Archive for March, 2019

The Remainder

March 30, 2019

The Remainder is the debut novel of Chilean writer Alia Trabucco Zeran, first published in 2014 and translated last year by Sophie Hughes. Hughes adept translation is particularly important as the novel consists of two narratives. The main narrative (that is the longer one, which tells the story) might be described as a road trip, in which the narrator, Iquela, another young woman, Paloma, (who is also Chilean but has spent little time in the country, living instead with her parents in exile in Europe), and Felipe, (who, though not Iquela’s brother, lived with her as a child as if he were) set off for Argentina to recover the body of Paloma’s mother (Paloma was transporting the body to Chile for burial only for the plane to be grounded by an ash cloud). The second narrative, which originates with Felipe, is a much more abstract and intense affair, rendered in one long sentence in each section, and numbered from 11 to 0 as if counting down. Counting is central to these brief interludes as Felipe begins by telling us that:

“Off and on: one week there, the next nowhere to be seen, that’s how my dead began… they were scattered all over Santiago, those Sunday stiffs, weekly or bimonthly corpses which I totted up methodically, and the tally rose like foamy scum…”

The Remainder is a novel which explores Chile relationship with its past, and the dictatorship of General Pinochet in particular. Iquela’s first chapter (we assume) is set in 1988, on the night of the referendum when Pinochet was voted from power. It is here she meets the teenage Paloma for the first time as her parents have returned to Chile from exile to celebrate the result. Iquela is immediately infatuated with the slightly older Paloma:

“She didn’t even look up when I opened the door. Standing stock-still, her eyes boring into her white espadrilles, hands buried inside her faded-jean pockets and a pair of headphones covering her ears – that’s all it took, she had me.”

The infatuation is beautifully handled as Paloma encourages Iquela to smoke and drink while wandering around the house, entirely at home. The evening ends, however, with a fight between their fathers which Iquela doesn’t entirely understand, Paloma’s father calling hers a “fucking snitch.”

The novel then moves forward to Paloma’s arrival in Chile with the intention of burying her mother, presumably twenty to twenty-five years later. Iquela is still haunted by her earlier infatuation though this is tempered with an irritation that her mother expects her to drop everything to help Paloma. We see that Iquela’s relationship with her mother, Consuela, is fractious:

“My routine visits to my mother’s house were always brief, as if we’d just bumped into each other on the corner and I had something terribly important to do a few blocks away.”

Similarly, all the characters are haunted by the past: Santiago is described as “this mortuary city”; Iquela comments that “My mother’s memory functioned like a topography of the dead.” The trip to Argentina is both a way of Iquela resolving her relationship with Paloma, and, symbolically, represents a coming to terms with Chile’s past, the freeing of Iquela’s generation from the experiences of their parents. (The ash cloud which prevents the plane carrying Paloma’s mother’s body landing is also mentioned in the opening chapter: “That night it rained ash. Or perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps the grey is just the backdrop of my memory…”)

Unfortunately, this aspect of the novel did not work for me. While there is some dark humour to be found during the road trip, and we see Iquela and Paloma’s relationship develop, there is little sense that they are wrestling with anything profound. Their parents’ story, more interesting than theirs (which is perhaps part of the problem they face), is never fully revealed, almost as if Zeran is resisting writing a novel of that time. Felipe’s interjections (Felipe’s backstory also remains opaque, though we assume his parents were victims of the Pinochet regime) become increasingly repetitive, giving the impression that the number was decided before the content.

There is enough here, particularly in the opening section of the novel, to suggest Zeran’s talent, but I remain mystified by the excessive praise the novel has received. It will come as no surprise, then, that I find this a strange selection for the International Man Booker Prize, especially given the quality of And Other Stories publications last year, with both The Iliac Crest and Tentacle more deserving of a place on the long list.

At Dusk

March 26, 2019

Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk (translated by Sora Kim-Russell) is a novel which holds a generation to judgement and finds them wanting. As the title suggests, it is a generation, presumably Hwang’s own (he was born in 1943), which is approaching its final moments. The novel itself sees a number of characters die, and in the form of Kim Kiyoung the idea of legacy is tackled directly as his fellow architects arrange a retrospective of his work in the final weeks of his life.

Architecture is the window through which Hwang reviews what his generation have made of South Korea, an area where art and business coincide to literally rebuild the landscape. As one of two narrators, Park Minwoo, explains:

“Everyone thinks it’s good to be an architect, because your building will stand long after your gone, but for all you know, they could be left looking greedy and ugly.”

The same idea is idea is expressed by Kim earlier in conversation with Park:

“Is there really humanity in architecture? If there were you’d have to regret what you did. You and the others at Hyeonsan need to think on your sins.”

For Park the issue becomes personal. Contact from an old friend, a girl he once loved, Cha Soona, brings back memories of his life as a school boy in a slum area. Soona is the only other child attending school; seeing her in the street, he remembers was, like “sighting a single white crane in the middle of a disaster area.” They soon take to meeting at the library and grow close, but Park’s ambition to leave coincides with a sexual assault on Soona which makes her withdraw from him and eventually they lose touch. Park’s relationship with Soona comes to represent his relationship with his past. Where he lived has been entirely rebuilt by architects like himself, but not necessarily for the better:

“The boxy two- and three- storey buildings that occupied downtown from the shopping area all the way to the residential area looked bleaker than ever.”

Park himself has been rebuilt in his search for success, realising that he must flatter the powerful if he is to get ahead:

“All you had to do was listen closely to what the person with power said, and then say the same thing, but using different words… Hiding my true thoughts was second nature to me by then.”

His sense of fairness, which we see in his recollections of his childhood and adolescence, also begins to fade:

“I sympathised with those who were fighting social injustices, but at the same time, by having the fortitude to just buckle down and get through it, I was able to forgive myself for not getting involved.”

Park’s narrative is joined by Soona’s recollections as he is sent extracts from a memoir she has written, combining to give us a truer picture of their past. At the same time there is a second narrative from the point of view of a young playwright, Jung Wohee. Jung struggles to make a living, working at a convenience store overnight to subsidise her writing. She is, in some ways, representative of another generation:

“I met countless people my age who were just like me. The reminded me of the tiny mammals who cower among the beast of prey deep in the jungle and must survive on wits alone.”

One reason Jung is able to fend off despair is the example of her friend Kim Minwoo: “For him, the worse things got, the fiercer his approach to life.” Jung and Kim offer some hope to the reader, though it is clear they have been to a large extent abandoned by Park’s generation. This neglect is exemplified by a story Kim tells Jung of an eviction to make way for demolition and rebuilding where a young man is killed by an excavator. Later in the novel Park remembers how, when an eviction was taking place:

“We always jumped in the car and left in a hurry, right before the demolition crews broke up the protestors and sent in the bulldozers and excavators, as if we couldn’t bear to watch it ourselves.”

The two narratives do, of course, unite, in a way that is both unexpected and satisfying. Hwang does not seek to resolve Park’s crisis of faith, nor reward Jung’s loyalty to her friend, but both characters are subtly changed by the end.

Kim Kiyoung is not regarded by his peers as particularly successful architect, but Park is forced to reassess his legacy:

“But though he had mostly designed smaller buildings in small towns and provincial cities and remote parts of the country, they were novel for being public buildings.”

How we define success, and what we value and reward, is the problem, Hwang suggests, in this concise but powerful examination of where it all went wrong in a country we are frequently asked to emulate.

Jokes for the Gunmen

March 23, 2019

The title of Mazen Maarouf’s Man Booker International Prize long-listed short story collection (translated by Jonathan Wright), Jokes for the Gunmen, gives a fair indication of its contents as the twelve stories within generally combine a sense of ever-present threat with surreal humour. Maarouf is a Palestinian-Icelandic writer who lived in Beiruit before moving to Iceland, a fact that might explain why so many of the stories adopt a child’s perspective.

This is certainly true of the title story, which is also the collection’s longest at thirty-eight pages (most are much shorter, the shortest being ‘Curtain’ at five pages). The sporadic violence of the setting of many of the stories is immediately identified:

“We could hear gunfire from time to time, but we grew used to it, as one grows used to the honking of passing cars.”

In this atmosphere “power was the most important subject” and, at school, the students boast of “how their father beat them”:

“These stories illustrated the power each father had in his household.”

When the narrator discovers that his own father has been seen being beaten up in the street by the gunmen he sets out to re-establish his father’s power. He attempts to provoke his father with no success, and then begins to injure himself and blame these injuries on his father, but the other pupils are not convinced. Soon the story takes the kind of surreal turn we will come to expect as he concocts a series of schemes to prevent his father being assaulted, such as selling his twin brother’s organs to the gunmen, acquiring a glass eye for his father in the belief that this will frighten the gunmen into leaving his father alone, and hiring bodyguards for his father.

A similar tone is found in ‘Gramophone’, where the father also remains at some distance despite being at the centre of the story his son is telling. Here the father is employed as a ‘gramophone operator’ in a bar:

“He spent hours and hours behind the bar, turning then handle of a Berliner gramophone from 1900 – there was no electricity and the bar was usually lit by candles.”

The father is the lone survivor of the bombing of the bar, but loses both his arms. Later, he requests that the narrator donate one of his arms – “They said on television that it’s medically possible.” The narrator’s reaction to this (“I didn’t feel angry or disappointed. I was just sad”) sums up the tone of much of the collection.

In ‘Matador’ it is an uncle who is the adult male character:

“My uncle died three times in the space of one week.”

On the first occasion he is revived by the narrator punching the soles of his feet – “I got the idea from Rocky in the film.” The narrator is also present on his second resurrection, when he is attempting to dress him for the funeral. These deaths are presented humorously, with the narrator at one point commenting:

“His repeated deaths had made him bad-tempered.”

But the story’s strangeness lies, rather, in the uncle’s obsession with being a matador, which has led him to strangle cows with his bare hands in the local slaughterhouse. It is this, his stifled dream, which eventually kills him.

These stranger elements – as had been said of Latin American magical realism – have likely been lifted from reality, as, for example, the cow which wanders into the bombed cinema where civilians have been sheltering in ‘Cinema’. Maazan perhaps draws attention the danger of this in ‘Biscuits’ where he attempts to convince his mother that a man who they saw crossing a busy motorway was unharmed as he had the power to turn every car he touched to biscuit. The mother is unconvinced:

“The old man was dead and covered in blood. He’d made a desperate attempt to block the motorway, but a car ran him over. I didn’t see any biscuits.”

The story, however, is used to convince the care home that his mother has Alzheimer’s, perhaps warning us not to be distracted by the quirkiness of what has gone before. Interestingly the story forms a bridge between those set in war-torn Beirut and those, like ‘Other People’s Dreams’ and ‘Aquarium’ where the surreal, rather than the atmosphere of violence, dominates.

Overall, Jokes for the Gunmen is an accomplished debut which suggests a writer who is equally adept at observing and imagining. Whether it will make the short-list is difficult to predict as some of the pieces are slight in comparison to others and tonally it does not have an enormous range. Despite this, Maazan is a clearly a writer to watch out for, and hopefully his work will now be experienced by a wider audience.

The Death of Murat Idrissi

March 18, 2019

The death of Murat Idrissi is central to Tommy Wieringa’s Man Booker International Prize listed novel The Death of Murat Idrissi (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett), but Murat Idrissi himself is not. Instead Wieringa tells the story of Moroccan immigrants from the point of view of second generation, Dutch passport-holding Ilham. Murat is largely silent, out of sight, and, eventually, nothing but an awkward encumbrance to be disposed of: in other words, a representation of Western attitudes to those who attempt to cross from Africa to Europe.

Ilham, and her friend Thouraya, agree to smuggle Murat from Morocco to Spain in the boot of their rented car. They are pressured into doing this by their new friend, Saleh, who claims cars are never checked, by the poverty of Murat’s family, and by Murat’s mother, who claims she will kill herself if they do not take him. They are also offered money.

Ilham’s trip to Morocco appears ill-fated from the start, when a minor car accident deprives them of much of their money. This is one reason they befriend Saleh, who, like them, benefits from a European passport, another being the protection afforded by a male escort as “women in Morocco rarely travel alone”:

“He kept the boys at bay. At bakers’ stands in the Casbah they had seen hornets teaming over the sugar-coated croissant; that’s how it was with the boys, too.”

Though Alham’s parents are Moroccan, she feels alienated from the country:

“She couldn’t stand the poverty, the heat, and the dust. It exhausted her. There was compassion in her, but beneath the surface also the conviction that poor people had only themselves to blame for living like this.”

This attitude she applies to her own father, comparing him to his brother:

“Life beat them down. Her uncle rose to his feet again, her father remained lying; he was the weaker of the two.”

Looking out at the Moroccan landscape she thinks, “It’s the world of her mother, a world she can’t accept.” However, she is equally aware that neither is she regarded as Dutch, particularly after 9/11:

“Then two planes drilled themselves into the heart of the Western world… She watched as the little opportunity, the crack that had posed a possibility, sealed over.”

Later she tells us that the only Dutch people she sees are at the call centre where she works, and when the two women are back in Europe it is a group of men of North African extraction which Thouraya seeks to attach herself to. Alham recognises in one the determination to assimilate:

“Suddenly she got it. His mimicry. The hard work – how he had become a perfectly assimilated migrant’s son. He would beat them at their own game and be Dutcher than the Dutch.”

In this way Wieringa, in a slim novel, covers a range of immigrant experience, highlighting that immigrants are not one homogenous group, or all on the same ‘side’. It’s a novel remarkably free of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters, with all displaying elements of selfishness, from Saleh’s failure to check on Murat during the ferry crossing, to Thouraya’s sexual needs.

This is the first time I have read Wieringa and he reminded me a little of Peter Stamm, another writer where ordinary, almost banal characters, have their lives interrupted by something extraordinary. As Alham asks at one point:

“Could this really be them, whose lives have turned into a nightmare at the snap of a finger?”

Murat’s fate, as revealed in the title, provides the kind of tension one would normally associate with a thriller, but Wieringa is not interested in melodrama. Alhama’s emotions tend to be fleeting and superficial; nothing, apparently, touches her deeply.

The Death of Murat Idrissi is a sly, subtle – one might even say cagey – novel. A simple story which refuses to simplify the issues it raises, it’s difficult not to read it as a commentary on Western indifference disguised in such a way as to make blaming others (as its characters frequently do) the easiest way out.

The Summer Before the Dark

March 16, 2019

Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark is a novel that we might hope had been superseded by changing social attitudes since its publication forty-six years ago, though how far this is actually the case remains debateable. Its central character, Kate Brown, is a forty-five year old mother, very much defined by that label. Here husband and four children have set the limits of her life, and even when she imagines a life without marriage she questions other possibilities:

“If she had not married, she would probably have become something special in her field?”

Her specialism is languages and it is when she is offered a job as a translator one summer that she finally escapes her now grown-up family, albeit with some reluctance, feeling, with her husband away in America and the house to be let:

“…as if a warm covering had been stripped off her, as if she were an animal being flayed.”

On the other hand, she has a growing sense that the life she is currently living, the identity she is presently inhabiting, is not entirely satisfying:

“The truth was, she was becoming more and more uncomfortably conscious not only that the things she said, and a good many of the things she thought, had been taken down off a rack and put on, but that what she really felt was something else again.”

After a few weeks as a translator she is promoted onto the “organisational side” at Global Foods as “everyone is saying how marvellously helpful you have been in every way”:

“She had become what she was: a nurse, or a nanny… A mother.”

Her new job leads her to a conference in Turkey and there she meets a younger man, Jeffrey, who offers her the chance to travel to Spain with him. In the spirit of her summer of discovery, she decides to accept him as a lover, but when they reach Spain he falls ill, and she finds herself fighting the temptation to mother him:

“She was swearing to herself that when she awoke she would not be maternal.”

She faces the same dilemma when she returns to London and moves into a flat with a young girl called Maureen and must resist becoming a proxy for her mother, particularly as Maureen is deciding whether, and who, to marry (at one point observing Kate and declaring, “I’d live alone for always rather than turn into that.”)

Lessing’s novels never limit themselves to one idea, and the novel is also about Kate ageing – growing old, in fact. At the beginning Lessing tells us:

“What was she going to experience? Nothing much more than, simply, she grew old.”

Forty-five does not, of course, seem particularly old today, a development which Lessing foreshadows when Kate goes to see a production of Turgenev’s a Month in the Country, finding it ridiculous that Natalya thought of herself as “a woman who was getting old, grabbing at youth” at only twenty-nine. Kate’s ageing, like Natalya’s, is linked to how she is viewed by men. At Global Food she finds herself attractive to others even though she makes little effort to seem available

“Meanwhile, though her thermostat was set ‘low’, she parried offers.”

(Lessing uses the idea of a thermostat to suggest then strength of the signals woman display regarding their sexual availability). When Kate, like Jeffrey, falls ill, it changes her appearance, making her, in a short period of time, appear much older. When a young man looks at her she is aware:

“What he was seeing, of course, was an old woman.”

This, in turn, affects the way she is treated, causing her to feel “invisible”. Kate is aware then change is superficial:

“Yet she need only to put on the other dress, twist her hair so and so – and she would be drawing glances a needs with her every step.”

Kate’s journey grants her greater awareness of the choices she has made and those she can still make. It is echoed in a recurrent dream of a seal she must rescue and take to the ocean. At the beginning she is uncertain:

“Where was the water? Where was the sea? How could she be sure of going in the right direction?”

In the end she returns the seal to the sea:

“A seal swam past that had scars on its flanks and its back, and Kate thought this must be her seal, whom she had carried through so many perils. But it did not look at her now.”

Though the seal represents something within herself, it is easy to see how her journey with it mirrors that with her children.

The Summer Before the Dark still resonates with many of today’s preoccupations (even the rise of the far right in the character of Philip). In particular, it dissects that point in everyone’s life where whatever has defined their purpose and identity is taken away from them, and they must look to find themselves anew.

Man Booker International Prize 2019

March 13, 2019

Today saw the announcement of the long list of the Man Booker International Prize. It contains eight women and five men, and (although nationality can be slightly more contentious), six European writers, three from South America, two books originally written in Arabic, and one each from South Korea and China.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (Oman), translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth (Sandstone Press)

Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue (China), translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (Yale University Press)

The Years by Annie Ernaux (France), translated by Alison Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong (South Korea), translated by Sora Kim-Russell (Scribe)

Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf (Iceland and Palestine), translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Granta)

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli (France), translated from French by Sam Taylor (Granta)

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (Germany), translated by Jen Calleja (Serpent’s Tail)

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina and Italy), translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld)

The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg (Sweden), translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner (Quercus)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia), translated from Spanish by Anne McLean (MacLehose Press)

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (Netherlands), translated by Sam Garrett (Scribe)

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán (Chile and Italy), translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes (And Other Stories)

Almost all are published by small presses, with two for Fitzcarraldo, Scribe and Granta, and one for Sandstone Press based in Dingwall, a small town in the Highlands with a population of under six thousand.

It would be fair to say that the list surprised even the most battle-hardened observers of translated fiction prizes, including, as it does, four English language debuts and two other books which mark the author’s second appearance in the language, while eschewing established names such as Haruki Murakami, Javier Marias, Sjon, Matthias Enard, Karl Ove Kanuasgaard, Dag Solstad and Elias Khoury. Also missing are the much fancied Convenience Store Woman (Japan is, in fact, unrepresented, with Yoko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo another notable absentee), and any of the eligible Charco Press titles, with Resistance and Fish Soup in particular having been regarded by many as strong possibilities. Peirene Press, once a regular competitor for the preceding Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, is missing for the third year in a row.

On initial inspection, the prize seems very open this year, though if past record (including the IFFP) is an indication of future potential, Juan Gabriel Vasquez is appearing for the fourth time, having featured for The Informers in 2009, The Secret History of Costagauna in 2011, and The Sound of Things Falling in 2014. Other returning authors are Can Xue (The Last Lover 2015), Samanta Schweblin (Fever Dream 2017) and last year’s winner Olga Tokaczuk. However, Xue is likely too impenetrable for a Prize which requires a certain amount of popular appeal, a collection of short stories has only won once, and no-one has won the prize twice. Despite a certain amount of controversy over its inclusion (isn’t it non-fiction?), and having read only five of the books so far, The Years, which has all the hallmarks of a major work, might just be the one to watch.

Convenience Store Woman

March 10, 2019

All literature, to some extent, answers the question of how should we live our lives, but Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, addresses it more directly than most novels. Its narrator, Keiko Furukura, admits “everyone thought I was a rather strange child” relaying stories which reveal a literal interpretation of the wishes of those around her, and a dramatic way of achieving them, when very young. She quickly learns that her only hope of not being seen as unusual lies in copying the behaviour of others:

“I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions.”

She acquires her job in a convenience store in much the same way:

“I was good at mimicking the trainer’s examples and the model video he’d shown us in the back room. It was the first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech.”

As the novel opens Keiko has been working at the convenience store for eighteen years. The job, she explains, is “the only way I can be a normal person.” She details the strategies she uses in order to fit in, copying the behaviour, habits and clothing of those she works with until she is able to state:

“My present self is formed almost completely of those around me.”

She even makes sure to get angry at the same things as everyone else as she notices this makes them happy.

Then life she has created for herself is disrupted with the arrival of Shiraha who is in many ways her antithesis, as is indicated on his first appearance by the fact that the store uniform does not fit him. He has little interest in doing the job well, arriving late and making disparaging remarks about the other staff and the manager:

“He really does seem useless… The way he talks the job down, saying it’s only a convenience store.”

It’s no surprise when he gets dismissed, but it is a surprise when, finding him loitering outside the store, Keiko first invites him for coffee, and then to move in with her. Despite their very different characters, she sees Shiraha as like herself, not only because he doesn’t fit in, but because he adopts a persona to disguise this fact:

“He really was just like me, uttering words that sounded human when really he wasn’t saying anything at all.”

Her motivation for allowing him to live in her apartment is that both of them will appear more ‘normal’. “These past two weeks,” she tells us, “I’d been asked fourteen times why I wasn’t married.” Her sister is delighted by the news (“She might just as well have been saying I was ‘cured’.”) even though she is far from impressed with Shihara:

“She’s far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine.”

Though the social expectations of Japan and the UK are not identical, the novel’s success can be attributed to the stubborn refusal of both societies to accept difference despite superficially embracing diversity. Shihara’s claim that:

“Our society doesn’t allow foreign objects. I’ve always suffered because of that.”

falls on sympathetic ears despite his unsympathetic character. The social norms expected of Shiraha and Keiko relate to both marital status and employment: ‘failing’ in one is acceptable, but not in both. It is particularly galling that Keiko has created a life for herself with which she is entirely satisfied, but must contend with the satisfaction of others:

“I made it known among old friends that I have certain health issues that make it more convenient for me to have a part-time job.”

Reading Convenience Store Woman it seemed obvious to question whether Keiko might be autistic, or, more properly, on the autistic spectrum. This possibility seems to have been excluded by many reviewers, the worst offender I encountered being Dwight Garner in the New York Times who wonders, “How did she get this way?”, questions how “deranged” she might be, and compares her to Norman Bates. Perhaps he was simply going out of his way to make the Murata’s point for her.

Convenience Store Woman is an awkward novel, with characters it would be awkward to meet, but the awkward questions it asks are also vital ones.

Four Soldiers

March 6, 2019

Hubert Mingarelli’s first appearance in English was his 2012 novel, A Meal in Winter, translated by Sam Taylor, which was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014. Four Soldiers is an earlier novel which won the Prix Medici in 2003 and is now also translated by Taylor. In many ways it is a remarkably similar book. Anyone who has read A Meal in Winter will recall it is about three German soldiers, a Jew and a Polish soldier (in other words, four soldiers) inhabiting an abandoned cottage, temporarily isolated from the war. In Four Soldiers the war and the nationality of the soldiers are different – it is 1919, the Russian Civil War, and the soldiers are Russian – but the complex, even delicate, web of relationships Mingarelli weaves is just as affecting.

In the novel’s opening pages we learn how the four soldiers come to be together. First the narrator meets Pavel and we see the bond they share when an officer shoots a mule in the head. The soldier who was leading the mule takes out his knife and the two comrades decide to make themselves scarce, the first of many scenes in which they will attempt to temporarily remove themselves from the war:

“So Pavel and I both ran towards the ditch, hurtling down into it and coming out the other side, and then into a field to get away from the road.”

“We’ll join them on the road tomorrow,” Pavel suggests, “no one will notice we were ever gone.” Next they are joined by an Uzbek, Kyabine:

“He was built like a lumberjack and sometimes he seemed a bit slow.”

Kyabine’s strength is frequently put to good use, for example when he carries the roll of polythene they find in an abandoned factory, or when they come to build a hut to shelter in throughout the winter:

“While the three of us paused for breath, Kyabine valiantly kept going.”

The fourth soldier, Sifra, is invited to build the hut with them:

“He was very young and a good shot, and he owned cavalry boots. We’d never heard of him having any trouble with anyone about anything.”

The comradeship of the four soldiers is what makes the hardships of the winter bearable: as the narrator thinks to himself when the hut is completed, “That’s it, I’m not alone in the world anymore.” They are united not only by their roles (if Kyabine is the strong one, Pavel is the clever one, designing the hut so that they stay warm all winter) but by the routines of their friendships. Some are humorous, such as Kyabine begging for tobacco when he has gambled away his own; others reflect both the stress the soldiers are under and the depth of the affection for each other, such as when Pavel wakes the narrator every night after a nightmare (in which Sifra cuts his throat) and they go outside together until Pavel is calm again. Another routine which unites them is a watch which they took from the body of a cavalry officer which has a picture of a woman inside. They take turns to sleep with the watch, neither entirely believing nor disbelieving the idea that it brings them luck.

Just as in A Meal in Winter, a fifth figure is introduced, an new recruit, Kouzma Evdokim, whom the soldiers call the Evdokim kid. That he is not initially trusted is seen when the soldiers at first stop going to the pond, an idyllic location which only the four of them know about:

“Pavel said it was risky, showing it to the kid, because Sergeant Ermakov might change his mind and put him in a different tent.”

The kid carries a notebook with him and soon the other soldiers are making humorous suggestions of what he should write down (“You should write that Kyobine is a cheat”). They begin to see him as an observer, the narrator wondering at one point:

“Seriously, what could the Evdokim kid be thinking about all of this?”

When Sifra puts his rifle back together without looking, it is the kid’s reaction which interests the other soldiers:

“Kyabine removed his hands from Sifra’s eyes and he looked at the astonished expression on the Evdokim kid’s face.”

The kid’s notebook becomes steadily more important to the soldiers as they recognise he is creating the only record of their time together, and in this we see a defence of writing itself. This particularly applies when they discover they are, once again, going to move on and return to the fighting:

“…say that we’re all sad because we had some good moments here, some really great moments, and we know that we won’t have any more, and where we’re going there won’t be any good moments, because all that is behind us now. You understand? That’s what you should write.”

If you are assuming that the book we are reading transpires to be the kid’s work, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Like A Meal in Winter, Four Soldiers is a short novel, written in a deceptively simple style, but the story it tells is undeniably powerful.

Loitering with Intent

March 2, 2019

The eighties were a difficult time for established artists, as anyone who follows the UK charts will tell you. For Muriel Spark, however, Loitering with Intent represents a relaxed reaffirmation of her art as its final lines – “And so, having entered the fullness of my years, from there by the grace of God I go on my way rejoicing” – decidedly declare. As Norman Page has pointed out, “it initiates a process of revisiting: theme, setting, period and narrative technique all hark back to novels written near the beginning of her career.” And so we have echoes of Spark’s debut novel, The Comforters, in the beginning of Fleur Talbot’s career as a novelist; we return to the period which Spark here describes as “the middle of the twentieth century”; and, in a novel which blurs the border between fact and fiction, not only is autobiography predominant in the plot, but Spark writes in the first person for the first time since Robinson.

Having written her first novel, Warrender Chase “without any great hope of getting it published but with only the excited compulsion to write it,” Fleur takes employment with Sir Quentin Oliver who runs an Autobiographical Association:

“We have all started to write our memoirs, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And we are lodging them for seventy years in a safe place until all the living people therein will be living no longer.”

Hired to type up these memoirs, Fleur soon begins to make additions to cheer up the boring parts:

“I had begun to consider them inventions of my own, based on the original inventions of Sir Quentin.”

Far from being aggrieved, the members are delighted by the additions: Sire Eric, for example, whose autobiography she has “livened …up by putting Nanny and the butler on the nursery rocking-horse together during the parents’ absence, while little Eric was locked in the pantry to clean the silver” comments: “I wonder how you guessed that the butler locked me in the pantry to clean the silver.” When he suggests that Nanny on the rocking-horse is going too far, Sir Quentin responds:

“How can you be sure if you were locked in the pantry at the time?”

The novel’s greatest conceit regarding the relationship between reality and fiction, however, lies in Fleur’s belief that real life is copying her novel. Not only does Sir Quentin very much resemble Warrender Chase, but both his housekeeper and mother are all but identical to characters she has created. She remains unfazed by this, however:

“The process by which I created my characters was instinctive, the sum of my whole experience of others and of my own potential self; and so it had always been. Sometimes I don’t actually meet a character I have created in a novel until some time after the novel has been written and published.”

That her comment echoes something Spark has herself said in interview further blurs the distinction between life and art. At one point she speculates:

“It was almost as if Sir Quentin was unreal and I had invented him, Warrender Chase being a man, a real man on whom I had partly based Sir Quentin.”

Of course Fleur’s characters, as Spark reminds us, are, like Spark’s characters, “only words.” (Making Warrender Chase, presented to us as a character in a novel, realer than Sir Quentin, who is purported to be a real man).

Later Sir Quentin will threaten her publishers with legal action over the contents of Warrender Chase, while at the same time borrowing parts of it to insert into the autobiographies of his members. So determined is he to remove all trace of it he persuades Fleur’s friend, Dottie (a friendship which originates in sharing Dottie’s husband) to steal the original manuscript from her flat. The suspense of its recovery is rather spoilt by the fact that Fleur has already revealed its publication as she writes the novel from the vantage point of the future, where she is a successful novelist, an interesting divergence from The Comforters. Instead we wait tensely to see whether Sir Quentin will meet the same fate as Warrender Chase, as Fleur is convinced he will.

Loitering with Intent is a much happier novel than the novels of the seventies. Its criminality – the tit-for-tat stealing of books – is farcical in nature, and, though it begins in a graveyard, it is a poetic graveyard, and there is little in the way of the death or violence which often sneaks up on you in Spark’s novels. Fleur declares her happiness at the beginning – “My morale was high” – and finds, in Sir Quentin’s elderly mother, Edwina, who is regarded by her son as an encumbrance and an embarrassment, a carefree companion. Spark’s novels are always fun, but often fun which makes the reader feel as if he has enjoyed something that perhaps he shouldn’t. Here, it feels as if we finally have permission to enjoy without guilt.