My Brilliant Friend

Book cover showing a bride and groom from behind, walking towards the sea

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions 2013

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is the first of a trilogy about a pair of friends living in Naples in the second half of the 20th century. My Brilliant Friend covers the youth and adolescence of the pair, Elena and Lila, and various other characters from their neighborhood who slide in and out of their lives, at times as enemies, at times as lovers.

Readers of Days of Abandonment will be familiar with the psychological brutality of the narrator. Here it seems the natural offshoot of a violent childhood. “We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died.” After delivering a litany of ways she knew people to die or be injured, she reveals how deeply these dangers affected her as a writer. Words themselves became representative of danger.

“Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.”

Elena’s rightness in fearing her world is proven time and again throughout the book. Young Lila’s appearance is defined by her various cuts and scrapes and lack of proper nourishment. There’s violence amongst children, but it is neither viewed shallowly nor given artificial deepness. The children themselves do not know why they are hurting one another; they stand and throw stones at one another until blood is drawn and then want to pair off as boyfriend and girlfriend the next day.

As they grow older, the threat of violence remains, but its form changes. Lila learns from a friend the words ‘Fascist’ and ‘Nazi’. Suddenly everything in the neighborhood has new meanings. Where did the grocer get the money to invest in his business? Why can this family afford a car when others cannot? What did our parents do in the ‘before’, the time that no one talks about?

Puberty introduces new forms of violence as well. As with the rest of her life, this violence is also dictated by economics. Elena’s first experience with sex is when a boy pays her to see her newly-formed breasts. Her second is when a pair of brothers buy a flashy new car and, one day, force a neighborhood girl into it. They drop her back off in the neighborhood a few hours later.

“‘You know why the Solara brothers think they’re the masters of the neighborhood?’”, Lila asks Elena.

“‘Because they’re aggressive.’

‘No, because they have money.’”

And why did they choose that particular girl as a victim? Because she “‘doesn’t have a father, her brother Antonio counts for nothing, and she helps [her mother] clean the stairs of the buildings.’”

This could book could easily become bleak, but Ferrante’s writing never dips into despair and only occasionally into sentimentality. Instead, as her narrator transforms from a child to a young woman, she maintains the naïvities and bewilderment of that age, youth’s acceptance for the world as it is. When the boy pays to see her breasts, his motives are unclear so she has trouble assessing how she should feel towards him. The grown Elena, who is recording all of these events, does not editorialize and allows the reader to make her own judgement.

The unflinching portrayal of youth is what make this book a true masterpiece. At the core of this portrayal is, obviously, the friendship between Elena and Lila. Ferrante acknowledges the truth that childhood friendships are rarely based on the qualities we associate with ‘friends’. ‘Amicable’ comes from the same Latin root as ‘friend’, as witnessed by the Italian ‘amica’, part of the book’s native title. But childhood friends are not amicable. They are jealous, violent, fearful, generous, shameful, serendipitous. While staying true to the central characterizations, Ferrante manages to show the friendship as a microcosm of the world at large, showing how all of these adjectives apply too to Italy itself. We live in a world, she suggests, that has not lost the cruelties of youth, but has lost the idealism.

 

 

Paprika: the rapey novel, not the spice

TLDR; conceptually interesting, but those concepts are not realized until the second half. Also, major trigger warning.

Paprika, a novel by prolific Japanese sci-fi author Yasutaka Tsutsui, is about the invention of a device to access others’ dreams. The protagonists and villains are doctors who work on psychological disorders at a cutting-edge clinic. Using the new device, they can watch a patient’s dreams and help diagnose and cure the patient’s neuroses. Of course, someone quickly realizes the power that one could wield with such a tool, as well as the fun sexual uses it could be put to, and thus conflict is introduced.

The book begins when workers at the clinic who had access to the device begin to suddenly go mad. The cause of the madness seems like it is intended to be a mystery, but the writing quickly ruins any suspense. Within a few pages a certain doctor Osanai is behaving so shadily that the reader instantly knows he is responsible for the attacks. The protagonists, meanwhile, wonder about it for another 100 pages or so while the reader has ceased to care. All potential points of interest are dismissed in this fashion. Why is this other fellow acting so villainous? No use wondering for long, because soon someone remembers his entire backstory in one quick paragraph, tidily handing him a motive. When a powerful, new version of the device, the DC Mini, goes missing and the characters urgently need to find it, they muse about where it is but don’t actively search for it. No need; when the time is right one of them just finds it in a pocket where they had placed it and forgotten it.

It’s a shame that a book about the amazing ability to enter another person’s dreams spends over half of its text with mysteries that never have a chance to be mysterious and boring anxieties about who is offending whom in the Japanese workplace. The second half finally indulges in the possibilities the technology offers. Part 2 opens with the history of a strange European sex cult and then launches into a long series of chases through nightmares, with all of the fantasy and physics-defiance that the reader had long been waiting for. The writing is still shoddy, but there is enough distracting action to make it delightful nonetheless.

There is one aspect to the book that I know some would describe as being independent of its literary merits, but which has a significant impact on whether or not I am able to enjoy a book. I know that I am not the only one in this. This aspect is rape. Rape here, rape there, rape everywhere. The rape in this book is unique in that the violence is not the horrifying aspect; rather, it is written such that the main female character, Dr. Atsuko/Paprika, more often than not semi-consents to the rape, as paradoxical as that sounds. In one instance, she even insists that she needs to be raped to save her life. Discussing this with others, we could not decide if literally asking for rape even qualified as rape anymore, but that’s how it is described within the novel. The book devolves into hentai on more occasions than the narrative requires and if I wasn’t reading it for review I would have stopped at the first disgusting ecchi-fanboy moment. And that’s not even getting into the other questionable decisions the author made in regards to how he portrays Dr. Atsuko, such as the fact that despite being a Nobel-nominated scientist, all people care about is her vagina and how she looks.

Despite my reservations about this novel, I know there are several people out there who would enjoy it, like people who read Palhaunik for his edginess. The chase scenes are fun, the science is fantastic, but the book is horribly, horribly flawed.