• Friday, September 24th, 2021

Pearl S. Buck was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, U.S.A, in 1892 from southern Presbyterian missionary parents who migrated to China after their marriage. They returned to the U.S.A. for their daughter’s birth and travelled back to China after she was five months old. Buck was the fourth of seven children and one of the three who would survive to adulthood. In 1934 Buck returned permanently to the USA, where she died in 1973 in Danby, Vermont.

Buck was raised in Zhenjiang in eastern China; her mother educated her as well as a Chinese tutor. At fifteen, she went to a boarding school in Shanghai, followed two years later by Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia and graduated in 1914. Buck returned to China in 1915, met an agriculture economist, John Lossing Buck, and married him in 1917. They both moved to the poor rural province of Anhwei, where Buck collected all the material for her future novels about China, including “The Good Earth”. In 1935 she divorced John Lossing Buck and married Richard Walsh

The first of a trilogy published in 1931, The Good Earth, was a bestseller in the U.S.A, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, and has been translated into several languages. In 1938 Buck was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. She published over seventy books, including novels, collections of stories, a biography, an autobiography, poetry, drama, children’s literature and translations from Chinese. The Good Earth, considered a classic, was made into a Broadway play in 1932 and an American drama film in 1937.

The story of The Good Earth is a vivid portrayal of peasant life in rural China in the early twentieth century. It follows the fall and rise of the humble and illiterate farmer, Wang Lung, and his family. Wang Lung comes from a family of farmers and is so poor that he has no choice but to marry the ugly slave, O-lan, who will prove to be a good wife and a helpful, assiduous worker, farming the land by his side. Wang Lung loves his land and is devoted to it. He becomes a wealthy landlord, rewarded for his hard work, beliefs, ambition and devotion to the land he reveres and some luck that comes his way. It is a story of rags to riches.

Towards the end of his life, Wang Lung returns to live his remaining days in his original farmhouse, surrounded by the land which belonged to his forefathers’ before him. He discovers that the concubines, the vast mansion in the city and the deluding, hollow life he led due to the wealth he acquired, did not bring him the satisfaction, serenity and safety that his land procured but caused him to lose contact with it.

Upon his two eldest sons’ visit, he overhears with great dismay that his sons, raised in luxury, have no loyalty to the land like their father and ancestors had. They lack their strong beliefs, tenacity and arduous labour. Therefore, they consequently plan to sell the family land after their father’s death and share the money.

Wang Lung intervenes to remind them that their wealth is generated by the land they now want to sell. He says to his sons: “It is the end of a family when they begin to sell the land … Out of the land we came and into it we must go and if you will hold your land you can live – no one can rob you of land”. “And the old man let his scanty tears dry upon his cheeks and they made salty stains there. And he stooped and took up a handful of the soil and he held it and he muttered”, “If you sell the land, it is the end.”

The story of The Good Earth takes place during the civil war and ends before the creation of the People’s Republic of China. In 1911 a group of nationalists, led by Sun Yat-Sen, had taken over China which triggered a civil war that continued from 1946 to 1949. Then communists, called the Red Army, took control of China’s government. Moreover, in October 1949, communist leader, Mao Zedong, declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China.

The author illustrates a contrast between the comfortably and decadently prosperous people and the struggle of the poor to survive. Buck also emphasises the inequalities between men and women and their relationships, industrious labourers and parasites, the opium-smoking, the concubines, the foot biding, selling daughters as slaves out of destitution, female infanticide and the contrast between life in the city and the countryside; furthermore how wealth corrupts, corrupting Wang Lung for a while as well as his children.

The main character in The Good Earth is the land itself. The story is compelling in its empathic writing and by illustrating lively, evocative scenes and depicting Chinese culture, traditions and culinary celebration of different festivities in the nineteen twenties. The old-fashioned style of expressions and vocabulary does not alter the liking for the story nor the reading of it.

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• Friday, June 25th, 2021

Jokha Alharthi, born in Oman in 1978, is one of eight sisters and four brothers. She is a writer and academic. She was first educated in Oman before receiving a doctorate in classical Arabic poetry from Edinburgh University and presently works as an associate professor in the Arabic department of Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. Alharthi has written three collections of short stories, two children’s books and three novels in Arabic. She is currently living in Al Khoudh in the Muscat Governorate of the sultanate of Oman with her civil engineer husband and their three children,

Celestial Bodies was initially published in Arabic in 2010, English in 2018 and has been translated into several other languages, as have the author’s short stories. It won the Man Booker International Prize in 2019, a first for a novel written in Arabic from the Gulf and the first book by a female Omani author to be translated into English.

Celestial Bodies is a saga of two Omani families, related by marriage, stretching over generations. It is a melodrama with many characters, hence the family tree illustrated at the beginning of the novel – an approach often used by South American novelists like Isabel Allende’s Portrait In Sepia or Gabriel Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years Of Solitude. Gabriel Garcia Marquez incidentally happens to be one of the author’s favourite writers, both novels having been read and discussed in our Book Club. Through these characters from the fictional Omani desert village of al-Awafi close to the capital Muscat, we are introduced to people’s political and cultural backgrounds.

The story features three sisters with contrasting personalities, Mayya and Asma, who both accept arranged marriages. With a pang in her heart, the first marries the son of a prosperous merchant whose grandfather made his wealth from slave trading. The second marries a self-centred artist who does not include her in his life. As for the youngest, Khawla, after waiting resignedly for her long-time childhood love to return from Canada to be betrothed, will quickly become disenchanted with her husband’s double life – one in Canada with his girlfriend and the second in Oman, when he returns to impregnate her every two years.

The three sisters are discontented with their loveless married lives. However, Mayya will submit to her fate while Asma lives outside her husband’s sphere and devotes herself to her several children. As for Khawla, she obtains a divorce from her cousin and, once liberated, opens a beauty shop in the capital city.

Celestial Bodies is a fictional story with a historical background. It is divided into fifty-eight short chapters that swivel in a non-linear narrative among the characters. Each chapter is named after the person giving his or her thoughts and views. Abdallah, the son of merchant Sulayman, who has several chapters dedicated to himself, is the main narrator and the one who gains the readers’ empathy the most. He narrates in the first person while flying to Frankfurt, revealing his diffuse feelings and various sufferings from an early age, continuing to the present day. He thinks of his abusive father, a mother who died in mysterious circumstances when he was a child and a wife who does not return his love for her.

In contrast, Zarifa, Sulayman’s slave and mistress, is one of the leading female characters, a very colourful, charming person who sheltered and looked after Abdallah following his mother’s demise is a third-person narrator. Other female characters have a third person narrating voices too. It is a man’s world, after all, even if they happen to be sensitive and defenceless like Abdallah.

Each chapter provides a glimpse of the story to be continued in the next. Fragments of characters’ views about history and events are given to the reader to gather, interlace and complete.

The author goes back and forth from the last decade of the nineteenth century to the early years of the new millennium. She gyrates unrestrictedly through the lives of three generations of well-to-do families, their divorces, inexplicable death, slaves (slavery was not outlawed in Oman until 1970) their culinary parties, their wedding ceremonies and all the other traditions which evolve as time goes by and witness the unavoidable changes creating clashes between the old and young generations.

Having a PhD in classical Arabic poetry, the author could not resist including some beautiful poems from Majnun Layla, written by the twelfth-century Persian poet, Nizami and poems from the ninth- century Iraqi poet, Ibn-Al-Rumi, and other poems from the tenth-century Iraqi poet, Al-Mutanabbi. All the poems are recited by Azzan, Mayya’s father and Salima’s husband to his beloved Bedouin mistress, Najiya, who is as beautiful as the Qamar (the moon in Arabic), during the enjoyable time they spend together away in the desert.

In her story, Alharthi portrays patriarchal society with its marriage, sorrows and male promiscuities contrasting with female submissiveness. The patriarch is illustrated as a planet around which orbits satellites of celestial female bodies, like Mayya, Asma, Khawla, Zarifa, Salima, Shanna, Masouda, Qamar and London. The celestial bodies in the sky include stars, planets, satellites, asteroids, meteoroids and comets, comparable to the different classes of society depicted in the novel; the rich, the wealthy, the slaves, and the poor.

Nevertheless, the author shows some hope with the changes of the new generation toward a more harmonious life. Celestial Bodies is a revelation of a wide-ranging Omani culture with complexities unknown to the outside world. It is a short, rich, dense novel, lyrically magical and absorbing.