Wednesday, May 15, 2019

I'm Making Progress

Now that gardening time has arrived, I find it a bit more difficult to keep up my reading pace.
BUT, I have finished read two more books. So I better get to reviewing them.

 I was drawn to reading this novel, as I grew up in southern Africa and have a long-time interest in reading non-fiction and fiction about the experience of a country moving from colonial, white-dominated rule to native black rule.

This novel is NOT about that, but within it are references to the seeds of that transition. Nelson Mandela is referenced as someone who will emerge as a leader in the struggle for freedom. What this novel is about the growing realization by two characters that "the other" is just as human as they are.

The story revolves around two people: a young girl named Robin and a middle-aged woman name Beauty. Robin is white living with her parents in a wealthy white area of Johannesburg, South Africa. The time is 1976 in the days leading up to, and then beyond, the Soweto uprising.

In the days immediately before the Soweto uprising Robin's parents are killed. She is taken under the care of her aunt, who is barely able to handle the responsibility of having a child. Robin had been cared for in large degree by her family's black maid, Mabel. When the parents are killed, Mabel disappears.

When the story switches to Beauty, who lives in the Transkei, we learn that Beauty is an educated black woman who leaves her remaining family, two sons, to go to Johannesburg to find her daughter who is living in Soweto.

By focusing on these two characters, we get a highly charged account of the unfolding events that pull these families apart and disrupt the lives of both. 

The author is very successful in creating believable characters--who operate with motives entirely consistent with their natures. At least, through the first half of the novel. As events move toward a climax, the believability factor, particularly where Robin is concerned, goes awry. I had a great deal of difficulty believing that a 9-year-old girl would proceed as Robin does.

Had the author kept the characters staying true to their natures, I would have rated this book higher. At the outset of the novel, the plot unfolds because it grows out of the characters' natures. BUT, toward the latter part of the novel, the plot takes over and drives the actions of the characters.

One of the hallmarks of a well-constructed novel is that the novelist creates the characters and THEN lets them develop the events that unfold. A novelist who uses characters as a puppeteer would manipulate a puppet is less believable, for me.
I must add that the novel is a GOOD READ--and I read it quickly, pulled forward by story being told.
 JUDAS by Amos Oz
 When I first began reading this novel, I was annoyed at the central character, Shmuel.
But through marvelous story telling, his character grows on the reader.

In many ways, the novel is a very interior work. Plot is spare (I'm fine with that). Characters are very well drawn (I am thrilled about that). And dialogue goes on for pages (very interesting, however) because that is part of the point of the book.
The setting is Israel in the mid-1950s, after its creation as a state and the 1948 war. The question of the validity, urgency, and justification desirability as a separate nation state has been debated and settled, and then defended by military action. Some knowledge of that setting is essential to understanding the themes of the novel.
Judas, of course, refers to the disciple of Jesus who betrayed him, leading to the crucifixion. Shmuel is a student wrestling with a thesis--the essential premise is that Judas was the first Christian, believing in Jesus Christ even when Jesus had no intention of being anything but a Jew. But Shmuel's studies stall. He is somewhat estranged from his parents, is very close to friendless, so he answers an ad. The ad is for a companion for an elderly man.

Shmuel answers the ad and is introduced to Gershom Wald, who is an invalid aged man in need of company. In turn he meets Wald's daughter-in-law, Atalia Abravanel. As the story unfolds, we learn of Atalia's history--she had married Wald's son who was then killed in the 1948 war.

Shmuel's duties are to spend several hours a day with Wald, converse with him, give him porridge, and feed the goldfish. The rest of his time is his own. 

As these conversations between Shmuel and Wald unfold, we learn many aspects of the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel, of interaction with the Arab population that inhabited Palestine, and the politics of establishing Israel. Atalia's father Shealtiel Abravanel opposed establishing Israel as a separate Jewish state. He argued to a single country shared by Jews and Palestinians. 

One can glean some of the seeds to today's present conflict over whether to have a one state or two separate states. 

There are several narrative techniques that I enjoyed--one is that the novel is a journey--for Shmuel. And it is a discourse on the merits of modern day Jewish/Arab relations. It is also a coming of age story for Shmuel. AND it is a bit of a romance story. By the time the novel ended, I was deeply attached to Shmuel, and wonder how his life unfolded.

OK-- because this novel is so richly layered, so informative, and so engaging, I highly recommend it. It may feel like it's slow going at the outset, but stay with it.

The next two books I am working on are THE FISHERMEN and HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE. Stay tuned.

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