Archive for May, 2020

The Postman

May 28, 2020


Penguin Specials are a series of short books published by Penguin in Australia. Though the series has largely published non-fiction, it has previously included stories by Chinese writers such as Yan Lianke (Marrow) and Ge Fei (Flock of Brown Birds). Among its most recent projects are five novellas by younger Chinese writers, previously unpublished in English, from the Zhejiang province, published in association with the Zhejiang Writers’ Association. The first to be available here is Bi Yu’s The Postman, translated by Jesse Field.

The Postman is set in Shanghai during the years of the Second World War, beginning in 1936. (1937 marked the Japanese invasion of China, and for some the beginning of the Second World War. The Japanese seized control of major cities like Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai but could not subdue the entire country. The fighting continued throughout the war and only ended with Japan’s surrender in 1945. It was immediately followed by the Chinese Civil war which lasted until the Communist victory in mainland China in 1949). The story opens with the death of Xu Delin, a postman, who has been shot in the back of the head. Even more strangely, he was tortured before he died:

“…the funeral masters who cleaned his body had found both his testicles smashed and left dangling in his crotch like an unripe persimmon. Nine of his ten toes were missing toenails.”

It soon transpires that Xu Delin’s nocturnal excursions were neither due to his conversion to Catholicism (as he claimed) nor an affair (as his wife suspected) but because he was acting as a courier for a Chinese intelligence network. His son, Zhongliang, abandoning hope of continuing his education and gaining a job with a Western bank, decides to take his father’s place, both as a postman and a courier – despite the fact that a mysterious Mr Pan offers to continue to pay his tuition fees (he spends it instead on the bicycle he needs to work for the post office). It is on his first mission that we are introduced to Su Lina:

“She had clearly just woken up from an afternoon nap. Her hair was tousled and she wore a sleeveless chiffon nightdress…Zhongliang handed her the letter. She accepted it with a glance, raised her eyes to look again at Zhingliang, then shut the door, light but final. Still her expression had left a deep impression on him – languid, yet intense.”

This meeting allows Bi Yu to shift the focus to Su Lina as she receives her instructions from Mr Pan. Her role is as a ‘femme fatale’, winning the confidence of important men. Pan tells her to be sure to follow her husband to Nanjing; “Remember your duty,” Mr Pan tells her.

The intelligence network works on a need-to-know basis which also extends to the reader. At one point Zhou San, Zhangliang’s superior at the post office (and in the network) tells him, “If I could explain it clearly, it wouldn’t be underground work.” When he brings a young woman, Xiufen, to live with Zhangliang all he can tell him is, “she’s a person with a tragic past.” Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the discovery near the end that someone that one character thinks they have been extracting information from has been deliberately giving them the information. At the same time, we have very little insight into the interior lives of the characters, while their exterior lives are, by nature of their profession, guarded. This can making reading a rather flat experience at times: moments of great tension are often dealt with superficially, such as when the stationmaster, after the Japanese have occupied Shanghai, tells Zhangliang he should resign before he is caught:

“Zhangliang did not say a word and his face began to go pale, but he still managed to smile and raise his glass, even if the wine had no taste at all for him.”

Such restraint can be effective but, in the course of the novella, can also make the reader feel excluded, particularly as Bi Yu is always quick to move onto the next scene.

Of course, this is necessary when the story is packed with incident across only 120 pages, but the narrative joins can be clumsy at times. After a moving scene were Xiufen, about to embark on a particularly dangerous mission, tells Zhangliang to leave Shangahi and declares she will find him “as long as you’re alive” which ends:

“Then she lifted her face and gazed at the snowflakes swirling in the sky.”

Bi Yu begins the next paragraph:

“In fact, Xiufen did not know what her next job was,” immediately dissipating both the beauty and emotion of the previous scene.

Despite this, The Postman has a lot to recommend it. Its portrayal of spying at the time is both convincingly realistic, conveying, from the opening death, the dangers involved. Its refusal to give the reader the wider picture, while frustrating at times, gives an understanding of the isolating nature of the work, and its reliance on trust in a world where trust might be fatal. The final section, as the Communist army takes control of Shanghai, also indicates the confusion of the time – when Zhangliang returns to his home in Shanghai to find it occupied, he is told:

“Haven’t you heard?… Nobody knows who the word belongs to anymore.”

With four other titles in the series, it is certainly worth investigating further.

A Girl’s Story

May 24, 2020

Annie Ernaux has written about the power love and desire have to overwhelm us already in Simple Passion, but in her newest work, A Girl’s Story, published in 2016 and now translated by Alison L. Strayer, she recounts her first experience of this as a girl of seventeen spending her summer as an instructor in a holiday camp. As she points out, her anticipation of love is not unusual:

“Wherever they went, girls packed a supply of disposable sanitary towels and wondered with mingled fear and desire if this would be the summer when they’d sleep with a boy for the first time.”

In this girl’s case, this desire is perhaps particularly intense, exacerbated by a social awkwardness caused partly by her lower class origins, and an education at a Catholic girls’ school which leaves her entirely inexperienced in relationships with the opposite sex:

“I picture her arriving at the camp like a filly that has just fled from the paddock.”

Ernaux generally uses the third person, and ‘the girl’ rather than Annie, to describe her experience. Ernaux has, of course, rejected the idea that she writes autobiography or memoir:

“I reject belonging to a specific genre, be it novel or even autobiography. Autofiction doesn’t suit me either. The I that I use seems to me an impersonal form, barely gendered, sometimes even a word belonging more to “the other” than to “me”: a transpersonal form, in short.”

Here, she feels that the girl she is writing about is not only distant from her, but belongs to a part of her life that she “wanted to forget”. “The entire memory of the camp,” she says towards the end, “has been walled up.” Now she must attempt to recall that period and/as the girl that lived through it:

“I am her ghost. I inhabit her vanished being.”

As she explains the process while examining a photograph of herself taken in a cubicle in a girls’ dormitory:

“I am not trying to remember; I am trying to be inside this cubicle in the girls’ dorm, taking a photo. To be there at that very instant, without spilling over into the before or after.”

At the holiday camp a dance with one of the head instructors, H, quickly results in the girl being led back to his room on the assumption that she will sleep with him. She is, in a way, nether wiling nor unwilling:

“I do not know exactly when she inwardly consents to losing her virginity. It is not from resignation: she wants to lose it, collaborates.”

H, however, is unable to penetrate her and she remains a virgin. For H the gaol is simple: sexual satisfaction. For the girl it is more complex: she feels responsible for H’s arousal (“She had no right to abandon this man in the state he was in, raging with desire, all because of her”) and she also feels “there was no turning back, things had to run their course.” Her own desires do not even enter into her thoughts:

“She does not even ask herself if she likes him, or finds him attractive.”

For the girl it is the beginning of a relationship but she does not have the skills to build this relationship. She tells him, for example, that he is the second best good-looking man at the camp, thinking this will be taken as a compliment. She becomes “like a dog who begs to be petted and receives a kick instead.”

“She does not give up but simply waits for him to want her.”

She cannot imagine anyone but H taking her virginity, but at the same time “she is proud to be the object of lust, and quantity seems to her the gauge of her seduction value.” This leads to a series of sexual encounters with other boys which, in turn, influence how others see her at the camp.

Ernaux continues the girl’s story beyond the camp as her exploration of the event suggests that its effects were more sustained than she initially thought. She takes us through her final year at high school, he time training to be a teacher, and a period in London working as an au pair. H is not forgotten:

“As long as I did not meet him, my dream remained intact.”

She also attempts to become the woman she feels he will love, losing weight, learning to swim and dance:

“To make him like me, love me, I had to radically transform.”

Ernaux’s narratives are never self-pitying or self-justifying. This not a story of blame, nor one where she is a victim. She seeks only to understand:

“What is the belief that drives her, if not that memory is a form of knowledge? … What compels her is the hope of discovering even a drop of likeness between this girl, Annie Duchesne, and any other being.”

Reading Ernaux’s work I frequently understand something new, have intuitions expressed clearly, and recognise experiences which only rarely seem to feature in literature. Her honesty is not simply in her content but in her craft. If it was up to me, I would give every teenager this book.


May 19, 2020

Muriel Spark’s nineteenth novel, Symposium, as the title suggests, centres on a dinner party, the word having originated from the part of a feast in Ancient Greece where the eating stops but the drinking continues. It also, of course, puts us in mind of Plato’s Symposium where, at just such a banquet, Plato recounts the speeches of a number of famous Greeks in praise of Eros, the god of love and desire. Love and desire are never far away in Spark’s novel which seems particularly concerned with marriage. Among the couples at the dinner party are the newly wedded William Damien and Margaret (nee) Murchie.

Typically, while the dinner party is the novel’s ‘present’, much of it is concerned with events beforehand. The novel opens with a burglary at the home of Lord and Lady Suzy who will later be invited to the dinner party, Lord Suzy’s horror at the crime (“This is rape!”) being his only topic of conversation. This seemingly unrelated and random incident is, of course, central to the plot. In the meantime, William and Mary’s marriage is subject to gossip even before the meal. The story of how they met (at the fruit counter of Marks and Spencer’s) is regarded with suspicion by William’s wealthy mother, Hilda:

“What was she doing in the fruit section of Marks & Spencer’s?… she was staying in a half-board hostel at the time.”

Margaret herself is more generally distrusted. Chris Donovan, one of the dinner party hosts, wonders about her family:

“But the name Murchie…I’m sure I’ve heard it before in connection with some affair, some case in the papers; something.”

For Roland Sykes, another of the guests, the name also rings a bell: “There was something about the Murchies last year…it was in all the papers.” Hilda, who has met Margaret’s parents, says of the family:

“They are quite all right but there is something wrong.”

The wrongness of the Murchies lies in Uncle Magnus (surely the similarity to Magus is not accidental) who spends most of his time in an insane asylum but is regularly asked for advice by Margaret’s parents, Dan and Greta:

“Magnus had now been their guru for six years.”

It is Magnus who suggests that they ask their mother to alter her will and leave everything to Dan. When she is murdered soon after, they discover that the will has been recently changed. Even more suspicious, the madwoman who kills her has escaped from the asylum where Magnus resides. In the aftermath of this Margaret becomes a nun, though that vocation ends when one of the sisters is found strangled. We discover that Margaret has a track record of being near when violent death occurs – beginning with a drowned school friend – and Magnus has a track record of being near Margaret. It is he who advises her to find someone wealthy to marry. Magnus frequently expresses himself in ballad verses, including at least one verse form ‘The Demon Lover’ about a woman tempted by a former lover to leave her husband and children. The lover, of course, turns out to be the Devil. There is something of Magnus and Margaret’s relationship in this. Even Dan is concerned about his daughter:

“He was aware that Margaret was cultivating an exterior sweetness that was not her own.”

Margaret’s story runs parallel to the story of the robberies, which are not as random as at first appears, linked together by various characters. The sentence “They were full of wonder that neither of the couple had heard a sound” with reference to the Suzy’s break-in turns out to represent a more general ignorance of the wealthy.

As with all Spark’s work, there is enormous enjoyment to be had in watching the connections between the story and characters develop, but Spark is also a master craftsman at connecting ideas, and Symposium, like Plato’s seems particularly focused on love. None of the marriages it presents are especially successful. Lady Suzy, who married the father of a school friend, seems to enjoy writing to his daughter more; Ella and Ernest Untzinger are faring better, perhaps because:

“By unspoken consent Ella and Ernest were not sleeping together anymore.”

The unmarried hosts of the dinner party, Hurley Reed and Chris, seem more at ease with each other:

“It is a union of great convenience and contentment.”

As do the two other guest, Annabel and Roland, who are cousins. As Hurley explains:

“The vows of marriage… are mostly made under the influence of the love-passion. Let me tell you…that the vows of love-passion are like confessions obtained under torture.”

This is one of the most comic of Spark’s novels, which is perhaps why she prefaces it by a quotation from Plato’s Symposium which states that “the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy.” Even a throwaway line such as, “You never stop talking about who’s married who, and what the fortune is,” seems placed to remind us of the comic tradition of Austen. It is both wonderfully entertaining and wonderfully erudite – a perfect combination.

Occupation Journal

May 14, 2020

Jean Giono’s Occupation Journal, covering the year between September 1943 and September 1944, (published in French in 1995 and only now translated into English by Jody Gladding) becomes a far more recognisable text under our own current lockdown conditions. “More and more I am immersed in a very great solitude,” Giono tells us, though he also declares, “I have never been so happy as now.”

“I believe I am deeply grateful for everything that forcefully cuts me off from the world.”

In 1943 Giono was forty-eight years old, living, as he did for most of his life, in Manosque in Provence and famous for his portrayal of Provencal peasant life in novels such as Hill and Second Harvest. His writing would begin to change with the publication of Melville in 1941, a novel he continued to have affection for (“I don’t consider anything I’ve done to be valuable,” he says, “Possibly Colline (Hill) and Pour saluer Melville, but just barely if at all”). His pacifism had already brought him into conflict with the state with a brief arrest in 1939, and shortly after the final journal entry he was arrested again, accused of being a Nazi sympathiser, and imprisoned for five months without charge. (Giono’s pacifism originated from his experience in the First World War: at Verdun he was one of eleven survivors in his company. He wrote about his experience in To the Slaughterhouse).

Despite the title, a direct translation, Giono states:

“This is not a journal. It’s simply a tool of the trade. My life is not completely depicted. Nor would I want it to be. As I’ve said here, I practice scales, I break up my sentences, I try to stick as closely as possible to the truth.”

This does not, however, mean that its publication is undeserved. In fact, although by its nature the insights it contains are scattered, it covers a lot of ground. Not only do we get a sense of conditions in France during the year before liberation, but we also have a window into the daily life of a writer, as well as Giono’s musings on art and politics. Less vital, but still interesting, we see the practical problems he faces: illness is common place, and two members of his family, an aunt and uncle who both stay with him, die in the course of the year. Money is another frequently mentioned challenge. “I can’t wait to be less strapped for money,” he tells us, and:

“I work precisely to make a living.”

In June he tells us, “I now have the same money worries as in January,” and, in the course of the year he resorts to selling two of his manuscripts:

“I’m mad at myself for all my generosities that now force me to part with these manuscripts.”

It doesn’t hep that he is widely regarded as rich – “the legend of my ‘immense’ fortune” as he describes it. (I couldn’t help but feel that many writers would sympathise with these problems!).

The journal also contains some thoughts on what he is reading. Of Nicholas Nickleby he says:

“…the story doesn’t escape ‘Punch’: caricature, sentimentality. It’s very engaging, despite some long passages that seem to drag on, but it remains a sketch, witty, exceptionally well constructed, but constructed.”

He is much more complementary when it comes to Stendhal and Balzac, and saves his most scathing remarks for Gone with the Wind:

“The women are cardboard cutouts. How do they have children?… Does Scarlett even have sex organs?”

Throughout, the war forms a background to Giono’s work and thoughts:

“This morning gunfire can be heard very distinctly from the south.”

As the possibility of the Allies freeing France from German occupation increases, different groups compete for power and influence. “The country is all abuzz with conspiracies,” Giono tells us, and “…it’s going to devolve into murder, pure and simple.” This is indeed what happens in May:

“The attack in Voiron a sign of the times. A whole family shot dead from the eighty-year-old grandmother to a child, three years old, killed in its crib by three bullets to the neck and one in the belly. The murderers (what other word to use?) are students and teachers at the vocational school in the town!”

As a pacifist, Giono deplores all violence, but he also feels “War and revolution never killed the right people” and doesn’t trust the Communists not to collaborate with the bourgeoisie they find useful to them. (He also sees them as anti-peasant). When France is finally liberated he is not:

“I’m not leaving the house and not going into town.”

Even before his arrest he is preparing his defence:

“I tell him I wish everyone had done as much as I did for the poor wretches hunted down by the Gestapo.”

Above all, Occupation Journal demonstrates that, in war, it is not good against evil, but, in fact, life becomes even more morally murky than before.

Occupation Journal is not just for Giono completists – it’s a fascinating historical document as well as an interesting insight into the life of a writer. It would probably have benefitted from an introduction and notes, both to provide the historical background, and to clarify the many references Giono makes to his work, particularly what he is writing at the time, but that does not prevent it from being eminently readable, particularly at today:

“The mental vicissitudes that all the contradictory passions of the present moment make us go through destroy any equilibrium.”

The Blessed Rita

May 10, 2020

I first encountered Tommy Wieringa’s work when The Death of Murat Idrissi was long-listed for the International Booker Prize last year (or Man Booker as it was then), and subsequently read his previous novel, A Beautiful Young Wife. Both are short (one might even claim novella status for them) and succinct, giving the impression of originating from a single ‘what if?’ scenario. The Blessed Rita (translated once again by Sam Garrett), on the other hand, is longer than the two previous novels combined, though its focus is far from wide-angled: set in a small village, its central character, Paul Kruzan, lives an insular and repetitive life, and worries that his horizons are in danger of narrowing further.

Paul lives with his elderly father, Alois, in an isolated farm cottage. He is no longer a farmer, but makes a living selling militaria, an occupation that began fortuitously when he finds he can acquire old uniforms and paraphernalia cheaply when the Iron Curtain is parted and travel to eastern Europe is possible. It has a perhaps deeper origin in a key moment from his childhood when a Russian pilot, attempting to escape the USSR, crash lands in his father’s fields. The pilot, Anton Rubin, ends up recuperating in their farmhouse after he leaves hospital, alongside Paul, Alois and his mother, Alice:

“It would have taken a heart of stone and a heap of bad manners to send a fallen hero packing, so Alice agreed to let them role him into the house.”

Unfortunately for Paul, Anton will later take Alice away from the house; Alois “had with the Russian admitted his own, personal Trojan horse.” And when Alice leaves, she does not take Paul with her.

This appears to have had a long-lasting effect on Paul as, at forty-nine, he is not only unmarried but seems to have little interest in forming a long-term relationship. This is not to say he has not interest in sex as he sleeps with prostitutes at a local club , and goes every year to Thailand with his only friend Hedwig (another loner) where his habit of buying sex began years before. If Paul does not at first appear pitiful, it is because he seems satisfied with the limited life he is living. Like his father, who becomes homesick during his honeymoon, Paul has no great desire to see the world. However, as the novel progresses, the foundations of his life begin to look increasingly shaky. His father has a wound on his leg which will not heal:

“It had started out as an innocent enough little cut; his father had paid no attention to it… In old age, the little details could suddenly bring you down. Paul thought about his father with only one leg. He feared that that would exceed his competency as ‘informal care-giver’.”

Hedwig offers him little solace (“Hedwig’s conversation had grown limited to illness and death”) and, when, in reaction to the threat of loneliness (“Anything better than dying lonely”), he goes on a date with a woman he was at school, with, he cannot sustain an erection:

“Nakedness had revealed an old woman.”

Into this mid-life crisis comes a Russian, a friend of the local gangster and pimp (and another one time fellow pupil), Laurens Steggink (“Steggink didn’t have a biography, he had a charge sheet”). Paul, of course, has an inbuilt dislike of Russians (“Russians, he had no use for them…”). When Hedwig foolishly tells everyone he is a millionaire (he isn’t) and is then robbed, Paul is certain that Steggink and the Russian are behind it.

Paul’s dislike of Russians forms part of a wider, and more subtle, examination of immigration in the novel. “He had seen more folk from the east in recent years,” he thinks to himself at one point. The bar he frequents is run by a Chinese family and the customers regularly make comments about what goes into the food. Races and nationalities are reduced to stereotype: Paul gets his security system upgraded in fear of Steggink and the Russian by a Pole:

“The historical role of the Pole, Paul thought as he watched the man work, is to protect us from the Russians.”

His prejudices (except when it comes to the Russian) are largely passive, but he does regard those who are not Dutch as ‘other’, exacerbating his isolation. Yet when he learns that the Chinese family are selling the bar:

“He felt abandoned, betrayed. The Chinese had somehow been a window on the world, without them it seemed like a possibility had been cut off.”

Paul demonstrates that attitudes to immigration are complex: at different times he enjoys, dislikes, or is indifferent to those from elsewhere, while at the same time happy to exploit Asian prostitutes both at home and abroad.

Partly, this is a result of not feeling he can, or even wishing to, change anything. The Blessed Rita is “the patroness of hopeless causes.” In speaking about his ‘millions’ Hedwig had made the mistake of drawing attention to himself. Rita is also the name of one of the prostitutes he visits, and, (and this is not unconnected) reminds him of his mother:

“Rita of Cascia hadn’t flinched at giving up her offspring for the sake of her great love, just like his own mother.”

In Paul, Wieringa gives us another example of the male midlife crisis, but not of an academic in a comfortable university town, but of an ordinary man in a rundown backwater who has come to realise he is all but alone. In doing so, he draws attention to many of the problems of our age.

The Rock Blaster

May 7, 2020

Henning Mankell is, of course, famous for his Kurt Wallander series, adapted for television in his native Sweden and in the UK, but he was also the author of numerous other novels which he continued to write even after Wallander’s success. Up you now only The Eye of the Leopard, (originally published in 1990) of the novels which predated Faceless Killers (1991), the first Wallander book, had been translated into English, but George Goulding has rectified this with a translation of Mankell’s first novel, The Rock Blaster, from 1973.

It is well known that Mankell wrote Faceless Killers in response to growing racism in Sweden, and viewed crime fiction as an effective way of commenting on society. The Rock Blaster is a more overtly political book, particularly focussed on class and inequality, covering, as it does, more than fifty years of the twentieth century. The central character, Oskar Johansson, is a rock blaster, working with dynamite to clear the way for the rapidly expanding railways. “There was nothing special about me,” he claims frequently throughout the novel, but his life is defined by an accident in 1911 when he returns to a faulty charge only for it to explode. The accident is serious enough for the local newspaper to report his death, but miraculously he survives, losing a hand and an eye. He recovers after a lengthy stay in hospital, marries (not his intended of the time before the accident but her sister, Elvira) and has children, returning to his job as a rock blaster as well as enduring periods of unemployment during the Depression. Of Elvira’s attitude towards his disfigurement he says:

“In those days there were many who were injured. Sooner or later it happened to most workers.”

The lives of ordinary people are a key focus of the novel, but Mankell also wants to highlight Johansson as an individual. To highlight the challenges of this he creates a narrator who has come to befriend Oskar in his old age. The narrator becomes frustrated with Oskar’s desire to downplay his individuality. “Oskar provides precious little information,” he says:

“The story of Oskar is like an iceberg. What you see is only a small part.”

The narrator outlines his task as follows:

“I hear the words, close up the gaps between them, fill in the margins.”

Although Mankell is not the narrator, there is an acknowledgement here that he is describing a life he has not lived, and cannot entirely know. He links this directly to a more general ignorance of the lives of the working classes:

“The picture of Oskar that never becomes complete is inextricably linked to the society in which he lived.”

This explains why Oskar himself sees his life as “nothing special”. As he tells the narrator when he cannot remember the names of those he worked with:

“We were so anonymous to everyone else. We had no value other than as blasters.”

He also makes a telling remark with regard to his father, who works his whole life emptying privies:

“He did what he had to do. And didn’t think it would be possible to get a better job.”

Despite this, when Oskar becomes a socialist his father tells him he has to leave home.

The novel, ranging from 1911 to the 1960s, traditionally marks a period when worker’s rights and living conditions gradually improved. In Oskar’s view however, “Lots of things have changed, but not for us.” Mankell uses a poster first printed in 1910 to demonstrate this. It shows a pyramid with money on top and workers on the bottom. In 1949, Oskar is able to comment:

“But if you look at this picture, compare it to our situation today, you can see how little is being achieved.”

For Oskar much more radical change is needed:

“Everytime there’s a revolution somewhere it makes me happy.”

Yet, despite this, he is not a man of action. Getting up in the night to put up a poster advertising a political discussion is as far as it goes. Even when faced with Nazis in Stockholm in 1933 he can only imagine himself “charging in”. This, too, perhaps stems from his belief that “he had never been, nor ever would be anything extraordinary.”

The structure of the novel works well, a collage of moments from Oskar’s life, often told on his own words, meetings with the narrator and the narrator’s comments: “Tiny beads of narrative that string together to form a rosary.” It is clearly the work of an angry young man but, as Oskar says:

“One does get angry. That must be the last thing that goes.”

For Mankell that was also true. As he says in a 1997 preface, “Today there are ghettos outside Swedish cities. Twenty-five years ago they did not exist… What I wrote here is still highly relevant.”

The Doll

May 2, 2020

Ismail Kadare’s novels can be divided into those set in contemporary Albania, such as The Successor and A Girl in Exile, and those historical novels which seem designed to examine aspects of Albanian politics from a distance, such as The Siege and The Pyramid. There is a third strand, however, of novels which are more personal – one example is Twilight of the Eastern Gods, which draws on Kadare’s experience in Russia as a young writer – into which The Doll (translated by John Hodgson) can be safely placed. The central character is ‘Ismail’ and the details of his life echo those of the author, from his wife’s name (Helena) to his exile in France. At the centre of the novel is Ismail’s mother, the doll of the title, a character who seems both simple and unknowable.

Ismail explains early in the novel what he sees as his mother’s likeness to a doll:

“It had to do mainly with her fragility, with what would later strike me as he resemblance to paper or plaster of Paris.”

He struggles to see his mother as a typical mother:

“I felt like my mother was less like the mother’s in the poems and more a kind of draft mother or an outline sketch which she could not step beyond.”

He quickly develops the idea of his mother being simpler and more childlike than he is, referring to her “unfounded naivety…her extended adolescence.” The idea of the literary child becoming distant from a less educated parent is common in literature (see, for example, Tony Harrison’s poem ‘Bookends’), though Ismail is also convinced of his mother’s unhappiness. He feels his parents’ marriage is difficult to understand, both in terms of the two families (the Kadares are relatively poor compared to his mother’s family) and the two individuals:

“The alliance between the two was a mistake from the start, and nobody ever understood the reason for the marriage.”

He also relates her poor relationship with her mother-in-law which his father resolves by holding ‘trials’ within the house when there is a dispute. Yet later he is less certain of her feelings, commenting on her request to be buried with her husband:

“I could not help wondering whether this could really be called a love story, even a simple one: seeing a man from a window and then, three quarters of a century later, wanting to be with him in the same grave.”

Ismail shows awareness that he cannot entirely understand his mother. Kadare also has fun with Ismail’s (and presumable his own) early writing career, what he calls “the grotesque mock-epic of my adolescence.” His early attempts at writing, for example, are mainly focussed on adverts for what he intends to write:

“Three-quarters of the notebook was filled with advertisements along the lines of, “The century’s most demonic novel, hurry to the Gutenberg bookshop, buy I. H. de Kadare’s magnificent posthumous novel’”

He has a particular affinity for Shakespeare, whom he describes as “almost a cousin”:

“I even thought that when I was a little more grown up – in other words, when I became clever – I would correct Shakespeare’s mistakes, as far as I could.”

When Ismail is published, his mother worries that she will be abandoned as not good enough as “she had heard that boys, when they become famous, swapped their mothers.”

“I would be the source of her greatest and most absurd fear, that I would turn my back on her.”

And yet, this is what happens in a sense as Ismail and Helena travel to France and publish a letter calling for free elections, his mother only hearing about it listening to the radio with her daughter:

“They were stupefied. They trembled in the darkness, which gradually became more intense.”

It is many years before he sees her again, when one of her first questions is, “Are you a Frenchman now?”

Although initially the designation of his mother as a doll and his portrayal of her as immature and unintelligent implies a patronising tone, in fact the novel ultimately admits his mother’s character cannot be defined within the limits of his fiction. If she is an “outline sketch” it is because he cannot add the detail and the three dimensions. Even regarding what he understands of her personality it is unclear whether it should be viewed as strength of weakness:

“Her eyes assumed the expression she wore whenever she felt ashamed at not understanding something, a habit some people called a failing and others a gift.”

At the novel’s conclusion he returns to their old home in the village, now partly ruined. He discovers that there is a secret door which “it seem to me to offer a vital code to interpret everything, including the riddle of the doll.” As the novel ends, however, he realises that he “still had no idea where this door might be,” just as, with his mother, he cannot entirely understand her: the doll she most reminds the reader of is that which contains another doll within, and then another. Then novel is not only an interesting insight into Kadare’s family and early life, but a warning that human beings are not easily confined to the page.