Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Lower River by Paul Theroux - New Yorker Magazine Fiction

The Lower River becomes a game of cat and mouse where Altman becomes caught up in his own pride and need for domination which is happily nutured by the village that caters to his weakness in order to better manipulate him and extort his money. His self indulged, self importance, becomes a mockery towards the end of the story in which he himself realizes that he must appear to Manyenga like a poor monarch in dirty clothes with a skinny girl and a disfigured dwarf.

You can never step into the same river twice

When all hope is lost and everything is up the wall, he often thought, reassuring himself, I can always go back.

There is a strong theme of idealizing going back, juxtaposed with the impossibility of going back because everything changes and evolves. The river is never the same. The Village has grown from the innocent and naïve people that Altman once knew to a cunning, greedy, bitter and manipulative group. They have adopted behaviors from the new colonist who reside in Africa to promote tourism. Manyenga, who befriends Altman is corrupted and spurt out terms such as pipleine, agenda, program, intervention which bespeaks of a managing people and ideas.
Mr Altman has also changed because of his return in the village. Alman was a volunteer who goes where no missionary, not even the Africans will go and stays not the 2 year term but a record 4. He was sought out to write and read letters, Where he was once vain with self importance he leaves the village without hope and somewhat broken. In the beginning of the story sitting with the elders of the village he wishes someone in the states could witness him but in the end, all hope for improvement of the village is gone and crippled with residual illness and morally diminished he flees to save his life.

When the ruled become the ruler

He wants to be the great benefactor and explains he would of handed out money, except that would create a mob scene, instead, he smiles and in a “chiefly gesture” he salutes them.
He arrogantly orders them and refuses to heed their caution, but instead dominates situations such as when the bank teller cautions him to “be careful, sir”. He replies “almost “as a rebuke,“I used to live here. I was here at Independence. The Lower River.”.
Then later he berates and the taxi driver who tries to change the departure time and again later when he refuses to pay the extra fee to bring him further then the destination but orders him to stop the car.

The villagers on the other hand and especially Manyenga play to his need to dominate and to be served and to be considered admired. They call him father and chief and give him a young girl who is beautiful to serve him hand and foot. They make him comfortable and pretend they don’t understand when he says he is just visiting the village for a few days but instead speak of his program to extend his stay. They then slowly and subtly rob him so that not noticing he is being robbed he will return to the village with more money.

The Snake
The changes in the shift in power from Altman to the villagers and then back to Altman can be traced to the snake and to Altman’s use of it. When he first arrives to Malabo as a vulteer he uses to snake to set himself apart from the villagers who fear snakes, he uses the snakes to guard his money, and later he publicly kills the snake gaurding his basket with his money, permitting the villagers to take all of his money so that they will allow him to leave the village to get more. Manyena refuses to bring Altman out of the village because he pretends to have seen a snake on his path, but he really doesn’t want Altman to leave with the money. Having no way to leave the village, Alman becomes his prisoner. Later, when all the money is gone, and Manyena needs him to leave in order to get more, he Atlman is staring at a snake on the ground, and Manyena is afraid to approach him. The snake holds the village's fear, which is Altman’s power.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Distant Relations by Orhan Pamuk

I have been reading the New Yorker Fiction and have been diligently working through their archives in search of what makes a good story, good. I have thus far not succeeded in discerning this quality so that I might steal some for myself. What has become clear in my studies is that these stories seem cryptic in that what they are trying to say but yet clear about conveying a sentiment. You don’t understand why you feel this is a sad story or happy story because you don’t see a resolution, but you do feel the emotion. Its as if the stories don’t really have a clear plot with a resolution you can point to but yet you do get a sentiment that something has been resolved or something has evolved or something has shifted.

Growing fond of this style which seems less feigned then most stories and more real life, and relevant, I have tried to adopt this way of writing which once irked me as being obscure to the point of being only understood by the writer and perhaps the few who know him/her. My results are that I seem to have irked my few close acquaintances with them.

This is why I picking stories and blogging about what makes them tick? Why do they light up? What makes them breathe?

I am starting with Distant Relations by Orhan Pamuk.

Distant Relations by Orhan Pamuk

Class Struggle

The main character describes a culture and a family who are newly bourgeois and sensitive to be seen as upper class. The narrator’s family is smitten with his fiancé because of her Sorbonne education and refined ways. The marriage will be an affluent affair where everything is planned to demonstrate the families wealth as the author describes how the rehearsal dinner must be as opulent as the marriage itself, the lace that must be imported and the fiancee friend will arrive from Paris.

The main character seems to be striding two worlds, like most nouveau bourgeois, one universe in which he strains to be a part of and the other in which he feels more comfortable, but which reveal his more humble origins.

When his fiancée, Sibel asks him to return a bag he had purchased for her because she explains it’s a fake and thus impossible for her to wear, it becomes evident she suffers from the same predicament as he does. She is afraid to show her newly humble origins. Having come from a more wealthy backround where her father sold off all his land and is now retired, she tries to romanticize her past ancestors. She cannot be seen with the bag because it will tarnish the image of her as the wealthy bourgeois that she has worked hard to create and maintain.

The main character on the other hand has trouble with the idea that Sibel refuses the bag based on notions that the bag is a fake, not genuine, not good enough for her, when his families surname still denotes their origins as humble clothe makers, so that by returning the bag, he refutes his origins. He himself is not a genuine bourgeois but a new bourgeois based on a twist of fate that his family had retained proptery, in an area which had become affluent making them newly rich.

Later when he enters into the shop to return the bag, he meets up again with Husun who had entered into a beauty contest which is considered a shameful act in Istandbul.. Her backround is more modest as well, and his family looks down upon her social station but yet he is attracted to her because he says she resembles him in a way that his fiancée does not. He is attracted to her because she is from the class that he once belonged to and because of this she feels more familiar. She and him both share the same humble origins.

The Yellow Canary

Another interesting aspect of the story is the way he uses the color yellow and a little yellow canary he notices at that boutique. The canary can be seen as beauty and elegance that is encaged same as the nouveau bourgeois. The bourgeois are wealthy but they are not free. They are tied to very strict ideas of what their class deem acceptable. Then there is the symbolism of canaries used in coal mines to indicate deadly gases. I wonder if the author may have also been using the canary to indicate the danger that the main character would be in by turning his back on these bourgeois customs and perhaps even that Fusun was the canary, which embody danger itself. The danger of him breaking his engagement with Sibel to start an affair with the less respectable Fusun. This danger is emphasized again by the very last line where the mother presses the key in his hand giving him a look to “warn (him) that life held unsuspected dangers.”

The Color Yellow

Then there is the use of the color of yellow and how it seems to embody the freedom but also the danger of him taking this freedom. So that danger and yellow and shame become linked by the yellow items. The unrespectable Fusun attracts our main character with her yellow pump and her yellow skirt, and she is the yellow canaris that represents the danger to the main characters reputation. Finally at the end of the story, there is yellow vase, that he purchases after having made plans to meet Fusan at an empty apartment far from prying eyes. And around this yellow vase, he says his father and mother will eat in front of it then later he and his mother will eat in front of it and his mother will look past it at him with eyes filled with pity and shame. He also mentions that neither his mother nor father ever mentions this yellow vase that he brings them, unlike all the other items he has brought to the house as if the yellow vase was a symbol of the unrespectable turn our main character had taken. Then neither girl friends are mentioned as eating on the table with the vase so we can only assume that his fiance learned of his betrayal and that his family never accepted Fusun as an acceptable wife. Then at the end we learn even though he has escaped his cage, and chosen freedom to have an affair with Fusun, he still suffers the scandal of the situation because the yellow vase reminds him of the time when he chose to unleash his misery upon himself.

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