Monday 23 May 2011

A Few Odds and Ends

I've already managed to put up a couple of reviews this month (which constitutes a good month at the moment!), so I thought I'd continue my weekly trend, this time with bite-size reviewettes of the other books I've got through in May so far.  Shall we?

Let's start with a Nobel prize winner (just because)Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red (translated by Erdag Göknar) is a mystery set in sixteenth-century Istanbul, involving the beautiful, but fading art of traditional Arabic 'illumination' of literary texts.  One of a group of four master artists has been been murdered,  presumably by one of the other three, and Black, recently returned from a long absence in the East, is charged with finding the guilty culprit.  If he can win the hand of the beautiful Shekure along the way, so much the better :)

The novel consists of many chapters, each having its own voice, told by one of the characters (or a drawing...).  It's an interesting way to tell a story, especially as the murderer actually has two voices - his real character, and that of 'the Murderer'.  It makes for an intriguing tale, but I didn't really love this book.  I was never really able to lose myself in the story, partly because of the, at times, slow pace, but perhaps more due to the unfamiliar setting which (to be honest) didn't really interest me that much.  As a tale of masters of a dying art form struggling to cope with the inevitable overthrow of their way of life, it is a fascinating story - I'll need another example of Pamuk's work before I can really say whether I like his style though.

The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai (translated by Donald Keene) is, as I'm sure you can guess, a little more in my line.  A fairly short novel, it tells the tale of Kazuko and her family, Japanese minor nobility who have descended in the world following the death of the father, and the financial strains caused by the aftermath of the Second World War.  Kazuko and her mother move away from Tokyo in order to stretch out their meagre reserves, but their lives are turned upside down again by the arrival of Kazuko's brother Naoji, believed lost in the Pacific War.  Far from this being a happy family reunion, however, it is merely the start of a final freefall into poverty and distress.

I've read a lot of Japanese fiction over the past few years, but most of it has been set either before or after WWII, and I have the feeling that there isn't as much literature dealing with this time as is the case in Germany (where it's virtually its own genre...).  While it's possible that I just haven't found these books yet, even Mishima's The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy, which spans fifty years between 1920 and 1970, conveniently skips the war years completely.  The Setting Sun then is a welcome insight into post-war Japan and the problems people had in adjusting to a new style of life and government.  The old aristocracy has lost its importance, the Emperor is not longer a deity, and Americans roam the streets of the conquered people (albeit very much in the background).

This leaves people like Kazuko and Naoji with a lot to work through if they want to carry on with their lives, and, in Japanese literature, that 'if' is never a given.  A quick glance at Dazai's Wikipedia page will soon give you an idea of his, shall we say, lack of optimism for the future, a sense of negativity which is shared by his protagonists.  It all makes for an interesting slice of Japanese social history and a very entertaining read - just don't expect many happy endings here...

A while back, I read Andrew McGahan's 1988 and was impressed enough to make a library request for Praise (written before 1988 but set after), where we meet Gordon on his return to Brisbane.  Fed up with his job, he uses a management reshuffle as an excuse to quit, sinking gently into the bludger lifestyle of drink, drugs and trips to Centrelink.  Still paranoid about his lack of sexual prowess, he somehow slips into a relationship with Cynthia, whose appetite for bedroom activities far outstrips his.  When she decides to forgo a move to Darwin to give their nascent relationship a chance, Gordon isn't entirely sure that it's for the best - especially as his high school crush Rachel is back on the scene...

Praise reminds me a little of Helen Garner's Monkey Grip, and could be seen as making a similar account of early-nineties Brisbane to the one Garner's novel made of mid-seventies Melbourne.  I'd have to say though that it doesn't do it nearly as well.  I liked 1988, with its subtle, psychological undertones, a story of a city boy stuck in the middle of nowhere and forced to face up to his inadequacies.  On the other hand, Praise just felt like a detailed list of one person's sexual exploits and drug-fuelled indiscretions over a particularly unproductive period of his life.  I got through it fairly quickly, and, although I enjoyed reading it, I was happy to move onto something else - and not much of the book has stuck in my mind.

McGahan went on to win the Miles Franklin award with The White Earth (which I'm planning to read at some point), so I trust that his later books are more similar in vein to 1988 than Praise.  I know it sounds like I really hated this book, but that's not the case; it's just that I was expecting something very different - a progression, both in character and writing - to what I found.  I forgot that what I was reading actually predated what I'd previously read...

Has anyone else read this - and do you have a different opinion?  Please let me know :)

Monday 16 May 2011


In my little corner of the blogosphere (and twitterverse), there has been a lot of talk of, and love for, Peirene Press, a small, London-based indie publisher that promotes translated European fiction.  Last year, Peirene published their first three offerings, bringing short novellas to the attention of anglophone readers who may be interested in (according to a critical blurb from the TLS) "literary cinema for those fatigued by film."

I'm not sure how accurate that claim is for Peirene's other publications, but it's a very good description for their fifth offering, Dutch writer Jan Van Mersbergen's Tomorrow Pamplona (translated by Laura Watkinson).  In just under 190 pages, the writer takes his characters (and the reader) on a road trip which could come straight from a European film noir.  Interested?  Buckle up, and I'll take you for a little ride...

Tomorrow Pamplona starts in the Netherlands, where Danny, a boxer, is running through the streets: from what, we don't know; to where, he doesn't seem to know himself.  After standing in the rain, waiting for someone to take pity on him and give him a lift to wherever it is that he's heading, he is picked up by Robert, a family man on his usual annual getaway to Pamplona, where he will participate in the world-famous running of the bulls.  And so begins a rather unexpected road trip...

As the story unfolds, we are treated to two separate strands.  The first, told in a present tense which heightens tension and brings us closer to the action, relates the eventful journey Danny and Robert make to Pamplona.  The second, told in the past tense, gradually fills in the few months leading up to the day the two men meet.  Both parts begin very quickly, events following one another rapidly, before slowing down gradually as the protagonists approach Spain.  Towards the end, the pace speeds up again, dragging the reader towards the inevitable (and shattering) climax.  It's a hell of a ride.

I don't want to say too much more about the plot - in such a short novel(la), it's best to leave things between the reader and the author -, but it's fairly obvious from the start that Danny, a man of very few words, is a slightly ambiguous character.  There is a sense of barely restrained rage lurking beneath the taciturn exterior, and part of the fun is trying to figure out just what it is that has got under his skin.

However, Robert gives the reader just as much to think about.  For all his talk about needing to get away for a while to recharge (and I can think of better places to rediscover yourself than at the pointy end of a bull...), there is obviously something not quite right in his life too, a frustration that can only be (temporarily) eased by staring danger, and death, in the face.  Just how happy is he with his life, and to what extent is he prepared to go to feel alive?

Tomorrow Pamplona packs a lot into its slender bulk, but, at times, Danny is not the only one who is sparing with words. Although the middle sections are a little more descriptive, Van Mersbergen begins the story with extremely sparse prose, much closer on the Hemingway-Proust spectrum to the American writer than the French.  Of course, this may well be intentional; the subject matter is reminiscent of old Ernest, and there's even a slight nod in the direction of The Sun Also Rises in a café scene on the Spanish border.  As mentioned above (and I may well be alone here), I felt a sense of lengthening of time though towards the middle of the book as the hour of the running of the bulls approached.  Events appeared to slow down, until time suddenly... stopped.  And then began to speed up again.

The key to the book is the secret of Danny's flight (and silence), but that's something you'll have to find out for yourself - and I highly recommend that you do.  Tomorrow Pamplona is out in June, hopefully available at The Book Depository and Amazon, and it is well worth reading.  There's one thing I got from this book that I can tell you though: you can't run from fate, but you can (and should) run from bulls...

Before I go, I just thought I'd bookend the review with a few thoughts on Peirene (who were lovely enough to send me this review copy).  It's no wonder that so many people are talking about them, because they are filling an awkward gap in the market, and, at the same time, fulfilling an important literary role.  The idea of providing a literary equivalent to a two-hour European film is an excellent one (and I could see Danny and Robert as they wound their way down towards the Iberian peninsula), one that has obviously caught on.  The identity that Meike, Maddy and co. (even if the co. consists of an imaginary friend and a couple of interns!) have created, especially in the look and style of their books is instantly recognisable and fitting for the works they are presenting.

I wonder what the future holds for Peirene.  Will they continue to bring out their three books a year, going for quality over quantity?  Will they stay with the concept of short, one-sitting stories?  Tomorrow Pamplona is noticeably longer than the class of 2010, so is that indicative of a shift in focus?  Will they continue to uncover new (for English-speaking audiences) European writers, or will they build on their successes by going back to the well of their previously published authors?

I certainly don't know (and I doubt Meike has all those answers either), but one thing is certain: Peirene should be congratulated for their efforts in making good European fiction available to a wider audience.  And that's what I'm doing - well done :)

Monday 9 May 2011

Time Well Worth Taking

As part of my ongoing quest to read more quality Australian novels, I decided earlier in the year to read Steven Carroll's Miles-Franklin-Award-Winning book The Time We Have Taken - then I discovered it was the third in a trilogy of tales...  So, having read the excellent The Art of the Engine Driver in January, and the even better The Gift of Speed in March, almost four months later, I finally got around to reading the final part of the series.

As I settled down on the settee to read the first few chapters, and the familiar, measured prose began to wash over me, I began to realise that I was feeling... well, happy.  A wave of nostalgic anticipation washed over me as I realised how much I was looking forward to reading the book.  Luckily, it didn't disappoint :)

So what is it about Carroll's work that I enjoy so much?  In lieu of actually writing a review (which is actually a bit pointless anyway as it's all about the journey, not the destination), I thought I'd try to pin down what it is I like about his writing.

1) It's a series.
More of a personal thing than a rock-solid recommendation, I know, but anyone who has frequented my blog over the past couple of years will know that I enjoy following writers and characters (e.g. The Barchester Chronicles, The Trilogy of the Rat), especially when the characters develop noticeably over the years and pages.  This is certainly the case here: we have seen Michael grow up from a solitary cricket-mad boy to a young man in love with life, literature and women; we've seen Vic finally pluck up the courage to make a break and start the final phase of his life; and we've seen how Rita copes with the changes, moving on in some ways, staying put in others.

2) It's set in Melbourne.
Again, a personal preference.  I've lived here now for nine years, without actually living in Melbourne proper.  For me, the setting of a novel in Melbourne gives me a glimpse of time past, an alternative history that I could have shared (but didn't).

3) The writing is wonderful.
Carroll's prose is deceptively profound, simple language blending into a greater whole, progressing casually and with a measured step - time is there for taking, and enjoying.  There's no need to rush.  The use of the present tense to describe events, along with the frequent switch in perspectives, gives the novel a slightly detached feel, in the manner of a scientist studying subjects through a microscope.  However, Carroll carefully adds feeling to his characters, like an artist slowly and meticulously creating his subjects on a canvas.

At this point, you're probably expecting samples of this language, but I'm not going to oblige.  Partially because I'm too lazy to copy it out (!), but mainly because the beauty consists not in any particular sentence or passage, but in the continual build up of the prose - the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts...

4) The way the novels deal with time.
The three books are not plot driven.  Things do happen, but there is no sense of surprise or suspense; in fact, the writer informs the reader of several important events well before they happen.  We know from the start of The Time We Have Taken that Michael's relationship with Madeleine is a fleeting, doomed affair, destined to remain imprinted in his memory as his first real love.  We are also aware of Vic's eventual fate from early on in the first of the three books (and it hasn't even happened yet!).

These glimpses of the future though are part of a global theme of time being less linear than ever present and simultaneous.  All the main characters are seen at multiple points in their lives, occasionally at the same time, either through memories or the intrusion of the narrator. As Vic nears the end of his time, he feels as if he is no longer living his life sequentially, but able to experience all parts randomly, childhood memories coming back and appearing as strong, as real, as his daily routine.

This use of time leads to the idea of multiple selves, the thought that a life consists not of one constantly-changing personality but of a series of versions of the self, the before me, the after me, or as Vic muses, the me-Vic and the them-Vic.  There's something very Proustian about the whole idea (I've just read some Proust, so forgive me if I'm stretching the point at the moment and viewing all my reading in his light...), and I'm wondering if Michael's girlfriend's name is a random, innocent choice...

Oh, there's so much more I'd like to talk about, such as the way certain characters or expressions would mean little to the new reader but speak volumes to anyone who has read the first two books, the style Carroll uses to show several actions happening simultaneously in different locations, the subtle use of real-life figures (Whitlam, the mountain on wheels)... enough.  I think I've managed to get my point across, and that is, of course, that I loved The Time We Have Taken, and I love the three books as a trilogy even more.

I'll definitely be looking for some of Carroll's earlier books, but I can't help feeling, as I always do, a little sad on reaching the end of the series.  Is that how it really ends, or is there room for more adventures, for one more book (or two) - we're only up to 1970, after all.  Perhaps, just perhaps (and I hope Mr. Carroll agrees), there's still a little more time left to be taken...

Sunday 1 May 2011

April 2011 Wrap-Up

It's that time again, a chance for me to tell you about all the books I read in April - don't you feel honoured..

Total Books Read: 11
Year-to-date: 48

New: 8
Rereads: 3

From the Shelves: 6
From the Library: 3
On the Kindle: 2

Novels: 9
Novellas/Short Stories: 2

Non-English Language: 6 (2 Japanese, 2 German, 1 French, 1 Spanish)
In Original Language: 3 (2 German, 1 French)

Books read in April were:
1) Du Côté de chez Swann by Marcel Proust
2) Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
3) The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami
4) 1988 by Andrew McGahan
5) The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow by Thea Astley
6) The Spare Room by Helen Garner
7) Liebe Deinen Nächsten by Erich Maria Remarque
8) The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
9) Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
10) Storm's Short stories and Novellas* by Theodor Storm
11) When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

* A bunch of random selected free e-texts - 
Martha und ihre Uhr, Im Saal, Im Brauerhaus, Im Sonnenschein, Immensee, Auf dem Staatshof, Pole Poppenspäler & Viola Tricolor

Murakami Challenge: 1 (2/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 3 (7/12)
Victorian Literature Challenge: 2 (11/15)

Tony's Recommendation for April is: Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans

A controversial choice?  Well, hard to look past Proust, but I'll reserve judgement on him until I'm further into his epic, seven-part masterpiece A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.  I was very tempted by The Autumn of the Patriarch and (of course) the wonderful - and wonderfully sad - Jude the Obscure, while if this award went on enjoyment factor alone, my German find of the month, Theodor Storm, could have been going home with the honours (metaphorically speaking...).  However, after being pipped at the post before, this month Kazuo Ishiguro gets the plaudits for another well-crafted work, with an intriguing and ever-so-slightly untrustworthy narrator telling us of his life and adventures in inter-war Shanghai.  Do read it :)

That was April- time flies, no? See you next month...