Tuesday 30 April 2013

'The Timeless Land' by Eleanor Dark (Review)

It's been a squeeze, but I've just managed to fit in a second review for Kim's Australian Literature Month.  While last week I talked about a modern classic, today's post focuses on a real classic, a book which looks back to the late eighteenth century.  There's a boat on the horizon, and the First Fleet will soon be in sight...

Eleanor Dark's The Timeless Land (one of the reissued Angus and Robertson Classics series, review copy courtesy of Harper Collins Australia) was first published in 1941, but tells of the first years of European settlement in Australia, from the arrival of the first fleet in 1788 to the departure of the first Governor in 1792.  It's a meticulously-researched, fictionalised account of life and struggles in the new colony, where the British colonists (and convicts) attempt to obtain a first toehold on a vast, timeless continent.

We start though, not with the white men, but with Bennilong, a member of the local Aboriginal tribe.  He and his father, a famous Youara-gurrugin (a maker of songs), have long been expecting the return of the white men in their 'winged boats', and often trek out to the cliffs, hoping for a glimpse of the ships.  It is not until after his father's death that Bennilong's vision is realised, but the dream soon turns sour.  You see, unlike last time, when the white men soon went home, it appears that this time the visitors are here to stay.

Gradually, the natives realise that this is not a mere interlude in their timeless tribal story, but a turning point, a change in something they had considered changeless.  The Governor of the first colony, Arthur Phillip, does his best to accommodate the natives, and initial mistrust turns to uneasy cooperation, interspersed by conflict.  The native tribes are willing to share the land, even helping the white intruders in their initial difficulties, but it soon becomes clear that this is not a visit, but an invasion...

The Timeless Land is an excellent piece of historical fiction which, while not always literary, is a fascinating glimpse of life post-1788.  It's a vivid picture of life in a new world, and the changing of a timeless culture - as such, it works better than any history book ever could.  Dark succeeds in evoking the sensations of the new country, the smells, the heat, the feeling of dust on the skin...  And it's not just the white man's view that we get to see - the writer also succeeds in showing us familiar ideas in a new way:
"The black man's lean forefinger pointed urgently towards a gap between the tree-tops, and then, in the dust beside the fire, made marks to show the position of the stars he meant, so that Johnny was able to see them quite clearly.  There were four very bright ones, arranged something like a cross, and a fifth, dimmer and smaller nearby.  Two of the bright ones, Johnny was told, were great warriors who had fought for a woman called Namirra, and wounded each other so badly that they both died; and the other two were their brothers, who had been so overcome by grief that they killed Namirra, who was now the fifth pale star, and then killed themselves too."
p.266 (Angus and Robertson Classics, 2013)
For white Australians, this is a new take on our most famous constellation, the Southern Cross...

The novel runs to almost six-hundred pages, and that gives the writer plenty of scope to explore the realities of life in a colony far from home.  Having begun as a place to dump undesirables from Mother England, the colony has a surplus of unhappy convicts (both male and female) and a lack of the people who would actually be useful (e.g. farmers and tradesmen).  There aren't enough tools or decent clothing, and as the gaps between the arrival of supply ships stretches out into months, the threat of starvation looms ever closer.  Controlling the colony and constructing a town is hard enough then, so the frequent infighting and power struggles between the civilian and military authorities is not exactly going to help matters any.

Fascinating as the internal politics of the British are though, the main focus is, of course, on the clash of two very different cultures, each obeying their own tribal law.  The difference between the two is so great that the word 'alien' is unavoidable, and in fact some of the scenes could come out of a work of Science-Fiction (or Speculative Fiction).  When Bennilong muses about the Bereewolgal ('the men from far, far away'), strange, hairless beings carrying gooroobera (magic firesticks), the image is not one of Australia, but of a remote, dusty planet...

Just as in any good space story, The Timeless Land has its moment of first contact, and Dark captures the meeting of the two leaders with stark, brutal honesty:
"Tirrawuul saw a smallish man, quite incredibly ugly, with a pale face and a very large nose.  He was covered from head to foot, and, though his coverings were not as splendid as those of the men with the weapons, Tirrawuul, himself a leader, could recognise in him a confidence and authority which required no outward trappings.
     Phillip saw an elderly savage, quite incredibly ugly, with greying tangled hair, and alert dark eyes.  He was stark naked, and strangely ornamented with raised scars across his body and upper arms.  But he stood very erect, and wore his air of leadership with unconscious dignity.  For the present, at all events, they assured each other wordlessly, there need be no bloodshed." (p.40)
If only the two groups can find some more common ground...

One of the more surprising aspects of the novel though is that it's not just a two-way conflict.  As wide as the gulf between the whites and the natives is, the gap between the colonists and the prisoners is every bit as wide.  The convicts make up a third, separate, group, and they have just as much (or as little) in common with their captors as with the original inhabitants of their new home.  Not that this means that the natives have sympathy with them.  Bennilong sees them as an inferior race, a group of men who allow themselves to be ordered around and sent to dishonourable deaths.  In his eyes, 'the subordinate tribe' are not real men...

While the novel (the first in a trilogy) has multiple strands and a whole host of characters, both real and imagined, the reader always comes back to two: Governor Phillip and the fiery Bennilong.  Fate has decreed that they be there at the start of something much bigger than themselves or their tribes, and both are changed (not necessarily for the better) by the encounter.  The two grow to admire aspects of the other culture, and they are formed by the land, making something new - the start of a new country.

The Timeless Land was written in the late 1930s, so by today's standards, it may appear a little ethnocentric at times.  On occasion, the Aborigines are portrayed as being a little childlike in their thinking, and the idea of the noble savage is overplayed.  However, Dark casts just as critical an eye on the behaviour of the settlers (or, if you prefer, the invaders), and while some of the ideas of the first Europeans are praised, the actions and greed that corrupted these ideals are scrutinised.  Of course, seen from the other side, the European insistence on progress appears very strange indeed:
"They were like bees or ants, these white people, Daringha said.  They toiled and they swarmed, always moving, always going hurriedly from one place to another, always dragging things about, building, struggling, making a labour of their life." (p.441)
That's a view which I quite agree with...

The sequels will be coming out in new Angus and Robertson Classics versions later this year, and while historical fiction isn't usually my thing, I'd love to read the rest of the story.  The Timeless Land takes us from 1788 to 1792, but the sequels will take us into the early nineteenth century to see what becomes of the tiny settlement at the bottom of the world...

...otherwise known as Sydney ;)

Sunday 28 April 2013

'Meer der Tusche' ('Sea of Ink') by Richard Weihe (Review)

Although I wasn't quite there at the beginning, I've been reading the European novellas offered by Peirene Press for a good while now, and there was only one which I hadn't managed to get to.  Why?  Well, I've tried to read the ones written in French and German in the original language, and one of the more recent publications was actually fairly tricky to find (on my limited budget, anyway...).  Luckily for me, Meike Ziervogel was kind enough to send me a spare copy she had, enabling me to complete my Peirene reading.  But did I actually like it?  Let's find out...

Richard Weihe's Meer der Tusche (Sea of Ink, Peirene version translated by Jamie Bulloch) is a summary of the life of famous 17th-century Chinese artist and calligrapher, Bada Shanren.  He is born into the royal line as Zhu Da, a prince destined for a life of regal duties and pleasant distractions; that is, until the ruling dynasty is overthrown by the Manchus, forcing him to flee for the mountains.

Seeking refuge in a monastery, he learns about art and life, and decides to devote his days to religion and painting.  After initially being taught by the head of the temple he sought refuge at, Bada Shanren moves on, becoming the spiritual leader of his own temple, and a renowned artist in his own right.  Later in life, he is compelled to undergo exams for the ruling dynasty, and is admitted to the rank of 'Sea of Ink', the highest honour for an artist under the regime.  However, this is not enough for a man like Bada Shanren - he wants nothing less than to create the perfect painting...

Sea of Ink runs to little more than 100 pages, divided into 50 short chapters, and it follows the artist throughout his life, from birth to death (it definitely deserves the designation of small epic).  The start of the book concentrates on the historical events of the period, in particular the change of regime, a bloody, violent seizing of power.  Later though, historical events take a back seat, and it is the artist's gradual development which becomes the focus of the story.

Of course, the book is all about the art, and in addition to the story, Weihe includes ten beautiful ink drawings, examples of the artist's work, which are woven into the fabric of the novella.  In fact, they are an integral part of the story, the foundation upon which the writer builds his (partially-invented) story.  From Zhu Da's early days watching his father painting, through to his years as an acolyte, the artist (and the reader) learns more and more about the great skill involved in creating pictures using just one colour:
"Wenn du deinen Pinsel in die Tusche tauchst, dann tauchst du ihn in deine Seele.  Und wenn du den Pinsel lenkst, lenkt ihn dein Geist.  Ohne Tiefe und Sättigung fehlt deiner Tusche die Seele; ohne Lenkung und Lebendigkeit fehlt deinem Pinsel der Geist.  Das eine empfängt vom anderen.  Der Strich empfängt von der Tusche, die Tusche empfängt vom Handgelenk, und das Handgelenk von deinem lenkenden Geist.  Das heißt die Kraft der Tusche und des Pinsels meistern."
p.35 (Elster Verlag, 2011)

"When you dip your brush into the ink, you dip it into your soul.  And when you guide the brush, it is guided by your spirit.  Without depth and saturation, your ink will lack soul; without guidance and exuberance, your brush will lack spirit.  The one receives from the other.  The brush stroke receives from the ink, the ink receives from the wrist, and the wrist from your guiding spirit.  This is what it means to master the power of the ink and your brush."***
The monk stresses the importance of preparation, practice and patience.  In effect, the whole book (and Bada Shanren's whole life) is leading up to his attempt to paint something unpaintable - water.

While Sea of Ink is a story of the artist's life, it is also a tale of the paintings themselves.  Weihe describes how inspiration arrived for each of the pictures, and how Bada Shanren actually created them.  Weihe's art historian background shines through as he announces each brush stroke, carefully guiding the reader through the process from picking up the brush to the final signature seal.  The pictures really are quite impressive - I particularly like the two spiders ;)

A perfect little novella, then?  Not quite...  One aspect of the novel which grated a little was the description of the actual painting.  Perhaps for someone who didn't get placed carefully in a corner with a box of crayons during school art classes, Weihe's painstaking descriptions of the painting process may have been more interesting.  For me, without an artistic bone in my body, it did get a little old.  Around the fifth or sixth time he picked up his brush and began carefully preparing the ink, my eyes did start to glaze over a little, and I tended to skip over the actual description of the brush strokes.  I suspect that this says a lot more about me than about Sea of Ink...

Still, it is an excellent novella, and a great introduction to an interesting character.  If you're at all interested in art, you'll get a lot out of this - including, perhaps, the secret to the perfect painting:
"Enthält denn der erste Strich nicht schon die ganze Zeichnung?  Er muss lange vorbedacht werden, vielleicht ein Leben lang, um ihn dann, im richtigen Moment, in einer einzigen flüssigen Geste zu Papier zu bringen, ohne einer Korrektur mehr bedürftig und fähig zu sein." (p.107)

"And doesn't the first stroke contain the whole picture?  It must be considered at length, perhaps throughout your whole life, so that then, in the right moment, you can commit it to paper in a single, fluid motion, with neither the need nor possibility of improvement."***
It's all about that first stroke - or should that be sentence ;)

*** The English translations are, as usual, my sorry efforts, and not those of the real translator :)

That's it then - I'm all up to date.  I've read all ten Peirene books published to date, most of them twice.  Or have I...

...you see, of the ten I've read, only four have been actual Peirene books.  The other six have all been the original versions, books recommended by the nymph but not actually a part of the real Peirene stable.  In fact you could call them, Peirene choices, not Peirene books.

Is there a difference?  Well, that's a story for another day ;)

Thursday 25 April 2013

'The Last of the Vostyachs' by Diego Marani (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 15)

I have a thing for languages and linguistics, so I'm always happy to read books where language plays a leading role.  My final read for last year's IFFP Longlist, New Finnish Grammar, definitely fell into that category, meaning that I was especially happy when Diego Marani made it onto the longlist again this year.  The good news didn't end there. The Australian edition of his new book is about be released by Text Publishing, and I was lucky enough to get a review copy :)

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani (translated by Judith Landry - from Dedalus Books, my review copy from Text Publishing)
What's it all about?
We begin in Siberia, where Ivan (a local youth) has just been released from a prison camp.  After the death of his father in captivity, he hasn't spoken for years - for he is the last of the Vostyachs, a tribe speaking a language long thought extinct.  One day, he ventures into a village to trade furs - and happens to meet Olga, a Russian linguist who instantly realises what she has in front of her...

She is shortly to head off to an important conference in Helsinki, so she immediately contacts the convenor Professor Aurtova, an old colleague and an expert on Finno-Ugric languages.  Olga has new evidence (Ivan) linking Finnish to native-American languages, and she is burning to present the evidence - and the man - at the conference.  The thing is, this could destroy Aurtova's life's work; and when it comes to matters linguistic, he's not a man to be crossed...

The Last of the Vostyachs is  a book which really shouldn't work.  It's part Tarzan, part linguistics lecture, part pulp fiction, and it's less than two-hundred pages long.  It's a story of language death, academic selfishness, and linguistic and personal relationships - and (naturally) it's a great read :)  Marani is an expert at taking an esoteric subject and making the reader accept it as an important part of the plot, even for those who couldn't imagine anything more painful than pages of arguments about language families.

In parts, it's also a story about nature and civilisation coming into conflict.  Ivan, the wild boy, is plucked from his natural environment and sent off to a big city to be paraded in front of intellectuals at a conference.  Surprisingly though, he does learn to adapt after his initial disasters; it probably helps that Helsinki in winter is pretty much home territory for a man from Siberia...

Olga, the Russian linguist, is an interesting woman, a social scientist who is focused on her life's work, but not so blinded by success that she fails to take Ivan's feelings into account.  In a letter to Professor Aurtova, she looks at the ethics of pursuing remnants of tribes to preserve languages, wondering who really benefits:
" For a moment, I thought that it would be better to leave Ivan Vostyach there where he was, in his own land; that introducing him to people so different from himself would cause him suffering, make him feel even more alone." p.30 (Text Publishing, 2013)

"All in all, it probably doesn't matter if he carries on living among the Nganasan and forgets his Vostyach.  One peaceful human life is surely more important than the survival of the lateral affricative with labiovelar overlay." (p.32)
Does the survival of the lateral affricative with labiovelar overlay really matter that much?

The main character, however, is Professor Aurtova, a sociopathic user who will go to any lengths, sexual or violent, to get his way.  He  sees languages as invading forces and wishes to defend the purity of the Finno-Ugric family group, to the death, if necessary.  Towards the end of the book, he gives an extraordinary speech at the conference, a bizarre, racist rant about linguistic purity:
"In the world of mass culture, where the weaker languages are threatened by a new linguistic colonialism which stifles minority cultures, only ignorance can protect us from extinction.  My call to the new generations, here as in the former Soviet republics of Finnish stock, is therefore this: cherish ignorance, do not study the language of the foreigner, but force him to learn your own!" (p.164)
Erm... let's move on, shall we?

The Last of the Vostyachs is a very different book to New Finnish Grammar.  It's a lot more of a page-turner (with some farcical humour), and it lacks a little of the subtlety of Marani's previous novel in English.  Nevertheless, it's a great read, and it manages to come up with a surprising ending which turns the idea of language death on its head.  What else can I say?  More Marani translations, please :)

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Although I enjoyed it, I'd have to say no - it's one which will finish just outside my top six.  A lighter book than New Finnish Grammar, it's still well worth reading, but I don't think it was up there with the top few books this year.

Why didn't it make the shortlist?
The panel obviously agreed with me.  A great read, but perhaps with not enough depth in a very strong year.  Having said that, there's at least one book on the shortlist that this one should have dislodged...

One more stop to make on our IFFP travels, and (luckily enough) my virtual Hungarian visa has just arrived.  It's time to head off to the woods...

Tuesday 23 April 2013

'Seven Types of Ambiguity' by Elliot Perlman (Review)

April 2013 has been designated by Kim, over at Reading Matters, as Australian Literature Month, and as I've neglected books from my adopted home country over the past couple of years, I thought it was time to join in the fun :)  Rather than try out something new though, I decided to revisit one of my favourite Aussie writers - and his best book.  This is a modern classic, and it takes place right here in my home town...

Elliot Perlman's Seven Types of Ambiguity is a 600-page novel set in 1990s Melbourne.  It's an ambitious work written in seven parts, each narrated by a different voice, and it centres on Simon Heywood, a depressed former primary school teacher.  Simon, a man of great intelligence, empathy and charisma, is unable to function normally after a child in his care disappeared, and his father employs psychologist Alex Klima to try to snap him out of it.

After initial misgivings, Alex becomes closer to Simon, treating him more like a friend than a patientWith the help of Angelique, a prostitute who has also fallen for Simon's charms, he attempts to drag Simon up from the depths of his despair.  It's not quite that easy though - at the end of the first part, Simon snaps and does the unthinkable...

The problem is the object of Simon's obsession, his university girlfriend Anna.  He has never been able to get over their relationship, and she remains the idealised perfect woman.  There is an unhealthy obsession here, one he is unable to get rid of.  As he explains to Alex...
"Listen - all that she was then, all that she is now, those gestures, everything I remember but won't or can't articulate anymore, the perfect words that are somehow made imperfect when used to describe her and all that should remain unsaid about her - it is all unsupported by reason.  I know that.  But that enigmatic calm that attaches itself to people in the presence of reason - it's something from which I haven't been able to take comfort, not reliably, not since her."p.8 (Picador, 2004)
Unhappily married with a son, Anna is unaware of what is happening to Simon.  Until, that is, Simon kidnaps her son, Sam...

The set-up is probably good enough for a book as it is, but Seven Types of Ambiguity is far more than a simple story about a kidnapping.  As in another recent Australian novel (Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap), this one event provides the backdrop for a look at society.  It consists of a series of lengthy first-person narratives, moving backwards and forwards, examining events from other perspectives.  It's also brutally, painfully honest.

What's it all about?  Well, while it has  a lot to say about the nature of obsession, its main focus is on an uncaring society.  Perlman explores the stigma attached to mental health, contrasting the ideal of a caring ethos with the stark reality of the triumph of the 'free' market.  You see, 1990s Australia is a dog-eat-dog world - a cold wind's a blowin'...
"It's the times.  The times, they have changed.  Where once people were told that the answers were blowing in the wind, now it's they who are blown by the wind, the wind generated by the market.  The ruthless pursuit of the bottom line is the siren song of the times and the song is played over the public address system in banks, in stores and supermarkets.  It's played when you are downsized because your company can replace you with somebody in another country for two dollars a day.  And it's played whenever you call up anywhere needing assistance and they put you on hold because they've cut back on staff in order to increase their share price." (p.163)
Simon's rant about Neo-liberal philosophies are very a much a sign of their time - but somehow, it all sounds strangely familiar...

The old cry of 'turn on, tune out' is appropriate for a generation of apathy, a picture which is deftly painted over the course of the novel.  There is a media obsession with trivialities, witch-hunts and trial by soundbite.  By contrast, Alex's crusade against the introduction of US-style 'managed care' is seen as more Quixotic than realistic.  There's an overwhelming sense of a drive towards conformity: no divorce (no matter how bad the marriage), the childishness of the corporate retreat, even the look-the-other-way culture of the prison Simon finds himself in.  Freedom, though, is in short supply.  Simon and Alex rage against it all - and they're the mad ones?

As noted above, Seven Types of Ambiguity has a lot in common with The Slap, quite apart from its Melbourne setting.  Both use multiple points of view to give a wider perspective of a particular community, and both take one pivotal event and explore the repercussions of disturbing the status quo.  Where they differ is in the writing, and in the type of people the authors take as their guinea pigs.  Tsiolkas concentrates on a lower social group and is much more visceral in his writing, and some people have criticised Perlman for what they see as a more middle-class elitist story. I'd have to say that I prefer Perlman's style - and his story.

The key to it all is Perlman's portrayal of Simon, and the two pictures of Anna (the ideal and the flawed).  If Simon doesn't come across as someone worth empathising with (and, lest we forget, he did kidnap a child), then the whole novel will fall apart - the story relies on the reader understanding and forgiving Simon.  Fortunately, for me at least, Simon is a sympathetic figure, a man who understands and feels too much.  There's even a temptation to see him as a kind of Christ figure, humane and sympathetic amongst the madness and greed of the modern world.  Oh - and he has a lot of suffering in store...

The title of the novel comes from linguist and literary critic William Empson's work of the same name.  Empson's book explains how the beauty of poetry stems from seven types of linguistic ambiguity, and naturally it is a book the erudite Simon adores (he even named his dog Empson).  Like Simon, Empson was a bit of a Wunderkind, having written his landmark work in early twenties.  Also like Simon, he was destined to be taken down by societal prejudices; after a servant found a condom in his university rooms, he was banished from the city.  Unlike Simon though, Empson was encouraged in his pursuits, enabling him to achieve his work.  Simon's parents are not quite so supportive of their poetry-loving son.

As important as the linguistic ambiguities are though, Alex stresses another type of ambiguity.  In his eyes, it is the ambiguity of human relationships which is more important, the cause of most of the problems in the novel:
"As far as I was concerned, there were more important ambiguities than the ambiguities of poetic language that Empson talked about.  There's the ambiguity of human relationships, for instance.  A relationship between two people, just like a sequence of words, is ambiguous if it is open to different interpretations.  And if two people do have different views about their relationship - I don't just mean about its state, I mean about its very nature - then that difference can affect the entire course of their lives." (p.12)
Perlman goes on to demonstrate this throughout Seven Types of Ambiguity, when the same event is shown through two, or sometimes three, pairs of eyes, allowing the reader to see why events occur as they do.  Relationship can indeed be ambiguous - but so can stories...

Anyone who has made it this far in my tortured review will long have come to the conclusion that I'm a bit of a fan of Perlman's work, and this is easily the novel I like most.  It's very much a story of a certain time and place, yet it's one which is also relevant today.  In fact, while reading this novel, a raft of welfare 'reforms' were passed in the UK, among them plans which would effectively end the National Health Service in its present form.  In that context, Perlman's description of the move to managed care is a scarily eery one...

Sunday 21 April 2013

'The Cape' by Kenji Nakagami (Review)

My recent IFFP distractions have led me to neglect a book I'd been meaning to read for a while, a slice of J-Lit I was looking forward to.  It was a review copy from Stone Bridge Press which somehow fell through the gaps (both in my schedule and on my shelf).  Somehow though that seems rather appropriate, as the people in these stories have also fallen through society's cracks...

Kenji Nakagami is a writer from the Japanese outcast part of society, the burakumin, and he is well known for his novels and stories set in his hometown in the west of Japan.  This collection, The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto (translated by Eve Zimmerman) contains three stories: 'The Cape', a novella which won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize; 'House on Fire', a shorter continuation of 'The Cape'; and 'Red Hair', a short sex romp only connected to the other two stories by location.

The main event is the title story, in which Akiyuki, a hulking (yet sensitive) young construction worker, lives with his mother, step-father and step-brother in a house in his hometown.  As you might be able to tell from his living arrangements, his family tree is a mess, with half- and step-siblings all over the place.  Preparations are under way for the memorial ceremony for Akiyuki's mother's first husband, when what is to be a time of celebration is disrupted by bloodshed - typical for the small town...

Although two fathers have been mentioned so far, neither are actually Akiyuki's biological father.  That honour belongs to 'that man' (Yasu, in 'House on Fire'), a malicious wanderer with a penchant for violence and arson, a man who managed to get three women pregnant at the same time.  Akiyuki and his mother want nothing to do with Yasu, and at times Akiyuki wonders how on earth his family has managed to evolve as it has:
"The mother, Yoshiko, and the brother-in-law were arranged around the futon where Mie was sitting up.  Akiyuki was there.  So was the boss.  Yoshiko's three kids and Mie's son were upstairs.  Akiyuki studied the brother-in-law, who sat there with a vacant look.  It must be hard for him to even grasp how they were all connected to each other by blood.  It was a strange bloodline, he thought.  His sister wasn't the only odd one; the bloodline itself was off.  Polluted.  Just the sight of his sister clowning around he found ominous."
p.71 (Stone Bridge Press, 2008)
Afraid that his blood truly is tainted, Akiyuki tries to keep himself pure, drinking little alcohol, and avoiding sexual entanglements.  However, the threat of his father's genes hangs over him like a sword of Damocles - and when he learns about a half-sister, Kumi, who works at a local brothel, things start to get even more complicated...

Nakagami's stories offer a stunning view of life in the Japan they don't want you to see.  Full of sex, violence and squalor (and devoid of hope), its inhabitants have limited options, often restricted to construction work or prostitution.  When life is lived in a place like this, nerves are often on edge, and minor insults lead to grudges - which can then lead to bloodshed.

A pleasant day out at the cape brings sunshine into a dreary life; however, the cape they live on is also a type of prison.  Akiyuki sees it as penning the people in physically, just as the Japanese attitudes to the Burakumin closes them in metaphorically:
"The sun shone down, and it all seemed so strange to him.  Everything, bathed in the same light.  Everything, breathing in the same rhythm.  Here, in such close quarters, they laughed, celebrated, groaned, violating and heaping abuse on one another.  Even the ones most hated had a place here.  The man was a good example.  How many women had he reduced to tears, how many men wished him dead?  The man - everybody talked about him - and Fumiaki's birth mother too - both lived in this cramped little place.  It amazed him.  He felt stifled.  Oppressed.  The land was hemmed in by mountains and rivers and the sea, and the people lived on it like insects or dogs." (p.16)
If it is a prison, it turns out to be one few people ever escape from...

'House on Fire' goes on with the story, providing details of the backstory of both Akiyuki's father and his dead half-brother, Ikuo.  The story also jumps forward in time, showing how family man Akiyuki reacts when he hears about his father's impending death.  In lashing out at his wife and mindlessly smashing up household furniture, he becomes what he has always dreaded - a pale imitation of his biological father, doomed by his blood.

Many reviews of 'The Cape' make a lot of the burakumin element, but I think that it would be a mistake to focus solely on this element of the story.  The reality is that this sense of hopelessness (and tangled fates) is the lot of the lower-working classes in many advanced societies.  While Akiyuki is stuck digging holes in the Japanese provinces, he could easily be stuck in a menial job for life in Melbourne's western suburbs or living in the backstreets of Leeds.  The poverty trap is not restricted to countries where segregation and discrimination is out in the open.

In short, this is another excellent book for lovers of J-Lit.  In addition to the main stories and the bonus of 'Red Hair', Eve Zimmerman provides an excellent preface and afterword, explaining Nakagami's place in modern Japanese literature and outlining how the stories fit in with the rest of his work.  If you're only interested in Fuji-san and cherry blossoms, it may not be one for you.  However, if you want to know more about what really goes (or went) on in Japan, you should definitely give this one a try :)

Thursday 18 April 2013

'The Fall of the Stone City' by Ismail Kadare (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 14)

Today's book introduces the blog to a new country and a very famous writer I really should already have tried.  While the writer and country are new though, the topic is very familiar: once again, we're heading back to the Second World War.  Let's see if this book can find a new angle...

The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare (translated by John Hodgson - from Canongate)
What's it all about?
We begin in Albania, in 1943, where the colonising Italians have abandoned the country and the Germans are about to fill the Imperial void.  A bilingual leaflet drop promises that the Wehrmacht will merely be passing through, and that Germany respects Albanian independence.  Of course, that all changes when shots are fired outside the stone city of Gjirokastër...

After the unprovoked attack on his troops, Colonel Fritz von Schwabe plans to raze the town to the ground in revenge - until, that is, he realises that an old university friend, Dr. Gurameto lives here.  In a bizarre twist, the good doctor holds a dinner party for his old friend, all to uphold the tradition of Albanian hospitality, and not only is the town saved from destruction, but all the hostages taken (including a Jew) are released.  It's an amazing story, and one which comes back to haunt the doctor ten years later.  You see, the Communist authorities are very keen to find out exactly what happened on that night...

The Fall of the Stone City is a superb book, short but packed with intrigue and interest.  It's divided into three sections: the first looks at the events of the fateful dinner in 1943; the second takes us quickly through the happenings, political and otherwise, of the following decade; the third part takes place in 1953, when the past catches up with Big Doctor Gurameto (so-called to distinguish him from his colleague, the shadowy Little Doctor Gurameto).  Despite its brevity, the novel provides the reader with an excellent overview of the situation in Albania at the time.

The story takes a look at how people had trouble walking the political tightrope in areas with successive rulers, and the discussions before the arrival of the Germans show the decisions the locals had to make:
"Nonsense," said others.  "This visiting card business is precisely the worst possible insult to any country, especially a brave country like ours. 'Albania, I'm coming tomorrow morning.  Come out to welcome me at ten o'clock.  Never mind what people say about me.  Take no notice of my artillery and tanks, because Germany is good, and brings culture and bouquets of flowers.'  Are you witless enough to believe this twaddle?"
     "At least visiting cards are preferable to bombs," said the others in self-defence."
p.7 (Text Publishing, 2012)
The problem with appeasing an invading force is that if they eventually leave (as the Germans will), the people who take over next may not look kindly upon your behaviour.  When the communists take over, it is inevitable that those who were pro-German will have a few questions to answer.

As the quotation above shows, while the subject matter may be a little heavy, the language used to discuss it can be as light as a feather.  I loved Kadare's witty, sarcastic, flowing style (it's not often you have demonstrators in the streets crying 'Down with soil erosion'!), and parts of The Fall of the Stone City reminded of something Kundera or García Márquez might have written.  There is a superb cast of fascinating characters in addition to the two doctors: a blind poet, several foreign investigators and a mad, drunk gambler, Remzi Kadare (a cheeky cameo, perhaps...) - and that's not including all the characters who show up for just one scene:

"Meanwhile, taking advantage of the turbulent times, the Romany guard at the Hygiene Institute known as 'Dan the TB Man' produced a song in memory of his girlfriend, who had been run over that April by the night-soil cart.
     I'm the gypsy of the institute
     In an awful plight
     Since the girl I loved
     Fell under a load of shite." (pp.83/4)
Ah, poetry...

While there's a broad streak of humour running through the book though, when we get to the third section (where the doctor has to account for the events of the dinner party), matters turn a little darker.  It is here that Kadare's mastery of the plot becomes evident, as details which may have been overlooked at first glance are unearthed and re-examined, forcing characters and readers alike to rethink their version of what actually happened.  There's even a hint of a ghost story, an old wives' tale which becomes eerily relevant.

Yep, there's a lot more to this book than meets the eye ;)

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Absolutely.  I loved this, even if I got the feeling that this might not be his best work.  Kadare is definitely a writer I need to read more by.

Why did it make the shortlist?
Well-known, successful writer - tick.
Excellent translation - tick.
Fascinating story - tick.
Familiar, popular topic - tick.

That is all :)

For the next leg of our journey, we'll be heading north, to Finland via Russia.  I've learnt a fair few languages in my time, but I'm not sure any of them are going to help me this time around...

Monday 15 April 2013

'In Praise of Hatred' by Khaled Khalifa (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 12a)

Recently, we took a trip to Lebanon in the early 80s to see how life was during the civil war, and today's story takes us back to a similar time, this time just across the border.  Syria is today's port of call, and it's time to see how life is lived behind the veil...

In Praise of Hatred by Khaled Khalifa (translated by Leri Price - from Doubleday)
What's it all about?
The story takes place in the historical Syrian city of Aleppo in the early 80s, where we meet a young girl who goes to live with her aunts in her dead grandfather's house.  Her presence is required as the aunts feel lonely in the big old house - and because their strict beliefs prevent them from doing much about it.

Maryam, the eldest of the girl's aunts, is a devout follower of the minority Sunni Muslim sect, and her life is spent in prayer and rejecting outside influences.  In a house of death and gloom, it is little wonder that the young newcomer follows in her aunts' footsteps, and as she grows up, she dreams of helping her religious group win back their rightful place in control of the city.  In doing so, she gives herself up to hatred...

In Praise of Hatred is one long narrative, a monologue in three parts with occasional digressions.  It details a descent into hatred (and a slow path out...), a life spent denying the pleasures of the flesh and the importance of human interaction.  The nameless narrator allows herself to be taken over by her hatred of the governing minority, hoping to help the insurgents attempting to bring down the government.  Unsurprisingly, it's a book which is banned in Syria.

The main character, an intelligent young woman with ambitions of becoming a doctor, is corrupted by twisted logic and false words.  She is driven by fear, emptiness and sexual frustration towards a life of martyrdom (and she is quite willing to become a martyr too).  From a young age, she has been conditioned to fear the approach of men, and in a city where modern values have begun to take hold, she feels disgusted by what she sees:
"When I saw uninhibited girls undoing their bras and showing off their cleavage to the breeze and the sun in the small square, or for the titillation of the young men crowding around the entrances of the girls' schools, I felt rage at their filth."
p.17 (Doubleday, 2012)
However, it is the narrator and her friends, hidden beneath their unflattering, all-covering clothes, who are the real objects of attention - they are the ones who stand out.

Khalifa does a great job of describing life in the city of Aleppo during an era of unrest.  Outside, it is a time of death and destruction, whole communities slaughtered by one side or the other.  The Sunni Mujahideen, the holy warriors, carry on guerilla warfare against the military police, the Mukhabarat, hiding out in safe houses and fleeing the country when things get a little too hot.  Neutral observers (if there are any) must be careful to avoid the war zones - and the atrocities carried out by both sides...

So much for the men - for the women, it's a different story.  The narrator wants nothing more than to help the cause, and she does join a cell which passes out information and propaganda.  However, the reality is that she's a caged bird, forced to do the bidding of any male relative who bothers to show up at her grandfather's house.  Her inability to get out of the house (or her restrictive clothes) makes the reading experience somewhat claustrophobic, deliberately so.  Having struggled with it for 300 pages, I'm not sure how she managed it for so long...

This sense of claustrophobia is partially due to the picture the writer creates of her house.  More a mausoleum than a place of residence, it has remained unaltered since the days of its former owner, the only addition a collection of butterflies in glass cases - a fitting allegory for the narrator's life.  She is well aware of this, at times lamenting the restricted life she leads:
"I felt my predicament when she looked at me as if she were saying, 'How miserable you are,' and relief because I had let her into my stagnant world, like a lake forsaken by breezes, ducks and fishing hooks." (p.77)

A sad portrait of times gone by?  Yes and no.  The book does take a twist in the third section, a kind of redemption through suffering for the poor young woman.  However, the country has not been quite as fortunate.  A quick look at the news will tell you that history has a funny way of repeating itself - plus ça change...

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
I'd have to say no.  After the first 75 pages, I thought this might be right up there, but the more I read, the slower it got.  The claustrophobic style, and the lack of chapters, made this a hard book to get into.  Eventually, it just appeared to be more of the same, inner turmoil and outer suffering repeated over and over again.  It's an interesting book, and a fascinating glimpse into Syrian history, but I was pretty happy to make it to the end.

Why didn't it make the shortlist?
I actually thought this might squeak in, but the panel obviously had similar thoughts to mine.  While the topic was interesting, the writing didn't really sparkle or stand out, and the story lacked focus a little.  Good, but not quite there...

It's time to leave the Middle East, as we have a dinner appointment in Albania.  Our host?  Well, all I know is that he's a doctor - and a big one at that...

Friday 12 April 2013

IFFP 2013 - Two Shortlists

The Independent foreign Fiction Prize shortlist is now out, and there are a few surprises in store (nothing new there then).  Of the sixteen longlisted titles who entered the race, only six remain - ten have been sent back to the sheds to contemplate their shortcomings.  In around a month's time, one of these six will be standing on top of the pile, but for now, it's time for all six to enjoy their moment in the sun - drum roll, please...

Official Shortlist for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Of course, another small group of people has been reading the same collection of books, and recently we on the Shadow Panel announced our own shortlist!  The Shadow Panel consists of our esteemed chair, Stu, along with Mark, Gary, Lisa and me :)  I know you're just itching to compare the two lists, so..

Shadow Panel Shortlist for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

So, the lists...  Well, we've chosen four of the six the real panel have chosen, and I have to say that, on the whole, it's a better shortlist than was the case in 2012.  A couple of caveats though...  While I haven't yet read Satantango, I'm very surprised that it hasn't made the cut.  It did make the shortlist of the BTBA (the American version of the IFFP), and it was touted as a potential winner of both prizes - obviously not ;)

The big shock though is the inclusion of Bundu.  While I'm all for difference, this is the one book I hadn't even considered putting on my shortlist.  Of course, for those with long memories, IFFP panels obviously love Alma Books a lot!

Oh well, onward and upward.  For a list of all the Shadow Panel's reviews so far, please check out this page on Lisa's blog which pulls them all together - happy reading :)

Thursday 11 April 2013

Bundu by Chris Barnard (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 12)

It's always nice to try something a little different, and today's book is certainly not the usual translated literature fare.  We're heading off to South Africa, for my first book in Afrikaans, and we'll be going out into the African wilderness.  A word of warning - watch out for hippos...

Bundu by Chris Barnard (translated by Michiel Heyns - from Alma Books)
What's it all about?
Brand de la Rey is an ecologist living in the bundu (the South African equivalent of the outback).  Working hard on his projects, he prefers to keep himself to himself, but a visit to the local mission station brings an unwelcome interruption to his routine.

After years of drought, the land is bare, and refugees come flooding across the border from Mozambique, hoping for some food and help in South Africa.  The doctor and nurses at the station try to help the newcomers, but the more they do, the more people congregate outside the buildings.  The South African army, regarding the far-flung province as part of Mozambique, refuses to help, forcing Brand and the mission staff to think of an alternative plan - which is where a crazy man and an old plane come in...

Bundu is an interesting adventure story, with an exotic backdrop and a love interest thrown in too.  The text is peppered with Afrikaans and Swahili, and when you read Barnard's stories about a hunt for an injured hippo and donkeys trekking to the nearest settlement, you can almost feel the stifling heat and the dust.  Oh, and let's not forget Malume, the enigmatic leader of the baboons...

While the main focus of the story is the plan to save the dying refugees, one of its strong points is its depiction of the strains and stresses on the mission staff.  The overworked nurses collapse from exhaustion, only to get right back up again - they have no choice.  Death is all around, yet there is no villain here, just the harsh reality of a land without rain.  As the ordeal draws on, the characters become painfully aware of the fragility of human existence:
"Julia and I were standing washing our hands and faces in a basin in front of her back door.  I stood watching our hands and our arms while we were washing; I saw her bare shoulders and her neck, the tongue brushing the lips, and realized that under Julia's tanned skin, under all the youthful softness and unblemishedness, there was a pale white skeleton washing along, participating invisibly, a skeleton preparing itself slowly but surely for the day when it could cast off the winding sheet to show its true face."
p.178 (Alma Books, 2012)
Of course, times of trouble often have the effect of breaking down barriers, and it isn't long before Brand and Julia, one of the nurses, seek comfort in each other's arms...

Bundu is also a novel which explores the concept of communication and silence.  People go to the bundu to avoid human contact, and many of the characters (Brand, Julia, madman Jock Mills) are running away from something.  Even when they do talk, they often prefer to be sparing with their words, and in a country of many languages, conversation can become even more complicated.  Several of the characters conveniently fail to understand when talk becomes too involved, while others switch languages to better express themselves (or, in one case, to swear more strongly!).  Of course, mere words are the least of the walls preventing mutual understanding:
"Vusi's Afrikaans was even more limited than my stunted and stilted Zulu and that in itself was enough reason to put a damper on a natural exchange of thoughts.  But in addition we were both still victims of the society in which we'd grown up and in which black people and white people had to coexist on either side of an invisible wall, like fish in the same pond but separated by glass.  It went much deeper than a language problem or a superficial prejudice - it was a blind assumption that the other one thought, felt, experienced things in a different way, was different." (pp.109/110)

Bundu is an entertaining read, an interesting glimpse into another world, but if I'm honest, it isn't really my kind of book.  On the whole, it read more like genre fiction than a novel from a literary fiction longlist, and it definitely favoured plotting (and romance) above the writing, especially in the first half of the novel.  I also thought that the first-person point of view led to a lot of info dumping, especially regarding Julia's back story.  While the old chestnut about showing, not telling, isn't always appropriate, I definitely felt that Barnard could have introduced the information more subtly.

Which is not to say that it's a bad book - far from it.  I enjoyed it, and I think most people would get something from it.  I honestly can't say though that it's one which will stay in my memory for long...

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Not really.  It's a nice story,and there's more to it than the first half would suggest, but the writing is nothing special.  Many people will like it, but that doesn't make it a book to shortlist.

Will it make the shortlist?
I wouldn't think so - I think the longlisting was probably a surprise.  A word of caution though: I was very negative about an Alma Books entry last year, and we all know what happened there...

By the time you read this, the shortlist will finally have been announced, and my predictions will (I'm sure) have been shown to be the ramblings of a deluded, bitter old man.  Join me next time for a commentary on the choices - and we'll continue with our journey next week :)

Wednesday 10 April 2013

IFFP 2013 - Shortlist Predictions

We started out with sixteen titles longlisted for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and tomorrow will see ten of the works fall by the wayside, leaving us with six heavyweights to battle it out for the prize.  In a longlist which I believe to be stronger than was the case in 2012, there are bound to be a few surprises - and I'm sure some of my early favourites will be hitting the canvas before the final bell...

Anyway, so far I've managed to get through fifteen of the sixteen longlisted titles (sadly, I'm still waiting to get a copy of Satantango), so I have a good idea of who I think deserves to progress to the next stage.  Now, as for other people (including the real jury), I'm not quite so sure ;)

Today, I'll be announcing two shortlists: one made up of the books I think deserve to make the cut; the other composed of the titles I suspect the real judges will opt for.  Not having read Satantango (which I'm expecting to make both lists), I'm adding a reserve title, just in case Krasznahorkai's novel doesn't live up to expectations.  And the nominees are (links to my reviews, where available):

Tony's Preferred Shortlist

Tony's Predicted Shortlist

As you can see, three of the books appear on both lists, so expect those to be the ones that miss the cut ;)  Was I right?  Well, we'll soon find out...  Later this week, I'll be having a look at the real shortlist, and (as if that wasn't exciting enough) I'll also be comparing it to the six chosen by our collective Shadow Panel!  As was the case last year, we will be choosing our winner from our own shortlist, not the official one (and last year, the two lists were very different...).  The finish post is in sight...

Tuesday 9 April 2013

'Black Bazaar' by Alain Mabanckou (Review - IFFP 2013, Number 11)

Important as it is to look back at history, sometimes it's good to just relax and chill out with some friends.  Time to head off to Jip's Bar then to meet a man who likes to watch the world (and women) pass by - in style, bien sûr ;)

Black Baza(a)r by Alain Mabanckou (translated by Sarah Ardizzone - from Serpent's Tail)
What's it all about?
Our entry into Mabanckou's world is an aspiring writer from the Congo ('the little one') living illegally in Paris.  He's a happy soul, enjoying life in the French capital - until, that is, he is deserted by his partner, who runs off with their daughter (and a Tom-Tom player...) back to his home country.  What's a man to do...

Fessologue, as our friend is known (because of his elevation of considering women's derrières to a science), copes with it all by sitting in Jip's café, talking rubbish with other African immigrants and visiting a writer friend who gives him advice.  Eventually, he decides that the best way to cope with his issues is to buy a clunky old typewriter and start writing a book about his experiences - a book called Black Bazar...

Mabanckou's novel appears at first glance to be just a series of events and anecdotes, fun stories about the African diaspora in Paris.  However, they soon become more personal, exploring the relationship between Fessologue and his partner, Couleur d'origine ('Colour of Origin'), perhaps in an attempt to understand why it went wrong.

Don't get me wrong though - this is not a book of regrets and tears.  Fessologue is a dedicated follower of fashion, a man who is just as at home choosing Italian hand-made suits as discussing the relative merits of female posteriors.  He heads out into the Parisian night, on the prowl for fresh arrivals from his home continent to (as he says) "chasser sans merci les gazelles sauvages" ('mercilessly hunt down the wild gazelles').  It's easy to conclude that he deserved everything he got...

Black Bazaar though is also a novel about writers and writing.  The book begins with a great prologue in which a friend interrogates Fessologue at the bar, referencing famous novels in an attempt to pin down what exactly it is the writer is planning to write.  Frustrated by the rejection of ideas about white sheep, old men and fishing, and love in a time of cholera, Roger the Franco-Ivorian dismisses his friend's ability to ever get a story down on paper:
"Écoute, mon gars, sois réaliste!  Laisse tomber tes histoires de t'asseoir et d'écrire tous les jours, y a des gens plus calés pour ça, et ces gens-là on les voit à la télé, ils parlent bien, et quand ils parlent y a un sujet, y a un verbe et y a un complément.  Ils sont nés pour ça, ils ont été élevés dans ça, alors que nous autres les nègres, c'est pas notre dada, l'écriture."
pp.13/14 (Éditions du Seuil, 2009)

"Listen up, my boy, be realistic!  Drop your sitting around and writing every day, there's people much better at it, and those people, you see them on telly, they talk well, and when they talk there's a subject, there's a verb and there's an object.  They're born for that, they're raised in that, while us blacks, it's not our thing, writing."***
I wonder how autobiographical this conversation is...

Black Bazaar reminds me of a Russian book I read last year, Happiness is Possible.  Both deal with a writer in a big city, telling stories about life there for someone who was born elsewhere.  Both have been left by their partners and use their writing to deal with the hurt, gradually moving from humorous sketches of daily life to more personal stories.  Were it not for the snappy clothes and the Pelforth beers, Fessologue would fit in well in Moscow ;)

As it is, he's another writer in (self-imposed) exile, able to look at matters from a distance, from a different perspective, and it's a point which isn't lost on our Congolese friend.  He muses:
"Est-ce qu'un écrivain doit toujours vivre dans un autre pays, et de préférence être contraint d'y vivre pour avoir des choses à écrire et permettre aux autres d'analyser l'influence de l'exil dans son écriture?" (p.182)

"Must a writer always live in another country, and preferably be forced to live there, in order to have things to write and to allow others to analyse the influence of exile in their writing?"***
Hmm.  Perhaps I should read some of Mabanckou's other books, set in his home country, to find out ;)

In the end though, this is a book about our friend Fessologue.  It's an enjoyable romp, a welcome change from the tone of the rest of this year's longlist, and I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that it has a relatively happy end.  But even this ending is a little ambiguous - what constitutes a happy ending for our African immigrant?  Is it keeping a firm hold on his roots, or adapting to life in a new country?  Or is there a middle ground?  One to consider for all the ex-pats among us...

***All translations into English are my sorry efforts...

***** Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Possibly.  It'll be there or thereabouts, a book which is entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time.  On finishing this one, I ordered two more of Mabanckou's novels - which shows how much I liked it :)

A couple of points...  I'd love to see a woman's take on this work, as I occasionally got the feeling that old Fess was a touch on the chauvinist side.  Would a female reader relate with him enough to enjoy the book?

Also, I read this in French, so I have no idea how good the translation is.  The only thing I know is that the protagonist's name was translated as 'buttologist'/'buttocks man' - which I dislike for many reasons (my preference would have been to leave the name in French!).

Will it make the shortlist?
Possibly not.  I'd love it to make the final six, but I'm not sure the judges will be able to squeeze this past some of the doom and gloom stories - and the shortlist will be a dourer place for it ;)

Another one done and dusted :)  From an African story, next time we'll be looking at a story in Africa.  Buckle up - we're going off road...