“You think it will never happen to you,” Paul Auster writes at the very start of this incandescent memoir. “That it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.”
In turns contemplative, pugnacious and achingly tender, Auster, who may be one of the most imaginative writers living and working in America today, gives us a blow-by-blow account of his collision with life — a chronicle of scars, fears, deaths and afflictions that have hounded him to his promontory of 64 years. That he manages to plumb memory all the way to universal bedrock is a credit to his artistry. By the end of this hallucinatory journey, he is likely to have told something of your story as well.
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I once heard a master of suspense say that the craft was actually quite simple: Take a perfectly normal situation, a trope readers know well, then throw in a wild “what if?” What if your mild-mannered, homebody spouse — so familiar to you — is the midnight stalker in the black balaclava? What if the buttoned-down banker, the one who always takes home the civic awards, is knee deep in sex and depravity? What if your president — he who died martyred and tended to be a wee sickly — was a thrill-seeking spy at a pivotal time in history?
It’s a lesson Francine Mathews seems to have learned well.
Her “Jack 1939” is most assuredly a work of fiction, but it takes skeins of history we all know well — Churchill’s England, Hitler’s Germany, Roosevelt’s White House, the rise of the Kennedy family fortunes — and ravels a hair-raising tale.
In it, John F. Kennedy is young Jack, a junior at Harvard languishing in the Mayo Clinic and eager to board the Queen Mary for a much-needed rest in England. His father, Joe Kennedy, is the ambassador to the Court of St. James; his father’s rival, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is angling for a third term; Hitler is busily cooking up a pact with Stalin; Himmler is madly devising the Final Solution; and war is in the air. But Jack is less driven by battle drums than a broken heart. The girl of his dreams has just thrown him over, and he is off to to Europe to stanch the wounds. Maybe even write his Harvard thesis. So far, all this is true. We’re in the comfortable zone of history.
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Quick: Name a writer of Polish roots who immigrated to London, learned English on the fly, wrote about hard-to-parse, faraway places, and became one of the most distinguished English novelists of the 20th century.
Joseph Conrad? Well, yes. But you might have said Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a prodigious talent who has brought India alive on page after page of remarkable fiction in the course of the past 60 years. Ironically, Jhabvala is far better known for bringing alive not India, but England and America in the Merchant Ivory films “A Room With a View,” “Howards End,” “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” “The Remains of the Day” — a phenomenally successful run of movies for which she was the lead screenwriter. Known for her resonant dialogue, emotional subtlety and deadeye aim, she is a master of narrative no matter what the medium, plucking her stories from a vast store of life.
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In Hari Kunzru’s dazzling new novel, a desert is the setting, hero and villain. It isn’t the first time this landform has played such a starring role. Throughout history, deserts have had a powerful grip on the human imagination: Jesus walked one for 40 nights. Moses for 40 years. Muhammad spent his boyhood in the sand, among Bedouins. Even Coyote, the trickster god of Native American lore, darted nimbly from cactus to cactus. A desert is where bombs go up and UFOs come down, where mirages, misadventures and miracles unfold. It is siren and slayer, everything and nothing. “The desert,” wrote Balzac, “is God without men.”
Kunzru’s “Gods Without Men” is a great, sprawling narrative, as vast as the canvas on which it is written. In it, half a dozen stories play out on the gaping expanse of the Mojave Desert, where a miscellany of lost souls seeks salvation in the shadow of a three-fingered rock formation.
Sada was, without a doubt, a writer’s writer. Like Faulkner or Joyce or David Foster Wallace, he produced rich, dense, diabolically difficult novels — some written in octosyllabic and hendecasyllabic meter, all punctuated with a set of bizarre rules. But the rewards, for anyone in love with the Spanish language, were legion. These were gargantuan masterpieces, clear rejoinders to the stark, minimalist work of Juan Rulfo, whose “Pedro Paramo” had dominated the Mexican literary landscape for more than half a century. They stood in clear contrast, too, to thin, bleak novels by young Mexican writers of the Crack Movement, who fought hard to distance themselves from Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Mario Vargas Llosa or Julio Cortazar and then self-destructed in the fray. Just as Sada’s weird, culturally incorrect novels began to be noticed — just as Mexico conferred on him its most coveted national prize — a renal malady took him. And so we are left with the Sada we have.
The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely.
One of the trickier subjects in fiction is that of the hapless suitor, besotted with love, locked in a lifelong obsession with a woman he can neither leave nor have. Yet, for all the perils of that soupy scenario, great literature has come of it. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote memorably of just such a man in “The Great Gatsby”; William Styron, in “Sophie’s Choice”; Gabriel García Márquez, in “Love in the Time of Cholera”; and Mario Vargas Llosa, in “The Bad Girl.”
Now, adding to those triumphant chronicles of the lovelorn, comes Orhan Pamuk’s mesmeric new novel, “The Museum of Innocence.” In it, the Nobel Prize winner proves his own dictum that a lover’s best hope, like a writer’s, is patience, or, even, stubbornness. In loving, as in writing, you dig a well with a needle. You’re in for a long haul.
As familiar as the subject of love might seem, “The Museum of Innocence” is a startling original. Every turn in the story seems fresh, disquieting, utterly unexpected. Like the old Turkish legend of love-struck Ferhat, who literally tunnels through rock to reach the object of his affection, Pamuk’s hero, Kemal, finds no obstacle too daunting in the single-minded pursuit of Füsun.
Those obstacles can be formidable: First, Kemal, an urbane bachelor of 30, already has a fiancée, Sibel, an Istanbul woman of his own class. She is sophisticated, beautiful, and, by his own agency, no longer a virgin (which in Turkey means that, if he doesn’t make her his wife, no other man ever will). Second, the sudden angel of his dreams, Füsun, is a schoolgirl from a poor neighborhood — a distant relative — barely 18. Third, and perhaps most vexing of all, their story begins backward: bedding Füsun is surprisingly easy. It’s winning her heart that proves devilishly hard.
So, as strange as it may seem, the novel opens with Kemal and Füsun in bed together: “It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it,” Kemal recounts. “Had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently? Yes, if I had recognized this instant of perfect happiness, I would have held it fast and never let it slip away. It took a few seconds, perhaps, for that luminous state to enfold me, suffusing me with the deepest peace, but it seemed to last hours, even years. In that moment, on the afternoon of Monday, May 26, 1975, at about a quarter to three, just as we felt ourselves to be beyond sin and guilt so too did the world seem to have been released from gravity and time.” Sadly, as Kemal later ruminates, we never recognize life’s happiest moment when we are in it. We always believe that there’s a brighter one on the horizon; that the “golden instant” of our now is but prelude. For the rest of his life, Kemal will labor mightily to recapture the bliss he wins so easily on the first page. The genius of Pamuk’s novel is that although it can be read as a simple romance, it is a richly complicated work with subtle and intricate layers. Kemal’s descent into love’s hell takes him through every level of the social order, past countless neighborhoods of sprawling Istanbul, in a story that spans 30 years.
At first, he believes he can have it all: a rich fiancée and an earthy shop-girl; his father’s enormously successful business as well as long, self-indulgent afternoons. The scene of his engagement party at the Hilton turns out to be as glittering as any in Manhattan, replete with black market whiskey and all the Western trimmings, from miniskirts to revolving doors. All Istanbul society is there. He goes through the motions with Sibel, making his parents happy, but it is clear that this nuptial revelry is headed for disaster: He cannot live without Füsun.
It’s impossible to tell more of the plot without giving away the story. Suffice it to say that as Kemal struggles to win and rewin his true love, bewildering things happen. But he finds strength to carry on.
Along the way, we learn a great deal about Turkey: its advertising business, its film industry, its brothels, the Turks who are driven to prosper and the Turks who are driven to drink. And as Kemal becomes more and more obsessed, even ill, in his irrational pursuit of happiness, we cannot help but see that he is utterly blind to the dire politics of his time. Is it lovesickness or innocence or just plain apathy that so distracts him from the bombs, the riots, the crackdowns, the unfortunate ranks among his schoolmates who are being dragged away to jail?
Eventually, one obsession leads to another and Kemal begins to swipe and hoard knickknacks that have any slightest relation to Füsun: mementos from her house, objects she merely touched in passing, keepsakes from outings they made together, cigarette butts from stolen afternoons. With frightening prescience, he sees very clearly where this will lead: “I sensed this room mysterious with old objects and the joy of our kisses would be at the core of my imagination for the rest of my life.” And so it is. By the end of his bizarre journey, he will chase down the past, even overtake it; and he will transform his love for Füsun into a museum of relics, keeping the rapture alive.
All Istanbul, too, is alive in this wonderful novel. From the mists that rise from the dark waters of the Bosporus to the creaky old houses on its shores, from self-satisfied merchants in luxury apartments to out-of-work artists in shabby bars, from the brisk cologne offered by the city’s bus drivers to the stench of life’s waste in the bay, the city fairly breathes on these pages and, in one way or another, so do its eccentric inhabitants. Even Pamuk himself makes an appearance: first as young Orhan, a gawky writer in the ’70s, then as the Orhan of these 2000s, the famous author of “Snow.”
There is a magical sense of the Ouroboros in all of this, as the novel begins to swallow its own tail. The Orhan Pamuk who lives inside this novel is eventually persuaded to tell Kemal’s story. That involution gets even more interesting when you know that there was once a writer named Orhan Kemal, and that, at the very start of Pamuk’s career, Pamuk was conferred a prize bearing his name. Orhan Kemal was also a collector; his flat, too, a quirky museum. There are myriad such Turkish delights for those familiar with the country.
For all of its many layers, however, this is a book wholly centered on love and our desperate need to make sense of it. Like Kemal’s instinct to pilfer Füsun’s trifles, the human impulse is to grasp at love, as if it could be a concrete thing held by fingers. As Nietzsche once said, “There’s always a drop of madness in any love, but there’s also a drop of reason in any madness.” Kemal’s love drives him to acts of momentary irrationality, but it’s on that tiny plunder that his very sanity depends.
In sum, “The Museum of Innocence” is a deeply human and humane story. Masterfully translated, spellbindingly told, it is resounding confirmation that Orhan Pamuk is one of the great novelists of his generation. With this book, he literally puts love into our hands.
From The Washington Post
A little more than midway through Jane Smiley’s extraordinarily powerful new novel, “Private Life,” the childless wife of a prominent astronomer becomes fascinated with a family of coots, ducklike birds that live on the pond near her house on Mare Island, up San Francisco Bay. So taken is she with that happy brood that she insists that Mr. Kimura, a Japanese friend, paint it for her. He does so, quickly and delicately, in a scroll that delights her with its urgency. (more…)
Maybe it’s because you’re not allowed to wear government-issue camouflage; maybe it’s because — when all is said and done — you’re going to war for the money. But if you’re a private military contractor fighting on foreign soil, you might as well be a cowboy looking for payday, and you won’t convince anyone you’re a hero. If you survive, you won’t march in victory parades. If you die, you won’t be buried in Arlington Cemetery. If you’re taken hostage, you’ll rot before Washington pays you any mind.
That, in any case, is what three employees of Northrop Grumman found out on Feb. 13, 2003, when their lumbering, rickety, single-engine Cessna malfunctioned and crashed during a secret mission over rebel territory in the Colombian jungle. Before they could stagger out from the wreckage, ex-Marine Keith Stansell, former Air Force analyst Marc Gonsalves and retired airline pilot Thomas Howes were captured by Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the truculent, drug-trafficking guerrillas who have terrorized the region for decades.
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Book review of Law of the Jungle: The Hunt for Colombian Guerrillas, American Hostages, and Buried Treasure by John Otis.
By Marie Arana, Washington Post, Sunday, May 23, 2010