Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

"Psalm 119" by Heather McRobie (MAIA press, 2008)

Warning: this review contains explicit spoilers

The original psalm 119 has twenty-two stanzas (one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet), each of the 8 verses within a stanza beginning with the same Hebrew letter. Apparently "it's all about the Almighty's law and the blessings that flow from obedience". This new "Psalm 119" is the kind of novel that you need to read in a session (or alternatively, have on disc so that you can search back) because the cross-references matter. From the start you need to be on your toes

  • the 1st Aleph (א) section is short, a letter in the form of a poem - "I like it When the UN tanks Pass by my window Like clouds". The poem's not trivial - the addressee may be "lost in The white pillars, built between the letters, that hold up the meaning of the word". Already meanings pile up: are the "letters" missives or Hebrew characters? does "hold up" mean "support", "display" or "ambush"?
  • the 2nd (ב) section is set in an Oxford college - a boy with an "alpha smile" met Anne-Marie, and "described his home and family to her like performing a card-trick, deftly confidently, averting her attention"
  • the 3rd section's entitled "Rumi" - not the 3rd letter of the Hebrew alphabet but a Persian poet: "As lovers spend their nights without consonants, so the praying man spends his without vowels" ... "The man in his cave, and I in mine, sent our little ones out into the world - mine pointless love poetry, his four blazing planes " ... "I sat in this cave for eight hundred years"

Three chapters and already three styles and settings, but things soon settle down. We discover that Samson and Delilah - supra-temporal alter-egos of the 2 main characters? - write the letters. Initially each letter occupies a chapter; later they're merged in. Rumi (who receives the letters inside scrolls of Psalm 119) is more like the timeless Tiresias of the Wasteland. The Oxford thread carries the main narrative, though anachronistic cross-references frequently traverse these threads: Afganistan; Pillars; how Anne-Marie reads books by Rumi, and Rumi mentions going to libraries, etc. The writing's rich, dense and multi-purposed

  • "And to feign a level of responsibility for her glorious blaze of spending, which continued back in Oxford like the banner of a crusade, Marie got a job in a bookshop, against the university's rules" (p.39)
  • "There is so much ground to map in this dark land, that all experiments fail - and so do all marriages. The monkeys sent up in the balloons are all lost, and with no scientist even monitoring their flight to begin with. We all provide equally valuable data of how we are failing God." (p.235)

I could go on and on giving examples. Even the poetry's varied - there's a palindromic poem on p.163, and on p.166 there's a pantoum (I think, but isn't that from S.E. Asia?)

Action centres around an arab professor (who conveniently lives in Jericho - part of Oxford) and 3 students: Mohammad, David (an ethnic Jew) and Marie/Maria/Anne-Marie - a fully connected love quadrilateral (except perhaps for Mohammad and the professor). Genders and religions intermix - far from the only examples in the book of relationships mirroring world affairs. Contrasts abound and aren't always resolvable: sacred vs profane; Jews vs Arabs ; selfishness vs self-sacrificing altruism; Idealism vs living; the library vs the market; warzones vs men who can't be angry.

Though we're sometimes inside other heads, Marie is the main character. She's bilingual (brought up in France) - the parallax of language is one of the book's lesser themes. She's not presented in a sympathetic light- "Marie, for all her blondeness, was not completely useless" (p.75). She has a "love of the alpha, the potently symbolic" (p.137). After Oxford she follows David eastward (actually to the West Bank), amongst "the conflict tourists [who] never seemed to see a city or a country, .. they just wanted to inhabit a place that was also an idea" (p.137). By p.161, alone in an inflatable paddling pool on a rooftop she has an epiphany - a bout of self-awareness - "though the great epic of pretending would resume". One feels that such a book has to end with a return to the physical, and it does - in the form of a run-over cat that she carries, its organs spilling onto her chest. But there's worse to come. We last see her after a gap of years no longer a dumb blonde (no longer even blonde), father by her side, delivering an eye-witness account of the plight of womanhood in the Middle East.

In general, writing such an ambitious book entails artistic dangers -
  • Because of the variety everyone will find something they don't like
  • The author might often be tempted to layer in another allusion, but each reader has a different breaking point. Maybe Sara is surplus? There's a symmetry in that she's too young a lover, and the professor too old, but ...
  • Clever metaphors can leave loose-ends - "The lamp hung down like a suction mask" (p.212), and readers might look for too many connections, assuming that nothing's accidental. e.g. When I read "So long, Marianne" (p.179) I noticed the Leonard Cohen allusion. Realising that David's surname is Cohen I wondered if I'd I missed all the previous Leonard Cohen references. When I read "UN-sponsored peace" (p.188) I wondered how many other punning uses of the United Nations abbreviation I might have missed. When on p.174 I read "This desire wormed its way between his heart and Marie" I desperately tried to align this to "most modern people resurrect an old, forgotten myth as a blunt tool to explain their new world with, trying it on again like a rediscovered dress ... the myth is the worm in the truth. If only there was a recurring myth to remind them of this too" (p.156)
  • There's a fear of leaving loose ends - final chapters can be like a whodunnit's
  • The strident symbolism may lack the balancing ballast of observation or emotional truth
I think this book triumphantly avoids all these pitfalls, though a few sentences felt over-written or a tad misjudged
  • "the sharp careful needle-point of pain, shuddering like a caught automatic drill, genius in specificity as doctrates on sonnets" (p.74)
  • "the wrong kind of clever ... they were the sort of people who could sit on trains through Germany and not feel sick or funny" (p.136)
  • "during a Sarajevo-perfect day, they went and found the perfect croissant. It was a mathematical probability that, somewhere, proportionally perfect pastries were being consistently turned out every morning from mathematically miraculous ovens" (p.150)
  • "He tried to put his arms around his own feeling of what it was like to be only a messenger" (p.246) (of Mohammad)
  • "She turned to the second pillar" (p.218, turning from Momammad to the Professor)

All in all, one of those rare books whose blurbs (by Fay Weldon and Tobias Hill in this case) are believable. As befits a work with an Islamic influence, there's one typo - "all it's indicators" (p.211).

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