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Summer reading: Marisa Silver on Richard Flanagan

June 18, 2010 | 12:10 pm

Marisasilver As summer gets underway, we've created the L.A. Times list of 60 books for 92 days. All of these are new titles, a plethora of great reads.

At Jacket Copy, we're asking writers and others about a book they read one summer that was important to them. Marisa Silver's  novel "God of War" was a finalist for the L.A. Times book prize; her most recent book is "Alone with You," a collection of short stories. "Longing swells each of the eight stories in 'Alone With You,' as Silver investigates 'aloneness' and the dear and inevitable distance between people in loving relationships," wrote Ron Carlson in our review. "The situations here don't settle on the neat broad themes of loss or connection, but there are always surprises, nuances, changes of heart."

Marisa Silver read our questions about summer reading and wrote this essay; inserting those questions is unnecessary. Silver writes:

We were in the Ecuadoran rain forest. This was a few years ago. We had flown from a town called Shell -- named poetically for the oil company -- deep into the heart of the forest on a tiny plane. My younger son held a crate of eggs in his lap. I sat on top of the vegetables. We were flying in with our food. We landed on a dirt airstrip and then canoed down a river to a lodge. Each day, we took long, sweaty hikes through the dense growth of trees and plants or we rowed down a river to look at parrot licks and spy on miraculously colored birds high up in the trees. At night, I lay in bed under the mosquito net, listening to the symphony of bird and monkey calls and reading a book called "Gould’s Book of Fish" by Richard Flanagan. I wasn’t sure why I had chosen to bring this book along. When I travel, I usually try to read a book about the country I’m in or at least by one of the country’s authors as a way of getting to know the place I’ve come to. But a friend had recommended the book to me with such vehemence that I was eager to read it right away. I knew nothing about it other than that Flanagan hails from Tasmania and that the book had an unusual physical dimension that made it interesting to hold. Both things gave me the sense of embarking on an exotic journey -- exactly the kind of feeling I love when starting to read something new. Reading is like travel in that way; it offers the possibility that you might lose your sense of yourself in a strange environment, that quotidian obligations will no longer hold, that you will be someplace where no one will know your name and where, without the encumbrances of identity, you might have the possibility of really seeing.

The book is set in the 1830s in a penal colony on an island off the coast of Tasmania. It tells the story of William Gould, a prisoner who manages to prolong his life and avoid any number of horrible tortures by painting illustrations of fish for the prison’s scientifically fanatical surgeon. Everyone on the island serves the will of a tyrannical and insane prison commandant -- a Kurtz-like character who is more representational than real. The book is a wildly imaginative, dense and searching portrait of colonialism and its perversions, and it calls into question our notions of what makes a place and a people "civilized." It's funny and ribald and horrifying. From its opening pages, it mesmerized me.

Throughout our time in the rain forest, we were guided by an Achuar Indian, whose Spanish name, the name we called him by, was Jorge. He was a lovely, quiet guy who walked through the forest as if it were smooth pavement while we stumbled over tree roots, and who could see animals and birds where we could see only leaves. He lived in an Achuar village "three days" walk from the lodge -- that's the way distance is measured in the rain forest. When we asked him his age, he told us he might be 40, but that he really didn’t know for sure. His tribe did not record birth dates, and when the missionaries came, they gave the Indians arbitrary ages along with new names. On the last day of our trip, Jorge took us to an Achuar village where we sat in the grass hut belonging to a young man, his wife and children. With our guide as interpreter, we talked to the man about certain aspects of his life -- the kinds of food the family ate, where the kids went to school, how the community was organized. He answered our questions without looking at us; he was busy sharpening the darts for his blowgun with a sharp knife. His wife served us bowl after bowl of chicha -- a drink that is made when the women chew and spit out yucca plants and then let the resulting liquid ferment. 

One of the kids played on the floor of the hut with a blond-headed baby doll. Another boy walked in wearing an AC/DC T-shirt. Afterward, the man showed us how he used the blowgun. We got to try it. It’s easy to blow the dart, hard to hit the target. The women laid out some of the chicha bowls that they make from river mud. They have a crude but lovely design. We bought some. They cost a few dollars. The whole afternoon had the uncomfortable feeling of a necessary but evil exchange. The Indians had agreed to open up their home to us, to put on a kind of show of their daily lives in exchange for our dollars and perhaps our awareness of the precariousness of their culture. The Indian life is being steadily encroached upon by oil concerns, and little by little the tribes are losing their foothold in the forest that once belonged to them but now belongs to companies that have named towns after themselves. It was economic colonialism up close and we were part of it.

I returned to my book that evening and realized that even though the book was not about Ecuador, I was reading a book about the experience I was having. I wasn’t in a 19th century penal colony, but I was in a world where determinations of what makes a person and a place civilized had been made by those with money and power and religious zeal. The fact of my being in that country, in that place, having this “exotic” experience of otherness, was only part of a continuum of colonialism and all its implications. The book was a ravishing literary accomplishment, and, at that moment, a finger pointing straight at me.

This summer I am starting to write a new novel. When I begin a book, I try to lay myself open to the idea that a book or a story does not have to conform to any particular set of rules, and that it certainly does not have to adhere to a style or voice of any other book I’ve written. I write with an eye for discovery, not only of the story I want to try to tell, but of the way in which I want to tell it. So to that end, I am going to read a lot of books that use an array of unusual narrative strategies -- some Calvino, some Kundera, maybe Faulkner, Lydia Davis; I think I’ll read "Far Tortuga" by Matthiessen … this list will grow.

Photo courtesy Marisa Silver

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