Friday 28 October 2011

A Fictional Slant On Fact

Stasiland, Anna Funder's non-fiction treatment of the horrors of the East-German police state is a wonderful book, one that I've read several times.  In the many years since it was released, I've occasionally wondered where her next effort was (and what was taking so long...), so I was very happy when I learned that Funder had finally written a new book (and even more so when the kind people at Penguin Australia sent me a copy!).

Unlike Stasiland though, All That I Am is a novel, Funder's first public foray into fiction.  It relates the efforts German dissidents made between Hitler's rise to German Chancellor and the start of the Second World War to let people know what exactly was happening in Germany.  While the world preferred to allow the great dictator to slowly build up his forces, hoping that he would be satisfied with throwing his weight about in Eastern Europe, people like Ruth Wesemann, Dora Fabian and the playwright Ernst Toller, exiles in London, attempted to reveal the atrocities the Nazis were committing back in their home country.

While the emigrés' main problems are initially to do with earning money and finding a way to get their message across, their situation eventually becomes more perilous.  Even in peacetime London, the Nazis have people looking out for Germans who don't follow the party line.  As opponents of Hitler's regime begin to disappear all over Europe, the small pocket of exiles in London begin to look nervously over their shoulders...

The story is told in flashbacks by two of the major characters: Ernst Toller, a poet and playwright, is sitting in a hotel room in New York in 1939, dictating changes in his autobiography to an assistant; Ruth Becker, living in the Sydney of around a decade ago, begins to recall those turbulent years in London when she receives Toller's manuscript in the post.  In alternating chapters, flicking back and forth in time, Ruth and Toller explain how Hitler came to power, what happened when he did and the price people paid for opposing him.

While the story is told by Toller and Ruth though, it is the woman who connects them, Dora (Ruth's cousin and Toller's lover), who is arguably the central character of the novel.  She is one of the leading lights of the intellectual resistance, running risks both inside and outside Germany in an attempt to open people's eyes to the dangers ahead.  Gradually, she becomes aware of what she and her friends are up against, a total disregard for human life and the idea of democracy, shown in her treatment after being arrested in Berlin, where she realises that the law can no longer protect her:
"Dora was suddenly afraid, in her filth under the too-bright light, that it didn't matter what she said.  The point had been passed where the law could protect her.  This argument was a farce, the cat playing with the mouse for the pleasure of smelling its fear." p.142 (Penguin Hamish Hamilton, 2011)

All That I Am is certainly an entertaining book, and it deals with a fascinating period of history, one I love reading about, so I was a little disconcerted when I realised half-way through the book that I wasn't really enjoying it as much as I thought I would.  I eventually realised that one of the reasons for this was that I was subconsciously comparing it to another of my recent reads, Elliot Perlman's The Street Sweeper.  Next to this weighty tome, another book partly set in wartime Europe, Funder's book seemed a little lightweight, fluffy even.  While I still prefer The Street Sweeper, I think the second half of All That I Am made up for (and perhaps justified) the calmer pace of the middle section of the novel. The lack of urgency here made the events depicted later on even more striking, setting the reader up for an emotional fall.

The other issue I had with All That I Am though is one which I've already seen covered in a couple of reviews, one which is inevitable considering the author's background.  The majority of the characters are real, as is much of the action, so considering that Funder has already written a non-fiction book, it's very difficult for the reader (for this reader, at least) not to wonder if this may have been better off left as fact, rather than fiction.  Perhaps the less immediate nature of the material led to the decision to fictionalise events (Stasiland was fairly recent history, with plenty of people to interview) - it would be interesting to see (in a parallel universe...) how a non-fiction version would have turned out.

Still, don't misconstrue the musings of this blogger as advice not to read the book.  It's more an unfair comparison with Perlman's wonderful novel and Funder's own fantastic non-fiction work.  All That I Am is an interesting read, set in a fascinating period, and anyone interested in this slice of history would be well advised to give it a go.  Funder succeeds in showing us why events in the 1930s turned out as they did, and Ruth's words describe as well as any why people in Germany at the time failed to stop the agony of the Reich's innocent victims.
"Most people have no imagination.  If they could imagine the sufferings of others, they would not make them suffer so... 
... But Toller, great as he was, is not right.  It is not that people lack an imagination.  It is that they stop themselves using it.  Because once you have imagined such suffering, how can you still do nothing?" p.358

Tuesday 25 October 2011

A Nobel Pursuit

Nobel time has come and gone for another year, and (alas) Haruki Murakami still hasn't brought home the prize.  While the committee (hopefully) has many years yet to rectify this, it means that there are still only two Japanese Nobel laureates in the literature section - Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe.  So, while we wait for 1Q84 to arrive on our doorsteps (and ponder what might have been), I thought it might be nice to have a look at a couple of works from the writers Murakami is hoping to emulate...

Kawabata's Beauty and Sadness is a novella centred on Toshio Oki, a middle-aged novelist, and Otoko Ueno, an artist whom Oki (while already married) seduced at an early age, and whose life he altered dramatically.  Decades after their affair was brought to an end, the writer decides to visit his former love in Kyoto to hear the New Year bells ringing, and on this trip he meets Keiko Sakami, a young woman who has become Otoko's protégée - and perhaps a whole lot more...

Otoko greets Oki warmly, if warily, and it is actually Keiko who shows more of an interest in the writer (whose most famous work is a novel based on his relationship with Otoko).  It soon becomes clear that the stunning and vibrant Keiko knows all about Otoko and Oki's affair, and while, on the surface at least, she appears to want to respect her teacher's wishes to treat her old flame with respect, the reader soon suspects that she has another motive for her interest in Oki - revenge.

My first thought on reading this (aided by memories of several other J-Lit classics) was that if you are to believe fiction, Japanese women are most definitely not to be crossed.  It's not giving much away to say that the most interesting character in the novella is Keiko, a femme fatale in the vein of Mitsuko (the memorable character in Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's Quicksand).  It's not just her scheming against Oki and his family which is so disturbing, it's also her behaviour when she is with Otoko.  Urgent, pouting, aggressive, meek, flirty... she is anything but predictable.

As is so often the case with Japanese literature though, nature itself is just as important as the people who move through it.  Kawabata is a master of painting pictures with words in his works, and Beauty and Sadness is no exception.  The reader is treated to sumptuous descriptions of Arashiyama and the other mountains surrounding Kyoto; we walk with Oki through the hills of Kamakura; and we gaze out over the beautiful Lake Biwa, still unaware of what is to happen there.  There certainly is a lot of beauty in Kawabata's writing - if you read this book, you'll see that behind the beauty, there is often a fair amount of sadness too...

If Kawabata is the traditional, aesthetic Yin of modern Japanese literature though, Kenzaburo Oe is most definitely the foreign-influenced, hard-nosed Yang.  In contrast to the understated elegance of Beauty and Sadness, A Personal Matter, one of Oe's earliest works, is a rather modern and realistic affair.

The short novel introduces us to Bird, a twenty-seven-year-old cram-school teacher, who is hanging around in Tokyo, waiting for news on the birth of his first child.  When the call finally comes, he senses that not all is well, and on arriving at the hospital, his fears are confirmed.  His son has been born with a large lump on his head, which the doctors describe as a brain hernia.  Faced with a situation where his son will either die in a matter of days or grow up severely mentally disabled,  Bird leaves the hospital and quickly begins to unravel...

Bird's trial of character as he deliberates whether to make an effort to save his son's life, a decision which will result in him giving up his life's dream of travelling to Africa, may seem grotesque (and more than a little over the top), but it is actually a slightly exaggerated metaphor for the sense of a loss of freedom which accompanies the joy of welcoming a child into the world.  The problems his son is facing allow Bird to consider running away from his responsibilities, throwing away his career and falling into the arms of a former girlfriend in an attempt to regain his freedom.  It isn't until the last few pages, after many tortuous episodes, that we are told the decision Bird has come to.

A Personal Matter is a thought-provoking book, but in a gritty, unflinching way.  It is reminiscent of John Updike's Rabbit, Run (written four years earlier) in both its content and its style, very different indeed to Beauty and Sadness.  Where Kawabata's works are steeped in tea houses and temples, Oe shows us the underbelly of Japanese life - tenements, amusement arcades, gay bars, dodgy clinics - and doesn't shy away from explicit sex, alcoholism and violence.  Slammed by many critics at the time for his sullying of pure Japanese writing, Oe is obviously an influence on several contemporary Japanese writers.  Haruki Murakami is, of course, one that comes to mind, but it's safe to say that writers such as Ryu Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto and Natsuo Kirino were also nudged into their writing paths by Oe's Westernised style.

I've now read four of Kawabata's works, while A Personal Matter is my second of Oe's novels.  Oe may verge on the disturbing at some points, but I enjoy the way he dissects the issues facing normal modern Japanese families, ones without homes overlooking the valleys of Kamakura.  Perhaps though that's why the two works reviewed here complement each other so well: the delicate and the crude, the subdued and the brash, the inside and the outside...

...the Yin and the Yang.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Don't Hassle the Hoff(mann)

"Please allow me to introduce myself,
I'm a man of wealth and taste"
Much as I'd like to believe that these lines describe yours truly, they actually begin The Rolling Stones song Sympathy for the Devil, a tune which constantly popped up in my head while I was reading my contribution to the current Classics Circuit.  E.T.A. Hoffmann's wonderful Gothic novel Die Elixiere des Teufels (The Devil's Elixirs) is written in the style of an autobiography, a parchment discovered in a monastery and supplemented with various other documents by the publisher, and it follows the life of the monk Medardus - a man who (as you will see) has more than his fair share of problems with the man downstairs.

Medardus begins life as plain old Franz, a young boy who has grown up without a father, but with an unwelcome legacy.  His father had apparently sinned greatly before meeting his mother, and it is Franz's mission to atone for the misdeeds of the father by devoting his life to the church (a path suggested to him by a meeting with an old painter he encountered in his youth).  He grows up and enters a monastery, and it is there that he learns of the legend of the Devil's Elixirs - a story which will have a shattering effect on his future, and which is inextricably linked to his past.

Having set us up nicely in a surprisingly short space of time, Hoffmann then lets rip with an incredible story, a Gothic adventure, a road trip with a difference.  After partaking of one of the aforementioned elixirs, Medardus sets out into the big, bad world, little realising that one of the baddest (sic) things out there is himself.  As he ventures from city to countryside, inns to palaces, verdant Germanic forests to the splendour of the Vatican, our intrepid monk is pursued not only by police and assassins, but also by his destiny - and perhaps himself...

As Medardus goes on his merry way, pursued and accompanied by the devil inside, he manages to get in and out of his various scrapes, encountering many people who have interesting tales to tell him.  Interestingly, most of those stories are actually about Medardus himself, as a figure from his past (or his future) has already been where he is now.  Many a conversation turns into a story about a monk who had been up to no good somewhere in the vicinity (which often makes for uncomfortable hearing for our religious friend).

This example of a physical resemblance causing all kinds of mischief is a common plot in Gothic novels, but the idea, which could easily descend into cliché, is skilfully handled, always leaving the reader in a little doubt as to whether or not he actually exists.  We are constantly asking ourselves: Who is this second monk?  Why is he following Medardus?  What is the painter doing back in the story?  Is that person really dead?  Why does my head hurt?  After I finished the story, I read up a little on the background, and the idea of a split personality was actually supposed to refer to Hoffmann's own split loyalties between his passion for the arts and his day-to-day duties.  You really don't need to know this to enjoy the story though :)

I won't say too much more about the plot, but Die Elixiere des Teufels was cunningly designed to keep the reader on their toes at all times.  There is a distinct supernatural element about the novel, and (unlike in certain other novels) it's a feeling that you never really shake off.  Every time that we think that we are beginning to see what has been happening and to find a rational explanation for the extraordinary, we realise that certain points are still unexplained.  Indeed, some strands will remain up in the air.  One thing I will tell you though - Hoffmann likes to keep things in the family ;)

This is a wonderful story.   It's the kind of book that people who think classics are boring should read, packed as it is with event after event, twists and turns and a plot which never lets you know exactly what is going on.  It's a kind of Tom Jones with more monks, a Wilhelm Meister's Apprentice Years with more stabbing, a Canterbury Tales with more incest.  If that sounds like your cup of tea, then I strongly suggest you give it a try :)  Of course, with German Literature Month coming up in November, that would be an ideal opportunity...

To finish off (as I seem to have got a bit of a pop culture theme going today), I'll leave you with an apt film quotation.  Medardus, despite his apparent piety, finds himself unable to avoid the temptation of the elixir.  Why?  Well, unfortunately, the devil always seems to find a way to tempt those he wishes to ensnare.  In the words of Al Pacino (from The Devil's Advocate):
"Vanity - definitely my favourite sin."

Friday 21 October 2011

And the Winner is...

Well, another Literary Giveaway Blog Hop has been and gone, and it's time for the prizes to be divvied up, and for the lucky winners to get their loot (I'm very happy at the moment because I managed to win a book myself this time!).  Thanks to everyone who dropped by to check out my blog (and the review of Jenseitsnovella).  I was happy to see so many names in the comments, and I was (once again) glad to see that everyone was happy to comply with my cheeky request for manners ;)

And the winner?  As chosen by a random computer thingy, congratulations to The Name's Kara - I will be contacting you for a postal address very soon!

But wait - there's more!  Surprisingly, several of you expressed interest in the German-language version, and I have bitten the bullet and decided to also award a German copy to one of those people who were interested in reading the novel in the original language - and that person is Lenna - herzlichen Glückwunsch!  I'll be e-mailing you too

Thank you for the interest and attention - do drop by again some time, won't you? ;)

Tuesday 18 October 2011

What Might Have Been

As most people are aware, the relationship between the settlers and the original inhabitants of my adopted country has often been, shall we say, far from ideal (some would say that little has changed...).  When the British claimed the continent for the crown, they declared it Terra Nullius (Latin for 'land belonging to no-one'), conveniently ignoring the Aborignal tribes who had been living there for tens of thousands of years.  In many cases, this clash of cultures resulted in imprisonment, de facto slavery and (in at least one case) virtual extermination.

Kim Scott's novel That Deadman Dance attempts to show that this (like so many other things) happened slightly differently over in the West.  Set on the southern coast of Western Australia in the 1830s/1840s, this year's Miles Franklin Award winner depicts an intriguing slice of Australian history, a period when colonists and natives coexisted in relative harmony.  Scott has Aboriginal ancestry, and his story incorporates members of his family, from the Noongar people, and actual events of the period, using history as the base for his tale.

The novel revolves around Bobby Wabalanginy, whom we first meet as a daring young boy, dreaming of women and whales.  When British colonists arrive to establish a make-shift settlement, the leader of the expedition, Dr. Cross, takes a shine to Bobby's adoptive father, Wunyeran, and the two men become friends.  The Aborigine starts to learn English, visiting the main settlement and experiencing the thrill of travelling across the ocean waves, while Cross starts to learn about the Noongar, hoping to set an example of cooperation which will spread to other settlements in the colony.

As the story progresses, however, these initial promising beginnings are tested.  When the job of keeping the relationship alive and strong passes on to the next generation, it soon becomes clear that the balance of power has shifted - where the uncomfortable colonists were initially outnumbered by the Noongar, the settlement eventually grows, just as the indigenous numbers begin to dwindle.  Once this happens, the spirit of equal claims to the land is almost doomed to failure.

The charismatic Bobby, singer, dancer and linguist, is a member of the generation growing up throughout this period of change, still living with his people but able to pick up enough English to make himself very useful to the settlers.  His experiences mirror those of his people, at first indispensable, then grudgingly tolerated, later expected to conform to the new cultural norms, imported from beyond the horizon.  Bobby wants to believe in the newcomers (from whom he received his new name), hoping to straddle the divide between the two worlds, and he continues with this until the end, long after many people (on both sides) have given up the pretence of mutual respect.

While I enjoyed the book, I must confess that it didn't impress me as much as you would expect from a book which took out Australia's top literary prize.  It dragged a little for me, and the lack of any real plot, other than the main idea of the change in fortunes of the two groups, left me feeling that there was something missing.  However, That Deadman Dance is an entertaining novel and extremely fascinating from a cultural point of view.  The reader is shown how the lack of understanding between the two groups repeatedly complicates their efforts to get along.

The Noongar constantly expect the new arrivals to be leaving again, regarding them as guests, albeit ones who may be stretching their welcome a little.  The settlers become annoyed that the natives constantly beg (or steal) food, not realising that they themselves are doing the same when they hunt kangaroos and dig up wild vegetables.  Even friendships like that of Cross and Wunyeran are unable to paper over the cracks of ethnic differences.

Sadly, these differences eventually grow into a vast gulf between the two cultures, one Australia is still trying to close today.  Hopefully, future generations will look back on our time much as we look back on the time portrayed in That Deadman Dance - as one unrecognisable in a more civilised era...

Saturday 15 October 2011

What Lies Beyond

Greetings to all those visiting Tony's Reading List as part of the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop (and I hope you are going to visit all the other participants too!).  Today on my little blog, there will be a giveaway - the down side (just like last time) is that you'll have to sit through the review first - it's only fair ;)

Today's offering is another slice of contemporary German literature, Matthias Politycki's Jenseitsnovelle, which some of you may have heard of in the guise of Peirene Press' translated version, Next World Novella.  This slender book begins in a most unusual and dramatic fashion when Hinrich Schepp, a professor of ancient Chinese literature, wakes up one morning to find his beloved wife Doro... well, to put it bluntly, dead.  As he struggles to cope with the shock of her demise, he notices some papers which she had obviously been working on shortly before she died - and this is where the story really begins.

You see, Schepp's claims of a happy and fulfilling married life are not exactly shared by his wife, and in editing an old story of his that she has stumbled upon, Doro lets out her true feelings, revealing that she has been more aware of Hinrich's shortcomings than he could ever have imagined.  In this story within a story, the message to her husband from beyond the grave will turn poor Hinrich's life upside-down - but then should we care?  The more we learn about our academic friend, the less inclined we are to take his part in this (one-sided) argument...

It's a rather Kafkaesque beginning to a puzzling tale, and that's no coincidence.  Hinrich comes across at times like a Kafka anti-hero, full of bluster, monologues and constant contradictions, and (as suggested earlier) our respect for him goes downhill very quickly.  Even taking into account the effects of grief and the possibility of trauma, it's hard to feel sorry for a man who seems more concerned with exonerating himself for past sins than with taking care of his dead wife's body.  Towards the end of the book though, we see that he is not the only one with secrets - and the twist in the tail (or tale!) puts everything in perspective.

While Kafka has already been mentioned as a potential point of reference, another possible influence was suggested by the relationship problems of the hapless Schepps.  With the introduction of the charismatic Dana, a woman who seems to exert a magnetic pull over both Hinrich and Doro, the book began to remind me of a certain Japanese novel, namely Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's Quicksand.  In both, a middle-aged couple flounder in the depths they are lured into by a seductive siren...

...which brings us on nicely to the title of the piece, Jenseitsnovelle.  The Novelle part should be self-explanatory for even the most monolingual among us, but the Jenseits part refers to the next world, the afterlife, which Doro (drawing on her knowledge of Chinese mythology) envisages as an enormous, unending sea, which each of us is condemned to swim into alone.

However, jenseits has many connotations which do not come across in the English translation 'next world': ' the afterlife' is one, and another important interpretation is the idea of 'the other side'.  I found this to be a more accurate translation, and one which works on so many levels - not least of which is the idea that whatever someone tells us about a story, we should always try to hear the other side before passing judgement...

All in all, Jenseitsnovelle is an intriguing book, with a final section which will make you reconsider everything you've read up to that point.  The key to understanding the story is vision: how clearly have we seen the events unfolding, and how clearly do the protagonists see what the other has been doing?  The answer?  Well, you'll find it on the other side... of the cover ;)

So, on to the giveaway!  I will be giving away a copy of the book reviewed above, either in the original German or in the 2011 Peirene Press English-language version.  If you want to enter, simply:

  - comment on this post, stating whether you want the English or German version
  - write the word 'please' somewhere in your comment; manners are important :)
  - a contact e-mail would be nice, but I will endeavour to track down the winner!
  - commenting on my review is welcome but not obligatory ;)

This competition is open to all, but please note that I will be using The Book Depository to send this prize, so it is limited to people living in countries where The Book Depository has free delivery.  Entries will close at midnight (Melbourne time) on Thursday, the 20th of October, 2011, and I'll be announcing the winner shortly after.  Good luck to all, and... sweet dreams ;)

Thursday 13 October 2011

An Irishman Abroad

Although I was definitely tempted, I decided earlier this year to put off rereading Anthony Trollope's Palliser Novels until next year, hoping to delay the pleasure for a little longer.  However, after my Rereading July project turned into a V-Lit comfort-reading fest, I ended up racing through Can You Forgive Her?, and it was only a matter of time before I slipped off the wagon again...

If you are going to break promises you make to yourself though, there's no better book to do it with than Phineas Finn, the second of Trollope's 'political novels', and arguably the most interesting.  In this book, the reader follows the eponymous hero of the novel as he emerges from obscurity in the Irish backwaters to follow his ambition - to enter the 'mother of all parliaments', the centre of power of the most powerful nation on Earth.

Young Phineas, armed only with his native wit, a pleasing appearance and a set of the finest whiskers a man could ever hope for, sets out to make his fortune in the great British metropolis, managing to succeed both politically and romantically, despite his humble origins and empty pockets.  However, parliament can be a cruel mistress, and there are no guarantees in politics, particularly for those without family and fortune to support them...

I love this book.  I absolutely love it (well, I don't love my Everyman version and its multitude of typos, but the novel itself, yes).  It is such a dazzling entry into the world of Victorian politics and society, a book which can be read on so many levels and for so many reasons.  I doubt there is a sub-genre of Literary Theory which wouldn't be interested in deconstructing Phineas Finn, from Post-Colonialism and Feminism to Marxism (Queer Theory might be a stretch, but there was definitely one 'gay' Irish bachelor with no conspicuous female attachment...).

Our loveable Irishman, all six feet of him, is not the deepest of characters, but that is not especially important as he is more the reader's ticket of entry to Westminster and Mayfair than a fully-functioning protagonist.  It is through Finn's eyes that we are privileged to enter The House of Commons and experience for ourselves the nerve centre of the largest Empire the world has ever seen; when he rises to make his maiden speech, we share his sense of terror and vertigo, and when he is unable to bring himself to make the effort, we feel the shame of his failure.  It is through his visits to the city homes of the landed gentry that we, 21st-century citizens of the world, are able to gain access to the lifestyle of the very rich and the very famous of mid-1860s Britain.  It's an exhilarating ride.

Another reason why Finn's relatively shallow, if pleasing, character is not an issue is that the novel is crammed full with more interesting ones, most of them women.  Apart from a childhood sweetheart back in Ireland, our dapper young politician has many female friends and lovers, and these young women are far from being one-dimensional love interests.  An area where Trollope is perhaps underrated is the length he goes to in creating believable female characters, women desperate to do something with their lives, but prevented from doing so by a traditional, patriarchal society which wanted nothing more than to pass its female citizens from the protection of their fathers straight into the arms of their (usually much older) husbands.

The three women Phineas becomes involved with in London, Lady Laura Standish, Violet Effingham and Madame (Marie) Max Goesler, are all independent women - with independent means -, and you would think that this would enable them to enjoy their place in life.  Sadly, this is far from being the case: each is forced to recognise that despite their wealth, they are nothing more than birds in a cage, albeit a large and roomy cage.  Without an appropriate partner by their sides, they are unable to make the most of their undoubted advantages, and the apparent freedom their money gives them is offset by the weight of the social pressure they must eventually bow to.  It is striking though that the one who comes to struggle financially is the one who will suffer most in her future affairs...

If you like Victorian literature (and especially if you have any interest in the machinations of politics), you will enjoy this book immensely.  This is one of those books where, if I had unlimited time and typing hours in my pain-riddled arms, I would come back again and again to look at the novel from a slightly different angle (I didn't even touch on the perils of independent thought in a party political system, or the parallels between the robotic, and slightly disturbed, Robert Kennedy and the later creation of Louis Trevelyan of He Knew He Was Right...).  Unfortunately (or perhaps for the best), this is all you're getting for today.

Still, there are four more Palliser novels to come, including a sequel featuring our loveable Irish friend.  Now that's definitely something to look forward to ;)

Monday 10 October 2011

Back To My Roots

I am, as my family name suggests, of Celtic origin, but my roots are actually more Welsh than Irish, so I was more than happy to answer the call when Gary of The Parrish Lantern pointed me in the direction of Seren Books, a small Welsh independent publisher.  After making an enquiry, I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of a book I liked the look of, Fflur Dafydd's The White Trail.  The book itself was a wonderful read, but (as you will see) the individual story is just part of a greater whole...

We begin with the character of Cilydd, an ordinary middle-aged man facing a slightly extraordinary problem.  After a trip to the local supermarket, his wife Goleuddydd, fiery, temperamental and very heavily pregnant, has... well, vanished into thin air.  CCTV shows nothing, and the police are unable to help, so Cilydd turns to his cousin Arthur, a private investigator, for help in unravelling the mystery.  Eventually, there is progress in the case, and poor Cilydd has to face up to some bad news.

The more he learns about what has happened, however, the more confusing the whole affair becomes.  He throws himself into searching for details of the disappearance, joining a network of people who have had similar experiences and becoming a sort of secretary, a filer of information about the disappeared.  Then, many years later, events take an unwelcome turn - and Cilydd begins to receive some rather disturbing phone calls...

If you think this book sounds a little left-of-centre, you wouldn't be far off.  This is not a Proustian study of reality, but rather a more ethereal story of losing a loved one and carrying on.  If I were to attempt to pigeon-hole it, I would have to suggest the genre of magical realism, and there is something distinctly Murakami-esque about proceedings.  It's also peppered with wry humour though, with Dafydd often eliciting a chuckle with an ironic comment or two (as in the following example):
"The look, the one she fixed him with week after week was actually tinged with desire, and in a bizarre twist of fate he found himself making love to her in a secluded spot in the community-hall car park.  It was the most wildly irresponsible and impetuous thing he had done since he had inadvertently pushed her husband off a cliff." p.61 (2011, Seren Books)

From the astounding disappearance which sets off the story, Dafydd sketches a chain of events in elegant and poetic language, a style which enhances the fairytale-like feel.  At times, the prose is a mixture of myth and the modern, further intriguing the reader:
"And so Culhwch, Cilydd and Arthur set out, in the thick of night in Arthur's old carpentry van, to find Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr.", p.118
This is an image which definitely sticks in the mind...

The hapless Cilydd is a man completely out of his depth in a sea of unlikely occurrences, with his only possible ally being Arthur, a private eye of Dirk Gently proportions and someone who definitely has more to him than may first meet the eye.  As Cilydd stumbles from one surprise to the next, the reader becomes just as eager as he is to learn the full truth of what has happened.  When we do, it all begins to make sense - even more so on a second reading.

This all makes for an intriguing novel, one which I devoured in a few hours, before reading it again more slowly a few days later, but there is a lot more to The White Trail than there would appear from just an outline of the plot.  The book is actually a retelling, or reimagining, of a mediaeval Welsh folktale, Culhwch and Olwen, one of the eleven stories making up the Welsh-language collection of myths, the Mabinogion.  Seren Books have commissioned contemporary Welsh writers to produce their own versions of the classic stories, and there will eventually be eleven of these New Stories from the MabinogionThe White Trail is being released in October (along with another book, The Prince's Pen), bringing the number of books released so far to six.

Dafydd, while taking inspiration from the original, has shifted the focus somewhat in her version, making Cilydd the main focus of the reader's attention and concentrating on the way he copes with the disappearance of his wife.  You don't have to take my word for that though - the writer tells us that herself.  You see, another wonderful feature of this book, in addition to a short summary of the original Culhwch and Olwen, is an 'Afterword' (like an introduction, but at the end) by the author, in which she tells us about her experiences with the Mabinogion and the process she went through in adapting the myth to a modern story.  In this, Dafydd explains why she decided to shift the attention from the young lovers featured in the original to the glum Cilydd, and details some of the similarities and differences between the two versions.

On its own merits, The White Trail is a great novel and well worth reading; as part of a series of loosely-connected books, it is even more intriguing.  When you then throw in the idea of the original mythological background, this becomes the kind of book that a lot of people will want to read.  I, for one, am very interested in seeing what Dafydd's fellow writers will make of the remaining stories - and I am also keen on obtaining a translation of the Mabinogion itself (and I know that there is a version available in the Oxford World's Classics series).  Maybe it really is time to get back to my roots...

Friday 7 October 2011

Before The Time Was Taken...

My discovery of 2011 is undoubtedly Steven Carroll, an Australian writer I'd never come across before this year, but who is now one of my favourite contemporary writers.  Of course, as a winner of the Miles Franklin Award, Australia's best-known literary prize, he wasn't exactly anonymous, but a random decision to read The Art of the Engine Driver earlier this year has led to a wish to devour all of his novels as soon as possible.

I haven't quite got there yet, but I was still very pleased when I heard that he had a new book out, and even happier when I was amazingly able to borrow it from my local library, almost before it was actually released.  Add to that the fact that this new book was rumoured to be an addition to the sublime Glenroy Trilogy of novels, and you can imagine that when I started reading Spirit of Progress, I was one very happy bunny indeed.

Spirit of Progress, named after a train in the story, is actually both a prequel and sequel to The Glenroy Trilogy.  We begin in France, where Michael, now a writer, is waiting for a train.  On seeing the driver's compartment, he is reminded of his father, and this episode enables the writer to take us back in time to 1946 - ten years before the original trilogy began.  Now we are in postwar Melbourne, a city mourning lost heroes and welcoming back the lucky ones who have survived the war.  And somewhere, ten kilometres or so north of the city, is a block of land that will one day become a home...

The war-weary city of Melbourne is ready to move on with its life, preparing itself for the imminent baby boom, little knowing that this population increase will bring with it a move from the city to the open suburbs on Melbourne's fringe.  However, not everyone is looking forward to spending their life here; a substantial group of frustrated artists, trapped in Melbourne because of the war, dream of escaping to the great art capitals of the world.  As they prepare to display their work at an exhibition in the city, a culmination of the pent-up artistic energy of the war years, what is ostensibly a celebration of a talented group of people becomes, in fact, the farewell of an emigrant generation.

As well as encountering several old friends, in Spirit of Progress we are introduced to many new characters: Tess, the owner of the gallery, the one person who understands what the artists have, and how fragile it is; George, a journalist who wants to be a writer - or perhaps a writer who may be becoming a journalist; and Sam, first among equals in the bohemian art society, who is looking for inspiration for this final exhibition...

Despite my love for Carroll's work, it actually took me a while to warm to this latest novel, and that was mainly down to two things.  The first was the relatively minor role that the chief protagonists of the previous books, Vic, Rita and Michael, played in this one.  Although Vic eventually grew more important and contributed to some of the important storylines, Rita appeared rarely and briefly - and Michael spent most of it waiting to be born.  The second reason had more to do with my expectations than reality, as I had got it into my head that this was to be a sequel.  It took me a while to adapt to the idea of placing the actions before the original books, but once I had, I began to enjoy it a lot more.

In The Gift of Speed and The Time We Have Taken, Carroll painted pictures of life at a crucial juncture, catching the spirit of the time between the past and the future, the moment of moving on.  This idea is expanded upon in Spirit of Progress as a city isolated by the tumultuous global events of recent years prepared to move on into an era that may already have been labelled 'Post-War', but which was still very much a blank slate.  The writer is fond of talking of History and Progress (usually with the attention-drawing capital letters), but what he also underlines is that Progress is constant and unrelenting; those who are the agents of Progress will eventually find themselves, however unwittingly, consigned to History...

This idea of the tension between past and future, caught in the fleeting present, is well displayed in several places in the novel.  The great exhibition, which will be the last hurrah of the artists before their inevitable flight to Europe, is almost a painting in itself, catching the painters and patrons in a moment which will soon belong to the past.  This passing of urban society is contrasted with the character of Skinner, a farmer, the last generation of his family, whose farm will soon be sacrificed to form part of the new suburb.

However, even those who form part of the future are not safe. Webster, the businessman who thrusts himself onto the scene, ready to create whole suburbs in his image, appears to have the future in the palm of his hand.  Those who have read the previous books in the trilogy, however, will know that he too will change from being an agent of Progress to just another footnote in History.

So, how does this compare to the rest of the trilogy?  Well, once I had left my preconceptions behind, I began to enjoy the book immensely.  The time taken to introduce the new characters eventually paid off, especially when their lives began to link up with those of Vic and his family.  While it can be read alone, having read the other three books gave the story a weight and poignancy that the casual reader would perhaps have missed.  Names, places and events lightly touched upon resonate greatly with readers who have already spent many an hour in Carroll's semi-fictional world...

It's fitting that, in a series which constantly revisits the idea of the moment of change and departure, I finish this post with the words of one of the characters on leaving Melbourne.  They are words which people, like myself, who no longer live where they were raised will fully understand:
"...although he will visit this city he has reluctantly called home for just on a quarter of a century, it will cease to be the home it was.  And the elsewhere to which he is going will both replace that home and never replace it.  And home itself, the very idea of it, will become something that requires thought and reflection, whereas until now he has always taken it for granted." p.260 (Fourth Estate, 2011)

Wednesday 5 October 2011

A Tentative Plan for some Teutonic Texts...

As some of you may already know, November, courtesy of Lizzy and Caroline, is going to be German Literature Month, and while I had my own little G-Lit fest back in August, I'm more than willing to join in the fun :)  So what am I going to be reading for the event?  Well, I reserve the right to change my mind, but here are a few books I may be looking at over the next couple of months...

Although I've been reading a fair bit of nineteenth-century G-Lit, I want to read a few more modern books as well, so Jenny Erpenbeck's Heimsuchung (Visitation) and Alois Hotschnig's Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht (Maybe This Time) look likely contenders for this challenge.  Erpenbeck's short novel has got a lot of press recently, some glowing, some not so, and as for Hotschnig's collection of stories, well, anything Peirene Press chooses to translate must have something going for it ;)

Going back a few decades, I have acquired a couple of interesting works from Nobel-Prize-winning authors.  Heinrich Böll is one of my favourite writers, and I'm looking forward to reading Und sagte kein einziges Wort (And Didn't Say A Word), another of his post-war dramas.  In contrast, I've only read one Günter Grass book so far, but I've been thinking about reading Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) for some time now - although it is rather long...

Moving away from prose (and a lot further back in time), I've put a couple of examples of different genres on my list.  I'm not a big fan of plays, but I thought it would only be fair to try one during the month, and what better piece of drama is there to choose than Schiller's Kabale und Liebe (Love and Intrigue)?  And where there's some Schiller, there has to be some Goethe too, so the bilingual copy of the maestro's Erotic Poems which I won recently will come in very handy indeed.

Finally, we'll head back to the (German) Victorian era for a couple more classics.  I recently read the first half of Gottfried Keller's collection of novellas, Die Leute von Seldwyla (The People of Seldwyla), and I have the second half on my Kindle, fully loaded and ready to go.  And, of course, the icing on the cake, the most famous novel by one of Germany's best-loved writers - Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest.

I think that's enough to be going on with for now :)  So, dear reader, what are you planning to read for German Literature Month?  Please do drop me a line, and let me know...

Monday 3 October 2011

A (Far-From) Brief History Lesson

It's been, as we say here in Australia, a long time between drinks for Mr. Elliot Perlman.  One of my favourite Australian writers, his last novel (Seven Types of Ambiguity) came out back in 2003.  After such a long gap between outings, we were all expecting something substantial for his next book, and in this sense nobody could be disappointed.  The Street Sweeper, an epic tale of history, chance and heroism, runs to almost 550 pages, and (as you can see in my photo) weighs as much as a book of this gravity ought to...

The Street Sweeper takes us away from Melbourne, the setting for Perlman's earlier fiction, instead introducing us to an Australian historian, Adam Zignelik, working in New York.  Failing in his career (and his personal life), Zignelik is thrown a professional lifeline when an old friend suggests a research topic for him to pursue - the role of African-American soldiers in the liberation of Nazi concentration camps at the end of the Second World War.

Meanwhile, in another part of New York, newly-released convict Lamont Williams, having spent years in jail for a crime he didn't commit, is taking the first steps towards rebuilding his life, working on probation in maintenance in a large cancer hospital.  One morning, he meets an elderly Jewish man, Henryk Mandelbrot, outside the entrance to the hospital - an encounter which will have unforeseen ramifications for Lamont, Adam and many other people we will get to know.

If this little taster makes the book sound daunting, well, the truth is that it is a little, especially the start.  After the first hundred pages, filled with the exhaustive (and, at times, exhausting) backstories of Adam and Lamont, I still wasn't quite sure where the book was going, or whether I was enjoying it.  As Adam began to lecture to a class of history students at Columbia University, I started to feel that Perlman was actually lecturing to the reader...

Slowly though the narrative began to mutate, branch out, and as Adam sets out on his quest to uncover the truth behind the claims and suspicions, and the story splits into multiple narratives (in time and space!), the reader is sucked into the book, sitting behind Adam's shoulder, urging him on to the next vital discovery, the next link in the chain.  We are bombarded with information, some of it repetitive, some showing previously-known information in a slightly different light.  In effect, the writer is putting us in the shoes of a historian, forcing us to sift through the narratives and draw our own conclusions.

The more we read, the more interested we become.  We begin to see the links between the seemingly unconnected stories, and we also form attachments to the characters whose lives we are following, whether they are in the infamous death camps,  run-down Chicago tenements or chic New York bars.  From the initial, information-laden account, Perlman gradually develops a fascinating, intriguing story - one which ultimately rests on the people behind the history.

The subject matter, like the setting, is a slight departure from Perlman's usual fare.  Although he has touched on Jewish war experiences before (particularly in some of the stories from The Reasons I Won't Be Coming), The Street Sweeper addresses this topic more boldly, intertwining it with a second racial struggle, the advancement of civil rights for African-Americans.  In addition to highlighting the hsitory of Jewish lawyers working for the Black cause, the writer constantly throws up parallels between the two struggles.

One example is the insistence of a struggle for equality through the US legal system, a quest for equality echoed in one of the Jewish characters' attempts to educate Poles about Jewish history and culture in the mid-1930s.  Another centres around stars: while most people will know of the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear in the Third Reich, fewer will know of the way African-American workers were identified in factories - by the use of pencilled black stars on their time cards...

This sense of solidarity between two oppressed minorities is shown in a scene where a white woman refuses to serve a Black worker in her café.  When her father, an older Jewish man, comes out, he apologises and says:
"Don't make trouble for the girl.  She was born here so..."  The old man seemed unsure how to finish the sentence.
"So what?" asked Tommy Parks
"So she thinks she's white."   p.376 (Vintage, 2011)

While the move towards racial equality in America is an important theme, it is the Holocaust which eventually takes over the narrative.  Step by step, we are gradually introduced to the horrors of the death camps, until Henryk (and the reader) can no longer avoid the stark reality of what is happening: 
"So it was true, and here he was, face-to-face with the truth.  He has seen people die in the ghetto but he had never seen anything like this.  So many bodies, inert, stacked hurriedly one on top of the other, a vast hill of them, a small mountain, so recently people.  Here, Mandelbrot thought, was the end of every slur, racial or religious, every joke, every sneer directed against the Jews."   p.349

There are many, many things which could be said about this book, but I'm not going to attempt to discuss all of them - I am aware of the irony of criticising a book's lengthy opening in a review which itself outstays its welcome...  This is a book which requires, almost demands, rereading, both for an understanding of its dense subject matter and to fully understand the intricate plotting of a novel which is almost Victorian in scope.  To finish, apart from urging you to read The Street Sweeper, I'll leave you with a quotation on the overarching theme of the book, racism:
"The enemy", Jake Zignelik explained, "is racism.  But see, racism isn't a person.  It's a virus that infects people.  It can infect whole towns and cities, even whole countries.  Sometimes you can see it in people's faces when they're sick with it.  It can paralyse even good people.  It can paralyse government.  We have to fight that wherever we find it.  that's what good people do."   p.29
Now, if that doesn't make you think, nothing will...

Saturday 1 October 2011

September 2011 Wrap-Up

After two heavily-scheduled months of reading, September was an opportunity to relax a little - at least, that was the plan.  What actually happened was that I was lucky enough to receive some rare review copies of new books that I had been hoping to read, so I didn't really get through everything I wanted to have a look at.  Still, there's nothing new about that...

Total Books Read: 8
Year-to-date: 96

New: 6
Rereads: 2

From the Shelves: 6
From the Library: 2
On the Kindle: 0

Novels: 6
Short Stories: 2

Non-English Language: 2 (2 Japanese)
Aussie Author Challenge: 4 (17/12)
Victorian Literature Challenge: 1 (27/15)
Japanese Literature Challenge 5: 2 (4/1)

Tony's Recommendations for September are: Arnold Zable's Violin Lessons and
Elliot Perlman's The Street Sweeper

Only eight books this month, but it was a vintage crop.  While both my Japanese offerings were as enjoyable as ever, and Fflur Dafydd's imaginative retelling of an ancient myth was a lot of fun, I was leaning towards the wonderful Phineas Finn for a while.  However, the two Australian books on learning from the past, the slight, enigmatic Violin Lessons, and the weighty, densely-plotted The Street Sweeper are two books which simply cannot (and shouldn't) be ignored...

Off we go into October then.  What's up for this month?  Well, I've got a lot of reading to do for something that's happening next month - and some of you may even know what that is ;)  Also, I have a big milestone coming up.  For the first time in the three years of Tony's Reading List, I should (fingers crossed) crack three figures in October.  The champagne is already on ice!