Archive for August 12th, 2012

August 12, 2012

Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo

There are a lot of reasons to like Redemption in Indigo, and “it has personality”  is probably the most non-specific imaginable. Yet this was my favourite thing about it; it’s charming, it’s clever, but more than anything it is very much itself.

 

From last week’s Left of Cool column.

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Months ago I used this space to talk about Joan Aiken’s collection of short stories, The Monkey’s Wedding. “The Monkey’s Wedding” is, apparently, one of many phrases used to describe the weather when it is raining but the sun is shining at the same time. Another, according to author Karen Lord, is “… the devil and his wife are fighting for the cou-cou stick”. It’s this image, of an immortal being and an ordinary woman struggling over a cooking implement, that is at the heart of Lord’s novel Redemption in Indigo.

Based on a Senegalese folk tale Redemption in Indigo tells the story of Paama, a brilliant cook with a glutton for a husband. Ansige’s uncontrollable appetite gets him into a number of awkward situations, from which his wife extricates him with great ingenuity. It’s Paama’s conduct towards her embarrassing husband that convinces two immortal beings, or Djombis, that she is a fit person, of all humans, to hold the chaos stick. The stick (to all appearances an ordinary cooking implement) allows its wielder to summon any one of thousands of possible futures at any time. Naturally the original bearer of this power, a mysterious indigo-skinned djombi is less than pleased. He must now convince Paama to give the stick back to him.

Redemption in Indigo situates itself firmly in an oral tradition of storytelling with its opening lines: “A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily”. This narrator will continue to comment on the story throughout the book; reminding the reader, for example, that she will have to suspend belief if she wants things to make sense. “For that matter, do you think an arachnid with mouthparts is capable of articulating the phrase ‘I am a pawnbroker’ in any known human language?” Late in the book Lord introduces a storyteller as a minor character. There’s no indication that this man is the teller of this story – in avoiding that rather obvious little narrative trick Lord makes more real a world in which tellers of tales are a part of the landscape. Stories that are constantly commenting upon themselves often risk sounding coy, but here the form seems perfectly integrated with the setting.

And yet this nameless narrator’s rival is quite right. There’s something untidy about this book and its refusal to wrap itself up neatly in any reasonably widely-accepted genre or style. A good portion of the book is just a story of village life, told with a sly sense of humour. Ansige’s wildly exaggerated appetite belongs to a comic tradition that is quite separate from the dreamlike one in which Paama and the djombi move through time and space. There’s an element of science fictionality brought in by the conceit of the chaos stick, loosely rooted as it is in quantum theory. There are entire stories left untold about the complicated relationships between the djombi , but the book tells us to look away and concentrate on the humans.

Then there’s Paama herself. In another novel she’d be the dull example- the good wife who cooks, is quiet and does her duty. Yet there’s something compelling about her and her active commitment to doing what she thinks right. I doubt Lord was thinking of Jane Eyre when she wrote Paama, but for me the two have much in common as great moral heroines.

I use the word ‘moral’ here because towards the end the book pre-emptively dismisses “those who utterly, utterly fear the dreaded Moral of the Story”. In the event, Redemption in Indigo isn’t quite the didactic book that it signals it might be. But if it begins awkwardly and ends untidily, if it throws its support firmly behind its main character, it proudly embraces all these aspects of the story that it is. This is a book that could not exist any other way.

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August 12, 2012

Willem Elsschot, Cheese

Cheese was a gift from my friend Alie, who has suffered through my cheese-shopping every time I’ve visited her.

 

From a column a couple of weeks ago. The original version contained references to The Simpsons, Lily Allen and Camus. In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing that wordcount constraints forced me to take them out.

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For obvious reasons a picture has been circulating over the last few days on the internet, claiming that it is easier for people in the USA to buy guns than to buy French cheese, which is illegal. It turns out that this is not entirely true; cheeses made from raw milk that have not been aged a minimum amount of time are banned. So Americans can still buy newer or less ‘authentic’ sorts made from pasteurised milk. Apparently people have in the past contracted illnesses from raw milk cheese (guns, presumably, have never harmed anyone). The point of all this is that cheese can be very dangerous, even if you’ve never dropped a wheel of Gouda on your foot.

That is certainly the case in Willem Elsschot’s novel Cheese (Kaas in the original Dutch). Frans Laarmans is a middle-class, married man who works as a clerk in Antwerp. Despite his constant fears about how others see him, Laarmans seems reasonably content until becomes entangled with the rich Van Schoonbeke and his friends whose lifestyles and conversation intimidate him. Acting on a tip from Van Schoonbeke, Laarmans switches professions, becoming the Belgian representative of a company selling Edam cheese. There are obvious problems with this plan from the start; Laarmans has never sold anything in his life. And he doesn’t like cheese.

In no time at all then, Laarmans finds himself in possession of two tonnes of Edam, with no idea of what to do with it. As the situation snowballs into something further and further out of his control he is elected Vice President of the Association of Belgian Cheese Merchants, and gains more and more respect from Van Schoonbeke’s friends. Not knowing anything about his own profession does not seem to be harming Laarmans’ social prospects, as long as he has office stationery with an impressive letterhead. But the fact of those two tonnes of cheese is always on his mind. He takes to the most childish of measures, including pretending not to be home when his boss comes to visit.

In his introduction to my edition of Cheese, translator Paul Vincent mentions that Elsschot refused permission for a stage adaptation of the book because he was “afraid [the producer] will play it for laughs”. This seems strange at first; it’s obvious that this is a comic novel. But there’s also something very recognisable about Laarmans’ panic.

Logically I know that this feeling of being completely out of one’s depth (professionally and personally), of constantly teetering on the edge of utter failure has plagued people of every generation. Yet it seems somehow remarkable to me that Cheese was published in 1933. When Laarmans procrastinates over selling his cheese and focuses instead on the minutiae of setting up his office (the perfect desk, the right sort of typewriter, the ideal letterhead) I know exactly what he is doing. His conviction that everyone around him somehow knows more than he does about what he is doing is a form of Imposter Syndrome – it’s clear (though not to Laarmans) that most of them are as far out of their depth as he is. Then there’s the constant self-consciousness, and Laarmans’ need to justify his own reactions at all times. At his mother’s deathbed at the beginning of the book  he is preoccupied throughout the proceedings with questions of how much grief he should show and how people will judge him for the amount he does display.

It’s this familiarity that makes it clear to me how vulnerable Laarmans is, so that when he adopts a more pompous tone (he often attempts to patronise his wife) it’s clear to me what he is doing.

There are no unhappy endings here, despite the fact that disaster seems imminent for most of the book. But Elsschot was right; this isn’t just a comedy. Laarmans’ panic is familiar and all too real.

 

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