The Family of Pascual Duarte – Camilo Jose Cela


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the family of pascual duarteCamilo José Cela (1916-2002) was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1989 but reading his first novel left me with the distinct impression of a second-rate Poe, featuring some of the most gruesomely ludicrous deaths since his idiotic orangutan wandered into the Rue Morgue. Because these (many, many) deaths destroy this novel’s credibility I have to write an extremely spoiler-heavy review for clarity’s sake, so you should proceed with utmost caution.

Problems start right out of the gate. Published in 1942, the same year as The Stranger, which made the literary establishment jump on it as a work of Spanish Existentialism. But they got it completely wrong. Pascual Duarte has an unshakeable belief in God and sees himself as a doomed sinner marked by fate: Who knows if it were not God’s vengeance upon me for all the sins I had committed and all the sins I would still commit! Who knows if it were not written in the divine record that misfortune was my only sign, that the road to disaster was the only path my dogged footsteps could travel throughout all my sad days? 

One does not ever get used to misfortune, believe me, for we are always sure the present affliction must be the last, although later, with the passage of time, we begin to be convinced – with what misery of heart! – that the worst is yet to come.

This tone is carried on throughout The Family of Pascual Duarte. It’s a bleak and dismal picture of the universe but that alone doesn’t make a work existential. Duarte believes in God, hence he absolves himself of all responsibility for his own actions and writes his life story, revisiting his worst moments, as an act of penance. Life is miserable but it clearly has meaning for him, and did I mention he has a conscience? Ex-i-sten-tial.

Secondly, for all the claim that this and The Stranger both revolve around “meaningless murder,” nothing is further from the truth. Duarte’s killings are unnecessary but always provoked. He’s a violent man, raised by violent, abusive, alcoholic parents. His simple solution to hatred is to kill the object of it. There is no comparison to Meursault’s emotionless crime in Duarte killing the pimp who used his sister and got his wife pregnant. Even a mild-mannered man would take that exceedingly poorly.

Anthony Kerrigan, who translated it in 1964 and wrote the introduction to my copy, continued this strange interpretation with his over-the-top preface, full of buzzwords like “anti-saint,” “will-to-eroticism,” “anti-Faustian man” (who’s apparently a “natural nihilist”), “purity in atheism” and on and on. If this was an atheistic, Nietzschean novel, it would be a great opening volley – but it’s not.

So the next question: is it a realist novel? It wants to be, but it’s about as realistic as Therese Raquin – like Zola’s work, it is the product of an angry young man so keen on representing the horrible aspects of mankind and the grisly features of the natural world that the result is a relentless scream of a novel. Disaster is laid on with a trowel.

And this is where the real problems arise. So the critics were wrong. So it doesn’t fit into a given “type.” On its own, these hardly matter but The Family of Pascual Duarte is marred by several flaws, particularly the worst foreshadowing I have ever come across. The reader is not given a moment’s peace from it. Here is one example:

Having sent his pregnant wife home on a mare which he already states would be the cause of the first disaster in our life together, Duarte lingers in a tavern and gets into a knife-fight. Then he and some friends walk to his house and pass the village graveyard. The cypress looked like a tall dry ghost, a sentinel standing guard over the dead… There was an owl in the cypress tree, a bird of ill omen, and he hooted mysteriously. The men go on to exchange comments on how it’s “an evil bird” and enquiring why they haven’t reached the house yet, noting each other’s pale complexions and nervousness (subtle this is not). They arrive at the house and it’s silent and dark! The medicine woman is there! Turns out the mare threw Duarte’s wife and she suffered a miscarriage so Duarte immediately goes out and stabs the mare to death – Cela even uses similar wording in both stabbings.

Another incident: Duarte’s wife is pregnant again and this time delivers a healthy boy. They spend two pages talking about how careful they’ll have to be in raising him, another three talking about how terrible it would be if something happened, mentioning an “ill wind” that brings death to infants and then the worried parents hear a window creak in the bedroom and suddenly the child moans! Of course after all that buildup the boy quickly expires and Cela moves us along to the next disaster. And THIS novel is praised by Alastair Reid for its “restraint?”

By about the time the above incidents happened I was ready to howl. It’s the worst of both worlds: the foreshadowing prevents anyone from reading this “for the plot” and yet the plot is so outlandish that attempting to read it for anything else is futile. It’s as if Cela’s intent was for his readers to study the protagonist as a representation of the violence, ignorance and fear which infect the lower classes but it’s not remotely credible. I suppose it could work as some kind of allegory for Spain at the time but if your book ONLY works as an allegory then your book is a fail.

What separates it from Therese Raquin, whose flawed sense of naturalism Pascual Duarte shares, is Cela’s hurried narrative. Zola offered great Gothic setpieces, inviting the reader to soak in the gruesome details until everything started to make emotional sense. In opposition, Cela as Kerrigan translates rushes from one catastrophe to the next, with pauses only so Duarte can ruminate on his predicament and despair. Some of his inner monologue is actually quite effective and contributes the best and easily the most realistic portion to the novel.

I have pondered a lot and often, till this day, truth to tell, on the reason I came to lose first my respect and then all affection for my mother, and finally to abandon even the formalities as the years went by. I pondered the matter because I wanted to make a clearing in my memory which would allow me to see when it was that she ceased to be a mother for me and became an enemy, a deadly enemy – for there is no deeper hatred than blood hatred, hatred for one’s own blood. She became an enemy who aroused all my bile, all my spleen, for nothing is hated with more relish than someone one resembles, until in the end one abominates one’s likeness. After much thought, and after coming to no clear conclusion, I can only say I had already lost my respect for her a long time before, when I was unable to find in her any virtue at all worthy of imitation, or gift of God to copy, and I had to be rid of her, get her out of my system, when I saw I had no room in me for so much evil. I took some time to get to hate, really hate her, for neither love nor hate is a matter of a day, but if I were to date the beginning of my hatred from around the time of Mario’s death, I don’t think I would be very far off.

This passage is actually quite good but even here it’s made extremely obvious what’s going to happen by the end of the book. Were the entire novel to consist of psychological narration only occasionally broken into by scenes of violence, the effect would very probably have been bloodchilling. In that way, my main complaint of this novel is surprisingly similar to that of Story of O, only in the latter’s case, the psychological passages were drowned out by a lot of over-the-top porn instead of over-the-top death scenes.

Upon finishing the novel it became apparent that Cela falls short of what other writers have done with similar ingredients and far, far superior use of foreshadowing. John Hawkes could walk away with this plot (it’s even got a horse) and craft a living, breathing nightmare out of it. Flannery O’Connor could weigh the scales of sin and redemption, turning the abject and grotesque into a resonant universe. Elfriede Jelinek could overdose on doom, despair, viciousness and the wrenching blows of fate with greater psychological acuity. And if you want a fucked-up mixture of crime, grime, realism and Gothic exaggeration, there’s always Therese Raquin.

So if you’re planning to read Cela, please don’t make my mistake. Presumably, his later novels are much better than this (which, to be fair, he did write at the age of 26). The Hive is respected. But so is The Family of Pascual Duarte, which was considered groundbreaking for Spanish literature at the time but only shows that as times change and context is lost some writings definitely do not cut the mustard.

Camilo Jose Cela

A Hero of Our Time – Mikhail Lermontov


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A Hero of Our Time (Penguin) Paul FooteRussian novels of the 19th Century are known for their take-no-prisoners weight – you do not sign on lightly. A Hero of Our Time (1840) sits on the sidelines, easy to overlook beside the major works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. A slim novel of 150 pages, it is also Mikhail Lermontov’s (1814-1841) only work of prose fiction. Chiefly a poet influenced by the Romantic movement, he tragically followed in the footsteps of Pushkin and died in a duel at the age of 26, robbing Russia of its second major writer.

A Hero of Our Time is a peculiar, multifaceted novel in fragments. Set in the Caucasus (for the Russian audience of the time as exotic and intriguing as India was for British readers), it begins with a travel writer recording a second-hand account of Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, a man of mercurial moods but best summed up by his inner despair and outward indifference to others’ welfare. “Nothing counts for me. I grow used to sorrow as easily as I do to pleasure and my life gets emptier every day. The only thing left for me is to travel.” So travel he does, influencing strangers who don’t know what he is and leaving as soon as he, with intent or through carelessness, has caused destruction for them in an almost compulsory fashion:

Is is my sole function in life, I thought, to be the ruin of other people’s hopes? Through all my active life fate always seems to have brought me in for the dénouement of other people’s dramas. As if nobody could die or despair without my help. I’ve been the indispensable figure of the fifth act, thrust into the pitiful role of executioner or betrayer. What was fate’s purpose?

The novel is divided into five fragments, giving essentially random slices of Pechorin’s life. The travel writer first hears of him through an old soldier, then observes him firsthand before acquiring his journals and “publishing” three extracts. As such, A Hero of Our Time best qualifies as a character portrait.

However, it’s also an adventure novel, oddly enough. The segmented storyline and multiple narrators allow for greater tonal shifts than would otherwise be the case, so the ‘Bela’ story involves an abducted native girl, a daredevil brigand and horse theft while ‘Taman’ colourfully depicts smuggling, attempted murder, a creepy little kid and (of course) a stormy, fogbound coast. …I watched with bated breath as the frail little craft dived like a duck into the abyss, then, beating its oars like wings, rose up again in a shower of spray. Next I thought it was going to be dashed to pieces on the shore, but it deftly turned broadside and slipped unscathed into the tiny bay. Such set-pieces are richly melodramatic. Thus A Hero of Our Time sits at the crossroads – 18th Century Romanticism behind it while ahead lies the psychological and realist novel (and Oscar Wilde, whom Lermontov’s bored dandies predict).

And it’s a novel like a nesting doll for there are more layers yet. Even as Lermontov robustly engages with all the trappings of an adventure-romance he’s also undermining them. The book’s title isn’t ironic simply because Pechorin is a sociopath – there have always been sociopathic heroes. Pechorin is not a reliable man of action. He can hunt wild boar but his true talent is manipulation – recklessness costs him more victories than it gains, sometimes to satiric degrees, as when he disgustedly realizes he’s been robbed by a blind boy and very nearly drowned by a girl of eighteen.

Roughly half of the novel’s length is made up by ‘Princess Mary,’ a tale of love rivalry and deceit that places the surrounding vignettes in context and, ominously, ends with a duel (Lermontov had already been injured in a sword duel the year before his death, but didn’t learn his lesson). This lengthy plot provides the meat of Pechorin’s character – the depression you would pity him for and the predatory way he relieves himself of it through pointless, petty intrigue. His conversations with the worldly doctor Werner and other examples of “spa society” ring with the idle, malicious wit of the dandy. “Women only love men they don’t know.” His boredom drives him to scheme and seduce, his vanity drives him to win and he even welcomes making enemies.

I’m delighted. I love enemies, though not in the Christian way. They amuse me, stir my blood. Being always on the alert, catching their every glance, the hidden meaning of every word, guessing their next step, confounding their plans, pretending to be taken in and then with one fell blow wrecking the whole elaborate fabric of their cunning schemes – that’s what I call living!

It’s a truly brilliant portrait of a dangerous individual. I said that A Hero of Our Time was an ironic title but on another level it’s straight-faced – a condemnation of a society that admires Pechorins. Throughout the novel people are attracted to him – worse, people who knew him before and witnessed or experienced his callousness seek him out, make excuses, remain in love with him. Even Grushnitsky, a man who doesn’t like Pechorin, stays on familiar terms and shares confidences with him (disastrously, I might add). Only the unnamed travel writer can see that this man, though compelling, is better studied than approached. Some readers might like to know my own opinion of Pechorin’s character. My answer is given in the title of this book. ‘Malicious irony!’ they’ll retort. I don’t know.

And here I come to my last point: everything is contradictory. The simplest explanation given is that Pechorin is a creation of his society, but he uses that theory as an excuse for his actions and as a gambit for sympathy. Thus it must be taken with a grain of salt. You can’t rely on anything with Pechorin. Does he have many feelings or none? Does he believe in predestination or not? Is he actually a tragic figure or purely contemptible? His character is fluid and changeable (though not “unreliable” as his journals show he’s always honest with himself). Lermontov created a fully three-dimensional character rather than merely “a portrait of the vices of our whole generation in their ultimate development,” which would have resulted in a flat and uninteresting villain. A Hero of Our Time is much more durable as a fine work of literature.

Besides which, you get splendid plots, each one a gem of a set-piece. How many cerebral novels can you name that contain gamblers, brigands, smugglers, duels, eavesdropping, Russian Roulette and dramatic mountain scenery all at once?

Footnote: If you read this in the Paul Foote Penguin Classics edition you can skip the introduction till last, but it is helpful to have some background on Lermontov’s life, so don’t skip the Chronology Foote so helpfully supplied. There are parallels between author and character.

Mikhail Lermontov - final portrait, Kirill Gorbunov 1841

White Flock – Anna Akhmatova


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White Flock(This book was given to me by the translator, Andrey Kneller, in exchange for a review of my thoughts)

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) is intimidating to review. Her work has such gravity that any attempted encapsulation would fail. White Flock is one of her early collections, published in 1917 and so tightly focused on themes of love and the Muse that at first glance it feels removed from the enormous tragedy of the First World War. Only on first glance. There is in fact a strong somberness at work here that enjoins you to read between the lines and find evidence of a world gone wrong, while as the collection progresses, references to the war become more regular.

May Snow

A see-through shroud now disperses
And melts unnoticed on the sod.
The spring, so very cold and merciless,
Is killing off each swelling bud.
So frightful of the early death,
That I can’t look at God’s creation.
I feel the grief King David left, -
Millenniums of desolation.


Andrey Kneller is an independent translator and he self-published this bilingual edition of Akhmatova in 2013. It’s a little bit hard for me to comment on his role in White Flock without familiarizing myself with earlier translations (I have only read the Kunitz/Hayward selections prior to this) but he clearly cares a great deal for the text and I found it pleasing to read, though not as impressive as her later works. A large number of the poems (one of the challenges inherent in this review is in her near-complete dispensing with titles – I can’t refer to poems but can only quote them) speak from the vantage point of a woman within whom love has ceased to be requited. An unassailable personage. Without love, I’m more at ease, I’m sure/The sky is high, the mountain wind is sweeping/And all my thoughts are innocent and pure.

We’re immediately in the ostensibly personal but icily aloof landscapes similarly mapped out by Polish poet Anna Swir, but where Swir’s retreat from the world seemed savage and ironic, Akhmatova projects a deep-seated calm, reserved in the midst of guilts and regrets. In one poem she gives forgiveness to a sick man and he concludes by saying “It’s good that you forgave,/You were not always so nice.” She makes no effort in her writing to seem “nice” – whether affectionate or austere, she stands strong and fortified. It does make it hard for the reader to get close to her… and in real life, her husband Nikolai Gumilev went to the front in 1914 and four years later their strained and dissolving marriage ended in divorce, adding another layer of conflicts and reservations to the poems written here.

Throughout White Flock Akhmatova displays a warm attachment to architecture and landscape. She grew up in Tsarskoye Selo (the town where Pushkin studied at the Lyceum) and viewed poetry almost as an inheritance. Mixing all her themes together, of love, landscape and the Muse, the result has the immediate flavour of “standard” poetry. Understandably, the Kunitz/Hayward selection drew few of its poems from this and her early work. If you want the Akhmatova legend, you have to read her writings from the 20s, 30s and after. However, the elements that went towards her great works began to appear in this volume. Kneller’s decision to use Joseph Brodsky as the back cover blurb was very smart, grounding the book in a critical evolution: “The mechanism designed to keep in check emotions of a romantic nature proved to be as effective when applied to mortal terrors. The latter was increasingly intertwined with the former until they resulted in emotional tautology…”

Of course, this means that White Flock intrigues more within her oeuvre than it does standing alone – though it is peaceful reading, at times with a somber beauty. Her rhymes as translated are sometimes too sing-song for my taste but contain a lilting musicality at other stations:

He was jealous, and anxious, and tender.
And I was like God’s sun to him.
To stop her from singing of the days she remembered,
He killed my white bird on a whim. 

Combining so delicate and childlike a rhythm with inexplicable cruelty makes this three-stanza poem one of the most genuinely haunting of the set. The best poems in White Flock resonate with a disciplined, survivalist serenity in the face of growing shadows. Like sorrow or song in me brooding/in the winter before the war. Love and war become metaphors mirroring one another and her heartfelt pleas present themselves more strongly when the text as a whole is so often reserved.


Give me sickness without an end,
Suffocation and fevers prolonged,
Take away both my child and friend,
My mysterious gift of the song -
After mass, thus I’m praying, impassioned,
After so many tormented days,
Let the menacing cloud over Russia
Shimmer brightly in glorious rays.


As for the physical qualities of the book, no problems there. It’s well-bound, reasonably heavy and there’s no question of the cover being ugly or wrongfooted (as often happens in the self-published sphere). A couple of grammatical errors (but no more or less than I’ve found in the NYRB Classic I’m currently reading) and some irrelevant commas are the only things I questioned. Bilingualism is always an appreciated feature where poetry in translation is concerned, so what I most miss in White Flock is a helpful essay (a biographical piece on Akhamatova’s early life and marriage, perhaps) but there is a brief and useful note on translation: Readers should be wary of [bad translations] as art collectors are wary of forged paintings. That I am so keen for detail on Akhmatova’s life is mostly an indication that I need to buy a biography of this woman.

For more information on Andrey Kneller’s work, here is his new Anna Akhmatova website.

Anna Akhmatova

Journey to Karabakh – Aka Morchiladze


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Journey to KarabakhBack in January, Dalkey Archive Press released the first four books in the Georgian Literature Series, enabling English readers to gain some appreciation of the literature of this previously underrepresented country. The project began in 2012 with the publication of Contemporary Georgian Literature, a 400+ page anthology translated by Elizabeth Heighway (covered very well at A Year of Reading the World). This collaboration between Dalkey Archive and the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia turned out so well that the partnership continued and now readers reap the benefits.

Heighway translated Aka Morchiladze’s Journey to Karabakh. Morchiladze (born 1966) is one of Georgia’s most respected writers and this short novel was one of the country’s all-time bestsellers. Published in 1992 and the basis for two films, it sucks you in right on the first page with its likable loser of a protagonist, Gio. The son of a wealthy man in Tbilisi, Gio is unmotivated but not empty-headed, hanging out with debauched ne’er do wells but fundamentally decent, and depressed by his lack of control over his own life. Then comes his trip to Karabakh, trying to score drugs with his stupid friend Goglik…

Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan had all recently been Soviet Republics and were in the midst of turmoil when Morchiladze wrote this book. Readers unfamiliar with the area may benefit from a little background (going into the novel cold is a bit confusing). Georgia’s first democratically elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was overthrown in a coup in December 1991. He moved quickly from Armenia (which gave him asylum when Azerbaijan refused) to Chechnya while Georgia swarmed with Mkhedrioni – paramilitaries busy suppressing the president’s supporters. Meanwhile, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested Karabakh region was heating up and by the end of 1992 it had evolved from “conflict” to “war.”

Curiously, the few reviews there are of Journey to Karabakh tend to interpret the novel as an allegory of Georgia in its post-Soviet state, M.A. Orthofer at the Complete Review claiming “it does already feel a bit dated” as a result. This doesn’t seem likely – France isn’t trying to invade Russia anymore, but that doesn’t make War and Peace dated. My opinion is that the story is far more a portrait of personal malaise than an allegory. Everything politically real is dismissed in the second paragraph. I didn’t care about any of that back then, and I care even less about it now. Gio’s father is involved in the turmoil on the streets, manning roadblocks, confiscating weapons, but even this doesn’t get him interested. “Well, seriously, what on earth does he think he’s doing, running around like a revolutionary at his age?” Gio lives in a directionless apathy and is encouraged, consciously or not, to remain there by his family.

The story begins, not with him setting out on his journey, but with an extended flashback to his romance with Yana, a gentle prostitute. The story is old hat and is capable of filling whole novels with angst but Morchiladze has remarkable pacing and focus, outlining the entire affair with maximum economy. It is begun and ended in one chapter. The improvement a stable relationship gives him (…I didn’t turn the television on, didn’t let my friends in when they came around, and every single morning I went out to buy fresh bread) collapses as soon as his family learns of it and, scandalized, they immediately take steps to break it up. Tellingly, once the relationship is discovered they both quietly submit and go their separate ways. We’d only been so happy because nobody was sticking their nose in and interfering with the way we lived our lives. Gio’s own sense of fatalism prevents him from fighting.

With this character-establishing prelude out of the way, the meat of the novel takes place with Gio captured first by the Azeris and then the Armenians. The isolation he feels when separated from Goglik comes to him like a breather. It becomes very clear that Gio wants a different sort of life when the Armenians allow him to wander around their rural village:

I went inside the house and opened the door to my room. There was my patterned divan and everything else. There was a funny smell of damp or cold or of the sun rising through the windows. I felt good. Calm. I felt almost as if I were on holiday at a guest house.

…For some reason I felt as if I might spend the rest of my life here, wandering aimlessly around the village, doing little jobs here and there, planting trees, stuff like that. I’d pop round to see Valera the painter and we’d chat about nothing in particular. I’d write letters, hundreds of letters to Yana, and get them to her somehow. If only I knew how to do something useful, if only I were a doctor or medical assistant or, I don’t know, something. I didn’t know about anything except cars.

The illusion doesn’t last and with the arrival of Russian reporters, Gio’s calmness starts to degrade. His choice of how to resolve his stay in Karabakh and return home becomes a strangely out-of-character moment for a man so little inclined to fight – it contrasts and would seem to be a result of all his previous (in)actions. This segment of the book can’t be discussed in any detail but there is a strong sense of pessimism to Morchiladze’s tale. Gio is not equipped to “come-of-age” and he is left to dismal conclusions: When I think back, I can’t tell if things were really as they seemed; everything looks different with hindsight. But whichever way you look at it I was an idiot, and being an idiot was clearly the thing I was best at in life.

Being for the most part a character study, Journey to Karabakh contains a great many vivid sketches – though the cast remains mostly background, Morchiladze zooms in on each person’s most distinguished features and someone like Goglik is fixed in the reader’s mind the moment introductions are made: Ever since I’ve known Goglik, the only thing he’s been interested in is watching films and then talking about them. It’s what he lives for. There’s only one other thing that gets his attention; put him anywhere near something he can either smoke or inject and he’ll sniff it out in an instant. He’s like the goddamn KGB. Maybe it’s because he’s always broke; I can’t remember him ever paying for anything. And yet somehow it’s always Goglik who ends up running off to buy grass from the dealers. In my car, naturally. The supporting characters, from Tatuna, a fellow-sufferer of parental “relationship guidance,” to the pitiful old Armenian whose son was killed and now “he just plays billiards and talks about his boy…” are given an immediacy even as you learn almost nothing about them.

Gio’s irreverent voice allows a certain amount of humour to lighten up an otherwise grim account of armed conflict and personal apathy, particularly when hunting for drugs with Goglik and when the irritating female reporter starts hitting on him. Also, at only 159 pages, there is no fat on this text. It’s a quick read and offers a solid introduction to Georgian literature for the curious. Thanks to Dalkey Archive, there is more to follow.

Aka Morchiladze

The Lime Twig – John Hawkes


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The Lime TwigNobody reads John Hawkes (1925-1998) anymore. I have never been clear on why that is, but if you want to get to know him (and why not? he’s very good) then The Lime Twig (1961) is possibly the best introduction you could get, featuring both his inimitable prose style and a suspenseful plot that, at first glance puzzling, is easy enough to follow once you adjust to his style of storytelling – much as the blurred cover does portray perfectly normal figures once your eye sorts it out. As an aside, a “lime-twig” is a snare to catch birds. Knowing this straight away helps to improve the title … somewhat.

Hawkes’ distinguishing trademark is a strong sense of place, creating bad dreams out of familiar, broadly evoked landscapes. Though he preached against traditional plot and character, his is not the no man’s land of crazy surrealism. Hawkes’ sense of place is archetypal, perhaps heavyhanded, but omnipresent and overpowering. The Lime Twig‘s setting is England after the war, bombed out and drudging along. English grime, soot and rain. English flats, stables and wharves. Every page of this slim novel exudes a damp, gray, miserable weariness that is highly exaggerated and strangely familiar – as familiar as that quaint and proper England of vicarages and village greens. This alluring, disordered dreamscape is the most memorable component of The Lime Twig, such that it stuck with me for three long years. Eventually I just had to revisit the book.

The story follows Michael and Margaret Banks, a drab couple who are dragged into the criminal underworld by Michael’s unwise decision to take part in a racehorse scam. He becomes the front for a pack of professional crooks, seduced into it by his own worst dream, and best … a horse which was itself the flesh of all violent dreams… Margaret has no say in the matter and is simply taken along for the ride. Their ambiguous tenant Hencher – “My old girl died on these premises, Mr. Banks.” - provides the connection between the couple and the (many) gangsters: among them head honcho Larry; ex-corporal Sparrow with his rotten legs and frequent injections; Little Dora, who looks like a school teacher; Thick, armed with truncheon and ropes; and Dora’s sister Sybilline (to whom falls the task of “distracting” Michael).

Rounding out the dramatis personae are the horse Rock Castle, who has run beyond memory itself and is described in purely Gothic terms as a spectral bringer of death: …and he was staring down at all the barge carried in its hold: the black space, the echo of bilge and, without movement, snort or pawing of hoof, the single white marble shape of the horse, whose neck (from where he leaned over, trembling, on the quay) was the fluted and tapering neck of some serpent, while the head was an elongated white skull with nostrils, eye sockets, uplifted gracefully in the barge’s hold… And not forgetting Sidney Slyter, who leads off every chapter with excerpts from his racing column. He keeps tabs on what goes on and it’s from his inquiries that the more lucid (relatively speaking) details of the scam emerge. He’s the closest thing to a private investigator this crime story contains, and that’s not saying much.

The Lime Twig could be considered a genre exercise, but the plot is a thoroughly minor point. Hawkes is all about the writing. Crime fiction offered him delicious set-pieces – murder in a steam bath, smuggling on a fog-bound dock, intimidation in a public restroom, etc, etc. One feels he isn’t caught up in the drama but is simply enchanted by what his imagination has produced. There’s a subtle amiability in the author’s voice and that the end result remains so eerie and atmospheric is a credit to his writing ability: It is dark in Highland Green, dark in this public stable which lies so close to the tanks and towers of the gasworks that a man, if he wished, might call out to the old watchman there. Dark at 3 A.M. and quiet; no one tends the stables at night and only a few spiritless horses for hire are drowsing in a few of the endless stalls. Hardly used now, dead at night, with stray dogs and little starved birds making use of the stalls, and weeds choking the yard. Refuse fills the well, there is a dry petrol pump near a loft building intended for hay.

Hawkes’ style is hypnotic and oddly beautiful, even when describing filth, but it takes some getting used to. When violence breaks out he prefers to layer it in confusion. Clarity returns only as he describes the body left behind (His throat was womanly white and fiercely slit and the blood poured out. It was coming down over the collar bone, and above the wound the face was drained and slick with its covering of steam. One hand clutched the belly as if they had attacked him there and not in the neck at all.) – leaving the reader to wonder what the motivation was. That the plot doesn’t entirely hang together is hardly surprising but it doesn’t damage the narrative. It actually succeeds in making it more sinister, as the killers’ actions become more random, senseless and secretive.

The Lime Twig could be considered a prime example of style over substance, but who needs a moral and meaning attached to everything one reads? John Hawkes is one of the great discoveries waiting for the adventurous reader, with a Gothic imagination put to truly creative use. His alluring style is the main draw, but it also presents obstacles to overcome – this second read of mine revealed several mistakes I’d made about the storyline in the first go round, and even the New Directions cover copy struggles with the plot. You can untangle all the important bits if you want to take the time, or if not, you can simply choose to be swept along by the imagery, to conclude puzzled yet intoxicated. “What was that?”

John Hawkes

The Harvard Classics Vol. 2: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – Part 2, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus


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A rare image of Arrian.

Arrian is the true hero of this particular story. Without Arrian to preserve the teachings of Epictetus (as Plato did for Socrates), readers at large would have been deprived of the Stoic Bible and then perhaps Marcus Aurelius would have taken the spot. It is a well-known poetical aside that two of the greatest writers on Stoicism were a Roman emperor and a Greek slave but speaking for myself, there’s more resonance in the slave than the emperor. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations were Stoicism for the privileged. Epictetus (c. 55 – 135 A.D.) was Stoicism for the common man. Arrian’s transcriptions are naturally direct and to the point in comparison with the more leisurely paced Meditations and of the two it is the one to get my unwavering recommendation.

The reader may question why he should read either and not content himself with the “Death of Socrates,” which towers over both in fame and drama. The casual reader needn’t pursue the matter but Socrates was practicing an extraordinary Stoicism in the face of imminent execution. Epictetus is far more applicable for anyone wishing to learn the philosophy. And, though Plato was Socrates’ student, he was not himself a Stoic – the idea had not been codified into a school yet – and as soon as he had finished immortalizing his teacher’s demise, he moved on to other things. Arrian’s recollections of Epictetus feel more earnest – broken down into sayings and fragments, likely taking fewer liberties than Plato was bound to have done through the form of long, unbroken and dramatically conclusive dialogues.


So why is he writing?

The lowdown: Epictetus was born a slave in Phrygia (a portion of Turkey). He was owned by Epaphroditos, one of Nero’s secretaries, who is said to have deliberately crippled the boy. Reports vary, and considering that Epictetus was allowed by the same man to study philosophy and get some education, it could be slander as well as truth. Epictetus was freed after Nero’s death and taught philosophy in Rome for roughly 25 years, until Emperor Domitian banished him and all others in the profession, upon which he settled in the city of Nicopolis in western Greece and founded a school. He wrote no books, whereupon Arrian entered the picture.

The Discourses were originally eight books. Four remain. Arrian also assembled the Enchiridion from Epictetus’ practical advice. How much of it is true to the man? We’ll never know. As for Epictetus personally, very little is known. He was fairly hermit-like. He wasn’t married but adopted a friend’s orphaned child in his old age and got a woman to help with that. After his death, his personal lamp sold for 3,000 drachmae to an admirer (it’s impossible to adjust that for inflation, sorry).

Being a household classic, Epictetus is easy to find in editions from Oxford, Penguin, Everyman, Loeb, and the like. I, however, am stuck with the outdated Harvard edition: The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, drawn from Arrian’s Discourses and Enchiridion and translated by Hastings Crossley, M.A. Turn-of-the-Century Harvard clearly wished to inculcate piety in its students and Crossley’s selections focus on Epictetus’ relationship with [the] God[s] and how achieving Stoicism is tied up in that. At times it is very much William Penn.

However, Epictetus mostly comes across less as a man of God and more as a thoroughgoing independent – something Socrates was not, as a man always willing to “serve” the state (though his idea of service was a bit weird). Epictetus would not tolerate discontent with life. In a way, he best shows how to be Stoic by showing how King Philip II Banqueting with his Courtiers - Alonso Sanchez-Coelloabsurd anything else is in the face of an uncontrollable and capricious fate. XXXV: When we are invited to a banquet we take what is set before us; and were one to call upon his host to set fish upon the table or sweet things, he would be deemed absurd. Yet in a word, we ask the Gods for what they do not give; and that, although they have given us so many things! On occasion, his rejection of childish behaviour is given in quite humourous terms. When asked by an annoying student to explain the nature of good and evil, he plays dumb: “…of what? a horse, an ox?” Or LXV: When a youth was giving himself airs in the Theatre and saying, “I am wise, for I have conversed with many wise men,” Epictetus replied, “I too have conversed with many rich men, yet I am not rich!”

The material acquisitions, status symbols and class distinctions that humans place such value in are only those despicable laws of the dead to a true Stoic. It is not merely a philosophy of rejection and disparagement (though those come with the turf) – Stoicism places all value in the “soul,” identified as the longest-lasting of human features. Interestingly, the soul is treated as the seat of reason, so it is reason that is actually being revered. Reason and rationality separate us from the animals and raise us towards the Gods, so they said. Socrates claimed in going to his death to be following the will of Gods and Oracles, and that doing so was obeying perfect rationality. To modern thinking, this appears incomprehensible. Not to mention the tremendous moral pitfalls of rationality: So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do. (Ben Franklin).

However, Epictetus was clearly selected for the Harvard Classics because of reverencing the voice of Reason in the soul. A careful read of the first two volumes reveals they’ve been selected almost as a self-help manual for the pre-Carnegie era, all instructions taken from the writings of wise men. They mesh together remarkably well – after all, while Franklin may not have said (on controlling anger) if you succeed in passing thirty days, sacrifice to the gods in thanksgiving, his program for improving was almost identical, based in the same cultivation of self-will.

Epictetus urged caution on those seeking improvement. To learn a little Stoicism is fine, but to claim on the heels of that to be a Stoic is delusional. If you have assumed a character beyond your strength, you have both played a poor figure in that, and neglected one that is within your powers. Or put less moderately: …why mock yourselves and delude others? why stalk about tricked out in other men’s attire, thieves and robbers that you are…

Ridicule and disparagement seem to have been part and parcel of this philosophy. The Golden Sayings is crammed with insult. He addressed this: A Philosopher’s school is a Surgery: pain, not pleasure, you should have felt therein. For him it seemed absurd that a philosopher would apply for pupils. I apply to you to come and hear that you are in evil case; that what deserves your attention is the last thing to gain it; that you know not good from evil, and are in short, a hapless wretch; a fine way to apply! He believed philosophy should attract those who need to hear it, not sell itself to the idle curious (like me, through this book).

Among those to earn Epictetus’ disdain were readers. He stated that those who read “merely” for delight or a scrap of knowledge are poor, spiritless knaves. It was lucky for him that he never wrote, avoiding the deep ungrateful hypocrisy of all writers who insult readers. Arrian’s transcription in this case may spoil the effect. Or not.

The best thing about reading Epictetus is quoting him. Several good quotes must be withheld to keep this post at a manageable length. I will conclude with my favorite (IE, the one I happen to best agree with) on the subject of meeting people as opposed to merely seeing them:

Then you will say, “Yes, I met Epictetus!”

Ay, just as you might a statue or a monument. You saw me! and that is all. But a man who meets a man is one who learns the other’s mind, and lets him see his in turn. Learn my mind – show me yours; and then go and say that you met me. Let us try each other; if I have any wrong principle, rid me of it; if you have, out with it. That is what meeting a philosopher means.

Up next: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Budapest – Chico Buarque


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Budapest (Grove Press)Those of you following Three Percent’s enormously silly and rather uninformative (there’s a reason book reviews aren’t written like sports announcements) “World Cup of Literature” will have noticed the high praise this novel received in the opening match, where Brazil beat Cameroon 4-0 (it then lost the next round because it was facing South America’s literary titan Roberto Bolaño). Budapest had been on my radar ever since learning that Luisa Valenzuela’s ‘I’m Your Horse in the Night’ took its title from a Chico Buarque lyric (in Brazil the man is known primarily as a songwriter). Having won praise on so distinguished a site, I thought I’d better bump this novel up my reading list.

On the surface, Budapest is a small book about nothing, a fluid account of one man’s love affair with the Hungarian language. It was first published in 2003 and translated in 2004 by Alison Entrekin (who does a marvelous job making total immersion in José Costa’s head somewhat easy to digest). Costa is a ghostwriter who, on a whim, abandons his wife Vanda, their son and his job in Rio de Janeiro, taking off for Budapest to learn the only tongue in the world the devil respects. Soon upon arrival he hooks up with the aloof and disciplined Kriska, who volunteers to teach him the language.

Costa’s narrative glides along in chapters alternating Brazil with Budapest, playing parallels for all they are worth. At home he is employed and even has a certain invisible prestige. In Hungary he finds himself nobody, starting from scratch to recreate his late departed career. Kriska has a son the same age as his boy, offering a replacement family. However, it’s not the story of a conflict, a “troubled man caught between two worlds” and all that. Costa is a remarkably unreflective narrator, an individual so abominably self-centered it doesn’t even occur to him to moralize about his actions. The effect is almost comical. He swears up and down vouching for his purity as a ghostwriter while it becomes more and more obvious that he burns with vanity and when a book of his becomes a hit he transforms into a ludicrous peacock, strutting about with his autographed copy, watching people read it on the beach, standing in bookshops watching it fly off the shelves and thinking words of contempt, because if it weren’t for my book, that dump would already have closed down.

Just as often, paralleling only takes place in Costa’s imagination, as when he discovers his wife’s adultery during his absence and pictures her lover doing all the things he did in their first meeting, melding linguistic fetishism, erotic obsession and identity crisis in a curious mix. It would make no sense to wish him ill for having done what I would have done if I were him… Costa never considers his wife’s feelings or confronts his own hypocrisy in the matter – never, in fact, does Costa account for the feelings of Vanda or Kriska, only stopping to envision their erotic reaction to language (written or spoken and preferably his). The solipsism beggars belief. …she would forget the German, who would also forget her, as she had been forgetting her husband who was forgetting her in Budapest, and there you go. The only thing left to say to the German now would be: How are you?

Were Budapest of any length, I might have reservations about recommending it due to the difficulty many readers have with unsympathetic protagonists. But what is most odd about Buarque’s book is how it avoids being disagreeable. Buarque has a light touch and I feel that he invites laughter toward Costa (at least I hope that was the case). Combining that with the shortness of the book, Budapest never outlasts its welcome. I should think anyone who can tolerate streams-of-conciousness could get some enjoyment out of it.

The other praiseworthy element here is how in tone and style it looks meandering and self-indulgent but as you progress through the text it becomes more imaginative. There are doppelgängers in his office, an encounter involving Russian Roulette and a ghostwriters’ society full of intrigue and backbiting to liven things up. The ghostwriting drama heats up the narrative and becomes a highlight as the business relationships between employers, craftsmen and customers quickly become fraught: He went out late every night to buy the following day’s papers, which he scrutinised right there at the news-stand, scanning the cultural sections for an article of mine, a letter of mine in the readers’ section, a paid public notice claiming authorship of The Gynographer. On autograph nights, during radio interviews or television talk shows, even during an informal chat with Vanda on the evening news, he was tense, glanced from side to side, twisted around, imagined that I might burst in at any moment to unmask him.

The ending is also commendable, delicious irony being served up for a finish. You never do get a particular sense of Hungary or its people but that’s hardly surprising given who’s telling this story. I did have to backtrack on occasion to reclaim the thread of the plot, but as I adjusted to the style confusion cleared and it ceased to be necessary. It’s really a fun little read, quick and quirky and just a touch comedic. Recommended.

Chico Buarque gesticulating







And here is one of Buarque’s music performances:

Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins – Carlos Fuentes


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ConstanciaCarlos Fuentes (1928-2012) was one of the great mystical writers of the 20th Century, in that no matter how clearly he stated his theme or outlined his moral stance it is still well-nigh impossible to explain his vision. The intriguingly elaborate title Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins is a set of five novellas he had published in 1989. A translation by Thomas Christensen followed the year after and got little attention. Hardly surprising. These stories are confusing labyrinths, metaphysical mysteries for the soul and some are far more readable than others.

The novella form only adds to the level of difficulty. It is an ungainly object – padded at length compared to the short story but not long enough for the full involvement that a novel can offer. Most writers deal with these creations by either issuing one solo or by inserting it into a collection of shorter works, where it can act as a centerpiece. Putting five together, as Fuentes has done here, runs the risk of bogging the reader down. While Constancia would make a distinctive introduction for the novice, I believe it would be better approached by those already familiar with Fuentes and aware of his idiosyncrasies.

The stories are mysteries, more or less, borne of ghosts, parallels, surreal situations and secret tests of character. People are alive who should be dead, mannequins have souls, and each narrator is challenged by the most perplexing adversities (fear not, there is nothing Kafkaesque here; Fuentes was too original for that).

The lead-off story, ‘Constancia,’ is narrated by a lethargic and uncharismatic aging intellectual. The Russians make that exciting – Fuentes makes everything around it exciting. Consequently, the ramblings of Dr. Whitby Hull about his lusty but troubled marriage to a pious, uneducated Spanish woman and his ambivalent sense of white guilt as a white man in Savannah, Georgia is not terribly compelling. Luckily, this is only the entryway to a larger story as Fuentes weaves the deep voice of history’s pain into the narrative through the collective memory of refugees. Whitby’s privileged worries give over to the mysterious ailment of Constancia, setting him in pursuit of her past. The plot only becomes more dreamlike as the layers of history’s carnage unfold. It also includes one of the most genuinely redemptive conclusions for its main character that I have come across.

‘La Desdichada’ is considerably more fun. Two young men, aspiring writers in 1930s Mexico City, become captivated by a sad-eyed store mannequin and bring her into their apartment. Soon enough she creates a rift between them. It lacks the perverse horror required to rival Felisberto Hernández’ ‘The Daisy Dolls’ but it’s not exactly Lars and the Real Girl either. It is, however, a great space for Fuentes to show off his skills as a decadent writer:

We took taxi after taxi, the four of us squeezed in together, breathing the intense perfume of those strange creatures. It was the last night of the city we had known. The ball at San Carlos, where they took us that night (the perfumed couple, Pierrot and Columbine) was the annual saturnalia of the university students, who cast aside the medieval prohibitions of the Royal, Holy University of Mexico amid the Neoclassicism of the eighteenth-century palace’s stone staircases and columns: disguises, drinks, abandon, the always threatening movement of the crowd carried away by the dance, the drunkenness, the sensuality on display, the lights like waves; who was going to dance with Ambar, who with Estrella: which was the man, which was the woman, what would our hands tell us when we danced first with Columbine, then with Pierrot?

It is a compelling story with a vibrant cast and a subtle, phantasmagoric ending. Of all the stories, it is perhaps the most ambiguous in its resolution – though it contains only a hint of surrealism, it is never made clear what exactly the doll La Desdichada was nor what she expected of the boys.

Story No. 3, ‘The Prisoner of Las Lomas,’ is the least stylistically demanding of the set. The narrator, a lawyer and general snake in the grass, makes a gregarious and straightforward storyteller. The action develops at a pleasant clip and concepts such as the value of information, the invisibility of servants and the seclusion (invisibility) of the elite are all wrapped up in a story of blackmail, murder and the mob. If you’re looking for an easy way into the book, ‘The Prisoner of Las Lomas’ is your best bet.

The snag comes with ‘Viva Mi Fama’ – one of the longest stories and the most surreal of the set. People who think surrealism works best in small doses (like me) will find this very distracting. The plot follows an actress, a bullfighter and Francisco Goya in a love triangle of sorts, culminating in the luckless reincarnation of the bullfighter attempting to retrieve his former glory. Ceaseless romanticizing and sexualizing of bullfighting ensues. Culture clash is expected when reading world literature, but like most decadent writers, Fuentes didn’t know when to quit and the story is pretty much the definition of overkill. Of course, if you’re a fan of the word-drunk decadence movement, you’ll probably enjoy the whole thing far more than me. It is a good example of Fuentes’ delight in language, even if it does veer into self-indulgent stylistics.

Though Goya appears as a character in ‘Viva Mi Fama’ he’s not used half as well there as he was in the beginning of ‘Constancia,’ when Whitby Hull wanted to tell his wife that it is reason that never sleeps which produces monsters. A telling inversion. “Reason” has absolutely no place in these tales, any more than it had a place in the dreamscape of Aura.

The final of the five Stories for Virgins is a return to form. There is a strong hallucinogenic element in ‘Reasonable People’ but it doesn’t overwhelm the central plot, which involves miracles, incest and some luminous architectural discussion. Like Victor Hugo, he attempts to capture the soul of a people and their history in the form and substance of their architecture, described in a rapturous and enthusiastic prose: The approach to the Lincoln had become an obstacle course, thanks to the never-ending construction on Revillagigedo, Luis Moya, Marroquí, and Artículo 123, the streets around it. The Federal Attorney’s Office, the site of the old Naval Ministry, several popular movie houses, and a real jungle of businesses, garages, hardware stores, and used-car lots made that part of the city look like a metallic mountain range: twisted, tortured, rough, rusty; several stages in the life of steel were exposed there, like the entrails of an iron-age animal – literal, emblematic – they were bursting out, exposing themselves and revealing their age, the age of the beast, the geology of the city.

‘Reasonable People’ is marred only by a bait and switch conclusion. There is some excellent imagery during the hallucinogenic portion, where one of the architects discovers a windowless house leftover from the old City. Mexican houses are all blind on the outside; the blank walls around their entrances tell us only that these houses look inward, to the patios, the gardens, the fountains, the porticoes that are their true face. There he encounters a group of mutilated nuns and a corrupted semblance of the Virgin and Child. It does feel a little padded, but is more interesting than not.

As should be apparent, the curious title of the collection is an emblem of its Catholic focus. The Virgin is mentioned and mused upon in every one of these novellas. Being knowledgeable in Catholicism would likely help a reader to appreciate the imagery, and doubtless much has escaped me. Constancia is a reading experience where the more knowledge you have, the better. This is challenging material for the brain, so you’d better be prepared for that. Don’t expect another Aura. This book is not half so accessible, though it has its own rewards – and I thoroughly recommend ‘La Desdichada.’

Carlos Fuentes

Three Brothers – Peter Ackroyd


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Three BrothersIn the fiction of Peter Ackroyd, London is always the main character. People are a formality; Albion is the glue that holds everything together. This tight focus and regular productivity could be optimistically thought of as the reason Ackroyd the novelist hasn’t been a forceful presence since the 80s. These days he’s best known for his non-fiction – Three Brothers is only a footnote next to this year’s Charlie Chaplin biography. All I can say is, it deserves it.

The story it tell centers on the Hanway brothers, struggling to rise in the world from their council house beginnings and permanently marked by their mysteriously vanished mother and weary failure of a father. Each boy’s character is clearly delineated, though they lack depth. Harry is ambitious, hardworking and cutthroat; Daniel is scholarly, snobbish and gay; and youngest brother Sam is a dreamy, unmotivated loner. Their only connection is their shared aloofness and that they were each born at the same hour of the same day exactly one year apart from each other.

That is only the first in a litany of coincidences that thread the narrative. Readers have complained about this aspect of Three Brothers but it’s right there in the opening paragraph, it’s the bread and butter of the novel, and if you can accept the first one there’s no reason not to accept the rest. Whether there’s any point in doing so is another matter. Paul Auster plays with chance and fate in a sometimes-delightful, sometimes-eyerolling way. Ackroyd, on the other hand, doesn’t engage with it. He expects you to believe in his fateful London, but if you think of London the same way you think of Paris, Chicago, Reykjavik or any other city, then you’ll probably need more than “Dickens did it first” as a reason to.

Ackroyd has an impeccable talent for painting the streets and society of 60s London but he shows very little ability at pacing. He turns out a near-constant stream of character sketches. Each one is snappily dealt with but at a certain point (rather early on, in fact) the hastily introduced cast start to swim. I got the feeling Three Brothers should be one of those fat Rohinton Mistry novels, but which had somehow been pared down to a smoothly readable but definitely rushed 244 pages. The characters are small, petty and easily dismissed, making it even harder to forge a connection before they exit stage left. Sam, who felt at ease in the company of tramps and wanderers is the only fully realised character on display, purely by dint of ambiguity (the gay thief Sparkler also has some promise). When asked if he’d seen his brothers, Sam answers:

“I don’t think so.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Sometimes I think I see their reflections. Sometimes I think I see them across the street. I see them in my dreams all the time.”

The text is a combination of vaguely satirical social realism with a visionary and mystical setting. But there is no emotional loading to the novel, so when the brothers get involved in the criminal underworld it is impossible to care and when the visions surface they lack intensity. It’s an uneasy mixture and is poorly resolved. Ackroyd’s London intrigues and puzzles at the start, but his characters are a drab and irritating sand in the ointment. It’s clear Ackroyd only needs them as props: …he had found in the work of the novelists a preoccupation with the image of London as a web so taut and tightly drawn that the slightest movement of any part sent reverberations through the whole. A chance encounter might lead to terrible consequences, and a misheard word bring unintended good fortune. An impromptu answer to a sudden question might bring death… And props they remain.

The book needed more work if it wanted to impress. It feels much too swift in execution, like the author had a great concept and hammered it out as fast as possible to meet a deadline. The giveaway is the ending. I can’t discuss it in detail but it is, quite frankly, bafflingly bad. Suffice to say, however self-absorbed Paul Auster can be, he does create a world (something Ackroyd sadly fails at). Coincidence drives it but Auster has the energy to make it seem purposeful. Ackroyd, in the end, handwaves his entire premise. Every intriguing idea brought up in the first hundred pages is ignored – nor does the lack of resolution feel purposeful. It feels muffed. And that makes the whole experience even more meager.

The Plato Papers, which I read a few months ago, was certainly slight but oddly (and very pleasantly) stimulating to the intellect. I was impressed by the amount of care that he’d put into it. Three Brothers feels like the polar opposite. It’s easy enough to read, I’ll give it that, and I did enjoy the first hundred pages, but it gave diminishing returns from there on. I’d say you should seek his earlier works if you want an Ackroyd novel and don’t bother with this one.

Peter Ackroyd at table

Strange Pilgrims – Gabriel Garcia Marquez


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Strange PilgrimsWith the recent passing of Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) I decided it would be good to pay my respects by finally reading one of his books. Being in between story collections, Strange Pilgrims felt like the obvious choice and I knew it for such when García Márquez greeted me in the introduction by recounting a dream where he attended his own funeral: walking with a group of friends dressed in solemn mourning but in a festive mood. We all seemed happy to be together. And I more than anyone else, because of the wonderful opportunity that death afforded me to be with my friends from Latin America, my oldest and dearest friends, the ones I had not seen for so long. At the end of the service, when they began to disperse, I attempted to leave too, but one of them made me see with decisive finality that as far as I was concerned, the party was over. “You’re the only one who can’t go,” he said.

Strange Pilgrims is a themed set of stories that García Márquez published in 1992 but had been struggling with since the 70s, a mutable and often hopeless project he could never bring himself to abandon. Upon publication, it was swiftly and brilliantly translated by Edith Grossman (1993). My Penguin edition has a lovely wraparound cover by Cathleen Toelke, which was another factor in my choosing this book over any of his classic novels.

The stories are centered around Latin Americans in Europe – old and dying, young and struggling, all displaced in a landscape both surreal and devastating. The stories cover realism, magical realism and nightmare. There is in fact a strong element of the macabre at work here and almost all of them deal in some way with (often violent) death. Yet here is the truly astonishing thing: even with its themes and motifs so strongly on display, there is no repetition to be found. This is doubtless due to the long gestation period: Because I worked on all the stories at the same time and felt free to jump back and forth from one to another, I gained a panoramic view that … helped me track down careless redundancies and fatal contradictions.

There is a great deal of strength and weight to each of the tales. I had come across his stories in compilations before but they’d one and all left me cold. Not so with Strange Pilgrims. It takes nostalgia, menace, beauty, Europe’s antiquity and incompetence – often using an author stand-in who has seemingly “collected” the stories as journalism – and never failed to draw a reaction from me. The majority of the collection only lightly touches on magical realism. A dog is trained to weep over a grave, a woman makes a living selling her dreams, but García Márquez tackles the inexplicable in all forms. ‘The Ghosts of August’ is a straightforward ghost story (and perhaps the least affective of the set due to its brevity) while others lean toward Kafkaesque situations.

‘Light is Like Water’ and ‘The Saint’ are the most conventionally magical realist, design-wise. In the former, two boys demand a boat (much to the bemusement of their parents, since they’re living in a fifth-floor Madrid apartment), having made the whimsical but ultimately dangerous discovery that “light is like water … You turn the tap and out it comes.” And in ‘The Saint’ a man struggles for years to gain a reception from the Pope. His dead daughter’s body will not decay and he longs to see her canonized. Oddly enough, no one seems interested…

‘Seventeen Poisoned Englishmen’ revisits Rome, this time with a bereaved and pious widow on a pilgrimage to see the Pope while struggling to endure so crowded and venal a city. At that early hour her only fellow diners were the waiters and waitresses and a very poor priest eating bread and onions at a back table. When she went in she felt everyone’s eyes on her brown habit, but this did not affect her, for she knew that ridicule was part of her penance. The waitress, on the other hand, roused a spark of pity in her, because she was blonde and beautiful and spoke as if she were singing, and Señora Prudencia Linero thought that things must be very bad in Italy after the war if a girl like her had to wait on tables in a restaurant.

Death is never predictable in these stories. Señora Linero encounters it everywhere while the protagonist of ‘Maria dos Prazeres’ – a merciless old lady who at first glance seemed a madwoman escaped from the Americas – makes careful preparation for her own end, only to have it poignantly upset by the one thing she could never have foreseen. And ‘Bon Voyage, Mr. President’ features a placid and charming dictator, exiled and ailing in Geneva, expected to die any day. But he possesses the will to endure and the eloquence of an old master and he’s by no means as finished as he looks…

Tallied up, only one of the twelve breaks the pattern. ‘Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane’ centers on an unbearably pretentious old man gazing in adoration at his airplane partner. Unluckily for him, the most beautiful woman he’s seen in his life takes sleeping pills the moment she boards and remains a mystery. He quotes sonnets and reflects on Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties while longing for her to wake – even welcoming turbulence, such is his vain desire. Kawabata’s concept apparently so fascinated García Márquez that he expanded on it with his final work, the novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004).

Everything works as a distinct entity. There’s no filler – every story is imaginative and unpredictable. However, my favorites are easily the most sinister. Along with Carlos Fuentes and Felisberto Hernández, García Márquez is further proof that Latin America contains a rich seam of horror fiction that for some reason is not often remarked upon. “I Only Came to Use the Phone” is simply one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. A woman’s car breaks down in the desert and she hitches a ride on a bus. But the bus’ destination is a women’s insane asylum where she’s mistaken for a patient. Asylum clichés are loaded on with a trowel but there is a terrifying plausibility as circumstances collude to keep her imprisoned.

A moray eel nailed to a door frame kicks off ‘Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness.’ Two young brothers are put under the care of an iron-fisted German governess, bringing an end to their paradisiacal Sicilian vacation and as her behaviour grows more and more appalling so does the resentment of the boys. We soon realized that Miss Forbes was not as strict with herself as she was with us, and this was the first chink in her authority…

‘Tramontana’ deals with a more inhuman menace, a harsh, tenacious land wind that carries in it the seeds of madness… Susceptibility increases with exposure so that the old pros have the most to fear. However, it is ‘The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow’ that best captures the pure disorientation of these pilgrims to the Old World. On their honeymoon in France, Billy Sánchez’s wife pricks her finger on a rose and begins, inexorably, to bleed to death. He rushes her to a Parisian hospital but then finds himself lost, unable to speak the language or regain admittance, doomed and isolated by bureaucracy and his own characters flaws.

Strange Pilgrims is a powerful concoction. Colourful imagery both enhances the terror and regret of displacement and conveys the beauty and mystery that lead a person to endure such homesickness. García Márquez appears not only to have been satisfied with Strange Pilgrims but to have made it the conclusion of his work with the form – in the twelve years to Memories of My Melancholy Whores he published journalism, a memoir and the novel Of Love and Other Demons but no more story collections, making this his crowning achievement in the field. It is exceptional. Simply put, it belongs in your Latin American literary collection. If you don’t have a copy, I demand that you get one.

Gabriel  Garcia Marquez


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