Archive for November, 2009


November 27, 2009

John Burnside’s novels seem to emerge from an older tradition of folktale. Woven with supernatural possibilities, the towns and villages in which they are set are frequently already alive with vivid legends. Glister is no exception, having a poisoned wood, disappearing children, and a mysterious stranger whose intentions are ambiguous. At its centre is the possibility that this stranger (known only as the Moth Man – linking him to another popular legend) can transport people to another place using the Glister, a doorway in the town’s abandoned chemical plant.

The novel focuses on Leonard, a teenager from the decaying town of Innertown, a forlorn place since its main source of employment, the chemical factory, closed down:

“After more than a decade of dwindling hopes for their town and for their children, people have become fatalistic, trying to find, in indifference, the refuge they once sought in the modest and mostly rather vague expectation of ordinary happiness that they were brought up to expect.”

Not only has the town been sapped of hope, but the health of many of its inhabitants has been affected. We hear that Tom Brook’s wife, Anna, “had died from a huge, inexplicable growth in her brain that had eventually driven her insane.” Morrison, the local policeman’s wife, “had got sick in the head and, even now, nobody was able to say what was wrong with her.” Leonard’s father is equally debilitated, and largely cared for by his son. The town also suffers from a series of missing children – no trace of them is apparently ever found, though we quickly discover that Morrison found the first boy’s body hung up in the woods, and this was covered up.

A lack of care for children is one of the novel’s main themes. Not only has Leonard’s mother left him to look after his father, but other parents in the town seem to have little love for their children. When the first boy goes missing, his mother refuses to look away from the television screen as Morrison questions her. When Leonard’s girlfriend is asked about her parents, she replies, “Don’t got any folks.”

The characters of the teenagers, however, are strangely clichéd. Leonard is a loner – who has a girlfriend and joins a gang. He is a voracious reader of classics that most adults would be unlikely to tackle (Proust, anyone?), and a fan of arthouse films. His girlfriend, Elspeth, is a nymphomaniac, whose habitual greeting to members (literally) of the opposite sex seems to be to offer them a blow job. Jimmy, the local gang leader, seems to have walked straight out of Lord of the Flies, and hunting animals quickly develops into hunting people. The characters of the adults, particularly Morrison, are much more subtly drawn, though it has to be said that within the off kilter reality of the setting, the teenagers do make some kind of sense, and I quite happily accepted them while reading.

The novel has an unusual structure. It begins and ends in episodic form, with each chapter, although in the third person, focusing on the viewpoint of one character. The long, central section of the novel, however, is presented in the first person by the main character, Leonard. Leonard’s narrative also appears, more briefly, at the beginning and end, and in two other chapters. At first this seemed rather clumsy, particularly initially as the novel appeared to promise the reader a quick succession of varied narratives, only to become immersed in one. However, on reflection, it does echo the way in which we draw close to Leonard, only for him to become distant towards the end – both to the reader and other characters – as he approaches the Glister. The novel is also divided into two parts, ‘The Book of Job’ and ‘The Fire Sermon’. The first deals with the suffering of the inhabitants of Innertown, the second with Leonard’s liberation from that suffering. In Buddhist teaching the Fire Sermon is about freedom from suffering through detachment. It has also been linked with the Sermon on the Mount, which would give the novel an Old Testament / New Testament division.

The turning point between the two parts is the killing of Rivers, a harmless loner whom the gang blame for the disappearances. The scene is initially presented from Rivers point of view. We already know that Leonard is an unwilling participant who has sought to restrain the others, and when he attacks Rivers, Rivers thinks he is trying to save him:

“He‘s inflicting a smaller pain to avoid a greater.”

At the beginning of the second part, the narrative returns to Leonard:

“I couldn’t stop kicking him.”

It is Leonard who kills Rivers, kicking him to death. As well as altering our view of Leonard, this influences our interpretation of the novel’s conclusion – how would a murderer find himself in Heaven, as the final chapter is called?

The novel’s conclusion is very cleverly constructed. Having found evidence – a watch – that proves Morrison knows something about the boys’ disappearance, Leonard goes to the Moth Man. Throughout the Moth Man is presented as a father figure whom Leonard associates with happiness:

“That day, though, I’m happy pure and simple – because the Moth Man has come, and I like it when the Moth Man comes.”

Together they punish Morrison before the Moth Man takes Leonard to the Glister, a room full of light where all he can hear is the “calling of the gulls and the slow, insistent motion of the waters”. The final few pages demand rereading and a return to the opening chapter. As Leonard walks into the light, the novel too finds transcendence, though with a cold, unforgiving eye.

‘The Commandant’s Desk’

November 23, 2009

‘The Commandant’s Desk’ is one of the “new and unpublished writings on war and peace” in Armageddon in Retrospect, Vonnegut’s first posthumous publication (a second, Look at the Birdie, has since been released). In many ways it is not a typical Vonnegut story – that honour falls to ‘Great Day’, with its mix of folksy narrative voice and time travel. It is certainly science fiction in that it presents us with the aftermath of a war between Russia and America, but there is nothing futuristic about it and it seems likely it is based (as most of the writing in this book is) on Vonnegut’s experiences in the aftermath of the Second World War.

In the story American troops liberate / occupy (take your pick) a small town in Czechoslovakia which had previously been held by the Russians. The story is told form the perspective of a Czech carpenter who has experience of both the First (“I lost my left leg as an Austrian infantryman in 1916”) and Second (“three deep nicks near the iron tip, for the three German officers whose car I sent down a mountainside one night in 1943”) World Wars. To the narrator, the arrival of the Americans is a blessing:

“Now praise God, I was seeing Americans again…Knowing this day was coming had kept me alive.”

In expectation, he has hoarded a bottle of Scotch under the floorboards to celebrate their arrival. However, when the American commander, Major Evans, enters his shop he finds himself treated with contempt. When Evans discovers the narrator can speak English, he comments, “Good for you, Pop.”

“He made me feel like a small dog who had cleverly – for a small dog – fetched him a rubber ball.”

He refuses to shake the narrator’s hand, and when offered whatever he needs from the shop, he assumes the narrator is simply afraid rather than grateful. Evans is contrasted with Captain Donini, whose manner is much more conciliatory. The difference is plain – Evans has experienced years of conflict and Donini hasn’t:

“It was hard to imagine him on a battlefield and it was hard to imagine the major anywhere else.”

Evans spots a desk that the narrator had been making for the Russian commandant:

“I’d designed it as a private satire on the Russian commandant’s bad taste and hypocrisy about symbols of wealth.”

Evans, however, also finds the “hideous piece of furniture” appealing and intends to take it for his office, once the hammer and sickle has been replaced by an eagle. Vonnegut’s point is clear – only the symbols change.

The attitude of Evans is echoed in that of the American soldiers. They are not as bad as the Russians or Nazis, needing to get drunk before their worst behaviour and embarrassed when women or old men stand up to them, but they regard the townspeople as little better than enemies and soon the town has “the atmosphere of a prison.” Eventually the narrator and his daughter drink the whisky while he reminisces about the time when her mother was alive and she was a “young pretty and carefree girl.”

In another story the Major might have been a sympathetic character. We discover that he lost his family in the war, and that he is so numbed by the fighting he wishes he had been killed, and only longs to be transferred to Leningrad where pockets of resistance still hold out. Vonnegut, however, does not let him off so lightly:

“So what are you trying to tell us – that we are all doing penance for the death of the major’s family?”

The narrator has also suffered but his voice remains rational and considered throughout, though a twist at the end shows that all are eventually corrupted by war.

It is not clear when this story was written, but it obviously has a lot to say to contemporary America despite it rather 1950s style World War Three setting. As is often the case with Vonnegut his incomprehension and cynicism fight it out, and neither one is the victor.


November 14, 2009


I’ve already written in my review of Distant Star about some of the reoccuring aspects of Bolano’s writing – the autobiographical characters, the almost obsessive focus on poetry and poets, and the background of Latin American violence – all of which are to be found in this equally short novel, Amulet. This time the setting is Mexico, and Bolano has chosen as a locus the suppression of student protests in 1968. This is literally the centre of the novel, the conceit of which is that the narrator, Auxilio Lacouture, becomes trapped in the toilets of the university during its occupation by the army and is therefore the only individual not to be removed from the campus. From this point, she views memories from both her past and future. Clearly this moment of captivity – where she is trapped or hiding rather than imprisoned – is important. As with Distant Star, much of the violence is kept in the background:

“I was at the university on the eighteenth of September when the army occupied the campus and went around arresting and killing indiscriminately. No. Not many people were killed at the university. That was in Tlatlelolco.”

In Tlatlelolco possibly hundreds of students were killed at a protest rally – the exact death toll has never been established. This is perhaps the “horror story” which Auxilio refers to while at the same time saying, “Told by me, it won’t seem like that.”

Though the novel is largely about the writers and artists in Mexico at that time, the vantage point from which the story is told creates a context that is emblematic of the oppression which has been frequently experienced in Latin America. Auxilio refers to it as:

“From my watchtower, my bloody subway carriage, from my gigantic rainy day.”

This collection of metaphors is a good example of the way Bolano resists schematic symbolism and instead achieves something more impressionistic. The turmoil in the continent is again apparent when Arturo Belano, another of those characters who seem to represent a facet of Bolano, decides in 1973 to return to Chile to take part in the revolution. When Arturo returns to Mexico he is a changed man, no longer “a shy seventeen-year-old who wrote poems and plays and couldn’t hold his liquor.” On behalf of a friend he confronts a local gangster, rescuing a young man in the process.

However, for the most part the heroism of the novel is the heroism of writers, continuing to write in the face of not only oppression, but poverty and obscurity. Auxilio calls herself more than once the “mother of Mexican poetry”, a reference both to her maternal relationship with the younger generation of writers and also a hint at the link between that poetry and the oppression she has witnessed. This link is not an obvious one – these poets do not write protest poems – it is the opposition of violence with aesthetics. We have a glimpse of this when Auxilio’s vision of the future is a list of dates relating to when writers will be read, forgotten or reincarnated. Even art is not the answer, however. Belano leaves Mexico for Europe and instead we are left with the artist Coffeen Serpas, a recluse, who draws “thin and sickly-looking” figures which his mother hawks around the bars.

The impressionistic nature of the novel makes it possible that Auxilio does not, in fact, survive her ordeal at the university, and that the novel is the hallucinatory vision resulting from her hunger. This would explain the constant returning to “the reflection of the waning moon on the tiles of the fourth-floor woman’s bathroom”, and the feeling she has of “being wheeled into an operating room” at one point. Her tiredness towards the end of the novel (“Not long afterwards I started sleeping a lot”) may well reflect approaching death. The novel certainly ends with a vision, one she has referred to earlier, “ an enormous uninhabited valley”, which she remember having dreamed about when trapped in the bathroom. Looking more closely she sees a shadow advancing from the other end of the valley,

“an interminable legion of young people on the march to somewhere…I don’t know if they were creatures of flesh and blood or ghosts.”

They are “walking unstoppably toward the abyss”, singing. They are simultaneously the massacred students of Tlatlelolco, the young poets she has mothered, and the “prettiest children of Latin America.” A novel, which at times has seemed to meander, has come to a powerful and moving conclusion.

Journey into the Past

November 9, 2009

journey into the past

“There you are!” So begins the latest Zweig novella to be made available in English by translator Anthea Bell and Pushkin Press. Zweig’s fiction has provoked a similar response from many readers, seeing something in his work that is perhaps lacking in much modern literature. Certainly, the form is appealing – easily consumed in one sitting, and benefiting from that intensity of experience. At the heart of the appeal, however, is probably raw and unembarrassed emotion, not always expressed openly, but felt deeply.

In Journey into the Past the emotion, as so often, is love. The novella begins by reuniting Ludwig with the woman he has loved for nine years while they have been separated, first by the necessity of him travelling to work in Mexico, and then by the First World War. All the old emotions seem to be in place:

“…he felt that she was the only person really present, removed from time and space in a strange trance of passionate bemusement.”

When Ludwig first met her, she was the wife of his employer, a man much older than her, confined to bed, who hires Ludwig to work as his private secretary. Their relationship is only friendly until Ludwig learns he is to be sent to Mexico and given the responsibility of building a new branch of the company in that part of the world and harnessing the available raw materials. At the thought of leaving, he realises how much he has come to love her:

“My God, he said to himself, leaving her. Like a knife, the thought cut through the proudly swelling sail of his delight.”

The image of travel sabotaged is not misplaced: most of the story is presented to us in the form of memories occurring as the pair travel together to Heidelberg on the train. This is the literal journey into the past, as they return to a place they remember with fondness. When he reaches Mexico one of the ways he attempts to put her from his mind is “by exhausting himself physically with long rides and expeditions into the country.” Time itself becomes a journey for him:

“And like a man chopping trees down in the jungle, he chopped into the wild and still impenetrably menacing time ahead of him with berserk strength and frenzy.”

His love is not unrequited. When she hears the news of his imminent departure, she, too, cannot hide her feelings. Their love, however, is never consummated – only on the last day does this almost happen, but:

“…when in that moment of surrender, the gift of her body was almost his, then in her passion, she stammered out a last plea, ‘Not now! Not here! I beg you!’”

Instead she promises that she will be his when he returns to Germany. It is perhaps this moment, as much as anything, that he seeks to recapture. However, when they find themselves in the same room nine years later, she again resists him:

“And so irresistibly did her own strength dominate his will that, just as in the past, he obeyed her without a word.”

And so, in a sense, the past is recreated – not the passion, but the ‘almost’ moment, and the journey that follows, down the stairs “to the reception rooms, through the front hall and to the door.” In response to this, Ludwig suggests the journey to Heidelberg, a place where they were happy together before they admitted their love to each other. They are greeted there by marching crowds – “a patriotic demonstration of veterans’ associations and students in support of the Fatherland” – a reminder that Germany itself at this time has an uncomfortable relationship with its past. To the couple, this echo of the war only serves to remind them of their separation. His earlier thoughts – “Time is helpless…in the face of our feelings” are replaced with a sense that:

“The past always comes between us, the time that has gone by.”

The novella finishes with a beautiful image. Watching their shadows he at first sees:

“…the shadows ahead merged as if embracing, stretching, longing for one another…”

But this is only an illusion:

“Neither she nor he was the same any more, yet they were searching for each other in a vain effort, fleeing one another, persisting in disembodied, powerless efforts like these black spectres at their feet.”

The final lines are ambiguous, but, once again, Zweig has given us a beautifully rendered relationship, in this instance defeated by time.

‘The Child’

November 2, 2009

first person

Reviewing collections of short stories is a difficult art. You may love one, then find the next rather dull. The more similarities, the easier to discuss, but doesn’t that make the collection as a whole less interesting? Above all, you will be unlikely to be able to examine any of the stories in detail. So instead of attempting a review of Ali Smith’s latest collection, I intend to simply discuss one of the stories, ‘The Child’. It is, of course, my favourite, but it also highlights one of the advantages the short story can have over the novel: the ability to develop the surreal.

The story begins in a deliberately ordinary manner:

“I went to Waitrose as usual in my lunchbreak to get the weekly stuff.”

Notice the emphasis on routine and the intentionally vague “stuff” – too banal to merit further description. However, this is simply to provide a credible background to the first unusual event, the appearance of a child in the narrator’s shopping trolley. Here Smith’s descriptive powers come into full force on the basis that the more unlikely something is, the more the reader needs to picture it – and, as this story rests entirely on the child, we are treated to an extensive portrait:

“The child in it was blond and curly-haired, very fair-skinned and flushed, big-cheeked like a cupid or a chub-fingered angel on a Christmas card or a child out of an old-fashioned English children’s book…”

Interestingly, though the description is intended to make us believe in the child’s existence, it relies heavily on the mythological and fictional. It also presents us with an ideal child, “embarrassingly beautiful” – though “a little crusty round the nose,” a touch of verisimilitude which actually makes it more adorable. Like any rational person, the narrator takes the child to Customer Services, but unfortunately no child has been reported lost, and the woman behind the desk automatically assumes the child is the narrator’s, as do a succession of customers. It is not so much no-one believes the narrator, as they do not hear her – the picture of her with the child creates the automatic assumption she is the mother, and any protestations are put down to the fact she is having a ‘bad day’. When the child starts to cry a woman hands him to the narrator and he stops:

“I had never felt so powerful in all my life.”

This is the first sign of any attraction to owning the child. Whether partly for this reason, or simply because she is bowing to the opinion of those around, the narrator takes the child to her car.

It is at this point the story moves from the unlikely to the surreal, and from the simply interesting to the exceptional: The child suddenly speaks:

“You’re a really rubbish driver…I could do better than that and I can’t even drive.”

The child speaks in a “charming” voice, but what it has to say is less so: a litany of racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks that would make the Daily Mail blush. The narrator’s reaction?

“I was enchanted.”

So much so that when she realises the child is hungry she immediately begins to breastfeed, and plan “how to ensure the child’s later enrolment in one of the area’s better secondary schools,” one of the story’s funniest lines. This despite the fact that we know the narrator is a Guardian reader. The contentment does not last, however, as the child proceeds to tell a series of politically incorrect jokes, and the narrator eventually (in fairy tale fashion) abandons him in the woods.

This story is funny, surprising (even shocking) and thought-provoking. It has a lot to say about the relationship between mothers and children, and society’s assumptions in that area. The non-PC child might represent the more right-wing views that can come with family; the fear of producing a child alien to your own sensibilities; or the link between child-rearing and the disempowerment of women (many of his remarks and jokes are sexist).

And, no, she doesn’t leave the child in the woods. Of course, she worries and goes back for him, and then…well, when it comes to short stories, I think you have to discover the denouement for yourself.

‘The Child’ can be found in The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith.