyed the structure of ‘Little Pieces’, the final story in the book, which swings seamlessly between four different voices, to tell us the strange and tragic story of Sayaka and Kenichi, before ending in a disturbing freeze frame right in the middle of a conversation about death.

Aside from the writer’s predilection with those twin themes, - Christianity and death by bludgeoning – elements that do not always justify their presence, ‘Little Pieces’ is an elegant and well observed examination of the human condition.