Sunday 30 May 2010

Review Post 23 - Short Men

Must be the year of the novella. I started the year with three short works in three days, and it seems to have rolled on nicely from there, with several more books of less than 150 pages read to date. Of course, my new, lazier blogging regime has had a little to do with that. Last year, when I was typing out a full review for every book I read, reading this many novellas would have resulted in the little-known medical condition of Sensory Post Overload Tension Syndrome (SPOTS) as I struggled feverishly to review each one in the style it craved and deserved. believe me, it's not pretty.

Anyway, here are some choice thoughts about two slight works by a couple of wonderful writers. Short ones, of course.


Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Chronicle of a Death Foretold (translated into English by Gregory Rabassa) is apparently a reconstruction of an event from the writer's youth and recounts the death of Santiago Nasar, victim of an 'honour killing' in a small Colombian town. The reader knows Nasar's fate right from the start, and it's only a few pages until we know who carried out the murder - and the reason for it. The beauty of this novella is not in the who and what, but in the how and why, and the way the author unwraps his story, layer by layer, like a beautifully wrapped Christmas present, is a joy to behold. The journalistic approach adopted by the writer reminds me of Heinrich Böll's Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum, but where Böll's work was taut, aggressive and detached, GGM is an integral part of the mazy, rambling story, one of the many extras roaming the streets (and slipping in and out of bed with the madam of the local brothel, not something you often find chroniclers doing).

The story slips back and forth in time, meandering occasionally, before being gently guided back into the semblance of a linear tale. Great care is taken with painting the people populating the story, to the extent of adding interesting details about the most minor of characters (such as a policemen who we learn "...died the following year, gored in the jugular vein by a bull during the national holidays."). In fact, the victim himself seems to be less important than the host of bystanders who look on guiltily or try to find the unfortunate Santiago to warn him of his fate.

You see, by the time of the murder, virtually everyone in the town knows that it is going to happen, with the notable exception of the victim. His murderers, damned to avenge their sister's honour, but hopeful that someone may still prevent them from doing it, tell all and sundry of their intentions. Santiago's friends scour the streets, trying to find him and warn him before it's too late; the police and the priest are informed and several steps are taken to prevent the tragedy from taking place. As we know from page one of the book, somehow they are all unsuccessful.

Less a story than the tale of an old man on a search for an elusive truth, Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a wonderful piece of writing and well worth reading. As with most novellas though, whether it is worth buying is another matter. I devoured the 122 pages of large type in one sitting, and I am very glad that Narre Warren Library had a copy on the shelf...


The wonderful people at the library had also decided to stock up on V.S. Naipaul, and this book would have been worth purchasing. The Nightwatchman's Occurrence Book and Other Comic Inventions is an omnibus containing a collection of short stories and two novellas: The Suffrage of Elvira (which I read last month) and Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion.

Mr. Stone... is an early work by the Trinidad-born Nobel Laureate, which takes place in London in the 1960s. Richard Stone is a lifelong bachelor, nearing retirement, who, after meeting a widow at a friend's dinner party, somehow finds himself married a few months later. Thrown by his change in circumstances, and haunted by a chance encounter which leads him to consider his upcoming retirement, he throws himself into the development of an idea for his work which will have ramifications for everyone in his life: the Knights Companion...

This novella started off as a short story but eventually became too long and was published in its own right, and, for the first half at least, it seemed like a concept extended beyond its natural life. The idea appeared a little drawn out, and I had trouble seeing where the story was going. Eventually though, as Stone stops fighting against the unfairness in the world and the appropriation of his ideas at work, he starts to regain his equilibrium and seeks comfort in the natural world, his garden and the once-hated cat from next door. This sketching of the inner life of an elderly gentleman is one of Naipaul's strengths. Just as he does in A House for Mr. Biswas, here he draws out the inner dignity of a powerless man, surrounded by women at home and eclipsed by pushier, more cunning colleagues in the work environment.

By the end of the novella, the circle of life has turned again. Stone has retired, the trees are in bloom, and a familiar pair of eyes greet him on his return to his little house. Despite the changes around him, the elderly man now feels comfortable with his life again. It's a charming tale, but one that whets the appetite rather than sates it. After reading three of his earlier works this year, I feel ready to move on to some of his later, more famous novels now. Who knows, I may even buy them...

Monday 24 May 2010

Review Post 22 - Fine Dining at the Fusion Lit Bistro

[The camera fades in from black to reveal a quiet restaurant; not full, not empty. A few people are standing chatting at the bar over drinks - dinner jackets and cocktail dresses aplenty. We start to zoom in gently to a table to the right of our picture. Tony is sitting, alone, perusing a burgundy leather-bound menu with Fusion Lit Bistro written in gold script. From the left, a tall, gaunt waiter approaches unhurriedly and elegantly, stopping neatly at Tony's table as he puts the menu back down on his table.]

Waiter: Good evening, sir. I have the pleasure of serving your table this evening.
Tony: Oh, good. [Peers at the waiter's name tag. It's blank]. Sorry, what was your name?
W: That depends entirely on your imagination, sir.
T: [Thinks] Let's say Jeeves then.
W: [Scathingly] I think not.

[A slightly embarrassing silence ensues.]

W: [Tactfully breaking the awkward moment] Now, sir, have you been able to decide?
T: Not really. There's just so much to choose from, and I must confess that I don't really understand all the choices.
W: That's perfectly understandable, sir; I wouldn't have expected anything else from you. [A Pause] Or anyone else. Would you like me to make some suggestions?
T: Please do, Sebastian.
W: No. Now as a starter, I would recommend Camus' La Chute.
T: La Shoot?
W: It can be translated as The Fall, and it's a delightfully constructed existentialist work on the pointlessness of life and the impossibility of finding a meaning in our dreary existence.
T: Existentialism? For a starter? Won't that be a little too heavy?
W: Oh no, sir, light and compelling, melts on the tongue. I assure you your appetite will remain, shall we say, unspoiled.
T: Well, alright then. Let's move on to the mains. Now [Opening the menu again and peering at an item near the bottom of the page], I was looking at your German section, I fancy a good meaty selection. What would you recommend, Andrew?
W: Not even close. If it's something hearty, dense and meaningful you're looking for, Thomas Mann is always a good choice. Our platter of six, Der Tod in Venedig, or Death in Venice, and five other stories would give you a selection to chew on. Lots of angst about the difficulty of being a writer, the role of the artist and the irresistible pull of death. [Pauses] Although it may be a little much for the single diner to take... I mean, manage...
T: No, no, that sounds fine. We all need a little something to digest from time to time, hey Alexander? [A very menacing look from the waiter. Tony coughs nervously and retreats to the safety of the menu.] Well, anyway... What about as an accompaniment? Any specials?
W: Well, we do have something a little unusual from our our Murakami range, a cheeky little 2000, after the quake. Not as full-bodied as some of his other vintages, but it'll work very nicely if evenly spaced with your other choices. Crisp, clean stories of life at one remove from the Kobe disaster, indubitably one to sip and ponder over at your leisure.
T: That's fine then. I'll take the shooty thing, the German meatballs and the Japanese plonk.

[The waiter shudders visibly, takes the menu gingerly between his long, elegant fingers and retreats in the direction he came from. After a significant interlude, during which the items requested are brought, sniffed and consumed, the waiter returns to the table. Tony is looking satisfied, if a little tired.]

W: Was everything to your liking sir?
T: Marvellous, thoroughly enjoyed it all. Many thanks for the recommendations, Algernon.
W: That's quite alright sir. And no. [Pauses] How did you find the starter? We do appreciate feedback from our guests.
T: Well, La Chute was definitely thought provoking, a one-sided dialogue between a man trying to discover what makes life worth living, and the reader. Fascinating reading, but the style did wear you down towards the end. A bit like listening to a sermon really; which is a little ironic, I suppose... I'll have to try it again some time, try to find out exactly what it's all about.
W: And the main course?
T: Quite superb! Nothing like a bit of temperamental Teutonic artistic soul-searching to satisfy the appetite. Only 80 pages, that Venice story, but my goodness, as dense and textured as many a 600-page novel. Death motifs everywhere you looked, homo-erotic suggestiveness, the smell of cholera palpable in the air...
W: Actually, sir, I believe that may have been the toilets. Our apologies.
T: Ah, right. [Looks sheepish] I have to admit, I had to leave a couple of stories for later, so if you could just get me a doggie bag for those...
W: I'll see to that presently. And the Murakami? To sir's liking?
T: You know, I was a bit worried that it would be a little lightweight and weak, but it did go rather splendidly with the other works. A sip here and there, a little low-grade soul searching, a dash of reevaluating one's life goals - really quite wonderful. It didn't have that sparkle and the special ingredients of other Murakamis I've tried, but it was reminiscent of his Norwegian Wood in its earthy, realistic tones. Not quite sure about the hint of frog though.
W: Not to everyone's taste, I agree. Still, I hope we'll be seeing you here again, sir.
T: Most definitely. This is just the kind of place I've been looking for. So, could I have the bill please, Haruki?
W: Now you're just embarrassing yourself.

[The waiter walks away shaking his head.]

T: Wait! David! Heinrich! Albert! Kazuo! [Thinks] Engelbert?

[Fade to black...]

Thursday 20 May 2010

The Bigger They Are...

Sorry to disappoint you, but there's not a book review in sight today. Instead, I am taking up Tanabata's May Challenge for her Hello Japan! mini-site, writing a post which is somehow connected with Japan and sport. If you're quite ready...


If I'm quite honest, and I do always try to be (even if I don't always succeed), Japan was a place where my sporting interests fell by the wayside a little. Working evenings and having different days off to most people meant that there was little opportunity to organise a kick-around. I eventually managed to join a gym where I was able to use the cycling machine (much to the amusement of the staff, who sneaked glances at me when I wasn't looking, regarding me much as you would an exotic animal in the zoo) and do my twenty laps of the pool in the disgusting cotton swimming cap which Japanese sports centres force you to wear. Watching sport was no more successful; Japanese free-to-air television only really showed baseball, a sport I have no real interest in, and I never really got around to watching anything live. Of course, the upside of all this was that by the time we moved to Australia and my wife found out that I was actually a lot more addicted to sport than she'd assumed, it was too late for her to jump ship...

However, there was one exception to this dark age in my sporting life, and that was the ancient Japanese art of Sumo. I don't think there's anyone out there anymore who knows nothing about the sport, but it is a little more complex than outsiders realise. Sumo, part sport and part Shinto ritual, consists of several divisions of fighters, with promotion and relegation (just as in football) a distinct possibility. There are six major tournaments, or Basho, held each year: three in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Nagoya, and one in Fukuoka. Each tournament runs for fifteen days, with the Rikishi (wrestler) winning the most bouts over this period winning the competition. The forty fighters in the top division are divided into two sets, East and West (which have little bearing on the actual proceedings), and are ranked in order of ability. Most people will have heard of the rank of Yokozuna, or Grand Champion, but there are also some other titled positions: Ozeki, Sekiwake and Komusubi.

Sumo, in my time in Japan, at least, was shown live on NHK, but this unabridged version was a little too dry for me. Therefore, my preference was to wait until 10.30, when I was able to watch the superbly-named Professional Sumo Digest. This half-hour show, Sumo's answer to Match of the Day, had a slick presentable gentleman sitting next to (and in the shadow of) a hulking, monosyllabic former wrestler, who usually looked very, very wrong in his suit. The pair introduced highlights of the bouts - by highlights, I mean the actual twenty seconds or so of shoving and grunting, cutting the ten minutes of ceremonial salt throwing and psychological warfare - before analysing the action replays (well, Mr. Slick analysed them; his mountainous side-kick tended to grunt incomprehensibly).

So 10.30 inevitably found me and my room-mate Paul ensconced in our armchairs, drinks in hand, ready to cheer on our favourites. Of course, we knew the big stars (the four Yokozuna at the time were the two Hawaiians, Musashimaru and Akebono, and the two Japanese brothers, Takanohana and Wakanohana), but we found the lesser-known lights just as entertaining. However, not being able to read their names from the screen, we invented our own less-than-respectful (but actually very useful) names for some of the regular wrestlers. Elvis, The Wolfman, The Bear, Genki Man and The Slapper were all cheered on enthusiastically at Tsuchiyama Sky Heights, but none were as respected and admired as The Old Man.

The Old Man's real name (or, at least, his ring name, which is not the same thing) was Terao, and he stood out among these monsters of the Sumo world for looking, well, fairly normal. If encountered at your local Daiei supermarket, he would doubtless attract a fair few awed gasps, but on the Dohyo, in comparison with some of the other hulking Rikishi, he looked more like a rugby player than a sumo wrestler. Weighing in at around 115kg at his prime and standing only 6ft 1in tall, he defeated many other fighters coming in at 150kg+ with a deft technique and nimble footwork, and these qualities soon made him our personal favourite. These characteristics had also helped him to achieve a worthy longevity in the sport, and at the time of our story he was already thirty-six years old (a time when many Rikishi have long retired to appear in television commercials and sort out their cholesterol issues).

So, dear reader, let me now take you to a cold November night in 1999. Paul and I were ready, drinks in hand, watching the events of the sumo day unfold on Professional Sumo Digest. As the programme drew to a close, we came to the last bout of the day, where we were delighted to see The Old Man fighting in a prime-time spot, taking on the colossal Musashimaru. The foreign Yokozuna, weighing in at 235kg, was involved in a struggle for this tournament with Takanohana and needed all the wins he could get. As the two men squared up, an outsider would have thought that the organisers had made a serious error of judgement and would have urged them to reconsider. Seldom do you see such a mismatch in sport; the giant Musashimaru towered over the (comparatively) slender frame of his prey. I sat there, wine in hand, hoping that the bout would pass by without serious damage.

After a couple of minutes of posturing and salt throwing, enough hands were touched to the floor for the contest to begin, and Musashimaru came lunging forward, ready to smash Terao out of the dohyo (and probably into the next prefecture), when something very special happened. The older, lighter fighter somehow pirouetted, one leg almost sweeping above the onrushing leviathan, and ended up behind the Yokozuna. A quick push on Musashimaru's mawashi (loincloth - the standard wrestling attire), and the giant Hawaiian was sent sprawling out of the ring and towards several panicky pensioners who suddenly realised that their front-row seats were not the bargain they had expected. After a split-second of stunned murmurs, the crowd rose as one to salute the kin-boshi, or gold star, the feat of a non-ranked wrestler downing a grand champion. Cushions began raining down on to the dohyo from the crowd, a mark of great respect. As you would expect, back at Tsuchiyama Sky Heights, a few cushions were thrown in celebration too.

Despite this defeat, Musashimaru went on to win the tournament while this bout was the last big hurrah of Terao's career. Both men now work as trainers at a sumo stable, Terao having created his own from scratch, grooming the next generation of wrestling stars. But for one moment, just over a decade ago, the two men's paths crossed in a brief moment of balletic beauty which is still one of my strongest memories of life in Japan. Consider this post one last round of applause for 'The Old Man'; cushion included...

Photo retrieved on 20/5/10 from:

Monday 17 May 2010

Review Post 21 - The Joys of Youth

On to May, and that means it's time for The Small House at Allington, the fifth book in Anthony Trollope's Barchester Chronicles series. Each rereading of these books leaves you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, and this month's instalment is no exception. Unusually for Trollope, the major event occurs early in the book when country belle Lily Dale captivates London man-about-town Adolphus Crosbie so completely that he decides to propose marriage. However, after an idyllic few weeks in Allington, Crosbie moves on to Courcy Castle, where he is besieged (in the most subtle, delicate and elegant way) by Lady Alexandrina. Despite knowing full well that he would be best served by remaining true to Lily, the snob in him is unable to resist the appeal of marrying into the aristocracy. Thus occurs a jilting which will change lives (at least three) forever...

Although Lily is widely acknowledged as the stand-out character, a burned moth unable to trust to her chances of recovery from her scorched attempt at romance, Crosbie, the undisputed villain of the piece, is just as fascinating. In Framley Parsonage, the figure of Nathaniel Sowerby exemplified the gentleman with all possible advantages in life who throws them all away, knowing all the while that the road he is treading leads only to ruin. So it is with Crosbie. He is fully aware that Lily would have made a far better wife than the ice-cold Lady Alexandrina, and he quickly realises that the degenerate assortment of alcoholics, scroungers and old maids who make up the Courcy family cannot hold a candle to the honest gentry surrounding Lily in Allington. So why does he do it?

Crosbie falls victim to his own delusions of grandeur, trading certain plain happiness for potential high status - something which never really comes to pass. Even while flirting at Courcy Castle, he admits to himself the inferiority of the people there, shuddering involuntarily at the ignorance and deceit he sees around him. Alas, his society time in London has become too dear to him, and he is unable to tear himself away from the bright lights; in truth, he is just as much of a moth as Lily is.

The observant reader (and I am sure that you are all observant - and highly intelligent as well) will have noticed that three lives were ruined by Crosbie's caddish behaviour. The third of these unfortunate souls is John Eames, a childhood friend of Lily's who (naturally) worships the very ground she walks on. He is a 'hobbledehoy', neither a child nor a man, and over the course of the novel, he develops socially and mentally until he believes (and is led by others to believe) that he may be the one to repair Crosbie's damage and mend Lily's heart. He is also a thinly-veiled portrait of Trollope himself and gives the author the opportunity to put aspects of his youth into his fiction, including his time as a clumsy clerk in the postal service. Quite whether Trollope would have been willing and able to avenge a lady's honour in the fashion Eames does is another matter entirely...

I'll leave you to find out how it all ends for yourself. As to the series itself, June will bring the review of what is, quite literally, The Last Chronicle of Barset, a glorious swansong for England's most famous fictional county and a chance to catch up with some old friends - some welcome, some not so. See you then!


While we're on the topic of thinly-veiled autobiography, the David Mitchell reminiscence tour stops by the Worcestershire town of Black Swan Green this week. Set in 1982, with a background of Betamax, sherbert bombs and the Falklands War, the novel follows young Jason Taylor, a young secondary school student with a stammer, through one of his most formative years. Despite the simplistic style of the storytelling and the detached nature of the thirteen chapters, Mitchell manages to tie it all into a seamless analysis of both adolescence and a simpler, quieter era.

Let me get the references out of the way now. The style reminds me very much of Mikael Niemi's Popular Music, a Finnish coming-of-age tale, while some of the content matter is reminiscent of Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha, particularly in its treatment of the effect less-than-perfect marriages can have on impressionable children. However, having compared Mitchell to one of his great influences, Murakami, in an earlier post, it would be remiss of me not to mention the parallels with Norwegian Wood, another great tale of past love and loss.

Which is not to say that Black Swan Green is derivative. As usual, Mitchell manages to put his own stamp on an idea that, it's fair to say, is not entirely original. It helps that the setting is not exactly alien to me, born five years later than Jason (and about fifty miles east of his Worcestershire home), yet I suspect that anyone reading his experiences would be drawn irresistibly back to their own childhood, whether that involved first kisses, chases through fields, bullying at school, or playing Space Invaders. We've all been there.

The backdrop of the Falklands War was particularly poignant for me though for a number of reasons. Firstly, the way the children reacted, watching the news coverage as if it were a sporting event, is very similar to the way we followed the first Gulf War at school (with chalk maps of the Middle East drawn on the blackboard at lunchtime). The inability to realise what was actually happening due to a lack of close involvement is now, at a distance of twenty years, slightly embarrassing to recall. Secondly, having been born in Coventry, there are certain things which are part of our shared knowledge, and the moment we learn that one of the locals is a sailor stationed on HMS Coventry, I choke up a little. Every time.

Look, to cut a long story short, Mitchell is brilliant, the book's brilliant, and I can't wait to read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (currently reclining resplendently on the bookcase behind me).

And yes, I still hate him ;)

Thursday 13 May 2010

A very good reason for a lack of blogging activity...

Meet Hayley Alicia Malone, born on the 11th of May, 2010. Little Hayley arrived home today and met big sister Emily (who now wants to do everything with little sis and kicked up a huge stink when she wasn't allowed to sleep next to her cot). Mum Anna and baby are doing well. Very happy - but very, very tired.

Blogging will have to wait a little while...

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Review Post 20 - I am most definitely NOT a Cat

I am a dog, and my name is Genji. A fine Japanese name you may think, but it's actually a rather teasing and cruel joke on behalf of my owners. Unlike my literary counterpart, I have not been able to roam the Emperor's court, seducing courtesans and concubines; I have had to content myself with sitting at home on my cushion. Sometimes, it truly is a dog's life...

As if that's not bad enough, this week I have had to put up with the indignity of seeing one of my owners (the hairy one) reading a book about a cat: the cheek! The book is called I Am A Cat (an example of the feline ability to state the obvious) by a Japanese writer named Soseki Natsume, and as my hairy owner told my other owner (the pink one) all about what was happening (although she didn't seem very interested - unless eye-rolling indicates interest in humans), I will be able to fill you all in on the story.

Despite its unfortunate title, Natsume's book is not so much a story about a cat as an amusing series of anecdotes and long stories critiquing life in Japan just over a hundred years ago. The cat was chosen as a sort of objective observer through the eyes of which the reader is able to see the oddities and paradoxical behaviour of humans. Quite why Natsume chose a cat is beyond me (a dog would have done the job just as well - and with a lot less preening), but perhaps he wanted a self-important spiteful view of human social life - in which case a cat was a good choice.

The cat of the title (who never receives a name, classically Japanese or otherwise) observes the daily goings on and philosophical discussions of his owner, Mr. Sneaze, and his friends: the scholar Coldmoon, the poet Beauchamp Blowlamp, the philosopher Singleman Kidd and, most importantly, the layabout Waverhouse, a wonderful character who is as humorous and full of life as a whole litter of puppies. The hairy one, who considers himself a bit of an expert on all things Japanese, was a little confused by the English-sounding names but eventually concluded that it was the decision of the translator. Which I could have told him straight away (sometimes, he gets a little carried away looking for the complex explanation when an easy answer is staring him in the face).

In any case, the gentlemen in question, despite having jobs, seem to spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around on Mr. Sneaze's living room floor telling tall tales which are either skilfully crafted philosophical metaphors (Mr. Hairy's view) or inane rubbish (Miss Pink's view, with which I heartily concur). I am reliably informed that the style is reminiscent of such works as Three Men in a Boat, The Pickwick Papers and, even, Thus Spake Bellavista with its mix of social commentary and existential conversation sessions. I will have to take Mr. Hairy's word for it.

Apparently, the style is a little different to English writing (which surprises me - when I looked, the paper substance was covered with black marks, just like all the other books hanging around the house). The style is said to be more subtle without the classic structured stages of a story which are the norm for English, so the chapters appear to slip by without outlining an overall theme. Mr. Hairy believes that this is typical of Eastern rhetorical styles where the onus is on the reader to tease out the writer's implied meaning, in contrast to the writer-responsibility rules of English writing. Mind you, he had already had a few glasses of wine when he said that, so I wouldn't take him too seriously.

By this time, I was getting bored of this conversation (or, rather, monologue - from the snoring noises coming from the armchair on the other side of the room, Miss Pink may well have been asleep) and decided to go for a quick walk around the kitchen looking for any stray scraps in my food bowl (there weren't any - life can be cruel sometimes). When I got back, Mr. Hairy was musing about the benefits of rereading this book more slowly in the future to absorb the ideas more fully; something about never crossing the same river twice. Which is just common sense: why would you cross the same river twice? You may as well just stay on the side you're on if you're only planning to come back again. If there is one thing I agree with the wretched cat on, it's that humans are a funny bunch. Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time for a nap. Any further questions can be directed to Mr. Hairy at the usual address.


P.S. Mr. Hairy has asked me to add that this copy of I am a Cat was free! Apparently, he won it in a giveaway hosted by someone named Claire from Paperback Reader (which, I am informed, is another book blog). Most heartfelt thanks from Mr. Hairy. But not from me - I'm still annoyed about the cat...