Raw Deal

This is my review of Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos.

This is a good translation from the original Spanish of a well-written novella from the viewpoint of a young Mexican boy. Tochtli, whose father is a drug baron. For obvious reasons, Tochtli lives in a bizarre heavily-guarded world of obscene luxury, and brutal amorality, where his father allows him to see men being tortured, as part of ensuring he grows up to be suitably macho, and Tochtli casually announces that the corpses of those who have fallen foul of his father end up being fed to the lions and tiger kept in cages in the garden. The boy is obsessed with death, body parts and the number of bullets needed to kill people, according to the organ damaged. His corrupted child's perception of the world is darkly tragicomical, his misreading of situations, such as the visits of a prostitute for his father, sometimes amusing, his casual acceptance of violence and lack of "normal" feeling are often shocking although understandable.

This is an imaginative but bleak parody of the predicament of a child, subject to a distorted socialisation, deprived of the company of other children so unable to relate to them, indulged by having his every material whim satisfied, even to the extent of being taken to Liberia to capture a pair of the pygmy hippopotami with which he has become obsessed, bored by the narrow repetition of his daily life. His only real moment of closeness with his father is when the latter says that one day Tochtli will have to kill him to save his honour i.e from gaol, like a samurai in one of the violent films they love to watch.

Something of a "one trick pony" in the essential point made, the book can be read too quickly for you to worry that you may have wasted your time.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Changing Perspective

This is my review of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

From the opening scene of passengers on an overcrowded train, Rohinton Mistry reveals his mastery of storytelling. The book reminded me at first of another modern classic, “A Suitable Boy” but proves to be much darker. The main characters suffer terribly and the powerful and corrupt for the most part seem to prosper unpunished, although the bleakness is made endurable by a mixture of irony and humour, unexpected moments of beauty and joy, combined with curiosity as to where the plot will twist next.

Like a modern Dickens or Zola, Mistry’s flowing style carries us through a complex and densely-woven plot, set mainly during the “State of Emergency” in mid-1970s India. He focuses on four main characters who form an unlikely bond: the low caste tailor Ishvar and his belligerent nephew Om, who have come to the unnamed “city by the sea” to make a living; Dina, the beautiful, spirited widow who prefers to maintain a poverty-stricken independence rather than accept a suitor arranged by her bullying brother; her lodger Maneck, forced to study refrigeration technology since the economic changes which have reached even the foothills of the Himalayas are threatening the survival of his family’s general stores.

With incidents of caste hatred, slum clearance, forced labour and sterilisation, Mistry reveals the strengthen and resilience of the human spirit: how those who are already poor manage to endure further hardship, corruption, and the cruelty of both the powerful and of those who do their bidding and impose crass laws through their own need to survive.

What makes this book great is Mistry’s ability to change the reader’s perspective on life – his power to cause a materialistic westerner to view life differently, to question accepted values and to feel more empathy and even respect for those who become beggars and slum-dwellers.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

Turning a blind eye

This is my review of Blindness by Jose Saramago.

I put off reading "Blindness" for a book group because the topic seems so bleak: an entire population becomes afflicted with a "white blindness", an authoritarian government tries in vain to contain the apparent contagion by imprisoning sufferers and those likely to be contaminated, but society degenerates rapidly into "primitive hordes" bent on survival.

Despite this, and a translation which may lack editing, after only one chapter into the book, I was hooked by the author's precise, dispassionate description of the first victim's experience of a sudden loss of sight, his reactions and relationship with others. In a kind of "La Ronde" chain reaction, the malady is passed on in an arbitrary way, with the focus on a small number of well-developed characters. One of these is the only one to remain sighted, which adds an extra twist to the plot e.g. should she reveal this fact, how can she remember to conceal it, how does her sight help the others to survive? She is of course well-placed to observe how people's normal inhibitions break down when they believe no one can see them.

The inevitable grim decline into anarchy is leavened with surprising acts of humanity and promising signs of people beginning to organise themselves as a rational means of surviving as long as possible.

Ironically, the aspect most likely to make me give up reading was the punctuation: no paragraphs or inverted commas. Once you realise that a capital after a comma is the start of a different person's comment, Saramago's technique certainly helps the meaning to flow more quickly into one's brain, but does give rise to occasional confusion over the speaker's identity. It's also harder to flick back and check on a point.

Saramago's tone is sometimes moralising e.g. over the promiscuous woman who has more empathy and compassion than other more upright citizens. He shows flashes of tongue-in-cheek humour, such as over people's tendency, even in a crisis, to pontificate about or latch on to theories of redemption on one hand or principles of organised systems on the other.

The characters find time to philosophise:

"We're dead because we're blind."

"Without a future, the present holds no purpose."

"Don't ask me what good and evil are, we knew what it was each time we had to act when blindness was an exception, what is right and wrong are simply different ways of understanding our relationships with the others, not that which we have with ourselves."

"Revenge, being just, is something human. If the victim has no rights over the wrongdoer, there can be no justice."

"Do you mean that we have more words than we need?" – "I mean we have too few feelings. Or that we have them but have ceased to use the words they express. And so we lose them."

"If I am sincere today, what does it matter if I regret it tomorrow?"

Despite all their patience and ingenuity, all the characters seem doomed to die prematurely of starvation and disease, yet, as Saramago observes, death is our ultimate fate anyway. I am left unsure that I have fully grasped the author's intended message: I think he is concerned about the abuse of power, but seems more preoccupied with the individual soul than mankind's pillage of the earth's resources. Whatever his intentions, the book certainly seems topical in our current unstable situation and stimulates ongoing discussion.

The story reminds me of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", and in the same way, after a harrowing journey, ends on a perhaps surprisingly positive and upbeat note, paving the way to the sequel "Seeing" which I shall certainly read – but not straight away!.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

“Comedy in a Minor Key” by Hans Keilson – Too Low Key?

This is my review of Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson.

I was inspired to read this by the recent obituary for the author Hans Keilson, who died aged 101. Forced to flee as a young Jewish man from Nazi Germany to the Netherlands, he drew on this experience to write this short novel about a Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, who agree to hide a Jewish man in their spare room, only to find themselves confronted with the problem of how to dispose of his body after his untimely death.

With its focus on the mundane practicalities of ordinary life, this book seem very realistic, but is mostly saved from seeming boring by the author’s ability to create drama out of simple incidents. Without giving too much away, there is the scene where Nico, the Jew in hiding, is drawn downstairs by the smell of milk burning on the stove at the very moment when the fishmonger knocks on the door, expecting to gut some fish in the kitchen for Marie. Even though you know that “it will be all right”, this is a situation of real tension, as is also the case when Wim and the doctor remove the body from the house under cover of darkness. Having said this, I think the book would have benefited from more heightened drama, say at the end when the couple are uncertain whether or not they have “got away” with their subversive act of harbouring a Jewish refugee.

Revealing his insight as the psychiatrist he later became, the author provides telling descriptions of the characters’ small shifts in emotion. For instance, despite his gratitude, Nico hates a vase that Wim brings home and begrudges the couple their pleasure in it, because it symbolises the freedom that he has lost to go out and buy a luxury item on a whim (no pun intended).

I agree with the reviewer who found the shifting back and forth in time at the beginning rather confusing, although I do not think it matters unduly. However, in terms of structure, it might have been more moving to show the relationship growing up between Nico and his saviours, without knowing from the outset that he is going to die. When this death comes, it could have been portrayed as more of a shock. I also found the characters a little wooden at times, and did not care about them as much as I thought I should.

Although much of the translation is excellent, a few passages seem rather trite, such as the account of Wim and Marie’s relationship after Nico has died. I think this weakness has to be laid at the author’s door, and the final pages – which should be the climax of the book – are somewhat rushed and, as stated above, to be a missed opportunity for a final burst of powerful drama.

I am left uncertain as to how “good” a writer Keilson was. Is his understated approach a strength, or the result of a limited capacity to express himself? He has used his knowledge to create a compelling situation, but could he have done more with it?

Perhaps we should appreciate a writer who steers clear of overblown prose. The odd observation stands out, such as the use of the description of the door of Nico’s room after his death to convey how his visit has changed the couple’s lives permanently:

“The black door handle remained at the horizontal, as always.

But it seemed to them both that the door was closed in a way it had never been closed before.”

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Still Compulsive Reading

This is my review of The Snowman: A Harry Hole thriller (Oslo Sequence 5) by Jo Nesbo.

Reading the fifth of the Harry Hole series to be translated into English, I was as usual torn between an irresistible compulsion to get to the end, and irritation with myself, since I knew the grand finale would be preposterous, and I should be spending my time on something more challenging, not to mention less at times gratuitously nasty. Perhaps the ludicrous nature of some episodes, or the touches of humour or pathos serve to offset the scenes that leave a dirty taste in the mouth.

However, if you are going to read this genre, Nesbo is one of the best as regards pacy, twisting, nail-biting plots. Also, “The Snowman” is an improvement on the earlier books in the series, in that the characters are more developed, with more space devoted to their inner thoughts – we have Rakel trying to convince herself that she has “moved on” from her relationship with Harry, or the bumptious young policeman Skarre making clumsy chauvinistic passes at an attractive new work colleague, then pretending she wasn’t worth it when he has been rejected.

The quality of the writing and the structure seem to be better. Some odd similes, like the snowflakes which “invaded like an armada from outer space” are acceptable for their exuberant style, although the question remains as to what extent jarring – even incomprehensible – phrases are due to the translator lacking a writer’s flair. There is also less of the confusing flitting back and forth in time.

I still like the distinctive Nordic touch – the inescapable, persistent snow, the pragmatic sexual frankness, the melancholy introversion of many of the characters.

The plot based on a deranged serial killer is perhaps less interesting and original than those based on social or political issues, like “The Redbreast”, although the storyline is handled better.

Whatever you think of the plot, the details as ever stack up neatly at the end. Even though I am getting better at seeing how Nesbo’s mind works, there are still moments of real tension when it seems impossible for a character to survive. Although the drama seem almost strip cartoonish at times, you know that, although Harry will live to appear in another book, he may only pull through at a price, and those close to him may not.

As ever, this is a good read for a long journey or airport-stranded, stuck in hospital situation in which you want to lose yourself without too much effort.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

“The Radetsky March” by Joseph Roth – A Neglected Masterpiece

This is my review of Radetzky March by Joseph Roth.

I was pleased to discover via a book group this subtle, gently ironic and nostalgic evocation of the last decades of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Slovenian peasant Trotta, who has achieved the rank of lieutenant, becomes the hero of the Battle of Solferino and is ennobled after pushing the young Emperor Franz Josef out of the enemy’s line of fire. His son is given an easy path into the role of District Commissioner, which he performs with an unquestioning adherence to routine. He is too uptight to express his love for his son, the hapless Carl Joseph. The realisation of this comes almost too late, triggered by the knowledge that the “this world is ending”: his protector the Emperor is near death, and his Empire is destined to fail under its failure to adapt to the pressures for change.

“How simple the world has always appeared…For every situation there was a prescribed attitude. When the boy came home for the holidays, you gave him a test. When he became a lieutenant, you congratulated him. When he wrote his dutiful letters which said so little, you wrote him a couple of measured sentences back. But what did you do when your son was drunk? When he cried `Father’? Or something in him cried ‘Father’?”

Trained from early childhood for the military career to which he is ill-suited, the grandson of “The Hero of Solferino” feels the weight of his destiny but proves to be a sensitive, indecisive man who inadvertently brings misfortune to others, although the remote figure of the Emperor can be relied to bale him out of the worst consequences of his actions – until the old man dies and the First World War breaks out.

Although I have never been to Vienna, Roth created for me vivid images of the old city, together with the atmosphere of the military barracks – you can understand only too well why young men were driven to drink, gambling and reckless duels by the endless prospect of waiting for a battle to fight. I particularly liked Roth’s description of the landscapes of the eastern borders with Russia, the back of beyond to which Carl Joseph is consigned – the frogs croaking in the swamps, in which willows mark the only safe path, and the closely observed changing colours of the sky. Here at last, Carl Joseph finally regains his peasant roots and feel at ease with himself.

At first I thought I had found an East European Trollope with earnest traces of Middlemarch. Then I saw that Roth was born only 20 years before the First World War, and lived on to see its carnage, the Depression of the 20s and the rise of Hitler. So there is C20 frankness and bleakness to Roth’s writing, beautifully translated by Michael Hofman. Roth himself had a tragic life, as a Jew who was forced to leave Germany, married a wife who became a schizophrenic, and who died an impoverished alcoholic in Paris.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

Impressive translation of memorable and insightful river of prose

This is my review of Austerlitz (Penguin Essentials) by W. G. Sebald.

I would not have thought of reading a book with no paragraphs and few full stops if I had not been intrigued to understand what made "Austerlitz" so talked about when it was first published.

From the outset, I was carried along by the hypnotic power of the great wave of prose which describes the anonymous narrator's occasional, usually chance visits in railway stations or cafes with the eccentric loner, Jacques Austerlitz. I was also very taken with the strange, dark little photographs embedded into the text to illustrate certain points – these are meant to be part of Austerlitz's collection, but must have been acquired somehow from many sources by the author and the story adjusted to include them.

A lecturer in art history, Austerlitz launches into lengthy monologues without any sense that he might be boring his audience to death, which means that you need to have an interest in architecture to get through the opening pages. Realising that the narrator is the best listener he will ever find, Austerlitz proceeds to recount his odd, and rather sad childhood in Wales, as what turns out to be the fostered son of a fanatical clergyman and his wan wife. In the very striking descriptions of the Welsh countryside -like a Turner landscape in words, I began to see the author's power.

It is gradually revealed that Austerlitz was brought to Britain on the "Kindertransport" to escape the Nazis. After years of repressing his early memories, he realises that he has also avoided close emotional relationships with anyone, and feels a compelling need to trace his family, find out what befell his parents and see the places where he lived before his life was ripped apart by the Nazis. Some of the most moving passages cover his "detective work", meeting with his former "nanny" and recognition of places he must have seen before.

This novel is certainly original. It cannot be judged by normal standards in that plot is of no interest to Sebald. Although the stream of consciousness always makes perfect sense, passing impressions – such as the resemblance to strange landscapes of the shadows on a wall – are deliberately given more weight than significant events. Significant friendships are only implied in Austerlitz's emotionally stunted, autistic world – yet he can unburden himself to a near-stranger. The author is keen to convey his theory that time is not linear in our minds – in some atmospheric places – say, an old courtyard – one may experience now the time of a past age, and so on.

At times, I felt overwhelmed by the self-indulgent excess of some of the author's "verbal digressions". I found that I could only cope with a few pages at a time. There being no chapters to provide natural breaks, it was frustrating to have to put the book down mid-sentence because one could not bear to plough on to the next full stop, several pages further on.

I also wondered if the device of the narrator was necessary or even desirable, leading as it often did to the clunky "and so, as X told him, Austerlitz said….".

The sudden and arbitrary ending – making the point that the rambling account could have gone on for ever, also left me feeling flat and a little disappointed.

Overall, this is probably a flawed masterpiece. I did not need it to inform me of the horror of the Holocaust, but it makes an effective contribution to the body of work which reminds people of what no one should ever forget.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Written for Japanese Teenagers?

This is my review of Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

It may help to be 19 or/and Japanese to appreciate this book fully.

At first, I was struck by the power of the uncluttered prose, well-preserved in the excellent translation by Jay Rubin. I enjoyed the vivid descriptions of the Japanese landscape, which I have never seen, and of life at Tokyo University in the late '60s, which tallied in many respects with my memories of studying in the UK at the same time – the half-baked demonstrations, extreme left-wing student leavers who became bourgeois overnight on graduating, and the young people drifting in and out of relationships on the edge of a life which they were unsure how to live. I was surprised how westernised Japan seemed as regards culture, yet this was clearly a superficial layer over deeper traditions and attitudes.

By the middle of "Norwegian Wood" I became bored, as the narrator Watanabe provided a sounding board for a succession of mixed up women, with their self-absorbed and often cringe-making sexual revelations. Although I liked Watanbe, as a thoughtful and essentially level-headed person with a wry sense of humour, the book seemed a little misogynistic to me in that the women were all portrayed as in some ways weaker, and in need of his affection and support.

Once Watanbe had met Midori, I thought I knew how the book would end, but there seemed insufficient development, and a lack of structure and plot, to get there. The focus on suicide was oppressive, although it may be realistic for Japan where I believe young people are very pressurised to study at school, plus there have been recent examples of a "suicide cult" in Britain. The tragedy of a young person's life being blighted by the death of a close friend or lover is tragic, but I am not sure that Murakimi explored this as fully and subtly as he might have done. It all got diluted with appearing "hip and sexy" to paraphrase reviews on the back cover.

Despite my reservations, I shall probably try another of Marukami's books, since I admire his style of writing.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

“The Master and Margarita” (Penguin Classics) by Mikhail Bulgakov – Lost in Translation?

This is my review of The Master and Margarita (Penguin Classics) by Mikhail Bulgakov.

My two star rating is for the over-literal i.e. often jarring and oddly worded translation by Pevear and Volkhonsky. Although I am not a fan of magic realism, I was at first prepared to make an effort with this highly praised classic: the tale of the havoc wrought on the unsuspecting inhabitants of Moscow by the Devil and his acolytes – including an outsize, vodka-swilling, talking cat. With his powers to hear people’s private conversations and inner thoughts, and prey on their weaknesses of greed, envy and fear, not to mention predicting and causing brutal death, only to bring some victims back to life on a whim, the Devil soon has people carted off to the lunatic asylum in droves, including the odd mortal who tries to take a stand. I gathered that all this is meant to be a satire on the evils of Stalin’s regime. Perhaps it was very brave of Bulgakov to write it (only it was not published until after his early death), and also innovative for its day, but it is in the main too dated and stylised to move me. For a reason I do not fully understand, the story is intercut with accounts of the final sentencing by Pilate and crucifixion of Christ, which I gather are extracts from the novel written, but destroyed by a character called “the Master”, after they have been rejected by the publishers whom Bulgakov also wished to parody. Although I found these extracts quite striking and memorable, but am not sure of their relevance to the overall story.

At first, the bizarre chain of events seemed quite witty and entertaining but by about halfway through I decided I could not stand any more and a quick skip through to the end suggested that the book “does not improve” or add to what I had already grasped. So, I took the rare action of abandoning it but have made a note to seek out a better translation, which captures more of what I imagine to be Bulgakov’s clever humour and wry wit, for a later date.

⭐⭐ 2 Stars

Master and Man in America

This is my review of Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey.

That this is an old-fashioned "good yarn" was not initially clear to me because, being the work of a twice Booker prize-winner who has chosen to use the style of the early C19 in which the story is set, the sentiments and language tend to be quite wordy and flowery.

The narration alternates between the two main characters. Olivier is the delicate, pampered French aristocratic, whose overprotective mother, traumatised by the guillotining of her close relatives, insists on packing him off to America to escape the risk of prison or worse in a politically volatile France. Parrott, the wily, hard-bitten servant in thrall to the manipulative Monsieur, a close friend of "Maman", is sent off to look after, and also spy on Olivier. From an initial mutual dislike, an understanding and "modern" friendship grows, of the type that could only occur in the New World.

After wading through the first chapter about Olivier, which I found very stiff and unnatural (perhaps intentionally in view of his family's fossilised values), I got used to the style of writing, and became absorbed in the characters and the plot. Many scenes and dialogues are very entertaining or imaginative (sometimes a bit too far-fetched!), and there is some powerful drama, as in the scene where men leap, their bodies on fire, out of a blazing building. Descriptions of Dartmoor where Parrot spent some of his childhood are very vivid, and his nostalgia for life with his long-dead father is moving.

Some of the minor characters are rather sketchy, even unconvincing, although Godefroy father and daughter are "flesh and blood" representatives of a new-style "meritocracy". I could never quite believe in the beautiful Mathilde's apparently unquenchable love for the much older, grizzled Parrott, who for much of the book seems to be something of a loser. However, Olivier and Parrott are portrayed as complex characters, and we see how their emotions are formed and changed by experience. I found myself in sympathy with Parrott, portrayed as a man who survives against the odds, but is tortured by his lack of achievement as an artist.

It is interesting to think about what life must have been like for the children of aristocrats who survived the first violent waves of killings in the French Revolution. It was unclear how long the restored monarchy in France would last and one could be penalised for having chosen to stay in the country and keep a low profile, rather than flee into exile with the remnants of the royal family. Also, it was uncertain what sort of democracy might be established in France and what its effects would be. So, Olivier, whose official excuse for being in America is to study prisons, actually becomes fascinated with recording this new democracy . He is in fact modelled loosely on the writer De Tocqueville.

I like the way in which Parrott adapts easily to American life, and takes the opportunity to advance in life, whereas Olivier is unable to shed totally the constraints of his formal, convention-ridden upbringing. Yet, he has the last word because he can predict how "democracy will not ripen well", the "perfidious press" will feed people's ignorance, and "the public squares will be occupied by an uneducated class who will not be able to quote a line of Shakespeare." Although he is a hopeless snob, when you think how things have turned out under Bush Jnr and the prospect of Palin, he has a point.

I was distracted by minor discrepancies e.g. Parrot says on p.109 he has lived with Mathilde for six years, but implies on p.163 that it is only two. There is also a tad too much reliance on coincidences. The language can be a bit too convoluted at times, but I think that is to create a C19 atmosphere.

Overall, this is an entertaining, often funny and moving read, which proves thought-provoking at the end. It would make a worthy Booker winner.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars