Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Fathers and Husbands

A Distant Father, Antonio Skarmeta

I Must Be the Wind, Moon Chung-hee

This illustration is "The Death of Adam," from Piero Della Francesca's great fresco on the Western wall of San Francesco Church in Arezzo. There are three narratives here, and, following the model of most medieval story telling, they are juxtaposed within the flattened picture plane of this single image. On the right, seated, is Adam, father of us all, who is sending his son Seth to the Archangel Michael; in the background you can just make out the angelic meeting, while, on the left, the now-deceased Adam is laid to rest, surrounded by his family, some of whom prefer not to wear much clothing--Piero's way of incorporating classical motifs in what is an otherwise sacred picture (see Heinrich Zimmer, The Survival of the Pagan Gods on this convention).  The text that inspired this depiction of Adam's dying--our father, who art of earth--is found in the Golden Legend or Legenda Sanctorum--Lives of the Saints--compiled in the thirteenth century by Jacobus de Voragine. Any reader of Chaucer is familiar with some of this material: the Second Nun's Tale of St. Cecilia (Englished by that genius William Caxton in 1486) and a portion of the Physician's Tale of Virginius (whose roots are ultimately in Roman literature) have connections to the Golden Legend.  The Tree under which Adam was buried provided the wood for the True Cross; it is under this same tree that one finds the opening to hell--this spot is the omphalos of Christian legend.

"And in the end of his life when he [Adam] should die, it is said, but of none authority, that he sent Seth his son into Paradise for to fetch the oil of mercy, where he received certain grains of the fruit of the tree of mercy by an angel. And when he came again he found his father Adam yet alive and told him what he had done. And then Adam laughed first and then died. And then he laid the grains or kernels under his father's tongue and buried him in the vale of Hebron; and out of his mouth grew three trees of the three grains, of which trees the cross that our Lord suffered his passion on was made, by virtue of which he gat very mercy, and was brought out of darkness into very light of heaven. To the which he bring us that liveth and reigneth God, world without end." 

I love the line: "Adam laughed first and then died." And: "...out of his mouth grew three trees..." Fascinating iconography. Here is Christ crucified on the Tree of Life, with the serpent still in residence.This is a confusing reading of Genesis as it was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that tempted Adam (Gen. 3: 22-24); it was to keep Adam and his suggestible companion away from the Tree of Life that our primordial parents were banished from Eden. We need to recall that medieval and Renaissance artists relied as often on legendary texts for their iconography as on Scripture, which is, of course, full of its own ambiguities. (e.g. Gen. 4:17)

This interesting image is from the church of San Petronio in Bologna, painted by Giovanni de Modena, whose work includes several versions of this scene, all conflating origins with redemption--the sacral tree at the center of the drama of creation, fall, and appeasement.

The primal father in the three monotheistic religions (Adam shows up in the Qu'ran not only as the first human being, but as the person who has taught us all we know, the source of civilization and culture--Prometheus--see e.g. Sura II) is an complex figure. Progenitor and renegade; beloved of God and cursed by Him; awarded Paradise and banished to the realm of the fixed stars (in Dante, see Paradiso, Canto 26--the constellation that Adam shares with St. Peter is Gemini, Dante's own), which I take to be a demotion. Catholic theology's mansion has too many rooms, and Adam, who, let's face it, neither asked to be created nor solicited temptation, got a raw deal. But don't fathers always fare poorly in the mythopoetic literature? Perhaps they deserve to be nothing more than fixed stars, eternally rotating to a tune played by God and his Divine Mother (l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle...)


Distant Fathers: is there any other kind?  The heavenly version, to be sure, is the archetype of the earthly--silent, absent, obsessed, it appears, with His own concerns. Mine worked late and took long naps on the couch while, miraculously, smoking a cigarette. Then, as sometimes happens, he disappeared altogether. In Antonio Skarmeta's charming mini-novella (I read it in an hour and a half), the narrator's father goes away unexpectedly--presumably to Paris (he's French, so where else), leaving Jacques and his bereft mother alone in their backwater Chilean village, lost without a man who, given the condensed nature of the narrative, has no real substance.  The mythical father, shortcomings aside, is the very best kind: e.g. attentive and tender Leopold Bloom, childless, father to Stephan Daedalus. Or, from my reading this morning, Philip Roth's portrayal of his father in Patrimony. Skarmeta's Jacques, who is a schoolteacher enamored of the younger sister of one of his pupils, stumbles upon his past on his way to the bordello in a neighboring town. Fictional boys wishing to become fictional men must lose their virginity to a whore who is sexually condescending; does this sort of thing ever happen? My hometown had a YMCA but no bordello (alas). Little more can be said plot-wise without ruining the story--this small tale, a tidy Fathers Day present of a book, an uplifting tale to be stuffed into Dad's backpack as he sets off for the Sports Bar--hinges upon a plot twist worthy of Chaucer. The book is nearly artless, and that is its art. There isn't any psychological complexity to deal with, no mysteries: Jacques seeks his father and....well, he might find him. Antonio Skarmeta wrote the novel and the screenplay for the popular film "The Postman." I didn't see the film but it is easy enough to see that Skarmeta is the sort of writer who could easily write screenplays--A Distant Father would make a nice film.  Skarmeta is not at all your typical Latin American--especially Chilean--writer. He is fond of every character in this book, he works outside the usual political boundaries of Chilean writing, and deploys not an iota of irony in telling a story that is engaging and uplifting. It turns out that the lost father might be found and returned to us without a drop of blood being shed.


As for husbands, those illusive beings who hope that on one day a year they will receive the pampering (breakfast in bed!) no longer their birthright in this fallen world--there is this, by the Korean poet Moon Chung-hee:


Neither father nor brother,
but somewhere between the two,
when a restless love keeps me awake,
I yearn to talk to him, alas,
I can bare everything to him
but this: I spin
in bed
the closest, the farthest man on Earth.
I'm amazed at times what a foe he is,
yet he could be the one
who loves my babies best.
I cook dinner for him.
He, I realize, is the one I shared
most meals with, who taught me
how to fight.

I Must Be the WInd by Moon Chung-hee, translated by ClareYou and Richard Silberg is Volume 19 in the excellent Korean Voices Series, published by White Pine Press in Buffalo--

The good people at Other Press in New York publish Skarmeta's A Distant Father, translated by John Cullen. It's a beautiful book.

George Ovitt (6/17/15)

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