Book Review: A Small Revolution in Germany (Philip Hensher)

There is precious little revolution to be had here from a title promising at least some degree of drama. Philip Hensher’s work, instead, focuses on the ideological changes experienced by its core characters; yet, even these changes do little to satisfy and reward a reader for the time invested in the reading. A plot line only really emerges in the latter stages, in respect of one character in an erstwhile group of friends: having risen to the rank of Home Secretary in the UK, one of this group is depicted in manipulative self-service, lest his teenage politically Left activism be discovered in his current right-wing Cabinet position, thus harming his career ambitions. Hensher seems to be at pains to outline the Left-Right swing, the discarding of former ideology by his characters, and the juxtapositional stance of his first person main character, as central vehicle on which to place his narrative arc. The flesh around the bones is, however, a turgid affair.

A Small Revolution in Germany (4th Estate, 2020) spans a period between the early 1980s and the present day and begins with a set of militant Left activist school students who adopt the narrator, nominally nicknamed Spike, into their band of misfits. From the outset, there is a kind of off-kilter arrangement at play in the simple choice of some of the character names: nothing seems to really fit. Percy Ogden is, at first perhaps, the group leader, standing up as he does to interrogate an army officer who visits the school with what transpires to be a rehearsed questioning; James Frinton is the quiet, observant boy who later switches political allegiance and becomes the Home Secretary; Mohammed and Eric are minor characters who, we are told, are Muslim and black, respectively, and their inclusion reads as a token one (late on, we discover that Hensher has indeed brought these two into the fray, amongst others, to satisfy the political optics of Frinton’s former days); Tracy is a hollow, shallow supporter of anarcho-syndicalism, who winds up a drunkard. Spike falls in with Ogden and then with another group known as the Spartacists: one of whom, Joaquin, a Chilean refugee, becomes his life-partner. Nothing is written of the fact that Spike is underage as this sexual relationship begins to form.

Throughout the book, Hensher takes us back and forth in time and slowly exhibits a cast of thoroughly deplorable core characters. It isn’t the nocturnal escapades of vandalism and youthful righteousness, the display of political extremism, that renders the merged groups as such; it is, rather, that the reader can stretch to no degree of empathy for any one of the characters in question. There is nothing close to likeability in any of the people the author paints and they variously fall away from the pages in a purge of time without the least of the reader’s concerns. A cover blurb point of note suggests that Hensher’s work is ‘a meditation on youth and constancy and reinvention’: there is a meditative quality here, but there is no richness of texture to pore over.

In the second section of three, Hensher has Spike and Ogden taking a trip to what is now the former East Germany, in 1987, to experience the German Democratic Republic (DDR) as part of their socialist calling. The trip does not go to plan and, after a lengthy episode in the Reisebüro in Berlin, seeking permission to enter the DDR amidst the pointless petty beauracracy and political posturing of its officals, the two travel farther into the country, whereupon they are arrested in Weimar: Ogden sees it fits to burn banknotes in public and the authorities, who have been conducting their own surveillance all along, do not take kindly to this escapade. It is with regards to Spike’s days-long internment in a police cell, suffering repeated interrogation after interrogation, that Hensher writes: ‘Those hours were my revolution in Germany, the revolution without which, Lenin tells us, we are lost. I understood at the end of them what politics did, and the narrative it imposes on us.’

Joaquin arrives to save the day, pulling strings, and takes Spike back home whilst Ogden is left to fester. In fact, Ogden disappears from the pages, making only a brief return some time later in review of the fact that, in the present day, he is now a journalist, claiming also to be homosexual, which does Frinton’s sleazy ‘man of all people’ act no harm at all. It is Frinton (who the author insists on repeatedly and irritatingly referring to for the majority of the time by use of his full name, James Frinton) who Spike’s thoughts increasingly turn to in the third section (as he and Joaquin take a walking holiday in the former DDR) and who, it seems, Hensher has had his focus on the whole time. He takes us back to the now-Home Secretary’s University days at Oxford, where Tracy (then known as Alexandra) also studies (in the loosest sense), as well as Spike. Tracy is in possession of a number of incriminating letters sent by Frinton to her in the years just previous: letters that are the only evidence of the now right-wing minister’s former Left-activist days. For obvious reasons, it is alluded, Frinton would like such evidence to disappear. Hensher, however, is somewhat unsubtle in his unravelling of this unsavoury episode.

A Small Revolution in Germany is occasionally salted with references to literary sources, which are presumably flavourings for additional authenticity. However, the overall effect is one of trying just a little too hard. The sleeve notes of this offering inform us that Hensher is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Bath Spa and so, in context, the above literary reference-making does not appear at all out of sorts; yet, it does not result in an authentic fictive flow. What is also particularly troubling about such credentials is that someone with such a position ought really to be aware of what a first person narrator can and cannot reasonably be expected to know: Hensher regularly has Spike musing on matters he has not been party to, with the justification that he supposes it all went such way, or that he (the character) does know (or did once know) the other characters after all (this, despite the fact that Hensher’s central theme appears to be that of change), or that he, Spike, has seen a couple of the letters (unspecified) that Frinton once sent to Tracy.

A Small Revolution in Germany ultimately concerns a small group of headstrong but irksome young left-wing characters who mostly grow up to be equally irksome right-wing characters, or they simply just fall away from the pages. Hensher sprinkles the first sections of his work with tiresome dialogue such as: ‘But how can a bourgeoisie even function in a free-floating way outside the paradigms of a society?’; he concludes it in the present day, in the former DDR, with passing references to the UK’s exit from the EU, with the fifty-something Spike and Joaquin appearing to be the only ones to have held onto their youthful ideals. Change happens, Hensher seems to say, but some things remain. There are, however, not always small revolutions, revelations in understanding, in certain works read.

 

Book Review: Signs Preceding the End of the World (Yuri Herrera)

The potential for an even greater impact of Yuri Herrera’s sometimes elegant tale of quest amidst the liminal cultural complexity of the US-Mexico border is, unfortunately, rather hijacked by its translator’s need to make a mark. Whilst it is refreshing to read (albeit after the main narrative of the work in question) a translator’s note that goes some way to explaining why a certain English word was chosen, in its repeated use throughout the text, the revelation only adds a further layer of distraction, taking us further away from what the author wrote and wished to say himself in the language of his own choosing.

Signs Preceding the End of the World (And Other Stories, 2015, translated from the original Spanish by Lisa Dillman; originally published as Señales que Precederán al Fin del Mundo, Editorial Periférica, 2009) concerns its main character, Makina, and her search for her brother. Having left their Mexican village some time ago, tricked into claiming land in the US, Makina’s brother sends only a few short, curt notes home that he will return or that his family should stop asking after him. Makina’s mother, Cora, eventually sends her daughter on a mission to find him. To do this, she tells Makina to seek the help of underworld characters she has ties to. Makina seeks and is rewarded with promises of safe passage both ways across the border (‘off to the other side’) and assistance in her quest, though it does come at a cost, of course, in that Makina must also carry a package. These gangsters are, understandably, given soubriquets; however, for unfathomable reasons, Herrera chooses an inconsistent arrangement of naming convention insofar as Mr Double-U, Mr Aitch, Mr Q and Mr P are all concerned.

Makina is perfectly able to operate in such a shady world and she is able to take care of herself on the road as well. She is calm and careful, wary but driven. Herrera imbues her quest tale with the flavourings of a literary current: he touches on what it is to belong to certain ethnicities, on seeing the omnipotent American as an ‘other’, on what it is to be in a cultural crack, a liminal zone, alien but consumable all the same. Thus it is in what transpires to be Makina’s brother’s fate. America, Herrera seems to be saying, does not want the ‘other’ but will make use of them if need be.

In an about-turn on perspectives of racial disharmony, Herrera refers to ‘anglos’ across the river (in the US) and writes, of those who originate from south of this border, regarding their ‘latin tongue’ or of being ‘homegrown’. In the US, Makina comes into contact with an old man (a stopping point on her shady trail to deliver her package to Mr P). The man tells her he’s taking her to a stadium and, when she asks what the building is for, he tells her:

Every week the anglos play a game to celebrate who they are . . . One of them whacks it, then sets off like it was a trip around the world, to every one of the bases out there, you know the anglos have bases all over the world, right? Well the one who whacked it runs from one point to the next while the others keep taking swings to distract their enemies, and if he doesn’t get caught he makes it home and his people welcome him with open arms and cheering.

Soon after, Herrera writes of people hereabouts, of their language: ‘More than a midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born.’ The speaker, Herrera tells us, eventually settles, after an oscillation between ‘latin tongue’ and ‘anglo tongue’, on one or the other, in a ‘nostalgia for the land they left or never knew’, where ‘actions are alluded to with an anglo verb conjugated latin-style’. It is at this moment that the reader might discern some clue as to the rendering of an irritation that plays itself out throughout the book, up until and continuing past this point: herein lies the stone in the shoe, the grit, that is the translator’s troublesome mark . . .

Dillman, the translator in question, chooses to render Herrera’s original Spanish neologism that is jarchar (according to her own notes, meaning ‘to exit’, derived from Arabic; being also, in Spanish, short verses added to the ends of poems) using the English word ‘verse’ as a verb. Hence, Makina, in particular, ‘verses’ from (leaves) a variety of places, as do other characters. Whilst the translator’s explanation serves to lend some clarity to the word choice, and whilst the connections between the Arabic, Spanish and English languages are understood and acknowledged, the use of ‘to verse’ within the text is wholly unsatisfactory when in the midst of reading it. Encountering it halts the fictive flow on every single occasion. Dillman wishes to leave her mark, and even her claim of communication with the author throughout the translation process does not ameliorate her end product. It is notable, in Dillman’s notes, that she discusses not rendering her translation, in places, as ‘cringe-makingly American for language meant to come out of a rural Mexican teenager’s mouth’, choosing to leave in a few original words such as jefecita (‘little boss’); however, she then spectacularly upsets this accord with the use of ‘verse’, albeit not in the dialogue, instead of the presumably original jarchar, throughout. The latter, with a perfunctory footnote or brief translator’s note in advance, perhaps, would have been far the more preferable.

Furthermore, on technical analysis, it is refreshingly unusual to encounter a named copy-editor and proofreader, alongside a main editor before the author’s work is read: accountability for any errors in the output of professional publishing houses has long-since needed to be addressed. The publishers, it transpires, operate a subscription process, and anyone enamoured so to enter into this essentially seem to fund the writing of a chosen book. This process, and accountability, is to be applauded, and the copy-editor seems to have produced fair work. That said, Herrera’s disdain for speech marks and a lack of clarifying punctuation in his dialogue (or is it Dillman’s?) does mildly vex the reading process throughout and one wonders to what degree the copy-editor wrestled with this aspect. Herrera writes, for example: ‘She thanked him, Mr. Double-U said Don’t mention it, child, and she versed [sic].’

Herrera offers us some moments of succinct descriptive elegance (‘The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint.’) but he also has an occasional graceless turn, such as in: ‘Before they reached the shack where she was to change clothes, what happened was: [followed by two short paragraphs of what happened was]’. Similarly, Herrera writes (or Dillman adapts it), inelegantly, how Makina had ‘shucked [slept with] him for the first time back during the brouhaha about the mayors’; yet he writes with a small dry humour elsewhere and gives a knowing wink to understanding exclusion when having Makina meet a black man (as unusual as this is for her): the man tells her, wryly, ‘I could put on a blond wig if you like.’

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a meditation in its main character’s quest to find her brother. It crosses the borderland in its perspective on cultures from the ‘other side’, and Herrera has largely succeeded in letting a little light fall on a liminal zone of identity and language. Where this short offering somewhat fails, however, is in a heavy-handed marking by the hand of its translator.
 
 

Book Review: Bright Lights, Big City (Jay McInerney)

Sometimes, a book’s saving grace is its ending. What goes before can be, as in this offering under review, many pages of much the sameness. It is only in the final portion of Jay McInerney’s writing here that we are provided some sense as to the possible reasons for his main character’s hedonism and continual inability to lead a life in some way stable. Instability, in itself, is not deemed a fault; rather, it is in the main character’s slow and unrelenting spiral, which we are placed within from the onset, in media res, that there is concern.

Bright Lights, Big City (Bloomsbury, 2017; originally published 1984) charts the minor escapades of an unnamed character (save for his friend’s soubriquet of ‘Coach’) who, initially, works in the Department of Factual Verification at a New York magazine publisher. McInerney chooses to write his story in the second person and so ‘You’ are the main character in question. This has the potential for a drain on reading patience. At the magazine are an assortment of either pedantic or odd characters, befitting of such a department, including the dragon of a boss, Clara Tillinghast, the somewhat old-fashioned and introvert Rittenhouse, and Wade, who is a curiosity in his own right.

McInerney’s main character spends his time either poorly hashing together a rough execution of his work, only loosely checking writers’ submissions, ruining the proofs in the process, or he’s embedded in the drugs and party culture of early 1980s New York, yet not necessarily feeling a wave of exhilaration because of it. The latter, suffice is to say, significantly impacts on the former, and the former is pre-internet, so McInerney’s ‘You’ must engage in plenty of phone conversations to France in order to rush through a piece, and he must engage in plenty of old-fashioned book work. The lifestyle away from the work-place proves unconducive to the timely and orderly presentation of satisfactory copy, and events turn out as one might expect in the eventual conflation of these two life situations.

In Tad Allagash, the main character has both a good friend and a minor demon on his shoulder. Allagash knows where all the parties are, has numerous contacts (some of whom should not be questioned any further after initial conversation), is drugs and women focused, and often leads ‘You’, or ‘Coach’, as he occasionally calls him, astray. Allagash calls late and the main character goes out and, invariably, does not make it home again until the early hours of the following day: often no longer with Allagash, who has departed somewhere, at some point many hours ago, and sometimes without full recollection of what has transpired in the intervening time.

There are marginal ‘love interests’ scattered within the pages: Megan from work, whose signals the main character cannot appreciate; Vicky, Allagash’s intelligent cousin, who visits the city and who needs to be shown the nightlife; Amanda, who is the main character’s estranged wife — a model who left her rural upbringing for the big city but suddenly then left her husband when working in France, and whom the main character broods over, intermittently, throughout. Amanda is, in time, painted as somewhat hollow: so much so that she does not even recognise her actions, late on, and the main character, initially, cannot even discern if it is her he sees or not.

Michael, the main character’s brother, is the other more or less significant person who warrants a mention. He comes to New York on the behest of his father, seeking the ‘You’ character, but the latter does his best to ignore him and to escape any meeting. We do not immediately know why the latter feels the need to exhibit this irresponsible trait. Michael does eventually find his way into his brother’s apartment, where a fight ensues, and we discover the reasons for his visit. This, in turn, unravels the question which had, up until this point, not so much as burned but irritated, by going some way to answering why the main character’s life is currently what it is.

McInerney’s writing is easily read, despite the onslaught of the second person, present tense narrative. Immediately at the beginning, he places ‘You’ in a nightclub (‘either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge’) under the auspices of a chapter titled: ‘It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?’ The main character is in search of ‘Bolivian Marching Powder’ because, McInerney writes: ‘Your brain at this moment is composed of brigades of tiny Bolivian soldiers. They are tired and muddy from their long march through the night. There are holes in their boots and they are hungry. They need to be fed.’

Biographical notes suggest that McInerney is a journalist (writing a wine column for Town and Country, and a regular contributor to the Guardian, The New York Times Review and Corriere della Sera). Perhaps this background suggests a reason for the writer’s relentless desire not to use contractions in the non-dialogue majority of his work (e.g. ‘The Bolivian Soldiers [sic] are still on their feet, but they have stopped singing their marching song. You realise that you are at a crucial juncture vis-à-vis morale. What you need is a good pep talk from Tad Allagash, but he is not to be found.’ This stylistic choice does interrupt the reading flow a little, until one learns to mentally ‘find and replace’.

McInerney’s writing occasionally veers towards a take on Noir, but there are moments of beautiful, if a little stereotypical, regard here. On meeting Vicky, on Allagash’s urgent persuasion and direction (he, her cousin, being nowhere to be seen), the main character sees a possible candidate in the appointed bar and finds that ‘Her voice is like gravel spread with honey.’ She is stood, reading Spinoza’s Ethics, and the ‘You’ character introduces himself by way of: ‘We don’t get many Rationalists in here.’ Vicky is the polar opposite of the model, Amanda.

Ultimately, Bright Lights, Big City is a fair, if untaxing, read: one must trust that something other than drugs and the slow spiral of a defeated life will resolve into, if not a happy ending, at least a reason for it all. The pay-off is limited but does raise the whole up a level because the main character, and thus the story, does then prove to be not completely void of meaning.
 
 

Book Review: Ocean Sea (Alessandro Baricco)

Anyone who has ever seriously contemplated the nature of, or meditated beside, the sea knows its immensity of sheer volume and can appreciate its vast weight pressing on their thoughts. By contrast, Alessandro Baricco’s writerly meditation is utterly hollow, lightly fluttery and, for the most part, senselessly rendered. There is little here that the reader can truly feel in touch with.

Ocean Sea (Canongate Books, 2019, translated from the original Italian by Alastair McEwen; originally published as Oceano Mare, Rizzoli Libri S.p.A, 1993) takes place in imprecise locations, in a presumably historic time of no exact reference, and flirts with elements of magical realism and poetic disposition but, ultimately, does not fully succeed in implementation of such readings. At the Almayer Inn, beside the sea somewhere, a variety of men, women and children are drawn not as characters but more as caricatures. Elisewin is fey and delicate, escorted to the prime location of the book by Father Pluche, at the behest of her father, a Baron, as the sea may save her from herself; Plasson is an erstwhile portrait painter, seeking now to know where the sea begins; Bartleboom, who writes love letters to someone he has yet to meet, seeks knowledge of where the sea ends; Ann Deverià is an adulteress, for whom the sea might prove curative; Adams, also known as Thomas, is a darkly sketched seaman who seeks revenge for an incident aboard a makeshift raft; five children variously run, or have the run of, the inn, and all bear short names beginning with the letter ‘D’, all of which may or may not be relevant in some obscure literary amalgamation of those names. This, like analysis of much of Baricco’s writing is, however, pure speculation.

It is noteworthy how often authors tend to include, wittingly or otherwise, phrases or short series of lines embedded within their text that then serve to encapsulate the whole. Baricco is no exception in this respect. Late on in this offering, he writes (with regards to ‘a beautiful woman’) how ‘You felt like turning her around to see if there was anything behind the makeup and the gush and all the rest’. So it is with Ocean Sea itself. Despite its meditative direction, the whole is generally devoid of any real substance. It is as if, for large swathes of pages, Baricco is in a private dialogue only with himself: his thinking is impenetrable as he fails to leave us the required anchors to hang on to.

One section does, however, come somewhere close to passing muster: a little over half way through, Baricco details an excitement in a night-time storm with several of his characters carrying lanterns as they run with bemusement and abandonment along a beach. He writes that ‘The children were shouting. But not with fear. They were shouting to be heard above the roaring of sea and wind. But it was a kind of joy — an inexplicable joy — that rang out in their voices.’ The text here is largely followed by a rush of dialogue which captures the ensuing madness. This, however, should be contrasted with Baricco’s other textual variations: the turgid central concern of Adams’ raisin d’être, borne of being adrift with others on a raft and with officers guarding the scant resources; the floaty, discordant writing that describes Elisewin’s utterly unrelateable plight; the shockingly bad poetry disguised as Father Pluche’s written prayers; the mindlessly dull cataloguing of Plasson’s predominately all white canvasses, which come into Bartleboom’s possession; the farce (there is always farce in poorly drawn offerings) of Bartleboom’s late romantic dithering between twin sisters he has only just met (the farce always, also, seems to be late on in such works: it is as if the author has ground him- or herself down into a last and ridiculous resort).

Undoubtedly, Baricco associates elements of his writing with the ebb and flow of the sea, but it is unsubtly done. In Bartleboom’s late affairs of the heart, for example, after finally becoming betrothed (though without enthusiasm for his intended), he then chances upon another woman to whom he feels he can, at last, give away all his love-lorn letters written before he has ever met her: the problem is that she has a twin and he travels up and down the road between their two places of residence in a none-too-complicated analogy of the motion of the sea. Variations of this device, such as in the flipping of tenses, appear elsewhere. Baricco is also preoccupied, throughout, with the metaphor that is ‘the womb’. He repeats it ad nauseum. Repeated motifs can be appreciated but his predilection for this particular imagery rather more suggests a stubborn insistence than a delicate undertow.

Baricco likewise tackles the idea of magic with a lack of any finesse and abruptly so, without the grace of giving it time to linger in his final pages. Similarly so, earlier flirtations with what might be assumed as magical realist flights don’t settle easily. Admiral Langlais, a minor character, for example, collects and catalogues all the odd goings-on in the far-flung sea reaches of the ‘Realm’: ‘On the route for Farhadhar, mariners used to see strange luminous butterflies that induced stupefaction and a sense of melancholy’: ‘Langlais was letting his mind escape along the route of a ship that had flown away, literally, in the waters of Malagar . . .’ In the context of the whole, where nothing is solid, there is nothing remotely marvellous here: it is just remote. Baricco then fashions a strangely out of kilter denouement for the Almayer Inn itself, even in the context of the drift that has gone before. He writes that an unnamed resident walks away and does not ‘see the Almayer Inn detach itself from the ground and break up airily into a thousand pieces, which looked like sails and floated up in the air, going up and down, flying . . .’

Ocean Sea is fluid and floaty, potentially imprinted with great precision in the mind’s eye of its author; however, it is, in truth, awash like a watercolour rather than being voluminous with a weight in words, which the awesome sense of the sea is, in actuality, in the depths of its many, many stories.
 
 

Book Review: Minor Detail (Adania Shibli)

Expectations of learning significantly more on particular socio-political matters can, in retrospect, colour a reading journey less favourably. Such effect transpires in this slim offering from Palestinian writer Adania Shibli. Local accounts, albeit in fictional form, are reliable witnesses to conflict around the globe, as writers relate, authentically, exactly what it is they know: they have great potential to educate through this chosen written medium. However, despite the significant central travesty of the piece (the rape and murder of a young Bedouin girl by Israeli soldiers in the Negev desert in the summer of 1949, shortly after the formation of the modern state of Israel), there is precious little further development out from this.

Minor Detail (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020; translated from the original Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette) is written in two sections: the first relates to the third person telling of an encampment of Israeli soldiers, and mainly regarding its unnamed commanding officer, in the late Forties, stationed in a remote position near the Gaza Strip; the second, in modern times, is the first person account of a similarly unnamed female researcher who leaves her home in Ramallah in the West Bank, north of Jerusalem, to travel south in search of information ‘that could help me uncover the incident as experienced by the girl.’ The incident in question is the title of the book; that is, the historically discarded ‘minor detail’ of the atrocity of a rape and murder.

In August 1949, we are informed, a troop of soldiers hold a position at what we are later told is Dangour (and this settlement is moved a short distance north, later, and named as Nirim). Shibli writes, regarding an officers’ briefing, that it is explained to them that their ‘primary mission during their presence here, in addition to demarcating the southern border with Egypt and preventing anyone from penetrating it, was to comb the southwest part of the Negev and cleanse it of any remaining Arabs.’ Late on in the second section of the book, Shibli writes of the researcher’s conversation with a curator/archivist in the museum in Nirim, that the settlement, as she is told, comes into being because of a ‘founding group’, eight of whom were killed in its defence in what was ‘the first settlement to be attacked by the Egyptian Army’ after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

The ‘minor detail’ of the violation of an Arab girl in the volatile socio-political fragility of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict captures the researcher’s imagination. She is, however, anxiety-ridden in her travels south: a deliberate detail in relating the general emotion of the Palestinian populace, according to one inner sleeve reviewer’s notes. The researcher hires a car (with the covert assistance of a colleague) and drives the gauntlet of checkpoints out of Ramallah, using a borrowed ID. In consideration of her journey, Shibli does provide two significant details that promote greater understanding of the region: that the land is cordoned into ‘Areas’ (reminiscent of the post-war division of Berlin’s sectors) and that there are a number of versions of maps, produced by different organisations, to represent the same land. The researcher takes several of these maps on her journey and makes the point, on more than one occasion, that the Israeli map lies on top of the others on her car seat. As she drives, she finds no traces of Palestinian villages on her Israeli map. Shibli writes of the researcher:

I take the maps I brought with me out of my bag and spread them over the passenger seat and across the steering wheel. Among these maps are those produced by centres for research and political studies, which show the borders of the four Areas, the path of the Wall, the construction of settlements, and checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza. Another map shows Palestine as it was until the year 1948, and another one, given to me by the rental car company and produced by the Israeli ministry of tourism, shows streets and residential areas according to the Israeli government. With shaking fingers, I try to determine my current location on that map.

The first section of Shibli’s writing is slow and repetitive. The commanding officer goes on patrols, finds nothing, returns to his commandeered hut, washes the sand and dust from his face, and this repeats and repeats. Eventually, on patrol, he discovers a small group of Bedouins at a desert oasis, including the girl, and their camels. All except the girl are immediately killed. It is at this stage that one suspects the presence of allegory in Shibli’s writing: at the oasis there is the detail of dry grass ‘ripped up by the roots’ by the camels; there is the repeated motif of a potentially loyal dog, which watches out for the imprisoned girl when the soldiers take her back to the camp (and which is partly mirrored in the second section of the book); the commanding officer suffers a night-time bite, as he sleeps, by an unknown creature. In both sections, Shibli also references the use of petrol in symbolic fashion: in the first, the girl is doused in it and has her hair cut, nominally to rid her of lice; in the second, the researcher clumsily spills petrol on herself in the act of filling up her car tank (the first time she has had occasion to ever perform this act). The smell of petrol on the clothes or hair permeates portions of both sections.

Gradually, we come to a gathering comprehension that Shibli is writing something else beneath the text, as well as the obvious Israeli-Palestinian commentary. How is it that the researcher manages to pass by all the road checkpoints with such relative ease, and what relation is the author drawing between the researcher and the Bedouin girl? Shibli informs us that the rape and murder of the girl in 1949 took place exactly twenty-five years to the day before the birth of the researcher-narrator. Shibli’s biographical notes also mention that she, the author, was born in 1974. Clearly, Shibli is writing from a depth immersion in the socio-political complexity of her own life.

That said, however, Minor Detail does not sufficiently satisfy an inquisitive disposition that anticipates the exposition of hitherto unrealised truths, untruths or assertions. There are the occasional flashes of writerly delicacy (such as ‘I have come far enough south that the sandy white hills dotted with small stones have been replaced by hills of yellow sand that look soft to the touch’), but the whole is generally of methodically trudging fare. There are instances of clumsy turns of phrase or single word use, such as ‘confusedly’, but, as ever with works in translation, we can never be sure at whose door such gripes should be laid (the author or the translator).

In her denouement, Shibli does draw parallels between past and present, and there is a cyclical reading that could be gleaned, but an anticipated weight of greater comprehension of the details of the region’s socio-politics is not so forthcoming.
 
 

Book Review: A Pale View of Hills (Kazuo Ishiguro)

Early Ishiguro is, to appropriate a portion of the title of the work under review, a pale view of his soon to be far more elegant writerly self. Here, we have the potential of slow-burn depth of feeling, as The Remains of the Day later proved, and here we have the possibility of something subtly sinister underscoring the current of the whole, as far more successfully achieved in Never Let Me Go, for example, but this early Ishiguro ultimately falls far too flat.

A Pale View of Hills (Faber and Faber, 2005; originally published 1982) is largely set in post-war Nagasaki, via the first person reminiscences of its main character, Etsuko: a woman who left Japan to settle in England and, in the present-day narrative, converses with her younger daughter, Niki, whilst the memory of her eldest daughter, Keiko, who has recently committed suicide, lingers. Etsuko’s recollection of Nagasaki concerns one summer when she was first pregnant, living in an apartment block with her husband, Jiro, and meeting the rather blunt and self-serving Sachiko, who stays at a small wooden cottage by the nearby river with her daughter, Mariko.

Jiro’s father, known as Ogata-San — a retired teacher — comes to stay, but Jiro has little time for him: he, Jiro, is more concerned about his work. He comes home and Etsuko waits on him in domestic servitude. Sachiko appears at the cottage out of the blue, uprooted first from Tokyo, and then from her uncle’s residence in Nagasaki. She is naïve and selfish and believes that an American, known only as Frank, and who does not actually appear directly in the scenes, will take her and her daughter away to his homeland for a better life. Post-war Japan, she says, is no place for a woman.

Ishiguro’s weavings of disquiet centre around the character of Mariko, Sachiko’s sullen daughter. Witness to a traumatic event earlier in her childhood, she is fixated on the idea of there being a woman who lives over the river: a nebulous, dark presence, a perpetrator of wrong-doing. Sachiko has no time for such fantastical arrangement. Etsuko, however, preparing herself for the imminent birth of her own first child, and thus with the prospect of trying to be a good parent, reaches out to Mariko. The slow-burn that surrounds Mariko’s darkness is, however, a long affair.

Sachiko finds work at the noodle shop of Mrs Fujiwara, a friend of Etsuko’s mother. Mrs Fujiwara’s family has been wiped out during the war and only her adult son, Kazuo, remains, and what can we make of a character who has the same name as the author? The work at the noodle shop is below Sachiko but she perseveres in the short-term. It is a process of holding out until she can secure her passage out of Nagasaki with Frank. Sachiko is painted as the strange other in the piece, and indeed it is she who coldly produces the only real visceral connection in the writing in a scene where she rids herself of Mariko’s kittens; however, as we might expect if we have read examples of Ishiguro’s later works, all is not as it seems. A very late twist in what we thought we knew serves only to confuse the matter further though.

A central scene is played out via a day trip taken by Etsuko, Sachiko and Mariko, up into the hills of Inasa, beyond Nagasaki harbour, and these are the hills that the title of the work refers to. The day trippers take a cable car and meet an American woman and her Japanese friend. Sachiko can speak English and converses with the former. Etsuko, we are told, has not yet learned the language. Mariko is darkly disposed. On the face of it, the scene has no great value. However, Ishiguro refers back to it in his final twist, but the twist does not settle the book or lend itself to great depths of thinking. It is too obscure. It comes too late. When the author and the reader can walk together into the final pages, in some harmonious arrangement, the settling can take shape; when there is little space left to do this, the work falls on its own deceit.

Other aspects benefit, in a fashion, from the long view of the totality of its pages. Ishiguro writes his dialogue in a manner that depicts a claustrophobic, strained politeness; it is a formal exactness of manners that he portrays in the interactions, for the most part. The result is effective and lends itself, structurally, to the weaving of something other underneath and in between. Ishiguro does not fully succeed in this regard, however. There are hints of an otherness in the way that Mariko behaves, in the potential of the isolated cottage out on the wasteland, in the foreboding slight presence of murders that have happened, but the lightness exhibited in these heavinesses of realities is too thin to urgently press the reading mind’s concerns.

Ishiguro’s dialogue also suffers, either by the intentional claustrophobic device or by over-zealous attention to a character’s idiosyncrasies, from the dulling effect of Sachiko’s continual use of Etsuko’s name. This, combined with Ishiguro’s penchant here to wind the idea of what’s being talked about around and around itself, laboriously, repeatedly, makes for a tedium in the reading. Whilst up in the Inasa hills, for example, Etsuko and Sachiko are talking, initially, about the loss of Mrs Fujiwara’s family:

‘Whenever I see her, I think to myself I have to be like her, I should keep looking forward. Because in many ways, she lost more than I did . . .’
‘. . . How right you are, Etsuko, we shouldn’t keep looking back at the past. The war destroyed many things for me, but I still have my daughter. As you say, we have to keep looking forward.’
‘. . . I don’t feel nearly so afraid now. I’m going to look forward to it [having a child].’
‘And so you should, Etsuko. After all, you have a lot to look forward to. In fact, you’ll discover soon enough, it’s being a mother that makes life truly worthwhile . . . As you say, Etsuko, we must look forward to life.’
‘I’m so glad you feel like that,’ I said. ‘We should both of us be grateful really. We may have lost a lot in the war, but there’s still so much to look forward to.’
‘Yes, Etsuko. There’s a lot to look forward to.’

A Pale View of Hills starts and ends with Etsuko’s discussions with Niki, her youngest daughter, who visits her English country home from her own home in London. Keiko, Etsuko’s eldest and now deceased daughter, is meant to haunt the pages, one supposes, but Ishiguro’s story is not elegant enough to place this ghost delicately underneath the text of what is clearly there. What remains is too thin to labour with greater thought.
 
 

Book Review: Peach (Emma Glass)

When experimental writing wallows in its own writing class attempts at cleverness and quirky poetic ‘ripping up of all the known rules’, it runs the very real risk of disenfranchising the reader. One ought to be wary of such offerings already plastered on front and back covers and on its opening pages with high praise to the author’s ‘utterly singular’, ‘scintillating’, ‘daring’ writing. It is a high bar. In this case, the comments prove far too high to reach, in truth.

Peach (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019) begins with the punch of a predatory attack on the eponymously named female narrator and follows the shock ramifications of this crime thereafter, but it dissolves into a messy quagmire of soggy words and ideas. On the penultimate page, there is the suggestion that, amongst other heavily laboured analogies and metaphors, the ‘all that may have seemed’ is, in fact, embedded in the possibility of a crassness: the story as vehicle for the possibility of something else entirely. Nothing is entirely clear in Emma Glass’ sometimes surrealist narrative.

The young Peach grows bigger in the belly, but she is not pregnant: neither by her attacker, named only as Lincoln, nor by her boyfriend, known as Green. At the centre of a peach is a stone, and so it is with Peach, in the pit of her stomach. Glass seems to love her continual word play. Green is a tree: or rather, all his actions and gestures and his physical stature are written as such. He is forever, and nauseatingly, kissing Peach on the top of her head. All Glass’ loosely named characters are rendered in such ways as Peach and Green: Mr Custard, Peach’s biology lecturer at college, slumps to the floor in the fashion of his name, and Glass crosses the line here between analogy and aptronymic absurdity masquerading as some distorted reality; Spud is Green’s friend and is depicted, physically, as one would expect of someone with such a name, causing a heavy-footed commotion of furniture when he enters a cafe, which no-one else cares to be concerned by; Sandy is a friend of Peach’s, depicted as shedding sand in his devotion to her; Trunk is a stout lifeguard, Hair Netty a hairy cook. Lincoln’s name seems derived from the image of links of sausages.

The image of sausages is a repeated motif and central factor throughout. Peach feels grease-stained but the motif repeat, ad nauseum, obliterates the gravity of the opening. Justification for such readerly feeling springs forth in the ridiculous final scenes. By this stage, however, acceptance of the experimental non-reality, which has shifted to the quirky and sometimes queasy surreality, has become just a desire to slip through to the final page of this very short offering and out the other side, back into the stable world. Glass’ characters are shapeless ideas, even with her fanciful naming convention; her unnamed, as such, characters are cardboard at best — Peach’s parents (sex-focused, overly-liberal, embarrassments) and her baby brother (given the name of, simply, Baby, as in Jelly, with accompanying textures).

Glass’ writing does occasionally hit a short moment of exquisite poetry, but such moments are few and far between. There is far too much clumsiness that tries too hard to be different, clever or lyrical that follows. When her sentences work, Glass produces a fine thread such as: ‘The moon has swapped with the sun and is climbing a silver string of stars to the centre of the sky.’ Very soon after this, however, she ruins the reading light with: ‘He’s chewing on something that looks chewy.’ Elsewhere, Peach looks down on her baby brother and Glass captures this beautifully with: ‘He doesn’t stir. I smile at his peace and think a simple blessing. He feels it fall upon him and smiles without waking.’ Before the end of the page, however, the elegant beauty has disappeared with the line that is: ‘I put the shower on, make the water hot . . .’ There are plenty of examples on offer, such as these above, that one might reasonably describe as juvenile level. This is not to denigrate the writing of many children who, on the contrary, can often deliver a great proficiency in description of ideas. Glass writes, for example, as Peach sinks underwater in a swimming pool, ‘Tangy on my tongue, the memory comes flooding back, flowing, flooding flood in my lungs, stopped up, tight fright water-tight.’

She appears to be a great lover of alliteration, which can be worked well in the right hands. In Glass’ hands, the alliterative impact is either clunky (‘The jam in the jam pot jiggles. Cutlery is clattering. The table trembles. Green grins . . .’) or it is a deafening cacophony rather than a subtle textual slightness:

Sentences slither around my brain. Scattered words. Scatterbrained. Scatter sentences. Scattered semantics. Scattered seeds. Scatter my brains.

When she combines her alliterations with a deadening rhyme of closely following words, the overall effect is ungainly and graceless: ‘to rake the blade over the fuzz of my flesh, feel the sharp edge . . . The edge. The edge I am on, I am on edge, standing on a ledge . . .’ There are other unnecessary appendages to sentences such as: ‘I’m already naked so I don’t undress.’ There is an increasingly dispiriting fondness for verb forms of nouns immediately following those nouns, such as in: ‘Silvery silhouettes silhouetted by the glowing green lights . . .’ or ‘Spores sporing, pouring.’

Perhaps Glass’ greater writing sins, under the protective guise of writing experimentation, come with barbarous acts such as: ‘I feel for the thread. And. Pull.’ Similarly, there is: ‘I suck my last breath in. Shut my eyes and. Sink. [sic]’ Perhaps worse still, she writes:

And, oh. In goes the air that clings to the hairs in my nose, the air freezing in my throat, the air that makes me choke. Choke. The smell. Of. Smoke. Barbecued pork. I smell pork. Pork smoke forking my nose, filling my throat. I choke. I choke. I choke. He is here.

Peach is a lauded offering, according to the many lines of praise printed on its covers and innards, which compliment its fresh and visceral content. However, whilst writing experimentation and newness of form are not, in and of themselves, wholly unacceptable to the seasoned reader, clumsy execution should not come as part of the package. Peach is, unfortunately, dry and lacking.
 
 

Book Review: The Black Lake (Hella S. Haasse)

In deceptively clean and simple, beautiful prose, this eulogy to a Javanese boy, Oeroeg, as told by his unnamed friend, is delicately threaded through with the affects of inter-war colonialism. Both boys are born at Kebon Djati, a tea plantation, but where Oeroeg is ‘native’, the narrator is the son of the Dutch estate manager. Hella Haasse clearly draws on her own East Indies upbringing, as gleaned from the biographical notes, and as such this slim offering is deeply-rooted and gracefully so.

The Black Lake (Portobello Books, 2012, translated from the original Dutch by Ina Rilke; originally published as Oeroeg, Collective Propaganda van het Nederlandse Boek, 1948) draws its modern title from a mountainside location, darkly perceived by the children because of the stories they’re told about it. It is the location, early on, of an accident which seems to affect the narrator’s father’s sense of guilt. Oeroeg (pronounced as Ooroog, according to glossary notes) has his education paid for him, and the boys, inseparable in their childhoods, are able to continue their relationship, seemingly largely equal, as only children might seem to be able to do. The lake (Telaga Hideung) also makes a later appearance in proceedings, but this time, after the war, and in the midst of Indonesia’s battle for independence, the colonial impact is an insufferable rent in the relationship of the boys who are now men.

Whilst the modern title can be seen to make some sense, given the significance provided to the location in question, the original title makes much more. Oeroeg is beloved of the narrator, who is, though naively portrayed, unable to really come to terms with change. With the onset of adolescence, Haasse writes, as her presumed alter-ego, of the shift in perceptions of the boys’ former places of play and innocence:

The difference was that we now saw it all — the bathing, the rocks in the river, the sparkling current — with different eyes, eyes that had lost the ability to see the real world as a world of wonder. Gone was the magical kingdom in which we were the heroes and explorers. The mysterious grottos were nothing but deep shadows beneath overhanging foliage, our old hunting-ground of rocky plateaus and unbridgeable rapids only a mountain stream coursing over its bed of gravel and jutting stones . . . We were children no longer.

Haasse’s ability to conjure the lush landscape and carefree days of her narrator and Oeroeg’s home, all that they ever knew before school days in Soekaboemi, is a great strength. She writes, for example:

When the rains came, turning the garden into a swamp and the paths into mountain torrents, we would sit on the steps of the back veranda with our toes stretched out into the spray of droplets bouncing up from the gutter. Streams gushed from the rainspouts into the ditches and on towards the well in a monotonous minor key while the frogs croaked all day long, and apart from this no other sound could be heard beneath the low, slate-grey clouds hiding the mountaintops.

The narrator is comfortable in Oeroeg’s home, the latter being the son of the estate mandoer (overseer or foreman) but slowly the childhood idyll starts to unravel. It is imperceptible, in some regard, despite the major incidents of the accident at the lake, the separation of the narrator’s parents, his mother’s return to Europe. Educational pursuits variously continue for the boys in Batavia (the colonial name of modern-day Jakarta), Soerabaja, and briefly (for the narrator) in Holland before the war breaks out. The boys are provided boarding by a Dutch woman, Lida, whose aspirations of running her guesthouse shift in the developing new cause that is Oeroeg. She uproots her business and Oeroeg follows. Subtly, we see a political undertone.

Peppered throughout the text, Haasse includes a sprinkling of Dutch vernacular words, but lightly so. A short glossary ably assists, and we are soon able to discern that a desa is a hamlet, a sawah is a rice-field, a kampong is a native settlement or worker’s dwellings. The words act as additional flavourings and do not distract. As such, there are in places the blends of descriptive elegance, local flavour and feel, and a simple love. Despite the stories of the lake told to the boys by Satih, Oeroeg’s cousin, and despite the mythical status they attribute to it, the narrator’s foreboding is rendered as a child-like fear. When he and his parents and some of the locals, but not Oeroeg, go on a night-time excursion up the mountain to the lake, there is a party mood in the adults. There is no dark, true sense of danger, though the child has his trepidation. The description is love-lit, if edged beneath:

It was just after sundown, and the trees bordering the garden stood sharply outlined against the red cloud-banks in the west. The mountaintops were still bathed in light. A soporific whirr of insects sounded from the darkness under bushes and trees. From the kampong came the beat of a hollow tree-trunk drum, signalling nightfall.

We are lulled through the jungle on a richness of words:

The night sky was metallic blue, spangled with stars. The moon stood higher now, and had lost the russet glow it had had earlier. The wind sifted through the grass and the thickets of bamboo on either side of the road, which wound its way up the mountainside in wide curves . . . As we drove on we heard the clatter of falling water. Between the mossy rocks on the steep slope trickled sparkling rivulets, which converged into a brook by the wayside. The air at this altitude was almost cold, smelling of moist earth and decaying leaves.

The Black Lake occupies an almost liminal territory where change takes place with imperceptible grace, yet where change happens clearly before the eyes. There are foreshadowed hints, undoubted love (of a friend, of lost childhood, of the land), and there is a graceful arc to it all. Only very slightly do we ever feel a cloying overdoing of the eulogy to Oeroeg, but this is forgiven because the whole is gently worked. Dutch colonialism finally renders a childhood friendship split and, as such, it weaves its way throughout, but Haasse seems to choose not to write any obvious wallowing, murkily, in these treacherous waters. The character of Oeroeg can be read as a propaganda vehicle for Haasse to proclaim a Dutch love for Java and Indonesia when, at the time of publication, the Indonesian nationalists were rising, but her story is still a harking back to a time lost. She writes of Oeroeg: ‘His eyes glittered darkly like the surface of Telaga Hideung, with the same refusal to reveal what lay submerged in the deep.’ The Black Lake is a story of loss.
 
 

Book Review: Perfume (Patrick Süskind)

The story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is a fantastical affair, in essence, blended with a low macabre tone, which takes a shift to queasiness towards its latter pages, and descends into a scene of farce before rounding back to the low macabre again. That this is a fantasy of almost supernatural olfactory perception (though grounded in a character at once extraordinarily gifted but not so blessed) is, for the most part, accepted. However, credulity is somewhat stretched as the reader is constantly asked to believe, for example, that Grenouille can discern the scent of a particular person in a crowded city, amongst hundreds of thousands of others, at some distance and in amongst the multitude of other scents of a pungent 18th century scene.

Perfume (Penguin Books, 1987, translated from the original German by John E. Woods; originally published as Das Parfum by Diogenes Verlag AG, 1985) begins in Paris in 1738, where Grenouille is born in the rue aux Fers, near to the ‘fiendish stench’ of the Cimetière des Innocents. His mother is scaling and gutting fish and Grenouille is born there as she does this, under the fish stall. In due course, his mother is executed because she attempts to kill the infant, and Grenouille’s itinerant journey begins. Father Terrier, a monk of Saint-Merri, takes possession of him after a succession of wet nurses reject him for his greediness, and the last of these declares a repulsion because Grenouille has no smell, as other babies do. Terrier, in turn, hands the child over to Madame Gaillard, an emotionless woman who runs a house, for payment, for the abandoned like Grenouille, and there he stays for several years. By the age of eight, he has so sufficiently disturbed the Madame and the other children, and Saint-Merri has stopped paying for his upkeep, that he is sold on to Grimal, a tanner, who sets him to work and for whom he works for several more years. All the while, Grenouille learns to discern Paris by all its many scents that overlay and inter-mingle.

There is a subtitle to Perfume and it is ‘the story of a murderer’. In 1753, Grenouille commits the first of these (and it is a long while before he commits his next: so long, in fact, that the reader begins to suspect that the aforementioned is the whole of it). Grenouille’s nose makes out the trace of the smell of a girl (‘she might have been thirteen, fourteen years old’), cleaning and pitting plums some way across the river and down a narrow alley, deep in amongst the city. He murders her and drinks in the smell of her, committing it to memory. The murder of the girl in the rue des Marais is a catalyst for Grenouille’s future quest of capturing the ingredients for and manufacturing the finest perfume in the world. His success in this endeavour comes at a price, and by nefarious means. Süskind writes:

He [Grenouille] possessed . . . a power stronger than the power of money or the power of terror or the power of death: the invincible power to command the love of mankind. There was only one thing that power could not do: it could not make him smell himself. And though his perfume might allow him to appear before the world as a god — if he could not smell himself and thus never know who he was, to hell with it, with the world, with himself, with his perfume.

From Grimal’s tannery, Grenouille takes up work with Giuseppe Baldini, a perfumer on the Pont au Change across the Seine. Baldini has fallen on hard times and, though reluctant at first to allow Grenouille to work for him, he soon realises the benefit of the young man’s olfactory skills. Baldini’s business reaps the rewards of Grenouille’s discerning nose and raw talent at blending ingredients, and Grenouille begins to learn the methods that he will develop in his ultimate quest. Both Grimal, the tanner, and Baldini, the perfumer, meet unceremonious ends and we begin to wonder if their contact with the unusual other is what the subtitle points us to.

From Baldini, Grenouille earns his journeyman papers and travels south, away from the stench of Paris and its hundreds of thousands of people. He seeks solace in a cave in the Plomb du Cantal (described as both a mountain and a volcano), about as far from any human scents as he can get, where he stays as a hermit for some seven years. In his mid-twenties, he has the realisation that the cave has no trace of him, as it should rightly do. Dishevelled and almost inhuman, he makes his way back to the world of people. Cleaned and exhibited by the Marquis de la Taillade-Espinasse, an advocate of a quirky theory that fluidum letale seeps through the earth, that a man who has lived in a cave for several years is proof of this, that by various methods and devices, he, Taillade-Espinasse can prove and provide a healthy remedy, Grenouille is fortuitously, perhaps, and rapidly reacquainted with the human world. Via the Marquis, Grenouille comes into contact with another perfumer, Runel, of Montpellier, in whose workshop he teaches himself to imitate the human odour (by way of a manufactured perfume whose ingredients include a piece of rancid cheese, some ‘cat-shit’, drops of vinegar, the scrapings from a sardine tub, and so on). Grenouille can go about in disguise, as it were, almost invisible with this odour applied. The Marquis, like Grimal and Baldini before him, is eased from the pages: in this case, nakedly marching up an ice-cold mountain in the Pyrenees, in search of the ultimate distance from debilitating earth-bound fluidum letale as he can get.

Eventually, Grenouille finds his way to Grasse: the holiest place of perfumery in France. It is 1765 and Grenouille is in the employ of another perfumer, or rather, the businesswoman, Madame Arnulfi. His journeyman’s papers have come in useful, though he performs the menial tasks in assisting the Madame’s first journeyman, Druot. Grenouille hones his trade, still with his ultimate goal in mind, and it is here in Grasse that Süskind has him murder twenty-four girls, on the cusp of womanhood. The low macabre jolts into reading queasiness. On first arriving in Grasse, Grenouille discerns the scent of a girl so exquisite to him that he determines he must possess it: he has no wish for the visual. He waits for her scent to mature, as it were. In the meantime, whilst perfecting his perfumery skills, Grenouille murders the other girls, having learned how to capture their olfactory essences, and he needs just the last, that of Laure Richis, daughter of a rich town council member, to create his ultimate goal: the finest scent in the world.

Despite the uncomfortable realisation of what is occurring in the narrative, despite it having been in the fabric of the piece from early on, Perfume might well have defied fantastical incredulity until its final pages had it not been for Süskind’s descent into farcical arrangements, late on. At ‘the parade ground before the city gates’ of Grasse, in 1766, Grenouille stands in front of many thousands of onlookers, wearing his finest perfume gleaned by nefarious means and, unexpectantly to the crowd and to us, he suddenly becomes entirely adored, loved, almost worshipped, and a mass orgy takes place because of this. The affects of such adoration extend to the father of Laure, Antoine Richis, whose initial desire for retribution dissolves into love. Fantastical credulity finally snaps.

The story of the odourless man in a pungent 18th century, a man who cannot smell himself, has its existential undertone. Süskind eases the reader through a wealth of olfactory description, and he transitions and blends notes and tones into one another, and then into the more visceral, but there is an uneasy tang threaded through it all. Grenouille cannot be and is not loved, but his olfactory mask, slyly described, does sometimes suggest a tugging at the reader’s sensibilities that he might elude an almost inevitable fate. Then we remember what he has done and the deception that a scent will create disperses: Grenouille departs the pages and is not loved, despite Süskind’s final line.

 
 

Book Review: The House of Sleep (Jonathan Coe)

In a residence on the cliff-top of an unnamed coastal town, within reasonable driving distance of London, a group of students are variously preoccupied with sleep. A series of fluid relationships are woven throughout the whole (those that take place and those that are hoped for; those that are damaging and those that will, ultimately, damage), yet the fanciful arrangements of co-incidence that seem to hold them all together are a little too inelegantly devised.

The House of Sleep (Penguin Books, 1998) is populated by a relatively small cast as we follow their travails in chapters that alternate between their early 1980s student days and their mid-1990s selves, and much of the setting detail of both eras is also dominated by the cliff-top residence, Ashdown, which later becomes repurposed as a clinic for the study of sleep irregularities. In the 1990s, Dr Gregory Dudden runs the clinic that bears his name. His student self is in an ultimately failed relationship with Sarah Tudor, later to become a primary school teacher, always a narcoleptic (which does not bode well for her chosen profession). The earlier incarnation of Ashdown also details the interactions of Terry (a film student who initially needs fourteen hours of sleep every night but who later needs no sleep at all), Robert, who is besotted with Sarah, and Veronica, who Sarah leaves Gregory for.

Gregory’s treatment of Sarah becomes the subject of her later psychological support: his fascination for her eyes (and not in a poetic way) renders her disturbed. Variously, throughout this offering, Sarah experiences pre-dreaming episodes, the inability to distiguish real experiences from those she’s dreamed, shifts in her sexuality, and the inability to distinguish the true depth of Robert’s feelings for her. There are moments of farce in Sarah’s miscomprehensions, and Coe also seems intent on injecting occasional attempted comedic elements, not always with great success. Gregory descends into a madness matched only by the steady stripping of any initial characterisation as Coe renders him in merely comic-book terms towards the end. Terry, who, post-studentdom, becomes a film journalist who watches a marathon of screenings without the need for sleep, is invited to the clinic for research purposes, fuelling Dr Dudden’s increasing need to eradicate his own need for the worthless endeavour of the practice. Terry is also on his own mission, seeking out a film, his own Holy Grail, that no-one (or perhaps very few) has or have ever seen, and this sub-plot dovetails with jarring inexplicability with a dream Robert once had as a child. Into the fray are added Dr Madison (whose erstwhile identity, once she becomes more established as a character, is not so difficult to ascertain) and Ruby Sharp, a child who spent a day on the beach with Sarah and Robert once, who becomes a catalyst for actions later in her early adulthood. Coe weaves a tangle of relationships across and between the time frames.

Whilst there is an ease enough in the reading, the plot strands are fairly docile in their laying down: Gregory’s descent from eccentric and somewhat despicable to ridiculously deranged; Sarah’s psychological journey borne of eyes and sleep; Robert’s descent caused by such stretched-out fantasy of Sarah, and his transformation along the way; Terry’s search for something that may not even exist at all. It is the co-incidental aspect that Coe sews into the sleep examination that jars, however. It is a stretch, for example, to completely believe in the idea that Sarah, a teacher, now in London, takes pity on a child in a class her student teacher teaches, a child who waits out of school for hours because there’s no-one home, whom she takes care of for the afternoon (in unwise fashion, sparking a meeting with the mother), whose mother turns out not to be her mother but her aunt, who is, or was, the partner of Veronica, who Sarah left twelve years previously in a coastal town some drive away, unspecified by name. Perhaps such threads as these coincidences tangling are the substrata of Coe’s thinking: dreams may have the nature of the non sequitur or they may be tangled at a far deeper and unknowable level. It is impossible to say for certain; however, the resultant writing does list a little towards the lack of subtlety in this regard.

Likewise, this is also evident when Coe seems to want to press on tangential points, such as in his flippant treatment of a handful of characters engaged in what most of them regard as a pointless training exercise (that is, in the thinking on how health care can be made more businesslike). A group of medical professionals, including Dr Gregory Dudden, are obliged to attend a training course in London and only he, of the assembled psychiatrists and psychotherapists, embraces the possibility of change. The young trainers engage the professionals in game play, which they do not take kindly to, and there ensues a juvenile series of exchanges before a case study paper is read by one of the delegates (another incredulous detail, insofar as the analysand in question transpires to be a certain Sarah Tudor and the subject matter is her psychologically traumatic student relationship with a medical student who has a preoccupation with her eyes). Coe seems unwilling or unable not to tangle every line he lays.

There is no great and over-arching conclusion or any great epiphany that can be gleaned from The House of Sleep: Gregory is deranged, Sarah is adrift, Robert is delusional, and Terry is dogged by something dreamed for. In a sense, all the characters are in a sort of dream state, as detached from reality as they are in their various ways. It has taken a certain resistance, thus far, not to sink into easy appraisal of a work whose themes are sleep by way of similar hooks to hang the words on; however, in the final analysis, Jonathan Coe’s writing here does drift on without any huge concern, save for the occasional jolt, like muscular spasms, of coincidental nature, and what lingers afterwards, like most dreams, is a feeling of having dreamed, not necessarily of having dreamed a great and beautiful significance.