Archives » Other fiction

The Fires of Autumn by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2015, 318 p. Translated from the French Les Feux de L-automne by Sandra Smith. First published by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, 1957. Returned to a threatened library.

 The Fires of Autumn cover

The Fires of Autumn begins in the bosom of the modestly comfortable Brun family, in that pre-First Word War state of well-being that is soon to be shattered. Thérèse Brun marries her doctor cousin Martial but he is killed when a shell hits his first-aid post. Bernard Jacquelain joins up as soon as he can but the war drives any delusions from him. “The world is despicable. Men are stupid, cowardly, vain, ignorant…. I learned lessons in the war that I will never forget.” His attitude to women is coloured by his experiences, “Everyone said (women) had become easy since the war started. But he thought they had always been like that. It was in their nature: man was made to kill and woman to…” His sentence is not finished. After the war he begins an affair with Renée, wife of Raymond Détang, who in turn brings him into the world of commerce and connections. He also sets his eye on Thérèse but she is still of the old pre-war ways of thought, lamenting, “Men don’t chase after women who turn them down. There are too many other women, and they are far too easy.” Still, Bernard gives up the high life and settles down with her to a life of domesticity and three children. But, for him, boredom soon sets in. When ten years later he encounters Renée again they restart the affair and he re-enters Raymond’s world of corruption and greed. When that all eventually falls apart he finds, “Connections were all powerful in times of success, but weakest when it came to failure,” by which time his son, Yves, thinks of his father as “part of an evil set that out of spinelessness, blindness or deliberate treason is causing the downfall of France.” Here, Némirovsky writes that when it comes to failure, human nature puts up insurmountable barriers of hope. The sense of despair has to remove those barriers one by one, and only then can recognise the enemy and be horrified. In this context Bernard’s complicity in the shady deals whose consequence comes back to haunt him is perhaps a little too pat.

Though they are actually incidental to the narrative, The Fires of Autumn is a brilliant evocation of the effects of the Great War on France and the French and of the forming of the seeds of that country’s demise in World War 2. And those fires of autumn? In one of Thérèse’s dreams her grandmother tells her, “The fires of autumn purify the land; they prepare it for new growth. These great fires have not yet burned in your life. But they will.”

Pedant’s corner:- idoform (iodoform, x2,) once there was a Barnard for Bernard, Peach Melba is described as a “layer of smooth, warm chocolate” that “ covers a kind of hard stone of ice,” – that’s not like any Peach Melba I’ve ever seen, there is an opening quotation mark where no piece of dialogue follows, all powerful (all-powerful?)

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel García Márquez

Twelve Stories, Penguin, 2013, 195 p + 7 p Prologue. Translated from the Spanish Doce Cuentos Peregrinos by Edith Grossman. First published by Mondadori España, S A, 1992.
Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Strange Pilgrims cover

In the Prologue Why Twelve, Why Stories, Why Pilgrims? Márquez describes the genesis of this collection in a series of notes for 64 stories – some of which became newspaper articles or films – and their final conception as a thematic whole. After many false starts, vicissitudes and throwings-away it came to the point where, “Sometimes I felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation.” Most of the twelve concern South Americans adrift in a continent inhabited by those strange people with their strange ways, Europeans.
The opening story, “Bon Voyage, Mr President”, features a deposed President in search of medical treatment in Geneva, where he is recognised by a countryman. They come to regard each other warmly. South America is said to be, “A continent conceived by the scum of the Earth without a moment of love: the children of abductions, rapes, violations, infamous dealings, deceptions, the union of enemies with enemies.”
In The Saint, a man spends twenty-two years in Rome trying to secure the canonisation of his daughter, who had died of an essential fever. When the cemetery back home was relocated to make way for a dam her exhumed body was found to be uncorrupted and weightless.
The narrator of Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane is waiting for his flight when he catches sight of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in the lobby of Charles de Gaulle airport. She turns out to be on the next seat to him on the plane but not a word is spoken between them.
I Sell My Dreams is the story of the strange intersections its narrator had with a Colombian exile in Vienna who had a talent for dreaming who uses this to make her way in life. Whether or not the talent was charlatanic is up to the reader to decide.
In “I Only Came to Use the Phone” a woman’s car breaks down. She is desperate to phone her husband to tell him she’ll be late. She finally gets a lift from a bus but unfortunately its destination is an asylum.
The Ghosts of August sees a family visit the castle in Tuscany built by Ludovico, who killed his lady in their bed then turned his dogs on himself. The bedchamber has been preserved, bloodstained bedsheets and all. Nevertheless they stay overnight.
Maria dos Prazeres is an old woman who has a dream she will die and spends the next three years preparing for it. Among other things she teaches her dog to weep.
In Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen, after her husband dies, Señora Prudencia Linero makes a journey to Rome to see the Pope. On landing in the country she does not like Italy nor the prospect of the seventeen Englishmen in the lobby of the hotel she is shown to. She dines elsewhere.
The Tramontana is a days-long wind which blows through Cadaqués, the effects of which (even the prospect of which) drives people to suicide.
Despite her surname, the Miss Forbes of Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness is a German governess hired to look after two boys spending summer in the Island of Pantelleria. She is strict and they resent it.
Arising from a chance remark about the poetry of household objects Light is Like Water (“You turn the tap and out it comes”) is a very magic realist tale of two boys transforming light into the ocean of their dreams.
The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow is a tragic tale of two young lovers, Billy Sánchez and Nena Daconte. At a reception on arriving in Spain on their honeymoon she pricks her hand on a bouquet of roses. At first this does not seem serious but the bleeding will not stop. When they eventually reach a hospital – in Paris! – he is not allowed to accompany her and told there is no visiting except on Tuesdays, six days away.
These are tales of misfits, delusion and misunderstandings mostly seen from aslant. Good stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- organdy (organdie,) detact (detect,) spit (spat,) carabineriere (carabiniere?)

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Harvill Secker, 2009, 588 p + iii p introduction. Translated from the German Die Blechtrommel by Breon Mitchell. First published by Herrmann Luchterhand Verlag GMBH 1959.
Borrowed from a threatened library.

 The Tin Drum cover

The Tin Drum’s first words are, “Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution,” – about as clear a marker of an unreliable narrator as you’re liable to find. This voice wanders randomly between Oskar and I to describe his experiences, often within the same passage, even the same sentence. Of uncertain parentage, “I” never quite decides if he is Oskar Matzerath or maybe Oskar Bronski. The book’s starting scene predates his birth with the conception of his mother, under his grandmother’s skirts in a potato field near Danzig, by a fire-raiser, fugitive from justice, who adopts a pseudonym. This concatenation of circumstances and attributes is typical of the novel as a whole, which is by no means an easy read but will repay the attention a dutiful reader gives it.

Oskar is a precocious baby, able to understand things while newly born, in particular his mother’s promise to buy him a drum for his third birthday. On this happy event he decides to stop growing, staging a fall down the cellar stairs (blamed on father Matzerath for leaving the door open) to account for it. He also has the ability to shatter glass by screaming, a tactic he frequently employs to avoid being separated from his beloved drum. When Oskar’s first day in school ends less than well (shattering the teacher’s glasses and the school windows) he never goes there again. Part of the scene’s translation is rendered as, “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.” Though the couplet’s wording may indeed have arisen around the time, a variation on an older rhyme, I would be interested to know what the original German was. Oskar goes through unnumbered amounts of his red and white tin drums in the course of the book, being able to affect people’s actions through his drumming. This is only one of the many aspects of magic realism which pervade the novel, another example is that of a green ship’s figurehead which is somehow a bringer of doom. Oskar pretends to be unable to speak but gets some education from a neighbour who reads to him from books on Rasputin and Goethe, the twin poles from which he views the world. Later, from opposite walls of the flat where Oskar is brought up, pictures of Hitler and Beethoven glower at each other.

The perspective allows Grass to approach Oskar’s life and encounters with the world at an oblique angle. Given the times he was writing about this is perhaps as well, the distorting effect, its layering of grotesquerie, in part shielding the reader from the full impact of events which might otherwise be too disturbing. For Grass knows what he is doing. The text’s meanderings and reflections underline the madness of the times. As might be expected from such a full-on literary endeavour there is a full measure, here, of love, sex and death. Too much focus on sex apparently, when the novel was first published. Sexual encounters in the book are frequently bizarre and are often described with their accompanying far from romantic nitty-gritty. (I note here that even in between-the-wars Germany it seems a Scout Master – later subsumed into the Hitler youth – could be overly “fond” of his charges.)

Though Oskar’s life is related almost linearly in retrospect from the viewpoint of his thirty year old self lying in bed in the mental institution, within The Tin Drum’s pages there is cycle and recycle, events being come back to again and again, emphasising the predilections of Oskar’s life. Time seems to be fluid yet static, streaming past Oskar, yet carrying him headlong. Events rush past him but he instigates them too.

Along with Oskar’s story we are also provided with a history of Danzig, its many layings to waste, the stories of the peoples of its hinterland plus the degradation of Germany in the mid-twentieth century. “An entire gullible nation believed faithfully in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really the Gasman.” Of the war situation there are sly references to “improving the army’s situation with planned withdrawals,” and a soldier is said to be, “spending time in Courland.” After the war Oskar I restored to growth (another blow on the head as the catalyst.) He is misshapen but manages to make a living from drumming. He, “discussed collective guilt with Catholics and Protestants, shared that guilt with all who thought: Let’s get it over with now, be done with it, and later, when things get better, there’ll be no need to feel guilty.”

Oskar observes variously, “Even bad books are books, and therefore holy,” “You have to keep the Muses at a distance, otherwise the Muse’s kiss will start to taste like everyday fare,” “Lost wars seldom if ever provide a museum with trophies.”

There is an afterword where Breon Mitchell writes about the translation process, saying original texts remain fresh but translations fade with time. Grass cared about translations and for each book gathered his translators together to discuss them and answer questions on their texts. This new translation of Die Blechtrommel apparently preserves all the sentence lengths from the German, and tries to replicate its awkward syntax, which the first translation didn’t. To translate such a complex novel is undeniably a difficult task and Mitchell’s achievement is commendable. Nevertheless there are entries for Pedant’s corner:- All that was left to me were (all was,) fleur-de-lis (fleur-de-lys,) gas metre (meter,) at one point Oskar tells us the tin “rusted” (tin will corrode but does not form rust; only iron rusts,) a vicar ran the Catholic journeymen’s club (a vicar? Surely a priest?) Eight-comma-eights (in English these 88 mm [8.8 cm – rendered in German as 8,8 cm] anti-aircraft guns – but used particularly effectively as anti-tank guns – were known as eighty-eights,) sitz bath (my dictionary has sitz-bath,) doughboys (is a USian term for World War 1 enlisted men, not a German usage I’d have thought,) The Platters sing “The Great Pretender” in 1944 (The group didn’t form till 1952, that song wasn’t released by them till 1955.)

Stoner by John Williams

Vintage, 2012, 290 p, plus viii p introduction by John McGahern.
Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Stoner cover

Stoner was something of a cause célèbre a couple of years ago – hence the roundel on its cover stating, “The Greatest Novel You’ve Never Read.” It is the life story of William Stoner, a son of the soil who is sent to University in Columbia, Missouri, to study agriculture in order to improve his parents’ farm. While there he has to take a course in English. Under the influence of tutor Archer Sloane he falls in love with the subject and decides to continue as an English student. There follows the inevitable estrangement with his parents and his dedication to the life of the mind. Within its pages no great events happen; World War 1, the 1930s depression and the Second World War occur more or less offstage. The focus is almost entirely on stoner and his relationships, though Archer Sloane does observe in 1917, “A war doesn’t merely kill off a few thousand or a few hundred thousand young men. It kills off something in a people that can never be brought back. And if a people goes through enough wars, pretty soon all that’s left is the brute.”

He marries above himself, to banker’s daughter Edith Bostwick, a woman who shrinks from physical contact. The only exception to this is when she decides she wants a child but she then discards him as soon as conception occurs. For a while his daughter, Grace, is the consolation in his life but Edith slowly drives them away from each other. On Sloane’s retirement he is sounded out about the post of head of department but declines. The eventual beneficiary, Hollis Lomax, becomes an implacable adversary when for very good reasons Stoner refuses to approve the graduate thesis of Lomax’s favourite student. Fulfillment is promised when he has an affair with fellow teacher Katherine Driscoll, “They had been brought up to believe that the life of the mind and the life of the senses were separate and, indeed, inimical… that one had to be chosen at some expense of the other. That the one could intensify the other had never occurred to them,” but Lomax uses the situation against them.

A story of small things, then, ordinary things; of a life that may be thought unheroic, lived unflamboyantly, with only minor triumphs. In the introduction the author is quoted as saying he thinks Stoner is a hero, however, which in some senses he is. Yet he is also flawed and in particular ought to have stood up more to Edith for Grace’s sake. But some men prefer the quiet life.

The Greatest Novel You’ve Never Read? (Well, I’ve read it now so logically it no longer can be.) Nevertheless Stoner is good – and, despite occasional incursions into literary and linguistic theory, very readable. I’d like to think though, that there are greater novels I have yet to read.

Pedant’s corner:- Archduke Francis Ferdinand (Franz Ferdinand,) good-bys (goodbyes. Is good-bys an old USianism?) empoyee (employee.) Gay is used in its original sense, before it became a pseudonym for homosexual. My first sighting of the word “inenarrable” – incapable of being narrated; indescribable.

Shroud by John Banville

Picador, 2002, 416 p. (Borrowed from a threatened library.)

 Shroud cover

Axel Vander, an elderly academic on the east coast of the US, one-eyed and gammy-legged due to an unfortunate incident many years before, is contacted by a young woman who says she knows the secret of his past. They both travel to neutral ground, Turin, to meet. She is Catherine Cleave, called Cass. Somewhat precipitately, a sexual relationship begins between them. Though predominantly Vander’s story, even before their first encounter the narrative switches between their two viewpoints, his in first person, Cass’s in third.

His secret is that in the dark times of the early 1940s “Vander” (we never learn his “real” name) took on the identity of a childhood friend after that friend died and identity became something potentially dangerous. As a result, “Mendacity is second, no, is first nature to me. All my life I have lied …. to escape, to be loved, for placement and power. I lied to lie.”

Cass isn’t a simple blackmailer though quite why she seeks Vander out, or becomes his lover, remains obscure. And in the end it avails her nothing. She hears voices, as she suffers from Mandelbaum’s syndrome, a complex condition encompassing depression and delusion. She knows all about the Turin Shroud, which she wants them to visit together. (“He said he knew about fakes.”) Is there just a touch of the “too knowing” about this? Did Banville choose Turin for his setting only because of the Shroud – an obvious metaphor for the identity “Vander” has been wearing for most of a lifetime?

But Vander also compares himself to Harlequin, an inexplicable creature with no relationship with other human beings, and says, “I am an old leopard, my spots go all the way through.” His excuse for taking up with Cass is, “She was my last chance to be me,” asking rhetorically, “Is not love the mirror of burnished gold in which we contemplate our shining selves?” Then again, “There is not a sincere bone in the entire body of my text.”

When he professes to love Cass and tells Kristina Kovacs, his fellow academic and former one night stand, that he is willing to let her go, she replies, “Oh Axel, only someone incapable of love could love so selflessly.” A tale of contradictions, then, and of deceptions, revealed and unrevealed.

Be warned that Banville is fond of the obscure word or two. I hadn’t previously come across apocatastasis (restoration to the original or primordial condition) and pococurantish (demonstrating a tendency toward indifference.)

Pedant’s corner:- “the glass is clear” (The bottle banks have this wrong. Except when it is frosted, all glass is clear – even coloured glass: Banville meant colourless.)

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

Canongate, 2007, 164 p.

Not borrowed from a threatened library but returned to one of them.

 Girl Meets Boy cover

This is part of Canongate’s Myths series and is a retelling of one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses wherein Iphis (a name used for both sexes) was born a girl but on the gods’ advice is brought up by her mother as a boy as her father said they couldn’t afford a girl. As a young adult Iphis falls in love with and is set to marry Ianthe but has to appeal to the gods to resolve the dilemma of how to do this as a girl.

Told in five chapters titled “I,” “You,” “Us,” “Them,” and “All Together Now” Smith adapts this to a story of Anthea falling for Robin Goodman whom at first sight she thought, “He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen,” rapidly amending this to, “She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen.”

Mixed in with this is the story of Anthea’s sister, Imogen – at first shocked by Anthea’s relationship (Oh my god my sister is A GAY,) but later reconciled to it – and both their experiences of working for a rapacious company called Pure which sells bottled water. Office politics and the vacuousness of “creative” meetings are well skewered.

Many of the scenes take place in Inverness, Smith’s birthplace, but the book’s concerns are never parochial. Smith works in an account of not only – in Imogen’s trip down south – of the Englishness of England but of the many ways in which women are disadvantaged in the workplace and life generally and also provides a more satisfactory resolution to the “problem” than would have been available to Ovid. As Robin (another name used for both sexes) tells Anthea, “It’s what we do with the myths we grow up with that matters.”

The book is typographically idiosyncratic in that the author’s name on the title page, the page headers (Smith’s name on even pages and the book’s title on the odd,) the names of the dedicatees and the authors of the epigraphs are rendered in a fetching pink and as in most of Smith’s books the right hand margin is unjustified but, in this case, not in a distracting way.

This may be a short novel but it is perfectly formed, the best by Smith I have read.

Pedant’s corner:- back and fore (maybe it is an Inverness thing;) and in the acknowledgements, H2O (H2O.) Here Smith also seems to find it noteworthy that ‘water is bent,’ but that isn’t news to a chemist.

In Evil Hour by Gabriel García Márquez

Penguin, 2014, 186 p. Translated from the Spanish La Mala Hora by Gregory Rabassa. First published in Spain in 1968.

Borrowed from a threatened library.

 In Evil Hour cover

In Evil Hour is a very South American tale set in a town where the inhabitants keep expecting the bad old days of summary execution to return. In amongst descriptions of various relationships in the town there are vignettes such as the local telegrapher spending his free time sending poems and novels to the lady telegrapher in another town. The church is plagued by mice and the town by the clandestine posting of scurrilous notes on its walls while it sleeps. These notes, which the text calls lampoons, contain only gossip everybody knows but have created tension which spills over when César Montero kills the local troubadour Pastor for an alleged affair with his wife. The mayor at first tries to keep things low-key but later, as the tensions rise, imposes martial law and street patrols. There is a hint at the end that despite arrests being made these measures have been ineffective. Apart from the constant threat of governmental violence/coercion the book seems to deal with the more mundane aspects of life and is not as invested with magic realism as others of Márquez’s works. It is very readable though; a testament both to Márquez and his translator, Gregory Rabassa.

Pedant’s corner:- Father Ángel is rendered once as Angel.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Folio Society, 2003, 270 p, including 7 p introduction by Albert French. Illustrated by Aafke Brouwer.

To Kill a Mockingbird cover

Like most other book readers I had noted with interest the discovery and imminent publication of the pre/se/quel of To Kill a Mockingbird yet while I had seen the film I hadn’t actually read the book. In the week of Go Set a Watchman’s publication I thought it was about time to remedy that deficiency so picked up the good lady’s sumptuous Folio Society edition of the novel.

And it is as good as its reputation has it. Memorable characters; not only Atticus, Jem and Scout herself but also Mrs Dubose, Dolphus Raymond, the maid Calpurnia and the perfect absence – until his eventual intervention in the plot – of Boo Radley. Of the three most common preoccupations of literature the narrator’s supposed age of course means that there is no sex here – and there is not much love either, except of the familial kind – but there is death. The dynamics of life in the Finch household are determined by the lack of Scout’s and Jem’s mother; Calpurnia acts in loco parentis but cannot have similar authority.

It is only in retrospect that the novel can be seen as dominated by the subject of racial attitudes and prejudice; up to the intrusion of the court case it is a portrayal of a reasonably idyllic childhood (schooling traumas and running the gauntlet of the Radley place excepted) and while in the context of Tom Robinson’s trial the subject of rape is mentioned, there is actually none described in the book. In many ways this is a perfectly straightforward coming of age/gaining of wisdom story, it is the instrument by which the knowledge is gained that makes it unusual and memorable; backed up by the quality of the writing. I did feel, though, that there was a slight longueur between the trial and the dénouement, an expository tone.

Atticus is the perfect father for a girl with tomboy tendencies, arguably too perfect in his, “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,” though his definition, apropos Mrs Dubose, of real courage as, “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what,” bears repetition – even if he is prepared to ignore her racism. An eight year-old may still be young enough to idealise her father but it must be remembered that the narrator isn’t actually (the almost-nine-year-old) Scout, but an older version remembering her younger self.

The language is of its time, the words negroes and nigger occurring frequently but the phrase “the smell of clean negro” made me wonder how that differed from the smell of clean anybody else. (I suppose the smell of not-clean negro is much the same as of not-clean anybody else too.)

Lee hits on a truth when she has Scout observe that in the negroes’ church, “I was confronted with the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergymen,” – make that all religions – and her eight year-old has the true wisdom of a child when she tells us that, “one must lie under certain circumstances and at all times when one can’t do anything about them.”

To Kill a Mockingbird is a fine first novel by anyone’s standards and addresses important issues yet when I put it down I reflected on how little books such as this matter. The text implied progress in that Tom Robinson’s conviction took hours rather than minutes yet the subject matter was still relevant when the novel was published twenty four years after the time in which the events it portrays were set. In the introduction to this edition’s first printing Albert French recalls travelling into the South in 1963 to train as a marine and feeling threatened as a result, but as an old man, nearly forty years after that, in 1996, says, “The crosses still burn and racism still haunts America.” Nigh on twenty years still further on, the problem remains.

Pedant’s corner:- As a Folio Society edition the printing is mostly in British English (eg coloured rather than colored) but furore was given without its final “e” and there was “waked up in the morning”.

The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić

Harvill, 1994 320 p. Translated from the Serbo-Croat, Na Drini cuprija, by Lovett F Edwards. First published by Prosveta Publishing Company, Belgrade, 1945.

 The Bridge Over the Drina cover

Not many novelists could get away with an introductory passage describing a bridge. As if to show that there are no real rules for writing fiction this book begins in exactly this way. But when your title names just such a structure I don’t suppose you have much alternative. Then again while nominally a novel The Bridge Over the Drina, in spanning the centuries, cannot be anything like conventional and the book is more like a series of short stories, mythical or legendary accounts, or even anecdotes, linked only by the events in them taking place in, on or near the bridge. The legends include children buried amongst the bridge’s stones, the negro (though he was Arabic this is the word used in the town and so in the translation) half of whose body was entombed in the bridge as the result of an accident during its construction, whose ghost still inhabits it and the sight of which means death. Among the stories are those of the man impaled for impeding its construction, the severed heads mounted on its parapet after executions, another man’s ear being nailed to a wooden beam fixed to the central portion. The book is also a history of the bridge’s times and its location in Bosnia, with all that entails. Very few examples of violence are given on the page but we are treated to a description of the grisly mechanics of impalement (that curiously Balkan form of execution.)

The eleven spans of white stone are at Višegrad, erected during the height of Turkish power in the region at the behest of the Vezir Mehmed Pasha, who in his youth had been part of the blood tribute wherein sons of Christians living in the Ottoman Empire were taken away to serve as janissaries in the Sultan’s armies or as his administrators, some of whom rose to great power and wealth. (Vezir, rather than the more common vizier, is the spelling adopted here.) The town is inhabited by a mix of Christians and Turks or Muslims – these two terms tend to be used interchangeably though the latter is spelled Moslem throughout. Later in the story (and the bridge’s life) some Jews make up part of the town’s fabric. At the heart of the bridge is a kapia, made from two terraces dangling out on either side to provide a space twice the bridge’s normal width, which acts as a playground for children and a meeting- and market- place for adults. On the kapia “generation upon generation learnt not to mourn overmuch what the troubled waters had borne away. …. Life was an incomprehensible marvel, since it was incessantly wasted and spent, yet none the less it lasted and endured ‘like the bridge on the Drina’.” The bridge is the “link between East and West, … one of the great and good works of man, which do not know what it means to change and grow old, and which, or so it seemed, do not share the fate of the transient things of this world.”

While various insurrections pass they mostly leave the town untouched. Things go along for centuries in more or less the time-honoured fashion with little but the usual human foibles to disturb the townspeople but after the granting of the Austrian protectorate Christians became more like the incomers in dress and behaviour, part of the mutual changes between the Austrians and the inhabitants. With the arrival of the twentieth century things change even more, the pace of life quickens, politics and news come into the people’s lives. On the saving in journey time the railway has brought, a Muslim man opines it is, “not important how much time a man saved, but what he did with it when he had saved it. If you are going to hell, then it is better that you should go slowly.” A notice pinned on the bridge preceding the annexation crisis of 1908 is greeted by the same Muslim with the pronouncement that, “Whenever a government feels the need of promising peace and prosperity to its citizens by means of a proclamation, it is time to be on guard and expect the opposite.” He later reflects that, “Lands and provinces, and, with them, living men and their habitations passed from hand to hand like small change,” and “the Turkish candle was burned out.”

In the aftermath of the crisis the bridge is mined by the Austrian authorities. After the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 the Turkish frontier moves from 8 to over 600 miles away. Events were, “looked on in the town with diametrically opposed feelings by the Serbs and the Moslems: only in their intensity and depth were they perhaps equal….. Those desires which for hundreds of years had flown before the slow pace of history could no longer keep pace with it but outdistanced it. …. All that had lain quiescent in men, as ancient as that bridge and equally dumb and motionless, now suddenly came alive and began to influence their everyday life, their general mood and the personal fate of every individual.”

Of the ear incident Andrić tells us, “In moments of general excitement something has to be done, something big and unusual.” Elsewhere we have, “Moments of social upset and great inevitable change usually throw up just such men, unbalanced and incomplete, to turn things inside out or lead them astray. That is one of the signs of times of disorder,” and “Hard times cannot pass without misfortune for someone.” In the Bosnian context, “The dark background of consciousness… preparing for later far-off times unsuspected changes and catastrophes without which, it seems, peoples cannot exist and above all the peoples of this land.” More generally, in an observation attributed to the Osmanlis, “There are three things which cannot be hidden: love, a cough and poverty.”

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand precipitates the final crisis of the book. “That wild beast, which lives in man and does not dare to show itself until the barriers of law and custom have been removed, was now set free….. permission was tacitly granted for acts of violence and plunder, even for murder, if they were carried out in the name of higher interests, according to established rules, and against a limited number of men of a particular type and belief.” Serbs are again, as in Turkish times, potential enemies of the state. One of them, held hostage to the safety of the bridge thinks, “He had worked, saved, worried and made money. He had taken care not to hurt a fly, been civil to all and looked only straight ahead of him, keeping silent. And here was where it had led him: to sit between two soldiers like the lowest of brigands and wait until some shell or infernal machine should damage the bridge and, for that reason, to have his throat cut or be shot.” Reading this book is a reminder that in Bosnia the people seem always to live in interesting times.

The back page blurb states that The Bridge Over the Drina won Andrić the Nobel Prize for Literature. While under the impression that said prize was given for a body of work rather than a single novel the book certainly contains nearly all of human life: sex is only implied; but there is love – and death aplenty. It is a compendious account of what it means to live in disputed territory.

Pedant’s corner:- I haven’t seen troublous before but on looking it up it does have a slightly different meaning to troublesome, “like the eyes in their head” (heads,) scelerotic (sclerotic,) span (spun,) “waiting for the peasant woman and buying from them” (that would be women, then,) beggers (beggars,) beserk (berserk,) concorn (?) “behave as if was sober”, (as if he was sober,) handsomer (more handsome, surely?) “which will have have”, gage (gauge,) Skoplje (Skopje?) on pension (this seems more awkward than “on a pension” would,) “beetles than can be seen” (that,) “nor would see America” (nor would she see America,) “so that they could see only their heads and shoulders” (so that he could see only their heads and shoulders,) “on the slope … lay Alihodja and breathed out his life” (this reads very awkwardly.)

The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

Vintage International, 1998? 176 p. Translated from the Turkish, Beyaz Kale, by Victoria Holbrook.

The White Castle cover

Apart from a present day introduction which frames the tale within as a found manuscript, The White Castle, Pamuk’s first novel, is set in the 17th century, narrated by an educated man from Empoli who is captured by the Turks and taken to Istanbul where he is given into the care of someone called Hoja (‘master’) who could be his double. The intention is that his learning will help Hoja in his efforts to produce better fireworks. Hoja also uses his captive’s knowledge to impress the Sultan, eventually gaining the post of royal astrologer. The two become involved in the question of why they are the way they are, the narrator confessing his past faults (which Hoja cannot.) In the process Hoja learns all about the narrator’s past. This makes the narrator increasingly uneasy, imagining Hoja, armed with this knowledge, being able to travel to Italy and take his place there, though of course in the meantime also learning about Hoja. They work for years on an “incredible” weapon – a wheeled, armoured contraption that gets bogged down when attacking the white castle of the title. This failure leads to Hoja vanishing (to Italy?) and the narrator taking his place as court astrologer, even marrying and having children. The subtlety of this is that it is possible that it is either of them who is actually narrating the story, the Italian – or Hoja. Have they really swapped places, or merely pretended to? If someone can give a realistic, convincing, appearance of being someone else, living as that person, do they actually become so? And does it matter if they are not?

free hit counter script