Friday, 18 July 2008

Comparative review: Kensington Gardens by Roberto Fresan (2005) and The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (1997).

The cover quote by DBC Pierre on Fresan's Kensington Gardens seems to endorse the book, but if you think about it a bit ("Extraordinarily surreal"), the bathos surfaces quietly.

Like a hidden innuendo in a suddenly recalled conversation. 'Surreal' is a somewhat tired epithet these days (god knows what people younger than me use) and actually is a word of such common usage (like "... on steroids" - choose your own exemplum) that the endorsement quickly looks like a favour returned.

Interesting in Fresan's book is the connection between J.M. Barrie's childhood and The Beatles. Fresan names two popular tunes of the late 19th century that would reemerge as ditties by the boys from Liverpool.

Fresan's fault lies in his fondness for commonplace tropes. Although there's a lot of energy expended in these pages, there's little light. I failed close to page 50. But in three years I may reopen the covers and give it a big tick.

Who knows?

Fresan is interested in the phasal relationship between the Victorian (so-called) age and the most recent age of protest: the 1960s. But it's a highly Eurocentric lens and it doesn't capture the crystal clarity of childhood imaginings.

The author is too caught up in a kind of prim meditation on Anglo creativity. Unlike Marques, who saturated himself in William Faulkner and morphed the Southern bard's progress into a new genre - magical realism - Fresan is content to throw rocks into a pool and watch the rings dissipate in the fluid.

But Bernhard Schlink's curiosity is tonic.

Schlink is a legal academic and so is saturated in the realities of crime. So who better to throw a blanket on the wretched kow-tow Germany has (twice in one century) been forced to make to the higher orders: the same Anglo Excalibur knights Fresan dreams of joining in a crusade of marzipan soldiers against the terror of a purchasable constabulary.

The Reader tackles two 'issues' in one slender volume: child abuse and the Holocaust. His protagonist Michael Berg enmistresses an illiterate tram conductor and then watches as she is questioned in court for months, sentenced, and imprisoned.

On the day she left town, Hanna had seen him at the pool. In her last extremity, it will again be indifference on the protagonist's part that causes her to crash.

Michael's cruelty is a casual one of the superior to the lesser: the master to the servant.

The knot that binds them, however, is strong. The title derives from his practice of reading to Hanna. First, this occurs while they are still erotically engaged. After her incarceration, he begins to record his voicings and to send cassettes to her at the prison.

Michael is unfortunate because he is unable to take a position in terms of Hanna, who is convicted of - and sentenced to life imprisonment for - allowing a group of prisoners to burn to death in a locked church.

The quote that follows is typical of Schlink's style. It is measured, precise, rational and very delicate. Unlike Fresan, who treats his subject to one gruelling bout after another, Schlink seems afraid of hurting the delicate balance between happiness and despair that surrounds his narrator's persona.

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks - understanding and condemation. But it was impossible to do both.

When he finally meets the prison governor, she berates him, blaming him (among others) for what happened, finally, to Hanna. The woman had been respected in the prison community, she said. She had learned to write. She has a life of sorts but, the functionary continues, you cannot imagine how hard life on the outside is, in the first months of freedom.

When I turned around and sat down on the bed, she said, 'She so hoped you would write. You were the only one she got mail from, and when the mail was distributed and she said "No letter for me?" she wasn't talking about the packages the tapes came in. Why did you never write?'
  I still said nothing. I could not have spoken; all I could have done was to stammer and weep.

His reaction is due to the simple fact that he read to Hanna - who enjoyed being read to - for himself as much as for her. Because it reminded him of how they had been together when he was a teenager, and she a young horse (his label for her sturdy presence in his life).

But to write a letter to her would have been to admit some sort of equality, and he was not prepared for that kind of honesty. In the end he will graduate, become a law academic, marry, have children, divorce, and remember. Endlessly remember.

It will be a Holocaust survivor who describes Michael Berg to himself. But from her eye, no tear will fall at the fate of Hanna Schmidt.

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