Tagbook review

#2021InternationalBooker: Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichý

With some books, the voice is key, and here’s one of them. The narrator of Wretchedness is a cellist living in Malmö. As the novel begins, he’s waiting by the canal for a couple of friends and colleagues, a guitarist and composer. He is approached by a homeless man who wants a smoke. As the cellist speaks to this man, he is reminded of his own past, the poverty he escaped. He realises that, if life had turned out differently, he could have been this guy. 

The book then switches back and forth between the cellist’s past and present, contrasting the hard realities of his earlier life with his more abstract thoughts on music, in a torrent of language. Here he is, for example, discovering the freeing power of the radio:

…I listened and thought and listened and soon learnt to recognise the sounds I liked, the ones that sounded different to the ones I was used to, but also words and sounds that in different ways related to the life I recognised, the pain and the rage and the shame and the hate and the madness, like when I, at Eleonora’s place, got to hear Godflesh and Slayer for the first time, and at that point, as I listened, it was like my life got better, like it really, properly, got noticeably better just cos some guy had stood there yelling in a studio…

translation from swedish by nichola smalley

The dense, chapter-long paragraphs of Wretchedness suggest that maybe this man can’t outrun his past after all, because it’s so inextricably mixed up with his present thoughts. Whatever the case, this book is a vivid and powerful journey for the reader.

Published by And Other Stories.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

#2021InternationalBooker: The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard

This slim volume (under 100 pages) introduced me to an unfamiliar name from history: Thomas Müntzer, a preacher who became a leading figure in the German Peasants’ War of 1525. He opposed both the Roman Catholic Church and Martin Luther, and he went from questioning the prevailing theology to encouraging more general revolt against the ruling authorities. 

There’s a real sense in Vuillard’s prose of dynamic and open-ended societal change. For example, I loved this passage describing the effects of the printing press:

Fifty years earlier, a molten substance had flowed from Mainz over the rest of Europe, flowed between the hills of every town, between the letters of every name, in the gutters, between every twist and turn of thought; and every letter, every fragment of an idea, every punctuation mark had found itself cast in a bit of metal. 

Translation from french by mark polizzotti

Vuillard places Müntzer in a line of popular rebels and preachers, including Wat Tyler and Jan Hus. The restlessness of rebellion is reflected in the way Vuillard writes and structures his book (and, of course, Polizzotti’s translation). Ultimately, The War of the Poor may be a little too slight to really shine for me, but it certainly has powerful moments. 

Published by Picador.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

#2021InternationalBooker: Summer Brother by Jaap Robben

I enjoyed Jaap Robben’s earlier novel, You Have Me to Love. Like that book, Summer Brother (translated from Dutch by David Doherty) is narrated by a boy who has to adapt to a new family situation. In this case it’s 13-year-old Brian Chevalier, who lives in a caravan with his divorced father Maurice. Life isn’t easy: Maurice will do what it takes to get by, which leads to frequent absences, a certain reputation, and pressure from the landlords to settle his debts.

Brian has a severely disabled brother, Lucien, who lives in an institution. At the start of the novel, Maurice is asked if he’ll take Lucien home for the summer while the institution is being renovated. He’s not keen at first, but soon changes his mind on learning that he’ll be paid for the trouble.

Brian then has to learn to live with and care for his brother, who’s unable to speak. There’s always a risk that a character like Lucien will exist for the edification of others, rather than being allowed their own dignity. I think Robben largely avoids this, though Summer Brother is definitely Brian’s story rather than Lucien’s.

Something I particularly like is the way that Brian can’t process or articulate the emotional changes he’s going through. We see him become more compassionate towards Lucien as he spends more time with him, and Brian even starts to have a crush on Selma, a girl living at the institution. But Brian doesn’t explain the changes it his feelings, if he even notices them all. In that way, Robben puts Brian in a position analogous to Lucien’s, of not being able to express his innermost thoughts. It’s quite touching to see Brian grow so close to Lucien.

Published by World Editions.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

The Dancing Face by Mike Phillips

Bernardine Evaristo has curated a series called ‘Black Britain: Writing Back‘ with her publisher Hamish Hamilton, which aims to highlight works by Black British writers that have become overlooked. The Dancing Face is one of the six fiction titles launching the series (with six non-fiction books to follow later this year). It’s a thriller originally published in 1997.

Gus Dixon is a Black British university lecturer, and a member of the Committee for Reparations to Africa. He’s disillusioned with the Committee’s lack of action, and sets in motion the theft of a Beninese mask from an exhibition, all for the attention it will bring to the cause. 

But Gus is soon out of his depth, and finds himself entangled with others who have different ideas about the mask. One of the key players is Dr Okigbo, a Nigerian chief in exile who bankrolled the robbery, and wants the mask for personal leverage. In an attempt to keep it safe, Gus sends the mask to his younger brother Danny, a student – which ends up putting Danny in danger. 

Phillips explores issues of identity, and what the mask means to different people. Gus has considered his relationship to an African identity, and reached a conclusion. Danny is still thinking these issues through, and may have ideas of his own. The novel’s African characters offer further perspectives. Alongside this, The Dancing Face is a cracking thriller, with twists that I didn’t see coming and some fine action sequences. I would recommend it warmly.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

This is the first novel by poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa. It’s partly autobiographical, partly essayistic, often intensely felt. 

In 2012, our narrator is a young mother. Life is full of domestic routines, with repeated phrases in the prose to match. There’s a strong sense of how stifling this can be. When the narrator has to stay in hospital with her newly born child, it becomes downright terrifying – she doesn’t know how this will end, and we feel her fear from the inside. 

Ní Ghríofa’s protagonist is fascinated by the 18th century poem ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, composed by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. The narrator resolves to uncover everything she can of Ní Chonaill’s life. (The original Gaelic poem and Ní Ghríofa’s translation ‘The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire’ appear at the end of the volume.)

Something that really comes across to me in this book is how the act of researching and writing about Ní Chonaill is a means of self-expression and assertion for the narrator. There’s a similar effect in the prose, when passages about Ní Chonaill disrupt the everyday detail. At the same time, the sequences concerning the narrator’s motherhood and domestic life share something with the historical researches: they highlight women’s experiences that might otherwise be treated less seriously than they deserve, if not ignored. 

A Ghost in the Throat is a novel that takes us deeply into its narrator’s viewpoint, where we can experience for ourselves how much Ní Chonaill’s poem means to her.

Published by Tramp Press.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: Unknown Language by Hildegard of Bingen and Huw Lemmey

One thing I value the Republic of Consciousness Prize for is that it highlights books I would never have come across otherwise. This is such a book, and I’m so glad to have read it.

Unknown Language is a reimagining of the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century German mystic. It’s mostly written by Huw Lemmey, but there’s also an introductory story by Bhanu Kapil and a closing essay by Alice Sprawls, which add their own dimensions to the book. 

Lemmey’s Hildegard lives in a version of reality which has elements of 21st century life, yet which nevertheless seems timeless. It feels like a place where profound transformations could happen at any moment. 

Divine judgement is visited upon Hildegard’s city, which forces her into exile. There’s danger beyond the city walls, but also the chance for Hildegard to begin anew. She’s looking for the unknown language to describe the all-encompassing visions she experiences, and the unknown language to articulate her own personal form of grace. 

Lemmey’s prose is always compelling and vivid, but I find it rises in intensity along with Hildegard’s experiences – such as when she meets and falls in love with a young woman. At those times, you really get a sense of the personal transcendence Hildegard is feeling. Unknown Language is a powerful book to experience. 

Published by Ignota Books.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

Mathilda – Black, queer, working-class – is someone who knows how it feels to be an outsider. She has a periodic need to Escape her life: to reinvent herself, even taking on a new name. She has Transfixions, historical figures with whom she feels a deep spiritual connection. She’s also particularly interested in the Bright Young Things of 1920s London. 

A chance find in Mathilda’s volunteer role at the National Portrait Gallery leads her to a new Transfixion: Hermia Druitt, a Black modernist poet. Mathilda finds her way on to a residency in the European town of Sun, where Hermia eventually lived. There, Mathilda meets a kindred spirit named Erskine-Lily, and seeks to uncover what happened to Hermia and the cult that she founded. 

LOTE is a fun to read, with its central mystery to be solved, and the way Mathilda shows up the absurdities of the residency. It’s not clear at first whether the foundation behind the residency is for artists or business people. Their outlook is very different from Mathilda’s, but she finds that she can bluff her way through. 

Hermia Druitt is fictitious, but stands in for analogous marginalised or ‘forgotten’ figures from history. Shola von Reinhold expands on Mathilda’s story by including passages from an (also fictitious) academic text called Black Modernisms, and from what seems to be a direct account of the poet’s life. 

By looking into the story of Hermia Druitt, Mathilda is also able to remake herself. LOTE takes apart received views of art and history (and art history) to create its own space for other voices to be heard.

Published by Jacaranda Books.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter

It’s nine years since I last read Alice Zeniter: Take This Man was a compelling tale of a young Frenchwoman preparing to marry a friend in order to stop him being deported. The Art of Losing (translated from the French by Frank Wynne) is a longer novel on a bigger canvas: a saga tracing a line between the Algerian War of Independence and contemporary France, and inspired by the author’s own family history. 

Zeniter’s novel follows three generations, each with a different relationship to Algeria. In the 1950s, Ali is a landowner who fought on the side of France in World War Two. But when the National Liberation Front comes to his village, he is forced into a position of complicity, which leads him to a resettlement camp in France. 

Ali remains tied to Algeria, but his son Hamid turns his back on the country, determined to forge a life for himself in France. In turn, Hamid’s daughter Naïma has no knowledge of Algeria, nor the language to communicate with her grandparents. She has to make a journey of her own to uncover the past and make sense of her history. 

The Art of Losing highlights the personal histories that may fall through the gaps in official (colonial) accounts. It asks how people may carry on in the face of profound loss, and how they might regain what has been lost. 

Published by Picador.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevič

Alhierd Bacharevič, Alindarka’s Children (2014)
Translated from the Russian and Belarusian by Jim Dingley and Petra Reid (2020)

This novel by Belarusian author Alhierd Bacharevič is an act of assertion, perhaps even reclamation. It begins with Alicia and Avi, two children interred in a camp whose purpose is to ‘correct’ their language, make them speak Russian rather than Belarusian. The children’s father helps them escape, and they flee into the forest, though the camp leaders won’t let them go that easily…

There’s a fairytale atmosphere to this story, with the mysterious forest seeming almost a character in its own right – the children even come across a gingerbread house of sorts. It’s also a novel about language: we meet the camp’s Doctor who seeks medical ‘cures’ for what he sees as the speech defect of Belarusian. Speaking Belarusian – and writing the novel partly in that language – then becomes an act of resistance. ⁣

This carries over to the translation, which is an act of assertion in its own right. The Russian in the original appears as English in the translation, but the Belarusian has been translated on into Scots. It’s an idea that preserves the power relationship between the two languages of the original – not to mention that it forces readers of the ‘dominant’ language to work harder.⁣

There are also lines of Belarusian poetry scattered throughout the book. Rather than being translated, these have been substituted for Scots poetry. I have to admit the use of Scots sometimes left me seeing the characters as more Scottish than Belarusian – your mileage may vary. Still, I found Alindarka’s Children a thought-provoking piece of work.

Published by Scotland Street Press.

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2021: The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer ⁣

Fitzcarraldo Editions are the only publisher to have won the Republic of Consciousness Prize twice, so it’s no surprise to see them longlisted again this year. (My copy of The Appointment looks different from the usual Fitzcarraldo blue – I won it in a competition, one of five copies with a cover painted by Katharina Volckmer.) ⁣

The narrator of this short volume is a German in London. She has come to the office of one Dr Seligman for an appointment whose nature is at first unspecified. The book we read is her monologue as addressed to him. ⁣

The narrator begins by revealing some of her fantasies (let’s say that they involve Hitler and leave it there), and continues to unburden herself. It becomes clear that she is profoundly uncomfortable in her body and with her nationality (feeling, for example, that Germany has not reckoned with its past as well as it may like to think). The former source of discomfort is what this appointment is meant to address; the latter one is why the narrator has approached a Jewish doctor. ⁣

The Appointment is densely written, often harrowing, and often drily funny – it shifts mood along with its narrator. There’s a sense that all this – the appointment, and the monologue form itself – is the narrator’s way of taking control. The space of the doctor’s office is private, and by being the one to speak, the narrator can shape what she says, what she reveals about herself. She feels that this is her time and space, and hopefully the chance for a new beginning.⁣

Read my other posts on the 2021 Republic of Consciousness Prize here.

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