The Brethren

September 30, 2014

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Robert Merle’s The Brethren is the first in a 13 volume series of historical novels published in France between 1977 and 2003 which have now finally begun the process of appearing in English thanks to translator T Jefferson Kline and Pushkin Press. Set in the 16th century, it tells the story of that period through the experiences of the de Siorac family and through the eyes of the second son, Pierre. Merle describes its construction in a brief introduction:

“It is a concentric tale, whose first circle is the family, second circle a province and third a kingdom, whose princes receive no more attention than is necessary to understand the happiness and unhappiness of those who, far away in their baronial courts, depended on their decisions.”

My limited knowledge of historical fiction makes it difficult for me to name an English language equivalent, but The Brethren neither seeks to recreate the world of the powerful as Wolf Hall does, nor use history as a backdrop to a different kind of story as in The Name of the Rose. Instead there is a clear intention to demonstrate the historical events of the time as they affect characters who are neither at their centre or entirely removed from them.

The de Siorac family are a Protestant family at a time of great religious division in France and much of the novel focuses on the tensions that arise as, first one faction, then the other, achieves temporary superiority. Pierre’s father, Jean, and his brother in arms and namesake Jean de Sauveterre are ex-soldiers who together buy the chateau Mespech with the intention of making a life for themselves after their service in the army:

“Between these two were woven, out of the hazards of battle, and their many brushes with death from which each had saved the other, the ties of an affection so deep that neither time, misfortune, nor even my father’s marriage could damage it in the slightest.”

The above quotation also gives a sense of the voice of the novel which seeks to echo an older rhythms of English without containing too many archaic terms. This can seem a little slow at times, particularly initially when Pierre is recounting events that took place before he was born. However the original novel was written in the French of the period (described on Wikipedia as ‘virtually untranslatable’) so it would have been a betrayal of the source to translate into an entirely contemporary English.

For lovers of historical fiction, the novel is rich with detail and contains some wonderful scenes demonstrating the dangers of the time, such as when the chateau is attacked by gypsies or when order collapses in the local town as the plague takes hold (an early version of The Walking Dead). Most dangerous of all is the two Jeans’ Protestant religion (not shared by Siorac’s wife or by their servants) which they initially keep hidden – a decision as to whether to make it public is one of life and death.

A lighter strand is provided by de Siorac’s inability to control his lust (much disapproved of by de Sauveterre) giving Pierre a half-brother, Samson. Pierre seems to be following in his father’s footsteps given his nightly adventures with the servant’s daughter Helix. Although there a number of strong and sympathetic female characters, it has to be said they can veer towards cliché at times and it is the men who are the clear heroes of the story. (Of course, this may change in later volumes).

The Brethren is a very pleasurable way to learn about 16th century France. Its style means it lacks the impact of Wolf Hall and it is certainly not as knowing as The Name of the Rose, but for those who enjoy historical novels I suspect they will want to follow Pierre on his journey as he leaves Mespech in the final pages.

Lost Books – Goodbye, Mr Dixon

September 27, 2014

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There has been some discussion recently about the dangers of book blogging, and, in particular, how it can confine you to reading only what is new and neglecting older, less fashionable, novels you may want to read or reread (for example from Simon Savidge and Marina Sofia).  A good time, then, to revive my Lost Books section, though I have used it in the past to consider those unexpectedly reprinted as well as those which seem destined never to be seen again. Iain Crichton Smith has featured already as an author of Lost Books (with A Field Full of Folk) but as all but one of his novels are out of print (the classic Consider the Lilies), he has plenty of Lost Books to choose from. Goodbye, Mr Dixon, like its predecessor, has not only been unavailable since its publication in 1974, but never made it out of hardback. It also shares the distinction of being a perfectly good novel, with the added interest that it is largely about writing.

The titular Mr Dixon is not the novel’s main character but the creation of the novel’s main character, Tom Spence. Spence describes himself as “an embryo novelist”:

“He was one of those people who live hand-to-mouth on practically nothing at all, but with the determination to have book, especially a novel, published.”

Spence has had the odd job – for example, delivering mail – but is largely without skills and has bet all on his career as a writer. Unfortunately he has “never brought a novel to a successful conclusion” never mind had one published, and, unable to live the dream, has instead dreamed it through his protagonist, Drew Dixon. This, however, creates its own problems:

“He didn’t even know very much about the world of Dixon who, unlike himself, had been writing novels for a considerable period and living from their sale.”

His novel has ground to a halt because he has decided Dixon will “meet a girl of twenty-five or thereabouts whose entry into his world was to change his life” but has no idea how to write it. Believing that all experience should be placed in the purpose of art, when he meets a young woman at an art gallery he immediately thinks of his novel:

“Dixon needed her: why couldn’t he think of something to say?”

And when she leaves he is angry because “now he wouldn’t be able to proceed with his book.” Fortuitously he meets the young woman, Ann, again and, as their relationship develops we begin to sense that it will be Spence’s life that is changed rather than Dixon’s. As Spence’s isolation ends he revisits his past, attempting to contact the mother he hasn’t seen in years and returning to his old school to see the English teacher who he believes encouraged him to write. Increasingly his admiration for Dixon turns to hatred:

“He hated him really because he was inhuman and brittle. He realised that there was nothing Dixon had veer really loved, not with any depth, not for itself alone.”

The novel also contains extracts from Spence’s novel where we see this change taking place: initially Dixon replays scenes from Spence’s life with greater success, but slowly his inadequacies become evident.

If at first the novel may seem satirical, Spence’s loneliness is too palpable to make him entirely ridiculous. Smith seeks not to ridicule Spence, who is ultimately a sympathetic characters, but his idea of the artist looking at the world “coldly and inhumanly.” Spence is forced to choose between life and art. Interestingly, the final chapter is told not from Spence’s point of view, or Dixon’s, but Ann’s, as if Spence’s perspective looking out at the world has been replace with the world looking in on him.

It’s possible to question whether a writer writing about a writer who rejects his character (a writer) and writing would regard this as a happy ending. At both the beginning and end of the novel Spence talks about writing as a bottle of Parazone (a brand of bleach):

“The yellow was bright and almost sunny but the liquid inside was acid and harsh.”

This seems very in tune with Smith’s own craft and for this reason we should perhaps be careful not to take the conclusion entirely at face value.

It seems unlikely that Smith’s novels are suddenly going to be reprinted, but an enterprising publisher could surely make them available electronically.

Twilight of the Eastern Gods

September 24, 2014

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As Ismail Kadare’s name increasingly gets mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize, it’s fortuitous that Canongate should publish one of his early novels, Twilight of the Eastern Gods, in English for the first time, which takes as one of its one of its central events Boris Pasternak being awarded the Prize in 1958. Much has changed since then – no need now to debate whether Kadare is a dissident or not – though it’s interesting that Kadare should focus on Pasternak , a writer who was criticised by both the Soviet Union and Solzhenitsyn, just as Kadare has been criticised for compromise with the Albanian regime before his eventual exile. Twilight of the Eastern Gods is translated from the French by David Bellos – as Kadare’s complete works were published in both French and Albanian in 2004, it seems that this will now be the journey they make into English.

Twilight of the Eastern Gods tells of Kadare’s experiences at The Gorky Institute in Moscow (or at least those of an Albanian writer very like Kadare). Surrounded by writers from all over the Soviet Union, the narrator is developing his own identity as a writer, though it sometimes seems reluctantly. Not only does he mark himself out as an outsider form the start – “I happened to be the only foreigner staying there” – he hides the fact he is a writer from his Russian girlfriend, Lida:

“I shook my head and mumbled a few words to the effect that I did something in the cinema, regretting instantly that I hadn’t invented a calling even more distant from literature, such as table-tennis or Egyptology.”

The Institute is presented as a maze of corridors, perhaps representing all the possible variations of ‘the writer’:

“The corridor was truly endless: maybe sixty doors opened on it. No corridor before had played such an important role in my life.”

It is in an abandoned room, however, (which he describes as his “sanctuary”) that he finds scraps of Doctor Zhivago, uncertain what he has discovered – “it might be a forbidden work circulating from hand to hand.” When Pasternak is awarded the Nobel Prize an intensive propaganda campaign is launched against him:

“What must it be like to be the target, to be the eye of that whirlwind?”

However, it would be misleading to suggest that this is the novel’s only concern. Much of it is concerned with the narrator’s loneliness, his relationship with Lida, and the problems created for him by the worsening relationship between Albania and the Soviet Union. Kadare uses the legend of Doruntine and Konstandin to explore this, something he will return to in more detail in The Ghost Rider. The narrator takes the part of Konstandin, the brother who returns from the dead to fulfil a promise and rescue Doruntine. At one point he tells Lida, “Did you know I’d swum the Acheron, the river of the Underworld,” with reference to a literal river in Albania. Prevuiously, in an attempt to end the relationship, a friend told Lida that he was dead:

“I thought, It’s all over now. Now she believes I’m dead, it’s all done for. ‘If only you hadn’t killed me off entirely,’ I said with a flicker of optimism.”

When he does finally leave her he does so very much in the manner of Konstandin, perhaps realising that he must return to his homeland. You can’t help but think that the promise which is greater than death also relates to the idea of writing.

If this makes Twilight of the Eastern Gods sound gloomy, that’s not a fair representation: much of it is a satirical look at literature in the Soviet Union. Here, for example is his description of the writers on holiday in Latvia:

“Most of the children who ran around noisily in the daytime had poems and stories dedicated to them by their parents…As for the older women…I knew that quite a few were still stepping out on the pages of some books as good-looking women in high heels, under the mask of initials such as D.V. or N.”

There is also a large cast of characters I haven’t mentioned to poke fun at, and an outbreak of smallpox to be dealt with. It probably isn’t the best introduction to Kadare’s work, but is a fascinating addition to what is available in English, particularly for those interested in Kadare himself, providing insight, as it does, to his early life.

Mr Gwyn

September 20, 2014

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Italian author Alessandro Baricco is perhaps best known for his short novel Silk which, in 2007, was adapted for film (featuring, among others, Keira Knightly and Alfred Molina). His previous novel, Emmaus, translated, as here, by Anne Goldstein, was published only in the US by McSweeney’s, a fate that seems likely to be repeated by his latest, Mr Gwyn. Mr Gwyn is a novel about a writer, though unlike any I have read previously. Though a realist novel, it is best read as a fable, with a playful seriousness that reminded me at times of that other great Italian writer, Italo Calvino.

Jasper Gwyn is a writer “acclaimed by the public and generally respected by the critics.” (The novel is set, not in Italy, but in England). Having published three varied but successful novels, Gwyn makes a decision to retire:

“At the age of forty-three, however, Jasper Gwyn wrote an article for the Guardian in which he listed fifty-two things that, starting that day, he would never do again. And the last was: write books.”

Gwyn’s agent, Tom, predictably doesn’t believe him, harassing him in the Laundromat via his assistant Rebecca and a mobile phone. However, Gwyn sticks to his pledge until he meets a retired teacher who recognises him. He confides to her that what he really wants to be is a copyist and she suggests, “See if you find something like copying people.” This, and a visit to a gallery, leads him to the idea of creating portraits of people in writing. The person would have to sit for him and the portrait would be for their eyes only, just as with a painted portrait.

I won’t reveal too much about the system that Gwyn creates in order to write his portraits – much of the novel’s enjoyment is in seeing it unfold – but suffice to say it is methodical down to the last detail. Similarly, I don’t want to reveal too much about the portraits themselves, except to say they are not, as Tom initially supposes, simply descriptions. Gwyn says, “I would imagine it would be rather like taking people home,” an enigmatic phrase that suggests he wants to capture something of the truth of a person, but is also concerned about its effect on them.

The novel provides an esoteric exploration of what writing is, why writers write, and the relationship between what they are portraying and the portrait itself. Relationships themselves are also key: not only the relationships between Gwyn and his long-time friend Tom, and Gwyn and Rebecca (who becomes his first model), but also those between Gwyn and his sitters. Unsurprisingly, Gwyn eventually decides his days as a copyist are over and disappears, leaving Rebecca to solve the mystery of what he has done with the portraits.

Many novels about writing are let down by the fact that the fictional writer’s work does not appear in the text, or does appear but disappoints. Gwyn’s portraits are not revealed to us in Mr Gwyn but are in an additional story, Three Times at Dawn, which also appears in this volume. I believe they were not published contemporaneously originally, but Baricco wrote Three Times at Dawn afterwards, inspired by his own idea. Not only is this a wonderful story in its own right, but it is presented as one of the portraits Gwyn wrote, allowing the reader to see Gwyn and Baricco’s ideas fully realised.

I found Mr Gwyn to be a delightful and entrancing novel. Despite Gwyn’s slightly melancholy demeanour, there was something life-affirming about the task he set himself and its accomplishment. It is to be hoped as UK publishers decides to make it more widely available here (though the McSweeney’s edition is, as usual, beautiful).

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage

September 17, 2014

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For over thirty years I’ve been a fan of David Bowie. Throughout the seventies he produced a series of albums that remain unrivalled in creativity and variety, culminating with Let’s Dance entering the mainstream in 1983. Only once, however, have I seen him live, and that was on the Glass Spider tour in 1987 at Roker Park in Sunderland. That tour, and the album that it was promoting, Never Let Me Down, is generally regarded as being far from Bowie’s finest hour. There was a sense that he was uncertain where to go next and instead cannibalising previous ideas (most obviously the spider reference) in a way that was dangerously close to caricaturing them.

And so to Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colourless Tsukuri Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (and that’s the last time you’ll hear that in full). Like Bowie, Murakami has gone from having a devoted cult following to global superstar – well, in book terms at least. And, similarly, his new novel seems to show an artist struggling with his own legend. When its title was first released their were many comments about how ‘Murakami-like’ it was (a quick glance at my bookshelves shows this simply isn’t true) but to me it sounds more like a parody of a Murakami title, reaching back to an earlier hit (Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – the only other title with ‘and’ in it) and drawing heavy-handed attention to symbolic elements of the novel.

The set-up itself is intriguing, as it always is with Murakami: Tazaki is part of a close-knit group of five teenage friends. He alone leaves Nagoya for Tokyo to study but is still surprised when the other four drop him entirely and refuse to see or even speak to him:

“I’m sorry but I have to ask you not to call any of us anymore.”

No explanation is offered and it is only years later, encouraged by a new girlfriend, Sara, that Tazaki decides he needs to discover what caused this breach. (If this was a realist novel we would assume it was simply because Tazaki is one of the most boring characters ever created, however, this is Murakami and we expect a more metaphysical solution, as indicated by the fact that his four friends all have colours in their names, while he is ‘colourless’). The novel charts his investigation into his own past as he tracks down his friends and visits them, while at the same time recounting his relationship with Sara which becomes increasingly important to him.

Thrown in alongside this is the story of another failed friendship, a story told by that character’s father about death, a series of dreams (especially sex dreams) and various musical references, particularly to Franz Liszt’s ‘Years of Pilgrimage’. It would be unreasonable to criticise the novel for not choreographing all of these into a comprehensive world view. Murakami has explicitly stated he is not an analytical novelist and has always been more suggestive than schematic. However I worry that some of these elements are appearing because he feels his readers expect them.

Haida’s father’s story was very Murakami but only its inclusion of references to colour seem at all connected to the narrative, and they seem out of place in the story itself. We are told:

“Each individual has their own unique colour, which shines faintly around the contours of their body. Like a halo. Or a backlight.”

Are we to assume that Tazaki is (metaphorically?) dead (colourless)? That his journey is that of return from the underworld? We are told (and much of the novel feels like telling) after his friends disown him that:

“For five months after he returned to Tokyo, Tsukuru lived at death’s door. He set up a tiny place to dwell, all by himself, on the rim of a dark abyss.”

This reading is hampered, however, by Tazaki’s unchanging nature – the Tazaki of the final pages seems very like the Tazaki of the first.

The references to ‘Years of Pilgrimage’, and in particular ‘Le mal du pays’ (homesickness) seem intended to highlight the novel’s concern with home. Tazaki speculates:

“He had no place he had to go, no place to come back to. He never did, and he didn’t now.”

But picking out these ideas makes the novel seem more coherent than it is, and where Murakami in the past has made up for a lack of coherence with imagination and narrative power, the story itself is ultimately rather dull, not to mention often poorly written, with some jarring images (“he’d swallowed a hard lump lf cloud”; “their pubic hair was as wet as a rain forest”) which cannot be blamed on the translator, Philp Gabriel (though I am blaming him for: “I am too telling the truth”). The novel has a sentimental idealisation of teenage friendship, and a Freudian level fear of sexual fantasy – in that sense it would, perhaps, make a good pop song. Murakami certainly seems to have adopted a pedestrian version of Bowie’s ‘cut-up’ approach to lyrics.

(Of course, were you to ask me how I felt about that concert 27 years ago, I would tell you that I loved it).

Under the Tripoli Sky

September 16, 2014

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Over the last few years Peirene Press have provided us with one of the most stimulating and invigorating libraries of European fiction. For this year’s coming of age series they have already drifted beyond the Eastern edges of Europe with Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake; now, as the final title, Under the Tripoli Sky, suggests, they have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa. Its author, Kamal Ben Hamida, is a native of Libya, though, like so many writers, has spent much of his life outside his homeland. Known mainly as a poet and musician, Under the Tripoli Sky is (as far as I know) his only novel.

The novel is narrated by a young boy, Hadachinou, who seeks his identity among the women he lives with and around. “You are just a way of seeing things,” he is told at one point, “So open the windows of your eyes,” and the novel is one of observation. Hadachinou is a spy in the women’s camp, absorbing his knowledge of life from their stories. The novel is prefaced by a tale of a golden age of matriarchal rule before contact with Europeans corrupts the men and their society. In retrospect this seems as much a myth of childhood as of history. Such story-telling is associated with women in the novel itself. It begins with his Aunt Fatima:

“That night she came to my bed to tell me her usual goodnight story.”

Later, referring to a female neighbour he visits, Fella, he describes:

“…that wonderful world of madness she conjured up when she got carried away telling her stories.”

Hadachinou, as a child, exists in the world of women, which, as is made clear from the start, is separate from then world of men. The novel opens with his circumcision, something that takes place among men, but even there he is aware of the other world:

“Lost in this indefinable chasm, I suddenly became aware of an explosion of women’s laughter from the kitchen…What the men were up to was clearly of no concern to them.”

Though Hadachinou is happy there, the women’s world is not one of unalloyed joy. Aunt Hiba, we are told, “backed away from people in shame”:

“She didn’t want to show her broken teeth or her face with its fresh bruises from the latest blows inflicted by her husband.”

Domestic violence is a recurring theme. Although finding freedom within their own company, women’s lives in society are circumscribed by men. Zaineb, a childhood friend of Hadachinou’s, is suddenly “not allowed out any more. She would soon be married to an important man.”

What Hameda does brilliantly is balance the joy that many of the women still find in their life, with the difficulties they also face. Yes, it is a coming of age story, as Hadachinou is educated by the many women he observes and talks too, not only relatives and neighbours, but prostitutes and, at one point, a bearded lady from a visiting freak show. But it is also a wonderful picture of society, of the various social classes and the different races, religions and nationalities. Neighbours and friends include an Italian and a Jew, and then there is the black servant he regards as a ‘sister’. Of course, it might be objected that this is a society without men (Women without Men would have been an appropriate alternative title), but that would be to ignore novel after novel which purports to represent society but where women are absent. That aspect, among many others, make this a timely portrait of a country that we may have never seen this way before.

The Blue Room

September 6, 2014

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Peirene’s second novel in this year’s coming of age series was The Blue Room by Hanne Orstavik translated by Deborah Dawkin. It would be fair to say that The Blue Room has made a powerful impression among those who have read it, as many online reviews will testify. The story it tells at first seems simple enough: the narrator, Johanne, a young woman who lives with her apparently over-protective mother awakes on the day she has chosen to go to America with her new (and perhaps only) boyfriend, Ivar, to find herself locked in her room. In the course of the novella she recounts the development of her relationship with Ivar, but indications that her version of events may not be entirely trustworthy soon begin to appear.

We get a glimpse of Orstavik’s writing method early on when Johanne recalls a lecture about “the isomorphic functioning of the brain”:

“When the senses only pick up fragments, our brain fills in the gaps to achieve wholeness and harmony.”

As with any first person narration we are aware we are not getting the whole story, but our brains fill in the ‘gaps’ fairly easily at first, especially as the possessive mother is a stock character, made more credible when Johanne reveals her religious leanings. Orstavik then inserts images that do not belong into the pattern our brains have created and, all of a sudden, our belief that we can fill in the gaps is undermined and we begin to question everything we have been told. This first happens just after Johanne has remembered her initial meeting with Ivar:

“I close my eyes. There’s an Asian girl chained to the bed. Twelve years old. It is an iron bed with rails and there are bars at the window. A fat sweaty man comes once an hour, He takes off his shorts and shirt, and she has to do whatever he wants.”

What she sees becomes more sexually explicit but with details provided to repulse rather than titivate. It provokes in the reader (or this reader at least) what would be in cartoon terms a double-take, a re-reading to check you haven’t accidentally fallen into another narrative – for narrative, rather than image, it is, with Johanne’s desire to “imagine what it’s like to be there” entirely unexplained. The setting might be the similar: both naked, in a room with a bed and a window, the girl chained, Johanne locked in, but the connection is mysterious.

These violent fantasies are in some way linked to her relationship with her mother. “Men are so simple,” she tells her daughter, “Controlled by sex and power,” while at the same time warning her against “dangerous” men. Her mother’s own previous relationships are alluded to:

“Her experience will prevent me from marrying a man who lacks boundaries, self-control and sensitivity.”

No father is mentioned and Johanne’s brother is, we are told, in America. Of her mother she says at one point, “She’s been through so much.” Yet if the mother is the controlling partner of the relationship, we might wonder why she says to Johanne, “I just can’t stand any more manipulation.” Though, of course, this could be manipulative.

Johanne’s confidence in herself is certainly lacking:

“I have something lacking, a flaw. I have a hole out of which all my strength seems to drain.”

In her relationship with her mother, with Ivar, and with her friend Karin, she seems both devoted and dependent. We might suspect that she is equally culpable in reliance on her mother:

“She’s right, I thought, we belong together like two clasped hands.”

And later, when she wishes she could be an architectural drawing:

“Then we could each spread our sheets on top of each other, Mum and I, and see where our lines diverged. And we could take an eraser and adjust them to match.”

What we have, then, is a particularly sophisticated version of the unreliable narrator: almost everything in the narrative is up for question but there is little that we can say for certain is untrue. The Blue Room is a character study where the character remains unknowable (like the ‘black box’ Johanne mentions in reference to another experiment); the exploration of a relationship where we cannot be sure, even at the end, how much we understand; a discussion of sexual desire that both celebrates and condemns. The final question it leaves us with is this, though:

How can a writer this good not be known to an English-speaking audience?

The Dead Lake

September 3, 2014

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The year’s theme for Peirene Press has been coming-of-age stories, beginning in February with Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake. Ismailov was forced into exile from Uzbekistan in 1994 and his works are still prohibited there. Although Peirene frequently bring writers into English for the first time, Ismailov is one of those rare occasions where some of his work has been previously translated. Certainly two other novels are available in print (The Railway and A Poet and Bin Laden), and a third as an e-book (The Underground). Andrew Broomfield, also responsible for A Poet and Bin Laden, has translated The Dead Lake from the Russian (Ismailov writes in both Uzbek and Russian).

Having now read all three of Peirene’s 2014 novellas, it is striking that all of them deal with the idea of coming-of-age in terms of relationships with the opposite sex, although all in different and surprising ways. In The Dead Lake that relationship is between Yerzhan and Aisulu who grow up together on the sparsely populated steppe. We hear Yerzhan’s story through the mediation of a narrator who comes across the young man on railway journey through Kazakhstan and is astounded at his virtuoso violin playing. The narrator first offends Yerzhan by mistaking him for a child – we discover later that Yerzhan stopped growing before he reached his teens – but soon befriends him and hears his life story throughout the rest of the journey.

Yerzham lives an isolated existence with his grandparents, his mother and his uncle (“The column for ‘Father’ in his birth certificate had remained blank”); in the only other house Aisulu lives with her Granny and parents. Yerzhan discovers he has a great talent for music, firstly by playing his grandfather’s dombra, and then later (when he is taken for lessons), the violin. If at first his talent seems a gift to be cherished, later you may be suspicious it is ultimately seen as pointless. The family live near ‘the Zone’, an area for nuclear testing, where Aisulu’s father works, a barren wasteland scattered with ruined buildings, one of which is nicknamed the goose:

“As they came closer, the ‘goose’ appeared more like a crane, an immense concrete block half-crumpled, as if it had melted and run on one side.”

Ismailov largely underplays the Zone to emphasise how matter-of-factly it is accepted as part of their life. The Dead Lake itself is to be found in the Zone, created by a bomb crater. Though Yerzhan is told not to drink or touch it, he

“…walked calmly into the forbidden water. For a moment he splashed about in it and then, to the admiring and terrified twittering of Aisulu and then others, he walked out of the water, shook himself off as if nothing had happened…”

Whether it is this single immersion, or (more likely) the continual exposure to radiation that prevents Yerzhan growing any further, it has a profound effect on his life. His assumption that he would marry childhood sweetheart Aisulu is challenged when she begins to exceed him in height. This begins a devastating series of events that will affect all in his tiny community.

If The Dead Lake is a critique of life on the steppe, it criticises from both the past and the present. If it is the USSR’s desperation to “catch up with the Americans and then overtake them” that leads to Yerzhan’s poisoning, the novel suggests that neither modernity nor folklore has an answer to it. A visit to a local healer is ridiculed when her methods and instructions are repeated almost word for word later when his Granny has an entirely different complaint; however, a trip to a city hospital is no more successful. Similarly, at the moment he enters the lake, Yerzhan is influenced both by the myth of Gesar his Granny has told him and American singer / film star Dean Reed (who will later drown in a lake). These influences lead to further rash action on his part later in the novel.

The Dead Lake, though it does not always seem it, is on reflection a bleak novel that offers little in the way of hope. I kept returning to the scene when Aisulu adopts a fox cub – that night it escapes from the house and is torn to pieces by the family dog. Its mother calls plaintively in the distance in a novel that is filled with the lonely howling of animals.

The Tea Lords

August 30, 2014

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For my final Women in Translation Month book I thought I would focus on a writer who is apparently regarded as one of the most important of her own country yet is still little known here. Hella Haasse is a Dutch writer whose career began in the 1940s and continued until the 2000s (she died in 2011). Her novels have sporadically appeared in English, but it was only in 2010 that The Tea Lords, considered her greatest achievement, became available thanks to translator Ina Rilke, who also translated her first novel, The Black Lake, in 2013.

The Tea Lords is set in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia) where Haasse was born in 1918. The novel begins in the 1870s and ends on the first of February 1918 – Haasse was born on the second. The colony would obviously be well known to Haasse, and the period would be within living memory when she grew up there, however the novel did not spring from her imagination but is based on the records of a particular family, as is explained in an afterward:

“The material…is not invented; rather, it has been chosen and arranged to meet the demands of a novel.”

This origin affects the novel: as an accurate picture of life for the Dutch colonists it is probably unsurpassed, but it seemed to me there was at times a certain gentleness towards the characters that may have arisen from a concern not to traduce individuals who once lived, and whose relatives aided the author’s research. The novel’s form also seems affected, particularly in the latter half when much of it is presented in the form of letters and diaries. In an imaginative novel this might be a way to give us insight into the characters; here there is a suspicion that the extracts may simply have been lifted as if the process of fictionalising events had become tiresome.

This is not to say that the story the novel tells is not interesting. Its central character is Rudolf Kerkhoven, the eldest son of a family with strong connections to the colony. Rudolf views his education in Holland as a necessary step before returning to Java, as we see in the novel’s prelude which describes his first day at Gamboeng, the estate that will become his own:

“He was twenty-four years old and for the first time in his life, he was his own man, his own master. Everything he had experienced until then was merely preparation for this moment.”

Rudolf’s two great character traits are his determination to succeed and the ever-present feeling that his success is never fully recognised by the rest of his family. Family slights are commonplace in his mind, but, whereas in a novel the writer may have engineered a confrontation, here they are played out (more accurately) in letters and diaries. In common with many novels of the colonial experience, Rudolf’s love of the land is shown to be entirely sincere. Relationships with the local population are touched on but often along the lines of “I can’t run this household properly unless I am strict with them.” Generally, they are denied both a presence and a voice, perhaps surprisingly for a novel written in 1992. (Again, the nature of the novel’s creation is an influence on this).

More surprisingly, women are also largely absent from the early part of the novel. It is towards the middle before Rudolf seeks to marry, Haasse giving us insight to his fiancée via a diary that she allows Rudolf’s sister to read so she can convey her thoughts to Rudolf. This, however, she doesn’t do:

“I didn’t mention all those bad dreams and gloomy thought soft yours. Far better to leave them out.”

This is something we are reminded off after Jenny’s death when Rudolf reflects on how well he actually knew her. It’s also interesting for the reader as we see the narrative focus on Rudolf has left Jenny marginalised for much of the novel, learning, for example, that:

“It was largely thanks to Jenny’s efforts that signatures in support of Captain Dreyfus were collected on the grandstands of the Bandoeng racecourse.”

This hint of dissent seems out of place in what is a very traditional novel in more ways than one. Haasse’s ambition is to tell the story of the ‘Tea Lords’ and in this she is successful. It’s the type of novel where you are educated on its topic. It also makes an interesting comparison with other novels of colonial life, particularly as it comes from outside the English language tradition. If these are not what you are looking for, however, I would suggest The Black Lake as a much better place to become acquainted with Haasse.

Diary of the Fall

August 23, 2014

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Michel Laub was named one of the Best Young Brazilian Novelists by Granta in 2012; it is only now that the English speaking world can discover this for itself as his fifth novel, Diary of the Fall, appears in English, translated, almost inevitably, by Margaret Jull Costa. Diary of the Fall is about three generations of the same Jewish family told from the perspective of the youngest member, the son, as he tries to understand his father and grandfather, and how he became the person that he is. His own exploration, the novel itself, echoes the notebooks and diaries of his father and grandfather, both of whom have similarly attempted to put their own memories in writing. These written documents are important as the narrator is deprived of the memories themselves by his grandfather’s suicide and his father’s dementia. Memory itself, therefore, is at the centre of the novel.

The narrator traces his own identity to a moment in his childhood when he and his friends play a cruel prank on a fellow pupil. The boy in question, Joao, is bullied both for being a non-Jew in a Jewish school, and for his social background (his father is a bus conductor). As the other pupils have held bar-mitzvahs on their thirteenth birthday, Joao’s family decide to throw a party and invite his class. The other boys throw him in the air thirteen times, as is traditional, but on the final occasion they do not catch him.

“I don’t know if I did it simply because I was mirroring my classmates’ behaviour, Joao being thrown in the air once, twice…until the thirteenth time and then, as he was going up, withdrawing my arms and taking a step back and seeing Joao hover in the air and then begin the fall, or was it the other way round…what if, deep down, they were also mirroring my behaviour?”

Joao is seriously, though not permanently, injured; the effect on the narrator is longer lasting, affecting his friendships and school, and still haunting him years later.

This defining moment in the narrator’s life is only one of three: one in each generation, in what would seem a steadily diminishing seriousness. The memories that will not leave his grandfather are those of his time in Auschwitz, “a kind of memory that comes and goes and that can turn out to be an even worse prison than the one they were in.” His grandfather does not talk about Auschwitz, and even in his notebook there is no mention of it. His notebook is instead a personal dictionary containing definitions we know to be ironic:

“Family – group of people who share the house with then man and in doing so crown his desire for continuity and a loving, giving relationship, confirming the good luck he has always enjoyed in life.”

His father’s defining memory is his own father’s suicide. He begins writing his memoirs when he is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In the extracts included we see the profound effect the suicide had on him:

“My mother never knew that I would sometimes lock myself in the bedroom to cry. No-one in the shop knew I would sometimes, in the middle of the morning, lock myself in the toilet and stay there for ten minutes or half an hour crying.”

In both cases these memories are not disclosed to the next generation, and there is a concern here about the tendency of men to attempt to shut away unpleasant memories: the narrator may be confiding in writing of the novel, but he also finds this difficult in his relationships.

My summarising may give the impression that the novel tells a chronological story, generation to generation, but in fact structure is one its most interesting aspects. It is not paginated but instead divided into sections of number paragraphs. This gives the impression of a series of thoughts or memories, linked but not coherent. Laub also comes back again and again to the same memories, just as we do in life:

“Forgive me if I say again that Auschwitz helps to justify what my grandfather did, if I find it easier to blame Auschwitz than to accept what my grandfather did, if I feel more comfortable continuing to list the horrors of Auschwitz…”

Luab seems to be suggesting that while we must understand our past, we should not blame it, as the narrator finally realises:

“… part of past that is likewise of no importance compared to what I am and will be, forty years old, with everything still before me, from the day that you’re born.”


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