The Driver’s Seat

June 26, 2015

drivers seat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vlad

June 22, 2015

vlad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Laughing Monsters

June 14, 2015

laughing monsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The All Saints’ Day Lovers

June 10, 2015

all saints day lovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

June 7, 2015

attila's horse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This violence is a response to captivity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Daughter

May 31, 2015

lost daughter

Having devoured the first three volumes of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and while waiting impatiently for the fourth volume later this year, it seemed only reasonable to snack on one of her shorter novels, The Lost Daughter. As we might expect, the novel begins with an example of the brutal honesty with which Ferrante is associated as the narrator, Leda, declares:

“When my daughters moved to Toronto…I was embarrassed and amazed to discover that I wasn’t upset; rather I felt light, as if only then had I definitely brought them into the world. For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them.”

Later she describes motherhood as “the crushing weight of responsibility, the bond that strangles.” It is perhaps for this reason that, on vacation, Leda begins to observe a young woman with her daughter as she relaxes on the beach. The woman is part of a large Neapolitan family “similar to the one I had been part of as a girl,” but:

“…an anomaly in the group, an organism that had mysteriously escaped the rule, the victim, now assimilated, if a kidnapping or of an exchange in the cradle.”

The young woman, Nina, clearly reminds Leda of herself (at no point in the novel does she acknowledge to the group her own Neapolitan roots), except perhaps in her relationship with her daughter, Elena:

“If the woman was pretty herself, in motherhood there was something that distinguished her; she seemed to have no desire for anything but her child.”

Ferrante infects the novel with unease from the beginning. In her holiday apartment, Leda discovers the bowl of fruit is rotten underneath; on her pillowcase she finds an insect; walking home from the beach she is hit by a pine cone. Each insignificant incident creates a sense of threat which culminates in Elena going missing on the beach. It is Leda who finds her, sitting near the water, crying – she has lost her doll.

It is at this point we discover Leda has move from observer to actor and, if like me, you want to enjoy the skilful reveals Ferrante has lined up, you might want to read no further. Leda returns Elena to her family, but the chapter ends with the revelation that she has taken the doll. Later she will call it “a gesture of mine that made no sense.” Does she resent the relationship between Nina and her daughter, or between Elena and the doll? Is she searching for a second chance at motherhood?

Later, when we discover Leda left her own daughters for three years when they were young, we might think she is somehow trying to reclaim that time, or atone for it. She tells how she wrote letters for her daughters “in which I recounted in detail how it had happened that I had abandoned them” but that they never answered or even referred to them. When she reveals her secret to Nina’s family, they worry she will corrupt Nina: just as Leda seems admiring of Nina’s qualities, so Nina is of Leda:

“As soon as I saw you I said to myself: I would like to be like that lady.”

The Lost Daughter is a wonderfully provocative, ambiguous novel. As the narrative punctures into Leda’s past, we see her character is more complex than at first appears, leaving her reaction to Nina’s plea to aid her in an affair uncertain, and the reasons for her decision to steal the doll unclear. The Lost Daughter asks many questions about motherhood but does not provide easy answers; in fact, it leaves us certain there are none.

Contempt

May 27, 2015

contempt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost Books – Fragments

May 23, 2015

fragments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faces in the Crowd

May 17, 2015

untitled (24)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wolf Border

May 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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