The Last Friend, by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Moving a little further north, from South Africa to Morocco, this small novel also deals with friendship and the way its currents shift and change over time. Here, though, it is not a question of power but of betrayal.

We get the story first from Ali’s viewpoint and then from Mamed’s, with a coda from the viewpoint of a mutual friend. Ali and Mamed both describe their childhood with playground bullies and teachers, their adolescence with girlfriends and prostitutes, and their later life with wives and children. A youthful brush with politics gets them arrested, and their brutal eighteen-month incarceration cements their friendship, which survives into adulthood as they move into different careers (medicine and teaching) and even different countries (Mamed moves to Sweden while Ali stays in Morocco). However, there is a subtle tension between them, a sense of things askew, which causes their friendship to fluctuate.

If all this sounds straightforward, it is. I had hoped for insight into Moroccan history and culture but got very little of that from this book. I did, however, gain insight into friendship and how it can play out over a lifetime. More importantly, the book gave me a new perspective on narrative itself.

Ben Jelloun’s style here is to tell the story rather than recreate it. Most western writers try to get the reader to experience the story along with the characters, using sensory details, absorbing characters and suspenseful plotting to engage the reader’s full participation. None of that here.

Yet, the seeming flatness of the story made me pay more attention to how it was being told. Nuances in the way the two friends related the same events suddenly took on great importance. A single adjective here, the description of an article of clothing there gave completely different meanings to a single happening. The extremely short chapters—500 words or so—also made me pay attention. The small frame, and all that was not said, highlighted what was actually on the page.

Usually I have to read a book again if I want to analyze what the writer is doing. However, here I found myself aware of the craft even as I enjoyed the art. Some people would call that a failure on the writer’s part, but I would not go so far. It’s just a different reading experience. Ben Jelloun has found an unusual way to relate two lives, a way that engaged my intellect as well as my interest.

Playing in the Light, by Zoe Wicomb

I was quite taken by the cover of this book, a muted picture of a the corner of a shadowed room with a faintly glowing window in the darkest wall. It’s not the first time I’ve chosen a book simply because of the cover, just as I sometimes use my friend’s method of selecting wine based on whether I like the picture on the label; the uncertainty creates space for discovery.

This novel takes place in the “new” South Africa of the 1990’s where people of all races are trying to work out where they stand in the new social climate even as they struggle with resentment and reconciliation. It follows an Afrikaner woman named Marion who owns a travel agency where she has just hired Brenda, her first employee of color. Marion owns an apartment by the sea, appropriate for someone whose father has always called her his “meermin” or mermaid. Although her parents came from a “dirt-poor” background, they prospered in Cape Town, and Marion herself leads a carefully ordered and affluent life, running her business and visiting her aging father, until dreams and chaotic memories begin to disrupt her equilibrium.

I enjoyed the writing. Wicomb’s syntax is unassuming but subtly spellbinding. Many dialect words and expressions are inserted, but their meaning is clear and they are not intrusive. I found the descriptions of the interactions on the street, in the break room at the travel agency, the father’s run-down cottage, and the home of Brenda’s family powerful. However, I simply could not warm to Marion. Several times I almost abandoned the book, not so much because Marion was such a cold, solitary person, but because I could find no common point where I could engage with her.

When there is a main character I don’t like or am not interested in, there must be some compensating factor to keep me reading: a fascinating story or enthralling writing. The writing here is good, but the reason I didn’t abandon this book was the metastory, the larger issue of who holds the power in social relationships and what they do with it.

Power isn’t supposed to be a factor in a friendship, but it is. Sometimes friendships coalesce where one is the leader and the other the follower. Or friends can be experts in different fields, e.g., one knows all about music while the other is a visual artist. But the relationship doesn’t stay there. The follower matures and becomes powerful enough to challenge the leader. The artist learns more about music while the musician doesn’t look up from her score. The balance of power between two friends fluctuates, particularly in an environment such as South Africa where the power relationships between the larger societal groups are also changing.

I thought this book remarkable for taking on such an unusual and fascinating subject. For the most part, Wicomb handled it deftly. The ending was a bit of a clunker, just the last few pages—disappointing after so much lovely prose and so many nuanced insights into these characters and their relationships.

Ince Memed, Parts I and II, by Yashar Kemal

I couldn’t leave Turkey without checking into these great epics, published as Memed, My Hawk and They Burn the Thistles in English translation. They take place in the Taurus mountains, just after the first World War, when the Ottomans have been banished and all the boundaries redrawn. Mustafa Kemal has driven out the French and abolished the feudal system. However, like the carpetbaggers that swarm in after any war, a few newly rich men have started acquiring land and power, setting themselves up as aghas or lords. When the villagers could no longer be tricked out of their land, the aghas beat and tortured the holdouts or brought in brigands to burn the villagers’ homes and steal their horses.

We first meet Ince Memed, Slim Memed, as a young boy running away from home. After his father died, the local agha beat the boy and his mother and took their land, condemning them to be serfs on his land. When the agha finds Memed, he subjects him and his mother to an even greater punishment: instead of taking two-thirds of their laboriously scythed and hand-threshed wheat, the agha takes three-quarters and threatens the other villagers not to give them a single grain. Although some of their neighbors disobey the injunction, the two are left to starve until they finally surrender and give their single cow and its calf to the agha. Later, when Memed has grown, the agha takes even the youth’s fiance to be his own nephew’s bride.

Memed’s struggle against this cruel despotism leads him to the mountains to become a brigand, first joining a band that is not in the pay of an agha and then leading his own small band. Eventually he becomes a great hero to the people of all the villages, a Robin Hood who cannot be shot and who inspires some of them to fight back. Memed finds his fame a burden and, in the second novel, is plagued by a sense of futility when the agha he kills is replaced by another who is even worse. “‘Why struggle?'” he asks old Suleyman, the man who had taken him in and adopted him back when Memed had first run away. “‘It is right to struggle,'” Suleyman replies.

These novels, separately and together are great reads. In them, the elements of a novel are equally strong: the enthralling plot carried me forward like a river in spate; the complex emotions and motivations of the characters are explored in ways that are integral to the story; and the settings—the plains, the mountains, the streets of the town—are described in vivid detail: the feel of the mud sucking at your boots, the color of the thistle fields at sunset, the cold of a mountain cave in winter, the bees and butterflies and green snakes.

And behind it all the eternal theme: good versus evil, the risk and damage done to the hero who stands up, the gradual rise of an oppressed people against men whom greed has turned into tyrants. Memed compares the people to a thousand-headed dragon: “Cut off the thousand heads and a whole forest of heads emerged.”

People of Paper, by Salvador Plascencia

People of Paper is not like any book I have ever seen. Clearly experimental, the text alone shows that the author wanted to play with form and meaning. I thought it would be hard to read for this reason, but in fact the story engaged my interest immediately and—for the most part—kept it as the plot unrolled. I was afraid that the gimmicks were intended to hide poor writing, but in fact the writing was quite good.

I liked the first part of the book best. It's rare to find an author who handles magical realism as well as Plascencia does, and his formal innovations only added to the fun. The story begins with an origami surgeon, a man who creates organs for transplant and then goes on to create entire people out of nothing but folded paper. All the characters were strange, yet I couldn’t help entering into their interests and cheering for them as they picked flowers and engaged in a war against Saturn. Why? Because he was looking at them.

Mid-way through, I was disappointed at finding out Saturn’s identity; the whole story suddenly seemed rather mundane and just too cute. For example, I had really liked the idea of origami surgery and didn't want it to be a simplistic metaphor. Books that leave room for my own imagination have a stronger impact on me. I also wasn’t much interested in hearing about the author’s personal issues and problems writing the book.

However, Plascencia managed to hold it together enough for me to finish the book. I liked the characters in the town best: Froggy who endured the gang initiation and became its heart, Federico who needed to sit under the shell of a mechanical tortoise in order to think, Baby Nostradamus who could hide his thoughts. I would have liked the book better if Plascencia had stuck with them instead of spelling out his metastory (and metaphors), but perhaps others will enjoy the extra layers.

Ultimately, the book is a cautionary tale about the power of stories. We can all create narratives (whether books or news articles or simply gossip), and we can also be the unwilling subjects of them. The book made me think about the power of the narrator over the subject, his/her power to intrude on other people’s privacy or inflict damage on their lives. Words can mean what we want them to, as Humpty Dumpty told Alice; all that matters is who is to be Master.

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen; Toby Tyler, by James Otis

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine ran away to join the circus. She went on tour with Cirque du Soleil as part of the orchestra. Not quite the traditional big top and elephant-led parade, but it reminded me of childhood fantasies of criss-crossing the country as part of a circus. Sure, I wanted to get gussied up in pink satin and ride around the ring standing on the back of a big white horse, but that wasn’t my primary motivation. Being on the road appealed to me; in another place and time, I’d have fantasized about running off with a gypsy caravan. Most of all, I wanted to hang out with the circus people. I wanted to be one of those enlightened and cynical people behind the scenes, the ones who knew all the secrets.

These books share some of those secrets. People on my maillists have been raving about Water for Elephants for months, so I picked it up and became absorbed by this story of a Depression-era circus and the young runaway who joined it. It’s framed by the story of the same man at ninety-three, stuck in a comprehensive care retirement community, “one of the ancient dusty people, filed away like some worthless tschotchke.” The two stories feed off each other; Jacob doesn’t seem to have lost much of his orneriness and hot-headed courage over the years.

Gruen’s extensive research adds depth without calling attention to itself. Period and sensory details made me feel the bite of a toothless lion, the rocking of the train underfoot, the difficulty of moving from wheelchair to walker. Some circus characters and scenes turn out to be based on those she discovered in her reading. And I was charmed by the period photographs she included.

My only quibble was with the prologue. Some people can’t stand prologues; they skip them or refuse to read a book that has one. I don’t mind them, as long as they contribute to the story and aren’t just a—to me, lazy—way of foreshadowing or starting in media res, as we’re told to do. Here, the prologue is a chunk of the climax copied and pasted in front of Chapter One. It’s confusing because we don’t know the characters or what’s going on. It’s unnecessary because Chapter One’s opening is a fine start. And—for me—it detracts from the climax when we finally get there by adding a ho-hum, been-there dimension. It did not make me curious to read on; it simply exasperated me.

However, I was able to forget about it quickly and fell so thoroughly under the spell of the story that I read it all in one go. I kept trying to put it down so I could tackle my massive to-do list but next thing I knew, there I was reading it again. It even sent me back to Toby Tyler on which the 50’s tv show Circus Boy was based. The show starred Mickey Dolenz, later one of the Monkees, as Toby.

Although my copy of the book with its brittle brown pages doesn’t show a date, I thought it must date from the era of sugar-sweet children’s stories. Maybe, but this book surprised me with its candid look behind the tent flaps. Some of the details, such as the “lemonade” made from brook water with a few lemon slices for show, were similar to Gruen’s book (hers was a little worse: trough water with the straw filtered out). Certainly the idea was the same: circus people are like any other group of people, a mixture of kind, generous folks and cruel bullies. Even so, there are still days when running away to join the circus seems to me like a great idea.