Books read September 2018

L. Frank Baum:  The Wizard of Oz, Camberwell Au, Puffin, 1994 [2000]

Lyman Frank Baum worked in the theatre, newspapers, magazines, inventing, retail and poultry farming before turning his hand to writing children’s books, (originally his own children).  His much loved story of Dorothy and Toto her dog, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the cowardly Lion, the mighty Wizard of Oz, the wicked and good witches, the Munchkins, the Winkies, the Quadlings, the Hammer Heads and much much more has become one of the most loved children’s books of all times.  The 1939 movie starring Judy Garland, one of the earliest technicolour movies, has become an all-time classic in its own right.  The Wizard of Oz also has its own psychological and moral message….look inside yourself for the brains, the heart and the courage you need to live a happy and effective life and at the same time don’t just take authority for granted without testing its validity and truthfulness. As for the compulsory green spectacles for all in Oz, things aren’t always what they seem!  An exceptional moral story for children, well before Narnia and Tolkien.  5 stars.

Anh Do: The Happiest Refugee: A Memoir, Crow’s Nest Au, Allen & Unwin, 2010.

One of the funniest and most powerful biographies I have ever read.  Anh Do’s extended family were refugees from Vietnam following the Communist North’s victory in 1976. The harrowing account of their boat trip to Malaysia assailed by pirates twice and finally without water, food or an engine! makes harrowing reading. Following resettlement in Australia as refugees Anh Do’s family work voraciously to establish a new life for themselves. The account of their financial ups and downs, Anh Do’s education in a Sydney Catholic school, his university studies, countless interesting jobs, his marriage and gradual emergence as a stand-up comic and an artist are told with fast humour, integrity, truthfulness (we get the good and the bad) and energy. This is a laugh out loud book but also a book which deals with serious change in Australian life in terms of attitude to racism, opportunity and amazing resourcefulness.  Serious challenges in the lives of his extended family are also dealt with sensitively and powerfully.  A book with serious energy that energizes the reader.  5 stars.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love in the Time of Cholera, trans. Edith Grossman,  Melbourne Au, Penguin, 2008 [1985 in Spanish]

Regarded as Colombia’s greatest writer the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez has also been described as the most important writer in Spanish since Cervantes [ but what of Borges? Lorca? Neruda?] Love in the Time of Cholera is probably his most frequently read novel after One Hundred Years of Solitude and by and large is written in realistic style rather than that of magic realism like hie earlier work, with the possible exception of its concluding pages.

Based on the love affair and eventual marriage of Marquez’s parents which was strongly opposed by his grandparents Love in the Time of Cholera tells of the excruciating love life of Florentino Ariza and the beautiful but cold Fermina Daza.  Childhood sweethearts their friendship was forbidden by Daza’s father and she eventually married the outstanding young doctor Juvenal Urbino who became a national hero for his cultural, medical, musical, artistic and engineering skills. Their marriage lasted until they were in their seventies. His story and “battle” with old age and with Daza is the second major plot in the narrative. But Florentino Ariza never gives up and eventually, after Urbino’s death,  in their old age and dotage Florentino and Fermina truly fall in love.

All of this would make for engaging reading on its own as a story of indomitable love conquering all and it is indeed in this respect a thoughtful and powerfully written narrative especially about the importance of sexual pleasure in old age.  In the intervening years thirty years  of waiting, however, Marquez has Florentino engage in a literal avalanche of raunchy love affairs, many of which are described with joyously flagrant and literally “fragrant” detail because it is a novel in which perfume and bodily odour both play a major part! In addition Florentino’s role in these relationships can “from the outside” only be described as a hunter (a term the translator uses), a rapist, a man sick with  fixation with his own sexual drive,, a regular inhabitant of brothels, and on several occasions as a groomer and eventually a molester of young girls resulting twice in suicides. This appallingly immoral and destructive  behaviour is made worse by the  deliberate cultivation of a reputation for himself as a homosexual, uninterested in women, a pose which gains him unsuspecting access to women he intends to seduce. At the same time he manages to build a successful business career for himself eventually becoming Company Director and Chairman of a major river transport company, where he again used his power and office to seduce any woman who came his way. Marquez never at any stage makes any moral judgment about Florentino Ariza. It is simply “love in the time of cholera..it is what it is even if young people’s lives are destroyed by a dirty old man.

There is of course, a moral compass, not necessarily a Christian compass,  in D H Lawrence, in Tolstoy, in George Eliot, In Flaubert, in Zola and even in Borges. I struggled fifty years ago in English tutorials at Melbourne University because I insisted on bringing morality into the discussion of the worthiness of a novel or a poem. I guess I haven’t changed my view that, in the end, good literature lifts up and throws thoughtful and challenging light on what it is to be human, to live, to love, to be faithful, to make mistakes, even to be tragic but not to honour evil, destructive and fetishistic behaviour.

Only in one sentence in the last two pages does Marquez throw the book at Florentina Ariza.  When they persuade the captain of their riverboat cruiser to throw of all the other passengers for their return journey so they can be open lovers the captain flies the cholera flag which entitles them to leave passengers behind but when they come to their home port they are directed to quarantine dock for two months.  They decide to return and sail on for ever and the novel ends but not for before Marquez blames the ships companies of which Ariza was the key player for the destruction of the river industry for not caring for the river and preventing settlement along its banks resulting in the destruction of the jungle and the wild life ..the main reason for the cruising and also the destruction of the river by siltation. This one sentence does not do it for me. I give this novel just two stars, for the sheer brilliance of Marquez’s eloquent analysis of the delicacy of human relationships and the finely and brilliantly drawn flawed character of Juvenal Urbino but none for cruel and sadistic approach to the potential beauty of human sexuality.  2 stars

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