Some years ago a friend of mine said: “I wanted to go Traveling this year, but my money is tight.” My response: “Watch some travel documentaries. The National Geographic channel on TV can take you on a safari, on a cruise, it can pole you down the Venice Canals, or walk you on the Silk Road, fly you to Nepal and so much more. You can go anywhere you want from the comfort of your easy chair.” Fast forward to our Virus Era and I found myself in the same boat, though for Covid reasons. So, during these past few weeks I went Travelling from my comfortable seat at home!
First, I went to Ireland, which has always been one of my unrealized dreams. In fact, in one of my posts at one time I had written about my Bucket List and one of the items was that some day I intended to invite Gerry Adams for a drink at a quaint old Irish pub! I wish! Anyway, after Ireland, I went to Scotland and then hopped over to France. This week I am in Korea, and all this Travelling has been simply delightful! Perhaps it is my mood, or the miserable conditions of the world that made me enjoy escaping into these books as much as I did. In any case, I enjoyed their carrying me through their pages to four different countries and introducing me to aspects of life that I was aware of, but had never really delved into as much as these novels revealed to me.
I was in Ireland with Michelle Gallen and her novel: Big Girl Small Town. In Scotland I went with Douglas Stuart and his novel: Shuggie Bain, and in France Muriel Barbery introduced me to: The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Now I am still in Korea where I am accompanying Lisa See to: The Island of Sea Women. I could not have had more eloquent, compassionate and realistic guides than these terrific authors writing about intriguing characters in fairly modern times who compelled me in the most unobtrusive way to ask myself some serious existential life questions, the first one being: how much do we really know about other people’s history – their personal, as well as their political – and how that shaped them? I surmised that it was not as much as we should.
Each one of the main characters was authentic to the extreme. In the first two novels, the main protagonists are young, and as such, some of their manners were actually offensive and vulgar, but they were, nevertheless, very genuine and endearing. They both worked in take-out places, and while we have all been to a fast-food establishment at one time or the other, how often do we look at our servers and wonder what their lives are like? What they feel? Their circumstances? During these Virus days we may have heard more about them than usual, we may have supported an increase in wages for them, unionization, better treatment from their corporations, as such the two authors of the mentioned novels carried the important message of how the Margaret Thatcher policies, which took years, if not decades to unfold, decimated and upended the economies of Ireland, Scotland and England so drastically that the consequences for working class people led to huge social problems and miseries as well as more of the millennia-old Inequity and Social Injustice that we are living in today. This reminded me so much of how the Ronald Reagan financial measures, which also took many years before their full effects were felt, had undercut and slashed all the advances that had allowed so many Americans to move up to the middle class and enabled them to have dignity and the means to take care of their families. I am convinced that many of the US social and economic problems – certainly not all – brought on by Reagan’s policies, as well as the twenty-first century cyber world with its ensuing economic, social and cultural changes, are what led us to where we are today. These policies had opened the door for cutthroat runaway capitalism, impoverished so many, and, ended up manifesting themselves so offensively and ruthlessly during the Trump Administration. Yes, Thatcher had gotten to Reagan (not that it would have taken much to sway him!) and had convinced him of the righteousness of her colonist, racist principles which he ended up espousing. The saving grace difference for the Brits is that they had a safety net built into their governments and that provided “socialist” principles that afforded the working class, especially, basic financial aid, healthcare, education, subsidized housing that they call “projects,” and so much more that the American people did not have. There are NO rules, regulations, decisions, policies or actions that do not have consequences whether we are talking of personal matters, or national issues. It is as simple as that, and the authors illustrated this admirably by spinning a beautiful story while subtly pointing to our social ills!!
In the third novel, the main character is a middle-aged woman who works as a Concierge and I just loved her! There again, there is the underlying author’s message of the differences between the haves and have-nots, their attitudes, habits and life-styles which the writer addresses with candor and empathy. What a delightful read, and what wonderful characters throughout, although if one has never lived in a building with a Concierge one might not be aware that the person behind that reception desk has a life and a story, and it might be a very interesting and original story as this one is!
As I write this, I am still in Korea and being absolutely, totally fascinated by a beautiful story, and, most of all for an education into Korean history (which the novel Pachinko also provided), reminding me of all that the Korean people endured of occupations, colonization, uprooting, incarceration, rape, humiliations and heartache from the Japanese, Chinese and Americans, who were as ruthless and as pitiless as the other colonists. The truth is that there are No Benevolent Colonists. Non-existent! This brought home what I believe that most of us Palestinians are guilty of – myself included – which is that our Catastrophe is unique. Frankly, it isn’t! History proves that Colonization of other people, wars and strife have Always existed on this Planet, and were Always horrendous. Here’s what General Eisenhower said in 1947: “War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly.” And isn’t that the sad truth . . .
. . . and the disturbing aspect that as human beings we have rarely, if ever, learnt anything from the stories, the moral objectives inherent in most books fiction, or non-fiction; the lessons of life that could have made us more tolerant, compassionate, understanding, knowledgeable, peaceful and civilized. Yes, civilized, especially, because looking at the state of our Planet we are not even close to that yet. In fact, sometimes it feels more as if we are regressing. What, Oh What is it really going to take?