Review 1510: The Left Hand of Darkness

Best of Ten!
Genly Ai, an envoy to Gethen from the Ekumen, a league of other worlds, has been waiting for an audience with King Argaven XV of Karhide for two years. Although he does not trust Lord Estraven, Argaven’s prime minister, he has understood the prime minister was supporting his efforts to gain an audience. But during a state parade, Lord Estraven tells him it is not a good time.

Genly’s disappointment makes him doubt that Lord Estraven ever had good intentions. When Lord Estraven hints that Genly should leave the capital, Genly ignores him. Soon, he learns that Lord Estraven has been banished from Karhide upon pain of death.

King Argaven encourages Genly to travel around Karhide, and he does so. The planet of Gethen is an ice planet, formerly called Winter by Ekumen, and Genly is constantly cold. He has trouble understanding the Gethenians, who are androgynous; when they are in heat once a month, they take on whichever sex is opposite to that of their partner. Genly has a hard time adjusting to the feminine side of the Gethenians. For their part, they consider him a pervert for always, as they see it, being in heat.

Eventually, Genly decides to leave the more primitive, indirect Karhides for Orgoreyn, an apparently more civilized and direct country, where he is welcomed. This state is much more authoritarian. Whereas in Karhide his presence was known, in Orgoreyn it is being kept secret from all but the government. Soon, the situation takes a turn he doesn’t expect.

When I first readĀ The Left Hand of Darkness years ago, I thought it was about the best book I had ever read. Reading it again, I see no reason to change my mind except to say that others stand up there with it.

It is written as a set of documents, Genly’s story mixed in with records from other envoys and stories from the myths of various cultures on Gethen. It manages to explore many topics with its theme of light and darkness, including the effects on our lives of different sexual orientations. It’s really a masterpiece.

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Review 1330: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Cover for The Ministry of Utmost HappinessTwenty years after Arundhati Roy’s transcendent The God of Small Things, she has written another work of fiction. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness deals with varied characters and sources of unrest in India, though, rather than the unhappiness of a single family.

The novel begins in roughly the 1950’s Delhi with Aftab, the only son of his Muslim family. Aftab was born a hermaphrodite, and his parents decided he would be a boy. Aftab, however, feels he is a girl, so in his teens he joins the hijras of Shahjahanabad, a group of transexuals and transvestites who are mostly sex workers. Aftab becomes Anjum.

Roy follows Anjum’s adventures for nearly half the book, during which time India is rocked by several eras of attacks on its Muslim communities. Eventually, as an older woman who feels that the affections of her adopted daughter have been lured away from her, Anjum moves away from the hijras to live in a graveyard and befriend a host of misfits.

With the appearance of a second unwanted baby, Roy’s narrative goes off in an entirely different direction, which does not seem to tie up with the previous story for some time. Instead we have the story of the friendship between Tilo, Naga, and Musa, a Christian-raised girl and two boys. Musa eventually becomes a revolutionary fighting for the freedom of Kashmir. Roy’s book is angry as she documents abuses of power by the Indian government on relatively innocent citizens who are not Hindu.

Frankly, it’s hard to know what to make of this novel, which seems to be all in pieces and has too easy of an ending. One key to it is a poem written by Tilo at the end of the novel. “How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” Well, this novel feels like Roy tried to cover everything, with many characters, many forms of narration, many stories.

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Day 967: The Danish Girl

Cover for The Danish GirlThe Danish Girl is another example of how untrustworthy book blurbs are for conveying the sense and feel of a novel. The blurb talks about “the glitz and glamour of 1920’s Copenhagen, Paris, and Dresden.” Yes, there is a bit of going about to bistros in Paris, but this novel is not about glitz and glamour. It is mostly about the tender relationship between two people, Greta and her husband Einar, who becomes the first man to undergo a sex change operation. Ebershoff lightly based this fictional book on the lives of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, both artists, but he says the details of their lives are wholly invented.

It is Greta who realizes something first. She is a portrait painter with a deadline. When an opera singer can’t make her sitting, Greta asks Einar to put on a stocking so she can use his leg as a model. Later, she has him put on a dress. Einar is a delicateĀ man who is not self-aware. From the time he begins dressing up as Lily, he becomes more and more abstracted from his painting and his former life. Greta sees him drifting vaguely away from Einar, becoming Lily.

I wondered if Ebershoff’s description of Lily’s state of mind really reflected how a transexual person would feel, as Lily seems barely able to remember anything about Einar and vice versa. It almost seemed more like a description of a person with multiple personalities. But I don’t know much about this subject.

This is not a novel of action or plot. It is more about the states of mind of the people involved. It is sympathetic and touching. I didn’t think it would be my subject matter, but I found it affecting.

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