I am not really a fan of Saul Bellow and I have not read his novels except Henderson the Rain King very briefly which gave me an unenthusiastic feeling about this Jewish author who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976 and died April 5, 2005.
But it was Ann Teoh, my enthusiastic and thoughtful Master student who made me eager to read Dean’s December which was first published in 1982 by Penguin. Ann came by my room at the Deputy Dean’s Office with the book wrapped in a used white envelope late November after finishing her exam paper and suggested the novel for my December reading.
I took the book along with me on my trip to Hyderabad and Bangalore early this month but had difficulties in finishing it. It is not only because my attention was too focused on the massive rally by the student and employee unions, backed by some political organisations, fighting for the creation of a separate Telangana state which is currently under Andra Pradesh. It is more because I found it very slow to start.
The main character is Albert Corde, a Professor of Journalism and Dean at a Chicago university. His wife Minna is a famous astronomer from the Communist Eastern Europe. He left Chicago to Bucharest in the middle of being involved in the trial of the death of one of his students. The accused is a friend of Corde's relative, Mason who tries to convince Corde that his black friend is innocent and could not kill the white student. The trial was commented by Corde in his controversial journalistic article on Afro-Americans and the underclass. In the article, he was very critical towards the university authorities as well as the state administrative structures.
In Bucharest, he tries to help his wife, Minna, whose mother Valerie is dying of stroke in a hospital but she is not permitted to see her. Valerie, a former minister of health, had left the Communist Party and being condemned and then rehabilitated.
There are two parallel stories in this novel. Saul Bellow contrasts the life in communist Romania with that in capitalist America; between the dreary Bucharest and the vibrant Chicago. This is a tale of two cities: Bucharest is portrayed as cold, inhospitable and remote, while Chicago is depicted to be rowdy, disorderly and confused. One is a place under the tyranny of the Communist scheme, the other the Capitalist system with political and social problems. In these two situations, what makes the society better? Is it the freedom and the material wealth, or is it the lack of it that makes people grateful to even the tiniest bits of normality?
In the last chapter (xix), Minna and Corde left Romania and return to America after the death of Valerie on the Christmas Eve. However, there was no relief in Chicago because they are as troubled there as back in Bucharest.
While the reading is very slow and somber, I must thank Ann for making my December and my trip to India contemplative.