Judging from David Bowie’s list of favourite books, I suspect he was not only a voracious reader but also very interested in issues of social justice and equality. After James Baldwin in February, April’s book club choice was Orwell’s seminal study of poverty Down and Out in Paris and London. A reread for me and one that I very much enjoyed. And yet another reason to love David Bowie.
Unlike more recent works in this area (very much worth reading too: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America or Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work: Life in Low PayBritain), this is not a journalist going undercover to research poverty, but an actual memoir of a certain period in Orwell’s life, so more similar to Linda Turado’s memoir Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.
Working as a dishwasher in the Parisian kitchens (the lowest of the low in the hospitality industry hierarchy) to pay his rent, often going hungry, Orwell not only shares his personal story, but also the stories, hopes and disappointments of the people he meets along the way. This compassion and empathy for others shines through in his work, even when we flinch at some of the anti-semitic terms he uses. However, reading more carefully, this appears to reflect the common attitude at the time (he quotes others making these statements, for instance the joke about ‘Trust a snake before you trust a Jew. Trust a Jew before you trust a Greek. And trust any of those before you trust an Armenian’). Perhaps he is presenting these statements as so much rope for those speaking to hang themselves with. Or perhaps it’s just wishful thinking and he was a child of his time, although far more progressive than most.
In the second part of the book, he is living in homeless shelters in London and speaking to tramps, who had previously been misrepresented in literature. Orwell doesn’t make them stock figures of fun or sentimentalise them (the tramp with the heart of gold), like Dickens is prone to do. He does not see himself as superior or more deserving in any way. He gives them dignity and respect by listening to them and by telling their stories, in clear and fresh language that doesn’t sound at all as if it were written nearly 80 years ago.
The comparisons between squalor in Paris and in London are interesting as well: there are similarities but also differences. There are jobs in Paris, but they are exploitative ones with long hours, while in London it seemed easier to end up on the street. The poor were mainly foreign-born in Paris, while the London ones were natives. Of course, that was all about to change.
It is tempting to wonder what Orwell would have written if he had been living today. And to wonder why we don’t have many journalists writing today, willing to listen, understand, write in depth. Or is it that we don’t have people willing to listen and read?
One way of dealing with traumatic historical events is by using satire or black humour. The Romanians have an expression for it ‘faci haz de necaz’ – making fun of misery/trouble. Coincidentally, two of the books I read recently for two very different projects #EU27Project and #DavidBowieBookClub, both deal with painful subjects in recent history, but they have very different approaches.
Dan Lungu: Sint o baba comunista! (I’m an Old Communist Biddy)
The collapse of the Berlin wall and the so-called Second World (that uncomfortable compromise between developed First and undeveloped Third World) was accompanied by a near total erasure of Eastern Europe with all that it stood for. It was not just a political system that collapsed but a whole way of life, culture, set of values, and they were replaced virtually overnight by something that wasn’t necessarily always better. Furthermore, things that were flawed but nevertheless precious to this generation were now openly derided, everything they ever built or contributed was sometimes brutally torn apart. So many of them felt that their whole lives had been wasted – a painful realisation.
I have heard this complaint from many of my elderly relatives, and this is described very realistically by Dan Lungu in this book. Ten years after the fall of Communism in Romania, Emilia is an old-age pensioner, who now has to deal with the fact that the world she has known all her life and learnt to live in (with all its imperfections) has gone forever. Her daughter Alice is now settled in Canada, married to a Canadian, and phones to ask her how she is planning to vote. This simple telephone conversation (repeated many, many times over in all of Romania in the late 1990s, early 2000s) represents the perennial struggle between generations – the nostalgia for a past that never quite existed in the way we fondly remember it now vs. the more forward-looking, able to cope with uncertainty and complexity attitude of the younger generation. It triggers some soul-searching in Emilia, as she remembers fragments of her past. Her life had been relatively sheltered: she was working in metallurgy, producing special orders for export, so had access to money and goods, compared to others. For her the fall of Communism has spelled nothing but disillusion and disaster.
‘Don’t you remember the massive queues, going all the way round the corner?’
‘OK, there were queues, but now when you go into a shop, you admire the cutlets, swallow hard and head back out, ‘cos you can’t afford them…I see families starving on TV, with children sleeping on the streets… You wouldn’t see that kind of stuff under Communism.
‘That will change. It takes time – we’re in transition right now, but I’m optimistic.’
‘Of course you’re optimistic when you’re living in Canada or France or America… You just come and live here for a while. You’ll get optimism then with spots on!’
‘What about freedom, Mum? That’s got to be worth something. We were frightened of our own shadows back then. Now you can say whatever you please, write what you want, travel where you like, shout “Down with the government!”‘
‘Travel? Sure, it’s the newly rich who do that, stealing from the things we built. And shouting, of course we can shout till we’re hoarse, no one’s listening anyway.’
There are many funny moments and culture clashes in this story (receiving the Canadian son-in-law in their house is one such classic moment), but it is the kind of ‘sad-funny’ situation that has no resolution. The ending feels a bit rushed – Emilia is questioning her memories of happy life under Communism, or at least understanding that not everyone was equally happy, but there is no real growth or change or resolution. However, it’s a touching portrayal of the dilemma many people were facing at the time (and subsequent corrupt governments have not necessarily made things better.) I’m both happy and sad that it has been translated into English, as I think I would have been the ideal candidate to translate this – I would certainly have loved to do it!
Spike Milligan: Puckoon
As you might expect with Spike Milligan, this is more of a farce than a sad/funny type of satire. It has a very cinematic quality – the detailed descriptions of each character and situation would lend themselves to a madcap TV series, although perhaps some of the (often quite pointless but hilarious) back stories would get lost.
Puckoon is a village in Ireland north east of Sligo. At the time of the partition of Ireland it is accidentally cut in two by the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This leads to ridiculous situations such as having a funeral procession pass through customs to cross the border which lies between the church and the graveyard.
‘What have you got in the coffin?’
‘You must be joking,’ said the priest, his face going purple with anger…
‘I’m not joking, sir, I am merely doing my duty.’
‘Very well. Inside the coffin is the body of 98-year-old Dan Doonan. Now let us pass!’
‘Not quite finished yet, sir. You intend to bury an Irish citizen in what is now British territory?… I presume the deceased will be staying this side permanently?… Then he will require the following: an Irish passport stamped with a visa, to be renewed annually with a visa for the rest of his – ‘ Barrington almost said ‘life’ – ‘stay,’ he concluded.
While the absurdity of government bureaucracy is really well presented in the excerpt quoted, in other instances the satire is less successful. My objection is perhaps influenced by the fact that the eccentric villagers are so ridiculous and larger than life, that it reinforces stereotypes about the Irish: permanently drunk, garrulous, easy to anger, doing things the wrong way round.
The other thing which made me uncomfortable was that, although the book was published in 1963, so before the Troubles proper started in Ireland, the farcical way in which it handles the rather traumatic subject of national identity and sense of belonging would have made it almost unbearable to read during the period that followed, when violence became so common-place both in Northern Ireland and in England. At heart I suppose I agree with Milligan that nationalism and religious fanaticism is ripe for satire, but I missed the undercurrent of sadness that would turn this into a moral lesson.
The book was adapted for a feature film in 2002, so after the Good Friday agreement, when people could laugh once more about the border. I wonder if it will become once more an unbearable topic in future…
I can’t wait for the tender shoots of March to nudge their way out of the snow – my reading buds are certainly coming along nicely and getting me very excited this month!
I have somehow found myself with a number of reading challenges – or opportunities (because I find them a great deal of fun), plus quite a few books to review. More than enough to keep me busy this month. In fact, I am somewhat envious of Bookish Beck’s formidable shelf organising skills and am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I may need a better TBR filing system than an overflowing armchair or night-table.
Asymptote Book Club:
Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken
I read her first book to be translated into English The Blue Room published by Pereine, Love is the story of a single mother, Vibeke, and her son Jon, who have just moved to a remote small town in the north of Norway. It’s the day before Jon’s birthday, but with concerns of her own, Vibeke has forgotten this. With a man on her mind, she ventures to the local library while Jon goes out to sell lottery tickets for his sports club. As a newly single mother (albeit uninterested in new men), this one may hit me hard, but I’m prepared…
David Bowie Book Club
Spike Milligan: Puckoon
Very topical indeed – a comic novel about set in 1924, it details the troubles brought to the fictional Irish village of Puckoon by the Partition of Ireland. Because of government indecision and incompetence (wow, is that possible?) the new border passes directly through the middle of the village. I’ve managed to find a copy of this in the reserve fiction section (i.e. buried in the basement) of my local library and I hear there’s a film as well.
Muriel Spark #readingMuriel2018
I still have to review Symposium for Ali’s Reading Muriel initiative , but also planning to read The Comforters – her first novel but already showing a very unusual mind at work. The heroine, Caroline Rose, is plagued by a Typing Ghost and realises she is a character in a novel.
Enough shilly-shallying with this one, I need to get cracking and have also got some non-fiction and poetry planned for a change.
Dubravka Ugresic: Europe in Sepia
Tangerine Sky: Poems from Malta
Dan Lungu: Sînt o babă comunistă! (I’m an Old Communist Biddy) – a Romanian satirical book, which has also been adapted for a play and a film, in which the author tackles all that inertia and nostalgia for everyday Communism which some of the older generation inexplicably have (or perhaps not that inexplicable after all)
Stuart Turton: The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (71/2 in the US) – Golden crime meets the film Memento, in a complicated, brain-melting story about trying to prevent a murder and living with guilt.
Death Notice by Zhou Haohui – Chinese crime fiction written, unusually, by a contemporary thriller writer residing in China. Set in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province, this promises to be a gritty series, which has also been turned into a very popular TV crime drama.
Victor del Arbol: A Million Drops – an ambitious political thriller dissecting the heritage of Communism and Fascism in Spain, and how the past still impacts the present
Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji, transl. Dennis Washburn – having a quick read through to compare and contrast different translations of one of my favourite books for an essay to appear in Asymptote
Still reading from February:
The Welsh book The Caves of Alienation by Stuart Evans
Tom Hanks: Uncommon Type – a short story collection, and although Hanks is actually quite good with words, the stories themselves are slight slices of life, tolerably amusing, but leaving me with a yawnish ‘so what?’ Probably will not finish or try again later.