Magda Szabó: The Fawn

“I wanted to be with you sooner…” This first line, a faint melody, I imagine played by a solitary piano. This unwavering, melancholic undertone, suggesting that Eszter Encsy is addressing someone who is no longer in her life.

There is a calm, almost cold, but delicate aching to be accepted and understood. Recollections of childhood come across as confessions and explanations… including that time she did not mean to kill the fawn.

But how did that seemingly dispensable incident earn the title of the book? Perhaps the fawn is meant to symbolize the fragility of youth, and how easily it can be broken.

Magda Szabó, who died with a book in her hand, has bequeathed to the world novels that aim straight for the soul. She wrote of women; women who do not have to be faultless. She did not demand heroics from them or for them to be worthy of admiration or to be idealized. She only asked that they live — live intensely, and learn.

And yet, I did not expect her to go to the extent of Eszter. The moral puzzles are not vague here, it is made quite clear what kind of person we have as a central figure right from the beginning: “I could never have undertaken to be a good girl and never to tell lies…” “I lie so easily I could have made a career out of it…” “I was also laughing at the monster I really am…” “I wasn’t a very nice person and I wasn’t very friendly…”

We immediately get the picture. Appalled, we double-check the synopsis, even though Szabó readers know that her synopses hardly describe what one encounters between the pages. But we read on. Because Szabó is brilliant. Because we suspect that a gut punch or two awaits round the bend. Because oftentimes, nothing is what it initially seems. Because she writes of those difficult spaces between people that most of us are too inattentive, too timid, or too unimaginative to explore. Because we know that behind all her stories is a carefully woven leitmotif of a history she mourns. Because Szabó is always subtly reminding us of consequences, of how we cannot extricate our personal histories from that of our nation. Because she is eternally thought-provoking, and therefore, rewarding.

…and because those elegiac strains from that lonesome piano will linger long after you’ve turned the last page.

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Enchanted April

Reading this at a time when happiness eludes me and only a Turkish word can describe the sadness I feel, a time when the world is in disarray and the cynic in me is more pronounced than I want it to be, it is easier to argue that true beauty, real freedom from the male world’s sway, and lasting transformation surely take more than suggested by this book — but I am also a believer in the wisdom of surrendering to the restorative power of spending a month in a villa in Italy, flowers, rest, and the sea. Oh, I’d take these any day!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one should not carp about novels like this. You simply open your heart to it, cease overthinking, and allow it to happen — the way you’re supposed to with sunshine, a little frivolity once in a while, and happiness.

So if this book were set to poetry, it would be this poem by Lydia McGrew:

When joy alights like a bird on a fence post
arrested in fragile flight,
do not frighten her away.

When she comes in the clutch of the heart
at the scent of the evening air
instinct with life and memory,
in the grey-blue of the sky at twilight,
in the sweep of the pine tree to the sky,

Do not say,
There are depths to be plumbed,
There are knots to be worried at.
I have no time for this.

Nor listen to the more insidious voice that lectures,
Death and disease roam the streets.
Pitiless murder with bloody sword unsheathed stalks all the ways of the world,
and beauty and innocence fall before him.
What right have I to be happy?

Rather stand still,
And say,

It is a gift.

And with that, I wish us all an enchanted April, and the wisdom and grace to submit to happiness when it beckons. 🤍

Lesley Blanch: Journey Into the Mind’s Eye

“To me, it has always seemed that each individual has such a moment. It is a fixed point in eternity, varying with each person, which they reach, sooner or later, in their trajectory through time. It is this moment which most perfectly expresses them, and to which essentially they belong, in which they live most fully. Both before and after, some awareness of this lies within them, so that in varying degrees of consciousness, they are seeking that moment in order to be fulfilled, or to find again in that fulfillment and setting, the persons who shared it with them.”

“A lifetime or a moment is all the same; a whole cycle lived richly, or thinly, one day. Each can prove to have been the meaning of a life. We cannot know, from where we stand. But if we seek, and are aware we have missed the moment we seek, our own absolute moment in time, then we live out our lives unfulfilled. In the words of an eastern proverb: we die with our eyes open — we cannot rest; even in death we are still looking for it.”

Never mind that her longings for a lost love and mine mingled as I luxuriated in the pages of this book. Never mind that some details will raise the eyebrows of conventional social constructs. (“Overweening conventions! They have us in a stranglehold from the cradle to the coffin,” writes Lesley Blanch.) Never mind the question of whether the Traveler corrupted her life or enhanced it; I have two opinions as contrasting as East and West. What is certain is that this woman ended up living by her own rules and did not lead a lackluster life. 

But to have bookshelves spilling over because of a geographic fascination and to have the books arranged by region; to have literary tastes swayed topographically; to explore entire worlds by turning pages; to spend hours on long bus rides poring over books; to have “everything I saw, or read, ate, or thought tinctured by my infatuation”; to travel and be particular about the precise lighting in which to see certain places because they look more beautiful in morning, noon, or afternoon light; to find areas of conflict irresistible and be chided for having “such violent desires”; to journey into the mind’s eye or into the heart of another; to see traveling as an act of “following a strain of fugitive music” — I’ve never felt this aspect of myself more probed and understood, that I wish I came across this book much sooner.

There are allusions to be unveiled in the captivating writing, and there are lessons to be gleaned from the interaction between cultures, but the line I’ll take to heart is, “Don’t be so finite,” said the Traveler.

Lesley Blanch lived to be a hundred and three, unapologetically, and infinitely.

Arundhati Roy: The Algebra of Infinite Justice

“And Arundhati Roy wrote a ravishing novel, The God of Small Things, that catapulted her into international stardom, perhaps so that when she stood to oppose dams and corporations and corruption and the destruction of the local, people would notice… Perhaps they opposed the ravaging of the earth so that poetry too would survive in the world.”

This beautiful passage is from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, and The Algebra of Infinite Justice is Arundhati Roy’s book of essays that opposes dams and corporations and corruption and the destruction of the local.

People did take notice, and many of them attacked her and accused her of all sorts of things for it. She was also criticized for not providing enough solutions by those who lost sight of the fact that before we can arrive at solutions, we have to take the first step and pinpoint the problems and ask the uncomfortable questions. This, she does. Courageously. 

She asks about the necessity of nuclear weapons acquired in the name of “deterrence”, knowing that it is a matter that concerns humankind. “The nuclear bomb is the most anti-democratic, anti-national, anti-human, outright evil thing that man has ever made. If you are religious, then remember that this bomb is Man’s challenge to God. It’s worded quite simply: ‘We have the power to destroy everything that You have created.’ If you’re not religious, then look at it this way. This world of ours is 4,600 million years old. It could end in an afternoon.” On a relative scale, the same can be said of guns.

She aims questions at those who rail against the first world, but “actually pays to receive their gift-wrapped garbage”; she asks if corporate globalization is a mutant variety of colonialism; asks whether the building of dams are not “a brazen means of taking water, land and irrigation away from the poor and gifting it to the rich”; asks who and what has been sacrificed in the altar of “National Progress”; asks how Progress can be measured if we are not even aware of who has paid for it, referring to the millions of people and entire ecosystems displaced or extinguished by dams (a matter Filipino readers should not brush off — even our very own Gideon Lasco has called awareness to the environmental and sociocultural impacts of the Kaliwa Dam Project in the Philippines).

She asks everyone to be accountable: “Isn’t it true that there have been fearful episodes in human history where prudence and discretion would have just been euphemisms for pussilanimity? When caution was actually cowardice?”

“Fascism itself can only be turned away if all those who are outraged by it show a commitment to social justice that equals the intensity of their indignation. Are we ready… to rally not just on the streets, but at work and in schools and our homes, in every decision we take, and every choice we make?”

But I am most grateful for what resides with the difficult questions in that elegant mind of hers: “There is beauty yet in this brutal, damaged world of ours. Hidden, fierce, immense. Beauty that is uniquely ours and beauty that we have received with grace from others, enhanced, reinvented and made our own. We have to seek it out, nurture it, love it.”

“All we can do is to change its course by encouraging what we love instead of destroying what we don’t.”

“The only dream worth having… is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead…”

“Which means exactly what?” 

“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never forget.

In truth, these are as difficult as the questions, but who says these are not solutions?

Sema Kaygusuz: Every Fire You Tend

“Finally, I would like to say, I intended to write… not just in Turkish, but in the language of all who lament for the dead. And I intended to write it with the language of figs…”

The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that was signed between the Allies of WWI and the Ottoman Empire is not explained here. There is nothing here that mentions how it marked the beginning of the partitioning of the empire, how Armenia was subsequently recognized as an independent state and a referendum was scheduled to decide the fate of the dream of a Kurdistan, but nothing of how the referendum never took place. No details of what exactly happened when the Kurds within Turkish borders clashed with Turkish nationalism; nothing of the decisions, events, or indecisions that led to the extermination of more than half of the Kurdish population in Turkey by 1938.

Throughout the book an unnamed and unidentified narrator addresses a woman muted by grief and coaxes her, not to speech, but to remembrance — a remembrance not of a specific event but of her spiritual and personal history, and the ancient mythology of her people; and I believe here lies the genius of this novel. Without explicitly saying that this book is about identity, Sema Kaygusuz makes this book wholly about identity. 

Out of the silence roars a powerful voice that resists all attempts at wiping out Kurdish identity. I have come to understand that this book is, above anything else, a rallying cry for the Kurdish people: For them to never forget who they are. To never give in to the silencing, and to never allow grief to estrange them from who they really are.

What is between these pages is something that we won’t find in the chronologies of history. What is written here is more profound. In this novel that reads more like a lengthy poem, Kaygusuz achieves the impossible task of giving shape to grief and silence, and intimating a manner of history that can only be expressed through obmutescence or poetry.

“Finally, I would like to say, I intended to write not just in Turkish, but in the language of all who lament for the dead. And I intended to write it with the language of figs… the fig tree whose fruit has, over the course of the history of civilization, seduced and destroyed, poisoned and healed, struck panic in those captivated by its pleasure, and been served like jewels at the tables of kings, pharaohs, and sultans — in order that I might set aside its vitalizing force, its enviable adventure, in writing. What I mean to say is that, over the course of this novel, I am not only my grandmother who survived the massacre: I am also her granddaughter, I am Hizir, and I am a fig, with its countless tiny seeds. Each of us has written the others into being.” — from the Afterword of Every Fire You Tend by Sema Kaygusuz

Thank you for knowing exactly what I’d love to read and for lending me your copy, Gabi. Always grateful. 🤍

Susan Sontag: Where the Stress Falls

“Is there a greater privilege than to have a consciousness expanded by, filled with, pointed to, literature?”

“Some people think of reading only as a kind of escape: an escape from the ‘real’ everyday world to an imaginary world, the world of books. Books are so much more. They are a way of being fully human.”

“If books disappear, history will disappear, and human beings will also disappear.”

…a citizen of literature — which is an international citizenship.

“Reading usually precedes writing.”

“A writer is first of all a reader.”

“…to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading.”

“But one can write as one pleases — a form of liberty.”

“Writing is, finally, a series of permissions you give to yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall… to find your own inner freedom.”

International Women’s Day finds me mid-Sontag. As you can see, it’s a beautiful place to be.

Happy Women’s Day! May you celebrate Woman everyday! 🤍

Postscript: I have finally finished reading the book, and this reader is left overflowing. Reading, writing, art, dance, music, photography, theatre, travel — this book brims with profound thoughts on what she cared about. She takes your hand and leads you to art, and shows you why it matters, despite a world that tries to convince us otherwise. If there is such a thing as a definitive Sontag, this must be it. 

Margarita Liberaki: Three Summers

Fleeting patches of sunlight that decorate pieces of furniture, linger on book pages furtively as I read, or momentarily set the crema of my espresso aglow, are lovely indications that summer is gently slipping into the Philippine islands after a sunless wet season. 

But why do I even dare write this in the face of a Liberaki who is an authority on sunshine? This Liberaki who does not merely write about it but makes it so tangible that one’s heart becomes dappled with sunlight, too?

There is a little bit of the Little Women in Liberaki’s three sisters in that it portrays in each sister how Woman can make different choices, pursue different interests, hold different priorities, think differently and still remain Woman; portrays how Woman can mean, or can be, “A great many things,” in the words of Alcott’s Jo March. Or as Liberaki’s Katerina replies, “Not just two, but thousands, Maria, or one which could be a thousand,” when Maria remarks on how Katerina seems to want to live two lives.

But Liberaki, daughter of Dionysus that she is, has a certain sensuality that Alcott did not make space for in her conservative depiction, although we love her just the same. This Liberaki sensuality is an elegant one, however, and treats female sexuality as part of life.

What made me pick this up for Women’s History Month was the curious case of an author who insisted on transliterating her name as Liberaki, rather than the more accurate Lymberaki, so that it would correspond to liberation. It is rare to come across an author’s name that already alludes to an untethered mind and sets the tone for a book. But how wonderful to discover that the same author has a command of artistic laws and lavishes attention to detail while creating an exquisite balance of light and shadow!

This sensitivity to art was what enthralled me! For what is sensitivity to art but a reinforced sensitivity to life? 

“The sun has disappeared from books these days. That’s why they hinder our attempts to live, instead of helping us. But the secret is still kept in your country, passed on from one initiate to another. You are one of those who pass it on.” —  Albert Camus to Margarita Liberaki

Three Summers was originally published in France through his recommendation.

Nawal El Saadawi: Searching

He vanishes. After seasons of being together and meeting every Tuesday in that restaurant overlooking the Nile, Farid does not show up. This catapults Fouada into a period of searching.

“How had a man become her whole life? She didn’t know how it happened. She wasn’t the sort of woman who gives her life to anyone. Her life was too important to give to one man. Above all, her life was not her own but belonged to the world, which she wanted to change.”

And yet, here she was, searching; for him? or has his disappearance allowed her to seek out a purpose and a deeper meaning to life? What was she seeking, exactly?

A female chemist in Cairo’s patriarchal society, Fouada is intelligent and strong-willed. But our daring author impales a nerve here, an uncomfortable truth rarely dissected and examined — the existential torment and uncertainty that women of strong character endure.

A Nawal El Saadawi work of fiction is an art film; one where nuanced cinematography captures the reflection of the sun on a window pane and which slowly pans toward the distress coursing through a woman’s veins; one that disquiets with its honesty; one with an unbroken tension that does not resolve, but bleeds into a thousand provoking questions as the end credits fade into darkness.

Scholastique Mukasonga: Cockroaches and Our Lady of the Nile

It is and it isn’t Kafkaesque. 

It is; because, not too long ago, the Tutsi woke up as inyenzi — cockroaches.

It isn’t; because it is no longer allegory, no longer fiction. 

“The soldiers… were always there to remind us what we were… cockroaches. Nothing human about us. One day we’d have to be got rid of.”

Mukasonga, who lost a family, a clan, and an entire people in the Rwandan genocide, chronicles life as a Tutsi in Hutu-dominated Rwanda in Cockroaches. As a child, she and her family were forced to relocate to a camp during the first pogroms against the Tutsi; and from then on, they knew what awaited them.

“Humiliated, afraid, waiting day after day for what was to come, what we didn’t have a word for: genocide.”

In this exceptional albeit disturbing account, we become witnesses to how hatred and prejudice crescendoed from the 1950s into what erupted as the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

“And I alone preserve the memory of it. That’s why I’m writing this.”

This book is, indeed, a paper grave; written by someone who, in Mukasonga’s words, has the sorrow of surviving.

_ _ _

In two chapters of Cockroaches, she gives an account of being unexpectedly accepted to the prestigious Lycée Notre Dame de Citeaux, a Catholic boarding school in Kigali. What was a mere couple of chapters in Cockroaches becomes a fictionalized novel in Our Lady of the Nile.

The elite boarding school for young women perched on the ridge of the Nile remarkably becomes a microcosm of Rwandan society. Corruption, ethnopolitical conflict, history, their myths, Rwanda’s relationship with the west, orientalists, disinformation and lies that fuel prejudice — “It’s not lies,” justifies one of the girls, “it’s politics” — the complexities of government and society; how Mukasonga proficiently mirrors these through the lives of the young women makes it one of the most powerful works of fiction I have ever read.

I found myself wanting for not having read her sooner, and these works make me believe that an African section of a library would be inadequate without Mukasonga.

These are essentials in world literature. The word essential has been abused, but there are times when essential is appropriate.

Rebecca Solnit: The Faraway Nearby

The sound of sirens woke me up. Whose witty idea was it to celebrate Women’s Month with Fire Prevention Month in the Philippines? Woman is a fire you cannot prevent. Sirens are also women.

These were my tangled thoughts as I got up on the first day of March, a month I look forward to as a reading woman. It’s when I devote most of my reading time to women authors.

Rebecca had to be the first choice, because maybe my mind treats literature like medicine and it cyclically hankers for a more potent dose to achieve efficacy, and she lives up to this promise — this sort of writing that painfully confronts the hurts and pinpoints the ills but becomes the balm through impeccable information-giving and matchless storytelling, all administered with strength and grace.

The title is an acknowledgement to how the artist Georgia O’Keefe signed her letters for the people she loved, “from the faraway nearby.” A way to measure physical and psychic geography together, Rebecca observes. “We’re close, we say, to mean that we’re emotionally connected, that we are not separate… emotion has its geography, affection is what is nearby…” We can be distant from the person next to us but be hopelessly attached to another who is hundreds of miles away. Was it Ondaatje who asked, “Do you understand the sadness of geography?” It seems Rebecca understands and she holds your hand through this sadness.

But that is only one of the myriads of things meaningful to me that she weaves artfully into this narrative. The curious format of this book is a nod to the Arabian Nights. It was only recently when I remarked how Latin American and Eastern European literature are under Scheherazade’s spell, but this book makes me ask, “Who isn’t?”

“The fairy-tale heroines spin cobwebs, straw, nettles into whatever is necessary to survive. Scheherazade forestalls her death by telling a story that is like a thread that cannot be cut; she keeps spinning and spinning, incorporating new fragments, characters, incidents, into her unbroken, unbreakable narrative thread. Penelope at the other end of the treasury of stories prevents her wedding to any of her suitors by unweaving at night what she weaves by day… By spinning, weaving, and unraveling, these women master time itself, and though master is a masculine word, this mastery is feminine.”

“Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them…” This is the line with which Rebecca opens this book.

And this is how she ends. “Who drinks your tears? Who has your wings? Who hears your story?”

“Who has your wings?” Who else can ask such a poignant question? 

This mastery is, indeed, feminine. Happy Women’s Month!