Tuesday 29 November 2011

'the reverse of a shadow'

by W.G. Sebald

Well it took almost two years to make good on my promise to read some more Sebald after The Emigrants but I got there in the end. It took a fair bit of planetary alignment: a lovely hardback found in a charity shop for a bargain price of £3, a passing comment in a conversation I had with an author about one of my favourite books of the year, and the publication of an essay by James Wood in the LRB. All those nudges finally pushed me headlong into Sebald's final book before his premature death at just 57. In the spirit of the trepidation that accompanied my move to read it I have also been terrified of writing up my thoughts on it, this is after all a vast book by a supremely intelligent writer, chock-full of weighty themes and ideas and the considerable weight of the Holocaust bearing down on it too. I shall therefore focus on a couple of aspects that I found interesting and leave you safe in the knowledge that there is far more to discuss than I could hope to cover right here for the moment (if you'd like to read a lengthier post from another book blogger then may I recommend Tom's over at A Common Reader).

As ever we have a narrator that it might be too simple to presume is Sebald himself, this is 'fiction' after all, and a chance meeting that provides the book's narrative. In the late 1960's, during a period of regular trips to Belgium, Sebald meets on several occasions the same man, Jaques Austerlitz. The pair meet first in the waiting room of the central station in Antwerp where they discuss their shared interest in architecture. The anatomy of buildings, their cultural and political significance, the ways in which they express something about the humans who created and built them will all be discussed and as someone whose general interest in architecture extends to watching the odd episode of Grand Designs it's worth noting that some of these extended thoughts are fascinating. The grandness of some of these buildings is forbidding and yet at the same time, as Austerlitz notes, revealing.

Yet, he said, it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity. The construction of fortifications, for instance....clearly showed how we feel obliged to keep surrounding ourselves with defences.

As the two men enjoy each other's company, bumping into each other repeatedly, we sense that we are being prepared for the real narrative and so it is twenty years later that the two men meet again, in a rail terminus once more, this time London's Liverpool Street Station, and Austerlitz reveals that he has been looking for someone 'to whom he could relate his own story, a story which he had learned only in the last few years and for which he needed the kind of listener I had once been in Antwerp.' This is because Jaques Austerlitz had actually been raised as Dafydd Elias, evacuated from Europe on the Kindertransport and raised by a pastor and his wife in Bala, Wales. It is just before his school exams that he receives the shocking news that the name he must legally write on the papers is not the one by which he has gone for so long, but a name which feels immediately alien.

At first, what disconcerted me most was that I could connect no ideas at all with the word Austerlitz. If my new name had been Morgan or Jones, I could have related it to reality. I even new the name Jaques froma French nursery rhyme. But I had never heard of an Austerlitz before, and from the first I was convinced that no one else bore that name, no one in Wales, or in the Isles, or anywhere else in the world.

His discovery soon afterwards that Fred Astaire was actually born to a Viennese father with the same surname comes as scant consolation. What Austerlitz is left with, what any of us would be left with where we to be told that everything we thought we knew about ourselves was built on shaky foundations, is a gigantic void which he needs to fill. I couldn't help but be reminded of one of my favourite books of the year, New Finnish Grammar, which tells the story of a man rendered a blank slate after a terrible beating, presumed to be Finnish, who learns from scratch the language he hopes will unlock who he really is. It is this aspect of Austerlitz that I found fascinating and it is a sense that there had always been something not quite right that he latches onto immediately.

It is a fact that through all the years I spent in the manse in Bala I never shook off the feeling that something very obvious, very manifest in itself was hidden from me. Sometimes it was as if I was in a dream and trying to perceive reality: then again I felt as if an invisible twin brother were walking beside me, the reverse of a shadow, so to speak.

In his search for memory, for that is what he must undertake in order to learn and understand from where he came, Sebald's trademark photographs play an important role. These photographs are presented throughout the text to illustrate people and places that 'Sebald' or Austerlitz make reference to. We cannot help regard at least some of them as genuine as the text that accompanies them describes the photo exactly as we see it and yet we know that apart from a few which look as though they have been taken by Sebald for the book, most of these images are found and have been appropriated for this fiction. That striking photo on the front cover for example of the young Austerlitz dressed for a ball, 'the unusual hairline running at a slant over the forehead...the piercing, inquiring gaze of the page boy who had come to demand his dues, who was waiting in the grey light of dawn on the empty field for me to accept the challenge and avert the misfortune lying ahead of him.' So convincing and yet of course Austerlitz is a fiction, this is some other boy, the only clue on the back of the photo in Sebald's archive are the words "Stockport: 30p" The book is filled with moments like this where we have to remind ourselves that what we are both reading and seeing is not real, but it is also worth reminding ourselves that whilst the construction isn't 'real' every episode of fear, exile and death within the book was someone's reality.

When Austerlitz travels to the Czech Republic, quite literally going through the phonebook Austerlitz's, and meets Vera, a woman who had served his family, a slew of photographs, testimony and memory comes back and with the pictures in particular we get a real sense of 'the mysterious quality peculiar to such photographs when they surface from oblivion.'

...as if the pictures had a memory of their own and remembered us, remembered the roles that we, the survivors, and those no longer among us had played in our former lives.

Photography is also used as a metaphor for memory itself.

In my photographic work I was especially entranced, said Austerlitz, by the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night, darkening again if you try to cling to them, just like a photographic print left in the developing bath too long.

This emergence of memory is clearly a classic Sebald theme and the murk that surrounds it is repeated several times in the recurring image of the darkening light of dusk. When the two men first meet in Antwerp 'Sebald' has already compared the dusk of the station to the light in the Nocturama at the local zoo. The shadowy space of that waiting room has an otherworldy quality perfect for memories to emerge from and much later in the book, when the scene shifts to Liverpool Street Station, the concourse is cast as some kind of entrance to the underworld.

Even on sunny days only a faint greyness illuminated at all by the globes of the station lights, came through the glass roof over the main hall, and in this eternal dusk, which was full of a muffled babble of voices, a quiet scraping and trampling of feet, innumerable people passed in great tides...

The book is haunted by these passing ghosts; the weight of the Holocaust I mentioned earlier is a very real and oppressive thing, and in fact as Austerlitz's story is revealed I found myself becoming less and less interested in the actual details but rather more fascinated by the descriptions of the mechanics of their recovery. The waiting room in that metropolitan underworld for example becomes the place where memories come flooding back.

In fact I felt, said Austerlitz, that the waiting room where I stood as if dazzled contained all the hours of my past life, all the suppressed and extinguished fears and wishes I had ever entertained, as if the black and white diamond pattern of the stone slabs beneath my feet were the board on which the end game would be played, and it covered the entire plane of time.

Austerlitz is a book I could go on discussing for much longer as I said but I hope that what I have already raised is enough to recommend it. It isn't perfect by any means; some have suggested it is in fact his 'least best' book, and as well as having to surmount the challenge of the often relentlessly paragraph-less pages I definitely thought the book was strongest in the first third and collapsed under its own weight at times later on. But there is no doubt that Sebald is a writer who has to be read by any serious reader, I just hope it won't be another two years before I pick up another of his volumes.


Thursday 24 November 2011

'a veritable powder keg'

Bye Bye Babylon
by Lamia Ziadé

When I was growing up I remember the news frequently made mention of Beirut and Lebanon accompanied by pictures of a city almost entirely devastated by shelling, rocket attacks and gunfire. I never had any real inkling of what the conflict was about or where it was happening, just that it seemed to be unresolvable and endless. This may be because the civil war in Lebanon  began in the same year I did and continued almost until I left home and in any conflict that lasts that long, and that so devastates a region, it is easy to forget that Beirut was once a thriving and prosperous capital city. Lamia Ziadé was born in Lebanon seven years before the conflict began and moved to Paris at the age of eighteen where she became a fabric designer for fashion houses like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Issey Miyake as well as an artist and illustrator of everything from children's books to album covers. In this hybrid book, described as 'part artist's sketchbook, part travel notebook and part family album', Ziadé shows us Beirut in the first four years of the civil war through the eyes of a child seeing her city and family torn apart.

In 1975 I was seven years old and loved the Bazookas my mother bought for Walid and me at Spinney's in the Ramlet al-Baida neighbourhood.
Ziadé uses bright watercolours infused with a Pop Art sensibility, perfect in the opening pages to highlight the obsessions of a young girl in thrall to 'the best of what the Western world can offer' in Spinney's supermarket. Trolleys, escalators, marshmallows and Kellog's cereals are all lovingly recreated in their garish glory but just as we might be falling for the lure of nostalgia an upended bottle of blood-red ketchup heralds the beginning of violence and the pages of consumer goods turn into  several pages of munitions, each described with the same verve, as if the allure of these weapons provoked the same feeling in the various militias around Beirut as the sugary sweetness of processed food did to Ziadé.
This feeling is important because what came before violence was the fervour of arming oneself up, the joy of getting more and more hardware, and the inevitability of violence when groups of men are fully equipped and dying to give it a go. The sheer number of different groups and their conflicting interests and aims may excuse in some part my immense confusion at the time this was all happening. And this is also the reason why Ziadé's account is so accessible, because she, as a child in that same period, was as confused as I was. Living as part of the Christian community, her father a lawyer, her grandfather the owner of a fabric shop in the Muslim area, she goes from living somewhere where two cultures seem to mix to a place divided along simple lines but with several factions fighting their own battles. At one point when she asks her father whether the Palestinians are indeed, as she has been told by her nanny, scum she gets a response which in its attempt at clarity only goes to illustrate the impossibility of that aim
He closes the door and right then and there I get a short, age-appropriate geopolitical class on the Middle East. Palestine, the English bastards, Balfour, Zionism, Jerusalem, the King David Hotel, David Ben-Gurion, the state of Israel, refugees, the Israeli bastards, the settlers, the camps, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Six-Day War, Moshe Dayan, the Yom Kippur War, Hussein of Jordan, Black September, the PLO, the American bastards, terrorism, armed struggle, the weakness of Lebanon, the mistakes the Palestinians made, the Christian fears, the beginning of the war...
The various factions of the struggle are illustrated with characteristic colour, as are important objects from a period that involved virtual siege within one's home. So radios, batteries, camping stoves and Enid Blyton paperback's are all accorded the same iconic status in Ziadé's mind as the supposed icons of the struggle. The various leaders tend to be represented in far more muted tones for these are the villains of the piece, in fact Ziadé even goes as far as to develop their portraits into something far more sinister when comparing the heroes of her dreams to the serpent-tongued, bloody-clawed politicians. It isn't all naïveté though, some of the violence, especially in the head-rush of the early period is pretty gruesome and there is a telling moment when Ziadé considers the veracity of what she hears.

In Lebanon, the violence takes on legendary status...Torture and mutilations are common practice...The Phalangists carve crosses into their victim's skin while their opponents commit murder with axes...Walid and I hear these stories and other similar ones from Tamar, our nanny; from Salim, the grocer; or from neighbours gossiping in the kitchen. But I think they're wrong, as neither my mother nor my father ever talk about this sort of thing. I conclude that this information must fall into the category of tofnis, fabrications, and I don't dare speak to my parents about what I hear for fear of making a fool of myself.
We need to protect ourselves as children of course, perhaps I can use that as excuse for my own ignorance too, and whilst that means that this is an account that barely scratches the surface of the conflict (and lacks the kind of easy insight that makes Joe Sacco's work so indispensible) it is also the reason for the book's charm and appeal.


Tuesday 22 November 2011

'You just got to pick the right time'

The Devil All The Time
by Donald Ray Pollock

I didn't read Pollock's collection of stories, Knockemstiff, but after reading this, his first novel, I am sorely tempted. I was drawn in in the first place by the mention of Denis Johnson's name on the back cover quote and fan's of his writing and also that of Cormac McCarthy would be well advised to follow that lead. Pollock writes about a brutal world filled with physical and sexual violence, where life can be cheap and the chances to transcend it few and far between, but if you don't mind getting knocked about a bit and in fact find that there's something redemptive in the end about that kind of hard hitting fiction then whether you begin with novel or stories I think you may be in for a treat.

In a stunning prologue we follow Arvin Eugene Russell on a dismal October morning as he follows his father, Willard, through pasture and woods until they reach a clearing where the remains of a big red oak tree lies on its side.

Unless he had whiskey running through his veins, Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening to talk to God. Arvin didn't know which was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seemed that his father had fought the Devil all the time.

Here at this 'prayer log' the two of them are disturbed by a couple of hunters, one of whom makes a few wisecracks about visiting Willard's wife whilst he's busy praying. Arvin is ashamed that his father continues his prayers and does nothing rather than standing up for himself as he had instructed Arvin to do in the face of some bullying on the school bus. But when later the two of them go for a ride to fill the truck with petrol he watches as his father comes across the two hunters, leaps out and beats the mouthy one senseless for a good couple of minutes before getting back into the truck.

"You remember what I told you the other day?" he asked Arvin.
"About them boys on the bus?"
"Well that's what I meant," Willard said, nodding over at the hunter..."You just got to pick the right time."
This becomes something of a maxim for Arvin who is the very thin cord that holds this novel together. Pollock has taken the approach favoured by many successful story writers, of creating characters with clear story arcs of their own and then tying them together. If we were being uncharitable we might accuse this novel of being little more than a series of stories tenuously linked together but how you fell about that might well depend on how integrated and whole you like a 'novel' to be. This is Ohio after Second World War, a semi rural community in the 1950's where relgion mixes with alcohol in competition for predminant pastime outside of work. WIllard has returned from the war traumatised to a degree by one thing in particular he saw while he was out there in the Pacific. Marriage and the beginning of a family bring him back to the world in part.
Sitting there watching his son, Willard suddenly had an intense desire to pray. Though he hadn't talked to God in years, not a single petition or word of praise since he'd come across the crucified marine during the war, he could feel it welling up inside him now, the urge to get right with his Maker before something bad happened to his family. But looking around the cramped apartment, he knew he couldn't get in touch with God here, no more than he'd ever been able to in a church. He was going to need some woods to worship his way.
But it will be a battle. Willard's fraught relationship with God will be tested by drink, disease and death; his search for 'peace and calm' constantly threatened. The personal relationship with God is one theme that unites the novel's characters and it will gve you an idea of the diversity of them if I mention quickly a pair of preachers, a serial-killing couple and a priest with a taste for young flesh.

Roy and Theodore are a curious double act, cousins who preach on the road where Roy speaks to the congregation and Theodore, confined to a wheelchair after drinking strychnine to prove his faith, accompanies him on guitar. The book's cover is adorned with the spiders Roy routinely pours over his head, to show how God cured him of his phobia, and which repay him occasionally with a nasty bite or two and accompanying infection. Theodore's paedophilia and Roy's increasingly extreme behaviour hustle them from one bad place to another. One moment of violence is so shocking because of the slow, inexorable build up to it and the innocence of the victim. As I said at the beginning, this is a brutal book which will not be for those of a sensitive disposition. I have my own qualm about it which I'll come to later.

Then we have Carl and Sandy, a pair of serial killers who use their frequent 'holidays' as cover for their murderous road trips. Carl is a photographer and Sandy, when she isn't selling her body out the back of the bar she works in is using it as bait to lure in the next victim. Whilst driving around they pick up hitch-hikers and slowly bring the conversation around to the idea of their passenger having sex with Sandy whilst Carl takes some photos. These pictures go on to document the men's deaths, something which the two of them have subtly different reactions to. It is never entirely clear why Sandy would go along with this way of life, apart from having little alternative and a seriously screwed up sense of her own self-worth. She gets satisfaction from the killing with some of them and from the sex with others. Carl meanwhile not only considers what he does art but also feels that the whole experience brings him closer to God.

To his way of thinking, it was the one true religion, the thing he'd been searching for all his life. Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God.

I mentioned that personal relationship with God as a unifying theme and it will come as no surprise that there is a pastor amongst the characters and he is just as deplorable as those characters who do not enjoy his elevated status. Preston Teagardin preys on his female congregation, particularly young girls, making it his mission to deflower them and his view of women as repositories for his lust, guilt and total disregard for women as anything other than objects makes him a truly horrific character. In a way perhaps only a man of the cloth can Teagardin gets off on his guilt finding that it is just this feeling that intensifies his connection to God, that gives it its drive and meaning.

To him such emotion proved that he still had a chance of going to heaven, regardless of how corrupt and cruel he might be, that is, if he repented his wretched, whoring ways before he took his last breath. It all came down to a matter of timing, which, of course, made things all that much more exciting.

All of these disparate characters are gradually linked together and a novel that has been filled with violence has a suitably bloody end. Pollock manages to make these deeply flawed and occasionally downright wicked characters more than just evil stereotypes. In fact you remain engaged and even occasionally entertained by them, the kind of complicity that makes you cringe every now and then that you are so enjoying reading about these horrific exploits. My one worry is about the portrayal of women. There isn't a single female character who isn't subjected to sexual violence, painful death or debasement of one kind or another apart from perhaps Arvin's grandmother, and even she is the one person left cleaning up the wreckage. I am always resistant to writers being accused of misogyny because a character of theirs has a misogynistic view but the hatred of women and the danger posed to them is so consistent in this book that I did feel a little uncomfortable about it by the end. Yes, Willard very much loves his wife and is driven to do some extraordinary things in order to prove that to God but it is that very fanaticism that ensures her death is as painful and degrading as it could possibly be. This aspect of the book is something that I am still wrestling with even whilst writing this review and it is not at all that I think it should stop anyone reading the book. On the contrary, it is the difficulty of that, and of the brutal world view of the novel in general that means I would recommend it, so as to be able to confront its demons head on and see whether we are prepared to accept or allow this vision of humanity.


Tuesday 15 November 2011

'we must just face our fate'

The Old Man And His Sons
by Heðin Brú
translated by John F. West

It's pronounced Hay-in Broo before you ask (or something close to that anyway) and if you ever get asked, in a pub quiz or during a lull in conversation with a particular kind of bibliophile, 'What author's novel was chosen by the Faroese as their Book of the 20th Century?' you'll be able to answer with confidence (and for a bonus point you can say it was actually the pen name of Hans Jacob Jacobson. And if you really want to be a smart arse you can add that he translated into Faroese works as diverse as Hamlet, The Tempest, Hedda Gabler, The Brothers Karamazov, Wuthering Heights, and the tales of the Brothers Grimm). Publishers Telegram are the marvellous folks that brought Sjon into English translation (whose two books I would recommend to anyone looking for a literary shot of something a little different) and so I couldn't resist when they sent me this novel originally published in Faroese in 1940 and finally translated into English thirty years later. It is this same translation by John F. West which we can read today, a further forty years later, and it stands up remarkably well. It may be describing a way of life that was slowly being eclipsed 70 years ago but the wit and verve of Brú's observations come through loud and clear and in our current economic climate, a perilous one brought about through a reliance on debt (both personal and state-owned), this novel actually couldn't be more relevant. You may not think that a novel about the fishing community on a small island halfway between Scotland and Iceland in the inter-war years had anything to say to you beyond its only local interests but you'd be wrong.

The novel begins with a fabulous opening scene as a school of two or three hundred small whales swim around in Seyrvags Fjord and the village descends, 'a vast, bustling throng of whale hunters.'

Over here, you can see sturdy old men clad from head to foot in their thick homespun, their heavy whaling knives at their belts. These are men who grew up at the oar, and trod out the mountain paths. For them, all journeys were long journeys and risky ones. They are all keyed up to meet any problems, and they take life very seriously. These men stride onwards with ponderous footsteps - strong men of few words.

We follow the 70-year old Ketil and his youngest son Kalvur as they make their way to be amongst the kill, Kalvur joining a boat on the water whilst his father joins the many onlookers on the shore. It is a frantic scene in which Kalvur is dragged down with his boat when a whale rears up and lands on its stern. Luckily he doesn't drown, escaping with a dislocated shoulder and wounded pride, but it's a measure of the frenzied atmosphere that his father initially misses the whole episode, being so caught up in the kill itself. This atmosphere is important because in the ensuing auction of the whales Ketil finds himself giddy with excitement and bidding way beyond his means, landing himself with a huge amount of whale meat but the burden of a hefty bill to come. Pride won't allow him to go back and admit he can't pay and so we follow the consequences of this moment of hot-headedness.

Ketil is a father to several son's who now have wives and families of their own (only the simple-minded Kalvur remains a burden), all of them more upwardly mobile than their father and through these relationships Brú is able to point up the different attitudes that separate the generations. The turf roof that adorns Ketil's house for example and which is in peril during every storm causes barks of frustration from one son who wants him to replace it with one of corrugated iron - 'Fancy having a damn roof that you have to ask folk to sit and hold onto, every time there's a real use for it!' After the frenzy of the whale hunt and the re-location of Kalvur's shoulder by the doctor Ketil makes an offering to him of a whale kidney. It is through the eyes of the doctor's wife that we see the contrast between old world and new.

He stood there in his home-made skin shoes, his loose breeches and long jacket. His blood-flecked beard hung down towards his belt, and on this hung a double sheath with a pair of white-handled knives, one above the other. And he was extending his earthy hands - holding up that bloody thing.
There are a couple of more humorous examples of the changing times, one occurring when Ketil and the extraordinary character of Klavus are disturbed first thing in the morning as they urinate outdoors by the slightly more progressive Tummas as he finds his way with a torch. It falls on Tummas to lets them know that folk don't do that sort of thing in public anymore, 'No, I suppose not - everything's got to be so classy nowadays' comes the reply. One person who feels the full effect of Ketil's impulsive moment is of course his wife and it is the shame of debt that worries her most, it being the one thing that worries her most about the next generation.

'I don't know,' she replied. 'Young people nowadays are never satisfied; they always want more and more. They want everything that folk have overseas...you all demand so much from life - you're never satisfied. In the old days, a poor man was content if he had something to eat and a roof over his head. Nowadays everything has to be so high-and-mighty. Everything you set your minds on, you have to have, whether you can afford it or not...And everyone's up to their eyebrows in debt...A fat lot of use it is having schools and books and I don't know what! In the old days we used to be a lot more reasonable.'

Above all this is the confusion that 'the folk who are in debt hold their heads as high as everyone else.' And that's one of the more interesting aspects for the modern reader, to consider when it was that everyone decided that credit was fine and the ability to pay it back almost secondary. Brú's keen sense of the shift between these two generations means that this novel manages to poke fun at both sides and that whilst the detail is entirely specific to a certain type of people in a certain place at a certain time he manages to say something to us today about the dangers of excess, of living beyond your means and where the true measure of self-worth and pride might be made.


Thursday 10 November 2011

'what kind of story is it?'

by Pierre Oscar Levy 
and Frederick Peeters

I just love the cover to this book. It's disconcerting before you even open the cover and that should be fair warning to anyone who's intrigued to find what's inside. This is certainly the oddest graphic novel I've read in a while and quite possibly the oddest piece of fiction, graphic or otherwise, for quite some time too. With artwork from Peeters and storyline from film-maker Levy this is a graphic novel that seems to be in one kind of genre, switches to another and may possibly be in another category of storytelling altogether. That's quite a feat in a hundred pages.

The location is a beach, a haven amongst some rocky cliffs, and we watch as several characters make there way to it. One is already there, an Arabic looking man, who watches as a young girl undresses completely and goes for a swim in the sea. A couple of families make their way to the sand and whilst they bicker and banter a grandmother and her grandson make the gruesome discovery of the floating corpse of the girl we watched undress earlier. So we might be reading a crime novel and the patriarch of one of the families thinks he has it solved when he sees the Arabic man from earlier (he is in fact Kabyle but the casual racism of his accuser doesn't care about distinctions like that). But there is something far stranger going on and it is some time before the assembled company begin to notice the signs. One woman's children appear to have outgrown their swimming costumes despite only just having purchased them and on closer inspection she notices that her 'baby boy' of three looks for more like a child of five or six and has quite clearly grown in line with that. His older sister appears to have grown up too and when she walks off with the young boy from another family the two of them appear to go through a fast track adolescence and sexual awakening. When grandmother takes ill and then stops breathing the group begin to start asking what on earth is going on.

A writer is amongst them and when he reveals that it is science fiction he specialises in they want to know what possible explanation there could be for their apparent accelrated ageing and inability to leave the beach itself. His theories don't result in any kind of satisfactory solution and whilst the adults find themselves confronting their own mortality (with each half hour representing a year it is clear that some of them won't make it through the night let alone the next day) the children are experiencing the opposite, an explosion of sexual awareness and procreation energy that will see that young girl from earlier get pregnant, come full term and even give birth on the same beach on which she lost her virginity.

So it isn't crime and once we get past the slightly Twilight Zone feel of the device you can't help but wonder if this graphic novel isn't offering something rather more profound. This isn't quite a life compressed into a day but it isn't far off, and it's certainly the sudden end of life for many of the characters; and the different ways in which they deal with that, or the way in which it comes about, provide some truly moving sequences and images. To find a husband and wife slowly reconciled into a spooned hug, or to watch a once powerful man reduced to second infancy as he makes a sandcastle on the beach are just a couple of those highlights. And whilst the fast approaching death of these older characters might make this feel like a slightly hopeless book there is always the hope provided by new life and the promise for its future. Like I said, quite a feat to get you thinking about all that in just 100 pages and some lovely artwork in places too.


Tuesday 8 November 2011

'When I was eleven...'

The Dubious Salvation Of Jack V.
by Jaques Strauss

Being absolutely honest, I wouldn't have read this book (which came en spec from the publisher) if it hadn't been for a very favourable review at the ever-reliable Asylum. Even with that it languished on the TBR shelf until such time as a genuine pause appeared in my reading schedule (yeah, it's that bad) and I found myself finally taking a punt. I'm glad I did, books that are easily entertaining, witty, political and populated with sharp characters are a joy when they plop in your lap at the right time and it is the seeming ease of this book which makes it such a pleasurable read. The fact that it has received so little newspaper review space even with a big-name publisher is a little saddening, especially when I think about some of the books that have received lots of undeserved column inches (some from the same big-name publisher), but that's what us book bloggers are here for I guess.

The novel is a confessional from Jack Viljee; half English, half Afrikaans resident of 'a very nice street' in Johannesburg, looking back on the definitive moment from his childhood. As an eleven year old during the final years of the Apartheid regime in South Africa Jack is able to give an interesting perspective on the shifting politics of a country about to undergo momentous change. It is his dual ancestry however that provides the real interest for it allows him to point out the differences between the two cultures, their attitudes towards the black population and the way in which Jack's own mixed-race status, if we dare call it that, leaves him in an uncomfortable no-man's land between the two. A prologue sets the tone, several paragraphs each beginning 'When I was eleven...' and informing us of the preoccupations of any boy heading towards his teenage years. This is the period when he 'was stupid enough to try to have sex with a shampoo bottle' or 'old enough to know that peeing in the bath was disgusting but young enough not to care and do it anyway' but it is also the time '...I betrayed Susie, our housekeeper, my friend, my second mother, and perhaps in other significant ways, my first.'

The closeness of the relationship he enjoys with Susie is highlighted and indeed jeopardised by the arrival of her own son into the household but I don't need to go into any plot details as such, that isn't where the real enjoyment of this novel lies. Jack is an engaging, funny and perceptive narrator (particularly from his retrospective viewpoint - of which more later) and the sheer scope of his observations mean that this novel, which feels so light and easy to read, is actually packed full interest. By making Jack's 'distinguishing characteristic' the fact that he is half English and half Afrikaans, 'that I could slip unnoticed between the two peoples like a spy,' Strauss has lots of fun pointing up the differences between the two sides of his family, the Afrikaaner's obsessions with suffering and food for example, and creates a fabulous character in grand-matriarch Ouma who 'had the required quota of grief to make most quirks permissible; mild anti-Semitism, mild racism - nothing rampant or unseemly, nothing undignified.' It is Ouma's admiration for the 'debonair' Pik Botha that allows Jack to make one of his telling observations about the time when Pik Botha, whilst overseas, said that he would be happy to serve under a black president, only to change his tune when back in front of his president PW Botha.

It was a little bit like saying 'fuck' in front of your friends - for a while it seemed like a very brave, very manly thing to do, but unless you were prepared to say it in front of your mother it didn't mean much at all.

This kind of comment can only be made by an adult looking back on their childhood and is so much more perceptive and interesting than anything the child themselves might say at the time. This is why it remains a mystery to me why authors are so seduced by child narration. In the same way Jack can tell us about the very real pains of growing up: the embarrassment of growing awareness; that your parents don't necessarily like all their friends, that the relationship as it stands between whites and blacks makes you feel awkward and embarrassed in a way that it doesn't to your parents and some of your friends, that your desires can be surprising. Jack's burgeoning sexuality is rather brilliantly handled, allowing moments of comedy and painful revelation. Young boy's willy obsession achieves due prominence and a unique detail from Jack's dual-luanguage skills.

I guess around eleven we all thought that to coax our dicks out of hibernation we should stop calling them 'willies' and start referring to them as 'cocks', but my mother detested this word almost as much as the Afrikaans equivalent, vöel, which means 'bird'. Calling your cock a vöel was a very Afrikaans and manly thing to do. It was enough to make my willy look bigger and my voice sound deeper.

The selfishness of children is something of a recurring theme given even greater significance by Jack's privileged status. He has something of an obsession with deformity and disability (perhaps this comes from having a neighbourhood prosthetics shop) even finds 'something alluring about these broken children with missing arms and missing legs.'

And I wished that, for the afternoon, I might be without a limb too, so that I could be part of this orgy of tragedy, of heartbroken but proud parents, of the paraphernalia, the prosthetic limbs, the wheelchairs, the crutches, like Tiny Tim, the epicentre of sympathy and tragedy and poetry. 

Jack has a tendency towards the grand gesture, particularly when it might atone for the guilt he feels for certain actions or simply for being white. These again come about from his privileged position so that the purchase of an ice-cream from the weathered (black) ice-cream salesman on the beach, or the donation of his pocket money to a homeless woman would allow him to 'act like a God.' And this all ties in with one of the great lessons he learnt from his childhood on the school visit to the Natural History Museum. The exhibit of a caveman family being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger contains the rather graphic image of skull-piercing teeth to drive home the point that our survival 'was dependent on the suffering of some other innocent creature.'

...that life is an economy of suffering so that when we die, like my grandmother, we are an accumulation of those compromises, bones and loose skin, mildly anti-Semitic, mildly racist, nothing rampant or unseemly, having suffered and caused suffering, dying, I suppose, with a small credit but completely ravaged by all the exchanges.

Jack's story is a reckoning, but a hugely entertaining one. My only worry when reading it was that the ease in its telling was due to Strauss mining his own childhood for all the sparkling details, would that mean that his next novel would suffer from the depleting stocks of autobiographical riches? I have no idea whether this novel is in any way autobiographical and the only way to find out whether Strauss has real legs as a novelist is to read what comes next. I, for one, look forward to finding out what that is (and won't take so long to get around to it next time) and can only hope that these thoughts on a hugely enjoyable debut might tempt you to do the same.


Thursday 3 November 2011

'I will return'

A Sky Full Of Kindness
by Rob Ryan

There's a good chance you may have seen Rob Ryan's work already. Greetings cards, posters, mugs, cushions, book covers, umbrellas, bags, and even vases and crockery have all been emblazoned with his distinctive paper-cut designs in gift ranges at stores like Liberty and Heals. He even has his own shop on London's Columbia Road where his work can be seen in many forms. There's no substitute for seeing one of his extraordinarily intricate paper-cuts in the flesh, even the mass-produced card I bought for my recent anniversary is a tactile beauty and the detail of some of his larger works is truly staggering.

He has also written, or created, one previous book, This Is For You, which concerned one man's search for a soulmate. His latest is described by Helena Bonham Carter on the back cover as 'a bedtime story for every age' and follows the fortunes of two birds who have a baby. The mother has an important seeming dream and soon finds herself undertaking an epic journey to discover its meaning. That's all you really need to know plot-wise; this fable or fairytale-like story uses the mother's journey to explore themes of friendship, discovery, freedom, release, reliance and the ways in which we need the help of others.

Ryan's artwork really is astonishing, it's hard not to turn each successive page and ask 'How does he do that?' Some pages have a decent bit of background colour to them and so you can feel the relative solidity of the page from which they were cut but others are almost impossibly fragile, it's hard to see  how the lines of text, or twigs that make up a nest, the flocks of birds or clouds in the sky manage to remain connected to the rest of the picture so that the paper remains unbroken. The wonder of that really does sustain for the book's 64 pages. What I might question is the quality of the writing itself. It's hard not to think of the wisdom of greeting's cards when reading certain passages in this book, the vaguely comforting feeling that comes from vague and comforting phrases, and it makes the intricacy of the labour all the more extraordinary when you find that all the effort to cut out those words has been in the service of words that could possibly be improved on. This is similar to the effect of Brian Selznick's recent book Wonder Struck, whose beautiful pencil drawings were let down by some truly pedestrian prose. Ryan's book is way better than that, I'm having a relatively minor quibble, but it does just highlight that it isn't enough for a book to look beautiful and have its heart in the right place, I still want the quality of the writing itself to be as high as the craftsmanship that created it. That said, I can easily imagine plenty of parents getting as much pleasure from reading this book as their children will get from both hearing and seeing it.


Tuesday 1 November 2011

'wounds that will never heal'

Brodeck's Report
by Phillipe Claudel
translated by John Cullen

Another one from the Shelf of Guaranteed Literary Fulfilment (this is an actual shelf in my home, although it hasn't been actually labelled as such. Yet.) this book found its place there after my review of Claudel's more recent novella, Monsieur Linh and his Child, drew lots of comments from admirers of this winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Both books deal with the legacy of war and violence but whereas the title character in Monsieur Linh was most obviously an example of trauma brought about through conflict, Claudel uses the title character in this novel to look at themes of persecution, isolation and otherness.

A little as in the recently reviewed Death Of The Adversary, Claudel keeps many of the details hidden in this novel. A time period isn't specified but we can guess, the location too isn't named but seems to be somewhere in Alsace-Lorraine where a German dialect is spoken by the French population. This dialect is important for a couple of reasons: firstly because it highlights the way in which a country's borders are shown to be the arbitrary things they are when two countries find themselves at war and two regions on either side of that imaginary line, their age-old histories linked, have in common 'legends, songs, poets, choruses, a way of preparing meat and making soups, an identical melancholy and a similar propensity to lapse into drunkenness.' Claudel retains many of this dialect's words, explaining their sometimes ambiguous meaning, or rather his narrator Brodeck explains. Brodeck has been assigned the task of writing an account of the events that lead up to the murder of 'the Anderer' (or 'other'), a visitor to the village. He has been assigned this task despite thinking himself unequal to it - 'To be able to tell stories is a skill, but it is not mine. I write only brief reports on the state of the flora and fauna...I am not sure my reports are still reaching their destination, or, if they are, whether anyone reads them.' We needn't worry about that lack of confidence for Brodeck is a fine writer and there are even some extraordinary moments where his usual subject matter is perverted by the fact that this is a village that has recently been through a war and that he is a man who has been made to suffer more than any other resident of that village. The River Staubi for example that runs nearby, usually a place of animal life and movement became something else entirely at moments during the war when 'creatures other than fish were to be found floating in it, blue creatures, some of them still looking a little astonished, others with their eyes firmly closed, as if they had been put to sleep by surprise and tucked up in pretty liquid sheets.'

In putting together his account of the 'Ereigniës' - the thing that happened - Brodeck introduces us to the increasingly sinister inhabitants of his village. The very fact that so many of them were together on the evening of the murder and Brodeck absent highlights his isolation within the community, something only heightened by the job he has been assigned by them; a task that can only increase the sense of fear and guilt with which they already regard him. And what of the Anderer, what kind of threat did he pose when he wandered into their village '...dressed like a character from another century, with his unusual beasts [a horse and donkey] and his imposing baggage, entering our village which no stranger had entered for years, and moreover arriving here just like that, without any ado, with the greatest of ease. Who would not have been a little afraid?'

In a telling episode, when it becomes clear that the Anderer will be staying for a while rather than passing through it is decided that a proper welcome should be organised with a banner, music and some speeches. It is the banner with it's ambiguous message that gives us a taste of the tension that exists.

"Wi sund vroh wen neu kamme" can mean "We are happy when a new person arrives." But it can also mean "We are happy when something new comes along" which is not the same thing at all. Strangest of all, the word vroh has two meanings, depending on the context: it can be equivalent to "glad" or "happy", but it can also mean "wary" or "watchful", and if you favour this second sense, then you find yourself faced with a bizarre, disquieting statement which nobody perceived at the time, but which has been resounding in my head ever since; a kind of warning pregnant with small threats; a greeting like a knife brandished in a fist, the blade twisting a little and glinting in the sun.

The Anderer doesn't do anything other than observe and make notes and enquiries into this village's life and its inhabitants are antagonised by this being held to account. He may not have ridden in on the donkey itself but there is something Christ-like about his arrival, impact and sacrifice. The village priest, a man driven to drink by the impact of war and all the filth that has been confessed to him over the years, doesn't make such an explicit connection but provides a useful image for Brodeck to consider.

That man was like a mirror, you see. He did not have to say a single word. Each of them saw their reflection in him. Or maybe he was God's last messenger before He closes up shop and throws away the keys. I am the sewer, but that fellow was the mirror. And mirrors, Brodeck - mirrors can only be smashed.

Brodeck's project may be about the Anderer but it is also really about himself and his own tragic history in this community. Having come from 'a country which had never appeared on a map, a country no tale had ever evoked, a country which had sprung from the earth and flourished for a few months, but whose memory was destined to weigh heavily for centuries to come' he has always been something of an outsider himself. When war came to the village with its desire to cleanse the area of undesirable elements Brodeck stood no chance. Sent of to a camp, from which he wasn't supposed to return, Brodeck managed to survive physically only by abasing himself, becoming 'Brodeck the Dog', kept as a kind of pet by one of the guards, led around on a collar, and crucially fed scraps of food that kept him healthier than his fellow internees. Spiritually he was sustained by the memories of his surrogate mother Fedorine and lover Emilia to whom he has promised to return. When he does he is haunted by the void of those two years away, something which has its own unique word in this dialect.

The Kazerskwir - that was because of the war: I spent nearly two long years far from the village. I was taken away like thousands of other people, because we had names, faces or beliefs different from those of others...Those were two years of total darkness. I look upon that time as a void in my life - very black and very deep - and therefore I call it the Kaserskwir, the crater. Often, at night, I still venture out on its rim.

This is a novel that bursts at the seams with themes but one last thing to mention is the way in which the legacy of conflict extends beyond Brodeck's personal experience. For those that survived the camps, those that escaped the attempt by neighbours and friends to wipe them from memory there is not only the burden of survival-guilt but the fear of uncertainty in the future.
We can never meet the eyes of other people without wondering whether they harbour a desire to hunt us down, to torture us, to kill us. We have become perpetual prey...I think we have become and will remain until the day we die, a reminder of humanity destroyed. We are wounds that will never heal.


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