Archive for the ‘Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011’ Category

The Secret History of Costaguana

April 16, 2011

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011 – The Secret History of Costaguana

Unlike last year, when Juan Gabriel Vasquez made it through to the short list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with his first novel,The Informers, The Secret History of Costaguana has not reappeared for round two. Though this may be partly down to the competing attentions of other South American novels (the other three are through), it has to be said that the central conceit of the novel is not entirely successful.

The idea is an intriguing, and brave, one: take a classic European work about South America (Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo) and link it to the ‘real’ South America through your central character. The novel is predicated on a meeting between our narrator, Jose Altamirano, and Conrad, as we are told in the first few pages:

“Conrad and I, who were born countless meridians apart, our lives marked by the difference of the hemispheres, had a common future…When this happens, when the paths of two men born in distant places are destined to cross, a map can be drawn a posteriori.”

The meeting between them takes up only a few pages (though every so often Altamirano reminds us what Conrad is up to); the bulk of the novel is taken up with Altamarino’s life, his father’s life, and the life of his country, Columbia – the story that he claims to have shared with Conrad during that meeting.

From the beginning his father is portrayed as a believer in progress, championing the use of corpses for dissection in the face of the Church’s opposition. His father finds a way round the prohibition by using the corpses of Chinese workers killed building a railway across Panama. Later his father will become a steadfast supporter of the Panama Canal, and these dead bodies are an early indication of the price of progress, though one his father consistently ignores:

“My father does not hear a story of personal tragedies, does not see the dead Chinaman as the nameless worker of no fixed address for whom no grave is possible. He sees him as a martyr, and sees the history of the railway as a true epic. The train versus the jungle, man versus the jungle…”

This attitude is more damaging when he becomes a journalist in Panama, refusing to allow facts to get in the way of his belief in progress:

“Examining my father’s articles: in one from 1867, the fifteen dead had become nine; in 1872 he mentions nineteen wounded, seven of them seriously, but not a word about deaths; and in one of his most recently published texts…my father recalled ‘the tragedy of the nine victims’.”

Perhaps Vasquez intends to draw some parallel between this and Conrad’s use of Altamarino’s story as raw material for his novel, but there is no indication he regards Conrad’s work as propaganda. Altamarino’s main complaint is that Conrad has removed him from his own story:

“My tale lived there, the tale of my life and my land, but the land was another, it had another name, and I had been removed from it, erased like an unmentionable sin, obliterated without pity like a dangerous witness.”

But, as Conrad says when Altamirano asserts that Nostromo is false: “That, my dear sir, is a novel.” Vasquez may have cleverly taken the fictionalised history of Nostromo and turned it back into the factual history of Columbia, but I remain unclear as to whether this implies criticism of Conrad’s fictionalisation. Of course, it may not, and may simply be a device for attracting attention to what would otherwise be a novel about the history of Columbia.

This would be ironic as where he is particularly successful is in portraying that turbulent history, both in the general (with frequent references to the Angel of History) and in the particular. There are two stand-out examples of the latter. One is where he provides the history of a rifle over eight pages; another is when he spends thirteen pages focusing on a particular soldier.

Vasquez is clearly a very talented writer and, while this may not have quite the impact of The Informers, it also an excellent novel. Having covered almost 150 years of Columbian history in his first two novels, it will be interesting to see what he does next.

Dark Matter

April 11, 2011

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011 – Dark Matter

Dark Matter by Juli Zeh is one of three German books on the long list for the independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This in itself might suggest a renaissance in German writing, but what is even more encouraging is the variety that these authors offer. Where Visitation is intense and literary and Fame is witty and amusing, Dark Matter is an intelligent thriller with a liberal dose of physics thrown in. This is obvious from the punning title, dark matter being the undetectable matter theorised from its effect on what we can see, and a reference to the murder that will take place within the novel’s pages.

The two main characters, Sebastian and Oskar, are both physicists and their relationship is central to all that happens. Inseparable at university, their friendship falls apart over an incident where they write an equation together on a blackboard, meeting in the middle. When Sebastian sees that Oskar has automatically chosen the harder task of writing from right to left, he realises that their friendship is not one of equals:

“The moment their hands met in the middle of the blackboard was a one-sided victory, and Sebastian felt the urge to punish Oskar for this.”

From this point their lives diverge: Oskar goes on to become one of the most important physicists in the world; Sebastian finds a niche for himself exploring the many worlds theory – a theory Oskar finds ridiculous – marries and has a son. The situation is not that uncommon: the one friend who goes on to excel but remains alone; the other who opts for a life of cosy domesticity instead. They do, however, keep in touch, continuing to argue: “You used to be a good physicist,” says Oskar on one occasion, “before you went off course.”

The thriller aspect kicks in when Sebastian, taking his son to a Scout camp, receives a phone call as he is leaving the toilets at a petrol station telling him to stand still:

“The most important thing is to tell nobody. Do you understand? No-bo-dy. Leave the building now. I’ll call you back immediately.”

The car, of course, is gone. This scene works well because Zeh has spent time establishing Sebastian’s character and his relationship with his son. It is also very easy for the reader to identify with Sebastian’s situation: he is quite unequivocal that he will do anything to get his son back, and this includes murder.

As with any thriller, revealing much more would make it difficult for another reader to have the same pleasure of discovery as I had. Zeh presents Sebastian’s thoughts on killing another man with both a grim humour and a nail-biting tension. He then introduces not one, but two fascinating detectives to investigate both the murder and the kidnap, with an equally intriguing relationship, Rita Skura and her mentor Schlif. It was Schlif who turned Rita into a successful policewoman:

“She had to learn that her trusting nature was what her opponent expected, so she always had to assume the opposite of what she was thinking, and do the opposite of what she felt.”

Schlif, on the other hand, is an intuitive detective. He agrees to take on the kidnap rather than the murder as he feels there is a link. In his interviews he rarely asks direct questions: he talks to Sebastian about physics and his wife, who runs a gallery, about art. In this, Zeh attempts to link his method to quantum theory:

“In his opinion, this reality is nothing other than creation born second by second in the head of every single observer and thus brought into the world. A long time ago the detective developed a method by which he attempted to read the programme code. This is how he solves his cases.”

This method, of course, works better in fiction than elsewhere. As with many literary thrillers, the intellectual padding, while necessary to the plot, is not really absorbed thematically. This is not, for example, a novel about the many worlds theory, its moral implications or its folly. For this reason, it is not quite of the standard of some of the other novels on the long list. It is, however, an engrossing and exciting read.

Gargling With Tar

April 2, 2011

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011 – Gargling with Tar

Gargling with Tar is the second of Jachym Topol’s novels to be translated into English (the first, City Sister Silver appeared ten years ago) and, as its striking cover may have suggested to you, it is set in Czechoslovakia during 1968 when Warsaw Pact forces prevented the country from freeing itself from the Soviet Union. As with Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, Topol adopts a child’s perspective on events which goes a long way to enhance the chaos and confusion of the time.

That child, Ilya, lacks any stability even prior to the invasion, living as he does in an orphanage ironically named the Home from Home. Even his nationality is unclear, and a variety of languages are spoken at the home – the boys are made to gargle tar (water made soapy with tar soap) for speaking their own language, as well as for lying:

“Some boys spoke their own unintelligible language, though the nuns didn’t allow it. You had to gargle tar for that. Any foreign words were washed away from their throats with bubbles of pain, then the boys were topped up with Czech.”

Ilya’s multi-lingualism is later seen as a useful skill, allowing him to work as an interpreter and to escape from more than one dangerous situation. It’s an early sign that this is not a nationalist novel, and that Topol will present both sides of the conflict unflinchingly, to the point where the sides themselves seem to disappear.

Our sympathy for Ilya is enhanced by the care of he takes of his disabled brother, Monkeyface. Although older, he says with the younger boys in order to protect his brother, finding himself, as for much of the novel, caught between the two camps. The chaos begins when Czech Communists arrive and expel the nuns who have been looking after the boys from the home. Monkeyface is one of the first victims, placed inside a washing-machine drum by some of the younger boys and then falling to his death from a window as Ilya attempts to carry him upstairs:

“He thrust me put of the way, and now he was top-heavy and banged his head against the window. I grabbed him by his feet, but he kicked out at me and flew headfirst through the glass. He fell, turning once or twice in the air, then thumped down, landing on his back in the snow, bits of glass showering down around him.”

The accidental nature of Monkeyface’s death suggests that Topol is not interested in assigning blame but in alerting us to the unpredictable cruelty of the times to come. With the death of his brother, Ilya loses his anchor in the world and becomes an isolated figure looking to belong, whether with the older boys and their plan to join the Foreign Legion, or with the Russian tank crew he later befriends. As the novel progresses he moves from side to side, accepted but never belonging, one moment riding on the front of a Russian tank, the next hiding with some of the boys from the orphanage, now fighting with the Czech resistance. The circles in which he intentionally leads the tanks represent the narrowing circle in which his own life is moving, as he encounters the same characters again and again, Topol using them to highlight the effects of the war: Mr Cimbura with “his face…terribly burnt, the light from the candles gliding over the craters in its ancient skin”; and Hanka, a local girl he was once friends with, last seen among a group of women being raped by Russian soldiers:

“That was the worst thing. I kept losing sight of people. Not like round a bend in a corridor or behind a tree. People were suddenly gone forever.”

The novel is also full of myths and legends, appropriate to its setting in a forest. These centre on the national figure of Czechia, but also include the ‘dinosaur egg’ that the Russian commander wishes to take back to Moscow, and the wolf that Margash claims is his father. When a wolf finally appears it is “cringing” and “all thin and moulted”; and when Ilya rescues a girl who has been tied naked to a bath tub for the pleasure of soldiers, he thinks he has found Czechia. Almost everyone he meets is following some dream or personal mythology.

Gargling with Tar blends realism and surrealism to create a vivid picture Czechoslovakia in 1968. By having a narrator who is ideologically uninvolved but in a life or death struggle to survive, Topol places the focus on what it might have felt like to be there rather than adopt the safer perspective of history.

The Sickness

March 26, 2011

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011 – The Sickness

The Sickness, Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s first novel, cannot be accused of false advertising, being, exactly as it states, a meditation on sickness. There is not even any hint of the metaphorical associations that the word may have in English: this is a novel about illness and how we cope with it. Tyszka sets out to explore sickness through two linked stories. The first tells of a doctor, Andres Miranda, who discovers his father is dying from cancer; the second, told largely through a series of e-mails, focuses on one of Miranda’s patients, Ernesto Duran, whose belief in his own illness is at odds with that of his doctor. In this way, Tyszka examines not only sickness, but the relationships it creates.

Miranda first discovers his father’s illness when he insists on a series of tests following a faint. As he discusses with a fellow doctor, the tests are conclusive:

“If he weren’t my father…you and I would have looked at the plates and concluded that there was no hope, that it’s the mother of all tumours, that the patient is basically screwed.”

Miranda now has to decide whether he should tell his father or not. In theory, he believes this is the right thing to do:

“It’s what I’ve always said, the position I’ve always defended: the transparent relationship between doctor and patient.”

This also includes telling patients when there is nothing wrong with them. One such case is Ernesto Duran, a patient whom Miranda now refuses any contact with believing him to be entirely healthy. Duran’s regular e-mails are read only by Miranda’s secretary, Karina. Duran has come to believe that only Miranda’s reassurance that he is well will prevent his sickness:

“But that is what I felt, that if I didn’t talk to you, I would pass out wherever I happened to be. I felt that I depended on you, that you were my guarantee that I wouldn’t collapse on the floor that very instance.”

When he writes, “I have a confession to make. I’m following you,” Karina takes fright and begins to reply to his e-mails as Miranda. For much of the novel, the two main relationships are therefore based on dishonesty: Duran believing he is communicating with Miranda, and Miranda taking a trip with his father without having shared his diagnosis. However, Tyszka is not one for melodrama and, while the dishonesty creates much of the novel’s tension, the author is not preaching at us. When Karina reveals her deception, Duran decides to continue to believe it is Miranda who is e-mailing him. When Miranda finally tells his father, his reaction is both realistic and ambiguous, making it clear that Tyszka is not offering us easy solutions. When asked whether he would have preferred not to know:

“His father stood for a moment pondering the question, as if the question were a peach stone under his tongue. Then, sadly, he went up to the door and into the building.”

Tyszka immediately moves into Miranda’s father’s point of view, and the novel moves on to deal with the questions that arise when death is certain.

The novel’s strength, a quiet and thoughtful examination of an area of life that is not frequently explored by literature (and, when it is, is often used as a metaphor for something else) is also its weakness. Characters tend to frequently generalise from their experiences, for example Miranda’s father thinking about his final weeks:

“That is another of the consequences of being ill: the private agony becomes a collective ceremony.”

The reaction is no doubt typical; the aphoristic phrasing is probably not. Tyszka also scatters the novel with quotations on illness:

“The words “Sickness is the mother of modesty” came unbidden into Andres’ mind. They appear in Roberts Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy published in 1621.”

While it’s possible that Miranda, as doctor, might have these quotations floating around in his head, and it illustrates a certain intellectual detachment in his character, it seems unlikely he would provide his own bibliography.

That said, The Sickness is a thoughtful and, at times, moving novel, and well worth its place on the long list.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011

March 21, 2011

The long list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was announced last week, as follows:

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck
Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras
To the End of the Land by David Grossman
Fame by Daniel Kehlmann
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson
Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo
Gargling With Tar by Jachym Topol
The Sickness by Alberto Berrera Tyszka
The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vasquez
The Journey of Anders Sparrman by Per Wastberg
Lovetown by Michal Witkowski
Villain by Shuichi Yoshida
Dark Matter by Juli Zeh

Three German novels are featured, perhaps marking a resurgence in German writing, which hasn’t made much impact on the English-speaking market since The Reader. Latin American writers are also prominent again.

Last year I attempted to read all the long-listed books and, having already read five of them, it’s tempting to try again, but, given that the short list is announced in three weeks, it’s not going to happen. However, I can’t help but be tempted by a few of them, and I’ll be posting my thoughts over the next month, perhaps adding a few more once the short list is announced.

One I won’t be writing about at length is The Museum of Innocence (it is unlikely to win anyway – the prize does not tend to favour already well known writers). This is because I found it so disappointing when I read it last year, having both enjoyed and admired My Name Is Red and Snow. If you don’t know the book, it’s a love story in which the ‘tension’ is created by the inability of the lovers to make any of the decisions that would allow them to be together. It relies heavily on the cultural milieu of the setting, but whereas this is an enhancement in the work of, say, Jane Austen where it is portrayed with a light irony, here it is a cause of a rather heavy didacticism. Above all, the main character, Kemal, is so weak and foolish that you soon lose any belief that he can feel passionate emotion at all, though he persists in telling you at every opportunity. His wait for Fusun lasts many years, and Pamuk seems to have decided to mimic this with an interminable narrative that feels exactly like sitting in a small room waiting for something to happen. The only interesting idea was that Pamuk apparently actually created the museum, a collection of objects linked to Fusun – but having read the novel, you may feel that, rather than a post-modern masterstroke, this in fact is just an indication of a writer too close to his subject.


January 23, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Jenny Erpenbeck

Visitation is the third of Jenny Erpenbeck’s novels to be translated into English (you can pick up the other two, The Old Child and The Book of Words, in one volume) and yet further proof of her astonishing talent. In praising her work, Michel Faber singles out The Old Child for its “jewel-like perfection”, but I have to admit that I regard The Book of Words, an examination of a Latin American dictatorship from the point of view of a child, as even better. In Visitation she continues to explore the cruelties of the twentieth century from the confined space of a single viewpoint, but here the viewpoint is that of a place rather than a character, the banks of a lake in Brandenburg where an architect builds a summerhouse. Largely contained within this setting, we move from mind to mind, imitating as a reader the urge described in the novel’s German title, Heimsuching – home-seeking.

Translator Susan Bernofsky’s English title is equally appropriate. The novel begins like a folk tale, listing superstitions related to marriage and death, and telling us of the Mayor’s youngest daughter, Klara, who will inherit the wood where the summerhouse will be built, her meeting with a mysterious fisherman, and her descent into madness. Like all folk-tales the story has supernatural overtones, particularly when Klara meets the fisherman:

“Only now, when she is looking for a good spot to sit down with him, does it strike her how many people there are around her in this bit of the woods, and everywhere there might be an attractive spot to rest, someone is already sitting or standing, some are reclining in the shade, asleep, others are having their evening meal, and yet others are leaning against a tree, smoking and blowing rings in the air.”

Here the wood seems to be haunted by the future rather than the past.

Klara’s suicide leads to the wood being sold, one third to the architect who builds the summer house. The narrative immediately transports us to the point where he is forced to leave the house in order to escape to the West, burying valuables in the ground and remembering the last time they were hidden, in fear of an advancing Russian army. Immediately Erpenbeck’s central point is clear: home is a fragile concept and one we should not readily identify with a particular place (the word ‘visitation’ also suggests the temporary nature of ‘home’). Throughout the novel characters’ love of the lake and its surroundings is contrasted with the impermanent nature of their residence. Often this is highlighted by possessions left behind, for example the towels of the architect’s Jewish neighbours

“Before it could occur to his wife to wash them, he’d gone swimming and rubbed himself dry with one of the strangers’ towels. Strange towels. Cloth manufacturers these Jews. Terrycloth. Top quality goods.”

In doing this, Erpenbeck presents us with a very moving history of twentieth century Germany and, by extension, Europe. Two particular scenes stand out. One is when Doris, a niece of the Jewish cloth manufacturers, is hiding in the Jewish ghetto her family has been transported to, alone, in a confined space:

“Now only a brief transition lies before her. Either she will starve to death in her hiding place, or she will be found and carted off.”

The chapter is beyond commentary, and ends as follows:

“For three years the girl took piano lessons, but now, while her dead body slides down into the pit, the word piano is taken back from human beings, now the backflip on the high bar that the girl could perform better than her schoolmates is taken back, along with all the motions a swimmer makes, the gesture of seizing hold of a crab is taken back, as well as all the basic knots to be learned for sailing, all these things are taken back into uninventedness, and finally, last of all, the name of the girl herself is taken back, the name no-one will ever again call her by: Doris.”

The second scene, though not as powerful, is equally memorable, and occurs when the architect’s wife is raped by a Russian officer. In her description, Erpenbeck blurs the boundary between victim and assailant, not in any way condoning rape, but to reach for deeper truths about war. Both these scenes take place not just within houses, or rooms, but within much smaller spaces (the rape takes place in a closet where the woman is hiding). The search for home is echoed in the way these characters attempt to protect themselves through enclosure: neither is safe.

Though these two scenes stand out, they are only two among many. Erpenbeck makes us live with each character she introduces as if we are immersed into their consciousness: it is something more than sympathy. She is one of the brightest young writers in Europe today.

Danger rating: Each character in Erpenbeck’s novel is like a plunge into an ice bath, shocking both the body and mind, cleansing and reinvigorating.

Red April

September 3, 2010

Red April begins with a report written by its main character, Prosecutor Chacaltana, outlining the discovery of a badly burned body. The language of the report, convoluted and over-formal, renders the event comic:

“He stood and began walking to the above referenced establishment, but when he was halfway there he experienced the inconvenience of being victimised by a sudden attack of exhaustion and decided to return to his domicile to enjoy a well-deserved rest.”

This comedy is the result of the clash between the process of law, in which Chacaltana so whole heartedly places his trust, and the reality of life in rural Peru, a theme Santiago Roncagliolo will pursue throughout the novel.

The novel mimics the structure of the serial killer genre, with a series of grisly murders, each victim suffering the loss of a limb. However, Chacaltana is an unlikely protagonist, and it is his presence that marks the novel out as something more serious. The reader has an uncomfortable relationship with him: at times admiring his honesty; at others infuriated by his innocence. His heroism is often the result of his naive belief is carrying out his duties to the letter, for example when suggesting that the first death may be an act of terrorism:

“ ‘I would not presume to discount a Senderista attack.’
He had said it. The silence which followed his words seemed to reach the entire ballroom, the entire city.”

It soon becomes clear (to the reader at least) that any mention of terrorism is unwelcome as the official line is that no terrorists exist. Chacaltana’s naivety reveals the hypocrisy of others and allows us to see the truth, but his innocence is also an impediment to any solution. For example, on discovering regular terrorist incursions into the village where he has been sent as an election inspector, he asks the police lieutenant if he has requested reinforcements:

“Reinforcements? Of course. We also asked for a swimming pool and a couple of whores.”

The reader also enjoys an unsettling relationship with Chacaltana when it comes to his personal life. He has a touching relationship with a waitress, Edith, but we also discover that his claim to have requested his deployment from Lima to be close to his mother is not entirely accurate as his mother died when he was a child. He has, however, recreated his mother’s room in his house and regularly speaks to her.

Chacaltana, then, is a fascinating creation, and even more so for the way in which he changes in the course of the novel. Faced with violence all around him, Chacaltana feels compelled to use it in his defence, initially when attacked by a suspect:

“With his right hand, the prosecutor felt around him until he found a stone, lifted it, and with all his remaining strength hit Mayta in the face.”

Roncagliolo is aware that the reader will be relieved rather than distressed by this act given that Chacaltana’s life appears to be in danger, but it is a warning sign of a change in the prosecutor’s character which sees him first carry and then use a gun, an act that has a profound effect on him:

“Yesterday I shot a man. I don’t know who he was or if I hit him. But I might have killed someone. I felt it was a kind of test, a kind of training for something. I felt that something was changing in me.”

Roncagliolo uses his relationship with Edith to indicate that this change is not a positive one.

The novel comes to an appropriately violent conclusion, but by this time Roncagliolo has gone far beyond the serial killer genre with its thin layer of spurious psychology providing motive. This is a society where everyone is touched by violence and no-one is immune. By the end, ideas of law and justice are long forgotten.