had a million things to do this weekend but I have spent most of it reading this compelling novel instead! It’s only a week or so since I read Book O...more had a million things to do this weekend but I have spent most of it reading this compelling novel instead! It’s only a week or so since I read Book One in the trilogy, My Brilliant Friend (see my review) and I am now tormented by impatience to read Book Three which isn’t available yet.
The Story of a New Name follows the story of the complex friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo. Lila is now married and living in style with Stefano’s money, but the intimation that all would not be well in Book One turns out to be true. Lila’s easy contempt for anyone who might thwart her meets its match when Stefano uses his fists to make her do his will. Elena, torn between jealousy over Lila’s social elevation and her own determination to transcend the poverty of Naples through education, discovers just how bleak Lila’s imprisonment as Stefano’s wife is.
The causes of Lila’s disenchantment are complex, but they revolve around the influence of the Solara brothers. Stefano’s association with these wealthy neighbourhood thugs offends her, and she hates her family’s dependence on them for the success of the shoe factory which makes the shoes she designed. Her intellectual accomplishments are irrelevant in a world where she is expected to work in the family business and design more shoes for the hated Solaras and to make babies within the expected timeframe. Her pride makes her cease to care and whereas in My Brilliant Friend she continued to compete intellectually with Elena even after her family made her leave school, now she no longer bothers with books at all.
Not, that is, until she and Elena take a holiday on the island of Ischia, which becomes a kind of idyll. Having lost two babies to miscarriage, Lila is sent to Ischia to build up her strength in the sunshine, and Elena takes the opportunity to go with her because Nino, the boy she has fancied from a distance since their schooldays, will be there. Lila can’t bear to be left out of conversations about books and politics and philosophy so she helps herself to the books that Elena has brought with her…
An unhappy bride, a jealous friend, handsome young men and the freedom of the beach … in the hands of a less skilful author, this plot could easily have degenerated into a torrid romance, but Ferrante never falters.
The prologue lures the reader in, straight away. A young man from Naples phones the narrator in Turin in search of his mother. At first she dismisses...moreThe prologue lures the reader in, straight away. A young man from Naples phones the narrator in Turin in search of his mother. At first she dismisses him in irritation, but then investigates. The mother has vanished. Every trace of this woman is gone, as if she has decided to expunge her existence from memory. The narrator is half-admiring, half-alarmed by this wilful act of self-negation - but she is just as wilful herself and she decides that she will not let her childhood friend disappear. And so she thwarts the erasure by writing Elena’s story, a loving memoir that is also an act of revenge…
Elena and Lila have been Best Friends forever. They grew up in the fifties together in Naples in the shadow of Vesuvius. The volcano is a metaphor for their friendship which slumbers for periods of harmony and then erupts into drama. It also symbolises the battle for dominance between these two: like humans labouring away for centuries to build their own world only to have nature destroy it all in a catastrophic moment, Elena struggles to be the ‘best’ only to have Lila undercut her efforts with a nonchalance that is even more deflating.
Their competitiveness extends to everything. Both are very clever girls, and they are determined to rise above the grim poverty of their Naples. Handicapped by their family’s expectations about girls and education, they are encouraged by a determined schoolteacher and stimulated to achieve by outperforming each other. In puberty, their unspoken rivalry for dominance includes achieving the most alluring sexuality even though there are unbreakable constraints about expressing it. In a society where the males of a family protected a girl’s virtue with violence both against her and any would-be suitor, Elena broods over the changes in her body and the pimples on her face while Lila affects carelessness because she has yet to develop.
Diego Marani is an Italian author and Eurocrat who writes novels in his spare time. Following on the heels of New Finnish Grammar (2000) which was sho...moreDiego Marani is an Italian author and Eurocrat who writes novels in his spare time. Following on the heels of New Finnish Grammar (2000) which was shortlisted for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Best Translated Book Award almost as soon as it was translated, The Last of the Vostyachs (first published in Italian in 2009) has been longlisted for the 2013 IFF prize, and no wonder, it is unputdownable. (IMO it was unlucky not to be shortlisted, but then, at the time of writing this I haven't read all the shortlisted books.)
The Last of the Vostyachs is good fun to read. It has a sombre beginning, but Marani has no intention of letting his central character succumb to victimhood. This novel is a spoof, a melodrama that subverts expectations and a work of comic genius. It also has some thought-provoking elements which elevate the book even further out of the ordinary.
Ivan - brought up in a Siberian gulag - has stumbled out into the snow as a free man in the wake of the demise of Soviet rule. He has lived in the gulag for 20 years as slave labour after he and his father were arrested for ‘poaching’ i.e. living in their traditional hunting lifestyle. His tribe was on the verge of extinction when this happened and when his father was shot dead in front of him, Ivan was the only one left of the Vostyachs, an ancient Siberian shamanic tribe. He is the only one left who speaks their language too, but in the brutal environment of the gulag there was no one to console the little boy and he hasn’t spoken a word since.
But when freedom so miraculously arrives 20 years later Ivan remembers enough of what we Australians call bushcraft to survive alone in the bleak landscape and joyfully, he shouts aloud, recalling his long-unspoken language. He remembers how to fashion a drum from skins too, and his sings his ancient songs, hoping that others of his tribe will come. They don’t because they are all dead. It’s a nice irony, that a Soviet gulag has preserved the life of the sole remaining Vostyach.
It’s taken far too long for this seductive book to be translated into English, and I’m not surprised that it has been shortlisted for the Independent...moreIt’s taken far too long for this seductive book to be translated into English, and I’m not surprised that it has been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize almost as soon as it hit the shelves in the English-speaking world. (What other treasures lie in store for us, I wonder, now that at last readers can source the kind of books they like from everywhere, not just limited to what local booksellers think they might like? Publishers are starting to realise that there is a world-wide market for books in translation at last!)
Diego Marani is an Italian Eurocrat, apparently one with a sense of humour. To divert himself from his work as a linguist for the EU in Brussels, he spoofs current affairs for a Swiss newspaper using his own invented language called Europanto. He is the author of six novels, but according to Stu at Winston’s Dad, New Finnish Grammar is the only one to be translated into English. Let’s hope we see more of them soon.
New Finnish Grammar is the story of a man’s search for identity. Not the navel-gazing, coming-of-age or getting-older kind of identity that in my opinion tends to preoccupy too many authors at the expense of more significant issues, but an actual identity. He doesn’t know who he is, and in the turmoil of war, neither does anyone else.
It so happens that he is found on the quay in Trieste, with near-critical head injuries, in September 1943. The date is significant because this is when Mainland Italy was invaded by the Allies under Montgomery and the Italians signed an Armistice. Although Italy was then no longer a belligerent in the war, the Germans still occupied Trieste in the northeast near the border with Slovenia, and that is how a neurologist from Hamburg happens to be working there. (The Germans also continued to occupy other places in Italy, as all those of us who’ve read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin will remember).
I’m probably not the first person to think so, but The Prague Cemetery is a bit like a Thinking Person’s Da Vinci Code – on steroids.
Well, as it happ...moreI’m probably not the first person to think so, but The Prague Cemetery is a bit like a Thinking Person’s Da Vinci Code – on steroids.
Well, as it happens, dreaming up conspiracy theories is a minor amusement of mine. I find it livens up watching what passes for the TV news; and goodness knows, the world is rich in opportunities these days. But Umberto Eco prefers to dabble in times past, setting that fabulously arcane Name of the Rose back in the Middle Ages, while The Prague Cemetery - shortlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – is set in the late 19th century. This precludes Moon Landing hoaxes, WikiLeaks and other favourites emanating from America, but it allows the author to mine the Dreyfus Affair and the Romanovs, not to mention Satanic rites, Freemasonry, the Knights Templar and the antiSemitic hoax ‘the Protocols of the Elders of Zion’.
I’m not going to pretend that I understood The Prague Cemetery in its entirety. The whole point about arcane mysteries is that the reader is not supposed to. You are meant to be pleasurably mystified, and yes indeed I was. The only way to read books such as these, I’ve found, is to surrender to them, to read on and hope for the best. Trust the author’s cunning, and it will all make some kind of sense eventually.
The Narrator (capitalised, because he is a character in the novel) says at the beginning of the book that he’ll help out occasionally, but he’s having a laugh. Hilariously, he provides a little chart at the back of the book in a section called ‘Useless Learned Explanations’. The chart is purportedly to clarify the story and the plot ‘for the benefit of the overly meticulous reader, or one who is not so quick on the uptake’…
The story lures the reader into the grubby backstreets of 19th century Paris á la Victor Hugo where in a maze of derelict stairs, cluttered rooms and filthy passageways lurks a very nasty old Italian called Simone Simonini. The name is ironic: both Simone and ‘Little Simon’ mean ‘listening’ and derive from the Hebrew, meaning ‘he who hears the word of God’. Ostensibly a dealer in ‘second-hand’ goods, Simonini is actually complicit in almost every man-made calamity to befall Europe that you can think of. Yes, it is his mission-in-life to winkle out conspiracies of one sort or another, and to counter them with his own. In his armoury of weapons he has a very cunning and suspicious mind and the foulest set of prejudices you can imagine. He despises the French, the Germans, the British, and Sicilians. He hates Communists, the Jesuits, the Masons and the Jews. (I probably missed a couple). He vents these hatreds in his diaries where an unrelenting torrent of anti-Catholic, antiSemitic, and anti-Masonic diatribes will make most readers feel very uncomfortable indeed, even when they recognise that Eco is satirising extremists.
This is a reader’s book. Not a book for people who like reading but otherwise lead normal lives, but for people like me who define themselves by readi...moreThis is a reader’s book. Not a book for people who like reading but otherwise lead normal lives, but for people like me who define themselves by reading, whose lives are absorbed by reading, who would rather read than do (almost) anything else, and who love the idea of playing with the idea of the book itself.
Reams of paper and many an undergraduate hour have been spent analysing the postmodern brilliance of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller so I’m not going to do that. I don’t know much about postmodernism anyway as you will know if you have read my Postmodernism for the Uninitiated. You can read about the construction of the book and what passes for its plot on Wikipedia or here if you want to, though that might put you off. I’m just going to tell you why I was struggling to smother my laughter on the train yesterday…