Apeirogon

Rami’s thirteen-year old daughter, Smadar was blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber while out shopping with her friends, while Bassam’s ten year old daughter, Abir, was shot by an Israeli policeman while out buying candy with her friends near her school. From these two true stories, McCann has created a wonderful, hard-hitting yet tender novel, that seems to respect both traditions, cultures and religions.

Two men, Rami Elhanan, an Israeli and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, have both lost a young daughter to the violence of the conflict between the two Nations.

Rami’s thirteen-year old daughter, Smadar was blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber while out shopping with her friends, while Bassam’s ten year old daughter, Abir, was shot by an Israeli policeman while out buying candy with her friends near her school. From these two true stories, McCann has created a wonderful, hard-hitting yet tender novel, that seems to respect both traditions, cultures and religions. 

The two men join a fellowship for parents of who have lost children to the conflict.  They become friends.  They share their stories together.  They find that they understand each other on the deepest human level.  It is as if they choose to become brothers.

Each man rows against the current of public opinion on their side of the fence in order to embrace the truth on the other side of the fence.  In this way, instead of remaining small and insignificant cogs in a war machine, they become giants in the creation of peace and understanding.   

Yet Rami and Bassam are nothing without their wives, Nurit and Salwa.  Each woman develops a uniquely intimate understanding of her husband.  The solidness of this love encourages each man to become free to reach the best of himself.

The novel places Rami’s and Bassan’s stories in an evolving political and ecological drama.  The tragic history of both nations is remembered and the geography of the land is nurtured.  In this way, the novel becomes an extraordinary hymn of hope arising from the ashes of the most violent and intractable conflict on the planet.  The novel draws the key to the Kingdom in lyrical prose.

If you read one book in 2021, Apeirogon is the book to read.  Gabriel Byrne is right.  This is Colum McCann’s masterpiece. 

a million little pieces

He does not spare us the gory details. There is plenty of blood, urine and vomit each day. His aggression and humour ensure that we are led on a roller-coaster journey of pathos, violence, serenity and fear both inside his head and in the clinic. Frey wants us to understand the mind of an addict. Perhaps he succeeds.

In this novel, James Frey, describes the inner experience of a twenty-three year old alcoholic and drug addict who is brought by his parents to a rehabilitation clinic in Minnesota.  James tells his story of withdrawal, encounters with the other inmates and care staff. He recounts his progress through the 12 step recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).  He does not spare us the gory details.  There is plenty of blood, urine and vomit each day.  His aggression and humour ensure that we are led on a roller-coaster journey of pathos, violence, serenity and fear both inside his head and in the clinic.  Frey wants us to understand the mind of an addict.  Perhaps he succeeds. 

During the story he makes new friends, especially with Leonard, the crime boss, who rescues him from self-destruction but also with Joanne, the one social worker who seems to understand and trust him. The clinic arranges for the addicts to meet the parents and guardians and James bravely tries to reconnect with the parents whom he abandoned so long ago.  The ambiguity of these encounters is not glossed over and we are left wondering if the reconciliation is real and long-lasting.

Perhaps the most poignant relationship in the novel, is the friendship between James and Lilly, a pretty crack addict, brought to the clinic by her grandmother.  The two addicts learn to support and respect each other.  After Lilly hears that her grandmother has cancer, she breaks down and flees.  In one of the most dramatic moments of the novel, James defies all the odds to run after and rescue her from a “crack-house”.  This act of love saved Lilly once but the real tragedy of the novel is that it is not enough to save her twice.

All through his recovery, James furiously resists the 12 step program as he refuses to believe in a “Higher Power”.   Nonetheless, by having to formulate his arguments against the program he enters into real communication with other human beings who are different from him.  He learns to appreciate the beauty and silence of nature in the park around the Clinic.  He drinks in silence and peace from it.  Somebody gives him a book of Taoist sayings.  He ponders the deeper meaning behind the apparent paradoxes.  It seems that Taoism offers him a sort of Emptiness that functions like the Higher Power in the 12 step recovery program.  James insists that only his decisions will heal him and bring him recovery.  As soon as he is released, he asks his brother to give him money to buy a drink which he inhales and pours down the sink.  He is able to say no.

At the end of the novel it is clear that James Frey is no longer an alcoholic or drug addict.  However it is not yet clear if James has become an “other-centred” person or not.

There was significant controversy about this book in the States about fifteen years ago where is was originally marketed as a “memoir” rather than a novel.  Many people blamed James Frey for dishonesty since he made up some details and added them into his story as if they really happened.  Once you read this novel as he first intended, you do not need to worry about the details.  It is still a wonderful story about addiction and recovery!

The Beekeeper of Aleppo

The most dramatic aspect of this novel is the secret journey to Istanbul in Turkey and then across the sea to an island off Greece. The couple eventually reach Athens where Nuri has to engage in clandestine work to earn enough to pay the smuggler who will arrange for them to reach England

The “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” by Christy Leffteri tells the story of Nuri and Afra, a Syrian couple, who flee Aleppo after their young boy, Sami, is killed by a bomb explosion. Before the explosion, Afra refused to leave Aleppo because it was the home of her ancestors and a dynamic centre of Arabic culture and Islamic religion.  Even after the war destroyed the city and their friends Mustafa and Dahab left, Afra refused to leave.  When Sami was killed, Afra went blind.  She could see no more.  Only when the Islamic militia came to recruit Nuri to fight in the war did she agree to escape with him first to Turkey, then to Greece and finally to England.

Afra cannot see but she knows what Nuri is feeling.  Nuri can see too much.  He notices, Mohammed, a dark boy who joins them on their journey.  Nuri has many conversations with him.  But Afra knows that Nuri’s mind is not working properly.  The boy is imaginary. Nuri and Afra make this long and arduous journey across Europe to reach England. However the novel really charts their journey from a loss and grief that has torn them apart to a deeper love that reunites them.  Afra begins to paint again even before she can see.

Yet, the story is not a romance.  The vicious cruelty and violence of the war in Syria has destroyed not only their young son, Sami, but also their city, livelihood and shared past.  The one thing outside the marriage of Nuri and Afra that the war has not destroyed is Nuri’s friendship with Mustafa. He is the beekeeper who has already fled Aleppo with his wife after they lost their own child.  Mustafa prepares a way for his friend Nuri to join him in England.  They will become beekeepers again.

The most dramatic aspect of this novel is the secret journey to Istanbul in Turkey and then across the sea to an island off Greece.  The couple eventually reach Athens where Nuri has to engage in clandestine work to earn enough to pay the smuggler who will arrange for them to reach England.  The description of the people they meet on their journey, both the cruel ones and the kind ones, is realistic and credible.  The novel highlights the hypocrisy of European refugee policy in that the only way that Nuri and Afra can claim asylum in the United Kingdom is to arrive there by illegal means and then destroy all trace of their journey.  In order to claim asylum as a refugee, you must first become a criminal.   However if your criminal activities are discovered, then your asylum claim will be rejected.

Hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell’s latest book, “Hamnet”, is quite different and distinct from all her previous creations. Her other novels have revolved around modern families in crisis. This new novel seems to tell the story of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet.

Maggie O’Farrell’s latest book, “Hamnet”, is quite different and distinct from all her previous creations.  Her other novels have revolved around modern families in crisis.  This new novel seems to tell the story of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet. He died as a child and supposedly provided the inspiration for Shakespeare’s famous play “Hamlet”. 

However the novel really tells the story of the enigmatic Agnes, Will’s wife and Hamnet’s mother.  She is an interesting and unorthodox country woman with “elfic” tendencies.  She knows the medicinal and healing properties of the local flowers, plants and roots.  She communes with nature like an alternative priestess even after falling in love with Will.  She moves to live with his dysfunctional family.

The drama of the novel however is found in the intimate relationship of Hamnet with his identical twin sister Judith.  It is in the description of this special dynamic that O’Farrell displays her literary mastery of the intricacies of close family encounters.  The manner by which Hamnet takes on Judith’s illness is surely poetic license rather than historical fact.   The intense grief of each family member at Hamnet’s passing almost causes the family to disintegrate.  It is only when Agnes realizes that, in creating the play Hamlet, her husband is transforming his grief into memory. Thus she can be reconciled with him.

The language and imagery of this novel is poetical and lyrical.  It reads beautifully.  The other characters emerge as realistic, the irascible and unpleasant father, John, the jealous and vindictive step-mother Joan, the rustic and reliable brother Bartholomew and the practical older sister Susanna.  However I found this novel somehow stilted and laboured unlike all O’Farrell’s other books.  I wondered why.

In most of her modern stories, an unusual sickness or medical condition casts a shadow or poses a challenge to her range of feisty, credible characters.  This detail furnishes a link with Hamnet.  In “After you’d gone”, one person is left in a coma. in “Instructions for a heat-wave”, one daughter has reading disorder.  In “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox”, Esme spends her adult life in an asylum.  In “This Must be the Place”, the son has a serious skin ailment while his father is an alcoholic.  In O’Farrell’s autobiographical account of close encounters with death, “I am, I am, I am”, the most striking event occurs in Italy when O’Farrell and her husband race to find a local hospital to treat their daughter who is  having a severe allergic reaction.    

However in these stories, the inter-play of medical science and common sense work themselves out in a credible and realistic way.  Not so in Hamnet.  Agnes is powerless against the plague which attacks Judith first, before leaving her to attack Hamnet.  Somehow there is an inconsistency here.  Agnes has been presented as wise but “unorthodox” or as living outside the normal faith traditions of the community.  Their ordinary medicines never work anyway.  But now her own medicines don’t work.  It’s as if her “non-faith” is just as illusory as the others’ “faith”.   In this sense, the novel is hopeless.  It does not lead anywhere.  It offers no new way of reflecting on family difficulties and tragedies.  O’Farrell’s previous novels offered new insight.    More than this, one could sense in her previous works that disaster was averted (just about) because the characters’ malevolence was somehow curtailed by a benevolent presence hovering at the very edge of her stories.   Perhaps this presence is missing in “Hamnet”.

Spiritual Direction

From afar, it seems that they could be following a bright star on their spiritual journey even it leads them into the dark. It’s like Frodo and Sam entering the land of Mordor to destroy the evil power of the ring.

In Hong Kong, Mr. Joshua Wong and Ms. Agnes Chow and Mr. Ivan Lam, have chosen to plead guilty to a charge of unlawful assembly.  They are in custody awaiting trial having pleaded guilty at a pre-trial hearing.   These two young people are freely choosing to make a personal sacrifice in the struggle for democracy.  From afar, it seems that they could be following a bright star on their spiritual journey even it leads them into the dark.  It’s like Frodo and Sam entering the land of Mordor to destroy the evil power of the ring.  Only this struggle is for real.

Since returning to Ireland from Cambodia, I have been trying to discern a personal star in the sense of finding the next step on my spiritual journey.

Two books have offered much encouragement.  The first is an old book by a French Jesuit, Jean Laplace and the second is a new book by a Dutch Jesuit, Jos Moons.  Laplace’s book was published in French in 1965 as “La Direction de Conscience ou Le Dialogue Spirituel” which was translated into English as “Preparing for Spiritual Direction”.   Moons’ book was originally published in Dutch in 2019 with an impossible title (De Kunst Van Geestelijke Begeleiding) which has been translated into English as “The Art of Spiritual Direction”. 

Fifty-four years of rapid cultural development separate the two books yet they share some common themes.

The relationship of spiritual director or companion or guide to the searcher is individual and personal.   The key skill of the spiritual companion is the ability to “listen attentively” to what is moving the searcher.   The principal role of the guide is to help the searcher articulate these spiritual movements and to interpret their meaning.  The searcher discerns.  The spiritual director only helps this process.  He or she must remain neutral “like a balance” once a choice about action presents itself.

Both Laplace and Moons insist on the need to be patient and to spend time with the searcher.   The process cannot be rushed. Even the naming of the movements “from the Good Spirit” or “from the Bad Spirit” should come from the searcher.  Help can be offered when requested but the searcher makes the journey.  There are no short-cuts to enlightenment on the spiritual path.

Discernment is the task to be accomplished.  The gold or spiritual treasure that is being sought is goodness, peace, light, love, harmony, mercy and justice.  These will be signs of the Higher Power or God’s presence (or Dharma).   However we can find these signs in human form like in the gospels.  All that is hateful, vindictive, dark, violent and divisive is what is to be avoided and rejected.

Laplace emphasizes the need to situate the spiritual dialogue within the context of mutual prayer and the life of the Church.  Moons emphasizes the need to pay attention to the small details of the searcher’s daily life and their relationships with others. Each offer some practical advice on how to become a good listener and how to ask simple questions to help the searcher further articulate their own inner experience.

In Cambodia, some Buddhist monks serve as spiritual guides to young searchers. The young people still  choose their form of action in society.

It is an amazing mystery to believe that the answer to our spiritual search is already there hidden in our experience just waiting for us to find it.  I wonder what the future holds for Mr. Joshua Wong and Ms. Agnes Choi.

Solace

The two of them have fallen in love with each other despite the chaos around them and have somehow kept an inner freedom to recognize this truth and accept their baby. Aoife enters the world. Her world in anything but stable and secure but she is loved.

Nobody recommended “Solace” by Belinda McKeon to me at all nor did I ever hear anyone talking about it.  I picked it up from the bookcase at home.  What a find it has proven to be!

The novel describes the spiritual dissonance experienced by young people who have left their family farms in the Irish countryside to live in the “big smoke” (Dublin).  After graduation, these young people live a frenetic, chaotic life-style bingeing on alcohol, drugs and sex at the weekends while performing as young professionals during the week.

Nonetheless when Mark meets Joanne, it is the fact that both come from family farms in Longford that allows an intimate relationship to develop quickly.  Both young people have difficult relationships with their parents but Mark continues to help his father Tom on the farm from time to time at weekends. The contrast between the two men could not be starker.  Tom is an old-style, reserved, Irish farmer whose whole world-view is circumscribed by the land. Mark is writing a doctoral thesis at Trinity College in Dublin.  His thesis concerns a famous female novelist of the previous century who lived in the same area of fertile farmland.

Many Cambodian factory workers and students experience a similar dichotomy between their professional life in Phnom Penh and that of their former rural life in the Cambodian countryside.

In the novel, it is the stormy relationship between Mark and Tom, rather than between Mark and Joanne which provides the back-bone of the novel.  While the hedonic life-style of both Mark and Joanne at first mirrors the life-style of the characters in Sally Rooney’s novel “Ordinary People”, the concern of Joanne for the exploited Mrs. Lefroy and the sporadic commitment of Mark to work on the farm marks the two characters in this novel, as more authentic and real than first appears.  Mark’s mother, Maura understands both her husband and her son and like many Irish mothers, she acts as the go-between to facilitate their difficult communication.

This novel has two striking and unusual turning points.  When Joanne finds to her horror that she has somehow become pregnant, she makes the extraordinary decision not to abort the baby even though she is just starting out on her legal career.  Mark is so relieved.  The two of them have fallen in love with each other despite the chaos around them and have somehow kept an inner freedom to recognize this truth and accept their baby.  Aoife enters the world.  Her world in anything but stable and secure but she is loved.

The next turning point comes after Tom and Maura have reluctantly accepted the unexpected arrival of a grand-daughter and by extension an unofficial daughter-in-law.  As the family seems to be moving towards a peaceful compromise, disaster strikes in the form of a traffic accident.  To be honest, this accident arrived so suddenly eliminating two of the main characters in the story so violently, that I felt cheated and angry.  I wanted to throw the novel into the dust-bin.   However after I calmed down, I decided that sometimes life does not turn out as we expect, so I should give the story-teller the benefit of the doubt. 

 

Now it is Mark’s turn to make a surprising decision.  He refuses to let other people raise Aoife.  He will do it himself. Step by step, he learns how to do it.  Now the whole point of the novel comes into focus.  This is a story of two Irish men who cannot communicate because they do not understand their own feelings.  Like many other Irish men, they have always relied on their mothers, wives, sisters, grand-mothers, aunts or nieces to take care of them and communicate on their behalf.  Neither Mark nor Tom can cope with their grief.  Mark nearly loses his sanity by concentrating on his thesis and Tom nearly loses his farm by forgetting to care for his cattle. 

In an ironic twist, it is tiny, stubborn, feisty little Aoife who can only speak three words who becomes the focus of solace.  She insists on attention to her life pulling both men back into relationship with her and with each other.  While Aoife rages at Tom late at night in the farm-house, the friendly silence of the cattle in the neighbour’s shed enable Mark to come home to her and Tom.   Aoife saves them both from permanent grief.  She brings them back to life. 

While Mark and Joanne have explicitly rejected any religious belief or practice even at Christmas, Mark recalls at one point a legend that he heard about St. Mel during his schooldays.   When St. Mel was consecrating St. Brigid as Abbess, he used the wrong prayer.  Instead of ordaining her Abbess, Sr. Mel mistakenly ordained St. Brigid a Bishop.

Solace is a robust, unsentimental portrait of a modern Irish couple whose values may have no religious content as such but who become “other-centred” and authentic on their life journey.  In this sense, the characters become mature adults and cease to behave as self-indulgent adolescents.  In this way Belinda McKeon’s “Solace” seems to me to be a deeper and more reflective novel than Sally Rooney’s “Ordinary People”.  

Home is a Strange Place

In order to try to fill in the gaps in my understanding of how the island of Ireland has changed over the last 30 years, I have read three books; Seamus Mallon’s autobiography, “A Shared Home Place’; “Say Nothing” by Patrick Radden Keefe which follows the personal stories of those involved in the abduction and murder in 1972 of Belfast woman, and mother of six children, Jean McConville; and “The Education of an Idealist” by Samantha Power, the Irishwoman who worked as the US Ambassador to the UN under President Obama.

When I left Ireland in 1993 for Cambodia, the troubles in Northern Ireland were still inflicting murder and mayhem on both the Unionist and Nationalist communities there.  The media were constantly reporting on brutal atrocities followed by funerals, both Protestant and Catholic. 

When the peace process finally produced the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 thus ending the violent hostilities, I counted it as one of the most extraordinary miracles that I have witnessed in my lifetime.  I could never quite understand how Dr Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness could subsequently cooperate together in the governance of Northern Ireland while becoming “chucklers” into the bargain.

The Republic of Ireland has also changed beyond recognition over the thirty years that I have been away.  Gay marriage, legalised abortion and the turning away from the Catholic Church that happened in response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis are only the outer manifestations of a profound transformation of inner attitudes regarding social issues. Former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern once commented that there were three great “institutions” in Irish society, the Fianna Fáil party, the Catholic Church and the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association).  Now only the GAA has weathered the storms and continues to thrive.  The recent RTE (Raidió Telefís Ēireann) program on “New Gaels”, shows why.  I mean, even my seven-year old niece is into Camogie. 

On my last visit home to Dublin, I met the Protestant rector of my home parish on the 42 bus.  He cheerfully informed me that this year the number of Church of Ireland ordinations to the priesthood exceeded the number of Roman Catholic ordinations in the Dublin diocese for the first time since who knows when. 

In order to try to fill in the gaps in my understanding of how the island of Ireland has changed over the last 30 years, I have read three books;  Seamus Mallon’s autobiography,  “A Shared Home Place’; “Say Nothing” by Patrick Radden Keefe which follows the personal stories of those involved in the abduction and murder in 1972 of Belfast woman, and mother of ten children, Jean McConville; and “The Education of an Idealist” by Samantha Power, the Irishwoman who worked as the US Ambassador to the UN under President Obama.

In the first book, Seamus Mallon traces his political journey as SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) councillor and MP (Member of Parliament) with laconic wit and honesty.  He remembers all the killings and murders in his own area and attends all funerals both Protestant and Catholic even when his presence is not welcomed.  His story is one of perseverance and courage in a time of despair lived out over a life-time.  He is vilified and persecuted at different times by militant Nationalists and by militant Unionists who speak the language of hate.  He never flinches. Even the title of his book “A Shared Home Place” demonstrates his commitment to peace and harmony.  He articulates “parallel consensus” as a political principle to guide future discussions about the future status of the society in Northern Ireland.  Only when both Unionist and Nationalist communities agree on a way forward, can there be a way forward.  I sense that my Protestant forbears would concur.

In the second book, Patrick Radden Keefe, amasses a wealth of historical detail to weave together a tapestry of characters involved in the IRA (Irish Republican Army) of West Belfast.  By focusing on the Price Sisters, Dolours and Marian, Keefe is able to link, personalities, events and stories together over a period of nearly fifty years.  The Loyalist characters and British officials offer an alternative viewpoint throughout the narrative so it seems balanced in the end.  The wonder of the book is in fact the person of Dolours Price who listens to her conscience and instead of “saying nothing”, says something.  The something is not much, mind you, but Keefe follows each thread right to its end. He solves the mystery that the police force could not solve (the abduction and murder of Jean McConville).  The fact that certain key characters refuse to recognise the truth about what they did in the past, means that they lock themselves into their own world.  It’s the world of the living dead. No character in this long story is able to speak of forgiveness like Timothy Knatchbull did in his story “From a Clear Blue Sky”.

In the third book, Samantha Power, describes leaving Ireland while still a primary school student as her mother launches out into a new life in America away from her alcoholic father. Samantha’s candid love of both father and mother enable her to negotiate the family tragedies cheerfully.  She makes a new life for herself each time her new family moves.  During a trip abroad she discovers an interest in finding out the truth about conflicts that cause suffering to many people.  She spends time in war-torn Bosnia and learns how American political action can help or hinder the peace-process.  She returns to study Law and becomes involved in political action.  However it is the description of her time as US Ambassador to the UN, while remaining a dedicated mother of two kids, which is the most interesting.  She moves from crisis to crisis. Syria, ISIS, Ukraine, Ebola, etc. 

Power has a simple honesty which makes these complicated situations and issues easy to grasp.  While her account is personal, it does not seem self-serving and she is able to learn from her mistakes.  It is also interesting that for someone dedicated to dialogue for peace, the one outstanding regret regarding the Obama administration that she voices is the decision not to strike Syrian military targets after the regime used Sarin gas on the population of Aleppo in March 2013 until the US Congress approved such strikes. They crossed the “red line” and nothing happened. 

In a funny example of Democratic dis-connect, Power describes the house party she arranged for all the female ambassadors at the UN in her home on election night to celebrate the upcoming victory of Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.  She was not the only one who got it wrong.

These three books witness to the enormous transformations that Ireland has experienced over the last thirty years.  However a few long hikes up Lugnaquilla and Mullaghcleevaun in the Wicklow mountains have allowed me to savour the beauty and tranquility of what has not changed.  It will be a challenge to find the right words to speak to the new spiritual language being whispered here and there.

A Gentleman in Moscow

But as the elixir dissolved on his tongue, the Count became aware of something else entirely.  Rather than the flowering trees of central Moscow, the honey had a hint of a grassy riverbank….the trace of a summer breeze…..a suggestion of a pergola…..But most of all there was the unmistakable essence of a thousand apple trees in bloom.

The Mammoth Communist octopus is currently spreading its tentacles across all sectors of Hong Kong society.  The octopus is quietly choking the life out of the robust democratic and legal traditions enjoyed by the majority of Hong Kong citizens.  The Free World can only look on in horror as the dramatic destruction of free speech plays out before its eyes.51852304_401

In this context of communist China’s oppression of Hong Kong, Amor Towles novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is a refreshing reminder of the possibility of human survival and creativity under a totalitarian communist regime.

On 21 June 1942, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to permanent house arrest in the Moscow Hotel Metropol.  He is assigned a tiny room in the attic.  The novel wonderfully captures the mentality of the eccentric aristocrat who has enjoyed personal if unequal relationships with his “inferiors”.   He knows his barber, the waiter who serves the food, the chef who cooks it and the seamstress who repairs his clothes.  These relationship enable the Count to adapt to his new role as Chief Waiter in the Boyarsky dining room.

The surprise encounter with the precocious nine year old Nina Kulokiva, a fellow long-term hotel resident, allows the Count to form an usual and life-long friendship with his young protégée whom he feels obliged to educate according to the “old standards” of human decency and civility.

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We meet a host of other interesting characters working in the Hotel.  However the oppressive Communist menace of the Gulag is never far away and the Count finds many ways to diminish its oppressive power over his life and that of Nina.  The encounter with the beautiful model Anna Urbonova  shifts from romantic liaison into another permanent friendship.

The passing references to the “First Five-Year Plan”and the second “Five-Year Plan” indicate the extent of the tragedy that Russia is traversing while the Count endures his permanent “exile”.

Once the Count realizes that he has lost Nina to the Communist enterprise he climbs up onto the parapet of the hotel to commit suicide.  Here occurs one of the most moving scenes in the novel.  He is interrupted by Abram, the old handy-man from his former estate who happens to live in a shack on the hotel roof.  Abram is excited to tell the Count that the “bees have returned”.  Years before, the bees disappeared from the roof under which Abram and the Count spent many evenings reminiscing.  So the Count has to see their new hives and taste the fresh honey.

 

“Dutifully, the Count put the spoon in his mouth.  In an instant there was the familiar sweetness of fresh honey – sunlit, golden and gay.  Given the time of year, the Count was expecting this first impression to be followed by a hint of lilacs from the Alexander Gardens or cherry blossoms from the Garden Ring.  But as the elixir dissolved on his tongue, the Count became aware of something else entirely.  Rather than the flowering trees of central Moscow, the honey had a hint of a grassy riverbank….the trace of a summer breeze…..a suggestion of a pergola…..But most of all there was the unmistakable essence of a thousand apple trees in bloom.

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Abram was nodding his head.  “Nizhny Novgorod”, he said.  And it was.  Unmistakably so.  “All these years, they must have listening to us”, Abram added in a whisper.  The Count and the handyman both looked toward the roof’s edge where the bees, having traveled over a hundred miles and applied themselves in willing industry, now wheeled above their hives as pinpoints of blackness, like the inverse of stars”.   True human communion includes communion with nature.

So when Nina rushes off to Siberia to look for her husband who has been sent to the Gulag, she asks the Count to take care of her daughter Sofia until she returns.  Of course, she never does.  The Count begins his second journey as educational mentor which will last for the next twenty plus years until the decisive moment when the Count realizes he can help Sofia escape to the West.  He has maintained his capacity to act.

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The scene on the roof with Abram reminded me of a scene in the film “Gone with the Wind”.  The South is disintegrating and Scarlett O’Hara is running down the street of a chaotic town while a black confederate militia is marching up the street in the opposite direction.  Suddenly, in a moment of mutual recognition, Scarlett joyfully recognizes the black slave foreman, Big Sam from Tara.  The two huddle in a brief happy conversation. The rest of the world just passes them by. This gigantic, good-natured man says something like “No need to worry none, Miss Scarlett, we’re gonna stop them Yankees”.

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In other words, there is always a truth beyond the grasp of a philosophical analysis of the  Master-Slave relationship, which will never be subject to Marxist interpretation by dialectical materialism.  Suddenly for brief moments, there emerges the truth of a common shared humanity in the creation and preservation of a human community whose essence is not determined by the specific rules, structures and laws apparently governing it.  This is perhaps why the only person in the whole world with whom Abram can share his joy about the return of the bees is his former master, the Count Rostov, who sits attentively on a piece of wood beside him listening to the wonder of their common story.

 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

“At magic hour, when the sun has gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke”.  So begins Arundhati Roy’s second novel about modern India, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. 

“At magic hour, when the sun has gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke”.  So begins Arundhati Roy’s second novel about modern India, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.  The book is a literary master-piece full of evocative language and images that serve to communicate a teeming over-crowded world full of dislocated but unique individuals. Continue reading “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”

‘Still Me’ by Jojo Moyes

It is striking that Lou remains faithful to her “London working class” perspective on social relations right through the three novels.  She always views society from the bottom up and comments on what she sees.  She is often blind to what people on the top see when they look down. 

In “Still Me”, the light-hearted and comic description of the life of the super-rich in New York shows how inhumane their society really is.  The London setting for the previous two Louisa Clark novels by Jojo Moyes, “Me Before You” and “After You” contrasted the Traynor’s life-style with that of the working-class Clark family.

It might be too easy to interpret each novel as a stage in Lou’s development towards a mature and stable love relationship with Sam.  One could easily focus on the dynamics of the love story by considering London and New York as simply the settings in which the love story unfolds.

However it is also possible to consider Lou’s love story with Sam as the context in which Jojo Moyes offers a reflection on social divisions.  It is striking that Lou remains faithful to her “London working class” perspective on social relations right through the three novels.  She always views society from the bottom up and comments on what she sees.  She is often blind to what people on the top see when they look down.  This allows Moyes to ensure a light and comical tone to the three novels.

However the social criticism hidden here is anything but comical.  It is a deadly serious reflection on the power of wealth to corrupt human goodness and empty persons until they become parrots or robots simple living in the way their social class demands.  Lou is naturally in solidarity with anyone who is poor or downtrodden.  It is her perennial, automatic, un-reflective response.  This is who she really is.  She imbibed it during childhood in a tiny council home which housed four generations of her family.

A few minor incidents in the novel can illustrate how this social criticism works in Moyes’ novels.  Lou’s aged grandfather finally dies at home in London while Lou is in New York.  The whole family is devastated.  He has been a friendly, kind presence in front of the “telly” with his “cup of tea” watching, maybe even betting, on the “races” for a long number of years.   He could be the real anti-thesis to Will Traynor.  “He accepted his lot” happily.

When Lou finds out that she has been framed for “stealing” by Agnes, her first instinct is not to protect herself but to protect Agnes who is her employer.  This is one of the surprising ways that Lou remains faithful to her working class origins.  She is employed to serve. So, she serves.  She understands the injustice of the situation but she is also understands Agnes’ predicament.   She puts Agnes first.  Justice can come later. Perhaps only people who have experienced real poverty, can find the spiritual freedom to act like this.

The family’s participation in the Christmas mass makes explicit what was implicit in the earlier novels.  Poor Lou’s parents may be poor and uneducated, but they know the source of their moral compass.

In the novel “After You”, it is clear that Sam lives and works happily on the underside of society in close physical contact with people who suffer from accidents, alcohol, drugs or violence.  This is his “real world” where Lou is also at home.  Yet, she remains available to help Lily Traynor, who seems destined to self-destruct but ends up later, saving Lou and Sam.

In the novel “Me Before You”, Lou constantly puts Will before herself and tries to love him back to life as it were.  But Will has made his decision and there is nothing that Lou can do to change the situation.  It might appear that Jojo Moyes has made the case for assisted suicide with her wonderful description of the limitations that Will experiences from his paralysis.  Lou’s moral confusion reflects that of the reader.  But it would be a mistake to miss the other side of the story.  Lou’s mother remains the one implacable and resolute moral voice raised against Will’s decision.  Grandfather is there, sitting in front of the “telly”.  In this way the novel quietly present both sides of the issue.  will and lou

Both Lou’s parents have to come to sudden terms with Lou’s sister gay relationship, half-way through the novel “Still Me”, but they do so with the surprising ease of those who have loved the outcast all their lives.  Their moral compass can shift in this area while it will never shift in the other area (i.e. life is a gift from God).

In short, it seems to me that the three novels poetically describe the corrupting power of wealth and the spiritual liberation that the solidarity of the poor can facilitate in a modern family setting.  It is the comic tone that disguises the serious reflection!