Monday, July 21, 2014


Patience conspires with time—
A ponderous constant, a found-here
To-be-left-here, unseen but felt—
And forces upon us a lifetime of waiting:
For a lunch order, the train, the bus, a flight;
Or a service—a document from Home Affairs,
A love to be returned, a pain to ease,
A wound to heal; perhaps for the sun to set
To relish its delight, or the dawn to rise
To hearken upon a birdsong; we wait
For the summer to revel in gaiety,
Or for the winter to create different memories;
For a war to end, an answered prayer,
Perhaps for times to change—
A hope to be realized, an ambition fulfilled,
Or a penny to drop in the bowl—we wait
In haste, banal bore, or suspense;
In anguish, or palpitating excitement
With a fuss, or not a care at all
In stark awareness, or sweet oblivion;
Gazing upon stars and blue horizons
Pondering over vast spaces, wondering why:
We wait upon life itself.

Picture credit:

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Luminaries

I must first convey my warm congratulations to my fellow Kenyan (proud to say that), Okwiri Oduor, for having won the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing for her story My Father’s Head. I was pretty sure it was one of the strong contenders, along with Efemia Chela’s Chicken and Diane Awerbuck’s Phosphorescence, and if you missed my take on it you may find it here.

Now that the World Cup is over, I can do some greater amount of reading, something I guiltily haven’t been able to do much of over the past one month. I have indeed read Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize Winning Book, The Luminaries (2013), for over a month—the longest I have taken save for an all-time favourite, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Part of the reason—the World Cup being the other part of course—is that The Luminaries is quite voluminous—over 800 pages. But that has never discouraged a lover of words, and I was soon drawn to its lovely prose, beautiful sentences, and cleverly crafted story. I was immersed in 19th Century New Zealand so convincingly that I felt like an invisible observer walking the streets of Hokitika, pitying Anna Wetherell and Crosbie Wells, stalking Francis Carver to his nefarious ends, marveling at Walter Moody’s and the Crown Hotel’s dozen’s mettle and elaborate counterplot, and so on. It has been a while since I read a story so elaborate and convincing, and one is astonished to learn that, for all its seeming intricacy, it is simply a story about love and fate, or destiny—as written in the stars.

Walter Moody, running from a broken family, arrives in Hokitika, New Zealand, and chances upon a group of twelve men gathered to solve a mystery—the disappearance of a wealthy man, Emery Staines; the apparent attempted suicide of a whore (a term used descriptively in the main, though in some conversations its derogatory sense was inescapable), Anna Wetherell; and the discovery of a fortune in a home whose owner, Crosbie Wells, has died. What follows is a slow unfolding of the mystery, told through the gathered men and through subsequent events as well as flashbacks to the past.

The depiction of life in New Zealand in the 19th Century is so complete and credible that it is hard to believe this story was written in 2013. It is quite a feat to write so beautifully and in a form of language so evocative of this era. Whether in the description of places, or the seas, the characters, and events, Catton employs a style that is as expansive as it is detailed, and as lazily poetic as it is vivid. The lovely and at times thick prose is complemented and tempered in a harmonious way by great and entertaining conversations. They are irresistible in their portrayals of dramatic events, especially the scenes at the Courthouse. They flow in a most natural way, betraying the tensions, motivations, and temperaments of the characters.

Through the course of the story we see some pertinent themes such as colonialism, exploitation, the destructive effects of opium, revenge, and even corruption. The novel is also a tribute to the Maori people and culture in a way. These themes unfold as a given, as the way life was at the time, and thus one doesn’t sense a pontification about them.

However, astrology comes to the fore as a tool used to explain the love between Anna Wetherell and Emery Staines, whose lives, according to a reading of the stars, are fated to entangle. Is it possible—I am not at all sure—that the twelve men gathered at the Crown Hotel evoke some kind of celestial formation, probably the twelve lunar cycles, and perhaps Walter Moody, as the man who sets in motion the counterplot to tackle the villainous Carver, is the earth around which the lunar cycles take place? In the context of astrology, I suppose the luminaries in the story are Anna and Emery. Indeed, like the sun and the moon, the light providers, they both provide the keys to solving the mystery, and are drawn together and their fates linked.

Man Booker Prize winning books have a reputation for dwelling on the “human condition”, tackling innate and profound human attributes. It would be hard to point to one in this book other than an intrinsic desire to confront evil and vanquish it: the thirteen men all work in concert to reverse the devious plan by Francis Carver and Lydia Wells.

Some say that this story could have been much shorter—perhaps 400-pages instead of 800. But it wouldn’t be the masterpiece that it is, would it? I wouldn’t want my relish to end soon while reading such lovely prose:

As the conjugal act cannot be spoken of aloud for reasons both sacred and profane, the ritual of the pipe was, for the pair of them, a holy ritual that was unspeakable and mortified, just as it was ecstatic and divine: its sacredness lay in its very profanity, and in its profanity, its sacred form. For what a solemn joy it was, to wait in silence for the resin to melt; to ache for it, shamelessly, wondrously, as the sweet scent of it reached one’s nose; to pull the needle through the tar; to cut the flame, and to lie back, and take the smoke in one’s body, and feel it, miraculous, rushing to one’s very extremities, one’s finders, one’s toes, the top of one’s head! And how tenderly he looked upon her, when they awoke.

Reading The Luminaries is a journey of delight, a luxury whose end one becomes averse to, and a joy on which one is content to linger. I would doubly recommend it.

Picture Credit: Goodreads