This summer I finished the rough draft of a novel I’ve been mulling over for several years. It felt good to have an entire draft completed. It was better than I was afraid it would be, but worse than I’d hoped it would be. Now, all I have to do is revise and edit. That I can do. I could probably revise and edit for years. And years. Anything’s better than finally saying, okay, this is it. This is my best effort. I’m ready to be judged. The rough draft has been sitting in a tatty file folder on my ottoman for about three weeks now. The days go by, and the pile of newspapers, sketch pads, half read books and paper plates with sandwich crumbs waxes and wanes on top of the folder, hiding, then revealing, then hiding again my secret: I may never complete my novel.
I looked forward to reading Mohsin Hamid’s second novel published in 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, having read and enjoyed his first novel, Moth Smoke. What struck me with Moth Smoke was Hamid’s confidence as a writer. Reading Moth Smoke never gave me that slight uneasiness that results from reading a new writer who hasn’t quite grown into their writing shoes. With a more experienced writer, in contrast, you can walk to your shelf and pull off any novel by say, an Ann Patchett or a John Irving, comfortable in knowing you are in capable storytelling hands. Hamid is such a novelist.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist exudes the same confidence as Moth Smoke. Which is not to say that Hamid over-reaches or is shy about using unconventional storytelling techniques. This short -184 pages- novel consists entirely of one side of a conversation between the Pakistani narrator and an American stranger over the course of one evening in a cafe in Lahore.
The tension and uneasiness that lies between all things Pakistani and all things American under-girds The Reluctant Fundamentalist as it did in Moth Smoke. Yet, the conversation is not an angry rant or confrontation. The narrator, Changez, tells the American stranger of his experience of being a Princeton-educated Pakistani man in New York with a promising career in a prestigious American firm. While Changez always feels culturally different from most of his American colleagues and friends, the benefits of his lifestyle seem to him worth any compromises. His emotional roller coaster of angst, dissatisfaction, and guilt only begins after he has fallen in love with a troubled American young woman who cannot love him back.
As an older and wiser Changez relates his saga to the American stranger in a Lahore cafe, he acknowledges the American’s discomfort, wariness and suspicions, and attempts to allay the man’s fears. Yet, despite Changez’s likableness, the accessibility of his story, one can’t help feel the creepiness and danger inherent in the c conversation. I vacillated between feeling compassion for Changez and scanning for veiled threats between the lines.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of lost love, broken hearts, and the guilt that accompanies the lust for success and money. It is about the cultural abyss between the haves and the have-nots and the tidal pull of patriotism and loyalty. No matter how well we can identify with this Middle Eastern man’s feelings and experience, we are still left with “us” v. “them”. No matter how much we like Changez, like the American stranger, we can never let down our guard. But, then, isn’t that where bigotry begins? Fear becomes an excuse for suspicion, suspicion breeds contempt, and contempt precludes any chance of connection.
Like Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is more than a story. It’s a guided meditation. Hamid’s skillful storytelling allows us a safe space in which to examine thoughts and feelings that we otherwise might not acknowledge even to ourselves.
A recent customer shared with me the memories and feelings that one of my collages evoked for her. It got me thinking about the feelings triggered by things we see. We’ve all seen people who so resemble someone else that we are compelled to call that person and tell them we’ve spotted their doppelgänger. A glimpse of something similar to something else evokes memories that may feel good or terrible.
The way the brain processes information when we read is a good example of how we processes what we see. A veteran reader reads faster than a new reader because, through her experience, she’s looked at so many letters, words, sentences, and patterns that her eye doesn’t have to register every single letter. Instead, her eyes take in chunks and her brain fills in the rest using its own complicated system of probability. What are the chances, our brain might say, that “a_d” is anything other than “and” . (A gross oversimplification, but you get the idea.)
But what about when visual images evoke connections and emotions that don’t relate to any memory we’re conscious of? For example, recently I’ve been looking at medieval art – in particular icons – in preparation for teaching medieval history next year. The images have taken my breath away.
Until recently, I don’t think I’ve known how to appreciate art. Until I began doing art myself, I don’t think I knew what to look for or how to feel about art. So, it is as if a new dimension has opened up for me – an entire new way in which to view the world. For a girl who has always dreamed in words rather than images, this is a big deal.
I know that these centuries-old icons are not touching me because I’m particularly religious, so it isn’t so much the subject matter that moves me. Nothing in my past is sparked by seeing these images. I’ve tried to figure out what it is that I “like” about the images I’ve been viewing, and the first thing that came to me was the color. The vividness of the colors – blues, ochre, reds–give me a palpable rush of pleasure.
But, why does a color make me feel good? I started to research how colors affect our moods, but it didn’t hold my interest for long. All I could thing of was how an old neighbor of ours was convinced that our son’s bright red nursery would emotionally cripple him for life. Articles about “color trends” have always struck me as kind of superfluous, and anything I could have written in that vein would have been pulp.
So, I contemplated the colors and the feelings some more. The vivid colors created an immediacy to the image. It was real, in-your-face intensity. And I wondered, how did those vivid colors survive all these centuries? What power did those brushstrokes have to leap across centuries to reach out and touch me? My husband suggested it was lead paint and all kinds of other terrible stuff that can’t be used anymore. (see note below) Maybe. Probably. But I prefer to think of it as something more elegant. I love reading history books, but I could read all day long and not experience the visceral feeling I do when I look at one medieval icon or illuminated page. I’m not creating new historical insights or anything like that. It’s just an emotion. It’s just the feeling that we are connected throughout the centuries and across the globe by the humanity and passion of artists.
NOTE: I did find some info on the make-up of paints used by medieval artists on wikipedia:
“The medieval artist’s palette was surprisingly broad. In addition to the substances listed below, unlikely-sounding substances such as urine and earwax were used to prepare pigments.”
Red: Mercuric sulfide (HgS), often called cinnabar or vermilion, in its natural mineral form or synthesized; “red lead” or minium (Pb3O4); insect-based colours such as cochineal, kermes and lac; rust (iron oxide, Fe2O3) or iron oxide-rich earth compounds
Yellow: Plant-based colours, such as Weld, turmeric or saffron; yellow earth colours (ochre); orpiment (arsenic sulfide, As2S3)
Green: Plant-based compounds such as buckthorn berries; copper compounds such as verdigris and malachite
Blue: Ultramarine (made from the rock lapis lazuli) or azurite; smalt; plant-based substances such as woad, indigo, and folium or turnsole
White: Lead white (also called “flake white”, basic lead carbonate (PbCO3)); chalk
Black: Carbon, from sources such as lampblack, charcoal, or burnt bones or ivory; sepia; iron and gall
Gold: Gold, in leaf form (hammered extremely thin) or powdered and bound in gum arabic or egg (called “shell gold”)
Silver: Silver, either silver leaf or powdered, as with gold; tin leaf
Recently I picked up several rectangular shaped canvases – wider than they were tall. The format feels like a mural, one that invites the viewer to “read” the finished piece from left to right. Sure, it’s smaller than what we think of as a mural, it is fun for me to try to tell a story on these canvases.
Murals have been around for thousands of years. Think cave paintings. Our early ancestors tell us about how they lived in the paintings they left behind.
Many murals throughout history were frescos. Fresco comes from the latin affresco which means “fresh.” In frescos, the paint is applied on plaster on walls or ceilings. The frescos of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods told biblical stories and mythic tales. They were stories about the way people viewed their relationship with the world and its cosmic forces.
In the 1930s, the Mexican muralism movement gave us stories of social issues by artists like Diego Rivera and Jorge Gonzalez Camarena.
- Precencia de America Latina by Jorge Golzales Camarena
These artists drew on stories from their ancient past to reflect on social and political ideas. In Diego Rivera’s mural of the Market in Tlatelolco, you can lose yourself in the ancient streets.
- Diego Riveres’ Murales Rivera Market in Tlatelolco
- Murals bring art to the public. They are costly and outsized projects that generally require financing from a sponsor, like a local government or business as in Chemainus. Throughout history, murals were financed by wealthy patrons of the arts. Murals reflect a symbiotic relationship between artist, public, and our collective “story of the world.” A mural brings exposure for an artist. They bring exposure to the arts for the public. Murals are a way of expressing the beauty and the heartache of world in which we live.
- The west side of the Berlin Wall was poignant outcry against living in a world without freedom.
- 1986 view of the West side of the Berlin Wall
- The Bardia Mural in Lybia by John Frederick Brill.
- The Bardia Mural, created during World War II in Libya by artist John Frederick Brill shows images of war mixed in with beautiful images of the culture of his home. Unfortunately, though the mural still exists, it has been defaced. In 2009, Italian artists began renovating the mural.
Last year, Colquitt, Georgia was proclaimed Georgia’s First Mural City by its state legislature. It will be the host of the 2010 Global Mural Conference.
The goal of the organization that sponsors the Global Mural Conference is to promote the wealth of artistic and creative talent available world-wide. The Global Mural Conference was born in the Vancouver Island town of Chemainus. Chemainus was a dying town, with closed factories and a sagging economy. Then, in 1983, backed by the Ottawan government and local businesspeople, Chemainus commissioned 7 murals, plus 20 more over the next nine years. The themes for the murals were mostly based on old photos from a book about the history of Chemainus. Artists faced the challenge of painting directly on buildings, working around roof overhangs, windows, and door. The tallest mural was 33 feet. The longest was 120 feet. The changed Chemainus into a cultural attraction.
One wonders sometimes how a person can remain committed to a project that is too big, too expansive, too unwieldy. I believe the commitment comes from the deep need to tell our stories.
As a little girl and ballet student, the iconic paintings of ballet dancers in unguarded moments backstage were as familiar to me as my posters of teen idol Bobby Sherman. Of course, not many readers will remember Bobby Sherman, while Degas’ paintings of dancers endure. To my young eyes, the dancers in the paintings were the epitome of grace and beauty and therefore had to be living exotic and romantic lives. Kathryn Wagner, in her first novel, Dancing for Degas, satisfies every little ballerina’s curiosity by going beyond the canvas into the lives of Degas’ models.
Dancing for Degas is a fictionalized account of a young woman, Alexandrie, from a desperately poor farm family who goes to Paris to be a ballerina for the Paris Opera Ballet. The ballet company is, however, an elegant front for a high-class brothel. In Wagner’s story, wealthy patrons of the ballet – men of money and power – gain backstage access, including entrance to post-performance parties where alliances between the dancers and the patrons were forged. If a ballerina remained a virgin, she could aspire to be made a mistress of a patron. If she carelessly lost her virginity and failed to snag an exclusive arrangement, at age 25 the dancer was forced to become a prostitute.
Alexandrie is fascinated by Degas and his constant sketching at the ballet. She catches the eye of Degas and becomes one of his primary models for his series of dancer paintings. Alexandrie is archetype strong and intelligent female trapped in a male-dominated world. She finds Degas mercurial and mysterious. He is one of the few men in the ballerina’s circle who appreciates her intelligence. At heart, Dancing with Degas is less about the painter or the ballerinas and more of a girl-meets-boy love story. It’s a fun read, but should only be a starting point for a closer look into the life of the Paris Opera Ballet and the paintings of Degas. The real story is even more fascination.
Le Ballet de l’Opera national de Paris was established in 1661 by French King Louis XIV – who actually danced with the ballet from time to time. In Degas’ day, the Ballet was an important part of the cultural life in Paris. It is true that many of the dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet came from poor, working class families. Degas himself wrote, “It is among the common people that you find grace.” [i]
The dancers began training with the Opera at the age of 6, unlike Alexandrie who came as a teenager. These Opera “petit rats” trained under the stern hand of the Ballet Master. The Paris Opera Ballet was where “some of the city’s poorest young girls struggled to become the faries, nymphs and queens of the stage.” [ii]
But, was the ballet a front for a brothel? It was true that wealthy male patrons – called abonnes — had unusual access to the dancers. If you look closely at some of the paintings, you can see these men in the background. The abonnes often became “protectors” of the dancers. The wealthy abonnes “lurked in the foyers, flirted with the dancers in the wings and laid siege to their dressing” rooms.”[iii]
Was Degas an abonnes? Actually, Degas had to enlist the help of influential friends to gain backstage access to the ballerinas. However, he did become an abonne later in his life.[iv] At one point in his fascination with the ballet, Degas focused his attention on the abonnes. He did some illustrations for a writer’s satirical book about “the often sordid affairs of young dancers, their mothers and the abonnés” but the book was never published.
Once he gained access to classrooms and behind stage, Degas did more than 1500 pieces of the Paris Opera Ballet dancers. Over half were of dancers backstage or at rehearsal in unguarded poses and at rest. He focused on the natural cycle of work and rest. He admired the athleticism and controlled movement of the dancers and sought to depict the dancers’ potential movement, held in tension.[v]
In 1875, after the original Paris opera house burned, the Palais Garnier, became the new home of the ballet. Here, Degas regularly sketched the dancers. One ballerina later recalled that he “used to stand at the top or bottom of the many staircases . . . drawing the dancers as they rushed up and down.”[vi]
Sometimes Degas made “notes on his drawings, criticizing a dancer’s balance, or the placement of a leg. On one sketch he jotted down a teacher’s comment about a student’s awkwardness: ‘She looks like a dog pissing.'” [vii]
But Degas made even more drawings in his studio. He paid the young ballet students (called “petit rats“) and more experienced ballerinas to pose. Once, an inspector from the police morals unit came to the studio and demanded to know “why so many little girls were coming and going.” [viii]
In Dancing for Degas, the painter was moody and prone to anger. But, the real Degas enjoyed spending time with the dancers, who shared their gossip with the painter as they posed. [ix] As in Wagner’s book, Degas’ brother, Achille did have an affair with a ballerina. But, there is no evidence, though, that Degas had such an affair. He did have women friends, including women artist like Mary Cassatt, but some considered him a misogynist. As portrayed by Wagner, Degas never married because he believed a marriage would interfere with his work.
Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer” created particular controversy. His model was fourteen-year old ballet student named Marie van Goethem. Marie and her three sisters were training to become ballerinas. Marie rose fast in the ballet; she progressed from a petit rat to the corps de ballet by the time she was fifteen, just after Degas completed the sculpture. Unfortunately for Marie, she was fired from the ballet a couple of years later for excessive absences. Marie’s mother, a widow, was a laundress and is said to have prostituted her daughters. A newspaper article in 1882 claimed that Marie was a regular at disreputable cafes. Then, Marie faded from site, and we don’t know what eventually happened to her.[x]
The Paris Opera Ballet is still going strong – and quite reputable. Ballerinas still train at the Opera’s ballet school beginning at the age of sixteen. At their website, you can take a virtual tour of the Palais Garnier, where the Degas roamed the halls observing the dancers. Paris Opera Ballet: http://www.operadeparis.fr/cns11/live/onp/L_Opera/L_Opera_de_Paris/histoire_de_l_Opera.php?lang=en
”You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.” — Rabindranath Tagore.
We think of Leonardo da Vinci as the prototype Renaissance Man. Da Vinci had an unquenchable curiosity, was unhindered by the “you can’t do that” school of thought, and was adept in a range of fields as diverse as aerodynamics and painting religious scenes.
Rather than seeing da Vinci’s life as that of a rare genius, I think of him as a perfect example of someone who has kept his brain in good shape. Modern brain science supports the idea that, by exposing yourself to new information throughout life, the brain can remain fit like other muscles and organs in the body. The work the neurons in the brain do to take in, categorize, and store new data, actually strengthens the connections in the brain. So, it really is possible to “teach an old dog new tricks” as long as that old dog has been learning new tricks right along.
So, my curiosity was piqued when I came across an article about another “Renaissance Man,” Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was a turn of the century Bengali poet, novelist, musician,playwright, spiritualist, educator, philosopher, composer, singer, and cultural relativist. Renaissance, indeed.
He was born in 1861 and in 1913, he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tagore began writing poetry when he a boy, and published his first poetry when he was only sixteen. One of his poems is titled “Mind Without Fear”
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up
into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason
has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Politically, he took a stand against the British Raj. His written work shunned the restraints of classical forms to deal with personal and political issues. His writing seems as appropriate today as it did in his own time. Tagore said, “I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung.” Boy, who hasn’t felt that way in these days of social networking, cell phones, internet overload?
Tagore could have been writing about America’s current wars when he said, “If anger be the basis of our political activities, the excitement tends to become an end in itself, at the expense of the object to be achieved. Side issues then assume an exaggerated importance, and all gravity of thought and action is lost; such excitement is not an exercise of strength, but a display of weakness.”
A few years before his death, he developed a new interest — science. He wrote extensive essays on various scientific subjects. He debated Einstein on the newly emerging science of quantum mechanics and chaos. About physics, Tagore said, ” Our passions and desires are unruly, but our character subdues these elements into a harmonious whole. Does something similar to this happen in the physical world? Are the elements rebellious, dynamic with individual impulse? And is there a principle in the physical world which dominates them and puts them into an orderly organization?”
It inspires me to learn of someone so accomplished in so many fields of endeavor who gladly takes on new challenges throughout life.
Mohsin Hamid brackets his first novel, Moth Smoke, with the story of Aurengzeb, the brutal ruler of the Mughal Empire. On his deathbed, he regrets his life of cruelty and tells his sons not to follow his example. But it was too late; the sons had already inherited their father’s fighting spirit.
Against this ancient canvas, Hamid tells a story of modern Pakistan, rich with corruption, drugs, and privilege. Daru Shezad is a restless, bored banker who looses his job and spirals downward from there, sleeping with his best friend’s wife and wading ever deeper into criminal activities to support himself.
I knew the story would be dark when, early in the book, Daru drives the roads of Lahore on the way to visit a friend he’s not seen in a long time. He drives with his knee as he empties the tobacco from a cigarette and fills it back up with hash. I could not forget years of seeing news coverage of car bombs exploding in Middle Eastern countries. Daru’s elaborate cigarette choreography was ominous. Didn’t he know he lived in a dangerous place? The answer to that question is, not really.
The title, Moth Smoke, comes from a game Daru makes up involving a moth, a flaming candle, and a tennis racket. Like the moth who can’t help but fly close to the flame, Daru cannot see his own reckless behavior. The game mirrors his accelerating downward spiral. Daru isn’t an admirable man, or even a likable one, but he is disarmingly clueless as to his flaws. For instance, while he fiercely resents not quite ranking with the jet set, he sees nothing wrong with physically and verbally abusing his young house servant, refusing to pay his salary for weeks on end.
Despite his modern lifestyle, he is still tied fast to the ancient tradition of class. Hamid neither glorifies nor judges modern Pakistan and there’s no sentimentality for tradition. In Lahore, as in other cities of the world, people get jobs, lose jobs, go to parties, and fall in love, and betray friends. In Moth Smoke, though, it takes place in the shadow of Pakistan’s first nuclear test and you cannot forget that Pakistan is another character in this story.