Review #13: The Man in the Iron Mask

The book by Alexandre Dumas — the 1977 movie — the 1998 movie

Alexandre Dumas was my favorite author in my pre-teen years. I read at the time in French, first The Count of Monte-Cristo, then The Three Musketeers, and then whatever Dumas book I could lay my hands on. However, now, half a century later, I couldn’t remember the plot of “L’Homme au masque de fer” and how it ended. Thus, I attempted to “re-read” it on Audible. I made the mistake of buying an English copy, not realizing there was also a French copy.

You’d think they would have selected a reader who actually could read French. But no. Never mind the incorrect pronunciations of proper nouns. But why use an Italian pronunciation for words like monseigneur (monsignor)? Then to pronounce the “m” and a non-existent “p” in the words “comte” and “vicomte”? Ah, and the most excruciating ear-grater: “My foy!” (for “ma foi”) I know, it could be a translation issue. But couldn’t they use “by my troth!” or some such?

Moving on to the plot. I suppose the argument should be that when making a movie, you cannot assume everyone has already read the previous three books and the movie plot should be able to stand on its own. However, the greatness of the original book was not so much in the utilization of the rumor of a masked man in the Bastille, but in the closing act of the saga of the musketeers. For those of my readers who have no inkling what I’m talking about, here’s what the first three books are about:

The Three Musketeers was so named because d’Artagnan wasn’t a musketeer until 2/3 into the book. He alone used his original name. The other three used pseudonyms because they were fleeing from some personal history. At the end of a string of brilliant exploits, all three decide to leave the corps of the king’s musketeers. Athos returns to his estate and reclaims his original title of Comte de la Fere. Porthos marries his Widow Cocquenard and inherits a large property. Aramis finally returns to his original vocation and becomes a full-fledged priest.

In Twenty Years Later, the Count de Winter (Milady’s brother-in-law) asks d’Artagnan for help in freeing the deposed English king Charles I. He finds his old companions and they all travel to London. The entire atmosphere is rather sombre all the way through, and made worse by the appearance of Mordaunt, a son we never knew Milady had. He is rather a psychopath and tries to kill the four but eventually perishes in the sea, or so we hope.

In The Viscount of Bragelonne, we find that Athos had a son named Raoul all this time and his life now revolves around him. My memory of the book is that it’s all about Raoul’s love story with a certain Louise de la Valliere who was a neighboring aristocrat. The two sort of grew up together and were engaged to be married when Louis XIV notices her and wants her as his mistress. She falls in love with the king. Aramis moves up the ranks and ends up as Bishop of Vannes. Porthos inherits even more property but begets no child. D’Artagnan ends up as Captain of the King’s Musketeers after M. de Treville retires.

This book, the Man in the Iron Mask, picks up where the previous book left off, not ten or twenty years later. Raoul is still heartbroken and enlists as the Duke de Beaufort’s aide-de-camp. Knowing he means to die, Athos sees him off and allows himself to sink into depression, with premonitory visions helping him along. He eventually dies too when he finds out Raoul died in Africa during a battle. Online, a number of comments call Raoul a wimp. If he is a wimp, then so is Athos. Alexandre Dumas lived in an era when love was a goddess to be worshipped and a man willing to die for the love of another person was pure and good. A wimp would simply drink poison. Raoul chose to die on the battlefield heroically.

This is also where the 1998 movie with Leonardo di Caprio bothers me. It portrays Athos and Raoul as poor. The miserable house they inhabit has a low ceiling and they need to bow their heads to pass through the door! Louise de la Valliere is similarly portrayed as coming from a poor background. Then, may I ask, how did they end up in the royal court? They try to save Raoul from being a wimp by making the evil Louis XIV purposefully using him as cannon fodder. Here, the wimp is Louise who is not the unfaithful fiancee but a pawn and eventually hangs herself interestingly by jumping out the window. In reality, La Valliere gave Louis five children before he moved on to other women. Louise is given a different role in the 1977 movie with Richard Chamberlain. There, she is “revulsed” by the king but meets the twin while visiting her father in prison. Thus she falls in love with the kind twin but hates the psychotic twin. Here I can’t stop myself commenting on the weird fact that two dungeons in the Bastille had a communicating window!!!

Right. The plot.

It is a historical fact that there was indeed a man imprisoned with a mask on his face. Apparently it was not made of iron, and was worn intermittently. Still, it was too good a morsel not to be made into a huge plot. So, Dumas used the theory that the masked prisoner was Louis XIV’s twin brother, hidden away because they (Louis XIII, Mazarin, Anne of Austria) feared a future feud for the crown. The twin, named Philippe, grows up in a cottage in the countryside, is given a gentleman’s education, but suddenly, upon Louis XIV’s taking over his own reign, is suddenly sent to the Bastille.

Aramis, who is also a freemason, decides the time has come to save France from a tyrannical king by switching the twins. He drags Porthos into the execution of his scheme, probably because Porthos is big and strong and does not ask too many questions. Poor Porthos is actually not told what he is really doing until much later. Again, some commentators online mention that he is their favorite character. I have to reckon that Dumas has chosen this book to put a heroic aura around Porthos, who was always outshone in the previous books by the other three colorful characters.

The plot fails very quickly when, after switching the twins, Aramis proceeds to inform Fouquet of the situation. Fouquet was in charge of the country’s finances, besides being extremely wealthy. Colbert, the other minister, was jealous of him and managed to produce paper proof that Fouquet had swindled the king out of millions of francs. D’Artagnan spent the night guarding Fouquet and was to arrest him in the morning.

Aramis assumes Fouquet would be glad of the change in his situation. However, he had not expected Fouquet’s loyalty to be so blind. Despite the fact that Philippe is also the son of Louis XIII, Fouquet gives Aramis (and Porthos) four hours to escape to Belle-Isle, a fortress he owns, while he storms his way into the Bastille and frees Louis. Who, by the way, still arrested him later. D’Artagnan is given the task of taking Philippe to the island of Ste Marguerite south of Cannes where he is fitted with the titular iron mask.

The royal troops blow up the grotto through which Porthos and Aramis were trying to escape. Thus Porthos is killed in the explosion. Aramis, upon hearing the name of the commanding officer, smiles, hops onto the ship and makes strange signs. The office changes color and does not arrest him. Later, we find out Aramis has fled to Spain where he becomes a lord and returns four years later as an ambassador.

D’Artagnan dies in a battle against the Dutch, blown away by a cannon ball right when he received the order that he’d been made marshall of France. Thus, by the end of the book, three of the four musketeers have met their demise. They were the imaginary companions of my childhood. I shed a few tears.

In the 1977 movie, the three musketeers do not even appear. D’Artagnan is the mastermind of the plot, which actually succeeds! In the 1998 movie, all four are included and it is indeed Aramis who masterminds the whole plot. However, why did Athos and Raoul have to be poor, Porthos to be a fool who decides to hang himself naked, and Aramis to be a mere “priest”? On the other hand, this movie makes d’Artagnan and Anne of Austria secret lovers (OMG… how can she be “the only woman I ever loved”… has he completely forgotten Mme Bonacieux???), and the twins his sons. This explains his absolute devotion to his king, yet later an equal devotion to his other son when he finds out his identity. Thus, d’Artagnan becomes the opponent of his three friends in the plot, yet ends up helping them, and finally throws himself in front of Philippe to protect him from Louis’ insane dagger thrust. He dies. Gulp. The ending is a bit hard to swallow. In a sudden volte-face, the lieutenant turns against Louis too and the musketeers succeed in the switch. Philippe becomes king and Louis ends up behind the iron mask in the Bastille.

Actors: Well, I like Gerard Depardieu’s acting but I don’t relish looking at his naked butt. On the other hand, since he can pronounce “d’Artagnan” perfectly, why didn’t the director ask him to coach the other actors? The choice of Anne Parillaud as Anne of Austria was brilliant. She was the perfect mix of beauty, coldness, and regality as I imagined upon my first reading of The Three Musketeers years ago. The 1977 movie made such a farce of both Anne of Austria and Maria Theresa. Both Richard Chamberlain and Leonardo di Caprio are great actors, pulling off the opposite characters of Louis and Philippe with great skill. Di Caprio is definitely eye candy too. I’m not blaming John Malkovich but the scriptwriter for the poor portrayal of Athos, who time and again was described by Dumas as having a noble forehead, noble profile, noble carriage, and a wise logical mind, a great heart, speaking little but saying only important words. Here, Athos looks like a disheveled, balding, bumbling old man, shoulders hunched, face ungroomed. The four valets were not featured at all in the movies.

Setting: The 1977 movie did mention that Vaux was the splendid palace built by Fouquet. In the 1998 movie, it was sort of implied that it was the royal palace. Indeed, the magnificence of Vaux was one the “proofs” that Fouquet had helped himself to the royal coffers. It is a pity that neither movie chose to film at Belle-Isle or at the Isle of Ste Marguerite. Both fortresses are still present today and would have made a nice change of view.

Final words: If you feel up to it, you should read the book — complete and unabridged– first. Then you will feel frustrated with the 1977 movie and entertained by the 1998 movie.

Review #12: Japanese Murder Mysteries

  1. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders — 2. Murder in the Crooked House — 3. The Decagon House Murders

I hadn’t been aware of the popularity of murder mysteries by Japanese authors until now. So I read three in a row. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and Murder in the Crooked House are by Soji Shimada, while The Decagon House Murders is by Yukito Ayatsuji. (Interestingly, this last one was later published as a manga! I suppose it’s a great idea, given the plan of the house, maps, sketches, etc that were included in the original book.) All three were, of course, translated into English.

Why review all three together? Well, for a start, they are definitely in a category separate from what I should call the Western world’s murder mysteries, born from Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, and exemplified by Gaston Leroux’s Le Mystere de la Chambre Jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room) which is the prototype of the “locked room murder”; Agatha Christie’s many masterpieces which launched several sub-genres — the detective is the murderer; the narrator is the murderer; every suspect is the murderer– and so on. I’ll refrain from boring my readers with a history of the genre.

At first, Japanese murder mysteries feel strange. I soon realized that the three books — or maybe Japanese modern novels in general? — do not follow the general “Point of View” pattern of western novels. Books in English (or French) are written in the third person limited or omniscient point of view, or in the first person. If mixed, it’s done in such a way the reader can clearly tell there is a shift. I realized that the Japanese books’ shifting points of view were throwing me off-kilter a bit.

The next point that disoriented me at first was that it wasn’t clear who was the detective who would solve the mystery. In the Decagon House Murders for example, almost everyone takes turns trying to analyze and figure out who is the murderer. It really throws me off, because suddenly someone who is trying to solve it gets killed, and you wonder, so who will solve it now? In the Crooked House, everyone was also trying to be the detective in the first 2/3 of the book, until the great detective walked in in the final section. Good thing I read the Tokyo Zodiac book first, so I was already acquainted with him and felt on solid ground, knowing he was not involved in the background story and would lead the reader to a satisfying resolution.

The third alien facet of these Japanese murder mysteries is that the plot is built in a very outlandish way, just so it would create a mystery. The back story behind the motive is sometimes hard to swallow, as in the Crooked House. Then, the author intrudes into the story, taking a break and telling you, OK, all the clues are here already. Can you solve it? Try solving it before reading on. In other words, it’s an exquisite brain gymnastic exercise, though very loosely based on reality.

Before any fan of Japanese mysteries jump on my back, let me assert that yes, the authors do try to sketch out and build up the characters, definitely, but the psychology behind the killer’s motive, or any of the other movers and shakers’ actions, is not convincing. Agatha Christie was certainly a master at digging into people’s psychology, which is why her murders were accepted as possible by her readers. The Japanese mysteries make no effort to pass the stories off as realistic. They openly present themselves as challenges to the amateur mystery solver.

Well, I have a clue to offer! The title usually holds the first clue. Why a decagon-shaped house? Why a Crooked House? Why a note written by a crazy artist announcing his plan to murder six girls according to a convoluted zodiac pattern? The author builds his impossible murders — yes, there’s always more than one — based on a weird artifact. There’s at least one locked-room-murder, maybe a series of murders, maybe the typical suspects-stranded-in-one-place setup, which allows the amateur sleuth reader to enjoy solving several mysteries, not just one.

So, did I enjoy them? Yes. Despite the initial feeling of imbalance, I managed to adapt myself to the unusual story-telling manner, and accept the challenge from the authors.

Review #11: How to Murder Your Wife

1965 movie directed by Richard Quine, starring Jack Lemmon, Virna Lisi, and Terry-Thomas

This of course, is the 1965 poster, a very misleading one, by the way, while the new one on Amazon Prime is much more attractive. I hesitated before watching it, since the premise seems rather dark and not comedy material. I also dreaded a series of failing murder attempts with a comedy ending. Well, I was totally wrong. This was certainly NOT a predictable plot, except for the comedy ending, and it was quite enjoyable and entertaining.

Virna Lisi is an Italian actress, a cross between Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren, who pops out of a cake at a bachelor’s party. Stanley Ford is smitten by her and (we find out the next morning) is so drunk that he marries on the spot (yes, how?) with the help of an equally drunk judge. No, that’s not when he decides to kill her. He first tries to annul the marriage. Cannot. Tries to make the best of it, though his valet quits, and his previous life and his waistline change very quickly. Previously a cartoonist of Brash Brannigan, a daredevil spy, he now changes it to The Brannigans to draw from life. More women now read his cartoons, and he becomes even more popular. But that’s not what Stanley wanted! He wants his old life back, especially when his wife, under the tutelage of the judge’s wife Edna, starts to try controlling him and causes him to be kicked out of his gym club. He also wants his old cartoon back.

Thus comes the idea of murdering his wife, no, not in reality, but only in the cartoon, so that he can go back to the secret agent. We do not realize that, though, until Stanley pulls out a mannequin from a chest with a blond wig and the wife’s signature black raincoat (interestingly, we never find out her first name even after she learns to speak English). He falls asleep on his drawing table. The wife wakes up, sees the drafts of her murder, and sadly pulls off her wedding ring and leaves it on the drawing table. She leaves, we assume, to return to Italy to her mother.

Because of her disappearance after the publication of her cartoon murder, Stanley Ford is accused of her murder. This is where it turns even more farcical, and is the one part where I feel the comedy gives way to darkness: Stanley dismisses his bumbling lawyer to take over his own counsel. He admits to the murder but asks the jury to acquit him on grounds of justifiable homicide, appealing to all married men present to make this a groundbreaking case to strike fear in henpecking wives. He is acquitted unanimously and carried in triumph.

All’s well that ends well. The nameless wife returns, Stanley realizes he loves her, the butler falls for the wife’s mother.

I do applaud the movie for two hours of sheer entertainment, but… and this is a big but… Is the message of the movie that women are too tyrannical and guilty of pushing their husbands to murder? Men want their wives to be sexy in bed, but it’s their sexiness’s fault to have entrapped the poor husbands. Men want their wives to cook well — remember the key to a man’s heart?– but blame them for developing a beer gut. Men want their wives to love only them but resent their jealousy and consequent monitoring. None of this is the fault of the husband.

Who wanted a bachelor’s party? A man about to tie the knot (it ended up a celebration when the bride recanted). Who wanted a sexy woman to jump out of a cake? A man. Who got googly eyes from looking at the sexy kitten? A man. Who got drunk, proposed, officiated an impromptu wedding? Men. And I can keep going. This wife did everything a wife is supposed to, at least back in the 1960s. She was pretty, loving, sexy, cooked like an Italian chef and served him breakfast in bed, acted dumb (because she didn’t speak English), in other words, the epitome of what a macho egotistical man would want in a wife, yet, he wishes to murder her? Even if only virtually?

Review #10: Queen Marie

I’m always unabashedly drawn to historical movies with strong women figures, and stumbling on this 2019 movie on Prime caused a knee-jerk reaction: gotta see this one! My immediate reaction, during and right after the viewing was, Men! What jerks!

So, Queen Marie was queen of Romania; in fact she was the last queen of Romania, a fact that I gleaned by immediately jumping on my phone and checking out the historical facts online. I can’t watch anything historical without thoroughly understanding its background. Somehow I wish they had included a sort of historical epilogue to put this whole episode in the context of world history. There was indeed an epilogue, but it only covered the immediate celebration and triumph, not the long-term futility of it all.

Who then was Queen Marie? She was actually the granddaughter of Queen Victoria (yes, THE Queen Victoria of Great Britain) through her father, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, and therefore was officially “Her Royal Highness Princess Marie of Edinburgh” since her birth at Eastwell Manor in Kent though informally the family called her Missy. Her mother was Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna or Russia, thus the paternal aunt of Czar Nicholas II, the last Russian monarch who was shot along with his family after the Boshevik revolution.

At eleven, she moved with her family to Malta when her father became commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. Her first cousin Prince George (later George V) was then in the Royal Navy and visited often.

Three years later, the family moved again, this time to Coburg, Germany when her father suddenly was named heir-presumptive to Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Why? Well, Duke Ernest was the elder brother of Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, — and therefore her father’s paternal uncle– and had remained childless all these years. Marie, who obviously spoke English, and had had a French governess so far, now had a German governess. Being multilingual was a fact of life for royals back then, no big deal.

In the meantime, Marie grew into a lovely young lady and was courted by several royals including her cousin George. Both mothers were against the marriage, and although Prince George did propose, nothing came of it.

Eventually, in 1893, at the age of 18, Marie married Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania. Today, we think of Romania as one of those Eastern European countries more associated with the Soviet Union than with Germany. However, Ferdinand was born in the House of Hohenzollern, a German royal dynasty. I know, right? European royal history is fascinating. Romania thus got a king born of a German father and Portuguese mother, and a queen born of a British father and Russian mother.

The marriage produced five children –there was a sixth one but he died when three years of age — the eldest being a boy, Carol, who naturally became later the crown prince. Apparently, Marie was highly spirited and caused frequent controversies at the court of King Carol I, an austere and rather tyrannical father-in-law. She also became romantically involved with a string of very interesting men, at least two of whom were featured in the movie. She found finally an interest in nursing and aiding hospitals when a cholera epidemic broke out during the short Second Balkan War.

In October 1914, a few months after the start of WWI, King Carol I died, thus making Ferdinand King and Marie Queen of Romania. Marie was then 39. Historians seem to agree that she had a lot of influence on her husband who accepted that she had a better worldview. Apparently, she was the woman behind the great man. With war all around them, it became urgent to officially declare their position, join one of the sides or remain neutral? Marie pushed her husband to join the Triple Entente. It seems natural to us, looking back from our 20/20 retrospective vantage point, that it was a logical decision. But, after all, Ferdinand descended from German stock.

Therefore, on August 17, 1916, Romania entered the war. Marie threw herself wholeheartedly into the war effort, dismissing all German servants, and helping out daily at military hospitals dressed as a nurse. No less than nine battles occurred within the first month of conflict. Originally a “buffer” for Russia, Romania became surrounded by enemies after the Bolshevik revolution when Russia withdrew from the war. Prime Minister Brătianu and King Ferdinand judged their position perilous and thus signed the Treaty or Armistice of Focșani, a peace treaty with the Central Powers, despite Marie’s opposition to it. Ferdinand, however, did heed Marie’s advice and refrained from signing the Treaty of Bucharest in December 1917,

This is where the movie opens. Romania is in tatters and its people starving. Queen Marie still personally delivers food to the poor against her husband’s objections. Her eldest son Carol has become a fully rebellious overgrown teenager who insists on sleeping with his unsuitable girlfriend Zizi (gratuitous sex scene inserted here probably for better sales). We now are introduced to the main topic: Ferdinand –meaning, of course really, Marie– wants to create of a Greater Romania, which would include all areas where the population speaks Romanian. This means Transylvania, Bukovina, Bessarabia and parts of Banat, Crisana, and Maramures, effectively doubling the size of Romania. And also, by the way, the need to get relief supplies for the people.

King Ferdinand sends Prime Minister Brătianu to the 1919-20 Paris Peace Conference to lobby for their new borders, which Romania feels they have earned through the bloodshed of their own people and efforts during the war. Now, Brătianu looks the part. He is male, older, has a big beard and a loud voice, and so we assume that in those days, that would earn his some respect from the good old boys. But, he is Romanian, which means he is a small unimportant piece on the chessboard which the Big Four (US, UK, France, and Italy) plan to carve out. He presents his case over and over in front of the conference. The camera kindly pans over the name plates to let us know that the rude people chatting among themselves and eventually just walking out when they receive a telegram are French Prime Minister Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, and President Woodrow Wilson of the USA. Brătianu is furious but feels totally impotent.

The French Minister to Romania (a Minister is only slightly lower in rank than an Ambassador, leading a legation instead of an embassy), the Count of Saint-Aulaire, suggests to Marie that she should go personally to plead their case at the Paris Conference. King Ferdinand approves, against the disagreement of Crown Prince Carol (“I should be the one going”) and the cabinet (“A royal has no place in politics”). They actively go on to sabotage her efforts, stir-frying public opinion and local news media, protesting her “lavish trip” to Paris to buy dresses while the people are starving and dying.

Once in Paris, she is presented with a loaded schedule of frivolous activities. Upset at first, she calms down when the Count de St-Aulaire remarks that she needs to be seen before she can be heard. She goes on to be seen in all her regal manner, with her daughters tagging along, and Paris loves her. A woman who cheers her in one of the scenes is probably Colette, the famous French writer, who describes her as “magnificent”. At the press conference, when pressed on the question of whether she is here to address the Peace Conference on behalf of Romania, she pauses, but does answer no. After all, Romania is officially a constitutional monarchy and the queen is supposed to stay out of politics. As if Marie could be kept out.

I cannot describe my furor when she is openly snubbed and ignored by the Big Four. It brought back whiffs of my own struggle to stand as a professional instead of as a lowly female. Queen Marie pulls out whatever she can from her box of tricks, her status as queen, as granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and even fake tears. Unfortunately, it seems that the tear trick works in Europe as well as in China. The saying goes (in China) that women have three weapons, “one, cry; two, fuss; three, hang oneself”, the latter meaning threatening suicide, not really dying. Clemenceau softens and changes his attitude on Romania. Lloyd George becomes polite and deferential. However, after figuring out that out of the Big Four, all three listen only to the Fourth, US President Woodrow Wilson, she is determined to meet him. However, he outright refuses to meet officially with her. Finally, she manages to finagle a lunch with him through his wife. He tells her point blank he won’t give Romania anything since they signed the treaty with the Central Powers, despite her reiterating that the king never did ratify it. He finally pays some attention when she lays out the picture of a Bolshevik Russia growing to engulf eastern Europe, with only Romania to buffer it all. So you would need a bigger and stronger Romania to do so.

After her week in Paris, she travels to London where she meets King George V (incidentally, I suddenly realize why there’s an Avenue George V in Paris, next to the the Champs-Elysees! Duh), her first cousin and ex-beau. He starts by telling her there’s not much he can do. Hey, after all, Britain is also a constitutional monarchy. Politics goes to the prime minister. Finally, she heads home with bunches of relief supplies and the promise from the Big Four that they will work on her request.

However, her happy speech in front of her government is greeted by stony silence from all and explosive derision from her son. Promises? Really? Did she even know that the Bolsheviks have attacked Hungary and that Budapest has fallen? She walks out, forcing herself to control her tears. She moves to a provincial castle to rest and recover from her anger and disappointment, leaving behind a letter to her husband.

Final scene: King Ferdinand shows up announced at her scenic hideout. Yup, all those castles and landscapes are really amazingly beautiful, and I’m putting Romania on my bucket list of places to visit. He assures her of his love, and tells her she has succeeded. The Big Four are redrawing the map of Romania to their specification. Romania now becomes the biggest it has ever been in its history, and adding 10 million people to its population. The historical snapshot epilogue shows them at their coronation in 1922 as rulers of Greater Romania.

What the movie did NOT show was what happened afterwards. A quick internet search will show that three years later, Crown Prince Carol renounced his position, thus passing on the succession to his 4-year-old son Michael. King Ferdinand died soon after, in 1927, of cancer. Michael became king, supervised by a regency formed of three: Prince Nicholas (Marie’s second son, thus a representative of the royal family), a patriarch (representing the church) and the president of the Supreme Court of Justice (representing the judicial arm). However, Carol returned in 1930 to claim his right to the throne as Carol II. He was forced to abdicate in 1940, so Michael became king again. Communism reared its ugly head and by 1947, Michael was forced to abdicate.

The Greater Romania achieved by Queen Marie became a communist nation and it wasn’t until the end of the Cold War that Romania was able to climb out of poverty and not until the 2000s that it became economically the Tiger of Eastern Europe. What a long climb!

What happened to Marie then? When Carol returned as king, he did his best to push his mother out. She then spent her time between Bran Castle and the palace she had built at Balchik. She was a talented author of several books, including her autobiography and diaries. Marie died in 1938 of pancreatic cancer, with her heart taken out of her body and kept in a separate box, as per her instructions. During the communist regime, she was reviled as being promiscuous, and her resting place was vandalized. Her good name was re-established in the years preceding the 1989 Romanian Revolution. The Order of the Cross of Queen Marie was established in her memory. She is acknowledged today as one of the greatest figures in Romanian history.

One more great historical figure I’d never heard of.

Review #9

Mucize (Turkish movie)

“Mucize” (pronounced moo-jee-zay), meaning Miracle, is a Turkish movie produced in 2015. It is available on Netflix with English subtitles. It never won any awards, and only gathered 69% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, it was popular enough to spur the production of a Miracle 2: Love in 2019.

It’s not difficult to see why. The scenery is spectacular. The cultural insights, fabulous, and even hilarious. The plot might be called cheesy if it weren’t simply a true story.

It is 1961. We follow a school teacher from Izmir (incidentally a gorgeous seaside city known previously as Smyrna) who has been transferred for a two-year service to a mountain village in a region infested with bandits, leaving behind his wife and two daughters. The teacher, Mahir, travels by train, then on a wobbly bus all the way into the mountains, only to be told at the last stop that he has to walk across two more mountains to reach the village.

Exhausted, but still striving to look professional, Mahir confronts the barrage of rifles from the astounded villagers by introducing himself as “The Teacher”. Immediately turning hospitable and welcoming, the men inform him that they are thankful the government has finally sent them a teacher after 30 years, but has forgotten to build them a school. Mahir and the mukhtar (village leader) go to town to ask the regional official for a school. On the way, they come across a cavalcade of bandits. Mahir shakes with fear, but the two villagers salute them. “They’re our sons,” they explain. The mayor or governor is not interested in their request. The short answer is no. The long one: the prime minister just got assassinated, so forget about it, everything will be put on hold for a while. Mahir decides to go home, but after a sleepless night, decides to help the village. He calls home and asks his wife, who has a rich father, to send 2,000 liras as ransom as he has been kidnapped by bandits.

The mukhtar agrees to allow girls to attend school (“whatever for?”) in exchange for the school. Unexpectedly, the bandits join the villagers in building it, and soon, school opens, complete with uniforms, benches, and flag.

The day of the wedding, the groom awaits the bride’s procession standing on the rooftop and throwing petals (I think) down. The women ululate. Upon entering the bridal room, the bride throws a ceramic jar down and breaks it (not sure of its significance). The groom enters and grabs a dove, then breaks its neck, to show his dominance. He then lifts the bride’s veil and sees her face for the first time. This is where the groom’s reaction is funniest. The first groom in the story asked for good teeth, but the girl had numerous and severe caries on brown and yellow teeth. Really, he needn’t have been so shocked, because his own teeth weren’t that great either. Nor for that matter anyone else’s teeth in the whole village. This makes one wonder. If it is true that teeth rot because of too much sugar, then it couldn’t have been the reason for the entire village to have bad teeth. After all, they didn’t have much sugar available at all.

Eventually, we realize that the real protagonist in this story is not Mahir, but Aziz, the village idiot. He wanders about with the children often having fun beating him up or even throwing stones at him. His hair and beard are long and disheveled. Apparently, he was born with some spastic disorder affecting mainly his left arm and leg, but also causing him to have difficulty producing sounds. Although he has occasional weird behaviors, such as running around naked to avoid a hot bath, we suspect that his brain functions normally. It is a common human tendency to assume people who cannot speak as well as we do must be more stupid than we are. Something all immigrants experience.  So if you can only squeeze out grunts and shrieks, you must be mentally defective.

In fact, Mahir encourages him to come to school, learn to use a pencil, and start drawing. A fast learner despite his physical handicap, Aziz starts trying to speak, and eventually his behavior becomes tamer. A major turning point occurs when Aziz’s father helps avert a shooting in town. The man whose life he saves offers his daughter in marriage to the mukhtar’s son, even though he is told, three times, that the son is handicapped. Though the union has been agreed upon by the fathers, the women still go through the motion of matchmaking. They are stunned to find out the girl is perfect, neither with bad teeth nor cross-eyed. The mother gets tears in her eyes.

The father of the bride has obviously not informed his daughter of the groom’s handicap. She’s stunned on her wedding day and cannot stop her tears falling. Aziz lifts her veil and falls over when he sees her face. Eventually, the bride (Mizgin) comes to terms with her fate and takes good care of Aziz. However, not only do the young men in the village keep teasing him, now even the young women join in and mock her publicly. One day, she turns and flees home, sobbing that she just cannot take it anymore. Aziz is overwhelmed and rides off on his stallion to the edge of the cliff where he releases his paper airplane and seems to consider suicide. Mahir arrives and coaxes him back home.

Aziz, who is now able to squeak out words, albeit with great difficulty, dictates a letter to Mahir. He and Mizgin leave the village, explaining that for years, he accepted the teasing and even beatings from the children, but he cannot accept the treatment doled out to his wife. He states that one day they will return.

Indeed, seven years later, a car rolls into the village, bringing not only an older Mahir and his wife, but also a well-dressed, straight and well-groomed Aziz and his wife, as well as a 6 year-old boy and a baby girl. Aziz speaks perfectly and walks normally by himself. His stunned parents ask whether he had surgery. “No,” he replies, “I fell in love with my wife.”

So, what is the movie really about? The title tells it all: Miracle. Was the miracle Aziz’s improvement? I don’t think so. The miracle was a very simple event: the arrival of a well-meaning Teacher into the village. An agent of change. Aziz was the most obvious miracle, true, but other miracles happened along the way: the building of a school, the education of girls, and even the rehabilitation of bandits. Yes, the bandit son who’d run away after killing someone who was threatening his father gave himself up to the authorities. The judge sentenced him to 24 years in prison, but reduced the sentence to just four years, because of extenuating circumstances. The greatest miracle, of course, is the change in the villagers’ mindset.

In fact, becoming a bandit was a secondary way of life in the mountains, a way to escape the authorities or the crippling poverty in the villages. One wonders, were they also escaping the traditions?

If you’re a believer, you can see the hand of God in giving the “worst”-endowed young man the “prettiest” bride, but mostly in the miraculous fact that this bride becomes devoted to her husband. The ending leaves us with so many questions. What disease did Aziz have? Was physiotherapy the simple answer to his cure? Where did they spend those seven years? What job did Aziz have in the city?

A quick search for Mucize 2: Ask (love) tells me I will find the answer in this sequel. Guess what I’m doing this evening?

Review #8

RESET (Chinese TV Drama)

Yes, I have been seduced by my children to watch a Chinese drama, but the saving grace is that it’s only 15 episodes of 45 minutes each. And for a change, the main thread was not a romance, though as of Episode 14, the main girl character told the police that the main boy character was her boyfriend. No. The genre is one of those time loops things that started becoming popular after Groundhog Day hit it big.

Some other time-loop or shall we call them “limited time travel” had a less grandiose financial success, like About Time, but they usually hinge around the idea of either improving their character or coming to terms with their status quo. This one, entitled “Reset”, is about a bomb explosion which the two main characters try again and again to foil. What the character angle is, I’m not quite sure yet, and I may have to wait until we watch that final episode to find out.

In fact, I chose to write this review BEFORE watching the last episode so I won’t inadvertently give away anything. If you’ve read anything from this blog already, you know for a fact that I’ll be giving away spoiler after spoiler anyway, just not the final ending this time.

The plot is simple. Or not so simple. A university student falls asleep on the bus, and wakes up just before the bus explodes. She finds herself back on the bus, but this time another minute earlier, which allows her to see a motorcyclist colliding with an oil tanker, which slides over, which causes a collision with the bus, which explodes. She wakes up again and again, each time one more minute earlier. She tries to get off the bus before the explosion, and finally manages to do so, but faces severe self-recrimination when she sees the other passengers die.

So we keep going with this time loop, picking up on the way the boy sitting next to her on the bus as he now seems to have entered the time loop with her. Having managed to cause the motorcyclist not to collide, they happily congratulate themselves, only to find that the bus explodes anyway after getting onto the bridge.

The two accidental detectives conclude that someone on the bus must have carried a bomb. At 1:45 pm exactly a phone goes off with an outdated ringtone, and the bomb explodes. They now go back in the time loop in order to figure out which of the passengers is the bomber. This turns out to be a depressed-looking older lady, who by the way has amazingly powerful arms, but they then find out she has an accomplice: the bus driver!

They try to inform the police at first but whenever they try talking about the time loop, they are viewed as either liars or madmen. They finally realize they need to act on their own for the detective work, and call in the police only for reinforcement.

By the last few episodes, we have patched together the bombers’ story: their daughter stepped off this same bus five years ago in the middle of the bridge but was knocked down by a truck and died. Despite their plea to find out why the bus driver let off the girl at a place which was not a designated station, the police pressures them to settle with the bus company. The mother goes off the deep end and convinces the father that they should move to the city, develop a bomb (she’s a chemistry teacher) and take revenge on society which has refused to help their daughter’s case.

I meant the outline of the plot to be brief, but it looks like I took some time with it… Anyhow, it is quite gripping, on the one hand because we want to know the final answer: will the two young people be able to stop the explosion? In the last version of the time loop, they saved the bus but the police chief who tried to throw the bomb into the river died of his injuries. Since he was the only police officer who had sort of half believed them previously and tried helping them, the two become very regretful. Has the time loop stopped? Or will they go through it one last time?

On the other hand, the human stories are equally fascinating. The young man with hat, mask, jacket, etc who lives a secret life because of unsupportive parents. The peasant father bringing a bag of watermelons for his son in the city who has cut himself off from him. The popular online video livestreamer who seems quite nosy and obnoxious in real life. Even the police officers and their various personalities grow on us.

Several secondary themes also are woven into the narrative. For example, violence in video games. Another one: is it selfishness to only save yourself? When the two protagonists finally manage to save the whole bus, the police chief dies instead. Was it worth it? The two bombers stayed alive. Well, so far. Let’s see what happens to them in the last episode.

Yet another side effect of time loop travel: Whenever you come back, you have exactly the same amount of money in your pocket and your bank account. So, how about having a blast at an expensive restaurant? I actually loved that bit!

Another heavy theme: what is called in Chinese “Searching for human flesh”, or the power of social media and its effect on people in real life. In Episode 14, we finally find an eye witness to what happened on the bus five years ago. Not only was she a witness to sexual molestation of the young girl MengMeng, she even took a picture of the molester. But because of the pressure of social media, she had to keep quiet for fear of retribution.

I suppose it was hard to delve too deep in any one of those side stories because after all, this is a TV drama and each episode has a limited time of 45 minutes. When we decide to watch it, we understand that this is not an epic Russian novel, so we forgive the casual treatment of heavy human drama. It does make for great entertainment, a bit of brain work (as do all whodunits), and fodder for discussions.

PS: I will not update this after watching the last episode! =)

Review #7

THANK YOU, JEEVES!

By P.G. Wodehouse

Where have I been my whole life? Do I live under a rock? I decided to purchase this audio book because it was on sale and also because the author’s name rang a bell, though I’d be at a loss to describe what kind of bell. Just a page into the first chapter and I was astonished by the style: perfect classical British humor in the style of Jerome K. Jerome, or, if you are the movie-watcher type, in the Monty Python style.

Unlike Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, however, the plot is quite interesting as well. Since this was an audio book on Chirp, I had to resolve to turn to my computer to find quotes to place here so you can delight in the pleasure of Wodehouse’s sentence structure, vocabulary, and understated hilarity. Here’s the first. Let me give you the background. Jeeves, the narrator’s faithful butler, having quit because of his master’s insistence not only on learning to play a very annoying instrument but even planning to rent a lonely cottage to pursue this hobby, Wooster hires a new butler. At this point in the story, this new butler is drunk, but mistakes him for a burglar since he smeared black shoe polish all over his face, and attempts to coax him out of a room he locked himself in. So here we go:

“I mean, if you’re asking a fellow to come out of a room so that you can dismember him with a carving knife, it’s absurd to tack a ‘sir’ on to every sentence. The two things don’t go together.

At another point, Wooster wonders to a young lady that Jeeves might have a poor opinion of himself. She replies,

“Oh, yes, he thinks a lot of you. I remember his very words. ‘Mr Wooster, miss’ he said ‘is, perhaps, mentally somewhat negligible but he has a heart of gold.”

Don’t you just love it? “Mentally somewhat negligible…”! I need to memorize this and use it in class… And then, in the middle of a quarrel:

“You have a perfect right to love who you like…”
“Whom, old man,” I couldn’t help saying. Jeeves has made me rather a purist in these matters.

That sounds just like me correcting my student’s grammar, but so far I’ve never do so in the middle of a heated argument!

So, who will blame me for immediately turning to Amazon to purchase the paper copy of the audio book I just finished? I want to savor at will those delectable titbits whenever I’m disgusted by the prose of today’s bestsellers. I mean, just look at those gems of similes:

“We are the parfait gentle knights, and we feel that it ill beseems us to make a beeline for a girl like a man charging into a railway restaurant for a bowl of soup” (chapter 4)

and “The light faded from her face, and in its stead there appeared the hurt, bewildered look of a barefoot dancer who, while halfway through the Vision of Salome, steps on a tin tack” (chapter 9).

Oh, that last one, my goodness… I’m still reeling from laughter at the imagery of it! So, I now plead guilty to the charge of having immediately purchased two volumes of compiled P.G. Wodehouse (pronounced Woodhouse) works and a few more single novels.

By the way, he also turns out to be a major milestone in the development of the American musical. I say!

Review #6

The Red Thread, by Ann Hood

I usually try to avoid critiquing books or movies that I know are going to make me spew out negative after negative remark. I “read” this book on Audible a couple of weeks ago, and tried avoiding reviewing it, but somehow cannot. I must speak out on cultural appropriation. And on throwing in an excess of sex scenes just for better sales.

There is nothing wrong with including Chinese characters in a book about adopting baby girls from China. Obviously. There is nothing wrong either about describing what led a number of American couples to the decision to adopt a baby girl from China. But let’s do a little math. Five or six couples who want to adopt, and one or more sex scenes for each, plus six Chinese women who give away their daughter/s with one or more sex scene each, how many does that make? I bet if you took them all out, the book would become half the size! I’m not a prude, but really, too much is too much!

Now that we’ve taken care of the need for creating a rating system for books too (I’d say R-rating for this one), let’s look at the issue of cultural appropriation. I tried to be fair. I looked up the author’s biography: Yes, she did adopt a daughter from China in 2003. Good job. That’s why the American side of the story sounded genuine. On her website, she mentions trying to imagine the life of the Chinese woman who had to make the decision to give up her baby. No problem. Go on, imagine! But here is where I had to stop cheering.

If you choose to write from the point of view of a Chinese woman, or rather six Chinese women, in the style of stream of consciousness, then should you not consult with a Chinese woman, or six Chinese women, preferably from the type of socio-economic background you are describing? Or eventually, if you did not, at least ask a Chinese-speaking person to read over your manuscript and tell you whether you sound genuine?

I told myself, ah, just a commercial novel, close one eye and ignore it. But at one point, I could not ignore it any more! There’s a peasant girl in the countryside in Hunan who meets a peasant boy. Eye contact. He asks her something. She answers, “Yes.” Then in what passes for poetic prose, he goes on asking her increasingly more intimate questions which end up, yup you guessed it, in bed, or rather on the ground in the fields, and she answers to each, “Yes.” The repetition of the word Yes is supposed to be a kind of motif here with a poetical rhythm to it. Except in Chinese, there is no word for Yes.

You see, if I want to ask you whether you want to eat, I would say, literally, “want, don’t want, eat?” If you want to reply yes, you would say, “Want.” If you want to reply no, you would say, “Don’t want.” If I want to ask whether you are hungry, I’d say, “you hungry, not hungry?” and the answer would be either “I hungry”, or “I not hungry.” And so on. So there would be no poetical or lyrical repetition of the word yes except in the American author’s mind.

The other thing that grated me and forced me to stop ignoring the red blinking lights was a conversation between a mother and a daughter. The Chinese mother living in Hunan, China speaks in broken English to her Chinese daughter living in Hunan, China who answers in perfect English. Does that even make sense? It’s interesting that it does not happen uniformly to all of the families in Hunan, China. I bet the editor suddenly noticed it and fixed those she caught and missed the others. What came immediately to mind was of course The Joy Luck Club, where indeed mothers and daughters all spoke English since they all lived in America. But while the American-born daughters all spoke perfect English, the immigrant mothers all spoke broken English. That totally made sense, and it is indeed a phenomenon I do observe around me. In the scenes happening in China in The Joy Luck Club, everyone spoke perfect Chinese. Of course. Now, I realize that the book is written in English, thereby signifying that the conversations taking place in Hunan, China are all in Chinese. Yes. In perfect Chinese. Why would an older woman speak in broken Chinese??????? (Sorry for so many question marks, but it’s my blog and I’ll write them if I want to.)

While I’m on the topic of what tickled me the wrong way, I just have to mention one more thing. This stream of consciousness thing. I’m okay with someone rambling on and on like we are living in their heads. But seriously, why does every single person think alike? I don’t mean the content of the thoughts, which are thankfully different, but the way they think. For example, one person meets another and mentions how they dress, how they smell… OK, writers are taught to describe using ALL senses. That’s okay if relevant. The key word is: relevant. Now every single person who is rambling on and on notices a smell on the other person. And the smell is always a mixture of three pleasant scents. Guess what. There are some people who don’t care about smells and do not notice them or are put off by strong scents. There are people who do not notice what others wear.

Take Meursault in Albert Camus’ The Stranger. He has a strange flat emotional response but an increased notice of small physical things. In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, each character thinks very differently and distinctly. If you took away the chapter’s title which gives away the identity of the thinker, you could still easily identify her from the style of thinking alone. Rachel, for example, notices dresses and social statuses of the people she meets and is concerned about herself mainly. Leah thinks rationally and we can even follow her evolution from a near-worship of her father to her realization of his failure and her gradual involvement in social and political movements. The characters’ speech, vocabulary, and mannerisms are all distinctly individual. Here, in The Red Thread, you could pick a paragraph in a certain character’s chapter and exchange it with that of another character, male or female, and no one would notice. All “can’t stop staring at his/her dimple” or eyes or lips.

I’d better stop here before my wrecking ball flies off my hands… I know how much work goes into writing a book –after all, I’m a writer myself– and I apologize to Ann Hood for my harsh words. But I do hope anyone writing from the point of view of a culture not their own will try to get a consultant to go over their writing so as not to come across as ridiculous.

Review #5: The week’s harvest

This week, I watched All About Eve, Tick, Tick… Boom!, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower; and I listened to: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and Hiding in the Spotlight. I couldn’t decide which one to review, so I’m going to pile my comments on all of them.

Actually, I was wondering whether I should review what I liked best, or what I hated most. Neither would be fair. To put the dots on the i’s, I loved Hiding in the Spotlight. Why? Maybe because it’s a memoir, since biographies and memoirs relate real life, meaning that the plot was devised by God. Destiny is rife with lessons; or questions. One can debate ad infinitum why God would allow certain things to happen, or plan other events in a person’s life. Often, the wisdom of it all cannot be ascertained until the end. On the other hand, a man-made plot is only the human author’s point of view and therefore fulfills only his/her limited view of life/ the universe.

If Hiding in the Spotlight were a work of fiction, critics would smother the author with remarks on why should a young girl, or for that matter, two young girls, be able to escape the Holocaust just because they happen to be piano prodigies. But because their lives were planned by God, we are left plucking through the threads of their tangled fates to figure out why. It could be correct that God sent a number of “guardian angels” to help the girls out along their journey through life’s vicissitudes — I remember actually laughing out loud when Zhanna/ alias Anna dared complain that there were too many guardian angels when she was asked to play publicly when all she wanted was to hide her identity! However, it could be that music — good music — is a balm, a reminder of peaceful and happy days, and is therefore equally attractive to all humans, regardless of ethnic background, age, or which side you’re on in a war. One very interesting detail which might illustrate this point was the denunciation by the jealous dancers, and the ensuing interrogation of this one woman and her son who knew the girls back in Krakow. The German officer –twice!– believed the lies of the witnesses and never tried to investigate the accusations further. The question that begs to be asked is why? He probably did not want them to be Jewish, because he wanted to continue enjoying their performances. Although the ending was expected –after all, it was written by Zhanna’s son Greg Dawson, the last name giving a clue to who Zhanna married — I could not help the tears flowing when it happened. Such is the power of real lives.

The other memoir this week was A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. This was told in the first person, in this new style called stream of consciousness. I only finished it because I’d paid for it. I felt ready to opt out before the end of the first chapter. The voice of the author just reminded me too much of my psychiatric patients who’d derail all the time when speaking. Isn’t it one of the advantages of the written word to filter out unnecessary phrases, redundant or out-of-place thoughts, and particularly obscenities? I’m so tired of having to listen to the F word and all its related variants. A particularly long book, AHWOSG was short on plot. I don’t have anything against simple plots, after all, a young man raising his 9-year-old brother after his parents die of cancer can be just as interesting as a piano prodigy surviving the Holocaust. People with plain lives have equal rights to an audience. But, please… OK, I get it, I get the author’s voice, thoughts, immaturity, etc. Enough. Move on. What else is there? At least, the author tried to give the long rambling monologue some structure by framing it with his mother’s death and coming to terms with it by scattering her ashes. Which, by the way, raised the question of WHY did he not consult with his siblings before doing so? He, by his own account, screamed at his sister when she decided not to receive the ashes, an individual decision without the input of the brothers, specifically, the author. Then, when quite by chance he does find his mother’s ashes, he does not bother to notify the other siblings.

I could go on and on about how I want to scream as I read through this book, but it doesn’t deserve it.

About the movies. I always start by looking up a classic movie that I have never watched, or one that I did watch but too long ago. I actually was surprised to find out I’d already watched All About Eve some time in the past, and was equally surprised to find out I’d never noticed — or remembered– that the main character was Bette Davis! Ha. Or that a very minor character (Miss Caswell) was a very young Marilyn Monroe before the curves. Yes, already she was cast as the dumb blonde. What I found really very interesting was the theme: young come-uppers trying to replace successful people by insinuating themselves into their life and imitating them. This happened to me too. Oh, I’m nothing like a Margo Channing movie star, just successful within my own community. And, like her, I was too naive to see through such a snake in the grass. Looking back, I wonder that it took her telling me so in my face for me to realize what she was up to. I guess we all cannot fathom thoughts we do not have ourselves. We all then project onto others thoughts and deeds we would have had in their place. So maybe, in a way, we all are egotists and narcissists, only bathing in a world of our own making.

Tick, Tick… Boom! is probably considered artsy? With a layered story-telling seasoned with songs. I nearly opted out too, because the plot seemed scattered and I couldn’t identify with the protagonist. Thankfully, the puzzle pieces started gelling together and characters started fleshing out, and things started making sense. I suppose that what sustained me through this opening phase was the good music. Then came the suspense of the reading/audition. I loved how the one singer and one piano sounded… well, tinny and skeletal, but with more singers and more instruments, the whole thing welled up into an object of beauty. As a creator myself, I could identify with the push and pull of devoting oneself to one’s art versus going for a “normal” job and paying the bills; the surrender to the absurdity of market economy because idealism will not survive realism. Maybe, the image which I carry away is that of Jonathan Larson standing there saying that he is running out of time. He meant then that he was turning 30 and had yet to achieve something. [As Yue Fei said, “30 years of fame and achievement, nothing but dust and dirt.”] But we the audience — well, if said audience had bothered to look up Jonathan Larson and found that he died of a dissecting aortic aneurysm the day before the opening of his first musical at age 35– realize the uncanny clairvoyance of this statement.

I wanted to watch next a successful book-to-movie, and stumbled across The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a much lauded YA book. Well, though it did touch me somewhat, there were so many holes and questions and negative comments in my head that I looked up reviews of the book. Well. Apparently, the movie is better than the book. Really? I totally agree with the criticism of piling all the possible bad things that can happen to a teenager and not dissecting each properly. Throw it in and run on. I agree even more on the tone of the writing which seems like that of a 7-year-old though he says he bowls over his Advanced English teacher with his essays. I was really interested to see more of the teacher-student interaction, the discussion of good books, but … nada. Just an opening of Charlie guessing correctly (but not speaking up) that the author discussed by Mr. Anderson was Charles Dickens, leading to their first connection. And nothing more except for classmates teasing him for handing in an essay early. Then the parting at the end of the year when Charlie does raise his hand to answer a question (he has moved beyond his shell) while Mr. Anderson decides not to move, and consequently become a writer, though this was never mentioned before. La di da. So, it takes child molestation, drugs, sex, LGBTQ issues, suicide, nervous breakdowns, etc to make a person move on?

Again, it’s not a memoir, although Wikipedia says it’s semi-autobiographical. I guess Stephen Chbovsky had a bad childhood/teenage years, but not bad enough since he had to pile in everyone else’s bad experiences…

Ramble#4: Goat Days

by Benyamin

[I’ve changed the title from Review to Ramble because I find that I’m not just reviewing the book but rambling about other related topics.]

I was looking for a novel, in the world literature category, preferably from Asia, from the 20th century or later. What attracted me to Goat Days was the premise, a foreign worker in Saudi Arabia and his tale of woe.

Having lived myself in Saudi Arabia, in the 1960s days of Yemeni workers as well as later in the 1980s during the influx of South Asian and Southeast Asian workers, I have heard my share of tales of woe. I was just curious as to why this particular tale won literary awards. Plus, of course, I needed something to serve up to my students.

I was surprised by how much I was impacted by Najeeb’s story, by his highs and lows in his faith in God, by his struggles, by his simple directness. My familiarity with the setting probably helped along the way. But the story strangely resonated strongly with my deep sense of survival.

The story is simple. An Indian / Malayalam young man, married and expecting a son or daughter, decides to sign up for a few years’ work in Saudi Arabia for financial reasons. He is joined by Hakeem, a young teen from the same region, whose mother recommends to his care at the train station. Neither speaks Arabic. As they arrive at the Riyadh airport, other workers are picked up by their sponsors, or arbab, but theirs doesn’t show up. Eventually, at night, one Arab shows up, dirty, stinky and rough. He goes around twice before picking them up and driving them off in the back of an ancient pick-up truck. After a few hours of driving off the road, they drop off Hakeem at what seems like nowhere in the middle of the desert, and arrive at a goat farm where Najeeb, hungry and thirsty, is expected to sleep with the goats. The Arab sponsor himself lives in a tent.

The next day, he is shown a pair of binoculars and a rifle. The use and efficacy of each is demonstrated. Najeeb gets the message. I’ll watch you and shoot you if you try to escape. He meets a “scary figure”, another Indian with long matted hair and beard, also stinky and dirty, who speaks only Hindi, so the two cannot communicate anyway. Soon, after Scary Figure has taught Najeeb what to do and how to milk goats, he disappears. The arbab doesn’t seem fazed by it.

The bulk of the novel describes his life in the following three years and four months. His first impulsive attempt at escaping. The usual beatings. The food he ate: pita bread and water, plus goat milk in the evening. The loss of hygiene because of water scarcity. The discovery of a human skeleton buried in a shallow grave nearby. Finally reconnecting with Hakeem who works in a neighboring farm, the two manage to communicate now and then surreptitiously behind their sponsors’ backs.

Eventually, Hakeem tells Najeeb that there’s a new worker on his farm, a Sudanese named Ibrahim. This man knows the cities and roads and will be able to escape and take them with him. Finally, one day, the arbabs go to attend a wedding, and the three run away on foot. They get lost in the desert and Hakeem dies of dehydration. Just as Najeeb thinks it’s his turn, they come upon a small oasis. After a few days recuperating at the oasis, the two set off again. Finally, just before they reach civilization, Ibrahim disappears mysteriously.

Once in town, Najeeb is rescued by other Indians. Eventually, he and Hameed –another escaped worker– decide to voluntarily surrender to the police so they will have a chance to be repatriated. Hameed’s arbab shows up at the prison and takes him back amid Hameed’s wailing and the arbab’s insults, blows and kicks. Then, Najeeb sees his own arbab walking into the prison. Surprisingly, he only patted Najeeb on the shoulder. Later, a friendly policeman told Najeeb that the arbab had recognized him, but that Najeeb “wasn’t on his visa”, otherwise, he’d have dragged him back. So, it turned out that he had been illegally kidnapped back upon his arrival, and used as a slave for three years, April 1996 to August 1999.

My first and last thought, upon reading this story, was: What kind of life was this for the arbab? True, he did not do the backbreaking labor, but he lived alone in a tent in the middle of the desert, and ate food barely better than that of his slaves. So in his mind, the conditions for his “slave” weren’t that bad. No tent, but there was some shade under the cot. Bedouins don’t sleep on beds but on thick mattresses. They don’t sit on chairs or sofas but on padded seats on the floor.

Slavery was still alive in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and was eradicated only in the 1960s. So for many Bedouins, the concept of an immigrant worker was quite alien in the 1980s and 1990s. They often treated them as slaves. No wonder the word salary or pay never appeared once in the book.

What fascinated me was not so much the suffering and spirit of Najeeb as the why and wherefore of his arbab. When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I heard many tales about the maids and drivers we all employed, both from my friends –the employers– and the maids. I always loved a good story, and lent an indulgent ear to my maids’ sagas. There were two categories of foreign workers, the legal ones and the illegal ones.

Only Saudi families could hire legal maids and drivers, so all my expatriate friends hired illegal ones. I wanted to do the right thing, so when, after giving birth to my third child, I discussed with my husband the possibility of hiring a maid, we tried to do so legally.

Well, the conditions were, number 1, you have to be a Saudi national. We didn’t even qualify on the first condition! The rest were just as bad: #2, you have to have at least five children. #3, you have to bring a doctor’s letter stating your health doesn’t allow you to do housework. Well, I knew that every single Saudi friend I knew had often more than one maid and driver and did not fulfill #2 and #3… In other words, everyone was hiring illegally. All my expatriate friends were quite open about their illegal maids. So I was forced to hire illegally too.

I’ve always pondered the possibility of writing one day about that sub-strata and network of illegal immigrants in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and 1990s. One of my Filippina maids gave me a very thorough depiction of it. She arrived legally but got into a sexual tangle with her employer’s son and so ran away to join other illegal workers. There were “tribes” consisting of a few “families” living in an apartment with rooms subdivided by hanging sheets. Each “tribe” had its leader who was the law. When she chose to join one of those “tribes”, she was asked to choose one of the single men to “marry”. She chose the youngest one, who at least did not have a wife back home.

Don’t be shocked. Many of these immigrant men had a wife and often children back home. That was why they came in the first place, to make enough money to send home. Many of the maids also had husbands back home. But somehow, once in Saudi Arabia, they seemed to have entered a parallel reality where society operated on a different set of laws. Whoever they married was only a husband or wife under the law of the tribe within the immigrant sub-strata. Marriages were complete with paperwork and ceremonies. But if they returned home, be it the Philippines or Indonesia or Bangladesh, these were dissolved and they returned to the reality and the law of their land.

Inevitably, this situation led to a number of tragedies worth a good Hollywood movie, such as a wife working as a maid for years while the husband back home used the money she sent to marry another wife. But overall, it was a situation that arose to deal with an impossible situation: hundreds of thousands of people under the radar of the law. And it worked mostly quite well.

But to return to the psychology of an employer: most of us never took in school a course entitled How to treat employees. Then many of us suddenly became the proud employer of one or more maids, plus one or more drivers. (Women could not drive legally, thus the need for male drivers.) I’d have friends tell me I should not allow my maid to chat with the neighbor’s maid, or any random maid we’d meet in the shopping centers or parks. Or use the telephone. When we starting the maid out to dinner with us so she could look after the children and let me eat in peace, my friends were shocked! Fawzia is paying for her maid to eat at restaurants! And let me add that my friends are otherwise perfectly normal human beings.

Yes, you might say, but being mean to a maid is a far cry from starving, beating, whipping, and mistreating a man without paying him a salary. My take is that these are simply different shades of the same color. An educated woman in an apartment or a villa will also mistreat a maid but to a different degree. I’ve heard of people making the maid sleep under the dining table because they didn’t have an extra room or did not want to spend money buying an extra bed.

To come back to the book, my takeaway is the incredible spirit of survival of Najeeb, his constant conversation with God to keep himself afloat spiritually, but also the eye-opener of the living conditions of the Bedouin goat farmers. As Najeeb puts it, “if my arbab lies down in a tent in the middle of the desert, where am I going to stay?”

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