Monthly Archives: May 2017

Rescue Distance

Distancia de Rescate is the Spanish title for Argentinian Samanta Scweblin’s novel, a current nominee for the Booker International Prize. I don’t know why Megan McDowell thought Fever Dream would be better as the title for her English translation of this novel or why she prefers rescue distance when she uses the repetitive phrase distance of rescue throughout the novel. These are translator decisions, and we have grown to accept them as part of the convention of translating. It’s fitting, I think, that the Booker International Prize is divided between author and translator, a tacit acknowledgment that translation makes a novel accessible, and that it is an art form in and of itself. It does leave an indelible stamp on the novel in ways the English reader cannot know. Things are lost in translation. That’s one of the limitations that non-linguists simply accept.

Certainly, Scweblin’s novel feels like a fever dream. From beginning to end, the reader fights to punch through the fog of fever, to separate the threads of reality from the illusions of dream. Because the reader is firmly grounded in reality beyond the page, she is freed to weigh the clues, to give herself to the understanding of alien experience. The magical realism of the novel provides its own artistic pleasure just as a good mystery rewards the reader with the would-be skills of detection.

Rescue distance is a concept from reality that sums up the invisible bond a mother always wants with her child. She always wants to be close enough to protect a child from harm. At the same time the term figures the ambiguity of distance, that wavering line that resists control. Try as she might, the protagonist is as powerless to protect the daughter within her own reach. The irony is the danger within reach.

While there is the perceived danger of chemically induced eco-imbalance in the novel, the desire to protect the child is the major focus. The varying manifestations of imbalance function metaphorically to embody danger. The death of ducks, dogs, horses, and the disfiguration of children is not nearly as damaging as the dehumanizing rupture of the soul, the fissure that renders everyone less than what he or she can be.

That the entire novel is told in an eerie conversation between two unlikely patients at the point of death is the device that gives this adventure of the mind its hold on the reader’s sensibilities. The newly afflicted adult is led by the prescient child whose understanding has been magnified in dissolution

Gospel Message?

The fascination of reading the Booker International shortlist is the experience of entertaining alternate ideas, dissimilar cultures. That Amos Oz names his book in Hebrew The Gospel of Judas rather than the simple Judas of the English translation speaks on several levels. Oz would have us believe that his decision came out of his understanding of the ordinary nature of the name of Judas, a name wrenched from meaning by the same overuse of John Smith on the English-speaking tongue.

Toward the end of the novel, an intertextual chapter documents a theory of Judas that has evolved from Shmuel’s study. In this portrayal, Judas is alone in his understanding and love for Jesus. He urges Jesus to go to the Jerusalem that the man resists, and he orchestrates motive and function of the crucifixion despite the lack of interest on the part of religious and political authorities. Judas is so certain of the divinity of Jesus that he believes that the occasion of the crucifixion will be the occasion of a grand political coup. He wholeheartedly believes that another miracle is in the offing, that Jesus will heal his own cross wounds, break the timbers as though they were little more than kindling for an evening fire. Betrayal came not in the denial of Judas but in the denial of political promise. Judas hanged himself in grief that he murdered the man he loved. Reality betrayed Judas.

This prescient chapter, while it seemed to disrupt the narrative flow, nevertheless provided
context for the reader to understand the coalescing of the major threads of the novel: loss of a former lover, family reversal of fortunes and subsequent loss off student tuition, isolation with an old man whose writing has no readers, the ghost of a leader of the unrealized two state theory of political settlement, the patronization of the 40-ish matron Atalia. Life has betrayed Shmuel. His only hope is to pack his kit bag and flee the house of shadows with its seductive death masks. He alone can take the rope from around his neck.


Reading the International Prize

Reading David Grossman’s novel did not require a locational leap. The venue for standup comedy easily seemed more universal than regional. Even the content of the jokes seemed  highly universal. Vocabulary was largely devoid of localized references, and ethnic considerations were mostly neutralized. Even the military camp that becomes the focus as Grossman shifts his narrative to the interior memories of Dovaleh could have been a summer camp for adolescents anywhere in the world. The reader is aware that the place names of the novel ground the novel in Israel, but the novel remains a novel of the ego-centric mind, a novel that veers strangely toward bildungsroman as it develops.

The Amos Oz novel, Judas, a classic bildungsroman, on the other hand, is highly regional. Oz asks his reader for an intellectual response rather than an emotional response. He builds a novel that is read best out of a consciousness of Isreali history. He asks his reader to struggle with the birth of the nation as the backdrop for his protagonist’s self understanding.

When the student Shmuel Ash drops out of university, he takes a job as companion to the elderly Gershom Wald. Walt is father-in-law to widowed Atalia Abravanel, the daughter of  the late Shealtiel Abravanel who opposed David Ben-Gurion favoring the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Arabs. This is heady stuff for the reader uninitiated to the tensions of mid-twentieth century Israel.

The reader can follow the struggles of a young man to find himself after being rejected by his lover and having lost his purpose as a budding academic even if that reader knows little of the history and culture of Israel. Shmuel seems like the classic contemporary millennial who has difficulty sustaining himself apart from parental patronage. His characterization is engaging, and the carefully layered plot of the novel is compelling in and of itself. Still Shmuel is a young man of ideas, and full understanding of his struggles rides on tapping into the depth of those ideas. Oz has said of the novel that he is surprised that readers have appreciated the novel, realizing that a novel of ideas is out of fashion. Oz underestimates his own skill as storyteller, a raconteur who can pull a reader past his own limitations of facts and understanding.

Perhaps it is the honest self-acceptance of Shmuel that compels the reader. He sees himself realistically without the self-pitying indulgence of Grossman’s middle-aged Dovaleh. He neither blames his parents nor the girl who betrayed him. He knows he is struggling for his own soul., but he is content with the crumbs from the kitchen, the leftovers from Wald’s nightly porridge. He’s the suffering servant who accepts that he must knit together the threads of denial if he is to regain purpose and move on.

The reader empathizes with the young man, relives his own struggle for meaning, but he also finds himself introduced to a foreign culture, alternate ways of defining self. He experiences life in the context of politics, religion, and culture from which he has had little access from reading his own national literature. And that’s one of the values to following the Booker International.


Impact of Vocation

David Grossman’s novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, uses standup comedy as a rhetorical technique, but at the same time it poses interesting questions about the interplay of man and vocation. How does a man’s personality and experience shape the way he works out his vocation? On the flip side, how does the practice of vocation shape the nature of the man?

As Dovaleh reveals the boy that he was, the reader sees his path to standup. Walking on his hands honed the performer in him and caused him to see life from his own unique slant. The reader ponders his attacks on his audience and sees a darker side emerge. The control of the microphone gives Dovaleh a platform to vent all those pent-up emotions for the crimes of childhood he endured. From the bullied boy, the man-bully emerges in a wholly acceptable venue. Victimization morphs into a style of humor, a mode of artistry.

While the fit between man and vocation seems obvious to the reader, the way that the comic was shaped by his vocational choice is more difficult to discern. Did he, in fact, become more sardonic as the years passed or more deeply paranoic as he reveled in his own life suffering? When life is turned into comedy, does the purveyor of the narrative buy into his own product? Does the probing of the wound increase the infection?

Entertainment or Therapy?

Like choosing to walk upright or on one’s hands, everything has a flip side, a counter opposite. It is the play between these opposites that David Grossman explores in A Horse Walks into a Bar. The genesis of humor is embedded in the polarity of the unexpected opposite. The punchline of the joke in the novel’s title is never rendered in the novel, but the reader knows the joke rides on its unexpected premise. By the same token, the page-turning response of the reader is a direct result of the rhetorical technique of the novel, the juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the deadly serious.

The comic and the tragic are worked out in a single set of the comedian, a single performance in time. Grossman has said that the nucleus of his tale–a young boy not knowing which parent’s funeral he is about to attend–had rattled around in his head for years while he sought the vehicle for its artistic realization. The choice of a comic’s voice could have rendered the dismissal of slapstick or the sentimentality of the confessional, but the genius of the writing, carefully modulated between farce and pathos, realized the poignancy of tragic depth. The reader watches the performance of an artist unravel with the same morbid fascination that causes us to pick at a scab.

Time spins backward as shtick morphs into confessional memoir, sub-levels of consciousness exposed. The artistry of the narrative rides on much more than the single dramatic elements of performance and audience. That these are realized through the lens of one member of the audience adds depth and consequence. The judge, a long-ago friend of the comedian, views the performance from both present and past, objectivity and subjectivity. He is the arm of justice twisted into its moral ambiguity as he struggles to accommodate a moment of adolescent betrayal. As focal intelligence, he represents a polar opposite to another intent listener, the dwarfed medium befriended in a web of childhood persecution. She plays agape to his legality. Both are the shadows teased into the comic Dovelah’s matriarchal/patriarchal light on the road to Jerusalem. They are players in the final resurrection.


Walking Alternatively

I was disappointed that Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal was not named to the 2016 Booker longlist. There was so much to love in that novel, and I’ve continued to think about Martel’s use of backward-walking as a device to process the mutability of time, the surreality of grief. Associations with that book flooded back into my consciousness this week when I read A Horse Walks into a Bar, a novel shortlisted for the 2017 International prize. The Israeli author David Grossman is equally as adept as Martel in employing an alternative approach to standard human mobility as a device to cope with life. For both of these authors, there is a bedrock understanding that how a man walks reflects that man’s struggle to handle his emotions and control his life.

Grossman’s central character Dovaleh learned as a child to walk on his hands. The device was was more than performance; it was a way to protect his young body against the physical assaults of older and larger boys, a defense against persecution.  It’s hard to cuff a boy’s ears when he’s upside down. In fact, that surprising orientation left predators increasingly nonplussed, and it became a life strategy for the protagonist. To turn things upside down became the constant way to disarm others and to understand the injustice of life.

When a sergeant comes to get the adolescent at compulsory training camp, but fails to clue him to the reason he has been summoned, he defaults to walking through the hot sand, the thorns of the desert, on his hands as he did as a child. He circles the sergeant in his confusion, madly trying to reduce the circumstance to something he can control. The image of turning things upside down punctuates his trip back to Jerusalem–the jokes of the driver, the offered cigarette, the violent rejection of his stomach to the nurture of the driver’s sister, even his own vomit beside the road. These become external images of the mental struggle to fight for his own orientation to equilibrium.

Inwardly, the boy struggles to imagine death into life for first one and then the other parent. Not knowing which has died, he alone is imaginatively in control of destiny as the unlikely military truck hurls itself beyond its orders. The journey is as surreal as the monologue of the fifty-ish standup comic who remembers that pivotal night in time.