2 Sentences from Nicole Krauss’s Great House.

24 Jul

“Yes, you as you were then, with your fair hair before it turned coarse and dark. I’ve heard others say that when their children were born they tasted their own mortality for the first time”

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Random Musings.

23 Jul

From the Guardian UK, Saturday 19th Feb, 2011 by Patrick Ness:

“It is difficult to find a profile of Nicole Krauss that doesn’t mention 1) her beauty, 2) her youth or 3) her marriage to Jonathan Safran Foer (even younger, slightly less beautiful). There’s an inevitable air of complaint about these facts, however sympathetically presented, the implication being that her ability to get books published has less to do with talent than with a particularly irritating streak of good luck. ‘Twas ever thus, though the internet has upped the ease of sniping. There are, of course, smart and passionate sites out there by booklovers of all stripes, but there’s also that strangely hostile army of folks who seem to wake up every morning with no other aim than to tell you, as loudly as possible, how much they hate everything you’ve ever loved, especially if it’s written by someone who, to take a random example, is young, beautiful and married to a famous novelist.

I’m reminded of EM Forster’s quote about happiness. Do we find it so often that we “turn it off the box when it happens to sit there”? Are good books likewise so common that we can afford to dismiss them if their writers aren’t at least polite enough to be older than we are? If the book is good, so what? Krauss’s last novel,The History of Love, was very good indeed.Great House, its serious, downbeat follow-up, is even better. And that, really, should be the end of the discussion.

Great House centres on a massive writer’s desk. Filled with 19 awkwardly shaped drawers, one of which is never unlocked, it is “an enormous, foreboding thing that bore down on the occupants of a room”. The desk has come to be vitally important, if sometimes obliquely, to four different characters, who each tell their stories in portmanteau style. Nadia is a middlingly successful novelist in her 50s, difficult and introverted, who was given the desk in 1972 by Daniel Varsky, a Chilean friend of a friend. She meets him only once, but they bond over shared tastes in poetry – “Why is it that wherever a Chilean goes in the world, Neruda and his fucking seashells has already been there and set up a monopoly?” – and he leaves her his furniture, including the desk, to look after while he makes a brief trip back to Chile.

He never returns. He is arrested by Pinochet’s police, tortured and then murdered. Nadia continues to write at his desk for years, haunted by his memory, turning out several novels and losing a marriage along the way. One day, she receives a call from Leah Weisz, who says she’s Daniel’s daughter and inquires after the desk. For reasons unknown even to herself, Nadia gives the desk away with barely a second thought – perhaps only “because saying yes felt inevitable” – and almost immediately her life falls apart.

The narration is then taken over by Aaron, an elderly Israeli lawyer who’s just lost his wife. He rages against nearly everything, but particularly against his younger son Dov, who fled Israel and became a respected judge in the UK. But Dov has now resigned his job and returned home, though he is seemingly incapable of saying why. Aaron is incensed by Dov’s silence. “Try to understand it,” he says to his son. “All your life, your pain infuriated me.”

Aaron’s fury, in fact, is so bristling and alive that it threatens to overbalance the novel. The other narrators tend to be tonally similar – withdrawn, calm, searching – so that Aaron’s sections threaten to overshadow them, especially when, feeling his advancing age, he makes one final attempt to understand his unknowable son.

Two other strands make up the rest of the novel. Izzy, a faltering American student at Oxford, tells the story of Leah Weisz and her brother Yoav, with whom Izzy is in love. The Weiszes are dominated by their strict father, a man who specialises in tracking down furniture confiscated from Jews during the second world war. The desk becomes a pawn in the struggle between father and daughter. And finally, another elderly man whose wife has died – Great House is full of such doublings – tries to find out how his wife ended up with the desk in 1948 and why she gave it to Daniel Varsky two decades later.

The plotting here is subtle and fractured, almost demanding a second reading to put all the pieces together. Mainly, though, Great House is a meditation on loss and memory and how they construct our lives. It takes its title from a talmudic idea of Jerusalem after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, a “great house” that was burned. Now, a character tells us, “every Jewish soul” is built around the memory of it, “so vast that we can, each one of us, only recall the tiniest fragment” but together it can be made whole again, every fragment remembered.

There are some imperfections – the unbalancing strength of Aaron’s voice, for one – but these are overcome by restrained and powerful writing. There is a heartbreaking small scene, for example, where Izzy happens upon her mother, a clever woman whose upbringing didn’t allow her to go to college, secretly reading Izzy’s college course lists, her “lips moving soundlessly”.

Great House is a smart, serious, sharply written novel of great care and yearning. And it is so not despite or even because of Nicole Krauss’s non-literary blessings, but because, simply, she can write. That fact will be irritating to some, but can’t we just be happy about the appearance of a good book and try to resist the temptation to turn it off the box?”

Patrick Ness‘s Chaos Walking trilogy is published by Walker.

Recent Reads.

19 Jul

Mark: This morning, out of sheer contrition put me seating in front of my Mac typing out this post. Since the last, and a long time it is, that I have written anything, I have yet confirmed how nice life would never be without books. So here it is, some novels that fueled me in times of nonpluses, times of boredom, and in times of academic pursuits.

Shorts: The Story of Bukit Merah

25 May

If you want to know the truth, this is the story for you.

The actual tale of Bukit Merah.

Yazid was born deformed. And the first time I saw him, I was taken aback. A real shocker as most would often say. He did not have a proper face. Most of it was just a pile of slackened skin. It was like cancer; spreading from his right ear to the edge of his mouth.

He was too born without a left arm.

Maybe it was his ugly features that complicated the birth process, for his mother died while giving birth to him.

And so it was that that Yazid was born without a proper face, his left arm, and a mother.

Even so, it was not his physical disabilities that surprised me. But instead, it was the decision that his father, the Sultan, made.

The Sultan was disgusting. I saw him as the same time I saw Yazid. He was a short man with brusque features. He had an upturned nose, and sauntered around with much authority. He was always dressed in gold from head to toe. And had a voice that was both stupendous and irritating.

The Sultan had thundered, “No way this is my child! My child should be perfect, and healthy! What is this? This is just a pile of skin!”

The rest just kept their silence while the Sultan continued, “How is he to represent this palace? Moreover, no one would obey to such an atrocity!”

He turned to his most trusted guard and whispered, “I want you to bring him out of the palace’s wall and kill him! Make sure he does not live. Let no villagers know of this!”

No one, in his or her right minds of course, would disobey the Sultan. He was the one that held the power, and could easily crush anyone of them if they disobeyed.

And so, as the Sultan stormed out of the room, the Queen’s maid approached the palace guard swiftly. She had overheard what the Sultan said and begged him not to kill the innocent child. She decided to take care of him and made a pact with the guard. She kept him in a run down house that her late aunt used to stay in. It was old and dusty, but at least he had a roof over his head.

Humans are different from us. They need food, water, and air to live. Though for us we need none of those, ironically, we need the humans to be present for us to be alive. I have to admit that I do owe my life to the maid.

The maid was like the boy’s mother. When she has the time, she would sneak out of the palace and accompany him. Whenever she came, I was sure something good would happen.

Occasionally, she would bring him some left over snacks from the palace’s kitchen. To Yazid, it was pure delicacy. He ate with such zeal that you could never have imagined.

At times, the maid would bring him daily necessities, such as clothes, rice, or candles; just to make sure he would survive well even without her around.

Once, for the boy’s birthday, she brought him a pocketknife. The body was made out of a red plastic; those that you could flip the blade in and out of it.

I had remembered that the boy leaned forward and took a closer look, his nose almost touching the knife. The maid just watched him, waiting to see if he loved the gift. Then very slowly, with a slow and spectacular grin spreading all over his face, the boy raised his head and looked straight at his mother. The color rushed to his cheeks, and his eyes were wide open, shining with joy, and in the centre of each eye, right in the very centre, in the black pupil, a little spark of wild excitement was slowly dancing. Then the boy took a deep breath, and suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, an explosion seemed to take place inside him. “Yeeeeaaaaaa!” And at the same time, he snatched the gift, and started doing a victory dance all over the grass patch.

The time in this part of the forest usually went by quietly and peacefully. There wasn’t much that happened around. Possibly it could be due to the location that the house is situated at. It is deep in the forest, and high up in the hills. I suspect that the maid was smart enough to keep him far away from the Sultan. At least that prevented any chance meeting between them.

Down the hill where our place was situated, a pretty nice river flows beside it. That is where the boy spent most of his days looking, and prodding at old boots that might float by with his pocketknife.

However, it was one day, when he squatted beside the river that he noticed an object far away upstream, drifting down towards him.

It drifted closer, and closer.

Austere silence filled the air.

And a corpse drifted past.

Most probably the body of a fisherman, it had the distinguishable boots that most of them donned. And what came after was just the reddening of the river water. As if someone painted the river with one quick swipe of the brush.

Yazid got such a shock that he yelped and fell; dropping his pocketknife into the river. He scrambled to the bank of the river, and peered over the edge. He stared helplessly, watching the pocketknife sink to the bottom. I was sure he did not dare pick it up though I knew he wanted to.

He was so afraid of the corpse that he dashed back to the house.

It was only after a few days that a news cutting laid on the table. I took a quick glanced at it when he ate that morning, and realized that fishermen were dying because of an attacking school of swordfish. No one in town could unravel it; forcing the Sultan to make a official announcement for someone to solve the problem. And in turn, the person who resolved the issue would receive a huge reward.

I noticed that the boy looked at the poster repeatedly while he was eating his breakfast. He mumbled, “I know this would work. I know how to save them.”

As days passed, the situation worsened. More fishermen were killed while they were out at sea. Even the villagers living near the sea were not spared either. During this period, the boy used his axe to cut down banana trees. He woke up daily, early in the morning, and started to collect as many trees he could with that one good arm of his.

It was after a few days that he stopped cutting. Using the head of the axe to support himself, he said, “Too slow, too slow, I need more. I need help.”

That day, it was probably about three in the afternoon when he ran alongside the river, bolted down the hill towards the city centre.

There, he shouted out loud to everyone present. “I can save the people from the swordfishes! But I need more people! Please! Come with me.”

Everyone in town was shocked to see the boy. They looked at him with disgust, for Yazid had a horrible face, and he lacked an arm. People were weary of him. And that was when his face softened and he said, “Please, I will do no harm to you. What can an ugly and handicapped boy do to all of the townspeople?”

Probably it was his eloquence, or maybe the people were at their wit’s end that they actually followed him back to his house up on the hill.

The boy spoke out loud again when he was back at his house, “I need you people to gather as much of this banana trees as possible. Once you’re done, line them at the riverbanks. They will form a wall that protects the people behind it. And remember! Only banana trees work!”

The villagers took their sample of the banana trees, went back down and started to do as what the boy had instructed.

When the time came, the swordfishes could not attack the villagers at all. It tried to pierce the people but they all got stuck in the trunks of the banana tree. The trunks served as a wall of defense, and the villagers behind the walls were well protected. When the last swordfish slammed into the tree truck, everything went quiet and still for a moment.

With a burst of shouting, the villagers cheered. They rushed out to grab him, and chanted “Our savior, our savior, our savior” over and over again. Miraculously, the boy had saved the people from the onslaught of the fishes!

When the Sultan came to know about it, he was as happy as the villagers were. At least, there were no more innocent bloodshed, and trade could go on as usual.

The Sultan summoned the hero to his palace, for he want to see who could have possibly solved this problem.

It was one day that an aide came over to our place. He was wearing what royalties would – golden boots and that shimmering green costume. In his hands was the decree of summon. And with that voice of his, he read out from it, “The Sultan thereby invites you to his palace today at five in the afternoon for a sumptuous meal of celebratory, and as the reward, you would be crowned as the new Chief Advisor.”

With bowed knees, the boy received the decree. And remain like that till the aide left.

Imagine that! Chief advisor! I am so proud for Yazid. At least now he would not have to endure this decrepit place anymore.

He went back to the house, and placed the decree on the table. Sat down, placed his elbows on the table and supported his chin with his out turned palms.

He said to himself, “It is time I made a name for mother and I. We will no longer live in this ragged hut. Once I get to be Chief Advisor, mother and I will be able to live in the Palace! Mother will be proud of me.”

He glanced upwards to the roof and continued, “The pocketknife was a nice surprise for me. I hope that being Chief Advisor would also be a surprise for mother. I shall go alone without her knowledge! And show her my crown when she comes later!”

The day finally arrived. He started making preparations for it. He washed his face, combed his hair, scrubbed his hands, brushed his teeth, blew his nose, cut his nails, polished his shoes, and ironed his shirt. He did everything for the biggest day of his life.

He left for the palace with the decree in his hands.

The boy strode into the palace. And was awe struck. The smile on his face was nothing that I have seen before. He looked around and saw nothing but gold. The pillars were carved with intricate designs of dragons and phoenixes; the floor was carpeted with a red so bright that it stung the eyes. There was also a mountain load of food on the table that stretched for meters across the grand hall; roasted meat, exotic fruits, and dozens of different spices on the sides.

Yazid scurried around the dining hall and took in as much of this sight as he could. He wafted the aroma of the turkey to his face, and pinched a grape off the pedestal that looked like a huge green marble he once found at the riverside.

The boy’s popularity soared real high because the people in the palace were walking up to him and patting him on the back, congratulating him. They were commenting on how smart he was and how he had saved the townspeople.

I am so glad that people do not mind his looks. After all, looks are just physical traits. And it was reassuring to know that they now value him for what he is worth. I wished that I could tell him all these, but nevertheless, seeing the value he has now in people, I am pleased as well.

However! I was sure that all but one of them was happy to see him. And it was, of course, the Sultan himself! I noticed how the Sultan looked when he saw the boy. His face was all bunched up, and he shot a look at the guard. He gave such a piercing stare that made the guard cowered in fear.

The Sultan’s voice was rancid throughout the whole celebration. He did not eat much, and was quick to end the celebrations.

When the celebration was about to end, that particular guard came over and whispered, “Come with me, now!”

Intrigued, the boy went to the back of the hall. And sure enough, the guard was waiting there. He motioned for the boy to come over. When the boy was close enough, he whispered, “You have to go! As far away as you can! It is to your misfortunate that you decided to come here.”

The boy said, “Why? What did I do?”

“It is not what you did. But it is your fate. You have to trust me, and leave. You have already escaped death once, and there won’t be a second time! So, go!”

The guard spoke with such authority that seized the boy in fear. The boy saw the intensity in the guard’s eyes, and shivered. The boy took a few steps back, and began inching backwards. Soon he started into a run, and bolted out of the palace. I saw that there were tears in his eyes. And he shouted, “Why? What is happening?”

He ran up the hill, back into his house, and cooped all the time up there. It was like that, that the night arrived for that day.

It was one of those times that I could appear in the night. The boy lit a candle. Though the flame was not as strong, I still managed to materialize.

What happened after that was key to this story. And this is the part where everyone did not know.

An argument was already taking place. And half of Yazid’s clothes were packed into a bag.

I heard a female’s voice, and then realized it was actually the maid. “You cannot stay here anymore. You have to leave. The Sultan knows of your presence. He wants to kill you.” She said as she continued to pack his clothes in.

“Why? What is happening? I thought that he wanted to crown me?” he said.

“Yes, everything was fine, until you had to appear in front of the Sultan!” she said.

“But what about it? I merely wanted to make our lives better. Moreover, I had you in mind! We can live good, instead of slogging out so much.” he retaliated.

“If only I were to stop you earlier from entering the palace. Then nothing like this would happen!” the maid shouted, and threw the last of his clothes into the bag.

“Why would the Sultan want to kill me? I’ve not done anything wrong, in fact, I saved the people’s lives!” he said, gesturing wildly with his arm.

She buckled and picked up the bag saying, “I have heard from the palace people that a disfigured boy stepped forward to save the villagers. The moment I heard that, I knew it has got to be you.”

She walked to the window, glanced out, and continued, “Who else could be as distinct, as unique as you. But when I have heard from the people that you would be called to the palace, it was already too late for me to warn you.”

“Too late for what? I thought of surprising you. Mother, this is the time of our lives!”

“Listen to me. It is not too late if we leave now. I’ll bring you to somewhere safe at least” she said.

“Leave? At least tell me what is going on!” he screamed.

She kept quiet. And turned towards him. “Please,” she said. “Just trust me.” And held out her hands to him.

Suddenly, another voice suddenly boomed. “Tell him what is going on. There’s no point if you keep him in the dark any further. He has to deal with this sooner or later anyway.” They both spun around to see that particular palace guard whom spoke to him today at the palace celebrations.

The maid heaved a sign of relief when she realized it was the guard. She said, “Why are you here? Did someone found out that I sneaked out?”

“No one found out that you sneaked out.”

The boy stared at the guard and raised his voice. “Tell me! What’s happening? Please!”

The guard looked at the maid and her bag, and said, “If you’re not going to tell him, I will.” Seeing that she did not reply, he took it as a yes and said, “Yazid, you were supposed to be the next heir of the Sultan. You’re his son.”

He continued as gently as he could, and told Yazid what happened when he was born.

I guess the information was too much for the boy to handle. Yazid looked at his mother, his face expressionless. Then he fell backwards, and sat on the floor.

Hands on his face, he started weeping.

Seeing the boy in distress, the maid mourned, “Why did you come all the way here to tell him this? Please stop, he is just a young boy.”

The guard’s face grew grave, and he said, “From your bag, I guess you’re running away tonight?”

The maid nodded and said, “I have no choice. The Sultan will come after us soon!”

The guard continued, “I think it’s a little too late for that. Because I’m tasked by the Sultan to kill him tonight. I’m sorry.” “He knew that I didn’t do it then, and he threatened to kill my family if I didn’t do it right this time round.”

With that, he lunched forward with all his might, the dagger in his hand and with 20 years of experience. He aimed skillfully at the boy’s throat. The dumbstruck boy just sat on the floor, paralyzed with fear.

However at that moment, I saw the maid threw herself at him. And at the same time, it blew out the candle.

***

I did not know what happened then. But all I knew was that the boy managed to escape, for I managed to catch brief episodes of him running away from the house.

With the aid of the faint moonlight I saw him running through the foliage like a mad man. He went down the hill, and away from the river as fast as he could. The only time when he stopped for a moment was when he heard a shrilling cry that came from the house.

He turned around to look at the house. Yazid was sweating profusely, his brows were wet, and was drenched all over.

Immediately, he dashed back towards the house, shouting “No! No! No!” But it was too late. I suppose that the cry was from his mother. I was sure that there was nothing he could do about it. If only I could tell hold him back, and made him run away from the house instead! His tears trickled down his cheeks and went right through me.

I tried to shout with all my might, “Yazid, please turn back, there’s nothing you could do. Your mom would have died for nothing if you were caught!”

Miraculously, as if he heard me, he slowed down and turned around once more towards the bottom of the hill. Then, he continued to run once more, even faster than before. Blades of tall lalang rushed against him. He leapt over potholes, and sprinted away.

The dwindling beams of moonlight affected my vision. And I knew that I could not carry on without a strong source of light.

It was day again when I could see what was happening. I was in an unfamiliar place. Instead of being up on the hill, we were now on ground level. We were somewhere far from our place. Because when I looked up and across, I could see the familiar hill that our house resided on. However, this time, the hill was colored red instead of brown. I was sure that it was blood.

I noticed that the boy was kneeling on the ground, and all that I could hear from the boy was, “I’m sorry mother. You shouldn’t have died in my place.”

No matter what I said after was useless. There was no way that he could hear his own shadow. And all that I could do was to seat there and accompany him.

I whispered, “Till death do us part, Yazid.”

Call me Dizay, shadow of Yazid. And I knew whose blood it belonged to. But do you? (3520 words)

A Book You Hated.

9 Mar

Week 10/30 – Favourite Classic Book.

1 Mar

Week 09/30 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving.

27 Feb

-Mark