I read some unforgettable books in the last few months, here are some of them.
My favourite one was The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Virago, 2009), an incredible six-hundred page engrossing story about two sisters, Iris and Laura Chase. In the background the period between the two wars and after WW II. Different plots interweave making the book very gripping. For example the world of Sakiel-Norn in another dimension of space, it is an extreme vision of our reality where wealthy ruthless people rule and poor semi-slave children, who are doomed to all kinds of exploitation and abuse. A tale told by a mysterious lover to entertain his mysterious mistress after making love in grimy bedsits. The story of the Chases is paramount in this book, we know since the beginning that Laura has a fatal car accident, probably a suicide, and that Iris’ husband and Iris’ daughter are dead as well, but nothing is spoiled. The magic is that we don’t realize almost till the end if everything is happening by chance or if there’s someone leading. It’s like a detective story. The blind assassin is revealed only at the end, it’s unexpected, a cunning, though emotional and passionate character, capable of profound love and terrible vendetta. Vindication seems the major theme of the book, a constant effort to state the right version of the story, to convey a truth that is also a revenge for the wrong doings of others.
Despicable people die as well as innocent ones, only the smartest survive, lonely and forlon. A bitter conclusion where competition and constant retaliation obscure all other feelings or affections. The two women, Iris and Laura, personify the typical dichotomy of ‘sense and sensibility’, the rational and self-controlled Iris and the sensitive fragile Laura, with almost autistic traits I daresay. Well known women’s characters found in the literature of Jane Austin to Shakespeare, Alessandro Manzoni and Goethe. Literary stereotypes renewed by the great Canadian writer who gives them a more extreme and ambiguous twist.
I came to this fantastic book after reading an article by Margaret Atwood herself on the Guardian Book Club, Review section of the Saturday Guardian. The author explains how she conceived the plot and the protagonist Iris (a ‘somewhat fearsome person’, she says). She wished to write about the time of her grandmother and of her mother, the time of the first and the second world war when a lot of Canadian men were killed, then the time of the great depression that caused the failure of so many enterprises and also the flourishing of science fiction, which explored social structures in such a critical time. She also inserted real events like the 1934 Communist rally in Maple Leaf garden, the volunteers to the Spanish Civil war and the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary.
The Art of Falling by Kim Moore (Seren, 2015) is a enthralling poetry collection. The pounding tempo of her poems resound in the reader’s mind like an ancient ritual, repetitions that recall archetypical rhythms. They are about her people ‘who swear without realizing they are swearing’, her father, a scaffolder, her own work, teaching the trumpet. The sequence How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping is a powerful evocation of an abusive relationship lived in symbiosis with the abuser. The pain of it is touchable as well as the compassion. The memories are revisited in an attempt to heal and maybe understand what had happened without the presumption to give a reason for the unreasonable. It’s an experience which is there, testifies how certain people can be, without judging, in spite of the anguish and sorrow. This shapes us as love does, as education and books do, making us wiser and warier.
The last section of the collection is about poems written for different occasions, witty meditations like the wonderful In Another Life. The image of wolves is a leitmotif since the first poem. It may suggest a wild side, a primitive instinct that links the poet to nature, to a truer self, or simply expresses a part of us, we can be wolves a well. A superb collection, clever, entertaining and profound.
Another book recently published by Seren that I have just read is Terroir by Graham Mort, perfectly crafted short stories stretching from southern France to the north of England, from Africa to South America. Behind every story there is a careful research on themes and language, as in the first one, Terroir, about the long process of making quality high priced wine. This creates a perfect setting and lets the reader dive completely in the atmosphere of the story. The characters are totally believable, so well built we are completely dragged by them. Most of the stories are narrated in the third person using interior monologue rather than dialogues, the style builds up the character adapting to his or her voice, speaking love or frustration with a typical intonation that can’t be mixed with anyone else’s. Each story is a world of its own, perfectly constructed with an overwhelming sense of tenderness the reader unexpectedly perceives. It must be the love for life and people, all different from one another but all important, that inevitably all the stories of this book convey. Nothing major or heroic, just ordinary lives, everyday events made unique by skilful writing and great sensibility.
I also read two Italian books I had on my reading list for a while.
I Sommersi e i Salvati (The drowned and the saved) by Primo Levi is a meditation on the major themes arisen from his first book, Se questo e` un uomo (If this is a man), talking about his experience as a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz. The author meaningfully quotes S.T. Coleridge, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, at the beginning of the book: ‘Since then, at an uncertain hour,/That agony returns:/And till my ghastly tale is told/This heart within me burns.’ The extreme experience of his life at Auschwitz comes back again and again like an obsessive nightmare and needs to be retold in different ways, looked at from different angles, in a vain, but understandable, attempt to find a rational reason to the unreasonable, the totally absurd cruelties men inflicted on men. The book is an existential meditation that brings Levi back to the hell of concentration camps. He compares his memories to the writings of other authors with a similar experience like Jean Améry, an Austrian philosopher. Levi explores the way the inmates made up imaginary reasons or invented news of an imminent liberation to face the cruelty of selections for Gas Chambers or their everyday unbearable life. He recalls the Prominenten, the prisoners who collaborated with the SS and did the dirty jobs in the camp; he locates them in a ‘grey area’ where the dichotomy friend-foe or good-bad is totally abolished. In the Lager the enemy is everywhere, inside and outside, he says. Sadistic and frustrated people wanted to be Prominenten to obtain privileges (typically less work and more food) and humiliate the other inmates till total submission and annihilation. Nevertheless most of the Prominenten were doomed like all the others, their privileges couldn’t save them for long because of the radical plan of the SS, that is to exterminate all the Jews. Another important point is shame, mainly the shame the survivors felt once liberated. It had different reasons, the shame of humiliation, the shame for the rebellion failing against the SS and against the several injustices of the camp, the shame for the loss of human dignity, the shame for being alive while most died. In some cases this led to suicide after the liberation. Other topics are the problem of communication and the apparently useless violence the prisoners had to undergo. But the victim needs to be humiliated before being killed so the killer can’t be blamed/feel the blame. The final chapter is dedicated to letters from German people who read Se questo e` un uomo. It’s impressive how much time Primo Levi dedicated to this exchange of letters sometimes lasting for years. The aim is the same of the book: an attempt to understand why such horror happened. Did German people have an answer? They didn’t, there can’t be a logic in such cruelties.
The other Italian book I read was Va` dove ti porta il cuore (Follow your heart) by Susanna Tamaro, a very popular book by a successful writer. I could link it to The Blind Assassin as also the protagonist of Tamaro’s book is a rich elderly lady writing her memories for her granddaughter. And she has a twisted personality, like Iris (though not as twisted), and causes her daughter’s car accident (as Iris caused her sister’s one) with her final disclosure. The aim of writing her memories is similar as well, that is to explain and justify her deeds and regain the granddaughter affection, at least after death. To simplify we can say that the protagonist of Va` dove ti porta il cuore is a softer version of Iris, she is her Mediterranean sister. The Blind Assassin was first published in 2009 and Va` dove ti porta il cuore in 2000. I don’t think the authors made a conscious link between the two stories, they just happen to be similar and I just happened to read them one after the other. For example in the Italian book there is no vendetta (which seems strange as it is such an Italian stereotype!), on the contrary the tone is calm, there’s no retaliation or anger behind the protagonist’s actions. There’s less glamour, less money and elegant outfits, and less ambition compared to the Canadian story. Lack of love and affection is the major theme of the Italian book and it is the trigger that leads the protagonist to cheat on the neglectful and distracted husband but eventually she neglects her own daughter she so much wanted, just because she becomes depressed after the sudden death of her lover. The positive key and conclusion of the book is that we need to accept who we are at the end, and, as the title says, follow our heart. A beautiful book.