TagGallic Books

What I’ve been reading lately: 29 July 2019

Brazilian writer Geovani Martins’ The Sun on My Head (tr. Julia Sanches, pub. Faber and Faber) is a collection of stories set in the favelas of Rio. We meet a cast of characters doing what they can to get by and (where possible) move on in life. For example, the protagonist of ‘Russian Roulette’ sneaks his security-guard father’s gun into school in the hope of impressing the other boys – but the real uncertainty is how his father will react when he finds out. ‘The Tag’ tells of a xarpi tagger wishing to leave his old life behind after the birth of his son, though he finds that its attractions are not so easy to shake off. Martins’ eye is sharp, and his prose (in Sanches’ translation) evocative.

The debut novel by American writer Elle Nash, Animals Eat Each Other (pub. 404 Ink) is a short, dark, uncomfortable piece of work. In Colorado, an unnamed young woman enters a relationship with a couple, Matt and Frances. The protagonist’s life is disintegrating around her, in terms of how she looks after herself (or doesn’t) and relates to others, but this new liaison hardly brings much in the way of stability. Nash’s novel is jagged and spare, giving the impression of a narrator trapped in a life from which she struggles to break free or move forward.

Next, a couple of historical novels from New Zealand. This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman (pub. Gallic Books) concerns Albert Black, a young man from Belfast who, in 1955, became the second-to-last person to be executed for murder in New Zealand. Black stabbed another young man during a fight at a cafe, and the novel depicts his trial at a time of rising moral panic about teenagers. Kidman is firmly of the view that Black should have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder, though her book takes a nuanced approach in exploring the ramifications of the trial. It’s vividly written, too.

Craig Cliff’s The Mannequin Makers (pub. Melville House UK) begins at the turn of the 20th century, when a department store window-dresser named Colton Kemp witnesses the remarkably lifelike mannequins of a rival store, made by a mysterious mute individual known as the Carpenter. Kemp goes to extraordinary lengths to try to go one better than his opponent, with the consequences still being felt years being years later. I’m being evasive because part of the fun of Cliff’s novel lies in experiencing its turns first-hand. The book asks what it means to lose ownership of your own life – and what happens when you get it back.

A weekend of novellas

Recently, Scott Pack spent a couple of weekends reading novellas. IT sounded an interesting idea, and I had some time this weekend, so I thought I’d do the same. It did cross my mind that, having recently resolved to slow down and savour the books I read, I might be contradicting myself by now reading a small pile of books in a relatively short space of time – but actually I don’t think I was. If (as I’ve said elsewhere) a novel is like a journey and a short story is more like an intense moment of experience, then a novella is perhaps somewhere between – a sustained period of heightened experience. If I made sure that this wasn’t about reading as many books as I could, but about selecting a few and taking the time and space to appreciate them properly, there was no reason it couldn’t work.

I looked on my shelves for novellas, but also borrowed a few from the library, as I wanted there to be an element of uncertainty to the selection. The one change from my plan was that I read only six novellas, rather than the seven I had lined up – in the event, seven felt like overdoing it; six was a nice round number, manageable in the time, and still a pretty substantial amount to get through.

So, here’s what I read at the weekend (some of these may be too long or too short to count as true novellas, but hey-ho):

ProulxAnnie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain (1997)

Originally published in the New Yorker, then later released as a separate book (interestingly, several years before the film – which I haven’t seen, by the way). Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist meet as young ranch hands in 1963; while working and camping together on Brokeback Mountain, they become intimate; and their feelings for each other will haunt the rest of their lives. Brokeback Mountain is a fine example of short fiction’s ability to distil entire lives into a few pages; indeed, part of the point is that Ennis’ and Jack’s lives have been defined by a few incidents. The problem is, I never really believed in their attraction: it comes on abruptly and, for me at least, never gains the emotional weight that it needs. Now, I recognise that this could be Proulx’s point: that the two men don’t examine their desire for each other, but just accept that it’s there; and at least one of them wants to keep it at a distance, so that’s reflected in the tone of the writing. But even with that thought in mind, Brokeback Mountain doesn’t quite work for me.

garnier

Pascal Garnier, The Islanders (2010)
Translated from the French by Emily Boyce (2014)

This is the sixth of the late Pascal Garnier’s noirs to appear in English from Gallic Books, and the third I’ve read; it’s typically tense, wry, and strange. Olivier returns to Versailles to bury his mother; he discovers that his childhood Jeanne is living opposite with her blind brother Rodolphe. Jeanne and Olivier have a dark secret in their past, which threatens to come out into the open. And they’re about to gain another secret, when Olivier wakes up after a dinner party with the siblings to find the fourth guest – a stranger who had been helping Rodolphe around town – dead in the bathroom. You can guess this isn’t going to end well, but what really keeps the pages turning in The Islanders is the uncertainty over just how far these characters are prepared to go – and maybe even they don’t know until the time comes to find out.

SmithZadie Smith, The Embassy of Cambodia (2013)

My reactions to Zadie Smith’s work range from lukewarm to positive; happily, this one was positive. Its starting point is the fact that the Cambodian Embassy in London, unlike most embassies, is not in the city centre, but is instead a house on a suburban street. About the only thing anyone can see over the wall is a flying shuttlecock; what’s going on behind those walls – apart from a game of badminton – is anyone’s guess. So the Embassy becomes a metaphor for the hidden worlds and lives that lie in our midst. Smith’s protagonist is Fatou, who walks past the Embassy of Cambodia on her way to the swimming pool (where she secretly takes advantage of her employers’ membership) and wonders about her place in the world. This is a satisfying story that swoops in and out, from one person’s life to the wider world, and hinting at the untold stories that become lost in the throng of a busy street.

Garcia Marquez

Gabriel García Márquez, No One Writes to the Colonel (1961)
Translated from the Spanish by J.S. Bernstein (1968)

One thing that a project like this novella-reading is useful for is ticking off a few names on the old “authors I’ve been meaning to read” list. So here’s my introduction to Gabriel García Márquez. Every Friday – as he has for the last fifteen years – the colonel eagerly awaits the mail, hoping that this will be the week his army pension arrives. In the meantime, the colonel and his wife subsist as best they can, their only real hope being the prize rooster that might win a few cockfights – if the colonel can resist the temptation to sell it. There’s a sense of absurdity running through this story, but it’s a rueful absurdity, born of being caught in an impossible situation – the absurd (but all too real) bureaucracy that withholds the colonel’s pension, and the absurd (but again all too real) lengths he has to go to in order to survive and keep face. I liked No One Writes to the Colonel, but feel I don’t quite have the measure of García Márquez’s work yet; I’ll have to read something else by him for that.

Yan GeYan Ge, White Horse (2008)
Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman (2014)

Published by HopeRoad Publishing (who have a particular focus on African, Asian, and Caribbean writers), White Horse is the story of Yun Yun, who watches her cousin Zhang Qing grow up and drift away to test the waters of adulthood, though her parents may not approve. Meanwhile, Yun Yun’s widowed father is seeing one of the local teachers, which will reveal further cracks in the family’s relationships. There’s a clarity to Nicky Harman’s translation which makes this novella engaging to read, but it’s the deceptive clarity of a child’s voice – one that doesn’t know or perceive everything. This is what leads into the deeper heart of Yan Ge’s tale; that and the mysterious visions of white horses that Yun Yun keeps seeing, which may represent her own growing awareness. Good stuff.

Suceava

Bogdan Suceavă, Miruna, a Tale (2007)
Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth (2014)

When I saw this book in the shop it was shrinkwrapped, with no blurb on the back cover; so I had nothing to judge it by but the gorgeous design (hats off to Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press; it really is a beautiful object). Happily, the contents are just as good. The narrator, Trajan, recalls childhood visits to his grandfather in Evil Vale, where the old man would tell stories of family history which blurred the line with myth. Alistair Ian Blyth’s translation captures that elusive magical quality that makes Grandfather’s tales of fays and curses persuasive. But what I like most about Bogdan Suceavă’s book is how fully it dissolves the line between truth and fantasy: Trajan’s sister Miruna shares her grandfather’s affinity for the magical; so something is carried between them with the telling of the tales that Trajan can only guess at. And, as we only ever hear Trajan’s voice, how are we to know what’s real and what isn’t? Ultimately, it seems that what matters most is simply that the stories are told.

My final thoughts? I enjoyed doing this – it brought me into contact with books I might not have read otherwise, and led me to take from my shelves books I hadn’t got around to. I quite like the idea of having an occasion like this to read novellas, and I think I’ll be trying it again before long.

Four tales of war

Monsieur le CommandantIn Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur le Commandant (2011; translated from the French by Jesse Browner, 2013), it is 1942 when Paul-Jean Husson – a respected writer and member of l’Académie française – writes to his local SS officer, unable to remain silent any longer. Husson begins his story ten years earlier, when his son introduced him to his new love: a beautiful blonde German girl named Ilse Wolffsohn, whom Husson later discovered to be Jewish. Husson was immediately attracted to Ilse, an attraction that only intensified as the years went by; all the while, he remained a Nazi sympathiser, regularly publishing anti-Semitic articles. But matters would eventually come to a head; and Husson’s letter to the Commandant is the only way forward he can see.

Monsieur le Commandant is an uncompromising book, which confronts the implacability and inherent contradictions of its protagonist’s worldview head-on: Husson is a character who has no qualms about describing graphic violence or venting his hatred, and the results of that are right there on the page. The novel becomes a grim, inexorable march towards a bitterly ironic ending; the weight of history bears down on our reading; but its starkness gives Slocombe’s book a power of its own.

***

King of Hearts

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall (2006; translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm, 2013) is a view of 1942 from Warsaw. There are perhaps two things that matter most to Izolda: the love of her husband Shayek, and finding a way out of the Warsaw Ghetto. When Shayek is imprisoned, Izolda’s love for him leads her to do whatever she can to free him; and what she’s prepared to do seems almost without limit – she hides her identity and religion, smuggles goods into the ghetto… Even though she’s captured more than once, she refuses to give up.

In contrast with Monsieur le Commandant’s harsh precision, the tone of Krall’s book is somewhat hazier; told in a series of vignettes, the choppiness of its structure gives the text a dream-like quality, which enhances the sense of the Holocaust as something larger than those caught up in it can truly comprehend. There are moments of horror (made all the more effective by the subdued tone in which they’re written), but a deep sense of love as well. We know from several chapters within the book that Izolda survives into old age, but even then she finds herself dwelling on the past and what might have been. Chasing the King of Hearts is the story of a hard-won personal victory, and the mixed consequences it brings.

***

News from BerlinHusson and Izolda could be seen as being at two opposite ends of a continuum of experience of World War Two, a continuum that Oscar Verschuur – the protagonist of Otto de Kat’s News from Berlin (2012; translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke, 2014) – might (at first glance, anyway) appear to be completely outside. Oscar is a Dutch diplomat in Switzerland, well away from the day-to-day realities of the war. That’s until his daughter Emma visits from Berlin, with information from her German husband Carl, a civil servant who covertly opposes the Nazi regime:  an invasion of Russia is planned, codenamed Barbarossa. Now Oscar must decide whether to disclose this information, knowing that to do so may place Emma and Carl in danger.

Relationships, it seems to me, are at the heart of News from Berlin: Oscar’s relationship with his wife Kate is pretty lukewarm and distant (literally so, as she’s currently a nurse in London). Both characters themselves drawn to someone else: he to Lara, a free-spirited Dutch woman he meets in a village hotel; she to Matteous, a wounded Congolese soldier whom she helps to treat. There’s a sense that both of Verschuurs are searching for something in these other people, not that they’re necessarily going to find it (Kate especially comes to realise how it hard it would be for Matteous to adapt to a life in London). Interestingly, Oscar’s new attraction draws him away from the reality of the war, whilst Kate’s draws her towards it; this mirrors their instinctive feelings about the Barbarossa dilemma. As a diplomat, Oscar’s work is fundamentally about relationships on a grand scale; the choice he now has to make brings that work down to the most intimate of levels. Like Slocombe and Krall in their books, de Kat explores the personal effects of war, how individual lives are shaped by conflict.

***

Wake

War’s effect on individuals is also the focus of Anna Hope’s debut, Wake (2014), which is set in the aftermath of World War One – specifically in the five days leading up to the parading of the Unknown Warrior through London in 1920. Hope tells of three women: Hettie, a dance instructress who becomes intrigued by a charismatic man she meets at the Hammersmith Palais; Evelyn, who works at the Pensions Office and has a quite a tense relationship with her army-captain brother – but still wants to know why a man comes to her office asking after him; and Ada, a housewife grieving for her son lost in the war, who receives a visit from a boy who appears to know of him.

All three of Hope’s protagonists have seen their lives changed by war: Hettie’s brother is affected by shell-shock, but the world of the dance instructress has opened a new avenue in her own life; Evelyn lost her partner in the war and now finds herself, as an unattached woman nearing 30, outside of social norms; for Ada, it’s not so much a case of needing to find a new path as of coming to terms with the one she has travelled. In Wake, the arrival of the Unknown Warrior is presented as a moment when the British people collectively took stock of the war and its consequences, a recognition of and reflection on the changing times; this is also what Hope does individually for her characters. But there is also the sense that change continues; and, indeed, the women’s stories go on beyond the final page of this vivid novel.

***

Links

Monsieur le Commandant
Interview with Romain Slocombe by Gallic Books.
Other reviews: A Life in Books; These Little Words; The Friendly Shelf; Literary Relish.

Chasing the King of Hearts
Interview with Hanna Krall by PEN Atlas.
Other reviews: Andrew Blackman; Sabotage Reviews; A Discount Ticket to Everywhere; Tony’s Reading List.

News from Berlin
Other reviews: 1streading; Lucy Popescu for the Independent.

Wake
BBC interview with Anna Hope (and Judith Allnatt, author of The Moon Field)
Other reviews: For Winter Nights; Book Oxygen; The Unlikely Bookworm; Cleopatra Loves Books.

Book notes: Hélène Grémillon and Gavin Weston

Hélène Grémillon, The Confidant (2010/2)
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Hélène Grémillon’s first novel begins in Paris of 1975, where Camille Werner is sorting through the letters of condolence she has received on the death of her mother. One of the letters stands out: an account from someone named Louis of his childhood attraction to Annie, a girl from his village. Not knowing anyone named Louis or Annie, Camille thinks no more of this – until she starts receiving regular letters from Louis, telling more of his story.

Camille learns that Annie became friends with one Madame M., a rich young woman who came to the village with her husband, eventually (as Annie told Louis when they met again a few years later, during the war) agreeing to act as a surrogate mother for the infertile Madame M.  Events would subsequently take a tragic turn, and prove to be far more relevant to Camille than she had thought.

The full story of The Confidant takes shape only gradually, as we view the past from the perspectives of different characters. Madame M. kept Alice indoors during her pregnancy, and didn’t tell her about the Nazi invasion of France – but we’re forced to re-evaluate what we think of these individuals when we read Madame M.’s testimony. The final revelations come as Grémillon’s novel turns to poetry, as though prose is no longer sufficient (or can no longer be trusted) to tell this story. All in all, The Confidant is an intriguing piece of work.

Gavin Weston, Harmattan (2012)

The Harmattan is a trade wind that carries dust from the Sahara across West Africa; an analogous harshness and suffocation blows into the life of Gavin Weston’s protagonist, Haoua Boureima. Young Haoua lives in Watada, a village in the Republic of Niger, and dreams of becoming a teacher. But her family life is disrupted when her beloved soldier brother Abdelkrim visits and argues with their father over the latter’s gambling habit. Then Haoua’s mother is taken to hospital in the capital, and diagnosed with AIDS – and the girl’s world begins to fall apart, culminating in the marriage in which we see her (aged twelve) in the prologue.

Haoua’s tale is interspersed with the correspondence between her and the Boyds, the Irish family who sponsor her. Weston uses this device effectively: the naïve, childlike tone of the letters masks the difficulties of Haoua’s life; and the tribulations faced by the Boyd family are shown to be, not insignificant, but remote from Haoua’s concerns. A variation on the same technique works superbly towards novel’s end, as the Boyds’ father is thwarted in his search for news on Haoua.

Harmattan is a bleak book, there’s no denying that – it’s structured as a narrative of loss and possibilities closing off, rather than of escape and flourishing. But it also has a strong sense of forward motion that drives the narrative inexorably on towards its sombre conclusion.

Book and story notes: Claire Massey and Pascal Garnier

Claire Massey, ‘Into the Penny Arcade’ and ‘Marionettes’ (2012)

Time for some new Nightjar Press chapbooks, and this year both their spring titles are by the same author – Claire Massey. The cover quotations from Robert Shearman and Liz Jensen talk about ‘making the ordinary something very sinister’ and ‘quiet disturbance’; I’ll go with that, as both these stories reveal something dark at the heart of the mundane, and do so in a restrained, subtle fashion.

‘Into the Penny Arcade’ is a great story, whose schoolgirl protagonist is attacked by a group of other girls, then rescued by the driver of a lorry which contains a number of old, and rather strange, penny arcade machines. Massey uses spare details and short, sharp sentences to build up the atmosphere – the run-down street, the lorry parked there day after day – and the tension only increases once we’re inside the arcade. The machines themselves are cast in a deliciously sinister light; and the ending has the same subtlety as the rest of the tale, as it suggests a chilling turn of events without being definitive.

‘Marionettes’ takes us toPrague, where Massey’s (unnamed) protagonist has travelled with her partner Karl. The pair come across a shop selling remarkably detailed marionettes, though Karl has little time for that. As the tale progresses, the couple’s relationship comes under increasing strain; and the marionette shop gains some familiar-looking puppets in its window.

As with ‘Into the Penny Arcade’, Massey here creates a sense of unease from some fairly ordinary things – in this case, the strange puppets and the disorientingPraguestreets. The link made between the protagonist’s relationship and the marionettes is effective, but the ending doesn’t quite work for me; I think it takes an imaginative leap further than the build-up can support, whereas in Massey’s other Nightjar story, the conclusion flows more naturally from the tale’s main body. Still, these are a fine duo of stories, and I will be looking out for more of Claire Massey’s work in the future.

Pascal Garnier, The Panda Theory (2008/12)

Gabriel arrives in a small Breton town, finds a restaurant, and strikes up a friendship with the owner, José, whose wife is ill in hospital. Gabriel is a good cook and a friendly face, and presently attracts a small circle of friends, including Madeleine, the receptionist of his hotel; and Marco and Rita, a couple also staying there. But he’s also carrying baggage from his past…

The Panda Theory is one of three books by the late Pascal Garnier which will be published by Gallic Books (who also provide the translation). Particularly effective is the contrast between the ordinariness of the novel’s present and the darkness of the flashbacks to Gabriel’s past – the details of which only gradually emerge. All the people Gabriel meets have holes in their lives, and – as his name suggests – the protagonist is something of an angel, in that he comes into their lives and changes them. But the question of exactly how he does so is one that remains open right up to the tense finale.

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