13 December 2019

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

Not for everyone, for sure, QUICHOTTE [pronounced key-shot] fluctuates between satire and magical realism, and within the blueprint of Cervantes’ Don Quixote mixed with Moby Dick, Pinocchio and a smattering of mythology. You will enjoy the references and the parody. 
Between the Gods and mortal men and women, there hung a veil, and its name was maya. The truth was the fabled world of the gods was the real one, while the supposedly actual world inhabited by human beings was an illusion, and maya, the veil of illusion, was the magic by which the gods persuaded men and women that their illusory world was real.
A lost soul turned dreamer searches for his idealized beloved. A companion, in the form of an imagined child, comes to life. An opportunistic businessman tramples ethics. An adoring wife hopes to secure the family legacy with philanthropy [think Sacklers.] A Bollywood actress turned talk show host struggles under the weight of celebrity [and fentanyl.] And, a high-profile advocate pedals integrity to the apathetic.
She was a privileged woman complaining about small things. A woman whose life was lived on the surface, who had chosen superficiality, had no right to complain about the absence of depth. Human life was lived between two chasms, a Russian writer had said, the one that preceded our birth, “the cradle rocks above an abyss,” and the one we were all “heading for, at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour].”
            Brown [Indian mostly] confronting white [white supremacists mostly] and all in fear of the “other.” Sound familiar?
            Yes, it’s a mixed-up story, often humorous, sometimes maddening, and with an often confusing set of characters – multiple characters with multiple names on parallel but intersecting paths. Rushdie is also sketching a tale of what-ifs and false narratives. And, for good measure, includes sexually damaged women and sexually mutable men. No stone unturned here.
            Rushdie, no stranger to pointing the finger at evil-doers [once subject to a fatwa by Iranian religious leaders] seems to have decided to go after all the quirks of Western civilization, most notably capitalism and pop-culture, aided and abetted by. 24/7 TV. He also cites Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, books favored by wanderers.
            It was bewildering at such an advanced age to understand that the narrative of your family which you had carried within you – within which, in a way, you had lived – was false, or, at the very least, that you had been ignorant of its most essential truth, which had been kept from you. Not to be told the whole truth, as Sister with her legal expertise would know perfectly well, was to be told a lie.
            Frankly, I loved reading this novel. I looked forward to a block of time to immerse myself in his ingenuity – one must read for prolonged periods of time or get totally lost. I laughed. I cringed at painful truths. I marveled at his command of language and history. On the other hand, Rushdie once too often goes off the rails – rambling beyond a willing suspension of disbelief – and I agree with the critics who suggest he reign in pontification for the sake of storytelling.
            Perhaps Rushdie created in this novel his own impossible dream, where fictional characters bring out the best in each other, battle windmills and redeem themselves of their sins, although along the way, they create messes for the unsuspecting, or the opportunistic, to deal with. 
            Read at your own risk. If nothing else, Quichotte is exquisitely crafted and unforgettable.

02 December 2019

The Third Hotel by Laura VanDenBerg

Metaphysical meets magical realism in Cuba. 

Van Den Berg’s second novel [she’s also published two impressive story collections] may be the book to elevate her stature to where she belongs. She is a superb novelist and this wholly original exploration of the nature of time and loss, and recovery, might make you feel as unmoored as I felt at the last page, unmoored as a confrontation with your own fragility.

Clare’s husband, a horror film aficionado, has been killed in a freak accident and she attends in his place a horror film festival in Havana, where she sees him on the street. Or does she? Of course, she follows, from a distance, at first.

In THE THIRD HOTEL, little is linear, yet you are not confused. Much is irrational, yet it all makes sense. There is plenty of foreboding, without finality. Nothing is supernatural or frightening, yet if feels like a story by Edgar Allen Poe: vaguely disturbing, a little off-beat and totally fascinating.

Clare is a woman who keeps secrets. She prefers her guard up. Her job is practical and logistical, otherwise disinteresting. Her childhood was a bit odd. Now her father has Alzheimer’s. She has lost her compass, and that’s the central point. Think of the theory of relativity or black holes. Time is fluid. Lives are fluid. Like the eels that slink around an award-winning film at the festival or the Zombies that frequent that genre – creatures, and people, can be alive but not alive. Here but not here. Past, present and future are entwined.

Of course, marriage had not let her to a sense of completeness. Rather, it introduced different sets of questions, one after another, and ultimately led her to the drastic incompleteness of being married to a man whose death, the exact circumstances, was uncertain. If a death was uncertain, a life in turn was made uncertain – or the uncertainty that had always been there was exposed.

It’s a journey, not so much of the clock but of personal discovery. One must let go of preconceptions, obligations or a sense of destination in order to find and face truth, and then move on.

I was spellbound from page one, where the unusual title is explained. Exquisitely crafted. Frequent moments of ah-hah, that’s so true! An eclectic set of characters, a striking city, that uniquely vibrant Cuban landscape contrasted with spare elegant prose. I’d call this novel one of the best this year, for me, and well reviewed, although not commercially hot. Highly recommended. Spread the word.