8 February 2013

Namibia: Book Review - Toni Morrison's Home

Windhoek — At 81, Toni Morrison is a literary legend, having recently been awarded the Presidential Award of Freedom by US President, Barack Obama. Although not as complex as her best novels, Home is still a formidable addition to her body of work. It is also a sign that she has not finished yet.

Toni Morrison's newest novel explores the scars of war (both physical and emotional), the depths of grief and regret, and the road to recovery. Morrison does not spare the reader the ugliness of racism, a blight on American life which robbed people of their dignity and freedoms. According to a review of the book on May 4, 2012 by Nicole Lee, a writer and actor living in Melbourne, Toni Morrison's tenth novel, Home, is a quiet revelation of masculinity and patriotism. The characters are archetypes and boldly drawn - the brooding, angry soldier, and the down-trod, unwanted girl - however at less than 150 pages, the exploration afforded to them is lightly drawn.

In the opening image, Korean War veteran Frank observes the stance of horses as he hides with his sister Cee. The revelations at the end are surprising but skipped over, and both Frank's redemption and Cee's recovery are considerably reduced. Although Morrison writes economically and with poetic power, as a result it feels at times as if the spaces between images are too unexplored.

A hallmark of Morrison's magic is the way that her imagination engages critically with several subjects simultaneously, but Home is particularly intriguing because it also seems to be a reflection on the author's previous works. The plot of Home is a standard one in American literature. Frank Money returns home from the war suffering from a mysterious psychiatric ailment that today we could call post-traumatic stress disorder, but in the 1950s had no name.

Although the plot is straightforward, even familiar, Morrison embellishes this template with characters who manage to be at once idiosyncratic and realistic. The writing reads like a love letter to a generation that took the English language, lubricated its syntax and bent meanings as the situation required. A letter reading "She be dead" is interpreted "She's alive but sick, very sick."

The result is not poetry, exactly, yet the characters communicate in such a way that there are subtle metaphors in every exchange. The events of this narrative are striking and arresting in the manner that one expects from Morrison, the only living American Nobel laureate in literature. Family secrets are revealed; brutal truths about the history of race in America are displayed without sentimentality or animus. As always, Morrison's prose is immaculate, jaw-dropping in its beauty and audacity.

Reading a Toni Morrison novel is always an astounding, unsettling experience. Morrison never shies away from bringing her readers to the dark core of the matter, especially when that matter is the enslavement of human beings. As in Beloved, Morrison takes on the daunting task of channeling the voices of slaves in pre-Civil War America. Morrison's amazing gift has always been her ability to create an authentic written voice for people who were unable to write their own stories. Through this gift, she is able to give them and internal life greater than the obvious hardship of their situations. As usual, her characters, and their stories, are complex, compelling and real enough to walk off the page. Morrison does not hand readers the story, but lets it unpeel. Each character gets a chance to tell a bit of their tale in their own dialect. As in Beloved, the author moves backward and forward in time.

According to another review by Mike Dell'Aquila June 20, 2012, one of Morrison's strongest qualities is her ability to wield symbols as well as any of the best American writers and certainly better than all of the rest. With the latest novel she places the symbol and the notion of "home" under great scrutiny. Though it is both a simple title and theme, the complexity of the prose and the ideas contained within it help us to understand that it is not simplistic.

Although time is experimented with over the course of the narrative, there is a nice and natural story arc with which Morrison fleshes out some of her larger ideas. The symmetry may seem dated, but the story that follows an Aristotelian course is significant-the reasons for departure are trumped by the causes of Frank's return. This exploration of one's homecoming not only celebrates the return of Frank to his community; it also resonates on a larger socio-historical level. Morrison not only extends her tradition of telling the stories of the voiceless and the forgotten, but she also champions and campaigns for the values of one's own people, of one's own roots.

In the end, Home is also a return to form for Morrison. The novella is fueled by the potent blend of fact and fantasy about times gone by, but the objective is both contemporary and eternal. As conservative an idea as the preservation or restoration of home may seem to some readers, Morrison eludes this sort of reading by showing how radical the reinvention and rediscovery of home can be.

The moral of the story in our context, though obvious, and stated in a succinct, rather unexpected manner, we seem to have forgotten those who made supreme sacrifices for this country in order for their children's children to live in peace and prosperity. I have seen the rivers of tears of some of those children whose parents died in the war. I have listened to their cries and sobbing and have heard some of them recounting the horrifying experiences they went through. Some were simply dumped at their aunties and uncles who told them that if they wanted to go to school, they should "go back to the Angolan jungles and bushes to dig up the bodies of their dead parents so that they can come and pay for their tuition fees."

Contrary to the appeal 'to guard against reprisals and vilification' and despite talks of 'unity of purpose and action' and 'an inclusive society where no one should feel left behind', the exclusion of the young ones, especially the children of the liberation struggle, from the mainstream economy, simply means that we are unwittingly setting into motion forces destructive to our future and long-term prosperity as a society that is increasingly more concerned with serving current needs than addressing the future. In other words, we are tilting more towards a 'now' society, as opposed to nurturing for tomorrow.

To every individual and family, the term "home" is at once universal and decidedly specific; it is a unique physical place as well as a concept that we all understand. As banal as it may seem, the gap between the terms "house" and "home" become essential to the bifurcated journeys of Morrison's main characters. According to Herman Melville, all voyages are homeward bound.

Let us become a society that cares for its own children and not only demand for qualifications as if some among us do not have 'solidarity diplomas' ourselves or as if it wasn't because others made that supreme sacrifice. It is important to engage in robust debates among one another, to criticize one another where we believe solutions can be offered in a constructive manner. Nelson Mandela said 'the enemy does not criticize you because he wants to see you fail'. Only friends can level criticism on one another. Why don't the wealthiest among us follow the example of the South African fourth wealthiest man, the billionaire Patrice Motsepe, who parted with a sizeable chunk of his inordinate wealth and announced a massive pledge to the poor? Unlike those hell-bends on consumption, feeding from the trough like gluttonous beasts without a care for tomorrow, glamorising materialistic gain and the pursuit of narrow individualistic preoccupations, Motsepe and his wife pledged 'to improve the lifestyles and living conditions of the poor' thus giving hope to those in need.

Let us do likewise and not trivialize the scars of others and minimize their suffering while highlighting our own wounds. Let us make these children feel at home in the land their brave warrior fathers and mothers paid with their own blood. Let us delve into the depths of the murky waters of despair and dread, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness and hopelessness, which result in a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world. Life without meaning, hope, and love breeds a coldhearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys both the individual and others. Ultimately, how we treat these children, will be an indication how we care for the poor and the down-trodden.

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