The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland

April 30, 2018

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is Norwegian author Nicolai Houm’s third novel, though the first to appear in English (thanks to translator Anna Paterson). As its title suggests, it is a character study of a woman who, in response to a sudden trauma, feels herself to be slowly fading away to the point where she questions her own existence. Despite the introspective subject matter, however, the novel reads like a thriller, carefully constructed to capture the reader’s breathless attention from the first page.

Jane Ashland is American but her ancestry has led her to Norway. To the distant relatives with whom she has made contact, this is the only reason for her trip, but to the reader it is obvious other motives exist: is she trying to escape from something in her past or attempting to locate a future? This uncertainty is created by a series of short chapters which move back and forward in time. The novel opens moments before its conclusion, with Jane alone in the mountains reflecting on her own death:

“Now, while she is till conscious, she must lock her fingers in a dramatic pose.
Oh my God, it looks as if she tried to grab at something at the moment of death!
…What should she reach for? How should she make it look?”

The scenes which follow show Jane on the plane to Norway; with her therapist; her parents; and in a dialogue (where her part is silence) from a court transcript. It is on the plane she meets Ulf, the man she will later go into the mountains with, refusing his offer of a cup of coffee but accepting his phone number:

“Then why not make a note of my telephone number anyway? Then you’ll have a friend to contact here. Just in case.”

She initially stays in a motel, before moving into the home of Lars Christian Askeland-Nilsen – a distant relative she has tracked down online – at his invitation. Though Jane seems to be acting rationally, it is clear she is distressed. Houm subtly conveys Jane’s loneliness in her need for human contact, for example on the flight:

“So, she allowed her hand to slide along the armrest until it touched his, pressed closer to the large sleeping body, and pretended that she, too, was asleep.”

We see something similar when she first meets Lars with his wife and daughter:

“If only she could leave the hire car behind, join them in their Volvo and sit in the back next to the shy teenager and pick up faint traces of the family’s smell in her nostrils.”

She herself is aware of her fragility, commenting “It was just that insecurity of hers that made her spend her first days in Norway alone.” Staying with Lars places an additional strain on her:

“The hardest thing about staying with the Askeland-Nilsens, Jane had found, was to simulate normal breathing behaviour; she couldn’t groan whenever she felt like it or keep holding her breath until she had to inhale desperately to rise to the surface.”

The question of why Jane feels this way becomes the novel’s puzzle – we are aware something traumatic has happened in her past but do not know what. Houm slowly begins to reveal her previous life in longer sections, beginning with her relationship with Greg, who will become her husband. It could be argued that this delayed knowledge (though common in literature) is a cheap trick, but it has the effect of encouraging the reader to understand Jane as opposed to defining her by this one event. Houm also makes her difficult to judge – for example when she interferes in Lars’ family life, we sympathise with her reasons while understanding Eva’s anger. This is true of most of the novel’s characters – is Ulf simply trying to pick Jane up, for example, or does he want to help her?

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a compulsive read. Even the fact that Jane is a writer could not put me off – in fact, it’s used ironically to demonstrate her life breaking the rules of creative writing:

“Conditionality creates the irreducible gap between the world as you wish it to be and what it actually is: a place ill-suited to creatures in search of meaning.”

Though far from showy, Houm can also write. I particularly liked his description of Jane after she has slept with Ulf:

“She felt like an envelope that had once contained an important document but had been reused for some other, insignificant purpose.”

He also uses the musk oxen, which she and Ulf have been searching for, to provide a conclusion which is both credible and apt. This has the potential (and, I suspect, the cover) to be a best seller.

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The Flying Mountain

April 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Springtime in a Broken Mirror

April 24, 2018

Until 2015, when The Truce was translated by Harry Morales, Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti had been largely ignored by the English speaking world. Three years later a second novel, Springtime in a Broken Mirror, has appeared, this time translated by Nick Caistor – a much shorter time period than the twenty-two years which separated their original publication (Benedetti wrote eight novels over fifty years). Initially it seems an addition to the large Latin American library of dictatorship lit, but in fact, like The Truce, its interests are more domestic.

The novel is told from a variety of viewpoints. It begins in the voice of Santiago, imprisoned in his native Uruguay, but goes on to include his exiled father, Rafael, his wife, Graciela, his daughter, Beatriz, and his friend, Rolando. Each voice has its own title: while Rafael’s is simply headed ‘Don Rafael’, Santiago’s is (unusually but appropriately) ‘Intramural’, and Graciela’s is ‘Battered and Bruised’. Each also has its own style. Graciela’s, for example, is in the third person and generally consists of dialogue; Santiago’s is written like a diary or letter; Rafael’s is presented in a single paragraph each time as if revealing his thoughts. There are also chapters in italics entitled ‘Exiles’ which relate the writer’s experiences:

“At approximately six p.m. on Friday 22nd August 1975, I was reading, relatively carefree, in the apartment I rented on Calle Shell in the Miraflores district of Lima, when someone rang the doorbell downstairs and asked for Senor Mario Orlando Bendetti. That already smelt fishy because my middle name only appears in official documents. None of my friends ever uses it.”

The author’s experience of exile reflects that of the other characters. Rafael questions:

“Am I a foreigner? There are days when I’m sure I am; others when I don’t attached any importance to that at all, and other still when I in no way admit my foreignness to myself. Can it be that the condition of being foreign is a state of mind?”

Even Beatriz is challenged by her exile:

“This country isn’t mine but I like it a lot. I don’t know if I like it more or less than my own country. I came here when I was very little and can’t remember what that was like any more.”

Santiago, on the other hand, is experiencing an internal exile, separated from those he loves. Trapped not only in his cell, but in his mind, he seeks control where he can find it:

“I was being tyrannized by my memories. Then, one evening, I thought, I’m going to free myself from this tyranny. And from that moment on, I’ve been the one controlling my memories.”

However, as Rafael warns:

“The past becomes resplendent and yet it’s an optical illusion. Because the poor, dismal present wins a decisive battle: it exits.”

This matters in a practical sense as, during the course of the novel, Graciela’s affection for Santiago diminishes and her love for Rolando grows:

“I still love him. How couldn’t I, after ten years of a wonderful relationship?… The problem is that our forced separation has made him more tender. Whereas it’s made me tougher.”

Rolando is aware that Graciela is preoccupied. “Can it be I’ve been transformed, by exile, into as different woman?” she asks. He believes that her doubts over her relationship with Santiago are caused by her physical needs and asks her if she has erotic dreams:

“When I’m awake, I do day dream. You’re going to laugh. I dream of you.”

As their relationship blossoms, the question becomes whether to tell Santiago while he is in prison or wait until his release:

“He’s a prisoner there, but I’m also imprisoned in my situation.”

Springtime in a Broken Mirror does a number of things extremely well. It explores the price of protest – imprisonment and exile – in the context of everyday life rather than political legend. Further, it uses these experiences to examine our relationship with the past on a personal level without ever losing sight of the national context. Ranging across a number of characters – each different, each convincing – our understanding and sympathy flourishes. Building emotional tension, Benedetti skilfully delivers his climax using his multiple narratives to fashion a conclusion which is both subtle and heart-breaking. Hopefully more of his work will follow.

Little Mountain

April 20, 2018

If we require any warning regarding how long the current conflict in Syria might last, we could consider the Lebanese Civil War which lasted between 1975 and 1990. It, too, was a confusion of religion and politics, with roots in European interference in the region (Lebanon had been a French colony, whose status quo was destabilised by, among other things, an influx of Palestinian refugees after the creation of Israel, and again in the aftermath of the Six Day War). Elias Khoury was born in Lebanon in 1948 and fought in the civil war, drawing on his experiences to write Little Mountain, his second novel, which was published in 1977, and translated into English by Maia Tabet in 1989.

The novel makes no attempt to explain or examine the circumstances of the war but instead presents an impressionistic series of moments interspersed with memories. The first chapter, for example, returns three times to the following scene:

“Five men come jumping out of a military-like jeep. Carrying automatic rifles, they surround the house… They come up to the house, knock on the door. My mother opens the door, surprised. Their leader asks about me.”

The second description is much as the first, with subtle shifts in punctuation, but by the third we are told “five men break down the door”, as if the memory, or the emotion behind it, has intensified. In between, the narrator remembers his childhood, a rural idyll, encroached by ‘progress,’ which is often represented by cars:

“We got bigger and the cars got bigger.”

Eventually the cars are like dangerous animals: “The cars gnaw at the street with their teeth.” Corruption also threatens (“Instead of the old kind of robberies…there was now organised robbery. Gang robbery, premeditated and merciless.”) as well as political instability (“1958: barricades in the neighbourhood. Sombre faces. The Muslims want to kill us.”). Rising religious tensions are obvious when they find the church (“the heavy door that was always open”) closed.

A church is central to the second chapter, but now it is a defensive postion in the civil war. One of two remaining priests, Father Marcel, was once a French soldier:

“I believed like all French soldiers, that we were the bearers of a civilising mission to the oppressed peoples of the Orient.”

He is now convinced that ‘civilisation’ comes not via armed force but through culture and religion. Talal, one of the soldiers, disagrees:

“You’re just colonisers, coming in with the ten commandments. Giving us the commandments and taking the land.”

Politics runs through the novel in this way, in snatched conversations and statements, often in the midst of violence. In this chapter the questions, “What is the difference between a priest and a cop?” and, “What is the difference between war and civil war?” are repeated as if they are children’s riddles, challenging the reader as well as the characters. Also repeated is the idea that “the sea is our goal”, a military objective of reaching the coast which takes on mystical associations. The church is frequently compared to a ship (“and the world is a rough sea”):

“We are together, living close to the sea in a wrecked ship. When we reach the sea, our ship will sink and our story will be over.”

By the chapter’s end, however, it is the coffin of one of the soldiers which is likened to a ship:

“A long wooden ship floating in the sea. The ship sways on the uplifted hands.”

Though Khoury’s writing can seem immersed in the impressionistic chaos of detail, it is also laced with such recurrent images, a reminder of how carefully crafted it is. As the reader becomes accustomed to the novel’s style, the relationship between memory and the present becomes clearer. Often one scene – for example the scene between Talal and Mariam on the beach in chapter three – is repeated intersperse with scenes of the fighters. Further, that initial memory sparks off other memories which then surround his conversation with Mariam. In this way we are both reminded of the humanity of the soldiers and their previous lives. Here, Khoury cleverly emphasises that Talal is the same person as he was then as Mariam’s phrase, “You’re a romantic,” is repeated by the narrator, a fellow fighter.

Though the war was only two years old when the novel was published, Khoury sets the final chapter in exile, in France. Here it takes on a despairing tone, ending with the memory of a hanging and the statement that, “Ropes are more important than books.”

“Next time we shouldn’t content ourselves with stealing the rope, we should break it; next time we shouldn’t content ourselves with overrunning the squares and the buildings, we should destroy them.”

Little Mountain is a stark reminder of the effects of civil war, where the ravaged landscape of Lebanon echoes the devastation of its characters’ lives, and the scattered memories of happier times are like glowing coals among the embers. It confirms Khoury’s place as one of the great contemporary Arabic writers.

Dancing Girls

April 16, 2018

Karen and Simon’s biannual reading clubs, each focusing on a particular year as we travel through time decade by decade, are a great way of discovering new writers, returning to old favourites, and, as in this case, dipping into the back catalogue of those authors whose work you are yet to fully explore. Dancing Girls was Margaret Atwood’s first short story collection, published after numerous collections of poetry and three novels, though almost a decade before the novel which brought her both critical acclaim and bestseller status, The Handmaid’s Tale. Most of the stories in Dancing Girls dissect relationships which fall broadly into two categories: those which have failed and those which are failing.

‘Betty’ is one of the former, told from the point of view of a seven-year-old child remembering a particular summer, much of which was spent at her neighbour’s, Fred and Betty’s:

“There was more to do at Fred and Betty’s than at our house.”

Both the narrator and her older sister, Catherine, are fascinated by Fred:

“Beyond all these attractions there was Fred. We both fell in love with Fred.”

While these are childish infatuations, Fred is generally easy to like – “there was something about Fred that attracted people” – in contrast to Betty, who is dismissed by the narrator’s father as having “no sex appeal.” Despite her crush on Fred, the narrator recognises “it was unfair that everyone was in love with Fred but no one, despite her kindness, was in love with Betty.” Naturally, Fred is unfaithful to Betty, and it is the narrator who discovers Betty shortly after she has found out:

“Her face was white and uncomprehending, as if someone had just hit her for no reason.”

Four years later, the narrators’ mother finds and befriends Betty again, but, in a scene with echoes of her discovery of Betty, the narrator returns home one day to find her mother crying: Betty has accused her of sleeping with Fred. A brain tumour, which proves terminal, is blamed for this outburst, though our child’s viewpoint (even at fifteen) makes the truth difficult to decipher. The narrator continues to be haunted by Betty:

“When I first heard about her death I felt doomed. This, then, was the punishment for being devoted and obliging, this was what happened to girls such as (I felt) myself.”

The idea of being punished for being ‘devoted and obliging’ is touched on again in ‘Under Glass’ when the narrator discovers her boyfriend has been unfaithful to her again:

“I’m not allowed to be angry. He thinks it’s unfair.”

When she tells him, “I wish I didn’t love you,” he feels forgiven:

“He kisses my fingers; he thinks we’ve all been cured. He believes in amnesia, he will never mention it again.”

In ‘Hair Jewellery’ the lover is unfaithful before he can even become the lover. The narrator must travel to New York as part of their plan to sleep together (“In those days, as you recall, it had to be discussed first…”) but her boyfriend fails to meet her. When she finally gets through to him on the phone a woman answers, “Some chick wants you.” In ‘Lives of the Poets’ it is also a phone call which suggests infidelity as Julia, who is out of town to give a poetry reading, phones her husband Bernie only for a younger woman, Marika, to answer:

“As she put down the phone she thought she heard something. A voice, a laugh?”

The men in these stories seem both more careless than callous; the women lacking in confidence rather than weak. That lack of confidence can be seen in ‘Man from Mars’ when Christine finds herself (as we would say now) stalked by a Chinese man she is momentarily kind to. When he phones and forces an invitation to her home from her mother she can’t help but feel “slightly festive”. She is aware that his unwanted attention makes her seem more attractive;

“Annoying and tedious though it was, his pursuit of her had an odd result: mysterious in itself, it rendered her equally mysterious. No one had ever found Christine mysterious before. To her parents she was a beefy heavyweight, a plodder, lacking in flair, ordinary as bread.”

This is not true of all the stories; in both ‘When It Happens’ and ‘A Travel Piece’, the resourcefulness of the female characters is one of the key points. In the former, Mrs Burridge imagines surviving a nuclear war, an early piece of science fiction disguised as social realism. In the latter, Anette, a travel writer, finds herself surviving in lifeboat after her airplane is forced to land on water; it is she who has the foresight to take some food from the plan as she leaves, though events are also an ironic response to her earlier complaint, “Sometimes I feel I’m not alive.”

Two of the stories also have sympathetic male viewpoints. In ‘Polarities’ Morrison must cope with his colleague, Louise’s, growing madness; in ‘Training’, one of the rawest tales, Rob, volunteering at a camp for those with disabilities, struggles to retain his goodness.

Dancing Girls demonstrates Atwood’s nuanced understanding of character more than her craft. Both ‘Dancing Girls and ‘The Sin Eater’, for example, over-reach themselves in their conclusions, but Atwood’s characters always feel true. She is particularly good on both the spoken and unspoken relationships between lovers and those in love, but, even when her characters are alone, you leave their stories feeling as if you have met someone you are unlikely to soon forget.

The Bachelors

April 11, 2018

Reading Muriel Spark this year will be mostly re-reading; in fact, there are only two of her novels that I haven’t read at least once before: The Mandelbaum Gate and The Bachelors. The former results from foolishly placing the book unread among all her others where it has lain low ever since; the latter from a rare false start. Spark’s beginnings are generally addictive, her novels demanding to be devoured, preferably in a single sitting, all the better to appreciate the lines which echo through the pages. The Bachelors, however, felt stuffy and stand-offish and was put aside, jilted and (in quite another way) on the shelf.

The Bachelors is perhaps Spark’s most naturalistic novel, a fact suggested in the plethora of place names which feature in its opening lines. We meet the first bachelors – Matthew, a barrister, and Ronald, a graphologist – discussing their shopping in a scene that was possibly more amusing in 1960 when the novel was published. Ronald is epileptic, something which has ruled him out of the priesthood and also, he believes, marriage:

“I’ve got my epilepsy as an alibi.”

Ronald is the closest we have to a hero in the novel, his profession as a graphologist gaining him “a reputation in the detection of forgeries” in a novel about false faiths. His antithesis, Patrick Seton, stands accused of forging the signature of Freda Flower in order to defraud her of £2,000 – Ronald will be called as an expert witness in the trial, and Matthew will prosecute. Patrick proclaims his innocence to his pregnant girlfriend, Alice, and her friend Elsie:

“I’ll be acquitted… It’s the case of a jealous, frustrated woman trying to get her own back on me.”

Alice is devoted to Patrick but refuses to have the abortion he requests. Spark uses Elsie to suggest Patrick’s devotion to Alice is not as whole-hearted as he pretends, asking about his forthcoming divorce (which would allow him to marry Alice) and hinting that she does not entirely trust him to give Alice her insulin:

“Elsie looked at him suspiciously. ‘I hope you do give her the injection regularly,’ she said. ‘She needs taking care of.’”

Patrick is a medium, spiritualism being one of the false faiths of the novel. Spark, naturally, has some fun with this, including comments about ridding the séance of ‘cranks’ as “they lower the tone,” and a wonderfully comic set-piece in which Patrick, channelling Freda Flower’s dead husband, warns her about continuing with the forgery prosecution, while Freda’s self-styled protector, a clairvoyant called Mike Garland, attempts to intervene.

Ironically, while Patrick’s life is based on falsehood, he is presented as possessing the spiritual powers he claims to (Spark’s ‘nevertheless’ principle – as one character says, “I suppose he could be a genuine medium… and a fraud in other respects”). It is this, for example, which allows him to blackmail Dr Lyte, whom he first observes as a “shaken stranger” at a séance as he comes out of his trance:

“Patrick rapidly appreciated that he had said something in his trance that had truly got its mark. ‘How exactly did you know?’ Dr Lyte said in a way which was very different from his nice clothes.”

It is in his conversations with Dr Lyte, whose isolated chalet in the mountains he intends to take Alice to after the trial, that we learn of Patrick’s plan to murder her, giving the novel the under-stated undercurrent of violence so common in Spark’s work:

“How long does it take… for a diabetic person to die if they deprive themselves of insulin?”

Where Patrick has his trances, Ronald has his epilepsy, which is also seen by some as a spiritual gift. He, too, is sought out for advice:

“It was as if they held some sort of ancient superstition about his epilepsy: ‘the falling sickness’, ‘the sacred disease’, ‘the evil spirit’. Ronald felt he was regarded by his friends as a sacred cow or a wise monkey.”

Later he tells Matthew, “Everyone consults me about their marriages.” When he goes to ask Elsie to return Patrick’s forged letter (which she has stolen from him) she tells him about her sex life:

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this in the first five minutes.”

She offers to return the letter if he will sleep with her but he refuses. Though it goes against his interests, he is unfailingly honest with her:

“’If I give you the letter now,’ she said, ‘will you come back again some time?’
‘It’s unlikely,’ he said…
‘If I don’t give you the letter what will you do?’
‘I’ll come back and try again.’
‘Christ!’ she said, ‘You’re driving me mad.’”

Ultimately, though, Ronald is rather a nondescript hero, and Patrick a more everyday villain than Dougal Douglas or Jean Brodie. Its short time span (four days) and large cast make it feel rather crammed. While The Bachelors is successfully in its own terms, these terms seem rather limited compared to Spark’s other work.

The 7th Function of Language

April 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frankenstein in Baghdad

April 3, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like a Fading Shadow

April 1, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dinner Guest

March 24, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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