Archives » Other fiction

The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2013, 162 p, plus iii p Translator’s Note and iv p Preface to the French Edition. Translated from the French Le Malentendu by Sandra Smith.

 The Misunderstanding cover

This short novel, originally published in 1924, when the author was 21, examines the love affair between Yves Harteloup and Denise Jessaint. Yves is a former soldier, a veteran of Verdun, but his family’s fortunes have been ruined by the war and he has been forced to work for a poor living. Denise is married (more out of a sense of duty than love) but she is still sexually ingenuous when they meet. Crucially though, her husband is well off. The mismatch in her circumstances and Yves’s is not so apparent at the holiday resort where in Denise’s husband’s absence on business they first spend time together but comes to dominate their relationship when they return to Paris. Denise is frustrated by Yves’s failure to say he loves her, Yves by her inability to act as submissively and devotedly as he would wish. Their mutual misunderstandings lead to a dissatisfaction on both their parts. A piece of advice from her mother precipitates their relationship’s crisis.

Even at this stage of her writing career Némirovsky had a firm grip on her subject matter. There are parallels with Madame Bovary here of which Némirovsky was undoubtedly conscious. Despite this being a first novel, her insights into character and attitudes are already well developed. Quite how much force there is in Denise’s cousin’s assertion that, “In the end, there’s no woman on Earth you can’t get over ….. We men know that from birth,” is debatable, though probably true in the vast majority of cases.

Once again (though see below) Sandra Smith’s translation flows smoothly but she is working with the best of materials. Any Némirovsky novel it would seem is well worth reading.

Pedant’s corner:- sprung up (sprang up,) “and white peacocks roamed the grounds were planted with” (seems to be missing a which.)

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2015, 620 p, plus 4 p notes on reappearing characters and 4 p author interview.

 The Bone Clocks cover

In The Bone Clocks Mitchell is essaying something similar to his earlier novel Cloud Atlas which also had episodes spanning over time into the future but the six first-person-narrated-in present-tense novellas here are not enleaved within one another nor returned to later as they were in that earlier book but rather follow in chronological sequence; 1984, 1991, 2004, 2015-2020, 2025, 2043. The narratives of Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey and Dr Marinus (in the guise of Dr Iris Fenby) are bookended by two from Holly Sykes, who appears in every novella and whose overall life story the book therefore chronicles.

We meet Holly at fifteen years old when she is in the throes of her first love affair, besotted with car salesman Vincent Costello, and at odds with her mother. In her childhood, until treated by Dr Marinus, Holly had heard voices, whom she called the Radio People. Her much younger brother Jacko is also touched by strangeness, old beyond his years. The crisis of this first section is precipitated by Holly’s discovery of Vince’s faithlessness and subsequent running away from home. Classmate Ed Brubeck brings her back with the news that Jacko has disappeared too. Mitchell’s delineation of the teenage Holly and her character is so immersive that the fantastical elements of Holly’s existence feel like intrusions, as if coming from some altogether different story.

Jump to 1991 where “posh boy” Hugo Lamb is holidaying in a Swiss ski resort with his even posher mates. He boasts to them he has never fallen in love (despite having had many lovers) but his meeting with an equally commitment-shy Holly after an accident on a ski-slope changes all that. A happy ending is precluded, though, when Lamb is recruited by the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass, practitioners of the psychosoterica of the Shaded Way. These fantastical aspects appear almost shoe-horned in so at odds are they with Lamb’s (again brilliantly rendered) persona.

By 2004 Holly has a child, Aoife, fathered by third narrator Ed Brubeck, by now a lauded war journalist. When Aoife disappears from their hotel room at a wedding bash, Holly has a fit of sorts and channels a voice, which resolves the situation. The dynamics of Ed and Holly’s relationship are superbly depicted as are the chaos and exigencies of war-torn Baghdad.

The fourth narrator is Crispin Hershey, once the Wild Man of British Letters but struggling to make a living. He comes across the now single Holly (Ed Brubeck’s luck in bomb-dodging having run out) at writers’ events after she has written a book of memoirs titled The Radio People. Deeply sceptical about her experiences Hershey also witnesses one of Holly’s channelling episodes.

The fifth segment contains the book’s climax as narrated by Dr Iris Fenby Marinus, the latest incarnation of Dr Marinus. She/he is an atemporal, or horologist. When she/he dies he/she will wake up in a new body forty-nine days later, usually with a sex-change. Among horologist’s attributes are telepathy, suasion, hiatusing others, scanning minds and everlasting life (with terms and conditions.) The atemporals are in conflict with the Anchorites of the Blind Cathar who can only achieve immortality by draining the psychosoteric energy of adepts and drinking the Black Wine so produced. Holly aids in the final conflict with the help of a labyrinth in a pendant left to her by Jacko. This is the most fantastical of the six novellas and stands in contrast to the others as its focus lies mainly on action.

The last, 2043, section adds nothing much to the overall story but finds Holly retired to Ireland and looking after her two orphaned grandchildren. It does, though, succeed in portraying a very believable post-oil, globally-warmed, electricity deprived world fallen apart (unless blessed with geothermal power plants as in Iceland.)

The Bone Clocks manages to contain its own critique: at one point Lamb thinks, “‘The Mind-walking Theory, plausible if you live in a fantasy novel.’” Then there is the quote from a review of Crispin Hershey’s come-back novel where Richard Cheeseman says, “the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look,” and “what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” – which is precisely what one could say of Mitchell here except that Mitchell’s writing is superb, mellifluous and engaging – each narrative drags you along – but the gradually uncovered fantastical elements are too in conflict with the realistic treatment, seem too tagged on to be credible. By the time we get to the meat of Marinus’s section disbelief is all but impossible to suspend and the whole begins to seem a bit pointless. I began to wonder if Mitchell was somehow playing a joke on all his mainstream readers who would not knowingly read a fantasy novel. Mitchell’s touch also deserted him with his use of “device” as a verb for texting somebody (or texting’s future equivalent.) Then too there were the intertextual meta-fictional games in the mentions of Black Swan Green and de Zoet and Mitchell’s laying out in a Crispin Hershey lecture of, “The perennial tricks of the writers’ trade dating back to the Icelandic sagas. Psychological complexity, character development, the killer line to end a scene, villains blotched with virtue, heroic characters speckled with villainy, foreshadow and flashback, artful misdirection.” Hershey also observes, “What Cupid gives, Cupid takes away. Men marry women hoping they’ll never change. Women marry men hoping they will. Both parties are disappointed.”

The 2015 narrative mentions ex-President Bashar-al-Azad of Syria and in the 2043 one the nuclear power station at Hinkley Point has been updated by the Chinese but recently suffered a meltdown. The first (and perhaps now both) of these would turn the book into an altered history.

Mitchell can certainly write and creates compelling characters. The Bone Clocks however does not reach the heights that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did.

Pedant’s corner:- must of (must have. OK it was in a character’s voice but even so; authors owe a duty to their readers not to mangle the language unnecessarily,) heat-seeker missile (the term is heat-seeking missile; but again it was in voice,) and and (only one “and” required,) a plethora pass through (passes, but it was in dialogue,) medieval (mediaeval,) Saint Agnès’ (Saint Agnès’s,) “I’ve find I’ve forgotten” (I find,) the the (only one the necessary,) anciliary (ancillary – or was it a confusion with auxiliary?) homeopathy (homoeopathy,) tying ropes around painted steel cleats, “a T-shirt emblazoned with Beckett’s fail better quote I was given in Santa Fe” (reads as if the narrator was given a quote in Santa Fe,) ‘I consider jerking off again’ (the British term is “wanking”,) a Taser (does that need to be capitalised any more?) Hershey narrates his meeting with Hugo Lamb and then Lamb’s redaction of his memory of it; so how could he relate it to us? “A leaf loop-the-loops” (loops-the-loop,) St James’ church (St James’s,) superceded (superseded,) modii (is meant as a plural of modus, so “modi”,) maw (used for mouth, [sigh….]) in the the pram (remove a “the”,) embarass (embarrass,) sailboat (sailing boat.) In the author interview:- “set in Iceland” (it was actually Ireland.)

A Dead Man’s Memoir (A Theatrical Novel) by Mikhail Bulgakov

Translated from the Russian Театрализованное Роман (Teatralizovannoye Roman) by Andrew Bromfield. Penguin Classics, 2007, 174 p including 5 p notes: plus iv p chronology, xii p introduction by Keith Gesset, i p Further Reading and A Note on the Text ii p. First published in Novy Mir 1965. The book seems also to have been published in English in 1968 under the title Black Snow: A Theatrical Novel.

 A Dead Man’s Memoir cover

Sergei Maksudov has written a novel: but it cannot be published. All who are shown it comment unfavourably, critically or dismissively and universally tell him it won’t pass the censor. He makes an abortive suicide attempt but then is invited to a meeting with a theatre director who has read the book and wants him to turn it into a play. It is only then that Sergei’s troubles begin. Not only does he sign an onerous contract on poor terms, he has to put up with interference with the text, actors’ jealousies, a misguided director and sundry other difficulties.

A Dead Man’s Memoir is semi-autobiographical, satirising Bulgakov’s experiences in the theatrical world of Moscow. This edition’s text is annotated with references to the real-life models for various characters. There is apparently a lampooning of Stanislavsky among others. The novel, however, remained unfinished as Bulgakov began instead to put his energies into work on his masterpiece The Master and Margarita. It stops on the eve of the first performance of Maksudov’s play.

I know the roman-à-clef is a well-established form but I have reservations about it as it leads some to believe that no characters in a work of fiction are ever entirely made-up. In this instance, though, the book can also be read as an allegory of the labyrinthine workings and the absurdities of the Soviet bureaucracy but in this it is nowhere near as powerful as The Master and Margarita.

Pedant’s corner:- in the introduction; Likopastov (Likospastov.) Elsewhere: “a sturdy man with a beard by the name of Vasily Petrovich.” (I didn’t know Russians named their beards….. The translator could have avoided this ambiguity by writing “a sturdy, bearded man by the name of,”) wee cucumbers (a Scottish translation of a Russian term is unusual,) span (spun.)

Only Six Plots?

My attention has recently been drawn to this website which refers to research in which – albeit limited – data analysis reveals there are only 6 plots (or emotional arcs) into which most works of fiction fit.

Insights of this sort are not entirely new. Others have had similar thoughts.

This clip of Kurt Vonnegut talking about the shapes of different stories is delightful.

Kurt Vonnegut: The Shapes of Stories

The Devil’s Elixirs by E T A Hoffman

Oneworld Classics, 2011, 287 p including 2p Editor’s Preface, 1 p Notes, iv p Introduction and ii p Chronology. Translated from the German Die Elixiere des Teufels by Ronald Taylor.

The Devil's Elixirs cover

This is not one of the Hoffman stories which Offenbach turned into an opera. It is, though, a very Gothic tale of temptation, mistaken identity, and encounters with the Devil. Francesco, brought up in a monastery with no idea of his ancestry experiences a sexual torment when he glimpses his music teacher’s sister partly dressed. Later he perceives a slight when seen kissing her discarded glove. To resist temptation he resolves to become a monk, taking the name Medardus, and develops a talent for preaching. The reception of his sermons, which bring in a growing audience, boosts his ego. He is, though, plagued by a vision of the painter of the portrait of St Anthony which hangs in the monastery. He is given access to a box which contains bottles left to St Anthony by the Devil. Of course he gives in to the temptation to drink from one, which makes him euphoric. Partly to remove him from the sin of pride but also from temptation, the Prior, Leonardus, sends him on an errand to Rome. There follows a series of fantastical adventures involving the woman Aurelia (who bears a remarkable resemblance to a portrait of Saint Rosalia,) Medardus’s ancestral family, his döppelganger and various deeds of evil on his part in which Hoffman seems to be saying that origins cannot be outrun and we are doomed to repeat the sins of our forebears. (Recognising and resisting the Devil might be an aid in avoiding that, though.) The plot is intricate, the lines of Medardus’s ancestry convoluted, incidents recur in slightly altered form. The story is presented to us at one remove as a found, or, rather, handed over manuscript (the prior who did so thought it should be burnt) written as a penance for Medardus’s sins.

Early on Leonardus tells Medardus that the pleasures of the world, “produce an indescribable disgust, a complete enervation, an insensibility to higher values, which spells the frustration of man’s spiritual life.” Well, maybe to the religious ascetic: but this acts as an indicator of a kind of detachment which Medardus exhibits in his relations with others and the world.

Pedant’s corner:- Cyrillus’ (Cyrillus’s,) Hermogenes’ (Hermogenes’s,) “I threw away the monk’s habit, which still contained the fateful knife, Victor’s dispatch case and the wicker bottle with the remainder of the Devil’s elixir,” (I read this to mean that the habit, knife, case and bottle had all been thrown away; but the last three are still in his possession a few pages later.) ‘“All the floral arrangements,” said my companion, the work of our beloved Princess,’ is missing a start quotation mark before “the work”, louis d’ors (I doubt this is the correct plural of louis d’or. Should it not be louises d’or? Compare “pieces of eight”. [Unless the plural of louis is simply louis in which case the coin’s plural should be louis d’or.]) Descendents (descendants,) imposter (impostor.)

How to be Both by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2014, 383 p

How to be Both cover

The conceit of this book is that it contains two stories separated in time by five centuries but which can be read in either order. Two different versions – indistinguishable from either the cover or the publishing details – were printed at the same time but with the story orders reversed one to the other. The stories’ connection is via a mural in the Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara, Italy painted by one Francesco del Cossa about whom little is known. In fact nothing was known about him until a letter from him to his employer was discovered four hundred years after his death which demanded higher payment for his work than others on the project were to receive. In my edition the first story is that of Francesco (though the Italian spelling Francescho is used throughout it; Smith frequently uses Italian-type spellings in this section – azzurite for azurite etc ) told as “his” stream of consciousness at a point in time when “he” may be dead, in purgatorium. The inverted commas are cause (the author unfailingly employs this version of the conjunction) Smith imagines Francesco as a woman. There are internal details of del Cossa’s paintings which argue for this possibility. The first and last few pages of Francesco’s tale are laid out in a typographical manner more akin to experimental poetry than prose. This made the narrative more tricksy and difficult to get into than it need have been but once Francesco’s story had been embarked on and the relationships within it established this barrier disappeared. Another narrative quirk here is the parenthetical interjection of the phrase ‘just saying’ at various points in Francesco’s tale. As is usual in Smith’s books, in How to be Both as a whole, the right hand margin is never justified.

The modern narrative is that of Georgia (Georgie Girl, aka George) whose mother (now dead) had developed an interest in del Cossa’s mural and took George and her brother Henry to see it in Italy. The mural and del Cossa’s work in general become a fascination for George.

Smith’s intentions are perhaps summed up by the passage about “how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it up-rising through the skin of it.” Apart from the pseudo-poetry her prose flows extremely easily.

I’ll never know now of course but I doubt whether the connections between the two versions of the book would work as well if read with the modern section first.

Pedant’s corner:- doing the minimum of sinop (??) Back and fore (one of Smith’s perennials, but it seems it’s a North of Scotland usage,) some words in the internal dialogue of George’s narrative lack apostrophes; (its, howre, whenll etc.) “It was called, in French, A Film Like The Others.” (A Film Like The Others is its title in English. In French it’s “Un film comme les autres.”)

God’s Dog by Diego Marani

Dedalus, 2014, 153 p. Translated from the Italian Il Cane di Deo by Judith Landry

 God’s Dog cover

Well. This is an odd concoction. Perhaps as far removed from Marani’s New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs as it is possible to get.

The dog of the title is Domingo Salazar, an orphan of the 2010 Haiti earthquake brought to Italy by the fathers of the Holy Cross, a graduate of the Papal Police Academy whose duties are to see to it that the laws of Holy Mother Church are respected and to work for the Church’s worldwide spread. The world he works in is not our own. It is an altered history. Perhaps that should read as an altered future. In it the papacy of Joseph Ratzinger promulgated a new Catholic Catechism and Italy has become a theocracy. (The book was written before, in our world, Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, resigned as Pope. Here he obviously didn’t do so and was not succeeded by Francis.)

As might be expected this Church takes a hard line. “The chief sins against chastity are adultery, masturbation, fornication, pornography, rape and homosexual acts.” The most unsavoury part of this new dispensation however is that the dying are given only so much palliative care in hospital before it is withdrawn; so that they may experience some of Christ’s suffering.

Salazar has been working to sabotage the secular state, spread distrust in science, and intercept the anti-papist refugees from Italy, but he has been recalled to Rome to track down an abortionist doctor named Ivan Zago and uncover euthanasiasts who would deny the dying their pain. The events of the story occur in the lead-up to the ceremony of canonisation of Benedict XVI in which the final scene is set.

Some of the necessary information dumping is provided by extracts from Salazar’s diary (not quite a clunky decision by Marani as the diary is read partway through the book by Salazar’s vicar.) He has such thoughts as, ‘No religion is better than Islam at cloaking faith in reason. Muslims use reason to reveal the intelligent order which pervades creation, and that is the way to disarm science,’ and, ‘The world lived in peace until it rediscovered Greek thought and, with it, the mania for experiment. To experiment means ceasing to put one’s trust in the created world, but wanting to take it apart. …… Now our task must be to bury knowledge. To forget it … to lead people down the wrong track.’ He writes, ‘Our fight, therefore, must be to demolish science. In Africa, we intercept anti-AIDS vaccines and replace them with ampoules containing water. The illness is spreading, and man is losing his faith in science.’ The attitude of Arnold of Citeaux pervades the theology. (This is perhaps not a novel that could have been written by someone not from a nominally Catholic country.)

Salazar’s bizarre longing for a merger of the three faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism leads to him being accused of the sins of polytheism and idolatry. He tells his inquisitor that as he was endeavouring to convert unbelievers the word, rather, is proselytism. An odd flavour of the 1930s somehow pervades the sections set in the convent hospital of San Filippo Neri. There is also a minor strand about the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ which prove men and animals have much in common in terms of feelings and a chimpanzee which has been shown capable of speech – in Swahili as it happens.

It’s certainly all interesting but marred rather by a multiplicity of viewpoint characters and a tendency for each new section to begin with the reader not knowing who that character is.

Once again Judith Landry’s translation is excellent even if in the “thriller” moments it tends to cliché (‘hot pursuit,’ ‘right on his heels’) but it must be difficult to render such passages in a more inventive manner. Whether or not euthanasiast is a direct reflection of Marani’s Italian I don’t know but it is certainly a better term than the more straightforward euthanist would be since it carries the overtone of enthusiasm.

Pedant’s corner:- a cleaning women (woman,) Hippocrates’ (Hippocrates’s,) “he sat down as the table” (at the table,) “‘he can hardly breath’” (breathe,) Mercedes’ (Mercedes’s,) “the group had been virtually decimated” (the sense is not “reduced by a tenth”,) “which from which it was separated” (from which it was separated,) Kibale (on first two mentions: it’s afterwards spelled Kibele,) a missing full stop, “The crowd were holding their breath” (was holding its breath.)
In the “Praise for Diego Marani” section at the end:- ignornace ( ignorance,) plus three [or arguably four] in one quote – it’s (its,) ones (one’s,) “the means by which an individual identifies themselves and how they identify with others” (an individual: so him -or her- self; plus, how he or she identifies with others.)

The Pat Hobby Stories by F Scott Fitzgerald

Alma Classics, 2014, 192 p, including x p biography of Fitzgerald and v p bibliography and summary of his work.

 The Pat Hobby Stories cover

I was drawn to this by the Art Deco feel of its cover but that turned out a bit misleading as there is nothing in the book dealing with the Jazz Age. All the stories are set in 1939/40.

Pat Hobby is a more or less washed-up writer, whose last screen credits were in the silent era over a decade ago, now hovering around the fringes of Hollywood studios trying to hustle a job, any job, to restore his fortunes. As such it reflects Fitzgerald’s own later life, glory days long gone, fantastic pay days well in the past. The 17 stories tend to follow the same pattern with Hobby being frustrated in his endeavours by the vicissitudes of his ill-thought through scams and badly timed interventions, relying on crumbs dispensed through the pity of others or their willingness to use him for their own ends. Since they were written for magazine publication (in Esquire) there tends to be a lot of repetition of information from one story to the next (Hobby’s red-rimmed eyes – due to his alcohol consumption – a particular recurrence) which is of course more noticeable when they are read in quick succession.

Entertaining enough but not really substantial.

Pedant’s corner:- with a sinky feeling (sinking is more usual,) sat reading (seated; or sitting,) with no avail (to no avail,) trucking shots (tracking shots?) “a small but alert band of …. were” (a small band was,) “You damn right I can talk” (You’re?) “the gang who were” (the gang which was,) “in no slightest danger” (in not the slightest?) “a battery of cameras were getting into position” (a battery was,) “there were a number of ladies” (there was a number,) Athaletic Superintendent (athletic? – I suppose though this may have been the name of a sports team or organisation.)

The Sandman by E T A Hoffman

Alma Classics, 2013, 110 p.Translated from the German Der Sandmann by Christopher Moncrieff. Borrowed from a doomed library.

 The Sandman cover

Barely even as long as a novella, this “classic of German Gothic fiction” – as the blurb has it – has a curious structure beginning as an epistolary account, with three letters between two correspondents, before reverting to a straightforward third person narrative for the remainder of the tale.

Its protagonist Nathanael is haunted by the memory of childhood tales of the Sandman who would peck out children’s eyes and of the lawyer Coppelius (who caused Nathanael’s father’s death in the performance of alchemical experiments in his study and came to embody the Sandman in Nathanael’s mind.) In adult life Nathanael encounters barometer salesman Giuseppe Coppola, whom he takes to be that same Coppelius (and who may well be so,) around the same time as becoming besotted with the strangely behaved Olimpia, who seems to come to life only for him. The conjunction drives Nathanael mad.

The text is littered with references to eyes, not only the pecking as above, but on discovering Nathanael spying on the alchemical experiments Coppelius threatened to throw hot coals on the child’s eyes; later Coppola lays out lorgnettes and glasses in front of Nathanael while cackling, “these be my eyezies, pretty eyezies,” and Olimpia’s eyes have a compelling quality, for Nathanael at least.

Odd, but meaty, The Sandman packs a lot into its small frame.

This edition also contains an extract from Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny wherein he analyses the way in which Hoffman achieved his uncanny effects in this story.

Pedant’s corner:- (in the Freud extract) this this.

The War of the End of the World by Maria Vargas Llosa

faber and faber, 2012, 758 p. Translated from the Spanish La guerra del fin del mundo with no translator’s name given, merely a translation copyright notice for the book’s first US publisher. Returned to a threatened library.

 The War of the End of the World cover

An itinerant mystic, Antonio Conselheiro, called the Counsellor, wanders the Brazilian province of Bahia gathering adherents. He preaches against the recently formed Republic of Brazil as the Antichrist, stuffed with Freemasons. In Llosa’s account he has the ability to transform an assortment of unfortunates, misfits, and the misshapen – not to mention the worst of bandits – into followers of the Blessed Jesus (whose every mention among the Counsellor’s adherents is replied to with “Blessed be he”.) Eventually he sets up a community in the town of Canudos against which a succession of ever larger military expeditions is sent by the Republic as the “rebellion” defeats each in turn. All this is based on a historical event, the War of Canudos, the most bloody civil war in Brazil’s history.

The early part of the novel is taken up with sections relating to how some of the Counsellor’s most important followers come to fall under his spell interspersed with the machinations of local politicians in Bahia – both for and against the Republic. Here we also meet a socialist (and red-haired) Scotsman on the run from authorities in Europe – where he had indulged in seditious activities – who goes by the name of Galileo Gall (but whose real name is never given) and has a belief in phrenology. Gall is framed by the editor of the Jornal de Notícias, Epaminondas Gonçalves, to make it look as though Britain, referred to by most characters as England, is involved in gun-running to, and support of, the rebels of Canudos. (“Gall” does put Gonçalves right, though, when he says, “I’m a Scotsman. I hate the English.”) A near-sighted journalist – again nameless – goes along with the third military force to be sent against the rebels and witnesses most of the later fighting; at least until his spectacles get broken.

Entrants to Canudos were made to swear that they were not Republicans, did not accept the expulsion of the Emperor, nor the separation of Church and State, nor civil marriage, nor the new system of weight and measures, nor the census questions. (The devil is obviously in the way you count the spoons.) Mostly though, the Counsellor was playing on the faith of the poor and their fears that slavery would be reintroduced.

Gall thinks of Canudos as, “A libertarian citadel, without money, without masters, without politics, without priests, without bankers, without landowners, a world built with the faith and the blood of the poorest of the poor,” (though part of that is his own idealism projected onto it) and wonders about the – to him – curious code of “Honour, vengeance, that rigorous religion, those punctilious codes of conduct….. a vow, a man’s word, those luxuries and games of rich, or idlers and parasites – how to understand their existence here?” that so prevailed on the husband of a woman he raped that he pursued Gall there.

About a third of the way through the book we find the nameless journalist has survived the war as he talks to the Baron de Canabrava about his experiences. This has the effect of defusing some of the tension as we readers are still to meet them for ourselves.

In Canudos the near-sighted journalist thought to himself, ‘culture, knowledge were lies, dead weight, blindfolds. All that reading – and it had been of no use whatsoever in helping him to escape.’ The baron is disgusted by the journalist finding amid the chaos of Canudos love and pleasure with a peasant girl. “Did those words not call to mind luxury, refinement, sensibility, elegance, the rites and the ripe wisdom of an imagination nourished by wide reading, travels, education?”

Army doctor Teotônio Leal Cavalcanti’s image of humanity abruptly darkened in his weeks seeing to the wounded during the siege, observing of the able-bodied, “‘It is not what is most sublime, but what is most sordid and abject, the hunger for filthy lucre, greed, that is aroused in the presence of death.’”

The novel feels like it has a cast of thousands. There are multiple viewpoint characters and a narrative which shifts from present to past tense and back in section to section. This makes for a dry and slow start as the life stories of the Counsellor’s adherents prior to their falling in with him and those of the politicians of Bahia are told to us rather than shown. But, as the near-sighted journalist tells Baron de Canabrava, “‘Canudos isn’t a story; it’s a tree of stories.’” In telling his tale, Llosa tries to encompass this world of many branches. Some characters return again and again, others only appear in the scene in which we are given their viewpoint. 758 pages are a lot to fill after all. At times it becomes almost too much; but to recount a tree of stories does require length, a length which adds to the impression that this is a very male book. After all, war and revolution attract a certain kind of attention and are accorded an importance that other aspects of human endeavour are not.

Nearly all human life is in The War of the End of the World. Nearly all.

Aside:- In the scenes dealing with military men there are several references to Brazil’s war with Paraguay, which took place in the days of the Brazilian Empire. In Colin Wilson’s history of the goalkeeper, The Outsider, he stated that Brazil had never fought a war. That would be the Brazilian Republic rather than “Brazil” then.

Pedant’s corner:- The translation is into USian but curiously we had “fitted” once and “trousers” twice. Otherwise there were Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) “the Scotsman thought to himself: ‘The Republic has as little strength in Bahia as the King of England beyond the Aberfoyle Pass in the days of Rob Roy Macgregor.’” (The King of England? At that time the King was King of Scotland too. And it’s MacGregor.) “A host of questions were running riot in his head” (a host was,) laughingstock (laughing stock,) rear guard (the military terminology is usually rearguard,) ipso facto is used in the sense of “immediately” (it actually means “as a result of that fact”,) “a group of servants were” (a group was,) dumfounded (I prefer dumbfounded.) “They finally learn a little about what was gone on” (has gone on,) “he’s just dying little little, second by second” (little by little,) sunk (sank,) in a cross fire (crossfire,) chasseurs were mowed down (mowed down appeared at least twice; is this USian? In English it’s mown down.) Quite a few instances of “time interval” later.

free hit counter script