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The Plot Against America
Rue Du Regard
The Plot Against America by
Philip Roth: Jonathan Cape, London/2004|
Available at: Amazon.co.uk
A Reader who
wants to enter the heart of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and
savour the morality of its theme, the humanity of its characters and the beauty of
its language, must first engage with the principle of the Alternative History Fiction; the
theoretical backdrop for Roth's narrative.
Alternative History Fiction (also known as
Speculative Fiction [SF] or "What if?") relies on the point of divergence in history. Here the
writer contemplates an alternative outcome to the actual event and explores what would have
happened as a result of this speculative outcome: What if Hitler had won the Second World War?
What if the D-Day Landings had failed? What if Lee had won the Battle of Gettysburg? What
if Saddam Hussein had survived American assault? The idea therefore is to turn history on its
head and create an entirely fictional world.
The setting of The Plot Against
America is an America of 1940 to 1942, under the Presidency of
Charles Augustus Lindbergh, the world renowned aviator and the first man to undertake a
non-stop solo flight from New York to Paris in a monoplane: Spirit of St. Louis, but, by
the implication of his grandstanding speech: "Who Are the War Agitators?" that clearly opposed
America joining Europe to fight the Nazis, is a Hitler supporter and an anti-Semite. Philip
Roth, the author, perceived the endorsement of Lindbergh as the thirty-third president of
America--against the incumbent President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he defeated by a
landslide, and at the time Hitler had embarked on the extermination of the Jews from the face
of the earth--as a "Hitlerite plot" against the Jewish Americans and a declaration of war
on all the people of America.
It is within the world of Philip Roth's
family--comprises Philip (the seven-year-old narrator), his father, Herman, a 39-year "foot-soldier
salesman" (an insurance agent) who earns "a little under fifty dollars a week,"
Bess, his 36-year old unemployed mother and Sandy, an older brother in seventh-grade--that the
reader is drawn into the fictional world of The Plot Against America. The morality of
novel hinges on the Gettysbury address embossed on the Lincoln memorial: "All men are
created equal." The Roth's, though a poor Jewish family, have been fully integrated into the
American culture and consciousness and affirms this Gettysburian ideal.
The Plot Against America is an
explication of the private turmoil of Roth's family, the dread and complication of being
a Jewish American under the Lindbergh presidency and the destruction and chaos that engulf
America, as a result of Lindbergh's anti-Semitic policies. The novel's
plot develops with the destruction of the American Jews on the individual scale: Alvin,
Philip's cousin, loses a leg while fighting with the Canadian army against the Nazi Germany;
Herman psychologically falls apart like "a man being tortured"; and Mr. Wishnow,
the Roths' neighbour and a Jew, committs suicide. Then gradually, like a malignant cancer,
and with "a systemic process of marginalization" by the establishment of the Office for American
Absorption (AA) and programmes like Just Folks and Homestead 42 (this is made clearer
towards the end of the novel), this destruction assumes a national tragedy:
There are the South Boston nightmarish riots;
the anti-Semitic violence in Detroit; the Louisville assassination of Walter Winchell, the
Democratic presidential candidate and a Jew, "while addressing open-air political rally"; the
firebombing of a synagogue in Cincinnati; the mayhem and the looting of Jewish-owned stores in
St. Louis, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Akron, Youngstown, Peoria and Scranton; the Newark shoot-out
between the city police and the Jewish police that claims the lives of three Jews; and the
pogrom in Louisville that claims the live of Mrs Wishnow. Violence and bloodbath laden the
narrative landscape: America has not declared war on the Nazi Germany, but on itself. Even
President Lindbergh's sudden disappearance with no trace cannot bring it to an end. Instead,
Burton K. Wheeler, the acting President, perpetuates it.
With vivid language imbued with gallows humour,
Roth speculates not only historical facts, but also a historical controversy. The whereabouts
of Charles Jr., kidnapped and allegedly murdered by Bruno R. Hauptmann in 1932 has not
escaped the narrative concern of The Plot Against America. Charles Lindbergh Jr. is not
dead, Roth avers, but alive and well in Nazi Germany. I have read "On A Wing and an Heir"
in The Sunday Times Magazine of 9th January 2005, the knowledge of it now bridges my mental
gap between historical facts and Roth's historical imaginings. And I am compelled to ask myself:
Have I been deceived into believing that The Plot Against America is historical
imaginings rather than the historical fact that it now appears to be?
A first reader of The Plot Against
America, who is not knowledgeable about American political history and the German Nazi's
war, will no doubt raise similar fears. Roth so cleverly weaves speculations into a beautiful
narrative tapestry that fiction blend seamlessly with a seemingly reality. Therefore, a
reader who wants to relish the beauty of The Plot Against America must not only engage
with the principle of the Alternative History Fiction, but also begin this book from the
postscript. It is when he knows the historical facts, from which Roth's historical imaginings
diverge, that he can enjoy the luscious fiction that is this 362-page masterpiece.
Reviewed by Peter Anny-Nzekwue
Rue Du Regard by Todd Swift: DC Books, Quebec/2004|
Available at: Amazon.co.uk
It is one of the
contemporary poetry world's paradoxes that, though Todd Swift
is one of the best known poet-editors of his generation, his own poetry has been
greeted mostly by silence from mainstream critics internationally. This probably has as much
to do with politics as it does with poetry. As the editor of the anthologies: 100 Poets
Against The War (2003) and Short Fuse: The Global Anthology of New Fusion Poetry
(2002), Swift has been an enthusiastic promoter of both performance and political poetry, and
in the process has clearly caused irritation in certain quarters.
In the current issue of Metre magazine,
Swift is dismissed with cattiness as an "internet peacenik and poetry entrepreneur." The splenetic
Canadian critic, David Solway, in his book of literary criticism, The Director's Cut--though
he doesn't mention Swift by name--condemns the Short Fuse anthology he
co-edited with Philip Norton as "frenzied and self-promoting balderdash." Never one to shy
away from controversy himself, Swift recently turned up in the letters page of The Guardian
to defend Harold Pinter's political poetry against what he perceived to be an elitist
onslaught from the multi-award-winning Scottish poet, Don Paterson.
Now, the fact that one
may differ with some of Swift’s opinions--and I happen to profoundly disagree with his defence
of Pinter’s unpoetic lumpen head-banging--shouldn’t blur one’s judgement when it comes to the
obvious quality of many of his poems. In his first collection Budavox
(1999), poems such as ‘Flight Delayed’ and ‘A Solemn Meditation on The Fantastic Four’ gave
the reader a very strong sense of a dynamic but sensitive young man on the move. It is a book full of
the sort of youthful poems which most poets throw out (but shouldn’t) when they grow up to be
cranky old men. In his second collection, Café Alibi (2002), Swift stood at a crossroads
both in his life (he was engaged to be married) and in his art.
The influences of Muldoon and
(especially) Larkin loomed huge. Swift seemed to know that, as a poet, he stood on the verge of
either greatness or oblivion, or perhaps some convoluted combination of the two. The tension
made for strong poetry, and I constantly return to poems such as ‘The More Deserved’,
‘Penthouse Revisited’, ‘Sheer Speculation’ and ‘Water, Running’. These
poems cry out for a
much wider audience. And if the next big Bloodaxe anthology doesn’t contain at least a couple
of them, it will be a poorer book for their absence.
In Rue Du Regard, his third full
collection, Swift's work continues to mature. As one would expect, his recent marriage is one
event that dominates: from 'On His Wedding': "Rising early as if for a duel, seconded / By a
best man, I wake to sky that's bleu céleste, /Rented tails, and fresh anxiety..." In 'To My
Wife Of Ninety Days' Swift shows that he is one of those rare poets who can almost always
write unsentimentally about love: "you take us past accident, / Airports and oceans, above
the clouds, arguing certainty." Apart from the marriage, the other key event explored here is
his move in 2003 from Paris to London. The collection is divided into two: a Paris section
and a London section, each containing twenty-six poems. Several of the poems in the first
section are a kind of tribute by Swift to Paris, a city he was clearly sorry to have to
leave; while the beginning of 'Marylebone', the first poem in the second section, almost
reads like a scene from Fawlty Towers:
So, I had a fight with the Frenchman
Who smashed our crystal wedding present
Against the side of his moving van.
He'd taken exception to the small size
Of the English windows, narrow stairs
We'd debated the merits of his abandoning
Eighty-six boxes of personal belongings
To the British weather, much in evidence.
Swift's marriage and move to London
give Rue Du Regard a thematic coherence, which both Budavox and Café Alibi
lacked; and yet Swift is still a million
miles from becoming one of those worthy-but-dull middle-aged male poets of which the
poetry world sometimes seems to be full. The hilarious satire, 'Note To The Editor', is
a poem I'm jealous I didn't write myself: "Thank you again and send me a reply in six to
seven hours / so I can tell the people I live with all about it. // I hope I won't have to
put on my disappointment hat / on today. // Best regards". The beautifully achieved 'Cinéma
Du Look' is the sort of voyeuristic poem, which, in hands of a lesser poet than Swift, could
easily have turned out vulgar.
In 'That Girl in Autumn', a poem in which he
imagines himself as a woman about town; "a sassy New Critic of British Vogue," Swift shows
that his highly developed sense of the absurd remains intact. And in the excellent four-page
'Berryman in Paris' he proves himself an accomplished practitioner of the longer poem.
However, my pick of the collection is 'Ballad Of The Solitary Diner': "When I eat alone, I
am alone. / Thank God I have my books. / Friends? Not many. / My wife, in her tower, earning
money. / A few who live in other countries // Too far to go to share a meal."
Where others would be po-faced and
over-earnest, Swift's poems are disciplined by irony; where most would lapse into crudity he somehow
manages to be lyrical. These are hugely important talents for a contemporary poet. But perhaps
as important is the stark emotional honesty displayed in 'Ballad Of The Solitary Diner', a
description of the occasional loneliness of a life lived on the cusp of so many cultures.
Reviewed by Kevin Higgins, a poet living in Galway, Ireland. His first collection
of poetry, The Boy with No Face, was launched by Michael D. Higgins at Poetry
Ireland on 10th February 2005.
Barleycorn Blues by Lee Dunne:
Poolbeg Press , Dublin/2004|
Available at: Amazon.co.uk
Lee Dunne, Dublin-born writer,
has had a chequered past. The 70-year-old prolific author holds many enviable--and some
unenviable--distinctions in Irish literary circles: his critically acclaimed play, Goodbye
to the Hill, holds the honour of being the longest running in Ireland, clocking up
approximately 1,000 performances during a three-year period back in the early ‘90s. His debut
novel back in 1965, which also has the same title as his aforementioned play, was a bestseller
in the UK and America. It was followed by two sequels. Dunne’s Paddy Maguire trilogy was
a stark, realistic, humorous and autobiographical look at suburban life, and it was a formula
followed more successfully (in a commercial sense) by the Booker-prize winning Roddy Doyle in
his Barrytown Trilogy.
Unfortunately for Dunne his third part of the
trilogy, Paddy Maguire is Dead, was banned in Ireland on its release in ‘72. The parochial Ireland
of 40 years ago was not ready for a candid story involving prophylactics and alcoholism. Dunne attempted
one more serious novel--some would suggest that it was his masterpiece--called Does Your Mother before
digressing into the world of pulp fiction, radio and teleplays.
The pulp novels gave Dunne a ‘smut
writer’ reputation in Ireland. All of his five ‘Cabbie’ books were banned in Ireland--giving
him the unenviable position of holding a record in Ireland of having the most books banned (seven) by one
author. The success of his play brought Dunne back into the public domain--and he wrote two semi-successful
and well-written espionage books about a protagonist named Gunn who was akin to Robert Ludlum’s
Bourne character. He also wrote an autobiography, which to the astute reader, would feel like a carbon copy
of his first novel.
It has been almost a decade since
Dunne has published a book. His new novel, Barleycorn Blues, is a genuine attempt to
re-introduce himself as a serious author. Dunne continues in his new book to use the old adage
‘to write about what you know.’ The book is about two alcoholic characters--a writer, Joe
Collins, and a photographer named Telly Sampras--who meet in New York and decide to support each
other during their attempt to stop drinking. As Telly explains to John: “It’s a two-way street,
Joe. We need each other, so let’s just admit it, accept it, and get on with trying to get sober.
The first part of the book, which deals with
these two friends struggle with quitting alcohol, is real and refreshingly honest; it manages to
capture and convey to the reader the difficulties facing alcoholics who want to stay sober. The
protagonist, Joe, shares many of the author’s own experiences; for Joe, like Dunne, is an
alcoholic author who writes about his experiences in “autobiographical novels” and also in a
series of articles for The Irish Times and The Evening Herald.
This realistic approach to fiction has
won Dunne critical applause in the past. It worked beautifully with books such as Goodbye to
the Hill and A Bed In The Sticks. These two earlier books are (partially) about a
young writer and his introduction to alcohol. The reader gets the initial impression that
perhaps Barleycorn Blues is about a writer and his introduction to sobriety. Joe is a
very similar character to Paddy Maguire, along with the writing and drinking similarities, they
are both from the same part of Dublin (the same place Dunne was raised). The reader gets the
impression halfway through the book that perhaps Dunne was tempted to call this book Back to
the Hill. This is not a criticism but merely an observation that Dunne is writing about very
familiar territory. But Dunne, like a good magician, has decided to play tricks with the readers
of his new book; instead of merely taking the safe route of writing the fourth part to the
highly successful Maguire saga, he has placed extra obstacles in the path of Joe and Telly on
their road to sobriety: a political thriller sub-plot.
Academics could criticise the prose of this
new book. However, Dunne has never claimed to be a literary genius, but merely a humble storyteller.
Unquestionably, Dunne is a seasoned storyteller. He can write clear and precise prose with snappy
(sometimes clichéd) dialogue. Barleycorn Blues is no exception. It is a book that blends the positive
aspects of his autobiographical novels with his thriller books: Ringmaster and Requiem for
Reviewed by Jason O'Toole, the Managing Editor of the Local News
Publications in Dublin, Ireland.
Boy by Lindsey Collen:
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London/2004|
Available at: Amazon.co.uk
Boy is a psychological novel. In
order to experience its charm and beauty the reader must focus on its internal plot pattern,
which is an ontological transition from boyhood to adulthood; from innocence to experience; from
ignorance to knowledge; and from self-negation to self-affirmation.
Set in Mauritius, Boy is
the story of Krishnadev Burton, alias Boy or Krish. He is seventeen years old and the
only child of his parents: his father is a taxi driver and his mother a "trader." Krish is
lonely, miserable and wallows in self-pity. This is because he has failed his HSC exams and
his older brother, Baya, has died two years ago. So when his mother sends him to
his maternal uncle, Mamu Dip, at Krevker, to fetch from him "something special" for the coming
Granbasin festival, it offers Krish a timely escape from the asphyxiating condition and the
possibilities of peace and freedom.
But because that "something special" from
Mamu Dip to his mother is marijuana; because he will get seasick if he goes fishing "beyond the
reef" with Mamu Dip; and because he hitchhikes at the Branch Road junction on his way back
from Krevker in order to keep his transport money to himself, an ordinary "mission" inevitably
turns into an extra-ordinary three-day adventure on "the pleasures of life, the dangers of life,
[and] the love of life."
Boy is a novel without chapters,
but it is not without characters. There are Captain and Kid, with their two dogs; Chanchal and
Major, floating through life without being fazed; Vasenn, Vikas and Toni, the unionists, fighting
against the injustices going on in the society; and Boss and his gang, blocking cars on the
high-way to rob their passengers. Collen has assembled older characters in order that
Krish will learn of more serious problems than the mundane thing like failing exams.
Collen wants Krish to know that beyond the burglar
guards of his Karo Lalyann home the outside world is a theatre of tragedies: that some many
people cannot pay their rents; that some husbands get kicked out by their wives; that young
girls become prostitute and men armed robbers in order to survive; that people are murdered
nearly everyday and thrown into the lagoon at Pwentosab; that many innocent people are arrested
daily by the police and put in the cell on trump-up murder charges; and that there are stingy
bosses and strike-breaking workers.
But Collen does not want to show Krish life
dangers only; he also needs to know of its hidden pleasures; the pleasures of life and the love
of life. Krish's encounter with Girl takes him to another level of experience: "I realize I'm falling, falling
for Girl. Falling in love with Girl." Here, Krish transformation is complete. The Krish that left home
two days ago on an errand is not the Krish now going home on the third day without the "errand".
The former is Boy, inexperienced, innocent and timid; the latter is a man, mature, wise and experienced.
It is no doubt a Mission accomplished. When his mother calls the errand a mission, Krish is quick to
correct her "English," but subsequent events have made her mother's word very prophetic: Krish
has gone on and back from a mission of self-discovery.
It is by experiencing the full taste of life,
warts and all, that Krish is able to achieve this complete transformation. However, Collen's
remarkable use of language is the catalyst to this transformation. The language of Boy is
poetic, sensuous and illuminating. Collen projects herself into the inner workings of Krish's
mind; his anxiety, his fears, his anguish and his bewilderment. So what sets Krish towards the
part of maturity and self-discovery is what he thinks not what he says.
Words fail Krish all the time. This is not because
he is incapable of speech, but because he is incoherent with lies. His two major wrong
decisions, which have led to his unplanned adventure, are as a result of his inability to tell
the right lies with the right words: Krish wants to go fishing with Mamu Dip, but he expresses
himself poorly; Krish actually does not want to enter the old Mini Traveller that Captain calls
"limousine," but he is not "sharp enough." Krish is like every innocent child: ignorant of the
foibles of man; overwhelms by the bizarre world of the adult life.
This 198-page novel ends with an
incident that actually strikes me as symbolic. After the police have withdrawn the murder charges
against Krish, everyone; Kid, Krish, Vasenn, Girl and Krish's mother, gathers to push
Captain's limousine so that it can start. Symbolically, Captain's limousine represents the rut of
Mauritius, and, in a wider context, the tragedy of Africa. Here Collen's position is made clear: There
must be a determined cooperation from everyone--cooperation in form of a push or a shove--in order
that Africa can be set free from the rut. Boy may be a psychological novel, but it does
not hide its political bent.
Last Line: Lindsey Collen's Boy
is already in strong contention for the 2005 Commonwealth Writers' Prize. I will still give it
to Andrea Levy's Small Island, but with a very close margin. So it would not come to me
as a surprise if Boy nicked it.
Reviewed by Peter Anny-Nzekwue
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