Book Reviews

1.    Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda

Dear Rae

I really enjoyed reading Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda.

I have put down a few thoughts about it.  Perhaps we can talk about the book after you have read it.

I think I understand the title.  I see it as referring to the prevailing ethos in black communities where life is so violent that death is the focus of existence.  Where one generally defines culture as a way of life, the culture being described in the book is a way of death.  And Toloki, who remains an outsider in this culture, very appropriately takes on the role of Professional Mourner.  It is his compassionate nature that determines this function.

For me the book examines the many subcultures that contribute to the overall culture of violence in the communities being described.  Once you become involved in one of them, no matter who you are – man, woman or child – you are bound within that frame and by the dehumanising laws that govern it.  Each subculture of violence – police brutality, gangsterism, vigilantism, parental neglect, warring factions, child soldiers, classism, political manipulation, muti-murders, serial murders – are all solidly encompassed within the worst form of violence – poverty.

Noria, who is a kind of Mary Magdalen, comes to be redeemed by Toloki after the death of her son, called Second, whose birth has been a miraculous virgin birth.  But the child becomes a soldier and his name Vutha, predicts his terrible end.  His death is just as horrific as the death of the first Vutha. (The person in the book club, who objected so much to the necklacing of a five-year old, was drawn right into the horror of the situation.  She did not sit back like me and clinically analyse the point that Mda was making.)  If you look at the chain of violent acts presented in the book, the necklacing of the child is the culmination of that process and has to be the most degrading and dehumanising moment in the whole tale.

I am not sure at which point Mda was preaching in the novel.  (Someone in the book club made the comment about preaching) I seem to have missed that.  What I like very much is the way in which he presents women.  He sees them as the leaders of the new world order.

Toloki and Noria emerge as heroic figures.  She brings him back into the community and he at the same shelters her under his detachment from it.  They create their own culture of creativity, life, love and caring.

Thank you for inviting me to join the book club.  It is wonderful to have the opportunity to mix with people who are interested in ideas.

2.    Landscapes of Memory by Ruth Kluger

Dear Rae

The title, Landscapes of Memory, prepares you for the various settings of Ruth Kluger’s memories: Vienna, the ghettoes, the concentration camps, the trains, the death camps; it is a progress through diminishing freedom.

I feel a great affinity with Ruth Kluger.
She is instrospective and questions everything including her own motives.  She doesn’t accept facile notions of motherhood, religious beliefs and she doesn’t see victims as martyrs and saints.  They are still human even in the death camps. She looks at the holocaust and doesn’t see it as one unremitting period of doom and gloom.
The experience is infused with the compassion, courage and heroism, not on the spectacular scale that wins Victoria Crosses, but on the everyday human level that we tend to take for granted and which she does not. For her, and for me too, these everyday acts are as meaningful and as poignant as the sacrifices made by those whom we acknowledge as heroes.  Acts like her mother’s request that they walk into the barbed, electrical fence, Liezl’s not deserting her father and the woman who gives her age as fifteen.  For her, experiences are extremely complex and she eschews the tendency to whitewash, or in the case of the holocaust to blackwash, everything.  She shows the people in the camps in all their diversity from heroic to cowardly, from compassionate to inhuman, from noble to debased.  

Kluger’s writing reflects her interests in modern science and some paragraphs could come from Stephen Hawking’s explanation of time.  She is interested in the concepts of time and deals with its diversity and synchronicity.  She makes me realise that I have to do a lot more reading about time.  Her expression is also influenced by her love of poetry and is intricate, beautiful and challenging.

In terms of her memories, what makes her book brilliant is her total honesty and willingness to share even the most humiliating episodes in her experience.  What seems to have motivated the writing of the book is her desire to debunk romantic notions of suffering and deprivation as well as unpractical demands, from those who did not go through that experience, that the people in the camps could have done more.  It reminded me of questions that I have heard about apartheid:  why did Black people accept it?  Why didn’t they do more?  Why did they let it go on so long?  I think that apart from the fact that people unwittingly find themselves in a situation and feel trapped, there is also the fact that what is happening is so beyond belief that they cannot understand that they are caught up in brutal and callous degradation of themselves and there is always that unconscious belief that it cannot go on forever.

Just as the whole shoah experience comes under the microscope, so does her relationship with her mother, and it becomes a metaphor for the bigger event and shows how inconsistent and inexplicable human behaviour is. You cannot hate the mother and love the daughter, neither can you love the mother and hate the daughter but there is, for me at least, no doubt that they love and hate each other as all human beings in relationships do. And in my opinion, it is the hate that helps to preserve the integrity (wholeness) of the separate individuals in the relationship. This mother’s detached relationship with her daughter, gives her the freedom to be herself.  It is not a cloying relationship despite the mother’s desire towards the end to subject her daughter to dependency.

Thanks for the loan of this inspiring book.

Hi Rae

Thanks for the loan of the book.  (The Da Vinci Code)

It was a like Grisham thriller only its context is religious.
It reflects the alternate culture’s fixation with paganism.
It is a book, which discredits the church without discrediting it, turns Jesus into a man, not the son of God and puts Mary Magdalene in place of St Peter.

It is shocking and intriguing only for those who have never wondered about the mystery of being.  It reduces that mystery to very human terms just as conventional religion does so it is no great revelation.

Only the Stephen Hawkings of this world engage with the mystery of the universe and give us glimpses into another reality, one that is not a projection of the human mind.

Da Vinci has been my hero since I was fourteen; he probably was full of pranks but I can’t believe that he was a mindless follower of the alternate culture.



Film Review

The Widow of St Pierre
Cinema Nouveau Rosebank
Director: Patrice Lecont
Actors: Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Emir Kusturica

This film is set on the island of St. Pierre off the coast of Canada. (The title The Widow of St Pierre is a reference to the guillotine) On the surface, the film is about the murderer (Emir Kusturica) who, while waiting on death row, spends his days doing odd jobs in the community.  The people learn to love him and when the event of his execution becomes a reality, they cannot condone it and try to find ways of circumventing it.

Central to the film is a deep irony that imbues all actions with ambiguity: are we witnessing noble deeds or posturing, idealism or eccentricity?  The film makes us wonder whether we are heroic or ridiculous when we espouse humane causes.

The two central characters, the Captain (Daniel Auteuil)  and his wife, Madame La (Juliette Binoche) are true liberals – compassionate and ready to lay down their lives for their beliefs.  They are so concerned with doing good that they are blind to the irony of the situation in which they find themselves.  Their grand efforts have no meaning for the person, the murderer, on whose behalf they become so agitated.  For them, life is complex: you do wrong and all the circumstances surrounding your misdeed must be taken into account.  At the end of the film, the humour becomes very dark when the devastation of lives takes on a comic heroism.

Despite the irony and macabre humour, the film weighs impartial law and blind justice against compassion and humane justice.  Through the turn of events, we are plunged into the controversies surrounding punishment, rehabilitation and capital punishment.  Though the film presents the liberal point of view through such appealing characters as the Captain and his wife, the murderer on whose behalf the case for change is made, is himself a rigid conformist.

One is forced to ask for whose benefit is all this anguish and sacrifice.  One looks at the complex manoeuvring that the Captain, in particular, goes through.  He is caught in a balancing act between his compassion and his duty to uphold the law.  His wife is willing to subvert the law but not he.  He comes up with the most ingenious ways of foregoing his duty without infringing the rules but in the end, he is caught by his loyalty to duty.  The couple’s liberal views are put in a context that makes them seem compassionate yet ridiculous.

One has to ask, however, if one would prefer to live the simple uncomplicated life of the murderer who accepts whatever fate has to offer or whether one should exert oneself to reach greater heights intellectually, morally and spiritually, while at the same time being made to look completely, though nobly, ridiculous.

It is a beautiful film.  See it at the Cinema Nouveau in Rosebank.  Hopefully it will come to the Cinema Nouveau at the Brooklyn Mall.

(I submitted this to the local community tabloid.  I realise now that doing so was as ridiculous as trying to save a murderer who accepted without question the sentence of death.
Fortunately, the tabloid had the sense not to use it.)