Loop: book by Brenda Lozano (Mexico)

Translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

These are strange times, and I’m struggling to focus on the distractions of reading or watching TV, while running some kind of impromptu home school and holding down my job, while I still have it (hoping it outlasts this mini apocalypse). My last few posts were written in advance, in more normal times, so I’ll be gradually moving into the (hopefully very temporary) new era with my subsequent posts.

But for now, here’s my review of Mexican novel Loop, chosen by my friend Emily for book club (which had to move online at the last minute – really not the same as chatting with wine and delicious food around a big table).

I found Loop to be quite a weird book (I’ve had a run of weird books, at a time when, more and more, I just want a nice comfort read). It’s a kind of wandering series of vignettes that cover the narrator’s obsession with a particular kind of notebook and her meditations on themes as diverse as dwarves and swallows, as she waits for her boyfriend to return home to Mexico City from Spain following the death of his mother.

The novel was first published in Spanish in 2014 as Cuaderno Ideal (Ideal Notebook), and was published in its English translation in 2019. The book is littered with classical references, as the narrator sees herself as a sort of Penelope, writing a looping series of observations, full of literary references, as she waits for her Odysseus to return. She seems a bit cut off from the outside world, and although interactions with friends are described, they are somehow screened off, and her friends seem to exist only in relation to the narrator. We learn, too, that she is recovering from some kind of accident, which is, however, eluded to only tangentially.

I found the book’s structure intriguing, challenging and frustrating in more or less equal measure. There’s no plot to speak of, it’s a sort of sequence of disconnected musings, with repeated themes, as she waits … overthinks … then waits.

I suppose I prefer more conventional prose (although I have been captivated by some very unusually structured books in the past). Either way, this novel just didn’t grab me, although I did enjoy the notebook obsession – I’m rather partial to stationary myself.

Too Long a Solitude: book by Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal (1914-97)

Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim

EUROPE

I’d heard lot of praise for communist-, samizdat-era writer Bohumil Hrabal, so he felt like the obvious initial choice for a Czech writer.

The protagonist of Too Loud of Solitude works feeding books – and occasional families of mice – into a paper compacting machine, in a mixture of faint comedy and pathos, which reminded me a bit of my experience of Samuel Beckett (not that I’m any kind of Beckett aficionado – but I saw a play once).

“For thirty-five years now I’ve been compacting waste paper, and if I had to do it all over I’d do just what I’ve done for the past thirty-five years”

Sometimes visceral, there is a kind of absurdist and fatalistic poetry in the repetition of actions and phrases, interspersed with hallucinatory, inchoate memories and visions as Hanta works in a mouse-infested basement destroying books and prints of old masters:

until suddenly one day I felt beautiful and holy for having had the courage to hold on to my sanity after all I’d seen and been through, body and soul, in too loud a solitude, and slowly I came to the realization that my work was hurtling me headlong into an infinite field of omnipotence“.

Hanta, who is often, perhaps necessarily, drunk, has rescued tons of rare books, which are piled perilously, looming over his bed, and threatening to squash him in his sleep:

There are nights when I think the books are plotting against me for compacting a hundred innocent mice a day, that they want to get even with me.”

Through Hanta’s work and his secret reading he has become an autodidact, and he quotes the German philosopher Kant:

When the tremulous radiance of a summer night fills with twinkling stars and the moon itself is full, I am slowly drawn into a state of enhanced sensitivity made of friendship and disdain for the world and eternity.

However, his emotional ups are counterbalanced in the second part of the book with increasing drunken despair, in response to the arrival of a much larger, industrial-strength compactor with threatens Hanta’s livelihood. This book is thought of as Hrabal’s most autobiographical novel (he too worked for a time as a compactor).

I found the book to be a quick read, but not an easy one, although I’m glad I made the effort to read it.

Velibor Čolić: The Uncannily Strange and Brief Life of Amedeo Modigliani (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth

EUROPE

This book is a fictionalised account of incidents from the wine-soaked latter part of the life of the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, known for his elongated, asymmetrical portraits. Modigliani settled in Paris, and died in 1920 at the age of 35; famously, upon his death his pregnant wife committed suicide, killing herself and their unborn child. I was intrigued when I unearthed the book in a charity shop, as I was looking for a work by a Bosnian author that wasn’t set during, or in the aftermath of, the conflict that ended in 1995. Not because I don’t think that a valid topic, obviously. But I figured Bosnian writers write about other things, too, although all the books I kept coming across were very war-based, and professionally I have spent enough time picking over the Bosnian conflict.

Unfortunately, there’s no other way to say this: I thought this was a terrible book. First published in 2000, and published in English translation in 2001, the book is subtitled “a mosaic novel”, which could mean a series of powerful vignettes, a kaleidoscopic tour through the mixed-up mind of a master. In this case though it just meant a disjointed mess. No doubt the pretentious ramblings are supposed to evoke the psychological fracturing of the artist’s drink- and drug-addled mind, but it really didn’t work for me.

At times the book has a dark humour, and there are some occasional flashes of descriptive brilliance, but these alone are not enough to save the novel from a pervading sense of inchoate tedium. At least it was short and some of the pages were blank…

Baho! A Novel by Roland Rugero (Burundi)

Translated from the French by Christopher Schaefer

AFRICA

"Bukebuke bushikana umusiba ku mugezi"
"Only with great patience does the worm reach the stream"

Baho!, we are told, is the first Burundian novel to be translated into English, and is written by an author described by the cover blurb as “the leading writer of Burundi’s younger generation”.

Nyamugari is a teenage mute, orphaned, who is accused of attempted rape after an unfortunate misunderstanding. A 14-year-old girl is – quite understandably – terrified by the sight of him pounding towards her, desperately looking for somewhere to relieve himself, after he’s struck down with a dicky tummy. Assumptions are made, Nyamugari is unable to explain himself, and he is subjected to a kind of trial by mob. It is clear that justice cannot be guaranteed.

The book struck me as having a sort of off-kilter, mischievous humour to it, alongside a sad acknowledgement, and almost acceptance of, violence as a societal norm. There are references to hugely traumatic losses as part of everyday life, although the genocide is only alluded to in passing.

There is a subtle message of accepting differences and valuing the rhythms of nature, and embracing slow rituals over pushing for change. Each chapter is prefaced with, and sometimes complemented by, a little proverb in the Kirundi language, such as “ibuye riserutse ntirimena isuka” – “the pebble that peeks out of the dirt cannot split the hoe” – basically, “don’t fret over things that are troublesome but obvious, and continue with your life”.

The novel’s form is different from the novels in the western tradition that I’m used to reading, and I found it difficult to judge whether it was any good or not! I found the book dragged quite a bit, despite being short. I was also a bit riled by the preponderance of exclamation marks, and I found that the narrative was sometimes confusing. The translator acknowledges this in his afterword, writing that “Burundians will often overwhelm their conversation partners with a verbal barrage of sometimes contradictory information.” He also says that the author, Roland Rugero, has attempted to give a sense of the orality of Burundian story telling in this short novel.

What is definitely great is that publishers like Phoneme Media, which published this edition, are making books from African countries that get less attention in the literary world available to a wider number of readers.

Kiki’s Delivery Service: film by Hayao Miyazaki (Japan)

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

****

Anime may depict fictional worlds, but I nonetheless believe that at its core it must have a certain realism. Even if the world depicted is a lie, the trick is to make it seem as real as possible. Stated another way, the animator must fabricate a world that seems so real, viewers will think the world depicted might possibly exist.” – Hayao Miyazaki

Given the coronavirus pandemic is now rampaging its way across Europe, and the UK Government has (finally) introduced “draconian measures” to combat it, we are going to be spending a lot more time at home. Thankfully, here in the UK, several films by the iconic Studio Ghibli have recently been made available for streaming on Netflix. My kids have grown up with Studio Ghibli movies such as My Neighbour Totoro, Ponyo and The Cat Returns and continue to really love their hyper-realistic, surreal and fantastical animations, even into their teens. And why wouldn’t they? I love these movies too.

It was my turn to choose a film for our weekly family movie night, so I decided on Kiki’s Delivery Service, which we had watched before, but many years ago. This is a charming take on the coming of age movie.

At the age of 13, junior witches have to leave their families and make their own way in the world for a year. So in this beautifully detailed animated feature, Kiki sets off on her herbologist mother’s broomstick to seek her fortune, with only her talking pet cat/familiar Jiji for company.

After an eventful journey, Kiki ends up in a city that looks very much like some kind of European hybrid utopia, a bit like a coastal Paris. She finds lodgings in a dusty but soon cosy cottage near the sea, and quickly find a job in a local bakery, while she also develops a sideline as a delivery girl, using her broomstick as her delivery vehicle.

She meets various characters along the way, including a young aviation-mad boy, Tombo, who is impressed by Kiki’s aerial skills on the broomstick. As she bonds more and more with her everyday acquaintances, her magical powers seem to wain, and she has to find new purpose and confidence in her life in order to overcome her block.

Tombo invents a bizarre flying machine, a bike with some kind of propeller attachment, and mild peril ensues. As usual with Studio Ghibli films, the storyline is appealingly strange, but its own breed of internal logic means everything pans out satisfactorily in the end. All in all, this is a really delightful movie for all ages.

Capernaum: film by Nadine Labaki (Lebanon)

NORTH AFRICA, MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA

This is a beautifully realised but harrowing 2018 film, directed and co-written by Nadine Labaki, and nominated in the category of Best Foreign Language Film in the 91st Academy Awards. The film made the shortlist, although it eventually lost out to Mexican film Roma. According to Wikipedia, Capernaum (a word indicating chaos and disorder) is the highest-grossing Middle Eastern film of all time, and in China it became a surprise blockbuster, grossing over US $54m.

Zain (played by Zain al-Rafeea), aged about 12, lives in poverty in Beirut with his parents and several siblings, including his favourite sister Sahar. Zain is determined to protect his barely-adolescent sister from marriage to the predatory Assad, the family’s landlord. The fall-out from Zain’s opposition to this marriage, which is being arranged by his desperately poor, neglectful parents, leads the boy to become a runaway, seeking his fortune in a coastal town.

There he meets Ethiopian immigrant Rahil, who takes pity on him, and lets him stay in her makeshift, inadequate accommodation in return for babysitting her adorable baby son Yonas. However, Zain ends up taking on more responsibility than he imagined, and his life, already difficult, becomes even more so.

The action is inter-cut with a court room scene, and early on in the movie we learn that Zain wishes to sue his parents for allowing him to be born at all.

The film is unswerving in its documentation of poverty and the travails of streetwise, angry but ultimately well-meaning hero Zain, who tries with desperate resolve (Tramadol shot, anyone?) to keep the baby boy with whom he’s been landed fed and well, and to find some kind of future. The website IndieWire.com, whose reviewer really didn’t love the film, nevertheless found the film contained “the best baby performance in the history of cinema”, and it’s hard to disagree with that. Given the limitations on babies’ acting skills, the heart-breaking realism of the scenes featuring Yonas are quite staggering. Zain, too, is astonishing in his portrayal of an angry, hurt and hungry young boy, railing against the injustices of the world into which he has been born.

The relentless bleakness is softened by occasional flashes of humour, and by a more uplifting ending, which nevertheless reduced me to tears.

The Shadow King: book by Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia)

AFRICA

*****

What he knows is this: there is no past, there is no ‘what happened’, there is only the moment that unfolds into the next, dragging everything with it, constantly renewing. Everything is happening at once.”

The Shadow King, published this year, deserves to become an instant classic. It is an epic tale set around the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s (which I didn’t know about at all). It initially took me a while to get into the book, which is a bit of a slow burner, and the early themes of the domestic subjugation of young women to powerful men – something that has been repeated endlessly throughout history – felt familiar.

As the writing gathered pace, however, it began to tell a lyrical and gripping tale of quietly resolute women, the casual, heart-rending cruelties of war, the endurance of memory, and impulsive actions that take minutes, hours or days, but can haunt us for ever. The writing is beautiful, and at times has a mythical feel, reminiscent of Madeline Miller’s powerful Song of Achilles, a huge favourite of mine.

The characters, even the most reprehensible, are nuanced and fully realised, with the depths that come with being human. We know these people’s losses, their loves and their darkest secrets. The book became totally absorbing, the sort of book that provokes a physical response: at times I could feel my breath quickening, the back of my neck tingling, tears pricking my eyes.

The action centres around three separate sets of characters, whose fates become intertwined. Although the set up sounds conventional, the writing is extraordinary and the plotting and structure are more ambiguous. Due to family connections, orphaned Hirut ends up as a maid in the home of Aster and her husband Kidane, who comes from a privileged patriarchal background, and in whom macho rhetoric has been instilled from his earliest years. When Italian forces invade Ethiopia, the family and servants flee, and Kidane begins to assemble a guerrilla army, supported and sometimes challenged by the strong, resourceful women of his household, who eventually find themselves taking up arms.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Col Carlo Fucelli, a sadistic, truly despicable military leader, who takes a perverse pleasure in imaginative executions. The complex and flawed Ettore Navarra – a military photographer with the Italian army and the son of a Ukrainian Jew – is forced to record the horrific deaths ordered by Fucelli, becoming complicit in Fucelli’s actions, even as he is eaten up with fear about the terrible fates that might be meeting his family back home in fascist Italy.

Finally, the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, is painted as a man guilt-stricken and broken by grief following the death of his teenage daughter. A man who turns his back on the conflict, seeking exile in England, and leaves his men fractured and struggling to rise against the Italian invaders, leaving the way open for the “shadow king” of the title to take his place.

“....she is Hirut, daughter of Fasil and Getey, feared guard of the Shadow King, and she is no longer afraid of what men can do to women like her“.

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and although the book is a work of fiction, she writes in an author’s note of her great grand-mother, who enlisted in the Ethiopian army, and eventually went to war. She notes that “The Shadow King tells the story of those Ethiopian women who fought alongside men, who even today have remained no more than errant lines in faded documents. What I have come to understand is this: The story of war has always been a masculine story, but that was not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle. Women have been there, we are here now“.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (Australia)

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

Crime isn’t my natural preference when it comes to fiction. However, I came across a secondhand copy of Force of Nature in a charity sale, and decided to give it a go. I knew that Jane Harper’s first novel, The Dry, had attracted widespread praise and been a huge commercial success; a film adaptation is reportedly due to hit the big screen in 2020. And it soon became clear that Force of Nature gives The Dry‘s policeman-hero Aaron Falk a second outing.

Based on the accolades for The Dry, I was expecting genre fiction, but superior genre fiction. That is pretty much what I got. The novel is effectively a new take on the sort of Agatha Christie-style novel in which a mysterious happening takes place in a stately home, among a bunch of people in a confined space, and the detective’s role is to untangle it. But in this re-interpretation of the familiar formula, we have several people on a corporate bonding exercise in the Australian bush – and a missing colleague.

Characters are not developed deeply, and personalities are revealed through deeds, rather than inner thoughts. We get repeated reminders of the characters’ defining characteristics: the company Chief Executive’s self-consciously charming smile, Lauren’s blandness, Gill’s inscrutability, Alice’s meanness.

That omnipresent, everyday lifeline, the mobile phone, is not permitted on the trip, and even when someone has smuggled a phone along, it is unable to pick up a signal. In traditional, older-skool mystery stories you would often come across scenes in which the characters discover to their horror that the phone lines have been cut; this variation on the theme brings that convention firmly into the 21st century.

There are some unlikely coincidences in the relationships between characters. For example, upon their arrival in the bush, the colleagues are split into two groups, men and women.

The women’s group comprises CEO Jill; Lauren, who used to go to school with Alice (both of whom now have daughters of similar ages attending the same prestigious private school that the two women used to attend); and identical co-worker twin sisters with an unexplained difficult relationship. The men’s group is led by Jill’s brother Daniel, while (requiring a further suspension of disbelief) Alice’s daughter has been dating Daniel’s son Joel. Meanwhile, the company is already under investigation by financial branch police officers, whose contact inside the organisation has been Alice. It is Alice who unexpectedly disappears, and everyone has a motive.

Force of Nature is a undemanding and enjoyable page-turner, with a good sense of place, and the wild and inhospitable environment of the Australian bush is the perfect location for the action. However, at times the narrative lurches just that little bit too far into melodrama and, let’s face it, plain silliness:

Whatever had happened to Alice, she was out in the open, exposed. Somewhere, beneath the howl of the wind and the groan of the trees, Falk thought he could almost hear a death knell toll.”

Belgian artist Léon Spilliaert (1881–1946) @ Royal Academy of Arts, London

23 February-25 May 2020

EUROPE

I went to see this at the end of February as coronavirus panic was starting to hit the streets of London, and people on the buses were beginning to wear faintly ridiculous face masks (given there were all of 20 cases reported in the UK at this point). So I was glad to enter the calm of the Royal Academy, with its polished wood and gilt edging. The Royal Academy would have no truck with pandemic panic.

I’d never come across Léon Spilliaert before. His art is beautifully atmospheric, with a limited palette, and the exhibition comprises a preponderance of moody night scenes, moody seascapes, moody domestic interiors that have prompted comparisons with Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), plus a smattering of moody portraits.

By all accounts Spilliaert’s work became more cheery and used a brighter palate as he grew older and embraced family life, but his earlier life was characterized by insomnia, partly due to a chronic stomach complaint, restlessly somnolent night wanderings and, judging by the work on display in this exhibition, an overwhelming sense of loneliness and existential despair.

Just the balm I need, you might think, sarcastically. But the work on display here until May is really beautiful.

The Gust of Wind (1904)

Indian ink wash, brush, watercolour and gouache.

Spilliaert was born in fishing town and burgeoning holiday destination Ostend, moving to Brussels later in life; he is considered a symbolist painter. Spilliaert’s paintings evoke a sense of sometimes oppressive and otherworldly stillness, other times haloed by a kind of haunting luminosity. Meanwhile, monochromatic portraits of still and foreboding rooms are suddenly illuminated with brief flashes of colour.

Young Woman on a Stool, 1909

Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil, coloured chalk and gouache on paper

I bought from the exhibition shop a “mantlepiece card” of the mixed media work above, and my family immediately noted my predilection for paintings of “seated women with their back to us”, given my existing reproduction of a work by Hammershøi (‘Woman Reading’, below).

Regular readers of this blog will know that I like to include self-portraits where possible in exhibition reviews. This particular self-portrait was one of the more disturbing I’ve seen, and the pupil-less stare and bleached out colours evoke a sense of dissociation and estrangement, combined with the visual effect of a photographic negative.

Self-portrait with Blue Background (1907)

Indian ink wash, brush, pastel, coloured pencil and coloured chalk on paper, mounted on canvas

This exhibition is definitely worth a visit, and an expanded show moves to the Musée d’Orsay in France in mid-2020 (assuming the museums aren’t shut due to the coronavirus – at the time of writing the Louvre has just decided to close temporarily amid fears over widespread transmission of the virus).

Christine Craig: Mint Tea and Other Stories (Jamaica)

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

A change is as good as rest, or so they say. So I decided to read a short story collection, and make a rare foray into the short form for the blog. I heard about this collection in a little radio snippet, and ordered a secondhand copy (the book sadly seems to be out of print, but used copies are readily available online). Christine Craig made her name as a Jamaican poet and children’s writer, and Mint Tea and Other Stories is her first (and I think only) short story collection for adults.

This collection of 15 stories, published in 1993, explores social pressures, the injustices of poverty and sexual politics. The stories are mainly set in Jamaica, and they are written in a well-handled mixture of standard British English and Jamaican Patois, and often focus on female disillusionment and the interior feelings of women. Mainly they are realist tales, with the exception of the eerily surreal Roots. Several stories benefit from a lushly described sense of place, and beautifully realised evocative passages:

But recently, she had found herself sitting somewhere, perhaps with some mending on her lap, caught up in vivid memories of the past. The early morning smell of the mountains mixed with the light and birds singing. They came over her in a wave, so fresh that she would tilt her face up absorbing the smell of moist leaves and opening flowers and then the sound of Mother in the kitchen grinding coffee beans and she would wait for that smell to form itself, to come slipping out to make the signal that woke up the rest of the house.

I didn’t love all the stories. Some were, frankly, a bit confusing, and left me wondering wtf just happened. However, I really enjoyed several, particularly The Cousin. In this short story, a quintessentially uptight, ageing, visiting English academic gradually unfurls and thaws in the Caribbean surroundings as he forges an unexpected connection with a local woman, the open and friendly Carmen – but is too set in his ways to know how to display his feelings and forge any true intimacy. Perhaps I could recognize that English stiffness and awkwardness, which genuinely does remain quite a widespread impairment!