The Employees

April 18, 2021

This year’s International Booker long list has not been shy about including all manner of forms and genres. Olga Ravn’s The Employees (translated by Martin Aitken) is a case in point: a science fiction novel written as a series of witness statements. The novel is set on the Six-Thousand Ship which (some assumption is required here, as it is throughout the novel) has left Earth in search of new planets – see, for example, the planet New Discovery from which a number of objects have been taken to the ship. It is these objects which seem to have precipitated the crisis on board which is being investigated via the employee interviews, “with a view into gaining insight into how they related to the objects and the rooms in which they were placed.”

This is not a game in which the reader can guess the objects (see, for example, Craig Raine’s A Martian Sends a Postcard Home). The employees’ feelings towards the objects are more important than what they are. In particular, many talk about the object as if they were alive, whether positively (“I talk to her while she rests”) or negatively (“The three on the floor seem especially hostile”). Many of the employees become attached to the objects:

“Your sending an object back to Homebase feels like having a tooth extracted, a tooth that was located in the chest.”

In any case, the objects seem to be a catalyst rather than a cause, disrupting the balance between the two categories of employees on the ship: humans and humanoids, and it is here we find Ravn’s real focus, allowing her to ask profound questions about what it is to be human. Some of the humanoids in their statements demonstrate a longing to be human:

“In the same place that she feels the longing for earth inside her, I feel a similar longing to be human.”

In the same statement, the speaker wonders, “Is it a question of name? Could I be human if you called me so?” A humanoid who has been told there are problems with their “emotional reaction pattern” wonders:

“Is this a human problem? If so, I’d like to keep it.”

At the same time, humans sense that humanoids possess advantages:

“We’re weighed down by the memories of where we come from and what we left behind.”

In a more humorous moment, a humanoid wonders, of their human co-worker’s habit of resting between tasks, “Perhaps it’s a an old custom from before my time?” As the novel progresses (though there is no real chronology until the end) the difference become more threatening:

“I don’t share the opinion of many of my co-workers that the only real solution would be to discontinue the human section of the crew.”

We learn that the human and human workers have begun to sit apart in the canteen.

Once we understand the issues Ravn is exploring we can see how skilfully she weaves then into then narrative. The question over whether the objects are living or not now becomes central to the experience of the crew:

“When the crew are dead, the objects will still be here, in the rooms, unaltered by our having come and gone. So you’re asking me: Does this make the objects bad? Do we blame them for their lack of sympathy?”

This statement, of course, applies to the humanoids as much as the objects. Ravn’s concern with what it means to be human also explains the frequent mention of dreams, something we would normally regard as a human attribute, but here experienced by the humanoids as well. Less obviously, the objects are often described by smell (“The fragrance in the room has will and intention.”), a sense we do not generally associate with machines. Finally, humans have access to holograms of children for morale:

“…the child hologram has without doubt helped stabilise me as an employee here, and I can see that it’s been beneficial to my work effort.”

This also touches on another concern, as evidenced by the title, the way in which humans are reduce to employees, and the dehumanising effect of that.

Just at the point you might feel The Employees will go no further than mediate on these topics through the medium of the witness statements, plot kicks in. In the final pages, events occur to further challenge the reader in their view of what it means to be human while at the same time providing a moving conclusion to the novel. The Employees is the essence of original and thought-provoking  and thoroughly deserves its place on the long list.

Fires

April 15, 2021

Fires by Marguerite Yourcenar was originally published in 1936, then reissued in 1957 with, according to Yourcenar, “almost no change”, and finally translated into English by Dori Katz (in collaboration with Yourcenar) in 1981. As with all of Yourcenar’s novels published by Black Swan in the eighties, it is a short volume, just under 100 pages long. In fact Yourcenar, in a preface written in 1975, disputes that it is a novel at all:

“Fires is in the form of a collection of love poems, or rather, is like a sequence of lyrical prose pieces connected by a notion of love.”

These ‘lyrical prose pieces’ focus almost entirely on figures from classical Greece, the exception being the chapter on Mary Magdalene. The more the reader is acquainted with classical literature, the more enjoyment they are likely to gain from Fires. It is not that any of the figures are particularly obscure, but while Achilles’ story is widely known – even perhaps the time he was hidden among women to avoid fighting at Troy which forms the basis of his chapter here – fewer readers are likely to be acquainted with that of Phaedo, even if Plato named one of his dialogues after him. This matters largely because Yourcenar plunges straight in with little concession to context or back story. The more knowledge you bring to the book, the more you will be able to take pleasure in Yourcenar’s concise and consummate portraits. Here, for example, is Helen:

“…painting her vampire mouth with lipstick that made one think of blood.”

Cassandra, meanwhile, is “painfully giving birth to the future,” and Antigone, later, is described as walking “on the dead as Jesus on the waters”:

“This dead man is the empty urn in which to pour all the wine of a great love.”

Knowing the original stories also allows some wry amusement where Yourcenar adds contemporary references. in ‘Patroclus’ she talks about the difference the invention of tanks has made to the Trojan war and continues:

“Paris had been disfigured by the explosion of a grenade; Polyxena had just succumbed to typhoid in Troy’s hospital…”

In ‘Lena’, Aristogiton is a celebrity, “caught by the reporters’ questions, by the photographers’ cameras,” and in ‘Sappho’ we find the poet in a circus:

“She climbs at last higher than the spotlights: spectators can no longer applaud her, since now they can’t see her.”

Far from being gimmicky, these anachronistic details allow Yourcenar to better get to the heart of the story. Her portrait of love, however, is hardly an inviting one. Phaedra falls in love with her husband’s son, Hippolytus:

“She imagines the rape Hippolytus will be accused of, so that her lie becomes her fulfilment.”

Achilles love for Patroclus becomes a jealousy of Hector for “perfecting this masterpiece,” a feeling he should have killed him “in order to discover Patroclus in the sublime nudity of death.” Clytemnestra resents that she has given up her life (“I agreed to melt into his destiny like a fruit in his mouth”) to a husband who abandons her for the war on Troy and is unfaithful to her. Mary Magdalene marries Saint John only to find that “for him I represented the worst corporal offence,” and so begins her life of carnality. Of Jesus she says:

“I knew at once that I wouldn’t be able to seduce Him, since He did not run from me.”

(Jesus is another figure Yourcenar conjures up with skill: his “feet worn down to the bone”; his hair “infected by a vermin of stars”; his “cadaverous hands”). In each case love is something the lover has little control over, and it is easy to see why Yourcenar is attracted to a time when gods were thought to curse us with such feelings. The stories are linked by a contemporary voice but, here too, love is viewed as misfortune:

“Love is a penalty. We are punished for not having been able to stay alone.”

Fires is less obviously engaging than A Coin in Nine Hands, my only previous Yourcenar, but there is great pleasure to be found in its pages, often at the level of the sentence. The title is well chosen: here love is dangerous, damaging, impossible to tame.

The War of the Poor

April 11, 2021

The War of the Poor is Eric Vuillard’s fifth novel, and his third to be translated into English (by Mark Polizzotti who also translated The Order of the Day). All deal with historical events and are under 200 pages long, with The War of the Poor the shortest yet at only 66 pages, and the furthest removed from the present, ranging from the 14th to the 16th century. This suggests that Vuillard is not so much interested in world building in the way that, for example, Hilary Mantel is, but instead on focussing sharply on a particular moment or idea. Here the idea is that the peasant rebellions which occurred with the rise of Protestantism were as much about poverty as religion, a response to Martin Luthor’s statement that ‘It is not the peasants who arose against you masters, but God himself!’

“But it wasn’t God. It was indeed the peasants rising up. Unless you want to define God as hunger, disease, humiliation, rags. It wasn’t God rising up, it was taxes, tithes, land rights, ground rents, tariffs, travel dues, hay harvests, droit de seigneur, cutting of noses, gouging of eyes, pinching with burning tongs, bodies broken on the wheel.”

Vuillard’s particular focus is Thomas Muntzer but he begins in England with John Wycliffe and his proposal that “there exists a direct relationship between men and God.” This was, of course, seen as an attack on the clergy as such a relationship would logically make their intercession redundant, but it was feared by all men of rank as behind it lay:

“…his most terrifying idea of all, he preached the equality of all human beings.”

Wycliffe’s ideas are expressed in a more down to earth way by John Ball and feed directly into the Peasants’ Revolt against the 1380 poll tax, but if Ball’s ideas had their origin in theology, Wat Tyler’s originated in a more personal grievance, the rape of his fifteen-year-old daughter by a tax collector. And so Vuillard demonstrates that the real danger to those in power is the combination of radical religious ideas and genuine political grievances.

Almost 150 years later Thomas Muntzer is a leading figure in the Peasants’ War in what is now Germany in the 1520s. Originally a follower of Luthor, he is by this time a much more radical preacher:

“Something terrible inhabits him. He is enraged. He wants the rulers’ skins, he wants to sweep away the Church, he wants to gut all those bastards.”

Muntzer’s rebellion, as we know from the example of John Ball and Wat Tyler before him, is a failure. His 300 men are cut off from further support and face an army of professional soldiers with both artillery and cavalry. He, too, will die.

With such dramatic content crammed into so few pages, The War of the Poor does not lack for incident or pace. Vuillard has not the time to develop character but instead seeks out the essence of Muntzer, which he finds in his anger. Indeed, one reason that the novel is more than a sketch of history is the way in which that passion spills into the narrative – a quite different tone from The Order of the Day. Vuillard also brings his story to life with a keen turn of phrase. Take, for example, his description of the invention of printing:

“Fifty years earlier, a molten substance had flowed, flowed from Mainz over the rest of Europe, flowed between the hills of every town, the letters of every name, in the gutters, between every twist and turn of thought; and every letter, every fragment of an idea, every punctuation mark had found itself cast in a bit of metal.”

Vuillard (and Polizzotti) perfectly convey the sense of threat presented by type, and its unstoppable nature. Here the description is extended, but Vuillard can also be to the point, injecting humour with his depiction of Munzter’s preaching:

“He quoted the Gospels and added exclamation marks.”

At other times colloquial language is interjected into the narrative to power it forward, as, for example, when he tells us that Wycliffe repudiated transubstantiation “to really piss people off.” At the same time, there is no sense that Vuillard is being playful with history; the novel is deeply felt despite its distance and ends with a coda that could well be contemporary:

“Martyrdom is a trap for the oppressed. Only victory is desirable.”

The War of the Poor is an impressive short novel. It fully deserves its long listing for the International Booker Prize, but its brevity is such that progressing to the short list may prove more difficult.

At Night All Blood is Black

April 7, 2021

At Night All Blood is Black is French / Senegalese writer David Diop’s first novel to be translated into English, by Anna Moschovakis, it’s more dramatic title perhaps a result of the different connotations of Frère d’âme (Soul Brother) in English. The original title is more revealing, however, as the central relationship of the novel is between two “more-than-brothers”, Alfa, our narrator, and Mademba, who have left Senegal to fight for France in the trenches of the First World War. The novel opens with Mademba wounded and dying, and Alfa, for what he now calls “mistaken thoughts”, refusing to kill him quickly:

“God’s truth, I let Mademba cry like a small child, the third time he begged me to finish him off, pissing himself, his right hand groping at the ground to gather his scattered guts, slimy as freshwater snakes.”

Alfa becomes obsessed with taking revenge on the German soldiers in the trenches opposite. When the whistle signals that an attack is over, rather than returning to the French side, he waits, covered in mud, playing dead, until an enemy appears, thinking the danger is over. Then he not only kills the unsuspecting soldier in the same manner in which Mademba died, but severs the hand in which he is holding his rifle to take back with him:

“I returned late, because I would bring trophies back to the trench. I brought back the spoils of a savage war.”

He feels guilty not simply at his refusal to end his friend’s suffering, but also because he blames himself for his death. On the day of the attack, they are joking with each other about their family totems – Alfa’s is a lion, Mademba’s a peacock, which Alfa calls “an arrogant fowl”.

“And that’s why he left before the others, why he shot out of the earth shrieking toward the enemy on the other side, to show us, me and the trench, that he was not a braggart, that he was brave… It’s because of totems, because of our joking relationship and because of me that Medemba Diop was disembowelled by a half-dead, blue-eyed enemy on that day.”

At first his fellow soldiers are pleased with his bravery and daring but after the fourth hand this changes and they begin to avoid him: “God’s truth, I became untouchable.” Diop uses this to make a more general comment in war: the temporary madness which allows soldiers to go into battle is admired, but anything more permanent is less welcome. Soldiers, Alfa argues:

“…play at being mad, perform madness so that they can calmly throw themselves in front of the bullets of the enemy on the other side… but when you seem crazy all the time…that’s when you make people afraid, even your war brothers.”

When Alfa is asked to rest behind the lines it is really a plea for him to stop taking his trophies, which the other soldiers now believe are unlucky. Placing Alfa’s ‘savagery’ alongside the butchery of the war makes explicit that his actions are viewed through his African origins, alongside which there is a pretence that the rules of battle allow the fighting to remain ’civilised’. When he is in the rear, Alfa thinks of his life in Senegal, and in particular his relationship with a woman there, forbidden by the rules of his people. This feeds into the novel’s startling conclusion but leaves the two halves of the novel superficially disconnected, though perhaps united in their duality: the first focusing on death the second on sex. Alfa frequently refers to the trenches in sexual terms:

“Seen from a distance our trench looked to me like the slightly parted lips of an immense woman’s sex. A woman open, offering herself to war, to the bombshells and to us, the soldiers.”

Both war and sex are seen as doorways into manhood by Alfa, and Diop succeeds in presenting these largely unfiltered in a narrative that makes little concession to European sensibilities, instead providing the context of a European setting already enshrined in literature. This is partly down to voice: though Diop writes in French he clearly does not write in standard French, and translator Anna Moschovakis conveys Alfa’s voice admirably in English through rhythm and repetition. This, to a large extent, grants the narrative its power.

At Night All Blood is Black presents us with a different view of the First World War, but rather than a worthy attempt to convey the experience of African soldiers what we have is a much narrower, but therefore more powerful, viewpoint, embedded in the language of its telling. Personally, I felt the novel was stronger when Alfa was in the front line, and the conclusion will, I feel, leave readers divided, but Diop does succeed in taking the historical novel and making it something new and unexpected, vibrating with life, and death.

Minor Detail

April 4, 2021

Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, now an International Booker long listee, is a novel of two parts: the first, set in 1949, tells of a young Arab woman captured by Israeli soldiers in the desert; the second, contemporary, section relays the story of another young woman who sets out to investigate the first incident which occurred exactly twenty-five years before her birth. The first part is written in a spare, detached style, largely from the point of view of the Israeli officer who is leading the group of soldiers sent to “cleanse” the area “of any remaining Arabs.” The second is told in the first person, narrated by the young Palestinian woman as she travels across Israel to the scene of the first part. Congratulations are due to translator Elisabeth Jaquette for preserving the distinct style of each part. Together they combine in a fierce condemnation of the treatment of the Palestinians over many years.

Shibli begins by emphasising the inhospitable landscape the Israeli soldiers are faced with:

“They could no longer bear the scorching heat.”

For the officer, the hostility of the desert manifests itself in an insect bite on the first night which grows more painful as the days pass:

“The burning sensation from the bite on his thigh gradually intensified.”

This leads him to crush any insect he sees in his tent, and it is no surprise when the Arab girl, the only survivor when the soldiers open fire on a group of Bedouin, is compared to one:

“…the only sound was the muffled weeping of a girl who had curled up inside her black clothes like a beetle.”

Later, she too will bite him. The officer’s physical, and perhaps moral, discomfort can be seen in the way he frequently washes himself. The girl, too, is cleaned: stripped of her clothes, hosed down, her hair shorn, and her scalp coated with petrol. The cleansing reaches its pinnacle, with echoes of religious ceremony, after the girl has slept in his room:

“He… picked up the bar of soap, crumbled it into very small pieces, between his fingers, and scattered them over the area that had been occupied by the second bed,”

For the officer, the girl is not a human being but a bad smell (“her smell invaded his nose”; “the putrid smell was still there”) though interestingly his repulsion is often expressed in terms of fearing his own space being occupied. A putrid smell, however, also emanates from the infected insect bite on his leg until he can no longer tell which is which, just as the section ends with his hand “still exuding a faint smell of petrol” from touching the girl.

In terms of plot the first and second part are linked as it is what happens to the Arab girl in part one which is investigated by the narrator of part two. However, this attempt to discover more is not really the main point of the second narrative: a crime has been committed but this is not a crime novel. The two parts are also more subtly, and perhaps more importantly, linked by a number of sensory markers. For example, the howling dog, who survives alongside the girl in part one, introduces part two: “a dog on the opposite side of the hill began to howl incessantly” The darkness which frequently invades the officer’s tent also invasive in the second part:

“But then, as soon as darkness spreads into every corner of the house, I’m racked by the dog’s howling again.”

Intrigued by the date of the first event, “which would coincide, exactly a quarter of a century later, with the morning of my birth”, the narrator decides to find out more. Shibli uses this section to demonstrate the conditions for Palestinians living in Israel. The narrator must borrow a friend’s identity card in order to travel the distance she needs to, navigating numerous checkpoints. When she arrives at one of the museums where she hopes to find information, she gives the curator “the first non-Arab name which comes to mind.” She cannot, however, find any of the ‘minor details’ she is looking for:

“I’m here in vain. I haven’t found anything I’ve been searching for.”

It is the subtle links between the two narratives as well as the more dramatic moments which emphasise Shibli’s point that little has changed. However, I must admit that plausibility was stretched in the second section when the narrator takes off on a journey she admits to finding daunting, even terrifying, on the basis of a coincidence. She explains her actions by saying:

“As soon as I see a border, I either race toward it and leap over it, or cross it stealthily with a step.”

This does not feel like the way people think of themselves, and the motivation for her journey is, to my mind, unconvincing. This is a pity as otherwise Minor Detail is a compelling and powerful novel, particularly in the first half, and has a strong chance of making it to the short list.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Winner 1996

April 2, 2021

With the long list for the International Booker Prize of 2021 announced a few days ago, it seems only appropriate to finally reveal the winner of the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of twenty-five years previously. This was a project I began back in the UK’s first lockdown in March last year, attempting to discover which books might have made it onto a 1996 long list (the prize itself was in abeyance between 1996 and 2000). In July I announced the long list:

In the Hold by Vladimir Arsenijevic, translated from the Serbian by Celia Hawkesworth (Harvill Press)

Your Name Shall Be Tanga by Calixthe Beyala, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Heinemann African Writers Series)

The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare, translated by David Bellos from the French version of Albanian by Jusuf Vrioni (Harvill Press)

Slowness by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher (Faber and Faber)

Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Faber and Faber)

The Gardens of Light by Amin Maalouf, translated from the French by Dorothy S Blair (Quartet Books)

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Press)

The Trap by Ana Maria Matute, translated from the Spanish by Maria Jose de la Camara and Robert Nugent (Latin American Literary Review Press)

Hypnotism Made Easy by Marie Nimier, translated from the French by Sophie Hawkes (Angela Royal Publishing)

Nevermore by Marie Redonnet, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska Press)

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero (Harvill Press)

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, translated from the German by Michele Hulse (Harvill Press)

Although I largely stuck with the rules of the prize (altering the timeframe slightly by including anything published within the calendar year of 1996 rather than April to April) I eventually had to include two US published titles to ensure at least four women writers were present. The list was also far more Eurocentric than I would have liked with only three writers originating from elsewhere. It features an unusually high proportion of writers who were then, or are now, regarded as world class, including two Nobel Prize winners: Kadare, Kundera, Vargas Llosa, Marias, Saramago and Sebald are all unarguably major names. Perhaps too predictably, I would have certainly placed four of them on any short list, discounting Kadare and Saramago as I felt in each case these were weaker works. The final two places would have gone to Amin Maalouf and (my discovery during the judging) Marie Redonnet.

As for a winner, it finally came down to one of two books:

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Press)

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, translated from the German by Michele Hulse (Harvill Press)

Both Marias and Sebald are unique stylists. One might even argue they have a lot in common in their circuitous, meandering narratives where plot plays only a minor role, and their concerns with identity, choices and loss. Today, of course, they feel like established writers, but The Emigrants was Sebald’s first book to be translated into English and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me was Marias’ third. Sebald later won the prize (posthumously) in 2002 with Austerlitz; Marias has only ever made it as far as the short list, with Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream in 2007. Ultimately, as my review shows, there were elements of The Emigrants I found uneven, whereas for me Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me remains among the perfect novels, and so takes this imaginary and entirely meaningless prize.

The International Booker Prize 2021 Long List

March 30, 2021

The long list for the International Booker Prize was announced earlier today with arguably fewer surprises than is often the case. This is not to say my predictions were any more accurate than normal, with only three of the thirteen featuring in final choices (The Pear Field, The Perfect Nine and Minor Detail), though I did mention another three as possibilities (At Night All Blood is Black, An Inventory of Losses and In Memory of Memory). The list is, as usual, dominated by Europe, though it does contain two titles by African writers (Ngugi wa Thiong’o and David Diop, who was born in France but grew up in Senegal), two Latin Americans (Argentinian Mariana Enriquez and Benjamin Labatut – again, born in Europe (Rotterdam) but growing up in Argentina and Peru as well as the Netherlands, and now living in Chile), Can Xue from China, and Adania Shibli from Palestine.

The long list is as follows:

I Live in the Slums by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping, Yale University Press

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, translated from French by Anna Mocschovakis, Pushkin Press

The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway, Peirene Press

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, Granta Books

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, Pushkin Press

The Perfect Nine: The Epic Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, translated from Gikuyu by the author, VINTAGE, Harvill Secker

The Employees by Olga Ravn, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, Lolli Editions

Summer Brother by Jaap Robben, translated from Dutch by David Doherty, World Editions

An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith, Quercus, MacLehose Press

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, Fitzcarraldo Editions

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale, Fitzcarraldo Editions

Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý, translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley, And Other Stories

The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti, Pan Macmillan, Picador

This will be the third year in a row that Fitzcarraldo Editions have had two titles in the long list, an incredible achievement for a small press (and one that always reminds me that the shadow jury was so incensed when Mathias Enard’s Zone was not long-listed in 2015 that we included it anyway). Two titles also for Pushkin Press, and plenty of other small press representation, most excitingly the recently established Lolli Editions. Disappointment, though, for Charco Press which misses out for the first time.

Though most of the publishers have an established history in the prize, this is not true of the writers. For six of them this is their first work to be translated into English; for another three is it is their second, and, though Maria Stepanova has been translated before, she is better known as a poet. Judith Schalansky, who was long-listed in 2015, seems like a veteran with her third book. Can Xue was also long-listed that year, and again in 2019; only she and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have been regularly published in English over the last twenty or, in Ngugi’s case, fifty years. Other established writers who have missed out this year include Virginie Despentes, Jon Fosse, Roy Jacobsen, Andres Neumann, Amin Maalouf and, of course, Elena Ferrante. This makes establishing a favourite even more challenging than normal. Ngugi, as we know, just doesn’t win prizes; Can Xue, on previous form, is simply too opaque. An Inventory of Losses may also suffer from its experimentation, and In Memory of Memory, like Annie Ernaux’s The Years before it, from the nagging doubt it doesn’t quite belong among the fiction (see also, in a different sense, The War of the Poor). The short list (22nd April), and the eventual winner (2nd June), feel even more thrillingly unpredictable than ever.

If You Kept a Record of Sins

March 27, 2021

If You Kept a Record of Sins is the second of Andrea Bajani’s novels to be translated into English (on this occasion by Elizabeth Harris) after Every Promise in 2013. Both are stories of troubled relationships, in this case between a son and his mother. The novel opens with the son, Lorenzo, travelling from Italy to Romania to bury his mother. It is his first visit to the country where his mother went to live when he was still a child, leaving him with a man he called Dad but who was not actually his father. The novel is addressed throughout to his mother, perhaps communicating what he was unable to while she lived:

“You started leaving when I was young.”

His mother is an entrepreneur who invents a machine for losing weight and then travels the world with her business partner, Anselmi, in order to sell it. Tracking her journeys, Lorenzo creates what he calls “the world map of absences”. These absences grow longer and longer; on one occasion he mentions the letter he wrote for his mother’s return where he tells her how long the neighbour’s dog has been missing, each day adding one to the total:

“When you truly, finally came back, it was seventy-six days later, and there was a column of scratched-out numbers, the corrected number on top. And the neighbour’s dog had already come home.”

The story is both funny and sad, suggesting that he has come to accept her absence but is still hurt by it. It is clear from early in the novel that his mother loves business, and perhaps her business partner, more than her family. She has already broken with her own family over her first marriage which was “more like a business merger than a wedding.” Now her business merger is more like a wedding:

“You almost always talked together about work; you were full of smiles, your legs crossed, and him pouring wine in your glass.”

Eventually his mother decides to settle in Romania, for what we assume are capitalist reasons of opportunity and exploitation. Romania is viewed by the Italians there as a backward place. “They’re more than fifty years behind,” his mother tells him, “they’re stuck in the past.”  When Lorenzo arrives, Anselmi comments:

“These people – we yanked them right out of the Middle Ages.”

They see the people as less than human. Of his girlfriend, Monica, he says, “If she had a tail, she’d be wagging it.” Another Italian, Viarengo, who has a business making coffins, tells him that when he arrived the Romanian workers “just stood around, staring like monkeys in a tree.” Romania is compared to the Wild West, and the Italian businessmen see themselves as pioneers. They like Romania because, they say, Romanians will do anything for money. Men who are nothing in Italy are something in Romania. One of the first things Monica says to him is, “You Italians like Romanian pussy.”

“She said this the same way Anselmi would, his same words, his same inflections. His same solemn tone.”

In this way the novel can be read as a condemnation of the rampant capitalism which replaced Soviet communism in the Eastern Bloc. This is made clear in the comparison between Ceausescu’s palace, “immense, as if right here, the world came to a halt,” and Anselmi’s business:

“As if, again, the centre of the world was that warehouse, and not Romania, which only happened to be surrounding it.”

This aspect of the novel dovetails with Lorenzo’s personal story, as he discovers his mother was not happy in Romania. “She wanted to go back to Italy – she felt sick and betrayed,” Anselmi’s driver, Christian, tells him. He doesn’t recognise photos of her (“you were an exploded body”). He discovers that she had taken to drink and wouldn’t wash; “She let herself die,” Anselmi says, or as Viarengo puts it, addressing her photograph, “You let yourself rot.” This makes Lorenzo’s attempts to connect with her now she has agone all the more sad, as when he has a shower in her apartment:

“I washed with your sliver of soap, dried myself with your bathrobe, brushed my teeth with your toothbrush, still on the sink, like an old flag on an abandoned fortress.”

Bajani adeptly combines the personal with the political in a novel which reflects on capitalism and dislocation through the failed relationship of mother and son. Lorenzo’s mother’s pursuit of wealth not only creates a divide between them but eats away at her from the inside, leaving behind only a shell of the woman she once was. Even the ‘gift’ she leaves him, which she describes as an investment, becomes in the closing pages a symbol of separation. The gently elegiac tone of the novel with its regular four-page chapters, disguises a bleaker sadness beneath. It’s a haunting experience but one which is highly recommended.

Higher Ground

March 23, 2021

“Bea is fourteen and needs to be taught the facts of life,” her mother, Resi, decides in the opening pages of Anke Stellig’s Higher Ground, originally published in Germany in 2018 and now translated by Lucy Jones. She does not mean, however, the ins and outs of reproduction, but literally how we live our lives. She begins with a revelation of her own when she is in her twenties:

“Fuck! If my parents had lived somewhere else, we’d have had a different kitchen floor.”

The realisation is not that a different mother in a different place would have chosen a different floor, but that her circumstances were such that her mother did not choose:

“I was now convinced my mother had thought the floor tiles were ugly too, but had accepted them because they were all she could afford, they just happened to be there, and had nothing to do with her. But that’s where she’d made a mistake; now the floor stood for her.”

That flooring should have such symbolic significance seems appropriate in a novel where housing is central. The novel also begins with the news that Resi, her husband Sven, and their four children are going to be evicted from their flat. The eviction is personal: four years ago they took over the lease from Resi’s friends, Frank and Vera, who have now terminated the contract by letter:

“The letter is a comeuppance for what I’ve done, and that’s why it’s not addressed to Sven, or to both of us, but just to me.”

And what has she done to deserve this? Written a novel about her friends, many of whom she has known since school. Written about Frank and Vera, about Friederike and Ingmar, about Ulf and Carolina, about Christian and Ellen. And written about them in such a way that they don’t like what they see, in particular her view of their grand project, K23, a building where they all live together in separate apartments. Resi, too, was invited to be part of the project, but could only have bought into it with borrowed money offered by Ingmar, a ‘kind’ gesture that reveals the imbalance of power which has always existed in her friendships.

This is what lies at the heart of the novel: her wealthy but ‘progressive’ friends are oblivious to their privilege, and only willing to accept her as long as she doesn’t point it out. Looking back at her life, she sees that the disparity in class, which they all conspired to ignore, was in fact profound. When she was in a relationship with Ulf they “really believed there was no difference between us, and that it didn’t matter where we came from.” And yet he happily goes skiing with the others knowing she cannot ski. When she points out that she wouldn’t be able to join in, he replies:

“I realise that, but it’s not my fault, and it’s not the others’ either.”

When visiting Ulf’s family at Christmas she has no answer to the question, “And what do you play?” (“I instinctively knew that my two years of learning the recorder in primary school didn’t count in this context”). Despite this, Resi fools herself: she knows her parents do not have much money but “the poor were people who had never heard of Le Corbusier…” Her parents’ jobs (a bookseller and a draughtsman) allow her to imagine she is higher up the class ladder than their salaries can justify. Even in the present she is caught between her middle-class education and her working-class income:

“I prepare myself a working-class lunch – tinned ravioli – and eat it in posh style, with freshly grated Parmesan on an Iittala plate.”

It takes her years to realise that Ingmar’s offer to lend them money was an attempt to distract from K23 as an enclave for the rich (“Well, we also have low wage earners on board…”). Resi’s message to Bea is the same as her message to Ulf:

“I think we have extremely different starting points in life, which we ignored at all costs, and I think it’s still the case, or even more the case, and it’s being ignored more than ever – or worse, it’s being glossed over with neoliberal rubbish about opportunities of moving up in the world…”

Higher Ground is therefore a political book, though it does not read like one; here the political and the personal are the same. It’s written in a chatty tone as befits a mother addressing her daughter, and runs through a range of emotions, with as much humour as there is anger. It also has a conversational structure, moving backwards and forwards in time (which Resi also blames on having to write in a broom cupboard: “I won’t pretend that I have the same conditions as, say, Martin Amis”). It’s almost always entertaining.

The structure allows Resi, looking back, to see parallels between her own life and that of her mother, despite her intention to live it very differently. (Her mother’s first boyfriend was also from a wealthier family and ended the relationship). Now she asks whether she can free her daughter from repeating her own mistakes by warning her, in a way that will resonate with many parents. The address to Bea is an effective conceit, though Bea herself does not really come to life as a character, perhaps because she is always addressed rather than active. The novel wears its rage lightly, but it is a potent reminder that, although money can’t buy happiness, it can buy what we are expected to accept is happiness, and woe betide anyone who points out otherwise.

Pharricide

March 17, 2021

Lighthouses have always made me uneasy ever since watching Dr Who and the Horror of Fang Rock as a child in 1977 (and this was despite the fact that the alien horror turned out to be a plastic ball covered in seaweed), but never as uneasy as Vincente de Swarte’s Pharricide. De Swarte was a French writer who was only a little older than me when the Dr Who serial premiered but sadly died young in 2006 having already written a number of novels, the second being Pharricide in 1998 (the first, not to discount it, was for children). His work remained untranslated during his lifetime, but in 2019 Nicholas Royale and Confingo brought us this English version of Pharricide which, in a suggestion of the novel’s standing, comes with a forward by Patrick McGrath and an afterword by Alison Moore.

The novel tells a grisly story with an intensity which is irresistible. It is related in the first person by lighthouse keeper Geoffroy Lefayen in a series of diary entries which begin with his posting to the oldest lighthouse in France, Cordouan. A series of misfortunes leads to his placement – the previous lighthouse keeper blinding himself on the lamp; the couple he worked with dying in a car accident; the two trainees sent there temporarily rumoured to be involved in smuggling – a run of bad luck which seems to be off-set with the high regard in which Lefayen is held within the department of Lighthouses and Beacons:

“For my willingness to take risks, my strong constitution and my heroic physique. They say I’ll enter the annals.”

The truth of this will be borne out by what follows, though not in the way we might think.

Lefayen craves isolation. He agrees to man the lighthouse on the condition he does so alone:

“I pray to God no one comes to the lighthouse during those six months, no one at all…”

When the supply boat turns up early, he tells them, “I’d rather not see you, you know. It’s easier if I don’t see anyone.” If this doesn’t make the reader uneasy, the perhaps his attitude to the lighthouse will:

“Cordouan has woken me up. Cordouan has stripped my soul naked. It has reminded me of everything that lies within. It has replaced maybe with definitely.”

At times it feels as if the lighthouse is a living being in his mind (for example, he tells us, “The lighthouse pretty much let me sleep until five.”) He later comments that the lighthouse “has saved my knives from retirement”, a remark which is explained, however, by his interest in taxidermy, skills he first displays on a conger eel.

The confessional nature of the narrative gives the illusion that it is open and honest, but, in fact, much remains hidden from the reader. One entry begins, “The English couple arrived this morning” despite the fact that no English couple has been previously mentioned. We later learn that they phoned the week before (and have clearly been invited despite Lefayen’s desire for solitude). That he has planned for their arrival can be seen when he takes them to the shore to drive two stakes into the sand:

“They were so wrapped up in each other they would have believed anything.”

After the English couple, Lefayen decides “I’m no longer setting myself boundaries,” but his decision is complicated by the arrival of a female engineer from Lighthouses and Beacons, Lise, “a beautiful woman of about forty.” Lafayen’s desire for Lise is reciprocated, even as she recognises his madness, and the relationship accelerates Lafayen’s detachment from reality.

The novel explores madness in the same way as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart, by placing the reader within the madness. Lafayen, we discover, has come from madness: he speaks of his mother being certified, and of the twins on whose fishing boat he worked (both called Roger, which suggests their parents’ sanity should also be questioned) where he learned taxidermy, becoming “gripped by murderous insanity.” Sanity largely feels weak and distant – blind Joel, or his son watching the lighthouse through his telescope; the mild-mannered investigations of the police. Madness, on the other hand, blazes fiercely like the lighthouse.

Lafayen’s madness is also an expression of individualism – an attempt to embrace rather than reject life. The passion he and Lise feel for each other is both destructive and life-affirming. He describes himself as a “gourmand” – the pleasure gained is more important than the suffering caused. He is not a ‘victim’, either in his own eyes or the eyes of others and the journey on which he takes us is, in some ways, one of  horrifying liberation. Pharricide is a thrilling read, but the thrill is one of terror.