A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

Category: Literary reviews

Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan

This is a marvelous novel from 2017. It truly deserves the recognition it has received. From the moment that 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan joins her father Eddie on a winter visit to the Manhattan Beach house of Dexter Styles, a mysterious impresario in a world of gangsters, one is entranced by her early maturity and by their easy father-daughter relationship. And, indeed, we will shortly realize that this novel is about these three characters and their intertwined lives. Eddie needs money for the family. Anna will need to be the family breadwinner. And Styles yearns for social respect from the family he marries into. How and whether they will achieve these various goals drives both the novel’s story and their fates.

Initially, we are introduced to the home life of Anna, father Eddie, mother Agnes, and her crippled sister Lydia. Their life centers around finding support systems for Lydia, whose presence enriches this novel early on. But their life becomes difficult when Eddie loses his money in the Depression and can find work only as a bagman transporting bribes for a corrupt union boss. Desperate, he convinces Styles he can become his “eyes and ears” inside Styles’s nefarious businesses. But it is a mysterious life that he keeps secret from his family. His new income, however, finally enables the family to live a comfortable life and to care for Lydia, even though the family never learns what he does to earn that income.

And then, one day, their father never comes home. He disappears.

This historical novel then jumps ahead nearly a decade and we encounter life on our nation’s home front in the early years of World War II. The Kerrigans live in Brooklyn and we roam its nearby bars and rooming houses. Without a father, Anna knows the family’s survival depends on her. And so she finds a job in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, finds a job once held by men. But she is bored working on an assembly line with older, married women, women with whom she has nothing in common. One day, however, she sees divers working nearby, and, entranced, decides that is what she wants to do. Even if she is a woman. She will help repair the ships that her country needs to fight its war.

The author truly creates that world of divers, the training, the problems of wearing a 200 pound suit, and the initial plunge under water— with Anna all the time fighting to be recognized as an equal in a world of men. This is a main section of this novel, and in her Acknowledgements, one realizes the many dozens of experts the author consulted to create both the Brooklyn of that era and the world of diving that comes across so naturally, especially as Anna must justify her presence to Lieutenant Axel, her trainer. We also realize why Anna’s training regimen is so real, when we learn that author Egan actually put on a 200-pound diving suit as part of her research.

But the world of diving is only the base on which this novel is built, and on which Anna’s character is built. For this is also a world of gangsters, sailors, bankers, and girl friends, all of whom enrich the world that Anna must deal with. And yet, more deeply, this is the intertwined stories of Anna and the two men. Which comes to a head when Anna, intent to find out from Mr. Styles what happened to her father, approaches him, fascinates him, and spends a torrid night with him. Except, when he learns her true reason for seeking him out, he spurns her and will have nothing to do with her.

The author often switches her viewpoint in mid-page among these three characters. And some of these switches are really impressive in literary terms. Perhaps the most brilliant is from Dexter to Eddie when both are at sea, but with each facing a different fate in a different time frame and on a different ocean.

Otherwise, we spend considerable time with Dexter and his activities in the underworld as he yearns for respect, as well as with Anna’s father when Eddie is marooned in an extensive, truly Conradian, scene at sea. In this way, author Egan gets us to identify with and have sympathy for both characters. Yes, even with this gangster, when he becomes the romantic, mysterious character that Anna sees, and when we also learn he has dreams of going legitimate. Plus, the author never confronts us with his evil deeds.

And, eventually, after we learn the presumed fates of Dexter and Eddie, we return to the story of Anna. She learns she is pregnant. From that torrid night. And does not know what to do. Have the baby or not? Keep the baby or not? It is an old-fashioned literary development, but it works. The rest of the novel presents her decision, and resolves the many relationships she has developed within her family and with her fellow workers.

This novel is further enriched by the working world the author creates, whether it is at the shipyard, in the businesslike world of the gangster dens, or as a crewman at sea. The prejudice against the women of that era is particularly real, as Anna invades a world that the male divers claim as their own. Lieutenant Axel, as her lead trainer, is particularly prejudiced, but when she proves herself worthy, he begins praising her work to shame the other men he is working with. It is a prejudice against women that will become even more blatant when Anna discovers she is about to bear an illegitimate child.

This has been called an old-fashioned novel, especially compared to Goon Squad, but that is precisely why I enjoyed it. It captures a family. It captures an historical time and the prejudices that women of that era faced. It captures the power of the sea, both the power that engulfs one below the surface and its seemingly endless power when one is nearly alone on its vast expanse. And it introduces three struggling people, separates them, then brings them back together and unites their fates—people, moreover, we can identify with, since all are striving for something positive in their lives.

Egan has said she has considered writing a sequel, which would take Anna into the 1960s, an era of revolution and protest that Egan wishes she herself had experienced. But one wonders if such a work could equal the intensity of this work. Particularly with Anna here struggling alone, depending only upon herself. (January, 2019)

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Nanjing Requiem, by Ha Jin

This is the faithful recreation of what happened to the city of Nanking, China, from 1937 until 1940. It appears to be an act of commemoration by this Chinese author in behalf of that city which endured the early and horrendous Rape of Nanking, and whose citizens then had to survive the occupation by a Japanese army that violated its citizens for many more years.

This 2011 work is not a successful work of fiction, however. While the narrator is a Chinese woman, Anling, the hero of the work is Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who is the acting head of a school for girls, Ginling Women’s College. And the credits reveal that she was a real person who kept a diary of those years, and has also been the subject of numerous biographies.

Which is the problem of this novel. That Ha Jin followed his source material too closely in writing this work. With the result that the novel presents event after event without any connection between them. As an historical sequence, the events make sense, but there is no cause and effect, no event that prompts the next event, and no decisions by any characters that prompts succeeding events, such as revenge by or on the Japanese. The many characters do react to the events, but they are reacting to history, rather than to individual actions by others. Because as much as they complain, they are powerless to do anything.

One result is that the various characters, whether staff members at the school or a few of the students, have little depth and are often difficult to remember from previous events. Their lack of depth is particularly noticeable with the narrator. Anling has a family, but they barely appear with her in any scene. She talks about them, and is concerned about them, but it is difficult to feel her concern for characters who are barely present themselves. Which, in turn, lends a certain hollowness to her own character. She exists on these pages primarily as a vehicle to tell this story. Because, one suspects, the author felt more comfortable with using a Chinese character to tell this Chinese story than using the American Millie to tell the story.

As a side note, this Chinese author also does not seem comfortable with American slang. He is writing in English, but the colloquial speech used by both his Chinese and American characters often seemed awkward to me. One can see the casual jargon he is striving for, but it often does not ring true.

The finale of this work of fiction also seems contrived. It brings to an end the story of Millie, which the source material provides. But I do wonder about the actions of Mrs. Dennison, who serves as the villain of the novel. Did they come from the source material, or did they come from the author’s imagination? For while she is the one person in the novel whose actions do have an impact on another character, her decisions do seem arbitrary, as if the author created her to bring his work to its conclusion.

But if the novel brings an end to Millie’s story, it does not bring an end to the story of Nanking, the school, or most of the staff. There is a round-up chapter that extends the staff biographies, yes, but it doesn’t really offer a sense of fulfillment to their lives. There is also one anecdote about narrator Anling and her participation in postwar justice, but it is just another incident. It does not represent a real completion to either her life or to her Nanking experience. We learn nothing about how was she changed by it, or about how the others were changed.

The early chapters detail the horrors of the original surge of Japanese troops into Nanjing, and I remember thinking that I could not take a full novel describing horror after horror. But the real story this novel tells concerns what happened after the Japanese captured this city that was China’s capital until Chiang Kai-shek fled to Chunking. What happened is that the missionaries and other foreigners who remained in the city helped set up a Safety Zone to protect the city’s residents. There is the German Nazi businessman, John Rabe, who reportedly saved 200,000 Chinese refugees. There are the American missionary John Magee and the American professor Lewis Smythe, who also helped set up the Safety Zone.

Part of that zone included Jinling College, and Minnie Vautrin prepared its buildings to house 2,500 refugees created by the war. But, given its horrendous impact, with the original rape, pillage, arson and murder being committed by the Japanese invaders, she soon found the school housing 10,000 refugees, which both strained its capabilities and curtailed its educational purpose.

The one villainous staff member at the school is the elderly Mrs. Dennison. She is merely an advisor, but she holds considerable power because of her financial contacts back in the States. And her every act ignores the current refugee situation, and focuses instead of reviving, once the war ends, the school’s mission of being a women’s college for the Chinese. This frustrates Minnie, who is focused on the daily needs of the Chinese girls that the school is housing. For she sees that the school will not survive to become a woman’s college if it does not survive first the problems of the occupation.

While the fate of Minnie Vautrin is a tragic fate, this work itself is not a tragic novel. For we are kept at a distance from her. First, by having Anling, a Chinese woman, tell Minnie’s story. And, second, by basing the events on the historical record, rather than by projecting on Minnie and her colleagues a fictional version of their own internal decisions. Author Ha Jin’s heart was in the right place. The Nanking horror story needed to be told in a literary form that reaches a broad audience. But he should have put Minnie’s diary and the historic record aside, and then let his imagination run free. (January, 2019)

Defectors, by Joseph Kanon

Here is another marvelous work from Kanon. This author often focuses his thrillers on a specific location, and does so again here. In the past, it has been Los Alamos, Berlin, Hollywood, and Istanbul, among others. Here it is Moscow. And it is about two brothers, Simon Weeks, and his older brother Frank.

Following World War II, the brothers, who were close, worked in parallel espionage tracks for the Unite States, Frank in an active role for the CIA and Simon at a desk job in the State Department. Then, one day in 1949, Frank vanished, only to turn up in Moscow. He had betrayed his country for a new ideology. And Simon recalled how a friendly Frank had often in the past milked him for information, asking what was going on at State.

The novel opens in 1961, when Simon, now working for a book publisher, journeys to Moscow because his brother has written a memoir about his double life in the United States. Simon’s company has decided that the book is going to be a best seller, and has agreed to publish it. And who better to edit the manuscript than Frank’s brother on its staff?

In the memoir, Frank describes how his political thinking shifted course after volunteering in Spain in the 1930s, how he began passing on information to the Soviet Union, even betraying Latvian activists, and how he began plotting his escape. It is not clear why the Soviets are allowing him to publish this memoir abroad, but the assumption is that it is because his story shines a positive light on Soviet espionage operations.

The book opens with Simon’s arrival in Moscow, and the reader experiences not only the brothers’ reunion from Simon’s viewpoint, but also the mixed emotions Simon has about the meeting. For he both loved his brother and felt betrayed, remembering how Frank used to pump him for State Department information. Yet he also was looking forward to being with him again, and in Moscow he finds him still friendly and gregarious.

But gradually he begins to wonder if his brother has an ulterior motive for either publishing the manuscript abroad or for choosing Simon’s own company to do so. In any event, Simon is determined to do a professional edit of the manuscript, which means getting Frank to offer deeper explanations for his actions and also to fill in potential gaps.

In passing, we would note that Kanon does not include here any of those editing sessions, with their give and take, even though it might offer deeper insights into the brothers and help us understand their relationship, both past and present. One suspects Kanon does not do so because, a former editor himself, he deemed such conversations, especially in depth, not appropriate for a thriller—and would, in fact, bore the reader.

Instead, the novel focuses on Frank’s motive in bringing his brother to Moscow. In a surprise twist. Frank tells Simon that he wants to defect again, back to the United States. He is disillusioned by life in Moscow, as is his wife Joanna, and hates that the distrusting Soviets have assigned a man to watch him constantly. His demand is that in exchange for returning to the States and providing Soviet secrets to the Americans, he and his wife be given a new identity back home.

Kanon will follow this revelation with additional twists, one after another, often reversing the reader’s expectations but all typical of a superior espionage thriller.

The next twist occurs when Simon deduces that his brother does not really intend to defect but is planning to betray the Americans in order to enhance his own reputation in Moscow. And so he makes a plan to foil his brother. Except, in implementing his own plan Simon forgets certain details that put at risk his reversal of Frank’s plan. Whereupon, Frank steps in and helps him achieve his objective—and then does not. At the very end, in fact, the author introduces an ironic twist that seems simply one too much. And prompts me to wonder why authors so often fall in love with irony. Why do they think it offers an ideal punch line to end a story? Instead of trying to come up with an ending that becomes a final character revelation.

But the effectiveness of this novel depends on more than its twists. It also depends on the portrait of Moscow itself and on the characters these two brothers encounter there. The first is Joanna Weeks, Frank’s wife, who followed him to Moscow long ago. She is a former flame of Simon’s, and now Frank has used that relationship to intrigue his brother into helping his defection—by saying she, too, is unhappy in Moscow and this will enable her to leave. While Simon himself, filled with memories of that past relationship with Joanna, must tread carefully, because she does not yet know of any plan that will enable her to leave.

Another major character is Boris, a KGB man assigned to watch over Frank and protect Soviet interests. He is almost a comic figure, as he continually keeps his distance, but he is always there as a reminder that every movement, every conversation by Frank and those he meets is being carefully monitored. He is a constant reminder, Frank says, that he himself has no freedom in this country he has fled to. Boris will also play an important role in one of the novel’s final twists.

Significant roles are also played by Tom McPherson, a Look photographer and Hal Lehman, a UPI reporter. Tom serves to convey messages or information back and forth between the Weeks brothers and the American embassy, and Hal even participates in the eventual escape plan. They are able to do this because they are free to move about and talk to people on both sides of the ideological curtain. Of course, they also recall the suspicions of the press that were often expressed by the Russians even then. But, at the same time, they help to expand the horizon of this tale, reflecting not only the interest in this story back home but also the potential repercussions these characters will face once they arrive home.

In sum, I now eagerly await the next Kanon thriller. What city will he choose? What intrigues, what human relationships, what double dealings will he explore next? (January, 2019)

Manhattan Nocturne, by Colin Harrison

This is a hard-boiled thriller from 1996, but it is also literature. I’ve searched for Harrison novels for some time, but this is the first work of his I’ve found. And it has met my expectations. It is terrific.

The author grabs the reader in two ways on the novel’s very first pages. First, he establishes the tough, gritty Manhattan scene, its dark alleys, its scandals, its dangerous people and its dramatic nights. Then he establishes the cynical viewpoint of a newspaper columnist assigned to satisfy the public’s demand for both titillating scandal and the ironies of justice.

The columnist is Porter Wren. He is a confident man who has a high opinion of himself and of his skills as a journalist. At a party given by his obese Australian publisher, Hobbs, he is approached by a beautiful woman, Caroline Crowley, a femme fatale who is used to controlling men with her beauty and has an equally high opinion of herself. She tells Wren that she wants him to find out what happened to her husband, the famous movie director Simon Crowley, who vanished and whose body was unexpectedly discovered in a demolished building. But Wren is not convinced that that is her true purpose for approaching him; and the novel’s plot revolves around a kind of duel they have, each trying to use the other, control the other, and, as they become intimate, to understand what makes each other tick.

An initial complication is that Wren is happily married to a smart hand surgeon, Lisa, and has two children he loves. So he is continually troubled by what he sees as a betrayal of both his wife and his children. But Caroline fascinates him, tantalizes him physically, and appeals to his professional instincts. And the tales she tells of her husband and of their relationship seem to remind him of the many other human relationships he has encountered and that have prompted columns that helped make him famous. Indeed, as a cynical narrator, Wren early on declares that “we live in a time in which all horror has been commodified into entertainment.”

The dead husband was noted for short documentaries based on real events, and the initial story line revolves around the tape recording of an embarrassing meeting between Caroline and the obese publishing magnate Hobbs. Which the latter is determined to destroy at all costs. But Caroline’s husband has created other tapes as well, including one that shows how a policeman was killed and another incriminating one which shows a strictly personal murder.

The story grows more complicated as Wren speculates why these tapes are important and how he can use them, and then it becomes even more complicated as he discovers what each tape contains. However, these complications also serve to deepen our understanding of Wren, for they show how human this cynical columnist really is. For example, one tape forces him to change his opinion of Hobbs, the boss who has threatened his journalism career; while another tape, that of the murder, deepens the moral questions confronting Wren, who is already dealing with the moral issue of his extra-martial affair with Caroline.

Overall, this is a richly told story of lust and greed on one hand, and of vanity, power, and human folly on the other. It is also a tale in which violence lurks around every corner. For example, Wren himself is beaten and maced, while his house is invaded and his little boy shot. As a result, he himself exacts his own revenge, which produces a violent streak in him the reader does not anticipate. Indeed, reading about the violence dehumanizes him. And then Harrison takes the violence a step further as we witness on tape the actual carving up of a murder victim. It appears that Harrison wants the reader to feel the horrors and the risks that challenge these characters, but for me he overdoes it—just as for some he will have overdone the sex in order to make Wren’s fascination with Caroline convincing.

These people share stories of seduction, lying, self-doubt, and shame. And, as a result, the author probes the rich inner emotions of these characters, as well as the rationalizations and the psychology of strained human relationships. Wren confronts a fascinating woman he does not understand but craves, a woman he knows is using him but who is hiding answers to a puzzle that fascinates him. What is she hiding, he wonders. About her real motive in seducing him. About her husbands’s mysterious death. About her relationship with Hobbs. And how can he get her out of his system, and then back to his own life?

The duel between Wren and Caroline reaches its dramatic conclusion when Wren finally challenges her. “No, Caroline, no. You brought me into this. You thought you could just…lead me around. But you didn’t study me very carefully, Caroline, you didn’t figure out how a small-town boy like me with not one connection in New York City elbowed and hustled and hassled his way to be a newspaper columnist.”

As Jim Shepard wrote in The New York Times, “The novel’s protagonist is most memorable when that small-town boy, for all his bluster, articulates with real sadness his understanding of his own wrongdoing, and of the damage he’s done to those he loves.”

Indeed, our final glimpse of Wren takes us into his core, and into the rich contradictions that Harrison brings to his portrait of this troubled man. “I wished then, with a final sweet pain…that despite my betrayal of those whom I loved most, I might yet prove worthy of their affections. Better then, I thought, that our respective confessions go unheard, that they fall away into time. There would, I know, be other questions to worry about, other dark crises of heart and hope; sooner or later life brings to all of us some form of suffering. Would that we were equal to it always.”

These musings, these probings of internal doubt, are what raises this thriller for me to the level of literature. And what makes me want to seek out more of Harrison’s work. (December, 2018)

 

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Louisiana Power and Light, by John Dufresne

This is a clever but frustrating novel from 1994. I was very impressed by its rich literary style as the novel opens. The author directly addresses the reader in a Southern homespun style, and appears in complete control of his characters in the small town of Monroe, Louisiana.

But disappointment slowly grew on me. Because there were too many homespun Southern characters whose lives intermingled but did not come together to produce a single dramatic whole. I also sensed too much local color, too much surface cleverness, and not enough exploration of these characters in depth.

This reaction was not unlike a comment in the Kirkus Review: “We soon realize Dufresne is rambling on about his characters’ lives, never once entering their emotions or examining their motives….[And his] plot is continually interrupted by narratives about minor characters. Dufresne wastes so much time telling readers he’s telling a story and expounding on the art of storytelling that we lose interest in the characters and, thus, in the story.” And as Jill McCorkle in The New York Times suggests: Dufresne “offers a plot line as complex as the network of backwoods roads these people and their ancestors have committed to memory,”

And while I decided to finish this novel to see where the author was heading, what he was trying to say, I also decided that this novel was perhaps not going to be worth writing about.

What prompted to me to pick up this novel in the first place was that its main character, Billy Wayne Fontana, was training in a novitiate to become a priest. This is before he became involved with the citizens of Monroe. It would be interesting, I thought, to learn how that background carries into the secular world. And it is quite secular. For Billy Wayne’s story begins with a family curse that has produced generations of unfortunate sinners, all males; and the authorities have believed they can help end that family curse if he is trained to be a priest.

But, alas, he is seduced by Earlene—an unstable woman who writes country music lyrics—while pretending to hear her confession in a hospital; and then he marries her and leaves the novitiate. Moreover, they soon become incompatible, and she leaves him; whereupon he marries Tammy Lynne, another unhappy woman, and sires two boys, Duane and Boone, the latter also known as Moon Pie. This second son is born with flippers instead of legs and is confined to a wheelchair. Is this the curse again at work? But Moon Pie is a genius, and he becomes interested in God and in the meaning of faith.

And this is why I finished this novel, and why I am writing about it. For the author, in his own idiosyncratic way, is addressing an issue that interests me and that surely is one I should address. For one can regard original sin as, in fact, a curse, and can see this Fontana curse as a way of addressing, in more worldly terms, one of mankind’s spiritual conditions. In other words, this author is addressing a basic religious issue, albeit through quirky Southern characters who live a hardscrabble life, encounter many dead ends, and are often frustrated by the life they lead.

Moon Pie finally convinced me to write about this novel when he becomes a radio evangelist and introduces a lengthy spiritual discussion of the presence of God and how we should relate to Him. Added to the guilt Billy Wayne feels for having abandoned the priesthood and failed to meet the needs of two wives, this suggest the author is indeed addressing more than the foibles of Southern hicks.

The title of the novel also supports this spiritual aspect. While the power company itself plays a minor role here, merely serving the town of Monroe and offering employment, its name suggests the primary characteristics of God that are under discussion here—in terms of both the power He has and the light He generates and offers to others.

Unfortunately, the reviews seem to relate more to the quirky nature of these Southern characters, even calling the novel a blend of comedy and tragedy, than to the spiritual search introduced by Moon Pie and Billy Wayne. Indeed, Billy Wayne asks how he can justify abandoning his priestly vocation, since he has become a failure in his relationship with two wives and has prompted the death of two others. The answer he reaches is not a satisfactory one for me, with its crown of nettles, although it may be for the author, his creator, who seems to rate the symbolism over the reality.

Of course, once things go wrong, humans beings do tend to look in various directions for the reason. Some ask if what happened is their own fault. Others ask if it is the fault of circumstances, or fate. Still others ask if the fault is God’s. In this case, Billy Wayne faults mainly himself, as he takes on the burden of the family curse. But the author, in his approach to the entire novel, seems to suggest otherwise, that the fault, or much of it, rests with God.

In fact, when Billy Wayne sees himself as a failure at the end, he himself begins to question God. “Surely, there had to have been a purpose,” he reasons, “elsewise this world and everything in it were all merely accidental and random—not the kind of world a God would create.”

The implication seems to be that God has failed mankind by instituting this curse called original sin. For allowing a family to be destroyed through no fault of its own. And for leaving survivors with little understanding of the reason, either for their own existence or for the eventual fate of every human. Asked the meaning of life, one character says: “That it ends. Just that.”

The narrator concludes with speculation about the next story people will hear about. “Whatever it is, we’ll feel different when it’s over. We’ll feel wiser, even if we aren’t. Wise and fortunate.” For life will go on. They will discover more about fate, questioning it at the same time that they accept it. But they will not have the answer to God’s role in their lives. Just as Billy Wayne himself did not, which does lead to this novel’s tragic consequences. (December, 2018)

The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by Jose Saramago

After 60 or so pages, author Saramago introduces into this 1989 novel an interesting, provocative premise. But he uses the first sixty pages to set up that premise, which depends on his main character, the proofreader Raimundo Silva, inserting a “not” at a crucial point in a history book he is proofing. He does this arbitrarily, acting, as he says, as a Mr. Hyde rather than a Dr. Jekyll. But because his action is so arbitrary, Saramago must spend those initial sixty pages setting up his hero’s action. And, in the process, this delays when the action of the novel truly starts, for he must first both convince us of the man’s unsettled character and establish his particular role in the world of publishing.

What the inserted word “not” does is confound Portuguese history. For it makes the book of history our hero is proofreading say that the Crusaders, on the way to the Holy Land, did not stop to help free Lisbon from its occupation by the Moors. When, of course, they did stop to do exactly that.

As a result of his inserting the one word, falsifying history, a woman, Maria Sara, is hired by his publishing house to manage both him and other proofreaders to be hired for subsequent works. Raimundo meets with her and learns he will not be punished, because of his long and faithful service to the publisher. But she reveals she is intrigued by his bravura insertion, and she provocatively proposes that he himself write a book, one in which the Crusaders do fail to help in the recapture of Lisbon from the Moors.

Raimundo at once rejects the idea, but when he goes home it begins to intrigue him. Just as Maria Sara does. And he starts speculating how and why the Crusaders would reject the king’s appeal. Which leads to typical Saramago speculation about the various possibilities. And then leads to Raimundo one day visiting the castle that was the headquarters of the Moors—whereupon, the answer comes to him.

Except, author Saramago is not one to immediately reveal his hero’s insight. Instead, the proofreader delves still deeper into the process by which the Crusaders might decide to deny their services in his new version of history. He decides this means the Crusaders would enter into negotiations. They would ask how they will be rewarded if they help defeat the Moors, and the answer Raimundo’s king comes up with is that just as God has helped the Christians in other battles in Portugal, he will help the Crusaders enjoy such a victory if they agree to join in retaking Lisbon from the Moors.

The Crusaders’ answer is a kind of blasphemy, for they say that since God has brought you victory in the past, you surely do not need our help. The king is mollified, however, when a few token Crusaders do agree to help. Whereupon, Saramago switches from Raimundo’s imaginative speculation to the reality of Raimundo’s life. The proofreader decides to bring a book of poems he has proofed to his publisher. And just as the man weighs the possible outcome of every encounter, whether in his own life or in his fiction, his indecision is amplified when he is faced with the attractive Maria Sara as he delivers the book of poems. Since this is the first time, half way through the book, that he has finally made a connection with another person, one anticipates Saramago, at last, picking up the pace.

But, instead, Saramago develops his story on three levels. He concentrates on the viewpoint of the Moors under siege, especially a blind muezzin to whom is described the movement of troops below. Then he switches to Raimundo at his writing desk but also thinking of Maria Sara. And finally, he gets inside the writer Raimundo, who is evaluating the impact on the king of most Crusaders abandoning the siege and heading off to sea, while a few troops remain behind to join the besiegers. The overall impact is that of watching Raimundo figure out how to write a book that contradicts history. Which approach Saramago continues in the following chapters, moving back and forth, in and out, ending with Raimundo hesitantly approaching Maria again.

And for the first time, about three quarters into thus work, there is a human connection. But what is not clear to me at this point is Saramago’s intent in writing this book. The title suggests the goal is a portrait of history. And that as a novelist he knows he must approach this purpose through a human being, his proofreader. But we don’t sense the humanness of this proofreader until now. When it briefly takes over the book.

But then, in his finale, the author returns to the siege of Lisbon, and spells out in detail how the siege could have ended, even though, in history, it did not end that way. In his version, Saramago also tells the story of a knight and his concubine Ouroana. And how a common soldier Mogueime declares his love for her and how she replies. This suggests a parallel to the love of Raimundo and Maria Sara, with the common soldier standing in for the common proofreader. Just as Saramago’s history of the siege stands in for the real siege without repeating it.

In an Afterward, translator Giovanni Portiero explains why Saramago has written this novel in this way. That he prefers “stories inserted into history.” That “the central concern of Saramago’s novel focus[es] on our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, to differentiate between reliable and suspect historical reporting, and the difficulty of drawing the frontier between the two.” As Saramago himself says, “The truth is that history could have been written in many different ways and this idea of infinitude and variation are the essence of my writing.”

And so we have a work of fiction in which the fiction merely embellishes a literary philosophy, rather than explores human relationships. This is not for me true fiction, but I must also acknowledge that this work has made me aware of a moment of Lisbon history that I knew nothing about. Which, in a way, is perhaps Saramago’s intent. To make history come alive, by inserting his own fiction, by showing, in the translator’s words, that “history and fiction are constantly overlapping.” (December, 2018)

A Small Death in Lisbon, by Robert Wilson

The small death in this 1999 novel is a kind of culmination of larger deaths, as we begin in the 1990s with the rape and murder of a young girl in Lisbon and then are switched to Portugal in the 1940s and that country’s role in aiding the German cause that resulted in the deaths of millions in World War II. Indeed, for the rest of this novel, we alternate between the recent small-scale story and the earlier large-scale story. Can there be a connection between the two?

One story concerns Lisbon Inspector Ze Coelho‘s investigation of the girl’s death, and the other the adventures of Klaus Felsen, a German factory owner conscripted into the SS, and who is assigned to smuggle wolfram out of Portugal for the German war effort. Felsen later is ordered to smuggle German gold into Portugal and to set up a bank in order to preserve the gold, and we follow his fortunes postwar as the bank he helps set up reaches international prominence. And as the time frame narrows between the two stories, we do begin to wonder how, or will, these two stories ever come together.

The search for the girl’s killer is rather routine, with the inspector interviewing the girl’s family, including her powerful father, a lawyer, and various people on the fringes of society who know of the secret life that led to her murder. The wolfram adventures of Felsen are also routine for an espionage novel, as he works underground with the head of the Abrantes, a Portuguese peasant family, to set up the supply chain. In fact, his relationship with them continues after the war, as the sons use the banking gold to create a new and prosperous image for themselves with no ties to the past.

Despite what I find to be somewhat formulaic adventures in both the present and the past, this work has earned laurels from many crime critics. But for me it gradually became a disappointment. In part, because the pursuit, in one case of facts and in another case of fulfillment, seemed to be reaching no conclusion. Interest heightened only when the stories of Coelho and Felsen become personal. When they introduced sexual or family relationships, or when sudden violence was required because one’s reputation or one’s survival was threatened. This also results in a number of brutal murders that do, if only briefly, heighten the dramatic tension. As a small counterbalance, however, the author, as a resident himself, is very effective at using streets, plazas, and landmarks to ground these various adventures in a real Portugal.

One waits to learn the connection between these two tales, the girl’s murder and the earlier maneuvering with, first, the wolfram and then the gold. When the connection comes, it begins as a generational link, an obvious but arbitrary outcome that disappoints. And then come the details, which are quite complicated, as in many a mystery. The details involve teenage prostitution, obscure characters playing major roles, a major character taken out of commission, a family rape and revenge, the innocent being guilty, the truly guilty not participating in the deaths, and, finally, the irony of an illegitimate birth.

Given both the violent acts and the sexual activity of these characters, The New York Times review by Richard Bernstein speculates positively about author Wilson’s intent in writing this crime novel “It as though Mr. Wilson wants to draw a private, personal parallel to the organized breakdown of civilized behavior represented by the Nazis, the idea that mass murder engineered by a mad ideology has its microscopic counterpart in individual acts of sexual domination and cruelty.”

But Bernstein also says the novel is “not persuasive in absolutely every detail” and that the author “overdoes matters” towards the end, resulting in a kind of “lurid indiscriminateness.” Which remarks reflect my own opinion. That there is too much authorial ambition here. Too arbitrary an effort in trying to connect past and present. And there are too many complications, with too many characters, some obscure, playing too significant a role, as the author tries to make sense of their complicated relationships.

I have another Wilson novel to read, about a police inspector in Sevilla, and, while I have enjoyed the author’s work in the past, I am not sure how eagerly I should look forward to a work that appears to be similar to this Lisbon story. (December, 2018)