Irish Noir: ‘The Blood Miracles’ by Lisa McInerney

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Around this time list year, I was waxing lyrical about McInerney’s perfectly titled debut novel ‘The Glorious Heresies.’  The book rightly won the 2016 Baileys Prize and now its sequel, ‘The Blood Miracles’, has come out just in time to be read before I jump into my 2017 shortlist readings.

‘The Glorious Heresies’ was a madcap and surprisingly poignant romp through Cork’s squalid underlife.  Amongst the mayhem of plot lines and numerous protagonists, it was grounded by the coming of age story of young Ryan Cusack.  Caught up in the madness of everything around him, Ryan’s attempts to grow up and find his place in the world were highlights in an already dazzling debut.

‘The Blood Miracles’ picks up Ryan’s story a few years later.  He’s now in his twenties and, poor soul, has benefitted little from the passing of time.  Potentially suicidal and consistently self-destructive, Ryan works as an enforcer, translator, seller and surrogate son for a small-time crime lord who wants to expand his operations.  His secret talents for music, languages and tenderness that shone through ‘The Glorious Heresies’ have become bitter obsessions, constantly returned to as Ryan tries to reconcile his depressed present with his promising past.

Previous events are referred to throughout ‘The Blood Miracles’, but don’t be mislead, McInerney has produced a very different book for her second novel.  ‘The Glorious Heresies’ was a frenetic view of a city with a past that was catching up with it and a present that was swirling out of control.  Despite references to previous events, ‘The Blood Miracles’ exists in a different world, a different genre.  Instead of being a novel of the city with moments of laugh-out-loud comedy and heart-rending pathos, it’s a tangled crime story about drug dealers, their multiple girlfriends and their confused loyalties.  There are double-crossings, stunning coincidences, exotic locations, madonnas, whores and lots of drug and nightclub scenes.  The characters are depressingly realistic, but evoked without the sparkle and humour I had been looking forward to.  As this review shows, I’m still actually far more interested in ‘The Glorious Heresies’ than in its sequel; it’s frustrating to find yourself constantly wanting to re-read an earlier book by an author when you’re trying to enjoy the new one.

I’m intrigued to see what McInerney writes next.  I’m hoping of course for a return to the shocking splendour of ‘The Glorious Heresies, but ‘The Blood Miracles’ has shown that she has a interest in other genres – and also that she can write books extremely quickly.  Who knows, there may be another Cork-set Women’s Prize contender in 2018…

 I received my copy of ‘The Blood Miracles’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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One of the best Russian authors you’ve never heard of: ‘The History of a Town’ by M E Saltykov-Shchedrin

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In 2015, I embarked on a  twelve month Russian reading challenge.  Now that we’re in the middle of a year filled with commemorations of the 1917 revolution, I suspect I may have jumped the gun slightly.  I can’t feel many regrets though, 2015 gave me one of the most satisfying reading years I can recall, and it also means that I’m now able to approach new Russian translations and publications with a comfortable sense of familiarity.  In the case of Saltykov-Shchedrin, this sense was enhanced by extreme excitement, his ‘The Golovlyov Family‘ had been one of the highlights of my 2015 reading.  It had been irritatingly difficult to get hold of an English copy of the novel and I’d never heard of anything else by Saltykov-Shchedrin in translation so it’s hard to express quite how delighted I felt when I came across a beautiful Apollo edition of ‘The History of a Town’ towards the end of last year.

Late 2016 was in many ways the ideal moment to read a scathing satyr on power, bureaucracy and incompetent government but I’m afraid I just couldn’t face it.  Since then ‘The History of a Town’ has been adding grandeur to my to-be-read shelf, patiently awaiting for the moment when my desire to read it would overtake my reluctance to face the black comedy it was sure to contain.

Though it hasn’t supplanted the claustrophobic gothic terror of ‘The Golovlyov Family’ in my list of best Russian novels, ‘The History of a Town’ has enhanced my already exaggerated sense of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s skill.  The book is presented as a history of Glupov (‘Stupid town’), specifically it is a chronicle of town governors.  I’d paraphrase a few characteristics of these men (and usurping women) but I don’t think you’d believe me so it’s probably best to go with an extract from the list near the start of the book:

5. LAMVROKAKIS: Fugitive Greek.  No Christian name or patronymic; not even a rank; captured in the market at Nezhin by Count Kirila Razumovsky.  Traded in soap, sponges, and nuts; was in favour of classical education.  In 1956 found dead in bed, bitten to death by bed-bugs.

6. BAKLAN, IVAN MATVEICH: Brigadier.  Seven feet seven inches tall; boasted he was a direct descendant of Ivan the Great (the well-known bell-tower in Moscow).  Broke in half in the great gale of 1761.

7. PREIFFER BOGDAN BOGDANOVICH: Sergeant of the Guards.  A native of Holstein.  Achieved nothing; replaced for his ignorance in 1762.

8. BRUDASTY, DEMENTY VARLAMOVICH: Appointed in haste; his head contained a mechanism on account of which he was called ‘the Music-box.’  This did not prevent him from settling the problem of tax arrears, which his predecessor had neglected…

I know it’s bad form to give away too much of a book’s contents in a review, but I must also tell you about a couple of other memorable governors:

16 PRYSHCH, IVAN PANTELEICH: Mayor.  His head turned out to be filled with force-meat, a discovery made by the Marshal of Nobility.

17. IVANOV, NIKODIM OSIPOVICH: State Councillor.  So small that he could not take in extensive laws.  Died of strain in 1918 trying to assimilate a Senate decree.

After the introductory passages set the scene, the rest of the book fleshes out these summaries, giving more detailed accounts of the rule of each governor in turn.  It’s ludicrous and exaggerated and painfully apt.  It’s also a useful reminder that insane and arbitrary abuses of power in no way began with the revolution but had been a terrifying part of everyday Russian life for centuries.

Apollo may not have included this novel in their list of ‘The Best Books you’ve Never Read‘ and I still suspect that ‘The Golovlyov Family’ is slightly more deserving of such a title, but ‘The History of a Town’ delivers everything you could wish for in a satire on politics and power.  I P Foote’s translation perfectly matches the semi-controlled madness of the characters and events described and I can only hope that more of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s works start to appear in bookshops in the near future.  And also that his outrageous fictions will stop seems so prescient and contemporary, though that may be a bit too much to wish for.

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Better late than never: ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar

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Near the start of Paul Bailey’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Yourcenar’s fictional memoir, we’re told the idea for the book first came to the author in the mid-1920s.  Now I don’t want to push the comparison too much, but the novel wasn’t actually published till 1951 so reviewing it gives me an opportunity to reflect on my own recent literary hiatus.  I know that a month away from WordPress isn’t really like Yourcenar’s years without publication (there was over a decade between ‘Hadrian’ and her previous novel).  Still, if this book has taught me anything it’s that there is nothing wrong with reading your own theories and beliefs into the life of a historical hero.

One reason why it’s so tempting to impose my own interpretation on this book, is that I feel the London libraries have given me a strong example to follow.  I had originally hoped to read and review ‘Hadrian’ for the 1951 reading club and was delighted to discover that it is held by several local libraries, each of which had decided to place it on a different shelf:  In Brixton it is held in ‘Gay/Lesbian’, in Streatham it is in ‘Classic Fiction’, in Tooting it is categorised as ‘History’ and in Northcote as ‘Classics: classics.’  Having read it, I’m rather disappointed that it wasn’t stored under ‘Philosophy,’ as well, but I like to think that in other libraries this may well be the case.

For all the initial build up however, I’m not sure this book is the experimental genre-bending work such confusion had lead me to expect.  Following her exhaustive research, Yourcenar structures the novel as a letter from the dying Hadrian to his future successor Marcus Aurelius.  We learn about the important events of his life, but the focus is far more on his thoughts and philosophies, giving an excellent view of what Hadrian might have believed, if Hadrian had happened to be a twentieth-century French humanist.

Such an approach inevitably slows the pace of this account of an action-packed life. Hadrian was not born to power; he became emperor after being adopted by the martial Trajan.  Before and after his accession to ultimate power he was a relentless adventurer, roaming the known world and making the most of all the physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual experiences open to him.  By the time we encounter him as the narrator of the novel, the possibilities of the first option have receded into the past.  The restless emperor can now barely move his body, and even his recollections of previous exploits seem consumed with reflections on sensuality rather than conveying a sense of action.

This tone extends to the descriptions of sexuality.  Hadrian’s most significant relationship was with the Greek Antinous.  The two met when Hadrian was in his forties and Antinous was a young teenager, an age discrepancy which can’t help affect my response to the romance between the master and his dependant.  We know from history that Antinous died suddenly and under rather murky circumstances around the age of 20, at which point he was deified by the mourning emperor.  We also know a lot about what he looked like.  Part of the cult Hadrian initiated in his memory involved a huge number of statues being created; according to Wikipedia, ‘more images have been identified of Antinous than of any other figure in classical antiquity with the exceptions of Augustus and Hadrian.’

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Bust of Antinous from Wikipedia

It’s all exciting stuff, with enough sex, danger and adventure to make anyone interested in classical history.  Yourcenar however has gone for a decidedly philosophical rather than sensationalist telling of Hadrian’s life and I’m afraid it says more about me than her literary skills that I rather wish she hadn’t.  I’m flying in the face of traditional responses to the book, but I like to believe that Hadrian was a much more determined, charismatic and, frankly, interesting man than I got from the narrative.  I shouldn’t complain though; reading ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ has allowed me to belatedly feel a part of the 1951 reading club, given me the chance to read a work by the first woman ever to be elected to the Académie Français and reminded me to get blogging again.  It may not have taught me much that I didn’t know about Hadrian’s life from listening to the wonderful ‘History of Rome podcast,’ but it has been an oblique window into how the past was viewed by 1950s intellectuals.  It’s also given me a standard against which to judge all library books and I’m now on the lookout to see if I can find any books that cause more confusion to cataloguing systems!

Note:
Even though I didn’t manage to review ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ for the 1951 club, it did make it onto the list and was reviewed at Intermittencies of the Mind.

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Beyond ‘Brokeback Mountain’: ‘Close Range: Wyoming Stories’ by Annie Proulx

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I have been meaning to read ‘Close Range’ for years.  I even managed to kid myself that I’d read most of it, when I found a stand-alone edition of ‘Brokeback Mountain’, the last novella in the collection, at my local library.  Now that I have the real thing though, I can speak down to my former self, ‘Brokeback’ might be tender, bitter and sublime, but it is only a part of the fierce glory of the whole ‘Wyoming Stories.’

The insular, brutal lives of the characters are especially striking given the current tenor of American politics.  Characters very rarely leave their home territory.  In ‘A Lonely Coast’ the narrator remembers her one vacation outside the state ‘to Oregon where my brother lived … up the lonely coast a stuttering blink warned ships away.  I said to Riley that was what we needed in Wyoming – lighthouses.  He said no, what we needed was a wall around the state and turrets with machine guns in them.‘  As with states, so with people; the collections’ characters are walled off from each other, trapped as much in society as they are by the lonely and never-ending landscape around them.  We see how those who don’t fit in become victims, but also how even the most secure must endure daily hardship.  In the twisted and brilliant ‘People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water’ for example, incidental detail creates a distressing portrait of deprivation with ‘Bliss, who had not tasted candy until he was fourteen and then spat it out, saying, too much taste.’ 

The stories aren’t all about misery and violence though, or at least, they’re not only about misery and violence.  There are laugh-out-loud moments of comedy, summed up in the deadpan ’55 Miles to the Gas Pump’; I don’t want to give away the punchline, but this two page story was a highlight of the collection.  There are also fantastical elements, with magical spurs and an abandoned tractor whose interactions with a lonely girl are far more shocking than the realist setting would lead you to expect.  I still have a hard time reconciling my imagination with the events in ‘The Bunchgrass at the Edge of the World,’ but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it.

Proulx’s most recent novel, ‘Barkskins’ (reviewed here) has been long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize.  ‘Barkskins’ is a epic novel about the American forests.  It is an ambitious book with an attractive premise, but I know the ‘Close Range’ is going to be more of a personal favourite.  It may present a less clear cut and sympathetic message, but despite, or perhaps because of this, it is utterly enthralling.  Even while I’m yearning for pleasant escapism in my reading, the visceral stories in this collection have touched me and pulled me back into a dark and lonely world that is somehow still alive with love, majesty and magic.

Posted in Annie Proulx, Reading America, Short story collections | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

‘The Accusation: Forbidden Stories From Inside North Korea’ by Bandi

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As readers of this blog will know, I’m a huge fan of translated literature, especially when it gives me an insight into a new country or culture.  It’s always exciting when I’m able to read my first book from a new place; highlights so far have included Scholastique Mukasonga’s Cockroaches from Rwanda, Paulina Chiziane’s ‘The First Wife‘ from Mozambique and the Haitian ‘Dance on the Volcano‘ by Marie Vieux-Chauvet.  Reliant on translation as I am, I feel extremely privileged at having access to such books.

I never would have imagined being able to add a dissident North Korean voice to my round-the-world reading.  North Korea is, after all, a famously secretive country, closely controlling both what happens within its borders and also what can be made public to the enemies outside.  Kim Seong-dong’s Afterword to ‘The Accusation’ includes details of how the manuscript was smuggled out of North Korea and some information about Bandi (not the author’s real name).  It is a harsh reminder of the freedoms we in the West are lucky enough to take for granted.  When Kim Soeng-dong describes the manuscript in telling detail ‘the indentations made by the pressure of the writer’s pencil are plainly visible, while the faded paper indicates the long gestation of the work‘ before reminding us that ‘these were works that could not be written without risking one’s life,‘ the indictments and bravery of these stories become even more forceful.

Bandi’s characters are ordinary men and women trying to live ordinary lives.  Their ambitions range from wishing to succeed at work, wishing to visit family members, wishing to join the Communist party to wishing relations would succeed better at fitting in with society’s expectations.  Because the setting is North Korea though, such aspirations are thwarted swiftly and crushingly.  The woman who draws her curtains at the wrong time of day, the man who wishes to travel to see his dying mother – motivation, intention, final results are all irrelevant when they come up against the relentless repressive regime.

The stories themselves are vehicles for the passionate accusation against an unjust government.  Each follows a similar structure of conformity to the unspoken rules followed by a realisation of their inhumanity.  The symbolism is equally direct, as pet birds are caged, beloved trees are cut down and poisonous mushrooms appear red on the ground.  The book has been translated by Deborah Smith, who (with Han Kang) won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for ‘The Vegetarian.’  Smith also translated Kang’s brutal ‘Human Acts‘; here she shows her versatility with the, very different, direct tone of ‘The Accusation.’

The risks taken to write, save and finally bring these stories to publication have been immense.  I feel the only response from those of us fortunate enough to be able to work, travel and write freely, must be to read and discuss them.  It is a reminder of the important work done by organisations such as PEN (who selected this book for one of their awards, designed to encourage UK publishers to acquire more books from other languages).  There is no way of knowing what is happening to Bandi since the publication of this collection.  His identity has been scrupulously protected by the few South Koreans who can connect him to the book, but the stories themselves show the power and reach of the North Korean authorities.  Through his writing however, Bandi has succeeded in standing witness to his society, and I hope that his stories will spread his ideas to readers from worlds so cruelly barred to him.

I received my copy of ‘The Accusation’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in Bandi, Reading in translation | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

One of the Best Books You’ve Never Read: ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones’ by Charles Neider

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Last year Apollo books published 8 novels in their provocatively titled list ‘The Best Books You’ve Never Read.’  I felt utterly shamed by the collected novels; they were right, I’d read none of them.  The gauntlet had been thrown down, and what better place to pick it up than with the gunslinging antics of ‘The Kid’ – Charles Neider’s love letter to the Wild West.

It all felt like very new territory for me.  Not only had I never heard of Neider (though I was very excited to see him compared with fellow Odessan Isaac Babel on the blurb), I have read very few cowboy novels.  It may be that the fluent sparse language and wonderful character names are typical to the genre; the combination of daring machismo and jaded fatigue might be overly familiar to lovers of Western.  Personally, I was completely won over, both by the charismatic Hendry (aka ‘the Kid’) and by our matter of fact narrator, Doc Baker.

Doc was with the Kid during the final showdown and has decided it’s time to set the story straight.  From the men he shot, the woman he loved and the land he couldn’t leave, Doc promises the whole story of his friend’s death.  Along the way, we not only get to know the charismatic Kid, but also the untamed land he roams:

You must remember that in those times things weren’t all figured out the way they are now.  There were times for example when a rustler was not a rustler, but a fellow who made a living rounding up unbranded strays and who was a good and necessary hand in the business – until somebody got it into his head that it didn’t pay to have him around any more and passed a law and armed a lot of men and went sneaking around looking for branding irons that it was death from then on to have on you.  But I will admit that once you became one you were likely to continue being one.  And why not? Who wants to be fenced in if you don’t have to be? There was plenty of stray beef around, and plenty of loose money and land, and women for the asking.  So that in a nutshell is the story of our turning outlaw and if it makes you unhappy why write me a letter and I’ll see what I can do about it for you.’

For much of the novel, the Kid is indeed fenced in (locked in a jail, awaiting a death sentence), and his response is as unflustered as Doc’s narration.  Of course, the reader knows from the first page that Kid is never going die following a straightforward execution.  Doc still builds up the suspense though, greatly assisted by his hero’s fatalistic indifference to the odds stacked against him.

As you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones.’  It has got me interested in reading more literature of the Wild West and made me even keener to seek out Apollo’s other great titles.

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Image from www.foyles.co.uk

Full list of Apollo’s ‘Best Books You’ve Never Heard of’:

‘Bosnian Chronicle’ by Iva Andrić
‘Now in November’ by Josephine Johnson
‘The Lost Europeans’ by Emanuel Litvinoff
‘The Day of Judgement’ by Salvatore Satta
‘My Son, My Son’ by Howard Spring
‘The Man Who Loved Children’ by Christina Stead
‘Delta Wedding’ by Eudora Welty
And, of course, ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones’ by Charles Neider.

Posted in Charles Neider, Reading America | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Roman Hoodlums: ‘The Ragazzi’ by Pier Paolo Pasonlini

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When I picked up Pasolini’s ‘The Ragazzi’, I think I was expecting a male counterpart to Elena Ferrante’s wonderful Neapolitan novels (I’ve read and reviewed ‘My Brilliant Friend‘ and ‘The Story of a New Name‘ on the blog).  Like Ferrante’s books, ‘The Ragazzi’ is set in a poverty-stricken community and deals with young protagonists on the brink of adulthood.  The blurb for my copy of Pasolini’s novel was as stylishly vague as the cover, so I had little to guide me when I started reading.

The fact is ‘The Ragazzi’ is closer to Ernst Haffner’s ‘Blood Brothers’ than anything else I’ve reviewed recently.  It is about those ignored by mainstream society and the communities they end up forming for themselves.  The brutality of the lives and society depicted takes precedent over a more traditional story or message.  For one thing, although there is a smattering of Christ imagery, the book is determinedly non-literary.  Apparently the original edition contained a glossary of ‘Romano’ words for Italian readers and even in translation the focus remains on the prosaic experiences of the protagonists, consistently stripped of any comforting ‘artistic’ touches or descriptions.  Instead of a clearly structured novel therefore, ‘The Ragazzi’ is made up of episodes in a the lives of a group teenagers and boys in post-war Rome.  At times almost like a collection of short stories, we follow certain key characters through nights of crime and days of loitering, each individual episode likely to be disrupted by arrest, flight or simply a change of scene or new escapade.

Emile Capouya’s translation brings home the stifling monotony and violence of the boys’ lives, in a way that feels true to the Neorealism of Pasolini’s original Italian.  This does not always make for a pleasant read; the miserable world these young men inhabit is not one that I’d ever want to visit, and the documentary style narration feels uncomfortably unsympathetic in the face of their troubles and the torments they inflict on others.  ‘The Ragazzi’ was shocking when it was first published in 1955 and the vivid, unforgiving tone ensures it is still powerful today; a chilling novel albeit set under the Roman sun.

Posted in Italian Literature, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Reading in translation, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 6 Comments