By Amy Mandelker
April 12-15, 2010
The earthquake in China. The school that collapsed, crushing students and teachers, was established and funded by the charitable organization for which my ex-husband works. He is a conservationist and social activist, and for several days following the first shocks, he is only able to contact one of his co-workers at the scene, who digs alone at the site of the school with his chilled, bare hands for an entire day. By evening he uncovers the dead body of a teacher.
The cold is extreme there. My ex-husband (with my agreement) cancels the monthly child support check in order to send what can reach the area—blankets, candles, emergency food and water. But the trains are blocked and cannot get through. He wants to leave his desk-work and go there himself, but as a resident alien working for a politically sensitive cause, he recognizes he would not be allowed through to the scene of the emergency.
My son, a college freshman, visited his father over spring break in March and they climbed in the Eastern Himalayas together. On his return, he described to me the devastation he had seen from the previous year’s earthquake in areas still only slowly recovering. He had visited the school and met the teachers there. At hearing the news, he accidentally misses several classes and appointments, forgetfully playing his violin, locked into a practice room, absorbed in his distress. It is beyond hard to be distanced and helpless, anxiously waiting for news, watching from afar.
The earthquake in China stuck after I had begun writing my blog about War and Peace, describing my first reading of Tolstoy’s novel the day that an earthquake struck my home town in the mid-West. I had written: “My first reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace was extraordinary because of the earthquake. I was 14 years old, and it was Saturday morning. I had propped up the enormous novel behind my cereal bowl, the pages pinned down by the creamer and sugar bowl. What was strange about what happened next is that I had been worrying all week about earthquakes and the possibility of one occurring in my home-town. In my science class I had learned that the state of Missouri sits upon an enormous fault and that, minor tremors having been few and far between, geologists were predicting that a seismic event on a large scale would occur in the second half of the 20th century. After alerting friends and family to our danger, and after having been laughed at, I had set aside my adolescent alarm by the weekend. Instead, I was now absorbed in the question of why Andrei Bolkonsky behaved so coldly and heartlessly to his lovely young, pregnant wife. I was too young to read between the lines to understand that he suspected her of having an affair with Ippolit Kuragin. Ippolit’s antics with the little princess’ shawl reminded me of Dopey in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: tripping over his sword, getting his arm caught in his sleeve and the princess’ shawl all tangled up, jabbering in the drawing room about coats of arms, I pictured him as an obvious idiot, drooling over Snow White in an infatuated way, certainly not a suitable candidate for an adulterous liaison.
This was when I noticed the milk in my cereal bowl starting to tremble and a light sound of jingling (which was the china in the cupboard) accompanied by the rhythmic, metallic ringing of the stem of my spoon tapping against the side of the bowl. I saw and heard everything without understanding. The floor under my feet was vibrating as if someone were running heavily through the house. At first I thought a large truck was driving down our street, but the vibrations and jingling of the china increased until the table was jumping away from me and the milk was spilling, sloshing over the sides of the cereal bowl. I understood then that the thing I had feared all week and finally dismissed as beyond probability was now happening. I ran out of the house.
The ground in the front yard was shuddering like loose skin on an elephant’s back if the beast had been shrugging its shoulders to topple a rider. The earth rippled like water. There was nowhere to run to. I dropped down on all fours and closed my eyes. The world was shaking around me. And then it stopped.” I had written this much about my first encounter with Tolstoy when the earthquake in China struck. And then, I hesitated to send what I had written to my editor. My childish experience seemed trivial and jejune in light of the enormity of the tragedy unfolding. I was reminded of my ex-husband’s dilemma ten year’s earlier, when we were still married and had a new baby. And I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. He was then working in conservation for the New York Zoological Society, on a campaign to prevent the destruction of the rain forest. He learned from my oncologist that a new drug, which might cure my cancer, was to become available only if we harvested in that jungle. Great principles, global concerns, and then the individual face of his family and the threat of one person’s death. I think that what is great in Tolstoy’s art is precisely this paradoxical experience of the overwhelming enormity and yet smallness of one person’s urgent needs and human fears against the vast almost inhuman face of great, national tragedies.
Amy Mandelker has taught at UCLA, University of Southern California, Columbia, Brown, and Princeton Universities. Her books include Framing ‘Anna Karenina': Tolstoy, the Woman Question & the Victorian Novel and Approaches to World Literature: Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’. She has revised the acclaimed Maude translation of War and Peace, available this October. You can read her previous blog post here.