Thursday 28 February 2013

'The Queen of Spades' by Alexander Pushkin (Review)

Considering that Pushkin Press is named after the famous Russian poet, it was a surprise to find that none of his work was in their back catalogue.  Thankfully, this embarrassing oversight has now been rectified, in the form of the wonderful little book you can see in the photo - and about time too ;)

Alexander Pushkin's The Queen of Spades (translated by Anthony Briggs, review copy courtesy of the publisher) comprises a variety of works from the writer's career.  Although primarily known as a poet, he did write some prose, and his most famous story lends its name to this collection.  In addition to 'The Queen of Spades' and 'The Stationmaster' (a shorter story), the reader is also treated to extracts from some of Pushkin's more famous longer works (e.g. Yevgeny Onegin).  Finally, there is a selection of his shorter poems, not forgetting another of his masterpieces 'The Bronze Horseman'  - truly something for everyone :)

'The Queen of Spades' itself is a longish short story set in St. Petersburg.  It tells of an officer who hears a story about a countess who knows the secret of successful gambling.  He decides to get the secret from her, by fair means or foul, faking an attachment with the countess' young ward in order to get closer to the old lady.  Eventually, he does learn the secret - but can he really trust the mischievous old woman?

It is an excellent story, written in a light, airy manner, despite the supernatural elements which creep into the second half of the tale.  Pushkin's observant poet's eye is evident in his descriptions of the characters, including a few lines about the old countess in society:
"She was a full participant in all high-society frivolities, taking herself off to every ball, where she sat things out in a corner, rouged up and dressed in the fashions of yesteryear, like a hideous but indispensable ballroom ornament."
p.27, 'The Queen of Spades' (2012, Pushkin Press)
This casual and humorous style contrasts nicely with the darker turn the story eventually takes.

However, Pushkin is far more famous for his poetry, and this is where the main interest of the collection lies.  One of the most famous poems in Russian (and one, I suspect, that many people memorise at school) is 'The Bronze Horseman', a twenty-page ode to St. Petersburg.  The poem starts with the story of the city's founding in the Finnish swamps and goes on to describe the city's beauties.  Then we are told of a (real-life) flood, one which devastates parts of the city - and has a dramatic effect on the life of Yevgeny, a poor working man.

Poor Yevgeny survives the floods himself, but some of his loved ones are not quite so lucky, so our friend decides to vent his anger on the founder of the city - in the shape of the statue of the bronze horseman.  As it turns out though, the Tsars are not to be trifled with, even when they are cast in bronze:
"And splendid in the pale moonlight,
One arm flung out on high, full speed,
Comes the Bronze Horseman in his flight,
Upon his crashing, clanging steed."
p.107, 'The Bronze Horseman'
Run, Yevgeny, run!

To round off the collection, there are ten or so shorter poems, representative of the hundreds Pushkin wrote.  They read elegantly and smoothly - at which point it is probably time to praise Briggs and his excellent translation.  In addition to writing an interesting introduction (and supplying occasional footnotes), the translator has managed to create a collection of different forms and styles without sounding artificial.  I have no knowledge of Russian, but poetry is notoriously tricky to coax into a foreign language; my enjoyment of the English versions must surely reflect on the translator's skill.

One example of this is 'Winter Evening', a short poem about an old woman sitting inside her cottage while the cold wind howls outside.  If we take just the first stanza, we can see the work Briggs has put into his translation:
"Darkness falling, stormy roaring,
Whipping Winds and scurrying snow.
Baying beasts are howling for me,
Babies wailing - blow, winds, blow!
Through the tattered rooftops, flapping,
Rustling through the threadbare thatch,
Like a late-night traveller tapping,
Rattling at the window latch."
p.128, 'Winter Evening'
It is clear from this stanza that Briggs is attempting to keep the alliteration and rhythm of the original ('whipping winds', 'baying beasts', 'threadbare thatch'), and this comes though very well in the fourth line, where the b/w/b/w/b pattern can't have been easy to create!

All in all, this is an excellent little collection and probably the perfect entry point into Pushkin for the average reader who isn't really that into poetry.  The variety of genres means that you can pick and choose, or you can simply dip into it as you feel the urge.  Another great Pushkin Press publication - even if it did take them more than a decade to get around to commissioning it ;)

Tuesday 26 February 2013

'Maidenhair' by Mikhail Shishkin (Review)

Anyone who reads Russian literature in English will have noticed that there is, shall we say, a slight obsession with the classics.  For every new translation, there are a couple of dozen updated versions of novels from the Golden and Silver ages of the country's literary past.  However, there is good new stuff out there too: I enjoyed Oleg Zaionchkovsky's Happiness is Possible when I read it last year, and today's offering is another contemporary book which came with a lot of hype.  Let's see if it lived up to it...

Mikhail Shishkin's Maidenhair (translated by Marian Schwartz, review copy courtesy of Open Letter Books) has been touted as an instant classic.  The five-hundred page novel starts off in Switzerland as a story about an interpreter for Russian refugees, a man who must listen to the stories of atrocities they spin in an attempt to prolong their stay in the country.

Very soon though any idea of a straight narrative is abandoned.  Shishkin creates a tangle of intermingled strands, zipping backwards and forwards in time and space, alternating between fiction and reality (whatever that is).  As well as following the unnamed interpreter in his work (and on his travels), the reader must navigate the books the interpreter is reading, the postcards he writes (but never sends) to his son, and the diary entries of a famous singer and actress whose biography he was once commissioned to write.

It is an overwhelming confusion of genres, styles and stories, the parts coming together to create a whole which is extremely difficult to understand fully, but wonderful to read.  A book which came to mind while reading Maidenhair was Cloud Atlas, another ambitious novel which plays with genres, meta-fiction and text types.   Shishkin, obviously, is indebted to his Russian influences, and mentions of Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev and Tolstoy are scattered across the pages of the novel.  However, there is a lot here that is Joycean too, with drifting stream-of-consciousness passages bumping shoulders with black humour and language straight from the gutter.  Hmm - I'm not sure I'm making myself very clear here...

At the risk of falling into the trap of comparing my current book with another recent read, Maidenhair again seems to be a novel which attempts to discuss just about everything.  It is a work about war and peace, about love and (above all) about stories.  One of the main ideas seems to be whether it is possible to be happy while others suffer, whether we can smile and dance while others are slaughtered in unnecessary wars:
"It's like with happiness.  Since everyone can't be happy anyway, whoever can be happy right now, should.  You have to be happy today, right now, no matter what.  Someone said there can't be a heaven if there's a hell.  Supposedly it's impossible to be in heaven if you know suffering exists somewhere.  Nonsense.  True enjoyment of life can only be felt if you've known suffering.  What would the leftovers of our soup be to this mongrel if it hadn't had a whiff of hunger?"
p.474 (2012, Open Letter Books)
The privileged, comfortable reader may well feel a few pangs of guilt at being able to settle back in a soft reading chair while Chechens flee the Russian army - the quotation above shows that not everyone feels the need to worry about justice and fairness...

Another focus is Shishkin's proposal that life is lived in four dimensions.  Everywhere we go, we leave traces of ourselves, meaning that we are everywhere we have ever been (or will ever be).  This means too that the ghosts of yesterday are still here today, all the people we have ever known existing at the same time and in the same space.  In fact, some of these people and things are merely copies of earlier beings - life is full of imitations of imitations with no original.  As we see from the statues the interpreter visits in Rome, or the actress Bellochka's constant stream of boyfriends (each one seeming to be 'the one'), everything repeats, nothing is new... least I think that is what he is getting at.  With all the constant jumping around between realities, it can be hard to keep tabs on what is actually being said.  Not that this is necessarily a problem.  Even if all our lives are inextricably interconnected, there is no need to get to grips with every single thread:
 "You just have to understand destiny's language and its cooing.  We're blind from birth.  We don't see anything and don't pick up on the connection between events, the oneness of things, like a mole digging its tunnel and bumping into thick roots, and for the mole these are just insurmountable obstacles and he can't imagine the crown these roots nourish." p.268
Moles, yep, we are all moles.  Let's move on.

As you may have gathered from the ramblings above, Maidenhair is not exactly a comfort read.  In fact, it is a book which makes the reader work hard for their enjoyment on many levels, whether that involves keeping track of who is narrating which section or having to flick to Wikipedia to look up historical, literary and mythological figures name-checked in the novel.  If that all seems like too much hard work though, you can just appreciate it as a set of interconnected stories and enjoy the language (and with Marian Schwartz's excellent translation, that makes for very good reading indeed).  In the end, it is all about the stories...

Many reviews of Maidenhair have been rather effusive, and the 'instant classic' tag has been thrown around a fair bit.  On a first read, I'm not sure I can make a judgement like that, but it is a very good book, and one which I'm convinced will be just as successful in its translated form as it was in the original.  One thing is for sure - it is a novel which will stand up to rereading, and one which will reward the reader who is prepared to put in the time and effort.  If that sounds like you...

Sunday 24 February 2013

'The Radetzky March' by Joseph Roth (Review)

Over the past couple of years, partly owing to the influence of Caroline and Lizzy's German Literature Month, I have been reading a lot more books in the German language (good to know that my university time wasn't completely wasted...).  While some of that reading has been fairly contemporary (e.g. Peter Stamm, Judith Hermann, Birgit Vanderbeke), I haven't been neglecting the classics.

A while back, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a famous German literary critic, published his Kanon, a list of the most noteworthy works in German-language literature.  I have been working my way (slowly!) through the list of novels, and today's post looks at another of Reich-Ranicki's recommendations - and a very good book it is too...

Joseph Roth's major work Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March) is a novel which you will find on any list of best German-language novels, occasionally at the very top of the tree.  It is a family saga spanning three generations, set in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where the fate and fortunes of the Trotta family are intertwined with those of Emperor Franz Josef I - and of the empire itself...

The story begins in 1859, at the Battle of Solferino, where a quick-thinking soldier dives on the Emperor to save him from being assassinated by an enemy sniper.  The monarch's gratitude expresses itself in the form of riches and promotion to the aristocracy - a fair reward for the son of a Slovenian farmer.  However, the prize turns out to be a double-edged sword - both the brave soldier and his descendants struggle to come to terms with their new station in life.  The new Baron is astounded by the way his life has changed:
"Als hätte man ihm sein eigenes Leben gegen ein fremdes, neues, in einer Werkstatt angfertigtes vertauscht, wiederholte er sich jede Nacht vor dem Einschlafen und jeden Morgen nach dem erwachen seinen neuen Rang und seinen neuen Stand, trat vor den Spiegel und bestätigte sich, daß sein Angesicht das alte war."

"As if his life had been exchanged for a strange, new one, one which had been factory-made, every night before sleeping and every morning after waking up, he repeated his new rank and position in life, walked up to the mirror and checked that his face was still the same old one."***
He passes away, never having quite come to terms with his elevation in life.  However, for his son and grandson, life is to be even more difficult...

Franz, the son, becomes a high-ranking goverment official, having been expressly forbidden by his father to enter the military.  However his son, Carl Joseph, at his father's request, does become a soldier.  Sadly, just like the first baron, the two are unable to enjoy life as privileged gentlemen; a constant feeling of being slightly out-of-place mixed with misfortune in love leads to a lifetime searching for a reason to keep going.

Part of the problem is the absence of female influence in their lives.  Both Franz's mother and wife passed away at an early age, events which have lasting effects on the Trottas.  The father buries himself in work and tradition, following a regime so regimented that the outside world is unable to penetrate or surprise it.  The son wanders around lost, in search of affection, often finding it in the arms of an older woman - a mother figure...

There is one more important male character in the novel though, one who has an enormous influence on events.  Kaiser Franz Joseph himself appears several times, meeting all three generations of the Trottas, and the fate of the Barons seems inextricably linked to those of the Emperor and his realm.  As the Empire totters towards its destruction, decaying gradually over decades before being given the coup de grace by the events of the First World War, so too does the ageing Franz Joseph move gracefully towards the grave.  And let's not forget, the Emperor also lost his wife at an early age...

Roth skilfully uses a visual metaphor to bind the fortunes of the two families further.  The first Baron had his portrait painted by one of his son's friends, a painting which remains in the family, and which his grandson is obsessed with.  As the second Baron ages, he begins to resemble the portrait remarkably - but this is not the only resemblance.  The Kaiser too has his portrait (found all over his empire), leaving the youngest Trotta to be watched over by two formidable old men - it isn't easy being constantly in the eyes of the Kaiser...
"Seine Gnade selbst, die über der Familie der Trottas ruhte, war eine Last aus scheidendem Eis.  Und Carl Joseph fror es unter dem blauen Blick seines Kaisers."

"Even his favour, which rested upon the Trotta family, was a burden of ice.  And Carl Joseph froze beneath the blue gaze of his Emperor."***

As the empire draws closer to its inevitable doom, so too does the family line of the Trottas, men lifted above their station, a historical aberration soon to be smoothed out.  In linking the fate of the family with that of the empire, Roth allows the reader to witness the death throes of what was one of Europe's great powers.  It all makes for a wonderful novel, one worthy of its inclusion in Reich-Ranicki's pantheon of German-language greats.

So, after the success of Hotel Savoy, that's two out of two for Roth - time to look for more of his work :)  As for the Kanon, despite my recent activity, that is just the ninth of the top novels that I've read.  Another eleven to go...

*** All translations are my own, pitiful efforts ;)

Thursday 21 February 2013

'Phantom Lights' by Teru Miyamoto (Review)

One of the books which reached me too late for January in Japan was a review copy from Kurodahan Press, a small publisher based in Japan which, as well as publishing new translations, also brings out-of-print works back into English.  While I was originally interested in a collection of stories by Osamu Dazai, one book which caught my eye was another short-story collection, one by a writer I hadn't heard of before.

Teru Miyamoto is a writer from the Kansai region of Japan, and Phantom Lights (translated by Roger K. Thomas) is a collection of some of his more popular shorter works.  Having won the Akutagawa Prize, Miyamoto is a well-known name in Japan, but there is little of his work available in English, apart from a novella (Kinshu: Autumn Brocade).

Like many Japanese authors, there is a strong autobiographical nature to his writing (made clearer to the reader by the excellent introduction, courtesy of the translator).  'The Stairs', a story about a young boy living with an alcoholic mother in a dank apartment building, is a typical example.  Drawn from Miyamoto's own memories of life after his father's death, it is a stark picture of the effects of poverty and alcoholism on an impressionable child.  He describes leaving the apartment (to buy alcohol for the first time):
"Here and there lay the rusty remains of children's tricycles, and a voice could be heard chanting a sutra to the accompaniment of wooden clappers.  Kamei Manor had its own peculiar stench.  And the Kikuya Apartments next door and the Matsuba Manor across the alley each had their own peculiar stench that enveloped their tenants day and night, depriving them of all hope, draining them of strength, provoking anger, and turning their energy into irritability and despair."
p.85, 'The Stairs' (Kurodahan Press, 2011)
In such an environment, it is little wonder that the future (and the story) is fairly bleak.

The theme of poverty is continued in 'The Lift', where the main character attempts to sell a classic lighter in order to find money to eat.  When he fails in his quest and sets off on a long walk home, he is offered a lift by a man on a bicycle - a character who has existential issues of his own.  In Japanese, the title reads something like 'Five Thousand Times Life or Death', which may give you more of an idea of what the story is about.  Or not ;)

The writer also looks back to his childhood, reminiscing about his school days.  As you might imagine though, he rarely wears rose-tinted spectacles when thinking back to his youth.  'Strength' is a frame narrative in which an exhausted salaryman sitting on a park bench is reminded of his first school day by the sight of an elementary school student walking past with a bag on his back.  In a fairly brief tale, the reader is shown not only the man's first school day, but also a glimpse of his home life, one which may explain the situation he finds himself in today.

'Vengeance', on the other hand, puts the blame for the protagonist's failure squarely on the shoulders of a sadistic judo teacher.  Gradually, we learn just how cruel and horrific the poor boy's treatment was.  Luckily though, one of the boy's school friends just happens to have grown up to be a high-ranking Yakuza member...

Phantom Lights is an interesting collection, even if not all the stories are of the same quality.  However, there were a couple of things that felt off.  One was that the translation tended to be a little formal and stiff.  The Kansai region is famed for its brashness and direct way of speaking, and while I agree with the translator (in his introduction) that this is impossible to get across completely, I'm not sure that the tone he adopted always worked.  A lot of the stories were literally stories, told from one character to another, and the more conversational tone you would expect just didn't happen. 

I also felt that, at times, it felt a little too autobiographical.  Many of the stories were variations on a theme, examining Miyamoto's early life from various angles, and while I have frequently read that this can be a trait of Japanese writing, it did get old a little quickly.  In fact, where Miyamoto moved away from his own experiences more, the writing was often better.

The best example of this was the title story, 'Phantom Lights', the longest piece in the collection, and one that stands out for its quality and its difference.  Narrated by a young widow who has moved to a remote seaside town to remarry, it tells of her struggle to understand why her first husband committed suicide, leaving her and their young son behind.  The slower pace, and the different voice of the young widow, made for an enjoyable read, and it leads me to think that Miyamoto might actually be better enjoyed in a longer form.

In short, Phantom Lights is an enjoyable read for readers who have tried a lot of J-Lit, but I'm not sure that it is for everyone.  In any case, I saw enough here to suggest that Kinshu: Autumn Brocade would be a worth a try - time to add one more to the ever-growing wishlist...

Monday 18 February 2013

'Rustic Baroque' by Jiří Hájíček (Review)

When it comes to Czech literature, my experience is limited to Kafka, Kundera... and that is about it.  Having seen a couple of reviews for a more contemporary Czech novel then, I was curious enough to ask the publishers, Real World Press, for a copy.  What is it about?  A story of life in the country - central-European style...

Jiří Hájíček's Rustic Baroque (translated by Gale A. Kirking) is set a few years back in the Czech countryside, but it is also concerned with the events of the farm collectivisations of the 1950s.  The main character is Pavel Straňanský, a genealogist who reluctantly takes on the task of uncovering an old document - one which will compromise a local politician as it reveals his family's informer past.

In the company of Daniela, an attractive tourist from Prague who is researching her own family tree, Pavel visits the villages of the south Bohemian countryside, interviewing the locals and digging up information.  The more Pavel learns about the events that occurred fifty years earlier, the stronger his pangs of conscience become - should he reveal what he has found or leave the past buried in the sleepy countryside?

Rustic Baroque is a great insight into recent Czech history, the two contrasting stories of past and present making for an interesting novel.  The writer sets the scene nicely, with Pavel escaping his archives during a sweltering summer to search for the information he needs.  The reader is treated to a guided tour of restful, rustic villages.  Be warned though - there is a lot going on beneath the surface...

As much as it is about Czech history though, the novel is largely concerned with Pavel himself.  An intellectual fish-out-of-water, seemingly marooned in the provinces, he faces immense pressure from his brother and the locals in his home village, none of whom can understand his lifestyle (or his obsession with the past).   Although he enjoys his job, he does start to sense the futility of his work:
"The dim monitor displayed the names of people who no one knows anymore, who no one living today ever saw.  They have no faces, most of them even have no story.  Only dates of birth and death, cradles and graves, all over again, and I bring them out into the light from the moldy books of archives and people pay me for that..."
p.54 (Real World Press, 2013)
Is it all worth it, or is he just a loser, stuck in the sticks, after all?

In a slightly clichéd move, the divorced Pavel is provided with the gorgeous Daniela as both a genealogy side-kick and a potential lover (although she also plays the important role of asking Pavel the questions the reader wants to ask).  In many ways, her arrival is the catalyst for Pavel's doubts about what he is doing as her presence brings unrest:
"As always when I waited for Daniela, I felt an uneasiness, not just inside me but somehow all around me as well.  She always wreaked havoc on everything that had previously been in order - such as the files lined up in their shelves, their record numbers in successive order.  The entire archive in ruins." p.113
And what does Daniela want from Pavel anyway - a summer fling, or something more?

Rustic Baroque is a fascinating story of how the future is built upon the past - and a dilemma of whether past wrongs need to be righted.  Pavel uncovers stories that many people would rather he hadn't, and in the wrong hands, this information could ruin lives and careers.  Surely, at some point, it is time to forgive and forget...

I enjoyed this novel, and the four bonus short stories from Hájíček's collection, The Wooden Knife, but it would be unfair (possibly unethical) of me to finish the review without revealing a major issue I had with the book - the translation.  I enjoyed Rustic Baroque despite the translation, not because of it.  I found it stiff, overly formal, unnatural - and (in some places) grammatically incorrect.

Translators have to walk a fine line between conveying the essence of the original text and creating a piece of writing that works in English - Kirking's translation certainly erred on the side of following the original to the letter, even to the extent of using unnatural sentence structure (presumably to stay closer to the Czech version).  This was particularly true for the dialogue, which rarely sounded like natural spoken English.  It is a shame because this is a story that many people would enjoy.

Still, language and linguistics are a large part of what I do every day, and I can sometimes be very sensitive about these matters.  It may well be that others are less bothered than I was about the translation (and I haven't really seen it mentioned in other reviews).  Hopefully, whether they like the translation or not, most readers will still be able to enjoy the essence of Hájíček's novel :)

Thursday 14 February 2013

'War and Peace' by Leo Tolstoy (Review)

After flying through a whole pile of short translated fiction recently, I was left with a lot of reviews to write - meaning that I needed a book which would give me time to catch up with my blogging duties.  Hmm, a big novel that I've been meaning to reread for some time...  I think I might just have the right book for the job ;)

Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (translated by Rosemary Edmonds) is, by any definition, a big book.   It is a great novel about a great war, at the time one of the biggest and most destructive ever.  The novel starts in 1805, and the first book (125 pages) introduces the reader to our dramatis personae.  The second book then takes us through their experiences at and during the Battle of Austerlitz - and that's just the start.  We then follow our characters through the the years of an uneasy cold war until Napoleon attacks Russia in 1812, which is when the story really begins.  Finally, Tolstoy adds an epilogue of seven years to tell us how our friends fared after the defeat of the French - plus some philosophical musings to finish it all off.

As I said, it is a big book ;)

War and Peace is an epic, and its scope allows us to follow Tolstoy's creations across a decade as they grow up, grow old and (in some cases) change.  We see Natasha Rostov as a sprightly girl, then as a beautiful young debutante.  Later she matures, learning from mistakes and hardened by the necessities of the war, finally achieving motherhood in the epilogue.  Another of the major characters, Pierre Bezuhov, appears on the stage as a plump, naive buffoon, but the war gives him the opportunity for him to show his true colours; by the end of the novel, he is a familiar, middle-aged friend.

Although the characters change in many ways, just as in real life, they only change within the constraints of their personalities.  Those who turn out to be disappointing people have the germ of this disappointment in them from the very start.  The writer merely allows time to bring out what is initially partially hidden.  Boris' snobbery, Sonya's sanctimoniousness, Petya's impetuosity - they are all there at the start of the novel for any reader to see.

But what is War and Peace actually about?  The answer is that it is a book about everything (which is, perhaps, why it is so long...).  Tolstoy, through his characters, ponders the big question of the meaning of life, and he uses his 1400+ pages to explore various answers.  Pierre and Prince Andrei wonder if it is about work or personal development; Maria tries education and the care of others; Boris works for his own gain, while Dolohov merely has fun wherever he can find it; Petya longs for glory, but his sister, Natasha, is aching for love.  Somehow though, nobody seems to be able to find the right answer.

Pierre is especially troubled by existential matters (when not overcome by marriage problems) and spends years looking for a reason to live.  At one point, he muses:
"Sometimes he remembered having heard how soldiers under fire in the trenches, and having nothing to do, try hard to find some occupation the more easily to bear the danger.  And it seemed to Pierre that all men were like those soldiers, seeking refuge from life: some in ambition, some in cards, some in framing laws, some in women, some in playthings, some in horses, some in politics, some in sport, some in wine, and some in government service. 'Nothing is without consequence, and nothing is important: it's all the same in the end.  The thing to do is to save myself from it all as best I can,' thought Pierre.  'Not to see it, that terrible it.'
p.636 (Penguin Classics, 1982)
You will have to read the book to find out how (or whether) Pierre is ever able to find what he is looking for...

Much of what I have said so far applies more to the 'peace' side of the book, but large parts of the novel are (of course) devoted to the war.  Tolstoy paints a masterful picture of the conflict, ranging from the delusions of the commanders looking down from the heights of their posts to the experiences of the peasant soldiers on the ground.  While there is no doubt that we are on the Russian side (constant mentions of 'our line' and 'our troops' ensure we never forget who we want to win), there is no hint of jingoism or revisionist reporting - the writer is as critical of his own side as he is of the enemy.  He describes how the majority of senior officers are only interested in their own affairs, seeking to discredit rivals and ensure their own advancement.

Despite the multitude of Generals, Tolstoy believes that things happen the way they do for a reason - and that military commanders have very little to do with how wars unfold.  Despite the appeal of the 'Great Man' theory, the impossibility of free will and control means that the soldiers fighting hand-to-hand (or running away...) have more influence on the course of a battle than any command Napoleon might give.  In the chaos of war, letting things run their course is the only way to go...

...and this is exactly the way another of Tolstoy's major characters (a real-life one) handles affairs.  General (later Prince) Kutuzov, the man who saved the Russian army from annihilation after Austerlitz, is recalled in his country's hour of need - but he is not exactly the epitome of a knight in shining armour.  He is an old man, in need of sleep and a good meal, and he is unwilling to rush things in the way his advisers would like him to.

However, it is this reliance on 'patience and time' that eventually brings success.  The General allows events to happen as they should and prevents people from doing stupid things for no reason - which is perhaps the best thing a commander can do.  In part then, War and Peace is just as much a demand for the reappraisal of the actions of the much-maligned Kutuzov as it is a novel.

One more thing that War and Peace is known for though is the second half of the epilogue, forty-odd pages of metaphysical ramblings that sum up the ideas Tolstoy has just spent 1400 pages setting out.  In that sense, it is akin to putting up a ten-foot barbed-wire fence on the home straight of a marathon race, expecting the reader to increase their mental efforts just when they were hoping for a nice, easy jog to the finishing line.

It is important though because this is where Tolstoy tells you what it is all about ('it' being everything, of course).  I won't claim to have understood it all, but the main focus is on the idea of free will versus necessity, and you begin to get a sneaking suspicion that Tolstoy's answer to all of his questions happens to be God.  Which is great if you are a Christian.  If you are not, it is a bit like reading a murder novel and then finding out that the killer is never revealed...

I will let Tolstoy finish this off for himself though, as after all that writing, he probably does it better than I could.  The very last sentence of the novel reads:
"In the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist and to recognise a dependence of which we are not personally conscious." p.1444
My last sentence?  War and Peace is actually a very readable and enjoyable novel - don't let my review put you off ;)

Monday 11 February 2013

'The Investigation' by Philippe Claudel (Review)

One unfortunate side effect of my January in Japan responsibilities was that I was unable to do anything for another important event last month - the celebration of MacLehose Press' fifth birthday.  I was lucky enough to receive a few review copies from them last year, and I've already been sent a couple of books this year that sound like my kind of reading.  Consider this post then a belated birthday greeting ;)

Philippe Claudel's The Investigation (translated by Daniel Hahn) is a beautiful, silvery book, and a work very much in the vein of a Kafka novel.  We begin outside the train station of an unknown town, where the Investigator, sent by his company to investigate a series of suicides, searches in vain for a taxi.  As the snow begins to fall, he sets off on foot and enters a bar - and has the first of many unusual encounters with the people of the town.

The company he has been sent to investigate is known simply as The Firm, an enormous conglomerate which is the focal point of the town, a huge complex which is unmissable, yet somehow difficult to reach.  The more the poor Investigator attempts to begin his task, the more bizarre events become.  The Policeman (who has his office in a broom cupboard and also cleans toilets), the Manager (an employee of the Firm who does manic exercises in an attempt to prove that he is still on top of things) and the Giantess (a hotel receptionist right out of a fairy tale) - these are just some of the people the poor Investigator has to deal with in the course of his duties...

Of course, The Investigation is not your average story.  Claudel is creating a strange, Kafkaesque world, where nothing is quite as it seems. The protagonist is deliberately knocked off his equilibrium right at the start, and he is never able to get anywhere close to regaining his balance.  At times, the story almost descends into farce (a Mr. Bean-type trip to the toilet and a disastrous attempt to have a bath come to mind here), but the more the novel progresses, the less matters have to do with real life, moving off into a world of allegories.

At this point, the reader is forced to confront the fact that there is a meaning, a greater significance, hidden behind the farce and black humour, and it partly has to do with modern society.  The Firm is a representation of the dangers of globalisation, of the advanced stage of the industrial society and of giving up all semblance of individuality.  The Investigator feels that his personality is being erased by his dealings with the Firm, and he doesn't know if his thoughts are still his own:
"And yet, all these thoughts he could not get rid of, this vocabulary that was invading him in a succession of tides and waves were not his.  And if someone - something? - was starting insidiously to enter and inhabit him, interfering in his brain, his body, his movements and his words, how in such a situation was he to go back to being himself as he had believed himself to be a few minutes earlier?'
p.172 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
The Investigator feels himself to be a logical man, trapped in an illogical world.  I often know how he feels...

Like some of Kafka's protagonists, the Investigator (whose name we never learn) starts off full of bravado, convinced he can do his job and make a difference.  However, he soon comes up against unexpected obstacles and (again, like a figure from Kafka) he is moulded by circumstances into a new form.  He too begins to follow the rules of his new environment unthinkingly - one particular (literal) example of toeing the line ending up with a severe concussion.  He also gives up his individuality, in his weakness allowing figures like the Policeman, the Giantess and the Psychologist to make decisions for him.

At which point, you might be wondering what I actually made of all this - and to be honest, I'm still wondering myself.  The Investigation is undoubtedly a clever, fascinating novel, a book for people who enjoy intelligent fiction, but... may have noticed that I've used the name Kafka (or variants thereof) several times so far, and that is no coincidence.  The Czech master's elegant fingerprints are all over The Investigation - and I'm not convinced that this is always a good thing.  Anyone who has read The Castle will find it hard to avoid finding parallels between the two works (The Investigator/ The Land Surveyor, The Firm/ The Castle, The Inn/ The Hotel, the frequent types rather than names, the snow...).  In many ways, the first half of the book reads more like a modern rewriting of Kafka's story than a novel in its own right...

Still, once you get into The Investigation, there is more there than rehashed Czech ideas.  The second half of the novel goes off in its own direction, and is a much better book for it.  There is one more thing it has in common with Kafka's work though; despite the fact that it is obviously talking about something, it is doubtful that anyone will be able to agree on exactly what it wants to say.  Rest assured then that the writer doesn't expect us to pick up on everything.  He knows that man is unable to unravel all the mysteries of the universe:
"So why, then, does he consistently deceive himself into believing that his mind can understand everything and grasp everything?" p.219
At which point it is probably best to just admit defeat and go with the flow - or was that just what we are not supposed to do...

...I think I need to lie down for a while...

Thursday 7 February 2013

'Shi Cheng - Short Stories from Urban China' (Review)

Comma Press is a small publisher that concentrates on short-story collections, and as some of those are translated into English from other languages, I've reviewed a few over the past year.  However, today's collection is a little different.  Whereas the ones I've read so far have been single-author works, this post will look at a book which takes us on a more varied literary journey...

Shi Cheng - Short Stories from Urban China (review copy from the publisher) is a recent anthology from Comma Press, which... well, it does pretty much what it says on the cover.  It contains ten different stories, each by a different writer and each concentrating on one Chinese city (Shi Cheng is Mandarin for 'ten cities').  The stories are arranged a little unusually in that they literally take us on a journey through urban China - we start off in Hong Kong, move onto cities like Xi'an and Nanjing, move up the coast through Shanghai and Beijing, before finishing off in the cold northern city of Harbin (and no train ticket required!).

The habitual reader of translated fiction probably has certain expectations about works translated from Chinese, thinking that they are likely to be controversial works on banned topics (e.g. Ma Jian's Beijing Coma) or stories about the hardship poor peasants face (e.g. Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village).  Shi Cheng, however, is a very different book.  It avoids any real explicit political message (although there are plenty of implicit stabs at Chinese politics) and concentrates on the way the average Chinese citizen lives their life in the big cities.  Strangely enough, it makes for a refreshing change.

One common topic is the importance of education in China, something we all hear about but can't quite grasp.  In Cao Kou's But What About the Red Indians? (translated by Rachel Henson), the main character in the narrator's story is a young man whose failure to succeed in the highly-competitive university exams is partly responsible for a shocking event later in life.  The protagonist in Ho Sin Tung's Square Moon (translated by Petula Parris-Huang) takes an art history major at university, instead of following the path of an artist, simply because there are better job prospects at the end of the course.

The stories also have a common focus on the urban divide, and many subtly criticise modern China's superficial consumer society.  Wheels are Round by Xu Zechen (translated by Eric Abrahamsen) looks at a group of illegal workers in Beijing, migrants from the countryside who try to scrape together a few Yuan on the black market.  The criticism is more scathing though in Han Dong's This Moron is Dead (translated by Nicky Harman), where a vagrant's corpse on the streets of Nanjing is greeted with both indifference and scorn...

A third important area is relationships, and if Shi Cheng is anything to go by, true love is a rare quality in China.  Infidelity abounds, and several of the stories use cheating as the focus of the plot.  Zhang Zhihao's Dear Wisdom Tooth (translated by Josh Stenberg) consists of a conversation between a married couple who are about to split up, where the man's embedded wisdom tooth serves as a metaphor for their marriage, but Ding Liying's Family Secrets (translated by Nicky Harman) is a much more chilling tale of the effects of infidelity.  As for Jie Chen's Kangkang's Gonna Kill that Fucker Zhao Yilu (translated by Josh Stenberg), well, I think I'll just leave that one to your imagination ;)

One of my favourite stories though does have a more political edge to it.  Diao Dou's Squatting (translated by Brendan O'Kane) is a clever allegory of how well-meaning reformers can be co-opted into supporting the status quo.  Starting with some concerned, well-meaning citizens and descending into farce through some Kafkaesque regulations, it is a bizarre tale with a cunning twist at the end.  It is definitely the story that has stayed with me the longest :)

Shi Cheng is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the average urban-dwelling Chinese, and the book is visually delightful as well, with a handy map to follow our route and a transport map of each city introducing its story.  And if, like me, you enjoy this one, Comma Press has a few more books you might be interested in.  You see, as well as this trip around China, you might want to wander around the Middle East (Madinah), or take a leisurely journey through Europe (Decapolis).  Forget your local travel agency - this is the way to see the world in comfort ;)

Monday 4 February 2013

'The Mussel Feast' by Birgit Vanderbeke (Review)

January in Japan, having taken up a whole month of my reading time, is finally over, so it's time to return to a more varied literary diet for a while.  And talking of food, the first Peirene of the year is particularly mouthwatering - and also a very good book...

Birgit Vanderbeke's Das Muschelessen (English version translated by Jamie Bulloch) is a short modern classic very much in the vein of Peirene's offerings so far.  A family sits at home waiting for the father to return from a business trip.  A pot of mussels (his favourite food) is there ready on the table to celebrate the promotion he has been expecting.  However, he appears to be late, unexpectedly so - this is not a family where surprises are common...

The other three members of the family (mother, daughter and son) grow impatient and start to talk - and it becomes clear that this is not a happy family.  Stories unfold,  grievances are aired, hearts are poured out, and soon we realise that they'd be happy if the man of the house never came home at all...

Das Muschelessen is another excellent choice, a work which is surprisingly powerful and layered for its size.  One one level it is a character study of a dysfunctional, cowering family, victims of traditional, patriarchal, German society (where a woman's place is firmly proscribed and the man of the family is to obeyed at all times).  At first, it is tempting to think that they're exaggerating and a little unfair; certainly, without prior knowledge of the family's history, the initial reactions seem a little overdone.  Eventually, though, as the father's personality (and cruelty) is revealed, the reader is certain to take the side of the oppressed.

Vanderbeke sketches out an environment of gender stereotypes and a home ruled by fear.  The mother is described as changing roles and faces as required, subordinating her own will to pander to the father's twisted idea of a 'richtige Familie' (real family):
"In richtigen Familien hat man Verbote nicht nötig, hat mein Vater gesagt, und sie sind wirklich überflüssig gewesen, weil wir uns immer verstanden haben, und wenn ich manchmal trotzig gewesen bin und gesagt habe, keineswegs, hat es von vorn angefangen, und es ist immer so lange gegangen, bis ich auf seine Frage, haben wir uns verstanden, mich beeilt habe zu sagen, das haben wir..."
p.120 (Piper Verlag, 2012)
"In real families rules are not necessary, my father always said, and in truth they weren't needed because we always understood each other, and if I was occasionally a little defiant and said, no way, it started all over again, and it went on until, in answer to his question, do you understand, I hastened to say, yes, I do..."*** 
Just as in any dictatorship, dissent is frowned upon and is stamped out as quickly as possible in particularly nasty ways...

On another level though, Vanderbeke is using a family setting to criticise something much wider.  Das Muschelessen was written in 1990, but set just before the events known in German as 'die Wende' (which Peirene followers may be interested to know translates as 'turning point'...), and even though the nameless protagonists have settled in the west, the book is an indictment of East German society.  The father is a head of state, demanding complete loyalty from his subjects; that he is able to achieve it is due to the same methods used in the DDR.

If there was solidarity between the other members of the family, then the father's castle in the air would soon come tumbling to earth.  However, just as in 'real life', the rest of the family are unable to resist the temptation to seek favour:
"...meine Mutter hat pssst gemacht weil sie Angst hatte, er könnte uns hören, dabei war er doch gar nicht da, aber so ist das bei uns gewesen, jeder hat gedacht, er weiß alles und hört alles und sieht alles, obwohl wir gewußt haben, daß das ja gar nicht geht, und wirklich hat er ziemlich viel herausgekriegt, weil jeder jeden verpetzt hat..." p.36

" mother went shhh because she was afraid he might hear us, even though he wasn't even there, but that's how it was in our house, everyone thought he knows everything and hears everything and sees everything, although we knew that this was impossible, and he actually did find out a lot, because we all told on each other..."***
Tonight is very different though - the longer the father's arrival is delayed, the more unwilling the rest of the family is to put up with living in fear.

While the book fits nicely into Peirene's collection with its content and length, its style is also reminiscent of its stable-mates.  The book consists of one unbroken paragraph, with a few long sentences, broken up into waves of short clauses.  The effect of this style (reminiscent of Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman) is to produce a sense of urgency and intensity.  At times, the first-person narrative can slip almost into stream-of-consciousness mode, but this just makes the description of the father's violence even more abrupt and stunning when it comes.

In terms of content though, Das Muschelessen is more similar to Next World Novella.  Both works deal with the unravelling of a lie, the unmasking of a tyrant, in a way over which he has no control.  I would talk about character assassination, but that suggests that the accusations are unfair and ungrounded.  Although we are reliant on our narrator, there is little doubt that it is high time for the domestic regime to be overthrown.

This year's Peirene collection has been entitled 'The Turning Point: Revolutionary Moments', and it is easy to see how Das Muschelessen fits in with this motto.  It is a work which shows that the smallest turning point can prove to be the catalyst for changes which were previously unthinkable.  It all makes for a book which can quite rightly claim to be labelled a modern classic - it is taught in German schools, and rightly so.

All in all, it looks like 2013 is shaping up to be another good year for the nymph ;)

***All translations are my sorry efforts, and not those of the Peirene version ;)

Sunday 3 February 2013

The End of January in Japan

That's it - all done for 2013 :(  But before we all pack away our J-Lit, pop over to the January in Japan blog for the final Nichi-Yōbi News, including the result of my giveaway.  Click here to see if you're the winner ;)

Saturday 2 February 2013

January 2013 Wrap-Up

January has been a fun month, both on the reading and blogging side.  Of course, it has been dominated by January in Japan, but I've been reading some good non-Japanese books too - more of that next month...

Off we go then with another year of names and numbers :)

Total Books Read: 7

Year-to-Date: 7

New: 6

Rereads: 1

From the Shelves: 4
Review Copies: 2
From the Library: 0
On the Kindle: 1

Novels: 5
Novellas: 1
Short Stories: 1

Non-English Language: 7 (2 Japanese, 2 German, French, Chinese, Russian)
In Original Language: 2 (2 German)

Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (0/3)
Japanese Literature Challenge 6: 2 (16/1) 

Books reviewed in January were:

1) Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto
2) Ukigumo by Shimei Futabatei
3) Japan's First Modern Novel - Ukigumo by Marleigh Ryan
4) Some Prefer Nettles by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki
5) Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words by Jay Rubin
6) The Sheep Man's Christmas by Haruki Murakami
7) Volcano by Shusaku Endo
8) The 210th Day by Natsume Soseki
9) Rivalry - A Geisha's Tale by Kafu Nagai
10) The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata
11) Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami
12) The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami

Tony's Turkey for January is: Nothing

While not everything was all kinds of wonderful, I enjoyed all the books I read for my event - success :)

Tony's Recommendation for January is:

Yasunari Kawabata's The Old Capital

Honourable mentions should go to Hiromi Kawakami and Shusaku Endo here, and Marleigh Ryan's non-fiction work was also fascinating.  However, The Old Capital is the kind of book that gives J-Lit its reputation, so it's only fitting that it should be my pick of the month.

February may be a short month, but I'll have a fair number of reviews to cram into it, including one of a very big book.  And when I say a big book...

Well, you'll see ;)