Archive for February, 2014

Americanah

February 28, 2014

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It can be frustrating that so many novels by African writers published in the West focus on the experience of emigrants in America, often echoing the choices of the author, rather than life in their home country. It would be unfair, however, to label Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as only interested in the expatriate experience. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was a coming of age story set in Nigeria; her second, Half of a Yellow Sun, an ambitious exploration of the Biafran War. As its title suggests, her third novel, Americanah, tells of the Nigerian exodus to the West, with many of its characters fixated on making it to, and in, America.

Adichie has shown herself adept at tackling important themes within the context of straight-forward story-telling. Americanah is, at heart, a love story. Its two main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, are a teenage couple who become separated when Ifemelu travels to America to study. The assumption is that Obinze will follow, particularly as America was always his dream rather than hers (he will read only American novels). However, after 9/11, he is refused entry and instead must settle for illegal immigrant status in England. During this time they lose contact, and only years later will they see each other again. On this rather frail plotline, Adichie hangs a great deal of weight, exploring both the issue of race in America and the development of Nigeria over a twenty year period.

It is America that Ifemelu becomes aware of race for the first time. We see this initially in a discussion about the word ‘nigger’ in a university seminar, but it comes to permeate the American section of the novel, particularly when she decides to articulate her observations in a blog:

“There is a ladder of racial hierarchy in America. White is always on top, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, otherwise known as WASP, and American Black is always on the bottom, and what’s in the middle depends on time and place.”

Adichie capture the style of the blog well, although this does create a clash with her own much more measured prose. Another difficulty I found was that there is little to suggest much authorial distance from Ifemelu’s views suggesting that the blog simply allows Adichie to articulate her observations on race directly. These are always interesting, as are the many observations Ifemelu makes about America in general, but can seem, cumulatively, condescending, whether it’s her shock that a child doesn’t know oranges have seeds, or her criticism of other students’ poor grammar.

Ifemelu’s story alternates with Obinze’s, though hers takes up much more of the narrative. Obinze’s time in England is therefore sketchier in comparison, but also tenser as he remains there illegally, at one point attempting a sham marriage to allow him to remain. Again, it is filled with pertinent observations:

“I think class in this country is in the air that people breathe… A white boy and a black girl who grow up in the same working-class town in this country can get together and race will be secondary, but in America, even if the white boy and black girl grow up in the same neighbourhood, race wold be primary.”

Both Obinze and Ifemelu return to Nigeria – Ifemelu because of the “cement in her soul.” Adichie presents us with a picture of a country where there is a huge divide between the rich and poor, corruption is endemic, and success is largely a result of who you know (it’s a little bit like David Cameron’s vision for Britain). At this point, however, the focus is very much on Obinze and Ifemelu’s relationship. As the novel progresses, I found it harder and harder to root for what, at the start, are two very sympathetic characters. Obinze is now a wealthy property developer. He shares Ifemelu’s condescension, laughing at the rich elite he is now part of. Ifemelu, meanwhile, begins a new blog in Nigeria.

Ultimately this is a novel of observation – and a very good one (though I suspect it might have made two better novels, one focusing on an immigrant’s perception of race in America and another on Nigeria). Its main characters, however, don’t seem subject to the criticism of those around them; nor do they seem interested in anything other than noticing the faults of others.

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Ways of Going Home

February 22, 2014

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Ways of Going Home is the Chilean novelist Alejandro Zambra’s third novel; all have been translated into English, highlighting the fact that from the publication of his first novel, Bonsai, he has been seen as an important writer in his homeland and internationally. It is, however, my own first acquaintance with his work and I cannot say if it is typical, though at 139 pages, it is the longest.

It begins on the night of the 1985 earthquake, narrated by a ten year old boy, a contemporary of the author’s. On that night he meets Claudia, a little older, the niece of his neighbour, Raul. She asks him to spy on Raul and report to her:

“I had to watch over Raul; not take care of him but rather keep an eye on his activities and make notes about anything that seemed suspicious.”

He does this assiduously, at one point following him out of town, but his spying zeal slackens when he sees Claudia with an older boy, and shortly after that Raul moves. Behind this lies the political situation in Chile at the time, the Pinochet dictatorship which lasted from 1973 until 1990. (We will discover that there is a political reason for Claudia’s request). This is, of course, presented from a child’s point of view:

“Now I don’t understand that freedom we enjoyed. We lived under a dictatorship; people talked crimes and attacks, martial law and curfew, but, even so, nothing kept me from spending all day wandering far from home.”

In the novel’s second section we are transported from the world of the novel to the world of its creation:

“I’m advancing little by little in the novel. I pass the time thinking about Claudia as if she existed, as if she had existed.”

Here we learn of Zambra’s life in the present, his relationship with his girlfriend Eme, and also his parents. Zambra does this not for the B. S. Johnson shock factor nor to be playfully postmodern, but to present the novel as an imaginative investigation of his childhood. In case you think I am merely supposing the similarities, Zambra makes it obvious by transposing events from the novel’s second section into the fictional world of its third. For example, a conversation where his mother tells him, “I identified with the characters, the book moved me,” and he replies, “And how is it possible for you to identify with characters from another social class…” is repeated almost verbatim.

In the novel’s third section, the narrator’s relationship with Claudia resumes years later when she returns to Chile for America after her father’s death. She describes the relationship as “a trip back to my childhood that maybe I needed.” The novel’s fourth and final section return us to Zambra and allows him to conclude with another earthquake, presumably that of 2010.

The novel explores both narrators’ relationships with their parents, the one set a fictional representation of the other. This in itself is interesting as parents often disappear from fiction once a character reaches adulthood. Zambra also seems to intend through this to discover something about his generation’s relationship with his country’s past. All this is done very elusively, ending with an enigmatic image of Zambra watching cars pass as he thinks of his father’s old cars:

“It’s overwhelming to think that in the back seats children are sleeping, and that every one of those children will remember, someday, the old car they rode, years before, with their parents.”

This short, meditative novel is an absorbing read, but I couldn’t help but think it wasn’t as meaningful as it seems to think it is.

Tales from the Underworld

February 16, 2014

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Michael Hofmann’s translation of Hans Fallada’s Iron Gustav seems to have been delayed until later this year, but in the meantime we have this collection of Fallada’s shorter fiction, Tales from the Underworld. As Hofmann points out, these stories take us through Fallada’s writing career, beginning with his first published story, ‘The Wedding Ring’, from 1925, and ending with ‘The Old Flame’, published after his death in 1946. Also included are a few pieces which did not appear in print until the 1990s. (These are found at the end of the anthology which is ordered by publication but with reference to their probable dates of composition). Disappointingly, for those who know Fallada through his most famous work, Alone in Berlin, there is a gap between 1935 and 1945, and therefore nothing which touches on the subject of that great novel.

Above all, Fallada is interested in poverty and the struggle to earn a living: words like ‘revenue’, ‘pension’, ‘cheap’, ‘job’ and ‘fifty marks’ are scattered throughout the titles. One story is called simply ‘Food and Grub’. In the slightly gothic opener, ‘The Wedding Ring’, the ring may hold symbolic value to the husband, but to the other characters, the man who has found it and the wife, who offers fifty marks for its return, it is a commodity. ‘I Get a Job’ tells of the struggle not only to find, but to keep employment during the depression. The narrator finds work selling subscriptions to a newspaper on commission, a precarious income in itself. The job is lost on a customer’s whim, leaving him very much where he started:

“I had nine marks left. I would go to the city and try to find something there.”

In ‘Happiness and Woe’ the unemployed husband spends the rent money: “It was like an illness. I don’t know what came over me.” It is his wife’s matter-of-fact forgiveness, however, that makes the story surprising. ‘The Lucky Beggar’ is another story that explores the desperation of the hunt for work. This is not to say that all the stories are gloomy and depressing, but even the happiest, like ‘Fifty Marks and a Merry Christmas’ tend to be about making ends meet. In fact, the ‘happy ending’ in this story is literally represented by a balance sheet.

In all these stories relationships are important: rarely are Fallada’s characters loners facing their problems alone. Generally, and perhaps sentimentally, these relationships tend to survive poverty unscathed. In ‘The Returning Soldier’ the main character returns from the war with an injured arm that won’t bend. He tells his fiancée that they can no longer marry but “She was adamant that she didn’t want to let him go.” In the ensuing embrace, his arm begins to move again. Both the early story ‘Passion’ and the late story ‘The Old Flame’ (twenty years separating them) are about characters who cannot forget their first love.

While a number of the stories are well crafted, others are closer to sketches. Many have an autobiographical or documentary feel. When Fallada begins one with the line:

“There was once a young man – not to put too fine a point on it, it was I, the author of these lines…”

we feel that this could apply to a number of the stories. Others read as stories Fallada has been told, and are presented in unvarnished form as such. ‘Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?’ is literally an answer to that question; ‘On the Lam’ is the written down tale of someone Fallada met in prison. But it is this urgent realism that is often their main attraction. Few writers have described the lives of this in the ‘underworld’ as Fallada has, and this collection provides an excellent overview of that talent.

1914

February 13, 2014

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Jean Echenoz may not have been published in the UK since Piano ten years ago, but luckily The New Press across the Atlantic has provided us with a steady stream of his short novels since then: a loose trilogy centred on famous figures in music, sport and science (Ravel, Running and Lightning). Echenoz’s latest could not be more timely (though it appears in Linda Coverdale’s translation two years after its French publication) dealing, as it does, with the First World War.

The novel begins with the outbreak of war. Its main character, Anthime, is cycling through a scene of bucolic bliss when he hears church bells:

“The tocsin could only mean one thing: mobilisation.”

If you’ve read Echenoz before you will know he writes in a deceptively straightforward, detached style, unfolding the story through a series of scenes, seemingly allowing us access to characters’ thoughts but only at moments, and often only in response to what they are seeing. In revealing the novel’s initial relationships it is a while before he makes clear that Charles, a character Anthime meets within a few pages, is his brother, and their relationship with Blanche is alluded to rather than described:

“As he’d expected, Anthime had first seen Blanche smile proudly at Charles Martial bearing and then, as he drew abreast of her in turn, he was not a little surprised when he gave her a different kind of smile, more serious and even, he felt, a trifle more emotional, pronounced, sustained, well who knows, exactly.”

The purpose of chapter 3 is to describe the atmosphere in the town after the young men have left; Echenoz does this by following Blanche through a number of settings from her room to the street outside, ending with the wonderful line: “Blanche sees only old fellows and kids, whose footsteps sound hollow on a stage too large for them.” The image works because it simply elaborates on the visual information which permeates the chapter.

Blanche is kept in view as Echenoz uses the novel’s unassuming love triangle to explore the war’s effect on personal relationships. She is pregnant when the soldiers leave; it is presumed Charles is the father. Attempts to keep him safe by ensuring he gets a post in the newly formed Air Service (where Echenoz provides some detail of this less well known aspect of the war) don’t work out as planned. There are hints, however, that Anthime is the father, something that is never completely resolved. Anthime meanwhile fights in the trenches, Echenoz using a shorthand of detailed moments to recreate the experience. At one point he says:

“All this has been described a thousand times, so perhaps it’s not worthwhile to linger any longer over that sordid stinking opera.”

This raises an important question of whether further novels on the First World War can add anything new. Instead of retelling the war, Echenoz focuses on the powerful effect the war has on redirecting people’s lives. The novel’s conclusion strongly suggests that it is his characters’ relationships that are uppermost in his mind, and that such relationships persist in spite of the war. Anthime loses his right arm but Echenoz emphasises that he can still feel it, something he finally comes to accept:

“Anthime stood perfectly still and his face showed no expression as he raised his right fist in solidarity, but no one saw him do it.”

Like many other scenes in the novel, this continues to resonate with the reader long after the book is put down. If you intend to read one new novel about World War One this year, this should probably be it.

God’s Dog

February 11, 2014

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Don’t be fooled by the sombre portrait on the cover of Diego Marani’s new novel courtesy of 15th century Italian painter Giovanni Bellini: just as in the novel nothing is what it seems, the book itself seems to be saying “historical” while hiding a heart as dystopian as 1984. Marani shot to prominence when Dedalus published his 2000 novel, New Finnish Grammar, in English in 2011; this was followed in 2012 by The Last of the Vostyachs, which had appeared in Italian in 2002. Now we jump forward ten years as Judith Landry (once again) translates his latest novel, God’s Dog. The overall impression is of a restless, questioning mind with scant regard for genre.

Of the three, I must admit that God’s Dog is my favourite: it not only grabbed my attention within a few pages but plunged me into its world with the senses-shocking invigoration of an ice bath. That world is a near future Italy which is in the hands of a Catholic theocracy:

“The Catholic Republic was by now on a firm footing. Internal dissent was minimal. The anti-papists preferred to leave Italy rather than mount any opposition.”

The novel’s main protagonist is not a rebel but a servant of this state. Domingo Salazar is a Haitian orphan who has been brought up by the church and now works as an agent for them. He is tasked with rooting out any members of the Free Death Brigade, an outlawed pro-euthanasia group, masquerading as relatives at a hospital for the terminally ill:

“If men cease to fear death, or regard it as something run-of-the-mill, our sway over them is seriously threatened.”

The church also suspects that the dying father of a wanted abortionist, Ivan Zago, is hidden among the patients and that this might flush Zago out of hiding. The novel then proceeds conventionally with meetings with his vicar ‘handler’ in the confessional, observations of staff and visitors, the identifying and following of a suspect – only now and then dipping into Salazar’s diary to discover his religious views are more complex than we might expect for a ‘dog’. This changes when the narrative begins to fracture and sections reveal Zago and fellow ‘terrorist’, Marta Quinz. At the same time the plot also starts to fragment: Zago is after revenge for his father’s treatment; Quinz and others are planning to disrupt the canonisation of Benedict XVI; and Salazar is suspected of being unfaithful to the church as a result of his friendship with an Islamic scientist, Guntur.

It is perhaps difficult to fully appreciate the dystopian nature of the novel in the UK where the idea of a religious state seems unlikely (although Kingsley Amis wrote an alternative history where the Reformation didn’t happen and Europe is controlled by the Catholic Church). Much of the satire is directed at Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI – who is quoted throughout and whose nickname was the Pope’s Rottweiler. This is also, however, a novel of ideas, articulating religion’s fear of science, and once again exploring the issue of language. The Catholicism it presents is ferocious and ruthless (like a dog) but also reasoned and calculating. Marani’s master stroke is centring the debate on an ambivalent character, one who is neither hero nor villain, and with whom the reader’s sympathies rise and fall.

The more I read of Marani’s, the more interesting he becomes.