Ice

January 2, 2018

Few books suit winter like Anna Kavan’s Ice. Not only does it portray a world consumed by a permanent winter of ice and snow; it contains a coldness at its heart as if a splinter of the shattered mirror through which Kavan wrote her fiction had been inserted Snow Queen style into its centre. Indeed, it reads like an inverted version of that fairy tale, as our narrator searches for the woman he loves in the icy wasteland, believing she has come under the spell of her cruel captor.

On the surface, like ice, the story is plain and clear. The narrator falls in love with a woman who leaves him and marries a painter. He recalls visiting her in her newly married state – “it was the first time I had seen her happy” – but is later convinced her husband has treated her badly. When he hears she has left, he decides he must find her, particularly as the climate has now begun to deteriorate. This search is presented as a need, a compulsion:

“Somehow or other I had to find her… There was no rational explanation, I could not account for it. It was a sort of craving which had to be satisfied.”

He follows her to a devastated town where he finds her living with the ‘warden’, a powerful, quasi-military figure who rules the town like a fiefdom, living in the High House, “a fortresslike mass built at its highest point.” With echoes of Arthurian legend, he must now rescue her from this tower. (This is not the only knightly allusion – at one point she will be sacrificed by the villagers to a dragon).

What seems clear, however, is, on closer inspection, laced with cracks. We have, for example, only the narrator’s word that she needs, or wants, rescuing in the first place. Though the novel’s template is that of a chivalrous quest, the narrative is a combination of thriller and psychiatrist’s transcript. Like driving through a snowstorm, the novel’s oppressive subjectivity hypnotises the reader with the narrator’s impulses and impressions.

The narrator perceives the woman to be fragile and delicate, frequently referring to her body as child-like (“the girl’s naked body, slight as a child’s”), and comparing her to glass:

“I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real.”

It suits him to see her as a victim, helpless in the warden’s hands:

“Forced since childhood into a victim’s pattern of thought and behaviour, she was defenceless against his aggressive will.”

Soon we begin to suspect the narrator is describing scenes he has not witnessed, for example when he describes the woman modelling for her husband naked, her wrists and ankles tied; or later when he says, “She was nervous in the forest, which always seemed full of menace.” We are, after all, warned in the opening pages:

“Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”

As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the narrator from the warden. Again, Kavan has prepared us for this from the beginning. He describes the point in his life when she left him as ‘traumatic’ leading to “horrible dreams, in which she always appeared as a helpless victim, her fragile body broken and bruised”; dreams which he confesses to enjoying. Later he will speak of “an indescribable affinity” with the warden; she is convinced they are “in league together.” As Jonathan Lethem says in his introduction to the US edition, the narrator

“…slowly converges with the personality of and motives of the sadistic, controlling ‘warden’.”

The blurring of character boundaries reflects the frozen landscape where, in Ballardian abstraction, the details disorientate rather than distinguish:

“It could have been any town, in any country. I recognized nothing. Snow covered all landmarks with the same white padding. Buildings were changed into anonymous white cliffs.”

Most disorienting of all is the novel’s repetition as the narrator finds the woman only to lose her again, find her again and lose her. These repetitions exist outwith the confines of plot: at one point he finds her corpse, and there are other scenes that may be only fevered dreams; scenes we can more certain are ‘real’ can read like echoes or different edits of the same events. The narrative is both a labyrinth and a cell; we find ourselves as much the narrator’s prisoner as the woman is the warden’s, a Stockholm syndrome of a story where, step after step, we lose all sense of journey.

It has been suggested that the woman is the heroin to which Kavan was addicted, the ice the coldness of reality. For the reader she is the point and the final full stop, the last words with which it all makes sense, before the ink freezes and the pen writes white. Resolution, however, is elusive. In the end we must accept

“…there was no escape from the ever-diminishing remnant of time that encapsulated us. I made the most of the minutes.”

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The Orange Grove

December 28, 2017

Larry Tremblay’s The Orange Grove (translated form the French by Sheila Fischman) is an interesting companion to Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone: both novels explore the experience of refugees who have arrived in their authors’ countries (Canada and Germany respectively), and what has driven them from their own homes in the hope of starting a new life elsewhere. Whereas Erpenbeck begins from the outside moving inward, Tremblay travels in the other direction, his opening pages placing us immediately with twin brothers Ahmed and Aziz in their war-torn homeland:

“Ahmed and Aziz found their grandparents in the ruin of their house. Their grandmother’s skull had been smashed by a beam. Their grandfather was lying in his bedroom, his body ripped apart by the bomb that had come from the side of the mountain where every evening the sun disappeared.”

The family are visited by Soulayed, “an important man,”

“He’s a pious man. An educated man.”

“Revenge is the only answer for your grief,” he tells the brothers’ father, Zahed, leaving behind a suicide belt. Soulayed has heard that the boys previously navigated their way to the other side of the mountain, crossing (he claims) a minefield in the process:

“You found a road to lead you to that strange town… In a few days, one of you will go back there. You, Aziz, or you, Ahmed. Your father will decide. And the one who is chosen will wear a belt of explosives. He will go down to that strange town and make it disappear forever.”

Zahid’s decision is further complicated by the fact that Aziz is ill, and is likely to die. Rationally this should make such a difficult choice easier, but Zahid sees it differently:

“It would not be a sacrifice if he wore the belt. It would be an offence… It’s Ahmed who will go.”

Their mother has other ideas, asking Ahmed to persuade Aziz to take his place, unbeknownst to Zahid or Soulayed. The novel recreates the scenario with an intensity which makes it is difficult to reject the proposition that one of the sons must die. The family are not fanatical, but Soulayed’s power is unquestionable, and the examples of previous sacrifices are used alongside the desire for revenge. Those on the other side of the mountain are described as “rats” and “dogs wearing clothes.”

This alone is enough material for a short novel, but in the second part we find ourselves with Aziz some years later in Canada, where he is training as an actor. His teacher, Michael, wants Aziz to play the part of a seven-year-old boy, Sony, in a play he has written (Tremblay is also a dramatist):

“In Michael’s play, Sony found himself in the hands of an enemy soldier. The child had been a helpless witness of his parents’ savage killing… Disgusted by his crimes, the soldier was reluctant to get rid of Sony, who, as scene followed scene, reminded him of his own son.”

As well as revealing elements of what actually occurred in the first part, this second section also tackles the issues raised by Western writer presenting Ahmed and Aziz’s story in the first place – as Michael and Aziz discuss his play in relation to Aziz’s life we have, in effect, a writer / character conversation. (At one point Aziz declares, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”)

The novel is rounded off with a short section in which Aziz speaks as Sony, using his own words rather than Michael’s. His final words – “Do you hear me?”- are a summation of Tremblay’s main intent: to allow the voices of those driven from their homes by war to be heard. Both its content and format suggest those voices are a multiplicity, and we must listen all the more carefully.

Lost Books – All the World’s Mornings

December 20, 2017

Perhaps ironically for a novel about a reclusive artist, All the World’s Mornings is probably Pascal Quignard’s most famous book, adapted, as it was, into as film the same year it was published, and quickly translated into English by James Kirkup in the days when a French film could engender a paperback release with a still on the cover. This is my first experience of Quignard but, judging from the titles of his other novels (Sex and Terror, anyone?) it seems typical in that it fearlessly broaches grand themes such as love, death and art without blinking.

The novel is set in seventeenth century France and based on the life of a historical figure, Monsieur de Sainte Colombe, a musician who is credited with adding a seventh string to the viola. (The English version comes with a series of historical foot-notes, with no indication they are not in the original). The novel begins with the death of Saint Colombe’s wife, a loss he never recovers from:

“Three years after her death, her image was still before him. After five years, her voice was still whispering in his ears.”

(His wife will return to him throughout the novel, a ghost or a memory). After her death he cuts himself off from the world, teaching his two daughters, Madeleine and Toinette, (and the occasional pupil) the viol:

“Year after year he laboured at the viol and became an acknowledged master. In the two years following his wife’s passing he worked up to fifteen hours a day.”

He has a hut built in the grounds of his house so that he can play isolated and undisturbed. When he is invited to play for the king he refuses, saying that “his palace is no place for a wild man of the woods.” (Caignet, sent to request his presence, becomes the first of many to listen secretly as he plays in his hut). When asked again, we glimpse his ferocious temper as he smashes a chair while declaring to the abbe Mathieu:

“Your palace is smaller than any hut, and your public is less than nobody.”

The purpose of music, and therefore art in general, is foregrounded again with the arrival of another visitor, Marin Marais, a young man who wishes to become a pupil of Sainte Colombe. Sainte Colombe listens to him play but initially declines to teach him:

“You are just making music, Monsieur. You are not a musician.”

When he does agree to take him on as a pupil he says it is because his “broken voice moved me” (as a child Marais had sung in the King’s choir). It’s not long, however, before their relationship breaks down, Sainte Colombe, in what is clearly something of a habit, smashing Marais’ viol against the stone fireplace when he hears he has played for the king:

“Monsieur, what is an instrument? An instrument is not music. You have there in that purse enough to buy yourself a circus horse to pirouette before the king.”

The story has plenty of drama – on the same day Marais leaves he begins a relationship with Madeleine which he must now pursue in secret, just as he continues to listen to Sainte Colombe’s music in secret beneath his hut. Yet, for all the passion which will be unleashed, the novel remains, at heart, the story of Marais’ relationship with music. Quignard has done something remarkable in creating a historical novel with pace and plot enough for the big screen while at the same time providing a profound meditation on art. The novel’s short chapters and formal style add to the sense of reflection.

All the World’s Mornings is a short, powerful novel which you are unlikely to leave without being provoked into consideration of artistic creation. Sainte Colombe, and presumably Quignard, a vocation of almost religious proportions:

“When I draw my bow across the strings, it is a little bit of my living heart I am tearing out. What I do is nothing but the discipline of a life in which there is never a day off. I am fulfilling my destiny.”

Quignard has been widely translated recently (with particular thanks to Seagull Books), but All the World’s Mornings is currently out of print, a situation which an enterprising publisher should rectify as a matter of urgency.

Alien Hearts

December 16, 2017

Guy de Maupassant was another writer I encountered for the first time last December (with Femme Fatale). A master of the short story, Maupassant is often unregarded as a novelist, and Alien Hearts, his final novel, is perhaps the least appreciated of all, having waited a long time for this modern translation by Richard Howard. In summary it is a rather stark love story, though it does, of course, contain many of the psychological insights which characterise his stories. It takes place among the upper classes, detailing the relationship between Andre Mariolle, a wealthy bachelor of no fixed vocation, and Madame de Burne, a young widow. A love triangle of sorts, it could be argued that the third angle is love itself as both characters seem as interested in their relationship with love as with each other.

Madame de Burne is a woman who has already suffered one marriage and has decided to resist all further temptation. This is not to say she has closeted herself away; on the contrary, she delights in encouraging those men invited to her Thursday dinners to fall in love with her, declaring from the start that her encouragement has a limit:

“For all the loyal members of the group had fallen, one after the next, in love with Madame de Burne and, after the crisis, had remained attentive and fond to various degrees.”

When she first meets Mariolle, she is entirely (one might say mischievously) open with him:

“Something of a coquette? I often am, with people I like. Everyone knows it, and I don’t deny the fact, but you’ll find that my coquetry is quite impartial, which allows me to keep my friends… Don’t be deceived – you won’t get any more than the rest.”

Though Mariolle is immediately attracted to her, when he finally writes to her, Madame du Burne is relieved as “he resisted much longer than she might have predicted, for during the last three months she had deployed a greater array of attentions, a more elaborate expenditure of charm than she had ever produced for any of the others.” The letter, however, is a farewell:

“…he left her in no doubt that he knew how she dealt with men, that he too was caught in her toils but that he would free himself from this servitude before it began.”

She forestalls his departure by asking him to stay, and then, when she herself must leave for the country, concocting a plan which will allow them to meet. At this point we may feel uncertain as to whether she is simply unwilling to lose the ‘game’ of seduction (she talks more than once of her ‘victory’), or is actually falling in love, an uncertainty she shares:

“Yet, she had felt an impulse towards him, she felt it even now, deep in her heart. Perhaps she needed only to yield to it for it to become a real emotion.”

Their relationship reaches a (literal) highpoint when they climb the Madman’s Walk together – “a dizzying granite path winding with no parapet around the top of the last tower” – which encapsulates both the danger and thrill of love. When Mariolle refers to it later, however, Madame du Borne comments:

“…now that I think of it I’m rather appalled. How dizzy I’d be if I had to do it again! I must have been drunk on the air up there, and the sun, and the sea.”

Despite this, their relationship progresses and they begin to meet in secret. Mariolle, although he now has “more than the rest” is unsatisfied, his own victory tarnishing even his feelings of jealousy:

“He realised that he was jealous, no longer merely as an idealizing lover but as a possessive male.”

De Maupassant cleverly ensures our sympathies remain balanced: Madame du Burne’s initial honesty grants her some leeway with the reader, as does the sincerity of Mariolle’s love. The more she gives him, however, the less satisfied he becomes, and, as will later be demonstrated, trying to match the love of another is not as straight-forward as he believes. De Maupassant also avoids rushing headlong towards a tragic conclusion, leaving us with something far more nuanced and ambiguous, for, while the plot of Alien Hearts may seem a little dated, the emotions it exposes pulse as fiercely in our veins today.

Kappa

December 13, 2017

I first encountered Ryunosuke Akutagawa last December when I read the story Hell Screen as part of my story-a-day advent challenge. Encouraged to explore his work further, I somehow managed to avoid the most obvious path (acquiring one of the many collections of his short stories available in English) and turned to his short novel Kappa. Kappa has been described as “Japan’s first full-blown dystopian novel” and certainly shows the influence of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Ryunosuke wrote it shortly before his suicide in 1927, saying, “Kappa was born out of my disgust with many things, especially with myself.” The story is presented as told to the author by a patient in an asylum, a narrative framework which had personal resonance for Ryunosuke given his mother’s mental health issues and his own resultant fear of insanity.

Patient No. 23’s story begins when he catches sight of a Kappa when out walking one day. (A Kappa is demon or imp of Japanese mythology, describe by translator G. H. Healey in his introduction as “a scaly creature the size of a small child, with a face like a tiger’s and a sharply pointed beak”). He chases the Kappa but, as he catches him, finds himself plunging into a hole:

“I was just getting the tips of my fingers on his glassy, slippery back when I suddenly found myself toppling headlong, deep into a pitch black abyss.”

His fall takes him into Kappaland where he spend the rest of the novel learning about Kappa society. Kappaland, of course, provides a skewed mirror image of Japan:

“Where we humans take a thing seriously, the Kappa will tend to be amused; and, similarly, what we humans find amusing the Kappa will take in deadly earnest.”

Ryunosuke uses the satire to work through what we would now call ‘personal issues’. Take, example, his description of Kappa relationships where it is the She-Kappa who chases the male:

“A she-Kappa sets eyes of a he-Kappa and thinks to herself, Yes – he’s the one. And from that moment on, she’ll go to any lengths to make him hers, using every trick of the trade in the process. The most artless and forthright method is for the she-Kappa simply to make a mad dash for the luckless male of her choice. I’ve actually seen a pursuit of this sort – with a she-Kappa, looking quite out of her mind, dashing pell-mell after the male.”

Ryunosuke also mocks himself in the shape of Tok the poet, ridiculing the way in which artists see themselves as above the ordinary population – “super-Kappas” – “transcending all notions of good and evil.” In an eerie foreshadowing of his own life, Tok commits suicide, and the self-obsession of the artist can be seen in the reaction of the composer, Krabach, who, with “the stench if Tok’s blood” in his nostrils declares,

“I’ve got it! I’ve just thought of an absolutely perfect funeral dirge!”

Of Tok himself, it is said:

“One’s bound to feel sorry for anyone who’s made a home around a man as self-centred as Tok.”

Tok returns later in the novel as a ghost; when asked why, he answers:

“Because I wish to know what reputation I have gained since my death.”

The novel is not entirely a form of self-harm, however, with Ryunosuke also attacking other aspects of Japanese society, including capitalism. Another Kappa we meet, Gael, is described as “the capitalist to end all capitalists.” It is through Gael that the narrator visits a book manufacturing plant, an incident Ryunosuke uses to object to the commodification of art. A machine produces books of all shapes and sizes from “paper, ink and a grey-looking powder” – the grey-looking powder is “ass-brain.” Things take a more sinister turn when we discover what happens to workers who are made redundant by mechanisation:

“…we slaughter any worker who loses his job and we use his flesh as meat… ‘This month’s figure for newly unemployed reached 64,769; the price of meat has fallen in proportion.’”

Kappa is the work of an imagination both wild and fierce. (Take for example, his description of Kappa birth where the unborn Kappa in the womb is asked if he or she wishes to be born). While Ryunosuke’s short stories will no doubt remain his most famous work, this is a fascinating foot-note.

Cat Country

December 10, 2017

“When I look at contemporary China,” Yan Lianke has said, “I see a nation that is thriving yet distorted. I see corruption, disorder and chaos…” His predecessor Lao She, who was born in 1899 and published throughout the twenties, thirties and forties – eventually committing suicide after a beating by the Red Guards in 1966 – presents an even more pessimistic view in his science fiction novel Cat Country, originally published in 1932, and recently reprinted by Penguin Classics in a 1970 translation by William Lyell. In Cat Country the narrator finds himself the only survivor of a spaceship which has crash landed on Mars in a country of Cat People. He decides to discover as much as he can about Cat culture, but soon declares that he sees little hope for their future:

“As soon as I set eyes on Cat City, for some reason or other, a sentence took form in my mind: this civilisation will soon perish.”

Initially taken prisoner, he quickly discovers that, as a foreigner, he is a valuable commodity, feared by the Cat People and therefore able to guard the crops of reverie leaves which provide the country with its staple diet as well as drugging its people into docile compliance. He describes his own first taste of the leaves, which are clearly intended to suggest the opium which plagued China at the time Lao was writing:

“After having eaten two of the leaves in a row, my head began to feel a bit dizzy, and yet it wasn’t at all an unpleasant sensation… It were almost like I were benumbed and excited at the same time.”

The reverie leaves are not only the entire economy of Cat Country, but also at the heart of its lax legal system: realising that preventing their theft was an impossible task the government opted simply to legalise it:

“The government decided that too many robberies were being perpetrated, and issued a most humane order: from now on stealing reverie leaves would not be considered a criminal act.”

Despite this, those who grow reverie leaves are the most powerful in the land, and the narrator is asked by one of these wealthy figures, Scorpion, to protect his crop. In befriending our narrator Scorpion adopts a typical Cat philosophy: “it seemed that the main reason Scorpion made friends was in order to use people for his own benefit.” More generally we are told:

“The Cat People were not accustomed to helping in anything that might be of benefit to someone else.”

Although the reverie leaves may remind us of the Soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (published the same year), Lao’s science fiction is more reminiscent of H. G. Wells, beginning with the choice of travel to another planet to initiate his satire. In fact, he covers a lot of Wells’ career in this novel, with an adventurous opening and an increasingly didactic second half. In his critique of China he is at pains to show that it is not simply a political question, but a deterioration of the national character in a way which might remind us of the Morlocks and Eloi of The Time Machine. Though exploitation by foreign powers is part of the problem:

“That only happens when the people lose their individual integrity and the country gradually loses its national integrity, for on-one wants to cooperate with a country that has lost its integrity.”

Once the narrator reaches Cat City the satire becomes even more savage. One example is his description of Cat education. Having abandoned their own traditions to ape foreign ones which they do not understand, students now graduate on the first day and teachers are unpaid:

“Of course, quite a few of our teachers starve to death, but the number of university graduates goes on increasing anyway.”

Academics are no better: “they just string a lot of foreign nouns together so that nobody understands them.” As for Cat Country’s proud history, he is taken on a tour of a museum where all the rooms are empty as all the historical artefacts have been sold.

Though written before China became a Communist country, Lao also has Communism in his sights, or Everbodysharekyism as it is called in the novel. He foresees not only its violence, but that its ideas will never be put into practice:

“…when all the killing was over, everybody just stood around and stared blankly at each other.”

Cat Country is not entirely successful as a novel: when the narrator befriends Young Scorpion in the second half, large sections are taken up with explanation rather than experience. The narrator’s position as the reader’s viewpoint also prevents any character development. Lao does see the novel through to cultural cataclysm, however, and ends it with an apt image of Cat Country’s self-destruction. Cat Country is a fascinating example of science fiction as a tool of satire, and as vicious a critique of national character as you’ll find this side of Thomas Bernhard. Though probably influenced by Lao’s father’s death in the Boxer Rebellion, the novel also uncannily foreshadows the circumstances of his own death thirty years later; as with all great satire it is as much about the future as the past.

Marrow

December 6, 2017

Yan-Lianke-Marrow-2

Another novella available in the Penguin China Specials series is Yan Lianke’s Marrow. Yan is relatively well known in the West, particularly by those of us who read the long lists for translation prizes: Dream of Ding Village was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012, and The Four Books and The Explosion Chronicles have featured on the two most recent Man Booker International Prize lists. (Anyone acquainted with those rather lengthy volumes may be surprised (or even relieved) to hear that Marrow, originally published in 1993, only just makes it past 100 pages).

“China is a great place for an author, because such implausible things happen in everyday life,” Yan has said, and Marrow might be described as a tale of everyday life, very different from not only the scale but the overtly political and allegorical nature of his later work. One might even go as far as to categorise it as realism if it weren’t for the fact that one of the first characters we are introduced to is a ghost. Fourth Wife You (Yan, as we have come to expect, names his character according to their function) may have brought up her four disabled children alone, but she still speaks daily to the ghost of their father, who committed suicide when he discovered that the heredity origin of their disabilities lay with him: “Her man had killed himself, terrified of the future.” The future is very much on Fourth Wife You’s mind: having found disabled husbands for her two eldest daughters, she must now marry Third Daughter. Third Daughter, however, demands that her husband has no disability:

“I want a wholer, not a cripple or a one-eyed freak.”

In her favour, we see early on that Fourth Wife is a determined negotiator. When a man offers to reap her fields in return for spending the night with her she agrees, but when he asks for his reward she demands that he marry her first. When he instead threatens to rape her, she replies:

“If you rape me, then I’ll hang myself in your doorway. You still won’t need to pay with your life, you’ll just need to raise my four children until they all have families and jobs of their own.”

She shows this same strength of mind when she is arranging a husband for Third Daughter:

“We would be willing to accept any of the brothers, except for the deaf one.”

Eventually her search leads her to the widower Wu Shu. Despite the fact that he has no fruit trees or animals and only a “three-roomed thatched house that leaks when it rains” she offers him an impressive dowry, including half of her grain. Her obsession with finding a ‘wholer’ has blinded her to his many faults, but, as Yan makes clear, this is a result of the fears and prejudices within her society: at one point the villagers offer her money if she will avoid walking past the house of a woman who is giving birth in case she should affect the child.

Marrow is not simply about the treatment of the disabled, however. When Second Daughter falls pregnant her seizures worsen. Her husband believes that marrow soup will cure her illness but the bones must be “the bones of a dead person, a relative, and the closer the kin the better.” Together they dig up her husband’s bones to make the soup, and the cure is successful, but Fourth Wife knows there are not enough bones in the grave to cure all her children. Her son, Fourth Idiot’s, case is particularly pressing: one reason Third Daughter had to get married was that her brother was intent on molesting her; in her absence he turns his attention to the local cattle. Fourth wife’s final decision makes the novella a powerful endorsement of a mother’s love for her children

“…her excitement gradually faded and was replaced by a layer of pale determination, as though she were wearing a metal mask.”

While it may not have the sweep of his political epics, Marrow demonstrates Yan’s interest in the ordinary life of the rural poor, his refusals to turn away from the worst of it, and his ability to perceive the best.

Flock of Brown Birds

December 2, 2017

Ge Fie is a Chinese writer associated with the avant-garde which blossomed during the 1980s who has only recently been translated into English. Last year, at the same time as NYRB published his novel The Invisibility Cloak, Penguin, as part of its China Specials series, delivered a translation of Flock of Brown Birds by Poppy Toland, a novella originally published in 1987. In a preface, Ge comments on the experimental nature of the work:

“Whenever anyone complained to me about how difficult it was to understand, I would give the joking response, ‘I don’t blame you. I’m not sure I understand it either.’”

While it may be difficult to pin down the meaning of Ge’s work, that is not to say it is difficult to read: it could be argued that the dreamlike atmosphere of the story allows it to float through the reader’s mind with ease. The narrator is a writer who lives an isolated existence working on a novel “akin to the revelations of St John” which he plans to dedicate to his wife who died on the day of their wedding. The writer’s life, like that of a dream, has an intense but inconsistent relationship with time and memory. The birds of the title are all that reminds him of the passing of the seasons:

“…depending on the direction the birds are flying (north or south) I can make out vague predictions about the progress of time… these migrating birds symbolise the seasons.”

When he receives his first visitor, a woman named Qi carrying an art portfolio, she “didn’t greet me like a stranger, but with the warmth and kindness of a wife.” She claims to have visited him only three months before but he does not remember her: “Your novel seems to have completely destroyed your memory.” Only under repeated questioning does he find:

“The disintegrated threads of my memory fused together, as if with strange glue. I recalled the past with anxiety.”

He begins to recount the story of his relationship with a woman wearing chestnut boots. Initially she is someone he sees in the street, bending down to pick up a boot nail. “I’m not convinced that was the end of it,” Qi tells him, and he continues, describing how he followed the woman until she disappeared over a bridge which did not reach the other side of the river:

“I could no longer see the grey outline of the bridge extending out in front to of me. I groped for the bridge’s iron chain and used it to guide me forwards, but then suddenly I could feel there was no more chain either.”

The telling of the story becomes very much like the writing of a novel, the broken bridge suggesting what happens next is out of reach. Later the narrator will compare his memory to the bridge:

“My memory was a rusty chain disintegrating link by link into dust.”

The story does continue under Qi’s prompting, however, when he sees the woman with her husband seven or eight years later, though she is not convinced she is the same woman. “I haven’t been to the city since I was ten,” she tells him. For all the characters memory is like a tide washing in and out; we might even think at times they are creating the memories others feel they should have.

Eventually the woman in chestnut boots will become the woman whom the narrator marries, only to die on their wedding day. At one point Qi tells him:

“Your stories are circular. The plot development is basically repetition.”

(Note she makes no distinction between ‘story’ and ‘memory’). The conclusion of his story about the woman with chestnut boots returns us to the novella’s opening lines regarding dedicating his book to his wife. Similarly, the novella itself ends with the return of Qi, though on this occasion it is the narrator who recognises her only to be told, “My name isn’t Qui, I’m a passerby.” The art portfolio, which, when the narrator first saw her was described as “a large folder, which looked like an art portfolio, or something like a mirror” is now a mirror, as if that earlier thought had created this new reality.

Ge has said that his writing “has two main preoccupations: first, a re-examination of history and secondly, a re-analysis of reality.” In Flock of Brown Birds, the small absences and alterations in our memories (with which we create history and interpret reality) are not only magnified but inconsistent. The narrator himself seems to live outwith time: the seasons he is only reminded of by the birds passing are, in contrast, fiercely present in his story (each section of which takes place in a different season). Ge’s probing of our relationship with reality in this brief tale may be gentle but it’s nonetheless insistent, revealing an exciting and unsettling new voice (for us) from China.

The Tobacconist

November 27, 2017

Remaining unconvinced by much of the praise piled upon Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, my decision to read The Tobacconist (an earlier novel translated by Charlotte Collins last year) was influenced by my uncertainty over whether it was the novel itself or the general interpretation of its title as suggesting approval of Egger’s life – an exemplar of resilience perhaps – which had irritated me to the point of exhaustion. It was also hinted at the time (by those who read German) that A Whole Life was not typical of Seethaler’s work. One noticeable difference is evident from the opening lines:

“One Sunday, in the late summer of 1917, an unusually violent thunderstorm swept over the mountains of the Salzkammergut. Until then, Franz Huchel’s life had trickled along fairly uneventfully, but this thunderstorm was to give it a sudden turn that had far-reaching consequences.”

The storm will drown Preininger, who has provided Franz and his mother with an income, forcing Franz to leave home and work in Vienna in a tobacconist’s; but the storm is also history, which will dictate Franz’s life over the pages of the novel. (This, it seems to me, is in contrast to Egger who seems to exist outwith history even during the Second World War). As a lady comments to Franz on his arrival in Vienna when he is overcome by the stench: “It’s not the canal that stinks…It’s the times. Rotten times, that’s what they are. Rotten, corrupt and degenerate.”

Franz begins working for Otto Trsnyek, an old friend of his mother’s, who lost a leg in the First World War. The tobacconist, in a small way, represents the civilisation that Austria will soon leave behind: note, for example, Otto’s instructions to Franz regarding the reading of newspapers:

“The correct reading of newspapers, equally extending both mind and horizon, encompassed all the newspapers on the market (and therefore also in the shop), if not from cover to cover, then at least in greater part…”

The tobacconist’s welcomes all viewpoints, and all customers, something the country no longer does. When a Communist unfurls a banner before committing suicide, the press reports “the graffiti he scrawled on it, which cannot be reproduced here, was intended to vilify our Reich, our people, and our hope-filled city.” What he had actually written was:

“Freedom of the people requires freedom of the heart. Long live freedom! Long live our people! Long live Austria!”

The tobacconist’s also suffers from the intolerance of the times, waking one morning to find JEWLOVER written on the window in pig’s blood. One of the Jewish customers in question is Sigmund Freud whom Franz quickly (and, it has to be said, improbably) befriends. Freud finds Franz exasperating but endearing, and recommends he finds a girl, answering his questions about love with the declaration that “nobody understands love” but:

“…you don’t have to understand water to jump in head first.”

Franz will pursue a relationship with a young woman, Anezka, with varying degrees of success, and occasional advice from Freud, throughout the novel. In the highs and lows of the relationship, Franz is always the innocent, his youth emphasised by her “sonny boy,” an appellation which will be ironically repeated in Franz’s final scene.

For these reasons, The Tobacconist often reads like a comic novel. Even when Otto is taken away by the police, Franz’s response is both brave and foolish, turning up at police headquarters every day to inquire after him. He remains a holy innocent until the end, resistant to both the corruptions of the world and character development. This also prevents Seethaler from developing the other characters, such as his mother or Otto, in much depth as Franz remains both the focal and view point of the novel. Even Freud’s cameos exist largely as a counterpoint to Franz. Having said that, like A Whole Life, there is an undeniable power to the narrative, which is often touching, and a similar sense that our world, sadly, is no place for innocents:

“I feel like a boat that’s lost its rudder in a storm and is now just drifting stupidly here and there.”

The Parable of the Blind

November 21, 2017

A couple of years ago I read Gert Hofmann’s The Film Explainer, winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1995, during German Literature Month, an experience which left me intrigued to explore his work further. As luck would have it, I came across a copy of The Parable of the Blind earlier this year (Hofmann’s work is largely out of print – though, unknown to me, this particular novel was reprinted by Verba Mundi in March). The novel, translated by poet Christopher Middleton (one of three Hofmann novels he translated), not only shares its title with that of a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder but seeks to describe the origins of that particular artwork, narrated entirely by the blind men who have been assembled by Bruegel to model for him.

As the novel opens the blind men are awakened by a knocking. The communal voice which narrates the novel describes a dream of burial:

“Good, it’s over now, we say, and we’ve been buried. First as far as others are concerned, then as far as we ourselves are. We’re beginning to be forgotten.”

The knocking is a summoning back to existence in the world –a world largely confirmed by sight. The initial conversation suggests that the blind men remember little of where they are or why. Once awake they must confirm their own presence as well as that of their comrades:

“Then we pass our hands over our bodies. Yes, we’re still the same people as yesterday.”

Their daily returning to being echoes the work of the painter’s more permanent creation and Hofmann is clearly interested in the irony of the painting which its models cannot see. Hofmann presents the world entirely from their viewpoint, one which is excessively focussed on dialogue. When actions do occur, for example when a child touches their faces, only what they experience is described:

“Then through the morning breeze the child’s warm hand comes and strokes our cheeks, right and left, and creeps into our ears.”

This scene also illustrates the curiosity of the villagers and the vulnerability of the blind men. After they are fed they are taken to relieve themselves, but the promised privacy is a deception:

“But when we’re crouching in the cold and tickly grass we sense that we’re not alone at all, there’s breathing and gasping and giggling in front of us and behind us.”

Throughout the novel they remain reliant on others to lead them, not always honestly or successfully, to the painter. That help is rarely offered and they must first of all discover if there is any other person there:

“But probably there’s nobody there, it’s the same as ever.”

Bruegel is famed for his powers of observation with this particular painting often being cited as evidence, not only in the detail of the clothing but in the way in which each of the men’s blindness can be seen to have its own cause. In the novel, however, the men tell the villagers a common story:

“One evening in the summertime when it was very hot they were sitting under a cherry tree and birds came. The birds sat in their shoulders and pecked their eyes out.”

The blind men themselves know this isn’t the case – one of their number, for example (Slit Man) has had his eyes removed as a punishment – yet they frequently ask if there are crows following them. Bruegel’s accuracy is a refutation of superstition, just as Hofmann’s fiction has often tackled history with a view to seeing accurately in the face of assumed narratives. Bruegel also paints so that his subjects can be seen. When the child tells the blind men that people can’t always be seen he gives this explanation:

“Because one day they die, the child says, then they can’t be seen anymore, and that’s why he paints them. And that’s why he also paints himself, so that he’ll always be seen.”

Yet if blindness is a misfortune, so is sight. Bruegel is tormented by the pictures he must paint:

“More and more often now, since the slaughter at Liege, the pictures are of people dying and dead.”

When the blind men finally arrive he asks for them to be described to him:

“No, I don’t want to look at them, the painter says after hesitating a bit, not yet. The mere sight of people like that had a devastating effect on him in his present state because he at once put himself in their place. He couldn’t see people who’ve been broken without being broken himself.”

The Parable of the Blind is an impressively sustained exercise in limited viewpoint, and also interesting simply in its portrayal of the immortalised but forgotten models of the painting. However, it can also be read as a parable itself, a tortured Pilgrim’s Progress, where we are the blind leading the blind with death hovering above us, shouting our questions into the darkness.