Lost Books – The Tennis Players

April 29, 2016

tennis players

I first became aware of Lar Gustafsson, who died this month, when Harvill Press published a number of his novels in the 1990s, including perhaps his most famous, The Death of a Beekeeper. Since then I’ve tracked down the rest of his fiction (he was also a poet) and only recently acquired the final volume (in English, that is) a short novel from 1977 (translated by Yvonne Sandstroem in 1983) called The Tennis Players.

At fewer than a hundred pages, The Tennis Players is properly a novella, and, as its narrator is a Visiting Professor at Texas University, it falls into the category of campus literature, with autobiographical leanings (Gustafsson spent much of his life teaching in the US, and the cover photograph – on which he features- suggests he can wield a racket). The narrator (called, of course, Lars Gustafsson) is approached by a student on his Swedish literature course with the memoir of a Polish chemist, Zygmunt. In it, Zygmunt describes his attempt in Paris, alongside a group of Polish anarchists, to acquire the secrets of August Strindberg’s alchemy, as described in Strindberg’s autobiographical novel, Inferno. Inferno is usually cited as evidence that Strindberg was suffering from some form of psychological neurosis, but now it seems that his paranoia may have been justified. Zygmunt’s actions include attempting to render Strindberg unconscious by gassing him in order to steal his notes.

“Zygmunt ascribes the fact that they had eluded detection to nothing more than August’s naïve conviction that he was the centre of the universe, and so naturally had to assume the Powers were persecuting him.”

However, as Gustafsson’s girlfriend points out,

“There are just too many people who have built their careers on the Inferno Crisis, who make their living teaching it. You can’t drag in some old Polish alchemist at this point…Believe me, sensible people have seen that memoir long ago and decided to disregard it.”

What’s needed is a careful comparison of the two texts, and what better way to accomplish that than to “feed both books into a computer and program it to check the day-to-day correlation between the two narratives” – or, at least, that’s the novel suggestion put to Lars. This is, of course, a much trickier proposition in 1975, but luckily Gustafsson has recently befriended (on the tennis court) Chris who, despite being blacklisted by the FBI and the CIA, works for Strategic Air Defense. This allows him access to a particularly powerful computer:

“I can transfer a lot of memory capacity so it isn’t easy to discover that the machine is moon-lighting.”

These events play out against the background of an attempt by the Boards of Trustees to remove the University President over a refusal to replace a performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold with Verdi’s Aida, and so all apsects of campus comedy are covered.

For, despite the occasional reminder of death – a student shooting from the university bell tower; the potential for nuclear Armageddon as a result of misuse of the Strategic Air Defense computer – Gustafsson retains a comic tone throughout. He begins and ends with the declaration, “It was a happy time” and a sense of happiness pervades the narrative, quite at odds, one would imagine, with Strindberg’s Inferno. At the novel’s heart lies Abel, a tennis player who can match Jimmy Connors and Rod Laver, but who is contented playing against whoever arrives at the university court:

“He was related to the great teachers, Gunnar Ekelof, the Japanese Zen monks, the ancient archers, and the Australian aborigine medicine men.”

The Tennis Players may not be a great novel, and its more dated elements may mean it is unlikely to be reprinted, but the idea that the narrator can look back on a moment of happiness in his life, without quite being able to explain why he felt that way, still rings true. Amid all the satiric shenanigans, it is that feeling that makes it such a joy to read.

The Large Glass

April 23, 2016

large glass

It has taken me a while to get around to reading something for Mexicanos perdidos en Mexico, which luckily Richard at Caravanoderecuerdos has allowed to run through March and April and into May. I can’t recall where I first encountered Mario Bellatin’s name – perhaps via Roberto Bolano, or perhaps simply through a rather more amateurish ‘Mexican writer’ search online – but whatever I discovered was enough to convince me to order one of his books – The Large Glass, translated by David Shook, and published by Eyewear in the UK last year. (Although a number of Ballatin’s books have been translated, he has suffered from a lack of a regular English-language publisher).

The Large Glass is subtitled ‘Three Autobiographies’, but anyone expecting a straight-forward recounting of events in Ballatin’s life, or even for the three stories to obviously connect, will be disappointed. The first story, ‘My Skin, Luminous’, is probably the strangest, written in a series of numbered sentences. The child narrator describes how his mother takes him daily to the baths where she displays his genitals to the other women in return for gifts:

“The women rummaged through their belongings and managed, by means of the particular barter for my propitious body, to contemplate me for the time they deemed necessary.”

This is presented as a tradition, which takes on a ‘Golden Bough’ aspect when we discover that “many details about genital-displaying women are remembered, but everything about their exhibited sons is forgotten” because they are killed “mercilessly” when their testicles shows signs of ageing. Having established this surreal premise, Bellatin allows autobiographical elements to enter the story as the narrator remembers a time when he and his mother stayed with his father and brothers – uncertainty (“My brothers – now I understand that I did have brothers – began to hopelessly cry”) suggests he was very young. That their eviction shortly after the father’s departure is repeated in the final story suggests it may be autobiographical, but that is, of course, a presumption.

The second story, ‘The Sheikha’s True Illness’, begins in the most autobiographical fashion:

“Curiously, the protagonists of the last book I had published feel satisfied with the work.”

Having introduced the idea of how those he knows react to his work, the narrator goes on to discuss a more recent story:

“Before closing the door she called me a prostitute; she didn’t understand why else I would have sold, to Playboy magazine no less, a mystical dream that I had had about the sheikha of the religious community we both belonged to.”

It’s unclear whether the story that follows is a repetition of the Playboy story, or if we are indeed reading that story (should it exist). In it Bellatin tells of meeting the sheikha in a hospital where he goes to be treated for an ‘incurable’ disease; this narrative is intercut with memories of when he was first diagnosed, and the tale of a friend killed in a road accident in what becomes a meditation on death and illness. Even the sheikha’s car, an old Datsun on its last legs, seems part of this.

The final story, ‘A Character in Modern Appearance’, begins with the declaration that the narrator, along with his German girlfriend, is searching for a car – a Renault 5. Any suggestion of straight-forward autobiography disappears with the discovery on the second page that the narrator is female, however. As mentioned, this story also contains a childhood eviction; it also echoes ‘My Skin, Luminous’ in the father’s exhibition of the narrator when he dresses her in a folk costume and ties transparent nylon to her wrist and ankles as if she were a puppet.

Bellatin was born with much of his left arm missing and the fixation with deformity, illness and exhibition which pervades these stories may well be rooted in this. The constant shifts in narrative direction also indicate his fascination with the craft of writing. The Large Glass is, in turns, puzzling, invigorating, infuriating, and refreshing. Its title echoes that of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (as well as the obvious reference to autobiography as a mirror) which has been thought by some to be designed to mock those who search for the key to its meaning. The writer he most reminds me of is Cesar Aira, though this may be a lazy comparison based on brevity and eccentricity. Whatever the case, the most important conclusion is that I fully intend to read more.

A Strangeness in My Mind

April 19, 2016


The opening twelve pages of Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind reminds you just how effective a writer he can be. In it he describes the pivotal moment in the six hundred pages which follow, when his protagonist, Mevlut elopes with Rayiha, to whom he has been addressing his love letters for the last four years – only to discover she is not the sister he though she was:

“They had shown him the pretty sister at the wedding, and then given him the ugly sister instead. Mevlut realised he’d been tricked. He was ashamed and couldn’t even look at the girl whose name may well not have been Rayiha.”

This scene from 1982 is swiftly followed by another important moment twelve years later when Mevlut, who has spent much of the intervening time making a living selling boza as a street vendor (boza is an alcoholic drink which is sold under the premise it is not alcoholic and therefore acceptable for Muslims to drink), is robbed on his nightly rounds, and decides that perhaps his boza-selling days are over.

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Unfortunately such narrative urgency rarely reappears. Having teased us with two moments of genuine tension, Pamuk begins again in 1968, with the intention of telling Mevlut’s story in enormous detail before repeating the elopement (and, later, the mugging). One reason the pace of the novel slows is that he moves from an omniscient narrative to a chorus, where the voices of various characters interrupt the main narrative with comments. This gives the novel the feel of a (to be kind) documentary or a (less kind) reality show, where every action demands a cut-away to a talking head. This impression is created by the brevity of the interruptions and the manner of the comments – all as if addressed to an interviewer, and all focusing on Pamuk’s topic – Mevlut’s life. Take, for example, the voices from Chapter 3, all beginning with some reference to Mevlut:

“Mevlut wasted a year back in the village…”

“I didn’t like the way Uncle Mustafa said, ‘Mevlut doesn’t get into fights.’”

“’The blazer’s got a hole in the lining of the left pocket, but don’t get it sewn up,’ I told a bewildered Mevlut.”

“I know you go to see your uncle’s family in secret, I would tell Mevlut…”

“That’s not true: Mevlut know that the real reason why…”

For this reason, the novel becomes very reliant on how interesting the reader finds Mevlut. Unfortunately, Pamuk’s primary purpose, that the novel tell the story of an ordinary, unassuming Turk, rather conflicts with the detail in which he feels it necessary to tell that story. There is certainly something to be said for presenting Mevlut’s day-to-day, year-to-year struggle to make a living, particularly when faced with the corruption of Istanbul, but to sustain this over such a length is another matter.

Of course, many critics will tell you that Pamuk’s real subject is Istanbul and this certainly seems to be how he sees himself. Pamuk choreographs his characters so as to create a map of the city’s development over the last fifty years. When compared to other novelists associated with a particular city, however – Dickens and London is the most obvious example – Pamuk’s view of Istanbul seems cosily nostalgic. Mevlut’s career as a boza seller is the most obvious example of this: despite Pamuk’s acknowledgement that this is a difficult, poorly rewarded (and, ultimately, out-dated) job, Mevlut can only talk of it with love. Dickens is an interesting comparison because what Pamuk most seems to lack is Dickens’ range of tone – this is a novel without humour or anger, satire or pathos – his voice instead stuck in a folksy ‘story-telling’ mode.

A Strangeness in My Mind is certainly a better novel than The Museum of Innocence, but it strikes me that Pamuk’s pre-Nobel novels are much better than those he has written since winning the prize. The length of both suggest self-indulgence, a writer who can no longer edit himself or be edited. His presence on the Man Booker International Prize short list indicates that he still has his admirers – he was certainly an ever-present when it came to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – but I would have much preferred to see the work of fresher (female) voices represented.

Man Booker International Prize Shortlist

April 14, 2016

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Today saw the announcement of the Man Booker International Prize Shortlist, which followed close on the heels of the Shadow Jury’s shortlist, revealed yesterday. Three novels made it onto both lists:

Elena Ferrante (Italy) Ann Goldstein, The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions)

Han Kang (South Korea) Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian (Portobello Books)

Yan Lianke (China) Carlos Rojas, The Four Books (Chatto & Windus)

No great surprises here. The Vegetarian has been, rightly, lauded since it appeared, and the publication of Han Kang’s second novel in the meantime, Human Acts, has enhanced her reputation. Similarly, praise for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series has gathered strength since My Brilliant Friend was ignored by the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012 and, though increasing popularity has brought detractors, The Story of the Lost Child is generally seen as a fitting conclusion to a considerable achievement. Perhaps less obvious, the inclusion of The Four Books surprises no-one who has read it – it was a novel in which drew praise from all the Shadow jurors.

The remaining novels chosen by the official jury were as follows:

José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola) Daniel Hahn, A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker)

Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) Ekin Oklap, A Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber)

Robert Seethaler (Austria) Charlotte Collins, A Whole Life (Picador)

These were in marked contrast to the Shadow Jury’s choice, with both Agualusa and Pamuk generally regarded among the weakest on the long list. Instead we arrived at:

Maylis de Kerangal (France) Jessica Moore, Mend the Living (Maclehose Press)

Marie NDiaye (France) Jordan Stump, Ladivine (Maclehose Press)

Kenzaburō Ōe (Japan) Deborah Boliner Boem, Death by Water (Atlantic Books)

There were some regrets that Tram 83 narrowly missed out (hopes it might appear on the official list were quickly dashed) and only the rather eccentric A Cup of Rage was quickly dismissed. The one controversial entry (discounting one juror’s loathing for Mend the Living) was Death by Water, the jury divided between those with a love of Japanese literature (and Oe in particular) and those with less experience (or, as I would say, patience). As my only prediction this year was that a woman would win, I was particularly pleased.

It strikes me that the variation in choices results from a different view of both the Prize’s intention and of the purpose of literature. Though the previous Man Booker International Prize often rewarded difficulty, it now, like the IFFP, seems to have one eye on the market. Agualusa and Pamuk are known quantities, past winners, and are writers you are likely to already find in a bookshop. Seethaler is, of course, appearing in English for the first time, but even before his long listing, he was subject to a marketing campaign by Waterstones. All offer something pleasant and harmless – something ‘apolitical’. Except that it is, of course, very political, presenting exotic poverty and suffering to us as a form of literary tourism. In A Whole Life we are asked to accept that Eggers’ years of loneliness and hardship are somehow redeemed because he lives on a nice mountain; similarly, in A Strangeness in my Mind six hundred pages of scraping a living are presented as the path to happiness; and in A General Theory of Oblivion violence, torture, colonialism, and civil war all vanish into the sleeves of its magician author while he distracts us with narrative tricks. Compare that to Ladivine, a novel which is genuinely puzzling and unsettling.

The good news is that it is highly likely a novel on both shortlists will win the official prize. For the Shadow Jury, I think the decision will be a lot harder.

Chateau d’Argol

April 12, 2016


When Simon and Karen ran their 1924 Club last October I had the great pleasure of meeting Arthur Schnitzler (and Fraulein Else), so when it was announced they would be following up with a 1938 Club it seemed an ideal opportunity to make another new acquaintance. Coincidentally, another short novel from Pushkin Press seemed to fit the bill: Julien Gracq’s Chateau d’Argol. Chateau d’Argol was Gracq’s first novel, published when he was twenty seven. His real name was Louis Poirier, and he spent much of his life teaching History and Geography in a Parisian school, leading the kind of anonymous existence that Elena Ferrante can only achieve today by keeping her identity secret. More than once he refused a literary prize, and he stayed with the same small publisher throughout his life – which ended surprisingly recently, in 2007.


“When it is not a dream, and, like a dream, perfectly incorporating its own truths, the novel is a falsehood” he said, and his first novel is indeed dreamlike (it is easy to see why he was associated with the Surrealists, though he was not a great joiner of movements). The story begins with our hero, the rich and clearly impulsive young man, Albert, arriving at the Chateau in Brittany (which, albeit he seems to have walked there, seems to be as outlandish to him as Borneo) which he has bought sight unseen:

“A month ago he had bought the domain of Argol – its woods, its fields, it dependencies – unseen, on the enthusiastic – or rather mysterious – recommendations… of a very dear friend.”

There follows an extensive description of the chateau (inside and out) and its surroundings; if you begin to find this wearying, turn back – this is a novel where every action is eclipsed by pages of atmosphere, an atmosphere which is not only gloomy, with a hint of violence underneath, but heightened emotionally to echo Albert’s striving for meaning in his life. The novel may be seventy-six years old, and the translation by Louise Varese not a new one, but Gracq deliberately uses archaic and unusual words to create a sense of intellectual and emotional ferment in his prose. The forest surrounding the chateau is given particular attention:

“From the foot of the castle walls the forest spread out in a semicircle as far as the eye could see: a wold and gloomy forest, a sleeping forest whose absolute stillness seemed to clutch the soul. It encircle the castle like the coils of a heavily inert serpent whose mottled skin was almost imitated by the dark patches of cloud-shadow as they ran over its rugose surface.”

Shortly after, Albert’s friend, Herminien, arrives with a young woman, Heide. Do Albert and Heide fall in love? Well, Gracq would never use as banal (or short) a phrase as that, but they do develop a close relationship:

“It now seemed to Heide that, at very instant, the world died and was reborn to the joint reverberation of their footsteps, and that, light and vacillating, her whole life hung on Albert’s arm.”

Heide’s sexual longing, described at length by Gracq, is, however, not reciprocated by Albert:

“All her blood would stir, awaken in her, fill her arteries with an overwhelming ardour, like a purple tree sending out its shoots in the heavenly shade of the forest.”

But, though she lies on the ground before him, “her body in the consuming heat…about to open like a ripe peach,” he remains “insensible.” Albert’s paralysis is mirrored in the novel’s reluctance to plot, its momentum created by changing emotional states rather than actions.

This particular scene takes place in a walk in the forest and each time the characters enter a place (often the forest) it feels like they are entering a dream. In one instance, however, it is the sea they enter – “with exultant cries, they encouraged each other in their flight.” Soon they realise they have swum out too far:

“Beyond life and beyond death they now looked at each other for the first time with sealed lips, and through transparent eyes plumbed the darkness of their hearts with devastating bliss – and their souls touched in an electric caress.”

Death is never far away from our protagonists – on another forest visit Herminien is found thrown from his horse – and is frequently described with an erotic appeal.

Chateau d’Argol is an unusual novel and will not be to everyone’s taste. At times its intensity and abstraction (not to mention lack of humour) can be wearying, but equally there are moments where you feel you have read something new and unique.

The Four Books

April 8, 2016

four books

Yan Lianke’s The Four Books (translated by Carlos Rojas) is set in a re-education camp in China during the Great Leap Forwards when the country was desperately attempting to improve its economic performance via industrialisation on fast forward: the result was widespread famine. Yet it does not read like a historical novel as Lianke, perhaps fearing censorship (though perhaps not – after all, George Orwell retold the Russian Revolution using a farm full of talking animals), tells the story allegorically without reference to specific dates or places, assigning his characters generic names such as the Scholar and the Musician. The story is also told, as the title suggests, through four different narratives (like four Gospels): a quasi-religious book called Heaven’s Child; the official (Criminal Records) and unofficial (Old Course) writings of the Author; and a final book, A New Myth of Sisyphus which acts as a coda.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is the psychological insight it provides regarding those imprisoned in the camp, mainly intellectuals. The camp is ruled not by a cruel commandant but by the Child, who is feared due to his sudden changes in temperament (like a child) but is also portrayed as vulnerable and innocent. More than once he enforces his orders by suggesting that if the prisoners are not going to obey they should kill him:

“If you decide to flee, though, I have only one request. I will get a scythe, and if you don’t want to plow the fields and smelt steel…then you should place me under the scythe and slice me in half.”

His punishments, too, are often psychological, for example when he finds the Theologian with a painting of Mary:

“’Say, “I am a pervert”. Once is enough.’
The person didn’t say anything.
The Child turned again toward the painting as though he were about to pee on it.
The person turned pale and his lips started to tremble. He then said repeatedly, ‘I am a pervert, I am a pervert…’”

The camp is also run using a reward system whereby prisoners are awarded red blossoms; collecting enough of these will theoretically lead to release. These can be obtained for working hard, but also for reporting the misdemeanours of others – the Technician, for example, is very keen to catch adulterers:

“You know, I’ve already checked – catching a pair of adulterers will earn us at least twenty small blossoms, which can be converted into four medium-sized ones.”

Ironically, it is through Criminal Records that many of the prisoners’ secrets are revealed to the ‘higher-ups’ rather than through fellow prisoners informing.

Behind all of this lies the attempt to rapidly improve productivity in both agriculture and steel. Targets are set in the belief that belief is all that is needed:

“I know… that you think that the most you can get from a single mu of land is two hundred jin but that is not actually true. To increase production to five hundred jin all you need to do is open your mouths and report that sum, then return to the fields and produce it.”

This need to constantly increase is magnified by competition across the county. Having reported production of six hundred jin, the Child is amazed to hear other camps revealing greater and greater numbers in order to gain rewards:

“…everyone started reporting like crazy. Someone reported five thousand jin, others reported ten thousand, and one person even reported having produced fifty thousand jin per mu.”

This scene makes clear that it is the target-setting and reporting which count, rather than the production. At one point, in attempt to improve yield, the Author uses his own blood to irrigate a field of grain, a symbolic act as well as one of desperation. Steel production is beset by similar problems, but also devastates the landscape as trees are cut down as fuel for the furnaces.

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The Four Books is more than political satire, however. Despite the character names, they are not portrayed as types but as individuals. Particularly moving is the love between the Scholar and the Musician, and the lengths they are prepared to go to for each other. All the characters – including the Technician with his frequent betrayals, and even the Child, who understands little beyond the system he must implement – elicit sympathy.

The Four Books works so well because it can be read as a portrayal of a particularly grim episode in China’s history, or, more abstractly, as an allegory of human behaviour in a system of reward and punishment. It also balances its despair with moments of hope, perhaps best exemplified by its almost Beckett-like ending (before A New Myth of Sisyphus). Most surprisingly, perhaps, it is eminently readable, the type of novel where three hundred pages fly by. It fully deserves its place on the Man Booker International Prize long list, and should, if there is any justice, make it to the short list.


April 7, 2016


Ladivine by Marie NDiaye (translated by Jordan stump) is another major novel by a woman writer on the Man Booker International Prize long list. It begins with Clarisse Riviere on her monthly visit to her mother – not as Clarisse, but as Malinka. Clarisse is a name and identity she has taken for herself which she keeps separate from her mother, as she does her husband, Richard, and her daughter, Ladivine. This decision seems based on a deep-rooted feeling rather than any reason: since childhood she has felt that “being that woman’s daughter filled her with a horrible shame and fear.” So reluctant is she to acknowledge the relationship that when asked by another pupil at school who the woman who has come to collect her is, she replies, “My servant.”

“All trace of repulsion vanished from the girl’s face, and she let out a satisfied and admiring little ‘Oh!’
And Malinka realised that disgust would have spread to this girl’s very body, she would have trembled and recoiled in a sort of horror, if Malinka had answered, ‘My mother.’”

Her mother’s identity is now also changed, and she is frequently referred to in the narrative as “the servant.”

“Nothing said she had to go on being the servant’s daughter forever, she told herself.”

Are we to assume her decision to disown her mother is partly racial? The name Malinka betrays her African origin, but Clarisse is described as “pale, smooth-skinned.” Does this explain her boss’s comment when her mother turns up at the restaurant where she waitresses after leaving school: “I hope she’s not going to make a habit of coming here. That wouldn’t be good for business.”

Clarisse, as we know from the opening pages, meets and marries Richard Riviere and they have a daughter, Ladivine – named after Clarisse’s mother, a woman she will never allow her daughter to meet, suggesting she cannot escape her past entirely. Clarisse’s two separate lives, however, makes it difficult for her to commit entirely to either, as if her two identities cancel each other out, and she finds herself becoming distanced from her new family:

“Even before silence invaded their house, a polite, cosy, placid silence, she had already closed her ears to the things Richard Riviere and Ladivine said, though she pretended to listen…”

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Only one third of the way through do we reach Ladivine’s story, on holiday with her husband, Marko, and two young children, Daniel and Annika, in a country which remains unnamed but which we might assume is the home of the original Ladivine. Once again, NDiaye moves from the present into the past in order to explain Ladivine’s journey to this point. Marko is German and Ladivine now lives in Germany as if to emphasise each generation adopting their own identity, their own language. This vacation represents a break from Marko’s parents where they normally holiday, again raising the idea of generational discord.

The holiday takes place in an uneasy, uncomfortable atmosphere, from Ladivine being mistaken more than once for a guest at a wedding, to a museum full of atrocities:

“…huge canvases very realistically depicted various massacres – here a squadron of soldiers armed with bayonets skewering wild-eyed rioters, here three men slicing intently into the belly of a living woman pathetically endeavouring with blood-soaked hands to protect the foetus contained in that belly…”

This culminates in an act of violence by Marko (a scene which literally caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up) which causes them to leave their hotel and stay with friends of Ladivine’s father, Richard. Throughout this we see Ladivine drifting from her family just as her mother and grandmother did before her.

What begins as an examination of family relationships, particularly between mothers and daughters, becomes something much more unsettling as Ladivine’s interpretation of events becomes increasingly dreamlike (or nightmarish). This begins with the idea that a dog she spots every time she leaves the hotel is waiting for her:

“Still, she was by no means sure the dog meant her well, she never approached it, never waved at it, never even met its gaze.”

Dogs are a recurrent motif in the novel, first seen when Richard’s parents bring a dog with them on a visit, and it is found lying next to Ladivine in her cot:

“Yet Clarisse had the strong sense of a bond not to be rashly broken, a secret union with no immediate danger to the child.”

Richard disagrees and we see the first fracture ion their relationship. The dog motif is important enough to provide the novel with its conclusion, and demonstrates NDiaye’s intention to write something which reaches beyond psychological study. Clarisse’s treatment of her mother, and Ladivine’s actions on holiday are portrayed as unavoidable, just like Richard’s father’s purchase of the dog:

“It’s an order come to life… I had no choice.”

Perhaps the animal spirit of the dog is a sign to both Clarisse and Ladivine that the past cannot be disowned.

Ladivine is not an easy novel – its prose style can be stand-offish, its characters act without clear motivation, and it is no respecter of genre, playing tag with realism like a wayward child. Its very awkwardness, however, is a reflection of NDiaye’s unforgiving intensity. Women writers may be in a minority on the Man Booker International Prize long list, but it would not surprise me if that were to be reversed by the short list.

A General Theory of Oblivion

March 31, 2016

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Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion begins on the eve of Angolan independence (presumably in 1975). Ludo lives with her sister, Odete, and brother-in-law, Orlando; Odete and Ludo are Portuguese whereas Orlando is Angolan and husband and wife argue over whether they should leave for Lisbon:

“Terrorists? Never use that word in my house again… These so-called terrorists are fighting for the freedom of my country.”

Ludo is not only excluded from the discussion, but left behind when they do disappear. Alone in the apartment, she is subjected to threatening phone calls and an attempted robbery, and decides that the only solution is to brick up the doorway (that there are bricks and cement lying around to allow her to do this is only one of many coincidences that it will not benefit the reader to examine too closely). Orlando’s reluctance to leave, and then his sudden disappearance, are connected to diamonds he has acquired by less than legal means – the diamonds referred to in the phone call (“we just want the stones”), and which those behind this message later come to collect, only to be recognised as on the wrong side of the revolution and shot:

“I do feel that two white men out in the street wearing Portuguese army boots in these troubled times seems a little to bold.”

In this Agualusa conveys the damage the country’s mineral wealth has inflicted, as well as the danger of the uprising.

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Ludo, meanwhile, running out of food, takes inspiration from her dog, Phantom, when she sees him devouring a pigeon he has caught. Lacking his agility, she sets a trap, baiting it (of course) with diamonds. In this way she catches a number of pigeons until she encounters one with a message attached from one lover to another. In sympathy she lets the pigeon go, and turns her attention to her neighbour’s hens instead. The pigeon cannot outfly its destiny, however, and is caught by Montes (the man who earlier shot the Portuguese soldier, Jeremias) who is now homeless and equally in need of sustenance. He, of course, finds the diamonds inside. (And in case you thought we were done with Jeremias, he too will reoccur until the final pages).

You may be fearing that this summary reveals the novel’s plot, but at this point we are barely one fifth of the way in. Agualusa weaves his plot as a spider its web – an object of beauty from afar, but less appealing to be stuck inside where the intricate connections can seem random at times. These connections are largely at the expense of character – even Ludo, the story’s centre piece, is ‘the woman who bricked herself in’ and, though she develops a relationship with a boy later, she remains oblique. Other characters, such as Montes and Jeremias (there are more), undergo changes, but these tend to be related to adopting new identifies in response to persecution or opportunity rather than character growth. The frequent chapters can give the impression of a stone skipping across the water, only making light contact with events before moving on.

This is not to say that Agualusa cannot write – the novel is littered with wonderfully turned phrases (praise for this is, of course, also due to translator Daniel Hahn):

“The demands all ended in exclamation marks. The exclamation marks got mixed up with the machetes the protestors were holding.”

Or this, describing Montes hiding in plain sight by pretending to be mad: “his lucidity travelling like a stowaway.” But if these are diamonds, there is a danger that the reader is the pigeon, delighting in words, but oblivious to the suffering behind them. Such is Agualusa’s love of story-telling that there is little time to experience the deeper emotions of his characters, and, in a novel which deals with violence and persecution, this can appear glib. A General Theory of Oblivion is an enjoyable read but one, as its title suggests, which does not leave a strong impression.

Tram 83

March 27, 2016

tram 83

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujilla is the first of two African novels on the Man Booker international Prize long list – a reasonable representation given that many African writers write in English. It’s a first novel which has already received a lot of praise and comes with a laudatory introduction by fellow Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou. Tram 83 takes place in mining town where Clint Eastwood might fear to step:

“Tram 83 was one of the most popular restaurants and hooker bars, its renown stretching beyond the City-State’s borders. “See Tram 83 and die,” was the regular refrain of the tourists who blew into town from the four corners of the globe to conduct their business.”

The small mining town is the impromptu capital of a province which has been declared independent by a rebel General in account of its possession of most of the country’s mineral wealth:

“The government army and the dissident rebels fought each other day in, day out. To get things back on track the international community had sponsored nineteen sovereign national conferences which had all come to less than naught.”

The novel begins with Lucien, a would-be writer, returning to the town, met by his old friend Requiem (though, as we will discover, their friendship has a dark and complex history). Requiem earns a living moving “merchandise,” with a side-line in blackmail. He is wealthy enough to live in Vampiretown, which, in colonial times, was the European quarter. Lucien is writing a play which he hopes will be performed in Paris; he was forced to burn the first version of this at gunpoint (interestingly, the novel reminded me of Jean Genet at times, whose first novel was destroyed by the authorities forcing him to rewrite it).

He finds a willing publisher (in Tram 83, of course, a microcosm of the continent) but is up against Requiem and a hostile public – literally hostile, that is, as he discovers when he attempts a reading:

“Outside, they continued to manhandle him. Someone picked up a tire. Someone suggested he be burned alive.”

Requiem, meanwhile, acting out of a deep-seated resentment of Lucien, obtains compromising photographs of the publisher (his usual modus operandi) and blackmails him in an attempt to thwart Lucien’s plans.#

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Tram 83 is a satire on both the political and literary situation in Africa with some wonderful lines:

“Torture is one of the demarcation points between an organised banana republic and a chaotic, or in other words disorganised, banana republic.”

Or this advice which Lucien receives from his publisher:

“Africa is of no interest to many intellectuals; let’s just say it’s not as exotic as it was four hundred years ago. My proposition is that you resubmit this same text to me but with the action taking place in Columbia.”

However, it would be a mistake to think of it as a humorous book. Much of its effect is achieved through repetition – a repetition designed to show the desperate existence of the inhabitants, in particular the women, who, though divided by age group, are united by availability:

“…the girls under sixteen called baby-chicks, the single-mamas or those aged between twenty and forty and referred to as single-mamas even when they don’t have children, and the ageless women whose fixed age begins at forty one.”

The lines with which they attempt to hook their clients (“Do you have the time?”) echo throughout the novel, frequently interrupting other conversations.

Tram 83, then, is, for all its pulsing narrative and exuberant characters, a rather bleak book which I admired rather than loved: admired, in particular, for its lack of condescension to a European readership, plunging unapologetically into the filth and stench of the bar and refusing to leave until the last drop is drunk.

Mend the Living

March 24, 2016

mend the living

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal is what you might call a concept novel, a novel where the central idea is likely to be better known than the author or title (perhaps that’s why in the US a different translator has opted for The Heart). It’s easy to imagine curious readers asking for ‘that book about the heart transplant’, and it was that same curiosity that first prompted my desire to read it even before it appeared on the Man Booker International Prize long list. Its story is, on one level, simple: a young man, Simon Limbeau, dies in a traffic accident, and his heart is taken from his body to replace the ailing organ of a middle-aged woman, Claire Mejan. What makes this novel stand out, however, is not just the emotional power and originality of its concept, but the richness of its telling.

Kerangal places the heart at the centre of a chorus of characters. Not only do we encounter Simon, his mother, Marianne, and father, Sean, but we become closely acquainted with the numerous medical staff who care, first for him, and then for his heart. Each character is brought fully to life as Kerangal utilises a variety of styles, one moment utilising an authorial voice from outside the narrative, the next placing us in the character’s consciousness. When Simon is brought to the hospital, she happily addresses the reader:

“We have someone for you. A call at 10.12 a.m. Neutral, informative, the words strike. Male, six feet, 154 pounds, about twenty years old, car accident, head trauma, in a coma – we know who’s being summed up like this, we know his name: Simon Limbeau.”

Compare this to the description of his mother receiving a phone call about the accident:

“She must have screamed loudly, loudly enough in any case that the little one reappears…eyes fixed on her mother who doesn’t see her, who pants, like a dog, movements quick and face twisted, tapping furiously on her phone to call Sean who doesn’t answer – pick up, pick up, godammit! – her mother who throws clothes on in a rush…”

Gone is the certainty (“must have”), and we see echoes of modernism in the interjection of Marianne’s thoughts into the sentence. In fitting with the novel’s exploration of what we mean by life, the narrative voice exists in tension between the outer, objective and the inner, emotional. For the latter effect, Kerangal is not afraid to use long sentences (the quotation above is extracted from one containing more than 180 words). This creates a rhythm which pulses through the novel making the text itself seem alive in a novel where the irrepressible nature of life is a main theme.

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The language, too, is full of life. Here Kerangal describes Marianne driving to the hospital:

“The outside universe dilated slowly, trembled even and paled as the air trembles and pales above the desert sand, above the pavements of roads heated in the sun, it changed into a fleeting far-off scenery, it whitened, nearly to the point of erasure, while inside the car Marianne drove with one hand, the other wiping away everything that flowed down her face…”

And while this is clearly a dramatic moment, Kerangal records each moment with a similar intensity, in a novel where there are no minor characters. One of the most beautiful passages of writing is a description of Rose, the girlfriend of one of the surgeons, who only appears in a scene where he is called away:

“..she’s beautiful as day, maxillaries pulsing beneath the skin of her jaw – fury – and doesn’t even look at him as she crosses and uncrosses her long arms of an ancient beauty, low to high, in order to take of her tank top, useless now, revealing a splendid bust composed of various circles – breasts, aerolae, nipples, belly navel, top of the two globes of her buttocks…”

It seems appropriate in a novel about life that every page, every moment should seem so alive. A great deal of credit for this should go to the translator, Jessica Moore – and it’s worth recalling that the Man Booker International Prize is also for translation. Any fear that the novel might be a gimmick is dispelled by the wonder of the writing. I fully expect to see Mend the Living on the short list.


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