Archive for March, 2010

Thursday Night Widows

March 28, 2010

Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro had already caught my eye (in a bookshop of all places) before the long-list was announced. Published by Bitter Lemon Press, with its title picked out on both spine and cover in blood red capitals, it would look like any other crime novel were it not for its rather unusual commendation from a Nobel Prize winner, Jose Saramago. It is like any other crime novel in the fact that it opens with a death (three deaths, in fact) and closes by explaining the events surrounding these deaths. In between, however, the novel is more interested in exposing the class divisions of Argentina.

While reading the novel, I came across the following in an extract from Tony Judt’s new book, Ill Fares the Land, in The Guardian:

“But inequality is not just a technical problem. It illustrates and exacerbates the loss of social cohesion – the sense of living in a series of gated communities whose chief purpose is to keep out other people (less fortunate than ourselves) and confine our advantages to ourselves and our families: the pathology of the age and the greatest threat to the health of any democracy.”

This seems to me to provide a good starting point to understanding the novel, set as it is in such a gated community, Cascade Heights:

“It has a golf course, tennis courts, swimming pool and two club houses. And private security…. That’s more than five hundred acres of land, accessible only to us or to people authorised by one of us.”

This narrative voice, what might be dubbed the ‘communal voice’, explains the rules, habits and attitudes of The Cascade with a complacency and smugness that admits no contradiction. It is intermingled with third and first person narration, the third person often focusing on those characters that don’t quite fit in; the first person providing us with a moderately sympathetic character in Virginia Guevara., and preventing the novel becoming an entirely savage attack on the wealthy. There is, however, a certain irony in the fact that the multiple viewpoints do not take us outside the gates.

The novel begins with Virginia’s husband, Ronie, arriving home unexpectedly early from his Thursday card night (the appellation ‘Thursday Night Widows’ is originally a comic reference to the husbands’ absence once a week) and shortly after jumping from the house’s balcony. The necessary hospitalisation that follows means that Virginia does not hear until the next day that the other three regular card players are all dead, apparently killed in an accident. Only at the end does the novel return to the scene of the accident and reveal what actually happened.

In the meantime we become acquainted with Cascade Heights, a name that suggests both superiority and a fall. The culture of the community is conveyed through a series of snapshots, each providing an insight into the families living there. Warning signs are in evidence immediately as Virginia and Ronie get a good deal on their property as the previous owner committed suicide. Virginia is impressed by the house’s study:

“A fully stocked bookcase lined all the walls. The spines were perfect and intact, bound I green and burgundy leather.”

However, the books are false, repeating the same titles over and over.

Cascade Heights is all about appearance. Gustavo may hit his wife, but is respected for his tennis skills. Mariana, desperate for a child, adopts a young girl and her baby brother, but she dislikes the girl’s name, Ramona, and changes it to Romina. Tellingly, when they arrive home for the first time, Ramona is left in the car:

“They went into the house together and the little girl saw the door close behind them.”

As the economic climate worsens, the pressure to keep up appearances increases. This leads to a number of amusing incidents, for example, Teresa persuading Lala to have her lawn reseeded:

“Listen, honey, I know your old man’s got no job and everything’s grim, but this is about more than that.”

Ultimately, though, the novel darkens towards its conclusion.

Could it win? It succeeds both as a crime novel and as an indictment of an unequal society. However, the fact that it is a whodunit (as Ian Rankin will tell you) makes it an unlikely winner.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

March 27, 2010

By far the most interesting book prize in Britain is that awarded by the Independent for fiction translated into English.The longlist was recently announced and you can see it here.

I had only read two of the books – The Coronation and Brodeck’s Report. I have already written at length about Brodeck’s Report which I greatly admire. The Coronation is another excellent Erast Fandorin novel, a series which I have followed from the outset. While it is unlikley to win, its inclusion demonstrates the variety that is to be found in the longlist.

Over the next few weeks I hope to read more of the books and include them on the blog, though as the shortlist is announced in April, I am unlikely to have read them all by then!

A Very Quiet Street

March 21, 2010

A visit to St. Andrews yesterday to hear Frank Kuppner read at Stanza had put me in mind to read his first novel (of sorts), A Very Quiet Street, first published over twenty years ago. A Very Quiet Street takes as its starting point a famous Glasgow murder of 1908, famous not so much for the murder itself (of an elderly woman, Marion Gilchrist, in her own home) but for the trial and conviction of Oscar Slater that followed. Slater was linked to the case via a pawn ticket for a brooch that he attempted to sell shortly after the murder (a brooch was thought to have been stolen, though other valuable jewels had been left). Although it soon transpired that Slater had pawned an entirely different brooch prior to the murder taking place, he remained the prime suspect, and was convicted on the evidence of a number of witnesses who identified him, though their original descriptions given to the police had not tallied, and despite the fact that he had an alibi.

I am giving nothing away here as Kuppner provides a detailed account of the case in his introduction. Indeed if the novel were simply about the Slater case then it would not be a novel at all. The novel also contains elements of autobiography. These are of two main kinds: firstly when Kuppner recalls his childhood, when he lived near where the murder took place; and secondly, contemporaneous with the writing of the text. An example of both can be found in Chapter Thirty-Six. It begins:

“A couple of weeks ago, I read in that day’s newspaper that an old lady of, I think, 83 had been battered to death at he home in I forget exactly which street…”

The same chapter also contains a reminiscence of a visit to his childhood home by detectives when he was a teenager:

“They were I think investigating a murder (no less) in the St. George’s Road…”

(The “I think” in both examples exemplifies the informal tone)These autobiographical detours are often used to point out coincidences, frequently geographical when discussing his childhood; related to the discovery of new sources when occurring as he writes (a new book found in a second hand book shop; a chance meeting with someone who knows something about the case). The latter heightens the sense of investigation, creating the illusion that some vital clue will be unearthed as to the identity of the real murderer as in the traditional whodunit.(Kuppner even includes notes in italics added as he is editing the text). The former creates the impression of a city haunted by its past. That the city itself is an important aspect of the novel is clear from the frequent digressions into architecture:

“Pursuing a little further the question of Miss Gilchrist and the architecture of Glasgow we may remark that Blythswood Square, which is the only typically Edinburgh Square to be found in the Western Metropolis (by the Edinburgh architect, John Brash) was begun in 1823, when Marion Gilchrist was not yet conceived…”

The use of asides is employed throughout, with up to seven sets of brackets closing as a series of added comments comes to an end. These asides are often used to question the very point that Kuppner is making, and this sense of unending possibilities is one of the central themes of the novel. Kuppner does not simply limit himself to the possibilities surrounding the murder, commenting on Gilchrist at one point:

“But if, say, three months earlier, she had fallen victim to a normal minor ailment of the aged, she would be no more to us now than any other of the little old ladies who must have died in West Princes Street, of whom nothing else whatever is known.”

Of course, in isolation this seems both obvious and meaningless, but the saturation of the novel with such statements creates a sense of the unknowingness of life and of the fleeting nature of our possession of it, not simply in terms of mortality but also memory. Above all, this is a novel about memory, form the memories of the witnesses to Kuppner’s own memories, from the chance that allows these characters to remain within our folk memory to the memory of the city of Glasgow itself.

To some extent, Kuppner’s work foreshadows that of Iain Sinclair and Gordon Burn. A Very Quiet Street has never been reprinted, but it’s worth searching out, something that can now be done without relying on the kind of chance discovery to be found within its pages.

Land of Marvels

March 16, 2010

Barry Unsworth has always had an eye for the arresting historical setting – place being as important as time – and Land of Marvels is no exception: it is 1914 and we are in Mesopotamia, the Ottoman Empire is on its last legs and the great powers of Europe are scrambling for a piece of it, a state of mind that will soon lead to global war. However, this is not simply a novel concerned with broad historical themes of war and empire; but one equally interested with the ways in which individuals build narratives to understand and direct their lives.

Much of the novel is set in an archaeological dig where the discovery of a tomb is threatened by the approach of the railway. Somerville, the archaeologist, feels the railway is “aiming at him”, and these two opposing forces, one building relentlessly across the land, the other digging desperately down into it, create the dynamic of the narrative: culture and the desire to understand the past versus commerce and the intention to exploit the future. The railway is portrayed as an unstoppable force:

“Lord, the bridge is made, its claws have come to rest on our side of the Great River …It is all made of steel, is span is greater than any floods can reach.”

The excavation, on the other hand, relies on men working slowly and carefully:

“…there was the regular sharp impact of metal on stone and the softer sound, all-pervasive, as if the whole mound were afflicted by a scraping thickness of breathing, of the earth and rubble being shovelled into the baskets to be borne away.”

Somerville, awkward and uncertain, is opposed by Rampling, a “shipping magnate”. Rampling ruthlessly exploits Somerville, promising him he will protect his work against the encroaches of the railway in return for allowing an American geologist, Elliot, searching for oil to pose as an archaeologist. As the British Ambassador comments:

“But that would mean deceiving the poor fellow, lying to him, sending him away with false hopes.”

The search for oil creates an even more obvious parallel with the excavation. As Elliot says:

“What you are digging up is commodities, as I understand it, bits of pots and so on. Oil is a commodity, right, but it is the future of humanity, it will change the lives of millions.”

Both require careful observation of the surface in an effort to seek out what lies below. Somerville discovers the tomb when he sees “the rough shape of a circle, darker against the biscuit colour of the earth.” Later Elliot finds oil when he sees “a single shallow dome” which he takes to be a salt dome, suggesting oil trapped beneath. Elliot’s affair with Somerville’s wife is another sign that capitalism has the ruthlessness needed to replace erudition in the modern world being created.

However, a knowledge of history has its own advantages. When Palmer, Somerville’s assistant, talks about digging down through half a dozen empires, his fiancée, Pat, comments:

“And they all thought they’d last forever.”

Although apparently most appropriate to the ailing Ottoman Empire, this remark also foreshadows the demise of the British Empire, initiated by the approaching war.

The novel also examines the ways in which people create stories to bring meaning to their lives. Both Rampling and Elliot tell stories of the future which they feel they are bringing into being. Somerville and Palmer create stories for the objects which they find at the excavation. Most significantly, Jahar, Somerville’s Arab messenger, weaves a story of his own future with the woman he loves, Ninanna, in order to seduce her:

“…she would look closely at him, her mouth a little open, her dark eyes full of wonder, as she tried to picture these lands he spoke of…”

As the novel progresses, we see more and more clearly that characters are entirely absorbed in their own individual narratives, whether of patriotism, progress, greed or love. When they coincide, as with Jehar’s need to find money for Ninanna’s bride price and Somerville’s fear of the railway, they can have disastrous consequences. Somerville fails to heed the warning he observes in the ivory carving of a man and a lion which he finds at the beginning of the novel, and which convinces him that the dig is worthwhile:

“Once again it came to Somerville, as he continued to look closely down, that the victim was somehow collaborating in his fate, supporting himself on his arms, holding his face upwards, offering his throat.”

While the lessons of history, in an area where the West still seeks to use its influence for oil, are clear to see, it is what we learn about how we live our lives that is most striking about this novel.

Bad Nature, or Elvis in Mexico

March 13, 2010


Bad Nature by Javier Marias is one of the first titles in a new imprint, Pearl, from the excellent New Directions. The nomenclature is no doubt meant to indicate something small but perfectly formed. Bad Nature is certainly the former at only 57 pages (it has previously been published in English in Granta) and, arguably, also the latter. However, whether it deserves stand alone publication is as much a matter of economics as literary taste; while there is something undeniably attractive about a slim volume that can be easily devoured at one sitting, it compares poorly as an investment in leisure when set alongside a 600 page novel.

Putting page per pound value to one side, this is a gem of a story. It begins, as many of Marias’ novels do, with a series of long, wandering sentences ruminating on a dramatic hook, in this case the idea of being hunted down:

“No one knows what it is to be hunted down without having lived it, and unless the chaser was active and constant, carried out with deliberation, determination, dedication and never a break, with perseverance and fanaticism, as if the pursuers had nothing else to do in life but look for you, keep after you, follow your trail, locate you, catch up with you and then, at best, wit for the moment to settle the score.”

The dark opening fades into a lighter tone as, pleasingly, we discover that this is not simply one of those stories with Elvis in the title adding a little pop culture gravitas:

“It all happened because of Elvis Presley in person, or Mr. Presley as I used to call him until he told me it made him feel like his father.”

The narrator, Roy, it unfolds, worked as an interpreter and language advisor to Elvis when he was shooting Fun in Acapulco in Mexico – location filming that was later denied and never used. This decision was, we learn, the result of a visit to a bar in Mexico City which ended with Elvis in retreat and Roy left behind in the company of some angry Mexican gangsters.

Sudden flashes of violence breaking through the surface of the everyday are typical of Marias, but this summary doesn’t suggest the humour that punctuates much of the narrative beforehand. Much of this is caused by Roy’s sympathy for Elvis:

“Every time I watched them shooting a scene I thought, ‘Oh no, my God, not that senor Presley,’ and the amazing thing was that none of it seemed to bother Mr. Presley, he even, with his undoubted capacity for kidding around, enjoyed the horror.”

This is a sympathy that is largely predicated on his dislike of Elvis’ entourage, particularly George McGraw:

“He was one of those overbearing types who are incapable of rectifying their despotic manners even if they’re very far from the five-hundred-square-mile area where their remote and doubtless crooked business dealings matter.”

It is McGraw who causes the problem in Mexico City. While dancing (“so obscenely that his crazed thrusts of the hip were getting in the way of some of the women on the dance floor”) he takes the handkerchief from the hand of one of the local hard men:

“McGraw filched it from him without so much as a glance, and immediately flung it over his shoulders, holding it by the two ends, and rubbing it against himself, up and down, with the customary celerity that we had seen all too often.”

Insults fly and Roy, as interpreter, is caught in the middle. Our own translator, Esther Allen, leaves some of the conversation in Spanish which, although frustrating to the non-Spanish speaker (presumably everyone as otherwise they would surely read it in the original), helps to convey the tension of the incident and the awkwardness of Roy’s position. When Roy translates Elvis’ insult word for word, he is blamed:

“Whatever Elvis said we didn’t understand, but you we understood, you speak very clearly…”

His culpability is further confuse by the fact Elvis was responding to a comment that Roy had not accurate translated as it involved the gender of nouns, unavailable in English. It is typical of Marias that he should tackle philosophical issues of guilt and meaning in the middle of a bar room fight.

The story, and its exploration of the burden of guilt Roy should bear, does not end there. We return full circle to Roy’s sense of being pursued and the reason for it. It’s a story that can make you both smile and shiver – and a perfect introduction to Marias’ work if you have not encountered him before.