20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Author, Book review, Farrar Straus and Giroux, Fiction, Gerald Murnane, literary fiction, Literary prizes, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘Border Districts: A Fiction’ by Gerald Murnane

Border Districts
US Edition (available in UK)

Fiction – hardcover; Farrar Straus and Giroux; 134 pages; 2018.

For a slight book, Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts: A Fiction packs a very large punch. Well, not so much a punch, but a tickling of the grey matter, for this is a novel — supposedly Murnane’s last (he’s 79) — that makes you see the world in new ways and makes you reflect on concepts you may never have thought of before.

Billed as fiction, the story mirrors Murnane’s real life move from Melbourne to a provincial town on the border between Victoria and South Australia and the impact of that shift on his interior life.

Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes, and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.

Written stream-of-consciousness style and employing some of the devices of meta-fiction, Border Districts is the type of novel that could be labelled “experimental” — it certainly doesn’t comply with the normal conventions of the literary novel, blurring the lines between fiction, non-fiction and reportage. Indeed, the story is written as if it is a report and the (nameless) author of the report keeps reminding us of this fact.

Border districts Australian edition
Australian edition (published by Giramondo)

The story is essentially about memory or, more accurately, the landscape of the mind. It explores how recall and imagery works, how sights and smells and music and words and even the way the light falls can trigger the mind to remember things from the past, taking the narrator on tangential journeys through back history, and how our experience shapes what we reminisce about.

It begins with the narrator noticing how the colour of the translucent glass in a local church window changes from day-to-day depending on the light (hence the pieces of coloured glass that adorn the American edition of the book), which reminds him of the glass in the chapel at the Catholic school he attended. From there his mind spirals into all kinds of memories — from his childhood education to his thoughts on Catholicism to his life in the capital city and his love of horse racing — before returning to where it started, trying to “recall the details of the windows of the chapel in the grounds of my secondary school”.

It is, to be perfectly frank (and please excuse the language), a bit of a mind fuck.

The writing is eloquent and full of astonishing detail and insight. Stylistically, each paragraph begins with short, taut sentences that later become elongated, stretched to breaking point and turning back on themselves. We are constantly reminded this is a book being written, with phrases such as “while I was writing the previous paragraph” dotted throughout the text and which, for this reader at least, soon began to wear very thin.

This is definitely not a book to race through despite its novella-like length. It took me more than a week because it was mentally exhausting to digest and I needed time to savour it in small chunks. Admittedly, I was relieved when I got to the end, but I did appreciate the way it made me reflect on things. This is the kind of writing that is focused on ideas and concepts rather than on plots and action and character, so you really need to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy it.

I have read Gerald Murnane before — I described The Plains, arguably his most famous novel, as “surreal” and thought his style was very Kafka-like — so it wasn’t a complete surprise to find this book cut from similar cloth. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, the first time Murnane has been nominated in a career spanning almost 50 years. We will find out tomorrow (August 26) whether he has won it.

This is my 13th book for #20booksofsummer and my 5th for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018. I bought it in April (before the longlist announcement) because it had attracted a bit of publicity  — probably because Murnane said it was the last book he would ever write and there was a rumour going round that he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature — and Lisa at ANZ LitLovers reviewed it very favourably, which piqued my interest even further.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Jen Craig, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Spineless Wonders

‘Panthers & The Museum of Fire’ by Jen Craig

Pathers and the museum of fire by Jen Craig

Fiction – Kindle edition; Spineless Wonders Publishing; 140 pages; 2015.

I spoke too soon. I didn’t expect to read another book quite as surprising or as unique as Gerald Murnane’s The Plains during my my project to read exclusively Australian literature for a year. And then I picked up Jen Craig’s Panthers & The Museum of Fire and was completely wowed by it.

This brilliantly original novel feels like something Paul Auster might have cooked up if he was high on amphetamines. There are echoes of Italo Calvino, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, too. It’s fresh and bold and startling. And it’s quite unlike any other Australian novel I’ve ever read.

But it’s also a reviewer’s nightmare, because this is not the kind of story that is easy to summarise or to write about. Reading it is very much an immersive “experience” and — if you’ll excuse the language — a bit of a “mind fuck”.

This passage, only a short way in, is a good example of how it plays with your mind, because what you read is exactly what you are thinking at the time:

As soon as you started the manuscript, you would find yourself waiting for it to start, to really start. You kept flicking pages and reading and flicking – not skipping any pages, but flicking them all the same – and the whole time you were reading you were waiting for the story in the manuscript to start for real. This feeling, you have to realise, kept up the whole time. There was a never a moment when you thought you had started on the section of the manuscript where the real part began. At first you would have been flicking the pages and thinking, well she could have cut these paragraphs and all of these pages here, cut all of it so far, and yet this feeling of needing to cut most of what you were reading persisted until the end. In fact, the whole of the reading seemed to be just the prelude to a reading; it pulled you along from one sentence to the next, one paragraph to the next, and you held on for some reason, never doubting for an instant that the real part of the story would be about to begin; and even when you knew, later on, when it was evidently too late, that there was no real part – when you watched yourself holding on to your role in the reading like an idiotic fool, holding on for the real part to begin when all the time there was never a real part, all the time there was nothing but the reading of the manuscript one word after another, the words being everything, the storyline nothing – you continued to read, I should have told Raf last night, although I was still jet-lagged, if I could call it that, from the experience of reading and writing. It was the most idiotic thing, but you continued to read.

Meta-fiction writ large

The story, which may or may not be fiction, is narrated by a woman called Jen Craig. She’s delivering a manuscript, Panthers & The Museum of Fire, to the sister of a friend, who has just died. The friend, Sarah, wrote the manuscript and her family entrusted it to Jen, but now she’s been asked to return it — unread.

All the time I have believed my self to be the protagonist of a writing story – the story of a writer – the kind of story that is as mysterious and alluring as the title of Sarah’s manuscript – a protagonist who herself writes stories that are similarly mysterious and alluring.

As Jen crosses Sydney on foot with the manuscript in her bag, she provides a running commentary on her surroundings — “I walked through the people grouped at the bus stops towards the slope that headed down to the tunnel under the railway lines” — which is intertwined with her inner-most thoughts about her problematic friendship with Sarah, a woman she considered rather dull but who has surprised her by writing a book.

She also tells us about her “first real friend”, Raf, whom she met at university, and reveals all kinds of insights about her life, including how she converted to religion in a bid to become a writer (“I’d said to this God: I will believe in You so long as You make me a great, a famous writer, which surely only You have in Your power to confer”) and shortened her name from Jenny to Jen because, ironically, she had anorexia at the time the weight loss company Jenny Craig first launched on the Australian market and didn’t want to walk “the country as a bag of stick bones with a diet company’s name”.

Stream-of-consciousness

The narrative is all stream-of-consciousness — “there is always too much in my head” — and written in a breathless style using long, convoluted sentences which unfurl across the page in all kinds of unexpected directions like streamers blowing in the wind. These “streamers” often double-back on themselves, so the sentences — much like the entire narrative itself — are circular; beginning with one thought, moving on to a dozen more, before returning to the original point; they never lose their way.

The voice is self-obsessed but it’s lively, immediate and full of interesting insights about modern life. The subjects broached range from computer technology to party etiquette, the difficulty of making friends and the struggle to put on paper the thoughts in your head.

Some of the passages about books and reading, for instance, will resonate with many:

I have no shortage of books that I know I want to read one day – I have piles by my bed, my bookcases are full. Each time I walk into a second-hand bookshop somewhere I do not emerge from that bookshop without at least three or four purchases; if it is a good-quality bookshop I might emerge with ten. The backs of my diaries contain lists of books I want to read and need to find (the asterisks marking all the essentials); every month or so I relent and go on Amazon dot com to trawl their quiet and glowing fields for the 11 used & new available from $3.00. I have more than enough books that I want to read, more than enough essentials that I spend my time looking for in second-hand bookshops. To discover one new author – and this new author might have been dead for over a hundred years – has always been to discover a new route through the susurrus of those second-hand bookshops, another several evenings trawling the glow of Amazon lists and other better sites.

A “wow” of a book

I really loved this book: it “wowed” me from its puzzling start to its satisfying conclusion. It took me on a real journey — in my head. It’s clever and wears its intelligence on its sleeve. It’s not a passive read, nor is it a sedate one. It makes you think and gives your brain a real work out. As a result, it may leave you exhausted — and breathless — but it’s worth every tantalising, carefully placed word.

Panthers & The Museum of Fire has just been longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize. The title comes from the name of a road sign — for Panthers rugby club and a museum about firefighting — in Sydney.

For another take on this novel, please see Tony’s review at Messengers Booker (and more).

This is my 10th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my sixth for #AWW2016.

This book is available in the UK and US in both paperback and ebook format.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Domenico Starnone, Europa Editions, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘First Execution’ by Domenico Starnone

First-execution

Fiction – paperback; Europa Editions; 173 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar.

Domenico Starnone is an Italian writer, rumoured, at one stage, as being Elena Ferrante, the writer of the Neapolitan series of four novels — My Brilliant FriendThe Story of a New NameThose Who Leave And Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child — whose identity has remained secret. Having read My Brilliant Friend (yet to be reviewed) I can see how that theory might have come about.

Starnone’s novel, First Execution, posits the idea that education shapes our world view, just as Ferrante does in My Brilliant Friend. He also depicts a relatively violent world, where emotional restraint is in short supply, one that is deeply divided between the rich and the poor. This is something Ferrante does, too. Are they one and the same author? Who knows? To be honest, it doesn’t matter.

The Execution is a brilliant novel brimful of ideas and theories about politics, education, terrorism, war and justice — among others — and I came away from it feeling as if my mind was slightly blown. This is a good thing.

Mild-mannered man caught up in bigger events

The book opens with a retired teacher, 67-year-old Domenico Stasi (note the similarity to the author’s own name) finding out that Nina, a former pupil, has been charged with “armed conspiracy”. Stasi, who taught his students to fight for what they believed in, feels partially responsible — did he contribute to Nina’s desire to become a terrorist?

To appease his own sense of (misguided) guilt, he visits her — they have coffee together in a cafe — but then finds himself caught up in Nina’s world:

She asked me to go to the apartment of a friend of hers. The apartment had been empty for some time, her friend was overseas, she handed me the keys. On the bookshelves in the living room I would find a copy of The Death of Virgil, by Hermann Broch. On page 46 a few words had been underlined. I was to transcribe those words and place the sheet of paper in an envelope. Soon, someone would show up and ask for the envelope. That was all.

This puts Stasi in a difficult position: should he do it, or say no?  Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story if he declined, but the narrative that unfurls from this one decision is quite unexpected, for the author inserts himself into the story — Paul Auster style — and we learn how he struggles to write the very pages we are reading. It’s slightly disconcerting and disorienting to suddenly have Domenico Starnone tell us about his creation Domenico Stasi, but it’s a clever device for exploring the lines between fiction and reality and how the two can sometimes mix.

As the narrative slips backwards and forward between the two voices of the two Domenicos — sometimes this is seamless, at other times it’s quite a jolt — we are taken on an electrifying ride that feels like a psychological thriller on one level and a deeply philosophical mediation about the state of the world on another. Indeed, it’s a weird kind of page turner in the sense that you want to find out what happens next — will Domenico get himself arrested or badly hurt or perhaps even killed? — but at the same time you’re forced to contemplate all kinds of issues, including war, violence, capitalism, socialism, religion, education, what it is to get old and the lines between guilt and innocence.

Personal responsibility

A constant refrain is to what extent we bear personality responsibility for the state of the society we live in. If we are unhappy about the divide between the rich and the poor, or the injustices that go on around us, do we become complicit if we do nothing about the situation? And if we do decide to do something, is it ever okay to be violent, to rise up against the powers that be and perhaps take innocent people’s lives to make a point?

Stasi, in particular, often muses about the need to make a decision, because indifference simply breeds more problems down the line — in other words, the past always catches up with the future.

I spent a lot of time underlining lengthy paragraphs in this book because they so eloquently captured my own thoughts about justice and poverty, for instance, and I came away from this rather clever novel feeling a slightly richer person for having read it.

Finally, I should add that if you liked Laurent Binet’s HHhH, then you may well enjoy this one too.

Alejandro Zambra, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Chile, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting, South America

‘Ways of Going Home’ by Alejandro Zambra

Ways of Going Home

Fiction- paperback; Granta; 139 pages; 2013. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

Alejandro Zambra has been described as the most important Chilean author since Roberto Bolaño. He was named on the Bogotá39 list (39 of the most promising Latin American writers under the age of 39) in 2007 and selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists in 2010.

I read his second novella, The Private Life of Trees, in 2011 and was intrigued enough to want to read his latest, Ways of Going Home, which won the 2013 English PEN Award for outstanding writing in translation.

But reviewing this short work of fiction is not a straightforward task. There’s an ephemeral quality to it, like waking from a pleasant dream knowing you will never be able to recapture the feeling of it. It’s difficult to try to figure out the shape of the narrative, but it’s written in such eloquent, stripped-back prose, the story slips down as easy as hot chocolate — though the themes are far from sweet.

Set in the author’s native Chile, it uses the devices of metafiction to explore memory, love, truth, deception, guilt, family life and political responsibility. It particularly focuses on the generation born after Pinochet came to power in 1973 and how, in young adulthood, they have had to come to terms with uncomfortable truths: that their parents were either victims or accomplices in the murderous dictatorship that lasted for 17 years.

Freedom under a dictatorship

The book opens with an unnamed nine-year-old boy, living in suburban Santiago in 1985, musing on the fact his parents haven’t always known best. Indeed, this turns out to be a metaphor for the entire book:

Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought that they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t. “You went a different way,” my mother said later, angry, her eyes still swollen. You were the ones that went a different way, I thought, but I didn’t say it.

We get a feel for the suspicious nature of life during the dictatorship when the boy’s parents refuse to have anything to do with their neighbour Raúl — a single man who lives alone — for fear he comes from a different political class. The boy cannot escape this sense that the man is dangerous, for he is enlisted by Raúl’s 12-year-old niece, Claudia, to spy on him — “to keep an eye on his activities and make notes about anything that seemed suspicious”.

But despite the political troubles, life for the boy, his parents and their friends is relatively contented and free.

We lived under a dictatorship; people talked about crimes and attacks, martial law and curfew, but even so, nothing kept me from spending all day wandering far from home. Weren’t the streets of Maipú dangerous then? At night they were, and during the day as well, but the adults played, arrogantly or innocently — or with a mixture of arrogance and innocence  — at ignoring the danger. They played at thinking that discontent was a thing of the poor and power the domain of the rich, and in those streets no one was poor or rich, at least not yet.

It’s not until the book switches tack in the second part that we can begin to understand the “disease” of the middle classes who preferred to keep their heads down rather than confront the wrongs (mainly unexplained “disappearances”) happening around them. Zambra does this by turning the narrative on its head: he makes the unhappy protagonist in the second part the writer of the novel begun in the first part. Through this we learn that he has suspicions that his own father sympathised with the Pinochet regime, all the while claiming he was apolitical.

While he continues working on his novel about an unnamed boy and his childhood friend Claudia, the protagonist tries to patch up the relationship with his estranged wife, Eme. Their vexed lives strangely mirror events that later appear in his novel when the “boy”, now in his 30s, starts a sexual relationship with Claudia. It blurs the lines between writer, narrator and character, so that the reader begins to question what is real and what is not.

If you haven’t guessed already, this is not a straightforward easy-to-follow narrative. But Ways of Going Home is one of those clever books that shines a light on the gaps between fiction and reality. By setting it in the context of Chile’s troubled past, it also explores the thin line between complicity and innocence. The way in which it weaves the personal with the political makes it a complex but sophisticated read. Even if you know nothing about Chilean history, it will make you think about childhood, the different ways we “go home”, understanding your parents’ decisions and beliefs, and the importance of finding your own truth to live by.

Author, Book review, David Rose, England, Fiction, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Salt Publishing, Setting

‘Vault: An Anti-Novel’ by David Rose

Vault

Fiction – paperback; Salt Publishing; 168 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

David Rose’s debut novel has one of the most intriguing dedications I’ve ever come across in all my years of reading: “Vault is dedicated to the staff of Pizza Express, Staines, where it was written, in my lunch hours.”

But that’s not the most intriguing thing about this short, effortlessly readable novel, which defies categorisation. The subject matter is equally interesting — road cycling, army snipers and nuclear espionage. It’s almost as if Rose, a 61-year-old former Post Office worker, picked three random subjects out of a hat and then strung them together in narrative form. But somehow it seems to work.

The story is about McKuen, an Englishman, who becomes a sniper in the Second World War. Disturbed by some of the events (read killings) he participates in, he decides to atone after the war by cycling through the most devastated parts of Europe, handing out medicine and other aid. He does this alone, without the backing of any formal organisation, and for this he earns legendary heroic status, which he despises almost as much as his participation in the war.

He later reinvents himself as a successful road cyclist (he takes part in the first Tour of Britain in 1955) only to be mythologised again for heroic acts of athleticism. But he chucks it all in when an ongoing knee injury, sustained in the war, means he can never go professional.

As a civil servant, he is later recruited to foil a threat to Britain’s burgeoning thermonuclear programme by an anti-nuclear group calling itself the Neutron Committee. McKuen’s mission is a dangerous one, but despite the possibility of death — he knows the Government has chosen an untrained civilian because he is expendable — it doesn’t worry him because:

At least it would be a death. Not a wartime statistic, as it could earlier have been. An individual death. Which becomes more important the older you get.

And that’s where the book comes full circle: a man escaping death in the war puts himself back in death’s sights, almost as if he wants to test his invincibility.

But the real twist in the tale of Vault is this: McKuen (if, indeed, that is his name) has discovered that his life story has been turned into a novel. So, what you get is one chapter, written in the third person, telling McKuen’s story as if it is fiction, followed by another, written in the first person, by “McKuen” himself, either expanding on what has been written about his life or pointing out the novelist’s errors. “Hasn’t he checked any of the history?” he moans at one point. This interwoven narrative — of a fictionalised life undercut by the subject’s recall of that same life — is hugely entertaining, illuminating and often very funny.

In this way, Vault pokes fun at the art of writing a novel, exposes its illusions and the way in which it can falsify “truth”, but it also showcases what fiction, when done well, can, and ought to, achieve:

Look, none of this is in the novel. It’s all so dry, so cold. I’ve spent my life hiding my emotions — you have to, to survive — hidden even from my self. There are feelings we don’t understand ourselves. That’s what we look to novelists for.

This is probably the most “literary” novel I’ve read all year, so it’s disappointing that it didn’t make the longlist for this year’s Man Booker. (According to a note the publisher sent me, the book was submitted.) While Vault is not perfect (I thought the narrative slightly disjointed in places and the nuclear espionage sub-plot slightly far-fetched), it’s a thought-provoking,  intelligent read, one that is accessible and entertaining at the same time. The prose is lean and the storytelling thrilling. And it deserves a far wider audience than it has currently received.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, Leo Benedictus, literary fiction, London, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘The Afterparty’ by Leo Benedictus

Afterparty

Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 384 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

“This book is different. You’ve really never read a book like this before.”

So says the blurb on Leo Benedictus’ debut novel, The Afterparty, which has just been published by Jonathan Cape.

Oh god, I thought, this is going to be another one of those newfangled, patronising marketing ploys, aka Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand.  But I was wrong. Without wishing to give away any punchlines, the blurb is a bit of an in-joke — you need to read the book to get it, but once you do, it’s pretty hilarious.

Indeed, much of this book is laugh out loud funny, but not quite in the way you might expect.

The Afterparty is one of those clever postmodern novels — featuring the trademark stories within stories and the author giving himself a starring role — but there’s a lightness of touch, a playfulness, that makes it a real delight to read. I figured I’d try a chapter or two to see if it was my thing, and if it wasn’t I’d put the book aside and forget about it. Two hours whizzed by and I was so immersed in the story I just had to keep on reading…

The story is set in the space of a single evening. A reclusive movie star, Hugo Marks, is celebrating his 31st birthday in a London nightclub. The event, organised by his glamorous American wife Mellody, is attended by A-list celebrities and hangers-on. But there’s one attendee who really shouldn’t be there — and he’s kind of the hero of the piece and the one with whom we most identify.

His name is Michael and he’s a lowly sub-editor at a national newspaper. Despite his bad fashion sense and low self-esteem, Michael harbours ambitions to be a writer — and if he can pick up a few gossipy crumbs from Hugo’s party table he might just crack the big time.

When he finally overcomes his nerves to strike up a conversation with Calvin Vance, a teenage singer riding a wave of success from his appearance on TV entertainment contest The X-Factor, he finds a way in. What he doesn’t realise is that this one little chat will draw him into a whirlwind of events, including an after party at Hugo’s house, that will all go terribly wrong…

Of course, I can’t really tell you much more than that, other than the story is a totally addictive one, written in such an engaging, realistic style it feels as if it’s based on characters from real life. Indeed, some appear as their real selves — Elton John, for instance, makes a star-studded appearance tinkling the ivories for a cheesy performance of Happy Birthday, and chef Gordon Ramsay makes a wisecrack about the inedible food. There are hints and essences of other personalities, mainly British, that we know or think we know, and half the fun is trying to identify them.

The story is told from multiple points of view, but is easy to follow, because each character’s perspective is printed in a different font.

But the real twist of The Afterparty is the email exchanges which come at the beginning of each chapter. At first I thought the emails were a cheap trick — emails are, in fact, one of my pet hates in modern fiction. But the further you get into this book, the more you realise they are what make it truly work.

The exchanges are between a writer, calling himself William Mendez, and a literary agent, Valerie Morrell. William pitches his new novel, Publicity, to Valerie, who eventually agrees to submit it to various publishers, but not before a long, protracted and very funny correspondence occurs between the pair.

Because it is a work in progress, William submits his novel to her chapter by chapter — and these chapters are the story of Hugo Marks’ birthday party. So what you get when reading The Afterparty is this: an email exchange between a writer and his agent, then the latest chapter he has written, then another email exchange, then the next chapter and so on.

It probably sounds like this would make for a disjointed read, but it doesn’t. Aside from being very humorous, the emails inform what happens next and add a new, ironic dimension to the story. And they bring a light-hearted touch to what is essentially a rather dark tale about a party that goes slightly off the rails.

There’s a lot to like about this novel, one of the smartest and most contemporary I’ve read in a long while. It feels fresh and new, and the satire, which is incredibly biting about our current obsession with fame, fortune, celebrity and the media, is spot-on. It never feels fake though. It never feels as if the writer is trying too hard to be clever and knowing. It just feels very natural and slips down as smoothly and deliciously as the dram of whisky on the front cover.

Alejandro Zambra, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Chile, Fiction, literary fiction, Open Letter Books, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘The Private Lives of Trees’ by Alejandro Zambra

Private-lives-of-trees

Fiction – paperback; Open Letter Books; 98 pages; 2010. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

Late last year Alejandro Zambra was included on Granta magazine’s list of Best of Young Spanish-language Novelists. And yet Zambra, who was born in Chile in 1975, hasn’t actually written a novel. He has, however, had two novellas — both less than 100 pages — published to critical acclaim.

The Private Lives of Trees, first published in 2007 and translated into English last year, is his second novella. (The first, also about trees, is called Bonsai.)

It’s a bit difficult to explain what The Private Lives of Trees is about, because this is one of those clever postmodern stories that is essentially a story about other stories. It has a rather timeless setting — it could be any city in the world at almost any time in the past 30 years — and a dream-like quality to the writing.

The protagonist, Julián, is a literature professor. He lives with his wife, Verónica, and Verónica’s eight-year-old daughter, Daniela.

One evening, when Verónica is at art class, Julián tells his step-daughter an improvised story, about “a poplar tree and a baobab tree”. As the night wears on, it becomes increasingly obvious that Julián believes his wife is not going to come home.

And while The Private Lives of Trees is told in the third person, we get an insight into Julián’s thought processes, as he grapples with this possibility. As he sifts through his memories, he looks back on his relationship with his wife, his previous girlfriend Karla, and even his own childhood. He then begins imagining what it will be like for Daniela to grow up without a mother — and projects her life at the age of 20, 25 and 30.

Tied up in all this is Julián’s obsession with writing and success. What will a motherless Daniela, as an adult, think of his novel?

I can’t say that this book will change your life or make you rush out to read everything that Zambra has written. It’s a perfectly pleasant read, one that casts a bit of a spell, while delivering a few laughs, too (there’s a tongue-in-cheek comment about Paul Auster, whom Zambra’s work is obviously inspired by, which made me giggle).

But, for me at least, the book feels too slight to have any lasting impact.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Overlook Duckworth, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting, Sweden, Torgny Lindgren

‘Hash’ by Torgny Lindgren

Hash

Fiction – paperback; Overlook Duckworth; 236 pages; 2004. Translated from the Swedish by Tom Geddes.

Hash is one of those kooky, surreal books that plays with your mind. The author, Torgny Lindgren, is a prize-winning author from Sweden who currently sits on the panel which selects the Nobel Prize for Literature. His books — and there are lots of them — have been translated into more than 25 languages. Sadly, only a handful seem to be available in English.

Hash, first published in 2004, is a strange odyssey involving a school teacher and a travelling clothes salesman whom together traverse the wilds of northern Sweden on an old motorbike looking for the perfect hash. Initially I assumed the hash was of the cannabis variety, but it is, in fact, a famous Swedish meat dish. Torgny describes it as follows:

Swedish hash, pölsa (dial. pysla or palscha). Dish comprising finely ground meat, usually offal, in its own jelly. Minced meat. Originally bulscha, from the Greek balsamon, deriving from a Semitic word denoting a viscous mixture of resin and fragrant volatile oils (see Balsam spruce), thence balsamic.

The story has an unusual twist, however. Well, a couple of unusual twists, if I am honest.

The first is that the travelling salesman, who calls himself, Robert Mazer, is possibly the fugitive Nazi Martin Boorman. Mazer claims to have no memory, but tells everyone he is a “refugee from war-torn Germany” and that he was raised in the district of Mecklenburg.

The second, bigger, twist is that the story occurred in 1947 and is being told in the present day by a 107-year-old newspaper reporter living in a care home. The reporter, who is nameless, has come out of forced retirement to write the story. He hasn’t written anything for 53 years, after the local newspaper editor accused him of fabricating all his reports and banning him from publication. Here is some of what the editor told him in a letter:

“For some time now after tactful inquiries from perplexed and concerned readers, we have carried out careful investigations into the veracity of the reports you have submitted over the course of the years, the all too many years, which we have published conscientiously, honestly and fearlessly.
“Having done so, we have found your reports, not to put too fine a point on it, completely devoid of any basis in fact. The reality which you appear to describe is nothing more than a figment of your imagination. The dramatic week-long struggle to rescue an elk from Hölback marsh never took place. The schoolhouse in Avalberg that burned down three years ago never existed. No unknown celestial body ‘with shimmering corona’ ever rose above your horizon. […]
“The individuals whose births, birthdays, marriages and, in some cases even deaths, you have reported, have never lived on this earth. On further reflection, it seems remarkable to me, not to say quite extraordinary, that you yourself actually exist.”

This letter is crucial to the rest of the book, because it plants a couple of seeds in your mind that ferment as you read further into the story. One of those seeds is this: is our narrator reliable? Is what he telling us the truth? Or is it all fabrication? Another seed: does this 107-year-old man even exist?

This is what I mean about the book playing with your mind. It’s very post-modern in that sense, and it’s also highly reminiscent of American writer Paul Auster, not necessarily in prose style, but definitely in structure and subject matter, right down to a character named after the author popping up, albeit very briefly, in the storyline. Torgny’s novel, much like anything that Auster writes, is obsessed with the notion of story-telling, memory, truth and reality. How do we know these things happened, and is it actually important? What is memory? Does truth exist?

But Torgny’s approach is slightly different: he’s not afraid of humour. There are some dark comedic moments scattered throughout this novel and some of his commentary, particularly about old age and council funding, is quite biting.

Hash also has a touch of Gothic horror about it, because most of the action takes place in an isolated village ravaged by highly infectious turberculosis. Relationships, in whatever shape they might take, can be deadly.

This is the type of novel that will appeal to readers who like postmodern literature, complete with trademark metafiction and unreliable narrators. But do beware that the book is richly littered with descriptions of offal, including its taste and texture. The warning is in the title.

Finally, thanks to Philip Young from Scoop! Journalists in Fiction and Mediations for tipping me off about this one.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Everyman's Library, Fiction, Italo Calvino, Italy, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler’ by Italo Calvino

If-on-a-winters-night-a-traveler-2

Fiction – hardcover; Everyman’s Library; 304 pages; 1993. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler was Italian author Italo Calvino’s much lauded 16th novel. A rather clever, knowing book, it pokes fun at reading, writing and publishing. From its opening passage, I suspected it was going to be a rather enjoyable read:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

But sadly, I found this book so clever as to be pretentious, and so contrived as to be patronising. Most of all I just found reading it an incredibly frustrating experience.

The nub of the novel, which was first published in 1979, is this: a reader tries to read Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler but discovers that the book is faulty. He takes it back to the shop for a replacement, only to discover the replacement book is also faulty. And therein lies the pattern: in alternate chapters we follow the reader’s adventures as he tries to  track down a perfect copy of the book. This is interspersed with the actual text of the books he acquires, none of which turn out to be Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler.

Confused yet? I found it excruciatingly perplexing in places, particularly as the reader’s side of the story is told in the second person, so the “you” feels like it is being addressed to you personally, even though it becomes increasingly clear that that is not the case. It gets worse when characters associated with the reader, including the enigmatic Ludmilla who also bought a defective copy of the book, cross-over so that they also appear in the text the reader is reading, blurring the lines between the reader’s life and the fiction he reads.

Essentially, this is the type of novel that just gets your brain in a complete muddle. And while I’m not averse to this kind of post-modernist technique, where the author also appears as a character (think Paul Auster or J.M. Coetzee), and where different literary styles and genres are “sampled” in the one novel (think David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), I found If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler rather exasperating.

It doesn’t help that the alternate chapters of the book, which are presented as opening chapters of what is supposed to be Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler (but never are), is that they all end abruptly at a climatic moment, so you are left dangling and never find out what happens next. This happens 10 times. (At one point Calvino compares sex to reading, so perhaps these abrupt endings are his idea of a joke about failing to climax.)

Each of these 10 chapters are written in a different style or genre, so Calvino gets to show off his ability to write a satire, a romance, a thriller and so on. But unfortunately each chapter does not feel sufficiently different to the one that precedes it, so the “trick” failed to truly work.

The saving grace, for me anyway, is the illuminating insights and ideas Calvino presents about the intertwined and ever-changing relationships that authors and readers have with books. He makes it clear that every author is looking for the perfect reader, and every reader is looking for the perfect book. He makes other statements about different readers wanting different things from books, and that every time we read a book we bring with it our own prejudices based on our life experience. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that our enjoyment of reading a book can be influenced by something as inconsequential as to where we are sitting (or lying) when we read it and what is going on in our personal lives at the time.

While I admire Calvino’s ambition, his ideas, his ability to turn our notion of a novel on its head, this book clearly wasn’t for me. The elegant prose and the courageous experimentation (with its nod to James Joyce), couldn’t make up for its lack of narrative drive, detailed descriptions and rich characterisation. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is one of those books that takes you right out of your comfort zone; it’s intelligent, a little bit witty, a little bit cynical but ultimately it’s too emotionally shallow to offer any real insight into the human condition.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, literary fiction, New York, Paul Auster, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘Invisible’ by Paul Auster

Invisible

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 320 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I think I may have developed a wee bit of a literary crush on Paul Auster, although our relationship took a little while to develop. Indeed, I was ready to dump him before it even began, because our first meeting in which I read Oracle Night, back in 2005, was not a particularly pleasant one: I simply didn’t get what he was all about. But then I gave him a second chance and read the New York Trilogy and suddenly it all began to make sense. Auster is a novelist who plays with the format, concentrates on recurring themes (for example, coincidence, writing and story-telling, truth and memory) and often makes himself part of the action.

This novel, his 16th, is one of his more accessible, and would make the perfect introduction to anyone who has yet to try Auster for themselves.

It’s told in four interlocking parts. The first introduces us to Adam Walker, a 20-year-old poet and literature student at Columbia University, who meets Frenchman Rudolf Born, a visiting professor, and his seductive young girlfriend, Margot, at a party. The chance introduction is to have a long-lasting impact on Adam’s life. Initially it all seems rather positive, because Born is a rich man and he’s keen to employ Adam as the editor of a new literary magazine he wants to launch. But then it all goes terribly wrong, for reasons I won’t divulge, and Adam finds himself wishing he’d never met Born, who comes across as quite a creepy, violent, narcissist capable of the most hideous crime.

The second part is told from James (Jim) Freeman’s perspective. He once attended classes at Columbia with Adam, although they were never close, and went on to become a very successful writer. The pair fell out of touch, but then 38 years later, Jim receives a part-written manuscript from Adam and asks for his honest opinion of it. The manuscript, entitled Summer, is included, and forms the bulk of this part of Invisible. It tells the story of what happened to Adam after his falling out with Born in the spring of 1967, and includes an eye-opening, somewhat racy, account of Adam’s incestuous relationship with his sister.

The third part is again told from Jim’s perspective, with the second part of Adam’s manuscript, entitled Fall, included. This details Adam’s move to Paris and his half-cooked ploy to extract revenge on Rudolph Born on home turf. It also recounts his friendship with Born’s step-daughter.

The fourth and final part has Jim meet Adam’s sister, Gwyn, a 61-year-old beauty, to discuss whether the manuscript should ever be published given it has quite damaging revelations about her in the text. Born’s step-daughter also has her chance to tell her side of the story.

As you can tell, there’s quite a lot of jumping around of perspectives, although it’s all told in the first person. It’s only Adam’s manuscript that switches around. But this is fairly typical Aster fare, because he has a penchant for including a book within a book, so what you end up reading is a multi-layered narrative. It’s a bit like sitting in front of a mirror with a mirror behind you reflecting a never-ending set of images of a person looking in the mirror looking at a person looking in a mirror and so on.

There’s no denying I loved this book. I raced through it in just a matter of days and found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it. There’s something about Auster’s work that unsettles the unconscious mind, so that certain scenes and characters will pop into your head unannounced. I have only read a very small selection of his extensive back catalogue but Invisible is one of the better ones I’ve had the joy of reading. Definitely recommended, regardless of whether you’re an Auster virgin or not.