Archive for April, 2017

Black Moses

April 25, 2017

Alain Mabanckou was no stranger to the Man Booker International’s predecessor, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, having been shortlisted in 2010 for Broken Glass and then long-listed in 2013 for Black Bazaar. He also featured among the ten nominees for the final Man Booker International Prize awarded for a lifetime’s work in 2015. With such a pedigree, it is perhaps no surprise to see him long-listed again this year with Black Moses, translated, as is most of his work, by Helen Stevenson. The novel is set, as is all of Mabanckou’s work, in (and near) the coastal city of Point-Noire in the Republic of the Congo where he was born and brought up. (Though his novels are not – as far as I can tell – linked, he seems intent on painting a detailed picture of his home city in his writing). We can date the novel’s beginning to 1970, when the country is subject to a Marxist-Leninist revolution (Mabanckou was born in 1966).

The novel opens with Moses in his early teens, living in an orphanage on the outskirts of Point-Noire. His happiest moments coincide with the appearance of the priest, Papa Moupelo, to lead them in traditional dances:

“For a couple of hours or more we’d forget who or where we were. Our shouts of laughter rang out beyond the confines of the orphanage.”

When Papa Moupelo fails to appear Moses, and his friend, Bonaventure, fear something is wrong:

“Just look at the warders faces – there’s something there not telling us! You might as well start weeping right now, I’m sure Papa Moupelo is dead.”

In fact, Papa’s disappearance is the result of a Communist revolution, as we see when a sign saying ‘MEETING HUT FOR THE NATIONAL MOVEMENT OF THE PIONEERS OF THE SOCIALIST REVOUION OF THE CONGO’ is nailed to the door of his room and the children are exhorted to:

“…track down enemies of the Revolution, including those living in our own country, with the same colour of skin as ours, who were referred to as the ‘local lackeys of imperialism’.”

The first half of the novel works well as a political satire, as we see the effects of the new regime on the microcosm of the orphanage:

“We never forgot, though, that before the Revolution the three former corridor wardens were just bruisers with zero intelligence. Now the Director had given them an office close to his on the first floor. They shut themselves in there to prepare Pioneers Awake, a propaganda sheet they posted on the wall of the hut of the National Movement of Pioneers every Monday morning.”

This is simply made up of extracts of the President’s speeches and a “passionate editorial” from the Director, who seems to believe the Head of State will read every issue.

In the novel’s second half, however, Moses escapes from the orphanage and heads to Point-Noire in the company of twins who quickly make the step up from bullies to gangsters. From that point on the novel is more in keeping with the picaresque nature of Mabanckou’s previous work. Moses becomes embroiled in various adventures, usually on the fringes of criminality, as his luck goes up and down like a skipping rope. If you haven’t read Mabanckou before, this is both entertaining and enlightening – after all, novels set in the Congo don’t come along every day. However, reading Mabanckou, I can’t help but be reminded of Irvine Welsh – what initially seems vibrant, brave and break-through eventually feels like the same old trick. In this sense Mabanckou is, for me, an author of diminishing returns. This novel, too, diminished in its second half, Mabanckou’s casual use of madness, and an a suddenly climactic ending which felt out of all proportion to anything which had come before, failing to fulfil the promise of its early pages.

Compass

April 21, 2017

“There’s no such thing as chance, everything is connected,” says Sarah, the object of Franz Ritter’s unrequited love in Mathias Enard’s Compass, the now shortlisted (and possibly favourite for the prize) International Man Booker novel. And, indeed, Compass is a finely woven network of connections, particularly those between East and West. Set in Vienna, a city which was once seen as a gateway between those two compass points, the novel is, like Zone, a stream of consciousness tour de force, occurring during the long, dark night of the day Ritter is diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease:

“…today, when a compassionate doctor may have named my illness, declared my body officially diseased, almost relieved at having given my symptoms a diagnosis – a deadly kiss – a diagnosis we’ll need to confirm while beginning a treatment, he said…”

Ritter’s single night, in which he staves off death through flooding his mind with his life, is, of course, a nod towards the West’s central Eastern text, One Thousand and One Nights; others have also pointed towards Enard’s debt to Proust in its unspooling memories, who, Ritter points out, was influenced himself by the Arabian tales. Connections from East to West form the basis of Enard’s novel: Ritter himself is a musicologist with an interest in Oriental music; Sarah, a scholar of the Orient; his happiest memories are of their time together in Syria. It would not be fanciful to suggest that their relationship provides an echo of Europe and the Middle East. The novel is more essay than story, however, and Enard’s work seems, at times, to encompass any Western artist who has flirted with the East, as well as being an ‘off-campus’ novel of academics in the wild.

The timeliness of Enard’s novel has already been widely discussed: the East is no longer seen as a source of inspiration and collaboration but, once again, a threat. By reminding us of the fascination of Western artists with the Orient, particularly classical composers, Enard reminds us that each culture has often enhanced the other in a riposte to growing intolerance on both sides. This requires considerable erudition which Enard does not seek to hide, but this, too, is a response to a society living reflex to reflex in the moment, and with scant regard for knowledge in any form – a post-history, post-expert society. At times the novel, quietly spoken as it is, feels like an Enlightenment howl of rage and despair.

The danger is that for every reader attracted by the learning on show, others will be intimidated, but, as with Zone, Enard is always readable, creating that ideal balance between refusing to talk down to the reader while never seeming to show off. Ritter’s humanity is always placed before his knowledge, in particular those moments of failure with Sarah which continue to haunt him:

“If I had dared to kiss her under that improvised Palmyran tent instead of turning over scared stiff, everything would have been different.”

Ritter and Sarah’s relationship (such as it is) grounds the novel, but its evident refusal to flourish ensures that the narrative (such as it is) doesn’t suffer from tension which might make Enard’s detours frustrating. This allows him, like a tour guide, to assume we know the history and focus on the interesting anecdotes and local colour.

“The important thing is not to lose sight of the East,” Ritter tells himself, and that is the novel’s message for us. It’s a determination that finally rewards him with “the warm sunlight of hope.” We can only pray we are as lucky. Compass is a novel that is profoundly of its time because it is out of it, and it would be a worthy winner.

The Explosion Chronicles

April 16, 2017

Yan Lianke’s appearance on the Man Booker International Prize long list makes him the only writer to have a 100% record, The Four Books having made it onto both the official and the shadow jury’s shortlist last year. In 2012 his novel Dream of Ding Village was also shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This may, of course, lead to a different reaction from the official and shadow juries this year: it’s quite possible that the official jurors are reading Lianke for the first time; for the shadow jury it’s the second (lengthy) book in as many years, and The Explosions Chronicles (translated once again by Carlos Rojas) is stylistically very similar to The Four Books.

As with The Four Books, The Explosion Chronicles sets out to explore the political situation in China, specifically the accelerated industrial revolution which began in the 1950s and has proceeded at an ever-increasing pace since the 1980s. It is estimated that China’s industrialisation has occurred at ten times the speed and one hundred times the scale of Britain’s. To give only one example of this expansion, Shenzhen, which had a population of around 300,000 in 1980, is now home to a staggering ten million people. This is exactly the process which Lianke sets out to record, presented as an official history (or chronicle) of the town of Explosion which he has been hired to write. He does so using many of the tools of satire such as caricature and hyperbole, but infused with elements of magic realism, a style he calls in an afterword mythorealism:

“While realism rigorously accords with a set of logical causal correlations, absurdity discards the causality, and magic realism rediscovers reality’s underlying causality – though this is not precisely the same causality we find in real life. Mythorealism, meanwhile, captures a hidden internal logic contained within China’s reality. It explodes reality, such that China’s absurdity, chaos and disorder – together with non-realism and illogicality – all become easily comprehensible.”

When the novel begins, Explosion is a small village where two families – Kong and Zhu – struggle for power and influence. One night the four Kong sons separate at a crossroads in search of signs which will lead them to their destinies: Mingyao sees an army truck and soon after joins the army; Mingguang finds a piece of chalk and becomes a teacher. Meanwhile Mingliang becomes the first in the village to save ten thousand yuan (a government target) by stealing coal from trains as they slow on a steep hill. He declares to the mayor that “if he were village chief, he would ensure that at least half of the village’s 126 households would become ten-thousand-yuan households” and so displaces Zhu Quingfang. He then pays the villagers to spit on Quingfang until he drowns in spit.

So the feud between the Kong and Zhu families intensifies, a situation made more interesting by the fact that Mingliang had met Quingfang’s daughter, Zhu Ying, on his journey from the crossroads. “Now that I’ve run into you, I have no choice but to marry you,” she tells him. This feud between the families drives the first half of the novel, as Mingliang schemes to expand Explosion by any means necessary and Zhu Ying plots her revenge, first leaving the village so she too can acquire wealth through prostitution:

“When she had left two years earlier she was wearing simple clothing that she, as was customary in Balou, had sewn herself; but now she was decked out in imported clothing that cost thousands of yuan… She swaggered through the village, giving everyone she saw cartons of cigarettes and boxes of chocolates she had brought back from the city.”

In the novel wealth is created by corruption and is then used to corrupt. Though a critique of communist China, it is the unfettered capitalism unleashed by government policies and targets which Lianke attacks. Mingliang’s ambition seems to usurp nature itself: when he is given the letter which announces Explosion has been recognised as a town he places it in the branches of a tree:

“The tree, which was a as tall as a person and had a trunk as wide as a bowl, had for over three years been more dead than alive, but at that moment the faint sound of summer corn sprouting could be heard from its branches…”

This, of course, will remind us of the magic realism of the 1960s, but there’s also something Shakespearian in Lianke’s use of nature to suggest a corrupt world, just as Mingliang’s rise to power also has Shakespearian echoes.

At over four hundred pages, though, some readers may find its relentless focus on what is largely a single issue wearying. In the novel’s second half, without the Kong-Zhu feud, tension certainly weakens as Lianke turns to Mingyao to comment on China’s relationship with the West. The unnamed characters of The Four Books possessed more individuality than the named characters of The Explosion Chronicles, where Lianke seems to move closer to a process where he is content to sketch his story across the surface of his vast canvas. Having said that, in an international prize list, only this and Black Moses arguably lie anywhere outside the European tradition of the novel. Whether it is shortlisted may depend entirely on how fresh it feels to the judges.

The Well at the World’s End

April 13, 2017

Having read fifteen of Scottish writer Neil Gunn’s nineteen novels, it seemed too good a chance to miss when I discovered that one of those I hadn’t read, The Well at the World’s End, had been published in 1951 – the very year which Karen and Simon had chosen to be the focus of their April ‘Club’. The Well at the World’s End is one of Gunn’s later novels (his first, The Grey Coast, was published in 1926); only two others followed, along with his autobiography, The Atom of Delight, which was the final book to be appear in his lifetime in 1956. Gunn had always been a spiritual writer as well as a great documenter of Highland life: his most famous novels are probably his historical trilogy Sun Circle, Butcher’s Broom and The Silver Darlings, and his autobiographical tale of childhood, Highland River. It’s not entirely surprisingly, then, that The Well at the World’s End can be read as a spiritual quest, albeit a rather strange one which defies easy interpretation.

The novel begins with Peter Munro staring into a well that is “obviously dry.” This is surprising as he and his wife, Fand, holidaying in the Highlands, have been sent there to fetch water by an old woman who lives nearby. When, not a little put out, he returns to inform her there is no water to fetch, she insists, “That well is never dry.”

“…a man can always see where the surface of water, however crystal, touches the sides of its container. There is a difference between air and water. All he had to do was pick up a handful of dry pebbles form the bottom… Then with the air of someone on the brink of some extraordinary revelation he stooped and slowly put his hand down, and his hand went into water.”

Peter is a Highlander himself – his father was a shepherd – but he is now a university professor. Though they have come to the Highlands together, Peter intends to leave Fand for a few days “to go wandering over the hills and through the glens, taking every adventure as it came…” (Throughout Gunn’s work you will discover he views men and women as quite different). It may seem strange that Gunn should encumber Peter with a wife given that for the majority of the novel he will soliloquise while she is firmly in the wings, but the novel is also a celebration of their love for each other.

Though Peter’s intentions aren’t entirely clear, the story can be read as a quest:

“And he saw that was no need to be grandiloquent; no occasion for fantasy. It would be interesting to find out if among ordinary people there were those moments of penetration, the instant when they went through the boundary, the moment when they saw the crystal water in the well.”

What follows is a series of adventures and encounters which can make the novel feel more of a collection of incidents than a driven narrative. Peter encounters the hospitality of shepherds, fishermen, and landladies, but his journey is not without danger, including a fight in a pub, being knocked unconscious by illegal distillers, and a near-death experience at the end. (Also, every time he gets a lift from a local, he feels he is placing his life in their hands).

In fact, the episodic nature of the novel is not illusory: parts of it were based on shorter pieces which Gunn had previously published. A masterful chapter describing a fishing boat in a storm, for example, originates from a Scots Magazine article which appeared in 1935.This, alongside an excellent haunted house story which neatly strides the divide between scepticism and mystery, are among the best parts of the novel. Others, such as the English ex-spy Cocklebuster, a previous acquaintance Peter encounters in the middle of nowhere, seem either dated or just jarring, despite some amusing description:

“It was the very voice, the high ha-ha ‘county’ voice, that had made some of them seriously wonder if the man could in fact whisper.”

(Cocklebuster is also declared to be “as sane as a cliché”). As for an episode where he attempts to rescue a lamb only to crush it death as it saves him from a possibly fatal fall, it’s genuinely difficult to know what to make of it. Generally the novel is difficult to decode: one motif seems to be a pair of silk pants (that’s underwear, for our American readers) which his wife packs in his rucksack for him. These are mentioned so often it’s hard to not be convinced they mean something – but what?

The Well at the World’s End may not be Gunn at his best, but it does make him a more intriguing writer. It demonstrates his constant striving to be both local and universal, an important facet of the Scottish Renaissance of which he was part. It’s probably not the best place to start or finish with Gunn, but an interesting adventure along the way.

War and Turpentine

April 11, 2017

Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans’ War and Turpentine has the distinction of being the only book to appear on the long lists of both the Man Booker International Prize and the Best Translated Book Award (though Marie NDiaye’s Ladivine has an MBI 2016 listing to go alongside its BTBA nomination this year). I’m tempted to say it has sneaked onto both lists, firstly because its identity as fiction is rather tenuous, and secondly because it lacks the brilliance you would expect from the only novel noticed on both sides of the Atlantic. It marks the first appearance in English of one of Hertmans’ full-length works (translated from the Dutch by David McKay), despite his writing career beginning with a novel published in 1981, the year his grandfather, Urbain (the subject of War and Turpentine) died at the age of ninety.

The novel is divided into three sections, the first of which is the most successful. Here Hertmans introduces his grandfather via childhood memories. Two central facets of his grandfather’s character, as indicated by the title, are immediately introduced: his love of painting and his experiences as a soldier during the First World War:

“My childhood years were overrun with his tales of the First World War, always the war and nothing but the war, vague heroics in a muddy field under a rain of bombs, the rat-a-tat of gunfire, phantoms screaming in the dark, orders roared in French – all conjured up from his rocking-chair with great feeling for spectacle…”

Though the war may be the focus of his conversation, Urbain spends his time painting: it is the “real work, which he had carried out uninterrupted since early retirement as a disabled veteran at forty-five.” Though these aspects of Urbain’s life are highlighted in the first few pages, the reader is intrigued by a number of mysteries: Hertmans’ memory of his grandfather “silently weeping” in front of a painting; a gravestone found hidden under the floor; and, above all, the contents of two notebooks which Urbain left Hertmans but which (at the beginning) he has not read:

“I held the privilege of his memoirs but was too scared to open them, didn’t even dare to open the first page, in the knowledge that this story would be a farewell to a piece of my childhood.”

Hertmans goes on to recreate Urbain’s life, describing how his parents met, his father’s ill-health, and the poverty they had to contend with. Urbain’s love of painting is inherited from his father who is church restorer; the young Urbain spends hours watching him at work. He, however, begins working in an iron foundry at thirteen. The story is told in what might be described as a Sebaldian style (or sub-Sebaldian if we were being less kind) meandering from the present to the past as Hermans describes his researches (for example, a visit to the National Gallery in London to see Velazquez’s Venus at her Mirror, a painting his grandfather has copied) and interrupted with the occasional photograph.

Part II brings an abrupt change of style as it focuses entirely on Urbain’s war years and is written in the first person. (It’s not entirely clear if it is lifted verbatim from his notebooks, though more likely it has been adapted from them). This creates a perfectly readable and interesting narrative, albeit one which adds little to our understanding of soldiers’ experiences during the war (apart, perhaps, from internal Belgian tensions between French and Flemish speakers – though these seem similar to divisions within the Austro-Hungarian army).

The third and final section is the shortest, returning us to the style of the first. However, with most of Urbain’s life still to be lived, this makes the novel appear lop-sided – as if, now that his childhood and war have been described, there is little of interest left. Hertmans relies instead on some very literary techniques – the symbolism of a pocket watch, and the reveal of the painting which made his grandfather cry. In the end, given Urbain’s bravery during the war (seriously wounded three times) and aptitude for art, we have a portrait of an extraordinary man living a very ordinary life. For some this is a reason for rejoicing (see also Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life) but I feel, instead, despair at a life stunted by lack of opportunity. (It also, as with Seethaler’s novel, contains amore personal tragedy).

Though War and Turpentine features on two long lists, I would not be surprised if it made neither short list. Despite holding the reader’s interest throughout, it’s ultimately an imbalanced work, never quite the sum of its parts.

A Horse Walks Into a Bar

April 8, 2017

David Grossman has been longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize (the precursor to the Man Booker International) more than once, most recently with To the End of the Land in 2011. A Horse Walks into a Bar (translated by Jessica Cohen), however, seems to be something of a departure: as its title suggests, its protagonist, Dovaleh Greenstein, is a stand-up comedian, and the novel consists of one night’s performance filtered through the narration of an old friend whom he has invited along to observe. “Why the long face?” is the barman’s response in the hackneyed joke of the title, and the novel could be said to answer that question, exploring the unhappiness at the centre of Dovaleh’s life.

Right from the start, Dovaleh seeks to antagonise as much as amuse his audience:

“Are you going to sit there and declare, so help you God, that I am actually in Netanya at this very minute, and I’m not even wearing a flak jacket?…I get creeped out by this Netanya dump. Every second person on the street looks like he’s on the witness protection programme, and every other person has the first person rolled up in a black plastic bag inside the trunk of his car.”

Hidden beneath the humour is a violence, simmering beneath the surface, and directed at himself as much as the audience. More than once he slaps himself on the forehead, “an awful blow, that slap.”

“I’ve seen that grimace before: a little rodent gnawing on himself.”

Though interspersed with jokes (often when reminded by the audience), his act is largely a retelling, a rediscovery, of an event from his childhood. As his monologue progresses, so the truth of what happened becomes clearer to him. Towards the end he says:

“I remember everything suddenly. That’s what’s amazing about this evening… You’ve done a great thing today for me by staying. I suddenly remember everything, and not in my sleep but like it’s happening right now, this minute.”

His humour is a defence from unpleasant truths – even as a child he would walk on his hands in an attempt to avoid being bullied. Grossman seems to be questioning whether humour, perhaps specifically Jewish humour, is therapeutic, or in fact a damaging refusal to face facts.

The novel is not easy (but then neither was the last novel I read with a comedian at the centre, Heinrich Boll’s The Clown, with which this shares both tone and message to some extent). Dovaleh’s stage persona is deliberately unpleasant: pugnacious and vitriolic, with a sense of something pathetic at its centre slowly being uncovered. The performance is a car crash, and while that holds a certain fascination, there are numerous squirm-inducing moments. The novel is a tightrope of heightened emotion, dipping into jokes with a feigned loss of balance: it can be exhausting to watch.

It’s a novel of crisis, a long dark night of the soul: Dovaleh asks his childhood friend, our narrator, Avishai Lazar, to observe him – “I want you to see me” – as if no longer able to see himself clearly. (That he is an ex-judge suggests, of course, that Dovaleh wants to be judged). And, like all of Grossman’s recent work, it’s a novel of loss.

Whether A Horse Walks into a Bar will make the short list is difficult to say. It possesses a formal daring and emotional intensity difficult to ignore, but it feels like a novel which will be more admired than loved.