Tuesday, 1 June 2010
Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts
The opening page of a book is the equivalent of being given a ticket to work on a strange land. Similar to the first notes of a song we've never heard before, there's a sense of anticipation and excitement. I lap up those introductory lines like a man drinks water after he has travelled through the desert. And as in music, where you go back to the same track if you like it, I return to that first page long after I've finished reading the book. One of my favourite openings in literature is that of the main character in 'Invisible Man', the famous novel written by Ralph Ellison:
'I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination - indeed, everything and anything except me.'
Read one of those lines again. '...it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass'. When I open the first page of a book I feel as if I was standing in the middle of a room crowded with words, where each and every one of them is looking at me, trying to catch my attention. To me, Ellison's text rings out like the bell they used to use in ships in gone-by days to call for lunch. Literary hunger. Satiated by the author. His opening is concise, brief and to the point. Do not confuse him with Poe. No, that would be a gross mistake. Here, look at me, I'm writing about the experience of being black in the US. Of being invisible.
But there's also a universal aspect to that excerpt. Even if you didn't know who Ralph Ellison was, even if you were not familiar with his political, social and critical essays, you would probably feel included in his main character's invisibility. Because that's the common denominator of many minority groups: their imperceptibility. And that opening page goes to great length to sum up briefly the effects of it.
Ellison's novel was a way of conveying the sense of disappointment of a black man who feels cheated by a society whose raison d'être is the pursuit of the 'American dream'. In contrast, in "My Son's Story", Nadine Gordimer swaps the roles of the cheat and the cheated from the first line:
'How did I find out?
I was deceiving him.
November. I was on study leave – for two weeks before the exams pupils in the senior classes were allowed to stay home to prepare themselves. I would I was going to work with a friend at a friend’s house, and then I’d slip off to a cinema. Cinemas had been open to us only a year or so; it was a double freedom I took: to bunk study and to sit in the maroon nylon velvet seat of a cinema in a suburb where whites live. My father was not well off but my parents wanted my sister and me to have a youth less stunted by the limits of an empty pocket than their precocious position, at the time, warranted. So I was in the foyer waiting to get into a five o’clock performance at one of the cinemas in a new complex and my father and a woman came out of the earlier performance in another.'
There was my father; the moment we saw one another it was I who had discovered him, not he me.
If Ellison's narrative reminds me of a lunch bell ringing out, Gordimer's calls to mind a fishing boat moored to a pier. And how in a split second the ropes that were fastened before are let loose and a fifteen-year-old sees his life fading away in the distance as his boat sets sail on uncharted waters. The father who spots him playing truant is himself cheating on the boy's mother. Nadine presents a conflict between father and son and father and wife and mistress. It doesn't help that the father's lover is a white woman in apartheid-ridden South Africa. And the clincher in that first page is the phrase 'the moment we saw one another it was I who had discovered him, not he me'.
Good opening passages are not just the province of prose. Poetry has many good examples, too. Even short poems, which sometimes are dismissed haughtily for their brevity, can provide one or two intensely emotional line(s). One of my favourite authors is Chicago-born, Mexican-American Sandra Cisneros, whose humour and perspicacity are omnipresent in her work. Take the opening lines of 'Original Sin', a poem included in 'Loose Woman', a collection of her poems:
Before Mexicana flight #729
en route to Mexico City departs
from San Antonio International Airport
I buy a 69¢ disposable razor at
the gift shop because I forgot
in Mexico they don't like hair
under your arms only
on your legs and plan to
shave before landing but
the stewardess handing out declaration
forms has given me the wrong
one assuming I'm Mexican but I am!
and I have to run up the aisle and ask
for a US citizen form instead because
I'm well how do I explain?
Is the author's apprehension to fall from divine grace related to hirsute armpits or her dual cultural heritage? Is the biblical apple presented to her, a hairy one or does it carry a label reading 'Hecha en Méjico'? As we read on, we get a snippet of the poet's internal struggle, the battle to get rid of the unwanted tuft.
Although the three examples above were chosen randomly, only now, as I write this post, do I realise that they were all written in the first person singular. A common trait that underlines the allure of them all. That first contact with the author's world; a world of sowing, growing, ripening and harvesting in which once we give our ticket at the entrance, we're invited to work on this strange land.
Next Post: 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly(Review)', to be published on Thursday 3rd June at 11:50pm (GMT)