Saturday, August 23, 2014

Three New Reviews on Three Different Books

       I casually went into Amazon this morning and lo and behold!  I had three new reviews, all by the same person!  The Termite Queen got a 4 star, The War of the Stolen Mother a 5 star, and Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder a 2 star (more on that presently).
       Here is the review of The Termite Queen (it's posted on v.1, but it covers both volumes (the bold type is mine):
       "The two volumes here comprise a classic first-contact scifi story, and opposites attract romance, and a court intrigue "historical novel". At least. And they all flow together smoothly into a satisfying whole. The scifi part has the usual unexplainable "science" bits, but they are used judiciously as vehicle, not hinges for the whole plot. The real science -- of Linguistics, mainly, is accurate within its limits and well presented. The romance is credible and the intrigue is made new again by being adapted to structure of termite society and the realities of termite physiology (about which we learn a good deal as well). The only complaints I have are to the assumed panspermia (or whatever puts all discovered life forms on the terran tree) and the needless complex (from a linguistic point of view, not from a scifi novelist's) phonology of the termites."
       This reviewer really likes The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head series (which I consider to be the best thing I've written):
       "This and the next volume are novel retellings of best of epic myths. Transferring from demigods to termites refreshes the perennial motifs and tales, while the mix of elements and the lively characters bring out the nobility and low cunning, the humor and the pathos of these episodes. The hero is all that that title implies, his companions the appropriate mix, complete with internal tensions and hearty cameraderie. And the narrator is just the right mix of keen observer and fussy pedant. And the tale continues into the fourth and soon fifth volume! Hooray!"
        I'm also going to give you the 2-star review of Monster.  In fact, it's a good 2-star review - nothing insulting or nitpicking about it -- it's fair-minded and reasonable.  I concede that some people will react like this to Monster -- it will creep them out.  Yet others rave about the novella and give it 5 stars.  A matter of taste, I think.  Why don't you give it a try and form your own opinion?
       "This is a very disturbing tale. As an allegory is quite dark; as a scifi novella it is ultimately wrenching. It starts with a twisted premise (even for an allegory) and then moves inexorably to its devastating conclusion. I like all of Taylor's other works (as I have said elsewhere) but this one creeps me out. Only the fact that Taylor is a very good writer (which makes the effect here more affecting) keeps this from a one-star (or a 0, if that were possible)."

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Monday, August 4, 2014

The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende; an Analysis

Barrabás came to us by sea …

The preceding constitutes the first and the last line of this monumental novel.  Barrabás is a bizarre, gigantic, black dog who was found nearly dead among the possessions of Clara del Valle’s Uncle Marcos.  The little girl immediately adopted and named him, and he becomes the glue that holds the book together.  He never stops growing, it seems, and becomes as big as a colt.  On Clara’s wedding day, the cook stabs him to death with a kitchen knife.  He drags himself into the wedding celebration and dies with his head in Clara’s lap, staining her wedding dress with his blood (prefiguring horrors to come, perhaps?)  Afterwards, Esteban Trueba, Clara’s new husband, has the pelt tanned and turned into a rug, complete with head and glass eyes.  Finding this construction laid down in the nuptial chamber, Clara is horrified and consigns the grotesque gift to the cellar, where years later her daughter and granddaughter play on the rug and make love there.  At the end of the book, the aged Esteban and his granddaughter Alba bring up the rug and place it where it belongs, in the bedroom of Clara, thus completing the union and reconciliation of past, present, and future.
I’ve summarized this to emphasize the truly fantastic nature of this book, coupled with its objective brutality.  When I set out to discuss a book that is as famous as this one, I never read any reviews or critiques beforehand – I want the assessment to proceed from my own impressions.  And this book was not what I was expecting; it’s my first foray into magical realism and I was anticipating a whimsical tale, charming and perhaps a bit sentimental. 
Instead, I found a book that is massive, brutal, coarse, direct, and totally without sentimentality.  I have never read a less sentimental book.  Everything, even the most painful events, is presented in a detached style, as if seen from a distance.  There was not one moment when I was moved to weep for a character, even when the most dreadful things were happening to them.
It’s the story of three women – Clara, Blanca, and Alba – mother, daughter, and granddaughter.  It’s surely no coincidence that the three names mean “clear,” “white,” and “white.”  It’s also the story of Esteban Trueba, who fell in love with Rosa the Beautiful, Clara’s older sister.  Rosa, who has the green hair of a mermaid (Alba inherits the trait), dies when she ingests the poison meant for her father, a neophyte politician.  Later Esteban marries Clara, but he is hardly an ideal man or an ideal husband.  He is a landholder – a patrón – but he fails to grasp the fact that the peasants on his land are human beings.  He rapes every girl as she comes into puberty, and the offspring of the first of these comes back to almost destroy him and the only thing he loves in his later years.  Furthermore, his temper is as volatile as the volcanoes in the cordillera.  When his daughter gets pregnant by one of these peasants, he whips her, then sets out to kill her lover, in one of the most memorable scenes in the book.  And when he discusses Blanca’s pregnancy with his wife, she says to him:
“Pedro Tercero Garcia hasn’t done a thing you haven’t done yourself.  You also slept with unmarried women not of your own class.  The only difference is that he did it for love.  And so did Blanca.”
At that, he hits Clara in the face and knocks her teeth out.  After that, although she continues to live in the same house with her husband, she never speaks a word to him again.
Beneath the personal stories of the main characters runs the political situation in Chile.  The story spans a period from early in the 20th century through the 1970s coup that killed Marxist President Salvador Allende and its aftermath of repression under the military and Pinochet.  In fact, however, these actual historical characters are not mentioned by name; Allende is simply “the President” and Pablo Neruda is referred to only as “the Poet.”  Furthermore, the name “Chile” is never uttered, or the name of any city in the country.  At one point the country is referred to as “this half-forgotten country at the end of the earth.”  All this adds to the fantasy feeling; this could indeed be a constructed world – an imaginary country devised by a fantasy author – a strip of land between impassable mountains and a vast sea, which stands alone and is unconnected to reality.  People may leave and go to other countries, which are indeed named, but whatever and whoever remain in this fantasy world is not governed by the same laws as the rest of the Earth.  Sometimes in a fantasy world, the fantastic things that happen illustrate reality better than reality illustrates reality. 
The paranormal powers of the women is one aspect of fantasy in the book.  Clara in particular is not only clairvoyant – she also has powers of levitation and she can summon spirits, and after her death she remains a presence in the house, appearing frequently to members of her family.  Esteban Trueba’s sister Férula is the most tragic of the characters; she sacrificed her youth to take care of their disabled mother, and after the mother’s death, she comes to live with her brother and Clara and help run the household.  She falls in lesbian love with Clara, which rouses Esteban’s jealousy.  He throws Férula out of the house, whereupon she curses Esteban (a curse that comes only too true).  One day she enters the house, approaches the family at the dining table, and kisses Clara.  When she leaves, Clara announces, “Férula has died.”  They discover later that she died in poverty and dementia, having refused to spend the money her brother has supplied to her.  Indeed, Esteban Trueba’s principal attitude to the women in his life is that as long as he supports them monetarily, it doesn’t matter how he treats them.  Later, he comes to realize that this attitude isn’t enough, but by then it’s too late.
Another aspect of fantasy is the theme of the prevalence of monsters in that world.  It all starts with Barrabás – that hulking dog of unknown breed.  One can’t imagine Barrabás as a fluffy little lap dog.  Blanca (who becomes a potter) makes Christmas crèches that include monster animals.  And the land itself is a monster, ready to consume its parasitic population at any time through the action of earthquake and tidal wave.
I have to say, one of my favorite fantasy passages is the way the old peasant Pedro Garcia rids the land of a plague of army ants, after the experts have failed in every attempt to destroy them.  He does it by talking to them.  “Tell them to go, that they are a nuisance here.  They understand.”
I noted two stylistic elements utilized in the book.  The first is foreshadowing.  Here is only one of many possible examples: (Re Blanca’s first meeting with Pedro Tercero when they are both small children): “When they found them, the little boy was on his back on the floor and Blanca was curled up with her head on the belly of her new friend.  Many years later, they would be found in the same position, and a whole lifetime would not be long enough for their atonement.”
The other stylistic element is the use of long descriptive lists, which add to the richness of the world being presented.  Indeed, the book includes wonderful descriptive passages, some delicate, some brutal.  It’s difficult to choose examples from so many, so I’ll supply only three – one delicate, one grotesque, one horrific. 
The first describes the fourteen-year-old Blanca (daughter of Esteban and Clara) as she is becoming a woman.
“She took off her nightgown and, for the first time in her life looked at her body in detail, and as she did so, she realized that it was because of all these changes that her friend had run away.  She smiled a new, delicate smile, the smile of a woman.  She put on her old clothes from the preceding summer, which were almost too small, wrapped herself in a shawl, and tiptoed out so as not wake the rest of the family.  Outside, the fields were shaking off their sleep and the first rays of sunlight were cutting the peaks of the cordillera like the thrusts of a saber, warming up the earth and evaporating the dew into a fine white foam that blurred the edges of things and turned the landscape into an enchanted dream.  Blanca set off in the direction of the river.  Everything was still quiet.  Her footsteps crushed the fallen leaves and the dry branches, producing a light crunching sound, the only noise in that vast sleeping space.  She felt that the shaggy meadows, the golden wheatfields, and the far-off purple mountains disappearing in the clear morning sky were part of some ancient memory, something she had seen before exactly like this, as if she had already lived this moment in some previous life.  The delicate rain of the night had soaked the earth and trees, and her clothing felt slightly damp, her shoes cold.  She inhaled the perfume of the drenched earth, the rotten leaves, and the humus, which awakened an unknown pleasure in all her senses.”
Blanca is forced to marry a certain man to cover her illegitimate pregnancy, and this man traffics in Indian artifacts. 
“The only thing that truly distressed her were the mummies. … Inside its jar, shrunken into a fetal position, wrapped in tatters, and accompanied by its wretched necklaces of teeth and a handful of rag dolls, the mummy looked like the pit of some exotic fruit.” 
And finally, this speaks for itself:
“The child Esteban Garcia was by my side, staring at me silently.  He had picked up the sliced-off fingers and was holding them like a bouquet of bloody asparagus.”

This leads me to talk about the point of view.  This book is a prime example of alternating points of view.  Mostly it’s omnipotent third person narration, but occasionally an “I” crops up, and it isn’t always clear who is speaking.  In the very first paragraph of the book, we have this, speaking of Clara’s diaries: “She also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that fifty years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome terrors of my own [foreshadowing again.]”  We don’t learn who this “I” is – who is writing the book – until the epilogue.  But there are also lengthy passages in the first person and this is always the voice of Esteban Trueba, as in the asparagus allusion above.  In the epilogue, the explanation for this is stated.  “I began to write with the help of my grandfather [yes, it’s Alba who was the “I” on the first page]. … In his own hand he wrote a number of pages … ”  So this explains the change of voice.  It’s actually quite effective, even though I was under the mistaken notion that when a stray “I” turns up from time to time, it's always Esteban.  It’s effective because some of the most intense passages proceed directly from Esteban’s violent reactions and emotions, while the bulk of the book remains in the detached style I mentioned earlier.
The House of the Spirits was not difficult to read – the style is limpid and clear – but it wasn’t what I would call a “fun read,” either.  I noted in some of the excerpts from reviews at the beginning of the book, remarks were made about the book’s humor.  I find it to be a very black variety of humor.  For example, when Clara’s parents are killed in an auto accident, her mother’s head gets cut off and nobody can find it.  Clara goes out searching for it and finds it in the bushes.  The body is already buried, so she brings the head home and they keep it in the basement, along with the Barrabás rug, for years.  This may be called humor, but it’s not funny; I would designate it dark grotesquerie.
The House of the Spirits is fascinating, compelling, overwhelming, and unforgettable – certainly something I’m happy to have read.  I’ll probably try my hand at more magic realism in the future, but not immediately!  I need something lighter first!
One final thought:  the author begins the book with an epigraph, a brief poem by Pablo Neruda.  It really does characterize the theme of this great story – that the same stories are lived over and over again and thus no one ever really dies.
How much does a man live, after all?
Does he live a thousand days, or one only?
For a week, or for several centuries?
How long does a man spend dying?
What does it mean to say “for ever”?