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To the End of the Land

December 17, 2017

David Grossman, To the End of the Land. Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, 2010.

Ora is full of love. Her love sustains her family for twenty good years. So how does it happen that her oldest son breaks with Ora, saying, “You’re an unnatural mother”?

To the End of the Land is David Grossman’s exploration of how the daily reality of the Israel-Palestinian conflict affects the people living in it, and how it can poison the most intimate parts of their lives.

As teenagers, Ora, Avram and Ilan form an intense friendship. During the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Avram is captured and tortured by Egyptian forces. Afterwards, he feels that everything has died in him, and he withdraws from his previous life.

Ora marries Ilan and has two sons, Adam and Ofer. After the devastation with Avram, she feels she has paid her price, and cuts herself off from the Israel-Palestine “situation”. She creates a haven of love for her family. Once a week or so she wakes up and says quietly into Ilan’s ear, “Look at us. Aren’t we like a little underground cell in the heart of the ‘situation’?”

David Grossman (Penguin Random House)

But by the year 2000, her family is broken. Ora and Ilan have separated, and Adam has rejected her. She still has a relationship with Ofer, but only just. She and Ofer plan a hike in the Galilee when his military service ends. But on his discharge day the Second Intifada begins and he re-enlists. Devastated, Ora decides she will still do the hike – if she is not at home to receive the “notifiers”, Ofer will be safe.

She forces Avram, who is actually Ofer’s father, to come with her. In the past, Avram has never wanted to know about his son. Now Ora intends to keep Ofer safe by telling Avram all about him. In the process, she tells the story of her family. The relationship between Adam and Ofer, the way in which they support each other, is especially engaging. As Ora talks to Avram, she feels she is “reciting a eulogy for the family that once was, that will never be again.”

The family rupture occurs because Ora wants Ofer to promise he will never hurt anyone intentionally. As a soldier, he refuses to make this promise. He is involved in one incident where a Palestinian is put in harm’s way, and Ora cannot let this go. She is desperately trying to save her child from “the barbarian standing opposite her”.

Ora can no longer isolate herself from the “situation.”

“On the street she notices that people are “walking quickly, without looking one another in the eye. … she saw in almost every person a note that hinted at some latent possibility – the possibility of being a murderer or a victim, or both.”

The depth and complexity of characterisation in this novel made the characters real for me. I felt for them. I cannot remember loving any other fictional character as much as I now love Ora. This attachment intensifies the narrative tension in the multiple connected stories woven into the overarching plot line of the Galilee walk. We ache to know what happens next in each of these sub-stories, and sooner or later we are rewarded.

To the End of the Land is a beautifully constructed novel about a grim subject. Highly recommended.

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A Land Without Borders

September 30, 2017

Land Without Borders (418x640)Nir Baram, A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank, 2015. Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.

A Jewish settler in the West Bank tells Nir Baram there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. “Their distinctness in the Arab world does not justify another state … If you need a territorial solution, then there’s Jordan.”

A Palestinian school director tells Baram, “There is no solution except for Jews to go back to the countries they came from, and for everyone to fulfil their rights in their own countries.”

During 2014-15, Baram, an Israeli novelist, travelled throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, speaking with hundreds of people, “Jewish and Arab, from all classes and political affiliations.” Listening to people helped him push past the stereotypes and reach a more complex understanding of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Those who say that the only solution is for the other side to go somewhere else are at one end of a very wide spectrum of views. There are settlers who pursue the Zionist dream of the entire Jewish people on the entire land of Israel, but would still like to relieve the suffering of the Palestinian people. Another settler calls for Jews to let go of the concept of ownership: “It is God’s land. The people of Israel belong to the Land of Israel, and the Palestinians belong to the Land of Israel, to Palestine.” After all, Isaac and Ishmael were brothers.

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Nir Baram (Text Publishing Website)

Other settlers don’t even notice the Palestinians: “Where are the Arabs here, anyway?” This comment prompts Baram to visit a nearby Palestinian village that had been there since before the Ottomans. Settlers had taken over lands the villagers cultivated or grazed, killing their sheep, cutting down their olive trees. Fences they weren’t allowed to cross separated them from lands the settlers had not yet appropriated.

There seems little prospect of implementing either of the usual solutions. Israel is unlikely to agree to one state with equal rights for all because of the demographic danger. And is it even possible to divide the land into two states? How can Jews and Arabs on the West Bank be separated?

Baram is a member of a group of Israelis and Palestinians advocating a peace initiative called “Two States One Homeland”, which is halfway between the two standard solutions: a shared homeland between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, consisting of two independent sovereign states with an open border between them, with freedom of movement and residence throughout the homeland.

Yet Baram concludes that the problem is not one of state design, but of values. He asks Israelis whether Israel should pay reparations to Palestinians for the loss of their assets – villages, houses, lands – and is met with contempt, fury and mockery. Yet Germany is still paying reparations to victims of the Holocaust.  “Each side is trapped within its own ’48 narrative, without recognising the other story at all.”

West Bank Barrier

Separation Wall (CC, Wikimedia Commons)

It is time to admit, he says, that “the occupation is the image of our society, institutions, army, citizens. An overwhelming majority of institutions in Israel are dedicated to the preferential treatment of Jews over non-Jews and the elaboration of the occupation.”

Whatever the solution, he concludes, “two states, a confederation, a single state – the Jew and the non-Jew must be equal in every sense.”

This is a book about ongoing tragedy, yet it is a joy to read. It connects the reader to the lives of Palestinians and Jewish settlers and makes us feel the forces at work in this conflict. Baram doesn’t just listen, he also challenges people, and asks them difficult questions, such as, “How do you see the future?”

Highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand more about one of the key conflicts of our time.

The Museum of Modern Love

August 10, 2017

Museum

Heather Rose, The Museum of Modern Love, 2016, Winner of the 2017 Stella Prize.

You’re a successful artist, happily married to a woman you love. You don’t have the same need for people as your wife does, and she organises a life around both of you. Then she suffers brain damage from a blood disorder, and is moved to a nursing home, incapacitated physically and mentally. And you discover that she has taken out a court order that, in the event of such incapacity, forbids you from seeing her. You descend into a sort of hell.

 

This is the fate of Arky Levin, film score composer, the main fictional character in Heather Rose’s novel, The Museum of Modern Love. The main real character is performance artist Marina Abramović. The novel circles around these two people as it progresses. Will Levin sit with her? And if he does, what will happen?

In 2010, Abramović performed The Artist is Present, sitting for 75 days in the atrium of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while visitors queued to sit opposite her and silently gaze into her eyes. Some visitors sat for two minutes, others for two hours – or all day. If the visitor cried, so did Abramović. Other visitors watched from behind a square around the performance marked by tape.

Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present

Photo: Andrew Russeth, Flickr CC Licence

Visiting MoMA, Levin is drawn to Abramović’s performance, and starts coming most days to watch it. Watching with him is a rich cast: fictional characters such as art teacher Jane, grieving for her husband, and Brittika, who is driven to know more than other people and is writing her PhD thesis on Abramović. Also at the performance are real characters such as Abramović’s photographer, the ghost of her mother, and the novelist Colm Toibin, who wrote of his experience:

‘It was like being brought into a room in Enniscorthy when I was a child on the day after a neighbour had died and being allowed to look at the corpse’s face. … This was serious, too serious maybe, too intimate, too searching. It was either, I felt, what I should do all the time, or what I should never do.’

Many of these characters, fictional and real, are changed by sitting with Abramović or watching the performance. How does such art change people?

Much of Abramović’s previous art is dramatic and dangerous and makes ideological statements as well as artistic ones. It is art to “wake you up.” But for The Artist is Present she refines her art, simplifies it, until “all that’s left is energy”. When sitters lock eyes with Abramović, does that energy cause people to see themselves as they really are? Or look at their life in a different way? Or feel something that was previously invisible to them?

Throughout the novel the power of art interweaves with the power of love. Talking to Levin about his wife, a close friend of them both gives him a little poem:

Even after all this time, the sun never says, “You owe me.”
Look what happens with a love like that.
It lights the whole world.

Heather Rose

Heather Rose (Photo: Allen & Unwin website, downloadable)

Are there times when one must choose between art and love? Or are they, at their deepest level, the same?

This is a beautiful novel. Heather Rose writes like an angel, and in fact an angel (or good spirit/muse) narrates much of the story – a risky device, but it is the exact omniscient voice this tale requires. The Museum of Modern Love is one of the most affecting books I have read. The final few paragraphs are profoundly moving, and they constitute a perfect ending to the novel.

Two Psychological Thrillers by a Master

February 5, 2017
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John Harper’s hut sits above the Ayung River in Bali (Photo: Bryce Alcock)

Louise Doughty, Black Water, 2016
Louise Doughty, Apple Tree Yard, 2013

John Harper, the protagonist of Black Water, is an operative in a private intelligence agency. In 1965 he is sent to Indonesia, his country of birth, and is there when the military use the September 30 coup as a pretext to launch the massacres of people accused of being communist.

blackwaterHarper’s assignments involve him in these crimes – for example, he passes on a CIA hit list to the military – and as a result he becomes mentally ill. Eventually he is able to take on a desk job for the agency.

In 1998 he is sent back to Jakarta prior to the riots that led to the end of the Suharto regime. There he stuffs up badly, and the agency sends him to Bali to “rest”. The book opens with Harper lying awake in a hut near Ubud, terrified that the agency is arranging his murder.

What leads a man to join such a company and to commit crimes in carrying out his duties? How did he become the man who, when his baby daughter dies shortly after her birth, thinks, “at least you have been spared life.” He is defined by his past, and Doughty tells his story, beginning with his chaotic childhood.

This backstory alternates with what is happening in the present, in Bali, where he meets Rita, a teacher recovering from her own tragedy. He tells her some of what he had done, but not his most terrible acts. Can these two damaged people find peace together?

The narrative tension that impelled me to keep reading Black Water came firstly from the complexity and reality of Harper’s character, and secondly from Doughty’s technique of revealing plot points piecemeal, so that you don’t know the full story until the end. Doughty has spoken about her style:

 

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Louise Doughty (Author’s website)

“I love flashbacks and revelations and foreshadowing – but you have to hold two versions of the novel in your head at the same time: what you know about the book and what your reader knows at any given point are often quite different. It can be fiendishly complicated but it’s essential that it reads naturally on the page.”

Black Water is more than a thriller. It explores difficult questions about personal responsibility and how we may become part of the machinery of oppression and exploitation. It examines how we use simplistic reasoning to avoid difficult decisions: “If I don’t do this job, someone else will. If my company doesn’t invest in this mad and murderous regime, another will.”

appletreeyard-418x640Doughty’s previous novel, Apple Tree Yard, tells a very different story – a courtroom drama set in London – but it shares many similarities with Black Water. It is also a psychological thriller in which the main character is drawn into a destructive course of action. Yvonne is a respected scientist and respectable wife and mother who embarks on a torrid affair that eventually leads to her trial for murder. The structure of the two books is similar. Both use time shifts, flashbacks and foreshadowing. Black Water begins in the present, and Apple Tree Yard starts at a late and critical point of the trial. Both have a killer revelation near the end. Both novels reveal a writer at the top of her game.

A TV mini-series based on Apple Tree Yard has just screened in the UK, gaining rave reviews, condemnations and controversy. While capturing the complexity of Black Water on film would be more difficult, if done well it would be a disturbing but riveting movie.

Filling in the Black Hole in Indonesian History

January 12, 2017

9786029144369-cover.inddLeila S Chudori, Home, Lontar Foundation, 2015. Translated by John H McGlynn.

Imagine that you have left your country to attend a conference. While you are away the military takes control, bans the largest political party, and starts jailing, torturing and killing members of that party. Then you find that your passport has been revoked. You were not a member of the party, but some of your workmates were, and that’s close enough.

You can’t go home.

As time passes you realise you can never go home. This is what happened to thousands of Indonesians after September 1965.

Growing up under the Suharto regime, Leila Chudori knew nothing of these people until she travelled to Paris and met exiles running an Indonesian restaurant. Her novel, Home, was prompted by their stories.

The first part of the book follows Dimas Suryo, who works for a news agency where some journalists support the Communist Party and others the Islamic Party. Dimas sits on the fence – he is attracted to Marxist ideals but also likes talking with an Islamic friend about spiritual matters. Reluctantly he agrees to attend a leftist journalism conference in Chile in place of a colleague who finds he cannot go.

leila-chudori

Leila S Chudori (Asian American Writers’ Workshop)

Unable to return home after the military takeover, Dimas makes his way to France and joins other exiles to establish an Indonesian restaurant. He marries a spirited French woman, Vivienne, and they have a daughter, Lintang Utara. This section of the story is infused with Dimas’s longing for his homeland.

The second part of the book switches to Lintang’s point of view. She is studying cinematography at the Sorbonne and, for her final assignment, decides to make a documentary film about the victims of the Suharto regime. She begins to explore the Indonesian part of herself. She manages to get a visa to Indonesia by concealing her relationship to her father.

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Restaurant Indonesia, 12 Rue de Vaugirard, Paris, inspired Chudori to write her novel.

 

In the third and longest part of the book, Lintang arrives in Indonesia in May 1998, just as it is about to, again, explode. Now the point of view is shared between her and two brave human rights activists, sons of friends of Dimas. Lintang, busy filming, experiences the student demonstrations, the demands for Reformasi, the shooting of the Trisakti University students and the resignation of Suharto. This is the most gripping part of the book because of the dangers and the speed of the action.

I felt a strong connection to the characters in Home – I cared about them, even Dimas, who could be infuriating and self-sabotaging at times. Lintang is the most sympathetic character.

I felt ‘at home’ in Chudori’s easy style and, as an Indonesian cuisine tragic, I loved the many references to food and meals. The book has some marvellous set pieces, such as a dinner party in Jakarta, in which Lintang reacts when the wealthy hosts unknowingly insult her father and his restaurant.

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May 1998 Trisakti Incident (Publication of Indonesian Government without copyright notice)

 

Indonesians who grew up after 1965 have been kept in the dark about the events of that time, but now novelists are filling in this ‘black hole’ in the country’s history. Pulang, the Indonesian edition of Home, was published in 2012, the same year as Laksmi Pamuntjak’s Amba. (My review of the English edition, The Question of Red, is here.) The two books complement each other:

  • Pamuntjak tells of Suharto’s victims within Indonesia while Chudori focusses on the exiles.
  • Pamuntjak’s two main characters are extraordinary, larger than life, like characters from mythology, while Chudori portrays ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.
  • Chudori is a highly skilled writer, but her prose does not sing as sweet as Pamuntjak’s more literary style.
  • Home is the lighter novel, easier to read, while the reader needs to invest more in The Question of Red.

Pamuntjak says that people need to know what happened, and fiction is one way of getting the information across – “because it is more fun reading stories than long historical accounts.”

I found both books absorbing and rewarding and, yes, despite the heavy subject matter, great fun.

The Question of Red

January 8, 2017

The Question of RedLaksmi Pamuntjak, The Question of Red, 2014, translated by the author.

Love and hate are intertwined in human life.

Intolerance exists in every human society and country, says Laksmi Pamuntjak, and emerges as force and violence. Her novel, The Question of Red, is set during the massacres and repression beginning in Indonesia in 1965, in which possibly a million people accused of being Communists were murdered. It also covers the Muslim-Christian conflict of 1999-2002 in the Maluku Islands. That violence displaced 700,000 people and claimed at least 5000 lives.

Pamuntjak is pointing to the similarities shared by the two sets of events, and by other conflicts, going back to the archetypal civil war of the Mahabharata epic. She gives her protagonists, Amba and Bhisma, names from figures in that epic, which is central to Javanese culture.

“I once believed one must be prepared to sacrifice oneself to prevent the triumph of hatred,” says Bhisma. “But hatred doesn’t go away, I realise now.”

Laksmi Pamuntjak

Laksmi Pamuntjak

But nor does love go away. The Question of Red weaves two strands through its pages: a story of great love, and a chronicle of the history of those violent events. Love doesn’t go away despite the fact that Bhisma and Amba are only together for two weeks, which begin at the time of the abortive coup on 30 September 1965 and end when Bhishma disappears in the chaos following a military attack on a University in Yogyakarta.

Bhisma is not a Communist Party member, but some of his friends were left-wingers, so he was arrested and sent to the prison island of Buru.  There he continually writes letters to Amba, and buries them under a tree in the hope that she may eventually be able to read them.

Indonesian Edition

The Indonesian edition is titled “Amba”

Amba does what she needs to do to protect and nurture their child, but her life is overwhelmingly defined by the loss of Bhisma. In 2006, she receives an anonymous email telling her Bhisma had been on Buru Island, but has now died. She resolves to travel to Buru to find out the truth about her lover.

One of the pleasures of the book is the use of colour. Rather than the Us and Them of black and white, Amba follows colour and light. She rejects the man her parents choose for her: “I always knew I would fail him because I could not love tidily. … For me love could not be a duty. I only knew how to love body and soul. That meant loving a thousand colours, loving what makes you feel alive. It also meant loving imperfection.”

Bhisma is colour-blind – he cannot distinguish between red and green, and this results in a fateful turn in the story. Red is crucial to the story in several ways. It is maligned as the colour of Communism. It is reclaimed by Amba’s daughter Srikandi, an artist, when she is asked why there is so much red in her work:

I grew up with red, you see. It’s been the key colour of my life. I learned at school, of course, that red meant one thing, I think you all know what it is, and I understood how that was supposed to have made us all fear it. But I never bought it, this lie, because, wherever we are, red is inescapable: the red of apples and tomatoes, of the blood of the chicken you cut up for food, and for us women, our own menstrual blood. .. I was never scared of red, despite that stupid propaganda film we schoolchildren had to watch each year. … At home as a child I grew up with the most glorious shades of red. Ruby, scarlet, vermilion, puce, carmine, claret, burgundy, crimson, magenta, damask, garnet, maroon. I knew the power of each of those names. For that I have one person to thank, and that person is my mother. She was a warrior, someone who was not afraid of anything.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Photo: Alchetron)

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, one of Indonesia’s greatest writers, was imprisoned on Buru for 14 years. (Photo: Alchetron)

The Question of Red is a complex, multi-layered novel spanning the period from the 1950s to 2011. Time shifts threaten to derail the story, but never do so. Despite its subject matter, it is a joy to read, because of the literary quality of the prose and the depth of the characters. Pamuntjak is bilingual and translated the novel herself. She has written two books of poetry in English, one of which was included in the 2005 UK Herald Books of the Year.

To me, Buru had abstractly represented the evil of the Suharto regime, but now I have a more concrete sense of the physicality of the island and the prison camps, and understand something of what life was like for the prisoners. Pamuntjak’s dedication for the book is: For those once incarcerated in Buru, who have given me new eyes. She has passed those new eyes on to her readers, whether they are Indonesians or citizens of other countries who love Indonesia.

'Map of Detention centres across Indonesia

Map of Detention centres across Indonesia, ca. 1976. From Tapol, Indonesia: The Prison State

Foreign Soil

December 30, 2016

Foreign SoilMaxine Beneba Clarke, Foreign Soil, Hachette, 2014

Maxine Beneba Clarke is a master of voice.

In the first story of this collection, a young woman from a Sudanese family has taken on Australian ways. She has just bought a new pushbike: “Those wheels were gonna change my life, I knew it. Sure fucken thing.”

Wheeling it into the street, she meets an older, traditional woman: “This young woman, she walking down Barkly Street with that red bike, brand new and for herself even though she look like she Sudanese and a grown mother too.”

The story alternates between the viewpoints of the two women. The older woman is shocked, but at the same time fascinated, by the bike. (We find out why by the end of the story). The young woman resents being judged, and in her mind she hears other older women criticising “these children, born in this country [who] think they can behave like the Australian children.”

Clarke’s skill in writing different voices makes the culture clash between the two protagonists clear and believable. The clash then takes an unexpected and moving turn, which filled me with wonder that so much could be fitted into such a short story.

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette)

Two stories are set in Jamaica. One uses Jamaican patois for dialogue, and the other, Big Islan, is written entirely in patois. In the story, Nathaniel’s wife is teaching him the alphabet: “Since J fe Jamaica, everytin aroun Nathaniel seem like it nyah quite de same. Since J fe Jamaica, de ocean bin callin, nyah calmin, de young man.” At first, this might appear difficult, but I found that once I immersed myself in it, I could read and enjoy it quite quickly. I am grateful to Clarke for painlessly introducing me to this patois. The story also illustrates how literacy may create dissatisfaction.

While Clarke is Australian, her parents’ original home was Jamaica. Most of the point of view characters in the stories are from the African diaspora, people now living in London, Jamaica or Australia. However Clarke also channels two white Australian women (a hairdresser and a social worker), two white American women, one of whom is transgender, and a Tamil boy who flees Sri Lanka as a refugee and ends up in Villawood Detention Centre.

Can authors write characters of different ethnicity to themselves? Of course they can provided, as Louise Doughty says, they do due diligence. When we step outside our own skin, we should do it properly, with acres of research, whether we’re channelling a Sri Lankan or a neurosurgeon.

This issue has recently been in the news, thanks to Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival in which she claimed, wrongly, that she had been accused of cultural appropriation and that she’d been told she shouldn’t write characters of different ethnicity. She was responding to a review of her latest book which, in fact, did not make those accusations. Rather, the reviewer was criticising her use of racist stereotypes. Shriver had not done due diligence.

Maxine Beneba Clarke confronted Shriver at the Festival and called her a racist. Has Clarke done due diligence in her stories? My impression is that she has put enormous efforts into getting it right, with painstaking research going into each story. Clarke herself has said, “For a while, I knew everything that happened in Jamaica in 1949.”

In an otherwise positive review. Fiona Wright notes that “telling the stories of other marginalised groups … is a risky business”, and points to what she considers minor inaccuracies in the story of the Tamil boy. Clarke has replied with a convincing rebuttal of Wright’s claim.

Interestingly, Clarke sees limits – she would not write a first-person indigenous voice. ”I feel, even though I’m a migrant of colour, I’m a beneficiary of the colonisation of Australia.” That statement indicates how scrupulous she is.

Clarke’s skills, particularly in creating voices, make these stories a pleasure to read, even when painful things happen to the characters. I’m particularly taken with the longest story in the book, Gaps in the Hickory, set in New Orleans and Mississippi. In my memory it takes up a space as big as a novel.