Random Readings Pt 4

Comments on The Persimmon Tree

Florence is a city of penises. They dangle from marble and masonry by the dozens. It’s also a city of power and power struggles. Florence’s paintings present the numerous long running wars the city had with such nearby cities as Sienna and Pisa. Tucked in the corners of countless palaces and churches hangs the Medici family crest, reminding us of the absolute power that family held over generations. Though it may have been christened ‘city of flowers’, this town reminds us of a time when patriarchy in all its tough and murderous glory was celebrated.

The Persimmon Tree by Bryce Courtney is one of the worst-written published novels I’ve ever read, but it may be appropriate that in a city with more visible penises than anywhere else, I read a novel whose central character is more or less an 18-year-old’s penis. I started reading this novel because it concerns Dutch colonialists in Indonesia during the second world war. My grandparents on my mother’s side were living in Indonesia for some years and became Japanese prisoners of war. Though books have been written, and movies made about the experience of British trapped in Indonesia at that time, I haven’t been able to find anything written in English about the Dutch experience. Unfortunately the novel dealt with this only peripherally. The “hero” was British. He fell in love with a mixed race girl, product of a “relationship” between a young Indonesian girl and a married Dutch man. Whether she is the product of rape is unclear, but when the mother died, the family deposited the baby with the father. In this novel the boy, Nicholas, remains steadfastly in love over a period of years with the girl, Anna, despite the fact that they are separated by the war. He joins the British Army, she’s captured and both protected and required to provide stylized sadistic sexual practices for a Japanese officer. During the course of these years, Nicholas has several affairs with other women. Despite the fact that his groin is constantly “swelling”, these affairs are not just about sex. They’re growth opportunities! When Anna develops a bond with the officer who protects her and keeps her from being imprisoned in the army brothel, like the Dutch women, the author describes it as an example of Stockholm Syndrome. Still, the narrator says some insightful things. He speaks of the capacity of humans to adapt to almost any situation and see it as normal and says it is the reason we have found ourselves the dominant creatures on earth. For instance, there were some amongst the emaciated near-skeletons that emerged from the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in Burma who exhibited mixed feelings at the final Allied victory: “Many were thrown into a state of confused apathy ringed with anger and a fear of the unknown. This was because survival had become a routine, a skill acquired by those who were strong enough to survive. … It seems a contradiction that this capacity to adapt and adopt also depends on rigid adherence to routine acts, to maintaining regular habits that we have acquired which we believe keep us alive. “ I think this is exactly right. We become conditioned, or constructed, as we adapt, and then we become our conditioning. But then the narrator continues: “It was no different for Anna. She first learned to adapt and then to adopt, learning the language of her captor, his habits, routines, pleasures and predilections, all in order to survive and to maintain her chastity.” He seems to feel a need to make excuses for the affection she began to feel for her Japanese officer, as though his interest in her mind, his lack of interest in violating her, his kindness and protection, are not sufficient for a psychologically healthy person to respond. I wonder if the author has considered that these behaviours he describes have been the behaviours of countless women in history who have been forced, sold or given away in marriage. Later, the narrator brings in the wisdom of Hongzhi Zhengjue in a very strange context. Anna’s protector has been ordered back to Japan, leaving Anna at the mercy of a much more ruthless Japanese officer. He tells her, when left with no choices, “Withdraw now from the pounding and waving of your ingrained ideas. If you want to be rid of this invisible turmoil, you must sit through it and let go of everything.” He then forcibly gets her addicted to heroin and then uses her addiction to get her to willingly submit to his rape in exchange for drugs. In fact, as we see, she loses her “self” as a result of this supremely manipulative cruelty. She becomes re-constructed as a prostitute/addict who is filled with self-blame and self-loathing. Never mind, Nicholas’ love will reclaim her from this false self. ——-

Random Readings pt. 3

Comments on The King Must Die

When I left Paris, I also left behind Gone with the Wind, which I’d been reading there. When I arrived at the Hotel Mignon in Avignon, almost the first thing I noticed was a small stack of books on a shelf tucked beside the stairs up to the rooms. Beside various maps and tourist brochures that the couple who owned the small hotel kept on hand for guests were three books. I thought I would try The king Must Die by Mary Renault because it was set in ancient Greece and I was heading back in time as well as south. Avignon, where six or seven popes lived during the break with Rome, was a step towards Rome.

My room was on the first floor (above the ground floor), overlooking the street. I loved hanging out the window at night to watch pedestrians and their dogs strolling by the brightly lit shops. The street was barely wide enough to accommodate cars going in one direction and late one night as I opened the window I was startled by the sight of a man in a cherry picker across the way. On closer inspection I saw he was part of a city crew that was stringing christmas lights from one side of the street to another, attaching them to buildings on either side.

It was in that little room that I started reading the fictional account of the life of Theseus, from his childhood to his maturity when he became king of a large chunk of land. Set during the shift from mother goddess worship to patriarchy, Theseus was the only child of a single mother, a priestess in a goddess grove. He knew nothing of his father, but they both lived happily with his grandfather, king of the land. As a young man, Theseus is finally told that his father is king of a distant country and that he, Theseus has been named the heir as his father has no other children. He embarks on the long journey only to be captured by another tribe. During his time of captivity he witnesses a culture in which the ruler is a Queen, the gods are female, and the Queen marries a new king each year. At the end of the year he is killed in a ritual sacrifice. This causes Theseus to contemplate what a man needs in life. Is it enough to have a fabulous year, possibly impregnate the Queen, and die? He senses that there must be more for a man to do, but he doesn’t know what that might be.

Aside from being oddly sympathetic to the emerging patriarchy, the novel explores the role of men in society in a rather compelling way. In a culture where women and goddesses ruled, men were dispensible. They formed the army, of course, and were required to impregnate women, but as Theseus asks, what else?

I’m wondering if the drive to have a greater role isn’t what has driven men to their positions of dominance. Women have always had a role, a purpose, a place in society by virtue of their ability to have children. They haven’t, traditionally, had to question their place. The problem for women has been imprisonment in this one role; but the problem for men may be the lack of such a natural birthright. Men have no place but the place they create. One of the places they’ve created for themselves has to do with play. They made art, the playing with matter and with word, their place. And they made sport their place. But, it seems to me, they have also asserted over and over again the legitimacy, and even the primacy, of this place they created. The belief that what they do is more important than what women do has been characteristic of male culture for a long time. Is it born out of existential insecurity?

Random Readings pt 2

Comments on White Nights, Simisola and Shiny Water

When I got to the Hotel Orchidea in Florence I found more detective novels in the little bookcase beside the reception desk. The hotel was composed of a mere seven rooms ringing a sitting room abutted by a reception room. We shared two bathrooms. More often than not there was no one at reception; the owner lived right above the hotel and she always left a note on the reception desk inviting people to run up and ring her bell if there were any problems. I was able to do much of my reading lying on the couch in the sitting room, which made a nice change from reading in bed in a tiny bedroom. It was also nice to be waiting for a birth, or births actually. The landlady’s dog was near the end of her term and reportedly very uncomfortable. Before I left she had seven puppies.
Two of the mystery novels I read were British. White Nights by Ann Cleeves was about a detective, Jimmy Perez, on the Shetland Islands. I’ve seen episodes of a television series based on these books. In this novel, a colleague from the south, called in to assist on major cases, contemplates his own terrible competitiveness and realizes too that he is afraid of boredom and always running from it. That struck me because I have to admit that I am doing the same thing. In his case, his competitiveness gave him the drive to engage in a lot of action, but it also reflected his difficult relationships with his father, and his brothers. This is a man who has repudiated his family. At last he decides to accept a senior posting to his hometown, where his brothers still live. We realize that he’s going to stop running, and that for him home and family are related. There’s a lot of tension about home in this novel. Several people washup to the Shetlands and decide to stay, or realize that they can’t stay, that they need to return to what is their real home. It’s hard to know, always, whether one is running away from something, or toward something. We all have to make our own homes and that may require leaving a childhood home. We can run away from a worse home to find a better one. But I think we have to make peace with the old one before we can make a new one.

Simisola by veteran and venerated author Ruth Rendell is also about social issues, in this case the tension between rich and poor, and the abuses of power that the rich engage in, including slavery and sexual slavery. This novel is about a wealthy doctor and his family who live in Kuwait for a time, and bring back a “domestic”, calling her a family member to avoid immigration issues. This deprives her of all legal recourse, as she is used as a sexual slave by both father and son, and eventually murdered. Rendell brings up the rationale, that the weak are abused because they’re weak and helpless. An abuser may first render his victim weak, and then blame his victim for being weak and feel that weakness justifies further abuse. In this family, the entire family is invested in that dynamic. The mother mistreats the girl on grounds that the girl wouldn’t know how to sleep on a bed, is terribly clumsy with furniture etc because as an African she’s never lived with furniture. Chief constable Reg Wexford has to solve an apparent murder (a different black girl goes missing — turns out she has taken on a position as live in nanny and not bothered to inform her parents), a real crime, a black enslaved girl is murdered by the eminent surgeon who has taken her from Kuwait and has been raping her, and another real crime, white women who works at an unemployment centre has also been murdered. Wexford originally thinks the two black girls are only one, and come to reallize his learned racism has prevented him from doing his job properly. He failed to pay attention to the reality behind the surface similarity of skin colour. During the course of his investigation he fantasizes about another job centre worker because of her luminous blue eyes, which turn out to be contact lenses. I love this literary touch, coloured contact lenses symbolizing appearance that lies.

Shiny Water by Anna Salter, was an American shocker for me. The story is told from the point of view of a psychologist, Dr. Michael Stone, who diagnoses and treats abused children and women with ptsd, and even multiple personality disorder (she uses that term rather than the more correct “dissociative identity disorder”). In her novel men of power rape children and the children are never believed because of today’s climate, in which there is a backlash against women who claim decent powerful men are rapists. In a custody battle, claims of sex abuse against the father are routinely dismissed as “coached” by the mother.

The psychologist, Michael, (who is a woman) had a difficult family — a powerful but unmotherly “Mama” whom she refers to a lot, and a semi-employed alcoholic father, who apparently loved her and whom she loved. Not bad people, but not particularly able to parent. She says that though she doesn’t like the south and left as soon as she could, “an expatriate Southerner is still a Southerner, and home is home. Everybody has some place that resets the clock”. And about sadistic child molesters/killers: “There isn’t a snake in the world that has enough venom in it to do a thing like that. Am I really related to a species that has that much malevolence in the gene pool? Being reincarnated as a housefly might be a step up.” This is a social justice whodunnit with a vengeance. And she says about home: “everybody needs a space that is inviolate. The lucky ones have it inside their heads.”

Random Readings of a Temporary Wanderer, pt 1

Comments on The Neighbour and The Pure in Heart

For about two months now I’ve been wandering around France and Italy. Having quit my job with a pension, I felt a need to leave my home for a winter before finding a new occupation and a new life. I feel like I’m squeezing myself through the neck of some kind of vase or container, leaving behind one form of containment in order to move into another. I don’t mean containment in any negative sense. Containment for me means ‘home’ or ‘place’. Without a job and even without the need of a job, I feel that I’ve lost what place I had in my world. I need to find a new place and so it appears I’ve thrown myself into even greater homelessness by strapping on a backpack and heading to other countries.

As I’ve been wandering, I’ve had a lot of time for reading in the lonesome evenings I spend in tiny budget hotel rooms, hostels and studio apartments, in Paris, Avignon, Nice, Florence and Rome. I read whatever is lying around, and there’s always something left behind by previous occupants. I hope, more or less secretly, that the books are meant for me, that the great consciousness that is the universe has placed them in these random bookcases for me to find and learn from.

I like mystery novels and I got to read three good ones in Nice, where I had a modern little room in an ancient hotel overlooking a courtyard away from the street. It should have character, but somehow that had been lost. I think detective novels have taken over the function that the novel was born for — to look , to really look at human society and show the injustice and the suffering caused by the powerful to the powerless.

All the books in the following list are about people, severed from the companionship of family or never having known that companionship, looking for a place. Abusive families are at the bottom of the characters’ issues, not just of the villains’ but of the detectives’ as well.
The Neighbour by Lisa Gardner is about the need to feel normal, what people do to appear to others and to themselves as normal . Both protagonists, married to each other, have histories of childhood abuse, severe abuse. The husband refuses to have sex because of his history, but is compassionate and kind. Their daughter is not really his but he loves her. The wife realizes she has come to love the man she married to give her unborn baby a home, but she needs for him to have sex with her. She and the cat disappear one night (she leaves to sort things out) but she returns when her pedophile father tries to claim the daughter. The father is a powerful judge and city father. As it turns out, there is no crime in this novel; it is simply about two victims of massive childhood abuse who are trying to manage their multiple triggers to create family and community. I found this a refreshing change from all the fiction that gives perpetrators abusive backgrounds to explain their cruel or psychopathic behaviour. Most victims of abuse do not go on to become perpetrators; many try to work through their conditioning, to deconstruct what they have become as a result of their traumas. Sometimes I think of personality as a big ball of scar tissue, the scars being the residue left behind by the conditioning factors, the environment we enter at birth. We don’t have to be what we have become. It’s possible to deconstruct, to strip away the scar tissue bit by bit to reveal what we can be, if our desire to love is stronger than our fear.

The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill is about a detective who is also an artist and who takes frequent vacations in Venice, Florence and Rome. He takes half a dozen paperbacks for a short holiday. (Oh good, I’m normal). He is contemplating whether he wants to give up detecting. He has difficult relationships with his family members, particularly with a distant father. His triplet sister and he are so closely bonded he can’t form bonds with another woman and we don’t see his triplet brother who lives in Australia and never visits. The mother is okay but somewhat statue-like, always displaying a carefully constructed persona. As it turns out she murders their severely disabled daughter, and can’t tell her detective son because he would be heartbroken and would also feel he had to arrest her for the crime. It seems my need to find a place and a purpose is not unique. I think this detective will continue detecting, in further novels, because it is his place to do so. His art is overflow.
I’m going to stop this, my first post, here and see if I can upload it to the blog. I’m doing everything on an ipad mini and not sure what it can and can’t do. If anybody does manage to read this, stay tuned for further update and edits.