Taghistorical fiction

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.

Kokoschka’s Doll by Afonso Cruz

Afonso Cruz, Kokoschka’s Doll (2010)
Translated from the Portuguese by Rahul Bery (2021)

I like it when a novel challenges me to work out why it takes the form that it does. Kokoschka’s Doll challenged me in that me. I kept mulling over such questions as: why is a third of it given over to a novel-within-a-novel of the same title, with pages tinted grey? Why does it go off on so many tangents, with characters who might (at first) seem disconnected? What’s the importance of the title, when the doll in question appears relatively briefly and late on? 

Well, it took me until I had finished the book before I felt I had a handle on why Kokoschka’s Doll is the way it is. But it was never less than compelling for all that.

We begin in wartime Dresden. In a brief, harrowing passage, young Isaac Dresner runs away from a German soldier, and takes refuge in the cellar of a bird shop owned by one Bonifaz Vogel. When Vogel hears a voice coming from the floorboards, he assumes he’s hearing mice. But there’s a quiet authority in that voice, and in time Isaac comes to act as Vogel’s conscience. When he emerges from the cellar at war’s end, Isaac is both a son- and father-figure to Vogel, in different ways. 

As an adult, Isaac has become a publisher. He meets an author named Mathias Popa, who writes a book called Kokoschka’s Doll which has several fluid layers of reality, including a version of Isaac Dresner as a character.

The novel’s title refers to the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka, who had a three-year romance with Alma Mahler (the composer’s widow). When the affair ended, Kokoschka remained so infatuated with Alma that he commissioned a life-size replica of her. The key point for this novel, I think, is that Kokoschka had his servant spread rumours about the doll as though it had its own social life – because the doll could only ever be considered ‘real’ if it had its own social reality, and other people to witness that. 

This is what I take away as the main theme of Kokoschka’s Doll: that everyone’s connected, no one complete without other people. So, for example, Isaac’s voice helps complete Vogel as a person, and Vogel does the same for Isaacs. That’s why there’s no single, stable account of life for most of Cruz’s characters – because there isn’t a single, stable life to begin with. 

The theme of interconnectedness comes together poignantly at the end. After this, I look forward to reading more by Afonso Cruz in the future. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

Holiday reading, and a blog anniversary

Happy New Year! Wishing you a better year than 2020, anyway…

It was eleven years ago today [EDIT: I’m wrong, it’s twelve years!] that I published the first post on this blog. How time flies, and how things change. The blog has a greater focus on books now; my tastes have evolved, as has my approach to blogging – not to mention the world of book blogging itself.

But this is still my place for writing about reading and books. I’m thinking about what direction to go in with the blog this year, but for now I have a few books to tell you about that I read over Christmas and New Year…

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Emily Jeremiah, Blue Moments (2020)

I know of Emily Jeremiah as co-translator of several Finnish titles for Peirene Press (including Children of the Cave, White Hunger and Mr Darwin’s Gardener). Blue Moments is a novella by Jeremiah, recently published by Valley Press

We’re introduced to Eeva as a young girl. Her parents have divorced, and she moved with her father to his home country of Finland – her mother remains in England, recovering from depression. Eeva finds it hard to adjust, feeling caught between the two cultures. Years later, Eeva goes to study in England, and resolves to understand more about her parents’ lives. 

Blue Moments is a fine example of how much a novella can encompass in a relatively small space. We see Eeva coming to terms with her past, and find a place for herself in the present. 

Samantha Clark, The Clearing (2020)

Samantha Clark is a Scottish artist; this memoir revolves around the process of clearing out her parents’ old home in Glasgow after they have passed away. The act of doing this leads Clark to reconsider her relationship with both of her parents: her mother, who developed severe mental health problems; and her father, whose role caring for his wife distanced him from his daughter. 

The ‘clearing’ of the title doesn’t just refer to clearing the house. It’s also about the space within oneself, or between oneself and the world. Clark contemplates the gap between her parents’ silent, static house and her own memories and experiences. She considers what this means for her, and illuminates her thoughts with various artistic and scientific ideas. The Clearing is a fascinating book that leaves its readers with much to reflect on themselves.

Published by Little, Brown.

Paolo Maurensig, Game of the Gods (2019)
Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel (2021)

Paolo Maurensig has written several previous novels set in the world of chess. His latest book to appear in English returns to that world, with a fictional account of the life of Malik Mir Sultan Khan. In the early 20th century, Sultan Khan is a Punjab village boy who becomes a servant to the powerful landowner Sir Umar Khan. He excels at chaturanga, the ancient forerunner of chess. Umar Khan has the boy master the Western rules of chess, and takes him to Britain, where Sultan Khan becomes renowned for his prowess. But life has more than one further twist in store for him. 

In Maurensig’s telling, Sultan Khan becomes something of a pawn in a wider game: for Umar Khan, he’s a way to get back at the British; and when war comes, his strategic skills are useful to others. There is a sense that giving an interview about his life (which is how the novel is framed) allows Sultan Khan to exercise some control over how his legacy will be viewed. It’s not completely so, of course: this story is being told by a European author, after all. But there is a reminder at the end that conflict continues, outside of one person’s control. 

Published on 14 January by World Editions.

Pushkin Press: At Night All Blood Is Black

David Diop, At Night All Blood Is Black (2018)
Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (2020)

This is a short and powerful novel of World War One by French-Senegalese writer David Diop. Our narrator, Alfa Ndiaye, came from Senegal and joined the French army with his friend (his “more-than-brother”) Mademba Diop. As the novel begins, Mademba is dead – Alfa found him mortally wounded, but couldn’t bring himself to do what his friend pleaded and finish him off. Now Alfa regrets that, and it has driven him to seek bloodthirsty revenge against the German forces.

The scenes set in Alfa’s childhood provide a contrast to the chaos and brutality of war, and it seems clear that the conflict is what has made him like this. Alfa’s commanding officers are happy to let him carry on at first, because his behaviour plays into their stereotypical views of African soldiers. But eventually he is sent to a field hospital for treatment, though even then the outcome is far from certain.

The language of Diop’s novel (a fine translation by Anna Moschovakis) is built around loops and repeated phrases that bring us closer to Alfa’s viewpoint, almost stiflingly so. This leads to some intense shifts of perception. We see with painful clarity what Alfa has done, and what has been done to him.

Published by Pushkin Press.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths

In 1823, Beethoven was commissioned to compose a biblical oratorio in the United States of America. He didn’t live to take up the commission… but what if he had? That’s the question posed by music critic Paul Griffiths in his latest novel.

I like it when historical fiction acknowledges the constructed nature of history. Mr. Beethoven goes much further than that. We begin with Beethoven on a ship headed for Boston – yet Griffiths emphasises that this is not how things were, but a plausible alternative:

It would be possible to work out which vessel this might have been, in whose dining salon these people were delving into their cabbage soup with greater or lesser pleasure. Suppose the year was 1833, as could well have been the case…

In this way, Griffiths is able to take his novel apart and rebuild it as he goes. The sense that this all provisional, contingent, raises the hairs on the back of one’s neck. There’s a brilliant chapter which rehearses a conversation between Beethoven and his librettist, Reverend Ballou, three times. In the first two versions, the composer says the same things but Ballou’s dialogue changes, giving the scene a completely different tone. In the third version, Beethoven doesn’t understand Ballou at all. Which is the ‘correct’ conversation? Take your pick.

Communication is one of the first problems that Beethoven encounters. Griffiths imagines a girl named Thankful, who uses Martha’s Vineyard sign language to interpret for him. But there’s still inevitably a distance between the composer and the world around him. All of Beethoven’s dialogue in the novel has been taken directly from his letters. Of course, it’s then out of context, which has the effect of making Beethoven seem to be at a slight remove from reality. It’s subtle but unnerving.

The subject of Beethoven’s oratorio is Job. As Thankful listens to the performance, she reflects on its meaning: “It is about this universe in which God is omnipotent. And it is about a larger universe in which God is powerless, helpless.” I’m struck that Mr. Beethoven puts its author in a similar position: totally in control over what’s between the covers in one sense, but at the mercy of history in another. If the author is like God, then – as Robert says in his review at The Bobsphere – Beethoven in this novel is like Job, undergoing his own trial of faith (in himself as much as anything).

Mr. Beethoven is a novel that twists language and history to explore what might have been, but also to expose the inherent fragility of any fictional account. I must mention as well that this is a beautifully made volume from Henningham Family Press. I’m pleased to see it highlighted by the Goldsmiths Prize.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Three books: Pheby, Coleman, Shanbhag

It’s time for another trio of reviews that were first posted on my Instagram.

Alex Pheby, Lucia (2018)

I have quite a few unread Galley Beggar Press books, and I was in the mood to start changing that. So I picked up Lucia by Alex Pheby, which won the Republic of Consciousness Prize a couple of years ago. ⁣

This novel concerns Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter. I didn’t know much about her, beyond what it says in the cover blurb: she was a talented dancer, spent her last 30 years in an asylum, and most contemporary references to her have been lost to history. ⁣

Pheby confronts head-on the problems of what it means to write a real life into fiction. The structure is fragmented, with fragments written from a variety of viewpoints – this is a novel told around and to Lucia, not by her. Interspersed between chapters are sequences describing an Egyptian archaeological dig, and the process of mummification – the implication being that the act of writing about Lucia is a similar disturbance. ⁣

Much of what happens in the novel is traumatic for Lucia, and this is uncomfortable to read, as it should be. Overall, I found this book a powerful reading experience, and I appreciated that Pheby made the problem of what he was doing part of the novel itself. ⁣

Flynn Coleman, A Human Algorithm (2019)

This book is a look at some of the issues around artificial intelligence. Flynn Coleman is a human rights attorney, and her book is very much focused on the ethical implications of AI and what it might mean for us as humans. ⁣⁣

⁣⁣This is not a subject I know much about, and I appreciate that Coleman is posing questions at least as much as trying to come up with answers – the book seems meant as a starting point for a conversation rather than a definitive conclusion. ⁣⁣⁣

It seems to me that Coleman is pretty even-handed in considering both the potential benefits and drawbacks of AI. She’s clear, though, that it’s urgent for us to be thinking about issues such as how we might instil morals into machines (and whose morals they should be), because the technology will continue to develop in any case. ⁣⁣⁣

I like the range of Coleman’s book, and it left me with a lot to think about, which is what I wanted most of all from it. If the subject piques your interest, A Human Algorithm is well worth your time.

Published by Melville House UK.

Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar (2013)
Translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perar (2017)

The narrator of this short novel is a director of his family’s spice business in Bangalore, though it’s so successful that he doesn’t need to do any work. His uncle built the firm up, transforming the family’s fortunes in the process – though money has not solved all their problems. ⁣

The narrator structures his story around the hierarchy of his household, with his uncle at the top and himself somewhere towards the bottom. This has the effect of making the novel feel like a series of anecdotes, and there are some engaging episodes, such as the family’s attempts to deal with an ant infestation in their old shack. But this book is more than a yarn: the narrator is not telling us everything. ⁣

His wife, Anita, is often at odds with the rest of the family – she wasn’t too happy to discover that her husband earned no money for himself, for example. The particular incident on which the book pivots is when a woman arrives at the house asking to speak to the uncle, and is summarily sent away by the narrator’s mother. Anita is the only family member who feels the woman was treated badly, and tells her husband that he should have intervened. The ramifications of this play out across the novel. ⁣

Within the book, “ghachar ghochar” is a phrase invented by Anita to mean “hopelessly tangled up”. That’s what the narrator comes to feel his life is like, and with good reason. Vivek Shanbhag examines the implications of his characters looking away from what they don’t want to see. ⁣

Published by Faber & Faber.

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Three reviews: Williams. Perišić, Makholwa

It’s time for another three reviews from my Instagram.

Eley Williams, The Liar’s Dictionary (2020)

I’ve heard a lot of praise for Eley Williams’ story collection Attrib. over the last couple of years, but haven’t got around to reading it. So I had high hopes for her debut novel, The Liar’s Dictionary, but didn’t quite know what to expect. ⁣

What I found is a joyous celebration of language. Here, for example, is one character trying to identify a bird:⁣

He pored over zoological catalogues and pawed through illustrated guides but for all he was able to glean about various small birds’ feeding habits, migratory patterns, taxonomies, use of ants to clean their feathers, use and misuse in mythology and folklore, prominence on menus and milliners’ manifests, &c., &c., its species remained a mystery. Basically, it was a sparrow with access to theatrical costumiers.

The music of Williams’ writing is all its own. If you’re interested in words and wordplay, I would recommend The Liar’s Dictionary on its prose style alone. ⁣

But there’s more than that. The novel revolves around Swansby’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary, a grand yet incomplete work that has been in existence for over a hundred years. We follow two main characters: the first is Mallory, an intern in the present day, when it’s just her and old David Swansby left, and there are plans to digitise and update the existing entries. The second protagonist is Peter Winceworth, a lexicographer who works at the dictionary in its Victorian heyday, and often finds himself overlooked. ⁣

The two characters are (unknowingly) brought together by mountweazels: false dictionary entries such as “skipsty (v.) The act of taking steps two at a time”. Peter inserts them in the dictionary for his own amusement, and Mallory is tasked with weeding them out. For both characters, working with mountweazels creates an outside space that gives them a greater sense of belonging. For Peter, it’s a chance to leave his mark on the dictionary when others tend to ignore him. Mallory gains the confidence to come out to the rest of the world and not just to her girlfriend. Williams explores how words can shape and reshape ourselves. ⁣

Published by William Heinemann.

Robert Perišić, No-Signal Area (2015)
Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, 2020

This is the first title in a new line of translated fiction published in the UK by the US publisher Seven Stories Press. It begins with cousins Oleg and Nikola arriving in the remote town of N., somewhere in the former Yugoslavia. They’ve come to revive an old factory that manufactures an obsolete model of turbine, so they can sell a couple to an overseas buyer. ⁣

The pair recruit Sobotka, the chief engineer from the factory, to work with them. Gradually the old workers return, and Oleg and Nikola (who aren’t all that business-minded) leave them to manage themselves. The factory becomes poised between the past and the future, socialism and capitalism. As the novel’s title suggests, this place is something of a world apart, where outside influences reach only haphazardly. ⁣

As No-Signal Area progresses, it spirals out into telling the histories of Oleg, Nikola and the factory workers, turning into a complex tapestry of story. ⁣

Angela Makholwa, The Blessed Girl (2017)

Bontle is a twentysomething woman (don’t ask her what number the “something” is) with her own hair extension business. Thanks to the government’s Black Economic Empowerment policy (brought in to redress the effects of apartheid), she is now also trying her hand at running a construction business, though it’s not as straightforward as she thought. ⁣

Bontle might seem to have it all: looks, the trappings of wealth, a large social media following, her pick of suitors… She is indeed blessed. “Blessed” in this context (according to the novel’s epigraph) is a South African term that means Bontle’s lifestyle is sponsored by wealthy older men in return for a relationship. She has several “blessers” in her life, and it all gets rather complicated… ⁣

I heard about Angela Makholwa’s novel because it has been shortlisted for the Comedy Women in Print Prize, and it is indeed very funny. There’s also an undercurrent of sadness, the sense that Bontle is using her fancy lifestyle and breezy language as a form of displacement. This sense grows more and more pronounced as the book progresses and Bontle is forced to confront the past. It’s a really effective ending to an enjoyable book. ⁣

Published in the UK by Bloomsbury.

Stand By Me – Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is a writer and farmer from Kentucky. The 18 stories collected in Stand By Me chronicle almost a hundred years in the life of the fictional rural community of Port William. Berry’s characters are deeply connected to this place, and there’s a keen sense of how life in the town changes (or stays the same) over time.

The opening story, ‘The Hurt Man’, sets out broadly what kind of book this is going to be. In 1888, Port William is a small, self-contained town:

It had no formal government or formal history. It was without pretense or ambition, for it was the sort of place that pretentious or ambitious people were inclined to leave. It had never declared an aspiration to become anything it was not. It did not thrive so much as it merely lived, doing the things it needed to do to stay alive.

There’s a school at one end of Port William, and a graveyard at the other. You could spend your whole life there.

Mat Feltner is five when an injured man runs up to his porch, and Mat’s mother takes the man in to treat his wounds. Mat sees an expression of profound concern on his mother’s face, one that reveals to him a truth he’ll carry with him always:

What did he learn from his mother that day? He learned it all his life. There are few words for it, perhaps none. After that, her losses would be his. The losses would come. They would come to him and his mother.

I like the way that Berry emphasises how past, present and future flow into each other in Port William. In ‘The Hurt Man’, the process of loss that becomes apparent to young Mat will continue for the rest of his life. ‘Pray Without Ceasing’ begins with Mat’s grandson Andy looking back, and knowing that his family’s past is still within him. By the time of ‘The Boundary’, Mat Feltner is an old man, and his memories bubble up into present reality as he begins to decline mentally.

For all that Berry’s voice is unmistakable throughout, there’s a variety of tone to his stories. There is gentle comedy in ‘A Consent’, as lumbering farmer Ptolemy Proudfoot tries to catch the attention of schoolteacher Miss Minnie. Contrasting with this is ‘Making It Home’, in which Art Rowanberry returns from fighting in the Second World War, bringing vivid and harrowing memories with him.

What unites the tales in Stand By Me above all for me is the place, and the sense that life continues. As the narrator of the title story puts it:

It was maybe the animals that most of all kept us going, the good animals we depended on, that depended on us: our work mules, the cattle, the sheep, the hogs, even the chickens. They were a help to us because they didn’t know our grief… We took care of them, we did what had to be done, we went on.

“We went on.” Perhaps that’s the whole book summed up in three words: the persistence of a community in the face of time itself.

(Published by Penguin.)

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 5-1

Here we are, then: my top 5 reading memories from the last decade. I knew how this countdown would end before I started compiling the list. The reading experiences I’m talking about here… more than anything, this is why I read.

The previous instalments of this series are available here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11, 10-6.

Continue reading

Three reviews: Joncour, Pimwana, Iczkovits

Another trio of short reviews from my Instagram.

Serge Joncour, Wild Dog (2018)
Translated from the French by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh (2020)

In 1914, a German lion-tamer takes refuge in a house above the French mountain village of Orcières as World War I begins. The villagers are fearful of his lions and tigers, whose roars fill the night – and then sheep start to go missing. ⁣

A century later, Lise and Franck rent that same house. She wants to cut herself off from the modern world. He’s a film producer who can’t bear to be disconnected. Franck is far out of his comfort zone here, but he strikes up something of a friendship with a wild dog – and then he starts to act differently. ⁣

The relationship between humans and the natural world runs through this novel. In both plot strands, characters are challenged and changed by their encounters with wild animals. There’s the implication that a darker, more savage side of human lies just out of sight, capable of resurfacing in the right circumstances. The tension rises constantly in this quietly menacing book. ⁣

Published by Gallic Books.

Duanwad Pimwana, Arid Dreams
Translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul (2019)

For me, Arid Dreams is a set of sharp character studies. One of my favourite stories is ‘The Attendant’, in which an elevator attendant compares his old life in the country with his current, largely static, existence. He feels that his current job has reduced him to little more than a head and an arm. The physicality really comes across in this story, the attendant’s frustration at having to stay still for so long.⁣⁣

In ‘Sandals’, a couple of children are being taken away from home by their parents to help with a job harvesting sugarcane. They don’t want to go, and what they’re willing to do makes this one of the most poignant stories in the collection. ⁣⁣

The narrator of ‘Kanda’s Eyebrows’ doesn’t like his wife’s looks, but there’s a sense that he is projecting his own insecurities about himself on to her. ‘Within These Walls’ seems a woman look around her bedroom while her husband is in hospital and wonder why the walls couldn’t be her preferred colour. This leads her to start thinking about other ways in which life might be different. ⁣⁣

Some of Pimwana’s characters reflect on their situations, while others have very little self-awareness. Time and again, I found them fascinating to read about. ⁣⁣

Published by Tilted Axis Press.

Yaniv Iczkovits, The Slaughterman’s Daughter (2015)
Translated from the Hebrew by Orr Scharf (2020)

In the Russian Empire towards the end of the 19th century, Fanny Keismann heads for Minsk in search of her brother-in-law, who left his family some months earlier. She is joined by Zizek Breshov, once a Jewish boy who was conscripted into the imperial army, now a silent boatman who lives apart from his old community. ⁣

Fanny is the daughter of a ritual slaughterman, who knows how to handle a knife. When she and Zizek are attacked on the road, Fanny defends herself – and the resulting deaths draw the attention of Colonel Piotr Novak of the secret police. ⁣

So begins a grand historical adventure, which winds together a number of stories (not just Fanny’s journey, but the histories of her and other characters as well) into a highly enjoyable tapestry. More than one character will find their preconceptions challenged along the way. ⁣

Published by MacLehose Press.

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