Monday, April 6, 2015

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“DEATH AND FORGIVENESS” by Jindra Ticha (Mary Egan Publishing, $NZ30)

Once upon a time on this blog I preached a long sermon on the theme that a book may express quite obnoxious ideas, but still be a great piece of writing - if it is both perceptive and well written. The example I analysed at length was Henry de Montherlant’s Les Jeunes Filles / Pitie Pour Les Femmes [look it up on the index at right under Henry de Montherlant]. This was part of my crusade to convince you that literary criticism must, quite legitimately, concern itself with a book’s ideas as well as with the quality of its writing.  And under the same judgment comes the opposite case. A book may express ideas with which the reviewer is sympathetic, but not be very well written.
I am relying entirely on the blurb of Death and Forgiveness to tell you that Jindra Ticha is a Czech who emigrated to New Zealand in 1970 and has made New Zealand her homeland ever since. Because of her political opinions, she had been fired from her position as a senior lecturer at Charles University in Prague when the communist authorities reasserted themselves after the crushing of the “Prague Spring” in 1968. But she revisited the Czech Republic at the time of the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 when communism there at last collapsed. In her native tongue she has published seventeen novels and she sends a regular monthly newsletter from New Zealand to a leading Czech journal. Death and Forgiveness is her first novel to be written in English.
The premise first of all.
Death and Forgiveness is told in the first person by Anna, a woman embittered by experience and going through a time of stress and mourning. With her daughter Marie she has come to Prague for her old mother’s funeral. While there she receives the news, first that her former husband Jan has gone missing in New Zealand; and then, when his body is found, that he has clearly committed suicide. So, with Marie, she travels back to Dunedin for Jan’s funeral. She is filled with mixed feelings of grief, anger and resentment; and anxious speculation on why Jan did away with himself. As she travels she thinks back over the circumstances of her marriage to Jan – how they met, how they fled from old communist Czechoslovakia and especially how they travelled to New Zealand in 1969, as assisted immigrants, on the Italian liner the Achille Lauro. So the technique in the novel is to cut between Anna’s journey to New Zealand in the present and her memories of the journey to New Zealand over 45 years ago.
The title very clearly spells out where all this is going. Death and Forgiveness tells us promptly that Anna has much to forgive Jan for. After years of marriage, and after she had given up her career for him, he left her for a younger woman, Clavdia, who is now waiting in New Zealand to be a daunting part of the funeral gathering. On the other hand Anna had also had a long-running affair behind Jan’s back, and some guilt is added to the turmoil of her feelings. But we know that somehow forgiveness will trump all this.
Thus the set-up. Let me say at once that the concept of the book is a good one, the structure of two journeys leads us sturdily to the conclusion and many wise things are said along the way. The narrator (or is it the author?) holds in contempt the old communist state in which she was raised, and is frequently appalled by “liberal” Westerners who refuse to understand what a closed and oppressive society communism created. Typical is the following passage in which Anna reflects on her status on the Achille Lauro:
I admit that it had never even crossed my mind that as a first-class passenger I would have different privileges from the people who travelled in the second class. From childhood, I had had the idea drummed into me by the communists that I am a nobody, just like the rest of their unfortunate subjects, and that no matter how smart, talented and hard-working I might be, no special privileges are due to me. Privileges were only for the party bureaucrats. In this sense the communist idea triumphed: everyone was convinced of their own insignificance. I believed that every street-sweeper, every cleaning lady deserved the same esteem in society as doctors, lawyers, university professors. Actually it went even further than that: I had been taught that every labourer was worth more than someone with a university education. The general rule was that someone with talent, or someone from a family distinguished because it helped to create the wealth of the country, deserved nothing but scorn.” (p.57)
Elsewhere, she remarks of her former lover:
We went to the same school together some fifty years ago. I was twelve, he was thirteen and his harsh life was just beginning. Unlike the rest of the class, he was denied any higher education because of his supposedly bourgeois background. The communists were the first and only masters of this land who cut off the benefits of education to the brightest children. Not even the Nazis came up with this diabolically simple idea of how to strangle the intellectual elite.” (p.69)
Yet rejection of communism does not automatically deliver a strong basis for ethics. Anna sometimes gets to analyse fairly shrewdly the emptiness inside her and a deep-laid reason for her marriage’s collapse, as when she declares:
There was little doubt that I had behaved immorally. I was the first one to betray the vows of devotion in our marriage. My views on morality were deeply flawed. I was an atheist, I did not believe in God but rather in the power of reason. Morality was in my opinion quite independent of reason. Like the majority of atheists, I was arrogant and believed in my own moral standards. And my standards were quite simple: I acted as I pleased. Without faith, morality does not make much sense. Who would guarantee moral laws? I came to the conclusion that there were no moral laws; hence I did not have a duty to follow conventional morality.” (p.119)
Later in the novel, and especially as the funeral in Dunedin looms, there are some interesting passages on the nature of forgiveness, on learning to understand even people who have blighted your life, on the important corporate role of religion and especially on the long-term experience of grief. I was also struck by the passage in which Anna recalls (in her memories of 1969) her complete cultural shock in trading sophisticated and ancient Europe for a raw and small New Zealand city.
All in all, then, I was in sympathy with what the novel was saying – or rather, what I think it intended to say.
Unfortunately, the style does not match the intention. The prose of Death and Forgiveness is flat and often unconvincing. Given that the author is for the first time venturing outside her native language, this might be a cruel thing to say, but it is true nevertheless. Too often things are told to us, rather than being dramatized, as in the following too obvious analysis of the narrator’s feelings:
When I return home, Marie is already there, as gloomy and bad-tempered as I am. We had had a fight in the morning; it was my fault, I had blamed her for something unimportant. My behaviour was stupid. I had suddenly felt a surge of anger, something that happens to me quite often of late. My anger was totally irrational and impossible to control. A tidal wave of hatred envelops me in such moments and I cannot fight it however hard I try; struggling against it is as impossible as struggling against a real tidal wave. Just as my black anger reaches its height, it vanishes as inexplicably as it arrived and I am left calm and composed again. I have a tendency to find an excuse for myself. It is the people around me who provoked me, I tell myself. Deep down, though, I know very well that these attacks are inexcusable and unpardonable. I am afraid of this characteristic; there is an element of madness there.” (p.21)
It is noticeable, for example, that while we often hear of the narrator’s feelings for Jan, we hardly ever have a scene of sustained action involving him and hardly ever hear any dialogue from his lips. Rather, the narrator tells us explicitly what was good and bad about him. Indeed there is a major problem lurking here. First-person narrations are one thing, but in this case the author leaves no trace of irony, no sense that this is in any way an “unreliable narrator”, but instead seems to identify wholeheartedly with her fictional creation.
This novel is preceded by the standard disclaimer that “all characters and events are imaginary, and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental”. Of course I know nothing of the author’s personal circumstances, and do not know how much she is dealing with issues from her own life. But it is clear that she first voyaged to New Zealand at about the same time her Anna did and much that she writes about the voyage on the Achille Lauro seems more like reminiscence (or perhaps worked-up diary notes) than novel. Why are we introduced to some of these shipboard characters when they do nothing to advance the central dramatic situation? And why do we get clunky tourist brochure stuff such as the following? :
 “The Sydney Opera House is unique in its beauty. The view it commands over the Sydney harbour is magnificent: no other opera house in the world provides such a spectacle at intermission. Theatregoers can walk on the great balcony and watch the myriad of illuminated ships sailing by. The opera house truly belongs to the harbour, as if nature itself could not find a better place for it.” (pp.88-89)
I am not knocking the author’s conception, her ideas or whatever message she has to deliver on grief, forgiveness and the healing power of time. But I am saying that her grasp is not as great as her reach, and I too often had the sense that I was reading a memoir, giving one party’s view of a failed marriage, rather than a novel with rounded characters.

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