Monthly Archives: August 2011

Dan Pagis Again

כתוב בעפרון בקרון החתום
דן פגיס

כאן במשלוח הזה
אני חוה
עם הבל בני
אם תראו את בני הגדול
קין בן אדם
תגידו לו שאני

I’ve taken the liberty of posting the original Hebrew version of this poem, which, for some reason, is haunting me this week. I can’t get past the impossibility of translating the plural ‘you’ that is embedded in the Hebrew verbs ‘Tagidu‘ and ‘Tiru‘. How does one convey that in English? To simply say ‘you’ doesn’t imply nearly the same amount of weight as the pluralised Hebrew forms of the word. The native meaning is so central to the essence of this poem, to its heaviness, its warnings.

I find myself stuck on the solitary image of Eve, in Hebrew ‘Em Kol Chai’ (the mother of all of life), in the midst of a world populated by men. It is her voice that we are hearing in this poem, but it is confounded by the reverberations implicit in her dual status as Mother of all and specifically as Mother to Cain and Abel. The simplicity of the statement ‘I am Eve’ is central to this image that Pagis creates of Eve alone. She is anchored in this place, perhaps the anchor itself, and although she has clearly lost control of her fate, she is, nonetheless, wielding a conviction or faith (emunah) that sees her tone remain calm and focused. I am Eve. It is as though she is reinforcing her identity, her belief in herself and in her G-d, her awareness that while her physical self may die, her essence is eternal. I am Eve – here, there, everywhere.


It is enough to just say her name. It needs no adjectives, nothing to enhance its meaning. I am Eve.

The others in this poem exist only in terms of their relationship to this universal mother. Abel is known only as ‘bni‘, my son. Without her he does not have a self, he is metaphorically lost. Cain (whose name sounds ironically like the ‘kan’ – here – which starts the poem) is absent, divorced from the fate of his mother and brother, perhaps in part responsible for that collective fate. Nonetheless, he is still considered as Eve’s son, differentiated by the adjective ‘hagadol‘ – the eldest – and by his connection to Adam. Cain is ‘ben adam‘, literally, the son of Adam and also a man (the Hebrew has two meanings). What does this mean? How does this relate to the function of this poem as a warning to Cain or to all that he represents?

If the poem is Eve’s message from the grave that even the sinners should never forget that she is their mother, how do we reconcile Eve’s own sin in the Garden of Eden?

What do you read in this poem?

And, what do you make of the fact that the only connection that this poem holds linguistically to the Holocaust is its title?

Written in Pencil in a Sealed Boxcar, Dan Pagis

Here in this transport
I am Eve
With Abel my son
If you see my older son
Cain, son of Adam,
Tell him that I am

Secret Daughter, Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Loved this book, loved this book, loved this book! What a great story, intriguing characters and endearing moments. A pleasure to read. I thoroughly enjoyed the juxtaposition of cultures, the clash between America and India and the challenges of trying to balance the influences of each place.

Somer, a high achieving American woman meets and marries Kris, an Indian who is studying in America. They have the picture perfect relationship. Both graduate as doctors and they begin their lives living the American Dream. But, Somer can’t seem to have children and despite everything that they try she is unable to carry to term and suffers two miscarriages. Somer is devastated and cannot get past her inability to realise her potential as a mother.

Somer and Kris’ story is balanced with equal attention and tension with the story of Mr and Mrs Merchant, a couple living in rural India. They live at the mercy of the seasons and are subject to the cultural preference of sons over daughters.  The story that unfolds is somewhat predictable: Mr and Mrs Merchant have a daughter that they surrender for adoption and Somer and Kris land up adopting that daughter.Where this novel excels is in the development of these five very different characters. Each is wonderfully unique and multi-dimensional. Their personal growth and journey is well worth the read and often inspiring. Kris’ Indian mother was particularly fascinating and delightful.

I highly recommend this book!


Private London, James Patterson and Mark Pearson

I was looking forward to losing myself in a thriller and I figured that Patterson was a sure thing. While this book was relatively gripping, I have to admit that I was disappointed. Patterson failed to make the most of the plot line here and that is the whole point of a thriller. Readers are supposed to be gripped, to be desperate to read the next page and to relate to the characters and be able to empathise with them to an extend. A thriller doesn’t work without these engaging elements.

So, Patterson set up this scenario and I jumped into it the way that thriller readers tend to do … the beginning showed great promise. There was the necessary tension and a convincing background. The lead character was convincing and I was intrigued to discover how this tale would unfold. However, it seemed as though Patterson and Pearson failed to properly develop this plot line and the novel wavered toward its middle and then suddenly, toward the end, a whole other issue was brought in as an explanation for a crime. It was totally unconvincing and disappointing. I was frustrated by my inability to believe the contrived scenario and even more frustrated that there was no great twist or stunning ending. In all, it was a disappointing read and left me feeling quite blah.

I Know A Man, Yehuda Amichai

I Know A Man, Yehuda Amichai

I know a man
who photographed the view he saw
from the window where he made love
and not the face of the woman he loved there.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

I don’t recall from where the recommendation to read this one arrived. I simply know that there were many appealing elements to this book which inspired my interest. Firstly, the title: the ordinary combined with the exotic, the implication of something exceptional blossoming in unusual circumstances, a slice of colour amid the mundane. Secondly, I was intrigued by the fact that the book’s context is fundamentalist Afghanistan under Taliban ruled yet it is written by an author whose name sounds incredibly Jewish and who purportedly spent years in Afghanistan researching this unlikely story.

So, I read the book. On one level I was not disappointed. It is a relatively interesting story and the backdrop is quite fascinating. However, I have read other books which were perhaps more intriguing and about the same topic – I am thinking of The Bookseller of Kabul which I found truly marvellous and also, perhaps of the works of Fatima Mernissi and Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. Nonetheless, there was some value in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and the tenacity of the story’s protagonist is certainly admirable.

However, I found myself wanting to know more about the author and how she came to experience this story. I felt that the narrative evolved to be something that was more ‘sweet’ and even ‘cute’ rather than impressive or startling. The relationships between the individuals were too simple – perhaps this was a consequence of the constraints of the period, I am not sure. I was dissatisfied by the sweetness that I was left with, it didn’t seem appropriate at all. Interestingly, I was left with the same sense of disappointment upon reading I, Safiya.

I would be most interested to hear from others for whom this book is a first taste of life for women under the Taliban … perhaps my reading experience was destroyed by my knowledge?

1000 novels everyone must read …

I am too scared to even try and work out how many of these novels I have not yet read! Why do we do this to ourselves? As though it’s not enough to be repeatedly burdened by the long list of unread books on my kindle and the growing number of tomes on the shelves next to my bed? We insist on adding to the burden again and again and again.

Can people just stop writing for a brief moment so that some of us can catch up?

2011 Man Booker Prize Longlist

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape – Random House)
Sebastian Barry On Canaan’s Side (Faber)
Carol Birch Jamrach’s Menagerie (Canongate Books)
Patrick deWitt The Sisters Brothers (Granta)
Esi Edugyan Half Blood Blues (Serpent’s Tail)
Yvvette Edwards A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld)
Alan Hollinghurst The Stranger’s Child (Picador – Pan Macmillan)
Stephen Kelman Pigeon English (Bloomsbury)
Patrick McGuinness The Last Hundred Days (Seren Books)
A.D. Miller Snowdrops (Atlantic)
Alison Pick Far to Go (Headline Review)
Jane Rogers The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)
D.J. Taylor Derby Day (Chatto & Windus – Random House)

The Messenger, Yannick Haenel

I got this book courtesy of the good people at textpublishing. I heard great things about Haenel’s work so I decided to put it aside until such time that I was ready to devote my total concentration to it.

I have studied quite a bit about the Holocaust, doing a course at the Sydney Jewish Museum, visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust museum in Washington and reading various fictional and non-fictional accounts. I have met Elie Wiesel and revelled in his softly spoken brilliance. For a time I was overloaded with Holocaustisms and couldn’t stomach reading any more or thinking further about the unfathomable events which transpired in Europe during World War II.

So, it was with a bit of angst and trepidation that I opened The Messenger last week and started to read. Having completed the book I am unsure how to describe it. It is clearly faction – a fictional account of factual events. It is  part documentary and part narrative, a story about Jan Karski, a non Jewish Pole who lands up involved with the Polish underground, trying to publicise the fate of the Jews of Poland to the rest of the world. Karski’s mission is doomed but makes for fascinating reading. He visits concentration camps, meets with dignitaries like Churchill and Roosevelt and tries desperately not to lose himself beneath all the hardship that he witnesses.

Haenel’s book is an attempt to explore some of the complex issues involved in bearing witness. Karski as a protagonist is a perfect example of the challenges that anyone has to endure in order to survive witnessing horror. He is torn apart by his desire to bear witness to what he has seen in a public fashion. He speaks about his experiences until he can, quite literally, no longer speak any more and is rendered silent. He realises the futility of his need to give voice to the horrors:

“In the end, what touched them was not the fact that the Jews of Europe were being exterminated, it was that I felt so miserable. I was the one who touched them, not the fate of the Jews, and even less that of Poland. Of course, they found it all terrible; of course, they wanted the Nazis to stop inflicting such horrors.”

Through his text, Haenel gives voice to some of the deeper issues surrounding the Holocaust – why did the Allies not intervene earlier? Why did they feign ignorance? Why did they not bomb the camps? Haenel has no answer, but the very fact that he raises these questions in the manner in which he does so, was intriguing.

“I have lived through the end of what was called ‘humanity’. You must be careful about that word, I used to tell my students, it may even no longer be possible to use it correctly, because it has served as an alibi for the worst atrocities, it has been used as a cover-up for the most abject causes, both in the West and in the Communist countries. The word ‘humanity’ has become so compromised during the twentieth century that, each time it is used, it is as if we start to lie. It is not even possible to talk about ‘crimes against humanity’, as people did in the sixties … speaking about ‘crimes against humanity’ implies that a part of humanity has been preserved from barbarity, but the barbarity affects the entire world, as was shown by the extermination of the Jews of Europe, in which not only the Nazis were involved, but also the Allies.”

What Karski comes to terms with is that he cannot escape his responsibility to keep telling the story: “A witness’s life is no longer his, it belongs only to his testimony, and this cannot be stopped. It is impossible for a witness to bear witness just once; when you start bearing witness, you have to continue doing so ceaselessly, your words can never stop, and everyone should be able to benefit from them.”

I was torn, with Karski, by this book; torn by Haenel’s massive task to explore these issues and torn by revisiting the history of the horrors of the Shoah. This is one of those remarkable must read books. It is the duty of every person to grapple with the complexities of these gross atrocities against people and to try, on some level, to ensure that such a nightmare is never repeated.

Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson

I revisited this book recently for a student, just to refresh myself. I had forgotten about its austerity and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it, despite the fact that I knew what was unfolding. I think that at the time of my first reading I must have been less intune to the subtle racial under-currents which litter this book – although I’m not sure how this was possible. I don’t recall being so struck by the situation of the Japanese in America during the Second World War. Perhaps I was more taken by Guterson’s beautiful prose. In any event, I was enthralled by the way that Guterson managed to so clearly convey the complexity of this dynamic and the depth of emotion which built up, over time, in both the Japanese and the white American communities.

I was thrilled to be able to relate my reading with the photographs taken by Dorothea Lange depicting some of the traumatic events which became a part of life for Japanese people during this time.

I think that perhaps it was Lange’s haunting imagery which accompanied me through this second reading and made this book come alive for me.

One of the striking elements of this book is how Guterson manages to utilise a crime scene and trial to actually deal with these issues which are so central to American identity and history. Guterson’s characters are vividly dispersed and unfolded throughout their encounters with the victim and the protagonist, Kabuo. It is through their testimony at Kabuo’s trial that we come to know them each intimately. Whereas most crime fiction novels place the plot at the centre of their structure, for Guterson, it sits contentedly in the background, allowing him to flesh out the more subtle issues which are clearly so central to his understanding of America’s small town history.

I am intrigued to read more of Guterson’s work. Any suggestions?