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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Why Go, Went, Gone is falling short of initial expectations

Unfortunately I have to report that Jenny Erpenbeck's promising and well-intentioned novel, Go, Went, Gone (2015) isn't making good on its initial promise. No doubt it's an stirring and timely depiction of the plight of immigrants and refugees in Europe - focused on a group of refugees from Africa who have temporarily settled in Berlin - and JE does a great job showing the horrors and suffering and mistreatment that these me endure: they have fled horrendous conditions of war at home, have survived a treacherous passage across the Mediterranean, have lived in limbo for months or years in Italy where there is no work for them, and are now encamped in Germany hoping to get work permits - but up against an intransigent bureaucrasy and strange set of laws and agreements that relegate immigrants to the European country where they first set foot - so the men are on the verge of removal back to Italy (no work) while Germany is in need of more workers. Most Americans I think feel remote from the struggles of immigration that are confounding European citizens and cities, and JE's novel if nothing else brings these issues home to English-language readers in a vivid and compelling manner. That said, part of my interest in the novel has been the "lens" through which this story unfolds: Richard, the protagonist, a retired Berlin classics (or so I'm told on the back cover) professor, becomes interested in the refugees and begins a project - w/ no clear end or goal set forth - of interviewing the men, and gradually becomes a friend and supporter of a few of the men. All well and good, but JE does little or nothing with this frame; I'm at least 2/3 through the novel, and Richard has not faced any crisis or issue - he just continues to gather info for his ill-defined project and occasionally to reflect on the loneliness of his own life. I expected there would be some crisis - a fight w/ a friend, a conflict with authority, a conflict w/ one or more of the refugees - that would give some narrative drive to this novel, but at this point I'm afraid it looks like there will be no such development of story arc. As a form of journalism - telling a "true" story via composite characters - this novel has merit, but as a work of fiction it's falling short of initial expectations and missing narrative opportunities.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Go,Went, Gone slowly developing as both a political novel and novel of personal struggle

As noted yesterday, Jenny Erpenbeck's novel Go, Went, Gone (2015) focuses on a retired Berlin university professor, Richard, who becomes interested in the plight of African refugees squatting in Berlin and begins a project in which he interviews them about their lives and their experiences going into exile and settling, or trying to do so, in Germany. So on a primary level this novel is a polemic about the plight of the immigrant: Through Richard's interviews with several refugees we hear the horror stories of the violence and poverty that they fled and we hear the frustrating stories of their dealings w/ German bureaucracy as they try to get a foothold on the ladder toward a new life. Their fate and status depends greatly on whether they can prove to the authorities that they truly are political refugees who would face death if returned to their native lands. In one sense Germany is generous to these immigrants, providing them with housing and with a small stipend - but what they really want is work. They can't get work permits until they prove their refugee status, and if they don't do so they will get sent back to the land of their arrival in Europe - Italy - where there is no work - a Catch-22 for sure. On another level, though, this is a novel about the protagonist, Richard, and the changes in his life as he interviews and starts to befriend the immigrants. By profession, he's a philosopher/intellectual, so he naturally reflects on the strange aspects of the immigrant's plight and compares that with his own life story: He was a resident of East Berlin, and when the wall "fell" ca 1990 he suddenly found himself to be an "immigrant" in a new land, with much greater freedom of movement and greater political freedom than he'd ever experienced (he was born shortly after the WWII, in which his father fought in the German army). So he reflects on the nature of borders and boundaries - among other things noting that the borders in Africa were largely imposed by Colonial occupying nations, so when he asks an immigrant where he's from the answer is more likely to be a tribal or regional or language group rather than a western-imposed national boundary. That said, the novel moves at a deliberate pace, and, about 1/3 of the way through, Richard observes the mistreatment of and suspicions about the African immigrants and he befriends one in particular, whom he invites to his home, but he himself has not (yet) faced any crisis or moral dilemma or conflict w/ family, friends, or authorities.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Why I'm enjoying reading his novel about African immigrants in Berlin

Jenny Erpenbeck's novel Go, Went, Gone (representing a declension of an irregular verb and thus the drills to learn a new language) published in German in 2015 and last year in English, begins as a novel about a man recently retired from a senior post in I think philosophy at a German University, now, widowed and alone, finding himself bored w the daily routines and obsessing about a man who had drowned in the lake across from his house and whose body has never been recoverered (which keeps him and others from the thought of using the lake for swimming or outings - more on this later or in future posts).  The man takes to wandering the streets of Berlin (his house appears to be what wasn't then east Berlin and all of his explorations have the aura of discovery - his life's and career seem to have been circumscribed by the limitations of eastern bloc governance and culture a he is not what he could have been had he lived a few blocks away).  In his wandering she observes homeless African refugees living in a public square - some engage s in a hunger strike , which draws media coverage. The man decides to begin a research project on these refugees and uses his academic Fred's - this work is far out of his field of expertise, as he recognizes - to gain access to a building where some refugees have been given housing.  His interviews w some of ten refugees from Africa, using Italian as a common language (they all have reached Germany after a stay in a camp in Italy) constitute much of the first quarter of the novel. Generally I'm not so keen on these novels that are tales of suffering and blight , but this one has moved more so far more than others because of the mediating device of the professor - as we watch him change and develop new interests and even friendships this novel moves in unexpected directions). GWG alsorecalls the recent american film in which Richard Jenkins also playing a professor unexpectedly befriends a family of African immigrants who have squatted in his house in Greenwich Village.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Woman in the Dunes as a novel of its own time and place

As foretold at the outset, the protagonist never returns to his home and is officially declared a missing person - spending, presumably, the rest of his life as a captive among the dunes, in Kobo Abe's 1963 novel, The Woman in the Dunes. Or is he a captive? In the past third of the novel the man does make a dangerous escape from the hollow in the sand dunes where he's been imprisoned - climbing a rope ladder he'd constructed, running toward the highway - but he'd become disoriented in the darkness and inadvertently circled back and was captured near the village atop the dunes and returned to his captivity. At that point he becomes oddly dispassionate; eventually, the woman he's been consigned to live (and to work at slave labor) w/ becomes pregnant, and when she miscarries the villagers hoist her up and take her to a hospital of clinic, leaving the rope ladder behind. The man has an obvious opportunity for escape, but he does not take advantage of the situation. He has either given up hope or come to enjoy or at least prefer his life in captivity. So again we readers (or viewers of the movie, which I will probably watch) ponder the significance of the tale: Does it remind us of The Myth of Sisyphus (Camus), in which all of human life is seen as a ceaseless struggle to complete an impossible task? Is Abe saying that all of human life amounts to nothing more than fighting the encroachment of inevitable decline and decay? I still think that there's something specific to the time and place of this novel, that the predicament of the people in the dunes - forever shoveling away sand that threatens to overwhelm and bury them - is an enactment of the fate of the nation, the dreary and ceaseless recovery from the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I'm not sure how to read this novel in contemporary context; perhaps it's also a novel about ecology, about climate change even, and in that sense well ahead of its time: We have built our entire civilization on the brink of ruin, and our fate is to fight back the rising tides. Abe's is also an astonishingly misanthropic novel; there is no love or attraction between the man and woman in the dunes - their sexual encounters are violent and spasmodic, and any physical contact between them is made harsh and grating by the sand that clings to their bodies and infects their every breath - a dark novel, of a world w/ neither redemption to alleviation of suffering, again a novel that seems mythic and timeless on on the literal level but that is also very much of its own time and place.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Further thouhgts on the themes of Woman in the Dunes

The only way to engage w/ Kobo Abe's novel The Woman in the Dunes (1963) is to recognize and accept that it works on two levels: On the surface, it's an adventure/thriller/horror story about a man who finds himself entrapped in a small house deep in a swale surrounded by ever-encroaching sand dunes and forced by the woman who lives in the house and the strange residents of the village who live atop the dunes to engage in the endless, Sysephus-like task of shoveling the sand shifting sand away from the endangered structure. This story of captivity - made all the more grotesque by Abe's many descriptions of the repulsive quality of the sand, the bouts with nausea and dehydration, futile and dangerous attempts at escape - is in the tradition of, say, Room and Misery (as noted in a previous post), a nightmare-quality story with not a lot of action but with a lot of angst. The other and more intriguing level is the metaphoric or allegoric: man struggling against and ineradicable force and trying to maintain at least a vestige of his individuality and humanity while under constant assault. Abe's protagonist has many thoughts about his world, particularly about his attraction to the woman holding him captive (or sharing his captivity) and his repulsion about sex, STDs - he has a cynical, or perhaps clinical, view of sex as an animal-drive that we are subject to only because we are destined to strive for preservation of the species; he gets no real pleasure from sex, not does he seem to have any attachment to other people - friends, family, love interest - and we learn little about his background or career: He's a teacher in a technical high school and a devout amateur entymologist, but an isolated soul. I can't help but read this novel as a cri de coeur from postwar Japan - the constant struggle against encroaching sand seems to be representative of the recovery from the war and in particular from the atomic attacks on Hisoshima and Nagasaki: the shame, the devastation, the seemingly endless and lonely task of reconstruction, the sense of isolation from the world; we'll see how the last third of then novel plays out, whether Abe introduces new themes and how he navigates his way to the end of this narrative.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A well-crafted story by Gish Jen and a suggestion for a follow-up

Gish Jen has a story, No More Maybe,  in the current New Yorker, the latest in a wave of stories over the past few years about the immigrant experience told from the immigrant's POV - often also the author's POV though I think this story is not at all autobiographical: GJ writes about a couple from China settled into the US in low-ranking academic jobs, the woman is pregnant and not at the moment working, and the story concerns a visit of indefinite length from the in-laws (told from pregnant wife's POV) - a twist on most of the immigrant stories in that the in-laws visiting from China are far more prosperous and established in careers (or retired from careers) in academia (the wife's mother cannot afford to visit during the pregnancy, so they communicate by Skype - probably a more typical situation). The twist of the story is that the in-laws are disappointed in the modest career of their son/daughter-in-law - they expect great prosperity and opportunity for educated Chinese immigrants in the US and are surprised by the limitations. The failed expectations fuel the story. Jin's writing is clear and concise, almost childlike at times. With too many sentence fragments. Like this one. Ugh. But she does hav a story to tell and knows how to frame it, which is much more than many other recent NYer authors have been able to do. The crisis of the story occurs when the father-in-law, somewhat mentally enfeebled at this point in his life, which is frustrating and embarrassing to him, sets out to wash his son's "new" (used) car but washes the wrong car. When his mistake is revealed, the family and he laugh it off, and then are surprised when the car-owner shows up a few days later to thank him the father for washing the car; the father adamantly refuses to accept a gift - a cake - and in fact denies washing the car (afraid allegedly of a lawsuit if anything had been damaged). This is a strange and awkward moment, especially in that the car's owner is a black man. All going well up to this point but (spoiler) I don't see why Jen had the black man deface the cake w/ a racist remark that the writes with his finger dipped in the frosting. That seems weirdly hostile and out of keeping with the gift-bearing character. One of Jin's strengths is her ability to sketch in characters efficiently and deftly; I would like to see her try another story, based on same characters and sets of facts, from the POV of the man whose car was washed by a stranger.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Possible themes in Abe's The Woman in the Dunes

Kobo Abe's 1962 novel, The Woman in the Dunes, was an art-house sensation when it came to the US in the '60s - I've never seen it but will probably do so after I finish reading the novel - and it's easy to see why: tightly structured, full of angst and dread, mysteriously elusive, and "exoti" - exactly the qualities we used to seek and expect when we (or our parent) went to see a show at the old Ormont in east orange. The novel itself doesn't feel cinematic in the traditional sense - there's not a lot of action in fact it's mostly inaction through part 1 and not much dialog either - but you can also see how a faithful adaptation would really work. In short on the surface it's much like a novel of suspense: a middle aged Japanese man goes of for a day or maybe two to pursue his hobby as an amateur entomology in search of new species of sand-dwelling insects. He never returns , as we learn at the outset. Then we follow him to see what caused his disappearance. What happens: he wander to a remote stretch of dune on the coast and when he realizes he'll have to fInd a place to stay for the night he asks some villagers who find him accommodations, which turn out to be a frail house deep in a gully among the dunes, inhabited by a 30-something woman.  Her full time job seems to be shoveling away the sand that constantly threatens her home w engulfment. It soon becomes clear that he's being held captive.  Ok so on one level this is like a very subdued thriller - the ancestor in a way of books/movies like The Room or Misery. On another level - and here the art-house elements come in - he and the woman are engaged in an existential struggle, fighting to save themselves from oblivion - a metaphor for life itself in a way. We sense the man's hubris in his attempts to capture insects and seek to discover new species that live in the sand - he is so focused on the minute that he is oblivious to the forces that threaten annihilation. It's impossible as well to fail to see a connection w the atomic attack that destroyed much of Japan: is the constant threat of engulfment by shifting sand a counterpart to man-made destruction?