Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Gabriel Garcia Marquez’

Even the Dogs by Jon McGregorHow to describe the 2012 IMPAC Award winner by Jon McGregor? Searing. Unflinching. Empathetic. Majestic. Haunting. It’s all these things and more. It begins with a quote from Dante’s Inferno: ‘Cut off from hope, we live on in desire.’ It’s a perfect summation of the loose-knit group of urban drug addicts in the north of England and the days surrounding the death of Robert, an obese alcoholic with bad headaches, at whose derelict flat they often congregate.

This is the underbelly of the fringe of the underclass. People stuck in a trap of poverty and addiction. People whose lives are devoted to one thing: the next fix. Crack. Smack. Heroin. Brown. Gear. There are many names but only one outcome: ruination, of lives, bodies and souls. Not for the squeamish, Even the Dogs is realism at its brutal best.

The story opens with the police knocking down the door to Robert’s derelict council flat to find his decomposing body. He’s been dead for days. We then see a string of visitors to his flat, calling through the letterbox and scrambling in through an open window. They include Laura, Robert’s only daughter, and Mike, Ben, Heather, Danny—all arriving at different times over the course of a few days. I say ‘we’, because the narrator consistently uses this term. But who is this ‘we’? And how does this narrator get into the flat when the police forensic unit is busy doing their work? An early clue comes thus:

They don’t see us, as we crowd and push around them. Of course they don’t. How could they. But we’re used to that. We’ve been used to that for a long time, even before. Before this.

Is this ‘we’ some form of ghosts?

The images of the flat and its detritus are haunting:

… some broken-beated lullaby holding us up against the walls and against each other, while out hands fall open and spill the spoons and pipes and empty cans, the scraps of foil and paper and cotton wool. Our crumbs of comfort scattering across the floor. Our open hands.

It takes a few pages to settle into the narration. Time speeds up and slows. It jumps around. Events are repeated. There are unsettling shifts. We witness Laura’s childhood in a few paragraphs, the happy beginnings with Robert and his wife Yvonne, the discordant notes, the chaos of his drinking, the tragedy of its aftermath in which Yvonne leaves Robert and takes Laura with her. Interspersed within these paragraphs are flitting snatches of the police and forensic people going about their work on finding Robert’s body:

We can hear two policemen talking … We can hear, faintly, Robert and Yvonne in the bath, splashing each other, asking for the soap. But when we look, there’s no one there, and the tiles are still cracked, fallen into the empty bath, and the sink has still been pulled from the wall.

In the second of the story’s five sections we have the POV of Danny mixed with the ghostly narrator’s. Danny’s paragraphs often end suddenly in the middle of a sentence. We are in the mind of a drug addict who can’t focus, who suffers from poor memory and blackouts. As a superb marriage of form and story, it’s reminiscent of The Autumn of the Patriarch by Garcia Marquez (see my review here).

Danny found Robert dead and wants to find Laura but can’t:

Thing to do now before anything else was to find Mike, up at the Parkside squats where they’d been sleeping lately and find him there he must be there. But Laura. But needing to score. But Mike might have some would he fuck would he 

If he hadn’t gone to his brother’s. If he hadn’t said all that to Laura. If he’d stuck with Mike. Then none of this would have

(McGregor has obviously gone to the Jose Saramago school of minimal punctuation!)

The process undertaken after Robert’s body is found spins out—from the honest portrayal of his autopsy, through to his funeral service at which the minister asks the men who carried in his coffin to stay so that he wouldn’t be the only one to send Robert on his way, and then the coronial enquiry. Alongside, we delve into different characters’ minds and lives, learning about the roots of their problems, how they came to be part of this sorry reality.

Horrors pile on top of horrors. Beatings, thefts, mindless violence, drug use, out of which come unforgettable images, from the ‘digging’ into veins, the heron (heroin?) that flies just out of Danny’s reach along one of the canals, and the ghastly treatment of one homeless man’s feet. He’s not taken his boots off for six months. ‘Turned out he had trench foot so bad there were things crawling around in his toes.’

It’s unrelenting stuff and when the few brighter moments come they are like shafts of sunlight banishing a perpetual gloom, such as Danny’s imagined(?) interview with the police, when they ask him when was the last time he’d seen Robert alive and well, to which he responds he’s never seen Robert alive and [well]!

Sadly, Laura returns to meet her father, after he has given up all hope of seeing her again, and she soon becomes an addict. Her lovely hands and skin and perfectly manicured fingernails will never be the same. Instead we see, through Danny’s eyes: ‘Cracked red sores around her mouth which opened up when she smiled.’ She says to Danny that she’s going to get clean; Danny laughs in her face: it’s a story he’s heard before, many times.

The prose is incredible throughout, but one section in particular transcends everything else I’ve read in recent memory. It is the story of Ant, an addict who had served in the army in Afghanistan. In a breathtaking sequence, starting with the roadside bomb that blows up the vehicle he’s travelling in, McGregor traces the production of heroin from the spot Ant lands with one leg blown off and medics rushing to treat him in the swaying poppy fields, all the way through the Afghani production, to Iran, Turkey, Eastern Europe, spreading out through Western Europe, a tentacle of which enters the UK through porous borders, until it ends up in a northern council estate, and from there into the syringe held by Danny, which he plunges into his neck because it’s the only place he can find a willing blood vessel. It’s six-and-a-half pages of majestic writing that alone would have been worthy of the IMPAC Award.

By the story’s moving conclusion in the coroner’s court, we find out who the ghostly narrator represents, why Robert had his headaches, explanations for his death, why Danny couldn’t find Laura, and whether any of the rest of them escape the inescapable.

A tough but rewarding read.

Thanks to Lisa @ ANZ LitLovers for running the competition in which I won it. You can read her review here.

Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor

2010

Bloomsbury

195 pages

ISBN: 9781408809471

Source: won in a competition run by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

The Plains by Gerald MurnaneThe Plains by Gerald Murnane is a hallucinatory novella. It is narrated by an unnamed man hailing from the coastal region of Australia who is recounting the time he travelled to the inner plains in order to seek a patron amongst the almost mythical ‘plainsmen’ with the goal of making a film about the plains. The film is to be called The Interior.

It’s a mysterious read, one that draws you into a very interior landscape—a chief concern of Murnane. Indeed, reading the first-person story, one feels that Murnane is talking, and talking as much to himself as the reader. It’s the interior in every sense of the word, and the fact it was part of an intended larger work reinforces this notion: Murnane has pulled the interior out of a greater whole. The filmmaker writes: ‘I had sometimes thought of The Interior as a few scenes from a much longer film that could only be seen from a vantage point that I knew nothing of.’

It’s all so post-modern, no?

For lovers of ‘story’, of plot, of characters with actual names actively engaging with each other using, oh, I don’t know, let’s say dialogue, look elsewhere: this is not the book for you.

It opens with the narrator recounting the day he came to the plains. He describes the gathering of wannabe artists looking for a patron amongst the plainsmen, how they gather in a pub where they are called one-by-one over the course of several days to present their ‘pitch’ as it were. The plainsmen drink themselves into a stupor of sobriety. While our filmmaker waits, he recalls the bizarre conflict between different plainsmen, the Horizonites and the Haremen, and the colours of the two sides, one green-gold, the other blue.

… the whole matter had begun with a cautiously expressed manifesto signed by an obscure group of poets and painters. I did not even know the year … only that it fell during a decade when the artists of the plains were finally refusing to allow the word ‘Australian’ to be applied to themselves or their work.

Is this Murnane thinking of himself? Is he classifying his work? Shaking off the cultural cringe that was still in place in the early 80s? Or is he just a fan of irony given the concern over the hard physical landscape that forms the backdrop to so many of our great Australian novels? I have no answers.

This is what makes The Plains so beguiling. I felt like I was walking through a rather pleasant fog in which I occasionally spotted something concrete, only for it to disappear as soon as I could focus on it. The more I walked toward this something, the further away it seemed, just like will o’ the wisp.

Even the two warring factions acknowledge this ‘haze’ in the plains themselves, with one group saying ‘the zone of haze was as much a part of the plains as any configuration of soil or clouds.’

There are separatists and splinter groups of splinter groups, with the extreme position being to deny the existence of any nation with the name Australia, because ‘the boundaries of true nations were fixed in the souls of men.’

A wry humour is never far from present. Once our narrator gets in to see the plainsmen, he finds them having three different conversations at once, each ‘advancing steadily’. Pity the poor wife of ‘2nd Landowner’, for he seems destined to see everything through the prism of bustards, a type of bird than he seems quite enamoured with! This section gives us some of the only dialogue in the book, presented like a farcical play, as they circle around the topic of a classic poem about the plains entitled ‘Parasol at Noon’. The 4th Landowner recalls the scene of a plainsman looking at a girl in the distance with all the paddocks (unsurprisingly) swimming in heat haze. The 6th Landowner says:

That is the only scene as I recall the poem. Two hundred stanzas on a woman seen from a distance. But of course she’s hardly mentioned. It’s the strange twilight around her that matters—the other atmosphere under the parasol.

The 4th Landowner says:

[The poet] asks impossible questions: which light is more real—the harsh sunlight outside or the mild light around the woman? isn’t the sky itself a sort of parasol? why should we think nature is real and things of our making less so?

Later, the 5th Landowner speaks of how he retained a surveyor to map the settled districts of the plains:

When the map is finished I hope to plot the route of a journey of a thousand miles. And when I make that journey I want to see, just once in the distance, some hint of land that could be mine.

There are some quite lyrical moments. Take for instance the musician who developed a composition that tried to find the musical equivalent of his district. When the piece was played by an orchestra, its members were positioned far apart among the audience, and ‘each instrument produced a volume of sound that could be heard only by the few listeners nearest it.’ The audience was free to move around, but they only ever heard snatches of melody, and ‘most heard nothing at all.’

Any of these excerpts could be a summary of The Plains itself. There’s just layer upon layer of the same sort of impossible task of pinning the interior landscape down.

Another intriguing fragment comes after the filmmaker secures a patron and moves out to his palatial digs. There he ensconces himself in a library that sounds every bit as large as the State Library of New South Wales. In a different part of the library is the plainsman’s wife, reading about Time. There is a strange love that develops between her and the filmmaker, or a longing on the part of the filmmaker at least. He wonders how he might communicate with her and derives ever stranger options for doing so. Talking to her seems to be too trite. He must write a book of essays which will then be catalogued as part of the library to which she might one day get around to reading! I could almost feel the touch of Garcia-Marquez here, right up until the moment that nothing actually develops. Gabo would have seen to it that the love played itself out!

In the final scenes the filmmaker’s patron conducts what he calls ‘scenes’(!), in which he arranges people in a landscape in order to take a photograph that others will look at and interpret incorrectly in future years. And what a wonderful final sentence, in which our failed filmmaker grips a camera and asks his patron to take a photo of him looking into darkness. The ultimate ‘fade-to-black’, as it were.

I’m embarrassed to say that I only came upon Gerald Murnane when reading Jane Gleeson–White’s Australian Classics (see my review here). The Plains is one of the 29 novels to make Jane’s 50 classics. I have set myself the task of reading most of the ones that I’ve not yet read, as well as some other classic Australian authors I’ve yet to sample, such as Elizabeth Harrower, and any others I may come across in Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library … hence the ‘Australian Classic’ part of the title for this review. Expect to see many more Aussie classics here over the next couple of years. Speaking of which, tomorrow, (Wednesday 5th December), I’m off to a talk at the State Library with Jane Gleeson–White and Geordie Williamson entitled ‘Sleeping Beauties’, which will cover some of the unsung female authors in the Australian canon.

Sue at Whispering Gums has a lovely review of The Plains penned just the other day, which you can read here. Lisa at ANZ LitLovers is also a fan.

Me? I can count the books I’ve read twice on one, if not, two hands. The Plains will be one of them. In fact, I’m not sure whether I’ll ever fully leave it behind. I’m still in its pages now, chasing that will o’ the wisp.

Read Full Post »

As an unabashed fan of García Márquez (‘Gabo’), I’ve been rationing the unread stories of so they can last me a while longer, but I couldn’t resist pushing Chronicle of a death foretold up the pecking order of the TBR list after Sue over at Whispering Gums recently listed it as one of her ‘most unforgettable books’ . The story is a recreation of an actual murder and reads as a fusion of reportage and true crime, with Márquez’s signature lyricism toned down but still a delectable presence. It is a strange, strange tale. Santiago Nasar is identified right from the opening sentence as the man who will die. The rest of the story pieces together the almost unbelievable sequence of events that lead to his death in a form of ‘honour killing’. I say unbelievable, because the whole town knows he is to be killed—the killers announce as much to all and sundry (hence the title)—but no-one believes twin brothers Pedro and Pablo Vicario will actually carry out their threat. Indeed, we are left wondering, as are some of the characters, whether they want to kill him at all; maybe their announcements are pleas for someone to step in and stop them. But because no one believes them capable, the killing perversely takes on a dark inevitability. Santiago himself hears the warnings, but is similarly afflicted by the implausibility of the looming catastrophe, walking around in a “bewilderment of innocence.”

Beware: spoilers in this next paragraph

The brothers Vicario are out to reclaim the lost honour of their sister Angela, after she is ‘returned’ to her mother on the night of her wedding by Bayardo San Román, who has discovered that he was not the first to deflower her. After a good beating from her mother for the shame she has brought on the house, she is asked who has stolen her virginity. She claims it was Santiago Nasar, though the narrator suggests that he’s an unlikely candidate as the two of them had never been seen together. It seems that, knowing her brothers will be duty-bound to go and avenge her lost honour, she opts to protect the identity of the man she loves by framing Santiago, a man whose wealth might make him untouchable. As miscalculations go, it’s right up there! There is a sickening sense of injustice, made worse by the fact that she never shows remorse. One wonders what is going on inside her mind, whether the protection of a loved one was worth the death of an innocent man.

[Okay, you can come back now!]

But of course, she is not the only one to blame. The whole town knew in advance. It is, says one, “a death for which we all could have been to blame.”  It is a marked example of how a prejudice plays itself out, and indeed the investigating judge writes in the margins of his report: “Give me a prejudice and I will move the world.”  So, so true.

Some well-known Gabo motifs make an appearance, such as almond trees and solitude. And there is his classic lyricism breathing just beneath the surface. When Bayardo first sees Angela walking across the town square from the comfort of a hammock, he asks his landlady to remind him when he wakes up that he is going to marry her. When he is courting Angela, he asks her which of the town’s houses is the one she most admires. The answer is house owned by the widower Xius, and off sets Bayardo on a mission to buy the house for her. Poor Xius caves in, unable to resist the lure of the ridiculous amount of money Bayardo offers him, and dies soon thereafter because of it, with the local doctor saying the old man “was healthier than the rest of us, but when you listened with the stethoscope you could hear the tears bubbling inside his heart.” That’s the kind of writing that makes my feet jiggle about with a kind of glee, and though the story is mesmerising, the tenor of the writing adds to the sense of haunting: there is humour, love, darkness and disaster. It is, just as Sue said, unforgettable.

There is also a sense of what is to come in his next major work—Love in the time of cholera (see my review here). Angela writes letters to Bayardo over a period of 17 years, and he finally gives into her, arriving one day with her two thousand love letters (which are unopened), saying simply, ‘Well … here I am.’ The way the two lovers unite when half a life has gone is similar to the way Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza get together in Love in the time of cholera after so many years apart.

One last point, it won’t surprise many to hear that Chronicle was made into a movie, but it might surprise some to hear that it was adapted into a Tony-Award-nominated Broadway musical! Now that’s the sort of musical I’d like to see.

Chronicle of a death foretold by Gabriel García Márquez

1981

Perennial Classics

90 pages

ISBN: 9780060932664

Source: the local municipal library

Read Full Post »

There have been many enjoyable reads this year.  The Boat by Nam Le got 2011 off to a great start with a collection of disperse and riveting ‘long’ shorts.  I then had the pleasure of re-visiting two of Peter Carey’s great novels in Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker.  One of the standouts of the year was That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, winner of the Miles Franklin.  I thoroughly enjoyed David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten – so clever and absorbing, the way the inter-linkages worked was very impressive.  Then onto another debut novel, this time from an Australian, with Favel Parret’s wonderful Past the Shallows.  There was time for some great classics too, like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Later in the year I was thrilled and appalled by Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch – what a ride!  And speaking of rides, what a way to end the year with The Savage Detectivesby Roberto Bolaño: part road story, part loss of innocence, every part fantastic.  You can find the reviews of any of these by searching or by clicking on the tags at the end of this post.

What were your favourites this year?

As for 2012, I’m not about to go in for any challenges.  I just plan on reading more classics, both old – Anna Karenina – and more recent – Bolaño’s epic 2666.  And I shall keep abreast of some hot-off-the-press works.  Apart from that, I shall go where the wind takes me.

I hope you join me for future musings!

All the best for the new year.

John

Read Full Post »

The Savage Detectives follows two poets, Arturo Belano (Roberto Bolaño’s alter-ego) and Ulises Lima (based on Bolaño’s good friend Mario Santiago), as they try to track down a missing poet named Cesárea Tinajero, as well as their subsequent wanderings through Europe as they grow into adulthood.

Written by Roberto Bolaño – the enfant terrible of post-‘Boom’ Latin American literature – it is structured in three, non-linear sections.  The first (entitled ‘Mexicans Lost in Mexico —1975’) and third (‘The Sonora Desert — 1976’) are both narrated in a first-person diary format by an aspiring poet named Juan García Madero.  Madero has joined a group of poets lead by Belano and Lima that is known as the ‘Visceral Realists’ in the bohemian Mexico City of 1975-6.   The Savage Detectives is quite autobiographical: Bolaño himself started a movement in 1976 in Mexico called the ‘infra-realists’.  When Belano and Lima go travelling to Europe, we are travelling in the footsteps of Bolaño himself who lived in Barcelona, and settled in a small Spanish town on the Costa Brava after marrying.  But who are the visceral realists really?  For all the posturing about getting published, Lima and Belano never seem to have had anything of theirs put in print.  Will they ever amount to anything?  And what becomes of their search for Tinajero (and related attempt to outrun a pimp and corrupt cop who are chasing after them)?

The middle section is by far the longest at some 400 pages.  It’s entitled ‘The Savage Detectives’ and comprises small to long ‘snapshots’, narrated in first-person interviews by some 52 separate characters, all of whom came into contact with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, whether from their time in Mexico or in Europe.  Many of these narrators are fellow writers, some are lovers, friends, enemies.  The anecdotes span twenty years, from 1976 to 1996, and provide us with an impression of who these two drifter poets were and what became of them.  But it is only ever an impression, for both Lima and Belano are like ghosts.  They came in and out of focus, literally disappearing and reappearing, while many of the narrators can only give oblique impressions or hazy recollections of their interactions with the men, be they short-lived or more meaningful.

As for the visceral realists, one of poet narrators, Laura Jauregui, who was one of Belano’s lovers, believes she worked out what the whole movement was about: (p134-5):  “…it occurred to me that is was all a message for me.  It was a way of saying don’t leave me, see what I’m capable of, stay with me.  …  The whole visceral realism thing was a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless.  But that wasn’t what I meant to say.”

Indeed!  Are we getting the right picture here, or the deluded imaginings of a jilted lover?  Later, another friend writes that “they weren’t revolutionaries.  They weren’t writers.  Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don’t think they were poets either.  They sold drugs.”

The change in structure and narration is quite a jolt and for the first 50 pages or so I was wondering what was going on.  As we progress in a more or less chronological fashion (with short time hops here and there), the effect becomes clear and there is a gradual darkening in the stories being told.  There is a real menace to the final pages, with characters we met in Mexico City dying or being killed or just disappearing.  In the afterword, Natasha Wimmer talks about how Bolaño thought of The Savage Detectives as his ‘own answer to Huckleberry Finn.’  Both novels are about friendship and the loss of innocence.  But where we follow Huck Finn on his journey first hand, here everything is cloaked through the lens of all these other narrators, something which adds to the sense of unease.

As soon as p136 we get a glimpse when a publisher talks about Belano and Lima thus: “I noticed something strange about them, it was as if they were there but at the same time they weren’t there.”

This sense of absence reflects one of Bolaño’s motifs.  Bolaño was a Chilean in exile, but as Wimmer points out, he was never comfortable with Chile or Chileans in general.  He is quoted as saying his home was the Spanish language.

Other narrators tell of hopes being dashed, of ‘doing what we could, but nothing worked out’, of smells of death on the blankets of Lima.  One is a backpacker camping at a site where Belano is the night watchman and writes that “I was sure something bad was going to happen.”  Another talks about how they were losing things without knowing it.  Often in these versions of history, Lima goes missing and Belano sets off to find him.  Later, when they arrive back from Europe, Lima goes off to a fictitious Latin American country and disappears for two years!  The publisher of Belano’s book says that Belano was a ‘phantom author’.  Joaquin Font, who takes Madero under his wing in the first section of the novel in Mexico City, narrates tales from a mental asylum and when he was told a friend of his committed suicide in 1980, he writes, (p281), “…that’s when I knew beyond a doubt that everything was about to go from bad to worse.”  Another: “We didn’t realize, but in those days everything was sliding inexorably toward the edge of a cliff.”

The sense of increasing despair is also reflected in the poetry of the missing Tinajero.  Like the poet, much of her work has been lost.  The one poem they find is actually three pictures.  In each picture there is a square placed on a line.  The first line is flat, like a becalmed sea.  In the second picture the line is wavy, and in the third the line is like a jagged mountain range.  It looks like a little boat without its sails tossed on stormy seas.  That, it seems, is life’s progression: from calm through unease to outright storms.

One of the earlier ‘stories’ in the middle section is narrated by Auxilio Lacouture and forms the basis of Bolaño’s novella Amulet (see my review) which was published two years after Detectives.  This is another feature of Bolaño’s oeuvre: the way characters from one work pitch up in another (like David Mitchell), and also the way stories themselves overlap.  Auxilio tells the story of how the military overran the University of Mexico in 1968: a metaphor for the real-life massacre of Tlatelolco.

When accepting the Premio Romulo Gallegos award in 1999 for The Savage Detectives, Bolaño said: “All of Latin America is sown with the bones of its forgotten youths.”   As Wimmer points out, in The Savage Detectives he “brings those youths back to life.”

The hallucinatory nature of the middle section is also true of the book-ends narrated by Madero as he describes how he is sucked into Belano and Lima’s strange quest to find Tinajero alongside a prostitute named Lupe, and chased by Lupe’s pimp and a corrupt Mexican cop.  We get arm-length views of Belano and Lima, and though we get close at times, we then find ourselves shunted away again.

It’s not all doom and gloom.  There are some very funny sections and stories.  There is a very humorous scene in which Belano challenges a literary critic to a duel after he becomes convinced the man is about to publish a bad review of one of his novels.  And duel they do, with sabres no less, on a Spanish beach watched by their ‘seconds’, who look on with a mixture of bemusement, astonishment, and jocularity.  (Pity the poor reviewer!  For a moment I wondered whether, had he still been alive, I would have found a use for the fencing lessons I enjoyed in my youth!  Alas, we’ll never know, for I’m not writing a bad review and, more to the point, Bolaño is no longer with us, though, having read stories of his very forthright personality it wouldn’t surprise me if a challenge was forthcoming from beyond the grave were I to do so.)  During the duel, the narrator realises that “this scene was the logical outcome of our ridiculous lives.  It wasn’t a punishment but a new wrinkle.  It gave us a glimpse of ourselves in our common humanity.  It wasn’t proof of our idle guilt but a sign of our miraculous and pointless innocence.”

There is also a very funny anecdote from a lawyer who intersperses his testimonial with Latin proverbs and who witnesses Belano make love to his daughter.  And there is the nice post-modern pay-off of the Belano-Bolaño relationship when the only scholar interested in the visceral realists, (who comes across as very strange), says, (p520): “Ulises Lima still lives in Mexico City. … About Arturo Belano I know nothing.”

Of course, about Bolaño we know an awful lot.  A combative personality, he eschewed the great and celebrated Latin American ‘Boom’ authors, many of which are seen differently at home than in the English-speaking world.  Take for instance Garcia Marquez’s very close relationship with Fidel Castro.  Bolaño dismissed Marquez as “a man thrilled to have known so many presidents and archbishops; Mario Vargas Llosa: same thing, but more polished.”(!)  Bolaño’s views are coloured by his personal experience: he got caught up in the Pinochet overthrow of the Allende government in Chile on a return visit, and was briefly jailed.  The revolutionary Mexican PRI party was responsible for the Tlatelolco massacre.  Bolaño and his infra-realist buddies went to the readings of other Mexican poets to disrupt them because they took money from the PRI.  One of his authorial predecessors he had time for was Borges, which is hardly a surprise, for Bolaño’s writing is in many ways as mysterious as Borges’ Labyrinths.  Bolaño is not of the Boom, but he gives us all another way to view the same madnesses that plagued Latin America in the 20th Century and still do so today albeit to a lesser extent.  But he extends the rage to include more modern illnesses, such as the all-powerful drug cartels that seem to run most of Mexico.  He recasts what it means to be a Latin American writer.

The Savage Detectives is one of two of Bolaño’s on the ‘1,001 Books to Read Before You Die’ list, (along with 2666), though many including James Wood and Natasha Wimmer point to his other novel By Night in Chile to be even better.  I for one am looking forward to reading it.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Picador

1998

ISBN: 97803305509527

577 pages (plus an insightful afterword by Natasha Wimmer)

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

Read Full Post »

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

So opens the masterful Love in the Time of Cholera.  Dr Juvenal Urbino has been called to the suicide of a man he played chess with.  It is an interesting structural choice made by Marquez, to start the novel with someone other than the two main protagonists, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, whose relationship is the core of the story.  And yet there is much to be gleaned from that one sentence.  For, as it turns out, when we go back fifty years to find Florentino and Fermina’s youthful love, their few face-to-face meetings are held beneath almond blossoms… [p64]:

Years later, when [Florentino] tried to remember what the maiden idealized by the alchemy of poetry really was like, he could not distinguish her from the heart-rending twilights of those times.  Even when he observed her, unseen, during those days of longing when he waited for a reply to his first letter, he saw her transfigured in the afternoon shimmer oftwo o’clockin a shower of blossoms from the almond trees where it was always April regardless of the season of the year.

The above passage tells you all you need to know about Marquez’s lyricism.  There is a sense of the magical everywhere, from winds so strong they carry away small children, to dolls at the ends of beds that seem to grow as a child would.

Unfortunately for Florentino, those almond blossoms are indeed the very factory of unrequited love, for Fermina rejects his amorous advances and settles instead for Dr Urbino.  Not to be deterred, Florentino decides to ‘wait’ for Fermina, to prove his love was real.  Of course, his ‘wait’ is quite idiosyncratic – he proceeds to engage in love affairs with some 622 woman over many years, some more involved than others.  It is during these long decades that we see a different side of Florentino’s obsessive love, for some of his (many) trysts have perverse and tragic outcomes: there are women who love him but know that he is unobtainable, there is one who is killed by her husband after he finds out the truth of her affair, and there is the fourteen year old girl, America, who is placed in his care as his ward, and whom he seduces into a relationship which ends with predictably harrowing results.  There is also the realisation that the Riverboat Company that he has run for most of his adult years has destroyed the luxuriant rainforest along the river.  And yet, despite these very human frailties and the collateral damage they cause, we want Florentino to win, to get his girl.

Meanwhile, life has dealt Fermina some of her own lessons.  She realises, only after Juvenal’s death, that he conducted an affair during their marriage, and was not really the man he seemed at first to be.

So we see love in all its guises and disguises.  We see, also, one of the great ideas of the novel: the celebration of ageing and how love can conquer time.

Of course, the other side of the word ‘cholera’ is ‘choler’, being “anger; irritability”.  So while we have the over-arching love theme set against the backdrop of the cholera epidemics that sweep through the townships along the Magdalena River, we also have a darker side, expressed in the never-ending civil war, and there are times when victims of one are confused with victims of the other.  It is one of Dr Urbino’s goals to improve the sanitation of the city and townships and rid the country of the recurrent epidemics.

Few other authors can match Marquez for the evocative depiction of setting, in this case a tropical city on theMagdalenaRiverinColumbia.

Take for instance this example, [p17]:

In summer an invisible dust as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into even the best-protected corners of the imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the houses and carried away children through the air.

And this… [p120]:

There was a full moon.  The patio, idealized by anisette, floated at the bottom of an aquarium, and the cages covered with cloths looked like ghosts sleeping under the hot scent of new orange blossoms.

The difficulty is in not quoting more, for there is something on every page that I’ve found myself underlining and pondering.

Love in the Time of Cholera is right up there with One Hundred Years of Solitude.  There is so much to like about it, from the deliciously magical images, to the mirth, the darkness, the poetic themes, the many faces of love, and the sublime ending.  I’m an idealist, so the notion that love can win over time is for me a comforting thought.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

(translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman)

Penguin

1985

ISBN: 9780140123890

348 pages

Source: personal library, (aka ‘the bookshelf rainbow’)

Read Full Post »

The yellow portion of my bookshelf rainbow needed a little boost so I was very happy to receive Téa Obreht’s much hyped The Tiger’s Wife in the mail.  It is a wonderfully produced hardback.  The cover is really well done.  Full marks.  It’s very different to the US version which is quite dark and stolid (see right), although I do like the tiger creeping across the top.  The differences between the two couldn’t be more pronounced.  But I’m not here to judge a book by its cover so it’s on with my musings…

Regular readers will know that I’m a bit partial to magic realism and fable, Garcia-Marquez, Rushdie, Saramago, Grass, Murakami, early Peter Carey, and so-on.  Looking at this list makes it seem like I’m a little stuck in the ‘80s and perhaps need to modernise my exposure to more recent speculative fiction from the likes of Neil Gaiman et al, a list to which Obreht can be added.

I picked up The Tiger’s Wife not knowing much about the story, only that it had some magical realist elements.  The reason I came to it was that Obreht is coming out for the Sydney Writers’ Festival in a few weeks.  The only other thing I knew was that Obreht had made it onto the New Yorker’s list of “20 under 40 Fiction” issue, and therefore comes with a lot of hype.   Obreht was born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia and was raised in Belgrade.  Her family moved to Cypress in 1992, then Egypt, and then finally to the US in 1997.  The Tiger’s Wife deals with the troubled history of her birthplace, and is thus an ambitious book.

I was immediately captivated by prose peppered with vivid details reaching out from the first line, [p1]:

In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.  He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress.  It is autumn, and I am four years old.  The certainty of this process: my grandfather’s hand, the bright hiss of the trolley, the dampness of the morning, the crowded walk up the hill to the citadel park.  Always in my grandfather’s breast pocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold-leaf cover and old yellow pages. …

All our senses are engaged, including the one that matters: our sense of wonder at the ritual and the importance of The Jungle Book to her grandfather – something that he carries with him everywhere he goes.

In an interview with the New Yorker magazine, Obreht was asked: “What, in your opinion, makes a piece of fiction work?”  Her answer was: “When something inexplicable happens in the transfer from writer to reader, and the piece, despite its imperfections, rattles and moves the reader. The best fiction stays with you and changes you.”

Well, this sense of magic that lifts off the page is very much evident in her writing.  The animals in the zoo are a pointer to the vivid descriptions which are a hallmark of the rest of the book.  A panther, [p3], has “ghost spots paling his oil-slick coat”; and the tigers are “awake and livid, bright with rancour.  Stripe-lashed shoulders rolling, they flank one another up and down the narrow causeway of rock, and the smell of them is sour and warm and fills everything.”

Set in an unnamed Balkans country split by the ravages of war, the story itself is divided into two strands: the one in which the now adult Natalia, our grand-daughter narrator, pieces together the last days of her grandfather’s life, and the one in which she recounts the memories of the stories of her grandfather’s life in the mountain village of Galina where he grew up.  The two strands wind tighter until they intersect.

Both the grandfather and Natalia are doctors.  This is an important distinction – for in times of war these doctors stand outside the conflict and deal with casualties on both sides.  And the Balkans conflicts form a backdrop to these stories, stories rife with superstition and characters who are persecuted for being outsiders.

Natalia’s father tells her stories about ‘the deathless man’, a man who cannot die, who he meets gathering the souls of people about to die for his uncle, Death.  The grandfather’s life is bound up in the two stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife.  These are the more ‘magical realist’ stories and characters.  And then there are events which are realist but no less magical, such as the night, in the middle of the war, when the grandfather wakes Natalia, then a youth, and takes her out into the middle of the darkened city where they see an elephant walking up the main drag to the zoo that they can no longer go to because of the war.   Apart from the elephant’s handler, they are the only witnesses to the miracle of the elephant being delivered to the zoo.  Her grandfather tells her then that this was a story just for them, that it was not to be shared.  He says, [p54]:

We’re in a war … the story of war – dates, names, who started it, why – that belongs to everyone.  Not just the people involved in it, but the people who write newspapers, politicians thousands of miles away, people who’ve never even been here or heard of it before.  But something like this – this is yours.  It belongs only to you.  And Me.  Only to us.

There is a strong sense that war is a thing that devours us all, something that comes back to haunt the story later, when the city zoo’s tiger begins to eat itself, starting with its legs.  The city’s inhabitants gather at the zoo dressed up as the animals, protesting the bombing.  Despite the futility, and the tiger eating itself, there is some hope: for the cubs of the tigress are saved from their mother – who threatens, it seems, to want to eat them – and are raised elsewhere.  Whether intended or not, this renewal of life is a nice touch.

Fortunately, just as war devours us all, demeans us all, stories have the power of life.  Before the current war there was another and a tiger escaped from the zoo and made its way through the countryside until it found Galina.  It terrifies the townsfolk, but it enthrals the young grandfather.  It also captures the heart of an abused, deaf-mute woman, a Muslim and thus an outsider, who begins to leave meat for the tiger.  She becomes known as the tiger’s wife.  There are tales of a great bear hunter and we find out why this woman’s husband is the way he is and what happens when these characters intersect, for they are all after the tiger, all except the tiger’s wife and Natalia’s grandfather.  We find out too, how the grandfather got his copy of The Jungle Book, a gift from the apothecary, who has his own story that is told, a story with tragic consequences for the grandfather – the apothecary might have given him his beloved book, but he takes something away from the boy just as important.

The stories are rife with superstition.  There is the forty days of quiet mourning that a family undertakes after the death of a family member; the burying of hearts at crossroads; the power of apothecaries; the appearance of the Virgin Mary in water; and the necessity of ensuring that the dead are properly buried.  Natalia, for instance, is busy going across the new border and giving medicine to a local orphanage.  Staying with a local family who own a vineyard, she sees an extended family digging in the vineyard, almost all day and night, searching for one of their cousins who was killed in the war and buried there hastily.  Sickness now stalks their family and they believe it is the soul of the dead man crying out for a proper burial.  Again, the war is never too far from the surface.  (Landmines still riddle the fields and mountains.)  It is here, too, that Natalia tries to track down the man who captivated her grandfather so much: the deathless man.

There are a couple of things which don’t quite work.  There is a strange pulling between some of the old stories, a sense that the whole is less than the sum of the parts.  The characters have these wild back-stories which seem to want to stand for the story itself.  For me the emotional depth comes from some of the stories of the war – how Natalia and her fellow medical students source their cadavers.  Her grandfather’s stories are filled with creative imagery, but they don’t quite carry the same emotional punch.  We spend a lot of time with, for instance, the deaf-mute’s failed musician husband as a boy.  The title is a pointer to this sense too: it was originally the title of a short story, but this novel is no more about the tiger’s wife than it is about Natalia’s grandfather, the deathless man, or Natalia herself. (It is, however, a great title.)  But it is with the grandfather talking to Natalia that we feel the impact of all the war when he says [p282-3]: “In the end, all you want is someone to long for you when it comes time to put you in the ground.”

Does it live up to the hype?  Yes and no.  The Tiger’s Wife is not perfect.  It is though, a very fine debut.  The quality of the writing, the vivid details, the great story-telling, the way the past informs the present, the way, too, Obreht casts the devastation and mindlessness of war and persecution, mark her out, not so much as an author to watch, but as someone who we can already enjoy in her sparkling The Tiger’s Wife.  The judges of the Orange Prize agree: The Tiger’s Wife has been shortlisted for the 2011 Orange.

I’m looking forward to seeing Téa Obreht at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.  And I can’t wait for her next book.

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Orbreht

Orion Books

2011

ISBN: 9780297859017

336 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »