June 20, 2021

It is hard to believe that Emmanuel Bove’s debut novel, My Friends, was a major success, praised by such writers as Colette, Andre Gide and Rainer Maria Rilke, such is the obscurity into which his work later fell even in France. Armand was Bove’s second novel and, like his first, it focuses on life in the margins, ‘focus’ being a particularly apt description of Bove’s style given Samuel Beckett’s comment that he “has an instinct for the essential detail” (or “has the feeling for the touching detail” – as the comment was made in French, different English versions are available).

In Armand, originally published in 1927 and translated by Janet Louth fifty years later, Bove contrasts the title character’s comfortable existence with the poverty of an old friend, Lucien, whom he meets one day in the street. The meeting is uncomfortable for both of them:

“We were embarrassed, Lucien for having greeted me so familiarly and I for appearing annoyed by it. We remained motionless. I waited for him to speak. Seeing him so poorly clad, the years of misery I had experienced passed before my eyes again. I had gradually forgotten them. Now they were as clear as if no interval separated me from them.”

Bove’s sense of detail extends not only to Armand’s appraisal of his friend’s altered appearance but such signifiers of their separation as: “Our breath was exhaled in the cold air but not in unison.” Armand is embarrassed by his now comfortable existence (“I was ashamed of my warm overcoat and especially of my silk tie”) and Bove typically illustrates this in his actions as well as his thoughts:

“I pretended that I took no care of my clothes and when a drip fell on my coat I let it make a stain.”

Bove’s ability to enact the emotions of his characters is perhaps why his novels feel intensely ‘lived in’ – the internal lives of his narrators never feel abstract as he captures the tell-tale tics and gestures which reveal them to the outside world.

Armand invites Lucien to lunch the next day, an equally awkward encounter. Armand is torn between his sympathy of his friend and his reluctance to be reminded of his past life:

“His bashfulness and over-familiarity would keep on reminding me of the man I had once been.”

Lucien hardly speaks and, when he does, he offends Jeanne, the woman who has made Armand’s comfortable life possible, pointing out a table is not particularly tall. Simple actions like taking a cup of coffee from his host are difficult for him, but, when lunch is over, Armand finds he cannot get him to leave:

“Suddenly, before I had time to stop him, he went back into the drawing-room.”

Though the manners of the time may be different, Bove perfectly captures the difficulties of renewing a friendship from such unequal positions and the mixed feelings it creates in both characters. Armand’s refusal to give up, visiting Lucien at his room the next day, is partly a desire to do the right thing, but also an inability to entirely let his previous life go. Bove’s own life was one with moments of wealth and others of poverty, and Armand is not so much drawn to poverty as fatalistically assuming he will one day return to that state.

This, we can assume, plays some part in his pursuit of Marguerite, Lucien’s sister, who appears when he is visiting his old friend. He feels pity for her, but there is also an essential loneliness in Armand that is evident in his repeated contacts with Lucien. He walks Marguerite home and the scene where they part echoes that of Armand and Lucien’s first parting but with Armand the one reluctant to let go:

“She drew back with her arm stretched out so that I still had her hand. I squeezed it, making an effort to hold it like that, as in a game.”

Yet there is nothing in Armand’s relationship with Jeanne to suggest he is unhappy. Bove describes a number of tender moments between them. Armand is also appreciative of his lifestyle with Jeanne:

“I had lived in one room so long it gave me great pleasure to walk from one room to another.”

That he should risk this for a young girl he has just met seem self-destructive, perhaps partly arising from a belief that his luck is bound to change at some point anyway, a belief Bove builds into the narrative from the opening pages:

“On the horizon yesterday’s clouds were crowded together as if, under other skies, other clouds were preventing them from passing.”

The past is ever-present for Armand even as he believes he has forgotten it.

Armand is simply constructed around a few encounters between the title character and a handful of others: Lucien, Jeanne, Marguerite. Only occasionally are three characters together. These conversations (and silences) described in pain-staking detail and nuance are where Bove’s genius lies. Out of these small moments his characters’ lives change.

Tomorrow, They Won’t Dare to Murder Us

June 15, 2021

Joseph Andras’ debut novel, Tomorrow, They Won’t Dare to Murder Us (translated by Simon Leser) begins urgently in the present tense:

“Fernand waits two or three meters from the paved road, under the shelter of a cedar tree.”

The novel tells the true story of Fernand Iveton, the only Algerian-born Frenchman to be executed during the conflict between those who campaigned, at times violently, for Algerian independence and the French state, which could be equally violent in its response. Within two pages we are aware that Fernand’s mission is to plant a bomb at the factory where he works:

“No deaths, that was the main thing, no deaths. Better that little storeroom where nobody ever goes.”

That Fernand was clear in his intention that the bomb should not kill anyone, and that it did not, in fact, explode, made his sentence, and the refusal of then minister of justice Francois Mitterand to commute it, even more inexplicable, and inexcusable. By beginning the novel at the point when the bomb is planted, quickly followed by Fernand’s arrest, Andras involves the reader in the suddenness with which Fernand finds himself in captivity and subjected to torture.

However, although the novel tells Fernand’s story from the moment of his arrest to his death, at the same time it reveals something of his life before, and, in particular, his relationship with his wife, Helene. This juxtaposition of the violence of prison with the growth of their love for each other is not only effective in emphasising the horrific nature of his experiences but also in explaining how he is able to bear them. In this way, Andras makes the novel more bearable for the reader but simultaneously sadder, as we glimpse the life which will be ended in execution.

Even as Fernand is arrested and tortured, we see the same hours unfold for Helene as the police arrive at her door, as if to emphasise how connected the couple remain. Soon she, too, finds herself imprisoned:

“Helene is taken to a cell. Rounded-up prostitutes a few meters away. The water has been cut off.”

Yet this is immediately contrasted by Fernand’s first sight of her at the family pension where he is staying while he is in France receiving treatment for tuberculosis:

“Her eyes are little frosted pearls, she smiles and goes off with his order, explicit creases at the back of her skirt, ankles as slender as her wrists…”

In these flashbacks Andras creates a bucolic atmosphere with descriptions of nature: “The River Marne,” he tells us (for example), “sticks out a green tongue to the sky’s peaceful blue.” These provide a further contrast to the concrete of the prison, and to the pain Fernand is suffering. The torture he receives is the first sign that we should not expect the legal process to proceed in a civilised way. He is beaten and electrocuted, desperately trying to give nothing away until his comrades hear of his arrest and can go into hiding:

“An unrelenting throbbing inside. Organs like so many wounds. He begs for water and the blows to stop.”

Andras is unrelenting in his description of the pain Fernand suffers; there’s little attempt to humanise those inflicting it. Though the novel largely avoids detailed political arguments or historical background, the narrative directs it anger towards the same source as Fernand:

“Today thirty or so rebels were killed by gunfire or bombs in the backcountry.

“But still no war, no, not that. Power minds its language – its fatigues tailored from satin, its butchery smothered by propriety.”

Until the end, Fernand believes he will be shown mercy, as he tells his lawyer:

“Don’t worry, Joe, everything’s going to turn out well, Coty will pardon me, I’m sure. I didn’t loosen a single screw, didn’t knock a single tile down: how could they cut my head off for that?”

Unfortunately, although his death may not be just, it is politically expedient, and the novel not only demonstrates the French barbaric methods used in suppressing Algerian independence, but more generally the danger of allowing the law to be trumped by political and media demands. The novel makes this point with brutality at times, but also with love, allowing the humanity of the characters to shine through and suggest hope to the reader even as there is none for Fernand.

Havana Year Zero

June 10, 2021

At one point the narrator of Karla Suaerz’s Havana Year Zero (translated by Christina MacSweeney) says she feels “pretty confused… back in black and white, back in a movie with the plot changing before my eyes,” and, at times, the novel feels like an old-fashioned screwball comedy as the complexity of its relationships and misunderstandings unravels. Indeed, it begins with a McGuffin, a document which supposedly proves that an Italian, Antonio Meucci, invented the telephone in Cuba years before Alexander Graham Bell:

“The telephone, invented in this city where telephones hardly ever work.”

The narrator, a mathematician – who gives her name as Julia after the French mathematician Gaston Julia – first hears of Meucci from her ex-lecturer (and ex-lover) Euclid (also not his real name – the decision to ‘cover-up’ the characters’ identities a clever ploy to make them feel more ‘real’). Euclid claims he wants to find the document as a matter of national pride, at a time when Cuba is suffering after the fall of the Berlin wall:

“Well, it wasn’t the only thing to collapse that year; we were buried in the rubble. Cuba was dependent on aid from the Soviet Bloc, so the economy did a nosedive, taking everything down with it.”

Julia quickly becomes wrapped up in his plans: unhappy in her job and with little else in her life, the search gives her a much-needed purpose:

“An original scientific document. That was certainly something to hang onto, the lever capable of moving our small world, as Archimedes would put it.”

From then on, each character Julia meets reveals a connection to the document: Angel, who becomes her lover, is attempting to recover it for his ex-wife, who claims it is a lost family heirloom; Leonardo, who is writing a novel about Meucci, would benefit from possessing documentary proof of his subject’s achievement; and Barbara, an Italian tourist, who seems eager to buy it. “It’s like one led me to the next, isn’t it?” Julia thinks innocently but, of course, all is not what as it appears. Euclid warns her about Leonardo:

“We had to be very cautious and shouldn’t take everything Leonardo said at face value.”

His warning, however, applies equally to everyone, including himself. Julia, though, is caught up in the hunt, seeing it through the lens of spy fiction:

“…suddenly I felt like a secret agent, a 007 of science.”

Julia’s endearing naivety, which survives a number of shocks, is what makes the novel both enthralling and entertaining. “I felt like I’d been kicked in the guts,” she says when she finds out Euclid knows Angel’s ex-wife; “Fortunately I had nothing in my mouth or I would have choked,” she tells us when she discovers the nature of their relationship. My particular favourite is when she finds out the truth about Barbara:

“I guess I must have looked like someone in a cinema watching a film, when suddenly the projectionist loads the wrong reel and, instead of continuing with the same plot, a scene from another movie appears, one you know nothing about.”

Like a true mathematician, Julia updates her hypotheses according to any new information, while at the same time always seeming to assume that the latest update is the last (at least as she tells it – her conversational style is revealed at the end to be a conversation). Her loyalties also change: one moment she is searching Angel’s room, the next Euclid’s apartment – everyone who wants the document is suspected by someone else of having it. Julia herself is less and less sure why she is even looking in the first place:

“The truth is that my motives weren’t particularly clear.”

As well as searching for the document, Julia also seems to be searching for order, perhaps understandable given the problems Cuba was facing at the time and her mathematical mind. “Why can’t love be more rational?” she asks. We also take a detour into chaos theory, though describing the butterfly effect as though the reader is unlikely to have heard of it seems a misstep (as does a rather superficial comparison of mathematicians to novelists, “two sides of the same coin.”) These philosophical departures feel out of place because the novel is, at heart, escapist – for its characters as much as its readers. The search for proof is a distraction from both personal and national troubles for Julia, and, one suspects, the other characters as well. The novel itself is a delightful balance of order and chaos, as Suarez maintains a tight grip on the plot while at the same time making the reader feel like anything could happen.

Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart

June 6, 2021

In a trio of novels – Gilgi, One of Us; The Artificial Silk Girl; and After Midnight – Irmgard Keun gives us the inside story of 1930s Germany from the point of view of young women determined to make a life for themselves, often against the odds. In 1936 she was forced into exile, and travelled around Europe for two years with the writer Joseph Roth, a story she tells in Child of All Nations. In 1940 she returned to Germany, protected by reports of her suicide abroad, where she lived for the rest of the war. Her 1950 novel, Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart, (translated by Michael Hofmann) is a portrait of the country post-war, set after the 1948 currency reform which is often mentioned as a watershed moment which changes how characters are perceived (for example Haberman who is treated with respect by Ferdinand’s fiancée’s family when he is supplying them with vegetables but then becomes “an insignificant and inferior individual”).

Unlike the women of the thirties, the novel’s narrator, Ferdinand, is a young man who is more intent on withdrawing from life than embracing it:

“This morning I am so tired of people, I don’t even feel like getting up.”

He speculates that even if he could afford a hotel room, the solitude wouldn’t be “sufficient” and imagines instead a “little room attached to a balloon high up in the sky.” Despite their melancholy tone, such riffs are a joy for the reader in a novel where the plot meanders uncertainly as Ferdinand finds himself unable to picture his future. Take, for example, his depiction of his deteriorating financial state through the medium of cigarettes: “My life as a smoker was one of continual remorseless descent.” At first he is disgusted by those who keep their dog-ends (until he does so), collect cigarette ends from ashtrays (until he follows suit), or pick them up from the streets (until that, too, becomes his habit):

“I stood so low that no one could stand below me.”

“Poverty,” he tells us, “is not just a disgrace, it’s the only disgrace.”  Ferdinand is contrasted with those who seek opportunities to enrich themselves, for example his friend Liebezahl who exemplifies another strand of the novel – the popularity of superstitions such as horoscopes and palm reading – and who “keeps extending his empire with fresh initiatives.” His wealthy cousin Magnesius, who is “currently something in non-ferrous metals”, criticises him for thinking too much of others:

“You must think about the generality, Ferdinand, the well-being of the generality… Where would we be if everyone though like you?”

Ferdinand’s kindness is demonstrated in his dislike of hurting others. In the army he becomes the unwilling confidante of a sergeant, who is otherwise “the angry face of the machine”. Despite finding the friendship awkward, Ferdinand is unable to refuse it:

“I was just afraid of hurting the rumpled, friendly, grinning man.”

He finds himself in a similar position with his fiancée, Luise. Although he is desperate to end the relationship he cannot do so for fear of hurting her: “I could have run off but I didn’t want to give offense.” Instead, he searches for an alternative husband for her hoping she will make the decision to break up. In his inability to be emotionally selfish, Ferdinand is contrasted with Johanna who moves from one man to the next, each time loving “unconditionally”:

“I admire Johanna’s faithlessness.”

Keun places Ferdinand at the quiet centre of her novel, often in the role of observer, but surrounds him with an extensive cast of fascinating characters. What they share is a sense of mutability, much like the country itself at this time. The rage for horoscopes and seances, and Ferdinand’s role as a “cheerful advisor” – a kind of in-person agony aunt – all speak to a need to reconcile the past with the future.

The remnants of the war are scattered throughout the novel, from the de-Nazification of Luise’s father, to the physical objects which his wife stole from abandoned houses, the owners of which will occasionally request returned. Ferdinand’s attitude is (satirically) sympathetic:

“It’s quite possible that people feel more attached to things they have personally stolen than things they have honestly acquired.”

At a poetry reading, Ferdinand finds that the women attending have more than got used to the bombed buildings around them:

“…it seemed to me as though the ladies were somehow proud of the ruins. The way some women are proud if they’ve been through a dangerous operation.”

He is also sympathetic to women accuse of sleeping with Allied soldiers: “hadn’t they dinned it into the poor creatures that the uniformed, powerful, victorious hero had to be the women’s highest ideal?” (In fact, Ferdinand is as understanding towards women as Keun’s female narrators from before the war).

As currency reform returns some sort of normality to the country, Ferdinand admits that he is “not a man for normal times.” But his kindness remains, now directed towards Lenchen, a woman his met in his position as “cheerful advisor”:

“It makes me glad to know I can help this creature.”

His future may be uncertain but we are grateful he has retained his humanity, a possibility that Keun is perhaps holding out for Germany. Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart is a demonstration that her talents – both of social observation, and pin-point phrasing – were not diminished by the war.

People Like That

June 2, 2021

People Like That was published in 1996 when Agnes Owens’ writing was briefly recognised, thanks in part to the support of other Scottish writers like Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, all three contributing to Lean Tales in 1985. Sadly, the neglect which her work has generally suffered seems once again to be predominant, which will be all the more astonishing to the reader of the short stories which make up this collection, as vivid and vital as they are.

Owens’ career as a published writer, which began in the mid-eighties, was interrupted by the death of her youngest son in 1987 and, unsurprisingly, missing or dead children feature in a number of stories, including the title story, where a mother waits on the arrival of her son at a railway station. When the train empties, her son is nowhere to be seen until she notices “one young man coming towards her who might possibly be him.” He isn’t, of course:

“It was terrible the way she got everything wrong these days.”

In ‘The Hut’, in which a husband and wife sit in a shed on an allotment discussing a boy who hasn’t turned up – the husband jealous of the wife’s apparent keenness for the boy’s return – she suddenly tells him “the boy reminded me of my son.”

“The son I would have had but for the miscarriage.”

All types of loss matter. A drowned son features in ‘Leonie’, a story which stands out for being set in France during the Occupation (a clear indication that Owens’ sketches of small-town Scotland are a choice not a limitation). As with ‘The Hut’, it is the mother’s love which survives the longest. Leonie still senses her son in his room:

“The presence was nothing she could see or touch.”

Her husband, in contrast, cruelly doubts that he is the father.

Loss, however, does not always mean certain death. In ‘Intruders’ sixteen-year-old Greta is missing. Perhaps she is at her auntie’s, but that doesn’t stop her mother going in search of her. Her husband is quick to remind her he is not Greta’s father, another reminder that men opt out of parenthood more easily:

“She’s no ma daughter…I didnae clap eyes on her until she wis ten.”

The story is suffused with a sense of dread, which its ambiguous ending does not relieve. The same dread is felt throughout Owens’ most anthologised story, ‘To the Lighthouse’, which features a girl and her little brother on a beach. A stranger (“she began to wonder if he might be one of those strangers they’d been warned not to speak to”) arouses fear in both the children and the reader, which Owens sustains until the final lines. The title, a prosaic adoption of Woolf’s rather longer story of a character who wishes to visit a lighthouse, seems far from accidental. Similarly, there are echoes of Waiting for Godot in ‘When Shankland Comes’ as cleaner Ivy reassures herself:

“Of course when Shankland came it was a different story.”

When the owner of the bar where she works fails to appear, however, and after Ivy learns she has lost her job, she goes to seek him out – no more waiting for her! She is, as one character says, “an awfy determined woman.” If Ivy is one example of the difficulties faced by a woman alone, we see another facet of this in ‘The Warehouse’. As with a number of the characters in the collection, Albert and Mavis are alcoholics. When Albert seems to have left her for another woman, Mavis begins to wonder if “life without Albert might not be so bad after all” but she soon realises that as a homeless woman, she is little more than a victim:

“…on her own she could scarcely walk two steps without somebody picking on her.”

‘Leonie’ presents the opposite case. When she goes to a memorial service for the Mayor, who has been killed by the Germans, her husband tells her, “You had no right to leave the house at such a late hour without my permission.” At the same time, he reveals his plan to leave her. As the story ends, she writes to an aunt having decided on her own escape plan. No longer controlled by her husband:

“She was so excited by her plan that she forgot to wait for the presence of her son.”

Her independence allows her to begin to overcome the grief she feels at her son’s death.

What stands out throughout these stories is Owen’s understanding of her characters, men, women and children. She writes about the lives of ordinary working-class people without either the humour or horror which is sometimes used by writers as an apology for bringing the poor into fiction. She was a key part of the incredible flourishing of Scottish writing throughout the eighties and nineties and deserves to be not only remembered but celebrated.

Dog Island

May 29, 2021

Immigration into Europe from parts of the world where war, climate change and poverty make escape seem worth almost any risk is an issue which has increasingly challenged not only politicians but writers over the last decade. How can one write about the experience of a refugee or asylum seeker while living in material comfort and having unavoidably inherited a problematic white, colonial perspective? Yet, as James Kelman has pointed out:

“As long as art exists there are no areas of experience that have to remain inaccessible.”

The question is not a moral one (of appropriation), he argues, but a technical one of narrative. And so, in Go Went Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck centres her viewpoint on a retired university professor who encounters a group of refugees; in The Death of Murat Idrissi, Tommy Wieringa’s narrative perspective is that of second-generation immigrants; and in Philippe Claudel’s 2005 novel, Monsieur Linh and his Child, the author adopts the third person (between two novels both written in the first) and has the title character befriend an elderly widow, Monsieur Bark. Now, in Dog Island (translated by his usual translator, Euan Cameron), Claudel returns to the same theme.

As with his most famous novel, Brodeck’s Report, Claudel adopts the conventions of the crime genre while at the same time recounting the events in a way that gives the novel the aura of a fable, as he makes explicit in the opening pages:

“The story we are about to discover is as real as you may be. It takes place here, just as it could have happened there… The names of the people who live in the place matter little… Put your own names in their place. You are so alike, products of the same immutable mould.”

 True to his word, the characters remain unnamed: the Old Woman, the Mayor, the Doctor (occasionally a nickname, such as Swordy, is used). The story begins with the appearance of three bodies on the shore of Dog Island, the name of which, along with its volcanic landscape, is clearly intended to suggest The Canary Islands, though, in keeping with the novel’s fabular atmosphere this is never specified, and nor is it important:

“The dog stopped all of a sudden, barked, and set off on a mad run that took it fifty metres or so away, towards three long shapes that the swell of the tide had thrown up on the beach, but which it was still tossing around, as though reluctant to relinquish them completely.”

The bodies are discovered by the Old Woman, who was once the island’s teacher, America, scavenging on the shore, and Swordy, a fisherman. The Mayor is fetched, accompanied by the Doctor, and the Teacher, who is not an islander, also appears, drawn by the commotion. The Mayor’s immediate instinct is to cover up the find:

“In a few weeks’ time you’ll tell yourself you dreamed all this. And if you speak to me about it, if you ask me anything, I’ll tell you I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The Mayor places the bodies in cold storage, asking all the witnesses to meet him later, to tell them that this discovery must be kept secret (although by this point someone has already told the Priest, who also turns up):

“Nothing, alas, will revive these three poor wretches. Letting the public know what has happened risks dreadful consequences and it will not bring them back to life.”

In particular, the Mayor is worried that the news will hamper his thermal baths project. Claudel makes the point that, while superficially sympathetic, the islanders find the corpses inconvenient. The Mayor decides to hide the bodies in the volcanic earth; they will later create a stench that one might call guilt.

The novel is plotted like a crime novel with both the hidden bodies and the disparate crew of witnesses, now yoked together by the cover up the deaths, providing tension. The Teacher is particularly unhappy with the Mayor’s decision and begins to investigate how the bodies arrived on their shore by spending his weekends on a hired boat charting the currents. In the meantime, a man arrives on the island with satellite photos of the bodies’ discovery. The Mayor immediately assumes he is with the police and dubs him the Superintendent. As is so often the case with crime fiction, the Mayor, having now set down the path of hiding the bodies, becomes evermore desperate in his actions, with the Teacher in particular suffering as a result.

Altogether it makes for a fast-paced read with a number of unexpected chicanes. While the characters may not be fully developed, neither are they two-dimensional; Claudel simply leaves enough space for the reader to inhabit them (almost as a script leaves space for the actor). The novel shows us both the greed which leads to human-trafficking and the protectionism which leads us to turn a blind eye to it. It is the Teacher who best sums up how most of us live, by refusing to live that way:

“I cannot remain on an island on which men live who are probably guilty of the worst crimes, and where other men live who prefer not to know or to forget about them so they can continue to sleep with complete peace of mind.”

Because it is a fable, or because it is a crime novel, punishment eventually arrives, a warning that not only is no man an island, no island is either.


May 23, 2021

Eva Baltasar’s Permafrost (translated by Julia Sanches) is the story of a woman on the edge:

“After a while, you’ll find that the edge gives you room to live, vertical as ever, brushing up against the void.”

The ‘void’ in this case is death; the narrator describes her life as a “cry for death” and frequently contemplates ending it all:

“I used to spend hours peering over the guardrail of the roof terrace.”

In a novel which finds humour in the most unlikely places, suicide is no exception. At one point the narrator claims that “a successful suicide, these days, is heroic,” before raging against safety precautions and “unscrupulous people certified in first aid.” One attempt is stalled by the Perspex cap on the razor’s blades.

Where this despair comes from is never entirely clear, though it is partially rooted in being persuaded against studying art by her parents, something which has become an ever-present regret: she powerfully compares it to an abortion, “the residual sadness of a life unlived.” The narrator is a lesbian, but it is not her sexuality which cause her distress. The novel contains the story of her awakening sexuality which I found both convincing and engaging. She fantasises about her classmates but assumes that this is simply a stage in her development:

“I knew for sure that I would have to mature before I acquired a taste for sex with boys.”

She is, however, highly sexed, even from a young age, masturbating daily, and sex continues to be important to her:

“Sex distances me from death, though it doesn’t bring me closer to life.”

It is closeness, above all, which she finds difficult. The novel cleverly cuts between scenes non-chronologically, so her relationships are not presented as a progression. This puts side by side the fierce passion of physical intimacy with the fear of emotional intimacy. When one girlfriend suggests they get married, she tells her there is another woman even though she is quite happy in the relationship. Lying in this way becomes second nature to her:

“Lies are the ancient logs over which my life glides.”

Despite this she, when asked by her sister, she describes being with a woman in positive and inventive ways. In one she draws on shared memories of watching The Great Escape, where the tunnel comes up short of the woods:

“Being with a woman is like sticking your head out of the tunnel and discovering that you’ve actually dug through these last few metres.”

Her sister provides a contrast from the novel’s beginning – “My sister claims she is happy!” She is married with a child, and announces that another child is on the way during the course of the novel. Her sister appears to be embracing life in the same way the narrator seems to be attempting to escape it: for example, living rent free in her Aunt’s flat, and then (briefly) getting a job as an au pair in Scotland. These decisions seem designed to avoid permanence, just as she rejects relationships when they threaten to put down roots. The is the permafrost she refers to, a hopelessness which causes her to discount anything which looks towards the future. Only occasionally does she feel any hope at all:

“Doubt: the rift through which the world’s heat slips in, in a brazen violation of the permafrost.”

The narrator’s path seems set, but the novel takes an unexpected turn when her sister’s daughter, Claudia, becomes blind and the narrator spends time with her in hospital. Whether it is because she is a child or because she cannot see her, she feels “she is the only person I can be honest with.” This does not alter the fact, however, that “as soon as Claudia gets her sight back, I’m done.”

Permafrost has one final twist before the end, but this is a novel to be read for character rather than plot. It’s a novel which makes you consider the different lives women might live, how they are perceived from the outside, and how it feels to live them. It’s filled with a fierce destructive energy. It takes no prisoners. It’s unexpectedly warm.

When We Cease to Understand the World

May 17, 2021

Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (translated by Adrian Nathan West) is one of the books on the International Booker long list (and now the shortlist) which seems at first to be more non-fiction than fiction. It provides a selective history of twentieth century science, dramatizing the discoveries of famous figures such as Fritz Haber, Karl Schwarzchild, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger, while at the same time demonstrating their intrinsic links with war and madness. However, it is the tools of the novelist which Labatut brings to this task in a fusion of discursive ideas and traditional character creation and scene setting.

The book is divided into five sections, the first of which, ‘Prussian Blue’, is the most discursive. Its focus is German chemist Fritz Haber, but it begins with Herman Goring, cyanide, Zyklon A, and the accidental discovery in the 18th century of Prussian Blue (of which cyanide is a by-product). Prussian blue is later used to colour the uniforms of the Prussian army, “as though something in the colour’s chemical structure invoked violence”. It is our first indication that science and war will walk hand in hand throughout the novel. Indeed, when we meet Haber he is overseeing the first gas attack of the Great War, at Ypres in 1915:

“What we saw was total death. Nothing was alive. All of the animals had come out of their holes to die.”

His wife, Clara, also a chemist, accuses him of “perverting science by devising a method for exterminating humans on an industrial scale,” and later kills herself. Haber goes on to discover a method of extracting nitrogen from air to use as fertilizer:

“Had it not been for Haber, hundreds of millions of people who until then had depended on natural fertilizers such as guano and saltpetre for their crops would have died from lack of nourishment.”

Rather than attempting to judge whether this life-saving discovery outweighs Haber’s previous use of chemicals to kill (which links directly to the Nazi death camps in which many of Haber’s relatives will later die), Labatut seems instead to be portraying science as amoral, inhuman, and indifferent to consequences. Discovery is all that matters.

This drive to discover is also highlighted in the next section when we encounter Karl Schwarzchild: “Physics was not enough for him. He aspired to the type of knowledge the alchemists had pursued.” It is 1915 and he is wrestling with Einstein’s theory of general relativity on the front line. It is here he predicts a singularity, a black hole, “an inescapable abyss permanently cut off from the rest of the universe.” From the danger scientific discoveries might pose to human life, we now encounter the damage they might cause the human mind. Physics for Schwarzchild is a search for certainty:

“Just imagine how far we have fallen into uncertainty if the human imagination cannot find a single place to lay its anchor…”

But not only can we not see the singularity (because no light can escape), “nor could our minds grasp it… Physics no longer had any meaning.” This sense that our attempts to understand are only leading us towards a dangerous incomprehension is continued with mathematician Alexander Grothendieck:

“After spending so long gazing down at the foundations of mathematics, his mind had stumbled into the abyss.”

Grothendieck retreats from mathematics, and the world in general.

The longest section of the book, which deals with Schrodinger and Heisenberg’s different interpretations of the quantum world, also emphasises the need to understand alongside the possibility that understanding may be beyond us. Schrodinger believes he has “reined in the chaos of the quantum world” whereas Heisenberg believes the answer is not as neat:

“Heisenberg understood that to apply concepts of classical physics to… a subatomic particle was sheer madness. That aspect of nature required an entirely new language.”

Heisenberg’s story is related in detail, and with the craft of a novelist, and we see, not for the first time, the relationship between obsession, illness, madness and discovery:

“In his delirium his mind would establish strange connections that allowed him to achieve direct results, foregoing any intermediate steps.”

At one point Heisenberg becomes lost in a fog, and the scene is later repeated in a dream (Labatut’s frequent use of dreams is one sign the book is not non-fiction):

“He ran without knowing where to, lost in the fog with his arms outstretched in front of him, groping in the air like a blind man.”

The dream suggests that, for all our knowledge, we are still lost, travelling blind. The danger of this is also emphasised in the dream:

“Countless men and women with slanted eyes, their bodies sculpted of soot and ash, were stretching out their arms to try and touch him.”

Labatut ends the novel with war, just as he began it, every scientific discovery within interlinked with atrocity. When We Cease to Understand the World is a book which questions the foundations of western thought, of science as progress. The final few pages provide a coda, a ‘night gardener’ who was once a mathematician. At the end he tells the narrator that the only way to tell the age if a tree would be to cut it down; “But, really, who would want to do that?” Sometimes, the pursuit of knowledge can be more damaging than the ignorance which precedes it. This is a book that is likely to stay with you long after you have put it down. It is with certainty a potential winner of this year’s International Booker.

The Others

May 12, 2021

It’s no accident that historical fiction in translation seems disproportionally set during the two world wars, momentous events in European history in which the UK can be unequivocally said to have played a part, with publishers therefore certain of an audience. Perhaps, however, this risk-averse approach is beginning to change: last year Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll, set during the Thirty Years War, was longlisted for the International Booker Prize, and this year we find Eric Vuillard’s The War of the Poor, most of which takes place in 16th century Germany, on the shortlist. Raul Garrigasait’s The Others (translated by Tiago Miller) is the latest novel to allow us a glimpse into an obscure (to an English-speaking audience) corner of European history. The year is 1837 and Spain is in the middle of the First Carlist War between supporters of competing claims to the Spanish throne, a civil war which also encompasses political differences as the Carlists see themselves standing for tradition and Catholicism against liberalism.

Into this Garrigasait places a young Prussian, Wielemann, via a story which sees a translator (also named Raul) discover Wielemann’s story in a library in Germany while researching a different book altogether:

“For the benefit of enthusiasts of historical novels, I will add that, indeed, the pages were yellowed and dusty, but I assure you there were no burnt edges and none was written in any exotic or secret language.”

Wielemann is in Spain to fight for ‘Order’ in an attempt to live up to the expectations of his father:

“Wielemann was expected to have done something significant in life and … this expedition of Spanish legitimists… was a golden opportunity to make a name for himself in Prussia.”

His romantic ideals soon evaporate on arrival in Solsona. Carlos finds him too tall for his liking, and the Spanish generally find him a figure of fun, “like a stuffed gorilla in a natural history museum,” frequently referring to him as Russian. When the army moves on from the city he is left behind with a ‘secret mission’ – so secret he does not know himself what it is:

“I wanted to restore order. I mean, alongside those who also want to restore it. But I can’t make sense of anything. They won’t give me any commands.”

He does, however, find one friend in the form of a doctor, Foraster, a friendship that begins with a love of music. Though Foraster has been tending to the wounded, he is not a Carlist, describing the movement as follows:

“The Carlists are part of the prehistory you all carry within you and you won’t escape it so easily.”

The Carlists, in their longing for a past that never existed, sound very like the populists of today, though Garrigasait has said that his main aim was to recreate the atmosphere of Catalonia in the lead up to the referendum in 2017 (when the novel was published). Foraster provides a more rational voice for Wielemann to measure his beliefs against:

“Where chaos reigns, I do my utmost to master nature, to harness its laws and curtail disaster.”

The Others is a novel of the chaos of war, but not the chaos of battle (though Wielemann does experience fighting before the end). Instead it’s a confusion of stasis as Wielemann struggles to understand what anyone is fighting for. His state of mind is perhaps best exemplified by a walk he and Foraster take on which he stumbles more than once. At one point they see a crowd of crows – a classic symbol of battle – but when the crows disappear there is nothing there – “as if the birds had been pursuing a ghost.” – much like Wielemann in his search for a cause. At one point, as he slides down a hill, he decides:

“…upon surrender as the best form of protest, he stopped struggling and was soon slumped at the bottom of the slope like a sack of potatoes.”

This seems to sum up Wielemann’s experience of the war – “an absurd joke next to his father’s impassioned rhetoric.” Garrigasait explores Wielemann’s confusion with a humour which never feels nasty – we may laugh at him at times, but we remain sympathetic. The interludes with the translator and his publisher felt more like interruptions than additions, but they add to the sense that this is not simply a picaresque adventure. Garrigasait is not afraid to have his characters debate and discuss as he examines what makes us fight, and, by the end, the reader may be surprised how much emotion they have invested in Wielemann’s tale.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed

May 7, 2021

Mariana Enriquez’s The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is her second short story collection to appear in English, though its original publication predates that of Things We Lost in the Fire, which was also translated by Megan McDowell. It contains twelve stories, all of which eventually find themselves in the territory of horror, except the title story which, at six pages, perhaps simply doesn’t have the time to get there. It’s a genre for which Enriquez shows great skill as well as appetite, but as the certain destination of story after story, its unexpectedness becomes increasingly expected in this anthology format.

The first story, ‘Angelita Unearthed’, begins when the narrator discovers bones in her backyard. Chicken bones, her father tells, her, but her grandmother has a different story, of a baby who had died a few months after birth, and whose bones had been brought with the family when they moved so she can rest in peace. Ten years later, the baby appears in the narrator’s apartment:

“The angel baby doesn’t look like a ghost. She doesn’t float and she isn’t pale and she doesn’t wear a white dress. She’s half rotted away and she doesn’t talk.”

This is typical of Enriquez’s horror – it’s a physical horror, one you can reach out and touch – as the narrator discovers when here first instinct is to strangle the baby:

“I didn’t even make her cough; I just got some bits of decomposing flesh stuck to my gloved fingers and her trachea was left in full view.”

The physicality of Enriquez’s approach to horror runs through the volume; where characters develop obsessions they are often physical obsessions. In ‘Where Are You, Dear Heart?’ the narrator displays an erotic attitude to illness, originating in her adolescent reading of Jane Eyre and, in particular, the scene where Jane climbs into the bed of the dying Helen. Soon she is reading medical books instead:

“Nothing brought me as much happiness as those books. All those euphemisms for death. All those beautiful medical terms that didn’t mean anything, all that hard jargon – that was pornography.”

Her obsession, of course, develops a physical expression, a web-site “where other heart fetishists shared their hearts.” In ‘Meat’, too, obsession is key, the perhaps more natural obsession of teenage girls for a pop star. His suicide does not lead to copycat behaviour among his fans; instead they want to own him physically, and begin by digging up his corpse. A sense of physical intimacy with Enriquez’s characters occurs even when it is not intended to cause terror. Defecation (in both cases in the street) and masturbation are described in more than one story. Evil itself is perceived through the senses, for example in ‘Rambla Triste’:

“She’d just decided to keep quiet when the smell inundated her nose like a hot pepper, like a strong mint, making her eyes water; a smell that was almost palpable, black from the crypt.”

Evil does not feel abstract in these stories, as evidenced by the curses which feature in, for example, ‘The Cart’ where a vagrant is harassed in a residential street about defecting on the pavement. Soon after the families living there begin to have increasingly bad luck – apart from the only one who defended him, who have to hide this fact so as not to anger their neighbours (for example, going to work across the rooftops to disguise the fact that they alone remain employed). By the story’s end, J G Ballard levels of horror have been unleashed. A curse, of a kind, also features in ‘The Well’, where Josefina has become so anxious she can hardly leave her home:

“Josefina felt faint when she reached the front door…”

In contrast, her mother and sister, Mariela, no longer feel the anxiety that once affected them. Only when Mariela takes her to the woman who cured them does she discover the truth.

However, despite the strong fantasy element in the stories, many of them originate in real life horror. ‘The Cart’, for example, begins with homelessness; ‘Rambla Triste’ is about how we treat children. In ‘Kids Who Come Back’ we see the missing return, sometimes years later, just as they were when they vanished (there is an echo of Andres Barba’s A Luminous Republic here). This is horror with a social conscience.

In fact, at times one wonders whether Enriquez needs, on every occasion, to resort to the supernatural. One of the best stories, ‘Our Lady of The Quarry’, exquisitely captures the teenage jealousy of a group of girls when their slightly older friend gets the guy:

“All speculation was brought to an abrupt halt – as if a cold knife had sliced through our spines – when we found out that Silvia and Diego were dating.”

The setting – the Virgin’s Pool in an isolated quarry – enhances the rising tension. Enriquez leaves enough ambiguity in the ending to allow for a realistic interpretation for once, and the story does not suffer for it. It is not that there is no place in literature for horror tropes, but repetitively their effectiveness diminishes. For this reason, I doubt I would have placed The Dangers of Smoking in Bed on my personal International Booker shortlist, despite the pleasant thrill many of the stories provide.