Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Clarie Messud | Review of Helga Ruebsamen's The Song and the Truth

Review of Helga Ruebsamen's The Song and the Truth
by Claire Messud

Helga Ruebsamen, The Song and the Truth. Het lied en de waarheid (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Contact, 1997). Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000).

A novel told through the eyes of a very small child is a challenge for both author and reader. Children are at once scathingly observant and notoriously unreliable; they don't order their experiences as adults do, and they don't analyze. When successful, the recreation of the fluid intensity of early years is wondrous and a gift; but such fictions also run the risk of murkiness.

The Song and the Truth, the first novel by the Dutch writer Helga Ruebesamen to be translated into English, braves this challenge with, at times, exhilarating success. Its protagonist, Louise Benda, known as Lulu, tells her story many years later; but she does so by fully reinhabiting her childhood self, initially without analysis or distance. At the novel's outset, in 1938, Lulu is 5. She lives on the island of Java with her glamorous mother, her doctor father and her mother's sister, her beloved Aunt Margot. Lulu conjures up their prewar idyll with a delicate balance of dreaminess and specificity: The Javanese myths that turn streams and trees into princesses and princes are as real to her as the lively banter between her mother and aunt; and the Javanese servants who care for her become part of her semi-fantastical world. She calls them "night people." "At night I could say and do what I like," she recalls. "I needed only to see it in my head and it happened...The night people petted me, laughed the whole time, and asked nothing."

Into this luxurious and beautiful life comes her father's brother, Uncle Felix, who is courting Auntie Margot. Unlike Lulu's father, Felix is a hard-drinking layabout, a charming flatterer whose attentions cause both delight and distress. Lulu sees more than the adults know, and when she recounts what she has seen—she calls it "the black table game"—she wrecks havoc on the entire household. Ruebsamen in this episode powerfully captures the reality of a little girl's world: Lulu sees clearly but can't make sense of what she has seen. Cause and effect are as yet meaningless to her; and while it seems to her that she is rejected by her mother as a punishment, her mother is in fact ill, pregnant with her second child. Lulu is sent, with her Auntie Margot, to her grandfather's in Bali; and when she returns, her whole life has changed.

The first section of the novel runs to less than a half of the book, but it constitutes a discrete, rich and fully satisfying entity. Ruebsamen enables readers wondrously to experience the magic and the confusion of Lulu's early childhood, the complex of emotions surrounding a world she loves without question, and without knowing it.

She learns the meaning of that love only through loss: In the novel's second section the family sets sail for Europe, with her half-Indonesian adolescent Aunt Tinka in tow. What follows is a catalogue of loss and diminution. The Bendas are Jewish, and their return to Europe in 1939 is grimly ill-timed. Tinka, too, suffers, pining so powerfully for her Indonesian home that she decides to walk on water, all the way home, with disastrous consequences. The family is sundered, as Lulu stays wither her father and paternal grandmother in the Hague, her mother and little brother go to London, and Auntie Margot returns to the Indies.

The years pass at breakneck speed; much happens; and yet, although Lulu grows older, she seems barely able to analyze and articulate what she sees around her. Instead, the adult Lulu interrupts the narration to discourse, albeit intelligently, upon the nature of memory: "Memory is an eccentric collector, and manages its collection carelessly. Empty clichés are more accurately recorded than solemn oaths. Insignificant meetings are more carefully preserved than events that proved to be turning points." We are provided, by the older narrator, with Mimi's life story, and with an adult description of her house and world.

Ruebsamen affectingly relates the story of Lulu's war, of her grandmother's death, of her years in hiding in the country with the help of her nanny, who is in love with Lulu's father. But in the later sections of the book, the glorious balance of its first half is lost: The narrative succumbs to the murkiness of which childhood narrations are capable, without sustaining the vivid intensity of the early chapters. The adult Louise's intrusions, while interesting, do not ultimately illuminate the mysteries that the past has thrown up. She does not answer our questions, although surely they must also have been her own.

It is difficult to know whether the difficulties of translation are not, in part, culpable here. Paul Vincent's rendition is clearly faithful, at times elegant; but elsewhere the English, while correct, is not natural. This is true even early on, as when Lulu examines her mother's face: "My eyes wandered over her face, at first in an exalted mood but with increasing longing. Once I'd discovered her freckles beneath the powder, I wanted to find everything else that was to be seen, and my eyes probed further and further." A smiliar stiltedness pervades the narrative structure in itself as the book progresses; and while we sympathize with the privation and loss that young Lulu must endure from 1939 to 1945, we cannot inhabit them fully. Perhaps it is inevitable that we will read the novel nostalgically, as Louise lives, yearning throughout for the wholeness of her Javanese idyll. [Claire Messud, The Washington Post Book World]

Copyright (c)2000 by Claire Messud

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