Book Review :Amnesia by Peter Carey

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Peter Carey’s latest book is one that I have some mixed feelings about.

Felix Moore is a discredited left-wing journalist. Brought down by the Establishment and successfully sued for defamation he is shunned, bankrupted and unemployed.

As the doors of the mainstream media closed to anyone unworldly enough to write the truth, I still published ‘Lo-Tech Blog’, a newsletter printed on acid paper which was read by the entire Canberra Press Gallery and all of parliament besides. Don’t ask how we paid our electricity bill.

He friend Woody Wodonga Townes comes to his rescue employing him to write the biography of ‘ Angel’ ,a  hacker who has released a worm into the computer systems of the Australian and US prison systems ,unlocking the doors and freeing the inmates.

Felix sees the Tolstoyan possibilities of this when he discovers that Angel is none other than Gaby Ballieux, daughter of Celine Ballieux and Sando Quinn, classmates of his in University in Melbourne.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Is there a more famous line in all of literature? Is there a greater writer than Tolstoy? Only in some lost corner of the earth, in a shack above the Hawkesbury for instance, might you find a winecaked fool thinking to himself – hang on Tolstoy, not so slick: it may not be a case of either/or.

Felix has long been addressed by what he calls The Great Amnesia – Australia’s complicated relationship with the US which, in his view, produced a CIA plot to bring down the Whitlam government in 1975 when the continued use of the Pine Gap listening facility was under threat.

We were naive of course. We continued to think of the Americans as our friends and allies. We criticised them, of course. Why not? We loved them, didn’t we? We sang their songs. They had saved us from the Japanese . We sacrificed the lives of our beloved sons in Korea, then Vietnam. It never occurred to us that they would murder our democracy. So when it happened, in plain sight, we forgot it right away.

So we are taken on a romp through recent Australian political history, starting with the Brissy Riots during WW2, when American servicemen were attacked by an enraged local mob, and ending with a Wikileaks inspired plot to expose all that is wrong with global corporate control.

This is a novel that Carey clearly cares deeply about and there is much to enjoy here.Felix rails against the hypocrisy of the current Australian government,

In Lo-Tech Blog, I revealed the Australian press’s cowardly reporting of the government lies about the refugees aboard the ill-fated Oolong.

‘I can’t comprehend how genuine refugees would throw their children overboard’ said our Prime Minister.

Once again, like 1975, here was a lie of Goebbelseque immensity. The fourth estate made the whole country believe the refugees were animal and swine. Many think so still.

Yet the refugees belonged here. They would have been at home with the best of us. We have a history of courage and endurance, of inventiveness in the face of isolation and mortal threat. At the same time, alas, we have displayed this awful level of cowardice, brown-nosing, criminality, mediocrity and nest-feathering.

Felix is a classic Carey creation and his acerbic commentary on modern Australian life and self-deprecating humour are the joys of the book.

I did not however find this a particularly easy book to read, in fact at times I struggled to continue.

Firstly, the many cultural references were entirely lost on me. The book is largely set in Melbourne with frequent references to particular suburbs the significance of which are not explained.I suspect that several of the characters are representations of Australian public figures, again I floundered.

Felix’s voice is strong and engaging but the book , in part, is effectively narrated by Celine and then Gaby, as he is given access to tape recordings of their version of events. The frequent changes in voice together with leaps to and fro in time made following the events extremely difficult.

Finally, one of Carey’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to entirely inhabit the worlds he creates whether that is Dickensian London in Jack Maggs; the 19th Century outback in Oscar and Lucinda ; or the web of international art fraud in Fake. Here he convincingly creates the world of the early computer gamers turned hackers. Computer geeks, however, do not make engaging narrators . They are introverted and spend long periods of time closeted with other like-minded obsessives speaking a language that most of us find hard to understand.

I desperately wanted to enjoy this book more than I actually did. Carey is one of only three writers to have won the Booker Prize twice but I fear Amnesia does not quite measure up to his earlier works.

My thanks to Netgalley and Faber and Faber for the review copy.

 

Man Booker Prize 2014 : The Shortlist

The closing event of the London Literary Festival at the Royal Festival Hall was also the final reading event before the announcement of the Man Booker Prize 2014 on 14th October.

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All six shortlisters attended to read from their novel and the evening was compered by Kirsty Wark who will also be interviewing the eventual winner on Newsnight on Wednesday evening.

First up was Joshua Ferris reading from To Rise Again At A Decent Hour.I have also heard hi reading from this at The Hay Festival. He has a beautiful reading voice and had chosen a very witty piece in which his protagonist ruminates on the sort of passengers he sees on public transport intently reading from heavily highlighted copies of the Bible.

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Ferris explained that he feel a sense of community is very important. What his character lacks is the ability to commune with people and the novel describes his attempts to build himself a community. Ferris had felt a great sense of community with all the shortlisted authors and for him the time spent with them will be more important than who actually wins the prize.

Kirsty then asked him whether his book was a warning about the dangers of online life. Ferris feels a deep ambivalence towards the internet. It can certainly give us a lot of information but can it provide real knowledge and wisdom? He thinks that iPads and iPhones etc are in direct competition with books.

Next came Richard Flanagan who introduced his novel The Narrow Road To The Deep North as a story about the human spirit and the nature of love.He feels that writing is a journey into humility. There is a very good argument for any of the six books to win.He just wanted to say that when he loses he will feel much happiness in drinking deeply and well with the winner.

Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan

He then read a very emotional and moving extract describing an ex-serviceman’s struggle with what we now know to be PTSD. Written in the 3rd Person it captured his inability to express his love for his children although he could feel love. He was also tormented by the guilt of the survivor.

After the reading Flanagan explained that his father was a survivor of the death railway in Burma. In many ways he feels he grew up a child of the death railway as those who come back from such experiences continue to suffer from the wounds they bring home.

He realised that he needed to write the story when he happened to be walking across Sydney Harbour bridge in 2001. He was suddenly reminded of a story his parents had told him about a Latvian survivor of the camps in World War 2. After the war he had returned to his village to find it raised to the ground and no trace of his wife and childen. Eventually he emigrated to Australia and settled there. One day in 1957 he was crossing Sydney bridge when coming towards him he recognised he wife holding 2 chidden by the hand. Flanagan immediately felt inspired, rushed into a bar and wrote a chapter on the back of beer mats.

Karen Joy Fowler then read to us from her audacious novel We Are All Completey Beside Ourselves.

Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler

She wanted to say that she actually feels very competitive, she is quite sure that she likes everyone more than anyone else in the group.

She then read an extract fro her novel that is narrated in the acerbic voice of the younger daughter of a family.Now an adult ,she is reflecting on a traumatic event that occurred in the family unleashing a chain of events.

Fowler had wanted to explore a family where things had gone horribly wrong but not for the lack of love. In her novel the whole family has to bear the consequences of one decision.

Wark asked her if she shared the animal rights sympathies of her characters Rosemary and Lowell. She confirmed she did. Her father had worked as a psychologist experimenting on animals and the memory of the part of the lab she was not allowed to enter had haunted her.

Howard Jacobson was next with a reading from J , a love story where a ‘quiet catastrophe’ has already happened.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

Before beginning to read he just wanted to say, ironically, that he loves all these guys and he is quite sure that he loves Karen more than she loves him.

Wark asked him if he was describing something he felt could happen. This is not a prophetic book but you would have to be a fool, in his view, to believe such things don’t occur. We appear to live in the midst of catastrophe all the time.

Does he believe that people are relatively quiescent in these catastrophes ? This is the conclusion that one has to draw when one reads about these terrible occurrences. J is not a retelling of the Holocaust in Germany. He is more interested in what we are left with when these things have happened – the survivors and those who let it occur.

Neel Mukherjee then read from his book The Lives Of Others . This is a family saga spanning several generations of the Ghosh family in Bengal.

Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee

Wark asked him whether the sort of family he describes in the book is now lost to Indian culture. He explained that the extended family is still very much the main model for the family in India. In some of the more urban areas perhaps it has been eroded but India as a country is so vast that the very numbers of people work against new ideas taking root.

Wark observed that he wrote about the Ghosh family with such affection, she wondered whether he misses living in an extended family. He replied vehemently that he did not…..for reasons which are apparent if you read the novel!

Finally came Ali Smith to read to us from How To Be Both. Her novel exists in 2 versions and so which story you get first depends entirely on which copy of the book you pick up.

Ali Smith

Ali Smith

Smith read an extract from each of the two possible openings of the novel.Both extracts were written in an energetic, stream of consciousness style.

Wark wanted to know what had captured Smith’s imagination and inspired het to write this story. She had wanted to write a book that does the same thing as a fresco. As a restorer works on a fresco and starts to remove the upper layer, they find another painting underneath. The basis of every narrative is an understory. In great books, the story is the thing you realise after you have read it.

The other strand in the book captures the feisty relationship between a mother and a teenage daughter. Smith explained that she has great hopes for the 15 year olds of today. They are able to multi task admirably…looking at two screens, whilst texting and reading a book! Such versatility will surely lead to great things.

The evening then ended with a few questions from the audience.Smith was asked about the duality and multiple versions of things in her novel. Were they in fact many drafts of an idea?

In fact, she replied, the novel had been edited very tightly. She had had to take a lot out. She had to split up lines to make a visual spiral in one part. An opening to a book is very important and causes great stress, she wanted to ask her fellow panellists about that.

Ferris remarked that the opening of his book had been buried half way through. He hadn’t realised that was the opening until someone else had pointed that out so had been spared the angst!

Flanagan’s rule is that one should rip out the first three pages of what you have written, in his experience the story generally starts there. Jacobson and Mukherjee both agreed that openings are best found when you have come to the end of writing a novel. Fowler said that she always dislikes her first draft. She tends to rewrite, then rewrite and then discover that what she has written does not belong in that novel at all.

Jacobson was asked whether characters can act as role models for life. Books certainly shape us. He has said before that no-one has ever been mugged by someone carrying a copy of Middlemarch. In literature we are taken outside ourselves and that can only be good for us.

Finally, Flanagan was asked what had happened to the Latvian man he had talked about. Did he go up to his wife or just keep on walking? He replied, mysteriously, that we would have to read the book to find out.

This was a wonderful evening. I had been feeling much less enthusiastic about the Booker than in previous years but hearing the authors read from and talk about their novels has sparked my interest anew. I can’t wait for the result and to read all the shortlisted novels.

I guess a prediction is now expected from me. I have only read Karen Joy Fowlers book from the shortlist. I really enjoyed We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves but on the basis of what I heard last night ,I would say that Ali Smith must be the winner, although Richard Flanagan must be running a close second. No doubt the judges will have a completely different idea!

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Evening of Indian Literature with Neel Mukherjee and Mahesh Rao

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On Thursday 9th October 2014, Waterstones Piccadiily played host to an evening with Neel Mukherjee and Mahesh Rao in conversation with Claire Alfree, Literary Editor of the Metro. Neel’s book,The Lives Of Others is shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize as well as the Green Carnation prize for LGBT writing; Mahesh’s novel, The Smoke Is Rising, is shortlisted for the 2014 Not The Booker prize, hosted by The Guardian.

The evening began with a short extract from each book read by the author. Neel explained his novel spans 3 generations of one family narrated in the third person but interwoven with the first person narrative of the grandson, a Naxalite guerrilla and who is keeping a diary.

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Mahesh explained his book is set in the now buzzing city of Mysore which has become something of a yoga mecca. At the beginning of his novel turmoil is caused by the announcement that India’s largest theme park, Heritage Land ,is to be built there. The novel is the story of three women. He then read a very witty extract in which Sushila, a very middle aged , upper class widow contemplates internet dating.

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Claire asked both writers why they had wanted to make the female experience so central in their novels.

Mahesh explained that when he is writing characters just arrive and you can’t really say why that is. Once they had arrived it was crucial for him that they were from different backgrounds. In The Smoke Is Rising one woman is an upper middle class widow, one more ordinary lower middle class and the third is a maid. What binds them together is that as women they all face very circumscribed situations and live in a deeply conservative society.

Neel found writing about women was much more fun. In his novel he is trying to deconstruct notions of family. The family is central to Indian life, in the West this concept is more eroded. A family can’t exist with out women . He didn’t have trouble writing his female characters at all, two of his characters did present problems for him but they were males.

Claire then asked about the issue of male violence which has a major role in Mahesh’s novel.

Mahesh explained that he had moved to India 5 years ago. Of course he had read reports of domestic violence but until you are there and here direct accounts of male violence it is hard to appreciate the size of the problem. Once he was exposed to this he just couldn’t let it go.

He wrote the novel in 2010. Of course in 2012 there was the tragic and highly publicised abduction and rape case. That was very much in the media but until then it was out of public consciousness.

Neel confirmed that when he was growing up in India in the 70s and 80s the term domestic violence was never heard. No-one talked about violence against women as that.

Claire wondered whether India has now woken up to that issue.

Unfortunately both writers agreed that they felt it had not. Mahesh explained that the Delhi rape case was stranger rape, domestic violence happens at home. There is still a notion that it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife. The language used is complicit in this, men refer to giving a woman a ‘ couple of slaps’. Neel agreed and protested that each time he says something about this issue he is accused of being anti-Indian.

The two books are almost companion pieces as both concern popular uprisings. Neel explained that India has a very polarised class system. The criss crossing of lives, such as occurs in Mahesh’s novel, can happen in India.He couldn’t remember what had come first when he was planning his novel, the family or the Naxalite uprising. He wanted to look at the moral imperatives of the modernist novel form so he wanted the political movement as a contrast to the family.

There is still upheaval within modern India. Mahesh felt he writes from a position of being almost complicit in this. Even a small project like a road widening involves a displacement of people because of India’s demographic. A large number of people have no political voice at all.

Both writes get accused of being anti-National for expressing such views. Mahesh felt that there was a suspicion within India that the world wanted to continue seeing it as a slightly mystical and plagued by poverty.Neel pointed out that Indian vernacular literature has a long tradition of criticism, fired by anger and empathy and is very powerful.

Claire pointed out that both books are rich in the detail of everyday life, its texture and smells. Was this something each writer had enjoyed writing?

Mahesh said that his book had both been praised and criticised for this. He had moved to India from the UK so he noticed all this much more… the sounds, the smells, the way people speak and the shop signs. For Neel, this made the world Mahesh had created so real. He had laughed at the  name of the beauty shop, Myysstiiique. This is typical of todays India.

The detail in The Lives Of Others was necessary ,Neel felt ,as so much of his book was a restating of bits of the modernist novel and seeing if it could still communicate 100 years after the advent of modernism. A novel can be a mirror to your world and there is joy in recording the detail.

There then followed a fascinating debate about language . The Life Of Others contains a Glossary and Mahesh wondered whether there had been any heated discussions about the inclusion of this.

Neel explained there had been no difficult discussions sabot the inclusion. He was adamant that he would not do Bengali words in italics , that was political on his part. He felt the inclusion of a glossary was necessary not just for Western readers but for Indian ones too as he uses some very specific Bengali word and terminology.

The thinking now is that people will look things up or that context should explain meaning and a glossary is not necessary. Junot Diaz , for example, feels very strongly about this and refuses to have the spanish he uses italicised or to include a glossary.

Both writers agreed that English  is now undoubtedly an Indian language but with its own vocabulary. This led to some very interesting discussions during editing for Mahesh. For example , in The Smoke Is Rising he uses the term Kitty Party. This is now an institution for upper middle class women in India whereby each invitee puts some money into a kitty and one person will win the pot at the end. It required some explanation for a Western reader however.

Neel felt that the title of his novel, The Lives Of Others, tells you what a realist novel does . In order to imagine the life of others you require an amount of detail and some explanation.

The evening concluded with a quick discussion on the rules for the Man Booker prize which changed in 2014. Both writers felt that inclusion of American entrants was a good idea but there appeared to be a lack of reciprocity and the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award remain closed to non US entrants.

This was a hugely enjoyable and informative evening. I haven’t read The Lives Of Others as yet but fully intend to soon. I can highly recommend The Smoke Is Rising, which I reviewed on Goodreads. It is a very moving and powerful account of life in modern India which is also incredibly witty in places.

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And just a little insider information. The 5th floor os Waterstones Piccadilly has a bar. Yes, that’s right A BAR!!!!!! Fantastic!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Literary Salon with Damian Barr

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On 8th September I attended one of Damian Barr’s celebrated literary salons. The event was held in the Victorian splendour of the Ladies’ Smoking Room (!!) of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Ably hosted by the effervescent Damian , it is an opportunity for bookish people to come together, discuss literature and drink gin.

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Having completed a London to Brighton charity bike ride the day before, Damian professed himself to be both chuffed and chafed to be hosting the 6th Birthday event and possibly the last salon for which he will not require a passport to attend ( he is Scots ) !

We then met our guests in turn. I haven’t actually read any of the books under discussion so rather than a review I hope to give a flavour of the evening and the books presented to us.

First up was Alan Johnson, a union leader and former Home Secretary now turned memoir writer who had come to present his latest book Please Mr Postman , a follow up to This Boy, which will be published on 18t Sept.

Alan explained that this book takes up his life story at the age of 18 and just as he had joined the Post Office ( he was the leader of the postman’s union) in Barnes London SW13. His older colleagues were all of a generation that had fought in WW2, with fathers that had fought in WW1. There was much that was very militaristic about the post office then. Everything was done by hand with no mechanisation and, in terms of working practices, very little had changed since the First World War.

In This Boy, Alan detailed his deprived childhood in West London, abandoned by his father and blighted by the early death of his adored mother, Lily. As this new book opens, Alan is married to his first wife ,Jackie, becoming a step father to her child and a father in his own right. Damian remarked that this seemed like a lot to take on aged only 18.

Alan explained that he and Jackie were allocated a council house in Slough, which they loved, he had a job for life with a pension and a union to defend him. In many ways they were not facing the uncertainties that young couples face now.

He spoke movingly of his time in the postman’s union ( then called UPOW but now the CWU) most particularly of the educational opportunities it had given him.

He doesn’t miss his time in politics and is now very much enjoying his new life as a writer. His is unsure about his next project. He doesn’t want to write a political memoir and hinted that he may be working on a novel.

Next up was Esther Freud whose book Mr Mac And Me, already published, had not been on my radar , although it certainly is now.

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Set in 1914 in the Suffolk village of Walberswick, it narrated by 12 year old Thomas, son of the local publican and recounts the friendship that grows between him and Charles Rennie MacIntosh who is visiting .Esther read an extract from the book, which Damian described as spooky with the past echoing in the present.

The inspiration for the book came from Esther’s own house in Walberswick which had formerly been the village pub. The house had in fact been in her family since the 1940s and she bought it fully furnished. She immediately felt a ghostly presence at the back of the house. She knew this was a young boy and used to greet him whenever she became aware he was there.

She had originally started to write the story of the house with the ghost appearing in it. As a writer it is horrible to admit but sometimes you just have to accept your story isn’t working. Her narrative had become boring and she was bogged down by domestic detail . She started to give the ghost a voice and Thomas emerged, after that she just wanted to be with him.

MacIntosh had actually visited Walberswick in 1914, just before the outbreak of war.He was at a low point in his life . He had been a rising star in his youth and had won the commission for the Glasgow School Of Art for his firm.By the time he visited Walberswick however his life was in decline.

He had become known as difficult and a drinker. He was a perfectionist and difficult to work with. Although he was well regarded in Europe ( crucially in Germany and Austria) he was pretty much overlooked in Britain and very short of money.

He came to Walberswick at the invitation of Frances Newberry, Director of Glasgow School Of Art, who had a house there.Shortly after he arrived , war was declared and spymania took over. He was regarded with suspicion because of his foreign ( Scottish!) accent and had also written some letters in German ( to his benefactors there) and so was arrested. He was eventually freed after the intervention of his English and well connected wife but was banned from ever visiting Norfolk, Suffolk or Essex again.

Esther felt she had known the story of Thomas for a long time before writing it as he had been present in her home but she was surprised by the many parallels in his life and Mac’s as she researched for the story.

She was asked by a member of the audience how she managed to still her critical voice in order to work.The only way to do this is ‘ Just do it’ ! The only was to still the criticism is to continue to write.

Our final guest was David Mitchell, there to discuss his latest, Booker long listed novel The Bone Clocks.

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This is David’s 6th novel and ranges in time from 1984 to a near future dystopia. He read us three extracts , the first set in 1991 with a ‘West London posh kid’ ; the second an hilarious encounter between a celebrated writer and a would-be fan at Hay Festival in 2014 and the third narrated in 2025 by Marinus a character who also appeared in Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumn’s of Jacob de Zoet.

Damian asked him how he had conceived these six interconnecting novellas, did each come as a character?

David has come to realise that he is not actually a novelist.He can only write in small units and his optimum form is between 70 o 130 pages. He sees this as his getaway car in which to escape the tedium of writing a long novel.

Asked about his main character,Holly Sykes, David explained that a comprehensive school had been a very scary place for a bookish 13 year old. It had , however, provided him with much material as a novelist. Holly was based on some of the girls he remembered from school who he admired but felt scared of.

As a teenager, Holly starts to hear voices which might , of course, be the onset of schizophrenia but what if the voices are real? Her life is then turned on its head by the disappearance of her younger brother.

Damian asked  how he has constructed the novel. David replied that as a writer you sometimes find that what you are actually writing turns out to be the ‘wanky scaffolding’ on which a better piece can be constructed, rather as Esther had described earlier.

Originally this was going to be a series of short stories showing Holly throughout her life. He found that , novelistically anyway, children are not really interesting until the get to about aged 8.

He also had to accept that short stories read differently to a novel. They  are almost like poems, each word must be gleaned for significance and you can’t use literary devices such as foreshadowing or backstory. It is very difficult to sustain that over 600 pages – as a writer or as a reader.

Damian noted that many characters reappear from novel to novel. To what degree is that preplanned or does it just develop? David has been holding Marinus in his head for a while. He is acutely aware that our lifestyle now is funded by deals for which our children and grandchildren will have to pick up the tab.

He was then asked about Crispin Hershey who has been likened to Martin Amis. David denied that he was a caricature of Amis, he hasn’t got the time or energy for confrontational literary spats . He considers Amis to be a great writer. He doesn’t think about fandom and hero worship, which to some extent Crispin experiences. He is honoured that people will give him their time and money but does find it alarming that some people can be so devoted.

He enjoyed his experience of working on the opera librettos not least  because of the pleasure of working in a collaborative way. The work of a novelist is very lonely. He has no plans for any more however. He is rather in love with this big, baggy, gentle, vicious form the novel and wants to explore it some more.

He has been quoted as saying he has his next 4 or 5 books already inside his head. David explained that by this he means he knows enough about them to start hoarding research material. He can reveal that his next project is a short book.

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This was a magical evening which I enjoyed enormously. The kind of occasion at which you find you are standing next to David Mitchell and he is carrying a water-melon. The guest list was star studded – I saw Tracey Thorne, Ben Watt, David Nicholl and just tried to look nonchalant, like this was a pretty average night out for me.

Many thanks to Damian Barr for a fabulous soiree.

 

 

Holidays, Hoxha and The File On H

As we are on holiday in Albania, it seemed only right to read something by Ismail Kadare. Kadare is Albania’s foremost living writer and winner of the inaugural International Man Booker Prize in 2005.

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The File On H was inspired by a conversation between Kadare and the American academic Albert Lord at a conference in Ankara, Turkey, in 1975.At that time Albania was under the rule of the increasingly paranoid Hoxha regime, see below, and to be seen speaking to a foreigner was dangerous for an Albanian. Reportedly the conversation only lasted 5 minutes . Lord told Kadare about an anthropological trip to Albania in the 1930s. This was the seed from which The File On H grew.

The novel is set during the rule of the self-appointed King Zog leader of Albania until it was invaded by Mussolini in April 1939.

Max Ross and Bill Norton, American academics, want to record the epic oral poetry of the Northern Alps. They believe there is a direct but hidden link with the epic poetry of Homer and hope to solve the mystery that surrounds the writing of The Odyssey.

The lunatic regime of King Zog has other ideas however. From the minute they apply for entry visas, the Minister of the Interior decides they must be spies. As he considers himself cleverer than the foreigners he hatches a plan to entrap them and then blackmail them into writing a biography of King Zog.

He contacts the governor of the town known only as N_ in the book and which the two academics have named as their intended destination .The governor is anxious to impress the Minister and so employs Dull Baxaha to undertake surveillance of the two strangers.

Meanwhile the announcement of the arrival of 2 foreigners in the town excites the local population particularly the women and the governor’s sexually frustrated wife, Daisy. She dreams of a new life of parties and an affair with one of the two foreigners whose very names sound exciting to her.

So far so serious but this is actually a very humorous tale. Kadare plays with language . Max Ross and Bill Norton have learned Albanian but speak an archaic form which causes consternation amongst the locals.

Dull Baxaha, an expert in ‘the oculars’, is a pure comic creation. His ‘reports’ show the language used in an increasingly isolated and suspicious regime where any opinion must be qualified just in case it may offend those in power.

The ‘tapgregorder’ brought by the foreigners also causes much fear and distrust . It is seen as strangling language and stealing voices.

Ultimately the origins of epic poetry together with the link to Homer remain unknown and all the major characters are thwarted.

Unsurprisingly  given the above, The File On H was not well received by the ruling powers when  first published in 1981. Kadare finally left Albania in 1990 seeking political asylum in France.

Kadare’s hometown in Albania is Gjirokaster in the SW of the country and close to the Greek border . His boyhood there was lyrically described in Chronicles Of Stone.

View of old Gjirokaster

View of old Gjirokaster

The old town clings to a steep hillside with a castle crowning its peak. The winding streets are cobbled with smooth stone and the Ottoman houses have grey slate roofs.

Street in Gjirokaster

Street in Gjirokaster

Ancient Gjirokaster is in stark contrast to the sprawling Soviet-style suburbs in the valley below.

Gjirokaster suburbs

Gjirokaster suburbs

It is possible to visit some of the old, restored houses for a few lekë and see the ancient plumbing system in action. Rainwater was collected from the ridged slate roof and fed into a cistern built into the basement of the house. Kadare describes his fear of the gurgling cistern in the bowels of his home as a young boy.

Ottoman House in Gjirokaster

Ottoman House in Gjirokaster

 

 

Rain I have noticed often appears in Kadare’s writing perhaps symbolising the sadness under which Albania lived for much of the 20th Century.

By coincidence, Gjirokaster is also the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, leader of country from 1944 until his death in 1985.

Hoxha was head of the Albanian communist party. He fought as a partisan against the Nazis together with Tito ,leader of the former Yugoslavia. Once in power at the end of the war Hoxha soon fell out with Tito who he suspected as plotting against him. He aligned the country first with Soviet Russia, until he decided Krushchev was not to be trusted, and then with Maoist China.

Eventually Hoxha ceased to trust Mao and Albania became a non-aligned but closed country. Ordinary Albanians were allowed no contact with the outside world .

A legacy of Hoxha’s increasing lunatic leadership is the system of bunkers he ordered to be built across the country. They were installed to be used in the imminent invasion that Hoxha anticipated coming from either the East or the West.

At one time it was estimated that there was one bunker for every four Albanians and they still litter the countryside today .

Bunker

Bunker

 

Hoxha’s regime was a brutal one visiting arbitrary violence on anyone he perceived as plotting against him.Long show trials were staged to inspire fear not just in the accused but also the general population. In Tirana, the capital city, the National History Museum has a large and sobering exhibition detailing the crimes of the communist regime.

One of the most distressing things I learned during my visit there was that the castle in Gjirokaster was used by Hoxha as a prison in which to torture and kill his opponents.

Whilst visiting the castle we had seen the large amphitheatre used since 1968 to host folk festivals and celebrations. In the museum we learned that Hoxha had buried many of his victims beneath this area and took pleasure in thinking of the festivities taking place above their bodies.

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No mention of this is made in the castle itself . This perhaps sums up the ambivalence there seems to be towards Hoxha and all he represents in the country today. The past is still too recent.

However Albania is not a depressing place to visit. It is a young and vibrant country which extends a very warm welcome to visitors .

The ‘Blockus’ area of Tirana once closed and home only to the party grandees has been transformed into a throbbing hive of bars and nightclubs.

The beaches in the south are lapped by the turquoise Ionian Sea and still quiet even in holiday season.

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And the food …..well that would take another whole blogpost !

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I hope you are enjoying your holidays !

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

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As my husband was quick to point out, I don’t like to admit I am wrong. in the case of  The Testament Of Mary, however, I was way off the mark. It took Fiona Shaw’s masterly performance at The Barbican in the stage adaptation of the novella for me to finally understand the message.

I usually enjoy Toibin’s writing – I loved Brooklyn and The Master, his portrait of Henry James, is one of my favourite books. I think he is particularly skillful in giving a voice to otherwise marginalised women. The ‘real’ story of the Virgin Mary seemed to be his ideal territory. On first reading, however, the book didn’t speak to me at all.

A friend had arranged tickets for us to see the staging of the book at The Barbican. The one-woman play had transferred from Broadway , where it had been met with accolades but also with pickets and protests by those offended as what they saw as its subversive message.

The staging is stark. Before the play begins, the audience is invited to look around the stage.Fiona Shaw sits in a glass box, muttering an incantation and appearing as a classic depiction of The Virgin.

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It is this portrayal that Mary is railing against in the book. She doesn’t want to become an icon in a story written by others, largely men. She wants us to know exactly what happened  and not the distorted story the followers are now  disseminating to suit their own ends.

Not until I watched Shaw’s performance did I really hear the scornful tone of Mary’s voice and her beautiful Irish lilt captures the poetic rhythm of the text.

There is also wit to Mary’s tale.She was suspicious of her son’s new associates from the start :

He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves or had grown old when they were still young Not one of you is normal, I said, and I watched him push his plate of half-eaten food toward me me as if he were a child in a tantrum. Yes, misfits, I said. ‘

She casts doubt on some of the miracles now being proclaimed by his followers. She attended the wedding of Cana in order to warn her son that he was in danger :

‘ I wondered indeed if some of the men standing in front of our table had not had enough wine. But my son stood up and spoke to those around him , asking that six stone containers full of water be brought to him. What was strange was how quickly those containers were carried into the room.I do not know whether they all contained water or wine, certainly the fist one contained water, but in all the shouting  and confusion no one knew what had happened until they began to shout that he had changed the water into wine.’

There is an urgency to her tale. She is anxious about the way the story of what happened to her son is now being retold. Facts are being changed :

‘And each time we start again at the beginning and each time they move from being excited by a detail to being exasperated by something that comes soon afterwards, another detail maybe, a refusal to add what they want me to add, or an opinion I express on their tone or their efforts to make simple sense of things that are not simple.’

The shadowy figures of his followers stalk her. She is now their virtual prisoner , held for her safety in Ephesus having fled Jerusalem and is awaiting her own death. She is an asset to them but also a liability. With the final strength of her body and mind she wants us to hear what really happened.

The book and play serves as a warning against religious fanaticism .Her son’s followers are taking a set of occurrences and twisting and changing them to suit their own ends.The truth of what happened is lost and those around them must be brain-washed into seeing the world  through their eyes.

‘ I was back in the world of fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers, all of them hysterical now and almost of of breath with excitement even before they spoke.And within this group of men I noticed that there was a set of hierarchies, men who spoke and were listened to, for example, or whose presence created silence, or who sat at the top of the table…….’

I re-read the book after watching the play. It is a powerful  invocation of the beauty and dangers of religious belief, not specifically Christian. The play is breath taking. I hope it tours  widely so that more people get the chance to see it.

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My Top Five Books of 2013

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These are my recommended reads from this year…….five , in no particular order , and then 3 more I really enjoyed but Top Eight didn’t seem a catchy enough title!

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1.The Goldfinch  by Donna Tartt

I have already reviewed it here on my blog . We follow the adventures of Theo Decker from childhood to adulthood accompanied by The Goldfinch, a painting recovered from a bomb attack , his talisman and his curse.

2. The Luminaries   by Eleanor Catton

Another slab of a book that I have already reviewed here.

Deserved winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize,  this is a murder mystery with a Victorian feel and an astrological structure.

3. Americanah  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

A searingly honest account of the search for identity of two young people. Told in narrative style but also through blog posts, Ifem and Obinze journey from Nigeria to the US and London . Both have experiences that cause them to confront their  perceptions of  themselves as well as other people’s preconceptions of them as Africans. Whilst they are away, Nigeria is changing and they both return to a country very different to the one they left. Above all, however, this is a love story.

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4, A Tale For The Time Being  by Ruth Ozeki

This was on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. It tells the stories of Ruth,a Canadian writer,  and a teenage Japanese girl, Nao ,whose diary Ruth finds washed up on the shores near her home in the aftermath of the Tsunami. Nao’s diary recounts her own struggle against bullying as well as the story of her grandmother, a buddhist priest, and her uncle, a reluctant pilot in World War 2. Ozeki plays with time, place and memory to create a magical tidal wave of a story.

5. The Infatuations by Javier Marias

A metaphysical crime thriller. Marias uses the voice of a female narrator, something he said he would never do, to examine the nature of love, loss, time and storytelling.There is a playful poke at the publishing industry and the ‘conceit’ of being a novelist.

It’s a novel and once you have finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novels imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with,a plot we recall far more vividly than real events….

A masterpiece.

And now the honourable mentions…..

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1. The Night Rainbow  by Claire King

Meet Pea, who’s struggling to make sense of why her mother is so sad and what she can do to help.Quirky and evocative, this is a real page turner with a big surprise.

2. Nothing Holds Back The Night   by Delphine de Vigan

A blend of autobiography and fiction, this is a woman’s struggle to understand her mother …..and her family. Outwardly gifted, successful and privileged, privately they are torn by violence and dark secrets. Beautifully written.

3. Dear Life  by Alice Munro

The latest collection of short stories from the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Thought provoking and moving, she makes every word count. Train will hit you like an express at full speed. 

So that is my round up of the year’s best……..I would love to know your top reads of 2013.

Harvest by Jim Crace

 

Harvest Jim Crace

At the time of writing, this is the bookie’s favourite for the Man Booker Prize 2013 by some considerable way.

It is a beautifully written book.Set in an English village during encroachment ,it follows the fortunes of the manor house and villagers seen through the eyes of Walter Thirsk, himself an outsider of sorts.

The arrival of 3 strangers , displaced from elsewhere, follows a mysterious fire at the manor house. The villagers, for their own reasons, are quick to lay the blame at the door of the strangers which sets off a chain of events leading to the eventual destruction of a way of life.

The prose is lyrical and Crace captures the claustophobic and suspicious atmosphere of a community that have never strayed more than a few hundred metres from their cottages.

Encroachment went on in the English country side from the 13th Century right up to the 19th and I found it impossible to place the narrative in any particular period. This however adds to the picture of a timeless way of life suddenly shattered and lost forever.

Personally, I would be surprised if this won the prize….the writing is truly beautiful but ‘ histotical fiction’ has won twice very recently with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and it’s sequel Bring Up The Bodies and despite it’s beautiful prose Harvest is yet another reworking of British history…………but then, what do I know?