Man Booker International Prize shortlist announced

January 24th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Here is the list of authors who have been nominated for this year’s Man Booker International Prize.  This award, which recognizes the authors’ total output compared to a single work, will be awarded in London on May 22nd:

U R Ananthamurthy (India)
Aharon Appelfeld (Israel)
Lydia Davis (USA)
Intizar Husain (Pakistan)
Yan Lianke (China)
Marie NDiaye (France)
Josip Novakovich (Canada)
Marilynne Robinson (USA)
Vladimir Sorokin (Russia)
Peter Stamm (Switzerland)

I have bolded the authors whose work/s I have read and italicized the one whose book/s I own but have not yet read.  Depending on time, there may be reviews of works by these authors leading up to the awards announcement.  It is an interesting shortlist, even if by the nature of the award it will focus mostly on authors who have been writing for decades.

Man Asian Prize finalist: Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Between Clay and Dust (2012)

January 24th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

The ruination of the inner city was attributed to time’s proclivity for change.  It lay abandoned, half buried in and half surrounded by the squalor of shanty towns.  New settlements cordoning it on three sides seemed to avoid the shadow of its sunken grandeur.  Streets connecting new colonies skirted off its periphery.  Links binding old and new neighbourhoods were either never formed or broken at the start.  The wide serpentine alley of high, arched gateways dividing its residential and artisan quarters looked strangely desolate.

The ravaging winds of Partition had left it unscathed.  The turmoil that had seared the fibre of men and gored their souls had not touched this quiet habitation.  There had been anxiety that things would be greatly changed, but later there seemed hope that the worst was over and life’s routines could now be renewed.  Nobody expected that in Partition’s wake would follow a slow disintegration of values that would unravel the inner city.  In a way, the inner city was always a cat’s cradle – a crisscross of life’s many facts, each sustained by the other.  The strings of this cat’s cradle had not snapped but they had become hopelessly tangled. (pp. 9-10)

Some of the best stories involve defeat, or rather the struggle of a soul that we know almost from the beginning is doomed to be beaten down.  Those who take a perverse sort of Schadenfreude at witnessing one’s comeuppance may find something to enjoy in Pakistani-Canadian writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Man Asian Prize-nominated novel Between Clay and Dust, but there are so many layers to this slender and yet powerful 213 page novel.  There is the inevitable failure of two people, the respected clan elder and wrestling Ustad-e-Zaman Ramzi and the aging courtesan Gohar Jan, to strive against the winds of change and the effects of such upon those around them.  Within this core struggle, we see their choices juxtaposed against that of those around them, with a glaring contrast of values and actions that make early 1950s urban Pakistani life (the city is never named, although it is located apparently on the Indus River) comprehensible for those of us who came of age a generation or two later in a land and value system alien and yet in some ways akin to that of the Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan.

Between Clay and Dust stretches over a few years, beginning in 1950 with the upheavals caused by the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan still ongoing.  Ustad Ramzi has been Ustad-e-Zaman for fifteen years and to him has fallen the task of training his twenty years’ younger brother, Tamami.  Tamami embodies values foreign to ustad Ramzi:  he is impetuous, headstrong, valuing the celebrity of the clan-centered wrestling bouts over the traditions embedded within these fights.  Through both his and Ustad Ramzi’s points of view, we come to see just how flawed of a character Tamami is, as he descends through anger and puffed-up pride to despondency and ultimately drug addiction in his futile quest to at first supersede his renowned older brother and later to earn his esteem.  Farooqi does an outstanding job in developing Tamami’s character, even though he is secondary to both the Ustad and the courtesan, through not just his thoughts, but even through conversations in which a corrupt wrestling promoter (itself an affront to the likes of the traditional ustads and their followers, who view staged exhibitions as akin to sacrilege) lays out the key conflict in the novel:

Gulab Deen smiled.

‘Tamami asked me if he would come.  I said he may come.  I said I think he will come.  That was all I told him.  You know how he is these days.  But I hope very much that Ustad Ramzi does come.  A challenge fight lacks something without the blessing and presence of elders.  Ustad Ramzi knows the venue where the bout is to be held.  I will keep a chair for him in the front row.  I will do all I can.’

‘So, is he going to come or not?’

Gulab Deen did not answer his question but continued:  ‘I have heard rumours that he said he will come.  But again, he may boycott the fight.  These old ustads and their ways.  Ustad Ramzi shouldn’t think he is doing me a favour by coming.  He should remember that it was I who arranged an exhibition match for Tamami when nobody was willing to fight him.  There is no gratitude in my business.  Everyone thinks I am after money.  But what’s wrong with that, you tell me?  If I don’t make money I go hungry.  Do you know how hard I have worked to arrange this fight?  Don’t say you don’t.  But I get no thanks.  Only complaints.’ (p. 160)

Here the clash of values between the older and newer generations are crystallized.   Money and the staging of what was formerly a proud cultural tradition have pushed these older values down.  Things have begun to change after the Partition (with the undertone later that things are always changing) and not for the better.  Tamami’s pride has cost him everything that he used to cherish most.  Now he is reduced in stature, forced to throw fights against inferior wrestlers in order to make a living after disgracing himself in front of his older brother.  This has affected him greatly and Farooqi illustrates this not just through Tamami’s PoV chapters, but also through the ways in which the corrupt promoter, Gulab Deen, views him.  To Deen, Tamami is not the fallen heir to a proud tradition, but instead is a potential moneymaker for another wrestler of his, one who stands to benefit from the “rub” that he gets for “winning” against the Ustad’s former protege.

Yet Ustad Ramzi is not blameless here.  In his chapters, we see a fascinating combination of tenderness and stiff-necked pride.  We see his noble intent when he visits the kotha of the singer/prostitute Gohar Jan, as he sits within her domicile listening to her sing and yet not seeming to have the slightest intent to have sex with her.  The respect he accords her is in sharp contrast to the mixture of frustration and condescension that he gives Tamami.  To him, Tamami is irrevocably flawed, whether it is his impetuous temper, his desire for fame and acceptance, or his succumbing to the ravages of drug addiction.  He cannot forgive him and this crushes the two of them in different ways.  Farooqi’s portrayal of Ustad Ramzi, through his meticulous care for the ancestral cemetery or the traditional patterns of his actions and beliefs, is subtle in its presentation yet penetrating in how he dissects Ustad Ramzi’s character.  Here emerges a complex character that has an uncommon clarity to his beliefs and actions.  The Ustad never feels underdeveloped or a caricature of the flaws of traditionalism.

Gohar Jan is the least developed of the three main characters, although much of that is likely on purpose.  In her can be seen the effects of a patriarchal society in which a very talented singer is disdained for being nothing more than a prostitute.  Her looks are all that matter to the men who visit her; when they fade, so do they from her company.  She is quiet and resolute in her attempt to maintain the appearance of relevancy, even as age strips her of most visitors (outside of the unusual visits of the Ustad Ramzi) and leaves her near novel’s end at the brink of losing her home and kotha as unscrupulous builders have bribed city officials to take not just her property but also that of the Ustad (including the family cemetery).  Yet she fights on.  Men may call her whore and try to deny her respect, yet there is such a noble spirit about her that makes these demeaning actions futile.  She is the bedrock for the Ustad, a symbol of how traditional admonishments may, if not quite cast away, be borne with a grace and dignity that transcends her lowly station in life.  It is her ultimate fate that brings Between Clay and Dust to a close and which underscores the connections between the novel’s title and the action within it.

Farooqi’s writing is superb.  He utilizes short (rarely more than four pages) chapters to switch character PoVs rapidly, yet no chapter feels rushed or sketchy.  There is an understated elegance to his prose that reminded me at times of some of Hemingway’s best stories in their way of showing character motivation and action in an economical yet powerful fashion.  There is never the sense of padded scenes or underdeveloped dialogue.  Everything meshes well together to create a memorable, moving fiction.  Between Clay and Dust is one of the best novels in a Man Asian Prize shortlist that is stacked with excellent writers.  Highly recommended.

Zoran Živković, Twelve Collections and the Teashop (2005; UK edition 2007)

January 23rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In a day and age where it seems that even speculative fiction writers aim to pack as much descriptive verbiage into their stories as possible (often with deleterious consequences), it is refreshing to read stories written by authors who go in the opposite direction; their stories place a premium on the readers’ imaginative abilities to unpack meaning from just a few scant words.

Serbian author Zoran Živković is one of those blessed few authors. Ever since I read his first novel released in the US, The Fourth Circle, back in 2004, I have marveled over how much depth there is to be found in stories that rarely go past 20 pages. In Twelve Collections and the Teashop, a 2007 limited-edition UK release (no known US release date), Živković has written perhaps one of his best “story suites” to date.

In the introduction, Michael Moorcock discusses how Živković’s writing reflects an older European fabulist tradition, one that was lost in the West with the rise of the Naturalists/Modernists and their (over)emphasis on verisimilitude. Moorcock posits that Eastern European authors such as Živković, who came of age during the police state mentality of the Iron Curtain years, learned that being too specific was a risky matter and that much could be done with everywhere cities and such-and-such people. While this deliberate vagueness might annoy those who prefer focusing on the facts and not the vision behind the story plots, others have found the dreamlike qualities of such tales to be intoxicating, sucking one into reading and then considering what might be transpiring rather than just what really is happening there.

Twelve Collections and the Teashop is a double novella, consisting of twelve thematically-linked stories on some rather odd (and sometimes sinister) collections and one that revolves around a teashop. In these stories, mundane features are transformed by just a few subtle foreshadowing clues, such as color or smell. Take for instance the opening story, “Days,” and its Prince-like purple phase:

When I entered the pastry shop, a purple wave swept over me. Almost every surface was in some shade of this color: the wallpaper, curtains, rugs, tablecloths, chair covers. So were the shades on the lighted table lamps. The muted light gave even the air a purple tint.

I squinted and looked around. Not a single one of the six small round tables with three chairs was occupied. The pastry chef was standing behind the display counter, wiping a glass with a purple napkin. His apron was inevitably of the same tone as everything else. He seemed more stocky than stout, and a thick, cropped beard and mustache compensated for his shiny bald head. (pp. 3-4)

The repetitive mentions of purple suffused throughout the shop, when juxtaposed with the rather commonplace chef serves to point out a dissonance between the “realness” of the characters and the otherworldiness of the pastry shop itself. As this story progresses and the reason for the “purpleness” is revealed, there is a hidden commentary of sorts about the PoV character and his/her reaction to the revelation by the pastry chef regarding the specialness of his pastry skills and the reason why things are so purple. Živković does not beat the reader over the head with this; he merely insinuates more levels are to be found within a few words. It is up to the reader to consider things even further.

From this opening story, the remaining eleven collections deal with disparate things such as final stories, words, and dreams. These are some of the most “human” of collections and Živković illustrates these via the characters’ desires, temptations, and moments of hope and/or despair. Often, as in the case of the story “Clippings,” there is a focus on the struggle between order and disorder, on the things that unite and on the heralds of entropy:

After several weeks had passed with still no letter, Mr. Pospihal concluded dejectedly that a great conspiracy was at work and, alas, he alone could do nothing against it. Disorder had triumphed over order, and all he could do was stand by helplessly and watch.

Overcome by frustration, the first thing he did was destroy his collection. As with everything else in his life, he did it systematically. He took a large pair of scissors, sharpened them a bit and then cut all the articles together with their purple folders into small pieces of the same size. And then, for the first time in his life, he did something unreasonable. He ate this plastic-coated confetti slowly and determinedly, even though the taste was quite abominable. (p. 58)

In a very real sense, it is this conflict between the ordered natures of these collectors and the often-chaotic elements around them that makes these twelve stories a delight to read and then to ponder afterwards. In the final story in this book, “The Teashop,” another facet of this conflict is revealed, as Miss Greta is choosing teas from a rather odd menu:

She didn’t have to open the long, thin menu with a cover of the same green. In the afternoon she always drank chamomile tea. Suddenly, though, she decided to make an exception. The circumstances were unusual and there were so few deviations from daily routine in her life. She shouldn’t have been there at all, but since chance had brought her to the teashop, why not make good use of it? An impish desire filled her to do something reckless in a place where no one knew her. She would order the tea that seemed the most unusual.

The menu had four densely-filled pages. She’d never heard of most of the teas and had tried only a few, even though she’d been drinking this hot beverage in the morning and afternoon regularly since childhood. Reading through the splendid selection, she wondered with a tinge of sorrow why she limited herself to the humdrum. This had once seemed a virtue, but now she could not remember why. She shouldn’t be inhibited, at least as far as tea was concerned. Now was the chance to make up a little for what she’d missed, albeit belatedly. (p. 87)

Temptation can be quite a terrible thing to witness and in a great many stories, it begins the road to ruin, or at least to transformation. “The Teashop” is a fitting close to an excellent “story suite” whose stories and their conclusions will leave most considering things well after the final page has been turned. Most highly recommended.

Roberto Bolaño, By Night in Chile

January 22nd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Then I don’t know what came over me. My poetry veered from the angelic to the demonic. Often in the evening I was tempted to show my confessor the verses I had written, but I never did. I wrote about women, hatefully, cruelly, I wrote about homosexuals and children lost in derelict railway stations. If I had to describe my poetry, I would say that, until then, it had always been Apollonian, yet I had begun to write in what might tentatively be described as a Dionysiac mode. But in fact it wasn’t Dionysiac poetry. Or demonic poetry. It was just raving mad. Those poor women who appeared in my poems, what had they ever done to me? Deceived me perhaps? What had those poor homosexuals done to me? Nothing. Nothing. Not the women, not the queers. As for the children, for God’s sake, what could they possibly have done? So what were those hapless creatures doing there, stranded in those landscapes of decay? Maybe I was one of those children? Maybe they were the children I would never have? Maybe they were the lost children of lost parents I would never know? So why was I raving on and on? My daily life by contrast was perfectly calm. …Occasionally I had nightmares, but in those days just about everyone had nightmares from time to time, though some more often than others. In the mornings, nevertheless, I woke up refreshed, ready to face the day’s tasks.

In Roberto Bolaño’s novella, By Night in Chile, the first of his works to be translated into English, “nightmare” seems the most adequate way to describe the fevered ranting of the novella’s old, infirm, and ultimately dying (as we all are) narrator, Father Urrutia. Over the course of the novella, which spans a night, the reader is treated to a recalling of the key moments of the priest’s life, including his rise as a respected arts critic, replete with anecdotes. All the while, Urritia complains that he is being hounded by the “wizened youth”, an unseen or heard individual that mocks his choices and his beliefs. Chile’s tumultuous history and the role that the priest has played in it, as the reader discovers, have left him unbalanced, and as the novella unfolds, so does Urritia’s dark night of the soul.

One of the novella’s main concerns is to criticize, through the satire of Urritia, the passivity of intellectuals whose compliance very nearly amounts to collaboration. Both the narrator and his friend, the famous critic Farewell, see themselves as above politics because their primary concern is the realm of the aesthetic. The only time in By Night in Chile that either seems concerned about politics is when it directly effects them; they both disapprove of the election of Allende because his socialist policies negatively effects them because of their station, and welcome Pinochet’s coup.

There are two particular damning anecdotes in regards to the nonchalance of the intellectual class. The first occurs when Urritia is instructed by two acquaintances that he is to teach the junta about Marxism so that they can better understand their enemies. Afterwards, the priest tries to assuage his guilt by confessing to Farewell, on the grounds he has no choice, and when his friend gossips about the incident, Urritia is certain he will be condemned and ostracized. The reality is that his phone does not even ring once; nobody in his circle seems to care.

The second occurs later in the novella, and is the fictionalisation of real events. Urritia sparsely attends a literary salon held at the house of an award winning, yet mediocre, writer, María Canales. While the writers and artists (mostly the younger generation, as many of Chile’s artists chose or were forced into exile) discuss current affairs in the art world upstairs, Canales’ American husband, a member of Chile’s secret police, Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional, keeps a tortured prisoner locked in the basement. The scene paints a very real picture of the horrors that go on under the noses of those who prefer to choose to live in wilful ignorance.

It isn’t enough for Bolaño to criticize the intellectual class; he goes to further at a number of points during the novella to openly ridicule them. At Farewell’s estate, named for Huysmans La Bas, Urritia is introduced to the poet Pablo Neruda. The cronyism displayed both by Urittia and Farewell, as well as various hangers-on throughout the novella, is as ridiculous as a scene in which Neruda recites his poetry to the moon. Farewell himself is not only lecherous, but also rather sentimental. In one of Urritia’s anecdotes, he recalls Farewell, fearing for his relevancy in the face of his advancing age, telling him a long story about an Austrian shoemaker that essentially martyrs himself trying to build an ideal shrine to war heroes. The whole thing is like something out of Schiller. Even Pinochet tries to get in on the act, expressing to the priest in private that unlike his predecessors, he actual reads novels, and has even had papers published on military affairs. The juxtaposition of a man who is capable of such terrible things with his earnest desire to be seen as an intellectual would be funny if it were not chilling.

At one point during a life, Urritia is given a job touring historic churches to report on their conditions, and learns that many priests are employing falcons to kill pigeons due to the corrosive nature of their faeces. Such a brutal method of control no doubt foreshadows what is to happen in Chile. One night, he frees a falcon, Rodrigo, only to see it kill and place the bird at his feet. In his nightmares later, he sees the falcon sat upon the Judas Tree and realises to his horror that the tree is Chile, and the falcon is the metaphorical representation of the violence that he and his kind have allowed to consume the country. The “wizened youth” that assaults and insults him, that calls him a fraud and a traitor, was Urritia all along.

Zoran Živković, Time Gifts (1997)

January 21st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Morao je da pobegne iz manastira.

Uopšte nije trebalo da se nalazi tu, nikada nije želeo da se zamonaši, kazao je to ocu, ali ovaj je bio neumoljiv, kao i uvek, a majka nije imala smelosti da mu se suproststavi, iako je znala da su sinovljeve naklonosti i nadarenosti na drugoj strani.  Kaluđeri su se od početka ophodili prema njemu rđavo, zlostavljali ga, ponižavali, terali da radi najprljavije poslove, a kada su počele njihove noćne posete, nije više mogao da izdrži.

Dao se u beg, a za njim je krenula čitava bulumenta zadrigle, razularene bratije, sa podignutim bakljama i zadignutim mantijama, skaredno podvriskujući, sigurna da im ne može umaći.  Noge su mu postajale sve olovnije dok se upinjao da se domogne manastirske kapije, koja kao da je hotimice uzmicala, bivajući mu svakim korakom sve dalja (p. 5)

He had to escape from the monastery.

He should not be there at all; he had never wanted to become a monk. He’d said that to his father, but his father had been unrelenting, as usual, and his mother did not have the audacity to oppose him, even though she knew that her son’s inclinations and talents lay elsewhere. The monks had treated him badly from the beginning. They had abused and humiliated him, forced him to do the dirtiest jobs, and when their nocturnal visits commenced he could stand it no longer.

He set off in flight, and a whole throng of pudgy, unruly brothers started after him, screaming hideously, torches and mantles raised, certain he could not get away. His legs became heavier and heavier as he attempted to reach the monastery gate, but it seemed to be deliberately withdrawing, becoming more distant at every step. (Impossible Stories, p. 3.  Translation by Alice Copple-Tošić)

It is difficult to determine what would be the ideal starting point for reading Serbian writer Zoran Živković’s fiction.  For some, the few novels that he has written may be appealing because of the space afforded for him to explore in greater depth the themes that interest him, but others might argue that his “story suites,” the thematically-connected story collections that comprise the majority of his fiction, might be more representative of his work.  I myself first read Živković in translation back in 2004 when the American edition of his first novel, The Fourth Circle, came out, but as much as I enjoyed reading that novel, it wasn’t until the following year, when I read the Prime Books edition of The Book/The Writer that I made a point of trying to track down any available copy of his work in a language that I could understand.  A few years ago, after someone related to him a story I had posted about a former student of mine who has severe autism and the reaction that student had when I read aloud to his class (after I learned of a classmate bullying him) the story “The Whisper” (from Seven Touches of Music), Živković contacted me by email to talk about the impact that story had.  Although we have been in touch infrequently over the years, a few years ago he offered me a set of his books in Serbian after hearing of my desire to learn how to read that language because of the many fine writers that country has produced over the past half-century.  Although I am a bit late (three years!) in truly resuming my study of the language, I am using the books he so graciously offered me as part of my language study.  Although it would be crass to say the reviews are “payment,” I do think it is past time that I review more of his fictions and explore the ways in which the stories themselves appeal to me a few years since I last read them.  Hopefully these series of reviews, which will begin with the “story suites,” will appeal to a wide range of readers who may not be familiar with his work.

Vremenski darovi (Time Gifts in English translation) is Živković’s second book of fiction after The Fourth Circle.  Published in the late 1990s in both Serbia and the United States, Time Gifts serves as the prototype for Živković’s subsequent short fiction collections, as the four stories contained within (“The Astronomer,” “The Paleolinguist,” “The Watchmaker,” and “The Artist”) share a form and approach that can be found in later collections such as Steps Through the Mist or Seven Touches of Music (both collected, along with Time Gifts, Impossible Encounters, The Library, and the stand-alone story “The Telephone” in the UK collection Impossible Stories).  Events that transpire in one story often find a hidden resonance in another, with surprising results.

The first story, “The Astronomer,” begins with a single individual and a strong, almost overwhelming desire.  A simple “he” (we do not learn his identity until later in the story) wants to escape from a monastery.  This monastery, which may be in Italy, Spain, or near Mount Athos, or any other secluded holy retreat in-between, appears to be inhabited by seemingly nefarious monks who are chasing this wannabe escapee.  The reader’s attention is drawn immediately to the action of the story with only the barest framework of a plot established.  We only know he is there unwillingly, that his family opposes his wishes, and that he is on the run from a band of monks who are after him.  It is not until he eludes capture that we are given insight to his story and it is one that involves time and space, science and religion, and the pride within the titular astronomer.  As is often the case in Živković’s fictions, choices are laid out in an overlapping fashion.  Does this astronomer choose to live by denial of what he has observed, or does he die in denial of what others hold to be true?  Although it might be suspected that such a weighty choice would be important to the story, it surprisingly isn’t.  This is not due to carelessness on Živković’s part, but rather it is a purposely open-ended question that forces the reader to engage what is transpiring around the astronomer’s choice.  What would we choose in such a situation?  How does the viewing centuries forward into time affect what occurs afterward?  The reader is left to ponder this at story’s end.

“The Paleolinguist” begins with a lonely, somewhat befuddled expert in old (and likely “dead”) languages confused and startled by a sudden knock:

The knock echoed loudly in the hollow silence, making her start.

She had not heard the steps approaching the door to her office.  She must have dozed off again.  Her head bowed, chin upon her chest, her round, wire-rimmed reading glasses had slipped to the tip of her nose.  The book remained open in front of her on the desk in the lamplight, but she was still drowsy and could not remember its title right away.  These catnips were becoming more and more frequent, causing her to feel very ill at ease.  Not because someone might find her in that unseemly position.  She was not afraid of that; almost no one visited her anymore, not even her students, let alone her colleagues.  She was an embarrassment to herself. (p. 22)

Although certainly less threatening than having a bunch of monks chasing you at night across a field, “The Paleolinguist” too opens with a sudden intrusion into the protagonist’s life.  Like the astronomer, the paleolinguist is confronted by a mysterious personage, one who offers not a vision (real or not) of the future, but instead a chance to visit the past, to see if her theories on ancient languages are true, perhaps with the opportunity to change the past.  It is something that is too good to be true, perhaps, and that precisely is the point around which the story revolves.  What “butterfly effects” could occur?  Is there something nefarious about these “gifts of time,” which appear in this story (and the others) in a variety of forms and metaphors?  This awaits the third story for more development.

“The Watchmaker” builds upon one of the time metaphors, that of the glass-encased watch, and it explores the ways in which we attempt to control time (and in turn are controlled by it).  The titular watchmaker, like many of Živković’s characters, is in turns meticulous and oblivious to the outside world.  Timekeeping is fraught with dangers:  the smallest particle can delay the gear turning “just so” after enough turns that time is “lost” or no longer as accurate as before.  Here the mysterious visitor of the previous stories reappears in a different guise, this time with the conversation moving from simply a movement forward or backward in time toward that of paradoxes, of choices that can paralyze those who have foreknowledge or emboldened those who are ignorant of what comes before or after.  It is not an original concept, but Živković’s deceptively simple prose recasts these as a series of idle musings that yet feel as though they are anything but simple musings.

By the time the final story, “The Artist,” appears, the concept of time and the fantasies that we often have about the “what if” of our seeing our futures, changing our pasts, or revisiting the choices that we continually make in our lives have been developed along several lines.  The frame character appears here in his most straightforward guise.  If the astronomer seeks to capture the movement of celestial time, the paleolinguist the linguistic river along which human concepts have flowed over time, the watchmaker the encapsulation of time within a machine, the artist’s conception of time encompasses each of these.  This artist, a she, knows what happens to the other three after their “time gifts” have been granted.  Furthermore, she knows the consequences that follow them, not to mention the sort of apparent omnipresence that flows through these stories.  Here metaphor and plot fuse into a almost seamless (seemless?) conclusion in which the events of the four constituent stories meld together to form a larger metanarrative that informs each individual story and makes them more meaningful than perhaps they were when each reached their conclusions.

The overall effect is akin to that of a daydreamer awakening from her state of semi-consciousness.  The river of thoughts and images, before drying up in the harsh heat of wakefulness, leaves a residue behind for that daydreaming soul.  So too do the stories of Time Gifts leave behind traces of the storyteller’s musings.  The language of these tales, simple, direct, and yet containing a profundity of thought that most complexly-crafted narratives fail to achieve, loses little in translation.  Although I am still a novice in reading Serbian, I could understand the gist of the narratives and Copple-Tošić’s translation does an excellent job in capturing the tone and feel of Živković’s prose.  Readers familiar with the stories of the Argentine great Jorge Luis Borges will find in Živković a kindred storyteller, as each seems to translates the idle thoughts of their lives into stories that gently probe those interstices between lives and deeds that make stories so appealing to so many.  Time Gifts is a collection that shows the writer just beginning to explore these connections, yet there is rarely the sense that anything is underdeveloped or overplayed.  Highly recommended.

Kuzhali Manickavel, Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings

January 18th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Today’s Pavement Piece is crumpled against a bus stop, dying like a freshly-pinned dragonfly. Her mouth is speckled with broken teeth and waves of dust. I never keep my mouth open in the daytime – the heat makes it difficult to swallow.

”Are you hungry?” I ask and wait for a bloodstained finger to crawl out from under her jaw. Perhaps there are moths hanging in silver clusters from the roof of her mouth.
Perhaps she will say something.

My grandmother died without saying a word, when nobody was looking. A dog howled and her paper gods fluttered with sorrow inside their make shift frames. When we lifted her out of her corner, her bones snapped and crumbled like exhausted twigs. Her sari fell away revealing breasts that had collected in sagging puddles of discontent inside her blouse. There was nothing to do except watch the wailing women who passed the time by beating their chests.

Today’s Pavement Piece stares into the white sky like a freshly-pinned dragonfly. I slip the coin between her broken lips, careful not to touch her.
Perhaps now, she will say something.

The above excerpt is the entity of Manickavel’s short story, The Unviolence of Strangers, and in both content and tone, it is relatively consistant with all the stories that make up her collection, Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings. She creates a mood in which everything seems perfectly normal, but at the same time, everything is horribly jarring. Physical descriptions become uncomfortable eerie metaphors; there’s a sort of body dysmorphia in which hands become balloons, to give one terrifying example. That which is personal, namely the body, becomes un-personal, alien, and the result to the reader is almost akin to seeing a disconnect of the self. This is amplified by a sort of fugue state that effects a number of the characters within the short stories, who forget things they should know, act in ways that are strange to the reader; they write down little poems made of “unphrases” or speak sentences that make very little sense. The overall effect is that there is a real feeling of unreality about Manickavel’s stories, as if anything can happen, and it so often does.

One of the themes that consistently appears throughout the stories in the collection is decay, both human and environmental. In one story, one of the characters remarks that everything decays in Chennai, even if it isn’t dead. The same story features a dead mouse named Miraculous that doesn’t decay initially for a long period after death until it is eventually discarded by its owner. A character in another story collects dead insects and places them in a bottle because doing so allows her to write strange little rhyming poems. Another muses if her bones will burn when she is placed on the funeral pyre, or will simply blacken inside her body. In The Sugargun Fairy, the main character, Stalin Rani, coughs up a hard, black lump every morning and stores it in a shoebox given to her by her uncle. The inevitable decay of all things, the principle of entropy, gives the stories a sort of sensory brown colouring, creating a slightly dirty, almost sinister mood.

Insects feature heavily in the collection, as suggested by the title, and there is usually some form of insect in each of the stories, be it ants, beetles, spiders, butterflies, to name a few. For the most part they reside in the background, but in one of the stories they take centre stage, The Butterfly Assassin, about an Entomologist who cannot seem to grasp that he is being evicted, and as a result destroys all his butterfly specimens and hangs himself. As Manickavel writes,

Before hanging himself the Entomologist smashed every single one of his butterfly specimen boxes. Malar thinks he probably threw them on the floor, one by one. Or maybe he put his foot through them. She is not sure if he crushed the butterflies himself or whether they simply fell apart after the glass was broken. She finds a few specimen tags; Gossamer-Winged Butterfly, Brush-Footed Butterfly, Skipper Butterfly. She Irons them out with her hand and places them on the table in alphabetical order.
Malar watches the Entomologist swing back and forth and tells herself that some people are just like accidents. They are like sprained ankles and stains – they just happen.

It wasn’t until I read this story that I understood what the stories in the collection were essentially about; chaos.

National Book Critics Circle Awards nominees and reviewing plans

January 17th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Reyna Grande. The Distance Between Us. Atria Books

Maureen N. McLane. My Poets. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Anthony Shadid. House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

Leanne Shapton. Swimming Studies. Blue Rider Press

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. In the House of the Interpreter. Pantheon

 

BIOGRAPHY

Robert A. Caro. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Alfred A. Knopf

 

Lisa Cohen. All We Know: Three Lives. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Michael Gorra. Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. A Liveright Book: W. W. Norton

Lisa Jarnot. Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography. University of California Press

Tom Reiss. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. Crown Publishers

 

CRITICISM

Paul Elie. Reinventing Bach. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Daniel Mendelsohn. Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture. New York Review Books

Mary Ruefle. Madness, Rack, and Honey. Wave Books

Marina Warner. Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. Belknap Press: Harvard University Press

Kevin Young. The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness. Graywolf Press

 

FICTION

Laurent Binet. HHhH. tr. by Sam Taylor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Ben Fountain. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Ecco

 

Adam Johnson. The Orphan Master’s Son. Random House

Lydia Millet, Magnificence. W. W. Norton

Zadie Smith. NW. The Penguin Press

 

NONFICTION

Katherine Boo. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Random House

 

Steve Coll. Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. The Penguin Press

Jim Holt. Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. A Liveright Book: W. W. Norton

David Quammen. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. W.W. Norton

Andrew Solomon. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. Scribner

 

POETRY

David Ferry. Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations. University of Chicago Press

 

Lucia Perillo. On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths. Copper Canyon Press

Allan Peterson. Fragile Acts. McSweeney’s Books

D. A. Powell. Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys. Graywolf Press

A. E. Stallings. Olives. Triquarterly: Northwestern University Press

 

Over the next four weeks or so, there will be reviews of the other Fiction finalists and perhaps at least a sampling from the other categories in advance of the February 28, 2013 awards ceremony.  Afterwards, if I have not yet read/reviewed the winner in those categories, I will review them here.

Denis Johnson, Already Dead: A California Gothic

January 16th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

A man climbs up the stairs towards the room where his wife lies motionless. His feet tread the vacancies of starlight . . . I flipped the switch at the top of the stairwell.
She lay on her right side, her back turned, her right arm flung behind her as if reaching towards me. Not Winona, but a corpse, a thing. Nothing worth looking at. I stepped into the room and stood beside the body but I was still alone.
I pushed open the double windows and looked out onto the dark pasture. No stars, no moon, no wind. Just the head’s unbelievable racket.
Something, a leaf or an ash, drifts down in front of my vision. No. Have I just seen a night bird drop dead out of the sky?
It strikes me suddenly that birds must actually, sometimes, die in midair. I’d never seen this truth before – that sometimes they must enter heaven having lifted themselves halfway there. It seems such a little thing to understand, but I start shaking. I’m afraid if I try to touch something, I’ll pass my shimmering hand through the mirage of my life.
I moved the chair from her desk and sat down beside the corpse and closed my eyes and looked at blindness. I would do anything to undo this.
I have made a mistake.
What could be more trivial and irrelevant than this true fact? A few plain words – over all of this phrase came floating like a sports headline, FLYNN HURLS SEVENTH STRAIGHT, on the destruction of a maelstrom: steeples and living rooms and drowned puppies and little dolls, whole lives washing down out of sight, then a line of old news turning in the current: I have made a mistake.
I’m sorry, meaning, I want another world. Give me a different world.

The wounded, fucked up, lonely, tragic figures that populate the landscape of Denis Johnson’s novels are my kind of people. In the novel, Already Dead, Johnson’s fifth, that particular landscape is Northern California. As Carey McWilliams famously described in his aptly titled Island on the Land, California has always maintained some sort of separation from the rest of America, both physically and metaphysically. Johnson’s California is beautiful and alien, populated with small communities of burnouts, junkies and city exiles, all of which seem to be running away from something. The ghosts of people drift up and down the pacific coast highway. The land itself seems indifferent to its inhabitants; majestic ancient redwoods stand silent, while the endless Pacific mirrors oblivion. It is, for all intents and purposes, the end of the world. The novel’s central character, pot dealer Nelson Fairchild Jr., feels in this land a holiness he could not feel in the Duomos of Italy;

The faith is gone from those places, the heart-power of flight, this I believe. But come to California. Come to these canyons if you want to be driven by sacredness into the air. If you dream of the true, clear silences if you want those silences to sing–come to California.

Before the tragic arrival of the Spanish missionaries, the Pomo worshiped this land as the physical manifestation created by the bodies of the two sons of Coyote, and in Johnson’s novel, this land still has its own power. California is a character in its own right as much as any other.

Nelson has gotten himself into a lot of trouble. He owes a lot of money, nearly one hundred thousand dollars, to his friend for screwing up a coke deal, and said friend has hired two hit men. To add to his troubles, he has separated from his wife due to his affairs with the local waifish free spirit, an Eastern European girl called Melissa, and he believes his wealthy Catholic father intends to leave his share to his wife, Winona, to punish him should they get divorced. His luck changes when a stranger, the mysterious Carl Van Ness, attempts to commit suicide by drowning only to be rescued by Nelson, who, seeing the opportunity, arranges to have Van Ness kill his wife so he can claim the half a million insurance policy, and then the dying Van Ness will commit suicide, removing the loose ends. Nelson believes that their meeting is fate, but very quickly, what originally seems like a thriller turns into something a lot stranger.

Nelson believes Van Ness is the perfect instrument because as is required by the code of the Bushido, he is already dead, and therefore able to see the situation from outside mortal concerns. Frankheimer, a local junkie with mental health problems who knew Van Ness in the past believes something different, as he explains to Nelson;

“…He’s all twisted up. He’ll see. Van worked this strange trick on himself a long ways back. I’ll tell you how to understand it. He’s not psycho, not warped, wasn’t brought up bad, no. He’s not corrupted by this or that, like a politician, or a priest. But it’s like this. Did you ever get a thing going with yourself where, let me make up an example, you start to feel that if you tie the left shoe first, something bad’s gonna happen, so you tie the right shoe first? Then you’re about to catch the doorknob with your right hand, but no, that’s gonna fuck things up, so you have to”–he made a motion–”gotta use the left hand. Gotta pay with this dollar, leave this other dollar alone. Can’t scratch my head til I count to five. Stuff like that all day long?”
“Some days. Many days. Quite often.”
“So what do you do to keep from turning into one big neurotic knot?”
“Me? I resist.”
“Exactly, man. You say fuck it. You override the impulse as a general thing. That’s where Van is at, right there, but on another level, much further on down. He’s turned the inside out. It’s genius. He overrides any override, see boy? He actualizes every impulse. Years ago he started this–I knew him–we were comrades-–I’m privy to this man. He’s made himself into a knife. Just cuts right on through. Do it, don’t think twice. That’s his idea of freedom.”
“You’re absolutely right. I recognize him there. You’re right.”
“I don’t admire it. Just on paper. No tragedies on paper. But life ain’t paper.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yeah. He’s not a crook–he’s a demon. Transformed from the flesh.”
“He’s beyond good and evil.”
“Right, how many’s that–four words. He read four words of Nietzsche and ran out and built a life.” Frankheimer laughed now. “I was the one who made the mistake of introducing him to Nietzsche.”
“Nietzsche? I shit on Nietzsche. Have you ever tried to spell Nietzsche? Good luck!”

Van Ness can quote from memory (primarily it seems from Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil), and carries out his crimes as acts of pure will, beyond the scope of morality He rejects Nietzsche, returning his copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, on the grounds that Nietzsche did not practice what he preached (a fair assessment, when comparing his life to the idealised life of the Dionysian). This interpretation of Nietzsche; the idea of the Overmann as some sort of immoral tyrant is a misrendering, a corruption, of Nietzsche’s moral thought. Yvonne, the local new age witch, believes that Van Ness drowned outside Nelson’s house, and something else entered his body; a more literal belief in demons that Frankheimer’s, but just as terrifying.

Typical of Johnson’s beautiful but elusive style, the novel is involuted, fragmented by the shifting between elliptical points of view, and the epistolary narrative of Nelson’s letters to Van and Winona. At times it reads like a fever dream, and we as readers have no way to tell if it is real or an episode being experienced by one of the novel’s mentally ill characters. One can also never quite tell if the demons, ghosts and strange happenings are a form of mass hysteria by the strange characters involved, or require us to suspend disbelief and display faith. Just as we struggle with the novel’s events, so does local cop John Navarro, burned out from years with the LAPD, and struggling to piece together from his own experiences and the letters of Nelson Fairchild Jr., just what went on. Like us, he’ll never know, and what he thinks he knows, he cannot prove to the extent required by a court of law. He clings to the letters because they give him something to hold onto in the face of all that he has lost, because this is a novel that, more than murders or ghost or demons, is about loss. And when those we truly want are lost to us, just as Navarro’s ex-wife, the one he really loved, is to him, and Winona is to Nelson after he makes his terrible mistake, all that is left is profound loneliness. As Navarro reflects,

Fairchild was gone. Mo was gone, though you could look right at her. And he himself was gone, to tell the truth. He just hadn’t quite left town. Suddenly he knew he would. He had come here to prove one thing and one thing about himself and then leave: that he didn’t own this loneliness. He dangled down into it and so did innumerable others. It’s not ours. It was here before we came.

Sabina Murray, The Caprices

January 15th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

This could be any village street. The packed dirt could cover any country road, and the dust that rises in billowing sheets, lifted by the lazy hands of the dry season, could menace any provincial town. It is three o’clock in the afternoon, but no children wander back from school. The Chinese shopkeeper’s door has been shut for nearly a year, but no matter, since the children will not bother him for moon cakes, sweet wafers, and the candied tamarind. A kalesa driver sits idly by his cart, his horse, unperturbed by the state of affairs, dozes behind blinkers, flickering rhythmically with his tail, one rear hoof casually cocked to bear no weight. In response to a fly, the horse shakes his head, jangling gear and whipping his mane from side to side. The fly rises up, buzzing at a higher pitch.

What you are witnessing is war.

To say that Sabina Murray’s PEN/Faulkner winning short story collection, The Caprices, is essentially about war would be somewhat inaccurate. Yes, all the stories take place during World War II in the South-East Asian theater, but the stories are not about the war as much as they are about the consequences of the war; to individuals, the communities, to descendants, and to the landscapes. Her stories focus not only on Allies from America, Australia and Europe, but also on the Japanese, the occupied Filipinos, indigenous islanders, and Indians conscripted by the Raj. Murray remains balanced in displaying the pressures that are placed on every person in terrible situations, and is sympathetic to the fact that war makes a victim of most people, regardless of which side they are on.

Despite her humanistic focus and her lyrical prose style, Murray never shies away from the very real horrors of war. Her characters suffer malnutrition, humiliation and sickness in prisoner of war camps, where cruel guards abuse their power and the camp doctor does his best to fight the diseases borne of overworked ill men in unclean and damp conditions. One tale takes place partly on the Bataan Death March, where Japanese soldiers either kill or leave to die those who cannot walk any further. As the prisoners have been captured, by Japanese codes of honour they are seen as being no better than animals. The Japanese choose instead after the battle of Saipan, at the urging of Hirohito as evidenced in the collection’s final story, to commit mass suicide by jumping from the cliffs. War is an ugly business; to kill your enemy you have to no longer see him as human, and if you can do this, it becomes a slippery slope to the place where the individual can justify acts of atrocity. The Second World War showed us, without a doubt, just what normal moral people are capable of.

In Walkabout, two Australian brothers go to war, but only one makes it back. Bob survives the prisoner of war camp, while Mark is killed by a guard for helping another prisoner who has fallen. Bob goes back to Australia to live the life that should have been his brother’s, a wife and a farm, but he never really leaves the camp; survivor’s guilt combined with having witnessed too much human suffering. As Murray writes, on Bob’s discovery that the Japanese had surrendered;

Now the news was that the war was ending. An odd tension filled the camp then. Bob felt consumed with an unfamiliar pain. It took him a while to figure out it was hope. He was hauling a body to the pit for burial, a wet beriberi. Wet beriberis didn’t burn. He had the arms of the bloated man and was struggling up a muddy slope when the body burst, drenching him and his companion with stagnant juices. For a moment he thought he would cry, but it passed. What was he hoping for? The long road that wound its way through the flat bush towards his family home would only bring the war back to a place that he had hoped to protect from it. He would no longer be a person but a reminder of absences – Mark’s and his own. he was now an ugly thing, a sore upon the landscape, a battered body which told a story that no one wanted to hear.

This is the terrible truth about war; those that it doesn’t kill, it wounds fatally. You take it home with you coiled in your breast like a snake ready to strike. No matter how much you try to put it behind you, all it takes is a stranger’s question, an unfortunate sense memory trigger, a bad dream. In the end, all that Bob can do is go on a walkabout and never look back.

Gonçalo M. Tavares, Jérusalem

January 12th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Ernst Spengler was alone in his attic apartment, getting ready to throw himself out of the already-open window, when the telephone rang. Once, twice, three times, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen. Ernst answered.

Mylia lived on the first floor at 77 Moltke Street. Sitting in an uncomfortable chair, she was thinking about the essential words in her life. Pain, she thought, pain is an essential word.
She’d already had one operation, then another, four operations in all. And now this – this echo deep in the center of her body. Being sick, she told herself, is a test, a way to teach yourself how to endure pain.  Or else: it’s a manifestation of your desire to get closer to Almighty God. And churches are closed at night.

Four in the morning on May 29th. Mylia couldn’t sleep. The pain was constant, coming from her stomach – or maybe lower. Where exactly was it coming from? Maybe from her womb. The only thing she knew for sure was that it was four in the morning and she hadn’t slept a bit. She couldn’t close her eyes because she was afraid of dying.

In Jérusalem, Portugese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares’ powerful novel, six wounded souls are destined to converge in the early hours of the morning in an unknown city. Each is seeking something different: sex, company, money, and God; but they are all attempt to satiate a hunger, the sort of hunger than lives deep in the bones and cannot be described. The sort of hunger than can never really be satisfied. Driven by this hunger, deepened by their loneliness and the ghosts of their past, when they finally meet, tragedy is the unavoidable consequence.

The central characters are the once married Psychologist Theodor Busbeck and his ex-wife, and ex-patient, Mylia. Despite their separation, it is their connection that puts both of them on the street on that night. Theodor, in search of the companionship of a prostitute due to his profound loneliness, and Mylia in search of God, consciously or subconsciously because she remembers her ex-husband’s instance on the place of Divine in regards to health.

Theodor is a prominent theorist of his field and has devoted his life to treating the history of humanity as a case study in order to determine if it is possible to predict human atrocities. The price of his work is in a sense the loss of his own humanity, one has to place oneself above normal concerns to the point where looking at piles of corpses becomes normalcy, or the mental strain becomes too much to bear. Even after he has Mylia committed to a mental institution to protect her from herself, life conspires to show him that he cannot simply will away his humanity, much to his own chagrin and the delight of his rival, the director of the facility. The ultimate, terrifying  conclusion of his research is that the atrocities will only get worse with the eventual result being the death of billions. The only end to this pattern? Human extinction.

Mylia is dying, from a botched hysterectomy performed against her will during her stay at the institution. From a young age she has believed that she is mentality ill, able to see the souls that reside within mundane objects, and is brought to Busbeck at eighteen, a self diagnosed schizophrenic. Her pain is both figurative and literal, the very real pain in her womb symbolic of the child that was taken from her by Theodor, the result of an affair with a fellow patient, Ernst Spengler.

By the end of the novel, everyone has had the chance to sate their hunger, only to realise that they did not want what they thought it was that they needed so badly. Under the lights of the hotel room, Theodor sees that Hanna, the prostitute that he was so sure he wanted, is a lot older than she seemed out on the streets. Believing she is dying, Mylia calls Ernst, only to discover that she isn’t and realizes that seeing him just reminds her of the terrible time she spent in the institution. Even the gratification of the  terrible desire that Hanna’s quasi-boyfriend, the ex-soldier Hinnerk, hides inside him, leaves him cold; the tragic outcome becoming pointless. It is this hunger that drives us, the hunger that Knut Hamsun and Kafka knew so well, that cannot be satisfied by our imperfect desires and can only lead to pain. Tavares however, knows what his characters do not; we are all really just empty vessels.

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