A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
APOLOGIES to my readers: At the last minute I substituted my profile of Garth Greenwell's book for Alison Smith's. I shall post one of Smith's Name All the Animals in the near future.
I didn’t make one annotation on first reading of this novel (and I shall read it again), in part because it held me spellbound and in part because I wanted to experience vicariously the joyride the unnamed narrator (except for Gospodar, the Bulgarian word for Mister) is taking through his young life.
Gospodar (Gospodine to his pupils) teaches accelerated English at a high school in Sofia, Bulgaria, sometime in the last decade, and unravels his story of love and loss. At the same time, our Gospodar employs the powers of travelogue to acquaint readers with a post-Soviet culture still burdened with its corrupt architecture (crumbling worse than the geopolitical realm itself). The novel is part language lesson: Gospodar translates (upon first mention) each Bulgarian word or phrase and in such a way that one is acquainted with the word’s fullness. At one point, a male sex partner Gospodar has met online calls him Bulgarian for bitch. But the narrator doesn’t leave it there, massaging the meaning within the context of the indigenous culture. The novel is part love story, in which the narrator meets a man he only calls R (every character is reduced to a single initial, in some way protecting the identities of his co-characters, almost creating the feel that one is absorbing a roman à clef). I’ve never read such sensual yet meaningful sex scenes (for want of a better term). At one point, the narrator makes love to his lover, R, taking perhaps twenty minutes to kiss every part of the man’s body. When he is finished, his partner is attempting to hide his tears, the fact that perhaps no one has ever loved him so completely. These scenes, though graphic, serve a larger purpose, never feeling pornographic (if there is such a thing) or gratuitous.
Ultimately, the narrator and R end their relationship, because R hails from Lisbon, and cannot see finding a way to earn a living in Bulgaria. In the last major scene of the novel, the narrator parties with a few young men who have graduated from his school the year before. The three of them get very drunk, and the teacher, Gospodar, makes a play for one of the young men. He is horrified by his own behavior yet is willing to give into it at the same time, if enticed or encouraged by the student. He withdraws from the party just before making a fool of himself or endangering his reputation as a responsible adult. Gospodar does this throughout the book, brings himself to some sort of brink, only to pull back after exploring the full impact that the act is about to make (sometimes within a few seconds), thus making the character more like all of us, ready to jump yet waiting to defer to a better angel.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men