Friday, 30 April 2010

Review Post 19 - Sex and Drugs and Local Elections

If Anthony Trollope had been born a century or so later, of Indian descent, on the island of Trinidad, he may well have written something like The Suffrage of Elvira. Instead, he sketched out his middle-class dramas among the backdrop of 19th-Century Westminster, and it was left to Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul to inform us of the intricacies of Caribbean politics. This book, his second novel, is full of the same humour and social observation as A House for Mr. Biswas but is a shorter, more focused story - and it's a very good read.

The story revolves around a local election in the district of Elvira, and we follow businessman Surujpat Harbans as he discovers the hard way the cost of running for parliament. In order to ensure his victory, he needs the support of a majority of the eight thousand registered voters - four thousand Hindis, two thousand Negroes, one thousand Muslims and one thousand Spaniards. Of course, in a fledgling democracy such as his Caribbean island state, Harbans' strategy is not to campaign door-to-door with convincing policies and arguments but rather to gain the support of ethnic leaders who will deliver the votes for him. One would think then that having sealed deals with Baksh, the leader of the Muslims, and Chittaranjan, the leader of the Hindi community, Harbans would have the election in the bag. Alas, things do not run as smoothly as that in Trinidad...

The bewildered candidate soon finds out that promises are not always kept, allegiances can be changed fairly quickly and that the voters expect compensation for their promise of support. Despite his reluctance to part with his hard-earned money, his election committee (led by Baksh's son Foam, a young man born to work in politics) set out to ensure victory by buying off as many wavering voters as possible. Along the way they must lure voters away from Harbans' rival, Preacher, and contend with his associates, Lorkhoor (a mouthy young man with a van and a megaphone) and the redoubtable Mr. Cawfee. And then there is the dog. And the two missionaries. And black magic. Politics can be so complicated.

It's a chaotic, rambling tale, as much about ethnic rivalry (as opposed to ethnic tension) and corruption as it is about the noble art of politics, and Harbans' descent into a gibbering doler-out of free money is a joy to behold. The description of the actual election is very reminiscent of that in Framley Parsonage, with the roles of the patrons in the background played by the Duke of Omnum and Mrs. Dunstable in Trollope's book and Baksh and Chittaranjan in Naipaul's. The idea of exorbitant spending, despite supposedly strict rules against bribery, is also a common theme (something Trollope was especially big on, being a defeated candidate himself in real life). In Trinidad though, people take this more in their stride; as Baksh remarks, people expect a little something in return for their support, and they're not scared to ask for it.

After 220 wonderful pages, the election race has been run and won, and we get to see what happened to all our friends. The winning candidate makes one last appearance in Elvira and then vanishes, never to be seen again (or, at least, not for another five years). It's a telling reminder that some things never change in politics; the focus on personality is still true today - as is the total absence of any kind of policy throughout the book. However, after all the fun and games, Naipaul is still intelligent enough to raise the reader above the amusement, and in the very last sentence, he causes us to reflect on another side of the story, to think about what might have been and what will be. Just as in politics, there are (at least) two sides to every story...


If Anthony Trollope had been born even later, of Greek descent, in the city of Melbourne, he most definitely would not have written Loaded. He probably wouldn't have read it either. In fact, he may have even decided to burn it. Christos Tsiolkas' first novel, like his later work Dead Europe, is full of illicit drugs and casual sex and is as far from the quaint tales of Barchester as it is possible to get. Loaded reminds me of some of the darker pieces I've seen by Dan Holloway and his Year Zero colleagues; raw, vibrant and slightly disturbing. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy it.

Loaded is a 24-hour tour of Melbourne's inner suburbs in the company of Ari, a nineteen-year-old Greek-Australian. From the moment Ari wakes up in his brother's house on Saturday morning to the time he crashes into his own bed the following day, our hero snorts, injects, dances, flirts and screws like there's no tomorrow. In between the 'action' scenes of sex and drugs, the reader gets occasional glimpses into Ari's mind, receiving a run-down on life in his home city, Melbourne according to Ari: the brain dead middle-class residents of the East, the ethnic ghettos of the North, the Bohemian mix of students and drop-outs of the South and the refuse and scum floating out into the West. Ari hates them all.

Of course, what Ari hates most of all is his life or, at least, the life people want him to lead. He doesn't want to be Greek, gay, unemployed or macho; he just wants to escape to a place where labels don't matter, and he can be himself, whatever that is. Not seeing a place for himself in a hypocritical ethnic marriage, university or work, he seeks to block out the world around him with narcotics and transitory sexual acts with men (and occasionally women) he comes across on his travels around the night-time suburbs. But can he do this for ever?

Loaded is, in essence, a story of identity, a rejection of it, a search for it. Ari is Greek, but he's not; he despises the traditions of a culture imitating the mores of the old country, but he secretly feels a superiority over, and a loathing of, the 'Skips' (the white, as opposed to Mediterranean, Australians). He feels the need for a masculine man, but sex renders his partners feminine and conquered, thus eliminating any desire or possibility of romantic feelings. His upbringing has repelled him, and he wants to break away but doesn't have the energy, or the guts to do it, despite the urgings of his friends. He's stuck in a very bad place.

In portraying Ari's life, Tsiolkas is also painting a picture of modern Melbourne, though it is far from pretty. In contrast to the usual harmonious story of a vibrant, integrated, multicultural city, the view in Loaded is one of a holding pen for the poor and downtrodden of the world, longing to return to their homelands, rotting in ethnic suburbs, pretending they are keeping up their old traditions. The writer doesn't really have a lot of nice things to say about my adopted home town (which is a lovely place to live - trust me) and sees the experiment as a failure, with people walling themselves off in big suburban McMansions as soon as they get enough money. I'm not saying he's completely wrong, but he's definitely Mr. Glass-Half-Empty.

This book is not as compelling as Dead Europe (which, by exposing more of the protagonist's weaknesses, made the story more intriguing and convincing), but it is a highly thought-provoking story of life on the other side of the garden fence. What stays with me after reading this book is the sense of a parallel Melbourne and a life I have never (but could have) lived. There are thousands of Aris all over the city, high on speed and hassling people on trains, slumped in a friend's bedroom in a marijuana haze, or stretched out in their own vomit in a tenement, arms covered in scars and scabs. The life I lead is one which Ari despises; I'm more than happy to be in my shoes rather than his.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Review Post 18 - Bits and Bobs

I'm rather busy at the moment (things to do, people to see, you know how it is), so after finishing Cloud Atlas, I decided to take it easy and not plunge straight into another long book which might take me a long time to finish.

Instead, naturally, I went through three short ones in five days. I really should learn not to kid myself that I'm not going to read... Anyway, the books in this post, unlike those in some of my recent reviews, have very little in common, other than the fact that they live in my study, and I've been vaguely meaning to read them for a while. Enjoy ;)


As you may have noticed, my preference is for long, involved novels, so short stories are not really my thing (I find them a little frustrating at times, to tell the truth). However, there is something more frustrating than a short story, and that's an unfinished short story - and that's where we'll start today. You may have read my first and second reviews of Katherine Mansfield's Collected Stories, and this week I finally managed to polish off the last parts of the monster, consisting of her last (posthumously) published collection, The Doves Nest and Other Stories, plus a bunch of fragments which remained incomplete at the time of her death.

Again, there were some lovely pieces; I particularly liked The Doll's House, a moving story involving Kezia and her family (the stars of a couple of earlier stories), and A Cup of Tea, an interesting tale of a random act of kindness between social classes. However, once through the few complete stories and into the fragments, I just lost it. I simply couldn't engage with four pages of build up towards a denouement which had never been written and never will. I'm sure academics specialising in Mansfield find these morsels fascinating; I was just glad to get them out of the way.

I know. It's my own fault. Short stories aren't meant to be devoured by the plateful, and I have behaved like a little boy at a wedding, stealing a plateful of fairy cakes and stuffing them all into my mouth as quickly as possible (before regurgitating them outside the toilets). There were some amazing stories in the collection, but there were also several weaker efforts, and the problem with reading them in such a large bundle is that they blur into one big mess after a while. I promise that the collection will be revisited at some point: one. book. at. a. time.


When I was a teenager, Neverwhere, a short series written by Neil Gaiman, was shown on the BBC, but it was one of those things I never got around to watching. Even though I read Good Omens, Gaiman's collaboration with Terry Pratchett, I had somehow neglected to read any of his books until now (which is strange because: a) I've read plenty of Pratchett books in my time and b) I loved the concept behind Neverwhere). Finally, this week, I got around to reading the book behind the show, and pretty damn entertaining it was too.

The story follows Richard Mayhew, a young Scottish office worker living in London who, after a random act of kindness towards a woman he finds bleeding in the street, finds his world turned upside down. Ignored by the people around him, he finds his way into a world beneath the city he knows, a parallel, twisted version of the metropolis above. Welcome to London Below...

Richard finds himself involved in a quest to help Door (the woman whose aid he came to) find out who killed her family and is initially all at sea in a dark world of fantastic and sinister characters. Accompanied by the enigmatic Marquis de Carabas and the sultry bodyguard Hunter, Richard and Door traipse the byways of London Below, seeking help from some of its denizens and avoiding others. Mind the Gap indeed...

It's a marvellous read, reminiscent (naturally) of Pratchett but slightly more measured and less frantic (I often feel that a Discworld novel rushes you through it as if it has somewhere else to be, and you're holding it up). It does have the feel of an adaptation - a lot of 'scenes' and not as much characterisation or description as one might have hoped -, but it does have some interesting twists and turns which most readers will be fairly surprised by.

Of course, like many people, I was most amused by the twists on the city above. Richard encounters such people as the Black Friars, Old Bailey, the Angel Islington and Lady Serpentine (one of the Seven Sisters) and visits both the Earl's Court and (K)Night's Bridge. Believe me, after reading this book, you'll never look at a tube map the same way again.

The special edition I have is padded out with some book club questions (something I'm not really fond of) which allude to serious themes of reflecting the lost souls of the real London, but I doubt that the average reader is thinking much about social issues when Richard is trying to avoid having his liver cut out by a variety of underground ne'er-do-wells. This is an entertaining book, and that's how I read it. American Gods next? Don't mind if I do...


Short stories, a novel and now a play; it certainly has been a varied week so far. Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt is an old favourite of mine, and even though I'm not really one for drama, I'm happy to make an exception for him. Der Besuch der alten Dame (usually translated into English as The Visit) is a short play describing a visit by the titular lady, Claire Zachanassian, to her hometown of Güllen. Claire, through a series of well-judged marriages, has become fabulously wealthy while Güllen has gone the other way, so poor that the whole town has been mortgaged. When she decides to come back and visit, the town is counting on Alfred Ill, Claire's childhood sweetheart, to persuade her to restore its fortunes. It turns out that she is prepared to do so, but only at a price. She will give the town of Güllen one billion dollars on one condition: namely, on receipt of Alfred Ill's dead body...

You see, Claire's past is anything but happy, and Alfred's is anything but as flawless as people think. Woman, scorned, revenge, dish, cold, laugh, last longest... Cliches are wonderful, but this is no joke; when the richest woman in the world wants something, she is used to getting it. The Gülleners close ranks initially, the mayor declining her offer amid loud cheers from the citizens of Güllen, but Claire's ominous reply "Ich warte" ("I'll wait"), hints that this may not be the final answer, as much as the townspeople believe that they stand behind Ill.

The crux of the story is temptation, personified in the figure of the old, seemingly unkillable, Zachanassian. The artificial limbs fitted after numerous crashes and air disasters (of which she was always the only survivor) serve to make her seem more sinister and inhuman, a hideous goddess straight out of a Greek play. The townspeople, despite professing to support Ill, mysteriously begin to appear richer, buying new clothes, drinking more expensive beer, smoking more refined cigars - all on credit. It becomes clear that they are all speculating that someone may just take up Claire's offer, and Ill quickly begins to fear for his life. While denial is rife, the more responsible members of the community do let their facade crack at times: the priest begs Ill to flee; the teacher threatens to make the truth known to the outside world in a drunken rant; the mayor and the policeman visit Claire to beg her to change her mind. All to no avail.

It sounds very dark, but it's actually just as much of a farce as a tragedy. The stage directions are absurd, as is Dürrenmatt's wont, with actors pretending to be trees, and four chairs serving as a car. Claire is a monster and brings a bizarre court with her, including a couple of muscly ex-con stretcher bearers and two blind eunuchs who speak in unison (not to mention the three husbands she goes through whilst in Güllen, all to be played by the same actor).

When it comes to the crunch though, the writer knows how to pare away the comedic elements and leave a stark truth facing the protagonists: either Ill's body is placed in the coffin the old lady has brought with her, and taken away to buried in Capri, or he lives, Claire leaves, and Güllen rots in poverty. We all suspect we know the outcome, but it is still painful to watch. In another work, the writer talks of his Swiss countrymen as being "spared and not tempted", a response to Swiss moral superiority over the actions of Germans in World War II. Here, we see what it is to be tempted and hope fervently that it never happens to us.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Review Post 17 - A GPS For The Soul

Often, when reflecting on a book you’ve just finished, you ask yourself (quietly; otherwise people start looking at you funnily and debating whether or not to call the police) whether it was any good and, if so, exactly how good it was. With others (and hopefully this doesn’t happen to you very often), you simply toss them aside, warning friends and family never to let this particular writer darken their door (or bookcase). Then, there are those exceedingly rare occasions where you read the last few lines, lay the book down, and quietly wonder: is this a great book?

When I say great, I’m not referring to something well written, humorous or insightful, something which touches a nerve or heartstrings, something everyone seems to like. Great refers to those precious works which change lives, transcend genres, unite readers of differing opinions and speak to us about the world we live in (and the people who live here with us). Hamlet is great. Crime and Punishment is great. The Trial is great. Is Cloud Atlas?

Cloud Atlas, for those among you who don’t know (and I would be surprised if there were any such people among the discerning readers of my little blog), is a mind-blowing novel written in six seemingly disparate stories. Each part is set not only in a different location and with a different cast, but also in a different time, ranging from a Pacific trading ship in the 1850s to a post-apocalyptic pastoral society in Hawaii sometime in the far future. Each section is related by the principal character in a different literary genre, and, with the exception of the central story, each is cut off half-way through, only to be completed later in the book in reverse order. The effect is a Russian-Doll structure, starting with the earliest story, gradually accelerating through time before coming to a halt and reversing back through time to finish (almost) back where we started (incidentally, a structure mirrored in Cloud Atlas Sextet, a composition by one of the characters). It’s certainly an interesting way of writing a book.

So how can this be called a novel? Believe it or not, David Mitchell (whose brilliance I have already expounded upon recently) manages to use this structure to transfer a message about life, the universe and just about bloody everything (to paraphrase Douglas Adams). The central theme is civilisation, progress and where it is taking us, and Mitchell skilfully convinces us that it is dragging us forward into a very nasty place indeed. He also shows us that this is not a recent phenomenon; the negative traits of human nature, greed and envy, exploitation and an unending desire for more, are repeated throughout the ages – with ever more serious consequences. As a certain Welsh diva once sang, “It’s all just a little bit of history repeating”…

…literally, in some cases. As in Ghostwritten, Mitchell expertly inserts references forward and backward in time, between stories (and indeed books), but he also manages to create telling parallels between the sections here. When Luisa and Joe Napier are fleeing from thugs in the illegal sweatshop harbouring hundreds of low-paid foreign workers, we are reminded instantly of Sonmi’s illicit visit to the Ark taking hundreds of fabricants to their ‘salvation’. Likewise, Robert Frobisher’s last sight of the sleeping Vyvyan Ayres, as he appropriates his mentor’s Luger pistol, can be contrasted with Zach’ry, knife in hand, stumbling across the sleeping Kona warrior.

Not only are there parallels between the stories, there are also direct links between them. Robert Frobisher leafs through Adam Ewing’s journal in between composing and adultering; Luisa Rey reads Frobisher’s letters to Rufus Sixsmith, and her story is, in turn, read by Timothy Cavendish on his flight out of London; Sonmi sees Cavendish’s tale on the big screen, but Zach’ry experiences Sonmi in a slightly more technologically advanced format. While each of the stories seems vivid at the time, the next person down the chain experiences them as entertainment or amusement (at times, even as fictional). It’s a depressing thought that our present, real and urgent as we think it is, is just tomorrow’s stories and fantasies…

The use of different genres for each of the sections is almost Joycean in its daring, and Mitchell’s whole approach to language in Cloud Atlas can be best compared to Joyce’s work in Ulysses (if on a slightly more restrained scale). Writing in six different voices can’t be easy, especially when you are essentially inventing a couple of them, but Mitchell doesn’t put a foot wrong in his attempts to show variations in time, space and class through language. One of the best examples is the language used in Sonmi’s story where, in addition to the orthographical changes time has wrought (ph >f, ight > ite, ex >x), Mitchell has chosen brand names to become new concrete nouns. Consumers drive fords, work on sonys (call people on hand sonys) and capture images on kodaks. It’s a shame there’s no mention of Apple or the letter ‘i’, but even Mitchell can’t get it right all the time.

So what is Cloud Atlas actually about? Well, just about everything. It’s about humanity, our strengths and our weaknesses, our ingenuity and our greed. The reader may not pick everything up on first reading, but there are a myriad of references to the way we live our lives and the things we do to improve them. Technology can be a wonderful thing, and progress is not necessarily an evil if we tread carefully. The problem with a no-holds-barred thrust for progress though is that for every winner there is a loser. Whether it is the poor peaceful Moriori, routed by the Maori (who are looking to make up for the losses they suffered at the hands of the British) or the futuristic Valley people, trying to defend themselves against the warlike Kona, it seems as if those who seek merely to exist peacefully will inevitably go under. As Adam Ewing reflects, if we persist with a devil-take-the-hindmost approach, one day there will be no more hindmost to be taken; survival of the fittest, taken to its extreme, leads to the destruction of us all.

Towards the middle of the book, we look on in horror as the future societies Mitchell has sketched out take advantage of weaker beings in ruthless fashion. Yet as we start to move back in time again, we realise that these nightmarish visions of the future are merely mirror images of the present and past. The treatment of the fabricants in Nea So Copros is no different to that of the sweatshop workers in Buenas Yerbas or the aboriginal Polynesians on the island visited by The Prophetess. Even the chemical soap the fabricants require to survive has its equivalent in the tobacco the colonists attempt to teach the islanders to crave (or the opium which the Western powers introduced to China in order to make its people interested in what they had to offer…).

Some would argue that it is religion which we should turn to in order to stave off this kind of savagery. However, religion does not come off too well in the few instances it is alluded to in Cloud Atlas. The above-mentioned tobacco lessons are actually held by the south-sea missionaries hoping to convert the locals; unless the indigenous people develop needs, the churchmen will have no bait with which to reel them in. The missionaries, as well as trying to create a generation of addicts, separate the locals from their own religion by forbidding them to set foot in their sacred place, or ‘marae’. This works so well that after a few years the younger members of the community have forgotten what it was actually for. However, the established religions do not get the last laugh; the later stories show us forgotten statues of Buddha and long-vacant churches used for marketplaces. Religions come and religions go…

It’s rare that a book can contain so much about our world in so few pages and even rarer for it to have a lasting effect on the reader. Over the past few days, I have been reading the newspaper and watching the evening news, and virtually every story makes me think of Cloud Atlas and the lessons it tells. Climate change sceptics, the Global Financial Crisis, population growth, asylum seekers – everything. To return to the question I started this lengthy review with: is Cloud Atlas great? Posterity’s answer is going to have to wait a few decades (at least), but mine is fairly unequivocal: yes. Cloud Atlas belongs on every list of books you should read; more than that, if you’re looking for some words to live your life by, there are worse places to look than the last few pages of this book. Please read it; I promise you won't regret it.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Review Post 16 - The Road Less Travelled

Tanabata, who hosts the monthly themed posting challenge Hello Japan, decided that this month would see everyone (appropriately) post around the topic of Cherry Blossom, or Sakura. For those of you unaware of its importance in Japanese life, the Cherry Blossoms bloom across Japan every (Northern) spring, travelling from Okinawa in the south right across the country before falling into the sea off the northern expanses of Hokkaido. The beautiful, but temporary, blossoms embody the concept of mono no aware, the fleetingness of things, symbolising the ephemeral nature of existence. A time to stop and reflect on the brevity of life (or sing loudly and drink bucketloads of sake in local parks - your call).

Will Ferguson, a Canadian working in Japan as an English teacher (which does not necessarily mean that he has any qualification - or aptitude - for teaching), got drunk one night and declared that he would follow the Sakura Zensen (Cherry Blossom front) across the country from south to north, adding that he would make it even harder by hitchhiking. Remarkably, he actually did it too. His story is related in Hokkaido Highway Blues (later renamed - shudder - Hitchhiking with Buddha), a wonderful travel book which anyone who has lived in Japan, or just likes sushi, would enjoy.

Like any good travel book, this one has the right mixture of well-constructed humorous tales, a wide cast of supporting characters, some helpful, some not so, and the odd serious and (at times) poignant moment. Ferguson's reason for hitchhiking the journey was not only to save money (although one suspects that this was more true than he's prepared to let on), but also to experience the country and the people in a different way. He theorises that cars are part of people's personal spaces and that by letting him into their car, the people who pick him up are actually accepting him into their lives, if only for a short time.

At the start, Ferguson is full of bravado and good humour, and his quest seems heroic, if somewhat quixotic. However, the further he follows the elusive blossoms up the country, the more he, and the reader, starts to question his motives. Just why is he hell-bent on making it to the northern tip of Hokkaido? What will happen after that? More importantly, is his quest to prolong what is meant to be a brief moment of perfection actually perverse and doomed to failure?

Whether his journey is magnificent or mad, I, like many westerners who have lived in Japan, envy Ferguson a little. Just setting sail and letting the momentum carry you onwards, town by town, car by car - it's a seductive idea. But what happens when the momentum stops? How do you get yourself started again? Ferguson describes a moment near the end of his journey where he gets stuck, unable to move on: momentum has deserted him. I remember experiencing the same sensation myself when I travelled around Europe during my university days. One day, I got to Rotterdam and walked, as usual, around the town, seeing what there was to see (which, in Rotterdam, was not a lot). All of a sudden, I stopped walking; my legs, literally, decided to give up. A month of constant pounding the streets of European cities had finally caught up with me and the momentum had disappeared. I never really got it back...

The cover of my edition has praise by Bill Bryson (which, in the world of travel writing, is about as good as it gets). Like Bryson, Ferguson manages to present the best and worst of a country, exposing the warts without ruining the overall picture. Like Bryson, Ferguson is actually writing a last love letter to a country which is a part of him but of which he is not a part. The whole journey is a metaphor for his experiences in the far-east, written in the knowledge that the time to go home may be just around the corner. Mono no Aware indeed...

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Review Post 15 - Five Weddings and a Couple of Elections

April already? Then it must be time for Framley Parsonage, the fourth in Anthony Trollope's Barchester Chronicles series and one of my favourites. By now, the reader is beginning to reap the rewards of reading the earlier novels, with the major players in the first three parts reappearing in this installment - some more foregrounded than others. It's a joy to encounter some of our old friends again: Septimus Harding and the Grantly family from The Warden; Dr. Arabin and Bishop Proudie (and, of course, his ambitious wife) from Barchester Towers; and Miss Dunstable, Dr. Thorne and the Greshams from Doctor Thorne.

In Framley Parsonage, we meet Mark Robarts, the vicar of Framley and a good friend of Lord Lufton, the young lord of the manor and owner of most of what he surveys. Robarts is not your average impoverished clergyman, his schooling and friendship with the nobility having prepared a comfortable path for him in life; however, tempted by society and the possibility of promotion, he allows himself to be drawn into circles which devout young churchmen shouldn't really frequent. Before long, events conspire to see him in debt and in the grips of London moneylenders, leaving him despairing as to how he will ever find his way back (both financially and spiritually).

Naturally, being a Trollope novel, Framley Parsonage also has its fair share of romantic byplay. Lord Lufton's mother, Lady Lufton, has selected Griselda Grantly (amusingly described by the blurb writer on my edition as "the original dumb blonde"), daughter of our old friend the Archdeacon, as the wife she would choose for her eligible bachelor son. But wait! Who is the pretty young girl Lufton is talking to in the corner? Lucy Robarts, the vicar's sister?! No, he couldn't...

I don't think that I'll be giving too much away when I say that Lord Lufton forms one half of one of the four weddings in the last chapter of this book. One of those nuptials may come as a little surprise though, involving as it does one of our old friends. You'll just have to read it to find out...

After the (comparatively) slightly disappointing Doctor Thorne, this novel is a welcome return to form. Trollope deals with the romantic side with a lighter and more believable touch than previously, and his knowledge of debts and bills (later to be seen again in the Palliser series) enables him to paint a stark picture of the dangers of putting your name to any paper with sums of money written on it. In the form of Nathaniel Sowerby, a habitual debtor who, as Trollope so neatly puts it, has finally been overtaken by Nemesis, he has also created a wonderful story of the perils of wasted opportunities. A man, born with everything, ends up with nothing - his money gone, his property mortgaged and then lost forever: and all through his own hand. The pathos is increased by the narrator's forgiving description of Sowerby's downfall, painting him as a man who knew better but was unable to behave as he knew he should.

It is though as a scene writer that Trollope excels. Yes, he can be over-dramatic, but nobody writes a good confrontation like our Anthony (I'm already looking forward to one in particular next month...). The chance encounter at Miss Dunstable's London party of Lady Lufton with the Duke of Omnium is, in reality, ten seconds of cold politeness; through the magic of Trollope's pen, it is transformed into a page of shock and awe, a mute gladiatorial contest to rival anything in the Colliseum. I love it :)

In finishing today, I'd like to mention that as well as alluding to the past, Framley Parsonage also looks to the future. The Reverend Josiah Crawley, the key figure of the concluding part of the chronicles is introduced here as a counter figure to the well-to-do, quasi-aristocratic Mark Robarts. You'll get to know him better in June. Finally, politics, Trollope's great love, makes its first real appearance with the election in West Barsetshire. It may not be to everyone's taste, but I find the details of nineteenth-century electioneering fascinating, and there's more of that to come in the Palliser series. Of course, for those of you back in the U.K, it's actually quite relevant...


An election is also at the heart of my second choice today, Yukio Mishima's sumptuous novel After the Banquet (don't you just love how expertly I tie the books together?). Set in 1950s Tokyo, it lays out the rise and fall of a relationship between Kazu Fukuzawa, the proprietress of an elegant, traditional restaurant, and Yuken Noguchi, a former cabinet minster. The two become acquainted during a party at Kazu's Setsugoan restaurant, and the vivacious middle-aged woman quickly becomes entranced by the dry, intellectual Noguchi. Despite a twenty-year age gap, their relationship progresses, but they have widely differing ideas of their life together: while Noguchi is preparing for a quiet retirement, Kazu is in the prime of her life. And then comes the election...

The Tokyo Gubernatorial (governor) election is the central pillar around which After the Banquet revolves, and it serves to bring out the true colours of Kazu and Noguchi's characters. Kazu throws herself into electioneering, in spite of her husband's instructions, both tacit and explicit, to remember her position, and it is the woman of the people who is preferred by the crowds to the old, doddery politician. In a whirlwind of slush funds, dirty tricks and scare tactics, the tireless Kazu feels at home.

It would be easy to read this book in a feminist light, condemning the attitudes keeping women out of the public arena and ridiculing the (admittedly easy to ridicule) Noguchi. Kazu is certainly a sympathetic and intriguing character, and the reader feels for her in her efforts to support her husband. However, glimpses of humanity do shine through the politician's facade from time to time, and it is clear that Kazu is not without her faults. She lies constantly to Noguchi and is quick to go behind his back without a shadow of remorse whenever it suits her - in fact, she'd make an excellent politician...

As mentioned, it is the election which forces the couple's true characters to the surface, revealing their utter incompatibility and the absurdity of their relationship. Kazu discovers that she is unable to fade away into old age and attempts to rediscover her old life; Noguchi does just the opposite. The end sees them back where they started; but can we ever go back to where we once were?

It's a lovely book, if not on the grand scale of The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, but it does hold one last surprise. I only just found out that Mishima was (successfully) sued over the writing of this book as Noguchi was apparently based on a famous Japanese politician who had committed adultery with a Ginza nightclub hostess, one of the first cases upholding the right of a politician to a private life in Japan. How ironic that a book detailing the sleazy methods of successful politicians should end with a sleazy politician coming out on top. Truly life imitating art...