Monday, May 25, 2009

Two exiles

33. Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín

Eilis Lacey is a young Irish woman, living with her widowed mother and her sister in post-World War II, economically depressed Ireland. When a visiting priest from the United States suggests that she could find work in there, she passively accepts her family's decision that she should emigrate. Initially, she is very homesick, but slowly learns to adjust to her new life and her new independence. Having fallen in love with an Italian (shock!), she suddenly finds that she must return to Ireland to deal with a death in the family. There, she must confront her family's expectations for her future, and well as her own.

As with all Tóibín's books, this one deals primarily with the themes of privacy and distance, particularly distance between family members. It isn't so much that people want to keep secrets, as that it seems not to occur to them to share their feelings or to discuss their lives.

As usual, also, Tóibín writing is perceptive and thoughtful. His descriptions of Eilis' seasickness on the journey over and her homesickness are unerring. "She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there. In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the Vocational School, the air, the light, the ground, it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought."

Though this is not my favorite of Tóibín's books, I would certainly recommend it. (A not-great book of Tóibín's is better than most writers' best.)

An excellent article about Tóibín from the New York Times: His Irish Diaspora

34. Ruins, by Achy Obejas

In Cuba's "Special period in peacetime" following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which had been the economic support for Cuba, Usnavy Martín-Leyva, is still a true believer, an outsider, almost an exile, in his own country, while others choose exile outside of it. His neighbors and friends have their cheats around the black market, their ways to get around the dismal economy, but Usnavy is still too much of a Revolutionary to follow suit. Everything bad seems to happen to Usnavy. His fellow domino players call him "salao", bad luck. His one room home is crumbling under the weight of his upstairs neighbor's illegal construction. His fourteen-year-old daughter goes off doing who knows what.

Then one day he takes some powdered milk from the bodega where he works to provide a baby with sustenance when a friend flees the country with his family. This act triggers something in him, and though his heart still with the Revolution, he nevertheless begins the chase for the almighty dollar. The glass from two lamps, both perhaps Tiffanys, one dug out of the ruins of a neighborhood building, the other an inheritance from his mother, provide him, literally piece by piece, with the currency that allows him to buy a bicycle, to buy new shoes, ultimately a car. But what, really, is the price?

I think that too often writers about Cuba, both of fiction and non-fiction, see the country in black-and-white. The Revolution is all good or all bad. Exiles are gusanos or heroes. But life and the world aren't like that. Neither are Obejas' Cubans. They are people struggling to make decent lives for themselves and their families, and who make hard choices in that struggle.

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