September 2015 Wrap-Up

While September saw me attempt to get through some more review copies, I didn’t actually 3763f-img_3572manage to post as many reviews as usual.  This was because I was still catching up with my outings to the Melbourne Writers Festival, with posts looking at my Saturday and Sunday visits, plus a piece urging the organisers to focus more on literature in translation next year.  That may, or may not, happen, but one thing’s for sure – there’s plenty of that happening around here.  And if you want proof… ;)

Total Books Read: 14
Year-to-Date: 123

New: 10
Rereads: 4

From the Shelves: 5
Review Copies: 7
From the Library: 2
On the Kindle: 1 (1 review copy)

Novels: 12
Novellas: 1
Short Stories: 1
Non-Fiction: 0

Non-English Language: 14 (5 French, 2 Spanish, 2 Korean, German, Flemish, Japanese, Hungarian, Norwegian)
In Original Language: 3 (2 French, German)


Books reviewed in September were:

1) Another Man’s City by Ch’oe In-ho
2) Three Stories by Choe In-ho
3) The Miner by Natsume Sōseki
4) A Time for Everything by Karl Ove Knausgaard
5) Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
6) Verre Cassé (Broken Glass) by Alain Mabanckou
7) Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano
8) Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías
9) Gehen, ging, gegangen (Go, Went, Gone) by Jenny Erpenbeck

Tony’s Turkey for September is: Nothing

A good, solid month – no turkeys here :)

Tony’s Recommendation for September is:
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s’s A Time for Everything

I surprised myself a bit here, actually.  Lots of good books this month, but it was a straight contest between Knausi and Marías, one I fully expected the Spaniard (who might be worth a flutter come Nobel Prize time) to win.  However, when it was time to type in the name, it was the Norwegian who came out on top.  Both excellent books – for me, at this time, Knausgaard’s biblical musings were, well, excellenter ;)

October will be another packed month – I have a couple of ideas I want to run with before I get too preoccupied with the next major project.  Yes, German Literature Month is on the horizon, and as I mentioned a few days ago, I’ll be putting a lot of effort into the event.  Of course, I’ve got a lot of other reading and reviewing to do first – wish me luck…

German Literature Month V – A Few Ideas…

GLM5It’s that time of year again – as Europe, Asia and North America slip slowly towards winter (and we in Australia get ready for blistering sunshine…), our tiny corner of the literary blogosphere turns all Teutonic for November and German Literature Month.  Yes, thanks to Lizzy and Caroline, the penultimate month of the year is all German (-language), and as always I’ll be looking to fill the month with ten or so posts, and possibly a virtual excursion too (although they haven’t always gone very well in the past…).  Before we get underway, though, I thought I might reveal some of the books I’m considering reading for this year’s event.  Who knows – I might even be able to persuade a few people to join me :)

I always enjoy reading an old book or two, so let’s start off with the classics.  Theodor Fontane IMG_5316has been a favourite ever since the GLM I Effi Briest readalong, so I’m thinking of trying another of his this year, possibly Die Poggenpuhls (The Poggenpuhls).  Then there’s Robert Musil, a writer whose work I’ve yet to sample.  Perhaps I’ll take a look at Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (The Confusions of Young Torless), in preparation for an eventual attempt at his lengthy masterpiece Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Characteristics).  However, one book I’m determined to fit in this time around is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge).  While Rilke is better known for his poetry, he did write this novel, in diary form, and I’ve heard that it’s a very good one.

IMG_5317While there are lots of classics available free for my Kindle, I can’t get too carried away as there are plenty of books which have been lying around in my study for far too long now (in fact, some have already appeared in several GLM idea posts over the past few years!).  One of these is Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, and Hans Keilson’s Das Leben geht weiter (Life Goes On) has been waiting patiently for a good while too.  However, pride of place in this hall of shame would have to go to F.C. Delius’ Deutscher Herbst (German Autumn) trilogy of novels – which I ordered during GLM I back in 2011…

Oh, and my Heinrich Böll short-story collection still hasn’t been opened either :(

Moving swiftly (and guiltily) along, let’s look at a couple of more recent acquisitions.  For the IMG_5318third year in a row, I’ll be trying a bit of Thomas Bernhard – after Holzfällen (Woodcutters) and Alte Meister (The Old Masters), I’m hoping to get to the third of his arty novels, Der Untergeher (The Loser).  This one looks at music instead of drama and art, but I’m sure it’ll still have that inimitable Bernhard style.  Another writer whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past is W.G. Sebald, and this time I’m moving from his fiction to his non-fiction in the form of Luftkrieg und Literatur (On the Natural History of Destruction), essays I’m itching to read :)

IMG_5319Looking at the selections so far, I can see that my plans are slightly male dominated, but never fear – I do have a few books by female writers too.  First up is Yoko Tawada, with her novel Etüden im Schnee (Études in the Snow), a novel in three parts about… polar bears?  This one is currently being translated by Susan Bernofsky, so you might be able to try it in English for next year’s event.  Speaking of Bernofsky, she’s also the translator of choice for Jenny Erpenbeck, and while I won’t need her services for Geschichte vom alten Kind (The Story of the Old Child), this one is already out in English if you’re tempted to try it :)

Finally, I have another couple of books by female writers currently on their way to me.  Judith Hermann, she of Sommerhaus, später (Summerhouse, Later) and Alice fame, has a new book out very soon.  It’s called Aller Liebe Anfang (The Start of Love), and I have it on pre-order.  My final choice is a slightly older work, though.  Christa Wolf is one of my GLM staples, and Kassandra is a book I really should have got to before now.  A rather different story to the last of hers I read, Was bleibt (What Remains), this one takes us back to the Trojan War – very unGerman ;)

As always, these are mere ideas – what I’ll actually end up reading and reviewing for your pleasure might be entirely different.  Still, whatever I get around to trying, I’m sure it’ll be a good month’s reading.  Do join us, won’t you…

‘Gehen, ging, gegangen’ (‘Go, Went, Gone’) by Jenny Erpenbeck (Review)

IMG_5309While literary worth is important in selecting books to publish, topical relevance certainly does no harm, so when a book by a well-known, successful writer is about to come out, and the subject matter is suddenly, unexpectedly, all over the world news, any publicity person would have a field day. Well, that’s the case with today’s book, with an old friend tackling a new subject at a time when the world is only too eager to find out what’s going on.  Let’s see what she has to say…

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Gehen, ging, gegangen (Go, Went, Gone) (review copy courtesy of Knaus Verlag) is the German writer’s first work of fiction since the IFFP-winning Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days) and a slight departure from her best-known works, eschewing her trademark style of crafting a novel from thematically linked stories. Instead, we have a fairly lengthy novel, focusing on one character whose struggles to face up to the prospect of a lonely old age are interrupted by encounters with people he never imagined he would cross paths with.

Richard, an emeritus professor and a classics expert, lives in a house by a lake in the suburbs of Berlin.  A recently retired widower, he’s a man with few demands on his time (and little idea how to spend it) now he’s left his classes and research behind, so when he sees a news story about the occupation by African refugees of Berlin’s Oranienplatz (on a day he actually passed through the square), he decides he wants to learn more.  Curiosity and boredom combine to make him take the first step on a journey which will change his life.

When the refugees make a temporary move to an old-people’s home in his suburb, Richard decides to visit the facility and conduct some interviews.  As an academic, well schooled in the collection of facts, he believes he can make sense of the presence of the African men – in truth, he’s totally unprepared for what he is told:

“Der emeritierte Professor, der hier an einem Tag so vieles zum ersten Mal hört, als sei er noch einmal ein Kind, begreift nun plötzlich, dass der Oranienplatz nicht nur der platz ist, den der berühmte Gartenbauarchitekt Lenné im 19. Jahrhundert konzipiert hat, nicht nur der Platz, an dem eine alte Frau täglich ihren Hund ausgeführt, oder ein Mädchen auf einer Parkbank zum ersten Mal ihren Freund geküsst hat.  Für einen Jungen, der unter Nomaden aufgewachsen ist, ist der Oranienplatz, den er anderthalb Jahre bewohnt hat, nur eine Station auf einem langen Weg, ein vorläufiger Ort, der zum nächsten vorläufigen Ort führt.”
p.70 (Knaus Verlag, 2015)

“The emeritus professor, who here in a single day is hearing so much for the first time, as if he is a child once more, suddenly grasps that the Oranienplatz is not just the square that the famous landscape architect Lenné designed in the 19th century, not just the square through which an old woman walked her dog every day, or where a girl kissed her boyfriend, on a park bench, for the first time.  For a young man who grew up amongst nomads, the Oranienplatz, home for a year and a half, is just one station on a long journey, a temporary place, leading to the next temporary place.” *** (my translation)

The academic stance is soon set aside, and Richard gradually gets to know the refugees, unable to avoid becoming involved.  The more he hears about their problems, the more he wants to help – but what can one man do…

I suspect that even in an age where people generally pay more attention to the Kardashians than world politics, most will be aware of what’s been happening in Europe over the past couple of months.  After years of being on the edge of European consciousness, the Syrian conflict suddenly hit a lot closer to home, causing politicians and citizens alike to pay attention.  With hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the war zone and streaming across borders, all sorts of headaches have arisen for the countries of the EU, and it’s against this backdrop that Gehen, ging, gegangen has appeared, helping the reader understand why the refugees have come, and what they are expecting.

Richard acts as our voice, our way in to the world of the refugees, but it’s his loneliness that takes him there.  His ‘research’ is less an academic endeavour than a way to fill the hole in his life, yet he finds that he actually has a lot in common with the people he talks to in the temporary facility.  Yes, he’s a successful, well-off man, but he too has lost his family, drifting through his days in the hope of finding something to hold onto.

More important, perhaps, are the historical parallels between the old Germans and those who wish to join them.  Richard and his friends are the final generation of those who experienced the war (in fact, both Richard and his wife survived miraculously as infants during the final days of the conflict).  The former professor is well aware of the fragile nature of his fortune, the ‘was wäre wenn…’ (‘what if…’) of his early days harking back to Erpenbeck’s previous novel.  Dwelling on his own good fortune in surviving the war, Richard struggles to understand how people who went through these hardships themselves can be willing to turn their backs on the new generation of refugees.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery, Richard throws himself into finding out how the asylum procedure works in Europe, and it isn’t long before he comes to grips with what the major pillar of the policy really means:

“Richard versteht: Mit Dublin II hat sich jedes europäische Land, das keine Mittelmeerküste besitzt, das Recht erkauft, den Flüchtlingen, die übers Mittelmeer kommen, nicht zuhören zu müssen.” (p.85)

“Richard realises: by means of Dublin II, every European country without a Mediterranean coast has bought itself the right not to have to listen to the refugees who make it across the sea.” ***

While real-life events have temporarily altered these laws, in the novel they are strict procedures, going completely against the moral obligation Richard feels the Germans have.  As he muses late in the book, despite the Second World War receding into the mists of history, only when others are shown compassion has Hitler really, truly lost…

Unfortunately, not everyone shares Richard’s opinion, and the smug bourgeoisie have different ideas about what should be done.  In a new age of world history, with borders finally set firm, many people fail to see what the refugees are doing here, or why we should help them:

“Warum hat so ein Flüchtling überhaupt einen Laptop, denkt der Anwohner jetzt.  Dann ist das bestimmt einer dieser Männer, die im Park um die Ecke mit Drogen handeln, denkt die Anwohnerin.” (p.39)

“What is a refugee even doing with a laptop, thinks the male resident.  That must be one of those men who deal drugs in the park around the corner, thinks the female resident.” ***

Nasty, judgemental comments perhaps, but again ones we’re very familiar with from recent events.  In the real world, it’s the possession of smartphones that critics have cited as proof of… something or other.  In fact, Erpenbeck addresses this rebuke skilfully, showing how phones provide a necessary link to a wider community when postal addresses are transient and useless.

The memory failure on the part of many Germans is rendered more ironic by the fact that the echoes of the past are still all around them.  Richard lives in the former east, among shops still painted with their old names and surrounded by ugly utilitarian furniture from the old days.  Despite these reminders of the fluidity of history, it seems many prefer to believe in the myth of a new, stable golden age:

“Ist nun der schon so lange andauernde Frieden daran schuld, dass eine neue Generation von Politikern offenbar glaubt, am Ende der geschichte angekommen zu sein, glaubt es sei möglich, all das, was auf Bewegung hinausläuft, mit Gewalt zu unterbinden?” (p.298)

“Is this long period of peace to blame for a new generation of politicians believing that they’ve arrived at the end of history, that it’s possible to put a stop to everything that points to movement by means of violence?” ***

Again, real events have shown this idea of fixed borders and stability to be a myth.  However, whether the very German weapon of bureaucracy is as flexible remains to be seen…

Gehen, ging, gegangen is an engaging and thought-provoking book, one which happened to appear at just the right time.  It’s already been shortlisted for the Deutscher Buchpreis, the German equivalent of the Man Booker Prize, and it would be no surprise to see it take out the prize come October.  While the focus of this review has been on Richard and ‘our’ response to the situation, rest assured that Erpenbeck, through the professor’s interviews and assistance, spends much more time on the refugees themselves (and the word used throughout the book is Flüchtling, the German word for refugee).  Gradually, from indistinct figures, a collection of men with dark faces (and here they are all men), the refugees gradually come into focus, revealing individuals no different from those who scorn them.

And it’s this idea of individuals which the novel eventually focuses on, showing the importance of looking beyond the surface and seeing the people behind the story.  In fact, the importance of individuals actually refers just as much to those watching the refugees stream across the borders.  Yes, it’s easy to believe that it’s all too hard and that individuals will never be able to do anything to help out.  However, Erpenbeck and Richard show that this is far from the truth – even the largest of endeavours has to start somewhere, even if that just means standing outside Munich’s main train station ready to clap and cheer…

A translation into English (hopefully more impressive and less stilted than my efforts) will be coming eventually (I did see 2017 mentioned somewhere), with Susan Bernofsky likely to be on Erpenbeck translation duties once more :)

Melbourne Writers Festival 2015 – Looking for the World…

BannerAs you might have seen from my posts at the start of the month (Day One & Day Two), I enjoyed my time at the 2015 Melbourne Writers Festival, but this year I wasn’t just there as a member of the public.  You see, over the past few months, I’ve also been attending meetings in my lofty role as an ‘audience advocate’, volunteers chosen from readers all over Melbourne to discuss possible guests and suggest ways in which events might be organised.  I’m not saying I had a lot to do with what eventually made up the festival, but it was fun to get a peek behind the curtains of power, anyway :)

One area where I would have particularly liked to have made an impression, of course, was in the promotion of fiction in translation.  While there were some non-Anglophone writers present, including Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan (whose event, alas, I was unable to attend…), there weren’t any really big names, and I didn’t feel that there was a whole lot of promotion in this area, compared to the way other strands of the programme were advertised.  I only really discovered some of the other events after putting in some serious time searching the website…

You can’t always get what you want, of course, but my frustration was exacerbated by seeing what was going on elsewhere in the world.  Over in Edinburgh, there was a huge focus on the rest of the world this year, with Daniel Hahn having cooked up an amazing translation strand, with a whole range of sessions over and beyond the events already scheduled with non-Anglophone writers.  Meanwhile, the recent Brooklyn Book Festival managed to pack more into one day than Melbourne did in the whole festival, with two sessions in particular catching my eye: one brought together László Krasznahorkai, Andrés Neuman and Naja Marie Aidt in the wonderfully named ‘Light and Dark’ session; the other presented five Latin-American writers, with Neuman joining Yuri Herrera, Guadalupe Nettel, Valeria Luiselli and Alejandro Zambra in conversation.  Now, that’s impressive…

So, what do I want to see next year (and every year) when I venture back to the Melbourne event?  My first suggestion would be to have a clear focus on a world literature strand.  While several talks were grouped together, they weren’t really promoted as a group of events in the way other related sessions were, both in the brochure and on the website.  Melbourne is a UNESCO City of Literature: when I see pre-festival best top ten ‘international’ guest lists full of US/UK writers, I do wonder if we deserve that label…

A second idea is to use and promote the talents of translators.  The events held in Edinburgh were, as I’ve heard from many sources, extremely successful, and with many Australian translators working both here and overseas (e.g. David Colmer, Alison Entrekin, Meredith McKinney, Brian Nelson, Chris Andrews), there would be no shortage of people who could appear in a session.  Ideas include the translation ‘slams’, where two translators work on a text in front of a live audience; sessions where writer and translator discuss their shared work, giving inisghts into both the genesis of the work and its journey into English; and talks with the translator as the star of the show.  Translators are clever, interesting people – and they’re writers.  In my opinion, they’re worthy of being showcased in their own right.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’d love to see a big-name international writer each year to drive this part of the festival.  If the festival’s keynote address had been given by a mid-list, fairly unknown writer, people would have been extremely disappointed, so why should those of us who read books that weren’t originally published in English feel any differently about our main attraction?  In 2012, there was Sjón, in 2013, Andrés Neuman – those are the kinds of writers who need to be brought to Melbourne.  Here’s hoping that next year’s drawcard (or drawcards) will be just as exciting.

But who would people like to see?  It’s a good question…  Haruki Murakami would be top of most people’s list; whether it’ll ever happen is another story.  However, the list doesn’t start and end with Mr. M – here are a few more names I came up with:

Javier Marías – Marie NDiaye – Michel Houellebecq – Yoko Ogawa
Cees Nooteboom –
László Krasznahorkai – Jenny Erpenbeck – Hwang Sok-yong
Kenzaburo Oe – Yoko Tawada –
Alejandro Zambra – Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Mikhail Shishkin – Per Petterson – Peter Stamm –
Daniel Kehlmann
Gerbrand Bakker – Valeria Luiselli – Karl Ove Knausgaard – Judith Hermann

Naja Marie Aidt – Birgit Vanderbeke – Viola Di Grado – Anne Garréta – Can Xue
Kim Young-ha – Mathias Énard – Bae Suah – Ma Jian – Elias Khoury
Juan Gabriel Vásquez – Orhan Pamuk – Enrique Vila-Matas – Minae Mizumura 

Of course, this list is highly personal, and I’m sure those of you out there can add your own favourites to the list – who would you suggest as a non-Anglophone writer who would be good enough to attract a general crowd?  Answers in the usual place, thank you ;)

Don’t get me wrong – I know that the MWF team do a wonderful job in getting the festival off the ground, and I don’t want this to be seen as a grumpy, personal attack.  There are sessions catering to world literature in the festival, so it’s not as if the topic has been completely ignored.  I’m also well aware of the difficulties faced in attracting these people to Melbourne (and getting people in Melbourne in to see them).  However, in my opinion, expanding this part of the programme is a challenge worth taking up, and I’d like to think that the people behind the scenes share that belief.   Here’s hoping that Lisa Dempster and the rest of the MWF team give my ideas some serious thought for the 2016 festival – and that we get to hear from more great writers from all around the world :)

‘Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me’ by Javier Marías (Review)

IMG_5298As it’s all too easy for me to get caught up in review copies, I occasionally try to make space in my schedule for good books I’ve been wanting to read for some time, and after a recent read of Javier Marías’ All Souls, I thought about which of the Spanish writer’s books I should try next.  In the subsequent Twitter discussion, New Directions’ Tom Roberge made the suggestion of his favourite Marías book, and (despite the piles of ARCs waiting for me) I decided that I might just try that one myself.

You probably won’t be too surprised to hear that it’s very good indeed…

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) takes us into a Madrid apartment where the narrator, Víctor, is anticipating a night of love with Marta, an attarctive married woman.  With her husband away in London, and her infant son finally in bed, the night can begin – except that Marta falls suddenly ill and dies in bed in Víctor’s arms.  Faced with a difficult situation and a number of possible actions, he chooses one which probably wouldn’t have occurred to most readers; after leaving a plate of food on the table in case the son wakes up and gets hungry, the visitor leaves…

While Víctor may have run away, he’s unable to forget what has happened, the sudden death preventing him from moving on with his life:

“Everything was in suspense but I didn’t know until when, or what had to happen before life could start again; I wanted to know, and I wanted to know soon, if they had found the body and if the child was safe, that was all, in theory, I felt no curiosity beyond that, then.  And yet I foresaw that once I had found that out, I would still not be able to get back to my daily life and activities, as if the link established between Marta Téllez and myself would never break, or might take a while to do so.”
p.66 (Vintage International, 2012)

Very soon, work and inclination draw him back into Marta’s family circle, and it’s not long before he comes face to face with Marta’s unsuspecting widower, Eduardo Deán.  It’s giving little away to reveal that the two men will eventually meet to discuss what happened, in the process revealing the full truth about the fateful evening.

If this sounds like the set-up for a suspense novel, it is in many ways, but this is Marías at his best, and if Tomorrow in the Battle… is a thriller, it’s certainly one of the less orthodox variety.  Aided (and abetted) by the always magnificent Jull Costa, Marías takes a simple, yet intriguing premise and pulls it in all directions, using his command of the language to explore the story.  Over the course of three-hundred pages, he examines the idea of memory and the effect of death on the people around them, as well as how those left behind remember the one who has passed on.

Despite the initial scenes (and the reader’s Anglo-Saxon horror at Víctor’s departure), the story has little to do with Marta, who is merely a starting point for a wider story.  The crux of the novel is a question which crops up repeatedly in slightly different forms: how is it possible for life to go on when people are unaware of a loved one’s death?  The writer is fascinated by the idea of time spent living under false impressions, examining how those unaware of events act differently through their lack of knowledge, behaving in a way they would never have dared if they had been in possession of the full facts.  When the truth is finally revealed, the period of ignorance is shown in a harsh, unforgiving light, leaving the survivors even more bereft than they could have thought.

There’s also a constant focus on our (misguided) view of the past as an inevitable move towards the present, the vivid reality of now affecting how we regard what led up to it:

“Or perhaps it is the by-paths and the indirect crooked ways of our own efforts that change us and we end up believing that it is fate, we end up seeing our life in the light of the latest or most recent event, as if the past had been only a preparation and that we understood it only as it moved away from us, as if we understood it all completely at the end.” (p.194)

What follows from this is an ability to reinvent the past, to see it in a different light the further we move along in time.  When we combine this idea with the false security discussed above, the period when life continues unaware of a life-changing event, we can see just how damaging that path along a false time-line can be.

The story, both the current events and an important backstory, are narrated by Víctor himself, a rather dubious character whose interpretation we must reluctantly take on board.  Given his actions at the time of Marta’s death, and the way in which he handles himself subsequently (including a quite obvious attempt to move on to Marta’s sister…), he’s not a man the average reader will be able to trust fully.  In a way, Marías goes out of his way to make Víctor unsympathetic, deliberately pushing the reader into doubting his side of the story, even if his is the only version we’re likely to get (until the very end, that is).

What makes Tomorrow in the Battle… so good, though, is that the story is merely the vehicle for the writer to showcase his craft and his ability to construct a tightly woven novel.  As in A Heart So White, there’s an almost musical obsession with themes and motifs, and with recurring phrases, and images, repeated so often the reader knows they must be of importance.  Each time they appear, there’s a greater depth of meaning, and slowly, oh so slowly, things glide into place, all becoming clear by the end of the novel.  Marías, in a way, is actually teasing his readers, using his literary allusions and recurring phrases to hint at the truth while never quite revealing it.

Marías loves to borrow ideas from Shakespeare, and the title here comes from Richard III, from a scene where ghosts visit the doomed King before the Battle of Bosworth.  Ghosts are an important theme of the novel too, with Víctor making much of his living as a ghost-writer (in typical Marías fashion, even this idea is complicated further, with Víctor becoming the ghost-writer of a ghost-writer…).  This idea of the silent, shadowy Víctor extends into real life, where the writer paints him as an unwelcome presence in several places, including his superfluous attendance at a family lunch, his anonymous presence at Marta’s funeral and the discovery that on the fateful night of her death he was only a replacement lover.

However,  Víctor’s not the only ghost in the novel.  The Shakespeare quote actually comes from Richard’s late wife, condemning the King to death in battle, and Víctor too is haunted by voices from the past.  Memories of Marta continue to assault him, and a large part of the novel looks at an event from the past, an assignation with a woman who may, or may not, have been his ex-wife (as confusing as that sounds).  Then there’s another voice from the past, one he’s unable to place – a voice on the answer phone tape he took from Marta’s apartment on the night of her death…

Many readers will appreciate the story, but Tomorrow in the Battle… also works because of the superb writing.  Long, complex sentences rush you along, yet the pace of events is incredibly slow, allowing the reader to turn everything over in their mind.  With the themes and language repeated, assuming a greater stature in the reader’s mind each time they’re encountered, Marías’ assured creation moves to a stunning crescendo.  We know it’s coming, we know it’s all planned – we’re just never quite sure what it is until the very end.

A superb novel, Tomorrow in the Battle… is more proof that Marías is a writer who can be considered a genuine chance of being named when Nobel Prize time comes around again.  For me, it’s also a timely reminder not to get *too* caught up in the new and the shiny.  Yes, it’s nice to get free books and be in on the latest conversations; however, if you focus overly on the present, you’ll miss the joy of looking back.  There’s certainly something to be said for revisiting the literary ghosts of the past :)

‘Paris Nocturne’ by Patrick Modiano (Review)

IMG_5310Until recently, I hadn’t managed to read anything by 2014 Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano, but I was lucky enough to be sent two of his books a couple of months back by Text Publishing.  You may have already  seen my review of the first, Little Jewel – now, after the ‘interruption’ of Women in Translation Month (and a few other books I wanted to get to), I’ve finally found time for the second one.  While there is an obvious similarity in styles and content, today’s choice is a little different to the previous work – this one is very much a book of the night…

Paris Nocturne (translated by Phoebe Weston-Evans) is a story of the past, with an unnamed narrator casting his mind back to an eventful night thirty years earlier.  While walking along minding his own business, he is suddenly clipped by a car, tumbling to the ground.  Although his injuries turn out not to be too serious, he is taken along to a hospital in the company of the driver, whose name, Jacqueline Beausergent, he hears while waiting to be treated.  Then he is sedated in preparation for treatment, and when he wakes up, the mysterious woman, and her gruff companion, have vanished.

Discharged, with a pile of money as compensation for not pressing charges, the narrator decides he wants to find the mysterious Jacqueline, haunted by the memory of her face:

“I lay still and let myself drift along in the river’s current.  Her face came to me with total precision, like a large identikit photograph: the even arches of her eyebrows, clear eyes, blonde hair, the cuts on her forehead, cheekbones and the hollow of her cheek.”
p.7 (Text Publishing, 2015)

Part of the impetus for his search is a simple desire to see the woman again, but it also has a lot to do with how similar she looks to a woman who looked after him in his childhood.  Thus begins the man’s wanderings through Paris in a slightly Quixotic quest – by night, of course.

The book’s original title is Accident Nocturne, and the change in title widens the scope of the book, with the focus of the novel(la) on the man’s nightly wanderings through the city:

“I have to point out what I was doing there, even if I have to come back to it in more detail one day.  Following the example of a French writer known as the ‘nocturnal spectator’, I frequented certain neighbourhoods in Paris.  In the streets at night, I had the impression I was living another life, a more captivating one, or quite simply, that I was dreaming another life.” (p.28)

These journeys continue throughout the book, showing us the Paris of the night.  All is calm, peaceful and deserted – perfect for a man looking for something he’s not even sure he’s lost.

The accident is a bizarre, unsettling event, but it proves to be most important as a catalyst for change for a young man living life without a purpose.  The narrator describes the event as the impetus he needed to stop drifting through his days, using it as an opportunity to reflect on other aspects of his past, such as lost friends and family members.  His central belief is that if he can find Jacqueline, everything else will somehow fall into place.

The more we read, the more the book focuses on the past, with the story returning to the narrator’s childhood and adolescence.  In addition to reminiscing about a time spent drifting around cafés, listening to lectures given by a shifty philosophy lecturer, the narrator gradually reveals more about his relationship with his father, one which sounds more than a little dysfunctional.  Then there’s the clear memory of an accident involving a dog, with the face of a woman constantly coming to mind.  Much as he doubts the thought, he can’t quite bring himself to believe that it’s not that of Jacqueline Beausergent…

There is a plot, of sorts, but that’s not really what Paris Nocturne‘s about.  This is a book of mood and atmosphere, a story of the big city and the lonely people wandering around its streets.  In this regard there’s a definite link to Little Jewel, a book which has the same excellent depiction of the prevailing sense of ennui.

What also becomes clear very quickly when entering Modiano’s world is the role Paris plays in it – in truth, each copy of his books should come with maps supplied (or a GPS app for your phone).  On almost every page, our guide wanders around the city, and so do we, following him through the streets and quartiers.  In fact, in Paris Nocturne the narrator even does this himself, taking out a map and tracing his routes with red ink.  If ever there was a literary city tour waiting to happen…

The other main theme of Modiano’s work, though, is that of memory, and Paris Nocturne continues in this vein, with the text actually constructed as a memory of a memory.  It’s important to remember that the narrator is three decades removed from the events he relates, and the careful reader will be constantly asking themself why he’s dwelling on his nocturnal perambles.  These memories are described fairly simply, with a predominance of short, simple sentences (true for both the books I’ve read) – while the content has echoes of another writer obsessed with memories, Javier Marías, the way Modiano goes about dissecting his actions is very, very different.  I have to say I’m one for more complex language, but I suspect many will prefer Modiano’s style :)

Paris Nocturne was a very quick read for me (an hour or so), but enjoyable all the same.  It’s a story that succeeds on how it proceeds rather than where it’s going, a tale of looking for people, with little hope of success:

“…Paris is big..You have to be careful…People like us end up getting lost.” (p.143)

Occasionally, just occasionally, though, you do end up finding what you’re looking for.  Whether Modiano’s what you’ve been looking for is something you’ll have to decide for yourself :)

‘Verre Cassé’ (‘Broken Glass’) by Alain Mabanckou (Review)

IMG_5308As is the case for many readers, my choice of books can be made by simple random connections, and after enjoying Tram 83 recently, I remembered that there was another African book on the shelves, one also looking at a bar.  Even better, the two writers’ home countries share a border…  That was all the convincing I needed to push on, taking myself across the river from the ‘big’ Congo, to the little one for another spot of bar-hopping.  Feel welcome to tag along, but make sure you bring some cash – there are no bar tabs here…

Alain Mabanckou’s Verre Cassé (Broken Glass) is actually a person, a regular at the splendidly named twenty-four hour bar Le Crédit a voyagé (Credit Gone West in the English translation*).  A former teacher and a bit of an intellectual, our friend is one day given a notebook by the owner of the bar and asked to undertake an unusual task:

“…et lorsqu’il m’avait remis ce cahier, il avait tout de suite précisé que c’était pour lui, pour lui tout seul, que personne d’autre ne le lirait, et alors, j’ai voulu savoir pourquoi il tenait tant à ce cahier, il a répondu qu’il ne voulait pas que Le Crédit a voyagé disparaisse un jour comme ça…”
p.11 (Éditions du Seuil, 2005)

“…and when he handed me this notebook, he said straight away that it was for him, for him alone, that no-one else would read it, and then I wanted to know why he was so set on this notebook, he replied that he didn’t want Credit Gone West to just disappear like that one day…”***

Wanting the bar to live on in posterity, and fearing the fragile oral culture of his country, the bar owner has Broken Glass write down stories of the regulars, so that the bar’s fame will endure long after the last glass of cheap red has been served.

The old man dutifully takes up his pen and starts to write down the stories he hears – and entertaining ones they are too.  From the bar’s precarious beginning, when certain politicians have to step in to protect it from various groups who want it shut down, to a couple of men let down (badly) by the women in their life, the first half of the book is devoted to several interesting, funny and at times disturbing stories.  Random anecdotes?  Not quite.  Later on, we start to see that old Broken Glass is choosing his stories very carefully indeed.  It turns out that what appears in the book is less about the bar and more about him…

A couple of years back, I read Black Bazaar, an entertaining book about Africans in Paris, but Broken Glass takes us back to the writer’s roots, showing us where the characters of Black Bazaar started – and where they might return one day.  Mabanckou is an excellent writer with a formidable style, here creating a sweeping text devoid of full stops, a flow of words which stretches across chapters.  The novel is incredibly funny in places, even if, for some people, the humour might be a little too earthy (not to say cruel…).

Broken Glass is a good choice for the task of putting the stories of the bar to paper as he’s a man others seek out.  A listener in a land of talkers, he knows just how to draw stories out from those around him:

“…et s’il y a un secret que je pourrais livrer ici c’est que, pour faire parler les gens, il faut jouer la distance, l’indifférence, en un mot le désintérêt, y a pas mieux que ce stratagème vieux comme le monde pour déclencher les choses…” (p.62)

“..and if there’s a secret I could reveal here it’s that if you want to make people talk, you have to be distant, indifferent, in a word, uninterested, nothing better than this strategy, old as the world itself, to get things started…”***

It turns out that the bar owner is right in a way – stories only exist when they’re written down.  Of course, the problem is that when you listen to these stories, and the frequent, inevitable tangents they’re accompanied by, you have to have the patience to trust the stories will eventually make their way to the point they were trying to make…

Although I enjoyed the stories, I gradually became a little wary of Mabanckou’s intentions.  The first two tales told by customers end in disaster, both men betrayed by the women in their life.  By the middle of the book, there’s a sense of a real gender battle, with women being the root of all evil, the bane of the poor men’s existence, their jealous actions bringing true suffering in their wake.  The reader (or this reader, at least) begins to wonder just where Mabanckou is going with this.

His intention only really becomes clear in the second half of the book.  As Broken Glass tires of the stories of others, he begins to reveal a few secrets of his own, and it’s here that the writer’s clever construction of the novel becomes apparent.  Once we’re permitted a glimpse into the old man’s past, the reason for the tone of the first half becomes clear, with the novel gradually catching up with the present and offering a sad glimpse into the future.  It’s important when reading the book to remember that there are two writers here, Mabanckou and our old friend propped up at the bar.  I’m not sure we can trust either of them…

In addition to a well-worked story and the excellent style, part of the novel’s charm is its raft of clever literary allusions.  Broken Glass is an educated man, and the text abounds with witty references to Cervantes, Shakespeare, Gogol and even Proust:

“…je suis allé errer vers le quartier Rex, à l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs…” (p.126)

“…I went for a wander over to the Rex Quarter, in the shadow of young girls in bloom…”***

Of course, this is where our friend’s cultured persona clashes with his earthier side – when he used these words, I’m not sure Marcel was talking about the red-light district ;)

As is the case in Tram 83, the bar in Broken Glass functions as the centre of a community, albeit one which is a little different in style.  Where the Tram was a pulsating cesspit of human desires, Le Crédit a Voyagé works at a more relaxed pace.  It’s somewhere you can sit and while the day away with bottles of local red wine.  Relax, stay a while (all night if you want), chat with friends, tell uncle Broken Glass about your troubles and have a drink or seven while you’re at it – provided, of course, that you can pay ;)

Crude at times, but witty and well written, Broken Glass is a great read, and I definitely enjoyed my few days at the Crédit (where I certainly felt safer than at the notorious den of iniquity over the border…).  With a sad tinge behind the humour, perhaps it’s not a book that follows Tram 83‘s demand to promote the joys of Africa ahead of its woes, but it’s still a book many will enjoy.  Time, then, to head for home – but first, let’s drink to the end of a successful week’s reading (and clubbing) in Africa :)

* There is an English translation (by Helen Stevenson) available from Serpent’s Tail in the UK and Soft Skull Press in the US
*** All translations here are my own efforts :)

‘Tram 83’ by Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Review)

IMG_5299With my preference for literary fiction in translation, I make plenty of virtual trips all around the world (even if I do have  a few places I visit more than others…).  If there is an area I have neglected, though, it’s definitely Africa, and while the continent isn’t completely terra incognita for the blog, there are certainly quite a few blank spaces on my literary map.  It’s a good thing, then, that there are people out there who can give me a little nudge from time to time – I was recently sent a review copy that sees me take a journey out of my comfort zone, ending up at a very unusual venue…

Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (translated by Roland Glasser, review copy courtesy of Deep Vellum Press) takes place in an unnamed African City-State, one which has seceded from the rest of the country (which it calls the Back-Country).  Our first view is of the vast, unfinished railway station, where Requiem, a colourful character we’ll get to know well, is waiting to pick up Lucien, an old friend who has decided to move to the City-State for reasons unknown.  A happy reunion?  Not really.  Lucien is just an unwelcome burden on the shadowy businessman, a task stopping him from getting on with his day…

…or rather night, because what Requiem really wants is to head over to Tram 83, the hottest, most vibrant place in town:

“Tram 83 was one of the most popular restaurants and hooker bars.  Its renown stretched beyond the City-State’s borders.  “See Tram 83 and die” was the regular refrain of the tourists who blew into town from the four corners of the globe to conduct their business.”
p.7 (Deep Vellum Press, 2015)

If you want loud music, beer, sex with nubile baby-chicks and single-mamas (or even a dog kebab…), this is the place for you.  Lucien, however, is a writer, a man focused on his art and unwilling to be distracted by the madness unfolding around him.  You fear that his stay in the chaotic city-state might be a rather unpleasant one…

Tram 83, Mwanza Mujila’s first novel, has been translated into several languages, and it’s easy to see why.  There’s a hint of the exotic, something rather different from what we might previously have read from Africa.  In fact, one of the book’s characters, the publisher Ferdinand Malingeau, says it best (if rather crudely…):

“I’m familiar with that view of things…  We’ve already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature.  Look around us.  There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music…  Doesn’t all that inspire you?  I’m concerned for the future of African literature in general.  The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless, and overburdened with debt.  Here, we live, we fuck, we’re happy…  There needs to be fucking in African literature too!” (p.41)

On that score, Tram 83 certainly doesn’t disappoint.  This is a book which focuses on the positives, usually involving drink, music and women…

The story, for the most part, follows the paths of two very different men, Requiem and Lucien.  Requiem, a man of wide repute, known in the City-State by a thousand different names, is as corrupt as can be, a man with a finger in every pie and not averse to becoming violent when needed.  From stealing precious metals from the mines to sourcing photos of white ex-pats in compromising positions with the local women, he’s always able to find a dollar somewhere.  Which is just as well – his high sex drive means he needs a good source of income to keep up appearances.

Lucien, on the other hand, spends his days very differently.  The reader’s representative in the chaotic city is a man who goes home to write when others are just getting ready for the night.  His refusal to sleep with the women throwing themselves at him is a sin in the eyes of the locals, and they find it even harder to understand why he declines offers of work others would (and do) kill for…

There are several other prominent characters in Tram 83, but the biggest of all is probably the City-State.  Mwanza Mujila has created a colourful, frenetic backdrop to his novel, a city at war led by a mad, sex-crazed dissident General.  There are mines with all kinds of metals and gems, a rickety and unreliable train service (mainly used by students and workers in perpetual conflict) and a smattering of ex-pats and tourists attracted by the chaos.  In its cosmopolitan atmosphere, it’s akin at times to a Central African Shanghai or Casablanca.

The Tram itself is hedonism pure, taken straight from one of Dante’s circles (with non-stop music as a bonus), and in a country where men die young (in war or by other means), the women in surplus throng to the bar.  All are desperate to hook up with men, hoping to get hold of some of the foreign money floating around, and the constant harrying cry of “Do you have the time?” (the not-so-secret code for bodily availability) echoes throughout the book.  So prevalent, and open, is the sexual market, that the toilets  of the Tram are mostly used for different bodily functions – unisex facilities, one might say…

Against this backdrop, then, we start to wonder why Lucien is here.  As much as we want to sympathise with him, it’s hard not to think that he’s the one who’s at fault.  While he’s hoping to produce some great writing, you suspect he may be in the wrong place:

“There’s cities which don’t need literature: they are literature.  They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders.  They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around.  The City-State, an example among so many others…  She pulsated with literature.” (p.86)

Lucien persists with his own style of literature with dramatic consequences, in particular at a public reading which goes horribly wrong.  Let’s just say that the Melbourne Writers Festival has nothing on open mic night at Tram 83 ;)

There’s a lot to like about the book, but I’d have to say that it took me a while to get into it.  There’s a lot of repetition and confusion early on, reflecting the chaos in the Tram, and that did get trying at times.  Gradually, however, the book settled into a rhythm, and I became more interested as the story progressed.  As our publisher friend remarked, there’s no shortage of issues to discuss for an African writer, and Mwanza Mujila acknowledges this, remarking on the lack of opportunity for those born into life in the City-State:

“Your fate is already sealed, your route marked out in advance…” (p.33)

In the end, though, he decides to follow his creation’s advice – this book eschews the misery to show an Africa in party mood :)

Tram 83 is another little gem from Deep Vellum, a novel straying off the old white Anglophone path – there’s no Heart of Darkness to be found here (and if there is, it’s just so the couples at the Tram can have more privacy).  Having said that, while it’s a great place to visit on paper, like Lucien, I’m not sure I’d survive in real life.  You see, you need to be a very special character indeed to survive a visit to the Tram – I might just stay at home instead ;)

‘A Time for Everything’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Review)

IMG_5284Like many readers, I’ve been sucked into following Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, his epic struggle with himself and the minutiae of modern living.  With the books only coming out at the rate of one a year, though, many of you will now be feeling the need to scratch the Knausi itch, so today’s book, then, is one for you.  It’s an earlier work, one with excellent writing, an intriguing premise and hints of what was to come in his later books.  But, before we start, a question – do you believe in angels?  And, if so, what do you think they are?  Now, that we’re warmed up, let’s see what Uncle Karl Ove has to say on the topic…

A Time for Everything (translated by James Anderson, review copy courtesy of Portobello Books and Australian distributor Allen & Unwin) is a slightly revised version of an earlier edition (A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven), with no difference except for a return to the original Norwegian order of the early pages.  In his second novel, Knausgaard turns his undoubted attention to detail to a topic slightly less personal than that which many readers will be used to – the nature of angels.

Starting with an anecdote about a sixteenth-century expert on the topic, Knausgaard moves through the book by retelling bible stories.  Cain and Abel, Noah, Lot and Ezekiel all get the Knausgaardian treatment before we return to our angel-obsessed friend.  Then, there’s a coda, one in which Knausgaard talks about – a fictional version of himself.  While it may not sound like it, the common thread running through the book is the nature of angels, with our writer friend coming to some rather bizarre and disturbing conclusions…

I was slightly disappointed by the most recent of Knausgaard’s odes to his youth, so this was the perfect way to move on from that.  A Time for Everything is a wonderful book in which the writer makes great use of his style of meticulous analysis and an inability to leave any intriguing aspect of a story undiscussed.  The prose in general is excellent too, with Anderson producing a flowing, expansive text that never feels clumsy or forced.  With such an eye for detail, the writer is able to bring events off the page, breathing colour into what could be dry, turgid tales.

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way Knausgaard has developed it.  The over-arching structure and theme of angels is woven in and out of the work, yet the book actually contains several stories which could be novellas in their own right (a missed marketing opportunity there).  Early on, in setting up his journey into the past, the narrator accuses modern readers and writers of attributing modern thoughts to people from the past, frowning on this revisionism:

“Even if the events and relationships of his life were to correspond exactly with a life in our own time, one that we understand and recognise, we would still come no closer to him.”
p.13 (Portobello Books, 2015)

Then, of course, he proceeds to do exactly the same thing himself in his stories – what follows is less biblical and more Thomas Hardy in its bucolic descriptiveness (or George Eliot in the focus on thoughts and motives).

Once the preliminaries are out of the way, we move onto the tale of Cain and Abel.  Confined to a mere handful of verses in the Bible, Knausgaard expands it here to nearly a hundred pages, developing a superb story of two brothers and their fate, a psychological tale of love and envy.  I don’t want to give too much away, but let me tell you now – Knausgaard’s interpretation is rather more sympathetic to the exiled Cain than the Biblical version…

We then move on to The Flood, which in Knausgaard’s hands again becomes a sweeping epic.  It’s a moving drama, one which often leaves Noah hammering away at his Ark, instead focusing on the plight of the rest of humanity.  As the rain keeps on and the sea levels rise, with tidal waves and floods chasing them higher and higher, a small group of people do their best to reach sanctuary.  Much of this section focuses on the back story of Noah’s family, and with this knowledge in mind, the well-known ending packs an even bigger punch.  As much as it’s a Bible story, it’s one of struggle, with people trying to carve out an existence in the face of disaster – and very moving it is too.

These two sections are detached, neutral narratives, but in other places Knausgaard uses a very different style.  For example, in his retellings of the stories of Lot and Ezekiel, the writer narrates the events, providing a running commentary along the way.  He examines each word, stopping to question the motives, not only of the people but also of God and his representatives, and the  way he steps back and ponders events allows us to see the stories in a new light.

A good example of this is where the writer considers how Ezekiel’s ravings would have appeared to the people around him, especially after the novelty had worn off.  With hindsight, it’s easy to condemn those who looked down upon him as a raving madman, but for those watching and waiting (in vain) for anything to happen, turning their back on him was the sensible option.  And then, of course, there’s Lot, led away with his family in the middle of the night:

“What’s going on, Dad?” says one of the daughters.
“We’re going away,” says Lot.  “And we’re going now.”
“But it’s the middle of the night!” says the other.
“No buts!  When I say now, I mean now! says Lot. (p.405)

These lines might not fit in with the aesthetic of Biblical language, but it’s certainly more realistic of how teenage daughters might have reacted…

While I haven’t mentioned the angels much in examining the stories Knausgaard develops, they are a constant presence even here, their light shining in the distance.  The subject is handled in more detail, though, when he returns to the story of Antinous Bellori, a man examining the nature of angels and coming up with some unorthodox claims (in a time when straying from the orthodox often led to torture):

“In his major work, On the Nature of Angels, he argues that scripture is only one of the myriad manifestations of the divine, neither more nor less important than the others, and so invalidates the contradiction that has arisen between scripture and the world in a different and more sincere way than his contemporaries, who merely exchanged one value for another, without understanding that, in reality, they were two sides of the same coin.” (p.360)

The key point here is the question as to what actually angels are – are they closer to God or humanity?  Are they eternally the same or capable of change?  Bellori and Knausgaard have their own personal insights into the matter, leading to a shocking conclusion (one, again, I won’t reveal here).

However, A Time for Everything, while dealing with the divine, is more about the human.  The book deals with human nature and the way mortality drives us to be ambitious and plan for the future.  I realise that for the more religious reader, the interpretation will be slightly different, so perhaps a small trigger warning might be appropriate at this point.  This is a work of literary fiction, and Knausgaard’s interpretation of biblical events may not reflect orthodox Christian beliefs…

And yet there’s more…  Knausgaard’s Coda, a War and Peace-esque appendage to an epic story, takes place in Norway in the late 90s, where a certain Henrik Vankel (a very thinly veiled Knausgaard) is living in solitude on a small island.  It might seem a bit of overkill after the main event, but it does serve a couple of purposes.  Firstly, it puts the theory into practice, showing how a man’s life can be rendered meaningless in light of the revelations explained in the main part of the book.  Secondly, it’s fascinating for the reader of the My Struggle series, containing future echoes of Knausgaard’s more autobiographical books.  As well as touching on issues such as self-harming, conflict with a father figure and deliberate isolation, fiction begins to blend into real life as A Time for Everything is what he was working on during the period covered by A Man in Love.  We can see why he was so driven, and frustrated, at anything, including his family, that got in his way during a time of intense productivity.

A Time for Everything is a wonderful book, one I’d recommend to anyone, especially those who have already enjoyed Knausgaard’s work.  While it might shock the odd Bible literalist, most readers will appreciate the way Knausgaard handles the texts (just to show how much depth he went into for this book, he was subsequently used as an advisor for a new translation of the Bible into Nynorsk).  The big question, though, is what his view on angels actually is.  I won’t go into that, but the verdict of Antinous Bellori is worth considering:

“The angels have fallen.  They are out there somewhere.” (p.240)

I’m really not sure if that is meant to be comforting or chilling…

‘The Miner’ by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

IMG_5291I’ve reviewed a fair few of Natsume Sōseki’s books on the blog in the past, but having tried most of his better-known works, it’s not always easy to get hold of some of his other books.  I was very happy, then, to see a new edition appear recently, one I hadn’t read.  This latest release is from Aardvark Bureau, the new imprint of Gallic Books, and while it may be one of Sōseki’s less famous works, it’s certainly an interesting read…

The Miner (translated by Jay Rubin, review copy courtesy of the publisher) focuses on a nineteen-year-old on the run, a youth who has left his comfortable existence behind after unspecified trouble (which we later learn is actually relationship issues…).  Within the first few pages, a chance encounter with a dubious-looking man leads to a snap decision to accept a job offer as a miner; as the youth has no plan beyond losing himself somewhere, a life in the bowels of the earth seems as good a choice as any.

What follows is a lengthy journey, over the course of which our young friend has plenty of time to reconsider his decision.  As the narrative takes him, and us, further and further away from Tokyo, the youth experiences a very different life to the one he is used to.  After the discomfort of the walk through the mountains, and the warnings of the people who meet him on arrival, it’s finally time to make a decision – does he really have what it takes to go down into the depths of the earth?

The Miner is a novel unlike many of Sōseki’s works, and at times it reads more like an allegory than a realistic story.  Even the narrator, looking back at his experiences years later, questions his story’s right to be described as a novel:

“All I’m doing here is recording facts that don’t fall together.  There’s no novelistic fabrication involved, so it’s not interesting the way a novel is.  But it’s a lot more mysterious than a novel.”
p.117 (Aardvark Bureau, 2015)

That much, at least, is true.  Much is left unstated in The Miner, and the description of a protagonist’s journey to an unknown location, with the reader often kept (no pun intended) in the dark, has distinct Kafkaesque undertones.  With the narrator involved in a seemingly never-ending journey, some readers may struggle a little, hoping for a quicker end to the walk.

However, the patient reader (and they will need to be patient) will be rewarded.  The Miner is a book where it’s more about the journey than the destination, even if it takes a while for this to become clear.  The older self narrating the story is looking back at his own foolish youth, lending an air of detachment to the story (we’re fairly sure from an early stage that he must have survived his experiences…).  What we’re reading is a description of his first glimpse of a wider world.

The boy (he would have been such in Japan) is a naive, well-off sort, a middle-class kid soon to discover that the real world is very different to the one he’s lived in up to now.  Once he arrives in the mountains, he can’t help but notice the poverty and the hardship the workers must endure:

“Finally, the man stood, leaning heavily on the shoulders of two who had gone to rouse him.  He looked my way.  The single glance I had of his face at that moment sent a shudder of horror through me.  This was not a man who had been lying down merely for the sake of rest.  He was very, very sick – too sick even to stand up by himself.” (p.144)

It’s hardly surprising that health is a concern considering the conditions.  The rice with a muddy consistency, the constant cold, the bedbugs – we’re not in Tokyo any more, botchan

The whole story leads us to the point where the young man finally reaches the entrance to the hole, and it’s time to make a decision:

“This’s the door to Hell,” Hatsu said.  “Got the guts to go in?” (p.162)

Yet this is not your typical Bildungsroman, and  the youth’s descent into a Dante-esque world is simply that – a descent and an adventure.  Despite the epic journey he’s had (and the adventures that follow), it’s doubtful that he actually takes much from it.

The appeal of The Miner to a Sōseki fan lies in trying to work out where it fits into his oeuvre.  It was written in 1908, just before Ten Nights of Dreams and Sanshirō, and followed a couple of more realistic novels, Nowaki and The Poppy (this one is a far more abstract piece than those).  The voice is particularly interesting as it appears to borrow from all stages of the writer’s career.  While it can sometimes have the frustratingly naive tone of Botchan, at other points it’s much more analytical (c.f. Grass on the Wayside, Light and Dark).  There are also glimpses of the wry humour found in Kusamakura and I am a Cat, making it hard to pin the writer’s intentions down.

Luckily enough, I didn’t have to think too hard about all that as Aardvark Bureau have found a couple of people to do it for me.  The first is translator Jay Rubin, whose excellent translator’s afterword sets the historical context and examines what influence The Miner had on Sōseki’s later work.  The other is Haruki Murakami (you might have heard of him?), a big Sōseki fan who provides an interesting introduction to the work.  This is a more personal reading, making for an excellent contrast with Rubin’s academic view, and together the two pieces ensure the reader understands exactly how The Miner fits into the writer’s body of work.

I’m not sure this would be the best introduction to Sōseki for the casual reader – I’d be pointing you in the direction of Kusamakura, Sanshirō, Botchan or possibly Kokoro (if you like your books a little darker) -, but it’s fascinating reading for those already familiar with his work.  Both Rubin and Murakami argue that this underrated novel underpins much of his later work – and who am I to argue with them?

The Miner is an interesting story, a tale of looking back at your youth and not really understanding why:

“I have a habit of recalling the adventures I experienced back then whenever I have a few spare moments.  It was the most colorful period of my life.  Each time I bring back those images to savor, I wield my scalpel mercilessly (you can do this with old memories) in an attempt to chop up my own mental processes and examine every little piece.  The results, however, are always the same: I don’t understand them.” (p.61)

The narrator may struggle to come to terms with his time in the mine, and if you read The Miner, you’ll probably understand why.  Hopefully, though, if you give it a try, you’ll have more luck making sense of it all :)