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So I managed to squeeze in yet another book before the year went out! The way Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is written allows for you to finish it in a week’s time, provided you set aside a good number of free hours, as I did in the thick of my Christmas break. The novel’s chapters are refreshingly bite-sized, typically spanning two pages and stretching at the most to five. I say ‘refreshing’ not only because most of the novels I’ve read this year are built up by lengthy scenes that make it difficult to pause, but also because the chapters manage to be engaging in their brevity. Hence, this week I gave up a lot of time to finish this 500-plus page whopper of a book.

The novel follows on one hand, Marie-Laure, a French girl who early on in her life loses her vision and is taught by her father, a locksmith who works at the French Museum of Natural History, to navigate the cities they live in using scale models which her father builds. On the other hand, we also follow Werner, a German boy who is fascinated by the inner workings of the radio and is given the opportunity to use his skills in service of the Nazi army. Both of them are enamored by the things that they cannot see: Marie-Laure learns from the brief time she spends growing up in the halls of the Museum that “to really touch something… is to love it” (30) while Werner and his sister Jutta grow up hooked on a science and music program aimed at children that Werner manages to pick up while modifying his first salvaged radio. They have no idea that their paths will cross, as all novels are wont to do with their respective characters, in the walled city of Saint-Malo, which, like Dresden, is doomed to be decimated in the process of its liberation. Though the city has been mostly restored in the present day, it’s largely implied that the Saint-Malo that the reader becomes deeply acquainted with is not the Saint-Malo that still stands along the coast of France. Saint-Malo, following its destruction, becomes one other thing that we can no longer see, but still fall in love with, years and miles away.

The novel reminded me very much of Markus Zusak’s classic The Book Thief in the way it developed Marie-Laure and Werner. Both children are certainly precocious. Marie-Laure possesses a degree of cunning that evenly matches Liesel Meminger’s own. Werner’s anxieties toward the cause he is forced to serve easily brought back Zusak’s Rudy in my memory. The two enjoy brief moments of intimacy that are cut short by the hand of fate, and especially in Zusak’s book, Death plays a role that transcends his narration of the story. However, where Doerr’s novel departs from Zusak’s is also where the real magic takes place; whereas most of Zusak’s novel shows Liesel and Rudy growing up together and having their effect on each other from years of friendship, Doerr builds up the anticipation of Marie-Laure’s meeting with Werner during the siege of Saint-Malo, which, once more details to their backstories are revealed, appears to the reader more and more serendipitous and yet poignant as one gets past it. It becomes easy to appreciate the novel when one realizes that its true action is set in motion at the very beginning, which is the first night of Saint-Malo’s bombing, rather than at the chronological beginning when Marie-Laure’s childhood memories are recalled and Werner considers the harsh environment of the mining town in which he and his sister live. The latter is the beginning of a long set-up that takes up most of the book, but never loses its effectiveness, as the novel jumps back and forth between the events leading up to the bombing and the siege itself. The novel does this because while the chapters that chronicle the siege are, I feel, more essential to what it is all about (the encounter between the two lead characters), the circumstances reinforce the emotional gravitas of this moment and reverberate when the novel moves past the siege into the moments after. The chapters that follow the siege tend to reveal certain details prematurely, such that the set-up becomes a process of back-tracking, of filling in the blanks to the story. Nonetheless, when those details are revisited in the set-up chapters, they recall in one’s mind what is to happen when Saint-Malo is liberated.

At the same time, the novel is a meditation on human choices and how one overcomes circumstances that at first glance seem more powerful than the one who experiences them. Marie-Laure’s father comes into the possession of a fabled gem, which supposedly brings bad luck to those around it but long life to those who possess it. Its presence in the story is subtle, vaguely hinted at but never explicitly suggested as being the root of all the evils that the story has to throw at the main characters. When Marie-Laure realizes that the gem has started taking effect in her life, she comes to fear that she will never be able to overcome it or undo the damage it has caused to her loved ones. At the same time, Werner experiences an existential crisis when he becomes aware of his own capacity to rebel against a national cause and popular behavior. While he survives the bitter experience of training to become a Nazi soldier through the privileges that his skill set grants him, he realizes that those closest to him have suffered at great costs. He must then make the choice to protect them or die. The stakes behind this choice, one shall find, are the exact same stakes that permeate the encounter at the heart of the novel. And though Marie-Laure may not realize it because the time she spends with Werner is so brief, there was a great struggle that occurred in one man’s heart, which she couldn’t see, but perhaps could have known, if only they had spent more time together.

From there, we come back to what the novel is all about: things that we cannot see, but are there. The novel exposes to us the mechanisms of life the way one might present the mechanisms behind a magic trick. One performs the trick and astounds the audience. But whereas the revelation of a magic trick’s inner workings disillusion the audience, the revelation of life’s inner workings moves the audience to wonder, to delight in what is always there for all of us.

That’s it for 2014! I’ll be doing my next post on ZeroThreeTwo, which is my list of my five favorite reads of the past year. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of your holidays. Happy new year!

The first volume of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet is probably a novel that young Filipinos will find themselves comfortable reading if they want to learn more about their neighbors in the Southeast Asian region. My mentor Dr. Dumol pointed out that the novel bears a remarkable resemblance to the first of the two novels by our national hero Jose Rizal, which is apparent even on the book’s back summary, which includes (describing the protagonist): “The son of a noble Javanese, he moves easily among the Dutch and their ideas and language but is prevented from enjoying their rights.” He is not the only one. The girl who figures prominently in this novel is an Indonesian Maria Clara, oblivious to the goings-on around her but the infallible object of many affections. Even her parentage is considered controversial by the community at large. While Elias is not as easily recognizable here, and neither is Sisa, This Earth of Mankind should still stand out as a counterpart to Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere because their similarities transcend the novels’ superficial details and connect thematically instead.

For starters, Toer’s novel deals largely with the meaning that arises from the experience of lost causes. This is not to say that the cause of this novel should be considered lost (neither should we say that of the Noli‘s); the main characters of Toer’s novel recognize the threat posed to them by forces that only appear stronger because of their deep ties to colonial authority. Though defeat seems inevitable, they struggle anyway, and by the end, they emerge not so much unscathed but alive nonetheless and in possession of greater motivation and deeper meaning in their lives. In the middle of the novel, the protagonist-narrator Minke witnesses an argument between his friend the Frenchman Jean Marais and his landlord Mr. Telinga, who had previously been Marais’ superior officer when they fought for the Netherlands Indies army against pockets of resistance across Indonesia. Their argument centers on the ends of war, which Telinga argues is merely the victory of the stronger side. Marais however suggests:

“… there has never been a war conducted for its own sake. There are many peoples who go to war who have no desire to be victor. They go to war and die in thousands… because there is something they want to defend, something more important than death, life, or defeat and victory.” (224)

Minke brushes them off, having had gone to them in the first place in search of an answer to an unrelated question. At this point, he (and perhaps the reader) has no idea of that argument’s later significance in his own life. As the novel progresses, he experiences hope and despair in alternating doses. Towards the latter half, he learns to take control of his emotions, knowing very well that he is becoming more and more responsible for the fates of others. At the very least, Minke may have walked away from all this with an inkling of the significance of his friend’s argument to the nationalist movements which Minke shall fuel with his writing, pointing out the social stratification and the disadvantages posed by being non-European. Inasmuch as the novel is a coming-of-age story for Minke, it is more strongly a story about recognizing social responsibility, especially given the talents and privileges one comes to possess.

Curiously, Minke becomes aware of the prejudices that permeate Indonesian society when his own erroneous prejudices are exposed. Minke’s preconceived notions of the concubine Nyai Ontosoroh and her daughter Annelies are immediately shattered in the first few chapters. Once again, Marais serves as Minke’s guide in this matter when he tells him: “An educated person must learn to act justly, beginning, first of all, with his thoughts, then later in his deeds” (56). Unlike the earlier quote, this piece of advice more explicitly recurs in Minke’s narration, underlining his awareness that, if he wants to emerge as good as his European peers, the refinement of his thinking must trump his most immediate emotions. Throughout the novel, we often see Minke succeed in keeping this resolve, and to us in a post-colonial setting, it is abundantly clear that he does turn out morally better than the Dutch who control the lives of his loved ones as if they were less than human. Minke falls a step short of finishing his studies abroad, much like the Filipino ilustrado, but Toer also makes it apparent that the quality of education in colonial Indonesia allowed for Minke to equal his peers without having to leave.

Naturally, the Dutch colonial presence is not presented by Toer as an absolute evil and he does note the merits of seedling globalism as a result of their coming. Echoing Rizal’s sentiments of the Spanish colonial government, Toer has it that Minke desires not so much a complete separation between the Netherlands and Indonesia but instead reform of the colonial government. It is easy to see how much European education has exerted influence on Minke for the better, and time after time, Minke uses that education to elevate Indonesian national identity. Minke marvels at the advancement of technology and welcomes its capacity for cultural exchange. He also weeps when one of the assistant resident’s daughters expresses her hope that he should become a leader among his people in the cultural sphere rather than the political. This motivates his courage to write against what injustices do exist in their society as it is and call for reform.

Young Indonesians who come to know Toer’s and Rizal’s novels have a lot to talk about with young Filipinos who know the same. I do not want to sound too idealistic by saying that it would be already a dream to have the Minkes of the 21st century shaking hands with the Ibarras of the same age. After all, it is already happening. It is a matter now of planning and execution, and then, greatness.

It is unlikely that I shall finish any more novels before the end of the year, especially given that the three other books I’ve brought home with me are rather thick. The next post on the blog will dwell on my favorite reads of 2014, as well as something of a manifesto for the blog and the direction I’d like to take it in with regard to these reviews. Stay tuned!

A part of me wishes that Ifemelu’s first blog was real, that I could find Raceteenth on WordPress, just to get a healthy, regular dose of the exciting, witty commentaries that scare off any remaining hope that if you move to America, good things will come to you. After writing the previous sentence, I looked up The Small Redemptions of Lagos and discovered that Adichie herself has crafted in Ifemelu’s persona, making the blog something of a mini-sequel to Adichie’s critically-acclaimed novel without having to sacrifice the original tone and character of the blog as it appeared in the book. This is great and already I anticipate the next installment on my feed. However, to be frank, I would have preferred to read all of Ifemelu’s blog posts on a proper blog than in the book, where they only served to chop the narrative up and lose my attention in the plot. (Let this post be an invitation to consider the novel for itself first, disregarding the blog posts as supplementary material.) Taking this complaint further, I feel like this is my main qualm with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel (the first of hers that I’ve read): most of the novel’s parts seem out-of-place. She spends so much time on building up the circumstances that when we reach the present, there is hardly any space left to resolve the things that got me hooked on the book in the first place.

We first meet Ifemelu on the verge of the next great change in her life, the imminent move back to her home country of Nigeria after studying and working for several years in the United States. It is immediately clear to the reader, as is typical in most diaspora novels, that the Ifemelu returning to Lagos has been affected by the sort of people she finds herself surrounded by in America. As a result, she becomes conscious of her becoming an American (or Americanah, as her friends back home often say in jest) despite her efforts to resist cultural assimilation. When we step into Ifemelu’s past, we witness her attempts to assert her natural Nigerian accent, comment on the assimilation of other black people to American society, and assess each of her relationships the context of the one great love of her life, Obinze, with whom she has long since broken off. Since the dissolution of her their relationship, Obinze has remained in Ifemelu’s mind and heart so strongly that it is the knowledge that he has settled down with someone else in Nigeria that haunts her and even cause her to reconsider going home. It is one desire strongly tugging against another: she must face him (and the brand new Nigeria) or drown in an alien world that will forever mark her alien as well.

Many of the present day plot threads are fun to read through. Ifemelu’s experience at the braiding parlor, which frames her flashbacks, is mostly what I expected the book to be like. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel that Ifemelu’s contrast with Aisha, who spends an entire afternoon working on Ifemelu’s hair, could have framed the whole novel. Though while I grant that the novel intends to be about Obinze just as much as it is about Ifemelu, which is why the novel spends its latter third bringing the two back together, I want to point out that the book makes it easy to forget this. Just as I was settling into the story of Obinze’s time as an undocumented immigrant in England, I turned the page and found myself back in Ifemelu’s extended flashback. At the same time, many plot threads begin and are left unresolved; I got the sense that the novel never goes in the direction I want, and so I felt a bit cheated. Does the disillusioned Ifemelu ever remember her promise to help out Aisha, having failed to disillusion her? You never see it. Even Ifemelu’s final interactions with her nephew Dike when he visits Lagos, which supposedly resolves his psychological problems, felt rushed. I would have liked to see him discover Lagos and his parentage a little more, and then I would have liked to see him confront his mother Aunty Uju about it, or at least to tie up that end by letting us know what happens to them in the end. You never find out. And then Ifemelu’s epic novel-spanning romance with Obinze? Well, obviously that gets resolved. But I get the sense that the decisions the characters make in the novel’s final pages are miscalculated, Obinze in particular. The real repercussions of his actions are left ambiguous to the reader. You never learn the consequences.

My gut feel is that the hype surrounding this book stems from its relative newness and significance. Its two central themes are undoubtedly cultural differences and the various types of racism that permeate a culture that has historically triumphed racism but has yet to fully eradicate it. Yet, what makes it relevant is that it situates these themes in the post-9/11 America that evolves into the Obama-led America. It suggests that while America has come a long way from the rampant racism that has plagued most of American history (to the point of collectively selecting a leader who is described in the book as having been the result of the intersection of many cultures), one need only rely on social media to see that many immigrants still feel unwelcome in America and that some of the hostility comes, surprisingly, from people of the same racial ancestry. What I liked about this point is that it seemed like something you could say of all diaspora who find themselves in America, not just African; in Philippine Literature for instance, I recognized this as the concern being raised in Bienvenido N. Santos’s What the hell for you left your heart in San Francisco. Perhaps where Americanah takes the next step is to present the ways in which foreign culture subverts one’s effort to keep cultural identity intact. At some point in the novel, Ifemelu notes that it was when she came to America from Nigeria for the first time that she came black, a statement that when carefully reflected upon requires no further explanation. It brings to mind that Americanah is in some way a coming-into story, but a very specific type that does not so much mark Ifemelu’s growth into adulthood but her permanent change into the Americanah, who finds herself looked down upon by those who have adopted the American identity wholeheartedly and yet subconsciously looks down upon those who have never really left home, even when they are already there.