Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Spain, travel

‘Homage to Barcelona’ by Colm Tóibín

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 240 pages; 2010.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Australia, right at the bottom of the world, so removed from everywhere else, that I quickly developed a desire to travel and to explore and to discover new places and cultures. As a child and teenager I could only do it through books.

Later, as an undergrad, my interest in travel was piqued even further by classes I took in the history of human civilisation and the great gardens and landscapes of the world. When I was about 21 I distinctly remember aching to visit Italy and Spain and Rome and New York and England to see all the amazing places I had studied and learned about.

Of course, as a cash-strapped student, and later as a new graduate struggling to find a job because Australia was in the grip of an economic recession, I had to satisfy my wanderlust through books. That’s when I went through a phase of reading travelogues — Eric Newby’s Round Ireland in Low Gear and Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s Worlds Apart: An Explorer’s Life are the two that stick in the mind the most.

But those kinds of books never really did it for me. If I’m honest, they bored me. It was a genre I quickly abandoned.

It wasn’t until I  left Australia for the first time, aged 29, that I got to explore the Northern Hemisphere. During my 30s and 40s I learned a valuable lesson: those travelogues don’t really resonate with me unless I’ve already visited the places that are mentioned in the book, or, better still, if I’m in-situ at the time of reading.

Which is a long-winded way of getting around to saying what I really wanted to say: that reading Colm Tóibín’s travelogue-cum-memoir Barcelona while I was actually in Barcelona was an immeasurably pleasurable experience.

In this book, the mere mention of the quiet, dark alleyways of the Gothic Quarter, which I had explored thoroughly for an entire afternoon, or the descriptions of Plaça Reial, where I’d treated myself to a glass of white Rioja and a plate of deep-fried anchovies while watching passersby, felt all the more special because I had experienced them first hand.

Plaça Reial is a large, exotic-looking square, that is lined with restaurants and cafes, the perfect place to people watch

 

Bishops Bridge, in the Gothic Quarter, looks medieval but was built in 1928 to match the style of the two Gothic buildings it links together

 

The chapter on Antoni Gaudí — A Dream of Gaudí — gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for the man’s amazing architectural achievements, the Sagrada Família (his great unfinished Catholic cathedral) and Casa Milà (aka La Pedrera or the “stone quarry”), both of which I’d visited and marvelled over, my jaw hanging open with the sheer wonder and beauty of them.

The Sagrada Família, which has been under construction since 1882 and isn’t expected to be completed until 2032!

 

Casa Milà, built in the early part of the 20th century, was the last private residence designed by Gaudi

 

But the book is much more than a tourist guide to the city. It’s a comprehensive look at Barcelona’s history, its food and culture, its nightlife, its artistic achievements and its political ups and downs. Tóibín’s lyrical writing, which I know so well from his novels (you can see reviews of them here), is only equalled by the subject matter he covers such as the artists (Picasso, Miró, Dali) and the urban designers and architects that shaped the city.

It’s written with all the insight of someone who has lived and breathed the city (Tóibín lived there from 1975 — “two months before the death of Franco” — until 1978, and has been a frequent visitor ever since.)

Reading it now, almost 30 years later after it was first published in 1990 (just as Barcelona was gearing up to host the Olympic Games), some of it appears to be a little out of date. For instance, Plaça Reial, he writes, is best avoided because it was “reputed to be the source of all the crime in the city centre, the place where the handbag-snatchers and the dope dealers hang out” and he shares similar advice about the rest of the Barri Gòtic, which has clearly been much cleaned up crime-wise since then.

But this hardly seems to matter, for Barcelona is a wonderful book that celebrates a wonderful European city. It’s a beguiling portrait of a sometimes troubled place, one that continues to forge — and fight for — its own Catalan identity. And it’s rich with personal insights and anecdotes, almost as if Tóibín is your own private tour guide. What more could you want from a travelogue?

The photographs in this post were taken during my solo trip to Barcelona on 19-22 March 2019. There are a lot more on my Instagram account if you fancy scrolling back through my timeline.

20 books of summer (2017), Africa, Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Damon Galgut, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘In a Strange Room’ by Damon Galgut

In a strange room by Damon Galgut

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 192 pages; 2010.

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.

Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room is a lush, hypnotic novel that explores longing and desire through the prism of travel.

Divided into three seemingly unrelated parts — The Follower, The Lover and The Guardian —  it merges in the reader’s mind to form a seamless whole.

If you’ve ever gone travelling/backpacking, felt alienated or not known what you want from life, it will resonate.

Melancholy sadness

Written in straightforward prose, but with a haunting lilt to it, Galgut takes the reader on a journey that feels like a blend of autobiography (in some sections the narrative switches between first person and third person, with a meta-fictional “Damon” as the focus), reportage and literary fiction.

He beautifully captures the sense of dislocation one can experience when passing through places so that nothing feels quite real and yet everything appears strange, almost threatening, especially if you are not “a traveller by nature” and are riddled with anxiety. Yet this heightened vulnerability also gives the world “a power it doesn’t have in ordinary life”.

He’s wonderful at exposing the myth that travel is always glamorous or exciting: sometimes it’s nothing more than waiting around.

A large part of travelling consists purely in waiting, with all the attendant ennui and depression. Memories come back of other places he has waited in, departure halls of airports, bus-stations, lonely kerbsides in the heat, and in all of them there is an identical strain of melancholy summed up in a few transitory details. A paper bag blowing in the wind. The mark of a dirty shoe on a tile. The irregular sputter of a fluorescent bulb. From this particular place he will retain the vision of a cracked brick wall growing hotter and hotter in the sun.

Petty squabbles on the road

And he’s very good at examining the relationships between people on the road, whether the tensions between travelling companions or friendships forged with people you meet along the way. This element is particularly well examined in the second part of the book, when the narrator goes on an extended walking holiday with Reiner, a German he meets in section one.

There is an unspoken sexual tension between the two, but neither of them acts on it and this spills over into bickering and conflicts over simple things such as where to set up their tents and what to eat. And behind all this is a further point of strain: Reiner is financing the trip for both of them and in holding the money he also wields power over his companion:

But whenever they stop to buy something there is a silent battle about what they will choose and who will be allowed to have it. Reiner continues to buy his chocolates, for example, but if I want something there is often a dispute, hmm I don’t know about that what do we need that for. And sometimes Reiner will buy something for himself, a box of sweets or a bottle of water, and wait for his companion to ask. The asking is humiliating, which Reiner knows. Money is never just money alone, it is a symbol for other deeper things, on this trip how much you have is a sign of how loved you are, Reiner hoards the love, he dispenses it as a favour, I am endlessly gnawed by the absence of love, to be loveless is to be without power.

(Notice the switching between “he” and “I” in the paragraph above.)

A realistic portrait of travel

The book also looks at the more pragmatic problems of travel, such as border crossings, finding safe accommodation in hostile territory and what happens when you or your companion falls ill on the road. There’s also the age-old problem of whether you should bother to keep in touch with people once you part ways.

And my favourite dilemma: what to do when the travel stops? Do you put down roots, or keep hitting the road? Do you sacrifice the security of a conventional life, or take a risk and lead your life in a more adventurous way?

He goes to London, but the same restlessness comes over him there, and he goes on somewhere else. And somewhere else again. Five months later he finds himself in a strange country, at the edge of a strange town, with dusk coming down. He is watching people drifting into a funfair on the other side of an overgrown expanse of ground.

If you haven’t already guessed, I really loved this book, so much so I ordered Galgut’s entire back catalogue in the wake of it (apart from The Good Doctorwhich I read a couple of years ago). But to write about it here seems almost impossible. This isn’t a book heavy on plot or even character; it’s about feelings, moods, movements and journeys. But it’s so evocative, so fleeting and ephemeral, that it’s like trying to pin clouds to paper.

In fact, Galgut describes a journey as “a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made” — but he could have well been explaining what it is like to read this book.

You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again.

In a Strange Room was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Pieces of it originally appeared in the Paris Review.

This is my 13th book for #20booksofsummer. This is yet another Kindle special (99p) that has been lurking on my device for several years. I bought it in December 2011, but have no memory as to what prompted me to make the purchase.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hanna Krall, holocaust, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Poland, Publisher, Setting

‘Chasing the King of Hearts’ by Hanna Krall

Chasing-the-king-of-hearts

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 176 pages; 2013. Translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm.

Last Christmas I treated myself to all the Peirene Press titles that I did not currently own. My plan was to work my way through them over the course of this year. Alas, with so many books — and other obligations — vying for my attention, it was only last week that I managed to pull one from the pile: Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts.

This book is not your usual Peirene fare in the sense that it’s a little too long to be classed as a novella (it certainly took me far longer than two hours to read it), but I’m not sure that really matters. The book is a tribute to one woman’s amazing ability to survive everything that World War Two throws at her, including the execution of various family members, life in the Warsaw Ghetto, several stints in jail, torture by a cruel Gestapo officer (was there any other kind?)  and  internment in Auschwitz. And that’s only the half of it.

A woman’s love for her husband

The story is framed around a love affair between a woman, Izolda Regensberg, and her husband, Shayek, the “King of Hearts” of the title, who is taken away by force to a concentration camp. Over the next few years, Izolda does everything in her power to be reunited with him — indeed, she becomes the “Queen of Chameleons”: she changes her name, her hair, her occupation and her religion. She finds new ways to make money — selling goods on the blackmarket and acting as a secret message courier — in order to fund her journey to find her beloved.

Her life is constantly in danger as she passes herself off as a blonde-haired Catholic — and for much of the time she gets away with it. But every now and then she doesn’t:

When the train stops at Radom the German takes her to the police station.
Evidently you look like a Jew, says the policeman.
She’s genuinely surprised: I look like a Jew? I’ve never heard that before.
Can you say your Hail Mary? the policeman asks.
Of course. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with the… […] Blessed art thou among women… Because she is addressing the Mother of God, who is full of grace, she goes slowly, making every word count, to show respect.
Listen to you, the policeman laughs out loud. What normal person says Hail Mary like that? Usually it’s hailmaryfullofgracethelordiswiththee… You really are a Jew!

But despite this little “hiccup” she remains steely, determined and astonishingly resilient. Nothing ever seems to faze her: not even broken shoulders and a knocked out tooth. She simply dusts herself off and continues her quest.

And it is a quest in the truest sense of the word, for Izolda comes across so many challenges and obstacles and tests of courage, yet she never gives in. Not even the horrors of Auschwitz can dent her perseverance or enthusiasm. Indeed, she’s so self-assured she approaches Dr Mengele for a job!

Fast-paced adventure story

As you might imagine for a book that covers so much geographical territory —Vienna, Warsaw and countless other towns — the narrative has a rather fast pace. Sometimes events move so quickly it’s hard to keep up —  it’s a catalogue of train journeys, some taken on purpose, others by force  — and reads like a woman’s own adventure story.

The prose style is neat and clipped. It’s written in the third person but in the present tense, which lends the story a sense of immediacy, and it brims with tension throughout. It’s not sensational in the Hollywood sense, but it is a magnificent story told with exceptional restraint. Despite being set during the Holocaust, there’s not a shred of sentimentality or pity in it.

And yet it’s never quite clear whether Izolda’s love is truly reciprocated, and her inner life, along with Shayek himself, is frustratingly unknowable because she’s so stoic and self-contained. But on the whole Chasing the King of Hearts is the kind of story that makes you marvel at humankind’s ability to adapt and survive in the face of so much adversity. It’s also the kind of story that I know will remain with me for a long time to come…

Author, Biblioasis, Book review, Fiction, Kathy Page, Publisher, short stories

‘Paradise & Elsewhere’ by Kathy Page

Paradise-and-elsewhere

Fiction – Kindle edition; Biblioasis; 158 pages; 2014.

Kathy Page’s extraordinary short story collection Paradise & Elsewhere has been long listed for this year’s Giller Prize. I say “extraordinary” because it’s the best word I could come up with to describe the book in its entirety. Each of the 14 stories within it are magical little portholes into other worlds, or, as the author puts it herself (in the Acknowledgements), “explorations into the hinterland between realism and myth”.

Indeed, reading many of these stories is a slightly dislocating experience. That’s because the places in which Page sets them feel real and recognisable — deserts, rural communities, suburbia, to name but a few — and yet somewhere at the mid-way point of each story, or near the end, she drops in a little detail that makes you realise these are not places you’ve ever been — or are likely to want to visit.

Some are set now, others in the future after an unexplained and presumably catastrophic event has changed civilisation in subtle but oh-so important ways.

Dark tales

There’s definitely an undercurrent of menace in many of these tales. People are never to be taken on face value, never to be trusted, because underneath they’ve all got their own private, self-interested agendas. Many characters are manipulative, dark and dangerous. Others are weak and naive — and are always taken advantage of.

This all adds up to some pretty edgy and deeply disturbing short stories, I must say, but Page reigns it in beautifully. There’s no pyrotechnics or melodrama, although the climax of each story is often surprising or unexpected. The writing is restrained throughout; there’s almost a journalistic quality to it and I was often reminded of the very best kind of travel reportage that not only transports you to foreign climes but describes the culture, the food, the people and tries to put it into context.

Some tales also read as fables — not dull, overly simplistic, fables, but ones with dark moral messages at the core reminiscent of British writer Magnus Mills.

Trouble in paradise

As an example, one of the early stories in the collection (and possibly my favourite), Of Paradise, explores what it is to accept new people into our communities. It is set in an oasis — the paradise of the title — in the middle of the desert where a relatively peaceful community has been living in seclusion for a very long time. One day a distressed person arrives, “dragging itself towards us across sand and rock”, and she is given water, food and shelter. While the community nurses “the traveller” to good health they fall a little bit in love with her, but when she is fully recovered opinion is divided about what to do with her:

I said that she must be taught our language. Then she could decide whether she would stay or not, and if so she would have to be told our methods of cultivation and given a home and responsibilities. Others agreed that she should learn how to speak to us, but only so that we could find out where she had come from and send her back to it; there were limits to hospitality. However well-taught and well-loved she was, these people said, she would always feel slightly apart from us who had always been here.

The community becomes increasingly afraid of the stranger in their midst and want to cast her out, not least because they feel she is a burden they can no longer support.

The traveller, I pointed out, might well be a gift as much as a responsibility. She might have some skill we did not practise, she might have reached some understanding we were still groping for. Perhaps we should accept the unfamiliar and learn from it?

I won’t elaborate on what happens to the “foreigner” — you’ll have to read the story yourself to find out — but I couldn’t help thinking of all the issues associated with immigration (both legal and illegal) and border controls that fill our newspapers and TV screens on a daily basis.  And perhaps that’s the greatest strength of Paradise & Elsewhere: Page takes seemingly familiar issues, places and people but alters them ever so slightly so that they’re recognisable without being completely “other”.

As a whole, the book is a wonderful exploration of an old topic — what it is to be an outsider — but it is done in such an original and refreshing way I couldn’t help but be impressed by it. I can be a bit so-so about short story collections, but I loved this one, not least because each tale gave me something to mull over and “chew”. For that reason it’s not one to race through, but one to saviour and enjoy.

Finally, I can’t finish this review without pointing out that I read the Kindle edition of this book and was rather annoyed to find the table of contents located at the rear . I didn’t even know it was there until I got to the end of the book, by which time I had no need to use the table. This might be something to bear in mind if you purchase the Kindle edition.

Australia, Author, Book review, Finch Publishing, Lisa Nops, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sri Lanka, travel, UAE

‘My Life in a Pea Soup’ by Lisa Nops

My-life-in-a-pea-soup

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Finch Publishing; 240 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I have to confess that true stories about motherhood and raising children aren’t normally my cup of tea, so it may come as some surprise that I chose to read and review Lisa Nops’ My Life in a Pea Soup when the publisher pitched it to me. However, I quite like memoirs written by ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and I also like tales about expats, and this book ticked both those boxes.

Planned parenthood

The memoir is written by Lisa Nops, an Australian teacher who married Michael, an English civil engineer, in 1989. Michael’s job often involved working in exotic locations, so at various times the couple have lived in Australia, New Zealand, France, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Bahrain.

When they decided to start a family Lisa was unable to fall pregnant, so four rounds of IVF treatment ensued, with no success. Then, in November 1997, she fell pregnant naturally and their daughter, Sally, was born in 1998.

Initially, Sally appeared to be a normal baby, albeit with an extremely quiet disposition, “inclined to sleep over and above doing anything else, not just at night but during the day as well”. But as time progressed Sally failed to meet ordinary developmental milestones, such as crawling, walking and speaking, was plagued by various illnesses, including ear infections, was prone to “staring intensely at objects and shadows” and began to flap her hands uncontrollably when excited.

When she was three, she was diagnosed with an unknown “neurological problem” that would require intensive speech, language and occupational therapy. There was the very real possibility that she would never learn to speak in sentences. Eventually she was diagnosed as autistic.

Search for a diagnosis

The book charts Lisa’s struggle to find out what was wrong with Sally, a journey that spanned several years — and continents. It was complicated by two factors: Lisa’s inability to fully accept that Sally’s slow development was anything other than her just being slow, and the family’s constant moving from one country to another.

Even when Lisa moved back to her home town of Canberra, Australia, to give Sally a better chance of medical care, things weren’t always straightforward. It certainly didn’t help that Michael remained behind in Sri Lanka to continue working, leaving Lisa to grapple with raising a child with special needs alone.

Once a proper diagnosis was made, it allowed the couple to become more focused on getting the right care and attention for Sally. But this was only half the battle. It did not alter the fact that they were “stuck” in a life they had never planned when they had decided to become parents. Lisa uses the analogy of planning a dream trip to Italy only to end up in Holland by accident:

It’s a different county to the one they had expected, where the countryside is flat and the people speak with guttural inflections. For a while they resent their holiday there; it wasn’t what they had planned and everyone in Italy is having a great time. But, little by little, day by day, they start to enjoy the country’s level plains, the windmills and tulips. They surprise themselves by eventually liking this holiday.

I do not have children, but what this book confirmed to me is the very real challenge that parents of autistic children face on a day to day basis. It’s not a grim read — indeed, there are many chinks of light in it, especially when Lisa and Michael discover (and then adopt) a program called Son-Rise, which helps Sally enormously.

It’s written in a straightforward style, free of sentiment and self-pity, and I suspect readers with autistic children, friends or relatives will learn a lot from it.

Nops also has a lovely way of describing life as an expat, especially the excitement (and apprehension) of moving to a new country, discovering new cultures and adjusting to their customs, and she skilfully interleaves this detail into her story with a lightness of touch. I liked the way the author explores this sense of “otherness”, not only as an expat but as a parent of a child with special needs.

My Life in a Pea Soup won the Finch Memoir Prize in 2012.