I was a palm-wine drinkard since I was a boy of ten years of age.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola

This is a hard book to describe, let alone review. First published in 1951 and based on Yoruba folktales it was championed by Dylan Thomas but on release criticised as “primitive”, “lazy” and even “barbaric”. African critics were as divided on it as Western ones and reading it I can see why. Today we have concepts such as “magical realism” (a term I dislike) and we’re more used to novels that mix the ordinary and the fantastic. In 1952 it must have seemed like it landed from Mars.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard

The story is fairly simple. The narrator (the drinkard) inherited a large estate on which he spent his days drinking vast quantities of palm wine with his friends. He had a personal palm-wine tapster, a man who goes up the palm trees to harvest their sap from which the wine is made. The tapster is gifted and his palm-wine is the best in the area, but he dies in an accident leaving the drinkard bereft. Ordinary palm-wine just doesn’t taste as good, and with the drop in quality the drinkard finds his fair-weather friends abandoning him.

When I saw that there was no palm-wine for me again, and nobody could tap it for me, then I thought within myself that old people were saying that the whole people who had died in this world, did not go to heaven directly, but they were living in on e place somewhere in this world. So that I said that I would find out where my palm-wine tapster who had died was.

One fine morning I took all my native juju and also my father’s juju with me and I left my father’s hometown to find out whereabouts was my tapster who had died.

This is a book where you have to embrace the language. The rhythms in that quote above are pretty typical, but they’re not the rhythms of British or American English. They’re Yoruban rhythms expressed in English.

The drinkard says that his adventures took place in the past when towns and cities were smaller and separated by thick bush and forest, but the reality is that this is set in no-time. The people use cowries as currency, as did the pre-colonial Yorubans, but at one point the drinkard sells his death for a colonial period “£70: 18: 6d”. The book is current yet timeless, as myths always are.

Some seven months after setting out the drinkard meets an old man who is actually a god and who claims to know where the tapster is. The old man asks the drinkard’s name and the drinkard identifies himself as “Father of gods who could do anything in this world”. Hearing this, the old man (god) sets him (drinkard) a task: to go to a nearby blacksmith and to get the right object which the blacksmith has made for the old man (god).

The drinkard uses his juju to change into a bird and listens to the old man (god) talking with his wife, and so learns what the object is that he needs to ask the blacksmith for. When he returns with it the old man (god) sets another task, to capture Death with a net.

The drinkard goes to Death’s house where he (the drinkard) meets a small rolling drum which he bangs to announce his presence. Death however is angered at being visited by the living and commands the strings of the drum to tighten upon the drinkard, choking him. At this the drinkard uses his juju to command the ropes of the yams in Death’s garden to tighten on Death and the yam-stakes to beat him (Death). More tricks follow, and Death is captured.

The drinkard lets Death out at the house of the old man, who flees not having expected the drinkard to return. That is how Death came to be at large in the world, having been taken from his home and let out by the house of the old man.

You’ll have noticed my use of “old man (god)” and “he (Death)” there. It’s a technique Tutuola often uses and it takes a little getting used to as he’s easily good enough a writer that you’d never be confused without that clarification. It’s a stylistic choice, one that creates an almost ritual feel to the language.

You might think that having changed into a bird and captured death we’d be some way into the book, but in fact all that’s done by page 12 (and the book starts on page 3). Soon after the drinkard comes to another town where again he gives his name as “Father of gods who could do anything in this world”. An old man in that town asks the drinkard’s help to rescue his daughter, who has been kidnapped by a beautiful and expensively dressed “complete” gentleman who she followed from the market (which is why one should never lightly follow a handsome stranger from the market, good advice in any time or place).

The gentleman is in fact just a skull and only looked like a complete gentleman because he had hired clothes and body-parts on his way to the market. He lives in a hole in the ground with a family of skulls and is a dangerous spirit. The drinkard follows him:

When I travelled with him a distance of about twelve miles away to that market, the gentleman left the really road on which we were travelling and branched into an endless forest and I was following him, but as I did not want him to see that I was following him, then I used one of my juju which changed me into a lizard and followed him. But after I had travelled with him a distance of about twenty-five miles away in this endless forest, he began to pull out all the parts of his body and return them to the owners, and paid them.

That quote includes possibly my favourite phrase of the book: “the gentleman left the really road on which we were travelling and branched into an endless forest”. Blink and you’d miss the transition from the real (the “really road”) to the fantastical (the “endless forest”), because there never really is a transition and never a point where one starts and the other stops.

This next quote is from page 33 (of 129). By this point the drinkard has paused in his quest and has married and had a son. The son was magically strong and devoured all the food in the village, burning the homes of those who opposed him, so the drinkard burns down his own house with the child inside and then the drinkard and his wife set off again in search of the dead tapster. Unwisely, the wife briefly goes back to the house to retrieve a gold trinket (if Lot’s wife and Eurydice have taught us anything, it’s never turn around and look back):

When we reached there, she picked a stick and began to scratch the ashes with it, and there I saw that the middle of the ashes rose up suddenly and at the same time there appeared a half-bodied baby, he was talking with a lower voice like a telephone.

There’s no sense here of child cruelty; this isn’t remotely intending to be a realistic depiction of a couple slaying their own child. It’s a mythical event: the couple give birth to a child who is a spirit and have to destroy it to escape, but then release another spirit and so the tale continues.

By this point hopefully you’ve got a decent feel for the book’s structure and language. If it seems like this review is just one thing after another that’s intentional because that’s how the book reads. It’s essentially a collection of folk tales here all featuring the same central character, and so the drinkard and his wife encounter “wraith-island” and later “Red-town” which is populaced by red creatures and the “Red-people” and later yet an indefatigable man named “Invisible-Pawn” who is head of all the Bush-creatures and, and, and…

Whatever else it may be, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (or to give it its full title and subtitle: The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town) is not a simplistic book. It’s not primitive, it’s not lazy and I have no idea what a barbaric book would be but I know this isn’t that either. I actually found it quite a challenging read, partly as it just doesn’t follow any kind of narrative structure I’m remotely used to and partly because I had to adjust myself to its unique language (something which clearly some of those early reviewers weren’t willing to do).

The Palm-Wine Drinkard follows the rules of dreams. It’s a sequence of bizarre events each of which follow their own internal myth-logic but with no wider narrative save that the drinkard sets off to find his dead tapster and eventually returns from his quest after many adventures (I’m not sure one can actually spoil this book, but just in case I’ll avoid saying whether he finds his tapster or not).

If I knew more of Nigeria’s colonial history and pre-independence situation I’d probably have picked up on some then-contemporary parallels. As it is I only recognised that there were some references that I wasn’t really getting. That didn’t matter though as this isn’t something so simple as a parable or allegory. It’s richer than that; it’s Yoruban tradition captured on the page yet kept alive through Tutuola’s prose.

The structure, the kind of tales Tutuola tells, remind me of the Nordic and Greek myths I read as a child. I remember when Thor took refuge one night in a strange five-chambered hall only to discover the next morning that he had rested in a giant’s glove. Later some giants challenged Thor to drain a giant’s drinking horn, which Thor could not, but the giants grew frightened because the horn was really the horn of the sea and Thor was so mighty that he had almost drained the seas dry. Thor, like the drinkard, has an awful lot of fairly weird random adventures.

In the end I’m not quite sure what I make of Drinkard. It’s not the sort of book you’d dip into to relax of an evening and it’s not full of deep insights into mortality or whatever (save that it’s actually quite a good idea to sell your death as then you can’t die, mine’s available at reasonable rates should anyone want it). It’s very much its own thing.

Perhaps its curious originality is why it matters, because just by existing it helps broaden fiction’s possibilities. Without this would we have Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo, or Mabanckou’s Memoirs of a Porcupine (which I started this morning as at the time of writing)? We might, but I suspect Tutuola helped open the door those later writers walked through.

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, but as ever I’m happy to be corrected in the comments.


Filed under African Literature, Fantasy Fiction, Nigerian Literature, Tutuola, Amos

“They ought to start a home for incurable romantics.”

The King of a Rainy Country, by Brigid Brophy

One of the oddities in getting older is the seeming culling of possible lives. I say seeming because our options are often greater than we think, but as jobs and children and life-choices accumulate the room for movement gets narrower.

At 10 you might be anything. At 20 the options are still pretty wide, though by then you can probably make a fair guess as to whether you’re straight or gay, good or bad at sports, practical or a bit of a dreamer.

By 30 most people are either in a long term relationship or looking to be. You’ve likely got a job, perhaps a career. You may well have children. In years past you’d probably have bought a house if you were working steadily (you’d be lucky to do that at 30 now, in the UK anyway).

By 40 odds are you’re settled in that career. You’re probably married, possibly even divorced, and the children are getting older. The prospects now of suddenly giving it all up to open a bar in Belize aren’t looking as good as they used to.

And so it goes on. If you make it to 90 your biggest remaining decision may be whether to stay in the TV room or to take a nap.

Written like that it all sounds pretty gloomy, but my notional average person has a partner, children, a career, a home. Those may not be things that ring down the ages to the applause of posterity but they can be pretty good.

Let’s go back to that “seeming” though, right there in my first sentence. Life closes doors to us, but we close more ourselves. We choose who we are, and then forget we ever made a choice. King, in part, is about that time when those doors are still open, when we don’t yet know which we’ll walk through.

In 1950s London Susan is living with Neale in the kind of poverty that’s only picturesque when you know it’s temporary. They’re young bohemians (Neale has a “tie for reading Baudelaire in”; Susan “can bear anything except a status quo”). They’re supremely uncommitted.


Susan and Neale live together, but they’re not quite a couple and they don’t have sex. At the same time, they’re not quite not a couple either sharing so many private jokes and references that their friends sometimes can’t understand what they’re saying when they talk to each other.

Neale asked: “Are you afraid they’ll think we go to bed together?”

“No, I’m afraid they’ll guess we don’t.”

They’re broke, but they speak French and Italian and have travelled abroad and seen the opera and in 1950s London that’s a fairly straightforward class signifier. If they wanted they could call their dads and they would stop it all. For now they’re enjoying their freedom, but even bohemians have to pay the rent. Neale works washing dishes; Susan gets a job in a bookseller’s.

The bookseller is Finkelheim, though he’s not Jewish. He just thought sounding Jewish would help him in the book trade. He sells a range of titles, but he makes his money with porn. One day, as Susan idly glances at the stock, she finds a striptease picture book where you flick the pages and a woman gradually disrobes. The woman is Cynthia, Susan’s old crush from school (cue link to J Geil’s Band’s classic track Centrefold at this point).

In her schooldays Susan was besotted with Cynthia; loved her utterly. Does that make Susan gay? It’s not that simple, lots of people have schoolday crushes on the same sex after all yet self-identify later as straight. Her sexuality is uncertain.

Neale’s sexuality is also somewhat uncertain. He brings a gay French tourist named François home to stay and it’s not clear what Neale and François’ relationship is exactly, but then it’s not clear what anyone’s relationship is exactly. François’ presence does allow however for some wonderful comic Franglais dialogue as Susan tries to make conversation using her rather limited French.

Neale and Susan decide to track down Cynthia, eventually discovering that she was last seen in Venice. Before long they’re out in Italy acting as last-minute tour guide hires to a coachload of particularly uncultured American tourists. The fact the tour agency was willing to send them despite their total lack of prior relevant experience should perhaps have been a warning…

The woman behind asked Neale: “What are carnations in Italian?” Neale looked at me.

“I can’t remember.”

“They don’t know,” the woman said to her husband.

I got up and went to the front of the bus, where I say down at the steel hump besides Carlo. He looked, smiled at me, and turned to the road again. I waited till another boy tried to sell us carnations, then asked Carlo what they were called.

“Fiori,” he said. “Fee-Aw-Ere.”

“Si, si,” I said, “ma che specie di fiori?”

“Fiori,” he repeated. “Fiori rossi – o fiori bianchi.”

I went back to my seat. “You find out?” the woman said.

“I’m afraid not.”

Presently I turned round and told her: “I’ve remembered. Garofani.”

“O,” she said.

I heard her husband ask: “What she say?”

“Some Italian word.”

This is a remarkably witty novel. The dialogue between Neale, Susan and François is priceless. The American tourists are a wonderful mix of the unworldly and the arrogant, comparing everything to something back home and ticking off European sights without any real interest or understanding. One constantly worries about hygiene; another can’t rest unless she has seat 13 on every coach and room 13 in every hotel (at one point she’s accidentally allotted room 31, they arrange for the hotel to reverse the numbers on her door so she doesn’t know).

There’s a distinctly three/four act structure here. The early part in London with François and faux-Finkelheim culminating in an extended flashback to Susan’s schooldays; the road trip with the Americans as Neale and Susan make up historical detail for the places passed, the whole thing like a classic ’60s comedy; then finally the melancholy of Venice and the discovery of Cynthia who is in the company of aging yet still gifted opera singer Helena Buchan. The mood changes quite markedly section to section, and yet somehow never jars.

Identities here are fluid, adopted as required or not yet assumed. The book is unusually free of judgement. In a sense Neale and Susan are playing at their lives, but at the same time that play is the reality – it’s not as if they have other lives somehow more real. Neale and Susan both are searching for “the moment” – a single moment in life in which one can be fully present. The search of course is the moment.

In the end I find myself struggling to capture this novel, which is perhaps appropriate. It’s deceptively light, and yet you don’t explore themes of gender, sexuality and identity while managing significant shifts in tone without having put some serious thought in to what you’re doing. It’s reminiscent in some ways of Oscar Wilde, who in Lady Windermere’s Fan has Lord Darlington say ” life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it”. So it is.

Neale and Susan are an educated pair. Their conversation, and therefore the book, is full of allusions to opera (particularly The Marriage of Figaro). If you know your opera better than I do I suspect there’s a world of references there to unpack. For me it sufficed to recognise that opera is a space where lives are lived large, but where identity is as malleable as the next costume change.

I’ll end (almost) with what struck me as perhaps the most quietly radical thing in The King of a Rainy Country, and that’s the lack of sex. This is, in part, a celibate sex comedy. Neale and Susan share a bed in 1950s England, but nothing happens in it save sleep (and since she works days and him nights even that doesn’t overlap that much). Susan and Cynthia were young lovers in school, but long walks and holding hands were about as far as it went. Helena Buchan, the opera singer, is beautiful and something of a hero to Susan and Neale both, but she too travels with a male companion who seems more friend than lover. The lack of sex subtly undermines expectations. It’s clever, like the rest of this delightful novel.

I’ll end (properly), with a poem by George Szirtes taken with kind permission from his website here, inspired by (but not a straight translation of) the Baudelaire original:

Spleen in a Rainy Season
A burlesque after Baudelaire

I’m like the king of a rainy country, rich
but wobbly weak; both cub and toothless bitch.
I’m through with books, and poems, and string quartets:
I’ve sold the horses, shot the household pets.
Cheer up? Not likely, board games are a bore,
and as for ‘the people’ dying by my door,
fuck them, and fuck that guitar-wielding clown,
who’s worse than useless when I’m feeling down.
See, here he is – that’s me – stuck in his bed,
the girls can put on sex shows, give him head,
go girl on girl, no point, it just won’t work,
it won’t jump-start this junky royal jerk.
The quack who brings him pills and knows a trick
to harden flaccid aristocratic dick
may as well bring blood and the Roman Baths,
the kind that suited those old psychopaths.
No good, he’s dead in muscle, nerve, and brain.
It’s all green Lethe and that bloody rain.

Other reviews

Heavenali reviewed this here; a blog titled Emily Books reviewed it here; and a reviewer called Aimee Wall wrote a very good review for the site Lemon Hound here. I also found this rather interesting piece on an opera blog about the book’s connections with opera. If you know of others, as always please let me know in the comments.


Filed under Brophy, Brigid

“Relax! God is in control.”

Every Day is for the Thief, by Teju Cole

Teju Cole’s remarkable Open City made him something of an instant literary star. It was widely described as his debut, but in fact he’d already been published four years previously with the then little noticed Every Day is for the Thief.

With everyone waiting for a follow-up to Open City, and Cole seemingly more interested for the moment in his journalism and essays, the time was ripe for a back catalogue re-issue. I’m glad that happened, but there’s a reason Cole found fame with Open City and not with Every Day and that’s because interesting as Every Day is it’s a much less polished and accomplished work.

teju-cole-cover.jpg mail_sender PixResearch DT mail_subject Fwd: Seven Books, June 1 mail_date Wed, 21 May 2014 17:03:52 +0100 mail_body ---------- Forwarded message ---------- From: Horatia Harrod Date: 21 May 2014 16:44 Subject: Seven Books, June 1 To: "PixResearch@telegraph.co.uk" Hello, Could someone look for the following? LEAD: Basically ANYTHING showing how incredibly weird North Korea is SECOND: A picture of JD Salinger FICTION: A portrait of Teju Cole FICTION: Portrait of Tom Rachman. Covers all attached. Best from Horatia --=20 Horatia Harrod Commissioning Editor Telegraph Media Group 111 Buckingham Palace Road London SW1W 0DT t: 020 7931 3645 @TelegraphSeven COMMISSIONING TERMS AND CONDITIONS By accepting a commission or payment from us, you agree that we may issue self-billed invoices on your behalf and pay you by BACS. If you are VAT registered, please provide your VAT certificate. We will pay you (a) 100% of the agreed fee for any commissioned work (=E2=80=9CWork=E2=80=9D) which = we have used; (b) 50% of the agreed fee for any Work you provide but we do not use; and (c) 50% of net identifiable syndication profits received by us for any Work which we syndicate as an individual item. Please send your =E2=80=9Crequest= for payment=E2=80=9D to the commissioning editor. You will retain all copyright in all Work. For the agreed fee, you grant us an irrevocable, perpetual, assignable, sub-licensable, royalty free, worldwide licence to use, copy, store, print, publish, display, reproduce, distribute and exploit the Work (including adaptations, abstracts, excerpts, extracts and summaries) in any publication in any current or future medium, including print, digital, electronic, audio and/or visual forms. The licence shall be exclusive to us from the date of creation until 90 days following publication by us of the Wo

The narrator in Every Day is never named and it’s easy to assume it’s essentially Cole himself, but biographical details within the text establish that while Cole might (like many novelists) be drawing on his own experiences it’s not him within the fiction. In fact, it appears to be the same character as Cole later used in Open City, so for the purposes of this piece I’m going to refer to him as Julius.

The book opens with Julius in the New York Nigerian consulate getting his visa to return home after years abroad. The bureaucracy is indifferently time-consuming, but it can be circumvented. If you’re willing to pay some extra fees, and willing not to take a receipt when you do so, your application can be fast tracked.

It’s a sour introduction to a theme that will run right through the novel. The consulate has a torn poster appealing for visa applicants to report any attempts to extort bribes, but there’s no contact details on it so nobody to complain to except the very people demanding them. Julius grudgingly pays. He’ll get used to doing that.

The airport looks sullen from the tarmac. It is named for a dead general, and is all that is worst about the architecture of the seventies.

In Nigeria Julius hasn’t yet left the airport before he receives his first in-country demand for a bribe. An official sits near the exit with no apparent job and asks “What have you brought me for Christmas?” commenting that “you know, they spend dollars in New York.” Nothing is being offered in return, no service or smoothed transaction. It’s just a straightforward demand for a little cash.

On the way home from the airport Julius sees two traffic police arguing. They’re both stationed on a roundabout and shaking down cars for bribes, but one’s standing too close to the other’s spot so the same drivers are being hit twice in a row too quickly which causes them to get angry. It’s all taking place under a billboard which reads “Corruption is illegal: Do not Give or Accept Bribes.”

When Julius and his family go to buy bread a man holds the shop door open, then follows down the street asking for money. It’s relentless. It’s wearying. Cash flows like water; perhaps better to say it flows like oil. It’s an essential social lubricant. As Julius reflects:

The informal economy is the livelihood of many Lagosians. But corruption, in the form of piracy or of graft, also means that most people remain on the margins. The systems that could lift the majority out of poverty are undercut at every turn. Precisely because everyone takes a shortcut, nothing works and, for this reason, the only way to get anything done is to take another shortcut. The advantage in these situations goes to the highest bidders, those individuals most willing to pay money or to test the limits of the law.

Every Day is part novel (novella actually, it’s not that long) and part essay. The text frequently speaks directly to the reader as in that quote above, dropping any real sense of being fiction. It works fairly well, but the result is a kind of novelistic reportage rather than a more conventional narrative. Between chapters are photographs taken by Cole, visual vignettes of everyday Nigeria.

Cole is a master at capturing the Nigerian voice (I’ve worked with a number of Nigerians and currently live in an area with a big Nigerian expat population, so it’s a style of speech I’ve heard a fair bit). This next quote is lengthy, but shows both that command of voice and some of the dangers of life in Lagos:

My Uncle Bello, a well-built man in his forties, told me about going to Oshodi market and being accosted. A rough-looking man approached him on the Oshodi overpass and asked for money. My uncle thought about it and gave him two hundred naira. The man was unimpressed.

—Ah, no o. My money is one thousand.

Uncle Bello said he had to assess at that point whether to call the guy’s bluff or to cave in to the extortion. He called his bluff. It was a bad move. The guy got extremely hostile.

—Heh? What do you mean by no? I will waste you. I will waste you. You see this bridge? I’ll dangle you from the edge, I’ll throw you off it!

My uncle’s options were suddenly limited. He knew that if he gave the thug the thousand naira, his whole wallet could get cleaned out. The man could tell him to take off his trousers and crawl on all fours in the dirt or something similarly humiliating. On the other hand, he really did look like the kind of guy who could make good on his threat of murder.

Uncle Bello’s instincts told him to fight fire with fire. He had lived in Europe for a long time, studying management in Krakow in the 1980s. In fact he was still fluent in Polish. But he had also grown up in a relatively poor family, and had to fend for himself from an early age. So he knew the ways of the street. He started shouting at the man:

—Waste me? Waste me? Are your eyes functioning? Look at me very well before you say another word. You don’t recognize me? I will injure you, I will kill you. You understand? I will kill you! Do you know who you are talking to? Ehn? Do you know me? I will make your wife a widow!

“But, of course,” my uncle added with a deep laugh, “the whole time I was saying this, I was quaking in my shoes like you wouldn’t believe.” The guy bought the act though, and started begging my uncle to forgive him. Finally, my uncle gave him another two hundred, and they parted ways. About three dollars had changed hands. Both lived to tell the tale. Lagos.

The intensity of Lagos life is dulling. Almost nobody seems to read anything other than religious pamphlets or cheap newspapers, seeing someone with a novel is a major incident for Julius. At night there are regular powercuts. It’s too hot to sleep and the noise of South African soaps from the neighbours’ TVs too loud anyway.

Violence is normalised as the quote above and this quote recalling an incident from Julius’ childhood shows. The boy mentioned here is a petty handbag thief, nothing more serious:

An old car tire—from where?—has been quickly sourced. The boy’s clothes are torn off, he is knocked down repeatedly. Space has been created out of the congestion. A gaggle of schoolgirls, in green-and-white uniforms, has joined the spectators. And a new twist: in the crowd, there stands a man with a digital camcorder. The single eye of his machine collects the event: this fragile body, which, shed of clothes, is now like a dark sapling whipped about in the wind. The tire is flung around the boy. He is losing consciousness but revives with sudden panic when he is doused with petrol. From the distance, two traffic officers, the ones they call Yellow Fever, watch. The splashing liquid is lighter than water, it is fragrant, it drips off him, beads in his woolly hair. He glistens. The begging stops. He stops begging and he is not yet lit. The whites of his eyes are bright as lamps. And then only the last thing, which is soon supplied. The fire catches with a loud gust, and the crowd gasps and inches back. The boy dances furiously but, hemmed down by the tire, quickly goes prone, and still. The most vivid moment in the fire’s life passes, and its color dulls and fizzes out. The crowd, chattering and sighing, momentarily sated, melts away. The man with the digicam lowers his machine. He, too, disappears. Traffic quickly reconstitutes around the charred pile. The air smells of rubber, meat, and exhaust.

It’s depressing to read something like that, but somehow still less depressing than Julius’ trip to the National Museum. Julius is the only visitor; photography is forbidden but there’s nothing to photograph anyway because the exhibits are second-rate and covered in dust. Nigeria’s famous artistic treasures are nowhere to be seen, sold to foreign dealers. In New York, London and Berlin well curated examples of Nigeria’s rich artistic history are proudly displayed, accompanied by high-quality contextual explanations. In Lagos there are some pitiful beaded baskets and more dispiritingly yet the bullet-riddled car in which one of Nigeria’s military rulers was murdered back in 1976.

Despite its short length Every Day is a fatiguing read. Not for lack of skill, but rather because of skill. Cole captures the endless petty corruption, the constant threat of escalation into violence, but above all the passivity it breeds in people. It takes so much energy just to make it through the day that for most people there’s nothing left for art or for social improvement. When people hope for better they hope for it in the next life, their prayers led by preachers whose sanctity is proven by their earthly rewards in the form of Learjets and Rolls-Royce cars.

Julius finds an exception when he visits a private conservatory where children of the rich study classical music and jazz.The conservatory is a rare moment of pure culture, of dedication to something beyond mere survival. It seems from Julius’ brief visit as good as anything he might see overseas, and so is a small vision of what Nigeria could be. It’s utterly beyond the reach of the vast majority of the population, just having to pay for your own instrument would make it too expensive for most, but it’s something.

Each time I am sure that, in returning to Lagos, I have inadvertently wandered into a region of hell, something else emerges to give me hope. A reader, an orchestra, the friendship of some powerful swimmers against the tide.

In the UK we now tend to talk of the arts as the “creative industries”. The benefits of art are expressed in economic terms – jobs created or supported; tourist revenue generated. It’s reductionist and misses the point. The benefit of art is not that we can make money from it. If that were all it was then we should jettison art where other investments show higher returns. The benefit of art is that it takes us beyond the every day and gives us something greater.

The conservatory provides a small shaft of light in a bleak novel. As the book nears its end Nigeria is opening its doors to Chinese money and development but like the other foreigners attracted by Nigeria’s oil and mineral wealth they keep to themselves and don’t mix with the locals except for business. Julius goes back to the airport, and after one last demand for a bribe and one last irritant as the plane sits stalled on the tarmac for an unexplained half-hour, flies home to the US. In a final elegiac coda he revisits Lagos in memory returning to an unexpected urban discovery of grace and dignity. Life in Lagos goes on despite everything, but without Julius.


Filed under Cole, Teju

All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness is one of those books so famous that actually reading it seems almost unnecessary. The journey up the river; Mr Kurtz; “‘The horror! The horror!’”. It’s well known material.

Perhaps that’s why it took me so long to get round to reading it myself. It felt like I already had.


That’s not the cover I have, but it is an absolutely brilliant one that for me captures the book better than any other I’ve seen. My copy was a Penguin Classics edition that also came with the short story Youth, featuring the same protagonist and an essentially identical framing device. They make interesting comparison pieces, and if you can read them together I’d recommend doing so.

Heart opens with Marlow and his friends sitting on a boat on the Thames. They’re all aging ex-seamen with most having long moved on to other more illustrious careers. As the sun sets Marlow begins to tell the others a tale of his seafaring days. Youth opens almost exactly the same way.

As the sun sets on the Thames the narrator (an unnamed member of Marlow’s audience) reflects on its glory:

The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. […] Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

It’s a beautiful and sentimental scene, but then:

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

Note the use of past tense there. With that remark everyone settles down and Marlow starts to talk of the Romans and their Empire, and its then-modern British equivalent. Marlow reflects:

It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

True enough, though many in Britain today would still find it objectionable. Whenever I’ve seen the British Empire come up in conversation (which isn’t actually that often, it ended a while back now) you can generally count on at least one or two people arguing that overall it was for the benefit of everyone involved, even if a few mistakes were made along the way.

Perhaps though Conrad’s contemporaries would have recognised the truth of his statement. It isn’t after all arguing that colonialism is wrong, just that the practicalities of it are often ugly. Those who’d been there might well agree.

The stage set Marlow sets off on his anecdote, which takes him to the offices of a European trading house and from there to a great river in an unnamed African nation. It’s never stated, but contemporary readers would have known just as much as modern ones do that it’s King Leopold’s Congo.

Marlow makes his way slowly upriver, stopping along the way at a trading station where he sees a ravine filled with corpses and dying men, all black. It’s the first real sign of the human cost of Leopold’s exploitation. The trading house itself has two white men within it, one the perfectly groomed chief accountant and the other a company agent lost to fever while returning home. The contrasts are surreal, as is the attitude of the accountant who casually remarks that the agent isn’t dead “yet” and comments on how when one has to keep accurate books “one comes to hate those savages”.  On his surface the accountant is the epitome of European civilisation but he has hardened inside.

“He turned to his work. The noise outside had ceased, and presently in going out I stopped at the door. In the steady buzz of flies the homeward-bound agent was lying flushed and insensible; the other, bent over his books, was making correct entries of perfectly correct transactions; and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still tree-tops of the grove of death.

That accountant is the first to speak of Mr Kurtz, a legendary company agent who brings in more ivory than the rest put together. As Marlow heads deeper inland his misgivings grow, and so did mine.

The problem with Heart of Darkness that soon became apparent is that it is extraordinarily racist. The local population rarely get to speak (even in their own language) and when they do it’s mostly the savage cries of a frenzied mob. Marlow is appalled by the “grove of death”, but in the same way a modern person might be appalled by seeing chickens packed into a factory farm. There’s no sense he sees the blacks as being of the same nature as the whites. instead he refers to them as having a “taint of imbecile rapacity”.

Marlow encounters a company manager who is both untrustworthy and stupid; a man who only has his position because his exceptional good health preserves him from the fevers that strike down most of the whites. He’s an unlikable character, but he’s white which means he at least gets dialogue and he’s clearly the same kind of being as Marlow, just an inferior specimen of Marlow’s breed.

The blacks by contrast are portrayed as barely human. Marlow’s steamship crew are a group of primitive cannibals, one of whom works on the ship’s bridge:

He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a  vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.

On Marlow’s account this “savage” understands that if the water in the steam-gauge runs low “the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance.” Later the fireman takes a spear to the chest and as he lies dying he gives Marlow a look “like a claim of distant kinship”. Marlow misses him as a shepherd might miss a sheep dog (perhaps not quite that much), even though he notes in an aside to his audience that he understands they may find it “passing strange this regret for a savage who was of no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara.”

That description of an “improved specimen” who even so is like “a dog in a parody of breeches” is as close to human as anyone black gets in this novel. Mostly the Africans are an undifferentiated mass of limbs and torsos, interchangeable savages. Marlow’s language, Conrad’s language, is riddled with hostility and contempt for the locals and much of it I can’t really repeat here without risking causing some fairly serious offence to those reading this.

I don’t have a problem with an 1899 novel about colonialist administrators consistently using horrifyingly racist language. It would be absurd in a way if it didn’t. I don’t believe these Europeans would have spoken kindly of the Africans they controlled and I’m quite certain they wouldn’t have regarded them as equals. I had however expected Conrad to be slightly more enlightened.

As it is however, the tragedy that comes across in Heart of Darkness is not the tragedy of the human cost to the Congolese of their occupation and exploitation. That’s just breaking eggs while making an omelette. The tragedy is that having to do terrible things hardens and brutalises the Europeans who do them.

Kurtz is a noble figure undone by his isolation in the heart of darkness. That darkness, that savagery, for Conrad/Marlow remains within us even in 1899 when Europe has long since climbed into the light. By descending back into it we risk reawakening the darkness in our own hearts, and becoming lost in it.

In the end I found this an ugly novel. Not ugly for the reasons I expected, but because it isn’t so much a searing indictment of colonialism as it’s an adventure yarn with a level of racism I’ve rarely seen in any fiction (and I’ve read a fair bit from this period). I’ll link below to an essay by Chinua Achebe with which I largely agree and which addresses the racism of the text far better than I ever could, but here’s one final quote to show how it crops up not just in the characters’ language but in the very descriptions of the local people:

Suddenly the manager’s boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt –

“‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead.’

His “insolent black head”. The familiar language of prejudice and disdain.

The reason I recommend reading Youth with this is partly that it’s a fun story but more importantly that I think it undermines Heart’s status. Youth and Heart both consist of Marlow telling a story of dangerous and memorable adventure. The foreword notes that Youth is far less psychologically complex, and that’s true, but I wondered if for Conrad these were broadly similar nautical tales of adventure. Heart includes powerful elements of reportage and a degree of stylistic improvement, but it’s not a fundamentally different animal to Youth..

Heart’s critical acclaim came decades after its publication. It’s now an accepted part of the canon, but I question that. It’s a good book, well written and powerful in its depiction of one of colonialism’s greatest horrors. It’s also one of the most dehumanising and racist texts I’ve read, and its lack of empathy for anyone in the narrative who isn’t white is why for me it fails to be a great book.

Other reviews

None I know on the blogosphere, though I’m sure I’ve missed some. Achebe’s essay for those interested is here. It’s worth reading even if you don’t agree, and as I say above goes into much more detail on the racist aspects of the novel (for example the contrast between Kurtz’ black mistress and his white wife left at home, one an unspeaking savage and the other noble and even spiritual).


Filed under Conrad, Joseph

Rick was a marked man, a lifelong sucker for syncopation.

Young Man With A Horn, by Dorothy Baker

Most people like music. They like it to dance to; they like it in the background at a restaurant; they like something to listen to while at the gym. Most people will have a few favourite acts and some favourite tunes; songs that spark memories of important moments or that years after adolescence still get them jumping up to throw some ageing shapes on the dance floor.

All of that’s important, but it’s not the whole story. For some of us saying we like music isn’t right because like is too mild a word. Music is integral, essential, part of who we are. If I can feel that even though I can’t play a note, how much stronger must it be for those who can create sounds nobody’s ever heard before?


Young Man with a Horn is the story of the life of Rick Martin, a fictional jazz trumpeter who died at the age of thirty burnt out by a talent greater than his life could contain. It’s about that tension between just liking music and living it, made vastly more acute by a gift that allows no compromise and yet which is so advanced most people can hardly recognise it.

While still a schoolkid Rick Martin wanders one day into an empty church. He looks at a hymn book and sings a couple of the hymns, then he notices a piano and decides to see if he can work out how to play them on it.

It worked out, all right. It started to work itself out that very day. Rick stood there, head on one side, forehead in pleats, figuring it out. And after a while he dragged up one of the benches vertical to the piano, and sat on the end of it. He stayed there until dark, and I can scarcely believe it myself, but the story goes that he could play the piano by dark; he could play number 14 on the piano by dark. He couldn’t find the light switch, then, and so he went home and went right to bed, so that he could think about just how it was that he had done it, and how maybe it might sound better if he made a change or two here and there.

Rick’s a poor white kid. He lives with his aunt and uncle neither of whom is much home and he’s about as low on the social scale as you can get without being black. Race matters here. That little lack of melanin is the only status Rick and his people have. These are racist times and even the lowliest white is still viewed as superior to any black.

Music though, music doesn’t recognise those distinctions. Musicians may, but the music doesn’t. Rick falls in with Smoke Jordan, a kid who sweeps up at the bowling alley where Rick works and Smoke is friend to Jeff Williams who plays piano and leads one of the best jazz bands in town. Smoke and Jeff are black, the whole band are, but all Rick can hear is the music and the music’s too good to be ignored. This quote captures jazz for me as well as anything I’ve ever read:

Jeff led them to it with four bars in the key, and then the three horns came in together, held lightly to a slim melody by three separate leashes. Then Jeff left the rhythm to the drums, and the piano became the fourth voice, and from then on harmony prevailed in strange coherence, each man improvising wildly on his own and the four of them managing to fit it together and tightly. Feeling ran high, and happy inspiration followed happy inspiration to produce counterpoint that you’d swear somebody had sat down and worked out note by note on nice clean manuscript paper. But nobody had; it came into the heads of four men and out again by way of three horns and one piano.

At first Rick and Smoke just hang out outside, listening through the window. It isn’t long though before they’re invited in and Jeff learns that Rick can play a little piano himself. He recognises Rick’s innate talent, and while it would have happened somehow anyway from there Rick’s path is set.

Jazz music is born from black American talent and experience. It came from a fusion of the emotion of the blues with the precision of the New Orleans classically trained Creole bands put out of work by the Jim Crow laws. The history of jazz is inseparable from the history of race in the US.

When Rick first meets Smoke, Jeff and the others in the band he’s the only white kid there. His language, his interior monologue, is profoundly racist but that’s a function of vocabulary and upbringing rather than true feeling. He can’t hide from himself the talent of these men or the friendship and guidance they offer him and Smoke goes on to be the only true friend he’ll ever have.

A few years later Rick’s working the coast playing trumpet in a white jazz band, Jack Stuart and his Collegians. The Collegians have taken that music of black origin and now play it for white crowds, cleaned up and not too challenging. They’re good, but nothing great.

Rick turns up for the job bearing a box of LPs featuring Jeff Williams and his band. He can’t leave that music, the true music, behind. He plays them for Jack and his boys who’ve heard of Jeff Williams but assumed because he was good that he was white. I was reminded of Nick LaRocca’s (I believe all white) Original Dixieland Jass Band who were the first to popularise jazz with a mass white audience and who helped kickstart the craze for jazz music as dance music.

Jeff Williams starts with similar base tunes to LaRocca’s crew, but he builds on them and his music is too deep, too complex to be just something to dance to:

Inseparable as music and dancing fundamentally must be, it is only the layman who prefers to dance to, rather than listen to, really good jazz. Good jazz has so much going on inside it than dancing to it, for anybody who likes the music, is a kind of dissipation. Bach’s Brandenburgs would make good dance music, but nobody dances to them; they make too-good dance music. The improvisations of Jeff Williams and his band weren’t anybody’s Brandenburgs, but they had something in common with them, a kind of hard, finished brilliance.

For Rick jazz is much more than something fun to pass an evening with. The musicians he plays with recognise his talent, but the crowds only see that he’s good and while he’s a definite commercial draw at the end of the day most of what he’s doing soars right over their heads. It raises a question as to what his talent’s for. It eats his life – hours of practice every day; playing all evening for the crowd then all night with the other musicians for fun after the gig’s done. He doesn’t take holidays, he barely spends the money he earns. Rick Martin just plays, practices, and then plays some more.

A few years later and Rick’s hit the big time, or as big as jazz allows. He’s now with Phil Morrison’s orchestra, another white band because while it’s largely blacks who’re advancing the form it’s whites who’re packing in the big audiences.

[Phil’s] orchestra held the established first place among society orchestras for years and years. And for a big orchestra, and a society orchestra, it was good. The way Rick Martin’s trumpet used to spring up above the rest of their heads would make you think it was a great orchestra, and Rick wasn’t the only good man in it, either; there was a fiddler who made you think twice, and a man who blew as good a trombone as you’ll hear anywhere in public. But it wouldn’t do to call it a great orchestra because it pandered to all tastes and there was always that grandiose ending. It was just a good big orchestra, playing out its nightly schedule at one big hotel or another, working for money, drawing a crowd, getting people out on the floor. But when that thin blond boy stood up in his place and tore off sixteen bars in his own free style, filling in the blank that was allotted to him on the score, it was a surprise forever, like seeing an airplane take off from the deck of a good solid ship. To hell, please, with the law of gravity.

It can’t last. Rick finally meets a girl who’s more than just a casual fling and has a short lived and disastrous marriage. “When she came into a room, Rick felt it and his knees went cold. When she bent her head to light a cigarette from the match he held, he was lost until the flame burned his finger.” His drinking gets worse and worse, until after a while nobody can tell anymore how much he’s had as it’s always too much. His talent outgrows his audience, his desire to do more getting to the point where his horn can’t make the sounds he wants it to and if it did hardly anyone would even recognise them as music any more.

What do we know except that he had a way of doing a thing, and that he had a love of the thing so strong that he never in his life compromised it, or let it down, or forgot it?

This is a novel about music, about race, and about having a talent so great that it eclipses the life that carries it. Rick Martin’s talent isn’t so much a gift as a demand. By the end of the novel he’s dead (the novel opens with this so it’s not a spoiler) leaving behind a few recordings and only a handful of musicians who understood quite how good he was.

Young Man With A Horn is a novel inspired by the music, but not the life, of Bix Beiderbecke. As the afterword makes clear, Beiderbecke’s life didn’t have much in common with Martin’s save too much alcohol, too much talent and too early an end. This is a novel about the music rather than the man. Because that music is jazz music it’s also a novel about race, and because jazz at its best is truth with a trumpet it’s a novel about truth in art and in life and the price you pay for it.

Other reviews

YMWAH was published in 1938 and so falls into Kaggsy’s rather good 1938 club. As a result Kaggsy has reviewed it here and Vulpes Libres here (and me here for that matter) and others are reading it and their reviews should be linked to from Kaggsy’s 1938 club page. There’s also a review by Jacqui of JacquiWine’sblog here. I’m sure I’m missing some so please let me know in the comments.

Edit: Tom of Amateur Reader’s rather good post is here, with some nice quotes showing quite how well Baker writes about the actual practice of playing music.

On a related note, I reviewed Dorothy Baker’s marvellous Cassandra at the Wedding here.

The best Bix Beiderbecke recordings I know of are on the four disc Bix and Tram box set featuring Bix Beiderbecke and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer. There’s a Discogs description here and I highly recommend it. I also listened while reading this to Bix Beiderbecke with Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra which (despite a somewhat glitchy initial track) is very, very good. There’s an Allmusic description of that album here.


Filed under Baker, Dorothy

Desolation tries to colonize you.

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

I grew up on horror. My early loves were (of course) HP Lovecraft; the now underappreciated James Herbert; Stephen King; Peter Straub; Brian Lumley; William Hope Hodgson; M. R. James; Robert R. McCammon; Guy N. Smith with his series of novels about giant man-eating crabs invading Britain; the magnificent Ramsey Campbell. There were many others, now largely lost to me.

The contemporary horror authors shared some characteristics. Their stories were generally set in locations familiar to their readers. They contained healthy dollops of sex and lovingly detailed acts of appalling violence.

The threats were rarely personal to an individual but more often involved entire towns or countries facing madness or atrocity. Particularly with the British authors body counts tended to be high.

Hodgson and James offered more classically supernatural ghost stories (though Hodgson’s The Night Land was a much more curious beast). Enjoyable, but lacking the visceral thrills offered by the contemporaries. Both had a nice sense of how fear could come from the mere presence of the uncanny.

Lovecraft though, and to an extent Campbell, they were different; their horrors stranger. Instead of conjuring fear with ghosts or hostile creatures or scenes of pain and death they instead went existential. The terror here was that the world no longer made sense; that it never had.


Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is the first of a trilogy, published in full during 2014. It’s not a long novel, but it is a resonant one. It’s very, very good.

The biologist is part of a team of four sent into Area X, together with the anthropologist, the surveyor and the psychologist. The linguist didn’t make it through processing. They’re all women, the thought being that perhaps that will somehow help in Area X. They’re not the first expedition.

What is Area X? That’s not quite clear. It’s a zone where the world isn’t as it should be. There were previous expeditions, the last one including the biologist’s husband. People who enter either don’t come back at all or come back changed. Whatever is in Area X is alien and dangerous.

Names are left behind. Crossing over to Area X involves passing through some kind of boundary and the effects are psychologically devastating, so the expedition members pass through under hypnosis waking on the other side armed with post-hypnotic commands and considerable uncertainty as to their own mission.

Almost immediately they discover something the biologist names a tower and the others a tunnel. It’s a large disc with steps penetrating deep into the earth. It’s not on their maps. Within they find cryptic and ominous writing growing in fungal form from the walls, written by who knows what. It’s so close to their camp that it must have been known about, so why wasn’t it mentioned?

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

The expedition begins to break down. The biologist finds she’s become immune to the psychologist’s post-hypnotic suggestions after inhaling some spores, but does that mean that her experiences are more real than the others or less? Is she escaping programming or hallucinating?

This is a strange and slippery novel. The reader is rapidly as unmoored as the biologist and the other expedition members. The characters here have lost their names, can no longer be certain of their past, can’t even agree on what they’re seeing and hearing. The psychologist tries to control them with her hypnotic trigger-phrases, but there’s no control to be had either for her or the reader.

As the biologist realises she can’t trust her team-mates or, after inhaling those spores, herself she comes to realise that she also can’t trust the people who sent them in. The expedition’s goals don’t make sense given what must have been known about the tower, and the hypnosis seems to have left none of them with any clear idea of how they’re supposed to leave once they’re done.

The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?

Perhaps the best thing to say about Annihilation is that I genuinely don’t know how to describe it. It’s an insidious and disquieting novel. It evokes a sense of dread, but of what isn’t always entirely clear. As the biologist delves deeper into Area X she encounters signs of what may have happened to those who went before, but the uncertainty is the true horror here.

At times VanderMeer does seem to be making quite deliberate homage to other works. The whole concept is clearly in part at least inspired by Roadside Picnic, though you could easily read this without having read that. Similarly, the following passage where the biologist visits an abandoned village contains imagery strongly (and I suspect intentionally) reminiscent of William Hope Hodgson‘s famous horror short The Voice in the Night:

But in what had been kitchens or living rooms or bedrooms, I also saw a few peculiar eruptions of moss or lichen, rising four, five, feet tall, misshapen, the vegetative matter forming an approximation of limbs and heads and torsos. As if there had been runoff from the material, too heavy for gravity, that had congregated at the foot of these objects. Or perhaps I imagined this effect.

One particular tableau struck me in an almost emotional way. Four such eruptions, one “standing” and three decomposed to the point of “sitting” in what once must have been a living room with a coffee table and a couch—all facing some point at the far end of the room where lay only the crumbling soft brick remains of a fireplace and chimney. The smell of lime and mint unexpectedly arose, cutting through the must, the loam.

If you’ve read the Hodgson it resonates with that, but if you haven’t it still works and in any event it’s certainly not mere pastiche. VanderMeer is master of the disconcerting detail – here that smell of lime and mint which in a way is more horrifying than just the suggestion that something terrible happened here and to the people in these houses.

In the end it becomes evident that horror isn’t intrinsic to Area X and nor is it restricted to it. The world is worse than inimical, it’s unknowable. As the biologist concludes:

Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish.

Annihilation is a rare example of genre fiction that I’d potentially recommend to non-genre readers. It’s well written and its effects linger uncomfortably long after you’ve closed the final page. I’m looking forward to reading the second and third in the trilogy.

Other reviews

None in the blogs I normally follow that I’m aware of, but please feel free to alert me to any in the comments.

Edit: Kaggsy alerted me in the comments to a very good review by Annabel Gaskella which is here. Lee also alerted me to this review by Trevor, which I thought I’d read and commented on but looking back I think I may have missed entirely.


Filed under Horror Fiction, Science Fiction, VanderMeer, Jeff

It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things.

Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrera and translated by Lisa Dillman

Some books just blaze off the page. Signs is one of them. I’ll be amazed if this doesn’t make my end of year list.

Signs Preceding

At one level Signs is a novel about a young woman illegally crossing over from Mexico to the US. It opens with a literal descent into the underworld:

I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a cane was crossing the street, a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passersby. I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she failed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.

It’s a deservedly confident opening. Already in just that paragraph Makina is scrambling for survival, constantly and instinctively in motion. As the narrative broadens out it becomes a metaphor for her life. She’s an intermediary who survives by speaking several languages and acting as both a messenger and as operator of the town’s switchboard (they don’t have a local cell tower).

Makina needs to cross over to look for her brother who left pursuing some fruitless land claim and never returned. To go she needs permissions from the town’s big men and, of course, has to do one of them (a man “who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride”) a favour in return by making a delivery for him.

So far so naturalistic, but the journey quickly takes on mythic dimensions. The literal descent becomes a metaphorical one as Makina crosses a fierce river to reach an otherworld that you risk becoming part of if you linger too long, after which you will never return. Her brother was lost there and now like Orpheus before her she risks losing herself to bring him back.

What dazzles here is the use of language. Herrera creates new meanings for words reflecting both Makina’s use of slang and the linguistic melting-pot she personally represents (a particularly common example is Herrera’s use of “verse” to mean travel, as in “She versed to the street”.) It’s never confusing, but creates a sense of language that like Makina herself is constantly in motion.

The crossing over is sharply captured both in terms of its challenges and particular horrors (a pregnant woman resting under a tree, soon discovered in fact to be a corpse bloated with gas). The US itself proves an alien and unfamiliar landscape filled with parallel populations of noisy anglos and “homegrown” like her who she realises are omnipresent but curiously muted.

The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing. They flourished in supermarkets, cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand or a loaf of bread a little bigger than everyone else’s. Makina just dented cans and sniffed bottles and thought it best to verse, and it was when she saw the anglogaggle at the self-checkouts that she noticed how miserable they looked in front of those little digital screens, and the way they nearly-nearly jumped every time the machine went bleep! at each item. And how on versing out to the street they sought to make amends for their momentary one-up by becoming wooden again so as not to offend anyone.

Out on the concrete and steel-girder plain, though, she sensed another presence straight off, scattered about like bolts fallen from a window: on street corners, on scaffolding, on sidewalks; fleeting looks of recognition quickly concealed and then evasive. These were her compatriots, her homegrown, armed with work: builders, florists, loaders, drivers; playing it sly so as not to let on to any shared objective, and instead just, just, just: just there to take orders. They were the same as back home but with less whistling, and no begging.

There’s some wonderful language in that quote: “salt of the only earth worth knowing”; “anglogaggle”; but also a nice juxtaposition of the two populations co-dependent but seemingly immiscible.

As Makina verses through the city following clues leading to her brother and making her promised delivery she comes to realise that there is something more there than just alienation and subjugation. The anglos and homegrown may seem to coexist without overlapping, but the reality is more fluid and the act of transition between places is transformative. There’s a reason people don’t go home again, and partly it’s because what they’ve left is no longer home.

They are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rabid intensity; with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people. And then they speak. They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link.

More than the midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born. … In it brims nostalgia for the land they left or never knew when they use the words with which they name objects; while actions are alluded to with an anglo verb conjugated latin-style, pinning on a sonorous tail from back there.

There is an end of the world here. It’s an end to Makina’s world and perhaps too an end to the Anglo’s assumed world which they built on the homegrown’s labour while pretending they didn’t need to adapt to the people they’d invited into their very homes. Language creates reality and as people create new words for their new shared experiences they create a new world with them.

This is a book filled with signs preceding the end of the world, but recognising too that the world must end for new worlds to be born. It’s a book rooted squarely in the particular: the journey across the Rio Bravo; ethnic and income divides; racist police and opportunistic gangmasters; but beyond all that it’s a book that raises all this to the status of myth or dream. It is an exceptional work, quite unlike anything else I’ve read recently and genuinely exciting to encounter.

Other reviews

This has been very widely reviewed, so apologies to those I miss here. Please do feel free to link to your reviews in the comments if I’ve missed them. Ones I had noted included Stu of Winston’s Dad’s Blog here; Shigekuni here; David Hebblethwaite at his blog here but more fully at Words Without Borders here; and Grant at 1streading’s blog here. I know I read more but I lost note of where.


Filed under Herrera, Yuri, Mexican Literature

The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.

Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith

Strangers on a Train is one of my favourite Hitchcock movies. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley is one of the finest psychological thrillers I’ve read. Patricia Highsmith’s original Strangers on a Train novel seemed then an absolute certainty for an entertaining read.


Guy Haines is a gifted young architect travelling by train to see his ex-wife Miriam. I say ex, but they’re just separated and Guy needs a divorce so he can marry his new love Anne. The problem is that Miriam’s a schemer and Guy doesn’t expect to get free of her without paying some kind of price.

A tall blond young man in a rust-brown suit dropped into the empty seat opposite Guy and, smiling with a vague friendliness, slid over into the corner. Guy glanced at his pallid, undersized face. There was a huge pimple in the exact centre of his forehead.

That tall young man is the idly rich Charles Anthony Bruno. Guy is serious and hard-working; a responsible fellow with a bright future ahead of him who’s earned his many achievements to date. Bruno (as he’s mostly referred to) is Guy’s opposite; diffident and drunk and born to privilege.

Bruno engages Guy in reluctant conversation. He’s one of those people you run into on a long train journey or flight who won’t shut up, but Guy finds himself drawn in and eventually the conversation turns to murder. Bruno you see hates his father and likes to dream perfect plans for killing without getting caught.

Despite the warning signs Guy ends up having dinner with Bruno and then drinks in Bruno’s cabin. Bruno needs to vent, but so in his own way does Guy who has his own problems and who finds himself telling this “stranger on the train who would listen, commiserate, and forget” about the grasping Miriam.

By the end of the evening Bruno has suggested his latest scheme for a perfect murder – that two strangers swap victims each killing the other’s. Since in each case the actual murderer would have no motive for their crime the police would surely be lost trying to work out who was responsible. Naturally Guy doesn’t bite, but when a few weeks later he hears that Miriam has been strangled to death he begins to wonder…

The narrative shifts between Guy and Bruno’s perspectives, so the reader knows for certain what Guy only suspects – Bruno murdered Miriam. However, initially at least Bruno’s motive isn’t the murder-swap that he proposed. He just wants to help Guy. Bruno is like a feral puppy, desperately seeking Guy’s friendship and approval but capable at any moment of turning on those around him. Bruno expects Guy’s gratitude, but when Guy works out what’s happened he reacts only in horror and Bruno finds himself spurned. Bruno doesn’t take rejection well.

Guy finds himself in an impossible position. He has an alibi for Miriam’s murder, but he also has a clear motive and Bruno keeps showing up. Worse it turns out that Bruno and Anne are in the same social circles making it ever easier for Bruno to make himself part of Guy’s life. The more Guy pushes back the more Bruno gets upset, and Bruno decides that if Guy won’t be his friend the least he can do is fulfil his part of the bargain and kill Bruno’s father.

Bruno clearly is a narcissistic psychopath. He’s fixated on Guy and there’s a strong implication of sublimated attraction. What about Guy himself though? Why didn’t he break off that initial conversation? Why does he let Bruno get under his skin so easily? Guy’s successful and brilliant in his profession but he’s also weak, easily dominated first by Miriam and now by Bruno. Even with the sensible and loving Anne he finds himself the junior partner, with her driving their relationship and helping push forward his career.

The ugly truth here is that for all the revulsion he feels Guy likes Bruno, and something about Bruno resonates with him. They’re both part-men, each completed by the other. That cover image above isn’t from the edition I have, but I liked it and its byline does capture a truth of the book: an evil man, but also a weak one.

Later, as their plans inevitably start to unravel, Bruno asks a private investigator sniffing into the links between him and Guy whether he understands the calibre of man that Guy is. The PI replies “‘The only calibre ever worth considering is the gun’s’”. When they first met Bruno said something similar telling Guy that anyone, given the right circumstance, could find themselves capable of murder.

Guy Haines has a glittering career, a beautiful and rich new wife, good character and a clear path into the establishment. The PI was right though, and so was Bruno on that fateful first meeting. The only calibre that matters is the gun’s.

Other reviews

Guy Savage reviewed this at his, here.


Filed under Crime Fiction, Highsmith, Patricia

Sometimes the biggest disasters aren’t noticed at all – no one’s around to write horror stories.

A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge

Every now and then I like to dip my toe back into the waters of pure science fiction. If you don’t share that interest, and almost nobody who reads this blog does, this review probably isn’t for you.

Vernor Vinge is one of the greats of recent(ish) science fiction, responsible among other things for the real world concept of the singularity (later popularised by futurologist Ray Kurzweil). Vinge’s claim to fame however doesn’t rest on coining a vaguely useful word, but on writing one of the all time classics of the space opera genre.


This is big-ticket big concept SF. Vinge postulates a dense and complex future in which the galaxy (and beyond) is home to a vast number of intelligences of varying technological development. Unusually for SF, humanity here has no particular importance in galactic affairs – we’re one species among a great many.

Librarian Ravna Bergsndot is the first human ever to get to work at Relay, an immensely wealthy and advanced interstellar communications hub. That makes her suddenly important when back home some other humans accidentally let loose an ancient artificial intelligence which develops so swiftly and with such aggression that it threatens to annihilate entire species and civilisations.

On the wider galactic stage where history is measured in billions of years, that’s not necessarily actually that big a deal. On the other hand, if you live in the vicinity it’s quite important.

The galaxy in Vinge’s novel is separated, possibly artificially, into “zones of thought” – layers of space in which technology and cognition are increasingly limited the closer you get to the galactic core. Earth lies (lay, it doesn’t feature in the novel) in the Slow Zone where faster than light travel is impossible and AI incredibly limited. Civilisation largely exists in the zone above and further out where these things are possible. Beyond that is, well, the Beyond where intelligences we cannot even comprehend do whatever it is they do.

‘The Beyond and below are like a deep of ocean, and we the creatures that swim in the abyss. We’re so far down that the beings on the surface – superior though they are – can’t effectively reach us. Oh, they fish, and they sometimes blight the upper levels with poisons we don’t even understand. But the abyss remains a relatively safe place.’ She paused. There was more to the analogy. ‘And just as with an ocean, there is a constant drift of flotsam from the top.

Go too close to the centre and you hit the Unthinking Depths, where advanced technology simply fails and intelligence becomes impossible.


When the Blight starts to metastasize, any attempt to stop it becomes worth pursuing no matter how desperate. It’s known that a single human ship from the group who initially triggered the Blight’s release escaped and that they possibly have something with them that could damage it. Ravna is given a ship and sent to find and rescue that other human crew. All she has to help her is an ancient resurrected astronaut who carries a fragment of AI superintelligence within his brain and two alien traders each of whom looks “like a small ornamental tree sitting in a six-wheeled cart”.

Meanwhile, the human ship who escaped the Blight have crash landed on a medieval world with no knowledge of the wider galaxy or the attention that’s now being focused on it. That world is occupied by the Tines, pack-sentients where three to six individual members make up a single personality.

The west edge of their landing area was swarming with … things. Like wolves or dogs, but with long necks, they moved quickly forward, darting from hummock to hummock. Their pelts were the same gray green of the hillside, except near their haunches where she saw white and black. No, the green was clothing, jackets. Johanna was in shock, the pressure of the bolt through her chest not yet registering as pain. She had been thrown back against uptilted turf and for the moment had a view of the whole attack. She saw more arrows rise up, dark lines floating in the sky. She could see the archers now. More dogs! They moved in packs. It took two of them to use a bow – one to hold it and one to draw. The third and fourth carried quivers of arrows and just seemed to watch.

It sounds like a confused and unlikely mess, but Vinge absolutely pulls it off. He conjures up a vast, complicated and ancient web of civilisations of which we form just a tiny part and then focuses in on a handful of characters – human and alien – because he never forgets that however large the canvas it’s the small lives upon it which actually matter.

On the Tines’ planet the arrival of the aliens is both opportunity and potential disaster. It turns a cold war between two feudal powers hot, as each tries to capitalise on their access to the crashed aliens and their technology. Much of the pleasure of the book comes from exploring the nature of the Tines, with the peculiarities of their psychology and the advantages and limitations of their pack nature all being convincing and well explored.

The human survivors on the Tines’ world find themselves enmeshed in medieval power-politics of a type utterly unfamiliar to them, struggling both to adapt to a species never before encountered and to the precarious nature of their own position. Their rescuers have their own internal issues, none of them really being suited to a task of the magnitude that’s fallen to them, and come to find themselves the McGuffin in a competition between rival fleets each capable of annihilating planets. It’s the small scale and the large again, the epic giving that sense of wonder but the personal giving it all a point.

Vinge combines all this with a nice (though now a bit dated) satirical edge in that due to bandwidth issues the various aliens of the galaxy communicate via something suspiciously similar to Usenet. Like any social media it’s full of inaccuracies, errors and downright lies. The story is interspersed with posts on the galactic net – some well informed, some malicious, some downright clueless.

In the end though if you read this sort of novel it’s for the sheer imaginative splendour of it all. That feeling of a universe that is deeper and richer and older than we can imagine. A universe where there is wonder. It’s basically escapist, but there’s nothing wrong with the occasional escape.

Our current understanding, which looks extremely unlikely to be overturned, is that faster than light travel is in fact impossible. Coupled with that is the fact that we’ve been staring out into the dark for a while now and the universe is notable primarily for its utter silence. If there’s anybody out there they seem to be very far away and not particularly chatty.

Still, if we can take pleasure from multi-generational Irish family sagas with abusive uncles and judgemental priests; from Brooklyn authors struggling with the meaning of their very comfortable lives; from tales of failing marriages, mid-life crises and murders; why not too from aliens and civilisations as unlikely as they are splendid? If you’ve no love for SF this book won’t change your mind, but if you do it’s a lot of fun.


Filed under Science Fiction, Vinge, Vernor

London had a hint of yellow to it today, she decided, a septic glare.

A Lovely Way to Burn, by Louise Welsh

The true test for any novel which is part of a series is whether the reader goes on to read the next in sequence. If they do then the novel succeeded. If they don’t then for that reader at least the novel failed.

A Lovely Way to Burn is the first of three thrillers each set against the backdrop of a pandemic laying waste to the UK and much of the world. The sequel’s already out and I plan to read it, so Burn succeeded for me. That’s worth bearing in mind given some of the criticisms of the novel I’m going to make below.


Stevie Flint is a presenter on a UK TV shopping channel. She’s the pretty and glamorous one, paired with an older woman named Joanie who adds a homely character to their show. Between them they flog tat to daytime TV viewers most of whom likely watch more for the company than the goods they buy.

Stevie’s boyfriend is attractive paediatric surgeon Simon Sharkey (he’s referred to as Dr Sharkey in the book, which is a minor error as in the UK surgeons are called Mr or Miss as appropriate). Simon’s handsome, rich and lives a fast-moving and high spending lifestyle. Stevie’s not sure if she’s in love with him, but she’s quite certain he’s fun to be around.

Before all that though the novel opens with for me a really misjudged prologue recounting three high-profile shootings that take place in London before the plot proper starts. Each of them is so dramatic that I genuinely think we’d still be discussing them decades later. An MP on a spree shooting; a hedge fund manager who goes berserk on the tube; a vicar who slaughters his congregation. Any of them would make international news.

The prologue doesn’t work because it’s incredible (unless of course an underlying connection gets explained in some later novel, but it’s still incredible now). I can buy a pandemic and I can buy a spree murder, but I struggle a bit with being asked to buy three spree murders and then a pandemic. Obviously the goal is to create a mood of tension and impending chaos, but it just flatly didn’t work for me and I think the novel would be better if the prologue were entirely deleted and the few subsequent references to it taken out.

After the prologue misfire we get into the plot proper. Stevie goes round to visit Simon only to discover him dead in bed, a victim of what she’s later told is sudden adult death syndrome. He died for no obvious reason but with no sign of foul play. Sometimes healthy people just die and however tragic it might be it’s not a police matter.

At about the same time a new disease nicknamed the Sweats has started going round and so far most people don’t realise quite how serious it is. Stevie goes down with it and her next few days are spent in a brutal and debilitating fever. She recovers, after which she’s visited by Simon’s sister who found a hidden letter at Simon’s flat addressed to Stevie. The letter leads to the discovery of a password-protected laptop hidden in his attic crawlspace and an instruction to take it to one of his colleagues and to trust nobody, absolutely nobody, else.

Here starts the mystery. If Simon’s death was natural, why did he leave hidden notes, stashed-away laptops and cryptic instructions just before it happened? Stevie goes to the colleague Simon named, but discovers that he’s come down with the Sweats too and unlike her he didn’t recover. Now Stevie has a dead boyfriend, a laptop that very quickly starts sparking interest from others at the hospital, and the disquieting possibility that Simon was murdered and that whoever was responsible might come after her next.

So far nothing so unusual, except that the Sweats continue to spread. At first most people assume it’s like having a bad cold and society continues on much as it ever has, just with more people off sick.

The Underground carriage’s fluorescence drained the passengers’ complexions of any lustre. The dark skin of the business-suited man beside her had turned grey, and the woman leaning against the pole by the door had taken on a jaded sheen that reminded Stevie of the print of Tretchikoff’s green lady that had hung in her grandmother’s hallway.

Soon however it becomes apparent that almost everyone who catches it dies. Stevie’s immunity isn’t unique, but it is unusual. She still wants to find out why Simon died, but now her investigation is taking place in the midst of a new Great Plague.

‘What’s wrong with Joanie?’
‘The same thing that’s wrong with the rest of them, only more so, sickness, vomiting, diarrhoea, high fever, hot and cold sweats. Don’t you watch the news?’
‘I told you, I was sick. I thought it was the shock of finding Simon.’
‘The great washed and unwashed of London are going down with the lurgy, as are a good portion of Paris, New York and anywhere else you care to mention. People have died. That’s why I was going to send someone round to check on you. I was worried you might have shuffled off this mortal coil.’
For the first time Stevie thought she could detect a note of panic beneath Rachel’s posh bonhomie. She walked to the window. The parade of shops in the street below looked as busy as ever. Rachel had a reputation for exaggerating, but she wouldn’t lie about Joanie being in hospital.

Welsh says in her afterword that the book is in part inspired by classic TV dramas Threads and Survivors, both from the 1970s (the decade that optimism forgot). It shows because the best of the book is easily her portrait of London’s unravelling, slow for much of the book but then suddenly accelerating as the seriousness of the situation dawns and more and more people fall ill.

Less successful is the characterisation. Leaving aside that Stevie Flint and Simon Sharkey both seem to me very much names out of a thriller rather than real life, the characters here are pretty two-dimensional. Stevie is regularly asked why she’s risking her life investigating the death of a man she isn’t even sure she loved during what could potentially be the apocalypse and there’s never really a good reason for that. Nobody else is hugely developed either; people are largely what they seem and they’re painted in fairly broad brush strokes.

The flipside to that characterisation complaint is to ask what else I’d actually want. This is a conspiracy thriller. Subtle and nuanced characterisation would be rather beside the point. As a reader I need it to be clear who everyone is, what their role is in the plot and to be able to easily picture them and Welsh effortlessly meets every one of those criteria (save that I never quite worked out how old Simon was supposed to be, but he was dead so it didn’t much matter).

The trick to thrillers is cutting back on anything which gets in the way of pulling the reader on, to the next page and the next revelation. If character is too deep the reader will stop to explore it; if the prose is too beautiful the reader will slow down to parse and admire it; plot and atmosphere are key and language and character are there to efficiently carry the reader forward.

It’s true that I found the characters here a bit superficial and the language plain and it’s true that the plot didn’t hold too many surprises, but it’s also true that I enjoyed the book. I read though all 369 or so pages of Burn in a single day and as I said at the outset I plan to read both sequels (the first of which is already out). I just hope Welsh doesn’t take too long to finish the final book of the series.

Other reviews

Grant at 1streading put me on to this with his review here. I don’t normally link to newspaper reviews but this one from Leslie McDowell at The Scotsman picks up a brilliant point on the gender issues of the book which I missed. The key quote from the review is:

“As Stevie lurches from one dangerous situation to another, the image that is conjured up reminds one of US artist Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Stills, where a young woman is portrayed in various poses against a hostile city-scape. There are no women in Welsh’s dystopian world, apart from dead or dying ones. Technology is useless against the plague that is spreading and women have lost the power that technology once gave them. Simon’s medical colleagues are all male; one of them, Alexander Buchanan, even offers to send his son to collect Simon’s laptop from her. There are no daughters, no sisters, no mothers in this darkening world; as the city turns to chaos, men roam the streets and women become invisible.

By the end of the novel, Stevie has almost rid herself of her feminine look, marked at the beginning by her painted nails; she is wearing Simon’s clothes, has shaved her hair. The feminine has no place in a dangerous dystopian landscape. Perhaps that is what we should really fear.”

I think that’s a really impressive (and spot-on) analysis and I encourage anyone with any interest in this book at all to follow the link and read the full review. McDowell has her own blog, here, on blogspot unfortunately which makes it harder to subscribe for new posts and comments. Still, given her review in The Scotsman I suspect her blog would be well worth taking a look at.


Filed under Welsh, Louise