“Death and the Penguin” by Andrey Kurkov – modern Kafka’s comic black art imitated by life

What is on the surface the whimsical tale of a lonely failed writer who forms a bond with the penguin he saves from Kiev Zoo when it can no longer afford to feed its exhibits, is underlain by the bleakness and black humour of the searing indictment of a state recently emerged from communism but still bedevilled by acute shortages and corruption.

Viktor is initially delighted to be given what seems like a well-played sinecure writing “obelisks” or obituaries of influential people for a newspaper, until the realisation dawns that he is somehow implicated in the premature demise of the subjects involved. In a modern take on Kafka, he is not quite clear about the nature of the crime to which he is turning a blind eye, but grasps that if ever it is explained to him, it will mean that he too has become dispensable and his own life will be on the line.  The fact that, as a reader, one feels frustrated and a bit wanting in not fully understanding what is going on only adds to the surreal nature of the story.

It is not surprising that everyone seems to consume so much alcohol to deaden their feelings in this grim society. This provides one of the many examples of dark comedy, in which Sergey, the kindly district militiaman who becomes Viktor’s only true human friend, assures a drunken angler that he is “seeing things” when Misha the penguin pops up out of the ice hole in which he is fishing: “Perhaps he’ll ease off the drink a bit” he quips, unable to give  up  policing people’s habits even when off duty, and somewhat hypocritically since he too knocks back large amounts of cognac.

The Ukraine is portrayed as a country in which ambulance drivers have to be bribed to take a sick man to hospital where there is a lack of medicine to treat him anyway, and potatoes seem to be the staple diet, while wealthy criminals will pay $1000 to hire a penguin as a gimmick at the fashionable funeral of a contract killing victim featured in one of Viktor’s obituaries – the irony is endless.

The author does not judge Ukrainians who have been driven to a pragmatic acceptance of corruption,  but describes the lonely penguin, by nature a creature evolved to work in a supportive community, as a metaphor for people living in a post-communist society who suddenly find themselves cut adrift from a mutually supportive community, and alone in a world with new, unfamiliar rules of life.

Having written the novel in 1996, Kurkov has been only temporarily gratified and ultimately depressed to find his art imitated by life in the recent moral and political chaos of the Ukraine. With first-hand experience of  artistic friends liquidated by contract killers, one hopes that this perceptive writer will be safe.

The dramatic climax of this book seems unduly rushed and the ending abrupt, but also quite neat, leaving at least one striking loose end but paving the way for a sequel, or two.

“The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker – unimaginably distant times

The Silence of the Girls by [Barker, Pat]

In this retelling of the aftermath of the fateful argument between Achilles and Agamemnon during the Trojan Wars, Pat Barker takes the viewpoint of Briseis, the high-born woman taken captive as part of the booty from the city of Lyrnessus. Having witnessed Achilles actively involved in the brutal killing of her husband and brothers, she suffers the further trauma of being accepted as his “sex slave”. She is scornful of the women who fawn on the men who possess them to wheedle favours, but knows there is a fine line between this and annoying Achilles so that he hands her over to the common soldiers to share, in what she describes as “a rape camp”. When Patroclus, the friend of Achilles with whom Briseis forms an unlikely friendship offers to persuade Achilles to marry her, she observes how it must appear shocking that she can contemplate such a course of action, yet when reduced to slavery one is prepared to consider almost any way of improving one’s lot.

No doubt hardened by her string of First and Second World War novels, Pat Barker does not flinch from describing scenes of great brutality in battle, alternating with the somewhat contradictory and ludicrous rituals to both desecrate and honour and the person one has killed. Yet her main interest is clearly the role of women in the Trojan wars, the stoical acceptance of their lot as they prepare food, wash clothes and care for the sick to keep the camp going.

The tone is often deliberately modern, colloquial, foul-mouthed, I assume in an attempt to draw parallels between people past and present, enabling us to identify better with the former as “real”. I agree with readers who find the attempt to punctuate an ancient legend with modern anachronisms jarring and who are irritated by the sudden switch part-way to the point of view of Achilles, which tends to undermine a distinct focus on the lives of the forgotten and undervalued women. This is not a feminist novel in the sense that women do not rise up in rebellion against their treatment, nor seriously question the constraints under which they have to live. Descriptions of roles in the camp are often quite dull, for that is what they were.

I found myself curiously unengaged by the book, perhaps because too many incidents rely on magic. So we see the capricious gods punishing the camp with a plague of rats since Agamemnon refuses to release his “bed woman” to her priestly father. Achilles is able to shout so loudly from the camp that his war-cry can be heard in Troy, causing strong men quake. Since he is in need of a suit of protective armour, his mother the goddess Thetis rises from the waves to supply him with a perfectly fitting and flexible one. Having slain Hector, he drags the body behind a chariot daily to dishonour it, only to find that the gods have “defied” him by restoring the corpse to its original state.

Although it is very readable and quite imaginative in reworking the “facts” of the Iliad, I am more impressed by Pat Barker’s books on C20 wars, which seem to provide greater scope for creative writing with character development and plot twists. As it is, Achilles seems merely moody and brutish, fated to die shortly as the price of becoming a legendary super killing machine; Patroclus is portrayed as implausibly empathetic and kind, since he massacres the enemy alongside Achilles without any evident qualms, and the nature of the relationship between the two remains blurred. Briseis is parcelled up like a commodity for a decent enough new husband who will protect her, so her feminism is limited to a C21 awareness of brutality and exploitation which she is unlikely to possess. The final chapter is disappointing: a rushed information dump of bloodthirsty violence to round off the tale.

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney – What does it mean to be “normal?

This is an in-depth portrayal of the evolving relationship in the four life-changing years from leaving school to starting on a career of two young people in present-day Ireland. It is perhaps inspired by George Eliot’s observation, quoted at the outset,  and no doubted garbled here into plain English, on the profound  and unexpected way in which one personality may influence another.

The bright but troubled product of a well-off yet dysfunctional family, Marianne is a loner and misfit at secondary school, continually provoking rejection and bullying by her peers. The one exception is Connell whom she can meet in a neutral setting outside school because his mother cleans for Marianne’s family. Supported by his poor but well-balanced and tolerant single mother Lorraine, the charming, athletic and academic high-flier Connell is the complete opposite of Marianne in being very popular, a situation he is afraid of sacrificing by the admission that he not only likes her but they are in a sexual relationship.  In his immaturity he behaves callously, despite the sensitivity which feeds his love of English and leads Marianne to encourage him to apply to study literature at Trinity, her university choice.

Once at somewhat exclusive middle-class Trinity, the tables are turned: with the chance of a clean slate, it is Marianne’s turn to become accepted and sought after, whereas the working-class Connell feels out of his depth, judged by his thick regional accent and cheap, unfashionable clothes. Yet through indications of her lack of self-esteem and sexual masochism in her relations with men, the degree to which Marianne has been physically and mentally abused is revealed: although details remain sketchy as to her dead father, they are painfully clear as regards her cold mother, and brutal, manipulative brother, both themselves the victims of abuse, but not portrayed with any sympathy like Marianne. Throughout, she and Connell may no longer be lovers but share some deep bond, yet not always with complete openness and self-knowledge. Though highly intelligent and perceptive, immaturity and lack of experience inevitably plunge them into frequent uncertainty and confusion, unable to express their complex, shifting emotions.

This is an insightful and often moving page turner, with the tension of knowing that matters could end in tragedy. Born in 1991, Sally Rooney has the advantage of being close enough to her school years to write with authenticity about the pressure to conform and bullying aggravated by social media. She gets inside the head of the two main characters to create a convincing stream of the changing and conflicting emotions of being on the cusp of adolescence and adulthood.

It may well be that this novel has been over-hyped, although I would not criticise the simple style which is probably  harder to write than it seems and serves to convey  the characters’ thoughts more effectively than  many a self-regarding literary turn of phrase.  I agree that apart from Marianne and Connell, the characters are mostly two-dimensional caricatures, with no indication of their inner motivations and thoughts. The main flaw for me is that periods of mental illness, which figure strongly in the book, seem to be slipped into, or recovered from rather too abruptly, with insufficient development of the situation. However, I was satisfied by the ending which seemed a well-chosen point for conclusion, leaving it open to the reader to decide what happens next in their lives. This is not a depressing read for there are moments of humour despite the emotional intensity.

“Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout – Baffling World

This collection of short stories about the inhabitants of the fictional coastal town of Crosby in Maine remind me of the work of the Canadian novelist Alice Munro,  also of “Lake Wobegon Days”.  The opening tale, introduces us to Henry Kitteridge, the decent, kindly pharmacist who falls for his tragically widowed young assistant Denise. It is easy to understand why he dreams of leaving his brusque, sharp-tongued wife Olive who “had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away”, so hard to grasp why “to leave Olive was as unthinkable as sawing off a leg”.  Olive’s appearances in the stories vary from a brief mention to a pivotal role, to the extent of justifying the use of her name as the overarching title. She embodies three key themes of Elizabeth Strout’s work: ordinary people are flawed and complex; many of us are damaged by “messed-up childhoods”, inevitably screwing up our own offspring in turn; we cling to relationships for fear of  being left alone.

The most successful stories for me were those focused on a clear situation, such as Olive’s thoughts during the wedding reception of her only son Chris, who has married an assertive Californian. Filled with love for the son she may have mentally abused, Olive tries to overcome her “panicky, dismal feeling” and convince herself that this marriage is all for the best until, overhearing a conversation between the bride and a friend, in which Olive is criticised,  she gives vent to her suppressed jealousy and resentment through an original and comical act of revenge. I was also impressed by the subtlety of the final story “River” in which Olive, feeling bereft as a widow who had “day after day unconsciously squandered” the time spent with Henry whom she should have valued more, begins to form an unlikely relationship with a man she has always disliked, who is similarly suffering from the loss of his wife, because even “lumpy, aged, wrinkled bodies were as needy as..young, firm ones”.

Other stories, although interesting, seem too rambling and baggy, probably better developed into novellas. An example of this is the middle-aged man, who unexpectedly finds himself suffering from “empty nest syndrome” after the departure of his four sons, has an affair with a sympathetic single woman, and gets involved in trying to help a young girl afflicted with anorexia.

I found least satisfactory the shorter stories with no connection to Olive, which almost seemed included to pad out the collection to a suitable length, such as the tale of the pianist who drinks too much to drown her emotional pain and lack of confidence, or the self-deluding wife  who is painfully reminded of her husband’s infidelity.

As the above examples suggest, too many of the characters seem to suffer from deep, even suicidal depression, insanity, illness and premature death. The stories are saved from unbearable grimness by the wry humour, and some blackly comical absurdity, as when, caught short on the way home from an evening out, Olive insists on using the hospital toilet, only to find herself and Henry embroiled in a hold-up by two masked men bent on stealing drugs.

The style is for the most part direct and insightful, apart from the odd excess, as when a suicidal psychiatrist who has been “messed up” by his mother shooting herself recalls, her “need to devour her life had been so huge and urgent a to spray remnants of corporeality across the kitchen cupboards”.

A good choice for a book group, these Pullitzer prize-winning stories will provoke a good deal of discussion, and no doubt divide opinion.

“Tombland” by C.J.Sansom – Trusting to see a new day.

 

Tombland (The Shardlake series Book 7) by [Sansom, C. J.]

It is 1549, with the boy-king Edward VI on the throne and his ambitious uncle Edward Duke of Somerset the virtual ruler in his role of Lord Protector. People are already beginning to voice regret over the passing of Henry VIII and England is ripe for rebellion with the grim imposition of fanatical Protestantism and acute poverty aggravated by the cost of on-going wars and the debased currency, but in particular by the accelerating pace of enclosure by wealthier landowners of the common land  vital for the survival of their poorer neighbours.

In the seventh novel in this series, courageous, persistent, incorruptible, liberal-minded lawyer Matthew Shardlake is asked to investigate discreetly a murder charge against John Boleyn, a relative of the king’s sister, the young Princess Elizabeth. Since the Boleyns are out of favour, he may have been framed.

This plot-line is side-lined by the eruption of Kent’s Rebellion on the fringes of  Norwich. Workers who have been subservient all their lives gain confidence and determination in the new-found freedom of the camp on the sandy heath above the city, where they are trained to fight in the event of the Protector failing to accept their demands for reform.  Tension builds with the news of the approaching the army sent to quell their resistance. As the prospect of failure and reprisals grows, some begin to question the decisions of their charismatic leader Robert Kett.

Although sometimes bearing too close a resemblance to a schools’ history documentary, this theme is quite gripping with a range of well-developed characters and certainly raised my interest in a significant happening of which I was unaware, despite having studied A Level History. The lengthy essay at the end shows the book to be remarkably faithful to known events, as well as indicating what some have criticised as the author’s obsession with the theme. One caveat: would the shrewd and cautious Shardlake really have agreed to act as Kett’s legal advisor with so little apparent internal doubt and fear?

I found the details and handling of the Boleyn murder mystery less satisfactory, with an over-reliance on coincidence and a somewhat implausible denouement. Too many of the characters seem to be caricatures, or two-dimensional, the villains ludicrously villainous. The two threads of murder mystery and rebellion are welded too crudely together.  The novel is hard going by reason of its unnecessary length, padded out with repetition or superfluity of detail, or simply verbosity. However, it seems that famous, successful authors are no longer required to spend time editing, and no one else bothers if it is a “guaranteed” best seller.

 

“A Glass of Blessings” by Barbara Pym – No need to call a spade a spade when armed with a scalpel of wit.

 

This is my review of “A Glass of Blessings” by Barbara Pym.

With her coolly  ironic appraisal of well-heeled middle-class life in 1950s London, Wilmet Forsyth could be a reincarnation of Jane Austen.  Married to Rodney, a conventional civil servant slipping prematurely into a dull rut of middle age, who feels that it reflects badly on a man if his wife works,  Wilmet has no children, plenty of domestic help,  and so has too much time on her hands.  A situation which was commonplace amongst young middle-class women fifty years ago sounds dated and odd now, indicating how much life has changed.

Wilmet is made to seem more appealing by her humorous self-deprecation: imagining the two local clergymen in need of home help attempting to boil eggs she concludes, “I wondered if they would know what to do if they cracked. I never did myself”. Wilmet is a mass of contradictions. Her religious piety seems like a social habit acquired alongside her elegant dress-sense, her liking for good food and wine, and her disapproval of men in duffel coats and women wearing nail varnish. She seems untroubled over having a husband and mother-in-law who are “non-believers”, and shows a broad-minded tolerance to acquaintances who turn out to be kleptomaniac, or living in a gay relationship at a time when this was still illegal. Her religion does not prevent her from basking in the admiration of her best friend Rowena’s  husband,  and playing potentially dangerous games  with  the intriguing Piers Longridge, Rowena’s  possibly disreputable brother with a hint of the ne’er-do-well.

On the surface, this is an entertaining read if one can avoid feeling irritated or in the case of younger readers even offended by the total lack of political correctness: the snobbish class-consciousness with its sense of entitlement and privilege; the stereotyping of working class characters; sexism and intimations of racism- although no one belongs to an ethnic minority to put this to the test. I am fascinated by this type of novel which recreates the sense of a past way of life, to some extent parodying it, but with the writer herself a product of the period, unconsciously voicing accepted prejudices of her society.

Barbara Pym was an Oxford graduate, who never married, despite many close relationships with men, and who earned her own living apart from writing novels. Although she is too subtle to make it explicit, she portrays Wilmet as an intelligent woman who does not fulfil her potential because of the attitudes of the society in which she has been raised. Publishers were apparently reluctant to print Pym’s novels which even at the time were considered old-fashioned.  Yet in her lifetime, she was considered underestimated as an author, who remains worth reading not merely for her clear, pithy style and wit, but also for the poignancy and depth of observation of human nature which lie beneath the surface.

“Sombre Dimanche” – a real life in Budapest

 

This is my review of “Sombre Dimanche”  by Alice Zeniter.

Although not explained by the author, the title “Sombre Dimanche” is inspired by the famous Hungarian song of that name, written in the 1930s with lyrics at first despairing over war, later portraying a man considering killing himself following his lover’s suicide. This song was widely banned in Hungarian jazz clubs for fear of driving people to copycat deaths, and later censored in its English version by the BBC, as likely to depress people too much in wartime.

Alice Zeniter’s novel is unlikely to have quite such a drastic effect, since the chapter of accidents which befall the main characters often seems too ludicrous to be taken seriously. Had this been written consistently as a social satire, or black family comedy, it might have been more effective. In fact, it is a hotpotch of “genres”, in addition to the above: part historical novel covering the period from World War 2, through the imposition of Soviet communism, abortive Hungarian uprising of 1956, collapse of Russian domination in 1989, and resultant messy embrace of western capitalism and “democracy”; part family saga; part “coming-of-age” novel from boy to manhood – interesting challenge for an ambitious young female writer; part literary tragedy.

The limitations of this novel disappointed me after having been so impressed by the author’s subsequent novel “L’Art de Perdre” or “Art of Losing”. This saga of a “Harki” Algerian family forced to take refuge in France after Algeria gained its independence because the head of the family had fought briefly for the French in WW2, gave me a more vivid grasp of the history of this traumatic period than I had gleaned from other sources.

“Sombre Dimanche” is by contrast quite disjointed. With the fundamental shortcoming of “telling” rather than “showing”, it flits confusingly between time periods and characters, lacking a clear narrative drive. Political events form a fragmented, unclear background. The overwhelming impression is of the passivity and what seems like spineless resignation to their fate of the main characters: Imre Mandy, his sister Ági and disconnected father Pál, offset by the cantankerous grandfather, who loathes the Russians, but the Germans marginally more. It could be that their wooden house, more suited to a rural setting and so incongruous in its triangle of garden in central Budapest, surrounded by rail tracks from which thoughtless train passengers hurl their empty plastic bottles, is a metaphor for a landlocked Hungary subject to waves of marauding invaders. However, one is mostly irritated by Imre’s lack of maturity and Ági’s lack of resilience, and left with the sense that they find a kind of contentment and security in their self-imposed isolation and narrowness of vision and life.

There are a few striking or insightful passages, as when the pubescent Imre becomes fascinated by a woman at the public baths, even when he realises that she is in fact quite old. Years later, the profound gulf between him and his German wife is indicated by her delight in having found the “real” Hungary in the vigorous men performing traditional dances in their native costume, whereas Imre can see the dangerous right-wing nationalism akin to Nazism in their behaviour. However, what may be intended as the climax of the book in the form of a self-exculpatory letter written by the grandfather fails to convince. Having been rendered speechless by a stroke, how could he write so lucidly at such length, and how can he show such empathy and humility after years of ranting, boorish tyranny?

Whereas Alice Zeniter’s Algerian heritage gave “L’Art de Perdre its authenticity, living and working in Budapest for a few years has given her the ideas for an interesting novel, but promising ingredients seem half-whipped into a flat soufflé.