Archive for June, 2010

Mirrors

June 21, 2010

Eduardo Galeano became news-worthy in 2009 when the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, gave his American counterpart his book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Mirrors (subtitle: Stories of Almost Everyone) is a more ambitious project, a history of the world in less than four hundred pages. Galeano has described his style as:

“…stories that are integrated, always integrated in a huge mosaic of other stories interlinking, sort of a conversation between different experiences, emotions, ideas, sounds, colours…”

Mirrors is similarly made up of hundreds of shorter pieces of text, each around a third of a page, telling its individual story but also building a larger picture.

Of course, a history of the world that will satisfy everyone, or indeed anyone, is unlikely, no matter how expansive and all-embracing it attempts to be. This is not, however, where Galeano’s ambitions lie. Instead he presents the reader with a particular viewpoint, so much so that the image of a lens seems more appropriate than a mirror. But in Galeano’s view history frequently reflects itself, generally as a battle between freedom and tyranny. His heroes are those who resist; his villains are rulers, colonisers, and religions.

Strictly speaking, this is literature not history: Galeano uses the techniques of fiction (juxtaposition, irony, symbolism) in order to convey a truth about the world we live in. His early sources are mythical rather than historical, with stories from Africa (Exu), South America (Quetzacoatl), the Middle East (Gilgamesh), Polynesia (Maui), Egypt (Thoth, Osiris), India (Ganesha) and Northern Europe (Odin). These stories are presented neither with belief nor disbelief; similarly, not one of them is characterised as superior to the others. Galeano has established within the first few pages that his book will range across the continents and not seek to rank them. His political views are also clarified in his titles for these myths, such as ‘Origin of Social Classes’ and ‘Serfs and Lords’.

Galeano also frequently uses juxtaposition to make his point. For example, an early story that begins:

“When Iraq was not yet Iraq, it was the birthplace of the first written words.”

transports us to the near present within a few lines:

“In our days, George W. Bush, perhaps believing that writing was invented in Texas, launched with joyful impunity a war to exterminate Iraq.”

No pretence at objectivity there, though the cheap if amusing remark about “believing writing was invented in Texas” suggests a less restrained anger than is typical. Indeed, the few references to the Iraq war betray a less artful side to Galeano’s writing that may unfortunately date an otherwise timeless book. The same technique working in reverse is to be found in ‘Forbidden to Be’ which begins by listing all the prohibitions, including bathing in public baths, aimed at Muslims by Philip II of Spain in 1567, but ends with the line:

“A century before, there had been six hundred public baths in the city of Cordoba alone.”

Galeano also themes sections of the book, so, for example, we find a series of stories on war or writing or the Devil (the titles alone here make a point: ‘The Devil is Muslim’; ‘The Devil is Jewish’; ‘The Devil is Black’; ‘The Devil is Female’…). Others are brief biographies, though even those of figures from the arts focus on the political. Beethoven “had a prisonlike childhood and he believed in freedom as a religion”. Goya was court painter for Ferdinand VII, but “artist and king detested each other”.

“The artist had no choice but to do the job that earned him his daily bread and provided an effectual shield against the enmity of the Holy Inquisition.”

This may well be true, but you can almost hear the sigh of relief when Goya loses his job and retires to the country to paint his Black Paintings. If the artists himself isn’t amenable to politics then his work maybe. Kafka’s writings are seen as an echo of the First World War:

“In a certain way those stories, those books, continued in the newspapers, which day after day told of the progress of the war machine.”

This determination to remain faithful to his vision, however, is a strength rather than a weakness, particularly as it is a view of the world that we so rarely get to see in our own media. This strikes me as a book to be gifted to the young, not as the history of the world but as a history, and one that should not be ignored. If it is a mirror, it is a broken one, where every piece reflects the same truth in a myriad different ways.

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If it is your life

June 16, 2010

James Kelman’s seventh collection of short stories shows no change of direction: swearing, colloquial language (not always Scottish) and interior monologues abound. But then, Kelman’s relentless pursuit of creation without compromise has always been one of his most admirable features, at least to those of us who regard him as Scotland’s most significant living writer.

Isolation remains a strong theme throughout. As the narrator remarks in ‘I am as Putty’:

“There are people in this world who exist in a state of siege. They construct a moat round themselves and are continually raising the drawbridge.”

In many stories, the lack of connection Kelman explores is between the sexes. Kelman has commented, “For most men, females are mysterious; the converse is also the case,” and this is shown in story after story, a number of which feature couples. In ‘talking about my wife’ (the ‘about’ immediately signposting a distance in a story in which the narrator in talking to his wife) this can be seen in a succession of sentences like, “She ignored this,” and “She did not answer.” Instead emphasis is placed on the wife ‘watching’ and ‘studying’ her husband. The shorter story ‘Vacuum’, also about a married couple, ends with the lines:

“Even the way she was looking at me. How come she was looking at me? I looked at her. I stared at her. It was not hard to do.”

‘A Sour Mystery’ is about a man and the ex-girlfriend he resents for suddenly treating him as a non-sexual being (“Maybe she mistook me for a monk”):

“Jennifer had stopped talking to me in an honest and true fashion.”

In the title story, a student returning home to Glasgow considers his various relationships, friends and family, but particularly with Celia, a middle-class English girl he has met at university:

“I did not know women, I did not know them at all.”

It should not be assumed, however, that Kelman portrays this lack of connection simply as a bleak reminder of our essential aloneness. As anyone who has read his first novel, The Busconductor Hines, knows, he can present nuanced, loving relationships in this solipsist manner. This is often shown through physical attraction, for example in ‘talking about my wife’:

“Cath’s hand is a really sort of pleasant thing, it is soft and warm. I always found it pleasing in an aesthetic way.”

The narrator of ‘as if from nowhere’ is similarly attracted to his nurse:

“Even more astonishing, that a woman should allow such a hand to touch her skin, stroke her skin, to trace, these lines and surface of the skin whoever drew the surface of the skin, had any artist ever managed that.”

Both refer to drawing the hand, distrusting the ability of words to capture the emotion. One of the most moving stories, ‘death is not.’, tells of a dying man who is unable to speak to his wife:

“I wanted to explain to her I did not not answer intentionally. I did not care about the others. Only her, and even to her I found I could not answer.”

Here the silence becomes a closer bond than words.

Kelman also continues to portray the conflicts between the individual and the “greatbritishsocialsystem”. There are stories set in hospitals, an employment exchange, and a court. More than once, however, there is a sense that the appetite for the fight has gone:

“Why did people not fight? It was the same in Scotland. People didn’t fight, not like in the old days.”

That this is followed by the expression “Scots wha hae,” reminds us not to take the narrator’s nostalgia for Kelman’s, but the topic is touched on again in ‘Man to Man’ when a man abuses his wife in a bar:

“How come they were letting it happen?”

Ageing itself is a preoccupation, with three of the stories set in hospitals and many of them featuring an ‘old Jimmy’ or ‘old Mister McGuire’. The grandfather in ‘The Gate’ refers to himself as having the “typical elderly male role”, and in ‘The Third Man, or else the Fourth’ the homeless narrator is feeling the cold:

“Auld age; the blood gets thin.”

Even the young man in ‘Ingrained’ comments;

“That was you getting old when your memory went.”

But Kelman is neither bleak nor cynical. Much dark humour is to be found, for example when the narrator of ‘Tricky times ahead pal’ finds that the wrong leg has been removed from his trousers:

“So now I had to wear the trousers back to front.”

Interestingly, characters are frequently seen to be smiling. This is not to suggest that you would turn to Kelman for laughs; but if you are interested in contemporary writing at all you should be reading him.

Little Man, What Now?

June 6, 2010

The success of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin has been astonishing, capturing the attention of the general reader in a way that other well-received revivals, Sandor Marai or Stefan Zweig for example, have not. Hopefully, at least some of those readers will be drawn, like me, to investigate some of Fallada’s other work, including this new translation of Little Man, What Now? by Susan Bennett, which began this reappraisal of his novels. As Philip Brady’s excellent Afterword reveals, Fallada’s popularity should not surprise us as the novel was widely read in its day, translated into numerous languages, and made into a film both in Germany and Hollywood.

As with Alone in Berlin, the focus is very much on (as the title implies) characters that seemed marked out by their very ordinariness. Whereas that novel centres on an elderly couple who lose their son, this one begins with a young couple who marry when they discover that are going to become parents. Ironically, they discover this when consulting a doctor about contraception – needed because they can’t afford to have children. Pinneberg’s reaction to the news emphasises this:

“ ‘Doctor,’ said Pinneberg and his lip trembled, ‘I earn one hundred and eighty marks a month! Please, Doctor!’”

References to money are a constant throughout the novel: it opens with Pinneberg speculating that the doctor must “earn a packet”, and lingers over the fifteen mark payment the couple must make to him. It doesn’t take long before the reader has a fairly accurate idea of just how much a mark is worth in Germany in the early thirties. This verifies Fallada’s almost documentary style, but does not tell the whole story. The couple’s poverty and struggle to survive are set beside their love for each other. Again, we see this from the opening scene, when Pinneberg looks towards Lammchen:

“How beautiful she was! thought Pinneberg yet again; she was the greatest girl in the world, the only one for him.”

The use of the pet name ‘Lammchen’ throughout, even in the narrative, suggests their love, and Pinneburg soon decides, on discovering Lammchen’s pregnancy, that they should marry:

“Her eyes lit up. She had dark blue eyes with a green tinge. And now they were fairly overflowing with light.”

From this point on, the novel follows them as they attempt to make ends meet, often accounting their income and expenditure mark by mark. This struggle is marked out by anxiety and powerlessness. Pinneberg must keep their marriage secret as his job relies on the possibility that he might marry the boss’s daughter. Inevitably, when they are discovered, he loses the job, and the impossibility of finding another one with millions unemployed is slim until they receive a letter form his estranged mother. A friend of hers finds Pinneberg work in a department store in Berlin, but there he is constantly threatened with sales quotas. However, as I have already mentioned, this grinding poverty is counter-pointed with moments of extravagant love, for example when Pinneberg buys Lammchen a dressing table they can’t afford:

“Pinneberg looked at it, at length. He stepped back, the forward; it was just as beautiful either way. The mirror was a good one too. It would be lovely to see Lammchen sitting in front of it in the morning I her red and white bathrobe…”

Fallada lingers over the purchase and the delivery of this gift that symbolises Pinneberg’s love for his wife, and at no point does she upbraid him for this spendthrift action.

Fallada also highlights the couple’s honesty, in contrast to characters who are better off through less legal means, like Pinneberg’s mother and her boyfriend Jachmann. Pinneberg’s friend, Heilbutt, also does well for himself selling nude photographs when he loses his job as a salesman, but Pinneberg finds he cannot do this when given the chance. Even towards the novel’s end, when times are particularly hard, he refuses to go stealing firewood. Fallada is not condemning the others, so much as pointing out that those who suffer most are often those who play by the society’s rules.

Fallada is not a great stylist, but he has a knack for making his characters live and breathe, and his storytelling is gripping. This is a novel which still has the power to show us what it is like for the ‘little man’, struggling to survive from day to day, and the love which makes it worthwhile.