Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness

Alexandra Fuller has written three memoirs about herself and her family: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness and Leaving Before the Rains Come. Cocktail Hour is the first I have read, though I have also enjoyed her novel, Quiet Until the Thaw.

Cocktail Hour focuses on the author’s extraordinary mother Nicola Fuller, a white woman of Scottish heritage, who grew up in Africa and has lived most all of her life there. Her childhood was in Kenya where she became a skilled, perhaps reckless, horsewoman. At twenty she married Tim Fuller and a series of events led the young family to leave Kenya for a farm in White-ruled Rhodesia. There, the war of independence eventually forced them to again abandon their home. As the memoir comes to its conclusion, the parents, now in their sixties, operate a “fish and banana” farm in Zambia. At one level this is the story of a family swimming resolutely against the tide of history.

Nicola Fuller is revealed as a beautiful, charismatic, courageous woman who aspires to live a very romantic life. She and her husband share a strong attachment to each other, to their children, to the light and the soil of the Africa they know and love. They also share a great fondness for dogs and horses, for alcohol and adventure. As they endure hardships and a series of profound tragedies, including the deaths of three children, Nicola verges at times on the edge of madness and Tim struggles to hold their lives and family together.

Every page of this memoir is a pleasure to read. There are beautiful descriptions, considerable humor, heart-wrenching turns of fate. Most remarkable is the tone Ms. Fuller brings to her story. She obviously loves and admires her parents and appreciates the upbringing they gave her, but she insists on portraying them with a clear-eyed precision that is never maudlin, sugar-coated or romanticized. She leads us through turmoil and loss and delivers us to the farm in Zambia where at book’s end we find her parents at home and at peace.

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I like Bill. Bill McKinley, that is, the guy who’s been hanging out in the Arcata Plaza since 1906. People who want him removed try to associate him with various crimes to which he is not connected. He should be removed, they tell us, because in the 1860s indigenous people were being sold in the Arcata Plaza. But in the 1860s young Bill was not selling slaves in Arcata. He was thousands of miles away, fighting to free slaves in the south. A staunch abolitionist, Bill joined the war as a private at the age of eighteen and ended it a major.

George Zehndner, they go on to tell us, the man who paid for the statue actually indentured a seven-year-old native girl himself in 1860. I know nothing about George Zehndner, but I have taken a good look at the statue pedestal and I can confirm that the statue is of our man Bill, not George Zehndner.

Others argue that Bill does not belong in the Plaza because he had nothing to do with Humboldt County. I would point out that Alexander von Humboldt had nothing to do with Humboldt County either, but we have made him our own. Like von Humboldt, Bill has become one of us. At this year’s Oyster Festival, I spotted him cleverly disguised as Poseidon, god of the sea, complete with a flowing beard and trident. A couple of weeks later at the Fairies Festival he carried a magic wand in his right hand. As Bill McKinley did in real life, his statue is always willing to help out. Our Bill has become a part of Arcata, as natural to the Plaza as the two beautiful—and not-at-all native—palm trees that tower so majestically behind him. I’m voting yes on Measure M.

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Kim Thúy’s novel Mãn, a Review

Kim Thúy is a Vietnamese-born Canadian novelist who writes in French but whose work is available in English translation. The title of the novel, Mãn, is also the name of the story’s female narrator. The name means “perfect fulfillment” and one could interpret the novel as Mãn’s journey to achieve the potential promised by her name. On the opening page we learn that one woman gave her birth, a second found her in a vegetable patch and a third, Maman—”my Maman”—raised her. This happened in Vietnam during the long years of war, and the ferocity and brutality of that war, while never emphasized or dwelled on, informs the story and shapes the features of every Vietnamese character who appears in it.

When Mãn is a young woman, Maman arranges a marriage for her to a Vietnamese man who has a restaurant in Montreal. Mãn’s husband, whose name we never learn, is a decent, hard-working fellow but stiffened by his own experiences in their home country is incapable of genuine affection. Of their marriage, the narrator tells us: “It was enough for him to be happy for all of us to be.”

While working at the restaurant Mãn meets a number of people who enter the story, perform their small roles, and then disappear. Most important of these is Julie, a French-Canadian who with her husband has adopted a Vietnamese child. Julie and Mãn are perfect for each other. Mãn becomes Julie’s daughter’s “Vietnamese mother” while Julie with her resources, her knowledge and energy helps Mãn escape the confines her husband’s restaurant kitchen.

Mãn and Julie develop a catering business. They write a cookbook that becomes a best seller, one that transforms Mãn into a celebrity chef. The author, Kim Thúy has owned a restaurant in Montreal, and she provides us with many delectable descriptions of the preparation, the layout and the taste of Vietnamese cuisine. About halfway through the novel, Mãn is invited to Paris to promote the cookbook, and there she meets Luc, a handsome young French restauranteur who like Mãn is also married and the parent of small children. The poignant, bittersweet, wildly romantic descriptions of their transcontinental relationship take us through to the final page.

While the above paragraphs suggest a chronological narration, the story is not told that way. Set out in brief snatches—the novel contains roughly a hundred chapters and is only 139 pages long—the story proceeds not chronologically but by association. A chapter on how, in the Montreal restaurant, Mãn helps a young Vietnamese dishwasher pass an exam, leads to one about how years earlier Maman taught her to read. A chapter where she marvels at Julie’s ability to openly cry leads to one that begins with her description of how she hides her tears from her husband and then presents this lovely image: “At night when we used to share the same bed, the sound of Maman’s tears sometimes escaped the corners of her closed eyes. I would hold my breath then, because with no witness, sorrow might exist only as a ghost.”

Mãn is like a fine meal that is served to us in delicate bites while we enjoy the lyrical and lively conversation passing back and forth across the table, a conversation that tells us much about the Vietnamese people and their culture.

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SQUARE, the Screenplay

SQUARE - the Screenplay

Please use the up/down arrows to scroll this 107 page document.

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MARTIN JOHN, a novel by Anakana Schofield

Anakana Schofield, a Canadian writer of Irish descent, makes strong demands on us. Her novel, MARTIN JOHN, is not particularly long. And its vocabulary is not difficult though it helps to have some familiarity with British English so when the word “torch” appears you realize it refers to a flashlight and not a flaming cloth wrapped around a stick, and that “tube” refers to the subway not the TV. Nor does Ms. Schofield trouble us with convoluted sentences or interminable paragraphs. Just the opposite is true. MARTIN JOHN begins with several pages that contain only a few sentences each and the text is broken into fragments throughout. You will encounter a lot of blank white paper as you rush along. You will find yourself at page thirty and you’ve hardly had to breathe.

But the question at page thirty (or for that manner at sixty, or ninety) is: Where the hell am I? You will have learned that Martin John is a person, that “Rain will fall,” that “Flashing is a very angry act,” that Martin John has not been to Beirut (though he will declare often that he has). That he has been to London to visit his Aunt Noanie, that a dentist’s waiting room shaped his life. And much of this has already been repeated several times. So, you ask: Where are we?

Well, we are not exactly in the mind of Martin John. This is not, in other words, a first-person narrative. No, we are in the mind of the author Anakana Schofield, and sometimes she is talking directly to us:

“She [being Martin John’s mother] did not like the idea she had a role it in.
You would not like the idea you had a role in it.
Did she have a role in it?
Have you had a role in it?
Do you have a role in this?”

The author is asking if we the readers are complicit in the behavior of Martin John. It’s a troubling thought because Martin John’s behavior is troubling. He is paranoid and sexually perverted. So it is not surprising to learn that our hero hates all words that begin with the letter “P.” He counts the number of P words he finds in the morning paper and that number helps to shape his day. He is also obsessive-compulsive, you see.

Another time the author speaks directly to the female reader. “You are incidental,” she tells her. “You need only be on the Tube when Martin John’s on the Tube, if he decides it’s the day to cage a rub. His leg against a woman’s leg. You need only be a woman with a leg. You aren’t special, you aren’t chosen, you are a woman with a leg. That’s it. A leg he finds access to. A leg that happens to be available. That’s all you are.”

In a later statement directed to we readers, the author even releases us from the commitment we have made to read the book in its entirety, and in so doing she makes a confession: “You should know the things he does and doesn’t appreciate, if we are going to carry on like this. If not—well hang up now, as the operator would say.
“That’s aggressive, but you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us.”

Ms. Schofield is correct. MARTIN JOHN is not an easy book to read and one can assume it was not an easy one to write. Information is presented to us in a disjointed, incoherent manner. We are sent back and forth in time and place as we learn snippets from Martin John’s life. Words and phrases are repeated over and over, obsessions exposed. The narrative is confusing, repetitive, chaotic, as we can assume the mind of Martin John is confused, chaotic and chock full of phrases and exhortations endlessly repeating themselves.

Martin John is living in London but he has come there from Ireland. Bad things happened in Ireland. Through snatches here and there we learn of incidents that got him “knocked off the island.” He appears to have been in London for several years, decades even. And there have been times when his life has gone relatively well. He has a job as a security guard. He has a house. He may be somewhat controlling his impulses. He goes to see his Aunt on Wednesdays. But Martin John’s relative stability deteriorates as the novel progresses.

The novel is also not easy because the subject matter is not easy. Martin John may struggle with his urges but he has often given in to them and sometimes we are there when he does. We witness his predatory behavior and we experience what he enjoys about it—and he does enjoy it. It becomes a game of capture for him. It gives him pleasure when he has captured a girl’s attention (and often they are mere girls) and alarm registers on her face as she realizes he has exposed himself and is masturbating in front of her. In the aftermath of one particularly brutal incident we witness the damage done to the victim even decades later; the way it has circumscribed her life, governed her choice of a husband, intensified her need to protect her own children.

There are two important characters in the novel in addition to Martin John. First his mother who is known to us as “Mam.” Mam is still in Ireland but they speak by phone and when they are not on the phone, Mam is often a voice in Martin John’s head. Sometimes she speaks in italics:
“Stay out of it Martin John, for the love of God stay out of it. I can’t save you now you’re in London, get yourself in bed and stay out of it. D’ya hear?”

Mam is terrified her son will end up in prison where she thinks he’ll certainly be killed. But other than shouting warnings, she is at her wit’s end what to do. Besides, she is herself fearful of him. She sent him off the island to save his skin, but also to protect herself. He had become a grown man. He was exposing himself to her and she was afraid of him.

Mam is a bit of a case herself, vacillating between denial and dire warnings. She keeps a secluded teapot in which she places notes she has jotted down about Martin John’s behavior. All mam’s worries, we learn, “live inside a teapot.” She has filled a dozen of them over the decades. That might sound like bizarre, even ridiculous behavior. But the author keeps asking us the troubling question: “What would you do?” if Martin John were your son.

It is a legitimate question. Police have hassled him, he’s been arrested, has been in hospitals, been interviewed by therapists. He has been injected with medicines and given pills. He has been badly beaten up. But nothing in the end has deterred him, nor has he been capable of controlling himself. “What would you do?”

The third character is a nemesis who, though only marginally real on the page, comes to dominate Martin John’s life. If the nemesis has a real name we don’t know it. Martin John calls him Baldy Conscience (a name susceptible to more than one interpretation) and he has moved into an upstairs room of the house where Martin John lives. As the author explains, Martin John “is trying to defeat someone living on top of his head.” Baldy Conscience has a guitar and he has friends who have guitars and they come over and make noise and cause trouble.

Martin John has sublet the room to Baldy Conscience and now he cannot get rid of him. This man’s presence chases Martin John from his own house, disrupts his routines, fractures his calm, ruins his sleep, destroys what sense he has of control. And Martin John knows something that no one else knows: “THAT BALDY CONSCIENCE IS AFTER HIM FULL TIME.” When Martin John obsesses about his nemesis it is often presented to us in capital letters and we can almost hear it amplified in Martin John’s head: “HARM WAS DONE. THERE ARE REASONS ENOUGH HARM IS DONE. BALDY CONSCIENCE HAS FOUND THE REASON TO HARM HIM. HE HAS FOUND OUT WHAT HARM WAS DONE.”

Martin John comes to believe that Baldy Conscience is in control of most everything. Even Mam it would appear is now in cahoots with Baldy Conscience. From that point we witness an accelerating deterioration of Martin John’s life and by book’s end we have a devastating portrait of this man, a portrait composed of bits and pieces, a collage of a portrait.

One has to ask: Why bother ourselves to read a book such as this? There are thousands of other novels. Some are lyrical in form and contain beautiful descriptions of nature and foreign places. Others expose us to acts of courage, loyalty, romance, mystery, love and betrayal, great historic events, tales of triumph and disaster. Why this incoherent tale of perversion, incompetence, moral and personal devastation?

Well, for one thing, the form, the structure of the novel, is unique and captivating. The writing sparkles with energy. It pops and crackles like a good rock song. For another, the novel is often hilarious: “You aren’t allowed to dislike firemen,” we learn. “There’s a law against it. They’ll save your life even if you don’t want saving. Sssh. That’s Martin John speaking.”

This may be a writer’s novel: that is a novel that brings more pleasure to people who write novels than to those who do not. It requires close reading, a tolerance for confusion, a willingness to flip pages back and forth, the patience to take a second or third look, the time to linger over a few lines. But persistence rewards us with a powerful, funny, sad, disturbing exploration of a life, a life that is, thankfully, not our own.

“Here it is,” Anakana Schofield, seems to be saying as she tosses the book onto your lap. “You figure it out.” I’m glad I took up the challenge.

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Hagen tries to explain to me how he constructed the large graceful patio on the back of the Brandt family home in Bad Duebin near Leipzig. He is a joyous man, large, fleshy in a pleasing way, strong, capable, deep of voice, teeming with energy, a man with a hardy laugh and a ready sense of humor. A man who chooses beer over wine. (His preferred beer comes from the north of Germany near the Danish border. It has a plastic cap held down by a complicated wire mechanism, which when released makes a dramatic popping sound as if it were a champagne cork.) The signal announcing an incoming call on his cell phone is a revving automobile engine. He cruises the autobahn at a hundred and sixty kilometers per hour, but rigorously obeys all speed signs. As a boy in the former German Democratic Republic he had been a competitive fencer and one of the many things he still does is referee matches. A husband, the father of two, busy with work, you got a problem, Hagen will be the first to jump up and take care of it.

And he built the patio on the back of their house, built it by hand. As the two of us stand beneath the eves on its inner edge, our backs to the sliding glass doors just out of reach of a passing thunderstorm, Hagen tells me how he did it. Except he doesn’t speak English and I understand virtually no German.

The surface, now being splashed with rain, I learn, is composed of tiles made from rosy granite. (At least I think whatever word he uses means granite, though it could be a kind of marble. He’s clear that it was very expensive.) Beneath the granite (or whatever it is) is a thick layer of crushed rock, the preparation of which he explains to me in detail but I cannot understand, though I am convinced it took a lot of time and effort. He swears there is no glue or cement holding the tiles to the crushed rock, though how they are secured, or if they are, is a mystery to me. The only cement used was in the perimeter foundation, which he tells me rises a meter above the ground and is set a meter down in the ground. The trench for the foundation was dug by him with a pick and shovel, and it was not easy. I try to formulate simple questions but even if he understands them, only rarely can I understand his answer.

So it goes when you are in the language gap. Here information is fragmentary and frequently wrong. I have known Hagen for almost twenty years, and Margaret, his wife for more than thirty—she was thirteen I believe when I first met her and Knut her older brother and Renate their mother, who is my wife Nina’s first cousin. I have known Hagen and Margaret’s son and daughter (Erik and “little” Nina) since they were babies. I knew Ernst and Elsa who were Renate’s parents, Margaret’s grandparents and Erik and Nina’s great grandparents. I have stayed in the homes of these people, eaten at their tables, showered in their bathrooms. I am part of their extended family and they are part of mine. I know something of their trials and triumphs. I care about them and they about me. And yet I cannot talk to them and I understand very little of what they say to me.

German even I can understand

German even I can understand

Another fellow is Rolf, the husband of Inge, Nina’s half sister. Rolf is a gregarious one. He has a springy, leg-swinging walk as if he were a sailor who had just come ashore and was ready for some action. He likes to keep the top buttons open on his shirts to display his hairy chest. As we go about our day, take an outing to a lake, or drive into Poland for lunch, or visit their charming garden, he chats with neighbors and passersby. He talks and they chuckle and I know the exchange is charming and clever and I get none of it.

When Rolf drives I sit in the passenger seat and listen to him. His commentary about the road, the traffic, the other drivers, is, I suspect, at times angry, at times hilarious, and I understand almost none of it. He probably thinks I understand more than I do, but even if he knew I understood nothing he would still talk, I think, because that is what Rolf does.

Through Nina I learn something of Rolf and Inge’s recent trip to a spa in Poland. I learn the latest news about their grandson Leonard, and how Inge’s delicious herring was prepared, or that the nest we are staring at is that of a stork. But it goes by too fast. Nina cannot translate every sentence. And even she, bilingual by most definitions, does not understand everything. “Where are we going now?” I ask, confused as usual. “I think…,” she begins.

What a strange phenomenon language is, how profoundly complex and subtle. Fluid, always in transition, immersed in the dynamic culture from which it springs, a language is ever on the move. Even a conversation between two native speakers is, I suspect, less precise, and more clumsy than we suppose. We think something, then we try to express it, and what comes out is only an approximation of what we were thinking, and what the listener understands is only an approximation of what we said. And yet it is an amazing skill, a delicious gift, the sharing of which gives us some of our greatest pleasures. Indeed, a language is all but useless unless it is shared.

And a “foreign” language? Is it a bit of a myth, or an exaggeration, to say that a “foreign” language can really be learned? When we say that the waiter in an Italian restaurant speaks English, what we really mean is that he can explain the menu, talk about the wine, take your order, chat a bit about the weather or the countryside. Ask him for an analysis of his country’s political structure, or his and his family’s relationship with the Catholic Church, or his thoughts about the immigrants flowing into his country and you will soon run into the gap. His thoughts, assuming he understood you and that he chooses to share them, will come out as hard, narrow slivers of the complex rush of ideas coursing through his mind.

There are degrees of skill, of course. People are said to be bilingual, or multilingual. They flow from one language to another, mix them up, can give and take. But the ones I have met confess that when they venture outside their native tongue, they feel themselves skating on the surface of a lake, the depths of which mystify and confuse them. “A Dodger? What is a Dodger? And a Brooklyn one?” “Daffy what?” “Duck? Daffy Duck? What is that?”

My father-in-law, who grew up in Germany but who has lived in the Unites States for seventy or more years, speaks English in such an eloquent and seductive way that listeners are held in thrall. And yet it is always an effort for him; he feels himself often talking from the edge. And now, after all these years, his German threatens to fail him. The skills that without a conscious thought he learned as a child have become blunted. The language itself has moved away from the decade and the village where he learned it. On the phone talking with relatives back in Germany he is a man rushing to catch a departing bus.

The language gap is a painful place to be. I want to understand this family of mine. I want to catch the nuance, the joke, the worry. I want to give voice to my own personality. I want to show them who and what I am. And yet none of this can I do.

As I was writing the above words of self-pity, I remembered the two attractive young women we met on a bridge over the Seine while we were in Paris. Each of them held a clipboard and a pen, and on the clipboard was what appeared to be a petition. The document was in French, of course, with a title followed by a paragraph of text and below it lines for signatures and addresses and perhaps space for a donation. The young women were aggressively seeking signatures on the busy pedestrian-only bridge. They would step directly into the path of an approaching person, shove the clipboard at them and shout something. I assumed I could not understand because they were speaking French, but then I realized that the harsh, forceful demanding sounds were grunts more than words. To get free of them we each signed on the clipboard, having no idea what it was we were signing. It was only as we were leaving that I realized that the two young women were deaf-mutes. They could not speak to anyone in any verbal language. The sounds they made, the aggressive physical mannerisms they displayed were desperate attempts to communicate, to break through the wall of isolation, to cross the language gap that surrounded and imprisoned them, that spread in every direction they looked and extended as far as they could see.

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