Tag Archives: France

Another Country (2012) – Anjali JOSEPH

Moving away from China, and indeed, all of East Asia, I’m continuing my journey down the Man Asian Literary Prize. Anjali Joseph is from Bombay, though went to university in England. Unsurprisingly, then, her fiction deals with the migrant experience in England, exploring the ways in which identity is created by those around you, and by those who raised you.

Leela doesn’t know what to do with her life. Stuck teaching English in Paris, she sleeps with men, but doesn’t feel the need to go anything further. Finding her life in Paris unfulfilling, she returns to England, where she went to university, to see if she can reconnect with her friends, but there is nothing there for her. She decides to move to Bombay, where her parents live, to see if she can reconnect with her homeland. But  nothing is ever as easy as it seems.

Why do we write fiction? To tell a rollicking good story? To tell people about history? Do we do it to explore the human condition? It’s probably a combination of all of these things—and more—but if Joseph is trying to tap in to any of these, she seems wildly off the mark. Certainly this is not what I would term an action-packed novel. Almost nothing of any consequence happens. And it’s not an historical novel, so we’re not looking at the ways in which history mirrors the present. So we’re left with the human condition.

If this is an exploration of the human condition, then it’s a damning indictment of young people today. Though her friends seem to be nice enough people, with stable jobs and stable relationships, Leela finds herself outside the mainstream, because she cannot deal with settling down in either a job or a relationship.

But this isn’t an angry novel. Joseph isn’t aggrieved at her fellow Gen Y kids—or if she is, she doesn’t show it in her writing. Leela is not portrayed as a figure to be pitied or one that should enrage us. Just like Leela, the writing seems apathetic. Joseph is concerned with the minutiae of Leela’s daily life, down to the conversations with her friends about what kind of drink they should get from the bar. We don’t get grand, sweeping statements, and though that’s not what I necessarily look for in a novel, some hints as to what the whole point is would have been nice.

In many ways, the three sections of the novel are informed by the three men Leela finds herself involved with: Simon in Paris; Richard, in London; and Vikram, in Bombay. Each one gets closer and closer to a real relationship, but each time, Leela pulls back at the last minute, unable to commit to any man, or indeed, any other person. She has trouble communicating with anyone in Paris, seems isolated and distant from her friends in England, and spends much of her time in Bombay ill.

Her relationship with Simon starts as something spontaneous and exciting, but all too soon, Leela finds herself wondering and stressing about the boundaries (or lack thereof) in a relationship that has never been defined. Certainly, a modern problem if ever there was one, and a situation that could easily be mined for dramatic fodder. But Joseph pulls back,

An unspecified time jump brings us to London, where Leela has taken up with a man named Richard, though at the beginning, Simon still seems to be in the picture. Richard, unlike Simon, seems to want a serious relationship, though Leela remains unconvinced, to the point where she breaks up with him late one night, unable to explain what it is that went wrong. Needless to say, Richard isn’t impressed with this, and though he tries to fix what is wrong, ultimately, she cannot explicate what it is that she doesn’t like.

We move time and space again, this time finding Leela in Bombay, doing some secretarial work for a small Indian company. In spite of living in an all-female dorm (once again finding herself unable to communicate with the people she lives with), she finds Vikram, and strikes up a relationship with him. It seems to be going well—Leela is introduced to his over-protective, horribly wealthy mother, who doesn’t seem to like Leela at all. In fact, it gets to the stage where they are engaged, but in the end, Leela breaks it off.

Despite her physical movement, Leela remains restless and isolated. In Paris, this can be attributed to her inability to speak French. She cannot talk to people on the street, leaving her with few friends and acquaintances she can call on in times of need. In London, she has been away long enough for her friends to have moved on from her, not in an unkind way, but enough time has passed that they simply find each other to be strangers. Questions of racial identity are brought up—something that we have certainly come to expect from authors that move around the globe like Joseph has done—and while any other author might explore the ways in which race disconnects us in the modern world, this doesn’t seem to be a factor in Leela’s listlessness. It’s decidedly odd. Like so many members of Gen Y, Leela’s formative years have been shaped by movement, and Joseph seems to be suggesting that it is this, not race, class or gender, that has created a generation of people who are more disconnected from one another than ever before. On a personal note, I would politely disagree with this sentiment.

Another Country is not a difficult book to read, but it’s also not really very interesting. I can deal with a book that has no plot, but to then not have much character development either? Leela doesn’t feel any different at the end as she did at the beginning. She hasn’t learned to work at a relationship, she hasn’t come to any great discovery about a modern global identity, she (if we’re going to go all retro about the role of women in fiction) hasn’t even met someone to settle down with. It doesn’t feel like she’s learnt anything about how to live in the modern world, no matter where she finds herself.

It’s all deeply unsatisfying, really.

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The Marriage Plot (2011) – Jeffrey EUGENIDES

Jeffrey Eugenides’ previous novel, Middlesex, rightly won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 – it’s an excellent novel, and you should all check it out if you haven’t already. But that was eight years ago, which is a long time between drinks. I didn’t even know he’d written anything new until a reading copy turned up at work the other day, which was a pleasant surprise. I finally got around to reading it, and proceeded to lose a whole load of sleep, staying up and reading this rather excellent novel.

It’s 1982, Madeleine Hanna is about to graduate from Brown University. Her obsession with Victorian literature is derided by her classmates – this is the time of Derrida and post-modernism, there’s no room for traditional love stories here. Her boyfriend, Leonard, is having something of a breakdown. And her friend Mitchell has decided that he wants to marry her. As the three of them graduate, they must begin to face the real world, and real decisions that will have a lasting impression on their lives.

The title is a literary term that describes the plot of a whole raft of nineteenth century novels which are concerned with a young woman marrying the right man. Inevitably, they end with the young woman finding her man, and getting married like she should. With the advent of feminism in the 1960s, as well as the increasing divorce rates, it is something of an ironic title. There is one marriage in the novel, though it does tend to subvert the traditional marriage plot. This is not a happy ending kind of novel, either, though there is a sense of hope in the closing pages.

By splitting the characters up for the majority of the novel, Eugenides allows at least two and a half discrete plots to take place. Perhaps most interesting is Mitchell’s, who decides to take a gap year after graduation, and travels to Europe with his best friend with the intention of slowly making their way to India. For Mitchell, religion is something at once to be studied and to be lived. He is ostensibly Christian, though his constant questioning of both his own faith, and others’, means he is not defined by his belief. Indeed, when he finally does make it to India, he volunteers at a charity hospital run by Mother Teresa, though as he soon discovers, doing good in the world is not as easy as it sounds. He is the epitome of the recently graduated university student trying to find himself by travelling the world, and the fact that he fails time and time again at this quest is refreshingly honest.

Madeleine seems the most grounded of the three characters,  and the anchor of the novel, she gets the most point of view chapters. Her falling in love with Leonard is nice, and her feelings of betrayal when he is unkind to her are keenly felt. Her decision to stay with Leonard after finding out about his condition is clearly motivated by good intentions, though whether it is good for her remains another matter. Despite the advice from her hilariously rich parents, (or indeed, perhaps because of it – there’s a lot of parent angst from the three leads) she stays with him because she feels responsible for him. She is a fundamentally good person, and her quirky old-school love of Victoriana is a pleasant contrast to the wall of post-modern pretentiousness that her fellow classmates spout.

Eugenides covers a lot of ground stylistically, too. The Marriage Plot opens as something of a campus novel, complete with weird lecturers, annoying classmates, and drunken hijinks at college. Slowly, though, we shift away to a far wider reaching narrative – both physically and thematically. We travel from Brown University to New Jersey to New York to Paris to Athens to India, and each one is there for a reason. There are echoes of Franzen’s The Corrections here, too, partially because of the wide canvas they both have, as well as the themes of family and love in modern America, but I think Eugenides manages to tie his overseas sections with the overarching American themes better than Franzen managed in his novel.

This novel spoke to me at a particularly personal level – I, too, am about to graduate from university, and so seeing these three characters try and deal with leaving that safe bubble, and moving into the real world was something I really connected with. The speed with which the trio are plunged into real-world issues is frightening – Madeleine doesn’t even make it to her graduation ceremony before something far more important takes place. All of a sudden, the ridiculous conversations she has had with people in tutes about whether love is a construction, about whether life is really real, become shallow and unreal. Her choice – Leonard or Mitchell – cannot simply be based on theories of love and societal constructions of love, it must be done with thinking about the real-life implications of all three people involved.

The Marriage Plot confirms Jeffrey Eugenides as one of the most interesting American writers of our time. From the minutiae of English literary criticism – along with a LOT of references to other texts, to big themes of love, family and religion, he has written another thoroughly excellent novel. Check it out – it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry.

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Half Blood Blues (2011) – Esi EDUGYAN

With the announcement of the 2011 Man Booker Prize looming, I’m still trying to work my way through the novels on the longlist that interest me. My sure-fire bet, The Stranger’s Child, didn’t even make the shortlist, which just goes to prove that the judges and I never see eye to eye. That’s fine – I’m not complaining – because even if I can never pick the winner, the longlisting of books I’ve never heard of before means I find new and exciting authors.

Sid Griffiths, Chip Jones, and Hiero Falk – three young black jazz musicians living in Berlin – have fled to Paris to escape the Third Reich, with the help of Delilah, a young American woman. As tends to be the case, however, her presence upsets the fine balance between the three young men, and when Hiero is disappeared from the streets one night, Sid realises he finally may have gone too far.

It is easy, I think, to forget that the Jews were not the only people hunted down and exterminated by the Nazi Party during their reign. Gypsies, disabled people, jazz musicians, gay people, black people – these groups were also rounded up and put into horrible concentration camps. Of course, the setting of the novel is not really the point – if you are looking for a deep and meaningful insight into what living black in Nazi Germany was like, this is not the place. Indeed, Sid and Chip are both American citizens, and Sid, able to pass as white, freely admits he and Chip have less trouble than Hiero, who is a half-black German citizen, a Mischling.

Betrayal and guilt are the overriding themes. Edugyan begins her story in 1939, and we are then yanked into 1992, where someone has invited Sid and Chip to talk about their memories of Hiero for a film. Sid has never mentioned what he did in Paris, and when accusations begin to fly at the screening of the documentary from Chip, he is at first angry, and feels betrayed. It is not until he confronts Chip about the ordeal, and agrees to journey to Poland to meet up with Hiero again for the first time in sixty years, that he begins to think that he shouldn’t be the one who feels upset about any kind of betrayal.

Betrayal is also at the heart of Sid’s relationship with Delilah. Her easy-breezy attitude to life, to music, and to her friendship with Louis Armstrong, has an instant affect on Sid, whose own insecurities about his musical abilities are a stumbling block to his initiating any kind of relationship. Eventually, though, he manages to overcome these, and the two sleep together. It soon becomes clear, though, that Hiero is also deeply enamoured with Delilah, and Sid’s already strong dislike of the kid grows and mutates into a kind of self-destructive jealously. Needless to say, this doesn’t go down very well with Delilah.

Sid is a deeply flawed, and therefore deeply believable, character. Never as good a musician as his two friends, he finds himself surrounded by people who mean well, but never give him the chance to fit into the jazz world. He knows his own limitations, too, and this influences his own growing resentment of  Hiero in particular, who is a kid wonder on the trumpet. Add to this the jealously he feels over Delilah’s actions towards Hiero, and Sid becomes almost unlikeable. And while he does become unlikeable, I also found him sympathetic, too. To a certain point, though. There are some things, particularly in Vichy France, that are unforgivable.

The closing scenes with Hiero and Sid ring true. Hiero, despite having lived through many, many horrors, still has a glimmer of the enthusiastic over-grown puppy feeling he had at the age of twenty. As Sid breaks the news to him, tells him that everything that happened is his fault, he simply cannot believe it. These two old men, separated for sixty years, nearing the end of their lives, have a very brief conversation about the past, and while Sid attempts to atone for his past sins, whether Hiero will let him is another matter.

Half Blood Blues uses its temporal and physical setting to great effect. By essentially locking her characters in an abandoned club for half the novel, Edugyan proves her worthiness to be on this year’s shortlist. This is a story about the relationships between men and women, about jazz, and about the decisions we make when under pressure, and the repercussions of these unwise decisions.

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Invisible (2009) – Paul AUSTER

There’s a recurring theme with the books I’ve been reading lately – they’re the only ones written in English in Kinokuniya that sound more interesting than Twilight or the hundreds of crappy, pulp airport fiction that lines the shelves. And while I’ve read some of those (not Twilight - I promise), there’s not a lot in the way of meaty stuff. So when I saw Paul Auster’s new novel, I picked it up, since I’ve been meaning to give him a try for ages.

Adam Walker, a student at Colombia University, meets an intriguing French professor at a party one night. The two discuss literature, and Adam’s desire to start a literary magazine so sparks Rudolf Born’s imagination, he offers to bankroll the whole thing. But as the plans advance, Adam begins to discover that Rudolf is not necessarily the calm, professor-type he pretends to be. One night, something happens that will change their relationship, and Adam’s entire life.

I like the fact that Adam meets Rudolf at every turn. He’s such a delicious villain, straight out of a 60s Bond film. He also echoes that classic children’s literature trope, where no matter how much the young protagonist complains to everyone else, somehow, there he is. And thanks to him, there is also an interesting moral question at the centre of this novel. Is killing someone in self-defence forgivable? And if so, shouldn’t you tell someone? Obviously, it’s the first part of this conundrum that poses the greatest moral dilemma, but the second half gives this novel oomph, and drives Adam and Rudolf’s relationship through the years. Despite this, it does seem to take a backseat to the slightly moustache-twirling antics Rudolph tends to get up to, and the other bits of the narrative structure that become more important.

For the most part, I like unreliable narrators. If done right, particularly as a final twist, having an unreliable narrator is a great way to have a novel resonate in the readers’ minds well after the reading experience is over. What happens here is even more of a mind-fuck, if you’ll excuse the expression. Adam Walker from the first section, set in 1967, is later revealed to be a friend of the narrator, a famous author. It is quickly established that the opening sequence is actually the recollections of Adam as an old man, dying of some terrible disease. In his final days, he wanted to, as some kind of catharsis, reveal the whole truth of his life, and did so in manuscript form to his old friend.

Of course, it is later revealed that James, the narrator, has changed the names in the manuscript, for fear of libel. What makes this even more confusing is that when James contacts Adam’s sister, Gwen, who plays a rather large part in the manuscript, she claims the whole story is made up. Who are we to believe, then? A dying old man, wanting to make peace with the world before he dies? James, an author who has admitted to changing certain things in the manuscript to protect people? Or perhaps Gwen, who vehemently denies any of the activities outlined in the manuscript? Doing some background reading, it seems that Auster likes to put echoes of himself into his novels, and from the beginning of Invisible, this is quite obvious. Adam, the literary student of the 1960s is a pretty clear author identification figure, but once James, the famous author, is introduced into the story, things become a bit more complicated.

In the end, we are left with bits and pieces of clues. The final sequence is truly bizarre, and seems completely out of place tonally with the rest of the novel, dealing, as it does, with an overweight middle-aged woman in the tropics. (There is a link, I promise, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers). It goes some way to providing answers, but seems like an odd place to finish.

The problem with Invisible is that it’s too short and slight to make any kind of lasting impression. The plot keeps things moving, and it’s a diverting read, but in the end, it’s not something that’s going to stay with you forever. Perhaps this is the problem with novels concerned about the way a story is told – while this is thought provoking while you are reading, once the point is made, there’s not much more to go on.

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Regeneration (1991) – Pat BARKER

In an attempt to find some cheap English books in a country that isn’t big on stocking foreign language books anywhere, I headed to the internet to find some cheap Popular Penguins. But, they were actually cheaper on Book Depository, so there you go. I still managed to get a good cover after all.

In a hospital in Scotland in 1917, several patients are being treated by psychiatrist, William Rivers. As these patients slowly open up, patients that include famous war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, about the war they have been fighting, Rivers finds himself questioning whether or not he really wants to send these young men back to the front in Europe.

I’m not sure whether my distinct lack of knowledge of the works of World War 1 poets – including Owen and Sassoon – is a good thing or not when reading this. In some ways, I feel like I’m missing a lot of references and allusions to poets and works I don’t know. On the other hand, I quite like coming to a novel fresh, and free from any ideas about what people should be doing in certain situations, based on their reputations. As such, I’m not sure there’s any way I can comment on how these people are portrayed here, even though they are basically the main characters – I an only comment on how they are as fictional creations.

Taking this into account, then, I really enjoyed reading about them. I love Sassoon as a character – there’s so much logic behind his cries for peace in Europe that you can’t but help feel for him, being trapped in this world that doesn’t belive in anything of the sort. His frustration at knowing that he’s not really crazy, but is here because he’s asked the questions no one else has ever bothered to ask, is palpable, and this slowly influences Rivers, as the relationship between the two of them mutates into something quite different.

If you read this novel, and only this novel, as research into soldiers in World War 1, you would easily be forgiven for thinking that every officer in the British Army at the time was gay. While this clearly isn’t the case, the characters Barker has chosen to assemble here all tend towards that end of the spectrum, and it’s not just coincidence. Well, yes, it’s coincidence to an extent, but by choosing this theme, Barker is able to explore masculinity in a different way. That is, after all, what this novel is all about – the English man at war, and how he reacts to what is going on around him. By having gay characters – people already seen as less masculine – the entire tone of the novel shifts. To what, I’m still not quite sure, but she certainly subverts the image of big, masculine, slightly dumb men breaking down in the trenches.

It’s important to remember that most of the people in this hospital are not crazy. With the benefit of 21st century thinking, things like PTSD have become so much a part of the mainstream way of thinking it, and so it can be easily forgotten that people didn’t think these things were real less than 100 years ago. Perhaps the most terrifying scenes of the novel come not from the interviews of soldiers back from the war, but the way another “psychologist”, Lewis Yealland, who uses electroshock therapy to basically torture his subjects into admitting that there is nothing wrong with them, thereby allowing him to return them to the battlefield. It’s a harrowing sequence, made even more so by the fact that Dr Rivers himself is watching, but is unable to stop it from happening.

A large part of the second half of the novel is taken up with the budding romance between Billy Prior and Sarah, a woman working in the munitions factories in London. The romance is fine in itself, but it feels like something of a distraction from the main storyline in the hospital, and somehow seems like an excuse for Barker to include some stuff about feminism in the early 20th century – maybe she thought the book was too male oriented. Either way, these sections seem less interesting, or maybe just less important to the crux of the novel, creating something of a lull in the main narrative push.

This is, as the back of my copy proudly proclaims, the first novel in the Regeneration trilogy. I’d be interested to see what Barker does in the other two, because this certainly seems like a complete novel. It’s certainly not a traditional war novel in any sense, and the insights she gives are, for the modern reader, nothing new. But it is interesting to read the clash between currently accepted wisdom, and the Edwardian mindset of people before and during World War 1. This is not a perfect novel, but there’s enough to keep it going, and keep one hooked.

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Oxygen (2001) – Andrew MILLER

To be honest, I can’t even remember why I picked this novel up in the first place. I suspect it was because it had been shortlisted for the Booker in 2001, and as you may or may not know, my theory is that the shortlist for the Booker always provides more interesting than the eventual winner. 2001 was the year True History of the Kelly Gang won, and number9dream, as well as Atonement, were also shortlisted. Clearly a good year, then.

Alice Valentine is dying a slow death. Her son Alec has been looking after her, but he has finally called for reinforcements in the shape of his brother, Larry, who is currently living in the States, his acting career failed and ended. As the three come together again, questions of life and death become more and more important. At the same time, László Lázár, a Hungarian playwright (whose play is being translated by Alec), is remembering his own life in Hungary, and is slowly caught up in a new revolution.

With four main characters, you can run the risk of having some fade into the background – the worry of overcrowding suddenly turns into a realisation that you haven’t given enough page-time to one of your own characters. I think Miller has, alas, fallen into this trap a little. Two of his characters – Larry and László – are enough to carry an entire novel on their own, and so fill their respective pages with a warmth and interest that remains sustained throughout the entire novel. Alice is, let’s be fair, on her death bed, so we don’t expect anything too taxing from her, though the passages we see from her point of view when she is still strong enough are beautifully done – making her downfall that little bit more tragic than it already is. This leaves us with Alec, who does seem to fade into the background a little as a result of these other three, strong characters – an ironic occurrence, considering he is certainly the weakest member of the Valentine family, being totally unable to deal with his mother’s slow demise. Arguably, though, he has seen the whole thing, so this is perhaps understandable.

Indeed, László’s parts are so strong, there are times I wished Miller had taken his story out of the novel and given it its own room to breathe. But, then I read the ending, and I finally realised why he had given us these two stories side by side, moving in sync. This book is disturbingly obsessed with death, with degradation, with people who are in quite dark places. It’s not a happy read. But instead of wallowing in its own “grittiness”, Miller’s prose style allows the themes and ideas to come out without feeling like you are reading an “important” weighty tome, and I think that this balance ensures this novel doesn’t become unreadably bleak. The juxtaposition of these two things – plot and style – are just a part of a larger comparison Miller is trying to make here, too. Watch out, I’m about to spoil the ending – I can’t talk about this book without a mention of it, I’m afraid.

It’s not until the final pages that the concurrent storyline structure Miller chooses to use finally makes sense. Here, Alec, arguably the weakest character, finally finds strength – while never explicitly stated, it is implied he murders his mother, but very much out of compassion, after a nasty accident she has. It is not something he has exactly premeditated, and can almost be seen as euthanasia – at the very least, it is a highly compassionate act. Similarly, though, László is finally able to let go of his guilt from the past, and save a friend about to commit suicide. The acts are, arguably, polar opposites – one murder, one salvation – and yet, there is a beautiful symmetry about having these side by side. Both are acts of extreme compassion, and require great strength on behalf of the people enacting them, yet they have vastly different outcomes. I’m not sure I’m making much sense here, but I really liked it.

If you want to truly understand what I’m trying to say, go out and read Oxygen. It took me a while to get into it, but once it got going, I really had trouble stopping. Miller’s work is something that I will definitely be taking a closer look at in the future.

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