Lost Books – The Little Angel

May 28, 2017

Seven Hanged by Leonid Andreyev was one of the stand-out stories I read last December (when I was reading a story a day) and I had hoped that its appearance in a new translation by Anthony Briggs as a Penguin Little Black Classic might herald a longer volume of his work. Sadly, there is no sign of that happening yet, so instead I turned to a collection published by Dedalus in 1989 of a 1915 translation, The Little Angel. (The translator is unnamed, though may be Herman Bernstein who translated a number of Andreyev’s stories).

The Little Angel finds Andreyev once again in the company of the down-trodden and down-at-heel. What particularly struck me was the causation in many of the stories between the circumstances in which the characters are forced to live and the way in which they act. The title story begins:

“At times Sashka wished to give up what is called living: to cease to wash every morning in cold water, on which thin sheets of ice floated about; to go no more to the grammar school and listen to everyone scolding him; no more to experience the pain in the small of his back and indeed over his whole body when his mother made him kneel in the corner all evening… since Sashka possessed an indomitable and bold spirit, he could not supinely tolerate evil, and so found means to avenge himself on life. With this object in view he would thrash his companions, be rude to the Head, impertinent to the masters, and tell lies all day long to his teachers and his mother…”

Sashka’s life makes him the unpleasant young man he is, and that life is not of his choosing, as we discover when he is invited to the wealthy Svetchnokovs one Christmas, a family his father once tutored for before ‘having’ to marry his landlady’s daughter and taking to drink. Sashka attends, resentful and angry, until he sees a decorative angel on the tree:

“…something such as had never come within the circle of his existence, and without which all his surroundings appeared as empty as though peopled by persons without life.”

Sashka begs for the angel, eventually on his knees, and brings it home where his father who is equally taken by it. As he sleeps, however, the angel (made of wax) melts. The little angel is, of course, the counterpoint to Sashka’s little devil, and cannot exist in the life he must live.

Such pessimism persists throughout Andreyev’s work. Petka, in ‘Petka at the Bungalow’, is another poor boy, working at a barber’s shop:

“Round his eyes and under his nose faint lines were forming as though traced by a sharp needle, and they made him look like an aged dwarf.”

Petka gets the opportunity to go to the country, to the bungalow where his mother’s master and mistress and living. Initially uncertain, he befriends a local boy and takes up fishing. His health noticeably improves:

“Just look how he is putting on flesh! He’s a regular merchant!”

Eventually, of course, he must return to the city, leaving his fishing tackle behind. As with Sashka, he has glimpsed a better life, only to be placed back where he ‘belongs’. The story ends with what must be one of the saddest final lines, as he lies awake in bed:

“…that distant cry of complaint was heard, which had for long been borne in from the boulevard, where a drunken man was beating an equally drunken woman.”

As if to show that people are being treated no better than animals, Andreyev includes two stories about dogs. In ‘Snapper’ it is a dog which, initially neglected, is shown affection when adopted by a family, only to be abandoned again when they leave their summer home. In ‘The Friend’ the narrator realises too late that it is his dog who is his true friend.

My favourite story, however, was the more satirical ‘An Original’ in which Anton Ivanovich’s declaration that he “loves negresses” gains him both attention and identity. Though his predilection is not shared by all, “all were pleased that among them in the person of one of their own comrades was to be found such an original person.”

“At the end of the week the whole Department knew that the civil servant, Kotel’nikov, was very fond of negresses. By the end of a month, the porters, the petitioners, and the policemen on duty at the corner knew it too.”

Ivanovich becomes an “interesting guest” though this does him little good, as when he finds a woman to whom he is attracted, “since he loved only negresses, he determined not to show his liking.” Though the story has already made its point, Andreyev follows it to the bitter end, the constant repetition of his love for negresses (and his repeated reasoning that they are “exotic”) becoming increasingly hysterical, in both senses of the word. The language of the story may have dated, but its satirical target has not.

Reading The Little Angel makes it all the more surprising that Andreyev has been so long neglected. Surely he is a writer whose time will come again.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

May 23, 2017

Though Giorgio Bassani lived until the respectably old age of eighty-four, dying in the year 2000, his fiction – five novels and two collections of short stories – were all published within fourteen years, between 1958 and 1972. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, his most famous work, appeared in 1962 (I think I read the earliest translation into English, by Isabel Quigly in 1965), almost contemporaneous with the novel’s Foreword in which the narrator talks of his long-held desire to “write about the Finzi-Conitis.” One wonders how distant this time felt from what he refers to as “the last war,” during which the events of the novel will reach their end.

In a novel in which the haunting, elegiac atmosphere can, at times, border on the oppressive, it’s only fitting that the narrator’s recollections are stimulated by a visit to an Etruscan tomb which in turn reminds him of the family mausoleum of the Finzi-Continis:

“And my heart was wrenched as never before by the thought that in that tomb…only one of the Finzi-Continis I had known and loved in fact achieved that everlasting repose. The only one actually buried there was Alberto, the elder child, who died in 1942 of lymphogranuloma. But where Micol, the second child, and professor Ermanno, the father, and signora Olga, the mother, and signora Regina, signora Olga’s very old, paralysed mother, all deported to Germany in the autumn of ’43, found there burial place is anyone’s guess.”

Place will continue to be important throughout the novel as the title suggests. The large garden (more of a park) which surrounds the Finzi-Continis’ house emphasises the way they attempt to separate themselves from the rest of the world. They even have their own language:

“…their own, special, inimitable, wholly private deformation of Italian. They gave it a name: Finzi-Continian.”

When Jews are allowed to join the Fascist party in 1933 (“the number of Fascist Party members had risen suddenly to 90% even in our Jewish community”), Ermanno refuses. Shortly after they restore a small family synagogue to worship in, further distancing themselves. This is more political pacifism than political activism, a disinterested desire to step outside history.

The narrator befriends Alberto and Micol because the Finzi-Continis attempt to separate their world from that of the Italy outside their door: when Jews are forbidden from playing tennis at the local club, Alberto offers their own court for use instead. The narrator decides to go along when Micol echoes the invitation. Already it is clear that the narrator has stronger feelings for Micol than friendship. The opening sentence of Chapter Two in the second part, “I was not the only one invited,” hints at disappointment, especially when he then considers turning back.

Micol’s relationship with the narrator is mapped out in an early childhood encounter, ten years before. She appears, the garden wall between them, his over-dramatization of failure in a school test contrasted with her common sense. Her invitation to come in is greeted with apprehension:

“’I…I’m not sure…’ I started to say, pointing to the wall. ‘It seems terribly high to me.’”

When they go to hide his bike in a tunnel together, however, his imagination soon turns childishly to romance:

“I could count on Micol: she’d see to bringing me food and everything else I needed… And every day we’d kiss in the dark: because I was her man, and she was my woman.”

This childish infatuation remains in adulthood, and, having convinced himself he missed an opportunity through cowardice (a theme he returns to as an adult) he will later force his kisses on Micol. The narrative is subject to a surfeit of longing: the narrator in the present thinking nostalgically of his youth, the young narrator longing for Micol to return his love, and the garden itself representing a lost time. Most of all it is about remembering. Discussing the Etruscan tombs of the opening, a father explains to his daughter why older tombs are not as gloomy as newer ones:

“Well, people who’ve just died are nearer to us, so we love them more. You see the Etruscans have been dead for such ages…that it’s as if they’d never lived, as I they’d always been dead.”

The novel seems to be an exercise in preventing the Finzi-Continis, and all those murdered during those years, becoming Etruscans in our memory.

The Brother

May 21, 2017

When Brother in Rein Raud’s short novel The Brother (translated by Adam Cullen) is found watching “an old Western about a nameless gun-slinging hero” it should come as no surprise that the line “Brother had already seen the film once before and knew what happened next” is slipped ambiguously enough into the text as to suggest the possibility it refers to not only to the events on the onscreen but to his own unfolding story. Brother, after all, is there to right a wrong perpetrated on his half-sister, Laila, who has been cheated out of her inheritance by the cabal of privileged and powerful men who run the town for their own benefit. She now finds herself working in an antique shop surrounded by the furniture she once owned:

“She recoiled before them. They were like former lovers who have had children with strangers meanwhile. Their proximity was tortuous.”

Brother appears atmospherically – “The day that had begun bright with sunshine darkened abruptly with dark clouds in the afternoon” – and his every action and utterance thereafter reminds us of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name – he is never named – from aphorism:

“Inevitably, at some point in every person life comes the moment when he has to count up the promises he definitely intends to keep before he goes.”

to threat:

“Tell him I’m coming.”

His taciturn nature is demonstrated in a chapter where the notary attempts to warn him off in long, rambling paragraph-length sentences which are contrasted with Brother’s three or four word replies, ordinary, banal even, but loaded with meaning.

Brother does not appear, however, all guns blazing – either literally or metaphorically. As the first card-sharp the “pillars of the community” try to hire to play the brother (in order to “figure out who he is”) explains, his nothing to lose attitude makes him harder to beat:

“Never before have I seen someone who so perfectly lacks any kind of resolves to win.”

As the townsmen – the notary, the lawyer, the banker – plot to nullify his threat, they suffer unexpected bad luck: a contract not properly drawn up, suspicion of a wife’s affair, an irregular loss of money. Only the lawyer’s assistant – a “rat-faced young man” named Willem – determined to discover Brother’s background, seems any threat to him.

To reveal any more would spoil the measured plot of the novel, unloaded in short, powerful chapters which surprise with their content even as they are heavy with inevitability. This is not realism; arguably, it bears less relation to verisimilitude than the Western genre, as Raud intentionally keeps setting vague to endow his tale with a mythic quality. The novel taps into deep-seated ideas about justice. Brother is not the sheriff come to clean up the town, but his presence acts as a conscience on those who have lied and cheated, yet been able to hide this knowledge from themselves, and initiates a karmic revenge. Sadly, much of the novel’s pleasure arises from wishing such a figure would walk our streets today.

1967: The Last of the Crazy People

May 16, 2017

Canadian author Timothy Findley made a brief impression on a UK readership with the publication of his novel Pilgrim in 1999. Faber quickly reprinted two of most famous earlier works, The Wars and Famous Last Words, and Penguin published his final novel, Spadework, in 2001. Much of his other work is published by Penguin Modern Classics in Canada but you are unlikely to come across it here. His first novel, The Last of the Crazy People, originally published in 1967, is one such example (though ironically it was originally published in the UK having been rejected by Canadian publishers). In some ways it is atypical from much of his later work which tended to deal with historical settings and figures as it tells the story of a young boy, Hooker, (eleven as the novel opens) growing up in a wealthy but dysfunctional family in Cannington, Ontario, where Findley wrote the novel.

As the novel opens Hooker’s mother, Jess, has recently returned from hospital after a stillbirth and has shut herself away in her bedroom, an act which casts a shadow over the household:

“Nicholas gazed around the hallway and admitted with a look that the door at the top of the stairs was still there.”

Nicholas, Hooker’s father, is frozen in his response:

“Staring at the closed door in front of him, he could not help thinking, ‘This is my room. Why shouldn’t I go in there?’ The thought trespassed in his mind, just as he wished he could be strong enough to trespass beyond the door.”

Nicholas’ paralysis is exemplified in his pose, poised with his hand on the door handle but unable to turn it (hoping, in fact, it is locked). He worries, too, about Hooker’s older brother Gilbert, but is equally unable to rouse himself to action:

“I lie awake thinking I must do something for him… get him off some place, and will myself to be adamant…”

Hooker’s aunt, Rosetta, blames Nicholas for Gilbert’s inability to hold down a job, or make any use of his life:

“He’s not sick. He’s just a person whose been victimised by the bad habit of what you’ve allowed him to do – which is to lie still all the time instead of moving around.”

The novel is one of atmosphere rather than incident. Findley evokes the fear created by Jess and Gilbert’s instability brilliantly, particularly when Jess leaves her room on her birthday to unwrap her presents:

“Rosetta said, ‘Why don’t you open them, dear?’
‘I will,’ said Jessica, ‘I will.’
But she did not open them. Yet.”

The novel is also soaked in death. Hooker’s only loyal companions are his cats, and he spends his time burying the birds they kill. “You’ll get sick of it,” Iris, the maid, tells him, “And then there’ll be dead birds all over the lawn.” Iris’ favourite song, which she often sings believing it to be a love song, is ‘Frankie and Johnnie’, a tale of murder. During the course of novel Lee Harvey Oswald is shot, and Gilbert speculates on why he killed Kennedy:

“I think it was really for his own happiness. He couldn’t make the happiness – whatever it was – he couldn’t make it happen unless he killed Mr Kennedy.”

Even Rosetta declares at one point:

“Maybe we should all die. Maybe we should all just be satisfied to die.”

Inevitably, death takes centre stage in the final pages as we move from Long Day’s Journey into Night into Tarantino territory. The Last of the Crazy People is a tense analysis of a family in crisis, and another wonderful discovery in my journey through the fiction of 1967.

Bodies of Summer

May 14, 2017

Great science fiction novels – Nineteen Eighty-Four is the pre-eminent example – declare their otherness in an opening sentence, and Martin Felipe Castagnet’s Bodies of Summer is no exception:

“It’s good to have a body again, even if it’s the body of a fat woman no-one else wanted.”

As we live more and more of our life online, the idea that our existence might continue there once our bodies are off-line has gathered momentum – in fiction, at least. Castagnet takes this idea one step further: in the future he presents, consciousness can not only be saved but then reinserted into a new body:

“The state of floatation is the maintenance of brain activity inside an information system. It’s the first step necessary to save an individual consciousness. After death, you can then proceed to the second, optional stage of migration from one support to another: from the web back into a physical body.”

Orwell’s dystopia was successful, however, not simply because of the logic with which he pursued his ideas to their end but because his fictional society was recognisably post-war Britain. In Bodies of Summer, but for the absence of death, life continues as normal. Wealth, first of all, decides what kind of immortality you experience: our narrator, Ramiro, must carry around a battery “plugged into my body like a leash between a dog and its owner” when he first returns to the physical world – “the only model my family could afford.”

Catagnet neatly weaves the repercussions of rebirth throughout the novel – sometimes in discursive paragraphs, but largely through Ramiro’s family. His son, Teo, now an old man, suffers from dementia, and though the minds of the dead can be saved, the minds of the living cannot – he thinks Ramiro is his grandmother and is doomed to die naturally. His great-grandchildren, in contrast, are not only comfortable with Ramiro’s reappearance in a different body, but seem to have become disconnected from the idea of death:

“One of the boys beat the other one to death. They weren’t fighting. They weren’t even mad. They did it because they thought it would be fun.”

The family also hire a carer for Teo, Cuzco. Cuzco has chosen to return in his own body, a process which makes him clumsy and slow. Ramiro’s grandchildren disagree about hiring him:

“September… says that they have to be patient with Cuzco, that it’s not his fault that he’s clumsy. Wales replies that Cuzco is a handicapped piece of shit and they don’t have any business giving out charity, that’s what the government is for.”

Cuzco lives in another part of town, and must arrive unseen by neighbours – in a futuristic form of racism, his kind are widely despised.

Not everyone wants to live forever: Ramiro’s wife, we learn, chose to die, and he has returned to find out about her life after his own death. Particularly important is to find his “former best friend.” This gives the novel the impetus of a mystery:

“I haven’t forgotten what he did to me all those years ago; but before that he was a good friend and I haven’t forgotten that either.”

Bodies of Summer is a perfect example of science fiction as literature, a novel which takes a possible future and uses it to question what it means to be human. The narrative voice – credit here to translator Frances Riddle – is convincing from the first line, and within moments we are fully invested in the world Castagnet has created. I was gripped by it from beginning to end.

The Pledge

May 11, 2017

I first read Friedrich Durrenmatt for German Literature Month in 2014 when I discovered his two Inspector Barlach novels, turning again to his work the next year with the much stranger The Assignment. On at least one of those occasions, it was suggested how wonderful it would be if his novels were brought back into print in the UK, and that Pushkin Press’ Vertigo imprint would be a perfect match. Happily, this was one of those rare occasions where wishful chatter proved prophetic and Pushkin have recently reprinted both Barlach novels (The Judge and his Hangman and Suspicion) and his later detective novel, The Pledge, last seen in a film tie-in edition with Jack Nicholson on the cover.

The Pledge is subtitled a ‘Requiem for the Detective Novel’, and Durrenmatt sets out his case in a framing sequence in which a detective tells a crime novelist:

“…to be honest, I’ve never thought highly of detective novels and I rather regret that you, too, write them. It’s a waste of time.”

His complaint is not that the criminal is always brought to justice – a “fairy tale” he accepts as “morally necessary” while adding “for business reasons if nothing else” but the fact that:

“You set up your stories logically, like a chess game… all the detective needs to know is the rules, he replays the rules of the game and, checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed.”

His dispute is not simply with the genre but might be described as realism versus plot, or even life versus art. The framing device also creates two competing narrative voices – the writer, who narrates form the beginning, and the detective, in whose words the crime story is related, though presumably via the writer, who he tells at the end, “you can do what you want with this story,” raising the question of what he has done.

The story itself opens with Durrenmatt trotting out numerous tropes of the genre: the body of a young girl discovered in the woods; a maverick detective, Matthai, on his last case, a prime suspect who only he thinks is innocent. Even the promise he makes to the victim’s parents, the pledge of the title, is one we have seen many times before, thought here it is made only so he can escape from an encounter which makes him feel “feeble, helpless”:

“’It’s a promise, Frau Moser,’ the inspector said, impelled solely by the desire to leave this place.”

Matthai is leaving for a lucrative position in Jordan; a peddler arrested at the scene confesses – but he remains unconvinced the case is solved and his desire to uncover the truth becomes an obsession, even after he leave the police force. That he doesn’t understand his own obsession can be seen from the reason he gives for continuing:

“Assuming I’m right, assuming the murderer of Gritli Moser is still alive and free, wouldn’t other children be in danger?… If the possibility of such a danger exists… it’s the duty of the police to protect the children and prevent another crime.”

Later, however, he will use a child as bait in an attempt to catch the killer with little thought for the child’s safety.

As with the Inspector Barlach novels, Durrenmatt demonstrates his mastery of the detective genre on the surface while at the same time probing deeper, philosophical questions beneath. Here, Matthai’s arrogant assumption that he can interpret reality to a set of rules – the strength which has placed him “at the pinnacle of his career” (and is shown when he challenges a mob to take their suspect and hang him if they are certain he is guilty) – becomes the weakness which leaves him the broken man we meet at the beginning. By the time the crime is solved (and it is, of course, solved) he no longer cares.

Judas

May 7, 2017

Amos Oz is yet another well-established writer I have managed to avoid reading before now, even when his novel Scenes from Village Life was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012. That his latest novel, Judas (translated by Nicholas de Lange) has made it onto both the official and shadow jury shortlists for this year’s Man Booker International Prize, is perhaps no surprise as he is frequently mentioned as a potential Nobel Prize winner.

The Judas of the title is not entirely metaphorical as Oz’s protagonist, Shmuel, is a student engaged in writing a thesis about ‘Jewish views of Jesus’, including varying interpretations of the man whose name has become shorthand for traitor, and is also a central tenet of anti-Semitism. As the novel opens his studies are placed on hold when his father’s business is declared bankrupt (though the fact his girlfriend has left him to marry someone else and his studies have stalled also play a part). Shmuel takes up a position as a companion to an elderly man, Wald, who stays with his middle-aged daughter-in-law, Atalia:

“Every evening from five o’clock until ten or eleven you will sit and talk to him in the library. And that, more or less, is the sum total of your duties.”

Atalia’s father, Shealtiel Abravanel, is also a Judas figure, the only member of the Zionist executive committee to oppose David Ben-Gurion over the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.

By placing these two figures together, Oz reveals the complexity of interpretation and the danger of defining those whose behaviour we disagree with as traitors. (Certain journalists and politicians in the UK would benefit from reading this novel). Judas, for example, is presented as a spy who becomes a believer. He convinces Jesus to come to Jerusalem and is instrumental in his crucifixion – but only because he believes he will survive the cross, proving his divine nature. When he dies, Judas hangs himself in despair. (Shmuel also has a grandfather who was murdered by zealots for being in the British police even though he used his position to pass information to the Jewish underground).

Judas, despite the fact that Shmuel is twenty-five years old, is also a coming of age story. Shmuel is presented not only at a turning point in his life but as immature and unready to face the world:

“His eyes filled easily with tears, which caused him embarrassment and even shame. A kitten mewling by a wall on a winter’s night, having lost its mother perhaps… would make his eyes well up.”

His ex-girlfriend describes him as follows:

“Either you’re like an excited puppy, rushing around noisily – even when you’re sitting on a chair you’re somehow chasing your own tail – or else you’re the opposite, lying on your bed like an unaired quilt.”

It is during his time at Wald’s that Shmuel finally matures into a man. This is partly through intellectual engagement with Wald, partly through his relationship with Atalia, whom he is attracted to on first sight:

“…she held herself erect and moved around the room as if well aware of her feminine power”

Even though he is warned by both Atalia and Wald that nothing can come of their relationship, he persists:

“Atalia fascinates you doesn’t she? She can ‘fascinate’ strangers without lifting a finger. But she’s very fond of her solitary state. She lets men who are fascinated by her get close to her, then she drives them away after a few weeks, or even just one week.”

Wald, through discussion, and Atalia, through silence, encourage Shmuel to engage with the history of Israel and explore Shealtiel Abravanel’s role in its founding, a fairly recent event as the novel is set in 1959. The themes merge in that understanding betrayal is part of understanding the complex adult world. (The novel begins with the Communist group to which Shmuel belongs breaking up over revelations of Stalin’s cruelty).

Judas is a grown-up novel about growing up. As well as providing specific commentary on Israel and its origins, it makes more general points about our development into adults, a topic more relevant today than ever.

Man Booker International Prize Shortlist

May 4, 2017

Today the Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury announced their shortlist, two weeks after the official shortlist was announced (the delay was to allow us to read a rather lengthy long-list, a task I even now have not completed). The short list is as follows:

Mathias Enard (France), Charlotte Mandell (US), Compass (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Roy Jacobsen (Norway), Don Bartlett (UK), Don Shaw (UK), The Unseen (Maclehose)
Jon Kalman Stefansson (Iceland), Phil Roughton, Fish Have No Feet (Maclehose)
Clemens Meyer (Germany), Katy Derbyshire, Bricks and Mortar (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Amos Oz (Israel), Nicholas de Lange (UK), Judas (Chatto & Windus)
Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), Megan McDowell (US), Fever Dream (Oneworld)

Four of the books are in both shortlists (Compass, The Unseen, Judas and Fever Dream) with Fish Have No Feet and Bricks and Mortar replacing A Horse Walks into a Bar and Mirror Shoulder Signal: this suggests the winner is likely to come from those four.

All six finalists have champions within the Shadow Jury. Compass and Fever Dream entered the competition already garlanded in deserved praise and their place on both shortlists was to be expected. Samanta Schweblin’s novel so far outshone those of her female competitors it would have been astonishing if it had not appeared. (There are still some who feel the short-listing of Mirror Shoulder Signal is an attempt to ensure a more acceptable gender balance on the short-list, but that would not explain the long-list). The Unseen has rather appropriately crept up on us – I was not alone in my admiration for a novel I may never have read if I had not been shadowing the Prize. Judas, similarly, provided a depth of experience though of a more intellectual nature. Bricks and Mortar was admired for its ambition rather than loved, but is also a great achievement in translation and deserves its place for that reason alone.

Our final selection, Fish Have No Feet, is the only book I have not read. (A review of Judas is forthcoming – ironically, having reviewed eleven of the original thirteen, I find both of my omissions on our short-list!). Leaving Fish Have No Feet until last was no accident: I read The Sorrow Of Angels (Stefansson seems to have moved from pathos to bathos when choosing the cliché for his title) when it was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014 and was not impressed; those who’ve read Fish Have No Feet say it’s more of the same, but not as good. If I can get a library copy I will read it, but I’m loathe to spend money on something I’m unlikely to enjoy.

This has been the most challenging Shadow Jury yet in terms of the length of the books but I also think it has been the highest in quality. Usually there is a stand-out winner for me, but this year that is certainly not the case. Elsewhere I have characterised the competition between Compass and Fever Dream as being between the power of the intellect and the power of the imagination; a contest that creates the potential for a compromise candidate which has claims to both.

Bricks and Mortar

April 30, 2017

Clemens Meyer’s Bricks and Mortar is the most intimidating novel on the Man Booker International Prize long list (it didn’t make it through to the official shortlist, but may well feature on the shadow jury shortlist due on Thursday). Yes, the intellectual fireworks of Enard and the relentless satire of Yan Lianke are a challenge for any reader, but Meyer’s novel is not only the longest (653 pages and, according to the author, originally twice that length), but is constructed from a montage of narrative voices and styles. The brick analogy is almost inescapable – dense, hard-hitting and possibly weighing the same – but mortar also suggests the way it has been put together, cementing various viewpoints into a three-dimensional thirty years of German prostitution.

The first voice we hear is that of a contemporary sex-worker (it’s 2011; the novel was published in 2013):

“The first guest was crap. The second one was OK. That’s how you have to look at it otherwise you go crazy.”

She sees her job as a way of earning money for the future:

“That’s what I say to every girl who wants to get into the business. If you don’t watch out one day you’ll be left with all your money down the drain. Times get harder and you can work and work until you go grey and your tits go wrinkly to get out of that misery again. That won’t happen to me. I’ve got plans.”

It’s a theme the novel will return to (“I see it all purely rationally. I milk and I milk and I put away what I can”) as Meyer’s main focus is not sex, but money.

Meyer’s opening chapter humanises what follows (as well as acclimatising the reader to the various acronyms for sex acts they will need to decode later passages) but female voices will be in the minority. This is the sex industry as industry and Meyer’s attention is on those at the top, how they got there, and how they stay there. In content (though not in presentation) the novel features many of the scenes we are familiar with from the gangster genre on film and television: deals in the dark corners of clubs and dingy cafes, betrayals and power grabs, and, beneath it all, the violence which at any moment might punch through.

Meyer can be clever with this. Take, for example, Hans’ (one of a few recurring characters) conversation regarding a plan to smuggle diamonds. “Show me the rocks. I want to see them,” the other man demands, ending the scene. A few lines later we are told: “He doesn’t know what to do with the body.” Much of the novel is made up of le Carre-like conversations, however, only more oblique.

Meyer uses the sex trade as an example of capitalism, hence his particular interest in the fall of the Berlin Wall. At one point in the novel it’s discussed in terms of the Wild West with “a real gold-rush feeling”:

“The mass migration, the mass copulation. You wouldn’t believe all the crap that flowed into the East then, early ’90. What a load of cheap trinkets and junk food we lugged over there.”

Arnold, another of the recurring characters, who starts out as a football hooligan but is soon making his money renting apartments to sex-workers, goes to night school to learn about business:

“The lecturer gestures at the board with a pointer. ‘Growth Strategies.’ Yes, that interests Arnold Kraushaar. He listens and stops watching the two girls diagonally in front of him.”

At one pint the old criminal gangs are compared unfavourably to the new capitalist approach (prostitution was legalised in Germany in 2002):

“Turncoats suddenly becoming big bosses. Business, deals. And no sense of honour anymore. Sounds stupid, I know. Capitalism, I know. The old rules don’t apply anymore.”

More than money, more than sex, the novel is infused with loneliness, a loneliness which is echoed in the disconnect between the chapters (and with the reader). When we first meet Arnold he is alone, lying in the street:

“…you feel your head on the asphalt, as if it had sprung a leak when it hit the ground, is it raining?”

Hans, too, is frequently alone:

“Hans turned on the TV, flicked through all the channels with the remote, stopping for a moment on a crime show repeat on a regional channel, two detectives from Munich, he liked them a lot, they’d gone grey over the years, both of them, they had no family either as far as he could tell but they didn’t seem unhappy…”

Bricks and mortar are mentioned in every chapter, but the surface to feature most is mirror, creating the illusion of company, and the threat of being watched.

Bricks and Mortar is an astonishing achievement for both Meyer and translator Katy Derbyshire. It is a difficult journey for the reader – sometimes emotionally, as with the chapter The Columbus Butterfly which features children, but largely because the text itself seems filled with shadows which no amount of bright lights and mirrors can remove.

Black Moses

April 25, 2017

Alain Mabanckou was no stranger to the Man Booker International’s predecessor, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, having been shortlisted in 2010 for Broken Glass and then long-listed in 2013 for Black Bazaar. He also featured among the ten nominees for the final Man Booker International Prize awarded for a lifetime’s work in 2015. With such a pedigree, it is perhaps no surprise to see him long-listed again this year with Black Moses, translated, as is most of his work, by Helen Stevenson. The novel is set, as is all of Mabanckou’s work, in (and near) the coastal city of Point-Noire in the Republic of the Congo where he was born and brought up. (Though his novels are not – as far as I can tell – linked, he seems intent on painting a detailed picture of his home city in his writing). We can date the novel’s beginning to 1970, when the country is subject to a Marxist-Leninist revolution (Mabanckou was born in 1966).

The novel opens with Moses in his early teens, living in an orphanage on the outskirts of Point-Noire. His happiest moments coincide with the appearance of the priest, Papa Moupelo, to lead them in traditional dances:

“For a couple of hours or more we’d forget who or where we were. Our shouts of laughter rang out beyond the confines of the orphanage.”

When Papa Moupelo fails to appear Moses, and his friend, Bonaventure, fear something is wrong:

“Just look at the warders faces – there’s something there not telling us! You might as well start weeping right now, I’m sure Papa Moupelo is dead.”

In fact, Papa’s disappearance is the result of a Communist revolution, as we see when a sign saying ‘MEETING HUT FOR THE NATIONAL MOVEMENT OF THE PIONEERS OF THE SOCIALIST REVOUION OF THE CONGO’ is nailed to the door of his room and the children are exhorted to:

“…track down enemies of the Revolution, including those living in our own country, with the same colour of skin as ours, who were referred to as the ‘local lackeys of imperialism’.”

The first half of the novel works well as a political satire, as we see the effects of the new regime on the microcosm of the orphanage:

“We never forgot, though, that before the Revolution the three former corridor wardens were just bruisers with zero intelligence. Now the Director had given them an office close to his on the first floor. They shut themselves in there to prepare Pioneers Awake, a propaganda sheet they posted on the wall of the hut of the National Movement of Pioneers every Monday morning.”

This is simply made up of extracts of the President’s speeches and a “passionate editorial” from the Director, who seems to believe the Head of State will read every issue.

In the novel’s second half, however, Moses escapes from the orphanage and heads to Point-Noire in the company of twins who quickly make the step up from bullies to gangsters. From that point on the novel is more in keeping with the picaresque nature of Mabanckou’s previous work. Moses becomes embroiled in various adventures, usually on the fringes of criminality, as his luck goes up and down like a skipping rope. If you haven’t read Mabanckou before, this is both entertaining and enlightening – after all, novels set in the Congo don’t come along every day. However, reading Mabanckou, I can’t help but be reminded of Irvine Welsh – what initially seems vibrant, brave and break-through eventually feels like the same old trick. In this sense Mabanckou is, for me, an author of diminishing returns. This novel, too, diminished in its second half, Mabanckou’s casual use of madness, and an a suddenly climactic ending which felt out of all proportion to anything which had come before, failing to fulfil the promise of its early pages.