Confessions of an Impulsive-Obsessive Reader: Book Diary April 2018

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Madeleine Thien have featured together in another edition of the book diary, in last September, and seeing them on my list again so soon reminded me how I am what I usually call an impulsive-obsessive reader, namely someone who, when discovering an author she likes will not rest until she gets hold of possibly all their work, including obscure essays and various versions of essentially the same short story collection.

The story of Adichie’s book, Half of a Yellow Sun unfolds before, during and briefly after the civil war which ravaged Nigeria between 1967 and 1970 and is told from the varying perspectives of three of its main characters, Olanna, Ugwu, houseboy to Olanna’s husband and Richard, the English partner of Olanna’s sister. Through their accounts we see their Westernized, prosperous and seemingly safe universe unravel into the blind violence of war, with destruction and hunger reigning supreme. The war lead to the temporary secession of the Republic of Biafra, of which I’d heard as a child in a very precise context: whenever I would refuse my meal, which, since I was a fussy infant, happened very often, I would be informed that this would lead to me looking like a Biafran, and that was bad, for Biafrans were extremely skinny and had large bellies and eyes shining with malnutrition.

Cambodia was also a one concept land for a considerable time: the land of the exotically sounding Khmer Rouge, the infamous Pol Pot and their killing fields. What it shared with Biafra was horror, and geographical remoteness. These places were so far, stranded on alien continents, that they could almost be from another time, therefore the suffering of whoever might have lived there was almost fictional.  Yet the only way to make these people and their experiences real, without actually having been there, is through fiction itself: Olanna and Janie, the main characters of Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter, act, think and speak in familiar ways (both Adichie and Thien write directly in English, an intriguing and complex topic in itself), while going through experiences which almost defy description. Even adjectives like extreme, traumatic or inhuman sound hollow. The mastery of both authors lies in the fact that they don’t flinch in front of horror, but defiantly walk us through it: the ebb of the prose stays beautiful, even, dignified as it takes the story through darkness and towards an outcome that is somehow an end, yet not redemption. There can be no redemption, and there should be no forgetting.

While Adichie and Thien weave stories about a past they have not witnessed in first person, journalist Elena Stancu and photographer Cosmin Bumbuţ decided to face the realities of present day Romania head on, by permanently moving into a mobile home (this seems to have become a bit of fashion these days, but they’ve been doing it since way before it was cool) and travelling around the country trying to give a voice and a face to the country’s most disenfranchised people, the poor, the illiterate, the inmates, the drug addicts, the homeless, the disabled or the Roma. The tragedy of our society lies in the fact that they are so many, with so little means of ever breaking the cycle and living surrounded by the ignorance and hatred of the majority- the further tragedy is that ’we’ are the majority by perhaps a very small margin, yet we choose to look the other way. Thee book Acasă, pe drum, with texts by Stancu and photography by Bumbuţ, is a painstakingly researched, always objective and always deeply uncomfortable read, as taxing as it is necessary.

Virginie Despentes’s (she of Baise-moi fame) Vernon Subutex trilogy starts off with perhaps lighter promises, but we soon discover that our man Vernon, the affable and much loved owner of a record store which was forced to fold by the changing face of the music industry, is to lose his home as well and will thus engage in one of those things which are so French only a French expression will do them justice- ‘une descente dans l’enfer’, which by the end of the second novel sees him as a sort of unwilling zen guru of the Buttes Chaumont. While this is perhaps a spoiler, the real delights of the novel lie not in the story, but in the almost programmatic way with which Despentes tries to pick a fight with almost every aspect of contemporary French society, another nigh untranslatable word comes to mind here, vitupérer, of which to rail against is a rather conservative rendering. This is a feisty effort, funny and dark in equal measures, packed to the brim with pop culture references and the kind of French bitterness which by slipping towards nihilism becomes almost hopeful.

In keeping with my plan of reading more non-English literature in the original, I indulged in more Frenchness with Catherine Cusset’s L’autre qu’on adorait. Since it was published in 2016 there is no English translation yet, there is however one for the first Vernon Subutex, and it made it to the International Booker Prize longlist too. Returning to Cusset’s novel, roughly translated as ‘The Other We Adored’, it follows the story of promising intellectual Thomas from his early days as a student in France to his suicide in America. There she goes spoiling it again you will say, well, the novel opens with the scene of the suicide, so no surprise there, and it then moves back and forth in a very odd second personal singular- the narrator is basically telling Thomas the story of his own life as if he were still present, a conceit which might feel artificial in the beginning, but ultimately one gets used to it and accepts it as almost necessary to telling the story of a perhaps adorable, but ultimately deeply infuriating man.

The seemingly lightest read of this batch should be Michael Cox’s fabulous The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines, but then Bill Shankly’s words come to mind, namely that while some think that football is a matter of life and death Shankly assures us it’s much more serious than that. As I’d already mentioned it while writing about Knausgård and Ekelund’s Home and Away, writing well and passionately about football can and will often lead to much more ‘serious’ observations about our times and society in general, of which ‘the beautiful game’ can often be both a pulse and a barometre. While more football, and particularly tactics specific than Home and Away, The Mixer is no exception to that. Based on a solid foundation of facts and figures, it is nevertheless always a joy to read and doesn’t forget to occasionally mix in the odd quirky anecdotes which make every football fiend giggle with childish delight.

Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep has been one of my literary white whales for quite some time now. As such, it has been at the top of my to be read list for perhaps two decades and when I finally got around to reading something by Dick, I read Ubik. (Another white whale, namely The Infinite Jest is in the process of being slowly and painstakingly digested, so I harbour some hope for the Electric Sheep as well.) As for Ubik, I am afraid it did not leave a particularly lasting impression, so much so that I had to quickly review the plot line, although I’d read it as recently as February. In the past I tended to freak out whenever I forgot the minutiae of a story too fast, now I feel it more as a sign that the book simply did not work for me. The idea of Ubik itself, as a manifestation of an all knowing, all scheming and perhaps all evil power seemed very promising, but the plot slowly became too willing to surprise for its own good and the end almost felt like Dick was, well, a bit bored. That’s sacrilege, I know, and I own up to it.

Just as I own up to the fact that I also felt the same thing about Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (that makes up exactly one thousand and one, in case you wondered.) With the difference that the book with the very long name- so sorry Salman but I really won’t write that title down again, long numerals have always been my sworn enemies-began splendidly, with that kind of Rushdian magic realism where the magic is like the legendary smoke of the djinn stirred from the lamp, both completely outrageous and incredibly mundane. At his best, I never have trouble believing Rushdie, alright, this man walks floating a few centimetres off the ground, of course he does, why wouldn’t he, I might as well try tomorrow myself. Only that somewhere about two thirds into the story, when things seemed to get pretty exciting I started worrying that there’s simply too little of the book left to keep the same pace and detail, and sure enough, Rushdie seems to get disenchanted with the wondrous little universe he’s created, and he decides to rather hastily stitch up loose ends.

Patience is however something Arundhati Roy does not lack, and at about the same length as Rushdie’s novel, The God of Small Things is a much more balanced and rounded accomplishment. Set in Kerala, in a community of Syrian Christians, it tells the story of two fraternal twins whose lives are torn apart by a dark secret. The story is built slowly and carefully, from small vivid things, intricate details, puzzle pieces with unexpected edges. At first glance a little jewel case of a story, filled with the striking colours and pungent smells one associates with Kerala, it gradually turns out to be much more than that- it’s a brave, fierce story that takes on one of the most terrible aspects of Indian society, that of castes, and how those belonging to the lesser ones are expected to conduct their lives and what is the price one pays for transgression. Unsurprisingly enough, while it met with rave reviews outside India, it did not necessarily build a local fanbase for Roy, yet another one of those strangely poignant no one is a prophet in their own land moments.

Before tackling a bulky impulsive-obsessive Ferrante phase, let us briefly return to infuriating men, namely Dino Buzzati, whose short stories, in all honesty, I read out of impulse as well, after having bumped into several positive reviews. I very rarely feel like closing a book and hitting it repeatedly on the table until the content inside it goes quiet, but that’s exactly the state I was in holding a rather bulky brown tome of Buzzati short stories above the formica of a Vienna coffee house table. Since everyone around me was germanically civil, I refrained, but my soul was on fire with revolt at the simple gimmicks, the stereotypical treatment of women, the left-wing politics worn like a badge of honour, and I could rant on an on if I were asked, enumerating all the things that annoyed me about Buzzati. I therefore unceremoniously returned the book to the library and decided to bury all its contents in a back drawer of my mind. Only, they wouldn’t stay there. Every now and then a small event would trigger a memory of something I’d read, and it would dawn on me that it was in one of those damned Buzzati stories. For having been a journalist, he was also deeply observant, and perhaps ultimately a better writer than I thought. In moments of profound honesty, akin to those in which I grudgingly admit Cristiano Ronaldo is a fine player, I will thus say a good word or two about Buzzati. In all other moments though I will still look for a table with a really sharp edge to it.

Now on to Ferrante. In the previous installment I’d complained a little about Tainted Love and I have to say that at first reading The Days of Abandonment was also a bit puzzling, but by that time I had a growing conviction that I was missing something, so I decided to read her collection of letters, articles and essays which compose La Frantumaglia– since it is a made up word, the English title was left as such, but it essentially describes something fragmentary, both as falling apart, and being made a whole from disparate elements. I secretly first felt that publishing such a book is almost self-indulgent, but La Frantumaglia is the exact opposite of that. It makes Ferrante’s entire work come in to sharp focus, providing an exploration of the themes it is centred on, the female experience, mother-daughter relationships, her tense rapport to Naples and her wish to remain unknown to the public. Reading The Lost Daughter after Frantumaglia was further evidence to how disciplined and programmatic her writing is- by her own admission, she has discarded many of the works she felt unfit for publishing, and this is perhaps why those which were ultimately published feel as if they’re flowing with ease, almost reading themselves as they say, each word is in its right place, each sentence saying exactly as much as it is supposed to say. While The Days of Abandonment portrays the entire process of a marriage’s dissolution, and within it the dissolution and reconstruction of its main character, Olga, trapped in the oppressive heat of a summer in Turin, The Lost Daughter narrates an isolated incident in the life of a middle-aged woman, Leda, incidentally on a summer seaside holiday. The fact that heat often leads to misery in Ferrante’s universe might be yet another symptom of a certain Napoli PTSD her characters experience- the city which is not always lavished with love in the books has nevertheless been lavished with tourists in search of the world of the Neapolitan Quartet.

Another fortuitous effect of having read La Frantumaglia was the discovery of Clarice Lispector, recommended by Ferrante as one of the authors she very much admires. Lispector moved to Brazil as a child, so Portuguese is not her native tongue- though one would never have guessed, or perhaps the freedom with which she uses it comes exactly from this later acquaintance which gives her a perspective beyond the framework of traditional Brazilian literary language. Before starting Near to the Wild Heart I’d read ecstatic reviews, which almost always put me on my guard, but in Lispector’s case they are fully justified: her writing is groundbreaking even in translation, even after having read possible forerunners such as Joyce (the book’s title comes from The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man although Lispector claims to have read it only after having written her own novel) or Woolf. Linguistic inventiveness and stream of consciousness techniques can sometimes be a challenge, reading Ulysses, for example can occasionally feel like hopping the marathon with one leg, but Lispector is both superbly readable and truly experimental. She also somehow reminds me of some of Pessoa’s work, and I again scold myself for not having learned Portuguese.

I haven’t learned Norwegian either, so I always have to keep my fingers crossed that Karl Ove Knausgård’s English translators are on top of their game, and they are, the third installment of the seasons quartet, Spring has just landed on the shelves and it moves away somewhat from the structure of the previous two seasons, Autumn and Winter. As his daughter was born in late winter, in Spring, although he keeps the conceit of a letter addressed to her older self, he doesn’t go for the dictionary format, instead he describes a day in her life, also referring to events which took place before her birth and as such he enters that dangerous territory which suits him best, of autobiographical writing so detailed it verges on the uncomfortable. To me, though, reading him has always felt more of a solace:  it makes my trials and tribulations, my own struggle, so to speak, though very different from Knausgård’s, a little more bearable. I could almost call it a self-help manual for cynics but one that in certain unexpected moments almost moved me to tears. (And I am just as averse to crying as Knausgård is, though at least I don’t have to wrestle the guilt of not being manly enough.)

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