Archive for February, 2017

The Last Summer

February 26, 2017

last-summer

When Peirene published Reader for Hire in 2015, the fact it had been thirty years since its original publication marked it out as the elder statesman of their novella series; with the appearance of the first of 2017’s titles, Ricarda Huch’s The Last Summer, it suddenly seems a mere whippersnapper. What, after all, is thirty years compared to more than a hundred? Ricarda Huch, born in 1864, was a German writer who, despite a fifty year career which drew praise from Thomas Mann, left the English language largely untroubled by her work – only Der Fall Deruga seems to have been previously translated, and that some time ago. Now Jamie Bulloch has made The Last Summer available to us, an epistolary novel set in pre-Revolution Russia originally published in 1910.

The novel tells the story of a plot to kill the governor of St Petersburg after student unrest causes him to close the university. His wife, Lusinya, in a time when political violence was not unusual (see, for example, Seven Hanged) insists he hires a secretary who will also act as a body guard:

“An anxious woman by nature, ever since she received the threatening letter she thinks only of how she can protect her husband’s life.”

Ironically, the man she engages for this position, Lyu, is the would-be assassin. We sense, however, a certain reluctance to complete his mission:

“When a beautiful old tree has to be felled to make way for a railway line, it’s painful to watch. You stand beside it like an old friend, gazing admiringly and in grief as it comes down.”

Intellectually he accepts the need to kill but he is not by nature a killer. The situation is further complicated by the admiration all the family members feel for Lyu. Velya, the son, thinks “there’s something which makes his opinions tower above average ones.” In Jessika’s case, “he’s already earned my approval as his being here has such a positive influence on Mama’s mood.” Katya describes him as “very elegant, even though he has no money, and he’s a brilliant man, phenomenally clever.” the daughters dote on him to extent that their aunt fears they may have fallen in love:

“Please tell me why you’re convinced my daughters are falling in love with Lyu?…since you’ve now drawn my attention to the matter, I can see that Lyu is dangerous, masculine, courageous, clever, eye-catching – everything that might impress a young girl. At this point, however, I must praise him for behaving in rather a reserved fashion towards my two little ones.”

This highlights the dangerous dynamics within the family – Lyu must ensure he does not overstep the mark with either daughter, and risk the anger of the mother, while keeping both happy. This balancing act is also necessary when it comes to politics as the governor’s children do not agree with his decision to close the university. Velya, who is a student at there, describes it as “a very silly affair.” Katya goes further:

“Naturally it’s outrageous that a man such as Papa, who cannot control himself, closes the university because the students are defending their rights.”

Lyu must navigate a way between the different opinions. When a family row on the subject occurs, Velya comments, “He sat there as coolly as Talleyrand, proving that all of us were right.”

The Last Summer has all the tension of any undercover story; perhaps more so as we must piece together the narrative from the letters of the various characters (we see only one-sided correspondence, never the replies from cousins, aunts and sisters, or Lyu’s co-conspirator, Konstantin). This gives us insight into what characters are thinking (though obviously this can change from letter to letter) but each viewpoint also brings a blindness to other events. As the narrator changes there is also a temptation for the reader to identify with that character, allowing us to sympathise with both the revolutionary and the state, and those caught in between.

The fact that Lyu’s plans for killing the governor focus on modern machinery (first a car, then a typewriter) suggest that modernity itself will make Tsarist Russia redundant, but the novella raises the still pertinent question of whether violence is an acceptable way to pursue political ends – and without the polarising effect of a contemporary setting. The Last Summer is both a classic of (what might be loosely termed) the spy genre and of the epistolary form – it’s quite astonishing we are only now able to read it.

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1967: Holy Place

February 20, 2017

holy-place

When I decided to read books published in 1967 I was hoping for a mix of those I had read before, those I had long wanted to read, and perhaps a new discovery or two. In the latter category I was primarily hopeful of placing writers I had only vaguely heard of – or perhaps not even that – and didn’t really consider the possibility of unearthing something by a writer I thought I knew well which was new to me. Yet, despite having been familiar with Carlos Fuentes work since the late eighties (The Old Gringo was my introduction), a little research revealed that he had indeed published one of his lesser works in that year, the novella Holy Place. Though never granted a UK publication, it had been translated by Suzanne Jill Levine in 1972 and I quickly set about getting a copy. (It’s also available in Triple Cross alongside novellas by Jose Donoso and Severo Sarduy, and in a volume with a second novella, Birthday, published in 1988).

Holy Place is narrated by Guillermo, a shiftless, drifting young man (if twenty-nine is still young), whose only focus is his distant, dismissive mother, the movie star Claudia Nervo. The novel opens (after a brief introductory chapter) with Guillermo turning up at his mother’s house uncertain of his welcome. Claudia is, of course, the centre of attention: charming a journalist, posing for photographs, surrounded by her entourage of young girls. The only thing she fears is ageing:

“…while the camera’s shutter snaps once and again, my mother continues deceiving herself, refuses to resign herself to enjoying the taste of her victory, and poses, poses, poses today for a cover which will come out in three months because, besides the recognition of today’s victory, that of each moment, she loves and fears the time which surrounds her, escapes her, and she can only capture it today, one more time today.”

There is a brief moment when Guillermo thinks Claudia is pleased to see him but, in fact, her open arms are for her current leading man. Later, when he follows her into a boutique, we are told:

“Claudia stands in the perfect pose. The dressmaker stops working and looks at me; Claudia looks through me: I am not tolerated, I am not welcome.”

Claudia fears, of course, that a son will allow others to guess at her age:

“I am a secret. Didn’t they explain? Claudia Nervo doesn’t have a son. And especially a twenty-nine-year-old son. People would start figuring.”

Her cruelty to her son, however, also seems to originate in her need to hold others in her power – to be the star. She rebuffs and entices at the same time:

“She slowly undresses, in front of me, smiling, without asking me to close my eyes or look away: a camera would suggest the whole thing with a close-up of my face.”

Thus the novel is fuelled with references to women said to have magical powers over men: the sirens, Salome, Cleopatra and Circe (as sign-posted on the back cover along with various other metaphors – never a good sign!). Circe also transformed men into animals, and another image used (the blurb writer feels he must forewarn us) is dogs. Guillermo asks Claudia to buy him dogs in order to get her attention:

“Pharaoh was nothing more than a ball of fur, the smallest among a beautiful pack of Afghans and sheepdogs among the ridiculous court of Pekinese and Chihuahuas which I went on demanding, not only to keep me company… but also to make Claudia realise how I replaced her, ah, and each time I asked her for a dog, she not only had to be aware of my existence, but also my intention to fill the place with a dozen dogs.”

Just as Claudia neglects Guillermo, so he neglects the dogs, before eventually becoming one (as revealed by both the back and front cover).

Holy Place is not a neglected gem but is an interesting detour for those already acquainted with Fuentes’ work. Though ten years into his career, it shows him experimenting both with layering Greek myth onto contemporary satire and using elements of Manuel Puig’s cinematic novels (long sections made up of only dialogue, for example). His portrayal of a movie star still rings true, though I found the Oedipal undertones less interesting. Guillermo’s obsession also makes it difficult for other characters to come to life. One for the completist.

Record of a Night Too Brief

February 18, 2017

record

When Stu at Winstonsdad announced a Pushkin Press fortnight, I assumed that (as usual) I would have plenty of suitable and suitably unread Pushkin titles in the piles of books which surround me (as I write this – I don’t carry them around). That this was not the case is, I think, a tribute to the titles Pushkin publish as it seems I get them to them in well below average time. Luckily I did have the recently published Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami, the first of a series of Japanese novellas that Pushkin intend to publish in the months ahead. This was not my first exposure to Kawakami as I read her most famous novel, Strange Weather in Tokyo, when it was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014. Ultimately I found that a little bland, but that was certainly not the case this time.

Record of a Night Too Brief, at sixty pages, is probably also too brief for a novella, and comes with another two short stories of similar length, ‘Missing’ and ‘A Snake Stepped On’, all three translated by Lucy North. It certainly has the best title, but is also the strangest, and I can’t help but feel the publisher is taking a risk by placing it first – though not with me as it immediately dispelled any fear of timidity I might be harbouring after my experience with Strange Weather. The story records a night in nineteen brief chapters, presumably linked by their narrator but falling into two distinct types. The even chapters are united by a girl who becomes the focus of the narrator’s attentions; the odd are just that, disparate and singular, though frequently referencing animals.

The girl is first sighted in a crowd of people who are all heading in the same direction. She offers the narrator a ticket; it transpires that the crowd has gathered there to see a singer. When the singer begins to perform, however, the people begin to disperse in different directions:

“’The chaos has started,’ the girl said to me, joining a stream of people going by her. I watched as she was borne away.
I joined the same stream of people and pretty soon caught up with her.”

“Now a part of the chaos, alongside the girl,” it goes on, “I entered the night.” That we are entering not only the night but a dreamscape can be seen both in the narrator’s acceptance of everything that happens, and in the increasingly surreal events. Two chapters later the narrator awakes to find that “the hair of the girl who had been carried along with me had grown down to her hips.” When he kisses the girl she begins to ‘wilt’ – “In my arms, gradually she became lighter and more transparent” – until he is holding her in the palm of his hand. (Yes, I realise I have automatically assumed the narrator is male). This is a facet of Kawakami’s writing which I love in this volume – the representation of emotional dynamics using physical transformation.

As I said, this already strange tale is interrupted by alternate chapters each one of which reads like a disturbing dream. Frequently they feature animals – the macaque that roars at the narrator to “Apologise!”; the loaches thrown onto the ground by a child; the man with a coatful of moles. It seems to me a foolish endeavour to attempt to impose meaning on all these inexplicable occurrences: the joy is in imagination unleashed, and I suspect that’s where the idea of the night being ‘too brief’ originates – not in reference to the night itself, but to the licence it gives us, even when it comes to reality.

The other two stories are more focussed but also happily embrace fantasy. ‘Missing’ tells of a family where members are prone to disappear:

“Since disappearances happen all the time in my family we got used to it pretty quickly.”

When the narrator’s older brother goes missing, her other brother simply takes his place in the marriage that is being arranged. The only problem is that the older brother is not entirely gone:

“My brother no. 1’s presence would come and go: at times it was intense, at times quite faint… Often he would sit on my chest in the middle of the night and I would wake up feeling the pressure of his weight.”

The situation becomes difficult when he interferes with the wedding.

‘A Snake Stepped On’ is also about relationships. When the narrator steps on a snake it turns into a human – “a woman in her early fifties” – and walks off. When the narrator returns home that evening the snake is in her apartment. The story revolves around whether she can – or indeed wants to – get rid of the snake.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, though I find myself having to resist the need to impose allegory on anything which breaks the bounds of realism. Once I have put that to one side, I can relax and take pleasure in the imagination of Kawakami’s vision.

Brothers

February 15, 2017

brothers

My favourite book of 2015 was Ivan Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, a story of two brothers trapped in a well, which burns throughout with the fierce anger of a post-crash Europe – the same anger which has since led to Brexit (and Trump). David Clerson’s Brothers, written in the same year (2013) on the other side of the world (Canada) and now available to us thanks to translator Katia Grubisic and new publishing house QC Fiction, not only tells a similar tale of two brothers, but is illuminated with the same rage.

The two brothers live with their mother on an isolated salt march which is swiftly compared to hell (they are “children of the valley of Hennom”, another name for Gehenna or hell). One brother has a single arm; the other “two stumpy arms which are too short for his body.” Their mother tells the older brother:

“…that his brother had been shaped from his severed limb, and born with two stumpy arms, imperfect but attached to a body which was intact…”

We are entering a world where stories have a power beyond their truth, particularly the story of their father, “that dog of a father,” whom they have never met but who came from, and returned to, the sea. The younger brother communicates with the father in his dreams. When they find a wooden puppet washed ashore (the nod towards Pinocchio reminds us that, in many ways, this reads like a tale for children) they take it home, and soon a harness is created to attached one of its arms to the older brother:

“It wasn’t my idea. It was our dog of a father. It came from him. It came from the sea. He gave me the idea in a dream.”

Inevitably they decide to build a boat and set off to find their father.

In the novel’s second part, the older brother literally lives the life of a dog:

“He woke up on wet straw that smelled like animal, and realised he was hungry. On his hands and knees, he crawled out of the doghouse where he had slept, using his wooden arm for support. As he crawled, he felt a leather collar around his neck, and noticed that a chain was attached to it, restricting his movements.”

He is particularly badly treated by the children of the family whom he likens to pigs:

“He was their toy, at the mercy of their whims, a poorly trained beast held captive by a children’s circus.”

In a novel where anger has never been far beneath the surface, this life eventually unleashes his rage in a torrent of destruction:

“In rare moments of sleep, he saw himself as bloodthirsty god, marching over plains of burnt grass covered with cadavers, Puppet in his hand like a mace.”

Whereas The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse ends on the verge of this apocalyptic vision, Brothers goes beyond it. When offered the hope of redemption the older brother seems to reject it. He does not stay where he is safe, and when he leaves he is accompanied by the ravens that have haunted him since he set out on his path of revenge. We are told others are afraid of “the blackness of his eyes, a deep, abyssal blackness, come from the origins of the world.”

The older brother’s rage comes from his poverty and humiliation. Once freed it is indiscriminate. This dark fable tells the story of our times.

Swallowing Mercury

February 12, 2017

swallowing-mercury

Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury is a coming-of-age story set in Poland during the 1980s. Presumably largely autobiographical – Greg was born in 1974 and the central character is called Wiola – it takes the form of a series of key moments illuminating the journey from childhood to adolescence in separately tilted chapters which falls somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories. The book’s Polish title, Guguly, means ‘unripe fruit’, a more accurate description of the writer’s intensions perhaps, though English’s inability to translate this in one word indicates why translator Eliza Marciniak has chosen a title from an incident in another chapter, Swallowing Mercury, instead.

Poland was, at times, the centre of global politics in the 1980s, and Greg subtly infuses Wiola’s life with the effects of the uncertain political situation while making it clear her mind is filled instead with the day to day minutia of growing up:

“One day in the middle of July, my father got back from work early, and as he replaced the flypaper around the ceiling lamps, he said to my mother that martial law in Poland would end in a couple of days. I was nine, and even though I could remember the day when the children’s’ show Telemorning had failed to appear on the telly, I still had no idea what he was talking about.”

Schoolchildren are not immune, however, to the oppressive effects of the regime. After winning a painting competition (theme: ‘Threats around your farm’) by painting a potato beetle crawling out of a Coke bottle (“The jury at the provincial level concluded that my drawing ‘portrayed, in a deeply metaphorical manner, the crusade of the imperialist beetle.’”), Wiola is questioned about her entry for ‘Moscow through your eyes.’

“And who might have given you this…interesting idea? Was it your parents? Or maybe the teacher who runs the art club?”

In fact, ink has leaked over the painting while it was in her bag making it look “like the capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was being engulfed by a viscous ocean of indigo”; it is not, as the authorities seem to suspect, anti-Soviet propaganda.

If politics is one unacknowledged pillar of Wiola’s life, the Catholic religion is the other. When Wiola returns home with a ‘blessed figure’ she has won in a raffle, the women who are there helping her grandmother “set aside their down-filled farm sieves, kneeled on the floor among the white piles of feathers and started to recite prayers.” Religion and politics come into conflict when there is a rumour that the Pope, on a visit to Poland, will drive past the village. The women sew all night making bunting to welcome him.

“In the morning, I rushed to the road…to welcome the Pope, carrying a paper pennant with the Vatican’s coat of arms which I had bought at the corner shop. All that was left of the half mile of bunting were muddy shreds soaking in the ditch next to empty vodka bottles and cigarette ends.”

Wiola’s life is not only subject to the pressures of the present; she lives surrounded by the past. “The Easter of 1913 was also wet,” her grandfather tells her. Her mother talks of a classmate in the 1960s who “dreamt the dreams of someone else – the Kurzaks’ five-year-old daughter. The Kurzak girl, they said in the village, had been executed by a German firing squad in 1943 in revenge.” In one of the novel’s most striking chapters, a stranger on a bus tells Wiola a story from his childhood, a series of events which lead to the death of a friend.

As the novel progresses, Wiola’s first boyfriend reveals the relative poverty of her family when he sees her with her grandmother selling cherries at the market:

“Piotr was looking at me with surprise. I forced myself to smile and wave, but he didn’t respond; he turned the other way… I knew I’d never see him again.”

Later a more serious boyfriend will encourage her to run away but, though a coming-of-age novel, it also questions whether we ever have the freedom to become the person we might want to. Aged fifty, her father tells her:

“What a strange world this… Before I’ve even had time to blink they’re already calling me old, when inside I’m like an unripe fruit.”

Swallowing Mercury may come from a very different time and place, but it’s a reminder just how much stays the same.

Fever Dream

February 6, 2017

fever-dream

Samanta Schweblin’s astonishing first novel Fever Dream (translated by Megan McDowell) is a tour de force of tension, its brief pages flicking frantically before the reader’s eyes in desperate pursuit of a conclusion. The novel takes the form of a conversation, part police interrogation, part Platonic dialogue, between Amanda and David, the child of a woman she has only recently befriended while on holiday. The conversation takes place in a hospital room where Amanda is convinced she is dying:

“But I’m going to die in a few hours. That’s going to happen, isn’t it? It’s strange how calm I am. Because even though you haven’t told me, I know. And still, it’s an impossible thing to tell yourself.”

“None of this is important,” replies David, “We’re wasting time.” Earlier he insisted, “…we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.” And so we also have a battle for narrative supremacy: who will tell the story, and whose story will it be?

Amanda begins with David’s mother, Carla, in her car, crying. Carla tells her the story of her son and the sickness which affected him six year earlier when he was very young. Her husband, Omar, had borrowed a stallion for breeding; Carla notices that the horse has escaped from its paddock and goes in search of it carrying David. They find the horse drinking from a stream and Carla puts David down to collect it. A moment later she turns to find:

“David had knelt down in the stream, his shoes were soaked. He’d put his hands in the water and was sucking on his fingers. Then I saw the dead bird.”

By the next morning the horse is dying and so Carla, desperate to save her son, takes him to a local healer:

“She can tell if someone is sick, and where in the body the negative energy is coming from.”

The woman tells Carla that David has been poisoned and that he will die unless they try a “migration”, that is move David’s spirit to anther body:

“…then part of the poison would with him. Split into two bodies, there was the chance he could pull through.”

While this supernatural strand runs through the novel it is only one reading – initially Carla’s and increasingly Amanda’s – of events. Its importance is in emphasising the lengths mothers will go to in order to protect their children, also seen in Amanda’s obsession with the ‘rescue distance’, that is the maximum distance she can be from her daughter Nina and still be able to rescue her:

“It changes depending on the situation. For example, in the first hours we spent in the vacation house, I wanted Nina close by at all times. I needed to know how many exits the house had, find the areas of the floor with the most splinters, see if the creaky stairs posed any kind of danger.”

Unfortunately for Amanda and Carla they live in a poisoned world full of invisible danger. Where will the threat come from? Will it come from David, alone in the house with Nina?

“This is insane, I think. David is just a little boy. But I can’t help it now. I’m running. I dig in my pocket for the keys and I’m so nervous that even though I have them between my fingers, I can’t get them out.”

Or will it come unexpectedly, unnoticed though your child is standing next to you:

“With the colour of her clothes I can’t tell how wet she is, but I touch her and, yes, she’s wet.
‘It’s dew,’ I tell her, ‘It’ll dry while we’re walking.’
This is it. This is the moment.

Fever Dream can, of course, be interpreted in many ways. This title itself implies that we should take nothing for granted, that the David Amanda converses with may not be real. It is, however, profoundly disturbing, a novel which seems to threaten the reader with a voice as quietly menacing as David’s. You may find yourself looking up from its pages for your children. You may never feel comfortable again.

The Good Soldier Svejk

February 2, 2017

good-soldier

As well as reading books published in the year I was born, I also felt I should mark the diminishing number of years I have left by finally reading some of those longer volumes which I have always wanted to read but consistently put off until some vague future date when I’ll have all the time I need. (This may be related to discovering how old I’ll actually be before I can retire). The first of these is Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk which weighs in at almost 900 pages, a length which might make a less caring person relieved that the author died while writing the fourth volume of a projected six in 1923 (the first volume having been published in 1921). That is, if it weren’t for the fact that Svejk is such good company, and that it would be fascinating to know what fate Hasek had in store for him.

Hasek’s intention to chronicle the war from the beginning (presumably to the end) is obvious from the opening sentence – “And so they’ve killed our Ferdinand” – where he begins his record with the first shot fired. Of course, we experience this world-changing event from the perspective of the man (and woman) in the street (or pub). Svejk, with the literalism, localism, and ability to take any fact at a tangent which will become his trademark, mistakes the Ferdinand in question:

“I know two Ferdinand’s. One is a messenger at Prusa’s, the chemist’s, and once by mistake he drank as bottle of hair oil there. And the other is Ferdinand Kokoska who collects dog manure. Neither of them is any loss.”

Soon Svejk’s wayward pronouncements find him imprisoned for treason, but Hasek’s target here is not Svejk’s ignorance but the stupidity of the state as Svejk is entrapped by plainclothes policeman Bretschneider, alongside the bartender who is arrested for taking down a picture of the Emperor because “the flies used to shit on it.” Here we see the early signs of how Hasek will use Svejk as an unwitting instrument of satire, his rambling responses often seeming more rational than the nonsensical and frequently counter-productive machinery of state.

Svejk is the eternal innocent, moving effortlessly from one mishap to the next like a gymnast somersaulting across the floor. Trouble not only finds him but is welcomed like a long lost friend and invited to stay for a drink or three; luckily he is impervious to trouble, easily drinking him under the table. His greatest weapon is his happy admission of his own stupidity. When told, for example, to “Take that idiotic expression off your face,” he replies:

“I can’t help it…I was discharged from the army for idiocy and officially certified by a commission as an idiot. I’m an official idiot.”

This willingness to embrace his faults is in stark contrast to the many authority figures he comes into conflict with who are at pains never to back down or admit they might be wrong – an attitude, of course, which was in part responsible for both the suffering of the war and Austro-Hungary’s loss.

When Svejk finally manages to join the war effort (via the madhouse and a hospital for malingerers) it is as batman to an army chaplain, Otto Katz. One of his first duties is to collect the drunken Katz from a friend’s house and drag him home. When questioned about his inebriated companion he claims the chaplain is his brother:

“He got leave and came to visit me. He was so happy that he got drunk. You see he thought I was dead.”

The quick-witted lie suggests Svejk is not as dim as he makes out, and also demonstrates a loyalty he will show throughout the novel, first to Katz and then to Lieutenant Lukas who wins him in a game of cards. This ambiguity regarding Svejk’s character is central to the novel – should we take him at face value or is he simply playing dumb? Neither his superiors, nor the reader, know for sure.

The Good Soldier Svejk is certainly a classic of war literature (and also the inspiration behind later classics such as Catch 22), all the more so for the fact that Svejk never makes it to the front line (and I like to think that, in Hasek’s plans, he never would have). Despite its length, it is as entertaining in its final moments as it is in its opening pages. Its gentle comedy undermines militaristic idealism as effectively as the most savage satire. Svejk’s idiocy may remain uncertain, but there can be no doubt over the idiocy of war.