“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel (2001)

1346313+++ SPOILERS +++

I saw the movie adaptation of this when it came out eight or nine years ago—I must have been about 13—, and I was very impressed. The novel has been sitting on my shelf for years. I thought this would be a good read, engaging and dramatic, but I didn’t think it would catch me off guard, especially since I knew the plot already. Turns out this story is much more philosophical than I remember. I’m really glad I finally decided to read it.

The disturbing but more believable version of what happened to Pi made this novel great for me, because it becomes clear that everything perceived by humans—animals, the sea, God—is indicative of human nature. The story that includes murder and cannibalism is ugly and brutal—far more difficult to read than the long version with Richard Parker, which somehow has an aestheticism to it that doesn’t really hurt while reading. But in a way, the two stories are the same, just like religion and atheism both say the same fundamental things about the human condition. Which version is true? Maybe both. Sometimes life is as irrational as the number pi.

“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth (2000)

Human Stain

Yet another contemporary literary giant by whom I hadn’t read anything. What I knew before is that Philip Roth writes about America. What I know after is that The Human Stain won’t be the last novel of his I read.

There is so much in this book – more than I expected out of 360 pages (sometimes I felt like, ‘Oh yeah, that happened as well!’). It is full of detailed psychological portraiture of (at least) four intricate characters, an extremely well-crafted plot, the USA commentary I was promised on the blurb (the story is set in 1998, i.e. Clinton-Lewinsky aftermath o’clock), and, definitely not least, beautiful, eloquent prose.

Ian McEwan said in a Guardian interview that he sometimes wonders whether “first person narration doesn’t let you off the hook of the demands of good prose. You can say, ‘Well, you know, if my character talks in clichés, what can I do about it…'”. But The Human Stain evades this danger with ease, as the narrator is himself a writer (and quite a good one at that). As one learns late in the novel, The Human Stain is actually a meta-title, since what one is reading is the book that the narrator is writing. I really love this subjective view that you have to accept as the reader; that there is no word of God. At times, I even found myself doubting the narrator’s trustability and mental stability.

I also always enjoy reading about the politics of academia, because it is something that can be so personal, childish even, but is always veiled in intellectual eminence. The Massachusetts town in which the book is set is called Athena, and Athena College’s scholarly Highnesses without fail manage to engage in petty fights of epic scope just as the Greek gods of old did. I wish I had more knowledge of ancient literature than just the most minimal survival kit, so that I would have gotten the allusions beyond the basic conceit of Athens, Greece/Athena, Mass. I loved and hated Delphine Roux, but she is certainly a fantastic character (her “betrayal of Kundera” is my favourite despicably pretentious but still just a tiny bit understandable sentiment). As, of course, is Coleman Silk, the classics professor who is the novel’s protagonist and whose story fundamentally surprised me several times throughout the plot. I sometimes had to stop and remind myself that I was reading pure fiction, not biography – although the story is inspired by real life events –, so lifelike are the personalities and the way things are in Roth’s world.

So, in conclusion I find that The Human Stain absolutely deserves the ambitious label American novel – if I’m not mistaken there are two other books in this series, both also possible to read as standalones, that, together with this one, make up the American Trilogy –, and for someone like me, for whom the US have always had a sense of almost perverse mythical fascination, the novel was a happy choice. Apparently there is also a 2003 film adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, so I think I’ll be giving that a try sometime. What I’ll take with me for now is a book that I felt was worth my time all the time, and I think that that, whenever it happens, really says something.

“Americanah” (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Anhang 1I first encountered Adichie when, about a year ago, my literature teacher showed my class a TED talk called The Danger of the Single Story, in which Adichie talks about the oppressive reduction of onesidedness. And although I dropped out of the class after the first session, the talk left an impression on me, and I’ve since rewatched it several times (can recommend). Then, a few months later, I started hearing people wildly praising this novel called Americanah, and it made its way onto display tables of not just British but also German bookstores.

So when I finally picked up the book this past weekend in a Cardiff bookshop, I had very high hopes. Americanah surpassed them all. It engaged me, activated me, and moved me.

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young Nigerians who fall in love during their time at secondary school in Lagos. Their daily lives are polluted by Nigeria’s corrupted military government and, on a more personal level, by a lack of self-sustaining identity. Intrinsic contentment is foreign, literally. Obinze’s idea of literature is American literature, his and Ifemelu’s friends dream of shiny lives in Britain or the US. After they finish school, the two go on separate paths. Soon, both find themselves on their own in that Western world which they have so often fantasised about.

And maybe this is the way in for a Western reader like myself. I’ll be honest, it’s sometimes easier and more appealing to just pick up a book by a major Western European or North American novelist. But I do want to read African writers. My shameful resorting to the incredibly broad category ‘African’ is testament to my bias in reading choice. And so Americanah is perhaps more easily accessible to someone like me, whose literary inaugaration to Africa this has been (hopefully, I can soon shed this sweeping continental generalisation). Because this is a book not just about a country foreign to me, Nigeria, but also about two which I know quite well – the US and the UK.

The narrative travels the globe and goes to places ranging from Philadelphia to Princeton to London to Newcastle. There and back again. What is great about this is that you learn so much about, for example, America through the non-American perspective; sometimes, the indirect glimpse can be the most insightful. The longing idealisation of the USA is, of course, not a thing exclusive to young people from Nigeria. It’s prevalence takes place even here in Germany – apparently the country whose citizens hold the most powerful passport in the world. That’s why so many young Germans (I am not exempt) find it more attractive to read Fitzgerald or Hemingway than Mann or Hesse.

And so, because it is critical of such glossy adulation without being spiteful, this book truly is a worldy one. Immersed in the last third of the story during my trip home from Wales to Germany, on the London leg of my coach journey, I would sometimes put a finger between the pages and look out the window, just to imagine that the very streets we were passing could be the ones from the novel.

It felt at once unsettling and comforting. Unsettling because the story is so realistic; it didn’t take much effort to imagine a closed warehouse door outside the coach window harbouring the miseries experienced by Americanah‘s characters. Comforting because someone, Adichie, had written these stories – intelligently, observantly, funnily,  and unapologetically. It feels strange to say, but I have to agree to a reviewer from ‘The Economist,’ who writes, “joyful to read.”

A joy not only only because the story transports important ideas, which it does, but also because of the great characters, who are not heroes but people. Ifemelu is not the simple recipient of the reader’s uncompromised advocacy but a person with ups and downs. This is what I value in realism, and it has certainly unfolded its in-your-face power in this novel. A joy also because the prose is on point, not too stretched, not too condensed; I wasn’t bored a single time while reading the novel, and the 477 pages flew by.

Leaving this book, I feel a little closer to a nuanced understanding of the world. Americanah is a wonderful contemporary tale of human relations, and I am grateful to have favoured the modern-looking purplish-green book that said Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on its back over yet another Penguin English Library novel last Saturday. If nothing else, this was a step towards evading the danger of the single story. One story at a time.

“Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson

I don’t know what it is about small town America that, more so than any other microsociety, makes it bear the limitless potential for romanticism, at times even gothic, in the realistic. There seems to be some sort of profound mysticism at play in the seeming banality of everyday life. It is a place where hopes suppressed and dreams denied are unearthed from their secrecy by Anderson’s narrator. The result is a beautiful novel of solitude and interpersonal misunderstanding. A novel not in the narratively linear sense but rather one formed as a town is built – lives loosely entwined, roads intersecting but once.

I received Winesburg, Ohio for Christmas, along with Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940). As it turns out (and as Kasia Boddy points out in her introductory essay to the latter book), Winesburg, Ohio was a direct source of inspiration for McCullers’ most famous novel. Indeed, the outlook that the two works provide is similarly bleak – as Anderson describes one of his despairing characters: “turning her face to the wall, [she] began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.”

“[E]veryone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified” is another of Winesburg’s inhabitants’ many world-weary aphorisms that permeate Anderson’s 1919 book set in the eponymous fictional town. As one can infer, the novel deals with the dark side of the human psyche, a realm that becomes increasingly unspeakable as one digs deeper. These are the thoughts you tell to your diary, for the more you know about yourself, the more you realise what a mystery you are. In the book, the characters seek solace in the figure of George Willard, a young writer for the town newspaper, to whom they confide their innermost, hoping to at last receive some understanding. Here lies the touching paradox: for all of the midwestern town’s silent, lonely, and inherently private suffering, the sum of all is still a twisted community – Winesburg, Ohio, Book of the Grotesque.

“Libra” by Don DeLillo

The imagined story of Lee H. Oswald and his estranged self. A gripping novel that, like the real Kennedy assassination, has infinite room for enigma. It is a deeply disturbing tale of a man who loses his balance and falls into the deep pits of ‘history.’ DeLillo’s pointed prose lets Oswald become a fully-fleshed human, not just a collection of biographical facts quickly accessed on a Wikipedia page. And this profoundly confused character – fictional or real, I can’t tell anymore – is alarmingly able to excite one’s compassion.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy that parodies late Victorian age mannerisms, fashion, and personal identity. Aristocratic aphorisms in abundance – “The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her if she is pretty, and to someone else if she is plain” – recall the snippets of ridiculous wisdom shared rather liberally by Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray. In regard to doublefaced personality, the play could be seen as the lighthearted counterpart to Wilde’s tragedic 1890 novel. The “Trivial Comedy for Serious People” is an enjoyably humourous glimpse into English fin de siècle city, and – of course – country life.

“The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers

“I am a rock, I am an island.” – Simon and Garfunkel

“No man is an island, / Entire of itself, / Every man is a piece of the continent, / A part of the main.” – John Donne

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is the story of a man who is deaf and yet a listener, who is mute and yet a singer. In her 1940 debut, Carson McCullers, then only 23, gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of five inhabitants of the small Southern town in which the scene is lain. As the dismal title suggests, each of the protagonists stumbles in the confinement of his or her own mind. Effortlessly the narrative moves chapter-wise through respective focalisation of: Biff Brannon, the owner of a small café in which much of the action takes place; Jake Blount, a drunk who is ever eager to impart political wisdom; Mick Kelly, a teenaged girl who goes through the struggles of adolescence; Doctor Copeland, an aged black doctor concerned with the inequalities of segregation, and – protagonist among protagonists – John Singer, a deaf-mute man who has lost his only friend, also a deaf-mute. Stripped of the ability to converse, Singer paradoxically comes to represent a gleam of hope and understanding in the personal disappointments faced by the other characters.

McCullers writes in beautiful symbolism: oppositions such as inside and outside, sound and silence, or rain and shine come to life through the oddities of the five rather dissimilar characters. It is a marvel how naturally the author traverses boundaries of gender, age, and race and channels the voices of such unalike psychological cosmoi. The inner conflicts of the protagonists connect to an intricate portrait of small town Georgia between the Great Depression and World War II. The cultural allusions are especially striking if one realises the simultaneity of the issues they address. When Doctor Copeland proposes a march to Washington, Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin’s movement is already in the making; when Jake Blount slams capitalist exploitation, the time coincides with the publication of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; when, at the novel’s close, a radio announces Hitler’s invasion of Poland, it is not a case of literary reprocessing but the unsettling fact of the novel’s time, both real and fictional.

The story’s premise may be bleak, fatalistic even, but it exhibits truths about the human condition which offer the lone comfort that, despite all its privateness, loneliness can be shared, even if just in reading this book. Compassion is not always an illusion, otherwise The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter would not be a tale as relatable as it is, be that from island or from mainland.