Archive for September, 2010

Chez Max

September 28, 2010

Jakob Arjouni is best known for his detective fiction, set in his native Germany but featuring a Turkish protagonist, Kemal Kanyankaya. Chez Max, however, is a stand-alone novel of quite a different genre, set, as it is, in the year 2064. Arjouni’s aim is to present the future he sees arising from the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. Originally published in 2006, he follows the repercussions of what he clearly sees as a decisive moment in history through the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq into a future in which America is weakened and the strongest power block is a Euro-Chinese Confederation.

The novel’s central idea is a ‘Fence’ which has been erected to separate the developed north from the poorer south:

“At the same time as the Fence was being built, the armies of Europe and China began disarming the rest of the world….The Fence divided the world for all time, roughly speaking, into areas of progress and regress – or, at least stagnation…”

This makes the Fence sound like a physical barrier, though its exact location or the practicalities of its function are not discussed. The novel’s narrator, Max, is a restaurateur (hence the title), and also works for the Ashcroft agency, a network of spies employed to prevent crime by identifying those who may commit it. The novel begins with him watching the arrest of his only friend, a struggling artist called Leon – a result of Max having informed the authorities that he intended to smuggle cigarettes. This, however, is more a result of moral cowardice than ruthlessness, and Max’s arrest rate is rather low, particularly when compared to his partner Chen:

“As an Ashcroft agent, he was the best I’d met in over fifteen years of crime prevention at spotting crimes before they were committed.”

Unfortunately Chen is also arrogant, independent-minded, disparaging (particularly of Max) and argumentative. In another novel, he would be the hero – but not here, perhaps because he is not representative of the society Arjouni is depicting. When Max discovers the merest suggestion that Chen may not be as trusted as he always assumed, he decides to take advantage of this in any way he can.

By grounding his vision of the future in recent events, Arjouni risks reality quickly deviating from what he foresees. The Fence (a satire on immigration fears) is a rather blunt instrument. More subtle is the way in which people are discouraged from talking about it – one nice touch is that products from the other side are marked as originating from the port where they land. Arjouni also includes some advances in technology. The popularity of the Cinema in the Sky is short lived:

“Senior citizens and families with children soon found it far from pleasant to have the night sky turned into a single huge cinema screen every other summer evening.”

Probably more popular is the sexomat, the workings of which are largely, and wisely, left to the imagination. Credibly, though rather unsettlingly, it comes equipped with a camera you can use to film individuals for later ‘use’.

Otherwise the world is much as we would recognise it, and this certainly doesn’t often read like a science-fiction novel. Arjouni is more interested in his characters, both of which are intriguing creations. The novel founders, however, partly because of length (at a little over 150 pages Arjouni does not give himself much room to explore the ramifications of the world he has created), and partly because, once he has established the characters and setting, he then reverts to a crime story, and one that does not really develop the idea of a surveillance society. Even Max’s initial act of betrayal is countered with a letter from Leon suggesting he is glad to have been caught:

“So you’ll understand that almost nothing could have been better for me. My arrest, the prison sentence, the grey, bleak atmosphere here, the terrible food….well, all that was the shot in the arm I needed to break free from my artist’s block…”

Perhaps this is a dig at the artist’s need for suffering to promote creativity, but it has the effect of undermining the one piece of satire that remains effective by the novel’s conclusion. An entertaining enough read, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Death in Bordeaux

September 19, 2010

Allan Massie first came to prominence in the 1980s, at the same time as other Scottish novelists such as James Kelman and Alasdair Gray. Yet in almost every way he was their opposite: politically (a Tory), geographically (rural) and artistically – a writer of traditionally-fashioned historical novels, focusing on ‘great men’. Having written four more or less contemporary novels (The Death of Men was based on recent events, the others were comedies of manners), Massie found his voice in a fictionalised autobiography of Augustus. This was followed by five further Roman novels, as well others focusing on such diverse figures as Sir Walter Scott and King David. Perhaps his greatest success, though, came with a loose trilogy which looked at issues of loyalty and betrayal, beginning with A Question of Loyalties in 1989. It is from this work, set partly in Vichy France, that Massie’s new novel seems to spring. Death in Bordeaux is a departure for Massie, however, as it quite clearly intended to be shelved alongside other detective novels – including presumably those of Philip Kerr, creator of German wartime investigator Bernie Gunther. Massie has previously reviewed Kerr’s work unfavourably in the Scotsman, and it tempting to see this novel as a further riposte. (Kerr was supposed to have retaliated with an online savaging of one of Massie’s books).

Massie’s protagonist also offers a counterpoint to Kerr’s Gunther. Not only is Superintendent Lannes not a loner, he is manifestly a family man, with a wife he loves and three children. That one of his two sons is of an age to be conscripted allows Massie to demonstrate the effects of the war on ordinary families. Lanes’ wife, Marguerite, writes to their son and then puts the letter to one side:

“Folding the paper, she put it away in the top right-hand drawer of her desk, along with other letters to Dominique which she hadn’t sent because they would make him unhappy, and wrote another, determinedly cheerful, full of little pieces of news, expressing nothing of what she felt, concealing her fears and longing for the boy.”

Lanes is concerned that his wife’s anxiety is changing their relationship into “one of those silent marriages” and when, later, he finds himself attracted to another woman, it is not in the clichéd manner so common in detective fiction, but linked to the unhappiness at home caused by his son’s absence. Massie also demonstrates the effect of the surrender on Lannes’ younger son, and two other young male characters who feature and become friends. The question of how to react to the occupation is a very real one, creating moral dilemmas from chance encounters, as Lannes’ daughter discovers:

“You know the Romiers upstairs have had a German officer billeted on them? …Well, I met him yesterday as I was coming home and…yes, indeed, he was nice, very friendly…I liked him Papa. Was that wrong?”

Leon, a young Jewish boy first Lannes met when investigating the murder that opens the novel, and then arranged a job for in a friend’s bookshop, has a similar problem with a German officer:

“He’s nice actually, but I’ve no desire to get involved. On the other hand, I can’t tell him to bugger off, can I? Or should I just tell him I’m a Jew?”

Massie’s great skill here is in portraying these political problems as personal ones.

If Lannes is the detective as family man, then much of the evil in the novel radiates from a dysfunctional aristocratic family. The novel, as you would expect, opens with a particularly grisly murder, but Lannes’ acquaintance with the Comte de Grimaud comes at his own request, the result of a number of threatening letters he says he has received. His own unpleasantness is quickly apparent, but his family (most of whom he dislikes) are equally grotesque, excepting his young (third) wife and a grandson. Unsurprisingly, the two cases are linked, but to say much more would spoil the pleasure of discovery as the narrative unfolds. Much of this is political and Lannes struggles at times to keep the investigation open in the ever-changing situation: the novel begins before the Germans invade France, but ends after the occupation has begun. Massie leaves him with enough determination for the reader to admire, but without the unrealistic recklessness of pulp fiction – another advantage of being a family man.

This is an excellent addition to Massie’s oeuvre and the rather over-populated detective genre. It is intended to be the first of a trilogy, which presumably will take us through the war. I suspect this is why Massie has taken such care to introduce a cast of characters that will allow him to explore the effects of that conflict on France in full. I, for one, am already looking forward to the next volume.

The Forty Rules of Love

September 8, 2010

If I was asked to describe be the kind of novel I hate, that portrait would be uncannily close to The Forty Rules of Love. Title reminiscent of a self-help manual of the ‘find yourself’ variety? Check. Middle-aged housewife discovering that she is unfulfilled by cooking and tolerating her husband’s affairs? Check. Overtones of Eastern mysticism to provide all the answers? Check. Ridiculously gold-embossed cover featuring stars, doves, moons (crescent, of course), and minarets in baby blue and lipstick red? Check.

Luckily I have read four of Turkish author Elif Shafak’s previous novels and know her to be an interesting writer regardless of Penguin’s marketing strategies, though even with that in mind, this was a book I almost didn’t pick up. I had been a little disappointed with her previous novel, the first she had written in English, as I felt this decision had flattened her prose and left her prone to cliché. This is something the new novel is not free from either. There can be few clunkier sentences than this to be found in the first chapter of a serious novel:

“Little did she know that this was not going to be just any book, but the book that changed her life.”

Some useful italics there, just in case we didn’t quite get the importance of this book. (And, without wanting to give too much away, it does change her life!) In this same chapter we also find an “awkward silence” and a jaw which drops. In fact, the contemporary section of the novel is not only rather badly written, but also rather dull. Ella Rubinstein is an American housewife who has been married for twenty years, years she has devoted to her husband and children. Now her children are growing away from her (her crisis begins with her daughter’s announcement that she is getting married) and she finds that she is wearying of her husband’s serial affairs. Salvation comes in the form of the manuscript of a novel which she has been given, having found herself a part-time job as a reader for a literary agency.

The bulk of the novel is (thankfully) taken up with this manuscript. I can see why Shafak took the decision to ground her narrative in the present: without it she would be left with a historical novel about middle-eastern religious mystics – a tough sell to an American publisher, I would imagine. She is also seeking to emphasise that the spiritual search for love and meaning in the thirteenth century continues into the twenty-first. However, this was a novel in which there was only one story I was interested in – and it wasn’t Ella’s.

The novel which Ella is reading tells the story of the Sufi poet, Rumi, and the travelling dervish who inspires him, Shams. Shafak uses a series of voices, something she is particularly adept at: not only those of Shams and Rumi, but a beggar, a drunk, a killer and a prostitute among others. The story begins before Shams and Rumi have met which both emphasises the significance of the meeting and allows us to become acquainted with Shams’ character:

“When something needs to be said, I’ll say it even if the whole world grabs me by the neck and tells me to be quiet.”

Needless to say, Shams has the wit and wisdom to outsmart even the most learned opponents. He also antagonises many more people than he befriends:

“It was always like this. When you spoke the truth, they hated you. The more you talked about love, the more they hated you.”

Western readers will recognise many echoes of Christ, including an unstoppable trajectory towards death which Shafak reveals in the opening chapter, creating a sense of tragic destiny. Similarly Shams’ championing of those society normally excludes – most obviously when he defends the prostitute Desert Rose who has been caught in a mosque dressed as a man because she wants to hear Rumi speak. Interestingly, unlike Christ, he marries, a marriage that torments his wife because he cannot consummate it.

Shams changes Rumi by attacking his ego. A respected scholar, he tells him to throw his books into a fountain. A devout Muslim, he asks him to buy wine from an inn.

“Before I had plenty of admirers; now I have gotten rid of my need for an audience. Blow after blow, Shams managed to ruin my reputation. Because of him I learned the value of madness and have come to know the taste of loneliness, helplessness, slander, seclusion, and, finally, heartbreak.”

Having no religious beliefs myself, I still found the spiritual questions raised by the novel interesting. While I did find myself glazing over when faced the forty rules of love which intersperse the story, the narrative itself raises important issues to do with how we live our lives – and isn’t that what literature is for? In the end, Shams does not turn Rumi into a religious leader, but a poet.

Red April

September 3, 2010

Red April begins with a report written by its main character, Prosecutor Chacaltana, outlining the discovery of a badly burned body. The language of the report, convoluted and over-formal, renders the event comic:

“He stood and began walking to the above referenced establishment, but when he was halfway there he experienced the inconvenience of being victimised by a sudden attack of exhaustion and decided to return to his domicile to enjoy a well-deserved rest.”

This comedy is the result of the clash between the process of law, in which Chacaltana so whole heartedly places his trust, and the reality of life in rural Peru, a theme Santiago Roncagliolo will pursue throughout the novel.

The novel mimics the structure of the serial killer genre, with a series of grisly murders, each victim suffering the loss of a limb. However, Chacaltana is an unlikely protagonist, and it is his presence that marks the novel out as something more serious. The reader has an uncomfortable relationship with him: at times admiring his honesty; at others infuriated by his innocence. His heroism is often the result of his naive belief is carrying out his duties to the letter, for example when suggesting that the first death may be an act of terrorism:

“ ‘I would not presume to discount a Senderista attack.’
He had said it. The silence which followed his words seemed to reach the entire ballroom, the entire city.”

It soon becomes clear (to the reader at least) that any mention of terrorism is unwelcome as the official line is that no terrorists exist. Chacaltana’s naivety reveals the hypocrisy of others and allows us to see the truth, but his innocence is also an impediment to any solution. For example, on discovering regular terrorist incursions into the village where he has been sent as an election inspector, he asks the police lieutenant if he has requested reinforcements:

“Reinforcements? Of course. We also asked for a swimming pool and a couple of whores.”

The reader also enjoys an unsettling relationship with Chacaltana when it comes to his personal life. He has a touching relationship with a waitress, Edith, but we also discover that his claim to have requested his deployment from Lima to be close to his mother is not entirely accurate as his mother died when he was a child. He has, however, recreated his mother’s room in his house and regularly speaks to her.

Chacaltana, then, is a fascinating creation, and even more so for the way in which he changes in the course of the novel. Faced with violence all around him, Chacaltana feels compelled to use it in his defence, initially when attacked by a suspect:

“With his right hand, the prosecutor felt around him until he found a stone, lifted it, and with all his remaining strength hit Mayta in the face.”

Roncagliolo is aware that the reader will be relieved rather than distressed by this act given that Chacaltana’s life appears to be in danger, but it is a warning sign of a change in the prosecutor’s character which sees him first carry and then use a gun, an act that has a profound effect on him:

“Yesterday I shot a man. I don’t know who he was or if I hit him. But I might have killed someone. I felt it was a kind of test, a kind of training for something. I felt that something was changing in me.”

Roncagliolo uses his relationship with Edith to indicate that this change is not a positive one.

The novel comes to an appropriately violent conclusion, but by this time Roncagliolo has gone far beyond the serial killer genre with its thin layer of spurious psychology providing motive. This is a society where everyone is touched by violence and no-one is immune. By the end, ideas of law and justice are long forgotten.