This year (2019)
Previous years: 2018;
Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi
The Great Believers
Love is Blind
The Silent Patient
Boakye was a real-life person who
lived from 1827 to 1904, and this is the story of his life told not as true
biography but rather as a kind of historical novel. When reading the book as
a novel, the story sometimes seems rather contrived, difficult to believe.
And yet in an Afterword the author explains how he has used the personal
letters of Boakye and his correspondents, along with many further historical
documents, so it must be true to life.
Boakye's father was the king of Ashanti, a kingdom on the
west coast of Africa in modern day Ghana. And thus he was a prince. But he
was not the crown prince. Instead his cousin, Kwame Poku, the son of the
sister of the king, was the crown prince owing to the fact that in Ashanti,
inheritance was passed down through the matriarchal line.
At the beginning of the story, Kwasi and Kwame are very
close friends, doing everything together. They live in great privilege in
Ashanti as princes, telling us about their lives, and we see them contrasted
with all the slaves in the community. There is a Dutch military presence
which had been organizing the slave trade, a fort to hold the slaves which
had been bought from the local slave traders before they were shipped off to
the Dutch colonies in the Americas and elsewhere. Kwasi's father was much
involved in this.
But then Kwasi's father,
the king, decided to send both Kwasi and Kwame off to Holland with a Dutch
expedition which had reached their country, presumably in order to allow
them to become educated in the ways of Europe and so bring back this
knowledge to Ashanti. Thus the two young princes, perhaps 10 or 12 years
old, were transported by the Dutch navy to Holland where they were
enrolled in a small private school.
They were treated as
princes. Being guests of the Dutch royal family, becoming intimate friends
with one or another of the Dutch princes and princesses. And they became
highly educated. Somehow the ties with Ashanti became weaker. Kwasi
gradually thought of himself as being Dutch, rejecting what he remembered
of the life in Ashanti. But Kwame returned. Staying in the Dutch
settlement on the coast, he sent written inquiries to the Kingdom, asking
if he could come home. But he had forgotten his native language and so his
letters were written in Dutch. The King thus refused to answer and wanted
nothing more to do with him. After years of vegetating as a guest in the
Dutch garrison, he committed suicide.
Kwasi on the other hand
remained in Europe, going on to university in Germany, becoming a mining
engineer. He was then sent by the Dutch to Indonesia to be involved in
mining operations. But this was extremely unsatisfactory. His superior was
an old school rival who treated him badly. He was unable to obtain
advancement in his profession. Eventually he learned that the Dutch
authorities had decided that it would not be appropriate for an African, a
non-European, to be in a leading position in the colony of Indonesia since
it was important to maintain the idea that only Europeans could be allowed
to be leaders.
And so much of the book
takes place towards the end of Kwasi's life in the tropics of the East
Indies, not East Africa. People still respect him as a true prince. He has
had a family and children. But somehow he is not fulfilled. Perhaps he
could have remained in Europe where he could have followed his profession
more successfully as a mining engineer.
The story imagines an
astronaut, endlessly circling the earth in the international space
station. He has a euphoric, almost religious feeling during a space-walk.
But then Houston calls and he is told that his daughter has been killed in
a car accident. Furthermore his wife has decided to leave him, going off
to live with her parents somewhere far away from Houston. He is devastated
by all this, becoming wracked by migraines, unable to fulfill his duties
in the space station. Only after weeks of delays due to technical problems
with the launching of rockets was he able to be sent back to the earth.
And so we meet him in his
empty house in some soulless, half developed suburb of new houses
somewhere in the neighborhood of Houston. His wife had cleared everything
out, leaving him with a gigantic sofa which he hated. She also left a bare
bed and the basics of the kitchen. But he goes to the local diner to eat
hamburgers and drink coffee.
He is alone. Splitting
headaches. He drinks lots of beer. He notices a loud-mouthed foreigner,
perhaps drunk, at the diner making inappropriate remarks to the young
waitress. And then there is a young woman, a mother, wearing tight-fitting
clothes, grabbing his attention in the newly built house near to his,
separated by a couple of vacant lots. Eventually he winds up in her bed.
There are strange scenes. Her business-suited husband returns from some
sort of business trip or other and greets him as a friendly neighbor. But
it turns out that while the astronaut was up in space he slept with the
The loud-mouthed man at
the diner turns out to be an immigrant from Slovakia where he was a
technical assistant at an observatory. So he and the astronaut spend late
evenings out on the next weed-infested vacant lot, sitting on the sofa
which they have moved out there, drinking beer and occasionally looking at
stars through an old telescope set up on a tripod.
The astronaut meditates
about his treatment of his dead daughter. He considers that he has a
special relationship with numbers. They all have different colors for him.
And his daughter experienced that too. So he imagines that she was a
genius. But he has pushed her too far. She was supposed to go to a special
school for geniuses and devote herself to calculating astronautical
things. Despite the fact that she was a "straight A" student in her
(normal) high school, she defied him by becoming a cheerleader. And so he
went off to space, endlessly circling the world, and she drove her car
into a tree, having had too much to drink.
This depressing story was
redeemed by the idea of floating through space.
by Michael Ondaatje
This one takes place in
England just after the Second World War. The story is narrated by
Nathaniel, who is at first 14 years old. We are not told what the family
was doing during the war, but now his parents tell Nathaniel and his
sister that they will be leaving for some time, going to the Far East.
Singapore or something. The father leaves, the mother stays on for a few
extra weeks and then leaves as well. They are not left alone at home.
Instead various strange characters seem to inhabit the house.
Nathaniel takes on a few
odd jobs. He washes dishes and gets to know a waitress a few years older
than himself and we learn of his erotic introduction to sexual affairs.
One of the strange characters about the house is given the name of The
Darter, and he seems to be involved in smuggling greyhounds into England
in the dead of night in order to manipulate the dog races. Nathaniel
becomes very much part of The Darter's affairs, eventually thinking of
him as a kind of replacement for his father.
Suddenly Nathaniel and
his sister are attacked by some unexplained, mysterious people, and all
the mysterious people who had been living at his house, together with
his mother who appears from nowhere, save both his sister and him.
Then the story
progresses 10 or 15 years to the late 1950s. Nathaniel has been
recruited into the British Secret Service. He works in a mysterious,
anonymous office building in London, working in the archives. He
secretly looks up the files on his mother. The story is that after the
end of the war she was involved in covering up the war crimes committed
by the British, eliminating people who might prove to be an
embarrassment to future British history.
Well, the book was
nicely written and it was fun to read of Nathaniel's adolescent
adventures. The rest was a bit too mysterious for me. Undoubtedly
though, such things are true to life.
Michael Ondaatje is the
author of The English Patient, which was made into a famous movie. I did
see the beginning of the movie on television years ago, but after a half
hour, the arrogance of the main character put me off and I stopped
The story is
concerned with the (male) homosexual scene in Chicago in the 1980s.
Everybody is homosexual, dying of AIDS. The one exception is a young
woman, Fiona, who is the sister of Nico whose funeral introduces us
to the story at the beginning of the book. Fiona becomes the caring
sister figure to all of these vulnerable young men.
In order to brighten
up this dreary story the author has developed a number of subplots.
Yale, not the name of the university but rather one of the "gay" men
(to use the currently politically correct euphemism), is employed in
an art gallery attached to one of the universities in Chicago. He
receives a letter from an old woman, Nora, who happens to have been
a great aunt of Nico, living up in Wisconsin, somewhere along that
peninsula north of Green Bay. She explains that she was living in
Paris back in the 1910s and 20s, dabbling in art and serving as a
model for a few famous artists: Modigliani, and so on, and that they
gave her a number of drawings and paintings in lieu of money. She
wants to give it to the art gallery. But her family thinks that
these things might be worth lots of money and so they would like to
sell them on the open market - a very reasonable idea, given the
ridiculous prices such things fetch.
So Yale drives up,
together with his boss who, although married, is of course secretly
homosexual, and, during a later trip also with Roman, the post-doc
student assigned to Yale who is more or less secretly homosexual.
And then, finally,
the book jumps back and forth between these doings in Chicago in the
1980s and Paris in 2015, where Fiona, now a mature woman, is seeking
her long-lost daughter, Claire. This subplot seems to have even less
relevance to the story except perhaps in that Claire hates Fiona
owing to the fact that Fiona, pregnant with Claire, unfortunately
missed the final dying moments of Yale due to the impatient Claire
who chose just this moment to be born. And so Fiona, who really
didn't want to be pregnant in the first case, did not really love
Claire as a child.
All of this AIDS and
HIV business led me to again click about in the internet, and I
found a very interesting newer documentary which can be viewed in
full in Youtube. Namely House
. A young fellow tells us at the beginning
that all his life, AIDS and HIV have been constantly talked about.
And so he wants to find out what these things really are. He
interviews Luc Montagnier, the discoverer of the HIV virus; Robert
Gallo, who went on American national television to proclaim that HIV
is the cause of AIDS; Kary Mullis, who won the Nobel prize for the
invention of the polymerase chain reaction, which is relevant to the
western blot HIV test, and many other experts as well. The person at
the WHO who is responsible for all AIDS statistics, and so forth. He
submits himself to an HIV test in South Africa. Then is told by
leading experts in Germany and in the US about all the different
tests and why there is no definitive test.
The puzzle is that,
although we were told in the 1980s that we would all be dead of HIV
and AIDS by now, in fact we are still alive. In fact, contrary to
what we were told then, and contrary to the hysteria in this book by
Rebecca Makkai, HIV is, according to a bulletin
issued by the CDC
(the Center for Disease Control of the
United States) for doctors, "no longer defined as a communicable
disease of public health significance".
In the film House of
Numbers, Luc Montagnier tells us that he no longer believes HIV
alone causes AIDS. Instead, "cofactors" are needed. So what could
these cofactors be?
The film examines
some possibilities. During the 1970s and 80s, when homosexuality was
declared to be no longer illegal, many young men went to these
centers, in San Francisco, New York and Chicago, and lost themselves
in an orgy of self-indulgence. In order to make anal intercourse
less painful they continually sniffed "poppers", alkyl nitrites,
which while producing a euphoric feeling also had the effect of
relaxing the sphincter muscle. While attending the parties and bath
houses of the scene, other drugs: heroin, cocaine, liquor...
flowed freely while the men coupled with a hundred or more different
men each month. Dysentery, even cholera became rampant, not to
mention the usual venereal diseases, and yet the orgy went on.
Is it any wonder
that the result was AIDS, and that people who live a moderate life,
whether they be homosexual or not, do not develop AIDS?
But there is another
candidate as cofactor which is perhaps even more potent than these
"recreational" drugs. Namely AZT
and the other "antiviral" drugs. For example in the film, a woman
explains that she had tested "positive" to HIV in one or another of
the tests. She joined a group of women who had thus been deemed to
have the stigma of AIDS. As I recall, there were 17 women in the
group and of those 17 only she and two others refused to obey the
urgent advice of the doctors to take their antiviral medicines. Now,
years later, just three of the group are still alive. Namely the
three who refused the medicine. Many similar cases are also dealt
Could it be that
many, if not most cases of AIDS are caused by the medicine which is
supposed to cure it? Obviously this is a question which society
cannot tolerate. Imagine the consequences if say the World Health
Organization, WHO, were to declare that AZT was one of the main
causes of AIDS. Sorry. We apologize for our understandable mistake
of judgement. Please forgive us.
An impossible idea.
And so anyone who questions the received HIV -> AIDS hypothesis,
regardless of how famous and distinguished they may have earlier
been, must now be labeled an absurd, insane conspiracy theorist who
believes that the earth is flat and the moon is made of green
cheese. There is a long list of famous professors who have thus been
beginning of the book, Brodie Moncur is working as a piano
tuner for Channon, a Scottish piano firm in Edinburgh, in
1896. He is summoned to the office of the owner of the company
and offered a job in the Paris branch. And the story develops
He falls in
love with Lika Blum, a beautiful Russian woman who is together
with John Kilbarron, a famous concert pianist. There are many
twists and turns of the plot. Brodie travels about Europe with
Kilbarron, Lika, and Kilbarron's menacing brother Malachi,
setting up and tuning Kilbarron's concert grand piano to
dramatic in St. Petersburg and at a nearby country dacha.
Malachi finally finds Brodie and Lika together in bed in the
village hotel; Kilbarron's piano is sabotaged before the
opening concert, exposing him before the assembled Petersburg
aristocracy. There is an early morning duel with pistols by
the Neva river, the escape from Russia. And then we follow
Brodie in the years that follow. He is lonely, thinking only
of the lost Lika. And finally he ends up at the other end of
the earth in the Andaman islands.
William Boyd writes is enjoyable to read. His style can be so
varied. Some of the reviewers have aptly compared the present
book to a Chekhov story.
According to the description at amazon.com, this book
lies in the category of "thrillers". There are various
possible ways to interpret the word "thrill". Some
people say that they are thrilled by something if they
find it to be good. A common exaggeration of everyday
speech. On the other hand I think that a movie which
is categorized as a thriller could be expected to be
filled with hectic, abrupt images and changes of
scene, wild movements, loud music and crashing noises.
But how can a novel be a "thriller"?
wasn't thrilled by the magnificence of the plot or the
dialogue. It was indeed easy to read, but not
thrillingly so. But it did have many unexpected
changes in what we thought the story was about. In the
end all of the loose threads do make sense and we see
that the characters are not at all what we thought
they were. So it was a fun read.
Therefore to summarize the plot as we believe it to be
through most of the book...
"silent patient" is Alicia Berenson, an artist, whose
husband is Gabriel, a photographer. They seem to be a
happy couple, but at the beginning of the book it
seems that Alicia has murdered Gabriel, shooting him
multiple times through the head. Afterwards she speaks
no more. Has she gone mad, suffering some psychic
illness which inhibits speech? Or is she simply
play-acting, consciously refusing to speak?
awaiting trial, presumably out on bail, she paints an
interesting picture, a self portrait, with the title
"Alcestis". This is the name of a Greek
by Euripides, first produced in 428 B.C.
main character though is Theo Faber, a
psychotherapist. He is also the narrator, and so we
learn lots about him without at first understanding
why he is telling us so much about himself. He also
tells us about his efforts to understand Alicia and
get her to start talking. Perhaps she will tell us
what the story of Alcestis has to do with the murder.