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Memory chaser

Chabon’s dexterity, both in language and characterisation, brings alive an old man’s haphazard journey

Michael Chabon’s Moonglow is a feel-good story with darkness at its heart. Chabon, a novelist who has frequently moved between themes and genres, presents this as a family memoir. Then again, given the many literary flourishes contained within, the reader could be forgiven for thinking this is a piece of warm-hearted fiction.

The premise here is deceptively simple. In the last days of his life, prior to his death from bone cancer, Chabon’s grandfather recounts adventures from his life. The stories do not follow any chronological order; it follows the old man’s haphazard memory path, wildly lurching from war to love to imprisonment and more. Chabon’s dexterity, both in language and characterisation, brings alive these experiences and positions them in the forefront of a fabric that keeps the family—damaged but not dysfunctional—as backdrop.

The grandfather, an electrical engineer who enlisted in the army in 1941, is secretive, a loner, a man who likes to keep his problems to himself or else solve them on his own. Not much given to expressing his feelings, he comes across as distant, a cynic who suffers from permanently repressed aggravation. Not the most appealing of men but one who has led quite a rumbustious life, thus making him most interesting to the reader.

Nameless one

The grandfather (who goes nameless all through the book) starts by throwing a cat out of a window as a young boy, then follows it up with progressively more daring escapades. There is a riotous attempt at planting live explosives on a bridge to show how unprepared the U.S. is for an attack on home soil. Later in life, there is a murderous assault on his boss, leading to a spell in prison. Then there is a wonderful story on how a prison thug meets his just fate, helped considerably by Chabon’s grandfather’s engineering know-how. Even in his retirement home in Florida, the old man is out on a snake-catching expedition! Yet ironically, at the end of his life, he expresses regret about all he never started or couldn’t finish.

The reveals do not flow in fluid fashion but once the reader becomes accustomed to that jerky loop, it does not matter in the least. The most gripping part of the book has to do with a bit of history during the end of the Second World War. The Americans were aware that the German engineers, scientists and technology were all far superior to theirs, so they decided to recruit and train agents to go into Germany and bring these engineers and scientists to the U.S., before the Russians got to them. This was Operation Paperclip.

Chabon’s grandfather was part of it, of course, and it was a life-changing experience for him. From the magic of discovering a V2 rocket in a forest in Germany to his admiration for Wernher Von Braun, the designer of the V2 rocket, an admiration that later turns to distaste, this tale culminates in a meeting between the two at a Space Congress in Florida.

The sense of betrayal that he feels at America collaborating with former Nazis will finds resonance today when the U.S. indulges in the same amoral behaviour for reasons of self-interest, turning friends into foes and vice versa, as it suits them. Even their much-lauded Moon Mission, Chabon makes clear here, is tainted by the fact that it came about due to the expertise of the former Nazis who worked on it.

Chabon’s French grandmother is no less an intriguing figure. An attractive, fragile woman who Chabon describes as ‘holding herself as an egg balanced on a spoon,’ she is beset by mental illness that takes the form of voices coming from a skinless horse. Even as she is in and out of mental hospitals, the reader realises that they, not the characters, are the only ones who can see this horse. Her episodes of mental illness are described with a sense of horror threaded through with sadness. By marrying her, Chabon’s grandfather seemingly finds purpose; in helping her, he attempts to jettison his perpetual sense of rage and cynicism.

But of course, nothing is as it seems. In a sad denouement, the writer and the reader simultaneously find out the truth about his grandmother’s past, unmask the farrago of lies and pretence that she lived with. By then, however, both his grandparents are long gone and all Chabon is left with is his grandmother’s legacy of voices in the head.

This, then, is not a pretty family portrait that Chabon paints. Once the reader parts the veil of the undoubtedly engaging stories, what is uncovered is that both his grandparents grappled with serious issues.

Love within

The portraits of the damaged family are given masterly flourishes: uncle Ray, the attractive hustler; the author`s father, an unfaithful con-man; his mother, having internalised the idea of loss that could occur at any time, she grows up to be a woman who travels light where emotions and attachments are concerned. And yet there is love within the fabric of the family, a love that finds a way to exist, bypassing and facing down all the odds.

And in the end, there are a couple of questions that look the reader in the face: how much of these stories are true? And is this really a memoir or a piece of imaginative fiction masquerading as an old man’s mental scrapbook? The grandfather states, “Well, it’s the way I remember it happening. Beyond that I make no guarantees.” And this reply will just have to suffice.

Sheila Kumar is an independent writer, manuscript editor and author based in Bengaluru.

Moonglow By Michael Chabon, 4TH Estate Publishers, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, London, 12.99 Pounds Sterling.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 12:35:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/memory-chaser/article17751733.ece

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