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issue 55: September - October 2006

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THE WOMAN WHO WAITED by Andrei Makine: Arcade Publishing, 2006.   Translated by Geoffrey Strachan

The title of Andrei Makine's ninth novel is translated from the French with precise literary accuracy as The Woman Who Waited ( La Femme qui attendait ), and does not carry the poetic resonance of his most admired masterpiece Dreams of My Russian Summers (totally changed from the flat Le Testament francais ) which won the Prix Goncourt and Medicis in 1995. Nevertheless, the expatriate Russian author, living in France since 1987, and his superb translator Geoffrey Strachan, made the right choice to leave the title as it stands, unadorned, as it simply understates and finely reinforces the plot line and tragic theme of the novel. Underneath the quiet surface of village life in Mirnoe, set in the northern reaches of Russia on the White Sea, we discover a world frozen in time for thirty years (since 1945) and the old war widows who inhabit it, waiting to die in the absence of long abandoned hope and desire. The one exception is the younger Vera, forty-seven, who still waits for her missing-in-action betrothed to return from a war where ten million soldiers died.

Into this forlorn landscape the twenty-six-year-old narrator appears from Leningrad in August to do an academic study of the indigenous customs, traditions and ceremonies of the region. He is sidetracked by Vera, immediately introduced through his notes as “a woman so intensely destined for happiness . . . . a being of inexhaustible potential,”   but smugly qualified as he states, “I took great pride in having gained insight into the secret life of a woman old enough to be my mother,” and, “Yes, I was pretty pleased with my analysis.” Thus Makine presents the two central characters through the dominant narrator's voice, often pretentious and not to be trusted.   His observations begin at chance encounters with Vera described with lyrical (if not delirious) sexual enthusiasm:   “At first I thought I had surprised a couple making love. Amid the undergrowth covering the shores of the lake, I glimpsed the intense white gleam of a thigh, the curve of a torso straining with effort, I heard breathless panting.” This surmise turns out to be Vera hauling in a large fishing net. As the net's mass of fish drains, they face one another, and the narrator's imagination fires up:  “And there was a shared perception, tacit and instinctive, that between this man and this woman, at this red and violent nightfall, anything could happen . . . Their bodies could lie down beside the tangle of the net, melt into one another, take their pleasure, even as the lives trapped in the fishnet breathed their last.” From the outset Makine infuses the narrative with recurring sexual images that create a fluctuating tension of expectation, driving toward a climax of physical passion that seems inevitable.

Living in the timeless world of Mirnoe, helping Vera sustain and sometimes bury and attend to the graves of the slowly dying assembly of widows, the narrator's romantic inclinations are revealed in a succession of epiphanies. In one, with Vera at a well in autumn:   “As the ice broke, it sounded like a harpsichord. We looked at one another.   We were each about to remark on the beauty of this tinkling sound, then thought better of it. The resonance of the harpsichord had faded into the radiance of the air, it blended with the wistfully repeated notes of an oriole, with the scent of a wood fire coming from the nearby izba. The beauty of that moment was quite simply becoming our life.” He makes “a record of such luminous moments rescued from time.” These moments can also be hotly explicit, as when he approaches the village bathhouse one evening to “spy on this woman   . . . embrace her slippery, elusive body, push her down on the wet floorboards, possess her . . .” Shortly after this fiery projection, visual reality:   “The woman who emerged was naked: she stepped out of the steam room, stood on the little wooden front steps, and inhaled the cool of the lake.   The soft radiance of the moon made of her a statue of bluish glass, revealing even the molding of collarbones, the roundness of breasts, the curve of hips, on which drops of water glistened.”   We see the pendulum swing between love and lust, never settling, always slightly off-balance.

As the story progresses, we receive a brief history lesson on the tragedy of the war and the postwar devastation, as the narrator seeks to comprehend Vera's existence during these thirty years.   He concludes that it is “much too improbable to feature in a book.   A period of waiting too grievously real for any work of fiction.”   And later, “No, she had not chosen to wait, she had been cruelly caught by an era, by the postwar years, which had closed on her like a mousetrap . . . But this meant she was perfectly free!”   Throughout the novel the narrator vacillates between accepting the reality of Vera's vow to wait without judging her—“that's how it is”—and his underlying desire to destroy the complacency of   “a woman they have turned into a walking monument to the dead.   A fiancé immolated on the pyre of faithfulness.   A rustic Andromache.”   This anguishing inner conflict he experiences is at the heart of the novel, and will remain impossible to resolve.

Juxtaposed against the narrator's psychological perception of Vera's state of mind, how the community sees her, and their intensifying passion for one another relayed through a series of poetic descriptions, are several episodes that introduce us to a totally different scene: life in the dissident artistic circles throughout Russia, “six or seven years late, May '68 had finally arrived.”   In the ubiquitous painters' and writers' studio lofts, one called “Wigwam” in Leningrad, a hangout for the narrator, but also similar to one in Archangel near Mirnoe, the party was on.    “‘Planet--Nyet!' declaimed the author of a poem and was answered from behind the unfinished paintings by the clamor of an imminent orgasm.   Nyet was what stifled the maturing of talent, freedom of expression, unfettered love, foreign travel, everything.” The narrator is observer, not participant in these soirées, as when one night he overhears his recent girlfriend:   “I knew the sound of her voice in lovemaking, and I could recognize her part in the current duet. Without flinching.   Without the right to be jealous.   Sexual ownership was the height of petty bourgeois absurdity.” Detached and isolated from this scene, he takes a hard look as well at the writer's quandary, as he rebels against censorship and the ideological dictatorship that suppresses his work: “To complain about the regime and not to write, or to write purely to complain about it—here, I sensed, was the vicious circle of dissident literature.”

The narrator's original plans to write satires of the regime, placing him within that “vicious circle,” disintegrates with his disillusionment with the urban soirées, and the falseness inherent in them is dispelled as he slowly engages in the natural rhythms of everyday village life in Mirnoe.   He becomes a partner to Vera as she makes the rounds helping the aged women get through their illnesses and live out their remaining years with dignity and self-sufficiency. The poignant simplicity of their lives is a healthy antidote for the narrator, and he finally realizes that in the endless wasted nights of “Wigwam” he had become “a westerner of straw.”

The narrator's voice guides us throughout the novel, and we cannot avoid the insistent subjective judgments he forces us to make, usually about his ability to see and understand Vera's true self.   He is a romantic who idealizes Vera and admires the “purity” of her waiting, but the barrage of electrically charged sexual images creates a fine paradox which subverts her inviolable stoicism. Until the concluding chapters, we know very little about Vera's past life, although much is assumed by the narrator, and at times tantalizingly so in the present—such as a “secret life” she escapes to on a regular schedule in Archangel—but now we learn of her eight years of academic study in Leningrad in the 1960's, working toward a Doctorate in Linguistics. Like the narrator she disdained the political artificiality she encountered, where “They pilloried Stalin but sanctified Lenin more than ever. It was a fairly understandable sleight of hand.   After the collapse of one cult, people were clinging to the last remaining idols.”   She returns from Leningrad to Mirnoe to bury her mother, and elects to stay:   “I also realized that up here in Mirnoe all those debates we had in Leningrad, whether anti-Soviet or pro-Soviet, meant nothing.   Coming here, I found half a dozen very old women who'd lost their families in the war and were going to die.” The purity of Vera's altruism is never in question, even though she rationalizes her choice, “At any rate, I was already too old for the university” and, the constant refrain,  “Besides, how can I leave?   I'm still waiting for him.”

Early in The Woman Who Waited we learn that the narrator, an émigré to the West and a writer, is looking back from our present time with a memoirist's eye in the first years of the 21st century to 1975, the year of the narrative, with Vera at the center of this poignant and flamboyant love story, where the village of Mirnoe is the place tightly in focus.   Events unfold and radiate to Vera's past life further back in time to 1945, and to their separate independent academic lives in Leningrad in the 1960's and 1970's.   Although thirty years of age separate them, we set this difference aside as unimportant as the memoir/novel progresses, as their desire for one another intensifies, as Makine creates scene after scene of graphic sexual images sweeping us into this private world of passion. This insulated zone is offset to some degree by scenes of drunken promiscuity in the bombastic political and artistic soirées in the mid-seventies, but our attention quickly returns to the two lovers, whose undeclared affection brings them closer and closer.   By the end of the novel we know the callow side of the narrator through his own honest—and humorous—admissions:  “I am twenty-six, an extenuating circumstance. An age when one still takes pride in the number of women one has possessed.” And, in the aftermath of sex, “the pleasure became unbearable in its sacrilegious novelty, its terrible carnal banality.” We also see his deep, caring side as he parts from Vera: “Her face seems older to me; a lock of silver hair slips over her brow.   And yet she is utterly brimming with a fresh, vibrant youthfulness that is in the process of being born, in the movement of her lips, the fluttering of her eyelashes, in the lightness of her body as the boat begins to bear her away . . .”

Vera, on the other hand, always retains an air of reticence. During an intimate dinner with the narrator, she recounts a popular story from her past: “When I was in Leningrad in the sixties, the men who accosted you, and were anxious to cut to the chase, could only talk about one thing:   Kollontai's ‘glass of water theory'. . . Alexandra Kollontai, a great beauty and a great friend of Lenin, came up with this proposition:   satisfying your carnal instinct is as straightforward as drinking a glass of water . . . But Lenin quickly condemned this theory as the product of left-wing deviation . . .‘However thirsty you are', he said, ‘you're still not going to drink from a murky pond.'” Vera had a cutting response to a suitor who came on to her, citing Alexandra: “‘Take a look, young man. This aged crone you see in front of you.   Doesn't she remind you of a stagnant pond?'   It worked pretty well.”   From the manner in which Vera chooses to tell this personal anecdote, and with our knowledge of her present physical beauty, we smile at her rebuttal and assume at other times she was perhaps more receptive to casual passes, in those open Leningrad years of the sixties. But unlike the narrator's explicit voice, her adventures are hidden from us.

The final pages are set at the edge of the White Sea as an icy winter season closes in, after a sudden ironic revelation that resigns us to the sad reality that Vera could be the last inhabitant among the aging women of Mirnoe, that she will be waiting alone. The narrator returns to Leningrad to begin his “mature life” enriched by her presence during these transforming months of autumn. And we are now fully aware of the grandeur of Vera, reverberating in this classic romantic novel with immense tragic depth and lyrical beauty.

Donald Long, Professor of World Literature (retired)

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Iron Balloons: Hit Fiction from Jamaica's Calabash Writer's Workshop; edited by Colin Channer: Akashic Books, NY,   2006

This anthology of eleven short stories is bursting with Jamaican soul. As poignant as the tales is Colin Channer's Introduction in which he speaks of the history of the Calabash Writer's Workshop, which “you can't just buy your way into.” It's free, for starters, and to be accepted you must compete by sending in a manuscript. The workshop itself, at least this last one, was held in a house without a roof in Kingston. It's as funky, real, and full of vital energy and spirit as the reggae explosion of the 1960s—a comparison astutely traced by Mr. Channer.   He also speaks of his chance meeting with Akashic Books' publisher, Johnny Temple, which is a story in itself; and of the challenge of editing an anthology, which he got through by “trust[ing] the reggae.”

It kicks off with “The Last Jamaican Lion” by Marlon James, which follows the last days of Maximilian Morrison, called by his housemaid-cum-wife, “Mr. Minister.”   Maximilian, who, we're told, in 1965 became his country's first prime minister, is roughly based on Jamaica's real-life first prime minister, the charismatic Alexander Bustamante, who married his assistant and was eventually proclaimed a “National Hero of Jamaica.” Here we find Maximilian—now confused over dates and years—and his feisty wife engaging in playful repartee as the old lion laments his broken body and reflects on his past.

Alwin Bully's “Parting,” set at a party on a country estate, winds its way to the disclosure that a man has lost his son; comfort comes to him in a dubious but not ineffective way; while A-dZiko Simba's charming “Someone to Tell” gives us a glimpse into the mind of a young boy who has witnessed “the most incredible thing you've seen in your whole life” —but will anyone listen?

The only story written totally in patois, Rudolph Wallace's “Siblings,” requires a bit of patience at first, but is well worth the effort. It's a poignant tale of incest, all the more arresting for its strange and lyrical vernacular:  “A lie me did a tell.”

Colin Channer scores big with “How to Beat a Child the Right and Proper Way,” which opens:  “Good evening, fellow classmates. I'm very pleased to appear before you to present my five-minute ‘how-to' speech in Speech 112 this evening.” The classroom is a trailer and the speaker is an older woman, full of piss and vinegar, who, in the process of telling how she beat her daughter to keep her on the straight, inadvertently gives us her own heartwarming story.

“All Ah We Is One” by Elizabeth Nunez follows an African-American couple on a trip to Jamaica as guests of the Ambassador, but all goes wrong when they enter a swimming pool and are shunned for their black skin. Double standards abound from all quarters as local authorities try to smooth it over while the Americans remain blinkered in their own way.

Kaylie Jones' “The Anger Meridian” shows the difficulty of a woman, who, as the daughter of a diplomat, has lived all over the world, must now settle with her business-obsessed husband in Dallas; while Sharon Leach's  “Sugar” takes us to a Jamaican resort where a local maid is exposed to indolence (which she hates) and wealth (which she envies) and must cope with the demands.

Two fine stories concerning evangelical Christians:   In Geoffrey Philip's “I Want to Disturb My Neighbor” a young boy is pushed by his domineering, Bible-thumping mama to go tell rastaman Jah Mick to turn down his “boogooyagga'   music; while in Konrad Kirlew's “A Little Embarrassment for the Sake of Our Lord” we sympathize with another little boy, this one the son of a preacher with ambition and a past to hide.        

In the haunting, novella-length “Marley's Ghost” by Kwame Dawes, a man lies dying, alone, in a room lined with newspapers. He is listening to Exodus on auto-play. Those are the reliable facts, we're told, but as we follow the man's wandering mind, his dying days begin to resemble those of Bob Marley—struck with cancer, still touring, surrounded by his women, trying for a miracle cure in Miami. The man's personal lives and loves get tangled with Marley's as he “dreams himself into a meaningful death.”

Iron Balloons is a powerful collection of stories, which, diverse that they are, share a bountiful spirit. You will quickly get caught up in the rhythm of these compelling and inventive narratives, so far from the studied pieces flowing from MFA programs.   Here we have fresh settings and voices, even if one of those voices comes from suburbia. I suspect these writers, despite a lot of academic credit among them, have not come from coddled backgrounds; they have something to say. And most importantly, they say it exceptionally well. To all who enjoy good short fiction, and to all you MFA majors, you can't do better than to pick up this anthology. What's coming out of the creative writing workshops at Calabash, is creative.   JA

See A-dZiko Simba's Someone To Tell

See also, from issue 45, Colin Channer's Revolution

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This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes: Viking Penguin, US: Granta Books, UK, 2006

This year brought us a new novel by A.M. Homes after a six-year hiatus. Working territory she knows well, we are again in suburbia and focused on disfunctional families in a disfunctional society . Additionally, we get a mordant (and often humorous) portrait of 21st-century American life with its obsession on self. There is obsession over food, with supermarkets that even have a “Care of the Self” aisle; with pricey spas, meditation retreats, specialized gyms and private instructors, personal nutritionists, colorists, you name it.

Set in the sloped hills of the affluent LA suburbs, our protagonist is fifty-five-year-old Richard Novack, long divorced (wife and son in New York), wealthy from years of stock trading which he conducts from his treadmill in the morning, and surrounded by people who take care of him—house helper, masseuse, trainer, nutritionist, etc.   But one morning he is overcome with an immense pain and lack of oxygen. He calls 911 for help, but the doctors can find nothing wrong.   Richard must look within himself for the cause and he finds he's confronted with huge blank spots.   What was his childhood like?   He can't remember. And what has he been doing with himself all day after the stock trading? Unclear. When was the last time he talked to his son, Ben, now a teenager?   Who the hell is he anyway?  

At this juncture, while cruising the supermarket, he runs into a beautiful woman in tears in the produce section and they begin a conversation. Cynthia is cracking up, too:   husband and kids take her totally for granted. All she does is car pool, cook, clean, make arrangements for everyone, and is given zero recognition in return.   These two quickly become friends. Cynthia will soon leave her family to take a long break, taking Richard up on his offer to come and stay at his place if she needs to get away.

Another person who enters Richard's life at this point is Anhil, an immigrant donut-shop owner. Richard has wandered into the shop in a kind of daze. God knows when he last ate a donut. And, as in Carver's “A Small, Good Thing,” Anhil offers a warm, freshly made tasty donut to help balm the soul. Soon Richard has a second friend in his life.

Back at home, Richard is confronted with an ever-growing sinkhole in his front yard.   He calls the authorities who come check it out, but then a little girl's horse wanders into the hole and can't seem to get out. Richard helps solve the problem, with the help of a movie star neighbor whom he'd never spoken with, gets recognition for being a good Samaritan, and realizes that that is what he wants to do with his days—help people.

Meanwhile there begin phone calls to his parents in Florida, brother in Boston, and son and ex in New York, along with a temporary move to Malibu as his home is in danger of sliding and must have foundation work (much like our protagonist). Eccentric neighbor Nic at Malibu, he later discovers, is a famous writer and 60s personality, now a recluse. Nic joins the small group of growing friends in Richard's life as he continues to be the good Samaritan, rather like a low-key Clark Kent without the disguise. They get to know his voice at 911, he makes the press, and even becomes fodder for jokes on Leno.

Richard's attempt to reconnect with his parents, now absorbed in their own brave new world of the Florida condo set, shows the genuine (i.e., non-ironic) poignancy that can surface in the narrative:

He hangs up thinking about his parents getting old, how much is already lost, how he'll never get it back. He thinks about how long he's kept away from them, as if protecting himself, but they're not who they were, the secrets they were keeping are already gone—they don't remember what they forgot to tell him.

There is a wry humor as well, running throughout, such as when a pizza delivery guy gets lost in the hills trying to find Richard's house, makes cell phone contact with Richard and nervously tells him “Don't hang up on me, man . . . bring me in, can you bring me in?” which Richard proceeds to do. Or when Richard enters a seven-day silent meditation retreat for an intensive called “Transcending Suffering,” replete with hilariously simplistic, New-Agey “daily teaching talks” and private interviews.   Entering the retreat, Richard thinks “it's a little like seeing who's going to be on the trip with you, like boarding the Titanic,” and once in his dorm, with his puffy, pale, pasty roommate who “flash[es] his hairy bright-white ass in Richard's face,” he wonders if he still might have Valium in his toilet kit. His friend Anhil's comment: “Americans try on the spiritual life of others like they don't have any of their own.”

Another personal venture: Seventeen-year-old son, Ben, is beginning a cross-country road trip with his cousin Barth, who will film it all, and so that impending visit has everyone anxious. What will the father-son reunion be like? What is Ben's personality as a teen? And what will become of all these broken people?

One warms to the characters, especially Richard, for all their faults and foibles. This is important as it allows us to see the world through their eyes, a world both strange to the point of surreal and utterly familiar, a juxtaposition no one captures quite like Homes.

There is irony and multiple meaning in the title of the book as well. On the one hand, there is reference to the myriads of self-help book titles that threaten to overtake chain bookstores. Of course, too, we have a man who is quite literally trying to save his life. And, just like the silly teaching talks at the retreat, there is a kernel of truth in there, we have to (reluctantly) admit; therefore, it carries a satirical, but very real, message to the reader as well, just as the talks did for Richard, even if he couldn't help farting from all the lentils while listening.

Amidst all this, there are moments that nudge us to more profound considerations. Of Richard's not remembering his childhood, his friend Nic comments:

We live in a time when no one wants to remember.   We pretend we are where it starts.   Look at the way we live—we build houses on cliffs, on fault lines, in the path of things, and when something happens, we don't learn history we build it again, right on the same spot, bigger, better . . . . Fallout accumulates. What we've got now is a blend of fact and fiction that we're agreeing to call reality.

Sound familiar?

A quintessential American novel, full of wit, play and depth.      JA

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Only Strange People Go To Church by Laura Marney: Black Swan, UK, 2006

A quote on the bookjacket from Louise Welsh states ‘Divine comedy'.   Take that, the catchy title, and the first chapter—dealing with a group of mentally disabled people who get flashed—and the reader is lured into expecting, if not belly laughs, at least a light, gentle romp, a bit of easy reading to wile the hours away while stuck in an après terrorist-alert airport.

And the basic plot certainly sounds like classic comedy fare:   a community of oddballs and clashing personalities putting on a show as a love story slowly develops. The trigger behind the show, and main protagonist, is Maria, a community worker whose ‘clients' were the group that got flashed. She's thin and flat-chested; in fact, her ‘lack of rack' seems to be her main concern, although she should consider her discussions and arguments with her spiritual guides Madonna and Nelson Mandela as a far more worrying element. Then there is Ray, a recent arrival in town. He's taken over the disused church and turned it into a carpentry workshop. He is friendly, too friendly, and it seems he has a past. Then there is the chain-smoking Alice, still beautiful at 60, and founding member and leading light of the Golden Belles, a dance entertainment troupe made up of older women, or Can-Can Grans as the cover says. Dezzie is another worker and Maria fancies him rotten, but Dezzie is just plain nice and overly helpful and that is a curse that could get him into deep trouble, even killed. Then there is, of course, the flasher with pubic hair like Golden Virginia rolling tobacco. One can easily imagine   people like Helen Mirren, Dame Judy and Bob Hoskins—with Rowan Atkinson popping in to do his bloody vicar, again —in the film version.

But what of Maria's group? We can't laugh at the mentally disabled, can we? No. It is with this group—with the frustrated teenager Brian, trapped for life in a wheelchair, talking à la Steven Hawkins through a speech synthesizer or the once active Jane whose fall off a mountain left her with a metal plate in her head and as timid as a rabbit—that the dark underbelly of this novel first becomes apparent. And it's not just the members of Blue Group either; Alice's story, for one, is extremely sad and unpleasant. Suddenly the ‘light romp' takes on an unexpected heaviness.

Convention virtually states that Maria has to be put in the situation of having to axe the show to save X and/or Y, which would mean she loses face/lover/ her promotion/ job, etc. And this happens, but what is the catalyst? Without giving too much away what buggers everybody up is that, in a sense, they are nice, ordinary people in their own way, trying to be good and help each other. And sometimes honesty and being so bloody nice and helpful and doing what people ask is not the best policy.

So just who is this book aimed at? The overall Calendar Girls feel and that love story (or two) would suggest the usual female ‘block' who like a bit of romance and a bit of a grin, but Marney, whilst keeping to the foundations of the genre, manages to drive a bloody great bulldozer through the rest of the building, to very good effect, I think, leaving it open to any interested reader, of either sex, who likes their light romps with a jaunt on the dark side. MGS

Check out Laura Marney's And the Winner Is in TBR issue 50 .

© 2006 The Barcelona Review
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Issue 55: September- October 2006  

f i c t i o n

A-dZiko Simba: Someone To Tell
Ken Bruen: Loaded
Elizabeth Collison: The Last Waltz
Leland Neville: Visualize Christmas Peace Is Not Random
picks from back issues
Steve Earle: Wheeler County   
Alicia Gifford: Surviving Darwin

l o c a l  r e p o r t

Primer Festival Internacional de Teatre Infantil i Juvenil de Campalans by Michael Garry Smout

q u i z

answers to last issue's quiz, Sports in Literature

b o o k   r e v i e w s

The Woman Who Waited by Andrei Makine
Iron Balloons: Hit Fiction from Jamaica's Calabash Writer's Workshop,edited by Colin Channer
This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes
Only Strange People Go To Church by
Laura Marney

r e g u l ar  f e a t u r e s

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