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Interzone 287, May-Jun 2020

 Interzone 287 cover

Editorial duties fall to cover artist Warwick Fraser-Coombe where he outlines his influences and compares their apocalypses to today’s ongoing Covid crisis. In Future Interrupteda Andy Hedgecock wonders at the relative absence in modern fiction of stories dealing with debt. Aliya Whiteley’s Climbing Stories tells of her life-long (well at least since she watched the film of John Wyndham’s classic) fear of and fascination with triffids.
In Book Zone I find both N K Jemisin’s The City We Became and Echo Cycle by Patrick Edwards well up to, indeed beyond, the mark, Duncan Lawie describes Paul J McAuley’s The War of the Maps as absorbing, Duncan Lunan reviews Beyond Time: Classic Tales of Time Unwound edited by Mike Ashley, reprints of mostly forgotten time travel stories, the most recent from 1958, Andy Hedgecock says Docile by K M Szpara is a promising but deeply problematic debut in comparing rape to financial exploitation in its exploration of debt-ridden commercial transactions while Maureen Kincaid Speller declares the third of Jeff Noon’s John Henry Nyquist mysteries, Creeping Jenny, the most satisfying yet in its twisting of narrative expectations and its binding of stories together.
In the fiction, meanwhile:-
Influenced by his Uncle Edward, the young narrator of Night-Town of Mars1 by Tim Lees seems to flit between our own reality and a separate one with an almost identical town to the one where he lives but which may be on Mars as its gravity is lower than Earth’s. Identical that is, except for the stones which can speak and the shop dummies which can move by themselves. This is all interpretable as a young boy’s dreams but the story’s thrust is that he moves between parallel universes.
Those We Serve2 by Eugenia Triantafyllou is told from the point of view of an ‘artificial’ called Manoli, who works on a holiday island whose human inhabitants have retreated undersea. Manoli is obsessed by human visitor Amelia who comes to the island annually. But the island is running down and Manoli is programmed not to leave.
In The Transport of Bodies by John Possidente, a journalist on a small space station (would he even have enough to do?) is told a tragic tale by a celebrity chef of his famous pitcher husband both just back from the two-year mission they’d volunteered for beyond Neptune. (Again. ??)
Make America Great Again3 by Val Nolan might have been designed to illustrate Halford E Luccock’s formalism to the effect that, when fascism comes to America it will not call itself fascism; it will be called Americanism. A black journalist – suspect to the police on two counts, then – is investigating the strange background of Kenny Hanson, who prevented a right-wing gunman, in his turn disrupting a protest, to stop him from killing Riley Porter, a woman who wants to be President one day. However, Hanson may be a fighter pilot from World War 2, brought to the story’s present by aliens.

Pedant’s corner:- a“in another story” (is another story.) 1“In the window were a series of posturing dummies” (was a series.) 2“he though” (he thought.) 3“with cops likes that on the beat” (with cops like that,) bandoleers (bandoliers.)

Jackboot by John Laffin

The Story of the German Soldier, Cassell, 1965, 241 p, including xii p Index and iv p Sources, preceded by i p Acknowledgements, ii p Contents, ii p List of Illustrations, iv p quotes describing “What the Germans Think About War” and iv p Introduction.

 Jackboot cover

The subtitle of the book is somewhat misleading, this is not, quite, the story of the German soldier. At least not of the individual. Very few instances of soldierly action are described, it is more the history of the Prussian and German states’ relationship to war as a profession and a duty, a guiding principle; their highest calling.

In his Introduction Laffin says the German is a born soldier, aggression and fortitude in his blood, needing to be trained, yes, but the material is there already, not base clay but refined. He contrasts modern national aptitudes for soldiering; none equals the Australian for dash, élan and initiative, but for dogged persistence and obedience to orders no-one can touch the English and Welsh, for fighting fury the Scots, for thoroughness Americans, fanatical courage the Japanese, the capacity to suffer and still keep fighting, the Russians. He claims none of these are complete soldiers, though, they fight only because it is necessary to do so. But Germans are complete soldiers, for them war is holy. “The complete soldier fully realises that his only logical end is death, that this is a soldier’s only privilege. The German knows this.” In modern times, he says, only Napoleon’s soldiers can be compared with them – and then only when Napoleon commanded them. He states that Prussians and Germans never considered themselves beaten in any conflict up to 1918 (later in the book he says not even then.) They had to admit defeat in 1945, bludgeoned by impossible odds, but even in extremis in December 1944 they launched the Battle of the Bulge, which, Laffin claims, “will for ever remain a magnificent feat of arms.” Despite younger Germans saying, “It will never happen again,” Laffin believes a German “can never evade his destiny: he does not really want to evade it. He is a soldier. A soldier fights.”

For how this came about you have to go back to landlocked Prussia, poor and barren, no cities worth the name, little industry and less culture, and to Frederick William (and his obsession with very tall soldiers) who expanded his army by impressing and enrolling men – many of them foreign – but it was his son Frederick the Great who devoted the resources of the state to it and realised that Prussia, surrounded by larger more populous countries, had to depend on organisation and speed and manœuvre in battle.

By Napoleonic times his lessons had largely been forgotten or outmoded. In 1808 crushing defeat at Jena and Auerstadt led to change, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau instituted a war academy and seven years later their influence bore fruit with Napoleon’s defeat at Liepzig. Their adherent Clausewitz formed his principles of war whose beliefs extend down the years since. An inculcation of military virtues via the school system (extended to the whole of Germay after unification in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870) laid the foundations for the nature of the German soldier and Kaiser Wilhelm introduced badges and awards for proficiency – a system brought to its greatest peak by the Nazis. Through all these years deference to a military uniform (indeed to uniforms of any stamp) was inbuilt in the German state.

In the context of France invading Germanic territory fourteen times between 1675 and 1813 Laffin quotes General Fuller as saying, ‘Few nations have had so bad a neighbour as Germany has had in France.’ (To which I can only reply, you should try being a Scot, mate.)

A piece of information that surprised me was that in the Nineteenth Century homosexuality was apparently rife in the Prussian army and not hidden, was indeed paraded, by those of that persuasion.

The German War Book stated the employment of “uncivilised and barbarous peoples in European wars” was an unlawful instrument of war, since “these troops had no conception of European-Christian culture, of respect for property and for the honour of women.” A footnote adds that this was a source of great bitterness during the Great War, quoting a Private’s letter to his parents (sensitivity warning; use of the ‘n’ word,) “The French have sunk so low as to use niggers against us. They are heathens and quite revolting and cruel. We fight fiercely against them because we know we can expect no mercy from these savages. You can smell them in the night.” (I’d have thought a smell – if any – would more likely have been produced by day than by night, but there you go. I suspect that any such perception was psychological anyway.)

Twice, re 1918 and 1945, Laffin asserts that the Germans were not beaten but overwhelmed – which, he says, is something different. For 1918 he cites a million troops left in the east to keep the conquered territories subdued and how they might have affected things in the west. (In this regard, the undefeated Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in Africa does stand out in his four year undefeated campaign of improvisation, holding down 300,000 British and Allied troops with a maximum strength of 20,000 of his own [including bearers,] while managing to inflict 60,000 casualties. After the armistice he for a short time contemplated holding out – much as some Japanese soldiers were to in the wake of 1945 – but in the end decided to honour its terms.) Laffin suggests a suitable counter to this perception might have been that rather than negotiating armistice with the civilian Erzberger, the Allies ought to have forced Hindenburg to the table amd made him surrender his sword; the symbolism of which would have been unmistakable. In 1945 the German soldiers considered themselves brutally crushed, not militarily defeated. Laffin says, “Others,” (I count myself among that number,) “might not be able to see the difference, but this is not important. The Germans know there is a difference.”

The book was published in 1965, only twenty years after the Second World War finished, at which time there were still many Germans who had experienced the upbringing that inculcated such a mindset. Laffin quotes a former soldier telling him that, “‘We are not finished with our jackboots yet,’” and, “‘Germany must triumph. Peace is ignoble.’” It is to be hoped that with the further 55 years since then of peace (however ignoble – yet welcome to those who hope it will never happen again) and of a sustained non-military education system in Germany that that attitude has faded away for good.

Pedant’s corner:- England (at the time covered by this book England no longer existed as a separate state. It was in a United Kingdom with Scotland. Britain, then. A few pages later we have, “The English made him [Count William of Schaumburg-Lippe] Field-Marshal of Portugal, but the role of British mercenary did not suit him.” British is required in both cases, etc, etc,) cameraderie (camaraderie,) sheath (sheathe,) onle (only,) “rend thy Germans” (the Germans.) In the Sources; idealogy (ideology.)

According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge

Little, Brown, 2001, 250 p

 According to Queeney cover

Bainbridge is – or was – one of the stalwarts of English Fiction, but I had not read anything from her œuvre before this book. I gather her output is varied though, so I shall not take this as representative.

According to Queeney is topped and tailed by a Prologue and Epilogue describing respectively Samuel Johnson’s body’s removal from the house in which he died and his funeral, the sections in between being an account of his relationship with the Thrale family, one of whose daughters (given name, Harriet, like her mother) is the Queeney of the title.

The individual chapters deal with phases of Johnson’s life from a debilitating illness in 1765 to his eventual fading away and each is appended by a letter from the grown-up Queeney to Miss Laetitia Hawkins of Sion Row Tottenham, who is composing her memoirs which feature Johnson heavily, or, once, to novelist Fanny Burney (by now Madame D’Arblay) in Paris. Queeney’s mother and Johnson had both championed Burney’s writing. These letters provide Queeney’s own perspective on the events. (In one of them, incidentally, she mentions recently staying in Dumbartonshire.)

Johnson is irascible, opinionated and enamoured of Mrs Thrale, whose life is otherwise a constant round of pregnancies and dead children. Since this is an illustration of a more private part of Johnson’s life his biographer James Boswell makes only fleeting appearances in the book. We are also granted glimpses of the actor David Garrick.

Bainbridge’s prose is finely written but unfortunately too much of the proceedings are told, rather than shown. As a result the reader does not feel the emotions implied.

Pedant’s corner:- “was sat” (was seated, or, was sitting,) another “sat” (where ‘sitting’ would have been more appropriate,) “she was of no more interest to him that the stone urns set at frequent intervals along the way” (than the stone urns,) “nought but darkness lay ahead” (nought is the number, zero; ‘naught but darkness’.)

King of the Scepter’d Isle by Michael Greatrex Coney

New American Library, 1989, 297 p

 King of the Scepter’d Isle cover

This is set in Coney’s wider universe of the Greataway (as in the previous novels of his Song of Earth series, The Celestial Steam Locomotive, Gods of the Greataway and Fang the Gnome.) At its start the worlds of humans and gnomes, though visible to each other through the umbra, are separated in different happentracks, but Nyneve, a Dedo from the human world – yet who can see into the ifalong, the future of the many happentracks of the Greataway – can slip between them. (Coney’s linguistic inventiveness here is a delight. Happentrack is a lovely word to describe parallel universes and ifalong a beautifully poetic way to express (a) contingent future(s).)

Nyneve is also a storyteller who weaves tales of the legendary King Arthur, and how he will unite the warring lands and become King of England, in such a way as to make her audiences see as well as feel what they are hearing. In this she is helped by a wizened and faded centuries-old Merlin. Not that this is a rehash of the Arthurian legends (despite appearances from Lancelot, Guinevere – as a princess named Gwen – Morgan Le Fay, Mordred, Sir Galahad etc, and familiar concepts like the Sword in the Stone of course also make their appearance. Arthur even builds a Round Table – after many false starts – with a place labelled “Hot Seat” wherein anyone impure who sits at it dies soon after.)

But it is a commentary on such tales. As a minor king says to Nyneve, “‘Nobody’s poor in your stories. Nobody has to tend the animals or work the fields,’” and towards the end she herself says, “‘The stories were an ideal, Arthur. Reality is another thing. Reality is hungry soldiers who haven’t seen a woman for days. Reality is sweat and dirty pants.’” (I suspect that last word has a more earthy resonance in Britain than in the US.)

Nyneve is anxious to bend the stories to her will, arranging for the Sword in the Stone only to be released at the right time by a very mundane piece of trickery. She is also in love with Arthur but he marries Gwen anyway, since that is what the stories say he will. Here, though, Lancelot is never attracted to Arthur’s wife.

Then there are the gnomes, whose lives are circumscribed by the Kikihuahua Examples, handed down when gnomes were brought to their happentrack in the first place by the eponymous kikihuahuas to ensure they would not overexploit their resurces. Thus gnomes are never to work malleable materials and have a distaste for sex as “filth” (an aversion to which Fang and his lover the Princess are somewhat immune.)

What plot there is centres round the merging of human and gnome happentracks (concepts all of the characters seem to know about) and a big rock at a place called Pentor, whose movement by humans sometime in the ifalong will spell disaster.

It’s all enjoyable enough and amusing but suffers from a lack of focus by breaking from the Arthurian part of the tale to turn back to the plight of the gnomes for too many chapters before reversing, and vice versa.

Coney’s early work in the novels Syzygy, Winter’s Children, Hello Summer, Goodbye, The Girl with a Symphony in her Fingers, Charisma and Brontomek! was great stuff as was the much later I Remember Pallahaxi. His Greataway stories not so much.

Pedant’s corner:- Scepter’d (OK, it’s USian, but British English doesn’t even need the apostrophe. Sceptred.) On the back cover blurb; Brontomex (the previous Coney book that refers to was titled Brontomek!. Otherwise; prophesy/prophesies (USian spelling, several times; it was the noun so, prophecy/prophecies please.) Apothegm (I prefer apophthegm.) “‘it doesn’t strike me as being filth anymore, Elmera. It strikes me as …’” (this was Elmera speaking – ‘as being filth, Lady Duck. It strikes’,) “the less men will be killed” (OK it was in someone’s thoughts, but it still ought to be ‘fewer men’.)

Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett

Vintage, 1997, 436 p, plus i p Foreword by the Author, ip Contents, iv p list of Characters, ii p map of France.

 Queens’ Play cover

This is the second in the author’s “legendary” (according to the cover) Lymond Chronicles, of which I read the first, The Game of Kings, in 2017. In this instalment our hero is engaged by Mary of Guise to travel incognito to the court of Henri II of France – where her seven-year-old daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, is being brought up and educated to be a wife for the Dauphin (and hence to unite the crowns of France, Scotland – and, in the fullness of time Ireland) – in order to keep her informed of any intrigue she might otherwise miss. Lymond travels disguised as Thady Boy Ballagh, ollave (a kind of high-grade factotum of learning, “professor, singer, poet, all in the one”) to Irishman, Phelim O’LiamRoe, Prince of Barrow and lord of the Slieve Bloom.

From the outset things do not go smoothly, the ship they are sailing in is rammed – apparently by accident but in reality not so – just before landfall. Someone has mistaken O’Liam Roe for Lymond and trying to kill him. O’LiamRoe’s first meeting with Henri is also blighted by him being given the misinformation he is actually to meet a look-alike.

As Thady Boy, Lymond makes his impression on the court; not least in a roof-running race similar to parkour (but obviously centuries before that became a well-known thing.) There is as much of the said intrigue – not to mention skulduggery – as you could wish, with numerous attempts on the young Queen Mary’s life thwarted in various ways. Lymond’s clever-dickery is not quite as to the fore as in The Game of Kings but Dunnett’s fondness for unusual words – habromaniac, hispid, branle, cangs, gregale – is again in evidence.

It’s all readable enough but at times a little too convoluted.

Pedant’s corner:- focussed (focused,) hiccough (several times. That spelling is a misattribution; the word is spelled hiccup,) Callimachus’ (Callimachus’s,) unfocussed (x 3, unfocused,) O’Li mRoe (O’LiamRoe,) StAndre (St André,) span (spun, used later,) “hearking back” (harking,) a comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, Empedocles’ (Empedocles’s,) paradisaical, (paradisiacal?) serendade (serenade?) sunk (sank,) “that closed the back of this throat” (of his throat,) appalls (appals,) shrunk (shrank,) “‘Thinking death the only division. I could not imagine …. ever so insulting you’” (no full stop after division.) “She studdied him” (studied,) “knees akimbo” (it is very difficult indeed to rest a leg upon its own hip, never mind both of them. Okay, I know people use it to mean limbs splayed out but bent inward,) “black cloth of gold” (if it’s cloth of gold it can’t be black,) “no on touched him” (no one, better still, no-one.)

Palestine + 100, stories from a century after the Nakba. Edited by Basma Ghalayini

Comma Press, 2019, 235 p, including viii p Introduction by Basma Ghalayini, v p About the Authors, ii p About the Translators. Published in Interzone 283, Sep-Oct 2019.

 Palestine + 100 cover

It is over seventy years since what Palestinians call the Nakba (Catastrophe) and this collection was inspired by the notion of what Palestine might look like 100 years after it. (Not so long now, really.)
In the Introduction,1 Basma Ghalayini describes the Nakba as an ethnic cleansing. Some may disagree with this but it is an understandable Palestinian perspective. She also says Palestinians write about their past knowingly or unknowingly (this can also be true of other peoples who feel themselves to be suppressed) but for Palestinian writers the past is everything. SF, then, does not look to be fertile ground, a luxury to which they cannot afford to escape. But one of the defining features of Palestinian fiction is absence, and SF is well equipped to deal with isolation and detachment as well as to interrogate the present by reframing it.
In Song of the Birds by Saleem Haddad2 an adolescent girl whose brother has committed suicide finds herself slipping between two realities, one where the Israeli occupation has been overthrown and a harsher one where it hasn’t and in which the first is a simulation.
The Dr Eyal Schott of Sleep it Off, Dr Schott3 by Selma Dabbagh is a scientist thrown out of Israel for being less than 50% Jewish, now working in Gaza but under surveillance in case he is forming an inappropriate relationship with his co-worker Professor Mona Kamal.
N* by Majad Kayal4 posits a novel two-state solution. Palestinians and Israelis occupy the same land but in parallel worlds. Only those born after The Agreement are allowed to travel between the two. VR ‘realities’ are still a source of isolation, though.
Anwar Hamed5 sets The Key* in an Israel which restricts entry by constructing a gravity wall through which only people with the right chip (keyed to a person’s genome and embedded in newborns at birth) can pass. Psychological problems connected to this begin to manifest themselves in the narrator’s family.
Digital Nation by Emad El-Din Aysha6 is also set in Israel, where a bemused head of the cybercrime unit finds his worst imaginings of hacking and Palestinian take-over of the digital realm coming true.
Abdalmuti Maqboul’s7 Personal Hero* also features a virtual reality theme as a Palestinian hero is resurrected by a simulation in which time is reversed.
Vengeance by Tasnim Abutabikh8 suffers from being told rather than narrated. Set against a background where CO2 in the atmosphere has ballooned and lifemasks for safe breathing are in effect rationed, Ahmed plans revenge on the descendant of a man who supposedly stole his family’s land generations ago.
A Palestine broken up into a series of independent city states connected only by tunnels is the premise for Application 39 by Ahmed Masoud9 which chronicles the aftermath of a surprisingly successful application to hold the 39th Summer Olympics made by pranksters from the IT Department of the Republic of Gaza City.
Samir El-Youssef’s10 The Association* is set twenty years after the Agreement (to forget all about it) ended the Eighty Years War. The story is set in train by the murder of an obscure historian.
In Commonplace by Rawan Yaghi11, Adam’s sister, Rahaf, was all but killed in an ill-advised trip into the Eastern Lands. He has been planning his revenge ever since.
In Final Warning* by Talal Abu Shawish,12 the sun fails to rise, every electronic device has failed and cars won’t start. Isaam, a film buff, correctly predicts the form the alien intervention causing all this will take.
In The Curse of the Mud Ball Kid* by Mazen Maarouf,13 Palestinians have been wiped out by a biological weapon. All save the narrator, who somehow stores the pure energy of these dead within him and is thus kept in a glass cube designed to absorb it when released on death. Some of it is leaking out, though.
Whether the brief, or the allotted word count, was somehow too restricting or the authors are uncomfortable with the form, many of the stories have a tendency to be overloaded with information dumping and often resort to telling rather than showing. Striking too, is the preoccupation with sisters, usually dead or comatose, shown by several of the authors. Overall, the collection is notable for the way in which Israeli domination of Palestinian life is still manifesting itself in these futures, or has only been overthrown by frankly unlikely means. Perhaps even imaginative fiction has its bounds.

The following did not appear in the published review.
*Translated works. I assume the authors of the other stories wrote them in English.
Pedant’s corner:- 1“is a kind of a dystopia” (is a kind of dystopia,) ‘are issued ID cards … that keeps track” (that keep track.) 2“The string of hotels and restaurants were replaced by” (the string was replaced by, “inside of:” (inside; just ‘inside’,) “ ‘I should probably take a small sleep’” (‘I should probably take a nap’,) sunk (sank,) snuck (sneaked,) faucet (tap,) “‘You know how us Arabs are’” (‘You know how we Arabs are’, but it was in dialogue,) baby carriages (prams,) “is it a cynicism borne out of loss?” (born out of loss, ‘borne means ‘carried’.) “The sea and her are like two cats” (She and the sea are like two cats.) 3“since I was a young” (since I was young,) “to only recognise Ethocoin as an international currency (to recognise only Ethocoin as….,) “The General Assembly weren’t just nosey” (I prefer ‘nosy’,) “how many canons were used in the battle of Waterloo” (cannons, a canon is a clergyman.) 4Has some USian but then, manoeuvre; “he was in secretly love with” (he was secretly in love with,) “it was old café” (it was an old café,) “with it’s blinding light” (its blinding light.) 5“she was sat” (sitting.) 6“His aid continued to stand there” (aide, several more instances,) “a woman to lay on top of” (to lie on top of,) “hit singles from 1948” (hit songs, maybe, but there were no hit ‘singles’ in 1948, it was mostly sheet music which people bought,) “humous fests” (hummus; humous or humus is a component of soil) “The county was in no position to go on the offensive” (The country,) “‘You must have me mistaken for someone else’” (You must have mistaken me for someone else’,) “‘Me, are you kidding.’” (requires a question mark not a full stop.) 7“In a house in al-Qastal sit the Army of the Holy War” (in a house … sits the Army.) 8“a group of children were plying” (a group was playing,) “his boss’ design” (boss’s.) 9“seemed to only contain a long series” (seemed to contain only a long series,) “had not be possible” (been,) “36th Summer Olympics” (previously given as 39th Summer Olympics,) “‘Look its one of’” (it’s,) “to hold the such a” (no ‘the’,) antennas (antennae,) “it’s left leg” (its,) ditto “It’s cheek screens” (Its,) “outside of” (outside, no ‘of’,) sprung (sprang,) “spilled it’s guts” (its,) northern-most but then southernmost (use the hyphen both times or neither time,) “its shoulder-antenna and crossed them” (if them, then shoulder-antennae.) 10“snuck in” (sneaked in,) “the Jozoor’s” (the Jozoor, it was a plural for an organisation known as the Jozoor. Perhaps Jozoors, but certainly no apostrophe,) “ditto the Jidar’s” (the Jidar,) “it was too was obvious” (it was too obvious,) publically (publicly,) “‘just one group that knows their rights’” (that knows its rights.) 11“seven hundred hours” “twenty-one hundred hours” (military usage usually written as 0700 hours and 2100 hours and seemingly out of place here,) “a group of young men…. were caught” (a group …. was caught,) “she went in day light” (daylight.) 12 “in Rahel’s flat” (I’ve no idea why that apostrophised ‘s’ is in italics,) “take the edge of the darkness” (off the darkness,) Michael Renie (Rennie, spelled as such later,) “and reviewing them a film critic” (as a film critic.) “Everyone started shielding their eyes from the sun” (the sun hasn’t risen, an alien spaceship has, though,) “and bellowing commands to soldiers outside, insisting they join him” (insisted they join him.) 13“look forwards to” (look forward to.)
In ‘About the authors’; “He was …. and currently based in Lisbon” (and is currently based,) “is a Palestinian novelist, poet and literary critic born. With a master’s degree..” (born where? When? And it’s Master’s degree,) “for whom he has written wrote and directed” (omit ‘wrote’.)

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

The story of Franz Biberkopf, Continuum, 2004, 381 p, plus ii p Foreword by Alexander Stephan and i p Contents. Translated from the German, Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Eugene Jolas

 Berlin Alexanderplatz  cover

Franz Biberkopf has just been released from Tegel jail after serving four years for the killing (manslaughter) of his partner Ida. This far from straightforwardly told novel tells his story – in nine books – over the next few years at the back end of the 1920s. These were of course troubled political times in Germany and some conversations involve “the Reds” and mention of swastikas but for the most part the political situation is kept in the background. The focus is on Biberkopf and his milieu, his acquaintance (it would not be accurate to describe him as a friend) Reinhold, their associations with various women and the demi-monde in general.

At first Biberkopf is determined to go straight and he manages to gain a living selling newspapers an din the meanwhile having relationships with several women (who tend to be Reinhold’s cast-offs.) Franz is settled with Meize, though, when his life unravels once more as he is hoodwinked into acting as lookout on a burglary. His irritation leads to Reinhold throwing him out of the getaway car into the gutter. His arm is damaged by a succeeding vehicle and he loses it.

The text is overloaded with repetition of phrases such as, “truly, ruly, roo,” “There is a mower: Death yclept,” “tararara taraboomdeay” and “drrumm, brrumm, drrumm.” There are, too, many digressions via Bible quotations, a multiplicity of rhymes, asides on how the novel is progressing, and relatings of everyday events in the wider world, including weather reports. Such things tend to a lack of clarity in the text, a situation not helped by dialogue being carried on from one character to another on the same line – albeit separated by quotation marks. As a mark of its times and of the prevailing attitudes there are also casual references to Jews as if those characters’ ethnicity was the only thing noteworthy about them.

Not only dialogue but also the prose is usually rendered in demotic mode. This is an attempt to represent the various viewpoint characters’ thoughts and as such is justified. However, the demotic employed by the translator was USian – “Say,” or “Gee,” at the start of a piece of dialogue, phrases or words like “back of it,” “boloney,” “dames.” As a result, the book didn’t feel at all German to me. Since experiencing another culture, even if at second hand, is one of the reasons for reading translated fiction this might be thought to be something of a failing. Jolas’s translation has been decried elsewhere.

The back cover blurb describes Berlin Alexanderplatz as one of the masterpieces of modern European literature – the first German novel to adopt James Joyce’s technique. I must admit to not having read any Joyce so do not know whether it was this aspect of the book, the translator’s choices, or the work itself which rendered reading it a bit of a chore. I don’t regret having read it though. Reading new authors, rarely turns out not to be worthwhile in some way.

Additional sensitivity warning: the book contains one use of the ‘n’ word.

Pedant’s corner:- Franze (I have no idea why, in asides, Biberkopf’s first name is sometimes spelled this way,) “work must being immediately” (begin,) Frankfort (either on-the-Rhine, or on-the-Oder, many times. The usual English spelling is Frankfurt,) newsvender (many times, newsvendor,) offuscation (obfuscation?) “let’s me stand there” (lets,) thind (think,) “you might of sat down” (okay it was in dialogue, but does German actually have this egregious mispronunciation? You might have sat down, or, you might’ve,) gayety (x 2, gaiety,) dumfounded (dumbfounded,) “has waked up” (woken up,) “I wouldn’t of started” (ditto as above,) “lay of the land” (lie of the land,) “layin’ around” (lyin’ around,) “he puts his hands over her mouth” (this was Franz. At this point he only has one arm, therefore only one hand,) Karle (Karl,) Mandelay (Mandalay,) “the gang … insist” (the gang … insists,) busses (buses.) interne (x 3, intern.)

Bridge 108 by Anne Charnock

47 North, 2020, 197 p.

 Bridge 108 cover

Bridge 108 is an expansion of the author’s novella The Enclave which won the BSFA Award for 2017 and is set against a backdrop of environmental degradation (drought, wildfires) in Southern Europe which has precipitated an exodus northwards. On such a journey fourteen-year-old Caleb was separated from his mother and trafficked to Britain where he has ended up in one of the enclaves set outside the mainstream of society. ‘Normal’ (non-enclave citizens) are chipped and inoculated and so cannot become addicted to drugs, gambling or alcohol nor apparently commit crime.

Life in an enclave among the unchipped ‘organics’ (who either refused the chipping – because you lose your spark – or else never had it for some other reason such as crime in the family) is not quite dog-eat-dog but the police venture there infrequently and prefer to ignore the goings-on, unless it involves illegal immigrants or murder. When we start, Caleb is working for Ma Lexie, a dealer in upcycled clothing, whose business is in turn a subsidiary of the dodgy family enterprises of her late husband, Ruben. Caleb hasn’t quite settled down in the enclave (he is locked in at night) and exchanges messages with the similarly trapped Odette on the adjacent roof via a weighted plastic bottle.

The story is told from the viewpoints of Caleb, Ma Lexie, Skylark (the young girl who trafficked Caleb,) Jerome (an undercover immigration officer,) Jaspar (Ma Lexie’s de facto boss,) and Officer Sonia, a simulant – further beyond the chipped members of society than they are to the unchipped ‘organics’ of the enclaves – who is portrayed as lacking in empathy. Apart from Caleb, who relates five of the ten chapters, each of the others has only one, allowing Charnock to provide us with a cross-section of the attitudes of the inhabitants of her future world.

On a trip to the market Caleb upsets Ma Lexie and his mistrust hardens. He agrees to escape the enclave with Odette who has her own reasons for fleeing. They travel at night towards Wales along the Shropshire Union Canal but Caleb quickly gives Odette the slip when he notices blood under her fingernails. He finds relatively easy work on a vineyard and some time later is befriended by Jerome who helps him avoid an immigration raid. They travel together and at Bridge 108 on the Shropshire Union Canal Caleb is persuaded by Jerome to hand himself in to the authorities. His indentured life on the path towards full citizenhood is not simple, nor is that path guaranteed, but is an illustration of the destination towards which UK domestic policy has been heading these many years.

Pedant’s corner:- The surname Farquharson is said to be pronounced Farkuson (It isn’t; it’s pronounced Farkarson, with both the ‘r’s sounded,) snuck (sneaked,) sat (x 2, sitting, or, seated,) “in my corner of room” (of the room.) “None of them stay in the camp” (None of them stays,) whiskey (whisky.)

Crotal and White by Finlay J MacDonald

First published 1983.

Warner Books. In The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus, 1988, 174 p.

The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus cover

This is the second part of MacDonald’s memoirs of growing up in the southern part of the isle of Harris between the two World Wars, his recounting of a way of life that was on the way to extinction. There is no running water, no electricity – though here battery powered radios make their appearance – and no indoor plumbing; but the island’s first aeroplane sighting occurs. The Great Recession has brought poverty – sales of Harris Tweed have declined to zero – and the author’s father is reduced to killing the family’s pet sheep for food, despite his reluctance at killing anything due to his experiences in the Great War, principally as a sniper. MacDonald contrasts poverty with being broke as broke is a temporary situation, but poverty grinds unremittingly on.

The end of the author’s preliminary schooling is in sight as he sits the exam for the bursary which will allow him to carry on with education beyond the village; an education which Government and parents desired for the children but which will ensure that those children would leave the island in pursuit of the opportunities which it brought. In the meantime he wins a competition organised by Gibbs’s Dentifrice to promote their wares. Sadly the prize was not the bicycle he hoped for. Life in the family is loving but not indulgent and in amongst the nostalgia are some light moments – one involving a piss-pot laced with Andrew’s Effervescent Liver Salts, another where we are told, “There is something irrevocable about a botched haircut.” – words and deeds may be forgotten or forgiven the haircut, “lingers on for an eternity, reproachfully.” As a result of his, MacDonald suffered the nickname “convick” – a Gaelic approximation to the English word – for months. We are also treated to the author’s first (and unsatisfactory for the girl concerned) sexual experience at the hands of a teenager MacDonald describes as one of a band of tinkers. The author also has that Scottish gift of an eye for landscape.

The crotal of the title is the name of a lichen that was scraped off the local rocks to be processed to provide a brown dye for Harris Tweed.

Towards the conclusion of this instalment things are beginning to look up economically but the threat of another war has begun to loom large.

Pedant’s corner:- crochets (crotchets,) “before by mother” (my mother,) “which we were lead to believe” (led to believe,) “a rift in the family lute” (??) “coom ceilings” (I have never sen this spelling before, it’s usually comb or coomb,) “the rest of the community were attending” (the rest … was attending,) “ o tell me” (to tell me,) “Callernish stones” (usually Callanish,) Niklaus (Nicklaus.)

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

In “The Brontë Sisters: Three Novels,” Barnes and Noble, 2012, 164 p (plus iii p Introduction to the three novels.) Agnes Grey was first published 1847.

 The Brontë Sisters: Three Novels cover

Narrator Agnes Grey is the daughter of a poor-ish clergyman on whose infirmity she decides to find work as a governess to help out her family financially, albeit in a small way. The novel is a more or less straightforward account of her experiences first of all in a family where the children fail to do as they are asked, over-indulged as they are by their parents, a thankless endeavour not soon enough brought to an end, then in another – the Murrays – where she is in charge of two much older daughters, both of whom are headstrong in various degrees. The influence of Brontë’s own life in providing a milieu for her heroine is therefore obvious.

Agnes Grey is God-fearing, thoughtful and mindful of her place in the scheme of things and of her obligations to be compassionate. That others of higher social standing than herself may not be so minded, is something she becomes acutely aware of.

The hypocritical minister, the more truly Christian curate, the calculating mother prepared to sacrifice her daughter’s future happiness to a title, the scheming young girl callously set on snaring a man’s heart while never intending to gratify that desire, all make an appearance here. This fits neatly into the template of the Georgian or Victorian novel. It is all over rather quickly and it is relatively obvious from the moment of the appearance of the curate, Mr Weston, in Agnes Grey’s life where it will end. Everything seemed rather rushed, though, more like sketches for a novel than the complete article.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a repeated full stop. Otherwise; no start quote mark when a chapter begins with a piece of dialogue, “it would be with different, feelings” (why the comma?) opportunityl (opportunity,) visiter(s) (several instances, visitor(s),) by-the-bye (previously – on the same page! – by-the-by.) “‘What do your mean, sir?’” (you,) secresy (an old spelling?) “None of the Murrays were disposed to….” (None … was disposed to,) visa versa (nowadays always vice versa,) wofully, woful (now spelled woefully, woeful,) “the congregation were departing” (the congregation was departing,) “not to shabby or mean” (not to appear shabby or mean,) worky-day (now spelled workaday,) “said be” (said he.)

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