Saturday, 17 November 2012

Chronicles of A Dyspeptic Man: Trading Seminar

These are uncertain times in Europe. Euro-zone is facing, according to financial sections of most broadsheets, economic meltdown. It is staring into the abyss. Indeed, Euro-zone has been facing meltdown for such a long time, you are surprised that it still exists; that what used to be Europe hasn’t become one gigantic river of lava, nation-states having been melted.

Here in the UK we don’t know where our next meal is going to come from. The economy has been in you-believe-it’s-called-double-dip-recession for two years. (You are not convinced that the minuscule growth thanks to London Olympics in the last quarter is going to last; the economy is going to flat-line again. Mervyn thinks so too.) The world financial crisis (you blame the Americans for it) blew a hole in the public finances of the UK (and most of European countries) the size of Czechoslovakia. Everyone (except the rich) is worried. The middle-classes are worried, angry and confused. Worried because they aren't sure whether they would keep their jobs in the local councils—with titles such as Assurance Manager and Talent Manager—even though they are hugely important and they can’t imagine how any public service department could be run even semi-decently without their contributions. Angry and confused because they can’t make up their minds whom to blame for this: Gordon Brown for his profligacy during the boom years or the nasty rulers who are pushing through the austerity measures with the zeal of a rapist; and because they can’t decide what position they should take vis a vis the ‘benefit classes’, the hordes who have been on benefits for decades, more than one generation, even, in many instances, and who seem incapable of doing any meaningful work and, into the bargain, keep on producing vast armies of children, raising them (in a manner of speaking) at tax-payers’ expense. Are they to be pitied (poor, unfortunate, disadvantaged folks who are being further victimized for no fault of their own), or do they deserve scorn (lazy, work-shy scumbags and freeloaders)? That’s the price you pay for serving a life-sentence in intelligentsia.

George Osborne’s draconian cuts have left all those Middle-class Tory voters screaming that they are not really as comfortably off as that; they are just people who buy tennis rackets for their children off e bay, drive around in clapped out Vauxhalls and go on holidays in rusty caravans in North Norfolk and eat in the local Sainsbury cafes.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way out? The term, you keep on hearing, is financial freedom. What you would really like is to be the master of your own destiny; to work, say, for no more than two three hours a day, and earn shedload of money so that your time is free to do—I don’t know—charity work?

You have a friend who is convinced that the quickest way to the riches is stock market. You tell him that no one in your knowledge (you do not say that that includes him, out of politeness) ever became rich on stock market.

‘You don’t understand,’ your friend tells you, with an impatient shrug of his shoulders that suggests that while he is a tolerant man by nature his patience is wearing thinner than Jo Brand’s thong, by your asinine comments, ‘that the old ways of share trading are history. Who wants to waste money in commissions and wait for the shares to rise? Which they might not?  You want to be in and out in minutes. Hours at tops. OK, may be days; but not more than two or three. That’s the only way you will retire at 50 with a million in your bank account.’

‘What have you been doing about it then?’ you feel compelled to ask.

Your friend informs you that he opened a CFD account a few weeks ago.

‘And how many thousands have you collected so far?’

It turns out that he lost 800 pounds in the previous week.

‘Sometimes,’ your friend says with the sagacity of a, well, sage, ‘your calculations go wrong. That’s life. We have to deal with it. I shorted Marks and Sparks, but the frigging shares went up. It was just as well,’ he continues, cheering up momentarily, ‘that I had put a stop loss order. Otherwise I’d have been wiped out.’

‘Does this mean,’ you ask your friend, ‘that you could afford to lose 800 pounds?’

‘Not really.’

‘Then why in the name of Buddha did you not set your limits lower?’

‘Because I didn’t think I was going to lose. This was a sure-fire thing.’

‘But you did lose. 800 pounds.’

‘That’s the fun of it,’ your friend educates you.

‘That’s one way of looking at it.’

A few weeks later your friend phones you. There is going to be a free stock market seminar in the town. Where the secrets of successful trading will be revealed.

‘What’s the catch?’ you ask.

‘There is no catch. It’s free.’

‘Nothing in this world is free,’ you take the opportunity to educate your friend.

In the end you allow yourself to be persuaded to go with your friend to the seminar. It is held in a hotel you have never heard of, even though you have lived in the town for over five years. The hotel is situated in a less salubrious part of the town.

The receptionist—an overweight blonde in a hideous make-up—directs you to where the seminar is taking place. You go to a big waiting room. There is a table in the room, with a laptop on it.

‘Are you here for the seminar?’ A man emerges from a side corridor. He is tall and parades a grapefruit belly that wobbles unattractively, like a loosely tethered balloon on a stick, in front of him.

‘Yes,’ your friend replies. Why else would we be here?

‘The trading seminar?’ The man wants to be sure.

‘Is there any other seminar going on?’ Your friend snaps. He is trying to give up smoking and is somewhat irritable.

‘There might be,’ you say. ‘How would he know?’  You point at the man. He seems barely to recollect the seminar he is representing. ‘Yes, the trading seminar. We are here to learn the secrets of successful training.’

‘And you won’t be disappointed, sir, I promise you,’ the man says.  He has this weird accent, as if he has had a stroke or something. ‘Let me give your badges, sir. Could you tell me your first names? Please take your seat while I deal with it. Help yourself to drinks while you are waiting. We should be starting,’ he looks at his watch, ‘in five minutes.’ The ‘drinks’ are glasses of water.

You and your friend sit on two of the chairs. You look around. You are surrounded by, you feel, a collection of biggest losers you have seen in recent times.

A man with pock marks on his face is sitting in one corner staring at the ceiling. He looks forlorn. Looking at his ravaged face you think that if he is worried about anything it is probably where his next swig of liquor is going to come from.

Behind the alcoholic are sitting, hands in hands and with thighs touching snugly, two peroxide blonde men with combined age of 40. The hair of one of them covers the front of his face down to his nose and ears on either side. It is as if his head is tightly covered in a yellow coloured basket.

Finally, there is a man wearing an overcoat; he looks like a butcher on a vacation who, looking for the nearest pub, has wandered by mistake into this seminar.

After a while the man with grapefruit belly turns up and informs the group is that it is time to proceed to the next room.

As we saunter into the next room, you notice a woman standing near the door, who seems to have modelled herself on Victoria Beckham (shaped like a razor-clam, hatchet jawed, silicon-enhanced boobs, and in need of a good licking). The woman stands there baring her teeth in a failed attempt at a smile.

We take our seats. You notice that on each chair is a notepad and pencil. On the wall in front of you is a screen. Soon a film starts. It is an advertisement of the bloke who has arranged this seminar. He runs a company which, various people in the advertisement inform you, simply can’t fail to make you rich. The advertisement goes on for a few minutes and ends in a jousting music with the nostrils and teeth of the bloke filling the screen.

At that moment ‘Victoria Beckham’ enters the room. She walks to the front swinging her atrophied backside, tightly wrapped in designer trousers. When she reaches the front she turns, pointing her fake breasts at the audience. (Actually, you think, silicon breasts are as real as they come; they would make a clang if they dropped on the floor; could fake breasts do that?)

A  couple arrives—a man and a woman, both morbidly obese. The man is wearing the most crumpled suit since the one found in the suitcase rescued from the Titanic. The woman, judging by the layer of grease covering her hair and face, has not found her way in and out of a bath in weeks. She has gigantic breasts, and, looking at their sideways movement as the woman parks her bottom on a chair, you think (with a shudder) that she is probably not wearing a brassiere.

‘Thank God!’ ‘Victoria Beckham’ exclaims, ‘there is at least one woman. I was feeling lonely.’

The fat woman looks around her, as if to confirm that there is no woman other than her in the audience, then smiles at the speaker, revealing haphazardly arranged yellowish teeth.

‘Let me introduce myself,’ the speaker starts. ‘My name is Joan Fox. I am a private trader. I am a full-time private trader, and have done nothing else for the last six years. And I am so happy that I took the decision to give up my day-time job. It has given me so much freedom.’ The woman pauses to take a breath. She drinks from a cup a brownish liquid which probably passes in the NHS as coffee (so undrinkable) and continues: ‘You will no doubt have guessed that I am not a local girl.’ That is obvious. Her accent is like lashes of a whip. She mentions the name of an African country and claims to have been born in it. She then gives an account of her life in that country. Her parents were English; she had a brother; and hers was a close and loving family. She was happily married and had two children.

You wait. Any time now, you think, it will all go pear-shaped for the woman. Why else would she wash up in England? You are not disappointed. The father loses his job and turns to drink, or maybe, it’s the husband who loses his job and something else happens to the father—maybe he develops cancer of his scrotum; no, it’s the mother who gets the cancer—but she couldn’t possibly get scrotal cancer; maybe it is cancer of rectum. And something ghastly happens to the brother. That’s right; he gets murdered—one of the many victims of gun crime which has, apparently, become more abundant in that African country than paedophiles in Britain. When the brother is murdered, Joan Fox is pregnant and the shock of her brother’s untimely and gruesome death results in a miscarriage. How awful. Can she be blamed for feeling fed up with the African country, and wanting out? Luck smiles on her.  Her husband is offered a job—maybe it was he, and not the father, who lost the job—in the UK, and the family—the woman’s family sans the cancer-stricken father or mother or both and one of them an alcoholic—packs its bags and heads for the Blighty.’

You look around. The fat man with the crumpled suit is scratching dandruff off his bald scalp; the fat, smelly woman is scratching her breasts; the gay-boys are taking notes (!); the butcher is looking at the woman with eyes narrowed (either because of myopia or suspicion); and the alcoholic has the far-away look of a man about to have an epileptic seizure.

Joan Fox’s troubles are not over yet. The company which has offered her husband a job in the UK has gone into administration while the family was airborne. They get the good news upon landing. There then follows, according to the woman, a soul-destroying search for a job, which ends with both of them getting soul-destroying jobs. The woman gets a job paying her 25 K per annum even though she is a doctor, she would have you believe, just because her qualifications were not approved in the UK. (Couldn’t she have given the British exams and work as a doctor in this country? Perhaps she was fed of being a doctor. Or maybe she is lying and is not—and has never been—a doctor.)

‘You know that feeling,’ Joan Fox looks straight at you. Why is she looking at you? You don’t know the feeling. You are not a doctor (real or fake); you don’t have a brother; no one in your family that you know of died a violent death, and you’ve never had a miscarriage because you never got pregnant. ‘You are sitting at your desk, doing a shitty job that you hate,’ Joan Fox continues. (You know that feeling.) You ask yourself, “How did I get here?” You can’t see a way out. You feel trapped. The drudgery is never-ending.’

Then one day Joan Fox decided to attend a trading seminar, just like the one she is speaking in. ‘I was sitting exactly where you are sitting.’ Joan Fox stares at you again and bares her teeth. You stare back at her without any expressions on your face. She is not fazed. You look down.

The story continues. The seminar is exactly the answer to the question she is asking herself; to wit: how can I earn money, lots of money, without doing any honest work?

Joan Fox pauses, takes a deep breath, pushes her tits further and asks the audience, ‘Are you with me so far?’ Only the greasy woman in the audience nods. ‘Because,’ Joan Fox announces, ‘things are going to get whole lotta interesting.’

They don’t really. They become predictable. Joan Fox borrows money from her sister-in-law. Two grand, she says. She would be happy, she tells herself, if she could earn extra thousand pounds a month. She is not a greedy woman; she isn’t asking for the world. Thousand extra pounds a month would do; she can then upgrade her weekly shopping from Asda to Sainsbury’s. And, slowly but surely, she starts making money. She doesn’t trade the whole day; she is not glued to her lap-top; she trades an hour in the morning and another hour or two in the evening. That’s it, really. And nowadays she does not even trade whole week; she trades only three days a week. And she is on her way to become a millionaire, would you believe it? (You don’t.) Nowadays she has her holidays in Paris, in Milan and in Moscow. (What the f**k is she doing in this s**thole of a hotel, then?). How has she managed it? She has managed it exactly the way your friend says money can be made (although he hasn’t made it yet). She does not buy shares. That is for boring farts. She does not do passive investing; that is for the retarded. If you have more than twelve functioning neurones in your brain, turn away from Vanguard. That will not make you rich quickly. Don’t listen to the lies of how passive investing beats the market over twenty-five years. What is the guarantee that you’d even be alive in twenty-five years? And even if you live that long, what’s the point of getting rich in your dotage? You want money now. In any case traditional investing won’t make you rich; your bank account will be as empty as Kira Knightly’s brassiere if you stick to traditional investing.

What is the secret then? The secret, you silly sausage, is not to buy shares, but to bet on shares. You make a guess which share is likely to gain in value and which share’s fortunes are lower than Spain’s GDP; and bet accordingly. You couldn’t go wrong, honestly! The recession around you might be fatal to the thousands, but you don’t let that bother you; you will still be making money. If the others are stupid enough not to take advantage of this opportunity of making money out of thin air, they really do deserve all the miseries that visit them.

But how does one know for sure which share is going to rise and which one is going to disappear down the tube faster than Jimmy Savile’s reputation? Aa ha! That’s where the dude who has arranged the ‘teaching seminar’ comes into picture. This guy, Joan Fox informs you, is driven by the pure desire to make people rich. He has figured it all out. He has a team of crackjack professional traders and has more gadgets at his disposal than James Bond. He has computer programmes that will scan for you Dow Jones, FTSE 350, whatever you fancy. It will run all the fancy algorithms dreamed up by those geeky men in their twenties (‘Yes, they are all men, I am afraid,’ Joan Fox grimaces at the fat woman in the audience; the woman shrugs as high as her breasts would allow, as if to indicate life is unfair but such is the lot of women), which no one outside of eccentric Cambridge mathematicians can understand. The computer programmes will also tell you at what level you should sell out and the limits of your loss should the unthinkable happens and the share ‘misbehaves’.  Couldn’t be simpler.

Let me ask you a question,’ Joan Fox says. ‘Imagine you have 5000 pounds to invest.’ 

Looking at the faces of the audience you imagine that 5000 pounds is beyond their imagination. They probably do not have 5000 pounds amongst them. 

‘5000 pounds of your hard earn money. Earned with your sweat,’ Joan Fox continues. ‘And you have a tip of a share that is going to go up and up. It is as sure a tip as there ever is.’ She pauses. Then, with curling of her upper lip at the right corner, ‘How much of your hard earned 5000 pounds would you invest?’ 

She turns and points her breast at the alcoholic. ‘Two thousand,’ he declares. 

She looks at the homosexuals. They look at each other, whisper into each other’s ears, then, in unison, ‘three-thousand,’ they say. Joan Fox turns her attention to the woman. 

‘Let’s have an estimate from the only woman in the audience,’ she declares grandly. The woman says ‘three-thousand five-hundred.’ 

‘OK,’ says Joan Fox, ‘anyone who has a different estimate?’ She asks. 

You raise your hand. 


‘Hundred pounds,’ you tell her. 

To your surprise Joan Fox bares her teeth, which, you are confident, is a smile. This is confirmed when she says, ‘You, sir, are a man after my own heart. Can you tell me why your estimate differs so much from those of others in the audience?’ 

‘Because,’ you tell Joan Fox, ‘hundred pounds is a much smaller amount than three thousand.’ 

The alcoholic and homosexuals giggle. 

Joan Fox takes a deep breath. ‘What I meant was,’ she says with exaggerated patience, indicating that she can see that you are trying to be a smart ass at her expense, but, because, she is far more mature than you, she is prepared to let it go this time, even though she is far smarter than you, ‘why you would invest only hundred pounds when you have five thousand at your disposal?’ 

‘Because,’ you tell her, ‘I don’t really view it as an investing. I consider it as gambling. No different from putting your money on a horse. And I wouldn’t put anything more than one fiftieth of my hard earned money on it.’ 

There is a long pause. Jane Fox stares at you. You try but fail to shift your gaze away from her breasts.  ‘Interesting answer. I wouldn’t agree with your sentiment totally. Let me clarify. It is not gambling; it is investing, taking calculated risks. However, I wouldn’t want to invest exorbitantly large amount. In fact I would invest even less than you. I would invest no more than fifty pounds.’ 

She then turns to the flip-board and writes all the sums told her by us and shows how much money each one would gain or lose depending on two different outcomes, share rising or falling—third grade calculations. The homosexuals  furiously copy everything Jane Fox is writing on the flip-board.

‘The idea is,’ Joan Fox turns back at the audience, ‘is to do it in small drips. 200 pounds extra one week; perhaps 400 the net; and slowly you’ll get there.’

You look at your watch. Almost two hours have gone. How long is this going to go on?  Not for very long, as it turns out. Joan Fox starts winding up. ‘You see, ‘she says, ‘it all comes down to whether you are going to take steps to take control of your life, or whether you are going to continue moaning. As an outsider it astonishes me the pleasure the British take in telling each other how shitty life is. Moaning has become a national past-time. You find excuses to explain why your life is crap, why it will always remain crap, and why you will not do anything to change it. When I worked as a psychologist [so she is not a real doctor], I used to meet people who were stuck and had no desire to change their situations. Always looking to blame someone else why their lives are so shit and why they won’t do anything about it. “Oh! I had such a bad life. My mother did not love me. I never met my brother because he was adopted.” [Hold on! The woman never worked as a doctor in England; so who were these people who were ‘stuck’? The Africans?] Get off your backside and do something if you’re not happy about your life.’

Joan Fox looks at the audience as if to suss out their reactions. The homosexuals are looking at her like the first Muslims when Muhammad declared that he a had hotline to Allah; the alcoholic has either gone to sleep or has lost consciousness; the butcher appears to be looking for something in his pockets (probably the two hours of his life stolen by Joan Fox, but shouldn’t he be searching her trousers?); the fat woman is looking down to her lap, transfixed, as if expecting at any second for a cockroach to crawl out of her skirt.

‘I know it can be daunting,’ Joan Fox continues. ‘That’s where we come in. We will be with you every step of the way.’ Here it comes, you think. And it does. Joan Fox informs the audience that the dude who employs her and has funded the free trading seminar has opened university (!) for traders where you will be given a crash course in strategies and risk management of trading. You will be taught the psychology of trading, how to place trades and interpret chart patterns. That is only the beginning, however. The training will be of no use if you are not prepared to take the plunge. You have to open a real trading account; don’t bother with dummy accounts; it’s no good—it’s like having sex with a life-size doll, a poor substitute for the real thing. OK, you open the trading account; what next? You have to have the software, which will do the scanning for you; you will need programmes to run strategies for you and make decisions for you. Not to worry; the dude’s company will provide you with all of this. It has to be said, though, that all the computer gizmos are no substitute for human experience, human intuition. It is totally understandable, you don’t have to feel bad, if you feel you want to discuss this regularly, your strategies with someone experienced, if only to assure yourself that things are on track. No worries; the dude employs more traders than Tesco does shelf-stackers, who have enough cunning to sink the Bank of England. And they are only a phone-call away. Anything you want to discuss with them, they will be available; and their advice will be 24-carat gold. You’d be mad to turn down this opportunity. All that it is going to cost you is 15,000 pounds. That’s right; you heard it correctly. Does it seem steep? You are in luck; Joan Fox has good news for you. Only for today they will make the expertise available for 5000 pounds. Now, isn’t that a bargain? You don’t believe it? They can barely believe themselves. The dude must be out of his mind to slash the price of his ‘university course’ by a third. But you can’t really expect him to keep this out-of-the-world offer open for ever. You will be able to enrol in the ‘university’ for five grand only if you pay the money today. If you dither the chance will be gone. There will be no tomorrow.

‘I hope I have done everything I can to persuade you to avail yourself of this opportunity,’ Joan Fox says. You feel that this is the first time in the evening the woman is telling the truth. (Is her name even Joan Fox?) The music begins. The homosexuals look stunned. The fat man and woman are whispering between them. What could they be talking about? Surely they are not thinking of paying money to these shysters (the word derived apparently from the German word scheisser, meaning ‘one who defecates’) ? Not very likely. They both look as if they stole money to get the bus-fare to come to the ‘free’ seminar. The woman looks as if her cat got run over by the milk truck. What was she expecting? More discount on account of being the only woman in the audience? The alcoholic has come out of his coma, his facial expression suggesting he is wetting his pants and enjoying the warmth. The butcher is staring hard at Joan Fox, Jane Fox’s latest announcement having produced a new and awful state of apoplexy.  

You look at your friend, whose face is like thunder. ‘Shall we go while we still are in possession of our minds?’ 

Outside of the hotel in the car-park your friend takes out a cigarette. ‘I thought you were trying to quit,’ you say. ‘These are exceptional circumstances,’ he replies. ‘F**king rip off,’ he gives his verdict.  ‘The woman was a f**king liar. Who will pay her 15,000 pounds? I won’t give her 15 pounds,’ he says. ‘Not even if she takes her clothes off,’ he adds for emphasis. 

‘Now then,’ you tell him, ‘there is no need to be vulgar. ‘The poor woman is only doing her job. I am sure this was no picnic for her either. Having to tell lies non-stop to a bunch of losers, except us, knowing all along that it is a waste of her time, but blabbering on nevertheless to earn the couple of hundred pounds the dude is paying her, staying away from her family.’ 

‘You said she was a liar,’ your friend says. ‘How do you know she has a family?’ 

Just then the alcoholic comes out of the hotel entrance. ‘You didn’t enrol in the university, then?’ you ask him. 

‘I don’t have 15,000 pounds,’ he says. 

‘They were giving a discount in there,’ you say. 

‘Oh yes,’ the alcoholic says, and, in an exaggerated manner, searches his pockets. ‘Nah,’ he says and walks away. You and your friend walk to his car. 

There are worse ways of spending your evening, but you can’t think of any just then.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Books that Disappointed: The Other Hand (Chris Cleave)

I first spotted Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand, published in paperback in 2009, in Waterstone’s, where it was included in their 3 for 2 offer. As I browsed through the book I came across, on the first page, a note to the ‘Dear Reader’ by one Suzie Doore, who introduced herself as Chris Cleave’s editor.

Doore was writing to inform ‘Dear Reader’ how ‘extraordinary’ The Other Hand was. The novel was ‘so special’ it gave Suzie Doore ‘goosebumps’, a phenomenon, she assured ‘Dear Reader’, she did not experience often. Doore put The Other Hand on par with Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Arc and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The Other Hand, Doore gushed, was an ‘amazing novel—horrifying but hilarious, tragic but uplifting, hugely entertaining and highly intelligent.’ This was high praise indeed. Schindler’s Arc and Cloud Atlas (which I have reviewed on this blog in the past) are two of my very favourite novels, and if the editor of a publishing house was of the view that The Other Hand was as good, the novel was worth reading. I had never heard of Chris Cleave until then, but browsing further through The Other Hand, I discovered that he had written another novel, entitled Incendiary, which had won the Somerset Maugham award in 2006, and was described as ‘stunning’ by New York Times, ‘mesmerizing’ by Washington Post and ‘Pitch-perfect’ by The Daily Telegraph

That settled for me. I want to read novels that are mesmerizing, stunning and pitch-perfect; don't you? I bought the book and it went on my to-read list; but it wasn't until recently that I finally read it.

The Other Hand deals with a topical issue in Britain—asylum seekers. The novel tells the story of Little Bee, an asylum seeker—an illegal asylum seeker, I shall thank you to keep in mind—which has more twists in it than a winding road in the south of France, and more drama than in Gone With the Wind.

The novel opens with a young Nigerian woman, who goes by the name Little Bee, getting out of a detention centre in Britain, where she has spent almost two years after arriving in the country as a stowaway. How has she spent these two years? She has spent the years polishing her English. Little Bee has cunningly figured out that if she has to survive first in the detention centre and then (if she gets out) in England, she must learn to either sell her body or speak English like the natives. Not keen on the first option, the bright girl has learnt to speak perfect English by reading gossip magazines (one hopes not Heat!) that arrive at irregular intervals at the detention centre. Luck smiles unexpectedly on Little Bee when a Jamaican detainee, who (following Trotsky’s maxim that end justifies means) is not averse to using her feminine charms to entertain Home Office pen-pushers, manages to obtain an early, though not altogether halal, release for herself and some randomly chosen detainees from the detention centre, the Home-Office man following the strange logic that his misdemeanour would be less likely to arouse suspicion if he authorised the release of four detainees instead of just one. Little Bee and three other girls are given shelter by a farmer who is na├»ve or deluded or both to take pity on the girls, but Little Bee scarpers in the middle of the night, leaving her companions—one of whom has decided, after waiting for years to be released from the detention centre, that she does not want to live after all, and has hanged herself—behind. She has an address to go to in England. The address belongs to a journalist named Andrew O’Rourke, although, when she phones O’Rourke to give him the good news that he should expect her soon, O’Rourke’s reaction is that of a man who has made the late discovery that the reason his tea tasted funny was because there was arsenic in it. How does Little Bee know the British journalist in the first place? Let me explain: Andrew O’Rourke and his wife Sarah—who is the editor of a women’s rag, where she likes to tackle issues that matter such as the Iraq war and the asylum problems and not just the latest innovations in vibrators—were holidaying in Nigeria, in a particularly notorious beach very close to the activities of the rebel groups in that country. Why do the O’Rourkes go to Nigeria? Couldn’t they have gone, like the rest of the country, to Majorca if they wanted a cheap holiday? They go to Nigeria partly because Sarah wants to go somewhere different, but also because (and you suspect this is the real reason) the Nigerian holiday is a freebie, one of the perquisites of her position in the women’s magazine. Anyway, there they are, Sarah and Andrew, on a beach in Nigeria, trying to sort out issues in their relationship. What are the issues? Well, there is really only one issue: Sarah’s infidelity. You see, for a while now, especially after the birth of their son, Charlie, Sarah has been feeling unfulfilled in the relationship (yawn); she feels something is lacking (yawn, yawn); there is a vacuum (oh, for God's sake). Therefore, when she visits the Home office for one of her serious articles on the asylum seeker and meets Lawrence, the press officer, Sarah wastes little time in seeking asylum in his bed. When Andrew finally gets wise to the fact that his wife’s compass is pointing in some other direction, he deals with the crisis in the mature Irish way: he blows a gasket, disappears to Ireland, and goes on a bender. Lawrence is married and much as he enjoys the clandestine rendezvous with his mistress, he is unwilling to leave his wife and children, and Sarah does not quite fancy bringing up Charlie on her own. She decides to go back to Andrew with tail between her legs, so to speak, and, in the time honoured fashion of wooing back a cuckold, arranges a holiday in Nigeria. So far so good. What is Little Bee doing on the beach? There is of course no reason why she can’t be on the beach in Nigeria, seeing as she is Nigerian. Nigeria is a free country and she, as a Nigerian citizen, can go wherever she wants. However, there is a reason why Little Bee and her elder sister, Nikiruka, who has begun to refer to herself as ‘Kindness’, are on the beach. I don’t think I shall be giving away the game by revealing Little Bee’s real name, which is Udo. Quite why the two sisters decide to change their tribal names to those of an abstract concept and an insect is not made clear; but perhaps that is not important. It is important, however, to know why the two sisters are on the beach. They are on the beach because they are fleeing persecution. They are fleeing from their village; they are fleeing from the murderers who machine-gunned down (or, more probably, macheted down) all the men in their village. And now the murderers are after the two sisters who witnessed the massacre. The reader is invited to believe that the ruthless murderers are very concerned that the only way the authorities would come to know of their crimes—which involved killing scores of men in daylight—is if these two girls go to the police. Who are the murderers and why have they massacred the men in the village? The novel provides only a sketchy explanation. We do not know who the murderers are, but they have cleared the village (in a manner of speaking) because it is sitting on an oil reserve. Certain parts of Nigeria are rich in oil, a precious commodity, and (hang your heads in shame) the evil Western multinationals can’t wait to get their grubby hands on this manna from heaven. The multinationals want to drill for oil, the Nigerian politicians want the kickbacks (which the Western multinationals are willing to provide), and the marauding squads want to kill people. You don’t need to be Sir Alan Sugar to figure out that there is a scope here to form a mutually benefiting consortium. Couldn't the villagers have been re-located, given compensations, if they were expected to leave the land where they had cultivated yam and looked after (and occasionally had sex with) their goats for generations? The answer, regrettably, is ‘no’. The novel, via its protagonist, Little Bee, kindly informs the reader that Nigeria is a country of spectacular, unheard-of lawlessness. Everyone over there is corrupt. And the most corrupt are the politicians. Which means that the poor, downtrodden, beshitten village people have nowhere to go (except England). And only if the murderers do not get to them first. Quite why the mercenaries, presumably the henchmen of the big multinationals, which have the Nigerian politicians in their pockets, would feel the need to silence the two orphan sisters is not clear, but it serves the important function of propagating the story to one of its many dramatic points. So there they are, Sarah and Andrew, strolling on the beach, with a guard from the hotel resort keeping a respectable distance behind them, hoping to weave back the frayed tapestry of their marriage, and all that the couple is asking for is that they be left in peace. Is that too much to ask? Of course not; but peace and solitude are luxuries that are more difficult to get in Nigeria than a doctor's appointment in England, even if you have the all-powerful British pound (the British economy has not yet fallen off the cliff) at your disposal. Out of the jungle that abuts the beach, run Little Bee and Kindness towards them; and, hot in their pursuit, the killers. After disposing off the guard with the ease of a Vince Lombardi quote, in a highly charged and melodramatic scene (in comparison with which the most melodramatic of the most melodramatic Bollywood films would pale into insignificance), the leader of the gang, who takes this opportunity to inform the couple that he was educated in England (which just goes to show that if you are a bad egg even English education won’t turn you into a good egg), makes an extraordinary demand on the British couple if they want to save the lives of the Nigerian teenagers (begging the question why his gang was so desperately following the girls in the first place if he was prepared to let them live, after all). Andrew, very sensibly, rejects the demand out of hand, but Sarah has other ideas; she yields to the insane demand of the leader. The gang-leader may be way beyond your basic logic and facts, but he is a man of his word: Little Bee’s life is spared, but Kindness is not so lucky. She is subjected to unimaginable unkindness before she is killed. Little Bee then manages to get onto a ship headed for England; she spends her time reading (as you do) Dickens’s Great Expectations (which was obviously not a up to scratch with regard to its English, forcing the teenager to read gossip magazines so that she could improve her English once she is locked up in the detention centre). Back in England, Andrew is wrecked with guilt for not saving the life of Kindness and descends into deep depression. So deep is the depression that it is only a matter of time, you feel, before he will become suicidal. That point is reached when he receives the phone-call from Little Bee (although, as you delve further into the novel, you realise that he could—surely would—have become suicidal earlier had he known that upon their return Sarah—having got over the remorse of her adultery—had once again approached Lawrence to fill her 'salt-seller'). Andrew concludes that he has had enough of this living thing and decides to remove himself from the Darwinian pool. By the time Little Bee reaches his house—she walks all the way; running away endlessly from the men in Nigeria having prepared her well for long journeys on foot—Andrew has hanged himself; indeed Little Bee turns up on the day of his funeral. Sarah, who may or may not be a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, gives Little Bee a sanctuary in her house, knowing fully well that she is an illegal immigrant, much to the annoyance of Lawrence, the creepy Home Office man, who is hoping to lift the widow’s spirits by introducing an invigorating regime of bedroom exercise. Towards that end he has told some porkies to his unsuspecting wife and has turned up unannounced at Sarah’s home. In the breakfast room, the morning after his arrival, Lawrence tries to persuade Little Bee to give herself up to the police. Little Bee refuses to see his reasonable point, pointing out (reasonably, you have got to admit) that she would definitely be deported back to Nigeria if she did that, where unspeakable fate awaits her (she has, you are pleased to note, by now, appropriated the language of victimization). When Lawrence threatens to go to the police himself, Little Bee ripostes by threatening to tell on him to his wife. That does it. All fight goes out of Lawrence, and he decides to deal with the situation in the time-honoured English way of empty platitudes and avoidance of awkward questions. Even the devastating secret to which he is made privy (another melodramatic point in the novel) by Little Bee fails to spur him. Then Charlie gets lost, while the reconstituted, albeit temporarily, family—the grieving widow, her lover, and the illegal immigrant who may or may not have contributed, directly or indirectly (I can’t spill all the beans) to the death of the widow’s diseased (and unlamented) husband—is picnicking; and in the ensuing hysteria, the police cotton on to the fact that Little Bee has outstayed her welcome in the unwelcoming Britain. With the alacrity of a mountaineering team that has decided to beat a hasty retreat to the base-camp after discovering that the oxygen-cylinders are leaky, Little Bee is put back on the plane back to Nigeria for repatriation. Is everything lost? Not yet. Sarah and Charlie have managed to sneak on to the plane. How did Sarah know that Little Bee would be on the plane? Via Lawrence, the spy. Lawrence, who was excessively desirous of getting rid of the discommodating Nigerian teenager from his life so that he could go on sampling the widow’s goodies without any complications, has had an inexplicable change of heart now his very wish is granted. He supplies Sarah with the details of Little Bee’s flight details, knowing fully well that Sarah, who has turned into a crusader—she has resigned her job at the women’s magazine having decided that writing editorials on women’s cosmetics is not how she would like to channel her talents—would go into the lawless land that is Nigeria where, badness knows, what fate awaits her. As it happens what awaits Little Bee, Sarah and Charlie when they arrive at Abuja, Nigeria, is a team of military police. The reader is then expected to believe that the ruthless (and, lest you forget, corrupt) Nigerian military and its commander, in their own country, are intimidated by Sarah’s assertion that she is a British journalist and would report anything they did to Little Bee to the British consulate. The military then places Little Bee in a hotel—instead of marching her off to the nearest prison for leaving the country under false pretext—together with Sarah. (You are in with a chance even in the most corrupt, most ruthless and most lawless nation if only you have the backing of an honest, brave and upright—even if adulterous, but we shall let it pass—ex-editor of a British women’s magazine.) From this point onward, the ludicrous tale becomes even more ludicrous, leading—mercifully not too many pages later—to an ending that probably made Suzie Doore, the editor at Spectre, whoosh that the novel was ‘tragic but uplifting’.

The Other Hand purports to tackle the serious issue of people fleeing oppression and persecution from their home countries and seeking sanctuary in the safety of the developed world several thousand miles away. The novel, insofar as I can see, attempts to make a powerful case, via the travails of one of its protagonists, Little Bee, for giving asylum to the victims of atrocities. It also highlights the humiliating conditions in which the asylum seekers are made to live at the detention centres in England. The novel, you feel, is trying to make a serious point—that it would be a folly to paint all asylum seekers with the same broad brush. It tries to smash the stereotype—which undoubtedly exists in the minds of certain section of the British society—that all asylum seekers are either economic migrants or spongers. It is a praiseworthy aim. In the process, though, the novel creates a few stereotypes of its own. Now I am no expert on West Africa, but the representation of Nigeria and what goes on there is so unsubtle, so completely lacking in any nuance, and yet so utterly sketchy it lacks credibility. (The author provides some Mickey Mouse statistics at the end, which are about as convincing as a man weighing two hundred pounds extolling virtues of moderation).

The novel is cleverly structured. Told from the perspectives of its two protagonists—Little Bee and Sarah—it goes back and forth in time. Cleave knows the tricks of the trade: there are dramatic scenes at regular intervals and many of the chapters—like those in Cloud Atlas, to which Suzie Doore compared it—end tantalizingly. All of this helps to keep the reader’s interest going. Cleave is also very good at capturing the modern British lingo. Oiled along by prose that is not cumbrous and at pace that is brisk, the flow of narrative is smooth; the reader romps through the novel in no time. The trouble is the dramatic points—on some of which hinges the whole structure of the narrative—are, not to put too fine a pint on it, implausible. They do not ring true.

I can imagine why Suzie Doore was tempted to compare The Other Hand with Schindler’s Arc and Cloud Atlas. Like Schindler’s Arc, The Other Hand tackles a serious issue that arouses strong feelings in contemporary Britain; and the novel attempts to be a pacey yarn, like Cloud Atlas. Unfortunately the novel manages neither convincingly. It is (unlike Schindler’s Arc) essentially a work of unserious nature, and its drama is nowhere as captivating as that in Cloud Atlas. It is an easy enough read, but that’s about it. It  won’t be sitting beside Schindler’s Arc and Cloud Atlas on my shelf. I think I will donate it to Oxfam.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Book of the Month: The Aunt's Story (Patrick White)

The aunt in The Aunt’s Story, an early novel of Patrick White, the 1973 Nobel laureate, is Theodora Goodman. Not blessed with either the good looks or vivacious personality of her younger sister, Fanny, Theodora, sadly but unsurprisingly, is an old maid. She lives with her domineering mother, who always favoured Fanny over her, and nurses the old lady through her last illness.

Then the old Mrs Goodman dies. Theodora, finally free of the shackles, decides to travel. She travels to Europe and stays for a while in a French hotel where in all probability she begins to lose control of her mind and grasp of reality.

After spending an indeterminate period in the French hotel with characters that, if they aren’t the products of Theodora’s frenzied mind, are decidedly what the British would describe as very odd (and the rest of the world as barking mad), Theodora leaves Europe for North America where, untethered by reality, she travels aimlessly before getting off the train in the middle of nowhere. She is taken in by a hillbilly family but she wanders off again. When she is finally led away by a doctor (you hope to the nearest loony bin) the reader’s mind, like Theodora’s, is in danger of disintegrating under the twin assault of White’s viscous prose and his apparent decision to jettison not just the plot but the whole library.

The Aunt’s Story is divided in three parts. The first section, entitled Meroe, is the most accessible and, for that reason, the most interesting. White describes Theodora’s childhood and draws for the reader, an affecting character of his heroine, the intense, brooding, intelligent and profoundly individualistic Theodora, who struggles to fit into the world around her. Those around her feel uneasy by her ethereal and melancholy air. Frank Parrott, Theodora’s neighbour, is attracted to her but, rebuffed, marries Fanny instead, and ends up harbouring a mute resentment against Theodora for the rest of his life. Her mother simply can’t come to grips with her daughter’s strangeness and decides to find solace in the contented, if uninteresting and predictable, life of her younger daughter. In her adult life, after she has moved to Sidney with her mother, Theodora forms a long relationship with her solicitor, Huntly Clarkson. The acquaintances are baffled by the interest Huntley, rich and recently divorced, takes in the asexual Theodora; however, this relationship, too, does not progress beyond being platonic, neither of the parties quite having enough interest or initiative to take it to the next stage.

The life of Theodora, as the first section nears its end, is an unfulfilled one. Therefore, when she decides to leave behind her sister and brother-in-law, who treat her with a mixture of pity and distaste, and travel to Europe, you are rooting for her in the same way you root for England in yet another football world cup campaign that you know in your hearts of heart is destined to end in a failure.

And fail it does. However nothing really prepares the reader—at least it did not prepare this reader—for that which follows in the second section, entitled JardinExotique. Jardin Exotique is the garden in the French hotel where Theodora arrives during her travels in Europe. Theodora spends a lot of time in this garden and mingles with characters that include a Russian general (who insists on calling her Ludmilla, his sister who was killed in the revolution, and Theodora plays along); an English writer named Weatherby and his nihilistic German girlfriend Lieselotte; a teenage girl named Katina Pavlou; Mrs Rapallo, an American Heiress who isn’t really an heiress; and a couple of Jewish dowagers. The section is modernist in its style, with absence of an anchoring theme that might have held the narrative together. (Or it could be described as absurd.) The whole section has a dream-like, hallucinatory, quality to it, with overabundance of what could be described (using the Freudian jargon) as primary process thinking. White does not allow himself to be fettered by the constraints of time or space.

As the reader plows through pages after pages of random dialogues and disjointed descriptions of nothing in particular, a sense of unease develops in his mind. Maybe, just maybe, he thinks, it is all leading to a grand denouement; Theodora is probably— surely, must be—losing her mind; the French hotel does not exist, neither does any of the oddball characters; they are figments of Theodora’s mind which has—inexplicable and without any warning—has snapped; it is all some sort of prolonged psychic seizure, a status psycholepticus.

Frustratingly, the second section ends without any satisfactory resolution (that is modernist literature for you); instead the novel lurches into the (mercifully) brief (but, still, as puzzling) final section, Holstius (named after a wanderer who appears in this section, like, the characters in Hotel Du Midi, apropos nothing), with more of the same.

White tells the story in a language that is not excessive, with minimum of fuss. There are passages of sublime inventiveness in the novel. Equally, at times, the language is baffling. When you come across sentences such as ‘her [Theodora’s] vision tore at the air, as if it were old wool on a dead sheep’, or, ‘the air did not advance and was brittle as guitars’, try as you might you can’t really conceive of air either as old wool on a dead sheep or as a guitar (brittle or not).

The Aunt’s Story is a challenging book to read, especially from second section onwards when White seems to take leave of realism and things become complex or confusing or both (for me the two often go hand in hand).  Exactly what White is trying to convey, here, is open to interpretations. Does the apparent disintegration of Theodora’s mind symbolize anything? Who knows?  I decided in the end to go with the flow of White’s dream-like, stream-of-consciousness (if it was that) narrative, and try to enjoy what I could (not a lot). I have to say that as a description of evolving insanity, it is not terribly convincing. The last section doesn’t really bring it all together (despite the intriguing epigraph from Olive Schreiner with which it begins: ‘When your life is most real, to me you are mad’; and the somewhat sententious declaration from the wanderer Holstius: ‘lucidity isn’t necessarily a perpetual ailment’).

White, the only Australian to win the Nobel Prize in literature and considered a giant in his lifetime, remains a largely forgotten figure in the centenary year of his birth. (He is not the only writer, considered a great in his lifetime, to meet such a fate; Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature, is hardly read these days, I think.)

The Aunt’s Story was apparently Patrick White’s personal favourite. It is the first White novel I actually managed to finish (I remember taking The Living and the Dead, another of his early novels, to read a few years ago, before giving it up). Reading The Aunt’s Story was a powerful experience in parts but was not enough, I am afraid, to call it unforgettable. Much too experimental for my taste.