Showing posts with label Jerzy Kosinski. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jerzy Kosinski. Show all posts

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Orphan Master’s Son

North Korea is an enigma (to me at least).  Only a few months ago the young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was saber rattling nuclear missiles, threatening not only South Korea, but American bases in the Pacific as well.  Bizarrely, at about the same time, basketball celebrity Dennis Rodman visited the country and the new leader (apparently Kim Jong-un likes basketball).  Rodman thinks he played peacemaker.   How weird to see the heavily tattooed Rodman sitting side by side with the young chubby cheeked dictator. 

Did I really want to know more about the circus-like-train-wreck of North Korea?  However, the accolades for Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son were overwhelming, calling to me. So, I’ve read it and can understand why it deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature last year.

This is a compelling novel, such a good story, and so well written.  But can life in North Korea really be as Johnson writes?  While no one can say whether his depiction is accurate, it is fiction, and it succeeds as an allegory of universal themes. 

At times episodic, with shifts in time and voice, mixing the 3rd person narrative of Jun Du AKA Commander Ga, and the 1st person narrative of an interrogator who is dedicated to extracting the “truth” from his interrogees by writing their biographies (vs. the brute torture inflicted by the “Pubyok”). Interspersed are propaganda broadcasts which surreally move the story further along.  The entire narrative ultimately revolves around the caprice of “The Dear Leader,” Kim Jong II, (Kim Jong-il, the father of the present leader) who is the ultimate Orphan Master of an entire nation. 

One can only describe the action as an extended nightmare, following the narrative down a rabbit hole into a totalitarian state whose underpinning is brainwashing; its people expecting no more than a life that would seem like Dante’s Inferno to any westerner. The book makes normalcy of brutality and propaganda, portraying a society where insanity is sanity.  In fact, I was constantly thinking of my college psychology professor, Gustave Gilbert, who wrote The Nuremberg Diary, had interviewed all the major Nazi figures who were put on trial there, and came to the conclusion that as they were raised in a culture where deference to authority took precedence over all, their actions would not be considered “insane” in such a society.  I also couldn’t help but think of another WWII allusion, a work of fiction though, Jerzy KosiƄski’s The Painted Bird, chronicling the horror witnessed by a young boy, who was considered a Jewish stray, during the War.

And similarly, this is a coming-of-age story of Jun Du (or, as some have aptly noted, a “John Doe”) who, although the son of a man who ran the “Long Tomorrows” orphanage, is raised as an orphan himself, as his beautiful mother, an opera singer, had been shipped off to Pyongyang for the amusement of the New Class, as is so often the fate of beautiful women in that State.  From helping to run the orphanage (his father was frequently drunk), he “graduates” to “tunneler” – working in the dark in tunnels under the DMZ to kidnap South Koreans and then Japanese by boat.  He further graduates to study English and becomes a radio surveillance 3rd mate on a North Korean fishing ship, reporting English conversations for reasons unknown.  One of those conversations is of two American women rowing across the ocean, one of which figures later in the novel.

When Jun Do had filled out his daily requisition of military sounds, he roamed the spectrum.  The lepers sent out broadcasts, as did the blind, and the families of inmates imprisoned in Manila who broadcast news into prisons – all day the families would line up to speak of report cards, baby teeth, and new job prospects.  There was Dr. Rendezvous, a Brit who broadcast his erotic “dreams” every day, along with the coordinates of where his sailboat would be anchored next.  There was a station in Okinawa that broadcast portraits of families that US servicemen refused to claim.  Once a day, the Chinese broadcast prisoner confessions, and it didn’t matter that the confessions were forced, false, and in a language he didn’t understand – Jun Do could barely make it through them.  And then came that girl who rowed in the dark.  Each night she paused to relay her coordinates, how her body was performing and the atmospheric conditions.  Often she noted things – the outlines of birds migrating at night, a whale shark seining for krill off her bow.  She had, she said, a growing ability to dream while she rowed.

What was it about English speakers that allowed them to talk into transmitters as if the sky were a diary?  If Koreans spoke this way, maybe they’d make more sense to Jun Do.  Maybe he’d understand why some people accepted their fates while others didn’t  He might know why people sometimes scoured all the orphanages looking for one particular child when any child would do, when there were perfectly good children everywhere.  He’d know why all the fisherman on the Junma had their wives’ portraits tattooed on their chests, while he was a man who wore headphones in the dark of a fish hold on a boat that was twenty-seven days at sea a month.

Not that he envied those who rowed in the daylight.  The light, the sky, the water, they were all things you looked through during the day.  At night, they were things you looked into.  You looked into stars, you looked into dark rollers, and the surprising platinum flash of their caps.  No one ever started at the tip of a cigarette in the daylight hours, and with the sun in the sky, who would ever post a “watch”?  At night on the Junma, there was acuity, quietude, pause.  There was a look in the crew members’ eyes that was both faraway and inward.  Presumably there was another English linguist out there on a similar fishing boat, pointlessly listening to broadcasts from sunrise to sunset.  It was certainly another lowly transcriber such as himself.

Our hero finally metamorphosizes into Commander Ga, a hero of the State (and the reader is more than eager to suspend disbelief of this change) as this page turning novel becomes a thriller of the first order.  He is united with Commander Ga’s wife, Sun Moon who is the State’s movie actress, a favorite of “The Dear Leader.”  From there, all of the main characters in the novel converge, even Sun Moon and the American rower, the propaganda speakers announcing:  Citizens!  Observe the hospitality our Dear Leader shows for all peoples of the world, even a subject of the despotic United States.  Does the Dear Leader not dispatch our nations’ best woman to give solace and support to the wayward American?  And does Sun Moon not find the Girl Rower housed in a beautiful room, fresh and white and brightly lit, with a pretty little window affording a view of a lovely North Korean meadow and the dappled horses that frolic there?  This is not dingy China or soiled little South Korea, so do not picture some sort of a prison cell with lamp-blacked walls and rust-colored puddles on the floor.  Instead, notice the large white tub fitted with golden lion’s feet and filled with the steaming restorative water of the Taedong.

Contrast that Halcyon scene with the reality of our hero’s imprisonment: In Prison 33, little by little, you relinquished everything, starting with your tomorrows and all that might be.  Next went your past, and suddenly it was inconceivable that your head had ever touched a pillow, that you’d once used a spoon or a toilet, that your mouth had once known flavors and your eyes had beheld colors beyond gray and brown and the shade of black that blood took on.  Before you relinquished yourself – Ga had felt it starting, like the numb of cold limbs – you let go of all the others, each person you’d once known.  They became ideas and then notions and then impressions, and then they were as ghostly as projections against a prison infirmary.

It is a love story as well, and it is the cry for individualism in a totalitarian state.  The nameless interrogator’s final dreamlike thoughts express it best:  I was on my own voyage.  Soon I would be in a rural village, green and peaceful, where people swung their scythes in silence.  There would be a widow there, and we would waste no time on courtship.  I would approach her and tell her I was her new husband.  We would enter the bed from opposite sides at first.  For a while, she would have rules. But eventually, our genitals would intercourse in a way that was correct and satisfying.  At night, after I had made my emission, we would lie there, listening to the sounds of our children running in the dark, catching summer frogs.  My wife would have the use of both her eyes, so she would know when I blew out the candle.  In this village, I would have a name, and people would call me by it.  When the candle went out, she would speak to me, telling me to sleep very, very deeply…I listened for her voice, calling a name that would soon be mine.

Adam Johnson has written an epic novel, one that required research and a colossal imagination.  Sign me up for his next work!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Albert Schmidt, that is, but he prefers to be called "Schmidtie" and Louis Begley's trilogy captures the essence of a complex modern man.  It bothered me that a movie had been made of the first novel, About Schmidt (1996), with Jack Nicholson playing the title role, and it took a while to get the image of good ole' Jack out of my mind.  I also don't like seeing a film first and then reading the book, but years had intervened by the time I read the book last summer. Thus I had a hard time associating it with the film (other than Jack).  But as it turns out the book is entirely different (it would be best to say the film was "suggested" by the novel) and in fact when I now think of what Schmidtie might look like, I see Louis Begley, a remarkable writer and with a remarkable personal history.

Begley came to writing late in life and like Joseph Conrad and Jerzy Kosinski, English is a second language, Polish being the language of their birth.  The similarities to Kosinski are striking, Begley having to exorcise his demons about the Nazi occupation of Poland by writing Wartime Lies.  It is a thinly autobiographical account of the protagonist's attempt to avoid persecution as a Jew . I remember reading Kosinski's Painted Bird when it was first published, a profoundly disturbing holocaust novel.  I haven't read Wartime Lies, but it is now on my list.

After that novel, Begley felt he could move on as a writer, even though he remained a full-time attorney with the firm of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, specializing in international corporate transactions. He has since retired and now devotes his full energies to writing at the tender age of 79!

I've dealt with enough attorneys in my career, mostly corporate ones and those specializing in intellectual property, to know that their work depends on the careful execution of language.  Most of the attorneys I worked with thought that crafting a legal document was like building a fine piece of furniture or even creating a work of art.  No, that did not make them automatically eligible to start a second career as a creative writer as one needs something to say as well.  In fact Begley, by his own admission, did not pursue a career as a writer at first for that very reason, although he enjoyed a creative writing class at Harvard where he earned his AB in 1954.  It took him decades to find his voice, and now that he has, he is, thankfully, writing full time.

Interestingly, his class of 1954 included none other than the late John Updike, my favorite writer.  They both graduated summa cum laude and they must have known each other.  Whether they kept in touch over the years we will find out when Begley's son, Adam Begley, is finished with the biography he is writing of John Updike.  I will be lining up for the first copy!

After finishing All About Schmidt, I promptly turned to the second novel of the trilogy, Schmidt Delivered (2000) and now have finally finished the third novel, Schmidt Steps Back (2012) and have been profoundly affected by it.  Although these were written years apart, I had the good fortune to read all within a few months and, therefore, I almost think of them as one work.

For me, Begley sort of picks up where Updike left off, following one character and setting that character against the backdrop of the times in which he lives.  Updike updated us every ten years in the Rabbit tetrology while Begley's trilogy is a more compressed time frame.  Nonetheless, there are many similarities, particularly the novel as memoir, a kind of history of our times, and the intellectual level at which both Updike and Begley operate, their erudite prose befitting of their excellent educations.

Rabbit is more of an "everyman" whereas Schmidtie is moving in the upper echelon of society, certainly the upper 1% to borrow from the recent election.  And that should not be surprising as Begley's legal work put him front and center in that stratum of society. 

In terms of style, Begley writes like an attorney in many respects; his sentences sometimes complex but finely crafted and I like his dispensing with quotation marks for dialog.  It takes a little getting used to, but it seems so natural.  I felt neutral to the protagonist in the first novel, moved a little closer to him in the second, and by the third felt simpatico.   

Rabbit and I shared many commonalities, and now I find myself in Schmidtie's shoes, thinking similar thoughts and of course witnessing the same events.  It makes these novels living breathing documents to me.

Begley covers so many topics and themes in these novels, the ambiguity of memory, Jewishness, moneyed privilege (consider this beautiful crafted passage on that topic: "Tim had it all, every quality required to make him, as the younger partners put it, the complete package.  Handsome, imperially slim, arrayed in discreet made-to-order suits and shirts that did not shout their Savile Row and Jermyn Street provenance, he trailed an aura of old New York money."), mental illness, homosexuality, the publishing industry and the legal establishment, the death of a spouse (his wife, Mary dies early on in the first novel), spring-winter romance, divorce and infidelity, the tragic relationship with his only child, Charlotte ("His short-lived happiness had been added to the monstrous inventory of Charlotte's resentments.  There was no doubt: the ever-deeper -- he was beginning to fear permanent -- estrangement from his daughter was his life's principal liability.") and, finally, sex scenes worthy of Updike's Couples.

He throws down the gauntlet in the opening pages of Schmidt Steps Back (the best of the three novels), Schmidtie speculating as to how many years he has left (he guesses ten) and how death might come calling. Dr. Tang is his physician and Gil his best friend from college. I was fascinated by this long paragraph, as if Begley was listening in on my own private thoughts as they pertain to the inevitable.  He also sets up some of the basic themes in the novel, the prospect of happiness (and his ability to have sex) with a woman he had romanced thirteen years before the opening of the novel, Alice, and the consequence and obligations of money:

"Silly business, Schmidt thought, Dr. Tang's attention to his diet.... He had asked Dr. Tang whether she could foresee the form in which death would come for him. You won't  scare me, he had said, everyone has an appointment in Samarra, and I own a cemetery plot with a view of Peconic Bay I rather like. She laughed gaily in reply and told him that with a patient in such good health it was impossible to predict. Schmidt's simultaneous translation was Don't ask stupid questions, leave it to team death, they'll figure it out. Ever polite, he had merely laughed back. In truth, he had his own hunches: stroke or cancer, demonic diseases that don't always go for the quick kill. But whatever it might turn out to be, no one, absolutely no one, would get him to move into a nursing home. If he was compos mentis, and not yet paralyzed, he would find his own way to the exit. Otherwise, the instructions left with Gil, naming him the sole arbiter of Schmidt's life and death, should do the job, with a little friendly nudge from Gil if need be. It was no more than he would do for Gil, who had made his own arrangements giving Schmidt the power of decision. Dementia, the illness most likely to cut off the means of escape, held more terror than any other. But he had not heard of a single ancestor, going back three generations, who had been so afflicted. The other side of the coin, the agreeable side, was his overall good health. Once he got going in the morning, he was still quite limber. In truth, he doubted there was much difference between his condition thirteen years earlier, when he first called on Alice in Paris, to take an example that preoccupied him, and the way he was now. Not unless you wanted to fixate on the deep lines, running to the corners of his mouth, that had only gotten deeper or the hollow cheeks or the fold of skin sagging from his neck. Taken together, they gave him an expression so lugubrious that efforts to smile made him look like a gargoyle. The situation was less brilliant when it came to his libido and sexual performance. The grade he had given himself when last put to the test had been no higher than a pass, but as he had told Alice, he had not yet tried any of the miracle pills that old geezer-in-chief Bob Dole swore by on television. Besides, the test in question had been unfair: the lady whom he may have disappointed could not hold a candle to the incomparable Alice. Did his age and the ravages of time make it reprehensible to keep over- paying the Hampton mafia of gardeners, handymen, carpenters, and plumbers for the pleasure of having everything at his house just so? Or to pay the outrageous real estate taxes that financed town services, neatly itemized on the tax bill as though to taunt him by proving that he derived no personal benefit from them? Hell, there were lots of men unable to get a hard-on and lots of women who had faked orgasms until blessed moment when they could finally declare that at their age they'd given the whole thing up, living comfortably in houses much grander than his. Spending more money than he!"

Then there is the notion of the novel as history.  Begley gives witness to the manners and mores, the foibles, and the likes and dislikes of his times. Updike's characters are similarly entwined with their periods in American history. I would rather read a novel in this vein than any history book to get a sense of what people not only witnessed, but what they felt.  This is why I prefer fiction to nonfiction (although some of nonfiction could probably pass as fiction!).  We all remember where we were on certain momentous days.  My older relatives remember Pearl Harbor, while I remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated that moment in time only to be surpassed by the events of September 11, 2001.

Begley  flawlessly describes the horror and the incredulity of that infamous day in the third novel:
"Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Perfect blue sky, perfect late-summer temperature. If it hadn't been for the foundation's board meeting, Schmidt would have stayed in Bridgehampton. As it was, he had driven in the evening before, got to the office early to prepare for the meeting, which was to start at ten. His secretary, Shirley, walked into his room shortly after nine to say good morning and ask whether he wanted coffee.
By the way, she added, one of those pesky little private planes has plowed into one of the World Trade Center towers. There's smoke coming out the building where it hit. If you come to reception you'll have a good view.
Schmidt glanced at his papers. For all practical purposes he was ready. He walked down the corridor to where a large number of Mansour Industries employees already assembled in the forty-eighth-floor reception area were looking toward the southern tip of Manhattan, staring at the smoking tower, when the second plane hit. No one thought any longer that some neophyte aboard his Piper or Cessna was to blame. The traders who occupied two-thirds of the floor and had been glued to Madrid's El Mundo on their computers, unable to reach other sites, dashed in with the news; someone brought in a television set and connected to a German station. On the screen tiny-seeming figures, some of them holding hands, could be seen jumping from the vast height of the wounded buildings. Someone shouted, Look! Look! Schmidt turned away from the screen to look south, and before his eyes one tower crumbled and, not a half hour later, the second. Then came news of another plane that had hit the Pentagon and another still that had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. And the passengers in those planes, men, women, children-their seat belts buckled-waiting for the moment of impact, knowing that they were to die in flames of burning jet fuel. Schmidt found that he could not detach his thoughts from them, as though it were his own nightmare from which he was unable to awake. Were they praying? Strangers embracing strangers next to whom they sat across armrests? Recollecting quickly all that had been good and beloved in their lives? Some of the children must have understood, but the others? The infants? Did the sound of their wailing fill the planes' cabins? Did it soften the murderers' hearts or was it their foretaste of paradise?"

Begley has already written several other novels, ones now on my reading list.  Perhaps he is working on his fourth Schmidt novel (one would hope!).  He is a worthy writer to be added to my personal pantheon of "favorites." 

Although now ten years old, here is an excellent interview with Begley from the Paris Review

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

About a Bear

Here is a satiric fable, an extended parable for our times, making hilarity of the foibles of human nature, a change of pace from my usual reading fare, The Bear Went over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle. My Cousin Joan recommended this book to me, surprised I had never heard of it as it was published in 1996 and the publishing industry is the main setting. Joan and I share the same sense of humor, not to mention grandparents.

Simple story. Bear (who adopts the name of "Hal Jam" the last name coming off a jar of jam of course) finds a manuscript (intended to be the Great American Novel") written by an English professor who is on sabbatical in the woods of Maine, makes his way into the big city (the bear that is), poses as a human (you have to throw any sense of reality to the wind) to the extent that he can, and becomes the toast of the publishing world. He happily indulges in honey and other sweets, meeting important people, women pursuing him as if he is the reincarnation of Hemingway. The real author, meanwhile, in a fit of depression realizing he has lost his great novel, also loses his professorship, stays in the woods and, in fact, becomes bear-like, sleeping away part of the winter. I will not give the ending away, but who do you think Kotzwinkle thinks made the better trade of lives?

Meanwhile throughout the novel, the stage is set for some very funny moments. But one thing I cannot get out of my head while I read this is Jerzy Kosinski's novel, Being There, where the simple minded "Chauncey Gardiner" (the gardener at the estate of a well known man) is mistaken by the press to be a wise philosopher in his simplicity. "Plant the seeds and the garden will grow" -- Of course, if we make our investments and some tough decisions, the economy will revive! (Sort of like now.)

Here are but a few examples from The Bear Went Over the Mountain:

Ms. Boykins, a literary agent pursuing Hal, says "The sales forces will insist on a tour..." Hal Jam puts his paws over his ears as the din from the restaurant is overwhelming his "animality." "The racing stream of human speech glistened as it curved around obstacles and glided on, relentless in its gradient, while he panted in animal stupidity And then his nose twitched, the olfactory bulb at its root a thousand times more sensitive than that of a human. He straightened and moved his head around to isolate the natural scent he'd found within the synthetic veil of perfumes. There it was, moist, cool. 'Salmon.'"
Boykins says: "Yes, they do it skewered with tomatoes, mushroom, and green peppers."
"'Raw,' said the bear with resurgence of primal authority."
"'Raw female. Lots of eggs. In my teeth.' The bear tapped at his incisors."
"My god, thought Boykins, he is another Hemingway."

Or when Hal Jam goes shopping in a supermarket... "The skyscrapers of Manhattan had astounded him, and now the endless amounts of honey that man had available to him had humbled him to the ground. The intelligence, the inventiveness, the time and courage, it took to lay in this much honey was the final proof that man wore the crown of creation. 'Bears are just along for the ride,' he said to himself as he filled his cart with honey...."

Or his meeting with a Hollywood agent, Ms. Zou Zou Sharr at whom the bear looked "from under the peak of his baseball cap. It was the first time he'd been this close to a human female for any length of time, and he liked the experience. If she had some fur on her face and the backs of her hands she might be good looking."

Zou Zou misunderstands just about every brief phrase the bear utters as being a demand for a larger take from movie rights, saying "'Believe me, Hal, your piece of the pie is just what it should be and so is CMC's.'" "When I eat a pie, I eat it all," says the Bear. Zou Zou replies: "Of course you do, and I understand. The book is yours, it's your creation, and you want your fair share." Eventually, Zou Zou offers herself to the bear to get the contract. They "do it," the bear tossing her around the room. She's enthralled by being ravished -- he's an animal! Yes, another Hemingway! And they do it in a taxi -- "He'd passed a great human milestone. He'd done it more than once a year."

Eventually, the bear meets the Vice President and the President, again, another hat tip to Kosinski's novel.

As a former publisher, I laughed at almost every page. Indeed, these are the trade publishing people I saw flitting around in Frankfurt every year absorbed by their self importance.

In many ways the book is also reminiscent of Firmin which is about a rat who lives in a bookstore. And a rat figures near the conclusion of this book as well. That Kotzwinkle can keep up the conceit of Hal Jam being part of the American literary, political, and New York scene for the entire length of the novel is a testimony to his satiric artistry. Lots of fun reading this one. Thanks, Cuz Joan!!!!.......

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Chauncey Gardiner Lives!

The Republican debate last night was laughable, sometimes downright embarrassing. Sound bites galore: "Everything is Obama's fault," "I'm a Christian" (choose your deity carefully), "I love family," "prosecute illegal immigrants and their employers" -- in fact electrocute them! (Who will pick Cain's apples and oranges?) "Less or even no taxes will create jobs." "9-9-9," "drill, drill, drill," "blah, blah, blah." If you can't say it, scream it over the other candidates.

Each has his/her shtick in these "debates" proclaiming a "plan" (as they like to call it), in 30 seconds or less. One cannot help of think of Jerzy Kosinski's prophetic novel, Being There, written more than 40 years ago about a simple minded gardener, Chance, who is catapulted to political fame, becoming "Chauncey Gardiner" when the media mistakes his comment, "I like to watch my garden grow" as a metaphor for the economy. That was Chauncey's "plan."

And did the CNN format remind you a little of American Idol or Dancing with the Stars? I honestly thought I'd see three judges emerge with scorecards. Text your winner America!