Friday, July 17, 2015

638, 637, 636, 635: Books I read (Part 1)

Maus by Art Spiegelman

This is a graphic novel and a fable of the Holocaust. The Jews are mice, the cats are Germans, and the Polish are pigs. It is also a memoir of sorts because it’s told from Art Spiegelman’s point of view (who is Jew – so, he’s a mouse). It is a record of his father’s memories of the Holocaust, and a portrait of how even the broad strokes of history shape the smallest details of our lives – how we might have breakfast or how our father may bolt the door.

The book begins with a young Art crying about being teased by his friends. His father then tells him that he knows nothing about hardship.

Then begins the story of Holocaust and his father's survival through it. Although the descriptions of the Holocaust are in themselves troubling and poignant, it is the stubborn humanness that I found unnerving. Like the common decency one jailor may show a worker simply by not pelting him with stones on a snowy day. Or why someone who gets beaten and prodded and treated like an animal would still do push-ups. The part that really made me cringe was the aftermath of the Holocaust - beyond death and discrimination, when the Jews were free. The Jews, like Art's father, returned home to find that the Polish have taken over their lands and homes.

There is a portion where Art is deeply troubled by his father's expectations of him. His father wants Art and his girlfriend to move in with him. They don't want to. Although one may be sympathetic towards a Holocaust survivor, one may not be very tolerant of being related to him. Art's father displays incessant penny-pinching traits. He hoards groceries. His 'stranger-danger' alarm bells get sounded off everytime he sees an African-American (they live in the US.). Also exhausting is the guilt Art's annoyance with his father brings with it. In one sequence, Art visits a counsellor who helps him see that maybe Art feels that he is less of a man, or more of a loser, because he did not go through the Holocaust experience like his dad.

It is an exceptionally powerful book. Every little victory seems pyrrhic: people survived the concentration camp, and committed suicide within a matter of days of becoming free. Why do we keep going? Why do we stop? Between those points, maybe, lies the story and the reason.

Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

(Spoiler in the write-up.) Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist, of this book is twisted. He is grossly overweight, Irish, 30 years-old, unemployed, and lives with his mother in New Orleans. He can never hold down a job and is working on some serious manifesto of the age throughout the book. Something as menial as getting a job is ridiculous and leads him to believe he lacks (in his words), 'some perversion that a contemporary employer seeks' (or something to that effect.) 

The turning point comes when his inebriated mother drives and crashes somewhere. (Ignatius, of course, doesn't drive.) To pay for damages, now, Ignatius must get a job. He becomes a hot dog vendor, gets embroiled with a stripper who seeks to boost her business by employing a ridiculous parakeet act. There's a policeman. There's his mother who you really feel sorry for because...imagine a child like him. She has a friend who is this fiesty woman who always goes dancing. Ignatius tries his hand at working at a Levy pants factory where he meets people, tries to stage an uprising which fails because people snicker at his heft or something. And then there's Myrna Minkoff, Ignatius' pet peeve - but a woman he may share 'something' with. 


I read the book long back but I remember laughing out loud at the sub-plots. Ignatius' character is pretty much all-round iconic but the other secondary characters are so...I can't think of a word more apt than 'silly' - so specifically, deliciously, thankfully silly - that you want to belong to Ignatius' world. To be surrounded by that kind of naivete and pillowy, wholesome good-heartedness. 

Yet, towards the end - right at the  end, when Ignatius leaves home and is driven of by Myrna (who lands up unexpectedly), I felt sad. A melancholic, deflated kind of sad. In light of that ending, I went back through my favorite parts of the book and then, for some reason, I got the sense that maybe despite the snobbish slobbery of Ignatius J. Reilly, he just needed his mommy to hug him. This was before I read up about the author. He committed suicide and this work was published post-humously. His mother had met with several publishers to get this work out. 

Now, I'm not saying that the book really points to all this or whatever. But there's a fragility behind all that big humour that I found masterful.

Room by Emma Donoghue

This story is narrated by 5-year old Jack who has spent his whole life, thus far, in a small room. The reason it has worked out this way for our little boy is because his mother was held captive in that tiny room years ago. The kidnapper raped her repeatedly (and continues to) and Jack was born. He was born in that room and has lived in there ever since. 

The story begins with Jack's birthday. There are some treats in store for Jack - a pancake, a toy, a shirt. These are portions of the ration the kidnapper brings them periodically. Unless he is angry with the woman over something. That's when he stops bringing them food or does set the thermostat properly so that the mother and son have to freeze. Jack learned numbers and counting by going over each tile in the room. There's a wall where Jack's mother marks his height. There's a closet where Jack hides on nights the kidnapper comes to have sex with his mother. He only hears the man's grunts and groans, speculates on why his mum is so silent, and wonders when he'll be allowed out so he can snuggle with his mother. 

THEN, there's this other tiny piece of sky they see through the skylight. Jack doesn't know what that is, considering the room is in a basement and the only windows are really high up, beyond Jack's eye level. That place is 'outside', his mother explains. Jack narrates his possessiveness where he feels his mother seems is more besotted with 'the outside' than she is with him. 

Although the book's premise is grim , the first few chapters are cockles of sunshine. Jack is a happy child. His mother takes very good care of him and she's such a hero that you want to applaud. 

One day, certain events take place and Jack and his mother escape. (The portion where the escape happens is really thrilling.) That, at first, seems to be good news, except that it's not.

While the heart was heavy in the beginning, it positively breaks when Jack's mother tries to mesh back with her family. There comes a point when she commits suicide, after the escape. The onslaught of beneficence almost gets to her. Jack, on the other hand, was told the 'outside' is where freedom is. He finds, though, that you cannot walk on grass, take a toy in a store, clang your spoon, or do any number of things in the world. There's a part where he wonders whether his mother could have wrong about the 'Outside'. Then he resolutely decides 'No' because his mother could never be wrong. 

Like Maus and other horrific stories, I really wondered about the mother. How do people survive the worst periods of their lives and then somehow decide that it's time to get out? Is it because they feel that what they struggled for isn't worth it? Or that the banality is far more excruciating than a crisis?

This book is a very tender potrayal of how two broken people hobble along after a crisis. The goalpost, what everyone tells you, is normalcy. That goalpost keeps shifting. 

In the end, Jack's mother decides it's time to revisit the place where she was held hostage because it's time to make peace with her past. She returns with Jack. Jack's survey of the room is a sucker-punch. 

He feels the room is much smaller than what he remembered it. He says goodbye to the room. He says goodbye to the skylight. He simply sees the place as a spot where something had happened.

Jack has grown up. Jack has grown up?

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