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A READER'S JOURNAL:
The Professor of Light
Published by Andrepont Publishing Co/LA in 2004
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2006
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"Summers we went to England." begins this novel novel which is written by a professor of light as much as it is about a professor of light. Marino using words as her palette brushes and gushes color over the pages of this book with flowing scenes of light-filled brilliance, such as this story in which her father originally becomes a "professor of light."
[page 91, 92] In Guyana light is all around. It tumbles, yellow and bright, from the huge flat sky. It falls on the green cane fields, burns the stooped back of the men cutting cane. It catches like flames on the copper pots the women carry on their heads. And one day it fell through a schoolhouse window and turned a boy into light.
He was a melting-sweet boy who lived in a world where nothing stayed the same. Blazing sun peeled the white paint off flimsy houses, turned them into hollow bones flaked dry. Floods came, stilts buckled into mud. Palm fronds withered to threads of dust. Inside the shade of a verandah, the boy's brother rotted, his mind a mash of voices.
That day a ray of sun slanted through the window and stroked the boy's cheek. His skin tingled with warmth. He turned over his palm and saw its lines were roads, leading straight through the paper-thin walls. The schoolteacher's face was sand, his lashes a white dust. When he smiled the air crumbled.
Soon the boy's head was filled with a pure brilliance that blotted everything out — the one-room schoolhouse, the teacher's stern mouth, the village boys sitting humble and quiet in their seats. He was melting into crystal waves that slid through the window, outside. He flew, straight to the sun, until he was scorched to weightless ash.
The boy was on the other side, where solid and liquid, light and shadow were no more. He swam inside the splendors of paradox. There were oranged without rind or flesh, oceans of atoms, hailstones of smoke. He was everywhere, curled into the crevice of a bark, bounced off a streetcar's window. He was glaring and loud, soft and subtle. Unbounded, he spread in timeless directions. He was the moon, the galaxies, a river's dark muscle.
The boy was her father in school who was brought back to reality by the schoolmaster's voice thundering "Warren Singh!" into his ear and slamming a ruler onto his knuckles. This is the kind of writing Marina fills her novel with — one can only believe that she lived a life balancing between Guyana and India, the United States and England herself to have written so vividly and evocatively about Meggie Singh, the daughter of the eponymous Professor of Light. The professor who works his way through the novel working his way through a book about light and its physical properties, all the while his daughter is working her way through the book describing light and its supra-physical properties.
[page 5] My father was a dreamer, a storyteller, a thinker. Always restless, he moved from mathematics to physics to philosophy. He had a fickleness of character, a terror of the finish line. For years, he'd been struggling to complete his book, an extraordinary opus that blended the various disciplines he had trumped through, and dared to resolve the particle-wave paradox of light.
As a physicist myself with an artist daughter a lot like Meggie, I could relate to the way he taught Meggie his craft and she reflected back his words into amazing visual images of the world of people, scenery, ideas and feelings into which her father had given her a full-immersion baptism.
Here's a passage where she was getting onto the plane for England and her father was staying behind for the first month. He told her, in effect, not to worry, that she is all wave, not particle:
[page 23] "Don't be afraid, my little one. Just remember. Ours is a restless family, flicking between continents, swimming in new elements. Now you can travel between two places and still be yourself. Just like light. How lucky you are."
Her father tells her, "when we name something, we're really just describing what it means to us." She asks, "Why can't it just be a tree?" He replies, "What about its seed?" Like with light, we name the part we can see, but its mystery flows right past us.
[page 39] "We don't know what it is. A photon is actually a relationship between us and something out there. It can't be described because" — his hand made a sweeping gesture toward the dark sky — "the universe is unpredictable."
This next passage reminds me of my parents and how they disciplined my three brothers and me like her Uncle Tom. We were never left with lingering doubts or guilt. All was expiated by them and us during one bout of corporeal punishment — when the stinging was gone, all traces of guilt was gone also. We could just be boys again.
[page 39, 40] I also noticed differences between George and me. Once, when he stole chocolates from the hiding place, Uncle Tom hit him with the back of a hairbrush. I envied my cousin. He was punished and everything was over the next day. If I did something wrong, it seemed to linger, like a bad odor, or something my parents would use to prod each other. They never worried about my moral fiber; this gave me a peculiar feeling of helplessness.
As a child, I listened and tried to decipher adult conversation, but none of my school-bought learning seemed to be much help to me as I grasped for meaning from the blur of words and metaphor. When at twelve Mrs. Casey, my newspaper distributor, took me for a rare ride in her car on my paper route, I was very puzzled when she said, "I've got a bone to pick with you." I literally was expecting she was going to share her fried chicken lunch with me.
[page 75] Drinks were poured again and the conversation churned on. The room filled with a yellow warmth, the men's voices swirls and eddies that I wanted to swim inside. I grew dizzy trying to follow what was being said. Every time someone asserted something, it was loudly and vehemently contradicted by someone else. I had the felling some kind of joke was being made among them. But not matter how hard I listened, I couldn't get it. I longed to run across the room, lean into the round of my father's stomach, join him while he traveled into the memories of Guyana.
When her Aunt Didi got enamored of an absent young boy and his love songs, she would take to wandering. The solution they arrived at was to plant some eggs each time Didi got a certain look of longing in her eyes. Like trees and seeds, chickens and eggs have their secrets that one can only see rightly with the heart.
[page 100] "They bring her home, and the next day she slips away again. They find her hours later feeding a little goat by the schoolhouse. Once more she wanders far and wide. This time, the minister brings her back by automobile a good day later. Her feet were all blistered, her hair fallen loose."
"Where did she go?" I asked.
Aunt Inez shook her head. "We don't know. But my mother get so upset she pay a visit to the obeah woman, who tell her that each time Didi get that look in her eyes, my mother got to bury an egg under the house steps. She bury an egg for each wistful move Didi makes. If Didi stand on the verandah looking with sad eyes at the coconut palm, my mother done bury her egg. At first Didi keep wandering. Each time my mother bury another egg under a different step. Didi's circle get smaller, until soon she keeps circling her own house."
Her father had his own equivalent of burying eggs, only he used notecards filled with ideas, assertions, and injunctions.
[page 103] Flip-flap, the cards went as he set them down on the desk. Every night I heard his heavy, sleepless tread as he circled around and around. Our senses trick us. Reality is a vapor that drifts before our eyes. We are trapped in bodies that can't help us find the truth. Don't trust what you feel with that skin of yours. Don't stray too far. Don't leave me. He was planting his cards outside my bedroom door, trying to draw the circuit of my thoughts tighter, to him.
Meggie's life was like a single photon spreading out through four slits in a screen, each one corresponding to one of the nationalities which comprised her life. Like that photon, she might at any one time appear directly behind one of the four slits.
[page 131] By now I'd come to see that my father's search into light grew more intense in the summer because of who we were — a funny, in-between family, Indian, Carribean, American, English — was clearer during the months we spent in Sudbury. My father's book was both a wish to understand us and an inquiry into particle and wave. And why not? Weren't we particle and wave, the stream of old stories passing through?
When things got stagnant in Uncle Tom's house in Sudbury, he was the last one you'd expect to take the initiative to pull them out of the sullen lethargy of sameness. And yet he did. He rented a house on Brighton Beach, he learned to drive a car, he got his license, he bought a car, and he showed up to announce these incredible events after the fact. He dragged Meggie and her philosophy pop into the car and forced them to endure a drive round the block over and over again. "Enough," her father complained, but Tom kept to his tight circles over and again.
[page 135] As the car turned the corner yet another time, I understood this was my uncle's way of keeping us tight to his rein. Around and around we went, like my uncle's routines, wash one shirt every morning, water the plants every other day, rubbish on Thursday nights. Once more we circled the familiar Sudbury streets, my father cursing under his breath. Uncle Tom was determined to cure the family of its ills; he pulled us in through these small, determined gestures, so we wouldn't go wandering off.
Tom was like that, small gestures which moved the orchestra of the family, or maybe just the piccolo of Meggie, into action at the right time to maintain the harmony of the musical score of life. Like when Meggie stayed inside the summer after being assaulted by Peter who rubbed poison oak upon her nude belly and breasts. Tom asked why she was staying inside.
[page 140] "I'm busy. I'm helping my father."
"Nonsense. Last summer you were always playing outside doing things, like with that boy, Peter."
Even now, a year later, I could feel the crumbly calamine on my arms and cheeks, the shame that burned my skin.
"He's not a bad boy," my uncle added. "Truly."
I waited for him to say something more. He didn't. He patted the earth and shifted to another rosebush. That's the way my uncle was. He let drop a few, short dry phrases, as if hoping the meaning would slowly rise, moist with emotion. Half the time I didn't even know what he was saying, but a faint vapor of love seemed to cling to me. He was a good man, as my aunt said.
One of her Caribbean cousins, Maywa, pins the name on her father.
[page 144] Maywa gently slapped my father on the arm. "Warren here, man, he's goin' somewhere! He's a professor at some high-up place in America. You should listen to him, man, all the things he's writing about, light and physics, it's so deep I can hardly keep track. He's a professor of light!"
When her father begins writing again, working on his book about light after a long hiatus, Meggie exults.
[page 150] Then a familiar sound: scratch, scratch, my father's favorite pen on notecards, the cursive strokes flowing across the line. He was writing! I exulted. Snap! he turned the card. That night, I dreamed of flaming words riding the inky Brighton waves.
Nonsense is the sameness of the world which the true artist destroys while everyone else believes that the sameness is "just the way the world is supposed to be." This is why no works by a new artist ever appears in a museum. Museums are shelters of sameness. Meggie's father knew this.
[page 153] My father had always said that the beauty of real genius, real insight, lay in not being afraid to stare into the clamor of nonsense. I thought of the sun's rays bouncing off the white-hot pebbles, our adda nights, the octopus ride's whirl through the air. . . . The light of the self always transmutes. Electrons like people on the jihad(1), crammed together on the boats, scattering.
She conjures up for us an imaginary trunk of Albert Einstein's, full of the mind-bending ideas of quantum physics.
[page 164] Inside this trunk Schrödinger's famous cat crouches, whirling through a midnight-blue firmament. Unseen to anyone, a random event — the radioactive decay of an atom — may set off a gas that kills the cat. We keep spinning through time and space, never knowing whether the event occurred. At any given moment, different versions of the cat exist in the universe, both dead and alive.
A man might be a thousand men. Each line creasing his palm, every seed he plants in a cane field, every story he tells holds a different vision of what he might be. Atoms burn electric, arrange themselves into flowering combinations. The sky is gorgeous with color, one story blooms another, like the blue-skinned Shiva branching into a thousand avatars.
In the end, the novel concludes in a beautiful metaphor of her father playing the philosopher king who is always doing something. Below is a brief extract which she fills out so beautifully that I cannot bear to quote its entirety less I rob you, dear Reader, the chance to experience it fully yourself. It is a magical kingdom that I cannot enter. It is the kingdom of your generation, a kingdom I can only shower embers into from the whirling whetstone of my writing bench . . .
[page 197, 200] The philosopher king is always leaving. . . . The philosopher king is always walking. . . . The philosopher king is always sitting on his bench. . . . After many years, the philosopher king grows very discouraged. He flings the stars angrily into the dark. . . . To his amazement, the bits of broken stars fall into a dazzling pattern. A head, two arms, two legs. Before him appears a vision of a girl. First she flows like water around his eyes. Then she turns solid, clear and sharp as ice. Her eyes shine, black and determined as his. She has a stubborn chin, like his sister's. . . .
She holds her arms out. "Come, Father. I can help you find what you're looking for."
"I can't. I'm a failure."
"That's not true. Remember Yagnavalkya in the Upanishads. For every question you ask, I will build a wheel and another wheel, and finally we will have a chariot to take us to find the light." . . . As the girl gives her answer, a chariot springs up around them. Its dashboard flashes, its seats are made of Naugahyde, its silver wheel hubs dance with sparks. . . . They ascend into the sky. . . . The girl is so proud she doesn't notice time lurch forward. The philosopher king starts to age. His hair turns gray, his muscles sag. The surer the girl's course, the more he sinks into a shadow. The chariot picks up speed, tipping from side to side, and the sun grows too hot. The philosopher king feels his head will burst into flames.
"Please, stop! I can't bear it any longer!" He jumps from the chariot, bleeding a tail of embers.
Terrified, the girl brakes to a halt. At first she is heartbroken, left alone in her empty chariot, the philosopher king disappeared into the cold night sky. Then, to her amazement, she sees he isn't really gone. His spirit lights up the entire sky, the land below, the rivers and seas and airports and movie theaters, illuminating a kingdom that is now hers to enter.
---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------
Footnote 1. On page 145, she says her folks called the boats they took from the Bay of Bengal to Guyana "jihads" as the trip for them was a holy journey.Return to text directly before Footnote 1.
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