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

Goodwill oozed from him like sweat.

The Mask of Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler

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

How far we’ve come!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So they might.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews

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

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Filed under Ambler, Eric, Spy Fiction, Thrillers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews

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

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Filed under Crime, De Angelis, Augusto, Italian fiction, Pushkin Vertigo

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

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

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

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

Here’s a quote from the first page:

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

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

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

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

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

What are you doing, Mama?

Writing.

Writing just a book, Mama?

Just writing.

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

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

Because.

Please, cut the zombies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews

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

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

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

In a Station of the Metro

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Filed under Luiselli, Valeria, Mexican fiction, Spanish

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

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

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

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

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

Bookshop Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews

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

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Filed under Fitzgerald, Penelope, UK fiction