Archive for April, 2010

Your Face Tomorrow 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell

April 26, 2010

The publication of Your Face Tomorrow in three volumes seems, in retrospect, rather arbitrary; the seven sections, indicated by the sub-titles are more indicative of the structure. Each volume has contained one central act of violence and the third is no exception, the only difference being that, on this occasion, the violence is perpetrated by the central character and narrator, Jacques Deza. Deza (if you’re not acquainted with the previous volumes) is a Spaniard working in London for a “mysterious intelligence agency run by Bertram Tupra” (these were the words I was going to use, only to find them on the jacket…) that specialises in ‘reading’ people. The novel’s title (as with many of Marias’) comes from Shakespeare (Henry V), carrying with it connotations of betrayal, and of the difficulty of foreseeing what an individual will be like in the future. In this volume there is a strong sense that Deza himself has been unable to predict his own development.

Volume 2 ended with Tupra savagely attacking a man with a sword, threatening to kill him a number of times. This attack was witnessed by Deza and, at the beginning of this volume he is still discussing this with Tupra:

“I was sure that sooner or later he would ask me that question again: ‘Why can’t one do that? Why can’t one, according to you, go around beating people up and killing them?’ And I still had no answers that would convince him, I had to keep thinking about something we never think about because we take it as universally agreed, as immutable and normal and right.”

As throughout the series, the action is limited but the philosophising around the action is extensive. Marias writes in an extremely digressive style, reflected both in the lengthy conversations in the novel and in the first person narrative. Questions of morality abound, as when Deza sleeps with a young colleague shortly after she has asked him for a favour. Even the act itself is a form of deception:

“…she just let me, she didn’t participate, if one can say that or if that’s possible, at any rate, we didn’t speak, there was no indication on either side that what was happening was happening, how can I put it, we pretended to pretend to be asleep…”

The above extract (only a part of the sentence) gives a good indication of the style, the constant rephrasing in search of the most accurate expression of the idea.

The central incident in this volume, however, occurs when Deza returns home to Madrid to see his children and his wife, from whom he is separated. When he discovers that she is seeing someone else, and suspects that that person may have been violent towards her, he has to decide whether to take action or not. The implication is that his actions now may not be the same as before he met Tupra, particularly as he asks Tupra for advice:

“And you’re asking me what you should do? Or what is it you’re asking? What I would do in your place? Well, you know perfectly well by now, Jack, what I would do.”

Needless to say, a confrontation with the man in question occurs, and you might even argue that Deza changes in the course of that meeting:

“What face am I wearing now?…It’s the face of all those men and rather fewer women who have held someone else’s life in their hands and it could, from one moment to the next, come to resemble the face of those who chose to take that life.”

Marias, however, is not simply interested in the uses of fear and violence, but in the consequences. He does not end the novel with the aftermath of this event, but adds as a coda a wartime story from an old lecturer of Deza’s, Charles Wheeler. Wheeler tells him of his wife’s suicide, the result of a wartime betrayal she could not forgive herself for. His conclusion is that:

“…you can live with what has happened to you, with what you came here to talk to me about, because, unlike her, you find it hard to believe that you were responsible.”

In Marias’ work all moral concepts (in this case, guilt) become fluid – just as in war, a topic he frequently returns to throughout the sequence.

These three novels surely establish Marias as a major European writer. If you are at all interested in contemporary literature, you should make time for them.

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Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist

April 20, 2010

The shortlist for the prize was announced last Friday, as follows:

Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel
The Blind Side of the Heart by Julia Franck
Fists by Pietro Grossi
Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou
The Dark side of Love by Rafi Schami
Chowringee by Sankar

I should be pleased as I’ve read three of the six books – however, I’ve since read Your Face Tomorrow 3 and I’m now in the middle of The Kindly Ones, neither of which made the shortlist depite being the two most high profle novels on the longlist. This is not entirely surprising as the prize has tended to ignore established authors (or novels) and focus on writers who have not enjoyed the same amount of translation or attention.

Out of sheer bloody-mindedness, I will, of course, continue through the longlist as planned, no doubt finishing long after the winner is announced…

Yalo

April 9, 2010

Yalo is Elias Khoury’s tenth novel, though not all of his previous work has been translated into English. You don’t have to look too deeply to see the reasons for this. A Lebanese author, he writes about the complex history and troubles of a part of the world that many of us might not want to be reminded of outside of news broadcasts. Equally, his style could not be described as reader friendly, relying on interior monologue and other initially narrow narrative viewpoints. Yalo tells the story of a young man, Daniel, whose complicated upbringing leads to involvement in the civil war in Beirut, desertion to France, and finally arrest and interrogation, accused of robbery and rape. The story, however, is not told chronologically – Daniel – or Yalo – is already under interrogation when the novel begins. It is also told entirely from Yalo’s point of view, generally in third person, but interspersed with first person confessions that Yalo is made to write, and then rewrite, in the course of his interrogation. From this initially confusing and uncompromising approach, however, emerges a powerful portrait of a troubled young man who struggles to understand the world around him.

At the heart of the novel lies Yalo’s love for Shireen, the woman who has accused him of rape. He meets her as a result of lying in wait in a secluded spot, armed with a Kalashnikov, for lovers in their cars, with the intention of robbing them, and perhaps raping the women. He claims that this began by chance:

“Then he put his hand into his pocket and gave me a handful of dollars and Lebanese lira. I hadn’t planned to rob him. I hadn’t a plan at all. I’d only wanted to watch.”

With Shireen, however, it is different:

“But I confess before God and before you that I used to rape women, because you call it rape, and because after I became enamoured of Shireen I discovered that it was rape compared with the beautiful, fantastic sex a person can have with the woman he loves.”

The phrase “you call it rape” reveals that we cannot trust Yalo to know if it is rape or not. It is also clear that he stalked her:

“Yes. I used to wait at her flat. The when she came out, I’d follow her to work and wait. Then I’d follow her back home.”

On the other hand, Shireen claims to have been there with her fiancé the night they met, whereas Yalo says it was another man, a doctor who performed an abortion on her, something he has no reason to lie about. Shireen also meets him a number of times after that night. Is this simply out of fear? Questions like these mean that our sympathies for Yalo tend to fluctuate as the narrative progresses.

The interrogation itself gives us reason to sympathise with him. Brutal throughout, it includes placing the lower half of his body, naked, in a sack with a cat and then beating the cat, and also forcing him to sit on a Coke bottle. It also becomes clear that they not only want him to confess to the rape, but to other crimes he has not committed:

“Do you really think we’re stupid enough to believe that it’s just about playing the peeping tom and doing your dirty business? We want all the information about the network that’s been planting bombs and wreaking havoc around the country.”

Despite his crimes, Yalo often appear the victim, not simply of his interrogators, but of chance. Even his background is a matter of chance: his grandfather, who raises him with his mother, was born a Syrian Christian, but brought up by a Muslim Kurd, only to return, later, to his roots. Yalo, though raised a Syrian, speaks Arabic. In this way Khoury dramatises the complex histories and relationships of the area. Yalo’s current job as a night watchman is also a matter of chance as he met his employer in Paris, after being abandoned there by the fellow soldier he had stolen money and deserted with. It is perhaps the fact that, as his life unfolds before us, we realise that meeting Shireen is the first time that he has experienced love, which makes his story so affecting. However sympathetic we feel towards him by the end, though, Khoury has undoubtedly created a complex, three dimensional character who resists our judgement.

Can it win? This is a very fine novel, and Khoury is exactly the kind of writer the Prize is designed to promote. It should make the short list at least.

Fists

April 5, 2010

Fists is a collection of three short stories by the Italian writer, Pietro Grossi. His admiration for Hemingway is referred to more than once on the jacket, and can be seen clearly in the first two stories, both of which are concerned with growing up and what it means to be a man. Even their titles, ‘Boxing’ and ‘Horses’, seem to come from a different time, and there is little in them to suggest Italy or the 21st century.

‘Boxing’ is narrated by a young man who describes himself as:

“…the perfect son – studious, nerdy, conventional, obedient, who went to bed early and who, if you asked, even said his prayers before going to sleep. But he didn’t want to play the piano.”

In fact, the only way he will agree to play the piano is if his mother lets him box. A battle of wills ensues which he eventually wins, albeit having been forbidden from ever boxing competitively. He turns out to be a skilful boxer, nicknamed the Dancer as a result of the speed and grace of his movement in the ring:

“I was kind of a legend….It was said that I was the best, the strongest, and that I didn’t fight because I knew I’d already won.”

All this changes when he sees the Goat, a fighter diametrically opposed in style. Where he is thought unbeatable, the Goat is unbeaten, and for the first time he feels the need to know whether he can beat someone. Grossi’s description of the fight is a tour de force and the centre piece of the story. Victory is not clear cut and it is this that gives that story its resolution, with Grossi indicting his theme in the final sentence:

“I had the feeling this was Man’s business, and I wasn’t used to it.”

‘Horses’ too is about the trials and obligations of being a man, and might remind you of Cormac McCarthy as well as Hemingway. It is about two brothers, Daniel and Natan, who are given horses by their father to teach them about responsibility. In order to train the horses they must work for Old Pancia, the local horse dealer, in return for his expertise. Whereas Natan uses his horse to escape to the freedom of the nearest town, Daniel remains with Pancia, learning all he can, and eventually buying a sick horse and nursing her back to health. Unfortunately the man he bought the horse from feels cheated and takes his revenge. What is important is Daniel’s reaction to this. When he returns home for rifle, his father

“…wondered if he ought to do something, or stop Daniel from doing something, but he had a kind of feeling that his son had understood what he was thinking. Then it struck him that it had been a while now since, without saying anything, each of them had chosen to live his own life, and that it was pointless to do anything.”

Key to the story is Daniel’s decision to deal with this himself; and in particular, without the support of his brother, whom he later tells, “It’s not your business.”

The third story, ‘The Monkey’, seems more modern from the moment a phone rings in the very first sentence (although we soon discover it is a landline, and that the main character, Nico, does not possess a mobile). The call is from Maria, the sister of an old friend, Piero. She tells him that Piero has started “acting like a monkey,” and when we meet him later, we find that this is exactly the case:

“He was naked, crouching beside the bed, playing with a little pile of pistachio shells, just like a monkey.”

Nico and Piero’s meeting takes up only a page of the story, but in the course of it he remembers an earlier phone call, and there are indications that Piero might be in love with Nico. Similarly, Nico was once attracted to Maria:

“Nico had immediately fallen in love with her, and for years Maria had been his erotic fantasy, the inaccessible almost mystical creature everyone encounters sometime during their adolescence.”

Indeed, Nico’s visit to Piero is partly predicated on meeting Maria again, but the difference between Nico and Piero is that Nico seems more resigned to letting his dreams go, as can be seen from his relationship with his present girlfriend. ‘The Monkey’ is not as neat as the other two stories, but in some ways that makes it the most interesting.

Can it win? It’s difficult for short stories to compete against novels, so it’s unlikely. However, all three stories have something to recommend them, and this may well make the short list.

Broken Glass

April 2, 2010

Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass does not give us what we might expect from an African novel. There is no heroic character struggling against poverty or oppression; instead we have an unsympathetic narrator who has given up. Even his nickname, Broken Glass, suggests his incorrigible nature:

“…you can’t do anything to me, whoever heard of mending a Broken Glass…”

Having lost his job as a teacher, and his wife, he now spends his days in a bar, drinking and writing down the stories of those around him. Even this almost purposeful activity begins as a joke:

“let’s say the boss of the bar Credit Gone West gave me this notebook to fill, he’s convinced that I – Broken Glass – can turn out a book because one day, for a laugh, I told him about this famous writer who drank like a fish…”

The novel is written in a rambling style appropriate to its drunken narrator; long paragraphs cascading down the page without full stops and new chapters beginning abruptly without capitalisation. This is not to say it is in any way confusing to read – each chapter tends to focus on one story, usually based around another of the bar’s customers.

The novel opens as if Mabanckou’s main purpose was political satire. When the Minister for Agriculture hits on a memorable, if vacuous, catch phrase (“I accuse”), the President responds with anger:

“…he wished he had said it himself, and couldn’t understand why his own advisors hadn’t come up with a similarly short but snappy slogan…”

A desperate search for just such a phrase begins. The events which follow would not seem out of place in an episode of In the Thick of It, and neither would the chosen slogan, “I have understood you.”

However, from then on the novel is largely a series of hard luck stories told to Broken Glass by customers in the bar. These are amusing but suffer from the law of diminishing returns, particularly as they all tend to revolve around betrayal by a woman. They certainly highlight powerlessness and injustice, with one man (“the Pampers guy” – here everyone is known by a nickname) ending up in prison without trial, and another, the Printer, in an asylum. (The latter takes place in France, suggesting that such treatment is not confined to Africa).

Broken Glass’s own story involves his anger at his wife for eventually leaving him, though most readers will sympathise with this decision as his unrepentant drinking, which culminates in his dismissal from his teaching position, becomes quite wearing even in the course of the novel. Here is his own description of his final days as a teacher:

“I apparently even used to turn up late for classes when I’d been drinking, and apparently I used to show my buttocks to the children in anatomy class, and apparently I used to draw giant sex organs on the board, and apparently I even used to piss in a corner of the classroom…”

Throughout it all he is unrepentant, revealing a nihilism in his drinking which seems as much a determination not to change as a need for alcohol.

For all its humour, the novel increasingly becomes a cry of despair, as the references to The Catcher in the Rye in the final chapters make clear. These are simply the most obvious of the allusions to both Western and African culture throughout. The intention may be to show that we cannot simply dismiss the narrator as ignorant and uncultured, or it may be that the writer wants to illustrate that, despite its naïve narrative style, the novel is as crafted as any other.

Broken Glass is an interesting novel as it portrays its African setting (the Congo) with an unabashedly modern slant. Mabanckou teaches French literature in California, and the most obvious influences are French and American. While it is ultimately despairing, the novel is often humorous, though the humour is frequently of a scatological kind (one of the funniest scenes in the book is a pissing contest). It is, however, rather uneven in its purpose: initially satiric, then tending towards set piece stories, and finally focusing largely on its narrator.

Could it win? It certainly has impact, but probably lacks the depth. It’s a slender 165 pages and structurally unconvincing.