A Literary Cavalcade

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

Sweet Caress, by William Boyd

I am always pleased with Boyd’s novels, and I am yet again with this 2015 novel. It is truly a professional work. It is similar to what he has written before, but it is also different. It is similar in capturing the full life of a person, not just a dramatic portion of that life. And it is different in two ways. More significantly, it stretches beyond the meaning of one particular life; it explores the existence of life itself in the context of the 20th century. Less significantly, it is about a woman, Amory Clay. She is a photographer, whose profession confronts her with the era’s many moments of history.

But it is less as a photographer that we get to know her. It is more as a woman, a wife, and a lover. What we do learn about her interior life comes from a 1977 journal, in which she reviews past events of her life at age seventy. But these journal entries offer author Boyd a second purpose, which is to give a perspective to her far ranging personal and professional life. And also to tie together those life experiences that have no real connection.

Thus, the reader first experiences her family life, highlighted when her father, suffering from a horrendous World War I experience, attempts asuicide drowning  in the family car, with Amory trapped inside. The family life is forever damaged. Then her photographic career takes her across the world: to sleazy Berlin of the 1930s, to the pre-war London and New York art scenes, to fascist riots in London, to D-day and beyond in Europe, to an unexpected encounter, and marriage, to a World War II soldier who turns out to belong to nobility, and finally to Vietnam and then to California in search of her daughter Blythe. What is remarkable is Boyd’s skill in creating the reality of each scene, especially in wartime Europe and distant Vietnam.

But while a photographic career makes logical many of these adventures, we never see Amory’s mind working as a photographer. We never witness what her imagination sees in an image, or when darkroom magic reveals it. We do see what are purported to be her photographs, as they are scattered through the book. But they are not truly artful. They appear to have been carefully researched—as if to substitute for showing us a photographic mind at work. Three images make this research obvious. In one, Amory is caught posing on a beach, looking directly at the camera, but says she does not know who took the picture. While another is a famous close-up of crossed legs in net stockings. Finally, another image, of a soldier at war, which presumably earned Amory a high award, is simply undistinguished.

In an interview, Boyd explains that he collects anonymous amateur photographs, and decided to use them here in this novel about a photographer. He says that he is “trying to make fiction seem so real you forget it is fiction.” He also says that he contrived a few scenes to match a photograph that he had at hand. But for me, an amateur photographer who has exhibited his work, these photographs lend an air of artificiality to this novel that is supposed to be about a highly skilled successful professional photographer.

As I said, more care is taken to portray Amory as a woman rather than as a photographer. Thus, we look frequently into the female side of her mind, as she describes people’ clothing and appearance, that is, details of more concern to a woman. We are also informed frequently about her emotional state, particularly as she takes on five, often conflicting, lovers during her life, as well as the raising of twin daughters. It should be noted, however, that one reviewer, Roxana Robinson in The New York Times, faults Boyd in capturing this female viewpoint, declaring that “all the descriptions of emotion are pretty unemotional.”

Boyd seems equally intent here to offer a portrait of the 20th century, at least its history surrounding three major wars, two in Europe and one in Vietnam. Is this why he settled on a photographer, as a way to cover such a broad expanse? If so, it was a wise calculation in the conceptual stage. It does allow him to cover a range of 20th century history. But it seems to be a stretch in detailing a full rich life for his heroine. The two final sections appear especially arbitrary, first when Amory decides she needs to go to Vietnam to prove to herself at age fifty that she can justify her life as a photographer, and second as she travels to California to rescue one daughter from a commune.

The meaning behind the sweet caress of the title is elusive at first. I read later that it is taken from a translated quote lifted from a hypothetical French novel written by one of Amory’s lovers, that is, a fictional character. But I completely missed this. I would prefer that it refers to Amory’s life experiences, which have been, in her words, “rich, intensely sad, fascinating, droll, absurd, and terrifying—sometimes—and difficult and painful and happy.” That is, she has had many fleeting experiences such as a caress implies, and that such experiences have been emotionally intimate and led to a sense of connecting with history. Life has treated her well, even as, at the end, she feels ill and vulnerable. Indeed, her journal entries at the end seem intended to give meaning to her life, to the novel, and to life itself. One suspects that this has been the reason for their existence, in addition to tying Amory’s adventures together.

There is a final scene in which Boyd attempts to have his cake and eat it, too. The ill Amory realizes she is nearing the end of her life. So she rationalizes that she herself should control that ending, and in her journal justifies taking her own life. And one infers that Boyd is speaking through her as well. It is a moment intended to add philosophical and psychological depth to the portrait of this woman. But then Boyd pulls a fast one, and reverses himself in an ending that I shall leave the reader to discover. But for me, not an adherent of assisted dying, it was a disappointing outcome. Perhaps, however, Boyd intended her introspection to mirror the early scene in which Amory’s father also attempts suicide.

Despite my criticism, Boyd is still on my list of favored novelists. I have not read all twelve of his novels, but I have enjoyed each one I have read. And I look forward to still more. (September, 2017)


The Gods of Guilt, by Michael Connelly

There is nothing like a good mystery novel to clean one’s literary palette. After starting and never finishing novels by Michael Downing and Gregor von Rezzori, and then finishing novels by Mario Soldati and Julian Barnes, but not inspired to write about them, I sought a novel with a strong story line. I needed to clear away the deeper psychological explorations of life that existed in those four novels that had long been sitting on my bookshelf. And so I turned to a mystery. I wanted a change of pace. I wanted to read about people doing interesting things and a world I also found interesting. I wanted to sit down with a book that swept me up into a non-existent world that was as real as my own.

And so I turned to Michael Connelly, whose world was easy to enter, intriguing to follow, and yet intellectually and emotionally fulfilling. No, the world of mysteries may not be literature, but it brings its own pleasures. And The Gods of Guilt, published in 2013, offered me such pleasures.

This is the story of two crimes, and two campaigns for justice that confront Mickey Haller, a Los Angeles lawyer and one of two series heroes that Connelly has created. In the first crime, Andre La Cosse is arrested for the murder of a call girl, Gloria Dayton, whom Haller had helped in the past. And when La Cosse, who arranged the girl’s assignations online, says he is innocent of her death, Haller wants to believe him, and the reader does as well. But if La Cosse is not the killer, then who is? For the police to absolve La Cosse, Haller must find that person. And to do that, he must find out why Gloria was killed. Was it something she did in her past? And, sure enough, he recalls that a while ago he helped her betray a powerful drug dealer, Hector Moya, who is now in jail. And so he must now revisit the ramifications of Moya’s, perhaps false, arrest and his potential desire for revenge.

Whereupon, many complications follow. The major one is that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has led the local cops to identify La Cosse as the girl’s killer. So Haller has to battle with two levels of law enforcement, especially with a corrupt DEA man, James Marco. He also has to deal with a smart lawyer now in prison, his incompetent son, and another smart lawyer, who is now in a nursing home, plus two other call girls who once worked with Gloria. With one, Haller even establishes a romantic relationship.

There is also a personal complication. The Gods of Guilt of the title refers to juries, which decide the gilt or innocence of the person on trial. But Connelly extends this idea to a personal guilt that Haller feels. There is the guilt he feels for being estranged from his daughter, Hayley, who will not speak to him because she believes he caused the death of one of her girl friends. He also feels guilty because in the past he had tried to save Gloria from her call girl life, and now realizes that he has failed her. And there is further guilt awaiting him if he does not get the police to release La Cosse, his innocent client. Thus, by seeking justice for both La Cosse and Gloria, Haller his seeking redemption for his own sins of the past.

These complications enrich Haller’s character, create a certain vulnerability, and help the reader to identify with him. Thus, we accept his insistence that he will stretch the rules of the court in order to defend a client—that, “any ethical question or gray area could be overcome by the knowledge that it is the sworn duty of the defense attorney to present the best defense of his client.” In other words, a smart lawyer uses the law to his client’s advantage. And so we give Haller the benefit of doubt when he challenges the legal system in behalf of La Cosse.

It should also be recognized that Haller cares for people. He cares for Gloria, who he feels deceived him when she accepted his help. He cares for his daughter who will not speak to him. He cares about the employee he loses during this case. He cares about how his two ex-wives feel about him. And he cares about himself, about the guilt he feels at how he has failed in his relationships with others.

This novel is enhanced further by Haller’s relationship with each member of his legal team. All are real people because of those real relationships. When he loses one loyal member, for example, we feel its emotional impact on him. And with another, Jennifer Aronson, we relate to this young girl who begins as a legal aide but by the end of the case has impressed Haller with significant legal contributions.

The heart of this novel is the lengthy trial scene at its conclusion. It is told to the reader with supreme craft, for Connelly has Haller explain the purpose behind each legal step he is taking before he dramatizes it. Yet, this explanation is in no way condescending to the reader. Indeed, one is fascinated by the misdirection Haller employs to catch off-guard witnesses testifying before him. The result is legal steps so complicated and yet so logical that one speculates that Connelly is challenging here one of our best authors, Scott Turow, in creating courtroom drama.

This courtroom drama is developed with step-by-step logic to arrive at a convincing resolution. If there is no last-minute development, no surprise ending, none becomes necessary. Its logic simply works. Yes, there is a sudden act of violence at the end, but it was not, for me, necessary. It simply turns into dramatic action an admission of guilt, a technique that many authors rely on these days. And Connelly uses such a dramatic moment to achieve his convincing ending.

While this work is certainly not literature, it encourages one to seek out more Connelly novels, whether the central figure is lawyer Mickey Haller, as here, or policeman Harry Bosch. They are half brothers, and each has a distinctive attitude toward their job. But both do believe in justice, and in each Connelly series they do not hesitate to stretch the law in order to achieve it. (September, 2017)

The Hive, by Camilo Jose Cela

This 1953 novel has been on my bookshelf for more than forty years, perhaps longer. I bought it when my interest in Spain and Spanish literature was at its peak. I wished back then to compare this author, who was then called Spain’s greatest living novelist, with Jose Maria Gironella, whose The Cypresses Believe in God was a favorite of mine.

I now regret having let so much time pass before reading this book. Because my memory can no longer track the experiences of each of the scores of characters who appear and reappear throughout. That is, I was not able to connect their daily, often insignificant, encounters, which make up the substance of this novel. This failure applies to both linking with the past actions of specific characters as they reappear, and also recalling how different character earlier reacted to each other when these characters appear again. For the accumulation of these connections is how Cela gives a literary depth to the underside of Madrid society.

What he does is use isolated moments to reveal the substance within each character. But he reveals them through different approaches: an incisive description, a subtle psychological analysis, one’s role in society, or a routine confrontation. Cela’s objective here is to convey a cross section of Madrid’s lower-class society as a means to portray to unaware readers the impact of poverty in the 1940s on millions of Spaniards.

Cela himself has written that this novel “is nothing but a pale reflection, a humble shadow of the harsh, intimate, painful reality of every day…..My novel sets up to be no more—yet no less either—than a slice of life told step by step, without reticences, without external tragedies, without charity, exactly as life itself rambles on.”

And he has certainly achieved this. For there is no overarching story here. There are, simply, people meeting in a café, in tenements, on the streets, or even in brothels. They negotiate with each other, help each other, lie to each other, loan or borrow money, feed each other, betray each other, seduce each other, laugh and cry with each other, and on and on.

There are, indeed, too many characters for a cohesive story line—160 by the author’s own count. Instead, there are these disconnected incidents that serve to convey a way of life that most readers are unaware of. Yet these characters share certain characteristics: a desire for love, for companionship, for independence, for personal fulfillment, for a successful career, and, most importantly, for respect from others.

As Arturo Barea says in his Introduction, “He shows us the pitiful content of their lives: hunger, greed, fear, frustration, desire, malice, snobbery, poverty, nausea, and fumbling tenderness, all expressing themselves through small talk and small actions.”

As these characters interact with others, most do so only within their own group. And there are many groups. Which, altogether, comprise a portion of Madrid society. And Cela compares this interaction with bees in a beehive, which complement one another to make the hive work. Thus, with his title, Cela creates the metaphor that suggests the purpose he is striving for, the portrait of a cohesive but hidden society that the reader never thinks about.

I finished this novel more out of respect than enjoyment. For I usually prefer a novel that explores the inner lives of its characters. Not the slice-of-life approach, as here, an approach that remains on the surface, that deals with objective reality rather than probes the minds and souls of its characters. But Barea defends this approach as appropriate for a novel set in Spain in 1943, in the midst of World War II. This novel, he says, has “a hard core of truth in the Spain of today. There, the surface of life has once more to be described with all its significant ugliness, before the writers can go on to the exploration of the ‘inner country’; to put it differently, any Spanish psychological novel would be lopsided unless it included the harsh domination of hunger, misery, and unsafety in their humdrum forms.”

This hard-core surface approach may also explain why Cela’s reputation has not spread beyond Spain in the years since he wrote this work. Not only did Spanish literature exist in a world apart back then, but his slice-of-life approach has not since gained favor in the literary world. Moreover, the crude experiences of his characters were difficult for his contemporary readers to identify with—and remain so for readers today.

Which explains why I will not pursue Cela’s further work. As I wrote, he is an excellent writer, a true writer of literature, who has created here a rich world of troubled but sympathetic characters, and caught their physical and emotional environment, as well as their common humanity. But he did not create characters a reader could identify with, nor a world in which one feels comfortable. He was his own man. He had his own integrity. But, sadly, it is not for me. (September, 2017)

Nora Webster, by Colm Toibin

The Irish widow whose name comprises the title of this novel surges to life on these pages. As does Ireland itself. But the heart of this 2014 novel homes in on the mourning that Nora endures, following the death of her husband of 21 years from a heart attack. Even though she does not mention it, and neither does author Toibin, that mourning produces in Nora an emotional seclusion that is buried deep within her. It surfaces with such thoughts as: “You learn, no matter what age you are, to keep things to yourself.”

And so, we follow the widow Nora as she, first, pushes away any help from her own and her husband Maurice’s family. While her two older daughters, Fiona and Aine, are away at school, and so concern her less. In her own suffering, she is also blind to the mourning of her two young boys, Donal, who hides behind his photography, his stammer, and smart comments, and Conor, who hides intelligence inside his own innocence.

But there are those in town, and the perceptive reader, who recognize what she does not. That she is withdrawing from the world and hiding behind her own mourning. Whereas, she needs to turn back to the world. So people try to change her. Because they loved her dead husband Maurice, see the goodness inside Nora herself, or they value her reputation. One offers her a job, to supplement her pension. One asks her help to start a union in her company. One invites her into the public arena by filling a gap at a community function. One suggests she get away by joining her on a vacation to Spain. One suggests she join a choir to take advantage of the voice she has inherited. And as she does accept these invitations, albeit some with reservations, one does sense her cautiously re-opening herself to the world around her.

Moreover, as Nora gradually comes out of her defensive mode, she re-evaluates the needs of both her children and herself. She understands that an awareness of reality and a certain freedom will make her children stronger, and that she needs to think of her own needs as well, such as the pleasures of buying new clothes and enjoying music. And slowly, she learns to make such decisions, rather than wondering what Maurice might have wanted.

One wonders where this novel is going, once Nora seems to have recovered her bearings. But this is when the work becomes truly rich. For she has not fully recovered. There is more to be absorbed, and more withdrawal to be made from the past. She must ignore dreams of a past death, or any conversation with her dead husband. And she must renew the closeness with her three sisters that has not existed for a long while. Even an overheard conversation among those sisters—“She was a demon,” one says—opens to the reader the younger Nora, and deepens her portrait, revealing how her marriage to Maurice saved her from a life that was stifling her.

Nora’s final withdrawal from the past will be the symbolic burning of the letters her husband wrote before they were married. “She did not look at them. She knew them.” And: “they belonged to a time that was over now and would not come back.” For some, this might be too obvious a symbol to appear on the final two pages of this novel. But for me the burning as well as the entire final wind-down to this novel is the perfect conclusion to this life whose story is concluding at one level and yet must continue on another.

For this novel is about life. Yes, about Nora’s life. But also about human existence. How each story within our own lives often does wind down quietly. And how any dramatic event would have spoiled this novel, spoiled its blend of uncertainty and confidence that characterized Nora’s life after her husband’s unexpected death. And Toibin does emphasize that uncertainty, for Maurice in his ghostly reappearance suggests, without detail, that something is going to happen to Conor; and then he also says, “The other one. There is one other.” And neither we nor Nora understands what he means. But it is a suggestion of the unknowableness, the uncertainty, of life itself.

In the background of this quiet story, anti-British violence flares in Ireland. It is the 1960s and 1970s. Much discussion of these events takes place, but the reason is not clear. It appears to be intended to offer a contrasting drama to heighten the quiet of Nora’s life, and perhaps, through the family discussions, to bring to life those people in her extended family. Even Nora’s visit to Dublin with Fiona in search of Aine, who is participating in an anti-British demonstration, is anti-climatic, for Nora trusts that Fiona will find her sister, and so the mother returns home.

Perhaps, as Jennifer Egan suggests in the New York Times, “each of these crises dissipates, as crises often do in real life…[and represents] Toibin’s resistance to an artificially dramatic arc.” She also adds: “The absence of melodrama…gives the illusion that Toibin’s carefully engineered novel is unfolding with the same erratic rhythms as actual life.” And that, indeed, is the path of Nora’s initial escape—into the details of her job, the details of her music training, and the details of family get-togethers.

It is such small decisions that Nora makes, along with her growing self-awareness, that help us identify with her suffering. As she realizes she will never have a musical career, she does enjoy the pleasures of music, even if it is “leading her away from Maurice…she was alone with herself in a place where he never would have followed her, even in death.” To step away from Maurice, and toward independence, she knows, will help save her.

As Nora slowly recognizes this need to break from the past, she becomes more alive. Living within herself was not enough for her, just as it was not enough for the reader. As an example, she begins repainting her home without thinking of what Maurice would want or say, or of the cost. And if the latter comes at a price, a few strained muscles, she learns that she cannot do everything herself. She must also rely on others.

To separate herself from the past, Nora finally donates the clothes of Maurice that she couldn’t let go. And then burns his letters. She also agrees to sing in a concert of religious music, a concert that memorializes a concert of forgiveness offered after World War II. It represents indirectly, I think, the peace Nora now feels, and perhaps starts her wondering if she can forgive God, the God Donal has just reminded her of, for the loss of her husband. It also reminds me to look for more of Colm Toibin’s fine work. (August, 2017)

History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

This 2014 work is an unusual novel, almost not a novel, just a searching portrait, though one beautifully crafted. But then it introduces its story, the story of the Swain family, and turns itself into a still unique but marvelous novel, marvelous because, not least, it makes a beautiful connection between life and literature.

“We are our stories,” the books narrator Ruth Swain announces at the beginning. “We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only now live in the telling.” Ruth is a bedridden teenager trying to bring her father back to life through his books. And she refers to many of his 3,958 books as she does this. “I’ve read all the usuals, Austen, Bronte, Eliot, Hardy, but Dickens is like this different country where the people are brighter, more vivid, more comic, more tragic, and in their company you feel the world is richer, more fantastic than you imagined. But right now I’m reading RLS. He’s my new favorite. I like writers who were sick.” And Robert Louis Stevenson was, like her, an invalid.

Faha, the town in Ireland where Ruth lives, lies on the banks of the Shannon, another character in her story—not least because it is a source of salmon. And fishing, a pastime of her grandfather, was passed on to her through her father, Virgil Swain. Indeed, with her memory of her father highlighted by his effort to be a poet, she suggests a poem created is like a fish caught. “A poem is a precarious thing,” she writes, “It is almost never landed clean and whole in one go. Virgil had a phrase, one bite, that’s all. But he wouldn’t let it go, and as poetry is basically where seeing meets sound, he said the phrase aloud…and found in repetition was solace of a kind.”

But before telling that story, she must tell how her English family moved to Ireland, about the town of Faha, the life of a farming community, the details of the house they lived in, and then about Virgil’s courtship of her mother Mary, and the birth of herself and her twin brother Aeney. And, finally, about the Swain family curse, the Philosophy of Impossible Standard, that one must always strive for perfection, even if it will never be attained.

We are now at the halfway point of the novel—and nothing has happened. There is no story. All is past. All is mood. And not just a literary mood, but the long Irish failure through history, the Swain family failures, and now the failure of Virgil to cultivate his farm, with its rocky terrain, and the constant rain that blocks out an invigorating sun. And yet, the reader perseveres, because the telling, the language, has been beautiful. And as Ruth finally warns us: “This, Dear Reader, is a river narrative. My chosen style is The Meander.” And later: “I’m not writing a book, I’m writing a river.”

We persevere because we are entertained by Ruth’s astringent style, such as describing her grandfather’s marital status in Ireland. He has sired three daughters, and not yet his son Virgil, and has becomes bitter toward his wife. “But in those days once you were wedded you were in Holy Deadlock, and in Ireland the priests had decided that once a man entered a woman there was No Way Out. The vagina was this deadly mysterious wrestler that could get you in a headlock, well, metaphorically-speaking, and then, boys, you were rightly stuck. That Will Teach You, was Number One sermon at the time. Number Two was Offer It Up.”

What Ruth believes in, and author Williams believes in, is books and literature. This novel is filled with the books that Virgil has bought and read, and that his daughter Ruth wishes to read to understand him—and to recreate him for us. This dedication becomes truly real when she refers to the title, edition, and publisher of each book she cites. But more significant is that she recalls certain passages that apply to her own life or to that of her family.

Thus, she felt a humming when her father read to her. “He just made this low thrum. John Banville would know the word for it, I don’t. I only know the feeling, and that was comforting. I lay in his lap and he read and we sailed off elsewhere. Dad and I went up the Mississippi, to Yoknapatawpha County, through the thick yellow fog that hung over the Thames or in through those dense steamy banana plantations all the way to Macondo.”

But there are tart references also. Following “Amen to him,” on the death of a despised ancestor, she suggests a counter-balancing “Awomen.” Or: “Look at Edith Wharton, she’s Henry James in a dress.” And then there are human insights, like when Virgil returns from his honeymoon to move in with his wife’s family: “Dad moved in with the baffled deepsea shyness of a character just arriving in a story already underway.” Or: “In a single moment the two of them shared a look that said those things in silent mother-daughter language, that would take a hundred books and more years to tell.” Or: “We tell stories to heal the pain of living.” And: “The fact is grief doesn’t know we invented time. Grief has its own tide and comes and goes in waves.”

These final lines come toward the end, when Ruth concentrates on Virgil, whose passion for reading has led him to pursuing poetry. But he is up against the Impossible Standard. Will he break the family curse, and allow himself to succeed? The final pages become truly beautiful, as Ruth imagines her father alive in the afterlife of her own book, this story she is telling.

“If I’m alive this is my book, and my father lives now in the afterlife that is a book….And my book will be a river…and be called History of the Rain, so that his book did not and does not perish, and you will know my book exists because of him…You will know that I have found him in his books, in the covers his hands held, in the pages they turned, in the paper and the print, but also in the worlds those books contained, where now I have been and you have too. You will know the story goes from the past to the present and into the future, and like a river flows.”

They cannot avoid the river Shannon that flows along the banks of the Swain’s farm, nor the rain that falls continually in Ireland. From clouds to rain to the river and back into the clouds. It is a natural cycle, not unlike the literary cycle from life to books to reading and then back to another’s life. Or: from life to death to eternity, and then back to living again through one’s books that survive. Ruth herself suggests this when she writes of “a river flowing ever onward between writers,” as she seeks to recreate her father’s life in order to understand him, and then present him to us. (August, 2017)

The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

This is an excellent novel, written with a blend of emotional, psychological, and poetic sensibility. It begins as a story of human relationships, evolves into a story of modern Colombia, and then returns to the human relationships, but on a less emotional, more rational level—a level perhaps meant to match the barren, isolated character of mountain-enclosed Bogota.

The narrator of this story is Antonio Yammara, a young law professor. He becomes fascinated by Ricardo Laverde, a mysterious character he encounters in a billiard parlor. Curious, Antonio befriends him. One day, he helps Laverde find a cassette player, sees him crying as he listens to it, and then follows him into the street to learn what prompted those tears.

Whereupon, Antonio’s life changes. For Laverde is assassinated on the street by two men on a motorcycle, and Antonio himself is seriously wounded—a wound in the groin which will slowly affect his marriage to his new wife, Aura. But the immediate question is: why was Laverde killed? And the more Antonio probes the stranger’s past to find the answer, the more the reader becomes involved in that mystery. As the Impac Dublin Award cites: “Through a masterly command of layered time periods, spiralling mysteries and a noir palette, [the work] reveals how intimate lives are overshadowed by history; how the past preys on the present; and how the fate of individuals as well as countries is molded by distant, or covert, events.”

The intrigue begins when Antonio discovers the cassette Laverde was listening to. It is the recording of a plane descending over the mountains of Columbia at night, and crashing. Why was Laverde so moved? Antonio then receives a note from Laverde’s daughter Maya, a bee-keeping recluse who has left behind cold and rainy Bogota for the hot and humid lowlands. She wants to know the last moments of her father’s life, while the professor wants to learn more about Laverde and why he was killed. Their journey into the past will flower, even if frustrated by a failure to communicate sexually.

The author delves for much of the book into that past, and a slow, process of discovery and revelation will follow rather than a chronological story. Maya describes how Laverde met her mother, an American Peace Corps worker named Elaine Fritts, and how they settled in the lowlands and raised Maya. The author also creates in interesting side story about how and why this American girl came to Colombia, and her reaction to helping its people. The girl also encounters other Americans, ambitious youth who later contribute their own efficiency to the drug trade, and whom Vasquez uses to implicate America’s involvement at both ends of the drug war.

But the focus is on the elusive Laverde. He is a pilot, and Antonio learns that a job of smuggling marijuana into the United States corrupted him. Which is when this novel becomes the story of Colombia in the last half of the 20th century. It is a story of suspicion and violence, of fear, helplessness, and change. Colombia’s loss of integrity, and of illusion, will be caused by the drug lord Pablo Escobar; but Vasquez will reveal the consequences through the story of Laverde, first his capture and then his return.

Except, Antonio still doesn’t know why his friend was killed in front of him. Indeed, the reader himself can only guess. For that death is not the point of the book. The point is what it symbolizes, the fear and violence that took over Columbia in the second half of the century, and the uncertainty that ruled people’s lives. Perhaps Antonio’s impotence that follows his own wounding is also a symbol of Colombia’s impotence during these drug wars, except it is carried too far for me in the novel’s final pages. We are apparently meant to see in the loneliness and helplessness of Antonio the same qualities in the life of his country. But for me, that climactic return to Antonio’s personal story leaves an open end, and a resulting emptiness.

It is really the telling of this story that raises this novel to the level of literature. Not the story itself, which is about the death of two people, one in the present and one in the past. It is in the multi-levels of the search for an explanation of those deaths. It is in that search, one by Antonio and one by Maya, for different reasons; and then the raising of that search to represent the search by all of Colombians for the answer to the uncertainty, the violence, and the lack of control in their daily life.

The sound of things falling also represents the many levels of this novel. It begins with the cockpit sounds when the plane is falling but includes Antonio’s falling when he is wounded, as well as lives falling apart, such as his life with Aura, Elaine with her American idealism, and Colombian society as a whole, with its own tears and its bodies falling in drug-related murders. The symbolic use made of falling also mirrors the many social and political meanings that the events of this novel represent.

Edmund White, in The Times Book Review, calls this novel “a page turner, but it’s also a deep meditation on fate and death.” As it surely is. The fates, especially, of Antonio, Aura, and Maya, are changed by the independent deaths of Laverde and his wife Elaine—with those deaths being separate on one level and connected on another. Just as the events of these personal lives are disconnected on one level to the lives and all Colombians, but yet are connected on another.

Indeed, Vasquez hits home to me when he writes: “No one who lives long enough can be surprised to find their biography has been molded by distant events, by other people’s wills, with little or no participation from our own decisions.” Thus, there are “subterranean currents” that shape our lives. Indeed, my own life was radically changed by the Korean War and then by a casual encounter with the girl I married. All of which re-enforces my justification of the arbitrary decisions that authors will make when they introduce something new into the lives of their characters. For in the world of fiction, the author is his own God, and is the arbiter of each character’s fate.

The strength of this novel lies in the complexity of a drug- contaminated society that has been distilled into the personal lives of a law professor, an airplane pilot, a Peace Corps worker, and a bee-keeping recluse. It is not a story of violence but of human relationships, and of the complex tie that links memory and trauma. (August, 2017)

where my heart used to beat, by Sebastian Faulks

This is an unusual novel, an ambitious one, a deep one, and almost a successful one. It is Faulks apparently summing up through a fictional story the world of the 20th century, a world he has lived in, has not fully understood, and whose meaning he is searching for here.

His hero seems to be a stand-in for the author. He is Robert Hendricks, a psychiatrist who seeks in the workings of the mind the meaning of the life he has lived. How the mind does work is an obvious interest of the author, for his most successful novel in my eyes was Human Traces, in which two doctors seek to learn how the mind works. One doctor sees a link between the physical brain and the mind, and seeks a physical means to cure the insane. While his colleague believes that insanity is inherent in the mind, and is the price mankind pays for being human. Both these theories are reflected in this story of Hendricks, a man who suffered both trauma and love during World War II, and who is haunted by the death of his father in World War I. Overall, one concludes that Faulks sees in the human mind a source to understanding the tumultuous century he, and we, have lived through.

Another theme that weighs heavily in Faulks’ major works is the impact of two World Wars. It is again present here. Robert Hendricks’ father, we learn, died in the horrors of trench warfare in 1918, while the son was shaken by the battlefront deaths he encountered in France, in Tunisia, and in the climactic battle at Anzio during World War II. Indeed, Robert has come away with a version of today’s post traumatic stress syndrome. For, even as he makes a career studying the mind and treating other people, he cannot resolve his own mental issues. Which is primarily reflected in his problems connecting to others, particularly to women.

Gradually, we learn, however, that he did have one great love, a beautiful Italian woman named Luisa, whom he met while recuperating from a war wound in Italy; and he lived with her for a few blissful months. But while their love was not to be, not least due to his own reticence, yet his memory of her has meant a subsequent failure at making a connection with any other woman.

And so this novel is less about the horror of war, as powerful as the war scenes may be. It is about human connections, and the search to give meaning to one’s life. Which this one man is seeking, but also, one thinks, the author as well. In any event, Robert receives a letter from a dying Frenchman, Alexander Pereira, who served with his father in World War I and who invites Robert for a visit to southern France to tell him more about the fate of his father. Our hero accepts this invitation, but resists knowing about his father’s death. In some way, he seems to fear that by learning how his father died he may become more disillusioned about the world they have both lived in. The reader, on the other hand, continues on, hoping to understand Robert’s approach to life, as well as to see his own world with a broader perspective.

And so this work takes on another level, its true subject: the meaning of life in this 20th century. In addition to Robert’s wartime experiences and his attempt to establish his professional reputation after the war, we therefore follow him as he travels back and forth to southern France to learn about his father and the first World War, and perhaps more about himself. Meanwhile, he explores his own thesis in a book, The Chosen Few, his subject being those who are insane. He seems to say in this book that doctors often ignore the patient’s physical illness and push their own theory of how the mind works, even as, given the events of the 20th century, “humans had tried to remake the world in their own insane image.”

Robert’s book reveals to him that he yearns for the innocence of life that existed before World War I. And the reader understands that he is dissatisfied with his book because such innocence has vanished in the wake of two World Wars. And that his search for that innocence in love will never be fulfilled, for he missed his only chance at it—because of a blend of his own reticence and the trauma of losing so many friends in the bloody Italian campaign. Which, as noted, became the key to his life, sealing him off from making a connection with other human beings.

As these various narratives intermingle, the novel advances our understanding of Robert’s life and heightens our interest in learning whether or not he will finally understand the meaning of this century and the life he has lived. The novel’s conclusion is a rather negative one, for it describes a heartless modern world that leaves men with no route to understanding life.

Instead, Robert learns the truth of his father’s death; and that connection with his origins stands in for the connections he has been unable to make with others since the trauma of the war. It is a satisfying ending in literary terms, as it seems to say: like father, like son. Both are disillusioned. But it is not satisfying in human terms. For it leaves them both with a sense of emptiness as they face the reality they live in.

One guesses that this will be the last major novel that Faulks attempts. Unless, like his hero here, he thinks he has failed to capture the true meaning of life in the 20th century, and man’s role in its decline. For he sees it as a world that, despite the marvels of new knowledge and new technology, seems headed toward failure, a failure to find a world “where my heart used to beat.”

Perhaps the major miscalculation Faulks has made here is with his hero, Robert Hendricks. Yes, he has been traumatized by the horror of war, and is haunted by the lack of information about his father. But he is too passive, beginning with his one great love affair and continuing after the war as he loses any connection with his wartime buddies and is unable to make any emotional connection with the women he encounters. Moreover, he lives too much within his own mind, searching for an intellectual answer to the emptiness he feels around him. Yet it is an emptiness that he himself is the cause of. In sum, Faulks have given us too much of an intellectual hero, and not enough of an emotional one. (August, 2017)