Category Archives: Booker

… a precious moment gone and we not there

A month in the Country, by J.L. Carr

J.L. Carr isn’t I think a well-known author today. To the extent he’s remembered at all it’s for his 1980 Booker shortlisted novella A Month in the Country. William Golding’s Rites of Passage won that year. I haven’t read Rites, but to have beaten Country all I can say is that it must be bloody good.

The narrator of Country is Tom Birkin. In 1978 he’s an old man, but in 1920 he was still young and he spent a summer in the English village of Oxgodby where he uncovered a medieval wall painting located in the local church. The narrative then is an act of memory and nostalgia. Birkin is not unreliable, but this is no longer his direct experience.

Here, walking in driving rain, Birkin first sees the church:

It was an off-the-peg job: evidently there had been no medieval wool boom in these parts. This had been starveling country, every stone an extortion. The short chancel had an unusually shallow pitched roof; it must have been added a good hundred years after the main building (which had a steep pitch flattening into aisles). The tower was squat. Don’t get the wrong impression; all in all, it was pleasant-enoough looking and, when I came closer, I saw that the masonry had been fettled up very nicely – limestone ashlar not rubble. Even between the buttresses it had been beautifully cut with only a hint of mortar and, near-enough drowning as I was, I silently applauded the masons. The stone itself – just a tinge of pale yellow in it, magnesium – it must have been quarried near Tadcaster and ferried up the rivers. Don’t let the detail irritate you: even in those far-off days I thought rather highly of myself as a stone-fancier.

Firstly, that’s a lovely piece of description. Secondly though it’s a description which tells us something of the describer. This is a man comfortable with detail, with the inanimate and with the distant past. Is he as comfortable with the animate and the present? We soon find out as Birkin meets the local vicar, the Reverend Keach:

He was four or five years older than me, maybe thirty, a tall but not a strong-looking man, neatly turned out, pale-eyed, a cold, cooped-up look about him and, long after he must have become used to my face-twitch, he still talked to someone behind my left shoulder.

What I like in that passage is how not only do we get a pretty good description of Keach, again we learn a lot about Birkin too. Most importantly, we learn of his twitch, and so given the period know that he must be a veteran recovering from the horrors of the war.

Birkin knows what he is doing and the work goes well. He lives in the church tower to save money and makes friends with a fellow veteran named Moon who is now an archaeologist. Moon and Birkin understand each other. They were both in the war and they both brought it home with them. As the work continues though Birkin finds himself more and more drawn into Oxgodby life, and not least into the lives of the Reverend Keach and his stunningly beautiful wife – a woman Birkin increasingly feels a connection with.

There’s a lot going on here. The painting itself reveals a mystery. It’s a masterwork. Why then was it covered over so quickly after it was made? Why does it show a man falling into hell whose face is drawn so precisely as to seem a portrait? What happened to the painter? The distant past begins to reveal itself as Birkin’s own past recedes. He is adopted by the village stationmaster and his family who involve him in their church services and Sunday dinners. Twitching and reclusive Birkin is brought back into the world.

At times Country is an extremely funny novel. I loved Birkin being seconded to act as speaker to a small Wesleyan congregation, despite his being painfully ill-suited to the task. There’s a family expedition to buy a new church organ which is another piece of small comic brilliance. Alongside that is that sense of memory and the effects of time – what is lost and what is preserved. The act of uncovering the painting in 1920 is an act of discovery of the past in the same way that the act of remembering that long-past summer is for Birkin in 1978. In both cases the result is not what actually was, but rather as good a reconstruction of it as can now be achieved. As Birkin reflects:

… it simply isn’t possible to return a five-hundred-year-old-wall-painting to its original state. At best, I aimed at approximation, uniformity, something that looked right.

The same could of course be said for the entire narrative.

Part of the power of Country is its tremendous sense of place. Carr makes Oxgodby feel solid and alive, but at the same time it seems faintly idealised (reflecting that within the narrative it is both real and remembered). Carr has a tremendous grasp of telling detail and a knack with description which manages the unusual trick of being sentimental (even nostalgic) without being cloying.

There was a throaty smell blowing off the bilbery shrubs and withering heather when we disembarked on a sheep-cropped plain high up in the hills. There was no shelter from the sun, but it was dinner-time and the women and girls unpacked hard-boiled eggs and soggy tomato sandwiches wrapped in greased paper and swaddled in napkins. It was Mr Dowthwaite (for you laboured for your prestige amongst the Wesleyans) who built a downbreeze fire of twigs and soon had tin kettles boiling. Then he struck up the Doxology and, when we’d sung it, we settled to some steady eating.

Afterwards, most of the men took off their jackets, exposing their braces and the tapes of their long woolen underpants and astonished their children by larking around like great lads. The courting couples sidled off, the women sat around and talked. So eating, drinking, dozing, making love, the day passed until evening came and the horses were led from their pasture. Then, as the first star rose and swallows turned and twisted above the bracken, our wagons tumbled down from above the White Horse and across the Vale towards home: the Sunday-school Treat was over.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the pastoral in painting, and I’ve not read many literary examples of it. That though is a beautiful piece of pastoral writing. It sounds like Heaven made Earthly. It’s a gloriously sun-dappled piece of prose.

Carr captures that sense one has sometimes of a moment as both timeless and yet fleeting. Birkin’s summer, and the book itself, seems to last for an age and yet be over all too soon. As Birkin reflects, “… we must snatch at happiness as it flies.” Birkin’s story is one of hope, but also of loss.

There have been periods in my life, as in most, which seem much longer in memory than in fact they were. That’s natural, because what we remember is influenced so much by the personal – how something mattered to us, how it made us feel. A weekend-break can later stand out more than the otherwise uneventful year it was part of. That’s unavoidable and part of being human, but it does make such times all the more important.

If I’ve not made it clear by now this is an exceptional book. I discovered it through Kevinfromcanada who reviewed it here and Trevor of themookseandthegripes who reviewed it here. I’ve sought not to repeat their comments too much and both are well worth reading. Country is extremely well written, it’s subtle and it’s often slyly funny. It’s a genuine pleasure to read and a book that I’m sure I’ll reread. In truth it’s a joy of a work and in a small way something of a masterpiece.

A final quote. Here Birkin reflects on the character of the man who created the brilliantly executed painting that he is slowly uncovering:

Here I was, face to face with a nameless painter reaching from the dark to show me what he could do, saying to me as clear as any words, ‘if any part of me survives from time’s corruption, let it be this. For this is the sort of man I was.’

I said at the beginning that Carr is little known today. Still, if any part of him survives from time’s corruption, it should be this. For this is the sort of man he was.


Filed under Booker, Carr, J.L., Novellas

… the kindness of strangers

Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín

Years ago when I read Colm Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing I was blown away by it. It was well plotted and had interesting characters but that wasn’t what really impressed me. It was the writing. The sheer quality of it.

It’s odd then that it was years before I read another Tóibín – his first novel titled The South. I didn’t love as much but I still enjoyed it. Years passed again though and I still didn’t read more by him. I can’t say why.

A little while back now I bought a Kindle. When I loaded it up with books for some recent holidays I noticed that Brooklyn was available. I’d read a lot about it and on a whim bought and downloaded a copy. I then largely forgot about it as I always seem to forget about Tóibín. When I finished my recent Gerald Kersh though I decided I wanted something quiet and beautifully written.

Quiet and beautifully written are words I associate with Tóibín’s work. Brooklyn isn’t an exception. It’s a simple and arguably dull tale with a rather passive central character who largely goes with the flow of (not particularly eventful) events. If not for the writing it would be unreadable.

Eilis Lacey is a sensible young woman living in rural Ireland in the 1950s (and not the 1930s as I thought for the first half or so of the novel) with her mother and her older and more sophisticated sister. There are few job opportunities. Her brothers have both moved to England where they seem to be doing well but they rarely get to visit home. Eilis is studying bookkeeping, but the only job she gets is working on the floor of a local shop.

Father Flood, over from the US, notices Eilis and is unhappy that there’s nothing better available for her. After discussions with Eilis’s mother and sister they all decide that the best thing for her is emigration. Father Flood can help set her up in Brooklyn, and while she won’t be a bookkeeper immediately there either with time anything could happen.

Father Flood wrote a formal letter sponsoring Eilis and guaranteeing to take care of her accommodation as well as her general and financial welfare, and on headed notepaper came a letter from Bartocci & Company, Fulton Street, Brooklyn, offering her a permanent position in their main store at the same address and mentioning her bookkeeping skills and general experience. It was signed Laura Fortini; the handwriting, Eilis noted, was clear and beautiful, and even the notepaper itself, its light blue colour, the embossed drawing of a large building over the letterhead, seemed heavier, more expensive, more promising than anything of its kind she had seen before.

Eilis moves to Brooklyn. She stays in Mrs. Kehoe’s boarding house with other Irish girls and gets a job in local department store Bartocci & Company (again on the shop floor). She gets homesick, but gets over it and in time meets a local boy with whom she falls in love. As their romance develops problems back home in Ireland require her attention and that’s largely as much plot as I’ll summarise.

In terms of an individual life these are big events. Leaving Enniscorthy. Crossing the Atlantic third class in the bowels of a ship. Adapting to life in a new country. Meeting new and foreign people. Falling in love. This is what life is made of. Few of us bust crime cartels wide open, discover cures to rare diseases, race against time to save a city from disaster. Personal dramas tend to be small and private in nature and not the stuff of gripping fiction.

Tóibín then has written a novel in which things that would only really be exciting to those living them happen to a woman who though pleasant isn’t very interesting. Eilis admires her sister and respects and loves her mother. She gets along well enough with her housemates at Mrs. Kehoe’s and with the people at work. She doesn’t make waves and is happy to fit in with other’s plans.

Occasionally Eilis’s passivity backfires (there’s a tense changing room scene where it becomes apparent that the person helping her change has an interest that is more than professional in ensuring Eilis fits into a bathing costume she’s trying on). In the main though it’s not a problem because almost everyone she meets is decent and helpful.

Father Flood has no ulterior motive here. He’s just doing his best to help out someone he thought needed help. Mrs. Kehoe has her foibles, but she’s basically a good woman. Some of Eilis’s housemates are silly and some prudish but there’s little harm in them (little, but not none – I’ll come back to that). Even Eilis’s boyfriend is kind, patient and funny and wants mostly to make her happy.

Tóibín uses all this to examine the contrasts between life in rural Ireland and life in the US. Enniscorthy is small and gossipy where Brooklyn is large and anonymous. Propriety is important to people back home and there are rigid social codes and a clear heirarchy all of which seems missing in the US. When Bartocci & Company decides to allow “colored” shoppers through its doors though it becomes apparent that Brooklyn has its own heirarchies and codes which just weren’t as immediately apparent.

Brooklyn is a novel of emigration. On her way to Brooklyn Eilis stays briefly in England with one of her brothers. Her mother and sister haven’t laughed much at home since he left and it’s a joy to Eilis to see him. He has no plans to return home to a jobless Ireland but life in England isn’t easy either.

‘What are they like?’ she asked. ‘Who?’ ‘The English.’ ‘They’re fair, they’re decent,’ Jack said. ‘If you do your job, then they appreciate that. It’s all they care about, most of them. You get shouted at a bit on the street, but that’s just Saturday night. You pay no attention to it.’ ‘What do they shout?’ ‘Nothing for the ears of a nice girl going to America.’ ‘Tell me!’ ‘I certainly will not.’ ‘Bad words?’ ‘Yes, but you learn to pay no attention and we have our own pubs so anything that would happen would be just on the way home. The rule is never to shout back, pretend nothing is happening.’

In Brooklyn Mrs. Kehoe’s seems to be Enniscorthy in miniature. Father Flood’s church with its Christmas dinner for destitute Irish men is another export of home. The Irish in Brooklyn live with other Irish, look to the church for charity and succour, date and marry within their own community.

There’s a broader point being made here. The emigrant Irish try to recreate Ireland in their new home. They try in a sense not to be emigrants, which given how few of them seem to have wanted to leave isn’t really surprising. Despite their efforts though they’re not home any more. Mrs. Kehoe’s house and Father Flood’s church are surrounded by another world. The Irish keep to the Irish, but around them are the Blacks, the Jews, the Italians. All of them keep to a degree to themselves, but as they move past each other in the pot the edges of all of them are melting.

When Eilis has to return to Ireland on family business she’s become a different person. To the people she left behind she’s now glamorous and tanned. Her clothes are more fashionable and more expensive. She seems more confident, but how could she not? Emigration has changed her as it’s changed waves of emigrant Irish over generations.

This is a novel about the emigrant experience then, but it’s not just that and it’s not at all heavy handed in making its points. Tóibín has a marvellous knack for crafting dialogue and also a good eye for comedy. The scenes in the transatlantic crossing as Eilis and her bunkmate battle their neighbours for a shared bathroom are tremendous and the exchanges at Mrs. Kehoe’s dining table are vivid and neatly observed:

‘Where I’m from,’ Miss McAdam said, ‘we didn’t go out at all and none of us were any the worse for it.’ ‘And how did you meet fellows?’ Diana asked. ‘Will you look at her?’ Patty interjected. ‘She’s never met a fellow in her life.’ ‘Well, when I do,’ Miss McAdam said, ‘it will not be in a saloon bar.’

There are occasional dark undertones. I mentioned earlier that the women at Mrs. Kehoe’s weren’t entirely harmless. Nor is Eilis. The Irish community is supportive and helpful, but it’s also judgemental and snobbish and the treatment Eilis and the rest dish out to a new housemate who by their standards is of a lower class to them is ugly and petty. Eilis herself receives similar treatment from the woman who owns the shop she works in back in Enniscorthy. None of this is ultimately much more than harsh words and a bit of meanness. Like so much else here it’s significant to the person it happens to but not much more than that.

Brooklyn is a novel almost without conflict. The small rivalries in Enniscorthy and Mrs. Kehoe’s aren’t ones that are going to have any real impact on Eilis’s life. The challenges she faces are eminently surmountable. Eilis’s acceptance of what others do and plan for her means she meets little resistance along her way. All this should make it dull and I think for some readers it probably would be dull. Not for me though.

Tóibín takes an ordinary life facing ordinary issues and makes it real and compelling. It’s the prose which sells it. Brooklyn is just so well written that the lack of event was not only not a problem for me – it became a strength. What’s important at the individual level isn’t the sweep of history. That’s our backdrop. It’s those things which would interest nobody else that really matter.

Brooklyn. This has been heavily reviewed already of course. Here’s some takes on it by Kevinfromcanada, The Asylum, Themookseandthegripes and Hungry Like the Woolf. Kerry’s review at that last link knowingly contains spoilers on essentially the entire plot which allows Kerry to craft a very fine analysis of Eilis’s character – if you’ve already read the book or know you won’t it’s well worth reading. If you haven’t read it but might it’s probably best left for later. Trevor’s particularly good on a major theme of the book which I’ve not even touched on here – separation and distance.


Filed under Booker, Irish fiction, Tóibín, Colm

There is no chronology inside my head

Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively

Synopses are dangerous things. Any synopsis of Moon Tiger would make it sound like an utterly conventional piece of middlebrow fiction. An elderly woman looks back upon her life and remembers the men she loved and the tragedies and triumphs of her life.

That’s accurate as far as it goes. It’s also utterly misleading. Moon Tiger is a novel of fractured narratives, perspectives and tenses. It’s an unsparing look at memory, the construction of narrative, and death. It’s bloody good.

It also won the 1987 Booker Prize. Apparently it was a controversial winner and was derided by critics as “the housewife’s choice” and as “suitable for the Harrods and Hatchard’s market” (the condescension in both those quotes is staggering). My only remark on that is that clearly the housewives of 1987 were a discerning lot. A shame the critics weren’t so perspicacious.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment; she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And then she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit, dear, that’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’

The old woman in question is Claudia. She has cancer and she is dying. She knows this. Her history of the world is a personal one and will not be written down. It will not follow chronology. As she later reflects: “Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.” The nurses find her odd, but ultimately just another body to be cared for:

‘Was she someone?’ enquires the nurse. Her shoes squeak on the shiny floor; the doctor’s shoes crunch. ‘I mean, the things she comes out with…’ And the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone, evidently she’s written books and newspaper articles and… um… been in the Middle East at one time… typhoid, malaria… unmarried (one miscarriage, one child he sees but does not say)… yes, the records do suggest she was someone, probably.

Claudia was someone. She was a war correspondent and a published popular historian. She was beautiful and opinionated and argumentative. She was too close to her brother and not close enough to her daughter. She was glamorous and impossible and arguably not actually a terribly pleasant person.

The narrative moves to her childhood and a memory of competing with her brother to find fossils. It goes forward to her marriage to an urbane half-Russian named Jasper and then back again to her years in Egypt during the second world war. Her history is a kaleidoscope of impressions. Her mind follows connections but not neatly.

All that sounds confusing. It isn’t because it’s well written and because it feels true. True for me anyway. I have no real timeline in my head; just a collage of scenes from my life many of which may not even be accurate. Claudia is not an unreliable narrator, but her memories too may not be wholly accurate.

Claudia knows this and early on vows to show all perspectives. Hers will not be just a history told in her voice, others’ will also be heard. What this means quickly becomes apparent as she remembers that childhood search for fossils I mentioned. The scene is recounted as she recalls it, but then shifts into her brother’s slightly different perception of the same incident:

She must pass Gordon to reach that alluring upper shelf. ‘Mind…’ she says. Move your leg…’
‘Don’t shove,’ he grumbles. ‘Anyway you can’t come here. I said this is my bit, you find your own.’
‘Don’t shove yourself. I don’t want your stupid bit…’
His leg is in her way – it thrashes, she thrusts, and a piece of cliff, of the solid world which evidently is not so solid after all, shifts under her clutching hands… crumbles… and she is falling thwack backwards on her shoulders, her head, her outflung arm, she is skidding rolling thumping downwards. And comes to rest gasping in a thorn bush, hammered by pain, too affronted even to yell.

He can feel her getting closer, encroaching, she is coming here on to his bit, she will take all the best fossils. He protests. He sticks out a foot to impede. Her hot infuriating limbs are mixed up with his.
‘You’re pushing me,’ she shrieks.
‘I’m not,’ he snarls. ‘It’s you that’s shoving. Anyway this is my place so go somewhere else.’
‘It’s not your stupid place,’ she says. ‘It’s anyone’s place. Anyway I don’t…’
And suddenly there are awful tearing noises and thumps and she is gone, sliding and hurtling down, and in horror and satisfaction he stares.

At the time this fracturing of perspective first arose I took that as Claudia’s recollection and her imagining of how her brother might recollect the same incident. Later though this becomes less certain and it appears that Lively may simply be showing how different people remember (or experience) the same event. Memory and history are both untrustworthy. Time and again key moments are shattered in this way. Lively shows two, sometimes three, accounts of the same conversation but each slightly different. The essence is the same, but precisely what was said isn’t.

What makes all this more than a dry exercise in style is partly Claudia herself who is never less than entertaining to be with and partly the scope of the book. Claudia is brilliant and is quite well aware of the fact. She knows that she fascinates and she has nothing but disdain for those who are less glittering. She looks down on her brother’s conventional wife and equally on her own conventional daughter, Lisa. She is easy to picture; sweeping into a room and commanding the attention of all present, but dismissing those she considers uninteresting.

What I could offer Lisa was not the conventional haven of maternal love and concern but my mind and my energy. If she had not acquired these genetically then I was quite prepared to show her how to think and act. I was no good at kissing away tears or telling bedtime stories – any mother can do that: my uses were potentially far more significant.
She was a disappointment to me. And I, presumably, to her. I looked for my own alter ego, the querying rebellious maverick child I had been myself; Lisa looked for a reassuring clothes-shopping sherry-drinking figure like the mothers of her school friends. As she grew older I felt more and more her silent stare, each time I visited her at Sotleigh, took her over to Beaminster to stay with my mother, or had her in the flat in London for a couple of days. There, she would wander around, a skimpy pallid little figure standing in doorways or perching on a sofa. I bought her books. I took her to museums and art galleries; I tried to encourage opinion and curiosity. Lisa, growing longer of limb and less flexible of mind, became ordinary. She began to bore me. And I sensed her disapproval.

Lively shows the pre-war years in which Claudia grows up and the post-war world in which people jockey for position and prominence. There’s a nice sequence where Claudia’s husband goes to a post-war country house in which various members of the great and good are gathered – a sort of micro Davos. He hopes for a job with Nato or perhaps on television. For those who are the right sort the possibilities are endless.

Where the book truly shines though is in its depiction of the war years in Egypt. It is there that Claudia meets the love of her life; a love that her family and later husband know nothing of. Cairo is filled with parties and amusements. Officers on leave live hard while they can. The few women are in constant demand. The locals are barely involved. It is not their war and the British do not hold them in high regard. Meanwhile in the desert it is chaos and burnt-out shells of tanks. The British are winning, but not without cost.

In places this is a difficult book to read. Egypt is so vivid because that’s where Claudia fell truly in love, but it is no spoiler to reveal that the love did not outlast the war (the opening of the book makes this perfectly clear since we know she marries Jasper whom she only meets later). Claudia is reconstructing what most mattered to her. She is taking fragments of her life and holding them up for examination. Her gaze is unsparing and because of that even though the precise conversations held may be unclear the emotional importance of them is not.

Claudia is like a Pharaonic queen. Her memories are her pyramid; her way of preserving the life of the people she has outlived and of making sense of her own. It has to be a history because her life cannot be understood otherwise. Without the war she would not have been a correspondent. She would not have met the man she loved. Everything is connected and so a history of Claudia must be a history of the universe and of everyone. Nothing else is possible.

This is a book about memory and death. It is not comforting. Noone here speaks of any belief in any afterlife. Claudia’s only expectation as her periods of lucidity grow less frequent is that she will live on briefly in the memories of others, but if the book has shown anything it is that memories are partial and only ever one side of a story too complex to be told. All we ever know is aspects of each other, and even those we love may hold secrets we couldn’t guess at. In the end we all die alone.

Moon Tiger (it’s also available on Kindle, which is how I read it). I discovered Moon Tiger through Sam Jordison’s Guardian Booker Blog. His excellent Moon Tiger review is here. Sam’s Booker blog is generally well worth following so if you do follow that link I’d suggest having a dig around to see the others he’s written up. While writing this I also found that the Guardian Book Club had covered this novel. Here‘s a link to the first of four articles and the other three are linked to from a sidebar to that piece.


Filed under Booker, Lively, Penelope

Turn and face the strange

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a novella (of which more later) addressing issues of fundamentalism, Western neo-imperialism and the responsibility of the individual. It is also an account of one person’s journey, from member of America’s corporate elite to anti-Western fundamentalist, a journey which itself inextricably mixes the personal and the political.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist has rather divided critical opinion, in large part due to one element, the framing device used by Hamid. The conceit of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is that it is one side of a conversation between a Pakistani man named (with slightly too obvious symbolism) Changez, a Princeton graduate and former employee of Underwood Samson (a fictional American company, prestigious and highly lucrative), and an unnamed American that Changez meets in an outdoor cafe in Lahore. Changez recounts his life to the American, describing his journey from modern corporate Janissary to (as the American would perceive him) fundamentalist and enemy of the country which once gave him a home. The framing device is incredibly artificial, leading to dialogue that is often hugely unconvincing and in which Changez routinely describes things his companion would perfectly clearly be able to see for himself:

You seem worried. Do not be; this burly fellow is merely our waiter, and there is no need to reach under your jacket, I assume to grasp your wallet, as we will pay him later, when we are done. Would you prefer regular tea, with milk and sugar, or green tea, or perhaps their more fragrant speciality, Kashmiri tea? Excellent choice. I will have the same, and perhaps a plate of jelabis as well. There. He has gone. I must admit, he is a rather intimidating chap. But irreproachably polite: you would have been surprised by the sweetness of his speech, if only you understood Urdu.

The framing device runs through the novel, with Changez constantly making references to the surroundings in the Lahore cafe and to the reactions of the American, it cannot therefore simply be taken as a small part of a larger whole. It is not remotely naturalistic, nobody talks like Changez, so elaborately and in such needless detail, nobody would listen so long if anyone did. Ultimately then, the framing device is just that, a clear device, and I think one must either decide to accept it and ignore it or simply choose not to read the work, because if one can’t suspend disbelief in the artificiality of the dialogue then the short length of this work will I think be full of small irritations as Changez once again describes the obvious or summarises for his companion what that companion just said.

Happily, before I started The Reluctant Fundamentalist I was aware of the framing device, and Kevin of the kevinfromcanada blog had reassured me that despite it there was content which made the book worthwhile. I’m glad he did, as in fact once I accepted the artificiality, I thoroughly enjoyed this work. Hamid has a knack for description and paints a vivid picture of the Lahore cafe, Princeton, New York, Underwood Samson and its employees, and all the other locations and people to which the narrative takes us as Changez describes his life.

Where The Reluctant Fundamentalist really succeeded for me, however, was in the space it gave to a multiplicity of interpretations. Underwood Samson is a company that values businesses, sometimes with a view to possible acquisitions, sometimes with a view to cuts in headcount and lesser-performing divisions. Staff at Underwood Samson are trainted above all else to “focus on the fundamentals”, and its staff are themselves economic fundamentalists – utterly focussed on shareholder value, on pure Anglo-Saxon capitalism and on the performance of their jobs (with the high rewards attached), to the exclusion of factors such as social impact or the consequences for the businesses (and their employees) that they assess.

Changez then is not just a reluctant fundamentalist in the obvious sense, but also before he radicalises in that he is a reluctant fundamentalist for capitalism too. He has doubts from an early stage about his role, about the impact his work has on others, he strives to focus on the fundamentals, the numbers, but keeps seeing the wider implications of his work.

In this part of his life, Changez considers himself one of a number of largely interchangeable Princeton graduates, an economic warrior elite, he notes that though they are diverse in terms of ethnicity and gender in values they are all almost exactly alike. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say this fundamentalism is more persuasive than the radical kind, since Changez never seems terribly religious and if he is a fundamentalist still later on he is much more an anti-globalisation fundamentalist than he is an Islamic one (of course, one argument is that he doesn’t change fundamentalism, but rather ceases to be a fundamentalist).

Hamid, himself a Princeton graduate, skilfully depicts America’s elite, its confidence, its absolute sense of certainty and of being the best. He also shows its ignorance of a wider world, of a wider perspective (as subtly commented on in the remark about understanding Urdu, in the quote above). He captures mannerisms such as the way a man shakes his wrist to make his watch settle, a mannerism I have myself oddly enough, with a perceptive eye. His accounts of the working life and of the social life of this corporate elite are well painted.

Changez’s journey out of this elite, flows in large part from his relationship with another member of it, Erica. Erica is young, beautiful and charismatic, and from a very rich and established family. She suffers, however, from depression linked to the death of a past boyfriend from illness. Erica, as the novel progresses, increasingly withdraws into herself, into her fantasy of life with the dead boyfriend, and Changez as he seeks to reach her increasingly himself withdraws into his own fantasy of life with Erica – a fantasy that is as unattainable as her own dreams. One interpretation, again of the many one could make of this work, is that Changez’s journey is not so much political as personal, that his failure with Erica leads to him abandoning the world she forms part of. There is a sense too almost of psychic infection, of Erica’s malaise communicating itself to Changez as he strives to reach inside her and pull her out of her increasingly internal world. In this sense, Changez’s journey is not one between fundamentalisms but one into mental illness, though I do not think that is the primary thrust of the book’s narrative.

Also successful is the picture Hamid draws of America and America’s intervention in the world, an intervention here driven by equal parts ideology and ignorance of local conditions. Hamid captures well the isolated nature of international businessmen, sitting in air conditioned limos and meeting rooms, being whisked past the locals who must simply stand by and watch (he brought strongly to mind a business trip I once had in Chennai, returning to the airport I was myself driven in an air conditioned limo past literally hundreds of locals queuing out in the heat, I did not have to queue with them).

But why do you recoil? Ah yes, this beggar is a particularly unfortunate fellow. One can oly wonder what series of accidents could have left him so thoroughly disfigured. He draws close to you because you are a foreigner. Will you give him something? No? Very wise; one ought not to encourage beggars, and yes, you are right, it is far better to donate to charities that address the causes of poverty than to him, a creature who is merely its symptom. What am I doing? I am handing him a few rupees – misguidedly, of course, and out of habit. There, he offers his prayers for our well-being; now he is on his way.

Finally, I would note that Hamid also nicely brings out a sense of foreboding, of threat, in the dialogue (more accurately, monologue). Changez makes a number of comments, seemingly innocent, but capable of menacing interpretation were you so inclined. He observes how the American looks around in a manner reminiscent of an animal outside its habitat, unsure if it is predator or prey. He remarks on the pleasure one takes in eating food with the hands, commenting on the “great satisfaction to be had in touching one’s prey”, but it remains uncertain exactly who is prey in this encounter, exactly who is the predator.

Overall then, there is much here to recommend, thoughts on the nature of power and of America’s relationship with the world. Thoughts on the connection between the personal and the political, how one can fuel the other, as Erica’s disengagement with Changez is echoed in his disengagement with the West. Hamid compares disparate fundamentalisms, asking hard questions about whether our own free market fundamentalism is itself free of harm. This is a book without by and large answers to these questions, rather it raises issues and asks the reader to think about them. To take just one example, one could argue that Changez was treated well by Underwood Samson and repaid them with disloyalty and betrayal, that America generously gave him all it had to give, and he threw it back. Alternatively, one could argue that Princeton played a part in coopting the world’s brightest, turning them into Janissaries in the service of America, a foreign and imperial power. The work supports both interpretations, and many more.

As well as all this, Hamid is an able writer, this is a tremendously easy read and provided you can ignore the framing device I think it has much to offer stylistically.

What I would not recommend, however, is how the work is presently packaged. Like it’s fellow 2007 Booker nominee, On Chesil Beach, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a novella, not a full length novel. Here it is blatantly padded for extra length by the use of a mix of larger than normal font, double line spacing and wide page margins. Even with those tricks, it clocks in at a reasonably concise 209 pages – without them I suspect it would be around half that length. This is particularly frustrating as Hamid is plainly aware that he has written a novella, the character Erica is herself a novelist and twice in the text speaks of the difficulties of the novella as a form (“a platypus of a beast”), it is hard in those passages not to hear Hamid’s voice speaking directly to the reader.

‘It’s more a novella than a novel,’ she said. ‘It leaves space for your thoughts to echo.’

Given that Hamid intends it as a novella, and given that it plainly is one, Penguin’s decision to market it as a novel is one I find frustrating and I would prefer that future imprints present the work as what it is rather than what it is not. That said, Penguin plainly intend it for wide readership, the cover quote (rather oddly to my mind) is from Philip Pullman, who compares it to a thriller. Penguin clearly hope the work has mass market crossover appeal, and given the smoothness and accessibility of the writing they will probably be successful in that goal, quite likely already have been.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist


Filed under Booker, Hamid, Mohsin, Novellas

I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.

The Gift of Rain is a first novel by Malaysian born author Tan Twan Eng. It was longlisted for the Booker in 2007, and I think could comfortably have been shortlisted in most years (whether it should have been in 2007 I can’t say, not having read that year’s shortlist).

It is a sweeping novel of wartime Penang, a small island in the strait of Malacca off northwest Malaya. Opening in the modern day with its narrator, Phillip Hutton, receiving a visit from an elderly Japanese woman who has memories of his wartime friend and teacher Endo-San and who asks Hutton to tell her of his time with Endo-San during the pre-war and war years. What follows is a narrative of memory, love, compromise and loss which manages to be both epic and intimate, and which I enjoyed hugely.

Stripped to its most basic elements, this is the story of how Phillip Hutton, youngest child of a rich and powerful British merchant family, comes to study Aikido with a Japanese man who rents a small private island from Phillip’s father; and how Phillip goes on, come the war and the occupation by the Japanese, to become simultaneously a collaborator and a key member of the resistance. It is also, however, a novel of identity, with Phillip being the product of his father’s remarriage to a Chinese woman, and so half-British and half-Chinese in a family that otherwise is wholly British. Phillip is caught between his British and Chinese halves, and with the arrival of Endo-San and his absorption of Japanese culture from him he acquires a third and dangerous heritage which with the onset of war pulls him between utterly irreconcilable loyalties.

The Gift of Rain is also a novel of martial arts, prophecy, magic, reincarnation and whether or not destinies are given to us or created by us, although describing it in that light makes it sound a far more fantastical work than in fact it is.

Tan’s language is both detailed and lush (this is around a 500 page novel), the book abounds with rich descriptive passages both of pre-war and Wartime Penang and also of the remnants of that Penang decades later, which the elderly Phillip Hutton shows to his unexpected guest. One of my favourite descriptive passages occurs on the first page:

“… the one impression that remains now is of rain, falling from a bank of low floating clouds, smearing the landscape into a Chinese brush painting.”

Having seen a reasonable (though deeply insufficient) number of Chinese paintings, I found myself immediately able to picture the scene Tan himself paints, and further found myself pulled into a world quite different from that I actually inhabit. Already, we have an impression of a smeared landscape, and so of uncertainty, of a lack of clear lines. We have references to an artistic tradition that is not European in origin, and we have an image of climate which will last us through the novel. It is also worth noting that the title to this blog entry is the first sentence of the novel, so before we have left the first page we have both prophecy and uncertainty, two elements which will recur throughout the novel.

Similarly, on the next page when his guest first appears:

“The door chimes echoed through the house, hesitant, unfamiliar in a place they seldom entered, like a cat placing a tentative paw on a path it does not habitually walk.”

The book is full of descriptive passages, the clink of tea cups, the smells of “sweetmeats roasting on charcoal grills”, the décor of a rich man’s house, the pungent odour of an opium den and the drawn faces of those who smoke within and the bored ones of those attending them. Rain is of course a constant metaphor, for loss and for cleansing and often for human tears. Even the way in which people sit is described, as in a passage here describing some men eating at a hawker booth, a scene I recognised the truth of from my own visits to South-East Asia:

“I studied the men, noting that they pulled one leg onto the bench when they sat, and kept one knee protruding over the table like the peak of a hill as they shovelled food into their mouths.”

Penang is brought wholly to life, and in reading this novel it is important I think in some sense to surrender yourself to these descriptions, to allow Tan to bring this world to life and immerse the reader in it. This is a leisurely novel, it is arguably plot driven but the sense of place and time is just as important as what happened in that place and time. The novel is, after all, ostensibly narrated by the elderly Phillip Hutton and so as we read we are inhabiting an old man’s memories. We are reliving with him a period of his life in which at first he was happiest and later was at his most desolate, overall then a period in which he was most alive. The novel is suffused with melancholy, with the emotions of an old man looking back on an irrecoverable past and the terrible choices he made when he was young. As much as it is a novel of anything, this is a novel of memory and of how those we love continue within us long after they have left.

Tan’s novel is also filled with a large cast of rather epic characters. Phillip’s Chinese grandfather, a rich man in his own right who disowned Phillip’s mother for marrying one of the British, and who in his youth was tutor to a Chinese emperor deleted from history (this gives Tan the opportunity to take us into the Forbidden City, where we see the court of the fading Emperor, the power of the Dowager Empress Tzu Xsi, the forces of decadence and reform and the terrible effect British opium policy has had on China). Aunt Mei, Phillip’s loveable and slightly meddling Chinese aunt. Isabel, Phillip’s free spirited sister intent on marrying a much older man. Uncle Lim, a servant bound to Phillip’s father by ties of face and obligation. Towkay Yeap, a powerful Triad leader. Kon, known as the White Tiger, Towkay Yeap’s son and Phillip’s closest friend besides his sensei. Endo-San, Phillip’s sensei. Tanaka-San, Kon’s sensei, taught by the same master as Endo-San but on a different path in terms of the philosophy of his art. Fujihara, Goro, Saotome, Hiroshi, the various occupying Japanese with their varying mix of honour and savage brutality.

There are others of course, this is a novel filled with characters, and if I had to make a criticism here it would be that few characters in Phillip’s life are very ordinary. He is surrounded by the extraordinary, by people who figure large in the story of Penang or who are themselves exceptional people. This is a slightly larger than life tale, Phillip’s grandfather is Shaolin trained, Phillip’s father a skilled boxer, Goro experienced in another form of martial art (karate if I recall correctly). Martial arts and the disciplines and philosophies they teach figure larger than I suspect they actually did in wartime Penang, and Phillip does not tend to know people who might go on to become successful teachers say or to have quite a nice life as a merchant. That said, this comes close to criticising the novel for not being what it does not seek to be, this is not a purely naturalist work, it contains as noted above elements of the supernatural and metaphysical and its large and splendid cast are intended to be memorable and dramatic figures, not a representative slice of Penang life.

The novel charts Phillip’s relationship with his family, initially estranged, growing closer and then strained by his decision to collaborate with the Japanese once they occupy the island in the hope of protecting those he loves. It charts the terrible consequences of his decisions, some taken in innocence and others not, as he becomes a spokesman for the Japanese regime and a propaganda asset for their occupying forces. Already caught between Chinese and British culture, he becomes too close to Japanese in the eyes of many, becoming trusted by nobody and resented by many. Phillip is caught in terrible times, with loyalties to groups that have irrevocably come into bloody conflict and none of which regard Phillip as wholly their own. Increasingly, the Chinese resent British rule, the British abandon the colony to its fate, the Japanese enact horrific punishments on the native population for every challenge to their authority – real or imagined.

This is also a novel of loss. Many people die in this work, often in terrible circumstances, it is after all a novel of a historically brutal occupation. We see people forced to dig their own graves before being executed, and then we see the impact of those executions on their loved ones. We see prisoners tortured and the decisions people take seeking to protect or avenge those they love. Loss runs through the work, and early on we learn that in modern Penang people are divided between those who see Phillip as a hero for his work betraying Japanese secrets to the resistance and those who see him simply as a collaborator and war criminal who avoided punishment after the war. We learn in the first chapter that Phillip lives alone in the house he grew up in, with everyone he loved now long since in the past.

Among all this though, the war, the martial arts, the prophecies and the terrible costs of compromise, the main part of the story is of Phillip’s loyalty to his sensei Endo-San. Of the friendship between them, the love that binds them and the cost that loyalty brings to them both in terms of pain and suffering. This is a tragic work, intensely personal, intended I think as a form of Chinese opera (John Self on his blog compared it to an opera, a comparison I think very apt) in which great personal passion is explored as simultaneously terrible events and the forces of history overwhelm those caught up in them. Cinematically, it reminds me of such works as Farewell my Concubine, a film of love and desire and how those things are destroyed by choices forced upon the protagonists by history.

The Gift of Rain is not a flawless novel, although the supernatural elements are low key I would personally have preferred them a tad more ambiguous on occasion (though opera in fairness is full of such incidents), perhaps a few less extraordinary characters could have been included, perhaps not every martial artist needed be quite so remarkably skilled (and in all but one cases this skill is joined to great wisdom), perhaps not everything explained in detail quite needed to be, and it does require a degree of attention and dedication from its readers to stick with its leisurely pace and sometimes densely descriptive prose, but it is a rewarding one and is a work I am pleased to have given my time to.

In reading The Gift of Rain, one inhabits a world of memory and love, of the conflict between duty and desire, of a place and a time now past and poorly remembered. It is a gripping tale, an epic of war, sacrifice and betrayal, of free will and destiny, and above all of love and compassion and how they endure in the face of brutality and horror. It is a Chinese opera, full of spectacle and passion and easily merited its place on the Booker longlist.

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Filed under Booker, Eng, Tan Twan

The fundamental law of nature which Marx and Engels discovered is that everything is connected to everything else.

Firstly, and quite irrelevantly, I’m posting from home today so this entry is accompanied by music. Currently Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli’s extraordinary Swing from Paris recording. Swing from Paris is the title of about half a hundredweight of Django Reinhardt recordings, many quite poor, so if you have any interest at all leave a comment and I can tell you which to look out for.

All of which has nothing at all to do with the marvellous Sputnik Caledonia, Andrew Crumey’s most recent novel and an intelligent and ambitious work of SF that should have been included on this year’s Booker longlist, but wasn’t. I haven’t read Crumey’s other works yet, but having read this one, I certainly now shall.

Sputnik Caledonia is a 550 page novel in three parts. The first part takes us to Scotland in the 1970s, where Robbie Coyle is an imaginative 12 year old boy who wants to be a spaceman when he grows up. The second part is set in an alternative history Britain which became part of the Soviet sphere of influence following the second world war, the British Democratic Republic. The third part is set in modern day Britain, back in the same world that the first part took place in.

At its simplest, this is a classic parallel worlds novel, a philosophical investigation of the implications of many worlds theory (my second post in a row to refer to that, odd, but I suppose if the philosophy in the novel should be correct, infinitely inevitable). It is, however, not quite that crude and along the way has some marvellously drawn characters, a great deal of humour, some extremely well written prose and a degree of uncertainty and doubt which make it linger in the memory more than perhaps a more definite novel would.

Turning to the first part of the novel first (though, and this is a theme of the novel, we could just as easily turn to any other part first and in other blog entries other Max Cairnduff’s will have done just that), we meet Robbie Coyle as a young boy whose mother takes him to the library on doctor’s orders to get him improving novels that will channel his imagination and curb his bedwetting. Robbie dreams of being an astronaut, and wants to borrow the exciting looking Rocket to the Stars, but this is soundly vetoed on the basis that if anything will make him wet the bed, that will (though in the alternate timeline in section two, he does get to read it, but finds many parts of it disappointingly sad – in particular a monkey sent into space with no prospect of recovery).

Robbie is brilliantly captured, as is his family, and much of this first part of the novel is extremely funny. The section where Robbie’s father, an avowed and fairly hardline socialist, tries to explain relative motion only for Robbie to daydream an entire plane hijacking scenario while not really listening is skilfully done (and like much in the book, recurs later as a theme) and there are many excellent apparently throwaway sections.

“On Sunday, while the Coyles took their customary walk, the sky exploded. ‘What was that?’ Robbie asked fearfully, looking upwards.
‘They’re testing a new aeroplane called Concorde,’ his father said.
‘Why are they testing it over Scotland?’
‘In case it crashes.’

Although, as in most parts of the book, it’s not throwaway at all and the images of an exploding sky and crashing vehicles will also recur. The humour of the above section is, I would note, deeply Scottish.

There is also a running joke with Robbie’s mother, who has a habit of turning whatever word has been the subject of recent discussion into a verb as needed “‘You can just spirograph off to bed now, Robbie'” (and note there the light way of inserting 70s period detail without overemphasising the point) and “‘Well, it’s time to Red Army upstairs Robbie'”. This little joke also runs through the book, without in my view ever overused.

Robbie dreams as noted above of being an astronaut, but more precisely convinced by his father that the Americans would have him bombing Vietnam, he dreams of becoming a Cosmonaut and with that in mind tries to learn Russian and sits in a cupboard under the sink pretending it is a launch capsule. He borrows a book on relativity from the library, but understands only the first page. He treats it as a bible, incomprehensible yet full of apparently vital gnostic secrets (there are a few quite subtle religious jokes in this novel, to go with the other elements of humour).

We follow Robbie through encounters with a babysitter, a family dinner with that babysitter and her socialist teacher boyfriend who looks down on working men and sees the revolution as needing to be led by the middle classes, a supportive science teacher, a monument to a man who died saving a child’s life over a century before, the unattainably mature girls next door (14 or so), a dance and to his first kiss. Through this, we also follow Robbie in various flights of the imagination, and in his dialling in on an old radio in his bedroom to the voice of the Red Star, which may be the voice of an imaginary astronaut or may be the voice of an intelligent black hole, or which may be something else again referenced in the third part of the book and which I can’t speak to without potentially spoiling it for others.

Each of these characters will recur, each encounter will happen again but in different combinations, every event is meaningful and many prefigure major concerns of the novel. Mr Coyle and David, the socialist teacher, argue about the inevitability of history and whether the individual makes any difference to it or not, David arguing that historical forces are all that is relevant and the individual merely a cog in the machine of history. When we get to the second part of the novel, we learn eventually that the diversion between our history and the alternate history lies in the decision of one man taken in one brief moment, and from which all else flowed. David is wrong, but as we shall also see, he has the power to stamp his vision upon the world in a way which the far more likeable Mr Coyle never will.

The second part of the novel is set in an alternate Britain, as noted above a Socialist Britain. In the first part Mr Coyle speaks of what a socialist Britan would be like, in the second we see his vision come true and although true to his vision the reality is in fact a terrible thing. Robert Coyle is a 19 year old army volunteer, sent to a top secret research installation from which it is questionable if anyone ever returns to the outside world (people leave, but it is not at all clear their departure is not more permanent than those remaining within like to imagine). Robbie is there to participate in a highly secret and highly important research mission, a black hole is travelling briefly through the solar system and the project is related to investigating it while the opportunity is present. Of course, the enlightened inhabitants of the installation do not call it a black hole:

“‘In the capitalist world, such hypothetical objects are referred to as black holes. Of course we reject the term, with its colonialist implications, its unsavoury air of medieval clericalism, its sheer inaccuracy. … We follow the Soviet nomenclature and call it a frozen star. What to capitalists symbolizes a fate worse than death represents for us the highest form of astrophysical evolution. Our visitor is not a monster – it is a unique opportunity for socialist exploration.’”

Robert suggests a name for the interstellar visitor, it is the Red Star. Robert himself is a confused young man, his memory faulty, an experiment which may or may not have been carried out on him has left him with a mildly confused mental state, and what may be telepathic ability (albeit of a low key kind, this is not one of those 1950s sf novels in which telepaths evidence new and superhuman powers, for that I recommend the tremendous Wild Talent by Wilson Tucker which is one of the best pure sf psychic power novels ever written, Wilson Tucker is an underappreciated talent these days).

In this timeline, we encounter again all the individuals we did in the first timeline, but recast. Robbie is housed with a family that we soon recognise as his parents from the first timeline. The head of research is the kindly science teacher, with a different name but the same personality (and the same failings). The socialist teacher has become a political officer, policing ideological correctness. Robbie’s first love, well I don’t want to spoil that, suffice it to say it took me a while to recognise her and it is tragic to see how Robbie Coyle’s wish to the voice of the Red Star on his radio to take him and his love to the voice’s planet is realised.

The brutalities of a soviet regime are explored in this section, the dangers of a misspoken phrase or an impolitic belief. The project itself seems often quixotic, and it becomes questionable whether there will be any space flight to the Red Star at all or if some far stranger journey is envisaged. Moments of confusion suggest that Robert Coyle may be overhearing at times the thoughts of Robbie Coyle, and possibly of other people in other times and places.

The head of research is keen to synthesis science with art, urging Robert to read Goethe (and that desire for synthesis and the works of Goethe both, of course, recur) and bringing a literary academician into the project to contribute to it. The political officer is suspicious of this, repeating lines which as a teacher in our timeline he said to Robbie’s father, about science being merely biology, chemistry and physics and about the need to keep things distinct (ironic, given his other argument that Marxism means that everything is connected).

This section comprises the bulk of the book, we spend more time in the alternate history Britain than we do in the two sections set in our own combined. Much of this time is very well spent, Robert is not the only volunteer for his mission but only one of them will actually participate in it and we follow their friendships and rivalries as they are weeded out one by one. We see the advantages possessed by the nomenklatura, the pettiness of the powerless who only by insisting on adherence to bureaucracy can exercise any control over their lives. We see hopes blighted, ambitions thwarted and a system in which the individual is ultimately of no consequence. It is both Robbie’s father’s vision and the ideological teacher’s vision, which although utterly opposed have met together in this world to form one consistent vision of those two apparent opposites.

And that takes me onto a key theme of the work. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The alternate Britain is a synthesis of the differing views of socialism expressed by Robbie’s father and the teacher. The novel itself has a first part thesis, a second part antithesis and a third part synthesis. Everything is connected, and apparent opposites are reconciled. Were I more familiar with Hegel than I am, I could make more of this, it is fairly central to the book, and I’d be interested to hear from anyone who had both read the novel and was familiar with Hegel’s work.

Although I see this clearly as an sf novel, it is possible to overemphasise those elements. Most of the novel we are caring about characters, most of whom are living fairly ordinary lives (if not always in our world). The novel deals in love, parental and between men and women. It deals in ambition, personal and politcal. It deals above all else in the gap between dreams and reality, and the synthesis of that particular thesis and antithesis.

Apparently the alternate history Britain visited in the second part of the novel has been used in others of Crumey’s works, this is not his first visit there. This may help explain why it is as well realised as it is, just as Crumey evokes the 70s lightly and without intrusive exposition so too we come to a vision of his alternate Britain without being greatly lectured in the process. Where we are slightly lectured is in some of the key themes of the novel, the thesis/antithesis/synthesis element and the concept that everything is connected and that everything causes and is caused by everything else. My suspicion is that Crumey did not wholly trust the reader to understand the many worlds and the philosophical and cosmological elements of the novel and their implications without them being fairly plainly laid out, but in this he fails in my view to trust his own skill. These are not actually complex concepts, they are simply explained and understood, and although I was already very familiar with the many worlds hypothesis I don’t think that had I not been I would have struggled with it here (I wasn’t familiar with Hegel, and he got that across easily enough).

In the third part of the novel, we switch perspective, no longer following Robbie or Robert but instead Robbie’s father (Joe, we now learn) – now a disappointed and increasingly bewildered old man crushed by sadness and angry at the world he now finds himself in. We also follow a boy, of perhaps 12 years old or so, called merely the kid, who has decided to run away from home as in a universe of infinite possibilities he cannot bear to experience just one set thereof.

Again, there is much that is very funny in this section, Robbie’s father discussing what he regards as a US conspiracy to covertly take over Britain:

“‘A big con, if you ask me,’ Joe said. ‘Biggest con in history.’
The magazine seller looked doubtful. ‘You think so? What about Jesus getting married and having a wean?’
Joe nodded. ‘All right, maybe that was equally big.'”

There is also quite a sad joke, where Joe forgets the word for people getting old and forgetting things, it is of course Alzheimer’s (though Joe is merely going a wee bit dotie, note that I’ve only ever heard that word and don’t know if it has a correct spelling, I didn’t think he actually had that particular illness). Joe goes to the local Asda, but forgets why he has gone there, he argues with staff who have little understanding or interest in his complaints, his wife is compassionate and warm but also houseridden due to hip problems. Old age is not proving kind to them.

For the curious, we’re now on to Stephane Grapelli’s Tivoli Gardens recording. These blog posts take a while to write it seems.

Meanwhile, the kid meets a man who may or may not be a Robert Coyle. The man is on some form of mission, though what sort is unclear, and although it seems he could be a sexual predator he also possesses a strange card which can withdraw money from cashpoints even though it does not appear to be issued by any bank and speaks of having seen “many worlds”. The kid is familiar with many worlds theory, deeply influenced by it, his imagination is a mix of very modern cultural influences (the new Dr Who features a lot in his mindspace) and his conviction that in an infinite universe “anything is possible and everything is certain”.

The ideological teacher, who in another universe is a political commissar, is now a New Labour minister. The kid is experiencing his first love, as Robbie did in the first section. Joe and his wife hold conversations full of pain and disappointment, though also tenderness and love. We are back in Kansas (the Wizard of Oz is expressly referenced) but the return is not a happy one. Again, there are nested references (the kid muses that “You probably start out knowing everything when you’re a baby but it gets wiped and you spend the rest of your life having to relearn it”, which is a pretty plain reference to Plato’s theory of infinite existences and the nature of learning, though in my view to say that Plato’s theories of learning were poorly argued would be to err on the side of kindness). Along the way, doubt is cast on much that has gone before, did the second section even happen (the voice of the Red Star, which in the second section is the voice of a putatively conscious black hole, itself casts doubt on the reality of its own universe in the second section – though interestingly not on the reality of itself as an entity).

In many ways the third section is an affecting and painful read, Crumey captures well the disillusionment of Joe, railing against America which he holds responsible for a world he no longer understands even though it is evident to us that the grounds for his discontent have nothing to do with the United States. There is a compassion running through this section which lends it a depth and a power that remains after the novel is finished. The optimism of the kid is nicely counterposed with Joe’s despair, particularly the mixture of innocence and cynicism which constitutes the kid. We are also left uncertain exactly what has happened, how the worlds interrelate, what is true. Was Robert Coyle in telepathic contact through the medium of a sentient black hole with Robbie Coyle? We are left in doubt at one point as to whether Robert Coyle is even telepathic at all. Is the mysterious figure on a mission in the third section really Robert Coyle? If so, is he the same Robert Coyle as we met in the alternate Britain? There is reason to believe that even if he is a Robert Coyle, he may not be that Robert Coyle (but equally, he may). The synthesis leaves us with many questions, the possibilities remain endless and perhaps the answer is that all these things are true. The man is Robert Coyle, in another universe he is merely a sexual predator, in another he is something else again. Anything is possible and everything is certain.

Although I thought certain of the themes over-hammered home, as noted above, this is a spectacular novel. Most science fiction struggles with creating interesting and credible characters, this does not. The characters, both fully detailed and the more lightly drawn, are alive in a way most sf wholly fails to accomplish. The ideas are huge, as ambitious as anything in the sf field, but those ideas do not swamp the small details of life – an old man’s disappointment, a boy’s first kiss, the realisation that unwittingly you have betrayed someone who did not deserve it. While exploring the largeness of the universe itself, the small details of everyday life are not lost, and that combination, the synthesis of that thesis and antithesis, is what makes this such a successful work. Indeed, as so often with a complex and rewarding novel, I am left having written much about it and feeling that I have barely touched on what it contains.

As I said at the beginning, in my view this should have been Booker longlisted. Equally, if eligible on dates, it should have been Hugo longlisted too as I suspect many sf enthusiasts are wholly unaware of it and so are missing out on what I consider one of the more interesting sf novels of recent years. Curiously, it does not seem generally to be being reviewed as an sf novel, having been somewhat Atwoodised (though not as best I can tell at Crumey’s instigation, I haven’t seen him refer to it as either sf or not sf and I somehow doubt he cares how one categorises it) by the literary pages, that’s probably a good thing as it means a much wider range of potential readers can be reached by it but it is also a slight shame that once again great sf work is being marketed outside the genre with the assumption seemingly being that if it’s good it’s no longer sf. Any novel with rockets, telepathy experiments, alternate worlds and intelligent black holes is sf, but on this occasion it’s sf which doesn’t forget the human in contemplating the cosmic and I recommend it pretty much unreservedly.


Filed under Booker, Crumey, Andrew, Scottish fiction, SF

Ce n’est pas magnifique, mais c’est la guerre

Originally posted 1 July 2008. Apologies to those who left comments, which have been lost.

As I write this, I am unfortunately rather under the weather, as such I may return to this book in a later post to comment on it further, when more coherent.

Goshawk Squadron is a 1971 novel, then shortlisted for the Booker prize. It’s a novel about a squadron of the Royal Flying Corp, serving in France in 1918. More to the point, it’s a novel about war, about class, about the myth of the gentleman and about the conflict (still current in 1971) between gentlemen and players.

The concept of gentlemen and players goes back originally to cricket, and to the very British concept of the gifted amateur. A gentleman was one who by virture of birth and education had a certain natural talent for things, one who could play cricket but did so within the bounds of sportmanship and good fellowship. A player was a professional, not an amateur at all but rather someone who played for money. A gentleman was therefore a man of means who played from love of the game, while a player was a man of likely working class origin who was closer to a mercenary.

British history of the 20th Century is in large part the history of the downfall of the gentleman and the rise of the player. In 1971 the myth of the gifted amateur, the good chap who was sound and could be relied on, was still current in many walks of life (not least government and finance). It was not until 1987 that the player really became the dominant force in British cultural life.

So, Goshawk Squadron is in part about class. But it’s also about the war and the sheer randomness of it all. Stanley Wooley commands Goshawk Squadron, a working class (or lower middle class) man, a player who fights in order to kill the enemy. His squadron is composed of young men mostly of good families, who arrive in batches and die so swiftly that he struggles to keep track of their names. Wooley is cynical, burnt out, filled with hatred for the men under his command (in large part it seems because the alternative to hating them is despair given their likely life spans). Young men arrive full of propaganda and myths about being knights of the air, chivalric paragons who duel their German counterparts openly and honestly. Wooley teaches them to sneak up behind the enemy and to shoot them in the back, before the enemy knows they are there.

The novel has many characters in it, and frequently grants characters a narrative perspective so that for a while one sees events through a given character’s eyes and then from another’s. We meet many of them, each character briefly (but skilfully) sketched, and then most of them die.

They die in training, they die from lack of training, they die from equipment failure, they occasionally even die in combat. Characters die that we have just met. Characters die who have survived much of the novel. Characters die in the middle of enjoying a narrative perspective, characters die without us ever seeing events from their perspective. We meet characters, we briefly get to know them, some of them die and which ones is quite unpredictable.

The men of the squadron spend their time in training, in flying seemingly pointless missions, in carousing in French towns taking drink they cannot pay for and in one case accidentally killing a French restaurateur in a fit of drunken high jinks with tragic consequences. The men know they are going to die, except the new men who frequently don’t live long enough to realise how short their lifespans are likely to be.

Much of the novel revolves around Wooley’s exhaustive training schedule, where he tries to prepare the men as best he can. As they go to the front new men are transferred in, essentially untrained. Wooley’s efforts are near pointless, the men he trains also die in droves.

The French pursue the men for the accidental killing of the restaurateur, Wooley offers to court martial a man and picks at random – it is evident that whoever is tried will not live long enough to see a verdict anyway so it simply doesn’t matter who is held accountable.

The book is well written, often very funny, the black humour and cameraderie of the men is excellently captured. The naievety of the new recruits, the tension between Wooley’s pragmatism and the idealism of the gentlemen who come to him, the innocence and the frequent reminders of how young they all are, all these things are heartbreaking. A character experiences a triumph at one point, and is described as not having been so happy since he was made head boy at school the year before. Wooley, who throughout most of the novel is portrayed as an old man jaundiced through years of service, is only 23.

One comes to sympathise with many of the men, to see one of them slowly falling apart while the others don’t notice, to sympathise too with the women who enter into relationships with them while trying not to recognise that any love they show for these men is likely to end in bereavement within weeks. The characters are mostly likeable, or at least human, and yet for all their idealism and humour and love of life they still die casually and randomly throughout the novel.

Overall, it’s a powerful work, an indictment of the concept of an honourable war, a study of the death of the gifted amateur as the embodiment of English values, an examination of war and its impact on those caught up in it. It’s a reminder of the fact that war is about killing people, and that however it is dressed up in clothes of patriotism or honour or glory, killing people is ultimately a very ugly business.

It does remind me in part also of the marvellous novel The Hunters, by James Salter (who actually flew combat missions in Korea), in part perhaps as that is the only other novel about fighter pilots I have read. In The Hunters the tension revolves around the desire for the status of being recognised as an Ace (a man who has downed five MIGs). The pilots patrol a river during the Korean war, dreaming of facing MIGs, but generally seeing out their time in tedious patrols.

Again the conflict between the desire for glory, for recognition, and the messy reality is examined and again the characters of men are laid bare by the tensions of war. In Goshawk Squadron though the men are in a meat grinder, the average outcome is death, the men band together in the face of that certainty. In The Hunters most missions involve no sighting of the enemy, the fear is of no opportunity for combat and the pilots are much lonelier figures who are driven by competition with each other and a fear of being passed by while others excel. In Goshawk Squadron the characters arive with dreams of glory and soon hope merely to survive, in The Hunters the men compete for glory and the desire to prove themselves. In both, the shortfall between men’s desires and the circumstances of war is exposed and the impact of war upon the psyche effectively examined.

More possibly on another occasion, when my head doesn’t feel as if it were wrapped in several very dense layers of cotton wool.

Addendum, 17 July: The reference above to 1987 is actually wrong, and should have been to 1986. The reference was to the Big Bang in the City of London, which I view as a major factor in the decline of the concept of the gentleman as a major factor in British public life.


Filed under Booker, Military fiction, Robinson, Derek