Politics

Let’s Discuss — The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

I was white. White in a country where this was to be implicated, complicated, and, whatever way I tried to square it, guilty. Genocide. Slavery. Indenture. Colonialism — big words which were linked to crimes so hideous no manner of punishment was adequate (355)

Roffey weaves the personal story of George and Sabine Hardwood with the historical and political story of Trinidad. Readers are introduced to two individuals in a loveless marriage, which according to Sabine is largely the fault of her husband, George. From the moment the couple arrives in Trinidad, George falls in love with the island; enjoying the ideal, the picturesque, the exotic women, and a potential legacy he could never establish in the United Kingdom. Sabine, on the other hand, can’t stand the island. She wanted to leave before she had even arrived. She realizes she can never compete with a beautiful island which offers more to her husband than she ever could.  For a while, Sabine is in denial about the reality of her situation–that her fate and happiness are tied to someone else’s “ideas.”

The narrative is loaded with vivid, sensory descriptions of the island colloquial language and Trinidadian accents. The colorful atmosphere contrasts with the conflict happening on the island. There are two forms of conflict, that of Sabine and George’s drama, and the echoes of revolution in Trinidad. It’s almost as if their marital strife mirrors the socio-political strife on the island or vice versa. Sometimes the injustice, corruption and political uprisings in Trinidad become background noise to Sabine and George’s problems.

“Eric Williams will destroy this country.” Bonny’s eyes hardened.

“Oh really? He’s a well-educated man. He’s been to Oxford. He’s an historian. How many people here can claim that? Do you think there’s one person in this garden with a university degree?”

Bonny quivered, a snarl on her lips. “Williams is obsessed with slavery. It’s all about the past. He can’t let it drop. He should forget about it. It’s boring.” (249)

I may be alone on this one but George’s wrongdoings as a husband do not outweigh Sabine’s self-righteousness. Her apathy and borderline ignorance about colonial legacy and race relations is…irksome. Yes, George should catch some hell for his post colonial ideas and self-serving ambition, but at least he cares—he feels. At least he sees Trinidadians as individuals, as people.  Sabine is the worst kind of post colonialist person. Why?  Because she has no real intention of righting any wrongs (socio-political or personal) Maybe having friendships with her two maids is her way of righting the wrongs.

But there is something off about Sabine. She develops an intense, almost creepy obsession with Dr. Eric Williams, the leader of the PNM. Why would a white woman determined to leave Trinidad be interested in the country’s new revolutionary leader? Well, I have a couple of theories. One–it’s a tactic of self-preservation, or know-your-enemy. Eric Williams wants what she represents (colonial chains) out of the country. Understanding his motives helps define her own. My second theory might be a reach, but still a possibility– she’s having an emotional affair with Dr. Williams. I say emotional because her fear and physical repulsion of black men is too great for the affair to ever be physical. Sabine writes hundreds of unsent letters to Eric Williams complaining about her husband George and life in Trinidad. She compiles newspaper clippings of his speeches and appearances.  And she hides them away in her home office. Why? Because Dr. Eric Williams represents something she could never do, possess or act upon—the courage to lead her own revolution, to put her foot down in her marriage, to say enough is enough!

I don’t know why Sabine didn’t leave George.

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Let’s Discuss — The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The corpses of dogs, cats, and horses often remained where they fell. In January they froze into disheartening poses; in August they ballooned and ruptured. Many ended up in the Chicago River, the city’s main commercial artery. During heavy rains, river water flowed in a greasy plume into Lake Michigan, to the towers that marked the intake pipes for the city’s drinking water (28)

Let’s see*…the majority of the book is a meticulous recounting** of American architects and engineers banding together in 1893, to place a fair in Chicago representative of American exceptionalism, worthy of international praise and symbolic of the nation’s great legacy and innovation of the future.

What is it–Murphy’s law? Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. That’s a basic description of the planning, opening, success and demise of the fair; weather disasters, politics, a bad economy, labor unions, accidents, vandalism, crime…wrong measurements, rejected blueprints…newspaper headlines. Every possible detail that can be accounted for in the existence of this fair is recounted. I suppose that’s good research on Larson’s part. But for this reader it really dragged…except for the chapters on Holmes, the psychopath predator, and Prendergast, a mentally ill man with political aspirations. These chapters could have belonged in a different book altogether. But they’re flawed in the same way. There is no intrigue. No tension. Larson loves to foreshadow to a fault.

Where was the magic and madness?***

*If you couldn’t tell by the brevity of this write up, I was very disappointed with this one.

**Novelistic/Narrative non-fiction may not be my cup of tea.

***The title in its entirety is–The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.

Let’s Discuss — The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

Animated chaos, the profound need in what was once your people, Urania, to stupefy themselves into not thinking and, perhaps, not even feeling (6)

The Feast of the Goat takes place during the end of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. The narrative switches between the infamous Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molinas (aka el Jefe), the daughter of one of his top officials, and the anti trujillistas that take part in his assassination.

The book begins with Urania Cabral, daughter of the most distinguished Trujillo loyalist. She visits her father in the Dominican Republic for the first time in 35 years. Over decades her father has degenerated into a vegetable, yet despite his condition, Urania remains bitter and borderline hateful towards him. Little by little she sheds light on how Trujillo caused this woman to stupefy herself, to hate her father and become estranged from her people. Her story and the flashbacks within it, frame the other narratives.

And then it occurred to him: “A cure equal to the disease.” The face of a beautiful woman, exploding with pleasure in his arms, thanking him for the joy he had given her. Wouldn’t that erase the frightened little face of that idiot? Yes: he’d go tonight to San Cristobal, to Mahogany House and wipe away the affront in the same bed with the same weapons (128)

The one ever-present element in this book is the intertwine of sex, politics and machismo. It seems when Trujillo isn’t ordering people around, he’s thinking about taking a trip to the Mahogany House (the local upscale brothel) What’s interesting about this is Vargas Llosa parallels failings of the Trujillo regime with the failings of Trujillo’s body; old age, impotence and incontinence.

Urania Cabral, however, is repelled by anything suggestive, due to certain events in her adolescence directly linked to Trujillo. I would go as far to say that Trujillo and Urania are complementary characters in almost every level of analysis. Trujillo holds a very low opinion of intellectuals, artists and writers. These are all types of people whose work might influence the progression of freedom of thought and challenge his sovereignty. Urania falls into that category, not only professionally, but personally. And not just on an intellectual level–a physical one.

It must be nice. Your cup of coffee or glass of rum must taste better, the smoke of your cigar, a swim in the ocean on a hot day, the movie you see on Saturday, the merengue on the radio, everything must leave a more pleasurable sensation in your body and spirit when you had what Trujillo had taken away from Dominicans thirty-one years ago: free will (144)

I could go on and on about gender, sex and politics in this book. It’s a really good book to analyze for that type of reading. But generally speaking, I think this book is great because it shows how fear, shame and paranoia can spread like a disease in all parties. They spread through the oppressed and the oppressors–and not just in those individuals in the moment, but through generations over time.