Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Sapogonia Redux, and The House Behind the Cedars

Some quick impressions about some recent reading:
I finished Sapogonia a couple of weeks ago and wanted to post something about it but didn't know quite what. In an earlier post,, I said a few things about this novel that still hold true. One quick thing that does not: the main female character's first name should be spelled "Pastora"--it's misspelled on the blurb on the back cover, which is what I was going by, even though she had already been introduced in the novel by the time I had posted about it. Anyway, Sapogonia as a place never really figures in the novel as a geographic space, even though some of its action is set there. But I think the fact that Sapogonia doesn't exist in our world is significant with regard to the strangeness with which it's handled in the novel. Indeed, it seems almost mythical there as well. Maximo is a native, but when he's there, even when he's with his family, all he seems able to think about is leaving there. He's not estranged from his relations; he's just not at home there. To borrow Octavio Paz's description of the pachuco in his classic study of the Mexican psyche, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Maximo seems rootless even in his home. Pastora, however, is his psychic opposite: a folksinger and, it's strongly intimated, a bruja--all but a ghost, in fact. She is more spirit than person.
Sapogonia is more a place to be from than a place to return to. A place of origins, then.
I'm about halfway through The House Behind the Cedars. Chesnutt's novel is, so far, a rewriting of the tragic mulatto story so popular in the U.S. in the 19th century. For my European readers in particular, here is the basic schematic for such a novel: beautiful woman, raised as white and with no reason she is other than white, in the course of the novel discovers she is the product of a fit of passion between her father and a slave woman; "tragic" consequences of the melodramatic sort ensue. Chesnutt's novel differs in that Rena, the woman in the tragic mulatto role, already knows she is of mixed race; nor is this any secret in the small town where she lives with her mother. But when her brother, also a mulatto who, during his long absence, has been passing as a white lawyer in South Carolina, returns to the family home to take Rena with him, she begins to pass as white as well. She becomes engaged to a young white man who, just where I've left off reading, discovers that she is a mulatto and calls off the engagement. He has sworn to keep the secret of her and her brother's background, but that remains to be seen. As I say, I'm halfway through it, and if Chesnutt's short stories are any indication, he is quite fond of plot twists. More awaits me, I suspect.
But the titular house of the novel's title is a rather different space than is Sapogonia. The house is a safe, desired place--indeed, it's well nigh impossible, emotionally, for the children to leave. Moreover, the space is both known and secluded--it's analogous to the children's racial background within the context of the community.
Chesnutt is an elegant writer, a stylist very much after the manner of turn-of-the-century mainstream writing. But he's subtle and complex, too, understanding the blurriness of the alleged line between "black" and "white" and the public (and private) rhetoric of that line.
I'll keep you informed of what happens.

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1 comment:

jennifer said...

We spoke today in class about public and private justice with regards to war crimes and the need or implied need for a show trial.
What do you think of this? Under what conditions do we today "demand" public justice or lust for the spectacle of the show trial and to what extent or under what circumstances are we willing to apply different definitions of "justice" for different "crimes"? I don't know if I'm making sense with this but my basic point is there a difference between public and private justice when acted out on a global scale?

Also I STILL can't email you because my emails are always being returned. I would like to ask that you revisit my dream human rights minor list as I've revised a bit based on your feedback. Thanks for it. peace!