Not as twee as it looks. The heroine is about 15 years older than the flying manic pixie dreamgirl on the cover, she gets drunk a lot, works...moreBook 2200.
Not as twee as it looks. The heroine is about 15 years older than the flying manic pixie dreamgirl on the cover, she gets drunk a lot, works stupidly long hours, has arguments about sports and forgets to clean a pair of muddy shoes for weeks. Out of the characters in the limited number of Japanese novels I've read, Tsukiko is furthest from the traditional idea of a Japanese woman, though she doesn't seem to have set out to reject it; she isn't intellectual, she simply sees herself as not "old-fashioned", and is a solitary person in a communal society. (I could relate to her thinking of buying a huge saucepan to use when there are lots of guests - probably imagining a Sunday supplement sort of life - then realising she practically never has that many guests.) She is not simply an anti-stereotype, she feels very real; she is also socially reticent and likes long baths and cooking. (This is a very foodie book; if you're into Japanese cookery you'd find it inspiring.) So it's somewhat curious that she slowly falls for a much older man, about thirty years older - one of her former school-teachers who's a regular at the same bar - and who's a bit of a stickler for proper, ladylike vocabulary; opposites attract evidently. I'd personally find that way too big an age gap (making a theoretical exception for Bruce Robinson) but as regards those who use the word creepy about this aspect of the book, I roll my eyes and note that neither of these characters is a clueless teenager or a senile millionaire, so it's not as if one person is taking advantage. This love story was interesting for the very reason that I couldn't relate to it, and was trying to understand how different people experience life: their romance grows very slowly out of a close friendship and feeling comfortable with one another, and physicality and appearance are hardly mentioned - whereas I see romance as a possible product of lust, I have incredibly specific physical types, and if I don't fancy someone on first sight, I never do; getting on well with someone without lust is platonic friendship. I can't say I fully grokked their experience, described in the blurb as "old-fashioned romance", but it was still interesting to try.
Strange Weather in Tokyo, although it's only 176 pages, was a little too much about the romance, and I could have done without the Kojima episode entirely. I got bored at times and would have liked more on culture and ideas in the middle of the book; that would have been out of character for Tsukiko as a first-person narrator, but we could have heard something about her work, which exhaustingly consumes huge chunks of her life whilst remaining a mystery to the reader. Still, elsewhere in the book there's lots of food, expeditions to museums and little islands, and a memorable anecdote about the Big Laughing Gym Mushroom (a real thing!) which sounds like a cross between magic mushrooms and laughing gas. It's very readable without being too slight and has a combination of familiarity and strangeness that look likely to prove popular - in Japan, where it was published in 2001, it is regarded as a modern popular classic. (less)
A really charming novella about the legacy of an unknown [fictional] Argentinian artist. Salvatierra, left mute by a childhood riding accident, painte...moreA really charming novella about the legacy of an unknown [fictional] Argentinian artist. Salvatierra, left mute by a childhood riding accident, painted every day for over 40 years on long canvases, with stories and images flowing into one another and references and people repeating themselves in different forms - a kind of painted diary of real life and imagination, resulting in 4 kilometres of paintings which now sit rolled up in the family shed. (Salvatierra's back-story of injury, plus some motifs in the paintings, echo Frida Kahlo. His art fits around his work at a Post Office, not unlike Anthony Trollope's. And I was also reminded of Miguel Angel Blanco, a Spanish artist mentioned in Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways, whose many boxes of nature art take up lots of space.)
Juan Salvatierra's son Miguel, narrates; over ten years after his father's death he and his brother are still battling moribund South American bureacracy, still trying to get something done with the works - Salvatierra won an award decades ago but otherwise never courted publicity, and disappeared from the public eye. Miguel then discovers that the canvas from 1961 is missing but all other years are present - this is the story of his adventures finding out about the missing piece via some of his father's dodgier friends, and of what eventually happens to the paintings. There is something about Salvatierra's life story that feels utterly authentic, although I could see possible inspirations for it: this is a straightforward fiction narrative, yet I felt as if I'd learnt about him for the first time from a placard during a random gallery visit, same as about Joseph Beuys, Hélio Oiticica and others who aren't hugely famous outside art circles.
Occasionally I guessed what was going to happen, but it didn't really matter because the book was so engaging regardless, and sometimes the fulfilment of an expected pattern has its own kind of satisfaction or relief. A little ebook very much worth its £3.
Elegant horror: several have said so before, but these words sum up Ogawa's book of short stories perfectly. (Incidentally very few of the stories are...moreElegant horror: several have said so before, but these words sum up Ogawa's book of short stories perfectly. (Incidentally very few of the stories are about revenge; it looks like the English translators were stumped given that the original title means something like "Reticent Corpse, Indecent Burial" or "Quiet Corpse, Erotic Funeral", to quote a couple of online sources. Here that wouldn't be likely to sell much outside the goth market.) And it's easy to see why Ogawa has been called the Japanese Angela Carter: this book is just as strange and intelligent and otherworldly.
These are not simply short stories: in the tradition of classical Japanese poetry collections, the stories in Revenge are linked through recurring images and motifs, [people and places,] as each story follows on from the one before while simultaneously introducing new characters and themes. (back blurb) The term "well-crafted" is a staple of reviews, but if all that stuff is well-crafted, this is almost exquisite, and the stories are remarkably consistent in quality. It's horribly lazy to say so, but this has a very traditionally Japanese aesthetic combination of precision, beauty, and distance, with moments of cruelty/suffering. I feel like a big gallumphing oaf trying to sum it up - you may be better off reading a sample of Ogawa's writing. The original was published in 1998 and its being in that moment, so close and so far away, with a daily life free of the internet and mobile phones yet right on their cusp, now multiplies the sense of a strange parallel world which exists in the book. The narrators, some of them sinister, some of them not, are an excellent alternative to the hackneyed routines of unreliable narrator and slow-reveal in English-language novels dealing with strange crimes.
I've noticed recently on Goodreads that a number of posters have been disturbed by various books that didn't bother me - it's odd compared with the world of film, where I'm more sensitive than average. Are bookish people even more sensitive, or is it different responses to different media? Anyway, there were actually a couple of things in Revenge which got to me - it seems to be details related to physical torture that I find more horrible than anything else. (Very big trend in recent films, of course.) Even simply mention of instruments of torture - there are no big detailed scenes here ... whilst we're on the film theme, it's a 15-cert sort of book as the nastiest things happen off-camera. 4 stars because I simply didn't feel much connection with it, though it's not like you're meant to; there are certainly people out there who will love this as it is. In my last post I mentioned that the IFFP is sometimes concerned with political novels at the expense of interesting art - at least by shortlisting Revenge they have bucked that trend.(less)
A set of ten short stories (very short, given the large font and page margins), set in the criminal underworld and working class of Naples. Each takes...moreA set of ten short stories (very short, given the large font and page margins), set in the criminal underworld and working class of Naples. Each takes its title and theme from one of the Ten Commandments. Which means that, at least half the time, you can guess what's going to happen. The stories were pretty straightforward and basic literary pieces, and the first-person voices of the characters (ranging from young teenagers to a washed-up nightclub singer in late middle age) were too similar. A translator is unlikely to change the basic structure, but it may be him or the author who's responsible for the lack of difference in voice. In any case, this isn't a book for people who want ambitious, strange or amusing fiction. Even if the writing wasn't extraordinary, I hoped it at least provided insight into place and people. However, the short biography of the author, who was named after the character Andrej in War & Peace, left me in some doubt ... Over here that would sound rather rarefied and upper-middle-class: has he at least worked and / or lived among people like these characters for years and so understands them well? Their worlds are unrelentingly, stereotypically grim; at least some of their lives would surely contain more fun and entertainment than we get to see here... British kitchen sink drama characters usually at least have a few good nights out.
Leaving this off the IFFP shortlist was a wise choice, I'd say.(less)
[probably 4.5 with re-read] This is the first IFFP book which has a fascinating strangeness similar to the Best Translated Book Award listed titles. Ha...more[probably 4.5 with re-read] This is the first IFFP book which has a fascinating strangeness similar to the Best Translated Book Award listed titles. Hassan Blasim's (and I'd guess the real) Iraq is like a fictional dystopia - except it's not fictional. None of that overly familiar creeping ominousness technique as an author slowly pulls the curtain back on more invented horrors: no need for silly games here, all this is part of every day life. I've never read any modern Arabic fiction before so I'm going to sound like a patronising idiot and describe this as a mixture of gritty realism and Arabian Nights-like fantasy. There's a cover quote from John M. Harrison, and that indicates this is hardly straight realist fiction. The stories are also funnier and dirtier and filled with more drink and drugs (it's a rare character who isn't stoned at some point) than I would have expected. I have no idea of how material like this is *really* regarded by most people in the Arab world, aside from the obvious views of fundamentalists. Blasim's work has been banned in Jordan, one of the few Arab countries where it has been published in print.
There's so very much happening here, a rush of images and events, different things several times a page sometimes, also off-kilter metafictional uses of author-as-character. Too much? I don't think so, it's all part of the unusualness emphasising a different world. A few of the stories feel like short action movies. I had imagined life in Iraq to be at least as strictly controlled as that in the Soviet Eastern Bloc, but what The Iraqi Christ presents is a wild-west lawlessness, at least when the secret police don't catch you and inflict terrible punishments. These are mostly stories of young-ish men: some mobile between countries, armed at various points, whether for crime, war or self-defence - and in their youth they get into the sort of lascivious scrapes that I thought characteristic of their well-off counterparts in mid-twentieth century European literature: reading illicit literature like Rimbaud, visiting prostitutes, trying to talk to beautiful inaccessible girls (described like that, it reminds me of Fellini films). This article mentions Arab writers' growing up reading European authors, and that the South American writers who popularised “magic realism” were influenced by Arab tradition .
Blasim now lives in Finland - such an interesting combination of cultures (I daresay such a comment sounds pretty annoying to people from these places.) - and a few of the stories are set there, not always flattering about the place.
I really want to re-read this collection: it's very rich and there must be all sorts of detail to pick up on a second read - and it's only 140 pages - but I've promised it to a friend so notes on the stories will have to suffice for now. These little summaries really don't convey the strength and strangeness of the writing.
Song of the Goats. People gather for a storytelling event by a radio station that specialises in broadcasting citizens' past experiences during the dictatorship and wars. Most of the story then concentrates on a boy and his experiences of his family and of being a fugitive – so much more lively and bizarre and disgusting than that sounds. This whole story is in the Kindle sample – it's a good introduction, though not all the stories are so violent. (There is quite a lot of violence but there isn't much fine detail about individual events and internal experience of them, it's more like the level of detail you'd get in news reports.)
The Hole. Fleeing a robbery, a Baghdad shopkeeper falls into a deep hole, at the bottom of which sits a djinni and the corpse of a soldier from a completely different war… [blurb]
The Fifth Floor Window. Men in hospital. Also childhood reminiscence of capturing scorpions with a female friend.
The Iraqi Christ. A soldier with the ability to predict the future finds himself blackmailed by an insurgent into the ultimate act of terror… [blurb]
The Green Zone Rabbit.
A Wolf. An Iraqi man living in an unspecified western country comes home from a night out and finds a wolf living in his flat.
Crosswords. A deviser of crosswords survives a car-bomb attack, only to discover he is now haunted by one of its victims… [blurb]
Dear Beto. Narrated by a former stray dog who was adopted by a dissolute Finnish artist. Partly reminiscent of Kafka in the way it's not an entirely convincing narrative by an animal as we've grown used to them being done, sometimes it could be as if he's forgotten he's a dog not a person. Or maybe that's the point. (I had various gripes with some of the stories in a Kafka collection, here.) Perhaps a metaphor for refugees, but the story, this book, is too bloody weird to have any straightforward meaning, proper art - under that interpretation 'Dear Beto' would provide rather threatening views of both sides. If the underlying theme of the collection is “trauma and the curious strategies human beings adopt to process it”, as stated on the back cover then yes, it fits, just not with the most palatable views.
The Killers and the Compass. A boy and his psychopathic gangster older brother. A compass with mystical properties.
Why Don't You Write A Novel Instead Of Talking About All These Characters? A party of middle-eastern refugees are arrested in Hungary and taken into a refugee residential centre. The narrator is one man but sometimes he is Blasim, sometimes he has another name, background and identity.
Sarsara's Tree. A woman is found wandering in the wilderness. She has the power to make poisonous trees spring up all around her.
The Dung Beetle. Various themes and narratives fold into this, including many paragraphs and anecdotes addressed to a doctor / doctors. They could be spoken one person or many. Evidently a riff on Metamorphosis.
A Thousand and One Knives. A mixed-sex group of friends have magical power over knives: some can make them disappear, some can make them reappear. (less)
A short novella - more of a long short story given what a quick read it is - about a fairly ordinary day in the life of a Second World War German sold...moreA short novella - more of a long short story given what a quick read it is - about a fairly ordinary day in the life of a Second World War German soldier. He is one of three men on a routine mission to hunt out Jews hiding in a Polish forest near their barracks; they capture one young Jewish man and cook a makeshift meal in an abandoned cottage, also in the company of a passing Polish hunter.
Read hours after finishing a book by such a powerful writer as Stig Saetterbakken, A Meal in Winter was bound to seem slight by comparision. It's a competent, pared-down piece of literary writing but it simply doesn’t convey experience with anything like the same depth; its vocabulary and style are basic and - in keeping with Mingarelli's usual vocation as a writer for children and young adults - it simply takes a realist story from A to B (with a couple of very brief flash-forwards). This was a good illustration of the relative reputations of the IFFP and the Best Translated Book Award (whose longlist I got the Saetterbakken from) - where the IFFP generally prefers accessible stories with a political slant, and the BTBA goes for unusual books with stylish writing.
A Meal in Winter is by no means a bad book, and although the author says it’s written for adults, one gets the impression that the soldiers are crafted to be "just nasty enough" in a way that would be perfect to pitch at an average YA audience who've covered the war in school history lessons, including the usual digestible lists of factors and motivations. (Some of the men are meaner and more anti-Semitic than others, but all are worn down by combat and killing, tormented from nightmares - and their victims suffer primarily so the soldiers can keep on the right side of their commanding officers.) Incidentally, it was a tad distracting that all the Germans have surnames that are now famous in other contexts: Emmerich, Bauer, Gra(a)f. Outside secondary education I struggle to see a point to books like this. I’m still all for people telling real stories about the war that haven’t been publicly documented, but this is just more fiction covering familiar themes. Over ten years ago an LRB piece made a good case for why we don’t need so much new fiction about the Second World War, and not much seems to have changed - the IFFP has a tradition of being altogether too fond of it: they have shortlisted this and ignored several better books with other themes. (less)
A collection of four longish short stories from Spain, the only dull BTBA book I've read so far. Going by his subjects, I'd guess the author has an up...moreA collection of four longish short stories from Spain, the only dull BTBA book I've read so far. Going by his subjects, I'd guess the author has an upper-class background; unfortunately he lacks the wit associated with posh British writers.
The stories concentrate on the characters' relationships and current events are only mentioned in passing, although the settings stretch from the days of Franco, through his fall, to the twenty-first century.
We Were Surrounded by Palm Trees Two well-off couples, one Spanish, one German, are on holiday on a rarely-visited island in the Indian Ocean. Their landlord and a local chieftain have sinister overtones, in a mild, unengaging, psychological horror that explicitly references Heart of Darkness. It was difficult to care about any of the characters here, and I thought about how participating in luxury tourism to a developing country must make it impossible to engage with local people as equals. Bits of the story didn't quite fit together: the visitors are going way off the beaten track, yet they were as blasé about the location and culture as people in the same major resort for the tenth time. And there's no satisfactory explanation for the chieftain's interest in them other than a storytelling device. They're just random westerners, not politicians, researchers or reporters. Also had a phrase worthy of a Bad Sex Award: "For a moment the bottom of her shirt was pulled taut, exposing the darkness of her sex sheltered between her thighs like a sea urchin among rocks." I'm laughing again typing it out.
Captives The story of a jetsetting upper-class Spanish marriage from the 1980s to now is told by the woman's younger male cousin, who, surprise surprise, is a novelist. Mostly meh, gets interesting and darker towards the end, but still bogged down by an unartistic writing style.
Joanna Narrated by a man looking back on a memorable summer romance with the titular Joanna, during his teens in the early 1970s. I really liked this one. The protagonist is a day-boy at a boarding school, living in genteel poverty with his strict grandmother at El Escorial; Joanna is a troubled girl from a high society family there on holiday. The teenagers bond in escaping the homes they dislike (at times I imagined the magical scenes of the two boys having feasts and adventures in the middle of Truffaut's The 400 Blows) but Joanna's family pull her back in by inviting the boy to their house. At the time he finds the family curious and interesting, although he's always able to perceive that being near them is a cause of great stress to Joanna, and accepts this. Retrospectively, with adult knowledge he perceives worrying dynamics at work amongst them, and talks of what he learned of Joanna and her people in later years.
The Last Cold Front This narrator is ten years younger than the previous one. A teenage boy in early eighties Madrid, he relates events in his relationship with his divorced parents - his organised mother, father a Peter Pan type with plans to get back into publishing - and his mother's new boyfriend, an alcoholic professor of Latin American literature. I was more sympathetic to the book after reading 'Joanna' - but this final piece is the sort of thing that, whilst it would have been interesting as part of a friend's life story, I found little point in as fiction.
I'm not keen on 3/4 of this book, and won't be in a hurry to read another translation by Katherine Silver either - not that I read much Spanish fiction*. There are several odd vocab choices, the sort of thing you'd expect of a goodish non-native speaker armed with a thesaurus. And I've never seen such overuse of qualifiers outside my own drafts - the style is too frequently (there I go again) suited to the office more than to art. Another fault I share, one which makes writing less than exciting, is boring use of excess words, plenty of which could be pruned without changing the meaning of sentences (e.g. “rewarding or punishing them according to criteria determined only by the narcissistic fluctuations of his mood.”) The End of Love could be at least a couple of thousand words shorter and all the sharper for it... It needed better editing.
* Understatement: this is the first Spanish fiction I've read since Don Quixote about twenty years ago.(less)
[3.5] Horses of God is a pretty good, worthwhile book and an engrossing read. But I read it at the same time as some really outstanding novels, and it...more[3.5] Horses of God is a pretty good, worthwhile book and an engrossing read. But I read it at the same time as some really outstanding novels, and its weaknesses were shown up. Especially in the company of several other titles longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, which concentrates on artistic merit and somewhat off-the-wall literature. Horses of God, whilst pretty well-written (it seemed almost blandly wordy and imprecise straight after Rodrigo Rey Rosa) is a didactic political novel - at least one encased in an involving story. Based on attacks which happened in Morocco ten years ago, it's narrated by the ghost of Yachine, a teenage Muslim fundamentalist suicide bomber, telling of his life in Moroccan slums - scavenging at the tip to earn money, parental thrashings, and the escape of playing football - and his subsequent conversion and training by men who provided him and his friends with decent jobs and a sense of purpose. I think it's very important to point out how issues like poverty and cultural imperialism can influence people to become extremists, but even though this is a good story and I think its message is a good one, I just don't like obviously, straightforwardly didactic literature. Better non-fiction with proper referencing.
The author, a Moroccan writer and artist who has lived in New York and Paris, has made the narrator understandable for Western readers of accessible literary fiction by changing his personality significantly. Yachine explains to the reader that he has become wiser and more articulate as a revenant. "I'm reduced to an entity that, to use the language of down below, I'll call consciousness: that is to say, the restful outcome of myriad lucid thoughts. Not the dark, narrow ones that dogged my brief existence, but thoughts with aspects that are infinite, iridescent, sometimes dazzling." "When I was alive I wouldn't have been able to describe her as I can now. I wasn't taught the words to describe the beauty of people or things, the sensuality and harmony that makes them so glorious." He is able to reflect on his life from the standpoint of the European cultural elite. I agree that insight and articulacy are good things, but this is a worse than usual case of using literature to put words into someone's mouth. I can't for the life of me remember what the [another] book was, but a review (possibly on John Self's Asylum blog) of a book I may even have read, described how a narrative was a character's voice but enhanced: these were the things they would liked to have said if only they could. That seems fair enough. But if writing a contemporary political novel, I'm not sure it's right to make a character say things so different from what [you imply] they would have in life - to give an angry, uneducated, devoutly religious teenager musings similar to a wise old man who follows liberal secular values. Imposing a voice and ideas like that is, I think, something more fairly done when overt, and signposted by way of non-fiction or a third-person narrative. Even if I do agree with the intention behind it (and I carry around a similar idea that everyone has an essence that's good and kind and wise, just that it may be hopelessly obscured and walled up by damage and anger and all the rest of it) : perhaps the book and film affect the way a few people see the politics, if their audience are not simply the converted being preached to.(less)