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The Sorrow of War by Bảo Ninh

Secker & Warburg, 1994, 218 p. Translated from the Vietnamese Thân Phân Cua Tinh Yêu, (originally published by Nhà Xuät Ban Hoi Nha Van [Writers’ Association Publishing House], Hanoi, 1991. English version by Frank Palmos based on the translations from the Vietnamese by Vo Bang Thanh and Phan Thanh Hao, with Katherine Pierce.

The vast majority of writing about the Vietnam War published in the West has been from a US perspective. This book acts as a kind of corrective as, here, the US, along with the South Vietnamese ARVN, is the enemy. The novel’s viewpoint character is a North Vietnamese soldier, Kien, whom we first meet in his post-war duty of collecting for burial the remains of corpses left over from the war. This is in an eerie place the soldiers named the Jungle of Screaming Souls. One corpse is discovered in a colourless plastic bag and the body seems immaculate. Then it discolours, something seems to escape, and it deflates. The platoon takes this apparition to be a soul departing. This scene is emblematic as, while the memories of combat are no doubt authentic, so much of what Binh describes here is surreal. Many descriptions of war are.

The novel is disjointed, fragmented, as if reflecting the uncanny nature of such experiences. Ninh tells us the sorrow of war is like the sorrow of love, “a kind of nostalgia,” a “sadness, a missing, a pain which could send one soaring back into the past.” The novel is a patchwork of such pain, of things unforgettable, surfacing unbidden from memory. “His fighting life was being revived in flashbacks, or in slowly unfolding scenes as heart-rending as a funeral march.” War as an experience is perhaps best encapsulated when Kien remembers trying to dissuade his comrade Can from deserting as it would be shameful. Can replied, “‘In all my time as a soldier I’ve yet to see anything honourable.’”

While combat and its horrors – the blood and entrails carried on the tracks of tanks so that they have to be driven through a river to clean them, Kien’s friend killed when his tank is all-but vapourised by a shell, the dreamlike quality of being on the receiving end of a US air-raid, the self-sacrifice of an inexperienced female guide named Hua who distracted a platoon of US soldiers away from a group of wounded NVA personnel whom she had put in danger of discovery – The Sorrow of War is not merely a story of firefights and military life. The story flits between those and his pre-Army life in Hanoi with Kien’s golden memories of his girlfriend Phuong and of life after the war where it is not only Kien who has been changed utterly but also Phuong, forever scarred by her travails when she accompanied him south to his first posting and her subsequent struggles to subsist in Hanoi.

The end of the war brought to the soldiers no soaring, brilliant happiness such as Kien saw later on film, only memories and nightmares. “Those who had died and those who lived on shared a common fate in this war.” As to the future, “Losses can be made good, damage can be repaired and wounds will heal in time. But the psychological scars of the war will remain forever.” The survivors “had lost not only the capacity to live happily with others but also the capacity to be in love.”

Since Kien later sets out to write about his impressions of the war the novel also contains observations on writing. Binh tells us the author wrote “because he had to write, not because he had to publish.” This is of course the way round the process ought to be.

Despite all its gruesome content and incident, its record of man’s inhumanity to man – and woman – The Sorrow of War is not difficult to read, a testament to both Binh and his translators.

Pedant’s corner:- mosquito repellant (repellent,) “his beard was well shaven and tidy” (if it was shaven it wasn’t a beard, well trimmed perhaps?) “Who’s to know.” (is a question; therefore ‘Who’s to know?’) “All that remained of his mother were some photographs.” (‘All’ is singular, hence ‘was,’) a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, “Sue repeated eagerly” (she repeated eagerly,) curriculum vitae (there was more than one; curriculum vitae means ‘course of life’ so its plural – courses of life – is ‘curricula vitae’ in Latin and English – but in English some might say ‘curriculums vitae’. If interpreted as ‘courses of lives’ the Latin plural would be ‘curricula vitarum’, which is a step too far in English.)

The End of an Old Song by J D Scott

A Romance. Canongate Classics, 1990, 214 p, plus iv p Introduction by Christopher Harvie. First published in 1954.

Things lost. The times they have achanged. It is not for nothing that the lament is the signature example of bagpipe music. Scottish authors have always chronicled disappearance. It’s there in this book’s title and its epigraph – the source of that title – is of course the quote from Lord Chancellor Seafield on the dissolving of the Scottish Parliament in 1707 after the Treaty of Union was signed, “There is the end of an auld sang.” Scots have been struggling with a sense of absence, of incompleteness, ever since.

But there are wider literary echoes here too. This review ought perhaps to have begun with the words, “Last night I dreamed I was at Kingisbyres again,” Kingisbyres being the name of the “big house” where narrator Patrick Shaw had his formative experiences. Indeed, the book could also have been titled “Kingisbyres Revisited”.

Yet this exercise in Scottish nostalgia, displaying the typical Scottish writer’s flair for landscape description, is narrated by one Patrick Shaw who tells us he deliberately cultivated English snobbishness. Indeed, the novel reads as being written with an English sensibility, and people are always described as Scotch, not Scottish. As a result, the Scotticisms, when they occur – “‘Away, man,’” – do so with increased force. Despite his leanings towards Englishness Patrick intuits “the essence of the past of Scotland, its dark, fated, cruel quality and the contrasting strain that ran through it of lightness and grace and gaiety ….. something powerfully charged with love and hate, pride and violence, which, in given circumstances, it might discharge in some tremendous flash of lightning.”

In the 1930s Patrick was a pupil at the nearby fee-paying but far from top drawer school, Nethervale, (his alcoholic father reduced to teaching there) and was invited to Kingisbyres by his friend Alastair Kerr, himself brought up by an aunt in the village and who, local rumour had it, was the natural son of the house’s owner, Captain Keith, who paid for him to attend the school. In Kingisbyres a room once graced by Bonnie Prince Charlie is kept perpetually ready for “the King over the water” to return. One summer, Captain Keith, no longer able to afford the upkeep, lets Kingisbyres to the nouveau riche Harveys (the money was made in biscuits) and Patrick was immediately struck by their daughter Catherine, a presence who is to flicker in and out of Patrick’s and Alastair’s lives for the remainder of the book. Catherine is used to having her own way and even as a young adult knows how to deploy her charms to get it. The establishment of the three’s irregular relationship takes up more than half the novel before the focus shifts to the book’s narrative present after the Second World War.

Captain Keith, like many of the landed gentry, has some very right-wing views and Alastair frequently indulges in casually pejorative mentions of Jews – sometimes not so casually, even after the war. He also has some acerbic comments to make on his countrymen’s attitudes, “being stuck-up is a crime in Scotland. That’s why everybody who makes money leaves it in the end. What’s the good of making money if you can’t be stuck-up?” and the cultural cringe, “like the good wee Scotty I am, I’ve been conditioned to feel that success is genuine only when it’s been registered in London.” He cites those objects of aspiration, “‘That old Kentish manor house,’” along with an English rose for its mistress, two children and a picture in the Tatler but after the war, in its austere aftermath, such longing is obsolete, “‘Now we have to give it up for an apartment on Fifth Avenue.’” When he says, “‘God save us from the romantic outlook,’” Patrick asks him, “‘It’s goodbye to the English dream?’” Alastair replies, “‘Yes,’” and Patrick says ironically, “‘You might call it the end of an old song.’”

The characters in The End of an Old Song are well-drawn, Catherine’s youthful carelessness and flightiness apparent from Patrick’s first encounter with her, Alastair always a hard, uncompromising presence (though Mrs Harvey is a type; a recognisable and all too familiar type, but still a type.) The novel speaks both of its time and to timeless Scottish concerns.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a missing end quote mark from an illustrative passage. Otherwise; gulley (gully,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) “thee fingers of whisky” (three fingers,) “Mrs Mathers’ voice” (Mathers’s,) “Bonny Prince Charlie” (usually spelled Bonnie, as it is on the next page and elsewhere in the book,) “‘If you boys arenie’ to be working’” (usually spelled arenae – and there’s no need for the apostrophe.) “After Dunkirk time I didn’t see Alastair …. for nearly two years … I went abroad … and until early 1943 I was in the middle East” (Dunkirk was in 1940, 1943 is 3 years later, not 2,) glaiket (usually spelled glaikit, is said to mean wandering in one’s mind; I have always understood it as meaning gormless, or slightly dim.)

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Corsair, 2019, 376 p.

People like stories. That is why the novel as a form exists after all. So I can see why this struck a chord with so many readers. It is the tale of Catherine Danielle Clark (Kya,) growing up living in a shack in a North Carolina marsh. And it is a compelling one. Kya is abandoned first by her elder siblings, then her mother (too many blows from her wastrel drunken sot of a husband, Kya’s father) then her brother nearest in age, Jodie, and finally her father; left to bring herself up alone, with only the marsh wildlife and plants to engage her interest. Subject to prejudice, vilified as dirty and ‘trash’, she has only the local, black, seller of bait, supplies and motor-boat fuel, Jumpin’ Jackson, and his wife Mabel, to look out for her, plus later, of course, Tate Walker, a few years older, a friend of the family in the (mildly) better times when her mother was still around. It is a tale of betrayal, loneliness, love, (a bit of) sex and, since we start with the discovery of a body, death. It has things going for it then.

And yet. Perhaps I’m seeing this from a reviewing perspective or even of that of a novelist myself but as a novel I found it deeply flawed.

The body is that of Chase Andrews, quondam local quarterback and lad about town (or whatever the US equivalent is) but pillar of the establishment. He has fallen – or been pushed – from a deserted building known as the fire tower. The absence of footprints round the body (his included) make the local sheriff suspicious. Revelations of Kya’s involvement with Chase mean she becomes the prime suspect.

Given Kya is the focal character our sympathies naturally lean to her side and if she has committed murder, there is not much in Owens’s portrayal of her to lead us to believe she could have carried out the elaborate deception necessary for that. She certainly has motive, a woman scorned always has motive, but her reclusive nature as the Marsh Girl, out where the crawdads sing (Tate tells her the phrase means “Far in the bush where the critters are wild, still behaving like critters”) and her reticence as regards contact with other humans, act as counterweights.

Despite only one day of schooling – humiliated by being unable to spell ‘dog’ she never went back – she becomes a self-taught expert on the marsh fauna and flora and paints exquisite representations of its wildlife. Her friendship with Tate, the only one who understands her deep connection with the marsh, the person who taught her to read – remarkably quickly it has to be said – and encouraged her to send her paintings to a publisher and so responsible for her later financial security, is her anchor until he too leaves her behind to go to College and her loneliness eventually leads her to succumb to the doomed attraction of Chase.

This tale of early 1960s North Carolina has echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird what with the racial prejudice (there is a Colored [sic] Town separate from Barkley Cove,) the class divisions and the courtroom scenes.However, it is anything but as well written. It relies too often on coincidence and has problems with structure and sequencing along with individual sections morphing from past to present tense for no good reason. Witnesses come forward at convenient times for the narrative rather than organically as they would have done. For two of these Owens lets the reader know their testimony exists and is potentially damning but does not reveal it then and there, instead waiting a few chapters to let us see the scene concerned from Kya’s viewpoint. I suppose you could call it backshadowing (in essence the whole book from the body’s discovery in the prologue till Kya’s arrest is backshadowing) but it is really an artificial creation of tension not fair on the reader. Then there are the frequent passages of poetry, especially that of Amanda Hamilton, which strike an off-note. Ownes has her reasons for these but only unfurls them at the end as a deus ex machina.

Some minor characters are less than convincing. Chase’s mother Patti Love Andrews is supposed to have thought she had a strong bond with her son but is said to be shocked to discover he had intimate dealings with Kya. This does not ring at all true. A woman like her would know exactly how a son brought up with his privileges would behave towards those he thought beneath him – especially to women, even more especially to ‘trash’.

Extracts from Kya’s reading on biological topics – for example “one article on reproductive strategies was titled ‘Sneaky Fuckers’” – feel as if they are an interpolation from a different novel entirely but ensure Kya is conversant with the varied tactics of the animal mating game. She tells Jodie, finally returned to see how she is faring, “Most men go from one female to the next. The unworthy ones strut about, pulling you in with falsehoods,” but this comes across as Owens speaking, not Kya. Often in sections relating to Kya’s state of mind, human behaviour is described in terms of biological reductionism – even in the hierarchy of the courtroom.

Some aspects of the contributions to her personality are outlined when Kya says to Jodie, “I never hated people. They hated me. They laughed at me. They left me. They harrassed me. They attacked me.”

As a defendant in her trial Kya is all but a blank to us, though. Yet the narration is from an omniscient third person, we ought to have access to her deepest thoughts. This is not unreliable as such but is profoundly disingenuous (and there are times too when Owens is a bit too eager to tell the reader how to interpret what has been read.)

Perhaps it was with an eye to the film rights (or even thoughts of To Kill a Mockingbird) that Owens chose to make the trial her focus. A trial after all has jeopardy (Owens emphasises the jeopardy,) conflict and drama. But that focus imbalances the novel. The story here is not the trial. Instead it is that of a lonely girl struggling to keep herself alive and make her way in a world to which she is ill-suited and for which she is ill-prepared. And of humans’ capacity for denigrating and despising the other. The murder aspect is incidental to this but is the hook on which Owens hangs the book. And in its dénouement I could not escape the impression that Owens was so determined to have a revelation/tying up of loose ends in her final chapter that it warped all that came before it.

There are things to appreciate in this novel but its central metaphor is laboured, almost trite. Yes, humans are the expressions of their genes. But humans are more than that. And it is the more than that that the novel, at its best, illumines and portrays. Where the Crawdads Sing does that peripherally at best.

It is by no means a bad book. In some respects it is a very good book, though without ever touching the heights. It will probably make a good film though.

Pedant’s corner:- ‘Time interval’ later/within ‘time interval’ count: 17. Otherwise; “Her overalls pockets” (that’s a possessive, hence, ‘her overalls’ pockets’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, indentions (indentations,) “Kya wondered who started using the word cell instead of cage. There must have been a moment in time when humanity demanded this shift.” (Well, no. The word cell does not necessarily mean a place of incarceration. It is a single, repeatable unit, found among others of its kind, as in prisons, but also in batteries and in living things; a cage is never anything other than a place of confinement,) “the sheriff itn’t so sure” (‘itn’t?’Is that North Carolinan dialect; or a misprint for ‘isn’t?’) “bused to Barkley” (bussed.)

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Tinder Press, 2020, 384 p.

 Hamnet cover

Is there anyone who reads who does not know that Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet, who died as a boy, a name immortalised a few years later in the play titled Hamlet? This is not a spoiler in any case as in a short preface O’Farrell tells us as much, and that Hamnet and Hamlet were the same name, entirely interchangeable in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

In its writing this novel has echoes of Wolf Hall, whether that be because of the Tudor setting, or that Hamnet’s grandfather is quick with his fists, or a kind of linguistic obscurantism. In Hilary Mantel’s novel Thomas Cromwell was often denoted cryptically as “he,” Here characters are sometimes described simply as “a boy” or “a woman” and Hamnet’s father is never referred to by name, only as, variously, “the Latin Tutor,” “the husband,” or “the father.”

This distancing is quite deliberate on O’Farrell’s part as the novel’s focus is not on the son, (who dies two thirds of the way in anyway,) nor indeed is it on the husband and father. This is the story of the wife and mother, Agnes, pronounced Ann’yes and so liable to be misheard as Anne. It is a beautiful piece of imagining on O’Farrell’s part, evoking life in Tudor England utterly convincingly, illustrating the fluctuating balances of power within families, rescuing Agnes from the sidelines of history, revealing her as a vibrant, complex character in her own right. In it she also manages to provide a better explanation than the usual one for the playwright’s famous bequest – as an act of love.

In part I the chapters mostly alternate between the goings-on in Henley Street, Stratford, in the run-up to Hamnet contracting his fatal illness (where there is actually a fair degree of attention paid to Hamnet,) and the earlier life of his mother and father, how they met, got together, married and had three children. Despite Agnes having the gift of (second) sight, Hamnet’s twin Judith comes as a surprise, is then given up for dead on arrival after him, but subject to Agnes’s frantic efforts to keep her alive and her constant worry thereafter. Agnes is also a dispenser of herbal remedies. There is a passage written from the point of view of a hooded kestrel in an apple store which is quite beautifully done and also a diversionary chapter on the mechanism of how Hamnet may have caught bubonic plague, beginning with a flea in Alexandria, the plague bacillus eventually transferring to England via a glassmaker in Venice. Though never emphasised as such, interplay between the characters suggest the seeds for what was to come in the plays. Part II by contrast deals with the aftermath of Hamnet’s death and its chapters follow the story linearly. Grief is a difficult sense to communicate in fiction but we see its expression in all of the family and feel it through them.

Use of the present tense can be alienating but O’Farrell’s deployment of the device is superb, keeping the action contingent, reminding us that to the characters the events she shows us were happening in the here and now, there was still the possibility of an alternative outcome. It brilliantly conveys Hamnet’s distracted state of mind as he scurries about the empty house (usually so full of people) seeking help when his twin falls ill. O’Farrell is tremendous too on Agnes’s experience of childbirth. I doubt a man could ever have transmitted the sensations, feelings and worries so effectively. Throughout, the author is totally in control and the final scenes, as Agnes hurries off to London to ask her husband why he dared to use his dead son’s name in a play, are magnificent. The play, after all, has kept that name alive.

Hamnet is a wonderful novel. How it was left off the Booker Prize long- and shortlist last year is beyond me. It did, though, win the Women’s Fiction Prize and the Dalkey Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize.

Pedant’s corner:- epicentre (used, wrongly, in the sense of absolute centre,) “the dark maw of the ground” (it was the opening of a grave; not a stomach, then, therefore not a maw,) stoved in (stove in, or, staved in,) “that all is not as it should be” (that not all is as it should be.) “She sits up nights” (she sits up at night,) hoofs (in my youth the plural was always ‘hooves’.)

Summer by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2020, 391 p.

This is the fourth in Smith’s Seasons quartet, conceived as a response to the Brexit upheaval, but here set, as the novel is, in 2020, somewhat overtaken by Covid. As in all her books it is rendered with an unjustified right margin which still looks odd to begin with but after a few pages does not intrude. Like Spring this instalment begins with a page or so’s discourse on our times, this one on the indifference with which certain people have greeted the flagrant breaking of societal and political norms in recent years, a metaphorical – and perhaps actual – shrugging of shoulders and saying “So?”

A contrast to that metaphorical shrugging comes later on when Daniel Gluck, a child refugee from the Nazis who featured in Autumn, remembers his internment in Britain early in World War 2 and the support the interned refugees received from MPs and from the wider public. Of the British people at the time he recalls his father saying, “They know about fairness now, and why to go to war, and what happens when you do. They know about newspapers that lie for money. They know you don’t put innocent people in prison. The British are just. They’re practical. They’re calm, they’re civilized, now. They’ll put it right.” It is left to the reader to make any invidious comparison. Gluck’s sister Hannah was meanwhile stuck in France and trusted her child to the care of the French couple with whom she lodged while she engaged in working with the resistance.

The novel unfolds through various viewpoints one of whom is environmentally conscious Sacha Greenlaw, whose father has moved in next door to the family home with his new, younger, Welsh lover, Ashley. Sacha is plagued by her younger brother Robert, who has fallen down the rabbit hole of right-wing websites and once told Ashley to go back to Wales as, after Brexit, she wasn’t wanted here. Their mother Grace just gets on with things but has memories of her own. Robert has two heroes. One is Einstein, the other “looks like he’s acting a bit drunk or acting like a boy not a man” and reflects that for a Prime Minister to appear dishevelled is “a brilliant subterfuge to look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing and to make people like him for it.” A (very unamusing) practical joke Robert plays on Sacha leads to her being befriended by Charlotte and Arthur – see Winter – who run a website with “thoughtful analysis of the shapes things take in art and nature” and have been tasked with returning a fragment of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture to a man Arthur’s mother once knew. They are also activists of a sort. Through them Sacha learns about Hero who has been detained by the immigration authorities after being trafficked and she writes to him. The last section of the book contains his reply – from the safe haven of Arthur’s Aunt’s house to where he has been released due to Covid.

Summer really only incidentally comments on political issues but is all the more effective for that. The characters present as individuals and are dealt with sympathetically. I suspect that when she conceived the sequence Smith planned for this last instalment to be a hopeful one (it is titled Summer after all) but the events she is reflecting may have militated against that. There isn’t really much of a plot though.

Pedant’s corner:- “And from those clouds it isn’t rain that fell” (from those clouds it wasn’t rain that fell,) “as she walked along pavement” (the pavement, or, a pavement,) a spoken sentence not capitalised at its start.

The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

Two Roads, 2020, 331 p, including 5 p Author’s Note and 1 p Acknowledgements.

At first this promises to be solely the story of Isabel Aird, married to a doctor, Alexander, who is disgusted by the conditions of the poor working class of 1856 Glasgow and wishes to alleviate them. To this end he is drawn to the position of physician to the construction works of the scheme designed to carry the pure waters of Loch Katrine in the Trossachs to the city in order to combat the ravages of cholera, an arduous project requiring tunnelling through extremely hard rock wth nothing but pickaxes, sweat and gunpowder, “the greatest engineering marvel since the construction of the aqueducts of Rome” – a system still in existence, whose flow is driven by gravity alone. The novel soon broadens out though into a wider account.

Isabel has suffered a multiplicity of miscarriages or still-births (the irony of her being married to a doctor is not lost on her) and at first is not keen on a move to the wilds but on her first visit to Loch Chon she is enchanted by the views and for all its deprivations becomes enthusiastic about living there.

Many of the chapters are related in third person from Isabel’s point of view but there are two first person contributions, one from the viewpoint of Robert Kirke, a kirk minister who disappeared into the world of faery in 1698 but has now returned with a commission from what in Gaelic are known as the sìthichean, and the other from Kirsty McEchern, the wife of a navvy working on the project, written as if it is the verbatim transcript of her memories as told to someone who for a long time remains unidentified. There are also curious interpolations from the life of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, mostly in the form of letters from the Prince. (The Queen was famously entranced by the Trossachs – and Scotland in general – and did open the waterworks in 1859.)

Like many Scottish lochs Loch Chon has a legend of a supernatural denizen, in this case a black Dog who at times will rise from the surface to swallow human victims. This is one of the many tales of the sìthichean known to Kirsty, who, being an islander from Mull, is well versed in Gaelic superstition (or knowledge as she would have called it.) This legend is central to Kirke’s commission from the land of faery and to the novel’s denouement.

It is with this part of the book that I initially had least patience. Then I reflected that dealings with the supernatural – the Devil especially, but also faery – are a staple of Scottish literature. So too, exhibited here by Robert Kirke, is psychological duality. (In her Author’s Note Magnusson calls that a familiar trope. To my mind that enduring concern is something more profound than a trope; it is a deep reflection of the Scottish character – see the third and second last paragraphs in the link.)

A parallel between the lives of Isabel and Queen Victoria is that both had nine children. Well Victoria did, only Isabel’s ninth (the one of the book’s title) survived gestation and birth. The plot and the denouement both of course depend on this.

Magnusson writes really well, she expresses the ups and downs of the Airds’ marriage sensitively, captures superbly the voices, doubts and thoughts of both Kirke and Kirsty and her descriptions of the Trossachs landscape are evocative, while the necessary conveying of information about the construction works is never intrusive.

This is another example of the enduring fascination of the novel with love and death but unlike in Magnusson’s earlier The Sealwoman’s Gift sex is absent from the pages, though its consequences of course are not. The Ninth Child is not quite as accomplished as that previous novel but it is certainly good enough to be going on with.

(At the end of the book are appended eight “Reading Group Questions,” a practice I find patronising. Not reading groups themselves I hasten to add, rather the fact that they are held to need some sort of prompting to ask questions of a text.)

Pedant’s corner:- “‘as soon as another epidemic hoves into view’” (hove is the past tense (and it is in any case ‘hove’ not ‘hoves’,) so here it should be ‘heaves into view’,) “a Yorkshireman with exuberant facial hair by the name of Bateman” (his beard was called Bateman?) “he had sawed a couple of fingers off” (sawn,) Descartes’ (Descartes’s,) “‘the taste of those mean cruelties were back on my tongue’” (either ‘the tastes’, or ‘was back’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) Athole Highlanders (Atholl) powder your nose, (the phrase was in juse in the nineteenth century but I would have thought it an unlikely expression for a navvie’s wife though it was said many years after the events in the book and she had been in “polite” company in the interim,) maw (it’s not a mouth, it’s a stomach.) In the Reading group questions; “navvie’s wife” (navvy’s wife.)

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Chatto & Windus, 2019, 453 p.

All religions are conspiracies against women. Theocracies even more so. Atwood’s conception of her repressive society of Gilead (in The Handmaid’s Tale and here) was not, I suspect, designed to illustrate that point in particular – rather than to suggest that advances in social arrangements can be reversed, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance – but nevertheless does so. The source book/“sacred” text of the relevant conspiracy may not even contain the words used to justify women’s subjection by those of that bent. They instead tend to pick out the bits that suit them or else distort its contents. That point is made here when one of the narrators is warned about the Bible that, “It doesn’t say what they say it does.”

I can’t actually remember much about the text of The Handmaid’s Tale (to which this is a companion rather than a sequel) beyond the theocratic authoritarianism and the sexual exploitation, except that the book didn’t have a firm resolution – it just ended.

The Testaments is different in that it is not just one recollection of life in Gilead but three, and we see the seeds of Gilead’s downfall being sown. One of the narrators is Agnes Jemima (in a transcript of the testimony of Witness 369A supposedly collected by the Mayday Resistance movement,) a daughter of Gilead, for which read the daughter of a handmaiden but legally of her Commander “father,” Kyle, and his wife Tabitha. Tabitha looked after Agnes’s interests but died and Commander Kyle took a new wife, Paula, who most emphatically did not. The first account we read, though, is from “The Ardua Hall Holograph” a manuscript found hidden in a book of Cardinal Newman’s writings. It was from the library of Ardua Hall, the headquarters of the Aunts who oversaw the lives of the women of Gilead. One of their functions was to keep track of the genetic heritage of Gilead’s children as so many’s may not have been what was generally thought. Uniquely among the women of Gilead, Aunts were allowed books. The Holograph was written by Aunt Lydia – whom we are to assume is the same Lydia described by Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. Lydia knew where the regime’s secrets were buried and had a tacit agreement with Commander Judd, one of the prime movers of Gilead, that she should have a free hand in organising women’s lives in return for useful information. But pre-Gilead she had been a judge; in the Holograph she remembers her earlier life and the humiliations borne when that was blown apart and is only biding her time to expose all Gilead’s hypocrisies. The third strand (a transcript of the testimony of Witness 369B) is the story of a girl brought up in Toronto by a couple who ran a second-hand clothes business but were active in the Underground Femaleroad which spirited refugees away from Gilead and whom she felt were overly protective of her. (Minor spoiler next.) Frequent early mentions of Baby Nicole, a cause célèbre both in Gilead and Canada, a poster-child who was taken from her “parents” in Gilead and for whose return its government actively campaigned and whose Pearl Girls, sent out to convert Canadians to the Gilead way of life, were constantly on the lookout for, provide heavy hints as to her identity. Atwood intersperses the three testimonies expertly, though the connection between Agnes and Jade/Nicole feels a bit too pat. That though is justified by the book’s coda which, like the similar addendum to The Handmaid’s Tale, is formed of notes from a symposium on Gilead Studies, here the Thirteenth, held at Passamaquoddy (formerly Bangor,) Maine, in 2197.

In the Holograph Aunt Lydia tells us of her secret cache of proscribed books, which includes Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Paradise Lost and Lives of Girls and Women, but also that “Knowledge is power, especially discreditable knowledge. I am not the first person to have recognised this, or to have capitalised on it when possible: every intelligence agency in the world has always known it.” The Holograph incidentally illustrates the jealousies and rivalries of a closed order and the intricacies of power relationships while Lydia’s acidity is shown by her inclusion in a list of “hoary chetsnuts” the aphorism that “Time wounds all heels.” In a neat touch by Atwood the meeting/eating place at Ardua Hall (whose slippery motto is Per Ardua Cum Estrus) is called the Schlafly Café.

Moments of horror in The Testaments are rare. There are mentions of Particicution, where convicts are torn to pieces by handmaids (a seemingly eagerly grabbed outlet for their justifiable anger,) but the descriptions tend to avoid detail. The experiences of Agnes and her friend Becca herself at the hands of Becca’s dentist father (with Becca it was more than hands) exemplify that an obsession with controlling sex, far from making it go away, (though those in control of course make sure they get more than their share,) only serves to emphasise its centrality to human experience, perhaps even accentuate sexuality’s unsavoury extremities.

As to the prohibition on women (except the Aunts) reading, Agnes in her spell at Ardua Hall gets to the heart of the matter, “Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to questions, and then to others.” In a theocracy, in any dictatorship, questions are to be avoided

Perhaps it was familiarity with the recent TV adaptation of the earlier book or the wider world demonstration that such a society is a likely goal for those who somehow feel the presence of women in the public sphere in some way disadvantages them The Testaments seemed a better structured, more rounded book than my memory of The Handmaid’s Tale. The three narrators are convincing, though Jade/Nicole doesn’t quite seem to realise the seriousness of the perils inside Gilead and Atwwod’s insights into human behaviour under stress are acute.

Pedant’s corner:- tête-a-têtes (strictly têtes-a-têtes, or even têtes-a-tête,) a missing comma at the end of a piece iof dialogue where the sentence continued after it.

In Limbo by Christopher Evans

Granada, 1985, 286 p.

Along with four companions – only ever described as Riley, Treadwell, Sinnott and Wright – Mike Carpenter has been confined to Limbo, a soulless, windowless (the cover image is wrong in this respect) prison of sorts, where they are under constant surveillance. None of the five has any idea why they are being held in this way as, to their knowledge, they have not committed a crime. Under the more or less constant scrutiny of the guards/attendants their days are spent in PT exercises, games such as snooker or chess, reading newspapers and watching TV. The food is bland but not unwholesome (though at one point they suspect it is being adulterated by laxatives.) Occasionally they will be hauled before the person in charge, a man named Naughton, who will berate them for any misdemeanours they have committed. Some relief for Carpenter is provided by interviews with Dr Dempster, a female medic who looks after the inmates’ welfare. In the nature of such an unresolved existence a couple of the five try to form an escape committee but Carpenter sees this as futile. His reflections on the constrained life and his comparitive boredom lead to him trying to invent slogans for his companions but also one for himself, It doesn’t help.

The author’s history as a Science Fiction writer (his previous novels had been The Insider and Capella’s Golden Eyes and he went on to write Aztec Century and Mortal remains) might incline the reader to the view that the incarceration is part of a psychological experiment of some sort and that the experiences in Limbo are real. Against that the realistic tone of the narrative and the mundane nature of the confinement argues for something a bit less exotic. This is heightened by the slow morphing of the storyline into a recounting of Carpenter’s memories of his life before Limbo, memories which gradually begin to take up more of the narrative space. These deal with his drifting from school to University and then from job to job but more particularly with his relationships with the sexual interests in his life, from his unrequited passion for schoolmate Gail through his experiences with his women lovers, Veronica, Karen, Eleanor and Penny (not to mention one night spent with the enthusiastic Cicely,) all of which were unsatisfactory in one way or another. In this reading his four companions in Limbo may be aspects of Carpenter’s own personality.

It would be thoughtless of a reviewer to reveal which – if either – of these two possibilities is borne out but In Limbo is very well written. Evans has a flair for depicting character and circumstance and the novel’s resolution does follow the logic of what has gone before. I’ve read a lot worse. A lot worse.

Pedant’s corner:- “a fresh batch of magazines and periodicals were delivered” (a fresh batch … was delivered,) “the gate is strait” (straight?) “like Saul on the road to Tarsus, he would experience a blinding moment of revelation” (Saul came from Tarsus. His blinding moment was on the road to Damascus,) “that of Veronicas” (if that’s a possessive it should be ‘Veronica’s’, but it’s redundant; the phrase ought to be simply ‘that of Veronica’,) “Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle” (Heisenberg’s.) “At the interview he old the” (he told,) “eight gin and sodas” (grammatically ‘eight gins and sodas’ – or even ‘eight gins and soda’,) falderal (folderol,) “gin and tonics” (see ‘eight gin and sodas’,) “a newsagents” (newsagent’s.)

The Interpreter by Diego Marani

Dedalus, 2016, 215 p. Translated from the Italian, L’interprete, by Judith Landry.

This is a very odd book indeed, though dealing, as it does, with language, it can be viewed as a kind of companion piece to Marani’s New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs. The narrator, Felix Bellamy, a Swiss national, is head of an interpretation department who becomes fascinated by one of his staff beginning to exhibit a peculiar kind of glossolalia, making sounds that are effectively unintelligible and which may be those of a primordial language which has long since been forgotten.

Curiously, Bellamy, parachuted into his supervisor’s job with vague promises of further promotion, is unsympathetic to translation, mistrusting his underlings as “circus performers, shifty, dishonest, quick-change artists, mental stuntmen.” Quite how Marani’s translator reacted to his outbursts against the profession is a question. These all may of course be a jest on Marani’s part but he has his narrator go on to tell us, “Languages are like toothbrushes: the only one you should put in your mouth is your own … it’s dangerous to let yourself be contaminated by the germs of another tongue … a foreign language injected into our mind brings with it the taint of unknown sounds, a vision of worlds that are incomprehensible to us – the lure of other truths and a devilish desire to know them.” It is that lure, though, that devilish desire, which makes reading translated fiction so interesting.

The interpreter disappears, leaving a list of names of cities, some of which have been ticked off. Bellamy’s wife leaves him (which may be connected with the interpreter’s disappearance) and he himself begins to suffer from the interpreter’s malaise and goes for treatment to a clinic run by a Dr Barnung. Barnung tells him French and German are similar in the way they view reality, but in essence are profoundly different. “Latin and Germanic languages have something in common … but they cannot mix. In Romanian, all that is rational about Rome, mingled with Mediterranean ebullience, becomes fused with Slav passion and melts into the yearning melancholy of the steppe. German is a bit like aspirin, it’s good for everything: it clarifies thought processes, stiffens resolve and makes feelings bare.” Felix soon perceives something is amiss at the clinic, leaves, and sets out to try to find the interpreter by visiting the cities as yet unticked on his list.

Then things get really weird. The text morphs into a species of thriller when Bellamy is targeted by operatives of Dr Barnung, but escapes. To survive he has to embark on a crime spree, robbing petrol stations, becoming known as ‘the Beast of Bukovina,’ taking up with Magda Kobori, a young woman whose car he stole, with her in it. They stravaig through the back roads of Romania like some sort of Balkan Bonnie and Clyde before Bellamy returns once more to tracking the interpreter.

I’m never sure if something like this is because of the opacities of translation or whether it’s a true indication of foreign sensibilities but, in common with other protagonists of fiction translated into English, Bellamy as a character here presents as incomplete, almost as a kind of absence, though his misanthropy shows in a passage where he reflects, “I was exposing myself to risk by mixing with insane deviants such as interpreters, people with slippery, unformed identities, in whose company sprinklings of the irrational are more likely to insinuate themselves and further crook humanity’s already crooked timber.” His actions are off-kilter, not quite reasonable, nor perhaps justifiable, though it is not impossible – highly likely even – that we are being given a portrait of a madman. Other languages apparently do that sort of thing to you.

The Interpreter was interesting enough but didn’t, for me, reach the same heights that New Finnish Grammar, The Last of the Vostyachs, or even Marani’s immediately preceding novel, God’s Dog, did.

Pedant’s corner:- “the presence of their austere forms in that house were so many pointers” (strictly, the presence … was,) “his voice rising to a crescendo” (sigh. The crescendo is the rise, not its climax,) focussing (focusing,) enthrall (enthral,) hung (hanged, but it was in a letter,) Voivodina (usually spelled Vojvodina,) no quote mark at start of one paragraph where a character’s speech was continued, swum (swam,) “roads which lead” (which led,) Janos’ (x2, Janos’s,) sunk (x3, sank,) “now I could scarcely breath” (breathe,) “I was born aloft” (borne aloft,) “here in Munch” (Munich,) shell-incrusted (shell-encrusted,) “with brass lamps hanging from brightly painted beams and gleaming door handles” (the lamps hung from door handles?) “a cluster of coloured balloons were swaying in the wind” (a cluster was swaying.)

The Journey to the East by Herman Hesse

Peter Owen, 1970, 91 p. Translated from the German Die Morgenlandfahrt by Hilda Rosner.

This is one of those pieces of fiction which tend not to be produced by English language writers. It is an account of a journey through Europe supposedly to the East (though we never in fact get there) but also through time: the narrator (H H) encounters various historical characters, in the Middle Ages and the Golden Age, during his wanderings.

The book begins with H H’s reflections on the Great War, shortly after it ended. (On his journey an interlocutor who has written a book about the war tells H H that no book “‘could convey any real picture of the war to the most serious reader, if he had not himself experienced the war.’”)

H H joins the League, a secret organisation whose makeup and dealings he is constrained by vow not to reveal. Despite this he is attempting to write down just those – without breaking his oath not to do so. His great experience, the journey to the East, was, “a constant pilgrimage towards East, towards the Home of Light. The goal was not only the East, but the home and youth of the soul.”

He describes various aspects of the journey, a stop at Bremgarten, meetings with those people from history, an incident in the Morbio gorge. This last involves an attendant called Leo whose disappearance from there is the central point of the (very short) book. All the League remnants seem to think Leo has taken some of their belongings with him but later H H has access to their written accounts of the time and they remember things differently to him. He becomes separated himself from the League and all its members to the extent that he begins to believe it never existed – till he is rejoined to them and finds his lonely sojourning and despair was a test. At his trial for such apostasy the head of the League tells the court, “despair is the result of each earnest attempt to understand and vindicate human life. Despair is the result of each earnest attempt to go through life with virtue, justice and understanding and to fulfil their requirements.”

This, then, is an allegory; of a spiritual and ethical journey. As a consequence, it has few of the usual consolations of fiction, but makes up for it with gravitas.

Pedant’s corner:- “From the castle’s turrets of Bremgarten” (an inelegant translation? From the castle turrets of Bremgarten? From the turrets of the castle of Bremgarten?) “as if each one endeavoured to conceived as lost” (to conceive as lost,) “the time was not that ripe for that” (another inelegancy, ‘the time was not ripe for that’ would do fine,) dissention (dissension.)

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