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!

The Dutch House

Thirdly, the novel poses a more fundamental question over all the stories that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our existence and give our lives a purpose.  The wonderful kind and caring Maeve, blames her step-mother, Andrea, for expelling her and her brother from the family home.

Each year one novel comes along that stands out from all the rest for its dramatic presentation of some existential truth.  Ann Pachett’s novel, “The Dutch House” would be my choice for 2020.

The Dutch House is an amazing novel for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it describes the intricate intimacy of a close sister-brother relationship in a deeply authentic manner.  The conversations, the reactions, the mutual devotion in times of crisis ring true.  There is not a false note in the relationship between Maeve and Danny from beginning to end.

 

 

Secondly, it poses a central question over the ideal of “other-centred” love or “agape” love as they tend to call it in the Christian or Catholic tradition.   In one sense, the Mother in the story abandons her children in order to escape the Dutch House and she commits to loving the poor and abandoned for the rest of her life as a sort of reparation.  Perhaps many religious vocations have been lived out in a similar kind of way.

 

Thirdly, the novel poses a more fundamental question over all the stories that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our existence and give our lives a purpose.  The wonderful kind and caring Maeve, blames her step-mother, Andrea, for expelling her and her brother from the family home.  For the rest of her life, this is the central event that makes sense for her of everything else.  Danny shares with her this understanding but without committing himself to it.  Danny avoids really committing himself to anything other than his sister as his way of surviving.  He does marry Celeste and has two children, May and Kevin, whom he loves and cares for but not in a totally committed manner. maxresdefault

This last question about meaning becomes painfully explicit when Maeve becomes sick and the mother reappears to help to take care of her.  Maeve is over the moon as all her old hopes and dreams are returning.  Danny is much more circumspect.  In a certain sense, what seems to kill Maeve, in the end,  is the sudden decision of the Mother to take care of Andrea who descends rapidly into dementia.  Danny’s understanding of the reality is somehow closer to the elusive truth than is Maeve’s.  It is as if the truth is too painful to contemplate.

This is a powerful novel and it asks a really central question about the stories that we construct to give meaning to our lives.  However this question is posed inside the authentic life-giving sibling relationship of Maeve and Danny.  This family context grounds the question inside love.

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The Great Alone

However the real strength of this novel is in its second important characteristic.   Leni experiences the love relationship between her parents as a mystery at first.  She realizes that since Ernt returned from Vietnam, he is troubled and violent in a way that he was not before he went.  Cora loves him and tries to love him back to good mental health.  She fails. 

It was interesting to read “The Great Alone”, during this time of corona virus semi-lockdown in Battambang in Cambodia.  Kristin Hannah describes the life of one small family who decide to move to a remote region of Alaska.  They hope to begin a new life “close to nature” and far away from modern “civilization”.  Actually this family really just involves three people, Cora Allbright, her husband Ernt and their teenage daughter Leni.  Alaska

This novel rises above the level of a sophisticated romance story in two ways. Continue reading “The Great Alone”

The Choice

It turns out that all the positive thinking tricks that Edith Eger used to survive in the camp with her sister Magda are not so helpful later on as she tries to cope with the after effects of trauma and prevent it from harming her children.

This Christmas, I received the gift of a book which I will count as a priceless treasure.  It broaches the issue of psychological trauma head on and comes out on the other side with a human way of processing things.  The book is called “The Choice” and it was authored by Edith Eger, a Hungarian Jewess, who survived Auchwitz (just about) and took a long time to tell her story.  Her book was only published in 2017.

 

When I arrived into the Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand during 1986, the malevolent presence of the Khmer Rouge was still tangible.  Fear and insecurity crippled people’s thinking processes.  I remember listening to stories where a family member routinely described the death and disappearance of other family members in a passionless, robotic manner which prevented any real sharing in sadness or grief.

People were still surviving as isolated monads and were only slowly readjusting from horrific trauma to relative peace.

Over the past few years, I have read many books which have broached these issues in various ways.  Among those which have lingered in the memory longest are “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zuzak and “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner.

What really impressed me about Edith Eger’s life-story in “The Choice” was its rigorous honesty in self-examination.  I found a resonance similar to testimonies of people who have recovered from long-term debilitating addictions or violent abuse of different types.  There is no hint of false romanticism on these pages.

Once the young Edith is asked by Dr. Mengele to perform a ballet dance for him which she does even though she knows that it was he who had ordered the killing of her mother.     Eger describes how the malevolent power of evil infiltrated the lives of the innocent in Auchwitz and somehow managed to remain buried in painful memories inside her mind that were never aired or shared.  Later panic attacks would occur in response to sounds or sights like sirens or train carriages etc.

Eger also describes life in Communist Hungary after “liberation”.  She explains her dramatic and brave decision to emigrate to America with nothing, rather than to Israel where the family wealth had already been sent.  Her husband Bela followed her.  She works in manual labour for a few years like so many other immigrants.  Slowly she finds her way to study and eventually to Psychiatry.  Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” played a role in her spiritual journey.

However it is clear in her personal care for the individual “troubled” patients, that she finds her own way.  Firstly, she helps these individuals to understand themselves more deeply.  Then, secondly, she comes to understand herself more deeply by thinking about what they said.  She argues that we need to recognize how both “feelings” and “thinking” are influencing or controlling our behavior patterns.   This process of sharing and analysis can itself be traumatic as the feelings can be explosive or dangerous.  However only by a patient sharing and re-sharing of these feelings in a human relationship can we rediscover wholeness in our wounded humanity.

The thinking patterns also need to be analysed and examined.  It is interesting to note that the most important question to be answered deep down is “What do I really want”.  Once I have crossed the stormy sea of tumultuous feelings and so can see clearly what I really want and am striving for, the next question falls into place easily.  Are my present behavior patterns helping or hindering my journey towards what I want or not?  In most cases the answer is no. So change is required.  Hence “The Choice”.   It is mine to make and I have the power to make it.  No one else can make it for me.  While her perspective is medical and scientific, a remote faith perspective remains.  At one point Dr. Eger will say, “I do not just receive patients.  I feel that they are sent to me”.  When all else fails, she will pray.

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One of the most moving passages in the book is where the  mature Dr. Edith Eger returns to Auschwitz for a visit and remembers everything.  Here she describes her own actions and her own innocent mistake which resulted in the death of her mother.  Many Cambodians have shared with me their traumatic experiences during the Khmer Rouge time and how their family members died or were killed. Yet, I have not heard someone say “I really regret what I did during the Khmer Rouge time”.

The Khmer artist, Vann Nath, led a deep reflection on the evil of the Khmer Rouge in a documentary on the notorious S21 Tuol Slaeng prison.   It was hard for his former guards to take responsibility for their actions even under his gentle questioning.

The real strength of Dr. Eger’s book is that it invites to take a radical personal responsibility for our choices in life.  Each new day offer us a choice to grow up or to grow down.

Where the Crawdads Sing

At Christmas, my sister sent me a novel to read.  The title was “Where the Crawdads Sing” and it was written by Delia Owens.   It takes place along the coast of North Carolina. The novel tells the story of Kya, a girl who was abandoned in the marsh by her mother, her siblings and finally by her father when she was still only a small child. 

At Christmas, my sister sent me a novel to read.  The title was “Where the Crawdads Sing” and it was written by Delia Owens.   It takes place along the coast of North Carolina. The novel tells the story of Kya, a girl who was abandoned in the marsh by her mother, her siblings and finally by her father when she was still only a small child.  “Jumpin”, an old Black man running a small store helps her.Abandoned-Cabin-Picture-Of-Jean-Lafitte-Swamp-Tours

The unusual strength of this novel is that we learn to discover the beauty, mystery and interior life of the plants and animals of the marsh through Kya’s eyes as she fends for herself to survive there alone. The author describes Kya’s resilience and deep isolation leading to severe and crippling loneliness in a sensitive and credible manner.  At the same time the author describes the prejudice and negative judgments that the local people demonstrate towards her.  With the help of one childhood friend, Tate, Kya learns to read and to express herself and her scientific curiosity in paintings. 1-Francis-Marion-saltmarsh-edited-KG-580x390

While the novel beautifully describes life in the marsh and almost becomes an ode to its natural preciousness, it also portrays the harshness of a life of poverty on the edges of society with an acuity similar to that of Barbara Kingsolver and Marilynne Robinson.

However while I found the characters credible and varied, I felt that they were somehow more caricatures than real people.  In English literature, the novels “Middlemarch” and “the Portrait of a Lady”, portray loneliness among a variety of real characters to the most depth.  In this sense prize-winning modern novels, like “Where the Crawdads Sing”, pale in comparison.

The novel could open a reflection on the more general theme of abandonment of remote rural farmers by a technologically connected society that is no longer human.  I still remember visiting former Cambodian soldiers in remote rural areas who had suffered mine injuries and were disabled.  While some flourished with the love of their family or spouse to envelop them, some were abandoned to survive on their own.  I still remember one man, a double amputee, sitting on his remote shack on stilts breaking down in tears as he described how his wife had abandoned him and left him all alone. where-the-crawdads-sing-8.jpg

Social Anxiety and Shyness

It is clear that many Cambodian young people experience high levels of stress. Many are fearful and will not speak in public. It is at least possible that respect for authority has been so strongly internalized by them that it has become a paralysis, preventing the young people from acting creatively and freely in society.

A friend of mine recommended a book by Gillian Butler entitled “Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness”.  I finished it this morning.  It was a good read.

It seems that there are many people who suffer silently from a paralyzing fear of certain type of social events (yours truly included) and the book accurately describes the thoughts, feelings and behavior patterns of those caught in the cycle of these types of fear.  In a simple but clear manner the author lays out a few simple clear self-help strategies to encourage people first to face and then to overcome these paralyzing fears.

The first strategy is to reduce self-consciousness by steering one’s attention away from the inner emotional turmoil to the actual context in which one is actually experiencing paralysis.  The second strategy is to alter the “automatic” thinking processes triggered by the event, especially the negative ones.  The third strategy is to try to do things a little differently by not engaging in “avoidance” behaviours.  These strategies will eventually encourage a growth in confidence in one’s ability to “weather the storms”.    The book develops each of these strategies in considerable detail.   Each strategy is accompanied by a work-sheet so that one can work through the steps in a methodical manner. Continue reading “Social Anxiety and Shyness”

Normal People and The Essex Serpent

Both novels are exquisite works of art, even if annoying. Normal People provides an almost forensic insight into the emotional lives of educated Irish young people interacting with each other as if social media is a stage on which our performances are measured. The novel rings true in this way. The Essex Serpent attempts to immerse us in Victorian world but despite the best efforts of the author, the novel seems to deal with the clash between faith and reason with a contemporary mindset.

Last month, I read two novels at the same time.  The first one – Normal People, by Irish author Sally Rooney annoyed me so much that I had to put it away for a while in favour of the second one, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry from England.  In the end, it was interesting to read both of these novels from the perspective of Cambodia just at the time when the Brexit negotiations have stalled on the question of the Irish backstop.

 

Both novels are exquisite works of art, even if annoying.  Normal People provides an almost forensic insight into the emotional lives of educated Irish young people interacting with each other as if social media is a stage on which our performances are measured. The novel rings true in this way.  The Essex Serpent attempts to immerse us in Victorian world but despite the best efforts of the author, the novel seems to deal with the clash between faith and reason with a contemporary mindset.

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However, it seems to me that the characters in Sarah Perry’s novel are well drawn and more interesting in their differences than are the two main characters in Sally Rooney’s novel.  The love affair between Connell and Marianne provides the fil conducteur, or connecting thread, of this novel. The other characters in the book are only interesting to the extent that they contribute to the main storyline.  The love affair between Cora and William provides the fil conducteur for the Essex Serpent but most of the other characters are actually interesting people with subplots of their own that provide further insights into the society of the place and time.

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Nevertheless, after reading Normal People, I came away with the impression that social media is making Irish young people narcissistic in the sense that their whole lives seem to play out on a stage where those outside the realm of social media simply do not figure.  It is as if half the world no longer exists.  The young people could be living in a cocoon where their well-educated souls are dying of suffocation. The question of the displacement of religious faith from the centre of their lives is only addressed tangentially by references to funerals and Christmas.

 

 

In relation to the Essex Serpent, I also felt that the fascination with the past hides a desire for a lost stability and consensus that the polite conflict between faith and reason used to provide.  However, there is no sense of a benevolent Providence guiding events as is found in the novels of Dickens, the Brontés and George Eliot or indeed of a malevolent destiny guiding them as in the novels of Hardy.

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In fact, it is precisely the loss of this wider worldview that seems common to both novels and marks them out as products of the post-modern age.  A friend of mine from home recently sent me a link to a TED talk by Johann Hari on how we may be misunderstanding addiction.   His central point is that those suffering from addictions feel trapped inside a cage where the only relief is their drug.  The cage is some kind of affective isolation or abandonment where “normal” social interaction with loving others is no longer possible.  The drug is the coping mechanism that produces the artificial “high”. So to love our friends out of their addiction, we need to focus our attention on the cage itself, not the drug.

Social media is becoming perhaps an intoxicating narcotic that we ingest daily without realising the harm that we are doing to ourselves.  We do not recognise the cage in which, slowly and imperceptibly, we are choosing to live.

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Both the accounts of the Khmer family life in the city and cruel deportation to a beautiful countryside ring true. Raami’s father has communicated a love for Khmer legends and poems which then serve as the structure of meaning for Raami, while she tries to fathom what is happening to her and her family.

 

Ten days ago, our Battambang Book Club reflected on the novel “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner.  We had an interesting and fruitful discussion on this Khmer novel in English about the tragedy that occurred in Cambodia once the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in April 1975.

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In a curious twist of fate, we realized that this novel is not well known in Cambodia but is appreciated more for its literary quality abroad.  For example, the novel is not available in a cheap version at the Russian market in Phnom Penh unlike most other significant books on Cambodian history.

Perhaps the genre of historical fiction is not considered as reliable as autobiographical accounts in re-discovering historical truth.  This issue has come up also in my blogs on “The Memory Stones” and on “Milkman”.  In the “Shadow of the Banyan” is nonetheless a wonderful work of art for a number of reasons.

Continue reading “In the Shadow of the Banyan”