Wednesday, September 21, 2016

I say everything is connected

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
I say everything is connected. For instance, several weeks ago , we were having dinner with our friend and her husband whom we had not met for months and half way through dinner, our friend had to take a call. Our friend is a surgeon who often has to answer phone calls from the hospital during dinner but this time it was not about her patients. The phone call was about one of her classmates who served as  a medical doctor for many years in UK recently died in a road accident involving a bus she was travelling in from Kuala Lumpur to Penang .
After living abroad as a specialist  for almost four decades, our friend's classmate decided to move back home to take care of her aging mother. A few days before the tragic misadventure, a fellow lawyer had called me and asked if the French Honorary Consul in Penang was still ill because one of his clients required legalisation  of some documents for usage in France.  As the Honorary Consul was not available, it was therefore necessary for his client to get her Power of Attorney authenticated at the French Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. I subsequently heard from my colleague that his client was killed in a road accident on her way back from Kuala Lumpur after her visit to the French Embassy. It was rather unusual that she decided to take a bus back to Penang from Kuala Lumpur. I was indeed taken aback when I realised  that my colleague was making enquiries for the  woman on the fateful bus ride.

John Irving wrote in Avenue of Mysteries.
As for fate, and how you can’t escape yours, there was Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Michael Henchard, drunk, sells his wife and daughter to a sailor in the first chapter. Henchard can never atone for what he does; in his will, Henchard requests ‘that no man remember me.’(Not exactly a redemption story. Clark French hated Hardy.)’

I have enjoyed books by John Irving but I have not enjoyed reading Avenue of Mysteries as much as I have anticipated. It could be that I was too anxious to get through the book that runs to more than 750 pages.  The story is told in meandering style alternating between the protagonist’s present life as a writer and teacher and his past of  colourful and eccentric characters set against exotic landscape in Oaxaca, Mexico and also the Philippines. Juan Diego, a successful American writer cannot run away from his past, and how his past will collide with his present. He is a kid from Mexico and a grown man in Iowa. He keeps dreaming about his past when he sleeps. 

What Juan Diego said was that he’d had two lives- two separate and distinctly different lives. The Mercian experience was his first life, his childhood and early adolescence. After he left Mexico – he’d never gone back – he had a second life, the American or Midwestern experience. ( Or was he also saying that , relatively speaking , not  a whole lot had happened to him in his second life?

What Juan Diego always maintained was that , in his mind – in his memories , certainly, but also in his dreams –he lived and relived his two lives on ‘parallel tracks.’

Juan Diego, fourteen years old and his thirteen year old sister, Lupe  were  dump kids  ( un nino de la basura) who lived in a shack in Guerrero where families worked in the dump ( el basurero) . The dump kids did most of the picking and sorting through stuff at the basurero and their job was to separate the glass, aluminium and copper. Juan Diego was a reader, he taught himself to read. When the Jesuits, who put such a high priority on education heard about the boy from Guerrro , they wanted to bring the dump  reader books. They decided to send  Brother Pepe who put reading on the pedestal. 

‘At forty- five, he was too fat – a ‘cherubic- looking figure, if not a celestial being,’ was how Brother Pepe described himself.
Pepe was the epitome of goodness. He embodied that mantra from Saint Teresa of Avila : ‘ From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us’ He made her holy utterance foremost among his daily prayers. No wonder children loved him.’

Juan Diego’s clairvoyant sister, Lupe described him as “ The Jesuit is nice- he’s just a little overweight.’ Lupe had listened to a lot of grown – up stories read aloud by Juan Diego. Her speech was incomprehensible to everyone but Juan Diego, her exposure to language was to an educated vocabulary beyond her years and experience and she is a mind reader and Juan Diego struggles to keep anything secret as Lupe knows all the worst things that go through his head.

While Juan Diego had at first become a dump reader for the purpose of teaching himself to read, Lupe had listened and learned-from the start ,she’d been focused.

John Irving writes beautifully.
There were some very good books in the backseat of the little Volkswagen; good books were the best protection from evil that Pepe had actually held in his hands-you could not hold faith in Jesus in your hands, not in quite the same way you could hold good books.

The Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp
When Brother Pepe first visited Juan Diego with a bunch of books, the latter was reading a book on local history about the churches. Juan Diego explained to Pepe that both the Augustinians and the Dominicans came to Oaxaca before the Jesuits. It was one of the books that Juan Diego managed to salvage from the burning. The book might have been written by an Augustinian or a Dominican thus condemned to the hellfires of the basurero. John Irving writes in brackets :  The Jesuits did indeed put a priority on education, but no one ever said they weren’t competitive .

As a very young teenager in Oaxaca, Juan Diego had met an American draft dodger who had run away from the United States to evade the draft for the Vietnam War. The draft dodger had wanted to visit the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial – to pay his respects to his dad who  had died in the Philippines during World War II. But the draft dodger died in Oaxaca and before he died, Juan Diego had pledged to take the trip and make the journey for the dead dodger. When Juan Diego was fifty-four, he embarks on a journey to fulfil the promise he made to the dodger in his youth.

Undeniably John Irving is a prolific writer and his novels are centred around themes such as abortion, religious faiths and sexual orientations and fatherless children. His characters are vividly fascinating and mythical. John Irving’s tale telling is interjected with humour and poignant scenes. Predetermination and coincidence play a significant role in Irving's writing. 

In Avenue of Mysteries, the phrase  fundamental interrelatedness of all beings” strikes a chord with me.

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