Friday, January 9, 2009

The Yellow Rain by Julio Llamazares

The Yellow Rain by Julio Llamazares is thankfully a short novel that describes life, or rather the end of it, in a Pyrenean village called Ainielle. Andres, the book’s narrator, has lived there all his life in a house he calls Casa Sosas. By the time we meet him, he is reaching the end of his life, as is his village, since it is now almost deserted, abandoned by almost all who used to make a life of sorts there. Its economy has dwindled, its activity ceased. Andres remains there with his memories and shrinking present. 

 Andres relates the salient events in his life story through a series of reflections. These take the form of short monologues that allow neither dialogue nor, even reported, any words or reflections of others. Thus everything is filtered through the narrator’s highly partial, inwardly focused perspective. And through that one learns of suicide, betrayal, rejection, life, death, birth, marriage, estrangement and suffering, and all of these tinged with regret, borne of a feeling of deterioration and abandonment. 

The book’s theme is stated and restated, but it always stays the right side of repetition for repetition’s sake. What emerges is an impressionistic vision of unidirectional change for the worse. Thus the novel does not really have a plot, apart from Andres’s conscious preparation for his own inevitable end. Throughout the tone is desolate, with an occasional lightening as high as despair. 

But having said that, it is not a criticism of the book, since it achieves what is sets out to achieve in describing Ainielle’s and, within it, Andres’s own descent into non-being. Andres goes as far as digging his own grave to ensure an interment alongside his memories, most of which seem to be closely entwined with decay and tragedy. He describes the circumstances that led others to take their own lives, to suffer at the hand of an unforgiving environment. One feels that there were always options, but that the identity people shared in their isolated existence was too strong to reject. 

 The Yellow Rain is not a novel to pick up in search of light relief, but it is an engaging, well written and, in its English version, an especially well translated book. Its point may be quite one dimensional, but this transformation is vividly, sensitively and convincingly portrayed. The book is also succinct, short enough to avoid wallowing in its own slough of despond. Ainielle is now a ghost town, but still one worthy of exploration. 

 View this book on amazon The Yellow Rain

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Asylum by Patrick McGrath

Asylum by Patrick McGrath is an intense study of self-obsession and self-interest. Narrated by and experienced from the point of view of Peter Cleave, a psychiatrist, we follow the development of a relationship between Stella Raphael and Edgar. Stella is married to Max, who is a clinical colleague of Peter’s in a mental hospital for the criminally insane where Edgar is a patient. 

Unlike Peter, Max finds his career, his marriage and his life somewhat stalled. Stella finds Max, her professionally challenged husband, something of a bore. She sees herself destined for something altogether more exciting, perhaps exclusive, than her husband can provide or inspire. A son, Charlie, seems to make his life in the gaps of his patents’ relationship. When Edgar, a patient committed to the penal psychiatric hospital in whose grounds the Raphael’s reside, responds to Stella’s playful dreams, events pull both of them inexorably towards destruction. The fact that Edgar’s crime was both horrifically violent and perpetrated against his then partner adds both tension and intrigue to the plot. 

 The relationship between Stella and Edgar develops initially via innuendo, but is soon explicitly recognised by both of them. On the face of things, Edgar is not manipulating her, but he would not be Edgar if he did not both see and take his chance. With Stella’s help, unwitting or otherwise, Edgar escapes. She meets up with him in London, encounters that are facilitated by a shadowy character called Nick. Stella is captivated by Edgar’s artistic talent. He is a sculptor, but he has a tendency and a history of destroying the objects he creates, especially those that he apparently holds the dearest. 

But Stella is attracted to him, becomes obsessed with him, moves in with him. Apparently she devotes her entire being to her lover to the extent that that she destroys her own family and herself to pursue her relationship with him. In the later stages of the destruction, she comes under the wing of Peter Cleave, who assists her to confront the unacceptable reality of her actions. Paradoxically, even through this professional association, self-interest comes to dominate in a fascinating and unexpected, if not altogether surprising way. Asylum is a highly concentrated but compelling read. It is a detailed, perhaps forensic analysis of Stella’s descent into an abyss of self-obsession. 

Eventually, this blocks out all reality and gives rise to an outcome which ought to provoke abhorrence, even from her. But in the end all she sees is herself. And, perhaps, in this respect she is not particularly anything special. 

 View this book on amazon Asylum

Ways Of Escape by Graham Greene

Ways Of Escape is one of the most rewarding and, surprisingly, surprising reads one might encounter. On the face of it, the book is Graham Greene’s artistic, literary autobiography. A second half and companion volume for A Sort Of Life, Ways Of Escape deals chronologically with Graham Greene’s works, his inspiration and his development as an author. All of this, we may believe as we start this book, is well known, well document, even public knowledge. 

Ways Of Escape reveals, however, that much of Greene’s inspiration was quite personal, often very private, and it is through this that surprise emerges. The book catalogues brilliantly the sometimes direct, sometimes loose relationship between experience and inspiration. Graham Greene is apparently candid about the nature of his invention. Whether it is achieved via amalgamation, imitation or juxtaposition, for the author it appears to be eventually rooted in experienced reality. 

What Ways Of Escape communicates above all is how much Graham Greene was occupied with his writing alongside a life that seemed already utterly packed with travel, journalism, various employment and risk, so packed that people encountered along the way could never have suspected that they were being analysed for their potential as future fictional characters. 

 Graham Greene is self-deprecating throughout, appearing to belittle his own work, thus showing little respect for the critical acclaim of others which, by the end of the period in question, was considerable. Many of the scenes from his work that he values seem to relate strongly to, perhaps clarify his own experience. And, for Graham Greene, experience was usually vivid and sought out to be so. He samples local prostitutes freely, drinks whatever is to hand and chemically alters the reality to which he otherwise seems to remain encountered as a participant rather than as an observer. 

 There are indicators to Greene’s ambivalence towards religion. He expresses respect for a simple, unquestioning faith. But he despises a middle class, “suburban” Catholicism that seems to assume an ownership of God. Greene, of course, belonged to that latter group by virtue of class, education and marriage, but one feels he yearned for a simple, stated and genuflecting responsibility to an omnipotent God. One also feels that this might be Romanticism, a desire to become an ideal to which he feels he may only aspire as a result of the mired filth of the life he perceives he lives. He relates some of his contact with the press, as well as with film. 

There are brushes with the law in the form of libel actions. Throughout, one feels his respect for his fellow professionals is at best limited. He even describes the word “media” as applicable to bad journalism, clearly placing himself above the label. But above all it is experienced reality that provides the gems. His description of bombardment in Sinai rings both true and vivid. “I remembered the blitz, but the blitz had one great advantage – the pubs remained open.” Such attention to detail alongside direct experience is what brings Graham Greene’s prose to life, and it is this rooting in the reality of experience that prods the reader into reaction. 

This is a masterwork by a master technician. But it is the book’s epilogue that, for me, provided a supremely apt and yet provocative coda. Here is a man who has imagined others, given them life in print and film, a man who seems to have little confidence in his own ability or thought for his consequence. And, we learn, he is a man who might even be someone else, someone who claims to be him, an Other. The juxtaposition of this idea with a life lived is both thought-provoking and disturbing – a masterstroke by a master of his craft, even his art. 

 View this book on amazon Ways of Escape (Vintage Classics)

Lord Of The Flies by William Golding

A review of a book as iconic as Lord Of The Flies should surely only offer comment, not mere description. It is over fifty years since its publication in 1954 and, it should be remembered, the story is set in wartime. So, while the marooned boys apparently descend into a mould of pre-civilised behaviour, their adult compatriots are engaged in it full time in the world outside. Jack may paint his face and display an identifying insignia, but so, probably, does his father at that time, a display he might call a uniform, and the insignia a flag or regimental banner.

It is perhaps coincidence that William Golding casts a casualty of the nearby war, dead, but re-animated by natural elements, the wind in his parachute, as the intruding beast that terrorises the stranded boys. Where this imagery falls down, of course, is at the end, when a suitably British naval officer rescues the lads. We assume they will promptly be returned to their besieged wartime homeland, no doubt to live happily ever after.

Of course, there is the question of who saves the adults, whose war is the merely the same as the boys’ limited creation on their island. But this element of the book perhaps reads less convincingly fifty years on from its publication, when the general reader would have needed no reminder of how horrid an experience the recent war had been.

Ralph’s character poses something of a dilemma. He clearly believes he was born to lead. When he finds his authority both undermined and then by-passed, it appears he cannot cope with the demotion, his continued assumption of status blinding him to the obvious. At the time this surely would have been interpreted as a reference to the British class system.

Fifty years on, the allusion is less than obvious. If anything, Piggy presents the modern reader with the most problems. He is the epitome of the know-all, the swot, the annoying brat that always has something to say. But he is also the idealist and realist in one. He has few skills, perhaps fewer physical contributions to make to the group’s survival. But he has a technological vision. He is an inventor of ideas, ideas that others, under direction, may realise. Hence he is also the visionary, the philosopher who not only knows what should be done, but also why it should be done. Significantly, his spectacles provide the only technology the community needs since, unbelievably for the period, none of them seems ever to have been a boy scout and so they cannot make fire. But it is eventually Piggy, for all his analytical and intellectual skills, who seems a total prisoner of stereotypical assumptions. He seems to assume that “British” is a synonym for “civilised” and that all black people are automatically savage. 

The reader is left in some doubt as to whether these opinions are sincerely held, satirical, representative of the society from which the boy hails or merely hyperbole promoted by the panic of their situation. To some extent, they have to be accepted and dealt with rather like an opera-goer must accept Wagner’s anti-Semitism as historical fact, rather than essential opinion. Lord Of The Flies has weathered its half century remarkably well, but there are flaws which now seem more obvious than they would have been in the years that followed the book’s publication. The power of the book’s observation, however, remains. It is already iconic, its permanence assured.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

A review should always try to address its subject in its own terms. The purpose, after all, is many-sided, to summarise, paraphrase, contextualise, all with the express intention of informing a potentially interested participant of the nature of the experience on offer. Any proffered review that merely says I did or did not like it is thus entirely specious, since it conveys nothing of the work in focus, only the doubly-uninterpretable reaction of a dismembered, effectively anonymous opinion.

So in the case of Brick Lane by Monica Ali a dutiful list of the elements must begin with the setting. For the majority non-Londoners, Brick Lane is a market street in East London. It is just up the road from the eastern fringes of the City of London, the financial centre that boasts gleaming towers and vast wealth. (Or perhaps it once did!)

But over the years Brick Lane has been a magnet for new migrants, communities marginalised by both origin and destination. It has also been a centre for political action of all shades. The current occupants of this social clearing house are Bangladeshis and the street, in particular, has become a centre for Bangladeshi culture and food.

So, at the centre of Monica Ali’s novel is a Bangladeshi woman, Nazneen, who arrives in Britain to meet her husband, Chanu, an apparently slobbering slob, imbued with more social manners than domestic. But arrangement suffices, as Nazneen learns to cope with married life in a foreign place in which she has no ties and little communication. Nazneen’s experience in London’s Brick Lane is juxtaposed via an exchange of letters with the parallel experience of Hasina, her sister in Bangladesh. The two women’s experiences eventually diverge as local pressures demand decision and action. The contrasts, along with the considered tensions between white working class racism and Muslim identity promotion in east London ought to provide a powerful vehicle with which to explore worlds of culture, experience, relationships and ideology.

Brick Lane, unfortunately, falls short of every destination. Unfortunately again, the characters are weak, the artifice feels false, the vibrant location is portrayed as dull and the passions of ideological difference are confused and politically limp or naive. Brick Lane was an ambitious project, but it began confused and lost direction as it progressed. It does have its moments, but its hours are long, and not a little tedious.

View this book on amazon Brick Lane

The Fall Of Troy by Peter Ackroyd

In The Fall Of Troy, Peter Ackroyd explores some grand themes against a backdrop of a grander history, but always from the narrowed view of an obsession that denies experience.

The story is set in the early twentieth century, a period of great and fast discovery of ancient sites. It is also a time when archaeology is being transformed from a pastime of those with time on their hands to a science for professionals. Obermann has his mission, an overbearing, all-consuming obsession that drives him to uncover ancient Troy. He knows where to look. In defiance of received wisdom, he demonstrates the accuracy and veracity of his assertions. 

He feels things to be correct, admits no question and seeks to edit all dissent from any discussion. Enthusiasm feeds obsession, while obsession drives the man, excluding others. He has a track history of success, however, so when he pontificates about the whereabouts of the lost city, others tend to listen, despite his ideas appearing at best off-beat.

Obermann has taken a new wife, a young and attractive Greek woman called Sophia. She reads ancient Greek, so she can recite Homer to her new husband in the hours that cannot be devoted either to practical archaeology, of which we learn much, or marital duties, of which we learn nothing. She becomes a member of his team, entrusted if not actively enlightened, and soon learns how certain discoveries of her husband need to be sanitised to protect them from the gaze of their resident Turkish official, who is burdened with the task of inspecting all finds. She learns, also, how not to question the wisdom of her husband, a wisdom apparently founded in myth, expressed via whim and summing to obsession, but which is invariably correct. Until, that is, visitors appear.

There is a Harvard academic called Brand and an English vicar. Then there is Thornton from The British Museum. These visitors join Obermann and his wife, alongside a self-confessed Frenchman and a young man the boss calls Telemachus, who helps, but whose motivation remains suitably opaque. But Obermann always dominates. Sophia becomes a new Helen of Troy while her husband’s assumptions are elevated to a religion he must live or be punished by.

As the dig progresses, finds appear, are sometimes revealed, sometimes not, and are interpreted, discussed, even fought over. If the resulting ideas conform to Obermann’s assumptions, harmony is publicly maintained. But if contradicted, the archaeologist appears to have the power to conjure divine retribution upon his critics. He is a man of the gods. But eventually he is revealed as a man of the world. Sophia, the new wife, discovers a reality she never expected. She acts decisively when things come to a head but, as far as Obermann is concerned, it is the gods, perhaps, who play the last card.

View this book on amazon The Fall of Troy