The Right Intention

September 24, 2022

Andres Barba is best known for his short novels Such Small Hands and, most recently, The Luminous Republic, both of which deal with what might be described as a heightened version of reality. In Such Small Hands in particular, Barba is able to inhabit his child narrator with consummate conviction, a skill he applies to the four stories set in much more prosaic environs in this earlier work (2002), The Right Intention, translated by Lisa Dillman in 2018. If the reality is more ordinary, however, the characters struggle to face some aspect of it, a failure which generally sets them on a self-destructive path.

The first, ‘Nocturne’, is the story of a gay man in late middle-age who falls in love with a much younger man he meets through a personal ad. The ad which attracts his attention reads simply, “I’m so alone. Roberto.” Roberto is only twenty-one and, although the relationship progresses smoothly, the protagonist worries about the age difference:

“While it seemed reasonable that someone like him would lose his head over a twenty-one-year-old boy, the inverse stuck him as perverse… to love an old man the way Roberto loved him, you had to be either lying or wicked.”

The narrative viewpoint allows us only to see Roberto in the same way, uncertain of his motivations. The older man’s pleasure in the relationship ironically undermines his happiness:

“Thinking about the future was like poking his head into a dark hole from which he could feel the panting breath of some beast.”

Increasingly his own doubts undermine the love which Roberto seems to feel for him.

Uncertainty over a relationship leading to self-destructive impulses is also evident in the second story, ‘Debilitation’, though in a quite different way. Here the narrative focal point is a teenage girl, Sara, who has developed an uncomfortable relationship with her body, as her friend’s opening comment – “A body like that and you won’t wear a bikini”- makes clear. A kiss from a boy that she cannot discuss either with him or her friend, creates a crisis which leads to self-harm and an eating disorder. If this chain of events sounds a little cliched, it is Barba’s ability to convince that creates a deeper understanding, for example when he describes Sara cutting herself with a letter opener:

“The fact that she did it didn’t mean she liked the pain… but if she kept at it a little, waited for sensation to eclipse the threshold of reason, then came a pleasant state of self-possession, of control.”

The story’s second half tells of her time in a clinic and her relationship with her roommate, Ana, which becomes another form of control.

In ‘Marathon’ we have another very different central character, a young man, newly married, who loves running:

“He liked running the way a little kid likes running up at the sky – irrationally, with no thought of stopping.”

Much is revealed in that opening sentence as in the story he will act childishly, irrationally, and with a compulsion that will prevent him from stopping once on his own self-destructive path. A chance encounter in the park with another runner, Ernesto, leads to a shared plan to tackle a marathon together. Even when they meet, our protagonist treats it like an affair, saying that it is better if he calls Ernesto. In the same way, he is immediately jealous when he thinks he sees Ernesto running with someone else. Both his friendship and his marriage are soon under threat.

The final story, ‘Descent’, in which a daughter cares for her dying mother. It is, first of all, more of an ensemble piece, with a sister and a brother also playing important parts. Secondly, it is the mother who is the destructive influence, cruel and cutting in her remarks yet always expecting more from her daughter:

“She asked for love, and if it wasn’t forthcoming then she demanded love…”

Unhappy with the hospital she is in, she demands her children return the money she gave them years before to pay for a better one. The family give in but, in the end, the daughter finds a way to undo some of the destruction her mother has been responsible for.

These stories demonstrate a real breadth to Barba’s writing, particularly in the way he understands and presents character, and without having to use the first person to convince us. Each one is gripping in its own way and, given that a substantial amount of his work remains untranslated, it is to be hoped that more appear soon.

God’s Teeth and Other Phenomenon

September 20, 2022

One of the most fascinating aspects of James Kelman’s development as a novelist has been the increasing range of his use of first-person narration, from a child narrator in Keiron Smith, Boy to a woman in Mo said she was quirky. His most recent novel, Dirt Road, saw him return to the America of You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free, but, rather than the existential loners that populated his early novels, we find instead a beautiful examination of a father-son relationship. With his latest novel, God’s Teeth and Other Phenomenon, published by an American small press, he breaks new ground again in what seems, on the face of it, his most autobiographical novel yet, featuring a writer as the central character.

The novel tells the story of Jack Proctor, a Sottish writer largely known (if at all) for winning the ‘Banker’s Prize’ a number of years ago (“Fifteen years ago I was awarded the damn prize and the buggers were still picking over the bones”), who is invited to a residency at the Orwellian sounding ‘House of Art and Aesthetics.’ The novel works on two levels: on the one hand it offers a satirical account of the writer’s life, while on the other it proposes a serious argument for writing as an art form. “I was at the computer trying to finish a sentence,” it begins, establishing from the outset that this is a novel about the act of writing, as Proctor will frequently remind the aspiring writers he works with:

“The writing is the thing.”

As he also makes clear, it is not a financially rewarding profession:

“People dont buy your books and ye canny fucking force them man imagine it! waiting outside the bookshop with yer Winchester rifle: buy the bastard’s book or I’ll blow yer fucking heid aff!”

Proctor’s need to write (“I’m one of those writers who wrote all the time”) leads to his first difficulty with the residency before he has even arrived as he cannot face the thought of a week in a bed and breakfast:

“Stuck in a solitary room for six weeks. God’s teeth!”

Instead they offer him an isolated cabin – ideal, apart from the fact he has no transport for the first few days. When a vehicle does arrive, it seems more appropriate for the inner city than the country roads Jack must navigate:

“It was just so wee. Pitiably so. In an emergency stop ye would be liable to castrate yerself.”

This is only the first of a series of difficulties Jack has to manage: “Strange eventualities take place on reading tours,” as he says. Sessions are cancelled or cut short with no notice – or sometimes without Jack having even been told about them in the first place. When only a small audience turns up for an evening reading, the organiser comments, “It’s a pity you cancelled the school session…We might have built up the figures.” Far from cancelling it, Jack has no knowledge of it in the first place. The readings he performs are not treated any better – from an announcement he will read from ‘the book’ (That is, his ‘Banker’s Prize’ winning novel) when he does not even have a copy, to publicity which states he writes in ‘Lallans’ and calls him ‘Jock’:

“’Jock’ but man it was totally racist… Lallans, what the hell is Lallans?… Definitely libellous shite man.”

This is partly, as Jack thinks to himself at one point, “being an ordinary human being in a society structured on inhumanity,” but it is also, more ironically lack of understanding of Jack as a writer from those who proclaim to love literature.:

“People expect ye to tell jokes and regale them with previous-life anecdotes.”

Jack’s performances are carefully planned and rehearsed, as well as fluid and responsive. He realises at one point that one of the arts officers “presumed I was saying the same thing to each crowd of folk on each occasion.” To the House of Art and Aesthetics, Jack is simply a commodity:

“She appeared unable to grasp I was a human being.”

If this were Kelman’s first novel it might feel like special pleading for writers, but the theme of treating others as human beings has long been present in his work. Take, for example, the story ‘No longer the warehouseman’ from Not Not While the Giro where the narrator wonders about having to have his tea break standing up: “Surely there are chairs I said to the foreman.” Here, we also have the benefit, in the form of his talks with different groups, of his thoughts on writing, as he asks us to “think in terms of more physical art forms.”

“Artists fight to regain freedom through the base materials which in my case is language.”

These suggest the novel is more than comedy. While the satirical element might be a plea to take writers more seriously, the novel as a whole asks us to take writing, and art in general, more seriously. Kelman’s work has always been both funny and serious, and this might just be both his funniest and most serious novel yet.

Anthony Burgess’ Ninety-Nine Novels – What’s Missing?

September 12, 2022

One of the main reasons that Anthony Burgess’ Ninety-Nine Novels, his selection of the best novels in English between 1939 and 1983, is as interesting today as it was when it was first published almost forty years ago, is that he neither aimed nor cared to be definitive. It is very much a personal selection, albeit by someone who was famously well-read. In adding to it I have not attempted to nit-pick which novel is a writer’s best, but only chosen writers who do not feature at all. Some he may not have rated, others he may not have read, but as he says in his introduction, “If you disagree violently with some of my choices I shall be pleased.”

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor (1947)

Elizabeth Taylor is perhaps one of the most striking omissions from Anthony Burgess’ Ninety-Nine Novels as she published in almost every decade that his selection covers. Whatever fame she accumulated in her lifetime (that Kingsley Amis described her as “one of the best English novelists born in this century” suggests that there was some), Sam Jordison felt she was ripe for rediscovery as recently as 2012. So reliably did she write that choosing one of her dozen novels is difficult. Robert McCrum elected Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont for his 100 Best Books in English in 2015, which was also shortlisted for the Booker, but I have decided on the much earlier A View of the Harbour in which setting and characters seem so perfectly aligned.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutola (1952)

Burgess praises Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker as “remarkable not only for its language, but for its creation of a whole set of rituals, myths and poems,” a comment that might equally apply to Amos Tutola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard were it not for that tricky word ‘creation’. Hoban’s future world was clearly fictional, but Tutola’s style was dismissed by some critics as ‘accidental’ and therefore ‘primitive’. But, as James Kelman has pointed out, “His achievement was masterful for he succeeded in what for many is a contradiction in terms, he remained a tradition-bearer in a language that by all accounts can have been little other than alien.” It is for this reason that the novel remains as vibrant and thrilling as it was on publication.

A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelly (1962)

William Melvin Kelly’s A Different Drummer was much praised on its publication in 1962, but by 1984 it was largely forgotten. Such side-lining of black writers, both British and American, goes some way to explaining why there are so few in Burgess’ selection. Kelly’s novel also refuses to bow to expectations – beginning with a black farmer throwing salt onto his land, shooting his livestock and burning down his house, but told in the voices of the town’s white inhabitants. It is an astoundingly assured debut – as Kathryn Schulz wrote in 2018 when the novel was rediscovered, “Kelley was already a strikingly confident writer… although his story has the emotional proportions of a myth, his sentences reliably feel like real life.” Sixty years after its initial publication, the novel’s power remains undiminished.

Berg by Ann Quin (1964)

Ann Quinn’s Berg is another astonishing debut novel. Set in a very English seaside town, its seedy, down-at-heel setting assaults all the senses. Thoughts of murder (Berg believes he must kill his father to be free) sit alongside moments of slapstick in a style that is a combination of oblique detail and baroque language. Even today the novel feels quite unlike any other novel – in Lee Rourke’s words, Quinn created “a mode of fiction that slices straight into its reader’s psyche like a scalpel into the heart.” Recently revived by And Other Stories Press, Quin deserves her place among the novelists of the sixties.

Ice by Anna Kavan (1967)

Far from being Anna Kavan’s debut, Ice was the last novel she published while alive in a writing career which began in 1929. Technically a science fiction novel, set in a world where the climate in deteriorating into a new ice age, it is also (superficially at least) a love story. But the narrator’s quest to rescue the woman he loves is never entirely convincing – does she really need rescuing? It is often read as an allegory of her addiction to heroin; “I see her need for the drug mirrored in the narrator’s desperation to reach the ice maiden,” Hannah Freeman wrote in 2011. The novel’s strength resides in its ability to be deeply personally on a global stage.

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah (1968)

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, by Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah, is one of the great novels of post-independence Africa. The focus of the novel is the corruption that its nameless protagonist attempts to resist despite the visibly affluent lifestyle of his old friend, Koomson, now a government minister. Koomson is later ousted in a coup and must turn to his poorer compatriot for help. The novel is filled with descriptions of waste and rot as if the country’s corruption had manifested physically. Recently included in the Big Jubilee Read, it should probably have also been on Burgess’ list.

House Mother Normal by B S Johnson (1971)

Like much – or perhaps all – of B S Johnson’s work, House Mother Normal is an experiment which doesn’t quite work, but Johnson’s daring is enough to demand his inclusion in some form. Set in a nursing home, each chapter reveals the consciousness of one of the patients, progressively older and less coherent. Both funny and moving (or “corrosive and elegiac” as James Marcus put it), it will not be to everyone’s taste (“frankly tedious” according to D J Taylor), but a selection of the best novels in English without Johnson seems incomplete.

The Wars by Timothy Findley (1977)

Canadian writers are represented in Burgess’ Ninety-Nine Novels by Robertson Davies and Mordecai Richler. Timothy Findley was of the same generation as Richler but, when his first novel was published in 1967, his compatriot had already written five. The Wars was Findley’s third novel, the story of a Robert Ross, a nineteen-year-old who enlists in World War One as a form of escape from guilt and grief. His story is told from more than one point of view as pieced together by a historian. Described by Guy Vanderhaeghe as “the finest historical novel ever written by a Canadian” it makes a strong case to be included.

The Plains by Gerald Murnane (1982)

It seems likely that Gerald Murnane would have been entirely unknown in the UK when Burgess made his selection (though I can’t help but feel he would have like A Lifetime on Clouds). As he points out in his introduction, it only features one Australian novel – at least one more would seem reasonable, and The Plains is eligible by a couple of years. Its central character is a film maker whose narration has been described by Paul Genoni as “a quasi-philosophical disquisition on the nature of landscape, time, place, creation, heraldry, patronage, libraries, unattainable women and deferred speech, in which he attempts to reconcile the contours of his own image-laden imagination with the immense physical landscape of the plains.” With Murnane now mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize winner, his inclusion seems justified.

Life & Times of Michael K by J M Coetzee (1983)

J M Coetzee is, of course, a Nobel Prize winner. While Burgess was not to know this lay in the future, Life & Times of Michael K had won the 1983 Booker Prize, and certainly seems a much better representative of that year than Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. Michael’s attempt to cross a country in the midst of civil war to reach his mother is, of course, as relevant as ever. In his belief that “a man must live so that he leaves no trace of his living,” Coetzee faces head on the question of how we should live our lives – one he has continued to tackle in his work in such novel as Disgrace (which brought him a second Booker Prize) and his Jesus trilogy. It would have made a fitting conclusion to Burgess’ selection.


September 5, 2022

Rather than be ‘the great American novel’, Hernan Diaz’s Trust seems intent on dismantling that idea and examining the pieces. Its central character, Andrew Bevel, is a stereotypical American success story, the financier with the Midas touch, an economic colossus both admired and hated. Rather than present the reader with his story, however, Diaz dismantles that, too, into four different books, each one offering a different version until it becomes clear that Bevel is not the central character at all.

Firstly, however, we meet, not Bevel, but Benjamin Rask, the protagonist of the novel Bonds by Harold Vanner. Rask’s father makes his money in tobacco, but Rask has no interest in this business quickly (and cheaply) selling it on his father’s death and investing the money in stocks. A fortuitous profit in bonds piques his interest in the market and soon he discovers a talent:

“Benjamin became adept at reading the ticker tape, finding patterns, intersecting them, and discovering hidden causal links between apparently disconnected tendencies.”

As he becomes wealthier, and better known, the idea of how he is perceived by others grows more important to him. By nature a solitary man, he joins clubs, boards, charities, associations but rarely attends:

“In the end he became a wealthy man playing the part of a wealthy man.”

Unlikely as it might seem given his character, he eventually he marries Helen Brevoort, a marriage in part arranged by Helen’s mother who first ensures that Rask’s right-hand man, Sheldon Lloyd becomes interested in Helen as a way of reaching Rask himself. Similarly quiet and withdrawn (they are drawn together by “their mutual ability to understand the silence and empty spaces on which both of them thrived”), she, too, soon discovers that “privacy requires a public façade” and devotes herself to philanthropy, particularly in the arts. When the markets crash in 1929, Rask is prepared, and, in fact, blamed by others for the crash:

“In the general desolation, amidst the rubble, Rask was the only man standing.”

Around the same time Helen becomes ill – a psychiatric condition is diagnosed and she is sent to Switzerland for treatment. Later we will discover that it this that particularly enrages Andrew Bevel, who believes the novel has been based on his life (“She – her image, her memory – won’t be desecrated”). We first meet him in the pages of the second book, My Life. It is clearly a draft rather than a published autobiography, containing as it does such unfinished sections as:

“MATH in great detail. Precocious talent. Anecdote.”

As will become clear, it represents Bevel’s intention to reclaim the story of his life and tell it as it as he wants it told in reaction to the novel:

“The imaginary events in that piece of fiction now have a stronger presence in the real world than the actual facts of my life.”

It is not, however, his own work: the third book – A Memoir, Remembered – is written by his ghost writer, Ida Partenza, who is hired to help him write his autobiography. As the work progresses it becomes evident that Bevel expects her to create a particular impression of his wife, Mildred, which goes beyond the information he provides:

“Make it homey. As a woman, you’ll do a far better job of painting that picture. I’ll review the pages once you’ve done, naturally.”

It becomes increasingly obvious that Trust is not, as it might at first appear, about the financial institutions of the United States, but about stories and how they are controlled. When Ida suggests that she might talk to some of Mildred’s friends, Bevel replies:

“I am writing this book to stop the proliferation of versions of my life, not to multiply them.”

Bevel and Ida alight on the phrase “bending and aligning reality” and Bevel will later fondly remember a story that Ida herself added to his wife’s story. Though Ida’s memoir focuses mainly on her time with Bevel, it contains a present-day section in which she visits the house, now a museum, where they worked together, in the hope of seeing his wife’s papers. And it is Mildred’s journal, entitled Futures, which is the final book of the novel. This provides a final perspective on what has gone before, allowing Mildred/Helen to speak for herself – its revelations are perhaps unsurprising for a modern reader, but ably make Diaz’s point that to trust the tale we must first trust the teller.

Trust is an engrossing and clever novel which examines storytelling not only as a tool of fiction but as a method of understanding the world, and demonstrates how easily a story can be changed to suit the story-teller, a timely warning against the dangers of entrenched views over-reliant on a single perspective.

Lady L

September 2, 2022

Lady L was the novel Romain Gary wrote after his Prix Goncourt winning The Roots of Heaven, taking the unusual step of writing it in English and then translating it into French five years later. This decision was perhaps influenced by his central character, a French woman who, at the age of eighty, finds herself at the centre of English society:

“Your son is the present Duke of Glendale. Your eldest grandson, James, is a director of the Bank of England, and if this is not conventional enough for you, then there is Roland, who is a cabinet minister, and Anthony, soon to be a bishop, and Richard, although less successful, is a lieutenant colonel in the Brigade of Guards.”

She is in many the ways the very caricature of an English aristocrat, complaining at one point that her children and grandchildren not only accept the company of politicians but “wouldn’t even hesitate to bring some Americans to dinner.” Her equanimity, however, is noticeably shaken when she discovers that there is to be road built through her land which will necessitate her summer pavilion being demolished. In fact, her response to the news seems excessively dramatic:

“She felt suddenly utterly lost and lonely and old… If the pavilion had to go, well, then she would soon have to go herself, for she was not willing to live alone.”

Her family dismiss her reaction as eccentricity. Only her loyal admirer, the Poet Laureate, Percy (“She knew that her smiles were big moments in his life…”) follows in an attempt to console her, and so, over the course of the novel, she reveals to him the story of her life, telling him, “You will have to brace yourself for a shock.” And so, Percy, and the reader, discover that Lady L was born Annette Boudin in Paris in the 1870s. Her father is a drunken printer’s hand who tells her that “there were only three things worth living and dying for: Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité.” Here Gary introduces his theme: politics versus love. While her father dreams of a better world, her mother works sixteen hours a day as a laundress. It is through helping her mother that Annette acquires a “violent dislike for physical labour” – her approach to life is practical rather than ideological:

“It seemed to her… it was not so much the soul but the body that mattered: it suffered, toiled, sweated and died.”

She applies the same common sense to her prospects when her parents die, deciding to become a prostitute as “if she began young and pretty enough, perhaps she could escape from it more quickly.” And so she meets the “most famous pimp in Paris,” Alphonse Lecoeur, and, through him, the anarchist, Armand Denis. Armand wants to take Annette to Switzerland and use her to gain information which will allow him to:

“…organise a series of well-planned burglaries and then use the money to stage a few spectacular coups against the crowned Heads of Europe who gathered cosily in fashionable resorts and picturesque spas.”

Annette immediately falls in love with him:

“I stared and stared at him, not listening to what he was saying and just smiling and feeling that I knew suddenly why I was born.”

Annette and Armand become lovers, but for Armand the cause always comes first. Annette befriends the Duke of Glendale whom Armand intends to rob, condemning him for being “completely amoral” – “his only purpose in life is the pursuit of pleasure.” “If only Armand were a little amoral,” Annette thinks to herself, “how happy they could have been together!” Armand does not deny his love for her, but cannot put her before his political ambitions:

“Millions of slaves lift towards us their shackled hands… We cannot belong to each other, we belong to them. Our happiness would be an insult to our hearts and their suffering.”

Although Annette is torn, she believes she cannot live without Armand. When a robbery goes wrong, however, and he is close to being caught she goes to the Duke of Glendale (Dicky) for help. This he provides, but he also offers her an alternative future by suggesting they marry: “You cannot remain a slave to love the rest of your life.” How Lady L has reconciled these competing feelings – her love for Armand, her desire for a life of pleasure – is only revealed in the novel’s final pages.

Lady L is a novel of verve and passion, much like the character herself. Its elements of picaresque and ‘rags to riches’ are overlaid with a knowing irony. At no point does it take itself entirely seriously, poking fun at both Lady L’s obsessive love, and Armand’s obsessive ideology. One suspects Gary would approve of her practical solution.

The Performance

August 24, 2022

Claudia Petrucci’s debut novel The Performance, translated by Anne Milano Appel, begins with her protagonist (though not narrator), Giorgia, working in a supermarket. We quickly realise that Giorgia, even in such a relatively straight forward job, has her difficulties to navigate when she becomes absorbed in the distress of a young girl who tells her mother she doesn’t want to go to dancing lessons:

“Giorgia is unable to hold back her thoughts, it’s always been like that. She knows that normal people don’t function the same way.”

Even later, as she chats with the other workers in the locker room, “in some deeper part of herself she is the unknown child and she feels sad.” Her story is narrated by her boyfriend, Filippo, who works in a coffee shop – their existence is so ordinary it feels deliberate, and, indeed, it seems that Giorgia is in a sense hiding, but from what lies within her rather than from any external threat. She recites a nursery rhyme to herself to keep it at bay.

We discover that Giorgia was once an actor when she bumps into an old friend, theatre director Mauro, who tells her that three years ago she asked to take a break but now “the break is over.” He can see that she is changed:

“I remember it well your face, it’s not this one. You look like you’re holding your breath.”

Who the ‘real’ Giorgia is, and who gets to decide, is at the heart of the novel.  Mauro tells her that he has a part “only you can do” and soon she is back rehearsing. The world of the theatre is new to Filippo, who met Giorgia after she had left – he knows only that she became “too stressed” and “had a breakdown.” Rehearsals go well and it is only a moment before the first performance that Filippo suspects something may be wrong:

“Suddenly, I perceive a jarring edge. An anomaly that diverges from Giorgia’s words and flares in her eyes.”

If this sounds enough for a novel on its own, it is simply the prelude to Performance. As the novel proper begins, we find Giorgia in a clinic having suffered another breakdown:

“On her best days she stares at the sky the whole time.”

She has been there a number of weeks with only Filippo visiting her, but now Mauro begins to join him and they become friends. To pass the time, Mauro reads to Giorgia from Twelfth Night, and, over time, begins to suspect that she is adopting the habits of Olivia:

“It’s the first major production we staged together… She’s performing her role.”

Filippo also notices “she treats me, too, as if I were part of the script, a walk-on,” and we discover how her performance of Peter Pan ended: “Just long enough for her to go off-stage and attempt to fly out the window.” From this point on the two men decide that the best way to help Giorgia is to write a script where she is ‘herself’ – Filippo will provide the memories and Mauro will dramatize them:

“We’ll proceed in reverse, from the particulars to the whole, and from there work on constructing the character.”

While the premise may be far-fetched, it makes for gripping reading, as well as allowing Petrucci to examine the way in which men attempt to control women. This applies in the world of theatre – where Mauro is well known for sleeping with his students – and can be seen in the way Filippo – initially reluctant – moves from attempting to reconstruct Giorgia’s character to ‘improving’ it. Petrucci cleverly uses Filippo to narrate the story – Giorgia with her fluctuating character clearly could not – as another way of demonstrating his attempt to control his girlfriend. It also leaves the reader uncertain over Mauro’s motives – is he simply helping Filippo recover Giorgia or does he have his own agenda?

The Performance is a compelling psychological thriller which demonstrates the lengths men will go to in order to control women while, at the same time, questioning the very nature of character. Petrucci keeps the reader guessing until the final pages using Giorgia’s condition to raise a number of ethical questions which apply to relationships of all kinds.

The Leash and the Ball

August 18, 2022

Rodaan Al Galidi left Iraq for the Netherlands in 1998 when he was in his twenties. He fictionalised his experience in Two Blankets, Three Sheets which tells the story of Samir and the nine years he spends in a Dutch asylum centre. Now, in The Leash and the Ball (the title, as with the previous volume – two blankets and three sheets are what he is given when he arrives at the centre – has a meaning that becomes clear during reading) Samir’s journey continues. Both volumes have been translated by Jonathan Reeder, and this second novel highlights the difficulties of life outside the centre. It is written with humour and bemusement, and with an eye for the cultural differences that continue to puzzle the protagonist.

Samir’s plan when he is finally released from the asylum centre is to go to the south of Spain, but he soon discovers that, before that, he must pass his citizenship exam to gain Dutch nationality:

“It was like going to the doctor for a sniffle and finding out I had some awful disease.”

As he will throughout the novel, he has to rely on the kindness of others, particularly other refugees. He begins by calling everyone whose number he has – only for them all, with a mysterious unanimity, to claim they are in Turkey – until he gets to a name he no longer recognises – Calvin – and he finally receives the offer of a place to stay. Calvin stays in a small village with the Van der Weerde family – even as he arrives it is obvious Samir still has a lot to learn as he waves at an old man watching them through his window. When Calvin tells him not to, he wonders whether they have had a falling out, but, as Calvin tells him:

“Of course not, but the Hollanders don’t like people seeing them sitting in their living rooms.”

The novel is full of such observations, allowing the European reader to see themselves (in the words of Robert Burns) as others see us. Some are simply amusing, but others might make us think more deeply, for example when Danielle Van der Weerde comes to Samir to ask if he needs anything, her expression reminds him of the staff in the centre:

“A Dutch’s person’s face at their workplace is not necessarily their own face, but their uniform.”

It is when he meets the daughter, Leda, that he decides to stay:

“She was the anchor that kept me fixed to the village seabed.”

Samir and Leda grow close – partly through her dog, Diesel, who befriends Samir – as he survives by doing odd jobs around the village. Samir falls in love with Leda but, though clearly fond of him, she is reluctant to commit, a reluctance that is not simply down to their different backgrounds:

“She’s unbound by the world around her, but imprisoned within herself, I thought.”

This is partly due to her own background – for example, Samir discovers she has a different father to her siblings, a one-night stand that resulted in pregnancy. She has also suffered as a result of a previous relationship. Despite this, Galidi demonstrates that affection came overcome – at least until another woman in the village interferes.

The novel, like Samir, does not settle in the village. For a while he lives in a student flat, surprised by both their untidiness and drunkenness:

“Why did they bring the prettiest girls home with them only to puke together?”

At the same time, he works rounding up chickens in a factory farm – exactly the kind of unpleasant, low-paid job we might associate with immigrants:

“The shed was hell, the feathers were fire, and the chickens were the sinners and the pain.”

He is told to collect five in each hand before shoving them into a crate, a task that at first seems impossible. When he gets back to his room he is “stinking and covered in feathers.” Later he lives in a flat which was assigned years ago to a refugee who has since left the country. Now the flat is used by any immigrants who need a place to stay under the pretence its legal occupant is still there:

“Sometimes I really wanted to open the curtains, but this wasn’t possible. What would the neighbour’s think if they saw all these men in Zakaiya’s house?”

The Leash and the Ball (its title comes from the habit Samir develops of carrying these items around with him to make it seem like he has a dog and so win instant acceptance from the Dutch) is best seen as a picaresque novel. With its various settings and changing cast of characters, the focus is very much on Samir’s adventures and misadventures. Despite what might be seen as its serious subject matter, his story is told in a humorous, entertaining manner, without ever feeling glib or satirical. Samir as a narrator is both innocent and perceptive, and readers will learn as much about themselves as they do about him.

This World Does Not Belong to Us

August 14, 2022

This World Does Not Belong to Us is the debut novel of Ecuadorian writer Natalia Garcia Freire, originally published in 2019 and now translated by Victor Meadowcroft. The story begins like an eerie western with the arrival of two strangers, Eloy and Felisberto, whom the narrator, Lucas’, father greets like old friends:

“You didn’t seem frightened by those tangled beards, long and filthy, the heavy black clothing, nor by the men’s resemblance to a pair of bison with hollows in place of eyes.”

Lucas is immediately unsettled by the men, as are his mother and the four servants, Esther, Noah, Mara and Sarai – “a wave of fear was passing over all of us” – but the father becomes a “submissive, docile and credulous host” slowly withdrawing from his wife and son. The men repel Lucas, their “great dirty boots splattered mud as they went” and Eloy’s foot “covered in scabs, some of which clung to his sock.” They bring violence with them returning with a dead deer on the first morning, and letting the cows loose on Lucas’ mother’s garden, an incident that affects her fragile mental health. Lucas is increasingly ignored:

“I felt like a stranger, wandering through the house but visible to no-one, Father.”

What the strangers want, or what their relationship is with the father is never clear, an ambiguity which only adds to the sense of menace. Nor is the story told in linear fashion: the arrival of the two men may be the catalyst, but the novel begins with Lucas’ return after his father’s death:

“I’ve come home, but have not yet dared go in. They’re still there.”

While revenge would seem to be the most obvious motive for his return, Freire introduces a further twist by having him declare, when he finds himself in front of Felisberto:

“I wanted to humiliate myself, wanted to kiss his hand, gigantic and hairy, to be his servant, the most loyal in the world, the kind who, upon realising that the one they see is despicable, force themselves to love him even more.”

From the very first page, where he describes his father surrounded by “slugs, camel spiders, earthworms, ants, beetles and woodlice,” we understand that Lucas has an unusual relationship with insects (in fact, with the UK edition, this is made clear from the cover). When his mother is taken away to an asylum, Lucas retreats to a cave where “if you kept very still and quiet, you could see how spiders and scorpions filed out of the cracks.” He soon grows to worshipping the insects, “aware that they were more powerful than I was.” One day Esther finds him and tells him:

“God will lay your lifeless body before the lifeless bodies of your idols.”

The insects do, indeed, represent death (the novel’s original title was Our Dead Skin). When Lucas returns, he is even further removed from the human world, from which he feels he has been expelled as Satan was expelled from Heaven; in the same way, he will create his own kingdom:

“I will have an altar crowned with butterflies and larvae; I’ll forever kiss the beetles, pray before all spiders and march with scorpions, for this house belongs to them.”

In saying this he is saying the house belongs to death, but if we think therefore that he has come to kill Eloy and Felisberto we will be mistaken. Despite the sense of inevitability, Freire succeeds in developing an ending that is not what might suspect.

This World Does Not Belong to Us is a terrifying, nightmarish novel – at one point Lucas wonders if his father has simply trapped them in his own nightmare. It is infused with a sense of dread which embodies itself in the physical present pf the men and then in Lucas himself. As its English title suggests, it reveals to the reader how little we matter, and that life is simply death in waiting.

The Bitch

August 10, 2022

Colombian author Pilar Quintana’s first novel to be translated into English (by Lisa Dillman), The Bitch, opens with a dead dog. Damaris takes one of the orphaned puppies – the only bitch in the litter – from this scene of death, our first indication of the merciless world into which the animal has been born. If we were still uncertain, Damaris worries, as she takes the pup home, how her husband Rogelio will react – “He didn’t like dogs and only kept them so they’d bark and protect the property.” She remembers him slicing off the tail of one of their dogs with a machete when a wound became infected. In contrast, Damaris nurtures the puppy, which she calls Chirli, feeding her bread soaked in milk and carrying her around in her bra.

These small details, as with much in the novel, are more significant than they first appear. Damaris, now is her late thirties, has been married since eighteen but unable to have a child. In that time, she and Rogelio have tried various different Indigenous remedies, but nothing has worked. The failure of the most recent attempt has driven a wedge between them:

“One night, on the pretext he was snoring and keeping her awake, Damaris moved to the other room and never came back.”

‘Chirli’, we discover, was the name Damaris had planned to give to her daughter.

If her childless state continues to be a regret for Damaris, it is not her only one. In a matter-of-fact style Quintana reveals the difficulties of Damaris’ childhood, which begin with her conception, her mother falling pregnant to a soldier who quickly abandons her. She, in turn, abandons the child, as she has to work as a live-in maid to earn money, and Damaris is left with a relative, Tio Eliecer. There she befriends the son of a family who have a holiday home nearby, Nicolasito, but he is killed when he is washed out to sea:

“Damaris tried to stop him, explained that it was dangerous, told him that the rocks were slippery and the sea treacherous.”

Still, she blames herself for his death – and is blamed by Tio Eliecer who lashes her every day until the body is found. We also see here the class distinctions which Quintana subtly illustrates, yet leaves unremarked, throughout the novel. Even Nicolasito’s refusal to head Damaris’ warnings hints at a sense of class superiority. After Nicolasito is washed away, Damaris must make her way through the jungle alone to raise the alarm:

“…a jungle that seemed denser and darker than ever. The treetops above her formed a solid canopy, and the roots below snarled together. Her feet sank into the dead leaves carpeting the ground and got buried in the mud…”

This is the first of a number of terrifying jungle journeys which Quintana will describe, the next being when Chirli goes missing and Damaris goes into the jungle to search for her. If anything, the description is even more disturbing – “Things brushed against her, things that were rough, prickly, hairy…” Living on the edge of jungle insinuates a constant threat into Damaris’ life. Not only that, but years later Damaris now finds herself and Rogelio living as caretakers to the house where Nicolasito lived, and where his room has been preserved:

“Senora Elvira had special-ordered his bed and wardrobe from the best carpenter in town and painted it bright colours herself. The curtains and bedding she’d brought from Bogota: a matching set with Jungle Book motifs. They were a little faded now and had a few holes…”

The Jungle Book reference is ironic as no child can survive in the jungle which is a place of death. One reason Damaris and Rogelio become caretakers is that their predecessor is found shot dead in the jungle (suicide? a hunting accident?), his resting place identified by the vultures gathering above.

Damaris’ relationship with Chirli is at the centre of the novel. Like her relationship with Rogelio, it fluctuates, perhaps even more violently. The dog takes to leaving for days at a time (as does Rogelio who works on a boat) and then returning, filthy and often injured. It has pups of its own, but is not a good mother. The story is told on the surface, but the dog reveals the depths of Damaris’ character. Its complexity is such that the ending is both unexpected and inevitable. In the end it is human nature which The Bitch strips naked and displays.

The Twilight Zone

August 5, 2022

Like her earlier novel, Space Invaders, Nona Fernandez’s The Twilight Zone (also translated by Natasha Wimmer) borrows its title from popular culture and uses it as a starting point to examine the years of dictatorship her home country, Chile, suffered between 1973 and 1990. Its starting point is not the television series of the early sixties, but an article in a magazine in the mid-eighties in which a member of the armed forces confesses to his part in the torture and murder of opponents of the regime:

“His face was on the cover… and over the picture was a headline in white letters: I TORTURED PEOPLE… The man gave a full account of his time as an intelligence agent, from his service as a young conscript in the air force to the moment he went to the magazine to tell his story.”

The narrator – we assume Fernandez herself (she was born in 1971) – reads the story as a teenager; she even comments on the man’s likeness to her science teacher. It is she who is transported “into some parallel reality:”

“A disturbing universe that we sensed lay hidden somewhere out there, beyond the bounds of school and home, where everything obeyed a logic governed by captivity and rats.”

Two further encounters follow: firstly, when she is writing a television show which features a character based on the man; and secondly when she is working on a script for a documentary in which he is interviewed. We begin to understand what she means when she says that, in a dream, she “inherited the man I am imagining,” presumably the same dream about which she asks him in a letter that is entirely made up of questions:

“Will we ever escape this dream? Will we ever emerge and give the world the bad news about what we were capable of doing?”

What is impressive is how Fernandez turns this admittedly dramatic confession and the chance encounters which follow into a novel. She does this using the tools of the novelist, taking the incidents described in the confession and reimagining them, while continuing to tell her own story. For example, she links the morning routine in the household of the first victims she describes to that in her own:

“On the 29 March 1976, at 7.30 am, the same time my son and his father leave the house each day, Jose and Maria Teresa left to take their children to school.”

This domestic scene is transformed when Jose is captured on the bus under the pretence he is being arrested for robbery. His family cannot say what happens next, but “the man who tortured people”, as he is frequently referred to even though his name is known, can, that he was likely “handcuffed, blindfolded, and then shot and killed…”

“…they then cut off his fingers at the first joint to make identification more difficult, and they tied stones to his feet with wire and threw him in the river.”

One of the most affecting stories Fernandez tells is of the Flores brothers – all three are arrested, and all three are eventually released. Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, one of the brothers, Carol, has agreed to work for the intelligence service as long as his brothers are left alone: “The Flores were freed from danger in return for Carol’s soul.” In this way, Fernandez demonstrates the choices which ordinary people faced, and, once again, humanises the individuals who, as she shows at one point, are often little more than a photograph of remembrance.  Yet, despite this, Fernandez avoids the novel becoming simply a collection of painful and upsetting stories. Those stories are there, but surrounded by other elements – not only Fernandez’s own life, but the life of the man who tortured people, who exists in a twilight zone of culpability and redemption, both haunted by his past and a ghost himself:

“That’s how I imagine the man who tortured people: as one of the characters in those books I read as a girl. A man beset by ghosts, by the smell of death.”

The Twilight Zone is not the only touchstone for understanding – in this section (The Ghost Zone) Fernandez also calls on A Christmas Carol. These references work because they also relate to Fernandez’s life as a child and adolescent growing up during the dictatorship. Rather than being simply accusatory, the novel feels like an attempt to understand the experience of those who were tortured and killed, of their loved ones, of the man who tortured people, and of Chile itself. Something of the teenage girl reading the magazine remains in the narrative.

The novel ends with a timeline of the dictatorship written out as free verse with the repeated refrain, “Family members of the disappeared light candles at the cathedral.” But a coda reminds us that at the centre of this is the relationship between the novelist and her informer, and it is this relationship which raises it above its worthiness as a witness to suffering to something very special indeed.