January 16, 2018

Thankfully, Ever Dundas’ Goblin won the Saltire Scottish first book of the year award last year – critic Stuart Kelly had threatened to walk naked down Princes Street if it didn’t. Kelly called the novel “the best debut fiction by a Scottish author since Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon in 2012.” Both novels feature a child protagonist, though in Goblin the eponymous child is a Second World War evacuee who we also meet in the near-present (2011) in a narrative which alternates with her life story. The link is the discovery of a camera, alongside a strange collection of objects suggestive of childish necromancy – “bones, doll parts, a shrew head”. The camera film, once developed, is found to contain pictures of, among other things, the so called ‘pet massacre’ when thousands of domestic animals were killed in the first days of the war. There is, however, also a secret buried with this time in Goblin’s life, a memory she has repressed.

Goblin, as she frequently tells those she meets on her colourful journey through life, is her real name – “Goblin-runt born blue” to give her the full title provided by her mother, who claims she killed the midwife with her ugliness when she was born. Luckily she has her older brother, David, her friends, Mac and Stevie, and, above all, her dog, Devil. Goblin will spend the novel surrounded by animals: as an evacuee she adopts the appropriately militaristic Corporal Pig; returning to London she creates a refuge for bombed-out pets; and in her time with the circus she is frequently found sleeping with the animals (that is, literally). This is not accidental, and there is perhaps an early hint of the reasons (and Goblin’s impressive imagination) when she is playing a game with her friends:

“Mac, you’re Frankenstein’s monsta… I’ll be the Martians, and Stevie’s the Nazis…. Devil’s the humans.”

Among Goblin’s many ‘modern’ attitudes is her view of animals, often regarding them as more ‘human’ than people. As an evacuee she is unable to bear the cruelty of the boy she has been housed with:

“He’d shot a rabbit, but badly. It was wounded, and he was shoving a stick into its wound. I shot it in the head. Blood spattered on John. Barely thinking, I swung the gun over and shot him in the foot.”

(Later, in Poland with the circus, she intervenes when she sees a crowd kicking a dog). It is not shooting John, however, which causes consternation in the Christian household in which she has been placed but the discovery of Monsta, a creature she has created from the aforementioned bones and doll parts, which they regard as a sign of the Devil (not the dog). This will necessitate her return to London (with Corporal Pig) and the separation from her first love, Angel.

By this point it is clear that Dundas is channelling the often maligned picaresque novel, perhaps particularly when Goblin’s adventures literally lead to her running away to join the circus where she discovers a new family, her father and mother having died during the war, and her brother apparently missing. (As she travels with the circus she puts up posters in an attempt to locate him). She also takes a darker look at areas, such as evacuation, we associate with children’s fiction, using other tropes such as the cruel parent as well. However, what most links Goblin to children’s literature is the lack of irony: her innocence is not used as a lens though which Dundas can view her themes. Her wild imagination (as well as Monsta, there are ghosts and a Lizard King and Queen) exists in a no-man’s land between psychology and magic. (Dundas has said it is “purposely ambiguous” and that “realism doesn’t make sense.”)

Goblin is certainly an exhilarating first novel, though the decision to stretch the timeline between 1939 and 2011 also stretches belief as it becomes impossible for Dundas to do justice to Goblin’s later life in the same way as she does for her early years. While the novel is never dull, this leaves the mystery teased at in the present a very long way from the final reveal, and the small sections of prose Dundas must keep inserting to remind us there is a present less and less meaningful Having said that, the reveal in the final pages is accomplished and satisfying.

Without doubt, Dundas has a singular imagination enhanced by a vivid, and frequently visual, voice. It is perhaps no accident that photographs are at the heart of this novel, as there are likely to be many scenes which stay with the reader, not so much as a result of the descriptive power with which they are written as because of the eye for detail Dundas possesses. Her second novel could take us anywhere.


Soviet Milk

January 7, 2018

Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk is a story of births and deaths, mothers and daughters. Its two narratives each begin with a birth – one in 1944, the other in 1969 – a generation apart. In both cases the father is absent: in the first because he beaten and taken away by soldiers towards the end of the war and later reported dead; in the second because the pregnancy is the result of a single encounter at a dance. In other respects, however, they could not be more different. In 1969 the mother refuses to feed her child:

“During the twenty years I lived with my mother I wasn’t able to ask her why she had deprived me of her breast. I didn’t yet know that she had.”

Later, when it’s discovered the child has developed a disgust for milk, the mother explains to her teacher:

“I didn’t want to live, and I didn’t want her to have milk from a mother who didn’t want to live.”

“Not only was I not a good mother,” she says at another point in the novel, “but I didn’t feel like a mother at all.” Her daughter has a recurring dream where she is trying to feed from her mother’s breast; when she succeeds the liquid is “bitter, repulsive.” Her grandmother, on the other hand, struggles to understand the mother’s (her daughter’s) despair:

“She grew up surrounded by love… She sucked mother’s milk until she was three years old. She was healthy, strong child. What happened to her?”

The mother (the characters are nameless so will be referred to as they are in the second narrative: grandmother, mother, daughter) blames her father, not dead after all but broken after years of hard labour. (The grandmother carries on “resolved to have no regrets” with a new husband).

“Sometimes I hated him because I suspected his self-destructive gene was deeply implanted in me.”

In turn, her father’s fate also embeds a dislike and distrust of the new Soviet state into which Latvia is subsumed. She feels he has been “discarded on the waste heap of our times.” His suffering convinces her to become a doctor but, despite her success, “within me blossomed a hatred for the duplicity and hypocrisy of this existence.” She is given an opportunity to study in Leningrad but artificially impregnating a woman on her own initiative and then assaulting her husband with a hammer when she discovers he has been beating her ends the trip prematurely. When she returns to Latvia she loses her position as a doctor in Riga and is sent to the country to work in a clinic. Shortly after she attempts suicide.

Ikstena refuses to either judge her or to simplistically assign her depression to one cause. The refusal to feed her child reflects the mother’s belief that it is, in some sense, hereditary; in a similar fashion she is happy to allow the grandmother and step-grandfather to have a dominant role in bringing up her child. As her daughter says, “My mother stood somewhere outside the family.” She herself recognises this, describing walking past their building as:

“Past their life, where I didn’t fit, but inhabited it like a ghost from another world to whose mystery I was increasingly drawn.”

This is partly her attraction to an intellectual life, represented by a copy of Moby Dick lying alongside her medical textbooks, “a longing for a life of the mind which lay beyond her grasp.” When she is exiled to the countryside, this is replaced by Nineteen Eighty-Four as her bitterness towards the regime increases. From the beginning, however, she feels intellectually stifled by the Soviet system:

“This damned cage, in which I could do nothing.”

When her daughter gets a hamster and it eats its babies before dying itself “of his yearning for freedom”, she describes the hamster as brave in his “determination for freedom,” before going onto say, “You must forgive the dead.” (Even the step-grandfather says of the hamster, “We all have to live in a cage.”)

The two narratives work together, a mother and daughter’s view (though they begin at different points they quickly synchronise).For example, a section where the mother talks about going into her daughter’s room when she isn’t there is followed by:

“My mother rarely entered my room. Yet every time I returned from my grandparents, her fragrance seemed to linger there.”

Here we realise the mother is attempting to hide her attachment from her daughter.

Soviet Milk is another wonderful find from Peirene Press. A soul-bearing study of depression, intellectual frustration, motherhood, and life in the Soviet Union, it marries these themes without contortion or exertion, just as it marries its two voices, light an dark, into a narrative where each one complements and enhances the other.


January 4, 2018

Having read Ice, I could not resist following it with Ann Quin’s Berg, another ‘experimental’ novel of the sixties. Whereas Ice flaunts its abstract otherworldliness, Berg distils a distinctive essence of England with its seaside town setting and travelling salesman protagonist: it’s a novel of details, assaulting all the senses. (We are particularly encouraged to smell the rooms of the shabby boarding house which Berg inhabits, a reek of “stale tobacco, drink, cooking and perfume”). Its premise is summarised in its famous opening sentence:

“A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town to kill his father.”

Berg’s father, Nathaniel, deserted the family years before; he no longer recognises his son, who now lives in the same boarding house, with his father (and lover, Judith) only a partition away:

“If only he could make a hole in the partition, just large enough for his eye.”

He imagines “the clean blade of a knife slicing up the partition that divides me from them.” The conscious intention is to spy on his father, but there is a suggestion of an unconscious longing for closeness:

“…he lay down and pressed himself against the partition, listening to the sea hissing in the distance.”

Though Berg frequently thinks about killing his father (“kick the door down, with two shoves the old man would be through the window”) he delays, apparently relishing his forthcoming revenge:

“But like a love affair it seemed too easy, therefore, the preliminaries must be prolonged; flirt a little with the opportunities.”

In true Freudian style, he also considers sleeping with Judith to make his revenge complete:

“Making love to her prior to really getting rid of the old man would surely bring greater satisfaction.”

Ironically, as he waits for his moment, he develops a relationship with his father for the first time, helping him when he comes home drunk – undressing him and putting him to bed – to the point that, when Judith throws him out, he asks Berg to collect his few possessions. When Berg finds him in the bath he considers electrocuting him, but ends up scrubbing his back. About halfway through, however, Berg believes himself successful:

“At last I can rest in peace amen. Accomplished. There he is down there, beside the bed, rolled up in the rug, with the eiderdown spread over him.”

The events which follow (including a slapstick moment when Judith falls onto the rug-covered body) display a typically English strand of dark humour at work, with some moments which would not be out of place in a television comedy.

Influenced by the French nouveau roman, the narrative presents Berg’s viewpoint but always in the moment; childhood memories interrupt the present but ‘as live’ with little contextualisation. We hear other voices, but only as Berg hears them. Those from the past, such as that of his mother, appear in separate paragraphs in smaller font; in the present they merge into the narrative. Though we learn something of Berg’s background, his actions are never explained: we have a preview of this when he kills Judith’s cat:

“He stretched his hand out, the creature snarled, yellow fangs bared, and still crouching started backing away. Suddenly it sprang, hanging sloth-like on Berg’s arm. He caught hold of its tail and began swinging the cat out, hardly aware of the thud the creature made as it hit the wall.”

Lee Rourke has described the novel as “creating a mode of fiction that slices straight into its reader’s psyche like a scalpel into the heart.” Quin does not flatten her prose to achieve this effect but peppers it with pungent phrases: men’s faces are “a row of rotten apples”; Judith is “not unlike a display dummy, really, the one that’s left in the window at the end of a sale”; the eyes he feels watching him at the station are “hundreds and hundreds of small round beads with no hope of being restrung.”

Berg manages to be both of its time in its evocation of the England of the early sixties (probably closer to how we envisage the fifties) and as vibrant and incisive as if it were published yesterday. Quin belongs to a fiercely artistic (not ‘experimental’) tradition in British fiction which is frequently excised from its literary history, one that, as she says, wants “to get away from the traditional form.” She deserves to be read.


January 2, 2018

Few books suit winter like Anna Kavan’s Ice. Not only does it portray a world consumed by a permanent winter of ice and snow; it contains a coldness at its heart as if a splinter of the shattered mirror through which Kavan wrote her fiction had been inserted Snow Queen style into its centre. Indeed, it reads like an inverted version of that fairy tale, as our narrator searches for the woman he loves in the icy wasteland, believing she has come under the spell of her cruel captor.

On the surface, like ice, the story is plain and clear. The narrator falls in love with a woman who leaves him and marries a painter. He recalls visiting her in her newly married state – “it was the first time I had seen her happy” – but is later convinced her husband has treated her badly. When he hears she has left, he decides he must find her, particularly as the climate has now begun to deteriorate. This search is presented as a need, a compulsion:

“Somehow or other I had to find her… There was no rational explanation, I could not account for it. It was a sort of craving which had to be satisfied.”

He follows her to a devastated town where he finds her living with the ‘warden’, a powerful, quasi-military figure who rules the town like a fiefdom, living in the High House, “a fortresslike mass built at its highest point.” With echoes of Arthurian legend, he must now rescue her from this tower. (This is not the only knightly allusion – at one point she will be sacrificed by the villagers to a dragon).

What seems clear, however, is, on closer inspection, laced with cracks. We have, for example, only the narrator’s word that she needs, or wants, rescuing in the first place. Though the novel’s template is that of a chivalrous quest, the narrative is a combination of thriller and psychiatrist’s transcript. Like driving through a snowstorm, the novel’s oppressive subjectivity hypnotises the reader with the narrator’s impulses and impressions.

The narrator perceives the woman to be fragile and delicate, frequently referring to her body as child-like (“the girl’s naked body, slight as a child’s”), and comparing her to glass:

“I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real.”

It suits him to see her as a victim, helpless in the warden’s hands:

“Forced since childhood into a victim’s pattern of thought and behaviour, she was defenceless against his aggressive will.”

Soon we begin to suspect the narrator is describing scenes he has not witnessed, for example when he describes the woman modelling for her husband naked, her wrists and ankles tied; or later when he says, “She was nervous in the forest, which always seemed full of menace.” We are, after all, warned in the opening pages:

“Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”

As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the narrator from the warden. Again, Kavan has prepared us for this from the beginning. He describes the point in his life when she left him as ‘traumatic’ leading to “horrible dreams, in which she always appeared as a helpless victim, her fragile body broken and bruised”; dreams which he confesses to enjoying. Later he will speak of “an indescribable affinity” with the warden; she is convinced they are “in league together.” As Jonathan Lethem says in his introduction to the US edition, the narrator

“…slowly converges with the personality of and motives of the sadistic, controlling ‘warden’.”

The blurring of character boundaries reflects the frozen landscape where, in Ballardian abstraction, the details disorientate rather than distinguish:

“It could have been any town, in any country. I recognized nothing. Snow covered all landmarks with the same white padding. Buildings were changed into anonymous white cliffs.”

Most disorienting of all is the novel’s repetition as the narrator finds the woman only to lose her again, find her again and lose her. These repetitions exist outwith the confines of plot: at one point he finds her corpse, and there are other scenes that may be only fevered dreams; scenes we can more certain are ‘real’ can read like echoes or different edits of the same events. The narrative is both a labyrinth and a cell; we find ourselves as much the narrator’s prisoner as the woman is the warden’s, a Stockholm syndrome of a story where, step after step, we lose all sense of journey.

It has been suggested that the woman is the heroin to which Kavan was addicted, the ice the coldness of reality. For the reader she is the point and the final full stop, the last words with which it all makes sense, before the ink freezes and the pen writes white. Resolution, however, is elusive. In the end we must accept

“…there was no escape from the ever-diminishing remnant of time that encapsulated us. I made the most of the minutes.”

The Orange Grove

December 28, 2017

Larry Tremblay’s The Orange Grove (translated form the French by Sheila Fischman) is an interesting companion to Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone: both novels explore the experience of refugees who have arrived in their authors’ countries (Canada and Germany respectively), and what has driven them from their own homes in the hope of starting a new life elsewhere. Whereas Erpenbeck begins from the outside moving inward, Tremblay travels in the other direction, his opening pages placing us immediately with twin brothers Ahmed and Aziz in their war-torn homeland:

“Ahmed and Aziz found their grandparents in the ruin of their house. Their grandmother’s skull had been smashed by a beam. Their grandfather was lying in his bedroom, his body ripped apart by the bomb that had come from the side of the mountain where every evening the sun disappeared.”

The family are visited by Soulayed, “an important man,”

“He’s a pious man. An educated man.”

“Revenge is the only answer for your grief,” he tells the brothers’ father, Zahed, leaving behind a suicide belt. Soulayed has heard that the boys previously navigated their way to the other side of the mountain, crossing (he claims) a minefield in the process:

“You found a road to lead you to that strange town… In a few days, one of you will go back there. You, Aziz, or you, Ahmed. Your father will decide. And the one who is chosen will wear a belt of explosives. He will go down to that strange town and make it disappear forever.”

Zahid’s decision is further complicated by the fact that Aziz is ill, and is likely to die. Rationally this should make such a difficult choice easier, but Zahid sees it differently:

“It would not be a sacrifice if he wore the belt. It would be an offence… It’s Ahmed who will go.”

Their mother has other ideas, asking Ahmed to persuade Aziz to take his place, unbeknownst to Zahid or Soulayed. The novel recreates the scenario with an intensity which makes it is difficult to reject the proposition that one of the sons must die. The family are not fanatical, but Soulayed’s power is unquestionable, and the examples of previous sacrifices are used alongside the desire for revenge. Those on the other side of the mountain are described as “rats” and “dogs wearing clothes.”

This alone is enough material for a short novel, but in the second part we find ourselves with Aziz some years later in Canada, where he is training as an actor. His teacher, Michael, wants Aziz to play the part of a seven-year-old boy, Sony, in a play he has written (Tremblay is also a dramatist):

“In Michael’s play, Sony found himself in the hands of an enemy soldier. The child had been a helpless witness of his parents’ savage killing… Disgusted by his crimes, the soldier was reluctant to get rid of Sony, who, as scene followed scene, reminded him of his own son.”

As well as revealing elements of what actually occurred in the first part, this second section also tackles the issues raised by Western writer presenting Ahmed and Aziz’s story in the first place – as Michael and Aziz discuss his play in relation to Aziz’s life we have, in effect, a writer / character conversation. (At one point Aziz declares, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”)

The novel is rounded off with a short section in which Aziz speaks as Sony, using his own words rather than Michael’s. His final words – “Do you hear me?”- are a summation of Tremblay’s main intent: to allow the voices of those driven from their homes by war to be heard. Both its content and format suggest those voices are a multiplicity, and we must listen all the more carefully.

Lost Books – All the World’s Mornings

December 20, 2017

Perhaps ironically for a novel about a reclusive artist, All the World’s Mornings is probably Pascal Quignard’s most famous book, adapted, as it was, into as film the same year it was published, and quickly translated into English by James Kirkup in the days when a French film could engender a paperback release with a still on the cover. This is my first experience of Quignard but, judging from the titles of his other novels (Sex and Terror, anyone?) it seems typical in that it fearlessly broaches grand themes such as love, death and art without blinking.

The novel is set in seventeenth century France and based on the life of a historical figure, Monsieur de Sainte Colombe, a musician who is credited with adding a seventh string to the viola. (The English version comes with a series of historical foot-notes, with no indication they are not in the original). The novel begins with the death of Saint Colombe’s wife, a loss he never recovers from:

“Three years after her death, her image was still before him. After five years, her voice was still whispering in his ears.”

(His wife will return to him throughout the novel, a ghost or a memory). After her death he cuts himself off from the world, teaching his two daughters, Madeleine and Toinette, (and the occasional pupil) the viol:

“Year after year he laboured at the viol and became an acknowledged master. In the two years following his wife’s passing he worked up to fifteen hours a day.”

He has a hut built in the grounds of his house so that he can play isolated and undisturbed. When he is invited to play for the king he refuses, saying that “his palace is no place for a wild man of the woods.” (Caignet, sent to request his presence, becomes the first of many to listen secretly as he plays in his hut). When asked again, we glimpse his ferocious temper as he smashes a chair while declaring to the abbe Mathieu:

“Your palace is smaller than any hut, and your public is less than nobody.”

The purpose of music, and therefore art in general, is foregrounded again with the arrival of another visitor, Marin Marais, a young man who wishes to become a pupil of Sainte Colombe. Sainte Colombe listens to him play but initially declines to teach him:

“You are just making music, Monsieur. You are not a musician.”

When he does agree to take him on as a pupil he says it is because his “broken voice moved me” (as a child Marais had sung in the King’s choir). It’s not long, however, before their relationship breaks down, Sainte Colombe, in what is clearly something of a habit, smashing Marais’ viol against the stone fireplace when he hears he has played for the king:

“Monsieur, what is an instrument? An instrument is not music. You have there in that purse enough to buy yourself a circus horse to pirouette before the king.”

The story has plenty of drama – on the same day Marais leaves he begins a relationship with Madeleine which he must now pursue in secret, just as he continues to listen to Sainte Colombe’s music in secret beneath his hut. Yet, for all the passion which will be unleashed, the novel remains, at heart, the story of Marais’ relationship with music. Quignard has done something remarkable in creating a historical novel with pace and plot enough for the big screen while at the same time providing a profound meditation on art. The novel’s short chapters and formal style add to the sense of reflection.

All the World’s Mornings is a short, powerful novel which you are unlikely to leave without being provoked into consideration of artistic creation. Sainte Colombe, and presumably Quignard, a vocation of almost religious proportions:

“When I draw my bow across the strings, it is a little bit of my living heart I am tearing out. What I do is nothing but the discipline of a life in which there is never a day off. I am fulfilling my destiny.”

Quignard has been widely translated recently (with particular thanks to Seagull Books), but All the World’s Mornings is currently out of print, a situation which an enterprising publisher should rectify as a matter of urgency.

Alien Hearts

December 16, 2017

Guy de Maupassant was another writer I encountered for the first time last December (with Femme Fatale). A master of the short story, Maupassant is often unregarded as a novelist, and Alien Hearts, his final novel, is perhaps the least appreciated of all, having waited a long time for this modern translation by Richard Howard. In summary it is a rather stark love story, though it does, of course, contain many of the psychological insights which characterise his stories. It takes place among the upper classes, detailing the relationship between Andre Mariolle, a wealthy bachelor of no fixed vocation, and Madame de Burne, a young widow. A love triangle of sorts, it could be argued that the third angle is love itself as both characters seem as interested in their relationship with love as with each other.

Madame de Burne is a woman who has already suffered one marriage and has decided to resist all further temptation. This is not to say she has closeted herself away; on the contrary, she delights in encouraging those men invited to her Thursday dinners to fall in love with her, declaring from the start that her encouragement has a limit:

“For all the loyal members of the group had fallen, one after the next, in love with Madame de Burne and, after the crisis, had remained attentive and fond to various degrees.”

When she first meets Mariolle, she is entirely (one might say mischievously) open with him:

“Something of a coquette? I often am, with people I like. Everyone knows it, and I don’t deny the fact, but you’ll find that my coquetry is quite impartial, which allows me to keep my friends… Don’t be deceived – you won’t get any more than the rest.”

Though Mariolle is immediately attracted to her, when he finally writes to her, Madame du Burne is relieved as “he resisted much longer than she might have predicted, for during the last three months she had deployed a greater array of attentions, a more elaborate expenditure of charm than she had ever produced for any of the others.” The letter, however, is a farewell:

“…he left her in no doubt that he knew how she dealt with men, that he too was caught in her toils but that he would free himself from this servitude before it began.”

She forestalls his departure by asking him to stay, and then, when she herself must leave for the country, concocting a plan which will allow them to meet. At this point we may feel uncertain as to whether she is simply unwilling to lose the ‘game’ of seduction (she talks more than once of her ‘victory’), or is actually falling in love, an uncertainty she shares:

“Yet, she had felt an impulse towards him, she felt it even now, deep in her heart. Perhaps she needed only to yield to it for it to become a real emotion.”

Their relationship reaches a (literal) highpoint when they climb the Madman’s Walk together – “a dizzying granite path winding with no parapet around the top of the last tower” – which encapsulates both the danger and thrill of love. When Mariolle refers to it later, however, Madame du Borne comments:

“…now that I think of it I’m rather appalled. How dizzy I’d be if I had to do it again! I must have been drunk on the air up there, and the sun, and the sea.”

Despite this, their relationship progresses and they begin to meet in secret. Mariolle, although he now has “more than the rest” is unsatisfied, his own victory tarnishing even his feelings of jealousy:

“He realised that he was jealous, no longer merely as an idealizing lover but as a possessive male.”

De Maupassant cleverly ensures our sympathies remain balanced: Madame du Burne’s initial honesty grants her some leeway with the reader, as does the sincerity of Mariolle’s love. The more she gives him, however, the less satisfied he becomes, and, as will later be demonstrated, trying to match the love of another is not as straight-forward as he believes. De Maupassant also avoids rushing headlong towards a tragic conclusion, leaving us with something far more nuanced and ambiguous, for, while the plot of Alien Hearts may seem a little dated, the emotions it exposes pulse as fiercely in our veins today.


December 13, 2017

I first encountered Ryunosuke Akutagawa last December when I read the story Hell Screen as part of my story-a-day advent challenge. Encouraged to explore his work further, I somehow managed to avoid the most obvious path (acquiring one of the many collections of his short stories available in English) and turned to his short novel Kappa. Kappa has been described as “Japan’s first full-blown dystopian novel” and certainly shows the influence of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Ryunosuke wrote it shortly before his suicide in 1927, saying, “Kappa was born out of my disgust with many things, especially with myself.” The story is presented as told to the author by a patient in an asylum, a narrative framework which had personal resonance for Ryunosuke given his mother’s mental health issues and his own resultant fear of insanity.

Patient No. 23’s story begins when he catches sight of a Kappa when out walking one day. (A Kappa is demon or imp of Japanese mythology, describe by translator G. H. Healey in his introduction as “a scaly creature the size of a small child, with a face like a tiger’s and a sharply pointed beak”). He chases the Kappa but, as he catches him, finds himself plunging into a hole:

“I was just getting the tips of my fingers on his glassy, slippery back when I suddenly found myself toppling headlong, deep into a pitch black abyss.”

His fall takes him into Kappaland where he spend the rest of the novel learning about Kappa society. Kappaland, of course, provides a skewed mirror image of Japan:

“Where we humans take a thing seriously, the Kappa will tend to be amused; and, similarly, what we humans find amusing the Kappa will take in deadly earnest.”

Ryunosuke uses the satire to work through what we would now call ‘personal issues’. Take, example, his description of Kappa relationships where it is the She-Kappa who chases the male:

“A she-Kappa sets eyes of a he-Kappa and thinks to herself, Yes – he’s the one. And from that moment on, she’ll go to any lengths to make him hers, using every trick of the trade in the process. The most artless and forthright method is for the she-Kappa simply to make a mad dash for the luckless male of her choice. I’ve actually seen a pursuit of this sort – with a she-Kappa, looking quite out of her mind, dashing pell-mell after the male.”

Ryunosuke also mocks himself in the shape of Tok the poet, ridiculing the way in which artists see themselves as above the ordinary population – “super-Kappas” – “transcending all notions of good and evil.” In an eerie foreshadowing of his own life, Tok commits suicide, and the self-obsession of the artist can be seen in the reaction of the composer, Krabach, who, with “the stench if Tok’s blood” in his nostrils declares,

“I’ve got it! I’ve just thought of an absolutely perfect funeral dirge!”

Of Tok himself, it is said:

“One’s bound to feel sorry for anyone who’s made a home around a man as self-centred as Tok.”

Tok returns later in the novel as a ghost; when asked why, he answers:

“Because I wish to know what reputation I have gained since my death.”

The novel is not entirely a form of self-harm, however, with Ryunosuke also attacking other aspects of Japanese society, including capitalism. Another Kappa we meet, Gael, is described as “the capitalist to end all capitalists.” It is through Gael that the narrator visits a book manufacturing plant, an incident Ryunosuke uses to object to the commodification of art. A machine produces books of all shapes and sizes from “paper, ink and a grey-looking powder” – the grey-looking powder is “ass-brain.” Things take a more sinister turn when we discover what happens to workers who are made redundant by mechanisation:

“…we slaughter any worker who loses his job and we use his flesh as meat… ‘This month’s figure for newly unemployed reached 64,769; the price of meat has fallen in proportion.’”

Kappa is the work of an imagination both wild and fierce. (Take for example, his description of Kappa birth where the unborn Kappa in the womb is asked if he or she wishes to be born). While Ryunosuke’s short stories will no doubt remain his most famous work, this is a fascinating foot-note.

Cat Country

December 10, 2017

“When I look at contemporary China,” Yan Lianke has said, “I see a nation that is thriving yet distorted. I see corruption, disorder and chaos…” His predecessor Lao She, who was born in 1899 and published throughout the twenties, thirties and forties – eventually committing suicide after a beating by the Red Guards in 1966 – presents an even more pessimistic view in his science fiction novel Cat Country, originally published in 1932, and recently reprinted by Penguin Classics in a 1970 translation by William Lyell. In Cat Country the narrator finds himself the only survivor of a spaceship which has crash landed on Mars in a country of Cat People. He decides to discover as much as he can about Cat culture, but soon declares that he sees little hope for their future:

“As soon as I set eyes on Cat City, for some reason or other, a sentence took form in my mind: this civilisation will soon perish.”

Initially taken prisoner, he quickly discovers that, as a foreigner, he is a valuable commodity, feared by the Cat People and therefore able to guard the crops of reverie leaves which provide the country with its staple diet as well as drugging its people into docile compliance. He describes his own first taste of the leaves, which are clearly intended to suggest the opium which plagued China at the time Lao was writing:

“After having eaten two of the leaves in a row, my head began to feel a bit dizzy, and yet it wasn’t at all an unpleasant sensation… It were almost like I were benumbed and excited at the same time.”

The reverie leaves are not only the entire economy of Cat Country, but also at the heart of its lax legal system: realising that preventing their theft was an impossible task the government opted simply to legalise it:

“The government decided that too many robberies were being perpetrated, and issued a most humane order: from now on stealing reverie leaves would not be considered a criminal act.”

Despite this, those who grow reverie leaves are the most powerful in the land, and the narrator is asked by one of these wealthy figures, Scorpion, to protect his crop. In befriending our narrator Scorpion adopts a typical Cat philosophy: “it seemed that the main reason Scorpion made friends was in order to use people for his own benefit.” More generally we are told:

“The Cat People were not accustomed to helping in anything that might be of benefit to someone else.”

Although the reverie leaves may remind us of the Soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (published the same year), Lao’s science fiction is more reminiscent of H. G. Wells, beginning with the choice of travel to another planet to initiate his satire. In fact, he covers a lot of Wells’ career in this novel, with an adventurous opening and an increasingly didactic second half. In his critique of China he is at pains to show that it is not simply a political question, but a deterioration of the national character in a way which might remind us of the Morlocks and Eloi of The Time Machine. Though exploitation by foreign powers is part of the problem:

“That only happens when the people lose their individual integrity and the country gradually loses its national integrity, for on-one wants to cooperate with a country that has lost its integrity.”

Once the narrator reaches Cat City the satire becomes even more savage. One example is his description of Cat education. Having abandoned their own traditions to ape foreign ones which they do not understand, students now graduate on the first day and teachers are unpaid:

“Of course, quite a few of our teachers starve to death, but the number of university graduates goes on increasing anyway.”

Academics are no better: “they just string a lot of foreign nouns together so that nobody understands them.” As for Cat Country’s proud history, he is taken on a tour of a museum where all the rooms are empty as all the historical artefacts have been sold.

Though written before China became a Communist country, Lao also has Communism in his sights, or Everbodysharekyism as it is called in the novel. He foresees not only its violence, but that its ideas will never be put into practice:

“…when all the killing was over, everybody just stood around and stared blankly at each other.”

Cat Country is not entirely successful as a novel: when the narrator befriends Young Scorpion in the second half, large sections are taken up with explanation rather than experience. The narrator’s position as the reader’s viewpoint also prevents any character development. Lao does see the novel through to cultural cataclysm, however, and ends it with an apt image of Cat Country’s self-destruction. Cat Country is a fascinating example of science fiction as a tool of satire, and as vicious a critique of national character as you’ll find this side of Thomas Bernhard. Though probably influenced by Lao’s father’s death in the Boxer Rebellion, the novel also uncannily foreshadows the circumstances of his own death thirty years later; as with all great satire it is as much about the future as the past.


December 6, 2017


Another novella available in the Penguin China Specials series is Yan Lianke’s Marrow. Yan is relatively well known in the West, particularly by those of us who read the long lists for translation prizes: Dream of Ding Village was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012, and The Four Books and The Explosion Chronicles have featured on the two most recent Man Booker International Prize lists. (Anyone acquainted with those rather lengthy volumes may be surprised (or even relieved) to hear that Marrow, originally published in 1993, only just makes it past 100 pages).

“China is a great place for an author, because such implausible things happen in everyday life,” Yan has said, and Marrow might be described as a tale of everyday life, very different from not only the scale but the overtly political and allegorical nature of his later work. One might even go as far as to categorise it as realism if it weren’t for the fact that one of the first characters we are introduced to is a ghost. Fourth Wife You (Yan, as we have come to expect, names his character according to their function) may have brought up her four disabled children alone, but she still speaks daily to the ghost of their father, who committed suicide when he discovered that the heredity origin of their disabilities lay with him: “Her man had killed himself, terrified of the future.” The future is very much on Fourth Wife You’s mind: having found disabled husbands for her two eldest daughters, she must now marry Third Daughter. Third Daughter, however, demands that her husband has no disability:

“I want a wholer, not a cripple or a one-eyed freak.”

In her favour, we see early on that Fourth Wife is a determined negotiator. When a man offers to reap her fields in return for spending the night with her she agrees, but when he asks for his reward she demands that he marry her first. When he instead threatens to rape her, she replies:

“If you rape me, then I’ll hang myself in your doorway. You still won’t need to pay with your life, you’ll just need to raise my four children until they all have families and jobs of their own.”

She shows this same strength of mind when she is arranging a husband for Third Daughter:

“We would be willing to accept any of the brothers, except for the deaf one.”

Eventually her search leads her to the widower Wu Shu. Despite the fact that he has no fruit trees or animals and only a “three-roomed thatched house that leaks when it rains” she offers him an impressive dowry, including half of her grain. Her obsession with finding a ‘wholer’ has blinded her to his many faults, but, as Yan makes clear, this is a result of the fears and prejudices within her society: at one point the villagers offer her money if she will avoid walking past the house of a woman who is giving birth in case she should affect the child.

Marrow is not simply about the treatment of the disabled, however. When Second Daughter falls pregnant her seizures worsen. Her husband believes that marrow soup will cure her illness but the bones must be “the bones of a dead person, a relative, and the closer the kin the better.” Together they dig up her husband’s bones to make the soup, and the cure is successful, but Fourth Wife knows there are not enough bones in the grave to cure all her children. Her son, Fourth Idiot’s, case is particularly pressing: one reason Third Daughter had to get married was that her brother was intent on molesting her; in her absence he turns his attention to the local cattle. Fourth wife’s final decision makes the novella a powerful endorsement of a mother’s love for her children

“…her excitement gradually faded and was replaced by a layer of pale determination, as though she were wearing a metal mask.”

While it may not have the sweep of his political epics, Marrow demonstrates Yan’s interest in the ordinary life of the rural poor, his refusals to turn away from the worst of it, and his ability to perceive the best.