Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Tahmima Anam: Bones of Grace


I'm not sure how this book would read outside the context of the entire trilogy, beginning with "A Golden Age".  Set in the Bangladesh War of Independence, it introduced the fiercely loyal,  tender, ruthless, and occasionally  vindictive grandmother.  Her daughter becomes the central character of the next installment,  "The Good Muslim".  As the title may suggest, it's a screed against the violence, hypocrisy, and misogyny of orthodox Islam. That woman's adopted daughter,  Zubaida, becomes the central character of the third installment,  "The Bones of Grace".

Like the author herself,  Zubaida was born after the war, got a PhD in science from Harvard, never moved back to Bangladesh, and eventually became a writer of fiction.  She is the first character in the trilogy to narrate her own story.  Her similarity to the author has allowed this book to be far more intimate, informed, and compelling than the first two.

This story is told as a letter to an American boyfriend, the quite brief but still great love of her life.  Like all the other males in the trilogy, he is a shallow, cardboard puppet.  But he is probably how both Zubaida and Tahmima would view me, if I were the one she had met at the Shostakovich piano recital in Boston.  Or, at least, that's how I  hope they would see (and smell) me: as a tall, handsome,  healthy, blue-eyed, bright, somewhat lost young man of the northern climates.  (I'm not so young any more -- so I've got to imagine myself forty years ago).

Zubaida/Tahmima is my dream lover: exotic, passionate, and brilliantly creative and insightful.  She's also hopelessly self centered - inadvertently hurting everyone with whom she comes in contact. Everyone is collateral damage in her obsession with finding her unfindable self.  (But that's OK with me --  I don't have to live with her.)

This novel is disappointing in the way that so many television mysteries can be.  The puzzle is set slowly and beautifully -- while the resolution is fast and incredulous.

Yet so many of the mise-en-scenes are wonderful- as the narrator's voice takes us through a dialogue between two characters as well as between the narrator herself and the distant boyfriend to whom she is telling the story. Incidental details of landscape, social conventions, and furnishings are to be treasured.  (I loved her mother-in-law's four sofas)

My favorite scene may be the moment when Zubaida asks her adoptive mother for more details of her birth mother, while  beginning to reveal her estrangement from her more-than-perfect husband.  They are sitting at a trendy cafĂ© (Zubaida's choice). The food is burnt, her mother begins to tear up, throws some cash on the table and walks out, not turning to see whether her daughter will follow or not - as the waiter follows to collect the balance of the tab.

Zubaida is crazy.  The story ends on a happy note: enough bone fragments of her beloved walking-whale have been shipped to her paleontology department at Harvard for her to share them with colleagues. But the end-middle-beginning  structure of the novel shows us a mind in perpetual perseveration.   The violence, crimes, and trauma of each generation have been handed down to the next, just as it was in one of the world's first great trilogies: the Orestaia.

As the object of her paleontological study, the walking-whale Ambulocetus, would suggest, Zubaida, like the author, is an awkward,  transitional  life-form:  part traditional South Asian Muslim woman -- part modern, international,  academic elite.  Though told from that secular POV, the old-school characters don't come off all that badly.  Even the mother-in-law -- who appears to Zubaida as a rich-bitch -- actually has had more of a positive impact on people's lives than her prodigal critic has ever had.  Her wealthy family is actively involved in a  growing third-world economy -- whereas Zubaida is passive and ineffective as either scientist or  social critic.  (her project to help the ship scrappers is casually abandoned). Her abandoned husband, by contrast,  is saint-like in his toleration and devotion to her.  His only crime being that he will not adopt Zubaida's long lost neice (whom, as it turns out, Zubaida can't live with either)

This story does not suggest to me that Ambulocetus was better off losing his legs and living in the deep. Though it's true that if Zubaida and the author who created her had remained embedded in South Asian society, I would not have had so much fun reading about them.

As it turns out, the above discussion omits two of the outstanding features of the narrative: the once luxurious ocean liner, "Grace" as mentioned in the book's title -- and the bleak descriptions of life among the underclass of Bangladesh.

In contrast to Ambulocetus who moves from land to sea - the Grace is an ocean going vessel that has been pulled up on the beach to be dismantled and salvaged.   It's size and state of disrepair stimulates the reader's imagination with catastrophic images of  magnificent  ruin.  I Google-earthed a  map of coastal Bangladesh -- and indeed satellite images do display quite a few great ships pulled up on shore.

The men who cut down those hulking wrecks risk their lives and  are paid pennies a day -- most of which is then taken from them for rent and food.  It's the worst kind of exploitation -- though if entrepreneurs had not created those jobs by buying the old ships, what other options would those men have had?

One of the other thrills of this narrative is the story told  by one of those men, Anwar, the most complete and complex male character is the entire trilogy. 


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