by Claudia Keurdjekian
Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski, is a novel about an immigrant boy that lives in California, named Henry Chinaski. As readers we get to see Henry’s life through his eyes, and his description of what he has lived in the past. Henry’s long and lonely years of his hardscrabble childhood has allowed him to evolve as a character. Throughout the novel Henry tries to keep up with his tough guy look, and then there are some moments where we, as readers, see beyond his thick skin, and realize that he’s such a sensitive human being. His expression of compassion towards other living beings is what makes him a special character, and the contrast between his tough and soft side is also what I relate with the most.
Not all of our memories are happy, and some are mostly sad or dark, but that’s how we grow as human beings. Like Henry, I too have a lot of childhood memories. I remember when I was about five years old, I was over at my grandparent’s house, and my cousin and I were playing together. We were so close to each other, and I loved him so much. On that day, I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I do remember that he had misbehaved, and so his parents started reprimanding him. Then his father got up from the couch to give him a slap on the cheek. And during that moment, I couldn’t stand watching my cousin getting hit, and I was feeling so scared. I didn’t want him to get hurt. I knew I had to do something about it, so I stood in front my uncle, and put my hand up as if I were a shield trying to protect my cousin from getting beat up. I was trying to stop his father from slapping him, and I started begging my uncle, ‘’Please don’t hurt him! He didn’t mean to! Please! He promises that he will behave better, give him a second chance!’’. My uncle then looked into my eyes, and he couldn’t resist the way I tried to stand up against him. He stood back. I felt so relieved that he couldn’t harm my cousin, and I went over to hug my cousin. My cousins’ parents were so shocked by the way I acted.
Just like Henry, I feel compassion to those who are suffering or who are about to suffer. I try to protect the weaker ones from any harm. I think this is why I relate with Henry so much. He has a big heart, and shows empathy to those who are in danger. One of the moments in the novel that I relate the most to Henry is when he tries to feed a stray dog that he sees along the way to his work.
As I walked along I didn’t feel so alone and I wasn’t. I noticed a starving mongrel dog following me. The poor creature was terribly thin; I could see his ribs poking through his skin. Most of his fur had fallen off. What remained clung in dry, twisted patches. The dog was beaten, cowed, deserted, frightened, a victim of Homo sapiens.
I stopped and knelt, put out my hand. He backed off.
“Come here, fellow, I’m your friend…Come on, Come on…”
He came closer. He had such sad eyes.
“What have they done to you, boy?”
He came still closer, creeping along the sidewalk, trembling, wagging his tail quite rapidly. Then he leaped at me. […] he was licking my face, mouth, ears, forehead, everywhere. I pushed him off, got up and wiped my face.
“Easy now! You need something to eat! FOOD!”
I reached into my bag and took out a sandwich. I unwrapped it and broke off a portion.
“Some for you and some for me old boy!”
I put his part of the sandwich on the side walk. (Bukowski, 202)
This passage clearly demonstrates how kind Henry is despite showing himself as a tough guy, he’s also a very sensitive guy, too. He cares about animals, which makes me think of him as a heartfelt guy. This nicely contrast his rough personality. And this passage made me fall in love with Henry. Him caring for the dog made me realize that he’s not as a tough or cold as he describes himself to be, he can also be a sensitive human being. As Henry says the dog was a “victim of Homo sapiens”. Henry seems to distance himself from other human beings, and makes himself look like he’s not part of that “gang”. He seems to care more about animals than he does for humans. I totally relate to that because my best friends are my cats. Sometimes it seems like I get along better with animals than I do with humans. Henry has compassion for those in need because he himself is also a vulnerable human being. Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. Henry has also learned the “concept of sharing” as he gives the dog a portion of his sandwich, which I find demonstrate that he values justice, and equality.
Another passage that demonstrates Henry’s love for animals is when he and his friend think about baptizing a stray dog that they see on their way while they were walking. Just the fact that he thinks to do such a thing makes him seem weird, but at the same time it proves that he doesn’t see animals as the same way the church sees them. In Christianity, animals do not have souls nor do they are baptized, so for Henry to think that a dog should be baptized reveals that he sees animals as if they were humans, in other words, equal to humans. He thinks that once the dog is baptized it will be able to go to heaven after it dies, which also shows that he believes the animals deserve second chances, too.
To be continued…