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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2011, 564 p.

The Thousand Autumns of Jocab de Zoet cover

This novel has been described in a quote on the back cover as a tour de force and I must say it is likely to remain in my mind for a long time. It will certainly figure in my best of the year even if this is still only February.

The Jacob de Zoet of the title is a Dutchman who, in order to prove his worthiness to marry his sweetheart Anna, is out to make his fortune in the Dutch trading mission on the island of Dejima off Nagasaki at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (CE) – during the Tokugawa Shogunate, when all other European contacts were banned, as was travel abroad for Japanese. The present tense narration is in the third person, save for a single chapter in first person from the point of view of a slave in the Dutch trading post. Woven into the tale is the history of relations between Japan and the outside world up to that point. While the novel is roughly based on incidents that took place on Dejima around that time I would hazard that the part of the plot involving the Lord Abbot Enomoto is not.

The first part of the novel outlines de Zoet’s endeavours in exposing the various corruptions of previous Chiefs of the post and his interactions with Japanese translators. Reading about the difficulties of translation between Japanese and Dutch in a third language – English – is a bit surreal. The very first chapter, however, introduces us to Aibagawa Orito, the disfigured daughter of a samurai, who is learning to be a midwife under the tutelage of the Dutch doctor at Dejima. Her path and de Zoet’s cross and, despite feelings of guilt at betraying Anna, Jacob becomes attracted to Orito. His hopes in affairs of the heart and commerce are both soon dashed. In the second section, where Aibagawa Orito has been taken away to the religious institution run by the Lord Abbot, the novel takes a sudden left turn as this middle part of the book deals solely with her plight and the efforts of her Japanese admirer, the interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon, to free her. The third and concluding part of the novel returns us to Dejima as well as on to the British frigate which arrives to attempt to take advantage of the fall of the Netherlands to Napoleon’s armies.

The book is unusual in that it contains a number of illustrations, mostly anatomical but also two townscapes – well, one townscape and a shrinescape – plus some of “de Zoet’s” sketches of Origo.

While reading I was struck by certain parallels with Science Fiction. There is a type of SF story which also has an isolated trading/diplomatic post many months (or years) travel from home, dealing with and trying to understand a different culture. In Origo’s captivity we have different SF parallels but they are even more marked, as the Sheranui Shrine is a closed society with its own rules and a menace at its heart.

The characters, especially the Japanese, impress. Care and detail is lavished both on them and on the background. Even the minor ones have the ring of truth. That short first person chapter includes a meditation on the internal autonomy of slaves. One member of the Dutch mission tells de Zoet, “Tain’t good intentions that pave the road to hell; it’s self-justifyin’s.” There is also towards the end a very rhythmic paragraph listing the lives/occupations of the inhabitants of Nagasaki which is reminiscent of Auden’s The Night Mail in its metre and rhyming. Then there was the almost impenetrable phrase, “A smoke-dried Dane makes Finn’s Cock of a tangled Vang,” which seems to entangle nautical terms with the history of the times.

A tour de force? It was certainly fascinating and absorbing throughout, likely to remain with me for a long time.

Pedant’s corner:- “A well-travelled round of Edam and sour apples are divided,” (a round is singular;) snonky appears to be a coinage by Mitchell; wistaria (apparently a variant of the more usual wisteria) was repeated several times; “the pair enjoys,” (again; a pair is singular) guarding this natural revile (revile here is in the sense of ravine but I can’t find such a definition anywhere.)

Deep River by Shusaku Endo

Peter Owen, 1994, 220 p. Translated from Japanese by Van C Gessel.

Deep River cover

I read Endo’s Silence (published 1966) and The Samurai (1980) years ago now but this is the first book of his I have read since. Endo’s writing is unlike most Japanese authors in that it is coloured by his Christianity, specifically Roman Catholicism. Silence dealt directly with the missionary times in Japan, The Samurai with the cultural differences between Japan and “the West.”

Deep River engages with yet another culture, that of India, mainly following a group of Japanese tourists there ostensibly to visit Buddhist sites but each of whom has his or her own concerns. Isobe has lost his wife to cancer but on her deathbed she whispered she was convinced she would reincarnate; he has learned of a possible candidate in India. Mitsuko has a connection to Ōtsu, a man she tormented in her college days who is now doing good works in Varanasi (the book spells this city’s name as Vārānasī throughout.) Numada is a children’s writer who wants to set free a myna bird as an act of restitution. Kiguchi is haunted by his experience on the Highway of Death in the retreat from Burma and wishes to have a reconciliatory memorial service to the fallen of both sides.

(Aside:- It is perhaps understandable that little of the hideousnesses that Kiguchi remembers from the retreat is remarked on in non-Japanese writings. In the aftermath of an ill-advised offensive which duly went wrong the soldiers were left to their own devices and suffered accordingly. But then even in their good times Japanese soldiers were notoriously ill-served by their superiors. In retreat they were just forgotten.)

While the first part of the book chronicles the back-stories of the four main characters it is India that is the true centre of the novel. All four encounter the overpowering nature of that country. The deep river is not only the Ganges at Varanasi but the mass of humanity. Yet even here Endo’s Catholicism makes itself felt. Ōtsu has his own particular take on theology, failing his seminary education by being unable to accept European views and seeing God in all religions not exclusively in one. Nevertheless he clings to what he sees as his Christian beliefs.

The trip coincides with Indira Gandhi’s assassination. This coupled with his experiences on the Highway of Death makes Kiguchi come to the somewhat jaundiced conclusion that, “It was not love but the formation of mutual enmities that made a bonding between human beings possible.”

While the manifestations of Japanese, and indeed Indian, culture may appear odd to western eyes, reading books like this shows that at their hearts people really do not vary much the world over. Here it is religion that is the biggest estranging factor.

Refreshingly the translation is into British English but there were some entries for Pedant’s Corner:- négligé (négligée,) when he laid (lay) in wait, her name in Rajini (is,) when… gets me alone this (like this,) resembling that of his dead wife’s (a possessive too far,) we’d better just lay low (lie,) of the the taxi, “a harmonium, an instrument resembling a harmonica” (it isn’t clear whether this is supposed to mean two different instruments or if a harmonium resembles a harmonica – which it doesn’t,) to eat they daily bread (their.)

Ragnarok: the end of the Gods by A S Byatt

Canongate, 2012, 179 p – including bibliography and 15 p on Thoughts on Myths.

 Ragnarok cover

This is Byatt’s retelling of the myths of the Norse/Germanic Gods, an interest in which she had indulged during her childhood and rekindled often in the time since. As an author so many years later her entry into the tale is via “the thin child in wartime,” a child who may be a barely disguised version of the young Byatt, a child who reflects on the copies of Asgard and the Gods and Pilgrim’s Progress she had available to read.

That these myths should have resonated with the young Byatt is not too surprising. A child growing up during the Second World War (and who was convinced her father would never return from it) may well have thought the end times were upon her. Adults may have thought so. The contrast with Christian mythology – so milk and water in comparison – perhaps presented the greatest interest. As the child reflects, “It was a good story, a story with meaning, fear and danger were in it, and things out of control.”

It is in the nature of the beast that a myth has to be told. Hence we are not shown anything here except, perhaps, in the sentences relating to the thin child. As Byatt says in her “Thoughts on Myths” afterword, Gods do not have psychology, they have – at most – attributes. Hence in the main body of the book incident is piled on incident. Things happen; but they have a driving force. “Stories are ineluctable. At this stage of every story, something must go wrong, be awry, whatever the ending to come. It is not given, even to gods, to take foolproof, perfect precautions.”

Ragnarök (the word is always spelled this way in the text but in the title has no umlaut) means judgement of the gods; judgement as in trial, not sagacity. For her notional thin child and for Byatt herself the bleak end to the Norse tales is more satisfactory than a return to, or a resurrection of, what had gone before (with which some cleaned up versions end.) “This is how myths work. They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain.” In this they may be the opposite of novels, which by and large do.

Some new words to me were eft, gage – as in a gage of honesty – and chaunting as a (not very opaque) variant of chanting but for Pedant’s Corner we had a shrunk count of 1, plus iceflo without its terminal e, stove in (staved in,) and beseeched (besought.)

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2012, 411 p.

Bring up the Bodies cover

From its opening words, “His children are falling from the sky,” to its final ones – a warning that there are no endings, only beginnings – this second in Mantel’s Tudor trilogy is a consciously literary endeavour. (The “children” are in fact falcons named after Thomas Cromwell’s offspring.) Not that it is in any way difficult. The narration is still in the third person but the use of “he” to refer to Thomas Cromwell does not induce as much confusion as in Wolf Hall – perhaps because the reader is more accustomed to it but also since Mantel uses “he, Cromwell,” more often than in the previous book. There are occasional flourishes of poetic language to leaven proceedings and emphasise the literariness of the endeavour.

The action covers the events surrounding Anne Boleyn’s trial and execution. The phrase “Bring up the bodies” is uttered to call her supposed lovers (all of whom have been in Cromwell’s sights since they mocked his patron Cardinal Wolsey during a masqued ball at court) in to their trial. Mantel does a fine job in portraying all this history (whose outlines are well known but for which few documents remain.) Her hero, Cromwell, is instrumental in securing confessions but the text still leaves open the possibility that Anne was innocent of the charges laid.

Anne’s crime, if any, would not have been adultery (though for her lovers it would have been.) Rather, her offence was “imagining the King’s death.” This tickled me since Mantel was herself recently criticised for imagining a Prime Minister’s death – some idiot Tory MP said Mantel ought to be prosecuted for it – even though the PM concerned had already died, and crime writers imagine people’s deaths all the time.

In the book, apropos of Thomas Wyatt (the poet) Cromwell muses, “You must believe everything and nothing of what you read.” Mantel is believable. Reading Bring Up the Bodies, a much better and more rounded book than Wolf Hall, may be the best substitute for being at Henry VIII’s court. (Better even; since there is no risk to life involved in the experience.)

And only one contender for Pedant’s Corner: when he had rode. Plus not a single typo anywhere. Remarkable for these times.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa

faber and faber, 2000, 384 p. Translated from the Spanish La tia Julia y el escribidor by Helen R Lane

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter cover

Eighteen year old Mario is studying law at San Marcos University but wants to be a writer. To hone his skills he has a job preparing news bulletins for Radio Panamericana in Lima. The events of the novel kick-off when his uncle’s wife’s recently divorced Bolivian sister, the Aunt Julia of the title, comes to Lima to seek a new husband. At the same time another Bolivian, Pedro Camacho (the scriptwriter,) is taken on by Panamericana’s sister radio station, Central, to write soap operas – which are soon highly successful.

Up till chapter 20 the novel consists of alternate chapters; odd numbered ones relating Mario’s dealings with both Aunt Julia and Camacho and even ones the contents of the soap operas. These latter tend to be told to us rather than shown, end with a succession of questions as to what may happen next (think Soap without the “Confused?” after the questions,) become increasingly bizarre and represent a neat way of smuggling a series of more or less unconnected (but see below) short stories into the overall compass of a novel. Chapter 20 is from a time many years later. The contents of the soap operas tend to poke fun at Argentine nationals and their customs. Mario is amazed by Camacho’s devotion to his craft leading him to wonder who is the more worthy of being called a writer, one who thinks deeply about it yet produces only a few works, or one who churns them out but whose whole life is dedicated to nothing else.

Since the family will disapprove, Mario’s relationship with the fourteen years older Julia has to be clandestine. As the complications increase so do those of the soap operas, where characters’ names alter and events from one leech into others. As the crux of Mario’s romance approaches this is mirrored in the even-numbered chapters, prefiguring the mental breakdown of Camacho, There are two ways of looking at this. Either Llosa has admirably illustrated mental breakdown in literary form or he has avoided the need for consistency in his own novel. The latter could be seen as cheating. On the other hand it could be genius at work.

Camacho gives a caution to the young Mario, “Women and art are mutually exclusive,” and in a later writerly interposition Mario realises that everyone, without exception, could be turned into a subject of a short story.

The novel seems to be closely based on Llosa’s own young life. He did marry Julia Urquidi, his maternal uncle’s sister-in-law. Personally I think writers ought to avoid any hint of biography in their fiction – unless it is so disguised as to be all but impenetrable – as it leads some to believe that no fiction is made up. How much of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is actual autobiography I have no idea. Not that it really matters I suppose. The novel can be enjoyed without any knowledge of the author’s life.

The literary canon is full of works which feature doomed, thwarted or inappropriate love affairs. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter aspires towards that condition. Chapter 20 may not be the best resolution though. Better maybe to have left the love story at the traditional ending point. I will read more Llosa, though.

The translation is of course into USian and so we have “jumped rope” for skipping, flutist (flautist is more common in the UK but apparently it derives from a derogatory term) and a series of awkward phrases to do with what the text calls soccer; players “butting” the ball with their heads instead of merely heading it, making goals (or points) rather than scoring them, goalkeepers blocking penalties in place of saving them, referees “call fouls or impose penalties” instead of giving fouls and handing out bookings (or sending players off.) Strangely there was also an instance of the Scottish formulation “a wee bit.” In dialogue Camacho implies a tortoise is a marine animal and in one of the serials that a dolphin is a fish but he is supposed not to be well educated. A phrase new to me but whose meaning was immediately obvious was “do things up brown.”

For Pedant’s Corner we had “the hoi polloi,” (hoi already means the,) dumfounded and motived. I was amused by a glossary of “unusual” words in the novel (linked to from its Wiki page.) Fair enough proparoxytones, mimeticosemantic, cyclothymia, oligophrenic, acromegalic, chrematistic, paropsis, apocopes and pignoration; but lugubrious, punctilious, phlegmatic, captious, greenhorn, forensic et al? And huachafo is explained in the text.

2014 in Books Read

The ones that stick in my mind most – for whatever reason – are:-

Signs of Life by M John Harrison
Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – but in especial Sunset Song
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirovsky
The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani
HHhH by Laurent Binet
That Summer by Andrew Greig
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Way to Go by Alan Spence

Four SF/Fantasy novels, six Scottish ones (eight if the trilogy is separated) and no less than five translated works.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2009, 651 p.

Wolf Hall cover

In ways the first few scenes of this reminded me of Science Fiction. It bore the same necessity to introduce a different milieu. Here they describe Thomas Cromwell’s early life as the son of a brutal blacksmith. The book then jumps in time to chronicle his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey, from whom he learned his craft, and his subsequent rise to the position of Henry VIII’s go to man.

Aside:- There is a peculiar fascination for certain inhabitants of these islands endlessly to dissect Tudor times. A few years ago a theory occurred to me to explain this. It is that under the Tudors was the last time in which England was just England (and Wales.) After Elizabeth Tudor’s death the monarch – and one hundred years later the Parliament – had to be shared with the Scots and nothing was quite the same again. Of course the decisive shift from Catholicism also took place on the Tudors’ watch, the beginnings of which are in the background to Wolf Hall.

The character of Thomas Cromwell has not been as exhaustively mined as those of say Thomas More or the main players in Henry’s divorce. As with Cromwell, Wolsey here gets a more sympathetic hearing than I have seen elsewhere.

The narration of Wolf Hall is in third person, closely focused on Cromwell. It uses the pronoun “he” copiously – in most cases meaning Cromwell. However, this occasionally leads to moments of confusion when other male characters are in a scene. It is an interesting decision by Mantel to use this form. Where a first person narration would have immersed us in his world view the formulation has the effect of distancing us from the man.

While well written with some very nicely turned sentences the book is probably too long, with too many characters. They are well differentiated to be sure, but not easy to keep track of. Phrases that particularly struck me were, “Perhaps it’s something women do: spend time imagining what it’s like to be each other. One can learn from that he thinks,” “You get on by being a subtle crook,” – all too true even yet – “The world is not run from border fortresses or Whitehall but in the counting houses, by the scrape of the pen on the promissory note,” “The fate of people is made like this, two men in small rooms,” and of the French wars, “The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.” To this last a Scot or Welshwoman/man might perhaps observe they didn’t even have to get off “their” island to manifest destructive tendencies.

A power of research must have gone into the book but it is worn lightly and convincingly. As to Wolf Hall itself, the seat of the Seymours, none of the action takes place there and it is mentioned in the text six times at most.

I gather the issues of length and the use of “he” are less problematic in the sequel, Bring up the Bodies. I’ll get round to it.

Pedant’s corner:- A “sprung,” j’aboube for j’adoube, “faces peers”

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Faber and Faber, 2002, 508 p. Translated from the Turkish Benim Adim Kirmizi by Erdağ M Göknar.

My Name is Red cover

Well, this is an interesting concoction. The events take place in Istanbul in the time of Sultan Murat III. The first chapter is entitled I am a Corpse and is narrated by a murder victim. This sets up the novel as a whodunnit but Pamuk is far too subtle a writer for that to be his sole concern. The remainder of the book is narrated from a wide variety of viewpoints; several manuscript illustrators, the effectively widowed daughter of one of them, her son, her suitor, their go-between, the corpse, a dog, a tree, a counterfeit gold coin, death, the colour red, a horse, Satan – and two dervishes. In various of these the reader is occasionally addressed directly. The non-human narrators turn out to be parts of a manuscript illustration designed to show the splendour, magnificence and power of the Sultan, to impress Westerners, especially Venetians. Not a simple read then, by any means. Add to this the fact that three corpses undertake narration duties since during two of the relevant chapters the particular narrator is also killed – and describes the experience – and the artistry becomes evident.

In ways this reminded me of The Name of the Rose as it is the manuscript that is at the heart of things. So we have passages dealing with the philosophy of illustration and miniaturism, its place in the Islamic traditions, on whether or not it is blasphemy to ape the Venetian/Frankish form of realistic painting and use perspective, to show Allah’s view of the world, or the world as it is. The murders are direct consequences of this conflict. Plus there is a meditation on the acceptance of blindness as Allah’s reward to the miniaturist for his years of devotion to his art and frequent references to the Persian tales of Hüsrev and Shirin, and of Sohrab and Rüstem. There are, too, several instances of characters telling stories from the perspectives of folk named Alif, Ba and Djim. Some of these interpolations verge on the tedious but perhaps to Turkish readers they have more resonance.

The above may make it sound as if the book is difficult, but it isn’t if you are prepared to go with the flow as I was. I certainly will be reading more Pamuk, who clearly has considerable self-confidence. In what has been a feature of all his novels I have read so far there is a character named Orhan. This time it is not “Orhan Pamuk” though, but the Orhan within is eventually revealed to be the overall “author” of the book we are reading.

In the background but providing some impetus to the plot at times a preacher from Erzurum is blaming apostates and infidels for the supposed catastrophes of the last ten years and stirring up the mob. Casting blame on the other. Does this sound familiar to anybody?

Among Pamuk’s bon mots here are, “Only imbeciles are innocent,” “A letter doesn’t communicate by words alone. A letter, just like a book, can be read by smelling it, touching it and fondling it” and “Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight.” He has the old miniaturist Osman say, “Painting is the act of seeking out Allah’s memories and seeing the world as He sees the world.” The book’s main love interest, the illustrator’s daughter, Shekure, tells us, “Marriage douses love’s flame, leaving nothing but a barren and melancholy blackness,” but, “The truth is contentment. Love and marriage are but a means to attaining it,” and that painters “substitute the joy of seeing for the joy of life.”

The translation is into USian and there were several curiosities or infelicities within it. Iron smiths may be a direct translation from Turkish but the English word is blacksmiths. Then we had, “your sympathy and understanding are much obliged,” “ the both of you,” “artists who are discontent with,” “a superior element as all of you are familiar,” “would’ve hid that picture,” a use of “plenty” where “greatly” made more sense plus the misspellings “guilded,” “descendents,” “practice” as a verb, the “pitfulls” of love and women, “imposter,” “quandries.”

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

Bloomsbury, 2012, 429 p.

 Waiting for Sunrise cover

Actor Lysander Rief (whose mother is Austrian) travels in 1913 to Vienna (where else?) to seek a cure for his unusual sexual dysfunction from fellow Englishman Dr Bensimon. At his first consultation, Hettie Bull, a sculptor – she corrects him when he says sculptress – bursts into the waiting room, cadges two cigarettes from him and jumps the queue. Her later invitation for him to “sit” for her leads to an affair which is complicated by her relationship with artist Udo Hoff. Bensimon’s treatment according to his theories of parallelism, combined with Hettie’s attentions, cure Rief’s problem. (The setting being what it is it is no surprise that Lysander has a brief encounter with a Dr Freud in a café. This may be thought a gratuitous touch by the author though.) A fine start then but things take a strange turn when Lysander is falsely accused of rape and has to flee Vienna with the help of British embassy officials.

When the Great War starts he enlists as a private soldier. His past catches up with him when he is asked to repay his debt to the UK Government by travelling to Geneva – via an excursion to the Front – to help unravel a spying operation. The Germans have apparently been forewarned about British attacks on the Western Front. (I found myself beginning to question the narrative here. Troop and matériel build-ups for Great War offensives were difficult to disguise from the enemy. Lack of sufficient ammunition and also of knowledge of how to break down defensive positions – this latter applied to the Germans too – was sufficient to explain the failures of attacks.) For the purposes of story we must take the premise as read though.

What Rief finds in Geneva links back to his time in Vienna and entangles his mother in the plot. Of her and in a curious echo of Irène Némirovsky’s Jezebel (which I read recently) we had, “Lysander supposed that if you were an attractive woman in your early fifties you don’t advertise the fact that you have a son who is almost thirty.”

The book is sprinkled with musings on the magnitude of the undertaking – for all the belligerent countries – that was the Great War and of its importance. “Something old was going…disappearing… and something new was inevitably taking its place.”

The phrase “waiting for sunrise” appears frequently through the book, but subtly, as if arising from the particular scene’s narrative.

Boyd certainly knows how to tell a story – and tell it well.

Pedant’s corner:-
Elevator; Rief is (half) English, what’s wrong with “lift?” Gratz for Graz, “thistle down” for thistledown, kicked the mud of his boots, a “span” – though it was in dialogue.

Jezebel by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2010, 199 p. Translated from the French by Sandra Smith. © Éditions Albin Michel 1940. First published in English as The Modern Jezebel by Henry Holt and Company 1937.

Jezebel cover

I hadn’t intended reading a Némirovsky again for a while but the good lady picked this up in one of our local libraries – there are five within easy distance; one walkable (but not as walkable as Kirkcaldy Central was when we lived there) – so I took the opportunity to delve once more into her œuvre.

At the start of the book Gloria Eysenach is on trial for the murder of a young man whom she visited frequently in the weeks before the shooting. The trial is described along with Gloria’s inadequate efforts to explain her actions. Thereafter the novel tracks back to her earlier life and follows the train of events that led to her being in the dock.

For a while I felt that this wasn’t Némirovsky at her best; things seemed to drag, the set-up felt almost banal. However with the circumstances leading up to the death of Gloria’s daughter, Marie-Therèse, my interest was regained; though by that point the exact identity of the murder victim wasn’t too difficult to fathom.

Perhaps the most affecting sentence in the book is, “Life is sad when all is said and done, don’t you think? There are only moments of exhilaration, of passion…”

Jezebel ends up as a fine portrait of a selfish woman, too vain even to be aware – still less take care – of the interests of her own children. This is something of a theme for Némirovsky and she is perhaps better when she avoids it. Jezebel is still a fine novel though.

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