Archive for October, 2015


October 31, 2015


The stories in Joanna Walsh’s new collection Vertigo often give the impression of being borrowed from her own life. This is not only because of the ordinary moments they describe, but because Walsh avoids the troublesome details which would create the impression of multiplicity. Anonymity is the order of the day: each story is voiced by a nameless narrator who refers to those she knows by relationship (daughter, husband) or pronoun, and has a tendency to generic groupings when describing strangers. This is not a criticism; quite the reverse – it is this ‘voice’ which carves into the everyday and elicits deeper truths with its observations.

Take, for example, this description of a visit to a tourist attraction from the title story, one of a number which takes place when the narrator is on holiday:

“At the ruin, the light-coloured people do different things from the dark-coloured people. The light-coloured people sit in the debris of the ruin. They look, from there, at other buildings in the ruin. I cannot tell whether they are happy or not…
“The dark-coloured people sit on plastic picnic chairs between the ruin and the hut. They do not enter the ruin; they do not look at the ruin. They work there.”

From the vague and disparaging “ruin” onwards, the narrative voice draws back from the narrator’s experience as a tourist to pinpoint the slightly unreal atmosphere of tourism, an in-between existence that is partly our life and partly another. It is this ‘step back’ approach, likened here to vertigo, which reoccurs throughout the book. The satiric intent and the sense of alienation is echoed using the same approach in ‘New Year’s Day’:

“Everyone at the party was so lovely. Everyone was so happy. Everyone’s websites were now in colour with hand-drawn lettering. Everyone didn’t see why they shouldn’t like – shoes! Everyone had taken pictures of themselves or had pictures of themselves taken in thrift-store clothing.”

This distancing from others is a common thread throughout the stories, but one that enhances rather than inhibits Walsh’s exploration of relationships. In ‘Vagues’ she waits with a man (not her husband, it is revealed) she is considering sleeping with; much of her impression of his character is displayed using a simple typographical trick:

“He says,
‘They do not have enough staff.’

“He says,
‘They have too many tables.’”

Even better are stories that focus on the narrator’s relationship with her children (‘Vertigo’, ‘The Children’s Ward’) and her parents (‘Claustrophobia’). In ‘The Children’s Ward’ she is waiting on news of her son; her helplessness is revealed as she imagines a scenario in which an intruder enters her home:

“When this person leaves my kitchen and arrives, armed with my fantasies, at the very door of my room, which of my children would I save first: the venerable youngest or the one able to run?”

In ‘Claustrophobia’ the narrator remembers her relationship with her mother using a structure which counts down towards her death (Minus 5 Years, Minus 4 Years) though not in order. Her father’s death comes first, the comic imagery of his coffin suggesting family gatherings over the years:

“But here’s my father wheeled in on some kind of catering trolley! He is in a box surrounded by something piped, perhaps cream, or duchesse potatoes, though it could be carnations.”

It seems appropriate that the narrator’s relationship with her mother is later described using a cake:

“There’s no bottom to it. I’m digging through the kind of soil that supports rhododendrons: it’s that dark.”

There’s a beautiful balance in Walsh’s writing: it’s not showy but has a quiet style; it often raises a smile but one accompanied by melancholy eyes; it’s built from the quotidian material of unremarkable life, but insists we pause and look a little closer. I was tempted to quote the wonderful final paragraph from the final story, ‘Drowning’, but instead I would suggest you read it as intended, as the last words in this eloquent volume.

Reader for Hire

October 25, 2015


Peirene Press’ second novella this year comes from France in the form of Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean, originally published in 1985 and made into a film two years later, now finally available in English thanks to translator Adrianna Hunter. The premise is both simple and delightful: the central character, Marie-Constance, places an advert in the local paper offering her services as a reader. The suggestion comes from a friend and initially Marie is sceptical:

“And this was certainly a quirky idea: being a private reader – at a time when talking books are readily available – like in the days of duchesses, tsarinas and genteel companions.”

Her first listener is a wheel-chair bound fourteen-year-old boy, Eric. From the beginning it is clear that both text and reader will have an effect. Eric spends her first reading “without taking his eyes of the hem of my dress, or my knees even.” However, the ocular pleasure gained is balanced by the nightmares the story she reads him (Maupassant’s ‘The Hand’) gives him later:

“All through the night, she says, he kept pointing at the wall opposite him, as if he could see something terrifying there…”

Erotic attraction also plays a part with Michel, a managing director who has no time to read but wishes to have literary dinner party conversation:

“There’s no question that it’s admirable writing, perfectly admirable… but, how can you expect?… Can’t you see it’s you that I want, not that book?”

There’s an element of sexual farce in this with Marie as the innocent who is not so innocent after all. Not only was she warned when placing the ad that ‘young woman’ would send out a particular signal, but as she considers becoming a reader she admits “the thought of bachelors was entertaining.” This might explain why she gives in to Eric’s request that she wear a dress and Michel’s rather more physical demands.

Not all her clients are interested in her sexually, however. The elderly revolutionary, Countess Pazmany, requests that she reads extracts from Marx; to the young girl Clorinde she reads Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. What is perhaps more significant is that in each case she becomes involved in the listener’s life well beyond the passive capacity of reader. She joins the normally bed-ridden Countess on a protest march and takes Clorinde to the fair, including a giant caterpillar ride which might remind us of Alice.

This is a much lighter novel than we are used to seeing from Peirene. Although it demonstrates that the message cannot be separated from the medium, and there is a lot of fun to be had following Marie on her adventures, as is often the case with a great set-up, Jean seems uncertain where to take us. The loneliness of Marie’s clients reveal Marie’s own loneliness as a reason for taking up the position of ‘reader for hire’, but the novel’s denouement suggests that, after all, she is more commonly seen as a sex object. In this sense, the novel’s comedy can seem a little of its time (the eighties) and therefore dated now – consider the changes in both reading and sexual mores in the last thirty years. For these reasons, Reader for Hire is an enjoyable hour but one that is unlikely to provoke a long term commitment.

Fraulein Else

October 23, 2015


When Simon of StuckinaBook and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings launched their 1924 Club it struck me as a wonderful idea: instead of reading across a country or a language, here the challenge was to select from a particular year. Originally I thought I might read John Buchan’s The Three Hostages. As it’s the centenary of The Thirty-Nine Steps, the Richard Hannay sequel seemed an appropriate choice, but I was dissuaded by the fact it generally regarded as one of his weaker novels. Instead I turned to a part of the world which has provided a number of my favourite writers of that period, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the writer, Arthur Schnitzler, whose novella Fraulein Else was published that year. (The English translation by F. H. Lyon is from 1925).

Else is young woman, staying with her aunt – “the poor relation invited by the rich aunt” – with the intention, perhaps, that she marry her cousin Paul. The novel is written as stream of consciousness, occasionally interrupted by sections of dialogue, so we have only Else’s perspective, all other characters being viewed through her shifting lens. This seems appropriate to a novella which is about a young, unformed character, prone to self-reflection (or you might say, self-obsession) and high emotion. From her interior monologue we can tell she is both preoccupied and inexperienced with the opposite sex:

“An Italian might be dangerous to me. It’s a pity the dark man with the Roman head left so soon. Paul said he looked like a rascal. Suppose he is? I’ve nothing against rascals…You know, Paul’s shy… The day before yesterday in the woods, when we were so far ahead, he might have been a bit more enterprising… No one has ever been really enterprising with me.”

As the story opens, we learn she is expecting an express letter from her mother; her greatest fear is that she is being instructed to return home. In fact, it is to ask her to borrow money on her father’s behalf – “the sum in question is a comparatively trivial one, thirty thousand” – from a Herr von Dorsday who is staying at the same hotel (and who we met briefly prior to Else reading the letter). The money is needed almost immediately to avert (in her mother’s words) “a catastrophe”:

“She doesn’t seriously mean that father would commit…”

Borrowing is clearly a way of life for her father, and there must be some suspicion that, having exhausted other avenues, he (or her mother, or both) are using their daughter’s youth and beauty to get the money they need. Even Else suspects as much: “I must look bewitching when I talk to Dorsday.” And later when she is speaking to him: “Why do I look at him so coquettishly?” Dorsday agrees to lend Else’s father the money but under one condition:

“I ask of you nothing more than to be allowed to stand for a quarter of an hour in reverent contemplation of your beauty.”

By this, of course, he means he wishes to see her naked, inviting her to come to his hotel room later that night:

“I don’t answer. I stand here without moving. He looks deeply into my eyes. My face is impenetrable. He knows nothing. He doesn’t know whether I’ll come or not. I don’t know either.”

From this point on, Else agonises over what she should do. The dilemma, whether to sell her body for money or not, is exasperated by her own moral uncertainty (at one point she says she will have a hundred lovers; at another she speaks of a married friend who expresses dislike for her husband as having sold herself). She will eventually find herself naked under a long coat, still undecided as to whether to show herself to Dorsday. This seems appropriate for a story in which her character is presented nakedly to the reader by stream of consciousness while remaining unseen by those around her.

Fraulein Else is a fascinating work of its time, particularly in its modernist style, but it also presents a timeless moral dilemma regarding whether we should use sex for financial (or other) gain. Its intensity is perfect for its length, and its stream of consciousness ideal for Else’s internal struggle, which lies at the heart of its story.

Acts of the Assassins

October 18, 2015


Acts of the Assassins is a sequel, of sorts, to Richard Beard’s 2012 novel, Lazarus is Dead; as this is my first exposure to Beard’s idiosyncratic version of the New Testament, I can safely say that knowledge of the previous novel is not necessary to appreciate his latest. Acts of the Assassins may feature the same protagonist – Cassius Marcellus Gallio, Roman Speculator (that is, a member of their secret police) – but we are quickly made aware that what matters most about the Lazarus case is that Gallio regards it as an “embarrassment.”

“He still doesn’t understand how they did that. Lazarus died from multiple diseases…Gallio couldn’t explain the mechanics, the trick, and when he failed to come up with answers they put him on a caution…He couldn’t afford to fail again.”

Gallio’s latest case is the disappearance of Jesus’ body from his tomb:

“What they have here is an unusual but annoying theft. That is what it is. What it can’t possibly be, and what he refuses to contemplate, is died, risen, coming again.”

The novel’s brilliance lies in the way the story is told. Gallio doesn’t just adopt the speech patterns of a contemporary policeman (“lead”, “tip off”), the novel itself inhabits an anachronistic world in which Rome is the dominant power but one with all the trapping of a modern police force:

“CCTV is inconclusive. The disciples are in and out. From above, with fisheye angles and in corridor light, the men are interchangeable.”

Beard has taken two genres with which most people are over-familiar – Bible stories and police procedurals – and intertwined them to remove that familiarity from both. Time is further disregarded in the novel’s structure, with each chapter based around the death of disciple. Judas, a police informer, is obviously first to meet his end (suicide? or murder made to look like suicide?), but his death sees Gallio punished for losing Jesus’ body by demotion and a posting to the furthest reaches of the Empire. The story picks up years later when he recalled as Rome begin to fear the growing Jesus cult and two of his disciples are found to have returned to Jerusalem:

“You know these people. You were closer to them than anyone else. We have a job for you.”

(Followers of crime fiction will also recognise this particular trope). Once Gallio begins tracking down the remaining disciples, however, they begin dying thick and fast. Again, this is a common feature of crime novels, where the killer’s victims pile up as the detective hunts him down – that Beard draws on Christian tradition (cherry-picking the disciple’s most gruesome deaths) echoes the violence of the most sadistic fictional serial killers.

Beard’s novel is also, of course, a political satire. The hunt for Jesus unavoidably brings to mind that for Osama bin Laden. His followers are regarded as a dangerous sect; their willingness to die for their beliefs the most dangerous thing about them. They are being blamed for the recent fire in Rome. At one point, the phrase ‘ground zero’ is used. As the novel progresses, the terror threat level rises.

This, in itself, would be enough, but Gallio’s own journey gives the novel further depth taking it beyond mere satire. He can, of course, find no evidence beyond the disciples’ unshakeable belief and what he himself has witnessed. Though desperate for a rational explanation, his experience as a detective tells him to keep an open mind:

“Speculators have open minds. That’s one of the requirements written into the job description.”

In Gallio, the novel explores what happens when the rational (and what could be more evidence based than police work?) collides with the inexplicable.

All of these elements have been woven into an exceptional novel, one that fully deserves its Goldsmiths Prize shortlisting.

Signs Preceding the End of the World

October 13, 2015


A novel about people smuggling set across the US – Mexican border could hardly be more immersed in documentary realism, yet, from the beginning, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World feels like something other-worldly – not dissimilar to the way in which the cactus strewn plain of the cover takes on the appearance of an alien landscape when set against its black sky. This is not accidental – from the religious, doom-mongering intonations of its title to the chapter headings which would not be out of place in an epic fantasy (The Water Crossing; The Obsidian Mound – though it is first chapter title, The Earth, that most implies a journey off-planet), Herrera is keen to demonstrate that his novel is more than a story of Mexican poverty and the American Dream.

The narrative itself is shaped like a quest, with our protagonist, Makina, sent to find her brother in America. From the first page we are made aware that even the earth itself cannot be trusted as a sink-hole opens up beneath Makina’s feet:

“I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sink-hole until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.”

The subsidence is caused by the underground tunnels which silver mining has created beneath the village, a reminder of the damage greed can do. But it’s in the language (wonderfully translated by Lisa Dillon) that the timeless nature of the narrative is revealed: in such generics as the place name, Little Town; in the phrasing of Makina’s mother’s request (“Go and take the paper to your brother”); and in the permissions Makina must receive before leaving, visiting the three most powerful men in the village. Again the language is both straight forward and portentous: “Off to the other side?” (Also: “You’re going to cross.”)

In an afterward, Dillon discusses the challenges of translating a novel which uses language ranging beyond standard Spanish. Her solution, which is partly related to the type of phrasing in evidence above, also included creating words, for example ‘verse’ meaning ‘to leave’. By avoiding current English language vernacular, she has ensured that the translation will not date and also enhanced the strangeness of the novel (I mean, the way in which it makes the familiar feel strange): although this is very much the story of Makina travelling to the USA to find her brother, these features create the sense of an underlying story which exists outside of a particular time and place.

The story itself is filled with enormous tension, from her river crossing and her near-capture by border police to the search she must undertake for her brother when she reaches America. Herrera’s decision to break it into nine chapters increases rather than dilutes this tension; the gaps between mimic the disorientation Makina often feels. But make no mistake, Makina is our heroine, relentlessly searching for her brother and perfectly able to stand up for herself, as we witness before she even reaches the border:

“Makina turned to him, stared into his eyes so that he’d know her next move was no accident, pressed a finger to her lips, shhhh, eh, and with the other hand yanked the middle finger of the hand he’d touched her with almost all the way back to an inch from the top of his wrist.”

Perhaps her finest moment comes after she has discovered what has happened to her brother (a fully satisfying and thought-provoking solution to the mystery of why he never returned) in a confrontation with a racist policeman whom she baffles with what can only be described as the power of literature. Yet, in spite of this, Makina remains an essentially realistic and believable character, and it is Herrera’s ability create in a way that is both credible and archetypal that is at the heart of what makes this novel great. Perhaps he best sums up his own style when Makina thinks to herself in the final scene when she descends to an underworld where she will, in one sense, lose her life:

“This place is like a sleepwalker’s bedroom: specific yet inexact, somehow unreal and yet vivid.”

When a writer is able to create something that feels like both dream and reality we can probably call it truth.

White Hunger

October 11, 2015


What do you do when you have nothing left? It’s a question that’s generally treated existentially in literature rather than in relation to absolute poverty. Yes, novels are littered with characters who lack money, but how many of them are so desperate their continued survival is threatened by want? It’s a question with more relevance than ever as we consider the thousands making their way to Europe driven by that same desperation. While conflict is largely blamed for this migration, another underlying factor is the droughts caused by global warming and the famine which follows in their wake. Aki Ollikaininen’s White Hunger deals with this very topic, albeit in 19th century Finland.

The novel follows the fate of one family driven from their home by hunger. Ollikainen cleverly opens with a Prologue which shows the family working together in already difficult circumstances, establishing the bonds between them. The father, Juhani, catches fish, but even they are “skinny”. Winter is approaching – the swans, he says, have already headed south. When Juhani and his wife, Marja, make love that night she fears falling pregnant: “Another mouth to feed, in this misery.” Hunger is already a problem and, with winter approaching, it will only get worse. When we next meet them, Juhani is dying, having stopped eating so that his wife and children can. If they are not to quickly follow him, Marja and the children, Mataleena and Juho, must leave:

“Marja places the last of the straw bread in Juhani’s hand. She fills the saucepan with snow and carries it to the side of the bed, within her husband’s reach.
‘This is all I can do,’ she whispers.”

And so they leave their home, falling first on the mercy of a neighbour, towards their own promised land, St Petersburg because “Marja cannot imagine anyone being permitted to starve in the Tsar’s city. There’s enough bread for everyone in St Petersburg.” They continue in the face of the disbelief of those they encounter:

“Best forget all that. Who knows if it’s possible to get away from here at all…”

They are met with a mixture of kindness and suspicion – food is short everywhere. Often they are only helped on the promise that they will move on the next day; sometimes there is no help at all:

“You’re not carting your beggars here, surely. Oh no, you don’t…You look after your own. We’ve got enough here as it is, no need to ferry in more from neighbouring parishes.”

The family’s story is told in chapters each focusing on one member; their titles, for example The Book of Marja, are in keeping with their timelessness. This does indeed feel like a Biblical famine. These are alternated with shorter sections, one of which is simply headed The Senator and tells of the apparent powerlessness of a politician in the face of this suffering. The other is dated, beginning in October 1867 and finishing in April 1868. In this narrative we meet two brothers, Lars and Teo. Lars works for the senator, whereas as Teo is a doctor of dubious morals. When we first meet them, they are playing chess – Lars’ reference to the situation on the board looking “hopeless” feels like a description of the country, as, perhaps, his consideration of sacrificing a pawn. Teo seems the more human of the brothers, but his work with the poor is at least partly driven by sexual desire. We next see him with the prostitute Cecelia – a perk of his work at the brothel. He claims to feel affection for her but she dismisses his attempts to discover her background, presumably driven to the city and her occupation by starvation – another migrant.

The stories do, of course, become intertwined, but adding these other narratives allows the novel to be more than a tale of suffering and instead to reflect on the way in which the country itself is affected and changed. You might say they give us the bigger picture the senator considers most important:

“People seem terrible interested in details, he thinks. The most important thing, however, is to see the whole; only the bigger picture gives the details their significance.”

However, it is the horrifying details of Matja’s family’s story which we retain. Though set in the cold north (white is the colour of hunger because nothing grows in the winter; it also suggests white skin stretched over white bone), this is a timely reminder of the hopelessness people can face and the impossible choices which result.

The Black Sheep and Other Fables

October 6, 2015

black sheep

Augusto Monterroso is perhaps the least known of that famous generation of Latin American writers which included Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar and Carlos Fuentes. It is likely that this is entirely a result of his preferred form: the short story. Publishers, already fearful of translated fiction, are unlikely to take a risk with a writer who wrote only one novel, and whose short stories can be very short indeed. (Monterroso’s fame in the English-speaking world rests largely on his authorship of one of the very shortest of short stories: “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”) All I was aware of in translation was a one volume edition of his first and third collections (Complete Works (and Other Stories) and Perpetual Motion), until, that is, I happened upon, the fables he wrote in between, translated by R. D. V. Glasgow and Philip Jenkins in 2004.

The Black Sheep and Other Fables is a collection of forty-two fables which average two pages in length – the longest is four pages, some take up less than a page. Many, like the title story, are animal fables, but, of course, their real target is humanity. Here, for example, is ‘The Black Sheep’ in its entirety:

“In a distant country many years ago there existed a Black Sheep.
It was shot.
A century afterwards, the repentant flock raised an equestrian statue to it, which looked very good in the park.
So it came about that thereafter, whenever any black sheep appeared, they were quickly executed so that future generations of ordinary sheep might also be able to practise the art of sculpture.”

There speaks a man who was exiled from Guatemala to Mexico, and later saw the government he did support (and worked as a diplomat for) removed from power by the Americans.

Not all the stories are animal fables, however. Others reference Greek myth (‘Penelope’s Cloth, or Who is Deceiving Whom’, ‘Pygmalion’) or the Bible (‘Samson and the Philistines’, ‘David’s Sling’). The target of some of the best of them is writing itself. The wonderful ‘The Monkey Who Wanted to be a Satirist’ tells of a monkey who mixes with and observes others with the intention of finding raw material for his satire. He is so well-liked, however, that when he attempts to write he cannot find any group he is willing to offend:

“Finally he drew up a complete list of human defects and weaknesses, but failed to find anyone at whom he could aim his broadsides, for they were all to be found in the friends who shared his table or within himself.”

The final story, ‘The Fox is Wiser’, tells of a fox who publishes two exceptionally successful and critically acclaimed books. Years pass and he writes no more, despite the entreaties of those who claim to admire him:

“The Fox never said so, but he thought: ’What these people really want is for me to publish a bad book, but as I am the Fox, I’m not going to.
And he did not.”

This may be a slight collection, easily read in an hour, but there is plenty of wisdom to be found within its pages.

Lost Books – The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka

October 4, 2015


Josef Skvorecky ranks among the great Czech writers of the twentieth century, of which there are, of course, many – Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, Václav Havel, Ivan Kilma only form the beginnings of a list. When he and his wife fled to Canada in 1968 after the Soviet invasion, one of the first things they did was to set up a Czech publishing house. Ironically, the only one of his novels still in print in the UK seems to be The Cowards, published by Penguin Modern Classics a few years ago; The Engineer of Human Souls, generally regarded as his masterpiece (the title comes from a phrase Stalin used to describe writers) is out of print. Among his many books you will also find a detective series featuring the lugubrious Lieutenant Boruvka, the first of which, The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka, was published in 1966.

The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka contains twelve tales of murder and sleuthing. Despite the death count and Boruvka’s rather humourless approach to police work, the tone is light-hearted. In the first story, ‘The Supernatural Powers of Lieutenant Boruvka’, he arrives at the scene to find his subordinates determined to convince him that an apparent suicide is murder, so determined that they will not let him speak, so that when he finally agrees with them they are unaware that this is what he has been trying to tell them all along – based not on his supernatural powers but on some rather obvious proof. The stories typically involve ‘locked room’ room mysteries (one takes place in the changing rooms of a fashion show, another on a mountain top) or alibis which turn out not to be as rock solid as they first appear. All are satisfying and clever.

As the volume progresses, another dimension is added as Skvorecky begins to develop Boruvka’s character and link the stories together. No sooner is his teenage daughter, Zuzana, introduced than we find him on holiday in Italy with her:

“He had promised that if her school report turned out well, they would spend a holiday in Italy, the home of her mother’s family. He had, however, committed a fateful error: he had neglected to define the term ‘turn out well.’”

Not only does he solve one case there, but two – the second arising when guests of the cousin of the woman whose murder he solved in the previous story. Another recurring character is a young police woman who falls in love with him; in a moment of weakness he arranges to meet her in a bar, but a murder (of course) gets in the way.

The stories were clearly written with a great fondness for the genre, shared by Boruvka who frequently refers to detective fiction (though, at times, dismissively), leading to the wonderful conclusion to ‘Death on Needlepoint’:

“‘The things these scoundrels think up!’
‘Detective story writers you mean?’ asked Lieutenant Boruvka slyly.
‘No, I mean murderers!’ Sergeant Malik retorted with some heat.”

Boruvka’s knowledge of detective fiction aids him in solving two cases, though he’s not beyond having a dig at Karel Capek’s story ‘Hordubal’:

“If I were to write detective stories, he thought to himself, I would never leave the reader at sea.”

Sentiments which Skvorecky clearly shares. Translated detective fiction is now commonplace – something that was not the case twenty-five years ago when Boruvka was published by Faber. It seems reasonable to suggest a reprint is in order. Perhaps Pushkin Press’ new crime imprint Vertigo would be suitable match?