Book Review: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (Peter Høeg)

Peter Høeg offers us a mystery for the unravelling, but it is a tangle so tightly woven with clues and foreshadowings, with possibilities, with red herrings and tangents that it becomes a bind difficult to extricate the answers from. Høeg’s writing doesn’t so much as lose its way as never really finding a way in the first place. It slips and slides for over four hundred pages, never fully being anchored on the land of Copenhagen, in the seas of the North Atlantic, or on the ice west of Greenland. It becomes an opaque slush: intricately convoluted, intermittently incomprehensible, and with stultifying plotting.

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (The Harvill Press, 1996, translated from the original Danish by F. David; originally published as Frøken Smillas Fornemmelse for Sne, Munksgaard/Rosinante, Copenhagen, 1992) is, in some sense, mis-titled. The eponymous Smilla is portrayed as an expert in ice formations. She suspects foul play in the death of a young child, who has fallen from a roof, by way of the marks in the snow, and from this the mystery begins to unwind, albeit extremely slowly; throughout the whole, however, Smilla’s observations show she has a feeling for ice. In her late thirties and more or less self-sufficient in life, Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen is the product of Dr Jørgen Moritz Jaspersen, a Danish physician, and Ane Qaavigaaq, a Greenlandic ‘hunter’. Høeg lists Smilla’s life achievements by way of a police record, including ‘Courses at H. C. Ørsted Institute and the Geographical Institute in Copenhagen. Glacial morphology, statistics, and fundamental problems of mathematics.’ She is rendered as capable but acerbic and not the least bit in merit of our concerns.

A first person, largely present tense, narrative drives the text and, although this mostly works, there are occasions where Smilla the character and Høeg the author merge: his authorial disdain for the point he wishes to make through Smilla reminds us that, always in the background of this female lead character is the male author. Høeg, as a male author writing as a female main character, works here only to the degree that we forget he is there until he reminds us. In the character that is Peter Føjl (mostly referred to throughout as ‘the mechanic’), the author creates someone who Smilla develops an intimate relationship with. There is no reason why authors writing in this area and flipping genders can’t be successful, but there is something intangible about Høeg’s writing that dislodges the suspension of fictive disbelief. Perhaps it is not even the writing at fault in this respect but the simple fact of an author’s photograph on the back sleeve to reinforce the divide.

Six main sections separate the whole: the first three are headed as ‘The City’ (being Copenhagen); the next two are ‘The Sea’ (being a trip on board the specially equipped ice-breaker Kronos, en route for a destination secret to the captain and the crew, but which we know to be Greenland); the last is headed as ‘The Ice’ (being the arctic area of the Davis Strait between West Greenland and Canada). The boy, Isaiah, of unspecified age, was a Greenlander, brought to Denmark with his mother after his father died whilst on expedition with Danish explorers: it is Isaiah’s death that prompts the subsequent searching for answers by Smilla, but there is a case to suggest that for the bulk of the pages he is largely forgotten. Such is Høeg’s predisposition for tangling further as he attempts to untangle the whole, or deliberate obfuscation to layer and layer, that Isaiah does rather become secondary to any other threads the author wishes us to follow. Unfortunately, there are just so many threads that some are subsumed, not appreciated, or completely jettisoned in the reading. When they rear their heads again later, the reader wonders where they came from, supposing and trusting that the author had once mentioned them, but not sufficiently engaged enough to return to check.

In the process of Smilla’s investigations, the attempted unravelling, Høeg introduces characters and returns to them, imbuing them with sudden loyalties to her for unfathomable reasons: they spill out explanations on the plot point of the moment, without concern, but still without giving any truly lucid account of what’s happening. Approximately half way into the whole, the author writes (through Smilla) in what is the tiring truncation style that seems to be in ascendancy: ‘Elsa Lübing, Lagermann, Ravn, bureaucrats whose strength and dilemma is their faith in a corporation, in the medical profession, in a government apparatus. But who, out of sympathy, eccentricity, or for some incomprehensible reason, have circumvented their loyalty to help me [sic].’ Authorial self-consciousness does not excuse a lazy device.

In the first sections, and in one regard, Høeg appears determined to show us Copenhagen as he trawls Smilla around place after place, but there is little connect. He lands us in scene after scene where his description is (rather than the presumed intention of a slow unfold) just out of kilter and, like the plot, it isn’t entirely clear what’s going on or where we are, or indeed, why. It often takes a little time to get into a scene because the author has a tendency to start each from a position that builds to his true intent. When he has reached his intended waypoint, some scenes are then described with either such inexactitude or such convoluted intricacy that all sense of placement within them is lost beneath the swill. Sometimes, more is less. Høeg’s prose is often so overly opaque that it dulls the reading experience to the equivalent of merely existing in the pages rather than living the words.

That said, it would be churlish not to mention moments of description that do hit a mark. On a visit to the house of a forensics expert, Dr Lagermann, Smilla is greeted at the door by one of his children. Høeg writes:

Outside it’s five o’clock in the evening. The first stars have appeared in the navy-blue, cloudless sky. But inside, around the child, it’s snowing. A fine layer covers her red hair, her shoulders, her face, and her bare arms.

It transpires that the children are kneading dough on the hardwood floor. In a later section, Høeg describes the widening arc of the mast that Smilla climbs up to reach the crow’s nest of the Kronos, on a rough sea, and he succeeds in inducing a sense of vertigo and sway.

A variety of characters help and hinder her in Copenhagen, and then, by good providence, it would seem, she finds her way onto the Kronos with its crew of shady characters, including the captain who we meet in a casino. There have been two previous expeditions to the Greenland ice, in 1966 and in 1991, and both are documented as dubious by nature. What began as Smilla’s search for the reason for Isaiah’s death morphs into something else in which the boy is merely linked. By this stage of proceedings, however, the reader has become largely numbed in wanting to delve into what has happened and why, and just wants to get to the final exposition. On the ship, Smilla endlessly skulks around the bowels and passageways looking for information to the mystery. Clues are left for us, or discarded by the author. The ship’s characters don’t form any distinct separateness from one another, in any great sense. They have nominal differences and purposes but there is no character development because nothing here is about them. They are merely tools, a means to an end. When one character dies, Peter Føjl flies in, effectively replacing one of Smilla’s sidekicks with another. Føjl has done none of his supposed mechanic vocation throughout, however: he is only a ‘mechanic’ by way of distracting the reader and it transpires that his purpose is as a diver.

There is a reason for the third expedition (following the previous two of 1966 and 1991) and it is under the ice, off Greenland. Perhaps the author has laid the clues down early for what transpires, but those clues, like the discovery in question, are sufficiently buried. For a moment in the pages, it feels as if Høeg might be about to alight on something deep and meaningful by way of the discovery, and maybe that is his intent, but the moment passes. The final scenes, when they come, feel rushed and, again, opaque in description. The denouement is hard to pin down the start of (other than the ship reaches the destination glacier), but in time we watch the unfolding of a version of ‘the villain relates his evil plan’ trope.

Translated partly in British English and partly in American English, one wonders why one or the other could not be used. What Høeg does ‘conform’ to, however, is the seemingly ever-present and unnecessary truncation of sentences in published works. Why do authors feel the need to butcher so barbarically? He writes, for example: ‘He pronounces it slowly and carefully. The way he cooks. His breath is aromatic and tangy. From nuts roasted on the toaster [sic].’ Høeg is also not opposed to the occasional inelegant info dump, using the inserted exposition as a means just to make a further point. For example, he lists article references, late on, (such as in The Geophysical Magazine, 1958, and the Journal of Crystal Growth, 1980) just to eventually highlight Smilla’s unease that stalactites in a huge ice cave might fall on her.

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is, undoubtedly, a work that must have taken great effort and consideration in its production, and it is entirely appreciated the labour of time and love that must have gone into such a process. However, ultimately, Peter Høeg provides us with a slow unfolding mystery that returns us to previously hinted at clues or waypoints, which have since become so subsumed by the wallow of the whole that we’ve wholly, or sometimes near completely, forgotten about them. Deep into the work, he writes, as Smilla, sitting on a ship’s bunk with Peter Føjl (the ‘mechanic’/diver), that: ‘We’ve ended up just about where we started. In a morass of secrets. I feel a wild urge to throw myself at him and beg him to anaesthetize [sic] me and wake me up only after it’s all over.’ The reader can concur. Unfortunately, at the end, we find that Høeg obfuscates and frustrates a final time in his last lines when he writes: ‘It’s only what you do not understand that you can come to a conclusion about. There will be no conclusion.’
 
 

Book Review: The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)

Sometimes, a book is known about primarily because of an idea or a device: here, it is that its contents are narrated by a girl, from heaven. Eventually, on opening its pages, the very first lines tell us that Susie Salmon was fourteen, and that she was murdered. The book in question immediately takes on a different complexion. At its violent heart is that disturbing event (which the author tells us just enough about, not too much more, to render its grotesque imprint), but deeply seeping from this run the ramifications: the shredding that it has on Susie’s family and of their long road to some repair.

The Lovely Bones (Picador, 2003) begins in late 1973, in the quiet nascent housing developments of the suburban American northeast. Susie is lured, in her curiosity, by a neighbour, a man she subsequently and habitually refers to throughout as ‘Mr Harvey’, and his heinous crime includes rape, murder and the brutal cutting to pieces of Susie’s body. Sebold spares us the intricacies but knows that our imaginations can fill in all the gaps. Her counter, throughout, is in Susie’s focus on her family (her sister, Lindsey, a year her junior; her four year-old brother, Buckley; her mother, Abigail; her father, Jack; her grandmother, Lynn) and a variety of other characters from school and thereabouts. Sebold makes clear that there is a moving on only when the dead have been able to let go of the living.

George Harvey, the murderer, has raped and killed before, it transpires. He manages, and has managed, to keep under the radar for many years by observing, trying not to draw undue attention to himself, abruptly leaving when suspicions are too close. Sebold has succeeded in the creation of a vile character; yet (and here we must entirely buy into the ‘narration of the dead’ device for the book to work), Susie seems not to direct any real anger at him. Perhaps this is Sebold’s great strength of intention: that love trumps all. It is love for her family that Susie gives all the energy of her spirit to. A minor diversion towards the possibility of a Stockholm Syndrome suggests itself, some way in, but Sebold pulls away from this, thankfully.

Susie’s family slowly falls apart, and this takes a number of years. Lindsey tries to limit the damage to herself by blocking others out; Buckley is, at first, innocent and naïve, but then grows angrier; Abigail, Susie’s mother, can no longer take the overall strain, has a brief affair with the investigating officer, Len Fenerman, and takes leave in need for anonymity in California; Jack, Susie’s father, tries to hold it all together, even as he becomes increasingly more sure that George Harvey is the murderer. Yet, there is no evidence. Susie’s remains lie in a sealed safe, thrown into a local sinkhole. Susie knows this, we know this, yet she is largely impotent in proactively affecting people: in fact, she does not even try to let them know what she knows. Alongside the disintegration of the family’s ties, Sebold details the gradual affects that Susie’s murder has on others: principally, Ray, a boy who adores her, and Ruth, a girl who Susie does manage to materially affect, albeit accidentally, moments after her death — Ruth feels the rush of Susie’s spirit leaving her across the field where she is murdered.

Susie is practically omnipresent, able to look down on Earthly events from what she terms as ‘my heaven’ (suggesting therefore that Sebold’s vision is that there are as many heavens as there are people), or close up and with, and sometimes also within those she cares for. Sebold does not utilise the latter often but when she does, late on in the writing, for example, she does rather unspool a tacky scene derivative of the film Ghost. There are hints, around this juncture, that Susie can (or, if we’re generous, has developed the ability to) affect the material world from beyond, but this sits uneasily because, throughout, there is the nagging concern of the safe thrown into the sinkhole: Susie does not seem at all concerned that her remains should be found.

The title of Sebold’s work does rather suggest that the discovery of Susie’s remains might be the agent of eventual repair: Susie’s family might find some solace and be able to heal, we think. This, though Sebold does not ever write it, runs beneath, throughout, or so it is interpreted or read as. Yet, very late on, Sebold writes a somewhat unsatisfactory explanation of her thinking process (i.e. with regards to the familial love that binds the whole together) and in direct reference to her chosen title:

These were the lovely bones that had grown up around my absence: the connections — sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent — that happened after I was gone . . . The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future.

In Sebold’s choice to focus the meaning of her writing on familial love (and this decision is comprehended), she wastes little effort in the life of George Harvey, the serial rapist and murderer. There is no reason why she should. She briefly describes his atrocities, and this makes for queasy, disturbing reading, and then she merely leaves him lurking in the possibility of the pages: though Susie’s focus blots his life away from us. That all said though, and perhaps this is to be levelled in the needs of the one who reads rather than in the product of the writer, the lack of retribution, the lack of evidence, the trail gone cold on Harvey and him remaining at large and not being brought to justice, is a little unsettling. Sebold seeks alternatives to such standard ‘happy’ endings. Justice does catch up with Harvey, but it too is unsatisfactory. In the bare honesty of analysis, Sebold’s love (though inelegantly done in places) trumps the readerly desire for concrete retribution.

The Lovely Bones moves swiftly in its narrative drive, for the most part, and takes us from the torrid events of December 6, 1973, with the various horrific corruptions exacted on a fourteen year-old girl, to 1982, after a nominal catalyst for possible further disruption brings the family, physically, back together again: in truth, the repair has been years in the making; Susie watches on, learning that she can finally leave them be, just as they have learned to love and be without her. Sebold’s writing is undoubtedly a therapeutic venture, for those who wish to listen, and is heavy with a form of ‘happy’ (or, rather, loose ends tied) sort of ending. In a book that has sold so well, there appears to be a certain audience for works attempting the illumination of meaning.
 
 

Book Review: Grace Notes (Bernard Mac Laverty)

As goes the infamous line of dubious attribution and content (‘writing about music is like dancing to architecture’), how is it that a reader is expected to fully appreciate the majority of instrument-derived musical descriptions at one heart of a book such as this? Another heart lies in pages filled with the details of the smallest sounds, those we might more readily be able to appreciate in our everyday lives. Elsewhere here, running beneath and through the whole, there is a space between times, transitions, epiphanies, and these are another core to this offering under review: the ‘grace notes’ of gaps between sounds.

Grace Notes (Vintage, 1998) is a slow, slow burn of a book, presented in two sets, reminiscent of a concert. In part one, we meet the lead character, Catherine Anne McKenna, a music teacher and composer, as she returns to her native Northern Ireland from her life in Glasgow to attend the funeral of her father. There are allusions to how Catherine is mother to a young child, but the book’s blurb tells us this anyway. Catherine’s mother does not know about the baby, and Mac Laverty sets up a tension between the two women. Catherine suffers from post-natal depression and has to deal with her spiky mother’s attitude and the claustrophobia of returning again to a life amongst the Catholic community she left to gain her creative and personal freedom. In part two, we are led back in time to the days when Catherine settles in the western isles of Scotland, on Islay, and meets and sets up home with the eventual drunkard father of her baby. Thus it is that Catherine’s life is played out in bouts of depression, a search for creative impetus, the strain of mending a relationship with her estranged mother, and the secret she has kept from her and her deceased father. Beneath it all is the strand of sectarian violence that blighted Northern Ireland over the three decades preceding publication of the author’s offering.

In order to structure his writing, Mac Laverty employs the device of flipping backwards and forwards in time at the instigation of the smallest and slightest of Catherine’s thought processes. Whilst this can work, and it could be seen to be a staple of many authorial choices, some of these instances are overly-contrived and the device, as a whole, loses its possible subtlety through over-use. Mac Laverty appears to be writing, in part, from a position of personal experience (according to the sleeve notes, he was born, worked and studied in Belfast before teaching in Scotland and, at the time of writing, then lives in Glasgow: all close facets of his lead character’s life story). As such, a Northern Irish vernacular comes across clearly in some of his writing patterns or occasional peculiarity of word usage. All this acknowledged, Catherine’s post-natal depression is a drudge to read (the condition is appreciated, but the writing is a drain), and the father of her baby, an Englishman lumbered with the quotidian moniker of Dave, is fairly one-dimensional in his occasional moments on the page.

Catherine’s depression threatens to cause us a moment of concern, in the manner of the writing: following continual reference to the baby, Anna, as ‘it’ by the author (this being either a deliberate writerly decision or a crass inability to comprehend the child as a human), Catherine is then depicted with an edge of potentially being able to harm her. Mother and baby take a long walk along a deserted beach on Islay, in part to escape the still drunk and sleeping father/boyfriend, but Mac Laverty writes menace into the scene and the baby is perceived as in danger. When what eventually transpires to be a brightening of life epiphany and an inspiration for musical composition on that beach takes place, the reader cannot fully engage out of anticipation of something bad happening. The to and fro of time catches up with us, however, and there is recall that later in the life of the characters (that is, an episode recounted earlier in the story when the mother and child have since moved to Glasgow), the baby Anna is fine and left in the temporary care of Catherine’s friend and landlady whilst the former travels to her father’s funeral. Mac Laverty’s playing with time device trips up the tension in the narrative here.

On technical and stylistic aspects of Mac Laverty’s writing style, again (as there seems to be with a plethora of writers) there occurs the insufferable truncation of sentences in this offering under review. Whilst there is full appreciation for creativity and playing with language, the insidious prevalence of this lack of concern for the written sentence is frustrating. In a similar vein, professional publishing houses should rightly be expected to pick up on matters such as an odd erroneous speech mark or, more pertinently, on character name spelling inconsistencies (a minor character named Huang Xiao Gang, for example, is also referred to as Huang Xaio Gang, and another minor character is named Holmes or Homes: these errors sometimes occur on the same or adjacent pages). The moments matter, especially when a main subject matter of the book is the metaphor of the gap between sounds.

If writing about music is like dancing to architecture, then the author has set himself a near impossible task in some respects. Mac Laverty’s denouement is a set-piece of several pages, wherein Catherine’s musical composition (whose initial notes were conceived in her epiphany on the deserted sands of Islay) is played by an orchestra and accompanied, in her pièce de résistance, by the booming sounds of Protestant Orangemen bringing on huge Lambeg drums. Catherine, we must remember, was brought up Catholic in sectarian Northern Ireland. There is a clear riff on healing throughout various strands of Mac Laverty’s writing. The Lambeg drums do resonate loudly and clearly in the imagination, admittedly, but the music of the rest of Catherine’s set-piece does not. Perhaps, herein lies a particular intention. In the majority of the pages that precede the finale, Mac Laverty litters his scenes with the musicality of everyday sounds, and the intention here is not at all lost on the reader. Opening his book at any page at random offers up examples not too far away: ‘the click of the kettle as it came to the boil’: ‘the metal of the container chinked against the chains’: ‘water pounding down from the two taps’.

Grace Notes concerns a small transformation of Catherine Anne McKenna but also the manner of the movement from one state to the next. Early on in Mac Laverty’s writing, he asks: ‘Where are the notes between the notes? Graces, grace notes or, as the French would have it, agréments.’ Herein lies Catherine McKenna, teacher, mother, estranged daughter, composer. The author immediately precedes the above line with a somewhat pretentious impression: ‘Do you compose the music or does the music compose you?’ In the context of an explanation of the idea of Grace Notes, we can appreciate the sentiment, but the musicality of his lead character (or any of us, perhaps) is not fully satisfied in the attempted translation of sound complexity into words.
 
 

Book Review: Anil’s Ghost (Michael Ondaatje)

In the three-way civil war in Sri Lanka, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, the government are battling on two fronts: the insurgents to the south and the separatist guerrillas to the north. So writes Michael Ondaatje in his brief introductory notes. The government, however, are also culpable of political killings, and into this fray arrives the eponymous Anil Tissera, a United Nations-appointed forensic anthropologist, tasked with working with a government-approved archaeologist, Sarath Diyasena. What begins as a token exercise in diplomacy becomes a search for evidence of governmental Human Rights abuses. However, it would seem that Ondaatje’s truer intent is to investigate the shades of human relations.

Anil’s Ghost (Picador India, 2000) follows the travels of Anil and Sarath around the island of Sri Lanka in search of answers to the identity of one of the four skeletons they have found: forensic investigation of the bones, and the soil composition on them, suggests that the skeleton they have named ‘Sailor’ (the others being Tinker, Tailor and Soldier) is contemporary, as compared to the more historical bones the four were found with in a remote site where only government officials have access. The clues suggest a political killing by governmental hands, and Anil is driven by the Human Rights thinking that to support the cause of one victim is to support the cause of all.

Anil is a curious character: one who Ondaatje attempts to give various, almost contradictory facets to, but ultimately she does not lift so readily from the page. She is Sri Lankan by birth (as is the author), but is educated abroad and steeped in American and English culture. She barely speaks Sinhala on her return. By turns she’s a dedicated forensic anthropologist and an unpredictable natural energy. Or, at least, this is the assumed impression the author wishes to ascribe. Occasional details of her relationship with a married American, Cullis, surface to paste a wilder veneer to her righteous workload. To Sarath’s life, Ondaatje attaches his brother, Gamini, an overworked doctor who survives on drugs and snatched sleep, trying to treat the very many victims of the war. There is a muddled account of the brothers’ married relationships, but it is the brothers themselves who the author focuses more of his attention on.

There is little real connect here, though, within it all, despite what seems to run beneath the overt possibility of the ‘main plot’ of an investigation into a political killing: Ondaatje sets off on minor tangents that don’t seem to lead anywhere or serve any significant purpose other than for a fleshing out of the text. There is a man, Gunesena, found by Anil and Sarath, who is crucified into the road with bridge nails and taken to hospital, treated by Gamini; there are brief excursions into Anil’s relationship with the American, Cullis; there are similarly brief accounts of the friendship between Anil and a woman named Leaf, in the American southwest. The relations of these minor characters with the main characters seem to have no significant pull on the whole of the latter, despite the subtle intention, no doubt.

The author delves into the relationship between the brothers, Sarath and Gamini, but the reader just wishes to return to the nominal main plot; perhaps Sailor is merely the distraction? He, and the civil war, are the background boards onto which Ondaatje has painted his considerations of relations amongst it all: if the identity of Sailor is more of a pressing concern for the reader, then the author has not succeeded so well in relaying the turmoil and human cost of internecine war. When the identity of Sailor is revealed suddenly, it is almost as an incidental, throwaway line. Ondaatje invests writerly energy in Anil and Sarath’s investigation, in their commissioning of a somewhat temperamental, drunkard artist, Ananda, to reconstruct a sculpture of Sailor’s likeness, which transpires to be more an image of his own loss. For all that investment, and Anil’s dedication to exposing the Human Rights abuses, Sailor is revealed and then effectively discarded. Who he was is considered important, in terms of atrocity, but who the main characters are is the vehicle for the importance of relations. Many of Ondaatje’s characters’ names are drawn, it transpires, from people the author consulted with during the research process of the writing of his book: it is, one might perceive it, a somewhat mawkish gesture, even if given the undertow covert beneath the ‘main plot’ of Sailor.

For a work detailing the forensic processes of its main characters, Ondaatje has produced a text apt for technical analysis. Written partly with British English and partly with American English spellings or vocabulary, e.g. centre, jewellery, vacation, cell phone, grey/gray (both are used), and with American use of dashes (unspaced), the inconsistency begins to matter. As with all such specifics of discordant detail, the reader is drawn from the story on encountering such editorial need of attention. Ondaatje’s occasional awkward or ugly syntax, and periodic aversion to commas, his abject grammar, and in particular his truncated incomplete sentences, also detract. There are myriad examples.

Regarding syntax and lack of punctuation, he writes: ‘The epigraphist Palipana was for a number of years at the centre of a nationalistic group that eventually wrestled archaeological authority in Sri Lanka away from the Europeans.’ Other unsightly offerings include: ‘behind which she later would find a chandelier’; ‘He would discover among his students over the years only four dedicated protégés’; ‘Palipana too now was governed only by the elements.’ Ondaatje has Anil say to Cullis, ‘You’ve got a wife, don’t you?’, and the vernacular is dissonant. Instances of truncated, incomplete sentences always jar and Ondaatje’s text, under the guise perhaps of a poetic hand, is littered with them. Taken out of context, we can perhaps comprehend the sin of such device. For example, the author writes: ‘Picked up the clip lamp and walked over to Sailor [sic].’

With regards to Ondaatje’s descriptive capability here, there are occasional moments of lingering imagery. The thought of Sailor, i.e. his bones, being ‘washed by the moon’ retains a delicate weight. However, the author does rather ruin the inner surrounds of his description with the ugly distraction of another truncation. He writes:

. . . undressing in her room she thought of him under the claustrophobia of plastic and went out and unpinned the sheets. So the wind and all the night were in Sailor [sic]. After the burnings and the burials, he was on a wooden table washed by the moon.

Elsewhere, there are the instances of odd and not always entirely successful lines of description, such as: ‘inhaled its rich mortal thirty-two rumours of taste’; ‘He was a spare man, unable to abide formality and ceremonial toasts . . . and mean (rather than spare) in the way he lived’; ‘He believed only in the mothers sleeping against their children, the great sexuality of spirit in them . . .’ Ondaatje manages to combine an unholy triumvirate of sentence truncation, awkward syntax, and descriptive tourniquet in the line that is: ‘The release of the moon so it stared down on what had been once the Wickramasinghe home [sic].’ What, for example, is meant by ‘the release of the moon’?

Whilst there is reflection beyond the attempted poetic embedded in the writing (most notably, ‘The reason for war was war’), there is also a fair degree of information dumping, in disguise or otherwise. As has been noted above, Ondaatje appears to have consulted widely, as per his acknowledgements, and here he makes reference to discussions with experts in the fields of archaeology, forensic anthropology, medicine, and Human Rights; however, as well as referencing some of those people directly in the text (an author’s manner of thanking, no doubt), and having a great need to impart, clumsily in places, various aspects of Sri Lankan culture on the reader, Ondaatje also unsubtly dumps paragraphs of learned information (most awkwardly when in dialogue). He writes, for example, how Gamini tells Anil:

I mean, I know everything about blast weaponry. Mortars, Claymore mines, antipersonnel [sic] mines which contain gelignite and trinitrotoluen. And I’m the doctor! That last one results in amputations below the knee. They lose consciousness and the blood pressure falls. You do a tomography of the brain and brain stem, and it shows haemorrhages and edema. We use dexamethasone and mechanical ventilation for this . . .

There is reflection, but it becomes somewhat encased in the concrete of such as the above.

Anil’s Ghost attempts to depict a murky world of civil war, but the author does so with a heaviness and unevenness of hand, resulting in little to no visceral affect (one slight exception being the sudden appearance of young male students’ heads on stakes at the ends of a bridge). It is appreciated that war cannot and should not be rendered in such flowery prose as to nullify its content, but as with all art there should be a technical consideration to the whole. An expanding discordance can quickly subsume the text, and so it is both in the rendering here of the atrocities inherent within the time period and location and with the undertow of relations that the author wishes us to feel. In his denouement, Ondaatje overtly informs us that ‘[Ananda] and the woman Anil [sic] would always carry the ghost of Sarath Diyasena.’ Sarath is not a literal ghost (if such fantastical entities can be so perceived), but he does make a certain sacrifice, and this is carried forward. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that Anil Tissera and her colleague, and their relationships with other characters, minor or otherwise intended, shall live too long in the literary archaeological record of a reader looking for more than bones and soil: a reader looking for the breath this writing purports to see.
 
 

Book Review: Jia: a Novel of North Korea (Hyejin Kim)

There is a story struggling to escape from a book here, but it is unfortunately hampered by a lack of subtlety and a technical inability to satisfactorily sew together a variety of tales taken in along the way. In her introduction, the South Korean author Hyejin Kim explains that her characters, including the eponymous Jia, are amalgams of observations of, and research about, North Korean asylum seekers and their first-hand stories or the stories of those assisting them across the border into China. This introductory writing lends insight into the patchy episodic bulk of Kim’s novel.

Jia: a Novel of North Korea (Midnight Editions, 2007) attempts to shine a light on the plight of ordinary North Koreans caught up in the political secrecy of their native country. Kim seeks to document the hardships that force some North Koreans to try to defect, attempting to make the dangerous river crossing to China, to join villages of ethnic Korean-Chinese in a still difficult but altogether better life. It is notable to western readers that China, for the most part here, is depicted as a land of plenty, a place of relative freedom when compared to that of North Korea. One character is reported as being ‘stunned’, for example, when at the border, witnessing ‘the land of China beyond the Amrok River’, seeing the ‘high buildings and splendid lights’ and imagining the ‘plentiful food for his parents there’. What is immediately apparent in the reading, however, is that Kim is herself an outsider, attempting to convey an authenticity to life in the North: she can only do this by tales she is told in her research and by living for a while in that Chinese border area. Her father, she writes, again in her introduction, was convicted and sent to prison when she was very young, on suspicion of being a North Korean sympathiser; however, ultimately, she can still only write at a certain distance.

Jia is North Korean and her early life is spent living with her older sister and grandparents in a political offenders’ village near the political concentration camp her father is sent to for his ‘worst crime’ of owning foreign science books (a close approximation of the author’s own father’s ‘crime’). Jia’s mother dies in childbirth and the family live in rural poverty for some years in the late 1970s until, with the lead character still a young child, she is smuggled out to the capital, Pyongyang, via a certain ‘Uncle Shin’, by way of a cohort of soldiers. Jia does not see her family again and is placed in the care of an orphanage, followed by the tutelage of Teacher Song, who trains the now teenage Jia to perform for Kim Il Sung, the ‘Great Leader’, at the World Festival of Youth and Students in 1989. Jia’s life continues its episodic nature and, after the performance, she finds herself ejected and again flowing without agency of her own into her next new setting: she becomes a dancer at a Pyongyang hotel, for a contact of Teacher Song, Director Park, and under the wing of an older woman, ‘Aunt Ann’. City life is agreeable to Jia, and she settles into a fairly unthinking existence, even as she meets Seunggyu, a man who becomes her boyfriend, though who treats her poorly.

Kim introduces us to Sunyoung, another of the dancers, and details how she’s framed in a sex scandal sting, instigated by a fleeting character, Guard Lee, who threatens her with illicit photographs he has of her in order to get her to sleep with foreigners whereby he, the guard, then ‘takes pictures, and threatens to notify the target’s country and the hotel of what he saw, unless he’s paid in US dollars.’ Soon after, Kim writes, as Jia: ‘At the hotel, I was happy, and there was nothing to worry about. Sunyoung’s story was falling into the past.’ Thus we therefore move on again. Sun and Gun are girlfriend and boyfriend, each befriended by Jia, but Gun disappears suddenly, attempting to get his parents to China and Sun goes in pursuit of him. Gun returns, looking to take Sun back to China too, but she is lost. Kim picks up their story again later, near the end of her writing, in an attempt at wrapping up the loose ends, but the reader can barely care.

There is a social hierarchy in North Korean culture, as Kim relays (the ‘core class’, the ‘wavering class’, and the ‘reactionary class’), and Jia’s background is kept secret by Director Park at the hotel. Jia, however, decides to unburden herself of the secrets of her life to her boyfriend, Seunggyu, a soldier who has no sympathy for the mountain dwellers and ‘national traitors’ and those who die in the floods of the mid-1990s that bring famine and result in the migration of refugees. His father’s friend, Kim writes, has a ‘high position in the information bureau’. Thus it is that Jia decides she must attempt to defect.

En route to the Chinese border, with a suspect travel permit bought with US dollars, Jia meets a street boy (a ‘kkotjebi’), Sangwon, who she naively trusts and befriends. He aids her crossing of the border, wading through the sometimes treacherous river, and on to a cave where others congregate. The episodic cycle continues as Jia is betrayed by one of the members of this small and transient community, and she is ‘sold’ and taken deeper into China to work, to pay off her ‘debt’, enticing men at a karaoke bar. She is rescued, again ‘bought out’, by a Korean-Chinese man, Jin, with whom she then begins to live before her brush with North Korean agents seeking to take her back across the border.

Jia’s life is depicted true enough to Kim’s introductory explanations of ‘characters as amalgams’. What transpires is a text where the seams are clearly visible. Added to this are the author’s failings in authentic-sounding dialogue, in information dumping, and in losing sight of the various languages characters are speaking and who should be able to understand, or not understand, what. With regards to authentic-sounding dialogue, not only is a majority of what Kim’s characters say rigid in construction, it is also occasionally garnished with Americanisms, not becoming of what one might suppose to be North Korean vernacular. At the hotel in Pyongyang, for example, Kim has the framed dancer, Sunyoung, say: ‘Oh, Jia, this has taken over my entire life. I feel I have gotten [sic] old fast over the past few years.’

Whilst information about countries and cultures unfamiliar to the reader are actually sought, there are ways and means of writing this with subtlety, without obvious dumping. Kim’s style relies on examples such as:

Kaesŏn Station had always been full of young couples going home after dates in Kaesŏn Youth Park, where the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, made his first speech after liberation from the Japanese in 1945.

At the karaoke bar, where Jia is forced to work, she is confronted with a room full of Chinese men getting drunk, and her hostile female colleague is aggressive to her, presumably in Korean, turning then to address the men in Chinese, which Kim has the first person narrator Jia relaying (in the English of the book), even though she does not, at this stage, speak Chinese. It is a poor oversight which, like other storytelling errors, should have been picked up on in the editing process.

Jia: a Novel of North Korea appears replete with the hard vignettes of ordinary lives of difficulty in an account of a regime that westerners might find unsurprising, given the overview we have been consistently fed. Hyejin Kim concludes her introduction with the words: ‘My hope is that readers will gain a better understanding of the lives of North Koreans — beyond the lens of geopolitics or ideology — and see what I have seen in one woman’s eyes.’ (That is, the seed of the character being a North Korean woman she once met on a bus in China). There is little truly revelatory, however, in what Kim presents to us. The stories of her studies, observations and acquaintances do not hold together to form discretely authentic characters in their own rights, and the story that struggles to escape does not really do so.
 
 

Book Review: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (Jon McGregor)

In a certain sense, the offering under review is, truly, unremarkable. Words can stake huge claims in book titles but, unfortunately, Jon McGregor’s choice and subject matter here does not deliver. There is an attempt, for sure, to present a eulogy to all that is ordinary, to lift the mundane up on its grubby pedestal and heap it with high praise and depth appreciation; however, what transpires is merely the slow unfolding of turgid, insipid, relentless dullness. Late on in the writing, McGregor has one of his characters tell another: ‘If nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?’ This very much depends, however, on how we define ‘remarkable’ (that is, in the sense of that which elicits note, for better or for worse, and in the sense of that which is sublime and astounding); following this, how is it that we should relate the unremarkable? McGregor’s offering elicits note, writing to be remarked upon, but not for its astounding nature.

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (Bloomsbury, 2003) takes place primarily, according to its blurb, ‘On a street in a town in the North of England’, on the last day of August 1997. The majority of its characters are unnamed, including the first person narrator, whose segments (three years later) are interspliced with the third person writing regarding the day in question. The young female main character laments, a little under a quarter of the way through, about not knowing the names of the other people on the street on which she lived. Perhaps this is rationale, in part, for the authorial decision on a lack of character names. Perhaps there is a greater design on the nature of the ordinary unknown. In August 1997, a traumatic event takes place on the unnamed street. It is this event that drives the story forward; however, it is a long and laborious drive. McGregor stretches it all out for nearly three hundred pages, with-holding full disclosure and, although the event is a terrible one, and although he finishes beyond this with a flick of the tale, as it were, the pay-off is just not worth the journey.

In the blurring of a multitude of shapeless characters, in stripping them to their basic shadows, none can truly be cared about at all. There are students, some old people, some other younger people, some parents, some children. There is an obsessive and introvert young man who lives near the main character, and she, the latter, must move abruptly because her tenancy is at an end, much to the former’s chagrin. One of the few named characters is Sarah, who is a close friend of the narrator but who soon drifts away, returning later in the first person narrative blocks. Another is Michael, the strange in other ways twin of the obsessive young man, who the young female main character naively absorbs into her life, three years on, saying nothing untoward about all the odd detritus of his brother’s life that he, Michael, shows her and which his brother has collected (the urban junk of needles and other discarded rubbish, the ‘archaeology of the present’, and an array of covertly taken photographs).

McGregor details the comings and goings of his shadow ordinary people, on the last day of August 1997, on the day of a traumatic event, in descriptions of granular ordinariness recounted in bludgeoning forensic detail, often offering nothing significant to the whole. The streetscape is a flat dirge of a place where the reader is expected to remember who lives where by door number and minimal character description or brief reprisal of a previous scene alone. The writing is relentless. The reader has a faint notion that the day in question, detailed by the date written on a Polaroid photograph taken by the obsessive young man, is actually the date that Princess Diana died. However, there is not a single mention of this significant occurrence in British history amongst the conversations of the characters or in the narrative. There is a hint, insofar as children are hushed away from TV screens, here and there, but that is all. It does not strike at all true. This is not the traumatic event at the heart of the book.

McGregor’s first person narration is replete with successive strings of ‘I did this’ or ‘I did that’, or ‘I said’ and ‘He said’ or ‘She said’, though without the use of any speech marks beyond these phrases. Whilst some of the dialogue does ring true as words that ordinary people might ordinarily say, in the stilted and truncated manners that they might say them, the device of jettisoning speech mark punctuation sometimes has the effect of causing a confusion, a merging and blurring of words, a difficulty in the comprehension. It may all be written under poetic pretensions but it does not always make for good reading. In a similar vein, McGregor’s relentless take on ordinariness sometimes throws up lines of dreadful banality and lack of creative flair, bordering on the naïveté of the amateur. For example, he has the main character tell us, regarding a one night stand she has with a Scottish bar-man whilst she attends her grandmother’s funeral in Aberdeen: ‘And we went to his house, and we went to his bed, and we spent a long time doing the things.’

For a good portion of the book, McGregor leads us down a line of impending doom for the main character. There is a tension building that she might be seriously ill. However, all this is dispelled when, by around the eightieth page, we discover that the malaise is just a pregnancy (as a result of the one night stand). In retrospect, there are hints at this, but maybe the reading is swayed by the urgent need for the author just to show his hand. The relentless lack of disclosure on ‘the traumatic event that happened’ does not so much produce a force of exquisite breathlessness but, rather, a weariness that keeps piling and piling without an end in sight to the drear. The main character’s pregnancy storyline eventually fizzles away in some attempt at sublime depth, no doubt, but which the reader has long since given up caring about.

There is one sharp spark of visceral engagement, early on (a young boy hits a tree whilst riding his tricycle, on the day in question in 1997, perhaps sustaining serious and horrible injury, we might believe), and maybe this is it: maybe this is the trauma that will unspin, but no. It is too early on and this is not the event: it is just a bit part of the equation; the boy is just looking to see. It offers a spark, an intake of breath, but that is all that is provided in the whole. The ordinariness subsumes us and, by the time the traumatic event is finally revealed to us, late on, slowed down to minute detail over several pages, the ordinary has dulled our senses to the point of feeling no visceral engagement at all: we are just onlookers, despite what happens. There is a readerly shrug. We move on. McGregor’s writing is a succession of drab details or chopped up, incomplete sentences, or run-ons mashed up, masquerading as poetic prose or prose poem. The sublime attempt at a flick of the tale, when it comes, has already been well and truly numbed.

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things suffers for its barrage of ordinary insignificances, played over and over, though there are truly extraordinary treasures to be found in such matter of everyone’s day-to-days. McGregor attempts to shine a small light into moments of lives on a non-descript street, but the overall effect is deadening. Where there is an attempt at extraordinary but barely detectable wonder, at the very end, there is no connect: the mundanity of it all is too overwhelming.
 
 

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)

Anthony Doerr was the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with the offering under review and, for a welcome change, there is obvious merit in the decision to grant such award and reward. Doerr’s writing is capable of placing the reader directly in the midst of a claustrophobic scene, of delivering a strung-out tension if need be, of making elegant marks of graceful sensory description. His principal characters are largely well-drawn and their situations, immediate. However, there are reasons to trip, which will be elaborated on in due course.

All the Light We Cannot See (Fourth Estate, 2015) is predominately set between the years 1940 to 1944 and concerns the eventual coming together of its two principal characters: Marie-Laure, a Parisian girl who, blind at the age of six, flees to Saint-Malo on the coast of Brittany, France, with her father after the Germans invade her home city when she is twelve; Werner, two years older, is a German boy from the industrial Ruhr region who becomes a radio technician in the war, having had his self-taught talents noted during his indoctrination by the hierarchy of the Hitler Youth and after having his age altered in order to send him to the field. Doerr weaves a long, long journey for Marie-Laure and Werner’s eventual meeting, which is exceptionally brief in comparison, and which takes place in the immediate aftermath of American bombings in the siege of Saint-Malo in 1944, the fortress town having been occupied by the Germans.

As well as what it is to relate, at the heart of Doerr’s writing are objects, and amongst the plethora of details therein concerning seashells and snails and radio equipment and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (all of which Doerr presents with a flourish of knowledge) he places a diamond, the Sea of Flames. It is precious, rare, exquisite but it also harbours a possible curse: according to a story told to Marie-Laure early on, when she still has her sight, by a guide at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, where her father works as a locksmith, the diamond has the power to protect its bearer but also to cause the loss of all those that they love. Daniel LeBlanc, Marie-Laure’s father, is entrusted with smuggling the diamond (or one of three near-perfect copies, he is not told which) out of Paris when the Germans invade. He and his daughter find themselves in Saint-Malo, at the door of his great-uncle Etienne’s house, where the latter lives as a recluse, agoraphobic after traumas sustained during the First World War, supported by Madame Manec (maid, confidant, carer). In Paris, Marie-Laure’s father builds his now-blind daughter puzzle boxes for her birthdays and constructs a scale model of the city for her so she can navigate her way around, and in Saint-Malo he constructs another model for the same purpose. The Sea of Flames is secured in a puzzle box, of Etienne’s house, in the model.

Meanwhile, in Zollverein near Essen, Germany, a mining community, Werner Pfennig lives with his younger sister, Jutta (who is the same age as Marie-Laure) in Children’s House, an orphanage, with Frau Elena and her various other charges. Werner and Jutta have the run of the area whilst they are young and find the damaged detritus of an old radio set, which Werner manages to get working. Thus begins the story of Werner’s entire fate. He is scientific by nature, questioning and intelligent, and he and his sister manage to listen in to distant transmissions that appeal to this nature, as well as a classical music piece from the same source, which affects them too. Werner’s self-learning of how to build and repair radios eventually brings him to the attention of the war machine. He is sent to school (Schulpforta), further east, in his indoctrination, and there he meets the giant Frank Volkheimer who, although only a few years older than Werner, is set to become his Staff Sergeant in the field. Later, they travel through Poland, Ukraine and Austria, with three others in their unit, hunting down ‘rogue’ radio transmissions and dispensing their enemies, before the bulk of the unit ends up in Saint-Malo.

Doerr’s writing continues in this vein of intricately laid out plotting, of flowing back and forth in time, of suggestions of object relevance and allusions. Too much is detailed to give a complete synopsis here. Suffice is to say, however, that if Etienne’s tall and narrow house in Saint-Malo carries with it more than a hint of the shell, so too does the structuring of Doerr’s tale: the whole is a slow, winding spiral taking us ever onwards towards the farthest depths of its core. A great deal of the principal characters’ time is spent in either cellars or attics, hiding or trapped, and yet, there is an array of light in this book.

In review notes on the inner sleeve, one contributor (Lidija Haas, of The Times) is quoted as having written that ‘Doerr’s novel seems poised somewhere between the sublime and the twee. It very much lands on the right side of things . . .’ and this is a pertinent opinion. Whilst Werner’s early life with his sister, Jutta, for example is sometimes rendered a little mawkishly, his life beyond becomes steadily replete with the atrocities of war (of which he himself is, of course, also culpable). When his unit, led by Volkheimer, enters Vienna in search of transmissions deemed detrimental to the German war effort, Werner is responsible for an error that results in the murder of a child. Werner’s guilt manifests in visions when he and Volkheimer are trapped in the cellar of the collapsed hotel they are stationed in, in Saint-Malo, on the hunt for the French Resistance.

Doerr proves himself dextrous in the art of foreshadowing and, for the most part, there is barely any fat in the work with very little going to waste, despite the overall length of the story exceeding five hundred pages. That said, the final forty pages or so seem to be largely comprised of Doerr’s need to say goodbye to his various characters in offering us a few scenes to say what happens to them after the war years. It is appreciated that if, as Doerr alludes to in his acknowledgements section, a book such as this has taken ten years to complete, then such final scenes might be expected. There is nothing significantly wrong with them but they do not add a great deal more to the tale (save for a brief flash whereby Doerr lays out a proposition concerning the linking of electromagnetic waves and the loss of those who have been loved).

Although Doerr’s plotting, as intricate as it is, does take forever to reach the inevitable ‘walking together’ (in both the literal and the literary construct senses) of Marie-Laure and Werner, the whole is structurally composed of very short chapters, which successfully lead the reader on apace (counter to the supposition that the chop and changing might distract the reading flow). There are some reasons to trip, however. Doerr is fond of (often short, sometimes longer) grammatically incorrect sentences, which can be overlooked once in the reading flow, but can at times cause a stumbling. There is, for example, writing such as the following:

When she’s standing beneath a tree, for instance, listening to the leaves vibrating in the wind, or when she opens a package from a collector and that old ocean odor [sic] of shells comes washing out.

There is also the issue of American English use to address in this review. It is entirely appreciated that the author is American and that the writing style and spelling is therefore valid. However, for a publishing house issuing a work from London, and for a non-American audience, would it be so churlish to suggest a translation from American to non-American English? The proposition is sincere. Doerr writes, in his own language, words such as ‘vise’ (vice), ‘burglarized’ (burgled) and ‘airplane’ (aeroplane), and these examples are offered up here further to the belief that, when reading flow is agitated, a rupture takes place. The proposition also operates vice versa because, perhaps, the same ruptures can occur in American readership of non-American English works.

In furtherance of cultural examination with regards to the specific work under review, Doerr seems lightly influenced by the world of film. That is to say, Werner is notably a variation on the ‘Good German’ trope; Bastian is a camp commandant at Schulpforta and every inch the stereotype of such a character at any given on-screen military establishment; similarly, Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, an expert on precious stones, greedy for the Sea of Flames diamond, not least for its promise of immortality to cure his disease-ridden self, is heavily reminiscent of the greedy war-time Germans depicted in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Doerr seems to either consciously or unconsciously also offer us a literary ‘Easter Egg’ in terms of a scene in which an American bomber ‘drops a tank of napalm through an air vent, one shot in a million’ at the end of the siege of Saint-Malo, and the ghost of Skywalker seems evoked. Perhaps, conversely, cultural affect is merely the kindling in a reader’s mind.

What is undeniable is the beauty of some of Doerr’s descriptive language. He writes, for example, of how Marie-Laure opens a can of peaches: ‘Seconds later, she’s eating wedges of wet sunlight.’ There is much to be admired in how Doerr is able to compress evocative description into so little immediate space. The reader is right there, in media res, surrounded by the sensory affect that the author has placed down lightly but deeply.

All the Light We Cannot See is a structural, sensory, sculpted success of a tale and has all the potential to linger long after it becomes an object on the shelf (in much the way that Marie-Laure’s collected seashells sit on hers, or in the way that the Sea of Flames, or its facsimile, resides patiently and quietly in the little wooden puzzle box of a house that her father makes for her). Doerr wishes us to comprehend the higher love of reaching out and, to this end, a note follows regarding communications, at the core of his work. In a scene in which Werner and Volkheimer and their unit are ‘hunting’ Russians and their radio transmissions, through a field of Ukrainian sunflowers, they come to a cottage where, after admittedly dispensing with their enemies, Werner searches a cupboard:

Inside dwells a den of superstition: jars of dark liquids, unlabelled pain remedies, molasses, tablespoons stuck to the wood, something marked in Latin, belladonna, something else marked with an X . . . The transmitter is poor . . . probably salvaged from a Russian tank . . .

Werner goes out . . . He thinks of the kitchen cupboard with its strange potions . . . These partisans may have been involved in some dark forest magic, but they should not have been involved in the higher magic of radio.

Herein lies humanity for Doerr, in the higher magic of the radio: in the distant transmitted voices that the child Werner and his sister, Jutta, receive, the recordings of a Frenchman in his love of what gives him purpose; in the recording of Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, which similarly reaches out across the air waves. Light is only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and what, Doerr seems to ask, resides in all we cannot see?
 
 

Book Review: Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez)

Whilst the themes that Gabriel García Márquez chose to develop in the course of his career are not always straightforward writes, his works are often laid out in such a way as to suck the reader in, even when nothing much seems to be happening on the superficial level. His mastery of detail seldom fails to transport the modern reader to a realm that is at once real and also not so, far from the actuality of the inhabited space and time. That said, to the modern eye and sensibility, there are troubling depths to wade through.

Love in the Time of Cholera (Penguin Books, 2007, translated from the original Spanish by Edith Grossman; originally published as El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera, Editorial Oveja Negra Ltda, Bogota, 1985) is set either side of the turn of the 20th century, in the author’s native Colombia, specifically in the north where the Magdalena River meets the Caribbean. Whilst Márquez first introduces us to Dr. Juvenal Urbino, an elderly and respected man, replete with civic importance, the story as a whole belongs to Florentino Ariza, primarily, in his fifty year long wait in love for Fermina Daza, the doctor’s wife. Juvenal Urbino suffers a fatal accident early on in the work, whereupon Florentino Ariza steps in with unseemly haste and, as one might expect, is rejected by the furious and grieving Fermina Daza. Márquez shifts the narrative around in time and so we observe the pining of the young Florentino Ariza for the even younger Fermina Daza, their correspondences, and her first rejection of him. This, however, does not deter Florentino. He decides to wait, and wait: yet, all the while, Márquez shows and tells us, Florentino takes on hundreds of sexual partners.

Florentino Ariza’s ‘love’ is more an obsession which, later, is more a stalking, and later still we see how Fermina Daza embraces all his overtures, both of them now in their old age. This does not, however, suggest a wholesome tale all wrapped up neatly. Márquez touches on themes seen elsewhere, notably in his tale of Innocent Eréndira, who we see in modern terms as too young for sexual partners, prostituted by her grandmother: in the current offering under review, Márquez conjures a certain América Vicuña, also too young, but one of Florentino’s many ‘lovers’ (late on in the piece, she is some sixty years his junior). As attributed to the thinking of Fermina Daza’s adult daughter by the doctor, Ofelia, her mother ‘had a strange relationship with a man [Florentino] whose moral qualifications were not the best.’ By modern terms, Márquez is also uncomfortably racist in parts of his writing. Whether this is his intentional provocation or his personal perspective remains to be understood.

What it is safe to state, however, is that Márquez writes his scenes with a succulent eye for detail. He does big, dusty, old, turn of the 20th century, colonial South American house-cum-palaces well, for example, with their cold atmospheres brought about by prim mothers and exotic birds in cages surrounded by the scent of orange blossom and staleness. Elsewhere in his descriptions, he shows us the exotic flair in the extraordinary of the ordinary that we have seen and marvelled at before. In his to-and-fro of time, Márquez has Dr. Juvenal Urbino and his wife, Fermina Daza, in their youthful energies, taking a civic journey, riding in the first airmail balloon to San Juan de Ciénaga, along the coast, in a celebration at the turn of the new century. The description is florid:

They flew over the lake dwellings of the Trojas in Cataca, painted in lunatic colours, with pens holding iguanas raised for food and balsam apples and crepe myrtle hanging in the lacustrine gardens.

Elsewhere, after thinking about the young poet Florentino Ariza, ‘a phantom of her nostalgia’, Márquez has Fermina Daza in some lament for what has gone by: ‘. . . she began to feel that something irreparable had occurred in her life whenever she heard thunder before the rain. It was the incurable wound of solitary, stony, punctual thunder that would sound every afternoon in October at three o’clock in the Sierra Villaneuva . . .’

Love in the Time of Cholera takes its title, one must suspect, from Márquez’s occasional hints and highlights at how the two conditions, love and cholera, can be confused. Early on, the young Florentino Ariza suffers as Fermina Daza keeps him at arm’s length, and his godfather, a homeopathic practitioner, examines and questions him, before concluding that ‘once again . . . the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera.’ Later, Márquez writes how Florentino’s mother, Tránsito Ariza, used to say: ‘The only disease my son ever had was cholera’; yet, he adds that ‘She had confused cholera with love, of course, long before her memory failed.’

Florentino Ariza’s story is one of unrequited ‘love’ (it must be noted that the term, in the analysis, is questionable), but love we must call it because Márquez does. His very first line is imbued with the motif that is the scent of almonds for the unrequited, and it is also under almond trees that the young Florentino Ariza sits in his initial pining and waiting for Fermina Daza to appear with her escort, protector and aunt, Escolástica. ‘Love’, in the widening of years and in the development of Florentino’s life, is a fluid concept. His many affairs include those that stretch on in time, in his waiting, and which take on a hint of trusted closeness. Márquez stretches the defining characteristics of ‘love’ in his treatment of the German émigré, Lotario Thugut, a telegraph operator at the Postal Agency where Florentino comes to work. Of Lotario, Márquez writes: ‘At least once a week he ended the evening with a little night bird, as he called them, one of the many who sold emergency love in a transient hotel for sailors.’

Love here has its various forms. Dr Juvenal Urbino comes to rely on his wife, Fermina Daza, and their marriage becomes a routine but the only one they know; Florentino Ariza loves across time, obsessively, but at a distance, yet he gives himself freely to many others, deluding himself along the way. There is an interweaving examination of the lives of the three principal characters, though mainly that of Florentino and Fermina, and Márquez skillfully eases us from one set of circumstances to the next without us really always knowing that we have been gently shifted along. There is an intricacy to it all and this is either written with such clever execution or this is Márquez continually digging himself holes, filling them in and going back to dig them all again.

As with all translated works, it would be remiss not to note the elements that jar, and so it is with certain of the phrases the translator, Edith Grossman, uses. There are occasional ugly prepositions herein, which work against the aforementioned descriptive elegances: ‘he was responsible to it’ and the often repeated ‘in the patio’, for example, are particularly abrasive, as are similarly occasional examples of clunky syntax in translation (‘he no longer was jesting’). The criticism is minor, however, when we are also treated to the likes of how ‘the rain did not allow him a moment of sun to think in’.

Love in the Time of Cholera takes the reader on an unfolding journey of time and times, of love perceived and given, sometimes taken, in a world that is waking to new possibilities but which has also lost some degree of what used to be: it spans the centuries (and Márquez sometimes writes of his characters’ lives and loves, in the previous century, in somewhat sepia terms). In their old age, and finally together, of a fashion, on the riverboat New Fidelity (Florentino Ariza having worked his way up over the years to becoming the President of the company), the principal characters travel up the Magdalena, inland, seeing the deforestation that has shorn the land. There is melancholy aboard, and it is borne of time. At the end of the line, Florentino Ariza concocts a plan with the Captain not to take on passengers again for the downriver return. Instead they raise the yellow flag that indicates the presence of plague aboard. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, the Captain and his lover too, and the usual crew, head back to the coast, but Márquez recounts that the authorities will not let them disembark, and so he leaves them with the prospect of an endless journeying of the Magdalena. There is analogy here and it isn’t lost, but there is a weakness to the writing of the final pages. What we should remember, however, is perhaps the detail of what has gone before.

 
 

Book Review: The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)

Umberto Eco has been lauded, as per front cover notes for the offering under review, as a writer of ‘intelligence and intellectual sparkle’ (Liberation) and producer of ‘the most intelligent and at the same time the most amusing book in years’ (Der Spiegel): a work that ‘the rest of the literate world will rejoice’ (Anthony Burgess, The Observer). Eco’s writing is indeed high on the intellectual scale, but its unique selling point does not save his work of convoluted density from becoming a reading quagmire. The ‘amusing’ aspects, noted above, are nothing but literary chuckles, and there is no ‘sparkle’ in Eco’s torturous plotting, set almost entirely in the claustrophobic surrounds of a 14th century mountain-top abbey in Italy.

The Name of the Rose (Picador, 1984, translated from the original Italian by William Weaver; originally published as Il Nome della Rosa, Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri-Bompiani, Sonzogno, Etas S.p.A., 1980) is set in the winter of 1327; however, a translation into American English does the whole no favours: the modern language use simply jars with the intention of rendering the time period believable in the fiction. Eco also liberally scatters around other phrases in Latin (and remaining so in the translation), presumably in an attempt to lend his writing a degree of authenticity and a modicum of sense of time and place. The reader who is not conversant with this language, however, becomes frustrated at the choice they’re necessarily faced with in the reading: either pause the reading flow to research meaning, or ignore all such Latin text in the moment. The former is unsatisfactory for obvious reasons; the latter, likewise, because we do not have the entirety of the author’s intentions readily provided for us to think on.

Eco’s narrator is Adso, a young Benedictine novice and scribe who is tasked with aiding the mission of his master, the ‘learned Franciscan’ William of Baskerville. Adso is writing, in the fiction of it all, many decades later, and the prodigious recall of characters’ actions and dialogue that this device results in immediately shifts the reckoning of a believability. William is a former inquisitor and is tasked with involvement in the delicate mediations and negotiations that are necessary between Emperor Louis and the Pope. Eco’s work is threaded through with disputes on religious doctrine, and legations converge on the abbey by way of a sub-plot. The main plot, on the face of it, however, concerns the series of murders that take place within the abbey during Adso and William’s stay. The abbot, Ado, asks William to investigate. The hint of a conventional detective set-up ensues, though the narrative is side-tracked by the arrival of Cardinal del Poggetto and Bernard Gui, and Michael of Cesena, on opposite sides of the argument on the poverty of Jesus. Eco also provides us a more or less conventional confessional, though the murderous ‘culprit’ is not so clearly defined. There is a grand destructive aspect to the final pages, but this is followed by a weak wrapping up, as if the author has run out of steam. The reader certainly has to attend to this aspect in their own task because, at five hundred pages of dense prose, this is not an easy offering to navigate through.

The unnamed abbey on the mountain is populated by a variety of monks but none are rendered in any great detail. Thus we have Adelmo, Berengar, Venantius, Severinus, Malachi the librarian, Remigio the cellarer, Ubertino, Benno, blind Jorge, old Alinardo, and others, and Eco lets on that some of these characters will be murdered over the course of a few short days. He has William investigate with precise attention to logic and detail, leading the reader along a line suggesting a serial killer is following scripture regarding the onset of the Apocalypse. The 14th century thinking presented is that of the end of days. Dominating the grounds of the abbey is the Aedificium: a monumental aspect of the architecture of the place, which juts out over the edge of the drop, on the uppermost floor of which (above the scriptorium and the kitchens) is housed the labyrinth of the library. The library is a character in itself and Eco goes to great pains in describing its layout, but it is tortuously done. Later in the work, we’re presented with a diagram to find our way, and this suffices far more for the understanding. The library retains its secrets well into the depth of Eco’s pages, but it transpires to be an essential aspect in William’s investigation.

Surprisingly, for a work that is dominated by a host of monks in a secluded abbey, Eco sees it fit to add the presence of a woman, unnamed, who flits in and out of both the abbey grounds and the story and results in a ludicrous and incongruous sex scene between her and Adso. Eco’s writing hereabouts is poor. He presents us with such lines as: ‘And she kissed me with the kisses of her mouth, and her loves were more delicious than wine and her ointments had a goodly fragrance . . .’ and he continues, in drawn-out eulogy to the muse, with ‘thy lips drop as the honeycomb, honey and milk are under thy tongue, the smell of thy breath is of apples, thy two breasts are clusters of grapes . . .’ Dialogue of more seemly matter for those at the abbey often fares no better. Later, for example, in a discussion between William and one of the monks, Eco has the latter tell the former: ‘And so the Cosmos, which for the Areopagite revealed itself to those who knew how to look up at the luminous cascade of the exemplary first cause, has become a preserve of terrestrial evidence for which they refer to an abstract agent.’ In other discussions, Eco dumps text books through the mouths of his characters. When the inquisitor, Bernard Gui, takes charge of a judicial proceeding, the abbot whispers to William: ‘I do not know whether this procedure is legitimate. The Lateran Council of 1215 decreed in its Canon Thirty-seven [sic] that a person cannot be summoned to appear before judges whose seat is more than two days’ march from his domicile.’

This all said, there are the occasional moments of meditative value hidden in the pages. Eco writes, for example, how ‘[W]e know things better through love than through knowledge.’ In deliberation of the mysteries of the library, he tells us:

To know what one book says you must read others . . . Often books speak of other books . . . it is as if they [speak] among themselves . . . [the library is] the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing.

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is, however, ultimately unfulfilling. It is fully appreciated the sheer level of focus and writerly work that must have gone into the creation of such density combination of the fictive, the historical and the detective mystery, but it is just that density that is, predominately, its nemesis. It is almost with a sense of relief that Eco takes a detour away from the abbey in the description of the medieval fate of Fra Dolcino, a heretic proponent of poverty. The stories of the murders of the abbey and of the doctrinal dispute, which weave together and unwind, are subsumed by the presumed desire to similarly subsume the reader in intellectual obfuscation. Eco concludes with a final line in Latin: ‘stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.’ A little research suggests that the author wishes us to consider that a rose itself cannot be recalled, just its name, which has its undoubted undertones, but which rather jars with the narrative of an elderly monk laying down the events of many decades previous in minute and meticulous detail.
 
 

Book Review: The Name of the World (Denis Johnson)

Michael Reed is a character who suffers immeasurable loss and, as such, is appropriately adrift in his life: unfortunately, he is adrift in pages whose writing is, although poetic in places, discerned as confused. Michael, or more often, Mike, sits out his days in numbness, in an academic institution in the American Midwest, four years after the death of his wife and young daughter in a car accident. We wait with expectation, patiently, for the slow burn to resolve itself one way or the other: for the greater plummet or for the personal redemption of something even more, but it never does. Johnson’s writing promises to take us places but the ends are dead, over and over, and the whole just fizzles away. What, we might think, is the point of it all? Perhaps Johnson’s message is just this.

The Name of the World (Methuen, 2001) initially plants us in a backwater Nowheresville, after Johnson opines the rosy, ‘aromatic pipe tobacco’-infused version of academia gleaned from 1930s films, but he leaves us with no illusions as to Michael’s reality with the dreariness of first person narrative such as: ‘Then I found myself in the Comparative Studies wing of the Humanities Building, although I was actually an Adjunct Associate Professor of History . . . I ran small seminars, asking bright, undirected students to read books I’d already read and then listening while they presented papers to the rest of the group for criticism. In other words, I didn’t do anything.’ Michael wastes his days until he chances on the improbably named Flower Cannon, and he keeps chancing on her in place upon place, and he wastes his days further still.

Flower is given to us as, variously, an amateur cellist, an exhibitionist artist, a stripper, a member of a small rural sect in a makeshift church set between the ‘fields of alfalfa, fields of barley, fields of knee-high rows of corn’, in a flat strip, somewhere, of small towns clustered around ‘concrete grain elevators’, out and out and away. Late on, Flower explains the origin of her name, a soubriquet that stuck, attached to the story of an abduction, her as a child, by a man who she feels looks a little like Michael does. Michael, by this point, has already blurred the lines between his fantasy of her as desirable and his understanding of transference of his daughter onto her, despite the fact that we are told it has been only four years since the accident, and Flower is half his early-fifties age. Throughout the book, Flower has the potential, as Noir as she almost is, to make the whole mean something more, but Johnson does not do this. He jettisons her in his telling, writing that she does not feature further in Michael’s life and, save for one further recall visit to the pages, she disappears.

Flower holds the key, or rather the card, to Johnson’s book title. In her art studio basement, in an out of town old school building, she invites Michael to write something, anything, down. She proceeds to place his business card, which he has written on, in an envelope and then this into a wooden box which she keeps others of this kind in too. She won’t let him see the others because, she says, the light will harm them all. On his card, Michael writes: ‘the name of the world’. Its significance is as lost as he is.

In his journey through the pages of the book, Michael loses his comfortably numbing job, but before he does so he either associates, out of habit, with faculty colleagues in uneventful or pretentious dinners, or he meets new flotsam on the dusty backwater tides. On a whim he decides to travel by bus to Riverside: a place Johnson describes in terms that bring to mind the faded Coca-Cola signs and tattered Stars and Stripes across wide sandy intersections of small town Americana, even though he leaves all of the above to the fill-in of imagination . . .

Joined as it was to the Mississippi, the river reached a finger of the South into the region, while the casinos, one russet, one sky blue, both covered with murals depicting empty arid desert scenes, and Vince’s with a tall eagle-topped Styrofoam totem pole, labored to produce a Western flavor [sic].

En route to Riverside, Michael meets Vince, who talks at him and talks at him and invites him to accompany him to a casino, which Michael has nothing better to do than agree to. Johnson describes the seedy, dark interior juxtaposed against the later bright, empty sunlight outside. Inside, of course, Flower is also there, as she seems to turn up everywhere, and she’s engaged in a sparsely attended contest, taking off her clothes. Michael is suddenly hit hard in the face by Vince, who leaves the story, having served his purpose, and so it seems to be with other characters too: an author annoys a colleague at a dinner party and Johnson has said whatever he thinks it necessary that this scene says; Michael chances on a recovering brain injury patient, out of town, where the hospital has a Trauma Unit and where the Forum for Interpretive Scholarship also resides, where Michael does not secure a job, and Johnson leaves it at this; Michael goes to dinner with Dr Stein, of the Forum, who wishes to mark the finality of his divorce, and Johnson seems to want to tell us something here, but nothing persists. Flower drifts through the pages, but like a tumbleweed, and then she too is gone.

What Johnson succeeds in conveying is a sense of loss and a certain nihilism but, beyond this, what the name of the world is (in the lower case of the phrase written on the back of a business card, hidden in an envelope in a box, and in the upper case of a title) is unclear. Johnson is a poet in places, for sure, and his sense of place and his sense of drowse and drift amongst it all is occasionally striking: Michael narrates how, driving a (conveniently provided to him) BMW, as disturbingly as this slightly unbalances him, given the nature of his family’s demise, he passes through the rural landscape ‘washed along in an ocean of chlorophyll’. The poetry falls, however, amidst confusions.

It must be noted that such confusions lie not only in the fades and fallings of all of the above but also in some lack of attention to detail in the writing and in the editing. A minor character, Ted MacKey, Chairman of the School of Music, has his name rendered as either ‘MacKey’ or ‘Mackey’ in various places, sometimes both on the same page; Martin, or Marty, Peek (who we do not really get to know at all), the Dean of Liberal Arts, has his wife referred to by Johnson, some lines after introduction, as Mrs. Peele; there is a suspicion of an error in chronology later in the piece. Added to these oversights are a number of omissions of quotation marks in an otherwise standardly punctuated work. It cannot be stated strongly enough that professional publishing houses should employ copy-editors who are consistently faultless in their endeavours.

The Name of the World succeeds in conjuring up an empty drift in a dusty life and landscape, replete with the feel of a vast terrain of unknowingness, that of its narrator: a man completely cut loose in his life. It is, however, a life of dead ends and, as such, it does not tell us anything more, even if its author feels it so. Part-way through, the now late Denis Johnson writes in the voice of an author character at a dinner event, talking to another younger writer: ‘I hope I’ve got books out ahead of me that do the work you’re asking for, but I have to live my way to them, and through them.’ He describes his previous books as ‘behind me like dead skins’. It is tempting to think this apposite of Michael Reed. In a rapid winding up of the pages, Johnson has him driving out and away from the Midwest prairies, staying briefly in southern Alaska, before incongruously becoming a journalist in the Middle East, covering the Gulf War, and ending up off the Greek coast to write his memoir. Johnson concludes with a line, regarding Michael’s time in the war-torn desert, about how he ‘continued day after day in a life I believe to be utterly remarkable.’ This is not the name of the world.