Tuesday 31 December 2013

The 2013 Tony's Reading List Awards

Welcome one and all to the post you've all been waiting for, the culmination of a year's reading and reviewing - The Tony's Reading List Awards for 2013!  For the fifth year in a row, I'm summing up a year of literary delights, praising the good, mocking the bad, and consigning the ugly to the great remainder basket in the sky.

So, without further ado, let's get started...

As always, the first prize is the Most-Read Author Award, and as I need to have read three books by the same author in the year, the shortlist is, well, pretty short...

Aira is a writer I first encountered this year, and he takes out the award straight away - well done, sir :)

There were a lot of writers stuck on two books (including perpetual winner Anthony Trollope), but only these three made it past that mark.  It's also worth noting that the four books I read by the winner probably only comprised 400 pages in total...

Next up, it's the Most-Read Country Award - which country have I visited most in my literary travels this year?

1) Japan (26)
2) Argentina (11)
3) Germany (8)
4) France (6)

No contest this year - Japan takes the prize, hands down :)  I wouldn't have expected Argentina to be up there, but with Aira and Borges high on my reading agenda, I suppose it was inevitable.  Surprisingly, England fails to even make the list, being one of several countries on five books.

If we look at the annual statistics for English-language books versus the rest of the world, my focus on literature in translation becomes very clear.  Of the 130 books I read, only 13 were originally published in English, meaning that an amazing 117 (of which I read 22 in the original language) were originally written in a language other than English. 

That's exactly 90% - wow...

The third award tonight is the one which most people enjoy - yes, it's time to dish out the drumsticks and find out who has won the Golden Turkey Award this year!  And the nominees are...

And the winner is... Rustic Baroque!  Why?  Well, firstly I have to apologise to Jiří Hájíček as I quite enjoyed his book.  Sadly, I felt that Gale A. Kirking's translation really let down an interesting story...

But enough of the dross - it's time to get on with the big one, namely the Book of the Year Award!  As has been the case for a couple of years now, I have nominated a great read in each of my monthly wrap-ups, and these are the books that have fought their way through to my annual longlist (links are to my reviews).  It's a harsh system, but I'm a harsh man...

January - The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata (Japan)
February - War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Russia)
March - The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker (Netherlands)
April - Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman (Australia)
May - A Heart so White by Javier Marías (Spain)
June - Stone upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski (Poland)
July - Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye (France)
August - The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (Germany)
September - The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland)
October - The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (Italy)
November - Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard (Austria)
December - Blinding: The Left Wing by Mircea Cărtărescu (Romania)

I'm sure you'll agree - that is a great list of books :)  Where do they come from?  Well, interestingly this year's final dozen come from twelve different countries and were written in eleven different languages (two were written in German).  Only one Anglophone book among this bunch...

And what's a shortlist without a longlist?  Nothing, that's what ;)  Here, then, are the cream of the crop for this year...

War and Peace
Seven Types of Ambiguity
A Heart so White
The Magic Mountain
The Sorrow of Angels

At which point, the many sides of my persona fought it out behind the locked doors of my self-conscious, only emerging (bruised and bleeding...) when a winner had been chosen.  And here it is - the Tony's Reading List Book of the Year for 2013 is (highlight below to see the winner):

War and Peace

I was tempted to go for one of the newer novels, but sometimes you just have to admit that a book is a classic for a reason - and Tolstoy's epic is nothing if not a classic :)

And that's it - year five on the blog is complete :)  Thanks to everyone who has read or commented on my posts this year...

...but stay tuned for January in Japan!

Sunday 29 December 2013

'The American Senator' by Anthony Trollope (Review)

With all the Trollope novels I've read, it's hard to imagine a year without a few, but 2013 had only seen one up to now (The Way We Live Now).  Well, until today, that is.  This review is looking at one of the Oxford World's Classics I won in a competition a while back, another two-volume monster from the master of the Victorian potboiler.  The difference is though that this one has an American touch...
The American Senator starts off in a small village in England.  It's the perfect scene for a Trollope novel, with the usual ingredients of fox-hunting, strife and romance in abundance.  Into the village comes Elias Gotobed, an American senator who wants to find out all about British life (mainly so that he can ridicule it...), and Dillsborough seems as good a place as any for the job.

A second outsider is also on the way to the village though, the intriguing Lady Arabella Trefoil.  She is engaged to marry John Morton, a local landowner who works for the foreign office, and is travelling to the provinces to see her fiancé's family seat before the marriage.  Morton is a good catch, but not quite good enough for the ambitious Arabella.  Lord Rufford, a local neighbour, is richer - and so Arabella decides to set her sights higher...

It all makes for a (stereo)typical Trollope novel, with a controversy involving a court case and a poisoned fox to hang his story on, and there's even the obligatory soppy romance.  We have the perfect, ladylike heroine (Mary Masters) and her deserving gentleman (Reginald Morton) taking five-hundred-odd pages to get to their inevitable happiness in a relationship which is predictable to the extreme, Trollope by numbers.  There's also a slow and impenetrable start to the book, and it all takes a good while to get going.

These usual elements are merely the background to the main stories though.  Gotobed, an American abroad, is a creation who allows Victorian readers to see the peculiarities of their society (and there are many) through foreign eyes:
"I shall be delighted to see any institution of this great country," said Mr. Gotobed, "however much opposed it may be to my opinion either of utility or rational recreation."
p.53 (Oxford World's Classics, 2008)
The good senator won't take a backward step and leaves many a feather ruffled in his honest quest to work out exactly why Englishmen talk and act as they do.  This all culminates in the public talk he gives in London - which is rather a rather heated affair...

In truth, the novel is all about Arabella though, another of Trollope's great characters.  She's a woman who hunts her husband (one of Trollope's pet hates), and she's very good at her game.  Tempted by Rufford's riches, she nevertheless tries to keep Morton hanging, just in case things go wrong in her new affair.  It's a delicate game she plays, but she has a lot of experience...

She's also very good at it, as she should be seeing as it's her life's 'work'.  However, like any worker who's been hard at it for years, there's no room for any enjoyment in her days:
"Business to her had for many years been business, and her business had been so very hard that she had never allowed lighter things to interfere with it." (p.216)
Sadly though, Arabella isn't getting any younger, and she's sick of all the intrigues and subterfuge:
"I'll tell you what it is, mamma.  I've been at it till I'm nearly broken down.  I must settle somewhere;-or else die;-or else run away.  I can't stand this any longer, and I won't.  Talk of work,-men's work!  What man ever has to work as I do?" (p.85)
This is it then, all or nothing.  Arabella is going to get herself a man, whether he's rich and landed or not...

Trollope paints a nuanced portrait of his anti-heroine, or at least as nuanced as his Victorian morals will allow.  Yes, Arabella is bad, but not all bad.  She has doubts about her way of life, and she knows she is mistreating John Morton - indeed, several incidents in their stormy relationship show that she has retained some sense of character.  In a book padded out with the usual stock personages, the lady is easily the strongest and most well-rounded character.

Overall, The American Senator, while interesting, is not one of Trollope's best.  Like The Prime Minister, for example, it's a case of one overarching novel with several ill-fitting plots crammed together.  Gotobed, despite the scholarly claims of the introduction, never really fits into the story, even if his observations are acute at times.  I would have loved to see a shorter novel focused on him, one which fleshes him out a little more (he's a bit one dimensional at times here).  In the few pages allocated to him in this book, he gets a little lost...

Still, a Trollope novel is always a comfort, and Arabella makes it all worthwhile in the end.  Like all the best seductive 'heroines', she steals the show, and you secretly hope she gets away with it.  For all the soppy heroines and big-chinned heroes, it's nice to have someone who does exactly what she wants - and Mr. T knows that as much as we do ;)

Thursday 26 December 2013

'The Devil's Workshop' by Jáchym Topol (Review)

'Tis the season for end-of-year book lists, and while there are a fair number of really awful ones doing the rounds, I have seen a few worth perusing.  Among the books on those lists, one book which keeps cropping up is Jáchym Topol's novel The Devil's Workshop (released in the UK by Portobello Books), and as luck would have it, my library has just acquired a copy (I suspect I'm the first person to read it...).  A book which comes highly recommended then - but does it live up to the hype?

The Devil's Workshop (translated by Alex Zucker) starts off with a man in a ditch, hiding from the police and running away from a city in flames (which is always an interesting way to start a novel).  Before too long, we're taken back a little to learn how he got there, ending up in the Czech town of Terezín, the site of a Nazi-era prison, the last stop before the concentration camps.

The authorities want to 'sanitise' the town, focusing the tourist industry on a small portion of Terezín, but a group of outsiders and 'death tourists' hope to keep it all as a museum.  Under the guidance of Lebo, a man born in the prison, they appeal to the outside world for help, using the narrator's computer skills to run a worldwide fundraising campaign.  Although they are initially successful, by the time Alex and Maruška arrive, the writing is on the wall for the project.  However, the two latecomers approach the narrator with an offer of similar work in their home country - and off we go to Belarus...

The Devil's Workshop is a fairly short book, but a lot happens in the space of its 160 pages.  It's a novel which draws the reader's attention to what happened in the Second World War before moving on to later atrocities; while Terezín is fairly well known (especially to anyone who has read Sebald's Austerlitz...), events that took place in Belarus are less understood.  Topol uses the structure of his book, a story in two halves, to compare and contrast the two events, creating some very clever, effective parallels.

The first half concentrates on Terezín and the 'bunk seekers', young people driven mad by their inability to understand how the Holocaust could have happened:
"Ordinary tourists strolled through Terezín like it was a medieval castle, taking snapshots, shooting videos of the dungeons and torture chambers to show the family afterwards.  The bunk seekers would never even think of such a thing.  They showed up here crazed with pain, seized by the eternal question every seeker asked:  If it happened here, can it happen again?"
p.32 (Portobello Books, 2013)
These shattered young people are only too willing to help create a Holocaust tourist industry, one underwritten by rich sympathisers, in an attempt to come to terms with the past.  Sadly though, we also get glimpses of a fascist present when the narrator witnesses the 'Patriot Guards' chasing ethnic kids through the streets of Prague (plus ça change...).

It's only when we get to Belarus that we see things in context - the second half is suddenly much darker.  Once again, we're on the run, but everything here is bigger, worse, scarier.  There are uprisings in the streets, government crack-downs, guns and knives - the people fill the enormous boulevards, filling the poor Czech narrator with fear.  The events back in Terezín now look like a provincial squabble...

It's only here that we get the true idea behind the book.  Angered by the success of memorial sites further west, Alex, Maruška and their leader, Kagan, are determined to spread the message about the massacres in Soviet-era Belarus, a Holocaust which nobody knows about.  Terezín and Auschwitz are famous - why shouldn't Khatyn join the list?  Alex reveals the plan - a museum:
"Museum, I say, looking around.  What museum?  Besides the mannequins there's nothing but crates.  Crates full of specimens.
  The museum we're building in Khatyn, Alex says.  It's going to be the most famous memorial site in the world.  The devil had his workshop here in Belarus.  The deepest graves are in Belarus.  But nobody knows about them.  That's why you're here!" (p.107)
This is no grey building filled with maps and pottery though - it's set to be a 'museum' which makes the Terezín efforts look like a kindergarten display...

The Devil's Workshop is a great, quick read, a novel which is very much action-driven, keeping the narrator (and the reader) constantly on the move.  The book is very cleverly plotted, with two parallel halves, the second being a monstrous, deformed version of the first.  The only drawback for me is that the writing is fairly simple.  It's a great story, full of thought-provoking ideas, but fairly ordinary prose.  That's a minor quibble though, and I suspect that this wouldn't be an issue for the majority of readers.

It won't be on my end-of-year list, but I did enjoy the book, and I suspect that most who read this will enjoy it too.  Given the success Holocaust-themed novels have had in recent years (e.g. Blooms of Darkness, Trieste), there's a good chance that this will be up there for the IFFP & BTBA awards next year too.  It's a twist on Holocaust literature, calling attention to other disasters, equally deserving of notice.  Of course, sadly it's also a reminder that persecution is not just a thing of the past...

Monday 23 December 2013

'The Seamstress and the Wind' & 'The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira' by César Aira (Review)

While New Directions have published a fair few of César Aira's books in the US, he's still not really widely known here in Australia (or in the UK) - so my library doesn't have much of his work to borrow.  Recently though, I've been very lucky, managing to obtain an inter-library loan and persuade my local branch to buy one of his books.  Which is why you have a double dose of Aira delights today :)

The Seamstress and the Wind (translated by Rosalie Knecht) starts with a writer in a Parisian café who wants to pen a story.  He already has the title (the title of the real book), but that's as far as he's got.  If only he can think of a story to go with it...

Eventually, he stumbles upon one from his childhood, a tale which starts with a friend's disappearance but quickly becomes ever more surreal.  In the course of a mad dash to Patagonia, the reader makes the acquaintance of a host of unhinged characters, with the addition of a wedding dress, some serious gambling and (of course) the wind...

While some dislike the term, 'magical realism' is the easiest (and most apt) way to describe what's going on here.  When you have a woman flung high into the air, only to land gently on her feet, an invisible lorry, a monster and a woman turning black from shock, you sense that we're no longer in Kansas (or even Buenos Aires).  That's without mentioning the appearance of an armadillo on wheels, racing across the dried-out flatlands of Patagonia...

It's not always easy to tease out the deeper ideas hidden beneath the crazy surface, but one theme Aira works on is memories and forgetting.  In his initial rambling monologue, the writer touches on these ideas, recalling(!) several mistaken memories from his childhood.  He remembers his mother being asleep when he went to bed, even though he's sure she was always up later than him, and his memory of being waken by birds turns out to be mistaken (it was his neighbour's car).

He also enjoys playing with contradictions, frequently starting sentences off only to turn back on himself before we reach the full stop:
"My parents were realistic people, enemies of fantasy.  They judged everything by work, their universal standard for measuring their fellow man.  Everything else hung on that criterion, which I inherited wholly and without question; I have always venerated work above all else; work is my god and my universal judge; but I never worked, because I never needed to, and my passion exempted me from working because of a bad conscience or a fear of what others might say."
p.23 (New Directions, 2011)
The reader needs to stay focused when reading this book.  Like the wind which makes its appearance late in the piece, Aira's story goes off in odd directions...

The Seamstress and the Wind is a great story that feels like it's being made up as the writer goes along - which, of course, is exactly what is happening, both in the story and in real life.  Anyone familiar with the great Aira 'method' will know that he's a writer that doesn't like to plan too far in advance :)

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira (translated by Katherine Silver), the second of my library delights, is a little different from the first.  The book starts with the titular faith healer wandering the streets, and after an adventure in an ambulance (one which he undergoes unwillingly), he goes back to pondering his writings on the theory of miracle cures.  One day, he is summoned to the bedside of an ailing billionaire, and, to his own surprise, agrees to test his theories for the first time...

It's very different from others I've read by Aira, a much denser piece despite its brevity.  In fact, after the first couple of sections (44 of 80 pages), I wasn't really sure if I was enjoying it; I was missing the easy-reading flow his work usually induces.  Then the 'great' doctor goes to work, and you are swept away by the energy and audaciousness of his attempt to bend the universe to his liking.  It's a battle between belief and reason, and Aira and his doctor insist that you've got to believe...

Anyone wanting specifics about the miracle cure will be disappointed as the writer is deliberately ambiguous, which fits in very well with the slippery nature of what Aira's trying to say with his book.  In fact, it's very easy to equate Dr. Aira with the writer, even without the name:
Writing was something he couldn't do in a single block, all at once.  He had to keep doing it, if at all possible, every day in order to establish a rhythm... The rhythm of publication, so checkered due to the imponderables of the material aspects, could be regularized through the installment format, which also took care of the quantity of the product and its basic tone, that of "disclosure".
p.38 (New Directions, 2012)
Hmm - an author who writes every day and brings out regular short works... Remind you of anybody?

I may be completely wrong, but it seemed to me as if Aira was equating the struggle and mystery of producing a great work of art with the art of the miracle cure (or vice-versa).  Just as in the creation of a work of fiction, the good doctor tries to bend the universe in his own fashion; more importantly, just as is the case in writing, it can all go horribly, horribly wrong.

At the end of the piece, we find ourselves asking whether the 'doctor' is a charlatan.  More importantly, perhaps, what about his creator?  Now that's not a question most writers pose about themselves...

That makes four Aira books for me over the past few months, and I'm very happy that New Directions have taken on the job of bringing Aira's *many* works into English - one 'installment' at a time.  Each of the books has had an excellent translation (Chris Andrews was responsible for both Varamo and Ghosts), and with several more translations already out there, I'm very keen to read some more.  Why not give Aira a try?  I'd definitely recommend his work.  He might turn out to be your next new favourite writer...

Thursday 19 December 2013

'Blinding' by Mircea Cărtărescu (Review)

Every so often, I read a book which almost defies reviewing, a story that goes in so many directions at once that giving an overview seems facile, childish and, quite frankly, impossible.  Today, we'll be looking at such a book, a novel which has been on many people's lips recently, one that's bound to be up there next year come the prize season for literature in translation...

I suppose I'd better give the review a go anyway, then ;)

Mircea Cărtărescu's Blinding (translated by Sean Cotter, e-copy courtesy of Archipelago Books) is a wonderful, confusing, mind-stretching work, a book which draws the reader in right from its initial childhood dream sequence.  We meet a writer who spends hours gazing at Bucharest from his bedroom window, perhaps in an attempt to work through some traumatic moments in his life:
"It was a place to attempt (as I've done continuously for the last three months) to go back where no one has, to remember what no one remembers, to understand what no person can understand: who I am, what I am."
p.122 (Archipelago Books, 2013)
Later, we revisit Mircea's childhood and spend some time in his gigantic, scary apartment building - so far, so Knausgaardian.

That is until the scope widens, and we realise that this is a book which will be taking a slightly wider look at what constitutes reality - and beyond.  There's a trip back to the nineteenth century, where frightened, drug-addled villagers witness a battle between angels and demons; a section set in Bucharest during and after the Second World War, with bombs and butterflies all around; several strange tales of people entering a vast underground cavern, returning much later to the surface, scarred by their experience; oh, and a terrifying tale of quasi-voodoo magic to round off the book, fifty pages of pure madness...

The word that comes to mind when reading Blindness is 'ambitious', and in its scope and its desire to pull the reader in several directions at once, it reminds me a little of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (there's even a birthmark).  However, where Cloud Atlas is neatly arranged with its Russian-Doll structure, Blinding is a twisted, tangled maze of echoed ideas, parallels, possible red herrings and (of course) butterflies.  The strands of the novel intertwine, disappearing and reemerging later unexpectedly.  It's also written using quite complex vocabulary - and when I say complex, I mean complex (Sean Cotter must have some really good dictionaries...).

Like Cloud Atlas, Blinding is full of parallels, most of which, no doubt, I failed to pick up.  The most obvious ones are the subterranean experiences several of the characters have, wandering through the vast underground caverns which are connected with the idea of birth and life.  There are also the two priests that appear, the brave man who summons the angels in Bulgaria, and a polyreligious, voodoo-wielding counterpart in New Orleans.  When this mysterious figure starts intoning in the final pages of the book, we are surprised to hear that the magic words he chants are very familiar to us from our travels through Bucharest...

There's also the frequent mention of asymmetry, a topic the writer obviously wants to develop further:
"And yet, we exist between the past and the future like the vermiform body of a butterfly, in between its two wings.  We use one wing to fly, because we have sent our nerve filaments out to its edges, and the other is unknown, as if we were missing an eye on that side.  But how can we fly with one wing?  Prophets, Illuminati, and heretics of symmetry foresaw what we could and must become." (p.80)
This image of the asymmetrical butterfly is mirrored several times, most prominently on the ring one of the characters wears - and in Mircea's face after his illness.  Despite the deliberate construction of some of his settings, the writer frequently returns to this idea of lop-sidedness.

There's plenty of scope for this when he shows us the people in his novel.  Cărtărescu, along with the narrator, is fascinated by anatomy, of people, machines and cities.  In Blinding, everything is a living entity, and the narrator sees the way life seethes under the surface of inanimate objects.  Bucharest is an organic city, with statues having sex in the park, trams rushing down the streets like red-blood cells through veins, while the roofs of building become transparent, showing us the pulsing brains of the city.

The narrator is obviously trying to work through something with these images, and as the novel progresses, we learn more about his personal issues, health problems which influence his view of the world.  However, it's never quite as simple as all that - even something as mundane as the massage sessions he has at the hospital suddenly turn into a new link to the shadowy, universal conspiracy which permeates the book.  And when I say universal, at times it appears as if the narrator is simply trying to understand the universe and the very nature of existence:
"A purulent night wrapped every corpuscle into being, in a dark and hopeless schizophrenia.  The universe, which was once so simple and complete, obtained organs, systems and apparatuses.  Today, it's as grotesque and fascinating as a steam engine displayed on an unused track at a museum." (p.76) 
The universe as a machine, and the city as a body - at times, Cărtărescu's ideas take some following...

While the writer's mind may at times be out in the universe, another of the themes of the book is much closer to home - his mother.  There's an obsession with Maria pervading the novel, and she enters it as a protagonist in her own right in the second part, a young country girl newly arrived in the big city.  The relationship between the two, distant, but regretfully so, is a complex one, and you suspect that the female references in the writer's musings about the universe (replete with wombs and vulvae...) are somehow linked to this obsession.

In truth, though, there's a temptation to read the book as the product of someone with a touch of a God complex.  There are many hints as to Mircea's being a second coming, such as the tattoos he finds with his face prominently displayed - and his being the son of Maria/Mary, of course.  The narrator himself states early in the book that he sees people as existing only to play minor roles in his life, creations of his mind more than real people.  Then again, perhaps that's reading too much into things; in the narrator's own words:
"Maybe, in the heart of this book, there is nothing other than howling, yellow, blinding, apocalyptic howling..." (p.338)
The book finishes with a compelling, enthralling final section, a piece I had to read in one sitting despite its length and difficulty.  This last scene is breathtaking in its ambition, but it leaves everything up in the air, with the reader left stranded:
"There was nothing to understand, yet everything cried out to be understood..." (p.109)
Yes, Mircea, that pretty much sums it up ;)

Luckily, there's a fact I've been keeping from you, namely the real title of the book.  You see, today's review was of Blinding: The Left Wing, the first part of a trilogy of novels, and I'm sure the other two books (the body and the right wing...) will reveal a lot more about Cărtărescu's bizarre inner world.  Hopefully Archipelago (and Cotter) will continue with the series - I, for one, am very keen to see how the story continues.  This year, I've read around 125 books, including many classics of translated literature: Blinding is definitely up there as one of my books of the year.  Do read it :)

Monday 16 December 2013

'Brief Loves that Live Forever' by Andreï Makine (Review)

This year I've been lucky enough to receive lots of books for review from the wonderful MacLehose Press, many of which I've managed to get to, and some of which I... well, haven't :(  The one book I repeatedly thought about trying (and never did) came highly recommended, both by those who had tried work by the author (Andreï Makine) before and those who started with this book.  Well, as you may have guessed, I did finally get around to trying it, and you know, the old saying really is true - all good things come to he who waits ;)

Brief Loves that Live Forever (translated by Geoffrey Strachan) is a beautiful little book which looks at love in a cold climate (Russia...), in particular the way that we tend to overlook our shorter moments of happiness.  Makine, through his narrator, argues that in our quest for permanent, everlasting love, we ignore the fact that a single moment of happiness can actually provide us with a lifetime of warmth, and his book takes us through several of these moments in the narrator's life.

We begin with memories of a walk through a bleak, provincial Russian city, where the narrator accompanies an acquaintance, a chronically-ill dissident, on a stroll through the windy streets.  As they stop, unexpectedly, outside a block of luxury flats, they see a beautiful, wealthy woman hurry out of an official car and into the building.  As the old man stops and stares at the woman, the narrator thinks:
"With an intensity I had never before experienced, I sensed the atrocious injustice of life, or History, or perhaps God, at all events the cruelty of this world's indifference towards a man spitting out his blood into a silk handkerchief.  A man who had never had the time to be in love."
p.21 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
The look on the elder man's face comes back to the narrator decades on and causes his mind to turn towards the past, and his own brief loves...

What follows are half-a-dozen episodes from the narrator's life, in chronological order, each describing a short moment of happiness from the past.  From the image of a beautiful crying woman encountered in his childhood, a moment which first taught him of the existence of real women, to a platonic friendship with a young woman in a drab town; from a brief, passionate summer affair by the sea (and under a political hoarding...) to a stroll through an orchard with an old friend.  Each of the moments marks an important landmark in the narrator's life, and while none of them lasted for long, all of them have made a deep impression.

It's all about now, being happy in the moment.  Striving for lasting happiness is futile, and working towards a kind of utopia (as the young narrator naively does) is foolish.  When he clumsily attempts to explain his views to one of his loves, she replies, bewildered:
"I don't understand.  All these people you want to bring happiness to in the future.  What's to stop them being happy now?  Not hating other people, not being greedy, like you said.  Not punching other people in the face, at any rate..." (p.83)
Carpe diem, indeed.  It's a very good question, and not one I can answer in a few words.  If anyone has any ideas...

What makes Brief Loves that Live Forever more than a simple tale of lost loves though is the fact that there is a parallel story running through the novel.  Makine may be telling the reader about his character's lovelife, but it's about more than that - a lot more.  Each of the stories is set against the backdrop of the political events of the time, giving us several snapshots of the Soviet society and regime.

In the first story, the young narrator sees the beautiful woman (a widow mourning her lost husband) after escaping from the 'cages' of a dismantled grandstand used for official ceremonies.  Later, forced outside by the Soviet attitude towards illicit trysts, he shelters from a storm with his summer lover - under a giant hoarding showing the frowning face of Brezhnev.  His final tale takes place in a gigantic orchard, a symbol of Communist might and planning, a mass of trees which takes four hours to walk through...

However, the regime which was meant to last forever is shown to be sluggish and unmoving, doomed to disappear.  Near the beginning of the novel, the writer talks of the symbolism of propaganda:
"Yes, existential tranquillisers, meta-physical antidepressants." (p.27)
However, as shown by the brief stay in cardboard Brezhnev's shadow, it doesn't always work.  The gigantic message across the roof of a factory complex, a symbol of eternal socialism, has crumbled into dust by the time the narrator returns to visit his friend, vanished into oblivion.  And the apple orchard?  Useless, sterile.  No bee will fly five miles to pollinate a tree...

Wait - there's more...  What really makes the book worth reading is the writing, a beautiful prose style wonderfully rendered into English by Strachan, which flows effortlessly along.  It's simple, but elegant, a joy to read, and it all makes for a book to enjoy in pieces - slowly, if possible:
"Even more than the bittersweet interrupted continuity of our brief separation, however, what intoxicates me is the floating lightness of it, the weightlessness of a misty May morning, the softly tinted transparency of the first still pale foliage." (p.118)
It's the kind of writing I enjoy, and there's a lot more of this in the novel.

I've already seen a couple of mentions of Makine's book in the various end-of-year lists, and it's very possible that it might appear on mine (although I am having a good December...).  Watch out for this one when IFFP time rolls around next year as there's a fair chance that it could make the longlist (always presuming that it's been submitted...).  The moral of the story?  Nothing lasts forever, but that's not necessarily a bad thing - enjoy the moments while you can...

...oh, and (of course) check your shelves for old books which you keep meaning to read ;)

Thursday 12 December 2013

'Beauty on Earth' by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (Review)

Today, I'm introducing yet another small press to the blog, another of those wonderful publishers who focus on fiction in translation.  Onesuch Press started out a couple of years ago, specialising in revitalising old, forgotten classics, or minor works by great writers.  The book I received for review is by a writer I hadn't heard of before, Swiss author Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz.  The main theme of the novel is a very familiar one though - beauty...

Beauty on Earth (new translation by Michelle Bailat-Jones) begins with a letter, one in which Milliquet, a Swiss café owner, learns of a rather unusual bequest.  His brother, who emigrated to Cuba, has recently died, and along with a few hundred dollars he wishes his brother to take possession of the niece.  While the dollars never eventuate, Juliette does, and her arrival is a catalyst for all kinds of events in the sleepy town.

The reason for the uproar is that the quiet Juliette, as well as being an outsider, is beautiful, strikingly so, and her appearance casts a spell on the men of the village from their very first sight of her:
"All of a sudden we stopped laughing.  We grew timid.  This was when she raised her head.  If we had started to say something, we grew quiet.  And now they no longer dared look her in the face, because it felt then like a long knitting needle entering your heart."
p.25 (Onesuch Press, 2013)
Unable to avoid the attentions of the café patrons, she escapes to live with Rouge, an elderly fisherman, in his house down by the lake.  However, if she thought this was the end of her troubles, she was sorely mistaken, for the men of the village simply can't bring themselves to leave her in peace...

It's a fascinating story, both familiar and unpredictable.  Juliette, transported from Cuba and dropped onto the shores of Lake Geneva, is an exotic element, and in such a small, traditional location, she can do nothing but disturb the status quo.  In truth, she is anything but a heart-breaker, being rather withdrawn and shy.  Initially, she locks herself in her room and prefers dark, unflashy clothing, and it must be said that her beauty is never explicitly stated - it is simply assumed from the locals' behaviour.

Nevertheless, the men are driven wild.  The customers at the café only want to be served by her, turning away Miliquet and his helpers when they dare to approach, carafe in hand.  The mayor's son, Maurice Busset, simply abandons his fiancée once he's caught sight of Juliette, just one of the hordes of men desperate to snatch her away from Rouge, jealous of his possession.  Rouge himself, while more grandfatherly in his attentions, eventually becomes possessive and protective, taking to arms to protect his charge (or perhaps his interest in her).

Juliette, however, has no interest in the men; she just wants to live life in peace and enjoy herself.  She loves the lake and fishing as it reminds her of home, and several people share the thought that:
"Oh, she is exactly where she should be!" (p.101)
Rouge helps replace her father (Uncle Milliquet was only interested in the money and the increased trade her looks brought...), and her love for music is catered for by another outsider, a hunchback with an accordion.  They're all happy for a while, but with the male blood pressure rising, it's unlikely to last...

Beauty on Earth is a beautiful(!) book containing some fascinating writing.  The translator's brief foreword explains certain peculiarities of style, many of which I had already picked up on.  Ramuz enjoys using an unusual jumble of tenses (past and present) and chooses a mix of direct action and the comments of those narrating.  In fact, it is the identification of the narrator which is most interesting, as Ramuz switches from you to we to they with alarming frequency.  If you add to that a penchant for short sentences, idiosyncratic punctuation and some casual repetition, it's no wonder that it took me a while to adjust - but I did, and I enjoyed it :)

Part of the attraction of the book is also the description of the environment.  The action takes place in wonderful surroundings, and the book is full of descriptions of the lake, the trees and the hills.  The beauty of the title is apparent not just in Juliette, but also in the place she finds herself:
"He had seen that at this moment the mountains were touched on their side by the sun dipping down, at the same time the light turned less white; there was a color like honey between the walls of rock.  Lower down, on the slope of the fields, it was like powdered gold; above the woods, like warm cinders.  Everything was making itself beautiful, everything was making itself more than beautiful, like a rivalry.  All these things making themselves more beautiful, always more beautiful, the water, the mountain, the sky, all that is liquid, all that is solid, all that is neither solid nor liquid, but it all holds together; it was like an agreement, a continual exchange from one thing to another thing, and between everything that exists.  And around her, and because of her - what he is thinking and telling himself up there.  There is a place for beauty..." (p.95)
Perhaps in such an idyllic spot, the beauty Juliette brings is simply too much for one village to bear...

Beauty on Earth is a book which is probably very little read in English (despite an earlier translation), but it's a wonderful way to spend a few hours.  It has all the elements of a standard tragedy, but it's fairly unique in the way it unfolds.  It's also unusual in that its centrepiece is probably the least developed character in the novel.  Juliette is less a person than an idea, the symbol of beauty, and her story shows that beauty is not always such a good thing.  As Valerie Trueblood says in her introduction, it can be a form of natural disaster - as well as bringing joy, it can cause great destruction...

P.S. While I was writing this review, I stumbled across a short piece by the translator over at Necessary Fiction, in which she discusses the issues of translating Beauty on Earth and her own connection to the landscape - well worth checking out :)

Monday 9 December 2013

'Uppsala Woods' by Álvaro Colomer (Review)

It's a big welcome to the blog to Hispabooks, a new publisher specialising in translations of contemporary Spanish literature.  I was lucky enough to receive a couple of review copies from them recently, and today sees my review of the first - which looks at a very weighty topic...

Álvaro Colomer's Uppsala Woods (translated by Jonathan Dunne) begins when Julio Garrido arrives home on his fifth wedding anniversary.  He's surprised not to be met by his wife, Elena, and looks for her all over his slightly eerie, cruciform apartment without success.  Until, that is, he opens his wardrobe and finds her slumped comatose in the corner.

While the drug overdose is not exactly unexpected (Elena once told Julio of an urge to jump from the balcony...), it's still a shock for the husband.  His wife survives the attempt, but now Julio understands the life that faces him in the future, one of constant vigilance.  It's a realisation which would try anyone, but Julio is hit particularly hard.  You see, he has his own issues when it comes to death...

Right from when I read the first page of the book in a sample, the style grabbed me.  It's an urgent monologue, a man in a hurry, only poor Julio's not really sure where he's heading.  Uppsala Woods is actually the third book in a loose trilogy on death in modern society, with this final book focusing on suicide.  It's not a long book, but even so, it propels the reader along at a fair lick, with some sections leaving you slightly breathless.

Julio is haunted by a childhood trauma, the death of a neighbour, and he has never really got over the event which was to shape his life.  The incident led to severe stress and several problems at school (some fairly embarrassing), leaving him with a special fascination with death - even if he's petrified of it.  On seeing a road accident:
"While others had crowded around the injured person, no doubt fascinated by the fact that death could show its face in such an ordinary place, I had gradually concealed myself behind the traffic light without being aware of my actions, and still today I am surprised that my legs could have taken me away from the scene of the tragedy without having received, directly at least, an order from my brain."
p.40 (Hispabooks, 2013)
Now that his wife seems to be moving towards the realm of death, Julio feels his own life spiralling out of control.  It's a state of affairs which is unlikely to end well.

It becomes increasingly obvious as the book progresses that there were marital issues even before the suicide attempt.  Colomer discusses how marriages start to crumble from the inside, showing how, little by little, walls (and padlocks) appear between two people, as Julio muses about a lack of sex, distance on the sofa in front of the television, and even a reluctance to use the bathroom together.  With the marriage on rocky ground before Elena's overdose, afterwards Julio slowly begins to unravel.  His initial measured tone slips, and he becomes prone to anger, shouting and fits of rage (to the point of causing himself chest pain).

The novel has a wider significance than a marriage breakup though - it's also a look at the way society copes (or doesn't) with mental illness and suicide.  For fear of the 'disease' spreading, people attempt to minimise the risk by covering up the signs.  In fact pain is all too common, much more prevalent than we like to think.  When Julio observes the people in the streets on their way to work, he muses:
"Sometimes, when I focus on their faces, I notice a strange look in their eyes.  Perhaps they are sad, or absent, possibly they don't know where they are going, I sense these emotions because I have acquired a sixth sense for grasping pain, a human being's deep, authentic, insurmountable pain, and I only need to pay attention to their pupils to realize they are gagged by frustration." (p.87)
The struggles of life are obvious wherever Julio looks...

As he begins to lose the plot, fearing he is unable to prevent Elena from trying again, the parallel story of the discovery of the tiger mosquito Julio has been looking for becomes more important.  Heo attempts to immerse himself in his scientific work, even if his imminent breakthrough couldn't have come at a more inopportune time.  There's an obvious handy parallel between the spread of the mosquitoes and what he sees as the increase in the number of suicides, but is his work enough to distract him from his home troubles?

Uppsala Woods is a book I really enjoyed, a gripping read and an entertaining and thought-provoking look at the effects of modern life on our will to live.  The title though has a slightly older origin.  Colomer explains it on the very first page, in a preface which talks of a wood in ancient Viking Europe - a place for the old and weary to dispose of themselves before they became a burden on their communities...

Of course, this is something present-day societies prefer not to discuss, but in his novel the writer forces us to confront an uncomfortable question: is the image of the old swinging from trees such a terrible one?  Or is it worse to see drug-addled depressives forcing themselves to work on the train each day, just waiting for the courage to put an end to it all?  I'll leave you to ponder that one...

Saturday 7 December 2013

November 2013 Wrap-Up

November was, of course, the month for German-language reading, with all my posts contributing to German Literature Month.  Thanks are due to Lizzy and Caroline for hosting and organising the event - once again, my contribution was to organise an unsuccessful excursion (see my posts below on The Blue Angel for details...).

Anyway, onto the stats - here's what was going on around these parts last month...

Total Books Read: 10

Year-to-Date: 118

New: 8

Rereads: 2

From the Shelves: 6
Review Copies: 1
From the Library:2
On the Kindle: 1

Novels: 5
Short Stories: 2

Non-English Language: 7 (4 German, 2 Spanish, Hungarian)
In Original Language: 4 (4 German)
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (5/3)
Japanese Literature Challenge 7: 0 (13/1)

Books reviewed in November were:
1) Nichts als Gespenster (Nothing but Ghosts) by Judith Hermann
2) Was bleibt (What Remains) by Christa Wolf
3) Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
4) Holzfällen (Woodcutters) by Thomas Bernhard
5) Wellen (Waves) by Eduard von Keyserling
6) Božena by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
7) Wir Fliegen (We're Flying) by Peter Stamm
8) Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick) by Peter Handke
9) Leonardos Hände (Leonardo's Hands) by Alois Hotschnig
10) Professor Unrat (The Blue Angel) by Heinrich Mann (Part One, Part Two, Part Three)

Tony's Turkey for November is:
Marie von Ebner Eschenbach's Božena

The weakest of the bunch - not an awful book, but one I was a little disappointed by.

Tony's Recommendation for November is:

Thomas Berhard's Holzfällen

There were two stand-out reads, and if I were someone with more interest in Holocaust literature then Austerlitz may well have won out.  For me though, Bernhard's grumpy old man act was the worthy pick of the bunch for German Literature Month :)


As we slowly near the end of 2013, it'd be nice to think that December would be a comfortable month of rereading and reflection - sadly, that's unlikely to be the case.  I have another crop of interesting review copies to flick through and only a short time to do it in.  You see, it's time to start planning January in Japan already - do join me then ;)

Thursday 5 December 2013

'The Inflatable Buddha' by András Kepes (Review)

As regular readers will no doubt have gathered by now, I like to do my best to promote literature in translation, especially when it's new or small publishers bringing books out.  Recently, I got an e-mail from Armadillo Central, a publisher not known for works in translation, but with a Hungarian book they thought I might be interested in.  The title is fascinating (as is the cover), but, as always, I was more interested in what happens inside...

András Kepes' The Inflatable Buddha (translated by Bernard Adams, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is an attempt to look back on twentieth-century Hungarian history by following three individuals and their families.  The three boys, Isti Veres, Dávid Goldstein and Pál Szentágostony, are born around the end of the First World War, appearing just as Hungary was losing much of its traditional territory in the Treaty of Trianon, and they come of age as the clouds of war are again beginning to gather over central Europe.

Isti is a good-looking peasant, a skillful footballer and violinist; Dávid is a Jew, the son of a local shopkeeper; Pál is the local Baron's son.  Despite growing up together in the village of Tövispuszta (the name of the book in the original), their origins will determine the decisions they make and the way their lives unfold in the decades to come.  In twentieth-century Hungary, there were plenty of hard choices to make, and the three men will be confronted with several before the end of the novel.  German or Hungarian?  Fascist or Communist?  Revolutionary or Policeman?  And, of course, patriot or emigrant...

Naturally, Dávid's path is the most difficult, initially at least.  Many westerners may not know the role Hungary played during the first part of the Second World War as one of Germany's allies***, and the Jewish characters in The Inflatable Buddha all face trips to concentration camps if they are caught by the police.  However, matters are not much better after the war; Dávid's poor uncle has his business seized twice - once by the Fascists, then by the Communists...  Having little interest in religion, Dávid attempts to change his name and hide his origins, but (as a friend points out) it's a plan with little chance of success:
"Believe me, my boy, it's no good trying to pretend you're not Jewish, there'll always be somebody that'll remind you.  I thought that after Auschwitz it would no longer be possible for people to be fed all kinds of vileness because everybody would see what inspired hatred and where it led to.  But it seems it isn't so."
p.200 (Armadillo Central, 2013)
If that's true though, what option remains?

Pál and Isti have their own concerns.  As a nobleman (and someone with close ties to the West), the young Baron Szentágostony is unlikely to fare well in post-WW2 Communist-occupied Hungary, while Isti's decision to throw in his lot with the authorities is destined to cost him too.  However, it's hard to blame any of the friends for their choices - in a situation like the one Hungarians found themselves in ninety years ago, there really was no right option...

The Inflatable Buddha is an interesting story, a book you can sail through quite comfortably, but it's definitely not in the style of some of Kepes' more illustrious countrymen.  Anyone hoping for some of the linguistic excellence of Krasznahorkai or the Proustian minutiae of Nádas will be disappointed - this is a fairly straight-forward piece of historical fiction, albeit one which continues the story up to fairly recent times.

Not knowing a lot about the country, I enjoyed the trip through the past century, but there were a few drawbacks.  While 315 pages doesn't sound especially short, it is when you're trying to cram in many decades of eventful history, and some of the chapters appeared a little over-filled with events (and endnotes).  The lengthy timespan covered also meant that the reader got to meet several generations of the same family, and with three main families to explore, that's a lot of people to remember, most of whom only appear for a line or two before reappearing a few chapters (and thirty years) later on...

Still, it's an intriguing trip down (a Hungarian) memory lane, and it's easy to see why it was a best-seller in its native country.  However, it'd be fascinating to see exactly what people made of it, as it's tempting to think that they are likely to take what they want from the book, according to their political views.  At one point, a character is described as:
"An identity-challenged boy searching for explanations in an identity-challenged country..." (p.231)
Sadly, that's still true today.  If you've been keeping a close eye on political events in central Europe, you'll know that many people appear to have forgotten what happens when a country ignores the past.  Perhaps they should all take another close look at Kepes' book before things go too far...

***This sentence initially began "Many westerners may not know the role Hungary played during the Second World War as one of Germany's closest allies,...".  I corrected this factual error after one of the comments below alerted me to it.

Monday 2 December 2013

'Professor Unrat' ('The Blue Angel') by Heinrich Mann (Review: Part Three - The Wheels of Time)

And we're back with the final part of our adventures at 'The Blue Angel'!  If you're new to the story, you might want to take a look at Part One and Part Two before continuing with the final instalment...

[The group quickly darts back round the corner before the mini-angel and her bodyguards spot them.  There are plenty of worried-looking faces...]

Clara: OK, what do we do?  Doctor, a plan would be nice - right about now?
Doctor: [Pacing] Think, let me think... [He takes out his sonic screwdriver and starts twiddling nervously with it in his hand.]
Tony: [Looking at the screwdriver] What's that?
Clara: It's his favourite toy.  It fixes electronics and stuff, unlocks doors, sends out sonic signals...
Tony: [Smiling] I think I might just have an idea... [Turns to the Doctor] I need to make a phone call, but I don't appear to have any reception...
Doctor: Unsurprising given the year, but still... [He points the sonic screwdriver at Tony's phone, and it lights up, making a buzzing noise. Tony starts tapping away.]
Caroline: What are you doing?
Lizzy: [Sarcastically]  Who are you going to call?  I don't think Ghostbusters are going to help here!
Tony: I'm just sending a text... [Looks up]  Aha - any second now...

[Suddenly, there's a familiar, loud whirring noise.  Everyone freezes, wondering where the sound is coming from.  Around the corner, the performers and the mini-angel start looking around in confusion.]

Tony: OK, time to get moving - our ride is here...

[A wind gusts through the corridor, and, amid bright lights and an ear-splitting noise, the German Literature Month bus materialises, sending the angel and the performers screaming down the corridor.  The door of the bus opens, and a familiar figure sticks his head out.]

Gary: Quick, jump in!
Doctor: [Jaw dropping] A bus that can travel through time and space?  You're joking, right?
Stu:  It looks like you're not the only one round here with a fancy getaway vehicle...

[Everyone jumps into the bus.  Tony, Stu and Lohmann disappear for a moment before reappearing with a few survivors who eagerly climb on board.  In a matter of seconds, the doors close and Gary goes to drive off, but the Doctor grabs his arm...]

Doctor: No, we can't leave yet, I have to get the TARDIS!
Gary: Relax and take a seat - don't worry about a thing.  The bus had a recent upgrade...

[Outside, a hole appears at the back of the bus - a mechanical arm shoots out and attaches itself to the TARDIS...]

Caroline: [Looking out of the back window] OK, Gary, it's on - let's get out of here!

[Gary starts the engine, and the whirring sound returns.  As he reverses the bus slowly, a scream reverberates through the bus...]

Lizzy: [Pointing through the windscreen] It's the Angel!

[Sure enough, at the far end of the corridor, the Angel stands, glowing defiantly. She spreads her wings, lets out an enormous roar and flies towards the bus...]

Gary: Hang on - this might be a bumpy ride...

[He changes gears and drives off, this time towards the Angel.  Just as the two are about to collide, the bus dematerialises, vanishing along with the TARDIS.  All that can be heard is the Doctor's voice, complaining bitterly about buses, plot holes and timey-wimey stuff...

...the Angel stops just before it hits the wall.  It floats down to the floor, at which point it turns back into Rosa.  She looks around her and, with a sigh, walks back to the main hall.

The hall is almost empty now, with only a few performers sitting dazed around a table.  A little girl is sitting on the floor, sobbing into her dress.  There's an awful smell in the air, and the floor of the hall is dotted with sizzling pools of grease.  Chairs and tables are lying upended all throughout the room.  Rosa looks around and sighs.  Then she claps her hands and addresses the performers.]

Rosa: Come on, everyone.  Let's get this mess cleared up.  We've got a matinée tomorrow...

[As the performers slowly get up and begin the task of clearing up the hall, Rosa walks over and picks up her daughter.  Holding her in her arms, she walks away humming 'Falling in Love Again'.  The scene fades to black as a familiar tune kicks in...]