Archive for March, 2013


March 29, 2013


Satantango is my first acquaintance with Laszlo Krasznahorkai (as a novelist anyway – I’ve since discovered he wrote the screenplay for Turin Horse which I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival a couple of years ago) and the novel is as authentically East European as his name suggests. The dense, dark woodland of its cover reflects not only the novel’s setting but its style: bleak, impenetrable, unending. (Only the fact that it is not raining prevents the jacket absolutely capturing what is inside). Within this dark landscape the characters root around like animals, lacking any redeeming features, driven only by greed and lust. In other words, it’s not something to read if you want to cheer yourself up, though I believe the author intends to inspire laughter (a kind of despairing laughter, I admit) as much as sadness.

The novel is set in a decayed village, a few houses thrown together whose inhabitants neither like nor trust one another. Within the first few pages we discover Futaki is sleeping with Schmidt’s wife, and Schmidt and Kraner are planning to steal money Futaki is owed in wages. All of them are hoping for something better. These dreams are united around Irimias, believed dead for the last eighteen months but now rumoured to be returning to the village:

“…a great magician. He could turn a pile of cow shit into a mansion if he wanted to.”

Irimias is referred to in the blurb (and presumably the title) as the Devil but this is not a novel in the manner of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye or Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov (I name two of my favourite more recent examples of a very old genre) in which a mysterious character appears and slowly corrupts or torments those around him. The villagers already believe in Irimias before we meet him and abandon all their plans to wait for him. He sends them to a manor house after a rousing speech in a local pub, many of them wrecking their own homes and possessions before they leave, but when they get there:

“…they roamed through the deserted halls of the moribund building, exploring in sombre chaotic fashion the dismantled parts of rusted machinery and in the funereal silence the suspicion grew in them that they had been lured into a trap…”

Just as they have begun to doubt Irimias, however, he appears and, as inexplicably as before, they immediately agree to his next plan.

As with Kafka, the novel works both satirically and allegorically. Krasznahorkai grew up under Communism and it is easy to see how the novel could be read as a critique of that system. It also, however, has deeper things to say about human life that still resonate today – about dreams, for example (in one way, the novel itself is a dream). It is certainly not an easy read – something that can raise suspicion when a novel is lavishly praised by critics – but its difficulty is a fundamental part of its vision.


March 24, 2013


Bundu is exactly the sort of book that makes the Independent foreign Fiction Prize worthwhile for me. I’d neither heard of the novel nor the author prior to the short list being published. In fact, Barnard seems to be well known in his native South Africa – he’s certainly not a newcomer with over thirty previous books to his name, although I can only find one other that has been translated into English.

The novel’s title refers to a largely uninhabited area that exists in a no-man’s land between South Africa and Mozambique. Brand de la Ray is a biologist who is there to study the local ecology. (Although never explicitly mentioned – his project there is left rather vague – there is a sense he is studying how life can survive there, a question that is also central to the human inhabitants). There is little else apart from a mission, a hospital and a number of scattered dwellings. Brand largely keeps to himself – as with other characters in the area, a broken relationship has been partly responsible for his arrival in such a remote spot. As the novel unfolds Barnard reveals the characters’ damaged pasts and explores whether they can be repaired.

The catalyst for the events of the novel is the arrival of an increasing number of starving refugees at the hospital:

“There were usually a few people under the fever trees waiting to be attended to…but even on busy days seldom more than ten. That morning there were probably at least forty.”

Brand and one of the nurses, Julia, have a close relationship which is always threatening to blossom into something more – “she was the only person I could talk to in my own language – in more than just the literal sense of the word.” Both are held back by the distrust created by previous relationships and an almost fanatical sense of independence. It is largely because of Julia that Brand is drawn into the refugee problem (there are soon hundreds). He calls on another local loner, Jock Mills (who is often little more than a distant motorbike engine) to help: Jock has been rebuilding an abandoned military aeroplane which Brand intends to use to fly out the refugees.

The plane becomes the central image for rebuilding in the novel and a great deal of tension is created around questions of whether it will fly and where it will land. Brand and Mills, men who have largely shut themselves off from the world, now focus their energies on helping others: Mills literally risks his life; Brand abandons his research work. Most of the best scenes centre on the plane. Largely these are scenes of jeopardy, but there is one moving moment when Mills discovers that the refugees have filled the plane overnight in the hope they can escape:

“There was a whole crowd of people in the plane, twice as many as a DC-3 cold carry. They sat on each other’s laps, sat in the aisle, in the cockpit, in the open baggage hold at the back -a bank of black skulls staring at the light motionlessly as if the torch hypnotised them.”

It has all the making of a Hollywood film, though in that Mils would be a hero and Brand and Julia would walk off into the sunset together -which isn’t quite what happens. Among the animals Brand studies is a troop of baboons. The leader of the troop and Brand often look at each other as the sun sets. That gap that cannot be breached seems also to exist between people.

The Sound of Things Falling

March 16, 2013

sound of things falling

Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s previous novel, The Secret History of Costaguana, involved a cameo from Joseph Conrad. It’s not hard to see why: his latest, The Sound of Things Falling, tells one characters story through the mediation of another character and seems above all concerned with the understanding of history, both personal and political. Whereas the nomadic Conrad, however, sought that understanding wherever he went (South America in Nostromo; the Congo in Heart of Darkness; London in The Secret Agent), Vasquez seeks again to reflect on his homeland of Columbia.

The novel focuses on the1990s when the Columbian government was engaged in a battle with drug lord Pablo Escobar for control of the country. The young narrator, Yammara, befriends an older man, Ricardo Laverde, in a billiard hall. Another member of the club tells him that Ricardo has recently been released after twenty years in prison, but he doesn’t know what he did to get put in there in the first place:

“But he must have done something, no? Nobody gets that many years for nothing.”

Ricardo reveals little more to Yammara, telling him not to “confuse billiards with friendship”, though he does show him a photograph he has had taken of himself in preparation for a visit from his wife who he has not seen in many years. He offers him advice that might be a mantra for the novel:

“…a person’s happy until they fuck it up somehow, then there’s no way to get back to what you used to be.”

A few weeks later Ricardo tells him he wants to play a tape and Yammara takes him to a shop where this is possible. The tape, we later find out, is from the black box of a crashed plane, the plane that his wife was travelling on. On the way home from the shop, Ricardo is fatally shot, a targeted killing, and Yammara injured.

Yammara goes on to unravel the truth about Ricardo’s life. Planes, flying and falling, form a great part of it: his grandfather a famous pilot; his father injured in a stunt at an air-show which goes wrong. Ricardo himself becomes a pilot and takes advantage of the burgeoning drug trade between Columbia and the USA. His wife is an American Peace Corp member, as is the man who introduces him to flying consignments of drugs. In exploring Ricardo’s life, we also see how the drugs trade infiltrates the country. Ricardo’s ‘big mistake’ is also Columbia’s.

As the plane crashes show, characters may make poor choices but they also have little control over their lives. A sense of isolation abounds. When Yammara goes to visit Ricardo’s daughter, he refuses the opportunity to phone his wife and tell her he will not be home that night – he becomes increasingly withdrawn from her after the shooting. The daughter, Maya, lives alone, and the connection she has with Yammara is brief, just as her parents’ marriage was. Yammara returns to find his wife and daughter have left. That togetherness may be the answer is only suggested in a question:

“…would I try to convince her, tell her that together we could defend ourselves better from the evil of the world, or that the world was too risky a place to be wandering on our own, without anyone waiting for us at home who worries about us when we don’t show up and who can go out and look for us?”

Few writers are producing such relevant and questioning novels about the places where they live.

Silent House

March 14, 2013

silent house

After being transfixed by both My Name is Red and Snow, I fell out of love with Orhan Pamuk on reading The Museum of Innocence; despite the fact that Silent House comes complete with praise for Pamuk’s last novel from a number of well-respected critics, I found it over-long and self-indulgent. Silent House, however, exists at the opposite end of Pamuk’s oeuvre, an early novel that is only now being translated into English. This, too, raises a doubt – perhaps it is only appearing on the back of Pamuk’s Nobel win and is a relatively weak work not really worth the effort. To that I would say, no – this is far less disappointing than The Museum of Innocence, a bravura performance of narrative that suggests a writer already at ease with his craft.

Silent House is set in Turkey in 1980 (only three years before it was published)and tells the story of three generations of a family over the course of a few days. The elderly widow Fatma is visited by her three grandchildren: Faruk, Metin and Nilgun. She lives alone with her servant Recep, the illegitimate son of her husband. The son of her husband’s other illegitimate child, Hassan, also features heavily. All six of these characters play their part in telling the story in what is a master-class of multiple narration. Each has their own concerns: Faruk is a historian who haunts the local archives looking for a story but is ultimately disillusioned by history; Metin is obsessed by wealth, attempting to convince his grandmother to knock down the house and build apartments and longing to move to America; Nilgun is a young girl flirting with Communism. Hassan, a childhood friend, has conversely become embroiled with a group of Nationalists. Even in translation, the different voices of the characters come across. Most successful is that of the widow who spends most of her time reliving the past with only the occasional line of dialogue from the present intervening. It is through her that the character of her husband comes to life, a man who left Istanbul to devote himself to writing an encyclopaedia in the hope that Turkey could ‘catch up’ with European nations:

“I’m obliged to articulate a number of things that would be absurdly plain in any advanced nation, just to rouse this mound of sloths.”

His Quixote type quest creates a perspective for the political tensions in the present, with lists of those killed on both the Communist and Nationalist sides of the divide printed daily in the paper.

The novel contains two love stories, but both also have a political dimension. Metin seeks to impress a rich girl he has met but cannot compete with the wealth of her social circle. Hassan falls for Nilgun but also has to impress his fellow Nationalists who wold ridicule him if he were to admit being in love with a society girl. Pamuk is wonderful both on the agonies of young love and also the dynamics of the peer groups. In Hassan in particular, Pamuk creates a convincing picture of someone who is not inherently evil but whose frustrations at life make him capable of evil. His final words in the novel are:

“Watch out for me from now on! Be afraid!”

Despite its now historical setting, this novel still has plenty to teach us.

The Murder of Halland

March 8, 2013

murder of halland

Last year Peirene Press made it on to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long-list with Next World Novella, the story of a man waking to find his wife dead and the events which follow as he begins to see their relationship in a new light. This year they are represented by Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland in which a woman wakes to discover her partner (they’re not married in this case) has been shot. Not only must she come to terms with his death but also re-evaluate their relationship as she discovers aspects of his life that she didn’t know about.

Of course the novels are in other ways quite different. The Murder of Halland is written as an anti-detective story (you can see why this might be attractive to a Scandinavian author). Juul highlights the difference when the widowed narrator, Bess, relaxes by watching a television detective series:

“First a murder, nothing too bestial. Then a police inspector. Insights into his or her personal problems, perhaps. Details about the victim. Puzzles and anomalies. Lines of investigation. Clues. Detours. Breakthrough. Case solved. Nothing like real life.”

This is only one of a number of unusual actions which Bess takes after Halland’s death. She goes to a night club and gets drunk, kisses a neighbour, and almost misses his funeral. No-one, in fact, acts as expected. Bess’ bitter ex-husband, the man she left after a chance encounter with Halland, turns up to tell her he misses her; her daughter, who has refused to see her since the divorce, appears without the appropriately dramatic scene of reconciliation or confrontation.

Halland, too, turns out to not be all that he seemed to Bess. She discovers a room rented in the apartment of a young pregnant woman who claims to be a relative. A giant poster of The Return of Martin Guerre – which would scream clue in any normal mystery – is rolled up and put away. The money he put in her account before his death is never explained. The puzzle is never solved: as the police seem to head in one direction, the ending points ambiguously in another.

Working against genre and character expectations, Juul instead tells a story which rings true. Like most people after a life-changing experience, Bess’ life doesn’t change. “I’m not in the mood for soul-searching,” she says. She claims not to want to know the results of the police investigation until they are certain, but, in fact, admits she “preferred not to know anything at all.” Even the prose (which, of course, reflects Bess’ character) is as flat as real life.

As we have come to expect from Peirene Press, The Murder of Halland is an unsettling antidote to the majority of fiction being published today. If it is a jigsaw, it’s one with a number of missing pieces, forcing the reader to confront those blank spaces.

Cloud Howe

March 6, 2013

cloud howe

In Cloud Howe (the second book in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy) Chris leaves the farm for the manse. Though Sunset Song was not without a minister or two, Cloud Howe opens with Chris married to the Reverend Robert Colquhoun, who conducts the memorial service for those that died in the First World War at the end of the first book. Robert is an unusual minister however, and not just because he marries someone who doesn’t share his faith; he is a radical who supports the General Strike, the historical event that forms the centre of this novel in the way that the Great War did with Sunset Song.

Together they move from the country to the small town of Segget, a town divided between its older inhabitants and those that have come to work in the jute mills:

“The spinners’ coming brought trade to the toun, but the rest of Segget still tried to make out that the spinners were only there by their leave, the ill-spoken tinks.”

The war still hangs over the novel; Robert served at the Front and was gassed. Now he seems torn between a bitter despair and the hope that he can help change the world for the better:

“…out of his mood and happy again, you knew that he knew he followed a dream, with the black mood REAL, and his hopes but mists.”

It is these ‘mists’ which give the novel its title, an echo of Exodus 3:21, “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way.” Cloud comes to represent the dreams that men follow, elusive and insubstantial. It is the workers’ leader, Jock Cronin, who articulates Robert’s disappointment:

“WE went to the War, we knew what it was, we went to dirt and lice and damnation: and what have we got at the end of it all? Starvation wages, no homes for heroes, the capitalists fast on our necks as before.”

Robert works with Cronin during the Strike, but it is quickly broken by the government, Ramsay MacDonald being the first of a number of turncoats, including Cronin himself later. Robert had thought it would be “the beginning of the era of Man made free at last”, his hope echoed in Chris’ pregnancy, a pregnancy she had avoided for almost ten years as a result of the War. As the Strike fails, so her child is stillborn.

The symbolism may seem laboured but that does not take account of the way the novel is written. Once again it is a mixture of communal narrative, full of gossip and back-biting, and Chris’ own third person viewpoint. The novel tells many other stories, reflecting the rich and poor of the town. We also see Chris’ son, Ewan, grow into a man, Gibbon’s interest in history (the Standing Stones of Sunset Song) seen in Ewan’s collection of arrow heads and other fragments of the past. The novel’s serious themes are coated in much humour and satire; the Strike itself takes up only a few pages towards the end. That the dream is over is shown in the novel’s final lines:

“…she went slow down the brae, only once looked back at the frown of the hills…seeing them bare of their clouds for once, the pillars of mist that aye crowned their heights, all but a faint wisp vanishing south, and the bare, still rocks upturned to the sky.”

Robert is dead, a victim of his gassed lungs, but Chris, Chris Caledonia as he once called her, endures.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013

March 5, 2013

The long- list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was announced on Saturday as follows:

The Detour, by Gerbrand Bakker; tr from the Dutch by David Colmer
Bundu, by Chris Barnard; tr. from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns
HHhH, by Laurent Binet; tr. from the French by Sam Taylor
Trieste, by Dasa Drndic; tr. from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac
Cold Sea Stories, by Pawel Huelle; tr. from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
The Murder of Halland, by Pia Juul; tr. from the Danish by Martin Aitken
The Fall of the Stone City, by Ismail Kadare; tr. from the Albanian by John Hodgson
In Praise of Hatred, by Khaled Khalifa; tr. from the Arabic by Leri Price
A Death in the Family, by Karl Ove Knausgaard; tr. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Satantango, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai; tr. from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
Black Bazaar, by Alain Mabanckou; tr. from the French by Sarah Ardizzone
The Last of the Vostyachs, by Diego Marani; tr. from the Italian by Judith Landry
Traveller of the Century, by Andrés Neuman; tr. from the Spanish by Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia
Silent House, by Orhan Pamuk; tr. from the Turkish by Robert Finn
The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez; tr. from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Dublinesque, by Enrique Vila-Matas; tr. from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey & Anne McLean

This year I’ve read a grand total of three of the books already:

The Fall of the Stone City
Dublinesque (unfortunatley no review for this)

Four of the books are also on the long-list for the Best Translated Book Award: A Death in the Family (published in the US as My Struggle); Santantango; Traveller of the Century; and Dublinesque.

As last year, I intend to read as many as I can, although this does tend to favour the shorter texts – unfortunate as I would imagine that Traveller of the Century must be one of the front-runners. I may just have to hope it makes it to the short-list next month!

Life Form

March 1, 2013

life form

Amelie Nothomb is a writer whose life and art have always been closely connected. She has said, on more than one occasion, to have got ideas for her novels from conversations or communications with others. Life Form, her latest novel to appear in English, purports to be autobiographical in that it describes events in her own life, but the story it tells is that of someone else: a young American, Melvin Mapple, who write to her from Iraq. His first letter, with which Nothomb immediately opens the novel, is brief:

“I’m a private in the US Army, my name is Melvin Mapple, you can call me Mel…I’m writing to you because I’m as down as a dog. I need some understanding and I know that if anyone can understand me, you can.”

The novel then goes on to tell the story of their correspondence. Mapple, we discover, is increasingly obese – a result, he claims, of his time in combat:

“Some people lose their appetite, but most of them, including me, have the opposite reaction.”

Mapple even imagines the extra weight he has put on is another person. Nothomb (as she characterises herself in the novel) is at first fascinated by this, but when she mentions ironically a friend who starved herself as an art project, Mapple enlists her help to have his obesity declared a work of art. Just when we feel we know where the novel is heading (a satire that, having taken a cheap shot at the US army, is now heading for the art world), we discover that Mapple’s letters are not to be taken at face value.

The novel is, in fact, about how we present ourselves in writing, how we ‘form’ our lives. Although Mapple has deceived ‘Nothomb’, she tells him:

“What you showed me in your letter was simply another way of conveying reality.”

Just as Mapple creates a persona to write to Nothomb, so does Nothomb edit herself for the purpose of the novel. Not only that, but she is showing us, in Mapple, why she writes:

“…if every day of your life you write like a woman possessed, it is because you need an emergency exit. For you, being a writer means desperately seeking the way out.”

It is perhaps not surprising that a novelist might suggest that truth can be found in fiction, but Nothomb goes further, exploring the need to lie to achieve understanding. Even her final ‘action’ of the novel is to create a fictitious character for herself. Nothomb is not to everyone’s taste: her novels are frequent and brief – she is the pop single in a world of concept albums – but they are always interesting.