Saturday 30 March 2013

March 2013 Wrap-Up

March is coming to an end, and a busy month it's been round these parts.  I've been frantically racing through the books on the IFFP longlist, hoping to get through the twelve I hadn't previously read before the shortlist is announced.  I think I might just about make it - but it'll be close ;)

Anyhow, all this means that the numbers are well up this month on my fairly slow start to the year - shall we?

Total Books Read: 12

Year-to-Date: 26

New: 12

Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 1
Review Copies: 3
From the Library: 8
On the Kindle: 0

Novels: 12
Novellas: 0
Short Stories: 0

Non-English Language: 12 (2 Arabic, 2 French, Spanish, Norwegian, Dutch, Turkish, Croatian, Afrikaans, Albanian, Italian)
In Original Language:1 (1 French)

Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (0/3)
IFFP 2013 Longlist: 11 (15/16)

Books reviewed in March were:

Tony's Turkey for March is: nothing

While HHhH didn't really grab me, it was far from being a turkey - and that's as close as it got this month :)

Tony's Recommendation for March is:

Gerbrand Bakker's The Detour

Bakker's slight novel was easily my favourite of the five IFFP longlisted books, but the other books I posted on in March were all good too.  I was tempted to give the prize to Trollope's magnus opus, and Khoury's and Barbal's books gave me pause for thought.  However, I couldn't really go past The Detour, an excellent example of why we read these longlists - to discover great books and great authors :)

A couple more from the IFFP and then the pace is off (thankfully).  Well, as far as the reading goes anyway - there'll be plenty of IFFP reviews for you all to enjoy in April :)

Thursday 28 March 2013

'Silent House' by Orhan Pamuk (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 9)

Our next leg of the IFFP magical mystery tour takes us off to Turkey to consider a work by a very familiar name.   It's no surprise that a Nobel-Prize winner finds himself on the longlist - it is surprising that it's taking this long though.  Today's choice was originally published three decades ago...

Silent House by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Robert Finn - from Hamish Hamilton)
What's it all about?
The year is 1980, the location Cennethisar, a coastal village fifty kilometres from Istanbul.  Three siblings have come to visit their grandmother, making their annual pilgrimage to pay their respects, visit their parents' graves and have some fun in the sun while they're at it.  This year, though, is destined to be different - turbulent times are just around the corner, and the family is about to be caught up in the fever sweeping the country.

Pamuk's novel is set at a time of great upheaval in Turkey.  According to Wikipedia, the overall death toll in the country in the 1970s from violence is estimated at 5,000, with nearly ten assassinations per day.  Just a month after the events of this novel, there was a coup d'état, after which the military ruled for three years.  Even in the sleepy town of Cennethisar, rival gangs of 'Communists' and 'Fascists' are roaming the streets, extorting protection money and attacking the enemy.  This summer is unlikely to end well...

Silent House is narrated by five voices, each of which is distinct and well written: Fatma, the grandmother; Faruk and Metin (Fatma's two grandsons); Recep, her servant; and Hasan, a character whose relationship to the family is a lot more complicated than it first appears.  The five voices provide a continuous narrative, one taking up the story where another breaks off, and because of this, the novel is a little slow to get into gear (as many reviews have remarked).  During the first half of the novel, there is little plot to speak of, and when bookish Faruk talks about his literary plans, it's hard to avoid drawing parallels with the book in hand:
"Someone reading my book from cover to cover will during those weeks and months end up able to glimpse that cloudlike mass of events that I managed to perceive while working here, and like me he'll murmur excitedly: This is history, this is history and life..."
p.165 (Hamish Hamilton, 2013)
Like Pamuk, Faruk is more concerned with depicting life than fascinating the reader with his narrative.

Gradually though, the family squabbles and parties give way to more serious issues.  We see hints of potential trouble as Hasan and his friends start to throw their weight around.  The right-wing gangs frown upon the flesh the holidaymakers show on the beach and the alcohol the rich kids swig back each night.  As they grow in confidence, the gang members begin to throw their weight around more and more, which spells trouble for anyone caught reading a Communist newspaper - like Fatma's grand-daughter, Nilgün...

What eventually develops from the pages of Silent House is a picture of two cultures clashing, a national challenge mirroring the global struggles of the Cold War.  The two sides feel themselves locked in a fight where there can be only one winner.  It's a fight between the new ways and the old, Communism versus Fascism, secular life against the appeal of Islam - and it provides young men with a taste for violence with an outlet for their rage, justified or otherwise.  Hasan (who has a lot to be angry about) certainly has no intention of leading a quiet life:
"I know that the day they see I've grown used to it, they'll be so pleased, and they'll declare with satisfaction, He's finally learned how it goes in life, but I'm not signing up for your life, gentlemen, I'll get a gun and teach you how it goes." (p.154)
Over the course of the novel, it is Hasan's development which mirrors the events starting to happen in the country, and his fate which Turkey shares.

Silent House is a slow-moving, but ultimately fascinating slice of life.  It's a collection of personal stories set against the backdrop of a time of national importance, and I felt it worked really well.  Now imagine how it might have read when it was first published - only three years after the event ;)

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Yes.  I enjoyed it, despite the slow start.  After a hundred pages, like many people (some of whom never got to the end...), I had my doubts, but it eventually draws you in.  Oh, and it makes a nice change from the Second World War too.  This could well be one of my top six when I finally get to the end of my reading.

Will it make the shortlist?
No.  I'm not sure that the judges will see enough here to get it over the line.  In a weaker year (in need of star power), it'd make it.  This year's longlist is fairly strong, and the shortlist won't need a Nobel Prize Winner to give it extra appeal :)

Onwards and upwards - it's just a short hop from Turkey up to Italy's Adriatic coast.  Trieste is supposed to be lovely at this time of year...

Tuesday 26 March 2013

'HHhH' by Laurent Binet (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 8)

If there's one thing that's inevitable about a European-dominated IFFP longlist, it's that you'll come across a few World War Two books sooner or later.  Today we're on a trip to Prague for the first of this year's batch, a story about a man whose ambition may have outstripped his abilities.

And that's just the writer...

HHhH by Laurent Binet (translated by Sam Taylor - from Harvill Secker)
What's it all about?
A French writer obsessed with the Czech Republic decides to produce a novel about the events of a WW2 assassination attempt.  Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's right-hand man, has turned Prague into his own private police state, a model for other German 'provinces'.  Needing to show the British that they are pulling their weight, the Czech government-in-exile in London decides to strike a blow and sends in two parachutists (Slovak Jozef Gabčik and Czech Jan Kubiš) to bring down the 'Blond Beast'.

The subject matter is fascinating, and the story (on the periphery of major WW2 events) is an enthralling one.  In addition to the depiction of a major villain I'd never even heard of, HHhH explains the background of the German march into Central Europe, including the animosity between the Czechs and Slovaks which may have made it possible in the first place.  If you are going to write about the war, looking at a relatively unknown aspect of it is a good way to go about it.

Despite the inherent interest of the story though, Binet is just as interested in telling us about his story, the writing of HHhH.  The novel is written in a detached manner, with the writer constantly interrupting, and commenting on, the action he is attempting to describe.  The novel is written in over 250 short chapters, many lasting less than a page, and it comes across as less a novel than an experiment in historical fiction, one which (as the writer seems to feel) is always doomed to failure.

The story is told with liberal doses of sarcasm and black humour, which works fairly well.  Some of the information given is so bleak that perhaps this humour is the only possible way of dealing with it:
"The first convoy left for Riga on January 9, 1942: a thousand people, of whom 105 would survive.  The second convoy, a week later, also went to Riga: a thousand people, 16 survivors.  The third, in March: a thousand people, 7 survivors.  The fourth: a thousand people, 3 survivors.  There is nothing unusual in this dreadful numerical progression towards 100 percent.  It is just another sign of the Germans' famous efficiency."
Section 123 (Harvill Secker, 2012)
The writer also frequently reminds us that Heydrich (like Hitler before him) could never be accused of deception.  He gave everyone fair warning and told them exactly what he was going to do...

Having said that though, I did find myself questioning Binet's slant.  This is meta-fiction at its most intrusive (and annoying), and it made it difficult to really get into the book.  The lack of page numbers seemed simply gimmicky, and the writer deliberately plays with the reader, constantly contradicting and correcting himself.  In fact, he often makes up information he doesn't know:
Natacha reads the chapter I've just written.  When she reaches the second sentence, she exclaims: "What do you mean, 'The blood rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his skull'?  You're making it up!" 
(Section 107)
When he (the writer narrator) is obviously making things up, how can we trust him?  And why should we?

HHhH is an interesting book, but for me the interest is mainly due to the events Binet is describing, not his literary messings around.  At times, the digressions and musings are simply frustrating, preventing the reader from making a connection with the story.  Ironically, once we get to the main action of the novel, the one point where the story takes over, it is all a bit of a let down.  I suspect that the earlier messing around was disguising the fact that there's nothing particularly appealing about Binet's writing.

The narrator has a habit of namedropping, and (amongst others) Flaubert, Borges and Kundera are mentioned in the text.  Kundera actually appears on the very first page:
" In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera implies that he feels a bit ashamed at having to name his characters.  And although this shame is hardly perceptible in his novels, which are full of Tomášes, Tominas, and Terezas, we can intuit the obvious meaning: what could be more vulgar than to arbitrarily give - from a childish desire for verisimilitude or, at best, mere convenience - an invented name to an invented character?  In my opinion, Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?" (Section 1)
As well as hinting at what direction HHhH will take, the writer appears to be introducing the kind of company he would like to be placed in.  He's talking the talk, but I'm not sure that he's walking the walk...

A little explanation of the title to finish.  HHhH stands for 'Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich' ('Himmler's brain is called Heydrich'), and I always struggled to think of how to actually say it.  Until, that is, I realised that if the abbreviation comes from German, it should be pronounced in the German fashion...

...Ha, Ha, ha, Ha.  The joke's on Binet ;)

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
What do you think?

Seriously, I'm not saying that this is bad - it's an interesting read, and Binet does get it right in places.  It's just that a lot of the interest comes from the subject matter and not the way the writer handles it.  Of the ten longlisted works I've read so far, this one is my least favourite.  It's not bad, just not good enough.

Will it make the shortlist?
Possibly.  There are lots of conflicting opinions on this one, but it's a big-name book that has its champions.  I haven't read the other WW2-era books yet (Trieste, The Fall of the Stone City), but I suspect that at least one of them will make the shortlist.  I doubt HHhH will win the prize, but it's another book which will look good on paper for the shortlist...

Leaving Prague behind, we head off to Turkey next - for a book three decades in the translating.  See you there ;)

Sunday 24 March 2013

'The Detour' by Gerbrand Bakker (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 7)

You wouldn't expect many novels on translation prize longlists to be set in Wales (especially when the writer isn't even Welsh), but that's the case with my latest choice from the IFFP longlist.  Today's story takes us to North Wales, in the shadow of Snowdon.  There's a dog, a herd of cows - oh, and some geese...

The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker (translated by David Colmer - from Harvill Secker, US title is Ten Wild Geese)
What's it all about?
The story begins with a figure in an isolated house in North Wales.  A Dutch woman who enjoys her solitude, she appears to be a refugee, a runaway - but from what exactly?  From the start there are hints of sexual misadventures in her former life; more importantly, there are worrying signs of health issues:
"That night she stared at the fire just as she had stared at the water.  She had lit candles and put them on the window sill.  Nagging pain in her back.  Before getting into the bath, she had eaten some bread with cheese and a sweet onion.  Hot meals were too much trouble.  Fruit and vegetables were healthy but, of course, things like that only applied to people who were healthy."
pp.70/1 (Scribe, 2012)
Whatever her troubles, the woman is very clear in her desire to face them by herself, leaving her home country, family and friends, and marooning herself in the middle of nowhere.

It is into this backdrop of solitude then that Bradwen enters her life one day.  He is a young hiker attempting to map out a walking trail across the countryside, and after the woman offers him shelter for the night, he decides to stay on, helping out around the house and running errands for his reclusive host.  It seems that despite her decision to live alone, she does feel a need for male company.
Meanwhile, back in the Netherlands, the woman's husband gradually appears on the scene.  Left bewildered by his wife's disappearance, he initially lashes out, resulting in a trip to the police station.  However, once he finds out a little more about the truth behind his wife's decision to flee, he hires a detective to track her down - so that he can follow her... 

The Detour is a fairly short novel, but it is a skilfully woven story.  We start in the middle of an informational void every bit as empty as the countryside setting.  Gradually though, the writer reveals fragments of information, allowing the reader to piece together parts of the story (even if we never uncover the whole truth).  This style of writing, released in short, terse chapters, has the effect of creating characters who are hard to read, people who have secrets that they are unlikely to divulge in a hurry.
     "Not much snow," the boy said, with his mouth full of fruit cake and his face pressed against the window.  "Maybe at the top.  We have to get off in a minute."
     She didn't say anything.  She would say very little all day.  Her suspicions had been aroused. (p.196)
I'd just like to point out that at that point I had absolutely no idea what that last sentence meant...

Bakker's main protagonist is a fascinating creation, a spiky, almost unlikeable woman.  While she gives her name as Emilie, there are reasons to doubt the veracity of the claim (just as everything she says needs to be taken with a liberal dose of salt).  Before her flight, Emilie was working on her PhD in English Literature.  The topic?  The American poet, Emily Dickinson, with whom our Emilie has a few similarities...

While this may all sound a little bleak, Bakker's novel is interspersed with dry humour, setting off the dark tone of the work nicely.  Emilie is continually mistaken for a German, something she contradicts very sharply (any Scot, Canadian or Kiwi will identify with her pain...), and she also finds it hard to convince people that the injury to her foot was caused by a badger.  You see, they're very shy creatures...

There is so much more I could write about here, more than you would think for such a thin novel.  However, it's probably best to leave you to find out the rest for yourself.  I'd definitely recommend your giving it a try - just don't read it if you're alone in a farmhouse in the middle of winter ;)

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Yes.  It's a most enjoyable work, one which deserves and almost demands a reread.  There's so much going on in terms of plot, style, pacing, characterisation...  I liked it :)

Will it make the shortlist?
I'm not sure - it might be a book which most will like, but few will champion.  It's easy to get enthusiastic about a book only to have other readers fail to see what the fuss is about.  Will it be able to knock off enough of the big guns to make the shortlist?  I'm not convinced...

Right, time to leave Wales.  The next stop is Prague, where we have a meeting with Himmler's brain (apparently, his name is Heydrich...).  Just the first of several longlisted books set during the Second World War; hopefully, I'll have more luck with them than I did with last year's crop...

Thursday 21 March 2013

'A Death in the Family' by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 6)

The next stop on our IFFP magical mystery tour is Norway, where we'll be looking at a book that has provoked a lot of discussion in literary circles.  It is different, a little unusual, it seems to have been very popular as well - but is it any good?  Let's find out...

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Don Bartlett - from Harvill Secker)
What's it all about?
A Death in the Family is the first part of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, a cathartic, six-volume, autobiographical novel.  Knausgaard is a family man, living with his second wife and their three children in Sweden.  Approaching middle age, he feels the pressure of needing to come up with a work of art and is frustrated that his family life may well be depriving him of this opportunity (so far, so creepily familiar...).  So he decides to write about his life - in great detail...

This initial volume is divided into two parts.  In the first, the focus is on Karl Ove's childhood, a rather unusual one spent shuttling between a physically-absent mother and a mentally-absent father, one who appears to be shutting himself off from the world.  The second is centred on the father's death at a young age, an alcohol-fuelled demise which turns out to be messier and more damaging than you could ever have imagined.  In a very Proustian style of writing, Knausgaard examines the aftermath of his father's death in laborious detail, exposing the reader to many things they would rather not see - in a good way, of course.

We sense that Knausgaard is using his writing to try and make sense of his life.  A repeated idea is that childhood is a golden age, where all is new and the possibilities are endless.  However, once we move into adulthood, and particular middle age, the end is nigh, visible on the horizon, and despite knowing this, we are doomed to repeat the same tedious days over and over again until the grave.  While we are supposedly individuals, in the grand scheme of things we are merely anonymous parts of the machine, interchangeable and completely replaceable.  He's a cheery soul, is Karl Ove...

The dominant figure of the novel is, of course, Knausgaard's father.  He is a strange character, a man seemingly trapped in a marriage and family he cares little for, spending as little time with his 'loved ones' as possible.  It is inevitable that he will eventually go off the rails (although only the biggest pessimist could have predicted the manner of his spectacular demise), and it is every bit as inevitable that his son will wear the scars from his relationship with his father.

You see, another Proustian connection here is that Karl Ove (just like Proust's fictionalised Marcel) is not a particularly nice person.  When you paint a complete picture, warts and all, that can hardly come as a surprise, but the writer comes across as an arrogant, selfish (expletive deleted).  He prioritises work over his family (at one point leaving his heavily-pregnant wife in bed at five in the morning to go off and do - or not do - some writing).  As he says near the start of the book:
"I have always had a great need for solitude.  I require huge swathes of loneliness, and when I do not have it, which has been the case for the past five years, my frustration can sometimes become almost panicked, or aggressive.  And when what has kept me going for the whole of my adult life, the ambition to write something exceptional one day, is threatened in this way, my one thought, which gnaws at me like a rat, is that I have to escape."
p.28 (Harvill Secker, 2012)
I suppose his success has justified his methods, but still...

A Death in the Family is definitely a fascinating work, but I'm not sure it's for everyone.  While some bits are enthralling (including the infamous seventy-page section where Karl Ove and his brother attempt to erase the squalid signs of their father's last days), others are equally dull.  One part I found extremely tedious was the story of a New Year's Eve party Karl Ove attempted to attend in his teens, a good chunk of my life I won't be getting back.

Another question I have about the book is what it actually is - is it even fiction?  As far as I can tell, it's completely autobiographical and as honest as it gets, so what actually makes this fiction?  The style of writing?  A clue to the answer to my question may lie in a comment the writer makes when talking about paintings:
"Thus there was always a certain objectivity to them, by which I mean a distance between reality and the portrayal of reality, and it was doubtless in this interlying space where it 'happened', where it appeared, whatever it was I saw, when the world seemed to step forward from the world.  When you didn't just see the incomprehensible in it but came very close to it." p.199
Knausgaard's version of reality is not reality itself, but a close copy, one that allows us to see reality more clearly.  It may be art, but I'm sure it has come at a cost - Knausgaard's family reunions must be a lot of fun ;)

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
I'm really not sure.  It definitely deserved to be recognised in the longlist, but it is a little patchy (inevitable for the kind of style Knausgaard attempts), and as I mentioned above, I'm not even sure if it is really a work of fiction.  I didn't recommend last year's Proustian effort (Peter Nádas' Parallel Stories) for the shortlist, and I think this one will be just outside my top six too.

Will it make the shortlist?
How could it not?  This is the book that everyone seems to have read, and I feel that there is an expectation that it will still be around when the main prize is given out.  Having been longlisted for both the IFFP and the BTBA (the American equivalent), it's a book which will give some weight and glamour to the shortlist - so it'll probably make it :)

That's all from Norway.  Next time we'll be heading south and west, with a brief stop in the Netherlands before reaching our next destination - Wales.

No, really, Wales.  Honest...

Monday 18 March 2013

'White Masks' by Elias Khoury (Review)

As you may have gathered by now, I'm currently working my way through this year's IFFP longlist, but today's review is on a book which may be a chance for next time around.  Elias Khoury is a Lebanese writer, one who has been longlisted for the prize before, and his latest work is an excellent tale of a search for truth in a city which has lost its way.  Will this be on the judge's list next year?  Let's see...

White Masks (translated by Maia Tabet, review copy from MacLehose Press) starts with a body found in the streets of Beirut, covered in a pile of rubbish.  Khalid Ahmad Jaber had gone missing a few days earlier, and while people turning up dead is hardly a rarity in the Lebanese capital during the civil war, Jaber's case is a little different - mainly because no-one can understand why he would have been killed.

The main voice of the novel is a journalist (a fictionalised Khoury) who decides to investigate the case by looking at it from a variety of angles, interviewing anyone who can shed light on poor Khalid's final hours.  He talks to the man's distraught wife, his neighbours, the rubbish collector who found the body, a militia man who saw him briefly, his daughter...  Owing to the unusual nature of Khalid's death, he begins to be praised as a martyr, despite the fact that his death had nothing to do with the ongoing conflict:
"And the poor martyr, Khalil...I swear he's a martyr...I feel ashamed of myself...but I didn't know that he was the Khalil Ahmad Jaber who would be murdered and whose picture would be in all the papers.  I swear, had I known, I would've taken him in and cared for him...What can we do?  It was God's will!"
p.72 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
There is no shortage of people willing to talk to the journalist about Khalid's final days.  However, none of the witness are able to shed light on a rather puzzling case.

But from the very beginning, we suspect that White Masks is less about one man and more about life in Beirut as a whole.  By looking at one particular crime, Khoury paints a picture of a city in constant turmoil, where the extraordinary is ordinary and life is difficult to live and easy to lose.  Beirut is a city in pieces.  Nothing works, and the infrastructure has broken down.  Houses have been shelled, gangs roam the street, torture is an ever-present possibility... and the rubbish piles up uncollected.  Throughout the novel, the writer foregrounds the smells - of the city and of Khalid.  The poor man's stench is representative of a city in decay...

White Masks is divided into six statements from eye witnesses, bookended by the journalist's prologue and epilogue.  However, the witnesses' stories rarely restrict themselves to the matter in hand, and they go off on elaborate tangents, touching on their experiences with Khalid before retuning to stories about their partners, their families, or perhaps just stories they have heard in the street.  The perspective changes from third person to first at the drop of a hat (and back again).  It's all a little unusual for the Anglophone reader.

This difference of style is enhanced by the language used.  Tabet's translation is excellent, and the flavour is enhanced by the obvious Arabic slant to the writing.  In addition to the Arabic exclamations (al-hamdulillah, insh'allah, mashallah) which pepper the text, the witnesses' rhetorical style is slightly alien.  They address the reader directly, appeal to them, exaggerate, repeat themselves, their stories twisting and turning around in circles.

At times, the style is almost playful, linguistic gymnastics which have very little to do with what the witnesses were actually asked about.  However, the light tone only serves to put the more serious moments in starker focus.  When events turn darker, the effect is poignant:
"The blonde youth reeled, like a dancer doing a jig.  And even as his head came to rest on the ground, the hair already stiff and matted with dust, his body danced on, his feet twitching against the pavement...And then, finally, he slept..." p.91
Khoury is wonderful at striking the right balance between rowdy, rambling stories and brief, striking moments of terror, a balance which makes the book a pleasure to read.

One more theme which perhaps deserves attention is the description of gender roles in the Lebanese (Arabic) community of the time.  The men are cruel, lazy and workshy, beating and raping their wives, begging for (and stealing) money, unwilling to behave in the manner the reader would want them to.  However, the women in the novel appear to admire 'manly' men and despise those men who behave like women, leading you to wonder whether the writer is condemning, condoning or merely remarking on the husbands' behaviour... 

White Masks is a great read, a novel written in a wonderfully engaging style, and an excellent entry point into Arabic-language literature for those (like me) who are woefully under-read in this area.  The writer is more concerned with painting a picture of Beirut than finding out who killed Khalid, but in the end, does it really matter?
"No.  Even assuming the murderer was identified, and the motives of the crime were known, even if, finally, the murderer were put to death, it would not change anything.  People say that putting murderers to death serves as a deterrent to others but in reality, no-one is being deterred.  Murderers are executed and nothing changes." p.239
Defeatism, or a determination to move forward?  You be the judge.

Thursday 14 March 2013

'The Sound of Things Falling' by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 5)

After recapping the books already finished, it's now time to get into the rest of the IFFP longlist.  The first stop on the journey takes us to Colombia - where a chance encounter proves to be life-changing for a young academic...

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (translated by Anne McLean - from Bloomsbury)
What's it all about?
The novel begins in 2009, with law professor Antonio Yammara looking back at an event which, while innocuous at the time, turned out to be a pivotal moment in his life.  A chance meeting with Ricardo Laverde in a billiard hall eventually leads to an attack by a gunman on a motorbike, in the course of which Laverde is killed and Yammara is badly injured.

Once Antonio has recovered physically from the attack, he feels compelled to find out more about Laverde (and hopefully discover who killed him, and why).  One lead is information he obtains about the death of Laverde's estranged wife, Elaine; however, it isn't until he receives an unexpected phone call from Laverde's daughter that things slowly start to fall into place...

The Sound of Things Falling is an oblique look at the effects of the Colombian drug wars of the 1980s, not on those who were on the front line of the battle, but on the average citizen who lived their life against a background of fear.  Antonio suffers from trauma after the shooting, but his issues are much more deep-seated.  Having spent his formative years enveloped by the turmoil on the streets of Bogotá, he is unable to simply let things go - and his wife (who spent much of her youth outside Colombia) is unable to understand his pain.

His quixotic journey to confront the past is an attempt to move forward by banishing his demons, and the opportunity provided by Laverde's daughter, Maya, is irresistible.  Maya is able to fill in some of the pieces in the puzzle posed by Laverde's murder, but her appeal is just as much due to what she shares with Antonio.  She too grew up during the drug wars and has a special aversion to the capital:
"But that was seven years ago," I said.  "You haven't been back to Bogotá in all those years?"
"Well, yes.  To see the lawyers.  To look for that woman, Consuelo Sandoval.  But I've never stayed overnight in Bogotá, or even until sundown.  I can't stand it, I can't endure more than a few hours there."
p.110 (Bloomsbury, 2012)
Like Antonio, Maya is scarred by the events of her youth.  It is almost inevitable that the two traumatised souls will feel a connection...

The novel is also largely concerned with stories.  The structure is one of those Russian-doll affairs, with Antonio talking to the reader from 2009 before rapidly going back to 1995 to describe his first meeting with Laverde.  Of course, we have to take Antonio's descriptions at face value - which may not be such a good idea:
"Now that so many years have passed, now that I remember with the benefit of an understanding I didn't have then, I think of that conversation and it seems implausible that its importance didn't hit me in the face (And I tell myself at the same time that we're terrible judges of the present moment, maybe because the present doesn't actually exist: all is memory, this sentence that I just wrote is already a memory, this word is a memory that you, reader, just read.)"  p.15
When we move deeper into the novel and enter the core of Elaine's story, cobbled together from letters, diaries and Maya's stories, the reader needs to tread even more carefully.  Stories, and memories, are not always reliable.

There is a lot to like about The Sound of Things Falling.  McLean's translation reads wonderfully, keeping the hint of a Hispanic narrator while creating an excellent English text (if that is at all possible!), and the book zips along at times, the darker parts nicely counterbalanced with lighter moments (such as Elaine's letter in which she complains about a tedious book in difficult Spanish where all the characters have the same names...).  All in all, it's a quick, enjoyable read with the hint of something more...

...and I haven't even mentioned the hippopotamus ;)

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Despite the positive comments above, I'd have to say no.  While I liked it, I don't think it was really anything special, and one of the main issues I had was with the middle section.  Elaine's story seemed to drag, a dutiful narrative which slowed the book right down.  By the time we returned to the central question of who had killed Ricardo and why, I'd forgotten that this was the focus of the novel...

Will it make the shortlist?
Possibly.  It's definitely not a bad book, and as one of the few works from outside Europe, it provides a point of difference in a fairly homogeneous selection.  I also suspect other readers will be a lot more forgiving than me :)

That's all for today :)  Next time, we're off to Norway - BYO cleaning products (I'll explain later...).

Tuesday 12 March 2013

'Stone in a Landslide' by Maria Barbal (Review)

I always enjoy Peirene Press' novel(la) offerings, and I have read most of the works they have published so far.  Despite that though (and the fact that I'm a fairly organised person), I recently discovered an unread Peirene book lying neglected on my shelves.  It is from the first series, The Female Voice - and it is another excellent choice...

Maria Barbal's Stone in a Landslide (translated by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell) is a story about
the life of a Catalan woman, Conxa.  Over 120 pages, narrated in the first person, she tells the reader about her life, looking back over seven decades of personal events and national history.

The story begins with Conxa's move to her aunt's house at the age of thirteen, leaving her family so that the others can survive on their meagre income.  Despite only living a few kilometres away from her parents, it might as well be thousands.  In the Catalan countryside, people don't tend to move around much.

Conxa's formative years, while hard at times, seem simple and almost idyllic.  She gets on well with her aunt and uncle and gradually grows to enjoy life in the village.  When she meets (and falls in love with) Jaume, an itinerant handyman, her life seems to be falling into place.  However, this is Spain in the 1930s, and the shadows of war can already be seen on the horizon...

Stone in a Landslide couldn't be described as an eventful novella - it is spread over a lifetime but told at a measured pace, in a manner which can almost be detached.  In other hands, it may have been bloated into a three-volume epic, but Barbal instead crafts a simple tale, using short chapters and simple, effective language:
"...I liked the cousins from Barcelona coming up every year.  I enjoyed how they filled the house and embraced Oncle and Tia, wiping away tears and saying, This young lady gets lovelier every time, and what beautiful curly hair!  In Pallarès no one says "young lady" nor "lovely".  I understood those words even if I didn't use them and they pleased me, and I thought that a language is like a tool that each person picks up in their own way, even if it is used for the same purpose."
pp.28/9 (Peirene Press, 2010)

Of course, life in the country isn't easy, and the writer shows us the hardship the farmers go through in their attempts to get through another year.  Jaume, one of the few characters who doesn't always work on the land, can't quite understood their attitudes at times:
"He would say: people are more important than anything else.  I needed help to see this because I had been taught the opposite.  When the land and animals were taken care of, then you turned to people." p.47
This is particularly true for women, who must keep the home running while also helping out with farming duties.  With limited freedom and a mountain of troubles to bear, there is little time to think about your own hopes and dreams...

As well as relating Conxa's personal story, Stone in a Landslide also gives us a glimpse of life during the Spanish Civil War, and the way Spain (and much of the world) developed over the course of the twentieth century.  Conxa's time with Jaume is doomed to be short:
"He'd gone as quickly as a rose cut from the bush and I'd no last memory of him except a little spark as he looked at me during our strange goodbye.  I knew he was dead and I would never again have him at my side, because war is an evil that drags itself over the earth and leaves it sown with vipers and fire and knives with points upright." pp.95/6
She stolidly moves on, as always, ending the story in relative comfort in Barcelona.  However, we get the feeling that progress, running water and a life of ease have come at the cost of something more intangible, yet far more important...

Stone in a Landslide is a slow burner, a quiet yet impressive work.  It is by no means as dramatic as some of the other Peirene books, yet it fits into the stable nicely.  In fact, having now read all three of The Female Voice series, I can see how they do actually form a set, perhaps more so than is the case for the other series.  Along with Beside the Sea and Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, Stone in a Landslide looks at how women experience life - and how, at times, they are unable to do anything but hold on and hope the storm passes.  It may be a man's world (at least in these stories), but without a woman?  Well, you know the rest ;)

Sunday 10 March 2013

IFFP Reviews 3 & 4 - Round-Up

In my last post, we looked at two of this year's IFFP contenders, and it's time to move on and look at another pair of hopefuls today.  Off we go to Poland and Spain - with a bonus trip to Ireland thrown in for good measure.  Once again, please click on the links for my full reviews :)

Cold Sea Stories by Paweł Huelle (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones - from Comma Press)
What's it all about?
Huelle's collection of stories, mainly set in his native Poland, looks back to the country's past, depicting various episodes in recent (and not-so-recent) history.  Bookended cleverly by two stories which have an unexpected connection, the work contains a mixture of tales, some of which verge on magical realism.  Home is where the heart is - but when the heart returns after a long absence, Huelle's protagonists can often be disappointed.  Unlike his readers :)
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I'd have to say probably not.  It's a great read, but it's also a bit of a mixed bag and doesn't always sit well as a collection, despite the first and last stories drawing things together.  There are a lot of good novels on this longlist, and I doubt Huelle will be able to knock off ten of the other fifteen works...

Will it make the shortlist?
Again, probably not.  As Boyd Tonkin remarked last week, publishing short stories in translation is a feat of 'double suicide', and while all the other works here are translated, I suspect that the chances of a short-story collection making it any further than this are slim.  Then again, I have been known to be wrong on occasion...

Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas (translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean - from Harvill Secker)
What's it all about?
Your guess is as good as mine...

Let's just say it centres on Samuel Riba, an extremely literary publisher who decides to take a trip to Dublin for Bloomsday.  There's a lot of meta-fiction, rain, paintings, music, books, more rain, a man in a blue jacket and a few drinks along the way too.

If you were expecting more information from my full review, you'll be sorely disappointed ;)

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Oh, yes.  This book was a whisker away from being my pick of 2012 (from a list of 125), and as Andrei Bely's Petersburg is not in the running for the IFFP (mainly due to a sub-clause banning entries from the deceased...), I think it could go all the way.  The shortlist is just the first step.  Mind you, I was fairly confident about Amos Oz's chances last year too...

Will it make the shortlist?
Definitely.  And if it doesn't, the judges should hang their heads in shame - bad judges.

There you go - all caught up.  Normal service will resume next week when I hope to bring you the next instalment of our literary travelogue...

...twelve more stops to go :)

Thursday 7 March 2013

IFFP Reviews 1 & 2 - Round-Up

Well, the IFFP longlist has been announced, so it's time to get cracking - sixteen books makes for a lot of reading.  Luckily though, it's really only twelve for me as I do have a four-book headstart ;)

Before I get into the remaining reviews though, I thought it would be a good idea to recap the four books read so far, using the style of last year's IFFP reviews.  Two today, two on Sunday, more reviews from next week - all good with you?  Just clink on the links for my full write-up.

What's it all about?
Hans, a young translator, arrives in a nineteenth-century German town of shifting location.  Meaning to move on immediately, he somehow becomes sucked into staying a little longer - mainly because of the charms of Sophie Gottlieb, a literary hostess with the mostess.  Traveller of the Century is an expansive, funny, entertaining novel about life, love and literary translation.  Now if that doesn't sound like your cup of tea... 

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Definitely.  I loved this, and I hinted at a possible IFFP longlisting in the first paragraph of my review last April.  Last year, my fellow Shadow Juror Mark bemoaned the dour choices of the panel and looked forward to more 'sexiness'.  While his plea appears to have mostly fallen on deaf ears, this choice certainly fits the bill - and it's great too :)

Will it make the shortlist?
Difficult to predict at this early stage, but I'll say yes.  I haven't really heard a bad word about this one from any bloggers or mainstream reviewers, and most people have (like me) been blown away.  One comment I've seen is that it is a little longer than it might have been, and that slight bagginess might mean it will struggle to take out the title.  I'm still confident that the jury will put it through to the next stage though.


The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul (translated by Martin Aitken - from Peirene Press)
What's it all about?
Poor old Halland, despite having his name in the title, is shot at the start of the book, and his partner Bess, a writer, spends the rest of the book trying to come to terms with his passing.  Rather than being a standard who-dunnit though, this Danish twist on a murder mystery largely avoids the police procedural side of the story, preferring instead to follow Bess around.  The more we learn, the less we know - and the more suspicious everyone else becomes... 

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
To be honest, I'd have to say that it doesn't - not because I didn't like it, but because I think that there isn't quite enough here to elevate it onto the shortlist.  It's a slim volume, another of Peirene's wonderful short reads, but I feel that their wait for a shortlisted book will have to wait until next year.

Will it make the shortlist?
Again no.  There are a few big-name writers on the longlist and several other books which have attracted a lot of attention over the past twelve months.  In prizes like this, there is also often a sense that big themes and events can get a book over the line - death in the Danish provinces just doesn't cut it...

...unless you're Shakespeare, of course ;)


That's two down - come back in a few days for the next two stops on our literary journey around the world :)

Monday 4 March 2013

'The Way We Live Now' by Anthony Trollope (Review)

It is a sign of how prolific Anthony Trollope was that he has been my most-read author for the past three years, and yet I have barely made a dent in his collected works.  Despite all the unread novels I have to get through though, I tend to go back to my old favourites when I feel like some comfort reading, and today's choice is one of his best.  There is something unique about this book though - it is the only one I have read and not reviewed on the blog...

...consider this oversight corrected ;)

The Way We Live Now is another shelf-groaner, coming in at 762 pages in my edition, but well over 800 in others.  It was originally published in twenty monthly parts of five chapters each in 1874/5, and it is actually set over six months in 1873.  It is truly a novel of its time...

As usual, most of the action takes place in London, with occasional visits to the countryside.  The main character is Augustus Melmotte, 'the Great Financier', a man of dubious provenance and even more dubious morals. While in earlier Trollope novels such a character would struggle to make it over the threshold of Barchester Cathedral, these are different times.  Melmotte may not be a gentleman, but he is (or appears to be) very rich, with a daughter ripe for the wooing:
"There was considerable doubt whether Marie was the daughter of that Jewish-looking woman.  Enquiries had been made, but not successfully, as to the date of the Melmotte marriage.  There was an idea abroad that Melmotte had got his first money with his wife, and had gotten it not very long ago.  Then other people said that Marie was not his daughter at all.  Altogether the mystery was rather pleasant as the money was certain.  Of the certainty of money in daily use there could be no doubt."
p.29 (Wordsworth Editions, 2001)
As young noblemen fall over themselves to court young Marie, their fathers attempt to attach themselves to the great man in the hope of profiting from his fortune.  Within a season, Melmotte is the biggest man in the city (possibly the empire), even hosting a banquet for the visiting Emperor of China.  But what goes up...

The Way We Live Now is Trollope's concerned look at the state of affairs in England at the time.  The gentry were beginning to struggle for money, and the idea of young heirs prostituting themselves for money was a common one - the men provided the blood and rank, their wives provided beauty and money, even if their grandfathers had made it in trade.  However, the fairly recent idea of speculation meant that bigger sums were on the table - even if the money was not always as safe as it might be.  The landed gentry see what they want to see and allow themselves to be blinded by the dream of unlimited wealth, at times with disastrous consequences.

We follow a degenerate example of this class, Sir Felix Carbury, a young man with many vices and little to recommend him but his appearance and his title.  He is the antithesis of Melmotte, a cowardly rake who cannot pluck up the courage to risk all on happiness with Marie (who prefers him among her many suitors).  Instead, he wastes his fortune on drinking, flirtations with lower-class women and cards at the club (where even his friends think little of him).

Although Felix loses large amounts in his gambling, this turns out to be nothing, for it is in Melmotte's offices in the city that real gambling is done.  The modern alchemy of creating money from nothing is a far headier (and riskier) activity than loo or three-handed whist.  Despite the obvious drawbacks, Carbury and his set of bored young noblemen begin to see the attraction of gambling on a larger scale than they had ever imagined possible...

Coming after some of the Palliser novels, The Way We Live Now is a further example of Trollope holding a mirror up to society at a time when new and old values were in conflict.  However, perhaps surprisingly, the old world isn't really portrayed that favourably.  In fact, many of the traditional characters in what was supposed to be a more balanced novel are fairly bland.  Normally, the reader would expect to be cheering on staid Roger Carbury, the reticent Hetta Carbury and Paul Montague, Hetta's chosen beau.  The reality is that in the company of figures like Melmotte and Felix Carbury, the supposed good-guys are as enticing as cardboard.

In a cast of dozens though, Melmotte is (possibly literally) head and shoulders above everyone else.  Trollope has created a monster, a man devoid of human feelings, using everyone and everything in order to satisfy his gargantuan appetite for wealth.  He is uncouth and arrogant with no knowledge of how to conduct himself in polite society, yet people fall over themselves to be in his presence.  All know his true character, but he somehow rises above his background, absolved of the onus of conforming to societal norms by the appearance of wealth.  At one point, a minor character compares him to Napoleon in explaining his appeal and his freedom of action:
"Such a man rises above honesty... as a great general rises above humanity when he sacrifices an army to conquer a nation.  Such greatness is incompatible with small scruples.  A pigmy man is stopped by a little ditch, but a giant stalks over the rivers." p.200
Trollope's views on the subject are never in doubt, but the majority of his characters in The Way We Live Now are sorely tempted by the opportunity to make their fortunes, even if (as the writer frequently points out) those who touch pitch run the risk of being defiled...

...for as powerful as Melmotte appears, he knows better than anyone that his power (and fortune) rests on the most fickle of bases - confidence.  His insistence on brazening things out is based on the knowledge that should he show a moment's weakness, his house of cards will come crashing down around his ears.  As the great man himself bellows:
"Gentlemen who don't know the nature of credit, how strong it is - as the air - to buoy you up; how slight it is - as a mere vapour - when roughly touched, can do an amount of mischief of which they themselves don't in the least understand the extent!" p.308
It is all a matter of faith - but just how long are people willing to trust him?

The Way We Live Now is a Trollope book I come back to time and again, and what makes this a great book is the fact that it will never lose its relevance.  Recent events (such as the Global Financial Crisis...) show that people will always allow themselves to be drawn into idiotic and unethical behaviour when there is any possibility of making a quick buck.  A book of its time?  Definitely - but it still has a lot to say to us today about the way we live now...