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The Untouchable by John Banville

Picador, 1997, 412p.

The Untouchable cover

The novel is the memoir of Victor Maskell, scion of the estate of Carrickdrum in Northern Ireland, an Art Historian, expert on Poussin; and a spy for the USSR since his time at Cambridge in the 1930s. His journal is written down as if for Miss Serena Vandeleur, a journalist who comes to him after his exposure to the press long, long after the Security Services had become aware of his treacherous activities. He thus bears a more than superficial resemblance to Anthony Blunt but doubtless the parallels are not entirely exact.

The attention here is incidental but Banville has previously had painting and painters as a subject – as in The Sea, Athena, The Book of Evidence and Ghosts. The focus here (obviously drawn from Blunt’s non-espionage career) is Poussin, specifically Maskell’s prized possession, The Death of Seneca, but, in keeping with the book’s theme of duplicity and subterfuge, there is a suggestion that the work is not genuine, or at least not by Poussin.

The novel is wonderfully written. Each sentence is in perfect balance; a work of art in itself, the text studded with unusual observations, “The silence that fell, or rather rose – for silence rises, surely?” or comments, “He was genuinely curious about people – the sure mark of the second-rate novelist,” and the occasional barb, “Trying for the common touch .. and failing ridiculously.” The literary allusions include a reference to Odysseus’s men drinking sea-dark wine.

There are subtle inferences to the insights of a spy, “He made the mistake of thinking that the way to be convincing is to put on a false front,” and the regrets of the trade, “It is odd, how the small dishonesties are the ones that snag in the silk of the mind,” and later, “It is the minor treacheries that weigh most heavily on the heart.” On encountering a tramp with a dog inside his coat Maskell tells us, “(I was) ashamed that I felt more sorrow for the dog than I did for the man. What a thing it is, the human heart.”

Maskell claims almost from the outset to have been disenchanted with the USSR, a feeling to which his visit there in the 30s only contributed, and that his controllers consistently misunderstood England (as he puts it.) “Much of my time and energy … was spent trying to teach Moscow to distinguish between form and content in English life.” Despite his betrayals he says, “I was nothing less than an old-fashioned patriot.” In mitigation he asks, “who could have remained inactive in this ferocious century?” and avers, “We should have had no mercy, no qualms. We would have brought down the whole world.”

He receives the Order of the Red Banner (his medal glimpsed only once by him before being hidden away by his handler) for contributing to the Soviet victory at Kursk by transferring details, relayed from Bletchley, of a new German tank design. How much such information really affected that battle is of course debatable.

Some of the dialogue is representative of the times in which the book is set, “Mind if I turn off this nigger racket?” and “‘What’s the matter with the dago, sir?'” being cases in point.

One of Maskell’s defining features is his homosexuality (though he came to it late, after marriage to the sister of one of his University friends.) Of a lover of his he tells us, “Patrick had all the best qualities of a wife, and was blessedly lacking in two of the worst: he was neither female, nor fertile,” and further comments “(I ask myself….. if women fully realise how deeply, viscerally, sorrowfully, men hate them.)” He is of the opinion that in the fifties “to be queer was very bliss…. the last great age of queerdom.” The “young hotheads” of the narrator’s present day, “do not seem to appreciate, or at least seem to wish to deny, the aphrodisiac properties of secrecy and fear.”

Part of his early protection from wider exposure was that he was sent by the King to Bavaria after the war to retrieve some potentially compromising papers. A distant relation, he refers sardonically to the Queen as Mrs W.

He has a jaundiced view of humanity and at one point he describes the American system as “itself, so demanding, so merciless, undeluded as to the fundamental murderousness and venality of humankind and at the same time grimly, unflaggingly optimistic.”

His observation about his work on Poussin, that he was trying “to pull together into a unity all the disparate strands of character and inspiration and achievement that make up this singular being,” might be a description of the novel itself. In The Untouchable Banville has laid out for us a life in just such terms.

It is all a fascinating examination of the existence of a spy. As he ponders who it was who unmasked him – possibly twice – Maskell begins to question everything about his life but asides such as, “My memory is not as good as it’s supposed to be. I may have misrecalled everything, got all the details wrong,” and, “As to this – what? this memoir? this fictional memoir?” point to the unreliability of his account.

Brilliant stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- medieval, on first mention we have Petersburg but when Maskell travelled there, in the thirties – and indeed till the nineties – it was called Leningrad, as it is denoted a few pages late, an ambulance siren (in 1939? I’m pretty sure British ambulances had bells at that time,) a missing full stop at the end of a paragraph, “Not the kind of thing you expect to hear from a Harley Street consultant, is it.” (That’s a question so requires a question mark,) “men and women, girls, youths,” (so youths means males only?) Prince’s Street (Princes Street,) “what the Americans delightfully call the pinkie” (I think, my Irish friend, you’ll find they got that word from us Scots,) hoofs (in my youth it was always hooves,) a paragraph starting “Those were the,” and then stopping, the three words repeating at the beginning of the next paragraph – but the nrarrator had just stated his mind was wandering so this may have been intended to indicate that circumstance, for Maskell to be watching a Jean Harlow film in a cinema in the 1950s seems a bit unlikely as she died in 1937, some Highland lough (it’s loch, my Irish friend,) “She made me sit me down” (made me sit down,) slippers turn to sandals then back to slippers within two pages.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

A Novel in Nine Parts. Sceptre, 1999, 446 p.

Ghostwritten cover

The novel is true to its sub-title. The first eight parts are all narrated in the first person from the respective viewpoints of a brain-washed cult member, perpetrator of a gas attack in a Japanese subway (in thrall to His Serendipity); a young half-Korean worker in a Tokyo shop selling jazz records; a compromised English banker in Hong Kong; a woman whose misfortune it was to live in China through most of the Twentieth Century; a mind-dwelling entity who can transmigrate from person to person by touch; a gallery attendant in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, who is an agent of an art-stealing syndicate; a London-dwelling, womanising ghostwriter; a female Irish physicist with the key to making atomic weapons worthless; and to round off we have transcripts from the broadcasts of Night Train FM, 97.8 ‘til late. The last two are awfully familiar but I can’t put my finger on from where (beyond the section set in Ireland in the same author’s The Bone Clocks.)

At first the connections between the parts seem tenuous, that between one and two is a misplaced phone call, between two and three seems to be a reference to the couple embarking on a love affair in part two, but gradually, the more sections come into play, the more resonances between them build up. Still, the Queen Anne chair mentioned in Hong Kong and a biography of His Serendipity seem lobbed into the London section when they arrive, gratuitous intrusions; the Music of Chance is the name of the ghostwriter’s band but also occurs as a phrase in a later section. Each part, though, is wonderfully written, suspending disbelief is never difficult – except in the case of the transmigrating mind entity, an interpolation of the fantastic which seems at odds with the realistic tone of the other parts. But then we find the fulcrum on which the novel comes to turn is a process called quantum cognition. This is not merely smuggling quantum physics into the literary landscape but making it the book’s focus – a piece of bravery (or potential folly) in a first novel which almost makes the previous mind-hopping seem mundane. “Evolution and history are the bagatelle of particle waves,” is not the sort of comparison common in literary texts.

Asides like, “For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing,” or “I added ‘writers’ to my list of people not to trust. They make everything up,” is perhaps over-egging the pudding, however. “Humans live in a pit of cheating, exploiting, hurting, incarcerating. Every time, the species wastes some part of what it could be. This waste is poisonous,” is a pessimistic view of humanity. The last bit is always worth repeating, though.
The pessimism is carried on by phrases like, “‘Loving somebody’ means ‘wanting something’. Love makes people do selfish, moronic, cruel and inhumane things,” but “‘womanisers are victims – unable to communicate with women any other way. They either never knew their mother or never had a good relationship with her,’” is more compassionate. The killer line follows as the womaniser is told, ‘I don’t quite know what you want from us. But it’s something to do with approval.’”

At one point one of the narrators says, “Italians give their cities sexes…. London’s middle-aged and male, respectably married but secretly gay.” I suspect all cities are secretly gay. “The USA is even crazier than the rest of humanity,” is either a prescient thesis or one now in the process of hard testing.

Ghosts, of memories and of sentience, begin to permeate the book. “Memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present,” while, “The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting….. We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us,” which leads to, “The real drag about being a ghostwriter is you never get to write anything beautiful.” Pessimism again.

But, “Technology is repeatable miracles.” That is the age in which we live.

I read in a recent(ish) review (of Slade House?) the opinion that Ghostwritten is still the best Mitchell has done. Not for me, of the ones I have read that would be The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet but in Ghostwritten I found the intrusion of the fantastical elements took away from the whole. Perhaps if they had been fully present from the start – part one is in the viewpoint of a delusion sufferer, true, but it is only the later parts which suggest it may not be a delusion – I would have felt differently, but I suppose in that case Mitchell might not have found a publisher. It’s brilliantly written and the characterisation is superb, but paradoxically, I thought Ghostwritten came to something less than the sum of its parts.

Pedant’s corner:- “The rest of for ever in a cell” (forever,) in paper bag (in a paper bag,) the owner of the greengrocers across the street (greengrocer’s) he jubilated (as an example to be avoided of an alternative to “he said” that is an absolute cracker,) I stunk (stank,) flack (flak,) uppercutted (uppercut?) leeched (leached,) emporers (emperors,) wracked (racked,) a group of … were waiting (was,) “There are less than one hundred left” (fewer than,) noncorpi (Mitchell’s previous plural form for noncorpum was noncorpa.) “like a virus within a bacteria” (bacterium,) reindeers (reindeer,) Ulan-Bator (Ulan Bator,) more muscle that (than,) a trio were playing … (a trio was playing,) some passersbys (passersby,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) staunch (stanch,) acquatic (aquatic,) the only good thing about Oxford Street are (things; or “is”,) I’d betted (bet – used 12 lines above!) Kyrgistan (nowadays spelled Kyrgyztan,) scaley (scaly,) wrapped into ((wrapped in,) Maise (Maisie – but it may have been an affectionate diminutive,) “A Lighter Shade of Pale” (Whiter,) “ ‘We skipped the last fandango” (light fandango.) “The only words for technology is “here”, or “not here” (The only words are,) “in Dr Bell and my case” (in Dr Bell’s and my case,) the aerobatic corp (corps,) practise (practice,) Freddy Mercury (Freddie,) coup d’etats (coups d’etat,) the Brunei’s (the Bruneis.)

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Penguin, Reprint of 1964 edition, 237 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

To The Lighthouse cover

Quite why this is on any list of Scottish books is something of a mystery. Yes, the nominal setting is somewhere in the Western Isles but it could really be anywhere. There is nothing intrinsically Scottish about the subject matter nor the characters and certainly not their speech patterns. I always suspected that Scottishness would be a false premise under which to read the book. Granted, there are references to the Waverley novels, but that is not enough to make a book Scottish. Neither are there sufficient descriptions of the landscape to bring it under the umbrella.

I understand Woolf is revered by some (a cover quote from Jeanette Winterson says, “Woolf is Modern. She feels close to us. With Joyce and Eliot she has shaped a literary century.”) Yet I found this novel to be …. odd.

To The Lighthouse is structured in three sections, The Window, Time Passes and The Lighthouse, of which the first is the longest and the second not much more than a placeholder but mercifully more cogent than the other two. We begin eavesdropping on the Ramsay family and their acquaintances as they contemplate a visit to the titular lighthouse the next day. There is little conflict between the characters (except in their unspoken thoughts) – certainly none that is dramatized, only Mr Ramsay saying he doubts they will be able to make the trip. Not a lot happens. Arguably the most important event in the book occurs offstage in Time Passes and is only reported – but people reflect on the little that does happen either at length or a tangent.

I have no problem with stream of consciousness as a technique – Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon uses it well – but without a focus it can reel off into irrelevance. The narrative viewpoint here can flit from mind to mind within the same paragraph (sometimes it felt like the same sentence.) As a result any insight into the human condition ends up drowned in the deluge. Any wood here is difficult to distinguish amongst all the trees. The copy I read was the good lady’s and she has told me she didn’t take to the book either.

I note from the entry on Woolf in The Oxford Companion to English Literature that she co-founded Hogarth Press – the original publishers of To The Lighthouse and others of her works: this is surely tantamount to self-publishing – and from her Wikipedia entry that her first novel was published by her half-brother’s company; which smacks of nepotism to me.

It’s the first of her works I have read and maybe I ought to sample more but I’d be delighted if someone could tell me just why Woolf is supposed to be good. On this evidence, and as that advert used to have it, her writing is dull, dull, dull.

Pedant’s corner:- galoshes (galoshes,) stood (x2, standing,) trapesing (I had not previously come across this alternative spelling of traipsing,) a comma at the end of one paragraph, shrunk (shrank,) waterily (what an ugly word; “like water” would have conveyed the sense,) sunk (sank.)

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

Windmill, 2015, 378 p.

 Tigerman cover

When I started this it read like some sort of odd fusion between Michael Chabon and Gabriel García Márquez. Why? Well, there’s the boy whose great interest is in comic books (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay). Then the viewpoint character is referred to all but exclusively as “the Sergeant” (The General in his Labyrinth) and the setting is exotic – to me at least. The island of Mancreu in the north part of the Indian Ocean. The Sergeant has seen (messy) service in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia and been farmed out to the island as a British Brevet-Consul with strict instructions to do, or interfere with, nothing. Yet in his new home he has a quasi-police role. Think Death in Paradise with all the twee bits ruthlessly excised except in a different ocean and a menacing air to the whole island.

For Mancreu has been the subject of an environmental disaster in its subterranean magma well (all sorts of undesirable biological emanations now proceed from there at irregular intervals) and is under sentence of death, “so wretchedly polluted that it must be sterilised by fire,” by the international community. People have already left – Leaving parties de rigueur – and the rest of the population is only biding its time. On land an international force known as NatProMan has a sort of rules-enforcement function. Offshore a Black Fleet is up to no good and tales circulate of a criminal/pirate/underworld type dubbed Bad Jack who lurks in the island’s shadows.

The Sergeant has developed a fatherly interest in the boy – who seems to have no parents but is liberally supplied with comic books and speaks fluent comic. In a meta-fictional moment the boy says of the stories in the comics, “There must be development-over-time or it is just noise.”

Things are shaken up when a bunch of gunmen come into Shola’s bar (where the Sergeant and the boy go to take tea) and shooting starts. Shola is killed but the Sergeant protects the boy with a nifty piece of action using for a weapon a tin containing custard powder which he employs as a sort of grenade. It explodes when the gunmen fire at it in defence. This gives the Sergeant the opportunity to overwhelm the remaining gunmen.

After the Sergeant discovers the boy – who may be called Robin but then again that could be a Batman joke – has been severely beaten and some of his comics systematically ripped apart as a punishment they cook up a plan between them. Inspired by the Sergeant’s somewhat magic realist encounter with a tiger (which he has related to the boy) the Sergeant, with the aid of a mask and some painted body armour, will become “Tigerman” to deal with the island’s bad guys. After all, “Myths and monsters were a human weakness, even on places not about to be evacuated and sterilised by fire.”

The plot sharpens when a missile is fired from the Black Fleet onto the building where the arrested gunmen are being held but it kind of jumped the shark later when the exact relationship between the boy and Bad Jack is revealed.

Along the way the NatProMan chief ruminates, “You had to listen to what a Brit was saying – which was invariably that he thought X Y Z was a terrific idea and he hoped it went well for you – while at the same time paying heed to the greasy, nauseous suspicion you had that, although every word and phrase indicated approval, somehow the sum of the whole was that you’d have to be a mental pygmy to come up with this plan and a complete fucking idiot to pursue it…. they didn’t do it on purpose. Brits actually thought that subtext was plain text.”

The last few pages strive for an emotional reaction from the reader but Harkaway hasn’t done quite enough in the preceding ones to earn it which is a shame as I really liked his previous novel Angelmaker.

Pedant’s corner:- Bad Jack is at one point rendered in French as Mauvais Jacques. I had always thought Jacques was French for James, as in Jacobite, not Jack. Otherwise; the \Sergeant is told to “rest up” by the previous Consul (rest up is a USianism, a Brit would more likely say rest,) “which he could use about now” (use is an USianism; which he could do with about now,)”the bigness of this idea”(x2; what an ugly expression,) mortician (undertaker,) sit-uations (not at a line break so situations,) with with (only one with required,) Freddy Mercury (Freddie Mercury,) “‘She wants a friendly face, is all’” (is all is USian, a Brit would say, ‘that’s all’,) a missing comma before the end quote mark of a piece of dialogue and another missing before a new piece, phosphorous flares (phosphorus,) there were a lot of positions (there were lots of positions.)

The General in his Labyrinth by Gabriel García Márquez

Penguin, 2014, 290 p, including i p map of New Granada, iv p author’s thanks and xi p Chronology of Simón Bolívar. No translator given but it is most likely Edith Grossman as she was the translator for the Jonathan Cape edition from which the original Penguin paperback was derived. First published as El General en Su Laberinto, Mondadori Espana, 1989.

 The General in his Labyrinth cover

This, an account of the last days of Simón Bolívar, The Liberator, on his final trip down the Magdalena River from Santa Fe de Bogotá to the sea, is not typical Márquez. There is no hint of magic realism here and the book often reads more like a history than a novel. In that it is a portrait of a leader in decline it bears some similarities to The Autumn of the Patriarch but it would not do to stretch the parallel. In any case, unlike that novel, this one is not at all experimental in its writing. Márquez’s Bolivar (his name is only given once, and then in full, Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios) – known throughout as simply the General – is all too human, his wife’s untimely death, without which he may never have embarked on his adventures into history, locked away inside him, yet his liaisons with women legendary.

The novel starts in Santa Fe de Bogotá as the General, his hopes of uniting the lands of South America (certainly the former Spanish parts) into one country now lying in tatters, is awaiting Government permission to leave and go to Europe. At a gathering, “No one was certain, however, who was there for the sake of friendship, who in order to protect him, and who to be sure that in fact he was leaving.”

The details of the journey downriver are intercut with scenes from his life and military and governmental careers wherein Márquez has the opportunity to comment on the condition of being a military strong man, or any dictator. When official reports had led the General to believe the scourge of smallpox was being conquered, evidence to the contrary has him say, “‘It will always be like this as long as subordinates lie to make us happy.’”

The General is also biting about any criticism of the harsh measures he had taken in his campaigns, “‘Europeans would not have the moral authority to reproach me, for, if any history is drowned in blood, indignity, and injustice, it is the history of Europe,’” the difficulties of running a newly founded country, “‘I warned (General) Santander that whatever good we had done for the nation would be worthless if we took on debt because we would go on paying interest till the end of time. Now it’s clear: debt will destroy us in the end.’” In a letter he tells another General that, “Every civil war had been won by the side that was most savage.” Then to an aide, “‘Don’t go with your family to the United States. It’s omnipotent and terrible, and its tale of liberty will end in a plague of miseries for us all.’” Despite all his achievements he reflects ruefully, “‘It was not the perfidy of my enemies but the diligence of my friends that destroyed my glory.’”

An item I found curious is that Bolivar was initiated in Paris as a Mason “of the Scottish rite”. Odd how often Scotland pops up in these South American fictions.

The novel’s title is an allusion to the General’s last words which were, “‘How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!’” It is, of course, the same way as the rest of us.

This was obviously a subject to which Márquez felt he had to turn, taking up the idea from an unfinished work by his friend Álvaro Mutis. to chronicle the end of a life which may as well be a myth.

Pedant’s corner:- to not deprive (not to deprive,) Elbers’ (Elbers’s,) Andrés’ (Andrés’s,) Páez’ (Páez’s,) Palacios’ (Palacios’s,) duchess’ (duchess’s,) Valdehoyos’ (Valdehoyos’s,) Sáenz’ (Sáenz’s,) English and British are used almost interchangeably, Britain is nearly always referred to as England.

David Golder by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2007, 159 p plus xii p Introduction. Translated from the French (Éditions Bernard Grasset, 1929) by Sandra Smith.

David Golder cover

This was Némirovsky’s second novel and in it she was to some extent finding her feet but it still exhibits some of the concerns and influences which were to dominate her work.

David Golder is a financier born into poverty in the Russian Empire but who now lives in France. He has a wife, Gloria, who, despite him lifting her out of the same poverty as his, wants his money but nothing else, indeed is unsatisfied with all he has provided for her. They have an indulged flibbertigibbet of a daughter, Joyce, who also only sees Golder as a source of funds. The crisis of the book begins when his business partner Simon Marcus – whom Golder is tired of bailing out – commits suicide after Golder refuses to help him out of financial trouble again. There was something about this that somehow brought to mind the beginning of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Némirovsky’s intent is very different to that of Dickens, though.

There are some similarities to the work of F Scott Fitzgerald as the book is set in a milieu which presents a far from attractive face. Némirovsky demonstrates well the unthinking lack of proportion which comes with affluence apparently easily gained. Both Gloria and Joyce seem to think Golder has not had to make any effort to garner the largesse they squander so profligately on their gold-digging boyfriends and vacuous pursuits.

For against appearances Golder’s financial times are hard. When he suffers a heart attack his wife conspires with the doctor who attends to conceal it from him so as he will not stop work and the money will continue to flow. His crash comes anyway and wife and daughter both leave him.

In one sense it is not surprising that Némirovsky makes Golder Jewish. It was her inheritance after all and Golder’s family bears some resemblance to hers – though we can assume not the vacuous daughter. In another author’s hands it might have tended only to reinforce the stereotype that many French held of Jews. At the time of writing the Dreyfus Affair, though partially obscured by the legacy of the Great War, still hung over Némirovsky’s adopted country. But Golder has a weak spot, Joyce, whom he continues to indulge even at the risk of his life. We find his driving force towards the end of the book, the crushing poverty and anti-Semitism he had endured in his childhood on the shores of the Black Sea.

David Golder isn’t Némirovsky at her peak but it is still worth reading Once again it is best to leave the introduction (by Patrick Markham) to the end as it discusses features of the plot and of Golder’s character.

Pedant’s corner:- predelictions (the word is spelled predilections,) “now there’s one enemy less” (“one enemy fewer” sounds more natural to me,) “his entire body felt wracked” (racked, it felt crushed, not wrecked,) “‘Once he’d paid for something, he watches over it,’” (either, “once he’s paid for something”, or else, “he’d watch over it”,) “a newspaper that was laying on the table,” (how can a newspaper lay anything? It was lying on the table,) “in the Ukraine” (in dialogue, but the speaker came from there so most likely would have said “in Ukraine.”)

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez

Penguin, 2014, 233 p. Translated from the Spanish El Otoño del Patriarca, 1975, by Gregory Rabassa.

 The Autumn of the Patriarch cover

It would be difficult to review this book without considering its form and structure, which are not for the faint-hearted, demanding concentration from the reader. There are six sections in all and each one consists of but a single long paragraph containing meandering sentences ranging up to several pages or more in length. Indeed the last section had just one sentence stretching over 45 pages. Within these digressive sentences the narrative viewpoint frequently switches back and forth, neither is there dialogue in the conventional sense, only reports of speech – perhaps interspersed with a “general sir”, or other vocative interpolation, to indicate that the preceding phrase is supposed to have been spoken. But for those viewpoint changes (some of which are in the plural) the prose could almost be described as stream of consciousness – or even stream of unconsciousness as one interpretation is that it represents the patriarch’s last thoughts; his life flashing past him as it ebbs away, “he was condemned not to know life except in reverse,” imagining again the events that brought him to his lonely end.

The autumn of the title is the long period of decay during which the (unnamed and, reportedly, absurdly long-lived,) patriarch retreated into solitude and his power rested on his reputation. The litany of atrocities and sexual peccadillos is what you might expect from a man of this sort, though he is portrayed as having an affection for both his mother, Bendicíon Alvarado, and the woman, Leticia Nazareno, he plucked from being a novitiate to share his bed.

The hall of mirrors that is living under a dictatorship is illustrated by lines such as, “We knew no evidence of his death was final, because there was always another truth behind the truth,” and “a lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth,” and “the belief that the less people understand the more afraid they’ll be.” These are lessons always needing to be learned it would seem. There is also an odd passage where we are told the patriarch had had “brought from Scotland eighty-two new born bulldogs …evilly taught to kill by a Scottish trainer.” I wondered why Márquez had chosen Scotland; it’s not particularly known for bulldogs.

The Autumn of the Patriarch is an exercise in form and experiment bearing few of the easy consolations of a conventional novel. It’s a tour-de-force certainly, but it’s not one for the casual reader.

A word for the translator, Gregory Rabassa. This must have been a particularly tricky book to translate and he has done a magnificent job. Rabassa was credited by Márquez of making the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude superior to the original Spanish. Sadly, he died in June 2016. So it goes.

And a warning for those who wish to avoid the n-word, in which case don’t read the next sentence. The phrase “nigger whorehouse” appears in the text.

Pedant’s corner:- nowthat (now that,) bureaus (I prefer bureaux,) convenience’ sake (convenience’s sake,) insignias (insignia. Is insignias USian?)

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

Canongate, 2014, 300 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books. Also in the Scotsman’s 20 Best Scottish Books.

 Under the Skin cover

Well this is an odd tale. A woman named Isserley trawls up and down the A9 between Tain and Dunkeld searching for male – and only male, well-muscled at that – hitchhikers to pick up. The narrative is mostly from Isserley’s viewpoint but small interludes are given to the thoughts of her various pick-ups. She calls their species vodsels and it soon turns out she has been surgically modified – apparently to make her more attractive to these males – and has the intent to drug them via a concealed apparatus under the front passenger seat of her battered looking car. She then takes them back to a farm where members of her own species (which she of course knows as human) “process” them. Her backstory as a beautiful young woman betrayed by richer young men and plucked from a miserable existence in “the Estates” to undergo the mutilations which have rendered her acceptable to vodsel eyes (at least on brief scrutiny) is given a lot of space. However, other than the unsavoury nature of the job Isserley would have had to perform there (to produce oxygen from filth) no more detail is given about these Estates than that they are to be avoided at almost any cost.

Granted, the book is set in Scotland and Faber lives in the Highlands but apart from occasional descriptions of scenery (which, admittedly is a pronounced trait in Scottish literature) there isn’t anything particularly Scottish about it. The book’s other flaws also lead me to wonder why it should appear on that list of 100 “best” Scottish books. Apart from their sexual and economic dynamics, portrayed as more or less the same as that of us vodsels, we learn almost nothing about the species to which Isserley belongs to except that their planet is short of oxygen, water and living space, they have a fondness for vodsel meat, a reverence for creatures who walk on all fours, and their general appearance. Their ships are apparently capable of moving into and out of what is in effect a barn without anyone in the wider world noticing. The attractiveness of Earth as a planet to her species, broad skies, open water, water falling from the sky, is made plain though.

Isserley has learned English mostly from television programmes but lately she reflects, “there was no point trying to orient yourself to reality with television. It only made things worse.” She avoids contact with the Police by always travelling well below the speed limit and avoiding flashing blue lights but, even if she is careful to determine the (lack of) marital and employment status of her victims before drugging them, it does stretch credulity that she can pick up and remove from their everyday lives so many people from such a relatively small area in such a short time – she sometimes picks up two a day – without causing some sort of official concern.

Despite its Science-fictional scenario, like Faber’s later The Book of Strange New Things, this, his first published novel, fails to hit the SF buttons square on. It does contain some fine writing at the level of the sentence and garnered a lot of praise when it came out but I found myself unable to discern what purpose Faber had in mind when conceiving it. I couldn’t avoid the feeling that there is less to Under the Skin than meets the eye.

Pedant’s corner:- “as if her perfectly sculpted little nose had indeed been sculpted” (two “sculpted”s in close proximity,) “cruising safely off the bridge at the far end” (cruising safely off the far end of the bridge,) “All was not necessarily lost though.” (Not all was necessarily lost,) “it was no place for a claustrophobic” (the noun is claustrophobe,) hingeing (makes sense for a Scottish writer to spell it this way as hinging is Scots for hanging.)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Fourth Estate, 2001, 646 p, plus iii p Author’s Note.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay cover

I was immediately struck by this book’s opening sentence, “In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of fans at a comic book convention …. Sam Clay liked to declare … that back when he was a boy … that he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.” In its essential form this has similarities to the first sentence of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Not a bad model to aspire to. Chabon’s opening sentence is, however, less stark, more elaborate than Marquez’s, being replete with subclauses and apparent asides. In this it is at one with many of the ones that follow, exquisite, information packed, beautifully constructed sentences unfolding over several lines yet seeming almost effortless, not a word out of place nor too much. Yet other sentences are admirably short. This is a book that has some very good writing indeed. At the same time it is also a compelling story. And it has occasional footnotes. What’s not to like?

The Kavalier and Clay of the title are respectively Joe and Sammy, cousins, both artists, who invent a comic book hero known as The Escapist, inspired by Kavalier’s training as an escapologist in Prague in the 1930s. They meet when Joe Kavalier turns up at the Klayman household in New York after his fraught journey from Czechoslovakia (via Lithuania and Japan) the setting up of which required almost all the money his family could scrape together to save at least one of their number. There are echoes of Márquez’s magical realism in Joe’s escape from Nazi occupation; inside a coffin which also contains the (disguised) Golem of Prague. The Escapist character is a great success – punching Hitler on the nose and otherwise bashing Nazis speaking to a latent emotion – as are other creations of theirs such as Luna Moth, riding the boom in comic books of the time. Despite exploitation by their publisher (the standard contract handed over the rights to their characters) they still manage to make a fair bit of money. Joe is continually worried about his family in Prague and his cash mostly goes to finding out their well-being or otherwise and to bringing his younger brother Thomas and other Jewish children to the US. In amongst details of their personal lives – Joe’s affair with Rosa Luxemburg Sax and Sammy’s incipient homosexuality laying the ground for later developments – Chabon also delivers to us a history of the comic book.

Given my interest in Art Deco and Moderne architecture I was particularly delighted by the scene set in the abandoned remains of “that outburst of gaudy hopefulness”, the New York World’s Fair 1939-40.

In a sentence that has striking echoes for the world in which I was reading the book Chabon says, “One of the sturdiest precepts of the human delusion is that every golden age is either in the past or the offing.” Arguably the real delusion is that there ever was, or will be, a golden age.

The shadow of the wider world never lifts from Joe, even if on joining up on the final entry of the US into World War 2 the navy sends him to the Antarctic rather than to kill Germans. A novel of folk caught up in “interesting times” may be a shortcut to wider significance but, “The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed at all,” is as true of more settled eras. And the events in Europe and elsewhere are backdrop to the human stories here. For all that, as well as a story of love and loss, tragedy and redemption (or a kind of catharsis,) at its heart The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a pæan to the comic book. And Chabon has made art out of its history.

Pedant’s corner:- the local Gestapo bureau (this was on the border between Poland and Lithuania, hence before the German invasion of Poland; so no Gestapo. Even if after the German invasion the border would have been between the Soviet controlled area of Poland and Lithuania so still no Gestapo,) beltoids (deltoids?) from which dangle … an array (an array dangles,) Longchamps’ (Longchamps’s,) “a Brooklyn Dodgers football game” (the Brooklyn Dodgers were a baseball team; still are, though they moved to LA,) lists of dramatis personae (dramatis personae plural would be dramatum personae,) “there were a fair number of moths” (x 2, there was a fair number,) aetataureate (an invention by Chabon meaning “of the golden age”,) missing start quote on a piece of dialogue at a chapter start (probably the publisher’s house-style, but annoying just the same,) a number of orders were issued (a number was issued,) maw (for an entrance. A maw is a stomach,) “‘Oh much more than see him’” (seen him makes more sense,) chile con carne (not spelled chile.)

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Phoenix, 2005, 506 p, plus i p summary, i p about the author, ii p “For discussion”, x p “A walk in the footsteps of The Shadow in the Wind” including ii p maps. Translated by Lucia Graves from the Spanish La sombra del viento, Editorial Planeta, 2002.

The Shadow of the Wind cover

Well, this all started out promisingly enough with ten year old Daniel Sempere being taken by his father to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books to pick one out for himself, to keep it alive. This conceit hinted that the novel would be one of those books about books and the importance of the word like The Name of the Rose, especially since Daniel is told, “Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens,” but the novel soon veers off into more conventional unravelling a mystery territory.

The book Daniel picks is titled The Shadow of the Wind by one Julián Carax. Daniel reads it and is enthralled, wishing to find out more about its author and any other books he may have written. But Carax is an elusive creature. Very few of his books (most of which sold in pitifully small numbers) survive. In addition a mysterious man going under the name Lain Coubert, a character in Carax’s Shadow of the Wind, is going around buying them up – in order to burn them. Already we are in a recursive situation, a loop which is in essence claustrophobic. Too many of the characters in the book are bound up either with Daniel, Carax or both.

Daniel’s first infatuation is with the blind Clara, quite a few years his senior. Their (necessarily) chaste relationship – and her entanglement with her piano teacher – is somewhat reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez but as if off-key, though paradoxically, given Marquez’s magic realism, none of this aspect of Zafón’s novel feels natural. It appears forced, occurring only at Zafón’s will. Other backstories read like information dumping and there are too many parallels between Carax’s life and Daniel’s; between his friend Tomás Aguilar and Carax’s, Jorge Aldaya, between his first lover Beatriz Aguilar and Carax’s, Penélope Aldaya.

As an example of an authorial misstep Zafón has Daniel tell Bea about Carax’s The Shadow of the Wind that, “This was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life,” inviting us to draw a parallel that had been obvious long before. Yes, Daniel’s friend, Fermín Romero de Torres, is a memorable character but the villain of the piece, Inspector Francisco Javier Fumero, tends to the cartoonish, his obsession with Carax insufficiently founded – at least to me. There are, too, frequent recapitulations of the story to other characters. The Aldaya mansion on the Avenida del Tibidabo, though, is a gothic enough creation, along with the statues in its grounds.

Attempts at background verisimilitude also fall down at times. An old quack’s “sole remaining wish was for Barcelona’s football team to win the league, once and for all, so that he could die in peace.” This is an odd observation for someone to make in 1954 as Barcelona had most recently won La Liga in season 1952-3 and also the one before. Again in 1954 a restaurant manager apologises for poor service by saying, “‘But s’afternoon, it being the European Cup semi-final, we’ve had a lot of customers. Great game.’” The first European Cup semi-finals did not take place till 1956. Similarly there is a mention of the League Cup – but the La Liga Cup did not start till 1984 (and only lasted four years.) Did Zafón perhaps have the Copa del Rey in mind?

Still, “‘Mysteries must be solved, one must find out what they hide,’” and I suppose this is what keeps us reading but while it may be true that, “People tend to complicate their own lives, as if living weren’t complicated enough,” I’m not sure I agree with the assertion, “‘When we stand in front of a coffin, we only see what is good, or what we want to see.’”

Set where and when it is The Shadow of the Wind could not avoid touching on the fallout of the Spanish Civil War but it does so only tangentially. It is eminently readable but in the end it doesn’t manage to achieve the stature that the author is clearly striving for. Quite simply in this book Zafón is trying too hard.

Pedant’s corner:- “a couple of nuns …. mumbling under their breath” (ought really to be breaths,) polanaises (polonaises; this correct form is used later in the book,) “froze the blood in my veins” (really? Especially when followed on the next page by “my blood froze,”) the Barcelós apartment (Barceló’s,) for goodness’ sake (goodness’s,) automatons (okay it’s acceptable in English – as well as automata, the plural from the Greek,) “none of the drawings were more than rough sketches” (none was more than a rough sketch,) faggotry (a USianism,) “‘It’s my fault,’ I said. I should have said something…’” (missing open quote mark after “I said.”) “An act of charity or friendship on behalf of an ailing lady” (‘on the part of’ is meant,) “which violated at least five of six recognized mortal sins,” (shouldn’t that be “five or six”? – and violated here seems to mean committed,) morgue (mortuary,) with sudden heartfelt hug (with a sudden,) catlike smile the smile of a mischievous child (a missing comma after the first smile,) garoted (garrotted,) Jacintaʻs vision (has a backward, and upside down, apostrophe,) “so that he can have a brain scan” (a brain scan? In 1954?) Barnarda (her name everywhere else in the novel is Bernarda,) passion (passion,) a benzine lighter (the term used in English is cigarette lighter,) “and whose specialty was Latin, trigonometry, and gymnastics, in that order,” (that’s three specialties.)
Plus points for “not all was lost”.

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