Books: September-October 2003

October 1, 2003
Hunting Midnight
By Richard Zimler '77.
Delacorte Press, 2003.
512 pages. $24.95.
Last of the Amazons
By Steven Pressfield '65.
Bantam Dell Publishing Group, 2003.
416 pages. $13.95, paper.

Hunting Midnight unting Midnight is the story of "a Portuguese-Scottish Jew who was raised in an atheist household believing he was a Christian by birth and whose most beloved friend was an African Bushman." Phew. Spanning the years 1798 to 1825 and set mostly in Portugal and the United States, this novel would be dubbed a bildungsroman, were it not that the narrator sounds pretty much the same at seven years old as he does at thirty-five.

At all ages that narrator, one John Zarco Stewart, can be melodramatic, cryptic, long-winded, even maudlin: "I had yet to learn that we do not always receive keys to the rooms we inherit," explains the ten-year-old. "Now I would have to grope forward into a future that was never meant to be," he reports at eleven. "In great danger of fainting, I risked everything by pressing my lips to hers," at twenty-one, and so on.

We put up with him to find out what happens next. Indeed, he is forever pressing his lips, endeavoring to find meaning, having many a dream, or finding himself at the mercy of his emotions. This habit of diction may be an attempt to sound authentic (Did people really talk that way?), but it can cloy. Zimler is not a stylist but a raconteur.

A pretty good raconteur, in fact. The story rolls along with its own telos, and even John's goody-goody pontifications--he's a moralist, not a thinker--sidetrack it only briefly.

The novel falls neatly into twin halves. In the first part, John comes of age as a secret Jew in a barely post-Inquisition Portugal. He encounters and comes to love the title character, known as Tsamma in Africa, Midnight in Europe, and Samuel in the U.S. This Bushman healer and hunter, wise beyond his years, has been stolen and freed from his master in southern Africa by John's father. On his arrival in Europe, Midnight disconcerts his hostess with a traditional Bush greeting: "Good day, Mrs. Stewart. We saw you from afar and are dying of hunger." This hyperbole recurs throughout the narrative, each time gaining sweetness and depth from its context.

John goes on to witness the sad decay of his parents' marriage. To his dismay--and ours--Midnight subsequently disappears for nineteen years and 300 pages, sold back into slavery, as it turns out, by John's father, whom he has cuckolded. The second half of the book, after his father's death, concerns itself with John's long search to recover and liberate Midnight from an American plantation.

On all continents, John Stewart is a stranger in a strange land, comfortably wealthy and white but spiritually ill-equipped. His quest for Midnight is not only an effort to right a wrong and forgive a betrayal but also a search for personal wholeness.

If this were primarily a historical epic, as the jacket asserts, the characters would be as obsessed with current events as they are with one another, and they would be presented as either more fully representative of their time or more clearly silhouetted against a historical backdrop. True, historical events intrude half-heartedly here and there, as when Napoleon invades Portugal--primarily to create a way for the narrator's father to die defending his city.

Neither is the book quite at ease as romantic psychodrama, though it offers interesting and unexpected hints, for example, in the parallels between John's mother--a Portuguese Jewess who was raped by her piano teacher and who takes an African as her lover--and John's true love, Violeta, who is raped by her uncle and becomes a New York prostitute. But it's Midnight who animates the book and gives it a soul. "Africa is memory," he tells John. He does not mean he misses it; he means it is a physical landscape that gives substance to the memory of the human race, an objective correlative for the Spiritus Mundi. Africa is the home of love and fear. Decades later, he names his only child Memoria. "You might lose yourself if you say no to the night inside you too often," he teaches her. (Only the most finicky reader would point out that Midnight himself seems to have said "yes" once too often.) As John is advised by another black friend, "You eat the night, child. Eat the night deep inside you."

Writing Midnight's powerful descriptions of nature, Bush religion, and slavery must have been hard, gratifying work. Enslavement, Midnight explains, is like being given a stone every day by your owner. First you fill your pockets, then, stone by stone, with nowhere else to put them, your mouth, your belly. One day your spirit lies down, sickened and overcome with heaviness, and as more stones accumulate and you can eat no more, you are slowly buried alive.

His daughter puts it more simply: "Just for once I wished I had the power to say no. When I got the right to say that one simple word up North, I didn't know if I was ever going to say yes to anything ever again."

Midnight is said to look like Pan: No wonder his evocative pantheism is catching, finally providing the clues that will help John sort out his tangled roots. "Genesis and Exodus are taking place inside us all at this very moment," says John at last. "Even Christ's Passion." And he reminds us that he carries Midnight's god, Mantis, between his toes.

Yet religion is secondary in the end. The burning themes to which the plot repeatedly returns are those of memory and betrayal. When Memoria--Morri--refuses to leave the wounded John behind during her escape from the plantation, she tells her friends, "He may be a white man, but he's got a memory." That redeems him--and her. Africa is memory, Morri is memory, and John seeks to heal memory by hunting Midnight. One thinks of Carlos Fuentes' great line, "Memory is desire satisfied."

As Midnight/Tsamma/Samuel grapples with the fact of slavery, he writes, "I can see now the nature of this evil.... It is a forgetfulness of all the stories of the world." Says Morri when they finally reach New York, "Everything had always been waiting."

Thus it is that John himself so determinedly preserves his own story. Granted, he might have preserved less of it: An appropriately ruthless revision could have transformed an entertaining 500-page novel into a gripping 300-page novel. One feels guilty for mentioning that only in the postscript is John at last reunited with Midnight; but you must understand, we had seen him from afar and were dying of hunger.

 


Last of the AmazonsThe most difficult aspect of writing historical fiction is maintaining the balance between the overarching perspective of the historical period and the delicate details of the characters' lives. Too often characters get lost amid the guns, battles, and various political changes that swirl about them, and the reader gets lost as well. Without an emotional core, these types of books collapse under endless paragraphs of historical minutia. A delicate touch is required, and Steven Pressfield's newest novel Last of the Amazons pulls off the feat.

The story of the Amazons is a staple of Greek mythology. A band of all-female warriors, they were renowned for their ferocious and merciless behavior on the battlefield. Many men tried to "tame" them only to end up dead, their scalps hanging from the belts of the Amazons, symbols of the women's indefatigable fight against male domination. Perhaps the best-known story concerning these female warriors is the myth of Theseus and Antiope, Queen of the Amazons (in some versions Hippolyta takes the place of Antiope). Finding themselves shipwrecked, Theseus and his crew soon discover they have landed in the Amazon port of Mound City. In his travels, Theseus had hoped to bypass these warriors, but fate would have it differently. He and his men are stunned when they first encounter these women: "As a domestic dog looks a certain way and acts a certain way and yields in a certain way to a man, so does the race of domesticated women look and act and yield. These females, the ones before us now, were as wolves to such dogs. They were wild.... One felt as he might coming face-to-face with a she-bear or a lioness."

What follows is, as they say, the stuff of legend. The Athenians and Amazons band together to defeat a gang of marauders, Theseus and Antiope fall in love, he spirits her back to Athens, a humiliated Amazon nation marches to Athens, and a horrific battle ensues.

Told in flashbacks, Last of the Amazons alternates between two stories. One concerns the hunt for an Athenian girl, Europa, who has run off with her Amazon governess, Selene. During the search for Europa, the story of the great battle between the Athenians and the Amazons is told by alternating voices, that of Selene and Damon. Damon is Europa's uncle and a sympathizer with the Amazon's cause. He was also Selene's lover. The search for Europa becomes ultimately a quest into the past, a journey to uncover the last remnants of a once glorious civilization.

Damon and Selene provide the emotional center of the novel, and Last of the Amazons is at its strongest when focusing on their story. Amid the contentiousness of the Athenian and Amazon camps, these two find love. Yet they also embody the conflict inherent in contrasting cultures: matriarchal versus patriarchal and rural versus urban. While not exactly the caliber of Romeo and Juliet, Damon and Selene provide the perfect counterweight to the mythic story of Theseus and Antiope. Damon and Selene are not the stuff of legend; they are the stuff of everyday life. Their struggles between allegiance to country and loyalty to heart resonate through all time periods and lend Last of the Amazons its strongest moments.

But this work should not be confused with Bridget Jones's Diary or the latest Danielle Steel novel. This is not "chick-lit." Admirers of Pressfield's earlier books, especially Tides of War and Gates of Fire, will be happy to know that the driving force behind this book remains its battle sequences. The tension and anticipation of battle are perfectly rendered: "They bitched and spat and hammered each other's leather tight to their shoulders; men bound each other's shins and passed the whetstone down the line." Warriors are impaled, limbs are hacked off, boiling tar is poured on foes--the atrocities of war expertly delineated.

Pressfield, though, does have a tendency to be too enthusiastic in his description of the fighting: "His head bowled rearward like a field ball, wide-eyed and gushing marrow at the base, and quashed on the stone with the sound of a dropped melon." This reviewer can do without these grisly details.

Last of the Amazons suffers most when it strives for the mythic. The writing can get bogged down in its pseudo-Homeric style, and there are moments when the dialogue goes from descriptive to overblown: A dead body is described as a "life-fled form"; when Europa has her first period, she tells her sister, "I bleed woman's blood." At moments like these, when Pressfield tries to bring an epic tone to his story, the writing becomes clumsy and overdone. He is at his best when describing the simple act of an Amazon preparing her horse for battle or the conflict between head and heart.

But these lapses can be forgiven. Pressfield weaves an engaging and compelling story, bringing an unusual perspective to a well-known tale.