Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Book Review by Zinta Aistars
Hardcover: 218 pages
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009
Whatever the form of abuse, wounds take a long time to heal, if ever they do, and the scars remain forever. The work of novelist Agate Nesaule often handles the theme of abuse and its long-term repercussions. In her acclaimed first book, Woman in Amber, Nesaule examines her own experiences of living through World War II and losing her home, Latvia, then becoming an immigrant—a stranger in a new land (the United States), coping with exile.
All wars are the epitome of abuse, but for women, this abuse extends to deeper levels yet, as women historically have been viewed as a kind of “prize” in war—too often, even by their own countrymen. War in all its chaos unleashes the predator in Man, no holds barred, and women as war bounty up for grabs. And so, long after the war has ended, it continues in its aftereffects, leaving women as the walking wounded, susceptible to other forms of abuse—domestic, for instance.
If A Woman in Amber revealed to the reader the emotional and psychological devastation of war and exile for a woman, then Nesaule’s new novel, In Love with Jerzy Kosinski, delves deeper into the psychology of a woman in her life after war. The opening scenes in both books resemble each other, only whereas A Woman in Amber opened on a bedroom scene in which an older couple has made love in true companionship and intimacy, leading to pillow talk of unfolding memories … In Love with Jerzy Kosinski opens on a bedroom scene in which Anna Duja is faking orgasm to please (or appease) her abusive husband. She goes through the motions, makes the obligatory sweet moans, assures her man how “great” he is in bed. He doesn’t have a clue. His ego eats it all up, while she has learned to protect herself in fakery, preserving her own peace. Women, after all, have been taught in a man’s world that she is here to serve, here to please, and should he ever stray—it is her fault.
And so the scene unfolds upon a life of wearing masks in self-protection, even while it is the mask, paradoxically, that holds Anna back from true healing and connection with others. Dishonesty of any kind, even when in self-protection, can never lead to any good. Certainly not to a good relationship. Stanley, Anna’s husband, is portrayed as the typical abusive husband. He is no wife-beater; his abuse comes in more subtle forms—hints of humiliation (she won’t leave if he keeps her feeling unworthy), control over car keys (he maintains control over her ability to move freely), schedules (his needs always come first), friends the couple keeps (his), patronizing insults that eat away at Anna’s self-esteem (his control depends on her submission). It is precisely this type of emotional abuse that can be most poisonous, because outsiders see only a polite and caring, even charming, if somewhat overbearing Stanley. Her friends tell her how lucky she is.
Anna lives in a world of lies, and because she comes from an abusive past, not only the war, but also a father (the original role model for all men) whom she could never please, she allows the degradation to continue while going out of her way to preserve and protect the public image of Stanley as a “great guy.” Anna is the classic enabler. She has connected her own self identity to his. If people knew how Stanley really treated her, in her mind, it was not his shame, not his failure, but hers. Anna represses her feelings in whatever way she can, to survive, but those feelings emerge in other ways, as in, for example, obsessive compulsive housecleaning. It is as if she could clean up the mess that her life has become, but for all the cleanliness and order on the outside, the dirt and chaos on the inside of this relationship cannot be swept away.
Dignity is so important to a man, Anna reminds herself. She does all that she can to suppress her own dignity while protecting the dignity of her man. She sweeps away his copies of Playboy, ignores the evidence of an escalating problem, even as she finds her husband is posting single ads and personals (he waves this away as mere flirtation and tells her she is being “too sensitive”). When for all her efforts, he cheats on her anyway, more than once, she blames herself. She is “not enough.” Even so, her plans to leave Stanley begin to take shape, tugging her away, then back again, tossed about by doubt and guilt.
“How could she go back like that to certain humiliation? …Did she fear or love the man who tormented her, or did guilt and pity keep her chained to him? Why did she not pull herself together and start taking care of herself?”(p. 61)
Meeting other women with similar refugee-immigrant backgrounds, Anna recognizes herself in their “exile eyes.” These are women are exquisitely polite and kind, even flirtatious with the men around them, as if to prove that life is nothing more than a fun game. Their giggles mask their fear and pain.
“They all had exile eyes: eyes that had lost everything and seen the unspeakable but were determined nevertheless to keep looking, eyes that remained wary and disillusioned even during shy smiles and suppressed giggles. Anna had seen those eyes before: in photographs of Latvian women and men who survived Siberia, and on TV as Rwandan girls were being questioned by a journalist. A Hmong woman passing on a Greyhound bus, the Chilean woman doctor who used to clean Marge’s house, and Anna’s father—they all had eyes like that.” (pg. 73)
Ironically, it takes the attention of another man to help Anna ultimately break free from her abusive husband. While being around Stanley had always made her feel “not enough,” even ugly, being around the attractive Andrejs wakes Anna up to the lies she’s been told, the lies she had accepted as truth. The way he looks at her, the way he treats her, the way he romances her, all work a small miracle on the beaten psyche of the battered woman, until she too sees: she is an attractive woman with much to offer.
Alas, as is so often the case with the emotionally battered woman, she loses the ability to detect truth from lies. No one charms like the man who wishes to seduce and control. Andrejs turns out to be just another version of Stanley, and Anna finds herself in yet another cycle of abusive behavior. Anna swears to herself, she will not “lie with her words or her body again,” and when at last she recognizes that her new lover is a narcissist, initially attentive, but then increasingly cruel, she struggles yet again to loose herself. He plays mind games with her, telling her one thing one day, the opposite the next day, until she cannot tell what is real and what is imagined. In a poignant scene in a public women’s bathroom stall, she overhears two women talking and recognizes herself in their exchange. “He’s a liar,” one woman says in frustration to the other. Bipolar, dysfunctional childhood, addicted to his vices, a jerk, a bum … but the other woman in meek voice responds only that her man needs more time. Time, patience, love, these will be her cures for what ails him. Listening, Anna has an epiphany of the part she has played in this all too common scenario of domestic violence.
No one can save us from ourselves, but ourselves. Anna has looked for answers and healing in other women, but she finds the man-bashers repugnant, her own ethnic community too stuck in their own denial and bitterness, the feminists too disinterested in getting along with men at all, her women friends to be mostly guilty partners in enabling society’s mistreatment of women.
What does this all have to do with Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski? one might ask. Kosinski, a literary hero of Anna Duja’s, is the thread that weaves through this story as a kind of mascot for the damaged soul of those spit out by war. Neither dead nor fully alive, living lives of quiet agony, sometimes producing great art, imperfect and battling various vices to escape their isolation and pain—these are the children of war. The framework for Anna’s own story, Kosinski is rumored to be an abusive man if brilliant writer, and Anna remains doggedly devoted to his image as it is constructed in her mind. Deep inside her are words. She, too, wishes to write. And while much of her life she has looked to Kosinski to write the story of those damaged by war, having survived time and again her own personal war as an emotionally battered woman, she now realizes … she must tell her own story. When news reports come to light that her literary hero has committed suicide, beaten by his own demons, she suddenly realizes that she is free.
“She would have done anything for him … But even as she formed the words, she knew they were not true. She was finally beyond doing everything he or another man might demand. She would not lie for Jerzy. She would not collude with him … to uphold a false version of his childhood. She would not write his books. She would not give him her story. She would write it herself.
“She knew now she was not powerful enough to save another person … Only he could have received the miraculous grace that helped some survivors to open their hearts, to forgive, and to find peace … she knew the real reason he had killed himself: he was a child during the war; he was one of the hunted; he was one of the millions marked for death.
“He would never write the book she had wanted him to write that would explain why wartime lies continued for years afterward.”(pg. 199)
Anna will write that book herself. No one can tell her story but Anna herself. She hears rumors of her ex-lover Andrejs telling other women she was “no raving beauty” but an intelligent companion to him, eventually a disappointment. When friends ask her if she misses him, she says, honestly, no. She does on occasion miss the companionship of a man in her life. A man as he should have been, might have been. But she has now chosen her “final solitude.” Within this solitude, she plans to write her book.
“But maybe stories can help. Maybe those who have suffered more will listen to those only on the margins of the great horrors. Maybe all will be able to rest in the compassion of others. Maybe instead of clashing and competing, all the stories will weave together into a great tapestry, each thread part of an intricate, somber pattern. Maybe tenderness will prevail.” (pg. 210)
One after another, Anna has been disappointed in the men in her life—her father, her husband, her lover, and finally, even her literary idol. She will always be the child of war. She will always be a survivor.
Nesaule’s book is a heartbreaking story of women everywhere, fighting their own silent wars. Whether combat on the battlefield, or combat behind the closed doors of many homes, women suffer the wounds, and men with them, of a lack of dignity and compassion for the human condition. Her stories may seem simple enough, but they accomplish what Anna dreams about: a linking of people, both genders, in a better understanding of what we all need—forgiveness.
Posted by Zinta Aistars