The Public Image

November 3, 2017

The Booker short-listed The Public Image was Muriel Spark’s ninth novel, appearing just before the more experimental The Driver’s Seat in 1970. Of all her pointed (or perhaps pointing) titles it is perhaps the most on point as the novel dissect the lengths to which an English actress, Annabel Christopher, will go to protect her public image, and the lengths her husband, Frederick, will go to destroy it. It has a rather tame beginning for Spark as we meet Annabel in the all but empty house she is moving into in Rome. The house, bought to bolster her reputation as a film star (as her husband’s friend, Billy, comments, “Is this all in aid of your public image?”), also echoes her public life – showy, empty and, as she comments when Billy simply walks in, lacking in privacy:

“…she had observed before that when people were in the process of moving into a new house, and until the furniture had arrived and been put in place, everyone felt they could come and go, like the workmen and the removal men, without permission.”

The pared back setting also reflects the novel as a whole, which does not feel as richly present in place as the Edinburgh of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or the London of The Girls of Slender Means. Like a stage set, the house will also be, flashbacks aside, almost the only setting.

Annabel is unapologetically presented by Spark as a very ordinary woman who has been thrust into the spotlight of stardom. The detached cruelty of the narrative voice informs us:

“…she had no mean of knowing that she was, in fact, stupid for, after all, it is the deep core of stupidity that thrives on the absence of a looking glass.”

As Frederick tells her, “You can’t act. You’re just lucky to get parts.” It is Frederick’s assumption of his intellectual superiority which leads him to believe he can ruin her by attacking her public image, but Annabel understands that he, too, is playing a part:

“…if only for effect, he had cultivated a private self-image of seriousness, and that she was a threat to it.”

In Annabel’s eyes it is just as much a “role” as the part he plays in the public image of their marriage, “impeccably formal by the light of day, voluptuously enamoured of each other under the cover of night.” In the novel, public image is not restricted to that presented to the media, but is also that we present to others, and ourselves.

Frederick’s plan to undermine the lie of her public image (their happy marriage) with another lie is the one true Sparkian touch in a novel where the satire can, at times, seem commonplace today. Having been missing for days, Annabel discovers that he has invited every friend, acquaintance and hanger-on to a house-warming party. As the guests pile in, much to Annabel’s bemusement, Frederick is meanwhile committing suicide, leaving behind a number of letters (including one to his dead mother) suggesting that he has taken his own life as a result of Annabel’s promiscuous behaviour (the word “orgy” is bandied about widely in the novel, as Spark, in typical fashion, reduces the most shocking aspect of Fredrick’s contrived scandal to amusement with repetition).

In what follows, Annabel attempts to immediately counteract Fredrick’s plot:

“I must say something to the press now, or it will be too late for the morning papers. Things like this are easily misconstrued, and I don’t want the world to get the wrong story.”

She gathers her neighbours around her in a scene we might expect an old master to paint rather than the press to photograph. Her director, Luigi, is doubtful (“Stop the orgy story? How do you stop the waves of the sea?”) but she is determined.

Spark allows Annabel a route to redemption through her baby. The fact that her son is referred to as “the baby” throughout suggests, at first, he is little more than a prop, and Annabel certainly uses him to prop up her public image and excuse herself from tiresome situations. Whether the initial cynicism is Annabel’s or the reader’s, Spark slowly reveals that, not only is her love genuine, but that it supersedes the need to retain her fame. The novel’s lyrical ending, where Annabel literally embraces her child, also acts as riposte to Frederick’s claim that she is “an empty shell”:

“Nobody recognised her as she stood, having moved the baby to rest on her hip, conscious also of the baby in a sense weightlessly and perpetually within her, as an empty shell contains, by its very structure, the echo and harking image of former and former seas.”

For all that Annabel is butt of her more obvious satire, Spark ultimately champions her against the attempts of the more ‘intelligent’ men around her to manipulate and control her life.

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The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

October 31, 2017

1968 also saw the publication of Robert Coover’s second novel, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Waugh, Prop. Coover, at least, is a writer I have previously enjoyed in the form of Pricksongs & Descants and Noir; on the other hand, my knowledge of baseball is entirely limited to the Dan Bern album Doubleheader, and I’ve yet to even discover what a doubleheader is. Luckily Coover’s astonishing imagination and dynamic language were enough to carry me through, though I suspect a love of the game makes the novel an even more attractive prospect.

J. Henry Waugh is an accountant who, disenchanted with his job and perhaps his lonely life in general, has created a fantasy baseball league which he regards as his true work:

“It was true: the work, or what he called his work, though it was more than that, much more, was good for him. Thing was, nobody realised he was just four years shy of sixty. They were always shocked when he told them. It was his Association that kept him young.”

The game is played with dice, but it is more than a dice game, having a cast of characters which Waugh has created and lived with over many seasons. They don’t simply play ball – they walk, talk and feel like living individuals (Waugh has even developed two rival political parties). Indeed you might say the game is rather like a novel, as Coover proceeds to demonstrate by moving seamlessly between the two narratives: a conversation in which Waugh orders a sandwich takes place among the conversations in the stands as the game proceeds.

Presently he is relishing the excitement of a rookie player, Damon Rutherford, who is having an outstanding game:

“Henry was convinced it was Damon’s day… He laughed, almost carelessly… pitched the dice, watched Damon Rutherford mow them down. One! Two! Three! And then nonchalantly, but not arrogantly, just casually, part of any working day, walk back to the dugout. As though nothing were happening.”

Rutherford has a perfect game (though I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what that meant) and Waugh celebrates by heading to his local bar (Waugh jokingly calls the barman ‘Jake’ as he once did accidentally, mistaking him for one of his baseball players). Waugh celebrates with wine (well, beer), women (well, bar regular Hettie) and song – because his ‘game’ also contains a number of amusing songs, demonstrating that Coover’s facility with language extends to rhyme. During his amorous encounter with Hettie he insists that she call him Damon, and Coover takes great delight in describing their passion using the language of baseball:

“And…Damon Rutherford whipped off the uniform of the first lady ballplayer in Association history, and then, helping and hindering all at once, pushing and pulling, they ran the bases, pounded into first, slid into second heels high, somersaulted over third, shot home standing up, then into the box once more, swing away, and run them all again, and ‘Damon!’ she cried and ‘Damon!’”

Waugh can’t resist playing Rutherford in the next game, where he quickly nears the world record for perfect innings. Two throws of 1-1-1, however, lead him to the Extraordinary Occurrences Chart where, among the possibilities, he reads:

“Batter struck fatally by bean ball”

(A bean ball is a ball deliberately pitched to hit a batter). This eventuality would require an unlikely third throw of 1-1-1, but Rutherford is the next batter. Unfortunately he cannot find a plausible excuse to replace him, and so real is the game to him, he cannot simply do it on a whim. Of course, he throws 1-1-1:

“No one moved. All stared at the home plate. Damon lay there, on his back, gazing up at a sun he could no longer see.”

Waugh responds to Rutherford’s death as you might to the death of a loved one – in fact, his one friend at work, Lou, assumes it is someone close to him. Soon both his real life, and the Association itself, is threatened by his grief.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is a novel ahead of its time in its examination of the lure of virtual reality. Waugh’s ‘in-head’ life (or online life as it would be now) comes to dominate his every waking hour making holding down either a job or a relationship problematic. Recreating that imaginary existence very much as the novel we are reading is created makes the reader complicit in Waugh’s escapism, and ultimately the novel showcases the power of the imagination to triumph over reality, for good or bad. All of this is relayed with the usual verve and humour we expect from Coover, demonstrating that a novel can also triumph over its reader’s sporting ignorance.

The Boat in the Evening

October 27, 2017

Sometimes a writer can exist on the periphery of reading for many years, a series of nods and nudges moving you ever closer to picking up one of their books. So it was with Tarjei Versaas, who I first became aware of over twenty years ago when I saw the 1987 film of The Ice Palace. In the last few years, numerous positive review of that novel and others by those whose opinions I trust have gathered momentum, so when I discovered, while exploring options for Karen and Simon’s 1968 Club, that his final book, The Boat in the Evening, was published that year it seemed that fate had finally decided it was time.

What I didn’t know was that The Boat in the Evening is not a novel, but “a series of semi-autobiographical sketches.” Despite this, it begins strongly with a story of the author and his father. The first few lines give an indication of Vesaas’ style, at least in this translation by Elizabeth Rokkan:

“There he stands in sifting snow. In my thoughts in sifting snow. A father – and his winter-shaggy brown horse, in snow.
His brown horse and his face. His sharp words. His blue eyes and his beard. The beard with a reddish tinge against the white. Sifting snow. Blind, boundless snow.”

The repetition and short sentences are more reminiscent of poetry (Vesaas was also a poet) and, indeed, at times the prose breaks into lines. The chapter (around nineteen pages long) is short on action but develops a powerful sense of the relationship between the young Vesaas and his father. In it he is helping his father clear snow from the logging roads when their horse cuts its leg. The father attempts to urinate on the wound to clean it but cannot (“I’ve been sweating too much today”) so Vesaas (who is generally referred to as “the child” – the story only occasionally drifting into first person) is ordered to do so in his place. His own failure tells of a more general sense of failing and weakness as he sees himself through his father’s eyes:

“The black command that came out of the wall of stone. It cannot be explained. He cannot perform. Not one miserable drop.
A caustic look from the man above him rests on him and paralyses him so that he cannot move either.”

The second chapter, ‘In the Marshes and on the Earth’, tells of an encounter with cranes and was less enthralling. The third, ‘Spring in Winter’, depicted my favourite scene, a young woman slowly covered in snow as she waits for the man she loves. He does not appear and it is the narrator, who is in love with her himself, who must tell her this. Once again, Vesaas is able to convey the nuances of the relationship with great depth and subtlety:

“He unpacked her out of the little snowdrift on her breast. She saw that his fingers were uncertain. And so cold, she thought.
What will he do?
She held her breath, but all he did was go on unpacking her. Bit by bit she turned into an ordinary girl.”

Unfortunately for much of the rest of the book Vesaas loses interest in other people, becoming instead fascinated with landscapes and visions. In ‘Daybreak with Shining Horses’ Vesaas and a friend, Per, witness a strange sight: both an inexplicable light (a “shining aura”) and a naked girl in the distance. No rational explanation or reaction is required as Vesaas assumes we will simply fall under the spell of his incantatory prose:

“We could not help but believe what was approaching had its own sense of power… Our bodies were buoyant… We thought of it as air, but knew it was the glow of something approaching…”

Later we are told “we were alive and more than alive, we were open and ready to be filled with what was coming.” Clearly Vesaas is recalling an important moment, but by retelling it without context the visionary element becomes detached and meaningless. This method persists for much of the remainder of the book, with Vesaas attempting to instil meaning into ordinary events through insistently poeticising them. Often he will take a metaphor (such as “mirror” in ‘The Drifter and the Mirrors’) and repeat it page after page until it is completely severed from whatever it originally described. Or he will attack the reader with a series of questions in an imitation of profundity:

“Was that answer good enough? Why did that answer come? Does it perhaps not matter so much anymore?
What does good enough mean?
What does matter mean?”

This is not to say that the book is not full of wonderful lines – many of the sections (much shortened!) would, I’m sure, make excellent poems. Where there is an element of narrative, there is enough to suggest that Vesaas is, indeed, a novelist worth reading. The Boat in the Evening, however, is a wishy washy mishmash of prose and poetry, the prose thickening the beauty of the poetry, the poetry thinning the sense of the prose, until there is very little of anything appealing left on the page.

Vernon Subutex 1

October 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abandon

October 19, 2017

Abandon is the second of Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s novels to be translated into English by Arunava Sinha following Panty last year. Once again Bandyopadhyay seeks to explore the experience of Indian women with a rawness and honesty which is only matched by the skill and awareness with which she constructs the novel. It tells the story of a mother and child, Ishwari and Roo, seeking first refuge and then survival while on the run from Roo’s father’s family. Ishwari, having given Roo up as a young child, finds herself unable to live without seeing him:

“Countless days and nights without Roo in them haunted her like an unforgiving famine… Ishwari had become insane with need for her son.”

Despite this she is also aware that Roo will make her life more difficult:

“Why did you come away with me like this? All I wanted was a glimpse of you. Why did you run away with me without telling anyone? There is no room for me to live with you anywhere in your first city, or my second city, or this third city.”

The novel carefully balances her love for her son with the frustrations of trying to care for him without any support and very little money. Luckily they are taken in by a boarding house thanks to the kindness of the caretaker, Gourohori Babu, who lets them stay in an attic room. Babu will be the first of a handful of characters who will show Ishawari kindness, though perhaps the only one who does not hope to receive something in return. At first Ishwari is only guaranteed one night’s shelter, but she manages to convince the owner of the hotel to let her stay longer. She is also able to find employment, but struggles to keep it as Roo falls ill. Her second job lasts only five days:

“On the fifth day of work… Roo fell severely ill. For three out of the five days Roo had been locked in the room from nine in the morning to seven in the evening…. Gourohori stayed by his side on the fifth day – that night Roo began to burn with a high fever.”

The novel, then, tells of the struggle for survival of a lone mother and child in a society with no safety net – but Bandyopadhyay has a greater ambition than simply to move us by describing Ashwari’sand Roo’s suiffering. Early in the novel she introduces a symbiosis between author and character:

“My famished love showers blessings on him [Roo] and my feelings are reflected on my face. I can see my expression in a non-existent mirror. A mirror that reflects Ishwari back at me all the time, an Ishawari continually slipping off her point of equilibrium. To make room for a narrative combining me, Ishwari, this novel and Roo, the mirror lets me hear Ishwari answer Roo as she winds up the car window.”

Bandyopadhyay reflects this relationship in the narrative’s drift between first and third person. The relationship itself is complex: partly it is created as she imaginatively inhabits her character, but also more literally she is, in part, her character. This is true of all writers but it strikes me that Bandyopadhyay is pre-empting the assumption that women’s writing, particularly when outside ‘Western’ literature and dealing with poverty, is autobiographical. At times she identifies points where their stories cross over:

“I abandoned domestic life, left my child to arrive at a distant land to write a novel.”

It is noticeable that this frequently happens when she draws attention to her art, and the novel takes on a self-conscious aspect from the first page:

“The taxi begins to move, and with our desperate attempts to seek shelter for the night, a novel begins.”

“One day,” she says later, “this novel will stop joy in its tracks and throttle it.” It is a “predatory novel.” Bandyopadhyay is not simply adding a post-modern gloss to her work; she is making clear that the novel is not simply an emotional outpouring. She is also identifying a danger within the genre in which she is writing (novels which describe the suffering of the poor) by alluding to the pleasure readers may get from indulging in the misery of others:

“…to the reader of this novel, I’m sure, all kinds of humiliation faced by humans, by the hungry, by the afflicted, by the beggar, by the injured are effective. The more meticulous the description of this humiliation by the writer or poet or painter, the more successful they are, the more triumphant their art. The more the reader is bruised and upset after entering the novel, the more she considers the reading of it profitable.”

Bandyopadhyay will continue to bruise the reader throughout, and all these aspects will contribute to a powerful ending which affirms in way the reader may not like or expect. It is exactly this, however, that marks Bandyopadhyay out as a novelist of great craft and skill as well emotional depth and honesty.

The Evenings

October 12, 2017

Gerard Reve is generally regarded as one of the three major post-war Dutch writers alongside Harry Mulisch and W.F Hermans. While Mulisch has been reasonably well treated by translators (though much of his work is now out of print) and Hermans less so (though both Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles are well worth seeking out), Reve has been all but neglected. (So much so that in 2011 he featured in Writers No-one Reads, where you can find an exhaustive list of what was available in English at that time). Last year he was finally recued from this oblivion when Sam Garrett’s translation of his first novel, The Evenings, was published by Pushkin Press.

The protagonist of The Evenings is Frits van Egters, a twenty-three-year-old office worker whose life seems to have ground to a halt in the gloom of a Dutch winter. While his brother, Joop, is married, and his friends Jaap and Joosje have a child, he remains with his parents in a state of perpetual irritation:

“’Good morning, Father,’ Frits said. To speak these words, he felt as if he first had to clear his windpipe of a stone, which now fell at his feet.”

He regards his parents as ignorant and ill-mannered and alternates between criticism and forced gaiety. “The way you smoke is both incredibly clumsy and ridiculous,” he tells his mother, while at the same time thinking, “Make it sound like I’m joking.” He confides to his friend Viktor:

“I’m only waiting for them to hang themselves or beat each other to death. Or set the house on fire. For God’s sake, let it be that.”

Reve makes us fully aware of the disparity between Frits’ feelings and what he says by punctuating the narrative with Frits’ thoughts, a running commentary on the situations he finds himself in and the people he meets, frequently cruel and critical. By placing his thoughts in speech marks, and not dogmatically paragraphing each new speaker, he creates momentary lapses where we are uncertain if Frits is thinking or speaking. The fact that Frits’ cruellest thoughts are often spoken out loud makes second guessing impossible. An early example is his suggestion that his brother is balding:

“Listen, Joop… without meaning to be nasty, your scalp is really almost bare. It will not be long before you can count your hairs on the fingers of one hand.”

Baldness is a topic he broaches with many of his male friends and acquaintances; in his suspended adolescence it seems to be an accusation of ageing. He also happily tells Joosje that her child (another sign of adulthood)

“…is, in truth, a terrible little monster… The nerves have developed all wrong. It probably doesn’t have long to live.”

His inner monologue is given a certain pathos, however, as he clearly uses it to stave of his own unhappiness:

“An early start, this will be a day well spent.”

Later, with reference to visiting his brother, he thinks, “We shrink from nothing… It would be childish not to go. One must face one’s torments head on.” Though never explicitly stated, he seems as despairing of his own existence as he is of others. His nights are frequently spent searching for company or going to the cinema, almost anything to distract him from the emptiness of his life: Frits’ unpleasantness is redeemed by his own despair.

We also see him show kindness to his parents, asking questions on topics which he knows his father will speak on and making cheerful remarks, attempting to bridge the gulf between them while aware he has no hope of success. The New Year’s Eve dinner is a masterpiece of this type of communication, for example when he discovers his mother has bought fruit cordial thinking it is fruit wine:

“‘I’m sure it will be good, said Frits, ’It doesn’t matter much.’ ‘And now the moment for tears has arrived,’ he thought. His eyes grew moist.”

Frits’ own tears are existential, here contrasted with his mother’s tears of frustration, but “Shall we pause and feel sorry for ourselves?” is the danger he feels, and fights off, constantly. Frits’ complexity is the novel’s greatest success. It has been compared (by Herman Koch) to The Catcher in the Rye, and, though I am naturally suspicious of any comparison which appears on a book jacket, there are many similarities. Frits may be older, but he suffers from the same narcissistic ‘what is the point of life’ isolation, let down by, and alienated from, everyone he knows. Let down, also, by the seventy years we have had to wait to read this powerful addition to the genre.

Often I Am Happy

October 9, 2017

Danish writer Jens Christian Grondahl had a brief period of translation into English in the early 2000s, beginning with Silence in October, which probably remains his most famous novel. This was followed by Lucca, Virginia and An Altered Light (which had a US release only), all translated by Anne Born. Now we have his latest novel, Often I Am Happy, which, perhaps frustrated by the last ten years, he has translated himself. It’s a short novel which opens with a simple conceit: the narrator, Ellinor, is addressing her friend Anna – who has been dead for forty years:

“Now your husband is also dead, Anna. Your husband, our husband.”

The entanglements of their relationship, which the novel will slowly unpick, are more complex than simply a shared husband. Ellinor tells us that the husband, Georg, would not visit Anna’s grave – “I don’t think he ever forgave you completely” – and soon we discover why:

“You went to bed with your best friend’s husband and allowed him to drag you to your death.”

Georg and Ellinor’s marriage is perhaps not as unusual as it at first appears: when Anna dies in an avalanche while skiing, and Henning, Ellinor’s husband cannot be found, she and Georg grow close and eventually marry. It is Georg’s revelation as Anna’s life support machine is switched off which adds symmetry to their later relationship:

“’I saw them… In our room.’…You and Henning stood in front of the window. You had just time to let go of him as George entered, but only just.”

The novel is therefore a mediation of both loss and love. Ellinor, having suffered the loss of Henning in her youth, now must cope without Georg:

“I missed him as I was riding home on my bike. I miss him all the time, but it is something different about him that I miss at different times. His body next to me in bed, the sound of his steps, the familiar timbre of his voice in the familiar rooms.”

And later:

“There are times when I cannot hold his absence, and the feeling is a physical one, Anna; it is not a metaphor.”

Her internal grieving, however, does not satisfy Georg’s two sons, whom she has, of course, been a mother to. Her decision to sell the family home and move back to the neighbourhood where she was brought up has not gone down well. Perhaps to understand her story, we must first understand her mother’s. In the course of the novel Ellinor tells us about the experience of her mother, a young woman during World War Two, who fell in love with a German soldier during the time Denmark was occupied:

“It’s not that I want to romanticize. What is a love story? Two young people who feel driven towards each other.”

Sher mother discovers she is pregnant just as the war ends and her lover, Thomas, has to return to Germany. She is treated as a collaborator – “She and the other girls had their hair cut off before they were taken through the town on an open truck” – but continues to wait for his return long after Ellinor’s birth. Eventually she tells Ellinor the story of her father:

“’I suppose he forgot you,’ I said harshly when she had told me her story. She shook her head. ‘Oh no,’ she said softly, ‘that would make no sense.’”

Perhaps Ellinor learns from her mother’s inability to move on (when she is at one point offered the chance of another relationship she rejects it) and twice refuses to sacrifice her life to what she has lost. For all the drama, however, both lives are presented as ordinary, partly as a result of Ellinor’s conversational, and retrospective, narration. Grondahl’s point seems to be, as the title suggests, we continue to find happiness in face of adversity, and the reader’s overwhelming impression is of the resilience of the two women. This is, perhaps, why we end, among the graves, with images of love: the framed picture of Georg and Anna dancing, and “Thomas Hoffmann, that late summer when he walked with my mother under the harvest moon, out at the cove.”

Ghachar Ghochar

October 7, 2017

Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar (translated by Srinath Perur) begins in a deceptively gentle manner with its narrator seated at the coffee shop where he seeks daily refuge from “domestic skirmishes.” It’s true that Shanbhag reminds us this is not European café culture as our narrator remembers the young woman, Chitra, whom he used to meet there, and who worked for a women’s welfare organisation:

“The things she said about men I took as applying to myself. I could only sit there mute, looking vaguely guilty. She might say, ‘How could you break her arm simply because the tea was not to your taste?’ Or: ‘Do you kill your wife because she forgot to leave the key with the neighbour?’”

However these actions seem remote from the narrator himself whose overriding characteristics are timidity, inertia, and the avoidance of conflict. Although married, he still stays with his parents, sister, Malati, and his uncle, Venkatachala. Though Venkatachala is his father’s younger brother, he is the head of the household (or Chikkappa) as he is the sole earner thanks to his spice business. His entrepreneurial skills are contrasted with those of the narrator’s father, Appa, who spent all his days as a salesman for a company dealing in tea leaves, often struggling to earn a living, only to be sacked. It is this misfortune which leads Venkatachala to establish his business, and allows the rest of the family to live off his profits, a situation which the narrator’s wife, Anita, finds difficult to accept. As he explains it, his decision not to work is more accidental than deliberate:

“I recall a time when I received daily lecture about how I had to study well and find a job. The pressure eased when Sona Masala began doing well. The family no longer looked to me as the person who one day would have to provide for all of us.”

He begins working for his uncle’s company, but soon realises that the position is a sinecure and that he does nothing of any use:

“They’d assign me a few trivial tasks because I was there, but nothing of significance ever got down without Chikkappa’s approval.”

When he is first married he pretends to go to work in the hope of his wife’s approval, but this doesn’t last:

“I was back by half past three. If Anita was surprised she didn’t bring it up. The next day I returned at one, had lunch, and slept through the afternoon. The day after I didn’t step out all day and stayed in bed on the pretext of a headache.”

Anita is furious:

“Why did you cheat me?… Why did you marry when you are living off others?… How can you not feel ashamed of living of alms?”

Anita is, of course, the outsider in the family, and she looks at the narrator with the eyes of an outsider. Rather cleverly, Shanbhag aligns us with the narrator before supplying Anita as an alternative viewpoint. She also sees Venkatachala’s business with the eyes of an outsider, wondering where the wealth comes from. It is noticeable that one night, as the narrator and Anita watch Venkatachala unload trucks beneath their bedroom window, he quickly loses interest while she keeps watching.

Shanbhag cleverly decribes the incident which creates a crisis point in their marriage in the novel’s second chapter, but only returns to its aftermath near the end when we are well acquainted with the family’s ways. A woman appears at the door asking to see Venkatachala but the mother and sister forcefully turn her away. The narrator is aware that what they are doing is wrong yet does nothing to intervene:

“The woman had not abused us. She had not come here to pick a fight. We were thrown off balance by her love for one of us, and so we tore into her with such vengeance that she collapsed to the ground, sobbing.”

Later Anita brings the incident up, claiming that the other women acted out of self-interest, not wanting to see Venkatachala married. Though the narrator knows she is right, he is terrified she will upset the delicate balance of the household;

“The well-being of any household rests on selective acts of blindness and deafness.”

A family meeting makes clear what must be done.

Ghachar Ghochar is a domestic morality tale, but its reach goes much further. With economy and incision, Shanbhag demonstrates the corruption of a comfortable life. The novel’s narrator is the archetypal bystander; at one point he says, “As usual I hadn’t said anything, but my very silence implicated me.” Turning a blind eye, keeping his mouth shut – these are his talents. When he tells Anita, “it doesn’t matter who’s doing what as long as long as it all runs smoothly,” he is not only referring work. Behind its jokey title and garish cover lies the work of a writer prepared to look into the darker depths of human nature.

The President’s Room

September 30, 2017

Ricardo Romero’s The President’s Room, the third release from recently founded Charco Press (you can read about the first, Die, My Love, here) name-checks a number of well-known writers on the reverse: Kafka, Calvino and (naturally) Cortazar. Such references are, of course, necessary to entice the notoriously timid English-speaking reader, but perhaps in future we will be able place this novel, and others like it, in a recognisable genre of its own, one which we are at last being introduced to (thanks to wonderful translators like Charlotte Coombe): Argentinian horror. Like Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream before it, The President’s Room uses a domestic setting, family relationships, and, above all, a child to create an atmosphere as fearful as the woods at midnight, or the dead-end of a dark alley. Though magic realism was never as cute as some would have you believe, now the magic is as dark as the print it appears in, dressed in the borrowed clothes of the horror genre to disguise the deeper horror which lies beneath in reality itself.

Where Schweblin’s horror was environmental, Romero’s, from the title onwards is nakedly political. Told in the voice of a young boy in a series of short chapters, it begins with a description of the house he lives in with his parents and two brothers, ending with the sentence:

“And of course, at the front of the house at the left, looking out over the garden, is the president’s room.”

As he later explains:

“In our neighbourhood, all then houses have a president’s room. And yet the president has never been to visit us. It’s not that we are expecting him, because to be honest, most of the time we forget the room’s even there. Most of the time, we forget.”

With this simple idea, Romero captures the insidious invasion of dictatorship into the domestic space. The narrator’s fascination with the room (“I’ve also climbed the laurel tree to peer into the president’s room”) reflects our own fascination with the powerful. Throughout the novel, Romero uses the geography of house as an echo of the state:

“There’s no basement…They’ve been banned since my grandparents were around. People say that terrible things used to happen before, in the basements.”

Even the brothers’ illnesses are made to seem ominous, his little brother’s bouts of fever linked in his mind to his grandfather, now dead:

“One of them is alive and the other is dead, but they both have a fever.”

The grandfather, whom the boy barely remembers, is vivid in his speculations, suggesting that his memory hangs heavily over the house. Similarly, when at one point the little brother disappears, we sense that every event is the echo of some wider, unnamed tragedy.

The boy is only aware of one boy at his school who is rumoured to have had a visit from the president, but he is too scared to talk to him:

“They say that’s something went wrong in his house, and that for quite a while afterwards he had a fearful look about him.”

There is a later hint that something may have happened to his parents. Even when he briefly mentions that he has not seen the girl he likes at school for two months we cannot help but fear something terrible has happened.

Inevitably, the president does visit the house – “he was dressed just like when we see him on TV” – observed by the boy, unnoticed by the rest of the family. That Romero from that point steers the novel to a conclusion which is both satisfying and unexpected says much about his skill. The President’s Room, at only eighty pages, can be read in an hour but, appropriately for a novel which turns the haunted house story into a political satire, it will haunt the reader for some time to come.

My Cat Yugoslavia

September 25, 2017

Pajtim Statovci’s My Cat Yugoslavia (translated from the Finnish – an important point in itself – by David Hackston) is a first novel which matches bravura with accomplishment. Its opening gambit is a gay sex scene where the encounter has been arranged via social media – a daring nod towards modernity – but within a few pages we are in the presence of a talking cat, a character which ranges menacingly though literature from Puss in Boots to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Not only that, but Statovci comfortably pursues two narratives: the first set in contemporary Finland, following Bekim, the son of Yugoslav immigrants, as he comes to terms with who he is; the second relating the story of his mother, Emine’s, early life and ultimate departure from her home in the face of persecution. To Statovci’s credit, both narratives are equally compelling.

Before the cat, however, there is a snake. In the second chapter Bekim acquires a boa constrictor in a scene which also has homoerotic overtones:

“I gripped the snake with both hands and wound it round my neck, and as its scaly sides touched my bare skin, as it touched my neck with the tip of its tongue, goose bumps appeared all over my body. Its slow progression across my bare skin felt like a long warm lick.”

While the snake (and the cat) are clearly linked to Bekim’s sense of his own identity, the novel cannot be reduced to a symbolic schematic. Bekim frequently mentions looking at his reflection in the snake’s eyes, but, while the snake may be how he sees himself (particularly in terms of his loneliness), this is not the same as saying it represents his true identity. The cat, on the other hand, seems to embody the worst aspects of the society in which he is now living, making him one of the most infuriating, repulsive, and entertaining talking animals you are likely to encounter. He pronounces his opinions in the same way that he dances: with attention-seeking conviction:

“Gays. I don’t much like gays… How repulsive. Men’s hands don’t move through the air like that, and men don’t talk the way women talk. And men don’t wear such tight tops and wiggle their bottoms like that – like a prostitute, a whore!”

His over-bearing masculinity is also redolent of Bekim’s father, who we are meeting for the first time the other narrative. It’s noticeable that the first story Statovci chooses to tell us about Bekim’s mother, Emine, demonstrates the deeply religious and patriarchal society she lives in. Taken to the market by her father, she pauses to look at herself in a compact mirror, before becoming aware of a young man “eyeing me for an unsuitably long time”:

“The man lowered his eyes to my chest, raised both hands to his cheeks, shook his head and shouted, ‘O-paa!’”

Her father’s response is to tell her, “Never do anything like that again” – and he does not take her back to the market. When she marries, aged fifteen, she is shocked by her new husband, Barjam’s, groping in the car to his home, but when she protests he simply slaps her “so hard that my head almost turned right round.” Her main thought is, “I will be the perfect woman for him.”

Emine’s story is fascinating for the insight it gives us into life among the Albanian Muslims in Yugoslavia, a life circumscribed by tradition. We also see the increasing fragmentation of nationalities after Tito’s death:

“The situation grew tenser with every passing day. Party Chairman Milosevic diverted more and more government funds to building projects in Belgrade, millions and millions of dinars… All of a sudden tanks and soldiers were filling the streets. When Albanians started being systematically removed from their jobs, from positions in hospitals and the police, and when it became impossible to study in Albanian, the situation turned desperate.”

Barjam loses his job and eventually the family leave for Finland. Barjam in particular finds the change, which he regards as temporary, difficult, as Bekim explains:

“I learned to speak and read in a language he didn’t understand, to live among people whose culture he despised, to talk about subjects he couldn’t fathom. I learned to avoid him and everything to do with his life.”

Bekim, too, struggles to know who he is: he may absorb the language and culture of Finland but he remains an outsider, and at one point returns to Kosovo in search of his past. As his father has warned him:

“One day you’ll see that if you try to become their equal, they’ll despise you more,”

The novel is a poignant exploration of isolation and identity, one which Statovci handles with a verve and subtlety beyond his years (he wrote it aged twenty-one). It examines the experience of immigration by a family rather than an individual, and the generational difficulties created. Yet, for all its serious intent, Statovci uses a wide palette of emotions with a light touch in a novel deserving of a wide audience.