The Fig Eater - Jody Shields Review by Diane Wilkes
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I found The Fig Eater, appropriately enough, at Petals and Perks, a coffee shop which also serves as a florist--in a train station. You don't find that combination every day (unless you frequent this particular train station)--and this book combines several unique elements as well.
It is the story of Dora, a woman you might recognize from Freud's writings. The book opens with her dead body sprawled out on the grounds of a park in Vienna, in 1910. The police photographer is capturing the scene on film, and the Police Inspector is doing the same, using his mind as his camera. Though he is a, if not the, main character of the book, he is always referred to as the Inspector; this detail, the neglect of the personal and the coronation of the act of detachment, echoes the premise of The Fig Eater.
Perhaps I should say that the divergence between the intuitive and the scholarly approach is the real theme of this book, for the Inspector is not the only one who wants to discover who killed Dora. Erszebet, his Hungarian wife, finds herself compelled to solve this mystery as well. When the Inspector mentions en passant to Erszebet that Dora must have eaten a fresh fig immediately prior to the murder, his wife is struck by psychic lightning: "She knows she can divine something from this evidence, this fruit he's discarded. She believes that what was left in Dora's body was a powerful talisman. If the fruit had just been picked, the tree is growing somewhere in the city. Who gave her the figs?"
The couple pursues Dora's killer in their respective operational styles. The Inspector religiously consults his copy of Encyclopadie der Kriminalistik, from which Shields intersperses passages throughout the book; Erszebet and her new acquaintance, Wally, use their intuition and personal-social skills to track down the guilty party. We are never really told how Erszebet and Wally find one another--like their mode of investigation, their initial meeting is shrouded in esoteric gauze. But, if the Inspector's Bible is the Encyclopadie der Kriminalistik, Erszebet's holy guide is her familiarity with folklore and her superstitious beliefs and practices. At one point, though, she doubts her beliefs. Shield's paragraph evokes the Moon card:
"Now she understands that her investigation
of Dora--its ruthlessness, hidden rules,
unfathomable denouement--has the same
intimacy. She remembers wandering to the
window in the white room while the sick
woman slept to watch for harbingers of
death. She listened for a dog's howl. She
heard nothing, saw nothing. Her tarot cards
--all the signs she relied on--were useless.
Prophecy had failed. She was merely a
witness as a woman died."
This clash between the intuitive and the scholarly is one frequently seen on tarot discussion lists, with both sides supremely confident that theirs is "the" way. I won't spoil the novel to say whose approach is most successful, but I think Shields has done an excellent job in showing the value--and debits--of both methods.
To continue this schemata, Erszebet utilizes the Inspector's notebook that contains both his tangible discoveries and speculations about Dora's murder. She does so secretly and without scruples of conscience. Conversely, the Inspector's intuition plays a pivotal part in his deductions, whether he recognizes that or not. I'm a Temperance kinda girl--I think blending intuition with the intellect creates a perfect alchemy for reading the cards, and this book seems to echo that conclusion.
By observing and analyzing details of Erszebet's behavior, the Inspector is able to discern his wife's immersion into her psychic/spiritual side as her passion to solve the mystery increases. Shields writes about this beautifully, vividly:
"Some mornings, her husband found damp brushes
on the table, but he never saw her at her easel.
He considered it indelicate to ask to see a finished
painting. He knew this from his work. She left
bowls of dried figs sitting out until they were inedible.
Just leave them alone, she said when he asked about
them, they're a nature morte for artistic observation.
I'm painting them. He noticed the pack of tarot cards
was missing from its usual place in the drawer. He
later discovered the deck in her satchel. She
constantly consulted her book about dream
I also see hints of the inferiority complex you occasionally see in the pro-intuitive advocates in Erszebet's internal dialogue (My observations are as keen as yours, only different, she thinks.)
Shannon, the proprietor of Petals and Perks, keeps several shelves of books available for her customers to peruse as they're waiting for the train. I picked up The Fig Eater and read the book description on the backflap, which mentions Gypsy superstition and folklore (in which Erszebet's Hungarian upbringing has been steeped). I flipped through the book and the first page my eyes stopped on mentioned tarot, so I asked to borrow it.
The synchronicity of the discovery of this work not only seems serendipitous in line with the novel's theme, the book includes more tarot than I imagined it would. I selected the October Tarot Passage of the Month from it. There is a two paragraph commentary on the history of the tarot (which, gratifyingly, is not attributed to the Gypsies), and the word "tarok" is the one used in Austria and Vienna ("Tarot cards are used to predict fortunes or played as a game. In Austria, the card game tarok can be played with up to fifty-four cards.")
Not only is tarok played several times during the novel, but divinatory aspects of The Fool, The Tower, The Devil, and The High Priestess are explained via narrative and dialogue. "Le Diable...isn't a positive sign. The card means the devil never lets go of those who belong to him. It reminds me of a Polish proverb: When the devil grabs you by a hair, he grabs you completely."
I found some other passages vis-a-vis tarot very insightful, such as, "She remembers her inscrutable face as she read Egon's character with the tarot cards. Wally sensed her [Rosza's] hidden pleasure in revealing his misfortune, like the sharp glint of a gold thread in a piece of embroidery." I've seen some readers possess a certain veiled glee as they give a querent a negative piece of information, and it's made me look at their readings with a somewhat jaundiced eye.
The fact that Dora's character is based on Freud's Dora (and remember, this book takes place in Vienna in 1910) shows that Shields is able to talk about tarot so effectively because, like any good storyteller, she embraces multiple meanings. Some parts of the storyline are taken from Freud's "hysterical" patient: both Doras have syphilitic fathers who have affairs other men's wife (and that other man, in turn, makes persistent romantic advances towards the much younger Dora), and both Doras' mothers are unnatural in their closeness to their sons and the neatness of their houses (of course, house neatness is always relative--and to me, keeping a house neat indicates an unhealthy degree of obsessiveness). The role of Freud is played in the book by Dr. Steinach, and...well, I guess you could say we've come a long way, baby, as far as the profession of psychiatry is concerned.
I found the mystery rather dry going in spots, but I enjoyed the healthy amount of tarot in the book, along with the examples of gypsy folklore. I'll share just one more example (it's like the chicken pox, once you start scratching, you can't stop).
"[I]f the corpse is a revenant, a living dead...
Gypsies believe a revenant can be dissolved by
stabbing it with a steel needle. I remember what
the peasants in our village believed. If the
illegitimate child of two illegitimate parents killed
someone, that corpse would become a revenant.
To kill it, the peasants dig up the corpse and cut
out its heart. Then it is burned."
While there isn't quite as much tarot content in The Fig Eater as there is in, say, The Wishing Garden, I still recommend this highly for its tarot content and the way the intuitive vs. scholarly clash can play out in fiction...which is, of course, a paradigm for real life.
The Fig Eater
If you would like to purchase this book, click here.
Review and Page © 2000 Diane Wilkes