Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Any Known Blood

This 1997 novel by Lawrence Hill absorbed my full attention until I had read the 5o5 pages. After that I read the two page acknowledments that Hill makes at the back - usually these are a few words to the front of the novel, then I turned to the front again, reread the blurb, read the endorsments made by critics, and looked to see if there was anything else to read. I read every word, including that the cover art is a detail from The Kiss, 1887 (oil canvas), by Theodore Jacques Ralli, courtesy of Getty Images. I found the novel quite a pleasure to read, you can tell.

The story centers around Langston Cane the Fifth who was born of a black father and a white mother, who is a little bit lost and who seeks to find his way by exploring the lives of the four Canes before him. What he finds isn't all glorious, but all sheds light on who he is and helps him to make peace with his father as well as himself, helps him find direction for his life, and in the process brings an estranged brother and sister together. That might sound pretty ordinary, but don't worry, the stories that achieve this are not. Hill takes you to the trenches of France in the second World War, you go to the underground railroad, to an encounter with the Klan, to a village in Mali. It's not all harrowing mind you; there are a few erotic scenes, plenty of humour, and lots of lively, interesting dialogue.

I like something that Mill says to Langston; "[forty] is young enough if you know where you're going". I am pushing forty myself and often feel pressed for time, but I do find that when I have a clear map and a time line in front of me, I feel a lot younger. Lots of other stuff resonated with me, like Langston calls himself a wretched athiest. I'm not an athiest, but I was wretched when I went along with christianityand I am just as wretched now that I have rejected most of it, and have no likelihood of ever becoming a Moslem, Hindu or Sikh.

Apparently, Any Known Blood takes its title from a phrase that would be known to most Americans and Canadians, but not to a West Indian of average education such as myself. But I am familiar with the idea that the slightest trace of black blood, no matter how far back it goes, makes any blonde-haired, blue-eyed person black. Aside from being entertaining, this novel is also obviously educational. For instance, it enabled me to attach greater significance to the name John Brown, which hitherto, had meant the same as John Doe to me. Actually, John Brown is to the United States what Cudjoe and Tacky are to Jamaica in the sense that the violent uprisings they led did not deal a final blow, but they helped paved the way to the abolition of slavery.
I have to mention something about the structure of the novel. It is layered so that the five Canes all get their stories told, this causes the novel to span 150 years. The story is not told chronologically; it shifts backward to one of the Langston Canes, then forward to the last who is the narrator, then backward again. Cane the Fifth tells the story Nathan Zuckerman style; he is a fictitious character writing the story of some other fictitious characters. The story is also told with the aid of letters and various documents like Y0-yo's opinion pieces and the record of a court proceeding. All of this shifting about, far from being confusing, helps to connect me to the fifth Langston, becuase he is in effect looking toward himself from several different perspectives.
Another fantastic read.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ole Ya

Apprenticeships aren't very common in Jamaica any more, or maybe they are under a different name or in a different form. But it used to be routine that a young person could go "learn a trade"- and this meant working as an apprentice to a tailor or mechanic or so. Case in point, Marcus Garvey left his home in St. Ann and went to work as an apprentice for a printer in Kingston. Nowadays you learn a trade in high school or at a post secondary vocational institution, most often something under the umbrella of HEART Trust/NTA.

Well, back in the day, some unscruplous persons would take an apprentice under their wings, with the sole purpose of extracting as much cheap labour from them as possible. The way to drag out the training period was to teach the poor apprentices little or nothing, so what they would do was just have them do tasks that required no skill at all, like hand me this tool, or deliver that package, or hold this thing. Yes, "Hold this" is standard English for ole ya.

Over time, "ole ya" became rich with meaning. For instance a person who spent ages as an apprentice but never actually acquired mastery of the trade got called Ole Ya. If someone underestimated your ability by constantly assigning you tasks that did not require much intelligence, you might begin to think they were taking you for Ole Ya.

I'm laughing but it's not funny. Lots of talented people never really scale any great heights, and end up as Ole Ya for years and years and years, sometimes a whole lifetime. The reasons must be complex and depend on all sorts of situations, but still take a shot at it and tell me why.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Exit Ghost

I have to tell you I am a little lost where the subject matter is concerned in this novel,but I read the whole thing through because I so like his style of writing, and there is so much to be learnt about the craft by reading someone so accomplished as Philip Roth.

The novel is somewhat about facing death, it's about stuff we fear and stuff we desire, but it is largely concerned about writing about these things. It's about the purpose of writing, why people, no, why great writers write (and why the not so great shouldn't write), what value their writng has for mankind. There is also a huge concern that the rest of us, the ones who read,often don't get it, and those who don't read at all are just as much to be pitied, in Jamaica we hiss our teeth at such condescension and say "what a piece o fassness". The large issues are out there to see, as plainly as I just outlined them, but the nuances are a little finer and a little harder to put one's fingers on. For instance, do writers write about themselves? To what extent? For example, did Nathaniel Hawthorne write about his own guilt? Well, I might as well ask, does Philip Roth write about his own erotic thoughts in his old age? Perhaps I ask because I don't get it?

So on to what I really enjoyed about this novel. In the first place the narrator is Nathan Zuckerman. I met and fell in love with Zuckerman from "The Human Stain" and now I am sworn to reading all in the Zuckerman books, in whichever order I get them. Zuckerman is an old recluse whose cancer is in remission (or has been removed or whatever) and who is at the mercy of incontinence and impotence. From his New England hideaway he authors several best sellers and maintains his very private existence inspite of being world renowned. I find the construct very appealing- Roth is writing the novel, but he does it in such a way that Zuckerman comes alive and seems to be the real writer. I also like Zuckerman's unrelenting frankness about his own physical, psychological and emotional condition. To me Zuckerman is more real than Roth.

"Exit Ghost" is apparently the last of the Zuckerman books, as is suggested by the title; "Ghost" being Zuckerman the ghost writer, and Zuckerman's mental faculties being as deteriorated as it is in this novel. He can't remember what restuarant he told Amy to meet him at. He can't remember what he did or did not say to Kliman. He gets bouts of confusion. Also, since "The Ghost Writer is the first of the Zuckerman books, it stands to reason that "Exit Ghost" most be the last.

But did you notice my triplet? Zuckerman, I mean Roth, brought the technique to my attention. I've seen it many times before and have probably used the technique myself, but not consciously. He mentions Joseph Conrad's copious use of triplets and he uses them generously himself. Look at this:

Who among your contemporaries will be the last to die? Who among your contemporaries is least likely to die? Who among your contemporaries will not only elude death, but will write with wit, precision, and modesty of his amused bafflement at successfully pulling off eternal life?

Wit, precision and modesty- look, a triplet of nouns within a triplet of questions.

Something else he does in this novel held me reading to the end. See the title Exit Ghost? Well within the novel Zuckerman writes a play in which he enacts his fantasy about the alluring Jamie. Zuckerman makes his exit from the play within the novel, from the novel itself, from novel writing, and probably from life. Sophistication itself.

On the flap of the cover it says that Roth won the Pullitzer Prize in 1997 for American Pastoral (not one of the Zuckerman books) and that just about every other year after that he's one prestigious award or other. I admire his craft and had a good laugh once in the novel- like I did while I read Human Stain, but I will read only his novels between some comics, children's books and mysteries.