June 22, 2015
2015 Daphne Awards
Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe
“When two brothers fight a stranger reaps their harvest.” It’s the most prophetic line among the many Igbo phrases used in Achebe’s third novel, set in a collection of villages in 1920s Nigeria. Here the local gods are as real as the ground, the yams, the trees, and the firmly-established if mystifying presence of the white man. At the centre of this world is aging patriarch Ezeulu, who doesn’t need to have read King Lear to know that aging patriarchs do badly in changing times.
Ezeulu is the arrow of the title, the Chief Priest of Umuaro. He is canny enough about the British administrators to have made connections among them, to the point of sending one of his sons to the Christian church to acquire their knowledge. Ezeulu is a powerful man, and power recognises power. But the ultimate conflict of his story isn’t between the coloniser and the colonised. While the British characters have moments of poignant buffoonery, they end up as supporting actors to the central drama. Instead it is in the hearts of his peers that Ezeulu and his god lose purchase, as the sacred serpent who gets crammed into a tin footlocker never regains its full divinity.
In a couple of hundred pages Achebe recreates Ezeulu’s disappearing world, mercifully sparing the reader the typical historic novel’s habitual long, italicised descriptions of every single bleeding kitchen appliance. There’s a lot of wry humour (enjoy this top-notch slice of slut shaming: “Every girl knew of Ogbanje Omenyi, whose husband was said to have sent to her parents for a machete to cut the bush on either side of the highway which she carried between her thighs”), particularly when Achebe contrasts the village squabbles that beset Ezeulu’s compound with the clunky social mores of the white ‘coasters’ fretting over dinner chit-chat.
Set half a lifetime after the events of Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God shows how a small fracture in a complex and seemingly robust system of belief is enough to unsettle lives and loosen hearts. Gods fall, just as men can, whether they have a gift of prophecy or not.
Margaret Howie can be found at @infamy_infamy
June 9, 2015
2015 Daphne Awards
Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. (tr. Idra Novey)
The Passion According to G.H. is an artistic expression of existentialism, a mystical struggle on what it means “to be.” G.H., the novel’s only character (apart from an unnamed cockroach that takes on profound significance), is a female sculptor living alone in a city high-rise. Sitting at her breakfast table she contemplates her identity:
…I’d transformed myself little by little into the person who bears my name. And I ended up being my name. All you have to do is see the initials G.H. in the leather of my suitcases, and there I am.
...I exude the calm that comes from reaching the point of being G.H. even on my suitcases. Also for my so-called inner life I’d unconsciously adopted my reputation: I treat myself as others treat me, I am whatever others see of me. When I was alone, there was no break, only slightly less of what I was in company, and that had always been my nature and my health. And my kind of beauty.
G.H.’s inner struggle about who she is reaches a crisis point when she opens a wardrobe and comes face-to-face with a cockroach:
Nothing, it was nothing -– I immediately tried to calm down from my fright. I’d never expected in a house meticulously disinfected against my disgust for cockroaches that this room had escaped.
When G.H. squashes the bug in the door of the wardrobe and the thick white insides of the dying insect begin to ooze from the crack in its hard shell, her transfixed horror of the roach gradually evolves into identification with it:
…I’d looked at the living roach and was discovering inside it the identity of my deepest life. In a difficult demolition, hard and narrow paths were opening within me.
...The narrow route passed through the difficult cockroach, and I’d squeezed with disgust through that body of scales and mud. And I’d ended up, I too completely filthy, emerging through the cockroach into my past that was my continuous present and my continuous future.
A transformative shift in the way that G.H. thinks about herself and her place in the world has taken place and she realizes this with apprehension:
…for now the metamorphosis of me into myself makes no sense. It’s a metamorphosis in which I lose everything I had, and what I had was me -– I only have what I am. And what am I now? I am: standing in front of a fright. I am: what I saw. I don’t understand and I am afraid to understand, the matter of the world frightens me, with its planets and its roaches.
As evidenced by the book’s title God and the divine are prominent in G.H.’s thinking. So much so that at one point she is convinced of the necessity to become one with the body of the roach as a type of communion:
…redemption had to be in the thing itself. And redemption in the thing itself would be putting into my mouth the white paste of the roach.
Lispector’s novel is remarkable in its ability to precisely convey the deepest thoughts in G.H.’s inquisitive and restless mind. It is a brave, honest and self-effacing look at one woman’s struggle for self-identification. And, it is nothing short of a groundbreaking literary work.
Lori Feathers is a freelance book critic. Follow her on Twitter @LoriFeathers
June 2, 2015
Hi! How's it going?
I meant to post this yesterday, but then I died of tuberculosis in a very 19th century in a corset kind of way (read as: I have a minor sore throat) and so didn't get around to it.
We just wanted to let you know that after 13 years of monthly issues, of going into the weird and wonderful far reaches of literature, that we are switching to a bimonthly publication. Which means, no issue this week, but we'll return the first Monday in July.
Nothing will really change except the frequency. And this is only because, you know, we're old now. We have to take vitamins just to stave off full organ failure every day, we are experiencing bone density loss. I am speaking for myself and for Charles here. His bone density is for shit.
But we are still committed to writing about the books that kind of sort of no one else is. We're still going to bring you Mairead Case's reading diary. We're still going to do the Daphne Award thing. We're just going to do it at a slower pace more suitable for our elderly bodies.
Honestly, I can barely believe we've kept it up this long. Thirteen years! It was our anniversary last month. Had I known this was going to be something that followed me around through the entirety of my adult life, I would have named it something more dignified, I think. Anyway. If you are interested in writing for the more mature, where-did-I-put-my-glasses-oh-right-I-don't-even-wear-glasses version of Bookslut, do please get in touch. We are always looking for new reviewers, columnists, and feature writers.
And I can promise when we return in July a rowdy interview with Helen Garner, Mairead Case contemplating Djuna Barnes, and other entirely good things as well.