Second-Class Citizen

January 24, 2022

Second-Class Citizen, Buchi Emecheta’s second novel originally published in 1974, tells, in large part, her own story. Born in Nigeria in 1944, she married in 1960 after the death of both her parents (her father when she was only nine). Within two years she had two children, and, when her husband left for England, she soon followed him, arriving in 1962. The marriage was not a happy one and, despite her role as the family’s main financial support, and further children, she began to write. Ten years later her first novel, In the Ditch, was published.

“I always believe that given the big E – education – the position of women can be very positive,” Emecheta has said, and the fate of women in her novels often depends on how educated they are. In Second-Class Citizen, Adana has to fight to be educated. Significantly, the novel opens with the story of her simply turning up at the nearest school:

“I came to school – my parents would not send me!”

When her father dies, she is only allowed to continue her education as “somebody pointed out that the longer she stayed at school, the bigger the dowry her future husband would pay for her.” She pays to sit the common entrance exam to progress to high school by stealing two shillings she is given to buy meat, and will not confess even when she is beaten; as she wins a scholarship she is allowed to go. Even her marriage is motivated by her love of education as:

“To read for a degree, to read for the entrance examination, or even for more ‘A’ levels, one needed a home. Not just any home where there would be trouble today and fights tomorrow, but a good quiet atmosphere where she could study in peace.”

As she cannot live alone, marriage is the only option. He education allows her to get a good job as a librarian in the American Consulate, but this also proves a burden, the first of many years where she will be the main wage-earner, supporting and resented by her husband, Francis. The marriage, too, does not give her the freedom she hoped:

“So she was to stay in Nigeria, finance her husband, give his parents expensive gifts occasionally, help in paying the school fees for some of the girls, look after her young children and what then, rot?”

Again, she fights to follow her husband to England, a dream she has had since she was a child.

London, however, is far from a dream, and Emecheta portrays the life of an immigrant in the 1960s in depressing detail. Compared to Nigeria, their accommodation is small, a single room with the toilet “outside, four flights of stairs down, in the yard” and no bathroom or kitchen. She finds Francis changed – freed from his mother and father he is now prepared to hit her, and seems to have accepted that they are worth less because of their skin colour:

“What worried her most was the description ‘second-class’. Francis had become so conditioned by the phrase that he was not only living up to it but enjoying it, too. He kept pressing Adah to get a job in a short factory.”

Perhaps because Adah has already spent her life fighting against being deemed ‘second-class’ as a woman, she refuses to accept being similarly classified because she is black. In any case, her trials remain largely rooted in her gender, even when, again, she finds a good job in a library: finding adequate childcare, accessing birth control without her husband’s permission. Race, however, is a factor when they need to look for new accommodation:

“Every door seemed barred against them; nobody would consider accommodating them, even when they were willing to pay double the normal rate.”

Adah begins to disguise her voice when phoning to enquire about rooms to rent. However, the landlady changes her mind as soon as she sees them:

“At first Adah thought the woman was about to have an epileptic seizure. As she opened the door, the woman clutched at her throat with one hand, her little mouth opening and closing as if gasping for air, and her bright kitten-like eyes dilated to their full extent.”

It’s the smaller details which demonstrate Adah’s difficulties, however, as when she is in hospital having yet another child and she cannot ask Francis to buy her a nightdress with the money she has earned. Yet ultimately this is a novel of hope: Adah never stops fighting, no matter how difficult her life becomes, for her future and her children’s future:

“She was different. Her children were going to be different. They were all going to be black, they were going to enjoy being black, be proud of being black, a black of a different breed.”

Writing about Emecheta in 2017, her son Sylvester Onwordi lamented:

“My deepest sorrow was that Buchi did not understand how much she was loved by her readership not only in continental Africa, but all over the world.”

Hopefully the well-deserved publication of Second-Class Citizen as a Penguin Modern Classic goes some way to demonstrating this.

The Ark Sakura

January 18, 2022

Kobo Abe’s 1984 novel The Ark Sakura (translated into English in 1988 by Juliet Carpenter) has recently been reissued in the Penguin Classics Science Fiction series, and one can only wonder what readers, expecting anything resembling that particular genre, will make of a story that is both earthbound and (apparently) contemporary while at the same time more disconcertingly strange than any alien planet. The opening seems ordinary enough as the narrator, ‘Mole’, wanders round the stalls at a flea market before deciding to buy an eupcaccia, a rare insect without legs:

“…those appendages having atrophied because the insect has no need to crawl about in search of food. It thrives on a peculiar diet – its own feces.”

Such self-sufficiency may appeal to the narrator as he lives in a vast underground shelter beneath a quarry – his ‘ark’ – where he intends to survive what he sees as the inevitable nuclear war. (In 1984 the Doomsday Clock was set at 3 minutes to midnight, the closest it had been since 1960). He befriends the insect dealer, Komono, and offers him a ticket which will entitle him to place on the ark. This, however, is stolen by two shills, a man and a woman, who were working for Komono as fake customers to encourage real customers to buy his insects. (The Japanese for ‘shill’ is sakura – hence the novel’s title). Mole and Komono rush back to the ark but when they arrive, they find the shills are already inside, and the young woman has hurt her ankle in the dark. The first of many discussions about whether to leave again (in this case for medical treatment) follows, as does the idea of the woman as a focus of desire, particularly for Mole who offers to check her ankle:

“Unbelievably, she had accepted my invitation. I knelt down by her side on the left, scarcely breathing, like someone slipping a windfall in change into his pocket.”

We are also introduced to the toilet which will play an unexpectedly important role in the novel. Not only is it out in the open, but it flushes with enormous force:

“An earth-shaking tremor arose as if a subway were roaring in. The noise was concentrated in the core of the toilet, as if it had been passed through a parabolic lens and magnified. An instant later water came surging in with a cloud of spray, rose up level with the bowl, formed a whirlpool and vanished with anther roar.”

This is typical of the way in which Abe can take quite ordinary objects and invest them with an unexpected strangeness. But the power of the toilet is also a plot device as we discover that Mole has been using his ark to dispose of waste. Later he will get his foot trapped in the toilet, torn between his inability to escape and his reluctance to damage such a vital facility.

As one can probably tell, the plot is only credible within the narrow world of the novel. As Edmund White has said:

“It is a wildly improbable fable when recalled, but it proceeds with fiendishly detailed verisimilitude when experienced from within.”

The characters are unattractive: Mole is a loner, and quickly becomes infatuated with the young woman (at one point she tells him he should hide his feelings better, being “just like a dog looking for a pat on the head”). The ‘Captain’ with which Komono christens him with seems increasingly ironic, particularly as the insect dealer is a much more charismatic character. The male shill is unpredictable, his motives unclear, and though the young woman seems more sympathetic, we can never be sure that she, too, is not playing a role.

In addition, we have a phone call from Mole’s estranged father, a rapist and murderer, who wants to “bury the past” by asking for help in disposing of a body. There is also a rival group, the Broom Brigade, in the ark, an organisation created to encourage retirees to clean the streets, but which has become something more sinister:

“Clad in dark blue uniforms like combat suits, the oldsters parade around in the middle of the night, when ordinary people are in bed… There definitely is something creepy about them.”

The interaction of Mole, Kamono and the two shills, as well as the outside threats, creates an increasingly tense narrative. The paranoia which one would expect after the bomb had dropped already seems to be in evidence.

The Ark Sakura lacks the open-ended allegory of The Woman in the Dunes, or the twisted genre tropes found in The Ruined Map (it doesn’t feel as if Abe is drawing on science fiction motifs to create the world of the novel) but it is still a compelling read. Abe lures us into the novel’s world as much as its characters are lured into the ark and, confined in that small space, everything feels true, whatever the novel’s title warns us.


January 13, 2022

Having focused on the violence of men against women in Dead Girls, in Brickmakers (again translated by Annie McDermott) Selva Almada turns her ruthless gaze to the violence of men against men. The novel centres of a feud which runs from father to son. The fathers, Tamai and Miranda, are both brickmakers but their dislike of each other does not begin as a business rivalry; in fact, its origins are unclear, an argument in a bar in which “they faced each other in the stale air, eyes bloodshot and fists ready to land.” Friends pull them apart, but later Tamai takes a puppy from Miranda – a racing dog, a “future champion”:

“Swiping the puppy was Tamai’s way of bringing that old grudge up to date.”

Miranda gives up his claim to the dog asking only that Tamia look after it, but instead he neglects it:

“Skinny, chained to a post in the yard, tongue hanging out on those days when the heat cracks the earth.”

Eventually Estela, Miranda’s wife, kills the dog to end her husband’s torment, but Tamai blames Miranda and they fight. The rage which drives them is not theirs alone, nor is it only occasioned by their hatred of each other. After the fight, when Tamai decides to focus on supporting his family, he replaces one anger with another:

“Remembering his old grudge against his father-in-law dampened his anger at Miranda.”

However, when Miranda is murdered, Tamai is also affected, and not only because he is, for a time, a suspect: “His old quarrel with Miranda was an affirmation of himself.” Soon after this, he leaves his family.

As children, Tamai’s son, Pajaro, and Miranda’s son, Marciano, are friends, though puzzled that they are banned from going to each other’s houses. Later, when they drift apart, they blame each other – “deep down they both bore a grudge” – and by adolescence they are sworn enemies:

“By then he and Marciano hated each other so much that they’d forgotten they were ever friends.”

They, too, are filled with rage. As the novel opens, his younger brother Angel watches Marciano dress:

“He had the urge to spin round and bring the belt in his hand down hard on the boy’s back…”

This rage has existed in him since childhood, for example when his brother is first born:

“But his emotions were all over the place: sometimes he felt an irrepressible love for the newborn, and other times, an equally irrepressible desire to smash him against the floor.”

In Pajaro much of his anger is directed at his father: “One day his body will be big enough for the fury he has lived with all his life.” By the time he is a man, however, his father has gone. Conversely, Marciano feels he must avenge Miranda’s death:

“…he had to avenge his father’s death… he carried it with him every day of his life.”

To some extent, however, they are simply looking for a cause for the rage within them. The climactic confrontation between Pajaro and Marciano occurs ‘off-stage’; both lie dying as the novel begins, and we will return to their last moments throughout. Marciano sees the ghost of his father, and Pajaro also has a dying conversation with Tamai. The source of the confrontation is Pajaro’s relationship with Angel. Angel’s reputation as a ‘fag’ is already a threat to Marciano’s machismo:

“It made Marciano’s blood boil when people came to him with stories about his brother.”

It also threatens Pajaro’s view of himself. After the first time he decides, “he had to go out and right away and pick up a chick,” but the relationship continues. Both homophobia and self-loathing play a part, therefore, in the violence between them, but their rage is a force in itself, reducing the men to little more than animals. Tamai and Miranda are “like two fighting dogs”; when Miranda is murdered, he is “killed like a dog.” In an early scene, Marciano sees his father kill one of his dogs after he is injured – “being crippled was not a fit end for a champion.” In a sense the dog has lost his ‘manhood’, his dignity, just like the dog Estela later kills, and, for these men, death is preferable.

Brickmakers is another outstanding novel from Almada who seems unafraid to look into the darkest aspects of human nature. It’s a novel in which even its most unpleasant characters are in some way victims, but, like Dead Girls, it identifies the problems without offering much hope of solutions.

In Black and White

January 9, 2022

In Black and White is a novel by Junichiro Tanizaki which, according to translator Phyllis Lyons, has not only been neglected by Western academics but also by those in Japan having never been published independently but only as part of Junichiro’s collected works. Written in 1928, around the same time as Quicksand and Some Prefer Nettles, it was originally published in serial form in a literary magazine, the type of magazine its protagonist, Mizuno, writes for. Junichiro uses his own experience as a writer to create a character who can be read as a representation of the author in a novel where the plot revolves around the dangers of drawing characters from life – and so we have a fictional story tethered to reality by the fact its central character writes a fictional story tethered to reality by his use of an acquaintance as a character.

This is what is worrying Mizuno as the novel opens: has he accidentally used the acquaintance’s real name?

“He’d done this before: once, he’d used his first girlfriend as the model for a character in a story and he’d written her real name by mistake. Luckily that time he’d noticed while it was still in draft and managed to take care of it before it was printed.”

Rather than Codama, had he used his actual name Cojima towards the end of the story? A story in which, to make matters worse, Codama / Cojima is murdered. Mizuno is not so much concerned about hurting Cojima’s feelings, as the possibility that something similar might happen in real life:

“What if – what if – Cojima were to be killed in a fashion identical to the murder of Codama in the story. Wouldn’t he – Mizuno – be suspected?”

He accepts this is unlikely – unless, of course, someone (whom he calls the Shadow Man) has been waiting to kill Cojima and takes this opportunity to do so while casting suspicion on Mizuno.

Mizuno tries in various ways to prevent this – first by (unsuccessfully) attempting to have his error corrected before the story is printed. Then he decides to pre-empt reality with a sequel to the story, making it a story within a story:

“That is, the larger plot should be that on the basis of a story dealing with a murder, an actual murder takes place. Then the author of the story is suspected and executed.”

Of course, this second part cannot be published for some weeks and so Mizuno decides, in the meantime, it is important that he always has an alibi: “he should arrange to avoid being by himself as much as possible for the next ten days.” He decides to pretend he has gonorrhoea so that his numerous trips to the bathroom are noticed in the boarding-house where he stays.

This comedic alibi is typical of Minuza’s slightly ridiculous character. While Junichiro’s plot is clever and skilfully executed, it is Minuza’s weak character which stands out as his greatest creation in the novel. Unlike Junichiro, who was working on three novels during this year, Minuza is a rather lazy writer, always in need of money, and quite prepared to dupe the magazine he writes for to obtain it, telling them he has twenty pages completed when there are only ten. He then immediately goes out to enjoy the money he as ‘earned’:

“…did the money just buy him pleasure? No, it swept away the shadow of the fear that had been menacing him like a bad dream these past several months.”

It is while he is in a bar that he encounters a beautiful woman in western clothes:

“That such a classy woman would indicate an interest in man like me, who would other wise never get a second glance for her – this just has to be fate.”

He pursues her and they arrange to begin a relationship (for a fee), yet he has only a vague idea of where she lives (rather than take a taxi she phones for a car to take them there), does not know her real name, and has no way of contacting her. Infatuated as he is, this does not seem important – until, of course, he needs to use her as an alibi.

In Black and White is an entertaining story which deserves to be better known. The use of meta-fiction is both skilful and subtle and Minuza’s flawed character is amusing if not always sympathetic. The novel also gives us an insight into the working life of a writer in Japan at the time it was written, and, as Lyons points out in an afterward, reflects on a real-life dispute between Junichiro and Ryunosuke Akutagawa over the ‘I-novel’. It may not be Junichiro’s greatest work, but it would also be wrong to dismiss it as ‘minor’, and we should be pleased that it is finally available in English.

Winter Flowers

January 4, 2022

So many novels have now been written about the First World War, it sometimes it feels that contemporary writers should accept they are unlikely to add anything new. Yet Angélique Villeneuve’s Winter Flowers, originally published in French in 2014 and now translated by Adriana Hunter, focuses on two areas which have received little attention in fiction: the men who returned from the war severely injured and disfigured, and the women who survived these years alone at home. Winter Flowers tells the story of one couple (and their young daughter, Leo): Jeanne, who has survived by making artificial flowers, and her husband Toussaint, who has been badly injured at the front and has spent months recuperating in hospital before eventually returning home shortly before the end of the war.

Toussaint returns with all his limbs, but with his face badly disfigured and covered with a cloth mask, which he refuses it remove even in his wife’s presence. Before we are even aware of this physical damage, Villeneuve emphasises the physicality of the family’s relationships, beginning with the opening scene where Jeanne, despite the ache and exhaustion of work, brushes her face across Leo’s, chest:

“First with the ends of stray hairs that have escaped from her plaited bun and then with her eyelashes, she skims the child’s writhing chest, the area of skin that her knitted top lays bare.”

Such physical closeness between husband and wife, which Jeanne has been deprived of while her husband is fighting, and then even after his return, withdrawn and silent, continues to be subtly hinted at, for example in a description of Leo “her nose pressed up to her rag doll’s face.” When Toussaint lies sleeping next to her, her strongest desire is to touch him:

“She reaches out her hand, skims the hot, rough skin of his chin.”

The distance between them, however, is not only physical. Even before Toussaint reappears in her life, Jeanne has been hurt by the message she receives when he is admitted to hospital: “I want you not to come.” She describes these words as “claws, and she bore the scratch marks on her neck,” an example of how Villenueve will frequently describe emotions as physical sensations. When, after days of silence, he finally speaks his first word is ‘no’:

“A word of lava and flint, an underwater shard that has rubbed up against saliva and blood, splinters and caves.”

But first, the silence, a silence which, in a sense, begins even before his injury and return. Once he is at war, Jeanne says of the letters he sends her, “They surrendered no true facts about life at the front,” and that she asks questions “but he never replied.” Now that silent presence is in their small apartment:

“He’s just there, shut down, shut away.”

Later Jeanne wonders whether “she’d allowed herself to be swept up in the habit of silence,” and Villeneuve includes one chapter where Jeanne breaks her own silence, uncertain whether Toussaint is awake and listening, as paragraph after paragraph begins “She says…” This is her attempt to cross the gap between them, created just as much by their time apart as Toussaint’s injury:

“Toussaint, whether in the trenches or in hospital, knew nothing of the life they led.”

Rather than focus only on the ignorance of civilians regarding conditions at the front, Villeneuve draws attention to the gap in understanding. We see this from both sides: Toussaint, for example, is drawn to those who do understand his experience – when he leaves the apartment one day, Jeanne follows him and finds him meeting with a group of war-wounded soldiers. Villeneuve also demonstrates that this gap does not only exist in Jeanne and Toussaint’s relationship, showing us the uncomfortable ‘patriotism’ of those at home, as when a woman on the Metro begins publicly praising a disfigured soldier, or when she accompanies her friend Sidonie to a ceremony where she will receive a certificate for her dead son. There she describes the mayor’s speech as “riddled with impassioned fragments,” which cannot help but suggest shrapnel, just as she similarly uses language we associate with the violence of war to describe the sympathetic comments received by Toussaint:

“She’d be spattered with it right up to her face and down her neck.”

Sidonie’s experience (having lost sons to tuberculosis, she has now lost her final son to the war) is one way Villeneuve widens the scope of the novel, showing not only the losses suffered by women but the camaraderie. The two neighbours have helped each other throughout the war, even sleeping in the same bed for warmth. 

Winter Flowers is, at heart, a love story – that Jeanne and Toussiant have loved each other is never in doubt – but a love story which asks the question whether that love can be rekindled after the separation and trauma they have experienced. At one point Jeanne asks, “What is war?”

“An enormous grey mass, intangible and impossible.”

 By viewing the effects of the war on one family, Villeneuve allows us to see it more clearly.

Books of the Year 2021 Part 3

December 30, 2021

Finally, here are some newer books in translation which impressed me this year.

Dog Island by Philippe Claudel

Philippe Claudel is no stranger to either the crime genre (see Broderick’s Report) or the issue of immigration (Monsieur Linh and his Child), and in Dog Island (translated by Euan Cameron) he combines genre and theme in a tale which also has the same fable-like qualities of his work in general. The novel begins when three bodies are washed up onto Dog Island. The Mayor’s immediate instinct is to cover up the discovery, particularly as the publicity will not aid his attempts to increase tourism on the island, and the bodies are placed in cold storage. When a stranger arrives on the island, however, it is immediately assumed he is a policeman sent to investigate the deaths.  In this way, the novel cleverly explores Europe’s attitudes to immigration: at best, an inconvenience, at worst, a threat.

The Employees by Olga Ravn

Olga Ravn’s The Employees (translated by Martin Aitken) was a surprise (and surprisingly popular) inclusion on the International Booker long list. Set on a spaceship which has left Earth in search of new planets to colonise, it takes the form of a series of witness statements. The investigation is the result of a crisis on board precipitated by the arrival of alien objects which are never fully described. This has somehow unsettled the crew, some of whom are human while others are ‘humanoid’ – and so we very quickly find ourselves questioning what it is to be human. Ravn joins the ranks of those writers who have used the science fiction genre to its fullest extent, both in form and content.

Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro

As usual, Charco Press delivered many fine books in 2021, but my favourite (at least, at this particular moment) was Claudia Pineiro’s Elena Knows (translated by Frances Riddle). It provides another example of a writer using genre fiction to do something remarkable. In it, the elderly – and rather bad-tempered – narrator, Elena, investigates the death of her daughter, Rita, which she refuses to believe was suicide. In order to do so she must overcome the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, timing her intake of medicine to allow her to function sufficiently to make the visit she believes will help her. As the novel progresses, we begin to suspect a crime of a different sort has taken place.

Winter Flowers by Angelique Villeneuve

Peirene Press is another publisher with an excellent track record, and in 2021 they published the moving Winter Flowers by Angelique Villeneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter). Unexpectedly, it adds something new to the genre of First World War fiction by focusing on both the fate of those soldiers who were badly disfigured and on those women on the home front in France. At its heart, however, it is a love story, as Jeanne and Toussaint attempt to find each other again after years apart. That Toussaint has been changed by the war is obvious from his badly damaged face, but Jeanne, too, has been altered by the struggle to survive alone with her young daughter. As we wonder whether they can love again, we confront society’s reaction to those it sent to war.

Winter Stories by Ingvild Rishoi

Ingvild Rishoi’s only book to have been translated into English (by Diane Oatley), Winter Stories is a collection of three breath-taking stories. Each one features a character at breaking point. In the first, a mother’s poverty causes her shame in the face of the innocence and goodness of her five-year-old daughter. In the second a man, newly released from prison, hopes he can develop a relationship with his son. And, in the third, a sister, threatened with the loss of her siblings, goes on the run. Each story captures perfectly the experience of those who don’t feel they are good enough, but each one also offers up an act of kindness, a glimmer of hope in a cold season.

Books of the Year 2021 Part 2

December 28, 2021

For the second part of my ‘Books of the Year’, here are some older books I discovered for the first time:

The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe

I have always had a soft spot for novels which take the crime genre as a starting point but soon divert to somewhere similar but different – an uncanny valley, if you like, of genre expectations. No surprise, then, that Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map (translated by E Dale Saunders) was one of my favourite novels of the year. It begins like a traditional noir with our narrator hired to find a missing husband; however even his client is an unreliable informant in a novel where every character is difficult to pin down and so-called ‘clues’ only introduce further ambiguity. That our detective is undergoing his own existential crisis adds to the uncertainty, and the unreliability of the maps suggests a more profound difficulty in fixing reality. Highly recommended.

The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen

Another Penguin Modern Classic reissue, Tove Ditlevsen’s The Faces (translated by Tiina Nunnally) was originally published in 1968 (only a year after The Ruined Map). Presumably at least partly autobiographical, it tells the story of a writer, Lise, whose success leads to a breakdown where she comes to distrust all those around her. Ditlevsen’s skill lies in the initial plausibility of Lise’s fears, and the convincing perspective she presents throughout, particularly when she is eventually hospitalised. Rather than the fragmentation or incoherence sometimes adopted by writers to show madness, Ditlevsen presents a frighteningly rational irrationality.

Garden by The Sea by Merces Rodereda

Like Ditlevesen, Merce Rodoreda is a writer who really should have had more recognition in English. Garden by the Sea (originally published in 1967) is gentler than some of her other novels thanks, in part, to the character of its narrator, a gardener at a summer villa belonging to a wealthy couple. Rather than search for a story to tell he allows the story to come to him, and in this way Rodoreda explores the lives of the rich. From this distance we see that the ways in which they indulge themselves – including the drunken parties which damage the garden – are often a distraction from unhappiness and compare poorly to the joy the narrator finds in his garden.

Forty Lost Years by Rosa Maria Aquimbau

A second Catalan novel which impressed me this year was Rosa Maria Aquimbau’s Forty Lost Years (translated by Peter Bush), originally published in 1971 but beginning with the declaration of the Catalan Republic in 1931. The central character is Laura Vidal, a seamstress from a poor family, who is fourteen years old at this point. In the course of the novel, she becomes a successful businesswoman, the novel’s title suggesting (or at least asking the question) whether she has lost out on love in order to achieve this. The skill with which Aquimbau covers forty years of history as well as Laura’s own personal journey, in only 140 pages is remarkable.

Pigeons on the Grass by Wolfgang Koeppen

Although I had already read Wolfgang Koeppen’s first novel, A Sad Affair, I wasn’t prepared for the brilliance of his third (the second has never been translated into English) published 17 years later, Pigeons on the Grass (which benefitted from a new translation from Michael Hofmann in 2020). In the tradition of Ulysses or Berlin Alexanderplatz (but shorter) it provides us with a portrait of Munich shortly after the end of the Second World War. What makes it particularly daring is the lack of any central character for the reader to identify with, but the complexities of its structure are over-ridden by the vibrancy of its prose.

Books of the Year 2021 Part 1

December 26, 2021

Although I mainly read translated fiction, this doesn’t mean I entirely avoid contemporary novels in English (though it would be fair to say I haven’t read a wide selection). Here are five of the best I read this year:

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

The third volume in Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy is not only another valuable meditation on what it means to be a (female) writer, but also a though-provoking examination of growing older, a moment of reassessment. Levy uses her biographical ‘character’ as a metaphor for her own ‘character’ development: in writing herself she considers the self she wants to write. Similarly, she uses the practicalities of life – here focusing on the simple question, where is home? – to look more deeply into the choices we have and the decisions we make. Her rebirth as a writer since Swimming Home has been a pleasure to see.

Panenka by Ronan Hession

Leonard and Hungry Paul was such a runaway word-of-mouth success that I greeted Panenka with a little trepidation. Yet, few writers can write about ordinary life as well as Ronan Hession. Here, retired footballer Joseph is at something of a crossroads in his life, but does he have the courage to both face up to his mortality and to love again? Hession’s novels are filled with sly humour, yet the laughter is never directed downwards at his characters. Not only do we find ourselves on Joseph’s side, but on that of his daughter, and even of the regulars at Vincent’s pub. Every adjective we apply to Hession’s fiction – likeable, heart-felt, hopeful – may seem like faint praise but the sincerity of his work makes the reader equally sincere.

Tokyo Redux by David Peace

The much delayed third (and best) volume in David Peace’s Tokyo trilogy confirms that he is one of England’s most important writers. In a novel which ranges over fifty years, Peace weaves together numerous strands of (possibly) the one story beginning with the death of Shimoyama Sadanori, the head of Japan’s national railway, in 1949 during the American occupation. The other two years which feature are 1964, when the Olympics were held in Tokyo, and 1989, when Emperor Showa, perhaps the last remnant of Japan’s World War Two past, died. Each section has its own voice, with Peace perhaps in less danger of verging into parody than he has been in some previous novels. Neglected as usual by all prize juries, it will be exciting to see what Peace does next.

Luckenbooth By Jenni Fagan

Jenni Fagan’s third novel proves, beyond all doubt, that her emotionally raw debut and her dystopian follow-up only scratched the surface of her talent. Featuring the same marginal characters (including William Burroughs), it presents us with almost one hundred years in the life of a building. The historical recreation is vivid, but also laced with the spirit of fairy tale and myth. Characters are fully formed within pages and the loss the reader feels as we leave one behind is only alleviated by the introduction of another, equally fascinating. Another novel which should have won prizes.

Subdivision by J Robert Lennon

American writer J Robert Lennon’s ninth novel has, sadly, not yet been published in the UK but is still well worth seeking out (it’s published by Graywolf Press in the US). It begins with the narrator checking into a guest house in the Subdivision run by Clara and the Judge – she’s not sure which is which, especially as Clara was a judge and the Judge is called Clara. Such Alice in Wonderland strangeness will only accelerate, from her electronic companion, Cylvia, an Alexa which gives her life advice, to the bakemono, able to appear in different forms but always intensely desirable and equally dangerous. And why does a small boy keep turning up? Behind it all we sense a puzzle to be solved, either by the narrator or the reader – or perhaps both.

Christmas Stories

December 21, 2021

George Mackay Brown, whose centenary it is this year, was a talented poet who wrote six novels, including the James Tait Memorial Prize winning The Golden Bird and the Booker short-listed Beside the Ocean of Time. The majority of his fiction, however, was in the form of the short story, with nine collections published between 1967 and 1998. Now Galileo Publishers have collected all of his Christmas stories in one volume. But how many Christmas stories can one writer produce? Dickens wrote at least five, but Mackay Brown apparently amassed thirty – nine of which go as far as having ‘Christmas’ in the title – many of them originally published in newspapers such as The Scotsman and the Catholic magazine The Tablet.

Mackay Brown’s contributions to The Tablet suggest one reason why he was so prolific: in these stories the presence of Christmas is not mere decoration, and the majority of stories possess a religious, or at least spiritual, core. A number of them are set during the original Christmas. ‘Herman: a Christmas Story’ for example, begins with a young German boy being captured by a Roman Legion. Eventually, a soldier himself, he is sent to Judea during a census, and it is there, left alone on guard duty, that he sees:

“The man and the girl on donkey-back passed through, into the midnight village dappled with candle-flames and lamp-flames and so on along the noisy street towards the inn.”

‘The Lost Traveller’ tells of a man who cannot settle to life as a monk and instead falls in with a group of shepherds. Left to look after the flock at night while the others go to the inn, one of his companions returns talking of meeting “three foreigners” leading “laden camels” and looking for a lamb to take back to the town to exchange for wine. The man joins him:

“So it was that the God-seeker who had lost his way went down at midnight to the inn.”

Other stories, set in Mackay Brown’s native Orkney (where he lived most of his life), echo the Biblical story. In ‘Three Old Men’ a sailor, a shepherd and a miller meet on the road into town, each having set off with no clear purpose. The night is dark and the snow is deep, but, just as it seems they are lost:

“…the snow cloud was riven and in a deep purple chasm of sky a star shown out…”

And so they find their way to the inn.

The influence of A Christmas Carol can also be found, most obviously in the character of Rolf Scroogeson in ‘A Christmas Story’, a rather desultory adaptation that Mackay Brown limits to two pages (“We all know the rest of the story…”). More successfully, Dickens’ influence can be seen in ‘The Children’s Feast’ where, with all the shops closed, the general merchant still seems to be open for business, “the old skinflint.” Mackay Brown soon reveals what is actually happening:

“A boy ran past along the street, and the scoop of his jersey that he held out with both hands was weighted to overflowing with apples, oranges and bananas.”

As a character complains later when he is refused a bottle of whiskey, “only the bairns are getting served today.”

Kindness stands out in many of the stories, not always entirely intended, as in ‘The Box of Fish’ where a group of fishermen send a young boy, Sam, to swap a box of fish for a half bottle of rum. When he doesn’t return, they inquire at his home only for Sam’s mother to tell them, “You needn’t worry…

“Sam’s done exactly what you told him to do. Old Ezra’s had his fish. And blind Annie, and that cripple boy at the end of the village.”

Young boys are often used to represent goodness. In ‘Anna’s Boy’ the title character is judged too frail to go to school and is seen by no-one but the doctor on the island. Yet when a storm traps the children and their teacher during the Christmas party, it is Anna’s boy they find at the door, “who had carried a lighted candle through the storm.” In ‘Miss Tait and Tommy and The Carol Singers’ Miss Tait is feared as a “very severe old lady” and Tommy excluded as “he had a voice like a crow.” Yet when the singers arrive at Miss Tait’s door, they see Tommy sitting in Miss Tait’s armchair eating an apple. In ‘The Old Man in the Snow’ six-year-old James tells his family that Old Josiah has fallen in the snow, but he doesn’t know where. A search party fails to find him, but we later discover James has saved him after all as he lay in a drift happy to stay there:

“He just looked at me for a while, very serious, and went away.”

The look is enough to set Josiah thinking of the future and struggle up and on his way.

Christmas Stories is (slightly more than) an advent calendar of delights. Written with a poet’s voice, with sly humour but a serious heart, these stories are the perfect antidote to seasonal cynicism and fatigue.

Winter Stories

December 16, 2021

Although Norwegian writer Ingvild Rishoi’s first novel was published this year, she has largely been known as a writer of short stories. Winter Stories was her third collection, originally released in 2014 and translated into English by Diane Oatley in 2019 for Seagull Books. It contains only three stories, each focusing on a character at the end of their tether: the mother who can’t afford the bus fare home; the father recently released from prison; and the sister who fears she will be separated from her siblings.  In each one Rishoi captures the desperation of the characters and their determination to do right by others in difficult circumstances.

The title of the opening story, ‘We Can’t Help Everybody’ feels, in the wider context of the collection, like an accusation. In the story itself, however, it is a concept the narrator finds difficult to explain to her five-year-old daughter, Alexa, when they pass a man begging. In fact, it is their poverty that prevents them from even helping themselves:

“Because there is no such thing as small change.”

The narrator knows her daughter has wet herself and is now walking home uncomfortably in the cold, but she cannot afford the bus fare, nor does she want to dodge the fare with her daughter present. Soon, however, she cannot bear to watch Alexa “walking with her legs spread apart” and it is as they return to the bus stop that they pass the beggar. Again they return, as she does not want to disappoint her daughter with her lack of charity, but she accidentally gives the man 20-kroner coin instead of a ten:

“It’s a 20-kroner coin.

“I was going to give him a tenner,

“But it’s too late now.

“I gave away 20 kroner.”

The short sentence paragraphs convey her desperation, the disbelief as she struggles to comprehend what she has done, and its effect on her ability to help her daughter. Eventually she decides to buy her new underwear, but she has underestimated the cost. The story contrasts the child’s innocence with the mother’s hard-won experience, but that experience only makes her doubt and worry, whereas Alexa’s innocence, at least in her mother’s eyes means that she is always right. When they go into the store Alexa goes over to a Christmas tree:

“And I know this was right in a way that nothing was right before.”

Her mother uses her as guide but in order to do so she has to protect her simpler ideals. On another level, of course, the story simply questions why anyone should not be able to afford bus fare or clean underwear for their child.

In the second story, ‘The Right Thomas’, we find a father wishing to make a good impression on his son who is coming to stay with him. We see him reading a recipe “because at six o’clock the food has to be ready and I’ll open the door and Leon will jump into my arms…” Leon is the result of a one night stand between two people from different very different backgrounds. In the morning Thomas finds himself reading the newspaper and listening to classical music:

“Ladies like that. Radio stations like that. I didn’t even know they existed.”

When the woman, Live, discovers she is pregnant she contacts Thomas – she wants him to be part of her son’s life, but Thomas can’t understand why that doesn’t mean he is part of her life. Now the visit is taking place after he has spent some time in prison. His determination to be a good father conflicts with his lack of belief in his ability to do so – even buying a pillow for his son becomes a task too far. Thomas, in a different way from Alexa, is also innocent. The story balances on a knife edge of whether the visit will take place or whether Thomas will lose faith in himself as a father.

Having witnessed the innocence of childhood and adulthood, in the third story, ‘Siblings’, the innocent narrator is a teenager. The story opens with her taking her younger siblings on a bus, and we soon learn she is running away with them. They are heading to a cabin where she once holidayed with a friend, Cecilie, in summer – though this is a much more dangerous journey in winter. Cecilie had briefly transformed the narrator’s life:

“It was that spring. The pigeons kept flying and I got such good grades suddenly, Bs and As and Bs again, my French quizzes were full of smiley faces…”

On the holiday, however, Cecilie tells her she is leaving for England:

“How could she leave me when I could never leave her.”

Though more subtly, the issue here is also class: for Cecilie the transfer to another country is unremarkable, for the narrator impossible. Her life now heads in the opposite direction, and she fears being separated from her brother and sister despite being the main carer. This back story is juxtaposed by the siblings’ perilous journey through the snow.

Despite the bleakness of the situations the characters find themselves in, however, all three stories also offer kindness. But what makes them so powerful is the way in which Rishoi’s inhabits her characters, her perceptive portrayal of their struggles, and, above all, the way in which they continue to hope against all odds.