Thursday, April 30, 2015

Signs that a true genius has appeared in the world

No other book is as infectiously humorous and as enjoyably absurd as A Confederacy of Dunces. I would like to have met its author, John Kennedy Toole, someday, if it wasn't for the misfortune of his suicide eleven years prior to the publication of this cult classic-turned-mainstream sensation. I think this is the third Pulitzer award-winning novel that I have read since Middlesex and The Orphan Master's Son, and so far the streak of such critically-acclaimed pieces has yet to let me down. It took me a whole week to finish this book only because I had X-Men comics books squeezed in to read and review in between, but if they weren't there, I can honestly say that I would've finished Toole's book in just two days because even the grimy parts are so riveting.

This was a gripping tale akin to superb situational comedies in television, composed of an ensemble of not-always-likable characters who misunderstand the intentions and needs of others including their own. That, to me, is the charm of A Confederacy of Dunces. Its pages were principally filled with people who are vivid and alive because its author has grounded them in realism that is not often flattering in portrayal and yet the characterizations remain curiously honest nonetheless.

Now I just found out that this is actually what one calls a "picaresque novel" which is defined as "a genre of prose fiction which depicts the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. Picaresque novels typically adopt a realistic style, with elements of comedy and satire." Think of this book's protagonist as the American equivalent of Don Quixote but a much more pitiful version--a breathing obese man of paradoxical inclinations and eccentric opinions about himself and the society named Ignatius J. Reily.

"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."
~Jonathan Swift

He is disillusioned and uniquely self-entitled; someone whose education and highbrow level of thinking have contributed to his bafflingly misanthropic views concerning his fellowmen and their vices and sins he perceived to be their only defining qualities. He is filled with resentment for the moral decay of his hometown, New Orleans during the 1960's, and attributes that to the various groups of minorities whom he believes corrupts the sanctity of the place. As outlandishly entertaining as he may be, I found myself growing increasingly weary and frustrated of him, especially when it came to the lamentations he'd write in his journal. He's the kind of grating idealist who puts more importance on his ideals and is comfortable upholding them in spirit only, and never does anything remotely valuable for it in practice. However, every time he would exercise some form of civil action, it often leads to clumsy and ridiculous scenarios which Toole writes about with such great wit and humor.

Comparing him to the endearing Don Quixote is an injustice of sorts because Ignatius is truly appalling because he is unmindful of how obnoxiously he treats his own mother, Irene, and the array of other secondary characters around him. For all his self-awareness and staunchly conservative views about morality, as well as his insistence on clinging to antique philosophical world views, Ignatius does not possess any kind of social intelligence whatsoever. I would have guessed that he might possibly belong somewhere in the autism spectrum. He is overtly meticulous of his clothing (he wears the same thing every day; that infuriating green hunting cap and red sweater) but ignores other forms of hygiene and personal neatness. He is an insufferable buffoon whose only redeeming facet is that he makes me laugh and I can't stop reading about the hilarious misunderstandings he gets caught up in.

The narrative of the book focuses mostly on Ignatius' "struggles" to find a decent job and the laughable ways he would sabotage his own means of livelihood because of his inherent tendency to impose intellectual superiority over the people he meets in workplaces. He is inconsiderate about everyone; he has low opinions about everything especially when they contradict his rigid moral codes, and he is essentially a hypocrite who will constantly fail to acknowledge himself as one even if he stares at himself in the mirror. He trivializes real social issues in exchange for his imagined ones which were so tone-deaf and goddamn outdated. His disillusion is only matched by his on-and-off college girlfriend Myrna Minkoff who considers herself a radical activist but is just as blinded and superficial in her crusades for social change. That being said, I enjoyed him endlessly as the main character. He was every bit of fascinating as much as a vehicular accident I cannot turn away from as it crashes over and over again.

Other characters were also so interesting to read because they were so well-defined by their mannerisms, language and thoughts every time they appear in the pages, often doing something crazy and desperate yet undeniably human and sympathetic that would earn chuckles from me every now and then. In fact, the most noticeable and commendable trait Toole deserves to be praised with is the way he creates lasting impressions on these characters through the way he makes them speak and communicate. Like any great satire, A Confederacy of Dunces relies a lot on situational ironies which are sprinkled in the scenes where characters would discuss certain things or be engaged in mundane-turned-bizarre scenarios that one cannot help but find them infectious and clever. Toole has a dark sense of humor yet a knack for impressive comedic timing in the way he sets up these situations. If this was ever adapted for a TV show or film, I think that all the dialogues should be kept intact. They're the novel's strongest suit.

Toole's own mother had insisted on getting this book published after her son's death, and I'm pleased that she persevered in that pursuit because it would have been a literary crime to keep this novel away from public consciousness. I loved every chapter and detail offered in . I have never been so touched or moved into a fit of giggles like this. As annoyed as I am by Ignatius, his journal ramblings dripping in condescencion and sarcasm have been a source of joy for me. The bastard also has a lucky streak. I cannot tell you how infuriating it had been that after all the lives he accidentally ruined or made worse, Ignatius manages to walk out on everyone, unscathed. What a lucky son of a bitch.

But I wouldn't want to spoil you of the journey ahead of you if you happen to decide to adapt some good 'taste and decency' (as Ignatius himself would phrase it) to pick up this novel and experience the absurdities unfold for yourself. The front row seat to A Confederacy of Dunces will be the most engaging albeit confusing experience you will ever have in your life so I suggest you don't miss out. The book is vibrant and memorable; Toole's delivery is grounded by realistic characters accompanied by this heightened sense of entertainment that was only made possible through the perfect blended style of comedy and drama which its author both lovingly and crudely instilled in the text.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Rainbow wings bloodied yet still fluttering

On deciding for the title of this novel, writer Jerzy Kosinki was inspired by the symbolic use of birds in literature which "allowed certain people to deal with actual events and characters without the restrictions which the writing of history imposes". He states that there was a certain peasant custom he witnessed as a child before in which he describes it as follows:
"One of the villagers' favorite entertainment was trapping birds, painting their feathers, and then releasing them in the air to rejoin their flock. As these brightly colored creatures sought the safety of their fellows, the other birds, seeing them as threatening aliens, attacked and tore at the outcasts until they killed them.
Due to the controversial nature and content of this book, I was surprised that I even stumbled upon a copy about a year ago while once again casually flipping through the general section of a bookstore. I've only known about the book months prior to acquiring it, and I was so excited to start reading it on a scheduled time. Some months later, I did just that and for two days I was immersed in witnessing the ugliest and most vile horrors I have ever read in fiction that were loosely based from real-life accounts of people who lived through the second World War. There was nothing about this book I enjoyed, to be honest. It was psychologically painful and slightly numbing to peruse through, especially with each chapter dealing with deprived deviant acts of the social and sexual kind. That being said, this is a spectacular novel that examines the darker and sickening aspects of human nature, and it was successful in its depiction because I don't think any decent person would enjoy the varying degrees of cruelty and degradation that Kosinski have shared in The Painted Bird.

The Painted Bird follows the travels of a six-year-old Jewish boy in Central Europe, and whose parents have sent him away in beliefs that he would fare better away from the heart of the warfare and Nazism at the time. What happens mainly instead over the course of the book is that the boy was forced to grow up very quickly, robbed of another option, as he stays in one village after another, more often discriminated against, beaten up and rarely cared for. As a book that deals with the Holocaust, Kosinski managed to stay away from events surrounding the actual prison or labor camps where the Jews were gassed or incinerated. We all know that's where the real horror lies but Kosinski challenged this idea and revealed to us that in times of warfare, even the most modest of places such as rural villages can be sources of the most potent evil human beings are capable of. 

This book delved deeply on the shocking ways that antisemitic sentiment, religious persecution and barbaric superstitions could turn people into hateful creatures; that even the simple folk back then can and will ruefully participate in terrible acts, often justifying their malicious intentions as divine interventions, against the boy himself, and any Jewish or Gypsy person of the same ilk who would pass their way. I don't think it's worth specifying these truly disgusting and abhorrent events here in my review, mostly because I'm still sick to my stomach just thinking about them. Even the subtlest ways of these people when it comes to their maltreatment of the boy just because he has black hair and dark eyes (and therefore an abomination to God) were chilling in retrospect. So, yes, I did not enjoy reading this book but I was fully hypnotized into trudging along each chapter anyway.

I could then claim that this was a great exercise on moral conscience and inherent human compassion on the end of the readers such as myself who have developed a certain keen sense of cynicism over the years regarding the world at large. I am not shocked easily by gory details but I have to admit that this book made me feel bad every time I try to insert some humor in my initial thoughts in Goodreads for the reading updates while reading. It doesn't feel like a subject to be made light of, personally, but it was also the only way I can endure reading the chapters--I had to find some sort of morbid amusement and detachment just so I don't get thoroughly disheartened. 

What was so moving about this novel, however, was the main character of the boy who remains unnamed throughout, but whose iron will and resilient youth had made it possible for him to come out on the other side alive, though fragmented and forever changed. Children are tougher than we give them credit for, and I was comforted with the fact that he was resourceful in adapting to multiple situations where his own life and innocence are fully at stake. This book features tons of examples of mob mentality (the likes of which are awfully symbolized by the painted-birds analogy Kosinski has utilized), as well as separate incidents of incest and bestiality, and a rather disconcerting abundance of gang rapes at the later part of the book where a whole chapter is devoted describing the entire thing in painstakingly gross detail. This is not a book meant for enjoyment so if you happen to decide you want to read it, please remember what I just said in this review.

The Painted Bird also operates on the wisdom that there are no happy lives, just happy moments, and about fifty pages near the end, the readers are allowed to view snapshots of the boy's life in the aftermath of the fall of the Third Reich and though there was nothing immediately uplifting about it, it's the best happy ending he could make out of from the traumatic experiences that have shaped him, and malformed him somehow. Personally, I didn't expect that there's going to be a healing message by the end of this tragic tale anyway. I think the ambiguity of the resolution for The Painted Bird accomplishes what it was set out to do in the first place: to remind readers that the darkness hovering in our lives is real and it could seep through the cracks, whether or not we allow it. 

But the real test of courage and spiritual enlightenment is on how we cope and deal with the poison that corrodes our systems, and I would like to believe against hope that we can rise above our own base impulses towards hatred, ignorance and persecution. There is corruption and sickness in the world, yes, but we all should strive to be the balm on its infected pores. The Painted Bird, after showing me so much inhumane and malicious acts that people do to each other, has also reminded me of my humanity and the blessings and burdens of ensuring I don't give in to the call of moral decay and disintegration of values, no matter how easy (and even remotely tempting) it is to be lesser beings.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Of men of old and their lesser gods

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is a substantial and illuminating piece of African literature written by its author in the English language with the purposes of not only portraying the Nigerian tribal culture through the neutral lenses of one of its native writers, but also to connect with a wider, global audience who very much need a fresh perspective when it comes to how Africans live, worship and govern themselves as families and clans. In this sense, most of the critical acclaim that this novel received is well-deserved. I could definitely agree that it's something schools should require for students to read and analyse in their literature classes. I also think that the broader strokes that Achebe achieved in writing Things Fall Apart must be better appreciated, I believe, with the sequels that followed it. I myself feel encouraged to pick them up someday. For now, I'm content to lavish on the richly detailed significant moments that happened in this book which were relayed with both sheer insight and pragmatism in a scale I thought was admirable and genuine.

he central figure of this book is a native named Okonkwo who is considered to be one of the most formidable wrestlers in his clan. He also fancies himself as a self-made man of brute force and hard labor, dedicated in making a name and reputation for himself where his own father before him has failed. From the very start, readers are immediately informed that Okonkwo despises weakness and laziness since his culture demands a man to be strong with the typical and traditional traits of masculinity. He must be steadfast in dominating his wives and children and must never show affection or leniency even towards his loved ones. The mark of a proud man, indeed, and this singular quality has made him rather unappealing to me. Nevertheless, I thought he was a main character I didn't mind reading about or learning more from since there are other times I think he is also sympathetic enough to warrant some of my understanding and compassion. I like the fact that Okonkwo values hard work above all else, that he has to strive to attain for a prosperous life, and that he wants the same for his eldest son borne of his first wife. In this sense, I thought he was agreeable enough.

With Okonkwo as the focal point, Achebe also explored the inner workings of the clan he is a part of which include some practices and customs that may seem bizarre from an outsider's point-of-view. Much of the book delved upon the daily grind of their lives which include the homemaking and services provided by the women, festivities and certain offerings for their gods especially during harvest seasons, and the clan's very own judicial system which may seem primitive if not outright cruel for modern readers who will encounter it in this book but I think it's a system that works best for them in the long run. There is also a matter of how Okonkwo treats his wives and children which are questionable, of course, because he can be violent and definitely beats them around whenever they displease him but Achebe never describes this violence in detail which gives the effect that such a occurrence is commonplace. I didn't particularly feel enraged either only because Achebe can somehow make a reader readily understand that this is simply a matter of how the culture works and whatever preconceived judgments someone of my own upbringing has should be cast aside to enable to view this with a more pragmatic observation. 

I succeeded, in this case, and bore in mind that a husband beating his wife in the context of their culture is his right because she is his property, and that is a norm I should only consider myself fortunate not to be a part of. In my perspective, it is nothing other than systematic abuse that is normalized by societal acceptance, but to the clansmen and women it's what is prescribed by their laws and religion. I find it amusing, though, that there was a mention of a certain holiday where husbands cannot beat their wives because it would displease gods. The irony of that did not escape me.

I think books like this one (and Mahfouz' Palace Walk which I read a week ago) have challenged me to keep an open mind when it comes to things which I'm readily prejudiced against especially when it comes to the maltreatment or oppression of women as portrayed in fiction. I think an author's intention is the defining point in this and so far neither Achebe or Mahfouz has glorified violence or the subjugation of women and their neutrality is helpful and comforting somewhat. Still, there are real social issues and horrors that condemn and harm women across the world; some of those struggles are culturally unique as well, but although Achebe and Mahfouz have touched upon them in their respective books, their stories were ultimately not modes of advocating for it or against it, so readers shouldn't concern themselves too seriously about them when reading either of these books. 

Or you may choose to do so but hopefully with caution, tact and good intentions. Such an open discussion is something that might prove to be otherwise fruitful. 

Going back to the review: Things Fall Apart as a chronicle of tribal life is well-versed and insightful, but midway in the book, the story gradually builds up to the altercations and cross-cultural misunderstandings that occur between the Africans and the Christian missionaries who settled in their homelands, and whose warped sense of ethnocentrism and religious fervor drove them to convert these people they perceive to be barbaric and inferior to them. I thought this is the most exciting part of the entire novel itself even though it only happened for less than a hundred pages. Amdist this conflict is Okonkwo who view these outsiders as a plague that threaten to corrode their way of life and worship, and he must make the ultimate choice as an individual as to whether or not he must subject himself and his family to their will.

At the heart of Things Fall Apart are the small moments of triumph and compassion that Okonkwo and his family share which are my favorite parts of the book. But, unlike Palace Walk, this novel is not character-centered so I can admit that I find myself rather detached at times when reading certain texts. I never felt like I knew any of the characters in this book so identifying with their sorrows and struggles never deepen enough to take root. In general, I've looked at the events that took place in Things Fall Apart with the knowledge and experience of someone who grew up and lived in a colonized nation such as the Philippines. Contextualizing my own cultural struggles with the ones Achebe have showcased here was rather helpful. My country is an archipelago which meant that there are still a variety of existing tribal natives in other lands, and though the Philippines is now a homogeneous Christian nation, that road to progress is paved by civil wars between the Filipinos and their Spanish patrons who aimed to spread the Catholic faith by any means necessary.

I think this was why I was very fascinated and sympathetic with the last five or six chapters of the book that delved upon this conflict because I have read it in my own history books. In this manner, I thought Things Fall Apart is remarkable and brilliant. It may not be as personal or intimate as my reading of Mahfouz' Palace Walk has been but it's nonetheless just as invigorating and exceptional. This is a book with impressive breadth and insight, and one you should strive to explore at one point in your life. It's quite an indisputable treasure.


Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Divergence Between Two Places

Two years ago, I spotted Palace Walk in a bookshelf and thought that this might be an interesting read because the last time I encountered a story that has something to do with Muslim culture was in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner and that was it. Still, I always strive to expand my preferences and immerse myself on literature that is more culturally diverse than I'm more used to. In all honesty, I also selected to buy this particular book because of the Nobel Prize Awardee label attached to it. So trusting that alone, I essentially went blind purchasing this novel, not knowing what to expect. I didn't even research about the book afterwards, and only done so once I finally finished it last night during a four-day Holy Week vacation at a beach resort.

In addition to reading Magneto Testament (which I just finished under an hour) Palace Walk has filled my humid, sea-drenched days with unexpected humor and entertainment each time I turn its pages, because this was actually a witty book filled with cultural and psychological insights on a lifestyle and struggle I was never very familiar with, but could very much deeply relate to nonetheless. It was rather shocking for me then, to be this insatiably riveted about a novel that mainly derives its drama and development from one family that's composed of some of the most well-rounded, compelling and sympathetic characters I have ever come across in literature.

I was mistaken to believe this is going to be an intimidating and difficult novel to peruse through (much like The Kite Runner which could be gruelling and depressing at times). I really thought this would be challenging in a sense that its exploration or themes would be dark and serious but I was pleased to have been misled by that first impression. Palace Walk is an utter delight, and a novel I can definitely say is very much character-centered in its approach and exposition. Writer Naguib Mafouz found his story's core strength and purpose by ensuring that these characters that readers would get to spend time with are always engaging and vibrant that we never stopped caring about them for a second. I may not always agree with certain characters' habits, temperament and actions but Mafouz has shown brilliant calibre because he managed to infuse just the right details concerning their personal lives that readers can't help but sympathize with them anyway.

Set in 1917 in Cairo, Egypt during the first World War, the novel could have stressed and divulged more on the political climate which had engulfed the place and its constituents at the time, but in all honesty we never truly touch upon that until the last hundred pages or so of this five-hundred-paged book. What the writer chose to dwell on instead is the Abd al-Jawad family who is the integral part of the overall narrative structure for Palace Walk. The author spent a great majority of the story tackling the inner conflicts and dynamics present within this household with the father al-Sayyid Ahmad, his doting and subservient wife Amina, and their three sons (Yasin, Fahmy and Kamal) and two daughters (Khadija and Aisha). Their individual roles, personalities and relationships with each other never fail to be a source of not only endless amusement for me, but also substantial reflections about social issues.

As awfully entertaining Palace Walk has been in the way the writer dwelt with much of the interactions and scenes using wit and humor, Mafouz was also able to tackle general sensitive issues with sheer elegance and understanding, and they concern mostly of the submissive parts that women in general play during that time as dictated by their religious practices, as well as the pronounced gender dichotomy and bias that are so ridiculous through our modern perception by now. Now I have never considered myself a staunch feminist but it did make me wonder if there are particular scenarios in this book that might possibly offend me if I did view it as a feminist in the first place (which, by the way, I never claimed to be).

My own socio-political leanings aside, I was still very much appalled with the fact that the Muslim women in this book are not allowed to go to school or learn issues from the outside world. Their needs must always coincide with the men in their family, and their duties and fulfilment should always be centered around domesticity and homemaking. I think this has always been the case though some Islam-based countries have started to radically change these old-world practices. But taking into account the times this book was written in, I suppose I can understand why this is the way women are portrayed because it's an honest depiction of the lives they led at the time. Regardless, I believe Mahfouz has written these themes with surprising optimism that blended so well with the tactful way he approached the issue. I never felt bad for the women. In fact, I developed genuine admiration for them with the way they managed to find the smallest joys even if I can't for the life of me imagine living such a heavily restricted existence where I'm not allowed to study in school, form my opinions and speak my mind, make my own choices and find a career other than being a housewife and mother. I try to avoid contextualizing my modern sensibilities as I read Palace Walk though, and doing so has made me enjoyed the novel and the characters a lot more.

For me to futher illustrate this gender dichotomy for this review, let's take the mother Amina as an example. She is one of my top favorites and I find her to be impressive in spirit and character. She is virtuous and steadfast in her devotion to her philandering husband, and possesses a naturally curious mind that never truly realizes its potentials only because of the limitations that precede her gender. Her only means to learn about new information is through her sons who adore her enough to include her in their intellectual debates and discussions some of the time. It was mentioned later on that there are women who are allowed by their husbands to go outside every once in a while, but Amina's husband al Sayyid-Ahmad is just too much of a conservative and controlling patriarch that wants to dominate everyone in his household. The thing that really pisses me off about this man is that he's a hypocrite. He maintains a false façade around his family while living a completely hedonistic life when he's around his co-workers and multiple lovers. Later on I began to pity him because he was always so concerned about keeping up appearances that his children have only known how to fear him and not love him. That's I think is the greatest tragedy for a father but I don't think he will ever realize this, nor is it a concern of his.

As for the children, I really loved the eldest daughter Khadija and the youngest Kamal. Khadija is definitely relatable because she is opinionated and shows a lot of intelligence which sadly only gets to shine through her deflective use of sarcasm to cover up her insecurities. Much of her conflict revolves around being unmarried at twenty and the preference of suitors and potentials husbands to her younger sister Aisha whom I find only remarkable in beauty and not in personality. Kamal, on the other hand, is inquisitive and playful, always living in his imagination and daydreams which makes him often a problem for his family. I love him very much though because of his inclination to learn and his outward sunny disposition even if his father disapproves of him, as well as his affectionate relationships with his mother and sisters which I hope will stay the same even when he grows older.

The older two sons, Yasin and Fahmy, are well-written characters themselves. Yasin is the son from al-Sayyid Ahmad's first marriage and he is probably the closest one who mirrors his father in a lot of ways, mostly his unflattering and vain qualities such as the way he perceives women and wrongly asserts his morality for the sake of a false sense of masculine security. Again, as much as I dislike both of these men, I can understand why they believe they have a right to live their lives according only to their pleasure and whims, with callous disregard of the way their loved ones would feel. Meanwhile, Fahmy is the second son who is an aspiring lawyer and is very much interested to involve himself in the inner workings of politics which I think could lead to some potentially disastrous results especially since they are living during wartime. I like Fahmy enough because aside from Kamal who is still fairly young, he doesn't seem to be that preoccupied with lustful adventures unlike his father and brother, and finds more satisfaction in scholarly matters. Still, the truth remains that the gender dichotomy that their culture and society permeates is harmful in this sense, I believe. Though the men are free to be who they want to be, they are still equally oppressed because they also feel that they have to play parts that serve to hide who they are and how they feel inside, all for the sake of machismo and patriarchy.

Basically, the selling point of this novel is that it's well-balanced; there are light and funny parts, as well as serious discussions about religion and political strife; all the while the author himself took much care and sensitivity in regards to the way he characterized his protagonists in the context of their own belief systems that may not always be agreeable but were articulated authentically enough to merit some contemplation. This book is also part of a trilogy, and I will certainly pick up the next two books because I am intrigued and invested on the world that Mahfouz has created. Palace Walk excels in the exploration of the day-to-day pressures, self-reflection and relationships of its characters. As a reader, I can't help but care about their welfare even with Yasin and al-Sayyid Ahmad whom I only have lukewarm feelings for. I was able to celebrate the joys and despair the losses that these characters experienced as I glided comfortably through the pages, and I think that alone makes this novel very commendable and worth the read.

Overall, Palace Walk is humorous, insightful and easily enjoyable. If you like character-centered plots and family drama in general then this book might appeal to you. It doesn't take itself that seriously and when it does, it can be warm and sublime in a lot of aspects, allowing readers to appreciate and value the richness of their own beliefs and idiosyncrasies as contrasted or reflected by the Abd al-Jawad family's own.