Archive for September, 2019

An Orphan World

September 28, 2019

Giuseppe Caputo’s An Orphan World, translated by Juana Adcock and Sophie Hughes, is a novel of juxtapositions. Each of its chapters tells of two different moments in the life of its narrator, alternating between each story. Caputo also places in contrast his character’s close relationship with his father and the often distant sexual exchanges which take place in his life as gay man. Finally, we find light and darkness in constant play across the narrative: the novel’s title, for example, originating in stories that the narrator’s father tells him of life on a different planet, “an orphan world with no sun, plunged into perpetual darkness.”

However, An Orphan World is, first of all, a tale of poverty:

“That’s how we lived, my dad and I, in that grey neighbourhood – a grey that was sometimes smoky, sometimes blackish – trapped in a cycle of poverty and never quite at peace.”

The father thinks up numerous schemes to make money – from charging to give people advice at the local bar (“The first piece is free, and from then on I charge.”) to using a tape recorder to pretend that their house is talking, a scam which backfires when they fail to open the door on time and everything on the tape plays ahead of the action. It is their lack of money which forces them to move to the section of town which is without any lights at night:

“I was terrified of the location, right in the heart of the dark zone – as it was called – which had no street lights at all, but the price was within what we could afford.”

Later, when their electricity is cut off because they cannot afford to pay the bill and they illegally reconnect it themselves, they are unable to put any lights on in the front of the house in case they are seen from the street. In many ways, their poverty can be seen as a journey into increasing darkness; however, light in the novel is not presented as the benevolent opposite.

The novel’s central event, overshadowing everything, is the mass murder of homosexuals, presumably on one night. We do not see the violence but are made fully aware of the horror in its aftermath:

“There, in the bar district, we came upon men with no heads: four or five bodies, floating from the neck down in their own lake. Beyond them, in a little heap, the chopped-up crimson flesh of a man (or several men) who’d been out dancing.”

Later, when a lorry appears to take the corpses away, even a policeman throws up at the sights illuminated by the headlights – including the severed heads which have been placed inside the street lights. It’s perhaps for this reason the narrator says at one point:

“So much light that, instead of illuminating the night or dissipating the darkness, it seemed to create them.”

This threat hangs over the narrator throughout – for example, when he is stopped by the police having gone out to look for food, one of them comments: “How come they didn’t kill this one, though?”

The narrator’s sex life is revealed in a refreshingly uncompromising manner. There are no ‘relationships’ but simply a series of sexual encounters. Some of these take place in a sex club he visits, others online. Caputo is particularly good at writing about the Roulette chatroom, and the narrator’s attitude to it:

“A hundred men in one; a stranger transforming into a hundred strangers.”

Later he says, “Sometimes I mistake my screen for the stranger’s”. The influence of the internet on sexual desire is clearly going to be an important topic for writers over the coming decades, and it’s exciting to see Caputo begin to explore this, though elements of voyeurism are also apparent at the sex club:

“I watched them, and I watched him watching them.”

That Caputo places this alongside the narrator’s loving relationship with his father illustrates that he is not emotionally empty – a cliché which is often present when a character indulges in sexual gratification outside of love. The narrator’s connection to his father is evident from the beginning, and Caputo often use language we would associate with a couple:

“With our arms around each other we went to his room…”

And:

“I think about my dad, and go back to lie down beside him (‘beside him’ is code for spooning him).”

There is a beauty in their relationship that survives the ugliness which surrounds them.

An Orphan World is a novel which does things that not many other novels are doing. Its father / son relationship is one of love and companionship rather than tension and resentment; the narrator’s homosexuality is powerfully central to his story without overwhelming the narrative; and the ugliness of its poverty and violence is never quite victorious in the face of its human virtues. It would be a pity if it did not get the audience it deserves simply because of its sexual openness.

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Faces on the Tip of My Tongue

September 21, 2019

Emmanuelle Pagano’s Trysting, also translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, consisted entirely of short passages which built towards a picture of love in all its many forms. Faces on the Tip of My Tongue is more traditionally structured as a series of short stories, but has a similarly cumulative effect as we discover characters and incidents reappearing from different angles, perhaps still central to the story, but just as possibly an aside, a sentence or two glimpsed fleetingly as we travel on. Where Trysting was very clearly an exploration of love, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, as the title is perhaps intended to suggest, is more difficult to pin down, reflecting, as it does, on place, isolation, and eccentricity.

The idea of isolation is touched on in the first, and briefest story, told in the first person, when the narrator tells us, “I pedalled out to the middle of the lake to read there, away from the others but not too far away.” It forms a companion piece with the final story, ‘Glitter’, in which the narrator finds glitter between the pages of a library book; the suggestion of being “away…but not to far away” echoed in the way in which the narrator believes this discovery connects her to other readers:

“I never did find more glitter. But I did find readers. I’ve found other proofs of reading. I’m no longer alone reading these demanding books, no longer alone in my steamy bath, my bubble.”

Isolation which is not loneliness is a common thread, as can be seen from the narrator of the second story’s summation of the setting:

“The plateau harbours so many solitudes you might think it bustling with life.”

Solitary characters often momentarily connect or at least coincide. In ‘Blind Spots’ the narrator intentionally hides by the roadside: “I stand in their blind spots… I make myself invisible.” But in the story he is seen:

“It’s different with you. You’re the one frightening me. You’re so serene, you’re like my fear, you’re like fear itself.”

The woman who picks the narrator up is, in fact, intent on suicide, a suicide already mentioned in the previous story (“I think she decided to kill herself, I think it was on purpose.”) but one she postpones in the course of this story, only to return to in ‘Three Press-ups and Unable to Die’:

“They’ll know of my death today, of course; I won’t get it wrong again.”

The man from the roadside wonders, “Who are you not to be frightened – a madwoman?” but he will later be referred to by another man who has hitched a lift in ‘The Mini-pilgrimage’, along with others – “he knew some mad people too, more like roadside loonies.” Another reoccurring character, “the automatic tour guide” is first introduced as “the mad old Polish man”. Madness, in this context, is living your life by ritual; habitual behaviour that is both imprisoning and liberating.

This is perhaps best seen in another ‘roadside loony’ who waits by the roadside at the place where his wife and children were killed:

“He waited there for things to be reversed, for the past, for the return of the dead. Going backwards every evening at five o’clock, waiting for life to be different.”

When the road is changed locals wonder how he will react and, in what seemed a hopeless tale, the narrator strikes a hopeful note: “He goes beyond the figure we made of him, that we thought we could reduce him to.” ‘The Loony and the Bright Spark’, is one of the most successful stand-alone stories in the collection, and could easily be placed in an anthology. The same applies to ‘The Short Cut’, although only five pages long, where a woman, returning home for a funeral, finds that a short cut has taken her back too quickly:

“I wasn’t lost on the road but in my mind. It had gone too fast, this return with the short cut.”

‘The Drop-out’, despite echoes to previous talk of cousins who look alike, also works well isolation, and is possibly the strangest story in the collection, as the narrator leaves her daughter’s wedding with the woman who may or may not be the cousin she has not seen for many years. Other stories work better in the context of the collection, accumulating meaning in their echoes, something, perhaps, to be expected from the constant play of isolation and connection within them. In both cases Pagano has an eye for the unseen, the blind spots of life, those we shun or try to forget about. This collection, alongside Trysting, marks her out as a unique and perceptive voice.

Among the Lost

September 13, 2019

Mexican novelist Emiliano Monge’s Among the Lost, originally published in 2015 and appearing last year in an English translation by Frank Wynne, begins as a group of migrants being led through jungle are suddenly stopped by spotlights:

“For their part, when the cage of light in which they find themselves ceases to close in, the men and women who left their land some days, some weeks ago, feel something drain from their entrails and huddle ever closer to each other, their tremblings merging into one, their hollow voices fusing into a single voice. The shock is passing and the terror is charged with questions.”

They have become the victims of human traffickers and are now nothing more than objects to their captors, “no more than prostrate creatures,” to be transported and used at will. They are not, however, the focus of Monge’s gaze; Among the Lost is a novel of the kidnappers rather than the kidnapped, as Monge has explained:

“Literature, I believe, is a portal to empathy, and empathy is one of the few means by which, as a society, we can dispose of violence. But to be empathetic with the victim is pretty easy. What’s truly difficult, what you need more courage for, is to find empathy for the victimizer. If we want to understand and change a pattern of systemic violence, we need to be empathetic toward both parties. I feel it’s really important to understand the victimizer in all his or her complexity: How is it that a man or a woman can kidnap and torture, and also love and protect their loved ones?”

Monge creates empathy for the victimizers through their tortured love story: the action takes place entirely in one day on which Epitafio (the names are all emblematic) and Estela plan, in the tradition of the best crime films, get out while they can. “When will he have the courage to give it all up,” wonders Estela of Epitafio, and, later, “I need to tell you we can’t go on like this.” Epitafio, meanwhile, has similar misgivings:

“I’m done with all this… I want the two of us to be together.”

That neither is entirely certain of what the other thinks is not only down to determined displays of violent nonchalance where anger is the other acceptable emotional response, but also to a lack of communication on the day involving a series of missed calls and no signal moments which would be comic were the consequences not so potentially tragic. (Mobile phones, so often a hindrance to writers, become a symbol of their relationship).

Monge also develops our sympathy by presenting both Epitafio and Estela as victims themselves, past and present. Our glimpses into their childhoods demonstrate that they, too, have been used. Estela remembers the wooden door at the orphanage “that kept her locked in her room, by the bed where she spent years tossing and turning, unable to sleep, by the window she spent hours peering through so she could escape her present.” Epitafio also remembers the moment he was taken from his parents:

“…his brothers pressed their terror to the windows, while their mother sobbed in her bed, and their father screamed and argued in the courtyard.”

They are also victims in the present as it quickly becomes apparent Epitafio’s lieutenant, Sepelio, and the priest who runs the orphanage, Father Nicho, are plotting against them, adding a further dimension to the lack of contact between them as the day progresses.

The link between victim and victimizer is best illustrated in the character of Mauseleo (the name he ends the novel with; in the beginning, as one of the immigrants, he is nameless). An ex-boxer, Epitafio is drawn to his giant stature among the victims and offers him the opportunity to swap sides – “It’s your lucky day,” he tells him more than once. Of course, Mauseleo must demonstrate he has the stomach as well as the physique for violence:

“Feeling his bravura heal the wounds opened up by his fears, the blind newcomer in the kingdom of the blind reaches the mass of tortured and humiliated men and women, and, for the first time today, his face relaxes.”

Mauseleo’s violence is a way of dissipating fear. “Stick out your chest,” Epitafio tells him, “I’ve freed you from having to be one of them!” For Epitafio anger has become his default, his driving force, beyond any immediate cause:

“Unaware the rage now propelling him towards the house is the result of many years and not the setback life has just visited on him.”

There are many things to love about Among the Lost beyond its fearless gaze into the world, and hearts, of violent, desperate men (and women). It is also stylistically impressive, not only in its observation of the classical unities (it began life as a play) but in the way the story is told, largely through dialogue. (Monge’s only other novel in English, The Arid Sky, though thematically similar, has an entirely different structure, retelling a life non-chronologically, and suggesting that Monge’s approach to narrative is carefully considered). Monge has also embedded quotations from Dante’s Inferno into the text, as well as extracts from the interviews of survivors. He also subtly uses the world the human traffickers inhabit to comment on events – the falcon, swooping “on a flock of birds and picking off the weakest”; the snake as Estela thinks of betrayal; the cow Epitafio runs off the road:

“Those dumb fucking animals never move… they just tense their bodies.”

Among the Lost is a terrifying, hopeless masterpiece which I fully expect to be also among my books of the year.