Canciones para el incendio, Songs for the Flames- Juan Gabriel Vasquez

This wonderful collection of nine short stories is the latest work from Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez and powerfully explores familiar themes and ideas in new and varied settings. Bookended by two stories arising from different historical conflicts in Colombia, several stories show lives touched by violence. Issues of historical veracity are explored too, the porous boundary between fiction and reality, memory and the creation of identity, themes which we saw in his last novel The Shape of the Ruins. But here he’s reaching out beyond Colombia to include stories set in Europe, referencing a globalised world, a world where film and social media contribute to the interplay between truth and fiction and provide a lens through which we see things.

The first story, Mujer en la Orilla, Woman on the bank, is set in post conflict Colombia. Photojournalist Jota, well known for her frank images of conflict, is invited to the Las Palmas ranch in the eastern plains area of Colombia- Las Llanuras Occidentales. She recognises one of the other guests as someone she met on her previous visit, twenty years earlier, to Las Palmas- Yolanda, an assistant to the politíco Don Gilberto, who turns up with his coterie. Jota tells our narrator what happened on that first visit, insisting he tells the story exactly as she tells it to him-but she’s not above manipulating the truth to achieve the result she wants for her stories and photos. The power of this story lies in its atmospheric description-the exotic capybaras and caimans by the river, the heat, the drinking into the small hours, all contribute to the tension of the night they’re waiting for news of Yolanda. And the presence of the conflict in both time frames is evoked just briefly: Don Gilberto’s men say the body floating down the river must have got what it deserved, while Jota now in the posguerra still checks the roads with the police before returning to Bogotá.

We see lives touched by violence in Los muchachos: a group of lads from a barrio in Medellin meet regularly to fight.  We learn that their barrio is cut off from the town centre by a concrete wall topped with barbed wire- images of Belfast in the Troubles come to mind. As violence and assassinations escalate in the town beyond the barrio- a judge is murdered by sicarios amongst other acts- so their fighting becomes more serious and they graduate to fighting with bicycle chains in the shopping centre beyond the barrio. This theme of youth wasted and destroyed by violence appears again in El Doble. Here, the narrator’s friend, Ernesto Wolf, is selected for military service instead of him in the random ballot selection system they employ for school leavers at that time. He’s drafted into the Ayacucho company, which doesn’t mean much to him: as the grandson of immigrants, he feels no particular pride in the decisive victory at Ayacucho for the Independence forces. Just before the end of his service, Ernesto is randomly killed in an accident. The narrator discovers years later that Ernesto’s father has been keeping a dossier of news cuttings of his developing career as a writer- he is El Doble, the surrogate son.

The idea of the double is picked up again in El Aeropuerto, but this time in the sense of parallel worlds. The narrator finds himself selected to work as an extra on a film directed by Roman Polanski. The scene is to be filmed at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris and depicts the protagonist, played by Johnny Depp, arriving at Barajas Airport in Madrid- so the Paris airport is a kind of simulacrum of the Madrid airport, which is self evident as airports are fairly anonymous non-lieux anyway. But the parallels get darker when the narrator recollects the dreadful murder of Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, and we read and visualise these dreadful events as if watching a film. When the narrator finally sees the film months later, he doesn’t know if he’s feeling sympathy for the fictional character played by Johnny Depp or for Roman Polanski.

Las malas noticias also explores the idea of experience mediated through the fiction of film. The narrator meets an American, John Regis, in a Paris bar. He says he’s a helicopter pilot, stationed in Rota, near Malaga, where the Americans have their biggest base in Europe. Their families live in a recreated American world, with perfectly tended lawns, drive in cinemas, golf courses and pizza and hamburgers available 24/7. Sadly, his best friend, Peter Semones, also a helicopter pilot and married to Laura, an ex-beauty queen, recently died in an accident while putting out forest fires. When it fell to him to break the news to Laura, he was tempted to put off the dreadful moment by diving into a cinema to see Armageddon with Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler singing I’m leaving on a jet plane. Years later, when the narrator happens to be in Malaga and decides to look John Regis up, he finds that John’s Hollywood film-scene account of breaking the news to Laura was remembered differently by her.

Gabriel Vásquez’s stories often have layers of narration. He himself appears as an unsettled character in a bar in Europe, or somewhere on his travels, where he meets someone who tells him a story-often with different degrees of reliability. The unreliable narrator is forefronted in Las Ranas when Salazar meets up with some other Colombian veterans of the Korean war at a centenary event. He trained with one or two of them, if you can call their abysmal preparation training- their superiors had no idea where Korea was, and assured them they were to be an army of occupation only. At the event, Salazar suddenly realises he met one of the wives fifty years previously in Bogotá and the two narratives of this meeting and the veterans’ military reminiscing interweave cleverly until the denouément. Nosotros is a group narration. A group of friends are talking on social media. Their friend, Sandaval, has disappeared, and what we learn about his character, his past and his disappearance, is entirely through the comments, predictions and revelations on social media.

My favourite story is the eponymous Canción para el Incendio, Song for the Flames, and the last in the collection. Many of the themes, ideas and narrative techniques contained in the collection come together here in this moving story set in the first half of the 20th century. The story refers back to the novel, The Shape of the Ruins, in that the assassinations of Uribe and Gaitán, pivotal events in Colombian history, feature here. But it’s also linked in that the narrator, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, is sent a book while researching that novel, which forms the basis for this story. The book is a grammar book, written by Uribe while briefly caretaking a coffee plantation in Antioquía, which has a dedication in it A nuestro héroe. It’s the background to the book and dedication which form the first arm of the story ( and a photograph of the dedication page can be seen at the end of this story). The second arm of the story arose when Juan Gabriel Vásquez was told about the Cemeterio Libre de Circasias by  his friend, the photojournalist, Jota. This is a real cemetery, originally built for the burial of non Catholics, atheists, Jews, prostitutes and suicides, in fact anyone who isn’t allowed a burial in a Catholic cemetery. Juan Gabriel Vásquez finds there a plaque dedicated to Aurelia de León, with a quotation from the poet Léon de Grieff. Aurelia’s story then becomes the focus of the second arm and I loved the account of this lively, attractive young woman in 1930s Bogotá, challenging norms of expected behaviour for young women, becoming a journalist, taking a lover and then returning to the coffee plantation in Antioquía to have her child, Gustavo.

This is a rich collection of stories indeed and the combination of themes- history, memory, fiction, reality- with Juan Gabriel Vásquez’ superbly elegant sentences, make this, for me, a near perfect book. It’s due to be published in English translation by Anne Mclean in early September 2020 from MacLehose, though with Covid-19 that date might no longer apply. So pre-order it now from book shops and your library and look forward to an enriching and powerful read.

 

by Maclehose

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Keeper by Jessica Moor

This novel is a literary thriller about domestic abuse and is absolutely a book for our times. The Corona virus pandemic and the subsequent lock down measures have seen women in abusive relationships confined to the home and a huge increase in domestic abuse world-wide: in mid June the UN reported a 20% increase in cases, describing this surge as a second pandemic. Renowned author J. K. Rowling wrote recently of her own experience of domestic violence and the Sun newspaper chose to respond with a headline amplifying the view of the male perpetrator. This novel takes the reader into the world of a women’s refuge, into the lives and experiences of a wide range of women, while keeping  you focused and gripped by the central question of what happened to refuge worker Katie Straw.

The story begins with the discovery of Katie’s body in the river below a bridge which is a well known suicide spot in the very ordinary English town of Widringham. The police officers investigating wish to catalogue the death as a suicide, but the women residents at the refuge where Katie worked didn’t see her as the suicidal type. The officers decide to investigate further and, unusually, are allowed access to the refuge to interview the residents about Katie and her movements on the night in question. This narrative, called Now, is alternated with a narrative placed a few years back, called Then, which starts with Katie meeting some old school friends for a night out. They’ve all finished university and working in rather uninspiring jobs while wondering what to do next. Katie meets a guy called Jamie at the club and, although it’s neither love at first sight nor a meeting of minds, she decides she’ll see him again-after all, he says he wants to take care of her and is quite the gentleman to her poorly mum.

Through the scenes in the refuge and the women’s stories we are shown a wide range of experiences of abuse: there’s Nazia, escaping from her violent brother, Sonia, whose two boys adore their violent father, Lynne with her daughter Peony, Jenny, an addict from Manchester, and Angie, who’s fled a 49 year old marriage. The complexities of their individual situations are deftly delineated and the claustrophobic atmosphere in the refuge well described- the soporific hum of the television constantly on in the background, the women are suspicious of one another and don’t necessarily gel. Yet they are all ridden with anxiety and the fear that they’ll be found is just below the surface, with sightings of unfamiliar cars and the fear of male figures outside on the street a constant. We’re shown, too, what some of the women are up against in terms of their interactions with the world beyond the hostel. Sonia is facing a custody hearing, Angie’s husband was up for assault- and was acquitted. Through the women’s narratives we learn a little more about Katie, but also see the character of Val Redwood, a formidable feminist who runs the refuge and acts as a kind of interface between the women and the police.

As the novel progresses we’re kept guessing at how these two time frames are going to come together and to say more would be to spoil. The author manages this with great control and careful plotting, and I didn’t see the plot twists coming. This debut novel is on the one hand an accessible and pacy who- dunnit but on the other hand an acutely observed account of different experiences of abuse, from physical assault to coercive control. I’ve found the women’s stories going through my head for days after reading and would recommend the book to everyone. And you can hear Jessica Moor talking about the novel here at the Women’s Hour Podcast.

 

 

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Die Bagage- The Riff-Raff- by Monika Helfer

This is the story of  Maria Moosbrugger, a young Austrian woman, married with 4 children living in a rural community in Austria at the outbreak of the First World War. We’re told early on that Maria is the writer’s grandmother: her mother was Maria’s fifth child, Margarethe, born in the first year of the war. The book is part imagined account, part memoir, going back and forth between Maria’s story in 1914 and the writer’s childhood memories of her parents and their siblings in later years. I’m fascinated by memoir from the German speaking world- Sie kam aus Mariupol, Irgendwo in diesem Dunkel, Paulaand am also interested in women’s experience of war generally, including from the home front. In this novel it is very much the home front which is the focus: we know from the beginning that the fifth child, Grete, was rejected by Maria’s husband, Josef, when he returned from the front, believing the child not to be his. He didn’t speak to her, chastise her or interact with her in any way for the rest of his life. The writer, Monika Helfer, learned this from her mother, Grete, when she was just 8 years old. This novel may be seen then as her own response to this: an exploration and imaginative account of what may have gone on in that first year of the war for Maria and her family, and the circumstances of her mother’s birth.

Maria Moosbrugger is a stunning beauty. With her striking dark hair and eyes, she attracts attention where ever she goes and men fall at her feet. Maria is aware of her power but is happily married to Josef, also a good-looking man. When he’s called up in September 1914, he asks his friend, the Bürgermeister, to keep an eye on Maria, both in terms of making sure the family has enough to eat, but also to protect her from any predatory males. Josef’s relationship with the Bürgermeister is never made clear- they have some sort of Geschäfte, business dealings, going on, but in any event, the Bürgermeister is happy to step in as her protector, particularly as he lusts after Maria himself.

A few weeks into the autumn, he treats Maria to a trip to the local town on market day. There she gets talking to a handsome stranger, a German from Hannover, and their conversation is noted of course by the whole town. They return to the village and the news that Josef already has some leave-in fact he has two periods of leave in the first 6 months of the war. Josef returns for a couple of days, then leaves again, and shortly afterwards, the German, Georg, obviously smitten with her, turns up at Maria’s house. How long does he stay? Do they make love? The writer presents Maria as a woman who is sexually aware and feels desire, yet deliberately keeps hazy what happened on that visit. But  Tante Kathe, the aunt who brought the writer up, told her, when in her 90s, that she’d seen her mother and Georg kissing passionately before he left.

Maria becomes pregnant and, when she starts to show, the whole village begins speculating as to whose child it is, calculating to the hour it seems whether she could have fallen pregnant during Josef’s leave, or whether the child must be from the stranger. The family are anyway not well integrated in the village, living on the hillside outside as they do and referred to as die Bagage– the Riff-Raff- and they are now shunned by all but a few  of the villagers. The teacher refers to Maria as a Hure, a whore, the priest comes to the house to take down the cross above the door and even condemns the family from the pulpit. As well as being socially ostracised they suffer materially.The Bürgermeister  has been keeping them in provisions and coming on to Maria more and more as he delivers their food. When his harassment reaches a crescendo, 9 year old Lorenz threatens him with a gun and he stays away- but so do his supplies.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the characterisation of the children during the war- and then the snatched memories of the adults they became as the writer’s middle aged uncles and aunts in the 1950s and 60s. The writer deftly distinguishes the children from one another- Lorenz the smart, independent 9 year old, brave enough to wield a gun to defend his mother, a maths whizz at school, able to plan and carry out a clever burglary to raid a neighbour’s cellar and feed his family-(this is one of my favourite scenes!). And quiet Hermann, more at ease with animals than people. Then we see the adult Lorenz playing chess with the writer’s father. He fought on the Ostfront in the Second World War and had allegedly a second wife and child in Russia, a sympathetic character, liked by her father, who said of him What that man could have achieved in different circumstances! And Tante Kathe, who retained her slim erect stature all her life, resembling a native American Indian with her dark good looks, and who took the writer and her sisters in after their mother, Grete, died.

Josef returns at the end of the war, having had no more leave apart from those two short periods at the beginning. We’re told earlier that the women and villagers have no real idea of what these men endured during the war. Josef tells Maria a little, in short bursts, like a tap turning on and off. He was in Italy, his company living in caves, with incessant noise and bad language. He describes scenes of carnage in the field hospital and feels guilt that he survived when every other soldier from the village was killed. He is traumatised and then has this other child to deal with. Maria insists that the child is his, tells him she met a man at the market, they just talked, no more- anything else was rumour, gossip and speculation. He doesn’t believe her.

I enjoyed this book for many reasons, one being the female perspective of the narrative. The truth about Grete’s parentage will never be known, but I found the portrayal of Maria as a sexual woman who could both love her husband and be attracted to another man really refreshing. The material hardships suffered by the family as the war went on are well portrayed, as well as their increasing social isolation due to the harsh judgement of others. I was fascinated to read about what became of the siblings in later life. Like my grandparents, they lived through two world wars and their lives were often hard and certainly disrupted as a result. But the end of the book comes back to them as children.  The writer returns to the painting die Kinderspiele by Pieter Bruegel, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. She describes the children at play in the painting and sees her mother, her aunts and uncles, in the tiny figures absorbed in their games. Her book, like the painting, captures a moment of childhood and gives life to those ordinary children.

 

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Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor translated by Sophie Hughes

Hurricane Season, by Mexican writer Fernanda Melchor, is shortlisted for the Booker International Prize 2020. Set in the impoverished fictional village of La Matosa on the coast of Mexico it’s both a crime story and an account of poverty, violence, misogyny and exploitation in a community which believes in myth and magic, in the power of spells and potions.The novel starts with the discovery of a woman’s body in a canal, bloated and disfigured. We learn that she’s the Witch, a local woman living apart from the village and the target of hatred and derision for some, a source of support and remedy for others. The story of what’s happened to her is slowly revealed in hints and asides in the narratives of characters in the village: the narratives themselves being anything but slow, told in long sentences which tumble down the page, pulling the reader along, in a language which is at times lyrically evocative of the oppressive humidity of this coastal region, at times a stream of slang and profanities expressing the lens through which the characters see their world.

This is a world where poverty is endemic. Women survive by turning to prostitution, with a reliable source of customers from the oil refinery just north along the freeway. For young men, there’s work in the sugar cane fields, but most of the young male characters here are unemployed and getting deeper into drugs and crime. Many relationships are characterised by violence and cruelty: Yesenia beats up her younger cousins whom she’s obliged to look after, but she’s taunted by her horrid grandmother, who nicknames her Lagarta, lizard, and savagely cuts off her only beauty, her glorious hair, that tumbled down…. her back like silk curtains, a cascade of bluish-black velvet. Abuse is a feature of many relationships and sexual abuse explored in Norma’s story: Norma, who turns up in La Matosa, on her way to throw herself off a cliff, pregnant at 13.

Misogyny runs through this society, permeates minds and determines lives. Yesenia and Norma have to care for younger brothers and sisters, while Luismi, seen as a little prince by his gran, gets high on drink and drugs. Norma’s mother and Chabela, raising children alone, both work their fingers to the bone. More shocking than this, though, are the attitudes to women revealed time and again, uncompromisingly, in the stream of consciousness style. So Munra blames 13 year old Norma when the authorities find out her age, telling Luismi he should find a real woman, not a pain-in-the-ass baby like fucking Norma, a rat who fed her man  to the lions the moment things got a little heavy. There are several places where male characters think females just want a bit of cock. The examples I found hardest to read were in Brando’s narrative, where an addiction to horrific pornography feeds his misogynist and drug-fuelled fantasies-I could have done with less detail here. Here too, in Brando’s narrative, we are shown the coercive power of the male gang mentality, which controls how the gang members express their sexuality. It’s almost as if it’s neither here nor there whether you have sex with a man or a woman, as long as violence is part of it.

One of the things I found hardest initially about this book was the lack of love in the relationships. Norma receives no physical affection from her mother, and Chabela’s stream of invective towards her son is hard to read. Yet the women yearn for love, Norma’ s mother, desperate to find a husband who’ll take care of her, and the many women who go to the Witch, hoping that spells and potions may help them. But, after the book washed around in my mind for some days after reading, I remembered some small acts of kindness and solidarity. Chabela feeds Norma and gives her a dress. Norma’s mother demands childcare from her for only half of the day, so she can go to school the other half. In their world, this may count for a lot. And then there’s Luismi and his engineer. Brando says Luismi is in love with him and describes them kissing. Is this love? Or exploitation?

There is a resolution to the story, in that the murderers are found and brought to book by the police chief Rigorito. However, without wishing to spoil, I will just say that this triggers further interest in the Witch’s House, and the treasure alleged to be hidden there, in events which show the police to be as corrupt and unreliable as the few other authority figures who appear in the novel.

I found this to be a very tough read indeed. And it seemed to get tougher as it went along, the nadir for me being the detailed descriptions of Brando’s drug crazed pornographic fantasies. I felt so disturbed by some of the content that the Witch’s story took second place somehow. But to end on a positive note I thought Sophie Hughes’ rhythmic and vibrant translation was superb. Here’s my favourite passage towards the beginning, describing some lads after a day’s work in the sugar cane fields: straddling the trunk of the fig tree, suspended over the warm dusk waters, hollering and hooting, toned legs swinging in unison, shoulders all touching in a row, backs lustrous like buffed leather, shiny and dark like the seeds of a tamarind, or creamy like dulce de leche or the tender pulp of a ripe sapodilla. And I also like her way with the pithy retort- when Munra asks Sarajuana’s daughter to put the beer in the fridge she replies: for an ugly fuck like you? Dream on!

The range of language and register is just one of the things I find myself mulling over and wanting to discuss in the novel. But the violence and misogyny is such that this novel is not for everyone.

 

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Exquisite Cadavers- Meena Kandasamy

Meena Kandasamy’s recent, third novel, Exquisite Cadavers came about partly in response to reviewers of her previous novel, When I hit you. In the preface she says reviewers had categorised that novel as memoir, when she’d explicitly called it a novel, thereby ignoring the creative process of fiction and defining her by her experience of beaten-up Indian wife. As a woman writer she was angered by the fact that the decision about which genre her work belonged to was taken out of her hands.

With this novel, she’s carrying out an experiment, she tells us. She’s writing a novel with a story as far removed from her own as possible. A story where each plot turn will be referenced and documented, and in this she was influenced by the Surrealist version of the game of Consequences, Exquisite Corpses, where each player steers the narrative in the direction they choose. She’s trying to keep herself to the margins, and the layout reflects this, with the story of Maya and Karim in the centre, and the writer’s thoughts, commentary and additions appearing as annotations on the edge of the page. The experiment is also a distraction for the writer, she says, an attempt to escape an intricate political reality by losing herself in storytelling. She playfully invites us, the reader, to join her in this experiment, to see if those margins have remained disciplined, if she’s managed to evade her activism by staying in the margins.

The central narrative is that of the young couple, Maya and Karim. They live in London, she’s mixed-race British and works on a zero hours contract as a layout artist for a liberal newspaper, he’s Tunisian and studying film in London. Their relationship is fractious and argumentative, for reasons which are nothing as banal as whose turn it is to put the bins out, but seem to stem from Maya being intense and needy, with Karim not quite able to rise to her needs. In any event, the nitty gritty of their daily lives, their flat, their daily routine, London life, is not described here, but rather their states of mind, emotions ebbing and flowing, in rather wonderful lyrical language. They bonded over exchanging anecdotes of  their inadequate fathers, both on a see-saw, touching down in turns. Karim’s love is a drizzly-drizzly love, a confused-restrained love, a smokedust-smarting, lullaby-soothing love. Devoid of melodrama, boring as backdrops.  And then their rows: Their anger is encrusted with the undying embers of previous fights.

Running parallel to this are the writer’s comments, keeping to the margins in fairly disciplined manner at first, while she explains her choice of seaside scene for the protagonists, the principles of Tamil poetics, and how she met her husband Cedric. Yet soon there is seepage. Just a couple of examples: she comments on the preconceptions and expectations that Western audiences have of writers from India. Karim has a similar experience when putting forward ideas for his film project and being told he should stick to an exploration of identity. Maya immerses herself totally in film characters and scenarios, almost living through them, and in the margins we hear of the writer’s similar passionate engagement with film-and of her short acting career, when the only role she played was a woman called Maya!

The echoes, resonances and playful interaction between the two texts take on a more sombre note as the book develops. In the excellent section mixed marriages there is an account of the reactions of Maya’s friends to her marriage to Karim- white liberals, yet nervous and edgy in a London where the Prevent Strategy influences academics’ advice,where the media is commenting on Jihadi John and Shamima Begum. At the same time the writer and her husband in the margins are astounded to discover the Prevent Strategy is operating in London nurseries. In the margins, the writer recounts shocking examples of racist ideology from a variety of sources: a 1958 TV show, the introduction to a book on Orientalism, and then her own experience of growing up in India, of atrocities committed against Muslims, Dalits and women, which she was aware of from earliest childhood.

So are characters Maya and Karim so very removed from the life of the writer Meena Kandasamy? There are echoes of her own life in the experience of Karim and though British Maya in many ways seems quite different from her, when I went back to the opening section of the book, home objects, to that sad woman with her tight top-knot leaning on the window sill, eaten by memories of dead friends, a mother whose face she cannot bring herself to remember– she could have been Maya, Meena Kandasamy, or indeed many other lonely women trapped in a deceptive domesticity. Isn’t the truth that fictional characters are the product of many influences shaped by the writer’s skilful creative process? And in the case of Meena Kandasamy this is aided by the wonderful ambiguity and associative richness of her language, as well as her ability to move between poetry and narrative, between fiction and non fiction.

This is a fascinating book and a clever, playful response to those reviewers of When I hit you. I’m not sure she’s kept her political activism to the margins though- Meena Kandasamy is a political writer to her core and one thing I’ve been reminded of in this book is political conflict and rising Hindu nationalism in India. So I’ll be reading her first novel, Gypsy Goddess, as soon as I can.

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Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann- Power and Performance- translated by Ross Benjamin.

Daniel Kehlmann’s latest novel Tyll, translated into English by Ross Benjamin, has been shortlisted for this year’s 2020 Booker International Prize. This prize acknowledges the skilful and creative art of translation by rewarding the author and translator equally. I read the novel in German first and will certainly read the translation too, as I was intrigued by the challenge of translating the range of voices, registers and vocabulary present in this historical novel, set in the Thirty Years’ War ( 1618-1648) and yet written in a German which is immediate and accessible.

Now, I didn’t necessarily think I’d be drawn to a book about the Thirty Years’ War-the only image I have of the period is of Mother Courage pulling her wagon through years of destruction- but I was interested in the character of Tyll Ulenspiegel, a showman,a performer, a court jester and comedian, who features originally in 14th century German literature and who’s been transplanted by Kehlmann here to the 17th century. And I did fall for the history too, when the character of Elizabeth Stuart is introduced. She’s the daughter of James 1, the grand daughter of Mary Queen of Scots, and her family succeeded the Tudors to the English throne. Like many English readers, I’ve been immersed in this whole period  through the novels of Hilary Mantel- and there was that great film of Mary Queen of Scots with Saoirse Ronan too- so it felt like a moment of recognition to meet Elizabeth Stuart, aka Liz and, through her, see the role played by the English in the war. But more than that, Liz carries one of the main themes of the novel- the theme of performance. We know Tyll is a performer from our very first meeting with him, but Liz, as a young princess at her father’s court, had the privilege of seeing the King’s Players performing Shakespeare’s plays, even of meeting Shakespeare himself, and the experience of performance was to play a huge role in her life.

The novel opens with Tyll arriving in an unnamed German village in his covered wagon, accompanied by Nele, his ‘sister’, an old woman, and a talking donkey. The whole village recognise him by his pied doublet, his battered hood, his calfskin coat, his thin face with its small, sparkling eyes. In an instant, the cart is transformed into a stage and they perform a tragic love story, very Romeo and Juliet, with a message not getting through on time and the ill-starred lovers both ending up dead. The show continues with Tyll and Nele dancing like nothing they’d seen before, als hätte ein Menschenkörper keine Schwere und als wäre das Leben  nicht traurig and hart- as if there was no gravity in the human body, as if life were not sad and hard. Tyll sings ballads mocking kings and queens, the emperor, the powerful, to the delight of the audience, and finishes with a tightrope walk-he’s the very embodiment of lightness, a free spirit, a being who does what he wants, believes nothing, is subject to no one. His audience is spellbound, fascinated by his freedom while at the same time knowing he’s from a different world- his way is not for the likes of them.

The narrative, which is more episodic than chronological, goes back to Tyll’s upbringing and in particular to the story of Claus, his father. Claus married the miller’s daughter, Agneta, and so inherited the local mill. But his heart isn’t really in it- he’s more interested in medicinal herbs, magic potions and spells, as well as big philosophical ideas about the nature of time. Here we see a world where consciousness is steeped both in religious belief, particularly the fear of hellfire, and superstitious beliefs in fairies, spirits and ghosts. Of course, superstitious beliefs and practices were interpreted as witchcraft at the time, and in Claus’ story we see how this plays out when Doctors Tesimond and Kircher, Jesuits on the run, turn up in town. (Though to our modern way of thinking, the hunt for dragons’ blood and the theory of substitution, promoted by these two doctors, seems rather more astonishing). Tyll makes his escape, with Nele. They know they can never go back as they’ve become part of das fahrende Volk– the travelling folk, who include not just performers but all sorts of craftsmen too, who have the freedom to go where they like, but forfeit the protection of their craftsmen’s guild and any protection in law if they’re robbed or attacked.

The narrative paints a picture of a world where communities are cut off from one another, controlled by religion, by strict beliefs and customs. But over and above this, Tyll’s story takes place against a background of the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War. The landscape is one of spoilt crops, razed villages and deforestation. Hunger is ever present- Tyll’s family eat nothing but Grützen-groats- as is the terrible weather. Claus is accused of conjuring up storms which caused crops to fail, and we know that this period saw a stream of witch hunts, blaming crop failure on the supernatural, rather than the weather conditions of that time.The all-pervasiveness of this devastation and the sheer length of time this misery lasted is brought out by its presence through the different episodes of the novel. But at the same time, we’re shown how different players are affected by the war. At one point, Tyll is forced to join up and finds himself with a group of soldiers, trapped in a tunnel outside the city of Brno. Brutalised and desperate, some of them as mercenaries having changed sides several times, we see the lot of the common soldier. While at the same time priests and scholars at the heart of the Holy Roman Empire write their theological treatises and politicians manoeuvre and perform to place their people in positions of power.

For this novel is also about the politics that formed the background to the war, and the performance of politics. It’s about the continuing jousting for power between Catholics and Protestants in Europe at that time, explored through the story of Elizabeth Stuart. She’s married to Frederick V, known as the Winter King, for the brevity of his reign as King of Bohemia, and is initially looking back nostalgically to her youth at her father’s court in London. She’s taken some of those early memories of Shakespeare’s players into her own life too, having made a great rhetorical speech to her husband in favour of him accepting that ill fated crown of Bohemia (while her shrewd father James 1 advised against) and has employed Tyll as her court fool. And in this section, Tyll plays the part of the Shakespearean fool to a tee, mocking and joshing with both Elizabeth and Frederick, until he doesn’t, with Frederick barely managing to toil through the snow, a Lear like king without a crown, and his foolery gives way to deep compassion- a poignant moment in the book indeed.

Liz’s sense of performance comes out in the last section of the book, too, when she sets out for Osnabrück and the Congress of Ambassadors from the Holy Roman Empire, convened to try to find an end to the war. Her mission is to plead for her son to take on Frederick’s title of King of Bohemia and/or to be given back his powers as an Elector in the Holy Roman Empire. There are some fine moments of theatre in her determined marching through anterooms seeking an audience with the relevant ambassador as well as in the rhetoric she and others employ to argue their case. Yet, now an old woman, many years after Frederick’s death, and living in penury in The Hague ever since, she too cuts a Lear like tragic figure in her last slightly pathetic attempt to claim power for her family. And the absurdity of the politicking and performances at the Congress is underlined in the wonderful last scene at the Bishop’s reception:a figure in a pied doublet appears between the lines of dancers at the minuet, causing them to crash into each other and fall over their feet. It’s Tyll of course, disrupting and thrilling to the last, juggling, this time with daggers.

Now this is a multi layered historical novel, which tells the story of Tyll, that anarchic disrupter, against a background of the Thirty Years’ War and the chaos and misery it brought to millions in Europe at that time. In the range of its narrative voices, it raises questions about narrative reliability and, indeed the possibility of historical accuracy. I enjoyed the playful awareness of language: the lavishness of Will Shakespeare’s flattery of the young Liz at King James’ court, the references to that klobiges- lumpy- German, so unsuitable for poetry, the pretentious snobbery of the Holy Roman Empires’ clerics who communicated only in Latin and French. And I was as fascinated by the character of Tyll, that figure of freedom, fun, mischief and mockery, as the villagers in that very first chapter. And the fact that he endures and survives, that prince of air, is wonderful too. Reading this book as corona virus wreaks havoc in our world, it feels like we need Tyll more than ever, to divert, to distract and to bring lightness into our lives.This is a book for our times.

 

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A Thousand Moons- Sebastian Barry

This latest novel by Sebastian Barry is the sequel to his Costa-winning book, Days without End.  Narrated by Winona, the Lakota Sioux Indian girl taken in by Thomas McNulty and John Cole in the first book, the novel picks up the story and tells it against the background of rural Tennessee in the years after the American Civil War. Winona, Thomas and John Cole are living on the farm belonging to Lige Magan, a former soldier who fought, like them, on the Union side in the Civil War. Also living and working there are Rose and Tennyson Bouguereau, former slaves on the farm and now freed. Though Winona loves Thomas Mcnulty and John Cole, and sees them as her parents, she’s aware of her Lakota background and the fact that her people were wiped out by the whitemen-and that McNulty and John Cole participated in that genocide. Her scanty memories of her people and in particular her warrior mother, her musings about their lives and beliefs, form an important thread in the narrative. In contrast to the harmonious and loving atmosphere in this unconventional household, the world beyond is an uneasy place. The land is still ravaged by the Civil War and Tennessee, a state with divided loyalties in the conflict, is struggling to come to terms with losing the war and the end of slavery. Peace is fragile and justice wafer thin.

The novel opens with Winona working at the office of Lawyer Briscoe in the local town of Paris. She’s good with numbers and the office work in itself is an account of these troubled times: it includes keeping the records of the government contracts to supply the vanished Indians and the lists of sale for the black people bought and sold at the Negro Sales Office in prewar times. While in Paris, Winona meets Jas Jonski, a clerk at Hick’s General Stores. He’s sweet on her, asks her to marry him and calls her his fiancée, though she’s really not sure that’s what she wants. The whole situation takes a different turn when one night she’s assaulted-she realises a little later she’s been raped. This only gradually dawns on her because she’s barely got the words to describe what’s happened. She also can’t remember any details about the assault, not the circumstances, the place and least of all the perpetrator- though there’s a chance it could be Jas Jonski.

Shortly afterwards a second assault takes place: this time on Tennyson Bouguereau, who’s left speechless and again is unable to name the perpetrators. There’s speculation it could be the night riders, roaming around the area, taking revenge on others, often freed black men and women, for what they perceive they lost in the civil war. Colonel Purton tells Lawyer Briscoe that the Petrie farm lost the 40 slaves working on it, they are men so disgruntled by the war, they couldn’t breathe the air of peace, it choked them. This particular group have set up camp some way out of Paris, and Colonel Purton, who’s in charge of a militia tasked with curbing the activities of the renegades, takes his troop of 200 men out there to attack the camp. This leads to further raids on the town, the tension ramps up, and when decent Sheriff  Flyn leaves town and is replaced by untrustworthy Frank Packham, the family at Lige Magan’s place feel increasingly vulnerable, comprising as they do two freed black people and an Indian girl, so lowly that she doesn’t even qualify as a citizen and so can’t be raped in law.

The uncertainty which plagues Winona around the identity of her rapist reflects in a way the instability of the times. Reference is made to a change of governors in West Tennessee, the most recently appointed taking a different approach to the renegades, condoning their lawlessness and turning a blind eye to the summary justice they meted out. This reversion to prewar principles is firmed up by the appointment of Aurelius Littlefair, a bandit of the blackest heart, and one of Zach Petrie’s men, to County Judge. And just the appointment itself legitimised the barbaric lynching of a freed slave for allegedly attacking the wife of a local man. The townspeople turned out to watch, even bringing their children. Yet there are characters who are holding on to the rule of law. Sheriff Flyn coming out to Lige’s place after the assault on Tennyson cautions the household against taking the law into their own hands- you ain’t out west here. And Lawyer Briscoe doggedly rebuilding his house after it’s been torched seems to signify a determination to stay in the community, to hang on in there, a refusal to be defeated, a belief in the future. But these are all characters whose beliefs and values are easily read. What of Colonel Purton? It’s suggested his loyalties in the past were not clear and in unstable times there are always people who are less easy to categorise, harder to trust.

The creation and build up of tension and fear in incremental steps, assisted by a subtle and deft portrayal of character, all attest to Sebastian Barry’s skills as a novelist, but I was reminded here that he’s also a playwright and poet. There were a couple of gripping dramatic scenes which I could just imagine on stage- the visit of Sheriff Flyn to Lige Magan’s place, for example, where the two groups line up to face one another and Winona’s clumsy handling of the Spencer rifle betraying both her nerves and her fluid sexual identity. For sexual identity and cross dressing play a role here again as in the previous novel- and the handing back and forth of that yellow dress would make such an impact on stage. And the lyricism too- again there are powerful descriptions of landscape, both real and the fantasised Indian world in Winona’s imagination. But the language he uses to express the smaller, the everyday, evokes much poignancy too: listen to the blackened calamity of Lawyer Briscoe’s dresser after the fire, the two black sparks of John Cole’s eyes, see the old slave shacks Rose and Tennyson lived in falling back into the weeds and the weather.

This is a novel with a lot going on: the continuation of the story from Days without End, the growing up of a young Sioux woman away from her people, with allusions to sexuality and gender worn lightly as in the previous novel. However, for me its greatest achievement is its account of life in Tennessee after the American Civil War- the tensions and conflicts persisting between its different communities and the struggle to uphold justice and the rule of law. It’s given me some insight into that phrase The Long Shadow of the Civil War as well as resonating with what I know of other countries in a post conflict situation-Colombia comes to mind. Thank you Sebastian Barry.

 

 

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Irgendwo in diesem Dunkel-Somewhere in this Darkness- by Natascha Wodin

Irgendwo in diesem Dunkel is a sequel, and a complement, to Natascha Wodin’s prize- winning memoir of her mother, Sie kam aus Mariupol. In that book, which won the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2017, she recounts the life of her mother, deported from Ukraine to work as a forced labourer for the Nazi war effort in 1944. In this one she picks up the story from the early death of her mother when she herself was only 10 years old, weaving an account of her own troubled childhood and adolescence with an exploration of her father’s story. Starting with his funeral in the small town north of Nuremberg where she grew up, the narrative moves between her memories of childhood and her father’s last few painful years spent in a care home. In setting the scene she repeats some of the material in the earlier book, but takes the story further, painting a vivid picture of post war provincial Germany- and her own exclusion, as a Russki, from the charmed circle of German youth.

Her mother’s suicide, leaving her father to raise two girls aged 4 and 10, obviously throws the family into complete disarray. He was on tour, singing with a Russian Cossack choir at the time, so the girls are lodged first with a German war widow, then for a while in an orphanage, from where they’re ejected, as they’re only half orphans with a father still alive. Finally they’re accepted by a Catholic Boarding School for girls where they spend the next five years in a regime involving incessant praying, frequent physical chastisement from some nasty nuns, much guilt-tripping and a wholly inadequate education: when Natascha goes on to the state school to do her Mittlere Reife she’s woefully behind the others and lacks the basics she needs to make sense of the material. As a member of the Russian Orthodox Church she’s made to feel an outsider too, but for me the  most painful thing is the fact that she’s separated from her younger sister, who clings to her, crying, whenever they cross paths in the corridor.

There’s an initial feeling of exhilaration when her father comes to take them away from the school after five years of misery: she’s thrilled to be walking away with her little sister and her suntanned father in his elegant shoes, swinging her case along beside her, filled with dreams of a bright future. Back home she finds her mother’s few thin, worn dresses, sent by an acquaintance from America and, visiting her mother’s grave she’s drawn back to the time preceding her mother’s death, remembering her mother’s anxiety, her constant tears. But again, her reveries in the church yard end with her running off, away from the clutches of past ghosts, facing towards her future. But as much as she dresses up in her mother’s clothes, hoping to achieve the confident ease of the German girls, she struggles at school, is derided as Russenlusch ( Russian trash) by the boy she fancies and is made to feel an inferior by society as a whole. After all, she comes from die Häuser- the Projects– a development built especially for former Displaced Persons, now known as Homeless Foreigners: we learn that these children aren’t allowed in the swimming pool because they’re thought to be too dirty.

During this time she’s kept under lock and key by her father, who by now is working shifts at the local factory. He’s fanatical about cleanliness and tyrannises Natascha,who’s now keeping house for him, as he did her mother. Yet he’s reliant on her as he speaks no German, and it’s Natascha who interacts with the authorities on his behalf. He has a terrible temper and thrashes her regularly, hurting her badly, yet he’s respected in the Projects and considered to be an educated man, a singer, who’s travelled and acquired an edge of sophistication. Still, he barely talks to his daughters and his Schweigen– keeping silent- is a fundamental part of his character. He never mentions their mother, so that the young Natascha even wonders whether she existed at all.

This Schweigen is her father’s response to any questions about his past. The narrator knows he was born in the village of Kamyschin, on the banks of the Volga, as when he talked it was sometimes to praise the copious fish stocks of that great river. His parents ran a general store, but both died when he was a lad, leaving him to bring up his 3 younger brothers. He confessed that shortly after they died, he sold their house for a bag of flour, worried about how he was going to feed his brothers. But then no more. All family stories seemed to stop at that point. The narrator has never known what took him from the Volga to Mariupol where he met and married her Ukrainian mother, twenty years younger than him, and from a different social class altogether. She knows nothing about his family, which are also her family, back in Russia- so when she finds a Moscow address randomly shoved into his laundry record book in the care home, she stuffs it into her handbag, where it lies untouched for years.

The narrator’s own relationship with Russia and her Russian identity is a constant theme. Even before she’s described as Russian trash by a German teenager, she longs for a pretty, clean German home, aspires to be a German Hausfrau, adores the thinly sliced, carefully quartered Schnittchen, bread topped with cold meat, gherkins or salmon ribbons, a world away from the coarse and hearty Borscht which is the staple diet in her house. Her lack of interest or identification with Russia continues into adulthood we’re told: even though she works as an interpreter in Moscow, she doesn’t think to explore the city or get to know its underbelly until she meets Sergej. Through him and her friend Nadja, she begins to see a different side to Russia, its culture, wit, humanity and poetry. One day she unearths that Moscow address and with Nadja they hunt it down to a vast Soviet era estate on the edge of Moscow- where they learn a little more about her father. But just a little. The Russians, after decades of the Soviet regime, are masters of silence too.

This novel is a moving account of the human cost of war and conflict in the Twentieth Century. Natascha Wodin’s father was born in 1900, in Tsarist Russia, and so would have witnessed the Russian revolution, Stalin’s purges and the huge social upheavals involved in the Sovietisation of a vast former empire. Both parents were victims of the Nazi regime and suffered the horrendous conditions for slave labourers in Nazi Germany. Afterwards they endured the horrors of the Valka Camp for Displaced Persons and the social stigma of being former forced workers from the East for many years after the end of the war. It’s impossible not to think that those experiences moulded the narrator’s father, fed his violence, led to his silent refusal to engage with things German. The narrator herself, now at a distance, looks back at her parents’ sad stories with curiosity, sensitivity and empathy, while giving us a sense of that wild, rebellious girl who refused to be locked up, who nurtured her own dreams of a future in Germany. This is a compelling follow up to Sie kam aus Mariupol and both are just waiting for translation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Serotonine by Michel Houellebecq-Longlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize.

I was interested to read that Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel Sérotonine, in translation by Shaun Whiteside, has been longlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize. This prize is awarded every year for a single book that’s been translated into English and published in the UK and Ireland. It seeks to encourage the translation of foreign fiction into English by acknowledging the skilled work of translators: the prize money of £50,000 is shared equally between author and translator.

I’ve read one or two of Houellebecq’s novels over the years with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’ve often appreciated his commentary on contemporary French society, which seemed like a useful counterpoint to the Toujours Provence/Le Gloire de Mon Père view of France, without necessarily agreeing with him. I’ve been interested too in his take on wider issues, like globalisation and tourism and his tackling of taboo subjects such as dying and euthanasia- I haven’t forgotten his account of the visit to Dignitas in La Carte et le Territoire. What I can’t stomach is the pervasiveness of pornography in his novels, his misogynistic portrayal of women and his racism. And this novel turned out to be no exception.

The novel is narrated by Florent- Claude, a man in his forties, who conforms to the usual Houellebecqian anti-hero in that he’s a depressive nihilist, a near alcoholic, who has problems in relating to others, especially women. We meet him at a crisis point in his life, when he’s wanting to end his relationship with his Japanese girlfriend, Yuzu, and leave his job at the Ministry of Agriculture. He quickly winds up his life, leaves his appartment, and disappears to live for a while in a Hotel Mercure- one which still allows smoking in its rooms. He then travels to Normandy to visit an old friend, Aymeric, who has been struggling for years to keep his family farm afloat in the face of free market competition and the abolition of dairy quotas by Brussels. Aymeric’s marriage has broken down, he’s a desperate man and joins forces with other farmers to protest- which leads to violent confrontations with the CRS, the French riot police, and fatalities. Our narrator is himself emboldened by the gun- wielding ethos of this group, but in fact slips away and the novel ends ambiguously with him alone, yet again, in a hotel room.

Several threads weave through this narrative. The narrator’s depression is fore fronted from the beginning when he introduces himself, and includes an account of the anti-depressants he’s on, detailing the different ways in which the old and new generation of anti-depressants operate on levels of serotonin in the body. One of the possible side-effects of the older generation, which includes Prozac, is a tendency to suicide. The younger generation of drugs, including Captorix, which he’s taking, doesn’t have that particular side-effect but it can have others, namely a loss of libido and impotence. So it’s as if by taking a drug to combat depression, the sufferer has the choice of risking either increased suicidal tendencies or impotence.

Both these things are present in the narrative. Suicide runs close to the surface of the narrator’s mind : his parents, who gave him a decent and happy childhood, committed a double suicide on discovering his father had a brain tumour, the narrator thinks of Nerval, who hung himself at 46, there are the Normandy farmers who committed suicide as a result of their failing farms. His loss of libido is a massive theme and leads in the latter half of the book to the feeling that this is terminal, that the inability to get an erection means the end of life as he knows it for the narrator-he is after all, a Houellebecqian anti-hero and a sex addict.

Yet his misery is also due to the fact that he’s washed up and alone after a series of failed relationships with women- hard to distinguish one from another like the characters in a porn film. He’s someone who yearns for romantic love and cherishes memories of romantic encounters-there’s some nice pastiche of meetings and partings at stations- yet the next minute is thinking of his lovers’ genitalia and describing them in detail to us. But that isn’t the worst of it. There are some more graphic and truly horrible pornographic scenes which I decline to detail further here, but are the kinds of things which make you want to throw the book across the room, feeling sick to your stomach.

While I had to take some breaks from the novel I did finish it. As with the others, there were some themes which interested me. I liked the portrayal of contemporary France, the conflict between the patrimoine and the forces of globalisation, whether in the arena of the marketing of French cheese or the tourist offer. I like his attention to topography, of the roads, the commercial centres, the rural areas with their villages and manor houses- and what they signify about a class system now dépassé. I thought there was some clever overlap between a narrative voice which is flat because depressed and flat, emotionless because of an objectifying and misogynist attitude towards women. But there is that wretched misogyny and pornography, which I just simply can’t get past, and which overshadows and somehow crushes thought and discussion of other aspects of the book.

 

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Days without End by Sebastian Barry

With the imminent publication of Sebastian Barry’s novel A Thousand Moons, I decided to go back and reread his novel Days Without End, which became Costa Book of the Year in 2016. A Thousand Moons picks up its story, focusing on the character of Winona, so I wanted to remind myself what I’d loved about the original novel when I read it in 2016. What a pleasure it’s been this week, to immerse myself in the beautiful lyrical language of Days without End, to feel the steady rhythm of horses’ hooves thundering through the sentences, to experience both the vast, implacable landscapes and murderous temperatures of the American mid west and the tenderness in the small detail of a bunch of Wolf’s Bane, that small stack of purple smoke, placed in the coffin of a fallen friend. And this pleasure despite the novel’s themes of war and genocide and the suffering which human beings inflict on one another.

This is the story of Thomas McNulty, who left Ireland as a young lad in the mid 19th century, having seen his family starve to death in the Irish potato famine. He survived the horrendous conditions of the Atlantic crossing and the fever sheds of Canada, ending up utterly impoverished, feeling barely human, in the United States, where he meets John Cole. Handsome John Cole, just a couple of years older than him, is in similar dire circumstances and they both earn their living to begin with in Noone’s Saloon, dressing up as girls and dancing for the miners of Daggsville. We’re introduced early on to the theme of cross dressing and gay relationships-the two become lovers at some stage- and this comes in and out of the narrative, referred to with a pleasing light touch, and yet at times nudging our notions of masculinity: what is it that keeps the male audience at Grand Rapids so spellbound by the show?

When the two young men lose their adolescent charm, they have to move on. They join the army and become involved first in the war waged against the Native American Indians, particularly the Sioux tribe, by the US army. The politics and background to the particular attacks here are sketched in with enough detail to let us know about treaties between the Sioux and the army being continually broken, about disproportionate revenge attacks on the Sioux, about the Sioux looking gaunt and near starvation- but also about horrendous racism towards the Native American Indians, ironically on the part of US soldiers themselves a  mixture of ethnic backgrounds, including many Irish, the victims of racism from the English. In the course of this conflict, the chief’s niece, Winona, is captured and she ends up leaving the army with Thomas and John, when they’re discharged due to illness, to be their servant in Grand Rapids. They grow to love Winona and soon regard her as their daughter, which leads them back into the conflict when she’s found and taken off by the army as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Sioux.

The second conflict in which the men become involved is the American Civil War which the narrative presents from the ordinary soldiers’ perspective as seamlessly moving on form the conflict with the Native American Indians. It’s as if the experience of war has barely changed. There are the same long distances covered in freezing or searing temperatures, lack of supplies and near starvation, absolute exhaustion, though Thomas notes that it’s strange for your foe this time to be Irish, like yourself, in this case the burly Irish dockers now fighting on the Confederate side. One aspect of war which this writer excels at is the comradeship between men, which really stood out for me on a second reading of the novel, and which we also see in Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long, Long Way, set in the First World War. Minor characters like Lige Magan and Starling Carlton come into their own, the men bond through card games and drinking between action and though the collective experience of battle lust when fighting. There is a respect for their officers and leaders too: Major Neale is seen at first as a measured and just man in his dealings with the Sioux, and even the Sergeant, irrational, angry and dangerous, is respected for his single minded devotion to the business of war.

Still, the rules of engagement in those times are flimsy and easily ignored: the treaties with the Sioux go unheeded and there are several instances of soldiers losing their temper and firing shots with far reaching consequences. The worst case of all is when Major Neale, mad with vengeful grief, orders an attack on the Sioux camp, which releases the most horrendous savagery and brutality towards the Native American Indians, including the slaughter of women and children. Thankfully, this scene of carnage is quite brief in the narrative, though sufficient to horrify. And again, it’s the collective experience which is highlighted, sentences starting they..they…they then reduced to the incomplete syntax of Happy as demons in the commission of demon’s work. Exultant and shouting to each other. Drenched in a slaughterhouse of glory….Clapping of backs. Words so black they were blacker than dried blood. Remorse not a whit. Delight and life perfected.

Though the novel is not short on plot, and provides a vivid picture of both conflicts in mid 19th century America, for me its greatest power lies in the beauty of its language. Firstly there’s the absolute authenticity of Thomas McNulty’s narrative voice: the story is told in a a relaxed, vernacular style as if relating it to a friend and yet consistently 19th century in vocabulary and expression. Then there’s the beauty of the visual imagery. The buffalo on the run in the distance : there they are again, the flood of buffalo, like a big boil of black molasses in a skillet, surging up.  On first meeting Mrs. Neale: There’s something sleek about her, like a trout moving through the water. Her hair is glossy as pine-needles, pitch-black…It’s like meeting a bit of sharp weather. Blowing against you. The audience at Grand Rapids: we can hear the roar like a river, from the crowd and the sudden pitch into silence and then the roar again like the river was plunging down a falls. 

Yet this beautiful and transporting language stands in contrast to the inhuman conditions and suffering which many of the characters endure, as a result of the Irish famine, of genocide, of war. And in contrast to the weakness in human beings, that irrational and destructive impulse which collectively expresses itself in war, but which also leads individuals like the Major to acts of vengeance with regrettable and far-reaching consequences. This is a wonderful novel, which I loved on a first read and even more on rereading. I’m ready now for Winona’s story.

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