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Posts Tagged ‘Salman Rushdie’

Regular readers will know that Salman Rushdie is one of my favourite authors.  I’ve read many of his novels, including favourites Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh.  Luka and the Fire of Life is a sequel to the delightful Haroun and the Sea of Stories (see my review here).  They are both children’s adventure stories that are aimed at ‘tweens’ or YA – it was written for Rushdie’s 13-year old son – but are equally entertaining for those adults, myself included, who just love a good tale well told with lots of entertaining wordplay on almost every page.

Luka is the younger brother of Haroun, and at twelve years of age is due an adventure.  The beginning sees Luka and his story-telling father Rashid, the so-called Shah of Blah,  walking home from Luka’s school.  They pass a circus, run by the cruel Captain Aag.  Luka laments the maltreatment of its many animals and wishes that Aag’s animals rise up in revolt against him.  The wish turns out to be a curse which works and soon Bear the dog, and Dog the bear, appear on Luka’s doorstep and become his loyal companions.  Aag retaliates by placing a curse on Rashid who falls into a deep state of unconsciousness.  Nothing can wake him.

One day Luka looks outside and thinks he sees his father in the alley.  He rushes out to greet him but  as he crosses the threshold he stumbles into the World of Magic.  The man he saw was no man and no father, but a sort of ‘pre-ghost’, who calls himself Nobodaddy, who is slowly sucking hte life out of Rashid and who will ‘un-be’ when the real Rashid finally carks it.  The only way Luka has of saving his father is to steal the Fire of Life.  He sets out with Nobodaddy and his dog and bear friends, entering a kind of video-game world where he and his friends store lives to begin with and then lose them along the way as they try to get to the next level and the next, all the way to level 8 where they can steal the fire, then level 9 where they make their way home.  While in this world, Luka has a three-digit number in the corner of his vision which indicates how many lives he has left.

There are so many wonderfully inventive touches throughout.  Rashid has given names to his two hands: No one and Nonsense.  When he tickles Luka, he says he’s not tickling him at all, that in fact ‘No one’ is tickling him.  When Luka protests he tickles him with the other and tells him it’s Nonsense.  When Luka is on his adventure, they pass along the River of Time in which worms live that “made holes in the very fabric of Time itself” (ie, ‘wormholes’).  And there’s a wonderful swirling maelstrom known as El Tiempo and the Loops of Time, which Rushdie playfully uses to repeat sentences and sections of prose over and over while the band of adventurers are stuck, freeing up new prose as soon as they exit.  There’s also enough ancient god references – Greek, Roman, Persian, African, Asian, American – to satisfy a classical history professor!  It’s wonderful stuff.

Along the way, Luka learns good morals, like the need to run towards your problems rather than away from them.  Ultimately, Luka and the Fire of Life is a story about the power of story.  How else to rescue the life of a story-teller?  If you enjoyed Haroun and the Sea of Stories, you’ll love Luka, (though there’s no need to have read the first to enjoy the latter).  It’s great fun from cover to cover.

Rushdie’s next book is to be his memoirs.  For someone who has lived through the fatwa after publishing The Satanic Verses, during which he lived in protective custody for years, it should be a fascinating read.  Before then, though, there’s a film version of Midnight’s Children to see, which Rushdie wrote the screenplay for.  It has just premièred and I can’t wait to see it.

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

2010

Random House

218 pages

ISBN: 9780679783473

Source: a friend!

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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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What is the price of progress?

It seems the better the book, the slower I read!  This is counterintuitive perhaps, but I like to slow down and really—for want of a better description—gorge on beautiful writing.  I finished Just Relations a few days back but have been so flat out with other things (and other books!) I haven’t had time to write a review.

Just Relations is in many ways a product of its time.  Published in 1982, and winner of the Miles Franklin that year, it is a longish book.  In this regard it reminds me of books published around that time such as Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie, and Illywhacker by Peter Carey (a little later, 1985)—and I mean this in terms of length as well as style and quality.  Great books transcend the time they are written in and are always worth going back to.

(Of course in ‘those’ days, there was no internet!  What did people do with their spare time?  They read, (or went to primary school in my case!).  Today, we are in a very interesting time in publishing with everyone’s short attention spans and the rise of e-books.  Perhaps one of the most interesting questions is what it all means for the length of the book.  I’ve heard it said many a time that publishers will not consider publishing manuscripts over 120,000 words, unless the author is established.  But are books such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel reversing this trend, or is this a mere speed-bump on the road to shorter and shorter novels?  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.  I could also pass comment about the changes in literary awards here, particularly with regard to books that win the Miles Franklin, but I shall desist!)

For lovers of quirky Australian tales with elements of magic realism that are beautifully written, Just Relations will not disappoint.  The by-line of the book is “A tiny, remote Australian community unites to thwart progress.”  It is a good summary of the town of Whitey’s Fall which is built up a strange mountain of gold that looms over the town and its old folk who gather silently in the Mountain Hotel, (the pub), to muse over their ‘religion’ of ‘Remembering’.

The opening scene will tell you much about the flavour of the story.  Into the town arrives Vivien Lang, a young English woman who enters the general store run by the ancient Mrs Brinsmead and presents her with a letter of introduction.  Felicity Brinsmead is old, like most Whitey Fallers and carries with her grotesque sack of hair and a terrible secret.  Vivien is a relation of one of the townsfolk (now living in England), and she is here to claim her relative’s property.  Mrs Brinsmead is excited by the arrival of so young a person in so old a town, and promises herself to introduce the woman to ‘Remembering’.  In the meantime the shopkeeper is having a conversation with the shop itself, who is a very miserable indeed(!)

After Viven’s exit, Billy Swan walks into the shop and asks for half a dozen sticks of gelignite.  This raises a few eyebrows.  The town was built years ago on the gold found in the mountain, and here is someone asking for explosives.  Has he found more gold?  Or has he found the gold but wants to not extract it but to blow it apart so that the town can remain the quiet backwater it is and not be over-run by every Tom, Dick and Harry on the back of the next gold-rush?  Mrs Brinsmead can’t find either gelignite or dynamite.  (It turns out that the ‘Fido’ she constantly calls out to is not the invisible dog that everyone thinks she is (madly) calling after, but her son, who she and her brother keep imprisoned in their house—not wanting to let him be known to the other townsfolk for he represents undeniable progress.  It’s Fido who has hoarded all the explosives.  But for what purpose?)

Billy leaves empty-handed and angry.  He soon meets Vivien and a relationship blossoms between them after they witness the death in a car crash of Mrs Ping who drives off the Mountain road.  And this is just the first one hundred pages or so!

It is impossible to summarise the cast of odd characters that Hall has assembled here.  They are as strange and quirky as the town.  The story is full of comedy, farce, tragedy, and wonderfully unbridled imagination.  There are many harrowing events; it seems Hall has a penchant for the grotesque things that people inflict upon themselves—or situations they wander into without warning.  Mrs Ping’s death is one example.  As is her husband “The Narcissist’s” razor-blade self-harm.

The town has steadfastly ignored the claims—and letters—of the outside world.  Things come to a head when Progress—represented by the new highway being built right through the town—threatens their very way of life.  (This made me think of a question asked of Peter Carey in London at a reading I attended when he was promoting True History of the Kelly Gang.  When asked whether he thought it terrible that the new freeway that skirted Glenrowan meant that people passed by without knowing the town and its history, he replied that ‘no, the people who want to know will take the turn-off’.  This is not quite what the townsfolk of Whitey’s Fall face, indeed quite the opposite, but they are both facets of the same ‘Progress’.)

What with the approach of the highway, what will the explosives in Whitey’s Fall be used for now?  The highway roadworks uncover the gold, but only the townsolf notice.  There is a lot of humour throughout the novel.  In this section we see Senator Halloran attempt to rally support for the road.  He says of the development that is cutting up the land: “Ecology is a web.  This road will make you part of it.”  How very droll!

No wonder Just Relations won the Miles Franklin Award, an award Hall has won twice, and been short-listed a further four times.  That’s a total of six short-listed novels out of the eleven he has written.  (He has also written numerous poetry volumes, non-fiction, and edited several poetry anthologies.)

Strangely, I haven’t read a lot of Hall’s work.  I heard him talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (2010) where he read from his just published memoir, Popeye Never Told You.  In that reading he described a German bombing raid in WWII.  The prose was sparse, haunting—and perfect for the subject.

In Just Relations, the prose is both lustrous and weighty, a combination that may seem impossible, but Hall achieves it.  I wonder how much the likes of Winton with all his ‘muscularity’ learnt from him?  Whatever the answer, he is, on the face of this book alone, a worthy teacher.

It might not reach the great heights of the works by Rushdie and Carey noted above, and here and there is perhaps a little indulgent—reflective of the time perhaps.  But its imagination is no less exciting.  It exhibits an intriguing range of narrative styles and voices.  It turns out the price of progress can be quite high, yet it also brings love and the promise of a new generation.

Just Relations kept me company for a while, and what good company it was!

Just Relations by Rodney Hall

Penguin

ISBN: 0 14 00.6974 7          [clearly an old ISBN format!]

502 pages

Source: The Local Municipal Library

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On paper Siddon Rock had many of the elements that I like: magic realism, an Australian setting, a wide cast of odd characters, all in a debut novel and thus a new ‘voice’ to enjoy.  It had also garnered a positive appraisal view from Lisa’s excellent review at ANZLitLovers.  It had won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book.  It is also short-listed for the 2010 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in the ‘New Writing’ category.  Would it match my expectations?

Siddon Rock is the story of the fictional town of the same name located somewhere in the Australian inland, its founding & naming, and the large cast of characters that inhabit it – many of whom are subject to miraculous visions, and each of whom carry secrets that bubble to the surface and infuse magical events.  And it is a very interesting cast of characters, including an agoraphobic Methodist minister, a cross-dressing dressmaker who is Alistair by day, Allison by night, and the disturbed returned soldier Macha Connor, who grew up wanting to be a boy and, whilst serving as a nurse in the war in Europe, comes across her male namesake Mark Connor and takes his place on the front line after his death.  There she witnesses the horrors of war and is never the same again, her arrival back into Siddon Rock marked by her naked, vigilant wanderings around the town with her .303.   The second half of the book focuses on the arrival of Catalin and her son Jos, émigrés from Eastern Europe, looking for a home and an escape from their own war-torn past.

The novel’s stronger and more interesting characters are all women (or wannabee women in the case of Alistair!).  Nell, the maligned local aboriginal woman vies with Granna, caretaker of the Aberline family, for wisdom and mystery, and there is Sibyl the daughter of the local butcher who was abused by her father until he left and now runs the shop herself, always ambushed on Sundays by painful memories of her childhood.  Indeed, men come off pretty poorly for the most part, including the befuddled Minister, the barman Kelpie Crush who hides a dark secret, the hapless Young George Aberline, and Fatman Aberline, cousin of Macha, who envies her abilities as they grow up.

Whilst I love the magic realism of Rushdie, Garcia Marquez, or Peter Carey as an Australian example, some of the early fantastic events in Siddon Rock seem so over the top that I found some of images a little jarring for some reason.  I also found the writing a little mixed.  It is excellent in parts, but some sections seemed not as polished or well-edited as others.  I found the constant use of names, particularly surnames, bordering on annoying.  Kelpie Crush, barman at the pub run by Marge and Bluey, is pretty much always ‘Kelpie Crush’, hardly ever just ‘Kelpie’.  But as a counterpoint there are lovely images such as Henry Aberline sitting on the rock that becomes known as ‘Sitdown Rock’, which is then corrupted to ‘Siddon Rock’.  Henry, an Englishman who ventured to Australia in search of a butterfly, forsaking his cotton-mill wealth, eventually disappears, and the family of Jack, the aboriginal guide who lead him to this spot, say of his disappearance: “He’s a butterfly”, and, “He flew”.  Henry leaves behind not just an interesting story, but a family tree and the fledgling town which becomes known as Siddon Rock.

Once through the first 50-60 pages or so the writing is more polished.  The ideas and images are well chosen and well depicted.  Guest has found her stride, and the reading experience is a lot better for it.  One of the central themes – that of the secrets the characters carry – really comes together.  The idea and image of Catalin’s cello, on which her family history paints itself, is wonderful.  There is also the hat that Alistair has designed and asked a Parisian milliner to make for him – it arrives looking nothing like the design he sent away, but the “rich maroon-red to black” and its wings remind us of the exact same colour of the butterfly that Henry had searched for when he also journeyed from Europe to Australia – a nice echo of the magical past in the magical present.  There is Young George Aberline’s ill-fated plan to harvest the salt from the lake and sell it as Siddon Rock Salt – a humorous linkage of word and idea.  Later, we have Catalin giving a talk on the history of Germany in the war to the school children through the use of shadows thrown onto the wall by her hands – it is a wonderful scene, poetic and emotionally charged.

The story is quite ambitious for a first novel with quite a large cast of characters.  The majority of the writing measures up to the ambition very well.  It’s just occasionally let down.  Take for instance (p114): “And so Majorie began the journey towards her music. We don’t need to follow the beginning story too closely.” (Emphasis added).  ‘The beginning story’ sounds awkward.  There are many examples like this.

The great thing about the magic realism of Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie or even Peter Carey is that it feels necessary for the story; it adds meaning to the realism.  Indeed, I often think that people neglect the second word of that description: magic realism – for the magical seems best when it serves realism rather than be on show for the sake of itself.  For the majority, the magic in Siddon Rock serves the story and sense of place very well.  There’s a lot to like about it and it is a wonderful debut novel.  I think there are some fabulous ideas and some great writing, but it fell just shy of my (probably too high) expectations.  That said, I’m very interested to see where Guest’s writing goes from here.  Siddon Rock would be a perfect choice for a book-club, with lots to dissect and discuss, including, in my view, the poor ending!

Siddon Rock by Glenda Guest

Vintage

ISBN: 9781741666403

291 pages

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Outside of literary circles, The Autumn of the Patriarch may be one of Gabriel García Márquez’s lesser known works, hidden behind the towering One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.  This is a great shame as this is no less a masterpiece than those two works.  However, part of its greatness is no doubt part of the reason it may be less fancied, for it is a reading challenge that will alienate many readers.  Intrigued?  Allow me to explain…

Those who are familiar with García Márquez’s style will know that he favours languid sentences and paragraphs, with minimal dialogue, written in trademark lyricism that, as Salman Rushdie says, “no-one else can do”.  It is perhaps no surprise that at some point he would take these traits to the extreme – and he does so in this novel.  Each chapter, each around 35-40 pages, is just one paragraph.  Sentences often go on for pages.  Within this stream-of-consciousness-styled narrative, the point-of-view switches, often rapidly, from third-person to first to third, and dialogue is subsumed within the prose without quotation marks.  It is suffocating just looking at the page, let alone reading it.  There is barely a chance to draw breath.  Indeed, one of his friends became upset with him as he was in the habit of sipping a glass of wine during his reads but could not find any gaps in this novel in which to indulge!*

Of course, this is a very deliberate choice on the part of García Márquez – as is the equally particular six-part structure of the novel, in which the life and tyranny of an ‘eternal’ dictator is retold in each chapter.  He said of this work that is was “a poem on the solitude of power”.  (What’s with all the solitude Gabito?!  It is, of course, one of his recurring motifs.)  Just as many great war novels are delivered through the prism of absurdity to heighten the sense of madness, so one could argue that García Márquez has devised a perfect format for the paranoia and stifling of freedom inherent in a dictatorship with this tightly-packed, recurring nightmare of a narrative, where the simple act of drawing breath seems like sedition.  There are the usual García Márquez signatures: the exotic, lyrical language, the surreal and distorted realities, the fusion of magical and real.  The result is an uncompromising yet marvellous read, a book that truly pushes the boundaries of what the novel is capable of.

The novel opens with the Generals’ ultimate death, then falls back to his ‘first’ death.  The narrative is subject to these regular leaps in time, back and forth, the likes of which Faulkner would be proud.  The main portion of the chapter deals with the ‘first’ death, which is really the death of his look-alike double.  Such is the conceit of the real despot, lurking in the shadows, that he is surprised when the sunrise still occurs the next day.  Apart from a couple of mourners, the city begins to celebrate his death.  Aghast, the dictator shows himself to those people who have gathered to “divide up amongst themselves the booty of his death”, and orders them to be shot as they attempt to flee.

The depiction of the deadly apparatus of power is a highlight.  Take for instance the General’s rigging of the weekly lotteries so only he wins.  He forces children to pick his winning numbers, and subsequently jails all two thousand of them.  When the truth outs, he transfers them in “nocturnal boxcars to the least-inhabited regions of the country”, whilst he declares the rumours of the children’s’ imprisonment to be “an infamous lie on the part of traitors to get people stirred up, the doors of the nation were open so that the truth could be established …”.  He invites the League of Nations to come and inspect the jails for confirmation.  It all sounds eerily familiar.  Whilst in exile, candy and toys are dropped to the children from planes to keep them happy while the General waits for a ‘magical solution’ to occur to him.  The magical solution is the order to “put the children in a barge loaded with cement, take them singing to the limits of territorial waters, blow them up with a dynamite charge without giving them time to suffer…”.  He rewards the officers who carry out the order with promotion and medals before having them killed for their crime.

Soon thereafter the tyrant survives a failed assassination attempt.  The suspect’s fate is a lesson in violent retribution.  At the annual dinner at which members of the military are honoured, where Major General Rodrigo de Aguilar gives his familiar toast to the dictator, the guests become concerned when the Major General fails to show – but he then enters “on a silver tray stretched out … on a garnish of cauliflower and laurel leaves, … ready to be served at a banquet of comrades by the official carvers to the petrified horror of the guests … and when every plate held an equal portion of the minister of defense stuffed with pine nuts and aromatic herbs, [the General] gave the order to begin, eat hearty gentlemen.”  It pays to stay on the General’s good side!

In the fourth chapter, we find the General mourning the death of his mother.  He tries to make her into a saint, organising for the Church to review her merits given all the miracles she has performed for the people, but the investigator sent by Rome finds out that these thousands of claims of miracles have been made by people paid for their false testimony.  The effort to have her canonised fails.  Not to be out-manoeuvred, the General proclaims the “civil sainthood” of his mother, declaring a national holiday in her honour, after which he declares war on the Holy See.  The property of the Church is nationalised and all the priests and nuns are forced to leave the country stripped of everything, even their clothes.

When she was alive the General’s mother wished he had learnt how to read and write.  He is later taught to read by his lover Leticia Nazareno.  He refuses to allow any interruption to his daily two-hour lessons even when rural people begin to suffer from ‘the black vomit’.  As always, it is the people who suffer.  In return for her lessons, Leticia convinces the General to have the Nuns and God allowed back into the country.  Ironically, the Pope awards the General with a sash and a medal – the “order of the knights of the Holy Sepulcher”.  Meanwhile, Leticia becomes pregnant with the General’s child, and forces him to marry her.  The General by this stage is so convinced he is God that he names his son Emmanuel.  As soon as he is born he is declared a Major General with full authority, and his mother takes him in his “baby carriage to preside over official acts as representative of his father”.  (Of course, this is only one of thousands of babies he has sired – all ‘seven-month runts’).  After one failed assignation attempt on both mother and son, they are eventually killed in a “hellish whirlpool” of rabid hunting dogs in a public market, organised by treacherous conspirators, which prompts a further round of revenge killings that even the General seems tired of, particularly when one of those killed turns out to be an aide he used to play dominos with.

The final chapter sees the General promoted in the final moment before his death to ‘general of the universe’, “to give him a rank higher than death”.  The chapter is partly narrated by a girl who is offered candy by the old General who then takes advantage of the twelve year old and has his way with her.  He dreams of eating the girl, seasoned with rock salt, hot pepper and laurel leaves.  The girl narrates this with fondness, even love, for the old man.  When he dies, she thinks on behalf of the people “we no longer wanted it to be true, we had ended up not understanding what would become of us without him”.  Thus begins a strong indictment of those who allow military dictators to enslave them.

The General learns that the information given to him all these years has been falsified.  One of the ironies of his newly acquired ability to read is the fact that the newspaper he reads is the only one of its kind, full of stories and pictures his hangers-on think he wants to read.  The real news is something else entirely – for not only is the nationa morally bankrupt but economically bankrupt too.  He and his cronies have driven the country into the ground, having sold off the farm as it were, forced to pay interest on borrowings taken to pay back other loans.  The only thing left to sell is the sea.  When faced with an ultimatum from the ‘gringos’ to allow the removal of the sea or face invasion by marines, the General relents.  The sea is taken, in numbered sections no less, back to Arizona, whilst the people won’t come out to protest despite the offered inducements because they have done so before and been shot, and won’t fall for the same trick twice.

Great polemic novels are a product of their time yet have the power and reach to become classics.  This is definitely the case here.  García Márquez began writing Autumn in 1968, and whilst he reportedly finished it in 1971, he continued to polish it until its eventual publication in 1975.  So it sits in between One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and his novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), which was followed by Love in the Time of Cholera (1985).  García Márquez was definitely at the height of his powers in these years.  Autumn is set in an unnamed Caribbean nation, and the General is installed with the help of the British, but the man Garcia Marquez most had in mind when writing it was Venezuelan dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.  García Márquez said the overthrow of Jimenez “was the first time we had seen a dictator fall in Latin America.”  The book was actually written in Barcelona in the autumn of the Franco’s brutal dictatorship, which also ended in 1975.  Barcelona provided stern resistance to Franco and endured much hardship.  Furthermore, Spain offered asylum to numerous ousted dictators including Jimenez.  So there was plenty of material and first-hand experience for García Márquez to utilise in constructing the General’s character and his apparatus of fear.  This extended to the persistent rumours of Franco’s death that dragged on much like the numerous lives of the General and very reminiscent of Fidel Castro.  Speaking of Castro, much has been made of García Márquez’s friendship with him, whom he has been quoted as saying is a “very cultured man”.  Cuban writer, Reinaldo Arenas recalls with justified bitterness in his memoir the 1980 speech given by Castro and attended by Garcia Marquez in which Castro painted the recently gunned-down refugees in the Peruvian embassy as ‘riffraff’.  Apparently García Márquez applauded the speech.  Perhaps in his mind a left-wing dictator like Castro is far superior than a right-wing version such as a Pinochet or Franco.  In any case, it seems a perverse act for the author of Autumn.  It is a shame that such a great writer became enamoured of the very type of man he ridiculed in his writing.  Perhaps it is the ultimate proof of the cult-like power such men possess and the eternal danger they pose.

Not everyone will enjoy Autumn, but it is, as they say, an important book**.  I am a bit sceptical when I see comments like ‘deserves to be read twice’.  I am not usually one for reading things a second time – unless they are truly special.  This is one of those books.  Whilst the novel is only 229 pages, it reads like a book at least twice as long.  Close reading is a must, and you need to plan your reading time; you can’t grab a few sentences during the advertisements in your favourite TV show; reading in bed is problematic if you wish to sleep; and reading on public transport is downright treacherous – you’re trying to find a break in the story when your stop comes along that simply doesn’t exist.  I dare say it will be a while before I return to it, my eyes will take a long time to recover(!), but I’m convinced I’ll discover so much more in a second reading that it’s tempting to start again now.

One last thing: spare a thought for the translator!  Can you imagine trying to translate never-ending swathes of narrative such as this?  Wow, I’m not sure if there are awards for translating, but if there is, Gregory Rabassa – also responsible for the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude – deserves it.

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabríel Garcia Márquez

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141032474

229 pages

* This was noted in García Márquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale which was intended to be the first of a three volume memoir, and covers his life up to the point he asked his wife Mercedes to marry him.  Unfortunately, the other two will not be completed.

** It is one of four of García Márquez’s works that sit on the (2008) 1,001 Must Read Books list, an honour he shares with: Austen, Calvino, deLillo, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Henry Green, Hemmingway, Henry James, DH Lawrence, Iris Murdoch, Nabokov, Rousseau, Tolstoy, and Virginia Woolf, and possibly others I’ve missed.  (Coetzee, Graham Greene, and Emile Zola have five!)  It’s pretty good company to be in and no surprise from the Nobel Prize winner (1982).  The Autumn of the Patriarch truly deserves its place on such a list.

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This delightful ‘fairy-tale’ is something for the young and the young at heart.  However, like all good fairy-tales, and given this is Salman Rushdie, there is a very serious thesis at its core.  Haroun’s father, Rashid, who goes by the name of the Ocean of Notions, or less admiringly: the Shah of Blah, is a master storyteller of Arabian Nights calibre.    Rashid is “stuffed with cheery stories” until his wife – and Haroun’s mother – deserts them.  In a flash, Rashid loses his story-telling powers and what comes next is a magical fantasy ride of strange creatures, figures, and places – a quest that Haroun and Rashid take to try to rescue the power of storytelling.

Haroun and Rashid travel to the ‘second’ moon Kahani, where Haroun plans to find the means to return his father’s story-telling powers.  However, the moon is in a turmoil of its own as Khattam-Shud, the master of silence and darkness has kidnapped the pompous Gup Prince’s bride-to-be.  Worse still, the shadows of Khattam-Shud – evil overlord of the Chupwalas – are poisoning the ocean which is made up of all the streams of stories, and are also in the process of plugging the wellspring where new stories are born.  Haroun and Rashid inevitably find themselves helping the good Gupees.

This slim and multi-layered book – perfect to read as bedtime stories for youngsters, (or perfect under-the-covers reading for the rest of us!), has a serious side, as all good fairytales do: stories vs silence – the battle to keep storytelling alive and vivid in the face of dumbed-down masses that live in the world of silence.  “Freedom of Speech” is a gift to be utilised.  Rushdie’s message is the power of fictional stories to frame and inform our understanding of life.

Like Rashid, Rushdie is a master storyteller – which gives rise to the very personal allegory involved here.  This is Salman Rushdie’s first book after The Satanic Verses – which had resulted in the fatwa for his ‘heretical’ story.  , Writing under the protection of MI5 and exiled from his son – to whom the book is dedicated, Rushdie in a way has had his own storytelling powers threatened and stolen – and he wants them back.  Like Haroun and Rashid, he battles a shadowy enemy: religious zealotry.

There are numerous examples of speech vs silence, light vs darkness, the material vs shadows.  The Gupee half of the moon is constantly in sunlight, whilst the Chupwalas are in constant darkness.  Furthermore, there is wall between their two worlds, named ‘Chattergy’s Wall’ after the Gup King.  This sense of the building of walls between vastly different cultures also has a basis in real life, with the invisible wall between the West and the Middle-East.

Magical things abound, such as the ‘plentimaw’ fish who travel in pairs and who talk in rhyming couplets; flying horse machines that talk and have removable brains that are the mythical creatures one uses to get to Kahani; water genies; floating gardeners; shadows who fight – and in some case separate – from their owners; the list goes on.  They all help Haroun in his battle against the dark-lord’s shadow.  All standard fairy-tale fare, but delivered with Rushdie’s playful and rampant imagination.  He adds layers that beg to be interpreted.  Names, for instance, are important.  Haroun and Rashid for instance, are taken from the “legendary Caliph of Baghdad, Haroun al-Rashid, who features in many Arabian Nights tales.  Their surname, Khalifa, actually means ‘Caliph’,” and there are many other examples.

I am a big Rushdie admirer, particularly his earlier books such as The Moor’s Last Sigh and Midnight’s Children and the short stories in East, WestHaroun and the Sea of Stories, written in 1990, sits firmly within the best category of this early work.  He has recently come back to something like top form, with the very good Enchantress of Venice after the less successful Fury and Shalimar the Clown (which I so wanted to love, but was a little let down by some aspects as well as the ending).  He recently was quoted as saying he would soon write the story of his exile under the fatwa.  I can only hope it is as adventurous and interesting as his finest work.

If you enjoy ‘adult’ fairy-tales with magic-realist elements (and what good fairy tale doesn’t have these?!), or are an avid Rushdie fan, then you’ll enjoy this.  If you have young kids, I’d recommend giving it a trial run on them … (unless they’re too busy twittering or facebooking of course!)

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

Granta Books

ISBN: 9780140140354

218 pages

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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A few years back, whilst the Dilettante was living in London, I was walking along a quiet street near Regent’s Park when who should I pass by but the man himself – Salman Rushdie.  Ironically, a woman walking in front of me stopped him to ask … for directions!  (Obviously not a reader then!).  Now, this was toward the end of the time under which the fatwa issued by the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini was active, and I must admit I was searching the street for open second-storey windows complete with the tell-tale glimmer of a reflected sun in a sniper’s scope, ready for MI-5 agents to appear from every direction – and this from someone who rarely reads spy-thrillers!  Fortunately for both of us, no glimmers were encountered, and a much-admired author lived to tell the tale.  For that is exactly what Rushdie is planning: a book about that long decade according to The Guardian

It will no-doubt be an interesting read from a master story-teller, though quite how it will play without his signature magic realism remains to be seen, although there is sure to be a surrealist edge to the bizarre and tragic cloud that he was forced to live beneath for those long years. 

Will you be one keen to read the story?  Let me know.

The D!

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