Archive for June, 2015

The Driver’s Seat

June 26, 2015

drivers seat

No excuse is needed to re-read Muriel Spark, but the National Theatre of Scotland’s adaptation of The Driver’s Seat seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Of course, it’s not the first Spark novel to make it to the stage – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has been adapted into almost every available medium, and a theatrical version of The Girls of Slender Means was to be seen in Edinburgh only a few years ago – but The Driver’s Seat seems such an unlikely candidate for performance. It was, apparently, Spark’s favourite among her novels, but it also has claim to be her most difficult (not difficult to read, difficult to like – just see Sam Jordison’s review in the Guardian if you don’t believe me). Short and sharp, as if written with a scalpel, it not only cuts up the conventions of the murder mystery, it does something similar with those of the novel itself.

Traditionally crime fiction begins with the crime and then unravels, clue by clue, the identity of its perpetrator. In The Driver’s Seat this is reversed: early in the novel we are informed that it will climax in murder:

“She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s neck-tie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at gate 14.”

The victim is Lise, an office-worker, who begins the novel shopping for holiday clothes, taking offence when she is offered a dress in a material that doesn’t stain. Typically, this comic scene is, in fact, our first indication of Lise’s role as victim. (As she says later, “As if I would want a dress that doesn’t show the stains!” i.e. blood stains). From the beginning she seems determined to leave clues to the uncommitted crime: she buys a garish dress and coat which clash, ensuring she will be noticed, and at the airport she seeks out the brightest cover, “holding the book up against her coat, giggling merrily.” Numerous unnecessary conversations with strangers occur, largely untruthful (her name, after all, is an obvious anagram of Lies). Throughout she claims to be searching for a man in the manner of a romantic novel:

“I’m going to find him. He’s waiting for me.”

This theme continues at the when the plane lands (“I was sure he was the right one. I’ve got to meet someone.”) and when she goes out shopping with Mrs Fiedke (“The torment of it…Not knowing exactly where and when he’s going to turn up.”) In this second reversal, the victim, rather than the detective, seeks the murderer.

A naturalistic reading of The Driver’s Seat is possible. Lise’s fragile mental state is evidenced in the novel’s first action, when she first laughs hysterically, then bursts into tears at her work. The coincidence of finding herself on the same flight at her killer is explained by her simply having placed herself there deliberately (the word ’followed’ is used, but we assume neutrally at first); she certainly seems to be well informed about him.

Spark herself is less concerned with naturalism, however. Her characters are deliberately superficial. The contents of Lise’s handbag are described in great detail, but we gain no access to the contents of her head. Even factual information is interpreted via observation:

“She might be as young as twenty-nine or as old as thirty-six, but hardly younger, hardly older.”

This is a novel of places, objects and voices – voices that do not communicate but cut across each other at cross purposes. In Lise’s apartment everything has been designed to fold away leaving only flat surfaces, a comment not only on Lise but on the emptiness of the modern world:

“The swaying tall pines among the litter of cones on the forest floor have been subdued into silence and obedient bulks.”

This emptiness is illustrated in fads like Bill’s macrobiotic diet, the momentary disruption of the student protest, and in Mrs Fiedke’s shopping. In retrospect, only Lise is purposeful.

The novel is also about fate and free will, as all Spark’s novels are. Lise attempts to assert her free will in a world where she is fated to be a victim, particularly as a woman. Twice, when she enters a car driven by a man, the man attempts to rape her; on both occasions she escapes with the car, in the driver’s seat. But even the driver’s seat is not the answer, as she tells her murderer:

“You’ll get caught, but at least you’ll have the illusion of a chance to get away in the car.”

Spark called The Driver’s Seat a ‘whydunnit’, but here we are not interested in the killer’s motivation – he is, Lise tells him, “a sex maniac” – but the victim’s, with ‘why?’ echoing in the reader’s mind at her every action until the final moment.

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Vlad

June 22, 2015

vlad

My introduction to literature in translation came in the 1980s largely thanks to writers from South and Central America: from giants like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the less well known, for example, Jose Donoso or Manuel Puig. Carlos Fuentes was very much in the former category, though his fame has since faded somewhat, perhaps because never won that Nobel Prize. Unlike Llosa (Faber) and Marquez (Penguin), Fuentes’ novels are available more sporadically and from a number of publishers, most recently Dalkey Archive Press (the lack of a UK publisher demonstrates the decline of Fuentes’ reputation).

The last novel to be published in his lifetime, in 2010, was the short and darkly comic Vlad, translated into English by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger in the year he died, 2012. It will not surprise you to learn that Vlad is Fuentes’ take on Dracula, moved literally form the Balkans to Mexico City (and therefore in need of a house). The narrator, Yves Navarro, is charged by his boss, Zurinaga, with providing that accommodation – nothing, it seems could be easier:

“You are a lawyer in my firm. She has a real estate agency…Between the two of you, my friend’s housing problem is already solved.”

Yves and Asuncion, his wife, would have a seemingly perfect life – they have a beautiful ten-year-old daughter, Magdalena – if it weren’t for the fact that their son had died some years previously:

“This is our everyday life. I need to emphasise, however, that this is not our normal life, because there can be no normal life for a couple who have lost a son.”

This aspect of Yves and Asuncion’s past highlights the attraction of any escape from mortality.

Fuentes, as one might expect, has fun with the reader’s previous knowledge of vampires. The house Vlad wishes to buy, for example, has some particular requirements: it is to be remote, have no windows, and be connected by tunnel to a ravine. Similarly, his description of Vlad himself when Yves first meets him:

“Count Vlad was dressed more like a bohemian, an actor, or an artists than like an aristocrat. He wore all black: black turtleneck shirt, black pants and black moccasins without socks. His ankles were extremely thin, as was his whole body, but his head was enormous, extra-large but strangely undefined, as though a hawk had disguised itself as a raven…”

However, the tone becomes darker as the novel progresses and Yves’ family become entwined with Vlad. When Yves meets him for the second time, emerging naked from a shower (“He looked as though he’d been flayed”), Vlad asks him, “Do you know where your children are?” The plural is particularly haunting. While the reader may feel Yves is helpless in the face of Vlad’s power, Yves is hampered more by his ferocious good manners. Even when he finds a picture of his wife and child in Vlad’s home, he seeks a reasonable explanation and stays, as invited, to dinner.

In the novel’s final confrontation, any satirical intent vanishes as Fuentes embraces horror completely, using the innocence of children, that staple of the genre, to shock both Yves and the reader. This is not just a tired motif, however, as the novel explores a deep rooted fear of our children ceasing to be children; at one point Vlad asks Yves, “You don’t want to sentence children to old age, do you?” Part of that fear relates to the development of their sexuality, hinted at in the behaviour of Magdalena and Minea (Vlad’s daughter, we assume) towards the end. This fear is perhaps also in evidence from the beginning when Yves is relieved not to have found his son’s body (he was swept out to see) so as to be able to remember him as he was.

Vlad is not, of course, Fuentes’ greatest work; it is, however, thoroughly entertaining, in turns amusing, thrilling, horrific, and disturbing. And with a classic horror story ending.

The Laughing Monsters

June 14, 2015

laughing monsters

If, when you think of spy novels, you envisage meticulous plotting, pitted wits and calculated reveals then Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters may come as something of a shock. The world of espionage which it portrays is one of chaos, where missions don’t simply creep but spiral out of control.

Its narrator, Roland Nair, is an inconsistent hero in an inconsistent continent, Africa. Electricity and internet access come and go in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where Nair arrives searching for Michael Adriko. Nair’s morals and motivations are equally uncertain. When he arrives he spots “a young girl loitering right across the street, selling herself. Poor and dirty, and very pretty. And very young.” Any initial pity or disgust vanishes later when he sends the hotel doorman to collect her:

“I was glad she didn’t know English. I could say whatever I wanted to her, and I did. Terrible things. All the things you can’t say.”

Nair carries with him not only a laptop but a history, hinted at when he meets others in the intelligence game: “We’re on the same side now, Roland, because in the time of peace, you know, there can only be one side.” Michael he has known for years – “He kept me alive on a daily basis,” Nair tells Michael’s new girlfriend, Davida. Despite this, Michael is unwilling to divulge the plan he wishes Nair to participate in beyond telling him:

“I have this mapped from point A to point Z. And, Nair, point Z is going to be marvellous.”

Nair, however, has his own agenda – in fact, he has his own agendas:

“Perhaps Tina and I would be married on my return, after I’d met my contact and sold the goods and made money enough for several honeymoons, and after I’d been relieved of my current duty which was to report on the activities and, if possible, the intentions of Michael Adriko.”

And so Nair, Michael and Davida head for Uganda, where Michael says he will marry Davida among his own people, and arrange the sale that will set them up for life. It would not be revealing too much to say that not everything goes according to Michael’s plan – in fact, it comes of the rails round about B.

Johnson presents a cynical view of the intelligence community where spies are not dedicated patriots, with the occasional bad apple turned by ideology or money, but rootless loners with an addiction to secretive planning. Nair and Michael seek each other out not because they need each other but because, as Nair says of involving Tina in his personal mission, “I couldn’t bear living alone in the abyss.” Michael’s attempt to return to the area where he was born is not just part of his plan, but a desire for belonging; Nair, too, has lost all sense of home, a Dane travelling on a US passport: “A Danish passport is something of a risk, because I hardly speak Danish at all. It makes me look bogus.” In a game played out between nations, the players are stateless. Even Nair’s rather implausibly sudden declaration that he has fallen in love with Davida is credible in the context of his need to not feel alone.

Johnson also turns a jaundiced eye towards the way the West feels it continues to have the right to interfere across the globe:

“Many people keep watch. Nobody sees. It takes a great deal to waken their curiosity. NATO, the UN, the UK, the US – poker-faced, soft-spoken bureaucratic pandemonium. They’re mad, they’re blind, they’re heedless, and not one of them cares. Not one of them.”

Later, in Uganda, we see what is left of a village, poisoned from their land, in scenes that would make Conrad blanch.

Even for a spy novel, The Laughing Monsters is unusually amoral – there is never any suggestion of right or wrong. Nair exemplifies this ambiguity: that his character can, at times, feel less than fully formed seems a part of who he is rather than a weakness on Johnson’s part. It also explain why the novel’s end seems to leave him in exactly the same place as its beginning.

The All Saints’ Day Lovers

June 10, 2015

all saints day lovers

With some writers a collection of short stories is more anticipated than a novel; others stand astride the two genres, equally adept; but for a third group – let’s just call them novelists – that volume of shorter fiction is simply an ad hoc stop gap, plugged between their longer works. After three fine novels, I feared that Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s latest (which, being so enamoured with his previous work, I hadn’t realised was not a fourth until I opened it), a collection of stories published prior to his novels, would disappoint. Even more disconcertingly, the Columbian author who had so expertly exposed South America’s twisted, tortured history, had set every one of these stories in France or Belgium where he lived during the second half of the nineties. In fact, The All Saints’ Day Lovers proved to be an outstanding collection, its setting allowing Vasquez the freedom to turn his analytical eye to relationships rather than politics.

While not every story in the collection might be said to be about love, each one contains a pair of lovers. We see relationships in their final stages, relationships which have outlasted infidelities, relationships which have not outlived one night. In the opening story, ‘Hiding Places’, the narrator is the observer – quite deliberately – of a married couple, Claire and Philippe, under the instruction of Claire’s father:

“I want you to notice everything and then tell me. How they live. If she’s all right, if he treats her as she deserves to be treated.”

His visit coincides with the death of Phillippe’s nephew in an accident. Philippe has gone alone to his sister – Claire has never met his family – but she turns up uninvited and overrides Philippe’s reluctance in an attempt to comfort the mother. Throughout the relationship seems threatened by the respective families creating a lack of trust between the couple, but Claire sticks by him even when she knows he is seeing someone else – “This is a phase, you know.” The story ends with the phone ringing – the narrator knows it is Claire, but cannot pick it up, instead inventing a series of possible callers. Vasquez is warning us that there can be no easy resolutions, even when relationships end.

A number of the stories deal with infidelities. In the title story a couple consider the question “Are we going to split up?” on a hunting trip. A wounded bird they fail to locate becomes a symbol for their relationship:

“I don’t think you tried very hard. Have you no pity? The bird is suffering right now. You should have found him and killed him.”

The narrator immediately leaves, purportedly to find the bird, but a few hours later he is in bed with waitress: clearly this behaviour is at the root of the problem (“This isn’t going to end, is it?”). Vasquez retains our sympathy for the narrator, however, by showing his kindness to the waitress, even after his relationship has failed. ‘The Lodger’ approaches infidelity from a different angle; here, the affair happened many years in the past. The couple, Georges and Charlotte, are still together, and the lover, Xavier, remains a neighbour. That they have Xavier’s car locked in their garage at the request of his son suggests something about how the past affair affects their present day friendship. However by the story’s end, the roles are reversed:

“From this night on More [Xavier] would appropriate part of the house: he would be a permanent lodger.”

Although in the past, the story reveals that the affair still has the power to influence the present.

‘The Solitude of the Magician’ is also about an affair. Perhaps the cleverest and slickest of the stories, it is also the least satisfying, though a coda beyond its ‘twist’ ending adds a little more depth. ‘The Return’ also ends with a twist but is briefer and has a macabre aura about it, a ghost story without a ghost. ‘At the Café de la Republique’ and ‘Life on Grimsey Island’ are more complex, examining relationships from either end. In the former the narrator asks Vivienne to pretend they are still together for a visit to his estranged father, fearing he has bad news about his health; in the latter, Oliveira, looking for a new life, meets a woman who is also looking to escape hers. In both Vasquez beautifully observes the fluctuating nuances of the lovers.

The All Saints’ Day Lovers is a that rare thing, a collection of stories where each one works on its own terms, but which as a whole presents a multifaceted exploration of what it means to love.

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

June 7, 2015

attila's horse

When you find Margaret Thatcher and Bertolt Brecht paired in a novel’s epigraphs you are forewarned that, however straight-forward the story it tells, a political dimension exists. Thatcher proclaims her faith in ‘trickledown’ economics – “if others became less rich the poor would in all probability become still poorer” – while Brecht espouses revolution in an extract from his poem ‘To Posterity’, which also includes, in direct contrast to Thatcher’s pronouncement, the lines:

“But how can I eat and drink
When my food is snatched from the hungry
And my glass of water belongs to the thirsty?”

Both provide important clues to Spanish writer Ivan Repila’s novella, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, which on the surface tells a simple story of two boys trapped in a well.

The story begins with the two brothers already in the well and no indication of how they got there, only speculation as to how they might get out. Repila brilliantly walks the border between fairy tale and realism: wells, children abandoned in the woods are, of course, staples of the fairy tale genre; referring to the brothers only as Big and Small heightens the sense of allegory. The setting and characterisation, however, are entirely in a realist mode:

“At sunrise the well is a different colour. The dry earth on the higher part is composed of copper sediment, brownish grey scars and yellow pine needles. Further down inside the well, the earth is damp, black and blue, and the tips of the roots have a purplish glint. The sun is warm and only the birds respond to the silence. Small’s intestines gurgle under his hands.”

As you can see, it is also wonderfully written (and translated, by Sophie Hughes). “Only the birds respond to the silence” (as opposed to, the only sound was birdsong) highlights the boys’ isolation, and the use of “intestines” demonstrates both the tyranny and vulnerability of the body, “under his hands” suggesting a feeble attempt at comfort.

I was immediately transfixed but did wonder how long Repila could continue with the brothers in the well – the answer is, in fact, for almost every page, without losing the reader’s attention at any point. We follow the boys from their early escape attempts through the physical and psychological effects of their incarceration – hunger, thirst, fever, hallucinations. The two characters complement each other: Big is strong, not only physically but emotionally. It is he who decides they will not eat any of the food their mother gave them, and later allows the bird they catch, when starving, to rot so they can eat the maggots. Small, though weaker, is sustained by his imagination, demonstrated in his wild ideas and dreams.

It is in a dream that we find the reference to the titular Attila’s horse. Small imagines:

“I am the boy who stole Attila’s horse to make shoes out of his hooves, and in that way ensure that wherever I set foot the grass would no longer grow.”

In the dream, the shoes allow him to wreak destruction wherever he goes:

“I continued along my way crushing towns and races, and I know an entire languages fell out of use because I jumped excitedly – excitedly enough to nearly cause myself an injury – on the last man who spoke it.”

This violence is a response to captivity:

“Must men live within walls with no windows or doors? Is there something beyond this life while life goes on? There is, brother, there is! I know it!”

Small sees his incarceration in the well changing him, describing it in terms of rebirth:

“Don’t you feel the liquid engulfing us as if we were foetuses? These walls are membranes and we are floating within them. We move around in anticipation of our long-awaited delivery.”

Brecht, in ‘To Posterity’, similarly sees harshness arising from the condition of life and the need to create a better world through revolution:

“Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.”

The political allegory is clear: the well is the life of the poor, forging a furious detachment; escape from it represents the chance to rebel against authority. Repila is not lecturing us, however, and the novella’s ending is satisfactorily ambiguous. The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse is another wonderful book from Pushkin Press, and will, I suspect, be one of my highlights of the year.