Category Archives: Novellas

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

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

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

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

Her father died instantly. Her mother in the hospital.

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

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

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

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

I love that phrase ‘a doubtful suitcase.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews

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

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

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Filed under Barba, Andres, Novellas, Spanish

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

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

A recent reading miscellany (mostly SF)

A recent reading miscellany      

I’ve read several books recently during a period where I was busy at work, then ill, and then on holiday. For a mix of reasons I don’t plan to fully review them. Some were very good, some not so much. I thought I’d write a brief paragraph or two on each.

Most of these are SF. I’ve omitted Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd as I hope to do full reviews of each of those.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

This is a slight cheat as I read it back in June and didn’t review it then, but it’s better than most of the books that follow so it seemed a bit unfair not to mention it when I’m making time to talk about books I thought less of.

Ancillary is a classic space opera set in a distant future among a vast interstellar empire. The empire is controlled through use of artificially intelligent spaceships crewed in part by ancillaries – prisoners of war who’ve had their minds wiped and replaced by a small element of the ship’s AI. The ancillaries aren’t meant to operate independently but an act of treachery leaves one isolated after the troop carrier it formed part of is destroyed.

Ancillary is best known for its treatment of gender. The protagonist being a fragment of an AI personality is weak on gender recognition to begin with and the language of the empire’s rulers doesn’t include gender pronouns. The result is a book in which unless the protagonist has specific knowledge that a character is male literally every character is referred to as she or her.

Use of male pronouns as a default is commonplace. Use of female isn’t and many SF fans balked at reading a book where they couldn’t be sure which gender most of the characters were. I found it worked very well and the slight loss in terms of physical description was more than made up for in the increased focus it required in terms of actual personality rather than gender assumptions.

All that and a cracking plot across multiple planets with wars, conspiracies and strange technologies and overall I absolutely loved this. It’s solid SF and fairly long too (with two sequels, neither apparently quite as good as the first) and the only reason I didn’t give it a proper review was limited time. It’s still a candidate for my end of year list.

Nick’s Trip, by George Pelecanos

I started this back in June, having enjoyed the previous book in the series A Firing Offense. I abandoned this part-way through, finding it a bit dated and to be honest a bit sexist. It’s not stuck in memory so there’s not much more to say than that. Pelecanos has legions of fans and can definitely write so it may be that this just wasn’t one of his best or possibly he’s just not my writer.

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

I’ve read two previous de Angelis and sort of enjoyed them. This time I found the tales of his Inspector de Vincenzo to provide diminishing returns. Guy liked this best of the three de Angelis published by Pushkin Press so far but I just found that I no longer cared whodunit. Being honest, cosy crime has never been my genre and I only read these from interest at the unusual early 20th Century Milan setting. Solid books, but not for me.

Books two ((The Eye with which the Universe Beholds Itself) and three (Then will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above) of Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet.

Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet is a series of four thematically linked novellas each exploring an alternate history of the Apollo space programme. I enjoyed the first a while back so tried a couple more.

AQ2 is the more out-there piece and posits the discovery of alien ruins on Mars which has led to the discovery of faster-than light travel. Now Earth’s first extra-solar colony has vanished and so the first man on Mars is brought out from retirement to investigate. It’s an audacious story split between that first Mars mission and the journey to the missing colony, and daringly the answer to what happened is only really made clear(ish) through technical appendices. For all that I found it a little dry and it’s probably my least favourite Sales’ so far.

AQ3 is much more interesting (to me anyway). It posits an extended Korean war tying up US pilots much longer than was true in our own history. When the space race starts up the US therefore has no choice but to make use of female pilots. The story then is about the first women in space and, once the war ends, their inevitable sidelining to make room for the returning men.

Sales includes a chapter outlining the real female pilots whom he based his story on – women who really did train to go into space but who were blocked by NASA and an unsympathetic political establishment in a truly shocking fashion. Sales uses his alternate history to bring an ignored and shameful passage of real history to light and the result is one of those rare piece of SF I’d potentially recommend to the non-SF fan.

Light and Shadow, by Linda Nagata

This is a short story collection. Linda Nagata mostly writes near-future military SF these days and this collection contains a fair bit of that, plus some more speculative and fantasy material. It’s a solid collection that worked well when I was ill and to Nagata’s credit I read the whole lot quickly and without getting bored along the way.

Nagata clearly has talent, but military fiction rarely speaks to me and military SF less so which means that while I wouldn’t rule it out I’m unlikely to read a lot more by her.

Something Coming Through, by Paul McAuley

More SF. McAuley wrote a novella a while back about a future where a battered near-future Earth is contacted by enigmatic aliens and given access to fifteen worlds free to colonise. The trouble is, the aliens have been doing this for various species for millions of years and the colonies are dotted with the ancient technologies of the races who were given tenancy before us.

In Something Coming Through McAuley returns to the setting and tells a novel length story, though for me with slightly diminishing returns. I actually like McAuley’s setting, but to turn it into a novel he has to include conspiracy and thriller elements which I cared about less. Another example of a talented author working in an area which isn’t of much personal appeal.

Bethany, by Adam Roberts

This is much stranger. A sociopath inspired by Michael Moorcock’s famous novel Behold the Man travels back in time with the goal of killing Christ during the three days after his resurrection but before his bodily ascension into heaven. This is well written, well researched and laudably short (90 pages). Roberts is a very highly regarded writer and from this it’s easy to see why. I’ve read one of his short stories before but after this I’ll definitely be moving on to his full-length fiction.

A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by  Becky Chambers

This was rapturously received by oceans of critics and fans. It’s a novel about a small spaceship that makes its living by punching wormholes through space to create travel links across the galaxy (basically interstellar roadbuilders). It’s widely (and to be fair rightly) seen as a light and upbeat read and was particularly praised for its treatment of diversity with a crew formed of different species and genders all working together in a cramped ship.

Unfortunately, the diversity is literally skin deep. Every character, even the aliens, felt to me like a middle-class 20-something American. One felt like she’d been borrowed wholesale from the Jewel Staite character in the TV show Firefly but made wackier. I got to page 50 and couldn’t take any more. That means I read less than a tenth of this (and there’s two sequels!) but I’m fine with that.

So, that’s my quick(ish) roundup. If any stand out to you please let me know in the comments and I can say a bit more about them.

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Filed under Crime, De Angelis, Augusto, Novellas, Pelecanos, George, SF

How can we fail to see that this change from the combover to the shorn head is a sign of our declining society?

The Combover, by Adrian N. Bravi and translated by Richard Dixon

The Combover is one of the funniest, strangest, most uncategorisable novels I’ve read in quite a while. No small thing in a year where I’m reading DeWitt, Aira and Casares. I noted enough quotes that I could write a two-page review using nothing else (don’t worry, I won’t). I had to stop myself from noting more.

Arduino Gherarducci is a middle-aged professor specialising in bibliographic data exchange formats. Baldness runs in his family and Arduino maintains a proud family tradition of sporting a combover – in his case he grows his hair long in back and combs it forward over his bald patch.

He is well aware that times have changed and that the combover has become a thing of ridicule. He is urged by friends, strangers, barbers, his wife, just to shave his head and wear his baldness openly and without shame. What they don’t understand is that he feels no shame in being bald. He is proud of his combover. As he reflects:

No one gets upset if they see a woman with fake blond hair and black reappearing at the roots, or with silicon lips, but they get upset about a combover . . .

Arduino’s wife doesn’t understand the importance to him of his absurd hairstyle. She doesn’t get why he goes to such lengths to maintain it and to protect it against random gusts of wind or sudden rain. She thinks he would look rather handsome without it.

They have no children. Their cat, Cosino, is more his than hers. Arduino is the narrator so we don’t see much of his wife’s life but it doesn’t seem much fun. He’s a fussy man obsessed with matters which are hard for others to relate to and he seems to be engaged in a petty cold-war with his wife’s mother. Still, he’s comfortable enough in his slightly arid world until, one day, something extraordinary happens:

As I was describing a mark used by Valerio Dorico—a Pegasus striking a rock with its hoof making a spring gush forth—I remember noticing the Argentinian student, whose thesis I was supervising and who came to all my lectures, getting up without saying a word and coming toward my desk. I followed him with my eyes, to understand what he was doing there at the front. I thought he wanted to ask me a question or to help me turn a page of the great catalogue of printers’ marks I was leafing through in front of the class. But no. While I was holding this great book, he pushed back my combover with a gesture that was deliberate but not aggressive—indeed it was almost elegant—exposing my baldness to the whole class. For a few seconds the students sat there looking at me, astonished, without understanding the insult. Then, predictably, they all began to laugh.

Arduino makes it through the rest of the lecture, but he doesn’t know how to process this. He doesn’t know what comes next. So he runs away. Armed only with a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics to read on his journey and a backpack-full of essentials he decides to make a new life in Lapland.

He doesn’t get very far. Instead he ends up in a nearby village that he used to visit with his father as a child and where he hopes to find an old well that was said to be magical. He was told about the well by a priest who was a friend of Arduino’s father and he remembers the two men leaning towards each other so deep in conversation that their combovers almost touched and became one.

What Arduino is really looking for is a safe haven: a place where a man can live in peace and where his hair will be left unruffled. Lapland might serve, but how much more secure is the refuge of childhood memory?

The priest of course is long dead and the well forgotten. You can’t reach the past by bus. So with a logic that seems somehow inevitable Arduino takes refuge in a cave on the hill where he becomes a hermit. He hopes to live off the land, avoid people and to get to grips with Spinoza:

I pulled out the Ethics and read proposition thirty-six of the second part (which talks about confused ideas that are nevertheless necessary) and then the demonstration that refers to proposition fifteen of the first part, with its demonstration which, in turn, refers to proposition fourteen, once again in the first part, and to definition three and so forth. In short, I began to think, like Spinoza, that all things are necessary, like the Argentinian’s hair-ruffle: “Was even this necessary, damn it?” I asked myself. “Did he really have to get up from his seat and ruffle my hair in front of everyone?” In the Ethics, definition seven says:

That thing is called free, which exists solely by the necessity of its own nature, and of which the action is determined by itself alone. On the other hand, that thing is necessary, or rather constrained, which is determined by something external to itself to a fixed and definite method of existence or action.

Which means? That that blockhead couldn’t do anything other than ruffle my hair because he was already a hair-ruffler by nature, or does it mean that he did it because he had been driven by an external cause and he, poor sod, couldn’t prevent himself because he was constrained to do it?

I’ve read absolutely no Spinoza myself and I don’t particularly intend to start now. It doesn’t matter. You don’t need a degree in philosophy to see that we’ve got issues here of exercising free will in a contingent world. Arduino just wants to explore bibliographic data exchange formats and to have his chosen hairstyle be respected. But how can you live freely in a world populaced by wives and mothers-in-law and rogue Argentinian students? Only his cat makes no real demands on him.

If there is an answer it’s not to move to a cave on a mountain in central Italy. I won’t say what happens, but before too long the hermit in the hills is getting a steady stream of visitors. People aren’t that easily put off. Not only that, but where once his hair was at the mercy of distracted barbers and barbarous Argentinians now it’s at risk from the elements. True freedom is impossible. Personally I don’t even think it’s desirable.

All of this makes The Combover sound rather dense, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a rather wonderful nonsense which follows an utterly farcical chain of events all tipped into motion by the Argentinian tipping Arduino’s hair. All that and an exploration of free will versus necessity as reflected through a man’s dedication to protecting his combover.

By this point in this review I’ve described well under half the book and I’ve intentionally avoided most of the plot. Beyond the set-up – Arduino has his hair mussed and becomes a hermit – I had no idea where this was going and it’s a lot of fun that way. It would easily bear rereading, but on a first read I think it’s good to set off like Arduino without any real understanding of your destination.

The Combover comes it at just over a 100 pages and, like Family Heirlooms which I also read relatively recently, was published by Frisch & Co. as part of their series of contemporary literature in translation. It’s available in ebook form only, which as with Family Heirlooms is a shame as it’s an absolute gem.

Other reviews

Two I would link to, both of which reveal more of the plot than I have so to be honest I’d suggest not reading them yet if you’re tempted to read this (which you should be). The first is from Vulpes Libris, here, and the second (which contains extensive potential spoilers) is from Numero Cinq magazine, here. The Numero Cing review goes to a level of analysis far beyond that which I’ve attempted here and is actually very good but is definitely better read after you’ve first read the book itself.

One final word. I know several readers of this blog share with me a difficulty in reading passages involving cruelty to animals. That’s not an issue here. Cosino is probably the only balanced individual in the book and frankly if I had to be anyone within this text I’d be the cat.

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Filed under Bravi, Adrian N., Comic fiction, Italian fiction, Novellas

“Put it down to the dreams, yours and mine, that they can be far more authentic than life itself.”

Mona Lisa, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia and translated by Ignat Avsey

Charming isn’t a word I get to use often enough on this blog.

I liked but didn’t love Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer and it’s fair to say that I like but don’t love Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. For me the Louvre contains far more interesting treasures. The painting has become a form of celebrity – a canvas Kardashian. Obviously it’s good, but I’ve never thought it merited its peculiar fame.

Put those views together and I’m not a natural reader for Lernet-Holenia’s novella about, in part, the Mona Lisa. That was very nearly my loss as, and here’s that word again, it’s one of the most charming books I’ve read in years.

Pushkin have done themselves particularly proud with this edition. The book itself is up to their usual exceptional standards but as well as the usual good quality paper and attractive cover they’ve also included some rather charming (there’s that word again) line illustrations by artist Neil Gower throughout the text. There’s a picture of one at Jacqui’s Wine Journal’s review (link at the end).

As the book opens King Louis XII is sending one of his marshals, Louis de la Trémoille, to the relief of his French governors in Naples who are being harried by the Spanish. The king’s orders are a small work of comic brilliance:

“And I trust, sir,” the King went on, “you will be able to acquit yourself of this commission with your customary prowess. You shall not be left wanting anything. I send you forth not only with my own blessing, but also hereby give you leave as you make your way through Rome to seek the Holy Father’s blessing. However, in case the Holy Father should refuse to anoint your arms, I give you full permission to urge His Holiness, with the help of those selfsame arms, to vouchsafe them his blessing. Furthermore, select as many of my noblemen as you deem fit to accompany you on your way. The flower of my nobility will be honoured and pleased to serve under you and personally to provide armour and equipment for you and your retainers. Also, you will have at your service a number of clerics whose upkeep and maintenance will devolve upon the Church. I shall take the sin of that upon myself. Additionally, I expect the good people of Amboise in Milan to cast the requisite number of ordnance, furnish the requisite number of ensigns, standards and trumpet banners, and supply a sufficient quantity of drums, kettledrums and trumpets. The cost of the undertaking is to be met from the municipal funds. You will of course have at your disposal as many horse and foot as you shall need, fed and nourished off the land, so help you God.”

With such assistance how could the expedition be other than a glorious success? M. de la Trémoille and such lesser noblemen as he is able to persuade to join him set off across France and into Italy.

The king also gave M. de la Trémoille orders to seize such treasure along the way as he is able. With his small and ill-equipped force M. de la Trémoille hasn’t been able to gain anything of consequence so when he reaches Florence it seems a good opportunity to pick up some local art. He takes a few companions and calls upon the famed Leonardo da Vinci, who sadly seems rather more frivolous than expected:

“My investigations,” Leonardo said, “led me, after my enquiries into the density and flow of water and air, to other things, and for a few days I was preoccupied with the weight of God.”

Leonardo seems as distractible as a child. His study shows no signs of current work and he seems to have musicians and dancers attending on him whenever the French call. However, a chance argument between Leonardo and M. de la Trémoille changes everything when one of M. de la Trémoille officers, the young Monsieur de Bougainville, is instructed to catch a fly to settle an argument between Leonardo and M. de la Trémoille as to how many legs it has.

Monsieur de Bouganville disturbs a curtain at the back of the room and behinds it catches a glimpse of glory. It is the Mona Lisa, unfinished, as yet imperfect, but already beautiful. M. de Bouganville falls instantly in love.

From there the story moves to M. de Bouganville’s attempts to discover the model for the painting. He’s told it might be based on a woman known as La Gioconda, third wife to local nobleman Francesco del Giocondo. She is said to have died some years previously of the plague but:

It struck young Bougainville as totally improbable that Leonardo would have painted a woman who was no longer alive.

M. de Bougainville convinces himself that La Gioconda must be the real model for Mona Lisa and that she remains alive. Before long he’s causing outrage; he exhumes her tomb and raids del Giocondo’s house believing her imprisoned there. He is mad. He is in love.

With another writer or perhaps even with Lernet-Holenia in a different mood this would all make quite a nice little historical thriller. Here it’s obvious that M. de Bouganville’s quest is hopeless. Leonardo insists that the picture is based on a composite of various women and there’s no reason at all not to believe him. No reason except love, which is its own reason.

Mona Lisa (the book) becomes a short comic meditation on love and art and how both can make us lose ourselves in something better than we would otherwise be. It’s a lovely little tale. Funny, fast moving, and to return to where I started this piece, utterly charming.

Other reviews

There are loads and I’m sure I’ve missed a fair few of them. The ones I had noted were from Jacqui’s Wine Journal here, which includes a nice picture of one of the illustrations; from His Futile Preoccupations here; and from 1st Reading’s blog here. Please feel free to let me know of others in the comments.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, German, Lernet-Holenia, Alexander, Novellas, Pushkin Press

Sometimes what I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m. telling lies to one another, far from God.

Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson

It’s strange that a book can be simultaneously beautiful yet profoundly untrue. So much for Keats.

Jesus’ Son is a series of eleven loosely connected short stories all featuring (probably) the same unnamed narrator. He’s a junkie, or a recovering junkie, or a relapsing junkie, depending on the story. He lives as best he can, drifting through casual jobs and even more casual friendships. He’d be a loser, except he’s not particularly trying to win anything.

The prose is, quite simply, beautiful. It’s elegant, unexpected, at times surprisingly funny. It’s graceful, which isn’t a word I use often when describing a book. Jesus’ Son is superbly well written. In fact, and I’ll return to this, that’s precisely my problem with it. It’s so well written I think it loses the truth of what it describes. It’s too beautiful.

Jesus_Son_Denis_Johnson

The first story, Car Crash While Hitchhiking, sets the mood. The narrator is describing an accident he was in, the events leading up to it, the people he hitchhiked with before getting in the car that crashed and the varied booze and drugs and stories they shared with him. It’s disordered, but then if you were drunk and high and involved in a fatal collision so would you be.

The tone is matter of fact. The narrator believes he knew it was going to happen anyway, a post-accident assertion of foreknowledge which you could read literally if you wanted but which seems much more a symptom of the narrator’s fatalism. To him it was as unavoidable as gravity. That’s what his life is – things happening, one after another, without much by way of causal links.

He ends up in hospital, still hallucinating. It’s not the first time reality’s hold has been a little shaky. It certainly won’t be the last:

Some years later, one time when I was admitted to the Detox at Seattle General Hospital, I took the same tack.

“Are you hearing unusual sounds or voices?” the doctor asked.

“Help us, oh God, it hurts,” the boxes of cotton screamed.

“Not exactly,” I said.

That quote comes shortly after a passage where the narrator wanders dazedly through the crash scene holding a baby that like him was left seemingly miraculously unhurt while others were so injured it’s hard to tell who’s dead and who’s alive. None of it surprises him, nothing is given greater weight than anything else.

The individual stories blur together, making it hard now to pick out what happened in one and what in another. That reflects the narrator’s own experience. In one titled Two Men he tells an anecdote of how he and some friends find a guy sleeping in their car and spend the evening trying to get rid of him, driving him around in the hope they can drop him off somewhere.

It’s a slightly random shaggy-dog story (they’re all slightly random shaggy-dog stories), but what’s noticeable is that it only features one man, the guy sleeping in the car. The narrator completely forgets whoever the second man was, and it’s not until I got to the end of the story I realised I had as well. Then again, who cares about a second man when you have dialogue like this?

“Are you still at all worried about Alsatia?”

“I was kissing her.”

“There’s no law against that,” Richard said.

“It’s not her lawyer I’m worried about.”

What makes Jesus’ Son brilliant though isn’t its occasional comic dialogue, great as that is. It’s that a little over 70 pages later a story titled The Other Man opens:

But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one, whom I met more or less in the middle of Puget Sound, travelling from Bremerton, Washington, to Seattle.

The narrator may not be in control of his life but Johnson is absolutely on top of his material. This is writing as fine carpentry: perfectly joined, no glue required.

In another story, the narrator is working in a hospital emergency room (he spends a lot of time around hospitals, perhaps because that’s where the drugs tend to be). In what by this point seems a classically Johnsonian incident (and it’s a testament to this book that by page 73 it has classic incidents) a man is admitted to hospital with a knife buried deep into his face penetrating the brain:

[The doctor] peeked into the trauma room and saw the situation: the clerk—that is, me—standing next to the orderly, Georgie, both of us on drugs, looking down at a patient with a knife sticking up out of his face. “What seems to be the trouble?” he said.

Later…

Everybody had a different idea about exactly how to approach the problem of removing the knife from Terrence Weber’s brain. But when Georgie came in from prepping the patient—from shaving the patient’s eyebrow and disinfecting the area around the wound, and so on—he seemed to be holding the hunting knife in his left hand. The talk just dropped off a cliff. “Where,” the doctor asked finally, “did you get that?”

It’s funny stuff, and with most authors it would be the end of the story, but the narrator has no sense of narrative and meanders on for another 12 pages dealing in the same detail with the time he and Georgie went for a drive and accidentally ran over a rabbit. It shouldn’t work, at the level of the individual story it doesn’t always work, but here the whole is much greater than the parts.

Almost every quote I’ve picked above is comic, which is a little misleading as this isn’t a comic novel. In a later story the narrator takes work as an orderly in a facility for people with profound disabilities. He takes a certain comfort from being there for people even worse off than himself, and sees in them an unvarnished reality that everyone else is hiding from. He sees society tucking the disfigured out of sight, hiding human reminders of frailty and mortality. People like him and his friends, they’re invisible too. They’re lost at the margins, inconvenient and irrelevant, living parallel lives with the wider world.

All of which takes me back to the beginning of this piece, and why I think this book though beautiful is untrue. I’ve mentioned before here that my mother and stepfather were part of the counterculture, and that for them as for many others for a while it went quite badly wrong. I spent much of my teenage years surrounded by adults who were junkies, drunks, damaged people.

I recognise the absurdity of the scenes here and I recognise the characters. I don’t though recognise the beauty. Galley Beggar Press have published some shorts by Tony O’Neill which also tell tales of people living on the margins. O’Neill’s world is one I recognise. It’s squalid and ugly and it’s true.

The trouble with wrapping this world in this prose is that it makes it a thing of grace, but it’s not. The reality of a junkie narrator is some guy off his head in a fetid room talking bollocks that makes sense only to him.  There’s nothing elegant about it, and nothing particularly comic. At the extremes it’s desperately, horribly sad. O’Neill captures that. Johnson elides it.

Still, he elides it well and with language so neatly turned that I’ve every intention of reading more by him. Here’s one final quote, showing quite how well Johnson can control tone even within a single sentence.

I was after a seventeen-year-old belly dancer who was always in the company of a boy who claimed to be her brother, but he wasn’t her brother, he was just somebody who was in love with her, and she let him hang around because life can be that way.

Can’t it just? That sentence? That sentence is true.

Other reviews

John Self of Asylum first put this on my radar. His review is here. Trevor of themookseandthegripes also reviewed it here. Finally, here‘s a review by a blog new to me that I also thought interesting. If you know of more, as ever please tell me in the comments.

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Filed under Johnson, Denis, Novellas

The creature must take care not to forget that the man is a hunter.

The Blue Fox, by Sjón and translated by Victoria Cribb

Most literature, for me, works as well as an ebook as it does as a paperback. Sometimes better, particularly if the book’s on the bulky side.

Not all literature though, and particularly I increasingly find not poetry. Poetry depends not just on words but also on placement on the page, on the sea of white around the little islands of black text. Layout, in poetry, is critical.

The Blue Fox isn’t poetry, but it’s close. In a fascinating interview with The White Review Sjón talks about how the book was structured almost as if it were music:

Sjón — I think the fact that I can take the form of the string quartet and use it as the basis of a novel is another proof of how dynamic the novel is. I’m sure that a composer writing a string quartet can learn something from a movie or the structure of film. It was music that gave me the idea of constantly breaking up the narrative. THE BLUE FOX would be a completely different novel if it were chronological. In it, there are constant cliff-hangers and repeated refrains – I’m playing with the element of two melodies that come together but never fully, only in the end finding a solution. It was very interesting that the first people who commented on the book were composers. They said it was very clear to them that I was always playing with volume of information versus text, which is the same thing they do – volume of tones versus time. You can take a melody and stretch it over five minutes, or compress it down to three seconds. They were very much aware of how I was playing with text versus information.

Information versus text. Text versus information. The Blue Fox is a tone poem in book form, a 112 page crystallisation of music on a page. I’m getting ahead of myself though, because I still haven’t said what it’s actually about.

BlueFox

The Blue Fox consists of two different, but connected, narrative strands. In the first a hunter pursues a blue fox, a rare and valuable prey. Their contest, his for a valuable pelt, hers for her life, takes on a mythic air as Sjón fills each page with just a few lines of text letting space and silence surround the sparse words.

Here’s how it opens:

Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter for wonder. When they lie beside them in winter there is no hope of telling them apart from the rocks themselves; indeed, they’re far trickier than white foxes, which always cast a shadow or look yellow against the snow.

A blue vixen lies tight against her stone, letting the snow drift over her on the windward side. She turns her rump to the weather, curls up and pokes her snout under her thigh, lowering her eyelids till there’s the merest hint of a pupil. And so she keeps an eye on the man who has not shifted since he took cover under an overhanging drift, here on the upper slopes of Asheimar, some eighteen hours ago. The snow has drifted and fallen over him until he resembles nothing so much as a hump of ruined wall.

The creature must take care not to forget that the man is a hunter.

Each section of the book comes with dates attached, the first being three days from 9 to 11 January 1883. It’s rooted therefore in the actual: an actual hunter; an actual fox; a particular place and day with particular weather. It couldn’t be more specific.

At the same time though, the sense is of a more timeless encounter. Man and fox both seem archetypal: at this point he is simply “the man”; she “the vixen”. They appear to have emerged from a folktale or saga.

His guts rumbled and the man discovered that he was hungry; he hadn’t tasted a bite since gorging himself on boiled fish before he set off, but that was more than twenty hours ago.

He had eaten a bit of ice since then, truth be told, but that was dull and insubstantial fare. He opened the bag:

Hand-thick slabs of lamb, rye cakes with sheep’s butter, sour as gall, topped with mutton sausage, a dried cod’s head, pickled blood-pudding, dried fish, curd porridge and a lump of brown sugar.

Yes, all this was in his mess-bag.

As you read there’s a sense of themes emerging not in the familiar literary sense, but in a musical one. Phrases recur, such as the title of this review, and that entire first quoted passage above is used twice, verbatim. It’s prose as melody, repeated refrains.

The second narrative strand features a biologist, Fridrik Fridjonsson, who has to bury a young woman named Abba that he took in some years before as his maid. Abba was destitute when he first met her, an outcast from the local community. Fridrik had only briefly returned to Iceland to settle some family affairs, but recognised that Abba had Down’s Syndrome and from compassion decided to stay and to protect her. The parish then was served by a Reverend Jakob:

This incompetent minister was so used to his parishioners’ boorishness – scuffles, belches, farts and heckling – that he affected not to hear when Abba chimed in with his altar service, which she did both loud and clear and never in tune. He was more worried that the precentor would drown in his neighbours’ spittle. This fellow, a farmer by the name of Gilli Sigurgillason from Barnahamrar, possessed a powerful voice and sang in fits and starts, gaping so wide at the high notes that you could see right down his gullet, and the congregation used to amuse themselves by lobbing wet plugs of tobacco into his mouth – many of them had become quite good shots.

Four years later Reverend Jakob died, greatly regretted by his flock; he was remembered as ugly and tedious, but good with children.

His successor was Reverend Baldur Skuggason, who introduced a new era in church manners to the Dale. Men sat quietly on the benches, holding their tongues while the parson preached the sermon, having learnt how he dealt with rowdies: he summoned them to meet him after the service, took them round the back of the church and beat the living daylights out of them. The women, meanwhile, turned holy from the first day and behaved as if they had never taken part in teasing ‘the reverend with the pupil’. They said it served the louts to whom they were married or betrothed right, they should have been thrashed long ago; for the new parson was a childless widower.

Reverend Skuggason swiftly banned Abba from the church, seeing no place there for what he termed “‘the ravings of an idiot'”. Although Abba “knew no greater happiness than to dress up in her Sunday best and attend church with other people”, Reverend Skuggason would not tolerate her and none of his flock cared enough to speak on her behalf.

Reverend Skuggason is the hunter, bringing the two strands together in one man. He denies Abba; he pursues the fox; he is a priest but he knows no pity.

The Blue Fox builds its mood slowly, and its few revelations come all the more powerfully for that. Sjón brings the harsh landscape and the harsh people it breeds both to freezing life. It’s notable that the only one of them to show any mercy is Fredrik, who left for Copenhagen and never meant to return.

Two narrative strands then, and two tonal strands too. The utter factuality of dates, lists of packed provisions, medical diagnoses; but simultaneously a changeling woman come in from the woods and befriended by a traveller, a huntsman and a fox of unsurpassed rarity, beauty, cruelty, hypocrisy, innocence, kindness.  History and fairy tale, intertwined and inseparable.

Other reviews

The Blue Fox has been generally pretty well received (though many reviews contain some fairly hefty spoilers so it’s worth being a bit careful which you read, you should particularly avoid the one in the Independent which in a fairly short piece still somehow manages to give away every story development in the book). Two reviews I was particularly impressed by are Scott Pack’s here at his Me and My Big Mouth blog, and Sarah Hesketh’s here for ReadySteadyBook.

I’d also recommend this interview with Sjón by Stu at his Winstonsdad’s blog. Sjón explains among other things that The Blue Fox is in part inspired by Schubert’s string quartets, and describes the music that inspired his other books.

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Filed under Icelandic fiction, Novellas, Sjón

fields of mud crushed under the weight of of the impending dark

The A26, by Pascal Garnier and translated by Melanie Florence

I’ve long wanted to read Pascal Garnier. He’s been well reviewed on the blogosphere, I love noir and his books sounded punchy and darkly funny. The A26 was my first. Unfortunately, I absolutely hated it.

the-a26

Bernard and Yolande are brother and sister. Bernard is in advanced middle age, Yolande is elderly and hasn’t left their house in decades. They’re hoarders, nothing is ever thrown out; Yolande never leaves and she and Bernard inhabit a bizarre twilight world of their own creation. Bernard however is dying.

‘Bernard’s not gone to work today, he wasn’t up to it. He’s getting tireder and tireder, thinner and thinner. His body’s like this house, coming apart at the seams. Where am I going to put him when he’s dead? There’s not a bit of space left anywhere. We’ll get by, we’ve always got by, ever since I can remember. Nothing has ever left this house, even the toilet’s blocked up. We keep everything. Some day, we won’t need anything else, it’ll all be here, for ever.’

Yolande’s only interaction with the outside world is peering at it through a small hole in the door. There’s a new road being constructed nearby, progress continuing in the wider world while utterly resisted in their private one. Bernard used to go out to work, but now he’s retired so mostly he just goes out for shopping and to kill strangers.

Yup, Bernard’s a serial killer. There’s no particular reason he is. He starts killing for no obvious reason other than that the plot kind of demands it, and the fact that the entire book wallows in horrible and pointless deaths. At one point one poor sod happens just to drive past a character and moments later is described as being killed in a terrible car crash. It’s post-bleak, absurdly so (but not for me comically so).

Yolande is a solipsistic narcissistic delusional psychopath. Bernard isn’t particularly narcissistic or delusional, but he still does ok on the solipsistic psychopathy front.

In the sky the dark was spreading like a pool of ink. A sprinkling of stars appeared. Bernard aimed his finger and rubbed out a few. Every second, some of them died, people said. What did that matter when four times as many were born in the same time? The sky was an enormous rubbish tip.

His attitude to people reflects his attitude to stars. We don’t matter, and there’s always more where any of us came from.

I found the characters and story here a parade of grotesqueries, utterly artificial and contrived. It reminded me in some ways of Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, with his (in that case initially credible) characters tortuously contorted, prodded and pulled into the shape demanded by his improbable plot. I also found it rather sexist (“A woman, even if she’s in her pinny and wearing a black eye, always tidies her hair in the rear-view mirror.” – seriously?).

Anyway, I hated this one too much to give it a fair review. For me it had no real redeeming features but was just 100 pages of relentless ugliness, but I’m in a minority and it’s been very well received on the blogosphere as has Garnier more generally. I’m not therefore arguing that this is a bad book, simply that it was a (very) bad book for me.

It may be that I’m not just not Garnier’s reader, or it may be that I am but not for this book. I will note however that the Melanie Florence translation read well, quite simply it wouldn’t be possible to dislike it as much as I did if the translation were weak (odd as that may sound).

Other reviews

There’s a good few, but I’ll link to two in particular and invite anyone reading to link to others in the comments. This is from Stu at Winstonsdad, because Stu is always good value and there’s nobody better informed on translated literature, and this from Tomcat of Tomcat in the Red Room because I love his blog and I don’t get to link to it as often as I’d like since we often read different books.

I suspect most reading this already know Stu and don’t need me to recommend him further. Tomcat though you may not know, in which case I’d encourage you to take a look over his blog generally as his level of analysis really is very good indeed. Frankly here I think he just gets the novel better than I did, I simply bounced off it and that was that, but Tomcat’s review is sophisticated and well-informed and a great example of why I follow his blog.

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Filed under Crime, French, Garnier, Pascal, Noir, Novellas

At the beginning of the century there was a strong belief in positivism

Europeana, by Patrik Ouředník and translated by Gerald Turner

Some books, often the most interesting, defy easy categorisation. Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana is a history of the 20th Century, except it isn’t, or if it is it’s the most random and partial history I’ve ever read. It’s a novel too, except it isn’t because there’s no plot, no characters, nothing I would normally associate with fiction. Here’s how it opens:

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was nknown as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again.

Ourednik

What follows is a 122 pages of history by association, history without causation. The opening sets the theme, one of war and waste and sheer absurdity. The tone is banal, matter of fact, and what I can’t reproduce here is that on each page a small quote or two is reproduced in tiny font in the margin. For the passage above it’s “the English invented the tank”, but so faint and hard to read I had to photograph it and enlarge it to quote it here. What’s the point? Why does the book pull out that line from all those above? Perhaps because in doing so it undermines the very concept that we can pick out what’s important, the idea that there’s a heirarchy to history.

Here’s a quote from the second and third pages:

Some historians subsequently said that the twentieth century actually started in 1914, when war broke out, because it was the first war in history in which so many countries took part, in which so many people died and in which airships and airplanes flew and bombarded the rear and towns and civilians, and submarines sank ships and artillery could lob shells ten or twelve kilometers. And the Germans invented gas and the English invented tanks and scientists discovered isotopes and the general theory of relativity, according to which nothing was metaphysical, but relative. And when the Senegalese fusiliers first saw an airplane they thought it was a tame bird and one of the Senegalese soldiers cut a lump of flesh from a dead horse and threw it as far as he could in order to lure it away. And the soldiers wore green and camouflage uniforms because they did not want the enemy to see them, which was modern at the time because in previous wars soldiers had worn brightly-colored uniforms in order to be visible from afar. And airships and airplanes flew through the sky and the horses were terribly frightened. And writers and poets endeavored to find ways of expressing it best and in 1916 they invented Dadaism because everything seemed crazy to them.

That paragraph continues for roughly another page, covering as it does so references to the Russian revolution, to nametags to identify dead soldiers, the numbers of dead on each side in World War 1 measured in kilometres, and the Spanish flu. The tiny and faint sidebar quote this time was “germans invented gas”.

So what’s going on here? At first I wasn’t sure, but as you read on themes start to emerge, patterns swirl out of the apparently random and unsupported factoids (and nothing here is referenced, nothing backed up).

The twentieth century to us now seems a century of grand narratives. Communism versus capitalism. The allies versus the axis. Democracy versus fascism. It’s a period in which we reinvent the concept of the self through psychoanalysis (a theory formed without any meaningful evidence that went on to dominate psychology and literature for decades, and that still lingers on despite the near total absence of any hard data supporting its claims).

New utopian philosophies emerge and briefly flourish, artistic movements come one after another in dizzying succession and new scientific developments from the pill to the internet to transgenic cows dazzle us. It would be easy to construct a narrative of progress if we wanted to. A clash of ideologies creating a furnace from which emerged ourselves, modern, scientific, democratic and free.

Of course it’s not that simple. We can only have that narrative if we choose to omit certain facts, if we elect not to dwell on where the desire for progress led us:

In 1910, the Americans devised a Eugenics Board, and in 1922, the Director of the American board sent the U.S. government a list of socially inadaptable citizens who should be sterilized in order to to preserve a healthy and fit society. […] And in Norway after the war they took away from unmarried mothers children whose fathers were German soldiers and sent them to mental hospitals. And lots of biologists and geneticists and psychiatrists and anthropologists believed that, alongside electricity, eugenics was modern science’s greatest contribution to mankind and just as electricity had transformed people’s material conditions and enabled the world to enter a new epoch, eugenics for its part would radically transform society’s biological base and enable the world to enter a new era. But some eugenicists said that sterilization served no purpose and calculated that it would take twenty-two generations to reduce the number of lunatics and psychopaths by 0.9%, and a further ninety generations before the proportion of lunatics and psychopaths in society stabilized at one in a hundred thousand. And they said it was necessary to find a quicker way of making mankind healthier.

Eugenics emerges as a key theme here. Ouředník returns to it over and over, looping back to the topic and as he does so he touches too on the twentieth century’s numerous genocides and the many mass-slaughters which may or may not be genocides depending on who you ask, but which whatever you call them still involved industrialised murder. The Communists, the Nazis, the Americans, they each wanted to create their own vision of the better society, and they each ran into the same problem. What to do with the people who didn’t fit their future? All too often the suggested answers started with preventing them from reproducing, and ended with concluding that a more immediate, a more final, solution was required.

Another key theme here, and a more controversial one, is the exploration of the Holocaust not as a unique event in history but rather as a particular example of what was if anything a marked historical trend. Not only not unique, but not even uncommon. The Jews, the Gypsies, the Armenians, each was singled out for massacre. The Albanians in what used to be Yugoslavia fared better, but not by much since they still had to face ethnic cleansing and deportation (in the 1930s and again of course in the 1990s, it’s not just Ouředník that repeats).

For Ouředník the impression is that eugenics, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and genocide form a spectrum of responses across societies and philosophies. We collectively spent a century purging ourselves of people we decided didn’t fit in, didn’t belong to our future, our end of history. Our narrative may be one of progress, of freedom triumphing over tyranny, but our reality is one of partisan butchery carried out with ever greater efficiency. Narrative is dangerous, it involves editing and when the narrative is about who we are and who we want to be as a society what gets edited is people.

In places Ouředník’s approach becomes problematic. This isn’t history so he cites no sources, but in at least one place I spotted an error, he credits concentration camps to the Communists in 1918 but Britain was deploying them in Africa as far back as the 19th Century (a time and place that saw its own share of genocides).

That in itself didn’t particularly bother me, but then when he claimed that the World Jewish Council in 1985 issued a statement that the Nazi euthanasia of the Gypsies was not a genocide because it based on social rather than ethnic eugenic principles I found myself wondering if that was actually true – and I couldn’t find any trace of it on a web search. I also couldn’t find any reference to a World Jewish Council, it appears to be the World Jewish Congress (possibly a translator’s error though I admit, but generally this is an excellent translation).

I also found myself questioning whether the reference to the 1985 statement was fair. My quick websearch for example easily found a page on a site called the Virtual Jewish Library titled “Roma victims of the Holocaust” which directly compared the treatment of Jews and Gypsies as people selected for slaughter by virtue of their ethnicity. If the 1985 statement was made as described, it’s clearly just one view among several.

It might seem I’m focusing too much on this relatively narrow point, but earlier in the book Ouředník says “the Turks said that the Armenian genocide was not a real genocide, and most Jews agreed.” Did he survey them? Ouředník’s concern is clearly claims of uniqueness for an event he doesn’t regard as remotely being so, but I get distinctly uncomfortable when blanket comments are effectively ascribed to a race. We’ve seen where that kind of thinking can lead, and given that’s precisely one of the points of the book quite frankly Ouředník should know better.

That rather sour note aside, Europeana is blackly funny in its sheer absurdity, which is our absurdity. It darts about between ideas and incidents, bringing them to light as if they were items briefly picked up by a bored shopper rifling through the bargain bin of history. It was a century of innovation adapted in large part to ever better ways of killing people we labelled as somehow other than ourselves, and so far the 21st century isn’t looking any better. So it goes.

I owe my discovery of Europeana to John Self’s review at The Asylum, here. As ever, his take is well worth reading.

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Filed under History, Novellas, Ouředník, Paul