Monday, July 30, 2012

Inoculating children from a war-torn past in Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife

 Not so much a review as a reading response, this essay attempts to address what I find interesting about this book. It contains spoilers.

Digging for bones. Digging for stories. Digging’s a way to inoculate children against the war-torn past in Tea Obreht’s  The Tiger’s Wife.

Finding the bones, unearthing the stories, release the quick and the dead.
In an unnamed Balkan country, two young doctors, Natalia and Zora, cross former enemy lines on a goodwill mission to an orphanage where they will inoculate children against disease.

On her way Natalia receives a disturbing call from her grandmother Bako, telling her that her beloved grandfather, had gone off on his own to die in a village Natalia has never heard of.  Understanding why, contemplating the stories of his life and retrieving a bag of his belongings becomes Natalia’s other mission – one that intersects with the first at a place called the crossroads, a place where medicine, superstition and stories meet  --- and pass on. 

 Natalia and Zora stay at the home where a family of 10, all sick, is also staying and digging up their host’s orchard.  Particularly of concern to Natalia is the coughing and high fever of a young girl the family is treating with folk medicine – wrapping her in wine- soaked sheets and tying a foul smelling bag around her neck. Natalia confronts the diggers, telling them repeatedly she is a doctor and can help, scolding them for working at night in the vineyard while sick.  In so doing, she discovers they too are seeking a cure, searching for the bones of a cousin whose body was left behind during the war. They believe his wandering soul is the cause of their family illness.

Although Natalia’s first belief is that such digging is preposterous, mere superstition, her subsequent actions parallel theirs. She goes into former enemy land in search of her grandfather’s things. She returns to his home village, Galina, in search of his story. Natalia seeks and relates her grandfather’s stories as a way of understanding her own.  The two share experiences: Both grew up amid war; both were raised in part by grandparents; both chose to be doctors; both are in awe of tigers.
Her grandfather indoctrinated her well when young. He always carried a copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book in his breast pocket and took young Natalia on daily trips to the zoo to visit the tiger.  He told her he once knew a woman who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself and Natalia believed he was talking about her, giving her a fairy tale she could imagine herself in. His personal brush with a tiger and the woman who cared for him is the story she unearths.

Her grandfather also taught her about stories. Natalia relates an incident when her grandfather takes her to see an elephant being led through their city’s streets, an experience so exotic and entrancing she wants to share it. He tells her there are public stories like that of the war that belong to everyone and private ones that are just hers. Like the elephant. She asks if he has stories like that.
 He has two. Two stories, she tells us, that run through his life like rivers.  The story of the tiger’s wife, which she learned after his death, “is the story of how he became a man.” The story of the deathless man, which he told to her in three installments, is the “story of how he became a child again.”  We later learn that for the doctor being a man means to live and die in fear; being a child means to live and die in hope.
Those stories also run through this book like rivers. Both have many small tributaries, rivulets --- subplots and life stories of minor characters that flow into the two larger streams.

First there’s that of the deathless man.
Gavran (Gavo) Gaile can divine when others will die. As a young doctor, he fell in love and tried to cheat Death; as punishment he cannot die; he can only aid those who will on their way.  Grandfather first meets Gavo at his funeral when he pops upright out of a coffin. Subsequent installments take place at a Lourdes-like shrine where pilgrims have come seeking miracle cures, and on an eve of destruction at a restaurant in Sarobor. It’s where grandfather previously dined with Baku on their honeymoon. When grandfather first meets Gavo, he refuses to believe him. The three installments track the progress of his belief.

Natalia, in turn, accepts her role in the story of the deathless man when she recovers her grandfather’s belongings. This, not that of the Tiger’s Wife, is the fairy tale she belongs in. She opens his package just as the diggers open a suitcase with  their lost cousin’s bones – and she accepts the dangerous mission of taking remains to the crossroads in exchange for being allowed to inoculate the sick child. There she has her own brush with the mysterious.

The second story is the story of the tiger’s wife, which Natalia learns long after the funeral when she goes to Galina. It is a story of disappointment, violence, prejudice and treachery, and one in which her unsuspecting grandfather plays a  role in a death, a role he must have needed to recover from.

Like the other stories of his life, it is one where her grandfather crosses boundaries – accepting an outcast who in turn has befriended that which others most fear –a tiger that has wandered away from a zoo and made an unlikely home in the hills above the village.

While her grandfather carried The Jungle Book, he had ambivalent feelings toward Shere Khan, its tiger. His stories also suggest the “fearful symmetry” of another writer, William Blake whose Songs of Innocence and Experience include “The Tyger”  and “The  Lamb.” While a child, grandfather trained as a shepherd, but learned to read The Jungle Book and become smitten with medicine at the local apothecary,  the same place he was ultimately betrayed.

 Natalia’s stories are interesting for what they do not include:
how she came to know many details of the story of the tiger’s wife during a visit to Galina; her father’s story and her mother’s.  But the most interesting absence is that of Natalia’s Grandmother’s  story. Grandmother is a Muslim,  from Sarobor, home to the enemy, site of a massacre. Her background endangers the family years later. Sarobor is also the home of the Muslim woman who will come to be called the tiger’s wife, the younger sister of the woman who ran off with the doctor, Gavran Gaile.

How this story connects remains ambiguous and mysterious to me, even as it becomes the most intriguing.  There are some things we must leave unknown. The stories don’t offer each other direct correspondences though I would suggest they are about the unification of differences, holding hope with fear, wonder with terror, valuing private stories over the public ones.

  And they are about doctoring and its limits.  Doctors can sometimes only help the dying pass on. At one point, grandfather asks Natalia why she chose to become a doctor. She tells him. “Because it’s the right thing to do.” She also chose treating children as her specialty. They are the hope of the future.  But as her grandfather learned before her, medicine alone is sometimes not enough to live or die by – and that’s where grandfather and Natalia believe and find strength in story. 

As do we.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Reading through the heat

 I had a few days to write and read this week. I finally posted on The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a slow-in-coming response that stalled both reading and writing. (I did read a quick mystery  by Janet Evanovich that a friend lent me and I began paging my way through a very long historical novel, but I likely will leave my responses to both unwritten.)
So I began casting about for something new to read, something I might write about, and I picked up a novel I had seen reviewed in blogs and then on Amazon where it garnered good reviews and many stars. Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child takes place in Alaska in 1920 and is very cold – full of images of river ice cold enough to walk on, snowflakes and lovely swirls of frost on the window panes. It seemed the perfect antidote to what the newsmen are calling the “blistering” heat wave here in central Virginia. We have had electricity and thus air conditioning, but outdoor temperatures of around 100 make for indoor living. Nevertheless, I suppose I was hoping for the relief equivalent of Maine ocean swimming, something full of strong under currents and cold enough to make me forget the solid block of heat that slams me when I walk out my door. What I got instead in The Snow Child was dull as the week after a blizzard when thick snow has turned heavy and lumpy.  While like a good storm, this novel began with the promise of adventure, it quickly felt old, labored, a slog.
Mabel and Jack, a childless couple nearing their 50s, have moved to Alaska to homestead 10 years after the stillborn death of a child.  Mabel can’t stand being around Jack’s extended family, full of children and her failure. She thought their new life in Alaska would be a reprieve -- just the two of them together doing everything on their own.  Sure enough, Alaska proves tougher and gloomier than Mabel imagined.  So tough, so gloomy, she contemplates suicide.
 But things turn around during a snow fall one evening when Mabel goes outside and throws a snowball a Jack. The snowball fight turns to others things and soon, the two are giddy young lovers frolicking in fresh snow, building a snow girl complete with yellow grass hair, Mabel’s hand knitted red scarf and mittens.  The next morning the snow girl’s gone, but soon Mabel and jack spy a blonde child flitting through the woods, wearing the scarf and mittens. Mabel worries about a child alone in the Alaskan wilderness. I don’t.  At this point I shout: Mabel, get with it –  this is the magic part, but she doesn’t seem to hear me.
               Mabel and Jack befriend the child who comes into their home – where she is always too hot and has to keep the door open (hint hint). Mabel starts to get it. She half remembers a fairy tale she knew as a  sheltered child back East . Mabel writes her sister and carefully casually mentions the fairy tale book. In the meantime, Jack  has followed the child into the wilderness where he finds both a door in a hillside of snow and later a corpse the girl tells him is her n father.  He promises not to tell anyone, and helps her bury dad.  (The corpse seems real, so maybe she is too!)
The fairy tale book arrives and though it’s in Russian, a language Mabel doesn’t read (her father translated the story as he read),  the reader is informed by the sister’s letter about the various versions of The Snow Maiden most of which end in melting. Not to worry,  though the sister suggests other possibilities: “What a tragic tale! Why these stories for children always have to turn out so dreadfully is beyong me. I think if I ever tell it to my grandchildren, I will change the ending and have everyone live happily ever after. We are allowed to do that, are we not Mabel? To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow?”
               I know I’m being set up for seesawing back and forth between possibilities; real or not, here she comes.   I know this story will have some odd  twist at the end, maybe joyous, maybe not,  that’s intended to surprise, but I’m not sure I care. So far, I don’t really like Mabel. Or Jack. Or the little girl. Or their only neighbors – the wholesome, cheery successful frontiersman and woman, the Bentons who advise and help. All are as wooden as the deck outside my kitchen that would burn my bare feet if I stepped out there to look at my withering garden right now. The writing strikes me as stilted and graceless.
               I start to worry about myself.  Maybe it’s me and not the book. Maybe I have the excessive heat equivalent of cabin fever, that northern condition when it’s  been so cold so long that you start to go stir crazy from being indoors too much. Maybe I am becoming that creature I dread most, the jaded reader.
 Though I usually finish books I start – no matter how dull, no matter how clumsily written, I put this one aside when I go to the library looking for audio books for a long drive I’m soon to take and pick up Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife in the new book section.  No need to buy it.  No waiting list.  I check it out, knowing I’ll need to read it and return it before leaving. I dive in – and find the heat relief I was looking for –   a gritty reality full of complex stories with multiple undercurrents. Stories about a deathless man and a tiger’s wife that are magical.  Really magical. Hovering between fable and the war- torn Balkan landscape, they make me unwilling to tease apart what’s real, what’s not. Rather I’m fascinated by how the stories are real.  Long ago I learned fiction is the closest I often get to truth.  I let Tea Obrect lead me to whatever truths she knows  - down the stories of two generations of doctors  in the Balkans.  Two days later, I am done, still savoring the intertwining stories, waking up thinking about them and the mysterious woman in the middle who unites both.  I will write more, maybe deeper thoughts on this book later.  Here are  two quick, shallow ones before I begin.
Thank you Tea, for not using real place names. I am grateful not to feel the need to turn to Wikipedia and maps to fill in the gaps of my world knowledge. Though I don’t know Balkan history in detail, I know enough.
On the other hand, Miss Obrect, I almost passed up this book because of the title and though I agree that it suits your book, I am growing weary of what I have come to think of as relationship titles. Those are titles that include the word wife or daughter, such as The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Zookeeper’s Wife (a book I thought about as I read yours), The Pilot’s Wife, The Mapmakers Wife, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Paris Wife, The Hangman’s Daughter etc. I might, however, be curious enough to read a relationship book titled “The _______________’s Husband.”  
As for The Snow Child, I’m starting to plow though the snowy rest of it – but won’t write about it again unless my feelings and thoughts change dramatically. 
Final thought for this week: Mediocre magical realism is neither. This genre is difficult to pull off.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Great sweep, small details mesh in David Mitchell's "The Ten Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet"

Who ain’t a gambler in the glorious Orient, with his very life?
                    -- The Ten thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
About suffering they were never wrong, 
The Old Masters; how well, they understood 
Its human position; how it takes place 
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along …
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

 --- Musee des Beaux Arts  W.H. Auden
On the cusp of the 19th century and the verge of change, an honest clerk, Jacob de Zoet, arrives in Dejima, an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan. The island serves as a remote trading post for the collapsing Dutch East Indies Trading Company, headquartered in Batavia, (modern-day Jakarta).   Shut-off Japan is called the “Cloistered Empire,” the Tokugawa Shogunate’s reaction to attempts by Portugal and the Spain to bring commerce and Christianity to its shores.  No Japanese may leave and return to the island on penalty of death; foreigners are rarely allowed onto the mainland.
Such is the exotic, isolated setting of David Mitchell’s The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  The island hosts a small community of company officials, seafaring rogues from many nations, Japanese whores, interpreters and spies.  In addition, the American Captain Anselm Lacy and the motley crew of the Shenandoah, and Japanese lords and magistrates interact with those on Dejima.  The world is in flux.  Elsewhere democracies are being born. Enlightenment ideas including medicine and science are spreading.  Dutch influence is waning and the British Empire is expanding.  Dejima, where many nations and religions are represented and cultures cluster, nestles next to a land unchanged for centuries – one poetically referred to as the land of Ten thousand autumns or Root of the sun.
Jacob is charged, under the leadership of Unico Vorstenbosch, with scrutinizing the cooked books and the crooked practices of those stationed in a place where everyone gambles, often with their lives, and the future of the company and the Dutch empire is at stake.
De Zoet becomes the butt of jokes, the subject of other’s schemes, the scapegoat for Vorstenbosch’s actions and the loser in rigged card games.  But he’s nobody’s fool in commerce. He quickly learns to counter through observation and disarming moves of his own. The same does not apply however, to romance. Though De Zoet has promised to marry Anna who waits in Holland, he’s a fool for love as he falls for the one Japanese woman on Dejima who is not a whore or a whore’s helper. Aibagawa Orito, a disfigured midwife, successfully delivered an infant to a local magistrate, thus earning her wish to study with Dr. Marinus, Dejima’s Dutch doctor.  Skeptical Dr. Marinus, tests De Zoet’s intentions and desire for friendship in the most humiliating of ways.  De Zoet, In turn, uses Marinus and an interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon, as go-betweens to arrange meetings and send letters.
                All of the small maneuvers and counter plays of the Dejima dwarf to child’s play when De Zoet meets Lord Abbott Enomoto and conflicts in commerce and romance intertwine. The heart of the novel moves to a cloister deep in the Cloistered Empire, where an eerie cult worships at an ancient temple. The novel takes on the darker shades of dystopian literature – motifs in common though to creepier effect with Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never let Me Go.
David Mitchell writes with great sweep and fine detail. He explores issues like slavery – sexual and otherwise, the uses and abuses of religion, the exploitation of resources and people, the relationships of father and son, children of mixed heritage and the dynamic nature of history all within lively storytelling.  At times this historical novel reads as a story of courtship and love – complete with a triangle, at others as a robust adventure tale of exotic lands and seafaring scoundrels, as a fair-lady rescue drama, a tale of sacrifices by both fathers and children and as a David-versus-Goliath battle story.  
While The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is story strong and grounded in historical fact (fire, earthquakes etc. , and the attack of a British ship named the Phaeton all did in fact occur), adventure and romance take place as in a painting revealing the bustle of busyness, the distractions (though not indifference) of  ordinary life.
The world is alive with activity just as Auden suggests it is in paintings by the “old masters.” There is always something going on beneath the dialogue, on top of the observation, around the action. Rats rut in the rafters while Jacob tries to concentrate on his work, making him think of women.  While Jacob tries to sleep this is what he hears: “Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring, drill prick, saw, sting./ Hanzaburo snores  in the cubbyhole outside Jacob’s door.”
And like the Flemish painter Brueghel’s "The Fall of Icarus," there is a sun myth that involves fathers and sons in the book’s climax, though not that of Icarus. It is the myth of Phoebus and his son Phaeton – a child of mixed heritage who struggles to prove his paternity. This myth’s pattern is reversed by the ship Phaeton’s drugged captain as he attacks Dejima and sees Jacob courageously take a stand.
               Sometimes action is layered into storytelling, the way an actor engages in some telling stage business.   A card game, a billiards game and the game of Go are all played out both physically and verbally and more is at stake than meets the eye. 
Mitchell uses the same layering technique of gambling games and action as the interpreters do their work. Language and renaming, Interpreting and reinterpreting in order to dominate, control, deceive or deflect, is one of many ways some maintain power.  Renaming for evil purposes peaks in Enomoto’s temple.
               But translators and Enomoto are not alone in relabeling or using language for one’s purposes.  While De Zoet becomes DaZuto in Japanese pronunciation, Domburger— a term referring to Jacob’s provincial home is used initially pejoratively by Marinus to put Jacob in his place.  Thus, The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet could be called DaZuto’s Japan or even Domburger’s Dejima but both of the later would lessen the eloquence of the story’s meshing of historical sweep and individual life.
Mitchell uses an odd metaphor when De Zoet first meets Enomoto: “Jacob finds himself as little able to evade the man’s gaze as a book can, of its own volition, evade the scrutiny of a reader.” Yet Jacob, hired as a scrutinizer of account books turns his talents to discovering the truth by learning Japanese.
Indeed learning the language becomes key to Jacob’s solving one of the book’s major puzzles.  Over time Jacob works secretly (afraid he is committing a crime) and tirelessly to learn the language and translate a secret scroll.  By novel’s end, his commonly used Dutch/Japanese dictionary is known as a DaZuto.  When he leaves Dejima – less than a thousand autumns later but more than his original intended five years, Jacob leaves  reluctantly. He leaves behind  that dictionary and another product of this mixed world as well.  But in Japan he has nowhere to go, cannot stay, so he calmly sails on.