Thursday, 29 May 2008

A Death In The Sanchez Family

By Oscar Lewis

On the liner notes to Talking Heads' album Stop Making Sense there is a line which reads (from memory) "Rich people will spend lots of money to look at poor people."

Likewise, many authors have made a lot of money by writing about the poor. Pearl S. Buck, Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, George Orwell (though in George's case, at least he had a shot at living amongst the poor for a while as recorded in Down And Out In Paris And London - an odd little book if ever there was one, for we knew all along that he, at any time, could get some cash).

I guess it's because we like reading about 'the unknown'. A guy I met once had a theory that the reason mafia films, prison films and gangster films all do well is because we, the audience, aren't in the mafia, a prison or a crime gang so we're fascinated to know what it's like. Same goes for the poors.

This book is interesting, without being entertaining or marvellous or anything. Oscar Lewis, who I've never heard of, travelled down to the slums in Mexico and just interviewed people about their daily lives. Slowly, a book took shape. He came across some siblings, two brothers and a sister who were faced with the death of their aunt and her subsequent wake and burial. The book is wholly in their words, and it's a real downer. They are so poor (they consider the sister the rich one because she eats breakfast sometimes and can afford to go on the bus).

There's Manuel, the eldest, who takes most of the responsibility for family matters. He sells trinkets on the streets, and can sometimes afford to buy juice. Then there's Roberto, the middle sibling, who is out of jail and is also a street vendor. He has children, but they were taken by his younger sister Consuelo who was worried about their welfare. He hasn't asked for them back as yet. Consuelo herself is an uppity go-getter and a show-off because she, unlike every other character mentioned in the book, is not an alcoholic and has a sewing machine. Most of them live in one room slums with up to 8 people. They sleep on straw, on the floor.

To raise the money to bury their dear Aunt (who they suspect was murdered by her abusive alcoholic boyfriend - not that the cops would bother investigating because she had cancer anyway), they are forced to beg, borrow and steal from people as poor as they.

Some of the comments they make are stunning, and some of the scenes heart-rendering.

Consuelo, arguing the point that Mexicans cope with death well, says: "There's nothing charming about death nor is it something we have become accustomed to because we celebrate fiestas for the dead or because we eat candy skulls or play with toy skeletons."

Ah, that line could be re-worked to apply to each and every culture and belief.

Manuel adds: "The living get the chicken, the dead get the hole."

The boyfriend who they think killed their aunt (who was 30 years her junior) allegedly "....was a son of a bitch who hit her and who wanted to fornicate with her in front of people even when she was sick with a cancerous fistula." Nonetheless, Consuela wants all her Aunts belongings to be left to him regardless, on the grounds that she never left the guy even when he hit her, so, he may as well inherit her things. It's another world.

The worst scene is the funeral. She's placed in the poor person's section and they actually dig up an old plot to bury her in. Manuel says, "I saw leg bones still inside stockings and a skull that seemed to be smiling sarcastically at the other body about to go in." Meanwhile, the Priest won't give a service unless he is paid 35 Pesos, an amount they manage to raise but at the expense of eating food for a few days.

Here's my problem. I'm immune to it all. I'm western imperialist scum, or something. I'm a chardonnay sipping socialist in my comfy armchair beside a pot-bellied stove reading this book with extreme detachment. "Bah," I think, "Zola did this shit much better."

Talking Heads were right. Rich people spend good money on looking at / reading about poor people. We read about them with the same detachment that we have to the mafia... "This is not about me, or anybody even like me."

The plight of these Mexicans has, unfortunately, only one effect - my mild entertainment, purchased for $5 in a second-hand bookstore, soon to be lost in the bowels of my bookshelf.

I give it a C.

Monday, 19 May 2008

The Handmaid's Tale

By Margaret Atwood

I met a sound guy recently who had done sound for just about every major Australian rock band in the past 20 years or so. He was giving us all the backstage gossip and stuff, but generally, he wasn't one for back-stabbing or sneering. He enjoyed the company of rockstars and didn't really have anything too bad to say about any of 'em. The nearest he got was regarding silverchair. He had done a tour with them a few years ago and I asked what they were like to work with and he said, "Oh. Man, I'm just not on their trip."

I like that. He's not saying silverchair are bad people, or that they're wrong (something I would willingly say about silverchair), he just wasn't on their trip.

Likewise, I'm not on Margaret Atwood's trip. This is my second of hers (the other was Oryx and Crake) and in my dedication to the 'give each author three chances' rule I have one to go.

She's, umm, too wordy for me. Too descriptive. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I just don't like it. Unless an author I like does it, in which case I love wordy and descriptive.

In The Handmaid's Tale, about nine things 'happen', seven of which aren't that interesting. But the book is 300 pages long which means that on average every 'happening' took 33 pages to describe.

Let's have a quick look at her writing style:

Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloudcover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it's heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. Wool blanket. I wish I could see in the dark, better than I do.

Now personally, I think the paragraph would be better like this:

Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon. I wish I could see in the dark.

There, I halved the paragraph but the essence and the poetry remain. In that wise, the book could have been 150 pages instead of 300, and maybe I would have liked it more.

Atwood seems to have the ability to write 20 pages straight in the manner of that paragraph above where nothing actually happens.

(Speaking of 'nothing happens', my favourite ever war poem is this one by Wilfred Owen. Take your time reading it. Read it out loud, if you can. It's a ripper.)

The thing about the nine things that 'happen' in The Handmaid's Tale is that the two most exciting things happen in the last two chapters (not including the completely unnecessary epilogue which lost her some marks). In fact, nothing at all happened until about page 160! Reminds me of Conrad's Lord Jim which was 400 pages of absolute garbage where nothing happens and 20 pages tacked on to the end as an afterthought (he was under pressure from his publisher), with some of the most exciting stuff you'll ever read - if you can make it that far. Which nobody can. If anyone says they've read all of Lord Jim they're a lying fucking bastard.

So anyway, what is The Handmaid's Tale about? It's set in a totally implausible future where extreme right Christians control America with a Taliban-like fundamentalism. The narrator is a handmaid, and her job is to have babies for her 'commander'. That's about it. The storyline is implausible, the narrator is long-winded and Atwood saved all the good bits until the end. I dunno, maybe there's some post-actual meaning to it all, or it's some comment on the (imagined)influence of the Christian Right in the USA, or it's some discursive feminist tome about 'women's bodies'. Or something. I dunno. I probably missed the point.

I'm not going to be too harsh with my marks though, because, just in case the point was obvious and I missed it, I don't want to appear dumb.

I give it a C Minus.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Pablo Neruda Absence and Presence

I sat in the garden, spattered
by the great drops of winter,
and it seemed to me impossible
that beneath all that sadness,
that crumbled solitude,
the roots were still at work
with no one to encourage them.


I was sooking recently to a friend about my inability to seduce Pony Girl from the Mallee Desert, even though I am quite sure we should get married tomorrow. The friend looked at me and asked, “Have you ever been truly in love?” and it was a loaded question. I knew what she was getting at. Pony Girl is a myth. Yeah, she seems perfect and all that, but in the absence of actually being her boyfriend / partner all I can do is be in love with the mythology of her, and so in the meantime, my friend was asking, of all my lovers and/or exes, have I ever truly been in love. I hate questions like that. I much prefer talking about footy (Go Tiges). Anyway, I was forced to concede that yes, indeed, I had been, and it was with a woman I often refer to as ‘that psychopathic ex of mine’, ‘whatzerface’, or ‘Andromeda 3.0’.

I was with Andromeda 3.0 for many years. We lived together, we owned property, we had two dogs and three cats, we were engaged, we were planning on having children and were approaching the wedding planning stage when I left her. I loved her to bits and would take a bullet for her. She loved me with equal ferocity. We were perfectly suited on a million different measurements and not only loved one another but revered one another.

I left her because she was a violent alcoholic.

She was riddled with mental illnesses (not her fault) which lead to many physical illnesses (not her fault) which rendered her anti-social, reclusive and unemployable (not her fault) and she became violent (her fault) and dependent upon alcohol (her fault).

I’m bringing this up because a) it’s my blog and I can say whatever the hell I want and b) this is relevant to the book review.

It has been two years since I left her, and she occasionally sends me text messages. They come in batches; whole series of them coming within the space of a couple of hours or so and she is clearly drunk when she sends them. They make no sense and are desperate and crazy. She’s sent me about 60 messages and I’ve sent three back. One said ‘stop contacting me’, another said, ‘stop fucking contacting me’ and the third was the wisest thing I’ve ever said – it was a response to a plea from her for us to meet again to which I replied, “the damage is done.”

The specifics of the ‘damage’ is neither here nor there, nor is the specifics of her illnesses and my decisions. What is relevant is that she loved me, and this was proven by the one message she sent me that came alone, that came when she was sober, and had nothing to do with our divorce. It said this: “You must read Pablo Neruda Absence and Presence”. That was it. That was all the message said.

So I bought it.

Then I read it.

It is exceptional.

It is a book made by a friend of Neruda’s, and it features excerpts from his poems, some essays about Neruda, and lots of photos of Neruda, Neruda’s house and his friends.

Neruda fans will love it, and even if you’ve never heard of Neruda and couldn’t give a flying fuck if he was in your pea-soup, you’d probably still love it.

But ay, there’s the rub.

You can’t read it.

This book, which I give an A+ to, is for me, not you. It is from Andromeda 3.0 to me. I want the whole world to burn every copy of this book that exists, except my copy. Because this book is mine.

Y’see, Pablo Neruda Absence and Presence was Andromeda 3.0’s very best way of apologising for the aforementioned ‘damage’, and after reading it, I then found the courage to admit to my friend that I once loved her. Of course, I told her I loved her when I was with her, often, and told other people all the time, but from the moment I left her, I never once said to anyone that I loved her - I refused to say the words - I was too busy calling her 'that psychopath' and refused, flatly refused to ever say I loved her because it was irrelevant.

This book means I can, now (though not to her, because that's not the point).

So, blog reader of mine, don’t read it.

It’s not for you.

This book exists solely for me.

Go read something else.