Universal harvester: chaffing over the grain

This is my review of  Universal Harvester  by John Darnielle

I never came to understand why this novel is called “Universal Harvester”. It is well-written and original, but with its unresolved ambiguities, lack of development of the key characters apart from motherless Jeremy Heldt and his bereaved father, and rather limp conclusion, it left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied.

Part One of this short novel is very promising, a page-turning psychological drama  which subtly develops a sense of unease, even menace in a small Iowa town where nothing much happens and men pass the time of day talking about fishing. In danger of sinking into a rut at the local video rental store (VHS tapes because it’s the end of the 1990s),  Jeremy Heldt begins  to receive complaints about videos with “something” on them, and then becomes obsessed himself by  the unsettling shots someone has managed to insert into certain films.  The spare prose is effective not only in its vivid evocation of rural/ small-town life, creating a strong sense of place, but also in the portrayal of the relationship between Jeremy and his father as they try to provide mutual support and respect each other’s grief.

The second part dispels  the illusion that this is  working up to being a tale of horror or detective thriller, rupturing the narrative drive with an abrupt switch back to the 1960s with the focus on a different set of characters. The style become more “exposition” rather than reveal what goes on in Irene Sample’s mind to cause a dramatic  and life-changing action on her part.

Although it seemed clear who was responsible for altering the tapes, in the last two sections, my frustration grew over  the unresolved ambiguities as to why and exactly how this was being done, including what induced, even forced, others to take part as  “actors”.  The author begins the acknowledgements with:  “This is a book  largely about mothers”.  The only reason I can see for inclusion in Part Four of  the Pratts, who come to rent the house where the tapes were altered  some years previously,  is to introduce a “normal happy family” of comfortably off Californians to provide a contrast with those rendered dysfunctional by the loss of a mother. With perhaps rather thoughtless complacency, the Pratts display the confidence and resilience borne of good fortune that is only mildly or temporarily thrown off course by a troubling sense of other people’s distress. They also demonstrate how differently, partially and inaccurately strangers may view a place compared with previous occupiers unknown to them.

Having just read William Faulkner’s “As I lay dying”, I noted some similarities in the frequent focus on small details rather than the main issues, which one often has to deduce,  in the switches in viewpoint and in the idea that mystery of the altered tapes, even the effects of losing one’s mother, are not the essence of the story.  This seems to lie in the nature of being, in which, for instance, people may cease to exist for us when they move out of our lives,  or the difficulty of knowing what went on in a house or place before one lived there.

“She wondered what had gone missing from Iowa before she ever got there. There is no way of knowing. That’s what pictures are for, after all: to stand in place of the things that weren’t left behind, to bear witness to people and places and things that might otherwise go unnoticed”.

The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past

This is my review of The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past

With the chilling downward spiral back into Cold War politics, it seems more vital than ever to understand why the Putin regime operates as it does and most Russians accept it.

This impressively clear and insightful analysis gains authenticity from the journalist author’s fluent grasp of Russian, his study of the country’s history, and time spent living and travelling widely in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). He has sought a fresh perspective in his focus on “the ghosts of the past”, which in various ways cripple and distort the current state of society.

As a student, Shaun Walker saw first-hand the “poverty, widespread squalor and rampant exploitation” in Moscow a decade after the collapse of communism, which left many Russians feeling disoriented and rootless. In the vacuum created by the sudden break-up of the USSR, Putin was resolved not merely to stabilise the economy but to establish Russia in what he saw as its rightful place as a “first rank” global power.

Shaun Walker repeatedly returns to the “memory politics” which Putin has used to raise morale and forge a sense of unity: at the heart of this is the continued celebration of Russian victory in “saving the world from fascism” in World War Two, without any admission of Stalin’s tyranny, such as the mass deportation to remote labour camps of hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority villagers for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Walker cites the headteacher in a rundown Irkutsk suburb where some families have had to cut back on food recently. “Patriotism is the most important thing” she declares, having reintroduced the old Soviet uniform for her pupils, to improve morale. The parents approve of Putin’s efforts to fight corruption, probably unaware of the extent of his own unreported wealth together with that of his cronies.

As suggested by these examples, Shaun Walker proceeds through a series of case studies mainly based on peripheral regions closer to Western Europe where there is more history and risk of uprisings: Georgia, the Ukraine and Chechnya. In the latter, generous investment for the reconstruction of places like Grozny combined with the desire for stability, have encouraged people to treat as “an inconvenient and ignored detail” the fact that their leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s father led Chechens to fight the Russians in the 1990s. Grozny’s central avenue has been renamed from “Victory Avenue” to “Putin Avenue”. The author writes of how Chechens “build walls around certain events in their lives, so that they can often only speak in half-memories and platitudes” and quotes Koestler: “If power corrupts, the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways”.

We are shown how Putin’s attitudes have evolved. Initially wishing to be a respected and reliable ally of the west, even suggesting that Russia might join the EU or NATO, he began to feel cold-shouldered and threatened by western support for rebels in Georgia and Ukraine. This pushed him towards a kind of continuation of the old tsarist empire, supported by a mixture of renewed religious Orthodoxy, political autocracy with a “window-dressing” of democracy and pride in nationality. A “natural state of confrontation” with external powers has now “won the day” as illustrated by the annexation of the Crimea, justified by the need to “right the wrong” of Krushchev’s relinquishment to Ukraine of an area which was historically Russian until 1954.

There is passing reference to the distorted reporting of foreign affairs and failure to investigate and bring to convincing justice the murderers of journalists who threaten to “rock the boat” by probing the system too deeply, but this grim legacy of a ruthless authoritarian past is not explored in great depth. Although fascinating, the analysis seems incomplete in its neglect of other major relevant aspects, like Putin’s suppression of true democracy in the form of Alexei Navalny, a potentially major opponent denied from standing for election on what sound like bogus charges of embezzlement. The same applies to the implications of the suspicious death in custody of the tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, alleged moves to undermine western democracy by influencing elections, and renewed assertiveness in bombing Syria.To be fair, Putin’s recent vaunting of “new weaponry he claims will render NATO defences completely useless” and the bizarre poisoning of the Skripals in Britain came too late for this book.

As I lay dying – challenging read after which “ordinary” novels seems lacking

This is my review of As I lay dying by William Faulkner.

In the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, based on Faulkner’s deep knowledge of Mississippi in the Great Depression, wife and mother Addie Bundren lies dying for only the first fifth of this modern classic, to the hypnotic mantra of sawing as her son Cash painstakingly constructs a coffin within sight and sound of her bed . The rest of this short but dense novel is taken up with the fateful Odyssey borne of Anse Bundren’s stubborn to the point of foolish insistence on taking his wife’s body on a ramshackle cart over routes where road bridges have been swept away in the floods, to “lie with her own people” in the town of Jefferson. As it turns out, both he and his daughter Dewey Dell have an ulterior motive for getting there at all costs.

To achieve this, Anse needs the assistance of his children, in particular his three very different adult sons. It is a continual puzzle as to how this pathetic, incompetent man manages to use his wheedling guile to hold them to their thankless task, which brings each of them long-term suffering of a different kind. Only Anse comes out of the situation with any advantage – clearly, the cynical Faulkner did not believe that people get their just desserts. Yet there is a bond between the often hostile brothers, as shown by the risks taken to salvage Cash’s precious carpentry tools from the river-bed.

The unrelenting, macabre and bleak theme is rendered tolerable, even gripping by the remarkable style, the wry black humour and quirky Southern speech. The book requires intense concentration with its multiple points of view, each chapter representing by turns the thoughts of a different character, expressed in a stream of consciousness that is part literary, even poetical, part pithy, part convoluted colloquial dialogue. On occasion Faulkner even invents words for want of an existing one that suits – “uninferant”, “uncurried”.

It helps to know that Faulkner disliked the “normal” style of straightforward explanation, preferring to leave major events merely implied or hinted at, rather in the style of the film scripts which he took to writing in later life. He enraged Ernest Hemingway by observing that he “lacked courage”, by which he meant, not in a physical sense, but as regards being prepared to “get out on a limb…risk bad taste…overwriting….dullness.” Faulkner himself took all these risks in spades in this novel. Apparently written in only six weeks, it has a raw, unedited feel at times, as may have been his intention. It is debatable whether this is a strength or weakness. I found myself rereading some passages because they are so stunning, others in a vain and tantalising attempt to make sense of them. Sometimes, the brilliance seems to slip into pretentiousness or tedium.

Some of the most powerful passages describe Jewel Bundren’s sadistic passion for his “pusset-gutted bastard” of a horse. “Enclosed by a glittering maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings”, Jewel “moves with the flashing limberness of a snake….for an instant… whole body earth-free, horizontal, whipping snake-limber….Then Jewel is on the horse’s back. He flows upward in a stooping swirl like the lash of a whip, his body midair shaped to the horse” and so on. Later we see the horse “dancing and swirling like the shape of its mane and tail and the splotches of its coat had nothing whatever to do with the flesh-and-bone inside them”.

There is humour in Darl Bundren’s acutely droll assessment of his father. “He got sick once from working in the sun when he was twenty-two years old, and he tells people that if ever he sweats, he will die. I suppose he believes it.”

Irony marks the portrayal of the preacher who rushes to Addie’s bedside in an attempt to pre-empt any deathbed confession with one of his own, complacently concludes that his efforts in battling through the floodwaters are sufficient to obtain God’s mercy, “He will accept the will for the deed” and enters the “house of bereavement” with a mere sanctimonious “God’s grace upon this house”.

There is menace, not to mention an indictment of Anse’s inappropriate behaviour, in the continual references to the ever-present vultures which obsess Addie’s youngest son Vardaman: “Now there are seven of them, on little tall black circles”.

At one extreme, Vardaman and his teen-age sister Dewey Dell seem handicapped in their ability to communicate by their limited speech. At the other, the sensitive, perceptive Darl is often used as the mouthpiece for the author’s most sophisticated verbal pyrothechnics. Yet even the tortuous southern speech can be surprisingly telling as when bemused neighbour Tull observes, “The Lord aimed for…a fellow… to do and not to spend too much time thinking, because his brain is like a piece of machinery: it won’t stand a whole lot of racking”. Likewise, Cash’s final observation, “ But I ain’t so sho that ere a man has the right to say what is crazy and what aint. It’s like there was a fellow in every man that done a-past the sanity or insanity, that watches the sane and the insane doings of that man with the same horror and the same astonishment”.

There are also deeper levels of meaning to this book about, say, Addie role as a wife and mother, or the language of religion used to as a form of social control in a deferential rural community which defy inclusion in a short review without “spoilers”.

Sworn Virgin


This is my review of Sworn Virgin  by Elvira Dones.

According to the “Kanun”, “a set of traditional, orally transmitted laws which have persisted for centuries in the remote mountain valleys of northern Albania, a woman who feels the need to assume an independent male role in society must live as a “sworn virgin”, adopting the dress and behaviour of a man. When teenage Hana who has somehow managed to escape to Tirana to study literature feels obliged to return to her village to care for her dying Uncle Gjergi, rather than accept his insistence on the “security” of an arranged marriage, she impulsively resolves to become “Mark Doda”, rapidly learning to walk, swear, smoke and drink like a man. The irony is, of course, that a woman’s gaining of liberty in this way is at the price of the freedom to express her true self.

We first encounter Hana some fifteen years later when, in her mid-thirties, she has decided to take the drastic step of returning to life as a woman, making the transition in the family of her supportive cousin Lila who has emigrated to America. Proceeding in a series of lengthy flashbacks, the narrative explores with some empathy the practical and emotional difficulties of adapting back to life as a woman, particularly in a society in which this means being much more fashion-conscious and sexual, but glosses over why Hana did not simply return to Tirana after her uncle’s death, and over the process by which she began to change her mind about how she wants to live. Also, I may not have read carefully enough, but how did she manage to get access to the United States to both live and work there, it would seem indefinitely?

Although the theme caught my attention, I was initially put off by the clunky style, uncertain whether this was due to the Albanian author, writing in Italian, or the translation into English. It seems to flow better as the story progresses, perhaps as the author “gets into her stride”.

Some of the most vivid, authentic and moving sections are the descriptions of life in the enclosed, traditional mountains where songs and flowers are mixed with betrayal, wounds and brutality, “mountains made of eyes that observe and forbid”. The caustic comments on Orwellian life under communism, in which failings of the system were denied with hypocrisy and corruption rife amongst those in charge, have the bitter ring of personal experience. There is also a strong portrayal of the young Hana, hungry for learning, unable to deal with the fact that men find her attractive, and hampered by her sense of being an outsider, different from other more privileged students.

The scenes set in America seem weaker, verging at times on “chick lit” as, having acquired an impressive grasp of English at great speed, Hana experiments with makeup and women’s clothes, agonises over sex, periodically escapes into the masculine refuge of strong liquor, and banters with her Americanised niece Jonida, who I appreciate may have been included to show the life Hana might have led in different, freer circumstances.

Lila’s Albanian husband Shtjefën seems too good to be true, and a little hard to visualise: “He’s part bear, part butterfly, this man. He goes on slurping his bean soup. ‘What about you, Mark? Did you get some rest? You look a bit lost, brother.’ (Hana is still dressed as a man)…. Before asking for Lila’s hand, Shtjefën had been wiry and blond. His head was like a sunflower. The girls in the village said it was because of his height: he caught the sun as soon as it came out, long before the others, and was the last to lose it before sundown. His speech sounded rare and distant, like the glory that cloaked his family”. Perhaps this is intended to imply the incongruity of living in bland, standardised, materialistic urban America with unexpressed, dreamlike memories of life in the harsh but beautiful mountains.

The super-understanding journalist Patrick O’Connor plays a somewhat contrived role in a story which seems to end too abruptly. Overall, it’s a patchy novel, compelling at times, but some parts could have been developed better.

“Mrs Osmond” by John Banville – over-egged pastiche when would have preferred author’s own voice

This is my review of “Mrs Osmond” by John Banville

John Banville’s sequel to “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James develops the plot further to explore Isabel Osmond’s response to the bitter realisation that her husband has married her solely for her money and has been concealing from her a sordid and humiliating secret. I felt at a disadvantage at first in not having read “The Portrait of a Lady”, since this would have enabled me to gauge the degree of Banville’s success in attempting to mirror James’s style. Yet, knowing the details of the original would have spoiled my enjoyment of the way John Banville gradually reveals the details of what has led to Mrs Osmond’s distress.

Although it seems acceptable for a writer to produce a prequel or sequel to a deceased author’s work, I am less sure about artistic method of trying to imitate his style – a painter who tried to produce pictures in the style of Monet would after all be condemned as “derivative”. I agree with reviewers who feel that Banville has “over-egged” his efforts to emulate James – his convoluted flights of fancy often weighted down with unrelenting alliteration and jarring metaphors, to the point of seeming ludicrous and digestible only in small quantities, unrelieved by James’s subtlety and excuse in having been born in an earlier age when what we now regard as flowery speech and excessive refinement were the norm for the privileged classes: “Her thoughts moved in large, loose loops, but at least once every round they revisited, like a planet at its perihelion, the question of what precisely Miss Janeway’s portentious remark might have been meant to mean”.

Or to take a more irritating overworked passage: “Europe had been her fate, and so it was still. Yet she should not have allowed her aunt to thrust her upon that fabled continent so precipitately, as a free-trader’s posse might snatch from the doorway of a dockside tavern some poor young hearty fuddled on rum and press him into a captive life on the roiling ocean; indeed, she should not have allowed it. Her aunt was not to blame that she was lashed by unbreakable bonds to Europe’s mast”. And so on.

I would have preferred this novel written more in Banville’s is own dry, pithy style which kept sprouting through the verbiage to hint at what might have been. There are some strong dialogues, as in the scene where Isabel confronts her reptilian husband, with detailed descriptions which almost read like stage directions. The portrayal of Isabel’s mental confusion, her veering between weakness and decision, her desire for revenge but shrinking from descending to the level of Gilbert Osmond and his mistress are often well expressed. There is some humour, as in the portrayal of Isabel’s maid Staines, or the daunting lunch served by the vegetarian suffragist Miss Janeway: “boiled broccoli, boiled beans and boiled spinach” eaten “in silence save for irrepressible herbivoral crunchings”. On the other hand, too many characters, like the unscrupulous Madame Merle seem like caricatures or appear two-dimensional.

I wanted to know what would happen, uncertain whether the outcome would be tragic, or not amount to much at all, but found it hard to cope with more than a few chapters at a time. In fact, the ending was as abrupt as James’s and even less conclusive, to the extent of seeming “a bit of a cop out” on Banville’s part.

Ne Lâche pas ma Main – Don’t let go

This is my review of Ne Lâche pas ma Main by Michel Bussi.

On holiday in the French tropical paradise of Réunion, Liane Bellion disappears from her hotel room, leaving only evidence of a struggle. As the damning evidence against him mounts, her husband Martial decides to go on the run with the couple’s pampered but bright six-year-old daughter Sopha. This being a novel by Michel Bussi, Martial is unlikely to have murdered his wife, but is unable to prove his innocence, plus he could well have committed some other crime, or be about to do so.

In the same vein as Bussi’s excellent “Nymphéas noirs”, this novel has a remarkably convoluted plot in which the reader can be sure of nothing, except that the author is capable of switching from corny mawkishness to moments of brutal violence or tragic fate from which no character may be spared. Once again, he develops a strong sense of place, in this case a volcanic island with some striking landscapes of deep craters, lava fields encroaching on fields of sugar cane and palm-fringed beaches, scenic tourist spots, which he describes in detail along with the local vegetation and birdlife – all of which can be checked on google images. Even the route Martial takes can be located on “street view”, and the Hotel Alamanda at Saint-Gilles-les-Bains exists in reality.

Bussi also fleshes the story out with details of the social background: the Créoles, descendants of slaves and still exploited as cheap labour in the hotels, the Zarabes, muslims of Indian origin like the driven police officer, Captain Aja Purvi, and the Zoreilles, the “top dogs” from the French mainland.

This is a page-turner until the accumulation of implausible plot twists becomes too much to swallow and by then it is too late to give up. There is also the odd dud scene, such as the clunky debate on the effects of rum on the local population conducted by the hypocritical drinking mates of unlikely police lieutenant Christos. Even more toe-curling are the sex scenes with his voluptuous lover Imelda.

Most of the characters seem somewhat overdrawn: ageing hippy Christos, with his grey pony-tail, smoking pot he has confiscated from Imelda’s borderline-criminal teenage son Nazir; Imelda herself, a Creole Miss Marple to out-class the detectives, but not wise enough to avoid having five children by different feckless men, nor keep clear of danger in her sleuthing; Aja Purvi, humourless in her single-minded ambition, throwing the furniture round in bursts of unprofessional frustration, exploiting her long-suffering husband’s seemingly inexhaustible good will as he somehow combines a teaching career with caring for their two daughters.

The slightly jokey tone perhaps makes one take the occasional bloody murder too lightly. The strongest aspect of the book is the creation of a sense of tension as Martial and Sopha maintain their freedom against the odds. The only subtle relationship in the book is the complex bond between the two as Martial tries to connect with the daughter whose care has always been provided by his overprotective wife, with the constant nagging suggestion that Martial may in fact be even more of a monster than the police believe.

This reads best in the original French and proves a good source of vocabulary for a foreign reader. For the reasons given above, it is not as effective as “Nymphéas noirs”.

Des Hommes – The Cost of Denying the Past

This is my review of  Des Hommes by Laurent Mauvignier.

Of all the novels on the fraught topic of the struggle for Algerian independence from France, this is unusual in its focus on the trauma of young men sent out to fight a colonial war without understanding the situation into which they were thrown and unprepared for the violence they were about to witness and perpetrate. The English title of “The Wound” for this novel, to be found in the opening quotation from Genet (“As for your wound, where is it?……”) seems more apt than the original one of “Des Hommes” (“Men”) in that it suggests the long-term mental injury they suffered, but were often unable to relieve by talking about it. Perhaps they felt instinctively that those who had not shared their experiences would never understand, or they repressed memories too shameful, painful or shocking to express, or simply lacked the words to confide in others. Yet “Des Hommes” is also a meaningful title in conveying how a group of males may tend to interact, responding to an attack with aggression, also using it as a means of avoiding expressing emotion.

Starting with “afternoon”, this novel covers a twenty-four hour period split into four sections, but also makes extensive use of flashbacks and recollections to reveal the lives of two cousins from a rural French community: Bernard, nick-named “Feu-de-Bois”, a dishevelled alcoholic who sponges off his long-suffering sister Solange, and Rabut who narrates parts of the story. Both in their sixties, the cousins were called up to fight in Algeria in the early ‘60s, but have never spoken about this part of their lives which clearly haunts them both. For Rabut, Algeria has an unreal dreamlike quality, alien and exotic in its sunshine, scenery and Arab culture, shocking in the incidents of brutality.

The fragmented, stream of consciousness style can be very powerful, but also hard to follow, particularly if one is reading it in the original French as a foreigner. The opening pages are particularly obscure as we see Feu-de-Bois antagonising his whole family by a particularly crass action, before “going off the rails” in what seems like a racist attack. Rabut seems to have some empathy with his cousin, yet it becomes apparent that there is also a deep-seated hostility between the two men. The explanation for all this is gradually revealed in an impressionistic novel with a strong sense of place – one can see the fields in the snow versus the desert barracks – , minute descriptions of physical sensations, snatches of dialogue and intense action, or sharp flashes of insight in all the bleak obliqueness.

I found it necessary to read up some background history to understand the book better, and some aspects could have been developed more fully, like the invidious position of the Harkis, native Muslims who volunteered as auxiliaries in the French Army during the Algerian War. Yet perhaps Mauvignier is more interested in the feelings aroused by a colonial war in which one does not have a stake, rather than the details of the Algerian conflict in particular. This is likely to be a novel which divides opinion over its distinctive style, unusual structure and inconclusive plot. It repays rereading, is somehow absorbing without being a conventional page-turner, but certainly gives food for thought over the psychological impact of the Algerian War, particularly on individuals, ordinary French people caught up in it.