April 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
Title: The Red Notebook
Author: Antoine Laurain
Translator: Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken
Publisher: Gallic Books, London (2015)
ISBN: 978 19083 1 3867
Antoine Laurain writes perfectly pleasant novels. And his latest, The Red Notebook, sticks to that amiable formula which seems to have brought him some success in the past. The President’s Hat was the story of a man who mistakenly switches hats with French President François Mitterrand. It changes his life. And then he, too, loses the hat. The books is structured around his frantic search to find it again. The hat passes through a string of characters – changing all their lives for the better during the period they posses it – before eventually, serendipitously, finding its way back to Mitterand. None of the characters are in any way disagreeable, though one is interestingly curmudgeonly. Even Mitterand is portrayed as genial and sympathetic, appearing like a benevolent fairy godfather in the final chapters.
The Red Notebook takes its name from another lost object. A woman is mugged and her purse left behind by the assailant on top of a trash bin. Laurent Letellier, a divorced middle-aged bookseller, finds the bag and goes through the contents looking for information that will help him to return it to the proper owner. Instead he discovers a red notebook and very little else. He becomes intrigued by the women who recorded her thoughts on the pages (obsession would be too powerful an emotion for a Laurain character). He sets out to find her. In the place of Mitterand, the French poet Modiano steps in to provide a cameo appearance. Modiano is remarkably accommodating when Laurent approaches him in the park, having discovered a link between the poet and the notebook’s owner.
Antoine Laurain writes characters well. The protagonist, Lettelier, is attractively disheveled. His teen daughter spoiled, but wonderfully vibrant. The heroine a brooding version of Juliette Binoche. Even the employees at Lettelier’s bookshop are convincingly realized. And I desperately would like to believe that Modiano is exactly as Laurain portrays him – engaging, wise and utterly, delightfully pleasant.
At their best Laurain’s books and characters remind me of a sitcom. Because everyone likes sitcoms. I could also compare The Red Notebook to a Rom-Com starring Meg Ryan & Tom Hanks. Or a less successful version of Laurence Cossé ‘s A Novel Bookstore. Or even one of Alexander McCall Smith’s many, many books – without the mystery and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.
Therein lies the rub.
The Red Notebook (and The President’s Hat, for that matter) relies heavily on character and formula, without injecting any real conflict or originality into the narrative. It reminds me of too many other things: other books, films, television shows. But I can’t imagine three months from now saying – this (story or thing) reminds me of an Antoine Laurain novel. They, the books, lack the qualities which make a story memorable. Which is the problem that comes with pleasant.
September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
Title: His Own Man
Author: Edgard Telles Ribeiro
Translator: Kim M. Hastings
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 159051 698 0
Marcilio Andrade Xaviar – known as Max to friends & colleagues alike – is handsome, charismatic, intelligent, cultured and endlessly complicated. In short, the perfect diplomat. It is the late 1960’s and he is embarking on what will be a remarkable career in the Brazilian Foreign Service. A career that will span some of the most tumultuous decades in Latin American history. Through the coups and purges, the government shifts from left to right and back again, the making & breaking of political alliances – Max thrives. He is a golden boy. Incapable of a misstep, even if he tried.
Across Latin America governments will fall (in the words of one character) like “right-wing dominoes”. Socialist and Communist leaders will be replaced by military dictators backed by Western powers. A Cold War game of RISK played on Central & South American maps. “… We went through Brazil in sixty-four and from there all the countries toppled one after the other, just like a house of cards: Argentina in sixty-six; Uruguay and Chile in seventy-three (a good year for us); Peru at some point, I no longer remember when; then Argentina again in 1976 (after the brief and pitiful Peron hiatus); and so on. A beautiful domino effect… just perfect.”
And at the center of it all stands Max. Except we aren’t given Max’s version of events. Instead, His Own Man is narrated by a colleague and former friend. Obsessed with the trajectory of Max’s career and the wrecked lives left in its wake, the narrator (known only as N.) seeks out Max’s ex-wife, associates, even Max himself – anyone and anything that can provide insight into the actions of his former friend. Structured like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, Bolano’s Distant Star and Matthiesson’s Shadow Country trilogy – His Own Man pieces together a flawed portrait from bits of rumor, chance encounters, speculation and fading memories. And like the main characters of those books, Marcilio Andrade Xaviar comes to embody the evils of the society ruled by terror. Operation Condor, the Argentine Dirty Wars, the kidnapping of the Uruguayans, Pinochet’s coup and Chilean “Operation Silence”, the torture & murder of millions – somehow we are meant to understand that Max had a hand in all of it. Yet, when pressed, he appears entirely disinterested in politics.
“After giving me a good-natured glance, Max repeated, ‘That’s right, he drank from the wrong well.’ And he concluded, ‘He only saw what was directly in front of him. Whereas…’”
I finished describing the scene to Marina. Turning his back on the ministry esplanade, Max had slowly rotated, a motion I had to follow, given how close to him I was standing. And he’d gestured broadly with is arm from right to left through the space in front of us. His fingers glided past Burle Marx’s suspended gardens, descended to the people on the marble terrace – lost in their hopes and longings – and, without lingering, moved over the circle formed by the president and his entourage, all lively and elated. With the elegance of an orchestra conductor, his hand then swept past various groups of men in tailored suits,hovered over well-coiffed made-up women, reaching the new graduates and their relatives, until finally landing on the works of art, which ranged from Aleijadinho to Portinari, from colonial furniture to Persian rugs. Once his panorama was complete, he leaned toward me and whispered, “… Whereas this is what I pursued.”
Ribeiro uses N.’s idealism to contrast Max’s opportunism, and then leaves it to his readers to determine the grey area where the truth resides. Max is mercenary, ruthless and ambitious. But N.’s idealism never translates into concrete action. N’s position allows him to shelter his family from the violence and upheaval taking place around them – but he fails to use it to change or even impact the world. He coasts through events as a witness more than a participant. In fact, a lot of coasting seems to occur throughout the plot of His Own Man. Max seldom instigates events, rather he stumbles into most of the opportunities that shape his career. Or finds himself manipulated into position by foreign government agencies. His Own Man is something of a misnomer.
It stands to reason that a former diplomat turned author would avoid the clichés found in most espionage novels. Edgard Telles Ribeiro – journalist, film critic, author, career diplomat with 47 years in the Brazilian Foreign Service and the UN – knows the world of which he writes intimately. Not the shadow world of 007 and George Smiley, the real Diplomatic Corps is made up of men and women who exist somehow independent of the governments and nations they serve. Stationed in embassies located around the globe, they often seem far removed from the events taking place in their home countries even as they help shape them. They live their lives, marry and raise their children in little oasis set on foreign soil. Ribeiro’s characters are intelligent and cultured, they are surrounded by elegance and view world politics as a particularly challenging game of chess. They believe themselves grandmasters, moving the pieces across the board. But in reality they are just as likely to be pawns – manipulated and eventually sacrificed.
Kim M. Hastings translation is straightforward, with some lovely moments like the passage quoted above. Overall, though, I found His Own Man more interesting than engaging. The Latin American history is fascinating and the premise – an espionage/political commentary novel set firmly in the diplomatic (versus the intelligence) community – is a novelty. But the 1st person narrator, so important to this novel’s success, comes across as a less charming, a less engaging, a less vibrant version of Max. That N., in his 60’s at the time of the story’s telling, is jaded and consumed by regret lends authenticity to his character. But it also flattens out his perception of people and events. The sections involving Max’s wife Marina are some of the best in the book, because N.’s empathy and humanity is on display. I’d have liked to seen more of that same kind of emotional depth somewhere in N.’s portrayal of Max.
August 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
Title: The Elusive Moth
Author: Ingrid Winterbach
Translator: Iris Gouws & the Author
Publisher: Open Letter, University of Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 77 1
The Elusive Moth by Ingrid Winterbach, translated from Afrikaans by Iris Gouws and the Author, is set in Free State, South Africa. The heroine,
Karolina Ferreira, is a lepidopterist staying in the town of Voorspoed – a place she’d visited as a child with her father.
Free State is one of nine South African provinces. The terrain consists of grasslands, large agricultural tracts and mountains. It’s considered the “breadbasket” or “granary” of South Africa. 2.8 million people live there, the 87% majority of whom are black Africans. The primary language is Sesotho, a Bantu language. Afrikaans is spoken by the white minority. Voorspoed is home to a diamond mine owned by the De Beers family.
None of this is stated in the novel, but the clues are everywhere. Winterbach is describing a place and, in the process of doing that, telling a story.
Karolina is in Voorspoed to study a rare species of moth. She spends most of her day in the veld with her companion, Basil. Him collecting plants and her studying insects. Their evenings are spent in town observing the locals – particularly the Afrikaner community that gathers at the hotel to drink, socialize and play snooker. She studies them with the same clinical intensity as the insects.
It’s difficult not to get caught up in the routine of Karolina’s days. Mornings in the veld, evenings that begin in the Ladies Bar and end in the billiards room. Afternoons she has lunch in the hotel’s dining room beneath murals that depict the history of the region. On Saturdays she goes dancing. Occasionally events interrupt the pattern – a controversial play is performed, tourists arrive, lovers are observed in a cemetery, protests lead to violence in the black settlements, murder, a suicide – but by the next day everything resets. The plot, in this sense, is simplistic. The bumps – the interruptions to the town’s routine – are what imbue the story with unexpected richness and texture. Karolina is always watching from the edges, never at the center, and seldom privy to the inner thoughts or motivations of the key players.
The man sat on the opened-out back flap of the police vehicle. He was covered with a blanket that was wrapped tightly around his shoulders. He seemed to be wearing nothing underneath it but a vest and a pair of trousers. Even though it was a warm night, his teeth were chattering, which made it difficult for him to speak coherently. He had been given a warm drink, for now and again he swallowed some liquid from the cap of a flask. Two black women stood a little apart from the rest, one draped in a blanket, occasionally weeping quietly into a corner of it. Kieliemann spoke for the police. Although he seemed impatient, he was allowing the man to tell his story without interruption. The scene resembled a photograph – the action frozen, white and black equally stark in the unnatural yellow light.
Karolina stood at some distance, making sure that Kieliemann did not see her.The yellow light penetrated everywhere, eclipsing even the bountiful light of the night sky, etching the scene in hellish desolation.
The next day Karolina will ask questions and try to understand what she has seen. But her outsider status limits her. The Elusive Moth is narrated in the close third person, keeping readers at an arms length from Karolina and creating another layer between them and the action. The writing is dense and self-conscious – in some places a little fussy (particularly when Karolina’s love interest, a dharma bum named Jess, is in a scene). The structure of the novel is based on the repetition and patterns, and Winterbach sometimes extends that repetition to her characterizations. One lecherous police officer is always described as having a bulge in his pants when Karolina is around; another character is “aquatic” and shudders (both verbally and physically) incessantly; a friend of Jess’ never seems to be without a smirk on his face and a bottle in his hand. The effect is that the supporting characters become two dimensional. It feels like a flaw, but in truth I only noticed it when I was away from the book. Here it works, where in another book it might not.
The heroine is perhaps the one fully realized, psychologically complex character in the novel. Winterbach maintains a balance between Karolina’s self-involvement / inner-thoughts and her outward reaching curiosity. There is a lot of activity in the story to act as counterweight to moments of introspection. The town’s Afrikaan community is a veritable Peyton Place of tawdry affairs and political intrigues. Even the larger national picture creeps in, though so subtly as to seem like an afterthought. There are hints of the shifting balance of power occurring in South Africa. “After the string of boycotts last year, Sarel advised the lads in town to reconsider their options, and to consult with the ANC and the township leaders. Some have begun to do so…”
But I would not call it a political novel. Nor would I call it a relationship novel. Or even a novel about the human condition. What struck me is that it is concept-, rather than plot-, driven. Voorsoed is an ant farm – isolated and contained. And if asked to describe the book in one sentences, I would say “A woman studying the town of Voorspoed and its inhabitants from a distance.”
Except that’s not entirely right. There’s a passage towards the end of the book. Like most everything else that occurs in The Elusive Moth, it’s unobtrusively inserted into the narrative. Karolina and Jess go away for the weekend. They travel to a nearby town.
At dusk they reached the Dis Al Motel where they had tea in the lounge. There was a large painting on the wall depicting Mabalel and the crocodile, painted by the proprietor… There were large animal skins on the ceiling. Antelope heads on the walls. In an adjoining room people played snooker – Afrikaner couples on the brink of suicide and dissipation. Homicidally depressed. Some national leader came on the television. Karolina and Jess went to their rondavel.”
You’re left with the sense that across Free State (perhaps across South Africa) there are dozens of towns like Voorsoed. Inhabited by people going about their lives, behaving in ways identical to the characters we’ve just met. The same diversions, the same dramas, the same patterns are being repeated.
June 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
Wu Ming-Yi, the Taiwanese author of The Man With The Compound Eyes, sets out to prove that these days the truth is stranger than fiction. He pulls from his background as an environmental activist to describes a world facing environmental disaster. A disaster that resembles current events so closely that readers don’t need to expend their imagination to buy into the premise. The events of Ming-Yi’s novel could become our reality within a decade and few would bat an eye.
Alice, the main protagonist, is a professor of literature in Taiwan. She lives alone. Her husband Tom and son Toto are presumed dead, having disappeared while on a climbing trip in the nearby forest. Climate change and rising sea levels will soon make the small house she and Tom built on the beach uninhabitable. Most of her neighbors have already moved to higher ground but Alice refuses to leave her memories. Engulfed by grief and surrounded by the encroaching ocean, she is preparing to commit suicide in the opening pages.
Atile’i lives on the island of Wayo-Wayo (the book’s jacket copy refers to it as a “mythical” place). Wayo-Wayo is isolated enough to have developed an exotic culture, but is not entirely cut off from the outside world.
Atile’i remembered another of the Earth Sage’s offhand remarks: ‘The white man may come and the white man may go, be we will live by the law of Wayo Wayo. We don’t need the white man. The gifts he left us are harmful , ill-gotten gains. There’s just this useless watch, a couple of books, and a few children like Rasula.’ The Earth Sage sighed and said, ‘But there may come a day when the other men who live upon the earth cause Wayo Wayo to vanish. You never know.’
Atile’i is a second son and, per Wayo Wayo custom, he (like all second sons) must leave the island in a talawaka, a canoe-like vessel, once he comes of age. While it’s never explicitly stated – second sons die at sea. The best they can hope for is to be reincarnated as killer whales. The worst, jellyfishes, if they take their own lives. This is the fate Atile’i embraces, until he finds himself floating in his talawaka amidst the Great Pacific garbage patch. Through ingenuity he manages to survive on the floating island of plastic until it collides with Taiwan. Atile’i washes up onto the very section of coastline where Alice lives; the ecological catastrophe brings our two protagonists together. As expected, each impacts the other’s life. There is a lovely moment when Atile’i greets Alice as is custom on Wayo Wayo, “Is the weather fair at sea today?” He repeat the question so many times that after the sixth time Alice stopped answering him. Hurt, he confronts her and explains that she must answer “Very fair” every time. ‘Even if it’s raining as hard as it is now, you still have to reply in this way?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Even if you don’t feel like replying?’ ‘Yes.’
We both gazed out at the sea, which seemed to be slowly bringing rain. Every so often a breaker would come rolling in. Following a silence of ten waves, Atile’i asked me another time, ‘Is the weather fair at sea today?’ ‘Very fair,’ I replied and for the first time I realised I could ask him back. ‘Is the weather fair on your sea today?’ ‘Yes it is, extremely fair,’ Atile’i replied. I don’t know why, but right at that moment we both began to cry.
If Wu Ming-Yi had confined himself to the story of Alice & Atile’i, adding one or two of the other plotlines instead of the several the novel contains, I believe The Man with the Compound Eyes would have been a better book. My main criticism is the sheer number of ideas crammed into 300 pages. The third person narrative moves through no less than 10 different character’s perspectives including, albeit briefly, the titular man. As it goes on, the plot becomes crowded and unwieldy. Characters, stories, ideas aren’t given the space to grow. Take for example the opening paragraph:
The trickling of water through the fissures in the subterranean rock was suddenly drowned out when the mountain made an immense but also somehow distant sound. Everyone fell silent. Then Jung-hsiang Li shouted. That wasn’t groundwater surging. Wasn’t loose rocks shifting or bedrock bursting, either. And it obviously wasn’t a vocal echo. It sounded more like when something bumps into a flawless glass vessel – from somewhere within the glass you hear a spider’s web begin to spread before the cracks appear. The sound vanished straight-away, and the only thing the people in the cave and control room could hear was the huff of each other’s breathing and the hiss of the radios.
Chapter I. The Cave goes unexplained, the characters unidentified, until we revisit the same event in a flashback roughly 197 pages later. By that time most readers will have forgotten all about it (I did) or, worse, are unable to make the connection to the rest of the narrative. The shame is that just that storyline could have made a fascinating novel in its own right. But, as it is written, it becomes easily lost among all the other plot points which occur in the interceding pages: the mystery of Tom’s & Toto’s disappearance; side stories about Alice’s friend Dahu and her indigenous Pangcah neighbor Hafay; the fate of the Wayo Wayo girl Atile’i loves. There’s a lot to think about in terms of writing as well: Ming-Yi dabbles in symbolism (Toto collected bugs, the identifying feature of the man with compound eyes, the frequent appearance of moths throughout the book); nature is described – even by scientists – in shamanistic terms; there’s even a modernist plot twist inserted at the end. Dizzy yet? Ask five different readers and you could easily receive five different (and perfectly plausible) interpretations of what The Man with the Compound Eyes is about.
By the end we discover that it’s Alice‘s world that holds most of the surprises, but the journey to get to that moment of discovery is long and meandering. Darryl Sterk’s fluid translation throws a net over these disparate ideas and events, gathering them together into a surprisingly readable whole. My criticism is entirely with the scope of the work – not the writing itself. And while a lot of things bothered me about this novel, more impressed me. I hope more of Wu Ming-Yi’s work will make its way into English.
Publisher: Pantheon Books, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 307 90796 7
Note: For anyone interested in learning more about the floating island of trash that is central to the plot of The Man with the Compound Eyes and (more to the point) what we can do about it – check out this video. https://fund.theoceancleanup.com/
May 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
The 2014 World Cup is almost upon us. Making it the perfect time to pick up a book about soccer – but nothing too technical. Something that taps into the passion of the fans, but doesn’t require that the reader be a fan herself. And, of course, it can’t be all about soccer. That would be a bit much for someone who has never watched an entire game in her life.
I think I’ve found just the thing.
Eduardo Sacheri’s first novel to be translated into English, The Secret In Their Eyes, was a taut and suspense-filled thriller. His second novel is something completely different. In Papers In The Wind Sacheri again returns to Buenos Aires, this time to tell the story of four childhood friends. When the youngest of their group, Alejandro “Mono” Raguzzi, dies of cancer his elder brother Fernando and best friends Daniel “Ruso” and Mauricio are devastated but determined to honor his memory.
A few years earlier Mono had used his entire life savings, $300,000.00, to buy a promising young soccer player. The player never lived up to that initial promise. And so after Mono’s death the normally level-headed Fernando hatches a scheme to sell the player and use the money to secure his niece’s, Mono’s daughter’s, financial future. What ensues is a picaresque-style comedy as the three men attempt – through all kinds of harebrained shenanigans – to make a star out of a Striker who is too big and too slow to score a goal.
And hilarity ensues, as they say. Papers In The Wind is very funny, but it’s also a book with immense heart. That strikes a nice balance, since the overall premise can seem a bit far-fetched at times. Eduardo Sacheri is an extremely talented writer whose characters are both perfectly, and imperfectly, drawn. Their flaws make them real. And as the story unfolds – both in the present and in flashbacks to Mono’s illness – you find yourself believing in these men. And in their friendship. And, subsequently, in their crusade.
The interactions between the friends, along with a huge cast of supporting characters (at one point a transvestite wanders into the story, bonds with Fernando and wanders back out again purely for the fun of it), provides a nuanced portrait of friendships between men. Women, with the exception of Mono’s daughter Guadalupe, exist only on the periphery of this masculine microcosm. The action bounces between present day – with Fernando, Ruso & Mauricio desperately trying to sell the Striker while still grieving the loss of their friend & brother – and flashbacks to Mono’s illness. In the flashbacks the men bicker and laugh and support each other in ways we’ve been conditioned to expect only from female characters. It’s still a novelty to see this kind of tenderness depicted in men.
Admittedly, where some of that tenderness is directed may seem a little strange to the uninitiated. Mono has a tendency to wax philosophic on life and fútbol, and his love for the fútbol club Independiente (a.k.a.the Red)* borders on religious fervor. In one scene Fernando promises his brother that he will make sure that little Guadalupe grows up an Independiente fan, despite the fact that the club’s glory days have long been a thing of the past.
“You don’t have to worry, Mono.”
“She’s going to be an Independiente fan. The rest of it I don’t know. I mean, about the cups and the mystique, I can’t say for sure. Maybe it comes back, maybe it doesn’t. But we’ll get her to root for the Red.”
The romance attached to a favorite team or sport might be difficult for non-fans to understand. Except, caught up in the world of Sacheri’s characters, it isn’t difficult at all. Moments like the one aboveare incredibly touching. Fútbol and Independiente become metaphors for something else. What that something else is: faith, friendship, life, loyalty, tradition… I don’t think it really matters. The power lies in the attachment. And different readers will take away different things.
Papers in the Wind, and Sacheri, are at their finest in the moments when the main characters are together – the dialogue is a joy to read and the timing is impeccable. Sometimes Sacheri takes two or three chapters, interspersed between other chapters, to get to the punchline of some joke. Leaving readers giggling along with Mono, Ruso, Fernando & Mauricio like little kids. And he provides enough twists and surprises throughout to remind his readers that his last book was a thriller. Papers in the Wind, like The Secret In Their Eyes before it, is an extraordinarily well-crafted novel. Disarmingly entertaining; wonderfully nuanced – it’s clever without showing off. Like a great soccer player, Eduardo Sacheri manages to make what he does on the field appear easy for the fans.
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 59051 642 3
*A little background: Independiente was one of the great Argentine fútbol clubs until the 1980’s when a began its slow but steady decline. Prior to that period Independiente won a number of international titles, had the first fútbol stadium in Latin America and was considered one of Argentina’s premier fútbol clubs. In the 2013-2014 season, after 101 consecutive years as a Division One team, it dropped into second division for the first time in the club’s history.