Archive for February, 2010

The Year of the Flood

February 20, 2010

End of the world novels seem thicker on the ground than they were when Margaret Atwood published Oryx and Crake, to which this novel is a companion piece, featuring some of the same characters, seven years ago. Even that was a sign that literary writers were moving away from using science fiction to tackle social issues (as Atwood did in The Handmaid’s Tale) to addressing environmental ones. Atwood’s intent to deal with both global catastrophe and religion is made clear in her title, The Year of the Flood. In the novel she presents us with two main narratives, Toby’s and Ren’s. Both, at some point, find themselves part of the cult religion, God’s Gardeners. Their stories initially alternate, and finally unite, interspersed with speeches from Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners, and hymns from their hymnbook, which Atwood has had set to music and performed.

Both stories are told post-apocalypse, but tell of events leading up to the ‘flood’ as well as the aftermath. This allows Atwood to present us with a vivid picture of the pre-catastrophe world, a distorted version of our own, where rich and poor are literally divided, the rich living in walled compounds owned by corporations and protected by their private police force, the CorpSeCorp – the abbreviation of corporation and security neatly creating the word ‘corpse’. This is just one example of Atwood’s playfulness with language, from the crossbred animals like rakunks and liobams to the phonetic corporations like ANooYoo and HelthWyzer. My favourite is perhaps the name for those who live in the slums, the pleebrats, with its connotations of plebeian, rats, mallrats and brats.

This world is an unpleasant place for just about everyone. Even in the compounds, life is far from safe: any attempt to rebel against the Corporation may well end in an unfortunate ‘accident’, and scientists are frequently kidnapped by rival power blocks. Outside the compounds it is dog eat dog, as Toby’s back story makes clear. Desperately short of money, she ends up working at Secretburger (so called because what they put in the burgers is a secret), and soon finds herself the manager’s sex slave, shortly after he has murdered the last one:

“She’d been Blanco’s one-and-only for less than two weeks but it felt like years. His view was that a woman with an ass as skinny as Toby’s should consider herself in luck if any man wanted to stick his hole-hammer into her.”

Atwood shows the particular dangers for women in this society. After leaving the Gardeners, Ren finds work as a dancer and prostitute; Amanda uses sex to gain favours; and, after the Flood, women are seen by some as possessions to be used and traded. The polarisation, however, is not simply between rich and poor, but between the intellect and the animal. In the compounds science is used to satisfy every human whim, the only aim being to make a profit. People are remade, animals are spliced together, and immortality is the ultimate goal. Outside people live from hand to mouth, eating whatever is available, in thrall to the strongest and most violent.

God’s Gardeners are Atwood’s alternative. Like many religions they believe in an approaching apocalypse, but they prepare for it by creating stores of food, and by teaching the skills that people will need to survive afterwards. Many of their ideas come from the environmental movement: not eating meat; having very few possessions; re-using and recycling everything. One of their central aims is to unite what we know from science with religion. We see this in Adam One’s first speech:

“Unlike some other religions, we have never felt it served a higher purpose to lie to children about geology.”

We also see the intention in their hymns, for example in ‘My Body is My Earthly Ark’:

“It’s builded firm of genes and cells,
And neurons without number;
My Ark enfolds the million years
That Adam spent in slumber.”

Atwood’s decision to have the hymns set to music and performed has led to suggestions that this religion is something she takes seriously outside of the world of the novel. Her presentation, however, is hardly uncritical. The numerous saint’s days, named after varied and fallible historical figures, come to seem slightly ridiculous. The Gardeners themselves are involved in the movement for a number of reasons, not all of them sincere, Toby and Ren included (Toby is there initially for protection, Ren because her mother has joined). The Gardeners who survive to the end both eat meat and use violence to protect themselves. It has to be said, though, that their survival shows their preparedness and their responses are often the most logical.

Like all of Atwood’s fiction, The Year of the Flood is a page-turner, at times as tense as a thriller, and illuminated with bursts of imagination. At no point did I find myself preferring one narrative to the other, as often happens in novels with alternating stories. Coincidence, however, plays too large a part, with characters reappearing at a rate that stretches credulity. Blanco, in particular, becomes a pantomime villain brought on whenever the audience requires something to boo at. Other characters meet up years apart more frequently than is likely, even for a novel. The conclusion is weakened by this as the only resolution we are granted is the coming together of a number of the novel’s characters to make a new community. The rather arbitrary finish perhaps reflects its synthesis with Oryx and Crake, but is not entirely satisfying when considered alone. Still, it’s more enjoyable and more interesting than most novels.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov

February 13, 2010

Olga Grushin’s wonderful debut novel is set during the beginnings of glasnost in the Soviet Union but its examination of that point in history is focused on one man’s coming to terms with his past. The eponymous Sukhanov is an art critic with, at first glance, an enviable life. The son-in-law of a famous artist, he edits the prestigious Art of the World magazine, lives in a comfortable apartment with his wife and two children, and also owns a house in the country. In the novel’s opening scene he is invited by the Minister for Culture to a “get together” at his dacha, but it is at this moment that things begin to go wrong: he notices his chauffeur-driven car is missing and cannot concentrate on the conversation, so missing the invitation. Shortly after he is challenged by a young journalist, a friend of his daughter’s, on his admiration for his father-in-law’s paintings:

“No, I don’t believe you really think that…His paintings are so fake everyone must see it, they’re just afraid to say it.”

On leaving the party in search of his car he meets an old friend from his student days, Lev Belkin, who has continued to paint in a style disapproved of by the authorities, and so remained poor. Sukhanov is embarrassed to be seen with him and glad when he leaves, but the meeting has its effect:

“…all at once, this stray little thought released in him some echo of the past, a solitary trembling note whose sound rose higher and higher in his chest, awakening inarticulate longings and, inseparable from them, a piercing, unfamiliar sorrow.”

From that point on, Sukhanov’s life in the present disintegrates as we learn about, and he reacquaints himself with, his past. We discover that in his youth he was painter of real talent whose admiration of surrealism and abstract painting led to him being at odds with the authorities. When he is finally allowed to exhibit one of his paintings it is immediately withdrawn on Kruschev’s orders and, as a result, he loses his job as a lecturer. His wife, Nina’s, father, previously dismissed by Sukhanov for his Soviet realist style, offers him the chance to earn money by writing art criticism denouncing the painters he admires. He takes up the offer, believing he is doing the best thing for his wife, and soon stops painting all together. Wealth and happiness seem to follow, but now that life seems to be falling apart. Nina is increasingly withdrawn – indeed, it might be argued that his problems begin when he loans her portrait to her father’s retrospective. His daughter and son seem to have become polarised aspects of his own personality: the daughter is involved with a rock singer and performance artist; the son is a self-seeking social climber who is now using his grandfather to get ahead.

Grushin handles Sukhanov’s breakdown very skilfully, in particular by creating an atmosphere of madness which draws on the supernatural tradition in Russian literature in the form of a distant cousin, Fydor Dalevich, who visits unannounced:

“His pleasant middle-aged face sported a neat little beard, and his blue eyes shown with a mild, harmless, near-sighted friendliness behind his glasses.”

Dalevich usurps Sukhanov’s place in his bed and in his magazine, being the author of an article on Dali that is published in place of the one Sukhanov can never finish. Ultimately, Sukhanov comes to believe he is a character from a Dali painting, a clever touch as he one of a number of surreal elements in the novel, all of which can also be explained rationally.

Grushin also neatly links the past with the present, often using a piece of dialogue. This is helped by many of Sukhanov’s memories resurfacing when he returns to the place where the memory occurred. As Sukhanov moves from the present into the past, so the narrative moves form third person to first person, making his memories seem more real to Sukhanov than the present. As the novel progresses, this dream life of Sukhanov’s takes precedent over his real life. Equally, Sukhanov must face the fact that his life is not the one he once dreamed of.

The novel offers no neat conclusions. A superficial reading may suggest that Sukhanov is man who betrays his own dreams and lives to regret it. However, Belkin also has regrets over remaining true to his dream, describing his paintings as:

“…self-indulgent exercises in passing time, pathetic imitations of fashions the West tried and discarded decades ago.”

The imagery of flight that reoccurs throughout the novel is also ambiguous. Sukhanov’s father, who tells him not to let anyone clip his wings, dies when he jumps from a building believing he can fly. Even at the end, when he chooses to returns to art, he is momentarily overwhelmed with happy memories of his family.

This is an extremely impressive first novel, a meditation on art and life, truth and compromise. Grushin’s second novel, which arrives shortly, is to be anticipated.

Alone in Berlin

February 10, 2010

Almost all European fiction finds it difficult to make inroads into English, but German literature seems to struggle more than most. French novels are far more frequently translated – and often feted on the basis of the prizes they have won in France. In the post-war period, only Gunter Grass and, more recently, Bernhard Schlink, have become widely known outside Germany. Both made their name with novels examining their country’s Nazi past; but here is a novel by a writer who lived through that period, as a writer, and wrote in response to it almost immediately, in 1946. Hans Fallada was acutely aware of the dilemmas faced by his characters, having been pressured into altering his own work when the Nazis were in power. Although presented as a novel about resistance to the Nazis, Fallada gives us a much wider picture of life in Nazi Germany: for every character who protests, there is one who supports, compromises, or simply looks out for themselves. That Fallada is interested in all these characters is shown by the way that, from chapter to chapter, he moves among his cast to create a panoramic view of Berlin at that time.

Fallada presents his main theme to us quite starkly towards the end of the novel:

“Would you rather live for an unjust cause than die for a just one?”

This is the question that Fallada’s unlikely hero, Otto Quangel, answers no to. He is initially far from a hero, both in appearance and character. Our attention is frequently drawn to his “sharp, angular bird face”, and his most pronounced characteristics are his taciturnity and meanness:

“Quangel really seemed to feel every ten pfenning piece he was forced to contribute at collection time.”

His main reason for not joining the Party seems to be that he resents the extra dues he would have to pay. He is not, however, without more positive qualities. He has an innate sense of fairness and dislikes the Party for promoting those who don’t deserve it simply for being Party members. He also clearly loves his wife, something we are told at the beginning (“In his quiet, demonstrative way, he loves this woman very much”) and is equally evident at the end.

Otto and his wife, Anna’s, resistance takes the form of writing anti-Nazi messages on postcards and then leaving them for others to find. Not only is this a rather passive way to resist, but Fallada makes it quite clear that it is ineffectual – almost every postcard is immediately handed in. Their rebellion only begins when their son dies in the war. They are not the only characters who resist in the novel and, in a number of cases, this is linked to the loss of a child. Eva Klug’s resistance begins when she ‘loses’ her son to the Nazis, not through death, but because she discovers the atrocities he has been involved in. Trudel, once Otto’s son’s fiancée, talks of hiding a Jewish woman after she has a miscarriage. The motives of other characters who resist the regime, such as Judge Fromm, are less clear.

However, Fallada is not only interested in those who resist; the narrative spends an equal amount of time with those who either worked for the regime or sought to profit from it. In fact, Fallada quite cleverly weaves together this group of petty criminals and Nazis to emphasise their similarity. One particular example of this is the Quangels’ Jewish neighbour, Frau Rosenthal, whose husband has already been imprisoned. Borkhausen, the basement-dwelling thief and blackmailer, is soon scheming how he can get his hands on her belongings, as are the local Nazis, the Persickes. Later, a member of the Gestapo also attempts to steal from the house. Although these characters are often ridiculed, Fallada is also capable of moments of sympathy, particularly in the case of Inspector Escherich, a detective who never quite belongs in the world of the Party.

Escherich provides one of the best examples of the atmosphere of fear that inhabits the entire novel. When, having failed to catch the Quangels, he suggests the case be given to another detective this is regarded as “desertion in the face of the enemy”, and he is taken to the cells to be punished. The fear that permeates every level of society is evident from the beginning when Borkhausen attempts to blackmail Otto:

“You know I can get you put in a concentration camp for defeatist muttering like that?”

We see it again when the first postcard is found by actor Max Harteisen:

“Sweat beaded on his brow, suddenly he understood that it wasn’t just the writer of the postcard, but also himself, who was in danger of his life, and perhaps he even more than the other!”

It is in the portrayal of this aspect of life under the Nazis that the novel is most successful.

It is not, however, simply a document, but a cleverly crafted novel, with a diverse cast of characters, flitting between farce and pathos, not unlike Dickens. It is also page turner, shifting perspective to increase tension. It certainly worth discovering, even sixty years later.