02 July 2009

Words that caress, words that cut

This week, music takes priority over writing. The Waterfront Blues Festival is on! Last year at this time we were Russia bound, but this year our departure is later in the summer, so I can partake of the festival with a clear conscience.

So in a few minutes, we're off to Tom McCall Waterfront Park. But not before just a few words about ... words.

What's got me intrigued is the phenomenon of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Lots of people I know have gobbled down these Alexander McCall Smith novels about Precious Ramotswe and her detective agency in Gabarone, Botswana. I'm way behind the curve, having read the first novel in the series maybe five years ago, and just now finishing my second exposure--Morality for Beautiful Girls. Mma Ramotswe is trying to figure out who might be poisoning the son of an important Government Man at the son's farm, while her assistant is vetting the finalists of a beauty contest to make sure that the soon-to-be-selected winner doesn't embarrass the contest's sponsors and the nation. Meanwhile, Mma Ramotswe's fiance J.L.B. Matekoni's strange behavior recently can only be explained by clinical depression--otherwise, why would he turn his back on his car repair business, bury himself in his sofa, and sadly hint of past misdeeds beyond redemption?

Reading Smith's cotton-candy prose leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I totally see how his kind, lyrical, thinking-out-loud, often skippy style could appeal to many. It's like a combination of Alan Paton and A.A. Milne, and it appeals to me, too! And Smith's deceptively placid and economical wording touches often on deep issues of morality, tradition, and rural-urban disconnections.

On the other hand, how could any real country live up to the gauzy Botswana emerging from these pages? He doesn't deny urban corruption, labor discrimination, sexism, and tribal tensions, but they are blemishes on a country whose shining virtues, in Smith's portrayal, put the rest of Africa to shame.

And does the reader pick up respect for Mma Ramotswe's ability to get intuitively to the heart of a matter despite lack of prior context, or a tinge of (surely unintended) condescension, in the author's depiction of her grappling with new information this way?
Mma Ramotswe had listened to a World Service broadcast on her radio one day which had simply taken her breath away. It was about philosophers who called themselves existentialists and who, as far as Mma Ramotswe could ascertain, lived in France. These French people said that you should live in a way which made you feel real, and that the real thing to do was the right thing too. Mma Ramotswe had listened in astonishment. You did not have to go to France to meet existentialists, she reflected; there were many existentialists right here in Botswana. [Her former husband and self-centered jazz musician] Note Mokoti, for example. She had been married to an existentialist herself, without even knowing it. Note, that selfish man who had never once put himself out for another--not even for his wife--would have approved of existentialism, and they of him. It was very existentialist, perhaps, to go out to bars every night while your pregnant wife stayed at home, and even more existentialist to go off with girls--young existentialist girls--you met in bars. It was a good life being an existentialist, although not too good for all the other, nonexistentialist people around one.
Actually, I detect a challenge here to superficial sophistication as well--not a bad thing at all--but I'm still left with a bit of dis-ease.

Even so, I'm going to finish reading the novel, and probably read more of Smith's novels, for a reason that seems very important to me. Smith's words have a very different effect from the words I'm used to reading, especially in books about politics and history. For example, a couple of weeks ago I provided links to some of the current debates among Russia-watchers. After decades of reading books about the Soviet Union and about Russia, I've noticed that these commentators seem to feel obliged to use words as swords. They slash at each other and at their subjects; they thrust and parry; their words cut and slice. They spin their own errors, and dice their opponents'. The stakes are high--Europe's energy supplies, freedom of conscience in Russia, the battle against terrorism ... and their own reputations as intellectuals. Russia's own Mma Ramotswes--in other words, the innate decency of the ordinary Russian--are rarely factored into the equation. If Russian elites are accustomed to treating their people as a biomass to be shaped to the leaders' needs, then Western pundits seem to treat Russia as an undifferentiated punching bag to display their own slashing brilliance.

You know, after a steady diet of that kind of writing, the caressing words of Smith's novels come as a welcome respite!

Back to the festival: Among the people I'm looking forward to hearing are these: Rick Estrin and the Nightcats (with Kid Anderson as a worthy replacement for the amazing Charlie Baty); Lauren Sheehan; and Fiona Boyes. But I expect one of the biggest pleasures of the festival will be, as in previous years, the Arts and Entertainment Stage acts I'd never heard of before.

More links: "Getting to Yes in Iraq": Arthur Martirosyan's Mercy Corps blog. ~~ Carol Holmes tipped me off to this Riverside Church story on Brad Braxton's resignation. ~~ "How old is the old-time religion?" Teaser: "The debate over assurance illustrates how historical interpretation so often shapes theological discourse. If evangelicalism did not appear on the religious scene until the 1730s, then detractors gain a key point in their argument that novelty undermines credibility. If the Enlightenment created evangelicalism, then perhaps the movement should be re-created or abandoned altogether in our postmodern era." ~~ Nancy Thomas writes on "Stubborn Twig"--immigrants, America, and the Kingdom of God. ~~ Civil dissent: Andrew Sullivan posts a reader's criticism of Sullivan's coverage of Russia. ~~ For Ubuntu Linux fans who wonder what to do with the minor irritations they/we deal with daily: One Hundred Paper Cuts. Now, why do many pull-down menus go blank unexpectedly?? ~~ A Pew Research Center "... survey on aging among a nationally representative sample of 2,969 adults finds a sizable gap between the expectations that young and middle-aged adults have about old age and the actual experiences reported by older Americans themselves."

Etta James will not be headlining this evening at the Waterfront Blues Festival; organizers explained that her health has forced her to cancel her West Coast tour. Keb' Mo' will headline tonight in her place.

Here's a delightful video of Etta James with Robert Cray and Keith Richards:


Nancy Thomas said...

Johan,I enjoyed your thoughts on A.M. Smith's wacky African detective series and must admit to being a much less critical reader than you. Hal and I have read them all, out loud no less. I have another perspective on the style and tone of the books. You wrote of "cotton-candy prose" and a "kind, lyrical, thinking-out-loud, often skippy style." Good description. It is different from prose from the "West," and that may be its strength. I think Smith is trying to immitate an African oral communication style (similar to a Latin American oral style), and it is "lyrical and skippy" and probably meant to be "thinking-out-loud." I don't know Botswana culture and I know no women from there, but it seems authentic, probably because I've studied communication styles from other similar cultures. It's caused us both to wonder how a European male author, in spite of his many years in Botswana, could so get inside the head of an African woman. If, indeed, that's what he does. Anyway, thanks again for making me think. Always a good exercise.

Johan Maurer said...

I don't know Botswana either. In commenting on Smith's prose, I think I'm just as much commenting on my own biases and worldview. Certainly I recognize the conversational and ruminating style, and lyrical turns of phrase, from other African cultures.

And, I'm on to the third novel.... Great antidote to my other reading this morning--all the public advice Obama is getting in advance of his Russian trip.

Carol said...

You might want to compare Smith's African mysteries to the mysteries he's written with the Scots detective.

I've read one of those, and as I recall it was comparably primitive.

I think Smith is one of those writers who simply isn't very good, but it doesn't matter because he has tapped into something that satisfies anyway.

Now, Johan, what does the prose of Boris Akunin tell us about Russia? and should Obama be reading Akunin's books in preparation for his trip?

Johan Maurer said...

*blush* This is where I publicly admit that I've not read a single Akunin novel....

Carol said...

Oh, my heavens! I certainly didn't mean to embarrass you, Johan. I'm sorry.

He's got a new series that features a 19th-century mystery-solving nun, Sister Pelagia. I've wondered if he's using the series to comment on the Orthodox church in Russia.

What I've noticed about the prose-in-translation is that he sets up this rather merry contract with the reader: Isn't this a fun kind of grown-up fairy tale? Wink-wink. And then he'll violate that contract with instances of rather creepy violence and then he'll pull you right back in while you're still coping with your disorientation.

It's making me want to learn Russian so I can read him in the original. (I hear he's wonderful.)

And it also has me wondering if he's making some statement about Russia. Or if it's not that deep and he merely lacks empathy.

He's puzzling. But then, so's Russia, right?

Nancy said...

If you insist.

Johan Maurer said...

Nancy--at last blogspot.com let you in directly!! Best wishes for the new blog.

Carol--yes, it's a puzzling place, full of contradictions. Must be human beings living there!! In any case, my impression of Akunin and his reputation is that he's taken quite seriously as a scholar of Japanese culture. I really do plan to read his fiction, just haven't had time and access so far.