“These people suffer from psychosis of the past,” thought Blasi, “you can smell it in here.”

Death Going Down, by María Angélica Bosco and translated by Lucy Greaves

I’m not generally a huge fan of classic crime as a genre. It’s too neat for me with its tendency to throw in a new body every few chapters to ratchet up the tension and its tidy denouements.

All of that applies to this 1955 novel by Argentinian writer María Angélica Bosco and yet I rather enjoyed it. It’s not particularly original, some of the characters are a little too sketchily drawn, but it’s less hermetically self-contained than most of the genre which makes it more interesting.

Pancho Soler comes home drunk late one cold Buenos Aires’ night. The hallway light only stays on for a few minutes so he enters quickly and rushes to the lift which he sees is already occupied. The lift arrives and he steps in, smile at the ready in case the occupant is a pretty woman (a nice detail which already tells us most of what we need to know about him). It is. Unfortunately, she’s dead.

It is, of course, murder. The woman was poisoned. One question is how (though I guessed pretty quickly), but the more pressing question is what she was doing there in the first place since she didn’t live in the building and none of the residents admit knowing who she’d have been calling on.

It’s a genre staple that everyone has something to hide and here it’s no different. The police quickly learn that the dead woman was a refugee from post-war Europe as are a number of the other residents. Argentina in 1955 is full of people trying to make new lives. Some are escaping the horrors that were inflicted upon them. Some are escaping justice for the horrors they inflicted themselves.

Unusually Death Going Down features a team of three detectives rather than the usual single solitary genius. In part I liked that as it did feel more like a real police investigation with tasks being delegated and officers dividing up as needed to chase down leads. The downside was that none of them ever came entirely to life and I often had to remind myself which was which (this seems to be a fairly common complaint with this book).

Happily, the suspects are a much livelier lot.

“On the first floor it’s the Suárez Loza family, who are away in Europe at the moment. On the second floor, señor Iñarra and his family; on the third, señor Czerbó and his sister; on the fourth, señor Soler; on the fifth, Dr Luchter. Everyone here is very peaceful, señor Superintendent.” The same old story. It was just what Superintendent Lahore expected: peaceful buildings and good people, always the same. So how was it possible that so much went on?

Señor Iñarra is an elderly invalid married to a resentful younger wife and an even more resentful young daughter from his first marriage. Señor Czerbó is a brutal figure who lives with his terrorised sister on whom he vents the frustrations of his life. Pancho Soler is a drunken playboy. Dr Luchter is a German exile who certainly has the necessary knowledge to kill by poisoning. Even the superintendent and his wife are bitter and hostile figures. If ever there was a building likely to house a murder this is it. And on top of all that the woman’s husband has motive too …

Naturally there will be more deaths before the truth comes out. There always are.  At minimum there’s always someone who tries to blackmail the murderer. After all, what could possibly go wrong in trying to blackmail someone about whom the main thing you know is that they’re a killer?

There’s some nice comic touches, including one of the policemen briefly having to look after the dead woman’s dog which sometimes helps him open conversations with suspects but at others cuts those conversations a bit shorter than he’d like:

Two or three tugs of the lead let Blasi know that Muck wanted a change of scene. It annoyed him to have to comply. Any interruption of his conversation with Betty could mean a change of tack that might not favour him, but he feared a disaster if he did not obey the pressing appeals reaching him via the leather lead.

What makes this better than formula is the sense that those touched by the crime were already marked – by the war and by the secrets they’ve carried with them to their new lives. Most classic crime novels feel to me like they take place in a bubble (that sense of self-containment I mentioned). Here the memories of a fractured Europe echo through the narrative. There are worse crimes than those presently under investigation.

Other reviews

Guy at His Futile Preoccupations reviewed this here, with views fairly similar to my own. Guy mentions that he’d have liked a bit more sketching out of the characters’ various past connections, which I can certainly see but on the other hand I thought 160 pages was about right for this and while I liked it I wouldn’t have liked it more for being longer.

Guy also mentions the issue with the detectives being too lightly fleshed out. There is a point there about realism versus narrative. I do think three detectives most of whom aren’t actually that interesting is more realistic than the usual single maverick (possibly with an added sidekick to explain things to). On the other hand, that device of having a single detective does make it a lot easier to make them interesting in their own right. I’m left slightly more sympathetic to the device than I was before.

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Filed under Argentinian fiction, Bosco, María Angélica, Crime, South-American fiction

We didn’t know sadness until we had a point of comparison.

Such Small Hands, by Andrés Barba and translated by Lisa Dillman

It’s hard to talk about Such Small Hands without using words like dark, sinister, troubling. It’s a one-sitting read which lingers long in the memory, much as you might wish it didn’t. It’s very, very good.

Possibly the creepiest cover of any book I’ve read this year. Here’s how it opens:

Her father died instantly. Her mother in the hospital.

“Your father died instantly, your mother is in a coma” were the exact words, the first ones Marina heard. You could touch those words, rest your hand on each sinuous curve: expectant, incomprehensible words.

Marina is a young girl suddenly orphaned. The accident leaves her numb and alone. Her only friend is a doll the hospital psychologist gives her to help her with her recovery.

The early chapters are all from Marina’s perspective. Overnight her world has become a strange place of clinically concerned adult figures and anonymous hospital spaces. From there she is sent to an orphanage, a thing she can’t even imagine before arriving:

It was too hard to look forward to the orphanage; she didn’t know how to do it. And unable to picture it, random images jumbled together and came gurgling out like a death rattle. She looked at dolly to quiet them. Someone had gone to her house and packed her a doubtful suitcase. Winter clothes and summer clothes all jumbled together.

I love that phrase ‘a doubtful suitcase.’

With Marina’s move to the orphanage the narrative changes and alternates between chapters from Marina’s perspective and chapters from the perspective of one (or possibly several) of the orphanage girls. One or several because the orphanage girls don’t distinguish – they have spent their short lives growing up together and the experience of one of them is still the experience of all of them.

When class was over we liked to play. We’d sign as the jump rope hit the sand with a dull crack. To get in the circle you had to pay attention, had to calculate the jump rope’s arc, its speed, adapt your rhythm to the chorus.

Marina’s traumatic experience leaves her quite unable to adapt her rhythm to the chorus. She is silent and watchful. She doesn’t join in. In the communal showers they notice she has a huge scar from the accident. None of them have anything like that. Marina is different, and by being different she makes the girls aware that each of them is different too. Marina is their apple of knowledge.

We became aware of each other and we felt naked before that body that wasn’t like our bodies. For the first time we felt fat, or ugly; we realized that we had bodies and that those bodies could not be changed. Just as she had materialized, we materialized: these hands, these legs. Now we know that we were inescapably the way we were. It was a discovery you could do nothing with, a discovery that served no purpose. We huddled together when she approached. We were afraid to touch her.

It’s fair to say that the book is already pretty dark by this point, but it gets much darker. Marina’s difference holds a power over the other girls and they revenge themselves on her for it with a campaign of bullying and spite. She is their victim, but at the same time she holds a glamour over them, a fascination.

They’re children. They want to love her. They want her to be one of them. They have no idea how to process the emotions she’s given rise to: fear and desire each unfettered by language because they’re yet to learn the words to bind them with.

Part of what’s so marvellous about Such Small Hands is how well it captures the intensity and magic of childhood. Usually when we talk about magic in that way we mean it as a good thing. Unicorns and rainbows and fairy godmothers. But childhood magic isn’t just lazy summers that seem to last for ever. It’s monsters under the bed, reclusive neighbours rumoured to be serial killers, avoiding stepping on cracks for fear that if you do you’ll break your mother’s back.

Everything here has a logic, but it’s the logic of small children. At times it’s innocent and instinctively affectionate. At other times it’s capricious and cruel. We have to learn how to manage our feelings. We have to learn to be civilised. Barba conjures a dark fable from apparently ordinary ingredients and the result is one of the most shocking and exciting novels I’ve read this year.

Other reviews

Several, including doubtless many I’ve forgotten to keep details of. Trevor of themookseandthegripes loved it here. Tony of Tony’s Reading List was similarly blown away here. And far from lastly, David of David’s Book World was equally impressed here and through his review convinced me to give it a try. Edit: I missed two that I had bookmarked: from Stu at Winston’sDad’sBlog here and from Eric at Lonesome Reader here.

There’s also an interview with translator Lisa Dillman here which is worth taking a look at.

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Filed under Barba, Andres, Novellas, Spanish

A wonderful audacity shown to the whole world!

1917, Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, various translators

The Russian Revolution was a bloody and extraordinary period. Looking back we know what followed: Stalin’s purges, totalitarianism, the subjugation of much of Europe under Soviet military occupation. It’s easy to find supporters of the ideals of the revolution still today, but there’s not so many now who’ll defend the execution of it (possibly as there were so very many executions).

We of course have hindsight, but that lends a certainty to the past which never existed. We’ll never know how Russia would have fared had the “Whites” won, nor how the implementation of the revolution might have differed with a slightly different outcome to the power struggles following the victory of the “Reds”. It’s incredibly complex, made simple by distance and ignorance of the details.

1917 asks a very clever question: instead of looking at the Russian revolution with the benefit of hindsight, why not look to it as it appeared to the artists of the time? Russia’s poets and writers took part in the revolutionary struggle, both for it and against. They wrote their praise, their condemnation, their fears and doubts. They didn’t know what would follow.

That uncertainty gives this collection of poems and prose, all selected by editor and translator Boris Dralyuk, an extraordinary immediacy. Every work in this collection was written between 1917 and 1919.  Here’s the first in the book:

Marina Tsvetaeva, 26 May 1917, translated by Boris Dralyuk

You stepped from a stately cathedral

Onto the blare of the plazas…

-Freedom!-The Beautiful Lady

Of Russian grand dukes and marquises.

 

A fateful choir’s rehearsing-

the liturgy still lies before us!

-Freedom!-A street-walking floozy

on the foolhardy breast of a soldier

Dralyuk divides the book into sections. That one above is from one titled ‘Stolen Wine’. It’s a neat way of bringing out common themes and concerns, in this case imagery of Bolshevik soldiery careening through the streets drunk on victory and plunder.

It’s an ambiguous poem. Like much of her work too ambiguous for Tsvetaeva’s good. Dralyuk precedes each section with an introduction to the writers featured in it – their history, the artistic movements they were part of or helped inspire, their fate. The fates are often bleak. Tsvetaeva hanged herself in 1941 after charges of espionage resulted in her husband’s execution and her daughter being sentenced to eight years in prison.

This next poem was for me the standout of the collection (and possibly for some of the Pushkin team too given they quoted it on the back of the book). It’s from a section titled Purifying Fire and captures an electrifying vision of the revolution as bloody and brutal but necessary and liberating. It’s powerful stuff.

Alexander Blok, January 1918, translated by Boris Dralyuk and Robert Chandler

The Twelve

A bourgeois’s standing at the crossroads,

nose buried in his collar.

And near him, tail between its legs,

a mangy mongrel cowers.

 

The bourgeois stands, a hungry cur,

a question mark, a question begged,

behind him crouches the old world –

a mongrel, tail between its legs.

“Get lost, you mangy cur-

or we’ll tickle you with our bayonets.

This is the last of you, old world-

soon we’ll smash you to bits.”

The full poem is several pages long. Blok introduces religious elements into the poem which alienated those he supported, Trotsky observing that “To be sure, Blok is not one of ours, but he reached towards us. And in doing so, he broke down. But the result of his impulse is the most significant work of our epoch. His poem, The Twelve, will remain for ever.”

I agree with Trotsky. The poem is a masterpiece. The religious elements don’t quite work (which Dralyuk notes Blok himself later agreed with though he could never think of an alternative). It does break down in that sense. But nonetheless it’s remarkable. I’ve already read it several times.

In what becomes a theme, the revolution didn’t treat Blok kindly. He found the new bureaucracy stultifying and was arrested in 1919 for ‘suspicion of plotting against the state.’ He died in 1921, just 41 years old.

Other poets here include Mandelstam, Pasternak, Bely, Mayakovsky and many more. The pieces are mostly short, chosen in part I suspect for breadth and context as well as for their quality. If there were nothing here but the roughly 70 pages of poetry this would still be a thrilling collection.

The prose sections can’t have quite the same immediacy of the poetry, but are equally well chosen. Here we have Kuprin, Teffi, Zamyatin, Bulgakov and many others some more significant than those I’ve listed (I’ve quoted the names I recognised rather than the most influential).

Some of the biographical detail is fascinating. I loved the story of Kuprin taking off in a frail biplane piloted by a circus wrestler. The plane crashed from the sky, happily without casualties. Among those watching was a young Kataev who went on to be a writer himself and whose rather good The Drum is also here.

This next quote is from the ‘Of Dragons and Men’ section. It could be read as a satire on bourgeois conformity, or as a critique of totalitarianism, or of course of both. Ambiguity is a common feature here. The context is a city where a revolutionary council has assumed government, led by the popular and wise Ak who is so well respected that no matter what the council proposes there are those who will defend it.

Yefim Zozulya, 1919, translated by Alexander Berkman

The Dictator

The story of Ak and humanity

It seemed a day like any other. The city looked the same as usual. Streets and houses had their ordinary appearance. The sky wore its customary blue. The pavements spread grey and indifferent, as always. Suddenly some men appeared carrying large buckets of paste. They began to put up posters on the walls, doing it quickly, with tears streaming into the buckets. The posters were tense and to the point:

Citizens!

THE COUNCIL OF PUBLIC WELFARE has decided to reorganize life on the basis of justice and progress. For this purpose the COUNCIL will pass on the Right to Life of every inhabitant of our city. Those whose existence is found to be superfluous will cease to exist within 24 hours. Appeals against the decision of the COUNCIL may be filed, in writing, within that time. All appeals will be decided by the COUNCIL before sunset of the same day.

The poster goes on to helpfully explain that friends and neighbours will carry out the sentence of termination where citizens lack the courage to do it themselves when ordered. Failing that a special military detachment is available.

There’s several points in that passage which I love. The self-important use of capitalisation for example. The exploitation of language of rights – the council will pass on the right to life which in fact means the council will decide who’s going to die. Governments and corporations both love that slipperiness of language where something terrible can be clothed in virtue.

The story moves on to the interview process under which it’s decided who lives and who dies, and includes case file excerpts from individuals who didn’t pass and so were found to be “superfluous” (a very meaningful word in the context of Russian literature) and so killed.

One is a mechanic fond of cream in his coffee who beats his children. ‘Daily life grey, prosaic.’ He’s for the chop. Another speaks eight languages but bores his friends in all of them. ‘Sweetly amiable with people, purely out of innate cowardice. … Rarely experiences joy’. He’s killed too.

It’s hard not to read the story and imagine how you’d fare, and the arbitrariness of the decisions makes it impossible to guess. Still, some people defend them, until the Council changes its mind and even then some hearken back to the good old days when the superfluous were terminated rather than indulged.

One final quote, this time from the story which the title to this piece comes from.

Mikhail Zoshchenko (writing as Mikhail Chirkov), 1918, translated by Rose France

The bloody scar on the back of the bourgeois is verily the mark of the strongest power, the mark of a wonderful audacity shown to the whole world.

Doesn’t sound so good now that audacity does it?

It would be hard to praise this collection too highly. Were it not for Pedro Paramo it would be my book of the year. It’s well compiled, well researched, interesting and ever-readable. It’s an introduction not to the past, but to the present as it was. Buy now, while capitalism lasts…

Other reviews

Lots, naturally. Some I bookmarked are from Wuthering Expectations here (different quotes to mine and excellent ones), Guy of His Futile Preoccupations here (including a full list of what’s in the book) and Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here. It’s a tribute to this collection that we all seem to have our own favourites, between us they comprise most of the book. I’m sure I’ve missed others so please let me know in the comments.

One final note, I received my copy of 1917 from Pushkin Press back in January as a review title. Life, as so often, intervened so that I didn’t get to read it as planned. So it goes and I apologise to Pushkin for the criminal delay (far from my worst). At the same time, it does mean I got to read it in October/November a 100 years after the revolution which does seem somehow fitting. Unusually for me since I tend to take care of books my copy has been battered with the back cover torn and scuffed. That too seems somehow fitting.

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Filed under Dralyuk, Boris, Poetry, Pushkin Press, Russian

… neither miracles nor miracle-workers can help us …

The Miracle-Worker, by Carmen Boullosa and translated by Amanda Hopkinson

Every now and then I read something new. Not new in the sense that I haven’t read it before – that happens a couple of times a week. New in the sense that I haven’t read anything like it before.

In a foreword The Miracle-Worker claims to be a collection of papers and a transcribed audio tape all of which were found in the arms of a corpse. It sets up an expectation of a crime and with that the implicit promise that if we read on we will at least understand that crime even if we may not see justice done. Things will not be quite so clear.

The papers are various. They include: the words of the Miracle-Worker, the Milagrosa, herself; examples of petitions made to her; and an account by a private detective named Aurelio Jimenez who was paid to investigate and destroy her and who is probably the dead body found clutching it all.

I say ‘probably’ above because the unnamed person who’s collated these materials doesn’t know for sure whose body it is and compiled the various documents in what seemed ‘to be the most easily comprehensible sequence’. Already, before we’ve even entered the narrative, we’re unsure of the status or outcome of what we’re about to read.

The Milagrosa’s section reveals a woman imprisoned by her own gift. She lives simply dressing only in white and letting no man touch her lest the loss of her virginity should mean the loss of her powers. When she sleeps she can dream miracles which then occur: illnesses cured; limbs restored; lives transformed. Faced with that how can she put her own needs ahead of the want of the world?

Each day two queues form outside the house of the Milagrosa. One for those seeking a miracle; the other for those making vigil. The petitioners explain their particular plea to the Milagrosa and when she goes to sleep that night she dreams of those whose petition will be granted. All she asks in return is that they return to fill out a visitor’s book with their testimonial. Most do, some going further and returning with little tin votive offerings.

That picture is from a church in Naples which I first saw back in 1992. In one of its chapels there were walls covered with small tin images: limbs, heads, torsos. Each is a symbol of an afflicted organ and a healing believed granted; articles of a faith rewarded. I have no faith myself and so found it disturbing rather than inspiring. All that suffering.

Boullosa captures what I felt that day. The petitions here evidence a tidal-wave of desperate want and in doing so render the very concept of miracles somehow ludicrous and offensive. If God can heal the sick why not restore a missing limb? Why not grant the ability to fly, or bring rain to end a drought, or return lost friends back from the dead? (All actual petitions in the text). The Milagrosa can do all that, but her gift doesn’t always respond and it’s unclear why some have their prayers answered and others not. Somehow this just underlines the arbitrariness of the world and the extent of the suffering within it.

‘They raped my daughter.’

‘When she awakes tomorrow, nobody will remember anything about it, there’ll be no trace left on either her body or her mind. Don’t come and give thanks. I absolve you from the responsibility, because you won’t remember having come.

‘My husband has burned himself. Who knows how? He put some lit matches against his clothes, clothes that catch fire as you look at them. You know him well … he’s the man who delivers the eggs.’

‘[…] And another thing, if you could also get rid of my stammer when I speak … If you’d give me my teeth back, I’ve only got two left … And another thing, I don’t like my name, nor my surname. Please make me completely different, because the way I am is a curse. That’s it. I think that’s the best way to ask for what I want. Make me different. Into someone who isn’t as I am.’

The difficulty for Aurelio’s mission is that none of these requests are beyond the Milagrosa’s power. Her gift is real and worse she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. He falls instantly in love with her (even if she does cure his drinking problem without being asked so leaving him utterly unable to enjoy a whisky anymore).

Aurelio’s section is different in style to the petitions, which were themselves different to the Milagrosa’s words. He is a strike-breaker, an agent of a corrupt union and a man who has much in his past to account for. On first arriving he’s beaten nearly to death by outraged workers for reasons never made clear but which don’t seem to be entirely unjustified. He’s a noir protagonist who’s wandered in from another kind of novel altogether and he and the Milagrosa each have the chance to find in the other an escape from lives neither chose.

With Aurelio’s arrival The Miracle-Worker becomes a kind of political thriller:

‘They’ve been plotting something.’

‘Do you have any idea what?’

‘They’re very nervous over the issue of Northern Textiles. You know, there are ten factories involved and for some reason the Union isn’t getting its way, and the workers are in control. They say it’s down to the Milagrosa. But the problem is that there’s only a year left to the presidential elections and you know how things go.’

Aurelio realises that the Milagrosa has unwittingly aided a presidential candidate who’s now tidying his trail behind him. Bodies are stacking up and it turns out that granting miracles may be a dangerous business both for the miracle-worker and for the wider country. Perhaps some petitions shouldn’t be granted.

So what is this? An exploration of the age-old problem of how we can reconcile the notion of faith in a benevolent deity with the evident existence of evil? Or is it a political satire? The union here hires strike-breakers and colludes with politicians against the workers. Power is gained through deceit, bribery and violence. Only the Milagrosa actually cares about the poor and we learn early on that she doesn’t herself believe in the god her followers attribute her powers to.

Is this instead a snapshot of the state of the nation? A collage-impression of Mexico in all its complexity and confusion? Or is it a post-modernist noir?

I think it’s all of those things and others I’m probably missing from my lack of the cultural and political references that the average Mexican reader would naturally have. It’s a complex book and yet in the edition I have it’s only 137 pages. What better compliment could I pay it than to say I don’t understand it?

Other reviews

Only one that I’m aware of which is by Grant at 1streading’s Blog here. Without Grant I wouldn’t have heard of this and if I had probably wouldn’t have read it. I’m glad that I did.

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Filed under Boullosa, Carmen, Mexican fiction, Spanish

Mr Tiller and I will marry, and I will become a schoolmistress to raise the finest generation yet known to England.

The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley

I cannot sleep.

Today I overheard Mrs Barbery in the street gossiping with the other mothers. She said, ‘He isn’t a real man, of course, not after that injury.’ I walked past and pretended not to have heard. He limps a little, but it does not constrain his activities. Sometimes I wonder what is under his shirt and waistcoat. I imagine something other than flesh to be found there: fine swan feathers, or a clean white space. No, Mr Tiller is not what passes for a real man in these parts, and all the better for that.

Shirley Fearn is sixteen years old. She’s intelligent, idealistic and relatively well-educated. Her father is one of the better-off farmers in her small village of Westerbridge – an unimportant place where the years and generations unfold each much like the last and which nobody important ever comes from or goes to.

The Victorian era is decidedly dead and Shirley thinks she’s arrived on stage just in time for the world to transform. Her generation is different to those that came before and will be important in ways older generations can barely imagine. Naturally it doesn’t occur to her that teenagers always think that:

This is a different age, a new era, and my feelings are all the finer and brighter for my luck in having the time to explore them. The upward path of humanity, out of the terrible trenches, will come from the cultivation of the mind. And women will have an important role in this, as teachers, as mentors, to the exceptional men who will grow from the smallest boys, with our guidance.

Shirley dreams of more than is offered her, but her dreams are limited by her experience. She is a product of her time and upbringing and her idea of independence is helping to teach great men instead of giving birth to them. The idea of great women is yet to occur to her.

Of course the reader understands perfectly well what Mrs Barbery meant and that Shirley’s dreams of marrying Mr Tiller can’t become real. Mr Tiller doesn’t seem particularly keen himself, insisting on treating Shirley as if she were yet but a child. It’s all quite vexing.

Shirley knows her parents oppose her ambitions to become a teacher. They, like most the village, expect her to marry a young farmer or perhaps the blacksmith’s boy Daniel Redmore. Daniel stirs none of the noble feelings in Shirley that Mr Tiller does, though he definitely does stir feelings of some unfamiliar sort. Still, what bright future could there be with him? The Redmores and the Fearns both date back centuries in the village. Marrying him would be accepting the position she was born to.

Bright as she is Shirley understands nothing. That will change.

So far Arrival probably doesn’t sound like one of the more critically acclaimed SF novels of recent years. However, that’s exactly what it is and the first stirrings of that become apparent when Shirley decides to spy on Mr Tiller in his cottage. What she sees is not the awful wound the reader expects but instead what she interprets as some kind of peculiar rock protruding from his abdomen.

Mr Tiller bears a message. One that descended upon him as he lay dying on barbed wire bayonetted by a German soldier who picked up Mr Tiller’s own dropped rifle to kill him with. The rock saved his life and more than that gave him a purpose.

Shirley dreams of shaping the future by shaping the men who will make it. Mr Tiller aims to shape it more directly, guided by the rock. He wants Shirley to help him. He wants Shirley to abandon her vision of the future to support his.

Mr Tiller is far from alone in wanting Shirley to abandon her ambitions. The science fiction elements of the plot here mirror the prosaic. Shirley realises that her parents oppose her teaching not because they want her to inherit their farm as she always supposed but because they want her to attract the right kind of husband to take it over. Her education is intended to make her more appealing to an intelligent modern man, not to make her an intelligent modern woman.

Shirley starts to become aware of herself as a perceived object. Now she’s sixteen the men of the village, even the older ones, treat her differently. She dreamed of being special, of having some unique gift to give the world, but what she’s finding instead is that what she’s most appreciated for is her value as a commodity:

It is as if, I think as I walk slowly home, a light has been switched on inside of me. It is a light that only men can see, and it attracts them, draws them close. It makes them think that I will be receptive to their glances and comments. I’m not ridiculous enough to think that their interest is all about my beauty or other talents. It is simply that I am now, in their eyes, the right age for such treatment.

The irony of Shirley’s political awakening lies in its youthful selfishness. Daniel Radcliffe takes her to her teaching interview and speaks to her of how he wishes they could run away together not as man and wife but just as two people living together as best they can. She barely recognises that like her he has dreams of something other than what he’s been offered (after all, she’s the one that’s special and he’s the one that’s ordinary). She looks down on her own mother’s lack of education and ambition, little reflecting on how much more limited her mother’s opportunities were or what kind of inner life she might have.

Arrival becomes a novel of choices and consequences, which makes it in part the story of every teenager even if in this case there’s an incomprehensible rock bearing messages and commands. When Shirley is appointed Mayday Queen she learns how powerful and enjoyable it can be to fit in and be popular. But when she rebels against her parents or speaks sharply to adults whom she’s supposed to respect she learns that too carries power and enjoyment.

Arrival is well written and Shirley is both likable and credible. There’s some lovely paralleling of the deep past in the form of the Mayday celebrations (which the local priest condemns on account of their pagan roots) and the deep future which Mr Tiller is trying to mould and make certain. The characters are vivid and Shirley’s journey persuasive.

The only criticism I really have is that I found the concluding pages a bit on the nose in terms of Shirley becoming a rather empowered modern woman with a mind to social justice. For me it became neat where I’d have preferred a little more compromise and ambiguity. Still, that’s a small price to pay for a novel which so (apparently) effortlessly subverts our ideas of what science fiction is and what a science fiction protagonist should look like.

I’ll end by mentioning that for those who do normally read SF there’s quite a lot of subtext here in terms of criticism of the limits of the genre – the kinds of futures it imagines and who gets to populate them. Unfortunately that’s difficult to discuss without spoilers and honestly it could easily go completely unnoticed without harming the book at all. It’s subtle enough that for those who don’t read SF it might as well not be there.

Arrival is Whiteley’s second novel and I’ve since bought her first. This has every chance of being on my end of year list.

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Filed under Historical fiction, SF, UK fiction, Whiteley, Aliya

The House of Paper by Carlos Maria Dominguez

The House of Paper, by Carlos Maria Dominguez and translated by Peter Sis

There are some terms I never use to describe books. Important for example. If it’s not a major sacred text or Das Kapital then however good it may be it’s probably not that important. Life-changing is another. How exactly did your life measurably differ after reading a supposedly life-changing book?

But perhaps I’m wrong. Here’s the first paragraph of House:

One day in the spring of 1998, Bluma Lennon bought a second-hand copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems in a bookshop in Soho, and as she reached the second poem on the first street corner, she was knocked down by a car.

As the author reflects, ‘Books change people’s destinies.’

House is a charming novella about the dangers inherent in books. The more obvious perils are the physical ones: the risks inherent in volumes stored on high shelves where you can overbalance reaching for them or have them fall on your head. Beyond that though the real dangers are subtler.

Bluma was a Cambridge academic and a little while after her death the unnamed narrator is appointed as her replacement. It’s because of that he receives a late piece of post for her – a parcel containing a broken-spined copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line. Bluma was writing a thesis on Joseph Conrad at the time she died which could perhaps explain why someone sent her it:

But the extraordinary thing was that there was a filthy crust on its front and back covers. There was a film of cement particles on the page edges that left a fine dust on the surface of the polished desk.

There’s no note and no explanation, just an inscription from a “Carlos”. For no evident reason this Carlos sent Bluma a terribly damaged copy of an easily obtained book. It even appears to have been dipped in concrete at some point. Why was she sent it?

The narrator can’t leave the question alone. He is an avid reader and collector. His house is filled with books, each well cared for. He owns nothing like this battered orphan volume. It’s presence sparks reflection on books and his relationship with them:

There is a moment, however, when we have accumulated so many books that they cross an invisible line, and what was once a source of pride becomes a burden, because from now on space will always be a problem.

So true. Worse yet he thinks about:

… the panic I feel when someone praises all the books I possess. Every year I give away at least fifty of them to my students, yet I still cannot avoid putting in another double row of shelves, the books are advancing silently, innocently through my house. There is no way I can stop them.

What’s to be done? He can’t bring himself to just bin the rogue Conrad but nor can he ignore it. He sets off to Uruguay where the parcel came from to investigate the sender and discover his story.

In Uruguay the narrator meets other book collectors and through them learns about Carlos, who died himself not long after posting the Conrad. Carlos was also a collector and owned more than twenty thousand titles. That meant he was faced with the classic problem of how to keep track of them all and how to be sure of finding any particular book quickly and easily.

Carlos took the view that indexing by alphabetical order or by theme leads to absurdities. He was sure that a better method was possible – a perfect indexing methodology based on the affinities of the texts in question. Those affinities were clear only to him, although he does explain to his friends that at the very minimum one cannot sensibly shelve together books by writers who don’t get along: as Carlos explained Amis cannot be anywhere near McEwan following their famous falling-out.

Books are seductive. Carlos liked to read 19th Century novels by candlelight, would pour a second glass of wine for the book he reads at dinner. One guest sees on Carlos’s bed a pile of books which:

reproduced the mass and outline of a human body. He swears he could see the head, surrounded by small red-backed books, the body, the shape of arms and legs.

Books can bring madness. I won’t say much more as this is a fairly easy single-sitting read and much of the pleasure of it lies in discovering quite how Carlos was brought down by his collection and the reason for the curious delivery of the concreted Conrad.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Paper House. It comes with bookish illustrations that don’t particularly relate to the text but which are lovely and therefore need no other justification. It’s something of a cautionary tale and literary joke and that means it’s a bit slight, but that slightness is also what makes it such a fun read.

House is perfect for the younger reader in your life who may have caught the book bug but who it may still be possible to deter. A gift of House could provide a useful warning, allowing them to take up a healthier pastime such as hang-gliding or professional ice hockey. For the habitual reader it’s probably already too late, but there will at least be a twinge of pained recognition.

Other reviews

Guy Savage reviewed this here and it was his review which prompted me to buy it. On the more negative side, I discussed it on Twitter with Scott Pack who has read it twice and found afterwards that he could remember almost nothing of it either time. Although I’m with Guy on this one I’m not entirely surprised it might not stick in memory – it’s in its nature as a relatively light comic anecdote that it’s not going to stick the way say Krasznahorkai’s Satantango might.

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Filed under Dominguez, Carlos Maria, Novellas, South-American fiction, Spanish, Uruguayan fiction

Money has no nationality, no allegiance. … It’s the most powerful polity of all.

Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

It’s a tricky thing reviewing the third of a trilogy. However good it is it’s generally not a standalone work and the risk of spoiling previous volumes is high. That means this will not be a detailed review.

I’ve previously read Dave Hutchinson’s excellent Europe in Autumn and his very-good-but-suffers-a-bit-from-being-the-middle-book-of-a-trilogy Europe at Midnight. Outside of the blog I’ve also read a short story collection, a stand-alone short story and an excellent novella. It’s fair to say I like his work.

For those who haven’t read the previous reviews, the Europe trilogy takes place in a future Europe fragmented into micro-states and petty polities.  The European Union still exists, but most of the countries which used to comprise it don’t. Hard to imagine I know.

AIR TRAVEL IN Western and Central Europe could be tricky these days. If there was an appreciable lag between booking your ticket and actually taking your flight, there was an outside chance you’d discover that your destination airport was no longer actually in the country you wanted to go to.

In this environment of endless small borders espionage flourishes. The first novel dealt with Rudi, an Estonian cook who becomes a member of the romantically named Les Coureurs des Bois – black market smugglers of packages and people. The second features a former spymaster who nicknames himself Rupert of Hentzau and operates in a sort of alternate-history eternal 1950s England of the sort dreamt of by the more lunatic fringes of the Brexit movement:

“They’re a conservative people,” Rudi said when she told him about it. “The only African people they know about are in books.” “They need their fucking heads banging together,” she said. “Next time you’re in the countryside, stop and listen,” he told her. “No aeroplanes, no helicopters, no internal combustion. They still have steam trains. And they like it that way; it’s what they’ve been defending all these years.”

Rupert was actually a distinctly fun character and Midnight had a solid supporting cast, but it’s unchanging England was inherently less interesting than the diverse complexity of Autumn (any political implications of that are clearly entirely intentional on Hutchinson’s part). I enjoyed Midnight, but I loved Autumn.

Winter sees Rudi return and take the lead again, though Rupert continues to have a major part. Hutchinson brings together the various elements of the first two novels well and in many ways this is the best of the trilogy. It’s well written, the world is interesting, it works both as SF and as spy thriller and it’s often very funny. I could have lived without the trick of narrative economy which reveals that a character’s previously perfectly ordinary relative is in fact intrinsically and utterly coincidentally involved in the wider plot, but it’s hardly a serious flaw.

Even better, Hutchinson addresses what was probably the key weakness of the first two books which was the lack of decent female characters. It’s something he was criticised for and took on board, and happily here it’s completely corrected. Among others, there’s a likeable new character Gwen who gets drawn accidentally into the world of espionage but adapts well to it. In the previous books the character would have been male, but they don’t need to be and here Gwen is just as interesting, credible and essential a character as any of the men.

Praising an author for writing female characters as well as they do the male ones is pretty weak tea I admit – it should be a given. Unfortunately the reality is that I’ve encountered a great many male writers (including many literary ones) who either couldn’t write women or wouldn’t. It’s rare to see is someone recognise the mistake and fix it. It’s growth as an author and it’s entirely to be welcomed.

I’ve got this far without discussing the plot of Winter and to be honest I pretty much intend to maintain that. If you’ve read the first two then it’s enough to know that it continues the stories in those bringing the various strands together and answering most of the mysteries they left unanswered. If you haven’t, the plot here would make no sense anyway.

Having now read the whole trilogy the first remains my favourite, even though I think this is the best of them in many ways. The first has the advantage of a late-book swerve which I absolutely didn’t see coming and while the later books explore the consequences well you can’t really have that kind of impact on the reader twice. That said, the real question for a completed trilogy is whether the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and here it is – much as with William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy the third book cures the faults of the second and deepens both story and setting without losing what was good in the previous volumes.

There is arguably space left for a fourth book, but there’s certainly no need for one and much as I think these are future SF classics I’d be pretty happy to see Hutchinson leave his future Europe with a few questions left open and a few fates left undetermined. In SF as in most genres (excepting maybe crime) too much explanation leaves the reader nothing to do and it’s a trap I hope Hutchinson continues to avoid. As Rudi rightly observes:

It never tied things up nearly; no one ever got to see the whole story, and anyway the stories never ended, just branched off into infinity. You got used to that too, as a Coureur. You jumped a Package from Point A to Point B and you never knew what happened after that. Most of the time you never even knew what you were carrying.

I’ll end with one final quote. One of the banes of SF as a genre is the infodump – the scene where a character (who lives in the made-up world in question) has the setting explained to them at tedious length for the benefit of the reader (who of course doesn’t). Hutchinson needs to do a bit of that here, but he at least does so with a wink to the reader:

Rudi felt his shoulders slump. It had been an eventful day; if he had ever been unsure of what the word infodump meant, he wasn’t now.

One of the things that makes Hutchinson so very readable is the puckish sense of fun that runs through his writing. The Europe trilogy explores serious questions of national and personal identity and directly critiques a certain banal view of Britishness, but it’s never didactic. Frankly, you could ignore all that subtext and it would still be a very entertaining read. It’s just that it’s not only that.

In case it’s not already evident, I think Hutchinson’s Europe trilogy is a definite achievement. I think it’s too idiosyncratic to inspire other writers directly (like George Alec Effinger’s remarkable Budayeen trilogy) but it definitely deserves the praise it’s received. It works as science fiction and as spy fiction and as commentary on the sadly increasingly fractured and isolationist real world. I expect to read the full trilogy again at some future date, which is about as high a compliment as I can pay it really given my ever-expanding to be read pile…

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Filed under Hutchinson, Dave, SF

the one who wears the crown is the one who’s made the most corpses

Down the Rabbit Hole, by Juan Pablo Villalobos and translated by Rosalind Harvey

I tend to be a bit nervous of child narrators, mostly as I think they’re rarely done well. It’s a very particular skill and one most writers who don’t write specifically for children don’t possess.

That’s perhaps why it took me so long to get round to reading Down the Rabbit Hole. It’s a book I own on kindle from a 99p Amazon sale, and in hardcopy as a free gift when I signed up for the publisher’s (And Other Stories) subscription scheme. I even have a Down the Rabbit Hole mug:

Given all that investment it’s a good thing I liked it…

Tochtli is the young narrator. He likes hats and samurai and he has a burning desire to own a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. Early on he comments:

Some people say I’m precocious. They say it mainly because they think I know difficult words for a little boy. Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic and devastating.

Each of those five words get used by Tochtli throughout the rest of the book, correctly most of the time or at least near enough (though there’s a definite sense of him showing off by using them). They summarise his world and it quickly becomes obvious quite how far his world is from what most children would consider normal:

What I definitely am is macho. For example: I don’t cry all the time because I don’t have a mum. If you don’t have a mum you’re supposed to cry a lot, gallons of tears, two or three gallons a day. But I don’t cry, because people who cry are faggots. When I’m sad Yolcaut tells me not to cry, he says: ‘Chin up, Tochtli, take it like a man.’ Yolcaut is my daddy, but he doesn’t like it when I call him Daddy. He says we’re the best and most macho gang for at least eight kilometres. Yolcaut is a realist and that’s why he doesn’t say we’re the best gang in the universe or the best gang for 8,000 kilometres. Realists are people who think reality isn’t how you think it is. Yolcaut told me that. Reality is like this and that’s it. Tough luck. The realist’s favourite saying is you have to be realistic.

Yolcaut is a drug lord. Tochtli lives in a remote mansion with him and in consequence knows barely over a dozen people. Several of them he believes are mute though to the reader it’s clear they’ve either been forbidden to talk to him or are afraid to do so. This leaves him with only his father and his tutor Mazatzin as guides on how to live.

Mazatzin isn’t the monster Yolcaut is, but Tochtli considers his life “sordid and pathetic” since Mazatzin was a once-successful ad exec who had wanted to be a writer but failed and instead eventually ended up working for Yolcaut. He’s an educated man, but education isn’t as useful as a gun and a willingness to pull the trigger. Mazatzin considers himself left-wing and argues passionately from time to time about the need for social justice. In another context that might have made him a more sympathetic character but here his choice of employer instead makes his hypocrisy evident.

Everything Tochtli wants is bought for him. The pygmy hippo would fit right in alongside the tigers and lions already kept in the garden. He doesn’t know how unhappy he is. He has stomach aches which are clearly unspoken pleas for attention and Yolcaut responds by buying more presents.

Tochtli doesn’t know what his father does with his mute girlfriend when they disappear into a bedroom for hours at a time, but he knows what it looks like when people beg for their lives and he knows how corpses are made:

There are actually lots of ways of making corpses, but the most common ones are with orifices. Orifices are holes you make in people so their blood comes out.

He’s familiar with other methods too – knives and machetes and guillotines (that last one reserved for the French to use on kings and queens). There’s a powerful sense in Down of innocence being corrupted. Tochtli is just a child. He shouldn’t have seen what he’s seen. His narrative shouldn’t be the powerful portrait of appalling loneliness that it is.

Later in this short (70 page) book Tochtli is angry with his father and pretends to be mute himself to punish him. Some local boys are brought in to play with him but Yolcaut finds them annoying and they’re sent away again, though not before one gives Tochtli a Star Wars figure he’d brought with him. Tochtli thinks it’s “pathetic” as it’s so inferior to all the amazing things he already owns. It’s a chilling scene and all the more so because Tochtli so evidently has no idea at all how to interact with another child.

The thing about being a child is that for a while at least whatever situation you grow up in is all you know. It’s normal by definition. It takes time and contact with others to realise quite how many ways to grow up there are. Tochtli doesn’t have that and over the course of Down we see him being moulded as all children are but in directions no child should ever go.

We don’t use our tigers for suicides or for murders. Miztli and Chichilkuali do the murders with orifices made from bullets. I don’t know how we do the suicides, but we don’t do them with tigers. We use the tigers for eating the corpses. And we use our lion for that too. But we mainly use them for looking at, because they’re strong and really well-proportioned animals and they’re nice to look at. It must be because they’re so well fed.

Villalobos packs a lot in here and does so very effectively. As well as the exploration of Tochtli’s character and situation there’s some bloody off-screen action due to a challenge to Yolcaut’s position (the reader can piece it all together even though Tochtli is largely oblivious to what’s going on) and later on there’s a trip to Liberia to pick up Tochtli’s hippo. This is a world in which anything can be bought, except of course a halfway-decent childhood.

And Other Stories include an introduction which is good and not too spoiler-y and a very helpful short glossary. The first entry of the glossary is worth reading ahead of the main text as it sheds light on the character names, each of which is Nahautl for a type of animal. Tochtli means rabbit for example, while Mazatzin means snake. Yolcaut means rattlesnake.

Other reviews

Plenty to choose from in this case. I really liked Grant’s review at 1st Reading’s Blog here which is great on some of the symbolism. Other reviews I liked and which helped inspire me to read this were from Stu at Winston’s Dad’s Blog here and from Shigekuni here.

While writing this I also discovered this fascinating review at Wuthering Heights which goes into some detail as to how Villalobos references Alice in Wonderland (largely lost on me since I haven’t read it but very interesting to discover). Finally, there’s a nice review by Nick Lezard of the Guardian here which is good both on the humour of the book and on its exploration of failure to see the bigger picture.

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Filed under Mexican fiction, Novellas, Spanish, Villalobos, Juan Pablo

The less realist a work of art, the more the artist has been obliged to get his hands dirty in the mud of reality.

The Little Buddhist Monk, by César Aira and translated by Nick Caistor

César Aira famously starts his books without knowing how they’ll end. That, coupled with his complete indifference to ordinary rules of logic or realism can make for an exhilarating read. Anything can happen. The downside of course is that anything can happen.

And Other Stories are really nailing it with their Aira covers. At first glance they’re an energetic blaze of colour which matches Aira’s writing well, but looking closer the individual elements all actually relate to the novel’s motifs. It’s very nice work whoever is doing it.

The Little Buddhist Monk opens with the monk of the title reflecting on his long-held dream of one day escaping his native Korea to visit the exotic West. As a penniless monk that dream doesn’t have much chance of being realised so when he overhears a French couple desperate for a local guide who can speak their language he offers his services. If he proves sufficiently invaluable perhaps they’ll take him home with them.

I loved the reversal of expectations of the exotic. Here France and Europe are strange lands filled with the marvellous and unfamiliar, while Korea is tediously mundane. There’s a long tradition in western literature of exoticising the East and it’s nice to see that turned on its head.

The French couple are delighted with their diminutive guide. He seems knowledgeable, he refuses payment and he certainly seems to know his way around. Before long they’re utterly dependent on him. They go to have some champagne to celebrate, and that’s when things start to get weird:

But when they raised their glasses in a toast, the French couple froze in surprise. The ‘clink’ of the glass captured a snapshot of their astonishment. The only things moving were the tiny bubbles inside the glasses, and it was precisely those bubbles that were the object of the foreigners’ rapt attention: instead of rising, they descended, going from the surface of the liquid to the bottom, where they fizzed about in crazy swirls.

This is Aira, so it’s going to get a lot stranger from there. The monk promise to take the couple to some less well known sites, much better than those on the common tourist trail. He’s offering that old tourist dream: to experience the “real” country which the average tourist never gets to see.

Initially the tour goes well. He takes them to a pair of ancient temples and tells a curious story of a suicidal horse which threw itself off the top of one of them. In a fractal reflection of the wider novel the story seems rich with meaning, until you try to say exactly what meaning that might be:

What a beautiful, sad story, the French couple commented, and what a rich message it must surely contain for anyone who can correctly interpret it.

From there the tour gets rapidly stranger. The more the tourists follow the monk the less clear it is where he’s taking them. Everything is interesting, but it all seems increasingly idiosyncratic and they start to wonder at the nature of their guide:

And so they set off back along the narrow alleyways, hurrying after the little figure who glided along at ground level. Slightly uneasy, they wondered who exactly they were following. If they had to explain, what would they say? […] They understood him perfectly, and yet in some (indefinable) way his size still gave rise to the doubt: who exactly did they understand so well? How? Following him along these narrow streets, which were a chaotic mixture of East and West, was like following the genie of tourism, an impression only strengthened by the fact that nobody but them seemed to see him.

Eventually they take a train journey which the monk says never leaves the city but which passes through dense forests, vast mountain ranges and deep crevasses. The train stops at imaginary stations where enchanted passengers are lured off by witches to face the inconvenience of finishing their journey home on foot. It gets odder yet.

There are themes to the novel. The French husband is a photographer who specialises in 360 degree panoramic shots taken with no people in them. He aims to capture the totality of a place while as tourists he and his wife similarly seek to capture the essence of Korea. Both goals are absurd and Aira underlines this by the surreality of what they actually encounter.

The monk has never been to the west and has rendered it a fantasy; the French couple are actually in Korea but their experience of it is just as much a fantasy. But perhaps I’m just trying to find a rich meaning from what’s ultimately a collage of events.

I previously read Aira’s The Proof, which as it reaches its close arcs out in a scene of extraordinary violence. It’s an ending that shouldn’t work but that Aira somehow breathtakingly pulls off. There was a sense with The Proof that when it came time to end it Aira turned it into a firework that explodes leaving the reader both stunned and dazzled.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think Aira managed the ending of Monk nearly so well. There’s an odd note near the end where the French woman is referred to as being “Fickle as only a woman can be” which I thought an unfortunately sexist note and which underlined for me the fact that her husband is the one with the interesting job while she’s just tagging along with him.

Much worse though is a three page reveal that the little monk wants to get home in time for a TV programme which it’s vital to catch as “for the first time in history” it will definitively explain how to find the clitoris. It’s a gag that might I suppose have worked in the 1970s, but the implication that anyone who misses the programme will have lost their opportunity to discover “the path to the hidden object” just reads oddly today and seems at minimum to miss the fact that half the human race actually has them as opposed to it being an as yet unexplained feature of some strange alien species.

For me, Aira didn’t stick the landing this time. I’ve become a little too aware of novels which implicitly assume that everyone and every man are basically the same thing (once you see this it’s hard to unsee and it’s surprisingly common) and perhaps worse I thought the joke took far too long to explain without ever being particularly funny.

It’s a shame to end on such a downer note so I’ll just add that while I really didn’t like the ending up until then I was having a lot of fun. I’ll be reading his The Seamstress and the Wind and while I know how it opens I have no idea where it will go. I think with Aira that’s a large part of the point.

Other reviews

Two on this occasion plus doubtless others I’ve missed. Here’s Eric Anderson of Lonely Reader who likes it more than I did and who sees that TV programme joke as saying “something about our difficulty in really seeing each other even when we’re as intimate as possible and completely stripped down”. I see his point, but I don’t agree with Eric that it works.

Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes here also likes the novel more than I did and calls its conclusion says“exceptionally fitting and satisfying” which certainly wasn’t true for me. However, Trevor also says “Sometimes Aira does stumble at the end, though I don’t mind too much since the journey has been so delightful” and while I think this time he did stumble I do agree that I didn’t mind too much since up until then the journey was indeed delightful.

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Filed under Aira, Cesar, Argentinian fiction, South-American fiction, Spanish

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