Archive for June, 2017

Autumn

June 30, 2017

Just over a year ago I listened to Ali Smith read from Autumn at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She was reading from a manuscript – any hope of an early copy of the hardback being available (as they often are at book festivals) was made to look ridiculous by her declaration that she had only just delivered the final version to the publisher. Two months later it was on the shelves. Smith was upfront about the haste with which the novel had been written, her intention being to write about what was happening in Britain today: it was the first ‘post-Brexit novel’.

I was in the audience for Ali Smith’s reading because I have been a reader (and admirer) or her work since Free Love and other stories was published by Virago in 1995. I mention this because I have some concerns about Autumn, most of which originate from the identification of the novel as a reaction to Brexit. Brexit features prominently in the novel:

“It’s just over a week since the vote…
The village is in a sullen state. Elisabeth passes a cottage not far from the bus stop whose front, from the door to across above the window, has been painted over with black paint and the words GO and HOME.”

It’s also the subject of what might be described as prose poems which occur throughout the narrative:

“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing.”

The divide created is echoed in the novel by the appearance of a fence on what was common land:

“Apparently a fence three metres high with a roll of razorwire along the top of it has been erected across a stretch of land not far from the village. It has security cameras on posts all along it.”

The fence leads to a confrontation between Elisabeth and one of the security guards – a scene Smith read out in Edinburgh:

“Fine day, she says.
You can’t walk here, he says.
Yes I can, she says…
This is private land, he says.
No it isn’t, she says. It’s common land. Common land by definition is not private.”

Of course, the audience, and the reader, are on Elisabeth’s side, just as we are in numerous other encounters in the novel – when she’s getting her passport application checked; when she’s asked for ID at the nursing home where her friend and ex-neighbour, Daniel, is dying; when she tackles the receptionist at the doctor’s surgery… On each occasion she deflects authority with wit – which is really just another way of saying that she proves she’s cleverer than the other person, rather than right. Note, it’s not enough for her to say it’s common land – she must go on to refer to the definition of common land, which she knows, being cleverer.

“You are unlawfully trespassing.
As opposed to lawfully trespassing? she says.”

An earlier conversation with another nameless character doing his job in the Post Office is also instructive. The banal language he must use when describing the Check & Send service he offers is, of course, amusingly contrasted with Elisabeth’s ready wit, but when he attempts to be humorous, Smith (presumably via Elisabeth’s viewpoint) undercuts it with reference to his silent laugh: “Shoulders. Up, down.”

It’s interesting to compare this to Smith’s description of the Christine Keeler case:

“The prosecuting lawyer has the air of a foxhound. He makes fun of her.”

This seems very much Elisabeth’s attitude to those who are not as clever as she is. Is this Smith’s intention? Perhaps. It certainly won the approval of the audience in Edinburgh, possibly lacking in security guards, Post Office workers, and receptionists. It strikes me as particularly unfortunate in the ‘first post-Brexit novel’, however, as Brexit has been frequently characterised as the educated against the uneducated. Smith herself used education as an escape route, from Inverness and her working class background. It’s possible she believes that this path is open to everyone, and that those who take low paid jobs, often accompanied by mundane, repetitive language as restrictive as a strait jacket, are culpable in their routine functions. But, as Daniel advises Elisabeth, “Always give your characters the same benefit of the doubt you’d welcome when it comes to yourself.”

Elisabeth has her own escape route: art, and her imagination. It’s instructive how much of the novel takes place in her head: “That moment of dialogue? Imagined.” This is the gift her friendship with Daniel has given her. As a child, Elisabeth tells Daniel:

“There’s no point in making up a world…when there’s already a real world.”

Daniel convinces her otherwise. It is also through Daniel that she finds the (real life) pop artists Pauline Boty – the present day Elisabeth is a junior university lecturer in Art History. This means, of course, that the real world is only half the story – it’s her mother who takes action against the fence, not Elisabeth.

Don’t get me wrong – Autumn is a vibrant, pulsing novel of ideas bursting with wit, humour and passages which thrill and soar. As a political novel, however, it fails.

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Belladonna

June 27, 2017

Belladonna will be the third of Dasa Drndic’s novels I have read; like Trieste, it approaches four hundred pages in length (Leica Format is relatively brief at three hundred). And of those thousand pages I can say that there is not a single one I have enjoyed reading. I’m not suggesting that Drndic is the only writer who uncovers uncomfortable truths, though her spade is perhaps sharper than most, but everything she does – even audacious literary acts that would thrill in another novel – seems intent only on making her reader squirm. Why, then, continue with this literary masochism? The answer is, of course, in the question: the discomfort, the unease, is that of facing what you would rather forget, what Europe would rather forget, and what, as Drndic continues to insist, must be remembered.

Belladonna shows no sign of shying away from pain. Its main character, Andreas Ban (a writer and psychologist) finds, in old age, pain is his only companion. “You have severe degenerative changes,” a doctor tells him, “how do you manage to walk at all, this is your spine, the spine of a ninety year old.” He falls and breaks all the small bones in his hand and wrist. He discovers a lump on his breast which is cancerous and must have an operation, followed by radiation treatment. As if these physical ailments were not enough, Ban also finds himself alone, living on a meagre pension, the result of being caught between nationalities when Yugoslavia collapsed, having been born in Paris but never registered as a citizen there, and educated in Belgrade:

“When Yugoslavia was falling apart, Andreas Ban returned from Paris to Belgrade, where else would he go? And is dismissed. Now you are an enemy of the state, a Croat. He has his name, he does not consider the fact he is a Croat significant. But someone does.”

In Belladonna Drndic continues her exploration of the atrocities of the Nazis and the atrocities of the Balkan conflict of the 1990s; above all, she rages against forgetting. The lives of both the innocent and the guilty are taken from the margins and moved centre-page. (Victims, once again, in the form of pages of names). Walter Henisch, for example, an Austrian photographer who became “part of Goebbels’ machinery”:

“Then, after 1945, Walter Henisch first worked free-lance (because no newspaper would employ him with his wartime past), and much later placed himself at the service of the social-democratic press. Walter Henisch had received several awards for his work already during the war, including several of Hitler’s Iron Crosses. But then came the Austrian new sunlit age, followed by the tsunami of oblivion.”

By the 1970s Henisch is being praised for his work by a member of the Austrian government, the war years carefully omitted from his “exceptionally reduced biography”. It is this “tsunami of oblivion” which Drndic seeks to resist. According to Niklas Frank, son of a German Nazi:

“For a long time after the war, Germany bathed in collective denial of individual responsibility for the war.”

This matters to Croatia because it, too, is implicated in Nazi genocide:

“Everything would (perhaps) have been alright…had those emigres [that is, fascists who had fled to Argentina] somewhere, somehow, publically apologised to their victims, had their children and grandchildren at least glanced back at their forebears’ ideology of blood and soil. But no. Muddy little islands of poison continue to float through the Republic of Croatia.”

This refusal to face up to the past feeds into the conflict which erupts as Yugoslavia disintegrates:

“It’s hard to completely erase history and memory, history and memory like to come back. They get under people’s skin and penetrate their bloodstream.”

Focussing on this one particular theme may make it seem as though the character of Andreas Ban disappears from the novel, but this is not the case. As a writer one can’t help but suspect he is, in part, a stand-in for the author, but that makes him the most fully rounded of Drndic’s characters yet. It is this aspect that provides the novel with what passes for light relief when, in Amsterdam, he encounters a number of other (real-life) writers, and also critiques the novels he is reading. (I won’t spoil the fun by revealing any more).

I continue to be astonished that Drndic does not receive more praise for her work. It seems only Trieste has been published in the US, and Belladonna has not received a mainstream press review that I can find in the UK. Hopefully Celia Hawkesworth and MacLehose Press will continue to make her work available in English until she gets the recognition she deserves.

Reputations

June 21, 2017

Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s Reputations, his fourth novel to appear in English (translated again by Anne McLean), is a timely meditation on the rights and responsibilities of free speech. Javier Mallarino is political cartoonist, “a moral authority for half the country, public enemy number one for the other half” but a man with power and influence:

“…able to cause the repeal of a law, overturn a judge’s decision, bring down a mayor, or seriously threaten the stability of a ministry, and all this with no other weapons than paper and India ink.”

He refuses to be cowed or bought: “I won’t get into bed with anybody.” When his wife, Magdalena, complains he is attacking their friends in his cartoons, he replies, “Well, let’s change friends.” However, he is also guilty of inflating his importance, claiming people “need someone to tell them what to think.” As Magdalena says:

“Don’t be naïve…People already know what they think. People already have their prejudices well formed. They only want someone in authority to confirm their prejudices, even if it’s the mendacious authority of the newspapers.”

As the novel opens, Mallarino is preparing to accept an award to celebrate the forty years of his career; as he puts it, “the very same political class he’d attacked and hounded and scorned from his redoubt… had decided to put the gigantic Columbian machinery of sycophancy into action to create a public homage.” It is at the ceremony that Mallarino meets Samanta Leal who originally claims to be a journalist, but is, in fact, after answers to more personal questions.

Samanta, it transpires, was a childhood friend of Mallarino’s daughter Beatriz at one point, and once spent the day with her while Mallarino held a party. The party is interrupted by an unwelcome guest, a politician, Cuellar, whom Colon has recently lampooned. Cuellar all but begs Mallarino, “please, Javier…please don’t draw me like that anymore. I’m not like that.” Mallarino finds himself disgusted by what he sees as Cuellar’s weakness:

“…feeling a confusing emotion that went beyond contempt, something that wasn’t irritation or annoyance but seemed dangerously close to hatred.”

Before Cuellar leaves a strange incident occurs involving Samanta. The two girls have been caught drinking the dregs from abandoned drinks and been sent up to bed to sleep off the effects. When Samanta’s father comes to collect her there is an altercation with Cuellar who seems to be upstairs with the girls; the father follows him down shouting, “What did you do to my little girl?” The implication is that he has sexually assaulted Samanta as she lay sleeping. Samanta’s first memory is of being placed in her father’s car; years later, no longer in touch with her father, she has come to Mallarino in an attempt to discover what happened. Mallarino claims not to know, but his own suspicions are clear from a cartoon he draws shortly after with the caption:

“Congressman Adolfo Cuellar – Suffer the little girls to come unto me.”

Mallarino says the “image had formed in is head” the next morning and talks of feeling not “indignation or rage, but rather something more abstract, like disquiet, almost like the awareness of a possibility…Of a power, yes, that was it: the awareness of an imprecise power.”

Just as Mallarino takes people and reduces them to caricatures, the recovery of his past forces him to reconstitute them as individuals. He must revisit the devastating effects his cartoon has on Cuellar while at the same time facing up to the fact he assumed rather than searched for the truth. His crusading style may seem to serve justice but his lack of awareness of Samanta’s existence as a victim leads us to question his motivation.

“What good is ruining a man’s life, even if the man deserves ruin? What good is this power if nothing else changed, except the ruin of that man?”

Reputations reminds us of the dangers of the broad stroke, the black and white approach. It is, in itself, an argument for the more complex, nuanced art of the novel.

1967 – Particularly Cats

June 19, 2017

When it came to selecting books from 1967, I, of course, began with some of my favourite authors, (that is, those who were writing at that time), chief among them, Doris Lessing. I had first encountered Lessing as a fourteen-year-old at secondary school when I was introduced to (okay, forced to read) The Grass is Singing. As is typical of any coerced reading, my initial reaction was not entirely positive, yet it took me as far as he school library where I discovered a copy of the much more interesting-sounding Briefing For a Descent into Hell. Two years later I was writing about Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series for my Sixth Year Studies English dissertation, and from then on I read each new book as it appeared while simultaneously working my way through her back catalogue (I’ve even read her long out-of-print Retreat to Innocence). Surely there would be something from 1967, five years after The Golden Notebook and with her Children of Violence series almost completed?

In fact, in 1967 Lessing published a book which I hadn’t even read – though this was by choice rather than omission. The volume in question was Particularly Cats (I’d like to say it was atypical, but Lessing’s Wikipedia page actually includes a section headed Cat Tales). It’s not that I dislike cats, it’s just that I could not imagine why a writer would devote an entire book to them, other than for entirely commercial reasons, and couldn’t help but worry that Particularly Cats was simply the 60s equivalent of funny cat videos on YouTube.

Well, while there is a cat video element to Lessing’s “remembering cats, always cats, a hundred incidents involving cats, years and years of cats,” funny might be pushing it. Any suspicion of sentimentality is dispelled in the opening chapter where Lessing returns to her childhood in Rhodesia. Here, drowning kittens is simply a household chore and when her mother “got soft-hearted and couldn’t bear to drown a kitten,” her father is left to resolve the problem of ever-expanding numbers of cats on the farm:

“In the end, the cats were rounded up and put into a room. My father went into the room with his First World War revolver, more reliable, he said, than a shotgun. The gun sounded again, again, again, again… My father came out of the room at one point, very white, with tight angry lips and wet eyes. He was sick. Then he swore a good deal, then he went back into the room and the shooting continued.”

The cats themselves are also portrayed without sentiment. They are generally, for example, unnamed, identified only by colour. Lessing, as always, is a dispassionate but not uninvolved observer:

“The cat had six litters, and each litter had five kittens, and she killed the firstborn kitten in each litter because she had such pain with it. Apart from this, she was a good mother.”

This is typical of Lessing’s style: an apparently factual statement which is actually a combination of observation, supposition and judgement. Problems of reoccurring pregnancies are frequently touched on (in the year in which abortion was legalised, Lessing cannot have been oblivious to parallels in the way cats lives are overwhelmed by breeding) . Power struggles between cats, and fussy eating are two other frequent themes. But Lessing’s love for her animals can be seen when they fall ill:

“Clearly keeping the black cat alive would be a full-time job. And I was busy. And, as people in the house were pointing out, she was only a cat.
But she was not just a cat. For a variety of reasons, all of them human and irrelevant to her, she must not be allowed to die.”

Perhaps Lessing’s sympathy for cats can be understood when she characterises them as follows:

“Cats will watch creatures, activities, actions unfamiliar to them, for hours.”

Lessing’s process here, and throughout her work, is exactly that, a process which culminates in a new understanding:

“You can watch a thing a dozen times, thinking, How charming, or how strange, until, and always unexpectedly, sense is suddenly made.”

(There’s also a revealing sentence in ‘The Old Age of El Magnifico’ – yes, I read all of Lessing’s cat stories – when she says, “Most scientists would dispute this, I’m pretty sure. That is, as scientists they would, but as owners of cats probably not.”) What can be seen here, as ever, is Lessing’s constantly questioning, constantly questing mind. If the application of such an inquisitive intelligence on the topic of cats appeals, then his is the book for you.

The Accusation

June 7, 2017

“Some days it seems life is just a never-ending obstacle course,” we are told in the title story of Bandi’s The Accusation (translated by Deborah Smith), a sentiment that we might all share at times, but here in reference to a society little known outside its own borders, that of North Korea. In the story, a husband becomes suspicious at his wife’s behaviour, particularly when he discovers a hidden packet of contraceptive pills. Only when he has the opportunity to read her diary is the truth revealed in an insight into a country where party rank is everything, and any disloyalty casts a shadow down the generations. The wife’s disquiet begins when she discovers that her nephew, Min-hyuk, cannot be made class president because of his family history:

“His grades were already at the top, and his comportment was first class. But when I went to get the proposal ratified by the Party secretary, I got, ‘Comrade, don’t you know that this child’s father was deported to Wonsan?’ and, well, that was that.”

As the narrator puts it:

“A blameless child with his whole life already mapped out, forced to follow in his parent’s footsteps, step by stumbling step, along that same route of blood and tears.”

Again and again in these stories, humanity, in all its warmth and weakness, comes into conflict with impersonal ideology. In ‘City of Spectres’ a family must contend with their young child’s fear of Karl Marx’s face, ubiquitous thanks to upcoming celebrations:

“He was the son of a supervisor in the propaganda department, and having a tantrum at the sight of Marx’s portrait had serious implications. And besides, now that the preparations for National Day were coming to a head, people were at such a level of excitement they’d be liable to mistake a dropped spoon for a grenade.”

Unfortunately the curtains which prevent Myeong-shik from seeing the portraits out of the apartment window are not in keeping with the demands of uniformity (and white net, and therefore transparent, curtains):

“Every other house has those same curtains, so the street can look neat and uniform. Which it would, if your apartment wasn’t sticking out like a sore thumb.”

Not only is this a wonderful image of the conformity required to fit in, but the story makes clear the consequences of not complying – in this case, relocation to the countryside. In ‘So Near, Yet So Far’ the love for a parent rather than a child is the stumbling block as Myeong-chol asks for permission to visit his dying mother in the countryside:

“We’ve had an order from above forbidding travel to this district. They’re gearing up to hold a Class One event – you know what that means, don’t you? That’s right, the Dear Leader himself.”

Myeong-chol decides to go anyway, a nerve-wracking journey which we know ends in punishment from the story’s opening which shows him returning home:

“He’d always been skinny and slightly stooped, but he looked to have aged twenty years in as many days.”

The story is not the only one to use obvious but effective symbolism: when Myeong-chol releases some larks from a cage they simply return to the cage the next morning. Symbolism also plays a part in my favourite story, ‘Life of a Swift Steed’, which concerns the much-decorated Seol Yong-su. A model citizen, he unexpectedly goes “berserk” when soldiers attempt to cut a branch from the elm tree in his yard. The tree, it transpires, is important to him as he was told when a boy (he is now an old man), “When it grows to be as tall as that chimney over there” he will have:

“…pure white rice with meat every day, and silk clothes, and a house with a tiled roof.”

The tree represents the promises of Communism, and Yong-su’s faith in it his faith in the regime. I could not help but be reminded of Boxer with his refusal to lose heart, his self-sacrifice and his medals. Yet, as his wife says,

“What good is a medal to us? Will a medal keep us warm? Will a medal fill our stomachs?”

Readers of Soviet fiction will recognise much that is to be found in these stories, though obviously with shifts of emphasis and a different cultural background. What is most striking, however, is not how different the way of life is, but how similar the people are.