Archive for April, 2012

From the Mouth of the Whale

April 27, 2012

This is a novel I probably would not have read had it not made it onto the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist. There’s something about that single name that says both quirky and indulgent (Prince? Bidisha? (again, never actually read her due to my single name prejudice) Bjork?). Speaking of Bjork, Sjon also writes song lyrics and has worked with her in the past – they’re both Icelandic – another anti-recommendation in my view. At this point I’d love to say either: a) I was so right – it’s terrible; or b) I was so wrong – it’s amazing. Unfortunately, life is never that straightforward (just ask Jonas Palmason, the novel’s protagonist) and both convictions were predominant at different points in my reading – in fact, it’s a while since I read a book that left me so undecided.

The novel opens in Iceland in 1635 where we find Jonas exiled to a barren island with his wife for offending his country’s religious authorities:

“Jonas is a rogue, Jonas is a sly, disreputable fellow, Jonas is a braggart, Jonas is a liar, Jonas is a foolish dreamer…”

Jonas exists at a time when science and superstition coincide. His enquiring mind is demonstrated in the descriptions of plants and animals that litter the text, providing a little relief from his often intense monologue. From his childhood he is regarded as a healer and we learn that he searched in vain for the healing stone bezoar which he hoped to find in the skulls of ravens. It is his healing which eventually leads to his exile:

“But the leechbook would later land me in such desperate straits that I will never again be able to return to society but am fated instead to sit here talking nonsense to birds.”

Only in one brief section of the novel (where we are transferred temporarily to third person) does Jonas leave the island, being taken to Copenhagen where he meets with the learned professor Ole Worm. They bond when Jonas identifies a unicorn’s horn belonging to the Danish King as that of a narwhal – an instance of science beginning to challenge superstition:

“For the next three decades the brightest luminaries of Western philosophy wrangled over the existence of the fantastic horned beast…until the sceptics finally prevailed.”

However, this period of happiness soon ends when Jonas returns to Iceland to clear his name with a letter from the Danish King only to be exiled to his island once again.

One of my difficulties with the novel was that I couldn’t always divine Sjon’s intentions. He presents an intriguing picture of a man who is clearly both intelligent and curious trapped in a society that is mired in superstition and religion. However, Jonas himself is deeply religious, and not without his irrational beliefs – one of his proudest achievements is ridding a community of a ‘walking corpse’. This makes him all the more convincing, but harder to identify with. Few of the other characters make any impression – we are very much within Jonas’s mind for much of the novel. Even his monologues are addressed to fellow creatures rather than fellow humans.

What saves the novel for me are passages of astounding lyricism and imagination. The first few pages, which present to us the creation of man from the point of view of Lucifer, are stunning. (The bleak tone of this Prelude, where man is presented as cruel and savage, is a recurring theme, never more evident than when a group of Basque sailors, hunting whales of the coast of Iceland, are slaughtered without mercy.) Every time I felt Jonas’s meandering thoughts were becoming a little tedious, the next page would suddenly make me sit up and take note with a striking image or tale. For that reason, though I can’t whole-heartedly endorse From the Mouth of the Whale, I am sure that many readers will love it, and it is likely to make an impression on all.

New Finnish Grammar

April 20, 2012

I first read New Finnish Grammar last year on the back of an enthusiastic review from Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian who described it as “something special”. I was, however, underwhelmed. This is not to say I regarded it as a poor novel or undeserving of praise, but I simply didn’t feel it stood out among the other novels I was reading (admittedly, I was spending the year reading experimental fiction). Now that it has reached the shortlist of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (as well as being a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award) I thought it was only fair to try again, knowing that the fault was as likely to be mine as the book’s.

The novel begins with an introduction by an ex-patriot Finnish doctor, Petri Friari, who has compiled and edited the manuscript which follows, but is also an important character, the catalyst for the story we are about to hear, “having set the author of these pages on a mistaken course, thus wreaking his destruction.” The doctor’s complex relationship with his homeland (his father was executed during civil war and he now lives in exile in Germany) is at least partly responsible for his conviction that the unconscious man who is brought to him and wakes with no memory is Finnish, the only clues to his identity being the name Sampo Karlajainen written on a label on his jacket and a handkerchief with the matching initials S.K.

“It is true, I too would have liked to have been sailing back to Finland; to take advantage of the chaos of war in order to do away with the neurologist from the military hospital in Hamburg and replace him with the Helsinki university student of twenty-six years earlier.”

For he soon sends Karlajainen to Finland in the belief that this will enable him to recover his identity as he relearns the Finnish language which Friari considers his mother tongue. The novel’s concern with identity, nationality and language is clear, and is explored in some detail when Karlajainen arrives in Finland. Unable to locate the doctor he has been referred to by Friari, he helps in the military hospital and befriends the Military Chaplain, Olof Koskela, a fiercely patriotic if slightly unhinged individual who regales him with tales from Finnish mythology. Karlajainen’s fascination with Koskela is hard to fathom, especially as he shows no desire to be close to anyone else, but perhaps, as with Friari, he is looking for someone to tell him who he is:

“I found his words both complicated and intriguing; each day they bound me ever more closely to my new (or old?) identity.”

However, he remains doubtful as to his true identity:

“We had mingled but not totally bonded, Finland and I; something in me remained untouched by this mingling as though deep down some buried identity was refusing to be wiped out and was struggling furiously to rise to the surface.”

An encounter with one of the nurses, Ilma, in a bar might offer some companionship, but Kaarlajainen finds he cannot accept it:

“Ilma – perhaps she was the answer; but I could not love Ilma without first knowing who I was.”

When Koskjela leaves to fight the Russians, Karlajainen is entirely alone. When he discovers the truth about who he is, he is filled with despair and the novel heads towards the tragic conclusion intimated in the introduction.

New Finnish Grammar, then, has both an interesting set-up and an intelligent presentation. It pursues its themes of identity, nationality and language with some subtlety using its wartime setting and its small cast of characters. It suffers a little from the blandness of the prose which leaves each of the narrators sounding the same. Perhaps that’s why I found Karlajainen’s predicament unengaging for much of the novel, and was ultimately left rather cold by the ending. It is clear, however, that Marani is an interesting writer and there is enough here to make me look forward The Last of the Vostyachs, published next month, and perhaps even his Europanto work, Las Adventures Des Inspector Cabillot, which follows.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist

April 13, 2012

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist was announced yesterday as follows:

Alice by Judith Hermann, translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo (The Clerkenwell Press)
Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld, translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green (Alma Books)
Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter (Corsair)
From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Telegram Books)
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, translated from the Italian by Judith Landry (Dedalus)
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon (Harvill Secker)

As usual, my random reading of the long list has left me with half the shortlist still to read. New Finnish Grammar must remain something of a favourite having been chosen as a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award as well. Eco would seem an unlikely winner as the Prize has tended to go to less well known authors. Similarly, Dream of Ding Village has perhaps had too much publicity. I’ll try to read the rest of the short list before the winner is announced on the 14th May.

Seven Houses in France

April 13, 2012

Seven Houses in France is something of a departure for Bernardo Atxaga as it is not set, like his previous novels available in English, in his native Basque Country. Nor is it set in France, the titular seven houses being an ambition of the wife of Captain Lalande Biran, a Belgian soldier who has spent the last seven years in the Congo trying to obtain the wherewithal to allow her dream to come true through the smuggling of ivory and mahogany. The year is 1903 and Belgium is a colonial power, but though you might expect Atxaga to be interested in the mechanics of colonialism, this is, in fact, a story of individuals and the setting a means of creating the claustrophobia necessary for it to be enacted in all its intensity.

The novel begins as Biran’s military outpost is upset by a new arrival, Chrysostome, a young man so serious as to be entirely humourless:

“Frowning and resisting the desire of the Captain, the other officers and the NCOs to have their bit of fun, Chrysostome solemnly stuffed the trousers and short into his canvas bag and donned the red fez.”

He is, however, a crack shot, something which angers the long-serving Van Thiegel, particularly when he is beaten by Chrysostome in a shooting competition and has to suffer the commiserating comment, “Don’t worry Lieutenant. You shoot pretty well for a man of your age.” His resentment leads him to encourage the rumour that Chrysostome is a ‘poofter’:

“’I don’t know what it is with Chrysostome…but he seems to positively avoid the company of women.’”

This poisonous relationship (like the black mamba to which Atxaga likens it) lies at the dark heart of the novel, inextricably heading towards its tragic outcome. However what makes the novel most enjoyable is Atxaga’s presentation of his cast of characters; each has a memorable literary tic used to represent their thought process. Van Thiegel’s mind is one of competing compartments: when he is drunk it is a roulette wheel. Biran is a poet and frequently describes the events he witnesses as if writing the first few lines of a poem. Most amusingly, Donatien, his batman, hears the voices of his brothers and sisters in his head when faced with a problem:

“Donatien saw a path. ‘It’s the path that leads to the girl’s mugini,’ he heard a voice inside him say. It was his intelligent brother. ‘I don’t know what to do!’ Donatien cried, and at that very moment, his homosexual brother…spoke to him in a voice from beyond the grave, ‘Leave the earrings where they are.’”

When a journalist, Lassalle, arrives from Belgium to cover the erection of a statue of the Virgin Mary in a remote part of the Congo, he narrates his thoughts as newspaper articles.

Religion is to the fore and Chrysostome’s fear of women is the result of the sight when a child of a man suffering from syphilis, encouraged by the local priest. The blue ribbon of his medal of Our Lady is always visible. His faith is echoed by the camp cook, Livo, who, when things begin to go wrong, seeks the advice of a local wise woman. It might even be said that Biran’s faith lies in his wife. All beliefs, however, lead towards death, though Atxaga’s comic undermining of his characters makes it seem less than a tragedy.

Please Look After Mother

April 12, 2012

Kyung-Sook Shin won the Man Asian Prize with Please Look After Mother, her sixth novel and the first to be translated into English. It was also a huge commercial success in her native South Korea. The conceit is a fairly simple one, though beautifully executed: on the way to visit her children in Seoul, So-nyo, is separated from her husband when he boards a crowded train and she does not. The story of the subsequent search for her is told from the shifting perspectives of family members as they re-evaluate their understanding of their mother now that she is missing.

Shin begins adventurously in the second person from the point of view the eldest daughter, Chi-hon, a writer whom we can only imagine bears some resemblance to the author. We soon discover that the search the family will undertake for their mother is as much an internal one of memories as it is an external one of handing out fliers:

“Until last autumn you thought you knew your mother well – what she liked, what you had to do to appease her when she was angry, what she wanted to hear.”

It is quickly clear, as they attempt to put together a flier, that So-nyo is largely unknown to her family. Even the year the children thought she was born is not the true one as their father reveals (“This is the first time you’ve heard this.”). They have no up-to-date photograph. As Chi-hon remembers her mother, it is frequently a story of not knowing:

“When was it you realised that Mother didn’t know how to read?”

And more recently:

“Mother got headaches? So severe that she couldn’t even cry?…You could no longer say you knew mother.”

This first part, tracing the estrangement between mother and daughter, already makes for an excellent novel, but Shin goes on to provide the eldest brother, Hyong-chol’s, story in the second part, before the father’s narrative in part three. Each section takes us further back and, ironically, as we develop a clearer understanding of So-nyo, we increasingly see how she has been marginalised by her husband and family even as she has sacrificed herself for them. Her life has been one of hardship and difficulty:

“Now you probably can’t even imagine it, but in those days we were always worried we would run out of food. We were all like that. The most important thing was eating and surviving.”

The narratives are therefore often characterised by guilt and regret. Her husband, for example, recalls his refusal to talk about his brother’s death:

“Now you realise how cowardly you were. You lived your entire life heaping all your pain onto your wife. Kyun was your brother, yet your wife was the one who needed to be consoled.”

In the final section Shin gives us So-nyo’s own voice, in a way that may not please all readers, but which allows narrative closure and provides the necessary completion of her portrait. It would have been ironic if, in a novel about a woman who is ignored, the reader also did not hear her.

Though it may seem sentimental in summary, and it certainly has a mass appeal that makes it easy to see why the novel has been a best-seller, I found it genuinely moving. It charts that journey from childhood, when we feel we know our parents completely, through our own development into adults, when we often, like So-nyo’s children, give them little thought, to the often belated realisation that there may be areas of their life, external and internal, we are completely ignorant of.

The Prague Cemetery

April 6, 2012

Umberto Eco’s fiction has always showed a fascination with stories. In his previous novel, the disappointing The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, an elderly bookseller immerses himself in memories of the stories of his youth; in what remains his most famous novel, The Name of the Rose the mystery is centred on a library. In The Prague Cemetery the stories may not literally poison, but nonetheless they are designed to infect minds. In it, Eco turns his historical gaze on the rise of modern anti-Semitism by shining a light on the dark art of propaganda.

The protagonist and narrator (at least, for the most part) is a double agent in more ways than one: not only does he play one side against the other, largely for financial inducement, but he begins the novel uncertain of the singularity of his identity:

“Yesterday, which I thought was Tuesday the 22nd of March, I woke up thinking I knew perfectly well who I was – …Simone Simonini, born in Turin, father from Turin, mother French.”

(Both name and nationality also have a double nature). He is removing his own disguise one morning when he spots the costume of another:

“I was wondering what third-rate actor I might have given accommodation to over the past few days when I realised that I too had been in disguise…Was I someone, then, who dressed alternately as a respectable gentleman and as a priest?”

Our central character is a secret agent and propagandist who is so uncertain of the truth he does not even know himself. He is also unaware of the damage he has caused over his long career, regarding himself as a man that rarely kills, yet unable to explain the corpses he has hidden beneath his house. The novel, then, is his attempt to regain his present by retelling his past.

Eco, of course, excels in the intricacies of history, and the novel abounds with historical events and personages. Simonini inherits his anti-Semitism from his grandfather, who tells him tales of the Templars, the Masons, and Jewish plans for world domination. His father is more considered; even when quoting the views of a priest against Jesuits he comments:

“But I have always been amused… that Gioberti took some of these ideas second-hand from The Wandering Jew, a novel by Eugene Sue, published the year before.”

As we shall see, fiction will reappear as fact frequently throughout the novel, and Simonini himself is soon an avid reader of Dumas, whose ideas he will later borrow and adapt. (Dumas himself later appears, apparently confusing reality with story, as an enthusiastic supporter of Garibaldi). Simonini’s father and grandfather die and he works for the family lawyer, who he feels has cheated him, to make ends meet. Part of that job entails forging documentation, and this brings him to the attention of the secret service. As a reward for entrapping a group of radicals he asks for the lawyer to be imprisoned. Later, when asked for information he does not have, he decides to invent it:

“Hence the idea that I might sell Bianco not only a few scraps of gossip I had picked up here and there, but an entire document taken from the Jesuits.”

Whether the document is true or false is never the issue –when Simonini initially pretends to be angered at the suggestion it may be a forgery, Bianco tells him, “Even if this document is all your own handiwork, it suits me and my superiors to present it to the government as genuine.” It is this same document, reappearing in different forms to suit different audiences throughout the novel, which leads to the famous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (It will also not surprise you to learn that Simonini is also involved in framing Dreyfus).

For a novel with such an unpleasant central character, The Prague Cemetery is generally very readable, with a fast-moving plot which can be (as Eco himself admits) a little confusing. As with his previous novel, it is illustrated throughout, with the many prints giving the impression of something fabricated, like the many forgeries Simonini creates, from existing sources. Eco has often celebrated the power of stories, but here he shows their danger: though the novel ends before the 19th century, it is the 20th century that is most in our minds.

Professor Andersen’s Night

April 1, 2012

As befitting a novel about inaction, very little happens in Dag Solstad’s Professor Andersen’s Night – most of the drama is, in fact, confined to one paragraph. Spending Christmas Eve alone, Professor Andersen glances across at the apartment opposite to see a young woman standing at the window. A man appears and Andersen watches as he

“…put his hands around the woman’s neck and squeezed. She flailed her arms about, Professor Andersen noticed, her body jerked, he observed, before she all at once became completely still beneath the man’s hands and went limp.”

The parenthetical ‘noticed’ and ‘observed’ reveal Andersen’s detached, philosophical nature, but still his first thought is to phone the police. His thought, however, is not matched by his actions:

“’It was murder, I must call the police,’ he thought, but still did not lift the receiver.”

Instead he watches the window, now with the curtains drawn. The longer he waits the more difficult it becomes to phone. He cannot understand his own inaction:

“I know I should have done it but I can’t. That is how it is, I simply cannot do it.”

He speculates that perhaps the fact that the murder is irreversible and therefore any phone call could only lead to the arrest of the murderer, but not save the victim, has caused him to hesitate, but when he goes to discuss it with a friend he finds he cannot bring the subject up. The novel becomes not so much about Andersen deliberating whether to contact the police or not, but attempting to understand why he did not do so immediately. That Andersen can find no mention of the murder (or missing women) in the newspapers adds to the sense of unreality.

It would be difficult to sustain a novel simply on this (though Solstad does deliver one or two more twists before the end), but Andersen also seems to be at a potential turning point in how he views his own life. (The ‘night’ of the title, therefore, refers to more than simply the night of the murder, but a period of doubt). As a Boxing Day dinner party demonstrates, he belongs to a group of middle-aged intellectuals who spent their youth as radicals in the 1960s but are now part of the establishment, even though they did not like to see themselves as such:

“They were strongly disinclined to regard themselves as pillars of society…They denied being what they were…They continued to be against authority, deep inside they were in opposition, even though they were now, in fact, pillars of society who carried out the State’s orders…”

Solstad uses a wonderful conceit of a photograph of the dinner party as viewed in 25 years’ time to convey his point. This idea of time passing reoccurs when Andersen asks a friend what he knows about his great-grandparents:

“…there is probably barely a hundred years between the birth of the eldest of them and you. And already they’re no longer part of your consciousness.”

Andersen also doubts his own calling as a professor of literature:

“Literature is not going to survive, not in the way we think of it. Its survival is just a matter of form and that is no longer enough. All enthusiasm lies in the present…”

Professor Andersen’s Night is not a book you would choose to cheer yourself up, but nor is it unremittingly bleak. Andersen’s relationship with his students is one cause for optimism. It is also not a novel that provides easy conclusions; instead it is one which provokes uncomfortable thoughts, as the best literature always does.