Morelia, Michoacán, the Land of Lakes & Butterflies


National Geographic

After spending a quiet Christmas in Puebla, my husband and I headed north to visit some friends in Morelia, the UNESCO World Heritage City and capital of the central Mexican state of Michoacán, destination of the beautiful monarch butterfly.

d292e7fff99282032e789fab7bf047b6.jpgThe colonial city center’s narrow streets are lined with well-preserved 17th- and 18th-century buildings built from the region’s characteristic pink stone. One such building is the imposing, baroque-style Morelia Cathedral (pictured below). Its elegant, soaring twin towers preside over the city’s main square, Plaza de Armas.


We arrived in Morelia in the early evening and quickly settled into the Hotel Alameda, which is right on the corner of Zocolo. Being the holidays, the streets were brimming with people, but we were able to find an outdoor table at the cafe Panolino, where we shared a magnificent jamon serano sandwich and drank some delicious coffee. I watched with amusement as a boy at the next table attempted to eat a huge hambergesa that resembled a UFO. He examined it carefully, as if searching for a way in, yet somehow managed to eat the whole thing. Later, as the family was leaving, they passed beside our table and much to my amazement, the father paused to welcome us to Morelia and to enjoy our stay. It was such a friendly gesture that I instantly felt at ease.

virgin-of-guadalupeThe next day we visited the exquisite Sanctuario de Guadalupe, where our friend’s mother, who was named after the Virgin of Guadalupe, got married. We were informed that the wedding waiting list is now a year and a half long.

The Virgin of Guadalupe appeared in a vision to an indigenous man named Juan Diego on Dec. 9, 1531. Since then, she has become a powerful image of Mexican identity. Her complexion is that of a mestizo, a combination of Mexican and Spanish, indicating that she is for all people. Her gaze is one of compassion and motherly tenderness.

We also went on a bit of a gastronomical tour. Our friends brought us to a first rate restaurant that specializes in arracherra, a thin, marinated steak, and I must admit it was the best I ever ate. But in terms of decor, the San Miguelito restaurant was simply a knock out. Fittingly the food is also highly original.


Pictured in the centre of the photo is St. Anthony, hanging upside down. According to legend, this position will bring true love, so it has become the ideal spot to propose to a prospective partner. The open book below St. Anthony’s head lists the couples who became engaged here. If you are curious about the pictures on the wall and other decorations hanging from the ceiling, these are all for sale.

There are also two lovely day trips one can make from Morelia. The first is the beautiful 700-02694226town of Patzcuaro, which has preserved an indigenous-colonial appearance and sits on a lake. It has a square known as Plaza Vasco de Quiroga or the Plaza Grande as well as numerous churches and shops offering local arts and crafts. There is also the quiet town of Cuitzeo, which features the magnificent 16th century Convento de Santa María Magdalena de Cuitzeo, which is well worth visiting.


Buen viaje

Amazonia: The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest

Recently, I played tourist and went to the Point-à-Callière Museum in Old Montreal to see the exhibit on Amazonia: The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest. I am always drawn to exhibits about South America and spent almost a year in Brazil in the late 1970s. In fact, I landed in Manaus and travelled by boat for four serene days along the Amazon River as it snaked its way to Belem.  I say serene because the scenery hardly changed, continuous river with dense green jungle on both sides.

The rubber ‘crash’ saw the Amazon Theatre close its regular operations in 1924.Below is the late 19th century Manaus opera house, built with the wealth generated by the rubber barons. It closed with the crash in the early 20th century, but reopened in 1997 and now has its own philharmonic symphony.

Since my first visit, I have travelled extensively in Latin America and feel a deep, mysterious affinity for it, so I was excited about seeing the Amazonia exhibition.

On the first floor of the exhibit, many exquisitely beautiful artifacts were on display. Pictured below are a mask and two diadems made from bird feathers.

The photo is from the museum’s website.

The artistry of some of the huge earthenware pots was also impressive. I am reminded of a comment made by a colleague years ago. I was at a conference in Rome, one of the great cultural centres of the western world, and she asked me if I was going anywhere else that summer. When I replied that I was going to visit a friend in New Mexico, she laughed at the contrast, saying there was no history there. Now that’s a good example of western hegemony at work because there are many traces of ancient history in the Southwest. Below is a photo of the ancient cliff dwellings in the Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation.

There are also a distinct cultures.  At the recent Chagall exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts there was a Zuni Katchina doll on display to show the diverse sources that Chagall drew upon for inspiration for the modern ballet costumes he designed.

Just this past winter I read the fascinating The Lost City of Z, written by David Grann, who also writes for The New Yorker. The book was recently adapted into a film and marketed as an Indiana Jones type adventure story, but it is based on an actual explorer, Perry Fawcett, who was convinced there was an ancient civilization buried within the Amazon rainforest. Well, in the twenty-first century he has finally been proven correct. Wikipedia, in their article, note that the pottery methods used by the ancient tribes are nearly identical to those used today.

However, what drew me to the Amazonia exhibition was the emphasis on Shamanism, which has always fascinated me. I think the subtitle of the exhibition expresses the capacity of the shaman well. Through rituals and the ingestion of mind-altering natural substances, the shaman becomes one with the forest. It is a merging of consciousness. In a special issue of the magazine Tribal Art, Boris Wastiau, the Director of the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève, explains that the forest is “a conscious ecosystem from which [the shamans] are ontologically inseparable.” For those who have never felt the essential presence or consciousness of the natural world, this may seem strange, yet it is our alienation from the natural world that is leading to our demise. This is a tragedy that could be avoided.

The Amazonia exhibit also had much to say about the precarious state of the rainforest. Oil spills by companies such as Exxon and Chevron have devastated parts of the region. Gold diggers, who use mercury to extract the gold, are poisoning the rivers. Logging is also a major problem. On 25 August, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! reported that the Brazilian president, Michel Temer, is

abolishing a vast reserve of tropical rain forest in what conservationists are calling the biggest attack on the Amazon of the last 50 years, the move ending protections for the Renca Reserve, a swath of rainforest the size of Denmark, paving the way for road building, mining, and logging.

Indigenous tribes in the Amazon are fighting to preserve the Amazon rainforest, not only for their own survival, but for the survival of the planet. In terms of its size and biodiversity, the Amazon rainforest if the largest in the world. It is vital to our survival as it supplies 20% of the world’s oxygen.

While I wrote this, Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. Hopefully more people will wake up to the reality of climate change and what is at stake.






Montreal Microburst

Last Tuesday, Montreal was hit with a microburst. This seems to me to be a new kind of storm as I have never heard the term before. Here is how wikipedia defines a microburst:

microburst is a small downdraft that moves in a way opposite to a tornado. Microbursts are found in strong thunderstorms. 
The air rushes downward and out, so it can affect a wider area than a tornado.

I was visiting a friend in the hospital when the thunderstorm began. It didn’t last long, but immediately knocked out the power in the hospital where my friend is convalescing. When the downpour ended I decided to leave. I couldn’t see much through the small window in the room and outside it was quiet, although there were quite a few leaves and some small branches on the ground. I hurried to the corner where I jumped on the bus and as we began to cross the neighbourhood, I noticed that some trees were down on one of the side streets.

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But as we made our way along, I noticed that trees were down on all the side streets! The traffic lights were also out, so it took a while to reach the main intersection, where we all had to disembark and walk the rest of the way to the metro. Police and firetrucks were everywhere.

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Notre Dame de Grace Park was a disaster zone. A few people were walking around looking stunned. Many of the trees in this neighbourhood are very, very old, so this is a great loss. It is almost a miracle that no one was hurt.

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The photos are from the website.

Even if such violent wind storms are unusual in Montreal, I suppose we can expect more of this kind of thing. Today Hurricane Harvey is the anticipated event in the US. Coincidentally, a few days earlier, I had been to see Al Gore’s latest film, An Inconvenient Sequel. He says there will be more storms and they will be more intense. This is what’s happening folks.

East Meets West


Earlier this month, I attended a meditation and teaching weekend at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in downtown Montreal. When I arrived, it struck me as incongruous that the event was taking place in the Salle Jean Béliveau, named after a hockey star who played for the Montreal Canadiens. But on second thought, it occurred to me that Montreal’s multicultural environment actually lent itself to the mix of Canadian popular culture and Tibetan Buddhism. As it turned out, the teachings of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist Master, merge aspects of Western and Eastern philosophyan.

As described on his website, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

is a widely celebrated Buddhist teacher and the author of Emotional Rescue, Rebel Buddha, and other books. A lover of music, art and urban culture, Rinpoche is a poet, photographer, accomplished calligrapher and visual artist, as well as a prolific author. Rinpoche is founder and president of Nalandabodhi, an international network of Buddhist centers.

The title and theme of Rinpoche’s talk was “Seizing Every Opportunity.” First of all, he clarified that opportunity and opportunism are not the same: opportunity is something that can benefit ourselves and others. In order to seize opportunity, one must be prepared — the key is preparation. Once prepared, the moment to seize opportunity has arrived. If you find there is no opportunity, create one. However, you may be the block.

Inner development is required. It’s not all out there in the external world. We must develop our minds, our inner world. We need to tame our minds, and this requires discipline. By way of example, Rinpoche commented on how much time we spend on our cell phones and checking our email. (According to a recent New York Times Wellness section, on average we check our cells 47 times a day!) Instead, we should spend more time cultivating and connecting with our minds. In order to do this, we need to learn to meditate so that we can become mindful. Then we can create opportunity. So you see, Rinpoche presented a blend of western material culture pep talk and Buddhism teaching.


May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.

May they dwell in the great equanimity that is free from passion, aggression, and prejudice.

The next day, Rinpoche continued to discuss and define opportunity. He began by stating that we have the power to create opportunity, that we are actually the seed that must be cultivated. Unfortunately, more people are interested in crisis, pain and death than in life — in how to live or to transform our consciousness. He reminded us that every form of crisis is actually a chance for us to create an opportunity. This kind of thinking harks backs to the Greeks, the originators of western culture. According to the Greeks, a disaster, or crisis, presents a turning-point, a chance to do things differently and, thereby, offers an opportunity. It’s not just an opportunity to learn something but a space is opened up that provides an opportunity to create something new. Crisis is productive; it’s an opportunity for awakening, to encourage positivity, to help and be kind to others. Rinpoche urges us to use every moment in the best way you can. As he likes to say, “GoKind!”

Here is where meditation becomes important. It is a means of getting to know one’s mind. “Know thyself!”  Meditation leads to mindfulness, an awareness that the individual is connected to the collective. It is the path of the Bodhicitta. Being kind means becoming vulnerable, so one must also be fearless because the path will be difficult. One doesn’t know in advance what an opportunity will become; it requires a kind of blind faith.

So we must prepare and practice, developing not only our skills, but our mindfulness. Then we can seize the opportunity to make the world a better place.

City of Refuge

The sheer number of people suffering forced displacement today is staggering – the greatest flow of refugees since World War II. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 65.3 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide. Of those, 21.3 million are designated as refugees, and almost half of those people hail from just three countries: Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. Five million have fled Syria alone, and more than 6 million are internally displaced there. Estimates put the death toll in Syria’s five-year civil war at more than 400,000. The destructive war in Yemen, meanwhile, has forced more than 3 million to flee their homes. The UNHCR predicts that 2016 will be the deadliest year for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Daniel, a young French-Vietnamese man, lies dying in a Montreal hospital. Spurned by his family for contracting AIDS in Provincetown, Daniel spends his last months in despair. Only his cousin Mai stays by his side to record the darkest of family secrets. From French Indochina to present day North America, this novel follows three generations of a Vietnamese family as they endure their own folly and the whims of history.





Oaxaca, Oaxaca

From Puebla, my husband and I took a bus to Oaxaca. The trip usually takes about four hours, but 100 kilometres outside of Oaxaca, we encountered a roadblock. Since the new year, Mexicans have been protesting the 20% increase in the cost of gasoline when President Peña Nieto removed government subsidies and privatized the oil industry. Roadblocks are part of the protests. We were delayed for almost two hours, so the traffic piled up. Then, when the blockade was removed, the situation became chaotic. Fortunately we were at the head of the line and had an excellent bus driver; in addition, one of the passengers actually helped direct traffic so we were finally able to cross a dirt patch and take an alternate route. Because frustrated drivers became unruly, the situation was potentially dangerous, but all the people on the bus remained calm and waited patiently until we were back on the road.

Oaxaca is a very beautiful city and much smaller than Puebla. Its historic centre was also declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1987. Here you will find one of the  most magnificent churches in Mexico, the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán.


Inside, the stunning altarpiece and Rosario chapel are examples of Spanish Baroque style.    2b91074f0381918be47d7e7c65b89531All the goldleaf made me wonder how many Mexicans went hungry while money was poured into the construction of this church over a period of 200 years, from the 16th to 18th century. I don’t think Pope Francis would have approved.

Beside the Templo there is a fascinating museum worth visiting, the Santo Domingo Cultural Centre. As reported by Wikipedia, “This museum includes an important collection of pre-Columban artefacts, among them the contents of Tomb 7 from the nearby Zapotec site of Monte Albán. The former monastery garden is now an ethnobotanical garden, containing a large collection of plants native to the region.” I especially enjoyed a peaceful walk through the garden which features a wonderful variety of cacti. oaxaca_entorno_07_v_800

There are a number of worthwhile side trips from Oaxaca, including the Zapotec pyramids at Monte Albán and Mitla, but I’ve been there before. I’m afraid you can actually become jaded when it comes to visiting pyramids in Mexico; there are just so many! Every time digging commences on a new development, yet another archeological site is discovered.

In the historic centre there are numerous shops and restaurants selling Oaxaca handicrafts and their vibrantly coloured handmade rugs. zapotec-native-art_sidewalk-art-fair1You will also find very pretty embroidered tops and hand-painted figurines.





However, my favourite shop remains the wonderful bookstore Amate, which has an enticing collection of English language books on Mexican culture and history.

Having visited Oaxaca on several occasions, this time my husband and I opted to stay in Colonia Reforma, a modern middle-class neighbourhood north of the historic centre. We were able to rent a small bungalow in a complex on a quiet side street and are enjoying our stay here even if the ambiance isn’t Spanish colonial. Actually, it’s more fun to mix with the locals than the other tourists. This area also has many restaurants and shops and there is even a bus that goes directly to the centre that costs all of 7 pesos.

Usually I walk to the centre, which takes about half an hour. I enjoy taking in the colonial architecture and the various shops along the way. Perhaps it is symptomatic of how things have changed because the house where D.H. Lawrence stayed when he lived in Oaxaca is now an outlet for Yves Rocher, a highly successful line of French cosmetics produced in Mexico.

Next week we leave for the Pacific coast, and I look forward to it. Although the temperature is perfect in Oaxaca, ranging from 27 C during the day to 9 C at night, the city is 5,000 feet above sea level and I find myself experiencing a mild form of altitude sickness. The effects include strange dreams, lack of appetite, occasional headaches and fatigue. It’s the feeling of lethargy that annoys me the most as I would like to feel more energetic. But I can still read and write.



At Home in Puebla

When my husband and I visit Mexico, rather than stay in the monstrous metropolis that is Mexico City, we usually go to Puebla, which is only two and half hours away by bus and relatively peaceful, but it too has expanded considerably since we first visited it some twenty years ago. You can easily get there by bus, and if you sit on the righthand side, you can see the famous volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl that figure in Malcolm Lowry’s modernist masterpiece, Under the Volcano.


The city of Puebla has a fascinating history. It was founded in 1531 to encourage Spanish settlers in the New World, but it is also where the Mexican army defeated the French in 1862 and the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution, 1910-20. Due to its colonial history and architecture, the area around the Zócalo, or main square, was declared a world heritage site in 1987. I first visited Puebla in the late 1990s when I attended a conference at La Universidad de las Américas. I immediately fell in love with this charming city and have returned almost every year for a short visit. I always stay in the historic centre at the Hotel Colonial, my home in Puebla.


The Hotel Colonial was originally a Jesuit monastery built at the end of the 17th century. By the end of the 18th century, the building was used to accommodate travellers from Veracruz on their way to Mexico City. In the middle of the 19th century, it became the Hotel Jardín; then in 1930 it underwent a restoration and became the Hotel Colonial.

The hotel is also known for its restaurant where they serve Mole Poblano, a traditional Mexican dish consisting of chicken smothered in chocolate sauce. mole Many people don’t know that chocolate is indigenous to Mesoamerica. Mole is not sweet; rather it is delicately spiced with chili peppers. Puebla itself is known as a culinary centre, so you will find many excellent restaurants to choose from. My favourite is El Mural, which is on the other side of the Cathedral pictured below.

8142344765_c7df076d5a_bThere are a number of interesting museums in Puebla, but the top one is undoubtedly the recently renovated Amparo Museum, which features a stunning collection of pre-Columbian art and a roof-top café with an excellent view of Puebla and the surrounding mountains. 2612699844_ac05ec8650_bBesides the Amparo, I would recommend the Regional Museum of the Mexican Revolution, a converted house where the first shot of the revolution was fired. You can still see the bullet holes in the wall.

Another fantastic site not to be missed is the Palafoxian Library. Founded in 1646, it was the first public library in Mexico and may be the oldest in the Americas. Not only is the collection intact, all the shelves and furniture are original. 245px-biblioteca_palafoxiana_de_puebla


Puebla is also famous for Talavera, a type of ceramic that has been produced for over four hundred years.


Many years ago my husband and I bought a genuine Talavera urn to decorate our living room. We also have hand-painted dishes, but these are copies that we purchased in Dolores.

Last but not least there is a bustling antique market and many fine shops to wander through if you should visit Puebla. These are just the highlights.


I Prefer Mexico

As much as I enjoyed my sojourn in Cuenca, Ecuador, there was one serious drawback: the altitude. Cuenca is located in the Andes, some 8,300 feet above sea level, so it is not unusual for visitors to experience altitude sickness. While I did not pass out or throw up, I did experience shortness of breath, lack of appetite and fatigue as well as some dizziness and mental confusion. Altitude sickness can also result in strange dreams and I must say, I had my share, many about feeling constricted. It’s interesting how one’s consciousness can express a body sensation in narrative terms; for example, a dream of being confined in a physical space. It’s a bit frightening, but the fear may be a prompt to move out of that space.

However, there can be a few benefits to living at a high altitude if it doesn’t affect you too adversely. For one thing, it’s a good way to lose weight. Because digestion is slowed, you feel full before finishing your meal. Consequently, you will not find many obese people at this altitude.

After a few weeks, I felt the symptoms subside. Unfortunately that didn’t last. I recently read that it can takes months, even years to adjust. Overall, I felt like I was being held down by an invisible weight, so it was a relief to fly north to Mexico — to the southern Pacific coast — and be back at sea level.

During winter months, the weather is almost perfect: sunny and hot. This year there has been some rain during the dry season, and this is blamed on El Nino.

From my terrace I could see the mesmerizing Pacific Ocean. Image result for condos tortugas puerto escondido In between, there is lush tropical vegetation and beautiful flowers such as bougainvillea and hibiscus  as well as numerous cacti.  Even the birds are exceptionally pretty — a few tiny hummingbirds, yellow finches, swallows and turtledoves, not to mention the grackles. The occasional iguana can also be spotted.

Although it sounds like bliss, soon after my arrival, I came down with a dreadful chest cold that I first blamed on the AC but later came to believe was caused by an allergy as the irritation persisted. Once that cleared up, I decided to see the local dentist and have some ancient fillings replaced. One had already fractured. But the cost of dental work is less than one third what it is at home and the work is good quality. My dentist spent an hour cleaning my teeth to the tune of 50 CDN.

The food in Mexico is also excellent. There are many affordable restaurants in my neighbourhood, the cost of which hardly makes it worth cooking, but there is also a large covered outdoor market and a huge supermarket, both of which are relatively inexpensive. The fresh fruits available are a wonder to behold and delicious to consume.

So despite the inevitable intrusions of reality, I much prefer the enchantment of Mexico and plan to return next winter.

Enchantment may be a cliché, but Mexico does have its magic. This is a country of extreme contrasts and often chaotic. It might even be described as a land of dreams and illusions. The beauty of Mexico is undeniable, but so are the dangers. Thankfully there are still some safe havens.



Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels

One would expect Penelope Fitzgerald to have enjoyed a privileged life. Her father was an editor at Punch and her mother was one of the first women to attend Oxford University. Penelope also attended Oxford and before graduating in 1938 she was named woman of the year in the student newspaper, Isis. She then went on to work at the BBC and soon married; however, her marriage turned out to be a difficult one. Her husband returned from the war a changed man: recognized as a war hero, he had also become an alcoholic. Life was not easy for Fitzgerald, yet she carried on.

Fitzgerald was 58 when she published her first book, a biography of the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Burney-Jones. Her first novel, The Golden Child, was written to amuse her sick husband, who died in 1976. Fitzgerald continued writing. Julian Barnes, in his tribute to Fitzgerald, who died in 2000, nicely sums up her writing career:

In the period 1975-84 she published two more biographies and four more novels. Those four novels are all short, and written close to her own experiences: of running a bookshop, living on a houseboat, working for the BBC in wartime, teaching at a stage school. They are adroit, odd, highly pleasurable, but modest in ambition. And with almost any other writer you might think that, having used up her own life, she would – being now in her late 60s – have called it a day. On the contrary: over the next decade, from 1986 to 1995, she published the four novels – Innocence, The Beginning of Spring, The Gate of Angels and The Blue Flower – by which she will be remembered. They are written far from her obvious life, being set, respectively, in 1950s Florence, pre-revolutionary Moscow, Cambridge in 1912, and late 18th-century Prussia. Many writers start by inventing away from their lives, and then, when their material runs out, turn back to more familiar sources. Fitzgerald did the opposite, and by writing away from her own life liberated herself into greatness.

In 1979 Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize for Offshore. Her 1990 novel The Gate of Angels was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Fitzgerald’s novels may be short, but they reward close reading; she eliminates all she believes unnecessary. “I always feel the reader is very insulted by being told too much,” she said. But, as Barnes notes, “it is more than just a taste for economy. It is the art of using fact and detail so that it becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

In an article in Departures, Jo Durden-Smith reports that she asked Penelope Fitzgerald what she needed to have before she could start writing. Fitzgerald answered succinctly: “A title, the first paragraph, and the last paragraph.”

The title The Gate of Angels relates to the novel in a number of ways. Besides referring to the actual gate of the fictitious Cambridge college of St Angelicus (we soon learn that the college was once a religious institution but is now one of science), it is crucial in terms of the religious significance of the ending. It also alludes to one of the main characters, Daisy, who is only introduced in Part 2, but who is clearly an angel of sorts. Not only does she train as a nurse and minister to the sick, her behaviour comes to suggest the 19th century domestic ideal of the “angel in the house.” Fitzgerald’s insights into the situation of women at the beginning of the 20th century are realistic. As critics have noted, she does her research.
In an article published in the journal of Literature and Religion in 2013, Christopher J. Knight adds a fascinating footnote in which he says that Fitzgerald originally wanted to use the title The Unobservables, a reference to both science and religion. (This title preceded the dreadful Mistakes Scientists Have Made — which was suggested by the publisher but dropped because it didn’t fit on the title page!) Knight argues that Fitzgerald believed that science and religion need not cancel each other out but can coexist sympathetically. As the original title more clearly suggests, Fitzgerald’s novel is not simply a romance but also a novel of ideas.
The opening paragraph is striking. I found it quite hilarious and was impressed that Fitzgerald could maintain that level of wit throughout the first part.

How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouses. On the open ground to the left the willow-tress had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason.

Considering the importance of the opening paragraph, one can see that the world is being turned upside down, signalling a time of major change. The wind represents invisible forces and brings to mind the winds of change. I thought about this in relation to the emphasis on what is observable. Of course, the effects of the wind are visible here with the cows on their backs and their legs in the air, somewhat sexually suggestive. Yet, traditionally the wind has an association with the holy spirit, so there is the possibility of a spiritual or religious dimension at work as well. While the larger debate the novel encompasses is between science and religion, Fitzgerald cleverly presents that debate as between the seen and the unseen, which complicates the scientific perspective since there is much in physics, in particular, that can’t be seen, at least not by the naked eye.
When I read the opening paragraph, I couldn’t help thinking of another novel that begins with a violent storm. In Leaf Storm, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the master of the magic realism, begins with a storm to herald change, in this case the destructive force of capitalist development in Columbia. On her part, Fitzgerald may also be alluding to the forces of destruction about to be unleashed by the Great War.
There is also a strong element of the absurd, or whimsical irony in Fitzgerald’s opening. The college, we learn, still disallows the fellows to marry (not to mention that women are not admitted here). This is what gives rise to the narrative conflict, as the main character, Fred Fairly, a fellow at the college, accidentally bumps into Daisy, which sparks their romance. Barnes likens the chance meeting between Fred and Daisy to particles in collision. There may be other forces at work as well.

In his review of Hermione Lee’s biography of Fitzgerald, Alan Hollinghurst writes:

“Must I explain this?” [Fitzgerald] asks herself of Daisy’s religious faith in The Gate of Angels. For the unexplained in Fitzgerald is sometimes the inexplicable, and anyone who reads all her novels will be struck by the recurrence of the uncanny, from the raucously restless poltergeist in The Bookshop to the nocturnal vision in the Russian birch woods in The Beginning of Spring, to the miracle at the close of The Gate of Angels, which is in fact the opening of a never-opened gate. How this happened she will not say, but there is no doubt that she believes it did.

The history of the fictitious college is also relevant in relation to the title and the ending. Fitzgerald mentions that the gate to the college only opened on two other occasions. Well, at the very end of the novel it opens for the third time — a miracle, and one that made it possible for Daisy to be on the road just as Fred was returning to the college. Must we be told what that means?

Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a strange novel. It’s not the first Haruki Murakami novel I’ve read; a year or so ago I read IQ84, which was also strange, but not extraordinary in the sense that Roberto Bolano’s 2666 is extraordinary. Prior to its translation into English, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was initially published in three volumes in 1994-95, but in Japan. It appeared in English in the US in 1997. In his interview with the Paris Review, Murakami comments on the novel’s strangeness: “During the four years of writing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I was living in the U.S. as a stranger. That ‘strangeness’ was always following me like a shadow and it did the same to the protagonist of the novel.” Murakami was also influenced by a number of American writers. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Murakami casts a spell on his readers. He introduces us into the quotidian world of a Tokyo suburb, but what ensues draws us into another world, one that seems familiar but quickly becomes increasingly strange. Perhaps a better way to describe the novel is to say it’s uncanny.

Murakami is an extremely popular writer, with sales in the millions worldwide. As reported by John Wray in the Paris Review, No. 182,

Internationally, Murakami is now the most widely-read Japanese novelist of his generation; he has won virtually every prize Japan has to offer, including its greatest, the Yomiuri Literary Prize. He is also an extremely active translator, having brought writers as diverse as Raymond Carver, Tim O’Brien, and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Japanese readers, many of them for the first time.

As an experimental writer, Murakami is hard to place. Wray notes that

His greatest novels inhabit the liminal zone between realism and fable, whodunit and science fiction….

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is often referred to as a detective novel, but I think that to say it is also science fiction veers off course. It would be more appropriate to call it magical realism, as Murakami embraces realism and the supernatural.

The novel begins with the disappearance of a cat. The protagonist and narrator, Toru Okada, is a young man who has recently lost his job, so he now spends his days grocery shopping, and cooking and cleaning for his wife, who supports them. Moreover, it’s her cat. After receiving a mysterious phone call with a message instructing Toru on how to find the cat, he climbs over the wall behind his house to search the alley, which is inexplicably blocked at each end. On one side is a vacant house. Apparently bad things have happened to the people who lived there. One could say it’s a haunted house.

While searching the alley, Toru meets a young woman, May Kasahara, a high school dropout who spends her time sunning herself in the backyard across from the abandoned house. She is a Lolita-like figure although Toru does not become sexually obsessed with her; rather she becomes his neighbourhood buddy. Prompted by the mechanical cries of an unseen bird, May calls Toru Mr. Wind-Up Bird. The novel is after all a chronicle of Toru’s uncanny experiences and the bird’s cries ominously call attention to those experiences

Soon Toru’s wife also disappears and naturally, he is determined to find her. More strange messages are received as well as unusual visitors, mostly women, some of whom are psychics.

My protagonist is almost always caught between the spiritual world and the real world. In the spiritual world, the women—or men—are quiet, intelligent, modest. Wise. In the realistic world … the women are very active, comic, positive. They have a sense of humor. The protagonist’s mind is split between these totally different worlds and he cannot choose which to take. I think that’s one of the main motifs in my work. It’s very apparent in Hard-Boiled Wonderland.

In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the protagonist is advised on when to be active and when to be passive by Mr. Honda, a channeler and acquaintance of Toru’s father-in-law whom the couple are obliged to visit monthly. Mr. Honda also advises Toru on his job search.

“Legal work might be the wrong thing for you, sonny,” said Mr. Honda one day….

“It might?”

“Yep, it might. The law presides over things of this world, finally. The world where shadow is shadow and light is light, yin is yin and yang is yang, I’m me and he’s him. ‘I am me/He is him:/Autumn eve.’ But you don’t belong to that world, sonny. The world you belong to is above that or below that.”

“Which is better?” I asked, out of simple curiosity. “Above or below?”

“It’s not that either one is better,” he said…. “It’s not a question of better or worse. The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you’re supposed to go up and down when you’re supposed to go down. When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there’s no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness. ‘I am he and/He is me”/Spring nightfall.’ Abandon the self, and there you are.” (51)

Toru tries to follow this advice, but it becomes increasing difficult to distinguish between reality and dreams. Dreams, in fact, become lived experiences. Possibly inspired by Doris Lessing’s Memoir of a Survivor, we find that Murakami’s protagonist is also able to project himself through walls, but into situations that have real consequences.

As I suggested earlier, Murakami is heavily indebted to Hawthorne, in particular his short story entitled “The Birthmark.” After deciding to descend into the dry well behind the abandoned house, Toru undergoes a transformational experience and finds himself left with a mark in the shape of a tiny hand on his cheek. Much later, he discovers that he has become a healer.

Commenting on Murakami’s influences, in his New York Times 1997 book review, Jamie James comments:

Parts of ”The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” have the bluntness of Hemingway, and the characters frequently speak to each other in noirish riddles. Yet the novel’s biggest debt is to Kafka, whose influence may have filtered down to Murakami by way of Kobo Abe, Murakami’s great category-smashing predecessor. The pervasive atmosphere of alienation in Murakami’s work bears a much closer affinity to the waking dreams of the German Jew in Prague than it does to the belligerent angst of the American Gen-Xers.

A Japanese Kafka? Quite possibly as one of his later novels is entitled Kafka on the Shore. Somewhat like Kafka’s K, Toru’s experiences are not all positive. One thread involving his cold-hearted brother-in-law leads to the uncovering of political corruption and tales of brutal rape. A background story of Japan’s involvement in Manchuria during WWII also takes on a prominent role and contains scenes of shocking violence and cruelty. Murakami weaves together all these mysterious and varied threads, creating a strong impression of modern Japan and its buried traumas. Not all is black — as the cat does come back. Rather than include too many spoilers, let’s just say this is postmodern fiction at its best.