TagThe Islanders

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.

Christopher Priest, The Islanders (2011)

Christopher Priest’s work has given me some of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had, so I opened The Islanders – his first novel in nine years – with no small amount of anticipation. For this book, Priest returns to the world of the Dream Archipelago, setting for a number of short stories and, in part, 1981’s The Affirmation (rest assured that The Islanders stands alone, though readers of the earlier works will recognise a few names and concepts). The Dream Archipelago is a great, world-spanning array of islands; a neutral zone between two countries at war. What we’re presented with in the pages of Priest’s book is ostensibly a gazetteer of some of these islands; but, as well as the standard geographical information one would expect, some of its entries comprise narratives or other sorts of text.

Who (within the context of the fiction) wrote and compiled these entries is uncertain; but the gazetteer’s introduction is credited to one Chaster Kammeston, an Archipeligan native and celebrated writer in the world of the book. Not that Kammeston is convinced that the volume he’s introducing will be of much use, as actually mapping and navigating the Archipelago are nigh on impossible: partly because there are so many different naming conventions for the same geographical features (the ones that actually have names, at least); and partly because of the naturally-occurring “temporal vortices” which distort one’s very perception of the world. Kammeston is even unsure whether he’s the right person to be writing an introduction to a work about the vast expanses of the Archpelago, given that, as he says, “I have never stepped off the island [of my birth], and I expect never to do so before I die.” (p. 1).

But something is not quite right, here. We meet Chaster Kammeston again in the entries of the gazetteer itself; and, if we can believe what we read there, not only has he willingly left his home island several times, he is also dead – yet there he is, alive to write an introduction, apparently after the book has been compiled. Kammeston’s is just one story woven through The Islanders; other characters (many of them artists and thinkers of one kind or another) and events recur: the mime Commis is murdered in a theatre when a sheet of glass is dropped on him from above – but maybe the identity of his killer is not as cut-and-dried as it first appeared; Jordenn Yo travels the Archipelago, creating art installations by tunnelling through islands (presumably that’s what landed her in prison); we may never meet the painter Dryd Bathurst properly ‘in person’, as it were, but we hear enough about him to piece together an impression of who he is and what he might have done.

That last comment points towards a key aspect of The Islanders: namely, that its very structure forces us to construct its story (or stories) for ourselves. This is more than just a simple matter of chapters being arranged out of chronological order; as Adam Roberts notes, the novel itself can be seen as an archipelago, with each chapter an ‘island’ of narrative. Formally, Priest’s novel embodies something of what it suggests about island life:

Islands gave an underlying feeling of circularity, of coast, a limit to what you could achieve or where you might go. You knew where you were but there was invariably a sense that there were other islands, other places to be. (p. 281)

Individual entries within the book point at connections between themselves, without overtly having the sense of being linked that we would normally expect the chapters of a book to have. Priest leaves us to make the links ourselves; but, more than having to assemble a set of puzzle-pieces into a coherent picture, more than having an incomplete set of pieces and having to fill in the gaps, in The Islanders we can fill the gaps in many different ways, thereby imagining new connections. Is Character A also Character B? Could Place X be another name for Place Y, and what does that imply if so? Just as the Dream Archipelago is ultimately unmappable, so The Islanders refuses to be understood definitively. It’s a novel which challenges our conceptions of what a novel can tell.

I’m not sure that The Islanders is right up there with the best of Priest’s work for me – it doesn’t give the great shock to the imagination that The Affirmation, The Prestige, and The Separation do – but it’s no less an elegant construction for that. It lulls you in with the measured neutrality of its prose, and the familiar, non-specific modernity of its world; so that those occasions where the narration does break out of its gazetteer-like register, or a properly fantastical notion is introduced, are all the more effective. And, as a novel which embodies its concepts and concerns within its very foundations, The Islanders is a work of art.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of The Islanders: Niall Alexander for Strange Horizons; Ursula K. Le Guin for The Guardian.
Christopher Priest’s website

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