Archive for February, 2012

Dotter of her Father’s Eyes

February 24, 2012

Comic of the Month

The first time I came across Bryan Talbot’s work was when early episodes of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright were published in the Edinburgh magazine Near Myths (which also featured a strip written and drawn by a young Grant Morrison). This (and its sequel) was only completed after many years while he also worked for 2000AD in the UK and DC Comics in America. Recently he has concentrated on graphic novels, and it would be no exaggeration to say he has become one of Britain’s most important creators in this medium, particularly with his wonderful Grandville series, with two volumes already published and another underway. His latest work is therefore not a departure from the fantasy world of Grandville, but it is certainly a detour, being a collaboration with his wife Mary and so rooted in reality as to fall under non-fiction.

Dotter of her Father’s Eyes is the story of Mary’s childhood, and in particular her relationship with her father, the noted James Joyce scholar, James Atherton. As this story unfolds, we also get a glimpse into the life of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, as well as a few pages of a contemporary framing sequence. In each of these sections Talbot adopts a different artistic style. The present day is represented in clear lines and bold (though not primary) colours. Mary’s past, beginning in the 1950s, appears in sepia tones with only the occasional hint of colour: the orange of orange juice, the red of the Eagle’s banner, a fire, a fish-tank. The intention is clear: to illuminate those moments of pleasure that glow in the memory. As her story nears the present, so colour becomes more predominant: when Bryan appears in her teens she jokes in a side note:

“Strange how it suddenly bursts into colour when Bryan appears! I wonder why.”

Lucia’s story is rendered in black and white (with a blue wash) making clear it predates Mary’s by suggesting old photographs found in a trunk in the attic – indeed her first appearance gives every indication of having been copied from a photograph.

Both stories share a sense of the father’s work being of the utmost importance, to the detriment of the daughters. Mary’s father is frequently represented by the TAP TAP TAP of his type-writer; Mary’s is the head that appears round the door. He does not take interruptions well, at one point throwing a book at her. Lucia suffers more directly, her career as a dancer sacrificed for her father. Here it is her mother who is most insistent:

“It’s some fancy ideas you’ve got now! You’ve done enough of that for today already. And here’s your poor father needing help with his correspondence.”

In both cases adolescent rebellion can be seen to fail. Lucia’s attempts to create a career for herself are frustrated by her parent’s insistence that she move to London with them, and she never recovers from the end of her relationship with Samuel Beckett and the discovery that her parents are not married. Mary’s rebellion, if it is one, is almost diametrically opposed: she defies her father’s expectations that she will go to Cambridge and instead falls pregnant and marries: however, she is now a prominent academic.

Thematically, though, the links between the two stories are fairly weak. Though book-ended with the quotation form Finnegans Wake, “My cold mad feary father,” Joyce does not come across as fearsome at all (though Nora would certainly scare me), and both fathers are rather slightly portrayed: very much as observed from the outside. Both Mary and Lucia’s stories are interesting, but for every scene where the graphic format allows a lot of information to be delivered swiftly (the picture of Mary and Bryan talking with all their shared interest illustrated above them) or dramatically (Lucia being committed to an asylum depicted as dance moves in a strait jacket – see below), there are others where you wish the depth of a biography were available. However, it is a fascinating exploration of the comic medium as a form for documenting lives and highly recommended to anyone interested in the development of the graphic novel.

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Lost Books – Between Nine and Nine

February 18, 2012

Between 1989 and 1996 Harvill published eight of Leo Perutz’s ten novels in English translations: he was being rediscovered, as Stefan Zweig, another Viennese writer (Perutz was born in Prague but lived in Vienna until 1938 and the Nazi Anschluss) has been more recently. His first novel, The Third Bullet, has (as far as I can ascertain) never been translated into English, but his second, From Nine to Nine, certainly had – in the 1920s. Having collected all of the newer translations of Perutz’s novels over the last ten years, it was galling to know that another was out there, especially with its intriguing 24 type premise, being set over twelve hours in the life of its protagonist (as it turns out, this isn’t entirely the case). Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered last year that a small American publisher, Ariadne Press, had brought out a new translation (by Thomas Ahrens and Edward Larkin), with the slightly altered title Between Nine and Nine.

Perutz has always reminded me a little of Robert Louis Stevenson – a serious writer who writes adventure novels. A fellow Austrian writer described his style as “the possible result of an illicit union between Franz Kafka and Agatha Christie.” Graham Greene and Ian Fleming, among others, were admirers. Though many of his novels are historical, Between Nine and Nine is set in Vienna at the turn of the century – in fact, much of it can be read as a satire of Viennese society. However, it is presented in the form of a thriller, with the initial tension created by the inexplicable actions of our protagonist:

“…a certain Stanislaus Demba who entered the store and whose strange behaviour provided the two women with much to talk about for weeks to come.”

His ‘strange behaviour’ includes entering the store warily, looking around, ordering numerous items of food one after the other but not picking them up, and leaving suddenly when the owner is out, but not without first having placed the money owed on the counter. The reason for his strange behaviour, which continues throughout a number of scenes, is not revealed until almost halfway through the novel. Needless to say I will be revealing it soon. If you would rather not know, don’t read on – I certainly had great fun not knowing (which is Perutz’s intention, mirrored in the fact that the narrative is never from Demba’s point of view, but always from that of those he encounters: seven of the first eight chapters begin with reference to a secondary character prior to Demba’s appearance).

As Demba eventually confesses to the only person he seems to trust, a young woman called Steffi, he was arrested at nine o’clock that morning and placed in handcuffs. Though he escaped through an attic window, sliding down the roof and falling to the ground, he has been unable to remove the cuffs and must keep them hidden if he is not to be caught. This has given him enormous problems with the basic requirements of life, like eating (hence the visit to the shop; later he asks a waiter to bring book after book to his table so he can eat unseen). Even common courtesies become an insurmountable problem:

“’I’ll wait,’ said Demba.
‘In that case, kindly remove your hat, Stanie. At our office, people take off their hats,’ said Etelka Springer.
Stanislaus Demba stood there with his hat on his head, broad and boorish, looking anxiously at Etelka Springer. A bead of sweat was dripping from his forehead.”

To prevent Demba simply remaining in hiding until Steffi can get him a key (at nine o’clock that night), Perutz gives him an urgent quest. Having discovered that his girlfriend, Sonja, is going on a trip with another man to Venice, he feels that if he can raise the necessary money to take her she will go with him. The second half of the novel is filled with near misses as he comes frustratingly close to the cash without being able to lay his hands on it. (It was an attempt to sell a stolen library book that first brought him to the police’s attention).

Demba is therefore an intensely sympathetic character: a betrayed lover, on the run, with two taxing problems to solve in twelve hours. Throughout his adventure Perutz also pokes fun at Viennese society; Demba’s position as an impoverished tutor makes him something of an outsider. The novel ends with a further twist I won’t reveal. This may not be Perutz’s greatest novel, but it is both tense and genuinely amusing. It’s time he was rediscovered again.

1Q84 Book One

February 11, 2012

Having waited four years since Murakami’s last novel, 1Q84’s near one thousand page length seems somehow too much at once: it’s a little like dieting for a year and then attempting to devour the contents of a baker’s window in one afternoon. I’ve therefore decided to take its division into three books at face value and read them separately, one a month, over the next three months. This will still allow me to be completed comfortably before his original Japanese audience: although Books One and Two were published simultaneously in Japan (in May 2009), there was then almost a year’s wait for Book Three. Its length, and the two and half year anticipation between publication in Japan and in English, were not the only reasons that made 1Q84 probably the most eagerly expected (translated) novel of 2011. There was also a sense that Murakami’s powers as a writer were on the wane, and that this ambitious undertaking would provide proof one way or the other.

Unlike most of Murakami’s work, 1Q84 is not written in the first person, and in fact adopts two perspectives in alternating chapters. In chapter 1 we are introduced to Aomame, a young woman on her way to work assignment who has become stuck in a traffic jam. She leaves the taxi and uses an emergency stairway to escape the motorway. It is at this point she enters the alternative reality of 1Q84 (the novel is set in 1984). The first indication of this is a passing policeman:

“Aomame noticed that there was something unusual about his uniform…His pistol too was a different model. He wore a large automatic at his waist instead of the revolver normally issued to policemen in Japan.”

Later investigation will show that this change resulted from a shoot-out between police and a radical sect at Lake Motosu which Aomame has no memory of. However, before this we will have seen Aomame kill a man she has never met before: her ‘work’, we discover, involves tracking down and murdering men who have been abusive to their wives, at the behest of a wealthy dowager. As Aomame’s back story unfolds we find that she has a personal motivation, her best friend having committed suicide after years of mistreatment at the hands of her husband.

The second narrative focuses on Tengo, an aspiring writer and Maths tutor, who becomes embroiled in a scheme of his publisher to cause a literary sensation by rewriting a story which a teenage girl, Fuka-Eri, has sent to him:

“This Fuka-Eri girl has something special. Anyone can see it reading Air Chrysalis. Her imagination is far from ordinary. Unfortunately, though, her writing is hopeless. A total mess. You, on the other hand, know how to write.”

Fuka-Eri is the daughter of the cult leader linked to the Lake Motosu Incident, although that particular group had splintered from the main sect. Her father, Fukada, hasn’t been seen in years and Fuka-Eri has been living with an elderly Professor and his daughter. It is increasingly suggested that Fuka Eri’s extraordinary imagination is instead a factual rendering of events in her own life, in particular the sinister ‘Little People’. When a ten year old girl who has escaped from Fukada’s commune is taken in to the dowager’s shelter for abused women (the girl has been raped), she also mentions the ‘Little People’, and though the phrase is hardly heart-stopping in English, the scene where they finally appear is:

“Soon her mouth began to open wider, and from it emerged, one after another, a small troupe of Little People.”

Murakami’s two great strengths come into focus here: his ability to create fictional worlds, and then to inject fantastic elements into them without losing credibility. 1Q84 might be seen as representative of this: there is little difference between it and 1984, but it is different. Similarly, Murakami takes reality and twists it slightly; it feels real but we are always aware of its difference.

By the end of Book One, we can see the links between the two narratives. An important connection is clearly Fukada’s commune, and Murakami has been interested in cults at least since he wrote Underground about the Tokyo gas attack. Tengo and Aomame are also connected through a childhood memory. Tengo remembers Aomame as a lonely classmate, isolated by her religious upbringing; they never talk but on one occasion he protects her from some childish bullying. Shortly after this happens:

“She strode quickly across the room, heading straight for Tengo, as if she had just made up her mind about something. She stood next to him and, without the slightest hesitation, grabbed his hand and looked up at him.”

Aomame also remembers the incident:

“I did have one person I fell in love with…It happened when I was ten. I held his hand.”

Murakami has used this rather sentimental image before to suggest some kind of spiritual bond, and here he contrasts it with a series of casual sexual relationships – Tengo’s with a married woman, Aomame’s with men she picks up in bars. However, a little like Dickens (though Murakami is not such a stylist), despite the implausibility and the sentimentality, the power of the narrative is difficult to resist.

Good Offices

February 4, 2012

Evelio Rosero won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009 with his novel of civil war descending on a small Columbian village, The Armies. Now he returns with a second novel translated into English, Good Offices, where we are introduced to another isolated and inward-looking community, though with the more pacific setting of a church. This is a slighter novel, weighing in at only 141 pages, and the story it tells takes place over one night, with little in the way of action. What it does share with its predecessor is the haunting sense of a perfectly realised other world with its own unsettling logic.

The main character is a young hunchback, Tancredo, who has been brought up in the care of the church, and Father Almida in particular. Tancredo describes Almida’s household as being made up of:

“…the three Lilias, Machado the sacristan, his god-daughter, Sabina Cruz, and he himself, the acolyte, he himself, Tancredo, he himself, the hunchback.”

As we have been aware from the opening sentence (“He has a terrible fear of being an animal”), Tancredo is uneasy about his identity. He spends much of his time organising the community meals the church offer (for the elderly, for prostitutes, for street children: on each day there is a different category of needy), but has been long promised that the church will finance his further studies in theology and philosophy (though Almida has “been saying the same thing for the three years they had been offering the Community Meals”). He has also been secretly visiting Sabina in her room at night but has now decided, despite her pleas, that he “won’t be coming anymore.” He offers her little in the way of explanation, and we are given the impression of a character who would wish to assert his own identity if he could only be sure what it was. When the sacristan is introduced he is described as:

“…an obscure man, a shadow like the Lilias, and not just because he dressed all in black, but because of his deep reserve, a ring of blackness like a pit.”

To some extent this is true of all the characters, with Rosero deliberately obscuring their motives.

The chance for change occurs when Almida and the sacristan have to leave to visit a wealthy parishioner:

“Tonight…this very night, for the first time in all the years I lived with him, Reverend Father Juan Pablo Almida will not say Mass.”

After some difficulty locating a replacement, Father Matamoros appears. Though clearly a drunk, he sings like an angel and his Mass makes a profound impression on the congregation, the Lilias in particular. They ply him with food and drink, and we soon discover dark undertones in their comments on a particular cat who steals from their kitchen:

“He’s the thief…He’s driving us to despair, he’s asking for trouble, as they say; he gives cats a bad name.”

The name of this cat? Almida. Eventually even Tancredo is able to confide in the priest and “make his confession”:

“’No-one can rest here,’ he said, ‘we’re worked to death’
“To tell you the truth, he thought quickly, everyone here wants to kill Almida and the sacristan.”

Slowly Almida’s corruption is revealed, and his return becomes the focus of the novel’s tension. Rosero, of course, also has a wider target: the church itself, its leaders and its role in the community. While such satire might have a greater resonance in Catholic South America, this remains a haunting novel with a satisfying denouement: we might even consider that Tancredo will be able to reconcile the animal and intellectual sides of his character.