Archive for March, 2020

The Memory Police

March 31, 2020

Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is one of the few books which had been previously proposed as a potential winner of this year’s International Booker to have made it onto the long list. It follows her shortlisting for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with Revenge in 2014, and is, surprisingly, the first translation of her work to appear since then (by regular translator, Stephen Snyder). Like Revenge, and indeed most of her work which has been translated, it dates from the 1990s; it is, however, much more substantial than anything that has appeared before which has tended towards stories, novellas and short novels.

The eerily prescient premise of The Memory Police is one of erasure. In the island society of our narrator objects and ideas disappear from one day to the next:

“I sometimes wonder what was disappeared first – among all the things that have vanished from the island.”

These disappearances not only remove the objects from the island but from the memories of those living there. Take, for example, the day birds disappear:

“Then I spotted a small brown creature flying up in the sky. It was plump, with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast. I had just begun to wonder whether it was one of the creatures I had seen with my father when I realised that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word ‘bird’- everything.”

The narrators’ father, now dead, was an ornithologist, and the Memory Police soon arrive to remove all the materials relating to birds from his office. Her mother, too, is dead, though in different circumstances, having been taken away by the Memory Police and reported to have died suddenly later. As part of their role the Memory Police not only eradicate any trace of an object which has been disappeared, but also take away people who can still remember it, as the narrator witnesses one day on the street:

“Judging from the loose buttons, fluttering shoelaces, and bits of clothing protruding from their bags, it was clear that they had been forced to pack quickly. And now they were being marched out of the building with weapons at their backs. Still their faces were calm and they stared into the distance with eyes as still as a lonely swamp deep in the woods. In those eyes, no doubt, were all sorts of memories that had been lost to us.”

The narrator’s mother was one of those people who held onto her memories, as we see in an early scene where she describes a number of lost objects to her daughter, including perfume:

“I could tell there was some sort of scent there – like the smell of toasting bread, or the chlorine form the swimming pool, yet different – but no matter how I tried, no other thought came to mind.”

The narrator is a novelist and her decision to hide her agent, R, from the Memory Police is partly loyalty to her first reader, but also to her mother, after a scene in which R is able to remember those very things which her mother attempted to describe to her:

“But I remember… the beauty of the emerald and the smell of perfume. I haven’t forgotten anything.”

Enlisting the help of her nurse’s husband, who had once been a mechanic on the now disappeared ferry, they create a hidden room for R to live in. The novel then plays off the tension of whether they can keep R hidden while at the same time coping with the increasing number of disappearances. Less importantly (or perhaps less successfully) we follow the progress of the narrator’s novel about a woman who loses her voice and attempts to find it again through learning to type. For me, this added little to the overall narrative, though the character’s increasing powerlessness to some extent mirrors the narrator’s.

Where Ogawa is most successful is in the novel’s tone which manages to be both placid and menacing at the same time. From the beginning we understand that there is little resistance to the disappearances. “People,” the narrator tells us, “- and I’m no exception – seem capable of forgetting almost anything.” As her mother told her:

“…no one makes much of a fuss and it’s over in a few days. Soon enough, things are back to normal, as though nothing has happened.”

Though her friend, the mechanic, agrees to help her, he is of the opinion, “There’s nothing too terrible; about things disappearing – or forgetting about them.” As the novel progresses, we see the dangers of forgetting more and more clearly as we head to the inevitable conclusion.

The Memory Police is well deserving of its place in the long list. If I have any doubts about it they relate to the common problem of fiction which begins with one big idea – its tendency to to write itself into a corner. As more and more aspects of life disappear there is an inexorable logic to the narrative’s direction which overpowers the novel’s other concerns. Ogawa’s decision to cast her narrator as a novelist can also seem a little lazy at times. Despite this, the novel is a powerful (and timely) examination of our acceptance of continual reduction.


March 28, 2020

Michel Houellebecq is the biggest name on the International Booker long list but fame means little in translated fiction awards. Though the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was won in its early years by Orhan Pamuk and Milan Kundera, since then the prize (and the Man Booker International which followed) has tended to favour the more, as yet, unheralded. (Most recently, Knausgaard twice failed to make it as far as the short list). It seems unlikely that Serotonin (translated by Shaun Whiteside) will buck this trend as it’s a novel which holds little appeal.

Its central character, Florent-Claude Labrouste, is a self-pitying, middle-aged Frenchman who spends the novel reflecting on the women he has, in varying ways, abandoned over the years, even when they made him happy. “My life,” he says, “is ending in sadness and suffering,” and, never one to underplay his own emotions:

“I was going through a very difficult time, there are people who kill themselves for less.”

One difficulty is extricating himself from his current relationship with a Japanese woman, Yuzo, who he can clearly no longer stand:

“The weekends were always torture, but otherwise I could almost go for weeks without meeting Yuzo.”

If this raises the question of why Labrouste embarked on the relationship in the first place, that is easily answered:

“She had been available for sex on a more or less constant basis, and at the time I had deduced that she was in love with me.”

When he leaves her (which he does simply by becoming ‘voluntarily missing’ – that is, by walking out on her without telling her or giving her any indication of where he is going) he speculates as to whether she might become a prostitute. For Labrouste love and sex are not simply related but symbiotic: as he explains in detail (largely, as he says, for the benefit of women) “women have difficulty understanding what love is for men” as men can only really demonstrate love through sex, “having hardly any other means of showing it.” Therefore:

“…the happiness of the phallus becomes a goal in itself for the woman.”

All his relationships therefore are to some extent measured by the sexual skills of the woman, and, as he reminisces, we must brace ourselves for these often repetitive descriptions. His poignant departure from Kate (“How could a man who had known Kate turn away from her?”), left crying on a railway platform, contains the less than romantic line:

“…she had fucked and sucked me with all her might and her might was great at the time…”

Despite this he is soon ignoring her messages and sleeping with someone else. In later relationships his unfaithfulness is not so much the problem as his inability to sacrifice himself in any way, continually tempting Claire to live with him in the house he loves in Normandy when he knows she cannot leave Paris because of the career she wants to pursue. Again, sex is at the heart of the relationship and, when he meets her again, he worries that that was all there was:

“…it was frightening to think that maybe there had in fact only been sex.”

Even as he revisits these women his view is phallocentric:

“I wanted to see, once again, all the woman who had honoured it.”

Camille is the final woman he returns to, concocting a bizarre plan to win her back (that we are perhaps meant to think is a result of the Serotonin tablets of the title). In terms of his egocentricity, this is believable, but it less credible that he should care about anyone else enough to act so desperately: he is a man entirely without passion.

Mixed in among this is a subplot about French agriculture which involves a violent farmer’s protest, and some niche pornography (Yuzo and a dog; a paedophile whose house he breaks into to view (and describe) a video of the occupant with a ten-year-old girl). Both feel old-fashioned.

Far from being radical, this strikes me as a typical literary novel: a middle-aged, well-educated white man feeling sorry for himself about all the supposed opportunities for happiness he has missed, without any care for the happiness of the women involved. This is perhaps what makes it so dull. It is a strange inclusion in a list that is otherwise exciting and diverse.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree

March 17, 2020

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (the translator has chosen to remain anonymous) is exactly the kind of book I delight in finding in contention for the International Booker: of the long-listed titles, it was only one which had entirely escaped my notice, and it also struck me as the one I would have been least likely to read even if I had known of its existence. That would have been a mistake, as it is not only richly imaginative but also emotionally powerful.

The novel tells the story of an Iranian family in the years after the deposition of the Shah in 1979. It is narrated by the ghost of thirteen-year-old Bahar who dies during the Islamic Revolution when her father’s basement is set alight. It is not the first novel to be narrated by a ghost, but here it is more than a narrative trick as the supernatural is intrinsic to the novel and the family are aware and accepting of her presence.

“There are a lot of good things about dying,” she tells us, and, later, in a nod to Tolstoy:“We dead were all consistently happy, while each of the living were variously unhappy.”

Ghosts are a commonplace in the novel, carrying a powerful message that the dead cannot simply be forgotten. This is most dramatic when the ghosts of those murdered by the regime haunt Khomeini in his palace:

“The ghosts of five thousand political and religious prisoners rose up from the cities’ deserts and from around Tehran and Kahavaran, they looked at their stinking, maggot-infested body parts strewn about and carried in all directions in the mouths of crows and dogs and then they set off with a common loathing. They wanted to see their murderer’s face up close.”

The story is not told chronologically and it begins with Bahar’s mother achieving the enlightenment of the title at the same time Bahar’s brother, Sohrab, is killed:

“At that very moment, blindfolded and hands tied behind his back, Sohrab was hanged.”

Her brother’s story is the most explicit example of the cruelty of the regime. Once arrested, he is forgotten in his cell when the guard who puts him there leaves to get married. Days later he is barely alive. Meanwhile his family search desperately for news:

“As Dad went from city to city looking for his son and our brother, they moved Sohrab like a hot potato from city to city, beating him so severely he peed blood and one of his kidneys failed.”

After the revolution the family leave Tehran for an isolated village, Razan, and there they are safe for a while, but eventually the regime makes its presence known there too:

“All our dreams of a safe, tranquil environment dissolved the minute Hossein and his gang arrived.”

In a sign of how things have changed, Hossein had once visited the village as part of the Literacy Corps but now returns as a Revolutionary Guard to recruit soldiers for Iran’s war with Iraq. As the family discover, there is no escape.

Their fates, however, are entwined with the novel’s magical realism, a term that can perhaps be used fairly to describe the supernatural occurrences accepted within both the narrative and the society. Each aspect of the characters’ stories is enhanced by some element of this. Bahar’s mother, for example, will simply leave the village one day, walking and not stopping; this rejection of her suffering emphasised by the fact she is followed, in pied piper fashion, by the mothers who have lost their sons to the regime, the ‘orphan mothers’ as they call themselves. Bahar’s sister, Beeta, will fall in love, a love that is characterised as follows:

“Every time they made love the heat generated as they twisted together was so intense the grass around them caught fire and burned.”

Even so, she is rejected and leaves for Tehran where she is soon arrested and banned from studying. Only when she accepts that her true element is water and slowly becomes half fish, in the most extreme form of escape, does she find happiness, though it is at the cost of forgetting.

My one worry as the novel progressed was that it might become overwhelmed by the supernatural elements, and also the narrative detours which branch off to tell the stories of minor characters. While this would not have lessened the pleasure of reading, it would have dissipated the novel’s power. In fact the stories become a vital party of the novel’s resistance when Bahar’s father is arrested, and also demonstrate the cruelty of the new regime in Beeta’s final fate. All of this could be done realistically I’m sure but, as Bahar says:

“When life is so deficient and mundane, why shouldn’t imagination supplement reality it liven it up.”

In the end, it is the stories themselves which remain defiant.

Mac & His Problem

March 10, 2020

Enrique Vila-Matas’ Mac & His Problem (translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes) is another playful rumination on writing from the incomparable Spanish author. The narrator, Mac, is a failed building contractor who is now turning his hand to writing. From the beginning we are told to distrust what we are told:

“I’m fascinated by the current vogue for posthumous books, and I’m thinking of writing a fake one that could appear to be ‘posthumous’ and ‘unfinished’ when it would, in fact, be perfectly complete.”

(Even this, it is later suggested, is not an original idea – in a novel of repetitions and borrowings – as Mac points out that Georges Perec’s posthumous, unfinished “53 Days” was discovered suspiciously complete). Mac begins, however, with a diary, a diary which, he tells us (as we read it) “no one else is going to read.” (We also discover later that “afterward I painstakingly edit what I’ve written”).

Mac soon fixates on a novel written many years before by a neighbour, Sanchez, with whom he is only distantly acquainted. Walter & His Problem tells the story of a ventriloquist – that is, someone who lends his voice for a living – in a novel full of borrowed voices:

“Walter’s main problem, a very grave one for a person in his profession, namely, that he had only one voice, the voice that writers so yearn to find, but which for him, for obvious reasons, was highly problematic.”

Conversely, the novel is written in the form of a series of stories, each adopting the style of another writer:

“Behind the different voices corresponding to each of the stories lay, camouflaged, ‘imitations, sometimes satirical and at other times not, of the masters of the short story.’”

This allows Vila-Matas (Mac) to retell the stories of the novel adding a further layer of repetition, before Mac decides to rewrite them:

“I could set about repeating the book Sanchez claims to have more or less forgotten.”

“We come into the world,” he tells us, “in order to repeat what those who came before us also repeated.” For Mac there is no anxiety of influence only an unequivocal acceptance.

Literary influence, however, is not Vila-Matas’ only target; he is also interested in the relationship between “fiction and reality, an old married couple.” As Mac writes, his real life increasingly intermingles with what he puts on the page. In this, Vila-Matas is addressing (tongue in cheek) a type of writing made fashionable by Karl Knausgaard, whom we are told Sanchez admires (“Sanchez’s sole ambition was to emulate a certain Norwegian writer…”). As Mac points out, once you begin to write your life, the process of writing affects the life:

“I’ve noticed lately that the things that happen to me seem far more narratable than before I started writing.”

His reading of Walter & His Problem also interacts with his own life, in particular one chapter entitled ‘Carmen’ which he identifies with his wife of that name. Not only does it transpire that Sanchez once knew Carmen, Mac begins to suspect that they are involved once again:

“I thought I saw Sanchez and Carmen walking along together on the opposite sidewalk. They weren’t holding hands, but it looked as if they were.”

Mac begins to feel that “my reading of the book is obliging me to actually live out certain scenes.” By the end of the novel he is both identifying with Walter while at the same time disassociating himself from his own work by attributing the re-writing of Sanchez’s novel to his (fake) nephew.

I found Mac & His Problem to be an affectionate but often uncomfortably accurate ridiculing of contemporary literature. It is not only very funny at times, but has the charm of spot-on satire without cruelty. The character of Mac – both a writer and not a writer – allows Vila-Matas to comment as if from the side-lines while retaining his erudition (it’s a book that will point you towards other books). It’s a pleasure to see it on the International Booker long list, which so far suggests an admiration for books which are playfully serious.

The Adventures of China Iron

March 5, 2020

Gabriela Cabezon Camara’s The Adventures of China Iron, translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre, is, indeed, an adventure, a retelling of the epic Argentinian poem Martin Fierro by Jose Hernandez. In Camara’s novel both Fierro and Hernandez featured, but are relegated to the role of minor characters as we instead follow the journey, both literal and metaphorical, of Fierro’s wife, China Iron (‘china’ is a slang term for woman which she assumes as her name, suggesting an ‘everyman’ – that is, ‘everywoman’ – status).

Her adventure begins when Fierro is conscripted and she takes the opportunity to run away from her subservient and servile life. She feels little love for the woman who has raised her, La Negra – “she’d treated me like her slave for most of my childhood” – or her husband: “Everything was filthy about Fierro, even his knife.” She goes with a red-headed Scotswoman, Elizabeth, who is searching for her husband, Oscar, and the land they have bought. She already has two children (which she leaves behind), and she is fourteen years old. The journey is full of adventure and encounter, but it is also a journey in which she discovers herself. At the beginning she declares

“I was tethered by my lack of ideas, by my ignorance, I didn’t know I could stand own my own two feet…”

Soon after she says, “Up until that point, my life had been absent somehow.”

Elizabeth is the catalyst for her discovery of her true self: “I saw the light in her eyes, she opened the door to the world for me.” Her attraction towards Elizabeth is both spiritual and physical. She wishes to “immerse myself in her breath” as they sleep together in the wagon, and soon it is clear that the attraction is mutual as:

“Liz’s imperious tongue entered my mouth her spicy, flowery saliva tasted like curry and tea and lavender water.”

The detailed description of their kiss not only emphasises the intimacy of the moment but reminds us that Elizabeth’s appeal is also in her exoticness, with a list of tastes associated with her class and British nationality, as well as the impish “imperious”. Elizabeth also represents Britain, a “land where machines moved by themselves with burning wood,” a land which suggests more possibilities than China was previously aware of. Elizabeth also shares with her British culture; not only tea and whisky but Frankenstein (“a poor forsaken monster made by British science with lightning”) and Oliver Twist, both appropriate to China’s story.

They arrive at the hacienda of Hernandez, author of the original Martin Fierro, China, dressed in male clothing. Here she learns how to appear genteel during the day, while finally releasing her passion for Elizabeth at night:

“…at dinner I copied her manners, now I mirrored her caresses.”

She also has a political awakening as Hernandez describes the process of creating Argentina while at the same time excusing his treatment of the gauchos:

“The nation needed the land to be conquered… And now were are conquering a workforce for the nation.”

He tells Elizabeth that her land is in Indian territory:

“Argentina needs that land in order to progress. And as for the gauchos, they need an enemy to turn them into patriotic Argentinians.”

This, of course, touches on the propagandist nature of the original poem, and draws attention to the fact that The Adventures of China Iron is about more than the sexual awakening of its protagonist. Both are related, however, as China and Elizabeth venture on and are soon living among the indigenous inhabitants. Here they are finally free: this is both a sexual freedom (“I became aware of the whims of my heart, the different appetites my body could have. I wanted to be both the berry and the mouth biting into it.”) and a political freedom, in a society where “women have the same power as men.”

In this, the novel retains its status as an adventure with an upbeat conclusion which attempts to remake the myth of Argentina. Despite its often cruel and violent setting, it leaves the reader hopeful without seeming shallow, a more difficult trick than it might at first appear. Though ‘rollicking’ is in many ways a fair description, this is also a subtle commentary on national as well as sexual identity, and the International Booker judges are to be commended for selecting it.