Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Salt Eaters

Win some, lose some.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had hoped for good things from Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters, which is why I included it on my Classics Club List.  The novel centers around the experience of a young woman named Velma as she is in the process of being healed by the faith-healers of her community.

The title comes from the idea expressed in the novel that, "You never really know a person until you've eaten salt together"-- that is, until you've suffered hardship and bitterness together.

Given my interest in illness narratives and disability studies, I was really looking forward to this novel.  I think that secretly, I was hoping it would be like finding a neglected Toni Morrison novel.

It was not.

Bambara's novel is, as I think I mentioned in an earlier post, a novel of the 1970's.  Set in 1976, it deals with nuclear power and chemical spills (the novel itself was published in 1980; the accident at Three-Mile Island occurred in 1979). 

One of the characters, a waiter at a diner, actually creates a board game centered on nuclear disaster and designed to foster political activism (what the?!?!).

I think this was my main issue with the novel: it contained everything but the kitchen sink.  The threat of nuclear holocaust, black militants, an activist theater collective, a vomiting bus-driver, menstruating women, corporate espionage, faith-healers and a Mardi Gras festival are just a few of the things I can think of off the top of my head.

There were more.  Many, many more.

If I had to guess (and this is no more than a guess), it seems to me that Bambara perhaps wanted to create a sense of the African American community in all its incongruities and idiosyncrasies at a given moment in time--in this case, 1976.  The main character, Velma, is clearly in need of healing largely because of what she has experienced.

The argument of the novel's plot is, in order to be healed, she needs to return to her roots--to the community of wise-women in which she grew up (Alex Haley's novel Roots was published in 1976), and the folk traditions that have grounded them.

The premise is interesting: the issue of black community is one that Toni Morrison herself will explore in The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon (novels I definitely recommend reading).

I think the problem with Bambara's novel is two-fold: on the one hand, its focus is so largely a product of the concerns of the United States in the late 1970's that it seems dated.  On the other hand--and on a related note--because it incorporates so many elements of social climate and context, the larger thread of the plot and its significance is lost.

Over the course of the novel, the protagonist Velma is being healed by a community of faith-healers and as readers, we are left to slowly figure out why exactly it is that she needs to be healed. 

I'm approximately 40 pages from the end, and quite frankly, I still couldn't tell you.  Social malaise?  Existential ennui?  Chemical toxicity?  Hereditary mental illness? Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder?  It's all up for grabs.

More significant, I think, is the fact that we see so little of the protagonist that it becomes hard to care.  More often than not, Velma is referenced by others as a problem for the community as a whole and someone who is perhaps "crazy."  The novel begins with Velma's perspective and at times returns to her memories via the faith-healing session, but overall, somewhat scant attention is paid to her or to the community of women--"The Salt Eaters"--who give the novel its title.

Am I glad I read The Salt Eaters?  Not really.  It was disappointing, to say the least, and only sheer willpower, coupled with caffeine, is going to get me through the final pages of it at this point.  I'm finishing it only because that's what I do: I finish what I start.

Even if it kills me.

What I did find interesting, however, is the question of how a writer goes about creating a novel that both speaks to immediate social circumstances and yet connects--whether aesthetically or philosophically--with a larger audience.  I teach a lot of literature in translation, and this is always a concern: how do you lift a text out of its immediate social and linguistic context and transfer it to another?  What is lost over time?

Bambara's novel no longer speaks to me, I think, because it speaks so exclusively of another time in history.  And yet, many other works of literature focus on a time long past, and still manage to create a sense of immediacy and relevance.  How?

Food for thought.  In the end, I give Bambara's novel credit for raising questions about the writer's craft, even if the answer she offered in the form of The Salt Eaters is, for me, ultimately unsatisfying.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."