Flight of the Albatross (New Zealand)

FlightofAlbatrossby Deborah Savage

I found this hardback Y/A book on my shelves. I have no idea where it came from. Copyright 1989.

The author is American, but I liked the fact that two of the protagonists are Maori, so I decided to read it.

The Plot: New York City girl Sarah goes to New Zealand to spend her summer vacation with her mother Pauline, an ornithologist. Her somewhat self-obsessed mom isn’t really around, so the neighbors, a Maori woman married to a Pakeha (white) man, take her under their wing and she begins a romance with the woman’s son Mako. Mako is a Maori who got into trouble in Auckland and dropped out of school. He’s come to the island to be closer to his father, a Maori activist who has just re-entered his life.

Meanwhile, Sarah finds a wandering albatross washed up on the beach, hurt. (Wandering Albatrosses can fly for seven years without having to seek land!) Seeking help for the bird, Sarah runs into the grumpy but good-heated old Hattie, a Maori woman living in the bush. She agrees to doctor the bird if Sarah will come every day to check on it, and if Mako will fish for it.

It may be a cliche, but I love grumpy but good-hearted oldsters.

Anyway, there are some definite elements of magical realism in this novel, along with a pretty stark picture of the historical unfairness of white colonization on the Maori, along with the pure fact that since time can’t be turned back, the only option offering real hope is for the Maori and the Pakeha to somehow work together to heal the land, and each other. And it wasn’t preachy. It also offered the story of how the Pakeha had turned some Maori tribes against each other.

Five carved Maori canoes!

The Road to Andorra (Andorra / Ibiza)

Christopher was studying the map of Europe.

“What’s that?” he asked, “That mauve dot between France and Spain?”

I glanced hastily at the map, at the little speck of colour too small to contain even one of the letters of its name.

“That,” I said with authority, “Is Andorra.”

“What’s Andorra?”

“Andorra…” I began, and hesitated. “What text-book facts did I know about Andorra–its climate, population, government, exports and imports?”

“I really haven’t the faintest idea,” I finished apologetically.

********

In 1961, a decade before *I* was born, Australian writer Shirley Deane and her painter husband were living the life I can only dream of–traveling, writing, painting. They never had much money, but they had adventures.

As the book begins, the Deanes and their 2 young sons are living in Spain when they get a wild hair and decide to move to a snowy mountaintop in Andorra, that strange little tax-dodge country between France and Spain, where the few inhabitants farm, smuggle, and speak French, Spanish, and Catalan about equally.

The Deanes encounter some wonderfully picturesque Andorrans, including:

  • a manic taxi driver who speaks non-stop, despite the fact that none of his passengers understand Catalan
  • an emotional B&B owner who cries and blames the Deanes when they are pickpocketed by passing Moroccan refugees
  • the two postmen who each struggle up the mountain every day from the capital to bring the Deanes their mail–one from the Spanish post office and one from the French post office
  • the world’s worst house agent (the Deanes eventually tumble to the fact that Tony’s “office” is a cover for his smuggling operation)
  • twin Little People (referred to as dwarfs) who speak only to each other, and their crazy sister who speaks only to herself
  • an evangelist and his wife who try to convert the three Andorrans above

Refugees have always been important to Andorra. Shirley Deane claims that in 1941, a membor of the Andorran parliament got up at a council meeting and prayed: “Please God, go on giving us wars, not actually in Andorra, but as close to it as possible.”

Modern times: In the 1930s, there were 80,000 feeling the Spanish Civil War through Andorra to France. During WWII, an even LARGER number of Allied troops fled Occupied France through Andorra into Spain. And then, in the 1960s, there were the Deanes.

You see, in the middle of their sojurn in this 175-square-mile country, the Deanes suddenly decide to move to Ibiza to become pig farmers. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t work out so well. But before things fall apart, the reader gets a lovely picture of the formerly independant island country, now a part of Spain, but with a very different character. And characters! Including:

  • The world’s tiniest bar, where the owner’s mother is the star, and wonderful music can be heard
  • Shy Ibizan peasant women, who instantly confide intimately in Shirley Deane
  • A soused British ex-pat named Roland

What’s shocking: You’re reading along about Ibiza sausage-making and ancient occupations by Carthage and Rome, when BAM, the Deanes are given 48 hours to leave Spain. They scramble to find a good home for their dog Lobo, a Spanish mutt who only likes foreigners. It’s just as out of left field to the reader as it must have been to Shirley Deane, whose previous travel narrative has landed her on Franco’s most wanted list. Strangely, she didn’t criticize the regime. What upset the Generalissimo is that when her book was published in the States, some reviews were critical of her for NOT criticizing the regime. Yep, it’s good to be the Dictator. What an a**hole.

Anyway, the distressed Deanes pack up, entrust their dog to friends, and move back to Andorra–and now they belong in a strange way–refugees themselves.

Thank you very much, Minneapolis public library, for marking this book Ex Libris and releasing it to me. A witty and thought-provoking read.

The Blue Tower (Iceland)

BlueTowerby Thorarinn Eldjarn

translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder

The only other book I’ve read in which Iceland is featured is one of Josie Dew’s cycletouring classics (non-fiction). So it was fascinating to read the fictional tale of a man born a poor but literate farmer, who feels the class system holding him down at every turn. The Danish overlords have passed a law called The Great Edit which stipulates harsh punishment for the “morally-lax” Icelandic people. Our hero Gudmundur’s best friend and mentor, the Reverend Einar Arnfinnsson, who loves the ladies, eventually gets one pregnant. Unfortunately Einar’s fall causes the fall of our hero too. But since Einar’s uncle is an important Bishop somewhere, Einar is reinstated after a while, while our relatively poor and friendless hero is locked away in Copenhagen’s Blue Tower.

Gudmundur’s biggest fault seems to be making enemies through rising on his own merits rather than nepotism or class favoritism. And his habit of vigorously defending himself in satirical poetry when bullied.

I wish the novel had provided me with a more rounded picture of Icelandic life (traditional costume, foods, etc.) but it was still an interesting chunk of history that not much has been written about. At least in English. (The novel was written in the late 90’s –this shouldn’t really have an apostrophe, but I put one in anyway because the zero looks like an “s”–punctuation should clarify, not confuse through sticking to arbitrary rules–).

When I was a child, my mother read Dr. Zhivago and I remember her complaining about all the Russian names and how hard they were to keep straight with the patryonymics and stuff. This novel is a bit the same way–although some of the names are comic to English ears, like:

  • Professor Ole Worm of Copenhagen
  • The Althing (a parliament of some kind)
  • The village of Thingeyrar
  • etc.

It’s all the fault of Grettir’s Tussock, a hillock on Gudmundur’s home farm of Bjarg, which supposedly holds the head of one of Iceland’s greatest heroes.

Excellent read.