Tuesday 30 July 2013

'The Aleph' and 'The Maker' by Jorge Luis Borges (Review)

After the success of Fictions, my first exposure to the world of Jorge Luis Borges, I was always going to try more from the Argentine master of the short story.  Luckily, my ever-wonderful library came up with the goods, in the form of a Penguin Classics edition with two collections included.  Time to dive back into the world of the meta-fictional and meta-physical...

The Aleph, including the prose fictions from The Maker (translated by Andrew Hurley) has another two sets of early works from Borges.  The first is a series of short stories, reminiscent of the collection The Garden of Forking Paths, while the second is much shorter, full of pieces which are almost examples of flash fiction at times.  The Aleph, though, is the collection most similar in form to what I read a while back, and this similarity applies to the themes too.

The lead-off story, 'The Immortal', is a perfect example of this.  It's an intriguing tale, starting with that old Borgesian staple, an arcane document, one whose authenticity can be doubted, and it ends up as an improbable tale.  A soldier searches for immortality in a story which turns the idea of eternal life on its head:
"Among the corollaries to the doctrine that there is no thing that is not counterbalanced by another, there is one that has little theoretical importance but that caused us, at the beginning or end of the tenth century, to scatter over the face of the earth.  It may be summarized in these words: There is a river whose waters give immortality; somewhere there must be another river whose waters take it away."
p.15, 'The Immortal' (Penguin Classics, 2000)
In a lovely twist, the characters here are searching for water which will take away the curse of immortality.  Of course, we are once again faced with the dilemma of how much (and who) to believe in Borges' elaborate stories within stories.  Perhaps the document is just a hoax...

Many of the stories in The Aleph take place in the writer's native Argentina, and there are many tales of macho men in the wild west (or south!).  'The Dead Man'  is a neat little piece where a cocky gaucho thinks he can take down the big boss, little knowing that he is just a pawn in a bigger game.  However 'A Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz' is a much subtler story, one which ends up being entangled in real-life Argentine history.  While the significance of the ending of this story (and many others) would sail right over the head of the average Anglophone reader, Hurley's excellent notes help to explain exactly what is going on.

Borges is great at writing short stories with twists, and there are some very tricky endings here.  In 'The Dead Man', the narrator discovers that a friend he remembers seems to have lived parallel, simultaneous lives, with different people remembering him in very different ways.  In 'Emma Zunz', we have a well-constructed story of a woman taking revenge for her father's demise.  Her actions leading up to the end of the story seem incomprehensible, but on the final page we understand why she has done what she did.

Of course, it wouldn't be Borges without a labyrinth or two, and there are plenty to be found in this collection.  'Ibn Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth' is a story which doesn't keep the reader waiting for the content of the piece; however, titles (and labyrinths) can be most deceiving.  Another story with a maze is 'The House of Asterion', a brief, three-page tale of a 'deity' - one which seems a little bland until the final, fascinating twist ;)

The Maker is very different to The Aleph.  It's a lot shorter and consists of several brief pieces; a nice addition, but not really a book in its own right.  The stories in this section, may not be quite as short as haikus, but they have a similar, thought-provoking effect.

Having also read Professor Borges recently (a translation of a series of lectures Borges gave on English literature), there were many familiar names and themes mentioned in The Maker.  The writer appears to have an obsession with the promise King Harold gave to Harald Hardrada in 1066 of 'six feet of English soil', and he's equally preoccupied with Don Quixote, Shakespeare and Anglo-Saxon poetry.  One piece from The Maker combines a couple of his interests nicely - 'Ragnarök' is a story of the end of the gods (and mentions Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another of Borges' literary obsessions...).

I enjoyed this collection a lot, and I only wish I'd had more time to peruse it at my leisure (unfortunately, I managed my time badly and had to hurry through my library copy).  It's a book to dip into and return to when you have an unhurried moment to devote to it - another time, perhaps ;)

Sunday 28 July 2013

'The Name of the Flower' by Kuniko Mukoda (Review)

The July theme for the Japanese Literature Challenge 7 is short stories, so it was off to the shelves to see if I had anything to fit this criterion.  As I rummaged through my ever-expanding J-Lit section, I did manage to find a couple of unread anthologies, but they were a little long (and after recently finishing a 1000-page German-language classic, I was in the mood for something a touch lighter...).  Finally, I stumbled across the perfect choice, the book you see displayed on the left of the page.  What makes my selection all the more apt is that I received it as a gift from Bellezza herself for my efforts during January in Japan:)

Kuniko Mukoda was a television screen-writer, essayist and short-story writer, and The Name of the Flower (translated by Tomone Matsumoto, published by Stone Bridge Press) is a collection containing thirteen assorted tales from various original works.  It's a short book, running to just 150 pages, and it makes for fairly easy reading.  However, it's also well written, with keen observations on Japanese society in every piece.

The stories all focus on married life, from the viewpoint of both husband and wife.  Infidelity (traditionally tolerated in Japan, especially for husbands) is the major theme here, and most of the stories begin with a snap-shot of a domestic scene which slowly expands to include the shadow of betrayal lurking in the corner.  In a society where marriages were largely arranged (certainly at the time the stories were written), marital bliss seems hard to come by; in fact, marital indifference seems to be regarded as a relative success round these parts...

Many of Mukoda's female protagonists are betrayed by their husbands.  In the title story, 'The Name of the Flower', a wife realises that her husband has been using her, allowing her to help him become more cultivated so that he can attract other women.  In another story, 'I Doubt It', a man plays the dutiful mourner at his father's funeral:
"Now he was chief mourner.  Perhaps it was wrong to bask in this self-satisfied respectability, having just lost a father, but that was how he felt.  The general-affairs section of his company came out in force and arranged the whole program - the ceremony at the funeral altar, the wake, and the ritual farewell to the deceased.  It all reflected Shiozawa's position.  Those relatives he was not ashamed of came, and his friends paid their condolence visits.  He felt a twinge of guilt as he displayed the appropriate grief like an actor, but he told himself not to be concerned because every important occasion in life called for this kind of performance."
p.33, 'I Doubt It' (Stone Bridge Press, 2002)
However, his honest facade hides a multitude of secrets, involving extra-marital affairs and blackmail...

Before anyone gets too angry at Japanese men though, it must be said that the women are even worse.  The central character of 'The Otter' is an old man recovering from a stroke, and while his wife seems cheerful and supportive, she is actually scheming to sell the house from under him.  In 'The Window', a man remembers his mother's affairs, humiliated by the way his father was constantly cuckolded.  Now he believes that her genes have resurfaced in his own daughter, and he's afraid of the consequences.

Quite apart from the constant affairs, there are other consequences of these unhappy marriages, stories of two strangers living together.  In 'The Fake Egg', a woman who can't get pregnant wonders why she's even with her husband, while the protagonist in 'Ears', a man left alone at home on a rare sick day, attempts to resist the temptation to search the house for dirty laundry of a rather personal nature.  Trust is in short supply in The Name of the Flower, and most of the relationships appear to be those strictly of convenience.

The book says a lot about personal relationships, but Mukoda also opens a wider window into Japanese society, where conventions are markedly different to those of the west.  There is a strict adherence to roles within the work hierarchy, something the reader sees repeatedly in the pieces here.  Examples include the traditional visits by work colleagues to the funeral in 'I Doubt It' and the rather unorthodox (to western eyes) use of a work subordinate as a chauffeur (and lackey!) in 'Triangular Chop'.

I lived in Japan for three years (many, many moons ago...), and I loved the little touches which reminded me of my time there.  Characters eat noodles, fish and rice for breakfast, newspaper agents and money collectors stroll into houses and shout out as if they're part of the family; salarymen work (and drink) so much that they never see their house in daylight (as is the case in 'The Window') - oh, and, of course, there's the casual sexism:
"At last Makiko had heard what she was waiting for.  The real reason Makiko had decided to marry Tatsuo was her age - she was twenty-four." (p.102, 'Triangular Chop')
Yep, women, like Christmas cakes (as the story goes), are no good after the twenty-fifth... At this point, my female readers may like to take a deep breath and recall that these stories were written in the early 80s.  I'm sure things have changed slightly since then...

There's nothing too deep here, but The Name of the Flower is full of great sketches exploring Japanese marriage and offering a fascinating insight into Japanese society.  Tomone Matsumoto provides an excellent, smooth translation too, something that is not as common as I'd like in J-Lit.  Anyone wanting to explore the domestic side of Japanese life will enjoy this collection a lot - arigato Bellezza :)

Thursday 25 July 2013

'Professor Borges' by Jorge Luis Borges (Review)

After my recent experience with Fictions, I was keen to try more of Jorge Luis Borges' work (and I actually had a library copy of The Aleph sitting on my shelves).  However, while browsing the New Directions web-site recently, I saw a new book by the Argentinian legend, an intriguing piece of non-fiction - and thought it might be interesting to see what the maestro thinks about our literary history...

Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (edited by Martín Arias and Martín Hadis, translated by Katherine Silver - review PDF courtesy of the publisher) does exactly what it says on the cover.  Borges spent many years as a lecturer at the University of Buenos Aires, and this book brings together a series of lectures he held from one semester back in 1966.  The twenty-five chapters (or lessons!) provide the reader with a trip through time and English literature - Borges style.

We start with Anglo-Saxon poetry, looking at the differences in style between Beowulf and other historic texts, before jumping to the middle ages.  There's a (very) brief look at the Victorian novelists, especially Dickens, before ending with the romantic poets.  There is a lot on poetry...  Strangely, Shakespeare is mentioned only in passing (if frequently), and while George Eliot, Austen and the Brontës are absent, there's a whole lesson on Robert Louis Stevenson.

Borges has an idiosyncratic style, and his choices certainly reflect that.  In addition to the heavy focus on poetry, he also spends a long time looking at Anglo-Saxon literature, an era you'd expect to fill one or two sessions, not seven.  His lectures are not your usual meticulously planned talks, more a kind of informal, digression-filled ramble through literary history.  His goal seems to be less to deconstruct texts but to kindle interest in his students by discussing the history of the pieces and the lives of the writers. 

Of course, it's all done with a slight Spanish slant.  Barely a session goes by without a mention of Cervantes or Don Quixote (or both), and even in the sessions on Beowulf, Borges is able to find an Hispanic connection through the involvement of the Geats (Spanish relatives of the Goths).  When he says...
"Hence all descendants of the Spaniards would be relatives of Beowulf"
p.10 (New Directions, 2013)
...you might think he's exaggerating a little though ;)

Above all, Borges has an interest in the characters of the writers he discusses, the people, not the author.  He spends a lot of time talking about Samuel Johnson, using Boswell's biography of the great man to paint a humorous warts-and-all picture (he even describes the Johnson-Boswell pairing as comparable to that of Quixote and his trusty sidekick Sancho Panza...).  Another figure to receive this treatment is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom Borges brings across as a somewhat lazy genius...

It's true that the book is just a transcript of off-the-cuff lectures, but it is amazing how he expounds and digresses, but manages to stay (mostly) on topic.  Borges is erudite, with an incredibly wide historical and literary knowledge - and, let us not forget, it's all from memory.  At this point of his life he was virtually blind:
"And now let us read some of Rossetti's work.  We are going to begin with this sonnet I spoke to you about, "Nuptial Sleep."  I do not remember all the details, but I do remember the plot." (p.187)
As a piece of writing, you won't find it particularly impressive - and that's because it's not writing...

It is inspiring though.  I frequently zipped off to the computer to look up the writers and works name-checked (Rossetti, Blake, Morris), often reading the poems mentioned before returning to the book.  One interesting find was Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book, a long poem dealing with ten views of the same crime, a work Borges mentioned in the same breath as Kurusawa's film Rashomon (adapted from two stories by Akutagawa).  Yep, erudite ;)

While I enjoyed this book greatly, not everyone agrees.  A Guardian review I saw really didn't like it, and had several reasons for criticising it.  The first was that this is not something Borges would ever have wanted published himself, and that's a hard point to argue with.  Then again, this is merely a translation of the Spanish-language original, so I think we can probably side-step that objection.

The second point was that this is just a standard series of university lectures and that there's nothing here a university student wouldn't have come across before.  That may be true to an extent, but for readers like myself, without a university background in literature, it does throw up new writers and works - plus there is the unique Borgesian slant...

The final point is that the lectures are dull and lacking in humour, and that's one I'd have to disagree with.  It's not obvious, but a subtle, dry humour pervades Professor Borges (perhaps easily missed if you don't read the book carefully enough...), and what appears to be dry conjecture could also be read as sly mockery:
"Johnson had a peculiar temperament.  For a time he was extremely interested in the subject of ghosts.  He was so interested in it that he spent several nights in an abandoned house to see if he could meet one.  Apparently, he didn't." (p.84)
All in all then, Professor Borges is a book worth having a look at, especially for those obsessed with all things Borgesian.  In fact, even the introduction explaining how the book came about is a fascinating one.  You see, we owe these pages to the unnamed students who recorded the lectures (on cassettes!) for lazy friends, and later transcribed them.  All good and well, except for the fact that these were university undergraduates working in a foreign language - which means that the transcripts were full of errors and, at times, illegible.

With the original tapes long reused, scholars had to reconstruct the original lectures from the half-baked second-hand copies the students had produced, leaving us with a sparkling, possibly imaginary, series of lectures which may or may not have happened this way (Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius...).  So did these lectures really exist?  Just as was the case (as Borges tells us) with Samuel Johnson, whose witty conversations were remembered and written down after the fact, we'll never really know the truth...

Tuesday 23 July 2013

'An einem Tag wie diesem' ('On a Day Like This') by Peter Stamm (Review)

Recently, I've been neglecting my German-language reading, so I decided it was time to take a break from my review copies and library Spanish-language literature education, and pick up a book from my shelves.  It's by a writer whose work I've enjoyed before - and it's a nice, easy read too...

Peter Stamm's An einem Tag wie diesem (On a Day Like This) is the story of Andreas, a Swiss forty-something teaching German in Paris.  He's lived in France for almost twenty years, and his life is in a rut.  He's never been married, has lived in the same, small apartment for a decade and meets two regular girlfriends for no-strings attached sex on a regular basis.

Events, however, conspire to shake up his routine life in a way he couldn't have expected.  A graded reader he is considering for his class, about a holiday romance, reminds him of his encounter with Fabienne, a French au-pair, back in his home village.  Then a visit to the doctor to investigate a nasty cough leads him to face up to the fact that he's not getting any younger.  Throw in an encounter with Delphine, a young trainee teacher, and Andreas' world is in a bit of a spin.  It's time for him to take a trip into his past...

As I've mentioned before, Stamm's style is deceptively simple, and I'm sure that the (kitschy) graded reader is a bit of a nod to this:
"Die Geschichte war unglaubwürdig und schlecht geschrieben, aber sie hatte verblüffende Parallelen zu Andreas' Geschichte.  Auch er war Fabienne nachgereist, allerdings erst nach zwei jahren.  Sie hatten sich während der ganzen Zeit geschrieben.  Andreas hatte den Kuss am Weiher nie erwähnt, aber seine Briefe waren voller Andeutungen gewesen.  Fabienne musste gemerkt haben, was er für sie empfand."
p.29 (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011)

"The story was unbelievable and badly written, but there were startling parallels to Andreas' story.  He had also followed Fabienne, albeit two years later.  They had written to each other the whole time.  Andreas had never brought up the kiss by the pond, but his letters were full of hints about it.  Fabienne must have noticed what he felt for her." ***
At this stage of the story, the unwary reader might be tempted to say that Stamm's book is little better than the one Andreas is flicking through.  The Swiss writer's simple style always has a sting in the tail though; the story unfolds slowly and carefully, becoming more complex as it progresses.

It's a tale of nostalgia, and a warning of the dangers of revisiting the past.  Andreas begins to obsess about his youth, recalling his brief encounter with Fabienne and his return home for his father's funeral.  Even an old postcard is enough to have him remembering the old days, an idealised image of what was - and what could have been.  Gradually, he decides that the reason for the standstill in his life is partly his feeling of having missed his chance for love with Fabienne.

His actions later in the book though are to prove that nostalgia isn't all it's cracked up to be - you can't cross the same river twice (although at one point, he does, literally, and there's nothing on the other side of the bridge...).  Which is not to say that this justifies the path he took instead, far from it.  It's obvious that Andreas' life needs an impetus, and one has just come along in the shape of Delphine.  Will he realise this though?

One thing Stamm excels at is writing real people, people you can imagine meeting and talking to, flawed people, not types.  Andreas, like other Stamm heroes, is, well, a bit of a prick at times:
     >>Du bist ein Schwein<<, sagte Nadja mit vollkommen kalter Stimme.
     >>Ich werde dich vermissen<<, sagte Andreas.  >>Man kann so schön allein sein mit dir.<<
     >>Du bist allein, egal mit wem du zusammen bist<<, sagte Nadja. (p.84)

"You're a pig", said Nadja in a cold voice.
"I'll miss you", said Andreas.  "You can really be alone with you."
"You're alone no matter who you're with", said Nadja.***
Every time we start to try to empathise with him, he does something selfish and stupid, whether it's abandoning girlfriends in the cruellest possible way, or flirting with his best friend's wife after the two of them have just had a fight.  He treats women coldly and uses people when it suits him, and this effective characterisation, despite the simple language and plot, constantly throws the reader off balance.

I keep coming back to this idea of simple language simply because it is, well, simple.  Anyone wanting to read something literary in German would be well advised to try Stamm as a starting point.  He uses very spare prose, but the clear language somehow veils deeper ideas.  One linguistic feature I noted was an interesting use of the subjunctive for indirect speech (rather than using direct speech) at times.  It has the effect of distancing the reader (and often Andreas) from the other characters, enhancing the feeling of solitude Andreas already brings with him...

On a Day Like This is a great story of revisiting the past in order to get your future moving, and one I'm sure most people would enjoy.  I have a couple more from Stamm to come - I already had Wir Fliegen (We're Flying), a collection of short stories, on my shelves, and on finishing this book, I immediately bought his first novel(lla), Agnes, too.  Stamm was nominated for the Mann Booker International Prize this year, and I'm sure he'll pop up on more short- and longlists in the future.  This is a writer you'll definitely hear more about - even if it's only on my blog :)

***All translations into English are my own sorry attempts :)

Sunday 21 July 2013

Something a Little Different...

While the vast majority of my blog posts over the past few years have been straight-forward, semi-analytical reviews, I have been known on occasion to break out of that mould and come up with something a little different.  Some of these posts have actually been a lot more popular than the normal fare, and a few of them are also amongst my personal favourites.  As I thought it was a shame that these posts had disappeared from the consciousness of the blogosphere, I thought it might be nice to collect them here on one page, so you can just follow the links to revisit them.  Peruse, enjoy, ignore - it's entirely up to you ;)

Part One - Odd Reviews

An oddity for its language, not its style, is my review of F.C. Delius' Der Sonntag, an dem ich Weltmeister wurde.  It deserves a mention here as it's the only review I've ever written in German...

A while back, I got lost in Mrs. Dalloway on my way home from the the station, and after reading The Brothers Karamazov, I posed Dostoyevsky a few tough questions.

Kafka seems to bring out the worst in me.  I became involved in the bureaucratic nightmare of The Trial, had a rather rude awakening after finishing The Metamorphosis, and was inspired to write myself into a three-act adaptation of The Castle (Act One, Act Two & Act Three) for German Literature Month 2011.

Another party I crashed was that of Vanity Fair, but if you're looking for a guide to real classics then my dummies' guide (in verse!) to The Iliad might be more to your taste.

While 1Q84 may not have been Haruki Murakami's best work, it certainly inspired me to experiment a little: my review of Book One splits off into two parallel streams; Book Two sees me interview one of the supporting characters; and Book Three explores how things may have been different if Anthony Trollope had been around to give Murakami some advice...

Some recent experiments include an attempt to get my head around Enrique Vila-Matas' Dublinesque and scattered diary entries of my attempt to scale The Magic Mountain.

Last, but certainly not least, is one of my more bizarre inventions, a literary restaurant called the Fusion Lit Bistro.  So far, I've paid three visits to my favourite bookish diner: a solo visit to try out some mixed offerings; a lunchtime trip with Kazuo Ishiguro; and a group outing with the participants of German Literature Month 2012 to celebrate the Grimm Brothers (this one ends badly...).

Update - Once again, German Literature Month had me bringing out the bus.  This time, we stopped off at 'The Blue Angel', where we had to deal with an unusual monster (with the help of a familiar fictional figure...).  Read all about it by following the links here to Part One, Part Two and Part Three :)

Back for 2014, this year's German Literature Month bus trip took to us to Vienna, where my Thomas-Bernhard-inspired post looked at some time spent at an art gallery with The Old Masters...

Part Two - Interesting Non-Review Posts

Translated fiction is one of my hobby horses, so it's no surprise that I've written a few discussion pieces on the topic. Back in 2010, I wrote about my love for German and Japanese literature, and I followed this up with a piece praising translators of J-Lit into English.

Last year, I wrote a couple of more controversial posts on the topic.  One was on novellas, a reaction to a post elsewhere which thought that nine of the best novellas ever came from the UK and the US.  The other was a plea for people to read more translated literature, one which wasn't always warmly received (see comments...).

Last year also saw my piece on the dilemma of criticising books received as review copies, while an earlier post took a more light-hearted look at the problems book lovers face when visiting the library ;)

Anyone for literary adaptations on television?  Check out my posts (Part One & Part Two) of my experiences watching some Victorian classics brought to life on the small screen...

For those of you interested in travel, I've written a couple of posts on places I've lived in - with literary connections, of course.  Before reading Helen Humphrey's Coventry, I introduced the main attraction of my hometown, and I also examined the KinKi (Kansai) area of Japan, the setting for Tanizaki's novel The Makioka Sisters.

And here's some Sumo - just because :)

I'll be adding to this page if and when more posts are deemed worthy of joining the collection - keep an eye out for more potty posts :)

Thursday 18 July 2013

'Varamo' by César Aira (Review)

Today's review is of another of my lucky Latin library choices, and it's by César Aira, a writer I first heard of during Trevor's podcast chat with Tara about the BTBA shortlist.  He immediately sounded like a writer I should check out, although I knew nothing about him or his writing.  After my first try at his work though, I'm still not completely sure I'm any the wiser...

Varamo (translated by Chris Andrews) tells you all you need to know in the first paragraph:
"One day in 1923, in the city of Colón (Panama), a third-class clerk, having finished work, and since it was payday, passed by the cashier's desk to collect his monthly salary, left the Ministry in which he was employed.  In the interval between that moment and the dawn of the following day, ten or twelve hours later, he completed the composition of a long poem, from the initial decision to write it up to the final period [full stop - ed.], after which there were no more additions or corrections."
p.1 (Giramondo Publishing, 2013)
Oh, except for the fact that the notes were forgeries - now that's a good way to start a book...

The rest of the novella, just ninety-five pages long, follows Varamo as he wrestles with the problem of the forged notes and has several rather unusual encounters.  We meet a madman who hassles passers-by, insisting that they repay imaginary debts; we are introduced to Varamo's mother, a Chinese immigrant (so small she only comes up to her son's waist) who speaks nothing but Cantonese.  Later, we stroll towards a bar, only to have our outing interrupted by a crash which may, or may not, be an assassination attempt on a government minister.  Somehow, this all conspires to make Varamo a poet...

It's a bizarre little book, a story of one humble man's day, which is interrupted in the middle for the writer to insist on the factual nature of the story, before events go on to become more and more outlandish.  By parts Kafkaesque, with a bureaucrat who encounters bizarre situations and brushes them off (only to plunge headlong into an equally-absurd situation), Varamo leaves the reader scratching their head and wondering what to make of it all.  It's interesting enough, but what it all means is anyone's guess...

Varamo himself is a great creation.  Being an average office drone, the case of the forged notes is enough to throw him off balance (of course, he never thinks of just giving them back).  A typical civil servant, by vocation he is a man of inaction, and thus unable to just do something, anything, to resolve his dilemma - at times, you think he might drive himself mad thinking about it.

Not that there's much to think about.  Varamo himself says that forgery is unknown in Panama, with no prior cases - which makes one wonder how he can be so sure that his salary was really counterfeit.  Even if it is, surely there's no need for the over-analysis the poor man goes through (even if his conclusion, that acting natural is an impossibility, is a sound one...).

Still, the subsequent encounters serve to propel him to great heights, and there's even a hint that the night's events may have a romantic ending for the fifty-something bachelor.  Perhaps Varamo is a story of how unexpected occurrences can inspire people to climb out of their comfortable rut and find a better life for themselves.  Certainly, it's hard to imagine that our hapless hero will go about life unchanged after the public holiday is over.

Whether it's a book about the nature of the poet, the strange way coincidences occur, or simply why goldfish can't play the piano, Varamo is a great way to while away an hour.  I'm just not sure it's a book I'll remember for a long time.  There's a meaning in there somewhere, but where...
" Her shouting was completely incomprehensible, of course, and yet it was perfectly clear.  The different forms that madness and senility can take all have a common effect, which is to bring intentions to the surface, and it is with intentions that understanding begins and ends." (p.29)
Just like the book ;)

P.S. As my library consortium had nothing by Aira, I requested this on an Inter-Library loan, and (knowing that his works are short) I actually requested The Literary Conference too, hoping to do a joint review of the two books.  Sadly, that didn't pan out; you see, the library corporation I requested it from decided not to give it to me.  Why?  No idea.  It's not important, but I thought, in the manner of Aira, I'd let you know about that little detail.  I'm sure there's a moral in there somewhere...

Tuesday 16 July 2013

'Three Strong Women' by Marie NDiaye (Review)

Today's post features a book I've been meaning to get to for a while now.  The writer was nominated for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, and this particular work won the Goncourt Prize 2009 (although it seems to have passed the IFFP judges by...).  What's more, it's a great read - which is, of course, the main thing :)

Marie NDiaye's Three Strong Women (translated by John Fletcher, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) consists of three novella-length stories, tales which are very loosely connected (blink, and you'll miss the few connecting details).  Each tells of the fate of a woman either born in Africa, or with an African parent, and the stories look at the uneasy balance the women have to strike to make a success of their lives.

The centre of the first story is Norah, a successful French lawyer, who visits her father (against her better judgement) after his repeated pleas.  However, the 'strong' woman has trouble preventing a return to her role of the submissive daughter when she sees her father again.  Despite the success she has made of her life, her father still believes he can order her around and leave her in the dark about his real reasons for summoning her to Africa.

Norah's struggles with her father are mirrored by those in her relationship with Jakob, a rugged German freeloader she has fallen for.  Her desire for order, a defence against the chaos of her early life, is in danger of being swept away by her handsome lover's charm:
"Not that there was anything that could objectively be considered dangerous in leaving the girls in Jakob's care, but she was concerned that the values of discipline, frugality and lofty morality which, it seemed to her, she had established in her little flat and which were meant to represent and adorn her own life and form the basis of Lucie's upbringing, were being demolished in her absence with cold, methodical jubilation by a man."
pp.20/1 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
Regretting her decision to answer her father's call, she wants to return to her Parisian world, but is forced to stay when she finds out exactly why she has been summoned - to help her brother, Sony...

In the second story, our strong woman is Fanta, a former teacher from Senegal, now living in France.  However, the action is narrated by her husband Rudy, a most messed-up individual.  In the longest of the three stories, NDiaye uses the flawed husband to speak for the wife and gives us a psychological insight into the thoughts of a mediocre nonentity:
"He hung up, downcast, exhausted and feeling stunned, as if - emerging from a long, melancholy, agonising dream - he had to adjust his consciousness to the ambient reality, a reality which for him, he thought, was frequently just an interminable, unchanging, cold nightmare; it seemed to him that he moved from one dream to another without ever finding the exit, an awakening which he modestly saw as putting in order, as organising rationally, the scattered elements of his existence." (p.108)
Poor Rudy, haunted by his failures at work, and the fear of losing his wife, is sleepwalking through his days, unable to turn his life around.

Gradually, we learn why he is the way he is, and (naturally) it all began in Africa.  The seeds for the disintegration of his relationship with his wife, and the strangely unloving bond he has with his son, were sown in one incident back in Senegal; the story here is merely the culmination of the consequences set in motion by that event.  This middle story is a book in its own right, a powerful novella with an open, ambiguous ending.

The third story is, in some ways, more straight-forward, but it is infinitely more harrowing.  Khady, a young woman living with her dead husband's family, is kicked out after the in-laws' limited patience finally wears thin.  She's taken on a journey, but she has no idea where she's going or why.  She has little interest in her fate, following her guide, comfortably numb - but that only gets you so far...

It's a story of an uneducated, disadvantaged woman, one in which she struggles to adapt and learn from (bad) experiences.  Through theft, deceit and worse, Khady learns - the hard way - that you can't trust anyone.  It showcases the plight of women in the third world, and in many ways it's an horrific story, one in which the sympathetic reader will feel for poor Khady.  However, paradoxically, it's also a story of a 'strong' woman, where Khady takes charge of, and responsibility for, her own life...

One of the main attractions of Three Strong Women is NDiaye's style, the book consisting mainly of elegant, complex, monologues.  While the stories generally stand alone, there are a few themes which run through all three, one of which is a fascination with birds.  In Norah's story, it's her father, perched in a flame tree like an over-sized bird; in the second story, it's a buzzard which follows Rudy around, an incarnation of his guilty conscience (and Fanta's anger); in the final story, Khady is hit by the similarity of her guide to another type of bird:
"...she could tell from the absence of vibration, from a certain stagnant quality of the air around her, that the man - shepherd or jailer or protector or secret caster of evil spells - was the only one fidgeting, pacing feverishly up and down the sandy, uneven pavement, bouncing and hopping about involuntarily in his green trainers exactly like (Khady thought) the black and white crows nearby, black crows with broad white collars, whose brother he perhaps was, subtly changed into a man in order to steal Khady." (p.236)
I'll let you decide what NDiaye is trying to say with all that...

Three Strong Women features women suffocated by the love of the men around them, be they partners, sons or fathers, and in many ways, we are left wondering whether the title is meant to be serious or mocking.  The original French title was Trois femmes puissantes, which literally translated means 'three powerful women' - a title which seems even more misguided given the powerlessness of at least two of the characters.

While the title may be a little misleading, classifying the book as a novel might be even more of a struggle.  In truth, it's a collection of three novellas, connected by the theme of the struggle women face in a masculine society.  NDiaye leaves us in no doubt that, for all our progress, it's still very much a man's world.

Still, leaving aside the questions of the title and what kind of work it actually is, Three Strong Women is a very good book.  Stu had this down as one for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist, and given that even the judges were clamouring for more works by female writers, I'm not quite sure how this missed out (I hope it was submitted...).  With many more books likely to come out in English though, I'm sure that NDiaye's name will pop up on that list at some point over the next few years :)

Sunday 14 July 2013

'animalinside' and 'Diplomat, Actor, Translator, Spy' (Review)

One of the perks of blogging is that sometimes people send you stuff unexpectedly, and that's especially good when it's books in your area of interest.  Recently, Daniel Medin, from the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris was kind enough to send me a few titles from The Cahiers Series, coffee-table books for those interested in translation and translated fiction.  The books are short, elegant and visually pleasing  - and (as you'll see) the content's not bad either ;)

First today is Diplomat, Actor, Translator, Spy, a fascinating little pamphlet by French translator Bernard Turle (translated into English by Dan Gunn).  In this short work, Turle talks about his life as a translator in twenty-six short chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet.  The cahier is accompanied by photos from Gunn's childhood (which, while sounding a strange idea, works well), making for a real bilingual collaboration.

It's a fascinating insight into the day-to-day life of a translator, and the changes brought about in this field by technology.  Turle explains how the spread of the Internet has allowed for a new relationship between translator and 'translated' and discusses his growing relationship with the English language.  It's one he first describes as exciting (an escape from the realities of French) and later intrusive (an imperialistic tongue...).  He also talks about how translation can sometimes be confronting as you can't always choose what you need to translate (there's some horrible, gut-wrenching stuff out there which some poor soul has to convert from one language to another...).

For me, the best part was the fact that a French insert  of the original text was also provided, allowing me to compare (and criticise!), which just goes to show that translation is an art, one that can be discussed until the cows come home.  In fact, this is even reflected in the choice of title.  While the original title is Le traducteur-orchestre, the English title has echoes of a John Le Carré novel (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), perhaps playing on a comment Turle makes in section E (for 'Espion' or 'Espionnage'):
"Le traducteur est un espion à la solde de l'écrivain." (p.5)
"A translator is a spy whose paymaster is a writer."
 p.12 (Sylph Editions, 2013)
Now that's not a description I'd heard before...

The second of today's choices will be of particular interest to many of my readers (well, those who have a passion for fiction in translation, anyway).  animalinside (words by László Krasznahorkai, images by Max Neumann, translation by Ottilie Mulzet) is a short collaboration where the Hungarian writer reacted to the German artist's surreal pictures of a dog-like figure (as seen on the cover).  There are fourteen pictures, and for each there is one chapter, around two pages in length.

While it may sound short and trivial, it's anything but.  From the very beginning, Krasznahorkai fans will feel themselves to be in very familiar territory.  The text consists of long sentences, flowing powerful prose (that feels more like poetry).  There's a constant, dark feel to the monologues - menacing, threatening, and at the same time claustrophobic.

The focus is on a shadowy 'I', an entity which at times is trapped, constrained and frustrated:
"Every space is too tight for me.  I move around, I jump, I fling myself and yet I'm still inside that one space which is too tight for me, unbearably small, although at times it is only exactly just a bit too tight, and it is exactly then, when it is exactly just a bit too tight, that it is the most unbearable..."
Part IV, p.14 (Sylph Editions, 2012)
These ideas occur over and over again, and the repetition adds to the sense of restriction.

At other times though, the 'I' is a frightening, omnipotent force, greater than the cosmos, a being that threatens to rip you apart:
"...if one day I set out, no matter what you do it is completely hopeless, in vain do you try to resist, it will be of no use because you don't know who I am, and you don't know me, and your not knowing me protects me from your preparations, I am an invisible enemy, and you shall know very soon what invisible means, and chiefly, you will know what enemy means, because I am not just any kind of enemy, not even an enemy, but a blow that smites, that strikes down then and there and onto those exactly when, where, and onto whom it wants to..." (Part VI, p.19)
It's tempting to try and pin down just exactly who 'I' is.  Is it Death, fate, cancer, ruin?  Speculation is fun, but it's easier just to enjoy the rage and anger...

Perhaps animalinside is a work which reflects on our dull human existence, with people trapped in imaginary cages of our own making.  The 'I' comes from inside our own bodies - the seeds of our destruction are already inside us...

...and, apparently, it looks like a dog with no fore-legs ;)

The cahiers may only be forty-pages long each, but they are wonderful little books.  As well as being interesting in their own right, the texts are complemented by the images chosen, providing a wonderful reading experience.  They're well worth a look, and I'm grateful to have had the chance to check them out -  merci, Monsieur Medin ;)

Thursday 11 July 2013

'Rituals' by Cees Nooteboom (Review)

While I've made a couple of efforts for Iris' Dutch Literature events, I can't say I've read a lot from the Netherlands.  However, one writer I have tried a couple of times (with fair results) is Cees Nooteboom.  I was very happy then to get home from work one day to discover a pile of books from MacLehose Press waiting for me, three of which were by Nooteboom.

A few hours later, I only had two left to read ;)

Rituals (translated by Adrienne Dixon) was Nooteboom's first big success, and it's definitely a book which shows an accomplished writer.  The central figure is Inni Wintrop, a man about town who floats through life, sleeping around and making money through shares and art sales.  When his wife leaves him in 1963, he decides (on a whim) to hang himself - that he fails in his half-hearted suicide attempt is, as the reader will discover, strangely unsurprising.

Nooteboom then takes Inni (and the reader) ten years back in time to meet Arnold Taads, a one-eyed former Dutch downhill-skiing champion, before the story jumps to 1973, where Inni encounters Philip Taads, Arnold's son.  Despite the fact that both struggle with giving meaning to life, there isn't a lot that connects the two Taadses - except that they will both take their own lives too...

Rituals, as the name suggests, is a book about the habits and routines we develop to enable us to get through our daily life.  The writer, in his dry, idiosyncratic manner, shows us several ways of coping with our natural existential angst, perhaps posing a question as to which is the best.  We begin with Inni, and our initial stance is that his woes are wholly due to his pointless, pleasure-seeking ways:
"If he had ever had any ambition, he would have been prepared to call himself a failure, but he had none.  He regarded life as a rather odd club of which he had accidentally become a member and from which one could be expelled without reasons having to be supplied.  He had already decided to leave the club if the meetings should become all too boring."
p.19 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
However, Nooteboom is to spend the rest of the novel showing us that Inni isn't the only one struggling to make sense of it all.

The two Taadses are very different people, and despite knowing Arnold for many years, Inni never even suspects the existence of Philip until they meet.  However, their attempts to deal with life are fairly similar.  While Arnold subjugates daily life to the artificial strictures of time, allowing nothing and no one to interrupt his minutely-detailed schedule, Philip retreats into an invented world of Japanese asceticism, his interest in the culture completely divorced from its present reality.  Both believe that they can cope with life by retreating inside a bubble of their own making - both are mistaken...

Nooteboom is far from judgemental though; he is merely using his puppets to look at the different ways we while away our hours in the mortal realm.  It's easy to criticise Inni and his refusal to commit to making a lasting impression on the world, but his existence of occasional hedonism and random encounters is not the worst of the choices here.  Religion, whether Eastern or Western, doesn't appear to help any of the characters, and money, far from being a help just seems to make it more difficult to motivate yourself...

I loved the style of Rituals.  Nooteboom has a sardonic, occasionally dark, voice, one which seems to know that everything is pointless, but enjoys smirking at the futile efforts people make to convince themselves otherwise.  The sentences are very different to the elegant ones of, say, Javier Marías - they're full of jerky, confronting clauses with little flow (a very Germanic style).  The writer enjoys playing with images too, such as the idea of the sacred chalice, a kind of Holy Grail theme, one which has some rather unexpectedly gruesome consequences.  I also enjoyed his rather unusual view of a lunchtime spread:
"My God, how many ways there are to mess about with the corpses of animals.  Smoked, boiled, roasted, in aspic, blood red, black and white checkered, fatty pink, murky white, marbled, pressed, ground, sliced.  Thus death lay displayed on the blue-patterned Meissen.  Not even a whole school could have eaten all that." (p.99)
I think I'll just have some toast instead ;)

Rituals, then, is an admirable book, a seemingly slight story which makes the reader think a little harder than they might have expected to.  While it's easy to look down on Inni, and laugh at the odd habits of Arnold and Philip Taads, the truth is that we all have our rituals, and we're all just filling our time as best we can in an effort to make our stay on Earth worthwhile.  It's a book which will make each reader reflect: how do you live your life?  And (perhaps more importantly) how should you...

Tuesday 9 July 2013

'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' by Thomas Keneally (Review)

Today's post looks at the second of my review copies from Harper Collins Australia taken from the Angus & Robertson Australian Classics range.  The first, Eleanor Dark's The Timeless Land, looked at race relations after the arrival of the first fleet in 1788.  This one is set a century later, but as you'll see, little has changed...

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is one of Thomas (or Tom) Keneally's best-known works here in Australia, and it's fairly easy to see why.  It's the story of a half-caste Aborigine who wants to get on in the world, having lost faith, and patience, with the lifestyle of his family and tribe.  With some gentle encouragement from the Methodist minister on the settlement he is attached to, Jimmie decides that he needs to make an effort to succeed in life, an effort which involves leaving the traditional past behind and embracing a white future.

This is 1899 though, and while Australian federation is just around the corner, the birth of a new country does not mean a new era for race relations.  Racism is common, casual and accepted.  Aborigines are still... well, I was going to say second-class citizens, but that would be a lie.  They weren't even counted on the census until the second half of the twentieth century...

Nonetheless, Jimmie knows what he wants, and the best way to get it:
"Possession was a holy state and he had embarked upon it with the Nevilles' shovel.  The Nevilles had succeeded so well as to make Jimmie a snob.  In the mind of the true snob there are certain limited criteria to denote the value of a human existence.  Jimmie's criteria were: home, hearth, wife, land.  Those who possessed these had beatitude unchallengeable.  Other men had accidental, random life.  Nothing better."
pp.16/7 (Angus and Robertson Classics, 2013)
Unfortunately though, Jimmie is never likely to achieve his dreams, and even his marriage to a poor, young white girl is unlikely to help when his bosses continue to despise, cheat and laugh at him.  One day, Jimmie snaps - and the consequences are horrific and legendary...

While Keneally himself claims in a foreword that this is not one of his better books, it's one that has captured the imagination of readers since its publication in 1972.  The key to the story is that Jimmie, unlike his brother Mort (another of the main characters), is the product of a relationship between a white man and a native woman.  He is different both in appearance and mindset to his kin, but unable to completely escape his tribal upbringing and his responsibilities to his extended family.  Caught between two worlds, he is destined to fall into a deep void.

Of course, he is pushed towards his fate by the white men who employ him (while always looking to exploit and cheat him).  Each time Jimmie works hard, his employers' cruelty or meanness forces him to move on, an action which reinforces the stereotype of the lazy 'blackfella' who ups and leaves when he pleases.  Even his time as a police tracker is cut short by a savage, cruel event.

Even so, when we come to the turning point, and Jimmie finally takes his revenge, we are stunned.  The cover of the book makes no secret of the fact that he snaps and commits murder, but we are perhaps conditioned into finding excuses and expect his actions to be almost understandable.  They are nothing of the kind, and the book is all the better for it.  Once Jimmie has time to look back on the event, he expects to feel remorse:
"Jimmie himself still waited for the slump of spirits which could be expected after merciless Friday night.  It failed to come.  He was still in a viable balance between belief and non-belief in the dismembering he had done.  At the same time, the thorough nature of the punishment he had dealt out continued to soothe and flatter him.  Because he had been effective.  He had actually manufactured death and howling dark for people who had such pretensions of permanence.  He had cut down obelisks to white virtue." (p.101)
Instead of regretting his actions, he feels a sense of vindication...

As the great event of Federation draws ever closer though, you sense that Jimmie's time is running out along with that of the old six colonies.  His punishment will be less a noose or a bullet, than a feeling of failure and remorse for the mess he's made of other people's lives.  After spending time on the run with Jimmie and his friends, will we feel more sympathy for the murderer?  I suspect that will depend on the individual reader...

While The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a great read, it does start slowly, and the first half can be a little predictable in its lament of a poor Aborigine cheated by the nasty white man (the dated racist jibes at the English wore a little thin too...).  However, once we reach the pivotal point of the story, it turns into something more, a subtle, complex exploration of what it means to be caught between cultures in a society which is, literally, black and white.  There were no shades of grey (or light-brown) in the eyes of nineteenth-century Australians...

Oh, one last thing (and it's probably something I should have mentioned earlier).  This novel is based on a true story, and while some of the names and dates have been changed, the basic plot is the same.  There really was a Jimmie (Governor, not Blacksmith) living at the end of the nineteenth century, who married a white woman and went on a killing spree, ending up the same way as his fictional namesake.  Perhaps that makes the story even more powerful than it already is...

Sunday 7 July 2013

'A Handful of Sand' by Marinko Koščec (Review)

As you may have noticed, I'm always keen to try translated fiction from new sources, and today's review is of a book from a previously untried publisher.  Istros Books specialises in works from South-East Europe, especially the Balkans, and my first taste of their work comes from Croatia.  At first glance, it's a typical love story, a novel describing how two people find each other.  However, it doesn't quite end that way...

Marinko Koščec's A Handful of Sand (translated by Will Firth, e-copy from publisher) is a novel written in two alternating monologues.  One is from the perspective of a man while the other tells a story from a woman's point of view.  While there are no names to give you any clues, the sections are handily printed in different fonts.  The man lives in Canada, the woman in Zagreb, but we sense from the start that there must be a connection between them - one we'll have to wait for.

Through these rambling monologues, we gradually learn about their lives.  The two are of a similar age and grew up in a country which exploded into pieces, leaving them resident in the new (old) country of Croatia.  Both have difficulties to overcome, involving a missing parent, finding love and working out what it is they want to do with their lives.  Then they meet...

A Handful of Sand is an intriguing 'he says, she says' story about a relationship decades in the making, but one which may not last much beyond the initial spark.  It also provides a brief insight into the last few decades of Croatian history, but don't worry - this is not another war novel.  The conflict is distant, and the mentions of it are fleeting.  For the writer, his characters' personal growth is far more important.

Nevertheless, it is far from being a sunny, happy book.  Both of our narrators struggle through their youth, with the man in particular obsessed from an early age with the darker side of life.  He describes how a friend used to talk about death:
"He could discuss death endlessly.  These were actually dialogues with himself, because I had nothing to say on the topic.  Death is something certain and eternal, everywhere and at all times; it's damn hard to forget that but even today I don't have anything to add.  Maybe he came to me with his endless monologues because no one else took him seriously; but how can you dismiss someone when they show so much passion, when they only seem really alive when talking about death?"
p.23 (Istros Books, 2013)
He may claim that he has little to say on the subject, but it's one which is never far from the surface.

The woman is an artist (we later learn that she's become a fairly successful one too), but her life has had its own ups and downs.  From the death of her mother to her struggle to gain acceptance for her work, she tries to balance her desires with the needs of her possibly crippled, possibly hypochondriac, father.  She's also looking for someone to share her life, but she just can't find the right person...

Of course, from the start, the whole book is heading towards the inevitable meeting:
"You were standing next to one of the originals effectively hung on the walls, with your arms folded, supporting your chin in the palm of your hand, and with a cigarette between your fingers.  All at once I was standing on a narrow sliver of ground, everything else fell into an indefinite, mute whiteness, except for that figure, seemingly just a few steps away, which stepped forth from a gracious heavenly hand and switched off the world around her." (p.168)
The two fall headlong into a passionate affair, one with sizzling chemistry.  This is no fairy tale, though - the story doesn't stop at that point and make claims for happily-ever-after.  The real story is what happens afterwards, a look at the consequences when two damaged people collide...

There's a lot of good writing in A Handful of Sand, and there is also some very funny, dark humour in parts.  The man is a literary editor, and his description of the chaotic life of a Zagreb publisher is both insightful and amusing (the anecdote about the doomed visit of an alcoholic Finnish writer is a highlight here).  The woman also has her moments, at one point making a living by pumping out bulk Mediterranean landscapes for ignorant tourists.  However, on the whole, it's a dark and foreboding novel, and the last fifty pages proves those premonitions correct.  The final part of the book is compelling, disturbing and slightly surreal.  Even after going back and having a second look, I'm not completely sure exactly what happened - or whether it actually took place at all...

If I were to criticise the book, I'd probably say that it was a little slow at the start.  It takes a long time to get to the meeting, and as we're pretty sure it's coming, the time drags a little.  Also, as well as being unsettling and confusing, some scenes towards the end of the book are actually a little upsetting - consider yourself warned ;)

Overall, though, A Handful of Sand is an interesting story of how a relationship is seen differently through two sets of eyes.  The moral, if there is one, is that of making time count, with several images throughout the novel of sand slipping through fingers.  When you find the right person, you need to act fast - every grain counts...

Thursday 4 July 2013

'Distant Star' by Roberto Bolaño (Review)

After enjoying The Savage Detectives recently, I was keen to try more of Roberto Bolaño's work (preferably something a little shorter, to begin with).  Of course, my wonderful library was able to come to my aid, presenting me with several choices.  In the end though, one stood out - mainly because of its connection with Bolaño's longer novel...

Distant Star (translated by Chris Andrews) is an early Bolaño novella, but one that immediately evokes tones of The Savage Detectives.  The story begins in Chile in the early seventies, where our young narrator (Arturo B., whom many of you will recognise as Arturo Belano, the shadowy figure at the centre of The Savage Detectives) attends poetry workshops with his wonderfully-named friend, Bibiano O'Ryan.  At one of these gatherings, they first encounter Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, an enigmatic, handsome poet, who makes an impression on the few beautiful women in attendance.

However, Alberto is not what he seems.  Turbulent times are ahead for Chile, and Alberto (or his alter-ego, Carlos Wieder) will be in the thick of them.  A military coup ousts the government, and anyone considered a leftist dissident, including many of Belano's poet friends, is in big trouble.  Years later, Belano and O'Ryan still think of Wieder and their lost friends, but they're not the only ones.  That's right - it's another hunt for a lost poet...

Already, after reading just two works from Bolaño's back catalogue, it's clear that this is a writer whose books form a whole oeuvre, an interconnected series of writings which need to read as a whole, rather than individually.  While The Savage Detectives looked at Belano's life in Mexico, and the events that unfolded as a consequence, Distant Star takes you back to his home country to show us the poet-wanderer's beginnings.  When he talks, later in the book, about his time in Paris and Barcelona, it brings back flashes of scenes from The Savage Detectives, adding to the richness of the story.

While Belano narrates this story though, the main focus is on Carlos Wieder, a very nasty piece of work.  By hanging out in the leftist poet scene, he discovers who the big names are, and when the coup comes, he decides to act (possibly without authority).  He then disappears, only to reemerge as a poet with a difference - one who (as shown on the cover of the book) writes his poems, and manifesto, across the sky:
"This time it wrote only one word, in larger letters, over what must have been the center of the city: LEARN.  Then, for a moment, it seemed to hesitate and lose altitude, as if it were about to plummet into the roof of a building, as if the pilot had switched off the motor and were giving us a practical demonstration, a first example from which to learn.  But only for a moment, the time it took for night and wind to blur the letters of the last word.  Then the plane vanished."
p.29 (New Directions, 2004)

Feted by the military and the common people alike, Wieder gets bolder and bolder, using his popularity to experiment with his flying and his art.  One day, however, he overreaches, and people get to see his true face.  He produces a small photographic exhibition, one which is too much even for the unscrupulous regime he works for:
"Less than a minute after going in, Tatiana von Beck emerged from the room.  She was pale and shaken - everyone noticed.  She stared at Wieder as if she were going to say something to him but couldn't find the word.  Then she tried to get to the bathroom, unsuccessfully.  After vomiting in the passage, Miss von Beck staggered to the front door with the help of an officer who gallantly offered to take her home, although she kept saying she would prefer to go alone." (pp.86/7)
What was in the room?  Something rather... unpleasant.  Still, it'll take a lot to bring a man like this to justice...

Distant Star is a quick and easy read, another dazzling display of meta-fiction and reality-blurring quasi-biographical writing.  Again, the Borgesian inheritance is palpable, with hosts of poets and publications - some real, some invented - littering the pages.  To add another layer to the meta-fictional qualities, Distant Star is actually an expansion (and rewriting) of the final twenty pages of an earlier work, Nazi Literature in the Americas.  In fact, the first page of Distant Star has Bolaño explaining how Belano (his alter-ego) was unsatisfied with the first, brief attempt, and insisted on dictating the real story to the author.  Got that?

As interesting as it is to learn more about Belano though, the book is more about the events in his homeland, and the way in which monsters like Wieder were able to take advantage of political events to satisfy their lusts and desires.  Early in the book, O'Ryan looks at Wieder's name, analysing the etymology and coming up with variants involving 'wieder' (again) and the related word 'wider' (against).  One he doesn't mention is the one which is most apt, 'widerlich'.  It's a word which can mean (amongst other things) obnoxious, repellent, disgusting and gross.  While the flying poet may appear suave and noble, his soul is most definitely widerlich...

Distant Star is not a patch on The Savage Detectives, but that's not really the point.  It's a great, quick read and a story which shades in more of Bolaño's fictional canvas, showing the elusive Belano in a new light.  I'll certainly be going back for more - I suppose I should really check out Nazi Literature in the Americas and see how the story originally looked.  I suspect that I'll find the signpost to the next choice there as well ;)