Jack by Marilynne Robinson

The love relationship that grows between Jack and Della is like a love between outcasts.  Jack is already an outcast because of his mis-spent youth and his alcoholism.  Yet he is heroically trying to live a “harmless” life as a poor white man scraping a living at the bottom of his society.  Della on the other hand is a dynamic English teacher who loves her job and family.

This is the fourth novel in a series which includes Gilead, Home and Lila each going back in time to follow the story of a faith-filled community in rural America.  Once again, Robinson creates a lyrical and poignant portrait of a host of characters in her last novel “Jack”.  The crucial difference in this last novel is that the heroine, Della Miles, is black while Jack Boughton is white but not innocent. 

The love relationship that grows between Jack and Della is like a love between outcasts.  Jack is already an outcast because of his mis-spent youth and his alcoholism.  Yet he is heroically trying to live a “harmless” life as a poor white man scraping a living at the bottom of his society.  Della on the other hand is a dynamic English teacher who loves her job and family.  Yet she chooses to let all her comfortable life and position go, in order to love and live with Jack.  At that time in the States, it was illegal for whites and blacks to marry so they have “to marry” themselves and live as outcasts both from the white and black communities. 

This novel can only be read slowly as each section needs pondering.  We can feel the stresses and strains on both Jack and Della.  We are afraid that Jack will crack again.  But he doesn’t.  The family of Della send her aunt Delia to speak with Jack in order to break-up the relationship.  It seems to work for a while, but the pair continue to find their way back to each other no matter what obstacles are put in their way.

It is interesting to note that the anguished conscience of John Boughton, Jack’s father, about the fate of his son’s soul finds it’s counterpoint here.  His father’s faithful but distant love is like a thread linking Jack to all that is good in the world.  The novel recounts the love story of Della and Jack, as two flawed souls escaping from the confines of their similar religious background of black and white. Yet by embracing each other, they incarnate the essential religious teaching of that common background.  God’s provident care does not depend on belief or unbelief, God is always and everywhere benevolent to all both black and white.   In loving Della, Jack may find redemption and escape predestination.  This may have happened long before the family’s anguished consideration of the question in the novel “Home”. 

The love affair proceeds by polite conversations in unusual places and at unusual times.  In this sense the novel is properly “old-style” while managing to speak love and religion in a modern idiom. 

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. 

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.

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.

បដិវត្តពណ៌ (Colour Revolution)

មានកូនសិស្សមួយចំនួនបានសួរលោកគ្រូថា «តើបដិវត្តពណ៌​ជាអ្វីទៅ»?​​ នៅក្នុង Blog ខាងក្រោមនេះលោកគ្រូនឹងព្យាយាមឆ្លើយសំណួរព្រមទាំងពន្យល់អំពីប្រភពដើមនិង​លក្ខណៈសម្គាល់ចម្បងរបស់វា!

មានកូនសិស្សមួយចំនួនបានសួរលោកគ្រូថា «តើបដិវត្តពណ៌​ជាអ្វីទៅ»?​​ នៅក្នុង Blog ខាងក្រោមនេះលោកគ្រូនឹងព្យាយាម ឆ្លើយសំណួរព្រមទាំងពន្យល់អំពីប្រភពដើមនិង​លក្ខណៈសម្គាល់ចម្បងរបស់វា!

2. Serbia

ពាក្យថាបដិវត្តពណ៌សំដៅទៅលើ ចលនាបាតុកម្មពេញនិយម ដែលលេចចេញនៅប្រទេសខ្លះ នៅអឺរ៉ុបខាងកើតនិងអាស៊ីបន្ទាប់ពីការដួលរលំនៃរបបកុម្មុយនិស្តនៅប្រទេសរុស្ស៊ីនិងអតីតសហភាពសូវៀត។ មានបដិវត្ត «ឈូសឆាយ» (Bulldozer revolution) នៅប្រទេសស៊ែប៊ីក្នុងឆ្នាំ ២០០០។

3. young serb

មាន បដិវត្ត «កុលាប» (Rose revolution) នៅប្រទេសហ្សកហ្ស៊ីក្នុងឆ្នាំ ២០០៣ និងបដិវត្ត «ពណ៌ទឹកក្រូច» (Orange revolution) នៅអ៊ុយក្រែនក្នុងឆ្នាំ ២០០៤។

4. rose-revolution

5. georgia

6. Ukraine 2

7. ukraine-protesters

បន្ទាប់មកមានបដិវត្ត «ផ្កា​ tulip» នៅ ប្រទេស Kyryyzstan ក្នុងឆ្នាំ ២០០៥ ។

8. tulip 2

 

ប្រទេសឯករាជ្យថ្មីទាំងនេះ ធ្លាប់ស្ថិតនៅក្រោមការគ្រប់គ្រងរបស់គណបក្សកុម្មុយនិស្ត នៃសហភាព សូវៀត។ ដូច្នេះទោះបីជាពួកគេមានសភាជាប់ឆ្នោតយ៉ាង​ណាក៏ដោយ ក៏លោកប្រធានាធិបតី នៃប្រទេសទាំងនេះនៅតែគ្រប់គ្រងកម្លាំងប្រដាប់អាវុធ ប៉ូលីស និងសេដ្ឋកិច្ច (ពន្ធនិងកម្មសិទ្ធិដីធ្លី) និងសេវាស៊ីវិល (សុខភាពនិងអប់រំ)។ តាមរយៈការប្រើប្រាស់អំណាច លោកប្រធានាធិបតីបានគាបសង្កត់ប្រព័ន្ធតុលាការនិងប្រព័ន្ធច្បាប់។

លោកប្រធានាធិបតីបានចាត់ចែងប្រព័ន្ធផ្សព្វផ្សាយពណ៌មាន ដើម្បីដាក់សម្ពាធលើ ឥស្សរជនប្រឆាំងរួមជាមួយនឹងអ្នកកាសែតស៊ើបអង្កេត។ តាមរបៀបនេះ លោកប្រធានាធិបតីបានក្លាយជាអ្នកដឹកនាំផ្តាច់ការម្នាក់ ដែលតែងតែមានសម្លៀកបំពាក់បែប ប្រជាធិបតេយ្យ។

9. Burma 3

 

បដិវត្តពាក្យ«ពណ៌លឿង» (Saffron revolution) ត្រូវបានប្រើដើម្បីពិពណ៌នាអំពីការបះបោរ ដ៏ពេញនិយម ដែលដឹកនាំដោយសកម្មជននយោបាយនិងព្រះសង្ឃនៅប្រទេសភូមាក្នុងឆ្នាំ ២០០៧ ។  លោកស្រីអ៊ុងសានស៊ូជី (Aung San Suu Kyi) ត្រូវបានរធ្ឋអំណាចឃុំក្នុងផ្ទះ ទោះបីគណបក្សលោកស្រីបានឈ្នះការបោះឆ្នោតយ៉ាងណាក៏ដោយ ក៏ប៉ុន្តែលោកស្រីមិនដែលសូមចាកចេញពីប្រទេសភូមាទេ។

 

ដូច្នេះក្រុមអ្នកតវ៉ាចង់បញ្ចប់នូវរបបផ្តាច់ការយោធានិងចង់រវិលត្រឡប់ទៅរកលទ្ធិប្រជា  ធិបតេយ្យសភាវិញ។ កងទ័ពបានប្រើវិធីសាស្ត្រឃោរឃៅដើម្បីបង្ក្រាបបដិវត្ត។ នៅឆ្នាំ ២០១០ លោកស្រីអ៊ុងសានស៊ូជីត្រូវបានដោះលែងពីការឃុំក្នុងផ្ទះ។ ពេលខ្លះពាក្យ «បដិវត្តពណ៌» ក៏ត្រូវបានប្រើដើម្បីពិពណ៌នាអំពីចលនាបាតុកម្មដែលបានកើតឡើងនៅអាហ្រ្វិកខាងជើងក្នុងឆ្នាំ ២០១១។ ជាធម្មតាគេពិពណ៌នាចលនាទាំងនេះដោយប្រើពាក្យថា«រដូវផ្ការីកអារ៉ាប់» (Arab spring)។

10. tunisia 2

រឿងទាំងនេះគឺជាស៊េរីនៃចលនាទាមទារលទ្ធិប្រជាធិបតេយ្យដែលបានកើតឡើងនៅក្នុងប្រទេសម៉ូស្លីមរួមមាន ទុយនេស៊ី ម៉ារ៉ុក ស៊ីរី លីប៊ី បារ៉ែននិង អេហ្ស៊ីប។

Morsi supporters rally in New York to mark Rabaa and Nahda massacres

ដើមកំណើតនៃចលនាទាំងអស់នេះបានចាប់ផ្តើមជាមួយនឹងបដិវត្ត «ផ្កាម្លិះ» នៅទុយនីស៊ីក្នុងខែធ្នូឆ្នាំ ២០១០ នៅពេលដែលអ្នកលក់ដូរតាមចិញ្ចើមផ្លូវម្នាក់ គឺលោកម៉ូហាម៉េដប៊ូហ្សាហ្ស៊ីបានដុតខ្លួន បន្ទាប់ពីប៉ូលីសរឹបអូសរទេះរបស់គាត់ពីព្រោះគាត់មិនមានលិខិតអនុញ្ញាត។

 

បន្ទាប់ពីប្រជាជនបានតវ៉ាយ៉ាងខ្លាំងនៅទូទាំងប្រទេសទុយនីស៊ី ក៏លោកប្រធានាធិបតីផ្តាច់ការបានភៀសខ្លួនទៅអារ៉ាប់ប៊ីសាអូឌីត។ ព្រឹត្តិការណ៍ទាំងនេះបានជម្រុញចលនាតវ៉ានៅក្នុងប្រទេសជិតខាង។ បដិវត្តឆ័ត្រដែលបានកើតឡើងនៅហុងកុងក្នុងឆ្នាំ ២០១៤ គឺស្រដៀងគ្នាទៅនឹងបដិវត្តពណ៌ពីព្រោះវាពាក់ព័ន្ធនឹងមនុស្សសាមញ្ញដែលកាន់កាប់ទីសាធារណៈ ហើយទាមទារប្រជាធិបតេយ្យនិងនីតិរដ្ឋ។

12. hong kong 2

 

សព្វថ្ងៃយើងឃើញថាមានយវជនតូចតាចពីរនាក់បានក្លាយទៅជាអ្នកណែនំាដ៏ក្លាហានកំពុងប្រឆាំងជាមួយនឹងអំណាចគណបក្សកកុម្មុយនិស្តចិន ពោលគឺលោក Joshua Wong និងកញ្ញា Agnes Chow។

ដូច្នេះចំពោះប្រភពនៃចលនានយោបាយទាំងនេះ យើងអាចនិយាយបានថា បដិវត្តពណ៌បានកើតឡើងដោយឯកឯងក្នុងចំណោមប្រជាជនសាមញ្ញ ដែលធុញទ្រាន់នឹងទុក្ខវេទនាហើយចង់បានការផ្លាស់ប្តូរពីរបបផ្តាចការទៅជារបបប្រជាធិបតេយ្យពិតប្រាកដ។ ពួកគេចង់ជ្រើសរើសមេដឹកនាំរបស់ពួកគេដោយសេរីតាមរយៈការបោះឆ្នោត ក្នុងចំណោមគណបក្សនយោបាយផ្សេងៗគ្នា។ ពួកគេចង់បញ្ចប់នូវអំពើពុករលួយ។ ពួកគេចង់បញ្ឈប់អំពើហិង្សារបស់ប៉ូលីសនិងកងទ័ព ប្រឆាំងនឹង       ប្រជាជន។ ពួកគេចង់បានប្រព័ន្ធច្បាប់ត្រឹមត្រូវនិងយុត្តិធម៌។ ក្នុងករណីខ្លះ «បដិវត្តពណ៌» ទទួលបានជោគជ័យហើយក្នុងករណីខ្លះពួកគេបានបរាជ័យ។ ចំពោះលក្ខណៈសម្គាល់ចម្បងនៃ «បដិវត្តពណ៌» ទាំងនេះ យើងអាចនិយាយបានថាពួកគេត្រូវបានដឹកនាំដោយមនុស្សសាមញ្ញជាច្រើនកំពុងសហការគ្នា។ ជាទូទៅពួកគេតវ៉ាតាមរបៀបអហិង្សា    សូម្បីតែនៅពេលដែលប៉ូលីសនិងយោធាប្រើអំពើហឹង្សា ទៅលើក្រុមបាតុករក៏ដោយ។

13. hong kong 3

ប្រជាជនដែលពាក់ព័ន្ធបានប្រើប្រព័ន្ធផ្សព្វផ្សាយសង្គមដើម្បីទំនាក់ទំនងគ្នា ខណៈដែលរបបផ្តាច់ការគ្រប់គ្រងប្រព័ន្ធផ្សព្វផ្សាយរដ្ឋ (សារព័ត៌មានវិទ្យុនិងទូរទស្សន៍)។ ពួកគេមានទំនោររៀបចំបាតុកម្មទ្រង់ទ្រាយធំនៅតាមទីប្រជុំជននិងទីក្រុង ដូច្នេះប៉ូលីសនិងកងទ័ពមិនអាចគ្រប់គ្រងឬបំភ័យពួកគេបានឡើយ។ នៅពេលដែលអាជ្ញាធរសាសនាបានចូលរួម (គ្រីស្ទសាសនានៅអឺរ៉ុបខាងកើត ពុទ្ធសាសនានៅ ភូមា និងអ៊ីស្លាមសាសនានៅអាហ្វ្រិកខាងជើង) បដិវត្តពណ៌មានឥទ្ធិពលកាន់តែធំ ឡើងៗ ក៏ប៉ុន្តែ យូរៗ ទៅ «បដិវត្តន៍ពណ៌» ទំនងជាអស់ថាមពលទៅវិញ។

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.

old moscow

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 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”

Korean Justice

However despite the intricacies of this Korean plot, the décor in which the significant conversations take place are large rectangular rooms reminiscent of Greek architecture. While the drama is obviously about Korean society, its import is universal. The question of the corruption of the human soul by passions and by greed is discussed explicitly in the early stages of the drama.

One Saturday evening, while watching a live Premier League football match, which was being broadcast on a Cambodian television network, I switched to the KBS channel during the half-time interval.  On it, I discovered a Korean TV drama with English subtitles called “Justice”.  After ten minutes I was hooked and did not return to the football match.  The courts and the media in Cambodia are not independent, so it was interesting to see how a Korean drama deals with corruption of a similar type in a much more democratic and free society.

One recent example of this media-control in Cambodia was in a headline tweeted by The Phnom Penh Post recently.  The words used were “Three Supreme Court-dissolved CNRP activists have been placed in pre-trial detention…” which clearly imply that these men are criminals.  The Phnom Penh Post knows fully that the Supreme Court is not independent and has been used by the Government to suppress the legitimate legal opposition party.  Yet the newspaper simply chooses to ignore this truth and portray innocent men as criminals. So much for truth in the press.

So the Korean drama seems exceptional in many ways. It tells the story of a disillusioned and corrupt lawyer, Lee Tae-kyeong, who works for a rich owner of a building company, Song Woo-yong.  The violent death of his younger brother seven years previously pushed Tae-kyeong into the company of Woo-yong who deliberately sets out to corrupt his “soul”. This friendship turns into bitter animosity.  Meanwhile Tae-kyeong’s former girlfriend, Seo Yeun-ah, has become an incorruptible prosecutor secretly working to solve “cold” murder cases of vulnerable young women.  In a plot to help his powerful business partner, the psychopathic Tak Soo-hoo, of Jung-im Electronics, Woo-yong asks Tae-kyeong to defend the innocent victims of methanol poisoning at the Jung-im factories with a view to abandoning them all later.

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Woo-yong’s network includes powerful judges, media owners and politicians for whom he provides both bribes and high-class call girls.  His power is thus immense.  The opulence of the wealth of the rich elite is stunning but their moral degradation is even more stunning.  Woo-yong is clever at using lust, greed and the desire for “status” as bait to trap the powerful into doing his bidding.  He underlines the consequences of personal choice many times.

However despite the intricacies of this Korean plot, the décor in which the significant conversations take place are large rectangular rooms reminiscent of Greek architecture. While the drama is obviously about Korean society, its import is universal. The question of the corruption of the human soul by passions and by greed is discussed explicitly in the early stages of the drama.  At first the thirst for justice seems more like a thirst for revenge for injured family members.  Gradually the theme of true justice emerges largely due the fearless and honest Seo Yeun-ah.  Is justice possible in this world or does it exist at all?  How will we know? Socrates argued at his trial that one lie or unjust act harms the soul irreparably.

 

The drama could have created scenes of gory violence given the number of murders involved.  It could also have included graphic sex scenes given the number of sexual favours provided by high class call girls to Woo-yong’s business associates. However the drama is coldly sober in all its scenes.  Even the subterranean love relationship between Tae-kyeong and Yeun-ah is never expressed in a physical gesture, not even a kiss or a hug.  This sobriety allows the friendship between them to deepen into a “communion of souls” like Aristotle’s idea about perfect friendship.

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Each of the three main characters is passionately devoted to a family member; a young brother, son or father.  While this attachment seems to cloud calm judgment and allow passions to trouble the soul, in the long run, it is corrected by the truth that emerges in the search for justice.  For much of the drama, the search for justice is so clouded by passions that it appears the new world will only be a hellish new version of the old world.  This is where the drama resembles the Greek drama of Antigone who cannot find a way to respect both her dead brother and the state.

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However the drama allows this tragic world to be suddenly brightened by the simple genuine humanity of the smaller people in the story so that in the end it is the love of the crippled but honest son of Woo-yong, Song Dae-jin and the courage of the traumatised actress Jang Yeong-mi who allow justice to be found and confession and forgiveness to be contemplated.

The figure of Tak Soo-hoo epitomizes in the fashion of the Joker, the possibility of absolute evil or the “no soul” person.  If he is mad, he is human, but if he is not mad, what is he?  This question is also fairly posed but not answered.

There are minor irritations in the drama when each second episode ends on some mystery note to make sure that you want to switch onto the next episode.  There are some minor leads which go nowhere and are never tied up.  However the acting is in all cases superb, as if each person knows their role in what appears as an ordinary Korean soap-opera but is much more a Philosophical drama in the style of Ancient Greece.   The ending is a little bizarre given the extent of evil inflicted and suffered by the participants.  It is not karmic.