Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The File on H by Ismail Kadare

A laboratory of 
epic literature?
It’s a great feeling to go back to an author that you positively adore. I like to space out people like Kadare, Vonnegut and Hrabal (it would seem in the later’s case with many years between books) so that there are moments of unalloyed joy to look forward to amongst the often unpredictable excitement of reading things I once thought might be interesting but have forgotten why. Kadare is one of my favourite authors, my collection of whose work is still blissfully incomplete. The File on H was purchased in one of those mad rushes to own the entire back catalogue of authors with whom I found a sudden connection – these rushes are destined to peter out and this one certainly did, but the impulse to complete collections carries me onwards however shiftless I become. Nonetheless, it’s been quietly calling to me for a while, so I did finally give in to its siren song.


To label this, the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2005 if such things matter to you, as satire is akin to scrimshawing with a guillotine. As a broad term, it might suffice for the bookseller or amateur taxonomist, but one risks detracting from the subtle joys of what is a damned fine novel.

Ostensibly the story of two naive foreign academics in Albania, searching for the roots of epic Homeric poetry in the smouldering literary furnace of the Balkans* it quickly turns to a kind of farce, not so broad as to become ridiculous, but sufficiently so as to create a sense of an other-worldly preposterousness which fans of the Darwin Awards and such like will recognise as representative of the ludicrous nature of the human condition.

Kadare, admittedly one of my favourite Albanians, touches on so many different themes and issues that to list them would try the patience of even the most dedicated review writer. A sample then:

Abortion, academia, blindness, death of tradition, espionage, hubris, infidelity, literature (ancient and modern), parochialism, paranoia, violence, xenophobia.

Each of them is lightly and deftly held up to consider and as quickly replaced, some to be subjected to further scrutiny in later passages. There is nothing elicited so vulgar as a belly laugh, despite there being quite a bit of lascivious prose (particularly about Daisy, the bored wife of the governor), but even the voice of the beggar-porter Blackie is laced with veiled meaning like the word “irony” through a stick of rock, and the mouth contorts involuntarily into a smirk at almost every new paragraph. Come to think of it, his high literary style whilst laying out a comical tale (albeit laced with pathos) has clearly inspired in me some kind of literary pretension. It has also had me itching to get back to it at every opportunity and has meant I raced through it in a week (given my reading opportunities are carefully portioned out into 10 minute sessions at lunch time during weekdays only).

If one has never read any Albanian authors, this is the one with which to start (and probably end). Comparisons to other Russian satirists are apt and indeed welcomed by this reviewer, and if eviscerating outrageous Communist paranoia is your cup of tea, then he’s definitely your surgeon-in-chief.
*Actually based on a real event. Kadare met, fortuitously, with Albert B Lord in the 1970s, scholar in the footsteps of Milman Parry’s own research into epic poetry who inspired Kadare with tales of their shared adventures in Balkans in the 30s (albeit Yugoslavia) recording traditional oral poetry in what is now Serbo-Croat.**

**Sorry. That was interminably dull and served only to prove I can read the translator's note at the end of the book. I'm sure you could do that just as easily.***

***Sorry again - I make no presumptions as to your ability to read or not so please carry on as before.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Radleys by Matt Haig

No werewolves in sight...
To review this book, another long-held and seldom contemplated work brought to the forefront of the consciousness by the persistent presence of the author on some micro-blogging site or other, without first making clear a disclaimer for said review would be unjust, and I'm just the sort of chap to be completely unjust, just for the sake of it. And also for the cheap laughs. Therefore, before continuing, I must state the following:

1.    This book has teenage vampires in it
2.    It is also ostensibly a book for teenagers
3.    The author of this book writes other books for teenagers
4.    I made a mistake in reading this book

Number 4 could well do with a quick explanation. I regret nothing, except that I appear to have wilfully disregarded the majority of publicity that I had read both about the book and the author, and was at first surprised by numbers 1 to 3, and then disappointed that I hadn't remembered that I already knew all this.

And yet I persevered! I don’t just give up because my brain malfunctioned, oh no! And what I found on continuing to read was a slick, televisual teenage novel about things like growing up feeling different, fitting in, power without responsibility, and love, lots of foamy, churning, eye-watering teenage love. And vampires.

So, the premise is that vampires (no sparkly-skinned, mouth-open, wooden acting nonsense here no siree bob) are real, live alongside humans in places like Manchester, and are gently policed by a sinister shadow society that makes sure blood is available for the thirsty and murderous rampages are a thing of the past, in close collaboration with the Unnamed Predator Unit of the Greater Manchester Police. However, the eponymous family of vampires (sorry, unavoidable spoiler here but after two pages I’m pretty sure it would have become obvious even to a thirteen year old) has a naughty uncle called Will who carries on regardless. When the thirst hits the daughter and she [CENSORED FOR YOUNGER READERS] Pete “Vampire Papa” Radley calls on him to come sort it out. Cue all sorts of family discord and complications.

There’s lots going on, and in an adult novel I think could have been developed more fully into something deeper, darker and naughtier. However, not having read a novel for a teenage audience since I was about 10 (Lord of the Rings doesn’t count - I don’t think a teenager would sit still long enough to get clear of the terrifyingly dull first 100 pages these days so it can rest easy in the adult beardy weirdo genre*) it was still surprisingly deep, dark and naughty. I certainly won’t be recommending it to my 2 year old anytime soon. Nonetheless, it lacked sophistication, from my jaded world-weary point of view, and plot twists were clearly signposted for a younger audience, rendering it less satisfying. But then I can’t remember being a teenager (those years are nebulous and mystifying – certainly a possible side-effect of heavy drinking towards the end there) so perhaps I would have lapped it up.

To give credit where it’s due, it’s a good, flowing read, and conjures images to mind almost like it was written for television. Thankfully it also steers clear of the turgid tripe of those other vampire novels (I blame Anne Rice) and is pretty well believable. But whether verisimilitude is a sought-after quality in fantasy horror for teens is another matter. You may decide for yourself.

*I probably do beardy weirdoes a disservice, for would that I was able to grow a beard I too would probably sport one and thus become a weirdo myself. However, I don’t so they are fair game.

Monday, 15 April 2013

House Of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

Oh Campion! Oh Purslane!
Oh do shut up.

To be honest – a disclaimer of such persiflage that it makes me do a little bit of sick in my mouth – I got this book free from Waterstones in 2007 as a give-away promo thingamee and have um-ed and meh-ed over it since. However, as it survived the Great Purge of 2012 I felt it must hold some latent significance so, unhindered by preference I finally picked it from the shelves to peruse.

An epic space opera it is, or is billed as such, and it ticks most if not all of the boxes for the genre – far future communities, massively advanced technologically, staggeringly epic life spans of protagonists, limited empathy for transient cultures etc. The Boy from Barry done good they tell me. Compares favourably to Banks et al I was flattered to read (vicarious gratification from a very tenuous local link). Shortlisted for a Hugo Award in 2011, eh? And yet, when I compare this to something like Marrow by Robert Reed, another doyen of the profession and  winner of a Hugo in 2007 (for A Billion Eves, 2006), there is something lacking, a something which defies me to define it so that I might explain it clearly to you, my reader, although I’ll give it a try. Bold, visionary, accurate (as far as I can tell) House of Suns is a good, if not very good book. 

In the pros column:
  • The plot is coherent; it flows well and is as accessible as a hard science fiction novel can be.
  • The triple narrative, swapping between the perspectives of the two co-habiting shatterlings (clones of an original galactic pioneer, who travel the galaxy individually, collecting space junk and stories to share at their once-a-circuit meetings – approximately every 200,000 years or so) and the Gentian Line founder, Abigail Gentian, is interesting, not too upsetting and sets a sound if prosaic pace for development of said plot.
  • The shatterlings’ big picture overview of the rise and decline of cultures provides an otherworldly quality to the proceedings, a good thing in sci-fi.

Conversely, in the cons column:
  • The plot is not that intricate – or rather is a bit opaque and leaden, paced sluggishly and slightly guilty of the occasional info-dump to fill gaps; it’s not all that persuasive and doesn't really tie in every last little thing into one I-can’t-believe-it-WOW blockbuster of intrigue and suspense. The pace does pick up but it starts slowly and occasionally loses focus.
  • None of the characters (the archivists of The Vigilance aside) convey that menace that a good helping of hubris adds to an ideal far-future de-humanised human. Despite acting like disinterested and benign god-like creatures, the Gentian Line (and the other Houses) really lack a bit of self-interested viciousness, but are also too mundane, worrying about daft little things like being late, not keeping promises and sleeping with each other. The de-familiarization of the familiar, whilst pushing at my suspension of disbelief in terms of temporal scale, is absent from characters like Campion and Purslane, our two shatterling protagonists; they are just too dull and ordinary, despite the fantastical setting. Compare to the artificial intelligences of Banks’ Culture novels of which one can never be sure they’re not planning to instigate genocide just for fun. Compare with Marrow and that feeling that there is an incomprehensible terror lurking in the background just waiting to swallow us all up. The whole thing is missing a Machiavellian mind that even Asher’s Orbus manages.
  • There’s far too much guff and not enough stuff. The good things aren't explored anywhere near fully enough for my liking – inter-House intrigue, the restrictions on relationships – and there are some rather clunky guffy things like synchromesh that just don’t gel, exciting as they might be.

Out of context, perhaps, this book just doesn't cut it for me. I understand it came about as an expansion on a short story, and perhaps this is telling in so far as the ideas are sound, but in the filling-out thereof it has become too woolly. A shorter, more elegant novella may have served as a better vehicle for the ideas herein, but then, I'm a critic, not a writer. I do this because I can’t do that, so what do I know? Only this – House of Suns is good, but it just falls short of the mark of excellence I expect of the lauded company in which Reynolds’ publishers are keen to sit him. I will not be put off trying another though, perhaps his first to get a better idea of where he began and where he is now, and as a local boy, I would feel bad if I didn't support him. You never know – one day this critic may have a book to flog himself and may need a helping hand.

Friday, 12 April 2013

The President's Last Love by Andrey Kurkov

Preparing to write a review I considered what I knew of the former Soviet country from which Andrey Kurkov hails. And it amounted to this:

1) Former Ukrainian footballer Oleg Romanovych Luzhny [Олег Романович Лужний] is the most capped captain of the international side (which at the time of Luzhny's retirement from international football also included erstwhile Liverpool FC striker Andriy Viktorovych Voronin [Андрій Вікторович Воронін])

державний прапор України
2) The national flag is split equally between two fields of yellow (bottom) and blue (top) thus:

3) Andrey Kurkov had written (at least) two novels featuring a truly poignant penguin named Misha, rescued from Kiev zoo when it closed.

4) I habitually but inexplicably refer to the country as The Ukraine.

No, not that Man of Steel, this one.
I am also loving the pipe, Joe.
This last thought caused me some confusion. I considered first that it might be because it begins with a vowel, but I don't say "The Albania". Perhaps because it begins with the letter U? No again; Uzbekistan does not share Ukraine's fate (I nearly did it then too!). The only plausible hypothesis, still bollocks, is that as a former Soviet state, it was somewhere one was sent to - a bit like Coventry but colder and without the death of the soul involved in even contemplating life there - in the event that one displeased the Man of Steel. Consider the mountain range in the east of Russia, The Urals, another common exile of naughty free-thinkers. Like I said, bollocks.

So my shameful knowledge of Ukrainian history is exhibited for public scrutiny. Going into the novel I spent a little time worrying that I would not truly understand the humour, many political jokes, and topical (or at least contemporary) references within the various time frames operating therein, being a threefold narrative from Sergey Pavlovich Bunin's life at key moments - his youthful development, his early political career, and his Presidency into a projected future for this young democracy. But typical of my own disjointed narrative, I was worrying for nothing.

Kurkov is deadpan, hilarious and completely accessible. A keen observer and caricaturist of Homo-Sovieticus and the reformed Communists of the dissolved USSR alike, his humour transcends place, his pathos possessing the keen edge of a sword which hangs over us all. Additionally, he appears to be somewhat prescient of developments in world politics, confidently predicting that in 2013 there would be a dynamic young Conservative Prime Minister of the UK (ah! so maybe that explains the almost automatic use of the definitive article!) courting the approval of world leaders. Once one becomes acclimatized to the rhythm of his writing, and to the fractured nature of the triumvirate of tales, something which at first annoyed but quickly became addictive, there seems little lost to translation*. Bunin is personable, entertaining, and worthy of both sym- and em-pathy, and despite nagging worries that later proved unfounded (an old refrain) about political infidelity from his colleagues and subordinates, manages to come out pretty well in the end, all things considered. What we get is a strangely well-constructed novel, moreish and satisfying, and despite constant stereotypical references to drinking, something Tibor Fischer laments, really has no serious flaws to stop one from properly enjoying oneself. 

As a voice from a country incongruously lacking in home-schooled, resident literary tradition, Kurkov possess all he needs in terms of skills and ability to properly wow an international audience. And contrary to the chaps at The Guardian, not everyone wishes he would bring back the penguin.

*Oddly, Kurkov's translator prefers to remain anonymous in my edition - unlike in previous and subsequent works (George Bird [Death and the Penguin, The Case of the General's Thumb]and Amanda Love Darragh  [The Milkman in the Night])

A Tan And Sandy Silence, and The Long Lavender Look by John D McDonald

Much of a muchness 1
Travis McGee novels are all uniformly rather good; entertaining narratives, jovial floridity, good-old-fashioned misogyny, guns, birds, boats and booze. Sadly, when read one after the other, this means that such trivial little things as plots get hard to differentiate from each other. My mistake therefore has been to read these two contiguously with no other literary diversion in between, as I can now no longer remember what happens in each. For those who like that sort of thing, I will attempt a limited, non-spoiling plot summary but, understandably, this may become confused and disorientating, so be warned. One thing I will say before I begin such a fool’s errand is that contrary to my opening statement, the previous Trav narrative I read, which may or may not have been Dress Her In Indigo, was disappointing, and these two novels represent a welcome return to a more polished form of gruff and chivalric silliness.

Much of a muchness 2

Travis runs his big daft car off the road after nearly killing a half-naked lady whose husband comes aboard his boat to shoot him for stealing his wife from him even though she’s dead and a girl whose family are inbred weirdoes but whose brother is a Canadian tennis, skiing and law prodigy and also a psycho is impersonating her on a Caribbean island resort and bonking a sailor who is no match for Trav’s wily masculinity. Somewhere here the hirsute Meyer makes several appearances and gets bonked on the head / kidnapped before someone gets tar poured on them and dumped in a sinkhole. There’re some overly metaphorical sex scenes and Trav worries he’s losing his edge before realising a healthy respect for death and the limitations of one’s body and mind contribute to keeping one alive. Cue the drinking of Plymouth Gin.

There are several notable and perhaps laudable things about the writing of John D MacDonald. Not least amongst them is his resistance to foul language – nary an S or F word to be found, and definitely no C-bombs – but also his reluctance to mention Vietnam, something that was probably at the forefront on the public consciousness at the time of writing (that and Capitalism).  Ecological concerns also get an occasional look-in, with musings on the consequences of the human stain. Violence is purely technical (how to chop someone’s Adam’s apple, how best to roll to avoid a left-handed shooter etc.) or described for the horrific brutality (including rare sexual violence but also casual slaps of the missus to keep her in line). And it’s all done with such rare elegance of language that it only ever feels dated when he overlooks logging-in to Facebook to check incriminating photographs or how someone’s identity holds up under scrutiny. I may be derisive in tone and content, but I do genuinely enjoy his novels, so much so that I dismantled a wedding breakfast centre-piece to steal a hard-back version of one of his 1959 hard-boiled novels A Deadly Welcome. If you’re after a better endorsement, consider this, from Kurt Vonnegut Jnr (who died this day – or maybe yesterday – back in 2007):
“To diggers a thousand years from now . . . the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.”