Archive for May, 2012

The Islanders

May 28, 2012

Unlike J. G. Ballard, a novelist who similarly stood astride literary and genre tributaries, Christopher Priest has never quite made it into the mainstream. He has also had some celluloid success with the adaptation of his novel The Prestige a few years ago (and, in one of those strange connections we often find in his fiction, wrote the novelisation of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, Cronenberg being the director who filmed Ballard’s Crash). He has, however, perhaps suffered from not having the same exotic biography to draw on. Though both writers have produced intelligent, radical science fiction, their approaches are different: whereas Ballard is like a microscope, focussing on and enlarging one aspect of society in each novel, Priest’s method is kaleidoscopic, presenting many faceted realities which often only seem to coincide with our own at angles.

His first novel in almost ten years his structure is more kaleidoscopic than ever. The Islanders takes the form of a gazetteer, each of its chapters detailing information about an island in the Dream Archipelago, an imaginary island group that has featured in Priest’s writing before. The gazetteer is shamed-facedly incomplete, the islands being uncounted and uncharted:

“There are no maps or charts of the Dream Archipelago. At least there are no reliable ones, or comprehensive ones, or even whole ones.”

The Dream Archipelago exists in geographical ambiguity. As Dant Wheeler, a journalist who contributes one of the chapters (more on this later), points out:

“As regular readers know, the IDT no longer publishes maps. The official reason for this is because most maps of the Archipelago are notoriously inaccurate, but our former policy was that an approximate map was better than no map at all. However, the newspaper had to revise this policy when a few years ago the T&V Supp inadvertently sent a group of retired church workers to a Glaund army rest and recreation base.”

This makes the Dream Archipelago a gift for a writer – and is possibly a dig at that particular genre of world-building fantasy novels that always begins with a map.

Though ostensibly a gazetteer, not all the entries are purely informative. As well as the above quoted travel journalism, one chapter contains a series of letters, another documents relating to a suspicious death, and a few read more like short stories. What makes this a novel, however, is the number of reoccurring characters and plot-lines. Most of the recurring characters are artists: the writer Chaster Kammeston, who provides the introduction but whose funeral is described in the text, the artist Dryd Bathurst (whose biography Kammeston writes), the conceptual artist Jordenn Yo who creates networks of tunnels, the writer Moylita Kaine, who corresponds with Kammeston before her own writing career begins (her first novel is entitled The Affirmation, also a Christopher Priest novel). The most important character who isn’t an artist is Elsa Caurer, an intellectual and teacher (and Kammeston’s lover), and also, it seems, the individual to whom The Islanders is dedicated! In this format the reoccurrences can seem increasingly unlikely, but they allow the novel to explore the idea of the artist, though perhaps with tongue at least halfway in cheek. Bathurst debauches from island to island leaving a trail of paintings behind him; Kammeston refuses to leave his island, even for love, because it will damage the mythology of his fiction.

Priest also has some fun with his various plots, genre-hopping in way that goes largely unnoticed until they come to fruition. There is a murder mystery – the death of the mime artist Commis, with clues revealed sporadically throughout. There is a horror story about deadly insects, told in entries in a scientist’s journal:

“We discovered just how dangerous the insect could be when rolled: the bristles are as fine as hairs bit they are stiff and hollow and act as hypodermic needles for the venom they contain.”

(The thryme, as they are called, are quite as terrifying as anything in Alien). There is a love story (Kammeston and Caurer, as mentioned previously), a coming of age story (Kammeston again), a supernatural story (in the chapter ‘Dead Tower’) and a thriller (the story entitled ‘The Drone’). While some of the short, informative chapters can feel like treading water, the longer chapters are often examples of story-telling at its best, and the cross-referencing means that the novel is more than the sum of its parts, with a re-reading undoubtedly needed to fully appreciate it. Priest is a writer we should treasure and acclaim, as those involved in the genre ghetto of science fiction have done for many years.

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The Opportune Moment, 1855

May 18, 2012

Another novel that I particularly enjoyed last year by a writer I’d never read before was Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana (subtitled ‘a brief history of the twentieth century’). Luckily two more of his books are available from Dalkey Archive Press, including The Opportune Moment, 1855. Ourednik’s interest in history continues to be evident from the title, but here the camera focuses in on one relatively unimportant event rather than attempting to give us the panoramic sweep of Europeana. The event in question is an attempt to set up an anarchist community in Brazil in the mid-nineteenth century.

The clash between ideals and reality is evident from the novel’s structure which begins with a letter written in 1902 to an unnamed woman by the originator of the colony, a narrative that is immediately contrasted with the diary of one of those undertaking the voyage to Brazil in 1855. This contrast is evident from the disparate styles: the former is written with rhetorical flourishes; the latter is a prosaic rendering of events, including, for example, lists of passengers and equipment. The failure of the colony is also quickly established:

“However, the short-lasted duration of the settlement is not proof of the project’s unattainability – only people without imagination could think so. If the first experiment fails to produce the expected results, it must be repeated.”

Here the author blames reality rather than his own philosophy. He complains that many of those on the voyage “had not even read my articles.” Not only does the experiment’s failure give us a lens through which to view the diary which follows, the move backwards in time makes a mockery of the idea of progress.

We view the narrative of the voyage with an eye for the origins of failure. Distrust between nationalities is clearly one difficulty:

“The Germans are poorer than us Italians and most of them have hardly anything of their own. We’re worried that they might try to steal some of our things.”

Perhaps even more serious are the clashes between different ideologies:

“Gorand said that that was a typical Italian anarchist attitude, at which point Decio inserted himself into the conversation, saying that anarchy was not quite what Gorand imagined it, and that communism was always trying to tell people what to do.”

There is heated debate about whether the ship’s Negroes should be allowed to join the settlement (without ever considering whether they want to), and what sanctions should be used against those who do not turn up for assemblies. Ourednik satirises without ever resorting to caricature: we sense he sympathises with their attempt to be free while at the same time recognising those attitudes which still trap them.

The final section of the novel consists of four further diary entries all headed October 1855. They all begin in approximately the same fashion:

“October the 15th. This is our sixth month here but the truth is I don’t know where to begin. I’m not sure that today is October the 15th.”

These entries tell of the deterioration of life in the settlement after the arrival in Brazil. Their repetitive nature emphasises the way in which the impetus behind the settlement slows until it dies. Each entry is shorter than the last showing the dissipating energy of both the writer and the community. Unsurprisingly, it all ends with a drunk waving an axe.

As with Europeana, this is not a novel which looks cheerily on mankind, but it does possess the same wit and elegance in its pessimism.

Reader’s Block

May 11, 2012

Returning to Cesar Aira made me nostalgic for some of the other authors I had discovered last year (during my Year of Reading Dangerously, the real danger being that for every novel I crossed off another two or three blossomed in its place), and coincidentally I spotted David Markson’s Reader’s Block – in a bookshop of all places. Readers’ Block was actually the first of Markson’s ‘collage’ novels (early on he reflects on the style, “Non-linear? Discontinuous? Collage-like?”) and the precursor to this is not a novel. In place of Writer we have Reader and Protagonist, related though not identical, Markson’s focus being the autobiographical novel:

“How much of Reader’s own circumstances or past would he in fact give to Protagonist in such a novel?”

In fact, much of what we ‘learn’ about Protagonist is suspended between autobiography and fiction by a question mark. Markson also draws attention to this borderland by assigning the names of famous literary characters (briefly) to his own, which have (we assume) been drawn from life:

“Has Reader decided if Protagonist will have ever seen Becky Sharp in later life? When did he last see Daisy Buchanan?”

As with this is not a novel, much of the text consists of an endless stream of factual statements, quotations, names and titles – which Markson collated without the aid of a computer. (When Kurt Vonnegut heard this he apparently commented, ‘David, I’m worried about your mental condition.’) Some themes quickly appear: suicides are frequently mentioned, as are anti-Semites. Markson also touches on the Holocaust, from single words (“Kristallnacht”) to the more detailed:

“A roundup of Denmark’s eight thousand Jews was ordered by the Nazis in 1943. The Danes smuggled virtually every one of them to Sweden on fishing boats instead.”

(The above is probably of average length). While the effect of this was not substantially different to that of this is not a novel, I still found it eerily hypnotic and absorbing. Early in the novel Markson mentions “Reader and his mind full of clutter” and he has said that “the intellectual odds and ends are meant to convey a portrait of what’s in his mind.” Certainly they have a cumulative effect, playing off each other and the Reader’s questions about the novel he will create. Their power can be particularly seen when we come to the final few pages: as with this is not a novel, it has emotional impact, while at the same time confirming the novel’s medium as essential to its message.

“A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel?”

Yes, and all the better for that.

Lost Books – The Hare

May 4, 2012

The publication of a new novel by Cesar Aira in English is now a commonplace event (two this year alone), but his first appearance in the language occurred as recently as 1998 thanks to Serpent’s Tail (and translator Nick Caistor), an imprint that was also introducing UK readers to other South American writers such as Juan Carlos Onetti and Juan Jose Saer. That novel, The Hare, is atypical of what has been published since: at a whopping 248 pages it is much longer than the slim volumes we have come to expect, and it is also much more conventional in its structure, taking the idea of resolution – so often absent from Aira’s work – to comic extremes.

The story, however, will not be unfamiliar to those who have read Portrait of a Landscape Painter as it is also set in the nineteenth century and concerns the journey of a European explorer across the pampas of Argentina. The explorer is an English naturalist, Clarke, who sets off in search of the titular Legibrerian Hare accompanied by a local guide, Gauna, and a young painter, Carlos Prior. They spend some time with the Mapuche tribe but when their chief, Cafulcura, goes missing, they are asked to help discover what has happened to him while still ostensibly searching for the hare. Both of Clarke’s companions are also seeking something: Prior has fallen in love with a Mapuche girl – “Ynuy has run away and I propose to set off in pursuit” – and Gauna is searching for a long lost sister. The hare, therefore, comes to symbolise an elusive goal (or, indeed, a narrative MacGuffin).

This is particularly appropriate as nothing in the Mapuche language can be pinned down to one meaning:

“…he (Clarke) knew that the Mapuche word for ‘law’ could also mean many other things, among which were ‘venture’, ‘suggest’, ‘stranger’, ‘know’, ‘word’ and ‘Mapuche’.”

Aira has great fun with this, particularly when it comes to Clarke’s search for the Legibrerian hare whose defining quality seems to be its ability to fly:

“They say: the hare ‘took off’. In Mapuche that verb can also mean ‘was stolen, ‘was made to vanish’. We have no reason to know of these double meanings so we understand it in its first sense, and they go on with the joke at our expense; even when you ask them if what happened is real or an interpretation, they can permit themselves to lie with the truth, as they always do. And, between you and me, I reckon that ‘hare’ is the name they give to some valuable object.”

Even the landscape around them cannot be relied upon. During the hare hunt (when Cafulcura goes missing) Clarke notices:

“The faint line of the horizon, grown fainter than ever, always kept half the participants hidden from view while, at the same time, each one was at the centre of his own circle…Space itself changed position with each sweep: it seemed as though they were watching it pass by upside down.”

(With nothing being what it seems, it will not surprise you to learn that twins are important in Mapuche mythology).

The hare, then, is little more than an excuse for the trio’s picaresque journey across the pampas. Slowly the three of them bound, perhaps initially united by the extraordinary coincidence that they are all adopted. They share stories; Clarke talks of the only woman he has loved who he lost many years ago in Argentina; Gauna reveals his search for a sister he believes possesses a valuable family heirloom. They encounter other tribes, one of which lives underground, visit the Mapuche’s great enemies, the Voroga, and take part in a mock battle.

Despite being superficially a more conventional novel, Aira’s cavalier attitude to the construction of fiction is evident. In the first chapter he paints an interesting portrait of an Argentinian leader, the Restorer of the Laws, who does not appear again. Characters’ motivations are frequently oblique or opaque. And, as I mentioned earlier, the novel’s conclusion would make Charles Dickens blush. But with this comes Aira’s charm, that sense of the story moving forward, much like the travellers, regardless, never knowing, or caring, what comes next.