A wind-up in all senses?

This is my review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.

Encouraged by his wife Kumiko’s willingness to support him, Toru Okada gives up his mundane job as a legal assistant to work out what he really wants to do. The quiet life of a “house husband” is punctuated with bizarre phone calls from strange women and encounters which lead to the spinning of some odd tales against the surreal background call of the wind-up bird. Toru’s most obvious trait is a remarkable passivity – possibly the author's indictment of Japanese men in general. When Kumiko expresses her detestation of beef stir-fried with green peppers, Toru dumps the offending mixture in the garbage, not out of pique but pragmatically because it is not required. Yet the incident leads him to wonder if it is possible “for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another”. If he will die without ever really knowing her, what is the point of a life confined to living together? His job-free existence gives him the freedom to philosophise in this way for the first time – a comment on the pressurised Japanese society of the 1990s.

Kumiko seems withdrawn, and may be unhappy or concealing something from Toru, as he admits he is doing in turn. Is he depressed, going a little mad, or utterly sane in stepping off the Japanese treadmill of hard work, conformity, keeping face, and pursuing a veneer of westernised culture underlain by oriental traditions. Before Kumiko was allowed to marry, for instance, she and Kumiko had to pay regular visits to a medium, to gain a favourable assessment from him. Similarly, Kumiko’s obnoxious brother consulted a clairvoyant on the whereabouts of her missing cat, named Noboru Wataya after him.

At first I was carried me along effortlessly, sucked in by Murakami’s plain, very readable style with a touch of wry humour which has been retained in Jay Rubin’s skilful translation. Then I began to sense that the interweaving of mundane daily life, unlikely events and implausible tales might simply trail away or prove to have no meaning, rather as one might define life in which one cannot be sure of reality, or of achieving outcomes which, if not satisfactory, are at least certain.

The repetition of domestic tasks, and recurrence of erotic dreams, began to bore me. I believe the translator has omitted some chapters and reordered others, which suggests a lack of editing, even self-indulgence on the part of the writer. Without knowing about the translator’s changes at the time, I had an increasing desire to skip pages, even reading the end to see if the book justified the effort of slogging through the 607 pages of the paperback version – both a bad sign.

I am ambivalent about this book. It has clearly become a “cult classic”, prompting widespread praise for its originality, surreal brilliance and philosophical insights. Yet, I cannot help suspecting it is simply an over-ambitious shambles which Murakami wrote for his own pleasure, with, of course, the added bonus of profit guaranteed by his fame.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

Played false by memories

This is my review of Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante.

In this short, pacy novel of often overpowering intensity, “Troubling love” refers to the narrator Delia’s ambiguous feelings for her mother Amalia, a mixture of love and hate, brought to a head by her death by drowning, an apparent act of suicide. Delia is not only driven to find out how her mother died but also to make sense of the chain of confused, even false memories which have blighted her life. Was Amalia the innocent victim of violent abuse at the hands of a jealous husband, in a Naples where casual sexual harassment seems to be the norm, or was she responsible for provoking him with her flirtatious manner and possible adultery with his former business partner Caserta?

Apart from her unlikely career drawing comic strips, and the fact that, approaching forty, she seems to be unattached and childless, we learn little about Delia’s adult life, but she appears to be mentally unstable. Apparently traumatised by her upbringing, did some childish action on her part make matters worse and how reliable a witness is she now?

Part of the magnetic pull of the writing stems from the way in which the facts, which initially seem bizarre or dreamlike, are revealed or made clear, like the pieces of a jigsaw fitting into place. A strong sense of Naples is created: the heat, furious commotion, squalor, decay, and sea like a “violet paste”. The book has been made into a film, and I found it much easier to read once I grasped the cinematic quality of many of scenes, with their emphasis on visual detail through which deeper meaning may become apparent. For instance in a sustained incident in which various characters pursue each other through the streets of Naples and onto a funicular, there is a purely visual image of someone “as if… skating on the metallic grey of the pavement, a massive yet agile figure against the scaffold of yellow painted iron bars at the entrance to Piazza Vanvitelli”. Alighting at the “dimly lit concrete bunker” of Chiaia Station, Delia imagines or perhaps partly remembers how it was nearly forty years ago, with her mother waiting there, mesmerised by three figures advertising clothes, symbolising the freedom of another world, and wondering how she and her daughter could escape into it.

Particularly for a first novel, this is original and brilliant, but bleak. It also repelled me in its gratuitous focus on the sordid side of life: too much about the mess of menstruation, masturbation and sexual beatings. What lies behind the author’s dedication of this novel “for my mother”? Is it a mark of admiration or a reproach? A reviewer’s humorous comment, “My money is on Elena Ferrante being male, with slightly perverted sexual tastes” also strikes a chord. The brutal passion and frankness of the writing may illustrate the cultural difference between Italian and British literary fiction.

This compulsive read assaulted my senses, and left me feeling tainted.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Troubled times somewhat lost in translation

This is my review of The Brethren (Fortunes of France 1) by Robert Merle.

This opening novel in a thirteen part saga of the Huguenot de Siorac family during an unsettled period of French history starting in 1547 has at last been translated into English as “The Brethren”. “Fortune de France” is best read in its original language, if possible, since it conveys more of a sense of the period, of the personalities of the key characters and the alternating humour and pathos of the chain of incidents. By contrast, the English translation which I used to check a few points appears to be a rather wooden literal translation.

The story is told by Pierre, a sometimes hot-blooded but perceptive and questioning narrator. At first, I was a little bored by what seemed like a dry beginning, and thought I would prefer to read a straightforward history of a period which I have never quite grasped: the French Wars of Religion between the Catholics and equally intolerant Protestants.

Quite soon, I became intrigued by the main characters: the contrast between the serious, puritanical Sauveterre, and his more charismatic “blood-brother” Siorac, spontaneous, often generous, yet capricious with a capacity for great inconsistency and callousness. A doctor by training, he risks his life saving his bastard child Samson from a plague-ridden village, only to introduce him into his household as his son, regardless of the feelings of his long-suffering wife. When “the brethren” feel prepared to risk declaring their protestant faith, Siorac tries to get all his children and servants on side, before cornering his wife with the command to abandon her catholic faith, although he knows that she is devoted to it.

There are some daft episodes of three musketeer bravado, but also some tense and moving scenes exploring the psychology of people with complex emotions of jealousy, rivalry, divided loyalties, duty, fear, to which we can relate even when they are bound by very different beliefs and attitudes from our own. Siorac faces the disapproval of a highly regarded doctor with his scepticism over the value of bleeding people as a cure, but when proved right does not point this out since he knows that the other man’s vanity will not let him accept the truth. There are also some interesting and convincing accounts of how the Sioracs fortified their property, related to their (remarkably few) servants and workers, and made a living from the land.

I’m not sure I feel motivated to read any more of the series, but found this a surprisingly good read – in French, but less so in English.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

Huge potential obscured by the style

This is my review of The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee.

Not to be confused with the brilliant film of the same time about life in Communist East Germany, “The Lives of Others” is an unsparing dissection of the Ghoshes, a wealthy but dysfunctional Bengali family whose paper business is falling apart under the social and economic upheavals of the 1960s, compounding the mismanagement of stubborn patriarch Prafullanath.

The family members often seem like considerably more than the seventeen included in the family tree at the front of the book, since they are also referred to by their relationships, explained and listed at the back. The often tedious need to flip back and forth is increased by the glossary of Indian terms also at the end, fascinating but frustratingly incomplete.

The kaleidoscope of scenes flitting between different characters forms a potentially endless soap opera with the use of frequent flashbacks to fill in the gaps: Chhaya, the embittered sister, too “dark” and ugly to be married off, who makes it her business to spy on the rest of the household and stir up trouble with her poisonous tongue; her twin brother Priyo whose wife Purnima resents her inferior status and nags him endlessly to claim a larger role in the business; Purba, the downtrodden widow of a younger brother, who is scapegoated unfairly for his death, and confined to a cramped ground floor room with her two children, dependent on the leftovers her relatives sometimes condescend to send down to her, and so on. At times, these mainly unappealing characters seem caricatures in their snobbery, insensitive treatment of servants and callousness to those less fortunate than themselves, yet they probably provide a very accurate insight into Indian culture and attitudes. A major contrasting thread is the journal-style letters written in the first person by eldest son Adinath, who has become a communist sympathiser, and disappeared to join the Naxalites, living amongst poverty-stricken villagers with the aim of stirring them up to revolt. The identity of the intended recipient (a lover?) is not revealed until near the end, and the letters are never sent.

Although I admired this book for its vivid portrayals of inequality in India, and the in-depth psychology of the characters, I found it hard going, mainly because of the style. Dialogues often struck me as very stilted and false, although they may accurately convey a sense of “Indian English” even when the characters are, I think, speaking Hindi. The prose is by turns drowned in detail, or inflated with windy pretentiousness. Dramatic scenes are scuppered by a distracting inappropriate choice of words. I was particularly irritated by the way a boy’s budding mathematical genius provides the cue for the inclusion of mathematical theories, even notation, which must be incomprehensible to most readers. Has the author dug out some old maths notes, or culled them from a student in this field? I was reminded by contrast of Vikram Seth’s ability in “An Equal Music” to convey a sense of musicality to someone unable to read a note.

Yet, Muckerjee is capable of writing. He describes a destitute farmer’s “blunt nail” of land. He captures the effect of moonlight: “The shadows it cast looked painted: they hugged their parent objects in such a way that their inkiness leaked, as if by capillary action, back into the buildings or shrubs or humans and cloaked them in that same unreality”. I was left wishing that he had written less and honed it more ruthlessly, to achieve a masterpiece on a par with “A Fine Balance” or “A Suitable Boy”.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Funny on the outside but tragic on the inside

This is my review of Subtly Worded (Pushkin Collection) by Teffi.

The Russian writer Teffi's satirical short stories, "funny on the outside but tragic" within, remind me of Saki's, but without his cruel streak. Her opening lines often contain an intriguing hook: "The Christmas party was fun…. There was even one boy who had been flogged that day-"

To some extent tracing her own life from inquisitive child, through vivacious girl to philosophical old woman, her themes are varied, but tales from before the Russian Revolution tend to focus on people's characters and situations: the way those who have been badly treated take it out on the next person in the pecking order, ending with the child who kicks the cat which can only "pour out her grief and bewilderment to the dustbin"; the young woman who goes out in a burst of confidence, believing that her new blue hat will make her attractive. Teffi was good at portraying children: the little girl so struck by a toy ram's "quite human… meek face and eyes" that she "sticks his face into a jug of real milk", until an empathetic grown up explains, "Live milk for the living. Pretend milk for the unliving".

I am most impressed by the tales from her exile in Paris, after the Russian Revolution. "Subtly worded", source of the collection's overall title, is particularly clever, revealing how expatriates have to dissemble in letters back home to "guarantee" that their correspondents will "not be arrested and shot" for having received them. Advice is on the lines of "You should have written as a woman. Otherwise your brother will arrested" for his relationship to a man "who has evaded military conscription. Second, you shouldn't mention having received a letter, since correspondence is forbidden. And then you shouldn't let on that you understand how awful things are here."

A thread of the supernatural and folk tradition runs through some tales: Moshka the carpenter, reputed to have been dragged off by the Devil and returned from the dead as one of "the kind that walk". The fact he is Jewish adds a sting to this tale of rural prejudice.

Stories from her final years when she was poor and ailing are poignant, yet still questioning: in "And time was no more" an old woman, modelled no doubt on Teffi herself, observes, "the beauty of flowers attracts the bees that will pollinate them but what purpose does the mournful beauty of sunset serve?" If the stars give a person in pain a sense of his own insignificance, why should he be expected "to find comfort" in this "complete and utter humiliation"? There is something refreshingly honest and enduring in these thoughts.

It is good that the reprinting of these stories goes a little way to restoring her former considerable fame.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Found without translation

This is my review of Bel Canto (Italian Edition) by Ann Patchett.

In a botched attempt to capture the president of an unnamed South American dictatorship, terrorists resort to taking hostage a disparate group of foreigners who happen to be attending the birthday party of Japanese CEO Mr Hosokawa, where the star turn has been the performance of Roxane Coss, the renowned international soprano with whom he has become infatuated.

The potential for a tense drama is rapidly dissipated by the author's soft-centred, overblown style. To be fair, an exciting and pacy plot is clearly not her major concern. The siege of the Vice-President's house serves as a means of creating a bubble, isolated from the rest of the world, in which, relieved from normal pressures, routines and expectations, the characters have time to take stock of their lives, observe their surroundings from a fresh viewpoint, form unexpected relationships and identify talents they never knew they possessed.

At first, the uneven quality of the prose, the wordiness and focus on mundane details made tedious reading and I was tempted several times to give up. There is a child's fairy tale quality in the lengthy attempts to provide some logical support for unlikely situations. It was hard to engage with the large number of characters, most of them male but with a rather similar and female "voice" – the author's? Perhaps the slightly contrived, stagey nature of some scenes is part of a deliberate attempt to make the hostage-taking into a kind of opera.

Looking for reasons to continue, I noted the unusual, imaginative nature of the story. Ann Patchett creates a wide range of characters who prove to be quite interesting. There is the odd striking description, or telling insight, such as the fact that for many hostages and terrorists, the new way of life created under siege may be preferable to and more real than that outside, to which perhaps there can be no tolerable return. There are many moments of comedy, and others of real poignancy. An ongoing and fascinating theme is how people manage to communicate when they do not share a language.

So, I began to find "Bel Canto" more absorbing yet remain unconvinced that Gen, the Japanese interpreter, could be quite so skilful in so many languages, or that a young hostage could be quite so word and note perfect in imitating Roxanne's singing, to give two examples of implausible aspects. Unlike some reviewers, I thought the ending quite effective, although perhaps the epilogue went a bit too far in tying up loose ends.

Even if you have serious reservations over the quality of the writing, or the development of the plot, this is likely to stimulate lively and wide-ranging discussion in a book group.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Mad, sad and dangerous to know

This is my review of L’Eté Meurtrier by Sébastien Japrisot.

In this complex, slow-burn psychological thriller, when gorgeous, provocative and probably mentally unstable Eliane sets her cap at decent young car mechanic and part-time fireman "Ping-Pong", you know it will not end well. As the viewpoint switches, mainly between these two characters, Eliane's motives are revealed, the desire for vengeance over a past wrong, but this is a tale of misunderstandings, twists and fateful coincidences which do not fall into place until the final pages.

I agree with reviewers who have found this excellent, although it may take a while for you to appreciate its cleverness – many of the apparently irrelevant fine details prove significant in the end. Apart from building up the tension to a point when you cannot put the book down, Japrisot contrives to create sympathy for all the characters, and to present a vivid picture of life in a small French town where people know each other's business, filling doorsteps and windows along the way to watch Eliane and Ping-Pong as they set off for their first date. The main characters are strongly drawn, with realistic, changing emotions and reactions, in, for instance, Eliane's relationships with Ping-Pong and his two very different brothers. The one weak link for me is Eliane's former school mistress whom I found unconvincing. There is also humour, as in Eliane's continual exaggerated references to time to show her youthful impatience – "I waited a thousand years for him to answer" etc.

It's true there may be a pattern in Japrisot's characters: working class men prone to violence, neurotic young women who play on their sexuality and so on, but he was a past master of the twisty thriller that lends itself to film-making.

If you are not French, this may prove hard going because of the idioms, but it is worth the effort for the sense of suspense, the plot twists and the atmosphere of small town life near Grasse and Digne, where forest fires rage in the distance during intolerably dry summers, and the main source of interest is the Tour de France.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars