Robert Pinsky was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1997-2000, and therefore my expectations for his translation of Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece The Inferno were very high. I was not disappointed.
Pinsky recreates the medieval world view of religion and society -the original political subtext – the stunning imagery – and the 3-line interlocking stanzas of the terza rima rhyming scheme to great effect
Staying close to Dante’s intent, Pinsky underscores the symbiotic relationship between poetry and love. He draws parallels between the narrator’s journey from Hell to Heaven with that of Ulysses’ adventures in Homer’s Odyssey, maintaining the power of the original poetry and making it accessible to the modern reader. The Italian text is printed alongside the revised translation.
Dante’s work has influenced a wide range of intellectuals from Galileo through to the Modernists of the early 20th Century, particularly T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce. Many artists have chosen to illustrate The Inferno in their own style. This edition contains 35 interesting monotypes by Michael Mazur, though I personally favor the earlier illustrations of Salvador Dali.
Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) is a classic example of magical realism, but it is also a satirical historical fiction. The unreliable narrator – Saleem Sinai – is one of 1001 children born between midnight and 1.00am on August 15, 1947, which was the moment of India’s independence from Britain. Although he is the bastard child of a beggar woman, a nurse switches him at birth with another boy called Shiva, so he grows up as the only son of a wealthy couple. All of the children arriving in the same hour as the birth of the new nation are endowed with special powers – “transmutation, flight, prophecy and wizardry,” but Saleem has the most powerful gift of all. He is telepathic and able to communicate with the other gifted youngsters across the country. Saleem persuades them to form the MCC (Midnight Children’s Conference), but even with all their combined powers they end up being persecuted by the authorities.
Rushdie uses magical realism to construct a parallel history between the person (Saleem) and the state (India) in the fairy-tale style of the Arabian Nights. The hero becomes entwined in a series of events that are not only fantastical, but are often scientifically dubious at best, and historically inaccurate at worst. This creates confusion, uncertainty, and a shift in the reader’s reality that many critics have found disturbing. Rushdie’s symbolism is also heavy-handed. There is little subtlety in his continual reference to snakes, ladders, noses, and knees.
The strength of Midnight’s Children lies in the central theme: What is reality? Rushdie makes us question history, fact, truth, memory, and narrative. Ultimately, truth depends “on perspective and belief.” He decides that, “Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible.”
Midnight’s Children is often compared with Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Both novels are mystical, philosophical, and enchanting – yet the German Classic has an additional lyrical element that I found more compelling.
(Photo: Kit Perriman)
Any one fascinated by Shakespeare’s Macbeth will love the question behind Mercedes Rochelle’s debut book: How do the sons of Banquo come to rule Scotland? The three weird sisters tell Macbeth’s companion that “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” – a promise that sets in motion the deadly events of the famous play.
Heir To A Prophecy (Hampshire: Top Hat Books, 2014) follows a fragmented trail through Scottish history – tracing the line from Banquo’s son Fleance to King James Ist of England – with a similar mix of fact, fiction, and supernatural interference as found in the original tale. We know that Banquo is murdered on Macbeth’s orders, but that his son Fleance escapes. In Rochelle’s version he goes into exile in Wales at the court of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, where he woos and impregnates the king’s daughter, Nesta.
Nesta bears an illegitimate son called Walter, who enlists in Harold Goodwineson’s service and ends up fighting at Dunsinane and Hastings. Along the way he befriends Prince Malcolm, King Duncan’s heir to the Scottish throne. Years later, Walter settles in Malcolm’s court and is rewarded for his services, becoming the first Steward of Scotland. This legitimizes his position, and prepares the way for future descendants of the royal house of Stuart.
Rochelle’s portrayal of the three witches is particularly interesting. They appear at various points in her story to advance their original prophecy, but rather than being the weird old hags of Shakespeare’s era they are associated with the Norns of Scandinavian mythology – fates who control mankind’s destiny. But aside from this nod to the bard, Rochell wisely does not attempt to imitate one of the great literary masterpieces with a sophisticated, high-brow response. Instead she writes a plain, rollicking tale that should have broad appeal for those readers who like a fast-paced romp through history.
This novel is nicely edited and presented. The setting, however, is too broad a time-period to examine and explore the various situations in any great depth. Heir[s] To A Prophecy could well have been a whole series, with each book focusing on one central character – Fleance, Walter, and so on!
Cecelia Holland’s The King’s Witch (New York: Berkley, 2011) is a historical novel set during the Third Crusade to take Jerusalem, around 1191. Edythe – a young Jewish woman pretending to be Christian – is dispatched by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine to inform on her children, Richard the Lionheart and his sister Johanna. Edythe has inherited a little folk-healing skill from her physician father, and using her knowledge of herbs and potions she manages to save the king’s life when he contracts a dangerous fever, a feat than earns her the nickname of witch. Fortunately, this is the era before the Burning Times swept across Europe.
King Richard embarks on his holy campaign to atone for the homosexuality he believes makes him a monster in the eyes of God. On the same journey, Edythe begins her own religious pilgrimage to discover and reclaim her Jewish heritage. She develops a bond with another outsider, the king’s bastard relative called Rouquin, who tells her that Richard’s crusade “isn’t about God” but rather “about power.” This ironically proves true at the end – with the suggestion that the strongest power on earth is love.
Although a lot of political background informs the start of the novel, Holland’s crisp style cuts cleanly through to the center of this original, inventive tale. It is well-researched and nicely executed, especially the early medicinal knowledge which includes a particularly harrowing head-trauma surgery.
The King’s Witch can be classified as both a romance and a fiction. And while the relationship between Edythe and Rouquin is not entirely convincing, the action scenes and excellent details prove sufficient to make this a satisfying historical novel.
Do you believe in Zombies? Having studied Voodoo in Jamaica and Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston’s book Tell My Horse (1938) claims that the undead really do exist and she has seen proof with her own eyes!
As a member of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was interested in recovering authentic black feminine power. But she did not look for it in the guise of the New Woman, she wanted to reconnect with the wily, wild conjure woman from the African Ur-cultures, the pagan witches of antiquity.
Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica is divided into three parts. The first two are a little disorganized as she describes the history and politics of Jamaica and Haiti. Legend has it that while Hurston was doing “under cover” research in Jamaica, the natives found out she was going to publish their secrets and she had to flee the island in fear of her life.
The third section about Voodoo is both disturbing and compelling. Hurston respectfully introduces this practice as “a religion of creation and life,” but then describes at length the “people who have been called back from the dead,” in particular “this case of Felicia Felix-Mentor . . . So I know there are Zombies in Haiti.” But these are not the flesh-eating TV characters that appear in The Walking Dead. Haitian Zombies are generally called back for one of three reasons: to work as free manual labor toiling in the fields; as the revenge of an enemy who wants to deny them eternal rest and peace; or as a sacrifice to another spirit. It is the Haitian version of giving-a-soul-to-the-devil.
The dead person’s spirit is stolen by the Bocor who turns the body into a mindless slave. Bocors are the “bad witches” of Voodo, as opposed to the “good witch” leaders called the Houngan.
Tell My Horse is a strange and fascinating attempt to explain the West Indian Obeah practices. It is weird – and at times disgusting – and definitely an acquired taste. Scholars will find it useful, but I do not think its antiquated style holds much appeal for the general reader.
Fortunately, it is a very different book from Hurston’s other stellar work!
The Witch of Eye
Set in the mid-Fifteenth Century, The Witch of Eye is a historical fiction based on the true story of Margery Jourdemayne, a wise woman from Eye Next Westminster, who was eventually burned at the stake. The infamous Witch of Eye acts on behalf of the Duchess of Gloucester, Eleanor Cobham, who is desperate to give Duke Humphrey a son. Into these known facts Mari Griffith skillfully weaves an invented love story between a dairymaid called Jenna Harding, and Margery Jourdemayne’s yeoman farmer husband, William.
Griffith draws a convincing scene of life in medieval England and her attention to detail is very impressive. She portrays that ambiguous time when people of all ranks looked to supernatural forces to help them achieve their desires, sometimes even assisted by members of the clergy. Jenna Harding is the most modern – and appealing – character who is drawn into dangerous circumstances over which she has little control. Fortunately, things work out well for her in the end.
I enjoyed this well-paced book. Highly recommended if you like a touch of romance in your historical fiction!
Elizabeth Kostova’s epic novel The Historian is a rich and unusual retelling of the Dracula myth. The narrator is an unnamed professor’s daughter who embarks on a quest to uncover the secrets of her family’s history, only to find herself drawn into the dark world of vampires descending from Vlad the Impaler.
The entire book is a historical mystery, spanning several continents and many generations. Its central premise – that Dracula is still alive and stalking the European academics who are hunting him – leads both the narrator and her father on the well-trodden trail in search of Vlad’s tomb.
But The Historian is also a serious and scholarly investigation of Transylvanian mythology, blending the known facts about the real Vlad the Impaler with Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula. Its examination of good and evil, quest and obsession, religion, superstition, and family ties, at first appears quaint, but ends up quite thought-provoking.
Kostova’s version is original and well-told, full of beautiful descriptions that evoke the terror and suspense of the supernatural theme. And while Dracula’s central motivation is rather banal – there are a lot of convenient co-incidences – and the letter format is too lengthy in parts – I still found this book a captivating and enjoyable read.