Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Carpathians by Janet Frame

I always feel a bit dumb when I read Janet Frame. I feel like I am missing the main message—as though I’m really only scratching the surface and missing out on all the layers underneath of rich and complex meaning.

The Carpathians is a story about language. I think it’s a story about the power of language and the importance of words and language. Mattina is an independently wealthy New Yorker with a penchant for ‘learning’ about other cultures. By this I don’t mean she is an anthropologist (although she might think she is). She will go and ‘live amongst’ people from a culture different to hers for a couple of months in order to ‘get to know’ the people. She also has a habit of acquiring real estate. These two pastimes hint at an absence in her; in her life, in her heart. But there is nothing in her life lacking. She wants for nothing at all. She has so much money that she is able to buy an island; she is married to a man who she loves and who loves her; she has a son and at some stage in her life also enjoyed a lover.

Her yearning to learn about other cultures takes her to Puamahara, a small town in New Zealand. She is on a quest to discover more about the legend of the Memory Flower and Galaxy Star. She moves into Kowhai Street (we learn at the end of the story it is pronounced Korfai!) and over the course of two months gets to know her neighbours. They are a pretty standard bunch—elderly widows, young families and the like. They all claim to be from somewhere else (not here), leading Mattina to sense an atmosphere of impermanence and rootlessness.

From early in her stay in Kowhai Street, Mattina feels a strange presence in her rented house but learns to live with it. One night towards the end of her stay something quite horrifying happens. And I’m not entirely sure about the symbolism of it. It’s something to do with the disappearance of language and memory.

As a writer, Janet Frame’s raison d’étre is based on words, language and memory, or the memory that words and language create/express. So she herself is perhaps in this book, maybe in Mattina’s husband, or the Dinny Wheatstone, the slightly unhinged ‘imposter’ author. Matina’s husband Jake was a writer who wrote a bestseller in his early 20s and then struggled for 30 years to write his next. It was Matina’s son, John Henry, who wrote a book 30 years later, also in his early 20s.

I enjoyed getting to know the characters in this book and I also found the story intriguing. A couple of times, especially towards the end, I thought, ‘I’ll have to read this again because I don’t know what she’s trying to get at here’. I still don’t fully understand what the Memory Flower or the Galaxy Star is. Postmodernists would love this.  

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