Monthly Archives: May 2014

Review of Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva

NineRabbitsCover_WebRezSet primarily in Bulgaria, Virginia Zaharieva’s novel Nine Rabbits follows its narrator Manda from girlhood to middle age. In its first part, Manda grows up in rural poverty, raised by a grandmother who once jabs her arm with needles as punishment for suspected theft and considers hugs “mollycoddling.” In its second, Manda is middle-aged, separated from her husband, and suffering from severe writer’s block, feeling inadequate and insecure in her intellectual circles.

The novel is studded with recipes. After the punishment mentioned above, the novel recounts a recipe for rose jam. Some of the recipes have personal asides or poetic flourishes–the eggs a la armenien should be “serve[d] with a cup of hot coffee after making love in bed”–but the majority are straightforward.

The recipes aren’t vital to the novel, as Manda’s love of food, and the joy it provides her in a tumultuous childhood, comes through clearly in the narration, as when she cans tomatoes with nuns (“I adored holding a warm, stretched-to-bursting tomato in my hand”). However, they don’t come off as gimmicky either.

Nine Rabbits is about Manda’s inner struggles more than any nation’s political situation, but Communism occasionally butts in. Authorities break into the monastery where Manda canned tomatoes, and Czech vacationers renting a room in their house gather around the radio to hear of the failed counterrevolution. Later, after the fall of the USSR, Manda reflects (not kindly) on socialism: “If this system is aimed at man and his welfare, why does it create ugliness, poverty, and evil?”

The novel’s second half also touches on writer’s block, feminism (“Being an object is tiring”), and menopause, but collectively, these sketches and reflections don’t make up anything more than the sum of its parts. It’s frustrating, but not a fatal flaw–Manda’s mind is fractured, and the narrative reflects that. Despite this messiness, Zaharieva succeeds in telling the story of a girl coming of age without quite coming to grips with herself.

–Published in April by Black Balloon Press

 

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Review: The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi

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In Wu-Ming Yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes, a tsunami washes the Pacific Trash Vortex—an island of garbage—onto the coast of Taiwan, combining an environmental tragedy with personal ones. The novel follows Alice Shih, a writer grieving the loss of her husband and son to a mountaineering accident, and Atile’i, a Pacific Islander set out to sea as a sacrifice as tradition requires of second sons, through the events leading up to the tsunami and their response to it.

Along the way, Compound Eyes introduces readers to many secondary characters and their back stories, including Dahu, a skilled mountaineer and member of the Bunun aboriginal group; Hafay, a café owner and member of the Pangcah aboriginal group; and Sara, a Norwegian marine biologist and environmental activist.

The characters’ different worldviews often come into contact. Atile’i’s native island of Wayo Wayo has no written language, so Alice tells him about writing while he tells her about other methods of communication.

The prose is rich with similes (someone sings “like the sound of some plant weeping”) and often adopts the tone of oral storytelling (“Oh, when would it end?”). A minority of similes fall flat for being too obvious—after Alice sees something on TV, she runs “like someone who’s just seen something”—but are forgivable.

There are fantastic elements in this novel, most notably the title character, who lectures on writing and memory, but its underlying message is very real: Respect the environment, don’t get greedy, use science wisely. Back in his home village after the mountain washes ashore, Dahu reflects “Now I just feel we have to make sure that mountains like this don’t disappear, mountains without potholed roads or tunnels, mountains where goats and boars and deer can run wild.”

Through conversations between Sara and her boyfriend Detlef, an engineer, the novel provides glimpses of the tension between environmentalism and human standards of living. After Detlef tells her that technological development can increase the earth’s capacity to support people, Sara responds that “the reality is that the wealth never reaches the poor, and they’re the ones who have the most mouths to feed. This issue cannot be solved politically or technically, by another Green Revolution.”

But don’t jobs created by industries that hurt the environment benefit those who otherwise wouldn’t have work? (When Alice remembers a factory polluting her grandmother’s village, she notes that the factory “needed workers, not old people.”) How can environmentalists keep the developing world from bringing the earth over capacity without condemning it to continued poverty? Compound Eyes can’t be faulted for not pursuing these questions further, but reading these passages made me wonder if Ming-Yi has done so in any of his other writings, which unfortunately have not been translated into English.

In some nice satirical bits, the novel mocks journalists’ tendency toward sensationalism over substance (it mocks government ineptitude as well, but without as much humor). One TV reporter on the coast to cover the Vortex is hit and stunned by a piece of trash: “Once squawky, she reportedly became unusually quiet, soft-spoken and lucid after the incident, and was soon relieved of her regular duties.” Print journalists aren’t spared either: one newspaper announces that “Taiwan is about to be sucked into the Trash Vortex!”

Ming-Yi has taken some liberties with the Vortex, as a novelist has every right to do and the journalists mentioned above have no right to do. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Vortex, or “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” isn’t an island but a hard-to-define region dense with garbage, much of it very small.

“I am a poet, as well as a scientist,” says Sara. “But I enjoy being a poet more.” In Compound Eyes, Ming-Yi is both novelist and activist, neither letting the novel’s message obscure the beauty of his storytelling nor letting his art ramble on for its own sake.

–Available May 20th from Random House/Pantheon