Monday, October 11, 2010

Bloody Births and Great Beginnings

In reading two of the year's best novels*, Bruce Machart's The Wake of Forgiveness and David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I was struck by the way in which both authors decided to open with graphic birth scenes.  For those who have been there--as I have for two of my three children--there is very little of the Hallmark stuff--the hazy, Vaseline-smeared camera lens, violins hitting all the happy notes, beaming smiles all around--associated with the event.  Oh sure, there are squeals and giggles, there are tears, there are videocameras shaky with emotion; but there is also the searing pain of being ripped right up the middle, there are uncontrollable farts, there are the waves of nausea and the dread feeling of "What have I gotten myself into?"  And that's just from the father's perspective.  Mothers, I assume, have it just as bad.

Don't get me wrong--I was turned inside-out with joy at the Three Blessed Events which brought three wonderful people into this world.  And I say that not just because Deighton, Schuyler or Kylie might be reading this, but because I was (and remain) truly excited to be a father.

At the same time, those birthing rooms were filled with blood, clammy sweat, and the mind-bending sight of seeing another person emerge from my wife's most intimate geography.  I was filled with a circus of emotions--not all of them pleasant.  Fortunately, all three of my children's births went well (we didn't know about Schuyler's cracked collarbone until weeks later), and the day quickly turned from the agony of labor pains to the ecstasy of holding our labors of love.

But it is not nearly so rosy in the opening pages of the novels from Machart and Mitchell.  Here is life balanced precariously with death in scenes which leave me, the reader, shaking almost as much as the spent mothers.  Before I get to those scenes, however, I turn my natal gaze back to another memorable literary birth scene.  Here is how Charles Dickens introduces us to Oliver Twist:
Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable circumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean to say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred.  The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration--a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter.  Now, if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time.  There being nobody by, however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point between them.  The result was, that, after a few struggles, Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter.
If anything funny can ever be wrestled from a brutal birth, then Dickens will go for the jocular instead of the jugular every time.

Not so with Machart who opens his debut novel The Wake of Forgiveness with this scene, set in February 1895 in south Texas:    
     The blood had come hard from her, so much of it that, when Vaclav Skala awoke in wet bed linens to find her curled up against him on her side, moaning and glazed with sweat, rosary beads twisted around her clenched fingers, he smiled at the thought that she'd finally broken her water.  He pulled back the quilt, a wedding gift sent six years before from his mother in the old country, and kissed Klara on the forehead before climbing from bed to light the lamp.  He struck a match, and there it was, streaked down his legs and matted in the coarse hair on his thighs--dark and half-dried smears of his wife's blood.
     And it kept coming.  He saddled his horse and rode shivering under a cloudless midnight sky to the Janek farm to fetch Edna, the midwife.  By the time they made it back, Klara's eyes were open but glazed in such a way that they knew she wasn't seeing through them anymore.  Her pale lips moved without giving voice to her final prayer, which entreated the child to come or her own spirit to stay, either one.
     When the baby arrived, their fourth boy, blood slicked and clot flecked, he appeared to have been as much ripped from flesh as born of it.  Klara was lost, and Edna tended to what had been saved, pinching the little thing's toe to get the breathing started, cleaning him with a rag dipped in warm milk and water, wrapping him in a blanket.
     Vaclav Skala stood at the foot of the bed, grinding his back teeth slowly against a stringy mash of tobacco he'd chewed flavorless half an hour before.  He watched Edna, a slight young woman with narrow hips and long hair as black as her eyes.  She bunched pillows beneath the dead woman's shoulder blades and behind her head before resting the baby on his mother's stomach.  Taking one of Klara's breasts between her thumb and finger, she puckered the nipple so the baby could get hold of it.  The little thing threw his hands up about his face and worked his legs beneath the blanket, and Edna held him unremittingly to the breast until he hollowed his cheeks and found it with his mouth.  "It's no hind milk in her yet," she said, "but he might get some of the yellow mother's milk.  We'll be needing a wet nurse.  It's several up country who might do it."
     Vaclav stepped back into the doorway and looked down the dark hallway toward the room where his other three boys were sleeping.  "We'll be needing a hell of a lot more than that," he said.  "Let him get what's left of her if he can.  He's done taken the rest."
That one sentence, "And it kept coming," is especially ominous and communicates a world of pain, confusion and fear in the space of those four words.  The following 305 pages of Machart's novel are every bit as good as those opening paragraphs and if you've been stirred even the least little bit by what you've read here, then I encourage you to click-and-buy at once.  You won't be sorry.

The opening birth scene in Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is much longer and does not lend itself as easily to an extended quote.  It is, however, a graphic example of how a writer can plop readers in a different place, a different time, and by sheer narrative drive make those readers feel like they've been there all the time.  That's how caught up I was in Mitchell's first chapter which describes the scene in a concubine's bedchamber in Japan, 1799.  I was hooked by the second sentence (In the rice paddy beyond the garden, a cacophony of frogs detonates) and quickly hauled into the story.

Inside the house, the concubine Kawasemi is having a hard time in the final throes of her labor: the baby has turned in the womb, only a limp arm protrudes as the midwife Orito does what she can to extract the fetus, with the help of a male doctor (Maeno) who, custom dictates, must remain behind a muslin curtain.    
     Orito clasps the fetus's mucus-smeared wrist to search for a pulse.
     Maeno now asks her in Dutch, "What are your opinions?"
     There is no pulse.  "The baby is dead," Orito answers, in the same language, "and the mother will die soon, if the child is not delivered."  She places her fingertips on Kawasemi's distended belly and probes the bulge around the inverted navel.  "It was a boy."  She kneels between Kawasemi's parted legs, noting the narrow pelvis, and sniffs the bulging labia: she detects the malty mixture of grumous blood and excrement, but not the stench of a rotted fetus.  "He died one or two hours ago."
The scene draws out for several more agonizing pages, with the midwife and doctor debating whether or not to amputate the baby's arm to more easily get it out of the birth canal.  Orito decides to try manually unwrapping the umbilical cord from the fetus's neck and to position the body for a better delivery.  Water is called for, the nervous, hovering housekeeper finally allows Dr. Maeno to come from behind the curtain, strips of linen are given to the mother on which to bite down, forceps are washed and inserted, and then...    
     "What is it you're waiting for?" asks the housekeeper.
     "The next contraction," says the doctor, "which is due any--"
     Kawasemi's breathing starts to swell with fresh pain.
     "One and two," counts Orito, "and--push, Kawasemi-san!"
     "Push, Mistress!" exhort the maid and the housekeeper.
     Dr. Maeno pulls at the forceps; with her right hand, Orito pushes the fetus's head toward the birth canal.  She tells the maid to grasp the baby's arm and pull.  Orito feels the resistance grow as the head reaches the aperture.  "One and!"  Squeezing the glans of the clitoris flat comes a tiny corpse's matted crown.
     "Here he is!" gasps the maid, through Kawasemi's animal shrieks.
     Here comes the baby's scalp; here his face, marbled with mucus...
     ...Here comes the rest of his slithery, clammy, lifeless body.
     "Oh, but--oh," says the maid.  "Oh.  Oh.  Oh..."
     Kawasemi's high-pitched sobs subside to moans, and deaden.
     She knows.  Orito discards the forceps, lifts the lifeless baby by his ankles and slaps him.  She has no hope of coaxing out a miracle: she acts from discipline and training.  After ten hard slaps, she stops.  He has no pulse.  She feels no breath on her cheek from the lips and nostrils.  There is no need to announce the obvious.  Splicing the cord near the navel, she cuts the gristly string with her knife, bathes the lifeless boy in a copper of water, and places him in the crib.  A crib for a coffin, she thinks, and a swaddling sheet for a shroud.
So there you have it.  Two books, two births, two authors sitting in separate rooms bringing their stories into the world the hard way.  Machart and Mitchell certainly know what they're doing.  By beginning with the hard, troubled nativity of their characters, they're setting the stage for the ride readers are about to take.  I could think of no better way to start these novels.

*Full disclosure: I haven't read all of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, having reluctantly set it aside for other assignments which take precedence.  But I know good writing when I see it, and Mitchell is brimming over with it.

1 comment:

  1. I picked up one of David Mitchell's books for the first time this summer after reading the Paris Review interview with him and am now totally hooked. Black Swan Green instantly made it into my most revered books. I'm REALLY looking forward to the Autumns. I bought it recently and am just waiting for the moment to sneak it into my reading schedule.