The Hunger Angel

August 19, 2014


In an afterword to The Hunger Angel, Herta Muller reveals its origins in fact: in the aftermath of the Second World War Stalin insisted that Germans between the ages of seventeen and forty-five living in Romania (which had allied itself with Germany) be deported to the Soviet Union to ‘rebuild’. Muller’s mother spent five years in a labour camp, but for this novel she draws mainly on the memories of poet Oskar Pastior with whom she originally planned to write a book on the subject. When he died she eventually pursued the idea alone, using the notes they had made together over many conversations to recreate the experience of the forced labour camps where hunger dominated. Muller has had a patchy history of translation, with only a couple of books appearing in the 1980s and 90s, but a Nobel Prize in 2009 has led to her work being made available more regularly in English, in this case by Philip Boehm who includes an interesting note of his own about the nuances of translating her language.

The Hunger Angel begins prior to Leo’s deportation (Leo is presumably based on Pastior), revealing his homosexuality and his guilt:

“But the more I tried to stop myself, the faster I went back – after two days. For a rendezvous, as it was known in the park.”

What is interesting about this is that it disappears as a concern once he is in the camp, emphasising how imprisonment eliminates much of what makes him an individual, but it also prevents a straightforward reading which would interpret the camp as bad and therefore outside the camp as good:

“Before, during and after my time in the camp, for twenty-five years, I lived in in fear – of my family and of the state.”

The majority of the novel, however, is focused on the camp. Muller writes about this with the kind of detail you would expect from a writer with access to a first-hand account. At the centre of the inmates’ experience is hunger:

“…there is a hunger which is always new, which grows insatiably, which pounces on the never-ending old hunger that already took such an effort to tame. How can you face the world if all you can say about yourself is that you’re hungry. If you can’t think of anything else.”

The personification of hunger as the hunger angel makes this feeling an enemy to be resisted:

“The hunger angel looks at his scales and says:
You’re still not light enough for me. Why don’t you just let go.
I say: You’re deceiving me with my own flesh…But I am not my flesh. I am something else and I won’t let go.”

The idea of the angel suggests not only omnipresence and death but a certain beauty and attraction.

Muller captures brilliantly the circumscribed world of the camp with its narrow focus on the optimum utility of every decision. This cannot even be described as being entirely about survival as we see when Leo thinks they are about to be shot:

“I pushed myself to the front row so I could be one of the first. That way I wouldn’t have to load corpses onto the truck…”

The novel is told is a series of short chapters (some are only a page). These create a picture of life in the camp and some of the prisoners, but there is little sense of progression over the period of incarceration. Muller describes the journey to the camp and the release, but in between time exists in a different form; the moment the narrative turns to the camp it is almost as if Leo has always been there.

The Hunger Angel is not an enjoyable book. Then focus on survival is relentless. The characters are limited by the very circumstances they find themselves in. There are moments when you feel as a reader you may never leave the camp, but there are also times when you find yourself absorbing the detail with the same desperation as those who needed that knowledge to survive.

The Topless Tower

August 12, 2014

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During Spanish Lit Month I reviewed Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by husband and wife Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo This collaboration was my first acquaintance with Silvina Ocampo (who was a prolific writer but notoriously unavailable in English) and may well have been my last if I hadn’t fortuitously discovered that only a few years ago Hesperus Press had published a translation by James Womack of The Topless Tower. It is referred to in the introduction (co-authored by Marion Womack, hopefully another marital co-production) as “one of only two novels published during Ocampo’s lifetime” (the other being the, at that time, untranslated Where There’s Love, There’s Hate) but this is a rather generous description as, at 56 pages, I would be reluctant to call it a novella.

Ocampo edited The Book of Fantasy with Borges and Casares (it includes one of her stories) and most of her fiction was of that genre, including her children’s fiction. The Topless Tower uses many of the tropes of children’s literature from the fairy tale tower of the title to an appearance from Alice in Wonderland. James and Marion Womack suggest this is one reason why she is not better known:

“But one more answer to the question of why Silvina Ocampo is not better known is that large parts of her activity, her imaginative stories and plays and poetry, has to be filtered, or so it seems, through the unfairly marginalising label of ‘children’s writing’.”

It is certainly true that, although The Topless Tower contains many elements of a children’s fable, one senses a darker intelligence behind it. Consider, for example:

“Will the images we’ve seen through our lives remain in our eyes? Will we be like a modern camera, filled with little rolls of film; of course, rolls that don’t require to be developed? If I die before reaching my home, before seeing my mother who I love so much, will she get to see the photographic film stored inside me?”

The idea and voice here are childlike but there is a gothic imagination behind the image.

In the story a young boy, Leandro, laughs at the paintings of a man who appears at the garden gate offering them for sale, particularly one of a yellow, windowless tower. He immediately finds himself trapped in just such a tower where he finds a room with an easel and paints. He soon discovers that whatever he paints becomes reality. Initially he struggles to control this ability: branches become spiders; creepers become snakes. Above all he wants to paint his mother, which he feels will unlock his imprisonment and allow his return home, but this proves most difficult of all.

The story becomes a fable about growing up. He paints a bird and monkey as companions but loses them carelessly. Next he attempts a self-portrait (showing increasing self-awareness) which gives him another perspective, dismissing his lost pets: “You were talking about those two as if they were humans.” In his pursuit of his mother’s face he creates a young girl:

“It wasn’t his mother, but he didn’t feel much disappointment about this. He had fallen in love with the little girl he had painted by accident.”

His maturing is also seen in the way that underlined words, those he doesn’t understand (“I’ll underline the words I don’t understand” he says at the beginning), increasingly disappear from the narrative.

The Topless Tower is a strange story, flickering between light and shade, but one that does haunt the memory. It does seem very slight for stand-alone publication, and would be better as part of a selected stories – one can only hope that might one day appear.

The Hour of the Star

August 11, 2014

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My only previous acquaintance with Clarice Lispector was my reading of Near the Wild Heart, her first novel, for my Year of Reading Dangerously; I’ve now skipped her entire writing life and moved directly to her final novel, The Hour of the Star – completely unplanned as in both cases it was simply because I had the book to hand. Both have recently been reprinted as Penguin Modern Classics, along with three other novels, but my copy is the Carcanet edition translated by Giovanni Pontero. It’s a slim book – a novella – not quite reaching 100 pages, telling the apparently hopeless story of a poor young girl from the slums of Rio, Macabea.

If this sounds straight-forward, the first suggestion that it will not be appears before the story begins on the title page where twelve alternate titles are listed alongside The Hour of the Star. When it does begin we find ourselves addressed first by the writer:

“So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I will go on writing.”

The writer, though, is also a character, Rodrigo S. M. – a male voice Lispector has created to tell the story. Rodrigo tells us of his inspiration:

“In the street I caught a glimpse of perdition on the face of a girl from the northeast.”

He claims:

“First of all, I must make it clear that this girl does not know herself apart from the fact that she goes on living aimlessly. Were she foolish enough to ask herself ‘Who am I?’, she would fall flat on her face.”

Lispector seems to be using Rodrigo as a way of distancing herself form Macabea, making clear that not only is the novel not autobiographical, but she is writing about someone whose entire way of living and thinking is quite different to her own. This is not the same as saying that Rodrigo’s views are hers, but Rodrigo’s ferocity also forces the reader to question their own views as his angry commentary accompanies her story.

Macabea’s story is simple one. She is an orphan, brought up by an aunt. She works as a typist, is not particularly skilled even at that, and seems permanently close to losing her job. She feels inferior to her work mate Gloria (“This was probably due to the fact that Gloria was buxom.”) She regards herself as too ugly to get a boyfriend, and when she does find one he mistreats her, frustrated, as Rodrigo is, by her passivity. She drinks Coca-Cola, longs for face cream, and wants to be a movie star. When she buys coffee she fills it with sugar “to make sure she got value for her money.”

Yet it would not be accurate to say that Macabea was unhappy. Rodrigo claims he can write Macabea’s story because “I know about certain things simply by living.” However, towards the end, when Macabea visits a fortune teller she is surprised to discover the poor quality of her life:

“Macabea turned pale: it had never occurred to her that her life was so awful.”

This short novel, then, is not an expose of the life of the poor and ignorant, but an exploration of how we (i.e. readers, writers) view that life. This is perhaps where Lispector’s real anger lies, explaining such bitter in-jokes as Macabea’s remark, “On Radio Clock they used a word that worried me: mimetism.” It was for this reason (or misreading as it may be) that I found the novel fascinating. It looks like, having encountered the beginning and the end of Lispector’s work, I will have to go back and read some of the novels in-between.

Subtly Worded

August 6, 2014

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Every so often a long neglected writer will be rediscovered, even in the world of translated literature – consider Sandor Marai’s Embers or Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. One publisher in particular seems to be able to do this regular basis: step forward Pushkin Press. You might immediately think of Stefan Zweig and Antal Szerb, but within the last twelve months there has been I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holena and The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov. Now we are treated to Subtly Worded, a selection of stories from Russian émigré writer Teffi (a pseudonym explained in translator Anne Marie Jackson’s excellent introduction). The collection is also expertly curated, organised into five sections chronologically beginning before the Russian Revolution and continuing up to her final stories in the 1950s.

The early stories are witty and comic. The opening story, ‘A Radiant Easter’, simply contrasts the supposed joy of the religious celebration with the tensions within a family where one after the other leaves slamming doors behind them until only the cat is left. Similarly ‘Will-Power’ is a story about its absence. In ‘The Corsican’ the humour is already a little darker – a potential police provocateur practises the revolutionary songs he will need to pass for a radical. My favourite of the early stories, ‘The Hat’, is about the confidence that clothing can bring:

“Oh! What a woman can get away with when she’s wearing a hat like this!”

You will not be surprised to learn that there is a twist at the end. Teffi writes wonderfully about childhood in ‘Jealousy’ and then moves effortlessly to old age in ‘The Quiet Backwater’, but she is at her sharpest when she writes of other women:

“She called on Medina at eleven in the morning, before Medina had time to do her face and hair and when her defences would be at their weakest.”

The second section, stories from 1916 to 1919, contains an early satire of Communism in ‘One Day in the Future’ (“The cabby was a good one, even if he was a former botany professor”) but the stand-out story is ‘Rasputin’, particularly as it is based on first-hand knowledge, containing such details as the way he addresses everyone as “Dearie” (or its Russian equivalent), the way he places his hand on your shoulder when he wants to persuade you, and the way he speaks:

“And the way he said ‘Shall’ so commandingly, with such authority, it was as if this had been decided on high and Rasputin was in the know.”

In him we have a portrait of many manipulative, charismatic cult leaders since. The collection also contains a story about meeting Tolstoy, but, as the narrator is a child, the story is much less detailed.

Teffi also turns a telling eye to émigré life in Paris, a life of back-biting and mistrust:

“We stick together…not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics – mutual repulsion.”

Names, she says, are generally prefaced by the phrase “that-crook.” The title story, another example of satire, humorous on the outside but with a darker truth at its centre, concerns writing letters to the Soviet Union. Everything must be phrased in opposition to the truth to prevent those receiving the letter being arrested – an early example of double-speak if not double-think.

In the final stories, for example ‘The Blind One’, the humour is all but gone and there is a much more elegiac tone. In it the weeping of a woman is mistaken for the sound of an angel by two blinds girls. This, and the two which follow, are probably the most subtle, and saddest, stories in the collection.

These stories are probably not among the greatest ever written, and Teffi is certainly not a literary giant, but they are a delight to read, and throughout you are glad that Pushkin Press have made them available again.

My Brilliant Friend

August 3, 2014

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Having had such fun during Spanish Lit Month, it seemed a foregone conclusion that I should make some attempt to participate in Women in Translation during August (with thanks to Biblio). It also seemed entirely natural that I begin with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (translated by Ann Goldstein), a novel so many have read and recommended. My Brilliant Friend is the first in a trilogy, the third of which (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) will be published by Europa editions in September, though Ferrante has said that she views it as one novel, the division into volumes simply necessitated by the mechanics of publishing.

My Brilliant Friend is set in post-war Italy in a poor neighbourhood and tells the story of two friends, Elena (the narrator) and Lila who begin as young children and end this first volume as adults. This story is prefaced by a contemporary scene where an elderly Elena is told by Lila’s son that Lila has gone missing, along with all her belongings – something we will presumably return to in the final volume. What follows is Elena’s attempt to write Lila’s story so that Lila cannot make herself disappear in the way she seems to want to.

The story struck me as one common in the Scottish tradition – the poor but intelligent youngster who stands out at school and whose parents are encouraged to allow them to pursue their education despite financial difficulties and a certain lack of understanding of its purpose or importance. Normally these would be young men (though Sunset Song would be an exception here) and the setting would be earlier in the century (presumably the timing links to the arrival of universal education) but scenes such as the teacher’s visit to the house would generally feature. A growing alienation from their parents (which always makes me think of Tony Harrison’s poem ‘Bookends’) and from their community would follow.

Ferrante tells this lassie o’pairts tale as well as anyone but adds another dimension in viewing it through the lens of friendship. Elena takes the traditional role of the talented youngster who is encouraged to continue through school, but Lila, we learn, is at least equally clever, teaching herself Latin and Greek when denied the chance to progress with her formal education. Throughout Elena is generally in awe of her, as, it seems, are most of her peer group, particularly the boys (though, of course, we see this from Elena’s perspective). While Elena is naturally cautious and careful, Lila seems confident and decisive, though it is noticeable that, by the novel’s end, it is Elena who has acted with the most freedom and recklessness, though she does not see this herself.

This first volume presents a wonderful picture of adolescence with all its doubts, dangers and discoveries. It doesn’t neglect its male characters, whose lives are circumscribed by rules of machismo. In fact, unlike many bildungsroman, this is also a novel of community (again it bears comparison with Sunset Song), painting in great detail the small area of Naples that Elena rarely leaves. It is an area where grudges originating in the war are still strong and violence is commonplace.

I can now see why so many people have been praising this novel: it is the kind of novel that it is difficult to imagine someone disliking, while at the same time knowing that is the result of its artistry and truthfulness rather than its accessibility. I will now join in with the recommending.

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.


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.


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