Tag: book review

#InternationalBooker2024: A Dictator Calls by Ismail Kadare (tr. John Hodgson)

At the centre of A Dictator Calls is an examination of a short phone call made on 23 June 1934 by Stalin to Boris Pasternak. The subject of the call was the recent arrest of Pasternak’s fellow poet, Osip Mandelstam. But its precise details are uncertain, because there are multiple accounts of the call, ranging from the official record to second-hand accounts by people of varying proximity to Pasternak. 

Kadare goes through each version of the call, drawing out the differences and varying interpretations. There’s no single definitive account of exactly what Stalin asked Pasternak, or how Pasternak replied, or even why the call took place. Different versions put different slants on these things, and the ultimate impression is one of no stable reality – which, the book suggests, reflects the nature of living and writing in a totalitarian state. 

Alongside his exploration of the Stalin-Pasternak call, Kadare gives an account of his own experiences as an Albanian writer. This puts into context his interest in the Stalin-Pasternak  call, as well as setting up a counterpoint that runs through the tapestry of the novel.

Published by Harvill Secker.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: Undiscovered by Gabriela Wiener (tr. Julia Sanches)

In Undiscovered, we first meet Peruvian writer Gabriela Wiener in Paris, as she visits an exhibition of pre-Columbian artefacts that were taken to Europe by her Austrian-born great-great-grandfather, Charles Wiener. Her father’s death has spurred Gabriela on to investigate the legacy of that side of the family, and this is perhaps the most difficult part: the white ancestor who plundered her country.

As she tells it in the novel, Gabriela experiences a certain affinity with Charles in terms of his writing:

Isn’t that what writers do anyway? Pillage the real story and deface it until it shines its own singular light on the world? At some point, Charles started shining brighter than the world he swore he’d discovered, casting the world around him in his shadow. Scholars of his work agree that he was a travel writer, even though that’s wasn’t his intention and his work reads like fiction.

Translated from Spanish by Julia Sanches

Undiscovered could be seen as Gabriela-the-narrator’s way of trying to process and reconcile the different parts of her identity – not just her past, but also her present. Gabriela lives in Spain in a polyamorous relationship, but then has a fling on a trip back to Lima. One strand of the novel then follows Gabriela’s search for an equilibrium in her personal life. The intertwining of the personal and historical is, to my mind, what most animates Wiener’s novel.

Published by Pushkin Press.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Michael Hofmann)

According to Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel, Kairos is “the god of fortunate moments”. The chance moment that sets this story in motion occurs in East Berlin in 1986, as two characters meet on a bus: Katharina, a 19-year-old student; and Hans, a married man older than her father. They fall in love and begin an affair, and their thoughts are slightly to one side of each other from the start:

From now on, he thinks, the responsibility for their existence is entirely hers. He has to protect himself from himself. Maybe she’s a monster?

She thinks, he wants to prepare me for difficult times ahead. He wants to protect me. Protect me from myself, and so he gives me the power of decision over us.

He thinks, as long as she wants us, it won’t be wrong.

She thinks, if he leaves everything to me, then he’ll see what love means.

He thinks, she won’t understand what she’s agreed to until much later.

And she, he’s putting himself in my hands.

Translated from German by Michael Hofmann

Over time, the couple’s differences and contradictions emerge more sharply, with Hans emerging as abusive and controlling. In the background, life is changing after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Things don’t necessarily turn out as the characters may have expected, with the reunification or their relationship. 

Kairos does not present a straightforward one-on-one allegory between wider society and the protagonists’ affair. But relationship and society echo each other in the ways that they change, and the result is a novel that opens up further as you venture in. 

Published by Granta.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: Simpatía by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón (tr. Noel Hernández González and Daniel Hahn)

Ulises Kan bonds with his father-in-law, retired general Martín, over a shared love of dogs:

They’d drive [Martín’s dogs] in the pickup to a park just before Cota Mil and let them run loose. Sometimes Martín would get out with them. At other times, he preferred to watch from his seat in the truck, following their comings and goings, the jumping, the barking, the growling, and the biting, as if they were running at some crazy racecourse. Martín would always come back home happy, as if he had won, or lost, a bet against himself.

Translated from Spanish by Noel Hernández González and Daniel Hahn

Ulises decides to get his own dog on the day his wife Paulina leaves Venezuela. Several months later, Martín dies, and Ulises finds that dogs will become even more prominent in his life: Martín has left his house to a foundation for abandoned dogs, and Ulises has been given four months to put everything in place or he’ll lose the apartment he has within the property. 

This set-up intrigued me, and the situation only grows more complicated for Ulises. For example, Paulina contests Martín’s will, the house is under watch, and the woman Ulises now loves has her own secrets to keep. At the same time, the country is falling apart in the background, all making for an eventful novel. 

Published by Seven Stories Press UK.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: Lost On Me by Veronica Raimo (tr. Leah Janeckzo)

My journey through this year’s International Booker longlist begins with an Italian novel. Veronica Raimo’s narrator – also Veronica, or Vero, or Verika – starts by introducing her parents: her mother, who’s convinced that, if Vero’s brother doesn’t answer the phone, it means he must be dead. And her late father, who used to put up walls to subdivide the family apartment into even smaller areas, for reasons best known to himself. 

The way Vero describes these qualities, they come across as wryly amusing at first, until you start to think about them more. There’s a dry humour to much of the narration, such as here, where Vero talks about her family’s noisy household:

We lived immersed in the all-absorbing drone of our bodies and electrical impulses. Compressed and crammed into a home, we were a single organism that wagged its tail, banging it against the partition walls. We talked to each other over the noise, through the noise, which always turned out to be useful in later claiming the other person had misunderstood you.

Translation from Italian by Leah Janeckzo

Vero tells of her life in a series of anecdotes, and it becomes clear that not only does she have a ‘flexible’ relationship with the truth, she’s also using that as a kind of shield. So it’s up to the individual reader how much trust to place in Vero’s voice, but it’s an engaging voice in any case. 

Published by Virago.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

Dylan Thomas Prize: Open Up by Thomas Morris

For the last few years, I’ve taken part in a blog tour for the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize (awarded to works in English by writers aged under 40), looking at one of the longlisted titles. This year, my book of choice is the second story collection by Welsh writer Thomas Morris (following on from 2015’s We Don’t Know What We’re Doing). 

The five stories in Open Up each revolve around male protagonists seeking a connection of some sort (seeking for the world to open up, if you will) – but there’s always a twist to how Morris approaches his material. The first story, ‘Wales’, sees a young boy going to a football match with his father (whom he hasn’t seen for three months) and feeling that everything will be fine if only Wales win. A glimpse into the future at story’s end stretches time to show that there can be unexpected turns of fortune (though maybe not perfection) after all. 

Sometimes Morris’s tales shift towards fantasy. For example, ‘Aberkariad’ is a story about seahorses. It lays human emotions on top of the particular biology of seahorses, bringing an unusual angle to the tale of a boy searching for his absent mother. In ‘Birthday Teeth’, Glyn describes himself as a vampire. Maybe he is, maybe it’s part of the disconnection he feels from his past and the world around him. Either way, he’s going to get himself some fangs on his 21st birthday. The process changes Glyn’s outlook, with the sense that he is able to become more fully himself. 

Even in the stories that seem more ordinary, there are intriguing undercurrents. ‘Little Wizard’ sees Big Mike (all five-foot-three of him) struggling with work and dating. So much of his life seems to be mediated through screens, whether that’s taking to friends on apps or watching football on TV. These represent Mike’s distance from the world but, in a nice touch, that very distance is also what helps him find a way forward. In ‘Passenger’, Geraint is on holiday in Croatia with his partner Niamh. But he’s not really present, as he’s dwelling more on the past. So there are two journeys going on in this story at the same time, and each helps resolve the other. The seems to me typical of the striking patters Morris paints in the stories of Open Up.

Open Up is published by Faber & Faber. The Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist will be revealed on 21 March, with the winner to be announced on 16 May.

Melville House ‘Futures’ blog tour: The Future of Songwriting by Kristin Hersh

Today I’m taking part in a blog tour for the new ‘Futures’ series from Melville House – short books in which authors reflect and speculate on the possible future of their subject. The first four titles were published in the UK yesterday, and include volumes on the future of trust, war crimes justice, and Wales. But I’m looking at The Future of Songwriting, by Throwing Muses co-founder Kristin Hersh. 

Hersh’s book is written as a series of conversations between herself and a comedian friend (standing in for a number of actual conversations she’s had along similar lines), while both are playing a festival over Christmas in Sydney. The two of them are not out for fame, but they do want to work, and to keep working. Hersh is constantly thinking over how to balance art and commerce:

Art plus entertainment, substance plus style, and maybe they could get along, of all things. But don’t goddam sell, you know? No selling, no stars, no status, just pass the hat so you can work again.

Hersh and the comedian talk around this and related issues, with various symbols recurring. They see echoes of themselves in the Jack of Diamonds, the messenger travelling between the material and spiritual worlds. An apple growing on a tree represents music in its primal form, and (Hersh suggests) people’s relationships with both have grown distanced and denatured. 

My overall impression of Hersh’s book is not of an argument that progresses and reaches a firm conclusion, but more of a dance that explores the space opened by the subject. That feels appropriate, when Hersh highlights the importance of reaching back as much as pushing forward. 

Weasels in the Attic by Hiroko Oyamada (tr. David Boyd)

Each of the three stories collected in Weasels in the Attic is linked by the narrator and his friend Saiki sharing a meal, meals that seem to become a focal point for broader currents at play. The stories may appear quiet on the surface, but there is an unsettling sense of more going on (or perhaps more being meant) beneath that façade.

In the first story, ‘Death in the Family’, the narrator recalls visiting a friend of Saiki’s named Urabe, who lived above his old tropical fish shop. Urabe still bred fish, and in the story all his fish tanks seem to represent the force of his personality taking up the space. Urabe invites Saiki and the narrator to snack on dried shrimp that he uses for fish food. This gathering feels like a boys’ club, with the shrimp a way of bringing the other men into Urabe’s world.

In ‘The Last of the Weasels’, Saiki has married a woman named Yoko and moved to the country. They have a problem with weasels in the house. When the narrator and his wife are invited over for dinner, she tells a story of how her parents once dealt with a weasel problem, and the narrator can’t square this with the in-laws he knows. I imagine the weasels here as standing in for the hidden problems in a relationship, experienced and dealt with beyond the sight of others.

By the time of the third story, ‘Yukiko’, Saiki and Yoko have a baby girl. The narrator is again invited to visit, and the different elements of the couple’s life feel more compartmentalised this time. The events of these stories ultimately reflect back on to the narrator’s own life, and a new phase of life is about to begin as the book ends. It’s fitting for a collection that constantly opens out the further you look in.

Published by Granta Books.

Tony from Tony’s Reading List is hosting his annual January in Japan event at the moment. Weasels in the Attic was his first title for this month, and you can find his review of it here.

The Moustache by Emmanuel Carrère (tr. Lanie Goodman)

Right, new year, new start – or at least, the start of getting back into reading. This 1986 novel begins with a small change that becomes all-consuming. “What would you say if I shaved off my moustache?” the protagonist asks his wife Agnes. “That might be a good idea,” she replies, laughing.

The man goes ahead and shaves his moustache, but is annoyed to find that doing so has left behind a conspicuous patch of pale skin in contrast with his tan. He’s surprised that Agnes doesn’t seem to notice, and even more so when their friends Serge and Veronique don’t say anything at dinner that evening.

Thinking that Agnes must be playing a prank, the man questions her, and she insists that he has never had a moustache. He grows ever more desperate in his attempts to prove that his perception is right, and in imagining the elaborate deceptions that he believes Agnes must have arranged. The stakes grow higher when Agnes denies knowing Serge and Veronique, and it looks as though the man may have lost all grip on reality.

Carrère keeps the narration tightly bound to his protagonist’s viewpoint – not so much that it can’t be questioned, but enough that its momentum does not let up. The ending is perhaps the protagonist’s ultimate attempt to assert the validity of his perception. I don’t know that I was drawn in enough for The Moustache to have its full effect on me, but it was quite the journey.

Published in Vintage Editions.

This Plague of Souls by Mike McCormack

Mike McCormack’s previous novel, Solar Bones, saw one man examine his life and the whole of existence in the same breath. This Plague of Souls also moves from a solitary portrait to the widest canvas without shifting focus. 

We first meet the protagonist, Nealon, as he returns home from prison, having been held on remand (and therefore caught between the worlds of inside and outside). His wife and son are nowhere to be seen: there are just periodic calls from an unknown person who insists he and Nealon should meet. 

Gradually we learn more (though by no means everything) about Nealon, including that he has an uncommon ability to see patterns in the world:

Art and politics, light and dark, past and future, he can see the links between them all. He can dwell on these separate things for hours before finally glimpsing what draws them together into an interlocking whole. Somewhere along the way he has mastered the trick of demarking opposing sets of circumstances while holding them together in his mind’s eyes, separate and apart, their multidimensional weave given free play without interference from himself or anything in him which might give bias or slant to their eventual coherence.

The world of the novel also opens up, from Nealon’s new domestic drudgery at the start, to the realisation that an unspecified disaster is unfolding in Ireland (and possibly beyond). Nealon decides to meet his mystery caller, who believes he’s worked out what crime Nealon has committed – a world-spanning crime that only someone with Nealon’s pattern-spotting skills could devise. 

In the end, This Plague of Souls represents a wager over whether the world can be made into a coherent whole. It’s a journey from the opening of a front door, all the way to a point where reality itself hangs in the balance. 

Published by Canongate in the UK and Tramp Press in Ireland. US publication is forthcoming in January.

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