Sunday, January 24, 2016

Book Review: "Thirteen Ways of Looking" by Colum McCann

Thirteen Ways of Looking (2015)
Colum McCann (1965)

243 pages

In the novella and three short stories that make up Thirteen Ways of Looking, Colum McCann reprises the captivating style of his 2013 novel TransAtlantic. Just as in that earlier novel, the true wonders of these stories lie in the depth McCann brings to the main characters, his exploration of their hopes and fears, dreams and delusions. With a penetrating but empathetic eye, he reveals his characters’ humanity through moments of courage and frailty exposed by a world both movingly beautiful and shockingly cruel.

In the opening novella, which shares the book’s title, a retired judge goes through his morning routine with the help of his live-in nurse, neither of them aware that he has but a few hours to live. As the day begins, the challenges presented by his gradually failing body preoccupy his mind: “The years don’t so much arrive, they gatecrash, they breeze through the door and leave their devastation.” (9) Memories though, provide moments of consolation; some clear and crisp, others hazy and elusive, they deflect his focus off his physical struggles, and on to past times both joyful and bittersweet.

Divided into thirteen chapters, the novella alternates between the judge's perspective and that of the detectives investigating his death. The title and number of chapters come from a poem by Wallace Stevens named Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; the poem’s thirteen stanzas appear as epigraphs for the chapters.

The investigation into the judge’s death focuses on video evidence obtained in and around his apartment, and in the vicinity of the place he was killed. For the detectives, the videotape images are often as enigmatic as the blackbirds of Stevens’ poem.  Of inconsistent quality and with important action sometimes just beyond the frame, their mute, purely visual testimony counterposes brilliantly with the chapters that reveal the judge’s thoughts as he goes through his last morning. On the one hand McCann gives the reader a window into the intimate, meandering thoughts of the judge as he deals with the twilight of a good life, while on the other we see his body language and actions, which only cryptically bespeak his thoughts.

In the short story What Time Is It Now, Where You Are, McCann imagines a writer who has “agreed in spring to write a short story for the New Year’s Eve edition of a newspaper magazine.” (147) Though his October deadline initially seems far off and easily met, the writer struggles for months to discover a satisfactory storyline. Then suddenly, as summer turns into fall, an image comes to him --- a character caught in a very specific time and place --- that seems to hold the promise of a story.

Starting from this scene that resembles a painting more than a plot, the writer gradually, fitfully, fleshes out a story of the character and moment he has imagined; from simple, vague beginnings, he builds an increasingly complex story. Wildly far from the notion of an author typing out a preconceived plot, McCann’s short story demonstrates a process of writing in which the author discovers the background and present situation of characters much as one might slowly, over time, learn about new acquaintances and friends.

In Sh’khol, a mother raises an adopted son who cannot speak and who suffers from learning disabilities; her challenges in communicating with the boy are compounded by her uncertainties about how much he truly understands of what she tells him. The two live alone on the Atlantic coast of Ireland, where the mother, an accomplished swimmer in her youth, has been teaching the thirteen year old to swim in a cove near their isolated home. When she gives him a wet suit of his own for Christmas, she suddenly finds herself confronting the frightening limits of her ability to control and keep safe a boy feeling his way tentatively toward manhood.

In the final short story, Treaty, horrific memories re-emerge for an aging nun, when she catches a glimpse on the TV news of a man she recognizes as having kidnapped her years before in the jungles of Columbia and repeatedly raped her over a period of more than a month. The man, now apparently reformed, appears in the news report as a member of a delegation at a peace conference in London. The sudden emergence of the painful memories she has tried a lifetime to escape, and the shock of seeing her assailant presented as an apparent peacemaker, spur the woman into action. Hoping to finally lay to rest the profound and long-lasting effects he has had on her life, and also to understand if and how this man could have shed his past crimes to now appear as a respected leader, she travels to London with a vague plan to find and confront him.

Together these stories demonstrate again McCann’s remarkable ability to reveal the complexity of the human experience in ways both heart-rending and hopeful. We discover characters who feel real and true to what we know about ourselves: that our words and actions do not always reveal the complicated mix of hopes and fears that fill our thoughts; that our inner world is an unruly place in which memories flare up unexpectedly, carrying our thoughts off in new directions so suddenly and completely that moments later we can barely, if at all, remember what we had been thinking and feeling just seconds before.

Other reviews / information:
Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird can be found at the Poetry Foundation website, 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

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Book Review: "Snow" by Orhan Pamuk

Snow (2004)
Orhan Pamuk (1952)

Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely


464 pages

When considering a corner of the world far from our own it can be difficult to avoid falling into simplistic assumptions, such as lumping the people of that place together as being largely similar to one another, or feeling an air of superiority over their particular culture and customs. At the end of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow --- set in the far-eastern Turkish town of Kars --- one of the characters confronts the story’s narrator with exactly this concern, saying:
“If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I’d like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away.”

“But no one believes in that way what he reads in a novel,” I said.

“Oh, yes, they do,” he cried. “If only to see themselves as wise and superior and humanistic, they need to think of us as sweet and funny, and convince themselves that they sympathize with the way we are and even love us. But if you would put in what I’ve just said, at least your readers will keep a little room for doubt in their minds.” (462)
Other characters in the story express similar sentiments, as the townspeople of Kars recognize and repudiate the stereotypes, as well as condescension and pity, with which they feel they are viewed by the intellectual elite in the far-off capital of Istanbul, and, in a more amorphous, regional sense, by people in the West.

Pamuk addresses these quite reasonable fears by creating a wonderfully intricate and compelling view of the complexity of life in distant Kars. He refers to the book on a website dedicated to his work as his “first and last political novel,” and, befitting its setting near the eastern Turkish border, the story involves secular leftists, Turkish nationalists, Islamists, Kurdish separatists, and the haunting remnants of the past presence of Armenians and Russians.  In addition, there are all manner of citizens sympathizing to various degrees with one or another of these groups.

Few, if any, of the characters in the novel, however, present simple, easily stereotyped lives.  Even the most fundamentalist of these characters, be they secular or religious, find themselves at times besieged by doubts about their beliefs, or find their desire to hold to their convictions challenged by humanist concerns such as love and friendship.  In this way, the novel provides a compelling antidote to what can often be a facile stereotyping of fundamentalism, both its origins and its adherents.

Pamuk insinuates himself into the novel as the narrator named Orhan. He tells of the events of a three day visit to the town of Kars by his friend Ka, who has recently returned from a twelve year political exile in Germany, though his friend recalls him as more of a poet than someone deeply engaged in politics. Life in Germany weighed heavily on Ka, leaving him dispirited and unable to write poetry. Ostensibly travelling to Kars as a journalist to report on a rash of young women who have committed suicide in Kars and on the upcoming municipal elections, his true motive lies more in the realm of self-interest than politics: he hopes to win the heart of a beautiful former classmate, İpek, and convince her to go back to Germany with him to help fill the emptiness he feels living in a foreign land.

Ka arrives in Kars amid a winter blizzard, which continues for the first two days of his visit. The snow provides a beautiful white blanket that softens the poor and decaying state of the town, and, to Ka’s delight, helps him recover his muse; poems come to him so suddenly he seems to be taking dictation rather than consciously writing them. The heavy snowfall has, however, also shut off access to Kars, enabling an uncontrollable escalation in violence between political factions in the town. This violence occurs even as Ka’s public reasons for being in the city gradually entangle him into the dangerous political machinations of the various sides.

Generally wary of Ka, the people of Kars see him as an outsider and intellectual, with a hazy leftist political past that drove him into exile. In particular, neither the Turkish nationalists nor the Islamists treat him with much respect or trust, though this very status recommends him as an intermediary in the negotiations between the groups. For Ka, this access, like the snow that covers the city, has both good and bad implications: on the one hand it helps him at key points to make progress in his pursuit of the beautiful İpek; on the other, it puts him at grave risk at nearly every turn, as he becomes an expendable pawn between groups in a violent struggle for control not only of the local community, but of political and cultural developments nationally.

Complicating matters, Ka has returned from the long and dreary exile in Germany with a melancholy in his heart that leaves him flirting with a belief in God that he had lost during his youth in Istanbul. That he wears his religious confusion on his sleeve, however, only leaves his loyalties more suspect in the townspeople’s eyes. This again increases the risk to him personally as he moves among the competing faction in Kars.

When the long-simmering tensions in the town erupt into revolutionary violence, with the larger state security forces temporarily unable to reach the town through the snow-clogged roads, Ka’s search for meaning and an end to the deep melancholy that afflicts him turns into a tenuous, high-stakes struggle for love and survival.

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