Contempt

May 27, 2015

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Alberto Moravia’s Contempt is a story of two competing dreams. In it, Riccardo recounts the collapse of his marriage from two years of what he describes as perfection to irreconcilable division. The novel is his attempt to chart the decline, to identify the turning point, and to understand why it all went wrong. We are, of course, limited to his point of view – even when his wife, Emilia, is allowed a voice, she deflects his questions and refuses to explain herself on, or in, Riccardo’s terms.

Riccardo seems, at first, the perfect husband: loving, attentive, and, above all, concerned with providing Emilia with the kind of life he feels she wants. To this end, after two years of living in a room in a lodging house, he leases a flat:

“In doing this I did not, however, experience the joyful feelings of a man preparing a home for his bride; on the contrary I was anxious and seriously distressed because I did not know in the least how I would manage when, a few months later , the time came to pay the second instalment. At that time, in fact, I was so desperate that I had almost a feeling of rancour against Emilia who, by the tenacity of her passion had in a way forced me to take this imprudent and dangerous step.”

In order to allow his wife to fulfil her dream of owning a home (in fact described as “more a reason for living than just a dream”) Riccardo gives up his own dream of becoming a dramatist to write for the more financially rewarding film industry, ensuring that he can keep up with the payments on the flat. In retrospect, he pinpoints the night he is commissioned by film producer Battista as the moment when his marriage begins to sour, but is it his sacrifice or Emilia’s which causes this? On the night in question, she reluctantly accepts a lift in Battista’s car, leaving Riccardo to follow on alone:

“I suddenly noticed that her beautiful face, usually so clam and harmonious, was now darkened and, one might say, distorted by an almost painful perplexity.”

Despite this observation, Riccardo insists, perhaps concerned not to offend Battista, just as he insists she accompany him to future meetings despite her reluctance. Her agreement is not enough for Riccardo, however: he not only requires her to to attend, but to do so as a matter of her own choice:

“At the last moment, when she was ready to go, I would ask her, once more and for the last time, if she really disliked coming with me – not so much because by now I was doubtful of her answer, as in order to leave her no doubts about her freedom of decision.”

This is an interesting insight into Riccardo’s need to control Emilia, and not only to control her actions but her thoughts and feelings. When she tells him she still loves him, he simply believes she is lying in order to retain the flat; when she says she cares nothing for the flat, he again cannot believe her:

“I saw that she had now entered, for some reason unknown to me, upon the path of deceit, and I told myself it would serve no purpose to exasperate her by contradicting her and reminding her of how much she had once desired what she now made such a show of despising.”

Whenever Emilia contradicts his understating of her, he dismisses it. Thus when he forces her to admit that she feels contempt for him (a result of endlessly arguing she does not love him anymore) he is as much frustrated by her refusals to explain as by her revelation – in fact, we sense he cannot believe her without access to her reasoning, perhaps because on this occasion he cannot provide his own: “it was quite impossible that Emilia could have a reason for ceasing to love me.”

Battista invites Riccardo (and, of course, Emilia) to stay in his villa in Capri and work with director Rheingold on a script for a film version of the Odyssey, a story which Moravia uses to echo Riccardo and Emilia’s relationship. It is there that events play out to their conclusion.

Contempt is a forensic examination of the failure of a relationship but one where much of the analysis is ironic and the reader must remain awake and aware to see where the cracks are truly forming. Contempt was my first experience of Moravia, but it won’t be my last. Thanks to Richard and Frances for encouraging me to read the novel, and for enlightening me with their wonderful reviews.

Lost Books – Fragments

May 23, 2015

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Ayi Kwei Armah is a Ghanaian writer whose first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, has become a landmark of African Literature. Published in 1968, it remains in print to this day. Armah’s other fiction, however, largely written during the 1970s, has slowly fallen out of favour. Spurrred on by Joy delire’s month of African Literature, I decided to read his second novel, Fragments, which tells the story of a young man, Baako, returning to Ghana after spending time abroad; above all, it is a tale of frustrated idealism and disillusionment.

The novel opens with Baako’s departure, but even at this point it is clear that his return is what excites his relatives: “there was such hot desire impatient for his return at his departure.” His mother is confident “He will come back a man. A big man.” Only his grandmother worries for him, picturing him abroad as she accompanies him to the airport:

“All the people were white people all knowing only how to speak the white people’s languages…But Baako walked among them neither touched nor seen, like a ghost in an overturned world in which all human flesh was white.”

Her fears are justified: we discover later that during his five years away Baako has been ill with a “sickness of the soul”; where she is wrong is in the assumption that he will no longer feel isolated once back home. In fact, her picture of him applies as much on his return to Ghana as it does in America, his idealism contrasting with the cynical realities of the time and how he is expected to act as a “been-to.” Even before he sets foot on Ghanaian soil again, he is faced with the crass materialism he will experience on his return in the shape of fellow passenger Brempong:

“It’s no use going back with nothing. You may not have the chance to travel again in a long time. It’s a big opportunity and those at home must benefit from it too.”

Brempong regularly ships goods over – a widespread expectation, as Baako will discover when he is asked again and again when his car will be arriving. (Later doubts will be voiced regarding his time abroad on the evidence that he is regularly seen at a bus stop). Brempong is also not impressed with Baako’s attitude to employment – that is, his expectation that his qualifications will gain him a job with state television: “You have to know people.” Which is, of course, what he eventually has to resort to, contacting an old teacher:

“It all keeps coming back to this, in the end,” he said, lifting the receiver, “The organisations might just as well not exist. You keep getting pushed into using personal contacts.”

His idealism is similarly undermined by the job itself. Believing that film is the art of the future – “in many ways, I’ve thought of the chance of doing film scripts for an illiterate audience would be superior to writing, just as an artistic opportunity” – he is disillusioned to discover that the television station sees as its main purpose the coverage of state events:

“We have to follow the Head of State and get pretty pictures of him and those around him…We had a lecture before you came. A nation is built through glorifying its big shots. That’s our job anyway.”

Literature itself doesn’t escape censure: as one writer says at an event Baako attends, “Nobody meets to discuss real writing anymore. This has become a market where we’re all sold.”

The corruption that Baako sees all around him is also evident in his own family, particularly when his sister gives birth. The outdooring ceremony for the child is held early to quickly follow payday and maximise returns. Much is made of the money given by the important guests to encourage others to be generous. The child later dies.

The novel is not entirely gloomy, however – Baako finds love when he meets Juana, a Puerto Rican doctor who also gives the reader an outsider’s view of Ghanaian society: “another defeated and defeating place.” But even love cannot save him form the frustration he feels at the corruption around him and the expectation that he be a part of it:

“I know what I’m expected to be…It’s not what I want to be.”

This sentence demonstrates why the novel has universal appeal. It’s version of Ghana may be dated, but its portrayal of a man struggling against both his family and his society, unable to accept their values, remains as relevant as ever.

Faces in the Crowd

May 17, 2015

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Just as Mathias Enard’s Zone was eligible for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize despite having been published in the US in 2010, so Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd has made it onto the Best Translated Book Award shortlist on the strength of its US publication date though its first appearance in English was in 2012 thanks to Granta and translator Christian MacSweeney. It may be a short novel, but it tells a number of stories which come to inhabit each other in the process of the telling.

It begins with two narratives from the author’s life running parallel: one from her past recounting her life in New York working for a publisher; the other set in her present, now married, with two small children to look after, and attempting to write the novel we are reading. In the latter she focuses on the difficulties of finding time and space:

“A silent novel, so as not to wake the children.”

“Novels,” she argues, “need a sustained breath.” Her children, she says, don’t let her breath: “Everything I write is – has to be – in short bursts. I’m short of breath.” This is exactly the format the novel takes with short sections, rarely over a page, moving from one narrative to the other or presenting sequential scenes. The apparently autobiographical nature of the writing is also challenged in the present day commentary, particularly via the husband’s questions:

“My husband is angry. Through my own carelessness, he’s read some more of these pages. He asks how much is fiction and how much fact.”

The fictionalising of facts is also at the centre of the New York narrative as the author attempts to interest the publisher, White, in the minor Mexican poet Gilberto Owen by linking him to one of White’s favourite poets, Joseph Zvorsky:

“White had an affinity for Zvorsky…it occurred to me that this could be my means of convincing White about the importance of Gilberto Owen.”

She tells White that she has discovered translations of Owen’s poems by Zvorsky: “It was the most unlikely of all possible lies about Owen, and White never believed it, but he decided to go along with me.” Owen becomes an ever more prominent character in the novel, firstly through the author’s post-it notes of her research, and then when he becomes a further voice in the first person narrative. We know, however, that parts of the life Luiselli gives Owen are fictional – including his friendships with not only Zvorsky but Federico Garcia Lorca (based entirely on their proximity at the time).

Luiselli’s intention is not simply to tell these stories but to convince us that they co-exist. The origin of the novel’s title lies in Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

We are told that the poem was inspired by Pound glimpsing the face of dead friend in the crowd at a Metro station. This leads to Luiselli using both ghosts and the subway as recurring motifs throughout the novel. The author tells her son she is writing a “ghost story” and later describes herself as a “literary ghostwriter.” Owen is later called a ghost by a blind man he meets:

“You’re a ghost, Mr Owen, isn’t that so?”

He goes on to say he knows because he can see him. The author herself is greeted in New York with the question, “Are you the ghost that lives up here?” and, in the present, her son regards their apartment as haunted. This talk of ghosts is literary rather than supernatural, though:

“I once read in a book by Saul Below that the difference between being alive and being dead is just a matter of viewpoint.”

Ghosts are characters drawn from the past, but also those fading from their present: obscure poets, struggling authors. The subway becomes a reservoir of ghosts, an underworld of the dead hoping to return to the surface. Owen sees both Pound and the author on his travels there:

“The woman appeared most often in those moments when two trains on parallel tracks are travelling at almost the same speed for a few instants and you can see other people go past as if you were watching the frames of a celluloid reel.”

As the novel nears its end the author becomes more and more isolated, as if she were less and less present in the world as Owen’s character grows stronger. The novel’s conclusion seems created by the novel’s conclusion.

Faces in the Crowd manages to be both serious and playful (surely the decision to feature an obscure poet is a nod towards Bolano, who is also name-checked in the novel). It announces the presence of a fascinating new writer. Luckily, those of us in the UK don’t have to wait to see what she will do next: her second novel, The Story of my Teeth, has just been published.

The Wolf Border

May 12, 2015

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It was only a matter of time before the Scottish Independence Referendum (perhaps I should specify the 2014 referendum, so quickly does another seem to be appearing on the horizon) was used as the back-drop to a novel; more surprising is the fact that it is an English author who is first to weave it into their fiction. Sarah Hall is, of course, from Cumbria – closer to Scotland than London – and the novel’s title itself raises the question of both the purpose and validity of borders. The Wolf Border is not about the Scottish referendum – in fact, we quickly realise we are witnessing a fictional version of that event – but Hall’s determination to include it, even at risk of damaging the verisimilitude of the rest of her novel, suggests its importance. The title itself – while obviously referencing the wolves which are central to the narrative – comes from a Finnish phrase for “the boundary between the capital region and the rest of the country,” a clear reference to the disconnect that was one of the central issues of the referendum debate.

The novel centres on Rachel Caine, a woman who has spent her life studying wolves, but also escaping from her past. We find her initially in America about to embark on her first visit home in six years: her mother is dying, and she has been invited by Thomas Pennington, the Earl of Annerdale, to oversee a breeding programme he hopes will lead to the reintroduction of wolves into the wild. Rachel is sceptical (“People here don’t care about the countryside in any deep way…They just want nice walks, nice views and a tea room”) and initially refuses the position, but when she discovers she is pregnant, she decides to return home.

The Wolf Border is a novel of terrifying beginnings. The thought of wolves roaming the English countryside (even though they are initially fenced in on Pennington’s private land) is frightening to many of locals and meets opposition; Rachel herself faces the choice of whether to keep her baby or not, having never imagined herself as a mother (a product of her troubled relationship with her own mother):

“There are moments she feels genuinely joyful, irrationally so, and other times the decision to go ahead seems ludicrous, a madness.”

She also has the chance of relationship with the local vet, Alexander, having previously restricted herself to a series of sex-only encounters:

“She knows better than to assume, as she did for years, that men enjoy her casualness, her coolness, that it suits them better, or that they are less invested. It doesn’t take them long to sense that such an attitude stems from something else – a fear, a flaw, a stuntedness.”

Her brother, Lawrence, also faces choices of his own; and, in Scotland, the people must decide whether to become independent from the rest of the UK. All these choices offer a rush of joy; all, from a different angle, seem like madness.

Hall’s referendum, however, is fictional – we learn this early on when the First Minister of Scotland is referred to as Caleb Douglas (I couldn’t help wondering if this is a sly reference to William Godwin’s political novel Caleb Williams which begins when Williams enters the employment of a wealthy landowner). Any fear that this is an act of cowardice (i.e. so as not to offend anyone) on Hall’s part is dissipated when the result proves to be different. Rachel’s interest in this is largely focused on land reform – again an issue debated in the lead-up to the vote (for an interesting article on land ownership in Scotland see here). The newly independent Scotland also features in the novel’s denouement, which is largely optimistic:

“This place [the Scottish parliament] did not exist when she was a child, is less than twenty years old, but in that time much has changed, the fabric of British politics, state definitions. It can be done, she thinks, if people want it badly enough, if they are tired, and hopeful.”

The Wolf Border is, of course, concerned with much more than the referendum: ecology, class, motherhood are all important themes, and its characters, which I have hardly touched on, are the creation of a formidable writer. Above all, though, it seems to be about the battle between fear and hope when we are faced with change – a battle which, in Scotland at least, fear won.

The End of the Story

May 8, 2015

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Since the publication of her Collected Stories in 2009, followed by her award of the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, Lydia Davis had been recognised as one the finest living practitioners of short (sometimes very short) fiction. In 1995, however, she published her only novel, The End of the Story, now reissued by Penguin in the UK. I would like to think that the title is a nod to the form in which she normally writes, but it is also the subject matter of the novel, which concerns itself with the end of a relationship. She begins by trying to identify that moment when the relationship ended – the last time she saw him, the last time she heard from him, the last time she looked for him – but she is also attempting to identify the end of the story in a more literal way:

“This seemed to be the end of the story, and for a while it was also the end of the novel…Then, although it was still the end of the story, I put it at the beginning of the novel, as if I needed to tell the end first in order to go on and tell the rest.”

This, then – it will not surprise those who know Davis’ writing to discover – is a novel about a relationship, but also a novel about writing a novel about a relationship. It takes place in an identifiable present – the narrator is now in another relationship, with a man called Vincent, and lives with Vincent and his elderly father – which occasionally infiltrates the narrative:

“So much time has gone by since I started working on this novel that first I left my city apartment and moved in with Vincent, and then his father moved in with us, causing extra work and bringing a succession of nurses into the house to care for him.”

This in itself negates the title, making clear that the end of the story (of her relationship) is not the end of the story (of her life); just as the frequent references to the novel’s construction undermine the idea that the story (the written story) is ever truly finished:

“If I finish it, I will be surprised. It has been unfinished for so long now I am used to having it with me this way, unfinished – and maybe I will always find ways to procrastinate…But if I do go on, I know I will reach a point where for one of several reasons I won’t be able to change it any more even if it should be changed.”

If this makes the novel sound too clever for its own good, nothing could be further from the truth: far from seeming smug, the narrator constantly doubts her ability to write. She agonises over whether to tell the story in the third person, and, if so, what to call the characters. She worries over what to include and what to leave out (“It occurs to me that although I used to go to a lot of parties, I describe only two”). Similarly, she often doubts her ability to remember: the opening few pages are scattered with such phrases as “I can’t remember” and I’m not sure”.

Far from distracting from her dissection of the relationship, the honesty with which reveals her doubts over the novel itself intensify the reader’s belief in the truthfulness of her story – both ‘factually’ and emotionally. Davis is excellent in conveying the changing emotions of their time together in a way that might seem analytical if it weren’t for the fact that we know she is looking back on a relationship which will, much to her distress, fall apart:

“He was a distraction to me when I was not with him, and when I was with him, I was fascinated to look at him and listen to him. The sight of him, and the sound of him speaking, kept me still, or kept me near him. It was enough to be near him and watch and listen to him, half paralysed, whereas just a day or two before I had not known him.”

She is similarly open about her feelings at the opposite end of the relationship, unsparing of her refusal to accept that it is over:

“But then I said to myself that since I seemed to be cured of my grief, he and I could enter into a new kind of relationship, and in the joy of that feeling I went looking for him yet again. I fooled myself every time, because at such moments part of me became clever and the other part stupid, just as much as was necessary.”

Lydia Davis’ stories are so wonderful in their brevity that there was always a danger a novel would disappoint, but The End of the Story manages to be both clever and moving, artful and honest – exactly what you would expect.

Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires

May 3, 2015

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The major disadvantage of reading writers in translation is that you are at the mercy of translators and publishers (and often literary fashions): a writer may get a number of books translated into English before disappearing from sight, or perhaps they will make their mark with a novel from the middle of their career, leaving earlier novels languishing untranslated. There are, however, some advantages, one of which is the continued appearance of ‘new’ works once the author is dead. Julio Cortazar is a case in point: since his death in 1984 a number of previously untranslated books have become available – often from the more esoteric aspects of his writing career – the latest of which is Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires.

A novella written in 1975, it draws on an issue of the Mexican comic Fantomas in which Cortazar appeared for its inspiration, absorbing panels from the comic into the story it tells. On his way to catch a train from Brussels to Paris (having attended the Second Russell Tribunal, an investigation into human rights abuses in Latin America, of which Cortazar was a member) the narrator (this is how he is actually referred to) decides to buy something to read on the journey. At the newspaper kiosk he can only find Mexican publications, and so picks up the Fantomas comic which, despite his initial embarrassment, he begins to read:

“But there’s something about comic books, one scoffs at them but one starts to leaf through the all the same.”

In the Fantomas episode (which is genuine), books and libraries all over the world are under attack. Coratzar intercuts panels of the story with his own summary, his reflections on the other characters in the railway carriage, and his thoughts on the Russell Tribunal’s powerlessness:

“…how difficult to escape the ache of guilt at not having done enough – eight days of work for what, a judgement on paper that no existing body would ever enforce.”

Comic strip and reality begin to merge when, back home in Paris, he receives a phone call from Susan Sontag, one of the writers who, along with Cortazar, feature in the Fantomas’ adventure. Unfortunately, the narrator has not read that far and so Sontag is reduced to telling him to, “Hang up and keep reading, stupid.” We soon discover Cortazar and Alberto Moravia, among others, have been threatened with death should they write another book; Sontag, meanwhile, has been hospitalised after ignoring similar threats and continuing to publish. In true comic book fashion, Fantomas quickly tracks down the villain, but Sontag’s contention is that the ending is a lie:

“You don’t realise…that all of this is a smokescreen. The truth is elsewhere. Fantomas has been wasting his time.”

This is the point of the novella, and of Cortazar’s use of the comic strip: in Fantomas’ world he finds the lone fanatic responsible and defeats them; in the real world no one person is to blame – which is exactly what the Russell Tribunal discovered:

“If you want a summary I can give it to you in one word: multinationals.”

As Fantomas says, “these companies are like those worms that multiply the more you cut them into little pieces.” In Fantomas’ failure we can see Cortazar’s frustration with the lack of action resulting from the Russell Tribunal’s reports.

Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires is a great discovery, a novella which is both entertaining and original, but also asks important questions about political engagement and direct action. Translator David Kurnick, who also writes an informative afterword, and publisher semiotext(e) are to be congratulated on making it available to an English-speaking audience forty years on.

Baboon

April 30, 2015

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‘Bulbjerg’, the first story in Naja Marie Aidt’s Best Translated Book Award long-listed collection Baboon (translated by Denise Newman), begins “in the middle of an astonishing landscape: luminous, white sand dunes on all sides, wind swept, small trees twisting under the vast open sky.” A couple and their six year old child are cycling in the sunshine; slowly Aidt infiltrates the scene with unease: a buzzard flying overhead; the realisation that the couple are lost; the child crying. The tensions lie deeper, however, beyond the unlucky outing, as we soon discover: “Your sister has a tighter cunt than you.” The sudden shift in tone is typical of Aidt – the sentence is made more shocking by the way in which the narrator’s gender has been carefully hidden until this point – and the story continues on its path of disintegration as the affair is revealed and further secrets follow. Again, typically, we are never in full possession of the facts.

‘The Honeymoon’ also tells of a trip gone wrong – an idyll invaded by unexpected menace. Once again, Aidt creates tension prior to the event – a minor row between the couple with Eva swearing (after Tim has taken a picture of her peeing at the roadside) that “she would not talk to him for at least half an hour.” Shortly after a man reciting poetry forces his way into their car. Eva is transformed by the encounter, and the story ends with (as they say in the papers) a sexual act between the honeymooning couple recounted with religious overtones (finishing with Eva whispering, “We will now descend into the valley.”) The story demonstrates Aidt’s statement in an interview:

“This book is not psychological realism but more like a very physical prose, describing the characters’ body reactions in their interference with the world. I do not crawl into their brains and their emotions as much as I crawl into their physical beings.”

This is evident again in ‘Conference’ when the narrator catches sight of an ex-lover. When he briefly speaks to her, he places his hand on her shoulder:

“It stings where you had placed your hand. As if you had made an imprint on my skin.”

The story is told without dialogue, and the narrator’s reaction to the encounter is also physical as she throws up the glass of milk she has drunk on the table at lunch:

“Then it gets completely still. You wipe your mouth with your napkin and turn your head slowly slowly to look at me.”

Consistently, the everyday is interrupted by events that are entirely realistic yet at the same time occur with surreal overtones. In ‘Candy’ an oversight while shopping, forgetting to pay for two bags of sweets, leads to a husband being separated from his wife (who is accused of the crime):

“’Bring me to my wife!’ ‘Unfortunately,’ the manager said, smiling apologetically, ‘I’m not allowed to.’”

That the wife remains completely silent throughout creates a sense of the narrator’s isolation even before she is taken away. Quickly he loses control as he discovers how powerless he is. In another writer’s hands this might be simply a Kafkaesque incident about faceless authority, but Aidt is also interested in what it tells us about the couple’s relationship.

In other stories, the relationships being tested are between parent and child. In ‘Torben and Maria’, the mother (Maria’s) attitude to her son, Torben, is quickly summarised:

“Soon he’ll be two. He’s a little weakling and there’s nothing special about him.”

In the story, the kindness shown to Torben by others is contrasted by the cruelty of his mother, ultimately symbolised by the gift of a snow globe from an absent father which is smashed against the pavement by Maria. In summary it may sound a blunt instrument, but, despite its brevity, it is a nuanced portrait, not only of Maria and Torben’s relationship but of the role of her brother, Bjorn. A different kind of cruelty is shown in ‘She Doesn’t Cry’, where a young girl imitates the posture of her father and his friend. When they notice, they begin laughing: “It’s just because it’s so funny that you’re standing like us, right?” In three pages the girl has learned something fundamental about the way men treat women.

Baboon is a fierce, fearless collection of stories, stripping back its characters’ lives to the bones so sharply that often only a few pages are needed.

The Last Lover

April 26, 2015

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The Last Lover by Can Xue (translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen) has the distinction of being the only novel to be on the long list of both the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Best Translated Book Award. Surely, you might think, a guarantee of an exceptional book, and, indeed, you are unlikely to have encountered anything quite like it. Of the many western writers called into comparison, only J. G. Ballard seems remotely similar with his dream logic and emblematic characters – though if I tell having read all of Ballard’s work in no way prepared me for encountering The Last Lover, it may indicate the difficulty of locating a similar reading experience.

For six pages I felt I was following the narrative with relative ease: Joe, the manager of the Rose Clothing Company, walks to work, has a conversation with his boss, Vincent; negotiates with a customer, Reagan; and then encounters Vincent’s wife, Lisa, on the way home to his own wife, Maria. Lisa complains about Vincent’s drinking – an unusual but hardly startling occurrence – but before Joe can get any more information:

“Lisa disappeared just as abruptly as she’d appeared. Thinking over the day’s strange occurrences, Joe felt his head buzzing with confusion.”

Well, if Joe feels his head buzzing after six pages, he’s going to struggle with the remaining three hundred. Joe at least has the advantage of being a voracious reader – in fact his earlier conversation with Vincent is to tell him he is considering giving up his job so that he can read more –even though he has developed the ability to read while working:

“…he could even talk business with a customer (he is, after all the manager of the clothing company’s sales department) and at the same time remain immersed in his stories.”

As the novel progressed, I wondered whether Joe’s stories were simply becoming indistinguishable from his life:

“He read the story aloud at the top of his voice, with the profound feeling that his life of late had been reversed, and everyday life transformed into a dreamland, one that was like a chain of interlocking rings.”

The novel is certainly dreamlike, but not in the way we would normally use that word in reference to literature – a narrative which takes on a logic different to that of reality – but in the more literal sense of having a logic that makes no sense to the conscious mind. Can Xue has certainly spoken (in an interview with Asymtote) of her creativity in a way which highlights that she is not attempting to imitate the forms which precede her:

“Emotions are completely unleashed. I turn towards the dark abyss of consciousness and plunge in, and in the tension between those two forces, I build the fantastic, idealist plots of my stories. I think that people who are able to write in the way I write must possess an immense primitive energy and a strongly logical spirit. Only in this way can they maintain total creativity amid a divided consciousness.”

Here is a short example, typical of the novel (Daniel is Joe’s son):

“Joe saw the wasps sting Daniel’s face over and over. His face swelled rapidly so even his eyes were swollen into a single seam. Joe felt afraid, but the wasps didn’t sting him…Daniel sat calmly on the stone bench as if he had not felt the wasps attack him and was indifferent to the red swelling.
‘Daniel, where should I go?’
His manner was helpless. He knew Daniel couldn’t answer questions like this, Daniel, who was bending down to investigate the roses, half his face swollen. He told Joe that the roses gave him evil thoughts.”

In short doses there is something invigorating about the refusal of characters to react realistically and remain focussed instead on narrative logic invisible to the reader, but over the long term it becomes not only frustrating but dull. I’ve read a number of difficult novels and, at times, it can be like climbing a mountain, searching for the next foothold, unable to see the summit; but The Last Lover was a glass cliff: nothing to grab hold of, a plain expanse reflecting back on itself.

The Ravens

April 22, 2015

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As I am not the first to point out, Tomas Bannerhed’s The Ravens makes an interesting companion piece to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Boyhood Island. Both novels are concerned with a young boy growing up in the Scandinavian countryside with an unpredictable father. In each the protagonists encounter the first stirrings of sexual attraction and the awkwardness of first relationships. Bannerhed, however, takes a more lyrical approach – presumably freed from the constriction of reconstructing his own life – as can be seen from the novel’s title, the ravens representing the damaging thoughts that often crowd the father’s head and eventually lead to his hospitalisation.

Birds of all kinds are to be found The Ravens – when Klas is not at school or avoiding farm work, he will be listening or looking for them:

“Sit on the stone wall and see how many different bird calls I can make out, waiting for the green woodpecker to show herself in her black hole, poke out her bayonet beak and at least say hello.”

His fascination with the woodpecker perhaps suggests that he feels disconnected from his family, and the farm in particular – he talks about “the place you lot call home”. His father’s mantra is that there is too much to be done (“everything’s crowding in on me”), but Klas rarely offers to help. When his father, Agne, says, “You could come with me tomorrow morning and take a look…So you know how it’s done. The sowing.” we sense an old battle, one the father has already lost. Klas does not even fully understand his refusal (“something inside me resisted”), however his wariness of his father is evident from the beginning, as is the way his mother attempts to keep everything on an even keel, immediately diffusing potential flashpoints.

Klas’ life changes when Veronika arrives from Stockholm with her parents who idealistically assume some time in the country will do them all good. Klas invites her birdwatching and, luckily for him, there is so little to do that she agrees. Bannerhed is excellent at portraying the undercurrent of eroticism which exist between them, using a night-time encounter with a bittern to full effect:

“It brushed me with its wing! I got to feel its wing quills against my shoulder!”

Veronika picks up an egg from the nest and places it against her cheek: their discoveries in the darkness seem to be occurring within an inner landscape as well.

All this takes place as Klas’ father’s mental state deteriorates in the background. He moves out of the farm house to stay with the livestock:

“’My place is with the animals, who haven’t got any feeling,’ he explained. ‘That’s where I belong.’”

He grows obsessed with a pile of scrap metal which he feels it is important to bring order to:

“And the scrap metal pile grows taller with every passing night. It doesn’t help that I’m killing myself with all this hard labour. Is there anyone else apart from Sisyphus who can tell me how to do it?”

All this time he feels threatened by the ravens “screeching from the moment I woke.” It becomes clear that the tension around him relates to previous experiences, and the approach of “the thing no-one was allowed to speak of” is inevitable.

Perhaps for this reason, Klas seems determined to disassociate himself from his father’s troubles. When he and Veronika encounter some graffiti proclaiming “Agne heading for the loony bin,” he deflects Veronika’s questions:

“’Is it about a person called Agne?’
‘Seems to be.’”

When finally the ambulance has to be called, he simply hopes “they don’t put the flashing blue light on.”

The Ravens did not make it onto the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist, but did make it onto our shadow shortlist – a decision uninfluenced by me as I had not finished reading it at the time, but one I now feel was fully justified. It’s a wonderful portrait not only of a young boy coming of age, but of a family dealing with the challenges of mental illness. It’s certainly very assured for a first novel, and suggests that this may not be Bannerhed’s last time on a prize list.

The Investigation

April 19, 2015

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The Investigation is Korean author Jung-Myung Lee’s seventh novel, but the first to be translated into English (by Chi-Young Kim). It’s an intriguing combination of genres: part murder investigation, part meditation on the power of art, and part documentary (one of its major characters is the Korean poet, Yun Dong-ju). While Lee’s success in intertwining these strands is questionable, it contains enough in the way of interesting material to make it an enjoyable read.

The setting is a Japanese prison during the Second World War and it begins, of course, with the discovery of a body:

“The body was hanging naked from a rope wrapped around a cross beam on the ceiling. His arms were open at his sides and tied to the railing. Blood dripped from the left side of his chest, down his stomach and thigh, and hung for a moment on the tip of his big toe before falling to the ground.”

The corpse in question is that of Sugityama Dozan, a particularly vicious guard; an ex-soldier who arrived at the prison in 1939 accompanied by a variety of rumours regarding his heroic exploits and war wounds. (His reputation is enhanced by a Judge Dredd type single-handed suppression of a riot). The only clue to his killer is a poem found in his pocket, copied out in his own handwriting. The responsibility for the investigation is given to the novel’s narrator, Watanabe Yuichi, a young soldier, rather than being handed over to the police. The Warden explains:

“…here in Fukuoka prison we can’t follow standard procedures. We have the most dangerous elements of the archipelago here – men who need to be eliminated from society, people who shouldn’t have been born to begin with.”

This attitude is one that the novel sets out to both exemplify (by demonstrating the way prisoners are treated) and undermine (through Watanabe’s developing understanding of the inmates as a result of his investigation), particularly with regard to the Korean prisoners – generally held for political reasons – who are regarded as the worst of all. It quickly becomes clear that Dozan himself was not as one-dimensional a character as those around him thought – his appointment as prisoner censor allowed him to encounter literature for the first time in his life (slightly implausibly, he was initially illiterate), and this caused a transformation that Watanabe slowly uncovers, along with Dozan’s relationship with the Korean poet Yun Dong-ju. Lee has explained his intentions (in an article at Upcoming4.me):

“I wanted to use these literary evidences to expand the heart of murder mystery and ask: Can literature and art provide salvation for human soul?”

For this reason, the novel also includes a subplot in which a performance of classical music is arranged involving some of the prisoners, running parallel to the story of their use in medical experiments (indeed, the prisoners are allowed to pause to listen to the music on the way to medical wing). Similarly there are two escape tunnels being dug: a conventional one, and one which leads to secret library in the prison basement:

“Some books had the power to heal illness and provide the essence of life.”

Despite some commonplaces (the naive investigator given the task exactly because he will never get to the truth and then refusing to stop until he does, for example), and perhaps too many complications towards the end, the novel’s central mystery has a number of satisfying twists. Both the setting and the literary theme enhance the novel, but there are times its parts seem in danger of becoming separated. Its greatest weakness is its rather plain narrative style, with some strange word choices (“cruddy”, “stumped” – “twinkling” appears a lot), and clichés (“ramrod-straight”; “restless sea”; “battered heart”) – particularly dangerous in a novel about the importance of art. The Investigation was always unlikely to make the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize short list, but it tells an interesting story and is a straight forward read – and is not without ambition.


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