The Sympathizer

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.

So begins The Sympathizer, the confession of a prisoner. Although Nguyen withholds the context of the interrogation until the end of the novel, we quickly learn that the narrator received CIA training as the aide to a general in charge of the South Vietnamese secret police, all the while working as a mole for North Vietnam.

The novel’s plot quickly kicks into high gear as the narrator arranges, sometimes at gunpoint, for the general, his family, and staff to flee Saigon as the North Vietnamese army approached. This access also allows him to secure a seat on the plane for one of his two sworn brothers, Bon, whose fervor in fighting for South Vietnam promises him a future of hard labor. The other, Man, is his handler.

The first stop from Saigon is a camp on Guam and then on to Los Angeles where the refugees try to pick up the pieces in America. Some adjust. The narrator secures work at the school where he studied as an exchange student, builds relationships with women, and even picks up work as a consultant on a blockbuster Hollywood film about the war, based on Apocalypse Now. Others do not. With neither family nor country, Bon descends to alcoholism and the general opens a liquor store that he uses as a front to raise money, plot a return to Vietnam, and eliminate anyone who threatens his cause. Of course, the narrator continues to report on these movements with letters relayed through Man’s aunt in Paris, at least until the General organizes his return to Vietnam.

The Sympathizer is in many ways an inversion of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which similarly explores issues of identity and colonialism. Where Greene’s novel follows the story of Alden Pyle, an American CIA agent working against communism in Vietnam, Nguyen’s narrator works from the opposite direction, while holding an ambiguous position between the two. The illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest, the narrator literally straddles the line between east and west, and he declares as a point of pride that he can pass for American over the phone even as Americans talk down to him. From this heart, the theme radiates from him like an aura, extending to his two blood brothers who are equally balanced to either side and the General’s concern that his oldest daughter is becoming too Americanized with her singing career to find a proper Vietnamese husband.

However, this core theme works by offering several different types of conflict and preventing it from striking just one note. The narrator has both types of expected conflict as a refugee double agent, trying to fit in in the new country while not getting caught, but his sexual relationship with the Japanese-American secretary at Occidental College and a competitive one with a Vietnamese reporter he knew when they studied there introduce issues of representation of Asian Americans and rivalry. Similarly, his parentage offers a recurring conflict because while he is a useful asset he is neither sufficiently dedicated to the cause to be integrated into the Communist society nor a proper-enough Vietnamese man to warrant a good marriage.

I found The Sympathizer a good, but somewhat unspectacular novel for most of its length. There are excellent individual scenes, including the sheer terror of trying to escape Saigon, but, on its own, this close focus on the narrator’s reflection of his own identity struck me as somewhat prone to navel-gazing. Where Nguyen earned all of his plaudits was in the final section of this novel. The final seventy-odd pages of The Sympathizer pull back to reveal the circumstances under which the narrator is writing, which, in turns adds layers of depth and meaning to the 306-page confession of a man without a country.

ΔΔΔ

I have fallen behind on writing about books I’ve finished, in equal parts because of other writing commitments, complacency of summer, and not being inspired enough to write speedy reviews. I have been reading, though, blowing through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay We Should All be Feminists, dragging myself through Rachel Kushner’s The Firestarters, and working through Mark Kurlansky’s Salt at a pace somewhere between those two. I still hope to write about some of my backlog, but given that my guiding principle on this site is to write what and when I am inspired to say something, we’ll see what I actually do.

I am now most of the way through Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, the first of his Marseille Trilogy.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

David Epstein, Range

My academic research focuses on ancient Greece, but I genuinely enjoy teaching beyond my specialty because my interests are broad an eclectic. I sometimes joke to my partner (who I met in graduate school) that the three areas I considered pursuing for graduate work in history were Ancient Greece, 18th-century naval warfare, and 20th century US diplomatic history. Recently I’ve wandered down rabbit holes into food history and have particularly been enjoying East and South Asian history. The idea of studying just one thing for the rest of my life sounds unbearably tedious and teaching a wide range of classes (or at least varying how I teach World History) is a convenient excuse to read more widely.

I don’t know that my eclectic reading habits or historical interests has particularly improved my scholarship, but it has certainly improved my teaching and writing, and caused the basic tenets of David Epstein’s Range to resonate with me.

Epstein opens with the comparison of Tiger and Roger, two accomplished athletes, one of whom was laser focused from infancy on his sport, the other who played everything except his sport for most of his childhood. Both excelled, but Epstein asks which success was more probable. Despite the intuitive expectation that the person who specialized his entire life (let’s call him Tiger) followed the “better” path, Epstein argues, Roger is a better model to follow. Where Tigers are very good at solving problems within a narrow field with predictable parameters, Rogers can catch up quickly and are are frequently more creative when adjusting to new environments or when facing fields without clearly defined rules.

In short, Epstein makes the case that in a world where an increasing number of well-defined tasks are automated and economic and social pressures push people toward specialization, we should actually be encouraging generalization.

I picked up range after listening to an interview with Epstein where he mostly talked about the value of cross-training, but while there are lessons there, I was a surprised how little discussion of sports there was in the book. Rather, Range is a broad manifesto that talks about everything from scientists and musicians to charity CEOs and game designers. As with many books of its ilk, Range uses concrete examples to offer concrete advice on leadership—promoting diversity, emphasizing communication over hierarchy, empowering employees—as well as useful life advice that taking the time to find your fit rather than locking in early produces better results all around.

In my opinion, though, both the strongest and weakest aspects of the book came down to what it said about education. Granted, as someone in the education field, everything starts to look that way. In addition to several explicit sections on teaching itself, Epstein swipes obliquely supposed outcomes of the education system throughout the book, taking aim at the suggestion that graduates need to specialize early and highlighting the perils of teaching to the test. I agreed in principle with everything Epstein highlights: test performance does not equal learning, efficiency is not a universal good, there is value in struggling to learn something. There are absolutely valuable lessons in terms of how we teach, but I nevertheless came away extremely frustrated with the presentation of education.

For instance, Epstein uses a personal anecdote from his MA thesis at Columbia where he says “I had committed statistical malpractice” because “I had a big database and hit a computer button to run a common statistical malpractice, never having been taught to think deeply (or at all) about how that statistical analysis even worked.” He follows up by quoting a statistician who says that the rush to produce research prohibits metacognition. In short, the specialization and speed interferes with the quality of the work, despite metacognition gaining increased traction in education circles. Similarly, he offers another anecdote about a primary school teacher asking students leading questions when they struggled to come up with the answers. Both of these anecdotes, and another about a professor critical of colleagues who only care about the interesting facts learned from years of increasingly narrow study (albeit while talking about Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Marx, and Nietzsche, which shows a certain…range), offer insight into the education system, but, to my mind, not quite what Epstein is going for.

The focus of Epstein’s critique is on the practitioners, rather than on the bad practices encouraged by the culture of credentialism and testing. When the a system requires teachers to prepare students for a standardized test or to publish in academic journals and funnel students into career tracks from early on in college, then the system creates the exact problem that Epstein rightly identifies. Moreover, Epstein makes the case that generalization is good for everyone, but it has the greatest utility for young people because it helps foster creativity, critical thinking, and allows them to find fields that fit their skills.

For as much as aspects of the presentation bothered me, Range is a compelling read. Epstein isn’t against specialization, but makes an important critique of dominant cultural trends that prioritize efficiency and specialization over taking the time to think and reflect across different fields.

ΔΔΔ

I had hoped to finish Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer this weekend, but that was before protests against police violence and institutional racism erupted across the United States and then predictably escalated, often as the result of police action. I spent most of the weekend following local news from across the country.

Day of the Oprichnik

CW: although glossed, this post includes allusions to sexual assault that took place in the novel.

My mobilov awakens me:

One crack of the whip—a scream.
Two—a moan.
Three—a death rattle.

Have you ever wondered what a day in the life of an Oprichnik is like? Well, you might be, if you Western readers knew what an Oprichnik was. When his majesty ended the Red and Grey Troubles and restored Russia, he wisely followed the precedent of Ivan Grozny in reconstituting the Oprichnina, a fanatical bodyguard dedicated to rooting out his majesty’s enemies. Work and Word!

Now, for the first time, Vladimir Sorokin has shared with the world the important work that the Oprichnina is doing on behalf of Russia by following Andrei Danilovich Komiaga for a full day, from the moment he awakens hungover from one long day until the moment he returns to bed in the wee hours of the morning.

Between those moments of rest, Komiaga flies around Moscow, and even all of Russia, in service of the Czar. One moment he must make an example of a disloyal nobleman, executing him, of course, while giving his wife a lesson she will never forget and sending his children to a home where they will be raised to be loyal. Then he is off to hear a petition from an actress on behalf of a prisoner and then to the far east where he must put straight petty bureaucrats and Chinese diplomats about a commercial dispute. On the way back to Moscow he must visit a clairvoyant and upon his return he sits witness to a play with potential slander against the Empress, who immediately summons him to his side while she breakfasts as the rest of Russia sups, enjoying the appropriate rewards of her position. Finally, Komiaga concludes his day with the essential Oprichnina communal meal at Batyas, which provide opportunities to greet important guests—even his highness may come!—and build a sense of hierarchy and purpose. This is why we must applaud Batya’s decision to end these gatherings with the caterpiller in the bathhouse.

As I said, a day full of important business on behalf of the Tsar. Laser guns are merely tools without men to use them. Who else will help oversee the Western Wall and European pipeline dispute? Or so carefully enforce his majesty’s wise bans on profanity? Or keep those jackals among the nobility in line? Work and Word!

We must make some concessions for all of this work, of course. His majesty properly banned drugs like the aquarium for people, but shooting up these little fish reinvigorate us and hone our sense of purpose, while the Oprichnik leadership soars as a seven-headed dragon! Greasing is the only way anything gets done, so we must get our cut, and it is only natural that we secure our position by ensuring a steady stream of dissent. It would be a tragedy if his majesty were to not see our worth and rashly disband us, his most loyal servants! Hail!

The Czar has put Russia back to rights. We might use Chinese technology and our children might learn Chinese slang, but men are men and the church again ascendant. No longer is society oppressed by the loose morals of the west or tainted by atheism or “feminism.” What nonsense, and just look where it got them. No, traditional Russian values are best, just as Russian literature is best. His majesty was right to build the wall. With the help of God and the Oprichnina, Russia is more powerful than ever. This power came with casualties, but these are a small price to pay. We have the technology to put dissenters under surveillance and the will to take care of them, if need be. Anything for his majesty. Hail!

Perhaps with Sorokin’s feature, the children of those grasping people who were in business only for themselves will finally understand the purpose of our labor. Work and Word!

Work and Word!

ΔΔΔ

How else to write a review of a satirical critique of technology, monarchy, and modern Russia other than to offer the portrait unreserved praise? The Day of the Oprichnik is a frequently disturbing portrait of near-future Russia, in a world with a restored monarchy, border walls, and modern technology turned toward protecting a brutal regime that exploits its people in the name of protecting them. A select few live large in this system, while everyone else suffers.

ΔΔΔ

I’m chipping away at my backlog of books that includes Sudden Death, A Gathering of Shadows, and Sugar Street. I am now reading David Epstein’s Range, a book about education, learning, and why we should develop general skills before, and sometimes in lieu of, narrow ones.

Binti

Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka is of the Himba, the African people who apply otjize to their skin and hair. In a world where the people of Earth are connected to other planets, the Himba people stand apart. The Khoush, as they are called, expanded outward and send their brightest children to the center of higher learning in the galaxy, Oomza Uni, while the Himba stay put, free of the conflicts created by Khoush expansion, while exploring the universe by traveling inward. That is, until Binti tests into Oomza Uni and runs away from home in order to study mathematics.

The bulk of Nnedi Okorafor’s slim novella takes place on Binti’s flight from Earth to Oomza Uni aboard “Third Fish…a Miri 12, a type of ship closely related to a shrimp.” Other than Binti’s sense of wonder at everything new, the voyage is uneventful until, abruptly, Meduse raiders attack the ship because this extra-terrestrial race is at war with the Khoush. They sweep through the ship with “the Great Wave,” slaughtering everyone except Binti who is protected by her edan, a strange metallic device that damages the Meduse and allows her to talk to them.

Binti barricades herself in her room, only to learn that the Meduse haven’t come for blood, but to infiltrate Oomza Uni and recover their leader’s stinger that has been lodged there for years.

I entirely understand why this book won awards for best novella. It is a delightful read with a purity of purpose as it tackles issues of isolationism, war, fear, revenge, and colonialism. Binti’s special power is to be a “harmonizer,” and her survival gives an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange. The Meduse hate the edan, but are intrigued her “okuoko,” the Meduse word for their tentacles, as they interpret the thick strands formed by her hair covered in otjize, which, it turns out, can also heal the burns formed by the edan. In turn, Binti learns of the root of their conflict with the Khoush and promises to help if it will stop further bloodshed.

In short, this is a book with a gleaming heart that pulses with optimism, projecting the evils of colonialism into space in order to demonstrate the possibilities of diversity and empathy.

But to my eye, this optimism was also its glaring weakness. In a desperate gambit to create peace, Binti declares “Let me be…let me speak for the Meduse. The people in Oomza Uni are academics, so they’ll understand honor and history and symbolism and matters of the body.” Subsequently she admits that this is a hope, rather than something she knows, but she is confident in her ability to harmonize anywhere––and the academics only took the stinger out of ignorance.

This is a great sentiment, of course, and perhaps it works in this sort of fiction where people are endowed with unique gifts, but inasmuch as Binti serves as a parable about colonialism, it very much did not. Institutions of higher education embedded with the legacies of colonial and racial exploitation and, too often, when both they and the institutions are challenged on these grounds, the response is to become defensive. Rarely do they turn over the artifacts, as the resistance to returning the Parthenon Marbles should suggest, leave alone when the artifacts come from Africa.

My favorite example, and one that I use in my World History class, is the so-called Benin Bronzes, which are these beautiful brass plaques that a British punitive expedition looted in the 19th century. Despite the unambiguous record of ownership—they were looted in a war, not bought (from a legitimate seller or not) like the Parthenon Marbles—western museums have repeatedly ignored requests from Nigeria for their return and have only begun to change their stance in the last decade.

These examples on scratch the surface of these sorts of problems. Too frequently, institutions of higher education have a way of creating and replicating privilege around race, class, and gender, and the systems designed to protect academic freedom imbue them with the attitude of “I’ve got mine” made worse by perpetual austerity and provide a platform that lend legitimacy to prejudices that reflect society as a whole.

Perhaps the point of Binti is to show a world as it should exist, not free of prejudices but where enlightenment is possible. And yet, as someone laboring within the system as it is now, this point seemed as implausible as a shrimp-like vessel capable of interstellar travel.

ΔΔΔ

This is the second post catching up on a backlog that, includes Day of the Oprichnik, Sugar Street, Sudden Death, and A Gathering of Shadows, and I am now reading David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

The Savage Detectives

And after screwing, mi general liked to go out in the courtyard to smoke a cigarette and think about postcoital sadness, that vexing sadness of the flesh and about all the books he hadn’t read.

I said, boys, I’ve been looking at it for more than forty years and I’ve never understood a goddamn thing.

Sometimes I worry I am not a particularly discerning reader. My concern manifests in two instances: when I learn that my takeaway from a book is radically different from other people, which is usually a product of how I relate or don’t to individual characters, or when I don’t understand a book that I read. The second problem rarely happens, at least on a structural level, and I adore a number of fiendishly complicated novels, including Infinite Jest, but occurs instead when a book embeds itself a world of characters and concepts that are beyond familiarity and it becomes homework to understand the depth of the story, as was the case with Never Any End To Paris.

The Savage Detectives is another such novel.

At its heart, The Savage Detectives is a send-up of avant-garde poetry in mid-1970s Mexico City. Part One, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico,” consists of the diary of Juan García Madero who, in his first year of law school, gets entangled in a movement called “visceral realism,” although he admits that he isn’t “really sure what visceral realism is.” Nevertheless, the leading figures in the movement, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, who had put out two issues a poetry magazine called Lee Harvey Oswald, take a liking to the young man. García Madero effectively quits school in favor of poetry and all of the sex that comes with joining the movement, including with the María Font, the bohemian daughter of one of their biggest supporters and, in their opinion, the best young poet in Mexico. The plot takes a turn for the dark when the visceral realists decide to save a friend of María’s named Lupe from her brutal and violent pimp, Alberto, which culminates in a García Madero, Lima, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima tearing out of Mexico City in a Chevy Impala.

The longest part of the book, “The Savage Detectives,” tracks Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano around the world through interviews with dozens of characters (some familiar, some new) from Mexico City to Venezuela to San Diego to France to Spain to Rome to Israel. Linking these stories are Ulises Lima, Arturo Belano, or the object of their obsession, the foremother of visceral realism, Cesárea Tinajero, though we only ever see one of her poems, which is primarily identifiable as a poem because Cesárea said it was and one character declares “if that woman told me that a piece of her shit wrapped in a shopping bag was a poem I would have believed it.”

This is the section I had the hardest time making sense of, with its kaleidoscope of voices and lack of identified narrator, though my personal theory is that it is actually the novel we see Arturo Belano writing at several points in this section. Running through this section are meditations on art, memory and the transitory nature of human connection.

Finally, The Savage Detectives snaps back to the plot that opens the novel with “The Sonora Desert,” in which the Impala roars away, drawn in search of Cesárea and fleeing Alberto’s wrath.

Parts of The Savage Detectives are grippingly readable and at times laugh out loud funny, particularly with its wild swings between discussion of literature on the one hand and the graphic scenes of their sexual pursuits on the other. The “movement” at the heart of the story is imbued with a youthful pretension, such that its most die-hard followers only grudgingly admit that they also read popular fiction, while many of its practitioners (e.g. Maria Font) are poets themselves, they are as much caught up in the whirlwind for the exhilaration of youth and its orgiastic celebration as for being devotees of poetry.

I rarely read published reviews of the books I write about here, but found myself at a loss when trying to make sense of The Savage Detectives. The universal conclusion is that it is at its heart a sendup of the poetic culture that Bolaño himself participated in in 1970s Mexico City, a fact I was somewhat aware of coming into the book. However, this hyper-specific context and the absence of a clear plot for the longest part of the book left me with the sensation that there was a barrier between me as a reader and the novel. The most ardent fans of this book could abuse me for just not getting it, mimicking the attitudes of its characters, as I saw happen on one discussion board post, but that does the Savage Detectives a disservice. This is a book I am glad to have read, but one with enough meat to warrant discussion that, at least for me, is the only way to penetrate that barrier.

ΔΔΔ

The semester finally came to a close and I have a lot of writing projects that have kept me from posting here with any regularity, but I have been consciously carving out more time to read, plowing through Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, V.E. Schwab’s A Gathering of Shadows, Vladimir Sorokin’s The Day of the Oprichnik, Naguib Mahfouz’ Sugar Street, and Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death, all in the last week and a half.

I have thoughts on all of these that I’m hoping to write up posts on most or all of them, as well as returning to using this space for a wider range of topics as they strike me. The last post I started working on here turned into something substantial enough that I wanted to find a more productive venue to publish in, so that one is embargoed, at least for now. Stay tuned!

The Food Explorer

In the second half of the 1800s, at a time when most Americans were farmers, the Department of Agriculture was a tiny outfit mostly charged with discovering ways to make crops more resilient. David Fairchild, the child of an academic in Kansas, joined this small outfit at the same time that the United States was launching itself as an industrial power, with exhibitions such as the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. On the advice of a friend, Fairchild applied for a job at the Smithsonian for a position in Naples, resulting in two fateful encounters. First, on the voyage across the Atlantic, Fairchild met Barbour Lathrop, a wealthy and over-the-top globetrotter. Second, on a trip to Corsica, Fairchild stole cuttings from the citron tree.

These two encounters, according to Daniel Stone’s book, revolutionized the American diet. Fairchild believed that the future of American agriculture was the import of new commodities and Lathrop underwrote the creation of this new program when the US government would not because he decided that Fairchild was his preferred traveling companion. Despite its opponents, the food importation program grew both in the number of explorers scouring the globe and in the bureaucracy to manage the imports, and is responsible for a number of the most recognizable products on the produce shelves, including the navel orange and Meyer lemon.

There are a number of interesting stories at work in The Food Explorer, including about the growth of the American bureaucratic state, about the history of food and food safety, and a unique lens on the US and the world, leave alone Fairchild’s biography, but I found it an immensely frustrating book. Part of my frustration came from quirks of Stone’s writing. Some readers might be interested to learn that the walnut is technically a fruit, but I found the persistence in explaining things were fruits rather than whatever their name or common wisdom suggests about as tiresome as people reminding you that tomatoes are fruit. However, there are also a couple of more substantive complaints.

First, The Food Explorer is a book that can’t decide what it wants to be. The main arc of the book is Fairchild’s biography, which means that by the second half of the book he is no longer an explorer, but a bureaucrat overseeing the work of other explorers, including Frank Meyer, who I found more compelling than Fairchild himself. But this section also becomes mired in accounts of his courtship of and marriage to Marian Bell, the daughter of the inventor Alexander Graham, as well as Bell’s aeronautical competition with the Wright Brothers.

Such stories give a fuller picture of Fairchild’s life, but they sit awkwardly beside the frame of this as a story about the massive changes going on in American society or about the fascinating institutions that Fairchild helped create. In fact, the most iconic plants Fairchild had a hand in bringing to the US were either inedible (Washington DC’s flowering cherry trees) or not his finds (the Meyer lemon). Similarly, I was struck by the vast number of imported plants that were almost immediately supplanted or simply discarded. Fairchild and his program did change the way Americans eat in significant ways, but behind the glitz and glam of Fairchild’s life is a more compelling story about the growth of the commercial agriculture industry and the role of the federal government in both facilitating and inhibiting the import of new crops.

Second, this is a particularly American book. Stone frames the story against the backdrop of American industrial power and the story is built around the privilege of American interlopers cavalierly begging, stealing, or buying whatever they want to populate their new garden of Eden. I don’t want to pass any aspersions on Stone since he periodically offers light critiques of American ignorance, such as during a potential row between US and Japanese officials after the first batch of cherry trees had to be burned. Nevertheless, his sources are swept up in the potential of the US and the backwardness of most of the rest of the world and he is generally happy to echo their sentiments, and makes a few truly egregious gaffes along the way, such as in identifying Egypt as both “Mesopotamia” and “the birthplace of civilization.”

As noted above, there is a compelling story here and I can understand why so many people and at least one podcast I listened to raved about the book. The decision to follow Fairchild’s charmed life keeps it from getting too heavy with either discussions of institutions and business or war and death, but I closed it more more frustrated than enlightened.

ΔΔΔ

A short discussion of Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, since I am likely not going to do a full summary: The first half of the book consists of non-stop action of a fateful night when a socialist politician is assassinated after a gathering in Thessaloniki by ruffians hired by the police, who simply stand by and watch. Much stronger, in my opinion, was the second half, which explored the inquests that followed and is highly critical of political officials who seek to sweep their complicity under the rug. My failure to write this up earlier has dimmed the individual characters in my memory, but I was repeatedly struck by the resonance with contemporary political agendas.

I have also finished Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats and am now reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a strange and sensual novel about a group of young poets who call themselves “the visceral realists.”

Beware of Pity

The whole thing began with a blunder on my part, an entirely innocent piece of clumsiness, a gaffe, as the French call it. Then followed an attempt to put things right; but if you try to repair a watch in too much of a hurry, you’re likely as not to put the whole works out of order.

It is 1913 and 1914 and Lieutenant Anton Hofmiller of the Imperial Uhlans is stationed at a sleepy provincial garrison. Hofmiller is well-mannered and supported by an aunt who insisted he join the cavalry, but, unlike his fellow officers, he is not from a family of money. It comes as a shock, therefore, when a local lord, von Kekesfalva, requests his presence at a dinner party. Hofmiller goes as though in a dream, meeting important people and dancing the night away. Realizing at some point that he has not yet danced with Edith, his host’s daughter, he seeks her out and in his most cultured manner extends an invitation. Only then does he realize his gaffe: Edith cannot walk.

Embarrassed, Hofmiller compounds his shame by fleeting the party. In the clear light of day he decides that he must make amends, sending flowers and a note that entangles him further in the Kekesfalva drama and unwittingly initiates a courtship with the daughter.

Rarely does a novel’s title double as its thesis statement. Hofmiller’s tragic flaw is his sense of honor and propriety that leads him to want to dance with the host’s daughter, which leads to his simple attempt to make amends, which leads to his taking pity on Edith, which initiates his cascading series of social crises. Thus, according to Zweig, his pity proves his undoing as he has neither the callousness to extricate himself from the situation nor the calculated instinct to take full advantage of it.

“Our decisions are to a much great extend dependent on our desire to conform to the standards of our class and environment than we are inclined to admit.”

This simple conceit of Beware of Pity makes much of the plot eminently predictable. It was abundantly clear from the jump that the climax would involve an ill-fated marriage proposal, with the only question being whether they would follow through on it. But, like with Zweig’s other novels, its strength lies in the psychological depth that he builds into the characters, such that the conflict emerges from the life breathed into their emotional relationships and competing agendas.

Beware of Pity read like an allegory about the decay in Austria in the year immediately before World War One. There was peace, stability, and people like the doctor treating Edith trying to do what they can, but also runaway inequality and a wealthy class represented a crippled young woman and her sad, sick father who is revealed to be a fraud. All of this makes for an compellingly ornate novel––Zweig cannot be accused of being spare in his description––but also one rife with problems that cannot simply be excused as a product of its time (the late 1930s).

Take Kekesfalva’s background. Lajos von Kekesfalva, we learn, was in fact born Leopold Kanitz in a poor Jewish village along the the Hungarian-Slovak frontier, only to work his way up in society, “magyarizing” his name and pinching every penny until a chance inheritance gave him an opening to marry the naive and unsuspecting heiress, gaining title and fortune in one stroke. The genuine affection Kekesfalva has for his daughter seems to speak well for his relationship for his wife, but that doesn’t excuse that our generous and gregarious aristocrat is revealed to be an unscrupulous Jew painted using the antisemitic colors of the day.

I had a similar reaction to the disability plot, even beyond a possible interpretation of it as punishment for Kekesfalva, even though that actual condition sounded to my minimally-informed ear like polio. It was hard not to empathize with Edith’s resolve to be independent, but that only goes so far toward ameliorating that the novel is built around the idea that her disability was something to be pitied. This spilled over into believable aspects of the relationship––e.g. Hofmiller infantilizing Edith while considering her mobile cousin as a potential sexual partner––that introduced further complications.

The problem with Beware of Pity, as well as other Zweig novels, is that the same features that make it so compellingly readable––especially the way it luxuriates in the emotional lives of its main characters––magnify, and sometimes even introduce, its problems. I liked Beware of Pity, all told, and it is in a lot of ways a more complete novel than The Post Office Girl, which I actually liked better, but there were too many issues baked into its structure for me to consider it a masterpiece.

ΔΔΔ

I have developed quite a backlog of books recently, having finished Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats, Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, and Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer. I plan to write about some of these, but am starting to doubt that I will get to them all. Next up, I just started Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.

In the Land of Green Plums

“At the time I still believed that in a world without guards people would walk differently from the way we do in our country. Where people are allowed to think and write differently, I thought, they will also walk differently.”

I pick the books I read somewhat haphazardly by what sounds interesting at a given moment, but sometimes relax by researching new books to read. Sometimes this is easy––checking to see what favorite authors have published recently––other searches take more creativity, particularly in order to widen the range of voices I read books by. In one search late last year for non-English-language fiction about totalitarian regimes written by women I found The Queue, which I wrote about earlier, and this one, Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums.

Set at the height of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s reign of terror in Romania, The Land of Green Plums is a gripping, ethereal tale centered on the story of an unnamed young woman trying to survive in a land dominated by criminals and thieves. The story opens in a girls’ dormitory where the residents improvise mascara out of spit and soot, dream of nylons, and trade sexual favors for organ meat of slaughtered animals. And then Lola, a young girl who dreamed of studying Russian at university, hangs herself in the closet.

Life continues. At school the narrator makes friends with three men, Edgar, Kurt, and Georg, all German-speaking Romanians with whom she dreams about a better life, writing poetry and talking about freedom. All the while they expect to be arrested. The end of school scatters across the country, but they agree to write and institute a code––a hair in the seal of the envelope and particular phrases meant to reassure that they are alright and detect the Securitate reading their missives. Of course, having three male friends complicates the narrator’s life since it leads to gossip that she sleeps with all of them.

In this period after school, Müller puts a name and face to the society tormenting the narrator (Captain Pjele) and builds out a cast of the oppressed, particularly in the form of her friend Tereza. Pjele repeatedly torments the narrator, and subjects her to all manner of abuses and degradations, and she wants nothing more than to vandalize his home. He continues to terrorize her even after her departure, sending death threats to her new residence in Germany. Tereza, by contrast, is a victim of society who befriends the narrator on Pjele’s order and doesn’t feel capable of escaping even as a tumor grows unchecked on her underarm.

I found the plot of The Land of Green Plums like trying to follow a half-remembered dream, but the its greatest strength is its beauty. Müller’s prose is hauntingly beautiful whether depicting the frustrations of oppression or, especially, when capturing a fleeting moment of tranquility despite it all:

“Here no one was a guest, they were all just refugees from a meaningless afternoon.”

Although not explicitly autobiographical, the narrator’s life loosely follows Müller’s experience living in and escaping from Ceaușescu’s Romania, which imbues The Land of Green Plums with the gross indignities and the tiny joys that continue to exist within under such a regime. Trauma is laced throughout the novel, but so too are hope, fear, petty jealousies, and even guilt.

And yet, my response to the book was in the end mixed. I liked The Land of Green Plums, but reading it was like falling into a fugue state almost as though it was magical realism. Elements of this disassociation contributed to why individual scenes will stay with me even while the book as a whole may not.

ΔΔΔ

Through a month of online teaching, my state of mind is more “existential dread” than “bored.” My employment transitioned online, creating a load of new work, but it is set to end in about a month. Meanwhile, fallout from COVID-19 has canceled multiple jobs that I had either interviewed or applied for and dried up the prospects of continuing in the positions I have been teaching, even as a short-term bridge.

Despite all this, I have still been reading, recently finishing Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men, Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats, Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, and Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer. I hope to review some or all of these in the near future.

The Queue

Yehya would never admit that he was just a single, powerless man in a society where rules and restrictions were stronger than everything else, stronger than the ruler himself, stronger than the Booth and even the Gate.

A new political authority has begun to assert authority in an unnamed Middle Eastern city. The Gate, named for its public-facing building, appeared in the city a few years ago and has gradually begun to assert authority in the name of two things: order and virtue. At first the Gate’s announcements and orders made little impact, but in the aftermath of the recent Disgraceful Events, they are beginning to encroach upon the daily lives of the citizens living in its shadow.

Just one problem: The Gate denies that the events of that day ever took place.

The Gate asserts authority through bureaucracy. Official petitions and even employment requires a certificate of True Citizenship, which one can acquire at the Booth, an adjunct of the Gate at the side of the building. Failure to acquire a certificate is the same as failing to provide adequate evidence of loyalty. Petitions can be brought to The Gate itself with certificate in hand, lining up in the eponymous queue until The Gate opens to hear petitions. Those waiting in the queue assure newcomers that The Gate should open at any time, they just need to be patient––and to wait their turn.

Basma Abdel Aziz drops a madcap story at the center of this Orwellian and Kafkaesque hybrid setting.

The plot of the novel follows the six necessary documents for the patient Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed’s file in his petition to receive treatment. On the day of the Disgraceful Events, Yehya acquired a bullet that is now working its way into his internal organs, but the X-ray evidence of the bullet has disappeared and the doctor in charge of his recovery has been directed to forward Yehya to The Gate’s hospital, which will only see him if The Gate approves his petition.

All Yehya needs to do is acquire a certificate of True Citizenship, formally declare that he did not receive the bullet from The Gate’s soldiers––perhaps the agitators shot him?––and wait for The Gate to open to approve the petition. Easy.

Yehya’s stubborn refusal to deny the truth he knows prompts his friends to go into overdrive in an attempt to save him, including trying to persuade Tarek, the original doctor, to perform the operation anyway.

As someone with an aversion to standing in line, I had an a visceral reaction to the description of this interminable line. Abdel Aziz builds an entire eco-system around the queue, presenting its metastatic growth as something that people simple accept as a new normal and presenting it as a niche market for tea vendors who cater to the line and preachers with a captive flock. Beyond its borders the line is not questioned, it simply is.

Novels about authoritarianism each find their own way to inject humanity into the center of the story. In 1984, for instance, Winston undergoes a crisis of conscience about the government and reaches out for natural and human connection before being stripped down to the bone and reprogrammed. In setting The Queue resembles 1984, but in plot it is closer to a Kafka novel where the protagonists struggle against the faceless bureaucracy. I didn’t find every character in The Queue compelling, but Abdel Aziz elevates the stakes in a powerful way by documenting Yehya’s deterioration at the same time as she shows people railing at, negotiating with, and trying to fight The Gate by turns, all with equal effect.

There are individual moments of dark humor, but The Queue is not an easy read. Rather, it is a grim tale that concludes with a powerful gut punch and a message: accepting the queue and its related imposition as the new normal means that The Gate wins.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I finished Hippie Food, a story of how the food of the counter culture shaped the modern American diet and have since begun Z, Vassilis Vassilkos’ formerly banned novel based on a Greek political conspiracy in the 1960s.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

The life prospects for a girl from a poor family in rural China in the nineteenth century are practically non-existent. Her status will forever be tied to her husband, but the lack of a dowry places a hard cap on the status of husband she can attract.

So it is for Lily until her foot-binding results in perfectly-formed feet. Suddenly she is a desirable commodity. At the age of seven, she is matched as laotong (old-same) with Snow Flower, complete with a signed contract and a warning that this relationship is supposed to be more intimate and long-lived than a marriage. Snow Flower introduces herself to Lily by sending a fan on which she has written a poem in nu shu, a language designed expressly for women to communicate with each other away from the prying eyes of men. Things are looking up for Lily, but Snow Flower is harboring secrets that threaten the very core of the relationship.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story of a mismatched pair trading places. Lily’s perfect feet and simple-but-dutiful upbringing causes her star to rise, while Snow Flower’s falls. However, this is no mere lesson in peasant morality. Instead, the narrator is an older Lily reflecting on her life and spinning the story of how she gained her position in a world that undervalues women. Her account plays up––plausibly––her own naïveté such that the reader can sympathize with her feelings of betrayal upon learning the secrets that others withheld from her, while the trick of presenting the story as simultaneously that of a young and old woman highlights how Lily, in turn, betrays those who she loves.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan does not concern itself with much of a world outside of the narrow one that Lily and Snow Flower exist in, but is nevertheless situated historically in a powerful way. Not only does See aim to inhabit the lives of women in nineteenth century China, but the book is filled with moments that locate in time, from the deleterious effects of opium to the hope that the imperial exam will elevate a family to an appearance of the Taiping Rebellion. Each of these profoundly shape the novel but the goings on of imperial policy or global diplomacy remain in the foggy distance. In fact, I found the time when a political issue strikes closest to home, involving the Taiping Rebellion and a forced flight into the mountains, among the weakest sections of what is otherwise a tightly constructed book.

Above all, See writes beautiful prose. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is all the more powerful for its precise lyricism that captures the joy of escaping with one’s friend to get a special treat, the fear of the unknown, the hope for the future, and the pain of loss. This same quality can also turn the story utterly devastating, such as when Lily recounts, in excruciating detail, the process of footbinding, its success for her and all of the ways it could go wrong.

Despite minor quibbles with one or two plot points, I loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, both as an exploration of women’s lives in 19th century China and as a discussion of memory in all of its messiness. There is an equal case to be made that Lily is the hero and villain of her own story, and See’s prose infuses her unrepentant delivery with nostalgia and regret.

ΔΔΔ

I just finished Basma Abdel Aziz’ The Queue, a book that reads like if the history of the modern Middle East were co-written by Orwell and Kafka. I started Jonathan Kauffman’s Hippie Food this morning have been working my way through David Gooblar’s The Missing Course.