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Author:
• Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Lloyd Jones was born in Lower Hutt in the Wellington region of New Zealand in 1955. He studied at Hutt Valley High School and Victoria University in Wellington. In 2009 he received an honorary doctorate from Victoria University and has worked as a journalist and a consultant as well as a writer.

In 1989 he received the Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship, one of New Zealand’s long-standing and prestigious literary awards.

Lloyd Jones has written several novels, short stories, children’s books and non fiction. Mister Pip, which is part of post-colonial literature, was published in 2006. It is Lloyd Jones’ best-selling novel and the one that made him internationally known. It won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Overall Winner, Best Book and was short-listed in 2007 for the Man Booker Prize for fiction. It also won the Kiriyama Prize and the Montana Medal for fiction the same year. It has been adapted into a feature film which will be released later in 2012. Lloyd Jones now lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

The story of Mister Pip has an historical background as it relates the 1990’s Bougainville blockade by Papua New Guinea, Bougainville being rich in copper. This was an event which led to a civil war covered by Lloyd Jones who was then a journalist.

The novel starts in the early 1990’s. The narrator is the thirteen-year-old black girl, Matilda Laimo, the main character in the novel, who lives with her devout mother Dolores in a shack in Bougainville, a small tropical island in the South Pacific and a province of Papua New Guinea. The island is torn by civil war between the befuddled rebel forces called the Rambos and the atrociously inhuman government soldiers, called the Redskins. Matilda’s father, who was out of a job due to the closing down of the copper mines, left the island a few years before the blockade like several natives. He was hired to work for a mining company in Townsville, Australia and his wife Dolores and daughter Matilda were hoping to join him later but were held back by the imposed blockade.

Matilda is a child lacking paternal presence and support in her teenage life. She has a difficult relationship with her mother whom she loves and feels loyal to despite being ashamed of her reasoning, behaviour and difficulty understanding simple things.

In order to escape the atrocious reality and the horror of war surrounding them, Matilda and the other children allow themselves to be transported by the novel, Great Expectations, into an imaginary Dickensian world of 19th century Victorian England. Thanks to Mr Watts’ astuteness in transmitting his great admiration for Charles Dickens to his pupils, he takes pleasure in reading them a chapter from this well known novel every day.

Matilda says: “He kept reading and we kept listening” and when “the flow of words had ended, slowly we stirred back into our bodies and our lives”. Mr Watts sums it all up in these few words: “A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames. For me, Matilda, Great Expectations is such a book”.

The children were mostly fascinated by the main character, the orphan teenager, Pip, whom they could relate to. Matilda was especially under Pip’s spell. She was writing his name in the sand and with shells on the beach. Little did she know at the time that her deed would provoke the savage butchering of Mr Watts, followed by her mother’s by the Redskins who thought that Pip was one of the rebels concealed by the natives. A gruesome tragedy to intensify the abhorrent deeds carried out during these civil wars. As Lloyd Jones says about the Bougainville blockade: “the most unspeakable things happened without once raising the ire of the outside world”. Starting from 1989 and for ten years, the island was completely cut off from the world.

The skinny, solitary, Mr Watts or Pop-Eye, as everybody calls him in the village because of his protruding eyes, “eyes that wanted to leave his face”, is the baffling, self proclaimed teacher. After all the teachers leave the island, he is the only white person who remains despite the civil war, because of his native black wife, Grace, whom he met in New Zealand while she was studying dentistry and followed her home. They both live in the old mission house. Mr Watts is from New Zealand and is a bizarre, elusive, mysterious person. Matilda says: “Mr Dickens was easier to understand than Mr Watts” who “was whatever he needed to be”, a teacher, a magician, a clown with a red nose and ends-up being a saviour for the community when the Redskins needed a scapegoat to slaughter and set as an example.

Later in the novel, Matilda reads Great Expectations and discovers that Mr Watts had read his own version of the novel, rather than reading the original text to the children. “His Pacific version of Great Expectations” as she calls it, or “Pip in the Pacific” as he had named it a few years earlier, proving his gift as a story teller. He shows this talent when he gathers the whole community to recount his own story and keep them all mesmerized by his recounting: “On hearing Mr Watts’ voice the creatures shut up as well. Even the trees listened. And the old women too and with the respect they once reserved for prayer… And the Rambos were as enthralled as the rest of us”.

The author treats several powerful themes in his novel and enhances his story with his description of the natives’ naive characters, their desperation mixed with a feeling of helplessness, their uncomplicated basic existence, living of picked fruit and fishing, their gullibility, their pidgin Bible, their superstitions and their simplistic life and beliefs and their power of endurance. Nature is portrayed in a bright, colourful, enchanting way which contrasts with the sombre subject of loss and atrocious bloodshed. The once peaceful, beautiful, tropical island becomes a nightmare place.

A fascinating, original, thought provoking, poignant and captivating novel inside another novel, demonstrating the power of imagination and the effect of literature on people’s lives and how it can be an essential tool providing escapism and survival, whereby fiction and reality intertwine.

Author:
• Friday, February 24th, 2012

Ismail Kadare was born in Gjirokastër in Southern Albania in 1936, into a non-religious family. His father was a civil servant and his mother was from a wealthy family. He went to primary and secondary school in Gjirokastër followed by language studies at the University of Tirana in the faculty of history and philology where he obtained a teaching diploma in 1956. He continued his studies at the Maxim Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow until 1960.

Kadare was a member of the Albanian parliament from 1970 to 1982, but after some strife with the authorities in 1975 over a politically satirical poem, he was not allowed to publish any of his work for three years. He was also accused by the president of the league of Albanian Writers and Artists of intentionally avoiding to write about politics by writing mainly about history and myths. This was missing the point that Kadare preferred to use these means as an allegory to tackle the current political issues without fearing the repercussions.

Kadare, who is an eminent figure in Albania since the sixties, sought and obtained asylum in France before the fall of communism in his country. He stated at the time that: “Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible…The writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship”. Since 1990 he lives both in Paris and Tirana.

Kadare is a prolific writer. His first collection of poetry was published in 1954 and his first novel, The General of the Dead Army, was published in 1963. He has also written essays and short stories.

His most recent book, Ghost Rider, was published in 2011 and his novels have been published in more than forty countries. In 1992 he won the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca and in 1998 he was the first Albanian to be presented with the prestigious French Legion d’Honneur. In 2005 he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and in 2009 he won the Prince of Asturia Award of Arts. He has frequently been a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In Albania The Siege was first called The Drums of Rain, (the title later given to the French edition) but was at last published in 1970 in Albanian under the title The Castle, at a time when Albania was still under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. The English version, called The Siege, was published in 2009.

The story which takes place in the early fifteenth century, is of an imaginary siege of an unknown Albanian fortress besieged by the Ottoman Turkish army during the time of George Castrioti. Historically, George Castrioti, known as Skanderbeg, meaning Lord Alexander or Iskander Bey by the Turks, has been the national Albanian hero who bravely fought the mighty Ottomans during the peek of their strength for more than twenty years, when they were the most feared army of the time. He stood as the fierce saviour of Christianity against Islam. It was the confrontation of two cultures and two different religious beliefs, the crescent against the cross, the nowadays so-called: “clash of civilisations”. The historical fact is that after Castrioti’s death in1468, Albania was defeated and became part of the Ottoman empire and is today a predominantly Muslim European Country.

In The Siege, Tursun Pasha, the commander in chief of the Ottoman army, is commissioned to encircle the Albanian fortress which stands amidst fields, assail its people and subjugate them. His fate depends on the success of this mission. He’d better be successful or else commit suicide to make amends for his defeat. As the Quartermaster says to Saruxha: “If he doesn’t win this campaign, his star will dim for good… I am sure of it. If he is beaten, the best he can hope for is banishment for life. As for the worst… The Quartermaster drew a line with his forefinger under his throat”. Tursun Pasha never confronts Skanderberg whose presence is implied in various parts of the novel. He hardly appears in the arena but is acting behind the scenes through his fighters.

Before every new chapter, there are two pages narrating the viewpoint of the non-characterised besieged. Otherwise the whole story is related from the Turks’ angle by several characters, the nameless Quartermaster General in charge of the logistics, the engineer Saruxha, the architect Giaour, the credulous and nervous historian-chronicler Mevla Celebi, the poet Saddedin, the campaign doctor Sirri Selim and the Pasha’s harem who joined the campaign but whose members are kept confined to their tent and guarded by a eunuch.

The story of The Siege, published in 1970, seems to be meant by the author (and for those who can read between the lines) as an indirect representation of the difficult times the Albanians are going through. It was during the rule of the totalitarian, Enver Hoxha and the threat of the Soviet Russians, who were at Albania’s threshold in Czechoslovakia, during the cold war period.

The author, in his novel, describes masterfully and in great detail the brutality and bloodshed in wars, also all the intricacies of a campaign of this magnitude and all that it involves. He portrays with great authenticity the psychology of the invaders and the besieged in this war of attrition: the sustained attacks by the relentless Turkish army and the steadfastness of the stoic Albanians who will not be subdued.

Although it’s an historical fact that the Ottomans ended up conquering Albania, does that make victory perpetually on the side of the technologically advanced and the brutal? Not always according to the story, which goes against historically verified truth. The author wanted to prove an ambiguous point which is not clarified. Maybe out of patriotism and pride or implying that the Enver Hoxha regime, no matter how powerful, will come to an end one day.

The Siege is an engrossing novel, well written with a lot of food for thought, especially when looked upon from today’s perspective.

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