Archive for March, 2016

A General Theory of Oblivion

March 31, 2016

general theory of oblivion

Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion begins on the eve of Angolan independence (presumably in 1975). Ludo lives with her sister, Odete, and brother-in-law, Orlando; Odete and Ludo are Portuguese whereas Orlando is Angolan and husband and wife argue over whether they should leave for Lisbon:

“Terrorists? Never use that word in my house again… These so-called terrorists are fighting for the freedom of my country.”

Ludo is not only excluded from the discussion, but left behind when they do disappear. Alone in the apartment, she is subjected to threatening phone calls and an attempted robbery, and decides that the only solution is to brick up the doorway (that there are bricks and cement lying around to allow her to do this is only one of many coincidences that it will not benefit the reader to examine too closely). Orlando’s reluctance to leave, and then his sudden disappearance, are connected to diamonds he has acquired by less than legal means – the diamonds referred to in the phone call (“we just want the stones”), and which those behind this message later come to collect, only to be recognised as on the wrong side of the revolution and shot:

“I do feel that two white men out in the street wearing Portuguese army boots in these troubled times seems a little to bold.”

In this Agualusa conveys the damage the country’s mineral wealth has inflicted, as well as the danger of the uprising.

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Ludo, meanwhile, running out of food, takes inspiration from her dog, Phantom, when she sees him devouring a pigeon he has caught. Lacking his agility, she sets a trap, baiting it (of course) with diamonds. In this way she catches a number of pigeons until she encounters one with a message attached from one lover to another. In sympathy she lets the pigeon go, and turns her attention to her neighbour’s hens instead. The pigeon cannot outfly its destiny, however, and is caught by Montes (the man who earlier shot the Portuguese soldier, Jeremias) who is now homeless and equally in need of sustenance. He, of course, finds the diamonds inside. (And in case you thought we were done with Jeremias, he too will reoccur until the final pages).

You may be fearing that this summary reveals the novel’s plot, but at this point we are barely one fifth of the way in. Agualusa weaves his plot as a spider its web – an object of beauty from afar, but less appealing to be stuck inside where the intricate connections can seem random at times. These connections are largely at the expense of character – even Ludo, the story’s centre piece, is ‘the woman who bricked herself in’ and, though she develops a relationship with a boy later, she remains oblique. Other characters, such as Montes and Jeremias (there are more), undergo changes, but these tend to be related to adopting new identifies in response to persecution or opportunity rather than character growth. The frequent chapters can give the impression of a stone skipping across the water, only making light contact with events before moving on.

This is not to say that Agualusa cannot write – the novel is littered with wonderfully turned phrases (praise for this is, of course, also due to translator Daniel Hahn):

“The demands all ended in exclamation marks. The exclamation marks got mixed up with the machetes the protestors were holding.”

Or this, describing Montes hiding in plain sight by pretending to be mad: “his lucidity travelling like a stowaway.” But if these are diamonds, there is a danger that the reader is the pigeon, delighting in words, but oblivious to the suffering behind them. Such is Agualusa’s love of story-telling that there is little time to experience the deeper emotions of his characters, and, in a novel which deals with violence and persecution, this can appear glib. A General Theory of Oblivion is an enjoyable read but one, as its title suggests, which does not leave a strong impression.

Tram 83

March 27, 2016

tram 83

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujilla is the first of two African novels on the Man Booker international Prize long list – a reasonable representation given that many African writers write in English. It’s a first novel which has already received a lot of praise and comes with a laudatory introduction by fellow Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou. Tram 83 takes place in mining town where Clint Eastwood might fear to step:

“Tram 83 was one of the most popular restaurants and hooker bars, its renown stretching beyond the City-State’s borders. “See Tram 83 and die,” was the regular refrain of the tourists who blew into town from the four corners of the globe to conduct their business.”

The small mining town is the impromptu capital of a province which has been declared independent by a rebel General in account of its possession of most of the country’s mineral wealth:

“The government army and the dissident rebels fought each other day in, day out. To get things back on track the international community had sponsored nineteen sovereign national conferences which had all come to less than naught.”

The novel begins with Lucien, a would-be writer, returning to the town, met by his old friend Requiem (though, as we will discover, their friendship has a dark and complex history). Requiem earns a living moving “merchandise,” with a side-line in blackmail. He is wealthy enough to live in Vampiretown, which, in colonial times, was the European quarter. Lucien is writing a play which he hopes will be performed in Paris; he was forced to burn the first version of this at gunpoint (interestingly, the novel reminded me of Jean Genet at times, whose first novel was destroyed by the authorities forcing him to rewrite it).

He finds a willing publisher (in Tram 83, of course, a microcosm of the continent) but is up against Requiem and a hostile public – literally hostile, that is, as he discovers when he attempts a reading:

“Outside, they continued to manhandle him. Someone picked up a tire. Someone suggested he be burned alive.”

Requiem, meanwhile, acting out of a deep-seated resentment of Lucien, obtains compromising photographs of the publisher (his usual modus operandi) and blackmails him in an attempt to thwart Lucien’s plans.#

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Tram 83 is a satire on both the political and literary situation in Africa with some wonderful lines:

“Torture is one of the demarcation points between an organised banana republic and a chaotic, or in other words disorganised, banana republic.”

Or this advice which Lucien receives from his publisher:

“Africa is of no interest to many intellectuals; let’s just say it’s not as exotic as it was four hundred years ago. My proposition is that you resubmit this same text to me but with the action taking place in Columbia.”

However, it would be a mistake to think of it as a humorous book. Much of its effect is achieved through repetition – a repetition designed to show the desperate existence of the inhabitants, in particular the women, who, though divided by age group, are united by availability:

“…the girls under sixteen called baby-chicks, the single-mamas or those aged between twenty and forty and referred to as single-mamas even when they don’t have children, and the ageless women whose fixed age begins at forty one.”

The lines with which they attempt to hook their clients (“Do you have the time?”) echo throughout the novel, frequently interrupting other conversations.

Tram 83, then, is, for all its pulsing narrative and exuberant characters, a rather bleak book which I admired rather than loved: admired, in particular, for its lack of condescension to a European readership, plunging unapologetically into the filth and stench of the bar and refusing to leave until the last drop is drunk.

Mend the Living

March 24, 2016

mend the living

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal is what you might call a concept novel, a novel where the central idea is likely to be better known than the author or title (perhaps that’s why in the US a different translator has opted for The Heart). It’s easy to imagine curious readers asking for ‘that book about the heart transplant’, and it was that same curiosity that first prompted my desire to read it even before it appeared on the Man Booker International Prize long list. Its story is, on one level, simple: a young man, Simon Limbeau, dies in a traffic accident, and his heart is taken from his body to replace the ailing organ of a middle-aged woman, Claire Mejan. What makes this novel stand out, however, is not just the emotional power and originality of its concept, but the richness of its telling.

Kerangal places the heart at the centre of a chorus of characters. Not only do we encounter Simon, his mother, Marianne, and father, Sean, but we become closely acquainted with the numerous medical staff who care, first for him, and then for his heart. Each character is brought fully to life as Kerangal utilises a variety of styles, one moment utilising an authorial voice from outside the narrative, the next placing us in the character’s consciousness. When Simon is brought to the hospital, she happily addresses the reader:

“We have someone for you. A call at 10.12 a.m. Neutral, informative, the words strike. Male, six feet, 154 pounds, about twenty years old, car accident, head trauma, in a coma – we know who’s being summed up like this, we know his name: Simon Limbeau.”

Compare this to the description of his mother receiving a phone call about the accident:

“She must have screamed loudly, loudly enough in any case that the little one reappears…eyes fixed on her mother who doesn’t see her, who pants, like a dog, movements quick and face twisted, tapping furiously on her phone to call Sean who doesn’t answer – pick up, pick up, godammit! – her mother who throws clothes on in a rush…”

Gone is the certainty (“must have”), and we see echoes of modernism in the interjection of Marianne’s thoughts into the sentence. In fitting with the novel’s exploration of what we mean by life, the narrative voice exists in tension between the outer, objective and the inner, emotional. For the latter effect, Kerangal is not afraid to use long sentences (the quotation above is extracted from one containing more than 180 words). This creates a rhythm which pulses through the novel making the text itself seem alive in a novel where the irrepressible nature of life is a main theme.

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The language, too, is full of life. Here Kerangal describes Marianne driving to the hospital:

“The outside universe dilated slowly, trembled even and paled as the air trembles and pales above the desert sand, above the pavements of roads heated in the sun, it changed into a fleeting far-off scenery, it whitened, nearly to the point of erasure, while inside the car Marianne drove with one hand, the other wiping away everything that flowed down her face…”

And while this is clearly a dramatic moment, Kerangal records each moment with a similar intensity, in a novel where there are no minor characters. One of the most beautiful passages of writing is a description of Rose, the girlfriend of one of the surgeons, who only appears in a scene where he is called away:

“..she’s beautiful as day, maxillaries pulsing beneath the skin of her jaw – fury – and doesn’t even look at him as she crosses and uncrosses her long arms of an ancient beauty, low to high, in order to take of her tank top, useless now, revealing a splendid bust composed of various circles – breasts, aerolae, nipples, belly navel, top of the two globes of her buttocks…”

It seems appropriate in a novel about life that every page, every moment should seem so alive. A great deal of credit for this should go to the translator, Jessica Moore – and it’s worth recalling that the Man Booker International Prize is also for translation. Any fear that the novel might be a gimmick is dispelled by the wonder of the writing. I fully expect to see Mend the Living on the short list.

A Whole Life

March 19, 2016

a whole life

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler arrives on the Man Booker International Prize long list in a rather unusual position. Seethaler himself is largely unknown, but his novel had been a best seller in Germany (presumably it was also a best seller in his native Austria as well, but that somehow sounds less impressive) and already seems to be something of a commercial success here (I base this on Waterstones’ promotion, and the fact that someone in my book group has already suggested it as our next book). In all this, it has something in common with another German-language novel from last year, Look Who’s Back, though I think it’s fair to say Seethaler is not trying to be funny.

A Whole Life is the story of Andreas Egger, a taciturn, morose individual who lives in a small village in the mountains:

“As a child Andreas Egger had never shouted or cheered. He didn’t even really talk until his first year at school.”

To be fair, Egger’s childhood is nothing to shout (or cheer) about: when his mother dies the “about four years old” Egger is sent to live with a relative who regularly beats him with a hazel rod. One particular beating leaves him with a broken thigh, and, although it is set, the injury causes him to limp thereafter. Despite his limp, Egger is strong:

“He was a good worker, didn’t ask for much, barely spoke, and tolerated the heat of the sun in the fields as well as the biting cold in the forest. He took on any kind of work and did it reliably and without grumbling.”

Soon he gets a job with a company building the infrastructure needed to run cable cars across the mountains. Egger’s story is also that of the twentieth century and the cable cars represent the arrival of technology in the rural setting. Despite Egger’s employment, they are portrayed rather negatively in the novel, with the phrase “a scar through the forest” being used more than once. They are also possibly complicit in the saddest event in Egger’s life (which I won’t mention, there being such little plot in this novel it would seem a shame to reveal one of the most affecting scenes). When war breaks out, the company begin to make armaments instead; Egger, meanwhile, uses his expertise on the Eastern Front, spending eight years in a Russian prisoner of war camp as a result. When Egger returns from the prison camp, he finds a new occupation as a mountain guide: now tourism, rather than farming, provides the village’s income.

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Unsurprisingly, given the novel’s title, it begins and ends with death. It opens with Egger’s attempt to rescue a goatherd from a snowstorm in the mountains. Suddenly the goatherd runs away from him and into the storm:

“Stop, you stupid fool! No one has ever outrun Death!”

At the end, the memory returns to him:

“’Not just yet,’ he said quietly; and winter settled over the valley.”

Egger feels his own life is “without regret” and there is a temptation to think of this book as an account of a simple life from simpler times; one rooted in place, finding contentment in the ordinary. However, this seems a very superficial reading: there is little evidence, for example, that Eggers is content, though it might be true to say that he lacks the imagination to be miserable. When, in later life, he has a chance of companionship with the school teacher, Anna, he rejects it:

“He wasn’t able to overcome his inhibitions. He had lain there motionless, as if nailed to the spot…”

When he hears Anna crying, he leaves. Surely there should be something to regret about a life lived almost entirely alone?

His positive qualities as a worker also need more closely examined as they seem to largely consist of working hard for little reward and not complaining. Seethaler does not disguise his working conditions: at one point, felling pines in the forest, a work-mate loses an arm due to “bad luck”. And, of course, there’s the eight year of his life he spends imprisoned thanks to a madman’s war (though they take up only a few pages of the novel).

Perhaps, then, I underestimate Seethaler when I say he isn’t trying to be funny: Egger’s lack of regrets seems to be a very dark joke indeed, as does the fact that some readers are under the impression that the novel contains ‘wisdom’, presumably referring to such aphorisms as “It’ll sort itself out, like everything in life” and “The old die making way for the new. That’s how it is and how it’ll always be!” Even the novel’s length seems a joke at Egger’s expense.

Whether A Whole Life will make it onto the short list is difficult to say. I suspect it will be a book which warms some and leaves others cold, as befitting a novel where its unremarkable ordinariness is both its selling point and flaw.

Man Tiger

March 14, 2016

man tiger

Although Eka Kurniawan was first published in his native Indonesia in 2000, it was only in 2015 that he came to prominence in the English-speaking world with the translation of his first novel, Beauty is a Wound. This, unfortunately, is not eligible for the Man Booker International Prize, having yet to receive a UK publication (though one is scheduled for June thanks to Pushkin Press, meaning that it could well appear on next year’s long list). His UK debut came the same year, however, with his second novel, Man Tiger, translated by Labodalih Sembiring.

Man Tiger is a murder story where there is no mystery regarding the murderer, only the motive. What happened is reveal in the very first sentence:

“On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond.”

More details of the killing quickly follow – “The kid bit through his jugular” – but, as to why, no-one can say:

“They knew Margio the teenager and old Anwar Sadat all too well. It would never have occurred to anyone that these two figures would feature in such a tragic drama, no matter how eager Margio was to kill someone, or how detestable the man named Anwar Sadat.”

Kurniawan then moves backwards into Margio’s past as we search for an explanation of his action. The second chapter focuses mainly on the death of his sister, Marian, only a few days after she is born, shortly before the murder. This, however, only raises more questions as it seems Margio’s hatred is largely directed at his father, Komar bin Syueb, whom he blames for her death:

“Margio had been cursing their old man over and again at the nightwatch post, and similar sentiments had been heard elsewhere – that if the chance arose he would kill Komar bin Syueb…. The feeling had become more intense over the days that followed, after their week-old baby sister, Marian, died.”

By Chapter 3 Margio is seven years old and we are following the family as they move to their new house, “a concrete square a few feet on each side,” and from there we travel even further back to Komar’s courtship of his wife Nuraeni. Kurianwan not only handles this complex structure with great dexterity, making the transitions seems natural, he also flits from character to character with the same ease. Chapter 2, for example, begins from Margio’s point of view, but changes to that of his sister Mameh halfway through. Each of the four family members is the focus of the narrative at one point, portraying the complex nature of the relationships which have developed over time. In this way, we learn of the deeply unsympathetic Komar’s early struggles on behalf of his family, and of the origins of his wife’s resentment. It works particularly well with Nuraeni’s sexual awakening later in the novel, when her character, previously rather over-shadowed by the others, bursts into three dimensions as she feels herself come alive again.

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Kurianwan’s forensic examination of the chain of events which lead to the murder reveals a psychological explanation for events, but it is juxtaposed with the tiger of the title, a white tiger which is passed down through the generations and coexists with the man whose body she inhabits. Margio believes his grandfather had the tiger and longs for it to be passed on to him:

“His blood was hot and he thought perhaps that Grandpa’s tiger was already inside him. What was needed was a way to bring it out… When he woke up the next morning, a white tiger lay beside him. That was how it began.”

Interestingly the two ‘versions’ of Margio’s motives coexist quite happily. The tiger can be read as a symbol of man’s propensity for violence, a belief Margio uses to disassociate himself from his own actions, or even a longing for a more primitive state in response to the encroachment of the modern world. It is reminiscent of magical realism, before that term was corrupted to include the cute and quirky – a non-rational occurrence believed by all within the world of the novel. In the novel’s final lines the two approaches come together seamlessly.

Man Tiger lacks the impact of a great novel, but it is a very good one, carefully constructed and beautifully rendered. Kurniawan is clearly a talented writer and it would not surprise me to find Beauty is a Wound listed next year. It’s a novel that would not be out of place on the short-list, but will perhaps lose out to the quality of the competition.

Man Booker International Prize 2016

March 11, 2016

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Thursday saw the announcement of the long list for the Man Booker International Prize, slightly shorter than its predecessor the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but with a strong selection of fiction from around the globe.

José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola) Daniel Hahn, A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker)

Elena Ferrante (Italy) Ann Goldstein, The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions)

Han Kang (South Korea) Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian (Portobello Books)

Maylis de Kerangal (France) Jessica Moore, Mend the Living (Maclehose Press)

Eka Kurniawan (Indonesia) Labodalih Sembiring, Man Tiger (Verso Books)

Yan Lianke (China) Carlos Rojas, The Four Books (Chatto & Windus)

Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo/Austria) Roland Glasser, Tram 83 (Jacaranda)

Raduan Nassar (Brazil) Stefan Tobler, A Cup of Rage (Penguin Modern Classics)

Marie NDiaye (France) Jordan Stump, Ladivine (Maclehose Press)

Kenzaburō Ōe (Japan) Deborah Boliner Boem, Death by Water (Atlantic Books)

Aki Ollikainen (Finland) Emily Jeremiah & Fleur Jeremiah, White Hunger (Peirene Press)

Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) Ekin Oklap, A Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber)

Robert Seethaler (Austria) Charlotte Collins, A Whole Life (Picador)

My first reaction is that is a particularly global list, with fewer than half the books from Europe, and representation from Africa, Asia and South America. Though there are only four women writers (the same as last year, though a better proportion), they are all strong candidates, and it would not surprise me if a woman won the inaugural Man Booker, just as a woman won the final IFFP. (In Marie NDiaye’s case I say that on the strength of Three Strong Women: in keeping with Booker tradition, Ladivine has not yet been released).

I have already reviewed three of the books (The Vegetarian, White Hunger, and A Cup of Rage) and, as two of them made my best of the year list for 2015, and the third was released in January, it’s safe to say I’m pleased with their inclusion. I’ve also read The Story of the Lost Child, and, while there has been some disquiet about judging what is the fourth volume of a series as a stand-alone novel (I’m looking at you, Tony), it would seem unreasonable to exclude it on those grounds.

Of the other books, Tram 83 has received a lot of praise, as has Eka Kurniawan – though much of this has been for the ineligible Beauty is a Wound. Raduan Nassar is perhaps a surprise inclusion, not only because, as he stopped writing in 1984, many may have concluded he was dead, but because A Cup of Rage is probably not long enough to be regarded as a novella. The list also includes two Nobel Prize winners, Kenzaburō Ōe and Orhan Pamuk. I’m disappointed with the inclusion of Pamuk, IFFP winner with The White Castle and also short-listed with Snow, as his previous novel, The Museum of Innocence, was one of the dullest reads I have ever experienced, and this one is another meandering tale of his love for Istanbul. Another previous IFFP winner is José Eduardo Agualusa – I found that novel (The Book of Chameleons) rather superficial so it will be interesting to see how this compares. In both cases it’s hard not to wonder whether the fact the Man Booker has the same permanent chairman as the IFFP has some bearing on their inclusion. (The same might also be said of Yan Lianke, who was short-listed for Dream of Ding Village in 2012, but I am much more excited about reading The Four Books).

Inevitably there are some surprising omissions, particularly from Spain. The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Repila was my book of the year last year, and Jesus Carassco’s Out in the Open also made my top ten. In the Night of Time by Antonio Munoz Molina was also highly thought of, as was Agustin Fernandez Mallo’s Nocilla Dream. (Presumably Javier Maria’s Thus Bad Begins was eligible too). Sticking with the Spanish language, the inclusion of Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World seemed a certain bet. Having said this, no long list can contain everyone’s favourites, and if this one only echoed my tastes I would have nothing left to read. It’s the voyage of discovery ahead that I’m most looking forward to.

Nocilla Dream

March 9, 2016

nocilla dream

Traditional novels create meaning through narrative; each scene means in relation to the story. What if, however, you believe meaning is not so easily acquired, that we are now so connected and disconnected that describing reality using a straight path (plot) is no longer enough, or even possible? Perhaps, then, you might write a novel like Agustin Fernandez Mallo’s Nocilla Dream, one made of 113 brief chapters, many of them extracts from other books, woven from numerous strands and storylines, and set in the debatable lands between fact and fiction.

Ironically, Nocilla Dream’s central image is that of a single road, Route 50 in Nevada:

“…the loneliest highway in North America. Passing through semi-mountainous desert, it links Carson City and the town of Ely. A highway in which, it ought to be stressed, there is precisely nothing. Nothing. A 260 mile stretch with a brothel at either end.”

Falconetti, the first of over thirty characters to be introduced in this short book, decides to walk the length of it, inspired, he says, by Christopher Columbus. Mallo contrasts the spirit of discovery at the heart of the American Dream with a barren road to nowhere, reversing the westward flow of the pioneers with Falconetti’s west to east pilgrimage. Although Mallo is Spanish, this is a novel which places America at the heart of the modern world, as we can see when he later discusses the way American culture is imported into China:

“Lee-Kung, unemployed, spends a great deal of time cutting out photos from the free North American magazines…She scans the images and saves them onto her Apple Mac before beginning with her modifications, copying and pasting in Chinese motifs.”

A later chapter describes the popularity of surfing in a Chinese province, Tsau-Chee. American culture is referenced throughout: young boy, who first appears in chapter 3, is known as Billy the Kid, and another character as Pat Garret. Even Falconetti has borrowed his name form Irwin Shaw’s novel Rich Man, Poor Man.

The only landmark on Route 50 is a single tree hung with hundreds of pairs of shoes. This image of connectedness (the shoes are a tangled mass) and disconnection (from their purpose) reoccurs throughout the novel. It often appears at points when characters are trying – or failing – to connect. Indentations in the ground are caused by couples making love at its foot: Falconetti finds a used condom hanging on its branches, and Hannah reminisces of a time she and Ted would have “made love under the U. S. Route 50 poplar, watching the sunrise from where they lay.” Relationships, however, can also fall apart:

“Then, a husband, looking for ways to aggravate his wife, throws her shoes to the top of this tree that, like an attractor point, has been gathering hundreds more shoes besides.”

The tree is not the only example of human objects disconnected from humanity: a suitcase full of found photographs and tapes of found recordings also feature. Sokolov, we’re told:

“…was soon to be seen frequenting different Chicago neighbourhoods, going around armed with recording equipment and field mics, discovering all manner of textures in unexpected urban instruments: form the classic clack clack of cars driving across imperfectly fitting manhole covers, to the gushing sound emitted by a graffiti artist’s spraycan.”

Mallo is also very interested in micronations, in particular the Isotope Micronation, “a large subterranean cube, 250 000 square feet in volume: a cement intestine which, if laid out flat, would be almost 400 miles long” originally built by the US government. Though the idea of a micronation would seem to connect people, “the 178 inhabitants can go as long as a month without seeing another soul.”

Loneliness runs through the novel. When characters do connect it is rarely for long. Sometimes there are only a few minutes of conversation as between Fernando, the pump attendant at an isolated gas station, and a group of female surfers passing through. On other occasions, relationships blossom, for example between Sherry and Clark only to end suddenly: Clark, having taken Sherry from one of the brothels which bookend the highway, later abandons her. Other characters, like Falconetti, are solitary by nature.

Perhaps our struggle as a reader to make connections across Mallo’s novels mirrors our struggle to make connections across the disparate elements of modern life. Certainly, we should not look to it for simple answers. It has a cumulative effect, though not one as moving as, say, in the work of David Markson. Intriguingly, it is the first part of a trilogy: it’s to be hoped translator Thomas Bunstead is at work on volume two.


March 6, 2016


When Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings declared a Hermann Hesse Reading Week I was intrigued to take part. I’d read a great deal of Hesse’s work in my twenties but little since; it seemed an opportunity to reacquaint myself with a writer who had once been (and perhaps still would be) one of my favourites, and was certainly among my earliest introductions to literature in translation. My first instant was to reach for the old Penguins and Picadors lying rather neglected on my book shelves, but a quick check told me there was one Hesse novel which I had not yet read, an early work for 1910, Gertrude, still in print from Peter Owen in a translation by Hilda Rosner.


Gertrude is a novel of love, but it is not a love story. The narrator, Kuhn, is a musician and composer, and it difficult not to see, in his description of his progress, an element of Hesse’s relationship with literature, for example as he struggles to discover the confidence needed to compose his own work:

“I now saw that with all my modesty I had considered myself some kind of genius and had considerably underestimated the toils and difficulties encountered along the path to an art. Moreover, my composing was seriously affected for I now only saw mountains of difficulties and rules in the smallest exercise.”

Only when he receives the friendship and support of the singer Heinrich Muoth does his career as a composer begin to take off. Muoth provides a contrast to Kuhn, extrovert and charismatic, yet somehow never at peace with himself, and plays an important part in Hesse’s real theme, the destructive nature of love.

We see love literally as a destructive force in the early pages of the novel when the narrator, flattered by the attention of a pretty woman in his youth, attempts a reckless toboggan ride and, in the resultant accident, injures his leg so badly that he limps for the rest of his life. From that point on he is reticent with women, reluctant to reveal his deeper feelings. On the other hand, Muoth’s confidence extends into his relationships with the opposite sex, whom he easily attracts and discards. The narrator is shocked when Muoth’s lover, Lottie, confesses her fear to him that Muoth no longer loves her:

“ ‘Finally he began to address me formally. I would have preferred him to beat me again.’
I was stunned. ‘Beat you!’

Lottie laughs at his innocence; he finds it difficult to reconcile his friendship with behaviour he finds contemptable.

The narrator himself is soon to fall in love with a young woman called (you guessed it) Gertrude. You may also have guessed that he is at first reluctant to trust his own feelings, and then to share them (when he eventually does, it is in a letter). Hesse goes on to create a series of unequal relationships between four of his characters – Muoth, Gertrude, the narrator and Brigitte, the daughter of a friend – in a way that we might associate with a Shakespearian comedy, except Hesse doesn’t find anything funny about it.

Here, Hesse’s two themes combine as Kuhn’s experiences feed into the opera he is writing. In particular he borrows from the contrasting natures of Muoth and Gertrude (who also sing parts for him) in order to create his masterpiece, an early indication of Hesse’s belief in duality. Similarly, the novel includes an exploration of Buddhism in the form of Mr Lohe, an old teacher of Kuhn, who recommends:

“Learn to think more about others than about yourself for a time… You must cultivate a certain indifference to your own well-being.”

Hesse did not regard Gertrude as one of his better books. In attempting to combine a number of different themes, Hesse struggles for clarity and fails to achieve synthesis. A long section on his mother after his father’s death seems to add little to the narrative. Always reluctant to take the initiative, Kuhn is frequently waiting for something to happen, but as the reader is usually one step ahead of him, there is little tension. Gertrude, then, is not the first Hesse novel to pick up, but it is an interesting signpost of the path he was on.

Human Acts

March 1, 2016


human acts

The events at the centre of Han Kang’s latest novel Human Acts (translated once again by Deborah Smith)– the murder and torture of its citizens by a repressive regime – are so ubiquitous that the first question for a writer is how to make the reader see them as new and other, to provoke both reaction and reflection. That Han Kang’s talent lies precisely in making the world look different, or making us look differently at the world, is obvious from her first novel The Vegetarian, though here the task is somehow greater, more demanding. The events of 1980 in Gwangju are clearly an important, if obscured, part of Korean history, and well within living memory. From its title onwards, however, Human Acts more than meets that challenge.

In dealing with complex historical events, it may seem a mistake for the author to plunge us straight into the narrative, but Han is successful because she is primarily concerned with character, which she has the ability to create through voice within a page or two. (In fact, the events of 1980 will only be revealed in part, and in parts, because Han’s focus from the start is on the human element rather than historical documentation, which is not to say it isn’t a powerful testimony to the victims). The first voice we meet is second person, identifying us with Dong-ho, a high school student who came to look for the body of a friend, Jeong-dae, after the initial confrontation between protestors and soldiers, and has stayed “just lending a hand with a couple of things” where the corpses of are being kept. Also there are two young women, Eun-sook and Seon-ju: the victims of this massacre will be little more than children.

Jeong-dae narrates the second section, but his voice is that of the dead:

“The body of a man I don’t know has been thrown across my stomach at a ninety-degree angle, face up, and on top of him a boy, older than me, tall enough that the crook of his knees press down onto my bare feet. The boy’s hair brushed my face. I was able to see all of that because I was still stuck fast to my body, then.”

Though these narratives originate from 1980, our next chapter is dated 1985, indicating that we will move through time to the present with an epilogue, focusing on Han herself, set in 2013. These chapters will reveal more detail of what occurred in 1980, but also emphasise that Han is concerned as much with the after effects as with the events of those few days. In 1985 Eun-sook is an editor, and her chapter, as well as providing evidence of continued repression, asks whether anything can be the same again, both for the victims and for the country. We see this when, shortly after the uprising, she phones the Provincial Office complaints department:

“I’ve just seen water coming out of the fountain and I don’t think it should be allowed… What I mean is, how can it have started operating again already? It’s been dry ever since the uprising began and now it’s back on again, as though everything’s back to normal.”

The chapter itself tells of seven slaps that Eun-sook has suffered when being questioned about the whereabouts of the translator of a banned book, structured around “the process of forgetting the seven slaps.” Forgetting is something that Eun-sook has found difficult, despite her mother’s advice:

“Just forget about what happened, then you can go off to university like everyone else, earn a living, meet nice people…and live, just live.”

Instead Eun-sook feels:

“After you died I couldn’t hold a funeral, so my life becomes a funeral”

in the words of the poem which ends the chapter.

The non-fiction book which Eun-sook wishes to publish tackles issues at the heart of Han’s novel:

“Certain crowds do not blench at the prospect of looting, murder and rape, while on the other hand, others display a level of courage and altruism which those making up that same crowd would have had difficulty achieving as individuals.”

The novel displays both the barbarism and cruelty of the soldiers and the self-sacrifice of the protestors. Which is human? “Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel?” we are asked at one point. Yet in the same chapter, in prison, undergoing regular torture, when two prisoners fight over the food they must share, another pushes between them: “D-don’t do that.” In acting this way they become less than human, exactly what their torturers want:

“We will prove to you that you are nothing but filthy stinking bodies. That you are no better than the carcasses of starving animals.”

This contrasts later with labour activist Seong-hee’s favourite saying, “We are noble,” as we are repeatedly made to consider what it does, in fact, mean to be human.

Human Acts, if anything, is an even better novel than The Vegetarian, as Han turns her eye from the person to the people. It’s an astonishing high-wire performance between horror and hope, asking uncomfortable questions about who we really are, sure to become a classic of its kind.