Down the Rabbit Hole

July 27, 2015

down the rabbit hole

Tochtli, the child narrator of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ debut novel Down the Rabbit Hole, wants for nothing. Even when he decides the must-have pet is an all but extinct Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, his dreams do not exceed the possibilities of his rarefied life in the luxury hideout of his father, who is clearly something important in drugs and violence. The title’s reference to Alice in Wonderland suggests the alternate reality within which he lives with a surfeit of possessions but a lack of people (including a mother): he claims to know only thirteen or fourteen, including his father, Yolcaut, and his tutor Mazatzin.

Tochtli’s immersion in his father’s macho culture is quickly obvious:

“If you don’t have a mum you’re supposed to cry a lot, gallons of tears, two or three gallons a day. But I don’t cry, because people who cry are faggots.”

Mazatzin has influenced him in his love of Japanese culture (he calls him Usagi, Japanese for rabbit – also the meaning of Tochtli), and he is immediately attracted to the idea of the samurai. The violence of his father’s life is not hidden from him:

“There are actually lots of ways of making corpses, but the most common ones are with orifices. Orifices are holes you make in people so their blood comes out.”

The animals the pygmy hippos will join include a lion and two tigers, kept for more practical reasons – to dispose of the corpses.

“Sometimes macho men aren’t afraid and that’s why they’re macho. But also sometimes macho men don’t have anything and they’re still kings, because they’re macho.”

Tochtli’s anxiety surfaces in pains in his stomach which his father assuages by giving him a new hat for his collection. The hats seem to represent a series of male stereotypes, and also allow Tochtli an imaginative escape from the palace which he rarely leaves. When he is briefly acquainted with reality it disappoints:

“In any case, Miztli was really happy to show me his so called charro [a Mexican cowboy] village. Pathetic. The truth is, there were more churches than anything else in the village. There were so many churches that instead of a charro village it was a priest village.”

Tochtli’s isolation is emphasised by the rarity of direct speech. Silence is an important aspect of the novel. Tochtli claims to know three mutes, though the likelihood is that fear is keeping them quiet:

“Sometimes, when I tell them something, they look as if they want to talk and they open their mouths.”

Tochtli, however, sees silence as powerful and will later use it against his father. At one point, Yolcaut allows two other boys into the palace to play with Tochtli in an effort to get him to speak, but Tochtli cannot relate to them. He describes the Star Wars figure one of them brings as “pathetic” – “it wasn’t an original, it was a fake one from the market.”

Despite this, we retain sympathy for Tochtli, so clearly a victim of his upbringing, while at the same time we are aware that this coming-of-age novel is one in which the narrator’s maturity relates only to the world of his father. Villalobos recreates the violent scenes Tochtli sees portrayed on television in miniature in his own life, for example when, having stolen a small pistol, he shoots one of the lovebirds they keep as pets. When he does finally acquire the pygmy hippos he does so in such a way as to symbolise his acceptance of his inheritance.

Down the Rabbit Hole is a wonderful example of the child narrator: it does everything you could possibly hope for in such a slim volume. Tochtli remains a credible creation throughout, and Villalobos uses his childish enthusiasms to both illustrate the society he lives in and demonstrate the development of his character. That this is so perfectly conveyed in the novel’s voice must also be due to the excellent work of the translator, Rosalind Harvey. This is one of a number of short novels I have read recently which demonstrate that the power of literature is not measured in pages.

Reasons of State

July 23, 2015

reasons of state

While complaining about the frequently inadequate and imperfect democracy of the UK, it is easy to forget that for most of the human race politics is experienced via a series of interchangeable dictatorships. As Western Europe (more slowly than we like to recall) exorcised such totalitarian leaders in the aftermath of World War Two, the cruellest and most flamboyant tyrannies were often to be found in Latin America, a continent which for a while became synonymous with dictatorship. The story goes that two Latin American writers, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, felt a fictional reaction to this was imperative and invited a number of other writers to contribute novellas on the theme to an anthology. Although this ultimately proved impossible to coordinate, three of the writers went on to write full length novels on the subject: Gabriel Garcia Marquez (The Autumn of the Patriarch); Augusto Roa Bastos (I, the Supreme); and Alejo Carpentier (Reasons of State). (I believe the Vargas Llosa story ‘The Cubs’ also arose from this project).

Recently I discussed Fuentes’ already diminishing fame in the English-speaking world, but Carpentier is a writer whose literary renown outside of his own continent (though born in Europe, he regarded himself as Cuban) was only sporadic in the first place despite his association with the development of magical realism. Reasons of State, published in 1974 and almost immediately translated in to English by Frances Partridge in 1976, has long been out of print – until, that is, the intervention of Melville House last year.

The novel begins in Paris where our dictator / narrator lives in comfort – sleeping in a hammock but waking to the sight of the Arc de Triomphe. A typical morning is described: visits from his barber and tailor, his advisor Peralta, and an intellectual he dubs the Distinguished Academician. The clumsy notes of his daughter, Ofelia’s, piano playing drift down and fall flat in the midst of their erudite conversation. (It seems plausible that the names – Peralta / Polonius, Ofelia / Ophelia – are intended to remind us of another ‘rotten’ state). The Head of State is in self-congratulatory mood:

“I was proud – very proud – of the fact that, after a half century of tumult and uprisings, my own country had brought the cycle of revolutions to an end.”

The tone changes dramatically, however, when he receives a telegram informing him that one of his many generals has rebelled:

“ ‘The cunt! The son of a bitch!’ yelled the Head of State, hurling the cables to the ground.”

Interestingly, Carpentier also changes from first to third person at this point (the telegram is the dividing line) allowing him to use the phrase “the Dictator” in the final sentence of the chapter. The first person is how the Dictator wants to be seen; the third person represents him as he is.

The Dictator returns home and ruthlessly suppresses the rebellion, starting with students who have shut themselves in the university:

“And if some are killed…none of these solemn funerals… Just give the stiff to the family and let them bury it without weeping and wailing, because if they do otherwise the whole family, mother, grandparents, and their brats too, will go to prison.”

The general’s eventual, defeat is a massacre:

“And then all hell was let loose; free and uncontrollable, the troops abandoned themselves to hunting men and women, with bayonet, machete, or knife, throwing corpses into the streets, pierced through, cut open, beheaded, and mutilated, to warn the rest.”

Once the rebellion is defeated, he returns to Paris, but to a much cooler welcome. French newspapers have reported the savagery and, although the photographer is soon hunted down and killed, the photographic evidence is damning. As a fellow countryman tells him:

“ ‘I know there’s a lot of exaggeration in it, compatriot…You wouldn’t be capable…Of course it’s all false.’ But he couldn’t dine with him at Larue that night.”

Luckily it seems World War One will intercede and distract Europe from distant bloodshed… and then our Dictator receives another telegram:

“ ‘The cunt! The son of a bitch!’ yelled the Head of State.”

Carpentier does not skimp on his portrayal of the Dictator; at this point we are merely one third of the way through the novel. We will follow out protagonist right to the end. Carpentier is lavish with his detail and seems particularly intent to contrast Paris with the Dictator’s homeland. Chapters are generally prefaced by a quotation from Descartes, and (as hinted at in the title) there seems to be a dichotomy between the enlightened reason of Europe (which the Dictator insists he admires) and the superstitions of the tropics – the Dictator blames the first rebellion on the fact that the prostitute he slept with the previous night was dressed as a nun.

Reasons of State is a wonderful addition to the literature of dictatorship (my personal favourite remains Marion Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat). It is to be hoped that it will lead more readers to explore Alejo Carpentier’s work.

The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata

July 17, 2015


Spanish Lit Month hosts, Richard and Stu, have chosen Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel as the group read title this year: a fantastic choice but unfortunately one which I have read and reviewed only recently. Not wanting to miss out entirely I decided to participate by reading another of Casares’ novels, the last, in fact, to be translated into English (by Suzanne Jill Levine), The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata, which he wrote in 1989, almost fifty years after Morel. It tells the story of a young photographer, Nicolasito Almanza, who is despatched to La Plata on a commission to photograph the town. (Casares himself was a very keen photographer). He lodges with an old friend, Mascardi, but also becomes involved with a family who arrive in town at the same time as him, feeling dutiful towards the father, Don Juan Lombardo, and attraction towards his two daughters, Griselda and Julia. Is he, though, the victim of a plot against his life? Who can he trust, if anyone?

Almanza’s chance meeting with the Lombardos as he arrives in La Plata is quickly revealed to be less than coincidental, though not before he has helped them with their luggage and donated blood after Don Juan falls ill:

“When we told you we waved at you because we took you for an outsider, that wasn’t the truth…We suspected that you were from out of town, but why deny it, I thought that you looked the spitting image of my son.”

Don Juan recounts the story of his missing son: an argument originating in his decision to insure his son’s life led to him leaving home; Don Juan has not heard from him since. “He’s probably dead, but that’s not enough to collect the insurance.” From this point on, Don Juan insist on treating Almanza like a son, but whether this is a sentimental attachment caused by regret or a plan to use him to claim the life insurance is unclear. Almanza is not short of voices warning him to be careful, beginning with Mascardi:

“The outsider should watch his steps…For some time now we’ve been noticing what we call down at headquarters a new kind of foul play. A family, which is really a gang of dubious individuals with a long record. They establish a relationship with the victim…and the whole thing ends up in a swindle or worse.”

When he takes his film to be developed, the owner of the shop similarly warns him: “Outsiders should be careful.” Of course, one might question whether Almanza can entirely trust Mascardi who, unbeknownst to many of his student friends, is now a policeman:

“If someone comes over to chat with us, don’t even remember I’m with the police.”

Later, he is accused of sending a friend to jail; Almanza also suspects he is following him.

Almanza is generally unfazed, however; an innocent adventurer, in stark contrast to the loveable rogue of the picaresque (“He’s a man who does not expect people to lie.”), he calmly continues his relationship with the family, finding time to sleep with both Griselda and Julia:

“Maybe I like both, but as far as loving goes, perhaps only one. I don’t know.”

His only worry is that the cheque he has been promised for his photographs has not arrived, a mixture of poverty and pride reducing his diet to the point that he begins to hallucinate (at least, that would be the rational explanation for the novel’s dream sequences). For the most part, like a camera, he perceives everything from the outside. When it is suggested to him that he is an artist, he says, “Only a photographer.” This might explain the gift he receives at the end, a kaleidoscope, inviting him to look at the world a different way.

The novel itself is not unlike a kaleidoscope, its different parts turning to create new patterns: conversations in cafes; perambulations with camera; enquiries regarding the post; phone messages; Don Juan’s requests… The novel repeats its scenes like a series of stills. Almanza even expects his own feelings to be judged through a lens:

“…if Julia had followed him from afar (he clarified: “with a telescope”) along a good part of his last afternoon in La Plata, she would think that she wouldn’t matter to him.”

The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata resists attempts to reach beyond the surface. A mystery where there may be no mystery; a love story where we are never certain of the love; the novel of a photographer, not an artist.

A Brief History of Portable Literature

July 15, 2015

portable literature

Enrique Vila-Matas has always been a writer who writes about writers – writers who cannot write (Bartleby & Co); writers who confuse fiction and reality (Montano); writers who have not yet started to write (Never Any End to Paris) – and his latest novella to appear in English, A Brief History of Portable Literature, is perhaps his most intensively writerly yet. (This does not indicate a progression in his style – though only recently translated by Anne Maclean and Thomas Bunstead, it was first published in 1985). It features a gallimaufry of authors and other artists linked by their membership of a secret club which bears the name of that most playful of novels, the Shandies.

Vila-Matas establishes the qualities necessary to be accepted as a Shandy early on: “high grade madness”; “the fact one’s work mustn’t weigh very much and should easily fit into a suitcase”; and a lack of conventional ties – Shandies should not only remain single but should act as a “bachelor machine.” Other characteristics are ‘advisable’ rather than essential:

“…an innovative bent, an extreme sexuality, a disinterest in grand statements, a tireless nomadism, a fraught coexistence with doppelgangers, a sympathy for negritude, and the cultivation of the art of insolence.”

Vila- Matas goes on, as the title suggests, to recount the society’s history in a series of brief chapters. Founded by Duchamp (and presumable inspired but Duchamp’s boite en valise, a suitcase which contained sixty-nine miniature reproductions of the artist’s work), the Shandies sojourn in a variety of literary locations around the globe, beginning on the coast of Africa, but including Vienna and Prague, before settling in a submarine named after a German railway station. While some members are ever-present most are transitory: F. Scott Fitzgerald invited to a party, accommodation in Prague sought in Gustav Meyrink’s neighbourhood, Paul Klee making dutiful notations in the submarine’s log. This can make the text feel like a veritable blitz of name-dropping, though some chapters take a little time to focus on a particular member: one deals with the origins of the stories in Blaise Cendras’ Anthologie nègre, another takes the form of a postcard from Aleister Crowley.

Be warned, however, it probably sounds a lot more fun than it is (if it doesn’t even sound like fun, I would not recommend it). If Vila-Matas’ intention is simply to amuse then it’s difficult to avoid the impression that there might be three or four individuals with the requisite knowledge to find the whole thing thigh-slappingly funny but, otherwise, what might sound like a book lover’s delight is a little like offering someone with a sweet tooth a cup of sugar to munch through. The novella is not simply a humorous skit, though, but can also be read as an imaginative essay in literary criticism.

Duchamp’s position as the society’s founder is not only based on his artistic luggage, but on his reputation as cheerleader of the avant-garde. Vila-Matas’ focuses on artists and writers born towards the end of the 19th century who made their mark in the opening decades of the twentieth. His fondness for them is tempered by ridicule. Take, for example, his description of the departure for Nigeria:

“At the time they didn’t know exactly what this plot would entail, but they had no doubt that clearly it ought to come to light in the darkness of a continent darker than the still-opaque portable spirit.”

‘Sympathy for negritude’ seems more than faintly ridiculous now, as does an attraction to the occult, which Vila-Matas pokes fun at in the form of Odradeks (a creature borrowed from Kafka) who naturally come to the fore in Prague, city not only of Kafka, but of Golems. They are, according to Duchamp, “dark occupants lodged within each of the portables’ inner labyrinths.” Similarly the insistence that Shandies be bachelor machines, and the reduction of women to femme fatales. Even the idea of the society itself is a subtle mockery of artists and writers who are regarded as the apogee of individualism. Vila-Matas’ celebration, then, is also a dismissal – the words ‘brief’ and ‘portable’ in the title suggest something intriguing but ultimately less significant than it felt at the time:

“Only because the past is dead are we able to read it.”

A Brief History of Portable Literature is not an ideal starting point for those unacquainted with Vila-Matas but for those of us who have already learned to love him, we can only take delight that more of his work is becoming available in English.

Out in the Open

July 11, 2015

out in the open

Like Ivan Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, Jesus Carrasco’s Out in the Open is a relentless story of survival, similarly almost entirely focussed on two characters, a young boy and an ageing goatherd. As its title suggests, rather than the claustrophobic confinement of the well, they are faced with the equally unforgiving emptiness of a barren plain. The novel begins with the boy in hiding, hunted for some nameless crime. The desperation with which he hides, in a hole covered in branches and twigs, is revealed when the schoolmaster (the entire village are involved in the search) pisses on his hiding place:

“Nothing, not even the hours spent underground or the teacher’s urine still sticky in his hair or the hunger which was, for the first time, pricking him hard, nothing was enough now to weaken his resolve, because the black flower of his family’s betrayal still gnawed at his stomach.”

The boy’s chances of survival are slim. He has no water and the heat of the sun is ferocious, on a flatland with little shade. Though we soon learn that the boy is being hunted by the bailiff, he is also pitted against the landscape itself. When he dozes off in the sun he awakens two hours later to find:

“His skin, from his chin to his scalp, felt strangely taut. Every hair follicle quivered with microscopic anguish, which multiplied a hundredfold, provoked in him a feeling of stiff bewilderment. His brain burned and buzzed with a kind of cobalt-blue electricity and his head felt as if it were about to explode.”

Only his chance meeting with the goatherd saves him. The goatherd accepts him into his company unquestioningly:

“You know, it’s all the same to me whether you’ve run away or if you’re simply lost.”

He feeds the boy; in return the boy helps him to tend the goats. They learn to trust each other in a world of threats, their humanity as rare, and as vital, as water. The sincerity of their relationship is shown when the bailiff catches up with them, as is the fact that it is two sided.

Like The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, the setting in both time and place of Out in the Open is vague. It would seem logical to assume we are in Spain, though it could equally be the Middle East, (the novel, at times, has a Biblical feel). Carrasco was born in 1972, and it seems unlikely that, if set in Spain, the novel is set during his lifetime:

“The bailiff was the only one in the region to own a motorised vehicle and the governor was the only one to own a vehicle of the four-wheeled variety.”

The lack of names, and use instead of occupations which have existed for hundreds of years, also allows the story to feel to some extent timeless. Out in the Open is not a historical novel, then, but perhaps it might be described as a geographical one: that is, one where the particular geography of the setting is a vital component though it is not necessarily set in a place we can identify and visit. Instead the confinement of the setting is used as testing ground for the characters, in this case to examine how human beings can either help or harm each other.

In the end, the novel suggest this is not about motivation: we never learn why the bailiff and, by extension, the village wish to harm the boy, nor why the goatherd helps him. The goatherd lives by a code he does not feel it necessary to articulate; one of the first things he says to the boy is, “Help me up,” – though the boy needs his help far more, he establishes their relationship as one of mutual support. As events unfold, they will be vital to each other at different points.

Both The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse and Out in the Open are fantastic new novels from young Spanish writers, suggesting a bright future for Spanish fiction.

The Driver’s Seat

June 26, 2015

drivers seat

No excuse is needed to re-read Muriel Spark, but the National Theatre of Scotland’s adaptation of The Driver’s Seat seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Of course, it’s not the first Spark novel to make it to the stage – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has been adapted into almost every available medium, and a theatrical version of The Girls of Slender Means was to be seen in Edinburgh only a few years ago – but The Driver’s Seat seems such an unlikely candidate for performance. It was, apparently, Spark’s favourite among her novels, but it also has claim to be her most difficult (not difficult to read, difficult to like – just see Sam Jordison’s review in the Guardian if you don’t believe me). Short and sharp, as if written with a scalpel, it not only cuts up the conventions of the murder mystery, it does something similar with those of the novel itself.

Traditionally crime fiction begins with the crime and then unravels, clue by clue, the identity of its perpetrator. In The Driver’s Seat this is reversed: early in the novel we are informed that it will climax in murder:

“She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s neck-tie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at gate 14.”

The victim is Lise, an office-worker, who begins the novel shopping for holiday clothes, taking offence when she is offered a dress in a material that doesn’t stain. Typically, this comic scene is, in fact, our first indication of Lise’s role as victim. (As she says later, “As if I would want a dress that doesn’t show the stains!” i.e. blood stains). From the beginning she seems determined to leave clues to the uncommitted crime: she buys a garish dress and coat which clash, ensuring she will be noticed, and at the airport she seeks out the brightest cover, “holding the book up against her coat, giggling merrily.” Numerous unnecessary conversations with strangers occur, largely untruthful (her name, after all, is an obvious anagram of Lies). Throughout she claims to be searching for a man in the manner of a romantic novel:

“I’m going to find him. He’s waiting for me.”

This theme continues at the when the plane lands (“I was sure he was the right one. I’ve got to meet someone.”) and when she goes out shopping with Mrs Fiedke (“The torment of it…Not knowing exactly where and when he’s going to turn up.”) In this second reversal, the victim, rather than the detective, seeks the murderer.

A naturalistic reading of The Driver’s Seat is possible. Lise’s fragile mental state is evidenced in the novel’s first action, when she first laughs hysterically, then bursts into tears at her work. The coincidence of finding herself on the same flight at her killer is explained by her simply having placed herself there deliberately (the word ’followed’ is used, but we assume neutrally at first); she certainly seems to be well informed about him.

Spark herself is less concerned with naturalism, however. Her characters are deliberately superficial. The contents of Lise’s handbag are described in great detail, but we gain no access to the contents of her head. Even factual information is interpreted via observation:

“She might be as young as twenty-nine or as old as thirty-six, but hardly younger, hardly older.”

This is a novel of places, objects and voices – voices that do not communicate but cut across each other at cross purposes. In Lise’s apartment everything has been designed to fold away leaving only flat surfaces, a comment not only on Lise but on the emptiness of the modern world:

“The swaying tall pines among the litter of cones on the forest floor have been subdued into silence and obedient bulks.”

This emptiness is illustrated in fads like Bill’s macrobiotic diet, the momentary disruption of the student protest, and in Mrs Fiedke’s shopping. In retrospect, only Lise is purposeful.

The novel is also about fate and free will, as all Spark’s novels are. Lise attempts to assert her free will in a world where she is fated to be a victim, particularly as a woman. Twice, when she enters a car driven by a man, the man attempts to rape her; on both occasions she escapes with the car, in the driver’s seat. But even the driver’s seat is not the answer, as she tells her murderer:

“You’ll get caught, but at least you’ll have the illusion of a chance to get away in the car.”

Spark called The Driver’s Seat a ‘whydunnit’, but here we are not interested in the killer’s motivation – he is, Lise tells him, “a sex maniac” – but the victim’s, with ‘why?’ echoing in the reader’s mind at her every action until the final moment.


June 22, 2015


My introduction to literature in translation came in the 1980s largely thanks to writers from South and Central America: from giants like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the less well known, for example, Jose Donoso or Manuel Puig. Carlos Fuentes was very much in the former category, though his fame has since faded somewhat, perhaps because never won that Nobel Prize. Unlike Llosa (Faber) and Marquez (Penguin), Fuentes’ novels are available more sporadically and from a number of publishers, most recently Dalkey Archive Press (the lack of a UK publisher demonstrates the decline of Fuentes’ reputation).

The last novel to be published in his lifetime, in 2010, was the short and darkly comic Vlad, translated into English by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger in the year he died, 2012. It will not surprise you to learn that Vlad is Fuentes’ take on Dracula, moved literally form the Balkans to Mexico City (and therefore in need of a house). The narrator, Yves Navarro, is charged by his boss, Zurinaga, with providing that accommodation – nothing, it seems could be easier:

“You are a lawyer in my firm. She has a real estate agency…Between the two of you, my friend’s housing problem is already solved.”

Yves and Asuncion, his wife, would have a seemingly perfect life – they have a beautiful ten-year-old daughter, Magdalena – if it weren’t for the fact that their son had died some years previously:

“This is our everyday life. I need to emphasise, however, that this is not our normal life, because there can be no normal life for a couple who have lost a son.”

This aspect of Yves and Asuncion’s past highlights the attraction of any escape from mortality.

Fuentes, as one might expect, has fun with the reader’s previous knowledge of vampires. The house Vlad wishes to buy, for example, has some particular requirements: it is to be remote, have no windows, and be connected by tunnel to a ravine. Similarly, his description of Vlad himself when Yves first meets him:

“Count Vlad was dressed more like a bohemian, an actor, or an artists than like an aristocrat. He wore all black: black turtleneck shirt, black pants and black moccasins without socks. His ankles were extremely thin, as was his whole body, but his head was enormous, extra-large but strangely undefined, as though a hawk had disguised itself as a raven…”

However, the tone becomes darker as the novel progresses and Yves’ family become entwined with Vlad. When Yves meets him for the second time, emerging naked from a shower (“He looked as though he’d been flayed”), Vlad asks him, “Do you know where your children are?” The plural is particularly haunting. While the reader may feel Yves is helpless in the face of Vlad’s power, Yves is hampered more by his ferocious good manners. Even when he finds a picture of his wife and child in Vlad’s home, he seeks a reasonable explanation and stays, as invited, to dinner.

In the novel’s final confrontation, any satirical intent vanishes as Fuentes embraces horror completely, using the innocence of children, that staple of the genre, to shock both Yves and the reader. This is not just a tired motif, however, as the novel explores a deep rooted fear of our children ceasing to be children; at one point Vlad asks Yves, “You don’t want to sentence children to old age, do you?” Part of that fear relates to the development of their sexuality, hinted at in the behaviour of Magdalena and Minea (Vlad’s daughter, we assume) towards the end. This fear is perhaps also in evidence from the beginning when Yves is relieved not to have found his son’s body (he was swept out to see) so as to be able to remember him as he was.

Vlad is not, of course, Fuentes’ greatest work; it is, however, thoroughly entertaining, in turns amusing, thrilling, horrific, and disturbing. And with a classic horror story ending.

The Laughing Monsters

June 14, 2015

laughing monsters

If, when you think of spy novels, you envisage meticulous plotting, pitted wits and calculated reveals then Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters may come as something of a shock. The world of espionage which it portrays is one of chaos, where missions don’t simply creep but spiral out of control.

Its narrator, Roland Nair, is an inconsistent hero in an inconsistent continent, Africa. Electricity and internet access come and go in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where Nair arrives searching for Michael Adriko. Nair’s morals and motivations are equally uncertain. When he arrives he spots “a young girl loitering right across the street, selling herself. Poor and dirty, and very pretty. And very young.” Any initial pity or disgust vanishes later when he sends the hotel doorman to collect her:

“I was glad she didn’t know English. I could say whatever I wanted to her, and I did. Terrible things. All the things you can’t say.”

Nair carries with him not only a laptop but a history, hinted at when he meets others in the intelligence game: “We’re on the same side now, Roland, because in the time of peace, you know, there can only be one side.” Michael he has known for years – “He kept me alive on a daily basis,” Nair tells Michael’s new girlfriend, Davida. Despite this, Michael is unwilling to divulge the plan he wishes Nair to participate in beyond telling him:

“I have this mapped from point A to point Z. And, Nair, point Z is going to be marvellous.”

Nair, however, has his own agenda – in fact, he has his own agendas:

“Perhaps Tina and I would be married on my return, after I’d met my contact and sold the goods and made money enough for several honeymoons, and after I’d been relieved of my current duty which was to report on the activities and, if possible, the intentions of Michael Adriko.”

And so Nair, Michael and Davida head for Uganda, where Michael says he will marry Davida among his own people, and arrange the sale that will set them up for life. It would not be revealing too much to say that not everything goes according to Michael’s plan – in fact, it comes of the rails round about B.

Johnson presents a cynical view of the intelligence community where spies are not dedicated patriots, with the occasional bad apple turned by ideology or money, but rootless loners with an addiction to secretive planning. Nair and Michael seek each other out not because they need each other but because, as Nair says of involving Tina in his personal mission, “I couldn’t bear living alone in the abyss.” Michael’s attempt to return to the area where he was born is not just part of his plan, but a desire for belonging; Nair, too, has lost all sense of home, a Dane travelling on a US passport: “A Danish passport is something of a risk, because I hardly speak Danish at all. It makes me look bogus.” In a game played out between nations, the players are stateless. Even Nair’s rather implausibly sudden declaration that he has fallen in love with Davida is credible in the context of his need to not feel alone.

Johnson also turns a jaundiced eye towards the way the West feels it continues to have the right to interfere across the globe:

“Many people keep watch. Nobody sees. It takes a great deal to waken their curiosity. NATO, the UN, the UK, the US – poker-faced, soft-spoken bureaucratic pandemonium. They’re mad, they’re blind, they’re heedless, and not one of them cares. Not one of them.”

Later, in Uganda, we see what is left of a village, poisoned from their land, in scenes that would make Conrad blanch.

Even for a spy novel, The Laughing Monsters is unusually amoral – there is never any suggestion of right or wrong. Nair exemplifies this ambiguity: that his character can, at times, feel less than fully formed seems a part of who he is rather than a weakness on Johnson’s part. It also explain why the novel’s end seems to leave him in exactly the same place as its beginning.

The All Saints’ Day Lovers

June 10, 2015

all saints day lovers

With some writers a collection of short stories is more anticipated than a novel; others stand astride the two genres, equally adept; but for a third group – let’s just call them novelists – that volume of shorter fiction is simply an ad hoc stop gap, plugged between their longer works. After three fine novels, I feared that Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s latest (which, being so enamoured with his previous work, I hadn’t realised was not a fourth until I opened it), a collection of stories published prior to his novels, would disappoint. Even more disconcertingly, the Columbian author who had so expertly exposed South America’s twisted, tortured history, had set every one of these stories in France or Belgium where he lived during the second half of the nineties. In fact, The All Saints’ Day Lovers proved to be an outstanding collection, its setting allowing Vasquez the freedom to turn his analytical eye to relationships rather than politics.

While not every story in the collection might be said to be about love, each one contains a pair of lovers. We see relationships in their final stages, relationships which have outlasted infidelities, relationships which have not outlived one night. In the opening story, ‘Hiding Places’, the narrator is the observer – quite deliberately – of a married couple, Claire and Philippe, under the instruction of Claire’s father:

“I want you to notice everything and then tell me. How they live. If she’s all right, if he treats her as she deserves to be treated.”

His visit coincides with the death of Phillippe’s nephew in an accident. Philippe has gone alone to his sister – Claire has never met his family – but she turns up uninvited and overrides Philippe’s reluctance in an attempt to comfort the mother. Throughout the relationship seems threatened by the respective families creating a lack of trust between the couple, but Claire sticks by him even when she knows he is seeing someone else – “This is a phase, you know.” The story ends with the phone ringing – the narrator knows it is Claire, but cannot pick it up, instead inventing a series of possible callers. Vasquez is warning us that there can be no easy resolutions, even when relationships end.

A number of the stories deal with infidelities. In the title story a couple consider the question “Are we going to split up?” on a hunting trip. A wounded bird they fail to locate becomes a symbol for their relationship:

“I don’t think you tried very hard. Have you no pity? The bird is suffering right now. You should have found him and killed him.”

The narrator immediately leaves, purportedly to find the bird, but a few hours later he is in bed with waitress: clearly this behaviour is at the root of the problem (“This isn’t going to end, is it?”). Vasquez retains our sympathy for the narrator, however, by showing his kindness to the waitress, even after his relationship has failed. ‘The Lodger’ approaches infidelity from a different angle; here, the affair happened many years in the past. The couple, Georges and Charlotte, are still together, and the lover, Xavier, remains a neighbour. That they have Xavier’s car locked in their garage at the request of his son suggests something about how the past affair affects their present day friendship. However by the story’s end, the roles are reversed:

“From this night on More [Xavier] would appropriate part of the house: he would be a permanent lodger.”

Although in the past, the story reveals that the affair still has the power to influence the present.

‘The Solitude of the Magician’ is also about an affair. Perhaps the cleverest and slickest of the stories, it is also the least satisfying, though a coda beyond its ‘twist’ ending adds a little more depth. ‘The Return’ also ends with a twist but is briefer and has a macabre aura about it, a ghost story without a ghost. ‘At the Café de la Republique’ and ‘Life on Grimsey Island’ are more complex, examining relationships from either end. In the former the narrator asks Vivienne to pretend they are still together for a visit to his estranged father, fearing he has bad news about his health; in the latter, Oliveira, looking for a new life, meets a woman who is also looking to escape hers. In both Vasquez beautifully observes the fluctuating nuances of the lovers.

The All Saints’ Day Lovers is a that rare thing, a collection of stories where each one works on its own terms, but which as a whole presents a multifaceted exploration of what it means to love.

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

June 7, 2015

attila's horse

When you find Margaret Thatcher and Bertolt Brecht paired in a novel’s epigraphs you are forewarned that, however straight-forward the story it tells, a political dimension exists. Thatcher proclaims her faith in ‘trickledown’ economics – “if others became less rich the poor would in all probability become still poorer” – while Brecht espouses revolution in an extract from his poem ‘To Posterity’, which also includes, in direct contrast to Thatcher’s pronouncement, the lines:

“But how can I eat and drink
When my food is snatched from the hungry
And my glass of water belongs to the thirsty?”

Both provide important clues to Spanish writer Ivan Repila’s novella, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, which on the surface tells a simple story of two boys trapped in a well.

The story begins with the two brothers already in the well and no indication of how they got there, only speculation as to how they might get out. Repila brilliantly walks the border between fairy tale and realism: wells, children abandoned in the woods are, of course, staples of the fairy tale genre; referring to the brothers only as Big and Small heightens the sense of allegory. The setting and characterisation, however, are entirely in a realist mode:

“At sunrise the well is a different colour. The dry earth on the higher part is composed of copper sediment, brownish grey scars and yellow pine needles. Further down inside the well, the earth is damp, black and blue, and the tips of the roots have a purplish glint. The sun is warm and only the birds respond to the silence. Small’s intestines gurgle under his hands.”

As you can see, it is also wonderfully written (and translated, by Sophie Hughes). “Only the birds respond to the silence” (as opposed to, the only sound was birdsong) highlights the boys’ isolation, and the use of “intestines” demonstrates both the tyranny and vulnerability of the body, “under his hands” suggesting a feeble attempt at comfort.

I was immediately transfixed but did wonder how long Repila could continue with the brothers in the well – the answer is, in fact, for almost every page, without losing the reader’s attention at any point. We follow the boys from their early escape attempts through the physical and psychological effects of their incarceration – hunger, thirst, fever, hallucinations. The two characters complement each other: Big is strong, not only physically but emotionally. It is he who decides they will not eat any of the food their mother gave them, and later allows the bird they catch, when starving, to rot so they can eat the maggots. Small, though weaker, is sustained by his imagination, demonstrated in his wild ideas and dreams.

It is in a dream that we find the reference to the titular Attila’s horse. Small imagines:

“I am the boy who stole Attila’s horse to make shoes out of his hooves, and in that way ensure that wherever I set foot the grass would no longer grow.”

In the dream, the shoes allow him to wreak destruction wherever he goes:

“I continued along my way crushing towns and races, and I know an entire languages fell out of use because I jumped excitedly – excitedly enough to nearly cause myself an injury – on the last man who spoke it.”

This violence is a response to captivity:

“Must men live within walls with no windows or doors? Is there something beyond this life while life goes on? There is, brother, there is! I know it!”

Small sees his incarceration in the well changing him, describing it in terms of rebirth:

“Don’t you feel the liquid engulfing us as if we were foetuses? These walls are membranes and we are floating within them. We move around in anticipation of our long-awaited delivery.”

Brecht, in ‘To Posterity’, similarly sees harshness arising from the condition of life and the need to create a better world through revolution:

“Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.”

The political allegory is clear: the well is the life of the poor, forging a furious detachment; escape from it represents the chance to rebel against authority. Repila is not lecturing us, however, and the novella’s ending is satisfactorily ambiguous. The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse is another wonderful book from Pushkin Press, and will, I suspect, be one of my highlights of the year.


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