Archive for February, 2023

A History Maker

February 25, 2023

Alasdair Gray’s 1994 novel (sometimes referred to as a novella, but this is to ignore the extensive notes and postscript which, in any Gray work, are a part rather than an addition) A History Maker is an unlikely combination of science fiction and border ballad. The novel is set in the far future – it’s prologue is dated 2234 – in a matriarchal utopia where men continue to amuse themselves with war in a regulated fashion for the entertainment of the masses, filmed and commented on by hovering ‘public eyes’  Its central character, Wat Dryhope (his first name presumably originating from Wat Tyler as the novel will soon become concerned with revolution) is the son of General Craig Douglas (children take their mother’s name), leader of the Ettrick regiment, now reduced to a few men and surrounded by Northumbrians. They will be defeated if the opposition take their pole and banner, and defeat seems inevitable. Wat advises his father:

“Give him the pole. Let’s go home for a wash and a breakfast… We can order another pole. Our aunts will weave us another banner.”

Though Douglas describes Wat as ‘the voice of reason’ he has another plan which involves letting the Northumbrians think they have captured the banner but not surrendering, and then killing those soldiers who have the banner so that it fails into the sea thus rendering the battle a draw. Wat follows these orders but is so disgusted at having to kill an opponent in cold blood he decides to follow the banner over the edge of the cliff. Saved by a whin bush, he is the only uninjured Ettrick soldier left, and regarded as a hero.

Away from the battlefield, life is peaceful as a result of ‘powerplants’ which are able to grow resources in response to music. This is typical of Gray’s approach to science fiction – it’s not the scientific possibility which interests him, but what it tells us about society. In the notes we are given a history of the powerplants, which were initially horded by the wealthy, but, as word got out:

“Millionaires faced the fact that their private havens would only be perfectly safe in a world where most people were safe.”

The powerplants represent a world without want, where people live communally, and children are looked after by all. Wat is disgusted by his father’s sacrifice of the Ettrick soldiers (“Our bairns were slaughtered because our Dad feared age and loneliness”) but this does not mean he is happy with the utopian world which has ended history. When his brother, Joe, reminds him of “the dark ages when men fought wars without rules,” he replies:

“I’m reading about folk who struggled to stop all that… They were the greatest heroes.”

Later he will say:

“I want the bad old days when war had no rules and bombs fell on houses and men and women died together like REAL equals!”

Though this is said in anger, Gray is reminding us of the attraction of violence and destruction. It is relevant that Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man was published two years before; Gray’s novel presents a counter-argument. Wat is open to corruption and that corruption comes in the form of a woman (frequently a weakness of Gray’s male characters). The seduction is not only sexual but intellectual – the woman (known initially as ‘Delilah Puddock’) is open in wishing to use Wat to change the world – to make him a ’history maker’ and return o our present-day times of “the competitive exploitation of human resources.”

The novel is a warning which, from the perspective of a further thirty years, it seems we have not heeded, as outlined by Wat’s mother, Kate, in her prologue:

“A History Maker shows that good states change as inevitably as bad ones, and should be carefully watched.”

Using a futuristic premise imbued with a lively Scots vocabulary, Gray demonstrates how this might happen, suggesting in particular that, for some, freedom from want is not just undesirable but something they will work actively against. Though A History Maker is not one of Gray’s major novels, it is one of his most prescient.

Lost Books – Forever Valley

February 21, 2023

I first encountered French writer Marie Redonnet when I was compiling a long list for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996 and, although her novel Nevermore was not technically eligible having been published in the US, I included her as I was finding UK publishing not entirely welcoming to women in translation that year. Forever Valley is an earlier book (originally published in 1987) but similarly translated by Jordan Stump in the mid-nineties. The story is in many ways a simple one: a sixteen-year-old girl -perhaps an orphan – brought up by a priest in the shadow of a ruined church begins work in a dancehall where sleeping with the customers is part of her job description; at the same time, she begins a ‘personal project’ to dig for the dead in the rectory garden. As Redonnet explains in an interview, included in the book, the story is, for her, something that evolves from the writing:

“It is after all the writing (what you call the stye) that contains the fiction, it is the writing that creates meaning. When I am not engaged in the process of writing I know nothing of the story I am going to write, and when I have begun to write, I know nothing of what will follow.”

This gives her writing a dream-like quality which makes events seem both unexpected and inevitable. Like Kafka, her stories feel like fables to which the idea of a ‘moral’ is entirely foreign.

The ironically named Forever Valley and its ruined church has been reduced over time from a village to a hamlet and is now reliant on the valley below. The father (as he is referred to by our sixteen-year-old narrator) is “much too old to move to another parish.” The narrator has never been taught how to read, and is ignorant about life and even her own origins:

“The father must have raised me so I can look after him in his old age… Now that his legs are becoming paralysed, he would have to leave the rectory and go to the home if I were not here.”

When she turns sixteen, the father turns her education over to Massi, the only other inhabitant of the valley, once the wife of its mayor, now a widow with a dancehall, which relies on the custom of the herdsmen and the customs officers from the valley below. The narrator is given a low-cut dress and high heels:

“She said then father raised me well and I am just right for the customs officers.”

While Massi hires milkmaids to dance with the herdsmen, she regards the custom officers as superior and requiring a more refined woman – up to now she has dealt with them herself. She teaches the narrator to dance but also instructs her “what I will have to do when I go up to my room with one of the custom officers.” As she is behind is her ‘development’ the custom officers won’t have to take precautions – whether Redonnet’s intention is simply to emphasise her innocence or to suggest that she is not, in fact, sixteen is unclear. What is certain is that it plays a part in the novel’s portrayal of a patriarchal society where even the independent Massi is in thrall to the chief customs officer. At the heart of this is the father who, even as he is physically incapacitated, still wields power: it is to him that Massi gives her earnings so he can invest them, visiting him every week with a homemade cake.

Alongside her new job at the dancehall, the narrator begins a ‘personal project’ to find the dead:

“If the dead are in the garden, they can only be found by digging pits. Over time they have become invisible.”

Though she wants the project to be hers alone (“I would rather the father did not see me”) the father insists on being present while she digs:

“It’s not a little thing to dig a pit. It doesn’t go quickly, especially as I have to keep an eye on father as I dig. He leans forward too far to see what I am doing and when he leans forward too far, his hat falls off.”

Having established the narrator’s situation, Redonnet does imbue the story with a certain amount of plot. The milkmaids drink tainted milk which turns their skin yellow; the custom officers are threatened with dismissal when it is discovered the customs post is unmanned when they are at the dancehall; the father becomes increasingly paralysed and closer to death. The narrator grows a little:

“I have learned a great deal in two weeks. I can’t count on Massi or the father.”

In this sense, the novel might even be seen as a coming-of-age story, as the narrator frees herself from the influence of the father, and of Forever Valley itself. It is certainly, for all its strangeness, a compelling story from a wonderfully unique imagination.

The Last Pomegranate Tree

February 17, 2023

Bachtyar Ali is a Kurdish writer who has published thirteen novels alongside numerous volumes of poetry and essays. In 2016, his novel I Stared at the Night of the City became the first novel to be translated from Kurdish into English by Kareem Abdulrahman, who has now translated an earlier work, The Last Pomegranate Tree. The novel opens with the release of Muzafar-i Subhdam from twenty-one years of imprisonment:

“My prison cell was far away from the entire world, a cell in the middle of a sea of sand, a tiny room besieged by sky… In those twenty-one years, I learned to talk to the sand.”

Muzafar is, however, released into further captivity as his childhood friend, Yaqub-i Snawbar, places him in a beautiful mansion, telling him that “a fatal disease, a plague of some kid, had spread outside.” Yaqub is now an important man, but that importance has come at a moral cost and he wishes Muzafar to remain pure. Yaqub tells him, “Innocent and principled people simply can’t survive.” Even Muzafar’s capture demonstrates his goodness as it occurred when he and Yaqub were trapped in a house, under siege, and either both would be taken or one could sacrifice themselves for the other:

“…. but he was the leader and I was one of his closest aides. Ultimately it was my duty to sacrifice everything so that he could live.”

However, although the years of imprisonment have distanced Muzafar from the world, he still remembers his son who was only a few days old when he was captured:

“I forgot the whole world but not Saryas-i Subhdam.”

Yaqub tells him his son is dead but that “the period in which he died cannot be explained”. Muzafar, however, realises that his comrade’s admiration of his innocence is also an example of his habit of using others:

“He wanted to usurp not only power, authority and pleasure, but also beauty, purity and wisdom.”

He accepts that Saryas is dead but eventually his death stirs “the desire to lift my head above the sea of sand” and he decides to leave the mansion in the hope of discovering more about his son’s life. By this point, however, the novel is already more layered than this summary suggests. We know, for example, that, at the time of telling the story, Muzafar is undertaking a sea voyage, the purpose of which we will only discover towards the end. In the opening chapters, his story in intercut with that of Muhammad the Glass-Hearted who finds himself carried through the streets of the town one night during a flood “siting cross-legged on the floodwater… as if on a prayer mat.” The flood takes him to the home of two sisters – the sisters in white – who will break his ‘glass’ heart as they have taken a vow never to marry. In his pocket he carries a glass pomegranate.

Muhammad’s story will eventually link to Muzafar via his son – but Saryas’ story, too, will be complicated, particularly as he is one of three babies given that name shortly after birth when placed in the protection of Yaqub. All three are given a glass pomegranate. Muzafar’s son – who is, indeed, dead – was ‘Marshal of the Street Vendors’, respected by the other sellers and skilled in negotiating with the police who intermittently attempt to clear them from the streets. As we will discover, Bachtyar Ali will use all three Saryas to exemplify the difficulties of life at that time, almost as if they represented three possible fates for the same person. When Saryas’ friend, Zhino, tells Muzafar the story of his death, he comments:

“Oh, that night changed me. It woke me to the fact that we humans live in a jungle of tyranny.”

The two remaining Saryas still live, but they, too, have suffered – one is imprisoned, the other badly disfigured.

The Last Pomegranate Tree is a novel filled with wonderful characters, scenes and stories. It is not afraid to venture into the surreal or mystical, yet, in doing so, it paints an often heart-breakingly realistic picture of Kurdish Iraq. It offers hope in the patience and acceptance of its long-suffering narrator now undertaking a dangerous voyage in pursuit of the third Saryas, for, as he says, “I cannot be angry at this vast sea that plays with us mercilessly.”


February 12, 2023

Curfew was Jose Donoso’s eighth novel, originally published in 1986 and translated by Alfred MacAdam two years later with an altered title – the original was called La desesperanza or Despair. At the time, Chile was still under the dictatorship of Pinochet (the novel is set the year before it was written, 1985) and it concerns the return of the protest singer, Manungo Vera, at the time of the funeral of Pablo Neruda’s widow, Matilde, after exile in France. So long has Vera been away that the young son he brings with him (alternatively Jean-Paul and Juan Pablo) speaks little Spanish. He returns to a Chile where every act is political, and begins a relationship with an old comrade, Judit, who is simultaneously embarking on her own personal mission of revenge.

Vera arrives in Chile at what he feels is a turning point in his life – “The moment had come for Manungo Vera to turn into something else” – as his career is waning and his relationship with Jean-Paul’s mother has broken down. In Chile he is still famous, but also holds an ambiguous position as a protest singer who has never joined the Communist Party:

“Manungo became a cliché…He sold revolution even though he had no experience of what it was.”

Some in the Party, like Lisboa, regard him as a disappointment, “a personal betrayal of his hope that Manungo, like all great artists, would be an instrument for saving the world.” Neruda, too, was seen in this light by some, and now Matilde’s funeral is viewed as an opportunity for “the first political demonstration by the left in Chile under a state of siege.” (As a writer who also spent time in exile, you suspect Donoso was writing with some insight into the tensions of creating art under the dictatorship). How political the funeral will be is debated by many of the characters; when it is discovered that Matilde had requested a mass, whether this will happen or not is discussed largely in terms of how it might benefit the Party or otherwise.

If Manungo represents the path of escape, Judit has lived with her past. But her past is not the past others think it is – arrested and raped like other women on the left. Purely by chance, Judit avoided being assaulted but has let others assume that she was, and lives in fear that they discover the truth:

“Did the woman know of her deception? Was she, out of compassion, merely pretending that Judit, blindfolded, naked, had suffered the same torture as the others had, that she was one of the victims and for that reason her vengeance would be the vengeance of them all?”

Judit has been given a time and place where she can find the man responsible that night and has a pistol in her bag with which to kill him. Manungo becomes involved in this when they leave the wake together and she takes him out into the post-curfew night. It is in this section of the novel (‘Night’) that we learn Judit’s story, and, in particular, how she was only ever charged by the police as a criminal and was not a political prisoner:

“Those who went through this process usually died or went insane. Often they simply disappeared. In any case, they were rarely the same afterwards.”

Judit finds the man she is looking for and must decide whether to kill him or not, now knowing that Manungo may offer her another kind of life.

Though Manungo and Judit are the focus of the novel, it has a larger cast of characters which gather round the wake and then the funeral. These characters demonstrate a range of political opinion and fates. Perhaps the next most interesting is Lopito, a ‘friend’ of both Manungo and Judit, but one they often suffer in having. In his own words he is “a disgrace to society and the Party,” often drunk and always irresponsible. Thrown out of the room where he is staying, he moves in with Judit at the least convenient time and is found there by the couple when they arrive there the next ‘Morning’ (the novel’s final section). When he drunkenly insults the police towards the end, he is arrested and frantic attempts are made to get him released as he is being treated as a political prisoner. Perhaps more than any other character, he emphasizes the dangers of the time.

Though the novel is not entirely one of despair, one does sense Donoso struggling to see a brighter future for Chile. Political struggle seems to have been reduced to showmanship, and survival to negotiation and favours. The attempts to use Matilde’s funeral to make a political statement are distasteful but understandable. Manungo and Judit’s visit to a mausoleum seems an appropriate way to face the decisions they must make about their future – whether to stay or to go – as we realise it will cost them either way.


February 5, 2023

Bonsai was Alejandro Zambra’s first novel, originally published in 2006 and translated in 2008. Now it appears in a new translation by Megan McDowell who has translated all his subsequent books. It is a short novel made up of five parts. The story itself is summed up neatly in the fourth part:

“A guy finds out that a girlfriend from his youth is dead… That’s how it all begins.”

That is, indeed, how it all begins, with Emilia’s death, though Zambra immediately suggests the fictive nature of the novel he is constructing by suggesting the name itself is a choice – “let’s say her name is or was Emilia,” and, more directly, stating:

“In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not. The rest is literature.”

It is difficult not to think of the novel’s brevity and the tightness of its structure – as well as its very evident artificiality – as a tribute to its title, but plant life also features directly in the story. Julio and Emilia fall into the habit of reading to each other before making love. (One of Zambra’s strengths is depicting the idiosyncrasies of relationships, as seen most recently in Chilean Poet, and here he tends to introduce his characters with a history of their partners). One story they read to each other is Macedonio Fernandez’s ‘Tantalia’, about a couple who buy a plant to symbolise their love. Then, terrified that the plant might die, they decide to surround it with identical plants:

“Then comes the desolation, the tragedy of knowing that now they can never find it again.”

In the third part, Zambra moves onto Emilia’s friendship with Anita. Their habit of sharing everything reaches ridiculous lengths when Emilia asks if she can borrow Anita’s husband for a work party as she has told everyone she is married. After the party, he tries to kiss her, and she punches him – an event which leads to a cooling in her friendship with Anita. Emilia moves to Madrid, and it is only when Anita is visiting the Spanish capital that she looks for her, finding her much changed:

“You look bad. You look depressed. You look like a junkie.”

This is our first glimpse of Emilia’s mortality. She borrows money from Anita and that is the last she sees of her – in fact, the last the reader sees of her as a living character either. When we return to Julio in the fourth part, he is beginning a relationship with another woman, Maria. He meets her shortly after agreeing to transcribe the latest work from the novelist Gazmuri, about a couple who “when they were young they took care of a plant.” Gazmuri replaces Julio with someone cheaper but, rather than telling Maria, he continues the transcription by writing the novel himself, which he calls Bonsai. Zambra can’t resist including some self-criticism:

“There’s enough for a two-page story, and maybe not even a good one.”

In the final section, Julio abandons writing and instead studies the art of bonsai. He sees the similarity – “writing is like tending a bonsai” – but in selling his books to acquire the equipment he needs, there is a sense that literature has proved inadequate. The novel itself, existing halfway between prose and poetry, is also suggestive of Zambra wrestling with form in attempt to express the memories of this youthful love resurfacing after death:

“The selection of the right pot for a tree is almost an art form in itself.”

Like poetry, the novel juxtaposes its disparate elements in a way which allows them to resonate. Zambra’s characters remain grounded – fallible and often failing – without any hint of pretentiousness. Bonsai already demonstrates the abilities of a writer who can be ‘experimental’ without ever losing sight of the people at the heart of his fiction.