Lost Books – Farewells & A Grave with No Name

July 21, 2017

As the titles suggest – Farewells (1954) and A Grave with No Name (1959) – death is ever-present in this volume of two long stories by Juan Carlos Onetti translated by Peter Bush in 1992. In the first a young basketball player retreats to a remote village to die of tuberculosis; in the second a woman is buried as her goat looks on. But mortality is not Onetti’s main concern – above all, these tales are about the impenetrable darkness of other lives, with narrators who strain their eyes to understand the movements in the shadows but see only so much.

The narrator of Farewells is the local shopkeeper who looks at the hands of new arrivals and decides whether they will live or die. In the case of the basketball player, death is not inevitable, but he believes he won’t be cured:

“…he wasn’t going to be cured because he wasn’t bothered about being cured; the nurse and I had known a lot of people like that.”

The basketball player refuses to stay in the sanatorium, living in a hotel instead, sitting in the lobby two or three hours a day, “pretending he believed he had turned incredulousness into an habitual and unambiguous ally, that a studied drama of withdrawal was enough to keep him attached to all that existed before the date of a diagnosis.” The narrator notices that in the letters he receives there are two particular types of envelope which matter to him, and assumes these are from women. One day one of the women appears and moves into the hotel with him. According to the nurse:

“The fellow needed that woman. You can see he can’t stand living apart from her. He’s another man now…”

However, a few weeks later, after she has left, another, younger, woman arrives, and this time he moves with her into a house he has rented nearby, the Portuguese sisters’ chalet. It is immediately assumed the new woman is his mistress:

“And frankly he’s not doing right by her; he’s not very gentlemanly, he shouldn’t have taken her to the hotel where everybody saw him living with the other woman.”

Of course, the story’s conclusion reveals that their suppositions have not been entirely accurate, but this twist is almost incidental. Onetti’s primary concern is the basketball player as observed from outside, not only by the narrator but by the nurse, the maid at the hotel, and the two women. Much of the story is told as the narrator sees it, but he also imagines a number of scenes, interpreting events as a writer would. Onetti gives the impression he distrusts his own craft, placing distance between himself and his characters to suggest we can only know so much for certain.

The same process occurs in A Grave with No Name, the narrator being only tangentially attached to the story, though pursuing the ‘truth’ with greater intent. The story opens with Jorge Malabia, the son of a rich family, organising the burial of a poor woman. Even more bizarrely he follows the funeral carriage with a goat:

“Lame, slavering down its beard, one leg in a splint, the goat had reached the cemetery gate; it was rubbing its nose against the short grass in the ditch but not managing to eat. The Malabias’ lad kept his arms crossed, didn’t let go of the rope, put up with the pulling…”

The narrator determines to discover who the woman is and why Malabia is burying her. The story is told in conversations with Malabia and other characters, but also in chapters composed by the narrator – as he says ate one point, “I started guessing things and wrote them down.” The woman, Rita, is a family servant whom Malabia comes across in more difficult times. But Onetti makes us question whether the woman he buried was Rita or not. Malabia tells him:

“It wasn’t Rita… She was a relative, a cousin… Another woman and practically another story.”

Onetti seems to be teasing us with the unattainable nature of truth, placing even this fact just beyond our reach. The narrator’s final comments sum up Onetti’s approach:

“And this is more or less all I had left after the holidays. Nothing really; hopeless confusion, a narrative without a possible conclusion, full of doubtful meanings, belied by the very elements that I had to give it shape. I had personal knowledge only of the last chapter, the hot afternoon in the cemetery. I didn’t know the significance of what I’d seen, I was repelled by finding out and being sure.”

Having read No Man’s Land last year, it is clear Onetti is a difficult but rewarding writer; it is such a pity he is now entirely out of print.

1967 – A Man Asleep

July 18, 2017

My journey into the literature of 1967 this month sees the appearance of another of my favourite writers, Georges Perec. In 1967 Perec’s career was only beginning; his most famous novel, Life: a User’s Manual, was over ten years away, and his first, Things: A Story of the Sixties, had appeared a mere two year before. When the latter was translated into English in 1990 it was partnered with Perec’s 1967 novella, A Man Asleep (translated by Andrew Leak). As with most of Perec’s work, a plot summary is not only challenging but also inconsequential: A Man Asleep is a story where nothing happening is exactly the point.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Perec’s obsession with detail, the novella opens with a description of what you see with your eyes shut; not, as you might expect, darkness as:

“…the distribution, the allocation, of the areas of darkness is not homogeneous: the upper area is manifestly darker, whereas the lower area, which, to you, appears nearer… is, on the one hand much greyer, not, that is to say, much more neutral as you initially believe, but actually much whiter…”

However, there is more to the story than a sleeping man: this is a man asleep in spirit as well as body, a state which today we might describe as depression:

“At first it’s just a sort of lassitude or tiredness, as if you suddenly became aware that for a long time, for several hours, you have been succumbing to an insidious, numbing discomfort, not exactly painful but nonetheless intolerable, succumbing to the sickly-sweet and stifling sensation of being without muscles or bones, of being a sack of potatoes surrounded by other sacks of potatoes.”

The central character (not the narrator as the novella is written in second person – in French it uses the less formal tu form – and Perec had sections from the narrative read by a female voice during the film version which he made in 1974) misses his university exam – “not a premeditated action, or rather it’s not an action at all, but an absence of action” – and so begins a prolonged period of stasis. At first he keeps to his room, his only awareness of the outside world the sounds which filter through: his neighbour “coughing, dragging his feet, moving furniture, opening drawers;” his friend – “you will recognise his footfall on the stairs, you will let him knock on your door, wait, knock again, a little louder.” Even when he returns to his parents for a period he recognises them largely through the sounds they make:

“You can hear them moving about the house, going up- and down-stairs, coughing, opening drawers.”

The repetition seems to indicate that all surroundings are somehow the same. In this way Perec encapsulates the futility and meaninglessness of life we can feel when we are young:

“You have hardly started living and yet, all is said, all is done. You are only twenty-five, yet your path is mapped out for you. The roles are prepared and the labels: from the potty of your infancy to the bath chair of your old age, all the seats are ready and waiting their turn.”

This, of course, injects the narrative with a strong dose of self-pity, and perhaps Perec chose second person to make this more palatable and encourage readers to identify points in their life when they have felt the same. This does not mean, however, that the novel is hopeless or nihilistic. The character seems to come to a realisation at the end that his obsession with pointlessness is itself pointless:

“Indifference is futile… You can believe, if you want, that by eating the same meal every day you are making a decisive gesture. But your refusal is futile. Your neutrality is meaningless. Your inertia is just as vain as your anger.”

A Man Asleep reminded me of a more recent novel, Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense. Helle’s novel appears superficially (i.e. to me) to be about a woman who is depressed, but Helle herself saw the novel as optimistic, simply about someone who was drifting through life, almost as if this were a necessary stage. While Perec’s novel is apparently based on his own depression when he was twenty, the ending suggests he sees something necessary about that period of his life, and the first sight of an escape. Certainly the novel captures as well as any other what it feels like to be young and paralysed by unhappiness; Perec, for all his technical tricks, understood emotion.

Glaxo

July 16, 2017

Hernan Rosino’s novella Glaxo (translated by Samuel Rutter) begins with the railway line to the small Argentinian town where it is set being dismantled:

“One day the trains stop coming. Then a work team arrives. Six or seven men get out of a truck. They begin pulling up the tracks.”

Or rather, these are the opening lines; the beginning perhaps lies fifteen years before on those very same rail tracks:

“Things began to change one morning in ‘58, October of ’58. The ten o’clock train came in slowly, as usual, the engine spat out thick black smoke that blocked out the view of the silos at the mills. A few minutes later, from this very train, Ramon Folcada, stepped off onto the platform, a group of policemen waiting warmly for him and his wife, La Negra Miranda, who was barely twenty-eight years old and had unforgettable legs.”

This scene appears later, as retold by Miguelito Barrios in 1966. The novella runs not along the straight tracks of time, but moving backwards and forwards with gaps in between like tunnels: four chapters, four stations. 1973, 1984, 1966, 1959; and each time a different voice.

The first chapter presents a picture of decay and sickness. Vardemann, the narrator and town barber, observes his father, “bent over in the corner, distant and old, worn down like a bone that has been picked over.” Miguelito Barrios, a contemporary of Vardemann, returns from hospital, “holding himself up on their unfinished wall, walking with difficulty, pallid and thin.” At first it seems this is the story of industrial poisoning (a la Fever Dream) with the Glaxo factory looming over the town, and the frequently mentioned blackened metal drums burning all night, but in the final pages Vardemann visits Barrios who begs forgiveness for an unspecified offence, and we suspect that the poisoning may, in fact, be moral.

In 1984 Bicho Souza, another of “the boys from the neighbourhood”, tells of meeting La Negra Miranda, who disappeared from town many years before:

“…one morning she couldn’t stand it anymore: that night Folcada beat her, and while he beat her he told her what he had done in the clearing, he told her what Miguelito had told him, and so that very same night, she wrote a terrible letter to Migueltio Barrios, and pushed it under his door, she pushed it under before leaving…”

Souza also introduces the Western Last Train from Gun Hill, which they all watched together as kids, into the narrative. Friendly shoot-outs as children will be echoed in the tensions which develop later, particularly in Barrios’ description of Vardemann stepping off a train at the beginning of the third section in 1966. In the final chapter – told from Folcada’s point of view, opening with his abrasive, “Someone’s fucking La Negra” – the Western genre is to the fore, but, in the violence, revenge and double-crossing, it looks increasingly unlikely that the good guys will win.

At under a hundred pages, Glaxo is designed to be read in one sitting, and this allows it to work brilliantly as a mystery – the mystery being as much about the nature of the crime as the perpetrator(s). It’s also an admirable technical feat – four distinct voices across four decades. The fractured narrative, however, is not simply there for our post-modern pleasure: it places the emphasis on the effects as much as the causes of evil and leaves us with injustice rather than healing.

The Children

July 6, 2017

Laura lives in fear. She regularly gives money to the woman outside the supermarket to watch her car. (“But Laura was not sure whether the woman really did watch the cars. She knew that when she had finished her shopping, she gave her some coins as if to pay her, and that her car had never gone missing.”) When strangers ask the name of her dog, she always gives a different answer. (“By doing this she thought she was protecting him: that it was less likely someone would snatch him from outside the supermarket entrance or anywhere else.”) When the supermarket woman is replaced by someone younger, and she cannot think of a false name for her dog, she simply doesn’t enter the supermarket:

“For the next two days, she did not buy any food, and she did not eat.”

That her life changes with the arrival of the child is not immediately obvious, but then little is in Columbian author Carolina Sanin’s The Children (translated by Nick Caistor).

Laura first meets the child, six and a half year old Fidel, one night when she hears him crying and finds him outside her window looking up:

“The boy had a shaven head and big eyes. There was so much black emptiness in his gaze that it seemed as through his face had interrupted the night and the night had begun again in his look.”

She takes him up to her apartment and, of course, attempts to inform the appropriate authorities, openly to be told she must contact the National Family Welfare Institute which will not open until Monday (it’s Saturday night) as “it’s closed at the weekend for stock-taking”. (We see here an early use of italics to highlight the jarring jargon of bureaucracy). She takes Fidel to the Institute as instructed, but when she later enquires as to his welfare she can find no trace of him. Only months later does she relocate him and begin to invite him into her life.

This uneventful summary, however, hides many levels of disconcerting strangeness. Partly this is down to the reshaping of narratives which takes place within the novel. Laura herself is guilty of this, telling the Institute that she found Fidel outside the supermarket. His name, too, is her creation – adapted from Elvis Fider Loreto Membrives; later she will create a birthday for him. She thinks, “she could pretend that others have asked her to take care of the boy.” (She aklso rearranges other stories, for example, one night she tells him a version of Great Expectations set in Bogota). This is already part of her character before Fidel’s appearance: she works as cleaner though she has no need of the money, taking the bus to work rather than driving so her employers believe she is poor. While cleaning, she builds a house in her mind:

“Between the dining room and the bedrooms she planted a garden with a curving stream that carried along with it ordinary stones and precious stones.”

When she hires someone to discover where Fidel is, this creates another version of the story:

“Apparently Elvis, a child like so many others, presumably in a state of great distress, wrote to Laura searching for protection, aid and warmth because he recalled having seen her take part in the children’s television show ‘Treasure Haunt and concluded she felt empathy towards little ones.”

(Or perhaps versions of the story, the italics suggesting that this has already been patched together from two voices). When Fidel is with her he, too, exists between two narratives – at night dreaming of a beauty parlour:

“On the fourth night, Fidel said he was in the beauty parlour, but they were still calling him to go there. He said that the parlour – although he did not say the parlour but Parlour like a proper noun – that in Parlour there was a place further inside…”

He asks Laura “if this was a dream or reality.”

Laura is certainly searching for something with Fidel – frequent references to Moby Dick tell us so – but she is also reluctant to commit to this quest, as her difficulty reading the novel attests to. She appears slightly detached from reality, and talks of having created an island:

“In it, neither dead nor alive, just about to say farewell, were all those who had loved her and were no longer with her, those who had departed, those she herself had loved and left behind.”

This makes commitment to Fidel difficult:

“What would happen if after two days she did not know what to do with the child? And if she wanted to keep him after three months had passed and she was not permitted to? Anyway, death would arrive soon enough to separate them forever.”

The novel speaks of a gap in understanding between adult and child. The novel’s own strangeness perhaps reflects the strangeness of childhood through adult eyes. Certainly, expect nothing to be resolved, either for Laura or the reader. The acceptance of that, though, is not unlike the acceptance of a child into your life.

The Blue Hour

July 4, 2017

Alonso Cueto is a Peruvian writer who, on the evidence of The Blue Hour, remains strangely unavailable in English. The novel had already won the Premio Herralde (for the best original novel in the Spanish Language) in 2006, and its translation by Frank Wynne went on be shortlisted for the 2013 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize; despite this, The Blue Hour stubbornly retains its position as Cueto’s only novel to have been translated.

This is surprising because it is both accessible and readable, with the page turning power of a thriller, and an opening gambit that has been used by many a Hollywood movie. It may, in its subject matter, be facing up to Peru’s past – in particular the conflict between the government and the Shining Path in Ayacucho during the 1980s – but an extensive knowledge of, or even interest in, Latin American history is not necessary for thorough involvement in the narrative. It begins with that time-honoured trope of the man who has it all until he discovers something unexpected about who he really is… Adrian Ormache is a wealthy lawyer with a beautiful wife, a beautiful house, and two beautiful daughters:

“I remember back then a friend telling me that every time he saw me I looked happier.”

Brought up largely by his mother – who divorces when he is a child – he gives his father little thought:

“And so for many years I lived with the certainty that my father had been in Ayacucho in the early eighties waging war against the communist terrorists of Sendero Luminoso, that he had done something to defend our country and that, for this, we owed him our respect.”

Only after his mother’s death, with his father already dead, does he discover more about that time from his brother:

“Shit, I don’t know, you probably know all this stuff already, but the old man sometimes had to kill terrorists. But he didn’t just kill them right off. The men, well, he’d have them worked over…to make them talk. And the women, well, you know, sometimes he’d fuck the women and sometimes he’d let the rest of the troops fuck them before he put a bullet in their heads.”

One of the women, his brother tells him, escaped, and suddenly his father’s last words to him – “There’s a girl, a woman I knew a long time ago…I don’t know, maybe you can find her” – begin to make sense. With only her name, Miriam, as a starting point, Ormache begins to hunt for the woman. This is where the novel exercise its grip: both in the search, and in the effect this begins to have on Ormache and his relationship with his family.

This attempt to find the hidden side of his father’s life also brings him into contact with a side of his own country which has been hidden from him. It takes him, for example, into the less desirable districts of Lima:

“We passed houses of cement block and iron bars, a beauty salon and in the window a hairdresser setting a woman’s hair in rollers, a pack of drowsy dogs, children squatting in the dirt playing marbles.”

Eventually, he visits Ayacucho, missing a family holiday in the Caribbean to do so. A woman he meets there tells him:

“The people round here aren’t like people elsewhere… Nobody here believes that life is a normal state. Here, they know that life is a shadow.”

She points to a boy washing dishes:

“He might only be a few feet from you, but right now the distance between you is greater than the distance between the earth and the sun.”

This lack of understanding applies not only to the people who live there but to his father:

“Not that I could understand them, I would never really know them. Nor could I understand the soldiers, not my father, not Guayo or Chacho.”

The novel, of course, also raises questions of how far we are responsible for the sins of our fathers’. This is not foremost in Ormache’s mind – he has always felt distant from his father – but a friend insists, “We’re all responsible for our parents’ sins, and our children’s too.” It might feel easy to dismiss this sentiment as irrational, but, as the novel demonstrates, the children of those sinned against must carry that burden.

I raced through The Blue Hour, finding it hard to put down at times, though this meant that the relatively unshowy ending was initially disappointing, if realistic, seeming somehow to underline a bleaker message while attempting to leave the reader smiling. If you’re looking for a riveting summer read, though, you could do a lot worse.

Field of Honour

July 2, 2017

Perhaps we should get Max Aub’s astonishing biography out of the way first: born to a German father and a French Jewish mother who immigrated to Spain at the beginning of World War One, he took Spanish citizenship at the age of eighteen. As a socialist he supported the Republican government during the Spanish Civil War to the point he was regarded as an enemy of the state by Franco, who denounced him as a German Jew to the Vichy government in France in 1940. He was imprisoned in France and then Algeria, but managed to escape to Mexico where he remained for the rest of his life. He wrote prolifically – novels, plays, screenplays – but is largely untranslated into English. Field of Honour, translated by Gerald Martin, is only the second of his novels to appear – sixty-six years after its original publication.

Field of Honour is only the first part of a six volume series (The Magic Labyrinth) which tells the story of the Spanish Civil War – which means, of course, that the conflict is only just beginning by its end. It was published by Verso in 2009, and there’s no sign of the second volume being available any time soon. (This raises the question of whether it can be fairly judged as a stand-alone novel, though it seems that the main character, Rafael Serrador, is not followed throughout the sequence). Aub’s purpose in Field of Honour is to set the scene leading up to the outbreak of the civil war – a time of competing ideologies. However, he cleverly seeks to establish Serrador’s character before immersing him into the political maelstrom that is 1930s Barcelona.

In fact, the novel begins in picaresque fashion with a strong focus on sexual adventure. Apprenticed to a jeweller, “life is flat and Rafael is only troubled or surprised when, from time to time, his willy stands on end.” He loses his innocence at the hands (or rather the thighs) of the widow Marieta:

“’Haven’t you done it before?’
And as he just slightly shook his head, the brazen hussy started to twist and turn like some wild bobbin, to the great shock of the beginner who didn’t know which saint to commend himself to.”

Unfortunately he is beaten up by the widow’s jealous boyfriend, and then expelled by the jeweller as a trouble maker. At the age of sixteen he heads to Barcelona, finding work in a hardware store. Again he is the victim of circumstances as a newspaper he’s given ridiculing his boss is found in his pocket and he loses his job. It is this casual treatment of labour which feeds the anger which leads him into politics, though this means little more than being is a willing listener to the incessant debating between the various factions in the city.

These arguments take up much of Part Two, certainly a test for anyone not interested in the minutia of political debate at the time, though Aub livens it up with punchy dialogue and entertaining descriptions of those involved:

“Gonzalez Cantos was a dirty looking character who had spent a lot of time abroad, spoke good French and was very close to Durrutti… He always wore short-sleeved shirts and scruffy trousers that kept falling down, whereupon he’d hoist them up with a violent tug from left to right, then scratch himself around the crotch and sniff in noisily, wiping his hand across his prominent nostrils.”

This section probably explains why it has taken so long for Field of Honour to be translated, though Aub’s determination to paint a true picture of events impressed me. In particular, Serrador is far from a hero. Instead he is a confused young man – at one point making lists under the heading ‘What am I?’ – who joins the (right-wing) Falangists, and only ends up defending the Republic at the last moment. In one particularly dark scene, he kills a suspected informer entirely of his own volition.

The novel really comes to life in Part Three, when the military coup takes place. Aub dramatizes it through a series of short conversations (much like Shakespeare). It’s an extensive cast of characters (luckily the novel is equipped with a list at the end) but it gives a realistic impression of the constantly changing situation as we move from the view at the top to ground level and back again. The final conflict, securing Barcelona, takes place at the docks, where bales of paper are used to defend the Republican fighters from the machine guns of the remaining Falangist forces.

The novel ends with Barcelona in the hands of the Republic but the fate of the rest of Spain largely unknown. Aub began the novel in Serrador’s childhood, describing the tradition of the fire bull in which a bull with burning horns (they are coated in tar and set alight) is released into the streets. Serrador remembers this as the novel ends:

“A world over-flowing, beside itself, without direction. Leaning against a drainpipe, Rafael Serrador thinks about water, wild water, savagely charging, swift, insistent, irresistible: like a fire bull, a rainbow of fire, above the triumphant city.”

The novel has ended but the war has only begun. How wonderful it would be the see the rest of Aub’s The Magic Labyrinth translated.

Autumn

June 30, 2017

Just over a year ago I listened to Ali Smith read from Autumn at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She was reading from a manuscript – any hope of an early copy of the hardback being available (as they often are at book festivals) was made to look ridiculous by her declaration that she had only just delivered the final version to the publisher. Two months later it was on the shelves. Smith was upfront about the haste with which the novel had been written, her intention being to write about what was happening in Britain today: it was the first ‘post-Brexit novel’.

I was in the audience for Ali Smith’s reading because I have been a reader (and admirer) or her work since Free Love and other stories was published by Virago in 1995. I mention this because I have some concerns about Autumn, most of which originate from the identification of the novel as a reaction to Brexit. Brexit features prominently in the novel:

“It’s just over a week since the vote…
The village is in a sullen state. Elisabeth passes a cottage not far from the bus stop whose front, from the door to across above the window, has been painted over with black paint and the words GO and HOME.”

It’s also the subject of what might be described as prose poems which occur throughout the narrative:

“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing.”

The divide created is echoed in the novel by the appearance of a fence on what was common land:

“Apparently a fence three metres high with a roll of razorwire along the top of it has been erected across a stretch of land not far from the village. It has security cameras on posts all along it.”

The fence leads to a confrontation between Elisabeth and one of the security guards – a scene Smith read out in Edinburgh:

“Fine day, she says.
You can’t walk here, he says.
Yes I can, she says…
This is private land, he says.
No it isn’t, she says. It’s common land. Common land by definition is not private.”

Of course, the audience, and the reader, are on Elisabeth’s side, just as we are in numerous other encounters in the novel – when she’s getting her passport application checked; when she’s asked for ID at the nursing home where her friend and ex-neighbour, Daniel, is dying; when she tackles the receptionist at the doctor’s surgery… On each occasion she deflects authority with wit – which is really just another way of saying that she proves she’s cleverer than the other person, rather than right. Note, it’s not enough for her to say it’s common land – she must go on to refer to the definition of common land, which she knows, being cleverer.

“You are unlawfully trespassing.
As opposed to lawfully trespassing? she says.”

An earlier conversation with another nameless character doing his job in the Post Office is also instructive. The banal language he must use when describing the Check & Send service he offers is, of course, amusingly contrasted with Elisabeth’s ready wit, but when he attempts to be humorous, Smith (presumably via Elisabeth’s viewpoint) undercuts it with reference to his silent laugh: “Shoulders. Up, down.”

It’s interesting to compare this to Smith’s description of the Christine Keeler case:

“The prosecuting lawyer has the air of a foxhound. He makes fun of her.”

This seems very much Elisabeth’s attitude to those who are not as clever as she is. Is this Smith’s intention? Perhaps. It certainly won the approval of the audience in Edinburgh, possibly lacking in security guards, Post Office workers, and receptionists. It strikes me as particularly unfortunate in the ‘first post-Brexit novel’, however, as Brexit has been frequently characterised as the educated against the uneducated. Smith herself used education as an escape route, from Inverness and her working class background. It’s possible she believes that this path is open to everyone, and that those who take low paid jobs, often accompanied by mundane, repetitive language as restrictive as a strait jacket, are culpable in their routine functions. But, as Daniel advises Elisabeth, “Always give your characters the same benefit of the doubt you’d welcome when it comes to yourself.”

Elisabeth has her own escape route: art, and her imagination. It’s instructive how much of the novel takes place in her head: “That moment of dialogue? Imagined.” This is the gift her friendship with Daniel has given her. As a child, Elisabeth tells Daniel:

“There’s no point in making up a world…when there’s already a real world.”

Daniel convinces her otherwise. It is also through Daniel that she finds the (real life) pop artists Pauline Boty – the present day Elisabeth is a junior university lecturer in Art History. This means, of course, that the real world is only half the story – it’s her mother who takes action against the fence, not Elisabeth.

Don’t get me wrong – Autumn is a vibrant, pulsing novel of ideas bursting with wit, humour and passages which thrill and soar. As a political novel, however, it fails.

Belladonna

June 27, 2017

Belladonna will be the third of Dasa Drndic’s novels I have read; like Trieste, it approaches four hundred pages in length (Leica Format is relatively brief at three hundred). And of those thousand pages I can say that there is not a single one I have enjoyed reading. I’m not suggesting that Drndic is the only writer who uncovers uncomfortable truths, though her spade is perhaps sharper than most, but everything she does – even audacious literary acts that would thrill in another novel – seems intent only on making her reader squirm. Why, then, continue with this literary masochism? The answer is, of course, in the question: the discomfort, the unease, is that of facing what you would rather forget, what Europe would rather forget, and what, as Drndic continues to insist, must be remembered.

Belladonna shows no sign of shying away from pain. Its main character, Andreas Ban (a writer and psychologist) finds, in old age, pain is his only companion. “You have severe degenerative changes,” a doctor tells him, “how do you manage to walk at all, this is your spine, the spine of a ninety year old.” He falls and breaks all the small bones in his hand and wrist. He discovers a lump on his breast which is cancerous and must have an operation, followed by radiation treatment. As if these physical ailments were not enough, Ban also finds himself alone, living on a meagre pension, the result of being caught between nationalities when Yugoslavia collapsed, having been born in Paris but never registered as a citizen there, and educated in Belgrade:

“When Yugoslavia was falling apart, Andreas Ban returned from Paris to Belgrade, where else would he go? And is dismissed. Now you are an enemy of the state, a Croat. He has his name, he does not consider the fact he is a Croat significant. But someone does.”

In Belladonna Drndic continues her exploration of the atrocities of the Nazis and the atrocities of the Balkan conflict of the 1990s; above all, she rages against forgetting. The lives of both the innocent and the guilty are taken from the margins and moved centre-page. (Victims, once again, in the form of pages of names). Walter Henisch, for example, an Austrian photographer who became “part of Goebbels’ machinery”:

“Then, after 1945, Walter Henisch first worked free-lance (because no newspaper would employ him with his wartime past), and much later placed himself at the service of the social-democratic press. Walter Henisch had received several awards for his work already during the war, including several of Hitler’s Iron Crosses. But then came the Austrian new sunlit age, followed by the tsunami of oblivion.”

By the 1970s Henisch is being praised for his work by a member of the Austrian government, the war years carefully omitted from his “exceptionally reduced biography”. It is this “tsunami of oblivion” which Drndic seeks to resist. According to Niklas Frank, son of a German Nazi:

“For a long time after the war, Germany bathed in collective denial of individual responsibility for the war.”

This matters to Croatia because it, too, is implicated in Nazi genocide:

“Everything would (perhaps) have been alright…had those emigres [that is, fascists who had fled to Argentina] somewhere, somehow, publically apologised to their victims, had their children and grandchildren at least glanced back at their forebears’ ideology of blood and soil. But no. Muddy little islands of poison continue to float through the Republic of Croatia.”

This refusal to face up to the past feeds into the conflict which erupts as Yugoslavia disintegrates:

“It’s hard to completely erase history and memory, history and memory like to come back. They get under people’s skin and penetrate their bloodstream.”

Focussing on this one particular theme may make it seem as though the character of Andreas Ban disappears from the novel, but this is not the case. As a writer one can’t help but suspect he is, in part, a stand-in for the author, but that makes him the most fully rounded of Drndic’s characters yet. It is this aspect that provides the novel with what passes for light relief when, in Amsterdam, he encounters a number of other (real-life) writers, and also critiques the novels he is reading. (I won’t spoil the fun by revealing any more).

I continue to be astonished that Drndic does not receive more praise for her work. It seems only Trieste has been published in the US, and Belladonna has not received a mainstream press review that I can find in the UK. Hopefully Celia Hawkesworth and MacLehose Press will continue to make her work available in English until she gets the recognition she deserves.

Reputations

June 21, 2017

Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s Reputations, his fourth novel to appear in English (translated again by Anne McLean), is a timely meditation on the rights and responsibilities of free speech. Javier Mallarino is political cartoonist, “a moral authority for half the country, public enemy number one for the other half” but a man with power and influence:

“…able to cause the repeal of a law, overturn a judge’s decision, bring down a mayor, or seriously threaten the stability of a ministry, and all this with no other weapons than paper and India ink.”

He refuses to be cowed or bought: “I won’t get into bed with anybody.” When his wife, Magdalena, complains he is attacking their friends in his cartoons, he replies, “Well, let’s change friends.” However, he is also guilty of inflating his importance, claiming people “need someone to tell them what to think.” As Magdalena says:

“Don’t be naïve…People already know what they think. People already have their prejudices well formed. They only want someone in authority to confirm their prejudices, even if it’s the mendacious authority of the newspapers.”

As the novel opens, Mallarino is preparing to accept an award to celebrate the forty years of his career; as he puts it, “the very same political class he’d attacked and hounded and scorned from his redoubt… had decided to put the gigantic Columbian machinery of sycophancy into action to create a public homage.” It is at the ceremony that Mallarino meets Samanta Leal who originally claims to be a journalist, but is, in fact, after answers to more personal questions.

Samanta, it transpires, was a childhood friend of Mallarino’s daughter Beatriz at one point, and once spent the day with her while Mallarino held a party. The party is interrupted by an unwelcome guest, a politician, Cuellar, whom Colon has recently lampooned. Cuellar all but begs Mallarino, “please, Javier…please don’t draw me like that anymore. I’m not like that.” Mallarino finds himself disgusted by what he sees as Cuellar’s weakness:

“…feeling a confusing emotion that went beyond contempt, something that wasn’t irritation or annoyance but seemed dangerously close to hatred.”

Before Cuellar leaves a strange incident occurs involving Samanta. The two girls have been caught drinking the dregs from abandoned drinks and been sent up to bed to sleep off the effects. When Samanta’s father comes to collect her there is an altercation with Cuellar who seems to be upstairs with the girls; the father follows him down shouting, “What did you do to my little girl?” The implication is that he has sexually assaulted Samanta as she lay sleeping. Samanta’s first memory is of being placed in her father’s car; years later, no longer in touch with her father, she has come to Mallarino in an attempt to discover what happened. Mallarino claims not to know, but his own suspicions are clear from a cartoon he draws shortly after with the caption:

“Congressman Adolfo Cuellar – Suffer the little girls to come unto me.”

Mallarino says the “image had formed in is head” the next morning and talks of feeling not “indignation or rage, but rather something more abstract, like disquiet, almost like the awareness of a possibility…Of a power, yes, that was it: the awareness of an imprecise power.”

Just as Mallarino takes people and reduces them to caricatures, the recovery of his past forces him to reconstitute them as individuals. He must revisit the devastating effects his cartoon has on Cuellar while at the same time facing up to the fact he assumed rather than searched for the truth. His crusading style may seem to serve justice but his lack of awareness of Samanta’s existence as a victim leads us to question his motivation.

“What good is ruining a man’s life, even if the man deserves ruin? What good is this power if nothing else changed, except the ruin of that man?”

Reputations reminds us of the dangers of the broad stroke, the black and white approach. It is, in itself, an argument for the more complex, nuanced art of the novel.

1967 – Particularly Cats

June 19, 2017

When it came to selecting books from 1967, I, of course, began with some of my favourite authors, (that is, those who were writing at that time), chief among them, Doris Lessing. I had first encountered Lessing as a fourteen-year-old at secondary school when I was introduced to (okay, forced to read) The Grass is Singing. As is typical of any coerced reading, my initial reaction was not entirely positive, yet it took me as far as he school library where I discovered a copy of the much more interesting-sounding Briefing For a Descent into Hell. Two years later I was writing about Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series for my Sixth Year Studies English dissertation, and from then on I read each new book as it appeared while simultaneously working my way through her back catalogue (I’ve even read her long out-of-print Retreat to Innocence). Surely there would be something from 1967, five years after The Golden Notebook and with her Children of Violence series almost completed?

In fact, in 1967 Lessing published a book which I hadn’t even read – though this was by choice rather than omission. The volume in question was Particularly Cats (I’d like to say it was atypical, but Lessing’s Wikipedia page actually includes a section headed Cat Tales). It’s not that I dislike cats, it’s just that I could not imagine why a writer would devote an entire book to them, other than for entirely commercial reasons, and couldn’t help but worry that Particularly Cats was simply the 60s equivalent of funny cat videos on YouTube.

Well, while there is a cat video element to Lessing’s “remembering cats, always cats, a hundred incidents involving cats, years and years of cats,” funny might be pushing it. Any suspicion of sentimentality is dispelled in the opening chapter where Lessing returns to her childhood in Rhodesia. Here, drowning kittens is simply a household chore and when her mother “got soft-hearted and couldn’t bear to drown a kitten,” her father is left to resolve the problem of ever-expanding numbers of cats on the farm:

“In the end, the cats were rounded up and put into a room. My father went into the room with his First World War revolver, more reliable, he said, than a shotgun. The gun sounded again, again, again, again… My father came out of the room at one point, very white, with tight angry lips and wet eyes. He was sick. Then he swore a good deal, then he went back into the room and the shooting continued.”

The cats themselves are also portrayed without sentiment. They are generally, for example, unnamed, identified only by colour. Lessing, as always, is a dispassionate but not uninvolved observer:

“The cat had six litters, and each litter had five kittens, and she killed the firstborn kitten in each litter because she had such pain with it. Apart from this, she was a good mother.”

This is typical of Lessing’s style: an apparently factual statement which is actually a combination of observation, supposition and judgement. Problems of reoccurring pregnancies are frequently touched on (in the year in which abortion was legalised, Lessing cannot have been oblivious to parallels in the way cats lives are overwhelmed by breeding) . Power struggles between cats, and fussy eating are two other frequent themes. But Lessing’s love for her animals can be seen when they fall ill:

“Clearly keeping the black cat alive would be a full-time job. And I was busy. And, as people in the house were pointing out, she was only a cat.
But she was not just a cat. For a variety of reasons, all of them human and irrelevant to her, she must not be allowed to die.”

Perhaps Lessing’s sympathy for cats can be understood when she characterises them as follows:

“Cats will watch creatures, activities, actions unfamiliar to them, for hours.”

Lessing’s process here, and throughout her work, is exactly that, a process which culminates in a new understanding:

“You can watch a thing a dozen times, thinking, How charming, or how strange, until, and always unexpectedly, sense is suddenly made.”

(There’s also a revealing sentence in ‘The Old Age of El Magnifico’ – yes, I read all of Lessing’s cat stories – when she says, “Most scientists would dispute this, I’m pretty sure. That is, as scientists they would, but as owners of cats probably not.”) What can be seen here, as ever, is Lessing’s constantly questioning, constantly questing mind. If the application of such an inquisitive intelligence on the topic of cats appeals, then his is the book for you.