Archive for May, 2021

Dog Island

May 29, 2021

Immigration into Europe from parts of the world where war, climate change and poverty make escape seem worth almost any risk is an issue which has increasingly challenged not only politicians but writers over the last decade. How can one write about the experience of a refugee or asylum seeker while living in material comfort and having unavoidably inherited a problematic white, colonial perspective? Yet, as James Kelman has pointed out:

“As long as art exists there are no areas of experience that have to remain inaccessible.”

The question is not a moral one (of appropriation), he argues, but a technical one of narrative. And so, in Go Went Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck centres her viewpoint on a retired university professor who encounters a group of refugees; in The Death of Murat Idrissi, Tommy Wieringa’s narrative perspective is that of second-generation immigrants; and in Philippe Claudel’s 2005 novel, Monsieur Linh and his Child, the author adopts the third person (between two novels both written in the first) and has the title character befriend an elderly widow, Monsieur Bark. Now, in Dog Island (translated by his usual translator, Euan Cameron), Claudel returns to the same theme.

As with his most famous novel, Brodeck’s Report, Claudel adopts the conventions of the crime genre while at the same time recounting the events in a way that gives the novel the aura of a fable, as he makes explicit in the opening pages:

“The story we are about to discover is as real as you may be. It takes place here, just as it could have happened there… The names of the people who live in the place matter little… Put your own names in their place. You are so alike, products of the same immutable mould.”

 True to his word, the characters remain unnamed: the Old Woman, the Mayor, the Doctor (occasionally a nickname, such as Swordy, is used). The story begins with the appearance of three bodies on the shore of Dog Island, the name of which, along with its volcanic landscape, is clearly intended to suggest The Canary Islands, though, in keeping with the novel’s fabular atmosphere this is never specified, and nor is it important:

“The dog stopped all of a sudden, barked, and set off on a mad run that took it fifty metres or so away, towards three long shapes that the swell of the tide had thrown up on the beach, but which it was still tossing around, as though reluctant to relinquish them completely.”

The bodies are discovered by the Old Woman, who was once the island’s teacher, America, scavenging on the shore, and Swordy, a fisherman. The Mayor is fetched, accompanied by the Doctor, and the Teacher, who is not an islander, also appears, drawn by the commotion. The Mayor’s immediate instinct is to cover up the find:

“In a few weeks’ time you’ll tell yourself you dreamed all this. And if you speak to me about it, if you ask me anything, I’ll tell you I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The Mayor places the bodies in cold storage, asking all the witnesses to meet him later, to tell them that this discovery must be kept secret (although by this point someone has already told the Priest, who also turns up):

“Nothing, alas, will revive these three poor wretches. Letting the public know what has happened risks dreadful consequences and it will not bring them back to life.”

In particular, the Mayor is worried that the news will hamper his thermal baths project. Claudel makes the point that, while superficially sympathetic, the islanders find the corpses inconvenient. The Mayor decides to hide the bodies in the volcanic earth; they will later create a stench that one might call guilt.

The novel is plotted like a crime novel with both the hidden bodies and the disparate crew of witnesses, now yoked together by the cover up the deaths, providing tension. The Teacher is particularly unhappy with the Mayor’s decision and begins to investigate how the bodies arrived on their shore by spending his weekends on a hired boat charting the currents. In the meantime, a man arrives on the island with satellite photos of the bodies’ discovery. The Mayor immediately assumes he is with the police and dubs him the Superintendent. As is so often the case with crime fiction, the Mayor, having now set down the path of hiding the bodies, becomes evermore desperate in his actions, with the Teacher in particular suffering as a result.

Altogether it makes for a fast-paced read with a number of unexpected chicanes. While the characters may not be fully developed, neither are they two-dimensional; Claudel simply leaves enough space for the reader to inhabit them (almost as a script leaves space for the actor). The novel shows us both the greed which leads to human-trafficking and the protectionism which leads us to turn a blind eye to it. It is the Teacher who best sums up how most of us live, by refusing to live that way:

“I cannot remain on an island on which men live who are probably guilty of the worst crimes, and where other men live who prefer not to know or to forget about them so they can continue to sleep with complete peace of mind.”

Because it is a fable, or because it is a crime novel, punishment eventually arrives, a warning that not only is no man an island, no island is either.


May 23, 2021

Eva Baltasar’s Permafrost (translated by Julia Sanches) is the story of a woman on the edge:

“After a while, you’ll find that the edge gives you room to live, vertical as ever, brushing up against the void.”

The ‘void’ in this case is death; the narrator describes her life as a “cry for death” and frequently contemplates ending it all:

“I used to spend hours peering over the guardrail of the roof terrace.”

In a novel which finds humour in the most unlikely places, suicide is no exception. At one point the narrator claims that “a successful suicide, these days, is heroic,” before raging against safety precautions and “unscrupulous people certified in first aid.” One attempt is stalled by the Perspex cap on the razor’s blades.

Where this despair comes from is never entirely clear, though it is partially rooted in being persuaded against studying art by her parents, something which has become an ever-present regret: she powerfully compares it to an abortion, “the residual sadness of a life unlived.” The narrator is a lesbian, but it is not her sexuality which cause her distress. The novel contains the story of her awakening sexuality which I found both convincing and engaging. She fantasises about her classmates but assumes that this is simply a stage in her development:

“I knew for sure that I would have to mature before I acquired a taste for sex with boys.”

She is, however, highly sexed, even from a young age, masturbating daily, and sex continues to be important to her:

“Sex distances me from death, though it doesn’t bring me closer to life.”

It is closeness, above all, which she finds difficult. The novel cleverly cuts between scenes non-chronologically, so her relationships are not presented as a progression. This puts side by side the fierce passion of physical intimacy with the fear of emotional intimacy. When one girlfriend suggests they get married, she tells her there is another woman even though she is quite happy in the relationship. Lying in this way becomes second nature to her:

“Lies are the ancient logs over which my life glides.”

Despite this she, when asked by her sister, she describes being with a woman in positive and inventive ways. In one she draws on shared memories of watching The Great Escape, where the tunnel comes up short of the woods:

“Being with a woman is like sticking your head out of the tunnel and discovering that you’ve actually dug through these last few metres.”

Her sister provides a contrast from the novel’s beginning – “My sister claims she is happy!” She is married with a child, and announces that another child is on the way during the course of the novel. Her sister appears to be embracing life in the same way the narrator seems to be attempting to escape it: for example, living rent free in her Aunt’s flat, and then (briefly) getting a job as an au pair in Scotland. These decisions seem designed to avoid permanence, just as she rejects relationships when they threaten to put down roots. The is the permafrost she refers to, a hopelessness which causes her to discount anything which looks towards the future. Only occasionally does she feel any hope at all:

“Doubt: the rift through which the world’s heat slips in, in a brazen violation of the permafrost.”

The narrator’s path seems set, but the novel takes an unexpected turn when her sister’s daughter, Claudia, becomes blind and the narrator spends time with her in hospital. Whether it is because she is a child or because she cannot see her, she feels “she is the only person I can be honest with.” This does not alter the fact, however, that “as soon as Claudia gets her sight back, I’m done.”

Permafrost has one final twist before the end, but this is a novel to be read for character rather than plot. It’s a novel which makes you consider the different lives women might live, how they are perceived from the outside, and how it feels to live them. It’s filled with a fierce destructive energy. It takes no prisoners. It’s unexpectedly warm.

When We Cease to Understand the World

May 17, 2021

Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (translated by Adrian Nathan West) is one of the books on the International Booker long list (and now the shortlist) which seems at first to be more non-fiction than fiction. It provides a selective history of twentieth century science, dramatizing the discoveries of famous figures such as Fritz Haber, Karl Schwarzchild, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger, while at the same time demonstrating their intrinsic links with war and madness. However, it is the tools of the novelist which Labatut brings to this task in a fusion of discursive ideas and traditional character creation and scene setting.

The book is divided into five sections, the first of which, ‘Prussian Blue’, is the most discursive. Its focus is German chemist Fritz Haber, but it begins with Herman Goring, cyanide, Zyklon A, and the accidental discovery in the 18th century of Prussian Blue (of which cyanide is a by-product). Prussian blue is later used to colour the uniforms of the Prussian army, “as though something in the colour’s chemical structure invoked violence”. It is our first indication that science and war will walk hand in hand throughout the novel. Indeed, when we meet Haber he is overseeing the first gas attack of the Great War, at Ypres in 1915:

“What we saw was total death. Nothing was alive. All of the animals had come out of their holes to die.”

His wife, Clara, also a chemist, accuses him of “perverting science by devising a method for exterminating humans on an industrial scale,” and later kills herself. Haber goes on to discover a method of extracting nitrogen from air to use as fertilizer:

“Had it not been for Haber, hundreds of millions of people who until then had depended on natural fertilizers such as guano and saltpetre for their crops would have died from lack of nourishment.”

Rather than attempting to judge whether this life-saving discovery outweighs Haber’s previous use of chemicals to kill (which links directly to the Nazi death camps in which many of Haber’s relatives will later die), Labatut seems instead to be portraying science as amoral, inhuman, and indifferent to consequences. Discovery is all that matters.

This drive to discover is also highlighted in the next section when we encounter Karl Schwarzchild: “Physics was not enough for him. He aspired to the type of knowledge the alchemists had pursued.” It is 1915 and he is wrestling with Einstein’s theory of general relativity on the front line. It is here he predicts a singularity, a black hole, “an inescapable abyss permanently cut off from the rest of the universe.” From the danger scientific discoveries might pose to human life, we now encounter the damage they might cause the human mind. Physics for Schwarzchild is a search for certainty:

“Just imagine how far we have fallen into uncertainty if the human imagination cannot find a single place to lay its anchor…”

But not only can we not see the singularity (because no light can escape), “nor could our minds grasp it… Physics no longer had any meaning.” This sense that our attempts to understand are only leading us towards a dangerous incomprehension is continued with mathematician Alexander Grothendieck:

“After spending so long gazing down at the foundations of mathematics, his mind had stumbled into the abyss.”

Grothendieck retreats from mathematics, and the world in general.

The longest section of the book, which deals with Schrodinger and Heisenberg’s different interpretations of the quantum world, also emphasises the need to understand alongside the possibility that understanding may be beyond us. Schrodinger believes he has “reined in the chaos of the quantum world” whereas Heisenberg believes the answer is not as neat:

“Heisenberg understood that to apply concepts of classical physics to… a subatomic particle was sheer madness. That aspect of nature required an entirely new language.”

Heisenberg’s story is related in detail, and with the craft of a novelist, and we see, not for the first time, the relationship between obsession, illness, madness and discovery:

“In his delirium his mind would establish strange connections that allowed him to achieve direct results, foregoing any intermediate steps.”

At one point Heisenberg becomes lost in a fog, and the scene is later repeated in a dream (Labatut’s frequent use of dreams is one sign the book is not non-fiction):

“He ran without knowing where to, lost in the fog with his arms outstretched in front of him, groping in the air like a blind man.”

The dream suggests that, for all our knowledge, we are still lost, travelling blind. The danger of this is also emphasised in the dream:

“Countless men and women with slanted eyes, their bodies sculpted of soot and ash, were stretching out their arms to try and touch him.”

Labatut ends the novel with war, just as he began it, every scientific discovery within interlinked with atrocity. When We Cease to Understand the World is a book which questions the foundations of western thought, of science as progress. The final few pages provide a coda, a ‘night gardener’ who was once a mathematician. At the end he tells the narrator that the only way to tell the age if a tree would be to cut it down; “But, really, who would want to do that?” Sometimes, the pursuit of knowledge can be more damaging than the ignorance which precedes it. This is a book that is likely to stay with you long after you have put it down. It is with certainty a potential winner of this year’s International Booker.

The Others

May 12, 2021

It’s no accident that historical fiction in translation seems disproportionally set during the two world wars, momentous events in European history in which the UK can be unequivocally said to have played a part, with publishers therefore certain of an audience. Perhaps, however, this risk-averse approach is beginning to change: last year Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll, set during the Thirty Years War, was longlisted for the International Booker Prize, and this year we find Eric Vuillard’s The War of the Poor, most of which takes place in 16th century Germany, on the shortlist. Raul Garrigasait’s The Others (translated by Tiago Miller) is the latest novel to allow us a glimpse into an obscure (to an English-speaking audience) corner of European history. The year is 1837 and Spain is in the middle of the First Carlist War between supporters of competing claims to the Spanish throne, a civil war which also encompasses political differences as the Carlists see themselves standing for tradition and Catholicism against liberalism.

Into this Garrigasait places a young Prussian, Wielemann, via a story which sees a translator (also named Raul) discover Wielemann’s story in a library in Germany while researching a different book altogether:

“For the benefit of enthusiasts of historical novels, I will add that, indeed, the pages were yellowed and dusty, but I assure you there were no burnt edges and none was written in any exotic or secret language.”

Wielemann is in Spain to fight for ‘Order’ in an attempt to live up to the expectations of his father:

“Wielemann was expected to have done something significant in life and … this expedition of Spanish legitimists… was a golden opportunity to make a name for himself in Prussia.”

His romantic ideals soon evaporate on arrival in Solsona. Carlos finds him too tall for his liking, and the Spanish generally find him a figure of fun, “like a stuffed gorilla in a natural history museum,” frequently referring to him as Russian. When the army moves on from the city he is left behind with a ‘secret mission’ – so secret he does not know himself what it is:

“I wanted to restore order. I mean, alongside those who also want to restore it. But I can’t make sense of anything. They won’t give me any commands.”

He does, however, find one friend in the form of a doctor, Foraster, a friendship that begins with a love of music. Though Foraster has been tending to the wounded, he is not a Carlist, describing the movement as follows:

“The Carlists are part of the prehistory you all carry within you and you won’t escape it so easily.”

The Carlists, in their longing for a past that never existed, sound very like the populists of today, though Garrigasait has said that his main aim was to recreate the atmosphere of Catalonia in the lead up to the referendum in 2017 (when the novel was published). Foraster provides a more rational voice for Wielemann to measure his beliefs against:

“Where chaos reigns, I do my utmost to master nature, to harness its laws and curtail disaster.”

The Others is a novel of the chaos of war, but not the chaos of battle (though Wielemann does experience fighting before the end). Instead it’s a confusion of stasis as Wielemann struggles to understand what anyone is fighting for. His state of mind is perhaps best exemplified by a walk he and Foraster take on which he stumbles more than once. At one point they see a crowd of crows – a classic symbol of battle – but when the crows disappear there is nothing there – “as if the birds had been pursuing a ghost.” – much like Wielemann in his search for a cause. At one point, as he slides down a hill, he decides:

“…upon surrender as the best form of protest, he stopped struggling and was soon slumped at the bottom of the slope like a sack of potatoes.”

This seems to sum up Wielemann’s experience of the war – “an absurd joke next to his father’s impassioned rhetoric.” Garrigasait explores Wielemann’s confusion with a humour which never feels nasty – we may laugh at him at times, but we remain sympathetic. The interludes with the translator and his publisher felt more like interruptions than additions, but they add to the sense that this is not simply a picaresque adventure. Garrigasait is not afraid to have his characters debate and discuss as he examines what makes us fight, and, by the end, the reader may be surprised how much emotion they have invested in Wielemann’s tale.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed

May 7, 2021

Mariana Enriquez’s The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is her second short story collection to appear in English, though its original publication predates that of Things We Lost in the Fire, which was also translated by Megan McDowell. It contains twelve stories, all of which eventually find themselves in the territory of horror, except the title story which, at six pages, perhaps simply doesn’t have the time to get there. It’s a genre for which Enriquez shows great skill as well as appetite, but as the certain destination of story after story, its unexpectedness becomes increasingly expected in this anthology format.

The first story, ‘Angelita Unearthed’, begins when the narrator discovers bones in her backyard. Chicken bones, her father tells, her, but her grandmother has a different story, of a baby who had died a few months after birth, and whose bones had been brought with the family when they moved so she can rest in peace. Ten years later, the baby appears in the narrator’s apartment:

“The angel baby doesn’t look like a ghost. She doesn’t float and she isn’t pale and she doesn’t wear a white dress. She’s half rotted away and she doesn’t talk.”

This is typical of Enriquez’s horror – it’s a physical horror, one you can reach out and touch – as the narrator discovers when here first instinct is to strangle the baby:

“I didn’t even make her cough; I just got some bits of decomposing flesh stuck to my gloved fingers and her trachea was left in full view.”

The physicality of Enriquez’s approach to horror runs through the volume; where characters develop obsessions they are often physical obsessions. In ‘Where Are You, Dear Heart?’ the narrator displays an erotic attitude to illness, originating in her adolescent reading of Jane Eyre and, in particular, the scene where Jane climbs into the bed of the dying Helen. Soon she is reading medical books instead:

“Nothing brought me as much happiness as those books. All those euphemisms for death. All those beautiful medical terms that didn’t mean anything, all that hard jargon – that was pornography.”

Her obsession, of course, develops a physical expression, a web-site “where other heart fetishists shared their hearts.” In ‘Meat’, too, obsession is key, the perhaps more natural obsession of teenage girls for a pop star. His suicide does not lead to copycat behaviour among his fans; instead they want to own him physically, and begin by digging up his corpse. A sense of physical intimacy with Enriquez’s characters occurs even when it is not intended to cause terror. Defecation (in both cases in the street) and masturbation are described in more than one story. Evil itself is perceived through the senses, for example in ‘Rambla Triste’:

“She’d just decided to keep quiet when the smell inundated her nose like a hot pepper, like a strong mint, making her eyes water; a smell that was almost palpable, black from the crypt.”

Evil does not feel abstract in these stories, as evidenced by the curses which feature in, for example, ‘The Cart’ where a vagrant is harassed in a residential street about defecting on the pavement. Soon after the families living there begin to have increasingly bad luck – apart from the only one who defended him, who have to hide this fact so as not to anger their neighbours (for example, going to work across the rooftops to disguise the fact that they alone remain employed). By the story’s end, J G Ballard levels of horror have been unleashed. A curse, of a kind, also features in ‘The Well’, where Josefina has become so anxious she can hardly leave her home:

“Josefina felt faint when she reached the front door…”

In contrast, her mother and sister, Mariela, no longer feel the anxiety that once affected them. Only when Mariela takes her to the woman who cured them does she discover the truth.

However, despite the strong fantasy element in the stories, many of them originate in real life horror. ‘The Cart’, for example, begins with homelessness; ‘Rambla Triste’ is about how we treat children. In ‘Kids Who Come Back’ we see the missing return, sometimes years later, just as they were when they vanished (there is an echo of Andres Barba’s A Luminous Republic here). This is horror with a social conscience.

In fact, at times one wonders whether Enriquez needs, on every occasion, to resort to the supernatural. One of the best stories, ‘Our Lady of The Quarry’, exquisitely captures the teenage jealousy of a group of girls when their slightly older friend gets the guy:

“All speculation was brought to an abrupt halt – as if a cold knife had sliced through our spines – when we found out that Silvia and Diego were dating.”

The setting – the Virgin’s Pool in an isolated quarry – enhances the rising tension. Enriquez leaves enough ambiguity in the ending to allow for a realistic interpretation for once, and the story does not suffer for it. It is not that there is no place in literature for horror tropes, but repetitively their effectiveness diminishes. For this reason, I doubt I would have placed The Dangers of Smoking in Bed on my personal International Booker shortlist, despite the pleasant thrill many of the stories provide.


May 1, 2021

Every year on the International Booker long list there is usually one book which leaves me cold. In 2018 it was Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest; in 2019, Alia Trabucco Zeran’s The Remainder; and in 2020… well, let’s just say, the judges liked it a lot more than I did. This year I find myself having the same troubled relationship with Andrzej Tichy’s Wretchedness, translated by Nichola Smalley. The premise of the novel is simple: its narrator, a cello player, is prompted, when he encounters a junkie asking for spare change, to think back to his years as a child living in poverty, and as a young adult surviving any way he could. As these memories resurface, we see his struggle to accept his own escape as he remembers those he left behind.

But firstly, of course, the reader must struggle to accept this premise, and, unfortunately, just because something is possible, does not automatically mean it feels authentic. Escape from poverty via art is a well-worn path in fiction – and often autobiographical – but the cello seems an unlikely life raft for the narrator to cling to amid the wreckage of his youth. Perhaps Tichy, understandably, doesn’t want his main character to be a writer, but – no disrespect to authors – playing a cello requires more expensive equipment, more substantial training, and more extensive practise. Our narrator, however, seems able to perform to a professional standard – he doesn’t simply play the cello; he is a cellist – despite little sense of how he has reached this point in the narrative, just the smallest hint of an interest in music at a young age:

“I hide in a corner of the youth club and listen to this secret music, my secret life, my true life.”

Wretchedness is stylistically interesting, with Tichy intent of juxtaposing present day ruminations on abstract musical concepts (“Just as I was unsuccessfully trying to remember the name of an Italian philosopher who’d written a long an exceptionally deep and incisive essay on Scelsi’s work and importance…”) with the narrator’s memories of his youth, written in a more informal, and less punctuated, prose – a contrast that accelerates as the novel progresses suggesting that the memories become overwhelming. Each chapter is one paragraph, but each chapter is also longer than the last, and with fewer of the pauses created by sentences. Tichy is scathing about the poverty which greets immigrants in Sweden, for example the estate on which they live:

“My dad said to me now we’ve come to PARADISE, but in the paper they wrote it was a HUMAN RUBBISH DUMP.”

Tichy describes the way in which the narrator is haunted by his past viscerally, frequently referring to it as a taste in his mouth:

“I’d rather give it a miss, be someone else, have a different mouth without bloody pigs in, without that taste…”

And later:

“I still have that taste in my mouth, of dust, coffee, fags, a nagging boss, the taste of sweaty reused face masks, the taste of work, the taste of the same all the time, again and again, back and forth, round and round, that’s what I have in my mouth…”

These extracts also give a taste of Tichy’s use of repetition – which he uses repeatedly – to diminishing returns. Comparison have been made to Thomas Bernhard (always the go-to reference for writers who eschew the full stop), but Bernhard’s writing burns with a different rage, and is funnier. The same might be said of another touchstone for tales of drug addicted youth, Trainspotting: it too is funnier, and also sadder. (In comparison, Tichy’s occasional profanity, or attempt to shock – “failed abortions,” for example, even “well-fucked anus” – feels tame). Language is perhaps an issue here, as Welsh had a powerful vernacular to write in, whereas here we are left wondering how to react to “brah” and “you get me” in the English translation.

Tichy’s style is not without some success, and the narrator’s complex feelings – “not some kind of straight forward survivor guilt” – is both credible and, at times, compelling. But as the novel becomes more immersed in his past it also becomes, frankly, dull. His present life is barely sketched – there is no sense of tension between past and present – and the other characters, including pivotal characters such as Soot who he admits to ‘cutting off’ – have very little individuality. This dullness may be intentional – poverty is dull – but, by the halfway point, I had lost interest. It’s true that Tichy does something quite clever at the end, if a little ambiguous (though not as baffling as the wax leaf plant he mentions in every chapter). Many others have felt much more positive about this novel – see, for example, Tony’s review – but I was pleased to see that the novel had not made it to the shortlist.