Friday, February 22, 2013

Ray Taras

Ray Taras is a New Orleans author who directed Tulane University's World Literature Program until Hurricane Katrina forced its closure. Comparative literature and world cinema have been teaching and research interests of his for many years. His latest books include Xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe and, as editor, Challenging Multiculturalism: European Models of Diversity.

Earlier this month I asked him about what he was reading.  Taras's reply:
I’m still curious why a couple of years ago, at the height of the Eurozone crisis, so many disparaging attacks were leveled at Greece that went well beyond its alleged economic mismanagement. I trust novelists more than political economists to provide truthful accounts of harsh realities, so I turned to one of Greece’s foremost writers, Rhea Galanaki, for a narrative illuminating its recent past.

Eleni, or Nobody tells us about the dual lives – one as a woman artist, the other as a woman in male disguise – lived by nineteenth-century painter Eleni Altamura-Boukoura. Through Eleni’s schizophrenic behavior we can follow Greece’s own struggle for national identity and how transnational encounters, in this case with Italy, can be both constructive and harmful.

A very well-written and well-translated novel, it raises two other important subjects. One is the humiliations, private and public, that an over-achieving woman had to endure. Counter intuitively, these occurred more frequently in Florence, the cradle of the Italian Renaissance, than they did on the Greek island of Spetses where Eleni lived for much of her life. The other is the attention given to the unglamorous unromantic part of a life, let’s say the 25 years after reaching a professional peak. The consolation for Eleni is, as her niece vows, that “this inheritance, whether of power or foolishness, should pass down from woman to woman and be kept from the corresponding power and foolishness of men” (p.180).

In many respects Galanaki has written a Maritime novel which includes seafaring accounts, including of Eleni’s son’s voyage to study art in Denmark. In considering Europe’s north-south cultural divide, I wish I could compare it to a recent novel by Carsten Jensen, Sidste Rejse (“The Last Voyage”), about Carl Rasmussen, a late nineteenth-century Danish Maritime painter. Unfortunately it hasn’t been translated into a language I read with fluency. Credit goes to Northwestern University Press, which published Eleni, or Nobody, whose catalog is an El Dorado of less known literature in translation.

Tan Twan Eng will surely win the Man Booker Prize one of these years. The Garden of Evening Mists which I am currently reading was shortlisted for the 2012 award and his first book, The Gift of Rain, made the Booker long list. Yugiri (“evening mists” in Japanese) is the lush tropical setting, a secluded garden in the highlands of Malaya.

The two main characters come from such contrasting backgrounds that, the reader would think, any cross-cultural encounter between them would be doomed. Aritomo is a master Japanese gardener having served the Emperor no less. By way of his noble occupation he appears to have avoided taking part in Japan’s brutal wartime occupation of Malaya.

Yun Ling is a retired Cambridge-educated Malaysian Supreme Court judge who assisted in the prosecution of Japanese war criminals. The only survivor of a Japanese internment camp where her sister died, Yun Ling reluctantly agrees to serve as Aritomo’s apprentice in the design of a garden dedicated to the memory of her sister, who had once been overcome by the beauty of a garden she had seen in Kyoto. Failing health and memory make Yun Ling’s gardening work urgent – and surreal – as a brutal communist insurgency rages in the tropical forests.

It is coincidence that I am reading my second “Asian highlands novel” of 2013. Anuradha Roy’s The Folded Earth is set on India’s side of the Himalayan foothills and also tells a spellbinding story of people escaping their past. Place in novels appeals, and may even lessen our carbon footprint when we are glued reading them at home.
Learn more about Xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe and Challenging Multiculturalism: European Models of Diversity at the Columbia University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe.

--Marshal Zeringue