The Wallcreeper

September 2, 2015

wallcreeper

Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper is the romantic novel backwards. Its central relationship all but begins with marriage (Tiff and Stephen have known each other three weeks), a starting point for the realisation that they do not love each other. Tiff happily follows Stephen to Bern where he works as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company, while she pretends she is writing a screenplay:

“I had intimated that I was a writer with industry connections so he wouldn’t make me work.”

It would be fair to say they marry without really (or even superficially) knowing each other. Stephen’s devotion to birds is notable from the first page when, after a collision with one which causes him to crash the car, he checks the bird before Tiff, and yet later she is still able to ask him, “Wait, how did you get into birds?” (The bird in question is the titular wallcreeper, which they take home with them as a handy symbol; the avian raison d’tre ‘breed and feed’ is their credo for a while). Inevitably they both soon have lovers, a relationship in Stephen’s case which sees him abandon his career for the environmental movement.

What makes The Wallcreeper such an exhilarating read, though, is its voice, which strikes the reader as fresh and unafraid from the opening line:

“I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock and occasioned the miscarriage.”

In fact, Zink seems to have opening lines to spare. What about:

“Our first meeting prevented a crime.”

or

“I hadn’t wanted to be pregnant. It was just one of those things that happen when newlyweds get drunk.”

Clearly Zink can craft a snappy, surprising sentence when she needs to. She is particularly adept when it comes to describing sexual experience – a notoriously difficult subject to get right – using language which is neither lyrical nor crude to develop a complex perspective that owes nothing to pornography. Here, for example, is an already (justly) famous passage where she recounts Stephen’s sudden and unilateral decision to penetrate her anally:

“Now, all my life I had fantasized about used sexually in every way I could think of on the spur of the respective moment. How naive I was, I said to myself. In actuality this was like using a bedpan on the kitchen counter. I knew with certainty that “pain” is a euphemism even more namby-pamby than “defilement.” Look at Stephen! He thinks he’s having sex! Smell his hand! It’s touching my hair! I thought, Tiff, my friend, we shall modify a curling iron and burn this out of your brain…
“I gasped for air, dreading the moment when he would pull out, and thought, Girls are lame.”

In this short passage, Zink manages to convey Tiff’s physical, emotional and intellectual response by using language in an astonishing number of different ways and still manages to surprise us at the end.

Zink’s skill with language can also be a weakness, however. Not only is our narrator the mistress of zeitgeist-capturing statements, everyone she knows seems equally intent on talking in punchy aphorisms. Zink’s characters have a keen need to feel interesting and express opinions. They also exist beyond the reach of countries. We move from the international world of pharmaceuticals to the international world of charities; though sense of place is important in her settings (Berne, Berlin), this is not reflected in Zink’s characters. Only Elvis, her Turkish lover, is unable to cross borders, or speak in flowing English. When he takes Tiff to a rundown bar to dance, her reaction is telling:

“I felt both better- and worse-looking than before. Better because I was suddenly reminded that the world was not all college girls and secretaries and trophy wives, and worse because everything in the whole universe is contagious if you look at it long enough.”

Elvis is the lover she stops seeing when he tells her his ex-wife is pregnant; the more respectable, and more married, Olaf is the lover whose car she runs after. Left without Stephen and Olaf, her first reaction is to ask another man to marry her. For most of the novel Tiff is far from being a feminist. Only at the end does she seem to realise: “I had been treating myself as resources to be mined.”

Tiff is ultimately a spoilt and rather ridiculous character who woos the reader with language and honesty. Her involvement with environmental charity Global Rivers Alliance is the accidental result of her relationships, just like her interest in birds. She is not untypical of the novel’s characters: even Stephen’s pharmaceutical work is on a device he hoped would benefit himself. My impression is that Zink finds them more serious than I do, but I could be wrong.

Zink is an incredible stylist and it is evident that this is a writer who has honed her skills with language over time. Yet, it also apparent that she is a writer used to a select audience. The novel’s bracing first half falters as pet preoccupations overwhelm her characterisation. However, remarkably few writers merit the intake of breath that you experience on first being plunged into her prose – with a second novel already published it will be interesting to see what she does next.

Karate Chop / Minna Needs Rehearsal Space

August 27, 2015

Karate Chop

At Edinburgh International Book Festival, Dorthe Nors spoke about the spaces she leaves in her stories. In the novella which comes with her first collection to be translated into English, ‘Minna Needs Rehearsal Space’ (translated by Misha Hoekstra), those spaces are visible on the page:

“Minna is on Facebook.
Minna isn’t a day over forty.
Minna is a composer.
Minna can play four instruments.
Minna’s lost her rehearsal space.”

In a series of short statements which abhor the pronoun and are suspicious of the conjunction, Nors tells Minna’s story, the story of a search for rehearsal space, which is also a search for love, and for herself. Each introductory statement can be seen as a rehearsal of her own character, couched in the format of an online dating profile. It is quickly apparent that her problems lie not only with obtaining a suitable rehearsal space, but with coming to terms with a deteriorating relationship. Though her boyfriend, Lars, is similarly represented, it is immediately clear that Minna’s perspective remains:

“Lars ought to help her but
Lars uses condoms.
Lars is on his bike and gone.
Lars is Lars.”

The final statement, particularly as it is repeated, is an example of how meaningful the meaningless can become in the hands of a skilled writer. Lars is drifting away from Minna (Lars vanishing on his bike is also a reoccurring event) and Minna is struggling to come to terms with this:

“Lars is a hit-and-run driver.
The hit-and-run driver has suffered at most a dented fender.”

Nors’ brevity does not mean she cannot alight on the perfect metaphor to describe Minna’s sense of the relationship ending. A style that might at first appear inevitably linked to superficial characterisation (however entertaining) in fact proves synonymous with complexity, the layering sentences creating an unexpected depth. Statements like “Minna isn’t shielded from anything” lie subtly between authorial omniscience and Minna’s interior monologue. Nors also moves deftly between the unembellished action and the surreal:

“Minna places her hands cross her eyes.
Minna feels something: Was that hair?
Minna slips out to the mirror.
Minna places her face against it, and there she is:
Minna with fur on her face.
Minna in a wild stampede.”

Later we are told “Minna’s fur is a metaphor,” but, importantly, it is not a symbol imposed upon her by the narrative, but an image which rises from her own subconscious to describe her sense of herself at that moment.

In reference to another story, ‘The Buddhist’, Nors spoke of how the story similarly turns inwards to the psychology of the protagonist and how he views himself. Before the Buddhist’s conversion he is a government official, but his new belief system requires a new occupation and leading the charity People to People seems ideal:

Aha, he thinks, an organisation is a good place to begin if you want to change the world.”

Throughout the story he is simply ‘the Buddhist’, another example of the narrative voice enforcing the character’s interior monologue while creating an ironic distance. It is as he drives in his ridiculous Berlingo (which he believes “signals inner values”) that the story verges into the surreal:

“The moment the wheels of the Berlingo touch the Lillebaelt Bridge, the grey metal of the Lillebaelt Bridge is transformed into a shining Bifrost arching across the strait and stretching into the sky. It is like a mirage and yet quite real.”

In fact it is, as Nors points out, either a delusion of the character or the author’s use of surrealism: importantly, we do not have to decide which. That it is the key to the story’s conclusion is what matters.

While such flights of fancy are not the norm in Nors stories, the use of something seemingly extraneous to the plot (or artificially creating it as ‘The Big Tomato’) to explore her characters’ inner lives is. Often this is used to open the story: the overheard remark from the television in ‘Do You Know Jussi?’; the comedian’s death in ‘The Winter Garden’; the duck farm in ‘Duckling.’ The final lines of ‘The Wadden Sea’ are indicative of her approach:

“Then she pointed into the fog. She pointed into it like it was a piece of psychology. She said the Wadden Sea was an image in the mind’s eye, and that she was glad I wanted to go with her into it.”

As with ‘Minna Needs a Rehearsal Space’, this gives her stories a depth that belies their brevity. Both the novella and the short story collection (which has a different translator, Martin Aitken, and was published alone in the US) suggest a writer of great talent; hopefully Nors’ novels will follow them into English.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense

August 21, 2015

helle helle

Whose book is it – reader’s or writer’s? I ask that question because my reading experience of Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense differed from my normal relationship with a novel as I had the opportunity to hear Helle speak after I’d finished reading. Although unusual, this isn’t the first time I have listened to an author discuss a book I have just read, but on this occasion my understanding of the novel was altered in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

The novel itself tells the story of a young woman, Dorte, who leaves for university but does not attend, a fact she keeps hidden even from her aunt (also Dorte), the person she seems closest to. While she drifts through her present existence we learn about her past life and relationships. For a while she seems to live an idyllic existence with her boyfriend, Per, and his parents, but she leaves him to live with his cousin, Lars. The transition from one relationship to another is described in terms of action rather than emotion:

“He put his hand on my shoulder, I turned towards him and then we kissed. Per came back with his LP… When Per went to the bathroom we kissed again.”

Similarly her decision to leave Per:

“After we got home it seemed like the only thing to do was pack. I did it on the Tuesday morning before Per woke up, and when he did I told him. I carried the suitcase down the stairs and put it down und the sycamore tree while I got my bike out of the barn.”

In this way, the novel gives the false impression that nothing much happens; in fact, it disguises its eventfulness by burying moments such as these, which would be foregrounded in a traditional story, amid the prosaic details of everyday life. A perfect example of this is Dorte’s abortion:

“Per went with me to work and back again, he tickled me on the waterbed until I nearly fainted, he took his clothes off and put them back on again several times a day, went with me to the doctor’s when I got pregnant and on the bus to the hospital seven long days later, and on the way back that same afternoon he’d got me a present…”

Only the word ‘long’ reveals any kind of emotional reaction, and ironically Helle makes the telling as short as possible, not even allowing this event a sentence to itself. This style led me to assume that that Dorte was, in fact, suffering from depression (a feeling that intensified when her namesake has a breakdown near the novel’s end):

“I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt I should wash my hair. I realised I hadn’t had my dinner.”

Helle, however, presented her character as someone who was not unhappy but simply drifting through life. As an example, she mentioned the scene where Dorte boards a train when the conductor waves her on even though she has no intention of travelling – tearing her jeans as she gets off again. In this reading her passivity is a pause in her life, perhaps a reaction to the events the novel describes, but one which has the potential to be healing. This idea of letting life happen to you seems anathema to our contemporary driven society (perhaps on reason why the novel is set in the eighties, along with the absence of smart phones) but becomes an element in Dorte’s coming of age. A stylistic difference also goes some way to explain my different perception of Dorte’s state of mind: in the English version many of the commas have been replaced by full stops, creating a much slower, more lifeless narrative voice.

Helle, in fact, described This Should Be Written in the Present Tense as her most optimistic novel (of course, having not read the others, the context of that statement is unclear). At the beginning (which is the novel’s endpoint – everything is told in retrospect) Dorte seems determined on a new start: her parents have just washed down the apartment, her torn jeans are repaired, and she has filled three black bin bags with what she no longer needs – including pages of her writing. The novel begins with the phrase “I wrote too much…” and ends with advice from a writer:

“I’m always asking myself why does this have to be there, why does that have to be there? And if I can’t find a reason, it goes.”

This feels like a defence of Helle’s style, a declaration that, although she may seem to privilege the trivial over more serious events, what she has included has been deliberately selected. This style allows the novel space for the reader, hence more than one reading is available – something that it is all the better for.

Lost Books – Girl in a Turban

August 11, 2015

girl in a turban

One example of the lack of women writers in translation is the dearth of Independent Foreign Fiction Prize winners of that gender. When Jenny Erpenbeck claimed the award with The End of Days this year, many declared her the first ever female winner. In fact, when the prize returned after a five year absence in 2001, it was won by Marta Morazzoni for The Alphonse Courrier Affair, an award that later went temporarily missing from the prize’s history. (You can read a review of The Alphonse Courrier Affair here). This still represents a depressing 2 out of 21 winners – less than ten percent.

The Alphonse Courrier Affair was not Morazzoni’s first work – or indeed, her first work translated into English. Prior to writing the novel, she had published a collection of short stories – Girl in a Turban – in Italy in 1986, swiftly translated into English by Patrick Creagh in 1988. All five stories are set in the past (the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries), often touching on the lives of famous historical figures, and all, in one way or another, contemplating mortality.

The first story, ‘The White Door’, deals with Mozart’s final days, spent as the guest of a wealthy patron writing his Requiem. When his wife Constanze, visits unexpectedly, she is determined to visit the Villa of his sponsors, but he puts her off:

“ ‘How old you’ve got,’ she said, with all the savagery of a child who does not weigh its words.”

“So his malady was so obvious that it even had a name,” Mozart thinks to himself. That night he dreams of entering the Villa. Once inside he is drawn to a white door – “by instinct he knew that there was the way and that was the ineluctable access.” the door is clearly death but once opened:

“The boyish laugh that rose slowly in his throat spread forth in harmonious sound.”

In accepting death Mozart rediscovers his prematurely vanished youth.

The idea of a good death features in a number of the stories, most noticeably in ‘The Last Assignment’ which tells of Charles V’s decision to retreat to a monastery in the final years of his life through the eyes of Don Luis, a noble who is called to follow the King and is placed in charge of providing provisions for the royal party. Don Luis seems a simple man who goes about his task to the best of his ability, but he also strikes up a relationship with a gypsy whom he passes on the road to and from the town. He helps her when he finds her fallen on the ground, and she later returns the favour when he falls ill; and yet, you would not call their relationship even friendship. After his illness, Charles takes him into his confidence and allows him to read his memoirs, which he takes charge off after Charles’ death, deciding not to release them into the world for reasons we never discover, yet somehow seeming entirely in keeping with his character.

The title story refers to a painting more famously known as ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, currently residing in the home of art dealer Van Rijk

“Propped up against the wall opposite the window in the bedroom, the picture by this time had reigned supreme for a month.”

Though reluctant to sell it, he eventually does, taking the trouble to travel to Denmark with it. He is remembered by the buyer’s daughter when her father dies, and the picture is seen to rise above the commercial bargain they made.

Although death does not feature in the two remaining stories, ‘The Dignity of Signor da Ponte’ centres on an act of violence which we might assume the title character fears has ended in death, and ‘Order in the House’ concerns a living death as its protagonist, Karl, finds himself suddenly paralysed.

Morazzoni’s stories do not attempt to be neat or tricky; they moved with a staid pace in suiting to their settings. Each feels particular to its time period yet has a certain mythic quality thanks to her choice of subjects – kings, paintings, composers. None ends with a shock, yet each conclusion, on reflection, seems well-timed. Given that these were Morazzoni’s first published work, she handles the pressures of historical writing, especially with the use of characters who have actually lived, with enormous confidence. A writer who deserves to be rediscovered.

Three Strong Women

August 7, 2015

three strong women

Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye is a novel of (unsurprisingly, perhaps) three parts; less expected is the fact that the central character is a woman in only two of them. All three tell of characters suspended between France and Senegal: NDiaye herself has a French mother and a Senegalese father – a father who returned to the continent when she was only one year old, perhaps explain why her own characters’ lives seem determined by their journeys between these two places. As each section in some way explores the relationship between Europe and Africa, so too does it examine the relationship between a man and a woman, relationships where communication is often fractured and failing.

In the first section Norah, a lawyer, leaves the life she has created for herself in France – her recently moved in lover remains behind to look after her daughter along with his own – to visit her father at his request. Once a powerful man who bullied those around him, he is reduced to a feeble glutton who takes every opportunity to fill his face with food. Norah is most worried about her brother – while she and her sister were brought up by her mother in France after her parents relationship broke down, he was taken by her father to be raised in Senegal. She soon discovers that her brother is, in fact, the reason for her father’s call – he is in prison, awaiting trial after confessing to the murder of her father’s lover.

In the second section the viewpoint moves to that of kitchen salesman Rudy. He met his wife, Fanta, while teaching in Senegal but, after an incident which brought his classroom career to an end, selfishly convinced her to come to France, though he knew she would be unable to work as a teacher there. He hates his present job and is aware that his marriage is in danger of falling apart – so much so that he plans to collect his son and take him to his mother’s for the night so his wife cannot leave him – but he feels powerless in the face of his problems, reacting only with an uncontrollable rage which exacerbates every situation.

In the final section we return to Senegal and follow the journey of Khady, a young woman attempting to reach Europe after her deceased husband’s family tell her she must go. Abandoning the idea of crossing by sea as too dangerous, she is befriended by a young man, Lamine, who has decided to undertake the journey by land.

The three sections have the slightest of connections: Norah’s father has made his wealth through a holiday village in Dara Salam, a business Rudy father was also involved in; Khady is first seen as a servant at Norah’s father’s house, and is told to contact Fanta should she make it to France. These connections, however, are not important to our understating of the stories, which could easily be read as three novellas. Placing the three parts within a novel seems intended to encourage the reader to develop their own connections.

In all three relationships have broken down. Norah resents her father; her father avoids communication (two girl she claims are his daughters stay with him, but he does not speak to them). Every time Rudy attempts to communicate with Fanta they argue:

“…she had inflicted upon herself the absurd obligation of spending the rest of her days in a house she disliked, beside a man she shunned and who from the outset had deceived her as to what he really was…”

Khady has no relationships left – her husband is dead and his family do not want her. The relationship which seems the most loving is that she develops with Lamine as he demonstrates his selflessness again and again – however, this is the relationship where the greatest betrayal takes place.

Despite this it can be argue that all three stories end with sense of peace. NDiaye uses bird imagery to achieve this in each one. Norah’s father is associated with “the lush, wilting vegetation of the flame tree” – “whatever flame tree, exhausted by flowering, he had flown down from.” The end finds him in its branches:

“…his daughter Norah was there, close by, perched among the branches that were now bereft of flowers… Why would she come and alight on the flame tree if not to make peace, once and for all?”

Rudy, as his world falls apart around him, finds himself stalked by a buzzard:

“With its wings spread out along the windscreen, its head turned to one side, it glared at him with its horridly severe yellow eye.”

Towards the story’s end he experiences an epiphany regarding his mother; shortly after his son tells him, “We’ve run a bird over.” The final section also uses a bird in order to create a sense of peace at the story’s conclusion:

“With staring eyes she saw a bird with long grey wings hovering above the fence. ‘It’s me, Khady Demba,’ she thought, dazed by the revelation, knowing that she was the bird and that the bird knew it too.”

The three sections may not cohere or even resonate particularly powerfully, but the writing in each of them is superb. The central section, in particular, where NDiaye conveys Rudy’s frustrations with great skill and sympathy, is utterly absorbing. She is clearly a writer who can inhabit different characters, different worlds, with ease.

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In

August 3, 2015

mother

August is, once again, Women in Translation month, an opportunity to highlight some great women writers but also acknowledge the particular difficulties faced by women in being translated into English. While the gender barriers facing women writers who write in English have diminished (though inequality often remains as to how their work is perceived once in print), an unreasonably low percentage of literature translated into English (and that’s already an unreasonably low percentage of what is published) is by women. If you’re looking for a piece of literature which demonstrates the difficulties faced by women writers, however, you would be hard-pressed to beat Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s novella ‘The Time is Night’ which is the centre piece of her newest collection from Penguin Classics, There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In.

The narrator of The Time is Night, Anna, is a poet who spends most of her time surviving poverty and her troublesome family rather than writing. The pram in the hall for her is the grandson, Tima, abandoned to her care, but, as she tells him, she remains somehow responsible for her mother and two children as well:

“But I must work, my little one – your Anna needs to provide for you, and for Granny Sima; Alena at least is using your child support and doesn’t bleed me for more. But Andrey, my beloved son, what about him? I must give him something, mustn’t I? For his injured foot (more on that later), for his life ruined in prison.”

To say ‘the story is narrated by’ doesn’t convey the experience of the reader: Anna’s narrative reads like an inner monologue, sometimes addressed to Tima, at other times simply to herself, moving back in time to recall the misfortunes’ of her family (Alena’s pregnancies and Andrey’s prison sentence) as well as detailing the difficulties of the present. While her own resilience is in evidence, there is plenty of vitriol to go with the love she feels for her children:

“Breaking into sobs, my daughter enumerated the sums she lived on, as if to say that we, Tima and I, were living in luxury while she was homeless. A home for her, I told her calmly, should come from the dick that knocked her up and then skipped off because no-one can stand her two days in a row.”

Men receive particularly short shrift: abusive, drunken, and with a tendency to disappear when needed. Anna nicknames Alena’s husband ‘the dud’:

“For god’s sake, my darling girl, kick him out! We’ll manage! What do we need him for? To stuff his face with our food? So you could humiliate yourself night after night begging his forgiveness?”

If this sounds rather desperate (it is) and bleak (it is), I can also say that it is riveting. Partly this is a kind of jaw-dropping astonishment at the pile up of horror upon horror, but it is also the vitality of the voice (credit to the translator Anna Summers) even in its moments of hate and anger. Strangely, it’s not without humour, for example when Anna reads her daughter’s diary with her own bracketed asides. The final section, where Anna attempts to prevent her mother being moved hospital and bring her home, becomes a kind of grotesque comedy.

‘The Time is Night’ is accompanied by two short stories, ‘Chocolates with Liqueur’ and ‘Among Friends’ (they’re described as novellas but neither is long enough). The first tells the story of a failed relationship (Petrushevskaya seems to allow no other kind). As in all three stories, living space is at a premium, and who is registered to live where is of enormous importance. In the story’s first chapter, the husband, Nikita, returns every night at seven to spend two hours in ‘his’ room. The second chapter returns to the beginning of their relationship, Nikita’s courtship, and the marriage which follows:

“Nikita needed a slave who would cost him nothing and whom he could kick whenever he wanted.”

The story is apparently a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe and ends in suitably gothic fashion.

The final story tells of a group of friends who meet every Friday for many years, their relationships slowly deteriorating. Initially it seems as dispiriting as everything that has gone before, but ultimately it is about a dying mother’s desire to safeguard her son – though in such a way as to suggest little faith in humanity.

I loved the stories in this volume: through their cynicism and despair some desperate but irrepressible life force still shines; it’s that force which continued to write.

Boredom

July 31, 2015

boredom

In moving from Contempt to Boredom in my relationship with Alberto Moravia I can’t help but feel I am that I am following the path of a love affair he might have described. As with Contempt, Boredom’s male narrator seeks to understand the woman who loves him, the desperation of his efforts being inversely proportionate to his success. Dino is thirty-five years old and proclaims himself bored with life. He has abandoned the wealth of his mother (unless he is in need of a handout) and taken up the life of an artist, only to find himself equally unfulfilled:

“…slowly but surely boredom had come to be the companion of my work during the last six months, until finally it had brought it to a full stop on that afternoon when I slashed my canvas to tatters.”

Boredom, Dino goes onto explain, has haunted him throughout his life:

“The feeling of boredom originates for me in a sense of the absurdity of a reality which is insufficient, or anyhow unable, to convince me of its own effective existence.”

Having given up painting, Dino instead takes up with Cecilia, the seventeen year old mistress of his recently deceased neighbour and fellow artist, Balestrieri. It is fair to say that it is not love at first sight:

“In the first place, I am not given to such adventures… In the second place, the girl did not attract me… Finally, there was a third reason…and that was the feeling of nausea that assailed me every time I imagined myself approaching her, speaking to her, and – inevitable consequence – making love to her.”

When she first visits Dino in his studio he spends his time neither painting her nor making love to her, but instead questions her at length about her relationship with Balestrieri – “I realised I was cross-examining her almost like a policeman” – something that will characterise all their future conversations, for shortly after this they will become lovers. Of course, Dino is soon bored and planning to end their relationship, until one day she fails to turn up at the appointed time. Suddenly he is less certain of her love for him (there is no question in his mind that he feels little for her):

“Certainly the fact that she had given herself to me and had shown that she found pleasure with me might be equivalent to a declaration of love. But it was also possible, as I at once realised, that it meant nothing at all.”

From that point on, Dino becomes increasingly obsessed with Cecilia. Rather than loving her it is as if he wishes to possess her, not simply in a physical sense but in obtaining an understanding of her superior to her own self-awareness. This explains his endless questioning, and his irritation with Cecilia’s vague replies. This is, of course, simply not possible and he becomes increasingly frustrated.

Boredom was first published in English under the title The Empty Canvas (unsurprisingly it was felt that the title Boredom was not an ideal selling point) and this image occurs throughout. Until he sees her naked, Dino cannot match her “slender and childish” figure with that of Balestrieri’s paintings – “It’s not possible, I can’t believe it!” This clearly prefigures his inability to truly see her, something echoed in the image of the empty canvas itself. Shortly before the affair begins, he dreams of painting a young woman:

“Finally, after a very long sitting, the picture was finished and I moved back a step or two so as to contemplate it at leisure. To my amazement, the canvas was empty, blank, clean; no female nude was visible upon it, either drawn or painted; I had certainly been working, but I had done nothing.”

Later, Dino himself links the canvas with the relationship:

“I said to myself that if I perhaps could manage to cover the canvas that still stood prominently on my easel I would have, if nothing else, a further reason for parting from Cecilia.”

He cannot because “in reality I had at that moment only one relationship… with any object of any kind, and that was my relationship with Cecilia.” In his attempt to convince himself of Cecilia’s reality (or rather, to make Cecilia convince him) in order to assuage his boredom, he fails to see that it is caused by his own inability to look beyond himself. The novel works perfectly as a monologue because that is how Dino sees his life. Even when questioning Cecilia about herself he is searching only for the answers that will satisfy him. Once again Moravia shows himself the master at portraying the deluded male who thinks he can understand the heart of a woman using his superior intelligence as a collector might use a pin on a butterfly.

Down the Rabbit Hole

July 27, 2015

down the rabbit hole

Tochtli, the child narrator of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ debut novel Down the Rabbit Hole, wants for nothing. Even when he decides the must-have pet is an all but extinct Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, his dreams do not exceed the possibilities of his rarefied life in the luxury hideout of his father, who is clearly something important in drugs and violence. The title’s reference to Alice in Wonderland suggests the alternate reality within which he lives with a surfeit of possessions but a lack of people (including a mother): he claims to know only thirteen or fourteen, including his father, Yolcaut, and his tutor Mazatzin.

Tochtli’s immersion in his father’s macho culture is quickly obvious:

“If you don’t have a mum you’re supposed to cry a lot, gallons of tears, two or three gallons a day. But I don’t cry, because people who cry are faggots.”

Mazatzin has influenced him in his love of Japanese culture (he calls him Usagi, Japanese for rabbit – also the meaning of Tochtli), and he is immediately attracted to the idea of the samurai. The violence of his father’s life is not hidden from him:

“There are actually lots of ways of making corpses, but the most common ones are with orifices. Orifices are holes you make in people so their blood comes out.”

The animals the pygmy hippos will join include a lion and two tigers, kept for more practical reasons – to dispose of the corpses.

“Sometimes macho men aren’t afraid and that’s why they’re macho. But also sometimes macho men don’t have anything and they’re still kings, because they’re macho.”

Tochtli’s anxiety surfaces in pains in his stomach which his father assuages by giving him a new hat for his collection. The hats seem to represent a series of male stereotypes, and also allow Tochtli an imaginative escape from the palace which he rarely leaves. When he is briefly acquainted with reality it disappoints:

“In any case, Miztli was really happy to show me his so called charro [a Mexican cowboy] village. Pathetic. The truth is, there were more churches than anything else in the village. There were so many churches that instead of a charro village it was a priest village.”

Tochtli’s isolation is emphasised by the rarity of direct speech. Silence is an important aspect of the novel. Tochtli claims to know three mutes, though the likelihood is that fear is keeping them quiet:

“Sometimes, when I tell them something, they look as if they want to talk and they open their mouths.”

Tochtli, however, sees silence as powerful and will later use it against his father. At one point, Yolcaut allows two other boys into the palace to play with Tochtli in an effort to get him to speak, but Tochtli cannot relate to them. He describes the Star Wars figure one of them brings as “pathetic” – “it wasn’t an original, it was a fake one from the market.”

Despite this, we retain sympathy for Tochtli, so clearly a victim of his upbringing, while at the same time we are aware that this coming-of-age novel is one in which the narrator’s maturity relates only to the world of his father. Villalobos recreates the violent scenes Tochtli sees portrayed on television in miniature in his own life, for example when, having stolen a small pistol, he shoots one of the lovebirds they keep as pets. When he does finally acquire the pygmy hippos he does so in such a way as to symbolise his acceptance of his inheritance.

Down the Rabbit Hole is a wonderful example of the child narrator: it does everything you could possibly hope for in such a slim volume. Tochtli remains a credible creation throughout, and Villalobos uses his childish enthusiasms to both illustrate the society he lives in and demonstrate the development of his character. That this is so perfectly conveyed in the novel’s voice must also be due to the excellent work of the translator, Rosalind Harvey. This is one of a number of short novels I have read recently which demonstrate that the power of literature is not measured in pages.

Reasons of State

July 23, 2015

reasons of state

While complaining about the frequently inadequate and imperfect democracy of the UK, it is easy to forget that for most of the human race politics is experienced via a series of interchangeable dictatorships. As Western Europe (more slowly than we like to recall) exorcised such totalitarian leaders in the aftermath of World War Two, the cruellest and most flamboyant tyrannies were often to be found in Latin America, a continent which for a while became synonymous with dictatorship. The story goes that two Latin American writers, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, felt a fictional reaction to this was imperative and invited a number of other writers to contribute novellas on the theme to an anthology. Although this ultimately proved impossible to coordinate, three of the writers went on to write full length novels on the subject: Gabriel Garcia Marquez (The Autumn of the Patriarch); Augusto Roa Bastos (I, the Supreme); and Alejo Carpentier (Reasons of State). (I believe the Vargas Llosa story ‘The Cubs’ also arose from this project).

Recently I discussed Fuentes’ already diminishing fame in the English-speaking world, but Carpentier is a writer whose literary renown outside of his own continent (though born in Europe, he regarded himself as Cuban) was only sporadic in the first place despite his association with the development of magical realism. Reasons of State, published in 1974 and almost immediately translated in to English by Frances Partridge in 1976, has long been out of print – until, that is, the intervention of Melville House last year.

The novel begins in Paris where our dictator / narrator lives in comfort – sleeping in a hammock but waking to the sight of the Arc de Triomphe. A typical morning is described: visits from his barber and tailor, his advisor Peralta, and an intellectual he dubs the Distinguished Academician. The clumsy notes of his daughter, Ofelia’s, piano playing drift down and fall flat in the midst of their erudite conversation. (It seems plausible that the names – Peralta / Polonius, Ofelia / Ophelia – are intended to remind us of another ‘rotten’ state). The Head of State is in self-congratulatory mood:

“I was proud – very proud – of the fact that, after a half century of tumult and uprisings, my own country had brought the cycle of revolutions to an end.”

The tone changes dramatically, however, when he receives a telegram informing him that one of his many generals has rebelled:

“ ‘The cunt! The son of a bitch!’ yelled the Head of State, hurling the cables to the ground.”

Interestingly, Carpentier also changes from first to third person at this point (the telegram is the dividing line) allowing him to use the phrase “the Dictator” in the final sentence of the chapter. The first person is how the Dictator wants to be seen; the third person represents him as he is.

The Dictator returns home and ruthlessly suppresses the rebellion, starting with students who have shut themselves in the university:

“And if some are killed…none of these solemn funerals… Just give the stiff to the family and let them bury it without weeping and wailing, because if they do otherwise the whole family, mother, grandparents, and their brats too, will go to prison.”

The general’s eventual, defeat is a massacre:

“And then all hell was let loose; free and uncontrollable, the troops abandoned themselves to hunting men and women, with bayonet, machete, or knife, throwing corpses into the streets, pierced through, cut open, beheaded, and mutilated, to warn the rest.”

Once the rebellion is defeated, he returns to Paris, but to a much cooler welcome. French newspapers have reported the savagery and, although the photographer is soon hunted down and killed, the photographic evidence is damning. As a fellow countryman tells him:

“ ‘I know there’s a lot of exaggeration in it, compatriot…You wouldn’t be capable…Of course it’s all false.’ But he couldn’t dine with him at Larue that night.”

Luckily it seems World War One will intercede and distract Europe from distant bloodshed… and then our Dictator receives another telegram:

“ ‘The cunt! The son of a bitch!’ yelled the Head of State.”

Carpentier does not skimp on his portrayal of the Dictator; at this point we are merely one third of the way through the novel. We will follow out protagonist right to the end. Carpentier is lavish with his detail and seems particularly intent to contrast Paris with the Dictator’s homeland. Chapters are generally prefaced by a quotation from Descartes, and (as hinted at in the title) there seems to be a dichotomy between the enlightened reason of Europe (which the Dictator insists he admires) and the superstitions of the tropics – the Dictator blames the first rebellion on the fact that the prostitute he slept with the previous night was dressed as a nun.

Reasons of State is a wonderful addition to the literature of dictatorship (my personal favourite remains Marion Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat). It is to be hoped that it will lead more readers to explore Alejo Carpentier’s work.

The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata

July 17, 2015

adventures

Spanish Lit Month hosts, Richard and Stu, have chosen Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel as the group read title this year: a fantastic choice but unfortunately one which I have read and reviewed only recently. Not wanting to miss out entirely I decided to participate by reading another of Casares’ novels, the last, in fact, to be translated into English (by Suzanne Jill Levine), The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata, which he wrote in 1989, almost fifty years after Morel. It tells the story of a young photographer, Nicolasito Almanza, who is despatched to La Plata on a commission to photograph the town. (Casares himself was a very keen photographer). He lodges with an old friend, Mascardi, but also becomes involved with a family who arrive in town at the same time as him, feeling dutiful towards the father, Don Juan Lombardo, and attraction towards his two daughters, Griselda and Julia. Is he, though, the victim of a plot against his life? Who can he trust, if anyone?

Almanza’s chance meeting with the Lombardos as he arrives in La Plata is quickly revealed to be less than coincidental, though not before he has helped them with their luggage and donated blood after Don Juan falls ill:

“When we told you we waved at you because we took you for an outsider, that wasn’t the truth…We suspected that you were from out of town, but why deny it, I thought that you looked the spitting image of my son.”

Don Juan recounts the story of his missing son: an argument originating in his decision to insure his son’s life led to him leaving home; Don Juan has not heard from him since. “He’s probably dead, but that’s not enough to collect the insurance.” From this point on, Don Juan insist on treating Almanza like a son, but whether this is a sentimental attachment caused by regret or a plan to use him to claim the life insurance is unclear. Almanza is not short of voices warning him to be careful, beginning with Mascardi:

“The outsider should watch his steps…For some time now we’ve been noticing what we call down at headquarters a new kind of foul play. A family, which is really a gang of dubious individuals with a long record. They establish a relationship with the victim…and the whole thing ends up in a swindle or worse.”

When he takes his film to be developed, the owner of the shop similarly warns him: “Outsiders should be careful.” Of course, one might question whether Almanza can entirely trust Mascardi who, unbeknownst to many of his student friends, is now a policeman:

“If someone comes over to chat with us, don’t even remember I’m with the police.”

Later, he is accused of sending a friend to jail; Almanza also suspects he is following him.

Almanza is generally unfazed, however; an innocent adventurer, in stark contrast to the loveable rogue of the picaresque (“He’s a man who does not expect people to lie.”), he calmly continues his relationship with the family, finding time to sleep with both Griselda and Julia:

“Maybe I like both, but as far as loving goes, perhaps only one. I don’t know.”

His only worry is that the cheque he has been promised for his photographs has not arrived, a mixture of poverty and pride reducing his diet to the point that he begins to hallucinate (at least, that would be the rational explanation for the novel’s dream sequences). For the most part, like a camera, he perceives everything from the outside. When it is suggested to him that he is an artist, he says, “Only a photographer.” This might explain the gift he receives at the end, a kaleidoscope, inviting him to look at the world a different way.

The novel itself is not unlike a kaleidoscope, its different parts turning to create new patterns: conversations in cafes; perambulations with camera; enquiries regarding the post; phone messages; Don Juan’s requests… The novel repeats its scenes like a series of stills. Almanza even expects his own feelings to be judged through a lens:

“…if Julia had followed him from afar (he clarified: “with a telescope”) along a good part of his last afternoon in La Plata, she would think that she wouldn’t matter to him.”

The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata resists attempts to reach beyond the surface. A mystery where there may be no mystery; a love story where we are never certain of the love; the novel of a photographer, not an artist.


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