Algeria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, historical fiction, Joseph Andras, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Verso

‘Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us’ by Joseph Andras (translated by Simon Leser)

Fiction – paperback; Verso; 136 pages; 2021. Translated from the French by Simon Leser.

Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us is a short, powerful novella by French writer Joseph Andras.

Set at the height of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), it is based on the life of Fernand Iveton, a Communist working for the National Liberation Front (FLN), who was the only European executed during the War.

A highly unusual case

Fernand Iveton’s case is highly unusual for many reasons, so it is easy to see why an author might wish to tell his story. First, Iveton was a “pied-noir”  — a person of French origin living in French-ruled Algeria  (his mother was a Spanish Catholic and his father was French) — working on the anti-colonialist side.

Second, the bomb he planted in his locker at the power station where he worked was designed to go off when no one was in the building. He claims he did not want to kill people; he simply wanted to send a message to the authorities. In any event, he was arrested and the bomb located and defused before it ever went off.

And third, his trial lasted a single day, after which he was sentenced to death despite the fact he was not responsible for killing or injuring anyone. Attempts to have his sentence commuted by the then French president René Coty failed, and he was executed by guillotine on 11 February 1957.

Condemned to death

The story opens with Iveton preparing to plant the bomb provided to him by his accomplices, Jacqueline and Abdelkader Guerroudj, and closes with his death. (His accomplices were arrested and tried later, but neither were executed.)

In between, we learn about his arrest, interrogation and the ways in which he was tortured (mainly by electrocution and waterboarding). Later, we see how his lawyers tried to push for his death sentence to be commuted, but a high profile campaign in France had painted him as a terrorist and murderer and there was no room to sway popular opinion.

To offer some light relief, the narrative also traces Iveton’s romance and subsequent marriage to Hélène, a Polish woman who grew up in France and was a partisan in the French Resistance during the Second World War. They met when Iveton came to Paris to get an X-ray for a lung problem (which turned out to be tuberculosis) and she was a waitress at the hotel in which he was staying.

Fernand sits down and orders the set meal. Her eyes are little frosted pearls, she smiles and goes off with his order, explicit creases at the back of her skirt, ankles as slender as her wrists…

When he returns to Algeria, he paves the way for Hélène to join him, along with her son, Jean-Claude, from her first marriage, and together they set up a happy home.

Armed struggle

The strength of the story is to highlight how the “armed struggle” is never black-and-white and that people choosing to pursue violence for political ends have their reasons for doing so.

Our client is conscious of fighting for more than himself [Iveton’s lawyers tell the President of France]. He’s fighting for his country, which he wants to see free and happy, a country which guarantees to each and every one of its citizens, Muslim or European, freedom of thought and equality. Our client wants nothing else.

I came away from it thinking how history just keeps endlessly repeating and how it’s just the countries, and perhaps the religions, that change. This story, for instance, could so easily be transferred to Northern Ireland in the 1970s or the Basque Country at any time in the 50 years leading up to 2011.

Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us was awarded France’s top literary prize for debut novels, the prix Goncourt du premier roman, in 2016, but the author declined to accept it, claiming that he didn’t believe writing should be a competition.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Salt Publishing, Setting

‘The Good Son’ by Paul McVeigh

Fiction – Kindle edition; Salt Publishing; 256 pages; 2015.

Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son is a coming-of-age story set in the Catholic working-class and Irish Republican district of Ardoyne, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during The Troubles.

It is narrated by a schoolboy, Mickey Donnelly, who’s a smart kid with big dreams — when he grows up he wants to move to America.

I can’t wait to get to America. I’m going to work in a diner. I’ve got dreams.

But life is tough for Mickey, the apple of his mother’s eye, because his one shot at going to St Malachy’s, the local grammar school, has just been blown: his father has spent the required funds on alcohol and gambling.

Summer holiday

The book follows nine weeks in Mickey’s life during the long school summer holidays in which he dreads having to go to St Gabriel’s, where’s his older brother Paddy is in the sixth form and where all the boys are horrible and there will be no dancing or singing or acting lessons.

Caught between childhood and puberty, Mickey longs for his voice to drop so he can be regarded as a man rather than being labelled “gay” and “weird” by other children, including Paddy. It doesn’t help his reputation that he mainly hangs out with his little sister, Wee Maggie, whom he dotes on, and her friends instead of other boys (with the exception of Fartin’ Martin, a boy from school) and speaks in a “posh” way, using good manners which mark him out as different to other boys his age.

During his holidays he mainly plays with his pet dog Killer, lusts after his neighbour Martine, who encourages him to teach her to “lumber” (slang for sex) and has occasional run-ins with local bad girl Briege, whose father is in prison — rumour has it, he stole some sausages for the IRA.

Mother love

Mickey runs a lot of errands for his mother, whom he loves dearly. She becomes increasingly dependent on him to be her “good son” when Mickey’s dad leaves, taking the TV with him, but this proves a challenge when his freedom is constantly curtailed.

I have very clear instructions. Don’t go to the top of the street cuz there’s always riots. Don’t go to the bottom of the street cuz there’s No Man’s Land and there’s always riots. Don’t go near the Bray or the Bone hills cuz that leads to Proddy Oldpark where they throw stones across the road from their side. Don’t go into the aul houses cuz a wee boy fell through the stairs in one and broke his two legs. I think his neck too. Ma could be exaggerating. Oh, and don’t go onto the Eggy field cuz there’s glue-sniffers. Ma should have just tied me to the gate or locked me in a cupboard.

On one occasion, when he ventures to a part of town he is forbidden to visit, he gets caught up in a bomb explosion that kills his dog and injures his own head, though not seriously. He hides this fact from his mother, worried that he will get in trouble, and does not tell her that he saw Paddy, who may or may not be involved with the IRA, at the scene.

It’s this kind of careful balancing between comedy and melodrama that gives The Good Son its emotional power. It’s the kind of book in which the reader laughs out loud on one page, then turns over to be confronted by the stark reality of what it is like to be a child in a war zone.

I check there’s no Prods or gangs about in Alliance Avenue and cross to the corrugated iron barricades. There’s a tiny little door to the Prods. You’re not allowed to use it. You’d be murdered. They’ve started callin’ them peace lines which really makes me laugh cuz actually this is where people come to kill each other.

As the story inches towards the end of the school holidays, the drama slowly builds as Mickey’s family get caught up in events that put them at risk, forcing the “good son” to do something bad to protect them all. It’s a deftly told tale, compelling and charming in equal measure, but also alarming and heart-rending too.

The Good Son won the Polari First Book Prize in 2016.

Cathy, who blogs at 746 books, liked this novel a lot too.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Shadows on our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston: another coming-of-age story set during The Troubles. It follows a Derry schoolboy, surrounded by violence and danger, who develops a platonic relationship with a female teacher and then discovers his world opening up…

This is my 12th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it on 30 August 2017, I think because I had seen a good review of it on Savidge Reads, back in the day when Simon blogged.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Kamila Shamsie, literary fiction, London, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2018.

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is an astute, highly readable and compelling novel about the ways in which familial and patriotic loyalties can be tested when love and politics collide.

Set in modern-day Britain, it’s the first novel I’ve read that has fleshed out what makes young Muslim men become radicalised and join ISIS. It also asks important questions about nationality, citizenship and whether terrorists can ever be reformed after they have fought abroad to create a (failed) Caliphate.

Structured around three siblings

The story is framed around three siblings of Pakistani heritage — twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, and their older sister Isma, who raised them when they became orphaned. Their father, whom they have never known, was a jihadist, famously said to have died en-route to being imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.

Each sibling’s story is told in a separate section so that we come to understand their individual motivations, dreams and fears.

Two additional characters — Karamat Lone, the UK’s outspoken Home Secretary, who is also of Pakistani heritage and a Muslim, and his spoilt young adult son, Eamonn, who becomes sexually involved with Aneeka — also get their own sections.

Airport interrogation

When the book opens we are thrust into the world of an airport interrogation. Isma, finally free of her duty to raise her younger twin siblings, is heading to the US to commence a PhD programme in sociology. She already knows she’s on a watchlist, thanks to her father’s history, so she has been careful not to pack anything that may be interpreted the wrong way, so no Quoran and no family photographs, but the hostility and the sense of injustice is palpable throughout the questioning.

‘Do you consider yourself British?’ the man said.
‘I am British.’
‘But do you consider yourself British?’
‘I’ve lived here all my life.’ She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.

This sets the scene for the rest of the story, which shows, often in painstaking detail, how British-born Muslims are often regarded — by the media, by authorities, by politicians and by members of the public — as being terrorists or of having terrorist sympathies, and how they must negotiate this world of suspicion, either by lying low or playing along.

Shamsie is very good at highlighting how the public mood, often set by posturing politicians, gives rise to a climate of fear. Lone, the Home Secretary, is the son of immigrants but is, himself, anti-immigrant. On TV he speaks tough about British values and plots to extend his own powers so that he can revoke British citizenship so that it applies to British-born single passport holders only. It is his actions and his words that help fan the paranoia surrounding anyone of the Islamic faith living in Britain.

But the story really hinges on Parvais, the twin brother, who pursues the idea that his father was a hero he’d like to emulate. More by accident than design, he falls in with what we might term “the wrong crowd” and finds himself heading to Syria to join the media arm of ISIS. He tells his twin sister he’s going to Turkey for a holiday so that his “disappearance” doesn’t arouse suspicion. Of course, it’s no plot spoiler to reveal that everyone, including his two sisters, knows what he has done — after he has done it.

Based on a Greek myth

What is perhaps less obvious is the individual reactions to Parvais’ decision. Even Parvais’ own reaction, once the realisation of what he has done sinks in, demonstrates that being young and idealistic is no match for reality and taking responsibility for your actions.

Many reviews of Home Fire make much of the fact that the story is based on the ancient Greek myth of Antigone. If you know that myth, the ending probably won’t surprise you, but I’m woefully uneducated in this regard and found the conclusion quite shocking and profound.

This is a smart, thought-provoking and fearless novel. It was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Novel Award and won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review.

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.

Afghanistan, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Terry Hayes, Transworld Digital, Turkey, USA

‘I am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes

I-am-pilgrim

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transworld Digital; 625 pages; 2013.

Proof that my tastes are fairly wide-ranging and eclectic doesn’t come more obvious than this. Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim is one of those hefty tomes you pack in your holiday luggage, not only because it will keep you occupied for the entire length of time you’re away, but also because the story is so thrilling you won’t grow bored. Except… well…

To be honest, I had no intention of ever reading this book. Then two people recommended it to me, just days apart. And then I found out the author was once a broadsheet journalist in Australia and a close associate of film maker George Miller — the pair wrote the screenplay for Mad Max 2 together. So when I went on holiday to the UAE earlier this month (to visit my sister and her family) I took a copy with me, thinking it would keep me entertained if it was too hot to do much outdoors. As it turns out, it was too hot, and yes, I am Pilgrim kept me entertained. However… well…

Let me back track first and tell you a bit about the storyline. It’s essentially a modern-day spy thriller cum crime novel and most of the story is narrated in the first person by Scott Murdoch, codename “Pilgrim”, a secret agent with a covert organisation that has links to US intelligence. He is brought out of semi-retirement to save the world from an impending outbreak of smallpox that is going to be unleashed on the USA by an Arab Muslim (cast in a similar vein to Osama Bin Laden).

Just to make the story more exciting — or more complicated, depending on your point of view — there’s a crime to unravel as well. When the book begins, a woman’s body is found in a hotel room. She’s lying in a bath of acid, which has eaten away all her identifying features, including her face and fingerprints. The odd thing about this murder is that there’s nary a clue to be found — and it follows, almost to the letter, advice that Scott Murdoch wrote in a definitive book on forensic criminal investigation. This begs the question, how much responsibility should he take for the crime?

Octane-fuelled narrative

Intrigued? Well, admittedly I was, right from the start. This is an octane-fuelled narrative that swings across the globe — Manhattan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Nazi Germany — at a dizzying rate of knots, following all kinds of plots and sub-plots, some of which are told in the third-person.

There’s violence, death and mayhem at almost every turn, but the story — or twin stories, as it turns out — is told in such an engaging and, indeed, filmic way, it quickly becomes a rather addictive read. The plots are complicated and some might argue far-fetched, but that’s not a complaint I would make — after what happened on 9/11 I don’t think anything terrorism related is out of the question these days.

It’s also an intelligent read and a fascinating insight into international politics, espionage, terrorism and forensics. It might be a fast-paced thriller but it’s not dumbed down. It’s got the kind of detail in it that suggests it has been very well researched and it feels authentic, almost as if it’s been taken from the front page of a newspaper or the lead news bulletin on TV.

Attention waned 

However, I have to say my attention waned once I’d reached the half-way point and I considered abandoning it. Perhaps it’s because my holiday had ended and I had to go back to my usual routine, but once I was back in London I’d kind of lost interest in the story. I began to pick faults:  the links between the terrorism plot and the murder plot seemed, well, weird; I grew sick of being told on every second page that Murdoch was the best secret agent in the business; and I kept seeing endless references to Australians (I know we travel a lot, but couldn’t the author have included other nationalities every now and then?). Minor annoyances, I know, but little things can grate.

Eventually, I made a decision that I had to finish the book (I’d read 300 pages after all) so I devoted several evenings and an entire afternoon to completing it. It concluded exactly as I expected: with a bang and all the loose ends nicely tied up.

It’s not the kind of book that’s going to win high-brow literary awards, though it did deservedly win the Thriller and Crime Novel of the Year award at the 2014 Specsavers National Book Awards in the UK. But that won’t matter when the film comes out: MGM has bought the rights to produce a Bond-like franchise. It has ker-ching! written all over it.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Padma Viswanathan, Penguin Canada, Publisher, Setting

‘The Ever After of Ashwin Rao’ by Padma Viswanathan

Ever After of Ashwin Rao

Fiction – hardcover; Penguin Canada; 374 pages; 2014.

Padma Viswanathan’s second novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. The Ashwin Rao of the title is an Indian psychologist who returns to Canada — where he trained — to do a “study of comparative grief”.

His subjects are the family members who survived a terrorist attack in which Air India flight 182 was bombed over the Atlantic en route from Montreal to Delhi, via London Heathrow, in 1985. More than 300 people were killed — mainly Canadian citizens — but the case was not brought to trial until 2004, the year in which the book is set. (As an aside, you can read more about the incident on Wikipedia.)

Rao wants to find out how these people coped — “by what means did they go on?” — but his study is not exactly objective. He, too, lost family members in the tragedy — his sister and her two children — but he’s not always forthcoming about this, because he wants to keep his “professional distance”. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that in examining other people’s grief he is essentially exploring his own — even if he might not know it.

Survivors of a terrorist bomb

The novel, which spans summer 2004 to spring 2005, is structured around Rao’s interviews with survivors. Their individual stories — how their loved ones came to be on the flight, how they coped in the aftermath of the tragedy, what their lives have involved in the 18 years since — are “imagined” using a psychological technique Rao has been practising for his entire professional career.

This technique stems from his compulsive journal keeping, something that he has been doing since childhood:

But I keep a journal differently. I note, on a left-hand page, an anecdote — something characteristic or outrageous a friend or family member said, or perhaps a confidence told to me. On the facing page, for as many pages as it takes, I properly tell the story: third-person, quasi-fictionalised, including matters not witnessed, details I can’t really know, and so try to explain what I have seen or heard.

These stories are mostly unbearably sad but are lightened by a wry sense of humour. They are interleaved with Rao’s own story — his life in India rife with political and religious tension, the freedom he discovered in Canada when he arrived in 1969 to study medicine, the love affair he had with a Canadian woman who went on to marry someone else — in a voice that is distinctive, self-deprecating, occasionally angry, often melancholy, opinionated, philosophical and a little old-fashioned.

Unfortunately, Rao’s voice eventually gets subsumed by a larger story — that of Professor Sethuratnam, his daughter Brinda and his cousin Venkataraman, whose wife and son were killed in the tragedy — which comes to a rather unexpected and somewhat unbelievable conclusion.

While The Ever After of Ashwin Rao has worthy aims — to explore the notion of grief, to look at the long-lasting repercussions of terrorism, to examine multiculturalism and religion — the execution is confused and the narrative occasionally lacks focus. This is not to say it is a bad book — it’s far from that, as its prize listing would suggest — but it demands the reader’s full attention without necessarily offering much of a reward. Admittedly, I only continued reading it as part of my Shadow Giller jury obligations — I fear I may have abandoned it otherwise.

Afghanistan, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, Yasmina Khadra

‘Swallows of Kabul’ by Yasmina Khadra

Swallows-of-Kabul

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 195 pages; 2005. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

This is the third novel by Yasmina Khadra that I have read: the first, The Attack, was set in war-torn Israel; the second, The Sirens of Baghdad, was set in war-torn Iraq; and this, Swallows of Kabul, was set in war-torn Afghanistan.

All three books explore long-established cultures being torn apart at the seams, usually from within — and while considered and intelligent, all are unbearably bleak with little joy in the narratives.

Life under the Taliban

First published in 2002, Swallows of Kabul examines what it is like for ordinary citizens to live under brutal Taliban rule before the American invasion in the wake of 9/11.

When the book opens we are immediately thrust into the dark reality of a public execution and by the time the narrative comes full circle, just 195 pages later, we are back in the stadium to see another condemned person put to death by the state.

In between, we meet two very different couples whose lives become intertwined in an inexplicably cruel and unusual way. They are: Mohsen Ramat, an educated young man who once wanted to be a diplomat; his beautiful wife, Zunaira, who has had to give up her career as a magistrate because women are no longer allowed to work; Atiq Shaukat, a jailer who guards prisoners who have been sentenced to death; and his wife, Musarrat, who is dying of an unspecified, incurable illness.

Subjugation of women

As a portrait of life under a frightening and oppressive regime, Swallows of Kabul is an illuminating and often distressing read. It is particularly good at highlighting and exploring the Taliban’s subjugation of women.

For example, Zunaira refuses to leave the house, because she doesn’t want to wear the compulsory burqua. “Of all the burdens they’ve placed on us, that’s the most degrading,” she tells her husband, before adding: “It cancels my face and takes away my identity and turns me into an object.”

But even without the Taliban’s harsh rules, women are essentially second-class citizens in this culture, so when Atiq confesses to a friend that he is distraught about his wife’s illness, he gets little sympathy: “Kick her out. Divorce her and get yourself a strong, healthy virgin who knows how to shut up and serve her master without making any noise.”


The impact on men

But the book is equally good at examining the effect of the Taliban’s rule on men. Both Mohsen and Atiq are desperately unhappy and, in a rather ironic way, emasculated because they feel they cannot control their wives.

Mohsen, who has seen his dream of a successful career shattered, is beginning to feel “infected” by the new order. In a telling scene at the beginning of the book, he gets caught up in the collective hysteria of a public execution and throws a stone at the female prisoner, experiencing “unfathomable joy” when he sees “a red stain blossom” where he has struck her. This action later torments him, so much so that when he confesses what he has done to his wife, it almost destroys their marriage.

Meanwhile, Atiq is depressed by his job in which innocent people are put to death, and his home life isn’t much better. He must look after his ill wife alone, because, for one reason and another, the couple have been abandoned by family and friends. It is a lonely existence and there is no solution in sight. He does whatever he can to avoid going home, even if that means wandering the streets in a daze.

A bleak but important read

You may have gathered that I didn’t find Swallows of Kabul a cheery read — though perhaps that’s not surprising given that it is set in Kabul, where “pleasure has been ranked among the deadly sins”.

But as an insight into a foreign culture and way of life it is very good, and it is exceptional at showing how an oppressive regime can infect and poison mindsets by spreading violence and hatred and destroying the very things that make us human.

The bleakness of the book is only bearable for two reasons. The first, is the elegant prose and the exisiqute detail of Khadra’s writing — the descriptions of Kabul are particularly good. And the second, is the narrative tension created by wanting to know how the lives of these two disparate couples will come together. When the connection becomes clear, it is both shocking and disturbing and certainly one of the more memorable endings in a novel I’ve read for quite a while…

Author, Book review, Fiction, Lee Rourke, literary fiction, London, Melville House, Publisher, Setting

‘The Canal’ by Lee Rourke

The-Canal

Fiction – paperback; Melville House Publishing; 224 pages; 2010.

I first heard about Lee Rourke’s The Canal on John Self’s Asylum. John’s review indicated that it was a novel about boredom, and having grown up with the edict that “intelligent people never get bored” I was intrigued to see how it was possible to write a story about this subject that wasn’t — how should I say this? — boring.

Indeed, I’m happy to report that The Canal, easily consumed in a few sittings, is the least boring novel I have read in a long while. I found it so thought-provoking that I committed what I regard as a cardinal sin, as far as books are concerned, and defaced every second or third page by underlining entire passages and scribbling notes in the margins.

Admittedly the narrative style may not be for everyone, because it initially comes across as being rather dull and repetitive, a style I assume Rourke employed deliberately given the subject matter. I was immediately reminded of Magnus Mills narrative voice and found it comforting rather than frustrating.

The story is a simple one, about a man who gives up his job in order to wallow in boredom of his choosing. He does this by sitting on a brown bench beside a murky canal in North London and watches the world — mainly cyclists and pedestrians using the towpath, swans and Canada geese on the water, workers in the ugly office building on the opposite bank — passing by.

I liked my spot across from the flat-screen monitors and superfluous balconies. I liked being bored — I liked what it was doing to me. The word “boring” is usually used to denote a lack of meaning — an acute emptiness. But the weight of boredom at that precise moment was almost overwhelming, it sure as hell wasn’t empty of anything; it was tangible — it had meaning.

Much of the story is written stream-of-consciousness style as the man takes in his surroundings and ponders the meaning of the universe. As you would expect, there is relatively little action (or, indeed plot), but the novel works by creating moments of high tension in stark contrast to the “boring” nature of the narrator’s first-person voice. Chief among these is the arrival of two “outsiders”: the first, an attractive woman who joins him on the bench, and reluctantly becomes a part of his new “boring” world; and the second, a group of menacing teenagers, who threaten his personal safety, on more than one occasion.

Indeed, it’s the arrival of the teenage hoodlums — the Pack Crew from a neighbouring council estate — that throws up several intriguing ideas about boredom that Rourke explores over the course of his novel. One, is the link between boredom and violence, and the second is the link between boredom and acting impulsively.

I’ve always been able to understand impulse. It is something that is instantly recognisable to me. It is something tangible, that I have felt, intrinsically, throughout my life. Even as a young child I understood impulse. I understood that there were no real reasons to my actions, as much as anyone else’s. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a violent man, but, on impulse, I have acted violently.

Rourke takes this notion further by drawing comparisons with 21st century terrorism (the 9/11 terror attacks and the 7/7London bombings are recurring themes), by suggesting that terrorism is nothing more than acts of bored violence. “They [the terrorists] have nothing else to do. We are empty.”

Rourke makes many other highly astute observations that reveal so much about the ways in which we lead our urbanised, technology-dependent, work-dominated lives. He constantly hones in on the ways in which technology is a threat, not a savior (in one scene the narrator compares the canal dredger to a “monster from the deep, like it was about to come back to life and terrorise us all”) and how we waste our lives at work, missing the small things (such as the flight of a swan lifting off from the canal) that gives meaning, and joy, to our existence.

There are recurring metaphors about nature surviving in the face of urban development — urban foxes on the towpath, the beautiful waterfowl swimming on the ugly canal — and how there is no escaping the encroachment of traffic, because even in the most desolate of locations the sky above is still filled with helicopters and aeroplanes.

I could go on… but I won’t. Needless to say, The Canal might be a book about boredom, but there’s little or no risk of evoking that emotional state in the reader. This is a novel pulsing with ideas and theories (and lots of facts about London, if you’re that way inclined), and one that’s likely to tell you more about the human condition than any textbook possibly could.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, David Park, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting

‘The Truth Commissioner’ by David Park

TruthCommissioner

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 372 pages; 2009.

All good things come to those that wait, which is a fairly apt description for how I felt as I read David Park’s The Truth Commissioner. I considered abandoning the book several times, before everything began to kick into gear somewhere around page 242. That’s a lot of pages to wade through, and a lot of information to hold in your head, before things begin to make sense. It’s worth the effort though.

The story revolves around a Truth and Reconciliation Commission designed to heal the scars of Northern Ireland’s past by finding out what happened to citizens who disappeared during the Troubles. It hones in on one particular case in which a 14-year-old boy, Connor Walshe, disappeared, believed killed by the IRA on the basis that he was a “tout”.

The Commission is headed up by Harry Stanfield, a human rights lawyer, especially appointed by the British Prime Minister as the Truth Commissioner because “he has no personal or political baggage to be packed on either side”. But Stanfield, who spent the first 12 years of his life in Belfast, feels no affinity for the place and thinks the process of the Commission is a bit like “an old manged, flea-infested dog returning to inspect its own sick”.

Later we are introduced to three other characters: Francis Gilroy, a former political prisoner who is the newly appointed Minister with responsibility for Children and Culture; James Fenton, a retired RUC detective who now spends his time climbing mountains and helping a Romanian orphanage; and Danny, a young man living in Florida who’s looking forward to the birth of his first child with his Latino girlfriend, Ramona.

The current lives of these four men are explored in rather sizable “pen portraits”, which read almost as if they are standalone stories. This is an interesting approach to take, because it gives the reader a real sense of these people as human beings, rather than as the stereotypical characters one might expect from a book that is about the Troubles (for instance, the Brit, the cop, the IRA leader and the young terrorist). But it also makes for a slightly frustrating read, because you have no knowledge of how these characters are connected, nor how they fit into the nugget of the story, until some 150 pages from the end.

The novel doesn’t hit its stride until the four divergent storylines merge into one. But once the pace picks up it becomes almost thriller-like as you wait for the “truth” to come out: what did happen to Connor and who is to blame?

This is not a book for impatient readers, but it is a rewarding one. Given it’s set in Belfast and explores the notion of relatives reclaiming their dead in a war that raged for 30 years, I had expected the book to focus on politics and religion. But these are mentioned in mere passing, and often with the sense that it was all rather pointless, as these observations by Stanfield attest:

He looks at the faces of those standing outside the drawing office. The wind has whipped their cheeks so that they look as if they bear thin tribal incisions cut in their flesh. And after all, what was it really, except some rather pathetic and primitive tribal war where only the replacement of traditional weapons by Semtex and the rest succeeded in bringing it to temporary attention on a bigger stage?

The Truth Commissioner is essentially a book about people, with foibles and troubled histories, who are trying to find their way in unfamiliar, peaceful terrain. You get the sense that none of the four main characters are bad people, but that they got caught up in events that were “normal” at the time but now, through the lense of peace, look barbaric and wrong. Each of them, grappling with secrets of their own — whether it be Stanfield’s penchant for sleeping with prostitutes or Gilroy’s belief that he’s not cultured enough to be the minister for culture — are plagued by guilt, fear of retribution and denial. Each of them wants a way out. The “truth” isn’t always the answer…

Author, Book review, essays, Martin Amis, Non-fiction, Publisher, Vintage

‘The Second Plane’ by Martin Amis

SecondPlane

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 224 pages; 2009.

Martin Amis is best known as an English novelist with some 10 titles to his name. But Amis is also a short story writer, literary critic and essayist, and this book comprises a collection of 14 pieces — two short stories, eight essays and four reviews — around the theme of September 11, 2001. These pieces were written between 2001 and 2007, and have been produced in the order in which they were written. Amis says he has added to them, but cut nothing, although he was briefly tempted “to cover my tracks”.

Now, this is where I put up my hand and confess that I’m not well versed in Amis’s work. I read Times Arrow many moons ago and it did not convince me to try any of his other stuff. My sister, who doesn’t read as much as me, enjoyed London Fields, but I’m still not convinced.

Reading this collection I’m still no closer to understanding Amis or what makes him tick other than I now know he’s an atheist turned “weak-agnostic” and he doesn’t think much of Islamists, George Bush or Tony Blair. Join the club.

There’s something about these pieces that seems too dry and too highbrow for one to truly engage with them. At times it felt like I was reading a novelist pretending to be a journalist — and on that basis, he fails, because there’s too much style and too many literary flourishes getting in the way of the facts.

A case in point. Or four cases in point, actually. He reviews three books and one movie — United 93 directed by Paul Greengass; The Looming Tower: Al Quaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright; State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III by Bob Woodward; America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It by Mark Steyn; and The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left by Ed Husain — in this collection and with the exception of the book by Steyn, whom he describes as an “oddity” who “writes like a maniac”, I’m not really clear where he stands on them: did he like them or not? In many ways, he simply summarises the contents, adds his two-bits worth on the subject and refuses to tell us what he really thinks of the works in question.

So, putting aside the reviews, how do the other pieces fare? By far the best piece here is his opening essay entitled The Second Plane which was first published in The Guardian just seven days after the attacks on the World Trade Center. There is raw emotion here and a desperate attempt at comprehending the incomprehensible. (In his author’s note at the start of the book Amis describes the piece as “hallucinatory” because it was “fevered by shock and by rumour”.) But it’s the opening sentences that really sets the scene, for this short chapter as well as the book as a whole:

It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her.

In The Voice of the Lonely Crowd, first published in The Guardian in 2002, he makes a salient claim, later championed by many others, that the event had brought literature to its knees. He argues that “many novelists chose to write some journalism about September 11” because “they were playing for time”. I think, in this instance, he may be right.

I think he’s also right about a lot of the stuff in the rest of this essay, not the least his theory that religion is a sham.

… religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatever. Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful. It is straightforward — and never mind, for now, about plagues and famines: if God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion.

Similarly, The Wrong War — written in March 2003, before the invasion of Iraq — is a strong piece about how America is “behaving like someone still in shock” and that the “axis of evil” is a theological construct invented by Bush because it “makes him feel easier about being intellectually null”.

As you can see, Amis doesn’t pull his punches. But what he says makes sense.

I especially like his claim that the Coalition planned to go to war because there was a lack of weapons of mass destruction, not the other way around:

The surest way by far of finding out what Iraq has is to attack it. Then at last we will have Saddam’s full cooperation in our weapons inspection, because everything we know about him suggests that he will use them all. The Pentagon must be more or less convinced that Saddam’s WMDs are under a certain critical number. Otherwise it couldn’t attack him.

On the whole this is an interesting collection, although it probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know or haven’t come to figure out on your own. But what it does do is provide an insight into a dreadful time in our recent history and shows how the public realm has been shaped and altered by terrorism and war.