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Des Dillon: Singin I’m No A Billy He’s A Tim

It’s called Scotland’s shame, the sectarianism that has attached itself to Scottish society and festers therein. The absorption of Ireland’s exiles in the nineteenth century saw Catholicism take steps into the country, much to the chagrin of the Protestant ‘indigènes’, and the rest, as they say, is history. Although it’s not history per se as the divide created then is still very much alive today, most prominently masquerading around within the national sport: football.

Des Dillon’s play, Singin I’m No A Billy He’s A Tim (2005) tackles sectarianism head on. Since its initial performance at the Edinburgh Festival, the play has gone on to tour both Scotland and Northern Ireland, and it was even used by the then Scottish Executive to tackle the issue of bigotry at school level. By turning the spotlight on two football fans — Tim and Billy, immediately defined by their heavy brush stroke of a name —  supporting a team on either side of the divide, Dillon creates a dialogue that explores sectarianism.

Tim, in the green and white, is a Glasgow Celtic fan., and therefore of Catholic stock. It’s not long before Billy is calling him on singing a song about the Irish revolutionary Michael Collins:

Billy: I wish you lot would shut up wi that shite.

Tim: It’s my heritage.

Billy: Yer heritage!

Tim: There’s nothin wrong wi rememberin yer heritage.

Billy: I bet ye’ve never even been in Ireland. (Beat as Tim squirms) Have ye?

Tim: I’m not tellin you where I’ve been an where I’ve not.

A beat, then:

Billy: Ye’ve never been have ye? (Tim ignores him) Answer me then.

Tim: So! What if I haven’t?

Billy: Yees’re aw the same — rattlin oan aboot a place ye’ve never been. If I had my way I’d send yees aw back to fuckin tattie land.

In the dialogue between the two, there’s underlying irony to be had with Billy (“Ma heritage goes straight as a die to Ulster.”), a Glasgow Rangers fan, and therefore Protestant. Situations in real life are, of course, more complicated, but Billy and Tim prove adequate mouthpieces through which the fallacies and the hatred that lie at the heart of the problem can be aired. History, politics, religion, and institutions are all paid a visit for their role in the sectarianism of today.

The scene is a Glasgow jail, on match day. Not just any match day, but the clash of the Old Firm: Rangers and Celtic. Both Billy and Tim, however, have landed themselves in the cells. In such a confined space, there’s little more they can do than talk and take broad swipes at each other, unleashing the vitriol as it comes pouring out, and each eager to take the upper hand. While they are able to trot out all the cliches, the moronic arguments that have seen nothing but a stalemate lasting decades, their own ignorance and naivete in getting caught up in the cycle of bigotry reveals itself, from songs sung in the name of sport —

Billy: Hello — Hello — we are the Billy boys, Hello — Hello — you’ll know us by our noise, We’re up to our knees in Fenion blood…

— through outright insulting —

 Tim: into these (rhythm of the old Coke advert) Orange-Mason-hand-shakin-Ulster-lovin-finger-ticklin-Tim-hatin-goat-buckin-Proddy-fuckin-bastards.

As the invective becomes exhausted, it seems the only way forward is for reconciliation, and in an ideal world this is what would happen. Dillon’s play explores this ideal world, becoming one along the way, as the notions of how to solve the problems of sectarianism manifests itself within the two players. In truth it happens all too easily, but the characters do come to it via logical means.

Although the skin of the play wraps around bigotry in Scotland, the bones are far more generic, for sectarianism is an issue that affects far flung areas of the world, like the tit-for-tat between Israel and Palestine or the genocide of the Balkan conflict — all disputes that have no end in sight. Dillon’s play works on the basis that common ground needs to be found between the sparring parties and from there, mutual understanding can be fostered, goalposts set, and favourable results achieved. It’s a simplistic enough idea, and hardly revolutionary, but it works in the context of opening up dialogue on the subject.

Tim: Look — I think everybody’s a bigot. We’ve all got bigotry. Every single person’s got bigotry for somethin.

The closing stage, where a symbolic unification occurs is poignant, for gone are the bilious songs that characterised both men and their upbringing, and in comes one that represents Scotland as a whole, the bigotry driven out.

The merits of the play would be best experienced in a theatre rather than on the page, as, given the subject matter, it’s a narrative that could bring people to the theatre who would never think to otherwise. While it’s laudable that it could be used to dispell myths, quash rumours, and educate people on the sectarian divide, its downside is that the casual banter and reheated arguments, especially to those who have heard them all before, become more of a novelty than a criticism. Sectarianism is Scotland’s ‘elephant in the room’ and more literature should seek to attack it. Singin I’m No A Billy He’s A Tim opens up dialogue, and entertains in doing so.

July 22, 2009  8 Comments

Roberto Bolaño: By Night In Chile

It’s unfortunate that Roberto Bolaño isn’t around to see his star in the ascendency in the English speaking world, following on from the acclaim given to recent translations, The Savage Detectives and 2666. The English translations began in 2003, the year of his death, with Chris Andrews’ translation of By Night In Chile (2000). And the translations are set to continue with more books – novels, short stories, and essays – scheduled to appear in the next year. What makes the volume of work surprising is that Bolaño turned to fiction late in his life, before passing away at fifty.

By Night In Chile is the feverish confession of Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a Chilean priest, literary critic, and poet with a shady past. Believing himself to be dying, he sets out one night to recall the major events of his life, relentlessly delivering his story as a lengthy rant wrapped up in a single paragraph. A paragraph that runs for a 130 pages. A contender, perhaps, for the longest known ‘famous last words’.

Father Urrutia begins his confession:

One has to be responsible, as I have always said. One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences. I am responsible in every way. My silences are immaculate. Let me make that clear.

With all his talk of taking responsibility and mention of silences, we are immediately alerted that we are in conversation with an unreliable narrator and that we are going to have to tread carefully as he “rummage[s] through [his] memories to turn up the deeds that shall vindicate [him]”. Quite what those deeds are maintain interest as the narrative takes us on a dizzying journey from receiving God’s call at age thirteen through the political turmoil that affected Chile in the 1970s.

The moments recalled are extremely vivid. We spend some time with Farewell, “Chile’s greatest literary critic”, as Urrutia learns his craft and comes into contact with some figures of Chilean letters, such as Salvador Reyes and Pablo Neruda. There’s an extended piece where Opus Dei sends him to Europe to report back on the methods used to preserve dilapidated churches and finds pigeons are at the heart of the problem. The solution appears to be falconry, with many of the Old World priests adept in the art, an art which presages the impending Pinochet regime. Its delivery comes as a prose poem that, as befits Father Urrutia’s lyrical and feverish mind, lingers long and indecisive on details in a stream of consciousness, such as this example from a visit to Avignon:

Ta Gueule appeared again like a lightning bolt, or the abstract idea of a lightning bolt, and stooped on the huge flocks of starlings coming out of the west like swarms of flies, darkening the sky with their erratic fluttering, and after a few minutes the fluttering of the starlings was bloodied, scattered and bloodied, and afternoon on the outskirts of Avignon took on a deep red hue, like the colour of sunsets seen from an aeroplane, or the colour of dawns, when the passenger is woken gently by the engines whistling in his ears and lifts up the little blind and sees the horizon marked with a red line, like the planet’s femoral artery, or the planet’s aorta, gradually swelling, and I saw that swelling blood vessel in the sky over Avignon, the blood-stained flight of the starlings, Ta Gueule splashing colour like an abstract expressionist painter, ah, the peace, the harmony of nature, nowhere as evident or as unequivocal as in Avignon, and then Fr Fabrice whistled and we waited for an indefinable time, measured only by thebeating of our hearts, until our quivering warrior came to rest upon his arm.

Long sentences like this are par for the course in By Night In Chile, but are not the only means of expression. Bolaño changes the style throughout, throwing in patches of terse sentences to juxtapose the longer, recanting conversations (“And Farewell said:….And I:…”) without getting annoying, and hitting the reader with a salvo of Urrutia’s rhetorical questions. The book may be a single paragraph, but its patchwork of styles keep it engaging throughout.

Bolaño’s focus for the novel is the literary intelligentsia of Chile, as epitomised by Father Urrutia. When drafted to lecture the newly formed junta on Marxism, so that they may know their enemies better:

Was it all right? Did they learn anything? Did I teach them anything? Did I do what I had to do? Did I do what I ought to have done? Is Marxism a kind of humanism? Or a diabolical theory? If I told my literary friends what I had done, would they approve? Would some condemn my actions out of hand? Would some understand and forgive me? Is it always possible for a man to know what is good and what is bad? […] Then, before I knew it, I was asleep.

With misplaced concern – look how long his questions keep him awake! – Urrutia’s path to self-denial continues as he seeks to prove he has done nothing wrong, all the while haunted by his conscience which he fears because it tries to make him address the truth. His self-assuredness of innocence does create doubt and he constantly seeks assurance:

Farewell, I whispered. Did I do the right thing or not? And since there was no reply, I repeated the question: Did I do my duty, or did I go beyond it? And Farewell replied with another question: Was it a necessary or an unnecessary course of action? Necessary, necessary, necessary, I said.

The scorn for the literary class of Chile comes in their inactivity under Pinochet’s regime. All around them people were being tortured and killed and the writers did nothing. They never rebelled. What should have been happening by night in Chile didn’t happen.

We were bored. We read and we got bored. We intellectuals. Because you can’t read all day and all night. You can’t write all day and all night. Splendid isolation has never been our style, and back then, as now, Chilean artists and writers need to gather and talk, ideally in a pleasant setting where they could find intelligent company. Apart from the inescapable fact that many of the old crowd had left the country for reasons that were often more personal than political, the main difficulty was the curfew. Where could the artists and intellectuals meet if everywhere was shut after ten at night, for, as everyone knows, night is the most propitious time for getting together and enjoying a little unbuttoned conversation with one’s peers. Artists and writers. Strange times.

While By Night In Chile is a powerful rant by Urrutia about defending his complicity in what transpired amongst Chilean writers, Bolaño’s subtext is a condemnation of such actions. During one crucial incident the priest notes that “all horrors are dulled by routine”. That may well be true, but the engaging way Bolaño maintains the narrative ensures that the horrors of silence are in no way, as the priest begins his account, immaculate.

July 19, 2009  6 Comments

A.L. Kennedy: What Becomes

A.L. Kennedy is one of Scotland’s greatest contemporary writers who, over the last twenty years, has produced a body of work spanning novels, short stories, non-fiction, screenplays, and more. In recent years she’s been a regular feature in comedy clubs, something which polarised opinion at the start, and since 2007 her stock has risen with a string of prizes and awards, including the Best Book at the Costa Awards (for fifth novel, Day) and the Austrian State Prize for Literary Fiction, putting her amongst distinguished names like Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie, and Milan Kundera, not to mention two recent British Nobel laureates.

Other than a few short stories from her first collection, I’ve read little of Kennedy, owing to an increasing preference for world literature over what’s on my doorstep. Recently I’ve felt the need to survey home soil writers, and so it is that I read What Becomes (2009), a new short story collection, her fifth to date.

The collection is named for the opening story which opens with Frank taking his seat in a small, empty cinema and waiting for the movie to start. In the prolonged time it takes to gear up, he finds his mind wandering to recent events, to one night in particular that accelerated the fall of an already splintered marriage. As he prepares a soup, slices some squash, he accidentally cuts his finger and here Kennedy provides us with a fantastic piece of subtle foreshadowing, noting that “he hadn’t been paying attention and so he got what he deserved” and, later, when the denouement comes, the echo of “funny how he didn’t feel the pain until he saw the wound” assumes a satisfying symbolic power.

Frank’s a detective,  a catalyst in his failing marriage, for his mind deals with things differently than his wife (“she’d never known the rooms he’d seen…”) and communication between them is strained. While they share the grief underlying the story, each handles it in their own way. She fails to realise he’s hurting, while he retreats inside, forensically trying to overcome the insurmountable.

Invisible rooms – that’s what he made – he’d think and think until everything disappeared beyond what he needed: signs of intention, direction, position: the nakedness of wrong: who stood where, did what, how often, how fast, how hard, how ultimately completely without hope – what exactly became of them.

This sets the stage for what’s to come. The title recalls the old song that asks what becomes of the brokenhearted, and in the twelve stories that make up What Becomes, Kennedy sets out to examine scenes of hopelessness and heartbreak that are at times funny, other times uplifting, yet always underscored with melancholy.

In Edinburgh we meet Peter, a greengrocer, who finds his passions aroused when a younger woman starts hovering around his shop, more for him than his wares. And when he offers her some apples, saying, ‘They’re fine to eat, they’ll be fine for days. But everything’s going off in the end, isn’t it?’, Kennedy once again shows her flair for foreshadowing and picking the precise symbol that reinforces the effect of the overall story. Similarly, in Whole Family With Young Children Devasted, the title appears on a poster about a missing cat, but it readily applies to the wider issues of the story.

The telling of the stories is varied, Kennedy seemingly happy in first and third person modes, and getting into the heads of men and women. There’s also some mild experimentation, where Sympathy, about a woman having sex with a stranger in a hotel room, is told entirely through dialogue.

‘…if we keep talking, we’re going to end up –‘

‘Getting to know each other?’

‘That wouldn’t work.’

‘Fine.’

Aside from the symbolic power of the stories, where the success is achieved is in Kennedy’s characters. Her understanding of them is second to none. As she describes their actions and feelings, their thoughts seem to take life of their own, interjecting, pondering, and reflecting on the hopeless situations that circumstance has dealt them. In Sympathy, which follows the death of a children’s entertainer (“Barry with the fake face for parties, Barry who loved to flirt”) who, like a fair number in this collection, was no stranger to an unhappy marriage. The child between is someone for his wife to love, “a consolation for his inability to love her”, a flesh and bones creation made without thinking.

Although, Lynne had been thinking: otherwise, she wouldn’t have stared at her husband as he first picked up his daughter, hefted her tenderly, gracefully, feelingly — so the nurses could not help but remember the scene, believe it — and she had thought — Got you. She’d seen his eyes: the wide, unfamiliar chill that was settling in them and she had thought — Got you. Fuck you. Deal with that.

A highlight of the stories is the humour that runs through the. As God Made Us, in which a group of British soldiers who met in hospital (“Hospital — great place to meet folk, get new mates.”) have their annual meetup, shows this in its dialogue, following the lads will be lads mentality that until the collection’s theme catches up with it in an explosive outburst. Other stories show a subtler, truer humour, such as in Vanish, where Paul finds himself sitting next to an annoying person in a theatre and experiences something we can laugh it, because it’s the way we may think ourselves:

It was ridiculous and unfair to imagine a person like Simon could unknowingly drain each remaining pleasure from those around him and leave them bereft. ‘Do you know his work? Amazing guy. I’ve seen every show.’ Even so, as Simon cast his hands about, shifted and stretched, Paul found himself taking great care that they didn’t touch, didn’t even brush shoulders, just to be sure that no draining could take place.

Returning to the title story, Frank ponders at one point the buttons on a personal music player, saying,

‘They’ve anticipated you’ll want to repeat one track, over and over, so those three or four minutes can stay, you can keep that time steady in your head, roll it back, fold it back. They know you’ll want that. I want that.’

It rings true for the stories in What Becomes and is perhaps a foreshadowing of the collection itself, for each story is a multi-layered affair that sheds its many skins with each reading. In its singular focus on the melancholy side of human nature, the whole is unified and it becomes a rounded work. And in those epiphanous moments where the stories show their cards, the revelations, through their believability, prove memorable. Kennedy knows you’ll want that. That’s what she delivers.

July 3, 2009  9 Comments

Etgar Keret: Kneller’s Happy Campers

The Israeli writer, Etgar Keret, is probably best known for writing short stories, a few collections of which have seen translation. Typically the stories are very short, no more than a few pages, and his collection Missing Kissinger had no less than fifty tucked away within its pages. Kneller’s Happy Campers (1998) was the longest story in another collection, The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories, published in the US. Either it deserves to be published as a standalone book in the UK or its publisher is milking it in these recessionary times.

The novella follows the life – well, afterlife – of Mordy, who has recently committed suicide and found himself in a world not unlike the one he’s just left (“I’d always imagine these beeping sounds, like a fuzz-buster, and people floating around in space and stuff. But now that I’m here, I don’t know, mostly it reminds me of Tel Aviv.”)

The big difference here is that the population is entirely made up of suicides, each person showing the traits of how they offed themselves. Mordy’s new friend, Uzi Gelfand, shows the scars on his head where the bullet went in and out, and the girls at the local bars (“you could tell straight off how they did it, with the scars on their wrists and everything, but there were some that looked really good.” Those without scars, “who did it with pills or poison”, are called Juliets. There’s even room for celebrity suicides, where Keret throws in a cameo for some humour:

Last night was awful. Uzi brought this friend of his, Kurt. Thinks the guy’s really cool ’cause he was the leader of some famous band and everything. But the truth is he’s a big-time prick. I mean, I’m not exactly sold on the place either, but this guy, he wouldn’t stop bitching. And once he gets going – forget it. He’ll dig into you like a bloody bat. Anything that comes up always reminds him of some song he wrote, and he’s got to recite it for you so you can tell him how cool the lyrics are. Sometimes he’ll even ask the bartender to play one of his tracks and you just wanna dig yourself a hole in the ground. It isn’t just me. Everybody hates him, except Uzi. I think there’s this thing that after you off yourself, with the way it hurts and everything -and it hurts like hell – the last thing you give a shit about is somebody with nothing on his mind except singing about how unhappy he is.

On arriving in this afterlife, Mordy has found himself working a deadbeat job in a pizza chain called Kamikaze. When not slaving away he’s doing whistlestop tours of the bars, getting drunk. So, when he hears that Desiree, his girlfriend from before he killed himself, has also taken her life he sets off in the car, with Uzi, to find her. Such is love.

Like much of the novella, the journey taken is just as strange and funny as the premise. However, below the surface there are serious stirrings, Keret’s afterlife holding a mirror up to the world we live in and highlighting its flaws. At one point during their road trip racism is briefly touched upon as Gelfand overlooks his own circumstances to pass sweeping comments upon a group of people:

The people outside looked a lot like the ones in our neighbourhood – their eyes kinda dim, and dragging their feet. The only difference was that Gelfand didn’t know them – which was enough to make him paranoid.

‘I’m not being paranoid. Don’t you get it? They’re all Arabs.’

‘So what if they’re Arabs?’ I asked.

‘So what? I dunno. Arabs – suicides – doesn’t that psych you out, even a little?’

Along the way they pick up a Juliet, who maintains there’s been a clerical error because she didn’t off herself, and by the time they meet the eponymous Kneller the story, if not strange enough, takes a turn for the surreal, introducing almost whimsical ideas that, given the circumstances, never really feel out of place. Kneller, presiding over a commune, talks of the ‘miracles’ that happen in the vicinity, of which we see a number happening, but after that the breakneck speed events take seems as if it’s rushing to the end so as to mask that there’s not much storyline to be had and the charming conceit that opens the novel shadows the latter half. In all fairness, the conclusion is satisfying, but the road there is unscenic.

While its bizarre humour had me wondering where Keret would lead off to next, and its informal, sometimes colloquial style, was for the most part engaging, the same couldn’t be said for its characters: they were sorely lacking a dimension. All singular minded and sketchy. As his short stories typically only take a few pages each, one wonders if he’s not more interested in the surreal twists of imagination he is capable of than giving his playthings substance. So, while I’m not a fully fledged happy camper, I was satisfied enough with the ride, although, like all the characters, I was happy to check out.

June 30, 2009  6 Comments

Alejandro Zambra: Bonsai

I‘ve mentioned before how lovely Melville House’s Contemporary Art of the Novella series is and have been meaning for some time to read another. Bonsai (2006) by Alejandro Zambra felt like the timely choice, having recently been the focus of an article in The Nation (via The Literary Saloon) and to even the score for Chilean writers, what with Roberto Bolaño getting all the attention. According to The Nation article, “its effect on the world of Chilean literature has been entirely disproportionate to its size.”

It’s a short book, weighing in at eighty-three pages, many blank as they split chapters, allowing the content room to breathe. But within there’s a complete story, a larger story, in fact, bursting to get out. In this it could be said that it resembles the titular bonsai, all the attributes of a larger work condensed into a miniature.

As openings go, Zambra makes a bold pitch, giving away the ending and letting the reader know from the off that the journey about to be taken is a metafictional one:

In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was alone some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:

Emilia and Julio are are university students that meet at a study group in preparation for their Spanish Syntax II exam and, despite initially disliking each other, their relationship quickly develops, Zambra detailing its journey, with occasional reference to previous lovers, in a beguiling mix of thick brush strokes and finely judged details.

As the opening declares, “the rest is literature:” and it’s literature that binds the couple and gives purpose to their relationship, a strange foreplay emerging whereby they working their way through Schwob and Mishima, Perec, Onetti, and Carver, amongst others, until they read Tantalia by Macedonio Fernández, a story about a couple who buy a small plant as a symbol of their love that ends in despair.

“That should have been the last time Emilia and Julio shagged,” the narrator says, but the couple continue on, having sex after reading pages of the classics (“They did terribly with Checkhov, a little better, curiously, with Kafka, but, as they say, the damage was done.”). Eventually, a shared lie between them – that they have read Proust – brings their relationship to a head:

It happened with Proust. They had postponed reading Proust, due to the unmentionable secret that linked them, separately to the reading – or to the lack of reading – of In Search Of Lost Time. They both had to pretend that their mutual read was, strictly speaking, a reread they had yearned for, so that when they arrived at one of the numerous passages that seemed particularly memorable they changed their tone of voice or gazed at each other to elicit emotion., simulating the greatest intimacy. Also, Julio, on one occasion, allowed himself to declare that he only now truly felt that he was reading Proust, and Emilia answered with a subtle and disconsolate squeeze of the hand.

In reading Proust for the first time, neither is prepared for the impact it has so their relationship breaks off, with Emilia heading to Spain – and dying! – and Julio getting on with his life. Julio’s path leads to an attempt to work for a famous writer, transcribing his latest novel and, on failing to do so, continues to transcribe the novel he imagines, based on a brief synopsis, that he would have been transcribing. In keeping with the metafictional style, he calls it Bonsai, and it bears a knowing similarity to the book we’re reading.

There’s so much more to this slight volume that comes to represent the bonsai. The authorial interjections force us to stick to the story of Emilia and Julio, with repeated messages to ignore characters for being “secondary” or observing a woman as she moves away “and begins to disappear forever from this story”, each potential thread of narrative routinely clipped so that all we have is this love story contained within the container its pages – Julio learns that “Once outside its flowerpot, the tree ceases to be a bonsai.”- that does represent the wider picture.

Caring for a bonsai is like writing, thinks Julio. Writing is like caring for a bonsai, thinks Julio.

Bonsai‘s story is, to borrow a line from the book,”a common story whose only peculiarity is that nobody knows how to tell it well” and Zambra’s attempt to capture this common story is wholly successful. With prose aware of its shortcomings, that takes steps to address them – pruning its loose ends and carefully shaping its narrative – it takes that common story and reduces it to its finer points, makes of itself an artform, and contains it within a flowerpot of pages. The rest may be literature, but the whole is art.

June 25, 2009  4 Comments

Raymond Queneau: The Flight Of Icarus

Last year I enjoyed Raymond Queneau’s Exercises In Style, arguably his most famous book, although as narrative goes it was rather slight, being the same story told ninety-nine times in all manner of styles. The title, really, is a bit of a giveaway. As such it’s been in my mind to read some more Queneau, to experience him in control of a more substantial narrative, to see how his playful style is maintained over a longer story.

So then, to The Flight Of Icarus (1968), recently reissued by OneWorld Classics and, like most of Queneau’s work, translated by Barbara Wright, who sadly passed away earlier in the year. Prefacing the novel is a note by Wright discussing the task of translating Queneau – the perceived difficulties in a novel full of wordplay and obscure references, the joy of finding solutions, and how she finds herself to be on his wavelength. It’s just as well, for The Flight Of Icarus is a novel that needs someone on the same wavelength to do it justice.

Set in Paris during the mid-1890s and told in the form of a script, the general story involves a writer – Hubert Lubert – who has lost one of the characters – the eponymous Icarus – from his work in progress in a most unusual way:

HUBERT: […] Since I am a novelist, then, I write novels. And since I write novels, I deal with characters. And now one of them has vanished. Literally. A novel I had just begun, about ten pages, fifteen at the most, and in which I had placed the highest hopes, and now the principal character, whom I had barely begun to outline, disappears. As I obviously cannot continue without him, I have come to ask you to find him for me.

MORCOL: (dreamily) How extremely Pirandellian.

Morcol is a private detective hired to track down the escaped character and where the translator, in her notes, cites Queneau as “the master of the intentionally awful pun”, here she proves herself up to the task of rendering an awful pun in English, one that leads to crossed wires and humorous circumstances:

HUBERT: [..] Here – take these ten louis, and see that you find him. soon. I won’t be able to write a word until the mystery’s solved and Icarus comes back.

MORCOL: I acknowledge receipt of the ten louis; I’ll make a note of his name.

He writes “Dicky Ruscombe” in his notebook while Lubert hands him his card.

With Icarus “some ten or fifteen pages old” his life experience isn’t much, and the novel sees him grow as a character as he learns – about love, cars, and absinthe – while continuing to elude Morcol and his search for the elusive Dicky Ruscombe. This growth of character is playfully done, as Icarus rebels against the intentions of Hubert, he develops under the pen of Queneau, eventually fulfilling the intentions of both.

With the parodies going on in The Flight Of Icarus, it seems almost shameful not to have more than a passing knowledge of Pirandello’s work and the occasional nouveau roman so as to appreciate the full joke, but a passing knowledge, I feel, is enough to begin with and I have little doubt that returing to the novel after reading Six Characters In Search Of An Author or some Robbe-Grillet would throw up new laughs and foster a greater understanding of where Queneau is coming from.

The Flight Of Icarus is a hotpot of knowing anachronisms, crude punnery, and all out ridiculousness that, thanks to its script form, races along poking fun at literary styles on the way. If he’s not making jibes at traditional novels with “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” then he’s looking to the future:

What a fate – that of a novelist without characters! Perhaps that is how it will be for all of us, one day. We won’t have any more characters. We will become authors in search of characters. The novel will perhaps not be dead, but it won’t have characters in it any more. Difficult to imagine, a novel without characters. But isn’t all progress, if progress exists, difficult to imagine?  […] Where will it come too rest? In literature the symbolists have already done away with the arithmetic of metre and the rigour of rhyme, they’ll be abolishing punctuation next.

While Hubert Lubert may have lost control of his characters, Queneau shows himself in control of his, something that leads to a satisfying conclusion for both writers.

June 16, 2009  8 Comments

Eric Ambler: Uncommon Danger

After a lengthy hiatus from reading, I thought it best to reaquaint myself to books with something pacy that would have the pages turning themselves with gleeful abandon. A thriller, then. The only issue I have with many of the thrillers I’ve sampled over the years is that the writer is never any good. Yes, they sell loads, but their style hovers at such a surface level what counts for characterisation appears to be the colour of a person’s hair and how many pounds they weigh.

Marking his centenery, the recent reissue of Eric Ambler’s early spy novels has come at just the right time and solved my predicament. What’s more, I don’t know how long they’ve been out of print, but they have returned with what I consider one of the highest forms of recommendation: being a Penguin Modern Classic. Graham Greene considered Ambler “our best thriller writer” and Alfred Hitchcock was also a fan. All this in mind, I turned to Uncommon Danger (1937), Ambler’s second novel – also his first serious thriller.

At the heart of the novel is the misadventures of Kenton, a British journalist working overseas, who has recently had the misfortune of losing money playing poker-dice and landed himself in debt. When he’s introduced he is boarding a train from Germany to Austria so as to visit an old Jewish friend, who he once helped leave Munich a few years before, in the hope of borrowing money to pay off said debt. However, while travelling, another passenger offers him the chance to earn some cash by taking some securities across the border:

At that moment Kenton ceased for a time to be an impartial recorder of events and became a participator. Three hundred marks! A hundred owing to the Havas man left two hundred. Two hundred! Enough to get back to Berlin with plenty to spare. Brown-Eyes might be anything but what he claimed, and he, Kenton, might be heading straight for a German prison, but it was worth the risk – for three hundred marks.

It goes without saying that the high fee and the dodgy request invites trouble, and where Uncommon Danger picks up points is in its use of a character like Kenton. With a spy novel the expectation is there that the main character will be an agent of one side going up against the forces of the enemy – and Ian Fleming‘s lifeless Bond novels spring to mind here – but this it-could-happen-to-anyone approach to international espionage works well to bring us into a murky underworld where, away from the security of governments and friendly agents, the predicament becomes truly a frightening prospect, for anyone can stumble into it.

The situation that Kenton stumbles into is a plot to install a Fascist government in Romania, an intention outlined in an opening prologue that shows a board meeting of the Pan-Eurasian Petroleum Company in London as they conspire to gain access to the country’s oilfields. Of course, men in boardrooms tend not to involve themselves explicitly, as is explained later in the novel:

‘You see, your business man desires the end, but dislikes the means. He likes an easy conscience. He likes to sit in his office and deal honestly with other business men. That is why Saridza is necessary. For at some point or other in the amazingly complicated business structure of the world, there is always dirty work to be done.

It would be unfair to label Saridza as the villain of the piece, as the world Ambler writes about is never so black and white. He is, however, the agent of his conspiring paymasters and is seen throughout Uncommon Danger doing their dirty work. One such task is retrieving the aforementioned securities from Kenton, something which, given that he’s not a part of the over arching plot, should easy enough. In situations like this, however, Ambler shows he can add some dimension to his characters in that they dictate the novel’s plot rather than blindly adhere to any preconceived storyline:

Kenton hesitated. His first impulse was to give the man the information he wanted and get out of the place. He glanced at the two men. […] In their eyes, watching him intently, there was a hint of amused expectation. Then, rather to his surprise, he became conscious of a new and unfamiliar sensation. For the first time in his adult life someone was trying to coerce him with threats into making a decision, and his mind was reacting with cold, angry, obstinate refusal.

Kenton’s hot-headedness leads him back and forth through a landscape of thrills, continuously moving across borders and between the arms of Saridza and a cell of Russian agents keen on preventing the Fascist plot. The only time the pace lets up is when Ambler opts to let his characters talk, at length, about the geo-political landscape –

‘Until nineteen thirty-six,’ he said, ‘Roumania could be summed up politically in one word – Titulescu. Titulesco’s foreign policy was based on friendship with Soviet Russia. The Little Entente was the first link in the chain round Germany. The last link was the Franco-Soviet pact.  But there is reaction in the air of Roumania as there is in every other European country. With Fascism in Italy, National-Socialism in Germany, the Croix de Feu in France, Rexism in Belgium, and Nationalism in Spain, it was hardly likely that Roumania would escape the contagion.’

– a technique that would typically be unforgivable just for the sheer clunky way of forcing exposition into the story, but which helps here, perhaps because it talks of an interwar period with a Europe long since altered and inconceivable today.

In writing Uncommon Danger, Ambler has certainly challenged my concerns over spy novels. His characters are full-blooded enough to be believed, without ever being larger-than-life, and his casting of big business at the heart of the novel takes the focus away from espionage between nation states with agents defecting all over the shop. The prose may not be anything to sing the praises of, it’s all about the pace here, but it feels real, and this being only Ambler’s first serious thriller, he hits the ground running. Fitting, really, for an entertaining little thriller.

May 31, 2009  11 Comments

Reif Larsen: The Selected Works Of T.S. Spivet

Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works Of T.S. Spivet (2009) caused a bit of storm last year when the American rights were snapped up for almost a million dollars. Its interesting presentation and quirky delivery were no doubt a contributing factor, and it will see release in many more countries. One of those is of course the United Kingdom, where it has recently been published by Harvill-Secker, an imprint best suited to putting it on store shelves, producing as they do a fine line in hardbacks. (See here.)

What makes this particular novel special is that the novel is illustrated throughout with a variety of sketches and diagrams – some colour, some black and white – all drawn by the author, although credited to the eponymous T.S. Spivet. Presentation-wise, it’s a work of art, although it’s unconventional breadth may see it struggle to slot in easily to some book cases.

The novel focuses on Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, a “12 year-old genius mapmaker”, as the blurb tells us, who lives with his family on a ranch in Montana. In what seems to be a family tradition of sorts, a woman of science has married a man of the land, and TS falls down squarely on his mother’s side as far as his intellectual development goes.  The maps he makes show all manner of observations, from how his sister, Gracie, shucks corn to the distribution of McDonalds in North Dakota.

…since Neolithic times we had been marking down representations on cave walls, in the dirt, on parchments, trees, lunch plates, napkins, even on our own skin so that we could remember where we have been, where we want to be going, where we should be going. There was a deep impulse ingrained in us to take these directions, coordinates, declarations out of the mush of our heads and actualize them in the real world. Since making my first maps of shaking hands with God, I had learned that the representation was not the real thing, but in a way this dissonance was what made it so good: the distance between the map and the territory allowed us breathing room to figure out where we stood.

Life on the farm is quite slow, so it’s with much relief that the narrative receives immediate propulsion from a phonecall informing TS that he has won a prestigious Baird Fellowship from the Smithsonian. His age unbeknownst to the institution, TS takes the decision to run away to Washington to deliver a speech and it’s this journey, of one young boy heading out into the world, that forms the backbone of The Selected Works Of TS Spivet.

In the mix of a journey and of a gifted child I was reminded of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, a children’s book about an autistic boy who takes a journey of his own to London. Not so much for the principal similarities, but by what’s learnt about the mothers of each child. TS, on making his way to Washington, steals one of his mother’s notebooks and learns more about her, and his family, than he previously knew, his trip becoming a journey of discovery in more ways than one.

When it comes to children as narrators I admit to having a bit of a bugbear about them being precocious, moreso in the hands of new writers. I think this stems from my viewing it as daft way to impart the character with a unique trait. After all, some of the better child narrators I’ve read – Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye or Paddy Clarke – have little to recommend them, yet their delivery, innocence, and frailty makes them memorable. Where those characters had believable voices, it’s hard to accept that any twelve year old, genius or not, would come up with phrasings like this:

I was no advertising expert, but in observing my own behavior in the vicinity of McDonalds, I had mapped out a working theory about how the place penetrates my permeable barrier of aesthetic longing, in a trio of multi-sensory persuasion:

Or this:

Did the true, umbilical love that binds people together for the rest of their lives require a certain intellectual dislocution in order to push past our insistent rationalization and enter the rough, uneven space inside our hearts?

Where TS Spivet’s delivery does work, however, is in the sidebars that accompany the text. While infuriated by the volume of footnotes in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, the lines leading off from the end of paragraphs to small paragraphs or diagrams at the side of the page is effective. Typically they fill in some more detail without upsetting the narrative, but the best ones are the occasional visual gags that do highlight the world of an inquisitive mind.

At one point in the novel TS highlights five types of boredom experienced by his sister. In reading this book I may have a case for a sixth because, for all its visual flair, the novel never truly captured my imagination. Not once could I say I was there, part of Spivet’s adventure, and not once could I say I believed in him as a character, no matter his eccentricities.

The last quarter of the book does pick up the pace and the heightened vocabulary noticably takes a backseat, but it all leads to a rather jarring sentimental affair at odds with the rest of the story. Even with all the maps in this book, it would seem there’s still the capacity to get lost. I’d like to say it may be a case of Larsen going back to the drawing board, but, then, there’s nothing wrong with his drawings.

May 26, 2009  19 Comments

Eduardo Mendoza: No Word From Gurb

If aliens were to read Eduardo Mendoza’s No Word From Gurb (1990) they may well determine that it suffers from ‘structural simplicity’. While this is true, it makes it no different from most other things on Earth they are likely to discover, like family apartments and Ford Fiestas.

The novel, initially published in installments in the popular Spanish newspaper, El País, is told in the style of a diary and parodies the city of Barcelona in the build up to the 1992 Olympics. Each day sees a number of entries, usually little more than paragraph with a time of the day attached, as one of the two aliens in the novel writes down his observations about human life while searching for his companion, the eponymous Gurb.

Gurb, having been given the task of making contact with humans, has vanished. It’s probably something to do with how he looks:

Given that we are travelling in non-corporeal form (pure intelligence-analytical factor 4800) decide he should take on bodily appearance similar to that of local inhabitants. Reason: so as not to attract the attention of the autochthonous fauna (real and potential). Consult the Astral Earth Catalogue of Assimilable Forms (AECAF) and choose to give Gurb the appearance of human being known as Madonna.

While not attracting attention is the name of the game for these aliens, the narrator can’t help but attract it as he settles into the task of finding Gurb. He regularly takes human form to blend in although the forms he chooses (Gary Cooper, the Duke of Olivares, and His Holiness Pope Pius XII, amongst others) are never as inconspicuous as he thinks.

His ignorance of human customs also draws strange looks, like when a woman, mistaking him for a down-and-out, gives him some spare change and he, out of politeness, swallows it. Or, when ordering in a restaurant: “The gentleman asks what I will have to drink. Not wishing to attract attention, I order the most common human liquid: urine.”

There’s a great deal of humour to be had with the idea of aliens trying to understand human culture and Mendoza plays it for laughs throughout, like when the narrator reads a mystery novel by a famous English lady:

The plot of her novel is very simple. An individual who, to simplify, we will call A, is found dead in the library. Another individual, B, tries to discover who killed A and why. Following a series of illogical undertakings (all that was needed was the formula 3(x2-r)n-+0 and the case would have been solved from the start), B states (wrongly) that the murderer is C. Everyone seems happy with this conclusion, including C. No idea what a butler is.

Repetition is another key to Mendoza’s humour, showcased a number of times when the narrator performs the same activity over and over, with small variations, like when he decides to scour the city looking for Gurb:

15.00 Decide to make a systematic search of the city instead of remaining in one spot. […] Set off following the ideal heliographic plan I built into my internal circuits on leaving the ship. Fall into a trench dug by the Catalan Gas Company.

15.02 Fall into a trench dug by the Catalan Hydroelectric Company.

15.03 Fall into a trench dug by the Barcelona Water Company.

15.04 Fall into a trench dug by the Calle Corcega Neighbourhood Association.

15.06 Decide to abandon the ideal heliographic plan and to walk watching where I put my feet.

While it may seem parochial, poking fun at the state of Barcelona as it (lazily) worked toward the Olympics, there’s an element of truth that can transcend any city, be it criticisms of traffic control, social problems like drugs, the constant cycle of repairs that seem to keep museums closed, or the anti-social mores of councils:

Woken by a thunderous crash. Millions (or more) years ago, the Earth was created out of a series of terrible cataclysms: the roaring oceans covered the coastline and buried whole islands, whilst gigantic mountain ranges collapsed and erupting volcanoes threw up new ones; eaethquakes shifted entire continents. To commemorate these events, every night City Hall sends machines, called refuse trucks, to reproduce that planetary chaos under its inhabitants’ windows.

The steady stream of misunderstandings as the alien goes about finding Gurb, making connections with humans, and even considering romance is nicely balanced against the impressions of humanity from an external point of view as he discovers concepts that don’t exist on his own world, such as class:

Amongst other categories, human beings are apparently divided into rich and poor. This is a division to which they attach huge importance, without knowing why. The fundamental difference between rich and poor seems to be this: the rich, wherever they go, do not pay, even though they acquire and consume as much as they like. The poor, on the other hand, pay through the nose.

Although the daily narrative takes us on a whistlestop tour of Barcelona, the biggest problem Mendoza has is coming to the end of the line. It’s inevitable that Gurb is found, although the way that comes to pass is a tad clumsy and fortuitous. Perhaps the formula 3(x2-r)n-+0 doesn’t work for some books, but the fun to be had with No Word From Gurb is not so much in its conclusion as it is its journey.

March 8, 2009  8 Comments

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2009

The longlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2009 has been announced.

The sixteen titles are:

  • My Father’s Wives, José Eduardo Agualusa, translated by Daniel Hahn from the Portuguese (Arcadia Books)
  • The Director, Alexander Ahndoril, translated by Sarah Death from the Swedish (Portobello Books)
  • Voice Over, Céline Curiol, translated by Sam Richard from the French (Faber)
  • The White King, György Dragomán, translated by Paul Olchvary from the Hungarian (Doubleday)
  • Night Work, Thomas Glavinic translated by John Brownjohn from the German (Canongate)
  • Beijing Coma, Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew from the Chinese (Chatto & Windus)
  • The Siege, Ismail Kadare, translated by David Bellos from the French of Jusuf Vrioni (Canongate)
  • Homesick, Eshkol Nevo, translated by Sondra Silverston from the Hebrew (Chatto & Windus)
  • The Diving Pool, Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder from the Japanese (Harvill Secker)
  • The Armies, Evelio Rosero, translated by Anne McLean from the Spanish (Maclehose Press)
  • The Blue Fox, Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb from the Icelandic (Telegram)
  • Novel 11, Book 18, Dag Solstad, translated by Sverre Lyngstad from the Norwegian (Harvill Secker)
  • How The Soldier Repairs The Gramophone, Saša Stanišić, translated by Anthea Bell from the German, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
  • A Blessed Child, Linn Ullmann, translated by Sarah Death from the Norwegian (Picador)
  • The Informers, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean from the Spanish (Bloomsbury)
  • Friendly Fire, A.B. Yehoshua, translated by Stuart Schoffman from the Hebrew (Halban)

The judges for this year’s prize are:

The shortlist will be announced at the end of March.

Personally, I quite like this longlist. There’s a number of books tucked in there that I’ve been wanting to read for a while, notably Sjón’s The Blue Fox and Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Informers. There are others that I’ve had on my shelves for a while – Céline Curiol’s Voice Over, which I’ve started twice to find myself never in the mood for, and György Dragomán’s The White King, a book I’ve twice heard him read from, but never got round to actually starting myself. (Dragomán, incidentally, is responsible for translating Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting into Hungarian.)

There are two that I’ve read – Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool and Evelio Rosero’s The Armies (linked to above). The first I enjoyed to a degree, notable mention going to the title novella, but I wasn’t too impressed by the latter.  Another, How The Soldier Repairs The Gramophone, by an author I’ve also twice heard readings from (both times fun and interesting), failed to interest me enough to read on to the end, although I wouldn’t rule out a second chance.

The best thing about such a list is that new writers are introduced. I’ve been aware of Alexander Ahndoril,  Linn Ullmann, and Thomas Glavinic but have never been compelled to rush into their work.  Eshkol Nevo, with Homesick, is a new name to me, and one I look forward to investigating.

I would make mention of the books that I thought may make the list but didn’t, but then most of the ones that I had in mind I hadn’t read anyway. I must confess a certain surprise at not seeing Muriel Barberry’s The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, translated by Alison Anderson from the French (Gallic Books) and to the absence of any Dalkey Archive titles, given that their Omega Minor by Paul Verhaeghen scooped the prize last year.

As usual, though, it’s beg-borrow-steal time, in order to sample the lot.

February 25, 2009  19 Comments

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