Thursday, 16 May 2013

Stories are what keep us alive

Julie lent me 'If I Told You Once' by Judy Budnitz (who doesn't seem to have her own website). It is storytelling in the old tradition, a family saga that proceeds down the generations but with the mythology and history binding the whole thing together. Some things that are recounted seem to be myth but could be real, some that seem real could just be myth. It is the blurring of the lines that makes it such an interesting read.

I think I must have started reading this before, I kept finding passages that were very familiar, and I'm not sure you could ever read about Ilana's birth and forget it. Here her father opens the door to a gang of bandits while her mother is in labour:

"Then my father stepped full into the light. He stood drenched in sweat, shirt torn, his beard standing up on his face in wild tufts, eyes bulging, and his arms wet to the elbow with blood. My mother's squeals flew about him in a fury, a windstorm of shrieks and venom.
He held his hands out to them. Gentlemen he said softly, as soon as I finish killing my wife, I will be glad to oblige you.
They looked at the blood, his crazed eyes, the scratches my mother's nails had left on his chest. But it was my mother's wrenching, inhuman cries that drove them back out into the storm." (p.3)

Besides Ilana and her family few other characters appear through the book, but most significant are a trio of old village hags who terrify her as a child and then somehow come back to torment her in old age:

"Three old women.
They sat in a row on a single bench in the centre of the village. Three women with the same face. People said they were sisters, or mother and daughters, cousins, no one knew for sure. In winter they huddled in their shawls with snow up to their knees. In summer the flied hung back from them at a respectful distance.
They had the same face, skin delicate with age, soft and threatening to tear like wet paper. The same face three times over, same violet-coloured eyes in purple-veined pouches of skin. People said if you watched closely you'd see them blink and breathe in unison. The pulses beating together in their temples." (p.14)

And then after the village has been destroyed, on the horse Ilana steals from the soldiers:

"I saw it in the distance, rearing and frothing. Three skinny scarecrow figures sat jammed together on the saddle. They raised their arms and shrieked, in terror or delight, as the horse reared again, panicking. Three sets of bony heels stuck out from the sides of the animal, kicking against it impatiently. It began to run, the women clutched each other with their tattered shawls and long unbound skeins of hair streaming out behind them. I thought I could almost see their cries trailing in the cold air like ragged banners." (p.57)

And again she finds them on the streets in America, their appearance being a reminder of her inability to escape her past:

"I saw them a second time; three women, waiting for the bus, shopping bags at their feet. The bags reeked of fish, wetness leaked from them and crept into the pavement making ancient designs. Their mouths, constantly talking. Their hands never still. The roar of the bus drowned out their words. Bit I knew it was them; they did not board the bus when it came, they were waiting there for something else. They held their bench and watched the oblivious people passing by.
I wanted to be sure. I edged close to the back of their bench, I bent low, I sniffed softly and caught their smell, that distinctive smell, the sweetness and rot. No one else in the world had that smell." (p.236-7)

As much as it is about myths, it is also about history, and also to a certain extent about how history almost becomes myth. This a tale related by a young woman who arrives from Europe:

"She spoke of hunger and cold and disease, and these were things we could all understand. The confinement she spoke of, the sudden violence - we all had known that. But she also spoke of a world where logic had gone awry, where babies were taken from mothers, husbands separated from wives, gold teeth drawn from living mouths, bodies piled up like haystacks, hay made into soup, people given numbers because names were an indulgence. A place where great fires burned constantly, black smoke filled the sky yet everyone was dying from cold. A place of dogs and casual bullets meeting the backs of heads, everything as arbitrary as the made-up rules in a child's game." (p.111)

Time moves on in the story and Ilana's story is taken over by her daughter Sashie. The war takes her sons and then news of his family's fate takes her husband. Sashie chooses herself a husband in the hope of escaping her mother's story, to take herself into the modern world but when he turns out to be all surface and no substance between them they find the means to rid themselves of the encumbrance. The sinister 'cleaning company' that begins by removing rubbish and then morphs into something that removed unwanted 'stuff' from your life is obviously a reference to something that was lost on me. But life goes on, and without the income the husband provided they love back to the poor tenement they started in. Her son and daughter, Jonathan and Mara, again appear at first to be taking them into a new future but the gravitational pull of their past is too great, its influence is palpable. They try to resist it but cannot:

"She had always warned me to be sure to wear clean underwear without any tears. You never know when you might get run over by a bus, or fall in the river or something, she said. If the people at the hospital or the morgue discovered torn underpants, it would bring shame down upon the family for generations." (p.187)

Their lives are claustrophobic and insular, lived inside their apartment with little outside contact and no friendships. Jonathan goes to medical school, finds a girlfriend, but his attempts at normality are thwarted by Mara's obsessive jealousy and love for him. Again a means is found to rid them of unwanted elements, but not before Jonathan has disappeared and the young woman in question has left them with a baby to raise. Nomie is the next generation (a corruption of Naomi), the victim of an emotional tug-of-war between her aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother. She choses Ilana, and sits and listens to the lessons she has to tell:

"This girl sits near me sometimes, her face looks so familiar it might be my own. I looked like that once; I still do when I close my eyes. Mirrors are a cruel trick, they show you only one point in time when the truth lies elsewhere.
Talking to her is like talking to myself.
... She reminds me of babies born in the village where I grew up, babies whom people said were born old, babies who did not cry and watched us all with world-weary eyes and died within days.
this girl is like that. She looks as if she might understand if I tried to warn her, tried to explain, tried to tell her about the three of them." (p.235-6)

The three old women take on a symbolic representation of the inevitable and repeated cycles of life, the traps that people fall into and the unreflected lives they live.

"The only way to stave them off is to tell someone.
I needed to beat them at their own game, drown out their story with mine.
I thought suddenly of the girl who listens, that girl with my face, the only one who listens to me now.
I was afraid for you, I feared they would notice you, recognise my features on your face. They will drag you back with them and force you to repeat it all, go through the motions over and over, a treadmill life.
The only way to protect you is to warn you. That is what I am trying to do.
Please, listen. Please do not pat my hand or offer me tea.
If I tell you what I know then perhaps you will be able to evade them. Mara and Sashie have already failed without knowing it, they have fallen into the ruts long ago; they are treading in circles in their in-looking lives, circles within circles, getting smaller and smaller until soon they will be spinning in place. But you, I want to teach you to break away.
It is a paradox, isn't it? To make you learn about history and its patterns in the hope that you will rebel against the lesson, escape those patterns and go your own way." (p.239-40)

But in a way the words of Ilana are more profound than just for her. The story has a simple straightforward narrative, following the family's history, each new voice arrives and struggles for a while to be themselves but then finds herself sucked backwards into the past, and becomes just another layer; Ilana becomes just like her mother and in turn Sashie becomes like Ilana. It is as if their life exists in some kind of time warp, outside of the rest of the world, the power of tradition and superstition and myth is almost too great to resist. Nomie seems to resist, seems to fight, so there is hope. The whole book is just so dense and descriptive and luscious, it feels more like looking at a very large intricate painting where images swirl around each other, linking and circling round to link back to another place. One last one because this is such a beautiful example of the writing:

"The trouble is not with my eyes; my vision is as sharp as ever. It is the world that has become more blurred. 
It is the air here, they talk of pollution, ions, electricity, ozone, something. The air is limp, greasy, it blunts the senses. No one sees clearly anymore." (p.238)

Judy Budnitz also has a collection of short stories called 'Flying Leap', I put them on my library request list. If you like traditional folk stories then this is definitely one for you.

1 comment:

  1. This enchanted me...I was riveted and immediately placed this book on my wish list. I can't wait to read it, thank you for sharing this!

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