Archive for the ‘Man Booker International Prize 2018’ Category

The Flying Mountain

April 28, 2018

Christoph Ransmayr’s The Flying Mountain (translated by Simon Pare) is a novel in verse – or, at least, the prose is shaped differently. It’s not Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, composed of 590 sonnets, or Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, apparently Seth’s inspiration. It reads more like an English translation of ancient epic – though whether this is because it is an English translation, or simply because it echoes the form without the poetic techniques of the original (metre, for example) I cannot say. Like an epic, it is concerned with the daring deeds of men and, though a love story lies at its heart, it is the relationship between two brothers which concerns most of its pages.

The two brothers, Liam and Padraic (who is also the narrator) are Irish (you may have guessed this) and therefore subject to a harsh upbringing, particularly after their mother runs off with the electrician who installed their television. Their father, Captain Daddy, is a diehard (but also a blowhard) Republican who is determined to make men of his sons. He is so successful that, years later, Liam is living alone on “a near-uninhabited island / that was inaccessible on stormy days” with only “twelve Highland cattle, more than a hundred Targhee sheep, five sheepdogs / and two powerful computers” for company while Padraic is a merchant seaman. Liam convinces his brother to travel with him to Tibet to climb a mountain he has discovered via a photograph online. (This is not as unlikely as it seems as Liam’s specialty is simulating “the movements of the Earth’s mantle / for digital atlases and globes” – though, as the novel is apparently based on the story of Reinhold Messner (who was born in 1944) it raises the question of why Ransmayr felt the need to set his novel in the present day). While there, they learn there are in fact three mountains, and it is on the final ascent (of Flying Mountain) that Liam dies (this is revealed in the opening pages).

The novel begins, however, with Padraic fearing for his own life only to be rescued by Liam and, to be fair to Ransmayr, we are treated to some dramatic description:

“I had lost my brother’s tracks
in a blizzard
when the moon vanished,
as if doused by a wave of black water.”

The focus then retires to Liam and Padraic’s past and their father’s attempts to toughen them up:

“our father acted on these hikes
as if he had to train
his sons in the mountains
for future battles
over Irish unity”

Liam, the elder brother, adapts more readily to this life, and we see in their childhood the beginnings of both their relationship and their differing personalities:

“Manoeuvres were my father’s name
for these summer nuisances,
which Liam hungered for
whereas I had to be coaxed”

These childhood memories are by far the most interesting sections of the novel, partly because the domestic content and the blank verse form create a dynamic contrast. Also, Captain Daddy, with all his cruel eccentricities, is the novel’s most charismatic character, and provides tonal changes which do not exist in the rest of the narrative (his participation in a Republican parade is the one scene which I think I will remember for a long time). The rest of the novel, particularly Padraic’s relationship with Nyema (which reads like something out of John Buchan) pales in comparison. The style saps the tension from its more dramatic moments and, like the mountain landscape, the novel’s scenes become indistinct and indistinguishable, the verse blanker and blanker. Reconstituted into slabs of prose, the novel would be very dull indeed, and it’s difficult not to suspect that the form is an illusion just like the flying mountain. Happiness may write white, but snow, it seems, writes whiter.

The 7th Function of Language

April 8, 2018

Laurent Binet’s first novel, HHhH, centred on the assassination of prominent Nazi Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942, though it also contained Binet’s discussion of his research and reflections on the fictionalisation of historical figures. Five years later in The 7th Function of Language, we have a novel which not only fictionalises Roland Barthes (and an enormous cast of other semiologists, structuralists and literary theorists) but goes one step further in creating a playful, but entirely unlikely, plot around his death in 1980, when he was indeed run down by a laundry van as he is at the beginning of the novel:

“His body makes the familiar, dull thudding sound of flesh meeting metal, and it rolls over the tarmac like a rag doll. Passers-by flinch. This afternoon – 25 February 1980 – they cannot know what has just happened in front of their eyes. For the very god reason that, until today, no one knows anything about it.”

There is nothing particularly suspicious about the accident but Superintendent Jacques Bayard is sent to investigate as Barthes met with Socialist candidate for president, Francois Mitterand, shortly before and “it is the habit of Renseignements Generaux to gather information about everything, and especially, during the run-up to the election campaign, about Francois Mitterand.” He discovers that papers Bathes had on him at the time of the accident have gone missing.

The novel is imbued with an enormous sense of fun. Realising, after an interview with Foucault (“Roland Barthes is dead.” “But who killed him?” “The system, of course!”) that he is in need of some expert help, Bayard enlists a young university lecturer, Simon Herzog, who is, of course, decoding James Bond when we first meet him. He then uses his semiological skills to apply Holmesian deduction to Bayard:

“You fought in Algeria; you’ve been married twice; you are separated from your second wife; you have a daughter under twenty, with whom you had a difficult relationship; you voted for Giscard in both rounds of the last presidential election, and you’ll do the same again next year…”

There are also more subtle touches, such as the Citroen DS, from Barthes’ famous essay in Mythologies, which begins to follow the main characters around.

Binet is also no respecter of the many real-life characters which feature in the novel. When we next meet Foulcault he is in a gay sauna being fellated by an Arab – “He points at his crotch: ‘This is not a pipe, as Magritte would say, ha, ha!’” – and he is portrayed throughout as more interested in carnality than academia. Julia Kristeva is a Bulgarian spy – something which, in a bizarre twist, has been alleged as fact this year. And having dealt with the French intelligentsia, Binet ensures the investigators need to travel to Italy (to meet Umberto Eco) and the USA (for a conference featuring Derrida, Deleuze and Foucault, with a guest appearance by Chomsky).

The McGuffin which allows all this to take place is the titular 7th function of language. Eco speculates it relates to the performative function of language, “the capacity that certain pronouncements have to produce … what they pronounce through the very fact of their pronouncement.”

“Whoever had the mastery and knowledge of such a function would be virtually master of the world.”

The secret of this 7th function exists in different forms (written, recorded, memorised) which are sought by various parties, both to use and destroy. Into this mix Binet throws the Logos Club, a secret organisation which descends from ancient Greece:

“It developed as a highly compartmentalised secret society, structured like a pyramid, with its leaders – a body of ten members known as the sophists – presided over by a Protagoras Magnus, practising their rhetorical talents which they used essentially in the service of their political ambitions.”

Promotion is won through debate, but defeat can lead to the loss of a finger, or worse.

Parts of the novel are genuinely filled with tension, for example when Simon is involved in a car chase which ends with a crash and a misfiring pistol. And much of it is amusing, though probably more so if you are either an academic or interested in French politics. It is, though, over-long, the initial thrill of finding intellectuals embroiled in a pot-boiler having long worn off by page 400, and neither Bayard nor Simon having the depth to carry the reader’s interest to the end. Unlikely, then, to make the short list, but also suggesting that Binet will be a writer whose next project will always be worth looking out for.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

April 3, 2018

The Man Booker International Prize, like the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize before it, tends to be Eurocentric, reflecting, as it does, what is actually translated. This year nine of the thirteen long-listed books are by European authors with the others coming from Argentina, South Korea, Taiwan and Iraq. Han Kang has, of course, already won the prize, but Iraq too have a previous winner, with Hassan Blasim’s short story collection The Iraqi Christ winning the IFFP in 2014 with a title which is echoed in Ahmed Saadawi’s novel, Frankenstein in Baghdad. Whether this is a portent or not, Frankenstein in Baghdad is an excellent novel which I fully expect to make the shortlist.

Frankenstein is famously a patchwork narrative and, although Saadawi does not choose to recreate its pieced-together presentation (beyond a ‘Final Report’ which appears as a preface), he gives us instead a patchwork of characters, each bringing their own story. (A ‘List of Characters’ is included, though I can’t recall referring to it so well defined are the individuals who inhabit the novel). Saadawi uses an explosion to introduce his cast:

“The explosion took place two minutes after Elishva, the old woman known as Umm Daniel, or Daniel’s mother, boarded the bus.”

Though her daughters have left Baghdad, Elishva continues to stay in the same house in the hope her son Daniel, reported missing during the Iran – Iraq war, returns. Her house is coveted by real estate agent Faraj, who arrives at his office to find “cracks in the large front window” as a result of the explosion:

“The best thing would be to wait until she died and then no-one would dare to take over the house, since everyone knew how attached he was to it and acknowledged him as its future owner.”

The contents of her house, meanwhile, have caught the eye of Hadi, the junk dealer. Hadi, we learn, has changed since he lost his brother as a result of a car bomb:

“Nahem had already been dead for several months – from a car bomb that had exploded in front of the office of a religious party in Karrada, also killing some other passer-by and Nahim’s horse. It had been hard to separate Nahem’s flesh from that of the horse.”

In the aftermath of the most recent explosion he finds a nose which he takes home to add to the corpse he has been creating from body parts retrieved from the streets since his brother’s death, a body which comes to symbolise Iraq:

“I made it complete so it wouldn’t be treated as rubbish, so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial.”

He tells his audience in the coffee shop that the next morning the corpse was gone, but as Hadi is famous for his stories (to which he was “careful to add realistic touches”) no-one believes him. The corpse is, of course, the Frankenstein (‘s monster) of the title, brought to life by the combination of the lost soul of a hotel guard killed in the explosion and Elishva’s belief it is Daniel finally returned to her:

“With her words the old woman had animated this extraordinary composite – made up of disparate body parts and the soul of the hotel guard who had lost his life. The old woman brought him out of anonymity with the name she gave him: Daniel.”

The monster (known as Whatsitsname or the One Who Has No Name) begins to kill those responsible for the deaths of the various parts of his body. He kills Abu Zaidoun whom Elishva blames for Daniel’s death as he forced him to enlist; he almost kills Hadi, reasoning, “You’re responsible for the death of the guard at the hotel… If you hadn’t been walking past the hotel the guard wouldn’t have come out to the gate.” The rising death toll allows Saadawi to involve a journalist, Mahmoud, and a secret army unit in investigating the events, further widening the canvas of his portrait of Iraq.

Perhaps the best adjective for Frankenstein in Baghdad is fearless (like the monster itself), facing down the challenge of turning news headlines into literature. It utilises a large cast of characters to create a rounded vision of society without confusing or losing the reader; it folds elements of the supernatural easily into a realist narrative; it tackles serous issues with a lightness of touch and some humour, without ever seeming preachy or overly earnest. And it is never without life.

Like a Fading Shadow

April 1, 2018

Like a Fading Shadow is the seventh of Antonio Munoz Molina’s novels to be translated into English (by Camilo A Ramirez) but it would be fair to say he remains largely unknown in both the UK and the US. Those previous novels suggest a writer fascinated by history, and Like a Fading Shadow is no exception, a novel set in three different time periods in the city of Lisbon. In one Molina recreates the ten days spent there by James Earl Ray in the aftermath of his assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968; in the second he recounts visiting the city in 1987 when he was writing the novel which became Winter in Lisbon; and, thirdly, there is a contemporary section covering his research for the novel we are reading.

Molina begins the novel by saying, “I awake inside his mind,” and he certainly inhabits Ray’s thoughts convincingly, his presentation of a character who rarely communicates taking place largely within his head; a taciturn man, we suspect, even before he finds himself isolated in a country whose language he does not speak. Self-educated and understandably paranoid, Ray is the sum of his influences, a patchwork of knowledge much of which reads like a self-help book for spies:

“Autohypnosis can give you complete control over bodily functions… Your face will be forgotten faster if they never see your eyes… With a lot of training it was possible to develop telepathic powers to anticipate an attack seconds before it happens…”

Ray is a parody James Bond, a character (does he think of him as a ‘character’?) he idolises who frequently crops up in his inner monologue:

“He carried the revolver in his back pocket. James Bond kept his Berretta in a holster made of antelope skin.”

His assimilation of facts (including numerous capital cities) seem focussed in his own mind, but is random in relation to understanding the world. This originates not in his rejection of traditional education but in education’s rejection of him:

“The teacher did not hide her repulsion for him and used to laugh at him in front of the others. He would go to school barefoot or wearing his father’s old boots, several sizes too big, and the old man’s coat with the sleeves rolled up. Before he could enter the schoolhouse, the teacher inspected his head for lice.”

Similarly, he identifies himself as ‘under-cover’ to differentiate himself from his own past:

“He hides in the human waste of the slums but he is not one of them.”

Clearly there is a novel to be written of Ray’s life, and Molina reaches beyond his time in Lisbon into both his past and future. However, perhaps because Ray’s character, once defined, does not develop, and also, as an archetypal loner, he lacks relationships, he ties Ray’s story to his own life. What seems to link Ray’s time in Lisbon with his own in 1987 is a sense of losing oneself and being lost:

“Beneath the calm surface of my daily routine was a juxtaposition of fragmented lives without rhyme or reason, unfulfilled desires, scattered pieces which did not fit together.”

Molina describes a Jekyll and Hyde existence where he is both a family man working in an office and, when allowed any freedom (as in Lisbon), a party animal whose nights are filled with Bacchanalian excess. As one of acquaintances comments:

“You are under-cover all right, but I can’t tell if you are infiltrating the underworld or City Hall.”

His trip to Lisbon is ostensibly to work on his novel but he wonders if “maybe I just wanted to escape for a few days and literature was my excuse.” Despite Molina’s attempts to yoke the two narratives together, however, (“I was leaving like a spy who has accomplished his mission”) they remain very different, though in both we see the tension between the identities society imposes on us and those we create for ourselves.

I found Ray’s story fascinating, though largely in a ‘true crime’ kind of way; Molina’s confessions are less interesting as they feel far from unique, and drifts as the novel progresses. A story of meeting Juan Carlos Onetti is more a curio than an insight. More generally, the novel runs out of steam before the end, and a final section written from the point of view of King arrives too late restart the engines. Above all, though, it is Molina’s failure to make the parts of the novel a greater whole which leads me to suspect this will not feature on the Man Booker International shortlist.

The Dinner Guest

March 24, 2018

Gabriela Ybarra, who has been long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize with her debut novel The Dinner Guest, is almost an exact contemporary of Alicia Kopf, whose Brother in Ice I read recently (Kopf was born in 1982, Ybarra on 1983). Both novels also won awards before being translated into English (in the case of The Dinner Guest, by Natasha Wimmer who has previously translated much of Roberto Bolano’s work). The similarities do not end there, however, and both novels might be said to belong to the same genre, one in which the novel originates in the author’s own life, and which mixes some element of research with an autobiographical story which borders, at times, on the diary form.

The origin of The Dinner Guest lies in the kidnap of Ybarra’s grandfather in 1977, six years before she was born. According to her father, he went calmly:

“He showed no qualms about being kidnapped, not for a second. He got dressed, collected his hat and some books, and tried to reassure us.”

Though a ransom is demanded, her grandfather is never released, and a month later his body is found. Ybarra recreates the event from newspaper articles as well as family recollections, fictionalising certain scenes. Her grandfather was murdered, she says, “because he belonged to one of the families who had traditionally occupied top posts in the province. The group [ETA] saw him as a symbol of central government power.” This means her father, too, is a target:

“I knew there were people who wanted to kill my father. Sometimes I watched him transcribing an interview or reading a book and tried to understand why.”

Eventually the family move from the Basque country to Madrid when Ybarra is twelve years old.

The story resumes when Ybarra is an adult with the death of her mother from cancer:

“My mother’s death brought back my grandfather’s death… The tedium of illness recalled the tedium of the wait during the kidnapping.”

In the novel’s second part (which makes up 100 of its 140 pages) Ybarra recounts her experience of her mother’s illness from the phone call in which her mother tells her she has cancer “but it’s really nothing” to her death six months later. Much of her mother’s treatment takes place in New York where Ybarra is studying, and initially the prognosis is good:

“’You’ll live to see your grandchildren,’ Doctor Marsden said to my mother before we left.”

However, after treatment, her mother’s condition worsens and eventually her mother tells Ybarra “the tumour has broken out and spread to the rest of my body.” Her mother’s experiences throughout this time are retold in painful detail, and, though we know her death is inevitable, it is impossible not to share the emotional journey of the family.

Despite this, the award-winning status (and long-listing) of The Dinner Guest puzzles me in much the same way as Brother in Ice. Ybarra seems to feel that by placing the two deaths between the same covers her work is done and fails to connect them in any meaningful way. She tells us:

“Before my mother’s diagnosis I didn’t pay much attention to death… In those days I still believed that premature death belonged to the realm of fiction.”

This suggests that the events of the novel (and her life) will cause her to reflect on mortality, a reflection, however, which doesn’t transpire in much depth. In some ways, the lesson seems obvious: death can strike even those whose lives are privileged and protected. Yet Ybarra seems unaware of her own privilege, even when her mother declares at one point that she will buy an apartment in Brooklyn as if it were a handbag.

Reflection is also central to genre she has chosen to write in which avoids inhabiting to any great degree the thoughts of her characters because they have not been fictionalised. Both Part One and Part Two certainly contain enough raw material from which to build a novel; Ybarra seems to hope that by yoking them together something extraordinary would happen – perhaps for some readers it does. I found, instead, her decision to place herself at the centre of everything actually mitigated against sincerity: her journey at the end to the place where her grandfather was killed seemed to be more about finding an ending for her book than seeking answers for herself. Ybarra’s grief seems like then dinner guest of the title: always there in her motivation to write, but invisible in her writing.

Man Booker International Prize 2018 – Predictions

March 1, 2018

Though I have decided not to be part of the shadow jury this year, this does not mean that the Man Booker International Prize has been forgotten. At this time of year, with the long list announcement a fortnight away, thoughts turn to which books might be selected. The book must have been published in the UK between the 1st of May 2017 and the 30th April 2018, the book’s writer and translator must be living, and reprinted translations or new translations of a work which has already been translated are not eligible. (This year I discovered a new rule from previous juror Daniel Hahn via Tony Malone – books translated by one of the jurors (in this case Peter Stamm’s To the Back of Beyond translated by Michael Hofmann) may not be entered).

Previous Winners

Two recent winners (in discussing the prize in its present form I will consider it as a continuation of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) – Han Kang and Jenny Erpenbeck – are likely to reappear. The fact that both books (The White Book and Go Went Gone) are quite different to the author’s previous work will hopefully be in their favour. The ever-present Orhan Pamuk, who won the first IFFP in 1990, also had a new novel, The Red-Haired Woman, published last year. His two previous novels were tedious and self-indulgent but were still listed, so this (apparently slightly better, and at least shorter) has to have a chance. 2004 winner, Javier Cercas, may also make a (more welcome) appearance with The Imposter.

Previously Shortlisted

Both Haruki Murakami and Daniel Kehlman were short-listed in 2015 and have books eligible again this year (Men Without Women and You Should Have Left). The latter is short but impressive and may have a chance despite lacking press coverage; Murakami has the opposite problem, now so well known there may seem little point in listing him for a prize he is unlikely to win. Karl Knausgaard was short-listed for the second part of My Struggle (the first part only made the longlist); parts 3-5 have been conspicuously ignored. He has three eligible books this year from his Seasons Quartet but I suspect his best chance is the final volume of My Struggle in 2019. In contrast, I will be very surprised if Dasa Drndic’s Belladonna is omitted – especially as I still think she should have won the prize in 2013 with Trieste. (Note: I will now be less surprised if Belladonna isn’t chosen as it was, in fact, published just before the end of April and therefore eligible last year – thanks, again, to Daniel Hahn for keeping everyone right!)

Previously Longlisted

Hamid Ismailov, who was previously selected for The Dead Lake, has a new novel, The Devil’s Dance, out next week. (This would also mean some well-deserved recognition for Tilted Axis Press). Larent Binet (The 7th Function of Language), Bernardo Atxaga (Nevada Days) and Laszlo Kraznahorkai (The World Goes On) are all possibilities. Dag Solstad has two books coming out this year but neither will appear in time; and shadow jurors may be relieved to hear the same applies to Yan Lianke.

New to the Prize

Though absent last year, Peirene Press have a good record of being represented and one of The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay, Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena and Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel (which I haven’t read but has been suggested by others) might well appear this year. In contrast, And Other Stories have, up to know, been unsuccessful. Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons should have a good chance (although two previous novels have passed the prize by), and I would be particularly pleased to see Iosi Havilio’s Petite Fleur feature. As mentioned before, I would love to see a Tilted Axis book included, and my preference would be Sangeeta Badyopadhyay’s Abandon. Pushkin Press’ most likely long-listee is probably My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci. When it comes to the entirely new press Charco it would be a pleasure to see any of their books make an appearance – both Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love and Ricardo Romero’s The President’s Room are certainly excellent. Any from Maclehose Press’ new Read the World series is also worth a place, with Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex 1 being one I liked far more than  I thought I might. And, apart from Belladonna, surely the other certainty is Andres Barba’s Such Small Hands?

Interestingly, the three novels which I would insist on including (should I ever make it anywhere near the real jury) are all by women: Belladonna, The White Book, and Go Went Gone. I mention this because gender parity has never been achieved in previous longlists, and only 3 of the 23 winners have been female (though technically the MBI is 1:1). A more balanced selection this year would be welcome.

There is a list of eligible books on goodreads here, though this is not entirely accurate, including at least two dead authors.

You can read shadow jury stalwarts Tony Malone’s predictions here, and Stu’s here.

The White Book

February 26, 2018

Han Kang’s The White Book is very different to her two previous novels, The Vegetarian and Human Acts. It is, as she has said herself, “difficult to classify, a kind of essay cum prose poem.” Though it reaches 161 pages, many of these are blank, and others contain photographs and film stills by Choi Jinhyuk; the chapters are short, frequently less than a page long. All in all, it’s a very white book (even the paper it is printed on is of superior stock, and therefore whiter, than the average hardback).

The novel is also autobiographical, personal even, originating in time author spent in Warsaw, a city she begins to associate with her sister who died shortly after birth, as she has explained in interview:

“Almost 95% of it was destroyed in the Warsaw uprising. It was completely rebuilt, resurrected. I imagined the city as a metaphor for my older sister.”

In the novel she speaks of her as “a person who had met the same fate as the city”:

“And I think of her coming here instead of me. To this curiously familiar city, whose death and life resemble her own.”

In the novel she resurrects her sister, moving from the ‘I’ of the first section to the ‘She’ of the second. In a sense, she also sees herself as her sister’s second life, realising that without her sister’s death she would not have been born:

“This life needed only one of us to live it. If you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now.”

Unsurprisingly, a sense of impermanence runs through the novel; the white images themselves suggest as much: snow, frost, fog, wave, even the moon itself. Her sister bears “the knowledge that everything she has clung to will fall away and vanish.” The chapter ‘Sand’ reflects:

“…her body (all our bodies) is a house of sand
That it had shattered and is shattering still.
Slipping stubbornly through fingers.”

Yet this is not the novel’s message. Warsaw is not a symbol of destruction but of reconstruction – “the remaining section of a ruined brick wall, which the bombing had not managed to destroy completely, since moved and incorporated into another structure.” Han has commented on the novel’s intention:

“This time I wanted to look at something in us that cannot be hurt or destroyed or harmed anyhow – and maybe we can call that something white.”

Her sister’s death becomes both a reminder of the fragility of life (“Looking at herself in the mirror, she never forgot that death was hovering behind that face”), but also of the difficulty of destroying something completely. This applies, of course, to the memory of her sister:

“There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time.”

But it also emphasises the continuation of life, specifically the way in which Han connects her sister’s death to her own life. This is rendered beautifully in the final chapter when Han speaks of seeing with her sister’s eyes:

“Within that white, all of those white things, I will breathe in the final breath you released.”

Both The Vegetarian and Human Acts have their moments of strange beauty, but The White Book is eerily beautiful throughout. It is, as Han says at the beginning, a “transformative” book: her words transform everything within it. Even a handkerchief seen falling from a balcony becomes “like a soul tentatively sounding out a place it might alight.” Credit must go to translator Deborah Smith for her own act of transformation which demonstrates an exquisite ear for English. The White Book may be difficult to categorise, but it is easy to recognise as a deeply affecting meditation on death and life.

Vernon Subutex 1

October 22, 2017

Despite Maclehose’s Press reputation as a publisher of typically wonderful translated fiction, and the temptation to take a completist approach to their new Read the World series (with its echoes of the Harvill Press’ numbered editions in the nineties), I found it difficult to be enticed by the fourth release, Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex (translated by the ever-reliable Frank Wynne). I suspect my suspicion of anything labelled punk, grunge or trash fiction originates in my lack of sympathy for the Beats. Certainly the cover was striking and unmistakeable, but was I really the target market? In fact, the novel is both ambitious and accomplished, nothing less than a panorama of French life at the beginning of the 21st century. In particular it focuses on Despentes’ generation, those who were born into an analogue world and have had to either adapt or die in the new digital age. Vernon has failed to adapt: having spent many pleasant years as the owner of a record shop – with the twin advantages of making a living out of his first love, music, and easy access to his second love, women – he now finds himself without an income:

“These days, his chances of finding work were slimmer than if he had been a coalminer.”

When Alex Bleach, the only one of his friends to have made it big in the music business, dies, and, more importantly, can no longer be relied on to pay his rent, Vernon also finds himself without a home. As he sofa-surfs from friend to friend – contacting them – of course – via Facebook – Despentes introduces us to his past (as he avoids contemplating his future), and a generation whose best years are behind them.

Rather predictably the novel, with its large cast of characters, has been compared to contemporary box sets. This seems both an unlikely and patronising comparison. Firstly, it has very little in the way of plot, though it does have plot-generating McGuffin in the form of tapes Bleach recorded and left with Vernon which a number of characters are keen to get their hands on. The most obvious predecessor for Despentes is, of course, Balzac, particularly when we learn there are another two volumes to come. There also seems to be a sly nod to Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manuel which also tells the stories of many characters but is centred on one apartment block: what could be more appropriate than a contemporary version where the writer is able to tell those stories because the protagonist is homeless?

Vernon has been unable to leave his youth behind; rather it has left him. When his friends left Paris for the suburbs he stayed behind. He is “haunted by the memory of the girl who got away” – or the girl whose possessions he dumped outside his flat when he discovered she was seeing someone else – an untypically decisive if hypocritical gesture (she had already forgiven him a number of affairs). Though seemingly able to easily charm women, he is wary of relationships:

“Vernon understands women, he has made a study of them. The city is full of lost souls ready to do his cleaning and get down on all fours to lavish him with lingering blowjobs designed to cheer him up. But he is too old to believe that all this comes without a series of reciprocal demands.”

“Friends are different”, he says, but as his friends get older, and begin to die, he increasingly isolates himself:

“After he buried Pedro, Vernon stopped going out, stopped retuning phonecalls. He thought it was a phase, that it would pass. After the deaths of several close friends, it did not seem inappropriate to need to withdraw into himself.”

Though he is not an unsympathetic character, Vernon is by nature a parasite. When Alex Bleach dies, his first thought is, “Who is going to pay his back rent?” In the one part of the novel where he demonstrates any talent it is as a DJ: using the talents of others to impress. His only other skill is his ability to seduce women, which he can also use to his advantage:

“As he stepped in, he noticed that the couch was not a sofa bed and besides was piled with mountains of clothes. If he was going to sleep here, he would have to share her bed.”

Perhaps the reason he remains sympathetic is that it is clear that he genuinely loves women even while he uses them. When he goes to stay with an old friend, Sylvie, he is initially delighted they are attracted to each other. Unfortunately her desire for him lasts longer than his for her, to the point he begins to drug himself so he can bear her company:

“He had left her to calm and went to look in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom where he found some tranquilisers. From that day on, he took one every morning when he heard her getting up.”

This is not a novel to renew your faith in humanity. Despentes roving narrative allows us access to the thoughts to her many characters, and most of it is unpleasant. For example, Kiko, a wealthy hedge fund manager:

“The cultural habits of the poor make Kiko want to puke. He imagines being reduced to such a life – over-salted food public transport talking home less than €5,000 a month and buying clothes in shopping mall.”

Or Noel, a right-wing thug whose hobbies include beating up the homeless:

“And remember to save up for when you have cancer, you fucking prole, the public hospitals are overrun by illegals from all over the planet who know France is the place to be. When it’s not North Africans being used to drive down working class salaries, it’s factories moving abroad to where people are starving. And why wouldn’t they?”

Despentes ability to inhabit the minds of her characters, and invest them with an individuality which rises above caricature, is the novel’s most astonishing achievement. Its final pages, where the narrative skips from person to person in a series of “I am”s which becomes steadily more intense makes Despentes’ choral intent clear. There’s nothing punk about this fiction except perhaps the energy which pours from its pages; it is both controlled and carefully crafted, a novel of our times and for our times.

Go Went Gone

September 16, 2017

Jenny Erpenbeck has frequently explored the injustices of history, but in her latest novel to be translated into English (by her regular translator Susan Bernofsky), Go Went Gone, she tackles the injustices of the present. Erpenbeck decided to write the novel (which was published in Germany in 2015) in 2013 in response to the media reaction to the drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean, feeling it was time to look more closely at what was happening, and, in particular, the experience of these displaced people when they arrived in Germany. “You can blank out the suffering of others,” she has said, “but you are also refusing to look at something in yourself.”

The first hurdle a writer must overcome in recreating the lives of refugees is the lack of action, forbidden, as they are, from working, largely spending their time waiting for some response from a distant bureaucracy. Erpenbeck does this by using a retired university professor, Richard, as a conduit for her exploration of their experience. Richard, having just retired, also finds time “completely different”:

“But now he’s being tormented… by time itself. Time is supposed to pass, but not just that.”

The novel opens with a refugee protest, a hunger strike, in Alexanderplatz; Richard’s first involvement occurs as he fails to notice the protest and its ironic intention: We become visible. The demonstration is soon over, but Richard finds it preys on his mind – “He’d really like to know what’s become of the ten men from Alexanderplatz” – and also awakens his interest in the countries the men have come from, bringing him to face to face with his own ignorance:

“The American vice president recently referred to Africa as a country – even though, as the article about this faux pas pointed out – there are fifty-four African countries. Fifty-four? He had no idea. What is the capital of Ghana? Of Sierra Leone? Or Niger?”

As Richard is a university professor, his ignorance feels wilful, a decision to ignore a large part of the globe which will later be reflected in the attitudes of his friends. Erpenbeck’s decision to make Richard a professor of Classics also seems very deliberate, a reminder of the importance of the countries around the Mediterranean to our culture (many of the refugees come from Syria, even if they are not Syrian). Richard is also East German and therefore aware that a society which seems almost relentlessly permanent can suddenly collapse. It also gives him an insight into different kinds of borders:

“…as long as a border of the sort he’s been familiar with for most of his life runs along a particular stretch of land and is permeable in either direction after border control procedures, the intentions of the two countries can be perceived by the used of barbed wire, the configuration of fortified barriers, and things of that sort. But the moment these borders are defined only by law, ambiguity takes over…”

Richard discovers that refugees can only claim asylum in the EU country they arrive in, but that those countries are happy to let them leave for another country:

“For a moment, Richard imagines what it would be like having someone explaining these laws to him in Arabic.”

Richard begins to visit refugees who have been housed in a nearby, disused home for the elderly, initially viewing this contact as a research project:

“Richard spends the next two weeks reading several books on the subject of refugees and drawing up a catalogue of questions for the conversations he wants to have with them.”

This allows Erpenbeck to use her own research without having to heavily fictionalise it. (At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Erpenbeck was paired with Jason Donald whose novel Dalila is centred on a fictional Kenyan refugee, a character created by amalgamating the experiences of the many refugees Donald has spoken to; Erpenbeck instead presents her stories largely as she heard them). Whether Richard’s journey mirrors her own, it is certainly intended to encourage the reader to move from interest to empathy. Each refugee’s story is individual, but all can be summarised in the words of Rashid:

“From one day to the next, our former life came to an end.”

Though, in style, this is very different to Erpenbeck’s previous novels – particularly in the intensity of language – it is not without haunting images. Erpenbeck uses a drowning in a lake which Richard’s house overlooks to mirror those killed on the voyage across the Mediterranean:

“They still haven’t found the man at the bottom of the lake. It wasn’t suicide. He died in a swimming accident.”

Waiting for the corpse to rise echoes the waiting of the refugees in a novel about becoming visible: as Erpenbeck has said, “Things that disappear still have their place in the world.”

Go Went Gone shows a skilled novelist engaging with a vital topic, demonstrating the importance of fiction in understanding the world. Any fear that Erpenbeck is in danger of reducing her work to reportage is dismissed by an ending which suddenly plunges us into the human depths she has so fearlessly explored in the past.

Die, My Love

August 30, 2017

I was lucky enough to attend the Edinburgh launch of Charco Press, a new publisher of Latin American fiction which is based in the city. (Charco is apparently Spanish for puddle, so Scotland would seem to be the ideal location). The authors of its two launch publications, Ariana Harwicz (Die, My Love), and Gabriela Cabezon Camara (Slum Virgin), were both in attendance, as was co-founder and translator Carolina Orloff; the enthusiasm of all three (and of hosts, Golden Hare Books) was wonderful to behold, and I began reading Die, My Love (translated by Carolina and Sarah Moses) on the train home.

Die, My Love is a fierce, unsettling novel about motherhood and marriage. Its Argentinian author, Harwicz, spoke of writing the book while living in France with her husband and first child, explaining to some extent the sense of foreignness and isolation of the narrator. Further blurring the boundaries between fiction and autobiography, she confessed that when she began she did not know that she was writing a novel. The novel’s searing honesty is quickly apparent as the narrator considers the need to acquire a cake for her son’s six-month ‘birthday’:

“Whenever I look at him I think of my husband behind me, about to ejaculate on my back, but instead suddenly turning me over and coming inside me. If this hadn’t happened, if I’d closed my legs, if I’d grabbed his dick, I wouldn’t have to go to the bakery for cream cake or chocolate cake and candles, half a year already.”

Her husband remains a distant figure in the novel. His love of the night sky might suggest he is looking in the wrong direction, particularly as his wife remains uninterested in the meteorites he watches through his telescope, thinking only that she’d like to be on “any mission to outer space.” She fails to share his love of the outdoors:

“Personally, I don’t give a damn if I’m under the open sky or shut up in a trunk.”

His distance, though, is also a reflection of her own isolation: in the opening pages it is she who keeps herself apart from her husband and son, and throughout the novel she will frequently retreat to the woods. Her husband’s patience magnifies her own inadequacies:

“The most aggressive thing he’d said to me in seven years was ‘Go and get yourself checked out.’ I’d said to him ‘You’re a dead man’ during the first month of our relationship.”

Harwicz captures the constant anxiety which can accompany having a child. In the narrator’s earliest memory after giving birth she is “afraid of the harm she could cause the newborn.” She frequently thinks she hears her child crying only to find him lying silently – this too, of course, causing worry:

“Why does he sleep so much? Why doesn’t he stir?”

The novel’s honesty also extends to the narrator’s sex life, and the waves of desire which come over her. She becomes fixated on a neighbour, at one point writing in his voice (“Now I’m speaking as him”):

“I think about her and heave with desire.”

She haunts his home, where he stays with his wife and daughter, her sexual fantasies (“Such delicious luxury to have a man pressing on my guts”) finally fulfilled, though such is the intensity of the narrative that this is only the likeliest possibility rather than a certainty. Animal imagery describes their coupling:

“In one feline motion, I turn over and climb on top of him.”

It’s not uncommon for the narrator to compare herself to an animal, and real animals also occur again and again the narrative. The couple’s car hitting a stag is one example, a brief instance where the underlying violence of the voice punches through. (The stag survives and will be seen again by the narrator – “The stag used to appear at nightfall and linger between the woods and the garden” – inhabiting the same borderline between domesticity and wildness as she does.) Their dog is injured in the accident, and the narrator’s inability to cope with it whimpering in pain (she asks her husband to kill it) seems to echo her response to her child.

Die, My Love is a powerful exploration of the rage and loneliness which can accompany motherhood. Such feelings may not be universal (though many of her thoughts will have occurred to some in diluted form) but neither is it unique. The novel also questions the direction and purpose of relationships, and our roles within them, the narrator’s faltering marriage set against the marriage of her in-laws. It does all this in wild phrases which bite and cut at the consciousness of the reader: Harwicz spoke of a realist novel where the fantastic element lies in the language. Harwicz also said that writing a novel is a matter of life and death, and that is certainly how this novel feels.