Archive for September, 2009

Italian Shoes

September 26, 2009

italian shoes

One of the advantages of the success of Henning Mankell’s detective novels is that it has led to the publication of many of his other, more literary, novels in English. Both tend to share an atmosphere of Scandinavian gloominess, but that can be a harder sell when there isn’t a murder to solve. Italian Shoes is no different: superficially a novel about old age and death. However, like much of Mankell’s work, it more about how we should live our lives than how we should end them.

The novel is narrated by Frederick Welin. Once a successful surgeon, he now lives alone (apart form a cat and a dog) on an island surrounded by a sea of ice. It isn’t difficult, then, to spot the first metaphor: he is a man who has deliberately isolated himself from the world, with no emotional ties. A rotting boat further suggests his isolation. Every morning he cuts a hole in the ice and plunges naked into it:

“Every day I jump down into my black hole in order to get the feeling that I’m still alive.”

He hasn’t, however, entirely given up on making a connection with the world beyond his island:

“I suppose, really, that there will be somebody out there one of these days, a black shadow against all the white…”

One day that “black figure, a silhouette, outlined against all the white” appears, a woman that he once loved, but abandoned many years before, leaving to study in America and never getting back in touch. This abandonment begins even before he reaches America as he the date of departure he gives Harriet is the day after he leaves. Harriet is dying, and the reason she gives for finally contacting Frederick after all this time is that she wants him to keep a promise he once made to her to take her to a pool in the forest before she dies. The first half of the novel is immured in death: before Harriet arrives, Frederick finds a dead seagull; on their journey a dog begins to follow their car and when they return it to its home they find its owner, an old woman, dead; in a café there is the skull of “an old bear that simply lay down by a log pile and died.” When they finally reach the pool, which is of course frozen over, Frederick falls through the ice and almost dies. The other theme, however, which has been running through their journey, is their growing closeness. Often this is a physical closeness, forced on them by the availability of only one bed, and here as Harriet must heat Frederick with her own body. Eventually she reveals the real reason for her visit by taking him to meet his daughter.

Frederick and Harriet’s daughter, Louise, is also a rather isolated figure, a middle-aged woman living alone in a caravan, spending her time writing protest letters to world leaders. Frederick finds these new relationships difficult and not all goes smoothly, but he does maintain a determination to make them work. We also discover one of the reasons for his self-imposed exile, an operation that went wrong when he amputated the wrong arm of a promising swimmer. It was not guilt that made him give up his profession, but a feeling of being unfairly blamed. His newly discovered family leads to him contacting the woman in question, Agnes, who now runs a foster home for damaged teenage girls. He is impressed by the way she seems to have her life under control; she talks of the hatred she once felt as an “all-consuming parasite. The girls are all that matter now.” When Harriet appeared, Frederick spoke of a door opening that he had thought close forever – he now feels as if:

“Every single door inside me was swinging back and forth in the wind, which seemed to be getting stronger all the time.”

At this point, the novel seems very much about one man’s redemption – and indeed it is. But that redemption is never certain or complete, Mankell is too subtle for that. Moments of community, where Frederick seems to be reconnecting with the world, like the summer solstice celebration arranged for Harriet, are balanced by breakdowns in empathy like Sima’s suicide and his clumsy attempts to seduce Agnes. It reminded me a little of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, where an emotionally closed off man seeks to reconnect with only limited success. The titles of the four sections of the novel tell their own story: Ice, in the beginning when he is isolated; The Forest, when he seems lost amid all the changes; The Sea, when he attempts to connect with those around him; and finally, Winter Solstice, a year on from when Harriet appeared, when he is offered hope in his relationships with both Louise and Agnes. There is no dramatic change by the end, but there is change:

“It was just as Harriet had written. We had come this far.
“No further than that. But this far.”

The Wooden Village

September 20, 2009


In 2008 Rivers of Babylon was long-listed for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It didn’t make it onto the short list (which, to be fair, contained some very good novels) but did bring to my attention a novel that otherwise I would have been extremely unlikely to have heard of, published by a small university press and by a writer from an unfashionable nation (Slovakia) who had never been translated into English before. Moreover, the cover design made J.D. Salinger appear publicity hungry – although its utilitarian extremism did make it stand out among the positively whorish paperbacks that surrounded it when I found a copy in a bookshop in Glasgow. Needless to say, I read it, and so found myself introduced to an entertaining writer and a monstrous anti-hero, Racz. Since then, both sequels have also appeared in English: The Wooden Village and The End of Freddy.

Although Racz reappears in The Wooden Village, he no longer overshadows the world of the novel. Though even more powerful than when we last saw him, he is only an occasional presence. Instead the novel (as its title suggests) utilises a larger cast, including a number of characters that also appeared in Rivers of Babylon. It would be fair to say that Pist’anek does not distribute the narrative among the characters equally, and while the first half of the novel focuses on Feri and Erzika, in the second half Freddy dominates and, by the end, is clearly the novel’s most interesting character. (I can only assume that the author agrees with me considering the title of the final part of the trilogy). Other characters are also important, however, particularly those returning to Slovakia to enjoy its market economy: Silvia, who returns from Austria to set up a brothel, and Martin Junec, who is visiting from America, hoping to establish a European base for his lighting company.

The writer Pist’anek most resembles, to my mind, is Irvine Welsh, with more sex (though less explicit), a similar amount of alcohol, and less in the way of drugs. The main plotline of the first half of the novel begins when a bored housewife (who remains anonymous) is sexually excited by the “penetrating stench of male urine” in the men’s toilets, to the point that she immediately offers to work there in return for a place to sleep. Instead of undertaking her cleaning duties, however, she:

“…stands above the urinal and takes deep breaths of the ammonia fumes from men’s urine. Her right hand can’t help slipping under her miniskirt, into her crotch. Her excitement knows no bounds.”

Within minutes she is offering herself to a drunken customer. This unlikely fantasy, however, is used by Pist’anek to satirise the free market. The woman, named Lady, is exploited by Erzika, the toilet attendant, and her husband, Feri, servicing drunk after drunk to their enrichment until it literally kills her. Later, Feri sells his own baby for a few thousand marks, telling his wife she has been kidnapped. It is this satirical black humour that makes the novel more than simply entertainment. Like Welsh, Pist’anek presents these characters in their unredeemed awfulness without entirely repulsing the reader. We may not like them, but we almost admire their straight forward lack of moral complications.

Freddy, the car park attendant, is involved in Lady’s story from the beginning: he provides her with a place to sleep in his trailer (in return for money and the right to sleep with her) and later escorts men to visit her. There is an almost tender scene on the first night she stays with him as he lies awake all night watching her sleep using “all his willpower not to masturbate” (It’s about as tender as the novel gets). As the novel progresses, Freddy becomes increasingly important. Throughout Pist’anek reveals the story of Freddy’s childhood in short scenes which elicit some sympathy. Two incidents stand out: the first, when the money he is saving to buy a dingy is taken by his parents to pay for his first communion suit; secondly when he builds himself a bicycle as all his friends have one and he can no longer play with them – but by the time he has built it his friends have moved on, and he throws it away. Both suggest a stifled desire for freedom. They are accompanied by some unfortunate sexual experiences which mean that when later in the novel he discovers his dream job, it is as a slave in a sadomasochistic brothel where he works for the woman who first tortured him as a girl. His story ends happily, though it is a happiness revealed in the sentence:

“Sida briefly, but painfully, presses his scrotum.”

By now you may have some idea if this novel is for you. It is certainly as entertaining as many that are more conventionally published, and an interesting (though no doubt not entirely accurate) insight into Slovak society. I look forward to the third part of the trilogy – and Freddy’s final fate.

The Siege

September 12, 2009

the siege

Having published The Successor in 2006 (still, I think, Kadare’s most recent work in English), Canongate have gone on to bring some of his previous work to our attention, with a revised translation of Chronicle in Stone, the short stories of Agamemnon’s Daughter, and, now, a new translation of The Siege (previously The Castle). Kadare is a writer who does not seem to have the one agreed ‘great work’ that would allow us to shelf him and move on – in fact, I would suggest that the more of his novels you reads, the more rewarding your reading. Though rarely repetitive in substance, all attempt to capture some facet of totalitarianism. While The Siege, like The Palace of Dreams or The Pyramid, appears to be historical fiction, this is a genre which Kadare doubts can even exist. Instead he uses history to comment on the present – a common practice, though one that is particularly useful in the face of state censorship.

A helpful afterward tells us that the novel is probably based on the siege of Shkoder in 1474, and that the character of Skanderbeg, who does not actually appear in the novel but is ever-present as a symbol of Albanian resistance, is the historical figure of George Castrioti. Certainly, the novel is set during the 15th century when the Ottoman Empire was attempting to subjugate Albania; equally certainly, it was published in 1969, not long after Soviet tanks had invaded Czechoslovakia and all Eastern Block countries felt threatened, particularly isolationist Albania. The novel can therefore be read as a heroic story of Albania’s struggle against mightier oppressors. The problem with this reading is that the Turks were ultimately successful – and indeed, the futility of the Albanian victory is pointed out in the narrative in response to the question of what will happen if the siege is unsuccessful:

“Then a new expedition will set out next spring…Battalions without number will march in line, with drums rolling and banners flapping in the breeze just like before….If the citadel does not fall next spring…then another expedition will be launched in the spring of the year after next.”

For a portrait of Albanian heroism the novel also allows the Albanians little in the way of narrative. Each chapter opens with a brief first person account from the point of view of the besieged town – which certainly encourages the reader to identify with this voice – but the rest of the novel is told from the Ottoman camp. This may suggest the stranglehold the Turks have, even on the novel itself, but it also highlights the way in which Kadare’s interest often lies more with the powerful than the oppressed.

Within the Ottoman camp Kadare introduces us to a wide range of characters: the Pasha, the commander of the army; Mevla Celebi, the chronicler; the Quartermaster General; the Engineer Saruxha, Sirri Selim, the doctor; the Pasha’s wives, and many others. Kadare skilfully weaves the cast together to create a picture of war, from the experience of the ordinary soldier to the commander-in–chief. It also allows him to draw our attention to themes such as the development of new military technology (Saruxha is testing out his biggest cannon yet) and germ warfare (the doctor has diseased rats released into the town). He even comments on ‘friendly fire’ – when a cannon is fired accidentally into the attacking Turkish troops, the man responsible is summarily executed by fellow soldiers.

However, it is not so much the war itself that Kadare is interested in as the state of mind it creates within the camp. From the beginning, the Pasha is aware that if he is not successful his days in power will be over:

“…it was clear that by sending him off to fight Skanderbeg, the Sultan was giving him one last chance.”

In failure he is soon abandoned:

“He only noticed the way his subordinates’ eyes looked away each time his glance met theirs. He realised that this evasiveness was the first but infallible sign that, as from that instant, they were separating their fate from his.”

Power is something you cannot luxuriate in but must always fight to retain. The camp is full of risings and fallings – the astrologer who endorses the first attack is assigned to bury the bodies. A second, more careful, astrologer is flogged in public for failing to make predictions. Show trials and the executions of ‘spies’ also feature. The world of the camp is as much that of Hoxha’s Albania as it is representative of the Soviet Union.

The novel’s most interesting character is the Quartermaster. It is he, rather than the chronicler, whose cowardice is played for comedy, who represents the author’s voice, a voice rich with modern irony. He offers the only hope for the besieged inhabitants:

“One day or another we’ll take possession of their castles; we’re sure to overcome them in the end. But that won’t be enough. In the final analysis they’re just heaps of stones that can be taken from us in the same way we will take them ourselves.”

This may appear to be a historical novel, but anyone interested in contemporary literature, and the modern world, should be interested in Kadare.


September 5, 2009


Since the publication of the previous volume of his fictionalised memoirs, Youth, in 2002, Coetzee does seem to have, in the words of Hermione Lee, given up story-telling, at least in terms of linear narrative. Elisabeth Costello is largely a series of essays (or ‘lessons’) delivered by his eponymous alter-ego; Costello appears again in Slow Man, usurping the narrative as the author of Paul Rayment’s story; in Diary of a Bad Year we are treated to three narratives running along side each other, each in a different voice, the first and second being that of yet another Coetzee stand-in. What do we learn from this? Not that Coetzee is tired of writing, but that he is frustrated by the constraints of the traditional novel; that he has views he wishes to communicate to us, not necessarily obliquely; and that he seeks to understand himself by creating characters that are little more than ciphers, and viewing them through the eyes of other characters.

This last point in particular feeds into Summertime, which covers the years 1972 to 1977 when Coetzee returned to South Africa after spending some time in America. The novel is presented largely as series of interviews conducted by a researcher into Coetzee’s life who is planning a book. These interviews are presented in what we are encouraged to feel is an unedited form, that is, closer to the truth. Alongside the interviews, book-ending the novel, are some fragments from Coetzee’s notebooks – each followed by a note suggesting what he intends to develop to produce what this volume would have been had it followed in the pattern of Boyhood and Youth. This is one of the few examples in the novel of Coetzee the writer – most of the interviewees have little idea of or interest in this side of him. Clearly writing is very important to him at this time (Dusklands, his first novel, is published) and a narrative where he was the central character would have focussed on this. Instead, this is the story of Coetzee the man – and, so we are led to believe, not much of a man.

All bar one of the interviews are with women, and each of them is dismissive in their way. The first woman, Julia, a bored housewife who has a brief affair with him, describes him as having:

“…no sexual presence whatsoever. It was as though he had been sprayed from head to toe with a neutralizing spray.”

His cousin, Margot, a close friend from childhood, wonders:

“Why is there no male aura about him?…Is her cousin, if not a moffie, then a eunuch?”

Adriana, a Brazilian woman he pursues unsuccessfully, having taught her daughter English, comments:

“For me it was not natural to have feelings for a man like that, a man who was so soft….there was a quality he did not have that a woman looks for in a man, a quality of strength, of manliness.”

Coetzee is not so much presenting the different views of three women, as one view channelled through the three characters, a view that is far from flattering. Coetzee’s apparent obsession with himself in his recent fiction does not rise from arrogance; on the contrary, he seems to be presenting a harsher picture than would be normally felt fair. (I don’t mean fair to Coetzee, whom I do not know, but fair compared to what we would expect from someone trying to be truthful) In his experimentation in search of the truth, Coetzee is beginning to remind me of B. S. Johnston – though whereas Johnson was surprised when he wasn’t seen as a great writer, Coetzee – or certainly his characters – seem surprised when he is.

This painful exposure of an emotional lack is both repulsive and fascinating – like a child picking at a scab. However, this is not an ego-centric novel, and what made it, for me, probably his best since Disgrace, is the way in which he reveals through the interviews, the lives of his female characters. Julia talks as much about her marriage as her affair; similarly, Margot talks about her own marriage and that of her sister. Adriana discusses the problems she faces when her husband is gravely injured and eventually dies. All three talk about the way children, or the lack of them, affect their lives. If Coetzee does anything to prove that he does not lack the empathy suggested, it is in his portrayal of these women. When you put this beside a portrait of 1970s South Africa and the changes it was already undergoing – exemplified, in many ways, by Coetzee’s father – you have a very rich novel that only a number of readings will do justice to.

Don’t be put off by the label ‘experimental’, or the lack of a linear storyline. This is a novel that tells many stories, and all of them are worth hearing.

The Road

September 2, 2009


Is there a bleaker, sadder book than The Road? From its first page we are thrown without warning or explanation into a world where survival is the characters’ only concern, and not necessarily a victory. It’s a world we recognise as our own transformed by some all too easily imaginable apocalypse (and one which we are left to imagine) into a death world. Nothing grows – in lifeless forests the trees fall one by one – and no birdsong is heard; buildings warp and collapse in the brutal weather, ripped apart for firewood; corpses are found wherever people once were. And yet the question is not entirely rhetorical: at the centre of this story is the love of a father for his child. This juxtaposition is clear form the first line:

“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”

And from that very first sentence we are gripped by their relentless need to live in a world that gives nothing. Food and fire must be constantly sought for. It would be interesting to track just how many times the need for food is mentioned in the narrative, but it is that very repetition that creates an unremitting tension centred on survival: rarely, as a reader, have I found myself so identifying with the characters.

Cold and hunger are not the only enemies, however. Many of the other survivors are also to be feared having descended into cannibalism in order to eat. This is touched upon a number of times: when they see a procession of armed men followed by a group in chains; when they open up the hatch to a cellar to discover a human larder, one victim having already lost limbs; and, most horrifically, when they come upon a baby on a spit. The horror is never gratuitous. Not only does it remorselessly follow the logic of the imagined world, but it raises the question of how we can survive and remain “the good guys”. At one point the boy asks his father directly, “We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?” To some extent, the boy is the father’s conscience, encouraging him towards kindness in a way that is both naïve and seems to offer hope. More than once, the father speaks of them “carrying the fire”, on many levels a symbol for civilisation. He says to his son near the end:

“It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.”

This is only one of the ways in which their story takes on aspects of myth and legend. Again, this is indicated from the beginning (“like pilgrims in a fable…”) and by their anonymity. The journey, and the series of tests it entails, is a common pattern in myth, as is the boy’s initiation into manhood by his father as he teaches him the survival skills he will need. That the road is an important component of modern American myth is not accidental either – think of road movies, the number of popular songs which mention roads, and, of course, the coast to coast expansion that created the country in the first place. In the novel, the road is actually a place of danger, but, despite his keen instincts when it comes to survival, the father has a compulsion to follow it to the coast (i.e. its end) for reasons that, beyond the initial desire to head south, are never entirely clear.

McCarthy’s style also plays a major part in creating a sense of myth, with its polarised passages of prose and poetry. Sentences are short, frequently non-sentences, creating a steady rhythm that echoes their journey. The dialogue is as bare as the landscape, yet interspersed with passages of strange, desolate beauty:

“The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

Such intensity is rare but resonates across the narrative creating a contradictory message: almost nihilistic in its description, it also provides evidence of the rich inner life that makes us human.

And so we return to the question with which we began: how bleak is this novel? The answer probably depends literally on your point of view, whether you go wide-angle on the dead earth, or close up on the father-son relationship. Even the conclusion offers us no straight forward answer. At perhaps its most optimistic when the boy meets a group of survivors, including another child, the author does not forget to remind us that the world is “a thing that can not be put back. Not made right again.”