Archive for June, 2018

The Aviator

June 29, 2018

Innokenty Platonov wakes up in what seems to be a hospital bed; he has no memory and no knowledge of where he is. “Was I in an accident?” he asks the doctor: “One might say that.” The doctor (an assumption based on a white lab coat), who introduces himself as Geiger, asks him to keep a written record of events, “and write down everything you recall from the past too.” Geiger refuses, however, to tell Innokenty what has led him to this point:

“That…is something you need to recall, otherwise my consciousness will replace yours.”

So begins Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Avaitor, translated by Lisa Hayden. Slowly Innokenty begins to remember his childhood and his home city of St Petersburg. Coachmen whipping horses and a tray of visitors’ cards suggest a time long past. He remembers reading Robinson Crusoe and, when Geiger brings him a copy, further memories resurface:

“With each line, everything that accompanied the book in my time gone by was resurrected: my grandmother’s cough, the clank of a knife that fell in the kitchen and (from the same place) the scent of something fried, and the smoke of my father’s cigarette.”

A gesture, a nurse stroking his hair, reminds of the name Anastasia, and we get our first glimpse of the most important relationship of his previous life. Phrases drift back to him: one, ‘Aviator Platonov’, is the remnant of a childhood game; another, that he is ‘the same age as the century’, reveals the year of his birth, 1900. Soon we discover Vodolazkin’s conceit: born at the beginning of the century, Innokanty has been awoken from the cryogenic sleep he was placed in in the 1930s to the Russia of 1999.

This allows Vodolazkin to write a novel of the century, one which encompasses everything from pre-revolutionary Russia to Glasnost, through the eyes of a single narrator. Twice in the twentieth century Russia saw society radically restructured, but Vodolazkin is less interested in exploring the causes than in examining how they interact with “personal conscience or responsibility.” Innokenty’s isolation (both past and present), like Robinson Crusoe’s, allows an exploration of his ability to retain a sense of self in the face if revolution, totalitarianism and rampant capitalism.

Vodolazkin has expressed elsewhere his scepticism at the conception of history as a series of unstoppable social movements:

“…when we speak of a rise in social tension in society, we tend to forget that this nervous energy is generated by concrete human souls. Of course these souls resonate with each other, but this nervous energy can be turned off only by each specific human being—in himself.” (‘The Age of Concentration’)

The danger of supporting social movements is that they will, eventually, clash with personal morality:

“The Russian Revolution showed that there was no such thing as a truly “common” goal. In that sense revolution resembles a runaway train, where you take your seat and suddenly realize that it’s going in a totally different direction than you expected.” (Interview with Maya Vinokour)

Innokenty is similarly sceptical of revolutionary politics. When his friend, Seva, attempts to involve him, he asks him if he has read The Possessed (also translated as Demons or The Devils), Dostoyevsky’s satirical novel of morally blind revolutionaries. Innokenty will, instead, attempt to stay true to himself, and his love for Anastasia.

If love is a central concern of the novel, justice is another. Innokenty’s preoccupation with justice is seen when, as a child, he breaks the scales from a statue of Themis in an attempt to make them move. This clash of the abstract and the practical is echoed when a neighbour, Zaretsky, informs on Anastasia’s father, who is imprisoned and later killed. Innokenty must decide how to react: instinctively he wishes to kill him, and later, Zaretsky is murdered, Innokenty is arrested. The structure of the novel is such that we, and perhaps Innokenty himself at that point, do not know if he is guilty or not. Under Stalin, however, guilt or innocence are irrelevant anyway:

“I suddenly realised in all clarity that the conception of right and not right had disappeared over several years or so. And of up and down, light and dark, human and beastly. Who would do the weighing, what would they weigh, and who needed that, anyway?”

It is while imprisoned Innokenty is given the choice of being the subject of cryogenic experimentation or dying slowly from the conditions of the camp.

In the novel’s second half, Innokenty is joined by two other narrators, one of whom is Geiger. Vodolazkin is as clear-eyed about the 90s as the 30s as Innokenty becomes a national icon, and the face of frozen food:

“’What helped you endure here for so many decades?’
He takes a packet of frozen vegetables and raises it over his head.
‘This did!’”

The Aviator is a novel which manages to be both fast-paced and philosophical, borrowing from various genres – science fiction, murder mystery – to entertain as it explores questions we must all answer regarding our personal responsibility in whichever society we find ourselves. Its greatest achievement is the character of Innokenty, pieced together memory by memory, finding himself as we find him, exemplifying Vodolazkin’s claim that:

“…personal history is much more important than general history, than world history – that world history is actually only a small piece of individual history.”

The Beautiful Summer

June 24, 2018

The second offering in Penguin’s new European writers series is Cesare Pavese’s short novel The Beautiful Summer originally published in 1949. The translator is unnamed – it’s not a new translation but one that was originally published by Peter Owen in 1955, though possibly under a different title. (The Beautiful Summer was actually a collection of three novellas – also including The Devil in the Hills and Among Woman Only, which Peter Owen published as single volumes. The original title of this novella is possibly The Curtain). The novel centres on the life of sixteen-year-old Ginia, and is a classic tale of lost innocence.

Pavese captures the excitement of youth on the novel’s opening lines:

“Life was a perpetual holiday in those days. We had only to leave the house and step across the street and we became quite mad.”

Ginia has an advantage over her girlfriends of no longer living under the parental roof. She lives with her older brother, Severino, who works night shift, and does not suffer the same curfews or critical comments as her peers:

“In that wonderful year when they began living on their own account, Ginia had soon realised that what made her different from the others was having the house to herself – Severino didn’t count – and being able to live like a lady at her present age of sixteen.”

When her friend Rosa tells her she fears she is pregnant, however, she feels “cheated and left out of it as if she was a child.” Though she is adamant that “sixteen’s too soon” she is also “unable to think about it without feeling humiliated.” Here we already see Pavese’s great strength, his ability to pinpoint the contradictory feelings which will accompany Ginia throughout the novel: her fear and desire.

Ginia’s conflicted attitude to the opposite sex is displayed in her friendship with a woman a few years older, Amelia. She is both jealous and disapproving of Amelia’s carefree morality, which Pavese exemplifies in her work as an artist’s model. Ginia is fascinated: while commenting to herself that, “If I led her sort of life, I’d be more discreet,” she asks to see her pose. Pavese uses Ginia’s progress into the world of artists’ studios to chart her loss of innocence. When she first sees Amelia pose naked her reaction is again contradictory:

“It was the sort of foolish excitement she would have felt if they had been alone, the excitement at the discovery that they were both made in the same mould and whoever had seen Amelia naked was really seeing her. She began to feel terribly ill at ease.”

When Ginia first meets the painter Guido, whom she will fall in love with, Pavese has Amelia put out the light, leaving Ginia sitting in the dark, “terrified”, a suggestion of the moral darkness she is facing. Though Ginia is warned abut Amelia (her brother tells her, “You be careful…Amelia is pretty smart; you’re just the stooge”), her deepening feelings for Guido give her another reason to rely on her friendship, though she still resists what she sees as the more vulgar of her suggestions, such as when she ask Ginia to pose with her:

“They argued as far as the tram and Amelia asked her what she thought she had under her clothes to preserve like a holy of holies.”

Even when she is sleeping with Guido she retains a self-respect which she regards as missing in Amelia: when Amelia displays her breast to show Guido and Rodrigues they are better than Ginia’s, she refuses to join the competition, differentiating between such casual nudity and the love she feels for Guido. This is why, when she eventually poses naked for Guido, Rodrigues presence in the room is so important.

For a novel by a male writer, the male characters are strangely absent, only visible when Ginia and Amelia are present. Guido is at least honest, telling Ginia:

“You’re not the summer. You don’t know what it is to paint a picture. I ought to fall in love with you and teach you all about it. Then I should be wasting my time.”

Pavese’s attitude to this might be seen in the fact that Guido rarely paints, but he also captures the pleasure Ginia takes in her self-sacrifice, telling Guido, “I realise you have your own life. I don’t want you ever to find me a bore when we are alone.”

“Saying things like that gave Ginia acute pleasure, comparable to the pleasure of being locked in his arms.”

The reader may not be surprised at Ginia’s final fate, but The Beautiful Summer is an acute observation of the pleasure and pain of first love; the maelstrom of Ginia’s feelings is likely to be recognisable to any sixteen-year-old today.


June 17, 2018

Welsh writer Cynan Jones’ novel Cove, with its short blocks of text probing the blankness of its pages, may look to the casual browser like poetry, but it is as tense as any thriller, as taut as a sail in storm. Most of its action takes place at sea, where its narrator finds himself lost, injured in a lightning strike, and with no clear memory of who he is or why he is there. It begins, however, in the second person, as a pregnant woman walks along the shore. From the first lines the novel walks a tightrope between life and death, the child inside her immediately juxtaposed with a missing child reported by a passing boat. As the men search they miss a doll washed onto the shore: every small thing seems portentous and important. Only later will we discover that this prelude is a coda.

The unborn child’s father is the narrator of the rest of the story, having taken his kayak out to sea to fish and to scatter the ashes of his father. While at sea he is struck by lightning, knocking him unconscious:

“He wakes floating on his back, caught on a cleat by the elastic toggle of his wetsuit shoe. Around him hailstones melt and sink. They are scattered on the kayak, roll off as it bobs on the slight waves. There is a hissing sound. The hailstones melting in the water.”

From this point on Cove is a story of survival: he cannot move his arms, one of his eyes won’t open:

“It hurt to breathe because his whole body hurt. As if he had suffered a massive fall.”

He also no longer knows in which direction land lies: there is a “complete horizon” – a “horizon everywhere around and no point of it seemed closer than another.” He has not told anyone where he is – leaving only a note that said ‘Pick salad x’ – and knows that rescue is unlikely. One might say the narrator is pitted against the elements, but instead it is suggested nature is capricious, it’s actions arbitrary. We see this in two small incidents seemingly unrelated to the main story: the woman’s discovery of a dead pigeon, killed, she thinks, by a peregrine; and the man’s memory of a wren caught by a cat:

“The bird vibrated briefly when he picked it up, a shudder of life. Then flew away.”

(A wren’s feather will be his good luck charm). It is these connections across the pages which suggest the novel has been created with the precision of a jeweller. On the first page the woman thinks she feels a kick from the baby; later, when the kayak jumps over a wave the man feels “a kick under his hand, the ocean of her stomach.” When she first sees something on the shore she thinks it’s a wetsuit shoe (“and the world tips”), and discovering the pigeon she feels “a strange sense of horror”:

“That it knew before being struck. Of it trying to get home. Of something throwing it off course.”

Jones is an exquisite writer, again and again finding exactly the right words. When the narrator has spent a night on the water he feels:

“The night he had come through seemed tangible, as if it hung around him.”

He describes the kayak with words as unexpected as they are accurate:

“Scales of mackerel decal the inside, here and there a zip of dried blood.”

These phrases enhance rather dilute the urgency of the narrative, but allow Jones to create his own pace. Cove is a quite wonderful piece of writing, powerfully reminding us of life and of death, and of the feather’s breadth between.

Football in Sun and Shadow

June 14, 2018

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, one of Latin America’s most famous voices, was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a lover of football. Though when we think of South American World Cup winners Brazil, with five victories, outstrips every other team, and Argentina, with two wins and four finals, is likely to be our next thought, Uruguay was, of course, the very first winner of the World Cup in 1930. Perhaps they would have been even more successful if they hadn’t refused to defend their title in 1934 in protest at Italy’s decision not to travel to Uruguay for the initial tournament. They won again in 1950, and, though that was their last appearance in a final, they have since finished fourth three times, most recently in 2010 – a record England might envy, and Scotland can only dream of.

If such facts are to your liking, you will find them in Galeano’s Football in Sun and Shadow (translated by Mark Fried), originally published in 1995, but since updated to 2010 (and recently reissued by Penguin Classics). However, one does not read Galeano simply for the facts (meticulously researched though his work is – there are nine pages of sources) but for the poetry. Eusebio was “long legs, dangling arms, sad eyes”; of Jimmy Greaves he says, “They would see him land, but they never saw him take off”; Pele “climbed into the air as if it were a staircase.”

The book begins with a history of football, its origins, the development of its rules in England (and the discovery, in Scotland, that everyone chasing the ball wasn’t the most effective way to play), and the spread to South America via its ports. Until the 1930 World Cup, the book is very much focussed on South America; from that point on it is largely a history of the World Cup rather than football. Each World Cup is introduced with an outline of world events at that time; this being Galeano these sketches are truly international, with 1930, for example, covering an earthquake in Italy, Marlene Dietrich, Mayakovsky’s suicide, Mahatma Ghandi in India, and August Cesar Sandino in Nicaragua. After Castro’s revolution in Cuba he inserts the following every four years:

“Well-informed sources in Miami were announcing the imminent fall of Fidel Castro, it was only a matter of hours.”

At each World Cup he picks out the key moments and players, including the most memorable goals (I can’t resist offering his take on Archie Gemmill in 1978, Scotland’s only World Cup mention):

“The Netherlands, which was doing well, was playing Scotland, which was doing poorly. Scottish player Archie Gemmill got the ball from his countryman Hartford and kindly asked the Dutch to dance to the tune of a lone bagpiper. Wildschut was the first to fall, his head spinning, at Gemmill’s feet. Then Gemmill left Suurbier reeling in the dust. Krol had it worst: Gemmill put it between his legs. And when the keeper Jongbloed came at him, the Scot lobbed the ball over his head.”

The main attraction of Football in Sun and Shadow, however, is its international perspective on the game itself: we are frequently treated to stories of Scottish and English football in our media, but rarely is it proportionate to our place in the world (like so much else): here England only feature for Charlton’s goal against Argentina in 1962, Stanley Matthews, and their 1966 win.

Even in a book about football, politics will never be absent with Galeano. He outlines football’s early racism in South America, with Chile in 1916 demanding that a 4-0 defeat by Uruguay be disallowed as Uruguay had two ‘Africans’ in the team. Italy’s’ victory in 1938 is greeted by the Italian press as “the triumph of Italic intelligence over the brute force of the Negroes.” More recently, Galeano reminds us that that when France won in 1998:

“Nearly all the players wearing blue shorts and singing ‘La Marseille’ before each match were immigrants or the children of immigrants.”

Though a lover of football, Galeano is not admirer of the men who control it. He begins by describing the story of football as a “sad voyage from beauty to duty.” Joao Havelange, who became head of FIFA in 1974, is an “old-style monarch.” Another chapter is titled ‘The Telecracy’ – “television rules,” and he also covers a number of corruption scandals. He points out that players, for all their celebrity, have little say:

“Up to now the stars of the show have been blindingly absent from the structures of power where decisions are made.”

Still, he ends at the place we all hope to be – placing a sign on his door which says ‘Closed for football’ only to be taken down once the tournament is over.

Football in Sun and Shadow is a perfect World Cup book. Galeano has a knack for including everything that is important while still finding space for the unexpected fact. It is also delivered in short, bite-size chapters, ideal for devouring when the ball goes out of play.

Fish Soup

June 11, 2018

Fish Soup, the Columbian writer Margarita Garcia Robayo’s first appearance in English, is a pungent blend of two novellas and a collection of short stories beautifully translated by Charlotte Coombe. As the title suggests, ‘beauty’ may not be the first word readers reach for when her work is discussed; instead her stories are more likely to attract adjectives such as ‘honest’ (the characters are poor) and ‘raw’ (the characters have sex). Hers is a poetry of exhaustion and desire, in which characters cling to each other but do not love.

The first novella, ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’, is full of tired, desperate hope, its narrator dreaming only of escape:

“At first you hope everything you’re waiting for will arrive one day on a boat; then you realise nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead.”

Even her sex life is predicated on escape. Her attraction to local fisherman Gustavo stems not only from her first encounter with him as a young girl (“he stroked me down there”) but the possibility that he might be Italian and his stories of travel:

“That’s why I left. First to Peru then to Ecuador and so on up, until I reached the Caribbean, where you turn left to carry on north.”

Making love to her first boyfriend, Tony, she imagines “he was Gustavo and we were in Venice.” As they have sex on the beach she stares at the sky, eventually she becomes an air hostess in her dream of escape:

“Tony had a lot of ideas about air hostesses, but I had just one: air hostesses could leave.”

Air hostesses also come back, however, “doomed to come and go, come and go, and that was the same as never leaving.” Her attempts to scam US residency, sleeping with the Captain in the hope of becoming pregnant, are fruitless (he’s sterile). The story is suffused with sad reminders of her failure, from her picture of a possible life with Tony (“we’ll always be here, waiting for a hurricane to come”) to a letter from a long lost friend: “She presumed I had probably moved.”

Robayo’s characters are always tired and often sick, yet they rarely give up without a fight. Ines, in ‘Like a Pariah’, dying of cancer, telling her son she’s “perfectly alright,” neglecting her regime of vitamins and exercises in favour of alcohol and parties. Titi in ‘Worse Things’, his obesity “progressive and, by that point, uncontrollable,” escapes his room and lies gazing up at the clouds. The violent dreams of Aldo Villafora in ‘Fish Soup’, show him raging against the dying of the light. Often sex is used as an anchor to life, complex and uncertain, rarely loving.

Ines finds herself drunk and molested:

“Leonardo plunged his fingers in and out as if he were unclogging a drain: he jerked himself off with his other hand.”

In Villafora’s dreams his wife is “violently penetrated” by a sailor, “lost in an expression of pleasure that Villafora had never seen her make.” In ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ the narrator returns again and again to the man who abused her as a child. Robayo seems determined to challenge our views of sex, its use and abuse. ‘Something We Never Were’ sets out directly to explore the limits and limitations of a relationship:

“When Salvador asked Eileen to be his girlfriend, she said no. She was having none of that boyfriend and girlfriend crap; what she was interested in was questioning certain paradigms.”

The second novella, ‘Sexual Education’, explores its topic through the eyes of adolescents, contrasting the education they receive in their Catholic girls’ school with their experience outside. The story focuses not on their relationships with boys, but on how these affect relationships among themselves. It’s also the funniest story in the book: for their teacher’s outlining of the dangers of desire (“In girls, just like in other fauna, moisture attracts all sorts of nasties”); for its unerotic descriptions of sex (“…she pushed Mauricio’s head down and he went under her skirt and held her thighs open with his hands. I could hear what sounded like a dog licking something.”); and for the girl who believes the Virgin talks to her (and tells her anal sex is allowed).

Fish Soup is invigorating, animating, and possibly emetic. It reeks of despair but leaves an after-taste of hope, as fresh and as old as the sea. Charco Press continues to deliver the writers we need.


June 3, 2018

Joanna Walsh’s short story collections, Vertigo and Worlds from the Word’s End, demonstrated a writer whose use of language delighted in its inventiveness and wit while always seeming at the service of seeing life more clearly. Her first novel, Break.up, exhibits similarly vibrant wordplay and determined truth-seeking, only bigger – though not necessarily better.

Break.up is a love story which begins, against type, at the end: “A love story only comes after the end of love,” Walsh tells us, “whether it ends one way, or the other…” The end itself is obscured – no angry recriminations, no walking out; this is an online love of text and chat and email:

“We were together in Real Life for hardly more days than a working week.”

The feelings involved are similarly undefined, indistinct:

“We never named our connection to each other – it wasn’t friendly, barely even erotic – but nor was it denied.”

What seems clear is that the narrator felt more strongly than the lover she addresses. This inequality is perhaps best demonstrated in a scene where he asks her to undress:

“You moved away, as far as you could to the corner of out little room, where you sat down on its only chair, and looked and, for a while, nothing happened.”

The undressing is not reciprocated, and is simply the most visual example of her lover’s sense of superiority and indifference.

To escape her heartbreak, the narrator travels – from London to Paris, Nice, Milan, Rome, Athens… – though she admits “you-not-being-here accompanies me wherever I go.” Much of the novel is travelogue, her observations as she moves from country to country, accompanied by photographs which are deliberately not tourist photographs (she shares her rules) and look a little like the camera has slipped upwards, as if taken while falling. Travelling is, perhaps, like being in love. “It’s better to travel than to arrive,” she says, and:

“Nowhere is so beautiful as when it’s left.”

Walsh’s writing style involves riffing on a particular phrase or image. For example her lover’s comment that he wasted time with her, leads to the conclusion that:

“I was happiest in these wastes of time; it was the wastes, not the destinations, that I remember.”

Another banal phrase, ‘How long is a piece of string?’, causes her to imagine time being ‘looped’ around the carriage of the tube train she is traveling in, “the spooling spew of an old cassette tape”, an image which Walsh pursues down the page (“If I rode all day, could I wear out the magnetic tape, overwrite you, score out the line?”) until we arrive at:

“Love is not a cassette tape.
Love is not analog, it’s digital.”

The sense that this is a digital affair is central to the novel, the cover suggesting that Break.up is as much about a loss of signal as the end of the relationship. (The full stop, literally breaking up the word, is a wonderful touch). At one point she writes:

“And your telepresence is fragmenting: when I type its first few letters into the menu bar, my computer no longer turns up your name like an unlucky card.”

Walsh also interrupts the text with quotations from books the narrator has taken with her on her journey. This certainly breaks up the flow of the novel, forcing the reader to make choices about what is read when, and suggesting that the thoughts and experiences of others, while relevant, cannot be seamlessly absorbed. What is more difficult to know is whether it is intended to satirise the intellectual milieu of the narrator, or to be taken at face value. In either case, the cleverness of this, and the cleverness of the prose in general, becomes wearing after a while: what is thrilling in the short form is exhausting over a longer space, like a three minute song stretched over hours. Tonally, the novel barely changes. “Sometimes I‘m bored with my own dreary story,” the narrator tells us; we understand.

Walsh is a wonderful writer, but any talent can also be a handicap. Not only does she seem compelled to make every page feel written, but she cannot keep writing out of it:

“Everything comes down to the words.”

Towards the end, the narrator will tell us, “All these words, and I still don’t know how to make art of love,” a confession which applies to the relationship as much as the novel. Every page is worth reading but, as a whole, it does not convince.