Sunday, May 24, 2020

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel, Bel Canto, fictionalizes the hostage lockdown of Peru’s Japanese Embassy in 1996. Distinguished guests there to celebrate Emperor Hirohito’s birthday were held at gunpoint by the Tupac Amaru terrorist organization. After an early release of women and children, the rest were held for over four months.

In Patchett’s version, the locale is the Vice Presidential residence of an unnamed South American country, and the gathering is in honor of the birthday of a Japanese industrialist the country hopes to woo into opening a factory there. The attraction that brings him is the performance by a renowned opera soprano. The terrorists storm the palatial home, but thwarted by the absence of the President whom they had hoped to capture, must rethink their strategy. After the women and children, except the opera singer, are released, the remaining forty hostages and their nineteen captors – three commanders and a group of battle-trained but unworldly teenagers – settle in.

The commanders make demands the government rejects, presenting demands of their own, and the stalemate stretches on. And as this caesura of time imposes itself on hostages and terrorists alike, the individuals begin to reveal uncelebrated aspects of themselves. Art rises to the fore: the soprano performs, and people never stirred by music take refuge in her singing. The translator who accompanies the industrialist turns out to be the most valuable hostage, able to communicate between the generals and the Red Cross official who visits daily, between hostages from different countries, and while effacing himself, becomes a messenger of hope, love, and the portals of culture.

Patchett makes some fine observations: “The hostages had begun to believe they would not be killed. If what a person wants is his life, he tends to be quiet about wanting anything else. Once the life begins to seem secure, one feels the freedom to complain.”

When a hostage suddenly sits at the piano and plays magnificently, the group is again transformed. “Every note was distinct. It was the measurement of the time which had gotten away from them. It was the interpretation of their lives in the very moment they were being lived.”

In our current situation of COVID-induced isolation, this is a story of how people cope with the suspension of their daily lives, and what resources they find within themselves and among each other, that make the time not only bearable, but an oasis. Now is the perfect time to read Bel Canto.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I read The Brothers Karamzov when I was eighteen or nineteen, and struck deeply by Dostoyevsky’s passion and honesty, read all of his books, and even studied the Russian language to better understand him. Lots of water has flowed by since then. I just re-read it, and as happens when a book made a strong impression at an impressionable age, revisiting it has provided perspective.

The Karamazov men stand in for the Russian man in his various aspects. First we have Fyodor, the father: a buffoon, for many years a sponger, who in his latter age came into money (from his deceased wives) and became quite a grasping investor. He is a nasty old man, contemptuous and bitter, who fully intends to spend every ruble before he dies, leaving nothing to his sons. And in the course of the story, he is murdered.

His eldest son, Dmitri, “Mitya,” is a former army officer: strong, proud, honorable, but with no ability to earn or hang onto money. Indeed, money is a chief cause of his torments; as soon as he has some, any, he is spending it freely, and then it’s gone and he is cadging from friends or haranguing his tight-fisted father who feels he has given him already whatever his inheritance came to, and has closed his wallet. Dmitri’s mother died when he was very young, and the boy was raised by the couple who serve Fyodor’s household – his parent could not be bothered with him. The murder of Fyodor is, for many compelling reasons, attributed to Dmitri.

Fyodor remarried, and his second wife bore him two sons. The elder of these is Ivan. An intellectual, he has spent time in the city (Fyodor lives, and raised his family, in a small town, Skotoprigonevsk (“Cattle-roundup-ville”)). Ivan espouses the notion, developed in Crime and Punishment more than a decade earlier, that for the intelligent man everything is permitted. His actions will not be crimes because he is inherently above judgment, because a world abandoned by God requires humans to save it. And yet, Ivan is portrayed not as arrogant so much as misguided.

Fyodor’s youngest legitimate son is Alexei, “Alyosha,” a monk in thrall to an ancient elder at the monastery near town. Alyosha is youthful, saintly, and full of love, patient and truthful. He acts as a go-between among his warring family and the women with whom their lives are entangled. Indeed, almost everyone who interacts with him finds in him a reliable sounding-board, honest and non-judgmental, filled with love and humility. The esteem in which everyone holds him tells us how rare and precious such honesty and integrity are, and how important it is to strive toward it.

Then, we have the bastard son of the village half-wit Stinking Lizaveta: Smerdyakov, who because his mother was unable to care for him, has grown up nurtured by Fyodor Pavlovich’s servants, Grigory and Marfa (who raised Dmitri). He learns to cook and becomes indispensable to Fyodor Pavlovich’s household, though Karamazov never acknowledges paternity – his encounter with Stinking Lizaveta occurred while he and several friends were carousing, drunk, and came across her. They goaded one another, and though no one remembers or will admit, it was likely Fyodor Pavlovich who actually raped her.

Here we have the Russian man in his entirety: greedy and grasping, but also strong, with a sense of honor and fairness, but also a weakness for good times, drink, parties – who will freely spend all he has to provide them. But he is also intellectual, a student of political movements, injustice, and affirmation of better conditions for peasants. And he is religious, deeply so, because life would be hopeless otherwise. He is also ingratiating, spiteful, and a sneak. All these traits, noble and base, form Dostoyevsky’s view of Russian Man.

Then there are Russian women. The woman who sparks the conflict between Fyodor and Dmitri is Agrafena Alexandrovna, “Grushenka,” an earthy passionate young woman attracted to Fyodor for his money and Dmitri for his ardor. She is also spiteful and catty. The woman to whom Dmitri was betrothed, and whom Ivan loves, is Katerina Ivanovna, “Katya,” a woman of European refinements and elegant beauty whose noble spirit compels her to extend a friendly hand to Grushenka. But Grushenka spurns her, filling Katya with rage.

We also have Madame Khokhlakov, who imagines herself a great beauty despite being past her prime. She is friends with Katya, and they gossip about Grushenka, whose attractiveness to men makes them jealous. Madame Khokhlakov’s fourteen-year-old daughter Liza loves Alyosha with a mania that makes her damage herself. At first crippled, she recovers somewhat but lives in a state of anxiety that threatens her health. The women in this novel don’t come off well – hysterical, weak, inconstant, catty, scheming, and jealous. And yet, they too are thoroughly Russian, jeopardizing their own interests out of love or devotion.

Though he expounds his philosophy and assesses popular avenues of thought, Dostoyevsky was a better creator than to set up a batch of archetypes to battle out their problems. Among the secondary characters is Elder Zosima, an ancient at the monastery, truly saintly, wise, with the foresight that deep understanding enables. It is Zosima who tells Alyosha he cannot remain at the monastery – there is much he must do in the world – effectively, carrying his saintliness into a society badly in need. Rustics in the Russian Orthodox Church hold that a saint’s corpse should be pleasing to smell, the purity of his life translating to a sweet and pure death. But when Zosima dies, his corpse immediately emits an awful stink. Alyosha, firmly convinced of the elder’s holiness, spurns the superstition, noting with distress how the majority subscribe to it. The monastery, firmly under Zosima’s guidance during his life, quickly splits into factions. Alyosha’s course is clear – he must through acts of loving kindness convince his fellows of the presence of God in their lives.

Leaving the monastery where Elder Zosima is lying in state, Alyosha finds himself out in the night. “Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly… Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth… The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars. Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.
            He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages… It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone, and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything, “as others are asking for me,” rang again in his soul… He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of ecstasy.”

And yet, when the sick child of a poor family dies, his little corpse is sweet as flowers. Is he more saintly than Zosima? Alyosha seems to give it no thought, but his feelings for the dead boy are profoundly loving – the last word in the book is Alyosha’s address to the boy’s classmates, who often tormented him, about how good deeds in childhood resonate and may guide their lives through temptation and bad decisions.

In the midst of dire matters, we get Dostoyevsky’s human insights: the police come to the inn where Grushenka and Dmitri celebrated all night, and arrest him. Because he has blood on his clothes, they order him to strip, to hold them as evidence: “And meanwhile may I also trouble you to take off your socks?”…
Mitya… having sat down on the bed, began taking his socks off. He felt unbearably awkward: everyone else was dressed, and he was undressed, and – strangely – undressed, he himself seemed to feel guilty before them … But to take his socks off was even painful for him: they were not very clean, nor were his underclothes, and now everyone could see it. And above all he did not like his own feet: all his life for some reason he had found both his big toes ugly, especially the right one with its crude, flat toenail, somehow curved under, and now they would all see it.

This is the kind of detail I found riveting in my youth, and still it startles and thrills me – amid the dramatic troubles of this man, we are given a glimpse into his deepest feelings about himself. Without intending, nor even conscious of doing so, his tormentors have humiliated him profoundly. And isn’t this what we all experience? At the mercy of a cruel situation, what hurts us most is some inner wound, unknown to all but ourselves.