Sunday, August 25, 2019

Robertson Davies Reading Week - August 25 to 31- Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

"Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business."

That above definition of Fifth Business (which I think Davies must have invented…I didn’t find any other reference to it when doing a google-search) comes at least half way through the book.  But it works and if you think about it, there are plenty of literary figures who fit that bill; characters who act as catalysts and observers of the main event while not being main players themselves.

In this book, it refers to the protagonist, Dunstable (aka Dunston, aka Dunny) Ramsay who narrates the book in the form of a letter to his former boss, the headmaster of a private boy’s preparatory school in Canada.  Ramsay has just retired from 40+ years teaching, and he is expressing his dissatisfaction with the reductive, anodyne farewell article in the school paper, written by a college who barely knew him.

It is a little difficult to write what this book is about because the narrative itself dodges and weaves.  The reader fairly quickly forgets the epistolary setting, though Ramsay will remind the reader of the format from time to time. At first it feels like a cradle to grave autobiography as Ramsay recounts his upbringing by stolid, Scotch stock Canadians in a small village in the early part of the 20th century.  But then there is an event that will change young Dunny’s life forever.  While walking home at age 10, he ducks to avoid being hit by a snowball thrown by his friend/nemesis Percy Boyd (aka Boy) Staunton. The  snowball instead hits young, pregnant Mrs. Dempster, the wife of the local Baptist minister, causing her to go into labor prematurely.  That event and its repercussions will reverberate all through the book right up to the last line…but as I stated above, the narration dodges and weaves so when it does pop up for the final time, it is a bit of a gut punch.

I have to wonder if John Irving read Fifth Business and was in any way inspired to write A Prayer for Owen Meany with its stray baseball which has consequences further on in THAT novel.  In fact, I was reminded more than one of Irving while reading Fifth Business, in particular in its themes of guilt/redemption and coincidence/destiny, and yet they could not be further apart in many other ways, not the least of which is length.  Fifth Business came in at a concise 252 pages which is a fraction of Irving’s typical tome pages. 

There is a lot to chew on here in terms of themes on faith, obligation, guilt, self-invention and self realization... Presbyterian Dunny has a religious experience during WWI that sets him off on a quest to research and write about the lives Catholic Saints.  He also never forgets his debt to Mrs. Dempster or her premature child. Boy Staunton becomes filthy rich and politically powerful, a nice counterpoint to what Dunny is not or does not want to become, but is Dunny using Boy or is Boy using Dunny?  And I haven’t even gotten the characters of Liesl and Magnus Eisengrim and how they will figure in Ramsey’s life. 

I read Fifth Business for the Robertson Davies reading week August 25 to 31 hosted by Lory at the blog The Emerald City Book Review . This was my first experience of Robertson Davies’ works and it is probably his most famous.  I feel like Davies is building towards something here, even though Fifth Business totally stands on its own. Therefore, I will very likely read the other two books in this trilogy: The Manticore and  World of Wonders. But I highly recommend it if you are looking for a good read that might make you ponder about deeper subjects. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. “ This from One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most famous opening lines in literature. I mean, how can you not want to read on?

I opted to read this book for the category “Classic from the Americas or Caribbean” for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.  As an American, I really felt I needed to NOT read a U.S. author in this case and I had a copy of this one already, so it fit the bill.  Another reason I picked  this classic over any other North American, South American or Caribbean classic is because it is just so damn famous. I do read for pleasure of course. But I also read for enlightenment and out of curiosity which means I sometimes read books that I appreciate more than I adore and this was one of those.  I'm glad to have read it; I feel like the experience makes me a better reader over all, but I can't say I'll be seeking out more from any Garcia Marquez soon. Lo siento Gabriel.

So what is the book about? It is about the Buendia family that establishes the village of Macondo in the jungle of Columbia at some point prior to independence from Spain. The patriarch, José Arcadio Buendia, is looking for a paradise near the ocean but ends up settling near a swamp instead. If I understood the book correctly, José Arcadio is a descendant of the indigenous inhabitants of Columbia whereas his wife, Ursula, descends from Spanish colonialists. Their families have, however, been intermarrying for generations and the two are actually cousins.  Macando remains isolated for many years with little outside contact except from traveling gypsies. José Arcadio and Ursula have two sons: the eldest named for his father and  the younger named Aureliano and a daughter, Amaranta.  

The names Arcadio  and Aureliano will repeat through seven generations of the family as Macando becomes a town and then a city with contact via railway to the rest of the country and eventually the establishment of an American owned and operation banana plantation nearby. Some Buendias do leave Macando for other places, but they almost always come back until the last generation dies out and with it the town. The family is somehow, without realizing it,  trapped in this place where history seems to repeat every generation and the house originally built by José Arcadio Senior is built up and allowed to fall in to ruin over and over again. The theme of incest, starting with the two cousins marrying, also is repeated throughout the book.  And of course, there is the magic realism where people float up to heaven, live for 150 years or are born with pig tails and no character in the book is startled by it. As a reader, one isn't really startled either because the narration has the same tone through out. 

I know I am not doing the book justice here. And frankly there are hundreds of better sources than I to expound upon what the book "really means" and the use of magic realism in the text. I think the more familiar one is with Colombian and Central American history, the more one will get out of the book. I think I got some of it, like the cyclical trajectory of successes and failures of the Buendia family work as an allegory of the imposition of Spanish colonialism and subsequent American imperialism in Central America. However, for me personally, I suspect I need to have a better grasp on the historical background to best appreciate this kind of book and I just don't know enough in this case.