Smother Love

The Stranger In The Plumed Hat

By David Homel

A review of The Stranger In The Plumed Hat by Irena F. Karafilly

Published on October 1, 2000

The Stranger In The Plumed Hat
Irena F. Karafilly

Viking Penguin
$28.00
cloth
238pp
0-670-892947

This is a parental advisory. If your son or daughter should become a writer, you run the risk of dying twice: once at the moment of your death, and a second time when your child writes about you. In our current culture, where we publicly bury our families, not praise them, Irena Karafilly is at the very heart of that movement. If indeed it has one.

Karafilly’s memoir concerns her mother, who died of complications resulting from Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that has come to occupy, along with AIDS and cancer, a position of choice in our collective imagination. Her mother was diagnosed with the disease in 1997, at the age of 76. Alzheimer’s, named after the doctor who documented it, is one of a variety of dementia, or brain malfunctions. After her mother burned down the house while cooking chicken legs (her father neglected to remove the stove fuses as he’d been instructed to by a social worker) she begins her career as an institutionalized person – a career that almost always ends with the individual’s death, as those of us who have shepherded a parent through the process can attest.

Karafilly’s mother, Yevgenia Constantinova Ivanova, was a woman from a fascinating background who apparently made frustration her life’s work. Born to a Russian Orthodox family in the Ural Mountains separating Asia and Europe, she married a Polish Jew who had escaped the Nazis by fleeing east. (Marriage between a Russian Orthodox girl and a Jewish boy is an unusual occurrence, and I would have liked to hear more about it.) After the War, the family moved to Lodz, then Israel, and finally Montreal.

Apparently it was not a marriage made in heaven. Karafilly’s father, who appears sporadically through the book and is generally given short shrift, was a sex-starved philanderer, and not a great economic success. Listen to Karafilly’s description of why she was eager to live on her own: “I was leaving home because my parents quarrelled, because they were autocratic and thoughtless, and took out their frustrations on their children.” How’s that for a quick sum-up? Indeed, her style does nothing to make us feel what she feels; towards the book’s end, she tells us, “Though my love and my pity for my mother continue to flow through me like a deep tortuous river, there is no denying the subterranean fires of anger and resentment.” And she worries that she will never be a true artist because she isn’t selfish enough – she’s too devoted to her mother instead!

This book does have a heart that surfaces at times. We learn a good deal about the progression of the disease, and the helplessness that the caregiver feels as his or her efforts seem to bear little fruit. And there are some wonderful scenes when Irena takes Genia out for a walk to have a smoke or two. But there is, I’m sad to say, a mean-spirited tone throughout the work. Karafilly believes her mother’s disease was, at least in part, a “willed inner retreat” from the world that disappointed her, and perhaps she is right, but a one-sentence speculation is not enough for this important question. She hints at her struggle to raise a child herself, with no spousal support, but besides a few passing flashes of bitterness, she refuses to elaborate on what actually happened. Briefly mentioning her brother, she declares: “Unlike [him] I never gave up trying to get it right. He became a systems analyst. I became a writer.”

As far as I can tell, there is nothing intrinsically more virtuous about being a writer than doing any other job. Writing does not automatically insure generosity of heart, especially when it comes to writing about the family. mRb

David Homel is a Montreal novelist whose lastest work is Midway.

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