the last taboo? (daughter buffalo)

so this is what i am currently reading. janet frame’s daughter buffalo. it’s been on my list of books to read for a while now, – about ten years ago i “discovered” frame for myself, when i found one of her books (her first, the lagoon and other stories) in the foreign language section of a german bookstore. i devoured the book and decided to read as much of her writing as i could lay hands on.

i did read a bunch of her books, though by far not all of them. i thoroughly enjoyed the lagoon, – a  collection of very short, intensely interesting short stories, – and fell in love with owls do cry and also with scented gardens for the blind (both novels). her short story collection you are now entering the human heart is also good, though (maybe because it was “first contact”?) the lagoon stories still seem the strongest to me. i got swamped with work somewhere during the adaptable man, and also never finished reading her three volume autobiography. i remember reading her poetry collection the pocket mirror and being a little disappointed – i guess her intense, poignant prose is a hard act to follow. her prose, in itself, is very poetic, maybe that’s why.

so now i am reading daughter buffalo. i am noticing more and more that i am getting to the point where, while i can hardly wait to read on, i am also reluctant to read on because it means coming closer and closer to the last page. this happens to me a lot when i read a “good” book. its words and images weave a world around me that i want to stay in just that little bit longer. at times finishing a “good” book can be a real struggle that way – because you know that, while you can of course read it again and again and again, it won’t be the same. no two readings are ever the same. finishing a “good” book is a bit like a tiny death in itself. which takes us right into this novel!

talbot edelman, a NYC medical student specializing in the study of death, unexpectedly finds a friend in a random stranger, turnlung, who is a poet from a different place and also deeply interested in death. they exchange the lessons in death education they have had through their lives so far. they take turns in narrating this novel, independently of each other, so we get to see both sides of the encounter. frame is a fine observer of persons and behaviors, and these two characters are more than interesting. and while you may shudder at the idea of a novel all about “death education” and dying, or may already have decided not to read it, it is not really a gloomy book.

how do we talk about death? do we talk about death? do we have our own words for what we feel when someone dies, or when we talk to someone who has just lost someone? when we talk about those who have passed on, – how do we talk of them, how do we think of them? is death part of life, or apart from life? are we curious about it? are we allowed to be curious about it?

death, probably more so than anything else, is possibly the last taboo of our day. on my way to work and back and during any visit to the newsagent’s i see so much openly advertised and published that – fifteen, twenty years ago, when i was a teenager – would not have been displayed so publicly anywhere. the only thing you cannot find magazines about at that generic newsagent’s is death. there are health magazines, yoga magazines, periodicals on parenting, tattooing, fetishes, growing cannabis, and training your dog, journals for birdwatchers, astrology rags and supernatural magazines, but nothing on death and dying.

are people really not curious? i have to admit that i am. i have been for a long time. and i will also admit that there are questions i ask myself that i have not really dared ask aloud. even simple, technical ones. like, is it true that when people die, in the U.S., they replace the dead person’s blood with some chemical to slow down decomposition? how does that affect the environment? and is it true that, again in the U.S., lots of make-up is applied to the corpse to make the person look, well, less dead? and there are so many other questions. but how, who and when do you ask?

in any case, talbot and turnlung have set out, independently at first, to explore death. they make many interesting observations and have different motivations for wanting to know. i will let turnlung introduce himself (taken from chapter 4):

I said that, to survive, from the moment we are born we must be capable of turning against. Before birth, we are against air, against breathing, yet we survive to breathe and love the air, we become turncoats – turnskins, turneyes, turnmouths, turnhearts, turnlungs. And having known life, we are against death even when all messages from the country of death convince us that our final role must again be that of turncoat, turnheart, turnlung.

but talbot and turnlung are not the only intriguing characters in this novel. we also meet talbot’s dog sally, and a headmistress of a northern school who shares her own death education. different types of death are considered: death in youth, in old age, in sickness, sudden and unexpected deaths, literary deaths, anonymous deaths, deaths in the family, and one’s own personal death. the passage about literary death, to me, was particularly interesting, since it ties in poetry and how literature can serve in mourning by lending to us feelings we might feel we do not have enough of all by ourselves. how do we mourn? how long should we, could we, may we mourn?

this book gives no answers. it gives no recommendations. it piques your curiosity and lets you look right at death where you would usually feel worried people might think you’re staring. it is because of the peculiar character of talbot and because of his detached observations that it becomes ok to be curious – and to maybe learn by proxy. meet talbot. (this is from chapter 1)

I  learned little of [death] in my own home. Our garbage was removed by an automatic disposal unit. Everyone took many baths, drying with thirsty towels which in their turn played the family game by seeming to render invisible all traces of hair, stains of living, dust, sweat. All our happy conversations, our plans lovingly composed together, had no mention of death. In winter, when the snow was deep and the year’s leaves had died and were buried, when only a few creatures – squirrels, cardinals, crows – could be seen, you might have imagined that even we would be tempted or persuaded to surrender ourselves or part of ourselves to the surrounding death-light, […]

Yet each winter we let pass the opportunity to invite death as a rightful guest, without fuss, into our home, and before we knew it the trees had new leaves, the sun melted the iron bars of the winter prison, and death, unfrozen, flew away as a scarlet bird, a golden bee or fly, as if it had never been; and for us, it had not, for us, the sun was like money, always with us and in use.

i am now half-way through this book. i am enjoying it because it deals with an interesting subject in a way i can handle. in a language i understand – the language of experience, image, and poetry. even if i did not know this book was by janet frame, i would have guessed it – the characters, their voices, the detailed observations, all her strengths are there. if you feel up to it, if i have managed to make you at least a little bit curious, go see if your local library has a copy of this book. it’s been published a few times since it first came out in 1972 (i have the flamingo edition from 1993) so should not be too hard to find.

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About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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