TagAlejandro Zambra

What I’ve been reading lately: 11 July 2019

Katie Hale’s My Name is Monster (pub. Canongate) is a new debut novel that draws inspiration from Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe. After society has been devastated by ‘the War’ and ‘the Sickness’, a woman named Monster (who was working in an Arctic seed vault) makes her way through Scotland and northern England until she comes to a city where she can rest. She believes she’s alone, until she finds a fellow survivor, a young girl. The woman changes her name to Mother, and calls the girl Monster. Told in two halves, by two Monsters with different outlooks, Hale’s novel chronicles a search for survival and asks what comes after. There’s an evocative sense of the uncertain world, and of human hopes and fears in the face of an indifferent reality.

A Flame Out at Sea by Dmitry Novikov (tr. Christopher Culver, pub. Glagoslav) is set largely in the area around the White Sea in northwestern Russia. It switches between multiple timelines, focusing mainly on two characters: Grisha (as a child in the 1970s and later in the 2000s) and his grandfather Fyodor (seen mainly in the early 20th century). Over the course of the novel, Grisham tries to come to terms with the past as he uncovers a dark secret of his grandfather’s. Novikov (in Culver’s translation) combines vivid depictions of the landscape and sea with human drama; the result is an enjoyable piece of work that lingers in my mind.

I’ve also been reading more books for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month. Don’t Send Flowers by the Mexican writer Martín Solares (tr. Heather Cleary, pub. Grove Press UK) begins as a typical crime novel, with a retired detective hired to find a business man’s daughter, thought to have been kidnapped by a cartel. For a while, Don’t Send Flowers carries on looking like a typical crime novel with a nicely twisty plot… Then the novel opens out, revealing a world where nothing is quite as it seems. The prose is brisk, the pages turn – and turn.

From Mexico to Chile: Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice (tr. Megan McDowell, pub. Granta) is a novel structured after the Chilean university entrance test. So, for example, you have a section of sentences with missing words (and options for completing them), and one with groups of sentences to be arranged in the best order. With this format, Zambra offers a series of vignettes – even short stories by the end – with multiple interpretations, or versions, layered on top of each other.

Bookmunch’d: Alejandro Zambra and Sayed Kashua

Two recent reviews from Bookmunch:

Alejandro Zambra, Ways of Going Home (2011/3)

Chile, 1985: as the neighbourhood gathers to shelter from an earthquake, a nine-year-old boy strikes up a sort of friendship with Claudia, the twelve-year-old niece of his neighbour Raúl. Claudia asks the boy to keep an eye on her uncle, and so he does – soon discovering that Raúl has frequent rendezvous with a mysterious woman. But no sooner has the boy prepared to reveal all to Claudia than she relieves him of his duties, and moves away.

This narrative then breaks off, and we meet a (similarly nameless) writer in the present day, who is apparently writing the noel we have been reading. He’s struggling to find his place in life, beset by a nagging feeling that his parents wrote the novel of the world, leaving his generation as “secondary characters”. The doubts and tensions raised by this feeling work their way into the writer’s novel, and this project becomes his focus – if he can get the novel right, maybe life will follow. We then return to the ‘fiction’ as, twenty years on, the boy-turned-man meets Claudia once more, and learns the truth.

Alejandro Zambra’s third novel (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell) thus sets up a parallel between its two storylines. The young boy’s inability to grasp the realities behind adult interactions is nicely handled (as in the scene where he sees his father and Raúl talking about what he assumes to be “solitude”, but is presumably “solidarity”), as is his older self’s reaction to learning what was really going on in his childhood. But the two sides of the novel don’t quite seem to gel: the writer storyline doesn’t reach as far into its themes, which unbalances the book as a whole.

Any Cop? It’s a mixed bag. One half of the novel is good, but the other doesn’t quite match up to it.

Sayed Kashua, Exposure (2010/2)

Exposure is the story (translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg) of two unnamed Arab citizens of Israel, both living in Jerusalem. One is a successful lawyer, who has made his wealth working on behalf of resident Arabs who are not citizens; his status gives him an informal, but valuable authority:

Without [Israeli Arab professionals]who would represent the residents of east Jerusalem and the surrounding villages in the Hebrew-speaking courts and tax authorities…Many of the locals preferred to be represented by someone who was a citizen of the state of Israel… Somehow, in the eyes of the locals, the Arab citizens of Israel were considered to be half-Jewish.

One day, on a whim, he buys a novel from the second-hand book store, and finds tucked inside it a love letter, unmistakably in his wife’s handwriting. The volume is inscribed “Yonatan”, and the lawyer becomes consumed with the question of who this unknown suitor might be.

Sayed Kashua’s second protagonist has been rather less lucky in life: he’s a social worker, whom we first meet as he’s burying the 28-year-old Yonatan. We discover that Yonatan had been in a coma, and the social worker had taken on the job of minding him at night – a thankless task, but also a relatively straightforward source of income that the social worker welcomed. Looking after Yonatan also gave him something else: the opportunity to assume the Jewish man’s identity when registering on a photography course.

Exposure works best as a study of identity, and how it may be used and abused. Both protagonists operate at the boundary between Arab and Jewish identities: the lawyer acts as an intermediary between the two; the social worker becomes able to cross from one to the other. The comatose Yonatan becomes an anonymous canvas on which both men can project an identity: the lawyer creates a target for his jealous hatred, while social worker reinvents himself.

Kashua’s novel is not quite so successful in terms of plot, though. There are a couple of coincidences too many for it to satisfy as a mystery; and when the two men’s stories finally converge, it doesn’t seem to add much. Whatever the destination, though, the journey is worth it.

Any Cop?: As a study of character and issues, certainly; as a mystery story, less so.

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