Wednesday, 6 May 2020

100 Days - day eleven Living Otherwise

I acquired Milkman by Anna Burns from mum when I visited, what now feels like years ago but was only in February. It has taken me quite some time to read as I kept falling asleep abruptly while reading then waking up half an hour later with a very stiff neck. None of the people in the story have real names. This matters because who they are is not important. The book is about this profoundly dysfunctional society (Northern Ireland) and the way it affects people's lives, their interactions and relationships and even what they think.

"I myself spent most of of my time with my back turned in the nineteenth century, even the eighteenth century, sometimes the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries, yet even then, I couldn't stop having a view. Third brother-in-law too, for all his exercise obsession and of whom everybody in my district could have sworn didn't have a view, turned out to have a sharp view. There was no getting away from views and of course, the problem was these views between the areas, between one side and the other, were not just not the same. It was that each was intolerant of the other to the extent that highly volatile, built-up contentions periodically would result from them; the reason why too, if you didn't want to get into that explosive upsurge despite your views which you can't help having, you had to have manners and exercise politeness to overcome, or at any rate balance out, the violence, the hatred, the blaming - for how to live otherwise? This was not schizophrenia. This was living otherwise." (p.112)

So middle sister, as she is called, likes to read while walking. Unbeknownst to her people are disapproving of this weird behaviour and she is being viewed as 'beyond the pale', a category of people who are seen as outsiders. However when out running she finds herself being stalked by milkman, a member of the paramilitaries, who has decided that she is the girl for him. She tries to ignore him, even when he makes veiled and not-so-veiled threats against maybe-boyfriend. The community notice this stalking and assume the worst. Even her mother does not believe her when she insists she is not having an affair with milkman. All the while she is trying desperately to get on with life but against her will is drawn into the world of renouncers.

It took me many many pages to understand. Why doesn't she just tell him to go away I wondered. But thats not how things work. Mum summed it up after I emailed her about reading it. She said it's about a society based on fear. Life has to be lived as is dictated by the paramilitaries; where you live, who you associate with, what you say, where you shop, how you behave. Because if you don't someone may just turn up on your doorstep and shoot you. Families are both guilty by association and protected by association. And it becomes so normalised that people police themselves, and each other, because they are afraid. I grew up during this period, and the 'troubles' was a constant feature on the news in my childhood. I never understood this division along catholic/protestant lines. I never understood how the disagreement went so deep that people could be killed for it. I'm not sure I do now, but this book has certainly helped me understand how people lived their lives and why.

This statement by middle sister about marriage sums it up (marrying the wrong person and her ma's pressure on her to get married are constant themes throughout):

"Of course there was the big one, the biggest reason for not marrying the right spouse. If you married that one, the one you loved and desired and who lived and desired you back, with the union proving true and good and replete with the most fulfilling happiness, well, what if this wonderful spouse didn't fall out of love with you, or you with them, and neither of you either, got killed in the political problems? All those joyful evers and infinites? Are you sure, really, really sure, you could cope with the prospect of that? The community decided that no, it couldn't. Great and sustained happiness was far too much to ask of it. That was why marrying in doubt, marrying in guilt, marrying in regret, in fear, in despair, in blame, also in terrible self-sacrifice was pretty much the unspoken matrimonial requisite here. That was why too, I protected myself by not getting married; further, by sticking to maybe-relationships in spite of my intermittent longing for, and futile attempts to mould me and maybe-boyfriend into, a proper relationship." (p.256)

So, there are far reaching and convoluted consequences to the situation, even though there is never a 'situation' between middle sister and milkman (not to be confused with real milkman, who is actually a milkman). People die. For random and often unrelated reasons. It is the uncertainty that keeps everyone in line. The notion that you don't even know what thing you might do that will be disapproved of. And of course people can take the political situation and use it for their own desires. But try and do that and they are still watching you:

"So they beat him up. And it was for his behaviour that they beat him up, not for the irritation of guns, for wearing a balaclava when everybody knew who he was anyway; not for threatening me either, a woman, one of their soul sisters. No. It was for being a man and coming into the Ladies unannounced. He had shown disrespect, been dismissive of female fragilities and delicacies and sensibilities, had shown no courtesy, displayed no chivalry, no gallantry, no honour. It was that he had no manners basically. If he chose to walk in on them while they were applying lipstick, adjusting hair, sharing secrets, changing sanitary towels, then so be it, there would be consequences. And here they were, those consequences, happening now. After the current consequences, after they told their men which they were going to do in a minute, there would be further consequences." (p.310)

So. I was just about to write that this was a 'proper' blogpost. Despite my original intent when I started this blog eleven long years ago I have drifted in to only expressing opinions about books. The purpose of 100DaysToOffLoad is to share what you are thinking. I am going to have to work on the idea that I can share opinions about other things too and it will be a proper blogpost. This book has caused me to think a lot. In fact that is why I like reading. Although I do read for entertainment the books I enjoy the most are the ones that make me think, the ones that show me something about life that I had not encountered before. So in light of that I am going to start a Books to Make You Think link in each of my posts: Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels from 2010.

Stay safe. See you tomorrow.


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