Archive for June, 2011

The Inner Side of the Wind

June 28, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Milorad Pavic

Milorad Pavic is best known for Dictionary of the Khazars, a novel that was sold in both male and female versions with, I believe, one sentence different. It was followed by Landscape Painted with Tea, a novel structured around the crossword. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that The Inner Side of the Wind is a flip book, presenting the reader with an immediate choice – which story do I read first? Or, more accurately, whose story do I read first, as the novel’s alternative title reveals it to be The Novel of Hero and Leander, and its division takes place along these lines, with one section entitled Hero and the other Leander. The two stories meet in the middle just as the mythical lovers met, Leander swimming across the Hellespont guided by Hero’s lamp. However, you must not imagine that this is something as straight-forward as a retelling of the myth from their separate points of view: neither the Hero nor the Leander of this novel are the lovers of Greek legend; and each half tells a different story, one set in the 17th century, the other in the early 20th.

Leander’s tale, the slightly longer of the two is the more straight-forward. He is born into a family of masons but takes the opportunity to tour with a group of musicians and see the world. Echoes of the Hero and Leander myth are found in a relationship with a young girl, Despina: they meet on water in a boat; Despina brings a candle with her. The focus, as with the two narratives, is on not connecting:

“His rhythm was, after all, entirely different form hers, and for the first time he confronted the terrible fate that lay at the bottom of his secret virtue. They were unable to harmonise even later, and Leander, as though he were spawning roe in the lake and through it the river, spent the following nights filling the nets beneath him instead of the woman.”

Both the language and the image suggest the fable-like nature of the story; it is certainly one of the most poetic descriptions of premature ejaculation that I have encountered. ‘Fable’ is not intended to suggest a story removed from reality, however: soon Leander is fleeing from the advancing Turkish army as the Balkans are plunged into war, something that would have contemporary resonance for Pavic at the time the novel was written. It is at this moment that Leander has an epiphany:

“…we shouldn’t burn and destroy. We should build, even now. Indeed, we are all builders…From this day on we shall build. We shall flee, and build fleeing.”

From this point on, Leander builds until, returning home, he builds a tower in competition, of course, with an experienced mason. Only at the very end do the two towers synchronise:

“They say that, a second before the explosion, the cocks atop the towers showed the same wind and the same hour. For the first time and the last, the same wind and the same hour.”

As the towers collapse into each other, so do the stories. Hero’s story is set at the beginning of the 20th century. Despite this, it too begins like a fable:

“Her hair was so long she used it in place of a shoe horn. She lived in the busiest part of Belgrade…and kept her refrigerator full of love stories and cosmetics.”

Hero hires herself out as a French tutor, but discovers that, instead of the two children she is contracted to teach, only one appears. This missing child has never been seen by her brother, and soon begins to have an effect on Hero’s ability to teach, making her forget the present tense in favour of the future. This story works well, but only lasts the first chapter before Hero leaves for her brother in Prague. Hero’s story is much more fragmented than Leander’s, containing a story she has written and interpolated into a translation of another text in chapter 2, and changing to a first person narrator, a friend of her brother’s, for chapter 3. Although each chapter works in its own terms, the cuts from one narrative point of view to another serve little purpose, and mean that we do not get the same access to Hero’s character.

My only other issue with the novel was that I just did not see the connection between the two narratives. It’s true that Leander drops a hint with regard to this when he suggests:

“Perhaps it was the waves of time, not of the sea that separated Hero and Leander. Perhaps Leander swam through time not water.”

Despite this, the novel is always entertaining. Pavic’s love of language (“It was as quiet as a freshly washed soul”) and love of story shine through any textual trickery.

Danger rating: Books with choices about how you read them are always interesting, and in this case you need only flip a coin. As an aside, some of Pavic’s novels now seem to be available in English as download only – perhaps a sign of things to come.

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Europeana

June 21, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Patrik Ourednik

Europeana was the first of Czech writer Patrik Ourednik’s novels to be translated into English, though another two have since followed (all published by the wonderful Dalkey Archive Press). It is subtitled ‘A Brief History of the Twentieth Century’, and that is exactly what it is, reaching only 122 pages in its coverage of those hundred years. Ourednik has explained the book’s origin as follows:

“Is it possible to express a period of time, a specific historical time, without using narrative means, however direct or elusive they are, such as a historical novel or an intimist narrative? To find a form that would enable the narrator – like History itself – to be terribly banal, while pretending to be original.”

We should therefore not be surprised when we begin not at the beginning but halfway through, and with the following fact:

“The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimetres on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometres.”

Here we see evidence immediately of both originality (not only is it not an obvious starting point, it is not a statistic that you would be likely to include in even a detailed history of the twentieth century), and banality – any suggestion that it is being used to make an emotive point relating to the number of casualties is quickly undercut by the next sentence:

“The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimetres…”

Ourednik sustains this flat, detached but pedantic, tone throughout, using not only an array of bald statistics, but a limited repertoire of connectives (largely ‘and’), and even repeating information: for example the fact that the Germans invented gas and the English invented tanks first mentioned on page 1, reappears as quickly as page 2. This is perhaps most effective when presenting attitudes; the lack of commentary is starkly reductive:

“The Germans said they were the natural upholders of European civilisation because they knew how to make war and carry on trade, and also to organise convivial entertainments. And they said the French were vain and the English were haughty…”

This doesn’t just work for out-dated national stereotypes, however:

“Sex became very important in Europe in the twentieth century, more important than religion and almost as important as money, and everyone wanted to have sexual intercourse in different ways and some men rubbed their sexual organ with cocaine to prolong their erection even though cocaine was banned in all circumstances.”

Here, the juxtaposition of the general with the specific creates a jarring comedy: from an accepted truth to a ridiculous example.

Ourednik focuses largely on the West, and does not attempt, as, for example Eduardo Galeano does in Mirrors, to present a balanced world history. He returns again and again to the First and Second World Wars (the First World War is last mentioned on page 120). But on the way he covers the Barbie doll, the invention of the bicycle, the hippy movement, scientology and psychoanalysis among many other topics. Never has history been so delightful.

Danger rating: a hundred years in a couple of hours can be slightly overwhelming, but Europeana is both thought-provoking and entertaining (and great for trivia).

The Accident

June 14, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Ismail Kadare

When Ismail Kadare won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005 it was a statement of intent: here was a writer largely unknown in the English speaking world, the kind of name that we normally associate with Nobel Prize (i.e. one we don’t know from a country we wouldn’t want to live in). Cannily, Canongate had recently signed Kadare and published his most recent novel The Successor with some success (sorry) in 2006. This was followed by reissues of some of his older work: the autobiographical Chronicle in Stone, the stories in Agamemnon’s Daughter, and the revised translations of The Siege (previously The Castle) and The Ghost Rider (previously Doruntine). The Accident (originally published in 2008) is Kadare’s first new novel since The Successor, and similarly takes the crime genre as its starting point.

The novel begins with the titular accident: an Albanian couple are killed when the taxi carrying them to the airport veers off then road. The cause is unclear:

“The driver admitted that nothing unusual had happened just before the accident, except perhaps that…in the rear-view mirror…maybe something had distracted him…the two passengers on the back seat had done nothing…nothing but…only…they…had tried …to kiss.”

The first part of the novel consists of the investigation into the accident, by the police, the European Road Safety Institute, the Serbian and Albanian secret services, and an unnamed researcher. The couple are Besfort Y, an analyst working for the Council of Europe, and Rovena, an intern at the Archaeological Institute of Vienna. Besfort is somehow implicated in the decision to bomb Serbia; a “quarrel over Israel” is also hinted at. Their relationship seems largely to consist of meeting in hotel rooms in various European cities. She is devoted to him but recently their relationship has changed: Rovena tells a friend that, “B. is trying to persuade me we don’t need each other anymore.”

“Our meetings are now in a new zone. It’s no exaggeration to say a different planet. Ruled by different laws. It has a chilly quality, frightening of course, but still I must admit it has its strange and attractive side.”

This ‘new zone’ includes treating Rovena “almost like a prostitute.” Rovena’s female lover (chosen so that Besfort will not become jealous) insists that she has been murdered:

“You could tell a mile of that he was the murderous kind. That dream of his, or rather his nightmare, about the Hague Tribunal showed that.”

(In Kadare, dreams are admissible in evidence) The perfect set up for a thriller, then. But Kadare is not interested in answers, only questions: they are not simply in the reader’s mind, but in the narrative itself (seven in the first brief chapter; six in the second, often following one after the other). The novel’s style might be summed up as follows:

“Dark surmises, grave suspicions, ambiguous phrases, obscure scraps of dialogue drawn from half-remembered phone conversations loomed out of the fog and vanished again.”

After the inconclusive investigation, the novel then moves into the realm of imagination to solve the mystery as the researcher imagines the last forty weeks of the couple’s lives. As we learn very little about their lives beyond their relationship, it is clear that the relationship is central to understanding the novel. Largely presented for Rovena’s point of view, Besfort remains an enigma – it is hardly surprising that she says, “I first got to know him through his back” and that their first rendezvous happens on a “day of fog and rain.” Their first taxi journey together has echoes of their last:

“I limply waited for him to kiss me, but this did not happen. He seemed even more dazed and absent than I was.”

Absent he certainly is as a character, almost a vacuum at the centre of the story. As a result of this we must take Rovena’s “crazy, inhuman desire to please” him on trust, accepting such clichés as, “Life with him was difficult, without him it was impossible” as accurately reflecting her feelings. We have some sympathy with the researcher when even his imagination gives up and:

“…the final week – usually the most keenly anticipated in a story of this kind – was omitted.”

For this novel to be regarded as successful it seems to me that one of two things must be assumed. Either it is to be interpreted as a fable (as with much of his work), perhaps exploring the relationship between a person and his or her country, and my lack of expertise in Balkan politics has prevented me from deciphering this. Or it is an examination of paranoia and the pointless interrogation of mysteries where none exist, and the researcher’s occult solution to being unable to arrive at the truth is in the spirit of satire. Neither explanation, however, do I find entirely satisfying.

Danger rating: By far Kadare’s most frustrating novel. If you have never read him before (and you should), better to start almost anywhere else. I would recommend The Successor or The Palace of Dreams.

Born Yesterday

June 4, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Gordon Burn

Still on the subject of non-fiction narrative, a more daring example than Zeitoun can be found in Gordon Burn’s Born Yesterday, subtitled ‘the news as a novel’. Published in early 2008, it centred on the major news events of 2007 and was apparently written in a very short period at the end of that year. The events are connected by the ‘character’ of the narrator, who is eventually revealed as Burn through discussion of his novel Fullalove. While this narrator is portrayed in various settings, there is no story as such – the most narrative friendly moment is when he attempts to visit Gordon Brown’s house in North Queensferry, when the novel does become briefly more akin to journalism. For the large part, however, it is a rumination on news, media and celebrity, drawing connections across its cast of real-life characters.

Burn’s work has always lived on the border between fact and fiction. His first novel, Alma Cogan, featured not only the singer living an imagined life beyond 1966, but the Moors murderer Myra Hindley. He has also written a number of non –fiction books, including one about the Yorkshire ripper, and another on Fred and Rosemary West. Throughout there has been a fascination with celebrity:

“Almost everything I have written has been about celebrity, and how for most people celebrity is a kind of death.”

Born Yesterday, too, is concerned by how celebrity is created and the effect it has on the individuals who experience it. It focuses on Kate and Gerry McCann, Tony Blair as he leaves office, and Gordon Brown as he succeeds him, John Smeaton, hero of the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport, and Kate Middleton attempting to escape the attentions of photographers (the one area where the novel has become more topical). He begins, however, with Margaret Thatcher, post-celebrity, walking in a park:

“Where does she go in between all the times she is not being ‘Margaret Thatcher’? The answer, sometimes, it seems, is here, where the short, purposeful steps of her performance self are allowed to dwindle into the short, tentative steps of pensionerdom and widowhood and she is allowed time away from the big emphatic colours she uses to identify herself for the cameras – her blazons.”

This in contrast to the “famous picture of her standing in the gun turret of a Saracen tank.” Throughout Burn juxtaposes the celebrity identity with the other. When Blair leaves London having tendered his resignation to the Queen, he carries his own case:

“The bag was open bulging, a brown woollen sleeve trailing, the buckle of a strap bouncing along in the dirt.”

For Thatcher and Blair it is the beginning of life after celebrity; for the others it is life before that provides the contrast. So we learn about the rugby accident that almost blinds Brown, Gerry and Kate’s working class upbringings, John Smeaton’s dead-end job as a baggage handler before he landed that punch. Burns has a knack of sketching these moments both on and off camera, and drawing connections. At times they imply the tiny celebrity world: Smeato on the Richard and Judy sofa; Brown on the GMTV sofa; Smeato at Number 10; Gerry McCann at the Edinburgh Television Festival; Smeato at the Edinburgh Fringe…

At other times Burn over-reaches himself in his search for connections, for example in the pages devoted to Madeleine’s eyes, “stylised into media emblems”, through suspect Robert Murat’s similar defect, to Blair’s “bonkers eye” as depicted by cartoonist Steve Bell, to Gordon Brown “lying immobile in a darkened room to save the sight of what is now considered his ‘good’ right eye”, and, finally, to Damien Hirst. It’s not that this aspect of the novel isn’t interesting, it’s simply isn’t all that meaningful, unless we are to take it symbolic of the media’s narrow vision.

The novel, however, is a fascinating picture of Britain at a particular moment, both from behind the lens of the media and from one step further back. Burn was always a sharp-eyed observer of fame, and this novel is no exception. Born Yesterday -like all news of course, and a reference perhaps to gullibility, but also to the Philip Larkin poem (Burn quotes Larkin in the novel), a warning against being special:

“In fact, may you be dull –
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.”

Danger rating: ironically, the novel feeds off the very fascination with celebrity that it examines. While not quite tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, the more time passes, and the news stories it echoes fade from view, the less interesting it may become.