06 October 2009

Which Having Been Must Ever Be

Why do we pick books to read? Why? What goes into that decision. It's such a big one. You've got the "favorite author" option, the no-brainer, the one you don't hesitate for at all. Like, I picked up somewhere, I don't remember where, that Philip Roth has a new book out in November. Can't wait. Then there are reviews in the Times, Post, NY Review, New Republic (for me. You may have your own sources.) And then there's the displays--wherever you go shop for books. Strand. Barnes and Noble. Community Book Store. This is, arguably, the most shallow, but sometimes it works--how it's "presented" or "marketed." The color. The graphics. The blurb. The first paragraphs and the last (n.b. Mom always reads the end of a book before she buys it. I love that about her.)

Anyhow, inexplicably, I found myself confidently buying Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains, a remarakble story about a man from Burundi who escapes to America to build his life after the genocide between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda (and Burundi).

For me a sign of a great book is what happens that you both expect and don't expect. So I expected great writing; great reporting; but I didn't expect to be transported, during Sukkot, to a new moral reckoning of the refugee, to be given a window into the soul of a man who suffered a great blast of immorality and triumphed, inexplicably. During Sukkot, I found myself being given new insights into homelessness and despite no assurances of a roof over one's head, of the necessity for a moral light, a guiding principle of narrative and law and justice that animates the soul. I found myself thinking of Jewish book groups reading Kidder's prose in Sukkahs throughout the Land, the Clarion Call, as it were, of what it means to be Refugee.

I should have known.

Kidder served in Vietnam--between Harvard and the writing program at the University of Iowa. There is an uncompromising and honest realism that informs his writing that I deeply admire. And I have to admit--in our sick and brutal world, with so many U.S. soldiers having died this past week in Afghanistan--that my respect for his decision to serve our country is a manifestation of commitment that is, frankly, missing from a lot of "experts" today.

Kidder opens his book with a Wordsworth poem, important to consider in so many ways:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through deah,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

--William Wordsworth, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood"

Today I went to visit an elderly man--90 years old--at Mt Sinai Hospital. He has a broken hip and is in recovery. We talked about books and shared our love for non-fiction. When I showed him Kidder's book, the title turned him off. It seemed too spiritual at first glance. "That's just the marketing," I told him. "It's actually about genocide, and recovery."

He was intrigued. Precisely at the moment that a nurse came to ask him about his health and a physical therapist came to get him to walk.

Just to walk:

"We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering."

A Tutsi in a book. An old Jew in a wheelchair. On Sukkot. Conjoined, as one, like the Etrog and the Lulav, beneath the Sukkah.

Is it just too much to write that the name of the character in Kidder's book is Deogratias--"thank God?"

For freedom? On Sukkkot?

"In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be."

What he said.

1 comment:

hg said...

a beautiful and thoughtful post, andy. thanks for providing me with today's morning meditation.
holly gewandter