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Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2018, 346 p.

 Transcription cover

This once again, as in Life After Life and A God in Ruins, finds Atkinson turning to the Second World War for inspiration. Her focus here is not the RAF’s Bomber Command, though, but the intelligence service – to which Juliet Armstrong was recruited by Miles Merton in early 1940. The novel is bookended, however, by sections set in 1981 and flits between the war and Juliet’s subsequent experiences at the BBC in 1950 as a radio producer of children’s programmes.

In her war work Juliet typed up the voice recordings for an MI5 sting operation on German sympathisers who believed they were conspiring with a Gestapo officer, and also, in the guise of one Iris Carter-Jenkins, infiltrated the circle of a Mrs Scaife. The 1950s part of the novel sees Juliet receive an anonymous note saying, You will pay for what you did, which she believes must be from one of those sympathisers setting her on a path to investigate those who are left.

Marvellously readable, the narration is in a kind of joky, referential style reflecting Juliet’s thoughts. The MI5 code phrase, ‘Can I tempt you?’ seems to be said to her by everyone she meets; and in fact many whom she does, also work for MI5. This is a novel inhabiting spy territory; nothing may be what it seems. Towards the end, reflecting on the identities she had adopted she thinks, “then there was Juliet Armstrong … who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then, what constituted real. Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?” Well before this there are faint echoes of le Carré. In particular MI5 operative Oliver Alleyne’s name seems to allude to that author’s Percy Alleline. There are many subtleties though and Juliet’s transparent naivety is a cunning authorial device – the reader knows long before Juliet that her immediate MI5 boss, Perry, is a homosexual – but that naivety, approaching levity at times, is a surface phenomenon. It serves to hide as well as expose, though the injunction, ‘Never trust a coincidence,’ might just be good spycraft.

Paranoia strikes deep. Once a spy it’s hard to rid yourself of a spy’s habits. Sitting in the National Gallery in front of Lundens’s copy of Rembrandt’s painting, Miles Merton tells Juliet that, since the original was pruned to fit a space in Amsterdam’s Town Hall, “‘The counterfeit is in some ways truer than the real Night Watch.’” This is after all, MI5 in the mid-twentieth century.

The source of the note turns out to be less menacing than Juliet assumed, but at the same time more dangerous. Juliet’s service did not finish with the war. She reflects that, “She would never escape from any of them, would she? She would never be finished.”

I suspect Atkinson enjoyed writing this. There is a lot to admire in it and the dénouement, as in A God in Ruins leads to the reader reassessing what has gone before, if not quite to the remarkable extent of that book. But having a character say to Juliet, “‘Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong,’” when the reader is doing just that, is over-egging it a bit, even as an authorial nod and wink.

Pedant’s corner:- “there were a number of files” (there was a number,) maw (it’s a stomach, it can’t swallow anything,) “from whence” (whence means ‘from where’ so ‘from whence’ means ‘from from where’,) “foraged from War Office” (from the War Office,) prime minister (Prime Minister,) imposter (I prefer the spelling impostor,) “the air fields” (airfields,) “MI5 were always bringing fifth-columnists in, questioning them..” (MI5 was always… .)

The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

faber and faber, 2013, 504 p. Translated from the Spanish El sueño del celta by Edith Grossman.

 The Dream of the Celt cover

On the face of it this seems an unlikely endeavour. A Peruvian novelist focusing on a relatively obscure incident in British – and Irish – history? (Then again the Peruvian Jorge Luis Borges was fascinated by Scotland.) But this novelist’s protagonist, (Sir) Roger Casement, was instrumental in exposing the barbarous practices of colonial exploitation in the Congo and later the Amazon, wherein he made his name and for which he received his title, before he took up the cause of Irish independence and was subsequently arrested for treason after visiting Germany during the Great War to seek its government’s help in that endeavour.

The odd numbered chapters here focus on Casement’s life in prison after his trial, in the run-up to his execution. These are the most novelistic parts of the book, displaying his relationship with the guards and the visitors who come to see him, outlining their efforts to obtain a commutation of his death sentence. The even numbered chapters tend to be longer and cover his career in the years leading up to his arrest – and often read more like a history book than a novel. Llosa discounts a large portion of Casement’s diary entries (which many contend were forged by his captors) relating to his homosexual encounters with various men – which damned him not only in the authorities’ eyes, but more crucially in those of the public – as imagined or else wish fulfilment fantasies, giving a novelistic alternative account of several of these incidents, though he treats others as veracious. As Casement’s priest says to him about the suggestion the stories about him were put in the newspapers to counteract the petition for clemency, ‘Nothing can be excluded in the world of politics. It’s not the cleanest of human activities.’ Yes, indeed.

In what is perhaps a comment on the motives of campaigners, a consul in S America tells Casement, “‘I don’t have much admiration for martyrs, Mr Casement. Or for heroes. People who sacrifice themselves for truth or justice often do more harm than the thing they want to change.’”

It is in the ‘historical’ (in the sense of predating the events in the odd numbered chapters) sections though that it is set out how Casement’s experiences in the Congo and the Amazon led him to the idea that Ireland too was a colonised country, albeit with its inhabitants now less harshly treated.

Despite Casement’s conclusion in South America that, We should not permit colonisation to castrate the spirit of the Irish as it has castrated the spirit of the Amazon Indians. We must act now, once and for all, before it is too late and we turn into automata, Llosa also suggests Casement’s trip to Ireland on a U-boat was to try to forestall the Easter Rising rather than encourage it, or even to bring it weapons, as it would not be supported by German action to neutralise the British Army and Royal Navy. When Joseph Plunkett tells him in Germany the Rising is imminent Casement thinks, “No matter how heroic and intrepid they were, the revolutionaries would be crushed by the machinery of the Empire. It would use the opportunity to carry out an implacable purge. The liberation of Ireland would be delayed for another fifty years.”

Plunkett’s response is that, “‘of course we’re going to lose this battle. It’s a question of enduring. Of resisting. For days, weeks. And dying in such a way that our death and our blood will increase the patriotism of the Irish until it becomes an irresistible force.’” Which it did.

The novel’s title The Dream of the Celt comes from that of a poem Casement wrote in 1906 about Ireland’s mythic past. While as a novel it is a little unbalanced and not, perhaps, Llosa at his best, it does act as a useful primer on Casement’s life and times.

Pedant’s corner:- sheriff (illustrates the drawbacks of translation into USian. There are no sheriffs in British prisons. We have prison officers or, at a push, warders. And it wasn’t the prison Governor, since he appears later in the book.) “In Brixton Prison” (in the context of an earlier mention of Pentonville a British translator would just write ‘In Brixton’ here,) “Dr Livingstone, who never wanted to leave African soil or return to England” (return to the UK? Livingstone was Scottish after all.) “The Irish historian ……. she had been” (even though there are 34 words in between ‘historian’ and ‘she’ that ‘she’ is not needed,) “gave Walla a week to fulfil their quota” (its quota,) “where a formation of African soldiers were marching” (a formation … was marching.) “There were also a good number of” (There was also a good number,) “Perhaps one, some of his colleagues” (one, or some, of his colleagues?) “with the Irish insignia on their visors” (I suspect this refers to cap badges. These do not sit on visors,) Casement refers to the British Army as “the most powerful army in the world” (in 1916 the British Army wasn’t. The German one still was,) “the Court of Appeals” (it’s the Court of Appeal.)

Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant

Virago, 1986, 461 p plus ix p Introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald. First published

 Salem Chapel cover

Salem Chapel is the only dissenting place of worship in Carlingford. New Minister Arthur Vincent has come from Lonsdale to take over from old Mr Tufton. The congregation has been largely approving. One day, though, Vincent sees Lady Western – a dowager who is younger than her step-daughter-in-law – on a visit to Mrs Hilyard, and his head is turned, despite her being an adherent of the Church of England. His parishioners would much prefer he has nothing to do with such people, though the Chapel’s senior deacon’s daughter, Phoebe Tozer, is also thought to be a bit above herself in setting her cap at him.

Mrs Hilyard is living in reduced circumstances and on a pastoral visit to her Vincent finds her background convoluted, not to mention melodramatic. She prevails on him to put her daughter into the care of Vincent’s mother and sister in Lonsdale, without quite explaining the need. In the meantime Vincent’s sister, Susan, is being wooed by a Mr Fordham. The reader senses immediately there is something awry about the relationship. This gentleman is indeed the villain of the piece, and has used Fordham’s name to disguise himself. His connection to Mrs Hilyard and abduction of her daughter from Lonsdale when Vincent’s mother is visiting her son in Carlingford provide the motor for a rather lurid sub-plot.

Oliphant was obviously a keen observer of the politics of a parish and congregation. Vincent’s lack of enthusiasm for visiting and cups of tea had already been looked on askance but his distraction by the plight of his sister (which has to be kept as secret as possible) and the necessity of seeking her whereabouts lead to dissatisfaction in his congregation at his regular absences and eventually a call for his resignation. A resounding speech by Mr Tozer at the meeting to decide on this rouses all but a few in his defence.

It’s a perfectly respectable example of the nineteenth century novelist’s art but, overall, has that era’s tendency to wordiness, exacerbated here by descriptions like “the Nonconformist,” “the young Dowager” and “the worthy deacon” instead of the character’s name, not to mention a tendency to end a clause – or even a sentence – with a preposition. It might make a decent televisual alternative to the usual Austen remakes, however.

Pedant’s corner:- the Miss Hemmings (the Misses Hemming,) the Miss Wodehouses (the Misses Wodehouse,) “and stanch to her chapel” (staunch,) syren (siren,) stupified (stupefied,) “if there are Squire Thornhills” (strictly, Squires Thornhill,) sen- sations (in the middle of a line? sensations,) “were worthy the occasion” (usually ‘were worthy of the occasion,) “ a mistake unworthy a philosophic observer” (usually ‘unworthy of a’,) “in his behalf” (usually ‘on his behalf’,) villany (usually villainy,) “when the gray morning began to drawn” (dawn.) “‘Where you not afraid, Susan?’” (Were you not,) “‘These sort of people’” (ought to be ‘sorts of people’ but it was in dialogue,) rung the bell (rang,) a missing quotation mark at the resumption of a piece of direct speech. “‘The doctor is is very good.’” (only one ‘is’ required.) “Vincent had rising hurriedly” (had risen hurriedly,) hooping-cough (whooping cough.)

That List Again

The Guardian’s 100 Best Books of the century, Part Two.

I have read the ones in bold.

50 Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003)
49 Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2011)
48 Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (2002)
47 Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2000-2003), translated by Mattias Ripa (2003-2004)
46 Human Chain by Seamus Heaney (2010)
45 Levels of Life by Julian Barnes (2013)
44 Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (2004)
43 Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014)
42 Moneyball by Michael Lewis (2010)
41 Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
40 The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
39 White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
38 The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
37 The Green Road by Anne Enright (2015)
36 Experience by Martin Amis (2000)
35 The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (2010)
34 Outline by Rachel Cusk (2014)
33 Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006)
32 The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)
31 The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015)
30 The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016)
29 A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009), translated by Don Bartlett (2012)
28 Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy (2005)
27 Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro (2001)
25 Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018)
24 A Visit from The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2011)
23 The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon (2001)
22 Tenth of December by George Saunders (2013)
21 Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (2011), translated by Harari with John Purcell and Haim Watzman (2014)
20 Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)
19 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night‑Time by Mark Haddon (2003)
18 The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (2007)
17 The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
16 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
15 The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)
14 Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)
13 Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)
12 The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004)
11 My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011), translated by Ann Goldstein (2012)
10 Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
09 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)
08 Autumn by Ali Smith (2016)
07 Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)
06 The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (2000)
05 Austerlitz by WG Sebald (2001), translated by Anthea Bell (2001)
04 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
03 Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (2013), translated by Bela Shayevich (2016)
02 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2004)
01 Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

Nine out of this fifty, but I’ve read the number 1. I’ve got a good run between six and twelve.
However. Life After Life at no 20? Not A God in Ruins?

A List. (Well; Part of a List)

This list – supposedly of the 100 best books of the 21st century (so far) – was published in The Guardian Review on Saturday 21/9/19. (Some of them are non-fiction which I’m extremely unlikely to read.)

I’ve split it in two for purposes of concision in a post.

The usual annotations apply. Those in bold I have read, an asterisk denotes intention to read.

100 I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron (2006)
99 Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou (2005), translated by Helen Stevenson (2009)
98 The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005), translated by Steven T Murray (2008)
97 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling (2000)
96 A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
95 Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan (2004)
94 The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
93 Darkmans by Nicola Barker (2007)
92 The Siege by Helen Dunmore (2001)
91 Light by M John Harrison (2002)
90 Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (2008), translated by Susan Bernofsky (2010)
89 Bad Blood by Lorna Sage (2000)
88 Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman (2001)
87 Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood (2017)
86 Adults in the Room by Yanis Varoufakis (2017)
85 The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006)
84 The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (2018)
83 Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli (2016), translated by Luiselli with Lizzie Davis (2017)
82 Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002)
81 Harvest by Jim Crace (2013)
80 Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (2002)
79 The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009)
78 The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (2015)
77 Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (2009), translated by Lisa Dillman (2015)
76 Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)
75 Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2009), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (2018)
74 Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016)
73 Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (2009)
72 The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff (2019)
71 Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (2000)
70 Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller (2003)
69 The Infatuations by Javier Marías (2011), translated by Margaret Jull Costa (2013)
68 The Constant Gardener by John le Carré (2001)
67 The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018)*
66 Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli (2014)
65 Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)
64 On Writing by Stephen King (2000)
63 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010)
62 Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn (2006)
61 This House of Grief by Helen Garner (2014)
60 Dart by Alice Oswald (2002)
59 The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson (2002)
58 Postwar by Tony Judt (2005)
57 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
56 Underland by Robert Macfarlane (2019)
55 The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006)
54 Women & Power by Mary Beard (2017)
53 True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (2000)
52 Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
51 Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (2009)

As you can see I’ve only read four of this selection – all of them broadly under the SF or fantasy umbrella.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Everyman’s Library, 1991, 606 p, plus xxiii p Introduction by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, ii p Select Bibliography, iv p Chronology and iii p Prefaces to the Second and Third Editions (as by Currer Bell.) First published in 1847.

Jane Eyre cover

I suppose this book hardly needs an introduction what with it being an acknowledged classic of nineteenth century literature. It could be described as Gothic – there is a madwoman in an attic, but it is also an instance of the ‘gaining of wisdom’ narrative, plus a case of virtue fulfilled, and there is even a dollop of Cinderella in its protagonist’s childhood. The later appearance of long-lost cousins, not to mention a handy inheritance, though, lend an air of authorial contrivance to the proceedings. And it has that besetting characteristic of the Victorian novel, an unrelenting wordiness. It’s easy to carp of course (and it should not be forgotten stepmothers were a prominent feature of life in the days the novel describes) but Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Introduction reminds us Jane Eyre was innovatory, Brontë’s voice something new. The book certainly has had an enduring influence, with a wide afterlife, inspiring other hands to write prequels (Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea) and homages (Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.)

Jane Eyre is an orphan, entrusted to the care of her uncle, Mr Reed, who has unfortunately also deceased. Mrs Reed takes the wicked stepmother role, preferring her own children and treating Jane with lack of kindness and understanding, not seeing the calumnies with which her son John in particular attributes to Jane. Being packed off to boarding school (Lowood,) would have been a relief were that institution not (at least initially) so spartan. Here Jane meets the almost too saintly Helen Burns whose fate it is to die of consumption but not before Jane can reveal her philosophy to her. “‘If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way.’”

Feminism avant la lettre reveals itself in the passage, “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do.” This of course shows that women have been telling men things for donkey’s ages without the message ever managing to get through.

With her schooling finished Jane spends a few years teaching at Lowood herself before the departure of her mentor Miss Temple – to get married – prompts her to advertise for a position as governess. Thus finally, after over one hundred pages of preamble, we get to the main seat of the story, Thornfield Hall, and the brooding presence of its lord and master, Edward Fairfax Rochester.

How anyone could be attracted to Mr Rochester is a mystery to me. Jane knows almost from the outset of her dealings with him that he has a past. He himself tells her of a dalliance with the French actress Céline Varens, through whose machinations he has the charge of a ward in the shape of Adéle, for whose benefit Jane has been engaged as governess. He plays games with Jane – and, to be fair, with his aristocratic confrères – dressing up as a gypsy fortune teller to beguile them all and further his own designs, but also verbally. Moreover, he crucially conspires to keep the identity of the secret occupant of the attic unknown to Jane, allowing her to believe it is an attendant, Grace Poole. And is it a form of cruelty that sees Jane lodged in a room directly below that occupant? OK, he’s been dealt a stacked hand and trying to make the best of it but he is still trying to take advantage of a relative innocent. Even when his perfidy is revealed to her at the altar just before he’s about to contract a bigamous marriage with her she continues to think well of him. It is a fact of history, though, that such men are usually able to get away with it.

Still, Jane’s virtue will not see her become Rochester’s mistress. She flees Thornfield, and, penniless, stumbles into a village where no-one extends a helping hand. She is about to expire on his doorstep when St John Rivers hears her invoking God and brings her indoors to be looked after by his sisters and maidservant. Rivers is a strict religious man intent on becoming a missionary and creates a teaching post for her in the village. Religion may have been prominent in Victorian life but even so its presence here is an indicator that Brontë was brought up in a parsonage. Despite protestations on its first publication of its lack of piety, even of anti-religious content, religious discourse and allusion perfuse the novel, its resolution depends on Rivers’s vocation, and Jane’s different understanding of it.

It is in these closing stages of the book, though, that events begin to stretch credulity – even beyond a bigamous marriage being thwarted at the altar by the revelation of a previous wife who is still alive. Not many of us in extremis would expect to end up by chance in the household of a long-lost set of cousins nor to be the beneficiary of a bountiful bequest. Then off-stage events at Thornfield Hall enable what we are presumably to infer is a happy ending, though that Jane now has the advantage of Rochester does not speak entirely well of her. And it wasn’t at all happy for the incarcerated wife that had to die to allow it.

There are, too, other irritating aspects of the writing. Brontë has that unfortunate habit of designating places and periodicals with part names, _______shire, The ________ Herald. Why this coyness? Either spell them out properly or invent fictitious names for them. It’s a novelist’s job to make things up.

Love and death are perennial in the novel (any sex here, however, is strictly not to be mentioned.) However, time, and changing habits, have partially obscured the merits of a book like Jane Eyre. Novels nowadays tend to be less discursive. To modern eyes Jane Eyre is overwritten, even at places overwrought. It will always have an audience though.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; Helen Burns’ (Burns’s,) Dickens’ (Dickens’s,) Jean Rhys’ (Rhys’s.) Otherwise; there are various Victorian spellings – pannels (but, later, panels,) doat, blent, canvass, trode (trod,) secresy, dulness, etc, the correct ‘by-the-by’ swaps with ‘by-the bye’ at times. Then we have, “the Miss Reeds” (the Misses Reed,) also Miss Wilsons (Misses Wilson; I note that later on we have the two Misses Eshton,) Madame Jouberts (Mesdames Joubert,) bounp (bound, the p is actually an upside-down d so definitely a typesetting error.) “‘His elaer brother?’” (elder A transcription error in the typesetting?) “TheApollo Belvidree” (The Apollo Belvedere,) inammorata (inamorata,) stupefied (stupefied,) “the rest of the party were occupied” (the rest of the party was occupied,) “for the company were gathered” (the company was gathered,) “his gripe was painful” (his grip,) “had belonged to the Rivers’” (to the Riverses,) “Mr Rivers’ pointer” (Rivers’s.)

The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges

and The Gold of the Tigers, Penguin Modern Classics, 1987, 190 p, including Author’s Note, two Prefaces and Notes.
The Book of Sand was translated from the Spanish El libore arena (published by Emecé Editores SA 1975) by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. The Gold of the Tigers – a selection of poems from The Gold of the Tigers (published as El oro de los tigres by Emecé Editores SA 1972) and The Unending Rose (published as La rosa profunda by Emecé Editores SA 1975) were both translated by Alastair Reid.

The Book of Sand cover

In all of the tales in this collection there is an economical sparseness to the prose, a distancing, which tends to make them read like myth, or fable. They are certainly flavoured with the fantastic. The typical style is to tell rather than show. But in Borges’s hands it works. In his preface to The Unending Rose Borges says, “the notion of art as compromise is a simplification, for no one knows entirely what he is doing. A writer can conceive a fable, Kipling acknowledged, without grasping its moral.” He’s underselling himself. He knew perfectly well what he was doing.

A strange meeting is the nub of The Other. In Cambridge in 1969, by the Charles River, Jorge Luis Borges encounters Jorge Luis Borges, who is in Geneva in 1918, a few steps from the Rhone.
In Ulrike, a Colombian man has an encounter with a Norwegian woman in York. Their walk together leads them into a different time.
The Congress is the Congress of the World, an organisation set up to represent the men of all nations, whose President is Alejandro Glencoe, Uruguayan son of a man from Aberdeen.
Dedicated on its title page to the memory of H P Lovecraft There are more Things is in the tradition of ‘entering a strange house’ stories and ends with an undescribed horror approaching the narrator. Borges’s interest in Scotland is in evidence again. A character is named Alexander Muir and the narrator tells us, “Scotland’s symbol, after all, is the thistle.”
The Sect of the Thirty is a ‘fragment from a manuscript’ tale and reveals the origins of the titular sect’s name.
The night of the gifts contains a tale within a tale within a tale – all inside six pages. The gifts are knowledge of both love and death.
The mirror and the mask is set in the aftermath of the Battle of Clontarf when the High King of Ireland commissions a bard to compose a poem celebrating the victory, then – when it is delivered the next year – another, and finally a third the year after that. Each poem’s significance eclipses the earlier’s.
Undr purports to be a translation of an old manuscript and is another tale within a tale in which a man travels to the land of the Urns to find the single word which is their poetry plus a short rendering of his life thereafter to find the word’s meaning; and that of life.
In Utopia of a tired man our narrator is strolling a vast plain and comes across a building inhabited by a man who, when he speaks, reveals they are in the narrator’s (and the reader’s) future. Within the story’s seven pages we learn how the world came to be as it is and some of the future humans’ beliefs. Borges provides us with some sly digs at his own trade. “Printing – which is now abolished, since it tended to multiply unnecessary texts to the point of dizziness – was one of man’s worst evils.” “Language is a system of quotations.”
The bribe is an account of a piece of academic politics wherein one scholar publishes a critical paper as a stratagem to incline his criticisee to nominate him for a place at a conference.
Avelino Arredondo plans his forthcoming action for the morning of the twenty-fifth of August, sequestering himself from friends, fiancée and newspapers so that none but him can be blamed for it.
In The disk a now blind woodcutter recalls the time he gave a stranger shelter. In the morning the stranger told him he was the king of the Secgens and had Odin’s ring – the only one-sided ring in the world – in his palm. The woodcutter tried to obtain the ring.
The Book of Sand is a story which claims to be true. A man in Buenos Aires (with a great personal affection for Scotland through a love for Stevenson and Hume) opens his door to a Bible seller from Orkney – to where he hopes to return – who shows him the Book of Books, one which has no beginning nor end and whose pagination is arbitrary. He buys it.
The latter half of the book contains many of Borges’s poems; each printed with the original Spanish on the left hand page and the English translation on the right.

Pedant’s corner:- in the author’s note; Wells’ (Wells’s.) Otherwise:- Heraclitus’ (Heraclitus’s,) Tacitus’ (Tacitus’s,) Beauvais’ (Beauvais’s,) John Wilkins’ (Wilkins’s,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) extra marks for ‘hanged himself’. “One day less.” (One day fewer,) Wiclif (usually spelled Wycliffe,) Córboda (Córdoba.) In the Notes; Borges’ (Borges’s.)

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima

King Penguin, 1987, 141 p. Translated from the Japanese 午後の曳航 (Gogo no Eikō) byJohn Nathan.

 The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea cover

Mishima, seemingly at the height of his literary powers and success, cut short his own life by committing seppuku in 1970, apparently in protest at the erosion of Japan’s values due to Western influence.

In this short novel, the first of his I have read, Fusako Kuroda has been widowed for five years. Unknown to her, her son Noboru has discovered a hole in the wainscotting between their bedrooms through which he can witness her bedtime routines. After a visit with Noboru to a tramp merchant steamer she takes up with the sailor, Ryuji Tzukazaki, who was attentive to Noboru but who it is revealed considers sex as a secret yearning for death. Their relationship is then consummated under the eyes of a not best pleased Noboru. Noboru is also number three in a group of schoolboys who enact nefarious rituals in their secret den. Boys have always tended to the wanton; as Shakespeare well knew.

Here is set the scene for an odd tale of love, alienation, dehumanisation and revenge. Things come to a head when after a final voyage away Ryuji decides to give up sailing and marry Fusako. Noboru presents his list of charges against Ryuji to his gang’s chief.

The tension between Japan’s past and present, which Mishima felt all too keenly, is reflected in the different attitudes of the characters. Fusako, with her job in a luxury goods shop, represents modernity, Ryuji a connection to Japan’s former seafaring glories, the boys a reminder of the insular past.

Pedant’s corner:- louvered swinging doors (louvred,) an unneeded indent of one space at one new line with a larger line spacing than usual below it.

Inez by Carlos Fuentes

Bloomsbury, 2003, 156 p. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (into USian) from the Spanish Inez.

 Inez cover

Fuentes is the first Mexican writer I have read and his style has similarities to fellow Latin Americans Gabriel García Márquez and Maria Vargas Llosa but couldn’t be mistaken for either. Throughout Inez his prose has that assuredness – even in translation – of a writer in full control of his material and vision, one whom the reader feels instinctively can be trusted to know what he is about.

Here, Gabriel Atlan-Ferrara is a famous conductor, precious enough to regard himself not merely as a conduit but as a chef d’orchestre. He will make no recordings, only performing live, so that each concert is unique, unrepeatable, believing that this forces audiences to listen. The story of his involvement with the Inez of the title, born Inés Rosenzweig but professionally known as Inez Prada, revolves around three performances of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust; in bomb-ravaged London in 1940, Mexico City in 1949 and London again in 1967. This tale is intercut with the much more obscure account of the pre-historical first encounter between a man and a woman, known respectively as neh-el and ah-nel, told mostly in the future tense. Due to that use of tense these passages are rendered trickier to read, a blend of myth and destiny lending a distancing to the events, at least until this second narrative crashes into the first during that third concert.

As well as love, sex and death (“Sex teaches us everything. It’s our fault that we never learn, and again and again fall into the same delicious trap,”) Fuentes touches on music as a wellspring of human existence. “Was music … the true fig-leaf of our shames, the final sublimation … of our mortal visibility…?” He also describes “the acrid odour of English melancholy, disguised as cold and indifferent courtesy,” and comments on his background when a Mexican tells Atlan-Ferrara, “The cruelty of war in Latin America is fiercer, maestro, because it’s invisible and has no time frame. Besides, we’ve learned to hide our victims and bury them at night,” adding, “In Mexico even we atheists are Catholic, maestro.” Fuentes notes, too, that, “a man… is slow to give up his childhood. There are few immature women, but many children disguised as men.”

While the book at first seems an odd mixture of the traditional love story (if an intermittent one) and the all-but mythic second strand, this is clearly good stuff, the whiff of magic realism (OK, outright fantasy) bends the final intertwining of the two into a strange orbit of its own. I’ll be keeping my eye out for more Fuentes.

Pedant’s corner:- no opening quote mark when a chapter starts with a piece of speech or quotation. “‘Him and his object. Him and his tactile, precise, visible, physical thing’, (‘He and his object. He and his tactile, precise, ..’,) “more that a perishable flower” (more than.) “‘The Moon makes two orbits around the Earth every twenty four hours and fifty minutes. That’s why there are two high tides and two low tides every day.’” (Atlan-Ferrara is mistaken here. The Moon makes one orbit every twenty seven – and a bit – days. The tides occur because the Earth is spinning once a day ‘beneath’ it and so its gravitational effect varies accordingly,) platform shoes (not in 1967.)

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Fourth Estate, 2011, 442 p.

Half of a Yellow Sun  cover

This won the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2007. It perhaps had a head start in the judges’ deliberations dealing, as it does, with those perennial literary biggies, love, sex and death. I suppose, if you treat them at all carefully and with facility, as Adichie does, you can’t go far wrong. Add in the fact this also has central to its background the Nigerian-Biafran War then a degree of attention was almost guaranteed. But Adichie was of course exploring her country’s history, what is still a raw wound to her parents’ generation and her own. That too is a time-honoured literary preoccupation.

Sensitivity is an essential condition of worthiness, however, and what elevates Half of a Yellow Sun to the status of a worthy prize winner is the writing and characterisation. Any gory scenes are not gratuitous – indeed most of the deaths here occur off the page, though their aftermaths do not.

Narration duties are divided between Ugwu, houseboy to academic mathematician Odenigbo, Olanna Ozobia (Odenigbo’s lover,) and Richard Churchill, an Englishman who fell in love with Igbo-Ukwu art and then with Olanna’s non-identical twin sister Kainene.

The structure is unusual, two parts set in the early sixties and two late in the decade, but they are not sequential as they appear in the order early, late, early, late, so that we have the unusual literary device of the opposite of foreshadowing (aftshadowing?) when in the first ‘late’ part it is obvious something has occurred to cause a rift between the two couples – we can guess what but it is not actually shown to us until the second of the ‘early’ parts. (In that sense, since it is revealed to us later in our reading experience, it was a kind of foreshadowing after all.)

Richard learns Igbo and comes to identify himself with the people and with Biafra: so much so that he sends back despatches to editors in London explaining the Biafran view and the nature of Britain’s responsibility for the Igbos’ plight and complicity in Biafra’s isolation. (Only six countries ever recognised the republic.) Richard’s message is, of course, ignored and he is asked to provide pieces about how feckless Africans are. A running theme of the novel is the Biafran characters’ blaming Britain for its part in the genesis of the war (divide and conquer policies in colonial times exacerbating differences) and its continuation (via arms sales to Nigeria.) It seems the kwashiorkor which blighted starving children in Biafra was dubbed Harold Wilson disease.

The war for the most part is offstage – apart from the necessity of Odenigbo and Olanna to move house to grimmer and grimmer locations – but when it does impinge it is shocking in its suddenness and arbitrariness. Even through all their peregrinations Olanna still tries to teach children in her surroundings. It is in these scenes we (re?)learn the symbology of the Biafran flag; red for the blood of Igbo massacred in the north, black for mourning them, green for the prosperity Biafra would have and the half of a yellow sun for the glorious future. The descent into brutality of soldiers ill-equipped to fulfil their military function but still with the means to exert their will is seen through the eyes of Ugwu, conscripted simply by dint of being out on the street. There is the odd glint of humour in that Nigerian soldiers are always referred to as vandals. The effects of Nigerian bombing and blockade are brought home when condensed milk, a slender tin of Ovaltine and a packet of salt from a Red Cross package seem luxurious. The mounds of food available in the markets when the war ends seem to have fallen from the sky. The bitterness of defeat after so many years of assured victory is conveyed when, “she … realized how odd it felt to say they won, to voice a defeat she did not believe. Hers was not a feeling of having been defeated; it was one of having been cheated.”

Occasional very short extracts from a book written after the war and titled “The World Was Silent When We Died,” comment on Biafra’s situation. Richard reflects on the selfishness of writers, “He had read somewhere that, for true writers, nothing was more important than their art, not even love.”

Their art, though. That’s a precious thing.

Pedant’s corner:- spit (spat, there were the other odd USianisms and US spellings scattered through the book, like ‘shit’ as a past tense; it should be ‘shat’,) a missing comma before a quote, Wentnor (Ventnor? But it is repeated so Adichie clearly intended it,) “for goodness’ sake” (either ‘for goodness’s sake’ or ‘for goodness sake’, please,) Jesus’ name (Jesus’s name.) “‘I flew in relief to the Warsaw Ghetto’” (were there any relief flights by Swedish aristocrats to the Warsaw Ghetto? I doubt the Germans would have looked on that with favour and would also have made it far too dangerous. To Berlin in the airlift, perhaps?) “Some women who ,had been walking along the road ran too, ” (‘Some women, who had been walking along the road, ran too’,) “all Biafran University staff was to report” (all staff were to report. Staff here is plural.)

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