The Neapolitan Novels

fullsizeoutput_609f
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

Book Review 

Referred to as The ‘Neapolitan Novels’. Simply fascinating! A  4-part series written by Elena Ferrante – a pseudonymous Italian novelist, and translated from Italian to English by Anne Goldstein. Each book is a modern fiction masterpiece about the friendship of two seemingly ordinary yet extraordinary girls from Naples.

Without delving deeper into the theme of the novels just yet, let me share with you what had initially sparked my curiosity and eventually led me to buy the books. It was a combination of factors but it mainly had to do with my long-standing love for Italy and that the Neapolitan Novels could potentially bring me closer to it.  It was my intrigue with a city that grew on me over the years then one day gripped me –  the city of Napoli – historic, violent, crazy and misunderstood Napoli.  It was the fact that these books were recommended to me by an old and dear friend, who is an avid reader with trustworthy literary views. It was he, and because of the way he knows me deeply from a ‘soul’ perspective that ignited my interest in reading the novels. Then it was my mother who read them and fell in love and confidently knew I would also fall in love. Then came other recommendations by one or two other friends who are acquainted with my affinity with Italy, and who I believe value friendships as much as I do.

I completed reading all four novels under two weeks. They were real page turners. Set between this century and the last, the novels tell a beautiful story of intelligent Elena from Napoli, and her complex and often frustrating friendship with her best friend Lila. Ferrante paints a realistic picture of the protagonist’s love/hate relationship with her city Napoli – what her moody city has at times deprived her of, what it has generously given to her, and what it has brutally taken away from her.

With careful subtlety, Ferrante creatively shows the reader what it means to live through the ‘full circle’ and all stages of life.  She portrays the realities and hypocrisy of friendships; the bitterness of poverty, but also the downside of dressed-up wealth.  As a reader, I was cleverly guided through the waves and irony of life – the disguised grandiosity of being considered ‘important’ in your own circles but a disappointing ‘nothing’ outside it; how we are all little dots living inside a big tinted and dusty bubble; and how everything is relative.  The author shows us the strong and paralyzing hold that traditions – rigid and by now passé – have on some of us, and how self-reliance and determination can take us out of our dire circumstances and our once helpless selves, and eventually bring us right back inside ourselves (improved and hopeful versions of ourselves) and into self-acceptance.

Ferrante’s descriptions of human emotions and circumstantial behaviours are so powerful I felt I was Elena, living within her, and living with her in her harsh Neapolitan quarters; being part of her successes and failures; traveling with her and experiencing the unmatched yet fleeting ecstasy of recognition and success; and feeling the jabs she feels in her heart as she falls in and out of love and as she sometimes falls into the abyss of disappointment once lovers stand naked in their humanness.  Through Elena, the reader can discover the secret power that acquiring knowledge has on the soul and the beauty of self-learning which can only be revealed to those who experience it.

Ferrante’s writing flows beautifully and is easy to follow.  I love the way she speaks the truth and tells the untellable.  She reveals the messiness of our deepest thoughts and our irrational superstitions. She shows us self-destructive sentiments we do not dare to admit out loud, not even to ourselves like jealousy, envy, or like sometimes hating those we should be loving.  She has the ability to make a reader feel like she or he is normal (in fact, one hundred percent human) especially if you are a woman who has experienced the inevitable confusions of growing up. We are all still conflicted one way or another and yes, we may find an equilibrium as we get older and experience more, but that child in us lingers on and at times is fully awakened. I especially love how Ferrante is able to portray the excitement, the strong undying passion and naiveté of youth and how she then takes us with her on a journey which allows us to witness the marring effects of time and the decapitation of newness and eternal hope which were once the flagships of youth.

In those two weeks of reading bliss, I would go about completing my daily errands and ticking off to-do-lists – but I just couldn’t wait to be alone, to be seated on my couch, to feel the heaviness of Ferrante’s book on my palms, and turn its rough pages and live Elena’s volatile life through her intelligent eyes and incredible self-awareness. It has been ages since I felt that kind of excitement and anticipation for a book. So much so that when I finished reading the fourth and final book of the series – a melancholic cloud hovered for some time. I found myself wanting to read the books again so that I can relive Elena’s story, so I can be moved by her hopes and her dreams once again.  I missed her and I still miss her. We long for infinity but all stories are bound to end.

Effort in finding out more about the author has proved futile. Who Elena Ferrante is or what she represents is a mystery, making her Neapolitan Novels even more intriguing. “Books, once they are written, have no need of their authors” – claims the mysterious author. Doubtful. What I am sure of is this and in one word: BRILLIANT. Read the Neapolitan Novels ASAP.

Everyman

fullsizeoutput_4047

A Book Review

I recommend Everyman to every man and every woman going through a mid-life crisis.  Or to those who are helplessly confused because their immoral actions these days do not reflect who they thought they were: people with unshifting morals.

This short yet thought-provoking book cleverly demonstrates how certain choices driven either by: sheer boredom; the craving for newness; the thrill of the moment; a desperate act to relive youth; an aversion from monotony; an untamed impulse or an indescribable need for instant gratification – will eventually lead men and women astray, dropping them casually into a bottomless hole. And only as these men and women experience the alienating effects of aging (though it could happen much earlier), will they fully comprehend the monstrosity of their past actions, and how much pain they have inflicted on their loved ones along the way. Even more so on themselves.

Unfortunately, there is such a thing as an irreversible mistake and it is usually born out of recklessness.   

If you’re someone who often thinks about all of the above, you will enjoy reading Everyman by the American author Philip Roth. If you are someone who is on the other side of the spectrum (living in la-la land and thinking you are immune to life’s adversaries) then this book may not be the right one for you.

Everyman is a novel – raw and uncomfortably real. It is about one man’s intimate story through the different stages of his life.  It is a fictional memoir dealing with one man’s realisations, limitations, losses and regrets. It is about a man journeying through life and standing on the edge of the abyss. It reflects on the anticipation and inevitability of death, and if you dig deeper – it is a study of complex human relationships.  Its style is simple yet profound. It is bound to leave a deep imprint.

The protagonist says and I quote: ‘Old age isn’t a battle. Old age is a massacre’. The older you get the more tolerant you will be of Everyman and the more you surround yourself and spend time with old people, the more it will make sense to you. Read it – it will gift you more awareness.

As a Man Thinketh

James Allen

A Book Review

Not so long ago, I stumbled upon this gem of a book over 100 hundred years old. Brilliantly written and still remarkably in tune with our time, as strange and complicated as it is (our time that is). The coincidental stumble was a lucky one and I found myself effortlessly immersed in its powerful message and intrigued by its simplicity and relevance. It was one of those enlightening books far from the mainstream types. The types that convince you that ‘you are not your thoughts’ in fifty different ways and have somehow managed to sit under the throne of bestsellers. I am skeptical of these books and I’ve read many (despite some of the authentic research invested in them and sweat spilt over them). Why? Because I have a problem with the common and repetitive statement claiming to be a universal truth: ‘our thoughts are not us’. How can that be if our thoughts were created by our very own minds? Maybe a simplistic view to some but I trust what my own experiences have taught me, what my reflections have shown me and I even trust what my logic has proven to me – and that’s what I will go with. Do not misunderstand me. I am not claiming we do not have the power or the tools to reinvent our thoughts or change our perspectives. Nor do I believe that our thoughts do not affect the way we live. I am simply against the notion that we are not our thoughts. We are our thoughts AND we have the power to change them. That’s what I believe. And that’s what James Allen affirms.

 James Allen is the Englishman who wrote the 100+ year-old book: As A Man Thinketh (published in 1903). In his book, Allen manages to cleverly dismantle and explain where my belief stems from so that it makes sense to the deep and the not-so-deep – using a few convincing arguments based on his own experiences and reflections. This little book is delightful and delightfully easy to follow.

 I consider it a handbook and a practical guide to the power of thinking. It does not boast itself as the ‘truth’. What it does though is make you (the reader) understand that our mind is the ‘master power’ that ‘shapes our lives for good or ill’. And it does this by inspiring you to open up your mind rather than overwhelming you with burdensome studies and steps to follow. If we believe that our mind is the master power and we are the masters of this power – then we are ultimately the ‘authors of our own characters and thus the makers of our own destinies’. In his view, our characters are actually ‘the sum total of our thoughts over time’. He makes a lot of sense.

I love how he touches on some important themes that orchestrate the way we live or lead our lives. He covers themes such as how thoughts shape our circumstances; how circumstances do not shape us, they reveal us; the power of the mind and its tools; how health and appearance are shaped by our thoughts; the power of having a purpose; how good thinking equals success; how to cherish our visions and ideals; and the importance of achieving serenity.

I am not going to elaborate further because I am hoping you would just pick up the book and read it. All you need is two hours, even less but I am playing it safe! I promise you that once you’re done reading As a Man Thinketh you will feel as good as new! In the meantime, enjoy this quote I love by James Allen: ‘Cherish the music that moves your heart.  For out of your love will flow your purpose’.

Women in Love

IMG_4584
Me facing Monte Amaro’s Clouds, Maiella (a massif in the Central Apennines), Abruzzo, Italy, 2015

I’ve been thinking about the women I know in my life. There are some who seem to know exactly what they want and others who are at the edge of a cliff somewhere, contemplating their next move – fearful of the gaping abyss which they call ‘my life’. I made a point of seeing some of these women. So I did. I sat with them and listened intently to their stories, with the best part of my heart as company. That’s when it dawned on me how truly incredible these women are, yet how little they know that about themselves.

They are incredible in the way they endure difficulties. The way they approach impossible situations and dare to confront them. There is never flight, only fight. And the fighting they do is almost always in the name of love. They wait faithfully for the unknown, and they wait not knowing if the end of the ‘unknown’ is worth waiting for – yet they wait patiently and make hope their ally. These patient women remind me of the main character Florentino in Gabriel Márquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’. He waits and waits for Fermina (the love of his life) and endures numerous rejections, and survives the bitterness of distance and heartache. Not once does he lose hope, because what’s in his heart is love and love is never without hope. Most women are like the loyal Florentino. When love is in their hearts, anything is possible. If you see a woman forsaking that ‘anything’ – then know that love was never in her heart, or that love for whatever reason had transformed into something not resembling love.

A woman gives with her heart when she loves – and she has so much of it to give that her deep well of love never dries up. She is strong enough to hold back when pride is threatened, but lets go willingly when love is returned. She tries very hard when something means something to her, and she never tries less even when ‘less’ is safer. There is insanity in the way she loves. Most of the tears she sheds are tears related to love. She cries when she loves with passion and cannot contain its eruptive force; and she cries when love is questioned and cannot control its downfall. Crying is the most beautiful expression of her soul. Her love’s purity is revealed when she cries.

Think about some of the women you know. The hopelessly in love. The ones who love with all their being even when love isn’t reciprocated or when love is there but has reached a dead-end. Don’t judge them. I for one admittedly regret the way my less-knowing younger self judged these women. I thought they were weak and that their paralysis was their doing. And I used to think it with a deep and serious disappointment in womanhood (as if I was immune to the frivolity of a woman in love – which I certainly wasn’t). I thought they were weak because I equated strength with pride and being realistic (the anti-dweller type: tomorrow is another day), and anything outside of that realm I considered weakness. How wrong I was to judge. How insensitive of me. And how much I’ve learnt since then.

So did Fermina.

At the end, Fermina recognises the rarity of Florentino’s strong feelings towards her. She acknowledges his wisdom, and appreciates his patience and persevering hope. So much so that their love is finally able to blossom freely during their old age. Love happens because Fermina finds love in her heart again and frees it. She allows love to guide her.

A woman might be at the edge of a cliff somewhere, contemplating her next move and dreading what lies ahead- but if love is in her heart, love will guide her. She will survive. She will figure it out. And her incredibleness will shine through.

I know you all have love in your hearts. Love will guide you. You will survive. You will figure it out. And your incredibleness will shine through.

Where I Found Fernando

FP
Here’s Portugal’s main man! The one who once wrote ‘What is merges with what, I sleep and am. And I’m, Not feeling; sad I’m not. But a sad thing I am.’ From I’m Scanning Things I Can’t see, Portugal, 1933

My most cherished buy and souvenir of Lisbon was my Fernando Pessoa ‘Selected Poems’. Not only because I love buying and collecting books; not only because it is great Pessoa and my strange connection to his work; and not only because English translations are hard to find. It’s all of the above plus this important fact: I bought this poetry book from Bertrand Chiado!

img_0065
My FP Book – Stamped by Bertrand Chiado Bookstore, Lisbon, May, 2017

Bertrand is the oldest bookstore in the world. The one which has been in operation since 1732. The one which is beautiful with all its antiqued bookshelves and arches. The one which smells of old books, tradition and history. The one which made me think of intellectuals and friendly ghosts lurking in corners. The one which reaffirmed my need and passion for books and reading. The one which made me think what a dream it would be to work in a bookstore like this one in a city like Lisbon and be surrounded (on a daily basis) by endless greatness and giants stacked on old wooden shelves. Anything which has history has a right to be romanticised – a simplistic view leaning on idealism but worth every thinking cell in me!

All the more reason for falling in love with Lisbon. Lisbon – the city of FP. The one which screams history in every corner; Fado music echoing in little streets; romantic benches; purple trees; sunny sun; cotton-candy clouds; and hidden treasures if you look closely and if you just make a point of searching for these treasures with an open heart, renewed eyes and a pinch of human curiosity!

Inside of Bertrand Chiado – the oldest bookstore in the world, Lisbon, May, 2017

 

 

Uruguay’s Big Man

mario-benedetti
M.B. 

This image is of a Uruguayan man who – in the non-Spanish speaking world is not very well known or not as well-known as he should be but who – in the Spanish-speaking world – is considered one of Latin America’s important writers.

Uruguay is the smallest Spanish-speaking country in South America, but it has always been well-populated with poets and the poetry scene there has always been hyperactive (my idea of paradise). I didn’t know that until I stumbled upon this man’s poetry years ago and dug deeper – only to find out (to my dismay), the availability of English translations for Uruguayan poetry is quite limited.

Who is this kind-looking man?

His name is Mario Benedetti. He was born in 1920. In his 88 years, he lived as fully as many of us now could only dream of living. He had an eventful life, an important one. One of art; travel; politics; and exile. He was a journalist, novelist and a poet. In the 1960s, Uruguay saw itself as the cradle of revolution in Latin America. Che Guevara was welcomed there as a hero during a brief visit and that was the period many writers in Uruguay were writing in magazines and providing theories to back up revolutionary practice. Mario Benedetti was the poet of that moment! He became famous throughout the continent for the direct style in his verses of anger, resistance and love.

Mario Benedetti published 80 books and won international awards. Some of you may even know ‘La Tregua’ which inspired the movie The Truce in the 1970s. He was married for 66 years to the same woman and his death followed hers 3 years later. I found his last poem before dying to be quite melancholic. The first line goes like this: ‘my life has been like a fraud’.

Mario Benedetti wrote beautiful poems. Many about love. I personally like ‘Little stones at my window’. But what made me enter his world was another one. It was this one: Táctica y estrategia. For the Romantics, here it is.

My tactic is
to look at you
to learn how you are
to love you as you are
my tactic is
to talk to you
and to listen to you
to build with words
an indestructible bridge
my tactic is
to remain in your memories
I don’t know how
nor
with what pretext
but to remain with you
my tactic is
to be frank
and to know that you’re frank
and not to sell to ourselves
simulations
so that between us
there is no curtain
nor abyss
my strategy is
in contrast
deeper and
more simple
my strategy is
that one of these days
I don’t know how
nor
with what pretext
you finally
need me.

The Journey That Changed Everything

IMG_2909
Captured during one of my short breaks (on an unbearably hot Spanish summer day) with one of my Italian pilgrim friends whom I’ve met on the way. All those who walk the Camino are referred to as ‘Pilgrims’. A bunch of funny and cheerful South Koreans joined us for some much-needed R&R. That’s how it is on the Camino. You meet like-minded people everyday from different parts of the world, and some even become life-long friends. Camino Frances, Spain, 2015

The Camino de Santiago has many walking routes or what they call ‘Ways’. You can start anywhere on the Camino and by anywhere I mean anywhere if your number one goal is to WALK. That was my goal. But if you want to be a certified Camino Pilgrim you’ve got to complete at least 100 kilometres and reach Santiago de Compostela. Have you watched Emelio Estevez’s movie The Way? Watch it. It’s a great movie. The Camino route Martin Sheen took is the same route I chose to take that year. It also happens to be the same route that Paulo Coelho took at the age of 38 – the route that brought on a spiritual awakening and inspired him to write his first novel The Pilgrimage

I walked from St Jean Pied de Port, France (via the Pyrenees, a range of mountains) to the sacred city of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. I trekked through the major cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and León in Spain. I covered approximately 800 kilometres in 35 days. 3 days rest.

Camino Frances Map
A map of Spain and my journey’s route from St. Jean Pied of Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain

I walked through the scorching summer heat of Spain; through unexpected rain; through the sunniest of all suns; green raw mountains; wide roads and small winding ones too; through silent dark woods with the occasional rustle of falling leaves; tiny villages with no one in sight but grumpy dogs and a few curious-serious old people who seem to be waiting for something to happen; through the endless, dry, flat and intimidating Meseta – which many of my Pilgrim friends opted to skip; through rocky climbs; small stones that danced under my feet and huge ones that refused to budge; through small hidden rivers and streams; beautiful cities and less beautiful ones; through cold temperatures when the climb got even higher and the sun was shadowed by humungous clouds; through fields of happy sunflowers; fields and fields of hay and empty spaces; and through never-ending horizons or big old trees that cover the sun’s rays and create an eerie-scary atmosphere even for the bravest of all solo travellers. I walked with the knowledge that there’s an American woman missing somewhere on the same Camino route I was taking, whom more or less shared a similar story to mine. I walked through the fear of knowing there might be a kidnapper somewhere or a lurking murderer hiding behind one of the many bushy bushes I passed.  I walked through sleepless nights thinking about that missing woman; and through a Queen Bee attack on my very first day in the Pyrenees – a funny story (in retrospect) yet not-so-funny (in reality). I walked on despite all of that. And that single act of perseverance with a ‘no matter what’ attitude changed my whole outlook on life. It confirmed to me that we as human beings are capable of great things when we have a purpose in life, and all that is required of us is to keep going no matter what, and never give in to fear and pain. No greatness without suffering. And no suffering ends in suffering, only in greatness.    

IMG_4378
Enjoying a beautiful view of greenery that I came across during a challenging trek. Camino Frances, Spain, 2015

Recently I came across this wonderful travel passage written by Bill Bryson – a best-selling author and travel writer. It cleverly describes some of the thoughts and sentiments I had while walking. It describes what really matters to you when you walk tough walks and long challenging distances. When you’re totally alone in the woods with not a soul in sight for hours on end. When your tired legs and blistered feet cannot carry you anymore and your back is broken in two. When hovering insects are suddenly your best friends and the trail never seems to end. When all you think about is ‘how much water do I have left?’ or ‘how many kilometres do I have left?’ or ‘should I have my trail nuts and dried fruits now or keep some for later just in case? or ‘should I trust him?’ or ‘how am I ever going to get there in one piece?’.  Ultimately though it describes happiness. Because happiness is when you have a purpose, and you journey with it.   

Bryson wrote: “Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret. Life takes on a neat simplicity, too. Time ceases to have any meaning. When it is dark, you go to bed, and when it is light again you get up, and everything in between is just in between. It’s quite wonderful, really. You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, “far removed from the seats of strife,” as the early explorer and botanist William Bartram put it. All that is required of you is a willingness to trudgeThere is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods. It’s where you were yesterday, where you will be tomorrow. The woods is one boundless singularity. Every bend in the path presents a prospect indistinguishable from every other, every glimpse into the trees the same tangled mass. For all you know, your route could describe a very large, pointless circle. In a way, it would hardly matter. At times, you become almost certain that you slabbed this hillside three days ago, crossed this stream yesterday, clambered over this fallen tree at least twice today already. But most of the time you don’t think. No point. Instead, you exist in a kind of mobile Zen mode, your brain like a balloon tethered with string, accompanying but not actually part of the body below. Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing. At the end of the day you don’t think, “Hey, I did sixteen miles today,” any more than you think, “Hey, I took eight-thousand breaths today.” It’s just what you do.”

IMG_5273
On the last day and final destination of my epical journey. That’s when I also became an officially certified Camino Pilgrim. I walked on, and I made it! Santiago de Compostela, Spain, 2015