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Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Penguin Modern Classics, 2001, 255 p, plus xi p Introduction by Andrew O’Hagan. First published 1954.

This is the acclaimed US author Baldwin’s first novel, a laying out of the black experience in the US in the early to mid-twentieth century. It is told in three parts, The Seventh Day, The Prayers of the Saints, and The Threshing Floor; the first and last of which relate to the life of John Grimes, stepson of Gabriel, who attends the Temple of the Fire Baptised, where his stepfather is head deacon – not the biggest nor the smallest church in Harlem, “but John had been brought up to believe it the holiest and the best.” The Saints referred to above are the three of the church’s congregation closest to John; his stepfather’s sister Florence, his mother Elizabeth and Gabriel himself: the Prayers outline their life stories. At the same time as being rooted in the conditions and culture of blacks in the US Go Tell it on the Mountain is also an examination of a kind of claustrophobic family dynamic which may well be of a wider commonality but for novelistic purposes must be rooted in the particular.

As the book’s title would suggest, the text is saturated with religious references and demonstrations of that over-the-top type of ceremonial – all hell-fire, ‘Praise the Lord’ and ‘Hallelujah’! – which is sometimes referred to as charismatic but to which that word surely does not fit at all well. While superficially allowing adherents to give vent to their passions such observances are also, like those families, claustrophobic and restricted – and intended to be so. Straying from the path is neither encouraged nor condoned. Indeed, it is to be condemned.

Gabriel is on his second marriage, his first was contracted in the South when he was a firebrand preacher, a calling he took up despite his leanings towards the pleasures of the flesh, perhaps to counteract their allure. But his wife died and he moved north, where his first son, by another woman, had also led a dissolute life before ending up being stabbed.

Gabriel treats his children with a harsh hand. It is not too stark to say cruel. Add the charge of hypocrisy to his list, then. Or is that stern forbidding attitude to the sins (even potential sins) of others more a manifestation of fear? Fear that others may be exactly like you, as tempted as you, as flawed as you? (In the religious zealot’s worldview, as sinful as you?)

He once told John that, “all white people were wicked, and that God was going to bring them low. They were never to be trusted, they told nothing but lies and none of them had ever loved a nigger.”

That last word encapsulates its times better than any other – as well as highlighting the enduring legacy of slavery and racism, the internalisation of bigotry, the lack of feeling of worth engendered by being treated, over generations, as worthless, or less than worthless.

The consolations of religion no doubt helped. In the travails of everyday existence the promise of a better life after death must have appeared compelling. Yet there is a bitter irony here. Such a religion may be attractive to the underdog but it serves to keep those underdogs – those slaves – in their place. In its early days Christianity was derided as a slave religion, beneath the dignity of the Roman citizen. In more recent times there may have been a benign missionary motive for inculcating it in the minds of people whose bodies were held as property. But it also functioned as an instrument of control. In that sense it is curious how much so-called fundamentalists concentrate on their god’s vengeful aspects (in the Christian context an Old Testament idea whose prominence is probably due to the influence of Paul of Tarsus on the religion’s early development – there is an argument that the religion ought really to be called Paulinity – but not an intrinsic part of Jesus Christ’s teachings.) Such people rarely mention peace, love and understanding.

It is left to Florence’s Prayer to voice another indictment, “All women had been cursed from the cradle; all, in one fashion or another, being given the same cruel destiny, born to suffer the weight of men.” If life for black men was tough how much more unfair must it have been for black women?

Aside: I assume the plates used for this edition were from the book’s earliest UK printings. Those were the days when British publishers rendered USian text into British English. Huzzah!

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “and the pulse of remembering and the ache of old news, makes for the beat of his early writing” (that second ‘and’ renders the subject of the verb plural; hence ‘make for the beat’,) an omitted comma before a piece of direct speech. Otherwise: “and a mighty work he begun throughout the city” (a mighty work be begun.) “‘She’d of dragged me down with her’” (probably a true reflection of the mode of speech portrayed but that ‘of’ always leaps out at me.)

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1982, 246 p.

Persuasion cover

Years before the start of this novel Anne Elliot of Kellynch Hall had allowed herself to be persuaded by her family not to marry Frederick Wentworth, a junior officer in the navy. Now with her father needing to reduce expenditure he has been forced to rent the Hall to Admiral Croft. Mrs Croft is Frederick’s sister and so the meeting of Anne and Wentworth again will be a certainty. He is now a something of a catch as he is a Captain and wealthy due to prize money from the war. Nevertheless they both observe proprieties when they do meet.

Anne convinces herself Wentworth no longer has feelings for her and affects to be content. There are complications introduced by the other characters, not least the heir to Kellynch Hall, William Elliot, Anne’s cousin, who pretends to marriage with her and Louisa Musgrove, thought to be interested in Wentworth. A trip to Lyme Regis leads to Louisa falling from steps on the Cobb and suffering serious effects as a result of which she has to remain at the home of Wentworth’s acquaintances the Harvilles, where his friend Captain Benwick helps in her recovery, eventually leading to their engagement and a clear path for Anne and Wentworth.

In essence this is girl met boy, girl spurns boy, girl now meets man – but there are only supposed to be seven plots in literature. The interest is in how the matter of the relationship is resolved.

There are only really two of what might be called Austenisms. One about Anne’s father, “to his good looks and his rank” he “owed a wife of very superior character to any thing deserved by his own,” and Anne herself reflecting, “Like many other great moralists and preachers she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination.”

Again, this is all rendered too familiar by television adaptations. In the twenty-first century it is all but impossible to come to Austen’s works with a fresh, penetrating eye.

Pedant’s corner:- there are the usual early nineteenth century spellings – the Streights (Straits,) stopt (though later we do have ‘stopped’,) staid for stayed, sirname (surname) etc. Otherwise; the Miss Musgroves (the Misses Musgrove,) the Mr Musgroves (the Misters Musgrove,) the Miss Hayters (the Misses Hayter.) “There certainly were a great multitude of ugly women in Bath” (was a great multitude.) “‘You did not use to like’” (used to like.)

Best of the Year 2021

As usual these books are listed in order of my reading them. 18 this year; 17 fiction, one* not; 10 written by women, 8 by men; 4 could be described as SF or Fantasy; 6 were originally published in a foreign language.

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
Light by Margaret Elphinstone
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
Snapshot* by Daniel Gray and Alan McCredie
The New Life by Orhan Pamuk
By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
Landscape Painted with Tea by Milorad Pavić
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Being Emily by Anne Donovan
The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson
Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
The Sorrow of War by Bảo Ninh
Scandal by Shūsaku Endō
Ru by Kim Thúy

(I normally make the “year’s best” post nearer Hogmanay but I doubt any of the books I ought to have finished by then will make the list.)

Ru by Kim Thúy

The Clerkenwell Press, 2012, 157 p. Translated from the French Ru (Éditions Libre Expression, Montreal, 2009,) by Sheila Fischman.

It seems from the epigraph page that Thúy chose her title because it is a word in both French and Vietnamese – but with different meanings; respectively a small stream (and figuratively, a flow, a discharge – of tears, of blood, of money,) and a lullaby or to lull.

The story is told in a series of vignettes, jumping about in time from narrator Nguyễn An Tịnh’s cosseted childhood in Saigon before its fall, to the degradations of her time in a refugee camp in Malaysia after a hazardous trip as one of the Boat People, and her eventual life in North America but also taking in her return to Vietnam. There a waiter is surprised she can speak Vietnamese as she “looks too fat.” Nguyễn reflects that it was her Americanised, more confident demeanour to which he was responding. “Once it’s achieved, the American dream never leaves us, like a graft or an excrescence.” But the incident made her realise she “couldn’t have everything,” that she no longer had the right to call herself Vietnamese “because I no longer had their fragility, their uncertainty, their fears.” And that the waiter was right to remind her of this.

A course in History that she took was “a privilege only countries at peace can afford. Elsewhere, people are too preoccupied by their day-to-day survival to take the time to write their collective history.”

She also reflects on the human toll of long wars. “We often forget about the existence of all those women who carried Vietnam on their backs while their husbands and sons carried weapons on theirs.”

It would be tempting to assume that this is all autobiographical, fragments of the author’s real life laid down on the page, but that would be an error. The book is novelistically organised and structured. It is a creation.

Perhaps due to her uprooting from her secure childhood life Nguyễn has a restless adult existence. She never travels except with only one suitcase. She is a woman for whom men are always replaced or replaceable, or, if they are not, her feelings for them are. She prefers relationships with married men because it keeps her “remote, aloof, in the shadows.”

Not that she hasn’t experienced love; but for her the blessing is not unalloyed. “It’s my children, though, who have taught me the verb to love, who have defined it. If I had known what it meant to love, I wouldn’t have had children, because once we love we love for ever.” Which isn’t a bad epitaph when you think of it.

Pedant’s corner:- chilies (chilis.)

Scandal by Shūsaku Endō

Penguin, 1989, 235 p. Translated from the Japanese (スキャンダル) by Van C Gessel

At an award ceremony, famous writer Suguro, known for his Christianity and clean living, is accosted by a woman who claims to recognise him from his sojourns in Sakura Street in Shinjuku – an area known for its peep-shows and porn shops. Suguro indignantly denies such behaviour, any wider revelation of which would undoubtedly lead to a scandal.

A reporter named Kobari, who was present at the accusation, instinctively believes the woman and, shocked at Suguro’s apparent double standards (at one time frequenting vice dens, at the other portraying the exact opposite in his fiction,) makes it his mission to uncover what he sees as Suguro’s duplicity. The discovery of a portrait apparently of Suguro, painted by one of the women of Sakura Street, confirms Kobari in his pursuit. In one of Kubari’s interviews there a sex-worker tells him, “Sex is awfully deep, sir. All kinds of sensations come bubbling up from the bottom-most part of your body. It’s like a strange new music.” She reveals to him the bizarre enthusiasms and fetishes of the clients of the establishments in Sakura Street, by which Kobari is appalled.

In the meantime Suguro engages a young girl, Mitsu, whose family is in straitened circumstances, to help his (like Suguro himself, ageing) wife with the housework. Mitsu eventually turns out to be untrustworthy but Suguro has by this time, in a first intimation that he may have a darker side, dreamt of her half-naked.

As an exploration of the dark recesses of sexuality the novel is heightened when Suguro strikes up a conversational relationship with Madame Naruse. Her stories of her late husband’s complicity in, indeed instigation of, a wartime atrocity and the erotic charge it gave her trouble Suguro in its contrast with his own staid (it is strongly implied now non-existent) sex life.

The book’s emphasis on human frailty is at times tempered by reflections on writing. In a conversation Suguro is told writers can be divided into two groups, the biophilous (life-loving) and the necrophilous (self-destructive, degenerate, decadent.) Suguro’s work lies in the former category.

Suguro’s certainty that he must be being impersonated (even though he reflects that “Deep in the hearts of men lay a blackness they themselves knew nothing about”) leads him to try to confront his double.

Madame Naruse sets up a meeting in Sakura Street so that Suguro might meet the impostor, during which she tells him people delight in inflicting pain, that perhaps Jesus was murdered because he was too innocent. As he carried his cross the crowd reviled him and threw stones because of the pleasure it gave them. She adds, “… all you’ve written about are men who have betrayed Jesus but then weep tears of regret after the cock crows three times. You’ve always avoided writing about the mob, intoxicated with pleasure as they hurled stones at him.” The only other person present in the love hotel, however, is a comatose Mitsu, upon whom Suguro spies through a peep-hole.

The döppelganger/split personality has long been a wellspring of Scottish fiction. To see the dichotomy examined in a Japanese context was unusual but Endō treats it subtly and convincingly.

Pedant’s corner:- “A magazine reported named Kubari” (reporter.) “He was assigned to a regiment in Chiba” (China, I assume,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “a silver rhinestone broach” (brooch,) “Madame Nearuse” (Naruse.)

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë

Oxford World Classics, 2008, 571 p including vi p Introduction by Janet Gezari, vi p Note on the Text, iii Select bibliography, vi p Chronology of Charlotte Brontë and xxx p Explanatory Notes. First published in 1849.

Nineteenth century novels are now to some extent a historical curiosity. Life has changed since then, and so too have expectations of the novel. Books like Shirley were written for a slower paced time, for leisurely afternoon or evening reading, for diversion as well as entertainment and enlightenment. Digression and length were to be welcomed. This is evident in the novels of Sir Walter Scott but in whose work for some reason the longueurs cease to be noticeable after a while. To me though, it seemed Shirley took the tendency to extremes and the longueurs the more irritating. I took longer to read this than I did War and Peace. (Admittedly I was younger then, but arguably I had less time for reading.)

Shirley’s first chapter is an entirely unnecessary depiction of the conversations between three local curates, which has nothing at all to do with the subsequent plot. The second has a bit more purpose, laying out the background of the times (to which Brontë is looking back from forty years later) as a local Mill owner Mr Robert Moore, Caroline’s cousin, is bringing in machines to speed up his factory’s processes. In this he is opposed by the working men whose jobs will be replaced. For many passages nothing much of note seems to happen. A more singular drawback is that the titular Shirley (heiress of the estate of Fieldhead) is not encountered until a full third of the way through the book. Here too is a common trope of the nineteenth century novel, the revelation of the hidden identity of one of the characters. The book understandably also has the attitudes of the middle class of its time. Volume II, Chapter VII has the heading, “WHICH THE GENTEEL READER IS RECOMMENDED TO SKIP, LOW PERSONS BEING HERE INTRODUCED.” I suspect none of these would get past a modern-day writers’ group, agent or editor.

Main viewpoint character Caroline Helstone is living in the house of the local vicar, her uncle Mr Helstone, since her father, not a good man by the accounts she has heard, is dead and her mother had in any case long since left her marriage, whereabouts unknown. Mr Helstone has views on marriage: he takes a very dim view of having to officiate when people are committing what he considers an act of folly, yet he had done so himself. At an early point in the book Caroline asks her uncle, “Why were you so inconsistent as to marry?” and he replies, “Every man is mad once or twice in his life,” chiding Caroline not to confuse the general with the particular.

There are other aperçus. Caroline tells us, “In English country ladies there is this point to be remarked…. All have a certain expression stamped on their features, which seems to say, ‘I know I am the standard of what is proper; let every one therefore whom I approach, or who approaches me, keep a sharp look-out, for wherein they differ from me – be the same in dress, manner, opinion, principle, or practice – therein they are wrong.'” Workman William Farren says, “‘Them that reckons to be friends to a lower class than their own fro’ political motives is never to be trusted: they always try to make their inferiors tools.’”

Shirley has some good lines. Of a suitor, Samuel Fawthrop Wynne, (one of several who ask for her hand) Shirley’s uncle, Mr Stymson. who presumes to be her guide, says, ‘In all respects he is more than worthy of you.” She replies, “‘And I ask in what sense is that man worthy of me?’” and goes on to say that she would refuse a peer of the realm if she could not value him for himself. She says to Caroline, “‘Men, I believe, fancy women’s minds something like those of children. Now, that is a mistake.’” When Caroline demurs and says, “‘authors’ heroines are almost as good as authoresses’ heroes,’” Shirley says, “‘Not at all; women read men more truly than men read women,’” but that a magazine paper asserting that would never be accepted by any publication. This is a subtle feminism, certainly, but it is there to be read.

In both the novel’s time and Brontë’s a single woman was always thought to be conniving to trap a husband and when denied a particular quarry was described as disappointed. As Mrs Yorke says to Caroline, “‘Every sister with an eligible single brother is considered most kind by her spinster friends.’” Caroline denies any such predatory intentions for herself but the overall plot is entirely taken up with the prospects of marriage, both for Caroline and for Shirley, and the obstacles to that end.

Brontë mentions Yorkshire Doric, which some of the characters speak. Most of these words – described as dialect in the Notes on the Text – are still in use in Scots.

While obviously the Brontë sisters’ works are important in the history and development of the novel in English, for the reasons I mentioned above I could not seriously recommend Shirley to the modern reader except in so far as they are interested in that history.

Pedant’s corner:- nineteenth century usages of the chid (chided,) sunk (sank) and rung (rang) kind. An inconsistency in spelling – exstasies but later, ecstacy, – etc, etc. I add plus points for “the three Misses Sykes,” “the Misses Pearson,” “the Misses Wynne.” Otherwise; a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “the trot of a little nag’s hoofs were, five minutes after, heard in the yard” (the trot … was heard,) Moses’ (Moses’s,) “‘I am tried of it'” (‘tired of it’ makes more sense,) milleniums (millenia, but it was in dialogue,) “knows nought about” (naught,) hoofs (in my youth the plural was always ‘hooves’,) “blue orbs” (up till page 340 Caroline’s eyes are described as brown; from then on they are always blue.) In the explanatory Notes; “the intervention if Minerva” (of Minerva,) Ulysses’ (Ulysses’s.)

The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness

Vintage , 2003, 186 p. Translated from the Icelandic Atómstöðin (Helgafell, Reykjavik, 1948,) by Magnus Magnusson.

It is a time of political dispute in Iceland. The US has proposed to lease some land for what is always referred to in the text as an Atom Station. Opponents of this plan regard the potential base as a possible target for nuclear annihilation and in any case a sellout of Iceland’s seven-hundred-year struggle for independence. Our narrator Ugla is a country girl from the north who has come to Reykjavík to work as a maid in the house of her Member of Parliament, Búi Árland. She finds him, baldness and all, strangely attractive, his voice alone enough to make Ugla weak at the knees, though she does not express this outwardly. His overbearing wife treats her more or less dismissively. (The domestic environment here for some reason reminded me a little of those in the Norwegian TV drama State of Happiness shown on BBC Four in 2020.) Ugla also has ambitions to learn to play the harmonium and so goes to the teacher’s house to do so. There she meets various people with various parts to play later in the novel.

The Atom Station is a satire (mostly on politics) with heightened descriptions and characters named Brilliantine, the unselfconscious policeman, the organist, Cleopatra, and Two Hundred Thousand Pliers. There is also a strand involving a historical character known as the Nation’s Darling and the prospect of the return of his bones from Copenhagen to be re-interred in Iceland. (When they are it is in two crates – either of which may contain the real bones, or not.)

Ugla’s rich employers vilify Communists, but nevertheless she attends cell-meetings and agrees with the desire of the comrades for Day Nurseries for the nation’s poor. These, of course are derided by the moneyed classes who fail to see why they should pay for the education of the poor.

Ugla remembers, “When we children were little we were forbidden to laugh – out loud; that was wicked.” Furthermore “all cheerfulness which went beyond moderation was of the devil.” To talk about feelings would be “idle chatter,” unseemly. Tears were shameful. Yet later, after Búi Árland has procured his fourteen-year-old daughter an abortion, Ugla, while comforting, her notes her weeping and reflects, “Anyone who weeps does not die; weeping is a sign of life; weep and your life is worth something again.” In this respect rural Iceland is very similar to Scotland. Despite her exposure to a more comfortable existence fripperies are still strange to her. “What is the point of making a picture which is meant to be like Nature, when everyone knows that this is the one thing which a picture cannot be and should not and must not be?”

The text is scattered with sly observations on life. In one of Ugla’s conversations with the organist he says, “‘The reason a man talks is to hide his thoughts,’” and she goes on to tell us, “A man who says what he is thinking about is absurd; at least to a woman.” When someone says he has plenty of money, her reply is, “‘Plenty,’ I echoed. ‘If there is plenty, then it has quite certainly not been well come by.’” The organist has many comments to make, among them, “Nations are not very important on the whole.” He goes on to add that the Roman Empire was not a country, and, “China has never been a country, Christendom of the Middle Ages was not a country, Capitalism and Communism are not countries, East and West are not countries. Iceland is a country only in a geographical definition.” He is astringent on societal arrangements and the abuse of power, “If someone wants to steal in a thieves’ community he must steal according to the laws; and he should preferably have taken part in making the laws himself.”

In a campaign called over the question of the Atom Station Ugla is cynical as electioneering politicians swore they would not give part of the country over to foreigners – “they swore it on the country, on the nation and on history, swore it on all the gods and sacred relics they claimed to believe in, swore it on their mothers; but first and foremost they swore it on their honour. And then I knew that now it had been done.”

She is a strikingly free-thinking woman who, even after becoming pregnant by the unselfconscious policeman and a birth for which she had to go back to a more accepting home, wishes to be an independent person, “neither an unpaid bondswoman like the wives of the poor nor a bought madam like the wives of the rich; much less a paid mistress; nor the prisoner of a child which society has disowned.” “I know it’s laughable, comtemptible, disgraceful and revolutionary that a woman should not wish to be some sort of slave or harlot; but that’s the way I’m made.” She rejects the largesse which Búi Árland offers, “I want money which I have earned for myself because I am a person.”

In the end The Atom Station is not really about politics, and not about Iceland. It is about human relationships and their infinite variety.

Pedant’s corner:- In a footnote; calender (calendar.) Otherwise; a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, fifty minks (I have always understood the plural of mink [the animal] to be ‘mink’, minks would be the plural for the stoles made from their fur,) “I had to muster all my strength not lose touch” (not to lose touch,) “it is an an attack” (only one ‘an’ needed.)

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

World Books, 1967, 186 p, including 9 p Introduction by Francis Wyndham.

This is the fruit of the author’s fixation with “the mad woman in the attic,” the first Mrs Rochester from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The novel is told in three Parts, the first and third from the viewpoint of the unfortunate Antoinette (or Bertha as her husband calls her,) the second, and much the longest, from his and hers.

The first two Parts are set in the West Indies, where Antoinette, the offspring of a Creole family, was brought up. In Part One she describes her early life. Part Two is the story of her (unnamed in the text) husband’s sojourn in the West Indies, where he and Antoinette married quickly after the illness which followed his arrival, and honeymooned in Dominica. There he receives a letter from a man who claims to be Antoinette’s half-brother, telling him he has been duped into the match as Antoinette is unstable and has a past. This is backed up by the attitude of those in Jamaica who knew her. The marriage is thereby doomed, its failure and her husband’s adultery contribute to Antoinette’s mental decline. Part Three sees our heroine locked up in an attic in England (though she is not entirely sure she is in that country) attended only by a nurse called Grace Poole. Hers and Antoinette’s names along with those of her stepfather and stepbrother are the only overt clues to the connection between this story and Jane Eyre. There are of course other correspondences, however; Antoinette/Bertha’s fascination with fire, her taking advantage of Poole’s falling asleep to roam the wider house, her attack on a man who comes to visit her, but this book is complete in and of itself and could be read with no knowledge of the previous book without any detraction from it.

Wide Sargasso Sea is both a commentary on Jane Eyre and on the ramifications of slavery and its abolition. Its illustration of the inequality of power between men and women also reflects the ending of Brontë’s novel where Jane brings herself to marry Rochester only after he has been blinded, when she has the advantage. There is, however, a kind of opacity to Rhys’s writing which makes it something of a chore to read.

Note to the sensitive; there are many uses of the n-word, but that is true to the times depicted.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; diststrous (disastrous.) Otherwise – a missing comma before a speech quote (x 3,) a comma missing at the end of a piece of direct speech, cocoanut (nowadays spelled coconut,) “the row of small trees outside my window were covered” (the row …. was covered,) 14 completed thoughts, italicised and in parentheses, mostly of one sentence but some with two, giving us the husband’s thoughts while someone else is speaking to him but only 12 of them had full stops at the end, hynotized (hypnotised,) frangipanni (frangipani; as used earlier.)

The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell

BCA, 1974, 331 p.

This book, an imagination of a siege during what became known as the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (Krishnapur being an amalgamation of several besieged British Residencies,) is the second in the author’s loose trilogy examining the legacy of British imperial power. Troubles looked at the Irish independence struggle, The Siege of Krishnapur India, and The Singapore Grip the harbinger of that power unravelling in the Japanese invasion of Malaya. Troubles won the Booker prize in 1970 and The Siege of Krishnapur in 1973.

The main viewpoint character is the man in charge of the Residency in Krishnapur, Mr Hopkins. He is known as the Collector because of his interest in the Great Exhibition, a then recent historical event which is mentioned many times in the book. Others include George Fleury, who has just arrived in Krishnapur with his recently widowed sister Miriam; the local medic, Dr Dunstaple, whose children Louise and Harry, an army officer, are living there; Dunstaple’s more modern minded colleague Dr McNab; the Magistrate, a devotee of phrenology; and Lucy Hughes, a dishonoured Englishwoman who when the siege starts is living in town on her own in a house called the dak bungalow.

The early chapters are devoted to laying out the course of the lives of the European inhabitants of the town, poetry readings for the ladies and so on, manifested in the petty jealousies and rivalries of both the men and the women. A hint of the impending revolt arrives when piles of chapatis begin to be left on people’s desks or doorsteps. The Collector realises this is an indicator of trouble but is at first much mocked for instructing earth barriers be erected round the Residency and the banqueting hall. Lives carry on almost as normal until the neighbouring cantonment of Captainganj falls and its survivors straggle into Krishnapur.

Some of the Collector’s thoughts are of the time, “Speaking a great deal in company is not an attractive quality in a young lady. A young lady with strong opinions is even worse,” but then again on the feelings Miriam expresses towards Lucy Hughes when she thinks Lucy is trying to entrap her brother, “in an attractive woman even faults and weaknesses are endearing.” On his rounds one day during the siege he reflects on women and the ‘natives’ as being alike, “It’s true,” he mused, “they’re just like children,” and, “Women are weak. We shall always have to take care of them, just as we shall always have to take care of the natives.”

A hint of the twentieth century is present in some later thoughts. “Perhaps it is our fault that we keep them so much in idleness? Perhaps we should educate them more in the ways of the world. Perhaps it is us who have made them what they are?” Then the Victorian age resurrects itself. “But no. It’s their nature. Even a fine woman like Miriam is often malicious to others of her sex.”

Once the siege becomes prolonged the aura of complacency regarding British occupancy in India has been deflated. “India itself was now a different place; the fiction of happy natives being led forward along the road to civilisation could no longer be sustained.”

Over time there is a gradual decline of standards as hunger and sickness takes hold, the women sit about in their chemises and bodices, the two doctors quarrel in public over the correct treatment of cholera. Dr McNab’s demeanour does not help his cause, “Scots very often appear bleak in the eyes of the English,” but Dr Dunstaple’s attempt to disprove his colleague’s modern theory leads directly to him contracting the disease.

Despite it being serviceable enough there is something to the text that is unsatisfying, almost plodding. Too much is told, not shown. The characters, too, seem like types, rather than individuals. And (though perhaps this was the point,) there is not much of India here.

As to that Booker Prize, it was nigh on fifty years ago. I doubt The Siege of Krishnapur would win it in the present day.

Pedant’s corner:- Plus points for ‘seated’, “attah of roses” (attar of roses) “the military wre being made to look ridiculous” (the military was being made,) “‘if that attack us here’” (if they attack us here,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “there were a number of windows” (there was a number,) one “Eurasions” (elsewhere Eurasians,) “to staunch wounds” (stanch,) “a taciturn man from the Salt Agency called Barlow” (the Salt Agency is called Barlow?) ecstacy (ecstasy,) “rose to a crescendo” (to a climax, the crescendo is the rise,) “so many of the garrison was already dead” (were already dead,) “A handful of confident zemindars were standing” (a handful … was standing.) “There were a number of Brahmin priests” (there was a number,) “the dining room was to spacious” (too spacious.)

The Sorrow of War by Bảo Ninh

Secker & Warburg, 1994, 218 p. Translated from the Vietnamese Thân Phân Cua Tinh Yêu, (originally published by Nhà Xuät Ban Hoi Nha Van [Writers’ Association Publishing House], Hanoi, 1991. English version by Frank Palmos based on the translations from the Vietnamese by Vo Bang Thanh and Phan Thanh Hao, with Katherine Pierce.

The vast majority of writing about the Vietnam War published in the West has been from a US perspective. This book acts as a kind of corrective as, here, the US, along with the South Vietnamese ARVN, is the enemy. The novel’s viewpoint character is a North Vietnamese soldier, Kien, whom we first meet in his post-war duty of collecting for burial the remains of corpses left over from the war. This is in an eerie place the soldiers named the Jungle of Screaming Souls. One corpse is discovered in a colourless plastic bag and the body seems immaculate. Then it discolours, something seems to escape, and it deflates. The platoon takes this apparition to be a soul departing. This scene is emblematic as, while the memories of combat are no doubt authentic, so much of what Binh describes here is surreal. Many descriptions of war are.

The novel is disjointed, fragmented, as if reflecting the uncanny nature of such experiences. Ninh tells us the sorrow of war is like the sorrow of love, “a kind of nostalgia,” a “sadness, a missing, a pain which could send one soaring back into the past.” The novel is a patchwork of such pain, of things unforgettable, surfacing unbidden from memory. “His fighting life was being revived in flashbacks, or in slowly unfolding scenes as heart-rending as a funeral march.” War as an experience is perhaps best encapsulated when Kien remembers trying to dissuade his comrade Can from deserting as it would be shameful. Can replied, “‘In all my time as a soldier I’ve yet to see anything honourable.’”

While combat and its horrors – the blood and entrails carried on the tracks of tanks so that they have to be driven through a river to clean them, Kien’s friend killed when his tank is all-but vapourised by a shell, the dreamlike quality of being on the receiving end of a US air-raid, the self-sacrifice of an inexperienced female guide named Hua who distracted a platoon of US soldiers away from a group of wounded NVA personnel whom she had put in danger of discovery – The Sorrow of War is not merely a story of firefights and military life. The story flits between those and his pre-Army life in Hanoi with Kien’s golden memories of his girlfriend Phuong and of life after the war where it is not only Kien who has been changed utterly but also Phuong, forever scarred by her travails when she accompanied him south to his first posting and her subsequent struggles to subsist in Hanoi.

The end of the war brought to the soldiers no soaring, brilliant happiness such as Kien saw later on film, only memories and nightmares. “Those who had died and those who lived on shared a common fate in this war.” As to the future, “Losses can be made good, damage can be repaired and wounds will heal in time. But the psychological scars of the war will remain forever.” The survivors “had lost not only the capacity to live happily with others but also the capacity to be in love.”

Since Kien later sets out to write about his impressions of the war the novel also contains observations on writing. Binh tells us the author wrote “because he had to write, not because he had to publish.” This is of course the way round the process ought to be.

Despite all its gruesome content and incident, its record of man’s inhumanity to man – and woman – The Sorrow of War is not difficult to read, a testament to both Binh and his translators.

Pedant’s corner:- mosquito repellant (repellent,) “his beard was well shaven and tidy” (if it was shaven it wasn’t a beard, well trimmed perhaps?) “Who’s to know.” (is a question; therefore ‘Who’s to know?’) “All that remained of his mother were some photographs.” (‘All’ is singular, hence ‘was,’) a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, “Sue repeated eagerly” (she repeated eagerly,) curriculum vitae (there was more than one; curriculum vitae means ‘course of life’ so its plural – courses of life – is ‘curricula vitae’ in Latin and English – but in English some might say ‘curriculums vitae’. If interpreted as ‘courses of lives’ the Latin plural would be ‘curricula vitarum’, which is a step too far in English.)

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