Men are dogs, they rub against each other in misery,

Street of Thieves, by Mathias Enard and translated by Charlotte Mandell

Like most people who read it I was hugely impressed by Mathias Enard’s Zone. It was well written, structurally clever and fascinating in its exploration of some of the darker aspects of European history.

However, let’s be frank. Zone was also fairly dense going. Street of Thieves positively zips along. Zone may be the better book, but Street is more fun.

Lakhdar is a young man living in Tangiers. He spends his days hanging out with his friend Bassam while hoping to get somewhere with his cousin Meryem. He has a passion for French policiers and he and Bassam share dreams of meeting foreign girls and of one day escaping to Barcelona. He suffers deeply from “the incurable melancholy of hormones.”

It’s a pretty typical teenage life but it’s not to last. Lakhdar and Meryem end up in bed together but they’re caught in the act. She’s sent to the countryside in disgrace and he’s thrown out by his family for shaming them.

Lakhdar spends the best part of a year living rough outside Tangiers and barely surviving. This part of the book is plainly inspired by Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone (which Lakhdar later reads) and there’s a parallel between Lakhdar and Choukri’s experiences and destitution. The difference is that here this is only a small part of the book and before too long (in pages at least) Lakhdar is back in Tangiers and finding his feet again.

He’s helped by his old friend Bassam, who during Lakhdar’s absence has joined Propagation of Koranic Thought – a small Islamist group headed by the charismatic Sheikh Nureddin. They give Lakhdar a room to sleep in and a job selling Islamic pamphlets. It’s a pretty good gig as they don’t ask too much of his time, they have a small classical Arabic library which they’re happy to let him read and they don’t mind him reading his (distinctly unislamic) policiers or browsing on the group’s one laptop.

Enard is excellent at realising the small details of Lakhdar’s life and the two Tangiers he becomes increasingly aware of. Early on he realises that for foreigners Tangiers is associated:

with a permissiveness that it never had for us, but which is offered to the tourist in return for hard cash in the purse of misery. In our neighbourhood, nobody ever came, not a single tourist.

There’s the locals’ city and the international city, and there’s nothing easy in moving from one to the other. Lakhdar is becoming restless, and troublingly Sheikh Nureddin’s group is beginning to seem a bit less innocent to him. The Sheikh’s followers spend their evenings arguing angrily about injustices and start going out at night with clubs to attack businesses they consider unislamic.

Lakhdar only takes part in the group’s violence once and quickly finds that he has no stomach for it. He and Bassam begin to drift apart – Bassam is a believer while Lakhdar is only there for lack of somewhere better to be.

Then, unexpectedly, Lakhdar and Bassam finally do meet two of those fabled foreign girls, a pair of Arabic language students from Barcelona. It couldn’t be more perfect. What follows is a marvellous mixture of comedy in the mismatched dates and an exploration of the sheer excitement of being young.

The girls agree to hang out with the local boys because one of them, Judit, likes Lakhdar. He’s interesting, exotic (to her as she is to him), and he speaks some limited French which when put with her limited Arabic allows them to actually have a conversation. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Judit’s friend is less taken by her date. Bassam only speaks Arabic and she’s not got as far in her studies as Judit has. Where Lakhdar is interested in the wider world Bassam interprets it only through the lens of Islamic politics. He decides to win his date over by explaining the finer points of Islam to her in ever louder Arabic on the basis that if he keeps shouting she’ll eventually understand him.

Lakhdar and Judit make a connection, walking through the streets with Bassam behind them bellowing at Judit’s unfortunate friend:

Judit was observant and attentive; we had spoken of Revolution, of the Arab Spring, of hope and democracy, and also of the crisis in Spain, where everything can’t all be sweetness and light – no work, no money, beatings for anyone who had the gall to be ‘Indignant’. Indignation (which I had read vaguely about online) seemed a sentiment that wasn’t very revolutionary, the sentiment of a proper old lady and one that was sure to get you beat, a little as if someone like Gandhi without plans or determination had sat down one fine day on the pavement because he was indignant about the British occupation, outraged. That would no doubt have made the English chuckle softly. The Tunisians had set themselves on fire, the Egyptians had gotten themselves shot at on Tahrir Square, and even if there were real chances of it ending up in the arms of Sheikh Nureddin and his friends, it still made you dream a little. I forget if we had mentioned, a few weeks later, the evacuation of the indignados who had occupied Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona, chased away like a flight of pigeons by a few vans of cops and their truncheons, supposedly to make room to celebrate Barça’s championship win: that’s what was outrageous, that football would take precedence over politics, but apparently no one really protested, the population realizing, deep down inside, that the success of its team was, in itself, a beautiful celebration of democracy and of Catalonia, a Great Night that reduced Indignation to a negligible quantity.

Street of Thieves isn’t a long book, just 209 pages, but it is packed. It explores the Arab Spring and the European protest movements as it follows Judit and Lakhdar’s burgeoning relationship. There is a sense of possibility as their relationship gently moves forward, even if it is sometimes rather hampered by the fact their best common language is classical Arabic:

You try acting funny and charming in literary Arabic, it’s no piece of cake, believe me; people will always think you’re about to announce another catastrophe in Palestine or comment on a verse of the Koran.

Things grow more strained when the rest of Propagation mysteriously disappear shortly before a terrorist attack in Marrakech. Judit was travelling in the city at the time and saw Bassam there. She and Lakhdar fear what that might mean.

Lakhdar loses his home and job with the departure of Propagation, but soon bounces back. He gets hired to help digitise old French manuscripts (he’s cheap outsourced labour). He reads the whole of Casanova; types up ancient records of North African soldiers slain fighting for the French in World War I. Judit’s studies carry her away from Tangiers and their relationship struggles with distance. It’s life. Elsewhere the Arab Spring is in full swing, the Indignados are protesting, Occupy is occupying. For Lakhdar though “The revolution wasn’t happening anytime soon.”

I don’t want to talk too much more about the story. I’ve not yet described that much of it and there’s lots more with Lakhdar eventually finding his way out of Tangiers and later into Europe itself. The gap between West and East is one of many themes here. It’s a gulf of dreams and understanding: Europe and the Arab world; Judit and Lakhdar. Lakhdar reflects:

My country was Tangier, at least that’s what I thought; but in truth, I had realized that afternoon, Judit’s Tangier did not coincide with mine. She saw the international city, Spanish, French, American; she knew Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, and William Burroughs, so many authors whose remote names vaguely reminded me of something, but about whom I knew nothing. Even Mohamed Choukri, icon of Tangier, I knew who he was, but of course I had never read a word by him.

Here those viewpoints are switched. Instead of American or European authors dreaming of a Tangiers which is as much romantic fiction as reality here it’s Lakhdar that’s dreaming; it’s Europe that’s exotic. Take this passage, from shortly after Lakhdar’s arrival in Barcelona as he sees the city he’s so long dreamed of:

The bus went down Avinguda Diagonal, palm trees caressed the banks, the noble buildings of past centuries were reflected in the glass and steel of modern skyscrapers, the yellow and black taxis were countless wasps scattering at the sound of the bus’s horn; elegant and disciplined pedestrians waited patiently at the crossroads, without using their superiority in numbers to invade the road; the cars themselves respected the zebra crossings and, stopping carefully at a blinking yellow light, let those travelling on foot cross when their turn came.

It’s a vision as romantic as anything found in Burroughs’ own Interzone. And yet, like Interzone, it is also at least partly true. Burroughs’ Interzone is populaced by Western expat criminals and chancers who drive the action. In surely intentional parallel Lakhdar finds himself in the Street of Thieves – a Barcelona alley filled with illegal immigrants, prostitutes and dealers:

It was Saturday, streetwalking activity was at its height at the crossroads; two or three dealers were pacing in the night; a junkie in need of his fix vomited a stream of bile onto the base of a lamppost, splattering two cockroaches fat as frogs emerging lazily from the restaurant next door.

Which, come to think of it, sounds like somewhere that Burroughs would have felt quite at home in. It’s what Lakhdar’s long been travelling towards, but reality never quite matches dreams. Europe is still reeling from the aftermath of the financial crisis. As an outsider it seems to him that Spain’s progress is a mirage bought on dangerously overextended credit. Its prosperity is precarious, maintained in part by sheer complacency. Here he considers an all-day mass strike carried out to protest austerity:

On TV, they said the same thing over and over again. The unions were delighted with the strike’s great success. The government was delighted to be able, starting tomorrow, to resume its indispensable economic reforms. In the distance, the helicopter continued to circle.

There are hints throughout that Lakhdar’s story won’t end well. It’s told in past tense and Lakhdar occasionally drops vague hints suggesting that the outcome isn’t what we might hope for him. Still, at least he’s there to narrate the story so it can’t be all bad. Besides, there’s a sense too that our common story might not end so well either. Across the Arab world, across Europe and the US and the wider world people are organising, protesting, fighting for something better. There’s little sign that any of them are going to get it.

Lakhdar’s goals are smaller than those of the Arab Spring or the Indignados. He’s not political, he’s not a revolutionary, he’s not looking for a new Tangiers.

All I want is to be free to travel, to earn money, to walk around quietly with my girlfriend, to fuck if I want to, to pray if I want to, to sin if I want to, and to read detective novels if I feel like it without anyone finding anything to object to aside from God Himself.

Which as manifestos go sounds pretty good to me.

Enard’s reading recommendations

As with Zone, Enard peppers Street of Thieves with various pretty explicit literary references and recommendations. Lakhdar loves Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos and fantasises that his Tangiers is Izzo’s Marseilles. He approvingly mentions Manchette’s The Prone Gunman and comments in passing on Pronzini (new to me) and McBain. He refers to the poetry of Abu Nuwas and “the great novels of Naguib Mahfouz or Tayeb Salih”. As ever Enard is a fine literary guide, though it’s noticeable that over two novels so far he’s yet to recommend a single female writer.

Other reviews

There are loads, but mystifyingly I didn’t keep links to many of them. One which particularly influenced me to read this was Stu’s at Winston’sDad’sBlog here. Stu says among other things that “I actually loved this more than the zone this book is one of those that captured the Zeitgeist the way it was to be in the North African Arab world as the Arab spring broke” and I know what he means. As I said at the outset, Zone is the better book (technically anyway and in terms of ambition) but I think I enjoyed Street more and it’s hardly as if it lacks ambition itself. I also liked this review from Tony of Tony’s Reading List here.

As ever, please let me know of reviews I’ve missed in the comments.

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Filed under Enard, Mathias, Fitzcarraldo Editions, French Literature

Goodwill oozed from him like sweat.

The Mask of Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler

The Mask of Dimitrios was first published in 1939. It portrays a Europe in which politics, crime and big business are inextricably intertwined; one in which real power is often exercised out of sight and the news the public reads is never more than half the story.

How far we’ve come!

Latimer, a reasonably successful English crime writer, is on holiday in Turkey when he meets the slightly sinister Colonel Haki of Turkish intelligence at a party. The Colonel asks Latimer to call upon him the next day and it turns out that like so many people Latimer meets he has an idea for a book that he wants to pitch.

The book idea is terrible, but in the course of the conversation the Colonel mentions how real crime is so much messier than literary crime, and to illustrate his point he takes Latimer to the morgue and shows him the body of a murdered man. That man is Dimitrios, stabbed in the stomach and pulled dead from the sea.

The death of Dimitrios allows the Turkish police to close their file on him – a file which includes allegations of murder, political assassination and a host of other crimes. Dimitrios has been sought after for years but eluded all attempts at capture. Now he lies on a slab with nothing to his name but an identity card sewn into his cheap suit.

Latimer is intrigued and decides as a sort of hobby project to discover more about Dimitrios. He sets out to retrace his steps, learn about his life and in doing so perhaps understand what forces and experiences create such a man.

I often say that any book is allowed one “gimme”. In Mask it’s that Latimer pursues this pet project far longer than is remotely sensible. It’s a device; you just have to accept it.

Latimer’s investigation takes him across Europe, from Istanbul through Athens, Smyrna, Sofia, Geneva and Paris. Along the way he meets an aging brothel-keeper, a retired Polish spy, various journalists and criminals and most notably a man named Mr Peters. Peters joins Latimer on a train journey, seemingly by accident. Here Ambler describes Latimer’s first impression of Peter’s face:

There was the sort of sallow shapelessness about it that derives from simultaneous over-eating and under-sleeping. From above two heavy satchels of flesh peered a pair of pale blue, bloodshot eyes that seemed to be permanently weeping. The nose was rubbery and indeterminate. The lips were pallid and undefined, seeming thicker than they really were. Pressed together over unnaturally white and regular false teeth, they were set permanently in a saccharine smile.

Peters is a sanctimonious sort full of cod-theology and long-winded rhetoric. He makes a tedious train companion but at least once you get off you’ve no reason ever to see him again. So Latimer thinks anyway…

As he pursues the trail of Dimitrios, Latimer finds himself slowly piecing together both the man’s history and his world. It’s a kind of twisted mirror-Europe to the one Latimer thought he inhabited. A world in which banks such as the Eurasian Credit Trust hire assassins to fund coups so as to serve their own business interests. It’s a world in which a lot of people still seem very interested in Dimitrios.

As for the Eurasian Credit Trust by the way, we never meet anyone directly employed by it and yet there’s a sense that it’s the real villain in this story:

‘It is registered in Monaco which means not only that it pays no taxes in the countries in which it operates, but also that its balance sheet is not published and that it is impossible to find out anything about it. There are lots more like that in Europe. Its head office is in Paris, but it operates in the Balkans. Amongst other things it finances the clandestine manufacture of heroin in Bulgaria for illicit export.’

When it works Mask works very well indeed. The problem is that it starts very slowly. The framing device isn’t that interesting and Latimer is intentionally something of a void since his only function is to be a viewpoint character introducing the reader to Ambler’s Europe.

Colonel Haki is fun and so are the rest of the supporting cast, but it takes a while before you meet most of them and in the early stages there’s an awful lot of Latimer travelling to places, looking up records and digging out information from vaguely unhelpful clerks. I found that part of the story reasonably interesting, but it’s fair to say that the pages weren’t exactly turning themselves.

Once you hit the half-way mark it picks up considerably, not so much in pace (almost all the book is basically a paper chase into events that happened years before) but in depth. Dimitrios’ life starts to emerge from the shadows and the impact he had on others becomes increasingly apparent. Peters recurs and Latimer starts to realise that information which to him is a matter of quixotic curiosity might be something that others would be willing to steal or kill for.

Ambler has a nice turn of phrase and I enjoyed the at times very English tone of the novel. Here for example Latimer reflects on one of his increasing number of potential enemies:

A person who searched rooms, brandished pistols, dangled promises of half a million franc fees for nameless services and then wrote instructions to Polish spies might reasonably be regarded with suspicion.

So they might.

As Mask draws to its conclusion Latimer becomes increasingly disillusioned. You can’t look behind the curtain and continue to believe in the wizard after all. He reflects:

The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s Quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

But of course the lesson of Ambler is that the truth is always murkier than we think. The world is complex, underlying causes are often obscure, and whenever something significant is happening someone, somewhere is probably making money from it.

One more quote before I wrap up, here mostly to illustrate quite how well Ambler manages to evoke his fractured Europe:

From the balcony outside the window of his room, he could see over the bay to the hills beyond. A moon had risen and its reflection gleamed through the tangle of crane jibs along the quay where the steamers berthed. The searchlights of a Turkish cruiser anchored in the roadstead outside the inner port swung round like long white fingers, brushed the summits of the hills and were extinguished. Out in the harbour and on the slopes above the town pinpoints of light twinkled. A slight, warm breeze off the sea had begun to stir the leaves of a rubber tree in the garden below him. In another room of the hotel a woman laughed. Somewhere in the distance a gramophone was playing a tango. The turntable was revolving too quickly and the sound was shrill and congested.

Isn’t that lovely? And yet, there’s that slight sour note at the end there which cleverly undermines the beauty of the rest of the passage. That’s Ambler, showing us the sour note at the heart of Europe.

Mask had been described to me by some as Ambler’s best novel. It certainly has its moments and the back half is very enjoyable, but the front section does drag at times and I think this does have some structural issues. Persistence does pay off but for me while it was definitely worth reading it’s not as strong as Uncommon Danger and I don’t think the villains are quite as memorable either.

Other reviews

None that I’m aware of in the blogosphere. However, I did see a comment by John Self of The Asylum against an Amazon review where he mentioned he only got 60 pages into this before abandoning it. It’s not a review, but it does suggest he also found the front section a little slow to get going.

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Filed under Ambler, Eric, Spy Fiction, Thrillers

only someone who knew how to read the murderer’s soul could unmask them.

The Mystery of the Three Orchids, by Augusto De Angelis and translated by Jill Foulston

When it came down to it he was sentimental, and he had an instinctive respect for the dead, for scoundrels who’d once been alive.

I read this one back in early July so it’s a little unfair to review it now. It’s not a book that’s really intended to linger in the memory; it’s an afternoon’s light entertainment.

This is the third of De Angelis’ vintage Italian crime novels published by Pushkin’s Vertigo imprint. It features once again his Inspector De Vincenzi, whose efficiency I continue to doubt. I’ve read all three novels now and I can’t help but think that if De Vincenzi were a little more diligent the body count in these books would be much lower.

This time the action takes place in a Milan fashion house, which is about as good a setting as one could hope for. The house’s American owner Cristiana O’Brien discovers the dead body of her general dogsbody Valerio laid out on her bed and a single orchid placed where she can’t fail to see it. The orchid has a sinister significance for her, though we’ll have to wait to find out why.

Soon De Vincenzi is on the scene and not before time because there’s a fair few suspects to work through:

  • Cristiana herself, whom we immediately learn has a dark secret and shady past that she dearly needs to hide;
  • “Prospero O’Lary, the administrative secretary of the business” who looks like “a black tortoise ill with meningitis”;
  • the bronzed fashion designer Madame Firmino who can’t bear the rich women who buy her creations, each of which is created for willowy models but worn by flabby society women;
  • Evelina the immensely fat and rather diligent bookkeeper whom De Vincenzi immediately takes a liking to since “You can’t weigh more than a hundred kilos without having a correspondingly light conscience!”;
  • a glamorous former American bank robber who “looked like a rich peasant, with a red birthmark on his forehead, ruddy blond hair, a solid chest and the sweet and innocent expression of a man used to living in the open air”;
  • the bank robber’s beautiful sister with a “a pretty little tabby cat’s face” and eyes which “had the clean lines of almonds, with glowing green irises”; and
  • of course, the models themselves Irma, Gioia, Anna, Clara none of whom seem particularly supportive of each other.

Phew! For a short book it’s fairly packed with larger than life characters. Of course the bodies (and accompanying orchids) soon start to stack up, which is handy really as it’s one of the few things that seems to help De Vincenzi narrow down the list of suspects. He is disadvantaged though by almost all the suspects being women, since:

He knew that a sudden, unexpected question can take a man by surprise, but a woman, never. Lying and distraction come easily to women; their deviousness is automatic.

And later…

How could one distinguish truth from false-hood in a woman’s statements, and how could one find logic in her words and actions?

Ahem. Well, it was written in 1942 so I think you just have to make the occasional allowance for period.

The previous two novels suffered a little from an excess of portentous dialogue about how terrible and shocking the crimes were. There’s a bit of that here: “Listen to me, Signora. What has happened in this house over the last ten hours isn’t only tragic, it’s frightening, grotesque and absurd.” Generally though it’s lighter touch than the previous books and better for it.

Over at his blog Stu compared this to “those great american  crime radio dramas where the crime is all wrapped neatly up in half an Hour” which I really like as an analysis. It captures the book’s strength which is that it’s fun, a bit frothy and a quick read. It’s what Emma of Bookaround might describe as a beach and public transport book.

There’s not a lot more to say really. Obviously I don’t want to spoil the plot which builds up as you’d expect to the ultimate reveal by the detective where he confronts the culprit in front of a roomful of people and sets out the chain of evidence that proves their guilt (though as ever any decent lawyer could probably knock a good few holes in it however right the detective may be).

It’s a very traditional crime novel, but set in a fun period and milieu. For me the De Angelis novels are a slightly odd choice for Pushkin Press who usually opt for more challenging material. Still, they merit rediscovery and nobody else is publishing them in translation so why not?

Other reviews

Stu, as mentioned above, reviewed it at Winston’s Dad’s Blog here. Guy also reviewed it at His Futile Preoccupations here. Guy had this as his favourite of the De Angelis, though for me I think that would be The Hotel of the Three Roses which has an even better cast than this and which I actually remember better despite reading far longer ago.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, De Angelis, Augusto, Italian Literature, Pushkin Vertigo

A silent novel, so as not to wake the children.

Faces in the Crowd, by Valeria Luiselli and translated by Christina MacSweeney

Every now and then I don’t pay attention. When Ferrante fever was at its peak I decided to give her a try and so read her frankly disappointing Troubling Love. It was only after I finished it that I realised I’d read the only Ferrante that nobody had ever recommended to me.

Likewise Luiselli. I remembered that she’d been recommended to me. Unfortunately I forgot that it was her second novel everyone had recommended. I read her first. Faces in the Crowd isn’t bad, but it is very much a first novel. It wears its influences openly, is careful and neat and just a little bit self-conscious.

Here’s a quote from the first page:

It all began in another city and another life. That’s why I can’t write this story the way I would like to – as if I were still there, still just only that other person. I find it difficult to talk about streets and faces as if I saw them every day. I can’t find the correct tenses. I was young, had strong, slim legs.

(I would have liked to start the way Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast ends.)

So from the outset it’s clear that in part this is a novel about writing (one of my least favourite literary topics, which is hardly Luiselli’s fault). It’s also clear that this is very much a literary novel referencing other writers. It rather lost me here though, as while I have read A Moveable Feast I don’t actually remember the ending and didn’t much feel like stopping the Luiselli to go and check it.

The narrator is married with a small child. She’s trying to write a novel but her life mitigates against it. There’s no space in their apartment dedicated to her use. Interruptions are constant:

In this big house I don’t have a place to write. On my worktable there are nappies, toy cars, Transformers, bibs, rattles, things I still can’t figure out. Tiny objects take up all the space, I cross the living room and sit on the sofa with my computer on my lap. The boy comes in:

What are you doing, Mama?

Writing.

Writing just a book, Mama?

Just writing.

What we’re reading is the novel she’s writing. She writes about the process of writing it. She writes about her husband reading the drafts and commenting on them. He doesn’t like how she depicts him, which makes him another form of interruption and intrusion into her work. Here he objects because she’s portrayed him as being a fan of zombie movies:

I don’t like zombie films. Why did you write that I like zombie films?

Because.

Please, cut the zombies.

She doesn’t cut the zombies of course or we wouldn’t be reading that passage. Later he complains that she has him walk out on her and their son when he’s done nothing of the kind. She explains that she needed something dramatic to happen. It’s very meta.

The narrator becomes interested in the early 20th Century poet Gilberto Owen. Increasingly her story becomes about him, or perhaps we’re now reading his story. The two blur against each other, intermingle. Sometimes it’s not clear if we’re reading her perspective or his. They see each other on the subway, though they live in different cities in different decades. They are each other’s ghosts.

I actually rather liked that element. The narrator is getting eclipsed in her own life by her roles as wife and mother. Gilberto’s situation is quite different, and yet somehow still an echo. His eyesight is failing and as it does he seems himself to fade from the view of those around him. He too is eclipsed.

The trouble is that all this needs a light touch and that’s sometimes lacking here. Take this early quote from page 2:

A few days ago my husband stepped on a dinosaur when he was coming downstairs and there was a cataclysm. Tears, screaming: the dinosaur was shattered beyond repair. Now my T-Rex really has been extincted, sobbed the boy. Sometimes we feel like two paranoid Gullivers, permanently walking on tiptoe so as not to wake anyone up, not to step on anything important and fragile.

It doesn’t leave much for me as the reader to do does it? Remove the sentence starting “Sometimes” and the point is still made, but not spelled out. Perhaps just delete from “, not to step on anything important and fragile” since that’s really where Luiselli just goes a bit too far and explains her paragraph for those at the back who might not be paying attention.

Similarly, there are occasional standalone sentences such as the one I used as the title for this piece or later:

A dense, porous novel. Like a baby’s heart.

It felt like I was being hit over the head with the novel’s themes. Yes, it’s well written at the level of the individual sentence, but it’s not given room to breathe. For a novel suffused with uncertainty I felt Luiselli needed to explain a bit less.

Once you lose sympathy with a novel you find fault everywhere. Lines which might otherwise pass without comment become jarring. I’ll end with one final quote taken from part of a description of one of the narrator’s friends:

She had soft, heavy breasts; small nipples. She used to say she had philosophical nipples.

To which my thought was: has anyone, anywhere, ever said that? The truth is that it’s quite possible someone has, it may even be something Luiselli once heard someone say, but in the context of the book I found it frankly silly. If I’d had sympathy with the novel I might have reacted quite differently, seen it as a comment on the narrator’s estrangement or something like that, but instead I was just conscious of the writing without finding the writing interesting.

So, after all that it may be a surprise that I plan to read more Luiselli. The thing is though, she can write and this is a first novel. It may be that she’s just not my writer and that’s fair enough, but by all accounts her second novel is more experimental and I suspect that may be where her instincts and talent best lie.

Other reviews

Stu at Winston’s Dad’s Blog has covered this here and clearly clicked with it much more than I did. He’s since reviewed two more Luiselli which is helpful too and I’ll be reading through his other reviews with interest. Stu also comments a little on the narrator’s job in publishing and how that interacts with her work on Owen and his contemporary Lorca which I didn’t touch on above but is among the best parts of the novel.

Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat also read and reviewed it here and again liked it more than me. Caroline has some reservations – she found the narrator a bit cold which actually I didn’t – but it’s arguably to the book’s credit that different readers have different issues with it.

Caroline says at one point in her review “ It’s a book to read again, slowly.” Had I but world enough and time I probably would give it another go since my lack of engagement may have been a problem of chemistry or timing rather than the text itself. However, faced with mortality as I am I’ll probably just skip ahead to her second book and see how that goes instead.

In a Station of the Metro

Finally, for those who don’t get the reference (I didn’t), the title is taken from the Ezra Pound poem In a Station of the Metro. The full poem is as follows:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Perfect for a novel in which people catch elusive glimpses of each other on the subway, and generally just a lovely piece of imagist poetry. Gorgeous and clever. I like Pound but I didn’t know that poem (famous as it apparently is) and I’m delighted to have discovered it.

 

Edit to add reviews by Grant here and by Rough Ghost here.

Further edit: I’d also bookmarked this review to link to, by Shigekuni. It’s more critical than mine if anything and among other interesting points picks up some translation issues which  it’s worth looking at for. The final paragraph is punchy:

“An interesting book, yes, but Luiselli’s book reads like the endlessly well crafted artifact of a critic-turned-writer, although I don’t know whether that is, indeed the case. It is not enough to say this book is overdetermined. It is, in fact, so painstakingly worked that it barely resembles prose any more in its density and lack of narrative or emotional energy. It resembles a baroque poem, written to impress with its craft, to delight an appreciative audience. Only that, for a poem, Luiselli’s – or, more precisely, MacSweeney’s – language is too vague for this book to dazzle. I think Luiselli got lost in the house of her own mind and construction and this book is the result.”

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Filed under Luiselli, Valeria, Mexican Literature, Spanish Literature

She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation.

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is one of the finest books I’ve read this year. I fully expect it to be on my end of year list.

It’s a (possibly semi-autobiographical) novel in which the respectably middle-aged Florence Green uses her small funds to open a bookshop in the small seaside town of Hardborough in Suffolk.  It proves a more challenging task than she anticipates.

In 1959, when there was no fish and chips in Hardborough, no launderette, no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights, the need of all these things was felt, but no one had considered, certainly had not thought of Mrs Green as considering, the opening of a bookshop.

Bookshop Fitzgerald

Florence’s first difficulty comes in her choice of location: the long empty Old House. It’s damp, run down and possessed by a poltergeist (more on that later) but worst of all it’s been unofficially earmarked for use as a future arts centre by the implacable and resourceful Mrs Gamart who considers herself the queen of what passes for Hardborough society.

The house agent was in no way legally bound to mention the poltergeist, though he perhaps alluded to it in the phrase unusual period atmosphere.

The town’s reaction is not an encouraging one, ranging from resistance on the part of Mrs Gamart and the failing fishmonger who had hoped Florence would buy his shop instead of the Old House, to at best indifference. Even so, Florence is determined to make things work and slowly she starts to do just that. Sales gradually pick up; a lending service is launched and eventually proves a success; Florence starts to get a feel for what’s in local demand.

It all probably sounds rather dull, but actually it’s quite wonderful. Florence to start with is pleasant to spend time with. She’s aware of her own lack of experience but she’s not an idiot. She’s kind and thoughtful and takes an interest in the life of her young ten year old assistant Christine Gipping.

Hardborough itself is skilfully evoked, both in terms of its weather and geography but more importantly in the sense of a small community where everyone is both conscious and jealous of their position and where absolutely everyone knows absolutely everyone else’s business. Well, everyone but Florence that is because she’s not really one of them.

I won’t say too much about what happens, but the catalyst comes at the midpoint of the novel when Florence bravely decides to stock Nabokov’s Lolita on the basis that while it might not be what the locals typically read it is by all accounts a good book and therefore one that a small bookshop should be promoting. She’s right that if she stocks it people will want to read it. In fact people travel to the shop just to buy it. What she doesn’t foresee is the extent to which it will galvanise the residual resentment of Mrs Gamart and some of the other local tradespeople against her.

The Bookshop is a somewhat wistful novel, perhaps fittingly so given Hardborough’s uncertain landscape of mists and marshes. More than that though it’s also often extremely funny. Fitzgerald has a keen eye for an appealing phrase and a sympathetic one for human frailty. I had a good half dozen or more quotes picked out for use at this point in my review. I’ve reluctantly cut it back to these two examples:

She drank some of the champagne, and the smaller worries of the day seemed to stream upwards as tiny pinpricks through the golden mouthfuls and to break harmlessly and vanish.

And:

Later middle age, for the upper middle-class in East Suffolk, marked a crisis, after which the majority became water-colourists, and painted landscapes. It would not have mattered so much if they had painted badly, but they all did it quite well. All their pictures looked much the same. Framed, they hung in sitting-rooms, while outside the windows the empty, washed-out, unarranged landscape stretched away to the transparent sky.

I did particularly love Fitzgerald’s depiction of lacklustre local artists and of the retired authors who’re all peddling books about wandering the marshes since there’s nothing much else to write about.

Comic novels are often the saddest and this isn’t an exception. There’s an element of small tragedy to a tale about someone trying to make a living and introduce a little art to their community and being fought bitterly by people with more resources and less compassion. Fitzgerald’s is a world where kindness is often confused with weakness and rarely rewarded, but while the meek may not inherit the Earth it’s clear Fitzgerald prefers their company to those who shall.

One last note on that poltergeist. Today the line between the natural and the supernatural in fiction is pretty rigid and it’s very unusual to have a novel that in every other way is utterly naturalistic include without comment an explicit paranormal element. Why then does Fitzgerald include one here? It’s not a metaphorical poltergeist; it’s as much part of the reality of the book as Mrs Gamart or Christine Gipping or anyone else.

My suspicion, quite unprovable, is that it’s one of the semi-autobiographical elements. There’s actually nothing it does which hasn’t been observed (and explained) in the real world. People do still and definitely did then believe in poltergeists and behaviours we might now attribute to faulty pipes or settling buildings or just plain old secret adolescent mischief were attributed to spirits. More importantly though, it does allow this wonderful line from a local health and safety inspector:

I am advised that under the provisions of the Act the supernatural would be classed with bacon-slicers and other machinery through which young persons must not be exposed to the risk of injury.

As so often I feel I’ve written lots and yet the book’s slipped through my fingers. The place, the situation, the characters, the prose, it all came together for me here. This is a quiet and unassuming book. It’s modest. It makes no claims to speak to the human condition or the state of the nation. It’s just very, very good.

Other reviews

Quite a few, which I thought I’d made note of but seem to have lost. Some I am still aware of are by Jacqui of Jacqui’s Wine Journal here; by Emma of Bookaroundthecorner here and a somewhat less impressed one by John Self of The Asylum here. If there are others I’ve missed as ever please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Fitzgerald, Penelope

A recent reading miscellany (mostly SF)

A recent reading miscellany      

I’ve read several books recently during a period where I was busy at work, then ill, and then on holiday. For a mix of reasons I don’t plan to fully review them. Some were very good, some not so much. I thought I’d write a brief paragraph or two on each.

Most of these are SF. I’ve omitted Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd as I hope to do full reviews of each of those.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

This is a slight cheat as I read it back in June and didn’t review it then, but it’s better than most of the books that follow so it seemed a bit unfair not to mention it when I’m making time to talk about books I thought less of.

Ancillary is a classic space opera set in a distant future among a vast interstellar empire. The empire is controlled through use of artificially intelligent spaceships crewed in part by ancillaries – prisoners of war who’ve had their minds wiped and replaced by a small element of the ship’s AI. The ancillaries aren’t meant to operate independently but an act of treachery leaves one isolated after the troop carrier it formed part of is destroyed.

Ancillary is best known for its treatment of gender. The protagonist being a fragment of an AI personality is weak on gender recognition to begin with and the language of the empire’s rulers doesn’t include gender pronouns. The result is a book in which unless the protagonist has specific knowledge that a character is male literally every character is referred to as she or her.

Use of male pronouns as a default is commonplace. Use of female isn’t and many SF fans balked at reading a book where they couldn’t be sure which gender most of the characters were. I found it worked very well and the slight loss in terms of physical description was more than made up for in the increased focus it required in terms of actual personality rather than gender assumptions.

All that and a cracking plot across multiple planets with wars, conspiracies and strange technologies and overall I absolutely loved this. It’s solid SF and fairly long too (with two sequels, neither apparently quite as good as the first) and the only reason I didn’t give it a proper review was limited time. It’s still a candidate for my end of year list.

Nick’s Trip, by George Pelecanos

I started this back in June, having enjoyed the previous book in the series A Firing Offense. I abandoned this part-way through, finding it a bit dated and to be honest a bit sexist. It’s not stuck in memory so there’s not much more to say than that. Pelecanos has legions of fans and can definitely write so it may be that this just wasn’t one of his best or possibly he’s just not my writer.

Mystery of the Three Orchids, by Augusto de Angelis and translated by Jill Foulston

I’ve read two previous de Angelis and sort of enjoyed them. This time I found the tales of his Inspector de Vincenzo to provide diminishing returns. Guy liked this best of the three de Angelis published by Pushkin Press so far but I just found that I no longer cared whodunit. Being honest, cosy crime has never been my genre and I only read these from interest at the unusual early 20th Century Milan setting. Solid books, but not for me.

Books two ((The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself) and three (Then will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above) of Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet.

Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet is a series of four thematically linked novellas each exploring an alternate history of the Apollo space programme. I enjoyed the first a while back so tried a couple more.

AQ2 is the more out-there piece and posits the discovery of alien ruins on Mars which has led to the discovery of faster-than light travel. Now Earth’s first extra-solar colony has vanished and so the first man on Mars is brought out from retirement to investigate. It’s an audacious story split between that first Mars mission and the journey to the missing colony, and daringly the answer to what happened is only really made clear(ish) through technical appendices. For all that I found it a little dry and it’s probably my least favourite Sales’ so far.

AQ3 is much more interesting (to me anyway). It posits an extended Korean war tying up US pilots much longer than was true in our own history. When the space race starts up the US therefore has no choice but to make use of female pilots. The story then is about the first women in space and, once the war ends, their inevitable sidelining to make room for the returning men.

Sales includes a chapter outlining the real female pilots whom he based his story on – women who really did train to go into space but who were blocked by NASA and an unsympathetic political establishment in a truly shocking fashion. Sales uses his alternate history to bring an ignored and shameful passage of real history to light and the result is one of those rare piece of SF I’d potentially recommend to the non-SF fan.

Light and Shadow, by Linda Nagata

This is a short story collection. Linda Nagata mostly writes near-future military SF these days and this collection contains a fair bit of that, plus some more speculative and fantasy material. It’s a solid collection that worked well when I was ill and to Nagata’s credit I read the whole lot quickly and without getting bored along the way.

Nagata clearly has talent, but military fiction rarely speaks to me and military SF less so which means that while I wouldn’t rule it out I’m unlikely to read a lot more by her.

Something Coming Through, by Paul McAuley

More SF. McAuley wrote a novella a while back about a future where a battered near-future Earth is contacted by enigmatic aliens and given access to fifteen worlds free to colonise. The trouble is, the aliens have been doing this for various species for millions of years and the colonies are dotted with the ancient technologies of the races who were given tenancy before us.

In Something Coming Through McAuley returns to the setting and tells a novel length story, though for me with slightly diminishing returns. I actually like McAuley’s setting, but to turn it into a novel he has to include conspiracy and thriller elements which I cared about less. Another example of a talented author working in an area which isn’t of much personal appeal.

Bethany, by Adam Roberts

This is much stranger. A sociopath inspired by Michael Moorcock’s famous novel Behold the Man travels back in time with the goal of killing Christ during the three days after his resurrection but before his bodily ascension into heaven. This is well written, well researched and laudably short (90 pages). Roberts is a very highly regarded writer and from this it’s easy to see why. I’ve read one of his short stories before but after this I’ll definitely be moving on to his full-length fiction.

A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by  Becky Chambers

This was rapturously received by oceans of critics and fans. It’s a novel about a small spaceship that makes its living by punching wormholes through space to create travel links across the galaxy (basically interstellar roadbuilders). It’s widely (and to be fair rightly) seen as a light and upbeat read and was particularly praised for its treatment of diversity with a crew formed of different species and genders all working together in a cramped ship.

Unfortunately, the diversity is literally skin deep. Every character, even the aliens, felt to me like a middle-class 20-something American. One felt like she’d been borrowed wholesale from the Jewel Staite character in the TV show Firefly but made wackier. I got to page 50 and couldn’t take any more. That means I read less than a tenth of this (and there’s two sequels!) but I’m fine with that.

So, that’s my quick(ish) roundup. If any stand out to you please let me know in the comments and I can say a bit more about them.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, De Angelis, Augusto, Novellas, Pelecanos, George, Science Fiction

Quick update

Hello all,

Just a quick post by way of update: I had a nasty bout of food poisoning recently which laid me low for a bit, and then I had a much needed holiday. I’m now back but a bit buried at work.

Normal service should resume before too long with my much overdue review of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop. If you can’t wait and don’t already know it the precis version is simple: it’s brilliant; read it. It’ll be on my end of year list.

Otherwise, I’ll probably skip properly reviewing several of my recent reads either because they were full-on SF (always a standby when I’m under the weather) which doesn’t interest most of my readers here or they were a bit disappointing. I’ll do a round-up post though just to say what they were with a paragraph or two on each.

That’s pretty much it for now. Apologies for all the great posts by others that I’ve seen and read but not commented on – after three weeks or so though there’s so many that I’m only going to respond on the backlog where I have a specific query or thought to raise.

See you all soon.

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Filed under Personal posts

It has been, again, as if she did not see me.

The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares and translated by Ruth Simms

The Invention of Morel comes with an endorsement by Borges stating simply that “To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” I disagree.

An unnamed fugitive makes his home on an uninhabited pacific island. He plans to live out his remaining years there safe from discovery and the imprisonment that would inevitably follow. We do not know of what crime he is accused but we know it must be serious.

The island has a handful of empty buildings but its inaccessibility makes it a safe refuge. Or so it seemed until without warning a group of apparent holidaymakers appear among the buildings. They seem utterly ignorant of the fugitive’s presence. Are they ghosts? Is he? Is this some malevolent prank on their part aimed at his capture? Or is the truth much stranger?

The book comes with some rather charming illustrations. Here’s a map of the island showing the various structures on it:

And here is a mysterious sunbathing woman named Faustine with whom the fugitive falls furtively in love:

At first he daren’t approach her, uncertain both as to the group’s intent and her likely reaction. When he does he finds to his dismay that she doesn’t acknowledge him. It’s as if he were invisible, inaudible. He tries to make tribute to her by planting a floral garden where she sunbathes each day:

When I made this garden, I felt like a magician because the finished work had no connection with the precise movements that produced it. My magic depended on this: I had to concentrate on each part, on the difficult task of planting each flower and aligning it with the preceding one. As I worked, the garden appeared to be either a disorderly agglomeration of flowers or a woman.

That quote seems as obvious a metaphor for the process of writing a novel as one could hope for. Casares’ book was well received; the garden isn’t even glanced at. A male companion, Morel, visits the woman and walks over the flowers as if they weren’t there.

The problem is that it’s evident very early on that the holidaymakers are genuinely oblivious to the narrator. Unfortunately, the plot requires that he doesn’t realise this which means that he wanders about coming up with bizarre hypotheses for why everyone pretends not to see him despite it being perfectly apparent that they can’t (and despite other plainly outré events such as seeing two suns in the sky). I worked out what was going on pretty quickly (it’s not hard if you’ve read any pulp SF) but the narrator struggles even after Morel spends four pages (four!) in outright exposition setting out precisely what’s happening.

This next quote comes after the narrator has spent those four pages listening to Morel explain in detail the nature of his invention, after which everyone seems to vanish without trace:

There was no noise, there was almost no light. Had they all gone to bed? Or were they lying in wait to capture me?

Really? Four pages of exposition and he still doesn’t get it? The narrator doesn’t understand because the plot requires him not to. It’s clumsy, to be kind.

Invention is not generally seen as a genre novel. I’m not quite sure why that is since it’s actually a pretty straightforward SF tale. It deals in issues of mortality, love and how we ascribe meaning to our lives but there’s no rule that genre can’t address big issues.

It is well written and perhaps that’s why it’s won so many fans. I loved for example this quote which comes when the narrator is considering just declaring his passion to Faustine without further attempt to win her by garden gift or subtle wooing:

We are suspicious of a stranger who tells us his life story, who tells us spontaneously that he has been captured, sentenced to life imprisonment, and that we are his reason for living. We are afraid that he is merely tricking us into buying a fountain pen or a bottle with a miniature sailing vessel inside.

Casares is of course quite right. I think most of us have had the experience of some seemingly friendly stranger on a holiday turning out to have a timeshare to sell or a hard-luck story tucked away ready to bring out once trust is won. On the other hand the quote’s charm was lessened for me by the fact that there seemed no reason that the narrator shouldn’t already have realised that Faustine simply wouldn’t hear him if he poured his heart out.

By the close the narrator comes to understand what’s going on and the implications for his love. For me, the final few pages are the best in the book as the narrator responds to his situation and creates meaning from it. His response has a certain questionable beauty which I can’t explain or discuss without spoiling this utterly for future readers. It’s just a shame that he has to understand so little along the way and ignore so many evident incongruities in order to make it all work.

It’s rare I write a review this negative and all the more so when as here the book is well written. I may well read more Casares just because he plainly can write. For me though Invention was contrived with character and behaviour painfully twisted to serve the demands of unrelenting plot and situation. I didn’t think the payoff worth the journey.

Other reviews (and a note on the translation)

Several, and mostly glowing. Kaggsy describes this as “perfect” and a “five-star read” here; Gautambhatia pays considerable tribute to the book here in a review I’d describe as itself being perfect and a five-star read, not least for his clearly marked spoiler section; other reviews of interest (though more ambivalent ones to my eye) are from Grant of 1st Reading’s blog here and from Jacqui of Jacqui Wine’s journal here.

Finally, there’s a good piece here on the problems of the translation. Unfortunately it appears it’s pretty poor with plenty of changes, needless tidying and outright omissions. It looks like Casares meant it to be even more obvious to the reader what’s going on than it already was to me. I think that might have helped, because it would have brought out the intentional artificiality of the narrator’s obtuseness by making everything all the more apparent. It’s a shame. I may not have liked the book but Casares deserved better.

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Filed under Casares, Adolfo Bioy, Spanish Literature

How can we fail to see that this change from the combover to the shorn head is a sign of our declining society?

The Combover, by Adrian N. Bravi and translated by Richard Dixon

The Combover is one of the funniest, strangest, most uncategorisable novels I’ve read in quite a while. No small thing in a year where I’m reading DeWitt, Aira and Casares. I noted enough quotes that I could write a two-page review using nothing else (don’t worry, I won’t). I had to stop myself from noting more.

Arduino Gherarducci is a middle-aged professor specialising in bibliographic data exchange formats. Baldness runs in his family and Arduino maintains a proud family tradition of sporting a combover – in his case he grows his hair long in back and combs it forward over his bald patch.

He is well aware that times have changed and that the combover has become a thing of ridicule. He is urged by friends, strangers, barbers, his wife, just to shave his head and wear his baldness openly and without shame. What they don’t understand is that he feels no shame in being bald. He is proud of his combover. As he reflects:

No one gets upset if they see a woman with fake blond hair and black reappearing at the roots, or with silicon lips, but they get upset about a combover . . .

Arduino’s wife doesn’t understand the importance to him of his absurd hairstyle. She doesn’t get why he goes to such lengths to maintain it and to protect it against random gusts of wind or sudden rain. She thinks he would look rather handsome without it.

They have no children. Their cat, Cosino, is more his than hers. Arduino is the narrator so we don’t see much of his wife’s life but it doesn’t seem much fun. He’s a fussy man obsessed with matters which are hard for others to relate to and he seems to be engaged in a petty cold-war with his wife’s mother. Still, he’s comfortable enough in his slightly arid world until, one day, something extraordinary happens:

As I was describing a mark used by Valerio Dorico—a Pegasus striking a rock with its hoof making a spring gush forth—I remember noticing the Argentinian student, whose thesis I was supervising and who came to all my lectures, getting up without saying a word and coming toward my desk. I followed him with my eyes, to understand what he was doing there at the front. I thought he wanted to ask me a question or to help me turn a page of the great catalogue of printers’ marks I was leafing through in front of the class. But no. While I was holding this great book, he pushed back my combover with a gesture that was deliberate but not aggressive—indeed it was almost elegant—exposing my baldness to the whole class. For a few seconds the students sat there looking at me, astonished, without understanding the insult. Then, predictably, they all began to laugh.

Arduino makes it through the rest of the lecture, but he doesn’t know how to process this. He doesn’t know what comes next. So he runs away. Armed only with a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics to read on his journey and a backpack-full of essentials he decides to make a new life in Lapland.

He doesn’t get very far. Instead he ends up in a nearby village that he used to visit with his father as a child and where he hopes to find an old well that was said to be magical. He was told about the well by a priest who was a friend of Arduino’s father and he remembers the two men leaning towards each other so deep in conversation that their combovers almost touched and became one.

What Arduino is really looking for is a safe haven: a place where a man can live in peace and where his hair will be left unruffled. Lapland might serve, but how much more secure is the refuge of childhood memory?

The priest of course is long dead and the well forgotten. You can’t reach the past by bus. So with a logic that seems somehow inevitable Arduino takes refuge in a cave on the hill where he becomes a hermit. He hopes to live off the land, avoid people and to get to grips with Spinoza:

I pulled out the Ethics and read proposition thirty-six of the second part (which talks about confused ideas that are nevertheless necessary) and then the demonstration that refers to proposition fifteen of the first part, with its demonstration which, in turn, refers to proposition fourteen, once again in the first part, and to definition three and so forth. In short, I began to think, like Spinoza, that all things are necessary, like the Argentinian’s hair-ruffle: “Was even this necessary, damn it?” I asked myself. “Did he really have to get up from his seat and ruffle my hair in front of everyone?” In the Ethics, definition seven says:

That thing is called free, which exists solely by the necessity of its own nature, and of which the action is determined by itself alone. On the other hand, that thing is necessary, or rather constrained, which is determined by something external to itself to a fixed and definite method of existence or action.

Which means? That that blockhead couldn’t do anything other than ruffle my hair because he was already a hair-ruffler by nature, or does it mean that he did it because he had been driven by an external cause and he, poor sod, couldn’t prevent himself because he was constrained to do it?

I’ve read absolutely no Spinoza myself and I don’t particularly intend to start now. It doesn’t matter. You don’t need a degree in philosophy to see that we’ve got issues here of exercising free will in a contingent world. Arduino just wants to explore bibliographic data exchange formats and to have his chosen hairstyle be respected. But how can you live freely in a world populaced by wives and mothers-in-law and rogue Argentinian students? Only his cat makes no real demands on him.

If there is an answer it’s not to move to a cave on a mountain in central Italy. I won’t say what happens, but before too long the hermit in the hills is getting a steady stream of visitors. People aren’t that easily put off. Not only that, but where once his hair was at the mercy of distracted barbers and barbarous Argentinians now it’s at risk from the elements. True freedom is impossible. Personally I don’t even think it’s desirable.

All of this makes The Combover sound rather dense, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a rather wonderful nonsense which follows an utterly farcical chain of events all tipped into motion by the Argentinian tipping Arduino’s hair. All that and an exploration of free will versus necessity as reflected through a man’s dedication to protecting his combover.

By this point in this review I’ve described well under half the book and I’ve intentionally avoided most of the plot. Beyond the set-up – Arduino has his hair mussed and becomes a hermit – I had no idea where this was going and it’s a lot of fun that way. It would easily bear rereading, but on a first read I think it’s good to set off like Arduino without any real understanding of your destination.

The Combover comes it at just over a 100 pages and, like Family Heirlooms which I also read relatively recently, was published by Frisch & Co. as part of their series of contemporary literature in translation. It’s available in ebook form only, which as with Family Heirlooms is a shame as it’s an absolute gem.

Other reviews

Two I would link to, both of which reveal more of the plot than I have so to be honest I’d suggest not reading them yet if you’re tempted to read this (which you should be). The first is from Vulpes Libris, here, and the second (which contains extensive potential spoilers) is from Numero Cinq magazine, here. The Numero Cing review goes to a level of analysis far beyond that which I’ve attempted here and is actually very good but is definitely better read after you’ve first read the book itself.

One final word. I know several readers of this blog share with me a difficulty in reading passages involving cruelty to animals. That’s not an issue here. Cosino is probably the only balanced individual in the book and frankly if I had to be anyone within this text I’d be the cat.

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Filed under Bravi, Adrian N., Italian Literature, Novellas

Am I going to go on dreaming about bread for ever?

For Bread Alone, by Mohamed Choukri and translated by Paul Bowles

Mohamed Choukri is an interesting figure. He came from a desperately poor background and didn’t learn to read until his early 20s. He wrote a famous autobiographical trilogy of which For Bread Alone is the first. It covers those early years up until he decided to become literate and is utterly unflinching in its depiction of the experience of abject poverty.

Normally that’s not the sort of thing I’d read. I detest misery memoirs and bildungsroman is one of my least favourite genres.  I made an exception here partly as I’ve heard this is an influence on Mathias Enard’s Street of Thieves, partly as Stu gave it a good review on his Winston’s Dad blog and partly as I was intrigued to see what had caught Paul Bowles’ attention so strongly that he chose to translate it.

In this piece I’m going to refer to Mohamed when I’m referring to Choukri as character within the book and to Choukri when I’m referring to him as author.

For Bread Alone opens with Mohamed and his family moving from their native Rif region of Morocco to Tangier. Rif has its own language and ethnic identity and Mohamed’s accent will immediately mark him out in Tangier as an outsider. They’re making the journey from desperation – the Rif has had no rain and that means no food:

We were making our way towards Tangier on foot. All along the road there were dead donkeys and cows and horses. The dogs and crows were pulling them apart. The entrails were soaked in blood and pus, and worms crawled out of them. At night when we were tired we set up our tent. Then we listened to the jackals baying.

When someone died along the road, his family buried the body there in the place where he had died.

Mohamed’s uncle has just died so the family is reduced to him, his younger brother Abdelqader who is too sick during the journey even to cry, his mother and his violent father. When they reach Tangier it’s no promised land: food remains so scarce that Mohamed even tries to scavenge a dead chicken from the street despite its being evidently carrion.

Mohamed’s father struggles to find work. Each day he comes home disappointed and savagely beats anyone within reach in revenge for his frustrations. Within the first few pages of the book he grows angry at Abdelqader’s constant crying from illness and hunger and in a fit of rage kills him. It’s a crime for which he will never be punished. It’s little surprise that Mohamed grows up wild.

For Bread Alone is utterly unsparing not just of those around Mohamed but of his failings also. For a while he’s sent to stay with relatives in the country and things seem to be looking up for him, until he sexually assaults a younger boy (he’s not gay in any contemporary sense of that word, there just aren’t any women to hand). The pointless ugliness of this next incident for me shows his father’s influence:

One day I tried in vain to climb a high tree. That leg was tall and smooth. I grew very angry at being repulsed, and so I went to the shed and filled a can with gasoline. I doused the tree trunk and lit a match. The flames were beautiful. I said to the charred tree: Now you’re not so smooth. I can climb you, as high as I want.

As he grows older his acts of pointless aggression tail off somewhat, but he remains a hustler. He sells himself, steals, becomes a vicious brawler and spends the little money he gets on drugs and prostitutes. He’s obsessed with sex, in one dry period carving a tree to look vaguely like a woman and then having sex with that. (He uses lubricant you’ll, perhaps, be glad to know).

So why read this? With this much ugliness, violence and squalor why read any of it? Well, for the absolute honesty but also for the empathy. Choukri doesn’t pretend he had some special claim on suffering or that others weren’t doing equally badly. He doesn’t pretend to have been a victim. He takes the reader into the lives of people lost in drugs, hustling and violence as did say Burroughs and Bukowski but where they just show what is Choukri also explores the why. He shows the lack of better opportunities and why living as these people do may very well be a rational decision given their circumstances.

At times this is reminiscent of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, particularly earlier on in the book before Mohamed becomes an established hustler.

Now I chew on the emptiness in my mouth. I chew and chew. My insides are growling and bubbling. Growling and bubbling. I feel dizzy. Yellow water came up and filled my mouth and nostrils. I breathed deeply, deeply, and my head felt a little clearer. Sweat ran down my face.

At other times it becomes existential. What sets Mohamed apart from those around him is his intelligence and the potential it brings, but for most of this book he’s yet to realise either. Even so, as he reaches his twenties he becomes more than merely reactive and starts to think about who he is and how he fits into the world.

I thought the meaning of life was in living it. I know the flavour of this cigarette because I’m smoking it, and it is the same with everything.

The test for any book which is part of a trilogy is whether or not you’d read the others. On balance, I would read more by Choukri. It’s admittedly a fairly fine balance as while this is well written I’m not generally interested in memoirs nor in exploring others’ poverty, but Choukri’s empathy and intelligence make this worthwhile. Unfortunately, while a Bowles translation is available for this volume there don’t seem to be equivalent translations for the others and I’ve seen what is available criticised for omissions and unnecessary changes. That means that sadly this is probably where my exploration of Choukri stops.

One last word: For Bread Alone comes at the beginning with a handy glossary of words that Bowles chose not to translate, presumably either for lack of a direct equivalent or for the colour they gave the text. One of these read as follows:

zigdoun: a woman’s garment, akin to a Mother Hubbard

Thanks Paul. Unfortunately I then had to google a Mother Hubbard. Funny how references can age.

Other reviews

The only one I know of among the usual suspects is the one that helped spark my interest in this, which is Stu’s here from his Winston’s Dad’s blog.

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Filed under Arabic Literature, Choukri, Mohamed, Memoirs