MY REFUGEE BUDDY

Alex Panasenko and I were faculty-mates at a bay area high school for decades. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known, and he was one of the most popular teachers on the staff.

He’s an eccentric cuss who doesn’t much care whom he offends, but still keeps himself likable. His appearance and accent are, to me, vaguely East European, maybe Russian, but I never got him to talk to me much about his background. I didn’t pry too hard. None of my business. After reading The Long Vacation I believe I understand a bit about his reluctance to dwell on the past. It was brutal, and in this memoir he tells the story beautifully.

We start in Ukraine. Alex’s (abusive) father teaches science, his mother keeps the house. They are poor but more or less comfortable even though Stalin is in charge. Then things go downhill. I’m going to skip over, even distort, much of what follows so as not to spoil the book for you readers, but I hope to deliver the flavor anyhow.

Stalin institutes one of his famous 5-year plans, which is really a project designed to starve Ukraine into submission so the vast, rich land can be handed over to Russians. (Sound familiar?) Then the Germans invade, and Alex is conscripted and the family is basically sent to war along with everyone else. Alex is separated from his parents and siblings and forced to hook up with some Germans for protection. This seeming shelter puts him in more peril because one of Stalin’s decrees is that any Russians (Ukrainians count for Brother Joe’s purposes in this instance) who conspire with Germans are subject to being shot on sight. The boy has to do a lot of dodging.

Most of us know the broad historical outlines here. The German invasion, the Russian slaughter, the German retreat, the horrid, bitter cold, the excruciating suffering–Alex the child was in the middle of it all.

Perhaps one anecdote will serve to illustrate. I’m thinking of the one about the exhausted mother on the train who fell asleep with her newborn in her arms, then awoke to find a frozen corpse in her lap. Bad enough. But then the agonizing guilt and shame drive her mad. She climbs off the train and starts walking in the direction where her child as been discarded in the snow miles earlier. The Russian guard on the train can’t allow her to “escape.” A single bullet takes care of her.

Alex leaves us when the Americans arrive. It’s been years since he’s been to school. He speaks Russian and a bit of German. End of “The Long Vacation.”

How he gets from Germany to the U.S., gets educated, ends up speaking fluent English and becomes an accomplished American science instructor I don’t know and find it hard to imagine. Anything I’ve suffered in my life is not worth a stubbed toe compared to this.

Aside from my personal attachment to Alex and his narrative, I find this a priceless piece of twentieth century history. Apparently, it took some doing to get him to write it. The world is richer for it. Nice going, Alex.

 


LOVE IN THE TIME OF COVID

I’m feeling a bit humble at my temerity. Daring to write a “review” of Love in the Time of Cholera. Greater skill and talent than mine have poured forth their riches explaining and exploring the depths of this gigantic piece of literature by a man who deserved the Nobel Prize even more than Bob Dylan. So, here goes, with the caveat that I’m writing for me and pretend not to enrich the mountain of golden criticism that already exists.

GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ

Courtly Love.  A term little set forth and even less understood nowadays. However, it’s a tradition that permeates this book, and in a most fascinating way. Courtly love was a convention that emerged around the twelfth century in Europe. The idea is that genuine affection had to be expressed over time and was subject to great trials and tribulations. Usually, the knight viewed a lady from afar, was smitten, and strove to communicate his affection. Since she was surrounded by family and chaperones whose sole project was to protect her virginity, it was a rough job for a prospective lover to work his way through the defenses. It might take years. A note here, a glance there, hundreds of false tries. That’s Florentine Ariza as he pursues Fermina Daza.

He’s a sorrowful poet, waiting in the park as he sees her on her way to school. He’s a passionate lover, seemingly on the brink of consummation when she suddenly marries another. He persists.

The novel’s setting is in a city near a river which creates swamps and and marshes, so cholera is always a threat. You can make what you want of a symbol like that, and Marquez evokes an enormous amount of meaning without getting heavy-handed about it.

Poor Florentino might seem a pitiable and comical soul somewhat like Goethe’s Werther, but as the years go by he develops into a powerful businessman, well-respected and admired in the community.  Fermina, meanwhile, cruises on in a basically loveless but secure and comfortable marriage. Florentino pursues her the while. This all goes on for decades.

Finally, Fermina’s husband dies in one of the great comic scenes in all of literature. I won’t spoil it all except to say that it involves a parrot, a ladder, and a birthday party.

Both Fermina and Florentino are well into old age by this time, but Florentino, as I said, has not given up. He’s not kept himself virginal over the years, but he has never abandoned his dream of a union with his first love.

Finally, there is a river voyage that not only provides a culmination of the relationship (sort of) but manages to deliver a frightening environmental message or two without preaching or interrupting the narrative.

It’s a story of young and old-age love unique in conception and composition. And it proved the perfect companion to this dreadful time in which we find ourselves. As they say, tears and laughter and great writing. Wonderful companions.

 

 


THE PICARESQUE ADVENTURES OF GEORGE WASHINGTON BLACK

 

We start in 1830. Faith Plantation. Barbados. Washington Black is 10 or 11. He’s not sure. Slavemasters are seldom dutiful about keeping their charges up to date on biographical nicities, but Author Edugyan Makes sure that even such missing details are important to the development of both character and plot.

Washington spends many of the first pages of the novel in nearly total bafflement of his status or purpose. At first, he’s a regular field hand, more or less in the custody of a woman named “Big Kit [we discover not much later that “Catherine” is her given name.] One day, the master’s younger brother comes for a visit. Washington [“Wash” as he is called] and Kit are summoned to the big house to serve at supper, duties for which their life in the fields have prepared them not at all.

During the course of the meal, brother Christopher shows an interest in Wash. He thinks the boy is just the right size to provide ballast for the hot air balloon he is building. He requests that Master (and older brother) Erasmus loan Wash to him while he prepares for the launch, which task will require that Wash remain under his care till the flight is accomplished.

Both Wash and Kit are mystified and apprehensive. Kit somehow procures a large nail, which she encourages Wash to use as a weapon in case Christopher tries some hanky-panky.

Spoiler alert: No hanky-panky.

Instead, Wash starts by helping lug equipment up the hill from which Christopher (“Titch” is his nickname) plans the take off. In the course of the preparations, Wash is revealed to have prodigious artistic talents which Titch thinks will be useful to expedition. In addition, he thinks Wash will be more useful if he’s able to do some reading, writing, and calculating. Suddenly, our hero is elevated above and beyond the status of slave and into territory that is not only unusual but probably illegal for one of his station.

Of course, things go wrong, and Wash is horribly burned and disfigured by an explosion of the hydrogen (no stable gases for this kind of thing in 1830) Titch is using to lift his craft into the sky. After a bit of healing time, though, takeoff is achieved, propelling Wash into a series of improbable but entirely believable adventures. The book’s structure fits squarely in the tradition of  Picaresque literature, a tradition not much recognized today, but which stretches back to the 16th Century (Don Quixote) and beyond, and  of which the world could use more.

We follow Wash for eight or ten years, during which time, he is shipwrecked, pursed by slavers, falls in love, and loses track of the benign master who was his source of sustenance as he escapes the plantation. As he matures, always a fugitive, highly recognizable as a slight black boy with a scarred face, he longs not only to avoid capture, but to find an identity and a place in the world. He also yearns for an explanation of his past. It’s a difficult collection of tasks that takes him from the tropics to the arctic, and Edugyan keeps us enthralled and in suspense the while.

I’ve not found a more compelling character nor a stronger fictional voice in my reading for the last couple of years. Dive into this one. You’ll be well-rewarded for the effort.

ESI EDUGYAN

 


JACK LONDON’S PLAGUE

 

Sitting at my keyboard, isolated by the CoVid pandemic, I have just finished an account of a fictional pandemic crafted by one of America’s great storytellers, Jack London. I owe it to a recent article by Joe Mathews in the SF Chronicle that I even heard of this small volume, and I am grateful to him for guiding me in its direction. I’ve never been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction in general, but I do have a fondness for a particular 1949 novel by George R. Stewart called

THE EARTH ABIDES

I was enthralled by the tale itself, but found the setting in the familiar Berkeley hills of particular interest. The protagonist emerges from the mountains after an illness only to find that civilization has collapsed under the weight of a great pandemic of unknown origins. The story consists of an old man explaining the unimaginable past to youngsters who go forth to seek out other survivors.

JACK LONDON
A YOUTHFUL JACK LONDON

After reading The Scarlet Plague,

I wondered if Stewart had drawn inspiration from London’s succinct novel. But no matter. Nothing like tapping into something that exactly fits the mood of the time. As well, the story is set in the Bay Area, which fits it not only into an era but into a most appropriate place. At least for me. And aren’t I the one who matters most here?

It’s 2073 (takes a while and a little math for a reader to arrive at the year), and an oldster named James Howard Smith, once a literature prof at University of California, is trying to explain to his grandsons what the world was like before the red death reduced a great and sophisticated civilization to a collection of illiterate and savage tribes. Sixty years in the past there were machines that flew through the air. People communicated through something called books and writing. No one had to hunt for food, it was easily available in stores. A store? What was that? Let me explain.

And so on. You get the idea.

London’s storytelling prowess is perhaps not on full display here, but the currents of  plot and character are plenty strong enough to carry the reader from one end of the river to the other with seldom a moment of still water. Even without a Tony Fauci or a Deborah Birx, there’s enough suspense and speculation to keep our literary boats afloat every second. CoVid 19 is with us now, but who knows,

THE SCARLET PLAGUE MIGHT WELL BE NEXT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


OFF WITH THEIR HEADS! HENRY RIDES AGAIN

 

You can’t blame literati and producers for going back to the well of British history and literature to fill yet another entertainment bucket with tales both fictional and and non. The stuff just plain sells. It’s almost as dependable as stories about Italian mobsters or Nazi’s.

As I write, another version of Jane Austen’s “least sexy” (why are we even talking about “Austen” and “sexy” in the same sentence?) novel has emerged. According to one source, Emma has thus far spawned four films, a BBC series, and a musical. Want more Brits? There’s the Downton Abbey franchise, and around 19 films about Henry VIII. And on and on. I’m not here to try explaining it, just pointing it out.

Perhaps the most erudite modern novelization of the Henry VIII saga is Hilary

HILARY MANTEL

Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, of which The Mirror and the Light is the final volume (Bringing Up The Bodies is the third). All three books follow the career of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who rose from a street urchin to Henry’s most trusted advisor. He was even honored with the Order of the Garter and an Earldom along the way. It was a long distance from pouring animal piss on hides in a tannery  to scratching out execution orders in the privy council. Mantel takes us into every corner of Cromwell’s mind and heart as we follow his machinations and manipulations, operating always at Henry’s behest (sometimes playing the tricky game of anticipating his wishes) and managing to do pretty well for himself along the way.

It’s a gigantic undertaking, this story that Mantel spins so ably. Two flaws from my point of view, though. First–and this is especially true of the The Mirror and The Light (great title, by the way), it’s too dense and long. The characters and their titles and families are so numerous and intertwined it becomes somewhat like reading–and even being expected to remember–the lists of  “begats” in Genesis. Not enough fingers and toes in the known world to accommodate a census of that magnitude. Thus, when someone’s cousin, who was a duke when we last met him, but who is now an earl, or his wife, who was a poor widow a few pages back, suddenly turns up at court with a fancy veil and a train of ladies. . . Well, maybe it’s just me.

Then there are the last thirty or forty pages. I truly like and admire Mantel’s Cromwell, and I think his execution is among the least justified of all the bloodletting in the ten years the book covers. But Mantel’s description of his final days is tantamount to a Wagnerian opera’s last movement. Will the fat lady ever, ever die? Mercifully, she finally does, and a beautifully described conclusion it is, too. It just takes soooo long to get there.

It’s fascinating and amazing to see how deftly Cromwell sets factions against one another, gets them accused of treason, then arranges for their executions. The pattern is as regular as English rain–always either falling or imminent. As a reader, you’re intrigued by how he does it over and over. Intrigued especially because Mantel’s Mann Booker prize-winning prose is so luxuriant, yet spare. Read for example this passage describing how poor Ann of Cleves, the German maid whom Henry greatly regrets marrying, lives waiting for Henry to decide her fate. Will she be allowed to go home to papa, or will her head roll like Anne Boleyn’s?

ANNE OF CLEVES
HENRY WHO ELSE?

 

“She Pretends all is well but she is like a jackdaw waiting for figs to ripen, living on hope.”

 

ANNE BOLEYN

There are hundreds of such poetic moments in this monumental work. For all the brutality he arranges, Cromwell himself is a complex character, who is sympathetic when he can be, and we readers are on his side all along. He treats his family well, helps many who come from low backgrounds like his own to gain income and stations in life even while he helps others to their graves. The whole matter of Catholicism vs. the Church of England winds through all this, of course. Henry’s entire adult life is dominated by his battles with the Pope and his minions. Henry’s first wife, the Spaniard  Catherine of Aragon, was the occasion for the split between Canterbury and Rome in the first place. How different history might have been had the Pope granted Henry that divorce. That particular Catherine was lucky to escape back to Spain with her religion and her body intact. Not so lucky was her daughter, Mary Tudor, who remained a virtual prisoner in England and remained as well a loyal Catholic who went about slaughtering protestants right and left when she succeeded Henry and became the tyrant-queen known as “Bloody Mary.”

MARY TUDOR (BLOODY MARY)

But for all his successes, which went on for ten years or so, Cromwell could escape neither the stigma of his humble origins nor the enmities of the families who were left behind when the axe fell not only on the queens such as Anne Boleyn,  but on those decapitated for supposedly associating (consorting) with her. The target on his commoner’s back became bigger and bigger with each spurt of arterial blood.

As servants of our current president have discovered, the hand that holds out treats can also wield a blade. To Mantel’s Cromwell, the end comes as a surprise, despite that he falls to exactly the kind of betrayal and intrigue he himself has arranged dozens of times. He helped Henry arrange his parade of wives in a way that enriched both Henry and England. But when he brought in Ann of Cleves with her body–slack breasts and soft belly–so repugnant that Henry couldn’t do his office to produce an heir, Cromwell was done.  Henry did later manage a productive visit or two with Jayne Seymour, which gave us the boy-king Edward VI, followed by the infamous Mary Tudor, followed in turn by the iconic Elizabeth I. Perhaps Hilary will keep her string going and give us her take on the Virgin Queen next. That I would like to read.