Category Archives: American literature

Americans in post-communist Prague

In addition to reading positive notices of Hamburger’s collection of stories set in late-1990s Prague (mostly involving American expatriates or tourists interacting with the natives), and being curious about how post-communist Prague strikes younger (than me) Americans, I was intrigued by the title The View from Stalin’s Head. The title story is the third in the volume, but unsure how independent of each other the stories were, I read the ten of them in order. (I don’t think anything was gained thereby, though a character in the last story (“Exile”) has some background from an earlier one (the second, “Jerusalem,” which is not set in the city of Jerusalem).)

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There are two gargantuan-sized Stalin heads in “The View from Stalin’s Head,” so I didn’t feel cheated by the title. It would be unfair to potential readers to explain how the head(s) are invoked/involved in the stories. I was not disappointed by the teaser title, nor, indeed, by any of the stories. This is not to say that I liked them all. I rather disliked “Control,” though the characterization in it of a transit policeman is convincingly done.

I’m not completely convinced by the Czech giant in the first story, “A Man of the Country,” but the voice and the happenings in it are entertaining and fairly poignant. The first story features a male Jewish-American expat somewhat perplexed by a Czech man. The second features a female Jewish-American expat at least as puzzled by a Judaeophile Czech man.

“The View from Stalin’s Head” has an all-Czech cast (Stalin’s head not being part of the dictator who was dead before either one was made). “The Ground You Are Standing On” does not involve any young people (well, there is a youngish taxi tout). It involves a pair of Jewish American tourists who rent a room in an elderly Czech widow’s house. The confrontation is elegantly developed and brilliantly conceived. There are no villains and a lot of self-righteousness on display.

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(Hamburger in 2019; he was already bald in 1994 btw)

“Sympathetic Conversationalist” has an ensemble of Czech students of (you guessed it) a Jewish-American expat in Prague “You Say You Want a Revolution” has a self-righteous Jewish-American woman who identifies with resistance of Coca-Cola colonialism. She connects with a group opposed to globalization, but rather than being socialist, it is royalist (wanting to restore the Hapsburg Empire). This is the story with the broadest humor and the only one that derides any of the characters (though those in the other stories do not lack for foibles). “Garage Sale” charts an offbeat relationship between a young Czech woman, Katka, and a Jewish-Canadian expat teacher of English who changes his stripes (or thinks he has).

I’ve already mentioned not liking what happens in “Control,” though respecting its artistry. It is the second story in the collection with no North American expat characters.

The most romantic story in the collection is the one set in Israel (though two of the characters are Americans working in Prague who go to visit the relatives in Israel of one of them). I’m not sure that I believe it, but I enjoy the characters and the departures from their expectations. Departures from expectations are rife throughout the volume, especially in the inter-ethnic relationships. “Law of Return” is more like the movie “Cabaret” than the Christopher Isherwood novella “Sally Bowles” that was its original source. “The Ground You Are Standing On” is the closest to some of Isherwood’s other Berlin Stories in which a character named Christopher Isherwood lived in a Weimar Berlin boarding house and observed bittersweetly comic relationships, including his own, with Berliners, as he made some money giving English lessons.

The final story, “Exile,” brings back the Judaeophile Czech, Lubos, a synagogue with a closeted lesbian rabbi, a kitsched-over concentration camp. It has rich detail and characterization, but seems more a sketch for a multi-character novel than a story that stands on its own.

Insofar as I can tell from the advance descriptions of Hamburger’s forthcoming (in October) first novel, Faith for Beginners, will be closest to “Law of Return,” involving a young midwestern Jewish-American in Israel. I have no idea whether it has the same characters or expands on that story.

Hamburger is a very good story-teller. Most of his stories even have endings, although I tended to launch right into the next story as soon as I finished one. At the end, I felt that I knew more than when I started about postcommunist Prague and about some of the Americans who have gone there for the X-generation’s European seasoning (Paris, London, and Rome having become too expensive, along with Manhattan and San Francisco for would-be writers and other kinds of artists to hang out while finding themselves and amassing Experience.

(On Hamburger, ca. 2019, and his second novel, Nirvana Is Here, see here.)

©2005, 2019 Stephen O. Murray

 

Laila Lalami’s second novel, Secret Son

I think that Laila Lalami is a very good writer in her third or fourth language, English. It would be faint praise to bill her as “the best Moroccan-American novelist,” not a category in which there is much competition.

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Her second novel, Secret Son (2009) seems far more linear than Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (2005), though some very crucial information is supplied out of sequence in Son. It also seems — not least in its title — to have a single protagonist. In the opening part of Hope, there was one, Murad, though his was only one of five backstories that followed (and the four stories of what happened to some of those who were together in the debacle of the opening venture). Most of Secret Son is from the perspective of Youssef, but there are chapters from the perspective of four other characters. Two important scenes are replayed from a second perspective (although I think doing this was a mistake).

The book opens with a flood ending a drought and Youssef El Mekki rescuing the portraits of the father he has never known. Youssef and his friends from the Casablanca slum neighborhood, Maati and Amin, are finishing high school. Maati fails the college entrance test and starts work for the mysterious Party that has opened an Islamist center with a tea shop and sermons. Amin begins law school and Youssef majors in English.

Second Son has been likened to African American classics Native Son and Invisible Man (Lalami’s editor suggested the latter, which drove her to read Ellison’s book, and “son” was not in the title until later still, so is not an homage or an echo). The one scene of a class discussion of a book, however, addresses The Great Gatsby. Youssef sees that Daisy is Jay Gatsby’s dream, an impossible ideal to which he aspires (and IMO an unworthy chimera). His own dreams are thwarted by the society, his station in it, and by such blood relatives as he has.

Youssef aspires to and even beds one of the “Marboro and Mercedes” set, that is, students from affluent backgrounds. He remains an outsider (this was the book’s working title) to the Islamists, the Marxists, and the “Marboro and Mercedes” set, longing to belong somewhere, envying those with fathers and family.

Gradually, he learns more about the background of both his mother and his father, is lifted up and thrown back down, and used in various ways by various people who claim to have his best interests at heart—not least his mother. The childhood friends are out of his life for a while, but become central, way-too central to the denouement.

Much of the pleasure of the book is in the complicated unfolding of relationships in two families, making discussion of what happens and even who are the other major characters spoilers. There is a female character with some of the author’s geographical experience (LA, albeit being an undergraduate math major at UCA, rather than a graduate student in linguistics at USC). Lalami has expressed frustration at assumptions that Amal is autobiographical.

Lalami does not write anything from the perspective of the Angeleño of Brazilian descent, Pedro, but writes convincingly (at least to me) from the perspective of Morrocan males, elite and unemployed. Blaming Mom is a venerable American angle, though smothering mothering seems even more rampant in lower-class Moroccan culture than in middle-class Anglo American culture. Still, I was startled that disaster is laid on the doorstep of a conclave of mothers determined to keep control of their men in a novel written by a woman.

As in Hope, the Islamist movement, the corrupt and brutal government, and the smug Moroccan elite are all shown to be not only disingenuous but dangerous, with the naïve youths of the slums at best pawns, but mostly nonentities. Lalami is interested in telling stories, not in being an analyst of the society in which she was born and grew up. At a book event Q&A, she said: “I am not pretendingt to know my native country, Morocco, any more than anyone else. I am just trying to write the best story that I can.” Nevertheless, the story is set in a place in which some of those in situations of chronic unemployment are aiming to overthrow the corrupt and highly stratified status quo through terrorist attacks, and her imagination is rooted in recognition of the appeals of hedonism and Islamism, often on the same individuals in sequence or simultaneously.

The characters Lalami has imagined in both her novels are interesting, but however indirect the social critique is, they are also inevitably read in part from interest in the milieu of poor Arabs that leads to desperate acts of immigration north to unwelcoming Europe and of terrorist attacks.

©2009, Stephen O.  Murray

Desperate Moroccan attempts to reach Europe

The 2005 novel Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits was ritten in English by Laila Lalami was born in Rabat in 1968, where she lived through earning a she became an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and author of the popular blog Moorishgirl.

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The book has, rightfully, been widely acclaimed both for her literary skills and for insights into those risking their lives to relocate north, across the Strait of Gibraltar rather than the Rio Grande. Showing the hypocrisy of both Islamists and secularists in Morocco has also made the book of wide interest. (It has been translated into six languages, including the languages of her earlier education, Arabic and French.)

Lalami has said that the original stimulus for this fiction was an online Le Monde article about an accident in which fifteen Moroccans drowned trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar on a fishing boat. The characters of her book— thirty passengers crammed into a Zodiac designed to hold eight — are mindful of the disaster and plenty scared when they set off.

The distance between Africa and Europe there is only fourteen and a quarter kilometers (8 miles). I can attest from personal experience that the waters can become turbulent quickly and are not warm. Currents are also treacherous (fortunately, I don’t have personal experience of that).

250 meters from the Spanish coast, the boatman forces the passengers (some of whom cannot swim) out. Some drown, a few make it and get away, while most of the others are captured by the Spanish Guardia Civil and deported back to Morocco.

The novel begins with the trip then backtracks to tell how four of the passengers got to the desperate gamble of paying substantial sums to be ferried (most of the way) across to Spain.

Murad, a multilingual guide, specializing in Paul Bowles tours for Anglophone visitors to Tangier lacks connections to get a job befitting his education (a degree in English like Lalami’s from Université Mohammed V). More direct interference occurred in the education of Faten at the same university. Faten joined an Islamist organization and influenced her friend Noura to don a headscarf, study the Koran, and decide not to go to NYU. Noura’s father is an official in the education bureaucracy and reaches out to have Faten failed. (Faten has received answers to a test from Noura, so her stern ethics are not invariable.)

Halima is fleeing with her children because her drunkard husband who has lost his job won’t grant her a divorce. (Men can divorce women by repeating “I divorce thee” four times, but women have to go to court and even if granted a divorce are rarely given custody of their children.

Aziz leaves his devoted and beautiful wife behind (with his mother) to try to make some money. (He also leaves behind a bosom buddy who also loves him, though Aziz does not seem to realize that they are more than friends, or that Lahcen would like them to be.)

 

The looking back at disparate characters who were together at disaster recalls Thornton Wilder’s 1927 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Bridge at San Luis Rey to me. His characters perished. Lalami’s survive. One escaped into Spain from the water. Three were deported. One made it into Spain on a later try. (I think it would be plot-spoiling to reveal who is where.)

The stories of the post-crossing-attempt characters fill in more backstory as well as showing them a few years later. Life in Spain is not a paradise for those who are there (one of them with legal status) and remains tough for those surviving in Tangier.

The book is not as grim as my account might suggest. It has a guarded optimism more like Abdellah Taïa’s Salvation Army than like Tahar Ben Jelloun’s nihilistic Leaving Tangier. There are more than a few ironies to make readers smile and some betterment of some lives recorded. The hope of undocumented migrants leads to dangerous attempts to reach a better life. And the lives of those left behind may be even harder, but hope does keep springing.

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In an informative online interview at http://www.wab.org/events/allofrochester/2008/interview.shtml

Lalami noted: “Most of the Moroccans who undertake these journeys are people who have no job opportunities and very few useful educational prospects, whereas I have been very fortunate in receiving a good education (first in Rabat, the capital, and then in London and Los Angeles) and in finding employment…. I think I feel closest to Murad, however, because the whole book grew out of a short story [El Dorado] about him…. In the process of revising this story, I realized I was adding flashbacks of his life before the trip, so I decided to take these flashbacks out and put them in a separate story featuring the same character, but set in a different period of his life. Then I became interested in each of the other people on the boat with Murad and pretty soon I had a collection of stories, each from a different point of view, with the only connecting thread being that these characters make the same decision about emigrating illegally. Still, I felt that something was missing. Then I realized that what I needed was to reach closure with each of these characters, to find out what happened to each of them after the captain abandons them.”

I started taking English in high school, at the age of 15, and majored in English in college. After I moved to the States, I continued writing in French, but it quickly became clear to me that French comes with an enormous colonial baggage when one is writing Moroccan characters. I switched to writing fiction in English in 1996.

I don’t know of any Moroccans who would look to Paul Bowles for a story about Morocco, but it’s certainly true that many American readers might look to Bowles for a story about the country. I think he is a fine prose stylist, but I am not a big fan of his writing because I find it devoid of any compassion for his characters.

 

©2009, Stephen O. Murray

 

Dorothy West’s The Living Is Easy

Dorothy West (1907-98) is often called the youngest writer of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly close to Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Her novels were few and far between (The Living Is Easy in 1948, The Wedding in 1995), though she published some short fiction, some of it collected in The Richer, the Poorer (also in 1995) and regular columns in the Martha Vineyard Gazette (some collected in a 2001 collection. Her work, in marked contrast to most Harlem Renaissance writings, deals with the very hue-conscious African American bourgeoisie (which included sleeping car porters as well as attorneys, physicians, and entrepreneurs—affluent only relative to the mass of blacks pouring north).

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As a child, West lived on Brookline Avenue in Boston. She was educated at the Girls’ Latin school in Boston, where she was born and where she died, though she lived in Martha’s Vineyard from 1943 on. I find her first novel, The Living Is Easy, offputtting. Its protagonist, Cleo, is a sneaky, power-hungry, greedy older sister, who dominated her three younger sisters growing up in the South. She latches onto “the black banana king,” Bart Judson, whose skin is much darker than hers.

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(cover of reprint edition with drawing of author by Richmond Barthé)

After producing dark-skinned daughter, Judy, she finagles a large house where she can sleep separately from him and gather her sisters, each of whom is married and has one child (including one boy, Tim, who is blond and whom Cleo wants not to see). What Cleo told Bart would be short visits turn into permanent residencies, so that none of the house can generate rental income, and so Cleo can boss around a large family without the unpleasantness of having sex with her dark-skinned husband.

Skin hue is very, very important to the characters in the novel, and to the “black bourgeoisie” throughout the US, not only in Boston). Cleo despises most of the immigrants from the South, loving and hating her own sisters and their shared rural, poor background. Bart provides for Cleo’s family, provides affection to Judy that Cleo does not, but eventually looses his business in the face of competition from supermarkets. Cleo robs him, lying about most everything, starting with the amount of rent she pays the white owner of the house, who is proud of the Boston abolitionist tradition, but appalled by the mass migration of Irish people to the neighborhood.

Bart is based on West’s father, Isaac Christopher West, though I have difficulty believing anyone could be so successful in business and so easily ripped off by a wife who provides him neither affection (often calling him “Mr. Nigger,” alternating with “Mr. Judson”; I don’t recall her ever first-naming him). The other male characters are also hard for me to believe. Adelaide Cromwell’s useful afterword to the 1982 Feminist Press edition establishes the basis of other male characters on real people, the best-known (if not very widely) being journalist Monroe Trotter, the model for Simenon, a self-righteous “race man” whom Cleo manipulates into marrying a former bordello-keeper with a Catholic vocation. There is a shooting by one of Cleo’s brothers-in-law, and the physician is caught doing abortions in addition to his cancer research.

I think I am making the novel sound livelier than I felt it was while reading it. A lot of the action is in the last fifth of the volume. Cleo’s contempt for males runs through the book, both in dialog and in indirect discourse, frequently labeling others “niggers” and “darkies.” Cleo is a racist, classist, lookist, man-hating liar and cheat, destroying her sisters’ marriages and arranging a loveless one between Simenon and “the Duchess” (who finances his paper that has neither a black nor a white audience.

 

BTW, the tittle is either ironic or misleading. The living was not easy for any of the characters, except Bart before Cleo got her hooks into him. West was an understudy in “Porgy and Bess,” and must have taken the title from “Summertime (and the living is easy…”)

 

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

Lorraine Hansberry’s (posthumous) third Broadway play

Lorrraine Hansberry  (1930-65) knew the South Side of Chicago (where she grew up, and where “Raisin in the Sun” is set) and New York’s Greenwich Village (where she lived as an adult, and where she set “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”) better than she knew Africa. Nonetheless, I find her primary African character in her posthumously produced play “Les Blancs,” Tshembe, more credible than the American journalist, Charlie, who is its seeming protagonist. Charlie strikes me as a device to stimulate exposition by other characters, including Tshembe and “Madame,” the wife of a medical missionary who seems to be based on Albert Schweitzer but who is on the other side of the river and does not appear in the play.

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Tshembe has left Africa, and married a white woman, who has borne a child. He returns for the funeral of his father, a Kwi chief—who was also covertly the local head of the “terrorists” (based, I think, partly on Kenya’s Mau-Mau, partly on Algerians rebelling against their French masters). Tshembe’s brother, Abioseh, is also part of the resistance passing as a simple-minded servant of the European missionaries.

When the play premiered late in 1970 (which is to say after Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia had become known and led to furious protests, especially on college campuses, including Jackson State and Kent State, where protesters were shot), it divided the audience and critics, much as the plays of her idol, Sean O’Casey had in their day.

She was accused of supporting genocide of whites in Africa by some and of displaying (stereo)types rather than individuals (I would agree in regard to Charlie, but not Madame and not the Matoseh brothers).

 

The sanest response seems to have come from Harold Clurman in The Nation

“Les Blancs” is not propaganda, as has been inferred; it is a forceful and intelligent statement of the tragic impasse of black and white relations all over the world. It clarifies but does not seek to resolve, the historical and human problems involved. It does not provide an Answer. It is an honest play in which tought-provoking matter is given arrestingly theatrical body.

Despite a much-praised, powerful performance by James Earl Jones as Tshembe, the play did not run long on Broadway and seems largely forgotten. Whereas I thought that “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” read better than I can imagine it playing on stage, I think that “Les Blancs” is playable, as well as interesting to read, and is a worthy companion to, for instance, Yulisa Amadu “Pat” Maddy’s 1973 novel No Past, No Present, No Future.

(The title is a strike at Jean Genet’s (1959) Les Noirs, which she disliked, but the French title gives the unfortunate impression that it is set in a French rather than and English African colony. Genet’s play deals with black identity, anger at colonialism, and the murder of a white woman, btw. And James Earl Jones also appeared in the first American production of Genet’s play, off-Broadway.)

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray