Cinco esquinas by Mario Vargas Llosa.

This latest novel by Mario Vargas Llosa is a compelling and provocative storyp1010553 about the press, sex and power. Set in Lima, the story takes place in the 90s and early 2000s against a backdrop of kidnappings and murders carried out by the Sendero Luminoso ( Shining Path) terrorists. The country is gripped with fear and anxiety-though how this plays out in different sections of society is very much the focus of the novel. And woven into the political thriller is an exploration of the moral choices available to individuals in such a climate, in the face of a political regime which feeds on violence and corruption.

The story begins when Enrique Cardenas, a wealthy mining engineer, receives a visit from Rolando Garro, a journalist and editor of the gossip newspaper ‘Destapes’. We have no doubts about Enrique’s disdain for Rolando with his loud clothes, vulgar platform shoes dwarf like stature and trashy paper. However Enrique finds himself on the back foot when Rolando produces a stash of photos, which show him, Enrique, in a compromising situation. In a second meeting Rolando outlines the terms of his blackmail: that Enrique should become a major financial backer for ‘Destapes’. Enrique refuses. The photographs are published in ‘Destapes’, creating a huge scandal.

Julieta Leguizamón, otherwise known as La Retiquita, a tough young journalist on ‘Destapes’, fears that Rolando has gone too far. The paper’s victims are usually members of ‘la farandula’- the world of entertainment and music hall- like Juan Peineta, a reciter of verses, ridiculed in ‘Destapes’ for his performance as part of the ‘Los Tres Chistosos’ comedy act. Enrique Cardenas, a powerful business man, is in a different league. La Retiquita’s fears are realised as some days later Rolando’s body is found in the working class district of Cinco esquinas in the Barrio Altos. He has suffered a brutal death, his face mashed to a pulp.

So who was behind the killing? Enrique Cardenas, motivated by revenge,  is an obvious suspect. Juan Peineta, too, hoves into view- he attributes losing his job and his descent into poverty to being mercilessly lampooned in ‘Destapes’ by Rolando Garro and writes letters to that effect to all and sundry. But La Retiquita soon finds out that the answer lies elsewhere, and in this discovery finds herself drawn into a complex web of power and deceit.

Vargas Llosa is a master of characterisation and his almost Dickensian skill at depicting characters from a broad range of social class is shown to good effect here. We have Enrique’s circle, comprising the lawyer Luciano and their two cardboard cutout wives, Marisa and Chabela, with their handbags, shining hair, trips to Miami and vacuous views. Their apartments are filled with artworks, the artists’ names disingenuously dropped into the text, and with their chauffeurs, swimming pools and private cinema, their lives are lived away from the streets, its poor and its dangers. Rolando and La Retiquita on the other hand come from impoverished backgrounds and are surviving in the tough world of journalism through grit,determination and dogged hard work, barely scraping a living from their work with ‘Destapes’. The photographer Ceferino Argüello, with wife and children to support, takes the job of photographing the compromising evening out of financial necessity and offers the photos to Rolando Garro for the same reason. Through Juan Peineta’s story we visit the ‘comedor popular’ in the Barrio Alto where down and outs can get a daily meal provided by the nuns and served up by the vast Crecilda with her wobbling backside and dubious past. And then we meet Willy, an old friend of Juan’s from the bars and gambling dens of working class Callao and a silent observer of police behaviour in the barrio.

Now, this broad range of character provides of course entertaining local colour and context – I loved the account of La Retiquita’s father toiling up and down the streets of Central Lima with his handcart laden with ’emoliente’, serving it up outside the factory gates at the end of a shift.  The broad range also shows that every section of Lima society is affected by terrorism, corruption and their consequences, albeit to differing degrees. But there’s something else going on with character here and that is the shift in our view of the characters as the plot develops and the nature of the power relationships are slowly revealed. We first see Rolando Garro through Enrique’s eyes and may share his contempt for this journalist from the gutter press. However later our view of him shifts as we see what he is caught up in and are invited to speculate on his reasons for publishing. La Retiquita at first seems to share the same amoral world view as her boss, but later comes to skilfully pursue her hunt for his killers while keeping the paper afloat- and in this way shapes the unexpected denouément in an act of great courage.

And what of the sex? Now it is not quite true to say that the story starts with the meeting of Roland Garro with Enrique. In fact it starts with an erotic scene in which the two friends, Marisa and Chabela, find themselves having sex when sharing a bed one night. This is quite a start to the novel- and hopefully will not put too many readers off. I vacillated between objecting as a feminist to this male gaze on women’s sexual activity- and finding it vaguely titillating. Now, I think it is quite a clever move placing this scene right at the beginning of the novel. Firstly, it sets the scene for the different views on and experiences of sex throughout the novel: you can be blackmailed for doing it, you can do it for pleasure with a partner or friend, you can do it for a living and you can do it for protection. You can do it in all sorts of positions, from the missionary to position 69 and Vargas Llosa at times goes into a Houellebecquian overdrive in detailing who put what where. It also provides humour- Juan Peineta, envious of the 69ers in the photos displayed in every kiosk in Lima, suffers from dementia and just can’t quite remember whether he ever actually did it with his beloved Anatasia! But over and above this, placing this scene first puts us in the position of all those newspaper readers the world over. The scene runs through our heads, we keep going back to it as we read the novel,wondering how it fits in, and, yes, titillated. We readers of Mario Vargas Llosa are no better than any other readers of the gutter press which uses sex to sell newspapers.

So we see in the end the world of the gutter press as messy and scandal driven, able and willing to destroy reputations. The novel slowly reveals the powers behind the press in Peru at that time and I would refer readers to Dan Collyns Guardian article for the political background to events in the book. As for the reputations, our four bourgeois survive Enrique’s scandal materially intact, and for three of them, their sexual antics have become their main preoccupation. As always it is the poor who suffer most- Rolando Garro, Juan Peineta. Yet it is La Retiquita who uses her wits, cunning, imagination and courage to turn things around, achieving a political and narrative coup which is all the more uplifting for being unexpected. What a fantastic ending to the story- and how clever of the writer to unsettle us in spite of this ending by placing our bourgeois’ sexual carry on right at the conclusion of the book.

Now I am a huge fan of Mario Vargas Llosa- Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, A Discreet Hero, Death in the Afternoon, A Fish in the Water- are all reviewed here at peakreads. But it is the combination of suspenseful narrative, fabulous characterisation, depiction of Lima within the chilling political grip of that time, which make Cinco esquinas for me one of his best. It must be published in English soon. Don’t miss it.

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The Old King in his Exile- by Arno Geiger, translated by Stefan Tobler

This moving and insightful book p1010550relates the slow decline of the author’s father over several years as he suffers from dementia. The beauty of the narrative lies in the way the author roots his father so firmly in the Austrian village of Wolfurt that we feel his deep connection to this place and then his sense of exile when he no longer recognises his home. At the same time Arno Geiger ranges over his father’s upbringing and family life in this rural setting, as well as his own childhood and early life, giving us a sense both of continuity and of change over generations.

The book begins when his father, August, is in the intermediate stage of dementia: the illness has been diagnosed and August is needing regular care and support. He needs help with practical tasks like getting up, getting dressed and his language is random, at times engaging in dialogue with his carers which makes sense, but then sliding off into his own reality. By night, he wanders like a king in exile, and is frightened by things swaying, by their instability. His son, Arno looks back to the onset of the disease, regretting bitterly that the family didn’t recognise sooner what was happening to their father. Recently retired and his marriage of 30 years having ended, August took to watching TV and playing patience. Previously a physically active man, constantly engaged in house improvement projects, this seemed a change of character. The family put it down to him ‘letting himself go’, rather than August withdrawing from the world, aware that he was losing competency.

Arno describes the diagnosis as something of a relief: the family know now what they are dealing with and set up systems of care with family, neighbours and, eventually professional carers. Arno’s own relationship with his father changes. He spends chunks of time in the family home, sharing care of his father with others, but writing too- Arno Geiger became an established writer during the years of his father’s decline. The two men live around one another during these periods, chatting, being silent together, walking together a little and there are moments of touching companionship described. Arno talks of the importance of going over the bridge into the world of the demented person, of not contradicting them by insisting on the truth of any objectively verifiable reality. This kind of insistence only makes the sufferer feel even less secure, worries and distresses them and serves no purpose.

These vignettes of their companionship are interleaved with observations about his father’s past. August Geiger was born in 1926 into a poor rural family in Wolfurt, Austria. He was brought up during the Nazi period and was conscripted in 1944. Taken prisoner by the Russians, he contracted dysentery and spent 4 weeks in a military hospital,weighing just 6 stones when he was released. After his father returned to Wolfurt, he never wanted to leave the village again- which provoked terrible rows with Arno’s mother, an outgoing woman who craved a bit of excitement and adventure. This was just one point of contention in their marriage which was tolerable enough while busy with small children, but then after some years an ‘ugly atmosphere‘ developed and Arno describes an unhappy home where all family members went their own separate ways. And this was against a background of post war buttoned-upness: August’s brother Paul says the ‘social landscape after the war was as bleak as the moon’s surface: piety, conservatism, a sense of decency and nothing but work’. Given these circumstances, August Geiger had difficulties relating to his children from adolescence-as did many fathers of that era- and Arno very much went his own way. Which makes the account of the warmth of their relationship when August’s mind, memories and personality are ravaged by Alzheimer’s, all the more poignant.

The degenerative nature of Alzheimer’s means that carers are regularly presented with new challenges. As the disease progresses, August no longer recognises his own home and is restlessly, constantly searching for it, while his spatial orientation is deteriorating. Objects go missing and others are blamed. His take on reality becomes disturbing for the family when they realise he thinks the TV presenter is in the room and goes up to the TV screen to offer him a biscuit. The situation is becoming increasingly frightening for August too: he has hallucinations and reacts aggressively to a new carer who doesn’t know how to handle him. The demands are such that the family decide he will have to go into a home: the up side is that a place becomes available in the residential home in the village which he knows and where they know him and his transfer there goes smoothly.

Though Arno’s brother and sister can’t bear the home, Arno himself has no problems with it and continues to visit his father there. In recognition that August is now in the final stages of his life the family clear the house out and come across objects which evoke memories of a bygone era : ‘an old coffee mill, a wooden schnitzel mallet, lampshades, the drum from my parents’ first washing machine‘. More telling are the notes Arno finds which his father wrote as a 24 year old about his war experiences. Arno knew as a child that the period spent in the Russian military hospital with dysentery had marked him : in his wallet he always carried a photo of himself, 6 stone, emaciated, on his release from hospital.  However it is only when reading the notes found in the cellar that Arno finds out the terrible things his 18 year old father saw in that hospital and realises the extent of his trauma.

In the last section of the book, the paragraphs are shorter and less connected, snatches of dialogue between the two men, observations of life in the home, statements and aphorisms, as if reflecting the intermittent and unconnected nature of expression and communication in the later stages of Alzheimer’s. As if the mind, like a flame, flickers into life for a moment and then dies down. I read this book in German when it was first published- it helped me understand my own mother’s gradual decline with dementia. I clung onto the portrayal of August Geiger as I had clung on to moments when my own mother’s personality shone out and she was still herself. Reading it again now in Stefan Tobler’s excellent translation I am reminded of the importance of this kind of memoir for all of us when Alzheimer’s touches our lives more and more. To help us recognise the beginnings of the disease and find ways of living with it, whether carer or sufferer, while keeping the person still there, still alive.

Arno Geiger has recently been in the UK discussing his book. You can hear him talking about the book on BBC 4 Midweek and in this short Youtube video .

 

 

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Something Old, Something New : Zadie Smith’s ‘Swing Time’.

Some of the themes in Zadie Smith’s new novel p1010549will be familiar to readers from her previous work:  growing up in the diverse London suburb of Willesden, female friendship, exploring racial identity and the nuances of class difference in contemporary Britain. Yet these are explored here in a new way through the lens of music and dance. In addition, the plot takes us to Africa, to Senegal, raising ethical questions about foreign aid, cultural appropriation and globalisation, hinting at the challenges these will bring in the years to come.

The novel starts with the girlhood friendship between the narrator and Tracey who meet at Miss Isabel’s dance class in Willesden. They become  friends through a shared identity- both are mixed race-and through a passion for old musicals, song and dance. Socially, they come from rather different backgrounds. Tracey’s mother is white working class and practically a single parent, whereas the narrator’s mother is an intelligent, politically aware, aspiring black woman, refreshingly absent domestically,  as her main focus is catching up on her own education. The narrator’s father is kindly and loving but unambitious and ineffectual and eventually the parents separate as the mother educates herself beyond him.

The novel traces the girls’ lives through primary and secondary school in North London with its mix of cultures, music and adolescent experiences. As their music and dance tastes expand beyond Fred Astaire, their paths diverge. Tracey turns out to have real talent for dance and she goes to stage school, whereas the narrator-whose name we never know- completes her education at the local comp and goes to university on the south coast to study media. Their actual contact is now minimal, though the narrator occasionally hears how her friend’s career is progressing through chance or family contacts.

Post university, our narrator works in the media and her life, and the narrative, is from then on in dominated by digital communication and social media-she is forever on her laptop or glued to her phone. She lands a job with singer celebrity Aimée, a white pop star, world famous and based in New York and the focus of the novel switches to her relationship with Aimée in a setting which is now global. Global because Aimée  decides to use her considerable wealth in setting up a school for girls in a rural area in Africa-which we learn later may be Senegal-and the narrator is part of the team getting the project off the ground. And this process is recounted in short chapters alternating with chapters in London and New York as our narrator flies around the world at the behest of her boss.

The chapters on Africa contain some sensitive writing on our English urban narrator’s first impressions. I enjoyed her descriptions of the river, the village, daily life and ceremonies and her own reactions to this new culture. A new cast of characters is introduced: Lamin, the local teacher, lovely Hawa, cheerful and vital despite the limitations of village life for her, Fern, the serious Brasilian NGO worker. Over her many visits, our narrator befriends them and through their stories Zadie Smith explores several big questions. I felt some issues were dealt with in far too summary a fashion- just a page for the problems of credit or attitudes to homosexuality- their mention felt rather tokenistic and could have been omitted. On the other hand, the question of women’s freedom explored through Hawa’s story – her marriage options and the community’s expectations of her- was well described, refracted through the lens of our Western narrator, for whom freedom is all.

The overarching theme though in this section of the book- the impact of Western aid and celebrity funding on rural villages-was dealt with well. We see Aimée throwing money at the school without thinking of the consequences for the community, particularly the boys. It is Fern who thoughtfully uses school space and time for prayer and growing vegetables to encourage the children to stay there for a whole day’s learning. There are excruciating scenes of Aimée incorporating dance moves from the village into her show, as well as a love interest which is clearly exploitative. The trouble for me was that I found Aimée so loathsome that I really didn’t want to spend as much time with her as we did in the novel and it also seemed implausible that our sensitive narrator with her developing awareness of the problematic nature of the project should stay in her employment so long.

The last section of the book and the ending I found disappointing. There are a few unlikely twists of the plot and the narrator eventually loses her job and returns to London. She finds that her mother is seriously ill and, now an MP, is being harassed by emails from Tracey. Though Tracey did make it to the West End stage- and there is an excellent analysis of Showboat, which is one of my least favourite musicals- her career has ended and she is the mother of three young children. The two young women meet again as the narrator goes round to talk to her about the harassment and the novel ends there.

So what to make of this novel which rambles rather through time and space? The North London milieu in which the girls grow up allows Zadie Smith to do what she excels in: depicting the complexities and nuances of the English class system. I was riveted by the scene in which Tracey causes mischief at the birthday party of nice middle class Lily Beaumont and loved the gentle irony in the depiction of the mother’s rise to the fringes of Hampstead. The relationships between women are compelling. The friendship between the narrator and Tracey is multifaceted, including jealousy, rivalry and spite as well as shared passions, resembling the friendship between Lila and Lenu in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The characterisation of the mother and the changing relationship between mother and daughter threads through the novel and has a moving ending. Still,  I felt that covering all this and the project in Africa was too ambitious, involving too many themes and too many characters which resulted in some superficial treatment and implausible plot connections. And consequently I was only intermittently engaged with the characters and the plot. There is some great writing here but it is not Zadie Smith’s best book.

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The Days of Abandonment- Elena Ferrante

Readers who have gone through a painful breakup may be advised to pass on p1010548this novel: it is a powerful, emotionally charged account of abandonment which draws the reader right into the consciousness of the female narrator, her pain and derangement. Written by the author of My Brilliant Friend and the Neapolitan novels, there are some familiar elements: the powerful first person female narrator who tries to write while keeping home and raising children, the evocation of Naples in her childhood memories, the distinctive uses of dialect and formal Italian, the threat of violence lurking beneath the surface in human relationships. Yet this novel, taking place largely in apartments and the neighbourhood over a few months, has distilled those elements into a more concentrated text where physical distortion and decomposition accompanies the mental deterioration experienced by the narrator.

The novel starts with the announcement by Olga’s husband, Mario, that he is going to leave her. Olga is in complete shock, having thought their 15 year marriage was doing fine. Early on in their relationship he had called it off briefly, but then apologised a few days later, saying there had come upon him ‘ a sudden absence of sense’. As she realises the separation is permanent her life descends into disorder and chaos: she can’t sleep, watches daytime TV, household routines disintegrate, she has a car accident and doesn’t pay the bills so her phone gets cut off. She is often on the point of neglecting the children and the dog and erupts into obscenities at the slightest provocation.

This process of losing her grip on practicalities is accompanied by a mental deterioration. She is haunted by the memory of a pitiful character from her Neapolitan neighbourhood-‘la poverella‘ – who wandered the streets weeping and keening when her husband left her, and eventually drowned. Olga remembers sitting beneath her mother’s sewing table as a child and hearing her mother say la poverella was  ‘as dry now as a salted anchovy’. The association of a woman abandoned with dessication is echoed in Olga’s feeling that ‘the life had been drained out of me like blood and saliva and mucus from a patient during an operation’. And this is all part of a repertoire of imagery rooted in the physical, the visceral, used to describe not just her feelings of sexual rejection, but of revulsion, disgust and violence.

The nadir of her descent occurs one night when she has accidentally locked herself in the flat, her son Gianni has a fever and Otto the dog is very ill, probably poisoned. The phone has been cut off so she can’t get help. Olga begins to hallucinate that her daugher Ilaria, dressed up in her clothes, is an ancient dwarf from the Vomero funicular, she sees her own personality splitting up in her three way mirror and sees la poverella inhabiting her body, sitting on her chair with her veins exposed, ‘red, uncovered, wet, pulsing’. This is a powerful and frightening account indeed of a descent into madness.

Now if at this stage you are thinking you can’t quite face this, stay with it. For something happens that night to trigger a change in Olga, to pull her back to the land of sanity and normality. After putting back the pieces of that night, we see her pick herself up, find a job and reconnect with friends. The children start going regularly to visit their father and the normal ups and downs of separated families are described. Olga is able to meet Mario by chance and remain calm and civilised, in contrast to the eruption of violence that occurred on the street before. She has regained her life and found her independent self. And she realises she no longer loves Mario for this reason : his ‘absence of sense’ was a mere justification to indulge a sexual whim : she experienced a different order of ‘absence of sense’ when she plunged to the edge of insanity and managed to get back to the surface.

I enjoyed this novel for its compelling account of grief and a mind brushing the edges of insanity. I love the ‘Italianness’ of the novel- the narrator’s concern with her looks and style, with food and homemaking, while fiercely aware of her own intellect and talents. I love the way the children, their lives and demands, are integrated into the consciousness of the female narrator and yet her appraisal of motherhood is far from sentimental. It was details from the intimate, domestic life described which made me both laugh and cry rather than the loss of romantic love. And thanks to Ann Goldstein for translating the powerful imagery into an evocative English which stays in the mind.

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Short stories from modern Greece: Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonomou

This collection of short stories, beautifully produced by Archipelago booksp1010547, depicts the everyday struggles of the poor in present day Greece. Set in and around Nikaia and the urban sprawl around the port of Piraeus the stories tell of nightwatchman, steelworkers, waiters, bag makers, the unskilled, those in precarious, short time work and the unemployed. These are characters who work two jobs to put food on the table, who queue up for their wages to be told the cash has run out, whose health is compromised and whose children go hungry. A seam of anxiety runs through the narrative, heightened by the ill lit nocturnal urban setting of many of the stories: the streets outside curve up the hill towards an unknown destination symbolising the bleak uncertainty of the future.

Yet there is resistance and protest, expressed in images both striking and unforgettable. In ‘Placard and Broomstick’  Ikonomou describes in meticulous detail how Yiannis constructs a placard out of cardboard and a broomstick. His friend Petros was electrocuted at the building site where he worked and died two days later in hospital. Yiannis plans to stand outside the building site holding the placard in protest at his death. When trying to think of what to write on the cardboard he remembers the T shirt logo of a crazy gunman in the States seen on T.V. : ‘I’m filled with an incredible emptiness’. He writes nothing and stands for hours on Easter Monday holding the empty placard.

Or the story remembered by Takis in ‘Charcoal Moustache’ of the little girl who drew a charcoal moustache on her face during the war in ’42. Her mother, grandmother and all her sisters had died of starvation and she was trying to trick death into thinking she was a boy so it wouldn’t take her too. Or the couple who came to hospital, their hands stuck together with glue. The girl had visited her boyfriend in police custody, about to be deported back to Bulgaria or Romania and had glued their hands together so they couldn’t be separated. The narrator of ‘Something will happen, you’ll see’, awed by this tale of undying love, goes up to their room to peek at the lovers. She sees the young woman tenderly stroking the forehead of her lover to whom she is still attached, then reaching out her other hand, ‘white and thin’ towards our narrator, whispering ‘don’t worry… there’s no glue on this one’.

The characters find resistance to the harsh economic realities they face in warm human relationships -close friendships, the support of spouses and lovers. But when a crowd are gathered together, the mood can tip into one of dangerous irrationality and vengefulness : in ‘Mao’ a group of older people in the community scapegoat the young nightwatchman with a terrible act of cruelty. And their response to their situation, their coping strategies, also take the form of dreams, of fantasies, of storytelling, of flights of escapism buoyed up by tsipouro, everyone’s tipple. And the fantasies inhabiting the consciousness of these characters ricochet from Greece’s heroic classical past to the present day heroes encountered on TV-in ‘Placard and Broomstick’ Yiannis imagines giving his name to the police as ‘Achilles…Or Alexander…Or Thrasyvoulos’ while it is TV that gives him the idea that his great friend Petros also deserves the honour of an asteroid named after him.

Yet at other times the characters and narrators relate their straitened economic circumstances and its consequences with a kind of dispassionate realism. There is frequent mention of Greece’s previous suffering- its occupation during World War Two, the subsequent starvation and political repression- as if these experiences have been burned into the minds of the older generation. And the responsibility of the European Union for their present plight is fleetingly referred to when the couple in ‘Piece by Piece they’re taking my World Away’ toast their health, together with the ‘free movement of people and products’. A more developed dig at the EU appears in ‘Charcoal Moustache’ in a hilarious scene when a puny German finds he can’t take the Greeks’ fiery tsipouro and ends up dancing round the bar as if on fire, ‘barking ai ai ai’ and speechless except for his ‘haften houften’ while the Greeks look on splitting their sides with laughter.

The comedy of this scene works so brilliantly of course in English thanks to the skill, ear and sense of humour of the translator, Karen Emmerich. I found much pleasure in the language of these stories. She has managed to render a range of voices, in both prose and dialogue, and has found ingenious solutions to what must have been some translating challenges: I laughed out loud at those German ‘haften houften’ sounds and at the wonderful narrator in ‘The Blood of the Onion’ teasing the Hispanophile Michalis with ‘Thpaniards, I told him. You’re all crathy, every thingle one’.

If you like short stories do read this collection. With an economy of language and elegance of structure, Christos Ikonomou conveys the hard lives of the poor in present day Greece and the everyday challenges they face.  Find out more about Christos Ikonomou and the writing of this book in this interview from nasslit. Thanks to Karen Emmerich for her superb translation and to Archipelago books for bringing the stories to us in English.

 

 

 

 

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I had been skirting around ‘ A Little Life’ for some time since it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015 and was the subject of reviews and discussion. I knew it was 700 pages long and I also knew it was about sexual abuse. I heard a Guardian Books podcast on the difficulty of reading the novel with its upsetting subject matter and decided I couldn’t stomach it. Then something shifted, as happens in our relationships with books- my daughter read it and was utterly absorbed, a friend my own age found it moving and compelling- and both confirmed the book was also about love and friendship, which had attracted it to me initially. So I picked it up and read it during the first weeks of December and like all big books, lived and breathed its characters for the duration of the read.

The novel starts when the four main characters, friends from college, move to New York to start their professional lives. They come from a range and variety of backgrounds and families- Malcolm, a trainee architect is from a wealthy middle class New York family, JB the darling of a family of strong black women, Willem, whose parents have now died, is from rural Wyoming. Jude, a trainee lawyer, is enigmatic about his background- his friends know that his parents are dead but little else about his family life. He suffers from terrible pains in his legs,which he tells his friends are the result of a car accident, but they know little more about the circumstances. However, we, the readers, are aware early on through Jude’s inner narrative that his background is troubled and that it is costing him some considerable stress and anxiety to control his symptoms and fend off the concerns of his friends.

The story of the friends’ lives continues forwards through the early struggles with their careers, moving to bigger and better apartments and trying out relationships. Apart from Jude who remains happily single and contented with his close friendship with Willem, with whom he shares a flat. We learn through flashback that Jude was a brilliant student and attracted the attention of Harold, an academic lawyer, at law school. Jude was invited round to dinner parties at Harold and Julia’s and participated with ease in the intellectual dinner party conversation of their social milieu. Parallel to the story of Jude’s career success runs the account of his psychological problems. Jude self harms and the frequency and regularity of the cutting comes more and more into focus. He tries to conceal it from friends, but this becomes impossible when he has to be hospitalised as a result of the damage he does to himself. His friends, now including Harold and Julia, and Andy the doctor, are desperately worried about him. Aware that the cutting is connected to past trauma, they urge him to try to talk about the past or to seek psychiatric help, yet he is unable to do either.

The cutting itself and the descriptions of Jude’s arms were for me very disturbing to read. Yet this is only one of the physical legacies of the trauma. Jude also has terrible scarring on his back and legs and permanent neurological damage which make walking difficult, painful and tiring as time goes on. He starts to use a wheelchair more and more. The scope and long time period covered by this book mean that there are many many incidents of cutting, hospital admissions, and eventually operations, and as his physical self deteriorates the novel becomes a book about disability too.

By the time Jude is able to talk about what happened to him, we the readers already know a certain amount: that he was a foundling and spent his early childhood in a monastery where he was regularly beaten, that he spent time later in motels with ‘clients’. His memories of Brother Luke are achingly sad-not because of the violence he suffered, but because of the love he feels for Brother Luke initially, that gentle monk in the greenhouse who recognised his talents and sensitivities, who made him feel special. This is an account of grooming at its most poignant and its grimmest- and all the more heartbreaking for the way it contrasts with his numb account of the transactions that happen to him later. The missing parts of his story are filled in for us readers as he eventually tells Willem what happened and after reading this section you feel like crawling into a dark place for 36 hours to recover.

Yet as I said earlier, the novel is also about love and friendship, which is there for Jude from the start. At the end of his ordeal, he is assigned a social worker called Ana, who nurtures, understands and believes in him. She recognises he is bright and encourages him to apply to college, from where he is on an upward trajectory to undergrad and then law school.  Jude is referred to the doctor Andy early on who becomes a lifelong friend as well as his doctor. He has the continuous support of his three college friends and Harold and Julia adopt him and become his parents. Though there are difficulties in his relationship with JB over the years, in every other case these people are there for him, tirelessly, enduring, always. Just as a book of this scope covers the ineradicable and everlasting physical and psychological effects of abuse, so it covers the stoically enduring nature of love and friendship.

Now Hanya Yanagihara was obviously setting out to give us a great sweeping arc of a story covering thirty years and yet a story dealing with the psychological effects of trauma. Does the novel work on both levels? In my view she excels at the personal and the detail: Jude’s story, and indeed that of the other characters, is told from a very personal point of view, switching between third person but using often free indirect speech. Sections from Harold’s point of view are written in the first person, addressing Willem. This creates an intensely personal atmosphere of interiority where psychological states, feelings, recollections, anxieties are explored. Scenes are set largely indoors – in the stylish apartment Jude eventually buys, at Harold and Julia’s, in New York restaurants-adding to the interiority or claustrophobia and echoing Jude’s increasing disability and ensuing dependence. In terms of the bigger picture, there are subtle changes to the narrative voice as the characters age but oddly there are no external events to root the narrative in any historical context as one might expect in a contemporary American novel- no 9/11 for example. To me, this gives the novel a slightly disembodied quality and I can’t quite work out what the writer was trying to achieve with this.

This is a wonderful novel about the terrible subject of child abuse. As I was reading it the awful stories of child abuse at football clubs in the UK was breaking and I was shattered to see grown men weeping in front of the cameras at press conferences. The lasting and serious effects of trauma- failed relationships, addiction, career problems- are present in many of their stories and are still only now being recognised. A novel dealing imaginatively with this issue is timely indeed,  though I do feel the message of ‘A Little Life’ is mixed at best: for some there is no recovery, but love and friendship can ease the pain.

 

 

 

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Las Reputaciones- Juan Gabriel Vasquez ( translated into English as ‘Reputations’ by Anne Mclean)

This slim novel by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (author of ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ and ‘Dogs of War’) is set again in his native Columbia. The protagonist, Javier Mallarino, is a political cartoonist and the book deals with the fragility of reputations, created and destroyed at the stroke of a pen. It deals too with memory-the unreliability of personal memory, the shortness of political memory- and it is when an event from the past is resurrected 28 years later that the two themes merge and his own reputation is put on the line.

The novel opens with Mallarino returned to Bogotá where a ceremony is about to be held in honour of his life and work. It is a sort of rehabilitation, for the the narrative flashes back to Mallarino’s beginnings as a cartoonist, when his political cartoons were a risky enterprise, critical and mocking of right wing politicians at a time of political oppression and censorship. Though protected to some extent by the editor of the newspaper he works for, things come to a head when he receives a letter threatening him and his family, signed ‘The Patriots’. His confidence is eroded, his marriage and family life suffer, and eventually he separates from his wife, Magdalena and sets up home alone some way outside Bogotá.

The narrative fast forwards back to the present day and the ceremony in his honour. A woman in her 30s, Samanta Léal, approaches Mallarino afterwards, claiming to be a journalist and asking for an interview. She drives out to his house in the country and then reveals that she visited his house as a small child when some important event happened which steered her life in a different direction. She asks Mallarino to help her recall the event, from a distance of 28 years later. In revisiting that traumatic event, Mallarino realises he is no longer sure exactly what happened and therefore whether his response at the time can be justified.

Skilled narrator as he is, Gabriel Vasquez draws us into Mallarino’s perspective in his use of free indirect style when recounting Mallarino’s early life and his settled, happy marriage to Magdalena. His intense and detailed descriptions of people and in particular physiognomies accord with his professional interest in capturing the most emblematic characteristics of a person’s face. But we begin to feel uneasy when an erotic charge creeps into his description of Samanta Léal- is this the cartoonist speaking or a sexually aroused male? We have in the second part of the book a lengthy description of the party where the event occurred. Samanta and Beatriz, Mallarino’s daughter, have been finishing off the adults’ drinks, as a result of which they pass out and are put to bed upstairs. It is a female guest who alerts Mallarino to what the girls are doing, another woman who mops their foreheads, while Mallarino returns to the party, going up to the girls every twenty minutes to dose them with sugar and water. We ( or this reader, at any event) begin to distance ourselves from Mallarino- isn’t his behaviour verging on the irresponsible?- making us ready to doubt the veracity of what he saw.

The third section deals with Mallarino’s attempts to find out what happened, to confirm what he now only thinks he saw. He claims to be doing this to help Samanta find closure but she is unsure whether it will be of benefit to her, and Mallarino’s former boss, Rodrigo Valencio, accuses him of pursuing this for his own satisfaction rather than for Samanta’s sake. And, warning that the result could be desperately damaging to Mallarino’s reputation, he refuses to help him. Thrown back on others, Mallarino finds that few can remember the events, or the personalities involved: Columbia, he asserts, is a country living always in the present, keen to consign its past to oblivion, good events as well as bad. Yet Mallarino wishes to pursue the truth-aware that his public reputation may suffer, he needs to satisfy himself to maintain his personal integrity.

Through this intensely personal story Gabriel Vasquez suggests wider issues of truth and collective memory relevant to Columbia and indeed many other countries. What is the value of raking up the past? The novel touches on censorship and repression in the earlier years of Mallarino’s career, yet the ceremony in his honour suggests the country has moved into a more open phase, willing to mark the work of one of its more critical sons. Why go back into a scandal which happened all that time ago and which people now can barely remember? Yet there is still a sense of brokenness in the land- Magdalena’s second marriage has failed and she prefers to live alone, their daughter Beatriz is separating from her husband whose family hold opposing right wing views. There is much healing still to be done.

This cleverly crafted novel throws up more questions than it answers, and unsettles us through its skilful narrative technique as well as the ambiguity of its content. And there is a gap in the dénouement, when we were expecting something clearer, less equivocal, less…..like a memory. Read and admire.

 

 

 

 

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