Archive for the ‘Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015’ Category

Look Who’s Back

March 17, 2015

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It wouldn’t be the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize without the Nazis. Last year we had A Meal in Winter; the year before HHhH and Trieste – in fact, I’m fairly certain, that were you to consult every long list there would be at least one book with some connection to Nazi Germany. The likelihood is this simply reflects the increased chances of translation into English should there be a swastika waving somewhere in the background of your story. This year we have reached the apogee with a novel narrated by Hitler himself – Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back.

Look Who’s Back takes a simple premise (Vermes has said, “It is odd that no-one has thought of it before”): What if Hitler reappeared in the present? Not an allegorical Hitler, or a Hitler like figure, but Hitler himself, transferred from the last days of the war to contemporary Germany:

“I remember waking up; it must have been early afternoon…It was relatively quiet; I could not see any enemy aircraft flying overhead, or hear the thunder of artillery fire…My first thought was, ‘What did I get up to last night?’”

Hitler is met with either indifference or the belief that he is a Hitler impersonator. The more he insists on his identity, the more he is congratulated on his method acting. This leads to some very funny exchanges in the novel’s opening:

“’What are you in? Have you got your own programme?’
‘Naturally,’ I replied, ‘I’ve had one since 1920! As a fellow German you are surely aware of the twenty-five points.’
‘But I still don’t recall seeing you anywhere. Have you got a card? Any flyers?’
‘Don’t talk to me about the Luftwaffe,’ I said sadly. ‘In the end they were a complete failure.’”

Humour is also created by his displacement in time. On seeing evidence of a large Turkish community he imagines “the deployment of Turkish forces had brought about a decisive turning-point in the war.” He does not, at first, recognise a television set:

“To begin with I assumed that the dark, flat plate in my room must be some bizarre work of art. Then, taking into consideration its shape, I speculated it might serve as a means of storing my shirts overnight without them creasing.”

Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to laugh at Hitler: humour has been used throughout the ages to undermine the powerful, and was indeed used in Allied propaganda during the war. However, Hitler is not the object of the satire in Look Who’s Back – what would be the point? Hitler is instead used to satirise the present, and, in particular, our belief that such figures are firmly of the past, and could not emerge to popular acclaim today. It is not an accident that, in the novel, his popularity is established on what he calls the “internetwork”. We also see how those who humour him are quickly caught up in following him, for example when his secretary agrees to call, him “mein Fuhrer”, or when he ends a meeting of television executives by getting them to respond to his “Seig” with “Heil!”

The first person narrative is also a tool in this, ensuring the reader is enticed to feel sympathetic, especially when his criticisms of the modern world ring true. Vermes does not avoid his anti-Semitism (in fact he cleverly faces up to it with the double-edged phrase, “The Jews are no laughing matter”), but he also includes his vegetarianism, love of animals, and respect for the ordinary German. If we were uncertain of the novel’s warning, Hitler himself makes it clear:

“These days people like to assert that an entire Volk was duped by a handful of staunch National Socialists…In 1933 the Volk was not overwhelmed by a massive propaganda campaign. A Fuhrer was elected in a manner which must be regarded as democratic, even in today’s understanding of the word.”

As with many novels which start with a brilliant idea, Vermes seems uncertain when to stop. (It’s never a good sign when one of the Reading Group questions is ‘How do you think the story might be continued?’) It could be argued that Vermes makes his point long before page 365, and that the ending, though amusing, is rather arbitrary. That said, this is still an entertaining novel with a serious message at its heart.

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Boyhood Island

March 14, 2015

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As the volumes of Karl Ove Kanusgaard’s My Struggle sequence gradually appear in English (thanks to translator Don Bartlett) it becomes possible to see an alternate, chronological reading order, in which Boyhood Island becomes the opening book. It begins, after all, prior to Knausgaard’s own memory, as he is quick to point out (“Of course, I don’t remember any of this time”), as he creates a picture of his father, mother and older brother walking with baby Karl, a Karl too young yet for his own identity:

“His brother, barely eight months old, lay in the pram staring up at the sky, oblivious to where they were or where they were going.”

Knausgaard goes on, as he has done in the previous volumes, to discuss memory itself:

“Memory is not a reliable quantity in life…Memory is pragmatic, it is sly and artful, but not in any malicious way; on the contrary it does everything it can to keep its host satisfied…That which is remembered accurately is never given to you to determine.”

Once this caveat is in place, however, Boyhood Island becomes a conventional memoir of Knausgaard’s childhood, beginning as he starts school and ending in adolescence. The adult Knausgaard is largely absent; there are no detours into the present as we have seen in previous volumes, or complex weaving of time frames. Both the previous volumes worked to some extent in contrast: the first contrasted his memories of his father with the circumstances of his last years and death; the second contrasted the origins of his relationship with Linda with the stresses of being a husband and father. The chronological nature of volume 3 reflects its subject: that of growing up. However there is also a clue in the title: boyhood exists as an island for Knausgaard, a time separated from adulthood, a different world. And it in is presenting childhood as a form of life outside adult experience that the book’s success lies.

As always, Knausgaard inhabits the time he is writing about completely. This is not a writer reflecting on his childhood with irony and humour, but feeling it as it felt at the time. When his mother buys him a flowered swimming cap for his first swimming lesson, we encounter, not an amusing anecdote told in retrospect, but an excruciating moment of terror and shame. When a beautiful girl agrees to date him and the only way he can think of to kiss her is to suggest they try to beat a record of ten minutes set by a friend, a scene which in another writer’s hand would be laugh out loud funny, is imbued with paralysis and regret instead. This, I think, is part of Kausgaard’s appeal, that he awakens not so much similar memories in his readers, but similar emotions.

Boyhood Island, then, works very well as a stand-alone book. However, its spacing within the sequence adds a further layer of understanding for those who have come to it third. His fear of his father is prevalent throughout, for example when he loses a sock at swimming:

“I frantically went through my clothes again, shook item after item in the air, hoping desperately to see it drop out onto the floor in front of me.”

His father‘s unpredictability seems to be at the heart of this – his ability to become ferociously angry at the slightest infringement – but Knausgaard also paints himself as a bit of a weakling, in keeping with the self-deprecation of previous volumes. There are frequent references to him crying at very little. He also shines a light on his arrogance, particularly when he decides to vote for himself in a class election against all protocol, and receives only one vote:

“But I was the best student in the class! At least n Norwegian! And natural and social sciences! And in Maths I was the second best, or perhaps the third. But, altogether, who could be better than me?”

In the latter part of the book, the focus turns to his relationship with girls. He longs for one girl after another, but is uncertain what he is longing for:

“I was going out with Kajsa! Oh, everything I wanted was within reach! Though not yet. What would I talk to her about? What would we do?”

Only at the end does he return to memory with a comment that:

“…every detail of this landscape, every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch.”

Superficially this conveys the importance of the truth of his account, but Knausgaard is careful to preface ‘true’ with ‘ring as’; the musical simile conveys the artistic truth of the account which is important rather than the documentary nature of events.

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015

March 12, 2015

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The announcement of the long list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is always an exciting time as for the last four years I’ve attempted to read all the books (though I haven’t yet succeeded). This year, privileged to be among the Shadow Jury, I have found myself experiencing new levels of anticipation. Luckily the wait is over and the chosen books have been revealed:

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, By Night the Mountain Burns (Spanish: trans. Jethro Soutar), And Other Stories

Tomas Bannerhed, The Ravens (Swedish: trans. Sarah Death), Clerkenwell Press

Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (German: trans. Susan Bernofsky), Portobello Books

Marcello Fois, Bloodlines (Italian: trans. Silvester Mazzarella), MacLehose Press

Tomás González, In the Beginning Was the Sea (Spanish: trans. Frank Wynne), Pushkin Press

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (Russian: trans. Andrew Bromfield), Peirene Press

Daniel Kehlmann, F (German: trans. Carol Brown Janeway), Quercus

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Boyhood Island (Norwegian: trans. Don Bartlett), Harvill Secker

J.M. Lee, The Investigation (Korean: trans. Chi-Young Kim), Mantle

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping (Dutch: trans. Paul Vincent), Pushkin Press

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Japanese: trans. Philip Gabriel), Harvill Secker

Judith Schalansky, The Giraffe’s Neck (German: trans. Shaun Whiteside), Bloomsbury

Stefanie de Velasco, Tiger Milk (German: trans. Tim Mohr), Head of Zeus

Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back (German: trans. Jamie Bulloch), MacLehose Press

Can Xue, The Last Lover (Chinese: trans. Annelise Finegan), Yale University Press

While there are some surprising omissions (Mathias Enard, Elena Ferrante, Andres Neuman) and once again my favourite Peirene title has had its place taken by another, I must admit I probably would have been more disappointed if the long list had simply reflected my own tastes. Much of the enjoyment over the last few years has been in the discovery of new authors, and hopefully that will prove to be the case this time. Once again, having read five of the books, I hope to read the other ten before both the Shadow Jury and more substantial one decide on their short list.

The End of Days

March 8, 2015

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Jenny Erpenbeck’s last novel, Visitation, curated a number of stories around a particular setting. In her latest, The End of Days, she displays the same dissatisfaction with the single story, but this time the nucleus is character. If this sounds more traditional – after all, don’t most novels tell a number of stories connected to one character? – it isn’t: each of Erpenbeck’s tales ends in death, only for her character to resurrected by the power of fiction and continue along a different path. (I haven’t read it, but the premise of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life sounds similar, though the titles themselves suggest a difference of tone).

Erpenbeck’s novels often explore human cruelty and The End of Days is particularly concerned with the treatment of Jews – not only in Germany (Erpenbeck is German) but throughout Eastern Europe. A key scene which reverberates throughout the novel is the death of the central character’s grandfather in Poland after a mob breaks into his house. Though his wife escapes to the roof, he is murdered before he can make it through the gap they have created. It is difficult to decide what is most horrific: her husband’s violent death or the peaceful scene that greets her when she looks down from the roof.

“First she is holding her husband by the hand, and then all she is holding is a clump of flesh, for there is no longer anything alive left she might pull up to where she crouches in then open air. Then she is a Jewish widow holding Death by the hand. She lets go, gets up, and looks down beneath her and the open landscape.”

The contrast between this vicious blood-frenzy and the everyday is typical of Erpenbeck’s writing, as is the perfect, almost poetic phrasing – aided, once again, by the expert translation of Susan Bernofsky. The widow moves away with her daughter – the first of a number of moves in the vain hope of finding a safe haven. In some versions of the stories which follow the daughter never discovers the reason for her father’s absence. The daughter marries, and the novel opens with her own daughter dying:

“The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than there had been to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up.”

It is this potential life, or lives, which Erpenbeck goes onto unfold, after first demonstrating the consequences that the baby’s death has for the mother and father. This first Book is followed by an Intermezzo which begins, “But if, for example…” and goes on to describe the effect of the child’s survival, including the relocation of the family to Vienna. We then re-join them in Book II shortly after the end of the First World War. The pattern is now set: each of the five Books will end with her death at different stages of her life; the Intermezzo which follows will suggest a route to survival, and we will begin again.

There is nothing life-affirming in this journey, however. We are taken beyond the effects of the First World War, through the Second World War, and east to Russia. The girl’s birth in 1902 means that her life is that of the 20th century. When she survives as teenager she becomes radicalised and joins the Communist party, leaving for Moscow as result of the rise of Nazism. In her final life she lives long enough to see the reunification of Germany. Throughout Erpenbeck demonstrates that, though she may be able to conjure survival with her pen, survival in the world itself is difficult – and not dying is the least of it, particularly for women. Avenues of survival are few, and often rely on men – prostitution features more than once. While Erpenbeck uses the novel’s structure to show the role fate plays in death, it is the characters’ lives which feel fated, and often outwith their control:

“How long does a life last anyhow?
Seventy or eighty years?
Doesn’t she already know more than she can bear?”

Throughout the family carry with them a complete set of Goethe – representing the civilisation they never find – until eventually it, too, has to be sold. When the protagonist’s son unknowingly encounters it in an antique shop – along with other jetsam from his mother’s life – he contemplates buying it, but decides:

“…who knows whether he’d still have time to read an edition of collected works, he isn’t getting any younger.”

Time may seem to be the enemy, but Erpenbeck’s novel suggests that we might live many lives unfulfilled.

F

November 3, 2014

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“Fate,” says the writer Arthur Friedland, the unifying character of Daniel Kehlmann’s new novel F:

“The capital letter F. But chance is a powerful force, and suddenly you acquire a Fate that was never assigned to you. Some kind of accidental fate. It happens in a flash.”

F, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, is a novel about how much control we have over our lives. Its characters, in particular Arthur’s three sons, Ivan, Eric and Martin, all look to place their faith in something that will give their lives direction and meaning only to find themselves guilty of falsifying that meaning. Martin becomes a priest who does not believe in God; Ivan dedicates his life to art only to use his talent as a forger; and Eric enters the world of finance, sustaining his investment company through deception and fraud. The F of the title, however, stands for none of these things – fate, faith, forgery or fraud (none of which begin with f in German) – but family, as Kehlmann has explained:

“’Family’ is quite a big word, so in the case of my novel only the first letter remained. When I started out I thought: ‘I want to do to the family novel something similar to what I did to the historical novel when I wrote Measuring the World. Which is to write an unusual specimen of the form. A family novel for people who don’t trust family novels.”

For this reason perhaps, it’s a family novel in which the members of the family are rarely together. Only in the first chapter, a family trip on which Arthur takes his three sons to see a hypnotist, do they seem at all united. Despite his protests that hypnotism will not work on him, Arthur is led to the stage. He answers Lindeman, the hypnotist, honestly – he’s a writer whose work is largely unpublished living off his wife’s money. “Maybe ambition would be an improvement,” Lindeman tells him, “Starting today you’re going to make an effort. No matter what it costs.” Arthur is still dismissive of the hypnotist as they leave, but when he drops Martin off at his mother’s, he also leaves Eric and Ivan (he has remarried). He drives off and his sons do not see him again until they are adults.

The novel, too, travels forward in time. We learn that Martin has become a priest but that he has yet to find faith – instead he overeats and continues to enter Rubik’s Cube championships, a toy his father gave him. Eric, an investment banker, has been using his clients’ money to make it appear as if their investments have been successful but now has nothing left and knows it’s only a matter of time before he is found out. The pressure, and a steady supply of prescription drugs, mean he now has an uncertain relationship with reality:

“Stay calm. Always calm. I look up, there he is, sitting in front of me. Martin. My brother. I look at the phone, the message is still there. I look at his face. Is it my imagination after all? Am I sitting here alone?”

Ivan, having decided that his own artistic talent didn’t stretch to genius, is forging paintings for the artist’s estate which he administers. Kehlmann connects the narratives using events like the lunch which Eric and Martin share (we see it from both brothers point of view) and characters such as the boy in the Bubbletea is not a drink I like t-shirt. He also includes a chapter called ‘Family’, purportedly written by Arthur, which traces his family back over generations in a way that makes life seem bleak and meaningless.

Novels by their very nature, however, imply fate rather than chance, subject as they are to the author’s plan. Kehlmann makes no attempt to disguise this, creating a puzzle of interconnecting parts which the reader must twist and turn, like the Rubik’s Cube which Martin cannot leave behind in his childhood, until the pattern is plain. A further clue is given when Marie, Arthur’s granddaughter, looks closely at a painting by Ivan:

“She stepped even closer, and immediately everything dissolved. There were no more little people, no more little flags, no anchor, no bent watch…
She stepped back and it all came together again.”

Is Kehlmann suggesting life is meaningless when viewed from close up, but subject to pattern when the proper perspective is taken? Or is that a property only of art? Is the novel’s form in conflict with its meaning? Is its comic tone at odds with its bleak message, a question once asked of Arthur’s first novel:

“Is My Name is No One a merry experiment and thus the pure product of a playful mind, or is it a malevolent attack on the soul of every person who reads it?”

Rarely does a novel so easily read, ask the reader such difficult questions.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage

September 17, 2014

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For over thirty years I’ve been a fan of David Bowie. Throughout the seventies he produced a series of albums that remain unrivalled in creativity and variety, culminating with Let’s Dance entering the mainstream in 1983. Only once, however, have I seen him live, and that was on the Glass Spider tour in 1987 at Roker Park in Sunderland. That tour, and the album that it was promoting, Never Let Me Down, is generally regarded as being far from Bowie’s finest hour. There was a sense that he was uncertain where to go next and instead cannibalising previous ideas (most obviously the spider reference) in a way that was dangerously close to caricaturing them.

And so to Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colourless Tsukuri Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (and that’s the last time you’ll hear that in full). Like Bowie, Murakami has gone from having a devoted cult following to global superstar – well, in book terms at least. And, similarly, his new novel seems to show an artist struggling with his own legend. When its title was first released their were many comments about how ‘Murakami-like’ it was (a quick glance at my bookshelves shows this simply isn’t true) but to me it sounds more like a parody of a Murakami title, reaching back to an earlier hit (Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – the only other title with ‘and’ in it) and drawing heavy-handed attention to symbolic elements of the novel.

The set-up itself is intriguing, as it always is with Murakami: Tazaki is part of a close-knit group of five teenage friends. He alone leaves Nagoya for Tokyo to study but is still surprised when the other four drop him entirely and refuse to see or even speak to him:

“I’m sorry but I have to ask you not to call any of us anymore.”

No explanation is offered and it is only years later, encouraged by a new girlfriend, Sara, that Tazaki decides he needs to discover what caused this breach. (If this was a realist novel we would assume it was simply because Tazaki is one of the most boring characters ever created, however, this is Murakami and we expect a more metaphysical solution, as indicated by the fact that his four friends all have colours in their names, while he is ‘colourless’). The novel charts his investigation into his own past as he tracks down his friends and visits them, while at the same time recounting his relationship with Sara which becomes increasingly important to him.

Thrown in alongside this is the story of another failed friendship, a story told by that character’s father about death, a series of dreams (especially sex dreams) and various musical references, particularly to Franz Liszt’s ‘Years of Pilgrimage’. It would be unreasonable to criticise the novel for not choreographing all of these into a comprehensive world view. Murakami has explicitly stated he is not an analytical novelist and has always been more suggestive than schematic. However I worry that some of these elements are appearing because he feels his readers expect them.

Haida’s father’s story was very Murakami but only its inclusion of references to colour seem at all connected to the narrative, and they seem out of place in the story itself. We are told:

“Each individual has their own unique colour, which shines faintly around the contours of their body. Like a halo. Or a backlight.”

Are we to assume that Tazaki is (metaphorically?) dead (colourless)? That his journey is that of return from the underworld? We are told (and much of the novel feels like telling) after his friends disown him that:

“For five months after he returned to Tokyo, Tsukuru lived at death’s door. He set up a tiny place to dwell, all by himself, on the rim of a dark abyss.”

This reading is hampered, however, by Tazaki’s unchanging nature – the Tazaki of the final pages seems very like the Tazaki of the first.

The references to ‘Years of Pilgrimage’, and in particular ‘Le mal du pays’ (homesickness) seem intended to highlight the novel’s concern with home. Tazaki speculates:

“He had no place he had to go, no place to come back to. He never did, and he didn’t now.”

But picking out these ideas makes the novel seem more coherent than it is, and where Murakami in the past has made up for a lack of coherence with imagination and narrative power, the story itself is ultimately rather dull, not to mention often poorly written, with some jarring images (“he’d swallowed a hard lump lf cloud”; “their pubic hair was as wet as a rain forest”) which cannot be blamed on the translator, Philp Gabriel (though I am blaming him for: “I am too telling the truth”). The novel has a sentimental idealisation of teenage friendship, and a Freudian level fear of sexual fantasy – in that sense it would, perhaps, make a good pop song. Murakami certainly seems to have adopted a pedestrian version of Bowie’s ‘cut-up’ approach to lyrics.

(Of course, were you to ask me how I felt about that concert 27 years ago, I would tell you that I loved it).

The Dead Lake

September 3, 2014

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The year’s theme for Peirene Press has been coming-of-age stories, beginning in February with Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake. Ismailov was forced into exile from Uzbekistan in 1994 and his works are still prohibited there. Although Peirene frequently bring writers into English for the first time, Ismailov is one of those rare occasions where some of his work has been previously translated. Certainly two other novels are available in print (The Railway and A Poet and Bin Laden), and a third as an e-book (The Underground). Andrew Broomfield, also responsible for A Poet and Bin Laden, has translated The Dead Lake from the Russian (Ismailov writes in both Uzbek and Russian).

Having now read all three of Peirene’s 2014 novellas, it is striking that all of them deal with the idea of coming-of-age in terms of relationships with the opposite sex, although all in different and surprising ways. In The Dead Lake that relationship is between Yerzhan and Aisulu who grow up together on the sparsely populated steppe. We hear Yerzhan’s story through the mediation of a narrator who comes across the young man on railway journey through Kazakhstan and is astounded at his virtuoso violin playing. The narrator first offends Yerzhan by mistaking him for a child – we discover later that Yerzhan stopped growing before he reached his teens – but soon befriends him and hears his life story throughout the rest of the journey.

Yerzham lives an isolated existence with his grandparents, his mother and his uncle (“The column for ‘Father’ in his birth certificate had remained blank”); in the only other house Aisulu lives with her Granny and parents. Yerzhan discovers he has a great talent for music, firstly by playing his grandfather’s dombra, and then later (when he is taken for lessons), the violin. If at first his talent seems a gift to be cherished, later you may be suspicious it is ultimately seen as pointless. The family live near ‘the Zone’, an area for nuclear testing, where Aisulu’s father works, a barren wasteland scattered with ruined buildings, one of which is nicknamed the goose:

“As they came closer, the ‘goose’ appeared more like a crane, an immense concrete block half-crumpled, as if it had melted and run on one side.”

Ismailov largely underplays the Zone to emphasise how matter-of-factly it is accepted as part of their life. The Dead Lake itself is to be found in the Zone, created by a bomb crater. Though Yerzhan is told not to drink or touch it, he

“…walked calmly into the forbidden water. For a moment he splashed about in it and then, to the admiring and terrified twittering of Aisulu and then others, he walked out of the water, shook himself off as if nothing had happened…”

Whether it is this single immersion, or (more likely) the continual exposure to radiation that prevents Yerzhan growing any further, it has a profound effect on his life. His assumption that he would marry childhood sweetheart Aisulu is challenged when she begins to exceed him in height. This begins a devastating series of events that will affect all in his tiny community.

If The Dead Lake is a critique of life on the steppe, it criticises from both the past and the present. If it is the USSR’s desperation to “catch up with the Americans and then overtake them” that leads to Yerzhan’s poisoning, the novel suggests that neither modernity nor folklore has an answer to it. A visit to a local healer is ridiculed when her methods and instructions are repeated almost word for word later when his Granny has an entirely different complaint; however, a trip to a city hospital is no more successful. Similarly, at the moment he enters the lake, Yerzhan is influenced both by the myth of Gesar his Granny has told him and American singer / film star Dean Reed (who will later drown in a lake). These influences lead to further rash action on his part later in the novel.

The Dead Lake, though it does not always seem it, is on reflection a bleak novel that offers little in the way of hope. I kept returning to the scene when Aisulu adopts a fox cub – that night it escapes from the house and is torn to pieces by the family dog. Its mother calls plaintively in the distance in a novel that is filled with the lonely howling of animals.