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.


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.

The Accusation

June 7, 2017

“Some days it seems life is just a never-ending obstacle course,” we are told in the title story of Bandi’s The Accusation (translated by Deborah Smith), a sentiment that we might all share at times, but here in reference to a society little known outside its own borders, that of North Korea. In the story, a husband becomes suspicious at his wife’s behaviour, particularly when he discovers a hidden packet of contraceptive pills. Only when he has the opportunity to read her diary is the truth revealed in an insight into a country where party rank is everything, and any disloyalty casts a shadow down the generations. The wife’s disquiet begins when she discovers that her nephew, Min-hyuk, cannot be made class president because of his family history:

“His grades were already at the top, and his comportment was first class. But when I went to get the proposal ratified by the Party secretary, I got, ‘Comrade, don’t you know that this child’s father was deported to Wonsan?’ and, well, that was that.”

As the narrator puts it:

“A blameless child with his whole life already mapped out, forced to follow in his parent’s footsteps, step by stumbling step, along that same route of blood and tears.”

Again and again in these stories, humanity, in all its warmth and weakness, comes into conflict with impersonal ideology. In ‘City of Spectres’ a family must contend with their young child’s fear of Karl Marx’s face, ubiquitous thanks to upcoming celebrations:

“He was the son of a supervisor in the propaganda department, and having a tantrum at the sight of Marx’s portrait had serious implications. And besides, now that the preparations for National Day were coming to a head, people were at such a level of excitement they’d be liable to mistake a dropped spoon for a grenade.”

Unfortunately the curtains which prevent Myeong-shik from seeing the portraits out of the apartment window are not in keeping with the demands of uniformity (and white net, and therefore transparent, curtains):

“Every other house has those same curtains, so the street can look neat and uniform. Which it would, if your apartment wasn’t sticking out like a sore thumb.”

Not only is this a wonderful image of the conformity required to fit in, but the story makes clear the consequences of not complying – in this case, relocation to the countryside. In ‘So Near, Yet So Far’ the love for a parent rather than a child is the stumbling block as Myeong-chol asks for permission to visit his dying mother in the countryside:

“We’ve had an order from above forbidding travel to this district. They’re gearing up to hold a Class One event – you know what that means, don’t you? That’s right, the Dear Leader himself.”

Myeong-chol decides to go anyway, a nerve-wracking journey which we know ends in punishment from the story’s opening which shows him returning home:

“He’d always been skinny and slightly stooped, but he looked to have aged twenty years in as many days.”

The story is not the only one to use obvious but effective symbolism: when Myeong-chol releases some larks from a cage they simply return to the cage the next morning. Symbolism also plays a part in my favourite story, ‘Life of a Swift Steed’, which concerns the much-decorated Seol Yong-su. A model citizen, he unexpectedly goes “berserk” when soldiers attempt to cut a branch from the elm tree in his yard. The tree, it transpires, is important to him as he was told when a boy (he is now an old man), “When it grows to be as tall as that chimney over there” he will have:

“…pure white rice with meat every day, and silk clothes, and a house with a tiled roof.”

The tree represents the promises of Communism, and Yong-su’s faith in it his faith in the regime. I could not help but be reminded of Boxer with his refusal to lose heart, his self-sacrifice and his medals. Yet, as his wife says,

“What good is a medal to us? Will a medal keep us warm? Will a medal fill our stomachs?”

Readers of Soviet fiction will recognise much that is to be found in these stories, though obviously with shifts of emphasis and a different cultural background. What is most striking, however, is not how different the way of life is, but how similar the people are.

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.