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Posts Tagged ‘Jose Saramago’

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.

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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)

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The two-page preface to The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989) outlines José Saramago’s contention that “history and fiction are constantly overlapping” – something that is quite topical with novels such as Wolf Hall spurring a recent swathe of historical fiction. But this is not a historical novel like Mantel’s Booker Prize winner, but rather a story ‘inserted into history.’  Its fictional siblings therefore include speculative ‘alternate histories’, such as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004).  However, Roth takes a point in US history, (where he has FDR defeated by Charles Lindbergh in the 1940 Presidential election), and goes off on a tangent, writing a totally new history, whereas Saramago alters how a particular historical event occurs and who is involved, but there is no splintering off into some altered path of history which leads to an altered present.

The novel is constructed with two story arcs, one of which is historical, and the other in the present.  There are the events set in the twelfth century including our protagonist Raimundo Silva’s alternate history of the siege of Lisbon, and there is the life of Raimundo in the twentieth century.  It raises questions over how accurate the historical record can be and whether we can ever truly know the emotions or thoughts of characters whose history we interpret many years later.  How accurate can we be about History?

Saramago won the Nobel Prize in 1998.  This is the third book of his I’ve read.  The Stone Raft, in which the Iberian peninsula breaks off from Europe and floats around the Atlantic(!), and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ are the other two I’ve read.  The later is also an alternative history in the same vein as the Siege of Lisbon.  Both are excellent reads and are highly recommended.

In much of Saramago’s work, characters regularly have trouble connecting with others, and his novels regularly feature the theme of urban dislocation.  They also regularly feature magic realist elements.  The theme of historical accuracy and the framework of magic realism – right up my street! – so I was looking forward to another fine read from the Nobel Prize winning author.

Reading Saramago has its challenges.  He only uses commas and periods.  There is no other punctuation.  So, no question marks, exclamation marks, or dialogue quotation marks.  Dialogue is subsumed within the prose, marked only by a commencing capital letter and conversations are strung along with commas being the only separator between characters’ words.  His view is that the prose itself should make it clear as to who is speaking and also whether there is a question or exclamation involved.  One thus has to concentrate to keep up with things.  Close reading is a must.

This means that we get great slabs of prose, made only larger by his penchant for interminably long sentences and paragraphs, full of what I would call ‘narrative deviations’ in which the narrator goes off on some tangent to explore an idea or make a witty aside.  For example: (p63):

a traditional Portuguese meal of fried fish and rice with tomato sauce and salad, and with any luck, the tender leaves of a lettuce heart, where, something not many people know, nestles the incomparable freshness of the morning, the dew and mist, which are one and the same, but warrant repetition for the simple pleasure of writing both words and savouring the sound.

… It’s lovely writing, with lovely images, but there’s just too much meandering.  It is in some way reminiscent of Garcia Marquez’s excellent (and challenging) The Autumn of the Patriarch, (see my review), and provides a stark contrast to the pyrotechnics of a Dave Eggers or Jonathan Safran Foer for example.

Yet for all the promise of the story’s idea and the sometimes beautiful writing, for some reason only the modern arc of Raimundo’s life worked well for me.  Raimundo is a proof-reader and one day we see him insert a ‘not’ into a historical text entitled The History of the Siege of Lisbon – on purpose!  The deliberate mistake is only noticed after the book has been printed, but not before it is distributed.  The publisher’s decide to insert an errata notice rather than republish.  They also bring in a new woman, Maria Sara, to oversee all of the firm’s proof-readers’ work.  Needless to say, the meeting between Raimundo and his new boss is a tense affair!

After the meeting, Raimundo’s mind is filled with questions over the brusque nature of the woman.  Sometime later, he realises he has feelings for her.  Maria tells him that he should write the fictional history of the siege of Lisbon, one in which the crusaders decline to help the Portuguese evict the Moors from the fortified city.  After some silent rubbishing of this task, Raimundo finds himself drawn further and further into the lives of both Moor and Christian.  The fact that he himself lives in the fortified section of the city’s walls adds further intrigue – he can see battles and events from the distant past as if they are happening.  These historical scenes didn’t really capture my imagination.  Sometimes Saramago’s interminably long sentences with all their ‘nods’ and ‘winks’ and witty asides bored me.  It was all too ponderous.  So we have a wonderful premise for a story, but a structural problem with the dual arcs, one of which lacks bight.

It is only when the relationship between Raimundo and Maria Sara takes off that things move along nicely.  Here there are some wonderful moments, where an older single man falls in love with a woman fifteen-odd years his junior, who, we learn, liked him from their first meeting.

This is one of Saramago’s books that is one the 1,001, Must Read list.  I will certainly read other books by him, but just felt part of this novel didn’t work as well as it might have, which is a shame because the theme of the intersection between history and fiction is wonderful, one that is always worth exploring.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago

The Harvill Press, London

ISBN: 9781860467226

312 pages

Source: Personal Bookshelf Rainbow

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