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.

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

‘The Afterparty’ by Leo Benedictus


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


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.