Archive for October, 2009

Wolf Hall

October 30, 2009

wolf hall

It would be fair to say that the Booker Prize is not as highly regarded in Scotland as it is in England – largely because Scottish writers rarely feature on its radar. Only once has a Scottish writer won the prize (James Kelman in 1994) and this was immediately followed by middle England outrage that a writer who uses swearie words should win a literary prize. The last Scot on a short list was Ali Smith in 2005. Neither Alasdair Gray nor A. L. Kennedy have even got as close as the long list (unless it was before they were published). However, this year I have found myself reading three of the short listed titles (with, I suspect, The Quickening Maze to follow). Summertime I would have certainly read regardless; in the case of both The Little Stranger and Wolf Hall it seemed an opportunity to get acquainted with writers who had interested me in the past but whose work I had never got round to reading. That both were historical novels was neither an attraction nor a deterrent – it is, after all, not what genre you use, but what you do with it that counts. So what has Hilary Mantel done with Tudor England?

One of Mantel’s intentions seems to be to rehabilitate Thomas Cromwell’s reputation. Apparently (and you’ll understand that a Scottish education does not dwell extensively on the reign of Henry VIII) Cromwell is commonly portrayed as an underhand schemer, a 16th century gangster, in opposition to Thomas More’s principled and erudite saintliness. Mantel does this in a number of ways. Firstly, she presents the narrative from Cromwell’s point of view, encouraging the reader to sympathise with him. The use of the present tense makes his need to act and react seem constantly urgent. Cromwell is also generally referred to as “he” rather than by name. However, rather than encourage the reader to identify with him, this often makes the reader take a step back – is this “he” Cromwell or just an ordinary pronoun? – and goes some way to suggesting that he cannot be entirely known or understood. When a character’s name appears in a novel it seems the writer and reader have him entire in that word – the third person pronoun is vaguer and more elusive, it gives that character power over the reader in the same way Cromwell has power over other characters; it even has a slight Biblical feel to it.

Cromwell’s opaqueness to those around him is at least partly a result of his humble origins. Mantel gives us a vivid picture of his childhood in the opening chapter: his violent, abusive father instilling a toughness in him that would last a lifetime. She also invents a series of picaresque adventures across Europe in his youth allowing him to gain experience in warfare, trade and finance, and to master a number of languages, which are referred to in flashback throughout the novel. Clearly Cromwell’s humble origins are important, and perhaps even suggestive of changes taking place in England at the time. However, the narrative so closely follows Cromwell that we have little sense of the country, only the court and we also only have access to other characters’ opinions of Cromwell that they are prepared to share with him. Equally, we are limited to Cromwell’s view when observing the other figures of the court. This tends to mean that the lesser the historical importance the more interestingly realised they are. Mary Boleyn is one good example. Henry and Anne are so often playing a role in public that their private selves are rarely revealed. An exception to this is Thomas More, but here Mantel’s intention is to balance her humanisation of Cromwell with a more flawed rival. In particular, the scene where he ridicules his wife in front of his invited guests is unsettling.

More and Cromwell’s confrontations are amongst the best scenes of the novel. This is partly because Cromwell so rarely shows any passion – he is ever the persuader and the pragmatist. More’s egotism frustrates him:

“You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More.”

This is not to say That Cromwell is unfeeling. He frequently takes those in need into his household and is shown to genuinely care for them. He also seems to have a dislike of execution – perhaps because of a burning he witnessed as a boy. Most importantly, however, Mantel uses his relationship with his wife and daughters, who are all killed by the plague within a few weeks, to present his human side. Though other women come into his life, the impression is given that he never entirely gets over his wife’s death. One particular memory of his daughter also stays with him:

“The year that Grace was an angel, she had wings made of peacock feathers.”

This image reoccurs on a number of occasions. Mantel succeeds in humanising Cromwell without sentimentalising him – though at the expense of exorcising any strong religious feeling he has. In fact, the religious divisions of the time, though occasionally rehearsed in speech, do not seem a central concern of the text.

The Wolf Hall of the title is, of course, the home of the Seymours and Henry’s next wife (and also an apt name for the world Cromwell lives in – “homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man”). Does this create a sense of destiny or a sense of futility? – that having made it possible for Henry to marry Anne, it would now all begin again. This curtailment means that we only see Cromwell in power – we do not see that his destiny, like Wolsey and More, will be to fall from the King’s favour, an overarching narrative that might have more contemporary resonance. Of course, a second volume is planned, but in the meantime this seems a little hollow. For those interested in the period, or in English history, this is a fascinating novel, but beyond that it does not seem to go.

Distant Star

October 22, 2009

distant star

When this translation was first published in 2004 (a year after his death), Roberto Bolano was largely unknown to an English-speaking audience; now, his two epic novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, are easily available in paperback, his back catalogue is being steadily brought into print, and he is being spoken of as “one of the greatest and most influential modern writers” (James Wood) and “the most influential and admired novelist of his generation in the Spanish-speaking world” (Susan Sontag). Which begs the question: what is all the fuss about? Distant Star may be an early novel (1996) but it is one in which aspects of his style are already apparent.

Firstly, he writes almost obsessively about writing, particularly poetry. Most of his characters are poets and they talk and think about poetry a lot – though not, as you might expect, about writing or reading it. Poetry, instead, becomes a way of identifying individuals and their loyalties. Here is a typical introduction to a character, Juan Stein, a poet who runs the narrator’s poetry workshop:

“Like most of the poets of his generation he was influenced by Nicanor Parra and Ernesto Cardinal, but also by Jorge Tellier’s home-grown imagism, although Stein recommended we read Lihn rather than Tellier.”

This discussion of what amounts to little more than Stein’s likes and dislikes goes on for two pages, mentioning twenty-one poets. Typically, no reasons are given why one poet might be regarded as superior to another, and poems or lines of poetry are rarely quoted in his work. We can assume that these are real writers as occasionally a more widely recognised name will appear; on the other hand, this may be naïve. This is a writer, after all, who frequently uses a pseudonymous character to represent himself (Arturo B, or sometimes just B). Perhaps, for those in a know, these lists do define a character, but they also have point to make for the general reader (and here ‘general’ means anyone without a Ph.D. in Latin American poetry): poetry is a serious matter in his novels, at least for the characters – it is a life choice and a lifestyle – something that no doubt reflects the turbulent political situation Bolano experienced in Chile where writing could lead to imprisonment, torture and death.

The poetry, then, is linked to the political background, with frequent references to the “doomed revolutions” of Latin America and elsewhere. However, unlike other Latin American writers Bolano does not seek to explain or understand the continent, but simply presents it. Here is a description of Stein again, making that connection:

“He didn’t tale part in the triumphal entry into Managua…. He was rumoured to be among the members of the commando that assassinated Somaza in Paraguay.”

Again, this is part of a longer passage describing Stein’s adventures around the continent and the globe. Again, there is no concession made to the reader. Far from distancing the reader, though, this surfeit of incidental information draws the reader in by creating two illusions: firstly, that these characters exist within a very real world that therefore contains many names we do not recognise; secondly, that, in fact, we do know these names and their meaning because why else would the narrator, in such a confidential tone, use them if we were not actually part of this world?

Distant Star provides a perfect example of the way in which Bolano links the political with the poetic, and does so in both directions. The novel is about the poet and pilot Carlos Wieder (known at the beginning as Alberto Ruiz-Tagle). When Wieder joins the narrator’s poetry workshop, he doesn’t quite fit in; worse still, he gains the affection of the Garmendia sisters, identical twins and “the undisputed stars of the poetry workshop.” He is “affable but distant”, and when a member of the workshop visits his flat he feels:

“…the flat seemed to have been prepared, its contents arranged for the eye of the imminent visitor.”

And so the first chapter goes on rather inconsequentially until the government falls and the arm seizes power. The group splits up with some, including the Garmendia sisters, leaving town. Wieder goes to visit them and stays the night. What happens next is genuinely shocking as Bolano suddenly brings the brutality of politics into the lives of these young poets.

In the second chapter Bolano reverses the procedure as poetry is married to political power, initially when Wieder, an air force pilot, sky-writes poems across the sky in his Messerschmitt 109 – surely deliberately reminding us of the links between South America and Nazi Germany. This “New Poetry” culminates in an exhibition in Wieder’s flat where he shows pictures of his victims:

“The women looked like mannequins, broken, dismembered mannequins…”

It is assumed this brings to an end his career in the air force, and from this point the novel is as much about the search for Wieder as the man himself. This includes attempting to track him by identifying his work in obscure literary magazines, and involves a retired policeman aided by the narrator – linking together literary analysis with detection.

The novel is not a coherent attack on Chile after Allende, nor is it about poetry, except perhaps that it works like poetry, creating powerful images that stay with you, resonant with meaning but remote from interpretation. The British writer Bolano most reminds me of is J. G. Ballard, creating his own worlds, each an echo of what has gone before. Bolano’s are more rooted in the life he lived, but have that same quality of visionary otherness: the kind of writing that demands not just attention, but acceptance.

Playing in the Light

October 15, 2009

playing in the light

Playing in the Light, published in 2006, is Zoe Wicomb’s third novel in twenty years, though she has produced a collection of short stories since. It has yet to be published in Britain, but did receive more than one positive review in the Scottish press when it first appeared, perhaps because Wicomb taught (and, as far as I know, still teaches) at Strathclyde University. The novel also features a cameo appearance by Glasgow (and is therefore probably eligible to play for Scotland).

But this is not a book about Scottish football (that would be Playing in the Rain): the novel is, like its author, South African, and, like most South African literature since the end of apartheid, it deals with the relationship between the past and the present. The title is a reference to those coloured South Africans who were pale skinned enough to pass for white during the time of apartheid when the difference between the two could be significant in terms of wealth and opportunity. The main character, Marion Campbell, is a white business woman who discovers in the course of the novel that her parents were actually coloured but lived as white, isolating themselves almost entirely from their wider circle of relatives. This revelation occurs when she goes in search of information about an old family servant, Tokkie, whom she has fond memories of, only for it to be revealed that this was her grandmother, who visited her house in the guise of a servant to preserve their white identity.

Of course, Wicomb is not simply interested in Marion’s experience, or even in the historically accurate occurrence of ‘play-whites’; the novel is set in 1990s’ Cape Town, and Marion is the new South Africa coming to terms with the old. Her parents’ choices have a profound effect on her. On the surface she is a successful business woman, driving a Mercedes and living in a beautiful apartment with a sea view, but, just as “the cool Atlantic laps at Robben Island” outside her window, an ever-present reminder of apartheid (it is later described as “finger-wagging”), so too is her life far from complete. She lives alone, has never married, has no children, and no close friends. When a man shows interest in her she finds it impossible to let him close to her:

“She outlines her plan: they get on well together, have been good friends, so that there can be no reason to stop seeing each other. But only as friends, for a while at least.”

She, almost too comfortably, diagnoses the causes:

“…as the only issue of older parents, she had a peculiar childhood; that her parents loathed each other; that her mother, like all mothers, was responsible for her insecurity.”

What she doesn’t know is why: that she had no siblings because her mother was terrified they would look coloured; that the bitterness within the marriage began with the decision to ‘play’ white; and that this was the root of her mother’s own insecurity.

Marion is not a likeable character – in fact, in many ways, there is a blankness about her that makes her more interesting when interacting with other characters, particularly Brenda, the young coloured girl who comes to work for her. Brenda’s confidence is a counterpoint to Marion’s insecurity and represents what Marion might have been in a society no longer entirely defined by race. Only Brenda shows any real anger about the past:

“You don’t think that years of oppression and destitution and perversion of human beings, thanks to the policies that you voted in, have anything to do with you?”

However, she almost immediately regrets this, feeling “it is not possible for the people from the different worlds of this country to talk to each other.” It is exactly this that makes her uneasy friendship with Marion the most interesting relationship in the novel (closely followed by that between Marion and her father). A large part of the novel deals with the lives of Marion’s parents in flashback but, interesting as this story was, I missed the dynamics of the contemporary relationships.

However, Marion’s blankness works against the novel towards the end when she decides to travel and ends up, in a rather unlikely fashion, in Glasgow. The very fact that she has travelled is designed to be symbolic of a change in her character. For most of the novel, despite owning a travel company, she has “an aversion to travel”. This no doubt represents her unwillingness to look beyond herself, something which is, ironically, making her feel enclosed in a recurring nightmare:

“Then for a moment, she seems to gag on metres of muslin, ensnared in the fabric that wraps itself round and round her into as shroud from which she struggles to escape.”

That her desire to travel coincides with a need to read the landmark novels of South African literature stretches credulity, and the Scotland where she ends up seems little more than a sketch; a pivotal character, Dougie, unconvincing. This is unfortunate, as I liked the abrupt ending, where her anger at her own past is finally expressed.

The Armies

October 3, 2009


Understanding Evelio Rosero’s The Armies is a simple matter of comparison: the first few pages with the last few. The contrast is striking enough that we might assume, if we had not undertaken the journey between, these were two quite different novels. The opening is gentle, almost pastoral. It begins with the laughter of birds; the narrator, a retired teacher called Ismael, is picking oranges while admiring the “slender Geraldina”, his neighbour’s wife, lying naked in the sun; his wife feeds the fish in the pond; her husband plays his guitar and sings. Everything speaks of life. By the end, Ismael is watching the gang rape of Geraldina’s corpse and facing his own death.

Rosero’s use of eroticism as a counterpoint to violence is not confined to either end of the narrative. Shortly after the opening scene, Ismael tells us the story of how he met his wife, Otilia:

“I was dazzled by her dreamy black eyes, her wide forehead, her narrow waist, the ample backside under a pink skirt. The white, short-sleeved, linen blouse showed of her fine, pale arms and the intense darkness of her nipples.”

This glimpse might have led to nothing were it not that almost immediately a young boy appears with a gun and shoots an older man sitting nearby. Their meeting also characterises Ismael as something of a voyeur. “From the first time I met you,” Otilia says, “you never stopped spying on women.” The irony of the novel is that throughout Ismael is often the watcher, the witness, but of violence and loss, and for much of it he is looking for his wife. When he does return to his role as voyeur it is to see:

“Geraldina naked, her head lolling from side to side, and on top of her one of the men embracing her, one of the men delving into Geraldina, one of the men was raping her: it still took me a while to realise it was Geraldina’s corpse, it was her corpse exposed before these men who waited.”

In self-disgust, remembering his previous desire, he imagines himself waiting his turn. All such feelings have been poisoned by the violence around him and his inability to find his wife; we sense it is at this point he gives up.

His wife goes missing during a guerrilla raid on the village – though all the forces that fight through and around the village are simply “the armies”, with neither concerned to protect, and often setting out to harm, the civilian population. Ismael has woken at dawn and decided to go out for a stroll. He hears “a shout in the early morning and then a shot.” Soon “more shots ring out, machine-gun bursts this time.” Ismael finds himself corralled with others in the town square. When he eventually returns home Otilia is not there – a neighbour says she has gone in search of him. Initially, nothing else seems to have changed:

“I am in the garden, which is unchanged, as if nothing has happened, although everything has happened: I see the ladder there, leaning against the wall; in the fountain the flashing orange fish swim.”

From this point on, however, everything does change. Ismael becomes obsessed with trying to find Otilia, often at the risk of his life. He fears that she has been kidnapped like Geraldina’s husband and son, but no ransom demand arrives. Her disappearance strengthens his love for her:

“Thinking of you only hurts, sad to admit, and especially lying on my back in bed, without the living proximity of your body, your breathing, the imaginary words you spoke in your sleep.”

The village increasingly descends into violence, and many people simply leave. The narrative adopts an almost dreamlike quality, and time comes to mean less and less as Ismael questions which day it is: “Saturday?” By the end only the description of the garden suggests how much time has passed:

“There was the pool; I looked into it as into a pit: amid the dead leaves that the wind blew in there, amid the bird droppings, the scattered rubbish, near the petrified corpses of the macaws…”

The novel is, of course, more than Ismael’s story: the usual collection of village eccentrics graces its pages. That almost all of them suffer or die undermines to some extent this cliché of Latin American literature. Ismael himself is not the most fully developed of characters; at times he is more of a wandering consciousness, reflecting fragments of the reality around him. That he begins to doubt his sanity, however, is entirely believable.

This is not a novel that seeks to give a detailed account of the violence in Columbia, it will not enhance your political understanding – but as an impression of what that violence might feel like it is an important success.