April Reading Recap

April is always a busy month in the academic calendar and the first few weeks of May ramp up, if anything. And yet this is the best time of year for sitting in the outside and reading. I only finished three books this month, but summer is coming.

The Professor and the Siren, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
My first foray into Lampedusa’s work, this slim volume contains three short pieces–the eponymous story, a parable called “Joy and the Law,” and “The Blind Kittens,” which was originally conceived of as the opening chapter to a novel that he never completed. My favorite of these three of was “The Blind Kittens,” which just sets the stage for a story about familial land competition in Sicily. “The Professor and the Siren” was interesting, but at its core was a tale about how the impetus for great scholarship (or art) is the combination of a blaze of eroticism in youth (as though to prove vitality) and monastic deprivation thereafter. There is more to this story than that bare narrative, but I don’t like the basic trope.

The Postmortal, Drew Magary
An epistolary what-if novel. What scientists discovered a cure for aging? Not a cure for diseases (including cancer) or against a violent death or to reverse aging that has already happened, but one that freezes the process of aging exactly where it is when the injection takes place. What would the public debate around legalizing such a thing look like? Would there be death cultists who launch campaigns of terror against the postmortals? People who deliberately maim these people who will live for a very, very long time? What happens to marriages that now run the risk of permanently binding people together? Will some deranged mothers give the cure for aging to their infants to keep their babies forever? Will some world governments ban the cure? Will the government eventually introduce euthanasia programs? Will there be a collapse?

These are many of the questions that Magary asks in this clever novel. Magary has a recognizable voice as an author, honed through years of writing things like a long series of “Hater’s Guide to xxx,” but while aspects of it come across as goofy commentary or twists, the medium is supposed to be unpublished blog posts, curated by unnamed individuals sometime after the narrator ceased writing. The form works and many of the ludicrous, tongue-in-cheek, satirical developments are frighteningly plausible.

Desert, J.M.G. Le Clézio
Reviewed here, a sprawling story about the interaction between North African children and the Western Civilization that seeks to oppress them. It is possible to debate the “children” tag, since the common reading seems to link North African freedom and servitude of colonialism, but I find it notable that both narrators are children. This changes the reading in a couple of ways, but the fact that there are multiple adult characters leads me to believe that it is not simply an equation of the colonial subjects with children, as was a part of colonial propaganda.

The Postmortal was my favorite from last month. I’m now working through Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin, which is a grotesque comedy about Naples after it was liberated by the allies during World War 2.

Desert, J.M.G. Le Clézio

The Europeans in North Africa, the “Christians,” as the people from the desert call them–but isn’t their true religion money?

What more can the old man from Smara do against this wave of money and bullets?

Desert, a novel published in 1980 by 2008 nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio, was not what I expected. The barest bones of the blurb on the back hold true: two narratives tell the tale of the “last free men,” and the characters in both seek, desperately, to retain freedom, and the background of the story is Europe’s colonial legacy in North Africa. Likewise, for each narrative. Nour is a young tribesman who accompanies his tribe on its long trek in 1909–part of a holy war, it is later revealed–to defeat the Christians who have come to enslave them. Years later, Lalla, a descendant of the same tribe, flees from her shanty town in Morocco to Marseille in order to escape a forced marriage.

Despite not being nearly as enthralled as I expected to be based on this premise, something compelled me to keep reading. In part, my curiosity was piqued by the narrative disjunctures, the child-like dream-logic that governed the flow and description of events–there was too frequently a tendency to skip from point A to point B with minimal explanation, and things just happened; similarly, I found myself meditating on the laboriousness of overwritten description. (Not something that can be written off as a translation issue, I think. There should also be an emphasis on childlike since both narratives are told from the P.o.V. of a child and so there is a veil between the concerns of adults and observations of children.)

The other part of the compulsion is that within this epic tale with almost no action–charitably, an “ethereal slow-burn”–there is a subtle discussion of freedom. Adults endure trials for freedom, but no definition is offered. Money can offer temporary respite, but, ultimately, it will enslave people tighter than any chain. And yet, responsibility, love, and need enslave, too. It is notable that the centerpiece of both narratives is a child and that each has people and things he or she cares for diligently, but out of choice rather than strictly need. This is where I saw the greatest dissonance between what the blurb said and what I read. Lalla is resilient and has to work to survive, but so does everyone else. The more remarkable thing about Lalla is that she never succumbs to the obsession with money or even the need for literacy that are the trappings of the servitude of the modern world. Partly, this is Lalla the child of the desert. Partly, this is something more innate to Lalla the orphan outsider. The other characters in the story are enthralled by Lalla and all that she represents (variously: beauty, youth, fertility, freedom, family, honesty). Lalla, herself, dream-walks her way through life convinced that freedom is not being tied down by any one thing, largely oblivious to how reliant she is on the charity, help, or needs of others to maintain her freedom, and drawing ever closer to the end of that freedom.

A novel’s “secret center” is how Orhan Pamuk describes the central message of a novel, positing that while the outline of that message may be evident early on, it should not become clear until the end of the book. By this definition of a great novel, Desert works. Le Clézio brings the thematic resonances between the two narratives together with two chapters, one from each period, that are told from a point of view other than the two characters. The message is  clear: more than anything else, money enslaves. The background to the story is European Colonialism, but the colonialism brings money and the implication is that it was brought about by pre-existing debts. Further, only in a few short chapters is the colonial legacy really explicitly foregrounded. Elsewhere it is a necessary backdrop to the narrative, but the issues of freedom emerge more from the issue of “civilization” than from colonialism. Yes, the two are inextricably linked, but it is possible to compare the vision of freedom in Desert favorably with that of Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, which does not emphasize the colonial legacy. These two books are not remotely the same except in their visions of freedom, which is why I hesitate to agree that there is something more central than setting to the colonialism.

The New York Times referred to Desert as “sprawling, poetic” which is another way of saying “boring, wordy.” There is something here captivating and intriguing, but it is a book in which very little happens, so people who like a tightly constructed plot should probably avoid it. I’m not likely to put this on a list of my favorite novels, but there is enough in this story that I’ll be giving Le Clézio at least one more shot in the future.

Up next is Curzio Malaparte’s novel, The Skin.