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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 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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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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