Tag-Archive for ◊ middle ◊

• Sunday, November 01st, 2015

Gerbrand Bakker was born in 1962 in Wieringerwaard, Holland. He studied Dutch language and worked as a subtitler for nature films on Dutch television for several years as well as a skating instructor during the winter before becoming an accredited gardener in 2006. Bakker says that writing and gardening complement each other.

Bakker’s first novel, The Twin, was published in 2006 and won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His second novel, June, was published in 2009. The Detour, Bakker’s third novel, won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and was published in Dutch in 2010 and in English in 2012.

The Detour is the story of a middle-aged Dutch woman who calls herself Emilie. On what seems a sudden impulse, she rents a farmhouse in a remote area of North Wales, leaving everything behind in Amsterdam – all her worries, her husband and both her parents without telling anybody about her whereabouts.

Emilie, who only took the farmhouse on rental and is not likely to remain in it for long nor had the intention to and despite been given short notice from the agency to leave in a matter of a few days, is nevertheless working hard to embellish the wild and desolate garden and surroundings. She also purchases a Christmas tree as well as a television set. In her endeavour, she is trying to bury her past by finding peace and comfort physically and mentally as a therapeutic pass time.

Emilie spends her days gardening, walking, admiring the far away sea and nature around her, observing an aggressive badger who sneaks out of his den and bites her foot. She puzzles about the flock of white geese in her yard which were ten when she arrived but keep on disappearing one after another, she tries to save them from what she thinks might be a fox, but fails. Their curious disappearance will never be solved like other inexplicable mysteries in the story.

Emilie’s solitary confinement comes to an end when Bradwen, a young Welsh man from the area, who is mapping a walking trail across the country and across Emilie’s farm yard, gets injured near Emilie’s farm. She offers him shelter but he ends up staying with her longer than the expected one night. Bradwen will prove to be a good companion, being taciturn like her. He will also prove to be a good help around the house and the garden. A certain understanding combined with a tender relationship creates a bond between them.

The story moves back and forth between Emilie’s new life in Wales and her husband Rutger’s life in Amsterdam. Rutger is baffled by his wife’s unexpected disappearance and seeks the help of a detective to trace her whereabouts. Once located, the husband with the help of a policeman who arrested him earlier for setting Emilie’s university office on fire out of anger and who meantime became his friend, both set sail and go on Emilie’s trail.

The reader unravels Emilie’s enigmatic world slowly, but not fully, in little strokes by half-said words, through meditations and several reminiscences. We discover that Emilie is a lecturer at the university and that she is preparing a thesis on the nineteenth century reclusive American poet Emily Dickinson. We also assume that she has an unhappy marriage.

Seeking anonymity in her escape and wanting to put an end to any past connection and create a vacuum by keeping her distance with everybody, she borrows the name of Emilie from the poet Emily Dickinson that she had a sort of love hate feeling towards and looked upon in disdain in spite of being aware of similarities in character between the poet and herself. The author throughout the novel draws the similitude between the two Emilies.

The reader also discovers that the story’s main protagonist fled Holland after the university scandal as a result of having an affair with a student which ended her academic career. Additionally, she seems to be suffering from an undisclosed, incurable disease. After receiving a card from her husband telling her he is on his way to fetch her, the message hastens her final, inevitable decision before her husband’s arrival. At the abrupt end of this haunting story we learn, for the first time, from Rutger that his wife’s real name is Agnes.

The detour is also a tribute to nature which is a prominent character in this well written, slow-paced and yet gripping novel. The author, being a gardener by profession, features the beauty of nature in what remains an overall gloomy atmosphere. He describes the part of North Wales – he said he visited a number of times – in great detail. The idyllic Welsh wildlife, the surrounding trees, the plants, the green hills, Mount Snowdon and the varying climate, not forgetting the animals, being part of nature.

Emilie who is clearly grieving over her past life and over her deteriorating state of health, is a tormented soul seeking an impossible, unattainable peace within herself, forgetting that it’s impossible to escape from oneself by fleeing. Instead of confronting her problems with some pragmatism, she stages an inevitable, abrupt, harsh ending to her life. The sombre atmospheric setting of The Detour is like Emily Dickinson’s poems – it’s about Life, Love, Nature. Time and Eternity as well as Death.

The title of the novel implies that Emilie is taking a detour maybe in order to be isolated among the beautifully remote Welsh nature or perhaps to enjoy her own company away from everything and before her final and ineluctable destination or perhaps destiny. Bakker has definitely left his reader to draw his/her own conclusion.

• Saturday, June 13th, 2015

Mario Vargas Llosa was born into a middle class family in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, in 1936. His parents were separated a short time before his birth. Llosa spent his early childhood with his mother and maternal grandparents in Cochabamba in Bolivia, being falsely told by his mother that his father had died. Ten years later his parents reconciled, causing an abrupt change to Llosa’s life because, after being pampered by his mother and grandparents, he now found himself with an authoritarian, severe father. In 1947 Llosa went to the Christian middle school, Colegio La Salle.

Discovering his only child’s passion for writing when in his early teens, Ernesto Vargas, Llosa’s dictatorial father, wanting to prevent him pursuing a literary career – which he considered good for idle rich people – sent him to the rigidly disciplined Leoncion Prado Military Academy in Lima. This period will later be described by Llosa in his first novel, The Time Of The Hero, published in 1963 as “the discovery of hell”.

Living in a country led by an oppressive dictator and having a despotic father will make Llosa fight strongly to condemn any stifling, abhorrent dictatorship that suppresses individual freedom in any shape or form.

After dropping out of the academy, Llosa pursued his studies in Piura, north of Peru, while working as a journalist for a local newspaper. In 1953 Llosa studied literature and law at the National University of San Marcos and in 1958 won a scholarship to study in Madrid and later went to live in Paris. Llosa became a journalist, an essayist and a politician, running unsuccessfully in the presidential elections of 1990.

Mario Vargas Llosa is a prolific writer, having written many novels, non-fiction and drama. He has also received numerous awards and honours including the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature about which he was informed in a telephone call received in New York when teaching a semester at Princeton University. He has been married twice and has three children from his second wife.

The Way To Paradise recounts, in alternating twenty-two chapters and by moving back and forth, the historical biographical story of two extraordinary destinies: the post-impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin, and his illegitimate, socialist reformer and feminist grandmother, Flora Tristan. Flora was born to a wealthy Peruvian father and French mother and grew up in poverty following her aristocrat father’s death when she was just four years old. At the time, French law did not recognise her parents’ marriage and consequently she did not inherit her father’s estate as she was considered an illegitimate child.

Flora, who died in 1844 at the age of forty-one, never saw her grandson, Gauguin, born in 1848. Although they didn’t know each other and apart from their kinship, they both had one target, namely to aspire to achieve an insatiable and unrealistic dream in order to reach their much-coveted paradise on earth.

Flora wanted a complete change in the society of her time, where workers were poor, crushed and exploited by factory owners who worked them hard for a pittance in an unhealthy environment, while the destitute women and children were earning half a pittance for the same work. Flora was also campaigning for women to have a dignified and better life, whether they were poor, enslaved women workers or enslaved bourgeois women. Her fight for workers’ rights and women’s equality and emancipation from oppression is unprecedented and well ahead of her time.

In order to achieve her goal, Flora doesn’t spare any effort. She abandons her three children and André Chazal, the husband she detests and who made her hate sex. During the last months of her life she tours incessantly all over France for the sake of promoting her cause, travelling from town to city to recruit members for her Workers’ Union and encouraging workers to unite because unity is strength against the exploiters.

She publishes many works, her best-known being: Peregrinations Of A Pariah, published in 1838, Promenades In London in 1840 and her famous final work, The Workers’ Union in 1843, in which she criticises capitalism and its exploitation of workers in France. She is sometimes made fun of, threatened and rebuked but never gives-up her dream.

As for Gauguin, he quits his successful, well-paid job as a stockbroker in Paris in 1884 at the age of thirty-six and decides to become a full time artist. Soon after he abandons his Danish wife, Mette Gad, and his five children. In order to escape the civilised world, he looks for an unspoilt life in rural Brittany, in Pont-Aven then close by in Le Pouldu where he “went in search of the savagery and primitivism that seemed to him fertile ground for the flourishing of great art”. After a short, unfortunate conflictual cohabitation with Van Gogh in Arles, he travels to Panama followed by Martinique then Tahiti, which he finds a disappointment having been defiled by French colonialism.

Frustrated when realising that things are not as easy as he imagines and that his dream might never be fulfilled, and now consumed by syphilis, he goes to Atuona, Hiva ‘Oa in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia which he thinks has maybe been slightly less spoilt by French colonialism, but to no avail. He spends the last two years of his life there and is buried in 1903 in the cimetière Calvaire, the main cemetery on the island, leaving behind a great collection of paintings, ceramics and wood carvings. Although not given the recognition deserved during his lifetime, after his death Gauguin’s paintings have made him immortal.

Gauguin believed that art had to be subjective to represent the artist’s vision and what goes through an artist’s mind and soul, he said when he was in Le Pouldu near Pont-Aven in Brittany: “Art is abstraction; draw art as you dream in nature’s presence, and think more about the act of creation than about the final result”.

The two lives had their differences: Flora was more concentrated on awakening the working classes to their rights in order to forge a better, brighter future for them, while her grandson, Gauguin, was searching everywhere for the unspoilt, “uncivilised” past. Nevertheless, Gauguin’s life was more colourful and interesting than his grandmother Flora’s, who spent a great deal of her time indefatigably touring in France, organising endless workers’ meetings to recruit support for her workers’ union.

They also had their similarities: Flora and her grandson Gauguin, both rebelled against the establishment and had one objective in mind, their endeavour to liberate themselves from the traditionalist society of their time. They were both obstinately tenacious in their quest, stoically enduring the hardship they encountered as well as both suffering lingering illnesses leading to their deaths. In order to reach their ideals, they both courageously reject the comfortable, bourgeois existence they could have both lived and opt instead for the hard struggle in the hope of attaining their idealistic life.

The Way To Paradise, although slow-moving and repetitive at times, is a well-researched novel. It is a fascinating double biography of a grandmother and her grandson who, through their eagerness, strong ambition and obstinacy, were unstoppable in their endeavours thus leaving their mark on the history of humanity.

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