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Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi

One World Classics, 2008, 158 p.

 Young Adam cover

Another from the list of 100 best Scottish Books. This one was first published in 1954 and amended in 1961.

Young Adam is structured in three sections. In the first we find narrator Jim working on a canal barge on the morning he and bargee Leslie fish a woman’s body from the River Clyde. The day’s events help trigger in Jim a desire for Leslie’s wife Ella. The remainder of this part dwells on the course of the resultant affair. Only once does Jim reminisce on a former girlfriend, Cathie, in an account of their first meeting.

Part two throws in a twist at its outset. Jim was present when the girl whose body he had helped retrieve fell into the water. This revelation immediately calls into question Jim’s motives and veracity. Moreover it was in fact Cathie, whom he claims to have met by chance on the fateful night. That he had ever known her is something he does not mention to the police. Plus he had taken pains to remove the fact of his presence from the scene. Later, he recounts a previous incident in which he had attacked Cathie, yet says they drifted apart a few weeks after. Then too there is his casual treatment of Ella who, the affair having been revealed, expects him to marry her. Her sister Gwendoline is more perceptive but still is not averse to having sex with him herself. Jim’s eye for women – he frequently dwells on their states of dress or, quite often, partial undress – thus becomes a signpost to his possible guilt.

Part three sees Jim attend the murder trial of the entirely innocent man the police have arrested in connection with Cathie’s death. (Only Leslie has been called as a witness.) Jim sends the judge a letter stating his knowledge of the facts of the case but knows it will make no difference.

As is usual with these things it is better to leave Stewart Home’s introduction till after reading the novel. In it he says that in his writing Trocchi was forging a new kind of novel and is important as a proto-postmodernist. Irvine Welsh has called Trocchi “the George Best of Scottish literature.” Whether this is because of his talent or that his compulsions undermined it (or both) is not vouchsafed. The introduction also tells us Young Adam was first published under a pseudonym as a “dirty book.” While there are sex scenes in this edition there is little to justify that tag to modern readers, nothing truly graphic (though Trocchi did write pornography for his 1950s publisher.)

Pedant’s corner:- velours is nowadays more often velour, wains (weans) plus four instances of missing punctuation.

Other Stories and other stories by Ali Smith

Granta, 1999, 177 p.

Other stories and other stories cover

It used to be that, in a saleable short story, one thing happened. Nowadays, perhaps nothing does; or then again several things may happen but the connection between them is obscure. Smith’s stories seem to glide along from thought to thought, full of acute observation, surface sheen unrippled by such vulgar concerns. Her signature style is to tell a story told by way of other stories. As with part of this collection’s overall title, apart from their first words the individual stories’ titles are not capitalised. All their title pages are adorned by a wiring diagram for a three pin electric plug. Only The theme is power bears any significant mention of electrical equipment. Unlike subsequent Smith books the right hand margin here is justified. Smith’s Scottish origins are betrayed only by one or two references.

God’s gift. A woman just back from a holiday in Greece is left “gifts” by a cat. One of them she lays on the window sill to see if it survives. The ending could be a fictional interpretation of the Schrödinger’s Cat illustration.
The hanging girl. After having had a feeling of being followed, Pauline has started to see images of a girl about to be hanged. She comforts her, and takes her home. Her life is consumed by her.
Blank card. A woman receives a delivery of flowers, but the card is blank. Her partner has not sent them.
More than one story is… more than one story. A middle-aged man and a woman who lives two or so doors down think about instances from their pasts.
Small deaths. A couple’s house, the whole town, is invaded by insects.
Virtual. A woman visiting an old family friend in hospital is fascinated by the young girl in the bed opposite who is suffering from anorexia. They make a connection through a virtual pet.
Okay so far. A couple on a touring holiday wonder about a young girl who seemed to be travelling on the same train unaccompanied and tell each other storles of their young childhoods.
Miracle Survivors. Another disjointed tale which jumps from the story of a mysterious man rescued from a deep snow drift and who tells the fortunes of the nurses who look after him to two teenage girls twenty years later spending New Year in and dialling up horoscopes on the telephone of the newsagent’s they’d entered illicitly.
The theme is power is related by one of two teenage girls at a London bus stop who are offered a place for the night by a seemingly kindly woman who then, along with a man, follows their bus journey in a car. Earlier in her childhood a man had exposed himself to her and got beaten up by her father and neighbours. Around the same time someone dobbed her shopkeeper father in to the tax authorities. In adulthood, she still trusts her lover.
Instructions for pictures of heaven. A woman looks at faces, car registrations and clouds from the sunny side of the road. Gayle, who works in a travel agent’s, does two good deeds. 16 excerpts from Margie’s life, 13 of which are captions for photographs. Finally, a set of instructions for faking pictures of heaven.
Kasia’s mother’s mother’s story A religious woman whose husband has died, steals a wooden cross from a church and places it in her home as an aid to survival.
A story of love A couple in bed, unable to sleep, tell each other stories. A year slides by while they do so.

In The hanging girl a game of famous last words is underway. Sadly, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance,” does not feature. (Even if John Sedgwick’s actual last words, uttered only seconds later, were, “All right, my man; go to your place.”) Also, in Okay so far, in a game of “who is dead” (Ginger Rogers will never die she lives forever, she’s an immortal) Nena – of ninety-nine red balloons fame – is said to be in Purgatory. Harsh; but fair?

Pedant’s corner:- weasly (weaselly?) back and fore (back and forth x6!!! Is back and fore some kind of Invernesian usage unknown to the rest of the English speaking world?) had showed (shown,) 4/ (abbreviation for four shillings: 4/- was the usual short form.)

The Hope That Kills Us edited by Adrian Searle

An anthology of Scottish football fiction. Polygon, 2003, 191 p.

 The Hope That Kills Us cover

From Stuart Cosgrove’s foreword, with its tag of “Anybody who says he disnae like football is a lyin’ bastard,” – a quote from the final story – to that final tale this book is an examination in prose of Scotland’s contradictory love affair with the Beautiful Game – an affair at times not beautiful and not a game. The tendency of Scots to see anything and everything through the filter of football is evident from the contents.

This paperback edition contains additions (by Brian Hennigan and Bernard McLaverty) to the original hardback contents. Each story’s title page is illustrated by photographs taken by Paul Thorburn of different sets of goalposts from round Scotland. Occasional double page photos, overlaid with quotations from the stories, intersperse the book.

As is usual for anthologies and might be expected from the range of contributors the stories are varied in tone and style. The relevance of football to some of them is a bit dubious, though.

The opener is The Thing About Brazil by Allan Spence. On a trip to Brazil, Andrew remembers his dad and their visits to Ibrox, takes in a Flamengo-Palmeiras game at the Maracanã and, later, has his own moment of football glory on Ipanema beach.
In A Belfast Memory by Bernard McLaverty a Belfast man remembers the time that “Charlie Tully called” and the discussion that ensued on the shameful demise of Belfast Celtic.
Linda Cracknell’s The Match is only incidentally about football. A woman is taking a holiday in the Carribean on her own since her husband wouldn’t miss a vital European match. (It could have been any obsession really but I suppose football is the most plausible.)
In This Is My Story, This Is My Song by Laura Hird some Hearts-supporting friends gather for the funeral of one of their number, killed in a van crash. Supporting Hearts is the biggest thing in the lives all of them.
Iain Maloney’s Football Scarves and Richard Kimble tells of a boy’s experience of his first match – a Cup Final – interspersed with his Dad’s reminiscences of how the ending of the TV show The Fugitive, gripping much of the nation at the time, was announced over the tannoy at a night game.
The Hand of God Squad by Gordon Legge is the tale of two (moderate) drinking pals, the hotels they drink in, the Englishman who first of all befriends them then joins in their trips away with the Tartan Army (complete with kilts.) All tied up with the sad end to the qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup.
In The Cherrypicker by Jim Carruthers the narrator’s grandfather was a Cherrypicker, so he is slightly disappointed both that no-one famous turned up at the old man’s funeral and at the absence of missives from Liverpool in his effects. Years later, on seeing Glenbuck, he cannot credit the team’s name.
Nae Cunt Said Anyhin by Andrew C Ferguson is narrated in a very broad Fife Scots. It is the story of Tam Johnston and the gift of sublime football talent the fairies passed on to him; a gift almost useless because Tam likes the drink too much (“George Best oan a budget”) and even though he gets to play for Scotland they’re “so shite even Tam cannae make a difference. Couldnae score on Loveboat.”
Billy Cornwall’s Jesus Saves has Wee Davy thrust into a game against older heavier boys, where he imagines himself as Kenny Dalglish.
Heatherstone’s Question by Des Dillon is another not really about football, even if two neighbours in Galloway do support different halves of the Old Firm. Rather, it is about neighbourliness, and reticence.
Alan Bissett’s A Minute’s Silence charts the friendship and rivalry between two boys that sours when they attend different schools and start to support different teams (you know the two.) About sectarianism and how it is not engrained, but learned.
In Denise Mina’s The Bigot a criminal has scheduled the divvy-up from a job for the day of an Old-Firm game. Again, the football content here is really incidental. Revenge, it seems, is a dish best served not only cold but well-planned.
Sufisticated Football by Suhayl Saadi has a man “lying in the cells at the dark bottom of the Old Partick Police Station” being visited by the ghost of Allegro Akbar, a celebrated football coach. Illuminated with words from Urdu and Arabic – ghosht = meat = the ball, pyar = love, and ishq = perfection (as in Zidane, Hampden, 15th May 2002) – illustrating the philosophy of football.
The Tomintoul Deliverance by Brian Hennigan is the humorous story of how Loch Muick triumphed over the ancient enemy Athletico Tomintoul – despite not having played them for years and a season spent losing heavily to the likes of Dynamo Fochabers and Sporting Kilwhinnie (not to mention Unsporting Kilwhinnie) – mainly through managerial exhortation by cliché. A flavour of the tone is given by the sentence, “It was at times reminiscent of the film Zulu, particularly when the Tomintoul attack set fire to the thatched roof of our goal.”
The Last Man in Scotland Who Doesn’t Like Football by Colin Clark tells the story of “Pasty” Hastie, who doesn’t like football so got a hard time at school. The affliction goes on to haunt his adult life.

Pedant’s corner:- non sequitar (sequitur,) sprung (sprang,) its (it’s,) Billy McNeil (Billy McNeill,) “Better tae have to hoopsthough eh?” (the hoops makes more sense,) Queens Park (Queen’s Park,) “Where’s the excitement I that?” (in that, surely?) Thursday through the Saturday (that “through” is USian usage,) what we what we, was was, students’s, allen key (Allan key,) “’And you’ll have you got yourselves kitted out?’” epitomy (epitome,) gets the heads shaved (get,) Robert Prosineski (that’s how it’s pronounced but it’s spelled Prosinecki,) a missing quotation mark, were (where,) alter x 2 (altar – both times,) a few slice of bread (slices,) one and other (one another,) wanes (weans,) Ranger’s (Rangers’,) sliver shelving units (silver?) ranger top (Rangers top,) sleak (sleek,) viscose (viscous,) threw (thrown,) soccer (soccer!!!!) miniscule (minuscule,) deosil (usually deasil,) snuck (sneaked,) nine items or less (ought to be fewer, of course, but it’s a straight quote from a supermarket sign,) a question mark after what wasn’t a question, lead (led.)

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape, 2008, 359 p.

The Enchantress of Florence cover

A foreigner turns up to the court of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, at Fatehpur Sikri with a claim to be related to him and a tale to tell to justify it. The foreigner has called himself variously Uccello di Firenze, Mogor dell’ Amore (the Mughal of love) and Niccolò Vespucci. So begins this typical piece of Rushdian flamboyance.

Containing elements of fable, fairy tale and Rushdie’s usual dose of magic realism (among other things Akbar has managed to conjure up for himself an imaginary – and therefore perfect – wife) there is nevertheless something about the treatment that does not quite hit the mark. Rushdie has always been fond of digression, word games and allusions (in this case, for example, take the mercenaries Otho, Botho, Clotho and D’Artagnan) but it has to be said; in amongst the showing here, there is a lot of telling. As if to underline this there is a list of works consulted for research given in a bibliography.

Yet, as the author notes, “The untruth of untrue stories could sometimes be of service in the real world.” That is what fiction is for after all. But then again, “Those sceptics who by virtue of their sour temperament resist a supernatural account of events may prefer more conventional explanations.” Indeed.

It might seem, too, that in a novel entitled The Enchantress of Florence that the woman concerned could be expected to appear in the narrative somewhat earlier than two-thirds of the way through but while this is her story it is also the story of Akbar, of the Florence of the Medici (and the monk Giralomo,) and of three friends from that city, Antonino Argalia, last of the condottieri, Niccolò – ‘il Machia’ – Machiavelli (yes, that Machiavelli) and Agostino Vespucci (cousin to Amerigo.) It is also the tale of why the Mughal court had to leave Fatehpur Sikri.

The enchantress is Qara Köz, “Lady Black Eyes,” Akbar’s Great Aunt, sister of Babar the first Mughal, eliminated from the family history when she rejected a return from capture. Her enchantments seem to lie in the ability to entrance men, if only for a while. Her destiny is to pass through the hands of a warlord, to the Safavid Shah Ismail, to Antonino Argalia and finally to the New World with Agostino Vespucci. She has a companion, her mirror in all respects (bar one.) Yet she is an absence in the book, an emptiness around which Rushdie weaves his tale of folly, wisdom, hope and loss. Akbar is at the heart of it, a ruler wise to his surroundings and to the machinations of the power hungry. There is a barbed inversion of insular Western conceptions when Akbar muses that, “The lands of the West were exotic and surreal to a degree incomprehensible to the humdrum people of the East.”

A noteworthy aspect of this edition is that it is endowed with beautiful endpapers picturing at the front a detail from The Building of Fatehpur Sikri Palace from the Akbamama and at the rear from the Carta della Catena showing a panorama of Florence.

Pedant’s corner:- A 16th century Scottish pirate may well have been carrying letters of marque or even diplomatic credentials from Queen Elizabeth (of England) but I doubt he would treasure a locket containing her portrait. Equally he may have boasted of climbing all Scotland’s Munros but not in those terms. They were not named as such for a further three centuries. “I’d keeped her locked up” (keep,) rowboat.

Sacrifice on Spica III by Eric Brown

The Telemass Quartet II, PS Publishing, 2014, 81 p.

 Sacrifice on Spica III cover

Still in search of his wife and daughter, Matt Hendrick has arrived on Kallithea, a planet with an eccentric orbit around its two primaries which leads to a five year long winter, but before he even steps off the Telemass platform Hendrick is sidetracked by a chance meeting with Ed Miller, a former colleague in the Amsterdam Police, into tracking down Katerina Nordstrom, wanted for the murder of her lover back on Earth. Nordstrom just happens to have been Hendrick’s first real love, when he was a tyro detective twenty years ago. Also on the trip are Acolytes of the Ice, members of a bizarre cult inspired by Kallithea’s native culture, whereby devotees give themselves up to death in the freezing wastes.

A weird religion, past traumas, a private life tangled up with the mission at hand, are all typical Brown tropes. Once again it is the changes he rings on the ingredients that provide the impulse to keep reading. The details of the immolation cult are strange and Brown renders them well.

In the context of the Telemass Quartet it is perhaps a drawback that Hendrick’s personal quest is a sideshow to this novella’s plot, though. It causes him to take his eye off the greater ball and so his wife and daughter evade him. No spoiler really as of course this serves Brown’s purposes, as Telemass III and IV are still to come.

Pedant’s corner:- as its swung away (it,) epicentre, “I wouldn’t have through Kat” (thought,) the beneficent gaze His Holiness (gaze of His,) what as right (what was right) and a fair few instances of “time interval” later.

Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay

Picador, 2007, 202 p.

Wish I Was Here cover

I was impressed by Kay’s novel Trumpet last year. This is her second book of short stories. I have yet to read her first. Wish I Was Here has very wide margins so you’re actually getting fewer words than you might think but all the stories are insightful and magnificently readable. There are only occasional intrusions of Scottishness into the narratives.

You Go When You Can No Longer Stay relates the breakdown of the twenty-five year relationship between Hilary and Ruth; a breakdown premonitored by Hilary quoting from Martin Amis – one example of which provides this story’s title. Another such bon mot (which actually is nonsense) is, “All marriage turns into a sibling relationship.”

In What is Left Behind1 a (heterosexually) married woman who has monthly trips away for assignations with a female lover remembers all the rooms they have (not) slept in. This one is written in USian from a USian’s viewpoint.

Wish I Was Here2 has a woman whose best friend has recently found a New Lover (also a woman) wait for the couple to arrive at their holiday hotel. In this story what is not said, what the narrator does not think – what she dismisses – is what is most important.

In How to Get Away with Suicide3 Malkie spends his day trying to think of a way to commit suicide while making it look accidental. This is because his wife has left him for another man, and taken the kids. Among his observations are, “Glasgow’s changed; it used to be a dark city and now it’s light,” and, “it’s only love that matters in the end.”

Blinds features a woman who has recently split up with her partner having a conversation with the man who comes to measure up for the blinds in the terraced cottage she’s just moved into. She feels exposed. Of the woman who waves and smiles into her kitchen she thinks, “We all want friendly neighbours, of course. But too friendly neighbours fill us with alarm and dread.”

In The Silence a man asked by his wife to, “give me a minute’s peace at my breakfast,” tells her, “I’ll shut up, then.” And does. For ever.

My Daughter the Fox3 is a metaphor about motherhood and the disruption it brings. It tells the story of a woman who gives birth to a fox. She names her offspring Anya.

What Ever5 gives us four snapshots from the life of Ina McEwan, each one featuring an encounter with bird life, respectively quails, a little tern, a robin and a gull.

In Not the Queen6 Margaret Dorothy Lockhart is a Glaswegian woman who is the spitting image of the Queen. She has been since birth. It isn’t a happy thing to be.

Pruning.7 A woman whose female partner of fifteen years is having an affair with another woman finally loses it. The last line here is deliciously ironic.

The longest and most affecting of these tales is Sonata8 in which a woman on an all-night train journey through an unnamed Eastern European country hears the story of another. Contains perceptions such as, “The ugly have no rights. They don’t even feel the right to be loved. They feel grateful for the simplest of kindnesses,” and, “And what does it all matter, those petty jealousies compared to a life, a love, what does it matter.”

In The Mirrored Twins9 two male mountain climbers who have become an item set out one day to see the mirrored twins of Ben More and Stob Binnein. One of them observes, “If people just came out and walked up here every now and again, there would be less wars.”

Pedant’s corner:- 1 The song lyric, “Sonny, once so true, I love you-ooo,” is quoted. I always understood that to be ”Sunny one so true.”
2 Unless the narrator is again USian the use of “New Years” ought to be New Year.
3 Despite Malkie being Glaswegian the word bairns is used for his children. Also Kenny Dalgleish should be Dalglish.
4 medieval
5 When first encountered the family is referred to as the McEwan’s but later on the same page – correctly – as the McEwans. “It was the site she returned to, what ever.” I can’t see the purpose in rendering whatever as two words.
6 I hate the formulation “Queen of England.” In its first appearance here it may be forgivable as it’s that woman herself looking in the mirror – but she surely knows well enough she is Monarch of many other countries besides. But for Maggie’s fellow Glaswegian husband to say, “not a bloody person in the whole of England wid be able to tell the difference!” strikes me as unlikely as he’d be more than aware that he didn’t live in England but still had the same Queen. On a train journey south Maggie knew Scotland changed into England “but she couldn’t see the difference properly.” Really? No difference in the patterns of fields, in the appearance and dimensions of houses?
7 ass (arse.)
8 “you have those kind of looks” (that kind – or those kinds.)
9 “there would be less wars” (fewer.)

The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald

Penguin, 2014, 321 p.

This is the third of Oswald’s Inspector McLean books. For my reviews of the previous two see here and here.

 The Hangman’s Song cover

Part of the background to The Hangman’s Song is the move from regional Police Forces to an integrated whole Scotland Police Service. Among other factors this produces in complicating a policeman’s lot it has meant McLean’s bête noire, Acting Superintendent Duguid, has been temporarily promoted to commanding officer, and has seconded McLean to work with the Sex Crimes Unit while still having a normal case load. The ongoing chaos to Edinburgh’s traffic caused by the installation of the new tram system mirrors the disorganisation within the force. In the meantime, McLean’s love interest, Emma, has only just recovered from the coma in which she ended the last book and has lost her memory, or at least the recent portion of it.

The novel starts off with an incident engaging the Sex Crimes Unit but the main plot concerns a series of suicides by hanging about which McLean harbours doubts. On this point (possible spoiler) it stretches credulity a little that once again people known to McLean in his personal life are tied up with the crimes. (Clues for this appear very early on.) Another repetition is that hints of the supernatural intrude into the narrative. (I would argue these are always unnecessary in a crime novel, tending to absolve the humans of responsibility for their actions.) McLean of course solves the crimes to his satisfaction – what else is detective fiction for? – but the world isn’t quite set to rights so there is ample scope for further novels

It is very readable stuff, though.

There’s an extract from the fourth Inspector McLean book Dead Men’s Bones making up the last 32 pages of this volume. Is there a point to this naff practice beyond the wasting of paper and shelf space? Anyone who wants more like this will most likely buy that book or read it anyway, anyone who doesn’t, won’t.

Pedant’s corner:- “the top of her piling system” (the context implies filing system, but if it was intended as a portmanteau coinage for “piled high set of files” it’s brilliant.) Otherwise:- shrunk, mementos (mementoes,) tie-died (tie-dyed,) medieval, “there were no franking mark or stamps” (I’d be happier with “was no franking mark” and a comma before the “or”,) “Aren’t I? (the Scottish usage is “Amn’t I?”) “None of the names were repeated” (none is singular, so that verb should be “was”,) sprung (x 2,) rung off (rang off,) “Let it go and move one” (on,) care off (care of,) elevator (lift,) the whole of Lothian and Borders were crawling (again; whole is singular, so “was crawling”,) a team were working (a team is singular so “a team was”,) “sixth form” (in McLean’s case, since he went to a public school in England, this is fine, but the character speaking to him ought to know the Scottish term is “sixth year”,) for you information (your.)

Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

Gollancz, 2000, 1114 p.

 Ash cover

The main parts of this compendious novel are framed as a (complete with footnotes) modern academic translation from mediæval Latin of several “found” manuscripts depicting the life of Ash, the female leader of a company of 15th century mercenaries whose emblem is the Lion Azure. These are presented in the form of “Ash: The Lost History of Burgundy” as by “Pierce Ratcliff, Ph D.” Ash, like Joan of Arc did, hears a voice in her head; in her case it transpires this is of a machina rei militaris (engine of military matters or, to put it in modern terms, a tactics computer.) In Ash’s story Gentle evokes the mediæval world marvellously; the power balances, the camaraderies, the techniques of fighting, the blood and guts, the miseries of a siege, the inconsequentiality of the common people – and there are more technical terms for pieces of armour than you might think could actually fit on a human body.

It is clear from early on that this is not our history, though. When religion is invoked it is the Green Christ, Christus viridianus, who is called upon – this religion is some sort of mash-up between Mithraism and what we would recognise as Christianity – and, while the Turks have indeed taken Constantinople, there are no Moors in North Africa and Carthage is a power in the world, a Visigothic Carthage. The manuscripts also refer to clay men – a term thereafter “translated” as golems – accompanying the forces of Carthage in an invasion of Europe.

Neither is it the history of Ratcliff’s world. Discrepancies exist between details of the manuscripts he is translating and history as he knows it, in particular the existence of a Visigothic Carthage in the 15th century. Moreover, those few copies of the manuscripts held in academic institutions round the world have been mysteriously reclassified from history to fiction even while he has been in the process of translating them, placing at risk his chances of publishing his findings. In search of evidence for the city he has joined an architectural dig in North Africa. The discovery there of a Stone Golem (another name for the machina rei militaris,) initially dated as modern but on second examination to mediæval times, and traces of the city corresponding to the Carthage of the manuscripts (in a deep trench in the Mediterranean sea floor not found on Royal Navy charts from the Second World War – Green Christ notwithstanding, there are overwhelming similarities between Ratcliff’s world and ours) also point to the fluidity of the historical record. This strand to the book is revealed in a series of transcribed emails between Ratcliff and his publisher supposedly interpolated in the printed out pages of the translation. Discussing many worlds and quantum theories these exchanges lend a Science Fictional air to what would otherwise be a straightforward Fantasy. As a coda to Ash’s story, a transcribed interview with a previous translator of the Ash documents and afterwords to successive editions of Ratcliff’s publications continue this strand.

All of this elaborates a tale of deeper powers beyond the Stone Golem, the Ferae Natura Machinae, or Wild Machines, silicon intelligences located inside pyramids in the desert near Carthage, who have not only cast the shadow of night over both Carthage and most of Europe (bar Burgundy) by drawing down the power of the Sun but also threaten to extinguish humans from the world. Through the Wild Machines’ influence on the Stone Golem, Carthage has been breeding for the ability to alter reality. The leader of their invasion of Europe, the Faris, is the first to be able to communicate with the Stone Golem at a distance and will be the instrument of their designs. Thus is the old Roman epithet Delenda est Carthago (Carthage must be destroyed) given enduring relevance. Ash turns out to be a by-product of the Carthaginian breeding programme, rejected at birth, who was taken in on a whim by members of the Griffin-in-Gold mercenary company and survived to adulthood merely by chance. The voice she hears is the machina rei militaris.

So why Burgundy and the “Lost History of Burgundy” (which would actually be better rendered as the “History of Lost Burgundy”)? In the story Burgundy has, inadvertently, perpetuated a bloodline that negates the reality-altering ability.

That women were involved in warfare in the mediæval era – as combatants (and surgeons) as well as camp followers – and would be capable leaders, are points worth making into a novel. To my mind, though, it detracts from the possible resonance of that fact that Ash is imbued with “supernatural” powers.

The character of Ash herself is agreeably complicated; accomplished to be sure, decisive, ruthless at times, but also loyal and liable to human flaws. The portraits of others are equally successful.

I’m not sure about that framing device, though – even if it does give us the delight of footnotes and adds the Science Fictional gloss.

Pedant’s corner:- The text flips indiscriminately between the use of ass and arse, and after the Lion Azure’s surgeon is also revealed to be a woman, her name is given equally indiscriminately given as Floria or Florian. The use in the “translation” of modern phrases such as “listen up,” “you bottled it” and “rag-head”- while conveying the essences well enough – jars a little in the context of mediæval discourse. Then we had 2 counts of lay/laying (lie/lying,) sprung (sprang) and sunk (sank,) a snuck (sneaked,) merchant (merchants,) still born up by the welcome (borne up by,) blue slates roofs (slate,) is there proof of your been born from a slave mother (being,) still held prisoned (prisoner?) no one (no-one,) “His took a slow match” (He,) the edges of her armour cuts the hands of men she helps (cut,) force-marched (the phrase is “forced march” so forced-marched,) towards at the head of (either “towards” or “at” but not both,) auxiliary’s’, paying merry hell (playing,) Richard (Rickard,) outside of (outside,) at your Duchesses’s request (but the request had been made by the Duke, now deceased,) deosil for deasil is an variant of deasil I hadn’t previously seen, E pur si muove is usually rendered as Eppur si muove, “to get the stiffness out her neck” (out of,) hung (hanged.)

A Season With Verona by Tim Parks

Travels around Italy in search of illusion, national character and …. goals.

Secker and Warburg, 2002, 447 p.

A Season With Verona cover

Parks is an English novelist who has lived in Italy for many years. Long fallen under the influence of the Brigate Gialloblù (the Yellow-and-Blue Squad,) “ultras” who throng the Curva Sud of Verona’s Bentegodi stadium for home matches, he conceived of the idea of attending every game of the team’s 1999-2000 season, selling this to his wife on the basis he could write a book about it. The result, though, is not a book only about football and the experience of being a fan, but also an exploration of Italy, the strange divisions, attitudes, enmities and prejudices within that country.

Given that the team Parks is so devoted to is Hellas Verona, not one of Italian football’s superpowers, the book’s subtitle is a bit of a red herring. Goals (at least, Hellas goals) turn out to be in somewhat short supply. This is partly due to the loss of their previous manager, Cesare Prandelli, to a bigger club. His successor is not as accomplished.

As well as the Veronese dialect being derided in the rest of Italy, Hellas fans and Verona itself had at the time (and may still) an unenviable reputation, as racist. (As far as the football club is concerned the nearest British equivalent might be Millwall – “No-one likes us, we don’t care” – but that club’s profile is probably lower than Verona’s, its football history less illustrious. In the miraculous year of 1985, before Parks’s time as a fan, Verona actually won lo scudetto – imagine Millwall winning the English Premiership – but immediately after that incredible outcome the system of appointing referees in Serie A was changed.) A sub-theme throughout the book is the saga of a teacher in Verona who was the subject of an attack because he was a Jew. Most Veronese are solicitous and supportive of him but the national press and media weigh in with stereotyping of all Veronese as racist. The situation becomes ever more complicated when it is revealed that the man did not have the teaching qualifications he claimed, thus putting his job in danger. (But even this is turned against the Veronese.) Neither is any hospital report of the man’s injuries ever produced. The attack may not have occurred at all. However, Parks portrays the fans’ racism as more contrarian and reflexive than real, an assertion of defiance and distinctiveness. An afterword says that a black Colombian made his debut for Hellas two seasons later and was warmly welcomed by the Curva Sud. During the season covered the Verona fans encounters a certain amount of casual violence, both from opposition supporters and the police. (Veronese, being perceived as racist, are seen as fair game.)

The author’s novelistic background shows through at times. The chapters are structured with a fiction writer’s feel and the incidents detailed highlight the points he is making. All but a few chapters are tailed by the Giornata (results) and Classifica (league table) after the fixtures discussed within. Among his more general observations are that, “To do anything in Italy you don’t need to be capable of it. What you do need is a certificate. The document is crucial.” He adds, “There is no people more ready to imagine a conspiracy than the Italians.” Yet “everyone wants their team to win at all costs and everyone earnestly wishes the world to be fair.” Parks concurs with Leopardi who in a book published in 1828 stated that society in Italy is a “school for insult.” The description is even more applicable to football. While not sharing their enmities to local rivals Bergamo, Brescia and Vicenza, when Inter come to town Parks feels the indignation – familiar to fans of wee teams everywhere – of Hellas fans to those Veronese who have turned up to support Inter. “How can they do it?” Mixed in with this is the disparity in resources “the five reserves they” (Inter) “have on the bench are worth more than our whole twenty-five-strong squad put together.” On the iniquities of referees officiating in a match involving a big team at the Bentegodi, Parks says, “The more I think about football, the more I am convinced that injustice is an essential part of it,” adding that the fan of Verona, indeed the fan of a small team anywhere is lucky. “He gets it.” Also, “The truth is that whenever a provincial side come to Turin,” (to play Juventus) “they arrive expecting to be cheated. More than they would anywhere else.” (Welcome to Parkhead and Ibrox!)

The first game is a trial. Away to Bari, eight hundred and fifty kilometres down the Adriatic coast. Not as far as Lecce but bad enough. And held not on the usual Sunday of Serie A matches but as the anticipo at 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and thus the first match of the entire Serie A season. This arrangement is for pay television purposes. A second anticipo is played on a Saturday night and a posticipo on the Sunday evening. I don’t like the concept. Football games ought to be played at the traditional time (football’s soul has long since been sold out, in some cases far too cheaply, for filthy lucre) but I do like the word posticipo. In a circumstance which will be unsurprising to also-rans in other countries only the provinciali, not the big five of Juventus, Inter Milan, A C Milan, Lazio and Roma, are delegated to play on a Saturday afternoon. Parks’s journey to Bari on the Zanzibar bus (the book is dedicated to its denizens, the Zanzibar is the bar from which the supporters bus leaves) is a nightmare full of interruptions and replete with Italian expletives – if you didn’t know what vaffanculo means before reading this book it wouldn’t take you long to work it out – with Parks’s credibility at stake, travelling for hours on a clapped out vehicle stocked with initially suspicious diehards. The game, too, is a trial for the most part but Hellas salvage a draw. For the later game at Lecce Parks uses his projected book as a means to travel with the club. Unable to get there any other way he flies with the team and officials, staying at their hotel. The players turn out to be fairly sad individuals, almost like little boys lost. The game, too, is lost and Parks swears not to travel with the team again.

It is only more than halfway through the book, when the reality of a relegation struggle has become clear, that Parks mentions what he had hoped to avoid, something unthinkable. Verona has another football team, from the suburb of Chievo. Traditionally poorly supported – Parks characterises this as more or less a woman, two men and a dog (I paraphrase) – and habitual denizens of the lower leagues, they have not long been elevated to Serie B, and so are now allowed to play at the Bentegodi but are exemplary, with two black players and fans who don’t invite trouble. Worse still for Hellas fans, Chievo are on course for promotion. Hence Hellas faces the imminent loss both of Serie A status and that of top dog in Verona. It is here that Parks rails at the fact that, without television money – with Serie B and European games added to the schedule it means that there is football on Italian TV every day of the week – Chievo would not be able to afford the players who have brought them success.

While not being beyond personal considerations – he greets the pathetic performances that threaten the club’s status with the thought that “they are destroying my book” – Parks is good on the trials of being a fan. When Bologna score first in the (for Hellas, must-win) third last game of the season he observes, “Then I realised that although I thought I had already abandoned hope before the game, actually I hadn’t. I had pretended to despair, precisely to keep alive the tiniest hidden hope, flickering deep, deep in my breast. Now it was extinguished.” A reaction familiar to all fans who have been in that situation. Then Adailton, “the only Brazilian who can’t play football, as the fans like to say,” (these fans and Parks have obviously never witnessed Rafael Scheidt) scores a beauty. Verona go on to lead the game but almost throw the win away.

The season ends on a triumph of sorts. Five points behind with three games to go was a situation never before retrieved in Serie A. Yet Hellas still ended in a three-way tie for the last relegation place. In the complicated way Italian football approaches these things there can only be one pair of teams to play-off. Lecce came top of the calculation of the relevant results so Hellas had to confront Reggina (to whom they had lost at home in the normal season while drawing away.) That normal away game was played in Sicily, in Catania, as Reggina were being punished for crowd trouble. So after a 1-0 win at home, Parks travels for the first time to Reggia di Calabria for the final game. Only one plane can get him there, the team’s, which of course he had forsworn. Nevertheless he has to go. At 2-0 down an away goal means survival. Its achievement is succeeded by an excruciating period of Reggina pressure and an heroic display by Verona’s goalkeeper, Ferron. An orgy of violence towards the away team, officials and fans follows the final whistle.

I note that Parks describes Luca Toni – playing for the opposition – as spending the game falling over, seeking to win free kicks. I once commented on another blog that the spectacle of said player resembled a tree trying to play football; a comparison that blogger described as inspired.

Pedant’s corner:- having if off (it,) national Italian team (Parks’s sojourn in Italy is perhaps in evidence here, the usual order in English is Italian national team,) for convenience sake (convenience’s,) indignance (indignation,) Seishelles (Seychelles – though the misspelling may have been a reproduction of that of one of Parks’s students of English,) place kick (free kick,) that can effect the timing (affect,) sung (sang.)

The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

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

The White Castle cover

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

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