Janet Frame


(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )

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Janet Frame (New Zealand, 1924)

Written at the peak of the Cold War, when people feared the nuclear holocaust, "Scented Gardens For The Blind" (1963) is a lyrical poem of madness, with some of Frame's most memorable passages. Frame manages to merge Freud, Alice in Wonderland and apocalyptic science fiction. The three members of the family take shifts at narrating the story, which initially sounds ordinary enough but then becomes increasingly tinged with madness. Their madness, however, pales in comparison with the madness of humankind, that is one step away from annihilating itself. The mad woman might be the secret to the survival of the race, because she refuses to speak the language that caused the apocalypse and eventually starts speaking a new language.

Vera narrates that her daughter Erlene refuses to speak and her husband Edward, whose hobby is to stage battles of toy soldiers, abandoned them eleven years earlier to live abroad. Vera lives like a hermit in a small town with the only company of her dumb daughter. Erlene known Vera's secret, which we are not told. Vera used to be blind or, better, occasionally pretends to be blind. Erlene befriends beetles and snails. Her best friend is the aging beetle Uncle Blackbeetle, who is always busy building tiny coffins by the windowsill. Edward left them to pursue his research on a perfectly ordinary family, the Strangs. After many years he has managed to reconstruct their genealogy for many generations and is now looking forward to meet some of the living generation. Erlene lost her ability to speak when Edward was gone. However, she does speak to her friend the beetle. Her inner life is an endless daydream. She doesn't understand why it is important to speak. Her mother Vera decides to entrust her a doctor, who tries in vain to befriend her. Edward visits a Georgina Strang, who has just lost her husband. He imagines a stormy welcome, then rings the bell and actually receives a kind welcome. But the imagined one is described in the same realistic tone as the real one, so that we learn that there is no difference between reality and fantasy. Edward dreams of a uniformly faceless humankind. He also hears a voice in his left ear. He writes Vera that he is coming and hopes that his visit will cure Erlene. Vera receives his letter, the first news from him in many years. She is obsessed with death. Erlene is amused by the doctor who keeps trying to make her talk. She confides to the beetle about her visits to the doctor who keeps telling her stories hoping in vain that she will say something. She asks Uncle Blackbeetle to tell her a story and tells her the story of his cousin Albert, a dungbeetle who became obsessed with finding a big dung to carry home, so obsessed that he forgot to feed his family. His family died of starvation and, when he finally found the enormous dung that he had dreamed of, he was smashed to death under it. Erlene speaks to Uncle Blackberry but she doesn't realize that she is actually speaking to the doctor. The doctor congratulates himself that he finally made her speak. Back home Erlene realizes that Uncle Blackbeetle has disappeared. Her mother gets furious with her and beats her. Vera wants to know why the girl doesn't speak to her. Erlene's words keep shifting from her mind, where they are supposed to be inner thoughts, to the doctor, who therefore notes progress in her illness. She is losing her mind, but, from the doctor's point of view, she is being cured of her inability to speak. Erlene finds Uncle Blackbeetle dead by the windowsill. Erlene believes that Edward left them and began researching the Strangs in order to save all of them. At the same time Vera and Edward believe that making Erlene talk is important to save them (and save everybody else). Edward now hears multiple voices, not just one. Eventually one talks him into building a chair for himself, and this occupation distracts him from returning home or visiting other Strangs. Finally, he takes the flight. Vera is eagerly waiting for him and tries to imagine her encounter with him. She is constantly in fear of a world catastrophe that would turn all people dumb. She feels guilty about Erlene's silence, which the doctor implies was caused by an accident. Erlene, who overhears the sentence, doesn't know which accident. Erlene's mind floats across different dimensions and at one point knows that she herself is not real, that the Stangs don't exist, that Edward does not exist, that Vera is not real either. Later she has a vision of a coming apocalypse that will require humankind to speak a new language. The doctor is sure that she will be cure when her father arrives, but she refuses to speak to him too. Edward visits another member of the Strang family, Clara, a widow with three children. Edward too believes that the world needs a new language to replace the old ones that don't work anymore. Suddenly, the doctor reveals that Vera is a 60-year old spinster. Never married, never had children. For thirty years she has refused to speak. The doctor, who is really a psychiatrist in a mental asylum, tells a colleagua that he has no idea what goes on in Vera's mind. Vera's only company is another mad woman named Clara Strang. The doctor also mentions that he has found a blackbeetle on a windowsill. Three months later an atomic bomb destroys Britain and the doctor returns to the hospital to find Vera speaking... a new language.
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )