Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

Giovanni’s Room was written by James Baldwin – an African American, published in 1956. I don’t know about you, but whenever I start on a new author, I look them up first, to know what they look like and their brief background. I often find strong correlation between who the author is and their work, so a kind of expectation is built. With Giovanni’s Room, it was all blown out of the water. I expected an African American story, but it is so far removed that I’m still struggling putting the image of the author next to his book in my mind.

For a start, the story is not even set in America, but in France. The protagonist is a white American called David – middle upper class, has an American girlfriend. David meets Giovanni – an Italian trying his luck in Paris, and later has a relationship with him. More important characters include a couple of older French men, whose names I had to google to discover the proper pronunciations: Jacques and Guillaume. They’re both wealthy, such that they have financial power over the young ones like David and Giovanni.

The quartet makes an interesting dynamic. In fact, the book opened my eyes to a very unfamiliar world to me: Parisian gay bars. There are all kinds of rules and expectations and power struggle. The older wealthy men are expected to treat (buy drinks and food), and in a way they’re seen as pathetic and desperate, being old and ugly. The young ones are dirt poor, but they have themselves to offer. If they play it well, giving hopes may just be enough to string the old men. Sex however is the ultimate prize.

David’s denial of his same-sex attraction is a major source of conflicts. There’s no race issue at all – it’s not that kind of book. I’d be very interested to read Baldwin’s other books and see whether it’s addressed somewhere else. It just seems odd to me that an African American writing in the 50s wasn’t writing about race issues.* It’s so amazing in many ways. Giovanni’s Room felt like it could’ve been written by a white French man. There are even healthy sprinkles of French words and sentences (that I had to look up to know what they mean). I’m intrigued.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

A little anecdote: James Baldwin was mentioned in Capote the movie, which I watched while reading Giovanni’s Room. I didn’t plan it, but it’s an interesting coincidence that Capote and Baldwin lived and wrote in the same era, and both were gay.

* This is confirmed on Wiki, that mentions: “He wanted to distance himself from American prejudice and see himself and his writing outside an African-American context. Baldwin did not want to be read as “merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer”.”

James Baldwin

Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

palace walkPalace Walk is the first novel in the Cairo Trilogy by the winner of 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, from Egypt – Naguib Mahfouz.

First published in 1956, the novel started in 1917 in the midst of WWI. Egypt was occupied by the British, and after the war was over, talks of independence were rampant.

We see Egypt through the viewpoint of a single family: the patriarch Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, his submissive wife Amina, and their five children: 3 boys and 2 girls. Yasin is the oldest son of Ahmad from his first, divorced wife, while the other 4 children are Ahmad and Amina’s. Fahmy the second son, is a studious and thoughtful high school student. The two daughters are Khadija and Aisha. The older Khadija is plump and sharp-tongue as a defense to her lack of beauty and jealousy of Aisha who is the more beautiful of the two, and therefore more marriageable. The youngest of them all is Kamal, around 10 years old, and is often the only character who is free to roam around, bridging the men and the women.

The book is nearly 500 pages, but it didn’t feel like one. It was a nice surprise to find that it was very readable. I read it in just a little over 2 weeks. The prose is quite verbose, so the book could be shorter, but the translation probably just follows the original quite closely. Lots of the sentences that the characters say for example are probably not long when said in Arabic, but becoming very verbose when translated into English.

I like how we follow a rather ordinary Egyptian family. Yes Ahmad is a hypocrite and quite oppressive towards his family, and in turn Amina’s obedience and passivity is hard to take for modern eyes. But I felt the drama isn’t sensationalized. There’s no domestic violence, no rape and no polygamy, which seem like ripe topics for books set in Middle Eastern or Islamic culture. I like that the oppression shown is more subtle. I would actually believe that this is what average family in Egypt at the turn of 20th century was like. Some variations of it is shown by the neighbors and friends of the family, for example Amina isn’t allowed to go out at all by her husband, while the neighbor’s wife is free to go out shopping by herself.

Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is probably the character that readers would have most problem with. While he demands all his family members to be straight, obedient, and all around good Muslims, and has the same strict and faithful front himself, unbeknownst to his family he spends every night drinking, partying, and visiting women of pleasures. Despicable in a glance, and there is no excuse for it, but I feel like the double life he’s living isn’t so far away from our modern time. Who isn’t familiar with the story of a straight looking person who has a big crack behind the facade?

I think it’s a bit unfair to simply judge the flaws of the culture because it doesn’t conform to our modern sensibilities. Keep in mind that this is set a century ago, and to think that around the same time women in Britain over the age of 30 have just won the right to vote (1918).

I think Palace Walk is exactly the kind of fiction that you’d read to learn about another culture and another way of thinking. I found the banter between the characters to be one of the most interesting aspects. Possibly the flirting in particular. You probably wonder how a society that is so divided between male and female, so rigid in the meaning of honor and shame, would mingle at all. Mahfouz exposes this skilfully in the verbal and non-verbal interactions between the characters. There’s meaning in every word and gesture – slightly different perhaps with our time and culture – but the same concept for the same game.

Based on this reading, I do plan to read the second and the third book in the trilogy. My GR book club is reading all three books together, but I don’t like reading multiple books by the same author successively, so I will schedule the second book to read next year. This is the first work by Naguib Mahfouz that I read.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

A great article of the author following the steps of Palace Walk around Cairo: Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk, and Old Cairo: Natalia Sarkissian

cairo trilogy
Naguib Mahfouz and The Cairo Trilogy (Everyman’s Library)

The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

the waiting years

Continuing my Japanese book strikes, my first book of 2016 is The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi. I read this together with the Japanese Literature book group on GR. It won the most votes out of the 5 books I proposed, and coincidentally it was probably the one I wanted to read the most, so it worked out nicely :).

Just a couple of dozens pages in, I was already surprised how quickly the plot was laid out. Somehow I was expecting it to be a slow read. The book is set in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912). It started with Tomo – wife of a high Japanese official – looking for a young girl to be brought home. For what purpose, it was clear to the reader: to be a second woman, or a concubine, but it was never said out loud among the characters. Unlike some other cultures, there was not an official concubine role in this society, as the man does not marry the girl. And I mean it when I said “girl”, because they were looking for a 15 year-old, inexperienced girl. The fact that the girl is underage made a very uncomfortable read to my modern eyes, probably more than any other issues that appear throughout the book.

The book kept surprising me throughout. I anticipated it to concentrate on catty rivalries between Tomo and the new girl, Suga, in the style of Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale (which I have not read, so I may be totally off, however Wikipedia mentions that Nagai Kafu was in young Enchi’s reading list). But it’s not. There would be more women coming into the house later on, but all the female characters get along with each other, for the most parts. How they behave felt very realistic, and to me showed how women behave in real life more than TV dramas. Hint: I’m not a fan of Asian TV dramas. I don’t like how in them people behave in such outrageous, outlandish, exaggerated manners.

In this book, the women are dignified and logical in handling what life gives them. I loved that we get very close into the heads of the women, offering insights that I never felt I got when I read the other big name Japanese authors – who happen to be mostly male. As far as I remember, the female characters in books written by Kawabata, Tanizaki, Soseki, Kobo Abe, or Mishima even, are all very distant and aloof, and we never really get into their heads. It’s hard to see them pass their outwardly submissive demeanour.

In the Waiting Years, though the women may still look to be submissive, there’s a lot of internal conflicts and struggles, and there’s anger that bubbles up in the characters, which is obviously Enchi’s own feminist views of the system. And that brought me to conclude, that this book I think could only be written by a woman, and I’m thankful Fumiko Enchi gave voices to these women and made them real. It’s an interesting portrait of Japanese culture at a particular time from a point of view that we rarely get.

I was wavering between 4.5 and 5 stars, but the ending pushed it over the edge. It’s incredibly powerful, and so sad that I shed some tears.

During the reading, I coincidentally found a beautiful second hand copy of Masks – another popular book by Enchi, which I look forward to reading sometime.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

220px-Enchi_Fumiko
Fumiko Enchi – finally, a favorite Japanese female author! (I really don’t like Banana Yoshimoto. I couldn’t stand her books.)

This also concludes Japanese Literature Challenge 9. From June 2015 to January 2016, I read 3 Japanese books:

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
Silence by Shusaku Endo
The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

A very successful challenge I must say! Considering my Japanese literature reading had been zero for the past few years. Will I continue the strikes? The books did whet my appetite for more, but on the other hand I have a lot of (reading) projects going on. Perhaps I will wait until June to continue again. See you in JLC 10 :)

The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût

tenthousandthings
First published: 1955, English publication: 1958

In The Ten Thousand Things Maria Dermoût brought us to my birth country, Indonesia. This is the first time for me to read a Dutch Indies literature so it was truly an interesting experience. I had to look up Moluccas – the place where the book is set, and only then realized it’s the islands of Maluku. In fact, I only recently discovered that pre-independent Indonesia is called Dutch East Indies. Just things you wouldn’t learn in school’s history books :).

I was born in the capital, and never left the island of Java for the first 17 years of my life. Weeks after my 17th birthday I left the country, and since then only go back very occasionally, each time making an effort to travel the country even if it’s just for a short while, even if I couldn’t go very far. I’ve never been to Maluku or Papua — those places are probably as exotic to me as it is to people from outside the country.

And exotic is how I would describe The Ten Thousand Things, from the description of the places, the islands, the sea — and the creatures of the sea! The stories were dream-like, giving you the feeling of floating in and out of a dream, in far flung places, somewhere in an obscure corner of the world, where the water is clear blue and deadly at the same time, where the islands store ten thousand stories and the spirits roam. It gave me nostalgic feelings as indeed where ever you are in Indonesia you are never far from the ocean.

The main character that holds all the stories together in the book is referred to as the Lady of the Small Garden, who is from a Dutch family but born in Moluccas. She went to Netherlands for her education, and eventually came back to the islands with her son. The “garden” has been in the family for generations and the lady’s grandmother has always stayed there. She’s become part of the island as much as the local people.

I have awareness that the majority of Ambon people are Christians (which is something that stands out in a country that is almost 90% Muslim), but I never quite connected it with its important role as one of the Spice Islands in the time of colonization. It all makes sense now.

I love that I’m learning so much by reading the perspective of an outsider looking in, though I have conflicting feelings about calling Dermoût an outsider. After all her family had stayed for generations (she’s the 4th generation) and she might even have indigenous blood somewhere along the line.

Maria Dermout

How long does one need to stay? How many generations before you can truly belong?

Though The Ten Thousand Things is not strictly autobiographical, it’s not hard to see how Dermoût drew from her life experiences. Thankful that NYRB Classics has taken her book into their line. Here’s hoping that they will republish her other book, as it seems to be out of print and would be hard to get.

Maria Dermout

One interesting thing to note, if you look for the pictures of Maria Dermout, the above would be the one most widely appears. It was taken in 1907 when she was 19 years old, and somehow gave an impression of her as a young writer. But her books were not published until she’s in her 60s!

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – Magical reading set in a place both familiar and unfamiliar to me. It has sparked a new found interest in Dutch Indies literature. I have The Black Lake by Hella Haasse to be read soon-ish.

The World’s Literature goodreads group discussion with whom I read this book and The Garden of Evening Mists.

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