Category: Literature

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau: domestic ennui on the foothills of the Alps

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau: domestic ennui on the foothills of the Alps

This was supposed to be a bit of light-as-Devonshire-cream reading, a fun refresher for a lazy weekend. Instead, it turned out to be a captivating page-turner about depression. On the surface, it’s a well worn out trope, standing on the shoulders of giants like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Bronte’s Madwoman in the Attic, all the way down to Sylvia Plath and her “domestic surreal.” A woefully unfulfilled housewife Anna Benz is tumbling down the nauseating rabbit hole of tepid, monotonous, safe, sated, comfortable middle-class life and all of its requisite trappings. There’s a picture-perfect house tucked in a village near Zurich. There’s the Swiss banker husband, reasonably kind, reasonably good-looking. There’s the kids, suitably sweet, and a statuesque mother-in-law hovering ever so diligently somewhere on the horizon peppered with school runs, play dates, and zoo excursions. Kinder, Küche, Kirche, living strong and proud in the land of scrupulous financiers, punctual trains, and premium chocolate.

The reader is never explained what is the poison festering under such picturesque a facade (there are some scant nods to childhood trauma, but not much to go on). We are only led to accept the facts – Anna Benz is a serial cheater, engaging in infidelity with a mechanical rigour of an athlete. She finds little comfort or solace in this walking on a razor’s edge. Instead, there’s only desperately delicious darkness, thick and viscous like licorice.

Leafing through these litanies of busy nothings, the reader just knows something is coming. A jolt. A bolt of lightning. A catharsis. The only thing left to unveil is whether this is going to be the kind of seminal event that gifts redemption, or the final plunge into the abyss.

“Grief is not simple sadness. Sadness is a feeling that wants nothing than to be sat with, held, and heard. Grief is a journey. It must be moved through. With a rucksack full of rocks, you hike through a black, pathless forest, brambles about your legs and wolf packs at your heels. 

The grief that never moves is called complicated grief. It doesn’t subside, you do not accept it, and it never – it never – goes to sleep. This is possessive grief. This is delusional grief. This is hysterical grief. Run if you will, this grief is faster. This is the grief that will chase you and beat you. 

This is the grief that will eat you.”

Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hausfrau

Two themes run in powerful streams through the heart of this book – psychotherapy and German grammar. Outside home, her therapist and her German classes are just about the only nodes on an otherwise barren network of Anna’s activities. Rolling off the tongue of Anna’s therapist are nods to Jungian mono-myths and origins of pragmatic Swiss mentality, and to Freudian dream interpretation. Dawdling over her German homework, Anna feels the clinical solitude of these complicated language rules: “The disconnect between ‘general’ and ‘specific.’ The vast, vapid chasm that divides ‘this particular one’ from ‘some of them.'” This language evades Anna, contributing massively to her alienation in this picture-perfect country:

“She thought about Switzerland. Where a smile will give you away as an American. Where what isn’t taboo is de rigueur. Cold, efficient Switzerland. Where the women are comely and the men are well groomed and everyone wears a determined face. Switzerland. The roof of Europe. Glacier carved. Most beautiful where it is most uninhabitable.” 

Jill Alexander Essbaum, Hausfrau

Anna, she says, “was a good wife, mostly.” Alas, depression doesn’t care much. And even in punctual Switzerland there are days when all trains run late well into the night…

Image: Nonchaloir, by John Singer Sargent.

Czeslaw Milosz’ Proud to be a Mammal – finding grace in the belly of a beast

Czeslaw Milosz’ Proud to be a Mammal – finding grace in the belly of a beast

Emmanuel Levinas said “God left in 1941.” Theodor Adorno said “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Czeslaw Milosz, writing from Warsaw, Nazi terror’s ground zero, said this:

“The poetry I wrote before the war and later in Nazi-occupied Poland would have been utterly without hope if not for my awareness of the beauty of the things of this earth, and that beauty was incomprehensible, as it coexisted with horror.”

Czeslaw Milosz, Happiness 

Milosz lived and wrote through twentieth century’s darkest hours, in Warsaw disemboweled by war, its citizenry fighting like lions for the very soul of Europe, that fatigued continent. He sold contraband sausage, cigarettes, whiskey, and undies. He traded passports and crossed illicit borders. He saved Jews and was imprisoned in a transit camp. He translated and published little clandestine volumes of poetry on a Ditto machine. He survived. Today we read him as we read Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, and Gunther Grass, all these austere witnesses of horrors doing a post mortem of humanity to decipher what the hell happened, why, and how it may happen again.

For his part, Milosz searches for answers in Dante, circles of hell, Faust, and European fatalism at a time when, as he says, history started rapidly accelerating:

“In Europe, this ‘acceleration of history’ demonstrated its force in the span of one generation: the First World War broke out; seemingly indestructible powers – the Russian Czarist Empire and the Hapsburg monarchy – fell; the Revolution of 1917 flared up; Nazism and Fascism culminated in the Second World War and Russia marched far beyond its 1914 borders, taking into its orbit little countries which had previously separated themselves from it, as well as nearly all the former Hapsburg domain. To one witnessing these events, the rise and decline of State organisms, the appearance and disappearance of chiefs, the millions of graves and the ashes of other millions scattered over the fields, all combined to make up a film running at a crazy tempo. Human affairs exploded like the mushroom of the atomic blast.” 

Czeslaw Milosz, Speaking of a Mammal

A whole lot of stuff goes on during a world war but, in moments when the centre doesn’t hold, some things are surprisingly durable: a stone and two blades of grass, or a roof of a hut, or a plough. While governments fall, the land is “singularly naked.” There are moments of felicity to be found even as the world goes ablaze:

“One should not imagine that those who have been swallowed by a dragon won’t experience moments of perfect contentment.” 

Czeslaw Milosz, Saligia

Milosz is deeply humanist, as are most of these wartime writers, paternalistically reconciling our capacity to do evil with our capacity to be good. Milosz, probably owing to his deep Catholicism (or to what some critics called a “beautiful naivete”), goes further than his cohort in his enduring optimism in humanity – pain is transitory and harmony is eternal. Writing idyllic verses in the land he claims was called anus mundi, the cloaca of the world, he says:

“Horror is the law of the world of living creatures, and civilization is concerned with masking that truth. Literature and art refine and beautify, and if they were to depict reality naked, just as everyone suspects it is, no one would be able to stand it.” 

Czeslaw Milosz, Anus Mundi

It’s an eerie feeling today, strolling across Warsaw’s old town, looking all those fairytale-pretty houses, bustling cafes, watching tourists take selfies by the Mermaid of Warsaw monument, and knowing it was all rebuilt from scratch, brick by brick, a city drawing its new blood from an underground cavern of old blood, burnt blood, shed for the country, its people, and its freedom. Czeslaw Milosz, much like the heroic fighters of the Warsaw Uprising, knew that his (and their) chances of surviving and seeing “what came out of this cauldron” were slim to none. Nevertheless, the old humanist went with Martin Luther’s advice: “when asked what he would do if he knew tomorrow was going to be the end of the world, he said, ‘I would plant apple trees.” 

Image: The monument to Warsaw Uprising, shot by me this summer.

Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu: The enduring relevance of “go East, young man”

Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu: The enduring relevance of “go East, young man”

Pico Iyer did for the travel genre what Anthony Bourdain did for the culinary arts. With thoughtful reflections on world’s most enduring attractions (as far as the Western gaze is concerned, at least), executed in impeccably eloquent prose, Iyer has traipsed around the globe, from revolutionary Cuba to aethetically minimalist Japan, discussing airports, jet lag, diaspora, cultural appropriation, displacement, identity, and the very essence of global spirit under assault by winds of history.

Today, reading Video Night in Kathmandu, written in early mid-80s, is an interesting exercise. This travel narrative is an echo from a time when the geopolitical theatre was playing a decidedly different movie: China hasn’t entered the WTO yet, Hong Kong was still the crown jewel of the British Empire, USSR was still alive and kicking, and Rambo and Madonna were at the zenith of Pax Americana pop culture. Other things were already as par for the course then as they are now: Thai sex tourism, Bali’s it’s-already-spoiled-paradise kitschization, Tibet’s enigma, Myanmar’s isolation. In Iyer’s Asia, globalization is already in bloom but still fresh enough to still get you excited about being able to order burgers and Pepsi in Nepal.

Travel according to Iyer is both an elegy and a eulogy, a love emoji from Othello to the unfortunate Desdemona, a guilt-laden sentiment only amplified by a thousandfold in today’s age of Instagram hyper-tourism. Today, forty years later, we have moved a wee bit further on the spectrum from a Babel present to a homogeneous Esperanto future (to use Iyer’s gorgeous expression), but we are not fully there yet (and who knows if we’ll ever get there).

Video Night in Kathmandu is an Hieronymus Bosch iconostasis of Bali, Tibet, Nepal, China, the Philippines, Myanmar (described as “a malfunctioning guinea pig of fundamentalist socialism”), Hong Kong, India, Thailand, and Japan. The verdict on these lands is complicated:

“Bali drew its strength, its magic and its eerie purity from the ancestral currents that pulsed through its soil, currents that Westerners could sense, perhaps, but never touch; just so, the moving yet unwavering faith of Tibet would withstand the ravages of tourists, I hoped, as surely as it had withstood the vicious assaults of the Chinese. Burma had calmly closed its door to the world, and China had opened it up just enough, so it planned, to take what it wanted, and nothing more. Prodigal, hydra-headed India cheerfully welcomed  every new influence from the West, absorbing them all into a crazy-quilt mix that was India and nothing but Indian; Japan had taken in the West only, so it seemed, to take it over. As for Nepal, and Thailand even more, both gauged Western tastes so cleverly and adapted Western trends so craftily that both, I felt, could satisfy foreigners’ whims without ever becoming their slaves. Even Hong Kong, the last pillar of the Western Empire, was now getting ready to return to Asian hands.” 

Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu

Pico Iyer, a product of Indian, English, and American heritage and, being keenly aware of this legacy, cannot talk about the East without the Raj, the Foreign Office, and Rudyard Kipling. Globalization, some would say, is simply a mutated colonization, a virus adapting, so to speak, to better feed off of its host. As such, the jury is still out on whether “a Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”

Image: Beyond Street by Swarat Ghosh.

Karen Blixen’s Babette’s Feast: deceptively simple Scandinavian wisdom

Karen Blixen’s Babette’s Feast: deceptively simple Scandinavian wisdom

Karen Christenze von Blixen-Finecke had a complicated  but colourful life. Reared in a conservative monarchist family in a stately manor house on the outskirts of Copenhagen, she fell in love with some kind of a dashing equestrian, but, rejected, married his rogue twin brother instead. Then, fate threw her to a coffee farm in Africa, where she experienced financial ruin, infidelity, illness, death of her second big love, and a disgraced return to the native shores. And then there was war, and another war, and a sprinkling of successful books under various pseudonyms like Tania Blixen (for Anglophone audiences) and Isak Dinesen (for German-speakers). At the zenith of her literary fame, Blixen journeyed to the United States where, as a bona fide aristocrat, she subsisted on oysters, grapes, and champagne while giggling up a storm with the likes of Marilyn Monroe…

But before all those accolades there was the mysterious French Babette, a culinary therapist, a dark-eyed saviour of prudish Norwegian spinsters, and overall a much-beloved character of Blixen’s Babette’s Feast, immortalized on screen in an 1987 Academy Award laureate.

At forty pages of literary minimalism, Babette’s Feast is not to be underestimated, for it takes a mightier writing muscle to craft something meaningful laconically than it does through flowery diarrhea of verbosity. And so, in a simple story of a French refugee thanking her pious Norwegian hosts, the reader learns that 1) excess asceticism is not necessarily the truest path to righteousness and God and 2) when spiritual and corporeal realms are well-nurtured one gets the purest Nirvana.

“This woman is now turning a dinner at the Cafe Anglais into a kind of love-affair of the noble and romantic category in which one no longer distinguishes between bodily and spiritual appetite or satiety.”

Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast

Babette, fleeing from the bloodbath of French Revolution, finds safety in the kind of place where split cod and ale-and-bread soup are the height of culinary sophistication. She is taken in by devout ecclesiastics who renounce the pleasures of this world, “for earth and all that it held to them was but a kind of illusion, and the true reality was the New Jerusalem towards which they were longing.” There is kindness here, true, but a lot of reservation. Open affection is scant, but regret is bountiful, and the scales ever more tip in its favour as wrinkles and grey hair make their inevitable advances.

Babette unwittingly throws a flaming Molotov cocktail right at the heart of this stoic philosophy by spending her entire fortune of a very lavish and very French feast for her benefactors and their uptight friends. There’s the fabled turtle soup with Amontillado sherry, Blinis Demidoff with Veuve Cliquot champagne, quail in puff pastry with foie gras and truffle sauce, and numerous other luxuries to impress even the toughest critic, let alone Babette’s unsophisticated guests. With each spoonful, with each glass of effervescent refreshment, their eyes glow brighter, their hearts beat louder, and all those putrid lumps of guilt, shame, submission, and denial melt away. They eat their way to God and emerge, with the last sip of their digestif, innocent like children.

There are clearly common themes between Blixen’s Babette and a 90s novel by Joanne Harris Chocolat (and its successful same-name film adaptation with the immaculate Juliette Binoche). Other adorably saccharine genre buddies such as Ratatouille or Julie and Julia also hammer home the same universally palatable thought – there is something patently magical about food, some artistry that leads to redemption, salvation, or at the very least self-actualization to be found at the tip of that brimming ladle.

Image: A still from Babette’s Feast film adaptation (1987).

Amara Lakhous’ multicultural Italy, or how to be suckled by Rome’s wolf without getting bitten

Amara Lakhous’ multicultural Italy, or how to be suckled by Rome’s wolf without getting bitten

Do you think yourself civilized enough to use an elevator? And how about pork – would an image of a genuine Piedmontese piglet with a Juventus scarf encircling its lovably rotund head evoke any particularly strong emotions? These are not some extravagant conversation ice-breakers. These are litmus tests for racism, identity, and belonging, intermittently passed and failed by a flavourful assortment of characters inhabiting, by birthright or through labyrinthine journeys of immigration, the merry chaos of Amara Lakhous’ two thrillingly playful novels. Straight from the titles, we know we are about to seep through an alluring oyster shell crack of contemporary folklore : Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet and Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio.

Inside, it’s a veritable cornucopia of sights, smells, languages, and people, a pungent stew of stories and places peppered with satire, melancholy, and drama. Calabrian matriarchs, Albanian and Romanian mafiosi, a sagely madame from Casablanca and a pizzaphobic cook from Shiraz – all of them scale the walls of the Eternal City, their knees scraping against millennia of brutal and glorious history. Moscow does not believe in tears, but Rome doesn’t believe you period. Like an eye-rolling auntie, Rome has seen it all. It may permit some nomadic urchin to suckle from its live-preserving teat, but that’s not a ironclad contract. Rome is forever. Its deals? Ça dépend:

“By now I know Rome as if I had been born here and never left. I have the right to wonder: am I a bastard like the twins Romulus and Remus, or an adopted son? The basic question is: how to be suckled by the wolf without being bitten.”

Amara Lakhous, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

As the Old World clumsily dances around racial and ethnic tensions, Lakhous breaches these dynamite themes with candour and satire that work. Too often in contemporary fiction these topics are stillborn, suffocated by unhelpful sanctimoniousness, their death only accelerated by political urgency (especially in contemporary Italy, with . Everyone rushes to talk about the vibrancy of multicultural life without stepping back and giving space for said life to bloom. In steps Lakhous whose characters are not sieves for political themes. They are their natural engines:

“I know a proverb that the Italians often repeat: “Guests are like fish, after three days they stink.” The immigrant is a guest, no more or less, and, like fish, you eat him when he’s fresh and throw him in the garbage when loses his colour. There are two types of immigrants: the fresh ones, who are exploited inhumanly in the factories of the north or the agricultural lands of the south, and the frozen, who fill the freezers and are used only in an emergency.” 

Amara Lakhous, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

After an entertaining merry-go-round of the novels’ city life scenes, the reader is not sated. The Piedmontese piglet is saved, the baddies meet their just desserts, and life goes on, with cornetto or with kubideh kebab, no matter. A Fellini sunset. We still don’t know though what to do with this identity problem of ours. Perhaps, after all that’s been said and eaten, it’s not a problem at all.

“It’s marvelous to be able to free ourselves from the chains of identity which lead us to ruin. Who am I? Who are you? Who are they? These are pointless and stupid questions.” 

Amara Lakhous, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

Image: Artnet.

Tony Parsons’ Departures: The magic of travel in seven stories from Heathrow

Tony Parsons’ Departures: The magic of travel in seven stories from Heathrow

“Airports were often just the punctuation marks of a lifetime, the twilight spaces between places and people, the no-man’s-land between what had happened and what was yet to be.”

Tony Parsons, Departures

Few who have been subjected, willingly or through insidious pop culture osmosis, to romantic comedies’ crown jewel Love Actually, endeavour to forget the legendary airport scene. Not even the most granite-hearted of misanthropes could roll their skeptical eyes at that endearing thread of faces and embraces, all to (formerly) dishy Hugh Grant’s velvety tenor going on and on about how “love is everywhere,” how “love is all around,” and all this life’s hapless pilgrim has to do to resurrect their faith in humanity is to pop over to the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport.

Next time you’re sequestered in some nauseatingly bureaucratic queue at Heathrow (or CDG or any other three-letter IATA combination for that matter), pick up a wee collection  of Tony Parsons’ short stories Departures, a 100-odd pages of smirk, hope, stress, ridiculousness, enthusiasm, regret, new beginnings and yes, love, that irreplaceable conductor of life’s symphony. Unlike the analyzed-to-bits scene in Love Actually, these morsels of airport life are not so much about what goes on in the Arrivals gate as they are about the humble yet vital work that throbs, every minute of every day, in the labyrinthine innards of world’s second busiest airport. What occasionally reads like a manifest promo piece to Heathrow, this collection is, above all, an appreciative hat tip to men and women of aviation who feed and water that enormous heaving beast of an airport and all those who come through (and those, for legitimate or not-so reasons, who don’t).

The stories are seven and all different. There’s a woman confronting her very banal fear of flying (and an even more banal one of seeing the in-laws). There’s an airport animal health inspector cloistered in the animal reception centre with a red milk snake wrapped around his arm and a blue-eyed starlet by his side. There’s a pair of geeky air traffic controllers exceedingly proud of their job, a pilot stoked to be flying Boeing 777s and another who lost his license (and his marriage), a no-nonsense passport officer taking down drug mules but showing clemency to two very different girls stepping onto British soil on the same day toward their pink unicorn wish “to marry their boyfriend Prince Harry.”

None of it is terribly genre-bending. Not all of it is even particularly moving or insightful. There is one quality, however, that not only unifies these stories but also animates them with the kind of unmistakable spirit that makes an aesthetic grouping of words worth reading. The knights of Heathrow all without exception share genuine, effervescent enthusiasm for their work, a childlike excitement, a purity of spirit, and honest passion for their respective 9-to-5s. In our cynical age of boarding pass + passport Instagram posts, in a time where air travel is notably less glamorous, a perfunctory bourgeois activity almost wholly stripped of its former vestiges of romanticism, exoticism, or at the very least exclusivity, Tony Parsons’ Departures show air travel through the fairy dust of childhood wonder for what it truly is and what we, scoffing globetrotters, chose to forget – air travel is pure unadulterated magic. From birds, to bats, to Leonardo da Vinci’s visionary ornithopter sketches, to the stuffy tin can that takes us to that all-inclusive summer beach holiday, it’s all pretty amazing. Perhaps next time at Arrivals we, exhausted, sweaty, and jet-lagged, can exchange our “ugh” for:

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., High Flight

Image: IMithila Madhubani, Depiction Of People Onboarding At Darbhanga Airport. iMithila

Wang Ping’s American Visa: Unsentimental truth, from Shanghai to New York

Wang Ping’s American Visa: Unsentimental truth, from Shanghai to New York

“I have a green card. This piece of paper,” he tossed it in his hand and said, “has ruined two people. Sometimes I really want to tear it to pieces and go home.”

Immigrant narratives are the Zeitgeist as our little blue planet spins ever faster and international travel expands like rising dough, making space for all those Airbuses, stuffed to the gills with vagabonds, conquerors, and dreamers. Citizens of the world. Explorers. Settlers. Survivors. Since times immemorial folk has been on the move, dragging their suitcases and ghosts of their past along with them across consulates, embassies, and border checkpoints. They search for fertile lands and better job markets, they seek book deals and Western boyfriends, they endure bedroom cockroaches and subway groping, but at the end of all this gargantuan sacrifice they have no problem taking out the lacklustre treasures nesting in their modest savings accounts and distributing them among relatives “back home.” To pay for weddings, or pianos, or a new baby, or grandmother’s birthday. It’s tough to ignore the calls of “back home,” that guilty teasing of prodigal child’s heartstrings, that omnipotent umbilical chord that ties a soul to its cradle and simultaneously to its grave.

In American Visa, her debut novel that came out in mid-nineties, way before the kind of glamour we see in Crazy Rich Asians, Wang Ping delivered, in tough-as-nails prose, a pained, honest, and uncompromising account of a young woman coming to New York with callouses tempered by Cultural Revolution. Seaweed, with pigtails and maple leaf-shaped scars on her armpits, is labouring to escape a great many things. Hard menial work in the countryside, humiliation of communist “re-education,” unfeeling parents, sibling rivalry, and insurmountable burdens of duty to totalitarian State and totalitarian Family. Strategically crucified right at the intersection of regime and tradition, Seaweed is equally abused and dismissed by both forces yet serves them with exemplary devotion, a model citizen and daughter, a Stakhanovite Cinderella with only a duck and a hen to call friends. No, this is not magical realism, this is proletarian noir.

There is yet another dimension to consider – a place for a woman in a society aggressively shedding thousands of silken layers of its rich heritage. Seaweed’s sisters, aunts, mother, grandmother, female students and colleagues, all weave the tapestry of their own unique suffering, shamed, judged, humiliated, abused, betrayed, and abandoned. Their feet are too big, their armpits too malodorous, their libidos too high, their relations too poor. They shed tears of self-pity as they drive daggers of treason into their sisters’ chests, for all is fair in love and war. They wait, like Penelope waits for Ulysses, for their husbands to come home, for their American visa to get approved, for their mothers to say they love them, for their daughters to see that they love them. Some cannot endure the wait and run away to Japan or to Germany or hang themselves. Those lucky enough to experience the throbbing rhapsody of the New World are, alas, too wise (or too wounded) to be seduced by the Pied Piper of the American dream:

“English, eh, English?” She asked, waving the orange book fanatically under my nose.

I nodded, half scared, half fascinated by the feverish look in her eyes.

“Success, success,” she screamed. Although I could tell she was trying her best to soften her voice. “This book, American dream, success, rich and famous, you.” She thrust the book toward my chest.

Se mun, se mun, cheap, on sale, American dream, success, rich and famous, only se mun, just for you.”

It took me quite a while before I realized what she was doing. She had learned to say the price in Cantonese: se mun – ten bucks. She had quickly identified me as a new Chinese immigrant, and assumed that I spoke Cantonese.

I burst out laughing. This was too much, too bizarre, a white American selling the American dream in Cantonese and broken English to a poor Chinese woman. She took my laugh for encouragement and grasped my wrist.

”Yes, American dream, have one.”

There is little joy in this book, and love, like lipstick and Beethoven sheet music, is perpetually in deficit. There is some warmth, however, and, above all, strength of one seemingly unremarkable woman to win her very own corner under the sun. And this kind of strength seldom asks for embellishment.

Image: Hiveminer