Monday, 28 February 2011

Three Very Different Novels

I continue to dip in and out of Perec's Life: A User's Manual as and when ordered by the doctor for my general sense of well-being. [Bang on: that Mr. Scott Pack tries to steal my thunder with this feeble attempt of a post on Perec: The art of reviewing a book that has no punctuation or capital letters.  Too late, Mr. Pack, I sneer, I was there first.]

There is no such sense of holiday dalliance with Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, a book I read last month. This involves total immersion with no snorkel. So, before I take the plunge, let me first deal with Thomas Eidson's St. Agnes' Stand.

From his prose style, it is evident Eidson is a fan of Hemingway; his prose is taut, well-muscled, and walks with a testosterone-laden swagger.

The story is best described as a contemporary western. It opens with a man on the run with his dog who comes across a group under siege from a band of Apaches. The group consists of three nuns, lead by the eponymous Sister St. Agnes, together with seven orphaned children they have recently rescued. The Apaches have already caught and horribly tortured one nun and her Mexican wagon driver who were attempting to make a run for help. Against his better judgement, Swanson, for that is the man's name, decides to assist. To the Catholic sister, Swanson is literally the answer to her prayers and she never doubts for an instant his ability to save them for, as she constantly reminds him, he was sent by God.

The story tells of the increasingly personalised battle between Swanson and Locan, the giant leader of the Apaches, who is rapidly losing face with his party of braves. In some respects St. Agnes' Stand may be regarded as a conventional western. The characters are personalities you would expect to meet. It is no surprise, for instance, to discover the good Sister St. Agnes turns out to be a whisky-drinking, poker-player, thigh-slapping (OK, I made the last up) nun-of-a-gun. What is surprising, even questionable, is the underlying theme, which is one of faith, specifically Catholic faith versus savage superstition, and I do not employ the term savage lightly, because Eidson absolutely demonises Locan and his followers in a surprising manner given the date of publication, 1994. There is an argument to be made that Eidson is thoroughly contemporary in that he is the literary equivalent of Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers in his exploration of violence but where the latter comment, in their different ways, on attitudes today, St. Agnes' Stand reads like a good, ol' fashioned parable of good versus bad. And the bad are still Injuns and those of that ilk.

That said, it is still a good read and worthy of your own appraisal.

I think of Murakami as Marmite – you either love him or hate him, and I love him. (For those who are not Brits, Marmite is a spread*; you either love it or hate it. I hope that clarifies the analogy.)

Like with all Haruki Murakami's work, there is no simple way to summarise the plot. So I will save myself the effort and quote from the blurb on the back:

'Toru Okada's cat has disappeared and this has unsettled his wife, who is herself growing more distant every day. Then there are the increasingly explicit telephone calls he has started receiving. As the compelling story unfolds, the tidy suburban realities of Okada's vague and blameless life – spent cooking, reading, listening to jazz and opera and drinking beer at the kitchen table – are turned inside out, and he embarks on a bizarre journey, guided (however obscurely) by a succession of characters, each with a tale to tell.'


As hinted, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle explores the way life develops through circumstance, inexplicable promptings and chance events, and much of its charm, from a westerner's point of view, is the cultural difference in attitude displayed by Okada to each twist in his day. It is not that he is fatalistic but accepting, with an almost naïve curiosity, of whatever might happen next.

It is very seductive and you soon find yourself infected by his ingenuousness. To appreciate Murakami, you too, like Toru, must travel blind trusting that you will be transported safely. And you will be, trust me.

* Something you spread on bread, toast preferably, and not a large tract of land in Wyoming.


Girl On The Run said...

'St Agnes' Stand', from your description, reminds me of 'Two Mules for Sister Sara' an excellent film as I recall. Thanks for the reviews Dot, I enjoy your style of writing (-:

DOT said...

Aw, you've made me blush. (As if…)

DOT said...

Had forgotten Two Mules for Sister Sara starring Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine.

To quote Wikipedia:

'A drifter named Hogan spots and saves a naked Sara from being gang-raped by several men whom he shoots and kills. He later learns that she is a nun that is working with a group of Mexican revolutionaries that are fighting the French. When Sara requests that Hogan take her to a Mexican camp, he agrees because he had previously arranged to help the Mexican revolutionaries attack the French garrison in exchange for a portion of the garrison's strongbox if they are successful.

As the duo heads toward the camp, Hogan is surprised that the nun smokes his cigars and drinks his whiskey.'

I can see the similarities