Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal

sunflowerI am sure that you are all familiar with the name Simon Wiesenthal. He was not only an author and a brilliant academic, but he was also heralded for his tireless work in identifying Nazi criminals and bringing them to justice. He leaves behind an endless legacy which is primarily expressed through The Wiesenthal Centre, a global Jewish human rights organisation that confronts anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism, promotes human rights and dignity, stands with Israel, defends the safety of Jews worldwide, and teaches the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations. Wiesenthal is probably most remembered for his role in capturing Adolf Eichmann and bringing him to justice.

This book, The Sunflower, recounts an experience that Wiesenthal had whilst in a work camp/concentration camp during the Second World War. Taken out of the camp to work at a school now converted to a hospital, a nurse takes Wiesenthal to the bedside of a dying member of the SS. This man had asked the nurse to find him a Jew to whom he could confess his sins.

The soldier is seriously injured and clearly dying. He is burned and his face is wrapped in bandages, hidden from view. He proceeds to unburden himself to Wiesenthal, reaching out to him and preventing him from leaving the room. Wiesenthal is immobilised. He does not know whether to flee or stay and bear the weight of the confession.It is a complex and fraught situation, one with no proper response. Wiesenthal, the concentration camp survivor listens to the SS soldier’s words and then walks away, unable to provide the absolution which is sought. He wears this torn sense of guilt on his sleeve for years, incapable of giving himself absolution for sitting and listening to the confession. Wiesenthal’s solution is to seek out the soldier’s mother in an effort to unburden himself to her and make her wear the burden of her son’s sins… even in this endeavour he fails for he cannot destroy the mother’s illusion of her son as “a good boy” who would never do any wrong. Wiesenthal walks away. However, he leaves us with this question:

You who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, “What would I have done?”

The remainder of the book presents a symposium of responses from various recognisable people – The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Cynthia Ozick and Primo Levi to name a few. I found this part of the book very difficult to read. The essay responses to Wiesenthal’s question are very short and what I wanted was more of a dialogue about this issue, rather than just a one sided response. At times I found myself vehemently disagreeing with the respondent’s but that was simply frustrating. I don’t think there is an answer to Wiesenthal’s question … I think that only God can forgive and in my mind, Wiesenthal had no power to take this man’s confession nor to bear the weight of the lives and legacies of the hundreds of people who died at his hand.

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Tears of the Desert, Halima Bashir

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This was probably not the best book to read on the back of Dream of Ding Village which I reviewed here, but I couldn’t help myself! From the first page I was hooked and there was no turning back, despite the somewhat desperate and confronting subject matter.

This book is a memoir and it details Bashir’s youth in a rural village in Darfur. Bashir describes her childhood in idyllic terms, surrounded by devoted parents and a stern but loving grandmother. Despite the incredibly strong connection between Bashir and her mother, the book pays significant attention to the relationships between the women in this family, specifically between Bashir and her grandmother. The grandmother’s story is itself fascinating: when her husband secretly took a second wife, the grandmother decided to leave and in secret she took the children and vanished. Unfortunately, there was one child that her husband would not allow out of his mother’s sight and Grandmother went to great lengths to reunite her family, abducting the child and disappearing. I wanted to hear more about this woman and her fire and passion! Grandfather eventually finds his lost wife and the two develop a good friendship, although they never reunite!

The legacy which Bashir pays most attention to is her father’s liberal approach toward her position as a woman and the value of education. Bashir is clearly academically minded and her father sends her to the city to a school and then on to university. Bashir embraces her education and revels in the opportunity to better herself. Despite the obstacles which she faces – the discrimination and bullying at the hands of her Arab peers, her struggle to fit in and the strangeness of the city – she thrives in this new space. For me, it was this which raised one of the most interesting confessions in this memoir. At first, Bashir is overjoyed to finish her first term at school and return home. She describes falling back into the village lifestyle and her joy at seeing her friends, family and particularly her grandmother. However, when she returns to the village after her second stint at school she suddenly realises that she feels superior to the rest of the village, that she can no longer relate to them, their values and their beliefs. This leaves her torn and desperate to return to school and the environment to which she has become accustomed.

What was interesting for me was that Bashir so clearly enunciates the pitfalls of colonialism in this realisation and this stands in such distinct contrast to her sustained idyllic nostalgia. There is a taut balance between her desire to step into the West and the values it represents and her need to hold on to everything that her culture signifies to her.

Bashir’s journey is gripping and as I turned the book’s final pages I was desperate to know more about this incredible woman and all she accomplished. Unfortunately, my searches on the internet revealed only scant information! I would welcome a sequel to this fascinating story!!

Letters from the Lost: A Memoir of Discovery, Helen Waldstein

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I haven’t yet finished this book but I am so enjoying its journey that I couldn’t wait to share it with you!

Letters from the Lost is a most beautiful memoir about the ties which bind people and how language can so clearly paint the picture of these bonds. The book is constructed around a series of letters that Waldstein discovers after her father has passed away. Through these fragments, Waldstein reconstructs the past which her parents so carefully kept from her, or rather, protected her from.

Waldstein’s father was fortunate to receive the last exit visa from a clerk at the time that Hitler invaded Prague in 1939. Waldstein took his wife and then young child, Helen, to Canada where they started a new life as farmers. In Canada, Helen’s parents did their best to ensure that she had the best that they could offer. At times this meant hiding the fact that they were Jewish.

Helen follows this trail of letters back to Europe where she is reunited with the house keeper whose scent she still remembers and where she is forced to come to terms with the enormous loss that plagued her family over the decades that passed since their escape from the destruction wrought by Hitler.

The story is told with such incredibly sensitivity and at times awe that it is marvellously readable and very emotive. I am drawing it out because I simply don’t want it to end… through the extracts from these letters I feel as though I have come to know all the aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins that Helen knows only as a distant echo of a memory. I, like Helen, am relearning the past and despite the underlying sorrow, it is a beautiful journey.

Dream of Ding Village, Yan Lianke

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This was one intense and extremely disturbing book. I’m not sure quite what to say about it. On the one hand, it presents a very satirical and thought provoking depiction of life in China’s rural areas: the power of the government officials, the dichotomy between rich and poor, the rites and rituals which characterise the culture of the region. On the other hand, the characters in this novel and the tender way in which they are described and nurtured is so touching that it is hard to balance this with the satirical nature of the text. I found myself feeling a very contradictory set of responses to this novel and I am still not quite resolved in my overall reaction to it.

What I found most disturbing about this story was its context; an Aids epidemic in China. This touched me on many levels. Firstly, and most obviously, I knew nothing about this tragedy and when I did a quick google search I discovered that the reports in the media corroborated Lianke’s perspective in this text. We have heard so much about the spread of Aids in Africa that the same disaster in China seems to have taken a back seat … Secondly, the spread of this “fever” was a direct result of government sponsored blood collections which were an inspired way that the Chinese officials decided to boost the economy in these small rural enclaves. The entire novel is constructed around the hypocrisy of this situation, the double standards, and the warped perspectives of villagers and officials alike. 

On some level, this novel reminded me of the art works of Ai Wei Wei, specifically his installation called Remembering. I love Wei Wei’s work but I think that I found Lianke’s novel too confronting on some level. Perhaps I am yet to digest it … Anyone else read it?

Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan

Last week I jumped on Esi Edugyan train of a novel, Half Blood Blues. I call it a train because i feel I was truly taken for the most miraculous ride. At times we sped through tranquil landscapes, emotions flying and flaring and at other moments we were forced to pause and listen to the stillness of the perfect musical note trilling against this fraught backdrop of Europe in the 1940s. I felt myself guzzling this novel, literally wolfing it down whole, parts undigested, having to force myself to hold back so that the incredible journey wouldn’t end, so that I could wallow for just a few more pages before I reached the final destination and the porter came to tell me that the ride was over and I had to disembark. 

I loved everything about this book. I loved the fact that I was so surprised by it in so many different ways. I loved the way Edugyan managed to craft these incredible voices which resonated with so many different emotions. I loved the twisted connections between characters, the slow blossoming of relationships and the mateship that characterised the bond between men from different backgrounds with a common love for making music. I loved the way that Edugyan took an era in history that is so written about, so terrifying, and enabled us to see some of the beauty that grew beneath the winds of the Nazi occupation of Europe. In this simple book, she has allowed us to reacquaint ourselves with the humanity behind the horror and the horror within that humanity. 

This is not a happy book, but it is also not a sad one. Rather, it is a beautiful mix of emotions which ebbs and flows much like the music it describes. For me, this ability to take to readers by the hand and lead them ever so gently into the river of the narrative is such I gift that I was literally swept away by Edugyan’s craftsmanship. This novel is a true pleasure to read. It’s voices are so filled with hope, awe and sorrow that one cannot help but be swept away. Reading this book I felt like it’s protagonist, Sidney, as he describes his friend Chip and his ability to play the drums:

“Hell, I known he played the drums a bit, but nothing like this. I watched in awe as Chip skipped gently on the cymbals, worked his skinny thigh into a rhythm on the bass. Holy hell, my boy could wail. Limbs all twitching, his very skin seemed to peel back on the harder hits. Was one of those moments someone comes unclothed, you see this whole other life in the. I was trampled flat.”

And then, his passion for music, for Jazz in particular:

“I was in love. Pure and simple. This place, with its stink of sweat and medicine and perfume; these folks, all gussied up never mind the weather – this, this was life to me. Forget Sunday school and girls in white frocks. Forget stealing from corner stores. This was it, these dames swaying their hips in shimmering dresses, these chaps drinking gutbucket hooch. The gorgeous speakeasy slang. I’d found what my life was meant for.”

And as the story unravels its velvet folds, so the writer interjects with these magical observations about life, the world and the power of passion:

“At last Chip said, ‘I tell you what I know. The world’s damn beautiful. But it’s an accidental beauty. What we do, it’s deliberate. It’s the one damn consolation you can offer not just you own life, but other lives you ain’t even met.’ He gave Hiero a long, thoughtful look. ‘You don’t owe the world nothing, Thomas. I know it. And you a good man. But it sure as hell breaks my heart, missing your music. There been this one brutal emptiness I been hauling around my whole life, and it’s that damn beautiful music of yours. I ain’t never stopped being lonely for it.”

And on it goes. I could add some further spoilers about the plot and the interesting nature of the characters, but I will leave that up to you to discover for yourselves. In short, I found this a magical book, well worth the ride and I will definitely be watching out for more from this incredible author.