Saturday, March 31, 2012

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Time is undoubtedly linear, but our perception of it is not. And for Claudia Hampton, the principal character of Penelope Lively’s novel, Moon Tiger, time, manifest as her life, is a veritable jumble of memories, unfulfilled ambition, probabilities and denied possibilities. She is confused, at least on the outside, and lying infirm in a nursing home bed. But her mind is alive with a life lived, a life she distils to share with us. Claudia´s confusion, however, is only an external phenomenon. Internally her memory is sharp, if not ordered. She reminisces on childhood, eager sexual awakening in adolescence, a career as a war correspondent, historian and writer, an affair or two, one very special but doomed, an eventual marriage, maturity, parenthood and old age, but not necessarily in that order.

Events are assembled and revisited. Along the way there has been death, birth, a miscarriage, disappointment, fulfilment and ambition, seasoned with shakings of passion, hatred, pride and not a little incest. It has been an interesting life, especially remarkable for the way that Claudia relives it for us. Claudia’s memories are often intense. There is an attention to detail that renders her character completely three dimensional, four if you include time. She has struggled – and continues to do so – with what seems to be a fundamental lack of love for her daughter, Lisa, and a deep impatience with her grandchildren.

Jasper, her partner, was something of a disappointment, but at least a reassuring one, after war had dealt cruelly with what she herself had wanted. Claudia not only recalls but also relives her passion. She has often been free with her affections, but she has only once given herself completely. Her recollections of the horrors of war are both raw and stark. There is no heroism here: heroic deeds maybe, but only when the protagonists effect them by default. But in many ways Claudia’s life stopped those years ago in the nineteen forties.

What life promised would never be realised and what it had generated died before it truly came to life. Living has thus been a compromise that Claudia herself was only partially willing to make. It is into the gaps left by compromise that occasional views of her from another’s perspective add real spice to the narrative. Moon Tiger is a complex, challenging read. It is so rewarding, however, that time stands still while you read, but then, at the end, seems to have flashed by in an instant. The instant, of course, was Claudia’s life. Moon Tiger was a brand of mosquito repellent that Claudia and her lover burned during their brief time together in Egypt. What was left was just a little ash.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Republic Of Love by Carol Shields

Republics do not have kings or queens, nor princes or princesses, so, we must assume, fairytales are out. Winnipeg is not exactly a republic, and, at least in terms of their love lives, two residents of the city, Fay and Tom, seem to inhabit a world where fairytales are inconceivable. But that place might not be Winnipeg: it might be closer in to themselves.

Despite – or perhaps because of - having had a multitude of mothers, Tom has been married three times, each attempt turning success into apparent and mildly painful failure, with or sometimes without associated acrimony.

For her part, Fay, at thirty-five, has had several relationships of varied length, but none has led to wedding bells, a fact that seems to trouble her, sometimes. Tom is a radio presenter. He hosts one of those late night phone-ins aimed at insomniacs, but usually attracting the opinionated.

His mood, his history, his takes on where life has taken him clearly influence his style. Rises or dips in his personal life are immediately apparent, communicated without trying. But do not assume that anything offers even influence to what the contributors say. Rest assured, they will offer precisely what they want, perhaps precisely what they have been fed, if only because they are all as self-absorbed as everyone else. Fay works more regular hours.

She is an ethnologist and works in a folklore centre. She is heavily into mermaids, and perhaps they are also into her. She researches the mermaid myth, catalogues sightings, interviews people who have seem them, travels the world giving papers on our social and psychological need to invent these creatures. Mermaids, though overtly sexual and obviously female, are eventually sexless, unless they have exaggerated tails. They are both alluring and inviting, but, being half fish, they are cold-blooded and cold. They tempt, but cannot satisfy. Obviously Tom and Fay are going to meet.

They, along with their accumulated baggage, join forces and, as a consequence, begin to see life differently. But each is still influenced by relatives, acquaintances, ex-partners, ex-in-laws, new partners, parents and anyone else who might have an opinion. They all count. They all influence, especially when stiffness of apparent resolve can be easily bent by contradiction, shock or surprise. And so Fay and Tom’s relationship develops to what Carol Shields deems it should become.

Throughout The Republic Of Love is beautifully written. Carol Shields’s prose is often witty, elegant, telling, funny, incisive or provocative all in one. A single sentence can turn on itself to frighten or mock its own beginning. This is a book worth reading for its style alone. But it offers more than elegance of expression. These characters have all the confused confident complexity, the undirected and variable resolve we would expect from non-ideological adults in the last decade of the twentieth century. It would be interesting to revisit them twenty years on to see where they are now, to know if anything might have lasted. In The Republic Of Love they certainly come to life.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fools Of Fortune by William Trevor

Generally, genre thrillers are books without thrills. Someone gets killed. Turn the page and it happens again to someone else. There’s a chase, a near miss; da capo al fine; repeat. There are never consequences. Characters seem to exist – they never come to life – in an eternal present devoid of either thought or reflection. Plot is a series of events, while characters are mere fashionably dressed acts. William Trevor’s beautiful novel, Fools Of Fortune is, in many ways, a whodunit – or better who done what – thriller. But it transcends genre because it is the consequences of the actions and their motives that feature large, that provide plot and ultimately a credible, if tragic humanity.

Fools Of Fortune is a novel that presents tragedy not merely as a vehicle for portraying raw emotion, but rather as a means of illustrating the depth of ensuing consequence, both historical and personal. In conflict it is easy to list events, quote numbers, suggest outcome, but it is rare to have a feel of how momentous events can have life-long consequences for those involved, consequences that even protagonists cannot envisage, consequences that can affect the lives of those not even involved.

William Trevor’s book is set in Ireland. Its story spans decades, but the crucial elements of the plot are placed in the second decade of the twentieth century. They do involve the First World War, but really as a sideshow to the issue of Home Rule for Ireland. The Quinton family are Protestants living in an old house called Kinleagh in County Cork. Willie Quinton is a child, initially home schooled by a priest called Kilgarriff, who has a highly personal view of the world. We see many of the events through Willie’s child eyes, including a surreptitious meeting between Willie’s father and a famous man who visits on a motorbike. The family owns a flour mill. They are quite well off, a fact that is clearly appreciated by some and resented by others. Crucially, it is this availability of finance that leads to a downfall, events that lead to deaths, destruction and calls for revenge. Willie’s life is transformed for ever.

Over the water, the Woodcombes of Woodcombe Park, Dorset, have a daughter called Marianne. The Woodcombes and the Quintons are related. Marianne is Willie’s cousin. On a visit to Kinleagh she falls in love with Willie. She is a small, delicate girl. She has experience of a Swiss finishing school, a stay that brings exposure to practices that are not wholly educational. Marianne returns to Kinleagh to find Willie. She has important news, but finds that devastation has hit the Quinton household, a culmination of events beyond the control of any individual. No-one wants to talk about what might have happened, and no-one admits to the whereabouts of Willie. Marianne stays to wait for his return. It proves to be a long wait.

There is vengeance in the air, and unforeseen consequences for a child who apparently played no part in any of the events. She was blameless, a mere recipient of the consequences of others’ actions, of others’ grief. William Trevor tells the tale of Fools Of Fortune as serial memoirs of those involved, primarily Willie and Marianne. Some of the school experiences that form a significant part of the story are comic, and offer some relief to the pressure of unfolding tragedy. But central to the book’s non-linear discovery of motive and consequence is the fact that events can dictate the content of lives, and sometimes individuals appear as no more than powerless pawns in games dictated by others. We are all participants, but not always on our own terms.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

When, some thirty years later, Paul Theroux repeated the journey that he had described in The Great Railway Bazaar, he declared travel writing to be ‘the lowest form of literary self-indulgence.’ His original journey in the early 1970s was a deliberate act, a ruse upon which to hang a book. The travel featured was nothing less than an occupation, whose sole product was to be collected and recorded experience. We, the readers, must thank him for his single-minded devotion to selfishness, for The Great Railway Bazaar takes us all the way there without having to leave the armchair.

The journey began and finished in London. In between Paul Theroux took the orient Express to Istanbul and then crossed Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan before doing the length of India. He even went to Sri Lanka by train. Then there was Burma and a meander through South-East Asia. His account of smoking cigarettes in Vientiane will stick in the mind. Malaysia and Singapore were taken in, the latter clearly not being to the writer’s taste. Japan was clearly a curious experience, but the Trans Siberia from near Vladivostok to Moscow seemed strangely predictable, its length being its major characteristic. Eventually, the final leg across Europe hardly counted, a mere step along a much bigger way.

Any such journey can only offer mere impressions of the places en route, but such first impressions are always interesting in themselves, if not always accurate or justified. Thirty years on, some of them may even have historical significance. It would be a challenging task these days to cross the current Iran and Afghanistan by rail. And a contemporary journey would surely cross China, a route barred to the 1970s independent traveller.

But it’s the people met along the way that give the book its prime characters. We never get to know these people and we encounter them largely as caricatures, but it is the experience of travel that is described, and this experience inevitably involves a multitude of these ephemeral encounters. They are always engaging. We expect to be confronted with the surprising, the unknown and the little understood. We expect the experience to be recorded, whilst the mundane is edited out of the account. And furthermore, we do try to make sense of our often confused responses to the unexpected. This is why we travel: at its base it is a challenge.

Paul Theroux does litter the trip with indulgence, however. There is a fairly constant search for alcoholic beverages, for instance. Furthermore, in several places there are encounters with and deliberate attempts to seek out the local low life. Offers of girls, boys, older women, wives, transvestites and every imaginable service are received. Sometimes, the services in question require some imagination. It is easy, of course, to sensationalise experience when it is sought at the margins of what a society dares to admit. In the case of Japan, where much of this material is located, it has to be admitted that the margins are rather wide.

Balancing this crudity is Paul Theroux’s constant desire to reflect upon his love of literature. Some of the material he recollects produces some wonderful insights, surprising juxtapositions and apposite comment.

Travel writing might be pure self-indulgence, but this particular example of the vice transcends the purely personal. It feels like being taken along for the ride. Thus, like all good travel writing, The Great railway Bazaar is not merely an account of another’s observations, it is nothing less than a journey to be experienced.

Sculpture by Vicente Pérez Gonsálvez at Klein-Schrueder

In an exhibition in Fundación Klein-Schreuder, sculptor Vicente Pérez Gonsálvez presents a series of works in marble. The materials, white, black and red marble, plus some alabaster, are all sourced from stone quarries in Novelda near the sculptor’s home in Alicante Province, Spain.

These works of Vicente Pérez Gonsálvez bring abstract forms to life. Perhaps it would be better to say that they render the inorganic organic. Smooth, highly finished surfaces invite touch, the glide of a hand, a skim of flat fingers, the gentle curves of their solid forms imitating the sensuous and voluptuous. The concave and convex meet in flowing ridges, clearly delineated but never sharp, junctions that create lines that meander across and through the shapes. These lines create rhythms that add life and even identity to abstraction that never wanders far from a summarised human form.

And between the lines are spaces, voids that run through the sculptures, or sometimes merely cavities whose very hollowness create an inner space that might itself be inhabited, might itself be alive. It is these spaces that create sensation and suggest vitality.

The titles are all simple, clear pointers as to where the viewer should start to interpret. There is Dove, Lesbos, Body. There is no attempt to place confusion or doubt about the artist’s motive here. These are living, organic shapes crystallized in a once living, now inorganic material. They thus become accommodating, inviting objects that invite us to be absorbed into their spaces, just like the organisms that created them.

Close inspection of the red marble of one piece in particular reveals several fossils highlighted within the design, amid the patterns of impurities that give the stone its character and pattern. Snails, ammonites and other animals that once inhabited the lake or sea where the marble formed are thus revealed. The remnants of their crystallized life thus become the surface sheen through which Vicente Pérez Gonsálvez offers his life-affirming forms. The result is both emotionally elegant and intellectually satisfying.

These sculptures by Vicente Pérez Gonsálvez are currently on show in Fundación Klein-Schreuder, Cami del Pinar 23, L’Alfas del Pi, Alicante, Spain. The exhibition is open on Sundays from 10am to 2pm.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth

Ostensibly From Heaven Lake is a travel book. The description is both apt and limiting. It is worth musing on the idea that travel may be merely a way of collecting a pool of nostalgia for future regurgitation. But this particular description of the author’s journey through China – initially west-east and then north-south in the early 1980s – does not seem to have added very much potential fuel to future’s recollected fires. At the time it was hardly common for an individual to travel independently in China, let alone enter Tibet via Qinghai or – even more unlikely – exit China via Tibet into Nepal. 

But this is precisely what Vikram Seth did, and to add icing to the achievement cake, his preferred mode of transport was hitch-hiking. It is largely the mechanics and logistics of this journey that provide most of the content of the book. Vikram Seth had been a student in China, so his goal was to see some of the less visited parts of the country and to exit, eventually, to India to be reunited, after years in college, with his family.

He did have some language without which, given the twists and turns bureaucracy forced, he would surely not have achieved his goal. Near the start of the book the author is already in eastern China, visiting Turfan which, on the other end of an axis that starts in Tibet, must be one of the strangest places on the planet. It bakes in summer and freezes rigid in winter, is in the middle of a massive desert but makes its living from highly successful agriculture.

On a visit to the karez, the ancient underground irrigation channels that bring water from the distant mountains, the author chances an unauthorised swim against his guide’s advice. The author gets into difficulty. And this seems to be very much a thread that recurs throughout the narrative of From Heaven Lake. A determined first person seems intent on asserting a rather blind individuality in the context of a society that respects only conformity and seeks to exclude anything that suggests difference. In the conflict that ensues between these fundamentally different aims, we are presented with a catalogue of travel that seems to miss much of the potential experience of the country through which it moves. Thus much of the book deals with the process of travel, rather than its experience.

Despite this, From Heaven Lake is a worthwhile read. Besides Turfan we visit Urumqi and the high altitude lake that gives the book its title. The tour moves on to Xian, Lanzhou, Dunhuang and then across Qinghai to Tibet and especially Llasa. This city occupies much of the text, revealing that visiting it was very much at the heart of the author’s consideration. We do meet some interesting people along the way, but they are largely bureaucrats, drivers or officials associated with the author’s travel arrangements. Given Vikram Seth’s experience in the country, there seems to be a missed opportunity here, in that more people would have embroidered the text with more interesting and enduring detail than the repeated travel problems.

In its time, From Heaven Lake might perhaps have been a unique account of a trip that few contemporary travellers would have contemplated, let alone attempted. Today it still presents in interesting account of a personal challenge, but offers too little contemporary experience to motivate the general reader to stay on board.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Division of the Spoils by Paul Scott

Start with two major religions, Islam and Hinduism. To a history of one ruling the other, add the complication of a determinedly, in part evangelical Christian colonial administration that lords it over both and in recent memory has massacred innocents. Calls for independence are frequent, but the detail of “from what” remains negotiable. There is civil disobedience in a state whose imperial government can only function by virtue of local cooperation. But should independence lead to a unitary state, religiously mixed, or should it divide along ethnic lines in an attempt to avoid conflict of interest?

Then there’s a World War against an invading Japanese army to be coped with. And when a new kind of independence is called for, one that not only politically rejects the colonial masters but also wages war against them, new complications emerge. Those who deserted to fight alongside the enemy risk courts-martial and death sentences for treason, despite their being viewed locally as freedom fighters by those who desire independence at any cost, whilst remaining traitors in the eyes of anyone seeking any form of accommodation with the status quo.

This is India in the 1940s, and as yet there has been no mention yet of the princely states, each with its Nawab or Maharajah at its head, ostensibly independent but land-locked in their geographical and political dependency, surrounded by colonialism that, if anything, has nurtured them. Which way would these august gentlemen lean?

A Division Of The Spoils by Paul Scott is the last novel in his Raj Quartet. It is set against this backdrop of complex social, political, military, even geo-political considerations, all of which interact and thus influence one another. The novel’s story features a group of British colonials, perhaps locked in time, adherents of assumptions that no longer apply, who have to cope not only with all the complications of war and changing India, but also of their own lives, their forcibly limited aspirations and their enforced change of identity.

A Division Of The Spoils is such a vast project that a reader might suspect that the pace might flag somewhere within its six hundred or so pages. The reader would be wrong. By shifting the focus from one character to another, by changing the narrative’s point of view, the book not only enthrals from first to last, it also brings to life the dilemmas that face these people, often tragically, but never without compassion or empathy.

Paul Scott has not written a novel that reaches, or even tries to offer solutions or analyses. The only end products are history, itself, and the deaths of some of the characters, whom, when deceased, we realise we may not have known very well at any time. Perhaps they themselves did not really know who they were, why they were playing the role of the ruler, acting out superiority whenever a suitable minion or perhaps target might be identified. They might have been sure what disgusted them, but they were never sure of their own motives, or their motivations, even when these ran to an overtly paternalistic, perhaps patronising attitude towards the ruled.

Yet, through all the confusion of politics, war and change, people must live their lives. Hopefully, they are the subjects of this change because, if they are its objects, they are in danger. Just ask Ahmed Kasim, who was never very political, or even very Islamic. Ask Susan Layton, then Bingham, then Merrick. Ask those who stay on or those who leave, those who sign away their independence and power, or those who manipulate events to their advantage. And finally, if you ask me, I would conclude that The Division Of The Spoils, and the Raj Quartet as a whole, represent an achievement in writing through the medium of fiction that has certainly never been surpassed. When piles appear, look for this one at the top.