Archive for April, 2013

Traveller of the Century

April 26, 2013

traveller of the century

Traveller of the Century is, in many ways, an unusual novel. At first it appears curiously old fashioned for the work of a young Argentinian: set in Germany in the early nineteenth century, it begins with a young man, Hans, a translator by profession, arriving in the town of Wandernburg. Presumably the town’s name (it is not a real place) is meant to echo Han’s wanderings, though the town itself seems to have a propensity to wander, its streets and landmarks never being in quite the same place. Hans presents himself as an inveterate traveller:

“I think that in order to know where we want to be we have to travel to other places.”

The irony is that he arrives in Wandernburg at the beginning of the novel and remains there throughout – and at 600 pages, that is a lengthy ‘throughout’, again suggesting a pastiche of the 19th century novel. Though love is eventually to blame for his stay, initially he is delayed simply by an inexplicable indecision – but he is not alone:

“Travellers come here, people who have lost their way or were headed somewhere else, lone wolves. And they always end up staying here.”

Neuman includes a couple of trusted plots, in particular a love triangle in which Hans falls for a young woman, Sophie, whose father he meets. Sophie, unfortunately, is engaged to the local landowner and soon to be married. There is also a whodunit as a masked killer stalks the streets attacking women. The novel is not, however, plot driven – take, for example, Hans relationship with an old organ grinder whom he befriends, frequently spending his evenings at the cave on the outskirts of town that the organ grinder calls home. Similarly, his friendship with a Spanish merchant who has become equally at home in the German town does little to advance the story. Above all, consider the extensive scenes set during Sophie’s salons as art, history and philosophy are discussed at length. Neuman makes his intentions clear during one of these discussions:

“I believe the past should not be a distraction, but a laboratory in which to analyse the present.”

It is in sustaining the reader’s interest during these many abstract conversations that Neuman shows his skill as a writer, and demonstrates that what at first seems a strangely old fashioned story is in fact channelled directly from the present (take for example a discussion about a single European market and how much political union this would involve). It is not accident that the novel takes place in the shadow of the failure of the French Revolution, just as we now live in shadow of the failure of the Russian Revolution. (For many South American countries, of course, that sense of defeated radicalism is even more recent).

In other words, Traveller of the Century is an intellectual book, but one that wears its intellect lightly. Yes, Hans and Sophie discuss translation at length, but they reinvigorate themselves with bouts of surprisingly contemporary sex. Who said ideas were boring?

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Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist

April 14, 2013

I was feeling quite pleased with myself when the short list was announced last week having read 12 of the 16 titles on the long list. I’m a little disappointed that A Death in the Family didn’t make it as I’d left that one thinking it had a fairly high chance of being there.

The shortlist is:

Bundu by Chris Barnard, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Alma Books)
The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Harvill Secker)
Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean (Harvill Secker)
The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare, translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson (Canongate)
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Pushkin Press)
Trieste by Daša Drndić, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Maclehose Press)

Dublinesque, Traveller of the Century and Trieste were all among my favourites to make the shortlist, though in the case of Traveller of the Century this was based on the opinions of others as this was another book I had left unread on the assumption it would make it through. The Fall of the Stone City also deserves its place – Kadare is always an interesting writer and this novel is his strongest since The Successor. I felt there were better books than Bundu on the long list, but I am pleased to see a writer largely unknown outside South Africa gain recognition. It certainly tackles important issues that literature has often avoided. The Detour, however, I cannot endorse, but I’m aware that others have found it moving. Hopefully I can fit in another couple of reviews before the winner is announced.

HHhH

April 8, 2013

hhhh

HHhH is Laurent Binet’s first novel and it has already won a couple of prizes in his native France. The title, as you can see needed no translation – although as it stands for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, perhaps it does. ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’ is apparently one of those witticisms for which the Nazis were famous, and it is Heydrich’s life story that Binet seeks to tell in his novel. Or rather his death story, as the real focus is his attempted assassination by Czech parachutists. Except that one of them was Slovak – we’d better stick to the facts, something Binet very much insists on: though he is ostensibly writing a novel he doesn’t want to fictionalise anything:

“At 9.00am the first German tank enters the city.

Actually I don’t know if it was a tank that first entered Prague. The most advanced troops seem mostly to have driven motorbikes with side cars.”

HHhH, then, is also about Binet’s attempt to write a novel about Heydrich’s assassination without inventing anything. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” as someone once said (Twain? Hemingway? But that would be a fact so it probably doesn’t matter). Binet seems determined that they will. He begins by immersing himself in research:

“Months flow past, they become years and all that time this story keeps growing inside me. And while my life passes…the shelves of my apartment fill up with books on the Second World War….I get the feeling that my thirst for documentation, healthy to begin with, is becoming a little bit dangerous – a pretext, basically, for putting off the moment when I have to start writing.”

Of course, the opposite is true – it gives him something else to write about. In between slices of information about Heydrich’s life, Czech and Slovak politics, the Nazis’ rise and the move towards war, Binet inserts the jam of his authorial anxiety:

“There is nothing more artificial in a historical narrative than this kind of dialogue – reconstructed from more or less firsthand accounts with the idea of breathing life into the dead pages of history.”

Binet benefits from having a great story to tell – both the story of Heydrich, an emblematic Nazi and one of the primary architects of the Final Solution (our fascination with this era in European history can be seen from the fact that three of the ten long listed European books for the IFFP focus on it) and the attempt by to assassinate him (carried out by locals who were parachuted in from the UK). This has a little of everything – tension, bravery, disaster (even a jammed gun!), betrayal. Whether you enjoy this book or not will be very much down to your appreciation of Binet’s approach to this story.

While such ‘faction’ techniques are also to be found in Dasa Drndic’s Trieste and, in a different context, in Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque, here I found them less effective. It didn’t seem to allow Binet to reveal any depth of understanding of Heydrich or of the parachutists, or of any of the protagonists in the story – conversely he seemed quite intent in keeping his distance. He also didn’t involve his own life in any significant way – something that would have at least given the novel another dimension. Of course, perhaps I am a little spoilt having read the brilliant Frank Kuppner’s A Very Quiet Street and Something Very Like Murder many years ago – both excellent examples of this genre. Binet’s novel remains very readable (as I said, it has a great story to tell) but you can’t help but wonder, if he is so worried about fictionalising history, why write a novel at all?

The Last of the Vostyachs

April 5, 2013

last of the vostyachs

As I recently confessed, I wasn’t quite as impressed by Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar as many others were – including the IFFP judges last year who included it on the short list. Marani features again this year on the long list with his second novel to appear in English, The Last of the Vostyachs (Dedalus have also published Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot but as it is written in the artificial language of Europanto it isn’t eligible).

I found The Last of the Vostyachs a slighter but more entertaining work than New Finnish Grammar. Again the focus is very much on language and, despite Marani’s Italian origins, the novel is set largely in Finland (Marani’s obsession with Finland is beginning to look a little like Antonio Tabucchi’s with Portugal). The novel begins with the escape of a young man, Ivan, from a Russian labour camp – he is, we discover, the last remaining speaker of his language, Vostyach. Coincidentally, he is spotted (well, heard) by a Russian professor of linguistics, Olga, who is researching in the area. She is quickly aware of the importance of the discovery:

“…I could hardly believe my ears. They’re all there, the consonants which mark the transition between the Finnic languages and Eskimo-Aleut ones.”

Unfortunately, the one person she shares this news with, a Finnish colleague from years past, Jarmo, is less than pleased. He is at that very moment putting the finishing touches to a speech for an upcoming conference in which he intends to declare categorically that “the alleged kinship between the Ugro-Finnic and the Ural-Altaic branches, from which the Mongols and Eskimos descend, is to be excluded once and for all.” If this were simply an academic disagreement that would be bad enough (and the novel is a little like a campus satire written as a thriller) but Jarma is also driven by a fierce nationalism, ending his speech with the statement “that Finnish is Europe’s oldest language.” That the contradictory evidence is coming from Russia adds to his bitterness.

And so begins an elaborate plot to prevent Olga and Ivan from appearing at the conference. Jarma is helped by the fact that Olga trusts him implicitly, regarding their previous relationship as a friendship when he was only courteous to her to curry favour with his superior at the time. Olga and Ivan also conveniently intend to arrive separately, placing Ivan in Jarma’s hands. Despite its esoteric premise the novel races along like a true thriller, with nothing in Jarma’s plot going quite right: Ivan goes missing; Olga drinks endlessly but refuses to keel over; and his ex-wife is on his trail with the police – attempting to return his pet dog to him.

Everything is wrapped up in a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek manner, and the novel ends with the language of Vostyach alive and well. New Finnish Grammar is no doubt a more substantial work, but beneath this novel’s fun there is a serious point about the dangers of nationalism. In his attempts to promote his language Jarma moves swiftly from academic deception to murder.

The Detour

April 1, 2013

detour

Last year New Finnish Grammar was the novel that I just didn’t quite see as the masterpiece so many others claimed it to be – this year, it seems, it’s The Detour (so you may as well install it as the favourite for the I.F.F.P. immediately). Bakker’s already an award winning writer in translation – his first novel, The Twin, won the Impac Award. The follow up has been widely praised – including by John Burnside ( a writer I greatly admire, and not just because he’s from Fife) in The Guardian.

I can, of course, see why Burnside liked it. It begins intriguingly enough with a Dutch woman (‘Emilie’) renting a small cottage within sight of Mount Snowdon. The previous owner was an old woman who left no obvious heirs apart from ten white geese who seem to automatically become the responsibility of the renter (In the US the novel has been published as Ten White Geese). She has clearly cut herself off form her previously life entirely – that is apart from a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems (hence the alias). Rather than wishing to start again she craves only solitude, something which is interrupted by the arrival of a local farmer who grazes sheep on the land whom she immediately detests, and then later by a young hiker to whom she offers a bed for the night. There are also visits to the local baker, doctor and hairdresser – their friendliness and curiosity alike rebuffed.

There are, of course, reasons for this, as begin to become apparent when Bakker shifts the narrative to ‘the husband’. At first he assumes his wife has left after an affair with a student has been discovered, but his anger turns to concern when he suspects she may be ill. Eventually he goes in search of her, accompanied by the policeman who arrested him when he set fire to a university office (see earlier anger).

What I liked about the novel was its tone, which could fairly be said to be bleak but not in a nihilistic or cynical way: it was story told with a kind of stoic sadness. ‘Emilie’s’ contrasting moods – one moment energetic and driven, the next full of lassitude – seemed completely convincing. Bakker also uses ‘Emilie’s’ uncle well as a counterpoint, both his inept suicide attempt and his efforts to keep going through woodwork. The family’s view of him goes some way to explaining her disappearance. I particularly loved the way Bakker used the badger attack (while sun bathing ‘Emilie’ is bitten by a badger). Any time she told someone they didn’t believe her – badgers are too shy, badgers are nocturnal… I took this to reflect her fear of how people might react to her real illness. Not necessarily that they wouldn’t believe her but that they wouldn’t give her ownership of what had happened to her.

The geese, on the other hand, I found a little too metaphorical. Soon after she arrives geese begin to disappear. She tries, but fails, to protect them. Luckily there are still some left to join in with the final scene. The geese were so clearly a powerful symbol of something…but what? I’m afraid I couldn’t see the flock for the birds…

I also found it hard to buy into the relationships. Certainly the farmer is a little intrusive, but her hatred is maniacal. Maybe she simply wants to be alone…unless of course a handsome young hiker appears…a young man who then proceeds to look after her for no clear reason. This friendship is only outdone by that of the husband and the policeman, so unlikely that even one of the other characters feels he has to point it out. That they strike up a friendship in the interrogation room is a little strange, but that the he drops everything to travel to Wales with the husband at New Year is really stretching it.

And I haven’t even mentioned the protagonist’s love of Emily Dickinson.

None of these things make The Detour a bad novel – I enjoyed reading it and found it moving in places – but I do think they disqualify it from being a great novel. No doubt I’ll be proved wrong again!