Tuesday 25 January 2011

'misery loves company'

Caribou Island 
by David Vann

Vann's Legend Of A Suicide was a bit of a hit last year. Whether it was a novel or a connected set of stories it was certainly a work hugely influenced by the real-life suicide of his father, an act on which Vann managed to execute a devastating literary revenge in the book's central section - Sukkwan Island. With such deeply personal material it was always going to be interesting to read his next fiction, to see whether he would continue to write about the same subject or move his focus somewhere else. With another titular island and the mention of a parental suicide on the very first page I was immediately worried that we might be treading familiar ground, a suspicion that both was and wasn't born out by the rest of the novel.

Gary and Irene are a couple living in Alaska, a place they came to live in almost by accident, after a sojourn extended well beyond their initial plans and now several years down the line, their children grown up, their marriage is in danger of collapse. Having come here as idealistic children of the earth, hunting with bow and arrow over an unspoiled wilderness, they have become disconnected from that dream, living a life of unachieved goals. But to rescue that Gary has a project: a plot of land on the island of the title on which he will build a cabin for Irene and himself to share over the winter; a retreat they will build together, a shelter whose symbolism is all too clear. Starting the work far later in the year than he planned, the storm-laden first day does not augur well for the project's success.

We have to get this load out to the island, he yelled back, and then he pulled another log, so Irene followed, though she knew she was being punished. Gary would never do this directly. He relied on the rain, the wind, the apparent necessity of the project. It would be a day of punishment. He would follow it, extend it for hours, drive them on, a grim determination, like fate. A form of pleasure to him.
Irene followed because once she had endured she could punish. Her turn would come. And this is what they had done for decades now, irresistibly. Fine, she would think. Fine. And that meant, just wait.

The building of the cabin is of course the rebuilding of the marriage but it is clear from the beginning that this will be a botched job. Gary has made little or no planning or preparation, the logs themselves seem to be a little thin for the archetypal log-cabin, he hasn't really thought about how to include windows or even a door. As the extract above shows, this is something that they are not united behind, each has their own reason for pursuing it, and if marriage is a hard enough path on which to keep two people running along together even when they have the same aims then we know that such divergence so early makes this a project doomed to failure before it has really begun.

Irene could see, in one terrible moment, that they really would live out here. The cabin would not go together right. It would not have what they needed. But they would live in it anyway. She could see that with absolute clarity. And though she wanted to tell Gary to live out here on his own, she knew she couldn't do that, because it was the excuse he was looking for. He'd leave her forever, and it was not okay for her to be left again. That would not happen again in her life.

That final sentence refers to the parental suicide I mentioned earlier. Irene's mother took her own life when Irene was a child, an event she has barely spoken about with her own daughter, Rhoda, until the conversation that opens the book. 'My mother was never real to me' she says, but the illness that she develops after that disasterous rain-soaked first day out to the island is the physical beginning of something that gives her an insight into what might have lain behind her mother's suicide, and Irene's engagement with what had remained taboo for so many years not only makes her mother real for the first time but is all part of her examination of a life in exile.

A concentration again behind her right eye, a fault line, the bones of her skull like tectonic plates moving, grinding at the edges. Her only goal each day now was to get through the day, her only goal each sleepless night to get through the night. Reduced to existence, to bare survival, and there was something good about that maybe, something honest. But she still felt other things, too, light drifting notes somewhere out there: loneliness for instance. She missed Rhoda. She hadn't stopped feeling entirely.
Irene wondered if this was what had made her mother's end possible, the fading away of feeling...

Gary meanwhile is driven by other forces far more destructive, as his stubborn behaviour on that very first day showed. One lifelong passion has been the epic poem Beowulf, passages of which he has always been able to quote, but it has taken all the years of his life so far, to have seen his life 'wasted', to finally understand that the poem isn't simply about religion but 'A kind of bliss to annihilation, to being wiped away. But ever he has longing, he who sets out on the sea, and this longing is to face the very worst, a delicate hope for a larger wave.' A self-destructive streak that is closer to a death wish drives his doomed labour and Irene as we know is convinced of his determination to fail and make his escape. Vann's description of landscape and location is excellent but it is his physical descriptions of labour that really give the reader a sense of the volatility of emotions and a psychological landscape as dangerous as the physical one around them. Occasionally the metaphors feel a bit obvious with Irene at one point even naming it as such after suggesting that Gary nail the ill-fitting logs together.

And she was thinking this was some kind of metaphor, that if they could take all their previous selves and nail them together, get who they were five years ago and twenty-five years ago to fit closer together, maybe they'd have a sense of something solid.

Part of me wished that the need to make things explicit had been resisted, the metaphors and symbols couldn't be clearer, but there is no doubting the power achieved by Vann in his examination of an intimacy battered by environment and experience and the danger of unearthing those thoughts that we have kept buried under a comforting and beautifying blanket of snow. In fact so good is the central story of Gary and Irene's marriage that it might have been enough on its own, containing the same kind of claustrophobia in wide open spaces that made Sukkwan Island such a powerful piece of writing. But it's easy to see how Vann needed to bring in the story of their daughter Rhoda not only because it allows us to develop the theme of parental care and the legacy a mother can leave her daughter (whether through advice or action) but also because her own desire to be married can contrast with the state of her parents marriage; her own dreams for a tropical wedding in Hawaii aren't just an obvious counterpoint to the freezing landscape of Alaska but her ignorance of her potential fiancees philandering and attitude to marriage show how far she is from even starting off on the right foot. By bringing in her elder boyfriend Jim, we then have to look at the young girl who turns his head, Monique and by extension her boyfriend Carl. Suddenly we have a story that has become a novel by widening the gaze but characters like Carl and Monique, however entertaining, weren't ever truly satisfying for me and I couldn't help but want to get back to the far more focused and compelling story on the island of the title. Might this have been better approached as a novella like Sukkwan Island, showcasing again Vann's unique ability to make us feel the claustrophobia of open spaces when combined with the suffocation of our closest relationships, or am I just wishing for what I would have preferred personally? Your own thoughts after reading it will be the only way to answer that one. But there is no doubting the significant achievements of this novel and the impact that Vann has made with his first works of fiction. Comparisons with Cormac McCarthy have already been made showing just how much he has cemented his arrival. Personally, I'm already looking forward to what he does next.


Thursday 20 January 2011

'You don’t get the chance to save someone every day'

Comedy In A Minor Key
by Hans Keilson
(translated by Damion Searls)

Hans Keilson was 101 at the end of last year (Happy Birthday Hans!) so he has had to wait quite a while for the literary spotlight to shine on him. It isn't that it hasn't at all until now as a recent profile in The Guardian pointed out: in his early twenties he might have expected his first novel to do well if the Nuremberg Race Laws hadn't led to it being pulped by his publisher a year after publication, and he was rubbing shoulders with some pretty august company in Time magazine's books of the year list in 1962 but never went on to have the glittering success of the other names like Borges, Faulkner, Nabokov or Roth. He doesn't have a huge body of work to rediscover like those authors but as Francine Prose pointed out in a fantastic review in the New York Times,

For busy, harried or distractable readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: “The Death of the Adversary” and “Comedy in a Minor Key” are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.

Vintage Classics will publish The Death of the Adversary in the summer but Comedy in a Minor Key is already available from Hesperus Press in a new translation from Damion Searls and it is indeed a little gem. In fact it is the kind of book that I would hate to spoil by too thorough a review, the pleasure is there for you to discover yourself. Wim and Marie are an ordinary Dutch couple living in Nazi-occupied Holland, Wim a bookkeeper approached one day by a colleague and sounded-out about providing shelter for a Jew in their home. Without thinking about it too much they agree to and it isn't long before the man they will know as Nico, a perfume salesman, enters their household. They are unused to carrying a secret like that and it is a while before they can muster the courage to tell Wim's sister about the arrangement. When they do they are surprised by her response.

'Excellent. How old? That'll work. Older and they're already too fossilised. I had wanted to ask you two for a long time if you'd take someone in.'
'Really? Would you have done it too?"
'One? I'd take two or four! Just not three together, that's bad in arguments and so on. It's always two against one. By the way you don't have anyone else waiting in the wings, do you? I need to take in another three soon.'

That should give you an idea of the tone of the comedy in this book. There is something comfortingly British about the domestic comedy of manners, so that with Nico in the house the couple worry not so much about the potential peril of hiding him but the awkward reality of having someone else in their home. This tone is all the more surprising not only because of the extraordinary circumstances but also because we know from the beginning of the book that Nico has done that most inconvenient of things and died of natural causes whilst under their protection. How to get rid of the body?

This doesn't mean that what unfolds is a Ladykillers-style comedy of body disposal (near the end of this clip) although there is something of that too. This is comedy in a minor key and so Keilson splits his narrative into three parts. As Wim removes the body, with the help of their doctor, to be abandoned under a park bench, Marie goes through Nico's belongings and discovers, in a book all about secrets, the tiny but somehow significant secrets he might have hidden from them. We also look back to Nico's incarceration and the confusion of a man grateful for sanctuary but who cannot hide his souring outlook behind the ever-closed curtains of his room.

He was turning into nothing. It was unbearable. It meant his annihilation, his human annihilation, even if it - maybe - saved his life. The little thorn that grows invisibly in anyone who lives on the help and pity of others grew to gigantic proportions, became a javelin lodged deep in his flesh and hurting terribly.
  How proudly they had given him this room, how gratefully he had received it. How imprisoned, abandoned and wretched he had felt in it. The loneliness of loneliness. He had never liked to spend too much time at home, and now he had to. A spring arrived, a summer, an autumn...behind the curtains.
Is it possible for a man to be grateful to those that hide him but hate them too? Is it possible for a woman to feel remorse at the death of that man but also anger at that death for failing to deliver the moment of victory and vindication that she had so desired? Yes, because these are the complexities of human thought and emotion as rendered so expertly by Keilson in this wonderful novella. In my limited experience as an actor I have learnt that the best plays combine comedy and tragedy, characters that are both sympathetic and repulsive; complicity is all. Make the audience laugh one minute and hold their breath the next and you're in a position to take them wherever you want. The big achievement of this book is the restraint employed; Keilson is gently devastating. An understanding of our contradictory impulses feeds into a story that is both humane and unflinchingly honest, humorous and desperately sad, short and yet as fully rounded as you could want it to be. Some books delight because they subvert your expectations, surprise you, and sometimes it is very simple.

It was like a comedy where you expect the hero to emerge onstage, bringing resolution, from the right. And out he comes from the left. Later, though, the audience members go home surprised, delighted, and a little bit wiser for the experience. They feel that the play did turn out a bit sad after all, at the very end. We thought he would enter from the right...


Tuesday 18 January 2011


Lights Out In Wonderland
by DBC Pierre

This isn't going to be a traditional post from me as this is a book I read professionally, for production as an audio book, but which threw up some interesting thoughts as part of the process. DBC Pierre is an author who seems to attract a fair bit of opprobrium mainly for having had the audacity to win the Booker Prize with a novel that wasn't just a debut but a thoroughly disrespectful and un-serious one at that, added to which it seemed that the £50,000 prize money would go on settling debts from his drug-addled past, or at least some of them (he did at one point sell a friend's house and pocket the proceeds). Personally I remember reading it, finding it entertaining enough and was never quite certain why people were so upset when it won (2003 was a pretty odd year if you look at the long and shortlists) That said, the pasting that his second novel, Ludmilla's Broken English, received was so universal that a gifted copy of it still sits on my shelf, and the concept that Lights Out In Wonderland was the final part of a loose trilogy meant I had little interest in reading it on publication, a feeling unaltered after hearing the man himself read from it at a literary event. Authors are seldom the best readers of their own work and though Peter Finlay may have lead a dissolute life that closely mirrors that of Gabriel Brockwell, the anti-hero of this latest novel, that doesn't mean the story is best served by his own wearied and monotonous drawl.

So when the job came through I was a little apprehensive. Narrated by Gabriel Brockwell the book begins as he comes round to find himself in a rehab facility having been dumped there by his father as a last throw of the dice to get his son back on the straight and narrow. Gabriel has squandered every opportunity he's been offered, a perennial under-achiever and after losing his job in the food court of a motorway services has occupied himself of late as part of a group of anti-capitalist demonstrators. Having decided that the only option left to him is suicide he then has a revelation: he doesn't need to do it right away. Suddenly he is in a state of limbo where the normal constraints of life no longer matter. If you know you're going to kill yourself you don't need to worry about consequences. Behaviour can be untrammelled, all bridges can be burned. Escape rehab, find old friend Smuts and muster forces for a final hoorah - A bacchanalian feast of excess not seen since the end of Rome.

With the police and bailiffs on his tail Gabriel reassigns the group's treasury to his personal account and heads off after Smuts, which means a flight to Tokyo where he now works in a high-end fish restaurant. Smuts is a delicious concoction. A genius chef with a passion for the extreme he introduces Gabriel to sashimi that carries the added risk of death and a new breed of wines that invoke almost a new sense of taste. The two of them are like volatile ingredients that are safe when kept apart but lethal when mixed and their first evening together is a potent mix of fine food and wine, class-A drugs, brushes with the Japanese underworld which climaxes quite literally in a giant fish tank. Thereafter Gabriel will travel on to Berlin where the plot becomes ever more outrageous and the menu not just exotic but positively endangered.

If this just sounds like an entertainment fit for the gourmand then that's to miss the pretty hefty satire. I say hefty because Gabriel sees himself as living in the end of days, the decline of Western civilisation, and has plenty of things to sound off about (Free-market economics, consumerism, drug-taking to name but three). Some of these fit more neatly into the plot than others and the use of footnotes to allow him to digress at will may put some readers off. For me as the reader of the audio-book version there's a particular challenge: not just how to read those footnotes so that you don't lose the flow of the book but how to keep the listener engaged during those moments of pontification. Pierre helps by injecting plenty of gusto into his diatribes and the rest is up to me of course. And that's the biggest challenge of course. Reading a whole book in first-person narration is an act of stamina in itself but Gabriel is also a pretty unlikeable character if truth be told so how do you make it a pleasant and engaging experience for the listener. Theatre is full of anti-heroes who appeal to the audience through wit and humour, making them complicit in crimes committed and I can only hope to do something similar: entertain, engage and perhaps find a smidgen of sympathy in Gabriel's fractious relationship with his father.

I haven't read any of the critical reaction to this book in the newspapers but all I can say is that as a project to read and bring to life it's an absolute hoot. A day's recording is six hours of you talking, just you, talking and talking, and can be exhausting quite frankly. But when you've got something to get your teeth into it can be a lot of fun. I guess the only danger is if I come across like those people fond of a line or two of cocaine who love the sound of their own voice, finding themselves terribly interesting, whilst those that are forced to listen scan the room for the nearest exit. It will after all be only the click of a button away.


Thursday 13 January 2011

'one day is always followed by another'

by Jenny Erpenbeck
(translated by Susan Bernofsky)

Sometimes when keeping an eye out for books to read something of a perfect storm develops. Michel Faber, author of the best-selling, neo-Victoriana tome The Crimson Petal And The White, wrote a glowing review of the work of Jenny Erpenbeck at the end of October that first caught my eye. The publishers of her latest novella are Portobello Books who also published one of my chance finds at the end of 2009, Madame Verona Comes Down The Hill by Dimitri Verhulst (and who also acquired rights to translate works by Herta Müller just before she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature at about the same time). Faber's review also drew comparisons with Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, another favourite from last year, as both books use a fixed location and the characters that pass through it over a period of great change. All of which amounted to several flashing arrows and a big sign that said 'This book is right up your strasse.'

It may only be 150 pages long but Erpenbeck manages to cram German history from the early twentieth century and then Hitler's stranglehold on power through to the reunification in 1990 with short chapters that look at the varying inhabitants of a house that stands on the shore of the Märkisches Meer in Brandenberg. It isn't the fact that she crams so much in that makes it a tough read, I am amazed at how she pushes what we might think the novella capable of with some bold techniques and bolder ambitions, but there is something very disorientating about it as a reading experience. Perhaps this is something that would be settled by a second read but as this is something that I seldom do I can only give you my impressions on this first visit.

A prologue first tells us of the geological forces that have created the lake on which the property stands; let there be no mistake that however tumultuous the period of history we are about to enter might be, it is but a blip on the far longer timeline that has seen a glacier flatten all before it and alter the landscape irrevocably. That land has a long history of legacy and changing ownership as an almost fairy-tale like early chapter sets out. Change and ownership are two major themes that run through the book and when we meet The Architect who has been the householder for many years he is burying his valuables in the gardens that surround it, his ownership challenged by the changing political landscape of the Iron Curtain, forced out after having done business with the West.

His profession used to encompass three dimensions, height, width and depth, it was always his business to build things high, wide and deep, but now the fourth dimension has caught up with him: time, which is now expelling him from house and home.

Lest we have too much sympathy for him we will learn later that he himself has profited from the shifting sands, having bought the neighbouring property from his Jewish neighbours for half the market value when they could no longer remain there with any safety. Like Mawer's book there are some lovely descriptions of details of the house, the special pulleys, secret spaces, and special carvings that have been put there by the Architect in many ways as a token of his love for his wife. But this is a much less straightforward narrative with chapters coming non-chronologically and I found it took a fair bit of concentration, and even re-reading, to keep track of where exactly I was.

One constant is The Gardener (forgive me John Le Carre) whose short chapters, often only a page, come as regularly as the seasons, detailing his labour. He has been there since the first holiday homes went up around the lake, thatching roofs and helping to coax healthy plants to life in the blue clay and sandy soil that lies around the shore. What could be rather boring descriptions of pruning, planting and the like are actually poetic meditations, another reminder of the survival of nature in the face of adversity and its place as the central character with all of the lakeshore's inhabitants merely walk-ons.

Some of those walk-ons are outstanding though. The ten page section entitled The Girl is one in which we are hidden with one of the few characters to be graced with a name (Erpenbeck keeps most of her characters identified simply by their profession but significantly gives name to the Jewish characters - repeatedly, like a mantra, for the two families in The Cloth Manufacturer - in order to humanise those who will be de-humanised and erased by the Nazi era). We cannot help but think of Anne Frank as we read the story of Doris and her terrifying solitude and the impact that those few pages have quite incredible. For, having given this girl a name it will be taken away again.

For three years the girl took piano lessons, but now, while her dead body slides down into the pit, the word piano is taken back from human beings, now the backflip on the high bar that the girl could perform better than her schoolmates is taken back, along with all the motions a swimmer makes, the gesture of seizing hold of a crab is taken back, as well as all the basic knots to be learned for sailing, all these things are taken back into uninventedness, and finally, last of all, the name of the girl herself is taken back, the name no one will ever again call her by: Doris.

A Writer character gives voice I think to some of Erpenbeck's process, the sifting of historical material and presentation of personal loss (the book has its roots in her own family's history apparently).

These letter's she's been tapping out have allowed her to draw to the surface many things that seemed worthy of preserving, while pushing other things, painful ones, back into obscurity. Now, later, she no longer knows whether it wasn't a mistake to pick and chose, since this thing she'd been envisioning all her life was supposed to be a whole world, not a half one.
If that does give voice to any concern on her part then she needn't worry. In fact the problem for me if anything is that the book felt a bit leaden in places. Structure, prose and import all combine to weigh down the reading experience so that it felt like a much longer book than it actually is (this is no fault of the translation from Bernofsky which is excellent on a particularly challenging text). But as I've said, further reads would probably be rewarded with the richness and complexity obviously contained within in the same way that the house itself has little details that only a discerning eye would spot - a singular carving here, a hidden doorway there.

The episodic nature of the chapters and the dislocation of each of the character's stories also link into other themes. The way in which the land around the house is divided, appropriated, re-assigned is a microcosm of what is happening to Germany herself. The old diary of the mayor shows his realisation that '...home had been transformed into a time that now lay behind him, Germany had been irrevocably transformed into something disembodied, a lost spirit...' and in many ways the disparate characters have a very temporary feel in the wider story of the land around them. But as The Childhood Friend muses, that doesn't mean we should underestimate the significance of any of them.

...it strikes him as strange that, independent of what is happening, one day is always followed by another, and to this day he doesn't know what it actually is that is continuing. Perhaps eternal life already exists during a human lifetime, but since it looks different from what we're hoping for - something that transcends everything that's ever happened - since it looks instead like the old life we already knew, no one recognizes it.


Tuesday 11 January 2011

'the less you know, the better you sleep.'

by A.D. Miller

Snowdrop. 1. An early-flowering bulbous plant, having a white pendant flower. 2. Moscow slang. A corpse that lies buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw.

I couldn't have chosen a better moment to begin reading this debut novel, just as snow began to fall outside and cover buildings, pavements and trees in that always beautiful blanket of white. Snow has the ability to make almost any landscape look beautiful and the way in which it can hide something filthy or rotten is entirely appropriate whilst reading this story of corruption, deceit and false impressions. It is told by lawyer Nick, written as a kind of confession to his fiancee about his time in Russia, a time he has refused to speak about until the pressure of tying the knot makes it something he must share.

Perhaps it's because we're only three months away from 'the big day', and that somehow seems a sort of reckoning. I feel like I need to tell someone about Russia, even if it hurts. Also that probably you should know, since we're going to make promises to each other, and maybe even keep them.

The last part of that last sentence sounds like a man wearied by an experience, a man who knows not to trust a promise. Quite what his secret is will be revealed slowly but the book begins with the discovery of a body, the snowdrop of the title, and so we know from the beginning that the stakes will be high. Miller previously worked as the Russian correspondent for The Economist so this novel is filled with closely observed detail and seems to reflect accurately (presumably) the life of those professionals who work away from native lands and cannot help but absorb something of the environment the live in. Nick of course sees himself as above all that, a far more concerned and noble creature than the other expat lawyers -

'...who generally only stayed for two or three oblivious years, then retreated to service more reputable crooks in London or New York, sometimes as a partner in Shyster & Shyster or wherever, taking with them a handy offshore bank balance and some tits-and-Kalashnikov Wild East stories to console their live-long commutes.'

With a moralistic central character immersed in a foreign culture it's impossible not to think of Graham Greene and Miller is well aware of that, even creating for Nick a journalist friend, Steve, who has 'been trying to avoid England and himself for so long and in so many far-out places...that by the time I met him he had become one of those lost foreign correspondents that you read about in Graham Greene, a citizen of the republic of cynicism.' Steve has been working in country a lot longer than Nick and his journalistic experience has taught him at least one fundamental truth.

'In Russia there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories.'

This is crucial because the story Nick has to tell could be all of the above but at its heart, just as his time-worn friend warned, it is a crime story. It begins with a harmless enough meeting on the metro, a shared glance with a woman that will set the chain of events in motion but it also relies on complicity and another piece of advice from his friend - 'You need to lose your moral bearings. Otherwise you're done for.' It is partly this unmooring that creates a central character who seems to almost drift into calamity and I'll be honest and say that this raised a couple of weaknesses for me, one of credulity and one of passivity. There were moments when I really wondered whether a man of intelligence would sleepwalk into such poor lapses or suspensions of judgement, particularly in regard to the plot connected with his work (we all know that affairs of the heart are far more likely to go awry!). That passivity makes for a central character who lacks verve and engagement on the whole, not a devastating problem for some readers perhaps, but enough to prevent this reader (who always had an inkling of what would happen) from ever getting really excited about what was unfolding. Knowing where the plot might be going isn't a disaster, a psychological thriller is far more about the internal workings of course, but that passivity I mentioned meant that I wasn't as gripped by it as I might have been.

The character of Tatiana Vladimirovna does provide some interest. The 'aunt' of Nick's female friend, he will act as her legal representative in a property swap (a curious quirk of Russian property ownership sees properties swapped rather than bought and sold, I could go into detail after reading this book but I sense you don't want me too) that will take her out of the city centre. She comes from a generation for whom the mere mention of the word Leningrad is enough to bring conversation to a standstill and bring back memories of starvation during the lengthy siege of World War Two.

'But then people became animals, do you understand? And all other animals were food. We had a dog, he was only a little dog, and we hid him from the other people. But he died anyway, and in the end we ate him ourselves. It would have been better to eat him when he was fat!...Books were for burning. Dogs were for eating. Horse were for eating, sometimes when they were still alive. They fell down in the street and people ran with knives. Boots and shoes were for making soup.'

Endowed with that famously grim Russian sense of humour Vladimirovna is a stoical presence, perhaps as dimly aware of the deception that she is part of as Nick is, in his own way. Any sense that this property swap is less than fair is roundly ignored by all concerned so that Nick can feel as if it were all 'inevitable, almost natural.' Like the moral descents found in Greene this novel is about the journey Nick makes from the lofty certitude of his early days in Russia to the pre-nuptial confession that we are reading. The journey in which a man discovers exactly what he is capable of.

The kind of person I never knew I could be until I came to Russia. But I could be, and I was.
That's what I learned when my last Russian winter thawed. The lesson wasn't about Russia. It never is, I don't think, when a relationship ends. It isn't your lover that you learn about. You learn about yourself.
I was the man on the other side of the door. My snowdrop was me.


Thursday 6 January 2011

'The best books on war are those written by deserters.'

I Am A Chechen!
by German Sadulaev

A book sent on spec by Harvill Secker, a book which doesn't appear to have been reviewed by the national press at all ( a quick search online threw up only a profile in the free Metro and this item on BBC World Service) - and yet a book that really deserves to be read. In an era of rolling news where worldwide conflict scrolls past on a ticker, to be forgotten as quickly as it has been read, a book like this 'novel' from  Sadulaev is a worthwhile and fascinating read. I'll hold my hand up and say that the Chechen situation is something I had very little awareness of bar a couple of newsworthy hostage takings that ended in tragedy at a Moscow theatre and a school in Beslan. The political history of many Soviet states is complicated at best and the same is true of the Chechen Republic. Accused by Stalin of Nazi collaboration during the Second World War this autonomous soviet republic was disbanded, its population deported and the territory carved up before being re-established by Kruschev. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 there was more turmoil with the Chechen Republic seeking independence as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, something it achieved after the First Chechen War with Russia ('94-'96) before being taken back under Russian control in The Second Chechen War ('99-'00). Sadulaev himself left his homeland in 1989 at the age of 16 to study law in St Petersburg, missing the conflict and finding a country devastated on his return with many friends killed. This book is very much born from his guilt at that absence, an intensely personal recreation of his homeland that melds myth, memoir, fiction and a desire to memorialise those many thousands of civilians who are denied a voice even within Russia, let alone the rest of the un-watching world.

The book comes roughly in three sections. The first and most exciting, entitled One Swallow Doesn't Make A Summer, subtitles itself A Tale in Fragments and consists of 58 numbered chapters, many just a page or two. What makes it exciting is that these fragments veer wildly from folk tale to fantasy, metaphor to memoir, there isn't a point at which the reader can settle down and think 'Ah, I know what I'm reading here.' The swallows of the title adorn the cover significantly and we learn that 'The swallow is a totem, a sacred bird, to kill a swallow is a grave sin. Nobody kills swallows.' Their arrival heralds the beginning of summer and their annual migration and return means that with no swallows ever seeming to die in Shali, Sadulaev's ancestral home, they are almost immortal; the bird that returns the same one that left, year after year - the flock together seen as the souls of Chechen ancestors. In one striking section we read about their return to a devastated Shali where nests have been destroyed along with homes.

In the spring the swallows arrived. They appeared in their tailcoats, festive and happy. They whirled in flocks along the familiar streets, started searching for their nests.
Have you ever heard swallows scream? Do you think they cannot scream? Swallows chirp, peal, twitter, their high-pitched warbles modulating; how could they scream?
That spring, panic-stricken flocks of birds flew over the ruins of the houses and screamed, continually, mournfully, inconsolably.

Perhaps that contains something of Sadulaev's own shock at returning for later in the book he will compare himself directly to these totemic animals - 'I'm merely a lone bird who has strayed from the flock; it's so easy to stray from the flock when the flock itself has lost its way in the sky.' We learn about Chechen custom and folklore, the history of its people told with a similar tone to that of the ancient myths and legends. Sadulaev fuses his tales of the recent conflict with the same tone so that these personal stories take on a momentous significance, the individual 'characters' accorded real importance in the history of their country. Some stories are fable-like extensions of the everyday effects of war. A madman called Ibrashka whose irrational fear of the 'silver bird', or planes in the sky is only a reflection of the Pavlovian response of many Chechen people to the drone of aircraft after having endured such terror from the skies with attacks on the civilian population. In the very next section we hear of Dunka, a woman who was raped and went on to deliver a stillborn-child, later walking around Shali with a pram and a doll. Pregnant women feared meeting her and the story illustrates the increased frequency of stillborn births as a possible result of stress, wounds, chemical weapons or vacuum bombs. Most obvious are the fire-breathing dragons that haunt the sky. One feature of the Chechen conflict already alluded to was the air superiority enjoyed by the Russians after they pre-emptively attacked the few Chechen planes as they sat on the tarmac. After that the Chechen people lived in fear of almost sport-like attacks by Russian aircraft on civilians and also the use of supposedly banned weapons like cluster bombs.

This book caused no small amount of controversy in Russia when it was published, especially as the Russian government denies the existence of any attacks on the civilian population or the use of banned weapons. Sadulaev takes that head-on in the middle section, first with Why The Sky Doesn't Fall Down, in which a writer, holed up in St Petersburg, remembers, writes, and questions why he does so.

For whom am I writing this book?
For them. Nobody knew them when they were alive; they were ordinary people. Now nothing is left, and it's as though they never existed. But they did exist. This is my town - the town of the dead - and I should engrave a memorial plaque for each home. This is the book of the dead and it should have a line about each of them. This is my duty. For this reason I was left among the living. Left for a while.
This personalisation of anonymous victims is taken a stage further with When The Tanks Awoke which points up the blurred boundaries between what are supposed to be clear enemies as it traces the friendship between two boys, Zelik and Dinka. Zelik is a native of Shali whilst his best friend Dinka spends just three months a year in a Russian facility there known as PP-2. This isn't just a tale of Chechen boy and Russian friend, it's far more complicated than that as both boys have Chechen fathers and Russian mothers - in fact the alternating narrative voices of each chapter hide the fact that we know from the outset that only one of them has written this story, the other having died. Is it possible for us to know which boy that is? Especially in a story where the author needs a photo to remind him that there really were two boys and that his friend isn't just the product of an overactive imagination or shell-shocked brain. Despite the trickery it is this section that feels closest to a standard narrative and it makes for a moving and poignant account of the larger politics played out on a smaller scale.

The final section consists of several separate stories which aren't so much fragmented as disparate making this the least successful section for me. They almost belong in a different book as they feel far more controlled, missing the slightly on-the-hoof feel that makes the book so exciting at the beginning. This is a small grumble and shouldn't take anything away from the power of the book as a whole. If there is a danger that our overexposure to news media desensitises us to the real impact of violence and conflict then it almost makes a perverse kind of sense that it should fall to the 'fiction' writer to tells us the real story. No writer can ever guarantee that their words will ever be read by anyone or make any difference but it would be a travesty if a book capable of opening our eyes to human conflict and written with the express purpose of memorialising those that have been silenced were to disappear into a silence of its own because that same news media failed to notice it.

I know: it is disjointed, sketchy, fitful, jumbled, fragmented, broken. There is no central plot. It is hard to read prose like this, right? Easier to read linear prose. Prose that makes you want to turn pages and find out what happened next.
...But now, now come spurts of blood. Not the crimson blood that fills out veins, smooth flowing and even; this is scarlet, arterial blood, shooting in a fountain from a throat pierced by a spear, spattering you with droplets - it won't wash out easily, okay?
Do not read further.
Oh, and another thing: it's like a cluster bomb. A big container; it opens in the sky and out fall smaller bombs, a mass of hedgehogs from the heavens, the size of a child's ball; inside each little ball is a deadly filling: pellets, shrapnel, flechettes.
Did something hit your heart?


Tuesday 4 January 2011

'There's making it up and there's making it up.'

Standard Time 
by Keith Ridgway

John Self has been drawing attention to Irish writer Keith Ridgway both on his blog and on the Fiction Uncovered website. Armed with this name on a trip to the LRB bookshop to find me a birthday present my dad found only two titles on the shelf (shame on you LRB): his novel The Parts (which appeared to be a bit of a disparate doorstop) and a slightly neglected looking copy of this story collection. A prize winning book (Standard Time won the Rooney Prize in 2001) needs a good home and hopefully found one on the day I turned... let's just say a year older.

To finish his review of Ridgway's novel, The Long Falling, John used a quotation from a scene in which one character is asked by a policeman during an interview to start from the beginning. His reply: "Where's that?" The opening story of this collection, The First Five Pages, picks up on that idea:

Put one story behind you and start another. That is the theory. But I find that what should be new is polluted and old. That there are no endings, that all stories overlap, and that all you can do is decide where to begin. When to begin.

A story collection seems like a good place to begin with a new author, a taster menu if you like to help you get a feel for their capabilities and there is real variety here even though all but one of Ridgway's stories are set in Dublin (we even have a couple of stories that take us back into the city's history). What struck me immediately was how different these stories seemed to what I might have expected. Many writers use the shorter form to exhibit stylistic flourishes or experiment. There can, let's face it, be some grandstanding. But Ridgway manages to write stories that have the calm confidence of the novel even whilst containing the punch of the shorter form and even moments of literal extreme violence. In fact it could be said that violence is a recurring theme. One of the characters in the gruesome historical piece Ross and Kinnder articulates the public desire to shock and be shocked.

...whatever horror takes place in the world, it is never enough. It will be puffed up until it shocks, and so the audience writes the plot, demanding teeth marks.

The violence in Ridgway's stories ranges from the blood-spattering of a hired killer in the story above to the casual elbow to the face delivered by one man to his lover after a drunken scene in a restaurant. But it is never gratuitous. We are shocked by the beating received at the end of Never Love A Gambler (a story in which the threat of violence hangs over one character with gambling debts) not only because of its viciousness but also its cruelty, given the surprise of how it comes about and who is on the receiving end. Violence isn't restricted to its most obvious forms. Jane's Addiction sang that 'Sex is Violence' and particularly in his depiction of gay relationships Ridgway captures the power of the significant remark, the physicality of coupling and the subtler ways in which intimacy can be a weapon with which to jab at those closest to us and where each blow is loaded with import and meaning. The narrator of The Problem With German is quite clear what that problem is.

Robert does not like the sound of German. You cannot, he told himself, whisper in German. You can only argue and be adamant and precise. He does not believe that a German speaker ever has to search for the right word.

But Ridgway uses the language barrier that is heightened by Robert's visit to Berlin with his German lover to stand for the general breakdown in communication between the couple. There is a wonderful sense of the trust implicit in any relationship as Robert needs his interpreter to understand even the most basic exchange around him and it isn't until one flashpoint is translated for him that he realises how hard it can be to interpret the behaviour of others without a common language to communicate with. In Off Vico the elderly narrator, a writer, is approached by an apparent stranger who claims to have met him before. His quick dismissal of such a thought seems at first to be the result of confused identity or simply the impact of ageing but as they converse he struggles to keep his head above the deluge of memories that flood over him.

Abstractions by the handful, I grappled with my history for a moment, as one will, must, will, when confronted with a past which one had imagined as a future, and one sees, again, always recurring, that the bulk of things lie behind us, done and dusted, used just once, through in an instant. Abstract regret, abstract sorrow, abstract life. That we discuss anything at all is a wonder to me.

His battle with memory is due to the defences he himself has erected around deep buried feelings and an encounter charged with eroticism. The manner in which these defences tumble is brilliantly written by Ridgway who does allow himself some stylistic flourishes here in a standout story.

Those two themes of how little we really know of those closest to us and the concentration of feeling that comes from the briefest of relationships are combined in the longest story of the book, Angelo. Its length is due to the narrator's need to tell us everything he can remember about the man who has come into and then out of his life, trying desperately to work out exactly what happened.

...I don't have the time to be brief. You understand me? I don't have the time to sift through it all and distill the moments of importance, and communicate them in a way that would make you care. I am distracted by the debris, by the incidental, by the little bits of minutes and hours and days that stay with me, that have lodged somewhere in my mind as tastes or sounds or inclinations of his head or movements of his hands or words he said. Because I need to show him to you, and I'm not doing it right, I'm not covering it all, I'm all side-on and oblique and I'm too self-conscious and it's not going to work if I try to frame it just so, try to get it perfect. I have to just throw this at you. And you just have to catch it.
It is quite unusual to have such a blatant holding up of hands as happens in this story, to have a narrator wish that they were telling us 'only the interesting things' and call so blatantly for our complicity. I'm not sure if it entirely worked for me but it certainly conveyed the confusion of someone who was no nearer to understanding the person they had allowed to get so seemingly close and yet knew so little about.

A quick mention too for a story that gives us an unreliable narrator par excellence and is easily one of the more disturbing stories I have read recently. This is due to complicity once again but a very different kind. Headwound has us on guard from the outset because of that ominous title and we read each sentence waiting for the event to happen. But the voice of the father who narrates it carries a level of humour that has us smiling even as we get closer and closer to the story's inevitable climax. Unsettling doesn't even begin to describe the feeling you have whilst reading.

Having made it sound as though Ridgway shuns style it is worth mentioning that there are subtle differences in each story; style is used to suit each tale and he even allows himself moments of descriptive prose that give you that satisfying feeling of having read a unique way of describing something relatively mundane. I'll leave you with such a passage from The Dreams of Mary Cleary and add my voice to those who would like to see more people reading Ridgway.

The sea heaved in the bracket of the bay, splashing the land with its foam, thrumming the air, putting a knife in the cold wind. And the wind. A howl of soaked air funnelled down through the low hills, a mouth filling punch, all unseen and screaming, as if a great ghost, the ghost of a different city, moved through its taken place, raging at the living places, pushing what was pushable, groaning what was not.


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