Sunday, April 09, 2017

734 (2017 #32). Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise



by Oscar Hijuelos,
read by James Langton, Polly Lee, Henry Leyva, and Robert Petkoff

The real, nearly-lifelong friendship between American author Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and British explorer Henry Morton Stanley is the basis for this historical fiction novel by Oscar Hijuelos.

The two met on a Mississippi riverboat in the autumn of 1860 when Twain was about 25 and Stanley 19.  Their friendship lasted until Stanley's death in 1904.  Framing this period, at both the beginning and end of the book, is Twain's last visit to England in 1907 (to receive an honorary doctorate) where he has tea with Stanley's widow, the artist Dorothy Tennant (as he truly did).  There's also some coverage of both men's earlier lives (particularly Stanley's), and of the brief period between 1907 and Twain's death in April 1910.

Hijuelos died suddenly in 2013, before this book was published - the manuscript was found in his study after his death.  According to an afterword by his widow, author Lori Marie Carlson, Hijuelos spent more than twelve years researching and writing the book.  Amazingly, the numerous letters between the main characters, as well as diary entries and speeches they make - are ALL fiction. They sound so real, I thought some had to be from the historical record.  There's even a reference near the end of the book to a supposed footnote (with page number) in a real chapter in Stanley's real autobiography (edited by his widow) - but that footnote does not exist.

Hijuelos does a good job contrasting Twain and Stanley, highlighting what they had in common and where they differed.  As Twain is better known, Hijuelos wisely concentrated on Stanley (probably best known for supposedly saying "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" which turns out to be a later invention).  I was amazed to learn that such an intrepid explorer suffered from recurring malaria and other gastric disorders, but if you are looking for detail on his actual expeditions, you won't find it in this book.

In his introductory author's note, Hijuelos speaks of the "paradise" in the title:

For Twain it came down to his memories of his fairly happy, carefree youth, the sweet energies of which he put into his most famous book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn....Twain's "paradise" also entailed his love for a family that, as the years went by, simply vanished - two of his three daughters died, then his wife [as well as his infant son and three siblings in their youth]....What paradise remained for him came down to what he had captured so beautifully in his books and in his lingering friendships.
For Stanley, whose life began so badly - his childhood in Wales spent in a workhouse as a ward of the British state; his dangerous but successful enterprises on behalf of King Leopold in Africa eventually, perhaps unfairly, linked to the atrocities committed in that region "for rubber and ivory tusks" - this "paradise" came belatedly, in his later years [his late marriage to Tennant, their adoption of a son, and his acquisition of his country estate].

In the book, the two men also have frequent discussions about faith and religion (Stanley was mostly a believer, Twain mostly was not) and the notion of an afterlife.

Hijuelos also says that "as a writer best known for certain subjects, I also intend the book to give a glance at nineteenth-century Cuba, mainly through the journeys the men made in their lifetimes to that island.  Stanley went there in the early 1860s, during the American Civil War,...Twain journeyed there in 1902, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War."  The novel has both men making the 1860s trip together, and the descriptions of Cuba in that era are particularly good.

Apparently this book has received some criticism because it's not like Hijuelos' other books.  Not having read any of those, I am more open-minded.  I do think the book would have benefited from a little more editing, as the book dragged in a few places, but Hijuelos did not have the opportunity to do that.

What kept me going were the excellent narrators.  Henry Leyva voices Twain, and in my mind is perfect in that role, sounding the way I would imagine Samuel Clemens might have sounded in real life.  Britisher actors James Langton and Polly Lee are wonderful as Stanley and Tennant respectively, and Robert Petkoff does the overall narration and other major characters admirably.


© Amanda Pape - 2017


[The e-audiobook, and an e-book for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and a public library respectively.]

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