Book Review: Strange Pilgrims (Gabriel García Márquez)

Reading Márquez is like coming home. The connection of this thinking to the title of this story collection was not an intentional one when I first wrote that line; however, it is, I find now, quite apt. Márquez’s skill at immersing the reader in his places, characters’ situations, and in moments in time is, on reflection, worthy of analysis by any writer looking to hone their own craft. Márquez spends time on his words, and that time rewards his efforts.

In his prologue to this collection (originally published in Spanish as Doce Cuentos Peregrinos, 1992; this English translation by Márquez himself, Penguin Books, 1994), the author delivers the history of the stories. He started with sixty four ideas (notes to form a novel): he wrote some of these ideas up, lost energy on others, lost the notes to many more, reconstructed as many as possible, and whittled those down to the final twelve. As a former reporter and foreign correspondent in various cities across Europe (where the stories are set), Márquez, the Colombian, then needed to check that his memories of places tallied with how those places actually were. He found that they didn’t. He re-wrote the stories, stating that ‘I could not detect the dividing line between disillusionment and nostalgia . . . I had found what I needed to complete the book, what only the passing of years could give: a perspective in time.’ The whole process took some eighteen years, from the early seventies to the early nineties. The stories, these strange pilgrims, had come home.

Reading Márquez is like coming home. His characters, Latin Americans in Europe, spring quickly from the page. Márquez tries to deliver as much hook in the first paragraphs of his stories as he can. This reader’s analysis focuses on some minute but telling details: in his characters, Márquez has a penchant for the full name (immediately giving us some sense of a person; some feel for the possibility of a history; some flavour of the Spanish language flow of the tale that could well be melted into the original language, but which also flows, for the most part, well in English). So, we have María de la Luz Cervantes, Miguel Otero Silva, Maria dos Prazeres, Señora Prudencia Linero, Fulvia Flaminea, Nena Daconte, et al.

This is not all. Márquez’s travels have given him an eye for description of place and how that might feel for his characters: descriptions of the portentous wind at Cadaqués near Barcelona; desolation in the side-streets of Paris; the squalid hotel room of an exiled president in Les Grottes, Geneva. It is this ability to sink the reader down into the fabric of the book, the place and person in the print, that Márquez excels at. To this he also adds to the mix something that every writer ought really to aspire to: that is, the succinct ability to pinpoint a description with a minute but significant object detail (something I have been thinking of for quite a while, and something I currently think of as the ‘specific integrities’ of those objects). Márquez offers up not just ordinary words and phrases, but rather the specific details: ‘he cooked his own food in a can over an alcohol lamp’ (Tramontana); ‘he wore a kind of street pajama made of raw cotton’ (I Only Came to Use the Phone); ‘the glacial factories, the vast fields of Roissy devastated by fierce lions’ (Beauty and the Airplane).

What these stories present, for the most part, is believable patterns of lives, though in the sometimes slightly fabulous ways of magic realism. Could a small wound caused by a rose, such as suffered by Nena Daconte in The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow, really bleed so much on the road trip from Madrid to Paris? Could seventeen poisoned Englishmen in the lobby of a hotel in Naples (‘seated in symmetrical order, as if they were only one man repeated many times in a hall of mirrors’), in Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen, all succumb so to the oyster soup at supper? Could a sea wave issue forth with enough force to embed a car into a hotel wall, in I Sell My Dreams (‘the body of a woman found secured behind the steering wheel by a seat belt . . . [the blow having been] so brutal that not a single one of her bones was left whole’)?

The fabulous infringement on reality, of course, doesn’t matter: intertwined as it is in the stylistic choice. This is the beauty and the power of Márquez’s immersive abilities. As we get to the final stages of the collection, Márquez plays more with the fantastical. Toying with the knowledge that Madrid has no river, landlocked, Márquez tells the tale (with a slight detour into authorial explanation), in Light is Like Water, of two boys, bought an aluminium boat by their parents as a reward for school work, who break a bulb and flood the apartment with light. They invite their classmates when their parents are out and a party ensues, though thirty seven classmates end up drowning in the light there. ‘[Light] spilled over balconies, poured in torrents down the façade, and rushed along the great avenue in a golden flood that lit the city all the way to the Guadarrama.’

Though such beautiful arrangements above are evident in this collection, I can’t help wondering if Márquez’s writing is better suited, on balance, to the longer form. Certainly on the odd occasion in this collection, such as in The Ghosts of August, Márquez ends abruptly and seemingly on the cusp of an idea. That we might wake in a room different to the one we went to sleep in is, for this collection at least, not so satisfactory a tale. Márquez seems to enjoy the ‘folding in’ of characters in his stories: that is to say, he delivers a promising opening; he offers us place and character and a rough idea of where those characters are heading in the piece; then he folds in some extra details to give further colour to the whole, before often folding in further still by delivering some back story details to the personal histories of those characters. Sometimes this works and sometimes it’s a distraction. Sometimes the reader is left a little frustrated but then, wait, Márquez knows what he’s doing and this back tale here is needed later, we find. This folding, as I call it, needs space, and that space in the short story is precious.

There are some other minor aspects of this particular translation that cause slight pause for concern, for this reader at least. There is the odd occasion of tortured syntax, the dogged insistence in not splitting the infinitive, and the American English use of such stylistic decisions as capital letters following colons. These quibbles could be a result of translations for the American English version, and/or due to the author’s own writing choices in the original Spanish (the latter I won’t know). That said, in the case of punctuation, even in matters of house style there ought to be some consistency and there are occasions where this does not follow in this collection. Of sentence structure, moments such as ‘we had bathed in a steaming pool of waters so dense you almost could walk on them’ (Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness) cause some small irritation.

These moments, however, are more than offset but the abundance of beautiful arrangement, skilled immersion, and the odd flash of wry humour in this collection. Márquez writes, for example, ‘we ate under a mauve sky with a single star’ (The Ghosts of August); ‘We would ride on his Vespa, he driving and I sitting behind, and bring ices and chocolates to the little summer whores who fluttered under the centuries-old laurels in the Villa Borghese’ (The Saint); ‘The functionary who received him in the name of the ambassador looked as if he had just recovered from a fatal disease’ (The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow).

Reading Márquez is like coming home because, once encountered and if immersed, he and his writing are far-flung friends for life.

Book Review: While the Women are Sleeping (Javier Marías)

Javier Marías writes at length: by which I mean the span of his written body of work and the extent of some of his sentences. I suspect that that body of work has, in places, been re-edited, re-imagined, and re-purposed (this is surmised by way of the author’s own brief notes to this collection, but also by way of a cursory analysis of his rather consistent style over the thirty year period that contains the ten stories here). However, despite the overall readability of Marías’ work in this collection, it would appear that the establishment of his ‘name’, in the eyes of the publishers, has henceforth done away with the necessity to edit some of those brutally long sentence structures.

While the Women are Sleeping, published in 2011 (English translation from the original Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa), is a collection of stories of various length which span a writing period between 1968 and 1998. Marías asks the reader in his notes to ‘be kind, please’ regarding the story titled The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga (originally published in El Noticiero, 1968). This is, in fact, a story written by the fourteen year old Marías in 1965. It is short and perfectly readable, concerning the brief life and dull existence (and ultimately dull after life existence) of its eponymous narrator. There is very little to suggest the writing of an average fourteen year old here. So the conclusion is that either Marías was well on his way to becoming a good writer by that age, or the original manuscript has been edited to fit the later emergent body of work.

Marías notes that this story does bear resemblance to a later story, When I Was Mortal (1993), not included in this collection. This practice of writing on writing, as it were, is not one I’m against — in fact, I find it a useful device for development of the art form: my slight irritation here in this collection, however, is the perceived implication of ‘this is how the writing has always been’. If this is the case, then so be it; I am suspicious though because surely every writer’s quality of output will shift over time, especially over a thirty year period.

What does appear to remain more or less consistent though, in Marías’ work here, is that there are subtle suggestions of something lying beneath the surface in his stories. The narrator Iturriaga, for example, ends his story by stating (whilst lying in his coffin), ‘this is my life and death, where there is nothing.’ The title story (While the Women are Sleeping) and The Resignation Letter of Señor de Santiesteban, the two longest offerings, deal in part with time and power. There is, however, the sense that Marías wishes to convey more than just these concepts between the lines. It is this notion of ‘between the lines’ that this reader finds himself focused on, in thinking about the overall impact of this collection. Marías’ writing appears to develop from conceptual inception, but the full depth of that thinking on the author’s part doesn’t always shine through.

This is a shame because, for the large part, Marías’ writing is readable. The story titled Gualta, for example, clearly presents us with the tale (albeit not entirely believable, though we go with the flow in this instance) of a man who meets his exact doppelgänger in looks and actions. (Marías’ conceptual preoccupation is present here too). A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps (re-purposed, according to the author’s notes, by altering the title, character names and setting of a previous story due to a short deadline for a commission) tells the tale of a ghost and a reader. Lord Rendall’s Song, apparently built around a bittersweet retort in a song of that title, by the author’s account, concerns time and loss and, on the face of it, the main character’s return from war to find his wife involved with another man.

In An Epigram of Fealty there is, again on the face of it, another simple tale: this time of a bookstore manager who comes into contact with a beggar, John Gawsworth, purportedly King of Redonda and subject of allegiance, as written into a display copy of a rare pamphlet. That pamphlet, concerning rare poems by Dylan Thomas, offers a snippet of information regarding Gawsworth’s uptake of the title Juan I, King of Redonda. The story goes that Gawsworth, literary executor to the late writer M. P. Shiel, inherited the title from the latter who, it would seem, developed the idea of being king of his own small uninhabited island in the West Indies, near his birthplace. Gawsworth saw it fit, so says Marías, to name Thomas as a Duke of the realm. Marías himself became the disputed ‘King of Redonda’ following a later ‘abdication’. Redonda is an elaborate and long-lived literary fantasy and joke, it would seem.

The whole story of Gawsworth and Redonda appears, I remember, in Marías’ Dark Back of Time (Vintage, 2004, English translation by Esther Allen; Spanish original, 1988). This book itself builds on Marías’ novel, All Souls (various editions, English 1992), and the affect that that book seems to have had. It is this building on a body of work and the cross-referencing of ideas that Marías seems to take particular comfort and refuge in.

This is all an aside to the pressing concern of the collection While the Women are Sleeping. Returning to the readability, in most part, of Marías’ writing here, this is only let down by his penchant for the occasional long and convoluted sentence. One sentence in particular is 110 words in length, punctuated by multiple commas and other means of breaking it all up in order to stretch the point. It seems that, in places, Marías finds it difficult to accept the notion of the succinct. There are only two conclusions, namely: that the original Spanish lends itself better to Marías’ flow of thought and writing; or, as implied earlier in this piece, Marías has reached the point of being beyond the pull of editorial reins.

In conclusion, what While the Women are Sleeping offers is a collection that is at once readable but sometimes readable only in a quiet place (the distraction of external stimuli may well disrupt the bubble of some of Marías’ long sentences). The stories therein aren’t formed in their entirety in this way, far from it, but concentration is suggested. That too would be a skill worth considering when trying to dig down deeper into Marías’ apparent love of ‘something beneath’ the superficial, of his building on the body of work he’s amassed, and of his penchant for the fantastical and literary, such as Gawsworth and all things Redonda.

Marías writes at length, in that body of work and in his sentences: there may well be more here than meets the eye; however, Marías may well be the only one to truly see everything therein.

Book Review: New Finnish Grammar (Diego Marani)

Finnish is an ugly language. At least that’s how I read it, as transcribed in its scraps in Marani’s novel (English translation, Dedalus, 2011). This is somewhat contrary to the intention of the author who, at great pains, attempts to convince the reader of the ineffable beauty of the curious and practically unique poetry inherent in the language’s spoken form. Perhaps Marani may have a point to make about the liquidity and sing-song nature of the language in the aural realm (the few Finnish people I’ve met, on reflection, did seem to have a somewhat melodic nuance to their spoken English); however, describing this aural sensation on paper is on a par with the oft-quoted description of jazz — that is, compare ‘written jazz’ with dancing to architecture.

All this is an aside because this book’s delvings into language are a vehicle to explore its main theme: identity. It’s a touch ironic then that New Finnish Grammar also has its own, presumably unintended, crisis of identity. This English translation (less than perfect English it must be noted, despite the gushing cover notes, by Judith Landry) is originally written in the author’s native language: Marani being (according to the book’s notes) an Italian, working in Belgium, writing a weekly column for a Swiss newspaper in a Euro-language of his own devising; the main protagonists of New Finnish Grammar are, variously, a German-Finnish neurologist, an Italian-cum-purportedly Finnish amnesiac, and a half-Swedish pastor with a stubborn disdain for all things Russian. Marani’s Europhilic tendencies are clear enough, but the identity crisis in New Finnish Grammar lies not so much in this or via his own personal biography; rather, it lies in trying to ascertain what this book is trying to be.

We know this is not a book about grammar: that much is clear to us from the outset because we know that we have chosen a novel, of sorts. We come into the reading perfectly well informed in this instance. However, what did soon become clear during the reading, for this reader, was that Marani appears to want to be jamming into a narrative his apparent knowledge of the nuances of the Finnish language and mythology in some very clumsy ways. It is as if the story of (who we assume to be) Sampo Karjalainen, a man left for dead on the quayside in Trieste, Italy, in 1943, is secondary to the author’s need to batter the reader senseless with a somewhat academic treatise on language and myth. New Finnish Grammar is about identity, but it lumbers between academia and the novel/writerly in its telling.

That Marani uses the neurologist, Petri Friari, as a first person device (occasionally interposing supposed notes on Karjalainen’s found journal/manuscript into the fictive stream) is a testament to the clumsiness of execution in certain places in this book. At times there’s a self-conscious air to those interjections by Friari: it’s almost as if Marani has inserted them as an after-thought, as a means of sewing up bits he had neither the wit nor the inclination to think through as he went.

For example, writing as Friari, Marani inserts into Karjalainen’s found manuscript some notes about the long private oratories on Finnish mythology, as given by Pastor Olof Koskela to the attentive Karjalainen (who, it must be remembered, is learning the complicated Finnish language from scratch following a clout on the head and a loss of all memory). Marani, writing as Friari, notes:

‘As to Koskela’s dense reflections on language, here and elsewhere, I have been able to reconstruct them thanks to the substantial notes written on the back of the illustrations in his copy of the Kalevala [of epic Finnish myth-poetry], which I came across together with this manuscript. In an envelope glued into the jacket flap, along with sacred images and old Russian stamps, I also found various theological writings, indeed virtual dissertations, by the pastor which I incorporated into the manuscript where I felt the author’s notes seemed to be referring to them.’

Never mind that the fiendishly difficult language that is Finnish is being learned from scratch, and that this in itself must take some Herculean effort of sustained concentration if Marani’s description of Finnish grammar complexities is to be believed: the after-thought of Karjalainen’s learning difficulties here has been conveniently cleaned up by the sudden materialisation of Koskela’s found writings inserted into proceedings and then swept away again. The reader is distracted throughout the book by the nagging concern of just how does one learn Finnish from scratch and also manage to understand all the complexities of mythological oratory, as presented by the ever-extending tale-telling of Olof Koskela? That Karjalainen is thorough in his study skills after the event, as part explanation (the other being Friari’s inserts), just doesn’t wash enough to allow the fictive suspension to be maintained.

This then brings me to consideration of ‘voice’ in the targeted suspension of the reader within the world of Helsinki, 1944 (being where the majority of this book is set). If we’re to immerse in the voices of characters presented to us, we need to be able to differentiate between those characters. Marani, here, speaks as Friari, Koskela, Karjalainen, and as Ilma Koivisto (the erstwhile love interest of the latter); however, actually, Marani speaks as Marani throughout. It is, perhaps, indicative of Marani the linguist, the journalist, the academic at large within the pages of this book, rather than Marani the novelist, that Friari, Koskela, Karjalainen and Ilma Koivisto fail to lift themselves adequately from those pages.

It may only have been for bloody-minded self-satisfaction that I laboured on past Koskela’s late and turgid Kalevala-tales of characters such as Kullervo, Kalervo, Untamo, and so forth: I lost interest in the point, if there was one, of these tellings — bloody-mindedness carried me along to the inevitable denouement and the finding out of who Karjalainen actually was. This ending was clumsy and unsatisfactory. It felt like Marani had got to a point where Friari’s final notes (which make up those last few pages) needed some Friari-like inserts themselves to explain away the plot holes.

This all said, it would be unrepresentative of the whole if this review were not to also include some positives (after all, New Finnish Grammar is not a book I failed to finish). There are places where Marani flourishes his linguistic imagery and comes up sweetly: he describes small slices of scenes with colour and delicate words, which work in the English version let alone the original Italian. For example:

‘The red light falling in through the window was now becoming slowly tinged with grey. The sun was sinking behind the forests and a dense layer of salt-laden cloud was settling over the sleeping city.’

That these presumably Finnish words, presented by the language student Karjalainen, are just too succinct can be momentarily forgotten (though not entirely). When an author rides a vehicle such as ‘language’, a reader will inevitably find his thoughts turning to thoughts on language.

Taken at face value, some of Friari’s inserted text also has some aesthetic worth and depth (Friari being, at least, Finnish by birth and so a native speaker):

‘I prefer to believe that the universe is driven not by some all-powerful will, but by the random play of chemistry. The thousand substances of which it is composed clash and mingle each time they meet . . . [their reactions] as mighty as the splitting of the atom or as sublime as the flowering of a cherry tree. When everything has finally mixed and merged, when oxireduction is complete, when matter is made of nuclei as small as grains of sand but as heavy as this planet, and each electron is set upon its fatal course, then there will be peace in the universe.’

Sadly though, these moments of Marani’s writing are rare. The majority of this reader’s thought is taken up not by beautiful arrangements of words but by matters of character, composition, and clumsiness. Judith Landry’s translation is described as ‘seamless’: one can only then assume that it’s the fault of the author at points where Landry confuses the restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, or maybe the original Italian has grammatical structures that don’t translate easily. The publishers, Dedalus, also ought really to be checking their offerings more carefully for spelling and typesetting errors.

By way of drawing towards conclusion, I first offer up one of Marani’s descriptions of the spoken Finnish language:

‘In European languages the sentence is a straight line; in Finnish it is a circle, within which something happens.’

This may well be true in the spoken world: that there may be beauty in the spoken Finnish may be undeniable; yet, an excerpt of a transcribed song in the book goes along the lines of:

‘Kauniina vaikkyy muisto urhojemme,
Kuolossa mekin vasta kalpenemme.
Eespain rohkeasti vaan,
Ei kunniaansa myo
Sun poikas milloinkaan!’

The written language of Finnish is ugly. There may be something here, as spoken, or indeed there may be a circle here. Who’s to know? It is the same with Marani’s New Finnish Grammar: what is it, its identity, within the circle it attempts to describe? Something may be happening. Sadly, I fail to appreciate or care enough.

Book Review: Stories and Prose Poems (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)

It is my intention to read more. I don’t call this a resolution of the New Year kind because it’s always my intention to read more. Having had the opportunity to kick-start that process recently, I need some means of being held accountable. This site can offer that accountability. There are book reviews all over the internet and so, in adding to that body of writing, I write here to create a personal catalogue — for public consumption if that proves of interest. It’s January 5 and I’m already a book and a half in, my partner in accountability! There will follow writing on that reading in due course.

In the meantime, I’ve dug up a review written under a pseudonym in December 2011: Stories and Prose Poems by Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

I discovered this somewhat tersely titled slim collection by chance. I’m glad that I did, despite some minor misgivings about the author’s manner of writing. Some weeks back, I chanced on a small bookshop, down an alley. On the very top floor, on a bottom shelf, nestled between other dustily forgotten literary types, was Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the 1971 Penguin Books version (translated by Michael Glenny) features a bright red square overlaid by a man’s hand holding a sickle over an open book. I had all the intrigue I needed.

Solzhenitsyn, an army captain, was arrested in an East Prussian village in 1945 for making derogatory remarks about Stalin. He spent eight years in labour camps. It must be assumed that this time was spent stewing on his lot and forming his writerly direction: to find the ‘real Russia’. In Stories and Prose Poems, which consists of six of the former and sixteen of the latter, Solzhenitsyn displays both astounding brilliance and alarming clumsiness.

In the opening story, the author focuses on Matryona: a self-effacing woman who takes the narrator into her squalid home. Solzhenitsyn expertly describes a bleak state of affairs (being semi-autobiographical, following the narrator’s search for some isolation). However, the reader isn’t depressed by bleak descriptions of a cockroach-infested kitchen, for example. Instead, Matryona is depicted as someone with beautiful grace. There is the definite undertone of Soviet mentality (whether that’s due to indoctrination or inner desire) inherent in Matryona’s work ethic: despite her physical difficulties and poverty, she does what she can for the good of her community. The ending is tragic, as one might expect. There is a whiff of allegory about the whole.

Similarly brilliant in execution are some of Solzhenitsyn’s prose poems. I was astounded by A Storm in the Mountains, for example. Barely half a page long, this piece deftly describes the raw power and beauty of its subject matter:

‘Everything was black — no peaks, no valleys, no horizon to be seen, only the searing flashes of lightning separating darkness from light and the gigantic peaks of Belaya-Kaya and Djuguturlyuchat looming up out of the night . . . the voice of thunder filled the gorge, drowning the ceaseless roar of the rivers . . . the lightning flashes rained down on the peaks, then split up into serpentine streams as though bursting into spray against the rock face, or striking and then shattering like a living thing.’

There are, however, downsides to this collection. The story For the Good of the Cause starts with a flow of alternating dialogue — a collection of people and their overlapping conversations. It is not only difficult to follow but clumsy in its execution. Names are used in dialogue to introduce characters, or to try to indicate who says what next. It feels somewhat amateurish:

‘Susanna Samoilovna! How are you? . . . Lydia Georgievna? Lydia, my dear!’

That said though, Matryona Vasilievna Grigorieva, from the first story, is regularly referred to as Matryona Vasilievna, so perhaps this is a Russian convention I’m not aware of. Clumsiness, or dullness, can always be ironed out, however, in stilted dialogue (despite a social history inherent between the words) such as:

‘I’m in the same position: electronic and ionic appliances are separate from insulating materials, which have been left with lightning engineering.’

Solzhenitsyn can hardly be blamed for a lack of social or scientific foresight when writing forty years ago, but sometimes his writing does strike a chord with modern times. In the story, The Easter Procession, for example, he describes a rabble of bored youths spoiling to agitate at a church. One need not look too far to see such disaffected actions in modern society. However, there are other aspects that Solzhenitsyn gets wrong. In the prose poem, The Duckling, which is simple and beautiful in its own way (espousing the wonder of such delicacy as the titular creature), the author asserts — perhaps with tongue in cheek — that we will all soon be flying to Venus, yet we won’t be able to re-create such a thing as a delicate duckling. In the twenty-first century, sheep have already been cloned!

Solzhenitsyn’s prose poetry is where he really excels. Several of these pieces have reflective morals attached to them. It is perhaps a sign of the personal history of the author, of the Cold War times in which he wrote, and of the Soviet society he lived in, that such reflection is written in such a manner. The collection has been thoughtfully rounded off with the final prose poem (We Will Never Die): it explores the notion, despite the fact that ‘more men died for us Russians than any other people’, that Russia had no day of remembrance, unlike ‘all [other] nations [who] dedicate one day to remembering’. The piece, and the book, ends with a foresightful quip: why consider the past and the dead, when ‘we will never die!’?

Small pieces of huge histories can be found on the dusty bottom shelves of the very top floor of little bookshops, hidden away down side alleys. Solzhenitsyn’s writing, in this collection, does oscillate between the beautiful and the clumsy, between the sublimely tragic and the utilitarian; perhaps, though, we shouldn’t hold this against a man whose restless mind was shaped by war, imprisonment, and a search for something true in his homeland.