2016 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Fiction, Gary Barwin, literary fiction, Publisher, Random House Canada, Setting, South America, Spain

‘Yiddish for Pirates’ by Gary Barwin

Yiddish for pirates

Fiction – hardcover; Random House Canada; 333 pages; 2016.

If there is one thing I can say about Gary Barwin’s Giller Prize-shortlisted Yiddish for Pirates it is this: I’ve never read a book so jam-packed with word play and creative use of language as this one. I would describe it as a kind of literary vaudeville; a mesmirising act of vocabulary, idioms, metaphors, puns and similes. And, if that’s not enough, it’s narrated by a 500-year-old parrot with a penchant for jokes and scathing one-liners. Yes, really.

The story is essentially a boy’s own adventure set during the Spanish Inquisition involving the aforementioned parrot — an African Grey called Aaron — and a Jewish man called Moishe, whose shoulder he perches on.

Fleeing persecution, this “odd couple” is helped in part by an underground network of Jewish sympathisers as  they endeavour to save a rare library of important Jewish texts. Along the way they fall in with Christopher Columbus and set sail for the New World. Their journey is ripe with adventure, piracy, danger, violence and revenge.

Overdosing on word play

Sounds exciting, right? But this is where I put up my hand and confess that Yiddish for Pirates was really not for me. Maybe I have a prejudice against animal narrators (for instance, I hated last year’s Giller winner, Fifteen Dogs, which was, of course, narrated by a succession of canines), but I just couldn’t engage with the story. It was too clever, too knowing. I was always aware that I was reading a book; I was always aware of the word play and the creative writing “stunts”.

The thing is, I like word play and jokes —

Oh, and by the way, the Caribs are people who eat people.
You can pick your friends.
And you can pick your teeth.
And you can pick your friends from your teeth. Sometimes little bits of them get stuck there after a nosh.

—  but the unrelenting nature of them (every single line, in fact) became wearing. I longed for Barwin to relax, to just tell the story, to let the words breathe.

Every now and then I’d come across a killer line:

The sails were pale papers waiting to be written on by the wind.

But for every great zinger of a description, there’d be another that perplexed me completely.

At least when I wasn’t feather-puffed geshvollen and stultiloquent blather and narishkayt.

I think it’s fair to say that by the last page I felt wrung out by this curious, convoluted novel. If I didn’t have to read it for my Shadow Giller jury obligations, I’m pretty sure I would have cast it aside — set it adrift, so to speak. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good book — as a feat of imagination, as a literary exercise and as a truly unique story it’s pretty hard to beat.

For a more positive take on this novel, please see fellow Shadow jury member Naomi’s review.

This is my 5th book for the #ShadowGiller2016

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, Brazil, Corsair, crime/thriller, Fiction, Ira Levin, Publisher, Setting, South America

‘The Boys from Brazil’ by Ira Levin


Fiction – Kindle edition; Corsair; 288 pages; 2011.

Ira Levin’s  The Boys from Brazil is a classic thriller first published in 1976. Some of you may better know it as a film, starring Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, which was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1978. I have not seen the film, and I didn’t really know anything of the book’s plot, other than it was about Nazis. I picked it up for 99 pence earlier this year and thought I would save it for a time when I was looking for something fast-paced and easy to read — such as a long-haul flight.

Mysterious murder plot hatched by fugitive Nazis

The story, which opens in September 1974, is based around a mysterious plot hatched by a group of Nazi war criminals now hiding out in South America. The head Nazi is none other than Dr Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”, who carried out horrible experiments on inmates at Auschwitz during the Second World War. In a secret meeting, held in a Japanese restaurant in Sao Paulo, Brazil, he tells the gathering:

‘It’s the most important operation the Organization has ever undertaken, and “important” is a thousand times too weak a word to describe it. The hope and the destiny of the Aryan race lie in the balance. No exaggeration here, my friends; literal truth: the destiny of the Aryan folk – to hold sway over the Slays and the Semites, the Black and the Yellow – will be fulfilled if the operation succeeds, will not be fulfilled if the operation fails. So “important” isn’t a strong enough word, is it? “Holy”, maybe? Yes, that’s closer. It’s a holy operation you’re taking part in.’

The operation involves murdering civil servants living around the world, on or around their 65th birthdays.

‘Ninety-four men have to die on or near certain dates in the next two and a half years,’ he said, reading. ‘Sixteen of them are in West Germany, fourteen in Sweden, thirteen in England, twelve in the United States, ten in Norway, nine in Austria, eight in Holland and six each in Denmark and Canada. Total, ninety-four. The first is to die on or near October sixteenth; the last, on or near the twenty-third of April, 1977.’

The meeting is secretly taped by a young American journalist, who tips off the Vienna-based “Nazi hunter” Yakov Liebermann. While the pair are on the telephone discussing the matter, the journalist is killed, setting into motion a chain of events which span the globe.

To say much more is impossible without giving away crucial plot spoilers. But what I can say is this: part of the fun in reading this book is trying to figure out why these seemingly unimportant men are to be killed. Are they connected to the Nazi Party in some way? Or have they wronged Mengele in the past? Will Liebermann figure it out before he, too, is murdered by these assassins?

Genre-bending novel

The Boys from Brazil isn’t your average thriller. It has elements of science fiction in it and because it is based on real characters — including Simon Wiesenthal, whom Yakov Liebermann is supposed to represent —  it also feels rooted in “truth”. And the reason for the murder plot, when it is revealed, is chilling to the core.

However, some elements of the story, such as genetic engineering, are slightly outdated now, but I imagine that in the mid-1970s this book must have felt not only fresh and exciting but within the realm of possibility — so many of those Nazi’s were on the run and Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, had devoted his life to tracking them down and bringing them to justice.

I should also point out that Levin’s prose style is overly simplistic to the point of being dull. That’s not to say he isn’t a cracking storyteller — he is — but to keep the momentum and suspense going in this fast-paced plot, Levin doesn’t worry too much about descriptions or scene setting; he just wants to get to the point. Some people will appreciate this style, others will hate it. I didn’t mind it, although his tendency to hyphenate words — wedding-ringed, wet-darkened shoulders and so on — grated on me after awhile.

All in all, I enjoyed this book — it kept me thoroughly entertained on a flight between Rio de Janeiro and Paris — and you can’t ask much more than that.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Edward Docx, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, South America

‘The Devil’s Garden’ by Edward Docx


Fiction – paperback; Picador; 323 pages; 2012.

Edward Docx’s The Devil’s Garden is a dark and disturbing story set in the jungle of South America. It’s billed as a literary thriller, a kind of modern day Heart of Darkness, but it’s quite a slow burner and it’s not until page 218 — two-thirds of the way in — that the action really takes off.

A scientist obsessed by ants

Dr Forle is an entomologist studying the complex social hierarchy of ants. He is based at The Station, a remote scientific outpost in the jungle of an unspecified South American country, with his assistants, Lothar and Kim, four locals and a visiting missionary. Here he is midway through writing a book “that combines the best of my articles for the science journals with my research and findings”.

He has a hidden past, which we never really come to find out about, only that his long-term partner has died and he has come to the jungle to “get away from myself. The man I was before — I didn’t like him”. He is a quiet, reserved man, self-contained and deeply committed to his work. (I hesitate to say the word boring, but it does spring to mind — although Dr Forle isn’t adverse to sleeping with one of his crew and he does dabble with a bit of cocaine usage.)

But the equilibrium of his new life is soon disturbed when two visitors arrive unannounced — a Colonel and a Judge, closely followed by a boatload of soldiers. The guests are supposedly registering local people to vote, but their presence soon ushers in an unwelcome air of surveillance, corruption — and violence.

A sense of menace and unease

The book isn’t a classic page turner in the sense one would expect, but there’s enough menace and unease in the storyline to make it a compelling read. That Dr Forle continues to pretend that everything is all right, that his work must come first, was enough to make me realise that something very bad was probably going to happen at some point… But it does take an awful lot of ground work by Docx to get to the stage where the scales are lifted from our narrator’s eyes — and then all hell breaks loose.

This fear is only heightened by the knowledge that The Station is so deep within the rainforest that “there is only one way in and there is only one way out: the river”.

And the rainforest, which is dark and mysterious, filled with dangerous creatures and beautiful birdsong, heaving with humidity and crawling with insects, is a character all of its own — brooding, temperamental and frightening.

Lothar’s light swept the black. Fronds and leaves and twine lit up, white as fish bones in the  darkness all around. Sometimes there was space, a deeper blackness; other times the forest closed in and we stood a moment — isolated, hemmed, claustrophobic. When we stopped to breathe, a dozen creatures gorged on our blood.

This deeply claustrophobic world, where no-one is to be trusted and where even the jungle is an enemy, is only mirrored by Dr Forle’s study of the ants, which effectively become a metaphor for the human race. To hammer home this point, extracts from the book that Dr Forle is writing are scattered throughout the narrative, and in the following example, it’s difficult to tell if he is writing about humans or ants:

On the one hand, we have the selfish-gene merchants, who claim that traits can evolve only for the good of the individual and not for the good of the group. This has many implications for biology, but also for our society: most of all, it turns the individual into the king of the biological hierarchy. Most of science covertly or explicitly subscribes to this view.

The insect theme is strongly maintained throughout the novel, where the river is described as being “as black as a scarab’s thorax” and where “the insect trill was like some great tinnitus”.

Dark, brooding, pessimistic

And while the prose cannot be faulted, there’s something almost too dark, too brooding and too pessimistic about The Devil’s Garden to make it an enjoyable read. (Peter Temple’s Truth comes to mind.)

Its central redeeming feature, however, has to be its punchy, adrenalin-fuelled final pages (one particular scene left me reeling; it made me want to gag) and the delicious last sentence which suggests that some good may yet come out of such a poisoned Eden…

& Other Stories, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Juan Pablo Villalobos, literary fiction, Mexico, Publisher, Setting, South America

‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Juan Pablo Villalobos


Fiction – paperback; And Other Stories; 74 pages; 2011. Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Most of us understand the phrase “down the rabbit hole” as a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. But the only similarity between that novel and this one is the surreal nature of the journey the reader is taken on.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s novella Down the Rabbit Hole was recently shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award — and it’s easy to see why. It’s a mesmerising and powerful read about one small boy’s dream to acquire a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia.

This might sound outlandish, but seven-year-old motherless Tochtli lives a rather cossetted life in a secure compound — or “palace” as he describes it — where his drug baron father will buy him anything — toys, playthings and even a pet lion — in order to compensate for the guilt of his unusual upbringing.

The story is set in Mexico, with a side trip to Liberia to look for the rather endangered you-know-what, and is told entirely from Tochtli’s perspective.

A precocious little boy

Tochtli is an ordinary little boy, albeit with an advanced vocabulary — “Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic and devastating” — who has an over-active imagination and loves wandering around all day in his dressing gown because he thinks it makes him look like a Samurai.

But he’s also fascinated by guns, violence and death.

There are actually lots of ways of making corpses, but the most common ones are with orifices. Orifices are holes you make in people so their blood comes out. Bullets from pistols make orifices and knives can make orifices too. If your blood comes out there’s a point when your heart or your liver stops working. Or your brain. And you die.

A perfectly pitched voice

His naive voice is beautifully rendered. It’s never cloying or “fake” as some child narrators are wont to be and even though he knows a lot of advanced words, he doesn’t quite understand the context in which to use them — which makes for some funny moments.

Most of his narration treads a fine line between comedy and heartbreak. It works because you know that the violence Tochtli witnesses on a day-to-day basis, the bad language he hears and the puzzling behaviour of his elders that he experiences, is largely incomprehensible in one so young.

For instance, he is confused by the presence of Quecholli, a woman who visits their palace two or three times a week. He doesn’t realise she is a prostitute hired by his father, but he knows there is something not quite right about her.

Everything about Quecholli is a secret. She walks around the palace without looking at anyone, without making a sound, always clinging to Yolcaut. Sometimes they disappear and then reappear, really mysterious. They spend hours like that, the whole day, until Quecholli leaves. Then Miztli brings her back again and it’s back to the secrets and disappearing.

A fast but powerful read

Like the very best novels, this one presents an unfamiliar world that feels so real you forget that you are reading a book. And Tochtli is such a brilliant character, someone you want to protect and keep close, that it’s hard not to be affected by his situation — you understand the danger he is in, even if he doesn’t.

Down the Rabbit Hole is an ultra-quick read — you can easily consume it in a couple of hours — but its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. This is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read.

Finally, just a word about And Other Stories, the publisher of this book. This small independent press has been set up as a not-for-private-profit company and encourages its subscribers to have a say in what gets published next. If Down the Rabbit Hole is any indication of the quality of the rest of its titles then readers are in for a real treat! You can find out more via its official website.

Note that its production values are very high and the books have a similar look and feel to Peirene Press’s award-winning designs.