On Monday, a Guatemalan court ordered the country’s government to apologize to the Ixil population for the crimes of José Efraín Ríos Montt, a dictator who was sentenced to 80 years in prison for his role in war crimes committed between 1982 and 1983.
The verdict concluded that the army, under the command of Ríos Montt, had engaged in a campaign of genocide against the Ixiles, a small Mayan ethnic group. In that sense, it finally offered an answer to the thousands of victims’ families who had pleaded for justice since the 1980s.
The characters of Estevan and Esperanza are of that Mayan ethnic group, as well as the other undocumented refugees that Mattie protects in her sanctuary. Their daughter Ismene was kidnapped by the government in an attempt to blackmail them into revealing the names of the other members of their teacher’s union so they could be found and killed. They and others fled to the United States, but without paper documentation to prove their lives were in danger they are unable to be granted asylum. The ABC News/Univision story linked above addresses the question of the Reagan administrations role in supporting the Guatemalan government and consequentially their torture and genocide of the Ixiles:
Reagan’s administration ultimately decided to ignore the warnings, and indirect assistance was secretly resumed through the CIA. “Overall, U.S. intelligence, training, political support and assistance to the Guatemalan government and military in the early and mid-1980s uncritically supported counter-insurgency strategies that targeted civilians, in the cities and in rural areas like the Ixil Triangle,” Geoff Thale said. “U.S. policy makers of that era bear some responsibility for the human rights abuses that took place.”
In the novel, Estevan describes to Taylor one of the torture practices enabled by U.S. involvement:
Then out of the clear blue sky he said, “In Guatemala City the police use electricity for interrogation. They have something called the ‘telephone,’ which is an actual telephone of the type they use in the field. It has its own generator, operated by a handle.” He held up one hand and turned the other one in a circle in front of the palm.
“A crank? Like the old-fashioned telephones?”
“Operated with a crank,” he said. “The telephones are made in the United States.”
“What do you mean, they use them for interrogations? Do you mean they question you over the telephone?”
Estevan seemed annoyed with me. “They disconnect the receiver wire and tape the two ends to your body. To sensitive parts.”
“I don’t know exactly how to say this,” I said. “I thought I’d had a pretty hard life. But I keep finding out that life can be hard in ways I never knew about.”
“I can see that it would be easier not to know,” he said.
“That’s not fair, you don’t see at all. You think you’re the foreigner here, and I’m the American, and I just look the other way while the President or somebody sends down this and that, shiploads of telephones to torture people with. But nobody asked my permission, okay?”
Kingsolver wrote about this 25 years ago, and only now has it been meaningfully addressed in at least a small way. It should remind us that whether the U.S. government is trying to “contain communism” or fight a “war on terror,” there are human costs to our actions. Enabling and supplying a dictator to massacre his people just because his government is not communist, or is more secular, makes us complicit in their crimes.
Photo of Tikal Mayan ruins in Guatemala from Wikipedia
This is the third post in the Reading Women Writers series. From now on the posts will be somewhat less formal and won’t be using MLA citations.
Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is set in 1960-70s Rhodesia and is narrated by Tambudzai (Tambu), a young African girl who dreams of continuing her education.
The novel begins with Tambu stating “I was not sorry when my brother died.”
For though the event of my brother’s passing and the events of my story cannot be separated, my story is not after all about death, but about my escape and Lucia’s; about my mother’s and Maiguru’s entrapment; and about Nyasha’s rebellion — Nyasha, far-minded and isolated, my uncle’s daughter, whose rebellion may not in the end have been successful.
Tambu faces a colonial Rhodesia “with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other.” All of the characters of the novel, no matter how despicable they may seem (Tambu’s father Jeremiah is particularly unlikable), are in their own way reacting to the the colonial dynamics of power and inferiority. The novel at its heart is about having to “choose between self and security,” how those who are inferior in terms of power are at the mercy of those with wealth and power, and how this power dynamic affects identity.
Tambu’s grandmother tells her the story of her family one day in the fields. A few generations prior to Tambu, the family was wealthy “in the currency of those days.” Her great-grandfather had cattle and land, goods to trade, and was able to provide for his children. That was until “wizards well versed in treachery and black magic came from the south and forced the people from the land.” The “avaricious and grasping” wizards kept taking more and more land, leaving less and less for the people. Eventually her family “came upon the grey, sandy soil of the homestead, so stony and barren the wizards would not use it.” Tambu’s grandfather, “lured by the wizards’ whispers of riches and luxury and driven by the harshness of the homestead, took himself and his family to one of the wizards’ farms” which ended up being a trap for slavery.
Her grandmother tells her of “beings similar in appearance to the wizards but not of them, for these were holy” that “had set up a mission not too far from the homestead.” She took Tambu’s uncle, Babamukuru, to the mission and “begged them to prepare him for life in their world.”
This story provides the background of the early role colonialism had on local Africans and her family. It acknowledges that the world as they knew it was fading, and the African world was fatefully transforming into “their world.” In her grandmother’s story “the suffering was not minimised but the message was clear: endure and obey, for there is no other way.”
It also illustrates the good cop, bad cop dynamic of white colonialism: the capitalists and speculators are the bad cop, blatantly using their power to exploit the land and the people; the missionaries are the good cop, appearing benevolent compared to the capitalists yet subjugating the people in their own, more subtle ways. It seemed as if the missionaries “had come not to take but to give.”
The had given up the comforts and security of their own homes to come and lighten our darkness. It was a big sacrifice that the missionaries made. It was a sacrifice that made us grateful to them, a sacrifice that made them superior not only to us but to those other Whites as well who were here for adventure and to help themselves to our emeralds. The missionaries’ self-denial and brotherly love did not go unrewarded. We treated them like minor deities. With the self-satisfied dignity that came naturally to white people in those days, they accepted this improving disguise.
The charity of white missionaries has its price. The “Whites were indulgent towards promising young black boys in those days, provided that the promise was a peaceful promise, a grateful promise to accept whatever was handed out to them and not to expect more.” These whites saw a young Babamukuru, Tambu’s uncle and patriarch of the family, as “a good boy, cultivatable, in the way that land is, to yield harvests that sustain the cultivator.” Despite not wanting to leave his home in Africa, the offer to spend five years in England for education by the whites was not something he could refuse:
Babamukuru was appreciative of the opportunity that he been offered; and further, to decline would have been a form of suicide. The missionaries would have been annoyed by his ingratitude. He would have fallen from grace with them and they would have taken under their winds another promising young African in his place. Unable to obtain the necessary qualifications at home, he had no alternative but to uproot himself for a period of five years in order to retain the position that would enable him, in due course, to remove himself and both his families from the mercy of nature and charitable missionaries.
When Babamukuru returns from England with his wife Maiguru, son Chido, and daughter Nyasha, his new wealth and position enable him to exert his power over his family through charity the way the whites had to him. Initially, Tambu naively thought it was different:
Babamukuru, I knew, was different. He hadn’t cringed under the weight of his poverty. Boldly, Babamukuru had defied it. Through hard work and determination he had broken the evil wizards’ spell. Babamukuru was now a person to be reckoned with in his own right. He didn’t need to bully anybody any more. Especially not Maiguru, who was so fragile and small she looked as though a breath of wind would carry her away. Nor could I see him bullying Nyasha. My cousin was pretty and bold and sharp. You never thought about Babamukuru as being handsome or ugly, but he was completely dignified. He didn’t need to be bold any more because he had made himself plenty of power. Plenty of power. Plenty of money. A lot of education. Plenty of everything.
As Tambu later learns when she takes her dead brother Nhamo’s place at her uncle’s home at the mission, the money, power, and education didn’t mean he wouldn’t exert his power over his family how the white missionaries exerted theirs over him.
Luckily, or maybe unluckily for him, throughout his life Babamukuru had found himself — as eldest child and son, as an early educated African, as headmaster, as husband and father, as provider to many — in positions that enabled him to organise his immediate world and its contents as he wished…. Thus he had been insulated from the necessity of considering alternatives unless they were his own. Stoically he accepted his divinity.
Upon arriving in her uncle’s home Tambu writes: “Babamukuru was God, therefore I had arrived in heaven. I was in danger of becoming an angel, or at the very least a saint, and forgetting how ordinary humans existed — from minute to minute and from hand to mouth.” She has to constantly stop herself from falling into this trap of forgetting what it’s like to be more inferior “by thinking of my mother, who suffered from being female and poor and uneducated and black so stoically that I was ashamed of my weakness in succumbing so flabbily to the strangeness of my new circumstances.” Those who end up acquiring education, money, or power start believing that it entitles them to exert influence over those “inferior” to them, forgetting what it was like to be bullied by superiors and therefore perpetuating the existing power structures.
When Tambu sees Babamukuru nearly beat her cousin Nyasha to death for staying outside the house with a boy longer than he said she should, many of her early illusions end up shattered:
Thinking how dreadfully familiar that scene had been, with Babamukuru condemning Nyasha to whoredom, making her a victim of her femaleness, just as I had felt victimised at home in the days when Nhamo went to school and I grew my maize. The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it. And that was the problem.
Men of all backgrounds and circumstances exerted their power over women. Whites exerted their power over blacks. The wealthy exerted their power over the poor. The educated exerted their power over the uneducated. Yet “all the conflicts came back to this question of femaleness. Femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness.”
So to put myself back on the right path I took refuge in the image of the grateful poor female relative. That made everything a lot easier. It mapped clearly the ways I could or could not go, and by keeping within those boundaries I was able to avoid the mazes of self-confrontation.
Here Tambu temporarily regresses to the path of least resistance, choosing security over self. The powerful have the means to punish those who do not bend to their will. This system says to those without power: You want to have free will? You want to be yourself? Then be yourself in the hell we will make for you for your failure to obey. When Tambu does stand up for herself and say that she does not want to attend the Christian wedding that Babamukuru demands for her parents, he exemplifies this:
‘I am telling you! If you do not go to the wedding, you are saying you no longer want to live here. I am the head of this house. Anyone who defies my authority is an evil thing in this house, bent on destroying what I have made.’
Most people choose to take the path of least resistance, perpetuating the system, but Tambu’s cousin Nyasha spent five years in England and saw first-hand that there were other paths:
‘It’s not England any more and I ought to adjust. But when you’ve seen different things you want to be sure you’re adjusting to the right thing. You can’t go on all the time being whatever’s necessary. You’ve got to have conviction, and I’m convinced I don’t want to be anyone’s underdog. It’s not right for anyone to be that. But once you get used to it, well, it just seems natural and you just carry on. And that’s the end of you. You’re trapped. They control everything you do.’
This is the fate that comes from taking the path of least resistance, and though Nyasha was determined to avoid that fate, Tambu still “sensed the conflict that she was going through of self versus surrender and the content of sin.” It is the fate of Tambu’s mother, whose mind, “belonging first to her father and then to her husband, had not been hers to make up.” The longer a person takes the path of least resistance, the less their identity remains.
Nervous Conditions is an evocative novel that brilliantly presents the struggles and complexities of colonialism, power dynamics, and the burden of femaleness. Dangarembga has written a sequel, The Book of Not: A Sequel to Nervous Conditions, that continues Tambu’s story and I look forward to reading it in the future.
This is the second post in the Reading Women Writers series.
In The Golden Notebook, Anne writes that “One novel in five hundred or a thousand has the quality a novel should have to make it a novel–the quality of philosophy” (Lessing 59). By that standard, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees is without question a novel. Its philosophy is the polar opposite of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Rand sees a world where ‘great’ men and woman are solely responsible for their own success and altruism is a sin; Kingsolver sees a world that is unjust, yet people can thrive in it if they care about and look after each other.
Marietta Greer, who eventually changes her name to Taylor, is from a poor area of rural Kentucky. She describes her county as “twenty years behind the nation in practically every way you can think of, except the rate of teenage pregnancies” (47). She is determined to not share the fate of the girls who were “dropping by the wayside like seeds off a poppyseed bun” (3). She graduates high school, works at a hospital for 5 years to save up for a ’55 Volkswagen bug, and sets off west not knowing where she would end up. Along the way, outside a bar near the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, a woman leaves Taylor with a baby Indian girl. Taylor ends up settling in Tucson, Arizona, living with another Kentuckian, Lou Ann Ruiz and her newborn son Dwayne Ray. They, along with Mattie, a widow who owns and operates a used-tire shop that doubles as a refugee sanctuary, Estevan and Esperanza, a married couple who are undocumented refugees from Guatemala, and their neighbors Edna Poppy and Virgie Mae Parsons, form a familial group.
This brings us to one of the themes of the novel: blood-relation does not make a family, and a family doesn’t require blood relation.
Throughout the novel there are examples of unhealthy blood-relations:
What she said was “Why not, my daddy’d been calling me a slut practically since I was thirteen, so why the hell not? Newt was just who it happened to be. You know the way it is.”
I told her I didn’t know, because I didn’t have a daddy. That I was lucky that way. She said yeah. (9)
She started telling me how it was all Newt’s daddy’s fault, he beat him up, beat her up, and even had hit the baby with a coal scuttle. (9)
Somehow it’s more excusable to be mean to your own relatives. (116)
She told me that maybe one out of every four little girls is sexually abused by a family member. Maybe more. (173)
Turtle was severely abused before she was rescued by Taylor. Lou Ann’s mother and grandmother caused her to be afraid of everything and have almost no self-confidence, while her father used to lash her with a belt. Lou Ann’s husband Angel left her when she was pregnant with Dwayne Ray. The two positive family relationships are Taylor with her mother and Estevan with Esperanza.
At first, Taylor has a difficult time coming to terms with the idea that a family doesn’t require blood:
At least she did remember to ask about Turtle. “She’s great,” I said. “She’s talking a blue streak.”
“That’s how you were. You took your time getting started, but once you did there was no stopping you,” Mama said.
I wondered what that had to do with anything. Everybody behaved as if Turtle was my own flesh and blood daughter. It was a conspiracy. (110)
“Lou Ann, I moved in here because I knew we’d get along. It’s nice of you to make dinner for us all and to take care of Turtle sometimes, and I know you mean well. But we’re acting like Blondie and Dagwood here. All we need is some ignorant little dog named Spot to fetch me my slippers. It’s not like we’re a family for Christ’s sake. You’ve got your own life to live, and I’ve got mine. You don’t have to do all this stuff for me.” (85)
Eventually Taylor acknowledges that what they all have is a kind of family after phone conversations with her mother and Lou Ann:
“Well, she comes by that honest.”
“Don’t say that, Mama. That means it proves the baby’s not a bastard. If it acts like you, it proves it’s legitimate.”
“I never thought about it that way.”
“It’s okay, I guess I’m just sensitive, you know, since she’s not blood kin.”
“I don’t think blood’s the only way kids come by things honest. Not even the main way. It’s what you tell them, Taylor. If a person is bad, say, then it makes them feel better to tell their kids that they’re even worse. And the that’s exactly what they’ll grow up to be…” (223)
“Taylor, remember that time you were mad at me because you didn’t want us to act like a family? That all we needed was a little dog named Spot? Well, don’t get mad, but I told somebody that you and Turtle and Dwayne Ray were my family. Somebody at work said, ‘Do you have a family at home?’ And I said, ‘Sure,’ without even thinking. I meant you all. Mainly I guess because we’ve been through hell and high water together. We know each other’s good and bad sides, stuff nobody else knows.”
It was hard for me to decide what to say.
“I don’t mean till death do us part, or anything,” she said. “But nothing on this earth’s guaranteed, when you get right down to it, you know? I’ve been thinking about that. About how your kids aren’t really yours, they’re just these people that you try to keep an eye on, and hope you’ll all grow up someday to like each other and still be in one piece. What I mean is, everything you ever get is really just on loan.”
“I guess you could say we’re family,” I said. (230-1)
This concept of family is tied to the central philosophy of the novel, which is exemplified by two stories. The first:
“Tortolita, let me tell you a story,” Estevan said. “This is a South American, wild Indian story about heaven and hell.” Mrs. Parsons made a prudish face, and Estevan went on. “If you go to visit hell, you will see a room like this kitchen. There is a pot of delicious stew on the table, with the most delicate aroma you can imagine. All around, people sit, like us. Only they are dying of starvation. They are jibbering and jabbering,” he looked extra hard at Mrs. Parsons, “but they cannot get a bite of this wonderful stew God has made for them. Now, why is that?”
“Because they’re choking?’ For all eternity?” Lou Ann asked. Hell, for Lou Ann, would naturally be a place filled with sharp objects and small round foods.
“No,” he said. “Good guess, but no. They are starving because they only have spoons with very long handles. As long as that.” He pointed to the mop, which I had forgotten to put away. “With these ridiculous, terrible spoons, the people in hell can reach into the pot but they cannot put the food in their mouths. Oh, how hungry they are! Oh, how they swear and curse each other!” he said, looking again at Virgie. He was enjoying this.
“Now,” he went on, “you can go and visit heaven. What? You see a room just like the first one, the same table, the same pot of stew, the same spoons as long as a sponge mop. But these people are all happy and fat.”
“Real fat. or do you mean just well-fed?” Lou Ann asked.
“Just well-fed,” he said. “Perfectly, magnificently well-fed, and very happy. Why do you think?”
He pinched up a chunk of pineapple in his chopsticks, neat as you please, and reached all the way across the table to offer it to Turtle. She took it like a newborn bird.” (107-8)
The world is abundant (the stew) yet unjust (the spoons). If we only think about ourselves, while blaming and scapegoating others, we make the world hell. If we realize we are doomed if we are isolated and choose to take care of each other, we can thrive.
Unfortunately, society seems systematically predisposed to resemble the hell of Estevan’s story. Taylor laments that “the whole way of the world is to pick on people who can’t fight back” (170).:
“There’s just so damn much ugliness. Everywhere you look, some big guy kicking some little person when they’re down–look what they do to those people at Mattie’s. To hell with them, people say, let them die, it was their fault in the first place for being poor or in trouble, or for not being white, or whatever, how dare they try to come to this country.”
“Look at those guys out in the park with no place to go,” I said. “And women , too. I’ve seen whole families out there. While we’re in here trying to keep the dry-cleaner bags out of the kids’ reach. those mothers are using dry-cleaner bags for their children’s clothes, for God’s sake. For raincoats. And feeding them out of the McDonald’s dumpster. You’d think that life alone would be punishment enough for those people, but then the cops come around waking them up mornings, knocking them around with their sticks. You’ve seen it. And everybody else saying hooray, way to go, I got mine, power to the toughest. Clean up the neighborhood and devil take the riffraff.”
Lou Ann just listened.
“What I’m saying is nobody feels sorry for anybody anymore, nobody even pretends they do. Not even the President. It’s like it’s become unpatriotic.” I unfolded my wad of handkerchief and blew my nose. “What’s that supposed to teach people?” I demanded. “It’s no wonder kids get the hurting end of the stick. And she’s so little, so many years ahead of her. I’m just not up to the job, Lou Ann.”
Lou Ann sat with her knees folded under her, braiding and unbraiding the end of a strand of my hair. “Well, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger,” she said. “Nobody is.” (170-1)
Mattie tells Taylor that they have to find a way to get Estevan and Esperanza to a sanctuary in a different state because of immigration crackdowns and explains how the legal system for granting asylum is a catch-22:
“The only legal way a person from Guatemala can stay here is if they can prove in court that their life was in danger when they left.”
“But they were, Mattie, and you know it. You know what happened to them. To Esperanza’s brother, and all.” I didn’t say, To their daughter. I wondered if Mattie knew, but of course she would have to.
“Their own say-so is no good; they have to have hard proof. Pictures and documents.” She picked up a whitewall and I thought she was going to throw it across the lot, but she only hoisted it onto the top of a pile beside me. “When people run for their lives they frequently neglect to bring along their file cabinets of evidence,” she said. Mattie wasn’t often bitter but when she was, she was.
I didn’t want to believe the world could be so unjust. But of course it was right there in front of my nose. (159)
Estevan and Esperanza’s baby daughter Ismene was kidnapped after a government raid on Estevan’s teachers’ union, which claimed the lives of her brother and two friends. She was taken because Estevan and Esperanza were the only people who knew the names of the 17 other members of the union and the government wanted to force them to reveal the names. They chose to save the lives of their 17 friends by fleeing Guatemala without their daughter, hoping that she would be adopted and live on. This sacrifice exemplifies the ultimate expression of the novel’s philosophy.
Taylor, Mattie, Estevan, and Esperanza all take risks and make sacrifices for others. They are willing to break laws that are unjust. Mattie runs an illegal sanctuary for refugees; Estevan and Esperanza risk capture when they help Taylor get legal guardianship of Turtle; Taylor risks arrest by transporting Estevan and Esperanza to a new sanctuary in Oklahoma.
“…Some folks are the heroes and take the risks, other folks do what they can from behind the scenes.”
“Mattie, would you please shut up about heroes and prison and all.”
“I didn’t say prison.”
“Just stop, okay? Estevan and Esperanza are my friends. And, even if they weren’t, I can’t see why I shouldn’t do this. If I saw somebody was going to get hit by a truck I’d push them out of the way. Wouldn’t anybody? It’s a sad day for us all if I’m being a hero here.” (188)
Estevan’s tells Taylor as they part that “in a world as wrong as this one, all we can do is make things as right as we can” (220). We do this by not being selfish, by taking care of one another.
The second story that exemplifies the central theme of the novel is about wisteria vines, which Turtle calls bean trees:
…wisteria vines, like other legumes, often thrive in poor soil, the book said. Their secret is something called rhizobia. These are microscopic bugs that live underground in little knots on the roots. They suck nitrogen gas right out of the soil and turn it into fertilizer for the plant.
The rhizobia are not actually part of the plant, they are separate creatures, but they always live with legumes: a kind of underground railroad moving secretly up and down the roots.
“It’s like this,” I told Turtle. “There’s a whole invisible system for helping out the plant that you’d never guess was there.” I loved this idea. “It’s just the same as with people. The way Edna has Virgie, and Virgie has Edna, and Sandi has Kid Central Station, and everybody has Mattie. And on and on.”
The wisteria vines on their own would just barely get by, is how I explained it to Turtle, but put them together with rhizobia and they make miracles. (227-8)
These themes are universal and timeless. 25 years after it was first published, it speaks to the political philosophical debates of today. Conservatives claim that a traditional, blood-related family is the only true family. They argue against adoption by same-sex partners, against same-sex marriage. Conservatives, especially Objectivists, believe that everyone is solely responsible for all their successes and all their failures. The negative attitudes towards the poor and immigrants largely remain the attitudes of conservatives. Our society more closely resembles the hell of the first story, with selfish bickering, blaming, and scapegoating, than the humanistic vision of heaven.
As an inaugural novel for my Reading Women Writers series, The Golden Notebook is both perfect and daunting. Perfect, in that since its first publication in 1962 it has inspired generations of women, has a female author as the protagonist, and addresses themes of writing. Daunting because it is a novel of such richness, depth, and complexity; it is impossible to fully address this work in a single post.
This series will be a challenge for me, since, as I mentioned in the introductory post, I don’t have a background in writing about fiction. As a writer whose domain has almost exclusively been non-fiction, often academic, I suffer from a compulsion to attempt comprehensiveness. In preparing for this post, I have filled my copy of the novel with marginalia, filled sheets of loose-leaf paper and notebook pages with thoughts, quotations, and themes in a futile attempt to capture everything.
Structurally, The Golden Notebook consists of a short novel–Free Women–that is split into five sections and interspersed with the contents of four notebooks, all written by protagonist Anna Wulf, which culminates in a single “golden notebook.”
The four notebooks were identical, about eighteen inches square, with shiny covers, like the texture of a cheap watered silk. But the colours distinguished them–black, red, yellow and blue. When the covers were laid back, exposing the four first pages, it seemed that order had not immediately imposed itself. In each, the first page or two showed broken scribblings and half-sentences. Then a title appeared, as if Anna had, almost automatically, divided herself into four, and then, from the nature of what she had written, named these divisions. (53-4)
The division of the self and need for unification is the central theme of the novel, with the notebooks illustrating Anna’s fragmentation. Each notebook contained a different part of Anna:
The novel ends with Anna in an affair with the American writer Saul Green. The four divided notebooks are ended and her whole self goes into the golden notebook. Saul gives her the first line of her new novel, which is the Free Women we have been reading, and Anna gives him the first line to his new novel as well as the golden notebook.
In the inner Golden Notebook, things have come together. The divisions have broken down. There is formlessness with the end of fragmentation. (xii)
Upon publication, Lessing believed that readers overlooked her intended themes, including this central one:
But nobody so much as noticed this central theme, because the book was instantly belittled, by friendly reviewers as well as by hostile ones, as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war. (xii)
Lessing aspired to write a novel “which described the intellectual and moral climate” of mid-20th Century Britain (xv). While Lessing exclaims that “this novel was not a trumpet for Women’s Liberation,” her assumption “that the filter which is a woman’s way of looking at life has the same validity as the filter which is a man’s way” is inherently feminist and, despite being generally accepted today–though sadly often more in theory than in practice–it was a bold assumption at the time of publication (xiii).
Sixty years later it is clear that Lessing succeeded in her aspiration. The difficulty in writing about The Golden Notebook is that it can be read in so many different ways, through different lenses, from different approaches. Beyond the multiple themes that I will address shortly, the novel can be read as a study in politics, especially the politics of idealistic ideologies. It can be read to get a feel for the “intellectual and moral climate” of the time: the influence that Marxist and Freudian philosophy had during that time is evident, as well as concerns about apartheid and the “colour barrier.” It can be read as a window into the thoughts and feelings of women and of the relationships between women and men.
Returning to Lessing’s intended themes, in her 1971 Introduction she laid out a number of themes she had in mind as she was writing the novel.
Theme of unity
This is Lessing’s central theme:
Yet the essence of the book, the organisation of it, everything in it, says implicitly and explicitly, that we must not divide things off, must not compartmentalise. (xv)
Anna’s four notebooks illustrate the fragmentation of her self. There is Anna the author in the black notebook, Anna the Communist Party member in the red, her experiences in story form in the yellow, and her experiences in diary form in the blue. She feels compelled to keep things pertaining to these divisions in their proper notebooks. At one point Anna catches herself writing in the yellow notebook and notes “this sort of comment belongs to the blue notebook. I must keep them separate” (513). Anna sees herself “seated on the music-stool, writing, writing; making an entry in one book, then ruling it off, or crossing it out; she saw the pages patterned with different kinds of writing; divided, bracketed, broken–she felt a swaying nausea” (373). Throughout the novel she is breaking down, afraid that she is losing her mind, until she finally reaches the point where she can unify herself:
I’ll pack away the blue notebook with the others. I’ll pack away the four notebooks. I’ll start a new notebook, all of myself in one book. (580)
Theme of breakdown
…sometimes when people “crack up” it is a way of self-healing, of the inner self’s dismissing false dichotomies and divisions” (xii)
Throughout the novel Lessing repeatedly uses the terms “breaking down” and “cracking up” to describe mental and emotional crises. Anna’s “cracking up” intensifies up until she discards her divided notebooks and unifies herself. The characters of Tommy and Muriel both have to hit rock bottom in order to reunify themselves. This imagery of “cracking up” and “breaking down” illustrates the disintegration and fragmentation of the self. Once it has broken down to the point of formlessness the self can heal and become unified.
Theme of the artist
This theme also has a number of related sub-themes. Lessing turns the idea of the “artist-as-exemplar” on its head by giving Anna writer’s block and discussing the reasons for it:
These would have to be linked with the disparity between the overwhelming problems of war, famine, poverty, and the tiny individual who was trying to mirror them. But what was intolerable, what really could not be borne any longer, was this monstrously isolated, monstrously narcissistic, pedestalled paragon. (xvii)
Lessing sought to tear down the mythos of ‘The Great Writer’ by presenting the insecurities and challenges of a writer. This is tied to the artist-related sub-theme of subjectivity. In the 1950s and prior, especially in Communist countries and circles, there was pressure for writers to be objective and to avoid the personal. Lessing firstly believes that pure and comprehensive objectivity is not possible. Second, she sees the individual as a microcosm of the general:
Writing about oneself, one is writing about others, since your problems, pains, pleasures, emotions–and your extraordinary and remarkable ideas–can’t be yours alone. (xviii)
This belief reflects a humanist approach as well as a specific interpretation of Marxist thought. Anna attacks the hypocrisy of the objectivity-worship of Communists:
“…After all, you aren’t someone writes little novels about the emotions. You write about what’s real.”
Anna almost laughed again, and then said soberly, “Do you realise how many of the things we say are just echoes? That remark you just made is an echo from communist party criticism–at its worst moments, moreover. God knows what that remark means, I don’t. I never did. If Marxism means anything, it means that a little novel about the emotions should reflect ‘what’s real’ since the emotions are a function and a product of society…” (41)
It is interesting that Anna makes this argument so early in the novel, since throughout she privately battles her own feelings against the argument. She constantly feels guilty about the emotions that led to her novel, especially nostalgia, and sees emotion as the key difference between a novel and reportage. She asks herself: “Why a story at all–not that it was a bad story, or untrue, or that it debased anything. Why not, simply, the truth?” (61).
Another challenge for the writer is the feeling of being “exposed.” Tommy tells Anna: “You’re afraid of writing what you think about life, because you might find yourself in an exposed position, you might expose yourself, you might be alone” (38). Anna admits to herself that she can’t read her own novel “without feeling ashamed, as if I were in a street naked” (61). This fear of being alone in one’s feelings and hence keeping it private, especially among women at the time, was addressed in Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique: “She was so ashamed to admit her dissatisfaction that she never knew how many other women shared it” (Friedan, 19).
To put the short novel Free Women as a summary and condensation of all that mass of material, was to say something about the conventional novel, another way of describing the dissatisfaction of a writer when something is finished: “How little I have managed to say of the truth, how little have I caught of all that complexity; how can this small neat thing be true when what I experienced was so rough and apparently formless and unshaped.” (xix)
This sentiment is a perfect way for me to close out my own piece. I sit looking at my own “mass of material”: the scribblings in the margins of my copy of The Golden Notebook, the pages of handwritten notes, lists of topics I could write about: the dichotomy between physical and emotional; frustrated idealism; the desire for those who are ‘invisible’ to be seen; Sisyphus and boulder-pushers. I can’t help but think “how little have I managed to say” about this novel, and “how little have I caught of all that complexity.”