Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson

Hey, everybody, Kim is a bit under the weather this week so we decided to have me go two weeks in a row. Don’t worry, though, she’ll be back taking the next two weeks so you’ll see her reviews again soon. Today? Fiskadoro!

 

I had an interesting experience taking a look at Fiskadoro. To be honest, I hadn’t even looked at what the book was supposed to be about before reading. My copy didn’t even have a summary on the back. I guess you were just already supposed to have heard, though I hadn’t.

Regardless, being familiar with Jesus’ Son, Tree of Smoke, Train Dreams, and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, I saw that there was a Denis Johnson book listed in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books and jumped at it. You can imagine my surprise when I found a post-nuclear holocaust novel set in Key West.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for T.C. Boyle.)

To be honest, not having heard anything about Fiskadoro before getting started, not even having read a summary, I wasn’t sure I was dealing with a post-nuclear holocaust when I started reading. At first it could have just been a poverty-stricken area of Key West. To be honest, I don’t know much about Key West.

Eventually I became sure:

But this afternoon the Declaration only seemed to rouse his feeling, and now he wasn’t telling them the Declaration anymore–he was complaining about names again. “You know Mrs. Castanette in our orchestra? She only calls herself that because she plays the castanets. It is a fact that her name is Margaret Swanson. But her husband now calls himself Swanson-Johnson. They don’t see how they themselves are the ones who–who mangle the way of things.” He moved his hands as if gnarling up a bunch of string. “In the time when it was cold, we, my family, we burned out copy of the Constitution to get the fire going one day. Everybody was in despair, the children were coming out crooked, every tide left dead poison fish, nobody put out the boats, nobody could get together and say, Let’s keep the fires going in our stoves–I remember this, my father told me and I remember a little bit.

Really, it’s a strange little world down there in Key West. The title character is the son of a fisherman. He has a clarinet that has been handed down from somewhere and seeks lessons from Mr. Cheung, the speaker in the section quoted above. Cheung runs some kind of rag-tag orchestra, though they have never played. He remembers things from before, but clearly not enough. Cheung’s grandmother, who should remember all of what humanity had been through as she goes as far back to having escaped the fall of Saigon as a young woman, appears to have dementia and is barely aware anymore of where she is. In all of this, Fiskadoro wanders off and is captured by some nearby swamp people.

Of course, the outside world is not entirely gone. Radio broadcasts still come from nearby Cuba, and though Key West is quarantined, someday soon that quarantine will be lifted and Cuba will be coming. The world is rebuilding.

At one point in the novel, Fiskadoro loses much of his memory as part of a ceremony he undergoes with the swamp people. On his way back home, he sees from a distance some of the remnants of the nuclear disaster–great streams of traffic where people were burned alive in their cars. He tells his teacher, Cheung, about what he saw and Cheung tells him that he will be a great leader one day. He tells Fiskadoro:

You’ve been to their world and now you’re in this world, but you don’t have the memories to make you crazy. It isn’t sleeping under the moon that makes a crazy person. It’s waking up and remembering the past and thinking it’s real.

It’s kind of an odd statement. Usually people seem to advocate the whole “those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it” thing, but Cheung seems to be think halfway is better. No knowledge means no vision about going forward, but too much means getting stuck trying to live the past. As such, Cheung seems to think Fiskadoro is in a unique position.

Regardless, Fiskadoro is an interesting but strange little book. It definitely wasn’t what I expected from Denis Johnson. I doubt I got all that there was there on just a first reading, but what I did get definitely increased my respect for the variety of which Johnson is apparently capable. You’ll just have to take a look and see if it is as surprising for you, coming from Johnson as it does, as it was for me.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day

I imagine that it is never easy when one attempts to compare the life one has lived with one’s principles. Personally, denial is my policy on this sort of thing. I try to avoid thinking about it. It is certainly not noble, but does can anyone consider such a thing and truly come to the conclusion that he or she has lived well according to the convictions he or she started out with? After all, life does not seem to think much of our plans or beliefs. Life just happens. I don’t mean to be so quasi-philosophical right now, but I just finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Melissa Bank and 2nd for T.C. Boyle)

At the outset, The Remains of the Day seems simple enough. Mr. Stevens (the perfect example of an English butler) is preparing to take a trip. Life is not what it once was for Stevens, having served a distinguished lord and presided over a large staff at Darlington Hall for thirty-five years, now serves a rich American who bought the hall when the lord died. The class system he once served, indeed the entire profession to which he committed his life, is virtually gone. Still, he carries on. In fact, the trip he intends to take, suggested by the rich American who won’t be at Darlington Hall for a time, includes the side purpose of sounding out whether or not a former housekeeper who has written him would be interested in being again employed by the hall:

            It is of course tragic that her marriage is now ending in failure. At this very moment, no doubt, she is pondering with regret decisions made in the far-off past that have now left her, deep in middle age, so alone and desolate. And it is easy to see how in such a frame of mind, the thought of returning to Darlington Hall would be a great comfort to her. Admittedly, she does not at any point in her letter explicitly state her desire to return; but that is the unmistakable message conveyed by the general nuance of many of the passages, imbued as they are with deep nostalgia for her days at Darlington Hall.

During his trip, for once not harried constantly by duty, Stevens thinks back over his career and his life. He reflects on how the profession has changed and remembers his own commitment to duty. However, it is not merely duty that obsesses him. In order for a butler to be great, Stevens believes that he must dedicate his life to serving a great man. He repeatedly insists that this is what he has done, but this is not the case:

            ‘I’ll tell you this, Stevens. His lordship is being made a fool of. I’ve done a lot of investigating, I know the situation in Germany as well as anyone in this country, and I tell you, his lordship is being made a fool of.’

            I gave no reply, and Mr Cardinal went on gazing emptily at the floor. After a while, he continued:

            ‘His lordship is a dear, dear man. But the fact is, he is out of his depth. He is being manoeuvred. The Nazis are manoeuvring him like a pawn. Have you noticed this, Stevens? Have you noticed this is what has been happening for the last three or four years at least?’

            ‘I’m sorry, sir, I have failed to notice any such development.’

Stevens himself, though he does not believe the rumors that are spread about Lord Darlington, at least believes that the man led a misguided life. What can that mean for Stevens? After all, if his conviction is to only serve the greatest of men and the man he served lived a misguided life, did Stevens not waste his life? He dedicated himself, putting duty above family and his own chances for a life (often to an appalling degree):

            Behind me, Miss Kenton’s footsteps came to a sudden halt, and I heard her say”

            ‘Are you not in the least interested in what took place tonight between my acquaintance and I, Mr Stevens?’

            ‘I do not meant to be rude, Miss Kenton, but I really must return upstairs without further delay. The fact is, events of a global significance are taking place in this house at his very moment.’

            ‘When are they not, Mr Stevens? Very well, if you must be rushing off, I shall tell you that I accepted my acquaintance’s proposal.’

            ‘I beg your pardon, Miss Kenton?’

            ‘His proposal of marriage.’

            *****

            ‘Am I to take it,’ she said, ‘that after the many years of service I have given in this house, you have no more words to greet the news of my possible departure than those you have just uttered?’

            ‘Miss Kenton, you have my warmest congratulations. But I repeat, there are matters of global significance taking place upstairs and I must return to my post.’

Really, though, what can Stevens do as he looks back? He can’t attach himself to a better lord. He can’t reclaim his family, or Miss Kenton. All he has is his work. This is what he must come to terms with. Shall he recognize the difference between his ideals and his life? Will he mourn what he has given up? Or, will he refuse to acknowledge what he has realized and stay fast to the only life he has ever known?

After reading, I have to say that I’ve seen few things that I would classify as the truly English novel quite as much as this book. Formal in tone (and perfectly so), it moved me with quiet dignity. It is both a marvelous depiction of the changing post-WWII England and of Stevens passing judgment on his entire life. Really, I found it to be quite beautiful.

“Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel García Márquez

I’m not usually much for murder mysteries. They are cool and all, and I’m sure I’d have fun reading one, but the standard ones just don’t pull me very much. Introduce a murder, find some clues, figure out who did it, and wrap things up. Case closed. However, those who would call Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold a murder mystery (and they validly might) would have to throw all that out the window.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for T.C. Boyle.)

How to begin? Well, the story centers on the murder of Santiago Nasar. Pedro and Pablo Vicario stab Santiago to death for supposedly dishonoring their sister, causing her to be returned to her home by her groom on her wedding night.

Am I giving out spoilers? No, this is all pretty much known right from the beginning, if not from the summary on the back of the book. Consider the opening passage:

            On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit. “He was always dreaming about trees,” Plácida Linero, his mother, told me twenty-seven years later, recalling the details of that distressing Monday. “The week before, he’d dreamed that he was alone in a tinfoil airplane and flying through the almond trees without bumping into anything,” she said to me. She had a well-earned reputation as an accurate interpreter of other people’s dreams, provided they were told to her before eating, but she hadn’t noticed any ominous augury in those two dreams of her son’s, or in the other dreams of trees he’d described to her on the mornings preceding his death.

So, if the reader knows right away who kills Santiago Nasar as well as the how and why, where’s the mystery? Well, the mystery is in how everyone in the town behaves and why they do so.

After all, everyone in the town knows that Santiago is going to be killed. Some do a little to try to stop it, but no one does very much…certainly nothing that actually stops it from happening. Some think he should be (though it is far from clear that he actually slept with the young miss Vicario), some are too afraid to get involved, some don’t think it is going to happen, and some just think it’s fate:

            Victoria Guzmán, for her part, had been categorical with her answer that neither she nor her daughter knew that the men were waiting for Santiago Nasar to kill him. But in the course of her years she admitted that both knew it when he came into the kitchen to have his coffee. They had been told it by a woman who passed by after five o’clock to beg a bit of milk, and who in addition had revealed the motives and the place where they were waiting. “I didn’t warn him because I thought it was drunkards’ talk,” she told me. Nevertheless, Divina Flor confessed to me on a later visit, after her mother had died, that the latter hadn’t said anything to Santiago Nasar because in the depths of her heart she wanted them to kill him. She, on the other hand, didn’t warn him because she was nothing but a frightened child at the time, incapable of a decision of her own[.]

Stranger, Pedro and Pablo Vicario don’t even appear to really want to kill Santiago Nasar, though they go through with it. They keep going where Santiago is not and telling everyone what they are going to do, creating as many chances as possible for someone to stop them. Really, no one does. Eventually, after the mayor takes away their knives and sends them home, the brothers get new knives and go out again.  Pablo tells his brother: “There’s no way out of this…It’s as if it had already happened.”

Thus, there is the mystery of Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Was it fate? Did the people of the town want this murder to happen? Was it a combination of all different kinds of things? Why did everyone know and no one stop it?

Man, hell if I know. You’ll have to read and try to figure it out yourself.

Having finished reading, I have to say that Chronicle of a Death Foretold is one of the strangest works of Márquez I’ve read yet, and that is really saying something. It’s definitely his shortest work I’ve looked at, if not his most perplexing. I really have to hand it to him. I mean, how can you make something so baffling when you provide all the answers? I’ll be thinking about this one for a while. Anyone else who reads Chronicle of a Death Foretold will probably end up thinking about it for a while afterward as well.