Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Hunter and the Hunted

Having read both From the Mouth of the Whale and The Whispering Muse over the past few months, I was tempted (as mentioned in a previous post) to return my copy of Sjón's final translated work, The Blue Fox, to the local library unread - so that I could read it another time.  In the end though, I couldn't bring myself to do it as I was desperate to read more of the Icelandic writer's tales... and I'm very glad I didn't...

The Blue Fox (published by Telegram Books, translated by Victoria Cribb) is set in Iceland in 1883 and begins with a short chapter describing a hunt over snowy, mountainous terrain.  The Reverend Baldur Skuggason is in pursuit of a blue fox, a rare creature in these parts, and he is determined to bring down his prey.  Over thirty, sparsely-filled, poetic pages (a story which could easily stand alone as a work of fiction), man, fox and nature battle for supremacy in a fight to the death.  But this is just the prelude...

We then move back a couple of days and are introduced to the rest of the characters, among them the educated Fridrik B. Fridriksson and his housemaid Abba.  Fridrik has just finalised the arrangements for his poor servant's funeral after her premature death (related to her Down's Syndrome), sending the coffin off to Reverend Skuggason with the vicar's half-wit assistant.  This part of the story initially appears to have little to do with what precedes it.  When we are granted glimpses into Fridrik's past though, especially of the time when he encountered Abba, the writer begins to drop hints that there is more connecting the two parts of the story than you would expect at first glance...

As we move backwards and forwards in time, learning more about Fridrik's history, life in the small Icelandic town and the epic hunt across the snowy landscape, the writer slowly reveals his intentions.  While the first section of the book appears to show a simple, but elegant, battle of wits between Skuggason and the fox, later events show that things are not quite so clear cut.  The more we read, the more we have to wonder - who exactly is hunting whom?

You've probably guessed this already from the few paragraphs I've written, but I loved The Blue Fox.  It's a slight work, just over 100 pages, many of those containing very little writing, but it is so much more than that.  While barely managing to reach novella length, it is constructed with more flair and imagination than you'd find in most works of five times the size.  At times, particularly in the first part, the text resembles poetry more than prose, black paw-prints punctuating the snow-white expanses of the page, with Sjón's trademark dry humour never far from the surface.  A good example of this is:
"The night was cold and of the longer variety."
p.12 (Telegram Books, 2008)
By the way, that was the whole of page 12...

Once again, praise has to go to translator Victoria Cribb.  I loved her work on the other two Sjón books I've read, and this is another excellent piece of writing, a flawless effort which never feels like a translation.  A token example?  Oh, go on then...
"There was a whining in the air.
     A ptarmigan hurtled past, a hair's breadth from the man, driven before the wind.  It was followed by a falcon, flying high with sure and steady wing-beats.
     The man turned away from the blast, tightened his scarf and wrapped the shoulder strap three times round his right arm so the bag rested tight against his hip.
     He was not too late for the storm." p.12
I think that one thing above all shows how much of a fan I am of Ms. Cribb's work - I didn't even have to open the book to check the translator's name :)

There are a lot of things which I could say about The Blue Fox, but there really isn't much point because it's a short book, and most of the fun would be spoiled by my laying the plot even barer than I already have.  It's great - read it.

Off you go now...

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Oh, I Don't Like To Be Beside The Seaside

Although I've been busy recently with review copies and Spanish Literature Month, I wanted to read at least one French book to take part in Paris in July, and I recently received a little work I'd been after for a while, one which gave me the perfect opportunity to do so.  Véronique Olmi's Bord de Mer is a novella which tells the tale of a French single mother who takes her kids on a trip to the seaside - with a rather shadowy motive behind the impromptu journey.  Wait a minute...

If you think that the story sounds familiar, then you're probably right.  Bord de Mer is the original title of Peirene Press' first offering Beside the Sea, the English-language version being translated by Anthea Bell.  It's a dark book, both in its themes and its setting, with a large chunk of the novella happening at night and the rest during an overcast, rain-sodden day.  Meike Ziervogel, the person behind Peirene, has been very vocal in her belief that knowing what happens at the end of the book adds to the pleasure of reading it.  I can see where she's coming from, but I think I'll leave it up to the reader to work that out for themself - all I will say is that you shouldn't read this if you're expecting a happy ending.

The anonymous mother narrates the tale, dragging nine-year-old Stan and five-year-old Kevin away from school for an unexpected trip to a small, out-of-season seaside town.  It is an attempt to bring them a little pleasure in an otherwise bleak existence, but nothing goes to plan.  The hotel is dark, the room is cramped, the streets are full of mud - and the rain falls constantly, soaking the family whenever they emerge from their bolthole, seeping into their clothes, their bones and their souls.

The first impression of the town warns the mother (and the reader) of the type of story to come:
"Il devait pleuvoir depuis longtemps dans cette ville, on avait l'impression d'avancer sur un chantier, pas sur un trottoir, à moins que ce soit une ville sans trottoirs." p.14, (J'ai Lu, 2010)

"It must have been raining for a long time in this town, it was like walking on a building site, not a pavement, perhaps it was a town without pavements." #
The rain comes to symbolise the struggle the mother faces in her everyday life.  Alone, raising two young boys, there is never a break in the metaphorical clouds; her life is spent under a constant drizzle, which gradually breaks her spirit.

A more pressing and literal concern though is a lack of money.  We are told that she uses her last hundred-franc note to pay for the bus tickets, and when she pours her spare change onto the hotel bed in front of her children, Stan soon discovers that the total is very meagre indeed.  More than the amount though, it is the form the money takes, piles of small metal coins jingling in purse and pocket, that reinforces her social status, leading to scornful looks whenever she wants to buy anything for her children.  This humiliation is just one more part of the narrative that has led her - and us - to the (literal) end of the story...

Bord de Mer is an interesting story, one which can be read in little over an hour, but it's not one of my favourite Peirene titles, and I've spent a long time trying to work out why.  One reason for my doubts have to do with the voice of the mother, a very simple, colloquial voice, one which makes the book easy to read.  While the voice is accurate and extremely well done, it doesn't really suit my reading tastes.  It's too plain and pales beside the writing in some of the other books I've been reading recently.

The major reason for not loving this book though is that I found it extremely difficult to empathise with the main character, and I simply couldn't understand why she did what she did.  In many ways, Olmi has constructed the situation beautifully, avoiding any mawkish sentimentality by sparing the reader the details of any brutality or tragedy in the mother's life.  The flip-side of this though is that there are no excuses, no mitigating circumstances for what occurs, leaving the reader to judge based on the evidence of the text - and pretty damning evidence it is too.

Beside the Sea is a book close to Meike's heart, and picking holes in it does feel a bit like kicking someone's puppy.  It is a good book - I just suspect that I'm not the right reader for it.  Which is not to say that I didn't like it, because I did.  Knowing what was to come (and most readers figure it out pretty quickly anyway), I felt the tension gradually build up, hoping in vain that everything would turn out alright, and then...  The last ten pages or so, the release of all the pent-up tension, the horrific, clinical, detached culmination of all that has come before...  That is what makes reading the book worthwhile.

Towards the end of the tale, as the mother looks out of her hotel window on the top floor of the window, watching the rain fall to the ground, she says:
"La pluie, ça tombe pour ceux d'en bas, moi je suis au dernier étage." p.73

"The rain is falling for the people below, me, I'm above all that". #
As luck would have it, on the night I finished Bord de Mer, the rain was lashing down here in Melbourne, and as I finished the book, my five-year-old daughter came in asking to be tucked in.  Before putting her to bed, I gave her a big, big hug.

# The English translations are my own efforts, not those from the Peirene edition.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The City of the Dead

It's week four of Spanish Lit Month, and that means that I have the fourth of my reviews to delight you with today - and it's another intriguing one.  When I requested a review copy of Lorenzo Mediano's The Frost on his Shoulders from Europa Editions, I was lucky enough to be offered another Spanish-language book to review, Santiago Gamboa's Necropolis (translated by Howard Curtis) - an offer I couldn't refuse ;)

Necropolis begins with a famous writer living in Rome, who is recovering from a lengthy illness.  One day, he unexpectedly receives an invitation to speak at a conference in Jerusalem, from an organisation he has never heard of, on a topic on which he is far from being an expert.  His interest is further piqued by the generous remuneration offered and the fascinating variety of invitees, including an ex-con, a porn star and a stamp collector (now why don't I get invited to conferences like that?), and before long he is on a plane making its way to Israel.

When he arrives, Jerusalem is a city under siege, and the conference is held against a constant backdrop of gunfire and explosions.  In the middle of the chaos, the delegates continue with their talks on the theme of words and biographies, with one of the most successful being that told by José Maturana, a former convict and murderer who turned to religion after an encounter with a charismatic preacher.  However, just hours after his contribution to the conference, he is found dead in his hotel room - suicide?  Possibly...

The previous two paragraphs give you a rough idea of the background of Necropolis, but they don't tell you just how extraordinary the book actually is.  While the story starts plainly enough in the words of the writer (presumably a variation on Gamboa himself), it then becomes intermingled with chapters detailing Maturana's life story.  Once we get into the second section, one third of the book is devoted to three more stories told by the delegates, none of which appear to move the story on at all.  It's only when we get to the final section that some of the relevance of these tales become apparent - but only some.

The conference is all about life stories, and a major theme in Necropolis is the twisting and intermingling of stories and life.  This idea is foregrounded right from the start when the writer is choosing some books to take with him to the conference:
"...I started to wonder if those written lives were real or if their only reality was in the writing itself, the fact that they had been turned into words, into filled pages destined for people almost as desperate as themselves..." p.29 (Europa Editions, 2012)
His musings about the blurred line between real life and what gets written down about it set the scene for the way we need to approach the many stories we experience later in Jerusalem...

The one story that we have to analyse in detail is that of the unfortunate Maturana.  When we first hear it, spread over three chapters sandwiching the writer's experiences at the conference, it sounds plausible enough, the story of a man redeemed by a modern saint who himself turned out to be fragile and only too human.  However, once he is dead, the writer (and the reader!) is able to hear several different sides to the story, forcing him to use his judgement as to how 'true' each of them is. 

The only thing we can be sure of is that when a story is told, we are learning what the storyteller wants us to hear.  Some of the stories are deliberately shocking, using brutal 'honesty' to win over the audience; others are deliberately underplayed, hoping to make the reader respect the speaker's intelligence; others, perhaps, are not quite as based in reality as they are made out to be - the line between fiction and biography is a rather unclear one...

Necropolis is another excellent, fascinating piece of Spanish-language literature, but I did have a couple of issues with the book.  While the various stories were excellent, and an integral part of the book, I did find that they distanced me a little from the core narrative.  On finishing a chapter (and most of them were fairly lengthy), I rarely felt like immediately pushing on with the book - the self-contained nature of the sections often left me treating Necropolis as a collection of short stories rather than a novel.

A much bigger issue though was one which, in some ways, is coming to typify my Latin-American reading experience.  Throughout Necropolis, there is a sense of machismo which is hard to ignore, no matter how related it is to the story.  Women only appear to exist as sexual objects, with none of the female characters (with the possible exception of the porn star...) coming across as real people, and the stories contain references aplenty to prostitutes, orgies and rape.

While some of the context justifies it, I thought that it went a little overboard at times, and the character of Marta, a highly-sexed Icelandic journalist who is a walking cliché of Nordic sexual attitudes is one that pushed things a little too far for me.  There's no doubt that there is a purpose behind the sensationalism, and I'm sure that the idea of making the most of life in a city where bombs are falling would explain some of this away, but I'm not sure that everyone would buy into these excuses.

Despite these misgivings though, I thoroughly enjoyed Necropolis and would recommend it.  Just as in last week's offering, Dublinesque, the expected separation of life and fiction is playfully tampered with, forcing us to look forwards, backwards and outside the text to fully understand it.  What we come away with is an understanding that each story is special in its own way, regardless of who it's about or what that person has achieved.  As Gamboa says:
"What there is at the end of a life is irrelevant, it isn't the result that makes a life exceptional, but the path trodden..." p.162
Something to ponder as we go about making our own life stories... 

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Oriental Odds and Ends

The more J-Lit you read, the more addictive it becomes, and anyone with a serious passion for Japanese literature, particularly that of the early twentieth century, is bound to want to expand their horizons at some point and explore what else is out there.  For this reason, collections are a great help to the budding Japanophile, and last year I read my first, the excellent Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories.  Today's post looks at my second foray into the area of collected Japanese fiction - was it just as successful?  You'll just have to read on to find out...

Modern Japanese Literature, an anthology edited by Donald Keene, is a collection of Japanese writing covering the period from 1868 (the start of the Meiji Era, traditionally considered the beginning of 'modern' Japan) to the middle of the twentieth century.  Unlike the Oxford collection, Keene's book is not restricted to short stories - it also contains traditional and Western poetry, a couple of plays and extracts from classic novels.  Running to 438 pages, there's enough here to give any beginner a fair overview of the must-read writers of the period covered.

It would be impossible to cover all the works in detail, but I thought I would briefly touch on some of the ones I liked most from the various genres (concentrating on things I hadn't read before).  In terms of extracts from novels, Shimei Futabatei's The Drifting Cloud, an incomplete work from the late-nineteenth century, is one that appealed, with its story of a bumbling civil servant trying to find love in Meiji Japan.  I'm also tempted to splash out on Jun'ichiro Tanazaki's novella Captain Shigemoto's Mother and Yukio Mishima's semi-autobiographical work Confessions of a Mask on the strength of the extracts given here.

There were several short stories I liked, and I wish there had been many more of them.  Among the best were Ichiyo Higuchi's Growing Up and Kafu Nagai's The River Sumida, both of which are lengthy, historical, coming-of-age stories set in and around the red-light districts of Tokyo.  Another favourite was Riichi Yokomitsu's story Time, a beautifully-written tale of a troupe of actors on a dangerous night journey through the mountains (running away from an unpaid hotel bill...).  Finally, I also enjoyed Osamu Dazai's story Villon's Wife, another of his tales of mistreated women and badly-behaved men in post-war Tokyo, similar in style to his novel The Setting Sun.

Of course, there was a lot to be savoured beyond my usual prose diet, but poetry is not really my preference, so to be honest none of it really stuck in the memory.  However, of the two plays included, I did like Kikuchi Kan's The Madman on the Roof, a short work on the subject of... well, I think it's pretty self-explanatory really ;)  Kan's play makes the reader look at the behaviour of both the sane and the insane and decide who the mad ones really are...

Despite its good points though, I wasn't entirely happy with the anthology.  One issue I had, the abundance of novel extracts, was my own fault as I really should know what the word 'anthology' means...  However, there were some other problems as well.  For one thing, the label 'modern' is a complete misnomer as the collection was released in 1956.  Anyone looking for Murakami, Yoshimoto, Ogawa or Abe will be sadly disappointed, and Mishima and Dazai are included as examples of the young generation!

In addition, the feel of the book is very old fashioned.  Both in the introduction and the short explanations which appear before each work, Keene's comments appear patronising by today's standards.  It smacks a little of exoticism, presenting the work of noble savages who are imitating Western art, some of them even doing so successfully.  While there is little that is outright insulting, the underlying tone is one of detatched superiority - and it grates a little...

A final issue I had with the collection though was a feeling that the translations weren't always up to scratch.  This is a contentious issue, and many people are loath to believe that you can judge translations, but I actually had a few texts to compare.  In my private library (!), I have other versions of three of the works included here: Ryunosuke Akutugawa's classic story Hell Screen; Natsume Soseki's Botchan, a staple of the Japanese school curriculum; and Ogai Mori's The Wild Geese, one of the most famous of the early Japanese novels.

The translation of Mori's work was not as good as the one I have, but the difference wasn't enormous.  However, in the other two cases, the contrast was like night and day.  While I wasn't completely convinced by the more recent J. Cohn translation of Botchan when I read it, I'm now much more of a fan as the older Burton Watson version was stiff and stuffy, and detracted from the humour.  Similarly, compared to Jay Rubin's excellent, irony-laden treatment of Hell Screen, W.H.H. Norman's version is a little dull, losing the flavour of Rubin's interpretation.  I'm never going to know which of the versions is more faithful to the original, but in terms of excellence in English, I'm with the modern ones all the way...

Modern Japanese Literature is far from perfect, and compared to The Oxford Book of Short Stories it doesn't come off too well.  However, it's still worth a try; there is a lot of good writing in there, much of which I wasn't aware of before opening the book.  Still, if you have the choice, I'd go with the Oxford book as a first collection of classic J-Lit.  It's a lot more consistent and, more importantly, more consistently rewarding.

Of course, what I'd really like is another collection of Japanese writing - the abridged version of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature (even if reading it would cause me multiple injuries!).  So, if anyone was thinking of sending me an early birthday present... ;)

Sunday, 22 July 2012

It's A Dog's Life...

For a good while now, I've had a copy of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich sitting on my shelves, waiting for me to get around to finding the time for it, and after finishing my latest book, that time may come around sooner rather than later.  You see, Georgi Vladimov's Faithful Ruslan (translated by Michael Glenny, PDF review copy courtesy of Melville House Books), a wonderful few hours of reading, is set in a similar setting and time to Solzhenitsyn's work.  The central character, however, couldn't be more different...

The star of Faithful Ruslan is Ruslan himself, a guard dog in one of the infamous Russian gulags, or labour camps, in Siberia.  When the camp is emptied (possibly because of a change in the political wind), the soldier in charge of putting the highly-trained guard dogs down decides instead to turn them loose.  As a result, Ruslan finds himself alone, a soldier with an honourable discharge, left to roam the streets of the town near the camp.

While the rest of the dogs soon adapt to living with families, putting up with petting and accepting scraps from passers-by, Ruslan is too attached to 'the Service' for that.  After being humiliated and rejected by his former master, Ruslan decides to keep up his duties, patrolling the train station where he believes the next batch of prisoners will be brought and temporarily living with a former prisoner - not as a pet, but as a guard, to ensure the man doesn't try to escape.

Too proud to go against his training and accept food from civilians, Ruslan learns to hunt, enjoying his time stalking animals in the nearby woods.  He never forgets his duty though, and this is rewarded when one day the train does come back.  Unfortunately for our four-legged friend, times have changed, and people no longer need a guard dog...

Using a dog as the central character of a political satire could backfire, or at least stumble into harmless humour, but Vladimov's decision to tell the story through Ruslan's eyes is a justified one.  While Ruslan talks our language and understands a lot more than we would expect, he also thinks very differently - and has very strong views on humans:
"Ruslan knew well that humans differed from one another in character as much as dogs did.  That was why each person smelled differently; you only had to take one sniff and there was no doubt about their character.  His master, for instance, was perhaps not particularly brave, but in compensation, he was totally without pity; he was not, perhaps, overly clever, but on the other hand he never trusted anyone; his friends, perhaps, were not all that fond of him, but he made up for that by being quite prepared to shoot any one of them if the Service should ever require it of him." p.41 (Melville House, 2011)

He continues his psychological studies when he moves on from his military master.  His new relationship with the ex-prisoner (the Shabby Man) is a very unequal one where the dog is very much the superior.  He accompanies his charge to his work of scavenging wood to make a cabinet and ponders the unusual rituals which occur each evening:
"Ruslan already knew that the horrible stuff in that bottle was nicknamed "vodka" (it also had a longer name: "Filthy-stuff-damn-the-man-who-invented-it"), and he could never make up his mind whether the Shabby Man really liked it or not.  In the evenings he yearned for it with all his heart, but by morning it made him feel terrible and he hated it." p.89

Beyond the humour though, Ruslan's tale is a very sad one.  Unlike the other dogs, he is unable to adapt to life outside the camp, clinging to his beliefs too tightly to enable him to come to terms with the new world order.  He firmly believes that the prisoners were better off where they were, behind barbed wire, and never gives up hope that they will one day see the error of their ways and come back to the camp of their own free will.

At one point, as he inspects the old site of the camp, where new buildings are rising from the ground (he believes that a new, better camp is being built...), Ruslan notices the lack of barbed wire and, for a brief moment, considers the possibility of a camp without wires, the whole world as one big, happy prison camp...
"He sadly decided, however, that it wouldn't work.  Everyone would wander away where he pleased and the guards could never keep track of them all.  It would be impossible to give every person his own guard dog.  There were an awful lot of people and not enough dogs..." p.177

Of course, there is a lot more to Faithful Ruslan than simply the tale of an unemployed dog.  Ruslan is the symbol of a regime, a representation of blind belief and trust in what Moscow deemed right.  In a daring move, Vladimov put the mindset of a political generation (or, at least, some of its military representatives) into the sleek, furry body of a dog, using his story to show how blind faith in outmoded ideologies will lead to self-destruction.  It's unsurprising that only underground copies of the novel were available in the Soviet Union...

Faithful Ruslan is a wonderful book, one I couldn't wait to get back to each time I had to leave it (or when my Kindle battery started to die...).  Despite Ruslan's deluded nature and his inability to bend with the wind, you can't help feeling for him.  He's a soldier, a faithful friend, a bad enemy - and a bit of a philosopher on the side :)

Sadly for dog lovers, Ruslan is always doomed to an unhappy ending.  A supreme patriot, one who truly believes in the regime which has been left behind, in some ways he is less a dog than a dinosaur.  Eventually, he comes to realise that while a few guards can often contain large numbers of prisoners, one day they will realise that their strength lies in numbers, and that is the day when they will finally take their freedom.

After all, every dog has his day...

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Big Time Intertextuality

He belongs to an increasingly rare breed of sophisticated, literary bloggers - this is the thought which (somewhat ironically) crosses Tony's mind as the sound of the car taking his wife and children away slowly fades, leaving him free to wander into the study and finally sit down to the computer whose siren call he has been avoiding for the past few hours.  He picks up the book he has just finished, noting the aptness of the cover - a man in the process of taking a giant, life-defining leap...

Reading Dublinesque, Enrique Vila-Matas' stunning novel of a publisher's trip to Dublin to bury the age of print literature and work out what to do with himself next, has been an exhilarating, absorbing journey through modern literary history, a novel so awash with references to other artists and their works that Tony has stayed up late into the night, stopping here to open his copy of Ulysses (forced into rereading Chapter Six by the obvious parallels with Vila-Matas' book), pausing there to refresh his memory of Joyce's short story The Dead (another work frequently referenced in Dublinesque).  Now, as the rest of the world goes about its business, Tony's brain is still twisting and turning, his mind still searching for elusive threads of meaning.

He walks over to the window, looking for signs of good weather, anything to keep him away from the computer, but mid-winter Melbourne rain continues to flow down, concealing the further edges of the garden and gradually causing the study windows to steam up, leaving Tony isolated in his warm, dimly-lit room.  With a sigh, he sits down at his desk, clicking three times on the mouse with practiced ease and turning on some music to help him focus (Franz Ferdinand - how apt), before opening a Word document - which he proceeds to stare at for a while as the music washes over him...

He tries to concentrate on Samuel Riba, the central character, a former literary publisher whose sudden, irrational decision to fly to Dublin for Bloomsday with some friends shakes his life out of the rut it was in.  The way the writer blends elements from Ulysses, structuring parallels with Joyce's famous novel, the way he draws on thoughts and images from an astonishingly wide variety of sources...  Tony turns to his copy of Dublinesque, pulls out the scrap of paper with the scribbled notes he has made, and begins Googling images - Hammershøi's painting of The British Museum in fog, Edward Hopper's Stairway (another song plays on the computer, The Police's Wrapped Around your Finger) -, but he's getting nowhere.  He sighs and continues thinking...

He decides that he needs to distract himself, and he eases himself, not without difficulty, out of the chair he feels so comfortable in, standing up, slowly looking around, as if expecting help to come from someone (even though there is nobody there), before walking out into the kitchen.  He does the washing up to clear his head and then makes a couple of pieces of raisin toast, pouring himself a mug of soya milk to go with his impromptu second breakfast.  Back in the study, he becomes tired of the music and puts on an old Powderfinger CD, and as the strains of Waiting for the Sun ring out, he sits back waiting for inspiration - in vain.  In fact, the only thing he can think of is the irony in the fact of the book about Riba (a publisher deeply disillusioned by the success of 'gothic' - i.e. vampire - fiction), being published in English by the same house that brought out Fifty Shades of Grey...

Musing that if Riba was waiting for the return of the real reader, he was probably well out of the publishing game, Tony decides to browse online book shops for other works and writers mentioned in Dublinesque: Finnegan's Wake (of course), Paul Auster, Italo Calvino, Samuel Beckett...  Tony pauses, leaning back in his chair, feeling that he has come to the crucial point of his cerebral meanderings at last; for if the first part of Dublinesque has Riba's life parallelling the events of Ulysses, the final section moves from the high of Joyce to the low of Beckett.  Tony sighs.  In that case, it's a shame that he has never read anything by Beckett...  As he continues to stare blankly at the mockingly pristine document on the computer screen, the feeling of being watched grows ever stronger, compelling him to turn and look out of the window.  Nothing.  Just a man in a blue jacket, hurrying down the hill in the rain, head fixed straight ahead, in no way looking in Tony's direction.

Rubbing his eyes, Tony manages to stand up again, now feeling the familiar dry feeling in his mouth from last night's wine, wanting a glass of water to ease the headache he can sense beginning.  He starts to pace the study, walking around in circles while his thoughts go around in the opposite direction.  Dublinesque is a great book, a wonderful book, a seamless read, a credit to the writer and to his translators into English, Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean.  But - (Tony's pacing slows as he struggles against the thoughts coming the other way) - what am I actually going to say about it?  How can I construct a coherent review describing its brilliance while including the feel of the novel?  Should I simply type out 600 words with a brief overview of the plot and a recommendation to just read the book?

Gradually the pacing slows eventually coming to a complete stop as gravity inertia weight of years and the force of the counterbalancing train of thought combine to bring him to a halt Tony looks up and for the first time we see him with a smile on his face as he realises that there is only one way to do justice to the book while concealing his inability to truly understand truly get to the heart of what it actually is Vila-Matas wants to say and he says to himself in the middle of that warm dark room he says that's what I'll do I'll just write it as I think it should be written I'll style it as if it were taken from Vila-Matas Joyce whoever intertextuality yes intertextuality and people can read into what they will what they want what they feel or is that too obvious perhaps no it's a good idea better than the usual rubbish anyway will I won't I and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Colours of Chaos

Anyone interested in Russian literature will know that it is all too easy to be distracted by those two giants of the country's literary Golden Age, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky (or Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, depending on your views...), writers who overshadow their countymen to such an extent that generations of great writers struggle to receive the recognition they deserve outside their home country.

One such writer is Andrei Bely, an author I'd never heard of until I saw his novel Petersburg advertised on the web-site of indie publisher Pushkin Press.  I was intrigued by the blurbs, including a quote from Nabokov declaring Petersburg as "One of the four most important works of twentieth-century literature", and was lucky enough to obtain a review copy to find out for myself how good it was.  I certainly didn't regret it...

Petersburg (translated by John Elsworth) is set in the famous Russian city of the title during the autumn of 1905, just prior to the culmination of the 1905 revolution.  Elderly statesman Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov (how I've missed reading Russian names!) shuttles between his enormous, cold, empty house and his slightly-less frigid workplace, where he creates messages to be sent out to the far-flung corners of the empireMeanwhile, his son, Nikolai Apollonovich, spends his days avoiding his university studies, lounging around reading Kant and paying visits to a beautiful married woman.

Ableukhov's wife, Anna Petrovna, left him two-and-a-half years ago, and the two men, father and son, are attempting to fill the void in their lives.  However, while the elder Ableukhov is attempting to keep the barbarians at bay, struggling to douse the growing signs of civil unrest, Nikolai has taken a very different path.  In a chance meeting with certain unhappy souls, he has made a promise - a promise which he regrets, but which circumstances will compel him to keep...

The family relationships of the Ableukhovs, father, son and (later in the book) mother form one of the basic themes of the book, and considering the time the book was written, it is hardly surprising that their relationship is handled in Freudian terms.  Of course, when the pivotal occurrence of the novel is the possibility of the son planting a bomb in his father's bedroom, the words Oedipus complex do seem to scream out at the reader ;)  Bely gives us detailed descriptions of the two male Ableukhovs, in some ways very different, but in others so similar - in fact, at times the writer plays with their appearance making the son age into the father and the father turn back into the son.

The psychology in Petersburg isn't limited to this family rivalry though.  Each of the main characters seem afflicted with some sort of mental disorder, one exacerbated by the pressure-cooker environment of the Imperial Russian capital.  Apollon Apollonovich suffers from agoraphobia, his missives to the provinces a misguided attempt to tame the wilderness he fears; Alexandr Ivanovich, Nikolai's contact to the revolutionaries, is driven mad by confinement in his small, squalid apartment; Sergei Sergeich Likhutin, a solid young soldier, loses his mind because of his wife's continued dalliance with Nikolai Apollonovich.  And outside, the crowds grow, the strikes begin to increase in number, and everyone feels that something important is coming:
"There was a rush of wind from the sea: the last leaves fluttered down; there would be no more leaves till May; how many people would be there no more in May?  These fallen leaves were truly the last leaves.  Alexandr Ivanovich knew it all by heart: there would be bloody days, full of horror; and then - everything would collapse; so swirl then, whirl around, you last, incomparable days!
  So swirl then, whirl in the air, you last of the leaves!  Another idle thought...". p.338 (Pushkin Press, 2012)

At times, the distancing effect of Bely's language makes the characters slightly unreal, but that is of little importance because the real star of the show is the city itself.  Petersburg is a city that shouldn't exist, a metropolis raised from the marshes by Imperial edict, permeated by the tainted swamps it is built upon.  There is a formidable bureaucracy which attempts to bring the unruly landscape to heel; Apollon Apollonovich dreams of creating a landscape with roads criss-crossing throughout the empire...
"And exactly the same houses still rose up there, and the same grey streams of people passed by; and the same yellow-green mist hung there; faces ran past deep in concentration; the pavements shuffled and whispered - under the horde of giant houses; towards them flew - Prospect upon Prospect; and the spherical surface of the planet seemed to be entwined, as though by the rings of a snake, by the grey-black cubes of houses; and the network of parallel Prospects, intersected by another network of Prospects, spread into the abysses of the universe with its surfaces of squares and cubes: one square per man-in-the-street." p.533
However, the attempts of the civil servants to tame nature are doomed to failure.  As man seeks to dictate terms to the vast open spaces, slowly the flow is reversed, and now it is nature which is slowly encircling the isolated capital...

These ideas work so well because of the writer's inventive use of language.  Petersburg is less plot- than language-driven, each word carefully weighed (and equally carefully translated), each having a specific purpose.  One of the themes running through the novel is colour, with Bely saturating his text with a plethora of shades and hues.  Green appears to be used for decay and pestilence, with the phosphorescence rolling in over the Neva a sign of unavoidable sickness.  Red appears frequently in its usual guise of danger, with Nikolai's costume and the beguiling Sofia Petrovna's lipstick proving to be signs of caution that are more often ignored than heeded.  Yellow is associated with sickness and madness, the best example of this being the face Alexandr Ivanovich sees each night on the wall of his bedroom...

A second common linguistic trick is Bely's liking for repetition, both within paragraphs and throughout the text.  The attentive reader will frequently find sentences used earlier in the novel in a different context, often in describing a different character, linking the various parts of the story together.  However, it is the close repetition which is more striking, as in the following example:
"Those were strange, misty days; venomous October was passing with its freezing tread; frozen dust blew around the city in drab-brown vortices; and the golden whisper of foliage lay down submissively on the paths of the Summer Garden, and the rustling purple lay down submissively at people's feet, to wind and chase at the feet of a passing pedestrian, and to murmur as it wove from leaves a red-and-yellow web of words; that sweet chirruping of blue tits that all August had bathed in waves of foliage had long since ceased to bathe in foliage: and the Summer Garden blue tit herself was now hopping forlornly in the black network of boughs, along the bronze railing and across the roof of Peter's house." p.102
When you add to this the fact that the opening comment ("Those were strange, misty days") has already appeared several times over the past couple of pages, it gives you a good impression of how the book actually reads.

Looking back at what I've written, I realise that I haven't really said much about what actually happens in the novel, but to be honest that's beside the point - Petersburg is about how things happen and how the protagonists feel while it happens.  There are large traces of Dostoyevsky in the handling of the novel, but it definitely has a later feel to it, more of a Henry James feel than a Russian one at times.  Despite this though, there is a plot, and with knowledge of the revolutions which are about to shatter Russian society (some of which had yet to occur at the time Bely first wrote the book), we can see how the writer has examined the seeds of these later events.

Petersburg is a book which is beyond analysing in a mere blog post; there are just too many angles you could pursue (Marxism, Post-Colonialism, Stylistics, Eco-Fiction...).  While it's not a book that everyone will enjoy, I loved it, and I was very impressed with John Elsworth's Rossica-Prize-winning translation, one that must have been a touch trickier than the average job.  This is a novel that will bear reading time and time again.  I can't really give it greater praise than that :)

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Danger of Giving Someone the Cold Shoulder...

After my (ad)venture into classical Spanish literature, it's time today for some more contemporary fare, although the setting is actually anything but modern.  There is a connection though - today's hero is tilting at some pretty big windmills...

Lorenzo Mediano's The Frost on his Shoulders (translated by Lisa Dillman, review copy kindly sent by Europa Editions) is a novella set in the Pyrenees shortly before the Spanish Civil War.  The story begins when the inhabitants of the small mountain village of Biescas de Obago become aware of an article in a regional newspaper, dredging up old history and besmirching the name of the town.  Infuriated, they charge the local teacher with writing a response to the article, determined to refute the allegations made.  The teacher takes on the task, but is reluctant to do so for several reasons: firstly, he knows full well that it's a waste of time; secondly, he also knows that the article is much closer to the truth than the tales spun by the villagers.

After fulfilling his useless task, the teacher then decides to secretly write down what really happened, the story of a young shepherd boy, Ramón, and his wealthy beloved, Alba.  It's a story of star-crossed lovers, two young people who can never be together - not because of any animosity between the families, but because the very idea of love straddling the social divide is so dangerous that it could tear the whole village apart...

The Frost on his Shoulders is a fascinating story of what happens when one man decides to stand up against what fate and tradition have decreed to be his future.  Although it starts a little slowly, what begins as a potentially predictable story of thwarted lovers soon becomes something much more than that, a tale of history at a crossroads.  The teacher explains to his audience that:
"...it's all well and good for a shepherd to be able to count, so he can tell if any sheep are missing, and the fact that everyone here can sign his name lends our town a bit of prestige; but that's enough.  Because any more than that and people start dreaming, wishing things were different than they are..." p.36
The way they are is, to be honest, feudal.  A handful of wealthy families own all the land surrounding the village, and anyone not lucky enough to be an heir to one of these houses is a nobody, a possession.  The local workers are bound by unwritten rules, stuck working in the same place and unable to marry as they are needed to labour for the rich families.  Even if they were, the local tradition of disposing of many female babies at birth (women are only needed for producing heirs...) ensures that there aren't enough women to go around.

Against this background then, the slightest sign of insubordination is seen as a threat, a challenge to the status quo, and our story bears this out.  Ramón, educated above the normal degree for a rural worker, decides that he wants to rise above his station, earn money and marry the delicate, beautiful Alba, heiress to the richest house in the area.  The ruling class decides that he must be crushed, denying him the opportunity to work, but as Ramón undergoes immense hardship in the mountains to make it on his own, the undertrodden villagers slowly begin to support him, seeing in him a role model, a symbol of change and progress - exactly what the landowners feared...

The story builds to a stunning, and slightly unpredictable, climax, with the reader willing Ramón on to achieve the unachievable, all the while knowing that the odds are against him.  Allowing the young upstart to attain his goal will open a crack in the carefully-constructed social edifice which sustains the profitability and survival of the village against the harsh, unforgiving environment it is surrounded by.  In a tension-filled village, with violence only ever a heartbeat away, it is inevitable that there will be bloodshed...

As mentioned earlier, the story is narrated by the teacher, an outsider who acts as a sort of guide through the alien culture of the villagers.  He has had to adapt to a place where life seems stuck in the 1620s, not the 1920s, and he is our voice in the wilderness.  However, it's probably best not to trust him too much...  His version of the story is just as subjective and personal as that collected from the accounts of the villagers, and most of what he recounts is hearsay.  He is, to say the least, more than a little biased ;)

I enjoyed The Frost on his Shoulders, but there was one thing I was confused by.  The cover of my edition has a blurb on it, "A gripping piece of eco-fiction set in the Pyrenees Mountains", a comment which I initially found puzzling and rather superfluous.  I had never heard of eco-fiction, and I really couldn't see any environmental influences in the book.  Then, last night, I was flicking through a book on literary fiction (a work I've been slowly perusing for the last few months), and it all suddenly became clear.

Ecocriticism is a strand of literary theory which looks at literature from the viewpoint of nature, putting the environment, usually seen as merely the setting for events, in a central position.  Instead of focusing on what the characters do, we look at how the environment they live in has shaped them, and The Frost on his Shoulders is a perfect example for this train of thought.  Life in the mountains is hard, precisely because of the isolation and the extreme weather conditions, and the type of society which exists there has been forced upon the villagers by the problems the environment poses.

However, Ramón, while rebelling against society, is actually supported by nature.  The harsh conditions make it possible for him (with a lot of hard work) to make a success of his life, and his upbringing in the mountains allows him to find food and shelter - and survive - in a place where many people would simply keel over and die...  This idea of the book as a work of eco-fiction is new to me, but it's a very interesting one, and extremely apt here :)

Whether you buy this idea or not, the setting is of paramount importance to the story.  Our narrator excuses the brutality of life in the village by referring to the difficulty of life there:
"Try to understand, dear reader, that these innocent jokes, though cruel, are less so than life in the mountains; and if village women want to know every little thing you're up to, it's only because they lead empty lives; and if we make light of everything, it's only to keep from crying." p.39
I think that by the end of the book, anyone who tries The Frost on his Shoulders will know exactly what he means...

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Last Chronicle of IFFP 2012

As some of you may recall, I took part (not so long ago) in a rather audacious venture entitled the Shadow IFFP in which yours truly and a bunch of intrepid bloggers attempted to read all fifteen longlisted titles for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and second guess the opinions of the real panel - something we proved to be very bad at.  But isn't that all over, I hear you cry, past tense?  Well, not quite...

You see, I did my best to get through all of the fifteen titles, but in the end I was only able to notch up fourteen, my library, which had been amazing up to this point, failing to get my purchase request back to me on time.  Luckily, they didn't give up - and neither did I.  This post is review number fifteen; so, have I saved the best for last?

What's it all about?
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (translated by Judith Landry) was shortlisted for the real prize, beaten to the award by some book I don't particularly wish to talk about now.  The story is set during the Second World War, but the plot actually has little to do with the war.  We are presented with a journal of sorts, written in Finnish, with an introduction and frequent commentaries from a navy medic, Doctor Friari.  The main writer is Sampo Karjalainen, a Finnish sailor (and amnesiac) found in Trieste after having been attacked and left for dead.

When the good doctor, a native Finn, sees the name sewn inside the sailor's coat, he realises that he must be a countryman and promptly decides to nurse him back to health - and teach him a little of the native language he appears to have forgotten.  Once back in Helsinki, Sampo sets about mastering the notoriously tricky Finnish vernacular, hopeful of recovering his memory and his past.  That depends of course on whether he has one - and whether Doctor Friari's assumption was correct..

I loved this book, but considering the subject matter that's not a huge surprise.  My background is in linguistics and intercultural communication, and the vital connection between language and culture is the cornerstone of the novel.  Poor Sampo is adrift in a strange world, bereft of his early experiences, and he clings to the language he has been told is his, desperately trying to master in the space of a few months what would normally take an adult a lifetime.

Marani is a master linguist, and his evocation of an adult learner's struggles with a new language is a delight, the bewildered seaman adrift on a sea of rounded vowels and nouns with fifteen declensions, grasping onto any recognisable sound emerging from a speaker's lips as if it were a lifebelt or a sturdy piece of flotsam.  Sampo listens and listens, enjoying the sound of the words even if he does not quite grasp the meaning, storing up vocabulary in his mind for later perusal.  However, despite his passion for the language, he can't help wondering whether Friari has made a mistake, one which will doom Sampo to failure; for as Friari himself remarks:
"A learnt language is just a mask, a form of borrowed identity; it should be approached with appropriate aloofness, and its speaker should never yield to the lure of mimicry, renouncing the sounds of his own language to imitate those of another.  Anyone who gives in to this temptation is in danger of losing their memory, their past, without receiving another in exchange." Dedalus Books, 2011 (p.52)

As much as the story is about Sampo and his struggles though, it is also about those characters who attempt to help him, unable to avoid the temptation of scribbling on the tabula rasa of his amnesiac personality.  Doctor Friari, a Finn forced to leave his homeland after the civil war, sees what he wants to see when he stumbles across poor Sampo, desperate to redeem himself and his family in the eyes of a fellow Finn.

When Sampo arrives in Helsinki, he finds himself under the wing of Pastor Olof Koskela, a charismatic, patriotic Lutheran minister, a man with a passionate knowledge of Finnish myths, determined to teach Sampo his forgotten heritage.  Where Koskela attempts to fill in linguistic and historical gaps, a nurse, Ilma Koivisto, tries to help him in a more emotional way.  Sadly, none of Sampo's benefactors are able to convince him that he really is Finnish.  The more time passes, the more doubts arise:
"I had a distinct suspicion that I was running headlong down the wrong road.  In the innermost recesses of my unconscious I was plagued by the feeling that, within my brain, another brain was beating, buried alive." p.77
This feeling of uncertainty pervades the novel until its climax; when we discover the truth, it is as shattering to the reader as it is to poor Sampo...

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Absolutely.  New Finnish Grammar is a wonderful book, and easily finished up on my shortlist.  If you're not as interested in linguistics as I am (and that's a distinct possibility!), I can see how the constant language analysis might grate.  For me though, this book was an intelligent, thought-provoking study of the importance of language and culture to our mental well-being.  I wouldn't have minded at all if it had taken out the main prize :)

And that's it!  Our trip to Helsinki means that the journey has finally come to an end, albeit a rather belated one.  I've thoroughly enjoyed my trip around the world, courtesy of the IFFP, but now it's back to the daily grind...

...of reviewing more translated fiction :)

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Once Upon A Time In New Zealand...

Having started my week of indigenous writing here in Australia, I'm finishing it on the other side of the ditch in New Zealand.  Our trans-Tasman neighbours are well known for having a fairly robust multi-racial society, with the indigenous Maori population far more integrated than is the case with the Australian Aborigines.  However, things obviously aren't quite as rosy as many would like to make out - today's book shows that many things are (or were) rotten in the state of Aotearoa...

Once Were Warriors is an extremely popular New Zealand film, but the fact that it was originally a book is probably less known.  Alan Duff's novel is a searing exposé of the myth of racial harmony in New Zealand, portraying the life of the Maori underclass in a small regional town.  From first page to last, it grips the reader, pushing them into places they would rather not go, making them wonder what exactly has hapepned to a proud race of people.

The story centres on the Heke family, typical inhabitants of the town of Two Lakes.  Jake is the father, a feared fighter, a constant drinker and a threat to friends, foes and family members alike.  His wife Beth sleepwalks through her days, living only for her kids and wishing she could summon up the courage to take the first steps towards improving her life.  Together the Hekes have six children of various ages, exposed to the misery of growing up in an area rife with drugs, violence and chronic unemployment - and not all of them will make it through the book unscathed...

The story is told through the eyes of several of the family members, primarily Jake, Beth and elder daughter Grace, and each of the voices is unique and shattering, rough and wild.  At times, the language verges on steam-of-consciousness, deteriorating as the level of drunkenness increases, almost Joycean in its beauty and impenetrability.  In fact, one particular chapter, a thirty-page chunk which largely takes place in a bar, is as breath-taking in its own way as anything you'll find in Ulysses - but a lot more violent...

What comes across in the book's 200 pages is a picture of a society in ruins, a people with no hope, cast into a permanent cycle of unemployment and debt.  The streets of Two Lakes are home to casual, sickening violence, making it a very bad place to be if you're not a fighter.  It's not that there is any personal malice or bad blood - it's simply that the suppressed rage of living a life without prospects needs to be released somehow.  Jake and his friends just need to lash out at someone, anyone...

With no work, and little prospect of any, people spend their days wasting what little money they have on cigarettes and alcohol, unwilling and unable to put a little aside in the vain hope of improving circumstances.  In the first chapter, Beth makes the staggering discovery that her house is bookless, with not a single real book to be found from top to bottom - a symbol of the hopelessness of her situation.  The only other place the locals can look to restore their pride is their heritage, but the reality is that this new suburban underclass has lost its ties to its tradition.  When they left their villages, they abandoned their culture and their language, and now they are caught in a no-man's land, stranded between the Maori society they have voluntarily left and the white culture they will never be a part of.

Last year I read Witi Ihimaera's The Rope of Man, two collected novels which also dealt with the issue of Maori tradition and the importance of keeping a hold of it in modern society, but where Ihimaera's work was largely positive, Once Were Warriors is savage in its negativity.  It's over twenty years old now, so perhaps things have improved in New Zealand, but if this is (or was) a reflection of reality, it's a sobering one.

A book Once Were Warriors frequently reminded me of was Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked into Doors, another look at a post-colonial society struggling to achieve equality.  While the oppressors have gone home in Ireland (at least in most of it...), they have left behind a similar legacy to the one portrayed by Duff, that of an ethnic group which is struggling to keep up its own language and culture.  Paula Spencer's troubles stem less from ethnic than social issues, but the end result is the same - frequent, unmerited beatings...

One path to take out of the mess is to embrace the violence and join one of the local gangs, a choice one of Jake's sons decides to make.  The gangs are a law unto themselves and represent a substitute for the traditional extended Maori family.  However, there is always another - a better - path to take, and that is to return to traditional values and embrace the past.  By working as a community, the individuals can take strength from shared numbers, and by the end of the novel, this seems to be the path Duff is suggesting his people take.

Another point which comes across in the book is that Duff lays the blame for his people's decline squarely on the shoulders of the Maoris themselves.  Despite the disadvantages that the indigenous population faces in a white-dominated society, the writer refuses to take the easy way out and blame the Pakeha (Europeans) for Maori problems.  In fact, in the glimpse we get of Jake's family history, and the issues he and his ancestors faced, it's clear that the Maoris, in their own way, are just as guilty of discrimination as the Pakeha ...

Once Were Warriors is a book I would recommend to anyone, a biting critique of a people at a turning point, a proud race at rock bottom, trying to find their way back to old glories.  Duff insists that this is to be found in a greater sense of community and a return to traditional cultural values - and it's hard to disagree.  One of the enduring images of the book is the passion and energy shown when those Maoris who have retained the ties to their culture sing, dance and mourn.  The city-bred Maoris can only stand and wonder as their distant relatives show them the way out of their miserable lives:
"On and on and on, a reincarnation of what was, a resurgence of fierce pride, a come-again of a people who once were warriors."  p.127, UQP (1991)
As Jake finds out the hard way, being a warrior is about more than just fighting...

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Have Sword, Will Travel

Stu of Winstonsdad Blog and Richard over at Caravana de recuerdos have decreed July to be Spanish Lit Month, and who am I to argue!  I originally thought that I'd struggle to find anything to review this month, but as it turns out, I'll be a lot more active than I could ever have imagined.  More on that later in July :)

To start off with though, I thought I'd use the opportunity of a fiesta of Spanish-language writing to have a look at a book which has been sadly neglected on my bookshelves for a good while now, gathering dust and fading in the sun over a period of years.  What makes my neglect even more criminal is that the book is not only a mainstay of Spanish literature, it's one of the true classics of world literature - I think you might have guessed its name by now...

Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote is a monster of a book, around 800 pages in my Wordsworth Editions version, but nearer 1000 in other versions I've seen.  Despite its size, however, it's actually a very accessible book, less a densely-plotted novel than a continuous series of stories held together by the seemingly-insane adventures of our titular hero, Don Quixote de la Mancha, the Knight of the Woeful Figure/Lions.  A satire on improbable contemporary novels of knights-errant, Cervantes' book is a funny, page-turning work, one which can be recommended to any reader.

Our hero is a modest, relatively well-off man whose brains, after decades of reading sixteenth-century pulp-fiction, become so addled that he actually believes all the improbable events he reads about.  Eventually, he decides that his life is worthless unless he does his duty to the world in becoming a knight-errant, a wandering righter of wrongs.  Therefore, dressed in ancient and dubious armour, he sets off armed with a sword and his love for the semi-imaginary Dulcinea del Toboso (in reality, a peasant woman he has never met...), supported, initially at least, only by his trusty steed Rozinante.

He soon realises that a knight-errant needs a squire to take care of the incidentals in life, a right-hand man to bear witness to his heroics, and this is where the short, squat, simple figure of Sancho Panza fits in.  A villager who is more than happy to leave his wife and children at home for a while, Sancho's greed for the treasures he expects to gain from his work with the noble knight lead him to saddle up his donkey and ride off into the sunset with Don Quixote in search of adventure - and what wonderful adventures they are :)

The legendary tilting at windmills is one of the first of Quixote's madcap antics, but his noble attack on the army of sheep is another which sticks in the memory.  The poor man is completely delusional and sees enchanters and giants everywhere he goes, each traveller he comes across a potential supplicant - or enemy.  It's little wonder that Sancho appears to lose it himself before long, believing his master will eventually become an emperor and grant him his own island.  That could never happen - could it? 

Although Don Quixote is a long work, it's divided into two parts (of which the second is better than the first), and each of these is subdivided into dozens of chapters, making it an excellent book to pick up and set down as the mood takes you.  I tended to take it in small chunks, reading on if the story was continued in the next chapter, as was often the case.  On a cold, wintry Melbourne day though, it was often all too easy to just stay in my armchair and keep going...

The translation in my edition is provided by Peter Motteux, and despite withering criticism of this version (a note on the Don Quixote Wikipedia page describes it as "worse than worthless"), I found it surprisingly good reading, especially when you consider that it dates from the start of the eighteenth century.  If you're looking for something a little closer to the original text though, there are many versions to choose from - it seems that there has been no shortage of knights-errant willing to tilt the windmill that is translating Don Quixote ;)

I could go on and on, but I'd just be repeating myself.  While some may prefer to analyse the book and scrutinise its importance to world literature, for me Don Quixote is best read as a humorous rambling collection of stories, one anyone will enjoy.  It's a book I'm bound to come back to at some point, so I'll leave deeper analysis until then :)  One word of warning before I leave you though.  Be careful with all the reading you do this month - you don't want to end up like poor Don Quixote...

Monday, 2 July 2012

From the Hands of Our Fathers...

Lisa, of ANZ LitLovers, has declared the first week of July Indigenous Literature Week, and when the Queen of Australian literary blogs says that, it must be so ;)  This week then, I've got a couple of reviews for you by indigenous writers, one from either side of the Tasman - and we're starting today on our side of the ditch...

Larissa Behrendt's Legacy is a novel centred on Simone Harlowe, an Aboriginal law student studying for her doctorate at Harvard.  We first meet her on her way to a regular catch-up with her supervisor, Professor Young, a man she greatly admires.  As an outsider looking in on their educated discussion, it looks as if they are two people without a care in the world - but appearances can be very deceptive.

Simone decides to pay a surprise visit home to Sydney to see her parents, housewife mum Beth Ann and famous Aboriginal rights campaigner Tony.  Far from being a happy homecoming, however, Simone's extended stay reopens old wounds and unearths new problems.  Meanwhile, back in Boston, Simone's Professor is about to make a decision that will affect his Australian student more than she could have imagined...

While Legacy, as you would expect, does have a political side, the main focus of the novel is on relationships, especially family ties.  The headstrong Simone, who idolised her father as a young girl, is unable to forgive him when she discovers his feet of clay, shocked to discover that the man who represents his people on the national stage is every bit as flawed as everyone else.  It takes some advice from her closest friends to make her realise that the real world works very differently to how she'd pieced it together from her law books.

Behrendt's story is an entertaining one, a page-turner which I raced through in a matter of hours.  The multiple view-points allow the reader to experience events from two or three angles, revealing the contrast between the facts and what certain characters perceive.  In a story which could divide along the lines of fathers and daughters, it is perhaps appropriate that Simone has to learn that things aren't always black and white.

Interesting as it is though, I did have several issues with Legacy.  For one thing, the history of the Aboriginal rights movement, an important part of the story, seemed shoe-horned in, great amounts of information dumped into the reader's path, often obstructing the story's progress.  I also had issues with some of the conversations, the dialogue seeming a little stilted and unrealistic at times.

Another drawback was the way in which there seemed to be a multitude of strong women and weak men.  This portrayal of the men as weak, betrayed by their instincts, was a little annoying.  When you set this next to the character of Simone, a character not a million miles away from that of the writer herself, it seems a little... self-indulgent?  Certainly, if I were to write a novel about a teacher and literary blogger and then had another character praise his intelligence, I'd expect to be laughed at a little...

I'm sure many readers will disagree with my assessment (most usually do...), but even with these issues, Legacy is an entertaining novel, and I'm definitely glad I gave it a go.  It's just that if I'm being fair, Legacy has to compete on an equal basis with all the other novels I've read and reviewed on the blog.  Interesting?  Yes.  Entertaining?  Yes.  A great piece of literature?  No.  But then, that might be exactly what you're after ;)