Friday, 27 May 2016

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Book Note


A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Book Note

Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (Doubleday, 2015) is a very long novel (720 pages) that’s been getting a lot of praise.  I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago.  Two of my friends have also read it: the one I would have predicted would hate it loved it, and the one I would have predicted would love it hated it. You might not want to read further though, if you haven’t already read the novel, although it isn’t giving much, if anything, away to tell you what it’s about.

The novel’s protagonist, Jude St. Francis, is a highly accomplished man who was severely abused and prostituted when he was a boy.  He is also progressively disabled.  So in excruciating detail you read  about what you probably knew only in passing from news articles about adult male survivors of childhood abuse; many loathe themselves, blame themselves for what happened to them, ask themselves all the time what they did to bring the abuse on. You also get a fictionalized, but I think probably accurate, description of how child victims of sexual abuse are groomed by their abusers. 

And even though it’s a novel, you can’t just turn the page and forget about what happens to these boys, as I do while reading the latest scandal about abuse of boys by trusted authority figures. I spend a lot of time swearing at the Catholic Church when I read these accounts, but it’s not only Catholic “brothers” and “fathers” who do this kind of thing: it’s also teachers, Protestant ministers, rabbis, and a lot of other people to whom we entrust our sons. 

In the case of Jude St. Francis, you also get details, page after page after page, about what it’s like to be progressively more and more disabled.  There’s a lot in the novel about his sense of pride, his unwillingness to admit his disabilities, his determination to manage on his own as long as he can.   

Some decades ago my husband and I watched a television program called The Rockford Files. Rockford, a private investigator, was forever getting beaten up and then just walking away.  So then you begin to think that’s how it really works: it isn’t. A beating can leave injuries and scars that last a lifetime. One of my students was beaten up in the 1980s by members of a motorcycle gang who were angry that they were denied entrance to a student-only pub at McMaster University.  My student just happened to be walking by at the time.  He was severely injured and almost blinded. 

Sexual abuse can leave both physical and psychological scars. For some people, they never go away. The psychological abuse intensifies when people blame themselves, asking themselves constantly if they could have done something else, if they could have avoided their abusers. Many of the people whose accounts are printed in the newspapers mention these feelings of shame and guilt.  Many engage in self-harm and some commit suicide.

If you can take it, A Little Life is a very compelling novel that tells you a lot about abuse and disability. The historian Lynn Hunt in her Inventing Human Rights (W.W. Norton, 2007) argues that the emergence of novels in 18th-century Europe allowed readers to empathize with the fictional characters; this extended to a capacity to empathize with real people in their real environments. This is what A Little Life does; it extends our ability to empathize with abuse survivors and people with disabilities.

One very important criticism of the novel: the cover features a photograph by Peter Hujar called Orgasmic Man. This is absolutely the wrong photograph for this book. One of the saddest lines in it is something like “Being an adult means you never have to have sex again.”

 

Monday, 25 April 2016

Baha'i and Freedom of Religion in Iran: Jack Donnelly vs. Reza Afshari


Baha’i and Freedom of Religion in Iran: Jack Donnelly vs. Reza Afshari
In 2007 the eminent political philosopher and scholar of human rights, Jack Donnelly, proposed a rather uncharacteristic argument regarding so-called apostates in Iran.
Jack Donnelly
Apostasy means abandoning or renouncing one’s religious beliefs; in Iran, it means in particular abandoning Islam. The religious Iranian regime considers all members of the Baha’i religion to be apostates from Islam. The Baha’i are followers of the 19th century Persian prophet, Bah’u’lláh, whom they consider a messenger of God, along with Jesus, Muhammad and others.
Donnelly argued that “A state… might be justified in denying certain benefits to apostates, as long as those benefits are not guaranteed by human rights…It may even be (not im)permissible to impose modest disabilities on apostates, again as they do not violate [their] human rights.” Thus, he implied, apostates should be protected from discrimination or, even worse, execution. This might be read as a defense of freedom of religion in Iran. However, Donnelly also argued that the state was not obliged to protect apostates “against social sanctions imposed by their families and communities that do not infringe human rights.”
Donnelly based his argument in part on encounters he had had with Muslim students in Iran who, he believed, accepted what he called the concept of freedom of religion but who, at the level of what he called conception (“the limits of the range of application of the principle of freedom of religion”) could not accept a right of apostasy. Thus it appears, these students’ attitude to freedom of religion was “we accept the principle, but not…”: that is, yes to the right in the abstract, but no to the right in the concrete case of fellow-citizens being denied their human rights. (See Jack Donnelly, “The Relative Universality of Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 29, vol. 2, pages 301 and 302).
Noting that the state was not obliged to protect apostates against social sanctions that did not infringe human rights, Donnelly seemed to be suggesting that Iran should adopt the type of religious regime found in Canada or the United States, where such groups as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Amish are free to shun members they consider to have violated their religious obligations or precepts. The government does not interfere to stop such shunning, which it regards as a matter of personal preference. I agree with Donnelly that the Iranian government is not obliged to protect Baha’is against shunning by family, former friends, or neighbors, but it is obliged to protect them when such shunning become, in effect, discrimination, as in universities or places of employment.
In defending “modest disabilities” in freedom of religion, Donnelly did not distinguish between societies that largely respect human rights and those that do not. Countries such as the US and Canada with constitutional principles that respect human rights, with independent judiciaries and legal professions, and with active and free civil societies are ones where restrictions on human rights can be debated, weighed, and ultimately overturned.  But in Iran, no one can question such restrictions. Iran is an illiberal state that does not defend Baha’is’ human rights.
The ban on apostasy in Iran is not merely a hypothetical matter; it is a matter of real, urgent practice, as Donnelly’s recent critic, the Iranian-American scholar Reza Afshari, points out.
Reza Afshari
About 200 members of the Baha’i community were executed from 1979 to 1984. To this day Baha’i suffer from considerable political and legal disabilities, such as exclusion from universities and frequent harassment and imprisonment. Many are now in exile, having suffered grievously from torture, imprisonment, deprivation of property, exclusion from their professions, and execution of family members.
Thus, Afshari finds it perplexing that Donnelly would suggest concessions to Iran’s illiberal regime, as long as the regime adheres (in principle, at least) to the concept of human rights. What precise concessions to actual human rights of the Baha’i, Afshari asks, does Donnelly advocate in the name of a certain respect for cultural differences, as opposed to merely noting the state’s inability or unwillingness to prohibit social sanctions such as shunning? “[H]ere was a chance for Donnelly to explain to skeptics as to what conditions should prevail in that [Iranian] polity for Baha’is to live with the epithet of apostate with ‘modest disabilities’ and still hope that they will ‘remain human beings entitled to all of their human rights’” (See Reza Afshari, “Relativity in Universality: Jack Donnelly’s Grand Theory in Need of Specific Illustrations,” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 4, p. 896).  
The Baha'i Temple in Israel
It is surprising for a human rights scholar to defend hypothetical “modest disabilities” imposed on a persecuted group instead of issuing a ringing denunciation of those who persecute it. I am friendly with Jack Donnelly, and in the 1980s and 1990s I edited a book and authored several articles with him. But I agree with Afshari in this debate. I don’t think you should discreetly defend “modest disabilities” for severely persecuted groups. If Muslim Iranian students can’t accept the “conception” of human rights for Iranian Baha’i, then they don’t accept the concept of freedom of religion at all. 
 

 
 

 
 
 


Sunday, 27 March 2016

Syrian Refugees in Canada: Ethical Dilemmas


Syrian refugees in Canada: Ethical Dilemmas
The other day I watched a television interview with a Syrian refugee stranded in Greece as a result of Macedonia’s closing of its borders.  He was a man in his late 30s or early 40s; he spoke good English and he was very angry.  He told the interviewer that his five-year-old daughter and his wife had both been killed in the war.  He asked why Western countries would not help him, specifically mentioning Canada.
Since Canada’s new Liberal government took power in November 2015, Canada has been engaged in a self-congratulatory love-fest about its acceptance of 25,000 Syrian refugees (and counting), fulfilling a promise the Liberals made before they took power.  Some of them have been directly financed by the government, which provides them with enough money to live for one year at local welfare rates. Others are financed by private Canadian citizens, groups of people who get together to raise funds and provide support of various kinds. Both sets of Syrian refugees are also given immediate permanent residence status and health care. It costs about $Can30,000 to sponsor a family of four for one year; for each extra person, you have to budget about $Can7,500. 
John McCallum,
Canada's Minister of Immigration
The newspapers are full of pictures of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Immigration greeting arriving Syrians. There are heart-warming stories of Vietnamese-Canadians, whose families were sponsored as refugees in the 1970s, now sponsoring Syrians. Other heart-warming stories feature Jewish and Muslim Canadians working together to sponsor refugees.
I am glad that Canada is accepting so many Syrians, but the man I watched on television the other night won’t be one of them. Like everyone else, Canadians are worried about security risks.  One way to lessen them, the government has decided, is to accept only complete families or vulnerable people, such as mothers and children. Gay men are also acceptable as they are considered—and probably are—extremely vulnerable in macho Middle Eastern cultures. But single men, such as the Syrian man I watched on television, widowed and childless as a result of the war, are not.   
I am part of a group sponsoring one Syrian family: we are waiting for it to be cleared for immigration at the moment. Our group has raised $40,000. My husband contributed to his church’s fund; they have raised another $40,000 for a family that has already arrived. Across the street from my husband’s church, yet another church is sponsoring another family, probably raising about the same amount. And the synagogue group down the street has raised about $60,000 for a large family.
So between these four groups, people of my acquaintance have raised $180.000. But what else could have been done with this money?  People still in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon are without heat, without schools, without enough food.  How far would the $180,000 these four groups have raised go toward shelter, schools, or food, if we’d given it to UNICEF instead?
There’s also the problem that Canada is discriminating in favour of Syrians and against other refugee groups. Appallingly, the Canadian government forces refugees to pay for their own transportation costs to this country. Once they get here they have to agree to pay back the loan; even with low interest rates, that’s a considerable burden for people who’ve just arrived, have to find work, and often can’t speak the language. Recently Canada has decided to waive the fee for Syrians but not for other refugees.
Then there’s the decision to have a massive airlift of refugees from Syria but not from other countries. As Kamal Al-Solaylee, a Yemeni-Canadian whose autobiography I reviewed on this blog on  January 18, 2103 (https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=6700283514603333187#editor/target=post;postID=3825731743685667926;onPublishedMenu=posts;onClosedMenu=posts;postNum=71;src=postname)  has pointed out, 2.3 million Yemenis are internally displaced and 1.3 million children are at risk of malnutrition (out of a population of 26.5 million). (See Al-Solaylee’s article, “Suffering’s Second Act, in the Canadian magazine The Walrus, March 2016 https://www.google.ca/?gws_rd=ssl#q=Suffering%27s+Second+Act).  And then there are the South Sudanese, suffering malnutrition, displacement, murder, torture and rape at the hands of their feuding leaders, who brought them independence from Sudan proper in 2011 only to fight among themselves. 
Europeans are doing the same thing. Syrians are acceptable as refugees en masse, but other groups aren’t. But to deny individuals refugee status merely because they come from the “wrong” country, or from countries where there is not a horrible civil war at present, is against international law. Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, receiving countries have to assess whether as individuals, potential refugees have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (Article 1, A, 2). You can’t just exclude individuals when they come from the wrong country.
But how do you assess the millions of people flocking to Europe at the moment not only from Syria and Afghanistan, but also from North Africa, sub-Sahara Africa, and Pakistan? Even if Canada, with a population of about 35 million people, eventually doubles its own intake to 50,000, it won’t have taken in proportionately near as many refugees as Germany, which with a population of 80 million, has now accepted over 1.1 million refugees. Germany is taking ten times as many.
And then there’s bureaucracy. A 16-year-old Syrian male (legally a child, under Canadian law) was recently detained in solitary confinement for several weeks by the Canadian Border Services Agency. His crime was entering Canada from  Buffalo in the United States, with which we have a Safe Third-Country Agreement, which means that he should have claimed refugee status there. His parents had heard about Canada’s plan to accept Syrians and given him instructions about how to go to Canada. Fortunately activists and the press got wind of this young man’s situation, and he has been released from detention. (see https://www.google.ca/?gws_rd=ssl#q=Ottawa+lifts+deportation+order+for+Syrian+teen (. But one wonder how many other Syrians—or other young people who are legally children—find themselves in the same situation.
I don’t know the answers to all these questions, but they worry me.
 

 
I am glad that Canada is accepting so many Syrians, but the man I watched on television the other night won’t be one of them. Like everyone else, Canadians are worried about security risks.  One way to lessen them, the government has decided, is to accept only complete families or vulnerable people, such as mothers and children. Gay men are also acceptable as they are considered—and probably are—extremely vulnerable in macho Middle Eastern cultures. But straight single men, such as the Syrian man I watched on television, widowed and childless as a result of the war, are not.   
I am part of a group sponsoring one Syrian family: we are waiting for it to be cleared for immigration at the moment. Our group has raised $40,000. My husband contributed to his church’s fund; they have raised another $40,000 for a family that has already arrived. Across the street from my husband’s church, yet another church is sponsoring another family, probably raising about the same amount. And the synagogue group down the street has raised about $60,000 for a large family.
So between these four groups, people of my acquaintance have raised $180.000. But what else could have been done with this money?  People still in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon are without heat, without schools, without enough food.  How far would the $180,000 these four groups have raised go toward shelter, schools, or food, if we’d given it to UNICEF instead?
There’s also the problem that Canada is discriminating in favour of Syrians and against other refugee groups. Appallingly, the Canadian government forces refugees to pay for their own transportation costs to this country. Once they get here they have to agree to pay back the loan; even with low interest rates, that’s a considerable burden for people who’ve just arrived, have to find work, and often can’t speak the language. Recently Canada has decided to waive the fee for Syrians but not for other refugees.
Then there’s the decision to have a massive airlift of refugees from Syria but not from other countries. As Kamal Al-Solaylee, a Yemeni-Canadian whose autobiography I reviewed on this blog on  January 18, 2103 (https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=6700283514603333187#editor/target=post;postID=3825731743685667926;onPublishedMenu=posts;onClosedMenu=posts;postNum=71;src=postname)  has pointed out, 2.3 million Yemenis are internally displaced and 1.3 million children are at risk of malnutrition (out of a population of 26.5 million). (See Al-Solaylee’s article, “Suffering’s Second Act, in the Canadian magazine The Walrus, March 2016 https://www.google.ca/?gws_rd=ssl#q=Suffering%27s+Second+Act).  And then there are the South Sudanese, suffering malnutrition, displacement, murder, torture and rape at the hands of their feuding leaders, who brought them independence from Sudan proper in 2011 only to fight among themselves. 
Europeans are doing the same thing. Syrians are acceptable as refugees en masse, but other groups aren’t. But to deny individuals refugee status merely because they come from the “wrong” country, or from countries where there is not a horrible civil war at present, is against international law. Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, receiving countries have to assess whether as individuals, potential refugees have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (Article 1, A, 2). You can’t just exclude individuals when they come from the wrong country.
But how do you assess the millions of people flocking to Europe at the moment not only from Syria and Afghanistan, but also from North Africa, sub-Sahara Africa, and Pakistan? Even if Canada, with a population of about 35 million people, eventually doubles its own intake to 50,000, it won’t have taken in proportionately near as many refugees as Germany, which with a population of 80 million, has now accepted over 1.1 million refugees. Germany is taking ten times as many.
And then there’s bureaucracy. A 16-year-old Syrian male (legally a child, under Canadian law) was recently detained in solitary confinement for several weeks by the Canadian Border Services Agency. His crime was entering Canada from  Buffalo in the United States, with which we have a Safe Third-Country Agreement, which means that he should have claimed refugee status there. His parents had heard about Canada’s plan to accept Syrians and given him instructions about how to go to Canada. Fortunately activists and the press got wind of this young man’s situation, and he has been released from detention. (see https://www.google.ca/?gws_rd=ssl#q=Ottawa+lifts+deportation+order+for+Syrian+teen (. But one wonder how many other Syrians—or other young people who are legally children—find themselves in the same situation.
I don’t know the answers to all these questions, but they worry me.
 

 

 


Wednesday, 2 March 2016

What (U.S.) Women Owe Women: Vote Bernie Sanders


What (U.S.) Women Owe Women: Vote Bernie Sanders

Last week (February 25-27, 2016) I attended an academic workshop in the US. One day I was chatting with another woman participant about the responsibility of raising children while working as a scholar. The mother of a four-year-old, she worked in a US university. When her child was born she received exactly six weeks’ paid maternity leave, the minimum time considered necessary for her to physically recover from giving birth. By contrast, paid maternity leave (actually parental leave, because parents can share it) in Canada is now a year and in Sweden it is about 17 months. Not that Canada is paradise (I don’t know about Sweden): you don’t get this leave unless you have a steady salaried job. Many people don’t;  instead, they are paid by the hour or run small businesses of their own.

Image result for madeleine albright images
Madeline Albright
I mention this because a while ago there was a furor in the newspapers about a couple of comments made by two prominent older women who support Hillary Clinton’s campaign to be the Democratic nominee for President. Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State under Bill Clinton in the 1990s, said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support help each other”: she meant that women voters should support Hillary Clinton because she is a woman. Gloria Steinem, the famous American feminist now in her 80s, suggested that young women were voting for Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders, because that was where the boys were.

But if women really want to support other women, then they should vote for Bernie Sanders.  He is the one who is talking about abysmally low minimum wages.  He is the one who is talking about excessive (to put it mildly) student debt dogging Americans well into their adulthood.  He is the one talking about mass incarceration of (mainly male) African-Americans, without whom boy children lack role models and many women lack partners to help support themselves and their families. He’s the one who wants the serious immigration reform necessary so that “mixed-status” Hispanic-American families can begin to feel secure.

Americans (women and men) suffer not only from extreme income inequality and lack of secure, well-paying jobs (which is also affecting much of the rest of the Western world, including Canada) but also from a strong libertarian tradition that forces people to rely on themselves and does not accept collective social responsibility for children, much less for adults.  Women suffer from this tradition not only as women, but as mothers and as partners of other people, male and female. Sanders  is a democratic socialist; he understands how social structure and economic exploitation affect most people’s lives.   

Image result for Susan Faludi images
Susan Faludi
I admire Hillary Clinton and I think she will probably win the Democratic primaries: I hope for the sake of Americans and the rest of the world that she also wins the election. But I also hope that Bernie Sanders pushes her to the left. Susan Faludi, the author of “Backlash”, is probably right that Sanders would be beaten by a Republican candidate, so all his promised reforms would be for naught, whereas Clinton might be able to accomplish something worthwhile.  But Faludi is wrong to suggest that what’s going on is younger women’s rebellion against their old-school feminist mothers.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/campaign-stops/not-their-mothers-candidate.html?_r=0  There’s a lot more at stake, and I think these young women know that. 

It’s about policy, not just identity. Maureen Dowd says that “young women supporting Sanders are living the feminist dream, where gender no longer restricts and defines your choices, where girls grow up knowing they can be anything they want.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/when-hillary-clinton-killed-feminism.html  
Image result for Maureen Dowd Images
Maureen Dowd
 
 
 
This is nonsense. Neither boys nor girls can be anything they want in a society that does not provide the social supports that are common in the rest of the developed Western world, however undermined recently by economic stringency. If you are a girl from a wealthy family you probably have as much opportunity nowadays as a boy from the same family. But in the US today neither young women nor young men can look forward to being parents, to establishing stable families, to a life with adequate rest and leisure, to assurance that illness will not plunge them into poverty.

No one should support Hillary Clinton just because she is a woman; if Madeline Albright really cared about women, she’d be pressuring Clinton to adopt some of Sanders’ policies. As for Steinem, she ought to be ashamed of herself. During the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, one thing we women protested against was the assumption that we could not think for ourselves.

Young American women also think, and what many of them think is that they are facing very insecure futures in which they may never have a steady job, never succeed in paying off their student debt, never be able to afford their own home and never—in a country without a national day care system, universal parental leave, or even secure post-Obama medical care-- be able to have the children many would like to have.  And young American men, with many of the same concerns, think the same thing.

 

Friday, 5 February 2016


Book Note: Karin Finell’s Good-Bye to the Mermaids

 (University of Missouri Press, 2006) is an autobiographical account of life in Germany during and after WWII from the perspective of a young German (non-Jewish) girl.  I learned about this book after my book club discussed Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life – which is partly set in Hitler’s Germany--and another member told me about it.  (For a review of Atkinson’s novel, see my blog of January 26, 2016,
Good-Bye to the Mermaids: a Childhood Lost in Hitler’s Berlin


I read Good-Bye to the Mermaids in almost one sitting on January 30, 2016, while waiting for a delayed plane to Winnipeg from Toronto airport.  It’s quite readable, and presents a subtle understanding of what life was like for anti-Hitler but not activist Germans, simultaneously hoping for an Allied victory and fearing Allied bombing.

Born in 1933, Karin Finell came from an educated and accomplished bourgeois German family.  Unusually, her parents were divorced and she lived with her mother and grandmother.  Her father, with whom she rarely had contact, was a newspaper editor in a small town in what eventually became East Germany.  Her father’s sister was a well-known poet.  Her grandmother had grown up in the United States and was thus somewhat immunized against Hitler’s propaganda.

During the war Karin experienced bombings and barely escaped death with her mother when one of their many temporary homes was destroyed. They moved from place to place as housing became ever scarcer; in between times, Karin was sent to various schools in the countryside.

Karin joined Hitler youth group for girls, as all German girls were obliged to do. Nevertheless, she seems not to have picked up the required amount of hatred of Jews. On a bus one day, she offered to give up her seat to an old man, as she has been trained to respect her elders. She did not realizing that the interesting star he wore on his coat meant he was a pariah: another man reprimanded her for offering her seat to a Jew.

Karin believed all the propaganda she was fed and worshipped Hitler.  Her family, fearful that she would betray them if they criticized Hitler in her presence, listened quietly and without argument whenever she told them how wonderful Hitler was. She did not realize until the end of the war how she had been duped, in part because—in her still childish mind—she felt betrayed when Hitler committed suicide.  

Like many “Aryan” German families, Karin’s family had Jewish, “half-Jewish” and other assorted “impure” relatives.  Karin overheard her family talking about how her cousin Maria wore around her neck  a gold locket containing cyanide.  She did not understand why: the reason was that Maria’s deceased father was Jewish, but that her step-father, a heroic General in WWI, was protecting her.

One of her mother’s closest friends was adopted by a non-Jewish couple, but her birth mother was Jewish. The Nazis locked her up until they could figure out whether her birth father was Jewish as well, so that they could properly categorize her, and she survived the war. Tragically, her adoptive parents were killed because they would not reveal her biological origins.

Another of Karin’s mother’s old friends lost her father, one of the 1944 plotters against Hitler.  He was hanged.


Image result for Karin Finell images
Karin Finell
 



As the war was winding down, Karin was permitted to leave a boarding school in then East Prussia (now Poland) on account of illness.  Shortly afterwards, the school was evacuated as the Russians advanced, but not soon enough.  The Russians raped a trainload of her fellow students. Karin ran into one of her friends some time later: the friend was attended by a nurse, and her eyes were completely was vacant.

Like almost all German women, Karin, her mother and grandmother were petrified with fear when the Russians invaded Berlin. They were living in the cellar of their bombed-out building: every so often a Russian would come in and say “Frau, komm” (woman, come) and take away some women to be raped. At twelve, however, Karin was already an excellent actress (she was later offered a job in East Berlin in a theatre run by Berthold Brecht, but turned the opportunity down to move to the U.S.). She disguised herself as a filthy, disabled and drooling female, so the Russians would overlook her. It’s not clear, though, how her  still-young mother escaped the fate of so many other women. 

Karin paid frequent visits to a 14-year-old friend who had been raped and impregnated, and who also contracted syphilis. Treatments for syphilis at the time were extremely painful, as was the friend’s illegal abortion: eventually, the friend escaped to the American zone of occupied Germany.

After the Americans took over the part of Berlin in which Karin and her family lived, life improved, as they were no longer close to starvation. By contrast, Karin’s three half-brothers living with her father in East Germany were still short of food in 1952. Her father visited her shortly before his death and was horrified to see her feeding a piece of chocolate to her dog, pointing out that her brothers had not seen chocolate since the war years.

This is a very good book just for people who like to read: it’s a shame it was published by a university press and probably did not get much publicity.  I also recommend it to colleagues who teach German or WWII history to assign to their students.  It would also be good for literature courses on autobiography, for women’s studies courses, or for courses in memory studies.

 

 

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Book Note: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson


Book Note: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life was widely reviewed after it was released in 2013, and has been very popular, not least among the women in the two book clubs in Hamilton, Ontario of which I am a member. I presented this book to one of my clubs on January 18, 2016.
The heroine of Life after Life, Ursula Todd, lives several different lives. Darkness descends over one life after another, and then the heroine emerges to live a new life, starting with her death the moment she is born. It’s not surprisingly, then, that one of the themes that reviewers have picked up on is the contingency of life. The novel asks what would happen if we could change history, or re-set the clock; we all wonder, sometimes, “what if” we had taken a different path, what would our lives be like.


Kate Atkinson
Ursula dies at her birth in 1910, but then she does not.  But she might well have: the infant mortality rate in the United Kingdom was 115/1000 in 1910 (compared to 250/1000 in Russia and 250/1000 in Germany). After World War I, everyone breathes a sign of relief until the Spanish flu comes along, maybe—or maybe not—killing members of her household.
In a review in The Guardian on January 12, 2014, Justin Cartwright wrote: “human life…hang[s] by a thread…our identities are not necessarily fixed.”  This raises the question, are we now the people we were at 20? At 40? How have we changed, and are the changes good or bad?  It also raises the question of whether we are mere victims of fate.  In the novel, Ursula’s psychiatrist introduces her to the phrase amor fati, or love of fate; and I have met people who say “Oh well, it was meant to be.” But I am interested in the question of whether we can influence things, not merely our own lives, but the lives of our families and those we love, and even the larger world. And I’m also interested in the question of how much obligation we have to try to influence that world.

Image result for Life after Life imageLife after Life is a political book, though reviewers seem to have neglected that aspect of it. The book opens with Ursula in Germany in 1930, assassinating Hitler. This is something we all wish someone had done: I believe that without Hitler, there would not have been genocide, though there still might have been another war. But in another life Ursula moves to Germany and becomes friendly with Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, whom she visits at his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. In this life Atkinson paints Ursula and Eva as innocents, Eva attending to Hitler’s every personal need while Ursula enjoys the view and raises her daughter. To me, this raised questions of moral culpability. Were Eva and Ursula, women without clout or power living in a man’s world, nevertheless obliged to pay attention to politics? 
In another life Ursula stays in London during the war, working as a civil servant during the day and as an air-raid warden at night. In this life we don’t have to worry about her obligation to affect the world: she is “doing her bit” as a heroic British citizen should, during the Blitz. One question raised at the book club meeting was whether Ursula actually had a core personality, moving as she did among different lives. I assumed she did, and the heroic, hard-working unmarried British woman was it.

Life after Life is also a feminist book, at least for those of us who know what life was like for most women in the Western world until the sea change of second wave feminism gave us rights after about 1970. It read, to me, like a novel about what could have happened to my Scottish mother (born in 1920) and what did happen to many women, and it shows women’s powerlessness until the last third of the twentieth century.

In one of Ursula’s lives a little friend is molested and found dead. If Ursula had been molested and lived, her parents would probably not have believed what had happened to her, unless she accused a lower-class molester, perhaps one of the traumatized veterans of WWI wandering around the country lanes, bothering Ursula’s upper middle-class parents and their friends. In another version of her life her older brother’s college friend rapes her and leaves her pregnant. A woman raped in 1926 by a “respectable” young man would have had little recourse against him. And if she’d had an abortion, she would have risked death or infertility, and disgrace and imprisonment if caught.
Nor could she have kept the baby and lived a respectable life: the stigma of being an unmarried mother with very few very few resources would have been too severe. As it happens, in October of 2015 I visited the Foundling Museum in London’s Russell Square, a museum of the first British
The Foundling Museum
home for unwed mothers set up in 1793, for otherwise “respectable” women who had somehow been seduced and traduced by various bounders and cads. The women’s employers or family members had to write reference letters to the Foundling Home promising that the mothers were otherwise respectable.

In yet another life, Ursula meets a charming man and marrieds him. Then he tries to imprison her at home, beats her, and ultimately kills her. In real life, wife-beating was considered a “domestic” matter in most of the Western world up until the 1970s, or even beyond.
In her German incarnation, Ursula is also affected by the inferior status of women. When WWII starts she wants to go back to England with her German-born daughter, but she can’t because she has married a German. In those days women did not have independent citizenship; they had to take the citizenship of their husbands. This is still the case in some parts of the world today. 

Image result for Woman in Berlin book imageIn this second German incarnation Ursula stays in Berlin, rather than being pals with Eva Braun at Berchtesgaden. As Russian soldiers move in at the end of the war, she takes action to save herself and her daughter from rape: as we know from the book, Woman in Berlin, the Russians raped hundreds of thousands of German women and girls—even hidden Jewish women and girls. That these soldiers were starving, frozen, and understandable angry and distraught at the rapes and murders of their own family members by German troops does not excuse the inaction of their officers, who did nothing to restrain them. After a long struggle by feminist lawyers and activists, we now recognize mass rape in warfare as a crime against humanity, if not an aspect of genocide.    
So, I found Life after Life to be a fascinating political and feminist document. I was left wondering if the entire book was in fact a ruse to explore British and German history, from before WWI to after the defeat of the Germans in WWII, from a woman’s point of view. But even if you don’t see the book the way I did, it’s a fabulous read.