Feebleminded

May 1, 2019

Ariana Harwicz’s Feebleminded, the second in an “involuntary trilogy” of novels which began with Die, My Love, and will be completed by Precocious (already available in Spanish), tells a story we have heard many times before: a young woman falls in love with a married man but, whatever the strength of her feelings, he will not leave his wife. What marks Feebleminded out from previous versions of this staple drama is the way it is told (and also, it had to be said, the role of the young woman’s mother, mother and daughter relationships forming the basis of the trilogy). If Die, My Love pushed the boundaries of what we might expect in the description of Harwicz’s characters’ internal turmoil, Feebleminded has simply left the boundaries behind.

Harwicz’s central focus is her narrator’s desire: “Degenerate desire. Damaging desire. Demented desire.” This desire is so overpowering it impairs her faculties, diminishes her ability to reason, leaving her ‘feebleminded’:

“This epileptic desire, this deformed desire, a drooling lustful crip who needs two people to lift him and carry him so he can fuck on the soft mattress.”

When her lover speaks to her after sex the narrator listens “with the reverential astonishment of a feebleminded woman”, and, later, she says, “I lose everything from the neck up.” Like Sylvia Plath describing her emotional pain in terms of the Holocaust, Harwicz is unafraid to offend in pinpointing her character’s delirium. Desire is the only thing which can lift the narrator out of her dull existence:

“I quiver, I shake, my fingers are my morphine and for that brief moment everything’s fine.”

Without it she has, and perhaps is, nothing:

“A whole life spent in the gloom of a shop, the iron keyring, the fuse box, the stairs to the storeroom. The tiny bathroom. The cleaning products and polishing the shelves. A whole life.”

This is not to say she is unaware of the danger – the way in which the rawness of her feelings exposes her – and Harwicz frequently uses knife imagery to convey this point, both to describe her lover’s approach (“And kissing was a steady advance, knife raised”) and his departure (“He’s getting further away and it feels like a knife thrust in my gut”), as if to emphasise that she cannot win. Something similar exists in her relationship with her mother, with whom she talks about the “knife experiment” at one point:

“You have to test your impulses: take the knife by the handle, bring it slowly towards her chest and see for yourself that you won’t really stick it in. What a weird method, right mum? I was this close to slicing you open.”

We are given the impression that her mother (no father is mentioned; it is a household of women) has little time for her as a child (“Like when mum and grandma couldn’t find me at the campsite and I had to spend all night sleeping among the lambs”) and is relieved when she reaches puberty:

“Mum delighted when my back’s finally strapped by my very first bra and already I’m talking dirty.”

Later, her mother will show a prurient interest in the narrator’s sex life (“Surprised your mother slept around too?”) just as then narrator will think about her own conception:

“I think about my mum’s sex and the man’s screwed together, turning me into a little girl. I think about our hairy sexes inventing sons and daughters.”

Both mother and daughter are frequently portrayed as animalistic:

“Mum will be feeding on pants, munching them down one by one, her mouth never empty.”

Animals are scattered throughout the narrative, and the two characters are often (together and alone) in the woods. Early on we are told:

“We’re both in heat from the scalp down, two abandoned sows.”

All in all, Feebleminded sounds like a novel that’s ‘not for everyone’, yet many – perhaps most – will have experienced the madness of desire, and, if you haven’t, it is clearly an aspect of the human condition which should not be ignored. If that is not enough to convince you, then the novel is worth reading for the language alone, thanks in part to the incredible work of translators Annie McDermott and Caroline Orloff. Take, for example:

“The sixty minutes before I see him are beautifully sordid, like diving head-first into a ravine.”

And:

“Falling in love is the downpour under an electrified roof.”

In fact, line after line bursts from the page in vivid, complex, terrifying images. The final volume cannot come soon enough.

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The Blue Flowers

April 25, 2019

Raymond Quenenau was one of the founders of the Oulipo (which he described as ”rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”), known in particular for Exercises in Style – an Oulipo handbook in itself – and Zazie in the Metro, which was swiftly filmed by Louis Malle. The Blue Flowers, published in 1965, arrived nearer the end of his career but was recently chosen by David Bellos as one of five great French novels for being in the “witty comic novel tradition.” Luckily, the 1967 translation by Barbara Wright – an outstanding job given the amount of word play in the novel – was reprinted by New Directions last year.

The novel contains two central characters: Cidrolin, an ex-convict who lives on a barge; and the Duke of Auge, an irascible nobleman prone to bouts of violence. When Cidrolin sleeps he dreams of the Duke, and when the Duke sleeps he dreams of Cidrolin. The changes between characters happen unannounced; here, for example, is the first:

“The Duke ate copiously, then he went to bed and slept with a very good appetite.
“He hadn’t finished his siesta when he was awoken by two nomads calling him from the top of the bank. Cidrolin answered them by signs…”

The novel is at pains to point out that dreams are rarely meaningful. Cidrolin tells his daughter:

“Some dreams seem to be made up of unimportant incidents, you wouldn’t remember things of that sort in your waking life, and yet they interest you when you catch them in the morning chaotically shoving themselves up against the door of your eyelids.”

Similarly, the Duke, when told by his chaplain that dreams come either from God or the Devil, replies:

“Most often, if I can judge from my own experience, dreams are only concerned with the petty incidents of everyday life.”

Despite his criminal past (which remains undisclosed), Cidrolin’s life is quiet and uneventful, largely consisting of drinking fennel water and repainting his gate, which seems to be frequently subjected to unpleasant graffiti, an activity he describes as “a gratuitous hobby”. His peace is rarely interrupted, and then only by passers-by seeking directions to a nearby campsite. The Duke, by dint of his social position and temper, has a far more eventful existence, which begins with his refusal to go on another Crusade with the King – “Doesn’t appeal to me much.” His attitude does not go down well with the general populace and he quickly encounters a series of angry mobs:

“Drawing his braquemard for the second time that day, Joachim d’Auge darted into the fray and slew two hundred and sixteen persons, men, women, children and others, of whom twenty-seven were licensed borgeis and twenty-six on the point of becoming so”

(A braquemard is a type of sword but also seems to be French slang for penis; borgeis is a town dweller, i.e. bourgeois – a brief indication of the constant word play). The novel is worth reading for the character of the Duke alone – a Hulked-out Brian Blessed – who perhaps reaches his peak in his defence of his “good old comrade in arms, the noble seigneur Gilles de Rais”:

“The fact he may have roasted a few brats is no reason to forget the services he has rendered to his country.”

As David Bellos points out, the Duke moves forward in time (though this is obvious from many clues, the fact it is 176 years each time is not something that I worked out!) which leads to some amusing moments such as when it is suddenly no longer “advisable to shout ‘long live the King’ on every possible occasion” in 1789. This movement through time is unsurprising as history is one of Queneau’s main concerns from the novel’s opening sentences:

“A few remnants of the past were still lying around here and there, rather messily.”

Though, as he has the Duke quickly admit: “…so much history, just for a few puns and a few anachronisms.” Though a knowledge of French history, and French, no doubt makes the novel more entertaining, it is often very funny by wit alone:

“The chaplain guessed that the Duke was proceeding to one rebellion. The herald guessed the same thing. The Duke guessed that the other two had guessed. The chaplain guessed that the Duke had guessed that he had guessed, but didn’t guess whether the herald had also guessed that the Duke has guessed that he’d guessed.”

Whether The Blue Flowers is, indeed, one of the great French novels may be debateable, but that it is intriguing and amusing from beginning to end there is no doubt.

Lost Books – The Lie

April 22, 2019

Writing in the Guardian of his admiration for the now largely neglected (in the UK at least) Italian writer Alberto Moravia in 2011 (“It’s hard to think of a writer who has been more perceptive about the disappointments of conventional sex and marriage”), John Burnside describes his first encounter with Moravia’s work – a lurid 1970s Panther edition of The Lie, originally written in 1965 and translated by Angus Davidson a year later. Sadly, The Lie does not seem to have been reprinted since, and so it was the very same edition that I read when I discovered that 1965 was the chosen year for Karen and Simon’s biannual book club.

Though the novel’s title is singular, it applies in numerous ways, beginning, perhaps, with the lie on which the narrator, Francesco, bases his marriage to a working-class woman, Cora, believing that her origins make her more ‘genuine’:

“…a myth had taken shape in my mind, the myth of the working-class as the sole depository of all that was genuine in the world.”

He marries Cora when she is reluctant to move in with him, becoming step-father to her young daughter, Baba. After a few years together, however, he finds his feelings for Cora have changed:

“Not merely did I no longer desire Cora, not merely did I no longer find anything attractive or significant in those working-class characteristics which had made me fall in love with her; but I also felt an unreasoning aversion which expressed itself mainly in an uncontrollable, acutely painful, spasmodic uncommunicativeness.”

He withdraws from Cora and Baba’s life completely, aided by his work as a journalist which requires he visit other countries for months at a time, “living in my own home like a stranger who rents a room.” It is only a number of years later, as the novel proper begins (what has happened previously is told in a Prologue) that he decides to “go from non-involvement to involvement” again after receiving a letter which claims that Cora is a procuress. He initially confronts Baba, now twenty-two, with this allegation, who not only confirms it is true but goes on to tell him that her mother attempted to prostitute her when she was fourteen. She is able to tell him the story as she feels as if it happened to a different person:

“The Baba of fourteen years who was led by the hand by Cora to her house was a different Baba from the one who, let us suppose, sat her school-leaving certificate two years ago.”

At the end of this conversation Baba makes Francesco promise that they will live as a family again – not only will he act as father to her but as a husband to Cora:

“I mean that during meals you’ll talk to her naturally and kindly, and that, apart from meals, you won’t avoid her and you’ll show yourself affectionate.”

Much of the novel is concerned with Francesco’s investigation into Cora’s other life, and, in particular, the events surrounding Baba when she was fourteen. He is suited to this role as his conversation generally consists of a relentless series of questions – perhaps as a result of his background as a journalist. However, he is also to some extent investigating his own past, and what he knew about Cora when he married her. Moravia is sometimes regarded as out-dated because of the attitudes of his male characters to women, but it is clear that Francesco cannot simply be read as a mouthpiece for Moravia as, though he is (sometimes pompously) reflective, he also lacks self-knowledge.

The novel is also driven by the tension of Francesco’s attraction to Baba, an attraction which both is and is not incestuous. Francesco is aware that his desire is partly created by his role as father-figure, and this is what makes it unreliable:

“…at the very source of your feelings for Baba, and of the physical relationship you might have with her, there is nothing frank or genuine, but something unreal, false, non-genuine in fact, and that is the idea of paternity. This idea is an illusion, but you have need of it in order to love Baba…”

It is such forensic examinations of sex and sexuality which make Moravia both an unfashionable and interesting writer. We can also see here that Francesco and Baba create a lie with their relationship, of which they can only afford to be half-aware.

Lying is also tackled in the form of the novel itself, which is presented as a diary which “has been kept that it may afterwards be used for creating a novel.” We learn that Francesco wrote a previous novel which he destroyed because if its “unmistakeable air of falseness, of unreality, of artificiality.” The diary is intended to allow Francesco to write from reality, though it also influences his behaviour: at one point, referring to his attraction to Baba, he says:

“The temptation is strong, almost irresistible, but each time I manage to control myself in this way: I think of my diary.”

Yet at the same time Moravia makes it clear we cannot trust the diary as Francesco admits on more than one occasion to inventing passages, firstly when he claims to find a copy of Oedipus Rex by his bedside after speaking to Baba on the night he read the letter:

“It’s not true, in fact, that when I woke up suddenly during the night after my conversation with Baba I found Oedipus Rex in a popular translation on my bedside table, opened it haphazardly and lit upon some lines that seemed to me to be adapted to my situation.”

Later he will create entire scenes for the diary, including a seduction of Baba. Though these are admitted to, it is clear that the diary cannot be regarded as truth:

“So, in some cases, I amputate or disguise or actually supress; in others, I develop, I dilate, I reconstruct…”

The Lie is not Moravia’s best novel, but, driven by both Francesco and Moravia’s compulsion, it is an intense, compelling affair deserving of rediscovery. As John Burnside lamented eight years ago:

“Moravia is neglected nowadays, which is a great pity, for this rare combination of moral purpose and artistic integrity once placed him among Europe’s finest writers.”

Though there have been some US publication of his work, most recently by New York Review of Books Classics imprint, his last UK publication seems to have been in 1993, and he is long overdue a revival.

The Only Problem

April 11, 2019

In The Only Problem Muriel Spark returns to the story of Job which influenced her first novel, The Comforters. Here the connection is more explicit as Canadian millionaire Harvey Gotham obsessively studies the Biblical book and what he describes as “the only problem”:

“For he could not face that a benevolent Creator, one whose charming and delicious light spread over the world, and being powerful everywhere, could condone the unspeakable sufferings of the world.”

Harvey (who Alan Bold has described as “an intellectual who has rejected reality in the interests of his academic isolationism”) cuts himself off from the world both socially and geographically in order to pursue his studies. Living in a cottage in the grounds of a chateau in France, he has left his wife, Effie, who is only able to track him down by tricking his lawyer’s secretary into revealing his address. Throughout the novel his isolation is interrupted by a series of visitors, beginning with his brother-in-law, Edward, who has come to plead on Effie’s behalf that Harvey grant her a financial settlement. As he soon notices:

“When Harvey talked of his marriage it were always as if he were thinking of something else, and he never talked about it unless someone else did first.”

Instead, Harvey would rather discuss Job, something he does in every conversation and every letter he writes – even those to his lawyer. Even Harvey begins to realise that he has perhaps separated himself too much from the world:

“How can you deal with the problem of suffering if everybody conspires to estrange you from suffering?”

Harvey’s dramatic departure from his wife takes place at a motorway service station while they are holidaying with Edward and his wife (Effie’s sister) Ruth. It occurs after she admits to stealing a chocolate bar:

“Why shouldn’t we help ourselves? These multinationals and monopolies are capitalising on us, and two thirds of the world is suffering.”

Harvey later says he is “intellectually insulted” by Effie’s attitude to life when she takes things further and is accused of being part of a terrorist group operating in the same area of France where Harvey lives. By this point Ruth is living with Harvey in the chateau she has convinced him to buy, looking after Effie’s baby, Clara (to further complicate matters, Harvey is not Clara’s father). Soon Nathan, a student who lived with Edward and Ruth but is besotted with Effie, also moves in – the reader may well echo Harvey’s thought, “What am I doing with all these people?”

With Effie (possibly) front page news, Harvey is suspected of involvement, the discomfort of police interrogation as near as he gets to suffering. A press conference turns into a lecture on Job after a journalist asks him:

“Would you say that you yourself are in the position of Job, in so far as you are a suspicious character in the eyes if the world, yet feel yourself to be entirely innocent?”

For a novel about suffering, The Only Problem is a lot of fun. The interchangeability of the relationships borders on farce, though Spark prepares for it by having Edward unexpectedly jealous of Harvey leaving Effie without knowing why. The sisters physical likeness adds to the humour (when Harvey first sees Effie’s picture in the paper “the outlines of the girl’s face struck him as being rather like Ruth’s”), with Spark adding a further dimension to this by having Job’s wife, in a painting which Harvey has moved into the area to study, share that likeness. The sudden transition from Chapter 2 to 3 when we discover that Ruth and Effie’s baby are living with Harvey is worthy of a modern television series.

The novel is not, of course, an allegory of the Book of Job – this would be too obvious and therefore too dull for Spark. However, it does oppose Effie’s idea that “all the suffering in the world, the starving multitudes” can be blamed on political systems and therefore people, and so ended by direct action, with Harvey’s belief:

“There is more to be had from the world than a balancing of accounts.”

Spark is careful to imply that Harvey’s wealth allows him the time and space to think so. “Suffering isn’t in proportion to what the sufferer deserves” is perhaps true for all the characters, in one way or another.

The Faculty of Dreams

April 8, 2019

The Faculty of Dreams is Swedish writer Sara Stridsberg’s second novel, and the second to be translated into English by Deborah Bragen-Turner. Her first, The Gravity of Love, is largely set in a psychiatric hospital, and The Faculty of Dreams, too, deals with questions of sanity. It is based on the life of Valerie Solanas, who is most famous either for shooting Andy Warhol or writing the SCUM Manifesto – the question of where her fame should rest is one the novel asks. The novel retells her life in dreamlike (or, at times, nightmarish) prose, often in dialogue (Stridsberg describes it as a “literary fantasy” but it’s worth noting Stridsberg’s first play was also about Valerie), beginning with her death in 1988:

“It is April 1988 and Valerie Solanas is lying on a filthy mattress and urine-soaked sheets, dying of pneumonia. Outside the window, pink neon lights flash and porn music plays day and night.”

Many of Valerie’s problems (should we chose to see them as such) begin with her mother, Dorothy. Dorothy is reliant on having a man in her life, no matter how that man treats her or Valerie. Valerie recounts more than once how her father, Louis, used to sexually abuse her:

“…Louis used to rape me on the porch swing after Dorothy had driven into town… he was a jumbled agony of tears and lust and the seat cover fabric was a mesh of wild pink roses that Dorothy had embroidered at nights and I counted the roses and the stars in the sky… and I rented out my little pussy for no money and afterwards he always wept and tried to untangle the knot of chewing gum in my hair..”

Dorothy tells Valerie, “Without him, I’m nothing.” (These are imagined rather than realistic dialogues).

“Dorothy falls to pieces without Louis and Valerie falls to pieces without Dorothy.”

This continues even after Louis leaves as Dorothy becomes involved with other men:

“Dorothy keeps on forgetting things. First she forgets her promises, then she forgets her child…”

Valerie is a bookish child whereas Dorothy does not read; later Valerie struggles to gain any praise from her mother when she gains her degree in psychology, and is accepted to continue in a post-graduate research role – Dorothy is, instead, fixated on the recent death of Marilyn Munroe:

“VALERIE: I got a place as a postgraduate.
DOROTHY: She died of an overdose, little Valerie. It’s so sad.”

In a traditional novel we would say it is her childhood, her relationship with her mother, and her friendship with Cosmogirl at university, which influence her revolutionary attitude towards sex, though Valerie portrays her views as self-evident, and Stridsberg leaves the question open, as she does the extent of Valerie’s life as a prostitute. (Both the author – who features in the dialogues – and a journalist attempt to ask Valerie about prostitution but can get no straightforward answer). “Five for a fuck, three for a blow job, one for a hand job,” Valerie repeats throughout the novel, with only the prices changing:

“A whore never sells intimacy. She sells a black hole in space.”

In Valerie’s eyes, men are redundant, as is demonstrated by the experiments she wishes to undertake as a postgraduate:

“There is no reason to involve male mice. Mouse girls can have mouse babies with one another.”

“The male,” she says, “is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples.”

It is ideas such as these she puts into her SCUM Manifesto, which she later feels is stolen from her by men, just as she blames Andy Warhol for stealing her play, Up Your Ass. Though these fears of theft partly originate in her own paranoia, they can also be seen as representative of a patriarchal society where the ideas of women are devalued or appropriated. The SCUM Manifesto becomes influential in the women’s movement, but Valerie is typically dismissive of this too:

“An army of lobotomized Barbie dolls is marching along Fifth Avenue with their ridiculous posters about abortion and the pill and date rape.”

Valerie’s ideas are not coherent, but she is presented as a chaotic vehicle for change, tragic in her refusal to compromise, or accept any other reality than the one she perceives. Stridsberg has, anyway, pre-empted criticisms of her portrayal of Valerie, with the subject of the novel herself declaring that she doesn’t want “no sentimental young women or sham authors playing at writing a novel about me dying.”

However unpleasant its subject matter at times, The Faculty of Dreams is a novel of great power and force, one in which the reader is immersed in Valerie’s life, her complex character, and her uncertain sanity (“I am the only sane woman here,” she claims). It has been an unexpected highlight of the long list and I fully expect it to be on the shortlist tomorrow.

Celestial Bodies

April 6, 2019

The Man Booker International Prize long list contained a number of surprises this year, but perhaps the most unexpected inclusion was Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies (translated by Marilyn Booth). This is partly because its publisher, Sandstone Press, is perhaps the most remote in the UK, based in the small Highland town of Dingwall, and not particularly associated with translated literature (though one of its most successful series is Volker Kutscher’s Babylon Berlin); and partly because Alharthi is from the equally tiny country of Oman, with a population of under five million. The novel is of a type which would normally not attract me – the family saga (the very useful family tree which prefaces the story is a clue) – but is undeniably told with great skill.

As a family saga, Celestial Bodies lacks a single central character. The blurb identifies the three daughters of Azzan and Salima – Mayya, Asam and Khawla – but it is Mayya’s husband, Abdallah, from whose point of view every second chapter is written, presented in a different font to differentiate it from the third person narrative, the chapters of which are also headed by character names, emphasising that this is a novel of many characters. The three daughters all have different characters. Asima is a bookworm – “The thought of the enormous pleasure of books quickened Asima’s pace” we are told – whereas Khawla is portrayed as more concerned with her looks:

“As usual Khawla was scrunched over in front of her mirror.”

Mayya is the quietest of the sisters:

“Mayya considered silence to be the greatest of human acts, the sum of perfection.”

She is the first married, to Abdallah, who falls for her on a visit with his father. Though they are married for many years, he is never certain that his love for her is returned:

“Do you love me, Mayya? I asked her, once everyone else was asleep. She was startled, I could see that. She said nothing and then she laughed.”

Mayya, we learn, was already in love with another man when she married Abdallah, praying, “I only want a tiny glimpse of him, only one more time.” Love is a frequent subject through the four generations which Celestial Bodies covers. Mayya gives up her love for the marriage her parents wish her to make; Asima similarly marries when asked though she has no previous affections:

“Her heart was vacant enough, so why would it not open up for Khalid?”

Khawla, on the other hand, regards herself as engaged to her cousin Nasir as a result of a childhood promise and refuses the match her parents have made for her:

“She would kill herself if her father insisted on this marriage.”

The novel does not seek to set romantic love above other relationships, however: Asima’s husband is loving but when Nasir returns from Canada it is only because he has run out of money and he leaves a Canadian girlfriend behind him. Though he marries Khawla:

“For ten years, Nasir returned to Oman once every two years to see the new child in his house and to leave Khawla pregnant again.”

More generally, the novel does not seek to portray the family, and country’s, adoption of Western values as ‘progress’ in a simple and unquestioning way. Even the abolition of slavery is treated in a subtle manner, causing a rift between Zarifa and her son, Sanjar, who tells her, “We are free – the law says so,” while she remains loyal to her master, Abadallah’s father. Instead we see scenes repeating themselves, as when Abdallah reprimands his son, Salim:

“Seconds after I had hit Salim I was assailed by a terrible and overwhelming sense that I had just become my father’s twin.”

This sense of repetition is emphasised by the novel’s non-chronological structure. This comes both from Abdallah’s chapters which are presented as a jumble of memories while on a plane journey, and from the rest of the novel, which skilfully moves back and forwards in time from chapter to chapter, and within chapters using phrases such as, “Twenty-three years later, when she would smash her daughter’s mobile phone to bits in anger…” and, “How could Mayya have seen on her baby daughter’s brow, the evenings of sleeplessness that would come as she reached her early twenties…”

This structure shows a great deal of craft on Alharthi’s part but, though the presentation is skilful, the author’s intent does not seem to go much beyond presentation. It is a family saga, in other words, as it proposes the telling of the family’s story, and all the associated tales, as an end in itself. This is not so much a criticism, as the root of my dissatisfaction with the genre. On the other hand, I couldn’t be more pleased that such a small press, and such a small country, features on the long list this year.

The Pine Islands

April 3, 2019

Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands is yet another novel about a middle-aged, male lecturer, Gilbert Silvester, entering a mid-life crisis. Believing his wife to be having an affair, he leaves his house for the airport, and from there travels to Japan. In his white hotel room, feeling as if he has fallen into an ice cube advert:

“He stood in the middle of the room for a while with absolutely no idea what he was doing there.”

While it is not quite Dante wakening in a dark wood, there are plenty of forest wanderings to come in a novel where, for all the earnestness of its two main characters, the tone remains comic.

Gilbert is profoundly aware of the mediocrity of his own life, complaining that while friends “less competent” than himself:

“…were settling down in their own homes with their families and routines, he saw himself forced into carrying out idiotic and meagrely remunerated work imposed on him by people he categorically despised.”

We soon discover that his academic subject is beards, but this does not prevent him having absolute faith in himself, with an arrogance that will not be contradicted. His belief that his wife is unfaithful, for example, is entirely the result of a dream, “an unmistakable warning from his unconscious to his naïve, unsuspecting ego.” On the plane to Tokyo:

“…he repeatedly reassured himself that he had not only done everything right, but that his actions had indeed been inevitable, and would carry on being inevitable, not only according to his personal opinion, but to world opinion.”

Gilbert’s arrogance comes in useful when he encounters Yosa Tamagotchi, a young Japanese man who is planning to commit suicide as he fears he will fail upcoming exams: “He was an only child and on the cusp of disappointing [his parents].” When Gilbert realises what Tamagotchi is planning he immediately begins to talk to him:

“Gilbert had read somewhere that that it was beneficial to start a conversation with a suicidal person to distract them from their thoughts.”

Gilbert distracts Tamagotchi to the point that he shares his hotel room with him that night, and they set off the next day to find a more suitable location for Tamagotchi’s suicide “following the papery authority of the suicide handbook.” Gilbert, however, is frequently unsatisfied by the suggested suicide spots, and quick to share this dissatisfaction with Tamagotchi in a forcefully manner:

“It’s too loud here, Gilbert informed Yosa in a dictatorial way.”

In the first half of the novel Poschmann is generally successful in balancing Tamagotchi’s quest for death with the comic tone of the novel. (There is one particularly funny moment when he and Gilbert are waiting for a bus to take them away from a wood where people traditionally kill themselves but it does not stop for them. Tamagotchi explains this is because it is the same driver as the day before: “He recognised us. He mistook us for ghosts.”) This is largely because, like Gilbert, we regard Tamagotchi’s intentions as not entirely serious:

“…this wasn’t a suicide from one’s own free will, from a serene mindset, ultimately it wasn’t an independent decision but a pitiful attempt at manipulation. Juvenile behaviour that made one ridiculous in death.”

This, however, is revealed to be a further example of Gilbert’s over-confidence, linked to his belief that he ‘understands’ Japan, though the depth of his understanding is confused by a single sentence in the opening pages:

“He had always assumed that, like him, everyone knew the Japanese classics off by heart, but standing in front of the shelf with the pocket books, he had to admit that he himself had at most watched only a couple of Japanese films during his lifetime and had never been able to recite so much as a haiku.”

Does he actually go from believing he knows the Japanese classics “off by heart” to realising he has very little knowledge of Japanese culture at all in one moment (further confused by him having watched more than two Japanese films on the plane)? It certainly doesn’t stop him pontificating about Japan throughout, and his relationship with the country is further complicated by his intention to follow the journey of Basho, whom he compares himself to in grandiose fashion:

“His own project of abandonment also entailed making a clean break… he would undertake a pilgrimage, a journey of spiritual cleansing.”

This is all very funny as long as we are meant to regard Gilbert only as a laughable figure, but in the novel’s second half it seems that we are to assume some development of his character, largely based around his failure to understand his wife’s desire to see the leaves change colour in autumn when he based temporarily in North America, a phenomenon he feels “provokes a hysterical euphoria.” In the novel’s final lines he is planning to invite her to Japan as the “leaves are starting to turn.” It doesn’t help that the wife – indeed every character apart from Gilbert – remains two-dimensional.

What begins as an amusing satire of a Western midlife crisis does not have the courage to lampoon Gilbert’s journey to the East. As it is difficult to see what he learns from his time with Tamagotchi, or form Basho, Japan begins to feel like window dressing, and what was breezy and refreshing at first becomes unconvincing and inconclusive. Its presence on the long list makes the absence of any Japanese literature all the more ironic.

The Remainder

March 30, 2019

The Remainder is the debut novel of Chilean writer Alia Trabucco Zeran, first published in 2014 and translated last year by Sophie Hughes. Hughes adept translation is particularly important as the novel consists of two narratives. The main narrative (that is the longer one, which tells the story) might be described as a road trip, in which the narrator, Iquela, another young woman, Paloma, (who is also Chilean but has spent little time in the country, living instead with her parents in exile in Europe), and Felipe, (who, though not Iquela’s brother, lived with her as a child as if he were) set off for Argentina to recover the body of Paloma’s mother (Paloma was transporting the body to Chile for burial only for the plane to be grounded by an ash cloud). The second narrative, which originates with Felipe, is a much more abstract and intense affair, rendered in one long sentence in each section, and numbered from 11 to 0 as if counting down. Counting is central to these brief interludes as Felipe begins by telling us that:

“Off and on: one week there, the next nowhere to be seen, that’s how my dead began… they were scattered all over Santiago, those Sunday stiffs, weekly or bimonthly corpses which I totted up methodically, and the tally rose like foamy scum…”

The Remainder is a novel which explores Chile relationship with its past, and the dictatorship of General Pinochet in particular. Iquela’s first chapter (we assume) is set in 1988, on the night of the referendum when Pinochet was voted from power. It is here she meets the teenage Paloma for the first time as her parents have returned to Chile from exile to celebrate the result. Iquela is immediately infatuated with the slightly older Paloma:

“She didn’t even look up when I opened the door. Standing stock-still, her eyes boring into her white espadrilles, hands buried inside her faded-jean pockets and a pair of headphones covering her ears – that’s all it took, she had me.”

The infatuation is beautifully handled as Paloma encourages Iquela to smoke and drink while wandering around the house, entirely at home. The evening ends, however, with a fight between their fathers which Iquela doesn’t entirely understand, Paloma’s father calling hers a “fucking snitch.”

The novel then moves forward to Paloma’s arrival in Chile with the intention of burying her mother, presumably twenty to twenty-five years later. Iquela is still haunted by her earlier infatuation though this is tempered with an irritation that her mother expects her to drop everything to help Paloma. We see that Iquela’s relationship with her mother, Consuela, is fractious:

“My routine visits to my mother’s house were always brief, as if we’d just bumped into each other on the corner and I had something terribly important to do a few blocks away.”

Similarly, all the characters are haunted by the past: Santiago is described as “this mortuary city”; Iquela comments that “My mother’s memory functioned like a topography of the dead.” The trip to Argentina is both a way of Iquela resolving her relationship with Paloma, and, symbolically, represents a coming to terms with Chile’s past, the freeing of Iquela’s generation from the experiences of their parents. (The ash cloud which prevents the plane carrying Paloma’s mother’s body landing is also mentioned in the opening chapter: “That night it rained ash. Or perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps the grey is just the backdrop of my memory…”)

Unfortunately, this aspect of the novel did not work for me. While there is some dark humour to be found during the road trip, and we see Iquela and Paloma’s relationship develop, there is little sense that they are wrestling with anything profound. Their parents’ story, more interesting than theirs (which is perhaps part of the problem they face), is never fully revealed, almost as if Zeran is resisting writing a novel of that time. Felipe’s interjections (Felipe’s backstory also remains opaque, though we assume his parents were victims of the Pinochet regime) become increasingly repetitive, giving the impression that the number was decided before the content.

There is enough here, particularly in the opening section of the novel, to suggest Zeran’s talent, but I remain mystified by the excessive praise the novel has received. It will come as no surprise, then, that I find this a strange selection for the International Man Booker Prize, especially given the quality of And Other Stories publications last year, with both The Iliac Crest and Tentacle more deserving of a place on the long list.

At Dusk

March 26, 2019

Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk (translated by Sora Kim-Russell) is a novel which holds a generation to judgement and finds them wanting. As the title suggests, it is a generation, presumably Hwang’s own (he was born in 1943), which is approaching its final moments. The novel itself sees a number of characters die, and in the form of Kim Kiyoung the idea of legacy is tackled directly as his fellow architects arrange a retrospective of his work in the final weeks of his life.

Architecture is the window through which Hwang reviews what his generation have made of South Korea, an area where art and business coincide to literally rebuild the landscape. As one of two narrators, Park Minwoo, explains:

“Everyone thinks it’s good to be an architect, because your building will stand long after your gone, but for all you know, they could be left looking greedy and ugly.”

The same idea is idea is expressed by Kim earlier in conversation with Park:

“Is there really humanity in architecture? If there were you’d have to regret what you did. You and the others at Hyeonsan need to think on your sins.”

For Park the issue becomes personal. Contact from an old friend, a girl he once loved, Cha Soona, brings back memories of his life as a school boy in a slum area. Soona is the only other child attending school; seeing her in the street, he remembers was, like “sighting a single white crane in the middle of a disaster area.” They soon take to meeting at the library and grow close, but Park’s ambition to leave coincides with a sexual assault on Soona which makes her withdraw from him and eventually they lose touch. Park’s relationship with Soona comes to represent his relationship with his past. Where he lived has been entirely rebuilt by architects like himself, but not necessarily for the better:

“The boxy two- and three- storey buildings that occupied downtown from the shopping area all the way to the residential area looked bleaker than ever.”

Park himself has been rebuilt in his search for success, realising that he must flatter the powerful if he is to get ahead:

“All you had to do was listen closely to what the person with power said, and then say the same thing, but using different words… Hiding my true thoughts was second nature to me by then.”

His sense of fairness, which we see in his recollections of his childhood and adolescence, also begins to fade:

“I sympathised with those who were fighting social injustices, but at the same time, by having the fortitude to just buckle down and get through it, I was able to forgive myself for not getting involved.”

Park’s narrative is joined by Soona’s recollections as he is sent extracts from a memoir she has written, combining to give us a truer picture of their past. At the same time there is a second narrative from the point of view of a young playwright, Jung Wohee. Jung struggles to make a living, working at a convenience store overnight to subsidise her writing. She is, in some ways, representative of another generation:

“I met countless people my age who were just like me. The reminded me of the tiny mammals who cower among the beast of prey deep in the jungle and must survive on wits alone.”

One reason Jung is able to fend off despair is the example of her friend Kim Minwoo: “For him, the worse things got, the fiercer his approach to life.” Jung and Kim offer some hope to the reader, though it is clear they have been to a large extent abandoned by Park’s generation. This neglect is exemplified by a story Kim tells Jung of an eviction to make way for demolition and rebuilding where a young man is killed by an excavator. Later in the novel Park remembers how, when an eviction was taking place:

“We always jumped in the car and left in a hurry, right before the demolition crews broke up the protestors and sent in the bulldozers and excavators, as if we couldn’t bear to watch it ourselves.”

The two narratives do, of course, unite, in a way that is both unexpected and satisfying. Hwang does not seek to resolve Park’s crisis of faith, nor reward Jung’s loyalty to her friend, but both characters are subtly changed by the end.

Kim Kiyoung is not regarded by his peers as particularly successful architect, but Park is forced to reassess his legacy:

“But though he had mostly designed smaller buildings in small towns and provincial cities and remote parts of the country, they were novel for being public buildings.”

How we define success, and what we value and reward, is the problem, Hwang suggests, in this concise but powerful examination of where it all went wrong in a country we are frequently asked to emulate.

Jokes for the Gunmen

March 23, 2019

The title of Mazen Maarouf’s Man Booker International Prize long-listed short story collection (translated by Jonathan Wright), Jokes for the Gunmen, gives a fair indication of its contents as the twelve stories within generally combine a sense of ever-present threat with surreal humour. Maarouf is a Palestinian-Icelandic writer who lived in Beiruit before moving to Iceland, a fact that might explain why so many of the stories adopt a child’s perspective.

This is certainly true of the title story, which is also the collection’s longest at thirty-eight pages (most are much shorter, the shortest being ‘Curtain’ at five pages). The sporadic violence of the setting of many of the stories is immediately identified:

“We could hear gunfire from time to time, but we grew used to it, as one grows used to the honking of passing cars.”

In this atmosphere “power was the most important subject” and, at school, the students boast of “how their father beat them”:

“These stories illustrated the power each father had in his household.”

When the narrator discovers that his own father has been seen being beaten up in the street by the gunmen he sets out to re-establish his father’s power. He attempts to provoke his father with no success, and then begins to injure himself and blame these injuries on his father, but the other pupils are not convinced. Soon the story takes the kind of surreal turn we will come to expect as he concocts a series of schemes to prevent his father being assaulted, such as selling his twin brother’s organs to the gunmen, acquiring a glass eye for his father in the belief that this will frighten the gunmen into leaving his father alone, and hiring bodyguards for his father.

A similar tone is found in ‘Gramophone’, where the father also remains at some distance despite being at the centre of the story his son is telling. Here the father is employed as a ‘gramophone operator’ in a bar:

“He spent hours and hours behind the bar, turning then handle of a Berliner gramophone from 1900 – there was no electricity and the bar was usually lit by candles.”

The father is the lone survivor of the bombing of the bar, but loses both his arms. Later, he requests that the narrator donate one of his arms – “They said on television that it’s medically possible.” The narrator’s reaction to this (“I didn’t feel angry or disappointed. I was just sad”) sums up the tone of much of the collection.

In ‘Matador’ it is an uncle who is the adult male character:

“My uncle died three times in the space of one week.”

On the first occasion he is revived by the narrator punching the soles of his feet – “I got the idea from Rocky in the film.” The narrator is also present on his second resurrection, when he is attempting to dress him for the funeral. These deaths are presented humorously, with the narrator at one point commenting:

“His repeated deaths had made him bad-tempered.”

But the story’s strangeness lies, rather, in the uncle’s obsession with being a matador, which has led him to strangle cows with his bare hands in the local slaughterhouse. It is this, his stifled dream, which eventually kills him.

These stranger elements – as had been said of Latin American magical realism – have likely been lifted from reality, as, for example, the cow which wanders into the bombed cinema where civilians have been sheltering in ‘Cinema’. Maazan perhaps draws attention the danger of this in ‘Biscuits’ where he attempts to convince his mother that a man who they saw crossing a busy motorway was unharmed as he had the power to turn every car he touched to biscuit. The mother is unconvinced:

“The old man was dead and covered in blood. He’d made a desperate attempt to block the motorway, but a car ran him over. I didn’t see any biscuits.”

The story, however, is used to convince the care home that his mother has Alzheimer’s, perhaps warning us not to be distracted by the quirkiness of what has gone before. Interestingly the story forms a bridge between those set in war-torn Beirut and those, like ‘Other People’s Dreams’ and ‘Aquarium’ where the surreal, rather than the atmosphere of violence, dominates.

Overall, Jokes for the Gunmen is an accomplished debut which suggests a writer who is equally adept at observing and imagining. Whether it will make the short-list is difficult to predict as some of the pieces are slight in comparison to others and tonally it does not have an enormous range. Despite this, Maazan is a clearly a writer to watch out for, and hopefully his work will now be experienced by a wider audience.