Last year we had a magical holiday in Romania. This year the holidays were much shorter, we stayed mainly in Bucharest and I didn’t expect any magic (and, indeed, none was forthcoming).
My parents are getting old and frail, so they wanted to talk mainly about what to do in case of ill health, emergencies or if one of them should die. I also tend to forget just how difficult it is to live in the same house as my mother until I am confronted with it on a daily basis. Last but not least, Bucharest is as chaotic, busy and polluted as most capital cities, plus a generous extra portion! So it was not the most restful of holidays.
However, there were some good bits, most of which I tweeted about while we were there.
I was discussing with my boys why Bucharest can feel like a shock to the system to those who live in other capital cities. It has all the traffic jams, lack of parking, crowded places, noise and building sites that we also associate with Paris and London. But, unlike those two cities, wealth and poverty jostle here more openly side by side. You can live in your protected bubble in the 6th and 7th Arrondissements in Paris, or in Chelsea and Hampstead in London, without ever coming across the less salubrious examples of daily life. That is simply not possible in Bucharest. You come out of the most extravagant restaurant and end up in a back street with crumbling old buildings. You drive your fancy Lamborghini through terrible potholes. On public transport you see fine ladies with expensive haircuts and camelhair coats as well as bow-legged peasant women with knotted scarves covering their hair – and both of them might be making the sign of the cross whenever the tram passes by a church.
If you are a foreign tourist with a bit of money, you can have a great time in Bucharest. For me, it will always be a city where pain and joy, anger and nostalgia blend. I can never ignore the dirt or inequality or those who have been left behind. I cannot unsee the price of foreign investment: people of my generation and younger who are being eaten alive by the Western corporations, a form of indentured labour for the present-day. The city will never be relaxing because there are too many threads binding me to it and never enough time to meet and greet all the people that I want to see – or that my family feel that I should see.
If you know the Cavafy poem ‘The City’, you will understand how I feel about this fascinating, infuriating, sleazy, beautiful, ugly city.
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighbourhoods, tunr grey in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
(transl. Keeley and Sherrard)
My dream of trawling through bookshops and cafés remained just that: a dream. Nevertheless, I did experience two nice restaurants while meeting up with people and one café for breakfast. I only entered three bookshops (two of them quite small), but somehow managed to return with a massive pile of books. More about that in my next post!
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?
Memory is an albino black woman, the only woman on death row in the maximum security prison in Zimbabwe. She writes the story of her life, her childhood with her birth parents in a poor township, the way she was shunned by others because of her appearance and over-sensitive, sunburnt skin. She remembers with shame and hostility that her parents sold her to a white man called Lloyd Hendricks, who raised her like a foster daughter and paid for her education. Yet it is her foster father whom she is accused of killing, so we follow with a sense of foreboding the events leading up to that fateful day, as they are gradually revealed to us. Is Memory the most reliable narrator, though, or is memory itself a malleable substance that we can change and reinterpret as it suits us?
Petina Gappah’s debut novel is a richly evocative portrayal of full of a township childhood in Zimbabwe just before and after independence: the colours, the smells, the food, the voices and native languages (including untranslated Shona expressions that you have to guess from context), the gossip and superstitions.
Our house, all our houses, had rickety doors and thin, thin windows that shook as the doors were opened and closed, and shook even harder when my mother banged them. There was a small garden around our house; there we had a banana plant. Our neighbours had half-attempted orchards with mango trees and, occasionally, naartjies… MaiPrincess and her family … had a large avocado tree and wanted to keep each avocado to themselves, but we did not always give back the fruit that fell and rolled under the tarpauling covering my father’s wood and tools. We mashed up MaiPrincess’s avocadoes and spread them on bread.
The story moves between past and present, between childhood in the townships and then in an upscale white suburb of Harare, and life in Section D (for ‘Dangerous, for Deadly, for Death’) in Chikurubi Prison.
Prison life is sombre, of course, especially in a poor country, but there is much humour in the interaction between the women prisoners and their guards, the malapropisms of Verity the fraudster and prison guard Patience, the arguments and practice sessions for their appearance in court, their commentary about life as they see it.
The biggest surprise about prison is the laughter. There is laughter to go with sudden quarrels; there is malice and gossip along with acts of generosity… It is not possible to sustain one emotion for too long. It is too taxing on the mind to always be angry, or always sorrowful.
Here is Patience berating the inmates in English, for she is training to become a court interpreter:
‘Irregardless of the absence of water, you should make sure the hoarse pipes are connected. You must make sure your plates and bowels are clean.’ ‘You have the wrongful number,’ she screamed into her phone the other day, ‘I said this is the wrongful number!’
Despite these lighter-hearted moments, the story is predictably sad. The part of the book where Memory grows up, leaves the country to study and work abroad, and then returns to her foster father’s home was too sketchy for my liking, too short compared to the build-up preceding it. At 270 pages, the novel is not very long and the author could have taken her time to recreate Memory’s adulthood and return to Zimbabwe with as much care as she has done for the childhood and school years. Perhaps the author wanted to avoid making the novel too political. The outside world is perceived mostly through the eyes of the deliberately uninformed fellow prisoners. (Their newspapers are censored, with all the criminal and court news, the political sections and business news cut out). There is a brief mention of opposition parties and upcoming elections, and a bit more about forcible seizure of land from whites, but it’s the women’s irreverent reactions to politics and public policy which are most memorable.
There is a project funded by the European Union that is persuading women to give up prostitution in exchange for working together on a co-operative farm. The thought came to me that they should call it the ‘Hoes for Whores’ programme. I could not keep a straight face as Jimmy explained that she was only doing this as long as she has to report to the parole office. ‘As soon as they forget about me, I will stop. They are insane, these Europeans. Like I can’t get more money in thirty minutes on my back than a month on my feet.’
Memory herself is an enigmatic character, a blend of cultural influences, a mix of advanced education and narrow-minded prejudices, desperately unsure of her exact place in the world yet occasionally bordering on arrogance. Her apparent lack of remorse about Lloyd’s death did not greatly endear her to me, although I felt sorry about her ‘outcast’ status as a child.
I’ve seen the bubbly, exuberant Petina Gappah in action at the Morges Literary Festival in September, and this book is as unforgettable as its author. There is much poetry and richness here, as well as a keen sense of setting with rumblings of race and ostracism and a country undergoing tremendous change.
There may be a Friday Fun picture post later on today, but for the time being here is a book review. During the last few days of my business travels, I have been entranced and slightly horrified by the book I picked up in Montreal: Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals.
It tells the story of terrible events in the life of an imaginative but neglected twelve-year-old girl called Baby.
If I’d had parents who were adults, I probably would never have been called Baby… I loved how people got confused when Jules and I had to explain how it wasn’t just a nickname. It was an ironic name. It didn’t mean you were innocent at all. It meant you were cool and gorgeous. I was only a kid but I was looking forward to being a lady with that name.
Her father Jules is still in his twenties and a bit of a junkie, drifting from one hopeless money-making venture to another, one grotty hotel to another, in the red-light district of Montreal. Based on the examples of the adults around her (her hopeless father Jules, the pimp Alphonse, the drunks and drug dealers in the neighbourhood), Baby finds adulthood a boring, disgusting and often pitiful state of being that she is in no hurry to join, although circumstances seem to conspire to get her there too early.
The adult world was filled with perverts, so it hardly seemed like something worth preparing for.
This is really the story of successive betrayals, large and small, by all the people around her, how the social care system fails her, but also of the small stolen moments of joy and the fragile friendships that are still possible. It is also the best description of the deliberate targeting and love-bombing of vulnerable young girls by pimps and how children realise that it’s only adults who have any power. Baby remains upbeat for most of the book, no matter how many things the author throws at her. She is non-judgemental and without a trace of self-pity. She sees people around her turning tricks and dealing drugs, she makes friends with outsiders and losers, and she finally descends into a morass of drug-fuelled frenzy.
Sometimes the description can get a little overwrought and the piling on of bad things can get repetitive:
We were addicted to kissing each other. We would kiss in shock, as if we had two buckets of water dumped on our heads. We would kiss sadly, as if the dog was lost in the night, We would kiss like cockroaches headed for the cracks… We stood there like hens pecking grains off the ground…
On the whole, however, the author manages to navigate the tricky path of rendering the unsentimental, clear voice of a child, although there are some odd moments of knowingness (and a hint that this is the grown-up remembering the child’s feelings at the time). Perhaps the innocence and good intentions of Baby do sound a little contrived initially. There is also perhaps too much impenetrable detachment later on in the book. Yet readers will be able to relate to her desire to be loved and her growing feelings of powerlessness, her despair at not being able to rely on anyone, not even her guardian angel.
Initially an honours roll student, Baby ends up neglecting school and finds refuge from an off-kilter, cruel world in heroin. As such, it is perhaps a Canadian version of Trainspotting or Christiane F.
I never thought I would end up doing heroin. I don’t think I did it because of Jules. I think we both did it for the same reason, though: because we were both fools who were too fragile to be sad, and because no one was prepared to give us a good enough reason not to do it.
With its sensitive descriptions of the competitiveness but also solidarity of deprived children of all backgrounds, I was not surprised to find out that there are autobiographical elements to this story. The survival of children in a world of inadequate parenting is described by the author thus:
An unwanted child is a bogeyman to its relatives… but a hero on the streets. Being neglected, you have a lot of freedom to develop outlandish, eccentric personalities in order to get love.
Even if I only spent a few days in Montreal, it was rather nice to recognise some place names and be able to place the action. I seem to have been reading a number of books about what the Americans like to call ‘white trash’ – the poor (but not ethnically diverse) on the fringes of society – but not by American authors. French women authors seem to be particularly good at this, and I wonder if there is a mutual influence going on there with Québécois writers. This book reminded me of Sophie Divry, Virginie Despentes, Alice Quinn or Jeanne Desaubry, but Québécois writers such as Nelly Arcan and Gabrielle Roy have also presented stark, realistic portrayals of working-class lives.
You may think it’s shallow to judge books by the author pictures. Yes, it is, and, luckily for most authors (myself included), I don’t. Until I come across two women writers who seem to have talent, looks and youth all on their side. Furthermore, they each live about an hour’s drive away from me. Let’s hope that there’s something in the local water – to improve my talent too, as age and beauty are beyond repair…
Sophie Divry: Quand le diable sortit de la salle de bain (When the Devil Came Out of the Bathroom)
Sophie Divry has caught the imagination of the English-speaking reading public too, with a translation of her first book ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’. That was a charming story of a lovelorn librarian and her passion for books and the arts more generally.
This is her fourth novel, as yet untranslated in English, and the story seems to be more anchored in present-day reality. And a drab reality it is too: we hear of the trials and tribulations of an educated young jobseeker (also called Sophie) in Lyon, who is trying to write a book and make ends meet by doing little odd jobs which pay late, and then cause her unemployment benefit to be stopped temporarily. Meanwhile, she tries to make the right (i.e. filling) choices in the supermarket when all she has left is 17.70 euros, sends off job applications, fills in forms, goes to the jobcentre, sells off her toaster and her books, fends off cold callers and tries to reason with bureaucrats.
Of course, this being Divry, the realism is tempered with some surreal touches. Sophie has conversations with Lorchus, her personal demon and the devil of the title, who tries to encourage her to steal or become a drug dealer or attack someone to rob them.
You need to make a choice, my dear. You’re either on the side of the winners, always emerging victorious, or else on the side of bacteria, crying over every bill and moulding away a little every day. Rethink your values. Free yourself. Honesty, sharing, sobriety – that’s all chicken poop. Are you going to listen to your Mum all your life? [my translation]
Meanwhile, her large family in the south of France are less than helpful (not that she wants to confide in them about her troubles), nor is her friend Hector, who is obsessed with the pursuit of the unattainable Belinda. Nothing much happens really: we just follow Sophie’s daily life, her anxieties, her frequently very funny rants about contemporary French society and its failings.
There is a faint glimmer of Virginie Despentes in Divry, not just because of the similarities in subject matter. Divry has less realism and more of a touch of Russian fantasy (I was thinking of Bulgakov throughout). I liked the way the characters intervened, demanded to play a bigger part, how the devil draws provocative pictures in the book, how she tries to get her revenge on him and her friend Hector. There is a tongue-in-cheek postmodern satire here which is rather delightful.
However, I found the writing style annoying at times: too much of an essay or a personal rant. The long enumerations – of how her family talks, what they eat, the men she doesn’t like, the list of anxieties in the supermarket – can be an amusing device and very effective the first time it is used, but when it’s constantly repeated throughout the book, it becomes just a lazy technique. The end was very abrupt and unsatisfactory as well, and the bonus material at the end did nothing to remedy that. However, there was something about the mix of candid depiction of poverty and rampant imagination which did appeal to me. I will be reading more of this author (I still haven’t read her first book, and have heard good things about La condition pavillonaire), and I am sure she will get better and better.
Michelle Bailat-Jones: Fog Island Mountain
One writer who already seems at the height of her powers is Michelle. Disclosure moment here: I know Michelle personally, and that usually puts me in a bit of a quandary. Will I lose a friend if I don’t ‘love’ the book? How can I be honest about a book for other future readers without offending a friend by not giving them five stars? And if I gush, will people think I am biased and disregard my review?
Well, all I can say is that this debut novel made me cry. It did help that I was in Japan in a typhoon at the time – and the story is set in Japan just before and during a great storm. But it’s a moving and beautifully-written story no matter where or when you read it.
South African expat Alec has been living in a small town in the fog-shrouded mountains on the southernmost tip of Kyūshū for several decades. He is diagnosed with terminal cancer and this is in fact the story of how each member of his family – and he himself – cope with the news. Alec’s devoted Japanese wife Kanae is normally ‘a woman who keeps her promises’, but she has an unexpectedly visceral and panicked reaction to her husband’s illness. He ‘is going to leave her behind’, she repeats to herself, and her rage and denial make her run away and behave in uncharacteristic ways, which she later regrets. Some readers complain that Kanae is thoroughly selfish and unlikeable, but grief strikes each one of us in such extreme ways. Only people with no compassion or imagination can condemn her (even though I feel very sorry for Alec).
Then Alec sneaks out of the hospital and everyone fears the worst: that he has gone off to commit suicide. With a tropical storm ready to hit the island, Kanae and Alec mount a desperate search for each other, scanning their memories and searching out their favourite spots, all the places that have hidden meaning for them, always just narrowly missing each other. Along the way, they remember their great love, a love from which their children have sometimes felt excluded, and find the inner strength – individually and as a couple – to cope with the diagnosis and its inevitable outcome.
…he knows this frightened face of hers, the one she wore when her children got hurt, when Megumi announced she was pregnant and alone… and yes, he remembers this same face, too, for their period of courting when it would sneak into their more serious conversations, when it surprised them both in a moment of happiness, and he is nodding at her now, able to look at her again, because forever is such a terrifying thing, but they have already managed one forever and they have done just fine with it.
Readers who do not like the use of the present tense or long sentences, with many subordinate clauses, will struggle perhaps at the outset of this book. But if you treat it as a prose-poem and savour each skilfully constructed phrase, you have to admire how the length and rhythm of the sentence acts both as an accelerator and a brake at different times in the narrative. I was particularly attracted by the additional POV, the neutral observer if you like, who comments on the events with the ease and perspective of an ominiscient narrator (but in a less annoyingly knowing way). This is a neighbour, Kitauchi-san, who seems to have a special relationship with animals, rescuing trapped and wounded creatures in the wild. She has a symbiotic relationship with a fox, which brings to mind not only the ‘taming of the fox’ in The Little Prince but also the ‘kitsune’ or fox spirits of Japanese legends. In Japan foxes often take on female forms and prove themselves to be wise and faithful guardians of their chosen families, although there is also a more malevolent association with evil spirits too. This ambiguity of animal symbolism, together with the fog and menacing storm, serves the story well and creates the perfect backdrop for much emotional drama.
You may argue that the subject matter has been done before, but that’s not the point. It would be far too easy to resort to big emotional fanfare and melodrama with this kind of story, but the author manages to contain it all with the precision of Japanese painting or a tea ceremony, in which each restrained gesture stands in for so much more. Yet I defy anyone not to have tears in their eyes as they read that last scene in the book. I won’t quote from it, as it needs to be read in its entirety for the full effect to trickle through you. Just stunning!