Archive for July, 2013

A Treacherous Paradise

July 31, 2013

treacherous paradise

Despite being largely known as a (or perhaps ‘the’) Scandinavian crime writer, Henning Mankell’s association with Africa began many years ago when, after living in a number of African countries, he eventually settled in Maputo in Mozambique where he continues to spend much of his time to this day. Africa has featured prominently in his writing in novels such as Chronicler of the Wind and The Eye of the Leopard, and even in his Wallander books, most notably The White Lioness. A Treacherous Paradise is another of his African novels, though this time from a historical perspective. It’s not Mankell’s first historical novel – Daniel, for example, is set in the 1870s and is about an African boy coming to Sweden. A Treacherous Paradise attempts the reverse, telling the story of a young Swedish woman, Hanna Lundmark, who finds herself in Africa.

Hanna’s life in Sweden is one of poverty and a single bad harvest means that she must leave the family or starve: “I can cope with three children but not four,” her mother tells her. She is sent to relatives who cannot be found but, after some time as a servant, she is given the opportunity to work as a ship’s cook on a voyage to Australia. She marries one of the crewmen en route but his death leads her to jump ship in what is now Mozambique. Through a series of chance events she ends up running the town’s brothel (if you think I’ have revealed the entire plot, all of this is given away inside the dust jacket!). This allows Mankell to view the relationship between black and white, colonised and coloniser, at its most obvious: racism has been a recurrent theme of his fiction and inspired the first Wallander novel. Typically the whites view the African as little better than animals:

“These black savages need no other reason than their inherited bloodthirstiness to start a riot that can only lead to their own destruction.”

Hanna remains uneasy about her position as a white woman:

“She lived in a sad continent where the only ones who laughed – often far too loudly – were the white people. But she was well aware that the laughter was usually no more than a way of disguising apprehension that could easily grow into fear.”

Hanna’s feelings crystallise around the treatment of a black woman, Isabel, who kills her white husband when she discovers he was already married to a white woman: as she is black she will be allowed no trial or lawyer. Hanna tries desperately to help her (Mankell achieves some much needed subtlety here by making it clear that she has killed her husband; Hanna witnesses this) in a way that epitomises how she feels about the treatment of African women.

Like all Mankell’s work, the novel is very readable with many tense moments. Its purpose, however, is less clear. Obviously European colonies in Africa in the early 1900s were built on racism but exposing this to a modern audience seems a little pointless. Despite being set in a brothel the novel has nothing to say about the economics of racism, nor does it seek to make any connection to the present that I can see. In fact, there is little contact between white and black in the novel beyond that of the brothel (which we are left to imagine). Relations between the races are almost entirely mediated through Hanna’s conscience. And Hanna, despite her interesting life, is not an especially interesting character, particularly once she inherits her rather dubious wealth and uses it to throw money at any problem she encounters.

It doesn’t help that it’s been given an awful English title from the European book of clichés about Africa. The original title – Memory of a ‘smutsig’ angel (I can’t get Google to translate ‘smutsig’ but, assuming a link to the English word ‘smut,’ it must mean something like ‘mucky angel,’ a phrase which Laurie Thompson uses in the text at one point). This alone immediately puts a more interesting focus on Hanna. Overall, I found it disappointing, and that’s without mentioning the fact Hanna keeps a diary which is ‘found’ at the beginning in 2002, not the most original start, or the chimpanzee Charlie, which William Boyd takes as a sign of magic realism but which only made me think of PG Tips.

Mr Darwin’s Gardener

July 27, 2013


Peirene Press’ theme for this year’s trio of novellas is ‘turning point’ and both of those so far published take the approach of channelling wider revolutions through small scale stories. In The Mussel Feast East German politics are viewed via a domestic setting and, though Mr Darwin’s Gardener takes its examination of science versus religion outside the house, it never leaves the small English village of Downe in which Darwin has chosen to spend his retirement. Not that Darwin features in the novel as anything other than an over-arching presence; the focus here is on the lives of the villagers presented to us in a mosaic of voices.

The ‘post-modern’ element of the novel, referred to on the back cover, is evident immediately in the invigorating and thrilling way the first few pages challenge the reader to make sense of a series of different perspectives, including chickens and sparrows, and Mr Darwin’s gardener, Thomas Davies. This is the way the novel will reveal itself: a series of short sections beginning in third person but swiftly zooming in to first:

“Jennifer Kenny is folding clean sheets on the kitchen table, even though it is Sunday. She looks out of the window. Thomas Davies, the gardener whose wife died, strides along the road. I took soup and bread to the house of mourning but he merely stared darky and grunted something.”

Carlson uses this technique in the opening chapter to introduce us to Davies and his relationship with the village: he is mistrusted because of his rejection of religion, particularly as a consolation after his wife’s death. This, along with his employment, links him to Darwin and his assault on religion via his theory of evolution. As the voice of the congregation says in chapter 2:

“When a man sets up new false gods for himself such as Science and the Doctrine of Evolution, he mocks our Lord, Creator of Everything, and so he is punished.”

Chapter 2 is a bravura example of Carslon’s style: it begins in the group voice of the congregation but then disintegrates into individual voices as the congregation leave the church – but then so is the first chapter of the second part where the arrival of a stranger is told in a series of perspective shifting paragraphs over three pages. The novel is worth reading for the dexterity the writer shows with this technique alone.

Carlson’s style allows her to explore the challenge to religion not in rational debate (in the ‘village debating society’ in the Anchor we find a series of quotations from unidentified speakers often only vaguely related) but through the needs and fears of individuals. In an interview about the novel she said:

“God is in the picture, because the church was still a strong influence on social life in the late 19th century, despite the fact that secularism – as well as industrialisation and capitalism – were gaining ground. But I think the essential thing is that people’s loneliness and despair is crying out for a god, and everyone seems to have a god suited to their own needs “

The debate between science and religion is not seen as one to be won or lost but as more complex than that, occurring differently within individuals. It is no surprise, therefore, that the novel ends with a question that will never be answered.


July 23, 2013


Taipei marks Tao Lin’s first UK publication (though I reviewed his previous novel Richard Yates a couple of years ago) and the quotation on the back referencing Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Gmail makes clear his marketing potential for trend-savvy publisher Canongate as the voice of the social media generation. Luckily Lin does not attempt to mimic the forms of social media to create his narrative but instead presents us with characters who create the narratives of their own lives using phones and laptops.

Taipei’s main character is a writer called Paul. We know he is a writer as he has recently had a book published and undertakes a publicity tour during the novel; there is little evidence, however, of him writing or thinking about writing: if this is a ‘portrait of the artist’ it is one that has nothing to say about the art. Most of Paul’s time is spent taking drugs and going to parties, but any sense that this represents an exciting, glamorous lifestyle is negated by his passionless, almost absent personality. Take, for example, his introduction:

“Paul had resigned to not speaking and was beginning to feel more like he was ‘moving through the universe’ than ‘walking on the sidewalk.’ He stared ahead with a mask-like expression, weakly trying to remember where he was one year ago, last November, more for something to do than because he wanted to know…”

Lin uses quotation marks to distance Paul from his feelings, as if his emotions were always filtered through a borrowed phrase. Later in the opening pages, when asked whether he is hungry, Paul replies, “I don’t know.”

Little in the way of a definable plot occurs in the novel, though Paul does marry at one point, the culmination of a relationship he charts using social media:

“The next three days they texted regularly and, Paul felt, with equal attentiveness….Then she texted less, and with less attention, and one night didn’t respond to a photo Paul sent…”

Much of their time is spent taking various drugs; the effects of these are only ever described vaguely in dialogue but they clearly form the backbone of their relationship. Other activities include using a MacBook to film in a Taiwanese MacDonald’s and tweeting live while watching X-Men: First Class. Much of their life is lived second hand online – when they have their first “drug fight” they both immediately go to their laptops to type out an account. If it sounds dull (and it does sound dull to live through) I found an almost hypnotic fascination in following Paul’s life, a character who manages to be absurd and true, ridiculous and sad.

The novel I most thought of while reading Taipei was The Catcher in the Rye. Both novels have that sense of generational summation and both express alienation from society and a reluctance to take on responsibility. That Taipei’s protagonist is older simply reflects the way in which adolescence has extended into the mid-twenties and beyond. The differences, however, are striking. Gone is the vibrant, colloquial first person narrative, replaced with a bland, emotionless recording of events. Whereas Holden is rebelling against what he sees as the phoniness of the adult world, Paul has little contact with the world outside of his group of friends and acquaintances. He does not so much reject it as refuse to acknowledge it. By the end, defying all character development, he seems further distanced from himself than ever.

Hi, this is Conchita

July 13, 2013


Santiago Roncagliolo came to the attention of an English speaking (or should that be reading?) audience when his novel Red April won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2011, a translation from Edith Grossman that had originally been published in 2009. Now we finally have a little more of his work in English (to add to his frequent contributions to Granta) thanks to the appearance of a collection of stories, Hi, this is Conchita, from the same translator and new imprint Two Lines Press. (The first of what looks to be an impressive catalogue, with books from Marie Ndiaye and Jonathan Littell to follow).

Though published with an ‘& other stories’ tag, ‘Hi, this is Conchita’ takes up the majority of the collection – a 130 page novella followed by 40 pages of three shorter stories. It uses the conceit of a series of phones calls, presented dialogue only as if in transcript. These follow four main strands: a man phoning a sex line (the Conchita of the title); a complaint to a customer service about over-billing; a man hiring a professional killer to rid himself of an unwanted mistress; and another man leaving increasingly desperate messages on the answerphone of an ex-girlfriend. All strands involve miscommunication in what is a light-hearted and amusing read, despite its theme of loneliness. Conchita’s caller believes they have a connection and soon rejects her clichéd sex-talk for marriage:

“I’ve never found anybody who understands me like you do…Never.”

The jilted lover threatens suicide only to phone back later:

“The fact is I never really planned to do it. It was just a test, understand?”

The would-be assassin and frustrated complainant find themselves in even more farcical situations, and, yes, you will not be surprised to learn that the calls eventually connect.

It’s easy to see why a bigger publisher didn’t want this as a follow-up to Red April, a much darker book, though the other three stories are all haunted by death in one way or an another (and ‘Hi, this is Conchita’ isn’t without casualties either). In ‘Despoiler’ a woman approaches her fortieth birthday with dread: her work colleagues want her to dress up and join them in the local carnival. In the dream-like story that follows, this leads to an encounter with a werewolf, and by the end we feel her youth is certainly over. In ‘Butterflies Fastened by Pins’ the narrator reflects on the way all his friends end up dead. The final, shortest story, ‘The Passenger Beside You’, is about the experience of being dead itself, but even here there’s a certain matter-of-factness to it all:

“The rest of being dead is routine. You know what I mean, right? It’s boring, because now nobody who’s alive listens to you.”

Roncagliolo’s latest novel, Oscar y las mujeres, also seems to be in comic vein (and originally published electronically in episodes, though rather more quickly than Margaret Atwood’s Positron). It’s to be hoped that UK publishers will not be put off simply because he is a writer who is capable of more than one thing.

An Englishman in Madrid

July 11, 2013

englishman in madrid

Eduardo Mendoza’s Riña de gatos won the Planeta Prize in 2010 (worth an astonishing 601,000 euros) ensuring that every review of its English translation by Nick Caistor, An Englishman in Madrid, begins with mention of this fact – this one being no exception. Unfortunately it also influences our reception of the novel, raising expectations of a literary classic, particularly given its eve of civil war setting. Mendoza, however, is a novelist who wants to entertain as well impress, and also has a taste for the absurd, as anyone who has read the laugh out loud No Word from Gurb will testify. What we have then is a comic thriller with a cast of ridiculous characters and a convoluted plot which still manages to shed light on Spain at a turning point in its history.

The Englishman of the title, Anthony Whitehead, is an art expert lured to Madrid to value the art collection of the Duke of La Igualada who hopes, so he is told, to raise capital abroad as Spain approaches crisis point, and kept there by a combination of the Duke’s alluring elder daughter and the belief he has unearthed a lost Velazquez in the family basement. All the characters in the novel are comic creations to some extent but Whitehead particularly so, handing over his wallet and passport for safekeeping to a Spaniard he has just met in order to avail himself of the services of a teenage prostitute. He is the very opposite of James Bond: hapless, helpless, easily confused by the opposite sex, and always the last to know what is really going on. Inadvertently he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that includes fascists, communists, the army, the British and the Russians with real life figures such as Rivera and Franco making an appearance. Though constantly distracted by his appetites for food and sex, he remains fixated on the main prize of the painting.

Though as pacey as any thriller, history tells us the outcome of the various machinations of the time: no-one can save Spain from civil war. Defying the expectations of the genre, Whitehead’s actions are ultimately inconsequential – even the letter he writes at the very beginning breaking off a love affair, advised, as he is, at the end to:

“Go back to London to your paintings and your books. And ask Catherine to forgive you.”

Similarly, his face off with Rivera when he denounces him as a communist spy – a typical thriller confrontation – also comes to nothing: the pair simply burst out laughing.

Any darkness seems almost accidental: Whitehead’s hospitality in the homes of both the rich and the poor stressing the divide that will bring the nation to war, echoed perhaps in Velazquez’s painting so both royalty and the court’s fools. Another painting takes centre stage, however: Titian’s Death of Actaeon – a copy of which resides in the Duke’s house. In it Actaeon is in the process of transforming into a deer, his own dogs already attacking him. It is this image of violence, rather than Velazquez’s depiction of beauty, which best illustrates what is to come.