Archive for November, 2012

Lost Books – The Alienist

November 20, 2012

For a Brazilian writer of the 1800s, it is perhaps remarkable how much of Machado de Assis’ work has stayed in print in English. His masterpiece, Epitaph of a Small Winner, appeared in a new edition only a few years ago, and, more recently, a number of his short stories have been made available to download. Of the translations which have fallen out of print, the most difficult to source for a number of years has been The Alienist which originally appeared in 1963 (in the same translation by W. L. Grossman) in The Psychiatrist and Other Stories. Luckily Melville House have re-issued it as part of their ‘Art of the Novella’ series which has so far provided an interesting mix of the renowned and the less well known.

The story is easily summarised: famous physician Simao Bacamarte, having studied extensively abroad, returns to his hometown of Itaguai determined to make a significant scientific impact in the area of psychology:

“The health of the soul! The loftiest possible goal for a doctor!”

(Interestingly, his determination is explained in psychological terms, as a result of five years of marriage without children). He asks the council for permission to construct an asylum where those deemed insane will be treated together. Despite local misgivings – “Whoever heard of putting a lot of crazy people together in one house?” – the plan goes ahead and the first patients are admitted. Soon, however, Bacamarte comes to suspect that madness is more widespread than he first thought:

“Till now madness has been thought a small island in an ocean of insanity. I am beginning to suspect it is not an island at all but a continent.”

Anyone, he feels, who lacks “equilibrium of the mental faculties” must be insane. As equilibrium is hard to find, the asylum quickly fills up until the townspeople rebel. Bacamarte attempts reversing his definition of madness and imprisoning those who show too much equilibrium, but again he is not satisfied. By this point, you can probably guess where the story is heading.

Despite its age (psychiatry was clearly in its infancy when it was written) de Assis provides an amusing satire on the difficulties in deciding who is sane and who isn’t (and how this power can be abused). He also combines this with a dig at local politics with various groups coalescing for and against the asylum. A blind respect for science (or perhaps simply fame) seems to be another target as Bacamarte is allowed to do much as he pleases simply because he is held in such esteem. Even when he is eventually challenged (by an angry mob – and it doesn’t get much more challenging than that!) he is able to skilfully deflect the blame and carry on as he wishes. De Assis may deliver the tale in a deceptively light tone but this does not prevent it from being both thought-provoking and relevant.

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The Investigation

November 19, 2012

Philippe Claudel’s novels have always tended towards the generalised and emblematic: in Brodeck’s Report the Second World War is never actually mentioned; in Monsieur Linh and his Child, which focuses on the experience of an immigrant arriving in Europe, no countries are specified. The Investigation (already published in America and due from MacLehose Press in January) takes this one step further by transporting us into a world of Kafkaesque farce.

The novel begins with the Investigator’s arrival in an unnamed city (characters are known by their purpose rather than by name). An East European atmosphere is created by his arrival by train, snow in the air, and the fact that “a giant billboard displayed the hugely enlarged photograph of an old man”. However, this is countered by the Investigator’s task (the Investigator is quite unlike K in that he is very clear about his purpose): to investigate a number of suicides at an all-encompassing company known as the Enterprise. Are we satirising totalitarianism or rampant capitalism? There’s no time to consider this as the Investigator is immediately faced with one problem after another. He cannot get into the Enterprise as it is after nine o’clock and must search for a hotel. The only one he can find is the ironically named Hope Hotel where he is not allowed a room until he has memorised the rules and been tested on them. Even at this early point the Investigator wonders if he might be in hell:

“Then with brutal abruptness a thought came to him, a luminous, self-evident, indubitable thought: He was dead. He’d died without noticing it.”

In another novel we might take this as an indication that the author intends the experience to represent his vision of hell, or his view that that life is hell, but here it already feels more in keeping with a literary in-joke. The hotel will offer numerous comic set pieces: later he will have to lift his bed in order to open the door to a luxurious bathroom where he discovers the only water is scalding.

The Enterprise is equally, though less explicitly, inhospitable. A Guide provides him with a white coat and hard hat (completely unnecessary) and conducts him to an office where he is soon abandoned. Later the same man, returns as the Watchman and threatens him with a gun. If Claudel’s intention is to satirise big business then his targets seem very small scale. We are offered a few deliberately two dimensional characters to laugh at but no sense of how the Enterprise works.

The novel does build towards a symbolic conclusion, but by that point it is difficult to say what Claudel’s target is. Perhaps he is simply suggesting that any search for the truth will be hampered and obstructed. We see this more explicitly in the Investigator’s search for food, something that touches on Claudel’s previous concerns as, when he finally feasts, it is in the company of immigrants who are given nothing. This is a rare moment when the novel seems politicised. Otherwise it is thoroughly entertaining, often amusing, but only occasionally unsettling. Claudel has taken his generalising to the point where any connection with the real world has been lost: yes, it is clothed in reality but it seems more fantasy than satire. This is perhaps why Claudel seems to insist on its fictionality a little too forcefully at the end. It’s great fun to read, and perhaps a little too much fun to write, but, like the Investigator, the Reader leaves the novel none the wiser.

Emmaus

November 10, 2012

Emmaus by Alessandro Baricco (translated into English by Ann Goldstein and published by McSweeney’s Books) is a short novel set in post-war Italy about four boys coming to terms with adulthood. Far from following the well-worn path of the coming-of-age story, however, the novel adopts a strange dream-like quality that might remind the reader of a fable – and indeed its title comes from the Biblical story when a post-crucifix Jesus is met but not recognised. This tale is referred to in the narrative but it is difficult to pin down its exact association to the four boys. Certainly religion and faith are important to all of them, particularly to the one who is nicknamed the Saint, but it seems likely that the unknowing is also key as this is a novel where characters remain opaque, both to the reader and each other.

Though the novel is presented as memoir (“The boy was me. It was many years ago.”) there is little sense of an older narrator looking back. This preserves the boys’ narrow understanding of life; the rich in particular are distant and unknowable:

“The result is lives that we do not understand – writings to which the key is lost.”

Andre is from that world, a girl whom all the boys become obsessed with (or at least the narrator does as the narrative keeps returning to her). Even her name is unusual:

“…in our families it’s a boys’ name, but not in hers, which even when it comes to names demonstrates an instinctive inclination to privilege.”

Though she is beautiful, she has no boyfriend; instead she simply makes herself available to the boys around her:

“She waits in the bathroom at the movie theatre, leaning against a wall, and they go in one after the other to take her: she doesn’t even turn around.”

Her attitude contrasts with that of the boys who regard sex as a sin and whose physical relationship with their girlfriends consists of touching each other under a blanket. Slowly Andre’s past is revealed: her sister’s death, her attempted suicide. Almost always this is done distantly through a story or comment that the boys have heard. They observe Andre from afar, only occasionally coming close to her.

Andre is also instrumental in the friends becoming more distant with each other. The first sign of this is probably when three of them go to Andre’s house to talk with her mother and discover the other’s bass guitar there (they also play in a band together). It becomes increasingly clear that the boys do not know each other as well as they think. When the Saint’s mother asks the other boys about him, the narrator senses her unknowing:

“She must have wondered if they (parents) were all blind in the face of our mystery.”

However, it later transpires that perhaps the other boys did not know the Saint as well as they thought: far from becoming a priest, he ends up in prison.

Perhaps the most tragic misunderstanding relates to Luca’s father. Luca tells the other boys his father often goes out onto the balcony at meal times and thinks about throwing himself off. When the narrator has the chance to ask him about this he reveals the true reason:

“It’s just that it relaxes me to look at things from above.”

The unknowing penetrates the narrative itself where youthfulness is revealed with little sense of irony and our awareness that the boys change is difficult to map. This can make the novel frustrating (and its conclusion is no more revealing) but it is also what makes it interesting.

The Shadow Girls

November 3, 2012

Henning Mankell apparently wrote the first Wallander novel, Faceless Killers, to engage with issues surrounding immigration in Sweden. Ten years later, having brought the Wallander series to an end, he wrote Tea-Bag (translated in to English by Ebba Segerberg as The Shadow Girls despite its already English title) which seeks to tackle exactly the same issue both more directly and more obliquely.

The novel opens in the voice of Tea-Bag, an African refugee who makes her way first to Europe and then to Sweden after a chance encounter with a Swedish journalist. That she does this largely by walking and hitching across the continent after a near fatal crossing from Africa gives some indication of her strength of character. It is well known that Mankell has spent much of his time in Africa and he has written about it extensively, both in the Wallander novels and in stand-alone works like Chronicler of the Wind; I therefore fully expected this to be Tea-Bag’s story. An abrupt change takes place, however, twenty pages in when we are introduced to the character of Jesper Humlin.

Humlin is a Swedish poet whose life seems to consist of a number of antagonistic relationships. His girlfriend, Andrea, is insistent that they either have a child or separate, his mother demands he visit her only to insult him, his accountant has lost most of his money in a bad investment, and his agent will not listen to him. Humlin’s introduction marks a change in tone as Mankell introduces a number of running jokes, first and foremost Humlin’s publisher’s insistence that he write a crime novel. Humlin refuses:

“I don’t like crime fiction. I think whodunits are boring. I couldn’t care less about reading a book where the only point is to guess who the murderer is before the book is over.”

However, as the novel progresses, press announcements, plot synopsises, and proposed titles follow. Humlin also discovers that everyone around him is also writing a book: Andrea, his mother, his accountant; a fellow poet already has a crime novel in development. The novel is therefore partly a satire on the world of writing and publishing – as is evident from scenes of Humlin’s readings, another task the modern writer must undertake.

In the midst of all this, however, Humlin becomes embroiled in a project to offer writing classes to immigrants. He sees this as a chance to tell their stories:

“…no-one has heard stories like these before. It is a book about what is happening in this country. Real voices.”

Three women attend Humlin’s writing class, the public nature of which is in itself an example of cultural difference. As well as Tea-Bag, there is Tanya, on the run form an Eastern European brothel, and Leyla, a legal immigrant from Iran who suffers from the tyranny of her family. Slowly their stories unfold, sometimes told in their own words, at others through conversation and comments from the other women.

Mankell’s decision to use Humlin as an intermediary may initially seem strange, but it is likely he wanted to focus as much on the difficulty in understanding as on the understanding. Tea-Bag, for example, remains unknowable to some extent throughout, appearing and disappearing at will. The ‘monkey’ which she refers to seems to sum up her otherness – a symbol from another genre of writing all together. Mankell also seems to have intended to leaven his serious theme with humour, in the same way he used police procedural in the Wallander novels to tackle a number of important issues. In this he has certainly succeeded. Whatever else you may think of the novel, no-one could accuse it of being gloomy.