Book Review: Ruth

Ruth

“Are women born or are they made in the process of living as women?”

As a topic, gender transitioning can be a hot potato. Add to this my personal antipathy towards reading graphic descriptions of sexual activity and Ruth, by Guillem Viladot (translated by P. Louise Johnson), may not have been my first choice of book. When it arrived through my door I set it aside, considering whether I wished to risk reading a story I may not enjoy. In the end two things appealed: it is published by a press I respect for putting out works that differ from the cookie cutter mainstream; it is epistolary, a format which, when done well, can be eminently engaging.

The correspondence through which the tale is told is entirely one sided. A short prelude details how the writer met the recipient. There is no indication if the letters that follow are welcomed.

The eponymous Ruth was baptised Raül, the second child of parents wealthy enough to support her through art college and beyond, when she worked as a sculptor. From a young age Ruth preferred the company of girls to boys. She wished to dress like them, something that appalled her mother.

“Because mother’s carry and give birth to their children, they seem to think they have the right to treat them as their property”

In order to become physically what Ruth believes she has always been, medical intervention is desired. When examined she is declared intersex – she has an underdeveloped penis but the smooth, hairless skin of a female. It is her wish to undergo surgery to remove the unwanted appendage and attain a vagina. She takes medication that causes her breasts to grow and seeks out sex as the female she presents as.

“my whole raison d’être is reduced to coitus”

The letters detail her encounters with men and women, describing explicitly their kisses, caresses and penetrations. There is a great deal of sex leading to multiple orgasms. Given the subject being explored this offered a degree of exploration into what it means to be a man or a woman. There is also the emotional difficulty of living in a body that does not fully reflect one’s identity.

Although Ruth’s mother is brutally callous in her reaction to her child’s gender transition, the sister is supportive, as are various friends including lovers. One of these, a young man Ruth enjoys her first sexual relations with, warns her when she falls in love with another.

“your emotional attachment is likely to be more complex because your femininity originates in the rejection of your male nature rather than in the affirmation of a natural femaleness”

Ruth proves quick to anger when challenged yet appears to avoid many of the more hurtful encounters that may, sadly, be expected. When her penis is discovered by potential lovers it is mostly regarded with fascination. The medical professionals who treat her are supportive and admiring of her superficial beauty. Ruth writes in vivid detail of her complex thoughts and experiences, exhibiting and describing body parts that are more often kept private. Her looks and those of others appear to matter to her more than less facile attributes.

A fascinating work of fiction offering much to consider on an issue currently garnering heated debate. Not always a pleasant read given its sexually graphic content but one it would be good to discuss with someone more directly knowledgeable. Whatever one’s views may be this is a poignantly challenging and lingering read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa

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Book Review: Andrea Víctrix

andrea victrix

“The excess of information made it impossible to be reliably informed about anything and every citizen would have required the talents of a Sherlock Holmes to make out the truth from the chaos and misrepresentation on all sides.”

Andrea Víctrix, by Llorenç Villalonga (translated by P. Louise Johnson), was first published in Catalan in 1974. It is set in an imagined future, 2050, when Palma Mallorca has been renamed the Tourist Club of the Mediterranean – Turclub for short. The narrator of the story was in his sixties in 1965 when he opted to begin a cryo-cure. His doctor told him he would come round 85 years later looking 30 years younger. Unlike many, he survived the process but then had to face a world that had changed radically.

He discovers that the political and economic superpowers of old are gone. America and Russia annihilated each other – a mutual unleashing of their nuclear arsenals. The United States of Europe rose up in their wake, exterminating many of the remaining Asian nations. The State is all powerful.

Citizens are now forbidden to form families or have children. Procreation occurs in central facilities that produce only the types of people deemed necessary. Any form of emotional attachment is punished. Gender must never be referred to – this is now regarded as insulting. The ideal is to keep it ambiguous, sometimes achieved surgically. Drugs are available for any sensation desired.

“Our world was founded on the dissolution of the family and so it was essential that love became independent from sex and lost any connection with such an incredibly dangerous concept as intimacy.”

Life revolves around consumption and pleasure. Ubiquitous advertising berates those who do not have the latest fridges and vacuum cleaners, even though housing is mostly tiny, food requiring preservation scarce, and constant purchasing leads to permanent debt. Pleasure increasingly proves elusive, with moral and ethical standards subverted. Individual lives have no value. Consensual violence is rife.

“without sentiment, pleasure was so slight that it must necessarily lead to tedium and aberration.”

The story opens with the narrator, released only a few hours previously from the casket of his cryo-cure, travelling at speed in a car driven by Andrea Víctrix. He is shocked when she (he assumes Andrea is female but his choice of pronoun causes offense) deliberately collides with pedestrians and is then rewarded for doing so. To take his mind off his obvious discomfort, she gives him drugs.

The world he now views has become synthetic. Food is in short supply so is supplemented by chemically enhanced substances that are barely edible. People live with the cacophony of propaganda broadcast from loudspeakers and on radios they are required to buy.

“Secular propaganda is less scrupulous than its religious equivalent, and this is aggravated by the fact that those behind it know they have no absolute truths to draw on. Such knowledge ought to make them question everything like Socrates, but instead it makes them stubborn and disingenuous as Xanthippe. This is what we have come to know as practical sense and cunning.”

Requiring an income, the narrator enquires about employment. It is suggested he become a performer such as an acrobat or dancer. Entertaining others – giving pleasure – is regarded as a worthwhile calling. Daring feats are undertaken in front of an audience, often by young children made carefree by drugs. Death regularly results from such risk taking and nobody cares.

Unhappy with his prospects, the narrator recalls a recent visit made to a bath house. These offer sex or violence – the two often overlapping. He discovers that Andrea, the teenage Head of the Bureau of Pleasure, is a high class prostitute. Her job requires her to entertain wealthy tourists, to submit to whatever deviances they desire.

“Industrializing the masses and exciting them with heady, coarse pleasures, the panem et circenses of ancient Rome.”

Regular drug taking shortens lives but people are disposable. What is marketed as for the collective good underpins decision making and is seemingly accepted by the masses. The health of the economy is regarded as more important than the health of consumers, who can easily be replaced.

“This is why we encourage pleasure and debauchery, but without focusing on a particular person, and without making distinctions between the sexes.”

The world building and story telling appear secondary to the opinions the author weaves into the tale. While there are obvious flaws with the way Turclub is run, he points out the similarities with contemporary arguments for changes in what is regarded as acceptable. He has picked up recent adjustments to moral and ethical ideas and run with them to extreme.

The State places faith in scientific progress, where only a specialist few understand the intricacies and potential repercussions. This is likened to faith in geography. To explain, there is a belief that Greenland exists despite most never having been there. If taken to a frozen landmass, few would know how to use the instruments necessary to prove it was Greenland. People largely swallow what they are told if it is repeated often enough and supported by peers.

“Progress cannot be stopped”

Described as part essay, the portrayal of this dystopia and its citizens explores meaty issues. The author uses the story as a device for expanding his discourse on state coercion – how the public comes to accept what would once have been recognised and rejected as socially and individually damaging. The narrative can be shocking, the point being to raise awareness of the irony in what can come to appear normal, how opinions can be changed by indoctrination. The State survives only when its population acquiesces.

The writing style is engaging if didactic in places. Although published half a century ago, what is portrayed has proved prescient. It is pointed out that when those in power fall, what rises from the ashes may be no better.

A fascinating work of fiction that is both thought-provoking and disquieting. A reminder of the importance of critical thinking when considering widely promoted changes in attitude that are supposedly for the common good.