A lover of baroque music, classical literature, and women who are still breathing,

Three-Card Monte, by Marco Malvaldi and translated by Howard Curtis

I read Marco Malvaldi’s Game for Five while feeling a bit under the weather during Christmas 2015. Fast forward a year and I was again feeling a bit under the weather, now at Christmas 2016, and once again Malvaldi seemed a good bet.

There’s always a difficulty converting a successful crime novel into a series. Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, his first featuring Inspector Rebus, sits a bit oddly with what follows with Rebus having a taste for jazz rather than classic rock and hints in the narrative that he might himself be the killer. That made sense when that was the only novel he appeared in, but not so much now he’s in 20 or more.

I’ve no idea whether Game for Five was originally intended as part of a series or not. It stands on its own very well. It became one though, with seven novels so far of which two have been translated into English (there’s also an Italian TV series which I suspect would be rather fun).

three-card-monte

Game for Five shone best with its memorable characters: Massimo, a barman with his own bar in a small Italian town not far from Pisa; his four octogenarian regulars (I’ve seen men like them passing the time outside countless Italian bars over the years); and Tiziana his bright and decidedly attractive barmaid. They’re a good bunch and there’s great chat between them.

Three-Card Monte opens with a prologue in which a Japanese academic arrives in Italy for a conference in Massimo’s town. It establishes some of the incidental characters who’ll appear in this novel, but mostly allows Malvaldi some mild comic reflections on academic conferences and Italian airports. The action proper starts back at the bar, where Massimo has just installed wifi only to find that the only table where it works reliably is the one the four old-timers have long claimed as their own. He needs them to move, but they’ve always sat there and besides it’s the only table with reliable shade…

Some crime novels are about the crime. Some only have a crime to give the characters something to do. The Bar Lume novels are firmly in that second category. The fun here is Massimo’s gentle feuds with his best and certainly oldest customers, Tiziana’s attempts to referee between them and perhaps to update the bar’s decor to something a little more modern, and Malvaldi’s asides on Italian life.

Massimo’s busier than usual due to that academic conference I mentioned. One of the regulars, Aldo, owns a restaurant and landed the catering contract and he and Massimo are laying on food and coffee to the endlessly hungry and thirsty delegates. That puts Massimo at the scene when a delegate is, very probably, murdered. At any rate he’s definitely dead.

In the first novel Massimo is the intelligent amateur and he largely has to force his way into the investigation when he sees local police officer Inspector Fusco messing it up. This time Inspector Fusco quickly brings Massimo on board realising he needs all the help he can get:

“To sum up the situation, I’m faced with the need to question a large number of people who are potential witnesses. Most of these people will leave the conference and Italy on Saturday, which means that I have three days to question them, because there’s no way I can put two hundred people in custody, let alone force them to stay in the country. Once everyone has been questioned, I should ideally be able to establish what happened and, if there has indeed been a crime, to identify the culprit and make an arrest.”

The narrative flows along neatly enough, but the background to the crime which involves advanced computer models and rivalry in biomolecular chemistry didn’t do a lot for me. Like Hammett I prefer my crime to come out of more recognisable motives than are at play here.

The incidental characters mostly work pretty well. There’s a likable young Japanese chemist named Koichi Kawaguchi that I’d happily have seen more of, and the distinguished if appallingly badly dressed Dutch professor Antonius Snijders who speaks grammatically perfect but heavily accented Italian and who helps Massimo get up to speed with the academic infighting. The rest are pretty forgettable, but it’s not a long book and I imagine Malvaldi didn’t want it to get too crowded.

The solution to the crime is unobtrusively signposted in quite an old-school way. Malvaldi puts the clues in the text and then distracts you from them in classic crime fiction manner, but I’m not a huge fan of mysteries where an intuitive leap and unexpected accusation elicit a convenient confession. Perhaps though that’s like complaining an SF novel features aliens. Some things come with the genre.

More problematically, there were a couple of times the language felt a bit pedestrian (a character smiles with “all thirty-two teeth” on two separate occasions, and since it’s not a common English phrase it rather stood out to me). Generally I’d say that the focus just didn’t feel as tight as with the first novel.

If I operated a star system Game for Five would have scored a comfortable four stars. Three-Card Monte is more a rather average three. It’s not bad, but it’s not as good as the first. I’ll probably try another Bar Lume if more are translated, but if there isn’t a return to form I doubt I’d continue from there.

If, however, you’re in the mood for a gentle crime novel with likeable characters who largely care about each other you could do an awful lot worse. It’s a good choice for when you’re ill or for when you need something not too demanding while on a plane or the beach.

Other reviews

None in the blogosphere that I know of, but always happy to be corrected in the comments. I did find this review at Shiny New Books which some might find interesting and which is a bit more positive than mine.

15 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, Italian Literature, Malvaldi, Marco

man has always found it easier to sacrifice his life than to learn the multiplication table.

Ashenden: Or the British Agent, by W. Somerset Maugham

Some books grow in memory, some diminish. I read Ashenden in chunks over a couple of months towards the back of 2016, and it’s fair to say that it’s one of the growers. Writing this now at the end of January 2017 I’m slightly puzzled that I didn’t include it in my end of year list.

Ashenden is an early piece of spy fiction based on Somerset Maugham’s own brief career as a spy in World War 1. The real author and the fictional character track pretty closely: both are recruited by a senior intelligence officer known as “R”; both are initially stationed in Switzerland; both are later sent on an urgent mission to Russia to help prevent the Russian revolution. Ashenden isn’t quite Maugham and this is fiction rather than autobiography, but at the same time Maugham lived what he writes.

ashenden

I love these Vintage covers for Maugham.

Ashenden is half-way between novel and short story collection. Many of the stories here can be read by themselves (and I did just that). Several are paired so that the first sets up a situation and the second resolves it. Taken together they create a chronology of Ashenden’s career as a spy.

Ashenden himself is a dryly humorous sort; intelligent but emotionally distant. He’s well suited to his role. Here he’s just accepted the job from R:

The last words that R. said to him, with a casualness that made them impressive, were:

‘There’s just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job. And don’t forget it. If you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help. Does that suit you?’

‘Perfectly.’

‘Then I’ll wish you good afternoon.’

The stories vary in quality as you’d expect. Some are closer to being interesting anecdotes than anything more substantial. Others are very good and there’s a definite cumulative effect. Neutral Switzerland is crammed with spies, most aware of each other and all of them constantly scheming and trying to win each other over to their side. Maugham captures the sense of time and place marvellously:

At that time Geneva was a hot-bed of intrigue and its home was the hotel at which Ashenden was staying. There were Frenchmen there, Italians and Russians, Turks, Rumanians, Greeks and Egyptians. Some had fled their country, some doubtless represented it. There was a Bulgarian, an agent of Ashenden’s, whom for greater safety he had never even spoken to in Geneva; he was dining that night with two fellow-countrymen and in a day or so, if he was not killed in the interval, might have a very interesting communication to make. Then there was a little German prostitute, with china-blue eyes and a doll-like face, who made frequent journeys along the lake and up to Berne, and in the exercise of her profession got little titbits of information over which doubtless they pondered with deliberation in Berlin.

It’s easy at times amidst the black-tie dinners and hotel conversations for the reader to forget that there’s a war on, but Maugham never quite lets you do so and the real cost of Ashenden’s work is never too far away. More than once Ashenden lures enemy assets over the French border so that they can be captured by the British and shot. Sometimes he sympathises with those he manipulates, admires them even, but that doesn’t prevent him doing his duty and he doesn’t wash his hands of his responsibility for their deaths.

Clear victories and defeats happen, but they’re in the minority. Mostly it’s bland routine coupled with uncertainty as to whether he’s won, or lost, or made any difference to anything at all.

Ashenden’s official existence was as orderly and monotonous as a city clerk’s. He saw his spies at stated intervals and paid them their wages; when he could get hold of a new one he engaged him, gave him his instructions and sent him off to Germany; he waited for the information that came through and dispatched it; he went into France once a week to confer with his colleague over the frontier and to receive his orders from London; he visited the market-place on market-day to get any message the old butter-woman had brought him from the other side of the lake; he kept his eyes and ears open; and he wrote long reports which he was convinced no one read, till having inadvertently slipped a jest into one of them he received a sharp reproof for his levity.

The stories have a nicely judged dry sense of humour running through them. I particularly enjoyed this exchange with R which is possibly the most British thing I’ve read in years:

‘I’m expecting a fellow to come and see me to-night,’ he said at last. ‘His train gets in about ten.’ He gave his wrist-watch a glance. ‘He’s known as the Hairless Mexican.’

‘Why?’

‘Because he’s hairless and because he’s a Mexican.’

‘The explanation seems perfectly satisfactory,’ said Ashenden.

The Hairless Mexican is a paid killer that Ashenden has to guide to a target (it’s not all Swiss hotel conversations and rote administration). Like many of those Ashenden encounters he’s a larger than life sort. The Mexican boasts to R that he doesn’t know ‘the meaning of the word failure.’ R dryly replies that ‘It has a good many synonyms’. So it does, and Ashenden’s mix of competence and fallibility is part of what makes this so enjoyable.

There are the occasional odd notes. Fairly early on there’s a piece of descriptive text which has aged very badly (“A scudding rain, just turning into sleet, swept the deck in angry gusts, like a nagging woman who cannot leave a subject alone.”) Mercifully it’s something of a one-off and I mention it mainly so that if you do try this you’re not put off by it.

R also uses some very ugly racist language at one point, but it’s pretty clearly in character and the individual he’s speaking of (an Indian rebelling against British rule) is shown in the narrative to be sympathetic, intelligent and honourable. Again, I mention it only in case a reader might have an issue with it but racist attitudes in upper-middle class Englishmen of the early 20th Century are hardly surprising, particularly in a colonialist context.

I mentioned in my review of Far Eastern Tales that my grandfather, Jim, was a big Maugham fan. Reading this I can see why. Maugham really is very good. He’s absolutely in command of his material, and while his style is arguably a little old fashioned that’s only because he was writing between 70 and a 100 years ago. He deserves his reputation.

One last note. While I think the book itself has held up well to the passing of time, the Preface hasn’t aged quite so successfully. Maugham complains about the inadequacies of Modernist fiction (without using that term) for no particularly obvious reason and in passing criticises the Impressionists, commenting of them that “it is strange how empty their paintings look now”. As of today he looks comically wrong, but in another 90 years majority opinion may be with him again. Who knows? Prediction is hard, particularly about the future.

Other reviews

None that I know of, but I’d be delighted to be told of any in the comments.

15 Comments

Filed under Maugham, W Somerset, Short Stories, Spy Fiction

‘I’ll devote the washing up to God.’

The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley

[I previously posted an incomplete version of this review – I accidentally deleted the majority of the text while making some fairly minor edits and didn’t realise until about a month later. The result didn’t make much sense. This is the review as it should have read.]

The Loney (and yes, that is the correct spelling) is a pretty much ideal winter read. I read it on kindle, where it comes rather pushily subtitled ‘The Book of the Year 2016’. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, but it is intelligent, thoughtful and highly atmospheric and I can definitely see why it won a couple of first novel awards when it came out.

loney

The Loney is a desolate piece of liminal landscape in the North West of England. The narrator’s family and church group used to go there on pilgrimage every year, back in the 1970s. Holidays were fewer back then and it’s clear that the trip was the highlight of their year.

In the first couple of pages or so we learn that the narrator’s brother, Hanny, is now a successful media friendly priest with a number of well-selling books to his name. It wasn’t always so. Back when they used to visit the Loney he suffered from a profound learning disability and each trip ended with a visit to a local shrine in the hope its waters would heal him.

In the present the narrator and his brother are semi-estranged, everyone talks to Hanny but him. When they were children it was very different:

He watched me as I undid the buttons for him and hung it on the peg on the back of the door. It weighed a ton with all the things he kept in the pockets to communicate with me. A rabbit’s tooth meant he was hungry. A jar of nails was one of his headaches. He apologised with a plastic dinosaur and put on a rubber gorilla mask when he was frightened. He used combinations of these things sometimes and although Mummer and Farther pretended they knew what it all meant, only I really understood him.

That discrepancy hangs over the book with its so very different present and past Hannys. The Loney doesn’t feel like a place where prayers will be answered, so what happened? The question lingered at the back of my mind as I read, creating a constant sense of foreboding. The framing device disappears for most of the novel leaving the reader aware that something will happen but as ignorant as those 1970s pilgrims of what it might be.

In previous years the church group had always visited with Father Wilfred, a severe priest marked by early poverty but with a clear devotion to his flock. For this trip he’s been replaced by the easy going Father McGill from Belfast. There’s a sense that they’re both in their ways good priests (this is actually a fairly priest-friendly novel), but those ways are very different.

The driving force for the group is the brothers’ mother. The narrator calls her “Mummer”, both giving a sense of regional dialect and hinting that she might not be entirely what she seems. She’s a deeply religious woman who wants everything just so. There’s a sense that under her strict demeanour she’s barely hanging on and that any deviation from how Father Wilfred did things could cause her to crumble.

In a lesser novel she and Father McGill would become enemies, sniping at each other in minor disagreements. Certainly it starts that way as she constantly corrects Father McGill telling him that Father Wilfred took grace this way, made himself available at these times, took confession in this fashion and so on. Father McGill is a better priest than she realises, sees her brittle fragility and patiently bends to accommodate her ideas of how things should be done while gently trying to tend to the needs of the others in the group also.

Behind this foreground of quiet despair and struggle lies the desolate Loney itself:

A sudden mist, a mumble of thunder over the sea, the wind scurrying along the beach with its crop of old bones and litter, was sometimes all it took to make you feel as though something was about to happen. Though quite what, I didn’t know. I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn’t leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.

There’s no sense this is a holy place. It’s been a few years since the last pilgrimage and on this visit the locals seem clannish and curiously unwelcoming. It soon becomes apparent that some are positively antagonistic, leaving a blasphemous effigy in the woods where the group will find it. Farther finds a walled-up room in the old house the group have always stayed in. It seems to have held children, long years past, and he finds in it an old artefact suggestive of past folk beliefs having survived longer than one might wish.

Tensions rise. Mummer can’t abide anything going amiss because if it does God may not heal Hanny. She means well, but it manifests as cruelty. Here Hanny doesn’t understand they’re supposed to be fasting in preparation for his cure:

Hanny started to lick his fingers, and Mummer gasped and grabbed him by the arm and marched him over to the back door. She opened it to the hiss of rain and pushed Hanny’s fingers further into his mouth until he emptied his stomach on the steps.

It’s little surprise that the narrator and Hanny get out whenever they can and wander the Loney’s windswept beach and the causeway which leads to another nearish (nowhere is that near) house. Usually there’s nobody there, but this year there’s a family staying and among them a heavily pregnant young teenage girl. It’s when they encounter her that things start to get really strange:

The injured gull had stopped shrieking and was hopping tentatively over to her outstretched hand. When it was close to her, it angled its head and nipped at the weed she was holding, its damaged wing open like a fan. It came again for another feed and stayed this time. The girl stroked its neck and touched its feathers. The bird regarded her for a moment and then lifted off silently, rising, joining the others turning in a wheel under the clouds.

It’s a miraculous healing, but there’s no sign of God. The Loney has a definite gothic atmosphere and has elements which seem plainly supernatural, though of an older order of faith than that which the Christians bring to the place. It’s not a neat tale and much is left unexplained (rightly so as explanations would have moved the book from a mood piece to fantasy). For the first half I just enjoyed it as an atmospheric spooky tale. The sort of thing that might have made a TV play back in the 1970s: The Stone Tapes; Children of the Stones; The Murrain; Quatermass; the play Baby from Nigel Kneale’s Beasts’ series. Folk horror.

The book remains throughout a highly effective folk horror tale (folk horror is rarely that scary, but often very disquieting). However, the supernatural elements do more than just spook the reader. They introduce proof.

The group worry that near the end of his life Father Wilfred lost his faith. Doubt seems to have corroded him. Doubt can of course be an enemy of faith, but it’s an enemy people of faith tend to know pretty well. The other great potential enemy of faith is proof, for with proof you have no need of faith. With the loss of Father Wilfred the group are hungry for proof, and when you’re that determined you can be sure you’ll find it:

After all, signs and wonders were everywhere.

Father Wilfred’s faith was a slab carved from the rock of doctrine and orthodoxy. Father McGill’s faith is softer, warmer, more malleable and so perhaps less vulnerable. The whole group could stand upon the solidity of Father Wilfred’s faith, but a single crack could destroy it. Father McGill’s faith is quieter and less inspiring, but perhaps a little more human. Father Wilfred died falling down church stairs – a literal fall to accompany his spiritual one.  (This is a book that echoes with meaning, just as the Loney is a landscape that echoes with the absence of it.) Father McGill doesn’t try to carry the world alone. He just helps others carry their little bit of it.

Hurley leavens all this faith and desolation with a nice trace of humour, clearly understanding that 360+ pages of faith and gloom and doubt and barren landscapes would prove a bit indigestible. I particularly enjoyed the subtle competition between reigning queen of the group Mummer and the younger and more modern Miss Bunce who perhaps seeks to take her place:

Mummer was too engrossed in a contest with Miss Bunce as to who could be the most moved by the ceremony.

I really enjoyed the Loney. I’m not remotely religious myself, but faith in some ways is another word for meaning and we all struggle in our different ways to find that in the world. I thought Hurley pulled off the tensions of the book’s more intellectual explorations with the horror elements which are essential to avoid it becoming too dry.

This is a slow book and from the reviews it’s clearly a bit too slow for a fair number of people, but I found it deeply satisfying. Ideally you’d read it by a fireplace on a cold and windy night, glad as with all such stories that when it ends you can close the covers and head off to the comforts of a hot cup of tea and then a nice warm bed.

Other reviews

Caroline reviewed this at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, here, which sparked a sleeping interest I already had in it. Tony reviewed it here at Tony’s Book World, and is absolutely right about that cake. Eric at The Lonesome Reader also reviewed it here and is very good on the symbolism (this is a book with a lot of symbolism).

12 Comments

Filed under Horror Fiction, Hurley, Andrew Michael

Ian Curtin’s end of year list – guest post

I recently saw Ian Curtin post some highlights of his reading year on Twitter. It was a really great list and it occurred to me that it was easily missed by anyone who didn’t happen to be on Twitter when he posted his thoughts (or at all) which seemed a shame, so I asked Ian if he wanted to write a guest post so people had another chance to see them. Everything that follows the sub-header below is Ian:

Ian’s 2016 end of year list

My contribution to the end-of-year book list is more in the line of highlights rather than a “best of” – things that made a particular impact on me, that still resonate, or that have lead me off in a particular (hopefully new) direction. Things that surprised or delighted.

I tweeted these out a few days ago, and Max very kindly offered me a guest post here at Pechorin’s Journal to share them in maybe a little more of a thoughtful manner than Twitter allows. I won’t alter the list (much) but I am conscious that there’s an element of unfairness – some fine, very high quality books don’t get mentioned that perhaps would if this was just “best of”. Can’t be helped. I guess if I want to opine on everything through the year I’ll have to start my own blog.

Short Stories

I have fallen into the habit of reading a collection as my first book each year, and I knew when I bought it a few months previously that A Manual for Cleaning Women would be my first of 2016. It was a marvel that did not disappoint. Two elements make Berlin’s book stay in mind – the writing, which is by turns harsh, unsparing, funny, gentle and melancholy; and the context, which is of such a fine writer labouring in relative obscurity before a seemingly miraculous rediscovery. The latter is something I find both immensely depressing but also pleasing. The work is so transparently wrung from her own life, with such skill and need, that you wish she had been able to see the pleasure her rediscovery has given to readers.

A couple of other collections stood out for me: The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald, because she produces such seemingly effortless and controlled writing, which very precisely describes situations of immense drama and turmoil; and Vertigo by Joanna Walsh which was so unsettling and fractured in its style and tone. I wouldn’t say I exactly enjoyed Vertigo, or not all of it, but it’s the most original and challenging thing I came across this year (and recalls Pond for anyone who has read that).

Honourable mentions must also go to the playful Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan and the marvellously ominous Pre-War House & Other Stories by Alison Moore.

Novels

Most of the books I read are novels – in some form. Some flirt with memoir and biography, some are angrily denounced as pseudo-short story collections, some up-end form and convention, some are just “long single stories told to the end.” What makes them memorable? I think for me they have to have something different about their form, something tricksy, or a game the writer plays, something that forces me to trust and go with the writer. That said, I will always enjoy a good tale as it scrolls past the reading mind. But what I wanted to pick here were things that jumped out at me and made me think.

First I chose The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkhai (translated by the marvellous George Szirtes). This is my second foray into the dense, complete worlds created by K’s early style (his more recent books seem to be quite different) and as with Sátántangó this is a book that the reading of is a genuine experience, something that “happens” to you. It’s impossible not to get wrapped into the folds and slithers of the vast tranches of text that K unrolls, the bleak landscapes, the obsessed and unstable characters, the ambiguous and threatening situations. When I think back to reading this book, the picture in my mind is of me staring off into space, following the writing somewhere in my own thoughts. What a rare state! And yet it is by turns also extremely funny, and despite K’s reputation for endless convolutions of sentence and paragraph, I found I flew through it. Even if his other books fail to land entirely with me, these two will always be part of my evolving canon.

Human Acts by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, is a very different book – and Kang has been so widely read and praised that is seems a little superfluous to add my own small paean. It’s a really affecting novel, about power and survival, and I loved it for two reasons. Firstly, it did give the vaunted “window into a new world” of an event in Korean history that I was entirely ignorant of. Secondly it is told in a manner that is itself arresting, and marries form and intent in a manner that is very satisfying. (Perhaps an unfair comparison: I finished the similarly constructed Ghostwritten by David Mitchell and thought – great, but so what? Whereas I finished this and thought – wow.) It is also in places harsh, unflinching and tough to read.

Final mentions for 10:04 by Ben Lerner and Outline by Rachel Cusk. Everyone in 2016 has moved onto to Cusk’s next book, Transit, which following this I am immensely looking forward to. Of this book, I must admit its chief value (for me) is that it has totally flipped my view of Cusk, to the point I want to read all her stuff (and, I suppose, make my own judgement on the books that attracted so much negativity earlier in her career). This one is fabulous: judgemental, revealing, honest – perfect. Lerner’s book seems to me to be both sly and knowing and warm and personal. It’s brilliant – funny, immensely interesting about his writing life, has an engaging plot (of sorts), is a New York novel par excellence, and has shed the sneer that I thought was a key flaw in Atocha Station. Recalling the episodes and tone makes me want to re-read it.

Honourable mentions to David Szalay’s noxious blast of consumerism and hangovers, London and the South East, and to a title rescued from an “unjustly neglected” list about ten years ago, The Balloonist by Macdonald Harris, which covers the tired old ground of polar exploration and identity-swapping in the 19th century.

Crime

Is it fair to separate “crime” from “novels”? Probably not. But good crime does something different from the whole other family of novels I read – and I allow things in it I wouldn’t swallow elsewhere. Black Wings Has My Angel was the standout here – incidentally, another book “rescued” after its writer, Elliot Chaze, had slipped into disgruntled obscurity. Guy alerted me to this one, and as with so many of his recommendations, this hits the mark – the crime is just a framework for a tale of cruelty, mistrust and strange, violent love.

History, Reportage….Other Stuff

Can’t bring myself to say “non-fiction” somehow. Anyway.

Two books immensely relevant to the events that have unfolded in the US this year – Battle Cry of Freedom, a single-volume account of the Civil War; and Ghettoside, a monument through reporting to the epidemic of black male gun violence and how US society perceives and handles it. Appreciate people are sick of all this stuff by now, but these are both magnificent and sadly illuminating books.

Two accounts of crime and aftermath – This House of Grief by Helen Garner, about a terrible domestic murder (as these all are when a light is shone on them) and how the legal process struggles to put order on our messes; and One of Us by Åsne Seierstad, which documents Breivik’s appalling hate crime and incidentally makes a pretty compelling case for why unacceptable racist propaganda should not be allowed roam free across traditional or digital media.

Finally, a book that veers between comedy, farce and ultimately something much darker, The Quest for Corvo by AJA Symons, a biography of the vexing Frederick Rolfe, self-styled Baron Corvo and a writer and personality of unusual extremes.

That’s it – thanks to Max for letting me ramble on – thank you to all bloggers and tweeps for the suggestion, inspiration and discussion – hope 2017 is a rich reading year for everyone.

8 Comments

Filed under Personal posts

2016 end of year roundup

2016 was a pretty good reading year for me. In terms of pure numbers I read around 56 books (plus a bunch of short works that I didn’t blog). As best I can tell that’s fewer than almost any other literary blogger, but I’m happy enough with it given work and other interests and commitments.

It’s been a year of discoveries, which is great. I discovered (more accurately, other bloggers introduced me too) writers such as Elizabeth Taylor, Yuri Herrera and Alain Mabanckou; I finally gave Joseph Conrad a try, with admittedly mixed results but I’ll be reading more by him; and I got stuck into Pushkin Press’s new Vertigo imprint which has proven a very reliable source of quality crime fiction.

[Edit: I thought I’d add a picture to accompany the post. This has nothing to do with anything that follows, I even watched it before 2016, but it fits the blog and I like the movie.]

grand_budapest_hotel_ver2_xlg

Anyway, enough with the preambles. 2016 has been a hard year to whittle down to just a dozen or so end of year favourites, but here they are (the order is based on when I read them rather than any attempt to rank them against each other):

Best Viennese novel: Late Fame, by Arthur Schnitzler. It might not seem it, but best Viennese novel tends to be a highly contested category on this blog. This is arguably a lesser Schnitzler but still a marvellous read and beautifully packaged by Pushkin Press in a wonderful hardback edition. It shares with the Szerb an affection both for its characters and for humanity more generally. I adored it and am really pleased that Pushkin brought it back to us.

Best novel about aging, among other things: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor. A novel about an old woman whiling away her days in a cheap hotel while waiting for infirmity to remove her last independence doesn’t sound funny and warm and human, but it is. Mrs Palfrey is astonishingly well observed, well written and horribly sad while at the same time not being at all depressing. It’s a marvel, much recommended to me and rightly so.

Best novel about, actually I have no idea what it’s about: Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer. A disturbingly brilliant slice of weird fiction.  My review describes it using words such as “slippery”, “disquieting” and “dread”. I meant to read the sequels fairly soon after but got caught up in other reading. Correcting that omission will be one of my priorities for this year.

Best novel about youth, among other things: King of a Rainy Country, by Brigid Brophy. This captures the sense of possibility that comes with youth better than anything else I’ve read in a very long while. It’s also structurally clever, remarkably witty and just generally something of a delight. It’s probably the most romantic book on this list, with a lower case r, and all the better for being so.

Best novel on so many fronts that it’s really a bit shameful it’s not my book of the year: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. This is arguably the best book I read this year in terms of the sheer quality of the writing (though The Easter Parade would be in with a shot on that front too). This is a rich and superbly crafted novel which isn’t nearly as difficult as one might expect. Don’t be put off by her reputation, Woolf is a joy.

Best novel about a porcupine, among other things: Memoirs of a Porcupine, by Alain Mabanckou. Mabanckou uses African folklore to explore a wasted life in what was a very strong contender for my book of the year. I read this in follow-up to Amos Tutuola’s memorable The Palm Wine Drinkard (which Mabanckou gives a shout-out to in the course of Porcupine) and it led me on to Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (Mujila being influenced by Mabanckou).

Best novel that puts the fucking back into African literature: Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila. This was a last minute addition to the list, replacing St Aubyn’s Never Mind which got squeezed out in consequence. I thought this good but flawed, with phrasing that always impressed but that sometimes didn’t seem to bear too much close examination. Looking back though its energy and imagery have stayed with me and it (rather pushily) insisted on a place on the list.

Best domestic drama: The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad. I didn’t take particularly well to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I found less impressive than I’d expected and unfortunately a bit racist. The comments under the review persuaded me to try another Conrad, and rightly so since Heart of Darkness blew me away with its atmosphere and tremendous psychological insight.

Best overlooked novel: The Small Back Room, by Nigel Balchin. The Brophy was a strong contender in this category, but I don’t think the Balchin is even in print any more which definitely makes it overlooked. This is a taut and impressive thriller which makes an interdepartmental meeting as tense as the defusing of a new type of enemy bomb.

Best Mexican vampire novel: Vlad, by Carlos Fuentes. This also wins the “Best book that probably doesn’t deserve to be on this list category”. This was my first Fuentes and I understand it’s not seen as one of his strongest efforts. Being blunt it’s probably not as good a book as several I’ve not included this year. I really enjoyed it though and I found it interesting and memorable, and it’s my blog so on the list it goes.

Best novel for so many, many reasons: The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates. This was a December read and was very nearly my book of the year. It’s superbly well written, honest and beautiful. The novel as art form doesn’t get much better than this.

Drum roll, drum roll, drum roll …

Best book of 2016: Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrera. I read this back in February or March and right through until the Yates in December there was no question but that this was my book of the year. I thought it fresh, exciting, interesting, intelligent, I could easily go on. This uses mythic structures to explore issues of language and identity and does so with flair. The Yates was so well written that it nearly squeezed this out from the top spot, but when I look back to the books that gave me joy in the year (to get a bit Marie Kondo for a moment) this definitely did. Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies also came close to making my end of year list, though much as I enjoyed it there’s no risk it would have beaten out Yates or Woolf to the top spot.

Honourary mentions. Each of these was on my shortlist, but got cut as I put this post together: Azazael by Youssef Ziedan, a fascinating exploration of sectarian conflict which deserves a much wider readership than it seems to have received; Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker, a really well executed exploration of a life sacrificed to music; Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson, probably the best new SF I’ve read in a very long while and a writer and series I intend to stick with; Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys, and you know it’s a good year when I don’t let a Rhys on to the end of year list; Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, which is simply the funniest book I read all year and certainly the most delightful; and Run River by Joan Didion, it’s Didion so naturally it’s good though for me this year it perhaps got slightly eclipsed by the Yates which I read not long after.

I should also mention as particularly noteworthy honourable mentions Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb and Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn, each of which actually did make the list and only got cut as I finalised this post as I decided not to go over twelve total. The Szerb is funny, warm, melancholic and rather wonderful while the St Aubyn is blackly comic and rather vicious. Both are very, very good.

Each of the honourary mentions on another day might well have made the end of year list, and some of them arguably merit it more than some of the books I did include. The gender balance isn’t as good as the last couple of years for those who keep track of such things – only three of the twelve on the list are books by women. Interestingly my balance over the year’s reading is much more even, but the Baker, Rhys and Didion didn’t quite make the end cut which I would have expected them to (and the Spark didn’t even make the honourable mentions, good as it was). Clearly the answer is that I need to read more Taylor, more Barbara Pym and probably more Nicola Barker.

So, there we are. Now I’ve written this I can read other people’s end of year lists (I didn’t want to be influenced by them) and find out what I should have read. I’m on holiday for two weeks in January so while I’ll probably leave some comments and hopefully get another post or two up the blog proper probably won’t be restarting until February.

Happy new Year!

32 Comments

Filed under Personal posts

‘I’ll devote the washing up to God.’

The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley

[I accidentally posted this review with the majority of the text deleted following an editing error on my part. What follows doesn’t therefore make much sense. The correct review can be found here.]

The Loney (and yes, that is the correct spelling) is a pretty much ideal winter read. I read it on kindle, where it comes rather pushily subtitled ‘The Book of the Year 2016’. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, but it is intelligent, thoughtful and highly atmospheric and I can definitely see why it won a couple of first novel awards when it came out.

It’s a miraculous healing, but there’s no sign of God. The Loney has a definite gothic atmosphere and has elements which seem plainly supernatural, though of an older order of faith than that which the Christians bring to the place. It’s not a neat tale and much is left unexplained (rightly so as explanations would have moved the book from a mood piece to fantasy). For the first half I just enjoyed it as an atmospheric spooky tale. The sort of thing that might have made a TV play back in the 1970s: The Stone Tapes; Children of the Stones; The Murrain; Quatermass; the play Baby from Nigel Kneale’s Beasts’ series. Folk horror.

The book remains throughout a highly effective folk horror tale (folk horror is rarely that scary, but often very disquieting). However, the supernatural elements do more than just spook the reader. They introduce proof.

The group worry that near the end of his life Father Wilfred lost his faith. Doubt seems to have corroded him. Doubt can of course be an enemy of faith, but it’s an enemy people of faith tend to know pretty well. The other great potential enemy of faith is proof, for with proof you have no need of faith. With the loss of Father Wilfred the group are hungry for proof, and when you’re that determined you can be sure you’ll find it:

After all, signs and wonders were everywhere.

Father Wilfred’s faith was a slab carved from the rock of doctrine and orthodoxy. Father McGill’s faith is softer, warmer, more malleable and so perhaps less vulnerable. The whole group could stand upon the solidity of Father Wilfred’s faith, but a single crack could destroy it. Father McGill’s faith is quieter and less inspiring, but perhaps a little more human. Father Wilfred died falling down church stairs – a literal fall to accompany his spiritual one.  (This is a book that echoes with meaning, just as the Loney is a landscape that echoes with the absence of it.) Father McGill doesn’t try to carry the world alone. He just helps others carry their little bit of it.

Hurley leavens all this faith and desolation with a nice trace of humour, clearly understanding that 360+ pages of faith and gloom and doubt and barren landscapes would prove a bit indigestible. I particularly enjoyed the subtle competition between reigning queen of the group Mummer and the younger and more modern Miss Bunce who perhaps seeks to take her place:

Mummer was too engrossed in a contest with Miss Bunce as to who could be the most moved by the ceremony.

I really enjoyed the Loney. I’m not remotely religious myself, but faith in some ways is another word for meaning and we all struggle in our different ways to find that in the world. I thought Hurley pulled off the tensions of the book’s more intellectual explorations with the horror elements which are essential to avoid it becoming too dry.

This is a slow book and from the reviews it’s clearly a bit too slow for a fair number of people, but I found it deeply satisfying. Ideally you’d read it by a fireplace on a cold and windy night, glad as with all such stories that when it ends you can close the covers and head off to the comforts of a hot cup of tea and then a nice warm bed.

Other reviews

Caroline reviewed this at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, here, which sparked a sleeping interest I already had in it. Tony reviewed it here at Tony’s Book World, and is absolutely right about that cake. Eric at The Lonesome Reader also reviewed it here and is very good on the symbolism (this is a book with a lot of symbolism).

5 Comments

Filed under Horror Fiction

In Britain, it was a time of whispers, for re-examining one’s friends and neighbours.

The Summer Isles, by Ian R. MacLeod

There’s a long tradition of alternate history novels, sometimes marketed as science fiction and sometimes not. Many are pure what-ifs having a bit of fun exploring what might have been. Some, however, explore the world we have through the funhouse mirror of the world we could have had.

The Summer Isles is a novel of a fascist Britain. I read it in the run up to the present US elections, shortly after our own Brexit vote. It’s a timely moment for this sort of book, but perhaps too timely to make it entirely enjoyable.

summer-isles

Brooke is a sixty-something Oxford history don in 1940s Modernist England. He’s a mediocre talent brought to prominence by his once having taught John Arthur, Britain’s prime minister and beloved leader, the architect of Britain’s Modernist renaissance and recovery from post-Great War ruin. John Arthur praised Brooke, or Brook as he accidentally called him, in his memoirs and that was enough for just a little of Arthur’s glamour to rub off on him.

John Arthur’s Britain is a gleaming and successful place. Portraits of John Arthur are everywhere, gazing down from offices and public lavatory walls alike. The trains are clean and they run on time. The country’s become something of an international pariah, but who cares when it’s recovered its prosperity and pride?

Brooke has found his own cosy Oxford nook and learned to forget inconvenient facts and to ignore inconvenient questions. He mostly doesn’t even correct the frequent misspelling of his name, accepting Arthur’s version as somehow supplanting the original. He reflects that “As easily as some faintly flavoured and not entirely disagreeable medicine, my whole life was already slipping by.”

Then come two crises. The first isn’t wholly unexpected. Brooke is gay and that is of course quite illegal, and in John Arthur’s Britain punished by mandatory cures and possible disappearance. He meets his lover, a married man, via a public toilet where each of them marks the wall to signal their availability and chosen meeting spot. One day his lover has left his mark on the wall, but doesn’t turn up to their rendezvous. Something has clearly happened to him.

The second crisis is less predictable. Brooke’s been unwell for a while now, but a trip to the doctor leads to visits to consultants and in less time than he’d have dreamt possible a terrible diagnosis:

“As I was saying, Brooke, I’ve been following your case, and giving it quite a lot of thought. Outwardly, you’re still in good enough health. I can see that. But as I think I explained, this tumour in your right lung has been growing for some time. With the problem of metastasis—I mean, of course, lymphatic spread—I really don’t think that there’s any need to operate.”

Not even any need for an operation! A stupid bubble of joy rises up from my stomach, then dissolves.

I’m very annoyed with myself by the time I finally step back out into the sunlight. I’m even annoyed with myself about feeling annoyed. So stupid, stupid. The idea that you might eventually die is something that you get used to as you grow older, but actual death is quite different. Death that could stop you seeing this year’s Wimbledon. Death that makes it pointless to buy a decent pair of shoes that’ll last you through next winter.

Somehow, I hadn’t realised that having lung cancer meant not just being ill, not just having my life shortened, but really dying.

I feel so angry.

The Summer Isles is shot through with melancholy and regret. Brooke has bargained away his life as has his Britain, both in thrall to a man who redefined them to his own design. Brooke decides to find out what happened to his lover, and so accidentally sets himself on a path to the heart of Modernist Britain.

Here he has found his lover’s house and asks a neighbour what happened to the family. The neighbour explains that the wife was Polish, then continues:

“Yes. And a few of them over here—it’s understandable that they want to come, isn’t it—just as long as they don’t make themselves a burden, earn a decent living, talk like we do and don’t bother our children and keep themselves to themselves and make a proper effort to fit in.”

“So what was the problem?”

“She was a Jew, wasn’t she. All these years they’ve been living next door and acting all normal and hiding it from us. I mean, it’s the deceit I really can’t stand. And he must have known. Must have been in it with that job of his, and helped her fake the papers when they married. Her with coming round through that door in a sunhat sometimes to give me a few extra cuttings for the rockery Les was working on.” Mrs. Stevens raises her shoulders and shudders theatrically. “To think of it. It’s the dishonesty. And her nothing but a dirty little Jew.”

Modernism needed someone to blame for the country’s disappointments. Immigrants, Jews, they made good culprits. The Jews were relocated to the far north, to Scotland’s Summer Isles where they were reportedly given pretty whitewashed houses and where nobody ever heard from them again. They were tempted there by:

Government leaflets with titles like What To Do If You’re A Jew (report straightaway to the Duty Sergeant at your local Police Station—“don’t worry, he’ll have dealt with your problem many times before”)

But if the leaflets didn’t tempt enough they were moved there all the same.

Brooke’s lover and his family have now been sent to the same location, and Brooke decides to take some long-overdue leave and follow the footsteps of an old holiday he took thirty years past with the great love of his life: a trip around Scotland in which they’d meant to visit the Summer Isles but had never quite made it as the war intervened and Brooke’s lover returned home to sign up. This time Brooke plans to complete the journey.

Brooke has no idea what may have happened in the Summer Isles and is mystified when he reaches Scotland and finds that nobody admits any memory of the Jews passing through and that the islands themselves are no longer even shown on local maps. Of course, as readers we have a pretty good idea what’s happened because we know our own real history. Brooke becomes more interested in his own past and his memory of his lost love than the absent islands and forgotten Jews, and frankly I thought this a better book for not showing what the reader can imagine all too well.

On his return Brooke finds the past returned in more immediate form: the tenth anniversary of John Arthur’s rule is fast approaching as is John Arthur’s fiftieth Birthday and John Arthur has personally asked that Brooke be invited to the celebrations at Number 10. It occurs to Brooke that after all these squandered years this could be an opportunity to finally make a difference. If one man had killed Napoleon early on what harm would Europe have been spared? If one man kills John Arthur, what harm might Europe yet be spared?

I won’t go into what happens, not least as the solidly executed plot is the least interesting part of the book. I loved MacLeod’s characterisation of Brooke himself, not so much a has-been as a never-really-was but who retains a quiet humanity regardless. Now he’s John Arthur’s personal guest he finds himself sought after by Oxford’s ambitious dean and invited to exclusive parties. Sadly for Brooke, while he was never quite brilliant enough to have won his way to his Oxford position on his own he’s more than clever enough to see the truth of his shabby world and the compromise he’s made of his life.

MacLeod’s vision of a fascist Britain also persuades. It’s a passive-aggressive sort of place, quickly turning when fuelled with drink to just plain aggressive. Ugliness is kept behind the scenes. Torture is carried out in ordinary looking office buildings. John Arthur promised certainty to people who felt left behind by history, and for that his followers were prepared to believe anything:

After the confusions and disappointments of their lives, these poor and jobless men were desperate to be told that, yes, it was all quite simple.

Besides, what he tells them is what they secretly wanted to believe anyway:

… all Modernism did was take what people said to each other over the garden fence and turn it into Government policy.

There’s even at times a rather British sense of humour to it all. It’s a quiet novel which fits because it’s an exploration of how fascism may manifest differently in different countries but of how the same underlying ugliness remains. We look at the trappings of other countries’ insanities – of 1930s Germany or McCarthyite America – and we say to ourselves “that couldn’t happen here, that’s a product of their history, their culture” but all we’re doing is confusing the cosmetic for the actual. If it happens to us it won’t wear the same clothes or shout the same slogans, but that doesn’t make us immune.

7 Comments

Filed under MacLeod, Ian R., Science Fiction

… she would drink nothing for a week except a beer or a glass of wine after work each day.

The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates

Where to start with such a book? Perhaps with the opening paragraph which is sufficiently brilliant that it leaves anything I might say quite redundant:

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce. That happened in 1930, when Sarah was nine years old and Emily five. Their mother, who encouraged both girls to call her ‘Pookie,’ took them out of New York to a rented house in Tenafly, New Jersey, where she thought the schools would be better and where she hoped to launch a career in suburban real estate. It didn’t work out – very few of her plans for independence ever did – and they left Tenafly after two years, but it was a memorable time for the girls.

easter-parade

The Easter Parade is a study in disappointment, and that first paragraph sets the stage beautifully. Leaving aside the power of that first sentence let’s look at some of the other elements for a moment: we know that ‘Pookie’ wants to be seen by her daughters more as friend than authority figure; the cutesy nickname suggests she might not be very practical which is immediately confirmed by that unsuccessful move to Tenafly and by that aside on her various plans; and then that final coda that “it was a memorable time for the girls” which somehow makes the whole thing infinitely sadder.

Easter tracks the Grimes sisters from childhood through to middle age. Sarah is the pretty one, popular and conventional. Emily lacks her sister’s curves and confidence but is both more independent and clearer-sighted. Early on they travel to the city to see their father. They think he’s an important journalist and are shocked when he explains that he’s “only a copy-desk man”. Sarah still boasts of him at school; Emily reminds her afterwards of the diminished reality.

Sarah saves herself through adolescence and marries a dashing and popular boy named Tony who has English parents and movie-star good looks. It’s what a good girl does and he seems a good catch, but we know from that opening sentence that the marriage won’t make her happy.

Emily meanwhile loses her virginity to a soldier on leave whom she never sees again, goes to college and then gets jobs in journalism and ultimately in advertising. Where Sarah chose marriage, family and domesticity Emily chooses independence and a career, but we still have that opening sentence reminding us that neither sister has a happy life.

The writing, as ever with Yates, is exquisite. I loved this description of part of Emily’s encounter with that soldier:

Somewhere above Forty-second street he kissed her. It wasn’t the first time she had been kissed – not even the first time she’d been kissed on top of a Fifth Avenue bus; one of the boys in high school had been that brave – but it was the first kiss of its kind, ever.

Despite that theme of disappointment, or perhaps because of it, there are no great tragedies here. Sarah would count losing her virginity to a random soldier as a disaster but Emily doesn’t suffer any for it. There are deaths, but from illness or age (perhaps sometimes exacerbated by too much to drink for too long, but natural all the same). Nobody is murdered; nobody dies in a car crash or rail collision; aliens don’t invade; the world doesn’t end; life carries on.

Years slip by sometimes in a sentence. Sarah and Emily drift apart. Each of them wants a little of what the other has perhaps because neither has a whole life. But then, who does? We all have to make choices.

Sarah dreams of doing some writing and her early efforts suggest talent, but her husband isn’t interested and she’s not part of that world. Nothing she writes ever gets finished and nobody really cares except her.

Emily meanwhile marries a man who comes to resent her for his impotence and some years later moves with an aging poet named Jack to a writer’s workshop in Iowa where he hopes to rediscover his early talent. Like Sarah, Emily tries putting her man ahead of herself and briefly abandons her career to support Jack’s but he too comes to resent her when his writer’s block fails to clear. Somehow Sarah can’t unlock the door to Emily’s creativity, nor Emily the door to Sarah’s domesticity.

There’s a sense that it all tracks back to their parents. To their father who considered himself a failure and who wrote headlines for a minor newspaper whose politics he disagreed with. To their mother with her fantasies of a grandeur and an elegance she could never realise. But perhaps that’s too easy, because none of the other characters seem any happier and they don’t all have divorced parents.

Early on in the novel Sarah and Tony go to watch the Easter Parade. They’re photographed there, young and happy and full of life and love. It’s paradise captured in a Kodak moment. Perhaps that’s the clue to this novel. Happiness is fleeting. Life can’t be frozen in a snapshot; kept inviolable against age and defeat.

Tony’s career never takes off. Sarah drinks too much and grows fat and dowdy. Emily is successful but lonely. Pookie dissolves into her own fantasies. Years after their breakup Emily sees a review of Jack’s new volume of poetry which he’s finally managed to write. It’s lacklustre and the reviewer quickly moves on to a newer poet.

If Tony and Sarah had died that day at the Easter Parade, if some chunk of masonry had fallen from a building flattening them both, then their lives would have been judged happy to that point. People would mourn their lost potential; their bright future. Instead they lived and the future turned out not to be so bright after all. It’s not the divorce that makes the Grimes’ sisters’ lives unhappy. It’s living.

I’ll end with one final quote from fairly early in the novel. Here Emily and Pookie are visiting Sarah and Tony who’re now set up in a home of their own. Sarah is married as she wanted, Emily’s at college as she wanted. Pookie can see her daughters doing well for themselves. They should all be happy and yet …

[Sarah] served a lunch that was almost as inadequate as one of Pookie’s meals; then the problem was that the conversations kept petering out. Sarah wanted to hear ‘everything’ about Barnard, but when Emily began to talk she saw her sister’s eyes glaze over in smiling boredom. Pookie said “isn’t this nice? Just the three of us together again?” But it wasn’t really nice very nice at all, and for most of the afternoon they sat around the sparsely furnished living room in attitudes of forced conviviality. Three women with nothing much to say to one another. Color illustrations of Magnum Navy fighter planes in action occupied one wall; on another was the framed Easter photograph of Sarah and Tony.

I suspect I’ve made this sound bleak and to be fair a novel about the disappointments of life can’t help but be a little bleak. However, the honesty and the beauty of the writing takes it above that. This is a sad novel, but not a depressing one. As it closes nobody is any the wiser, but life continues. It may not always be all we’d wish, but it’s the only game in town.

Other reviews

Jacqui over at Jacqui Wine’s Journal pushed me over the line into reading this (I’ve owned it for ages). Her review is here. Jacqui also linked to reviews by Kim at Reading Matters here and by guest reviewer Carly at Tomcatintheredroom here.

Carly’s review picks up two key themes that I wish I’d picked up above, but it felt like cheating to change my review to follow hers. They’re the theme of the pursuit of art as an unsuccessful route to meaning which crops up repeatedly here; and the devastating quality of small heartbreaks. Carly quotes an exchange that she calls “one of the most quietly devastating in any work of fiction” and I can’t disagree with her. Follow the link above to see it for yourself.

14 Comments

Filed under Yates, Richard

You love life. I covet life.

Vlad, by Carlos Fuentes and translated by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger

A few years back or so Lee Rourke kindly sent me a review copy of one of Dalkey Archive’s books. Vlad was popped in as an unexpected extra on the basis he thought I might like it. This shows two things: firstly that Lee has an eye for interesting books; secondly that I’m a terrible person to send review copies to because literally years can pass before I get to them.

Vlad is a strange one. It’s a cross (an unholy contamination?) between literary fiction and horror. Vlad the Impaler, Dracula, comes to contemporary 21st Century Mexico City. As he notes, licking his lips, it’s home to “twenty million delectable blood sausages!” Where better for a vampire to hide and feast?

At the same time it’s a surprisingly compassionate novel about class, sensuality, life and loss. That’s the thing about vampires, as myths go they’re very flexible.

vlad

Yves Navarro is a successful law firm partner. Zurinaga, the legendary senior partner of his firm, asks him to take care of a European client as a personal favour. Zurinaga is old school, Mexico City’s elite. Navarro is delighted to be able to help him.

The mandate is a simple one. The client is a Central European count who wishes to move to Mexico City and has a particular kind of property in mind. Navarro’s wife Asunción works in real estate so Navarro can handle the legals and she the house-hunting and between them it’s a complete service.

The Navarros are a perfect middle class couple. They have good jobs, money, and a 10-year-old daughter Magdalena whom they both adore. By day they’re sober and responsible, and at night they delight in each other’s bodies with a passion their daytime professionalism never hints at.

Life is good then, but no life is ever truly perfect. Some years past they lost their other child, their son Didier, to a drowning accident. They’ve survived his loss as a couple and as a family, but the absence stays with them. Didier’s body was never found, a fact Navarro was grateful for and which Asunción felt robbed her of a chance to say a proper goodbye. It’s an old wound, never healed but which together they’ve learned to work around. Didier’s gone, but always present:

Didier dissolved into the ocean, and I am incapable of hearing the break of a wave without thinking that a trace of my son, turned to salt and foam, is coming back to us, after circulating incessantly, like a ghost ship, from ocean to ocean…

Zurinaga’s friend has some odd stipulations for his new house. There must be no neighbouring properties. It must be “easy to defend”. It needs to have a ravine out the back, and a tunnel between the house and the ravine. Oh, and there must be no windows …

Navarro is a polite man, urbane, he facilitates without asking questions. Asunción finds a suitable house and Navarro manages the paperwork and before long the count has set up home together with his peculiar hunchback servant and apparently a little girl around Magdalena’s age.

The count is a grotesque. Ancient, wrinkled, bald. His ears are curiously malformed and he wears mirrored sunglasses even in the shower. He takes an interest in Navarro who acts as if everything is normal even when he notices that every room in the house has a gutter built into it; even when he finds a picture of Asunción and Magdalena tacked up inside a cupboard.

The whole motif of a lawyer at the home of a mesmeric but malignant count is of course a shout-out to Bram Stoker’s original Dracula. Fuentes knows his source material. However, Vlad also works as social commentary. Part of the reason Navarro asks so few questions is that the count was introduced as a friend of Zurinaga’s. He comes with the highest possible social pedigree and introduction.

Most people on finding themselves in a house with the windows bricked up and gutters along the walls would be looking to leave immediately. Most would have questions if they then found a photo of their family. Navarro is too polite, too professional. He also lives two existences: at night one of passion with Asunción; by day one of bloodless professionalism.

Vlad is in places very funny. There’s a scene where the count invites Navarro over to dinner and Navarro finds him still in the shower. The emaciated and disturbing figure of the count emerges, absolutely naked, and launches into conversation quite ignoring Navarro’s discomfort:

Standing next to a naked Central European count who liked to discuss the philosophy of life and death, I tried to lighten things up a little.

Despite Navarro’s efforts things quickly darken. Magdalena sleeps over with a schoolfriend, but days pass and Navarro doesn’t see her. There’s a plausible explanation from everyone he speaks to but no matter how many good answers you get there comes a point you start to worry. The count asks Navarro “Do you know where your children are?”; Navarro misses the horror implicit in the plural. Soon after Navarro finds his comfortable life and assumptions sliding ever-quicker through his fingers. Control was only ever an illusion.

By the end we’ve left comedy far behind and we’re into questions of mortality and the price worth paying to preserve your child’s innocence. It’s a descent into horror that terrifies more through temptation than intimidation.

Vlad is a short novel. My copy is a physically small hardback with comfortably sized margins and even then it’s only a little over 100 pages. Really it’s more of a novella, but it packs a lot into its space. It unfolds after reading and leaves an impression greater than its size would suggest.

As you’d expect, the count dominates proceedings once he arrives. It’s always the monsters who bring the glamour. But Navarro’s failings are human ones and it’s that which brings the interest. Come for the black comedy. Stay for the melancholy compassion.

Other reviews

Grant reviewed this at his 1st Reading’s blog here. I also found online this fascinating review by an Australian professor of political economy who discusses the book in the context of Mexico City’s politics and urban geography. It’s a short piece and more readable than that makes it sound. I recommend it.

Separately, Stu reviewed Carlos Fuentes’ The Eagles’ Throne here. I included it because I thought it illustrated Fuentes’ range, and because it’s worth linking to  Stu’s blog which holds an absolute treasure-trove of Mexican literature worth exploring.

22 Comments

Filed under Fuentes, Carlos, Mexican Literature

It was the power of Business, not the deliberations of statesmen, that shaped the destinies of nations.

Uncommon Danger, by Eric Ambler

It was John Self of The Asylum who alerted me to Eric Ambler through his review of Ambler’s Journey into Fear. I’m not a fan of the thriller genre, but I’ve enjoyed some Le Carré and Deighton and Ambler is something of a precursor to both of them.

From late September through October this year I was exceptionally busy at work. I needed a book that would be fast moving and easy to read but gripping even when I was tired. I reached for the Ambler that had sat on my shelves for the five years since John’s review. It was a good choice.

uncommon-danger

Uncommon doesn’t leap straight into the action. Instead it features a brief prologue set in a London-based oil company boardroom. The CEO wants access to Romanian oil fields, but needs political change to achieve it. He calls in a Colonel Robinson, who despite his name is quite clearly no Englishman…

The story then shifts to Kenton, a freelance journalist who’s just blown his savings in an ill-judged card game. Desperate, he buys a ticket to Vienna on the Orient Express hoping he can borrow some money from an old acquaintance once he gets there. Like most decent thriller writers Ambler is strong on description, and particularly on description of luxury:

He had been waiting for three-quarters of an hour when the Night Orient Express from Ostend came in, flecked with melting snow. Behind the steamy windows of the coaches, braided waiters hurried towards the first class restaurant car. He heard the clatter of dishes and the clink of glasses. From where he stood out of the wind he could see a destination board on the side of one of the sleeping cars – Wien, Buda-Pesth, Belgrade, Sofia, Istanbul. The Orient Express looked warm and luxurious inside and he was glad when it moved out. At that moment it seemed to epitomize all the security and comfort – bodily, financial and gastronomic – that he craved. He wallowed in self-pity.

Evocative isn’t it? Kenton finds himself sharing his carriage with one other traveller, Sachs:

His face was narrow and he had the kind of jowl that should be shaved twice a day, but isn’t. He wore a dirty starched collar with a huge grey-flowered tie and a crumpled dark-striped suit. On his knees rested a limp American cloth attaché-case from which he was extracting paper bags containing sausage and bread. A bottle of Vichy water stood propped against the back of the seat beside him.

Kenton hasn’t eaten so he’s grateful when Sachs shares his food, but for all his generosity Sachs doesn’t seem wholly trustworthy and as they approach the border he becomes increasingly nervous. Soon Sachs asks Kenton if he minds carrying a package over the border for him. He’ll pay well now and more on the other side. Kenton knows it stinks, but he’s desperate so he takes the deal.

It’s no spoiler to say that Sachs doesn’t survive long. Kenton finds himself on the run suspected of Sachs’ murder and pursued both by Russian intelligence and by the sinister “Colonel Robinson”, who is quickly revealed to be the notorious professional assassin and agent-provocateur Saridza.

Ambler doesn’t mess around and by about page 26 the broad outlines of the plot and the key players are all fairly well set out. There are details to be filled in (quite why the photos Kenton discovers in Sachs’ package matter so much), but even those you can take a pretty good guess at. The package is a classic McGuffin. The real interest is in the chase.

Uncommon Danger does have some great characters. Kenton himself I found a bit bland, but I loved the main Russian agent Zaleshoff who “rarely said what he really thought without making it sound like a clumsy attempt to dissemble. Passionate conviction was with him a sign of indifference to the point at issue.” Zaleshoff is aided by his beautiful sister, Tamara, and naturally a romance starts to bloom between her and Kenton (though it feels a bit tacked on to be honest, but at least Ambler doesn’t spend much time on it).

On the other side of the equation Saridza makes a convincing adversary, even if he does at one point literally leave Kenton and Zaleshoff to apparent certain death after gloating to them both about his plans. Quite why he didn’t just shoot them was never entirely clear to me, save that if he had the book would have ended there…

Saridza is assisted by the brutal and sadistic Captain Mailler, formerly of the black-and-tans. While Saridza’s in it for the money Mailler seems to like working in the shadows because of the freedom it gives him to hurt people. There’s a definite element of Bond villain and henchman here which surely must have influenced Fleming (not least when, for a second time, someone gives key information to Kenton on the basis that it won’t matter now as there’s nothing he can do to stop them…)

As well as all that there’s gunfights, tense escapes past border-guards, thrilling chase sequences, all the sorts of things you’d expect. The ingredients are pretty familiar but Ambler puts them together well (and, to be fair, helped make them the standards that they are today).

What’s less usual here is the politics. Later writers draw on the Cold war and conflicts of nations. Governments are the key actors. For Ambler governments are as much puppets as Kenton himself. The real power is big business.

Saridza is working for a UK oil company. His goal is to destabilise Romania and he plans to do this by leaking Russian secrets to them (again, all by page 26). The Russians are reactive. Without corporate interests none of this would be happening and for Ambler that’s true of the whole shadow game:

One end of the game was played in the rarified atmosphere of board-rooms and weekend shooting parties; the other was played, with persons like Sachs as counters, in trains, in cheap hotels, in suburbs of big cities, in murky places away from the bright highways dedicated to the rosy-cheeked goddess of tourisme.

There’s an appealing and for me fairly persuasive cynicism here. In Ambler’s Europe those at the top take decisions without looking too closely at how they’ll be implemented, then men like Saridza take whatever steps are necessary to make those decisions happen. Saridza isn’t so stupid as to report back his methods, and his bosses aren’t so stupid as to ask him. The world goes on, possibly with fewer people in it, and profits are made. As Ambler observes “The Big Business man was only one player in the game of international politics, but he was the player who made all the rules.”

Plus ça change. Uncommon Danger was first published back in 1937 and you would think that would date it. In fact, despite the use of elements such as the Orient Express, Soviet agents and the now distant pre-war setting Ambler’s exploration of corporations as drivers of conflict makes it more timely than you might expect and perhaps more relevant than the later fiction he helped inspire.

Other reviews

None I’m aware of, but I’m happy to be corrected in the comments.

7 Comments

Filed under Ambler, Eric, Thrillers