Saturday, August 22, 2015


By Mansor Puteh

“…My father was really right when he said he had never known a Jew who could give something in a free way, without asking for something in return. A quid pro quo, as he would say. And oh, Nathan – what an example Nathan was of that! Okay, he helped me a lot, make me well, but so what? Do you think he done that out of love, out of kindness? No, Stingo, he done such a thing only to use me, have me, f… me, beat me, have some object to possess! That’s all, have some object! Oh, it was all so very Jewish of Nathan to do that – he wasn’t giving me his love, he was buying me with it, like all Jews. No wonder the Jews were so hated in Europe, thinking they could get just by paying a little money, a little Geld. Even love they think they can buy!” She clutched me by the sleeve and the odor of rye whiskey reached me through the gasoline fumes. “Jews! God knows how I hate them! Oh, the lies I have told you, Stingo. Everything I have told you about Cracow was a lie. All my childhood, all my life I really hated Jews. They deserve it, this hate. I hate them, dirty Jews cochons!”    Page 353, ‘Sophie’s Choice’

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This novel by William Styron is certainly interesting to read. It is thick and heavy, and the chapters are long with sentences that go on and on…which is what I like in any novel.

There are many words in English which I had not heard of before. And there are also some in Polish, Yiddish and other Eastern European languages that I had not heard of before which are in italics.

If the author, William Styron is indeed expressing his fears and anxieties in the character he has created called Stingo, who has problems, then I feel sorry for William who may be mentally ill when he was writing this novel.

Which was also unfortunate that it had found some support from Hollywood which had turned it into a feature film with young Meryl Streep playing Sophie produced in 1982, the years I left New York City and America to return to Malaysia.

I missed watching the film. But I can tell that it is a faint resemblance to the novel which is littered with foul words and descriptions of sexual activities.   

It is so interesting that I decided to read all of it in 2011, after getting a hardcover copy of the novel in April, 1979, when I was then living in Boston.

I bought a lot of books when I was in Boston and also living in New York City but which I did not find the time to read any of it until recently.

I did try to read ‘Sophie’s Choice’ but gave up after about sixty pages of the 515 pages of this novel.

It is mostly set in New York City in the 1940s but I did not feel like I had been transported back in time and could see how the different parts of the city was then that I had visited in the 1970s and 1980s.

It is all about sex, wine and drugs…whose combination was fatal that ultimately led to the suicide of Nathan and Sophie with Stingo, the central character becoming witness to the couple’s ultimate sacrifice.

The two and also Stingo did not seem to be capable of living in New York City, where they had all come from different parts of the country with Sophie being an immigrant who survived Auschwitz and the Holocaust and being gassed because she was not a Jew. 

The passages each of the three central characters in the novel had to go through were indeed long and Stingo whose narration it is, is equally so, as what William the Author had deemed that to be.

He would ramble on and on saying mostly the same things again about his sexual fantasies and attacks on the religious and social as well as cultural values of the others.

As a reader, I am not bothered by the diatribe. I can bear with it because I am witness to the three’s slide from sanity to insanity.

And from where I had come from, the three can be described as lunatic people who had no lives to live; even Stingo the aspiring twenty-two-year-old unpublished author who is writing his debut novel and living frugally does not know where his next meal would come from.

Even to the very end the novel is not completed. Even the story of New York City after the Second World War is not complete. 

I did not feel that William the Author and through his mouthpiece in the novel, Stingo had failed to take me to the City.

He (William/Stingo) was strong in describing a woman’s physical features, but not those of the city and the places where Nathan, Sophie and Stingo go to because their lives seem to center around their apartment, bars and parks and nowhere else.

This is certainly not New York City of the 1940s after the Second World War.

But I could tell how through their words, actions and thoughts how the City and also America and Europe or the West were sliding backwards, the more America welcomes immigrants from Europe who had experienced the Holocaust.

And the hidden agenda or theme seems to rest here not in what Stingo says.  

It is not easy for anyone to be able to write a novel like this that tries to bring out things that are hidden deep in one’s heart and minds without ever trying to find faults with them, especially the Jews during the Holocaust and in America where some of those who managed to survive may have pangs on what they had experienced earlier or that their close relatives had to go through.

And in this novel most of the things are poured out in bars and the tripartite relations between Nathan, Sophie and Stingo, all of whom have different reasons to go to New York City, with the first two, the hapless couple ending their lives and Stingo, to bear witness to what they had to go through and how they decided to end their lives…

I shall end this review by pasting a passage in the novel said by Sophie, whose page number I have forgotten, which is towards the end of it.

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“…was a little church, I do not believe it was Catholic, I think it must have been Lutheran, but it don’t matter – I had this idea that if I killed myself in this church, it would be the greatest sacrilege I could ever commit, le plus grand blaspheme, because you see, Stingo, I didn’t care no more: after Auschwitz, I didn’t believe in God or if He existed. I would say to myself: He has turned His back on me. And if He has turned His back on me, then I hate Him so that to show and prove my hatred I would commit the greatest sacrilege I could think of. Which is, I would commit my suicide in His church, on sacred ground. I was feeling so bad, I was so weak and sick still, but after a while I got some of my strength back and one night I decided to do this thing.” 

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