Monday, April 13, 2009

Joanna Kavenna: "Inglorious"

Joanna Kavenna's 2008 Orange-Prize winning novel is a story of a nervous breakdown of a woman who all of a sudden quits her job in journalism only to learn that her long-time boyfriend has decided to break up their relationship in order to start a new life with her best friend. It turns out that her decision to withdraw from the race to climb the social ladder and from her comfortable and secure life might be a sign of a more serious crisis that she is only now beginning to understand, namely that Rosa Lane (the protagonist) has not yet adjusted to the fact that her mother died six months ago. Helpless and aimless, Rosa leaves the flat that she has shared with Liam for ten or so years and makes herself a nuisance to her friends, whose kindness she seems to abuse by staying in their apartments for too long. She cannot rent a flat of her own or share the expenses with her hosts because she is desperately short of money, and the bank refuses to prolong her loan.

The withdrawal from life gives Rosa a vantage point from which to view her past and analyze the disintegration of her relationship with Liam, who, after all, was [her] god for quite a few years. Kavenna employs Woolf's technique of internal monologue, which allows her to offer the reader insight into Rosa's cogitations: Her relationship with Liam, because it had endured for so long, allowed her to develop an illusion that they - alone of everyone - might transcend the absolutes of space and time. Because they returned daily to the same point - the two of them, waking in bed together, in their familiar bedroom with the same sounds for each morning - it seemed as if this pattern would recur forever, an eternal recurrence. Eventually she found this stifling, but for years it allowed her to evade reality, delude herself about the incessant passage of days. Because of this she failed to notice many signs. In the last months they stopped eating out. It was all too pursed and formal. In public they were uneasy, suddenly aware of themselves, of the lies they were spinning.

From the newly acquired perspective Rosa ponders not only over her dead relationship but also over fleetingness of things and illusory stability of life, jotting down the outcome of her cogitations on pieces of paper which she immediately tears up: We live in the conviction that we are masters of our lives, that life is given to us for our enjoyment. But this is obviously absurd. Surely we can be happy in the knowledge of our mortality? Surely we must be? This tendency to brood over things rather than take life in her hands, as everybody advises her to do, gives Rosa a strikingly Hamletic characteristic. Rosa's stepping out of life and assuming a posture of an observer and disillusioned commentator affects the structure of the novel, which lacks a conventional story or action, and Rosa herself can be labeled as an anti-hero who refuses to take action and chooses to remain outside the very few events presented in the novel. The book's title refers to a phrase which Rosa applies to herself, namely that she is an inglorious Milton. This reference to Milton explains how deftly Kavenna redefines the heroic epic genre, in which the Aristotelian notion of plot and swift action play a crucial role, tailoring it to fit the contemporary world.

Although the novel, which the writer herself called a mock-heroic quest for meaning, portrays emotional breakdown and the character's seemingly tragic freefall to the point of a virtual stasis, it does so in a very light-hearted and humorous way. There is something dangerously attractive and absorbing in Rosa's inertia. Beware.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Gayl Jones: "Corregidora"

The author of Corregidora (1975), Gayl Jones, never allowed her face to be seen on the covers of her books. Although she always wanted to keep her privacy and, like J.D. Salinger, desired to be known only by her work not by her personal life, various stories concerning her private dramas have been circulating in the media. One particularly tragic story concerns Gayl Jones and her husband Bob (Higgins) Jones, whom she met at the University of Michigan, where she was a teacher and he a student. Mentally unstable, Bob accused his professors of "conspirational malice" when he got a D in German. Then in the late 1970s he appeared at a gay rights rally with a gun, shouting slogans about "burning in hell", for which he got arrested. Before the trial the couple managed to flee to Paris to return to the U.S. many years later. The novelist always stood by her husband, who finally committed suicide by slitting his throat, and Gayl Jones herself was taken to a mental hospital because the authorities feared she might commit suicide as well.

In her fiction Gayl Jones often portrays violence in order to illustrate the repercussions of slavery for twentieth-century African American families, where racism and sexism permeate the most intimate spheres of life, resulting in brutalization of women and degradation of men. The novel's heroine, blues singer Ursa Corregidora, slowly recovers from trauma and mutilation caused by her jealous husband, who pushed her down from pub stairs because she refused to stop appearing on stage. As a result, she lost her child and her womb. Ursa marries her old-time friend and admirer, Tadpole, who finally dumps her for another girl because Ursa, unable to feel anything during sexual intercourse, failed to give him what he wanted. In the novel Ursa struggles to reconcile the knowledge that she is somehow flawed as a woman because she cannot have children with her sexual desire which has not disappeared with the disappearance of her womb. Ursa is constantly aware of the space between [her] thighs. A well that never bleeds and regrets the silence in [her] womb, bemoaning the inability to feel anything
those times he didn't touch the clit.

Ursa's sterility and focusing her sexuality on her clitoris rather than her womb creates a problem because she has been told by her mother and grandmother that without a womb she cannot function as a woman. This logic is a heritage of slavery, which reduced women to being sex objects of exchange: for Corregidora, their father and owner, Great Gram and her daughter were valuable because of their vaginas, which was reflected in his calling each woman his gold pussy. Ursa learns from the stories told her by her Gram what it meant to be a woman under slavery:
Cause tha's all they do to you, was feel up on you down between your legs see what kind of genitals you had, either so you could breed well, or make a good whore. Fuck each other or fuck them. Tha's the first thing they would think about, cause if you had somebody who was a good fucker you have plenty to send out into the field, and then you could also make you plenty money on the side, or inside.

Paradoxically, man-woman relationship based on sexual ownership has not disappeared with the end of slavery: Ursa's abusive husband also calls her his pussy, and Ursa remembers him asking me to let him see his pussy. Let me feel my pussy. It turns out then that in her marriages Ursa is reduced to her vagina and her womb to the same extent to which her Great Gram's sexuality was turned into product by Corregidora, who fathered her daughter and her granddaughter. Thus, Corregidora, who is absent from the novel as a character, becomes an emblem of sexual abuse and violence perpetrated on the "Corregidora women". Ursa's blues singing plays then a symbolic function in the novel, as she bears witness to the pain and survival of her family: I am Ursa Corregidora. I have tears for eyes. I was made to touch my past at an early age... Let no one pollute my music. I will dig out their trumpets. I will pluck out their eyes.

Gayl Jones wrote a novel of extraordinary beauty and lyrical sadness, in which she also dared to raise questions concerning desire's fusion with hatred and to point to the tangled coexistence of desire and abuse. Ursa wonders:
Corregidora was theirs more than [Mama's]. Mama could only know, but they could feel. They were with him. What did they feel? You know how they talk about hate and desire. Two humps on the same camel? Yes. Hate and desire both riding them. . . . Still, there was what they never spoke . . . what they wouldn't tell me. How all but one of them had the same lover? ...what I never had the nerve to ask. . . . How much was hate for Corregidora and how much was love? It is for the ability to explore such disquieting issues that I loved the novel best.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Octavia E. Butler: "Dawn"

Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006) was the first African American woman to gain recognition as a science fiction writer. Her novelette titled Bloodchild brought her critical recognition in 1985, when she received the most prestigious award for sf and fantasy - the Hugo Award. Claiming her space in the field so dominated by white men must have been quite an achievement for the colored woman, who was remembered by the icon of African American sf Samuel Delaney as incredibly shy, a student who spoke only when she had something to say, but someone who obviously had great talent.

The first part of Butler's Lilith's Brood trilogy, titled Dawn, takes its readers to a spaceship inhabited by a nomadic alien species called the Oankali, who rescue as many humans as they can from Earth, which is devastated by nuclear war. The Oankali have been working on making the planet habitable again, and the survivors, who have been kept in "suspended animation" (sleep), are awakened to get ready to go back to their world. However, before they do it, the Oankali will use them to interbreed with the human species, since lack of diversity threatens the aliens with extinction. So, as much as the Oankali hate humans for self-destructive violence and hierarchical relations, they decide to mix their genetic material with theirs. As a result, humans will have to share the earth with an alien species in the future - their own children. The first person to be awakened is Lilith, from whose point of view the story is narrated. Lilith has been selected to prepare the other survivors for their return to Earth by training them to survive in the wilderness first.

Having very little experience in reading sf or fantasy, I focus on those aspects of this intriguing and absorbing narrative which appeal to me as a woman reader who is interested in African American women's creative writing. First, by aligning Lilith with the alien species, which she gets to know quite well after spending some time with two representatives of the Oankali, the narrator presents a (very critical) assessment of the human species from an alien perspective: You are hierarchical. That's the older and more entrenched characteristic. We saw it in your closest animal relatives and in your most distant ones. When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not notice it at all... that was like ignoring cancer. I think your people did not realize what a dangerous thing they were doing. The observation has led the Oankali to choose the woman to be a leader and teacher to the groups of survivors who are awakened later because she doesn't seem to possess this characteristic.

Although the depiction of males' aggression, their will to dominate and desire to introduce hierarchical relations in the group may sound too biased and unjust to some readers, this inter-species encounter allows the narrator to make another accurate observation (voiced by an Oankali) concerning human behavior: Different is threatening to most species. Different is dangerous. It might kill you. That was true to your animal ancestors and your nearest animal relatives. And it's true for you. The awakened people react to the alien species with fear and aggression, which is illustrative of human behavior on Earth and which is criticised in the novel. In this way it becomes clear that the main theme of the narrative is very human: tolerance (or, rather, lack of it). In an interview, the writer herself stated the following: Back during the early 1960s there was a United Nations television commercial, the audio portion of which went something like this: "Ignorance, fear, disease, hunger, suspicion, hatred, war." That was it, although I would have added, "greed" and "vengeance" to the list. All or any of these can be the catalyst that turns hierarchical thinking into hierarchical behavior. Amid all this, does tolerance have a chance? Only if we want it to. Only when we want it to. Tolerance, like any aspect of peace, is forever a work in progress, never completed, and, if we're as intelligent as we like to think we are, never abandoned.

The first group fail to get to Earth because the Oankali have to put them back to sleep after they attack the aliens and direct acts of violence against each other. Already pregnant with a half-human-half-alien child, Lilith is left to continue her mission to train another group of newly awakened humans. Will she succeed? What will be the result of the interbreeding? This can only be learned from the next book of the trilogy: Adulthood Rights.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sherley Anne Williams: "Dessa Rose"

Sherley Anne Williams's 1986 novel is an imaginary encounter of two strong women who were involved in two actual accidents, as the blurb informs: In 1829, in Kenucky, a pregnant black woman was sentenced to death for helping to lead an uprising of a group of slaves headed to the market for sale. In North Carolina, in 1830, a white woman living on an isolated farm was reported to have given sanctuary to runaway slaves. In "Dessa Rose", the author asks the question "What if these two women met?". The title character is a whip-scarred pregnant slave waiting in jail until the child is born to be executed for committing crimes against white men (namely for attacking the wife of the master who killed her plantation lover and for raising a rebellion of chained coffle slaves who killed their white captors and broke free).

Told in three narrative voices which represent different points of view, the novel develops in three parts. "The Darky" presents the dominant master's text of Adam Nehemiah, a white author who wants to gain fame by writing a coherent and lucid analysis of "Odessa's" crimes; "The Wench", which means a low, vicious young woman of ill fame, presents the point of view of the white woman, Ruth Elizabeth (Ms Rufel) Sutton, who gives shelter to the runaway slaves and, finally, makes friends with Dessa.
At last, "The Negress" reveals Dessa Rose as a full first-person narrative voice. Such an arrangement of the narrative voices allows the reader to follow Dessa's gradual escape from the white man's control, visible here as a misreading of her (he constantly misnames her "Odessa"), to freedom, associated here with Dessa's capability of self-expression. The writer explains her intention in the "Author's Note" as follows: Afro-Americans, having survived by word of mouth remain at the mercy of literature and writing; often, these have betrayed us... I know now that slavery eliminated neither heroism nor love; it provided occasions for their expressions.

However, Dessa Rose is for me first of all a novel about women in the antebellum South, both black and white, who managed to survive thanks to friendship. It is a novel about female bonding and the possibility of creating a women's community in the effort to support each other because, after all, all women - regardless of skin color - were exposed to the same threats and oppression.
In this the novel very well illustrates the black feminist critic Mae Gwendolyn Henderson's suggestion of analysing black women's discourse as dialogue with black men (visible here in the creation of a black community based on the African call-response patterns included in the narrative) and with white women (the community created is based on the shared experience of white men's oppression, and the fact that Dessa was whipped on the inside of her thighs and her intimate parts suggests a symbolic rape). Dessa Rose ponders on this in her narrative, when she is lying awake after a white man ("bad Oscar") attempted to rape her defenceless mistress, Ms Rufel: I laid awake a long time that night while she snored quiet on the other side of [her] baby. The white woman was subject to the same ravishment as me; this the thought that kept me awake. I hadn't knowed white mens could use a white woman like that, just take her by force same as they could with us... I slept with her after that, both of us wrapped around Clara. And I wasn't so cold with her no more. I wasn't zactly warm with her, understand; I didn't know how to be warm with no white woman... But really, what kept me quiet was knowing white mens wanted the same thing, would take the same thing from a white woman as they would from a a black woman. Cause they could. Highly recommended:)

P.S.1 On Wednesday, Feb.25 TVN7 shows (again) Spielberg's The Color Purple, which is an adaptation of Alice Walker's novel. I recommend the movie because it was Whoopi Goldberg's debut and because The Color Purple will appear in a TOP OF THE TOPS review, when I finally get to writing about Beloved;)

P.S.2 I hear Bill Bryson's hilarious Notes from a Small Island is due to appear in Polish on March 3rd, which is great news. I've read the fragment published in the Dziennik's cultural supplement and liked it a lot. However, I still think that nothing can beat the original version: after all, Bryson's "English" humor and irony taste best in English;)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Extra Entry: K.Miller, T.Cichocka: "Bajki rozebrane"

In their conversation recorded on 400 pages, Katarzyna Miller and Tatiana Cichocka remind the readers of the old truth that it's not people who tell stories but it's actually stories that tell people. Old tales containing collective wisdom passed down from generation to generation reflect people's yearnings, dreams, anxieties and joys encoded in archetypes (that is, in Jungian terms, symbolic themes which are innate and universal). The two women - Miller, a psychotherapist and philosopher, and Cichocka, a journalist - re-read the well known tales in order to discover meanings which are surprisingly up-to-date (like, for example, "Hansel and Gretel - Welcome to McWorld"). The fact that the two interlocutors are associated with Gender Studies at Warsaw University (as a teacher and a former student, respectively) may have resulted in their decision to apply Jungian rather than Freudian analytical psychology to their decoding of the tales, though references to the classical Bruno Bettelheim are not infrequent in the book.

Also, the fact is probably responsible for their gender-oriented interpretations of the tales (incidentally, this is precisely the reason why I bought the book;). So, what can an adult learn from, for example, the fact that in Andersen's The Snow Queen it is Kai who falls victim to the splinters of the mirror? Miller associates the splinter with patriarchal power with which the boy is contaminated. The power granted to the boy by the mere fact that he is male becomes the "patriarchal flaw" which corrupts him because he has no idea how to use this, well - undeserved and totally unearned - gift. Not knowing how to handle
the power of the masculine position (no one has taught him that power means also responsibility), Kai relishes in executing it by becoming cruel to Gerda.

The book is worth recommending to any (prospective) parent or teacher, since it debunks certain myths connected with, for example, the need to avoid exposing children to the cruelty and violence permeating the Grimm Brothers' or Perrault's tales: fairy-tale cruelty is only symbolic, and evil must always be vanquished. In this way children learn that pain, cruelty and fear are part of life, but the hero/ine with whom the child identifies shall overcome;). A very wise and enlightening book: it teaches what to talk about when you talk about fairy tales with children.

P.S. I can't wait to meet my nieces (12 and 8) and re-read The Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty and Ali Baba with them. Especially as they both already know perfectly well who Mary Wollstonecraft was, what a heroic life Emmeline Pankhurst lived and the fact that New Zealand and Australia were the first countries in which women got the right to vote (courtesy of The Little Book on Feminism). They can also tell what the cover of the latest issue of the Zadra magazine illustrates. Unfortunately (or, maybe: fortunately?), my elder niece has also become sensitive to her (male) history teacher's chauvinism, but that's the price one always pays for a rising consciousness. Anyway, it seems that it's never too early - or too late;)

P.S.2. Thank you, evans, for recommending the book to me xxxxx;)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Junot Diaz: "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"; Ernest J. Gaines: "A Lesson Before Dying"

Winner of 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction Junot Diaz wrote a very contemporary story about love, which corroborates the pop-song phrase "love hurts". Oscar is an overweight lovesick ghetto nerd, who devours fantasy fiction in the hope of becoming a Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien. Because of an ancient curse, fuku, he will finally die in the name of love, beaten to death by a gang of bandits, such as those who are in the service of Dominican tyrannical President Trujillo. In an interview, the author himself defined the subject of his novel as follows: It’s the quest story of this young Dominican guy Oscar, his quest for love, for a safe place in the world, which is what love is. It’s not only his quest, but it turns out to have been his entire family’s quest. If nothing else speaks to the human condition, it is that quest. You could expand it, of course, another degree and just say that that’s really what this whole thing that we call humanity is about: each of us trying to find a place where we’re safe and where we can know love. The rest of it is, in the end, kind of garbage.

Universal though the story's theme is, Diaz is a very demanding writer, exposing his readers to the multiculturality of his characters by peppering his narrative with many (unitalicized) Spanish words and expressions. In this way he seems to repeat the gesture of many bicultural writers - for example Gloria Anzaldua - who emphasize their rich and complex border identity by mixing two languages. This constant crossing of linguistic borders reflects the mixed identity of Dominicans, who are of African, Taino and Spanish descent. Despite such heterogeneity, all of them are subject to the Curse and Doom of the New World - fuku, brought about by an Admiral, who was both its midwife and one of its great European victims. In this way Oscar Wao's cursed life reflects Dominicans' history shaped by bad luck, and a sense of doom is perceptible from the very beginning of the story.

However, despite the fact that the story is so sad and tragic, it is also very entertaining: the narrative is funny, also in the footnotes supplied For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history. A passage about Trujillo will sufficiently illustrate Diaz's fierce style: Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor; not only did he lock the country away from the rest of the world, isolate it behind the Pl├ítano Curtain, he acted like it was his very own plantation, acted like he owned everything and everyone, killed whomever he wanted to kill, sons, brothers, fathers, mothers, took women away from their husbands on their wedding nights and then would brag publicly about ‘the great honeymoon’ he’d had the night before. His Eye was everywhere; he had a Secret Police that out-Stasi’d the Stasi, that kept watch on everyone, even those everyones who lived in the States.

All in all, with its absorbing narrative - rich and playful thanks to its shifts in language and point of view - the book is a wonderful read and deserves a place on every book shelf. Only one thing disturbed me as a woman reader: the narrator's uncritical attitude to machismo, so pervasive and taken for granted (natural, some might say) both in the culture that he depicted and in his narrative.

Ernest J. Gaines's Lesson Before Dying won the 1993 National Book Critics Award for a reason. This piece of solid realistic prose poignantly portrays a small town's life in Louisiana in the 1940s, where African Americans still suffer from segregation and are expected to show respect and submissiveness to whites despite the fact that slavery is long over. The narrator, Grant Wiggins, is a university graduate working as a teacher of the Negro plantation school. Although he returned to the town to help his people improve their life, he has lost all hope for the possibility of such improvement. Another African American young man, Jefferson, has been accused of and charged with murder of a white shop owner. His complicity in the crime is dubious (he was only an innocent bystander), but the prejudiced white community leads to his conviction and execution on an electric chair.

The verdict and the ensuing sentence may as well have been the result of the incompetent defense, and a passage from the advocate's speech will illustrate white people's attitude to the members of the black community. In his final speech before the jury the advocate focused on undermining Jefferson's humanity, which supposedly made him incapable of committing the crime:
Gentlemen of the jury, look at him--look at him--look that this. Do you see a man sitting here? I ask you, I implore, look carefully--do you see a man sitting here? Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand--look deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence? Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery, can plan--can plan--can plan anything? A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa--yes, yes, that he can do--but to plan? To plan, gentlemen of the jury? No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn. That is what you see here, but you do not see anything capable of planning a robbery or a murder. ... I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.

The lesson mentioned in the title begins when Grant is asked by Jefferson's grandmother to teach the boy that he is not a hog and to make sure that he goes to his death like a man. The task seems impossible since at first Jefferson, who is mentally slow and barely literate, refuses to speak to Wiggins. In the course of the two men's weekly meetings Grant manages to transform Jefferson into a hero, who is the strongest man in the courthouse when he walks to his electric chair. However, it seems that Jefferson is not the only student here: Wiggins, who hates himself for having to teach black children on white people's terms and for the necessity to compromise his pride in the constant struggle over whether I should act like the teacher that I was, or like the nigger that I was supposed to be, also learns from Jefferson a lesson in heroism (a hero does for others) and humanity. Jefferson, who in the novel is compared to Jesus (analogies can be easily drawn though they are not too obtrusive), proves his manhood by accepting with dignity the plight that befalls him, and teaches Wiggins to accept his own, and do the utmost for the bettering of his people's condition. In this the novel seems to endorse the lesson preached by the famous black nation's leader from the turn of the twentieth century, Booker T. Washington: cast down your buckets where you are. In the reality in which black people are constantly humiliated (for example, Wiggins can enter the sheriff's house only through the kitchen door, and has to wait over two hours for the sheriff to finally come to the kitchen and speak to him), preserving one's dignity is subversive enough to be perceived as fighting for civil rights. A great book: poignant, moving and eye-opening.

P.S. After reading this book one can't fail to realize that the recent inauguration of the American President marked a historic change, perhaps comparable only to the inauguration of George Washington. President of the United States Barack Obama - I still have to repeat it to myself over and over again to make it sink in.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Daniel Mendelsohn: "The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million."

Daniel Mendelsohn is an American writer of a well-established position thanks to his 2001 autobiographical book The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity, in which he explored his sexuality, frequently referring to the homosexual code of Greek mythology. He is also an awarded regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. His 2006 Book-Critics-Circle-awarded novel The Lost is another autobiographical work. In it the author records his round-the-world journey which he undertook to find out the circumstances in which his great-uncle Schmiel, his wife and four daughters were killed by the Nazis.

The decision to search for the lost members of the family was triggered by the desire to fill in the blanks in his grandfather's stories, as the narrator confesses:
My grandfather told me all these stories, all these things, but he never talked about his brother and sister-in-law and the four girls, who, to me, seemed not so much dead as lost, vanished not only from the world but — even more terrible to me — from my grandfather’s stories. After his grandfather dies, Mendelsohn receives the mysterious wallet which he always saw in Grandfather's pocket, where he finds a set of letters from his great-uncle Schmiel to the family in America: his pleas and descriptions of the situation of Jews in the then Polish town of Bolechow at the onset of the Nazi terror. And so, reading Grandfather's gift as a sort of command to write the full history of the family, the narrator has produced what he calls a mythic narrative... about closeness and distance, intimacy and violence, love and death. To make sure the story sounds complete, he writes the novel in five sections named after the first five chapters of the Torah (starting with 'Bereishit' or 'Beginnings'), interweaving his narrative with the mythic narratives of the Creation, the Flood and Cain's murder of Abel, which serve here as master narratives universalizing and explaining the significance of the ordeal which Bolechow's Jews suffered from the Nazis. He interprets the story of Lot's wife as a warning that regret for what we have lost, for the pasts we have to abandon, often poisons any attempt to make a new life. For those who can't help it and look back the great danger is tears, the unstoppable weeping that the Greeks ... knew was not only a pain but a narcotic pleasure, too: a mournful contemplation so flawless so crystalline, that it can, in the end, immobilize you.

Having signaled that the story promises no optimistic ending, he constantly doubts whether it is possible to comprehend and render properly what happened to the victims of the Holocaust. Mendelsohn states:
Whatever we see in museums, the artifacts and the evidence, can give us only the dimmest comprehension of what the event itself was like... We must be careful when we try to envision ‘what it was like.’ It is possible today, for instance, to walk inside a vintage cattle car in a museum, but... simply being in that enclosed, boxlike space... is not the same as being in that space after you’ve had to smother your toddler to death and to drink your own urine in desperation, experiences that visitors to such exhibits are unlikely to have recently undergone. In order to overcome this impossibility (probably), he records an eye-witness account of A terrible episode [which] happened with Mrs. Grynberg. The Ukrainians and the Germans who had broken into her house found her giving birth... When the birth pangs started she was dragged onto a dumpster in the yard of the town hall with a crowd... who cracked jokes and jeered and watched the pain of childbirth... The child was immediately torn from her arms along with its umbilical cord and thrown — It was trampled by the crowd and she was stood on her feet as blood poured out of her with her bleeding bits hanging.

Mendelsohn's effort to give the lost six their faces ends in a partial success only, since in the novel, which is a record of his search after all, equal attention is paid to the perished members of the family and to the ramifications on the significance of the biblical stories. Moreover, every step that Mendelsohn undertakes to gain scattered pieces of information about the victims (the Internet searches, the library visits, the airplane flights to meet the survivors from Bolechow) and his own bewilderment and desire to find out the truth are treated with equal solemnity. For me - too many details and names to remember, too many threads picked up that do not contribute to the discovery of the truth, if there is any to be discovered. Hence I gave up and left one fifth of this thick volume unread. I don't know what to blame it on - is it the book's fault confirming the narrator's immobilization or is it my attitude, resembling that of Huck Finn, who initially got interested in the story of Moses but, having learned that Moses had been long dead, refused to concentrate on Miss Watson's lesson.