Friday, September 21, 2012

The Grass Arena by John Healy 

John Healy’s autobiography begins with a description of his father, a violent Irish emigrant in London punching the then six year old author in the face for having the audacity to ask did he have a dog licence.

Such an arresting opening sets the tone for the rest of Healy’s book which from the outset bristles with violence and unexpected moments of tenderness and beauty. Healy graphically describes the brutality he endured at the hands of his father which only for the interventions on behalf of his mother stopped his father from carrying the beatings further.

As the narrative progresses the author is subjected to violence from older boys who regard him as being Irish. Ironically when he travels to Ireland he is called a “black and tan” on account of his English accent. He suffers from tension which causes him to walk with a stoop later he will learn that the only way to relieve this tension is to drink and it is here that his main troubles start. Drink and subsequent alcoholism will lead to Healy’dismissal from the army, his homelessness, subsequent brushes with the law and incarceration.

One of the strong points of this autobiography is the strong narrative voice. Healy tells a warts and all story of his life on the streets, the characters he encounters and the casual and routine violence he endures. In total he would spend fifteen years as a homeless alcoholic.

His life on the streets is related in a series of vignettes which are neither maudlin nor sentimental but rather get straight to the point. Stories run into each other and you get the sense of days running into months then years, punctuated only by short prison terms. Here the prose is short clear and as sharp as as a knife blade.

"So the days merge together more and more, each one like the other. You wake, rise, look for drink, fall asleep again, staring into darkness, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, hearing nothing. Time passes nonetheless."

In just a few sentences Healy can bring characters from the street to life. Mad Gerry, Dipper, Long John, Taffy and Ginger are some of the individuals Healy quite vividly and with ease brings out onto the page. Each one has his or her own personality, there are no stereotypes here only vivid descriptions of people the author knew only too well.

A grain on humour runs throughout the narrative, but it is humour of the darkest variety. Casual violence and death are commonplace and both are treated with a manner that is matter of fact but in no way blasé.

Redemption of a sort comes when Healy, while in prison, is introduced to the game of chess by fellow inmate Harry "The Fox". Immediately he becomes addicted and vows to quite the drink and concentrate on chess. Of the game of chess Healy calls it a jealous lover alongside which nothing can possibly prosper.

True to his word John Healy quit alcohol and instead turned his focus on the chess board. In a characteristic clear headed style he relates playing against grand masters, playing tournaments, playing matches blindfolded and multiple matches played simultaneously. At one point he is invited to peoples houses to play chess where he says he’s given,  "served in patterned cups, by wives in lovely dresses and sensible, low-heeled shoes". All a far cry from the outdoor drinking schools of inner city London.

In The Grass Arena Healy introduces the reader to a world many of us will have absolutely no knowledge of and will go to incredible lengths to avoid. John Healy doesn’t want sympathy instead he chronicles the life he has lead, the people he has encountered and his eventual escape from the street.


Thursday, September 06, 2012

Olvidon and Other Stories by F. Sionil Jose 

First an introduction to the writer, whom I guess not many will be familiar with. Born in 1924 F. Sionil Jose is the grand old man of Filipino literature. He is still active with a steady stream of novels and a host of regular newspaper columns. He is perhaps best known for his five novel Rosales saga which covered a hundred years of Philippine history from 1872 to the introduction of Martial Law in the country in 1972.

Indeed the introduction of Martial Law and its effect on the general population is a constant feature in Olvidon and Other Stories.  The title story "Olvidon" focuses on Dr. Puro, a doctor with a lucrative medical practice in Boston. Puro is asked by The Leader (obviously Ferdinand Marcos) to return to the country and treat him for a skin disease which has left the normally virile leader a nervous wreck. It is an open secret that Puro has no love for his country, and regards his countrymen with scorn and derision. In order to entice him to stay The Leader provides him with the most up to date medical equipment, a plush residence and a whole host of beautiful women.

The good doctor agrees to remain in the country of his birth and to discover a cure for the ailing president. He soon discovers however that The Leader is suffering from an unknown disease which he names white dermatitis. It soon becomes apparent however that most of The Leader's cabinet, his wife and generals are also succumbing to the disease. It's a clever metaphor for the corruption which is eating away at the elite while the country goes down the tubes.

Time and again the theme of a lack of empathy on behalf of the elites be they, political, economic or cultural occurs again and again. In "Imagination" an aging university professor enters a massage parlour where he meets one of his students working there. As she explains through her embarrassment she needs the money in order to complete the course. Otherwise........

While in "Friendship", Minister Arcadio Guzman, a man who considers himself of some importance but who is little more than a lapdog for the president ignores and treats with contempt a plea for help fro a former associate who has fallen foul of the regime.

"Wounds" presents us with a tale of a young Japanese women, a daughter of a Japanese associate of a Filipino businessman. She has decided to travel for a week to The Philippines in order to experience the country and in particular see the massive banana plantations which cover the provinces. Well she achieves her wish but in the process observes all the social wounds of the country in close proximity.

No one is free from Sionil Jose scorn, "The Mistress" features an established artist now in his sixties who encounters one of the women he has leeched off and treated contemptuously in the past. The woman in question can barely afford dinner and quite rightly treats with derision his request that she give him her compassion.

If the reader is looking for a reflection of life in The Philippines they could no better than to pick up a copy of F. Sionil Jose collection. First published in 1988 "Olvidon and Other Stories" countinues to enthral, enrage and educate in equal measure.


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