September 06, 2008

Sea of Many Returns

“In Acland Street, St Kilda, there stands a café called Scheherazade. As to how it came to have such a name, therein lies a story. Many stories in fact, recounted at a table in the back room where the proprietors, Mr and Mrs Zeleznikow, Avram and Masha, sit most nights of the week and eat, hold court, greet customers, check accounts, argue and reminisce. What else is there to do on this rain-sodden Melbourne night, as pedestrians rugged in overcoats stroll on pavements glistening grey… this is how it is in Acland Street, an avenue of old-world dreams.”

Arnold Zable lives in Melbourne, but he was born here in New Zealand which earned him the right to appear at Auckland City Libraries’ first New Zealand Book Month event, “Lounge around the Library on a Sunday morning” , happening - guess when - this Sunday morning, Sept. 7th at 10:30 am. In anticipation of this event, over the last couple of weeks I have been bringing his books over to my desk whenever I run into one, and tonight I opened the one called Café Scheherazade and was blown away by realising that Scheherazade - my Scheherazade - was not just a catchy title but the whole point of the book.

Arnold Zable is a child of Polish-Jewish refugees who writes and performs stories which he invents, or rather elaborates, out of his travels and his knowledge of Yiddish culture absorbed from listening to people like Avram and Masha, who really exist. David Roskies called Yiddish storytelling a “politics of rescue” for successive generations of displaced Jewish artists, I think because it is a traditional art which however is able to transcend the limits of geography, a portable tradition, if you will. And if the Yiddish culture was practically wiped out in Europe in the Holocaust, the last and greatest attack made on it but only one of many over two or three centuries, new shoots have come forth in the New World. Good for the New World!

Zable’s new book, which he just presented at the Christchurch Writers’ Festival before coming up to Auckland, is set in Ithaca and is called The Sea of Many Returns and has as its theme displacement, again, but also exile and nostalgia, what he calls the “ancient longing welling up from the sea”. He will be talking about his book with Denys Trussell, the poet who deemed Auckland the city of transience “rising / sinking on the isthmus shallows / that change forever with the sea”.

"To Melbourne’s first storytellers: the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people. And to all those who are still in search of a haven, a place they can call home."       -- Café Scheherazade, the dedication

September 03, 2008

Does fiction matter?

Who is the most famous storyteller in history? It has to be Scheherezade. And one of the most famous of the tales which she told for one thousand nights and one night is the story of the doctor who comes to the court of a Greek king and cures him of leprosy. Of course the vizier is jealous and tells the king all kinds of lies about the doctor, ultimately convincing him to sentence the doctor to death. Just before he is about to have his head cut off, the doctor tells the king that he has a book with a magic spell in it which will make his head, after it has been severed, answer any question the king asks. The king has the book brought to him, the doctor is beheaded, and the head tells the king to start reading. The king starts turning the pages to get to the spell which can reanimate the dead; the pages are stuck together and he has to lick his finger to turn them. “Where is it?” “Keep turning the pages.” The king's mouth begins to foam and he falls down dead. The doctor had poisoned the book.

syndetics-lcIf you thought, what a smart doctor, that’s what I always thought as well. But the mythologically surprising Marina Warner, in the July 11 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, offers the idea that the story is a parable about the power of literature: the book as a deadly weapon.

 New Zealand Book Month has arrived for its third annual visit, like a comet it appeared at sunset last night, low over the city, with a shimmering long tail of books trailing behind. To be exact, seventy-five tasty, succulent and meaty New Zealand books. Authors, publishers, booksellers and at least two librarians gathered to observe it at the opening ceremony which was magnificently orchestrated to put everyone in a good mood, certainly me who won a raffle prize and even, eventually, the friend of mine who had reacted a bit grumpily to being reminded of New Zealand's outsized fixation on a violent game by a performance of an excerpt from Foreskin's lament.

syndetics-lcGordon McLauchlan was at the Library the other day and I told him about my idea to have a New Zealand Book Month event that asks a question, something like “Is there a New Zealand literature?”. He told me that back when he reviewed books for the Listener, he could read every book published in New Zealand easily, without it putting any particular pressure on his time. Now of course it would be impossible, even if he didn’t take time out for the Finnish national radio’s news bulletin in Latin. We mused about whether we could ask “Is there a Great New Zealand Novel?”. He dangled The God Boy; I recalled how enraptured I was when I read The Godwits Fly. I wondered if it were true that narrative and fiction determine a country’s character as much as its laws and economy and politics do, as Marina Warner claims. We took a moment to chew this over and then Gordon said, "Maybe the question could simply be 'Does fiction matter?'"

"The sky behind the flat houses and the taller brick shape of the Old Men’s Home, dipped softly down, a perfect round. It was pale blue, not shiny, not cloudy, but shot with streams of tiny bubble, all moving upwards in an unending stream. Suddenly Eliza felt awed and happy. She thought, ‘Isn’t it big… isn’t it big…’ She tried to imagine anything bigger than the sky, and failed. The blue curve dipped down far away, just a little beyond shops and houses, and the foam-daisied harbour, and the brown hills. Because it was so big, there was nothing in the world unhappy or uncomforted; they were all streaming and shining up toward it, like the bubbles."

--Robin Hyde, The Godwits Fly, 1938

Does fiction matter?

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