AuthorDavid Hebblethwaite

El Hacho – Luis Carrasco

Today’s book is a debut in two senses: the first novel by Gloucestershire-based writer Luis Carrasco, and the first title from publisher Époque Press. For both of them, it’s a fine start.

El Hacho – “the beacon” – is the Andalusian mountain on whose slopes Curro has spent his life farming olives. But times are tough: a prolonged drought threatens to ruin the current crop. Curro’s brother Jose-Marie is in favour of selling off El Hacho for its stone to be quarried – but he’s never been involved in the family farm, doesn’t understand the soul of the place. As Curro says to his brother:

You might say I lack ambition but that land is an extension of my own body. I could no more leave it than tear the tongue from my mouth. When I work it I stir the memory of our people into the fragile dust and every drop of sweat, every callous on my hand and groan in my joints is theirs as well as mine. To abandon it would be to abandon myself and that I cannot do.

El Hacho, then, is in part a tale of tradition versus modernity, but it does not come across as sentimental. Carrasco is clear on what the personal costs to Curro of selling the mountain would be, but also on the price he pays for staying. The story of El Hacho’s drought also becomes the personal story of Curro’s wish for life to go on as it has.

There is a certain timeless quality to El Hacho: it’s not completely out of time, but there’s not much to place it in a specific period. The story reads pretty much as though it could take place at any point over (say) the last sixty years. So, as well as being the tale of one particular farmer, El Hacho feels emblematic of a story that could play out over and over again, in many different times or places.

Book details

El Hacho (2018) by Luis Carrasco, Époque Press, 116 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Lady Killer – Masako Togawa

Next up for Women in Translation Month, some classic Japanese crime fiction. Masako Togawa (1931-2016) sounds a fascinating character: according to this article on the publisher’s website, she was a singer, actress, nightclub owner, LGBT icon – and, of course, a writer. The Lady Killer, published in 1963, was Togawa’s second novel, recently republished by Pushkin Vertigo.

By day, Ichiro Honda works as a computer specialist in Tokyo. At weekends, he visits his wife in Osaka. However, on weekday evenings, he lives a secret life seducing women in Tokyo’s bars and clubs. He keeps a record of his exploits in a notebook he calls “The Huntsman’s Log”, and uses “shot her dead” as a chilling euphemism:

To him, women were no more than tinplate targets at a shooting gallery in a fair. The man pulls the trigger, the woman falls, but after all they are made of tinplate and will rise again. So he could go on shooting to his heart’s content.

Until such time as the target turned out not to be tin and blood would be shed…

(translation by Simon Grove)

Ichiro thinks he’s untouchable, but then things start to go wrong. One after another, three of his victims are found dead, apparently murdered, and the evidence points to him. But the reader knows something that Ichiro doesn’t: a year ago, another of his victims killed herself, and her sister has been asking questions about him. It seems that she is out to frame him.

The Lady Killer is interestingly structured: the first half deals with Ichiro and the circumstances leading to his arrest; the second half focuses on the lawyers representing him in his appeal against the conviction. So we get a 360° view of the whole affair: the unfolding of the trap, and then the attempt to take it apart. Best of all is that, even when you think you know just where the book is headed… you don’t.

There’s a wonderful atmosphere to The Lady Killer, which comes less from particular descriptions than the suppleness with which Togawa moves her novel through its world. There is a sense of living, breathing places beyond the immediate action. And the tension in reading The Lady Killer is increased by the ambiguous nature of Ichiro Honda: he has been wronged, but he’s also a predator, so it’s up to individual readers to decide whether they wish him to be exonerated. Either way, Togawa’s book is thoroughly enjoyable.

Elsewhere

An insightful review of The Lady Killer by James Kidd in the South China Morning Post Magazine.

Book details

The Lady Killer (1963) by Masako Togawa, tr. Simon Grove (1985), Pushkin Vertigo, 222 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

I Didn’t Talk – Beatriz Bracher

“Stories are the shape we give things to pass the time on the bus, in line at the bank, at the bakery counter,” says Gustavo, the protagonist of I Didn’t Talk (the first novel by Brazilian writer Beatriz Bracher to appear in English translation, and the latest selection from the Asymptote Book Club). Gustavo would like to tell his story, if it could exist as a thought without word, without shape. He is a professor of education, sorting through his papers as he prepares to retire. In 1970, he was arrested and tortured under the military dictatorship, along with his brother-in-law Armando, who was killed. Gustavo is adamant that he did not give Armando up: he didn’t talk.

But he’s talking now. He has been introduced to a young woman, Cecília, who is writing a novel set at the time of the dictatorship, and would like to interview him as part of her research. Gustavo reflects on the nature of that research:

After these interviews she’ll know more about the period than the people who lived through it. But, as under torture, they each will her only what doesn’t threaten, what doesn’t weigh on their present. And so, perhaps it’s not possible to have a collective return to what happened, only an individual one.

(translation by Adam Morris)

So, any story that Cecília tells about that time will necessarily be a composite put together from fragments. There are also other kinds of shifting, partial stories surrounding Gustavo, such as the unpublished autobiographical novel by his brother José, which deviates from his own recollections. Furthermore, Gustavo’s story as he tells it is itself a composite, switching back and forth (seemingly as whim takes him) between personal memories, accounts of the present, and commentary on language and education.

By novel’s end, Gustavo has told a story of himself, shapeless as it might seem to him. In the process, he examines what it is to have lived through his experiences, and confronts the implications of seeking not to rock the boat in life subsequently. It feels a little glib to end on a pun and say that I Didn’t Talk speaks eloquently, but… that’s what the book does. This is a strong English-language debut from Bracher; I hope there is more to come.

Book details

I Didn’t Talk (2004) by Beatriz Bracher, tr. Adam Morris (2018), New Directions, 149 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

The White Book – Han Kang

August is Women in Translation Month (established by Meytal from Biblibio), and I have a few books lined up to read (some of which will also fit into Spanish and Portuguese Lit Months). We’ll see what I can get through, anyway. I thought I would start with a book that I didn’t manage to review during this year’s Man Booker International Prize shadowing.

Han Kang has swiftly become one of my favourite writers (she topped my “books of the year” list two years running, after all). The White Book is a little different from The Vegetarian and Human Acts, more abstract. It’s structured as a series of vignettes on white things, from swaddling bands to salt, frost to light and paper. There are images of a white city, destroyed during the Second World War and then rebuilt (though not named, this city is Warsaw, where Han spent time on a writer’s residency).

There is also a certain figure haunting this novel: Han’s narrator (a version of the author herself) describes how her mother’s first child, a girl, died only a couple of hours after being born:

Person who begins only now to breathe, a first filling-up of the lungs. Person who does not know who they are, where they are, what has just begun.

(translation by Deborah Smith)

The narrator begins to think of this dead sister as she walks the white city. She imagines a life for her, which is what fills the longest section of the book:

There are times when the crisp white of freshly laundered bed linen can seem to speak. When the pure-cotton fabric grazes her bare flesh, just there, it seems to tell her something. You are a noble person. Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of.

Throughout the book, there is an undercurrent – which sometimes, as here, bubbles to the surface – focused on the question of what it means for the narrator to have brought this “she” into (imagined) being. The implications of this are powerful.

As I always find with Han Kang’s writing (with Deborah Smith’s translation, too), there are moments when The White Book just slips straight in and cuts like glass. This, perhaps above all, is why I read fiction: that deep reaction to writing, which electrifies the nerve endings and makes living more intense.

Book details

The White Book (2016) by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (2017), Portobello Books, 162 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).

Death in Spring – Mercè Rodoreda

Mercè Rodoreda (1908-83) was a new name to me, but more or less everything I’ve read about her says that she’s widely considered to be the foremost Catalan writer of the 20th century. Death in Spring was originally published posthumously, in 1986. Martha Tennent’s English translation was published in the US by Open Letter Books, and now it has been issued by Penguin in the UK as first in a series called Penguin European Writers.

Our narrator is a boy living in a mountain village with a number of strange, sometimes brutal customs: every year, a man is chosen to swim under the village in order to check that it will not be washed away by melting snow; this may result in disfigurement or death if the man is dashed against the rocks. Pregnant women are blindfolded from fear that their unborn children will take on the appearance of any men the women may see. When a villager nears death, they are sealed inside a tree with cement poured down their throat; this happens to the narrator’s father towards the start of the book.

Images of death, decay and decline run through Rodoreda’s novel, along with a vivid sense of the natural world, all written in calm and measured prose. Here, for example, is a description of autumn arriving in the village:

The sickly stems that had held the leaves all summer were now devoid of water, and they thudded to the ground as well. The leaves were blown down and swept away. We waited for the last to drop so we could rake them into piles and set fire to them. The fire made them scream. They screamed in a low voice, whistled even lower, and rose in columns of blue smoke. The smell of burnt leaves pervaded houses and air. The air was filled with the cessation of being.

The cover blurb notes that Death in Spring can be read as an “allegory for life under dictatorship”, and I can absolutely see that: those ritualistic customs, for example, have a damaging hold over the village, and the only person who seems to understand this (or simply to be willing to speak against them) is a prisoner. Equally, though, the novel is a powerful portrait of an individual trying to find his way through life in a place where there’s excessive direction and little guidance.

Book details

Death in Spring (1986) by Mercè Rodoreda, tr. Martha Tennent (2009), Penguin, 150 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Reading The Rings of Saturn: week 3

It’s time for the third and final round-up of my contributions to the Twitter discussion of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, organised by Robert Macfarlane. As before, I’ve included some of Macfarlane’s question prompts for context. The first two instalments of this blog series are here and here.

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Chapter VIII ends on Orford Ness, a shingle spit formerly used for military testing. How do you (close-) read what happens in these extraordinary pages?

It reads to me like an inversion of the typical passage in The Rings of Saturn where Sebald will go somewhere and recount a memory. Here we have a photo of the bridge to the site, framed as though a parody of a country house;but instead of recounting a story, Sebald is confronted by the limits of what he can understand about this place. It becomes another example of the recurring theme of humans not being able to comprehend the broader picture of destruction.

The farmer building a model of the Temple of Jerusalem at the start of chapter XI of The Rings of Saturn reminded me (not necessarily appropriately!) of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, when he talked about needing to build in ever greater detail to be accurate.

What are the implications of the closing pages (and sentences) of The Rings of Saturn? What aftermaths will this book leave for you?

The ending caps off some of the book’s main themes – for example, drawing the darkness out of something as seemingly ordinary as silk.

The final image haunts me: Sebald has repeatedly suggested that flying above/gaining an overview of something does not provide understanding. Now a soul departs its body and sees nothing of the world as it rises, because all is draped in black.

One thing that has struck me reading The Rings of Saturn is that I never once thought of it as fiction. I’m used to novels that blur the line (such as Knausgaard, or Cercas’ The Impostor), but for some reason The Rings of Saturn always read to me as non-fiction. I’m still not sure why.

In response to this last tweet, Tom of Wuthering Expectations pointed out to me that parts of Sebald’s book (such as the Chinese Emperor’s train running on a line in Suffolk) are actually made up. I had no notion of this, and of course it settles the “fiction or non-fiction” question. Yet it’s so hard to shake off my abiding impression of the book; I that’s down to the power of Sebald’s style.

***

I have to say, I found this Twitter discussion an enjoyable and valuable way of engaging with the book. I don’t know what I would have made of The Rings of Saturn had I been reading it ‘solo’, but I do know that I wouldn’t have got as much out of it as I did.

(‘Blogging as I go’ has also been interesting to do, even just as a series of weekly round-ups. I might experiment with the format a bit more in future.)

Book details

The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W.G. Sebald, tr. Michael Hulse (1998), Vintage Classics, 296 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

The Last Day – Jaroslavas Melnikas

From my point of view, it’s been a good year for new story collections. Now, admittedly, I’ve only read three, but all have been superb. First, there was Mothers by Chris Power, then, more recently, Lucy Wood’s The Sing of the Shore. My third collection is the latest Lithuanian title from Noir Press, and the English-language debut by Ukrainian-Lithuanian writer Jaroslavas Melnikas.

Across these eight stories, Melnikas’ protagonists will typically be nondescript individuals to whom something extraordinary happens, and they’ll have cause to reflect on what this means for their life. For example, the narrator of ‘On the Road’ receives a call from someone telling him to go to a certain place. When he arrives, there’s someone with directions to another place, where our man receives further directions, and so on, and so on. Food and lodgings are provided wherever the protagonist goes, by strangers who have been asked (by persons unknown) to help him. This guy may not know where he’s going or why, but he likes it:

Though my life is no longer my own, I feel I’m doing something important here. Everything that happens is important. And to be honest, it’s none of my business what it’s all about. I can sense the importance of it. Something inside me has lit up.

(translation by Marija Marcinkute)

The narrator has left his wife and daughter to go on his strange odyssey, and the story examines what it is to step away from one’s existing life. In the case of this character, he has effectively moved into a parallel world – but there are consequences for both him and those left behind, which he will have to confront eventually.

In ‘It Never Ends’, the long story that closes the book, Volodia also steps away from his everyday life, though in a rather different way. He finds an old cinema showing a strangely compelling film about a woman called Liz. This film runs constantly, 24 hours a day, but Volodia can’t find out anything about it, nor about who runs the cinema. Still, he’ll go there all hours to find out what’s happening to Liz; and he notices other regulars, particularly a young woman referred to only as “the scarecrow”, with whom he embarks on an ambiguous relationship, bonding over their mutual obsession with Liz’s story.‘It Never Ends’ twists the magic of the movies into something more sinister:

Ordinary life, which was easy to understand with its decent laws, seemed suddenly banal. I’m not saying it was entirely comfortable, in that poorly-lit auditorium, standing next to the little scarecrow who kept pulling on her already too-long nose. It was far from comfortable. Everything was opaque, strange, and my nerves were as tense as a string. I no longer understood who I was or what, to be honest, I was doing there.

I must admit I’m uncomfortable with the characterisation of the scarecrow in this story: both she and Volodia clearly have deep holes in their lives, but it feels as though she’s only really there to help him heal. Even so, ‘It Never Ends’ left me with the dizzying feeling of having my imagination cast into new shapes.

Although many of Melnikas’ stories touch on the fantastical, ‘Would You Forgive Me?’ applies his typical approach to a more down-to-earth situation. The narrator of this piece shoots a man who climbs through his bedroom window one night, and the intruder dies. The protagonist’s wife, Liuba, immediately brands her husband a murderer; the story is his attempt to come to terms with what has happened: “What kind of person was I? What was I supposed to have done then?” Melnikas traces how, over time, the event changes meaning for Liuba and the narrator.

The tales in The Last Day tend to focus on individuals or small groups of characters, but the title story has implications for the whole world. Books are published listing everyone’s time and date of death, with apparently complete accuracy. So, what does it mean for life if you know exactly when you and your loved ones will die? Melnikas offers a number of thoughts on what people broadly might choose to do – such as grand ‘leaving parties’, or children getting picked on because they’re going to die young. But his main focus is on one family, and their changing experiences of life and death:

The most interesting thing was that we never spoke about the topic again, and nothing changed, nothing at all; we even had quarrels about trifles, like before. Only, occasionally, I would remember that if we trusted that damn Book of Fates, time was ticking… It was a nightmare; you knew the hour of your death exactly and couldn’t do anything about it.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Last Day; its combination of reflection and light unreality was right up my street. If that’s also your kind of thing, take a look at this book.

Book details

The Last Day (2004) by Jaroslavas Melnikas, tr. Marija Marcinkute (2018), Noir Press, 175 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Reading The Rings of Saturn: week 2

Here is the second weekly round-up of my contributions to Robert Macfarlane’s Twitter reading group on The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald (my first round-up is here). As before, I have made only minor edits to my tweets, and have included some of Macfarlane’s daily questions for context. By the end of this week, I had read the first seven chapters of the book in total.

You can find the discussion on Twitter under the hashtags #TheReadingsofSaturn and #TRoS.

***

The German subtitle of The Rings of Saturn, left out of the English translation, is ‘Ein Englische Wallfahrt’; ‘An English Pilgrimage’. What does walking lead to here? What is its ‘work’, what are its natures? What kind of pilgrimage is this?

Walking seems to be a means of moving into and through a place/situation, in order to gradually uncover it (if not necessarily to understand it – see Sebald’s walk into Lowestoft, for example). I think he places walking in opposition to having an overview (flying over something).

Having said that, the book lives in my mind most vividly as a mental journey, rather than as an account of a walk.

Silk & sericulture thread through The Rings of Saturn; text & textile interweave. “That…silk…what does it mean?”

I think most of the references to silk are yet to come in my reading, but so far I associate strongly with images of death – for example, the Celestial King’s body held together only by his silken robes, or the silk fishing nets full of dead herring.

The Rings of Saturn is an overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, male book in terms of narrator, characters & cross-references…What, for you, are the consequences of this skew?

Normally I would say it makes for too partial a view. But I can’t help thinking that, because The Rings of Saturn is such a personal, idiosyncratic account (i.e. not purporting to be a survey of anything in particular) that any range of references would have come across as just as partial.

Still, this is an issue I want to bear in mind for the rest of the book – I might change my mind once I’ve seen the shape of the whole.

Roger Casement & Joseph Conrad: to what ends the long excursus into their lives in Chapter V of The Rings of Saturn? Why the many mediations (we enter their stories through a ‘BBC documentary’)? And why close the chapter with Casement’s signature?

Casement/Conrad feels to me like an interlude in the journey (it’s inspired by a period of rest, not walking) and an underlining of key themes (mortality and atrocity).

Perhaps ends with Casement’s signature to signify a reconstruction of his life, or agreement with him.

What are the functions of listening and hearing in The Rings of Saturn, which is in many ways such a heavily visual book?

(My answer here was in response to a tweet from @__synaesthesia, who commented on how often sounds in Sebald’s book were silenced.)

I have also been struck by the silences in The Rings of Saturn – Sebald and Michael Hamburger talking about the “soundless month of August”, Le Strange’s housekeeper having to eat with him in silence, and so on. Silence in the book often seems tense rather than peaceful.

James Wood, in this essay, argues for Sebald as a surprisingly funny writer, with “an eccentric sense of playfulness”. Do you agree? How far & where do “gravity” & “levity” coexist in The Rings of Saturn?

I think there’s a sense of playfulness in Sebald’s whole structure, building up these idiosyncratic digressions into something that’s ultimately serious. Chapter by chapter, there’s also playfulness in the juxtaposition of different subjects within a passage.

Book details

The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W.G. Sebald, tr. Michael Hulse (1998), Vintage Classics, 296 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

Reading Borges: Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

This story takes the form of an article about one Pierre Menard, a novelist who sought to re-create Don Quixote word for word – not by merely copying the text, but by getting himself into such a state of mind as to write the Quixote exactly as Cervantes would have written it. Menard succeeded, and Borges’ anonymous narrator has great praise for his Quixote, in comparison to Cervantes’ original. In one of my favourite parts of ‘Pierre Menard’, the narrator compares (identical) passages from the two Quixote texts, finding a depth and richness in Menard’s rendition absent from Cervantes’, thanks to the different contexts of their composition.

I found this story delightfully absurd, but it’s a particular pleasure to consider the multiple layers of authorship and interpretation within it: Cervantes, Menard, the narrator, then Borges (and then the reader, of course). For example, Menard may have his aspirations, but it’s the narrator who gives him legitimacy by judging Menard’s project successful. Yet, from the reader’s viewpoint (or mine, at least), there’s no difference between Menard’s Quixote and Cervantes’ so Menard comes across as somewhat of a Quixote figure himself, with delusions of grandeur. Or maybe it’s the narrator who is a Quixote figure for his opinion of Menard. Layers of interpretation…

Read my other posts on Borges’ stories.

Book details

‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (1939) by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. James E. Irby (1962), in Labyrinths (1964 edn), Penguin Modern Classics, 288 pages, paperback (source: library copy).

The Sing of the Shore – Lucy Wood

Over the last few years, Lucy Wood has been creating her own distinctive fictional worlds of Devon and Cornwall. Although the general settings are recognisable, the places are rarely named, which to me always gives a feeling that the worlds of Wood’s stories are unbound. Each of her books has had a different focus: the stories in Diving Belles have foundations in folklore; the novel Weathering revolves around the relationship between characters and raw landscape.

Now we have Wood’s second story collection, The Sing of the Shore, which is an evocation of Cornwall off-season. An epigraph explains the book’s title: “the sing of the shore” is the varying sound of waves as they break against different surfaces (sand, pebbles, etc.), which enables experienced fishermen to tell where they are even when it’s foggy – in other words, it represents the secret soul of a place, known to locals but not to outsiders. Unlike Diving Belles, there’s only a relative tinge of the supernatural in this book – but the sense of otherworldiness running through Wood’s work is as strong as ever.

In these stories, the place gets in everything:

There’s sand everywhere around here. When you walk in the wind, grains crunch against your teeth. We’re out on the edge of town, where the cliffs start to crumble and turn to sloping dunes. The dunes are heavy and soft, like flour in a bowl. They never stay still. They slip and shift about; sometimes growing, sometimes flattening out. When the gales come, loose sand blows down the road and heaps at our front doors.

This is from the story ‘Salthouse’, which begins with teenagers Evie and Gina going to plant their Christmas trees in the sand, as most people in the area do, in order to keep the dunes in place. On the way there, Gina suggests visiting the fair, yet seems reluctant to join in with Evie. It transpires that Gina has arranged to meet a boy, and Evie’s time at the fair becomes a kinetic dismantling of the childhood she thought she still had. Except, as the ending makes clear, some things don’t change: the sand is still there, advancing and receding as ever.

‘The Dishes’ provides another example of how Wood layers character and metaphor with a lightness of touch. In this story, Jay has moved to Cornwall with his wife Lorna for three months, where she has been seconded to a satellite ground station. Jay spends his time looking after the couple’s baby; since Lorna can’t talk about her work, a lack of meaningful conversation is getting to Jay (“All he wanted was to speak to someone and not have them say forofoo, or whatever the hell it was, back”). There are mysterious comings and goings at the neighbouring house, which also make him anxious. Wood paints an elegant study of a man succumbing to paranoia, out of little more than baby talk and next door’s phone ringing.

There’s a great range of tone among the stories in The Sing of the Shore. ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’ invests a tale of a woman crossing fields and dodging cows with an atmosphere of genuine menace. ‘Way the Hell Out’ turns a conversation about a mysterious figure seen from a house into something of a shaggy dog story. ‘A Year of Buryings’ is a wry catalogue of the dead, who may persist (“Now someone’s tapping on windows. Who is it? It’s Jameson with his stick, out in the rain again, trying to remember where he used to live”); it reminded me of ‘Notes from the House Spirits‘ in Diving Belles. ‘By-the-Wind Sailors’ ends the volume on a melancholy note, with the story of a couple forced by circumstance to flit from house to house. A certain sense of transience may run through Wood’s tales in this book, but the stories themselves linger long in the mind.

Elsewhere

Watch Lucy Wood reading from the story ‘Home Scar’.

Read other reviews of The Sing of the Shore at Shiny New Books and Caught by the River.

Book details

The Sing of the Shore (2018) by Lucy Wood, 4th Estate, 230 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).

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