The Carpathians by Janet Frame (a book review)
“The human race is an elsewhere race and I am an imposter in a street of imposters. I am nothing and no-one: I was never born. I am a graduate imposter, having applied myself from my earliest years to the study of the development of imposture as practiced in myself and in others around me in street, town, city, country, and on earth. The imposture begins with the first germ of disbelief in being, in self, and this allied to the conviction of the ‘unalterable certainty of truth”, produces the truth of disbelief, of deception of being, of self, of times, places, peoples, of all time and space. The existence of anything, of anywhere and anytime produces an instant denial only in graduates of imposture; in most others who remain unaware of such a state, particularly in themselves, there may be little or no knowledge of their reality, their nonentity…Complete imposture, I repeat, leads to nothingness in which one inhabits all worlds except the world of oneself.” - Dinny Wheatstone (from page 51)
Something to think about—that’s what I love about Janet Frame, she writes books that expect you to think about them long after you set one aside on the nightstand, return it to the library, or put it on the shelf. The Carpathians is another complex book for me to explore and think about, and I will probably read it again because it is one of those books that will reveal more in a second reading—what an unusual book! A treasure. The magic of The Carpathians is how Janet Frame’s writing carries the story with distinct poise, the prose poetic and therefore mysterious, unique, and as always lovely—I dog-eared the shit out of it because I kept finding all this cool stuff to revisit. It is playful in some ways (having a self-proclaimed imposter for a character is hilarious), but with a hint of danger as there is a pleasant touch of the unknown and a surreal tweak of reality—at times, it’s unsettling.
Janet Frame is a consummate social observer—one of the most amusing moments of this I found were the assumptions of the residents of Kowhai Street that because Mattina was from the U.S. that she would know everything about Miami or San Francisco, only to find out that she knows about as much about these places as they do—it’s like people assuming that because I’m from New York State that I would know everything there is to know about New York City—I’ve only set foot in Manhattan once to see Christo’s Gates project in Central Park, otherwise, I have skirted the outer edges of it many times before that one trip. I’ve certainly read all about the Big Apple because American literature, film/television, magazines and the news is saturated with settings and events in the various locations of the city, but I still know about as much as someone from Indiana would. If you’re not from around here, one would think that New York State is just the city—let me assure you—there is the Upstate part of New York that is a whole world apart from the concrete and skyscrapers. I’m sure there are people in other parts of the world who think all of America is like New York City. America saturates its culture all around the world—not that there’s anything wrong with that—but I know not everyone is that impressed with us the U. S. Another world—another language, in some cases it seems we don’t speak the same language—and forget about seeing eye to eye about anything—everyone’s different, and no amount of social engineering is going to change that without causing a crisis of imbalance.
Granted, I don’t really know enough about New Zealand or its history, so I did a bit of research along the way to help me grasp the ideas being addressed. What happens on Kowhai Street is symbolic of the contemporary issues of New Zealand in which JF nods to the Maori movement to reclaim their language and their culture in the 1980’s. The narrative regarding the legend of the Memory Flower and the mysterious influence of the Gravity Star—the book is an allegory in the tradition of such—yet more. The Memory Flower is the metaphor of the lost cultures, the lost languages of conquered nations—the Gravity Star is the ‘event horizon’ of the conquerors, absorbing the land, the resources, and the people.
It’s a book about language—the midnight rain of letters—Mattina brushing a few off her arm and finding some the next day on a table to remind her that it really happened that it wasn’t a dream—or a nightmare. The loss of language—the imposing influence of the Western World culture and economic thrust is robbing the post-colonial people of New Zealand of their identity. It is an ongoing war it seems—and unfortunately, they’ve become dependent on the infusion of money from outside forces—with money comes influence, and with that influence comes the inevitable loss of what made them unique. The murder victim, the Penultimate Madge is revisited early on in the book and I nipped out this sweet tidbit:
“I don’t understand your language, Aunt Madge,’ she said.
“I speak the language of another age,’ Madge replied, knowing that indeed her time had left her, her own words had left her and were no longer used in their old meaning. These were the desertions you didn’t anticipate. You knew about the body and the mind, the growing irritation with the world, the anxiety to lose it and the terrible feeling of grief that you were losing it, but you forgot about the ordinary seemingly inanimate states and objects and concepts that died away, withered in hour hand. Like time and your words. (from page 12)
In her enthusiasm Madge had moved into the present tense. She became aware of the lapse, but what did it matter, she thought. She had no obligation, now, to remain within her ‘correct’ time. The tenses belonged to her. (from page 30)
Time, place, language—the Gravity Star according to Dinny Wheatstone: ‘—annihilates the concept of near as near and far as far, for the distant star is close by, puncturing the filled vessel of impossibility, overturning the language of concept, easing into our lives the formerly unknowable, spilling unreason into reason—’ (from page 52)
With this in mind, I want to introduce the character, Hercus, a retired sergeant-major and former POW from the war with Germany, he spends his time looking at the mountains through binoculars, bringing the faraway nearby and remembering while he was imprisoned far from home; he once mused about the abolishment of distance with his fellow prisoners… “…that you’ll have problems if you interfere with the perception of distance. You’d interfere with time. You’d have yesterday and tomorrow breathing down your bloody necks; not to mention the Ancient Greeks and Romans…you’d have cities and rivers of today in your backyard; and you’d have the Carpathians, the Carpathians in your garden…Yes, we could touch the Carpathians.” (from page 66.) Stunning. Each character brings their piece—their memory—to the table for consideration, the most ordinary human beings suddenly become extraordinary once they are revealed.
I must stop here—but with one more thing to say, regarding the life of a writer and the act of writing—the inspirations of a writer is an intimate life with emotional ties that can be despicable, frustratingly fickle and in those rare and beautiful instances in perfect harmony. The mental immersion required is treacherous at its best—I admire Janet Frame for going ‘out there’ (or should I say going ‘in there’) and bringing this novel into being, she did a fine thing. This book is full of buried treasure, read it, read into it, learn much from it—it is timeless and timely—a classic.