The radical book review
by Pilar Quintana, translated by Lisa Dillman
(World Editions, ISBN 9781912987054)
Despite its brevity and a deceptively simple plot, Pilar Quintana’s novella manages to tackle, with the lightest of touches, a striking range of profound themes, from poverty and class inequality to loneliness, loss and repentance.
The book tells the story of Damaris, living hand to mouth on Colombia’s Pacific coast with her fisher husband, Rogelio. They supplement their income as caretakers for an adjacent house, property of an affluent family who have moved to the city. Approaching middle age and childless, Damaris and Rogelio squander their scant resources on increasingly desperate fertility treatments, to no avail. Damaris pours her maternal feelings into the care of her pet, a female puppy she names Chirli, a name she had earmarked for the daughter she never had.
As she grows, Chirli proves a disruptive influence on the household, constantly running away into the dense jungle that surrounds the town and, to Damaris’s anguish, repeatedly becoming pregnant. Her initial unconditional love of the dog and her nurturing instincts gradually give way to a simmering loathing as Chirli gives birth to litter after litter of puppies, and the book moves inexorably towards an inevitable yet shocking act of violence.
This is a wonderfully nuanced meditation on family ties and society’s demands and the central relationship between Damaris and Rogelio is both touchingly tender and grittily believable. The Bitch is the first of Pilar Quintana’s books to be translated into English and it speaks of an author of undoubted talent and rich promise. PW
The Wondrous and Tragic Life
of Ivan and Ivana
by Maryse Condé, translated by Richard Philcox
(World Editions, ISBN 9781642860696)
Born to a black single mother in Guadeloupe, twins Ivan and Ivana learn early in life that the odds are stacked against them; indeed, the title of this latest novel by Maryse Condé (dubbed the grande dame of Caribbean literature) lets the reader know upfront that things are not going to end well. As they grow up, the twins seek refuge in each other from daily struggles and outside interference in their lives – yet the love they share builds to a passion that they struggle to control or understand. They travel together to Mali to meet their absent father, and then on to Paris, where they take very different paths, with Ivan becoming radicalized and Ivana training to become a police officer. The tragic dénouement is scarcely a surprise – the twins’ fate had been predicted from their birth by their grandmother, who dreamt of them ‘lying in a pool of blood’.
Unsettling questions are raised by The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana: how much is the twins’ fate determined by their own misinterpretation and manipulation of their emotions? Can they be considered guilty if by suppressing a love deemed unacceptable by society they seek solace or distraction in other damaging ways? And with poverty, religion, colonialism and racism all having a role to play in their lives, to what extent are external influences the real driver of their destiny?
With a deft hand and wry wit, the unnamed narrator keeps the story moving but refrains from interpreting the events. So it is left up to the reader to draw their own conclusions and find their own answers, if they can. JL
Between Light and Storm
by Esther Woolfson
(Granta, ISBN 97811783782796)
Humans have been pondering our interaction with our co-inhabitants of Earth as long as we have been on the planet. Cave drawings and carvings depicting predators and prey species such as tigers, lions, deer and boar stretch back many thousands of years.
Esther Woolfson begins her study of ‘how we live with other species’ by contemplating the motivations and meanings of these cave drawings. She broadens her argument out to a consideration of our representation of birds and animals throughout human history in carvings, ceramics and paintings. In subsequent chapters she concerns herself with subjects as diverse as the existence of the soul in humans and other creatures; animal sacrifice and the consumption of meat; vivisection and animal experimentation; and the questionable justifications advanced in defence of the fur trade. Covid-19 and viral spillover get a mention, too.
This is nature writing in the foraging and fossicking mode, reminiscent of Kathleen Jamie and Barry Lopez. Woolfson ranges widely across disciplines and through time; discursive, informative and always ready to explore a promising byway. She draws on a dizzying array of sources, from Aristotle to John Berger, Descartes to Rebecca Solnit. Her dense prose is packed with allusions to literature, geology and history, both ancient and modern, the personal and the political; touching, time and again, on the consequences for the natural world of human actions.
Between Light and Storm is a fascinating and enlightening tour through our troubled and troubling relationship with animals and a sustained challenge to the notion that humans are not only different from other species but superior. PW
Eat the Buddha
by Barbara Demick
(Granta, ISBN 9781783785704)
Ngaba was ‘a nothing little town that had just gotten its first set of traffic lights’ when it shot to fame as the world capital of self-immolations. To date, of the 156 Tibetans who have set fire to themselves to protest against Chinese oppression, one third are from Ngaba. ‘I did it for the sake of all Tibetans and sentient beings,’ was the poignant note left by the 21st, a young monk, in 2012.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese authorities don’t want foreign journalists visiting the town, located on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, where a large Chinese garrison keeps watch. Which was a red rag to Barbara Demick, prize-winning author of Nothing to Envy, about another highly secretive place, North Korea. She made several visits to Ngaba, more or less undercover. Eat the Buddha: The Story of Modern Tibet Through the People of One Town is the product of careful on-the-ground journalism, interviews with Tibetans in exile, and newly discovered historical material stretching back 90 years.
And it’s extraordinarily good. A superb storyteller, Demick melds the personal, the historical and the political seamlessly as she delves into the town’s intriguing living legacy of rebellion. The people whose stories she tells – ranging from a former Tibetan princess to the illegitimate son of a disabled single mother – leap from the pages, full of life.
Today, Chinese oppression is somewhat less brutal than in the past, but propaganda and surveillance by the ‘perfect dictatorship’ is intense. The Tibetans have it less bad than the Uighurs, writes Demick, but their now downscaled demands for equality and cultural and religious freedom still seem too much to ask of the superpower. VB