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Category Archive for 'Psychological study'

Focusing on elderly teacher Elsa Weiss and her life story, Israeli author Michal Ben-Naftali develops the character of this teacher in Israel into a stunning novel about aspects of the Holocaust and its effects unlike any other that I have read in my many years of reviewing. This novel has surprises on every page, differing from most other “Holocaust novels” in that it does not follow the customary pattern of presenting innocent victims, the horrors they face from the Nazis, their crises, and the new lives developed in the aftermath of the war. Instead, author Michal Ben-Naftali presents in Elsa Weiss, a woman who has hidden her personal details and personality throughout the Holocaust and even afterward, a woman who has become virtually anonymous, someone whose life feels almost peripheral to the horrors of the 1940s, someone who survives the wartime savagery in part because she blends in. Dramatic and thought-provoking, this novel abandons the traditional visions of Holocaust survivors and their stories, presenting Elsa Weiss in a series of seemingly hopeless situations from which she believes she can escape. The aftereffects of her survival on her values and sense of identity, however, show her spending the remainder of her life trying on some level to erase her naive decisions and allow her to atone for her mistakes.

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Setting his novel in Punta Gotica, the poorer side of Cienfuegos, a city on the south side of Cuba, author Marcial Gala, creates a grim novel of the non-stop action in this city, while, at the same time, breathing life into people, societies, and places new to many readers. Often the narrative feels as if Marcial Gala himself, a resident of this city, is “hanging out,” invisibly, with some of the characters here, even as he is telling their stories, and on several occasions one character even recommends that another character go see “Marcial” for some kind of help with an issue. As a result, the author creates the feeling that he is part of the action, creating his own story in Cienfuegos within the characters’ more objective stories, despite the serious difficulties that many of these characters get into on their own or create for others. Unconscionable, often life-changing difficulties, are drawn realistically, rather than intuitively or emotionally, as the affected characters react to traumas they have experienced in their daily lives. Casual murder, innocent cannibalism, the betrayal of lovers for cash, and a general mood of prevailing evil, which even infects the ghosts of some of the dead, make this a novel in which anything can – and often does – take place without warning.

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Telling the story of his father’s life, author Johannes Anyuru, the son of a Ugandan father and Swedish mother, focuses on the fraught political climates of several East African countries in the 1970s, when his father was in his early twenties, trying to find some sort of direction and sense of purpose. As a young teen in Uganda in the early 1960s, his father, known here as P, took advantage of a program in Greece which taught him and other young men in Uganda how to fly military aircraft, a program which changed his life. He loves the freedom of the air and sees himself flying professionally. P is an ethnic Langi, belonging to the group to which President Obote of Uganda also belongs, but as the novel opens, Obote has just been deposed in a coup led by Idi Amin. Assumed to be a supporter of Obote, P has no interest in being drafted into the air corps aiding Amin in his bloody rise to power. Secretly escaping his program in Greece by going to Rome, he then flies to Lusaka in Zambia, hoping to start a job he found as a crop-duster. The back and forth narratives of P and his son continue as they try to figure out who they are and where they come from, and require the reader to fill in blanks by making their own connections. For P, the biggest issue is escaping to someplace safe. For his son, it is filling in the blanks in his own life by learning more about who is father is, or has been. P remains full of mysteries, largely because one never knows whether he is telling the whole truth about the things we do know about him.

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Awaking in an Istanbul hospital after jumping from the Bosphorus Bridge in a failed suicide attempt, young blues singer-musician Boratin has no memory of his life – or why he chose suicide as a way out. The bridge is five hundred feet high, and fewer than a handful of people have survived the jump since the bridge was built in the early 1970s. Boratin is one of the “lucky” ones – only one rib is broken. His biggest problem is that he has total amnesia. He does not recognize his own face in the mirror, has no memory of his own name, knows no one who visits him, and has no past. Almost plotless, this short novel recreates the ultimate crisis of identity as it happens to a twenty-eight-year-old musician, who obviously had problems before his jump off the Bosphorus Bridge. As Boratin tries to figure out who he is so he can revisit his past and perhaps connect it to a new present, the author raises many questions about time, place, history, philosophy, psychology, life, death, and the desire of people to relate to each other in positive ways. The novel’s progress through short episodes, and the reactions of Boratin to them, allow the reader to identify with him, and through him to see some of life’s grandest themes through a completely new point of view. The extent to which the past controls the present, and the present controls the future take on new meaning in this remarkable novel.

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Among the most prolific novelists and playwrights in Japanese history, Yukio Mishima wrote thirty-four novels, fifty plays, twenty-five books of short stories, and many books of essays, before he committed ritual suicide after he failed in a coup attempt in Japan in 1970, when he was forty-five. This novel, written in 1961, now translated by Andrew Clare into English for the first time, is one of his early novels, quite different from his major work, the Sea of Fertility tetralogy, which traces Japanese history throughout the twentieth century. Here, in a novel which has been described as a parallel to Japanese noh drama, with its wooden masks, Mishima writes an unusual psychological novel which begins with the ending, as the three main characters see themselves as “three fish caught up in a net…a net of sin.” As they pose for a picture in the small fishing port of Iro in West Izu, on a peninsula to the west of Tokyo, the reader has already become aware of “a final wretched incident,” the appearance of “droplets of blood [on the] dazzingly reflective surface of the concrete,” the “anguish” that Yuko, the main female character, feels within, and her comment about how “marvelous it would be to erect a tomb like this – the three of us lined up together.” The novel “progresses” backward as it develops relationships and themes.

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