All posts by Mtutuzeli

A CHILD CALLED IT-DAVE PELZER

B1This book is David Pelzer’s autobiographical and heart-rending account of his abuse by his mother. It is a story that afflicts the reader with multiple sorrows from its beginning till the end.

David Pelzer, the third of four brothers, grew up in what in the beginning seemed an ordinary home. It was a home where each day was ‘a new adventure’, with life ‘everyday, sprinkled with magic’. It was a life where mum (Catherine Roerva) took her sons on day trips, where Spring meant picnics, and mum and dad ‘seemed happy to lie next to each other on a blanket, sip red wine’ and watch their children play.

Then, almost overnight, Dave’s paradise was lost. His home became Milton’s burning Lake of Hell. His mother became unrecognisable as a human being. She plied herself incessantly with drink, and when she yelled ‘her voice changed from the nurturing mother to the wicked witch.’ From being a mother whose embrace always made Dave feel safe and warm, she became ‘The Mother’-a frightening, appalling and sadistic figure.

The Mother’ would grab Dave and smash his face against the mirror. When she hit him, it was with such ferocious frenzy that ‘her punches seemed to last forever.’ She poured ‘ammonia’ and ‘Clorox’ down his throat until his brain screamed. To her he ceased to be a son but a slave and was no longer a boy but an ‘it’. She burnt him on a hot stove and rammed a bar of soap down his throat to stop him from speaking. She roared at him, starved him and even fed him vomit and excrement. ‘The Mother’ even stabbed her child.

Though the school was a haven from domestic torture, he was often so hungry that he stole food-‘Twinkies and other desserts’ from fellow students. Because of this he became a total outcast at school. No student would have anything to do with him. In the playground, he was called ‘David the Food Thief.‘ Every day came with torture and degradation.

Dave’s father, Stephen Joseph, who ‘had broad shoulders and forearms that would make any muscle man proud,’ failed to protect his son. He was a muscle-bound weakling who dealt with the decay of his family by drinking excessively, and cowardly turning his back on his besieged son.

Dave Pelzer’s story is a monument to human courage. Dave’s youth belied his resilience to survive. His mother’s savagery and his father’s indifference notwithstanding, he vowed ‘not to give in, even to death.’ Even after reading the book, it is hard to comprehend how one so young could withstand such an ordeal for so long.

His mother was brutish with a tormented soul. But, she was also cunning and slippery and often managed e to explain away most suspicions of child abuse from outsiders. Like a greased beast, it was often difficult to corner her. But, young Dave was finally rescued from her torture and found a haven with a foster family that loved him.

He went on to serve his country in war and received commendations from three American presidents. He is a best-selling author of five books, and a loving husband and father. He is now a man on a noble mission and an inspiration to thousands of defeated spirits around the world. All this came about following his massive wounding as a child. Out of sorrow came growth, purpose, and even joy.

Unfortunately, a lot of victims of child abuse never survive. When they do, they often continue the cycle of rage against society. Dave Pelzer’s tale is a disturbing and brilliantly written narrative of gratuitous violence. There is almost no sentence that does not contribute to the aggravation of the distress. The depth of Dave’s pain is stamped on every word. As we read the book, we find ourselves nearer, and almost witnesses to the carnage of his childhood.

Once the reader opens the book, it is impossible to put it down. And when completed, this story of sickening violence in Dave’s home lingers in the mind for long. Though Catherine Roerva didn’t murder her son, in some way she killed him many times over: his childhood, his innocence, his trust, but fortunately not his will to live.

 

 

BLINDNESS-JOSE SARAMAGO

Radio Today Sue Grant-Marshall and Mtutuzeli Nyoka Jose Saramago was one of the most significant writers of the modern novel. Blindness is a haunting story written with great skill and authority. The characters are peculiar, and yet the book is contemporary and bravely depicts the human condition.

The story reads like one of Dante’s apocalyptic fables. However, Saramago’s purgatory is rooted in real life. The interest of the story centers on an unnamed town whose citizens, bar one, are afflicted by blindness. We follow the path of “the first blind man” (no one has a name in Blindness, and even the city is not identified) as he loses his eyesight while driving his car.

Distraught, the first blind man, is comforted by a stranger. The Good Samaritan, who helps him get home, eventually steals his car.  However, “the thief” soon loses his eyesight. They later meet at the doctor’s surgery and the ‘the first blind man’ rages at ‘the thief’ for stealing his car.

But, ‘the thief’ responds: ‘If you think you’re going to get away with this, then you’re mistaken, all right, I stole your car, but you stole my eyesight, so who’s the bigger thief.’

Thus with everyone both a victim and a culprit, the carnage of the blind begins. The doctor who exams ‘the first blind man’ could find no cause or lesion for his blindness. “Who would have believed it? Seen merely at a glance, the man’s eyes seem healthy, the iris looks bright, luminous, the sclera white, as compact as porcelain.’ Later, even the doctor succumbs to the spreading epidemic of blindness. Soon almost, the entire city becomes blind.

The Minister of Health recommends quarantine for all those who were blind or had been in contact with them until a cure is found. From this environment of the blind leading the blind a tragedy unfolds where the world becomes a dangerous place, a ‘hell of hells’ where even soldiers fear the blind citizens. With their blindness, the citizens had transported war from the field to their streets, with man more fearsome than a beast.

It is at this point that the reader may flinch, and even turn away in disgust at the carnage that unfolds. The dark streets are covered in filth; there is no food or running water; the dead lie unburied: the city is teeming with scavengers; there are multiple accidents with planes plunging from the sky because the pilots are blind. There seem to be no limits to the misfortune of the blind. However, the story’s magnificence transcends the evil, and even turns it into a light that illuminates the universal tragedy of ignorance.

At the end of the book one of the characters asks: ‘Why did we become blind, I don’t know, perhaps one day we’ll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.’ None of the tragic events in the book is superfluous, and they show that human dignity is insulted every day by the corrupters of the truth in our world. Sadly, these are the ones that hardly make an appearance in the book. In Saramago’s refreshing but tragic fantasy is the truth, and in his damnation there is a grudging respect for man’s instincts and will to survive, and even thrive.

The strangest passage in Blindness happens when the inmates manage to escape from the asylum after a battle between two gangs of blind people: ‘Say to a blind man, you’re free, open the door that was separating him from the world, Go, you are free, we tell him once more, and he does not go,  he has remained motionless there in the middle of the road, he and the others, they are terrified, they do not know where to go, the fact is that there is no comparison between living in a rational labyrinth, which is, by definition, a mental asylum and venturing forth, without a guiding hand or a dog leash, into the demented labyrinth of the city, where memory serves no purpose.

Blindness belongs to many, and what Saramago is urging us to do is to strike a match as an escape from the disease and pathology of darkness. Blindness is masterfully written-an incredible book that surpasses all of Saramago’s other works.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon-JOSE SARAMAGO

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This story is about twisting things around. It is about altering certain known ‘historical facts’ and then asking the reader to consider how much truth there was in these ‘historical facts’ to start with. The book challenges the credence we give to history, which in many instances is penned by those who were not even eyewitnesses to the events they write about. Even ‘miracles’, purportedly witnessed by ancient saints, are accepted without question.

What a strange world,’ the author asks, ‘it must have been, that such things should have been believed and written, I’d prefer to say in which such things are not written, but believed even, today, We are positively mad,’

Is part of what we call history the product of some historians’ fertile imagination? How much detail is added or erased due to the historians’ bias? How much meaning is lost in translations and misprints from one language to the other? Are some of the speeches, often written verbatim, attributed to the major historical figures mere embellishment of prose? Are some history books mere narrations of fiction and mutilations of facts?

The story begins with Raimundo Silva, a long-time proof-reader in Lisbon. He is proofing the ‘history of the siege of Lisbon in 1147 in which Christians defeated the Moors who had ruled the city for three hundred years.  The recorded history is that the Portuguese sought the aid of the Crusaders who were on their way to the holy land.

The Crusaders agreed to help the Portuguese, but the proof-reader, Raimundo Silva, inserts a NOT. The Crusaders will NOT help the Portuguese. It is from this ‘NOT’ that main events in the book unfold. Fortunately, the proof reader’s deliberate error is discovered before the book goes to print, and an erratum is inserted warning the readers of the ‘mistake’.

The author plays on this error, and once again asks how much of written history is due to conscious vandalism of the facts. The publishers, in reaction to Raimundo Silva’s error of the “NOT,” hire a new administrator, Maria Sara to be in charge of the proof-readers. Maria Sara far from being outraged by Silva’s deliberate error is fascinated by what had happened and challenges Silva to write his alternative version of the Lisbon siege-and from the point of view of his NOT.

In altering the history of Lisbon, Silva also fundamentally, and even joyfully, alters his life. He had for many years lived a lonely existence, but consequent to his NOT, he finds love. He now no longer just walks past a florist shop, but stops, enters and buys flowers.

The story continues, following his error, on two levels: the present, with Silva and Sara falling in love, and the past-Silva’s version of the siege.  In both stories, so much is made of the NOT, as Silva ponders and reconstructs the historical events of the siege. Even the revised version of the proof-reader canNOT be trusted since it teems with speculation. But, at the same time his conjured version may be closer to the truth than the ‘facts’ in modern history books.

Even as the improbable relationship between the proof-reader and his boss blossoms, which Sara aptly describes as war with one trying to lay siege to the other’s heart, the NOT is a constant feature. As one reads the book, one gets the feeling that ours is as comical an existence as the blind asylum inmates from his other famous novel Blindness. Blind but seeing-barely seeing.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is a wonderfully written novel by a writer who had complete mastery of his craft.

It is a humorous, ambitious, sophisticated and intelligent re-telling of known history, albeit with a slight twist, and a warm love story between two singular characters.

 

Candide or optimism-Voltaire.

B1Candide (or optimism) is a novella, and yet in it is packed much of life’s misfortunes and human triumphs. It is claimed to have been written as satire on the all-embracing optimism espoused by some German philosophers of the time.

Candide, whose ‘general look was that of utter simplicity’, is the illegitimate nephew of a German baron (the Baron von thunder-ten-Tronckh). At the baron’s castle, he lived in cusp of luxury, under the mentorship of the scholar, Pangloss, who preaches to him that this world is “the best of all possible worlds.”

It is demonstrable’, Pangloss would say, ‘that thing cannot be other than they are. For, since everything is made for a purpose, everthing must be for the best possible purpose, Noses, you observe, were made so support spectacles: consequently we have spectacles. Legs, it is plain were created to wear breeches, and are supplied with them.

Events in the novel are the antithesis of the Pangloss’s tutelage. Open the book at random, you are likely to find yourself in the midst of a misadventure. Almost every human catastrophe that can happen does happen in Candide. From a young age, Candide seems entangled in the webs of sorrow from which he apparently could not escape. When he falls in love with the baron’s young daughter, Cunégonde, the Baron expels him from his home. Soon after, he is conscripted into the army of the Bulgars. He wanders away from camp for a brief walk and is brutally flogged as a deserter.

Suffering and peril soon become Candide’s constant companions. As he flees from life’s fiendish malice to destinations across the world, misfortune stalks him like an implacable enemy. Much as Pangloss holds firm to his philosophy, Candide’s simplicity is soon replaced by scepticism as he struggles to find justification for all the human anguish he had witnessed

Voltaire also casts a searching light at the hypocrisy and corruption of organized religion through characters who appear in the story. The reader learns about the daughter of a Pope, a vicious Catholic Inquisitor, who has a mistress; and a Franciscan friar who is a thief, despite the vow of poverty he had taken. Voltaire also introduces a Jesuit colonel who is a homosexual.

However, Candide, contrary to the meaning of the title is a very complex book. Juxtaposed to calamity is joy, and next to sorrow and death is a celebration of life. At various points, Candide believes that Cunégonde, Pangloss, and the baron are dead, only to discover later that they had survived. Much as these “resurrections” seem out of step with the general tone of the novel-perhaps, because of them, the reader gets to know the real motive of the writer.

With his bleak canvass of misery, Voltaire may have been exalting the resilience of the human spirit and its triumph over adversity. Perhaps in depicting man’s vices, he was also admiring humanity’s virtues. Perhaps far from mocking optimism, he renounces nihilism. His novel is an eloquent narrative of the vicissitudes of life, and the rise and fall of man’s fortunes. Thus, in the expansive dialogue between its two main characters we learn that Candide is anything but simple, nor is Pangloss completely an old fool. Battered warriors though they were, they had a reverence and yearning for life despite the mental and physical torture it had inflicted on them.

The novel also reveals Voltaire’s romantic side. The love between Candide and Cunegonde, like that between Femina Daza and Florentina Ariza in Marquez’s Love in the time of Cholera, endures, despite the many disappointments and ravages of life. That he continued to love one woman throughout his life despite the rubble in his soul was another sign of his indestructible optimism. Finally, after his life-long travails that at times made him feel like cutting his own throat, Candide finds peace in the simple life of farming. In some way, his final lesson to the reader is that nature, is not a place just to visit, it is our home.

Reading  is an endless pleasure -a rollercoaster ride of both joy and sadness. In it are parts of our lives that we know fully well. The book is a true classic and an amazing celebration of literature.

 

ASKARI: a story of collaboration and betrayal – Jacob Dlamini

 

 

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ASKARI is a splendid and well researched novel that seeks to expand our understanding of the nature of betrayal. It is the story of Mr. X1, (a name given to Glory Sedibe, once a respected commander of the military wing of the African National Congress, by the court to shield his identity during his testimony against his former comrades) and his journey to becoming an ASKARI (a rehabilitated or tamed terrorist).

The trial in which Sedibe testified was billed by some as South Africa’s biggest political cases since the Rivonia Trial in which Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were given life sentences to Robben Island. ASKARI is about Mr. X1’s (Glory Sedibe) metaphormosis from insurgent to counter-insurgent-from a freedom fighter to donning the mantle of a despised traitor.

Sedibe, like the majority of black youths who left the country after the Soweto riots of 1976, came from a very poor family. Though his father, Ephraim, was a teacher in the rural asbestos mining town of Penge, he barely earned enough to keep the wolf from the door. However, he inspired and impelled his sons to get an education.

The seeds of revolt in Glory Sedibe were deeply planted and long nurtured. His elder brother, Kaborone, was imprisoned for terrorism while at university. This event and the panorama of poverty in his hometown spurred the 24-year old to leave the country of his birth and join the fight against apartheid. He could have chosen the easy exile life of a student. Instead, he opted for the military route and joined uMkomto weSizwe– the armed wing of the ANC.

He received training in military intelligence from the old Soviet Union and East Germany. He rise through the ranks of MK (the military wing of the ANC) was spectacular. Though some accused him of pomposity and arrogance, he was highly regarded by many for his penetrating intellect and remarkable eloquence.

In 1986, in a daring prison raid, he was captured by the South African Police in Swaziland, brutally tortured, and turned into the perhaps the most useful collaborator the South African government ever had. With his assistance, military operations against the South African government were scuppered, several ANC internal combat units wiped out, and because of his testimony in the political show trials some of his colleagues were sent to long prison terms.

In looking at the nature of betrayal, the author graphically examines the private agony of detainees in apartheid’s inferno of torture. He examines the role that the brutal doctrine of counter-insurgency plays in the turning of a captured ‘terrorist’. This is the burning lake of torment that Sedibe found himself in when he was captured-as ‘racist sadists’ converged on him ‘like vultures on carrion.’

However, is the torture chamber the only factor in treason? The book rigorously examines the complex phenomenon of collaboration-the choice political prisoners make between collusion and death-the difference between an individual’s reach and their limits. It scrutinises why some under pain of torture and even the threat of death still refuse to denounce their political beliefs, and why others enthusiastically sold their souls.

The book also reveals how treason transformed the lives of the collaborators.

Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture full, will not be regained.-Amery.

Treason left an indelible mark in the character and life of Sedibe. From trying to change the world around him, he destroyed his life. He betrayed his friends and colleagues and damaged the cause he had worked for. From a gregarious and inspired revolutionary, treason turned him into an incurable alcoholic. This was a problem that grew as his service as a counter-insurgent continued.

Traitors put themselves inside a different kind of jail according to Hugh Lewin-himself betrayed to a long prison sentence by a colleague. ‘It is a jail,’ Lewin writes, ‘that had no keys. We served out sentence and were released. They bought their freedom with pieces of silver, and they would live with that knowledge for the rest of their lives.

According to Whitaker Chambers in his book Witness:

The horror of treason is its sin against the spirit. And for him who violates this truth there rises inevitably a black vacuity, which is in reality a circle of absolute loneliness into which neither father, wife, child for friend, however compassionate, can bring the grace of absolution.’

ASKARI is a highly readable, elegant and memorable book that illuminates the universal tragedy of betrayal. The narrative is comparable to the very best of modern non-fiction work and often transcends the goriness and carnage of its subject. One can also call the book a ‘historical novel’ since it exposes the wanton apartheid creature in all its grotesque and hideous lineaments.

Travelling to infinity-Jane Hawking.

 

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In this fascinating book, Jane Hawking gives an account of her marriage to one of the most famous and esteemed scientists of this age. Far from the glamour that one would associate with a world-famous scientist’s life, the world that Jane Hawking inhabited was blighted and darkened with toil, frustration, unhappiness and loneliness-a Paradise that seemingly never was.

Stephen and Jane Hawking met in 1963. She was finishing school, and he was in Cambridge. Jane was smitten by the young boffin with a dimpled smile and an unruly shock of blonde hair. Despite his deteriorating physical condition, (Stephen Hawking suffered from Motor Neurone disease) she married him in 1965.

The early years of marriage were the halcyon days of Stephen Hawking’s meteoric success with prizes won and invitations to lecture around the world. He was ‘gaining a reputation for himself as a prodigy in his field.’ However, this was accompanied by a deterioration of his health. Added to this were the tribulations of a growing family.

Though the joy brought by the birth of their children was intoxicating, the pressure of caring her children’s needs and looking after a wheel-chair bound husband took its toll on Jane. Her daily routine was exacting: the shopping and the washing had to be done, the house cleaned, meals prepared and the children and Stephen looked after almost single-handedly.

A shopping errand with a baby on her back while pushing Stephen in his wheelchair could turn into a nightmare. Her husband’s disability meant ‘there was nothing of a practical nature that he could do’. There were consequently many adjustments and, unfortunately, many sacrifices she had to make for her husband and family. It was an ordeal that could test the resolve and stamina of the toughest and the most loyal spouse.

Thus, while her husband toured the world and pursued his career with an iron will, Jane’s needs were neglected. While Stephen bloomed, Jane drooped and languished. Inevitably, this led to resentment and their union suffered. Jane’s presence as Stephen’s travelling companion became less regular.

While Stephen jetted off to conferences abroad, Jane stayed home to look after their young brood. While Stephen ‘contemplated immeasurable distances and incomprehensible time spans’, Jane’s endurance was stretched to the end of its limits. While science was an obsession to Stephen, for Jane it was an intrusion-almost a third party in their relationship.

Soon her focus and affection were turned towards her children, and their interest and needs soon superseded those of her husband. Divided loyalties, in addition to the rigours of the disease, began to tear them apart. This grim scenario opened other wounds. Their differences on faith soon became pronounced. Stephen’s Science had no place in it for God. Jane was a devout Anglican. ‘The damaging schism between religion and science seemed to have extended its reach’ into their marriage.

Cracks also emerged in Jane’s relationship with her in-laws. Her mother-in-law openly questioned her loyalty to Stephen as well as the paternity of her third child. In the end, the marriage became a hollow shell, with the children the only solace. Whatever tenuous grip they had on their marriage soon loosened. Jane fell for Jonathan, and Stephen found happiness with Elaine. A house that had been burning for a long time soon came crashing down.

From the time Jane and Stephen fell in love, they both became victims. Stephen Hawking suffered from an incurable disease from which he was supposed to die a few months after it was diagnosed. He survived it. However, in his brave quest to fight the pitiless onslaught of his illness he drove a wedge between himself and his wife. Hers was not an ordinary life-it could not be. The ravages of motor neurone disease not only affected her husband but also dominated her life, sapped her energy, and slowly killed their marriage.

With Stephen physically helpless and later speechless, Jane was to him like a mother looking after a small child. Every day of her marriage was, therefore, punishing-a burning lake of physical, emotional, and psychological torment. To survive one would have to be blind and without feeling. Jane was not blind, and she desperately yearned affection.

Travelling to Infinity is a magnificent novel about two remarkable people. It is a human story that is written with an elegant precision of prose. There is also no malice in the author’s tone though her pain is palpable.

Even with the end of their long marriage, it seems so much survived-sensitivity, humanity and love exude from most pages of the book. The movie is just as enchanting, with the lead actors doing justice to their majestic characters.

 

 

QUIET: BY SUSAN CAIN- A REVIEW (The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking)

The hero of Susan Cain’s elegant, thought provoking, and wonderfully researched narrative is the introvert-the sensitive, serious and shy person who recharges his batteries by being alone. Far from it being a weakness, the author explains, introversion is a virtue.

Perhaps the most compelling argument the author makes for her assertion is the story of Rosa Parks. This was the quiet and shy woman who through her ‘radical humility’ and ‘quiet strength’ made history, and ultimately changed the course of race relations in America. Later in the book, the author also cites Mahatma Gandhi, a constitutionally quiet being, whose ‘firmness in pursuit of the truth’ or Satyagraha, toppled an empire.

 

The names of several other luminaries (Barack Obama, Al Gore, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates), all introverts, are scattered throughout the book. The author makes the compelling case that because our lives are, and even the world is, shaped by our personalities, introversion is a personality type that alongside extroversion needs to be understood and even embraced.

Our personalities influence, the author states: ‘..our choice of friends and mates, and how we  make conversation, resolve differences, and show love. It affects the careers we choose and whether or not we succeed at them. It governs how likely we are to exercise, commit adultery, function well without sleep, learn from our mistakes, place big bets in the stock market, delay gratification, be a good leader and ask “what if.” It is reflected in our brain pathways, neurotransmitters, and remote corners of our nervous system.’

Indeed, in the field of personality science introversion and extroversion are ‘two of the most exhaustively researched subjects’. The author points out these two personalities have engaged human thought since the beginning of time, with the ancient writings replete with their stories. One of Shakespeare’s better known introverts was the inhibited Cordelia, who when asked by her father, the talkative and unashamedly vain extroverted King Lear, what she had to say ‘to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?’, replied: ‘Nothing, my lord.”

Unsurprisingly, the author (Susan Cain) is also an introvert who in the early years of her life was made to feel guilty about her personality. She buckled to the demands of her environment by hiding her books and tried vainly to ‘come out of her shell’ by donning the charismatic persona. She became a closet introvert because she lived, as most of us do, in a society that unthinkingly placed a premium on the Extrovert Ideal. But in all that time, all she yearned for was a book to read, and the energising and nourishing surroundings of solitude.

She advises parents that introversion in the child is not something to be apologetic about or a malady requiring therapy. She persuasively appeals for accommodation and validation at home and in our schools for the introverted children. Do all cultures enthrone the Extrovert Ideal?

The writer contrasts western institutions, which are enclaves to extroversion, to the Asian model where the traditional school curriculum emphasises listening and reading, where silence is a practised discipline, where being smart is admired, where the library is what the mall or soccer field is to the west, and stellar academic performance is a priority. ‘These profound differences in cultural values’, the author writes, have ‘a powerful impact on the personality styles favoured by each culture’.

The question is posed, and unfortunately not fully answered, whether these cultural differences explain the sensational performance gaps between Asia and the rest of the world. Perhaps far from elevating one personality over the other, the books seeks to explain the differences between the two types. It assures us that introversion is not an aberration or a predicament, nor should extroversion be regarded as elevation. It informs us of that the world needs both types, in constant and complimentary interplay and relationship, to flourish.

Susan Cain’s book elucidates some of the deepest elements of the human character that are neither Western nor Eastern, and neither masculine nor feminine. It is an eloquent and an endearing thesis not only on the essence of introversion but also on its virtues. The book has valuable lessons on how the world can exploit the strengths of those inclined to be Quiet.

The Robber Bride-Margaret Atwood (book review)

The Robber Bride is a undoubtedly a fascinating story of female villainy, the machinations of a woman’s mind and human depravity. It is about three women who had been friends since university.

But, there is also a fourth woman in the story, Zenia, a miscreant  towards whom the reader’s fury is directed. The men’s role in Miss Atwood’s story is ancillary, if not subordinate. The males are depicted as cheats, lazy, and dependant. They are invisible fathers, fathers like a dotted line, which has to be coloured in for their children by the women. They sleep with their arms spread out, The Royal Posture Miss Atwood calls it, as if to possess as much of the space as possible. Small things like good eggs delight them, small thing like bad eggs depress them.

With the females, on the other hand, the left hand often knows what the right hand is doing. The two halves of their brains are superimposed. They ‘pounce and grab. Some work hard. Some yell. Some hide, some march, some drink, some fib. Some bite the dust, the bullet, the hand that feeds them. Some rule the roost’ –Lorrie Moore. Tony is Antonia Fremont, a war historian, childless, and a professor at a Toronto university. She is also the author of two books. Her stronghold is her study. The male historians at the university think she’ s invading their territory, and should leave their spears, arrows, catapults, lances, swords, guns, planes and bombs alone.

However, in some way her life resembles the battles and the wars she ardently studies. Ironically though Tony is occasionally the target of cruel male jibes and resentment, her students are mostly men. Tony is the female martyr who triumphs despite the envy, mud and disease-carrying lice of war-male condescension that she sometimes finds touching. She has a man in her life called West.

Ms. Atwood introduces two other characters, Tony’s two friends, into the narrative. One belongs to Charis-or ‘the sleep walking’ Karen, before she was known as Charis. Unlike Tony, who beats the men at their own game, Charis is soft-perhaps the meekest of the three women. Her eighteen-year-old daughter, Augusta, is an unconscionable bully who often instructs Charis to straighten her shoulders, and orders her to get rid of the clutter in her kitchen.

Charis works at a place called Radiance, which sells crystals of all kinds and pendants and seashells. Her job ‘doesn’t start till ten, which gives her a long morning, time to grow slowly into her day’. She works with a psychic called Shanita, with Chinese, West Indian, Pakistani and even Scottish ancestry. Shanita’s complicated lineage symbolised the clutter in Charis’ life. Charis used to have a man in her life-the physically abusive, Billy.

The third woman in the trio of friends is Roz (Rosalind Grunwald). She is rich and the president of her of a successful women’s magazine-the WiseWomanWorld. Like her friend Tony, she is successful in a man’s world. She is a patron to many organisations and a philanthropist that sees to it that her company gives generously to many charities. Her professional commitments notwithstanding, she is a dedicated single mother of three: the twins, Erin and Paula, and the twenty-two-year-old, Larry. There was once a man in her life-the philandering Mitch.

Besides their alma mater, these three friends have one other thing in common: they’ve lost men to the charming, calculating, relentless, and unscrupulous Zenia. Mitch even killed himself because of her. She is the villain of story-the street fighter who kicks hard, low and dirty. At various times, she has weaved her way into the women’s lives and homes, and then destroyed them. She has deceptively told different versions of her past. She conjures up stories that make the three women open not only their purses, but their hearts and homes to her.

Zenia, like a fictional demonic creature, seems to have come from another world-enticing her victims to their doom. She is a Jezebel, an Iago on stilettos, an abomination whose betrayal of her friends is gratuitous. For women in relationships, she is the ultimate killing machine-waging eternal war until love between sexes has been destroyed. At some point in the story, Zenia seems to be immortal -she has died, and yet not dead. But, Zenia’s battles with the three women, which leave all of them deeply and permanently scarred, are the story.

The reader sometimes wonders whether she is real a person or fantasy. Is she a symbol of the catastrophe and darkness of life, and that of the endless wars that we must fight to preserve what is precious to us? In trying to peer and unlock the enigmatic Zenia’s mind we wonder if she suffers from extremes of jealousy, madness or is she just a irredeemable femme fatale. Miss Atwood’s touch is ever skilful showing the difficulties that come with what we glibly call love or commitment-the doubts, the fears, the sacrifices, the humiliations, the betrayals, and the triumphs.

The Robber Bride is  a memorable, complex, psychological, imaginative, and a compelling read. As a parable, the story  is remarkably powerful. What keeps the reader engrossed is Margaret Atwood’s consummate skill as a storyteller and the flowing narrative of the novel.

HOW HANDWRITING HAS MADE US WHO WE ARE

Phillip Hensher’s highly readable book, The Missing Ink, contrives to inspire the revival of handwriting. His is an eloquent account and a journey through a vanishing world which with technology may be poised to disappear forever.

What spurred Hensher to write his book was a realisation that he had no idea what the handwriting of a friend, he had known for over a decade, looked like. Though the friend had emailed Hensher and sent him text messages, he had never sent a letter written by hand.

Life continues like this and relationships can go forever with people hardly noticing that there was no need for handwriting anymore. He points out that handwriting has stopped being an essential intermediary between people. Will some part of our humanity, Hensher asks, be lost apart from the habit of writing with pen on paper?

With shimmering prose, Hensher delves into the history of handwriting-the pioneers who were handwriting teachers. He looks at the different styles. He looks at what handwriting has meant to humanity. He cites eccentric conclusions about personality, illness, psychosis, and even suitability for employment which students of the pseudo-science of graphology have drawn from the close scrutiny of handwriting.

He muses about his early life at school learning handwriting, the graduation to the adult joined-up style, the callus on his right hand where the pen used to rest, and the school boy penchant to use the pen as a missile. He remembers the spilling of ink onto the shirt, and his constant crunching of the pen until there were indelible tooth marks on it. Hensher repeatedly asks if we should care that handwriting is vanishing since the internet and its keyboard has replaced everything.

After all bad handwriting has cost businesses and governments a fortune. Millions of letters could not be delivered because of bad handwriting. In the 1994 Kodak said that ‘400 000 rolls of film could not be returned because names and addresses were unreadable’ So in the age of computer terminals, who cares if handwriting disappears? Hensher wittily lists a few reasons that drive the decline in handwriting skills. With the dawn of the digital age the curriculum in many western countries increasingly gives little time to the teaching of handwriting.

Fewer than half of British primary schools set aside time to teach handwriting. Some teachers are beginning to see teaching writing as a chore rather than developing a skill. Some education departments encourage ‘only proficiency with the keyboard.’ Some authorities have even recommended that children only be taught how to sign their names, and that the time previously given to teaching handwriting be dedicated to learning key boarding and typing.

Hensher cogently argues for the preservation of handwriting. Far from it being an expression of education or class or involving us in some way with the written word, he conveys superbly the role it still has to play in our lives. He cites research that shows that improvement in writing skills not only forms the building blocks for written language and improves recall, but also made the subjects better students who enjoyed learning. He also mentions a case in Texas in which a man died after a pharmacist misread a doctor’s handwritten prescription. In another case the handwriting of a nurse was so appalling that a colleague misread the instruction to give only four units of insulin of forty-with fatal consequences.

In his sublime conclusion, Hensher writes: ‘Though it would make no sense to give up the clarity and authority of print which is available to anyone with a keyboard, to continue to diminish the place of the handwritten in our lives is to diminish in a small but real way, our humanity. In all sorts of areas of our life we enhance the quality of our lives by going for the slow option, the path which takes a little bit of effort. Sometimes we don’t spend an evening watching Kim Kardashian falling over on YouTube: we read a book. Sometimes, we don’t just push a pre-prepared meal into the oven and take out sometime later. We chop and prepare vegetables; we follow a recipe or some procedure we remember from our family kitchens and we make dinner from scratch, with pleasure. We often do this because we love people, and think they are worthy of our effort from time to time. Sometimes we don’t get in a car and get to where we have to go as soon as we possibly can. Sometimes we open our front doors, and go for a walk in the spring sunshine. We might not get anywhere very far in two or three hours on foot, where in three hours by mechanical means you can get to Yorkshire (by car) or Paris (by train)or Istanbul (by air). But on the other hand, you’ve had a nice walk in the spring sunshine for very little expenditure, and you feel better for it. Perhaps that is the way to get handwriting back on to our lives-as something which is a pleasure, which is good for us, and which is human in way not all communication systems manage to be.’

THE CHILDREN’S ACT-Ian McEwan (A review)

This is another gem from the English author, Ian McEwan-an excellent novel that should be celebrated as one of McEwan’s strongest works of fiction.

The novelist’s light shines on Fiona Maye, a High Court judge- respected by many for the manner in which she handled many complex cases in the family court. McEwan elegantly and elaborately explains the complex world and details of law-the judges and lawyers’ obsession with detail and how they fastidiously pore over facts, sifting what is material from what is not.

But, the story is not just about the intricate workings of the law, or its triumph over religion, but more pointedly about the problems in Fiona’s personal life and character. As often happens, something happens that serves to reveal the demons in our lives. Fiona is asked to adjudicate a case involving a teenage Jehovah’s Witness, Adam Henry, whose parents had refused him the blood transfusion- treatment that according to the doctors would save his life.

Fiona visits the boy in the hospital and is impressed by his gifts and talents – his innate intelligence, and his love for poetry and music. This is not a child that the courts will leave to die- the religious beliefs of the parents and their son’s support of them, notwithstanding. Fiona Maye reaches her judgment-she overrules the family’s wishes, and orders that the boy receives the treatment necessary to save his life.

But, in saving a life, Fiona has to deal with a child who is not just happy to be alive but desperately yearns for parental love and affection. Adam is not getting this at home. He lives with two parents who were prepared to let him die for the sake of upholding their religious beliefs. Even on his return home from the hospital, with his health almost fully restored, instead of a joyful reception from a grateful family, he has to deal with endless and frequent rows.

Unsurprisingly, Adam sees in Fiona the perfect antidote to his poisoned world. He asks her if he could lodge with her and her husband for a while. Fiona, always looking at life from ‘her elevated position at the top of a grand staircase’, sends the boy back to his dysfunctional world. Fiona, ever the warrior that rushes forth barehanded to fight injustice was herself paradoxically unable to demonstrate love-even to the children that she fiercely fought for.

Her childlessness was a deliberate decision, since motherhood would stand in the way of her lofty professional ambitions. Fiona preferred the company of her bewigged colleagues to that of children. As her fertile years of her life rapidly passed, though alarmed she was simply too busy to notice. Even the visits of her grandnephews to her home didn’t pique her maternal instincts but only served to remind her ‘how hard it would be to squeeze an infant into her kind of life.’ The day ‘she was sworn in by the Lord Chief Justice and took her oath of allegiance….she knew the game was up, she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides to Christ’.

This is what tragically Adam later realized: the esteemed High Court judge Fiona Maye was the incarnation of extreme selfishness -‘pursuing her own end, pretending to herself that her career was not in essence self-gratification’.  Fighting for the children was nothing more than an act and a prop in her drama of blind ambition. One has to wonder if she had children, whether they would not have needed to be saved from her as Adam had to be from his parents.

Curiously, the author mentions that though Fiona Maye was an accomplished musician, she could not play jazz. The latter is an art form that requires not just skill, improvisation and innovation: but also passion-the open expression of human feelings. It is no wonder then that after thirty-five years Fiona’s husband, Jack, was prepared to pull the shutters on their sterile marriage- he had fallen for the musical embrace of another woman. Even when her exasperated husband asked her: ‘Fiona, when did we last make love?’ She couldn’t remember.

Romance was replaced by the many demanding, lurid and complex cases in the court documents strewn on her desk. Where was love to fit in all this? Thankfully, Jack changes his mind and is prepared to accept his wife on her selfish terms. But Adam’s fate is drastically different. The kiss he exchanged with Fiona, far from bringing joy and hope, leads to despair, torment and tragedy. Fiona needs to be complemented for spending a lifetime defending the defenseless-whatever drove her. It is an admirable, necessary and scant virtue.

Whether she was also a victim of a loveless childhood in a home where her mother was frequently in hospital with undefined illnesses is not explicitly stated. But the secrets of our homes are often apparent in our lives. They are seldom erased by the passage of time, and even by the professional heights we scale. The Children’s Act is a powerful and an even psychological, work of fiction that is comparable to the very best.

Once again McEwan’s rare and singular writing gifts are apparent. His novel speaks the most harrowing truth about the fanaticism, duplicity and abhorrent hatefulness that enwrap children’s lives. It holds an unflattering mirror and is a fierce polemic against our indifferent world.