Archive for April, 2011

The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise

April 23, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Georges Perec

No year of exploring the experimental novel would be complete without at least one work by Georges Perec. Perec was one of the leading exponents of Ouilpo, a group of writers whose works were created on the basis of rules. Presumably this was partly for the challenge, partly for the creativity stimulated by the restrictions imposed, and partly to emphasise the rules already in place in all writing. The most famous example is probably Perec’s own novel A Void, written entirely without the letter e (and, quite incredibly, translated into English by David Bellos). His masterpiece, Life A User’s Manual, is also written according to a series of rules, and it was that I intended to read again – that is, until I was pleased to see that Vintage had published a translation into English of The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise (again by David Bellos) under its classic imprint.

The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise is clearly one of Perec’s minor works, both in terms of its length (under a hundred pages) and its place in his oeuvre. It was written in 1968, only three years after his first novel, Things: A Story of the Sixties, and ten years before Life A User’s Manual. According to Bellos’ excellent introduction, it was written after a French computer company set the challenge to write like a computer, and is based on a flow chart which is reproduced at the beginning of the book. As each stage in the story has a yes / no option, Perec could have written in a format that still appears among children’s novels, where each choice takes you to a different page; instead he chose to write without punctuation or capitals, mimicking the processes of a computer program as it happens. A single example should illustrate the style:

“…if he has not heard your knocking it would be quite inappropriate and even unseemly to persist so if he does not raise his eyes you go back to your desk and decide to try your luck afresh in the afternoon or tomorrow or next tuesday or forty days later obviously when you do go back he will have to be in his office if he is not then you would await his return in the corridor and if he were to be a long time coming you would go see ms wye…”

Rather than empowering the reader to make choices, Perec adopts a style that makes choices themselves seem unimportant, each one treated equally and unemotionally. It also becomes deeply repetitive on every level: word, phrase, connective. In this way Perec creates, whether intentionally or not, a critique of the workplace, which appears as a soulless labyrinth where employees are subject to the whims of chance – for example, whether your boss swallows a fish bone at lunch or one of his daughters has measles.

Bellos twice describes The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise as unreadable in his introduction, but I found its repetitive nature leavened by a lot of humour. Clearly, it is best read in one sitting, something that does not take long, as it does not lend itself to the bookmark. A fascinating curio.

Danger rating: repetitive nature, much like a roundabout, may cause dizziness. Vintage have also reprinted a number of Perec’s other books, and it would be safe to say that it would be best to leave this one to last.

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The Secret History of Costaguana

April 16, 2011

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011 – The Secret History of Costaguana

Unlike last year, when Juan Gabriel Vasquez made it through to the short list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with his first novel,The Informers, The Secret History of Costaguana has not reappeared for round two. Though this may be partly down to the competing attentions of other South American novels (the other three are through), it has to be said that the central conceit of the novel is not entirely successful.

The idea is an intriguing, and brave, one: take a classic European work about South America (Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo) and link it to the ‘real’ South America through your central character. The novel is predicated on a meeting between our narrator, Jose Altamirano, and Conrad, as we are told in the first few pages:

“Conrad and I, who were born countless meridians apart, our lives marked by the difference of the hemispheres, had a common future…When this happens, when the paths of two men born in distant places are destined to cross, a map can be drawn a posteriori.”

The meeting between them takes up only a few pages (though every so often Altamirano reminds us what Conrad is up to); the bulk of the novel is taken up with Altamarino’s life, his father’s life, and the life of his country, Columbia – the story that he claims to have shared with Conrad during that meeting.

From the beginning his father is portrayed as a believer in progress, championing the use of corpses for dissection in the face of the Church’s opposition. His father finds a way round the prohibition by using the corpses of Chinese workers killed building a railway across Panama. Later his father will become a steadfast supporter of the Panama Canal, and these dead bodies are an early indication of the price of progress, though one his father consistently ignores:

“My father does not hear a story of personal tragedies, does not see the dead Chinaman as the nameless worker of no fixed address for whom no grave is possible. He sees him as a martyr, and sees the history of the railway as a true epic. The train versus the jungle, man versus the jungle…”

This attitude is more damaging when he becomes a journalist in Panama, refusing to allow facts to get in the way of his belief in progress:

“Examining my father’s articles: in one from 1867, the fifteen dead had become nine; in 1872 he mentions nineteen wounded, seven of them seriously, but not a word about deaths; and in one of his most recently published texts…my father recalled ‘the tragedy of the nine victims’.”

Perhaps Vasquez intends to draw some parallel between this and Conrad’s use of Altamarino’s story as raw material for his novel, but there is no indication he regards Conrad’s work as propaganda. Altamarino’s main complaint is that Conrad has removed him from his own story:

“My tale lived there, the tale of my life and my land, but the land was another, it had another name, and I had been removed from it, erased like an unmentionable sin, obliterated without pity like a dangerous witness.”

But, as Conrad says when Altamirano asserts that Nostromo is false: “That, my dear sir, is a novel.” Vasquez may have cleverly taken the fictionalised history of Nostromo and turned it back into the factual history of Columbia, but I remain unclear as to whether this implies criticism of Conrad’s fictionalisation. Of course, it may not, and may simply be a device for attracting attention to what would otherwise be a novel about the history of Columbia.

This would be ironic as where he is particularly successful is in portraying that turbulent history, both in the general (with frequent references to the Angel of History) and in the particular. There are two stand-out examples of the latter. One is where he provides the history of a rifle over eight pages; another is when he spends thirteen pages focusing on a particular soldier.

Vasquez is clearly a very talented writer and, while this may not have quite the impact of The Informers, it also an excellent novel. Having covered almost 150 years of Columbian history in his first two novels, it will be interesting to see what he does next.

Dark Matter

April 11, 2011

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011 – Dark Matter

Dark Matter by Juli Zeh is one of three German books on the long list for the independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This in itself might suggest a renaissance in German writing, but what is even more encouraging is the variety that these authors offer. Where Visitation is intense and literary and Fame is witty and amusing, Dark Matter is an intelligent thriller with a liberal dose of physics thrown in. This is obvious from the punning title, dark matter being the undetectable matter theorised from its effect on what we can see, and a reference to the murder that will take place within the novel’s pages.

The two main characters, Sebastian and Oskar, are both physicists and their relationship is central to all that happens. Inseparable at university, their friendship falls apart over an incident where they write an equation together on a blackboard, meeting in the middle. When Sebastian sees that Oskar has automatically chosen the harder task of writing from right to left, he realises that their friendship is not one of equals:

“The moment their hands met in the middle of the blackboard was a one-sided victory, and Sebastian felt the urge to punish Oskar for this.”

From this point their lives diverge: Oskar goes on to become one of the most important physicists in the world; Sebastian finds a niche for himself exploring the many worlds theory – a theory Oskar finds ridiculous – marries and has a son. The situation is not that uncommon: the one friend who goes on to excel but remains alone; the other who opts for a life of cosy domesticity instead. They do, however, keep in touch, continuing to argue: “You used to be a good physicist,” says Oskar on one occasion, “before you went off course.”

The thriller aspect kicks in when Sebastian, taking his son to a Scout camp, receives a phone call as he is leaving the toilets at a petrol station telling him to stand still:

“The most important thing is to tell nobody. Do you understand? No-bo-dy. Leave the building now. I’ll call you back immediately.”

The car, of course, is gone. This scene works well because Zeh has spent time establishing Sebastian’s character and his relationship with his son. It is also very easy for the reader to identify with Sebastian’s situation: he is quite unequivocal that he will do anything to get his son back, and this includes murder.

As with any thriller, revealing much more would make it difficult for another reader to have the same pleasure of discovery as I had. Zeh presents Sebastian’s thoughts on killing another man with both a grim humour and a nail-biting tension. He then introduces not one, but two fascinating detectives to investigate both the murder and the kidnap, with an equally intriguing relationship, Rita Skura and her mentor Schlif. It was Schlif who turned Rita into a successful policewoman:

“She had to learn that her trusting nature was what her opponent expected, so she always had to assume the opposite of what she was thinking, and do the opposite of what she felt.”

Schlif, on the other hand, is an intuitive detective. He agrees to take on the kidnap rather than the murder as he feels there is a link. In his interviews he rarely asks direct questions: he talks to Sebastian about physics and his wife, who runs a gallery, about art. In this, Zeh attempts to link his method to quantum theory:

“In his opinion, this reality is nothing other than creation born second by second in the head of every single observer and thus brought into the world. A long time ago the detective developed a method by which he attempted to read the programme code. This is how he solves his cases.”

This method, of course, works better in fiction than elsewhere. As with many literary thrillers, the intellectual padding, while necessary to the plot, is not really absorbed thematically. This is not, for example, a novel about the many worlds theory, its moral implications or its folly. For this reason, it is not quite of the standard of some of the other novels on the long list. It is, however, an engrossing and exciting read.

Gargling With Tar

April 2, 2011

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011 – Gargling with Tar

Gargling with Tar is the second of Jachym Topol’s novels to be translated into English (the first, City Sister Silver appeared ten years ago) and, as its striking cover may have suggested to you, it is set in Czechoslovakia during 1968 when Warsaw Pact forces prevented the country from freeing itself from the Soviet Union. As with Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, Topol adopts a child’s perspective on events which goes a long way to enhance the chaos and confusion of the time.

That child, Ilya, lacks any stability even prior to the invasion, living as he does in an orphanage ironically named the Home from Home. Even his nationality is unclear, and a variety of languages are spoken at the home – the boys are made to gargle tar (water made soapy with tar soap) for speaking their own language, as well as for lying:

“Some boys spoke their own unintelligible language, though the nuns didn’t allow it. You had to gargle tar for that. Any foreign words were washed away from their throats with bubbles of pain, then the boys were topped up with Czech.”

Ilya’s multi-lingualism is later seen as a useful skill, allowing him to work as an interpreter and to escape from more than one dangerous situation. It’s an early sign that this is not a nationalist novel, and that Topol will present both sides of the conflict unflinchingly, to the point where the sides themselves seem to disappear.

Our sympathy for Ilya is enhanced by the care of he takes of his disabled brother, Monkeyface. Although older, he says with the younger boys in order to protect his brother, finding himself, as for much of the novel, caught between the two camps. The chaos begins when Czech Communists arrive and expel the nuns who have been looking after the boys from the home. Monkeyface is one of the first victims, placed inside a washing-machine drum by some of the younger boys and then falling to his death from a window as Ilya attempts to carry him upstairs:

“He thrust me put of the way, and now he was top-heavy and banged his head against the window. I grabbed him by his feet, but he kicked out at me and flew headfirst through the glass. He fell, turning once or twice in the air, then thumped down, landing on his back in the snow, bits of glass showering down around him.”

The accidental nature of Monkeyface’s death suggests that Topol is not interested in assigning blame but in alerting us to the unpredictable cruelty of the times to come. With the death of his brother, Ilya loses his anchor in the world and becomes an isolated figure looking to belong, whether with the older boys and their plan to join the Foreign Legion, or with the Russian tank crew he later befriends. As the novel progresses he moves from side to side, accepted but never belonging, one moment riding on the front of a Russian tank, the next hiding with some of the boys from the orphanage, now fighting with the Czech resistance. The circles in which he intentionally leads the tanks represent the narrowing circle in which his own life is moving, as he encounters the same characters again and again, Topol using them to highlight the effects of the war: Mr Cimbura with “his face…terribly burnt, the light from the candles gliding over the craters in its ancient skin”; and Hanka, a local girl he was once friends with, last seen among a group of women being raped by Russian soldiers:

“That was the worst thing. I kept losing sight of people. Not like round a bend in a corridor or behind a tree. People were suddenly gone forever.”

The novel is also full of myths and legends, appropriate to its setting in a forest. These centre on the national figure of Czechia, but also include the ‘dinosaur egg’ that the Russian commander wishes to take back to Moscow, and the wolf that Margash claims is his father. When a wolf finally appears it is “cringing” and “all thin and moulted”; and when Ilya rescues a girl who has been tied naked to a bath tub for the pleasure of soldiers, he thinks he has found Czechia. Almost everyone he meets is following some dream or personal mythology.

Gargling with Tar blends realism and surrealism to create a vivid picture Czechoslovakia in 1968. By having a narrator who is ideologically uninvolved but in a life or death struggle to survive, Topol places the focus on what it might have felt like to be there rather than adopt the safer perspective of history.