Thursday 31 May 2012

The Life Of Rebecca Jones - Angharad Price

'still waters'

I am a fan of translated fiction, my reading having been dominated for so long by English and American writers; and I believe that there are so many interesting voices out there, so brilliantly translated and so enthusiastically championed by certain publishers that it's the least I can do to try a few of them with little or no knowledge beforehand. Having said all that it was something of a surprise to receive a book from one of those publishers, MacLehose Press, that had been translated from Welsh. A surprise because it is so easy to forget that there are, or used to be, other languages spoken within the British Isles. The Wales Book of the Year Award is one that in part celebrates works written in Welsh. It is one previous winner of the main award, Lloyd Jones, who translated this novel into English after its success in the original Welsh. One thing curiously changed is the title, having been "O!  Tyn y Gorchudd" in Welsh, or "O! pull aside the veil" the name of a hymn written by Hugh Jones who came from the area in which this novel is set, the Maesglasau valley. Angharad Price's family this year celebrate a thousand years living and farming in that valley and this novel is her testament to them. It is a curious mixture of fiction and family history and given that the bulk of what we read is actually true there is a real question as to whether it is really fiction at all. A literary twist at the end is what helps it make its claim as such but for me, as a reading experience, it is far closer to memoir than fiction.

But maybe that's the clever trick. There is plenty of fiction written so convincingly that you can almost see the narrator sat down somewhere writing it all down (I am thinking of another novel defined by its location, The Book of Ebenezer La Page by G B Edwards) and I had something of that feeling, having seen a similar book myself once, when Rebecca describes the one book that she held above all others, given the tangible link it provided to her family's history in the valley.

The most exciting for us was the Book of Common Prayer, for in faded yellow writing on a blank page someone had documented the family tree. It claimed that our family had lived at Tynbraich since 1012. We believed it, and committed to memory every name in the lineage, a catechism of males (except for the proverbial exception): "Gethin, Gruffydd. Llywelyn, Evan, Llywelyn. Elis. William, John Evan, Robert, Robert, Mary Evan, Evan, Robert and Evan Jones. Christ's Year 1012 These are they who owned Tynybraich."

Despite such a long lineage it is her immediate family she will tell us about, starting with her parents before moving on to herself and her siblings. The descriptions of the rural life and landscape are every bit as beautiful as you might expect from a such a nostalgic book but the very specific landscape of Maesglasau also shapes the way in which Rebecca's memories come to her and the language she uses to describe them.

Memories of my childhood reach me in a continuous flow: smells and tastes and sights converging in a surging current. And just like the stream at Maesglasau, these recollections are a product of the landscape in our part of rural mid-Wales at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its familiar bubbling comforts me.
It was not really like that, of course. The flow was halted frequently. Indeed a stream is not the best metaphor for life's irregular flow between one dam and the next.
I have not mentioned the reservoirs. In these the emotions congregate. I approach them with hesitation. I stare into the still waters, fearing their hold on my memories. In terror I see my own history in the bottomless depths.
Rebecca is something of a background figure even in the telling of her own story. Her three blind brothers having lead such notable lives are far more in the spotlight, even deserving of a BBC film crew to come to the valley in 1964 in order to document their extraordinary story (two were born blind whilst the other developed his blindness whilst young) and the very divergent paths their lives took, 'Gruffydd an Anglican minister at Little Marcle in Herfordshire; Lewis working as a telephonist with the Ministry of Labour at Nottingham, and William acting as a braille copyist and multilingual editor at Tynybraich.' Rebecca meanwhile lives a life rooted around the family home, eventually finding herself, in 'one of life's astonishing moments', becoming the anchor of the family - 'It holds us secure in a storm. It holds us back in fair weather. It is a blessing and a burden - for the young, especially, and for those who seek freedom.'

This solidity might be part of the reason that I felt for the most part the sensation that this book was washing over me, I found it hard to get really gripped by her as a character, but then there are moments that do leap out at you. The congenital blindness that the family suffers from is just one of their hardships, in an age of infant mortality there are plenty of other children who don't get the chance to live at all; one, Olwen Mai living for only two weeks - 'Even the bluebells lasted longer.' Rebecca briefly becomes very alive with the arrival of an Italian POW into their midst, and we sense some real fire in the belly of this quiet, unmarried woman. In the end though these moments weren't quite enough for me to get nearly as enthusiastic as those who are hailing this book as an instant classic. I couldn't help but think of that novel I mentioned earlier, The Book of Ebenezer La Page by G B Edwards, which truly is a classic and the only way I can clumsily describe the difference between them is that Price's novel is fact written as fiction that feels like fact whereas Edwards manages to write fiction that's so real that it feels not like fact but the hyper-reality that only fiction can achieve.


Tuesday 29 May 2012

Are You My Mother? - Alison Bechdel

'Do you love me?'

Alison Bechdel's Fun Home is often lauded as one of the best graphic novels of recent years. Having missed the boat first time around I was prompted to give it a read when I got wind of the publication of a new book. In Fun Home Bechdel tells the story of growing up in the family's funeral home business and focuses on her father who could be reserved and wrapped up in his creativity one moment, aggressive and cold the next. After his untimely death Bechdel discovers that he had been a closeted homosexual who had slept with men and been in trouble with the law. At the same time she deals with her own burgeoning homosexuality. The book is almost like a family scrapbook and avoids a strict linear narrative opting instead for something far more complex and satisfying. It's a fabulous book and well worth reading if you haven't already in preparation for her latest graphic memoir.

It's useful to have the context because, as you can guess from the title this new book focuses on Bechdel's mother and that also includes the impact of the publication of Fun Home on both her and Bechdel. This book also rather brilliantly is about the writing of itself, Bechdel struggles with her attempts to write the opening section, so that the opening section becomes about her struggle to write it. This meta-textuality is common now in fiction but less so in graphic work and I found it not only entertaining but also far better suited to this medium. I gave HHhH a hard time for this kind of authorial commentary at the beginning of this month, mainly because it was so repetitive and irritating; reading this book shortly afterwards vindicated my thoughts as it showed the same game could be played (to greater effect) in just a few clever panels.

Now, I would have to write a lengthy post to really do justice to this book's complexity. Bechdel aims to get under the skin of her relationship with her mother, in fact of all her relationships, and we follow her long conversations with her, her therapy sessions and her wide reading around the subject of the relations between parent and child. This leads her to the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicot who pioneered the theories of the true self and false self (familiar to Bechdel already through the two sides she saw in her father) and the transitional object - that item of comfort like a teddy bear or blanket with which a child (or indeed adult) can form an important bond to substitute for that with their mother. The book is fascinating for this aspect alone, providing a wonderful summary of his ideas, theories and life but also looks wider than that as Bechdel mines her past for clues to explain not only her relationship with her mother but the series of relationships she goes through with various girlfriends.

Photographs, old letters and journals, even a very specific cartoon from Dr Seuss are all used as evidence and the non-linear structure again provides an amazingly satisfying reading experience. In fact for an author who claims to have struggled with the writing and structure of the book it is a deceptively accomplished piece. The sheer volume of what she is able to include is staggering. We learn about her, her mother, her girlfriends, her writing process, Winnicot, psychoanalysis, listening, love and acceptance. And that's before we mention the artwork.

Even the pages that are made up of standard panels are varied in their appearance and design but every now and then Bechdel opens up a double page spread into something else entirely. The three pages I've reproduced here give you an idea of what I mean, and how a shift in perspective is not just a huge visual treat but an opportunity for Bechdel to do something interesting with content too. The book also has a cumulative pleasure. Not only do we sense Bechdel getting closer to some kind of understanding and resolution (and therefore something like happiness) but we too benefit from her obvious intelligence and erudition. As I worked my way through the book I felt like I was being treated on so many levels; it just works harder than most 'graphic novels' so that as I finished the last page I was glad I'm no artist myself - I'm sure I would have felt very lazy indeed. Together, both books provide an intimate look at Bechdel's intriguing family, so different to our own and yet from which we could all probably learn something. I heartily recommend both.


Jerusalem - Guy Delisle

'with(out) borders'

Guy Delisle's graphic travelogue/memoirs have taken him to the kinds of places that are off limits to even the most seasoned travellers. His wife's work with Médecins Sans Frontières MSF (Doctors Without Borders) has enabled him to get access inside regimes like those in North Korea, Burma and China. His is a fairly unique view, not only because he gets the opportunity to see the sorts of things that the ruling parties would rather you didn't, but because he enters each country with a pair of innocent eyes, keen to document what he sees but unafraid also to give his honest reaction to what he sees there. He is also resolutely normal. Most of the time we watch him simply trying to travel about, to do his work and his frustrations in doing those simple things help to show just how different the cultures can be. His last book, Burma Chronicles, was particularly funny in showing this young father trying to cope not only with a new culture but a new baby too and the all the everyday domestic dangers that entails.

It was almost inevitable that he would one day end up in the Holy City and he is the perfect guide to point up not only the absurdities of a city divided amongst several religions who share common points and places of faith and yet who are in constant conflict with each other, but also the more serious impact of constant military intervention and the brutal impact of decades of fighting. Anyone who has read Joe Sacco's work will know how effective a graphic approach can be in illustrating complicated conflicts and personal testimony. Delisle's own work doesn't hit as hard as Sacco's (in fact there is a hilarious panel where he wonders whether the aggressive response he gets from a group of Israeli soldiers might be because they have mistaken him for Sacco), it is far more whimsical and entertaining, but that doesn't take away from its own ability to enlighten a wide range of readers.

A key part of this is Delisle's naïveté (whether real or feigned). He wants things explained to him and in Jerusalem there is a constant stream of people from different viewpoints willing to make things clear, or at least clearer. He also has the genuine enthusiasm of any person who visits the Holy Land, excited by its history, its antiquity; and the slow discovery of how this almost fable-like past has been sullied by modern conflict, development and division is at the heart of the book's impact.

Delisle also employs simple maps to illustrate the points of division or demarcation. These are useful not only because they make light work of the often fiendishly complicated history of occupation and conflict but also because they illustrate clearly what the real effects of that occupation are for the Palestinian population.

The recently erected security wall is one point of focus. There has always been an element of doublespeak about armies called defence forces, rocket attacks used to defend populations, and walls or checkpoints used to ensure security. The restrictions on movement are clear not just from the Palestinian people Delisle interviews but from his own complicated travels about the country and various territories. The personal testimony from those that live there is crucial however in showing just what everyday life is like for those trying to make a living in the shadow of that gigantic concrete wall, for those seeking a semblance of ordinary living amongst such heightened security, in a country populated and influenced by so many diverse interests.

I'm a big fan of Delisle's work. It's accessible, entertaining, informative and touching. In a quirk of book categorisation most graphic works tend to be labelled as graphic 'novels' whether they are fiction or not. It has often been my experience that the most satisfying graphic works have been those, like Delisle's, which are more like memoir or reportage. Jerusalem is just the first of several treats like that to come this year with new works also expected from the likes of David B and Joe Sacco. How lucky we are.


Thursday 24 May 2012

I'm Never Coming Back - Julian Hanshaw

'start simply'

A quick little post this one to take a look at the latest book from Julian Hanshaw whose The Art of Pho came out about 18 months ago after he had first won the Observer/Cape Graphic Short Story Prize in 2008. I loved the artwork of that book even if I wasn't satisfied by the narrative and so I was intrigued when his latest popped through the door. I'm Never Coming Back functions like a collection of short stories but, as he mentions in this Director's Commentary on the piece, these are 'stories brushing against each other', linked like the various parts of Robert Altman's Short Cuts. Hanshaw again works with themes of 'loss, food and travel' taking the reader from the 'sound mirrors' on the coast of Denge, as featured in his award winning short (which can be viewed here), to the desert town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, via Berlin, Christchurch, Tucson and Heathrow. Again, we are not going to be satisfied by any grand narrative here, these are vignettes, some of which will give more joy than others, but the artwork is again beautiful throughout and the book as a whole has a pleasingly surreal tone.

It's tempting to suggest that the inclusion of Sand Dunes and Sonic Booms, the two-page piece that won Hanshaw his award, only highlights the strength of that short piece in comparison to some of the others on display here. But that might be a little unfair. Another sequence on the coast of Winchelsea provides one of the book's highlights as we follow a chap called Martin as he starts a new job in the kitchen of a beach cafe whilst trying to maintain a long-distance relationship through postcards. It is a local character in the shape of a man who sits everyday on the beach in a deep-sea diver's helmet who provides the enigmatic focal point of this story of communication, loneliness, tentative friendship and change.

There is also something satisfying about the story that takes place in Truth or Consequences which melds dreams and distance with tasty food and human connection. What is also interesting are the different colour palettes in each separate location. As I said, Hanshaw's work is consistently a visual treat; when he combines that with a strong narrative then his work will be irresistible.


Tuesday 22 May 2012

Dr Haggard's Disease - Patrick McGrath

'She cannot fade'

It's nice every now and then to read a book which isn't new, isn't a debut, hasn't been pushed by a publicist but rather brought to your attention by another avid reader. I've rewarded myself with a few of these recently and this novel by McGrath is one that John Self over at the Asylum has been going on about for years. It's always nice to start a book with the feeling that it's an almost surefire winner. Even nicer to finish it and feel the same way (It's worth mentioning however that I also finished this book feeling somewhat traumatised!).

From the very first page, the very first paragraph even, this book exhibits its main strength: a distinctive, engrossing and characterful narrative voice. In fact I shall be a terrible cheat I give you that first para to show what I mean.

I was in Elgin, upstairs in my study, gazing at the sea and reflecting, I remember, on a line of Goethe when Mrs. Gregor tapped at the door that Saturday and said there was a young man to see me in the surgery, a pilot. You know how she talks. "A pilot, Mrs Gregor?" I murmured. I hate being disturbed on my Saturday afternoons, especially if Spike is playing up, as he was that day, but of course I limped out onto the landing and made my way downstairs. And you know what that looks like - pathetic bloody display that is, first the good leg, then the bad leg, then the stick, good leg, bad leg, stick, but down I came, down the stairs, old beyond my years and my skin a grey so cachetic it must have suggested even to you that I was in pain, chronic pain, but oh dear boy not pain like yours, just wait now and we'll make it all - go - away - 

There is so much information skilfully crammed into those few lines. Already we can see our narrator Dr Haggard looking exactly as his name suggests, we can visualise that descent down the stairs within that house dramatically close to 'black rocks and a churning sea'; we even have a reference to Goethe that hints towards the Gothic. Why is he old beyond his years, who is this pilot, who is Spike? We simply must read on to find out. Hats off to McGrath, it's a great beginning. Dr Haggard is a man given to reflection, a man who cannot stop thinking in fact about his affair with the wife of a colleague during his time as a trainee surgeon. This brief but cataclysmic affair is what drove him to this coastal retreat and life as a general practitioner and the arrival of the pilot, James, son of his ex-lover Fanny allows him to indulge even further his overblown obsession with the definitive relationship of his life. The novel's unsettling strangeness is hinted at in that trailing last sentence above, under what circumstances is this novel being recounted? The full horror of that won't be revealed until the final page but one of the great joys of this novel is the way in which that caring narrative voice of Dr Haggard's will be slowly transformed into something much darker, fitting much better with the gothic surroundings of Elgin.

It is at a funeral that Haggard first sets eyes on Fanny, who will later become his lover, a few glances at each other 'and I think you might say from that point forward I was done for. I was lost.' Their private exchanges about passion at a dinner party lay the groundwork for a fast-developing affair and the rational medical man Haggard is soon transformed by the love he conceives for her; 'where before there was only the dark force of nature, with its absolute imperative of disease, suffering and death, now there was grace.' That idea of a love conceived is worth noting. The naive Haggard enthusiastically embraces Fanny's notion of passion as 'the best we’re capable of' and it is with an almost religious zeal that he commits himself to their

Love, for me, is not ephemeral, it is not a transient emotion, a passing state, a passage or flight into madness or ecstasy; I see it, rather, as an exalted or even sacred condition, a condition in which all the highest and best of human faculties are exercised. Your mother had said to me the night we met that passion was not a sickness, not a disease, but was, rather, the best we were capable of, civilized human beings. Ironically, it was I who came to embrace the idea, while she - 

Another trailing sentence there that hints at the end of the affair and we know that an awful lot happens in a period of a few months to send Haggard to Elgin, a broken man. He might have done well to remember that biblical phrase, 'Physician, heal thyself' (in one important way he does, far too literally), but the crumbling Elgin becomes an extension of his own ravaged body, haunted by her memory, her spirit 'more in possession of the house' than he is; 'a museum of nostalgia.'

Oh what are you doing? I asked myself. Isn't there something ridiculous about all this - you feed your obsession with this woman with morphia until you're unable to think of anything else, you can't sleep, you can't even stay in the house - as though Elgin were your own head, your own mind - as though by escaping Elgin you can escape the thoughts and feelings and memories that roil and turn endlessly, endlessly in that mind - it's not romantic at all!

McGrath unveils the story of Haggard's passion masterfully. The language is pitch-perfect for the 1930's and 40's period and the slow build of the novel's gothic atmosphere helps transform it into something else entirely. I cannot stress enough the perverse pleasure of seeing things become darker and darker. I say perverse because as much as we must recoil towards the novel's conclusion we have to accept that all along this has been a book about compassion as well as passion, and of love and humanity. Dr Haggard is an extraordinary fictional creation, one that helps make a novel that entertains and terrifies in equal measure. If you fancy a book that challenges those notions I have mentioned above, a book written brilliantly and structured like an escalating nightmare, then I have no hesitation in recommending this one. And don't just take my word for it.


Tuesday 15 May 2012

The Watch - Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

'in flames I reside'

I am here to bury my brother according to the tenets of my faith. That is all there is to it.

The Hogarth Press was founded in 1917 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, named after their house in Richmond from which they hand-printed the imprint's first titles. It remained an independent name until 1946 when it came under the banner of Chatto & Windus. Now they, in partnership with Crown in the US have relaunched Hogarth as a fiction imprint with 'an accent on the pleasures of storytelling and an awareness of the world.' Their launch title embodies both of those principles taking the tragedy of Antigone and moving it to modern-day Afghanistan. At one point in the novel a Lieutenant hands a copy of Sophocles' play to his Captain saying, 'It's about as cogent an analysis as anything you'll find about where we are today.' In looking at a conflict that many of us hear mentioned almost every day and yet which few of us probably know much detail about Roy-Bhattacharya could be said to be attempting to do the same. How well does he succeed?

A quick recap on Sophocles' Antigone first. After the civil war in Thebes that pitted two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, against each other and which ended in the death of both, Creon emerges as the new ruler and decrees that the body of Polyneices will be left unburied on the battlefield as carrion for wild animals. Grieving sister Antigone tries to enlist the support of her sister Ismene to help her bury their brother, but she refuses, fearing the death penalty that would result if they were caught. Antigone acts alone and comes up against Creon who orders her to be buried alive in a cave. As you might expect from a Greek tragedy the play is littered with corpses by the end: Antigone joining her brothers and Creon's son and wife also taking their own lives. Creon is left cursed by the end, still king and with order preserved but at what cost?

In Afghanistan, after a fierce fire-fight in and around their compound, a group of American soldiers lie depleted and exhausted but victorious. The body of the man who led the attack against them lies ready to be transported out so it can be paraded on TV but whilst they wait for that transport a woman appears at the perimeter claiming to be the sister of the dead man. She has come to claim his body so that she can bury it according to her faith and will not leave until that has been achieved. Opinion is divided amongst the various soldiers as to how to proceed. Is the woman genuine or a potential suicide-bomber; is she in fact a woman at all?

Roy-Bhattacharya presents his narrative from several viewpoints with each chapter narrated by a different character. The first chapter, Antigone, is narrated naturally by the woman who approaches the compound, having travelled from many miles away using just her hands to propel herself on the wheeled platform that supports her legless body. She was left in this state after an attack that devastated a harmless gathering and it is this attack that provoked her brother to lead his own assault on the American base. We will hear later from a Lieutenant (Nick Frobenius) who majored in Classics at university, a medic who has learnt a lot about Afghan culture whilst posted there, an Army interpreter who sides very closely with his employers for personal reasons and other members of army personnel with differing viewpoints.

Most interesting amongst these characters, particularly when pursuing the Sophoclean parallels is Frobenius. His interest in the classics makes him an unlikely military man but whatever his reasons for joining the army he now finds himself disillusioned and referring back to the story of the tyrant Creon to understand the machinations of the American military/industrial complex. After defending the military as the last bastion of the ideals that made the USA great ('Think courage, endurance, integrity, judgement, justice, loyalty, discipline, knowledge.') and lamenting the fact that it is power-crazed politicians and profit-hungry business men who now dictate 'what we do and how we can do it' he is forced to confront his Captain with their own complicity.

We're in Kalyug, Captain. It's the age of Creon. 'Cept that he's here, there and everywhere. He's the government and the corporations and everything else that matters, and he's totally faceless. He's a machine, a system, he has his own logic, and once you're part of that, it doesn't really matter if you're a grunt or a general: you're trapped in a conveyor belt of death and destruction. And that's the saddest thing. The saddest thing is that we're part of Creon. We're all compromised and there's nothing we can do about it. It's like losing your virginity. You can't get it back once it's gone.

Frobenius also met his wife whilst working on a production of Antigone at university and we get flashes back to this relationship which is now destroyed by his repeated tours and what she sees as the unsurmountable changes that he has undergone. These flashbacks are something of a feature of the novel and they risk becoming repetitive, especially when they are of the 'and it was all a dream' variety (although to be fair this technique also helps to get something of the visionary-exhaustion the soldiers suffer across to the reader). Where it does work well is in the chapter dedicated to First Sergeant Whalen. He reminisces of home and images from there and the battlefield meld together seamlessly as when the music that their Antigone plays one night in the desert reminds him of his girl at home.

Just before I reach the bend round which I'll catch my first sight of the houseboat, I hear Camille playing her twelve-string guitar. I rest my oar and sit there with my head bowed, listening to the long notes thrumming over the water. It's the sweetest sound I've ever heard, and it fills my soul. The war falls away and all the fighting and the dying seem very far off. I hold on to the moments for as long as I can. Eventually the music stops, but I continue to sit there, lost in its spell. Nothing stirs, and no one seems to want to be the first to break the silence. In all my years with the Company, I've never seen the men remain so still and for such a long period of time. Long moments pass before they begin to drift away one by one without a sound, until I finally look up and realize that I'm the only one left. The bright band of the Milky Way is like a luminous river across the sky. The night is cold and crystalline, and there's a frigid wind blowing down from the mountains....This haunted land is so completely different to where I'm from that, even after multiple tours of duty, I'm still not clear about who these people are and what they really want.

That final confusion is all over this novel. Most of the soldiers have little knowledge about different tribes, languages or cultures; to them everyone is Taliban and therefore a threat (it is the medic who notices the black turban worn by their prize casualty that marks him as Sayyid, a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad). Even their interpreter (whose chapter is tellingly named after Antigone's sister Ismene) comes from an entirely different culture to the woman whose words he translates and as I mentioned has his own axe to grind with the Taliban that sees him supporting his employers wholeheartedly. A corrupt Afghan government that many in the country don't support, tribal factions, differences of opinion and operation within the overseeing military; it is a situation dominated by confusion and conflict with many innocent and ignorant people caught up in the dangerous front-line. Roy-Bhattacharya shows himself adept with descriptive prose and the build-up to the fire-fight is brilliantly realised. His dialogue is often filled with points of view and part of me wondered if it might be better suited to a decent television treatment of the subject. Also always lurking in my mind was the thought that despite the hard work that has clearly gone into this novel, transposing the story of Antigone to a modern conflict, the same effect and insight might have been achieved simply through a well-directed performance of Sophocles' original play that utilised the Afghan conflict for its design and focus. Greek tragedies, like the plays of Shakespeare, have been used time and again to illuminate modern conflicts and feuds, that is the power of plays with such universal themes. As Frobenius said, when it comes to the theatre of war, the observations of thousands of years ago are as relevant today as they were back then.


Tuesday 8 May 2012

Waiting For The Barbarians - J M Coetzee

'the black flower of civilization'

I was determined not to leave it too long before tackling another Coetzee and it was only a question of which one. As I've said before, I'm a little scared of his more recent output and felt on much safer ground looking at his back-back catalogue. A few were recommended by other novelists (social networking has its genuine uses you know) and I decided to plump for this allegorical tale of oppression, control and personal morality. I always sensed that Coetzee was a writer who needed to be read, I can only reiterate my pleasure in discovering that he is a writer who demands to be read and to whom one willingly submits, each completed book increasing the chance of picking up another.

Waiting for the Barbarians was originally published in 1980 and not only picked up the James Tait Black  and Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prizes, and was picked by Penguin as one of twenty Great Books of the 20th Century but was even turned into an opera by Philip Glass. The allegorical nature of the novel makes it perfect for that kind of adaptation and a worthy recipient of all its praise because it reads like an immediate classic, a novel that whilst clearly inspired by the brutal Apartheid regime in Coetzee's South Africa can also be applied universally to the ideas of Empire, control, torture and resistance. Names aren't important in this tale, our first person narrator is known only as the Magistrate, 'a responsible official in the service of the Empire, serving out my days on this lazy frontier, waiting to retire... When I pass away I hope to merit three lines of small print in the Imperial gazette. I have not asked for more than a quiet life in quiet times.' Those quiet times come to an abrupt end with the arrival of Colonel Joll and his soldiers of the Third Bureau. This far-flung outpost of the Empire is at risk from attack from the barbarian hordes that allegedly lie out there in the wilderness and are joining tribal forces in order to strike back at the Empire. A brief sortie by Joll and his men brings barbarian prisoners back to this frontier town and the Magistrate witnesses in part the brutal methods of the Third Bureau in their quest for the truth.

'First I get lies, you see - this is what happens - first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth. That is how you get the truth.'

Once these interrogations are over and the men departed the Magistrate takes personal care of a barbarian girl whom he nurses back to health, the two enacting an odd, intimate and yet not sexual relationship. He wants to know what happened during the interrogation that left her partially blinded but she is reticent, leaving him with the certain knowledge that 'Nothing is worse than what we can imagine.' The Magistrate is an interesting character for all sorts of reasons but his morality is primary amongst those. A man who has clearly used his powerful position to enjoy the company of women in the past he is left stymied by the curious nature of his relationship with this barbarian girl. He even manages to find a parallel between his odd desire for her and the work of the recently departed torturers.

I cannot even say for sure that I desire her. All this erotic behaviour of mine is indirect: I prowl about her, touching her face, caressing her body, without entering her or finding the urge to do so. I have just come from the bed of a woman for whom, in the year I have known her, I have not for a moment had to interrogate my desire: to desire her has meant to enfold her and enter her, to pierce her surface and stir the quiet of her interior into an ecstatic storm; then to retreat, to subside, to wait for desire to reconstitute itself. But with this woman it is as if there is no interior, only a surface across which I hunt back and forth seeking entry. Is this how her torturers felt hunting their secret, whatever they thought it was? For the first time I feel a dry pity for them: how natural a mistake to believe that you can burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other! The girl lies in my bed, but there is no good reason why it should be a bed. I behave like a lover - I undress her, I bathe her, I stroke her, I sleep beside her - but I might equally well tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less intimate.

He begins to question everything about his position, struggling with 'the story' of empire and the barbarian hordes that lie out there somewhere ready to attack the civilized way of life. But he also struggles to see how such an attitude might be wiped away for how do you eradicate contempt, 'especially when that contempt is founded on nothing more substantial than differences in table manners, variations in the structure of the eyelid?' From being a staunch defender of empire he begins to wish that the barbarians would indeed rise up and teach the ruling power to respect them and their history, they after all viewing the empire builders as nothing more than transients in the grand scheme of things.

If his relationship with the girl weren't enough to get him into trouble then his foolhardy journey beyond the frontier to return her to her people surely is and when he returns (without her, despite having asked her to return with him of her own free will - and after finally consummating their relationship) to the town he is summarily arrested and imprisoned. And what does he feel when he finds himself on the other side of the law? Elation, at having broken the bonds of his alliance with the Empire.

I am a free man. Who would not smile? But what a dangerous joy. It should not be so easy to attain salvation.

For what is it that he actually believes in, where does this sense of opposition come from? He is subjected to the same cruel treatment that previous prisoners have suffered but he uses his knowledge of the settlement to effect an escape from his confinement only to realise that there is nowhere for him to run away too. A prisoner of civilization itself he is able to look clearly at his oppressor whilst we the reader enjoy the same opportunity to examine our own civilization and what it is built on.

Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.

We all know the language of fear and how governments of the free world use it to justify attacks on today's 'barbarians'. As well as exploring the machinery of control through that fear, especially when combined with brutal suppression of any opposition, Coetzee dares to look at the thoughts of those who might actually wish to see those held up as the enemy triumph in order to assuage their own guilt. As the novel enters its final section, the Imperial forces seeming to have suffered terrible losses in their encounters with the barbarians, and the threat of being overrun more real than ever a strange limbo is achieved. The Magistrate, once an extension of the Empire's grip finds himself a voice of optimism, not in spite of impending doom but because of it.

Is there any better way to pass these last days than in dreaming of a saviour with a sword who will scatter the enemy hosts and forgive us the errors that have been committed by others in our name and grant us a second chance to build our earthly paradise?


Thursday 3 May 2012

Skios - Michael Frayn


With Noises Off, Michael Frayn wrote one of the most perfect plays you could ever hope for. A farce that had me laughing so hard I genuinely feared I might wet myself, it is a masterpiece of structure and design, not to mention comedy (I haven't seen the most recent production at the Old Vic but I understand that it proves that a perfect play doesn't always mean a perfect production - with something as technical as farce everything has to be right or it just doesn't deliver to the heights). For that alone he deserves a knighthood but he also happens to have churned out some cracking fiction in his prolific career; Headlong is a hugely enjoyable novel, Spies another, and I was even fascinated by his relatively recent non-fiction tome, The Human Factor. You always get the sense that Frayn is a jolly clever chap who could turn his hand to just about anything and do a decent enough job but there's no doubting that the man has serious skills when it comes to organising the mechanics of farce. His latest novel brings those to the fore and provides some perfect summer holiday reading. If you're looking for some entertainment whilst you lounge in the sun somewhere then this book could be perfect. Reading can just be fun sometimes.

On the Greek island of Skios lies the Fred Toppler Foundation. Now overseen by his widow Mrs Fred Toppler (formerly known as dancer Bahama LeStarr) the Foundation is dedicated to bringing great creative and scientific minds together each year in an event which culminates in the Fred Toppler Lecture ('They had had lectures on the Crisis in this and the Challenge of that. They had had an Enigma of, a Whither? and a Why?, three Prospects for and two Reconsiderations of.'). This year Mrs Toppler's PA, Nikki, has organised the guest lecturer, a Dr Norman Wilfred, expert in Scientometrics, or the scientific management of science. Nikki may be 'Discreetly tanned, discreetly blond, discreetly effective and discreetly nice' but she is also ambitious and this year she is making her play to succeed the Foundation's other director, now ageing and reclusive, and if everything goes according to plan then she will emerge triumphant. But of course everything does not go according to plan. And thank goodness.

It doesn't take much for the wheels to fall off but the skill with which Frayn sets up his pieces is a huge part of this novel's enjoyment, especially as we await the big payoff at the end. I shall attempt to give a basic precis without giving too much away. Imagine a baggage carousel. Dr Norman Wilfred has adopted the perfect position at it to retrieve his bag as soon as possible (years of worldwide travel on his lecture tours have taught him this much and more). It will be easy to spot with its red luggage label (another trick he's learnt) except that there is another man at the carousel awaiting a similar case with an equally distinctive red label and a moment's inattention from Wilfred will send each man away with the other's case and the two men will end up swapping not just cases but even identities. That other man is Oliver Fox, a chancer whose 'tumbled dish-mop of hair was a blond as blanched almonds, his soft eyes as brown and shining and dates.' He has come to Skios to enjoy a dirty week in the sun, or more likely out of the sun, with a girl he's met for just five minutes in a bar somewhere. Except that she's been delayed and Oliver, being the chancer that he is, finds himself unable to resist the opportunity that presents itself when Nikki asks whether he might be Dr Norman Wilfred. His only reply - 'I cannot tell a lie' and that is enough for him to head towards the Foundation worrying little about delivering the keynote speech and more about consuming some champagne and having a little fun with Nikki before his date finally arrives. The real Dr Norman Wilfred meanwhile, expecting to be picked up from the airport, has had a rather confusing conversation with one of the taxi drivers there but is soon whisked off to his accommodation, a surprisingly swish set up which looks more like a holiday villa. Get the idea? Oliver's date manages to get another flight and arrives at the villa to find what she supposes is her bit of fluff asleep in the bed, where she soon joins him. Oliver in the meantime gets confused about which exactly of the little apartments belonged to Nikki as he creeps about in the night.

There are plenty more characters to arrive and it really is like watching a grand master place his chess pieces on the board. The two main men are diametric opposites; Oliver always going with the flow as a firm believer in Chance, Norman a rational man who has a 'Newtonian faith in causality'. Will one's hubris lead to his humiliation whilst the other's pomposity is punctured?

But how endlessly uncertain life was! Things might be like this, or might be like that, or might be like nothing anyone could imagine - and it all depended upon the endlessly shifting sands of who was who and when they were and where.
As a setting for such deceptions the Foundation is perfect. Built from the ground up (previously there were just two rusty sheds where they gutted fish) the foundation may look respectable and as ancient as the temple to Athena that lies next to it but it is as phoney as the woman who helped to create it. Bahama LeStarr was of course devastated to lose her elderly and fabulously wealthy husband so soon after they tied the knot, the creation of a Foundation in his name was the least she could do, no matter what it took.

'We had to fetch our own temple from Zakynthos. It was dedicated to Aphrodite. We changed her name, the way I changed mine. Now she's Athena. The agora came from Pelion. The church from Samos.'
In such an environment, as the other guests assemble to wine and dine with the star speaker, it is little wonder that they don't tumble that he knows nothing of what he is supposed to be speaking on. At one point, so easy does he find the deception, he even tries to tell them - 'Perhaps I'm not Dr. Norman Wilfred.'
'So here we are - we're making it all up as we go along. It's like a random mutation in a gene. If I tell you the truth, that I'm Oliver Fox, then consequences follow from that. No one sits here listening to me. No one even lets me through the gate. So the world goes on its way without my being here saying all this.
'And if I say I'm Dr Norman Wilfred, then the world goes another way. Oliver Fox - Dr Norman Wilfred - what does it matter? Heads/tails. Strawberry/vanilla. But who knows what the consequences will be?...We're all in this together. I said I was Dr Norman Wilfred. But you believed me. So between us we have determined the whole future course of the universe.'

Frayn does include a little discourse on Causality v. Chance but this book is more concerned with tickling your sides than your grey cells. Dodgy dealings, twin taxi-driving brothers, ill-fitting clothing, sun, sea, sex and . . . erm, Scientometrics: what more could you ask for? It's a joy.


Tuesday 1 May 2012

HHhH - Laurent Binet


translated by Sam Taylor

I was very excited about this book. Not just because it was the winner in 2010 of the Prix Goncourt in France, but perhaps more importantly because it was placed in my hand with the same enthusiasm (and by the same person) as one of my favourite books last year, Lazarus Is Dead. The two books don't just share a publisher, they also have something in common stylistically. Both take factual events, real characters and seek to retain veracity whilst also resolutely remaining works of fiction. Both authors speak directly to the reader about the process of writing the book and include references to other artistic treatments of the same subject. But, and it's a big but for me, whilst they may appear to be from the same stable, the two books are very different beasts. Whilst the approach and delivery of Lazarus made it feel like an inventive piece of fiction Binet's 'novel' feels like a piece of non-fiction with too much authorial intervention and not nearly enough invention.

Binet tells the story of Operation Anthropoid, the assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich who was at the time the Nazi regime's Deputy Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. It was a story related to Binet when young by his father and one which he has always been fascinated by. Determined at last to try and find his own way of telling it he begins researching and writing his definitive account and we read this novel which is part-history, part-fiction, part-memoir, part-notebook.

I just hope that however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.

Heydrich was an almost archetypal Nazi. In fact when looking at the higher ranking members of the party you don't tend to think of Aryan supermen. The diminutive Goebells, the swollen Goring, even the wildly gesticulating Hitler himself; none of these men were visions of the superior race they aimed to be the architects of. Heydrich however, was. Tall, slim and blond, he looks ruthless in his uniform and his CV is an impressive haul of Nazi atrocities. The man at the head of the SD, the intelligence service charged with rooting out and destroying resistance to the Nazi party, one of the organisers of Kristallnacht, instrumental in The Night of the Long Knives, Head of the Gestapo, Chairmen of the Wannsee conference at which the Final Solution was discussed and created, the kind of man who gained nickname after nickname: "The Hangman", "The Butcher", "The Blond Beast" and - this one given by Hitler himself - "The Man with the Iron Heart." The novel's title (the author having been warned away from the 'too sci-fi' Operation Anthropoid) comes from a saying within the SS: Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich - Himmler's brain is called Heydrich. A ruthless, intelligent and enthusiastic architect of the Nazi machine; Hitler didn't admire many men in his administration but you get the impression that a small smile appeared on his face every time he thought of Heydrich. Another fine orator, he never shied away from vocalising the harsh realities of Nazi policy

I think Heydrich enjoyed verbalizing the incredible, the unthinkable, as if to give substance to the unimaginable truth. This is what I've got to tell you - -you already know it, but it's up to me to tell you, and it's up to us to do it. The orator, dizzy from speaking the unspeakable. The monster, drunk on the thought of the monstrosities he heralds.

But this isn't just a portrait of Heydrich, some focus goes to the two men who would spearhead the operation to remove him Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš; a Slovak and a Czech respectively who trained in Britain after having fled Czechoslovakia during the war.

Their government in exile along with the British Special Operations Executive helped plan the operation which would see them parachuted behind enemy lines, primed and ready to strike at the heart of the Nazi regime.

But that's enough fact for the moment. Let us get back to the book in question. Binet comments on the book he is writing as he writes it. What kind of book should it be, how best to tell the story; should he perhaps ape the detail of Victor Hugo in order to set the scene - 'I remember one interminable digression in The Hunchback of Notre Dame on the workings of the judicial institutions in the Middle Ages. I thought that was very clever. But I skipped the passage.' Perhaps not then. We learn about his disdain for another winner of the Prix Goncourt, Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones (apparently a further twenty pages criticising it were excised at the request of the editor - and can now be read online), the frustrations of writing fiction based on fact ('I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see growing all over it - ever higher and denser, like a creeping ivy - the unmappable pattern of causality') his frustrations when those reading some of the factual details assume it must be made up by the author ("But no, it's all true!" And I think: "Damn, I'm not there yet . . .") and we too are then duped by a chapter that seems to fit in with the factual approach of the book only to be followed by this.

That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet - a man who's been dead for a long time, who cannot defend himself. To make him drink tea, when it might turn out that he liked only coffee. To make him put on two coats, when peraps he had only one. To make him take the bus, when he could have taken the train. To decide that he left in the evening, rather than the morning. I am ashamed of myself.

All of this is kind of interesting, but only up to a point. I kept finding myself frustrated. Just when a section of non-fiction was beginning to really grip an authorial intervention would break the spell. At exactly the moments when you might hope writer of fiction would fill in the gaps in his research he does exactly the opposite.

I'd like to spend my days with the parachutists in the crypt, reporting their discussions, describing how they live from hour to hour in the cold and the damp, what they eat, what they read, what rumours they hear from the town, what they do with their girlfriends when they visit. I would like to tell you about their plans, their doubts, their hopes, their fears, their dreams and thoughts. But that isn't possible, because I know almost nothing about any of it. I don't even know how they reacted when they heard about Heydrich's death, although that ought to make one of the best bits of my book.

This, of course, is the point of the book. Binet wants to raise the themes of truth, storytelling, authorship and the very process of writing itself; but my honest reaction to reading that was often to think "this theorising is all very well but I wish you'd just get out of the way and tell the story". Binet is not nearly as interesting as Binet thinks he is, and even if that was the very thing he wanted to communicate in his exploration of the writer's place in the telling of 'true stories' it isn't a point that needs much repetition before it becomes stale. This view probably makes me sound very old-fashioned (interesting when last week I criticised another author for the very same fault)  but perhaps part of it stems from my enjoyment of the book I mentioned at the top of this review. Richard Beard's approach to the telling of the Lazarus story breathed genuine life into something which had become moribund, and never did I feel that he was trying to insert himself as a personality into the proceedings.

This doesn't mean that the book is without successes, only that they were limited for me. Binet's descriptions of the horrific massacre in Babi Yar, the assassination attempt itself and the thrilling standoff and shootout that followed when the assassins where cornered in a Prague church are compelling. Gabčík and Kubiš only ever remain sketches, it is Heydrich who dominates the book, and in the sheer cataloguing of his ruthless creation and organisation of the police state this book shows quite clearly how influential this man was. You want him to be stopped, and you can't help but want his assassins to get away with it, so whatever it's shortfalls this novel (with its short chapters helping things to zip along - 257 chapters in 327 pages) certainly engages the reader. But (yes it's that but again) we cannot simply call it an accessible history because the author himself is such a strong presence, we cannot call it a successful fiction because the author resolutely refuses to invent too much; Binet himself calls it an 'infranovel'. Whatever that actually means.


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