The Islands

July 26, 2014

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I’m old enough to remember the Falkland’s War but young enough to have given little thought to the Argentinian perspective at the time. If there was a legacy for the UK it was in the enhanced reputation and popularity of Margaret Thatcher; but clearly defeat would also have its consequences. This is the topic Carlos Gamerro tackles The Islands, published originally ten years after the war, and translated into English by Ian Barnett a further decade later in 2012.

It’s a lengthy volume of over 500 pages, though apparently 100 pages shorter than the Spanish original, and might be described as baroque thriller. The central character, Felipe Felix, is a computer hacker and Falkland’s War veteran, is hired by the inordinately wealthy Fausto Tamerlan to obtain the names of thirteen witnesses to a murder committed by his son. (The name seems significant: Faust suggesting the pact with devil which Felix will make; Tamburlaine the violence and death that Tamerlan leaves in his wake). It will not surprise you to learn that unearthing the witnesses’ identities will reveal a wider plot which links back to Felix’s Falkland’s experience.

The reason I describe the novel as ‘baroque’ is revealed early in Felix’s first meeting with Tamerlan. Tamerlan’s headquarters consist of twin towers made of glass and mirrors:

“There were mirrors on the walls, mirrors on the ceiling, mirrors on the floor, mirrors on the mirrors, there was nothing but mirrors, and I floated in their midst as if the law of gravity and the points of the compass had all of a sudden been overruled.”

The mirrors allow Tamerlan to observe the entire building:

“The office was apparently the point of maximum visibility: the one place from which the rest of the building became transparent – the one place with no mirrors.”

The building becomes a wonderful image of superiority and egotism that supersedes the lairs of all James Bond villains, ideas that are pursued more viscerally in Tamerlan’s ornamental turd (“It’s of great sentimental value to me”) and, most shockingly, when he sodomises his son in front of Felix:

“Unable to contain himself, he unfastened his own trousers and, grasping his son by the hips to adjust his position slightly, mounted him as if he were a bitch on heat.”

It’s at this point you realise two things: firstly, whether the novel is for you or not, and secondly, that Gamerro is a writer who will not be holding back.

Tamerlan is such an over-whelming character that I found the novel was most gripping in the scenes in which he featured (just like a villain in a Bond film). The novel works well as a thriller: we have the luckless hero, who, once he becomes caught up in events finds he cannot simply walk away; a love interest who is soon in mortal danger; a secret document; and layers of different motivation for both the crime and the cover-up.

Running parallel to this is a critique of Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands. Most of the characters are veterans and the plot itself takes us back to events on the islands. At one point Felix creates a computer game that allows the player to win the war for Argentina. All this culminates in a lengthy flashback to the invasion as Felix recalls what happened with a familiar sensation of being let down by those who led. This sits a little uneasily with the thriller plotline as Gamerro provides more detail than necessary, yet is an excellent piece of writing in its own right.

On the strength of The Islands Gamerro seems to be a writer worth watching (one other novel, An Open Secret, has been translated into English, with a third due next year). While a little rough around the edges it is alive with energy and imagination, with some scenes that won’t leave my memory easily!

The Return

July 21, 2014

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It wouldn’t be Spanish Lit Month without at least one Roberto Bolano, and luckily, despite his death in 2003, English translations are still appearing faster than I can read them. I always feel a little intimidated discussing Bolano as there is a sense that the sum of his works is greater than its parts. By that I mean, that even with a partial knowledge of his writing, it is clear that certain ideas, themes and characters reoccur as if they were part of some larger plan. For that reason I thought it would be best to read a volume of his short stories, The Return, translated, as always, by Chris Andrews. Confusingly this volume contains stories from both a 1997 and a 2001 collection – the same collections that were plundered for Last Evenings on Earth (presumably these are the ‘leftover’ stories).

Despite this precaution, there are still stories which clearly form part of the ‘bigger picture.’ ‘Photos’, for example, features Bolano’s fictional alter-ego Arturo Belano and (of course) an anthology of poetry. The more accomplished ‘Detectives’, written entirely in dialogue, relates the tale of Arturo’s time in prison from the point of view of two of his guards, former classmates.

“So I looked in the mirror again and saw two old classmates, a twenty-year-old cop with a loose tie, and a dirty looking guy with long hair and a beard, all skin and bone, and I thought: Jesus, we really have fucked up, haven’t we…”

Many of the stories are about a different kind of dysfunctional relationship: those between men and women. All are set on the edges of society. In ‘Cell Mates’ the narrator begins a relationship with the revolutionary Sofia – they discover that they were both in prison at the same time, though in different continents. The relationship fades with Sofia:

“By then Sofia had become a ghost; she appeared without a sound, shut herself in her room or the bathroom and disappeared again after a few hours.”

The narrator, however, does not give up on her, even when subsequent meetings suggest she is both unwell and in an abusive relationship. There is something similar in the story ‘Joanna Silvestri’, one of a number told by a female narrator, the titular porn star. While shooting in LA she looks up an old friend who is dying from AIDs and moves in with him while she is there:

“It was almost like saying, It’s OK if you never come back, I knew that, but I decided that Jack needed me and that I needed him too.”

The recollection is told to a detective, emphasising its existence on the margins, and ghosts also feature (“I know a lot about ghosts”). Perhaps my favourite story in the collection, ‘The Return’, is actually narrated by a ghost:

“I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villleneuve is a necrophiliac.”

Death is commonplace in many of the stories. In ‘Prefiguration of Lalo Cura’ the narrator begins, “I’ve had people killed.” ‘Murdering Whores’ is, as its title suggests, about a female killer. In ‘William Burns’ a man kills someone he believes to be a threat on what seem in retrospect unconvincing reasons. Bolano’s world is one of unglamorous criminals, unexceptional non-comformists, the weary and the stateless. Here he effortlessly inhabits their attitudes and voices, neither sympathetic nor uncaring. He also shows a technical variety that suggests someone as comfortable with short story as with the novel. It seems there is not escape from the feeling that Bolano is a writer where you must read everything – because everything is worth reading.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate

July 19, 2014

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Adolfo Bioy Casares is probably best known for his friendship and collaboration with Jorge Luis Borges. They wrote a number of books together, adopting the pen-name of Bustos Domecq, and co-edited the anthology The Book of Fantasy. Casares was an author in his own right, however, most famously of the novel The Invention of Morel. Now, thanks to Melville House and translators Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell, we have another of his collaborations, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, which he wrote with his wife Silvina Ocampo. Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is not an unjustly neglected classic, but it is an absolute delight, the fun the couple clearly had concocting their tale communicating itself charmingly to the reader.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate takes the form of a murder mystery. The setting is a suitably isolated hotel:

“The building, white and modern, appeared picturesquely set in the sand like a ship on the sea, or an oasis in the desert.”

The guests are a suitably varied and interconnected collection: Mary, who (in the first of many in-jokes which also prove relevant to the plot) translates detective novels, her sister, Emilia, Emilia’s fiancé, Atuel, a Doctor Cornejo, and an Englishman, Manning. Also present are the hotel owners, and their mysterious young son, Miguel. The final guest is the narrator, also a doctor, Humberto Huberman, who from the beginning, has the fortunate habit of overhearing:

“…by now it was impossible not to hear the voices. Reluctantly, I strained to place them. They were the voices form the beach. Emilia and Mary were insulting each other with a shocking ferocity! I could scarcely bare to listen to them.”

It is Mary who is found poisoned the next morning. Huberman, as we would expect from our narrator, is convinced that he can unravel the mystery of her death. Unfortunately he is far from the ideal protagonist, and it is here that much of the novel’s humour lies. As well as being arrogant and ego-centric, he finds it difficult to treat the fatality with any seriousness. Even while examining the body he reflects on a comment he has made, “I found this amusing”, and later watches with tears of laughter in his eyes as the coffin is brought to the hotel. He is similarly distracted by his appetite. While discussing Mary’s death shortly afterwards, his mind is elsewhere:

“It wasn’t only the soup that deserved high praise. The toast was outstanding.”

Above all, his investigation, based largely on his knowledge of detective fiction, is frequently well off the mark. Meanwhile the real investigation (of which he thinks he is an integral part) goes on around him. When he finds Manning and Atuel making notes on detective novels which Mary has translated he refers to this as “childish activities” little knowing that they are closer to discovering the truth than he is.

What is impressive about Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is that it works successfully as a whodunit while at the same time satirising the genre. Casares and Ocampo also create an insufferable narrator with whom the reader happily spends time. Any lover of detective fiction looking for something a little different should get hold of this book.

Talking to Ourselves

July 15, 2014

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When Andres Neuman’s fourth novel, The Traveller of the Century was translated into English in 2012, it was clear that a writer of some significance had been made available to those of us who do not speak Spanish. It made the shortlists of both the IMPAC award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and was widely praised. Now those same translators, Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, have given us Talking to Ourselves, Neuman’s own follow up to Traveller, originally published in 2012. (Perhaps in time his earlier novels will be translated – a collection of short stories, Things We Don’t Do, will appear next in English). Talking to Ourselves is quite unlike Traveller – where Traveller is an baroque, historical epic, Talking to Ourselves is a much quieter, more intimate, contemporary novel. No doubt some readers may find this disappointing, but I found it both exciting and refreshing, a confirmation that Neuman was a talented writer intent on exploring his craft.

Talking to Ourselves is told in the alternating voices of three characters: a father (Mario), a mother (Elena) and a son (Lito). Quite quickly we discover that Mario is dying and has therefore decided that he and Lito should go on a journey together:

“Mario insisted he needed to go on a trip with his son at least once in his life. To take him in the truck, the way his father had done with him. I couldn’t refuse him that.”

Lito is ignorant of his father’s illness which lends their journey a layer of irony, for example when they decide to race to the toilet at one of their stops:

“I reach the door to the toilet. Me. First. For a moment I think Dad may have let me win. That always annoys me. This time it’s different. Because he’s actually ran and he’s all shaken up.”

(The short sentences are typical of Lito’s thoughts). Neuman, however, does not deploy this sentimentally. In fact, his main interest in the novel seems to be Elena and her response to her husband’s approaching death. Her first thoughts consider her own role in Mario’s story:

“A patient’s rights go unquestioned. No-one talks about the rights of the carer. Another person’s illness makes us ill.”

Elana is also the novel’s most interesting character: a school teacher who gave up university life (“Why did I lack the courage to pursue my academic career?”), her sections are presented as a diary rather than an interior monologue and are much more reflective. She frequently quotes writers, so much so that a list of sources appears at the novel’s end. Mario’s mortality has sparked off a crisis (we might unkindly call it a middle-aged crisis – she certainly refers to age in relation to it) in Elena, who begins an affair with Mario’s doctor, Ezequiel:

“I was going to say he drives me wild. But besides being cheesy, that would be inaccurate. It’s more like, with Ezequiel as a pretext, through his body, I had allowed myself to go wild. His healthy young body. Distant from death.”

Neuman conveys the intensity of the sadomasochistic relationship that develops convincingly, creating an unusual counterpoint to the road-trip. Interestingly, at no point did I find Elena an unsympathetic character, her obsessive lust seeming an understandable response to death.

Overall I found the novel to be a moving exploration of loss – not just the loss that occurs with death, but the loss related to the knowledge of approaching death. Talking to Ourselves might not have the scope or ambition of The Traveller of the Century, but it does convey the ambition of Neuman as a writer.

Outlaws

July 4, 2014

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Javier Cercas’ novels exist on the border between fiction and non-fiction. His last work, The Anatomy of a Moment, was an examination of an attempted Francoist coup in 1981. His latest, Outlaws, is also concerned with the aftermath of Franco’s death, beginning, as it does, in 1970s Spain. It tells the story of teenage criminal, gang leader and self-styled rebel Zarco, largely through the eyes of his friend and accomplice Canas. Canas makes an unlikely bank robber coming, as he does, from a stable, middle class family; he is regarded by all as a quiet, studious boy until he meets Zarco. Canas’ culpability in all that follows is just one of the questions that the novel forces us to consider.

While Zarco is undoubtedly an influence on Canas, it is Tere, whom he assumes is Zarco’s girlfriend, who attracts him to the gang (“if it hadn’t been for Tere, I most likely wouldn’t have done it”). The gang begin by stealing handbags and cars and robbing what we would call (but not the translator Anne McLean) petrol stations. After some of the members are killed and injured in a police chase, Zarco decides to use the stolen goods to purchase guns and begin robbing banks. Zarco is clearly a charismatic figure and Canas’ attitude towards him, even moderated by the fact he is telling the story many years later, is intended to represent the way he later comes to be seen by the public in general. A British equivalent might be the Great Train Robbers, who also seemed to have gained an anti-establishment tag, though I suspect that that fact that the gang are Catalans plays an important role. (As with the Great Train Robbery, there is a film version of Zarco’s life which is frequently mentioned in the text).

The novel is presented entirely as a series of questions and answers. The questioner is a writer researching a book on Zarco; Canas is the main interviewee. Other contributors are the police inspector who arrests Zarco, and the prison governor who becomes responsible for him. This style contributes considerably to the verisimilitude of the novel while at the same time creating the impression of an ongoing investigation, as if the reader were approaching some kind of truth. Cercas cleverly avoids interviews with the other two main protagonists, Zarco and Tere, leaving us to view them only through the eyes of others. This makes their characters harder to define as even Canas’ perception of them both changes over time, but that is one of the ways the novel leaves the reader uncertain in their reaction to the novel’s protagonists.

The novel is divided into two parts with a gap of around twenty years in between. In that time Canas has become a successful lawyer; Zarco has spent the period in prison. What has changed for him is his place in the world:

“…for Zarco everything went very fast. In fact, my impression is that when I knew him in the late seventies, Zarco was a sort of precursor, and when I saw him again in the late nineties, he was almost an anachronism, if not a posthumous persona.”

Canas becomes Zarco’s lawyer and begins a publicity campaign designed to free him from prison. Zarco appears self-obsessed and manipulative, but it could also be argued that Canas is using his notoriety to further his own career. Simultaneously, Canas begins a relationship with Tere. Is he only helping Zarco to be with her? Is she only sleeping with him as long as he aids Zarco? Such questions are never given simple answers, with even the protagonists themselves apparently unsure of their motivations. (One of the novel’s great strengths is the way it relentlessly questions why we do things).

Cercas also links changing attitudes to Zarco to Spain’s move towards democracy. His youthful rebellion coincides with throwing off the repressive regime of Franco, but twenty years later his actions appear selfish and immature; he has become the perpetual victim (but, then, he is a victim, having never been given the chance that Canas got). Once again Cercas seems determined to take a scalpel to Spain’s history, in a novel that has elements of both thriller and courtroom drama, but is ultimately a character study of three characters who cannot untangle themselves.

Things Look Different in the Light

July 2, 2014

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If Pushkin Press were to organise parties rather than published books, they would be very interesting parties indeed. It’s true that there would be few headline grabbing celebrities; rather a succession of fascinating individuals that you had never heard of but could not be more pleased to have met. Their latest introduction (and sometimes it feels almost as personal as that) is to a certain Medardo Fraile, a Spanish short story writer previously unavailable in English. (And if Pushkin Press’ introduction isn’t enough to convince to, Ali Smith is on hand to vouch for him). To further embarrass me in my ignorance, Fraile spent most of his life in Scotland, teaching at the University of Strathclyde and living here until his death in 2013. (You can read more about his life here.)

One advantage of Fraile’s non-appearance in English before now is that it allows translator Margaret Jull Costa to choose a selection of stories from his first volume (1954) to his last (2010), and even include one unpublished story. Fraile’s stories are miniatures, rarely reaching ten pages. They tend to focus on ordinary, often undramatic events. Some, like the title story, are set over a few hours: in it a sign painter descends to a new Metro station to paint the platform signs. The story tells of his relationship with an ill-tempered foreman and culminates in his decision on discovering he made a mistake on the sign when he returns to the surface. The title is a gentle play on words referring both to his emergence into the sunlight and his attitude to his job after his encounter with the ferocious overseer.

Other stories take place over a number of years. ‘The Cashier’ contains half a lifetime of a typical Fraile character, working both shifts at a bar to make a living, given a momentary chance at happiness when she falls for an older man. The seriousness of the romance is shown when she reduces

“…her working day to just one shift so they could meet somewhere else at a decent hour, because being able to talk freely as they did was really something special.”

In ‘The Armchair’ a luxury purchase in preparation for the possible visit of a wealthier relative causes family tension. In the end it is the armchair’s effect on the son and narrator that is most important:

“Siting on it was like passing through the doors of hopes and treasures, seeing princesses, living in a palace, oblivious to the smell of sardines or fried peppers.”

Similarly symbolic is the chandelier installed by the sisters in ‘Child’s Play’ to lighten their old age:

“They needed light so that their hair would shine and their eyes sparkle as they had when they were twenty, so that they could knit jerseys and sell them to sailors or give them away to children, could read the headlines in the newspapers, scrutinize photographs of the Holy Father in magazines and still be able to pick out the bees and the ducks on cross-stitch patterns.”

While clearly identifying the physical necessity of the light, Frail also insists on its poetic necessity. In an unusually surreal turn, when the sisters die their bodies give of a faint glow.

Two of my favourite stories involve teachers. In ‘Senor Otaola, Natural Sciences’ the titular teacher – predictable, pedantic (“knowing him, one could understand why the heavenly spheres not bump into each other”) – suddenly decides to leap down twelve stairs – perhaps in an attempt to defy those very natural sciences. In the other, ‘Full Stop’, Spanish teacher, Don Eloy, having forgotten his dictation text, simply reads the class one of his own composition. It is in his unexpected feelings of devastation when his words are immediately wiped from the blackboard Fraile suggests what all writers feel:

“He stood for a long while, staring at the blackboard, anxiously searching for a fragment of just one of his words or even half a word, anything, the tail of a letter, the dot on an “i”, searching for himself, fearfully searching that black rectangle.”

Luckily, thanks to Pushkin Press, Fraile’s own words have not been similarly obliterated.

The Truth About the Savolta Case

July 1, 2014

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July is Spanish Lit month  thanks to Stu at winstonsdad  and Richard at Caravana de recuerdos so it seemed appropriate to begin with one of my favourite Spanish writers. (You can see Stu’s the first entry here).

Eduardo Mendoza’s most recent novel to appear in English was An Englishman in Madrid (not a literal translation of its Spanish title); his first novel, The Truth About the Savolta Case, might well have been called A Frenchman in Barcelona. (It did, in fact, have an alternative title, Soldiers of Catalonia, but this proved too politically sensitive when it was first published in 1975). Though largely narrated by Javier Miranda (more on that later), its events revolve around the charismatic French businessman, Lepprince who, shortly after his arrival in Barcelona, becomes indispensable to the Savolta company. It is Lepprince who takes the reins after Savolta is gunned down, supposedly by anarchists, after a bitter industrial dispute. This is only one of a number of deaths in the novel as Mendoza uses the crime genre to explore Catalonia’s turbulent history between 1917 and 1919 – its political chaos possibly a surreptitious way of reflecting anxiety about Spain’s future without Franco.

The novel’s narrative, perhaps appropriately for a mystery, is presented to us as a jigsaw. While Miranda is the central first person narrator, there are many other voices, including a transcript of Miranda’s deposition before a judge in America in 1927, a sworn statement by Inspector Vasquez, who plays the detective role in the story, and articles written by the radical journalist Parjito de Soto (another murder victim) as well as third person sections focussing on other characters. These are not always presented in chronological order, adding to the reader’s sense that they are solving the riddle, but it would be wrong to think of the novel as a post-modern playground where the word ‘Truth’ is ironic: by the novel’s conclusion it is quite clear who has done what and why.

If anything, Mendoza’s novel might be described as Dickensian. Not only does it comfortably range across the classes from Nemesio the mad beggar to the King, who graces one of Lepprince’s parties, but is clear about the economic motives of its characters. The central scam of the Savolta case involves selling illegal arms to Germany. Lepprince’s ruthless takeover of the company only mirrors the way Savolta and others came into their shareholding having duped the original Dutch owner and his heirs. Even Parjito is corrupted by Lepprine’s offer of money to conduct an ‘investigation’ into working conditions. Other Dickensian tropes are in evidence: a letter that Parjito posts before his death incriminating Lepprince which no-one seems to have; Nemesio who claims to know the truth but who no-one will listen to; and Miranda, implausibly innocent as so many of Dickens’ heroes are.

Miranda is redeemed by his love for the singer Maria Coral, but is so blind that, when Lepprince arranges for them to marry, he doesn’t realise that Lepprince’s main motive is to have Maria available as a lover. It could be argued, however, that Miranda’s love for Maria eventually saves her (literally when he finds her ill, but also metaphorically from herself). His loyalty to Lepprince is also admirable, if equally naïve. Again, Lepprince’s final act, through Miranda, suggests that, even there, he has had a positive influence. Like Dickens, and like most detective fiction, most characters get what they deserve.

The Truth About the Savolta Case is currently out of print, but well worth seeking out if you are interested in Spanish fiction. Despite the fractured narrative, the novel is very readable (and many of the different narrative forms disappear in the novel’s second half) and Mendoza recreates the period with panache but without ever losing sight of his characters. My only disappointment in finishing this was that I have now read all of his novels available in English.

A Lovely Way to Burn

June 22, 2014

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In the acknowledgements, Louise Welsh mentions Terry Nation’s Survivors as a childhood inspiration for her new novel, A Lovely Way to Burn, the first in a proposed Plague Times trilogy. As a similarly youthful admirer of the series, it’s perhaps not surprising that I also enjoyed the novel. Survivors was terrifying in a very adult way – grown-ups might easily shrug off the monsters of Dr Who, but here was something that might actually happen. However, there was also something attractive about the way in which the disease reset the world, an attraction that has continued through the decades and in part explains the popularity of The Walking Dead.

There are no zombies in A Lovely Way to Burn – the virus, known only as the Sweats, is potentially all too real – but, like the writers of The Walking Dead, Welsh uses it as a background to her main narrative, a way of ramping up the tension not unlike that of a war-time setting. Like much of her previous work, A Lovely Way to Burn is, at heart, a crime novel. Its protagonist, Stevie Flint (a woman – thankfully a confusion which only arises once) is a journalist, but, in a twist on genre expectations, is currently fronting a TV shopping channel. When she finds her boyfriend, Simon Sharkey, a paediatric surgeon, dead from apparently natural causes (always a sign of foul play in a novel), she decides to investigate further, particularly when she discovers a letter instructing her to deliver a ‘package’ (a laptop) to Malcom Reah. “Trust no-one except Reah.” Reah, of course, is also dead.

The ‘trust no-one’ places doubt in both Stevie and the reader’s mind, and closes down most obvious avenues of action to the character. She is forced to unravel the truth about Simon’s death by herself (with only the obligatory computer expert to help her). This turns out to be a complex and compelling medical mystery – but that, of course, is only half the story.

Welsh introduces the first signs of the Sweats subtly. As early as page 16 “the air in the car made her cough,” and shortly afterwards:

“Sweat was beading the man’s forehead. He took a hanky from his pocket and wiped his eyes. ‘Preston’s sick. I’m Jiri. I usually work days.’

When Stevie falls ill, she initially assumes it is a reaction to discovering Simon’s body. (Central to the novel is that Stevie survives the disease, something that we increasingly see to be unusual). Her illness, and Simon’s death, also explain her lack of interest in world events; only when she returns to work does she begin to understand what is happening:

“The great washed and unwashed of London are going down with the lurgy, as are a good portion of Paris, New York and anywhere else you care to mention.”

Welsh unfolds the progress of the disease even more expertly than the whodunit. She captures well both the panic and the normality: one moment Stevie is facing barricades erected by frightened communities, the next she is driving along a quiet street. The novel’s great strength is that it doesn’t attempt the kind of newsreel setting that is often seen in films. By the novel’s end we have no clear idea of the situation in London, never mind England or the rest of the world. Her final visit to the hospital Simon worked in, now abandoned by all but the dead and dying, makes clear how far things have deteriorated however.

Of course, the theme of Welsh’s crime novel – the dangers of medicine outside moral control – may coincide later with that of her science fiction novel. For now we must be satisfied with the resolution to the murder mystery. As the novel ends, Stevie is leaving London. Personally I can’t wait to find out where she is going.

The Spinning Heart

June 10, 2014

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Eimear MacBride is currently Ireland’s most famous rejected novelist, but Donal Ryan has some claim to the title having amassed 47 rejections for his first two novels before The Spinning Heart was published in 2012. One might wonder whether Ireland’s conveyer belt of talent is simply down to persistence, or whether it is the risk taking nature of Irish writers that postpones publication but eventually reaps the reward. The Spinning Heart presents its own challenges for the reader, constructed as it is from 21 different voices. A polyphonic novel is not a new idea – one immediately thinks of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying – but Ryan allows each voice to speak only once making moving the narrative forward even more of a technical challenge.

Ryan has described his aim as “to write an accurate description of a village in Ireland” and the novel’s form encapsulates the sensation of a small community as characters’ stories intertwine. If there is a central character it is Bobby Mahon whose voice we hear first. A number of the novel’s plot stands are introduced, including its concern with the economic collapse that took place in Ireland after the global financial crisis. Bobby is a builder who not only finds himself out of work, but discovers that he has been cheated while working:

“That’s the worst of the whole thing. We all went to draw our stamps and they only laughed at us. Stamps? What Stamps? There wasn’t a stamp paid in for any of us, nor a screed to the Revenue, either.”

There is a feeling that the good times have been taken for granted, questions haven’t been asked, and the greed of those who have prospered (Pokey Burke, whose voice we do not hear as he leaves the village, abandoning it to its fate) has damaged the rest. Ryan, however, is not harking back nostalgically to a pre-boom Ireland, as the past is best epitomised by Bobby’s father whom Bobby visits every day – “to check is he dead.” His father has spent the last few years drinking the money left to him by his father – entirely out of spite having never touched a drop while Bobby’s grandfather lived.

Bobby is generally admired in the community, described as a man “you’d be proud of”;

“He’s beautiful, that boy, tall and fair haired like his mother.”

And:

“Your man Bobby is fair sound all the same.”

To some extent the novel tells the story of how his reputation begins to unravel as he struggles on after losing his job. However, this would be a very simplistic view as every character’s story is foregrounded at some point, and Ryan creates some particularly strong female characters. At no point did I wish a previous character would return to take charge of the narrative, and I generally found navigating the various relationships (between characters and events) straightforward, which suggests great skill of the part of the writer.

Despite its often bleak content, the novel is also a love story. Not a ‘falling in love’ story, but one of quiet, ordinary love between Bobby and his wife Triona. “Having a wife is great,” Bobby says in the opening chapter, which is them bookended with Triona’s voice, (all the other voices being contained, in sense, within their embrace; coming between them but not coming between them):

“What matters only love?”

Ultimately this makes The Spinning Heart a life affirming book as well as an impressive technical accomplishment. Donal Ryan is yet another Irish writer to watch out for.

Pushkin Hills

May 31, 2014

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Pushkin Hills is an open air museum preserved in all its 19th century glory around Alexander Pushkin’s family mansion in Pskov, 120 kilometres from Moscow. Sergei Dovlatov worked there as a tour guide for a short period, just as his central character, Alikhanov, does in his novel, Pushkin Hills. Like Alikhanov, Dovlatov was a struggling writer who could not get published in Russia, eventually immigrating to the USA in 1979 where he wrote a number of novels until his death in 1990. In the last couple of years Alma Classics have issued translations of three of his novels: The Suitcase, The Zone, and, most recently, the aforementioned Pushkin Hills.

Pushkin Hills, then, already has one of the main ingredients of a 20th century Russian novel: a writer. A writer, that is, who has never been published. As his wife says:

“You lead the life of a famous writer without fulfilling the slightest requirements.”

This immediately sets up an ironic contrast between the safely dead and revered Pushkin, endorsed by the state (it was the Bolsheviks who preserved the house and surroundings), and the impoverished, unpublished Alikhanov, who must now lead parties of tourists around the estate in order to make a living. The museum becomes a monument to the USSR’s hypocrisy towards writers:

“And that…is how it always happens. First they drive the man into the ground and then begin looking for his personal effects. That’s how it was with Dostoyevsky, that’s how it was with Yesesin, and that’s how it will be with Pasternak. When they come to their senses, they’ll start looking for Solzhenitsyn’s personal effects…”

He discovers a fellow tour guide was once a published writer thanks to writing stories that were “extraordinarily unremarkable.” All this changes, though, when he moves to Leningrad and can no longer be praised for his “backwater origins.”

“What was forgiven in a provincial novice affronted in a cosmopolitan writer.”

As well as allowing an extended meditation on Russian writing, the museum also reflects the state in its lack of authenticity. A portrait turns out to be of someone else, a duelling pistol is simply of the period. When Alikhanov asks one of the curators whether the objects are authentic, she replies, “Is it important?

The novel’s plot, such as it is, concerns Alikhanov’s wife’s decision to immigrate to the USA with their child. Alikhanov refuses to go with her:

“But my readers are here. While over there…Who needs my stories in Chicago?”

However, while this creates a certain amount of narrative tension, the novel as a whole reads more as a surreal succession of eccentric characters. Alikhanov also gives as a reason for remaining in Russia that he detests “active behaviour of any kind” and that he lives in the “passive voice”, and that very much reflects his function as the protagonist. Much of this passivity is create by alcohol – at one point a character forecasts that vodka will bring about the end of Soviet rule. (I’ve always wondered whether the astonishing drink-intake of Russian novels is a genuine reflection of life or an elaborate in-joke by Russian writers).

The most Russian line of all, however, comes on the novel’s final page:

“Love is for the young. It is for soldiers and athletes… Things are much more complicated here. It’s beyond love. It’s fate…”

That’s a line, you feel, which could have come from Pushkin himself.


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