Thursday 28 March 2013

The Mussel Feast - The Childhood of Jesus

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

The latest series from plucky publisher and champion of translated fiction Peirene Press is their Turning points series. Continuing their focus on books that  can (and preferably should) be read in a single sitting this series looks at 'revolutionary moments' and opens with this novella from Germany where it is a bestseller that has remained in print since 1990. That date coincides with the fall of the Berlin Wall of course and Vanderbeke has said that she wrote the book as an attempt to 'understand how revolutions start' but placing the conflict within a family unit.

The family in question are awaiting the return of their father from an important business trip which they expect to have sealed his final promotion. As a result the plan that evening is to enjoy the meal of the title and the book opens as a mother and her two teenage children go about the ritual of preparing and cooking four kilos of mussels in anticipation of his return. As the clock ticks past the time he would usually come home, and then past the time they planned to eat, and then even further into the evening, the foundations of this cosy family set up begin to crumble away and we realise that the three people at home are living in the shadow of a tyrannical father.

The book itself is only just over a hundred pages but I must confess that I made several abortive attempts to read it before I finally managed to finish it. Part of this is to do with what I mentioned above; this, and probably all of Peirene's titles benefit from being read in one go (in fact what book isn't more of a joy when you can devote some serious time to devouring it?) and my snatched attempts on the train or at work simply didn't do enough to catch me in. That said, having now finished it after finding a miraculous morning to myself, I'm still a little lukewarm about it compared to some of the enthusiastic readers elsewhere.

This is effectively a 100 page monologue, with no paragraphs, and delivered in a voice which never really excited me. Yes, there are moments of dark humour, and there's a perverse joy to be found in the slow reveal of just how oppressed this family really is, but I never quite clicked with the tone nor was I sufficiently enthused by the allegorical nature. Vanderbeke does write wonderfully though when using subtle symbols to add atmosphere and feeling to the scene. That huge pot of mussels for instance is ominous at the start with its strange noises as the mussels cook and shift about, then their increasing distastefulness as they sit there and lose heat, colour and appeal, whilst the family wait for the patriarch who may or may not ever walk through the door.

Published now by Peirene Press.

The Childhood of Jesus - J M Coetzee

A new novel from Coetzee is always going to be exciting, especially if you've recently started reading and enjoying his books and doubly so if you suspect that it might be in the vein of those allegorical novels that you have loved rather than the slightly intimidating recent works that feature various incarnations of the man himself. A bit of a disappointment then to be confronted by a book which is both so blatantly allegorical that it comes across as almost juvenile (No, I haven't lost it and just called Coetzee juvenile, just the effect of some of the rather heavy-handed Christian imagery or thought) whilst also managing to be completely baffling in its use of allegory so that I, and many other readers, were left scratching their heads at the end wondering what on earth all that was about.

After a journey across the sea, a man and a boy arrive in a new country where they are assigned new names and ages and begin to learn Spanish, the language of this, their new home. Simón is not the father or grandfather of David, the boy under his charge, but has assumed responsibility for him during their crossing and has set his heart on reuniting him with his mother whom he is convinced he will recognise when he sees her. The two of them are welcomed into a Kafkaesque bureaucracy in the city of Novilla that is by turns helpful and frustrating and even when the two of them begin to find their feet with some kind of shelter, employment and food they find themselves living in a country where food is basic, desires simple and no thought is wasted on the past which many seem to have simply forgotten or left behind.

Simón finds work as a stevedore in the port, unloading back-breaking sacks of grain from huge ships and indulging in philosophical chats with his co-workers. He strikes up an odd relationship with a woman, Elena, who challenges his notions of companionship and attraction. Then he meets a woman who he becomes convinced is David's mother. The novel is filled with conversation after conversation, debate after debate; some, as I've said, dotted with such obvious lines and symbols of Christianity that it's almost funny, some frankly bizarre like a discussion about the poo-ness of poo, the point at which it ceases to be our poo and joins all of the other general poo in the sewer (I sh*t you not).

All the while we are stumbling along with the plot or searching for meaning in and behind the conversations what actually remains for the reader to hold onto and take away? For me personally there was a lot about parenthood, care and how we shape the lives of those in our charge. It is clear that Simón cares deeply for David (feeling his absence like the loss of 'a limb or perhaps even his heart') which makes it all the more bizarre that he can hand him over to, ostensibly, a complete stranger as a mother. I found the book to be increasingly distressing to read as a result and think it may be some time before I have fully come to terms with it and begun to unravel what meaning lies behind it.

Published now by Harvill Secker.


Wednesday 20 March 2013

The Silence of Animals - Montague Terrace

The Silence of Animals - John Gray

It was over a decade ago that I read John Gray's provocative book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. It really was like a shock to the brain filled with incendiary thoughts that infused and infuriated me in equal measure. Its hard after the intervening years to remember much of the detail of the book (it's hard after those years and the arrival of two children to remember much at all) but one thing remained very clear in my mind and that was Gray's huge mistrust in the Enlightenment idea of progress. This he felt was the biggest lie that we humans tell ourselves; not only that we are by nature different from the other animals on the planet but that our achievements in science and technology are making our lives anything more than superficially better. As he expresses in this new book - 'Lacking a self-image of the sort humans cherish, other animals are content to be what they are. For human beings the struggle for survival is a struggle against themselves'. The Silence of Animals is billed very much as a sequel to that book, developing on those same themes to further illustrate how we delude ourselves with notions of progress and content ourselves with fantasy and myth in order to support those thoughts.

Whereas Straw Dogs read like the thoughts of the author, backed up by occasional literary sources, this follow up is far more like a companion piece with much deeper references from other works of literature. Borges, Orwell, Ballard and Conrad are all cited and having read some of the writers he quotes in the intervening years I was able to confront the thoughts head on and find them stimulating in a different way to those I had had to take for granted when reading the first book. But my overall impression on finishing the book was that this was less a development of his ideas than a reinforcement of them. It was as though Gray had spent the last decade finding support for his personal philosophy in the literature he read and now wanted to share it as if to say, 'See, I'm not the only one.' This is fine, naturally, and there are lots of interesting thoughts along the way, particularly when examining our propensity to fiction and how it shapes our lives and Gray's thoughts on how the whole concept of talents might be a terrible straitjacket on our personal potential rather than the best way to realise it. It just means that this volume lacks some of the fire of its predecessor and will probably further annoy anyone who took exception to his thoughts from then too.

There is an interesting battle as well with biblical references and images. Gray frequently aims to show that there is very little difference between the comforts of organised religion and religious faith alongside the faith that accompanies the Enlightenment ideal of progress. If religion is the opiate of the people then 'like cheap music, the myth of progress lifts the spirits as it numbs the brain'. We must all have at least occasionally wondered about the very meaning of life, the reason for us being here, and Gray is determined that we should let that thought go

Why do humans need a reason to live? Is it because they could not endure life if they did not believe it contained hidden meaning? Or does the demand for meaning come from attaching too much sense to language - from thinking that our lives are books we have not yet learnt to read?

We fictionalise our own lives and if we could only accept that, Gray asserts, and also that our world is without meaning we might discover not a loss of value but that 'this nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the world that exists beyond.' How you may react to that and other thoughts will be entirely personal of course. Gray I'm sure will content himself that T.S Eliot said it best in Burnt Norton - human kind cannot bear much reality.

Published now by Allen Lane

Monatague Terrace by Warren and Gary Pleece

Animals also feature in this graphic novel from the Pleece brothers in the form of an unforgettable rabbit, Marvo the magic bunny, companion and co star to a rather shambolic magician called Marty. They are just two inhabitants of the fading Art deco housing block that gives the novel its name and which contains more nuttiness than a Reece's peanut butter cup.

The book is made up of 12 main stories and a few interludes and through them we meet the varied inhabitants of this bonkers building. Each of the stories is as tenuously linked as we all might be to the comings and goings of those around us but also by something slightly deeper relating to the building itself. There is a faded singer who sits around listening to his biggest hit, a bright young thing novelist with writer's block, a genius scientist with a price on his head, someone calling himself The Puppeteer, and an old special forces operative who may look like a granny but who hasn't quite given up the fight yet.

Given all the craziness this is a pretty disparate novel and how well it all holds together will depend on how many of the stories you really connect with. The device that holds them all together might come across as a bit silly and even nostalgic, and that's the prevailing feeling I was left with; something like the curious quality that comes with watching Tales of the Unexpected. This book is easy to read and to enjoy but there's not enough beneath that Art deco facade to send me back in again.

Published now by Jonathan Cape


Tuesday 12 March 2013

My Elvis Blackout - Simon Crump

'The long dream is over'

I got a Kindle for Christmas. Hurrah, I am now part of the 21st Century. Apparently. My main excitement on receiving one was that I would be able to take up Galley Beggar's Press on their kind offer of an e-book copy of Simon Crump's novel My Elvis Blackout. This novel has had an extraordinary life already as Crump mentions in a new afterword that comes with this edition. Iy has been 'a chapbook, a hardback, a trade paperback, a tee-shirt, a short film, a CD and even a band'. It has also at one point been reproduced in its entirety on an Elvis fansite attributed to a man named Jurgen. Now it is available again with a new introduction from Jon McGregor, a fantastic review from the ever-reliable Mr Self and a few quick words from me to support this short, fucked-up and truly unforgettable little gem.

How on earth to begin to describe this bizarre book? My Elvis Blackout comes as a series of short fictions or vignettes. Each features or is about Elvis in some way, shape or form but not the Elvis that we know. This Elvis comes in many guises and each story might be said to illuminate some facet of his character or some aspect of fame, celebrity, culture, indulgence, violence and death. To pinch the best line from John Self's review, 'it is a mirrorball made of highly polished razor blades, reflecting different aspects of the King'.

There is violence and absurdity on every other page and often at the same time (this after all is a novel in which Barbara Cartland's mutilated body is buried on only the second page and Chris de Burgh is murdered not just once but twice after coming back as a headless zombie). But then there are moments that are strangely affecting, perhaps all the more so coming as they do buried amongst so much mayhem. The chapter headed Elvis: Fat Fucked-Up Fool has an opening paragraph that shows perfectly the combination of madness and pathos.
His greatest fear was of being poor and he dwelled upon it constantly. He took handfuls of jewels and cash into the backyard at Graceland and buried them - little treasures to call upon should he find himself penniless. The guys would watch watch Elvis digging in the dark. He cut a pathetic figure as he grunted and sweated over a growing heap of earth, and they would laugh to see his white jump-suit soiled with mud, and they would laugh at this very sad, but nevertheless highly entertaining creature trying to ward off his worst nightmare, and they would laugh and laugh until the tears ran down their bloated piggy faces and down their fat pink necks and into their fancy silk shirts which Elvis had bought them all from Lansky brothers, because he loved them so.
That is a killer paragraph; seemingly throwaway and yet marked by an unforgettable image, biting comment and even an appeal for sympathy. Brilliant. Another example of the way this collection can unseat the reader comes near the end in a chapter titled, Yorkshire Elvis: Part Two. After all the violence that has preceded it, this story seems to augur something horrific when our hero waits for his wife to leave the house before getting out something secret from beneath the floorboards, especially when a missing girl is mentioned. But then Crump gives this particular incarnation of the King a secret you couldn't possibly expect and makes the story into something else entirely. It is hard to know what you might find as you go through the pages of this novel, and very hard to adequately describe the thrill and joy of reading a book that manages to be both silly and deadly serious at the same time, flippant and deadly; as volatile and entertaining a book as you're likely to read all year.


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