Thursday 30 August 2012

Revenge is a Dish Best Left Alone

With my leanings towards translated literature, it's not all that often that I get to experience writing from a new country, and a new language, but today's post is about one of those occasions.  Earlier this year, over at Wuthering Expectations, our friend Amateur Reader had a Portuguese Reading Challenge, in which novices like myself were introduced to writers like Eça de Queiroz.  As a result, when I saw that Dedalus Books were offering review copies of the latest of their translations of his work, I was eager to get on board :)

Alves & Co. and Other Stories, translated (as you can see from the photo) by the wonderful Margaret Jull Costa, is a slender volume of writings from one of Portugal's great writers.  The collection consists of the titular novella and six short stories, bringing it up to about 170 pages in total, and it's an excellent starting point if you have never come across the writer before.

Alves & Co. introduces the reader to Godofredo Alves, a well-to-do businessman working in an import-export company.  One warm day, he remembers that it is actually his wedding anniversary, and as his partner, Senhor Machado, is out of town on business, he decides to leave the office early and surprise his wife.  Having ordered some delicacies from a local grocer's and bought a present for his beloved, he wanders happily home - only to get a very rude awakening...

Poor Alves immediately sends his wife back to her father's house and begins to consider how best to avenge his honour.  However, despite his initial overblown ideas of dramatic recompense, he gradually begins to reconsider.  Is giving up his position in society for revenge really worth it?  Or could he, perhaps, learn to live with the pain of betrayal?

This novella is an excellent first encounter with Eça de Queiroz, and it is especially interesting to compare his ideas on the importance of redeeming one's honour with those of other great nineteenth-century European writers.  Alves' friends' rather half-hearted attempts to arrange a duel can be contrasted with the rather more straight-forward proceedings in books like Phineas Finn or Effi Briest.  Also, our Portuguese friend's attitude towards a cheating spouse bears little similarity to the way events unfold in novels such as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary.

All of which may make the story a little less dramatic (and a lot shorter!) than many other works on the subject of infidelity.  However, in terms of being true to human nature, perhaps Eça de Queiroz is closer to the mark.  Alves is a great character, precisely because of his ordinariness: he is not particularly handsome, but by no means ugly; he is a man of passion, but not to the point of getting carried away:
"He read a lot of novels.  Grand actions and grand Passions excited him.  He occasionally felt that he was made for heroism, for tragedy.  But these were dim, ill-defined feelings that stirred only rarely in the depths of the heart in which he kept them imprisoned." p.18 (Dedalus Books, 2012)
The words above are a good indicator as to how he will react when tragedy enters his life...

Alves & Co. is an excellent novella, one I greatly enjoyed reading, but it did tend to overshadow the other stories in this collection (which I find is often the case when one story takes up a disproportionate chunk of a collection).  The first two of these stories, A Lyric Poet and At The Mill, are thematically linked to the novella, relating as they do tales of people damned by unrequited love.  These short tragedies perhaps provide a fitting contrast to the positive mood of Alves & Co.

The remaining four stories provide more allegorical fare, taking us into historical and fairytale territory.  The Treasure and Brother Juniper both explore the consequences of an unexpected occurrence colliding with human nature, while The Wet Nurse explores the notion of sacrifice to help others.  The Sweet Miracle, the final story in the collection, takes the reader back to biblical times, showing us that the only sure way to find Jesus is by not looking for him...

After reading this book, I am very keen to try more of Eça de Queiroz's work, and that shouldn't be much of a problem.  You see, Dedalus have already commissioned translations of most of his major works (all by Margaret Jull Costa), including his epic masterpiece The Maias, so all I have to do is head off and buy one when I feel the urge...

...which may not be far off ;)

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Who Let The Dogs Out?

Anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis will have noticed that there has been an (unintentional) focus on animals recently.  There was a book about a rather clever Soviet guard dog, a magical tale about a colourful fox in the Icelandic snow, and - of course - a delightful story about travels with a long-eared companion.  So, today's offering, unusual as it is, should just be seen as a continuation of this trend :)

Five Russian Dog Stories (review copy from Hesperus Press) is... well, what do you think it is?  For linguistic pedants, let me assure you that (with one exception) both the stories and the dogs are RussianAnthony Briggs, a notable Russian-to-English translator (amongst other things, he has tackled War and Peace...), is the man responsible for this collection, selecting, translating and commenting on the stories in an excellent introduction.

The stories in question, while chosen primarily for their dogginess, are all by accomplished Russian writers, and the first of them, Ivan Turgenev's Mumu, is a famous story in its own right.  Mumu is the tale of a gigantic, deaf-mute serf, Gerasim, who is thwarted in his hope of marrying a fellow servant.  While walking one day, he rescues a dog from drowning in a river, and gradually becomes attached to the little black-and-white Spaniel.  Sadly for owner and dog, Gerasim's own mistress soon puts up an obstacle to the unlikely pair's happy existence...

Another writer you'll undoubtedly have heard of is Anton Chekhov, and while Chestnut Girl may not be one of his more famous stories, anything coming from the pen of the short-story specialist is bound to be good.  In this story, a chestnut Spaniel gets separated from her drunken, boorish master and ends up finding a new home with a much kinder man - and his menagerie of talented animals.  With a new name (and a new bag of tricks), our canine friend is ready to start a new life; however, what will happen when she is reminded of the past?

The title of Mikhail Saltykov's Good Old Trezor is intended to evoke memories of a book I read recently, Faithful Ruslan (also called Good Old Ruslan).  However, where Ruslan's tale is a lengthy, heart-breaking one, Saltykov's story is a humorous, ten-page romp detailing the life of a hard-working guard dog.  It's a dog's life alright, but Trezor seems to accept that this is his lot in life, and that there's no point in complaining.  After all, he is a dog.

The two stories making up the quintet are Arthur the White Poodle by Alexander Kuprin and Ich Bin from Head to Foot by satirists Ilf and Petrov.  Kuprin's story is probably the weakest of the bunch, a children's tale about a quest to get back a kidnapped dog, but Ilf and Petrov's clever parody of a poor German circus performer being retrained in a Socialist model is well worth a read :)

As mentioned above, this is definitely Briggs' show, and he has done a fine job.  The translations are easy to read, albeit more faithful to the original in terms of language than some would like (especially those who prefer modern language to finding English expressions from the equivalent time period).  In addition to the stories, there are also some bonus poems slotted between the main acts, most running for a just a few lines, each on the topic of you-know-what ;)

The biggest sign that this is a labour of love though is Briggs' introduction, in which he gives a brief summary of each of the stories (and puts it in its literary and historical context), as well as talking about dogs in literature more generally.  His claims that Russian literature is especially rich in dog-related stories would seem to stand up on the basis of these stories; my only criticism of the collection is that it would have been nice to have a few more of them included in its pages...

Still, it's a lovely idea and one well worth a look, whether you're a big fan of dogs or not.  Indeed, the inside sleeve makes the claim that Five Russian Dog Stories is a "...delight for dog-lovers, with a passing interest for dog-haters...".  As a reader who falls somewhere between the two camps, I can heartily recommend it.

Of course, I'm sure there many of you out there who are much more interested in dogs than I am.  As Briggs says, humans and dogs have been companions for thousands of years, and the two species share a special bond.  An anecdote the translator gives at the start of his introduction puts this nicely into perspective.  One day, he and a friend visited an old pub in England and asked the landlord whether he would let the dogs into his establishment.  His response?
"Sir, I prefer dogs." p.vii
To which I can only say "woof" ;)

Sunday 26 August 2012

It's Nice to Be Important, but it's Important to Have Armour-Plated Skin

I'm currently reading a book, one which is well written and which I'm enjoying.  However, there are a few things I'm not happy with, particularly in the first third of the book, so in writing my review I'm going to have to factor that in.  Balancing the positives and the negatives, that's what writing up a book review is all about, right?  But what if that book happens to be one which you received gratis from your friendly neighbourhood book publisher...

Anyone who has been blogging for a while is bound to have come across this problem (some more than others...), and while for many bloggers it's not an issue, for some it's one that causes us many sleepless nights (OK, minutes).  When we are first chosen to receive an ARC (Advance Review Copy), the blood rushes to our heads, rendering us dizzy and gushing, incapable of writing a paragraph without a liberal sprinkling of superlatives and exclamation marks.  Once the novelty wears off though, we notice that the freebies we have been given have actually come with strings attached - strings that can, at times, have the weight of cast-iron chains...

So what is it that we're actually agreeing to do when we accept a review copy of a book?  Let's assume that it's a book you've actually requested from a publisher (I know many of you are showered with unsolicited paperbacks, but it's not something that happens much around my place).  In this case, there's a tacit expectation that you will read and review the book at some point in the future, following any embargo dates that are mentioned and perhaps dropping the publisher a quick e-mail with a link to your post.  I'm a fairly conscientious kind of person, so I also feel that I should get this done within a reasonable period of time - I'm aware that not everyone shares my views on this last point ;)

So far, so good.  The real problem, of course, arises when the book you've received fails to meet your expectations.  In an ideal world, you'd just write a negative review, post it and move on with your life.  As long as it's not a scathing, unfair assessment of the book, nobody (except perhaps the writer's mum) is going to get too worked up about things, and expecting every book review in the universe to smell of sweetness and light is naive to say the least.

Of course, that's not the way it usually goes.  The mere fact of having received a book for nothing imparts a perceived feeling of obligation, one which makes attempting anything more than the mildest of criticism a nerve-wracking ordeal.  There's the possibility of annoying the publisher, and therefore ruining your chances of ever getting a review copy again.  There's also the fact that you're (metaphorically) spitting in the face of a living, breathing writer, telling them that even at a cost of $0 their work is over-priced.

Perhaps though your biggest worry is the reaction of other readers and bloggers.  We've all heard about some of the unsavoury antics happening over at Goodreads, and the possibility of being jumped on by a writer's fans is always possible, dangling over the blogger's head like an electronic sword of Damocles.  While this is less likely when the writer has been dead for a couple of hundred years (except in the case of Jane Austen - never slam an Austen novel, or you will be pursued through the blogosphere like a quivering yokel fleeing before a pack of - nicely perfumed and elegantly coiffed - hell hounds), sticking to books by the dearly departed is a bit of a cowardly way out.

By now, you're probably thinking that the whole thing is just not worth it, and you may be right.  If you feel that accepting ARCs is compromising your integrity and your ability to write honest reviews, don't do it - it's not worth the hassle.  Before you all rush off to load a wheelbarrow up with books and trundle off to the local charity shop though, I'd just like to shine a ray of sunshine into this sorry situation. You see, while there are problems associated with accepting books for review, most of them are in your head.

When you're in the middle of carving your words of wisdom out on tablets of metaphorical stone, it's all too easy to delude yourself that publishers, readers and authors alike are waiting for you to descend from your Olympian retreat, desperate to hear what you have decreed to be the value of the latest release.  Don't kid yourself - nobody really cares that much.  The readers will probably just skim your piece, roll their eyes and move on to the next blog.  The publisher may give your work a cursory glance - then again, they may not.  The writer... Do you think the writer really knows you exist?

So don't be afraid to say what you really think, whether you've paid hard cash for the book or not.  It makes little difference to other people, but it will make you feel a whole lot better.  As long as you don't resort to personal insults, make stuff up or publicly burn the writer's work, the chances are that everything will be fine.

Please let me know what you think on this topic; I'm bound to have rubbed someone up the wrong way, and it's only healthy to get all that bile off your chest.  Anyway, I'd better get back to my review - I've got to find another five hundred words saying how wonderful the book is, or the publisher's going to be really angry with me...

Thursday 23 August 2012

In Search of Lost Time Tickets

After the wonderful time I had reading Traveller of the Century and Petersburg, I have become most willing to put my trust in the books Pushkin Press chooses to publish, so when I was offered another review copy recently, I was very happy to give it a try, even though I'd never heard of the author before.  This time it was a collection of short stories from a mid-twentieth-century French writer, but the end result was just as good :)

Marcel Aymé's collection, The Man Who Walked through Walls (translated by Sophie Lewis), was released in 1943 and comprises ten stories, each a little gem in its own right.  Some are short, realistic tales, others are whimsical, fairy-tale-like fantasies, while a few are verging on science-fiction, altering one little aspect of the universe, then casually following the consequences of the change.  One thing they have in common is that they are all fascinating and exceedingly-elegantly written.

The most famous of the stories is probably the one which lends the collection its name.  On the very first page, we are introduced to "an excellent gentleman called Dutilleul, who possessed the singular gift of passing through walls without any trouble at all." (p.11, Pushkin Press, 2012).  Surprisingly, Monsieur Dutilleul doesn't think much of his talent, preferring to use doors like everyone else until, one day, his supervisor at work pushes him too far, forcing our friend to use his gift to get his own back.  Once he has decided to finally make use of his talent though, it becomes extremely difficult to stop...

This bizarre style is continued in the next few stories.  Sabine Women, the longest of the stories included here, follows the troubles of a woman who is able to divide herself into as many different people as she likes.  Of course, once her doubles get bored, they too begin to duplicate, causing problems across six continents...  In The Problem of Summertime, a bold attempt to end the war by moving time forward seventeen years comes unstuck when a man visits a tiny village which is unaware of, and unaffected by, the international decree.  Our hero then returns home with knowledge of what he thinks is the future, but day by day, he becomes less sure of whether it all actually happened.

In some of the later stories, the style leans more towards fairy-tale and fantasy than in the earlier efforts.  Poldevian Legend and The Bailiff both look at what effect our lives on earth have on where we spend the rest of eternity (with wildly differing results), and The Wife Collector is a Kafkaesque tale in which a local tax collector deals with an unexpected loss by introducing a bizarre new scheme for increasing tax revenue, one which some may find appealing ;)

There is a lot more to this collection than just an over-active imagination though.  The book was originally released during the Second World War, and while we know that the war ended a couple of years later, with France on the winning side, Aymé was writing at a time when victory seemed impossible - and when even an unwelcome defeat could be decades in the future.  The final story, While Waiting, begins with the phrase:
"During the 1939-1972 war..." (p.275)
What to us seems an exaggerated statement was at this time simply a pessimistic view of an uncertain future...

While Waiting is one of the bleakest of the stories, in which fourteen people who meet while queueing for groceries decide never to go home again.  Each of them tells a tale of sorrow, lamenting their poor luck, each claiming to have nothing to go home to.  Some of the complaints go on for pages, other only take up a few lines.  One of the shortest simply doesn't need to be expanded upon:
"I," said a Jew, "I'm a Jew." (p.293)

As well as being the driving force behind While Waiting and The Problem of Summertime, the Occupation is also the underlying idea in Tickets on Time.  In this story, written in diary form, we learn of a scheme the government has come up with to ease food shortages.  People are divided into categories, depending on their usefulness, and are accordingly given ration tickets... for time.

Our diarist, writer Jules Flegmon, initially approves of the idea - that is until he hears that artists are not considered to be terribly useful and will only be allowed to live for two weeks each month.  At midnight on the 14th, he will disappear, reappearing on the first of the next month...  Aymé sets out the general concept of the story and then explores it in depth, leaving Flegmon to find out what really happens to the people who temporarily vanish.  More importantly, after trading tickets, he also learns what happens to those who are left behind for the final part of each month.

Hidden beneath the surface of this story is an examination of life in Occupied France and the way solidarity of a conquered people can swiftly turn into a self-centred free-for-all.  Very quickly, a black market for time tickets is established, and the poor are forced to sell off their precious time in order to feed their families.  Meanwhile, the rich and well-connected hardly seem to be affected by the new system at all - perhaps a reflection of how life really was in France at the time...

While I had never heard of Aymé before being offered this book, I'm a big fan now, and I'd love to try more of his work.  If I'm feeling up to it, I might try one in French next time - although Sophie Lewis' work here is excellent.  Anyone interested in short stories should give The Man Who Walked through Walls a go: it's a great collection of stories, and a lovely, aesthetically-pleasing book to boot.  In short, another wonderful Pushkin press production :)

Monday 20 August 2012

Ever-Decreasing Circles

One of the great pleasures in life is finally setting aside time for a writer you've been wanting to try for ages, and W.G. Sebald is someone who definitely falls into that category.  After hearing several bloggers I admire talk about his work recently, I belatedly got down to reading Die Ringe des Saturn (The Rings of Saturn), and a wonderful read it was too.  Still, on finishing the book, I did find myself scratching my head a little: is this book a work of genius, or the height of self-indulgence?  Let's leave that there for a while...

Die Ringe des Saturn is a travelogue of sorts, a collection of anecdotes centred upon Sebald's walking tour through the English coastal county of Suffolk.  The writer makes the decision to go on his trek after recovering in hospital from a fairly serious bout of illness, and this causes the book to have a profound sense of both intro- and retrospection, colouring his thoughts and the descriptions of the countryside with which he provides the reader.

This, however, is far from being a straight account of what Mr. Sebald did on his holiday.  Unable to stick to a simple, descriptive retelling of his tour, Sebald goes off at tangents at every opportunity.  A glance out over the cliffs to the choppy North Sea soon segues seamlessly into stories of seventeenth-century naval battles or colonial wars in South Africa.  At times, it's a little like Christmas dinner with a senile old uncle, with a story from the past just around every corner...

Of course, this is all very deliberate.  While Die Ringe des Saturn may, at first glance, appear to be akin to something written by Bill Bryson (albeit more stylishly and with less toilet humour), there are patterns to be found in the apparent madness of the structure.  A recurring theme is the cruel nature of time, eating away inevitably, unstoppably, at institutions once thought eternal.  His visits to stately homes, once regal, now moth-eaten and drab, reflect his gloomy view of his own mortality.  Even the land itself is proven to be less than permanent - in one chapter, he gazes out over the remains of a once-thriving coastal town, a church precariously balanced on a cliff the only reminder of a settlement which has been swallowed by the unforgiving sea.

Sebald also uses Die Ringe des Saturn to examine post-colonialism, with most of the chapters either looking back at Imperial times or examining how the end of the Empire has affected the places he visits.  Seen through this lens, the apparently random collection of academic anecdotes he comes up with (including tales of house burning in Ireland, slave-driving in the Congo, intervention in Chinese civil wars, a trip to the battlefields of Waterloo) actually make perfect sense.  There's a structure to the book, a carefully-planned design which holds it all together to form an impressive finished product.  Now, if only I could work out exactly what that is...

Reading Die Ringe des Saturn was great fun as it's the kind of book you can savour slowly, stopping after each of Sebald's musings to ponder on the significance of the vignette you've just finished.  The language is slightly unusual in German (Sebald's Wikipedia page claims that his German is occasionally a little old-fashioned), and it can take a little deciphering.  He frequently uses the very German Russian-doll construction of using a series of relative clauses one within the other, leaving the reader hanging until the end of a very long sentence to discover how the first clause actually ends.  It certainly makes you concentrate very carefully on the text :)

Another fairly unique element to Sebald's writing is his use of photographs to support the text.  The book is full of his snapshots, or reproductions of paintings or public documents, and the effect is to give the text a more non-fiction feel, making it into more of an academic work.  However, underneath this dry top layer of the text, there is a sense of a narrative, an underlying fiction which works against the apparent historical, factual writing above.  I am very aware that this makes extremely little sense outside my head...

Die Ringe des Saturn is a wonderful read - the fact that I ordered a copy of Austerlitz immediately after finishing it shows that I was very impressed -, but I was still not entirely sure what to make of it.  Was it a wonderfully-plotted work, or did Sebald simply ramble on about things I didn't really need to know?  Luckily, the answer eventually popped into my head in the form of a polite query (the sort of thing a certain Amateur Reader might say...): why can't the book be both a work of genius and the height of self-indulgence?  They're certainly not mutually exclusive...

And I think that's where I'll leave it for today - if anyone has any other ideas, you know where to find me ;)

Thursday 16 August 2012

Growing Old Disgracefully

Translated literature can often have a reputation for being worthy, solid and dull, so it's good to occasionally stumble across a book which takes itself a little less seriously.  On which note, let me introduce Swedish writer Jonas Jonasson's novel The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared, a title which immediately tells you that the contents are probably not going to be overly concerned with existential angst and the play of light across dusty tables.  I was (obviously) intrigued by this title and requested a review copy from Hesperus Press.  I didn't regret it - this is a great book to liven up a bleak Melbourne winter :)

The Hundred-Year-Old Man... (translated by Rod Bradbury) is about Allan Karlsson, an aimiable old fellow who decides to abscond from his nursing home hours before a party planned to celebrate his centenary.  Sprightly for his age, he manages to make it to the nearby bus station, where he sits down to wait for the next available bus (destination not important).  A man desperate for the toilet then asks Allan to look after his suitcase while he rushes to the little boy's room.  Unfortunately, by the time he gets back, the bus has come and gone - and there is no sign of either Allan or the suitcase...

As you may already have guessed, there was more inside the suitcase than a few shirts and ties, and the rather angry young man is very eager to track our geriatric friend down, and possibly put a dampener on his birthday celebrations.  Allan, however, is not your average pensioner, and is able to get by with a little help from his friends - and Allan has some very influential friends...

The Hundred-Year-Old Man... is, to put it bluntly, a romp.  A picaresque adventure in the style of Don Quixote, the book alternates between the mad-cap adventures Allan and a motley crew of shady characters and animals experience, and sections telling us about Allan's earlier life.  And if you think his modern-day adventures are fascinating, just wait until you hear about what he got up to in his youth...

After his father's unfortunate demise over in Russia (don't ask), Allan takes stock of his life, in a short passage which shows both the dry humour and sense of understatement that pervades the novel:
"...he understood that his father was dead, that his mother coughed and that the war was over.  As for himself, by the age of thirteen he had acquired a particular skill in making explosions by mixing nitroglycerine, cellulose nitrate, ammonium nitrate, sodium nitrate, wood flour, dinitrotoluene and a few other ingredients.  That ought to come in handy some day, thought Allan..." p.35 (Hesperus Press, 2012)
As you may have guessed, this talent will stand him in very good stead one day, particularly when some very famous men ask him for help :)

Allan is a wonderful character, a man with absolutely no moral or ideological compass who, left to his own devices, would like nothing more than to sit on the beach with just a comfortable chair, a bottle of vodka and the occasional opportunity to blow something up.  Alas, the twentieth century was a turbulent one, and anyone who happened to be caught up in the Spanish Civil War or the Korean conflict is bound to have little chance of a quiet life.  As Allan quietly floats from one disaster to the next, we really begin to wonder how he made it to the age of one hundred at all...

The Hundred-Year-Old Man... is an excellent novel, a wonderful example of dry, sardonic humour that occasionally had me bursting out in laughter, but it's not perfect.  It's not the most literary of novels, and I doubt it will be in the running for many prizes (although Bradbury's translation is a very good one).  It could also be argued that it's not exactly original in some aspects; anyone who has seen (or preferably read) Forrest Gump will see the influence of the American story running right through this one.  I also found that it lost momentum a little towards the end, understandable after the frenetic pace of some of the earlier episodes.

The fact remains though that whenever I put the book down, I wanted to pick it up again as quickly as possible to see what antics Allan and his friends were up to, which historical figure would make a cameo appearance next, and whether Allan could finally find a decent vodka to enjoy.  Not that Allan himself worries too much about any of these things.  Right to the end, he lives by the motto (the book's preface) he inherited from his mother in his childhood:
"Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be."
Sometimes, even as a reader, you just have to go with the flow...

Monday 13 August 2012

The Price of Fame

I firmly believe that when you are lucky enough to get a review copy you asked for (as opposed to one which turns up unrequested...), it's your responsibility to do your best to get it read and reviewed in a reasonable time frame.  Things come up in life which can upset your plans, but on the whole, it's only fair to hold up your end of the bargain - which is to review the book someone has been kind enough to send you.  Whether that review is generous or scathing is another matter entirely...

Having said all that, I was especially embarrassed to recently discover that I had a review copy of a book hidden behind a stack of new acquisitions on my bookshelves.  Even worse, it was one I had asked for - from an independent writer who had probably paid for the printing himself.  Consider this a very belated review :(

David Milne's The Ghost of Neil Diamond is set in Hong Kong in 1998, where we meet Neil Atherton, a folk singer in his late forties who came over to the former British colony when his wife managed to find a job in a large international company.  At a karaoke night, in front of a group of drunken ex-pats, Neil silences the crowd with a wonderful rendition of a Neil Diamond song, and later, at the bar, a local in a bright Hawaiian shirt comes up to introduce himself - Mr. Elbert Chan.

Chan has plans to set up a show with impersonators of legendary musicians, and Neil is to be his first act.  However, the discovery of this dream gives Neil's wife the excuse she's been looking for to end things with her husband, leaving the poor musician on the streets of Hong Kong.  If Chan can deliver, things may turn out alright - but Chan is not exactly the kind of man who instills trust...

Right from the start, The Ghost of Neil Diamond is a book which grabs the reader, setting up an intriguing scenario which you never quite get to grips with.  Neil's quest to become his famous namesake is played out against the backdrop of a society split between the luxury of the international workers and the poverty of the locals who help keep the upper layers of the community afloat.  Interestingly though, Neil himself is actually trapped between them, neither affluent nor dirt poor, able to catch glimpses of the two worlds, but fated to be merely a fleeting visitor to both.

Milnes also does a great job of portraying the claustrophobic atmosphere of Hong Kong, one of the most densely-populated areas in the world.  We start off in Neil's wife's apartment, a sanctuary from what we are to later encounter.  Once Neil has been kicked out of this safe haven, his days are spent traipsing through the streets, unable to return to his squalid accommodation before nightfall, trying to put off his trip to McDonalds (the only public space with cheap food and air-conditioning...) for as long as possible.

What it's really all about though is the music, the chance for Neil to become a star, even if it's not quite the direction he expected his career to move in.  He overcomes his initial snobbish attitude to Diamond's music and gradually becomes obsessed with the singer, to the point where he is unable to walk away from the project, even when it becomes clear that Chan simply cannot be trusted.  Lost in a foreign country, without family or friends, Neil is a man with nothing to hold onto - with the exception of his hope of becoming a star...

When he finally gets to perform (a long way into the book!), it's a big moment both for Neil and the reader.  The tension which has built up is finally dissipated as he takes the stage:
"But now there was a sudden shedding of inhibitions all round, an outbreak of shared nostalgia for good times past.  Reading the mood to the second, Anthony and the bass player were right behind him, with the big chords for the chorus faster now, on time.  The good times were on their way.  They had been named and they had been summoned for everyone, rich or poor, small or tall, lovely or unlovely.  The good times were back and they were even better than before." p.170 (What Tradition Books, 2010)
As you might expect from what I've said so far though, the performance is far from an unqualified success.  So why doesn't he give up?  Why doesn't he just go home?  What is he staying in Hong Kong for?  Well, to find that out, you'll just have to read it yourself ;)

I'd just like to finish my post by reiterating that this is a great read, and a book which makes you believe that there is good writing out there which doesn't make it into the mainsteam publishing world.  It's a lot more literary than it may sound, with a focus on Neil's obsession and the role of the ex-pat in Hong Kong.  However, it's also simply an entertaining story, one which often moves into areas you weren't expecting it to visit.  Most reviews I've seen (including the one from The Parrish Lantern which first whetted my appetite) have been very positive, so if this sounds like your kind of story, why not give it a go?

Thursday 9 August 2012

Run, Rabbit, Run!

Those of you out there who (like me) are edging ever closer to forty, may, from time to time, ponder the form your inevitable mid-life crisis will take.  Will you blow your savings and splash out on a Lamborghini?  Will you ditch your partner and run off with a pneumatic, barely-post-pubescent stunner?  Or, more interestingly, perhaps you'll pick up an injured animal and hitch-hike up to the Arctic Circle...

Before you all have me carted off in a white coat, I am (of course) referring to the events of today's offering, Finnish writer Arto Paasilinna's excellent novel, The Year of the Hare (translated by Herbert Lomas), a book I first came across in the review Ann Morgan wrote in her fascinating blog, A Year of Reading the World.  The story is about Karolo Vatanen, a jaded, middle-aged journalist who hates his job, his wife and just about everything else in his life.  When the van he's driving home in hits a hare crossing the road, Vatanen gets out, picks the poor animal up and puts a splint on its leg.  He then pauses, glances at the van and decides to walk off into the woods.  He never looks back.

What follows is less a description of a mid-life crisis than a rejection of modern society and a return to older, simpler times.  Vatanen travels around with his new friend, taking on manual labour jobs as he penetrates further and further into Finland's untamed wilds.  Most of the people he meets, while initially suspicious (and a little confused by the presence of the hare), end up helping him by giving him food, accommodation, transport or a job to keep him going.

Compared to some of the people he encounters though, Vatanen's eccentricities seem positively harmless.  As he meanders northwards, he comes across a retired police chief with a monomania about the Finnish president, a gun-toting vicar who doesn't appreciate animals in church, a cow in a very sticky situation, a heathen with a penchant for sacrificing defenceless animals - in this company, a man with a hare's ears sticking out of his backpack barely warrants a second glance...

The further Vatanen travels into the wilderness, the better things become.  The work he picks up (repairing cabins, herding cows, clearing trees) does wonders for his health and physical fitness, but the real benefit is to his soul.  Away from civilisation, he feels more alive and at peace with himself.  It's no coincidence that his bad days tend to coincide with incursions from the society he has decided to leave behind.

The Year of the Hare is an excellent story, a novel you can knock off in a couple of hours, but one which leaves a deeper impression than this would suggest.  Initially, I was a little sceptical about the translation, particularly the dialogue, peppered as it was with unusual linguistic choices ('a lark', 'goodness gracious', 'skedaddled') which, however true they were to the original, seemed oddly out of place.  Once I'd got a bit further into the book though, I no longer noticed this, drawn onward and upward as I was by the compelling story.

It's tempting to think of The Year of the Hare as a bit of a fairy tale, particularly after reading some of the more far-fetched events of the final quarter of the book.  However, I suspect that someone more versed in Finnish culture than I am (i.e. anyone with any concept of Finnish culture at all) may read this book in a different light.  There's the faintest of suspicions that with his poking of fun at the Finnish president, and the list of crimes that Vatanen is supposed to have committed (many of which hardly seem like crimes at all), Paasilinna may have been subtly criticising the rigid social constraints in his homeland.  Then again...

But, I sense you all asking, what about the hare?  What happens to him?  Unfortunately, I'll have to disappoint you - after all, I'm not about to give away the whole plot.  One thing I will say though is that our furry friend is an integral part of the book, not a passing character who disappears into the forest thirty pages into the novel.  He's not a very chatty character (this is not Watership Down!), but he does get into a lot of scrapes - just like his new master...

Monday 6 August 2012

For All Flesh Is As Grass...

I've read a fair bit of Japanese literature now, with novels by about twenty different authors under my belt (and short stories by a further twenty or thirty), so it's always a little dispiriting to come across a writer that I've never even heard of, let alone tried.  One such writer is Takehiko Fukunaga, author of Flowers of Grass (translated by Royall Tyler), so I was looking forward to my review copy from Dalkey Archive immensely - because, of course, a new writer may just be a favourite writer you haven't experienced yet...

Flowers of Grass begins in a sanatorium outside Tokyo, where the narrator is recovering from a lingering illness.  He lives in a dormitory with several other patients, including Shigeshi Shiomi, an enigmatic man who appears unfazed by the prospect of death.  When Shiomi dies after demanding to undergo an extremely risky operation, the narrator inherits the only things of worth which his room-mate leaves behind - two notebooks, each one detailing a period of happiness in poor Shiomi's life.

We are then transported from the frame into the real narrative of Shiomi's two love stories.  The first takes place just before World War Two and details his allegedly platonic love for Shinobu Fujiki, a younger student at Shiomi's high school.  Shiomi attempts to come to terms with his feelings for the younger boy during a camp with his school archery team, a trip which almost goes horribly wrong.

The second notebook moves on to a time after the war has started, showing Shiomi's troubled relationship with Shinobu's sister, Chieko.  With the prospect of being drafted at any time, Shiomi is desperate to complete the novel he is writing and convince Chieko to commit to him.  Somehow though, events conspire to keep the young lovers from coming together...

Flowers of Grass is a beautiful story, another of those poignant, achingly-sad novels that Japanese literature is so replete with.  There is the usual conflict between a sorry life and a blissful death, with Shiomi willing to undergo a risky operation simply because he no longer sees the point of living.  This has little to do with his condition; rather, the disappointments he has experienced have left him a shell of a man, one who no longer knows how to live.  As he explains to the narrator:
"Illness has nothing to do with it.  Living is something else entirely.  It's a kind of intoxication.  Everything you have inside you -  reason, feeling, knowledge, passion, everything - bursts from you, burning.  That's being alive.  Come to think of it, I haven't experienced that sort of rapture for a long time.  A dizzy rapture, I used to call it.  It's gone, though, and I might as well be dead.  It means nothing by now if my body happens to die too." p.33 (Dalkey Archive, 2012)
Unable to recapture this sense of living, Shiomi is only too happy to give up on life.

Anyone who has more than a passing knowledge of J-Lit may be a little surprised that Shiomi didn't take his own life, as suicide is a common theme in both literature and real life in Japan (the number of famous Japanese writers who ended their own lives is astonishingly high...).  However, this may be explained by the fact that there is a strong Christian element running through Flowers of Grass.  Shiomi, for reasons initially unclear, was once baptised, leaving the narrator (and the reader) to suspect that his insistence on having surgery may have been an indirect suicide attempt, one which shifts the blame onto someone else.

Fukunaga was himself baptised late in life, and it is possible that he is trying to work through his own religious feelings in his novel.  While Shinobu has nothing to do with Christianity, Chieko is a member of a non-church Christian group, and it is faith which comes between her and Shiomi.  She tries to ignore their differences, but eventually she is forced to make a choice between the man she loves and the path she has chosen in life.

Chieko's quest for eternal life then is contrasted with Shiomi's certainty that death is ever-present.  He is unable to ignore the fact that we will all one day die, saying:
"They - no, I should say we - live with death every day, but I can't pretend to see anything heroic in that.  Every one of us humans walks the valley of the shadow of death.  I knew even then, when the spring sunshine of Heda brightened my youth and the scent of cherry blossoms surrounded me, that death had his eye on us all and awaited us down the road.  People just don't grasp that, though.  The wings of death are always fluttering near, today as yesterday, but people go cheerfully about their lives and notice nothing." p.105
The irony is that in this passage, and in the one cited earlier (note the use of the word 'rapture'...), Shiomi's rejection of life and faith is couched in religious terms...

There's a lot more that could be said about this book, particularly in regard to the constant Japanese issue of the struggle between a longing for individuality and an overpowering sense of responsibility to the group (shown both in the sanatorium dormitory and the archery camp), but I think I'll leave that to someone else to discuss.  Hopefully, in the little I've written here, I've convinced you that while Fukunaga is by no means one of Japan's most famous writers, he is at least, on the evidence of Flowers of Grass, a very good one.

A thought I'll leave you with though comes from the bible quotation in the preface, one which gives the novel its title:
"For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass."
1 Peter 1:24
For Shiomi, this is not true - he believes that by leaving something of artistic value behind, his life will become of some worth.  In this sense, perhaps his decline dates not from his illness, or the loss of his chance at love, but from the time he abandons his writing.  It's all a question of when we truly die...

Saturday 4 August 2012

July 2012 Wrap-Up

If you ever hear me whinging about how I don't get all these review copies people are constantly talking about, give me a big slap.  July laid that bogey to rest with the month seeing me get through seven (!) books received from various publishers.  What was even better is that they were all good - making for some very tricky decisions this time around...

Total Books Read: 12
Year-to-Date: 71

New: 11
Rereads: 1

From the Shelves: 3
Review Copies: 6
From the Library: 2
On the Kindle: 1 (1 Review Copy)

Novels: 7
Novellas: 2
Short Stories: 2
Non-Fiction: 1

Non-English Language: 10 (2 Spanish, 2 Icelandic, 2 Russian, German, French, Japanese, Finnish)
In Original Language: 2 (1 German, 1 French)

Murakami Challenge: 0 (0/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (5/12)
Australian Women Writers Challenge: 0 (5/10)
Japanese Literature Challenge 6: 1 (3/1) 

Books read in July were:

Tony's Turkey for July is: nothing

No turkeys for Christmas in July, I'm afraid.  This was a formidable reading month, and while a couple of the dozen were weaker than the others, that had everything to do with the competition and not the quality of the books themselves :)

Tony's Recommendations for July are: Andrei Bely's Petersburg
and Enrique Vila-Matas' Dublinesque

Petersburg was the first book I read in July, and I immediately assumed that the top spot had already been secured. This feeling lasted about two days, that is until I started Dublinesque...  While many of the other books I read in July were fabulous, and may well have taken out the honours in a weaker month (take a bow Flowers of Grass, The Year of the Hare and, especially, The Blue Fox), it was a two-horse race from the start - and regular readers should know by now that we don't like using technology to separate close finishes round these parts ;)

I still have a few more review copies to read in August, but I am hoping to fit in a few more of my own books this month.  Of course, I may not be able to match July's reading total - I seem to recall that there's some big sporting thing happening that may well take up a bit of my time...

Thursday 2 August 2012

Warm Words and Cold Hearts

I'm not sure if this happens to anyone else, but whenever I read a good book by a writer from another country, I immediately want to read more, not just from that particular author, but also from his compatriots.  The point to this long, and rather overcomplicated, opening sentence is that after enjoying Sjón's work I was on the lookout for more Icelandic fiction - which brings me to today's review :)

Twice in a Lifetime is a collection of short stories by Icelandic writer Ágúst Borgþór Sverrisson, one I noticed on the website of Comma Press and requested a review copy of.  It's a slender volume, comprising ten stories running to just over 120 pages, set in Iceland over the past few decades, and it's a book you could run through very quickly indeed.  It's probably best though to space the stories out, and that is how I approached the book.

Many of the stories feature modern men, some behaving very badly.  In Exchange of Guilt, a man whose happy existence is based on his brother's misfortune takes advantage of his luck to iron out a problem which his own behaviour has caused.  Of course, when you try to cheat fate, there's always the chance that fate will try to cheat you back. Another unlikeable character is the protagonist in The German Teacher's Wife , an arrogant young student who looks down on his girlfriend but uses her to finance his studies abroad - until the money suddenly runs out...

However, not all of Sverrisson's main men are like that.  In A Sweet Shop in the West End, a man in his thirties tries to connect with his step-son, reminded of his own relationship with his mother's partner.  While this part of his life seems to work, his beautiful wife, at first so loving, appears to be taking advantage of his good nature.  In The First Day of the Fourth Week, a contemporary story of post-GFC Iceland, a man made redundant tries to fill his day, unable to cope with the unexpected feeling of unemployment, waiting for something, anything, to turn up...

These two stories reminded me a little of some in Clemens Meyer's collection, All the Lights, and while Meyer's characters are, on the whole, a little more working class and down on their luck than Sverrisson's, there is a strong resemblance in the ground the two writers tread.  The stories deal with real life, nothing too exotic or flamboyant; in fact, were it not for the occasional reference to geothermal energy and Kronur, you could have trouble placing the stories geographically.

One element which ties the stories together is a sense of retrospection, many of them being specifically dated.  Quite apart from Lunch Break, 1976 (the shortest of the stories, one in which a stressed-out office worker comes home and has a rant about a sheep's head left in a saucepan...), several of the stories have the year clearly stated, as if the writer wants to impress the importance of the time from the start of the very first page.  While there is no explicit sense of nostalgia, the reader gets the sense that we are meant to be looking for something in the past, something which has perhaps been lost.

On top of this preoccupation with the past, several of the stories focus on problematic relationships, marriages that have run their course.  In addition to the stories mentioned above, After the Summer House, the longest of the stories in the collection, focuses squarely on a marriage in crisis.  It takes place over a few years in which a couple visit their friends in the country during the summer holidays.  On the first visit, their friends' marriage seems to be strained; on the second, they have built their dream summer house and appear to be much happier.  But is everything really OK?  And how does this reflect on the protagonist's own relationship?

This story was probably my favourite of the ten.  It deals with the way relationships change and what people have to do to keep them fresh, and make sure they continue to work.  The protagonist here is a man who prefers to live in his own world, lost in old magazines and music, and he doesn't realise that this is probably not the best thing for his continued happiness.  I think I'll move on before it all gets a bit too close to home...

Before I wrap up though, I should mention the translators - particularly important as there are three of them!  Most of the stories are translated by the team of Maria Helga Guðmundsdóttir and Anna Benassi, but The First Day of the Fourth Week (which appeared in a previous Comma Press collection) is translated by Vera Júlíusdóttir.  The stories are easy to read, but the style sometimes switches between being slightly formal and more colloquial - an aspect which I suspect is more down to the writer than the translators :)

Twice in a Lifetime is well worth a read, and I'm hoping to have another look through it soon as I suspect there are still more secrets there to be uncovered.  As for Iceland, well, I'm definitely hoping to make a (literary) return trip in the near future.  Any suggestions will be gratefully received :)