Still here, Dad, hearing your voice …
© Cynthia James – Spring 2017
I was born in a leap year, not on the rare ‘leap day,’ mind you. Still, for me a leap year carries a mark of distinction.
And don’t try to disabuse me of the notion of distinctiveness by any reminder of the origins of ‘leap’ in convenient mathematical formulation; in the whimsical switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar; or in some centuries-old fiddling with decimal point calculations in order to square solar revolutions.
For I enter the gates of Janus 2016, with calm, with optimism and with assurance … in spite of the unpredictability of my fortunes, in spite of the persistent flaring of global conflict from which none is exempt.
The trick is to remember that MY leap year belongs not only to me, but to all of US, so I’ve already begun to meet my challenges with more investment in the power of the human touch, with more critical thought in strategizing resources, with more prayerfulness and with more effort.
And what of the years on either side of the leap doorway – surely, they hold much more significance than their indivisibility by four. Triumph and Promise – they sustain me on the leap journey, facing as they do, both backward and forward.
©Cynthia James – January 2016
No doubt, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life will touch every reader in his or her own way. For me, whose Independence came as one by-product of Britain’s preoccupation with rebuilding its shattered home-base after World War II, the novel reminds that neither lust for nor demise of empire is new; nor are war, lust for freedom, the overthrow of bondage and propitious peace.
The novel also reminds, lest we forget, that not too long ago the Western European slaughterhouse bore a cold but uncanny resemblance to the present war zone of the sub-Saharan Sahel – a slaughterhouse in the name of any blend of similar abstracts such as power, ethnic cleansing and greed.
Remembrance Days and blood-red poppies do their best to assuage with gratitude the shudder of lives lost in 20th century wars, as psyches remain chastened by deaths that touched households even in the so-called third-world.
In fact, depending on parallels made by the individual reader, ‘life after life, war after war’ can hardly be disclaimed as one explicated subtext of the novel.
For the novel speculates fictively on alternative historical versions of the period 1910 to 1945 and even the 1967 Israel-Arab conflict through the uncanny gift of having been there before.
It does this through its main character Ursula, the endearing “little bear.”
As for Ursula, it can hardly be coincidental that her name, a familiar European name given at birth, harks back to European ur-warriors and ur-war history, the name being that of a virgin on a pilgrimage, killed by Huns of the 4th century Eastern European Hunnic Empire. That virgin later became a saint, Saint Ursula.
However, more fascinating to me than such dark universal parallels of Atkinson’s Life After Life is the more intimate and enigmatic epigraph, Nietzsche’s ‘What-if …’
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’
This ‘What-if’ extended question in a way invokes for me my collective unconscious, the contiguous history that affirms my presence, generation after generation, on at least two levels: (1) the life I all share with all humanity, and (2) the life I share with my particular cultural descendancy.
Could this history have been different? The fact is that it is not.
For Ursula and her family, the Todds, their home at Fox Corner and their British middle class life were changed forever in the aftermath of World War II; for me, the blitzing of London left me an orphan once more, this time exulting in the feeling in 1962 that I had won myself a reluctantly granted freedom. Much later I realized that I was shoved off; I would never have had to fight for independence at all.
Barring this cynicism, of course, I feel considerable pride in the fact that I’ve made good on so often having been orphaned and thrown overboard.
Could this history have been different? The fact is that it is not.
To compound matters, Atkinson’s Life After Life suggests that the collective memory of a culture is embedded in the psyche of its descendants, even those who were ‘not there’ to witness.
Whole cultures are transformed, renewed and or shattered when any one piece is damaged and or altered.
That’s why, in part, I come to narratives of transshipment always with fresh eyes, searching for uncovered angles, for pieces still untold, more so since wars and empires to which I am bound, both by humanity and by particular descendancy continue to abound.
The power of Life After Life lies greatly in this ‘What-if’ structure and changing speculative recurrences interwoven throughout the novel. But just as important is the reality the novel depicts – the before and the after. In the case of Great Britain one looks at the cultural strength, complacency, serenity and middle-class pretentiousness of the before and the considerable leveling of the after, a leveling that disbanded hierarchies, and brought greater equality and opportunity for the feudal servant class.
In sum, from a philosophical standpoint, Life after Life awakens the reader to how he or she is connected to the chain of life in general and to a particular chain of life. It speculates on alternative pathways along historical roads without glossing over the road traveled. This narrative tease makes Life After Life a fascinating novel that reverberates through the minds of its varied readers.
©Cynthia James, January 2014
One of the poems we learnt from our West Indian Reader Book 3 or 4 in my heyday:
YOU know, we French storm’d Ratisbon:
A mile or so away
On a little mound, Napoleon
Stood on our storming-day;
We strutted like the little man, legs wide apart, head bowed as we uttered these brave lines of Robert Browning’s “Incident of the French Camp” – a Victorian narrative poem meant to teach us loyalty, nobility and courage, in choral speaking fray.
We galloped in with the young soldier until we came to the awesome lines – awesome a word young people today have changed forever from its heretofore meaning:
You look’d twice ere you saw his breast
Was all but shot in two.
Yet still, our voice leapt with pride for an instant under the choral master’s baton; then softened into sorrow’s cadences, noting the swift change in Napoleon’s demeanour:
The chief’s eye flash’d; but presently
Soften’d itself, as sheathes
A film the mother-eagle’s eye
When her bruis’d eaglet breathes.
But stridently, chest high, with no dying breath, in the young soldier’s voice, we pridefully sounded:
… “Nay,” the soldier’s pride
Touch’d to the quick, he said:
“I ’m kill’d, Sire!” And his chief beside,
Smiling the boy fell dead.
Coda – Lest we forget:
- Black soldiers and their progeny of wars of the 19th and 20th centuries still experience the need to hold their own memorials today, fighting an uphill battle to be among the remembered, not forgotten.
- Do poets still write war poems? Or has the genre disappeared under the cloud of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”?