Sunday, July 17, 2016

Speaking with the Spirits --Rochester Knockings by Hubert Haddad

Hubert Haddad. Rochester Knockings: A Novel of the Fox Sisters. Translated from the French by Jennifer Grotz. Rochester: Open Letter Books, 2015. Published in France as Théorie de la villain petite fille by Zulma.

With Rochester Knockings, Haddad gives us an interesting look at the United States of the second half of the 19th Century. Haddad imagines the story of the historical Fox sisters, Leah, Kate, and Maggie, who through their communications with the spirits of the dead ignite the cross-continental Spiritualist movement. Haddad paints a United States still, as he describes it, under the influence of Puritanism, with a population naive enough and traumatized by the frequent death of children, spouses, and the great losses suffered in the Civil War to sustain a movement ascribed to by ardent believers and determined charlatans alike.

In Rochester Knockings, two young sisters have just moved with their parents to a small town, Hydesville, in New York State. The youngest, Kate, has recently witnessed the death of her much beloved younger brother. Sister Margaret is old enough to feel the loss of dear friends in the move to a new town. Both sisters are lonely; not yet accepted into the social circles of the community’s school and church. Kate dreams of her brother and feels a child’s responsibility for her brother’s death. She is a sleepwalker and seems especially in tune to her natural surroundings and alert to every noise within the house. Both sisters think of the house as a kind of living entity that will accept its occupants or not as it comes to know them. Left alone one night while her sister and parents attend to the birth of a calf, Kate hears strange knockings. When Margaret returns, Kate has her listen for the knocks and over time, both sisters make their mother aware of the strange occurrences. Soon the whole town knows about the knockings at the Hydesville house. The church’s strict pastor, lost within his own guilt at the loss of a young wife, excommunicates the family, who are then in jeopardy from the mob-like reaction of the townspeople. The girls are whisked off to safety with an older sister, Leah, in Rochester. Leah has plans for her sisters’ penchant for communicating with the afterlife. She drives them into a life of public demonstrations and seances. Leah shares in the role of medium to the spirit-world herself. Haddad’s Kate is the true medium of the three sisters. The two older sisters become adept at creating the proper atmosphere and simulating their conversations with the dead. Kate lives in a foggy world with no barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead. Both Kate and Margaret are exhausted by Leah’s ambitions and only Leah, through marriages and prudent management of her (and the younger sisters') earnings, sustains her spiritualist activities and comfortable lifestyle.

Celebrities are dependent on the waxing and waning whims of the public, and as the competition grows from imitators eager to cash in on the spiritualist opportunities, the girls’ hold on their public fades. As wooers and supporters die or drift in different directions, Kate and Margaret are left alone and die in poverty. This novel is as much about the rise and fall of the Fox sisters as it is about an American population of immigrants and religious zealots eager and ready to believe not only the sisters who might or might not have been sincere in their exhibitions, but the many fakes who follow in their footsteps.

The narrative has a wandering style, characters appear, disappear, and reappear later only to disappear again. The sisters' stories follow sometimes separate, sometimes intertwining threads. I sometimes wondered if the translator got a bit lost in the translations —some of the sentences seemed unnecessarily long and convoluted, and the style a bit inelegant in places.

A word about Open Letter Books. This is the nonprofit imprint from the University of Rochester, with the mission of publishing English translations of exemplary literature from throughout the world. Look to Open Letter’s publications to discover writers new to the English speaking reading population.  We should hope that Open Letter will thrive. Their beautifully produced books each celebrate the collaboration between writers and readers, the work of the writer to provide creative insight into the human experience and the work of the reader to absorb, understand, and make the writer’s expression meaningful. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Man Who Loved Birds and his Dog

The Man Who Loved Birds by Fenton Johnson. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.

A South Asian doctor moves into a small rural town--her office a former gas station; a priest, former draft dodger, now full of doubts lives in a fading monestary; a communal minded veteran, with plenty of love to share, makes a moderate living off of his marijuana farming; an ambitious, take-no- prisoners county attorney seeks his white whale; a vindictive policeman takes out his disappointment in life by beating his wife and son, his boy loves and seeks out stories, his wife, the boy's mother, loves and tries to protect her son, J.C., the dog roams the countryside freely along with his beloved master. 

The spiritual nature of this novel is clear from the title of its Part One,"The Earthly Paradise." Its opening epigraph a quote from Luke, "this scripture must be fulfilled in me: And he was counted among the lawless." The epigraph that opens Part Two is from the Bhagavand Gita, "Men will seek beauty, whether in life or in death." The novel revolves around Johnny Faye, the veteran turned marijuana farmer. He is a gentle man with a charismatic warmth that draws people to not only trust him but to love him. The vulnerable Dr. Chatterjee, a refugee of sorts, self-exiled in this isolated town unused to foreigners, first meets Johnny Faye as a patient. Later, she encounters him in a statue garden where she regularly goes for peace and solitude. He arrives just as she becomes aware of a pit of snakes just below where her feet are dangling. He, St. Francis like, "took his walking stick and thurst it gently into the coiling mass. 'Greetings, brother snakes. . . ."

Although the St. Francis allusion seems powerful (and his dog's name, J.C. certainly invokes Christian sensibilities), Johnson, describes Faye's snake entwined walking stick as a caduceus, throwing the illusion much further back into spiritual and literary history. Flavian, the troubled priest, meets Johnny Faye during his first foray into a bar--a den of inquity. It is here that Flavian finds himself amidst a pit of metaphorical snakes. Faye protects Flavian from the snakes .He guides Flavian through a game of pool, while, from Flavian's perpsective, he remains a disembodied voice and a faceless body. Faye's caduceus, this time, is not a snake entwined walking stick, but a pool cue. Both Flavian and Dr. Chaterjee are seduced by Johnny Faye's gentle spirit and connection with nature; his ability to provide both physical and spiritual healing. Faye also has a bit of Robin Hood in him, literally stealing from the rich and anonymously delivering up what he has stolen to the poor.

All of this calm and beauty is at odds with the county attorney's war on drugs, his greedy ambition, and his willingness to rely on violence, police bruality, and vigilante justice. Economic disparity is also evident in this small town. The small farmers are no longer able to make a living legitimately and so have formed a marijuana growing cooperative, led by Johnny Faye. Economic downturn threatens the traditional ways of the Abbey, Flavian's home. Soon, the abbey's last vestige of self-sufficiency and connection with nature, their heard of cattle, will be sold off and butchered. The county attorney seeks, in his own way, to seduce, through money, promises, and threats. His aim is to destroy Johnny Faye and he easily persuades Officer Smith to help him. While the contrast of Johnny Faye's personally created microcosm of love and gentleness contrasts starkly with the great evils of the world, the plot progresses with both subtlety and sensitivity. The catharses are present but private. 

Johnson's plot whirls around the yearnings and doubts of both Brother Flavian and Dr. Chatterjee. They are connected through their mutual love for Johnny Faye.  They are also connected by their inability to protect the vulnerable. Dr. Chatterjee has saved the life of Officer Smith's son who he has beaten to the brink of death. Mrs. Smith brings her son to Dr. Chatterjee's office while Brother Flavian is visiting.  It quickly becomes clear to both Chatterjee and Flavian , that Smith's son has not tumbled into an accident but has been repeatedly abused. It is unclear how to protect the boy in this small town where action on their part could put both mother and son in danger and cost Dr. Chatterjee her job.

All of the characters make their choices for better and mostly worse. As Dr. Chatterjee makes her most significant choice, she is reminded by Flavian, that,  "this is America. You have choices," although her choice is coerced by threats. Still, she has reason to believe, that compromised as it her choice was, "She had chosen well." Hope survives despair.