Monday, January 25, 2010

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall is set at a dramatic period in English history – at a time when Henry VIII wants the Church to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon so that he can marry Anne Boleyn. The King believes that Anne Boleyn will be able to give him a male heir to the throne.
The Church is not very amenable to his request. And so Henry VIII forces England to break away from the Catholic Church. As Mantel shows, the motivations are not just love and religion; it is also very much about money and power. Breaking away from the Church will also earn the King a share of its vast wealth and England will achieve independence and be its own authority.
As each section jostles for power, there is one man who stands above everyone else. Thomas Cromwell son of a blacksmith, runs away from home to escape his violent father. Exhibiting a great ability to survive, (a characteristic that will stand him in good stead in Henry’s court), he tries various professions before becoming Cardinal Wolsey’s aide.
The Cardinal is a man of great power, credited with putting England on the map.  The king supports him against the many detractors who point out that the Cardinal is running a parallel administration. The king is hopeful that the Cardinal can convince the Church to annul his marriage. “If only he wanted something simple,” says Cardinal Wolsey. “The Philosopher’s Stone. The elixir of youth. One of those chests that occur in stories, full of gold pieces.”
When it becomes clear that the Cardinal cannot get the Roman Church to agree to the annulment of Henry’s marriage, the King orders that he removed from power and stripped of all his wealth.
As a favorite of Wolsey, it is possible that Cromwell’s career is over. Cromwell remains loyal to the Cardinal but is also sure that he will not “go down with the Cardinal”. So with the ease of a chameleon, Cromwell changes his colors to become indispensable to Henry. Cromwell is "at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury." Cromwell is in fact everything to everyone.
Cromwell interacts with the most powerful personalities of his day but there is also Cromwell the family man – interacting with his wife and daughters and the deep sadness he feels when they die in the plague.  Particularly memorable is the scene when a grieving Cromwell asks the priest if he can bury his daughter with her copybook in which she had written her name and the priest refuses.
Unlike Cromwell, the other characters do not come off so well. The court pretty much earns the title of wolf hall. The King seems more like a spoiled, capricious child than a monarch, Anne Boleyn is scheming and cold, the courtiers are petty and quarrelsome…Thomas More, another important figure in English history and Cromwell’s rival for power, is also painted heavily with dark colors.
Against a turbulent but riveting background, the book chronicles the story of one man’s rise from obscurity to power. Cromwell’s carefully crafted plans are masterly lessons in diplomacy, politics and statesmanship.  
Is Cromwell the true architect of England’s independence? Or just an opportunist who used the turbulent times to his own advantage?  Historians are divided on the matter and Mantel herself portrays Cromwell, warts and all, while pushing you to make the decision.
It is a difficult book to read – intimidating not just in terms of size (500 plus pages) but also in the vast historical canvas and the number of characters.  The book becomes slightly easier if you know a little of English history although the knowledge is by no means mandatory.
The book is given a more contemporary feel by the use of every day English, rather than the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ which was of course characteristic of the period.
Mantel is apparently working on a sequel. Although, history has clearly documented Thomas Cromwell’s life, I would certainly want to know how he measures up in Mantel’s next book!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Barefoot Gen : A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima

Written and Illustrated by Keiji Nakazawa
Translated by Project Gen

Tara Publishing

History, they say, is written by victors, never by underdogs. This holds true especially where the Second World War is concerned, where the experiences of people in the Allied countries largely public memory. The casual reader of history can also often miss the forest for the trees - reading about battles and treaties, strategies and foreign policy, it is easy to forget the millions of ordinary civilians who bore the brunt of political manoeuvres and compromises.

This is why Barefoot Gen is so important - it focuses on the hardships faced by ordinary Japanese citizens in a war their country fought largely for profit, and which many of them were opposed to. It looks at the way millions of people were routinely deceived and left to suffer, while corrupt officials and businessmen profited from the war. It also examines a horrific and shameful chapter in that war - the bombing of Hiroshima (and later, Nagasaki) by America. Seen through the eyes of a young boy, Gen, the book is a first in its attempt to explain this important event in history to young readers, using a medium that enjoys extraordinary popularity in Japan - the comic book.

First published in Japanese in 1972 as Hadashi no Gen, Barefoot Gen is the first book in a series that went on to become a cult classic among young and old alike It is loosely based on the author's own life - he was seven when the city was bombed and he,his mother and infant sister alone survived while the rest of his family perished.

Gen is the son of a poor farmer who is vocal in his opposition to Japan's role in the war. This causes the family a lot of trouble, as Nakaoka is ostracised and branded a traitor, his property vandalized and his children bullied. The family struggles to stay alive as food grows increasingly scarce; some of the most touching scenes involve the children fighting over,or fantasizing about, small things like rice or even fish bones.Recruited into the military, Gen's older brother experiences corruption, abuse and further disillusionment, finally becoming a deserter. And then, just when things seem to get better for the family, a B29 is spotted overhead...

Nakazawa was a professional cartoonist for years before he began drawing the Gen books, and the influence of popular stylistic trends in the manga of that period is evident in this book . With their stark black and white format, the panels effortlessly swing from the comic (almost slapstick, at times) to the symbolic.

While Gen is aimed at young readers, it does contain some disturbing images - children are injured, starving or killed; Gen's sister is stripped and humiliated in school; Gen and his brother fight over scraps and later resort to begging. The author's criticism of Japan's involvement in the war runs through the narrative; if anything, he comes across as overly critical of his own country while never once questioning Allied involvement or the bombings that followed.

The last quarter of the book is especially difficult to read - Nakazawa does not allow us to miss a single detail of the destruction caused by the bomb that was dropped on his city. The pace of the book becomes almost leisurely at this point, as he traces the little routines and rituals of people going about their day, unaware of what is to follow. When the bomb is dropped, we must see, through Gen's eyes, the agonizing end of everything he has known and loved.

So why am I recommending this book - because, for all the violence depicted in this book, it still conveys an incredible message of hope and humanity. It shows us that the huma spirit can be weak and misled, but also resilient and capable of great courage. Gen is a plucky little hero - sly and conniving at times, violent at others,- and his optimism and essential goodness kept me hooked to his story. If Gen depicts the cruelty of mindless mobs, it also highlights individual acts of courage and kindness. But most of all, here is a story that underscores the importance of keeping history alive by seeding the future with the lessons of the past - Barefoot Gen does not end with death, but the birth of Gen's little sister, and a powerful message to ".. never let this (war) happen again ". I look forward to re-reading this with my daughter when she is old enough.

Image courtesy

cross posted here

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Year of the Horse by Justin Allen

(cross posted here)

Year of the Horse’ takes some very familiar threads in young adult fiction –a young protagonist with a destiny he must fulfill, a quest for hidden treasure, a dangerous landscape peppered with formidable foes and unlikely allies- to weave an engrossing coming of age tale replete with both wisdom and edge-of-the-seat moments.

In a foreword to this rollicking tale, author Justin Allen gleefully alerts his young readers to the unpleasantness that lies ahead, not wanting to “.. begrudge (them).. the opportunity to engage the sometimes shocking realities of history”. Fair warning indeed, for the roller coaster ride this book offers its readers, young and old alike, across the untamed and dangerous landscape of North America in the years following the Civil War. The book spares no punches in its gritty, often brutal, account of one young Chinese American boy’s experiences on a hunt for treasure, guarded by forces more formidable than anything he could imagine. Allen deftly weaves folklore and fantasy into this adventure, that also goes on to make a powerful statement about what it means to be American (or, indeed, a member of any community) regardless of one’s colour or creed.

For fourteen year old Chinese American Tzu-lu (or Lu, as he is soon rechristened) it’s just another day, working at his homework in his grandfather’s shop in the little town of St Frances. But a few hours later, a strange visitor leads him away on an even more mysterious voyage that he feels ill-prepared for. This visitor is Jack Straw, a famed gunslinger, who quickly becomes Dumbledore to Lu’s timid Harry, Gandalf to his reluctant Frodo – the wise teacher and father figure who grooms Lu for the task he is destined for. They are also joined by a ragtag group of travelling companions with whom he must struggle to survive not just hostile Indians and murderous Mormon settlers, but also the unrelenting harshness of the continent they must cross on horseback.

The book scores on pace, and its evocative descriptions of the terrain the group journeys through. Also the increasingly grim circumstances the group must confront - a horse literally dissolves in a pool of acid ; an amorous Mormon preacher attacks them in a bid to abduct their lone female comrade; and death, when it finally catches up with them, takes its toll on the weary travellers. Racism is never far away either ; Lu and his friends are regularly taunted , their identity and ‘Americaness’ questioned . Allen tempers the harsh reality of these scenes with enough humour and suspense to keep the reader hooked.

This is a book full of finely etched characters, right from the protagonist and his companions to the people they meet along the way. Yet , some things struck me as unconvincing . Lu and his companions seem strangely compatible, despite their cultural and political differences. The outcome of the book hinges rather conveniently on a gift to Lu from one of the several mysterious strangers he meets through the course of the book, each more clued in on his journey and its purpose than most of his group. Are there greater forces at work here, helping to tilt the balance in favour of Lu and his friends – no one ever stops to consider this . Jack Straw never explains the true nature of their foe to his friends, and they never seek to question him either, until prodded gently by one of Lu’s acquaintances. When they do, Straw abruptly disappears, leaving them an ancient notebook to draw their conclusions from, so that they are greatly unprepared for what is to follow. And Lu, when he is finally told about the circumstaces surrounding his father’s death, seems strangely untouched, never once pausing to grieve, rage or even reflect upon it.

For all the issues I had with the book, 'Year of the Horse' is still a riveting read. It also redeems itself with a cracker of a showdown, a very satisfying solution to the mystery of the treasure, and enough tantalizing clues to suggest the possibility of a sequel.