Youth by John Maxwell Coetzee

Originally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana
on Edith's Miscellany

At one point or another in life many people feel the urge to write the memoirs of their young years and to share them with others, be it only the family, be it the whole world if they can find a publisher. Writers seem even more inclined to reminisce and portray themselves. In the autobiographical novel Youth by J. M. Coetzee, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature of 2003 takes on the role of his own biographer. Almost like a stranger he looks back on the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he was just a young man aspiring to be a writer one day. He knows that in the initial stage he won’t be able to earn his livelihood writing and so after graduation from university in Cape Town he becomes a computer programmer in London. His first job depresses him, but the second one stimulates him.

The Home and the World by Rabindranth Tagore

Originally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

Although crammed on the same fragile planet, we all live our daily lives in quite different worlds. According to temperament, possibility and situation it may be a small, more or less secluded world in one moment and a wide one with few limitations in another. Passing between these worlds can be a rather confusing, sometimes even unwanted experience. In the classical Indian novel The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1913, the Maharajah’s wife Bimala falls under the spell of charismatic political leader Sandip Babu who seems to be the complete opposite of her always poised husband Nikhil. For the first time in her life she feels passion, both for the man as well as for his uncompromisingly nationalist ideas, but book knowledge and the sheltered life in the purdah left her quite unprepared for the challenges of the outside world.

Frog by Mo Yan

Originally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

The history of twentieth-century China is one of many violent changes that made the masses suffer a lot, but because of the geographical, cultural and political distance Westerners like me know very little about it. Above all the daily lives of the average people under the strict guidance of the Communist Party lie widely in the dark. The letters forming the epistolary novel Frog by Mo Yan, the controversial Chinese recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2012, evoke the life of a woman born in 1937 who was an obstetrician in Northeast Gaomi Township for over fifty years. She started her career delivering babies in the prosperous first decades under the reign of Chairman Mao and as a loyal Party Member she eventually hunted women pregnant for a repeated time to implement the one-child policy and abort the foetus however late. Her nephew’s wife dies in such a procedure

Mo Yan (莫言) was born Guan Moye (管谟业) in Dalan township, Gaomi, Shandong, China, in February 1955. In 1967, two years into the cultural revolution, he had to leave school and did whatever work he could in the village brigade. After a stint in a cotton factory, he joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1976 and still a soldier he began to write when the cultural revolution ended. In 1984 he received a first literary award, went to People's Liberation Army Arts College and brought out the novella A Transparent Radish (透明的红萝卜) adopting for the first time his pen name Mo Yan meaning “don't speak” in Chinese. The novel Red Sorghum (红高粱家族) that established him as a writer came out in 1986 and was followed by many short stories, novellas and, most importantly, novels like The Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜薹之歌: 1988), The Republic of Wine (酒国: 1993), Big Breasts & Wide Hips (丰乳肥臀: 1995), Sandalwood Death (檀香刑: 2001), Pow! (四十一炮: 2003), Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳: 2006), and Frog (: 2009). In 2012 the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to the writer. Mo Yan lives in Beijing, China.
In March 2002, the middle-aged playwright Tadpole writes the first of a series of letters to his much-admired teacher or tutor who has returned to Japan recently. Frog is his side of a seven-year correspondence that centres on his aunt, the obstetrician Wan Xin who is a legend in the Northeast Gaomi Township under her nickname Gugu. As a girl, she was held hostage by a commander of the Japanese occupation army together with mother and grandmother, while a landmine killed her father. After China’s Liberation, Gugu went to the prefectural medical school to follow in her late father’s footsteps.
“[… ] She graduated at the age of sixteen and was assigned to the township health centre, where she undertook a training course for modern birthing methods organised by the county health bureau. Gugu forged an unbreakable bond with the sacred work of obstetrics.”
A year later Gugu delivered the first babies, among them Tadpole. News of her skill quickly spread in the region and put the old midwives out of work in no time, while years of prosperity and population growth hardly left Gugu time to rest. In 1955, she joined the Communist party and, to her family’s great relief, she got engaged to an air force pilot. Her fiancé almost ruined her life, though, defecting to Taiwan and subjecting her to suspicion. Then came the famine and birth-rates dropped to zero for over two years. Autumn 1962 brought an exceedingly good harvest.
“[…] After two months of eating their fill of sweet potatoes, all the young women in the village were pregnant it seemed. In the early winter of 1963, Northeast Gaomi Township experienced the first baby boom in the history of the People’s Republic. Two thousand eight hundred sixty-eight babies were born that year in the fifty-two villages incorporated in our commune alone. […]”
The following population explosion prompted Chairman Mao to propagate birth control and Gugu as director of the health centre’s obstetrics department and deputy head of the commune’s family-planning steering committee was in charge. When the measures showed no effect, vasectomies were ordered for every man with three or more children. By the time Tadpole married in 1979, the one-child family-planning policy was in effect and Gugu enforced it with rigour as well as conviction. Tadpole’s wife desperately wanted a second child and died during the late abortion that Gugu performed on her, but her family had to go on living…

Although as an epistolary novel Frog is naturally written in first-person from the perspective of the letter-writer himself, the greater part of the story is a very personal third-person account of his aunt’s life with a partly absurd play in 9 acts that recapitulates and alienates her biography as the grand finale. Both the narrator’s and the protagonist’s lives span as well as mirror the most important stages of Chinese history in the second half of the twentieth century, namely the Japanese occupation, the Great Leap Forward, the Great Chinese Famine, the Cultural Revolution and the ongoing liberalisation of trade within the one-party system. The introduction of increasingly strict birth control measures that eventually led to the recently loosened one-child policy builds the factual heart of the story, but the author’s focus clearly is on the effects that the policy had on individuals and on society. The style of the mostly chronological narrative is realistic with overtones of subtle irony mixed with black humour that hardly conceal the author’s pointed criticism of modern Chinese society. The language of my English edition translated by Howard Goldblatt is simple, clear and matter-of-fact which made it a pleasantly quick as well as effortless read.

Admittedly, I picked Frog by Mo Yan first of all because it’s an epistolary novel and because it seemed an interesting addition to my list of books written by en-NOBEL-ed writers that I’m keeping for the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge. I’m happy to say that in the end it turned out to be a really engaging and pleasurable read that also had the extra merit of acquainting me a little with modern Chinese history as well as with Chinese culture and society of today. To my pleasure, I found between the lines some cautious criticism less of Chinese politics (i.e. of the Communist one-party-system in general or of state-controlled family planning in particular) than of people’s growing egotism, not to say emotional coldness and cruelty. Some passages startled me because they were beyond my Western understanding, but all things considered it’s a book that I recommend with good conscience.

Original post on Edith's Miscellany:

The Trolley by Claude Simon

Originally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana
on Edith's Miscellany 

For me it’s ever again amazing to see how vividly some people remember their childhoods even many decades later. Of course, everybody knows forceful experiences, good and bad, that seem to be burnt inerasably into our minds, while others simply fade with time until there seems to be no trace left of them in our memories. At certain times, notably at family reunions of any kind, some of us like to evoke the past and at other times, the recollections come just over us if we like it or not. The latter is what happens in The Trolley by Claude Simon who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1985. At the age of 88 years the author and narrator finds himself in the emergency unit of the hospital and he remembers his school days in Perpignan commuting every day on the trolley connecting the city with the beach where he stayed with his fatally ill mother.

Claude Simon was born in Antananarivo, French Madagascar (today: Madagascar), in October 1913, but grew up in Perpignan, France. After stints at the universities of Paris and Cambridge he studied painting and then travelled around Europe fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He also started writing his first novel Le Tricheur (tr. The Cheat) that was published in 1946. As a soldier in World War II he was taken prisoner, escaped and joined the French Resistence. Most notable among the novels he wrote after the war are La Corde Raide (1947; tr. The Tightrope), Le Sacre du printemps (1954; tr. The Rite of Spring), The Wind (Le Vent: 1957), The Grass (L’herbe: 1958), The Flanders Road (La Route des Flandres: 1960), Histoire (1967), Triptych (Triptyque: 1973), The World About Us (Leçon de choses: 1975), and The Georgics (Les Géorgiques: 1981). For a living he produced wine in the Roussillon. In 1985 Claude Simon received the Nobel Prize in Literature after which he published four more novels, namely The Invitation (L'Invitation: 1987), The Acacia (L'Acacia: 1989), The Jardin des Plantes (Le jardin des plantes: 1997), and finally The Trolley (Le tramway: 2001). Claude Simon died in Paris, France, in July 2005.

Shortly after the end of World War I, the author as a boy went to school on The Trolley connecting the beach of Canet at the Mediterranean Sea where he and his family stayed during the warm season with the centre of Perpignan about a dozen of kilometres inland. He is a feverish and sleepless old man whom tubes and electrodes confine to his hospital bed in the emergency unit, when childhood memories linked to the place, notably to the trolley, come back to his mind with full force. But he doesn’t only recall in great detail the strange electric vehicle that fascinated him so much as a child, the mute men in grey driving it always with a cigarette between their lips or the much admired grown-ups who dared to stay on the forbidden platform instead of moving on into the cabin. There are also the cinemas in the city or the vine-covered hills and the bourgeois villas along the line. He remembers the beach houses, the tennis court and the children – friends and relatives – with whom he played. And most importantly there is his loving, though fatally ill mother who passed her days enveloped in her bed-jacket and motionless like a mummy on a chaise-longue in the garden and reluctantly ate raw meat burgers until one day he returned from school and she was no longer there. The white-haired man whom he can see from his hospital bed reminds him of her because he is just as pale and weak as she used to be. He also recalls the mutilated men in their hand-bikes who gathered at one of the head stations. They made him shudder, but his mother they painfully reminded of the terrible war that robbed her of the only man whom she had ever loved.

In The Trolley the author himself as first-person narrator tells his story without a plot as guidance, but he pieces together seemingly at random very vivid as well as detailed memories and impressions that evoke unconnected scenes from his own long life or, to be precise, from his childhood and from what he feels might be his last days. In other words, the book contains literary ruminations of a sick old man who allows his thoughts to flow freely in the face of death. Naturally, the tone of the novel is melancholic and it becomes increasingly sinister as it advances towards the end. There are no dialogues at all, just plain narration in exceptionally long sentences that in many ways remind of Marcel Proust. In addition, the author likes to make long insertions in parentheses. As a result, it’s a read that requires quite some concentration to avoid losing the thread. Descriptions of scenery, people and events use to be extremely meticulous, but also very picturesque, not to say impressionistic because they create the emotions corresponding to the “snapshot” of life. Part of the latter effect certainly comes from the poetic language that made the book a pleasure to read.

Although The Trolley by Claude Simon turned out to be a difficult and somewhat confusing read, I enjoyed it very much for its beautiful language and impressive descriptions. In retrospect it almost felt like leafing through an old photo album or a picture book displaying in rich colours the most memorable moments of a life and giving later generations an idea of the world as it used to be. The effect of the novel is stronger, however, because the author portrayed his childhood in moving rather than still pictures transformed into words notwithstanding that there is no plot nor much action. It was this combined creativeness of the poet and the painter that earned the writer the Nobel Prize in Literature 1985 and that intrigued me from beginning to end. It’s a novel that won’t easily appeal to lovers of mainstream, but it definitely was my cup of tea. Therefore it deserves my warmest recommendation.

Original post on Edith's Miscellany:

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