06 March 2014

Library Limelights 52

Your friendly crime fiction fan is taking time out. See you next month!

Joseph Boyden. The Orenda. Toronto: Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Canada Books Inc., 2013.
Brilliant. A tour de force. Boyden transports us into the wilds of New France four hundred years ago in a novel about missionary struggles to gain a foothold among the Huron (Wendat) natives. Jesuit Relations and its critiques have clearly provided the road map for a spellbinding tale of our past. Canadians know (or should know) how this will end: badly. Christophe the priest and Bird the native leader are the main protagonists. Bird and his people fail to fully apprehend a threat as equally devastating as their traditional enemy the Haudenosaunee. The Crows, or the charcoal, as the Huron call the black-robed Jesuits, are first ridiculed, then ignored, then ultimately share the villagers' fate.

Filled with vivid ancillary characters — Snow Falls, Carries an Axe, Gosling, Fox, Sleeps Long — The Orenda grips with intensity in beautifully flowing language. Which faith system has the most power or magic? Despite the similarity of their prayers, neither Bird nor Christophe ever come near an understanding of the other's spiritual life. The aboriginal way of life believes in orenda (life force in all natural things) and oki (dual souls of their people). Their Feast of the Dead demonstrates a reverence for ancestors and family albeit in a way completely alien to our sensibilities. Some readers will complain about the spilling of blood and guts, but the events are as comprehensible as, say, the Spanish Inquisition. Nominated in 2013 for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize (Boyden's Through Black Spruce won it in 2008) and the Governor General's Award for English Fiction, there's little doubt The Orenda is certain to be a Canadian classic.

Snow Falls saves a life:
I told Bird that my name is Snow Falls and that this Crow had stolen the spirit of my father, that he kept him imprisoned in the glowing being around his neck, that if Bird killed the Crow now, my father would be his prisoner forever and I could never become Bird's child. I don't know where the words came from, but they came, and I watched the killing tension ease in Bird's shoulders. I told him, finally, what I've been dreaming, what only right then I could put words to. An illness was slipping into this village, into this very longhouse, and even if he killed the Crow now, it was too late to stop. It had arrived. Killing him would only make things worse. The Words, they poured out of me and were beyond my control. (42)

Bird observes:

The crows continue to stay alone, and the different odd-looking and odd-smelling men live in small groups of friends in their little homes. To me, they mostly look the same with their hairy faces and sunken eyes, their skin the colour of a withered squash blossom. When they talk, I can see many of them have few teeth, and compared to the body of Carries an Axe, they look weak and pathetic. Their clothes, too, make them look the same, with their thin, dirty shirts and strange hide they wear that covers all of their legs and asses, even now that the snow's melted. Carries an Axe likes to make fun of their appearance. He's even claimed that he's held some of their clothes in his own hands and that their clothes aren't made from the skins of animals at all but instead are created by old witches with bottoms like spiders who spin out their thread that other witches then weave. (325)

Naguib Mahfouz. Sugar Street. (1957 in Egypt) New York: Anchor Books/Random House, 1992.
This is the third novel in Nobel Literature laureate Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, an epic spanning generations of inter-related Egyptian families. Sugar Street is set in the 1930s up to about the end of the Second World War. In meticulous prose, the author unveils a wide cast of characters, almost overwhelming in the first few chapters; in fact, a chart for this upper-middle class family would have been useful in order to track the multiple-named brothers, sons, in-laws, and friends! ... the tormented Kalil, spiteful Khadija, earnest Abd al-Muni'm, the rebel Ahmad, grieving Aisha, the ailing patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad al-Jawad, among many more. Family life delves deeply into their mutual and individual concerns: marriage, employment, status, bureaucracy, and resentment at the occupying English.

The coffee houses of Cairo are favoured meeting places for congenial male discussion, but bars and brothels have their place too. The accepted indulgence in alcohol denoted a far more secular society than I expected. I felt an elegiac quality in their private thoughts as if desirable goals suffer from discursive malaise. In the turmoil of the times we see the emergence of the "Muslim Brethren"; politics and embedded culture have scarcely changed since then. The perpetual need for new beginnings lacks unity. This one book, and I'm sure the series itself, is an engaging, eye-opening backgrounder for the Egypt of today.

The Wafd Party holds a rally:
The crowd's excitement reached a fever pitch. People stood on the chairs and yelled with wild enthusiasm. Kamal shouted as passionately as anyone else. He forgot he was a teacher who was expected to maintain his dignity. He imagined that he had been transported back to the glorious revolutionary days he had heard about but had not been privileged to experience. Had the speeches back then been as forcefully delivered? Had the crowds received them with comparable enthusiasm? Had death seemed insignificant for those reasons? No doubt Fahmy had been in a gathering like this once and had then rushed off to death and immortality or annihilation. Was it possible for a skeptic to become a martyr?
"Perhaps patriotism, like love," he thought, "is a force to which we surrender, whether or not we believe in it." (36)

Khadija on motherhood:
In a conversation with her husband who was wrapped up in his cloak, she voiced her buried feelings: "Our sons have been married for more than a year, and we haven't lit any candles for a baby yet."
The man shrugged his shoulders but did not reply. She continued: "Perhaps Abd al-Muni'm and Ahmad consider having children a fad as outmoded as obeying their parents."
The man answered irritably, "Calm down. They're happy, and that should be enough for us."
She asked sharply, "If a bride doesn't get pregnant and have children, what use is she?"
"Perhaps your sons don't share that opinion."
"They disagree with me about everything. All my efforts and hopes have been in vain."
"Are you sad you're not a grandmother?"
She retorted even more acidly, "I'm sad for them, not for me." (294)

Some one-liners:
"It's always wise for us to speak to people at their level of understanding." (297)
― A precept of the Muslim Brotherhood.
" ... the spread of learning is as liable to banish them as light is to discourage bats." (298)
― Expectations that the Muslim Brotherhood would disappear; today's world proves them wrong.


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