Sunday, November 23, 2014

Book Review: "Agostino" by Alberto Moravia

Agostino (1942)
Alberto Moravia (1907-1990)

Translated from the Italian by Michael F. Moore

111 pages

The transition into adolescence can bring feelings of confusion and uncertainty, the sudden awareness that one is no longer a child, but not yet an adult: the games played with other children only a short time before feel uninteresting, if not inane, while forays into the adult world leave one struggling to understand rules of behavior that seem complex and arcane. Toss in the suddenly raging hormones, and it’s a wonder anyone makes it through.

In Agostino, author Alberto Moravia tells the story of a thirteen year-old boy abruptly entering this period. The title character’s father has died sometime before the story opens, but his family is well-to-do and so living comfortably; he has no siblings, living alone with his mother. As the novel opens, Agostino and his mother are spending their summer holidays at the sea, where they have their own house near the beach. Extremely close and affectionate, he and his mother spend their days lounging together in the sun, and each morning the two of them take a paddle boat out onto the water, where far from shore they swim and enjoy having the sea to themselves. Agostino looks forward to these daily trips, in which he has his mother all to himself; since the death of his father, Agostino’s mother has turned away any potential suitors, giving Agostino her undivided attention.

This blissful time for Agostino comes to a jarring end in the middle of the summer, however, when his mother suddenly accepts the invitation of a handsome young man to join him for a paddle boat ride. Agostino’s childhood innocence comes crashing down around him as he not only loses the exclusive attention of his mother, but also awakens to the recognition of his mother as a beautiful, desirable woman. Complicating matters, this realization awakens his own sexuality and, more critically, transforms his childish feelings of affection for his mother into a more disquieting direction for him.

Attempting to escape the physical proximity to his mother and so have space to work out these unexpected developments in his feelings, he ends up involved with a group of local boys, mostly older than himself. The boys in the group come from poor, working class families, and their coarseness and roughhousing, precisely the opposite of the children he has known in his life up to this point, both repel and attract him. He finds it difficult, however, to completely assimilate himself into their world of often brutish and thievish behavior. In his desire to achieve manhood, without precisely knowing what that destination entails, he gains little traction from observing either his mother’s world, or that of the group of local boys with whom he hangs out, and gradually becomes unmoored from any point of stability.

The focus of this short but affecting novel remains on Agostino; Moravia only somewhat generically develops the other characters, whether Agostino’s mother, or the group of local boys. Even with Agostino, we learn little or nothing about his past, his interests or his life in general. For Agostino the unexpected break with his childhood occupies him completely, and so also Moravia in telling the story.

In his young, main character, though, Moravia creates someone with whom the reader can empathize. Agostino is not someone you want to take by the shoulders and give a good shake to wake from a whining, self-centered pout. Rather Moravia’s story highlights the quite real complications of adolescence, and the loss of innocence that growing up entails. Any sensitive soul who has questioned their place among humanity when confronting the ugly and inhumane behavior sometimes present in the world will identify with Agostino’s feelings, when, out on a boat ride with the boys where he is the butt of their nasty jokes and coarse behavior, he realizes that
[his] sense of oppression and silent pain was made more bitter and unbearable by the fresh wind on the sea and the magnificent blazing of the sunset over the violet waters. He found it utterly unjust that on such a sea, beneath such a sky, a boat like theirs should be so full of spite, cruelty and malicious corruption. [It] created between sea and sky a sad unbelievable vision. There were moments he hoped it would sink. He thought he would gladly die, so infected did he feel by their impurity and so ruined.(66) 

Other reviews / information:

This is yet another wonderful selection from the NYRB Classics collection.

Read quotes from this book

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Book Review: "Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone" by Eduardo Galeano

Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone (2008)
Eduardo Galeano (1940)
Translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried

391 pages

History can often seem distant and disconnected from our everyday lives --- of little relevance to our understanding of ourselves. Even for recent events this can be the case: if they have not affected us directly, their impact seems to fade quickly from memory, leaving a muted remnant if lasting at all. Do we though really exist so separated from history, or do we perhaps disregard a bit too rashly the past that has led to our present?

In Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, writer Eduardo Galeano demonstrates that we have much to learn about ourselves in the history we ignore or may be ignorant of. Presenting short vignettes of histories that range widely across time and geographic location, he tells stories of events, people and peoples through which he invites us, compels us really, to discover more about ourselves. This compilation of some 600 stories, most less than a page long, recall a world history by turns wondrous and banal, melancholy and cruel. Reading them reminds us that people who lived in times and places far removed from us had hopes, dreams, struggles and disappointments not so different from those that color our own lives. At the same time, on the darker side, Galeano confronts us with a history teeming with examples of people exhibiting wanton cruelty, or at best a greedy, self-interested rationalization of the existence of such cruelty, leaving us to recoil in horror at what may lie buried in some corner of our own soul.

Galeano acknowledges in the ‘almost’ of his book’s subtitle that he cannot cover all the stories of mankind’s long past, but he nonetheless manages to embrace the broad sweep of our history. In one of the first stories in the book, Galeano makes clear in just a few short words the immense distance mankind has traveled since our earliest ancestors began to spread outward from the plains of Africa:
Maybe we refuse to acknowledge our common origins because racism causes amnesia, or because we find it unbelievable that in those days long past the entire world was our kingdom, an immense map without borders, and our legs were the only passport required.(2)
And, from those earliest beginnings, Galeano carries us through to our conflicted post-colonial present of borders often artificial and militarized, making the biting observation toward the end of the book that:
The war in Iraq grew out of the need to correct an error made by Geography when she put the West’s oil under the East’s sand.(353)

Along with stories that touch on more these more general themes of our past, Galeano focuses in many of the vignettes on the lives of particular historical figures; some are quite famous, such as Mao Zedong, Winston Churchill or Mark Twain, others much less so, such as an officer in the Argentinian army known as the Blond Angel, who tortured and disappeared several nuns and other women, or a Cuban teenager who attended one day of literacy class and was so inspired by the idea of reading that he went off to a remote mountain village to teach it to others, learning each lesson for himself in preparation for teaching it the next day to his students. In these biographies we come face-to-face with hopeful recollections of people who tried to change the world for the better as well as cautionary tales of the evil that others have committed.

Among these stories, Galeano creates beautiful, if haunting, moments, capturing in particular the strain of melancholy that runs through much of human history. To take just one example: in an anonymous story set in a quiet bedroom centuries ago a heart-wrenching scene plays out that we can just as readily imagine happening in myriad locations throughout our modern day world:

The Art of Drawing You
In a bed by the Gulf of Corinth, a woman contemplates by firelight the profile of her sleeping lover.
On the wall, his shadow flickers.
The lover, who lies by her side, will leave. At dawn he will leave to war, to death. And his shadow, his traveling companion, will leave with him and with him will die.
It is still dark. The woman takes a coal out of the embers and draws on the wall the outline of his shadow.
Those lines will not leave.
They will not embrace her, and she knows it. But they will not leave. (51)

For all the moments of hope and achievement captured in these stories, Galeano’s overarching theme lies in the inhumanity --- whether willful brutality or a willful blindness to brutalities being committed --- that mankind has perpetuated and continues to perpetuate on the poor, the weak, the other, as well as on the earth itself, its land, its water and its animals. If my experience reading these histories is any guide, there will be stories here that will describe such a level of evil that your first instinct will be to assume it cannot be true; but, when you query your preferred search tool, and investigate for yourself, I expect you will be as dismayed at what you find as was I.

Other reviews / information: A review by Neil Gordon of this book appeared in the New York Times Book Review.

Galeano has written a set of three books in a similar style that recount the history of the Americas from before Columbus to the present day.  They are titled Memory of Fire, with the three volumes titled, <i>Genesis</i>, <i>Faces and Masks<i/> and <i>Century of the Wind</i>, respectively.  I have read the first, so far, and can highly recommend it. Read quotes from this book here.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf