An excerpt from my review ofWe Kiss Them With Rain by South African writer Futhi Ntshingila, which can be read in its entirety over at Necessary Fiction. It might be the mood I’m in, but I’m finding subtle allusions to the Victorian-era in quite a few of the books I’ve been reading. Frankenstein In Baghdad is the most blatant call-out, but there’s also The Governesses by Anne Serre, Black Sugar by Miguel Bonnefroy… and, of course, this novel. The writing in these books feels more-than-a-little old-fashioned, with a hint of a moral/life-lesson at the end. Of course this might all be entirely in my head, but it’s definitely something I’m going to be thinking about as I look back on 2018.
We Kiss Them With Rain is a social novel, more in line with the works of twentieth century writers like Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck and Richard Wright,* than crusaders of the modern era. Like those earlier works, it is written with a dual purpose – to both entertain and inform – and relies on a series of somewhat far-fetched coincidences to resolve major plot points. The tone can be, at times, a bit earnest, but that earnestness is in service to highlighting institutional poverty, social inequality, victimization, and sexual assault. The virus is a palpable presence (the text is seeded with acronyms – HIV, AIDS and ARVs) and exists in the same room as the characters, like furniture. For Mvelo, who watches both Zola and Sipho die of AIDS, it is an obsession.
It was that day, when her mother’s disability grant was discontinued, that Mvelo stopped thinking any further than the day ahead. At fourteen, the girl who loved singing and laughing stopped seeing color in the world. It became dull and grey to her. She had to think like an adult to keep her mother alive. She was in a very dark place. One day she woke up and decided that school was not for her. What was the point? Once they discovered that her mother couldn’t pay, they would have to chuck her out anyway.
This is a charming book. Ntshingila’s writes simple prose, keeping comfortably within a young adult reading level. Her characters are awkwardly written, — as in one scene where Mvelo’s friend and neighbor attempts to read a Dylan Thomas poem over Zola’s grave and what is meant to be a poignant tribute becomes a belabored, if sincere, performance. What initially appears to be a flaw is ultimately a strength. The awkwardness covers the project with an unexpected blanket of authenticity. We Kiss Them With Rain is narrated in the third person, but this lack of polish on the final text makes it easy to imagine fictional Mvelo being the book’s actual/model author, writing her own story as if it were someone else’s. Little life lessons are sprinkled throughout, balancing the instructional (characters are constantly visiting clinics to be tested for HIV) with an aspirational happy ending. The final chapters are downright Dickensian, with an ending which encourages Ntshingila’s readers in their childlike hope that these characters – specifically Mvelo, one of the many orphans left alone in the wake of a terrible disease – will find happiness if only they follow the correct path. Not because everything is guaranteed to work out, but because she is given the gift of a future.
*Dickens was left off this list, because I didn’t want too long a string of names. But I do call him out later in the review. His fingerprints are all over this particular book. Specifically, his way of weaving social issues into his plots without allowing them to take over or keep the story from being entertaining.
Quiet Creature on the Corner is a weird tale told from the point of view of an adolescent boy being punished for the rape of a young girl. The assault occurs in an abandoned lot behind the slum-like apartment building where they both live and the boy describes the event so casually that we do not immediately absorb the import of what he is saying. Our subsequent feeling of horror is subdued, perhaps because he is so young and lacking in self-awareness. He has no direction and no future – abandoned first by the father he never knew and then by a mother overwhelmed by poverty. He is not a hero to like or relate to, but neither does he elicit a strong enough response for readers to entirely despise him. Everything about the character, by the author’s design, invites ambivalence.
For his crime the narrator is first jailed and then sent to a large country estate. There he is cared for and kept in relative comfort (far more comfortable than in his previous existence) by an elderly couple named Kurt and Gerda. He spends his time writing poetry in the solitude of his room. He carries on a secret, consensual relationship with a woman who acts as a servant at the main house. He comes to view Kurt as a father-figure and comes to subconsciously crave his approval. Days, months and (possibly) years pass unnoticed and unmarked upon – occasionally he is surprised to realize that those around him, and he himself, have aged. In truth very little occurs to disrupt the groups quiet rhythm of existence until Gerda falls ill and must be taken to a hospital in Germany for treatments. The trip serves as a catalyst for… well… for something
Noll plays with time and memory throughout the novella, inviting comparisons to Kazuo Ishiguro (who gets a mention on the back cover). His narrator is filled with unspecified yearning and crippled by a total lack of introspection. The lens through which the boy sees the world is fogged. The plot is further confused by the absence of contextual markers that are usually assigned by the passage of time. Noll is a complicated and challenging writer. Exactly what is going on always seems to lay just beyond the reader’s ken, but trying to solve the puzzle is surprisingly enjoyable.
I had affixed to the wall of my room an image that appeared nothing like the one I imagined when I first arrived at the manor: I’d recently found an old engraving in Amália’s shed, rolled up in a corner, yellowed in spots, likely by the drops of rain that came through the slats, depicting a boat setting sail. It was signed by the name Wilhelm Müller.
Kurt let me hang it up.
“That engraving evokes, with impressive realism, a farewell to one’s homeland,” he said, as if half asleep.
The poem I was writing spoke of a farewell, and in that farewell exploded a hatred that tore through everything: ripped curtains, the walls to sawdust, blood on the lapel. One thing was missing at the end of the poem that for three days I labored in vain to find.
The tone in which events are relayed, the sense that there is an underlying meaning, is designed to make readers uncomfortable. João Gilberto Noll writes in a muffled and detached narrative voice – as if the events that occur do so in another place and period, – as if his narrator exists in a fugue state. Sentences run on for pages, an attempt by the author and translator to mimic “the inchoate thought process of an immature, if sophisticated, mind.” This use of an adolescent, first person narrator, one who feels no remorse and unencumbered by a moral conscience, forces readers to enter and inhabit an alien mind… which may be the ultimate reason for the aura of weirdness that hangs about Quiet Creature on the Corner. We are unable to relate to, or even understand, the protagonist. Or is it ultimately his inability to relate to and understand us which we find so unsettling?
There is a plot. Things do happen, even if they initially seem to happen without reason or explanation. Quiet Creature on the Corner is a book which benefits from re-reading (it is short, only 109 pages) and some understanding of Brazilian society in the late 80’s and 90’s. I definitely found this interview with the translator on Guernica’s website helpful. But the novel can also simply be read as a modern-day existential text. A boy/man disconnected from society is not a new device, or tied to a specific period of history. And Noll’s narrator might easily call Meursault Uncle.
In his introduction to Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous, the Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai wrote: “Many have thought and have said about him that because his fate and writerly art are so closely tied with Communist East Germany, Hilbig is just little more than a kind of chronicler of East Germany, a pale Kafkaist…” Krasznahorkai goes on to take what was perhaps originally intended as criticism and prove it to be the very thing that is most noteworthy about Hilbig’s writing. Hilbig, who was born in 1941 and died in 2007, was uniquely suited to write about Communist East Germany (also known as the German Democratic Republic) which was was founded and dissolved within his lifetime.
Fiction parallels real life. Raised by his widowed mother and maternal grandfather, Hilbig grew up fatherless in a coal town in the Thuringia region of Germany. There he received the full GDR experience – military service; working as a factory stoker; joining and being kicked out of a government sponsored writers’ group; interrogated by the Stasi; and finally leaving for the West on a one year Visa. He would travel back and forth between East and West – both physically and in his writing – for the rest of his life.
The world Hilbig describes in the seven short stories collected in The Sleep of the Righteous, brutal and bleak, read as part autobiography, part dystopian fiction. These linked stories are all told in the first person by the same unnamed narrator. Readers follow the boy as he grows into a man. Escape, the underground and disappearing are reoccurring themes. In the third story, titled “Coming”, the adolescent boy runs away. He is fatherless, a common state in post-war Germany. This boy – in the throes of puberty – flees the attentions of the women who’ve dominated his life. Their voices follow him like a Greek chorus, lamenting their helplessness and the behavior of the males in their lives. “The lake! they screamed, I’m going to throw myself into the lake! I’ll throw myself into the lake right this minute!”
“What pained them so was my apathy, which I took almost to the point of invisibility: I hunched speechless in some seat in the flat’s periphery, and my contours grew fainter and fainter.”
Every night, after the house has gone to sleep, the adolescent escapes to the lake of the women’s laments. The prose grows earthier and denser. The story’s entire tone changes –
“And suddenly I recalled a great mudhole, right in the center of the island, where we had sunned ourselves as children.
I recalled the sinful sense of well-being that came over me when I stripped off my clothes to stretch out in the thick black mud that filled the bottom of the hollow. It was grainy slurry of coal slack and sand in burnt-smelling water, whose surface, when smooth, showed yellow striations of sulfur…the oblong hole held the whole of my body, I ceased to move and waited until at last stillness came over me. Eyes nearly shut, I stared up into the sky whose rim was ablaze, and where the sun, straight above me, was an indistinct circle of white heat from which now and then, a drop seemed to fall… and a yellow cloud, nearly white, seemed to draw near this sun, touching the edge of its glaring gorge and beginning to melt.”
Most of The Sleep of the Righteous seems to be an attempt by Hilbig to understand his relationship to these women – aunts, mother, grandmother, wife, former lover – who dominate these stories. The few male figures are depicted as distant, often sinister. In the story from which the book takes its title the young boy is forced by his mother to share a bed with his grandfather. The two males sleep fitfully, one of them guilty (we are never told which) of murder. In “The Memories” a much older narrator recalls the boiler room stoker named Gunsch with whom he briefly worked the night shift. Gunsch is described as a modern German god of fire, grimy faced and inscrutable. In “The Dark Man’, the narrator is approached and confronted by a Stasi informer who reveals that he has for years been intercepting the narrator’s erotic correspondence with a former lover. The story is strange and surreal. The eventual outcome violent.
Strange and surreal describes Hilbig’s writing in general. All of the stories are set in a single town over a period covering decades – instilling the place with a lonely mysticism. The Sleep of the Righteous is a series of vignettes which together create a concrete sense of the period. The stories are gritty, roman noirs minus the criminal element. Calling them Kafkaesque (perhaps the most overused descriptor in literary criticism) isn’t entirely accurate. These stories have much more in common with the plain speaking narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Hilbig doesn’t push at the borders of possibilities like Kafka, or even Pynchon. He moves within them. And yet… Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation of the prose is slightly awkward in that it lacks any stylistic tics or flourishes. The use of the hyphen and the odd syntax result in hard, choppy sentences. Hilbig combines a romantic sensibility and understanding of harsh reality.
The factories were closed, keys rusting in distant safes in Munich or Dortmund until they were sold to a demolition firm. If they were lucky, and not yet too old, they might find a job driving one of the long distance freight trains transporting rolls of pink toilet papers or tins of condensed milk from Munich to Leipzig. – And looking ahead, they shuddered to think of their sons who went about with shaved heads, in combat boots and black bomber jackets, staring with alcohol in their eyes into a future that was none…
What anger and impotence the narrator might feel remains beneath the surface in these stories, residual paranoia and oppression left over from a former life under the Stasi.
In the second part of the collection the perspective shifts and expands. The child’s curiosity has been worn away by adult experience. The narrator returns to the town which has remained mostly unchanged in appearance, growing only emptier. The remaining inhabitants go about their business as if still being monitored by the Stasi. A certain level of fear has become normal, comforting because it is familiar.
What had spun out of control was my wife’s rage; she regarded us both, my mother and me, as people who were devoid of independence, eternally anxious to do everything right, and who for that very reason, because they were constantly trying to hide, to avoid reproaches… because they had no desires or questions… because they skulked about the house as though under some tyranny from which a devastating verdict might come at any moment – for that very reason did every possible thing wrong. – You people show no initiative, my wife said, all you’ve learned is how to wait for orders, you have no sense of self, and that’s why you can’t enjoy life in this little house of mine…
Dystopian has long been used to describe stories that fall within the genre of sci-fi or fantasy. Most dystopian authors insert a fantastical element into their narratives, designed to distract readers from the factual and familiar. And so they include elaborate death matches involving adolescents broadcast for public entertainment, the outside threat of zombies or of machines seizing control and enslaving the human race. Even Margaret Atwood included the laboratory engineered evolution of the human species in her Madd Addam trilogy. All are designed to allow readers to make distinctions between the book they are reading and world in which they live. It’s a sleight of hand drawing attention away from the recognizable components of a degrading society that every dystopian vision shares: a scarcity of resources, the collapse of the environment, poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth, the suppression of free speech, racial violence and existence under a police state. Hilbig, in contrast, includes nothing that might distract. As Krasznahorkai wrote, he was a chronicler of East Germany – a place that technically no longer exists. But that’s not entirely accurate either. More than a simple chronicler, Wolfgang Hilbig was also a witness.
This week’s review can be found over at The Rumpus. Soundcheck: Tales from the Balkan Conflict is a book of short stories by Galician author & journalist Miguel-Anxo Murado, translated by Carys Evans-Corrales. This War of Mine is a computer survival game based on the Siege of Sarajevo. Each compliments the other – forcing readers (and players) to re-evaluate the way we think about war. Arguably in more realistic ways than we’re used to. CLICK on the cover to learn more:
Dario Fo – playwright, comedian, Nobel Laureate – is an admirer of the 16th century form of street theater known as commedia dell’arte. These roving theatrical troupes employed masks, improvisation, wordplay and slapstick comedy to entertain the masses. The actors and actresses performed broad “types” (stereo- or arch-), which were popular in that time period.
For The Pope’s Daughter Fo has translated the theatrical form into a novel. He encourages these somewhat archaic references by dividing the tale into episodic chapters with old-fashioned descriptive titles such as: “The puppet king who walks like a marionette” and “Out of enmity between women, sometimes a great friendship can spring”. At the same time Fo imagines conversations, spins events like a contemporary satirist and displays a razor sharp eye for historical absurdities. The narrative voice (which we can only assume is the author’s own) always seems to be on the verge of laughter. It is a charming, farcical portrayal of the Borgias – with a preamble at the front, a bibliography at the back, and Fo’s drawings & paintings of the main characters scattered between.
“… The chronicles of the time, in fact, reported all sorts of social events, some of them held within the walls of the Vatican itself, with a matter-of-fact approach and without the slightest hint of scandal. But when the Borgias strode onto the stage of Rennaisance history, to the cheers of a horde of supporters, first and foremost among them their closest relations, then indeed the attention of the public, an audience both national and international, really became keen.”
What do we know about Lucrezia Borgia, her brothers and her father? Quite a bit, actually. She and her family were 15th century celebrities on the scale of Kardashians – subject to all the attention and public scrutiny that kind of celebrity brings. There are the historical records. But because they were so much in the public eye, positioned at the epicenter of all of Christendom really, we also have an almost embarrassing wealth of rumors, gossip & innuendos. Take the time to sift through the mess of information and an image forms of a smart, extraordinarily pretty woman who enjoyed all the privileges of status, wealth & education. A woman who made the sacrifices which were expected of well-born females of that time period. Sacrifices which were necessary to maintain a life of privilege (three marriages to further her father’s & brother’s political ambitions) and luxury.
History has assigned her the alternating roles of virgin and whore, political victim and poisoner, incestuous seductress and cultured Renaissance Duchess. That need to define Lucrezia through such a multitude of archetypes has obscured her many real accomplishments and achievements. Few portrayals focus on the known facts: that at age nineteen she acted as governor of the cities of Spoleto & Foligno; or that she remains the only woman to have sat on the Papal throne and wielded the power of the office (which she did at the age of twenty-one while her father was away from Rome); or that after her father’s death, when her brother most needed help, she would raise and send him an army. As Duchess of Ferrara she would be known throughout Italy as a Patroness of the Arts. Byron admired her love letters. Where her father & brother failed in their quest for dynasty, Lucrezia succeeded – many European monarchs trace their lineage back to the Borgias through Lucrezia and her granddaughter Anna D’Este (who was also the granddaughter of the French King Louis XII).
Throughout her life Lucrezia Borgia demonstrated intelligence, humility and no small amount of political acumen – all of which allowed her to survive the fall of the Borgia family’s fortunes.
This is the Lucrezia Dario Fo is set on portraying. And to that end he has swept aside much of the unsubstantiated speculation (and cable tv melodrama) to present a very real woman who possesses the full range of human emotions. Fo’s Lucrezia is in turns frustrated, angry, intelligent, desperate, loving, affectionate, wily, passionate and a little bit bawdy. He allows her to grow from a young girl to a matron. And, realizing that her story is always bound to the stories of her brother Cesare and father the Pope, he’s put them in his book as well. Not as sinister demons consumed only by ambition, but as men with a multitude of failings. Setting them all in a world that bears uncanny (but very intentional) similarities to the one we live in today.
The hardest thing for Alexander VI was getting past the stumbling block of the “morality” issue. That is, how was he to modify, at least in appearance, his licentious need for forbidden copulation? For that matter, how on earth could anyone keep their distance from such an adorable creature as Giulia? An old saying goes: “If the hyenas are on your heels, then toss them the most savory morsel, say a newborn lamb. You’ll see, when they open their maws to savage their prey, there’s not a hyena or jackal on earth that will pay the slightest attention to anything else.”
And so the great reformation was gently lowered into the swamp of forgetfulness. Every so often someone with a good memory would ask: “When are we going to talk about the revolution again?”
And everyone, from the pontiff down to his cardinals, would reply: “Never fear, we haven’t forgotten. Just be patient and we’ll bring it back up again.”
Sure, and who believed them?
If I’ve given the impression that The Pope’s Daughter is a history book or even your typical historical novel then I’ve badly mis-represented it. Fo creates an atmosphere of old-fashioned theatricality which is unusual and at odds with the genre. He relies heavily on dialogue, usually imagined but sometimes taken from actual letters, which he exaggerates to the point of pantomime. He uses this dialogue to convey most of the historical plot points of his heroine’s story. For example, when Lucrezia is attended by the same doctor who was also there when she miscarried her first child she spends some time answering his questions and recounting what has befallen her over the intervening years. Fo tells his story on a stage: sometimes employing a sardonic voice-over commentary as in the passage above… or creating elaborate set pieces as in the passage below.
Lucrezia was in Rome. The scene opens in the very instant at which the thump of the doorknocker is heard at the bottom of the central staircase and the voice of a servant girl calls: “Milady, it is your lover who just knocked on the door!” And Lucrezia responded: “At last! What are you waiting for? Let him in?”
“He’s already entered, that’s him on the stairs!”
Alfonso appeared, she hurried toward him to throw her arms around him, and he pushed her away.
“Hey, what’s come over you? Why do you shove me away?!”
“Why don’t you ask your brother and your father, too! You’re a fine gang of blackguards!”
“Blackguards? Why, are you drunk or are you just pretending to insult me?”
“Listen, you’re a woman of letters, do you like ballads and strambotti? Then why don’t you just try reading this!” And with those words, he pulled a sheaf of paper from inside his jacket. “Be my guest, it’s dedicated to you, or really, I should say, to us both. It’s funny as can be.”
The scene above features the archly delivered, wooden style of dialogue (seemingly fully aware of the audience listening in) that appears throughout the book. Similar stylistic choices – which in other books would be seen as weaknesses – make up a good part of The Pope’s Daughter ‘s charm. Antony Shugaar has done an excellent job of reconciling modern language to an antiquated context. Fo’s storytelling is self-conscious and referencial in a very calculated way. He plays off of the historical events (juicier than anything he might have made up) and theatrical forms, slyly grinning all the while. My one criticism is that he doesn’t go far enough. An often quoted description of Fo, made on his receiving the Nobel Prize, is that he is a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”. With that in mind, this first novel seems to be at odds with itself. Instead of a jester who mocks authority secure in his knowledge that he does so with impunity, Fo is strangely restrained. Some of the characters speeches stop just short of becoming pedantic/preachy. I was expecting wordplay, pratfalls, send-ups… I suppose I was expecting a little more of the Spanish Inquisition. Fo is so much of a playwright that the absence of the visual, performance component in his work is inevitably felt. The shadow of the author is standing in the wings of this novel, winking at the audience and holding a banana cream pie behind his back.
While it may not be for every reader, The Pope’s Daughter is sophisticated, clever, challenging and flawed – everything we have come to expect from a Nobel Laureate and in a first novel. With it Dario Fo has decided to rehabilitate the image of Lucrezia Borgia – though in his own, unique way. His substitution of commedia dell’arte for the sinister gothicism we’ve come to associate with the name Borgia is both unexpected and refreshing. His combining of contemporary social criticism and (yes) Monty Python-style lampooning is incredibly entertaining. His history isn’t bad, either. There’s much more to recommend than not, and it seems to me a delightful first introduction of this Italian artist to an English, novel-reading public.