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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.

HHhH by Laurent Binet

Vintage, 2013, unpaginated. Translated from the French HHhH (© Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle 2009) by Sam Taylor.

 HHhH cover

HHhH is a strange book, claiming to be a novel, but which is also a historical account of Operation Anthropoid, the British-backed mission to assassinate the head of both the Gestapo and the SD and architect of the Nazis “Final Solution” to what they called “the Jewish Problem,” Reinhard(t) Heydrich, (he removed the final “t” of his forename to make it sound harder) in Prague in 1942. The narrator makes much of his attempts to be true to his characters’ actual lives, saying he will eschew invention of dialogue where possible, commenting on occasions where he does so. He asserts his heroes are the assassins, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš (one Czech, one Slovak at the insistence of President-in-exile Beneš) and other members of the resistance, yet they and the assassination itself take up only a small portion of the novel which is really the story of Heydrich’s life and an examination of the insanities of the Nazi belief system and organisation. Along the way we delve deep into the roots of the Czech-German dispute – in mediæval times a Bohemian king invited miners from Germany to exploit the silver deposits found in his kingdom – we digress into the origins of the Reformation in the Hussite heresy and, solely because Heydrich visited Ukraine, the heroism of the Ukrainian footballers who took on the previously undefeated Luftwaffe team with ten men and despite being warned to lose at half-time, triumphed 5-1. A few days later they also won the return against a team bolstered by “professional” players from Berlin. [I put that “professional” in quotes because I’m sure I read somewhere else – probably in Inverting the Pyramid – that the pre-war German game was amateur and the Nazis believed only amateur sport was true sport. Professional football only developed in Germany after the war.] The Ukrainians also won the hastily arranged return match and all but three players, who escaped in the confusion of a pitch invasion at the end, were executed.

The narrator mentions the many books and films featuring Heydrich and/or the assassination which he has sought out or encountered – mainly to emphasise their historical inaccuracies – and puts in a good word for Conspiracy where Kenneth Branagh portrayed Heydrich at the Wannsee Conference but scorns most other representations. Despite his apparently encyclopædic knowledge of Heydrich’s afterlife in book and film he makes no mention of the only other I have seen bar Conspiracy, a film called Operation: Daybreak starring Anthony Andrews as Gabčík, but he does dwell on the novel on which the film was based, Seven Men at Daybreak by Alan Burgess.

The first person narration is a piece of authorial trickery. We are invited to believe it is by Binet himself but the narrator does his military service teaching French at an academy in Slovakia, Prague is the city he loves most in the world, yet the author is French – HHhH won the first-novel Prix Goncourt in 2010 – and the constant references to his attempts to establish facts (for example he dithers over whether Heydrich’s Mercedes was black or green; his memory has it as black but the museum exhibit he saw may have been a substitute, an otherwise reliable book has it as green) subtly undermine reliability. In a sly aside he mentions that – contrary to the perennial defence trotted out by ex-Nazis to defray blame for their actions – Heydrich was not averse to disobeying orders when the opportunity to be lenient was available. Heydrich was never lenient.

It seems Heydrich was also supremely arrogant, usually travelling round Prague with no escort, a fact which troubled Albert Speer on his visit to the city and to whom Heydrich says in the novel, “Why should my Czechs shoot me?” Heydrich had previously been shot down on the Eastern Front after a reckless chase of a Soviet plane in an attempt to make himself a war hero, causing great apprehension in Berlin till he got himself back to German lines. Hitler banned any further such adventures. Yet Heydrich didn’t learn. His only companion on the day of the assassination was his driver. After his death the book has Hitler berating his carelessness, saying, “Men as important as Heydrich should always know that they are like targets at a fairground.”

Except for those parts dealing with the narrator’s research and primary readers’ comments the book is for the most part written in the historic present. (John Humphrys would not like it, then.) Its unusual title is from the German Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.) The original title Operation Anthropoid was apparently “too SF” – !!!! – “too Robert Ludlum.”

The climax of the German hunt for the assassins and their comrades, fruitless until they were betrayed by a fellow parachutist for the reward of twenty thousand crowns, is dealt with in a few pages. Of course, there are no eye witness accounts of the final moments in the crypt at the church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, as the group held out till their ammunition was about to be exhausted and killed themselves with their last bullets.

The narrator quotes George Sand – “Struggle against those who tell you: ‘Work hard to live badly’” – which he says is “not an invitation to digress – it’s a demand.” One of the Nazis is stated as thinking, “Scapegoats at all costs – that could be the Reich’s motto.”

Notwithstanding the lack of tension – surely any interested reader will already know the outcome – and the digressive nature of the treatment the book is immensely readable. It’s easy to see why it won the praise it has received.

The translation was excellent (except for its unfortunate forays into USian – ass for arse, jerked off.)

Hotel World by Ali Smith

Penguin, 2002, 238 p.

 Hotel World cover

I picked this up in a local library as I hadn’t read it. The author was born in Inverness and so counts for the Read Scotland Challenge; but see below.

Hotel World is not so much a novel as six novellas linked by the accidental death of Sara Wilby, a young woman worker in a hotel. She packed herself into the dumb waiter and its cables broke, plunging her to her death. The novellas each have titles relating to a verb tense; past, present historic, future conditional, perfect, future in the past, present. The first is narrated by the dead woman (after the death,) the second from the viewpoint of Else, a woman begging on the streets outside the hotel where the accident took place, the third is Lise’s, one of the hotel’s receptionists, whose mother is composing a poem cycle called ‘Hotel World,’ the fourth tells of the strange evening esperienced by Penny, a later female guest, the fifth is an unpunctuated stream of consciousness of Clare, the dead girl’s sister, the paragraphs of which are connected by and – with the single exception of an I – all start with &, the sixth is an overview of what various minor characters observed earlier are doing in the present moment.

As in all of Smith’s novels which I have so far read the text’s right hand margin isn’t justified. This didn’t, though, seem so distracting in this volume.

The only hints of Scottishness here are the use of the word skirl, one mention each of the inscription on the rim of pound coins of the motto “nemo me impune lacessit” which was that of the Scottish monarchy (English pound coins have “Decus et tutamen” there,) of the “run-rig system of farming in Scottish History III,” and a town in the misty cold-bound Highlands. This is more than in subsequent Smith novels, though.

Several times Smith uses the archaic sounding phrase “back and fore,” where “back and forth” is perhaps more heard, we had pigmy instead of pygmy and foetid spelt in the USian manner as fetid.

I’m really not sure what to make of Smith. She can clearly write well, with insights into the human condition, but is it too much to ask for a plot?

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

Dedalus, 2012, 166 p. Translated from the Italian L’ultimo dei vostiachi by Judith Landry.

 The Last of the Vostyachs cover

Marani wrote one of the best novels I read last year – any year – New Finnish Grammar. His interest in Finland and its language is again in evidence here. In many ways this novel is the one which the title of New Finnish Grammar promised it would be. It may in fact be unique in having a plot which depends on comparative philology for its motor.

The titular last of the Vostyachs is Ivan, survivor of a gulag in which, twenty years before, his father was killed trying to escape. For all those years, until the guards quit due to lack of pay and left the gates open for the inmates to wander off, Ivan did not speak. He is a misfit in the locality, communes with animals and believes the wolves are other Vostyachs who changed form to evade the world and cannot get back. Olga, a Russian linguist studying the Samoyedic languages thereabouts is asked to help understand what he says. She recognises his speech as Vostyach, the long thought extinct oldest language of the Proto-Uralic family, a kind of linguistic missing link between Eskimo-Aleut and Finno-Ugric.

Trusting to his scientific curiosity, she writes to tell Professor Jarmo Aurtova, organiser of an imminent Finno-Ugric conference in Helsinki, of her discovery, making great play of Ivan’s velar fricatives and retroflex palatals, his use of the fricative lateral and labiovelar appendix. (Somewhat improbably, given the time scale involved, she suggests to Aurtova, “Perhaps your ancestors included some Sioux chief who fought at Little Big Horn!”) She tells him Ivan has problems with the modern world, does not like aeroplanes in particular, so while she attends a meeting in St Petersburg she will despatch him by train to Helsinki, and asks Aurtova to meet him at the station.

Aurtova has a portrait of Finnish wartime leader Marshal Mannerheim on his wall and thinks Finland and Finnish the pinnacle of human development, that Finns were the first Europeans, connected to neither Mongols nor Eskimos. As a result he does not take kindly to the prospect of a living rebuke to his beliefs. The scene is set for a tragedy, played out in the coldest night in Helsinki for fifty years and involving the release of animals from Helsinki zoo.

This may seem forbidding but the novel flows extremely smoothly and, despite the instances of linguistic vocabulary, is very easy to read. Marani creates compelling characters, can structure and tell a story and the translation (with a couple of exceptions*) serves him very well.

Marani has Olga express the preciousness of a language. During their encounter within the book she tells Aurtova that Vostyach has a word, powakaluta, for “something grey glimpsed vaguely running through the snow,” a word which will vanish if Vostyach does – though the thing it describes will not. And that disappearance would be terrible. She also reminds him that Finnish doesn’t have a future tense. (Something which is apparently common. English hasn’t, but can utilise an auxiliary verb to enable one.)

If I have any criticisms it is that the book may be romanticising slightly both Ivan’s relationship with nature and that of native North Americans and that Aurtova’s actions are perhaps a little unbelievable.

The Last of the Vostyachs was a delight to read just the same.

*The issues with the translation were firstly that ice hockey isn’t played on a pitch and its scoring system does not have points, “a few points short of victory,” plus the sentence, “One of the six thousand languages still spoken on this earth die out every two weeks.” Dies, surely? In a book dealing with philology, it’s perhaps as well to nail down the grammar. And that “ancestors” isn’t the correct word; “many times removed cousin” is nearer the mark.

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