Tag Archives: magical realism

Pow! (2003) – MO Yan

Mo Yan’s winning of the Nobel Prize probably couldn’t have come at a better time for Seagull Books, who released this Mo novel several weeks after the award was announced. This was good for them for a variety of reasons, I imagine, not least because they are a university press, so they were always going to have trouble competing in terms of marketing and promotion. That, (and I say this as a recovering bookseller), and the fact that this novel would be super difficult to hand-sell.

The first, most blindingly obvious thing, about this novel is the meat. There is so much talk about meat, about eating meat, about cooking meat, about consuming meat, it can get quite overwhelming at times. Don’t get me wrong—I’m no vegetarian—but Mo really hammers home this obsession with meat that has taken over Slaughterhouse Village and Luo Xiaotong.

Obviously we can’t take the novel at face value. The whole concept is so ridiculous, we have to look further, dig deeper in the symbolism behind the magical realism at work here. Fortunately, it is not that hard to make the leap Mo wants us to make. The meat, and the obsession behind it, can be seen as a symbol of modern, developing China, and the desire for more wealth and more material gains. It is because of the meat, and the meat industry that has sprung up in Slaughterhouse Village, that people are becoming rich. And, of course, with people being the way they are, as soon as they get some meat, they want more and more and more.

At the centre of this obsession lies Luo Xiaotong, a young boy whose own obsession with eating meat leads him to great fame and wealth. Comparisons have been made to Gunter Grass’ absurdist masterpiece The Tin Drum. The comparisons are apt. Despite only being 12 years old, Xiaotong somehow manages to be given control of the entire meat packing plant, because he is able to consume vast quantities of meat (his skills are tested in several meat eating competitions with grown men)

Much of the horrific novel is horrific, not necessarily in a visceral sense, but in a human sense. Tagged on to this satirical view of development in China is the story of Luo Xiaotong’s family, and the fractious relationship between his mother, his father and his younger half-sister. In many places, it is quite touching, and Mo really goes to town on those fathers that leave young families simply for the sake of their own happiness.

Not that there aren’t scenes that won’t make your stomach turn. One in particular left me feeling unwell: the graphic description of the way in which the new meat-packaging plant, built to accommodate larger demand for exotic meat, pumps water not into dead meat, but into live animals, so it can be said they are not filling their meat with water to trick customers. Of course, the flip side

You’ll note I’ve avoided mentioning the elephant in the room that seems to come saddled with every Mo Yan review: that, because he is a member of the CCP, he can’t possibly be a good writer. I don’t buy that, so I’m moving swiftly on. Dylan Suher has an interesting article about it published in Asymptote here.

There is no escaping the fact that Pow! is bizarre. It is big, bold, and often confusing. But it is quite unlike any other Chinese fiction I’ve ever read. He might not be writing the biting social commentary we have all come to expect from contemporary Chinese literature, but Mo Yan has a gift that is undeniable.

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Swamplandia! (2011) – Karen RUSSELL

There was an outcry last year when the Pulitzer Prize judges decided not to award the Fiction prize—the first time since 1977. For me, the biggest story to come out of this was not the suggestion that no American fiction deserved the prize—that seems ridiculous—but that the shortlist is picked by a different jury to the eventual winners, which seems like a fairly ridiculous way to pick a winner. So, if it didn’t win the Pulitzer, is Swamplandia! still a good novel?

The Bigtree tribe are in trouble. Ever since the death of Hilolia Bigtree, wife to Chief Bigtree, mother to Kiwi, Osceola and Ava, and alligator wrestler extraordinaire, the theme park they run in Everglades, Swamplandia!, has been bleeding customers. Each family member tries to solve the problem in a different way, but when Osceola’s attempts to speak to the dead lead her to a portal that leads to the underworld, Ava knows she must stop her before it is too late.

I mentioned when I reviewed Favel Parrett’s debut novel, Past the Shallows, that it was a novel about motherhood—but a novel about the absence of mothers, and what happens when they aren’t there to pick up the pieces. Though Russell’s Swamplandia! goes about it in perhaps the directly opposite direction, she too is concerned with the role of the mother in the modern family, and what happens to an otherwise tightly-knit unit when someone dies.

According to the internet (which is never wrong), the first chapter of this novel originally appeared as a short story, a fact that should not be surprising to anyone who actually reads said chapter. In something like 15 pages, Russell sets up this beautiful, wonderful world where the three children of the Bigtree family seem to live a life other children can only dream about. They live in a theme park where, instead of maths and science, they are taught the family business: wrestling alligators.

As with all dreams, though, it fast becomes apparent that things cannot remain as they are. Ava’s mother discovers she has cancer, and dies. With their star attraction—the alligator wresting lady—gone, the theme park quickly loses customers, business, and as a result, money. The eldest child, Kiwi, is book-smart, despite only ever being home-schooled, and all he wants to do is go to the mainland and finish high school. But Osceola, the middle child, does not handle the death so well. She quickly becomes obsessed with a book of magic she finds, and decides that she can talk to the dead.

While this might well be a normal coping mechanism for teenagers trying to come to terms with the loss of a parent, in Ossie’s case, it rapidly becomes both emotionally and physically dangerous. With her father visiting the mainland on business, Ossie and Ava are left alone on an abandoned theme-park island. No, I know—it’s not really a solid parenting choice from Chief Bigtree, but his reasons for doing so do become clear in the end. For now, it’s just a convenient excuse to get rid of all the adults so the children can play.

When Ossie goes missing, thinking her current dead boyfriend can lead her to the portal of the underworld so she can talk to her mother, Ava sets out to stop her. Before she leaves, though, a strange man—Bird Man—appears, telling her he knows how to get to the portal. He volunteers to take her, and Ava, being a naïve 13-year-old, readily accepts. And so begins a chase through the Everglades that we all know can only end in tragedy.

The magical realism of this chase is misdirection at its best. Reading it in parallel with Kiwi’s tale, which is told in alternating chapters to the sisters’ caper, it should be obvious to anyone that the Bird Man is not who he claims to be, and that Osceola is, of course, not actually seeing ghosts. Who Bird Man really is, though, is an even more horrific thought than a teenager dating a ghost. Bird Man is probably up there with Joffrey Baratheon in terms of fictional characters who really aren’t very nice. We hear stories of men grooming young children on the internet, praying on vulnerable kids trying to find someone to talk to, and though the conduit through which he does this is different, here is another tale of grooming.

By the climax of the novel, everything that didn’t make sense in the beginning finally does. Russell manages to bring together all these strands neatly—if a little hurriedly. It is not until then that you finally realise what has been staring you in the face the entire time. Alligators are just a shiny object to get you hooked.

The word ‘quirky’ is thrown around a lot these days, often to its detriment. But Swamplandia! really is quirky. From the exclamation mark in the title to the red alligator that Ava discovers in her batch of alligator eggs, there are things about this novel that set it apart from all others. In the hands of a lesser author, the quirks and affectations of this novel—the fact that it is set in a ridiculous alligator theme park, the faux Southern Gothic style evoked by Osceola’s adventures—would overpower the emotional connection the reader has to a family struggling to keep themselves together in the wake of a true tragedy. But to Russell’s credit, she never gets bogged down in these accoutrements and decorations. She really is concerned with focusing on characters and their reactions and development.

Swamplandia! is a novel about grief. Ignoring the exclamation mark in the title, this is a serious and moving look at one family struggling to come to terms with death. Ignore the stonking great red alligator on the cover—it’s a cheap distraction from a work that has, at its heart, a tender and heartrending exploration of people that feel so real, you just want to hug them.

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Living in the Maniototo (1979) – Janet FRAME

This is the last of the novels I bought in New Zealand at the beginning of the year, and the woman at the second-hand bookstore said I chose well. Janet Frame is a towering figure in New Zealand, and her wiki page (I know, I know, I’m a terrible person) says she is famous for almost having a lobotomy and for eschewing the New Zealand realist tradition. Certainly the latter is true in this novel. This is a feast for the uncanny and unreal fanatics out there, constantly forcing the reader to question what is real and what is not.

Mavis Halleton has survived the deaths of two husbands, and in an attempt to get her life back on track, and to get her writing back on track, she goes to America to visit some old friends. There she expects to live in a quiet house while her friends are on holidays and get back into writing. What happens, though, is unexpected. Her friends die, and four uninvited guests turn up on the doorstep, wanting to stay at the house. Reluctantly, Mavis lets them in, and so begins a tale of five people living in close proximity, but never truly knowing one another.

I can’t remember a text I’ve ever read that so carefully – and indeed brilliantly – blurs the boundaries between fiction and fact. Many authors mine their own lives for their work – and many even “appear” in their own work with characters named after themselves that bear more than a passing similarity to their writer. But Janet Frame doesn’t bother with any of these devices. She is a character in her novel. There is no question of this. And I’m inclined to believe she is not hiding behind any affected mannerisms or speech patterns or anything else – this is what a Janet Frame autobiography would look and feel like. As far as I’m concerned, Mavis and Frame are interchangeable, though I’m certainly no Frame expert, so someone please correct me if I’m way off here.

On the first page, our narrator proclaims that she has three identities – Violet Pansy Proudlock; Alice Thumb; and Mavis Furness Barnwell Halleton. It is this last identity with whom we spend most of our time throughout the novel. Her last three surames come from having been married twice – both husbands died, though Mavis seems somehow emotionally detached from these events. She wants to write again, to feel the slow of story running through her veins, the feel of her mind and imagination working again.

The plot, such as it is, picks up when Mavis goes to visit some friends in America. After arriving in America, she is told that her friends actually died in a freak earthquake, and their will declares that the house – and everything inside – should be given to Mavis. Of course, Mavis cannot quite understand how or why this has come about, and with four guests about to arrive, she does the only thing she can think of – let them come, and look after them for a while.

When the four guests turn up, the novel shifts gears. It is almost – but not quite – as though all we read up to this is a prologue (though it takes up almost half the word count) to a story about two couples interacting, doing normal human things, feeling normal human emotions, fighting like normal people – all while Mavis looks on, as the passive author observer. Mavis is an isolated and introverted woman. More than any other first-person novel I’ve read in a long time, she is so inside her own head, thinking about everything she does, everything everyone else does. She is deeply concerned with the writing process – paragraphs are dedicated to her thoughts about good sentences, bad sentences – but she is also concerned with story-telling as a larger concept. Much of the first half of the novel is a treatise on what Frame thinks is good storytelling – how one should construct sentences and how one should use the English language feature so heavily they could be extracted into their own tiny writing advice book.

It is not until almost the very end that Frame pulls out the big guns. A phone call comes, announcing that, actually, the owners of the house are not dead. Everything that happened at the house was a figment of Mavis’ imagination – a story she concocted in her mind. And what a story. Her own battles with depression and mental illness are clearly weighing heavily on her mind here, and the collision of storytelling, illusion and depression mingle together in a way that is both surprising and surprisingly natural. Of course writers should be interested in the inner mind – they tell lies for a living, they construct unreal worlds and situations

Did I like the book? I don’t know. To be honest, I felt it dragged on for a long time, not really going anywhere, despite the occasional paragraph of brilliant insight . But then that twist comes, and it all falls into place. I didn’t see it coming at all, but now that I think about it, it was perfectly signposted. Living in the Maniototo demands a rereading – even typing these thoughts out, there are things I still don’t understand. What is the significance of these alternate personalities introduced at the beginning? What do these four guests represent? Are they facets of Mavis’ own mind? How much of this reflects Janet Frame’s own mind? This is a novel that leaves more questions than answers, but sometimes it’s nice to be confused by your reading.

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The Tiger’s Wife (2011) – Téa OBRECHT

I need to start this review with a confession: I didn’t want to like The Tiger’s Wife. We have sold a huge number of copies of this book since it first came out, and eventually won the Orange Prize last year. Téa Obrecht is young, successful, attractive – I didn’t think I could bear it if she were actually talented as well. Sadly for me – fortunately for her – she is immensely talented, and this debut novel shows a writer of great promise.

A young doctor and her friend are travelling across the Balkans, treating people, where an uneasy peace has recently fallen. When Natalia receives word that her grandfather, a prominent doctor at the university has died, it triggers a search for his body, as well as memories of her time as a child, when her grandfather would take her to the city zoo, and tell her about the life and times of the tiger’s wife – a woman in his country village hometown.

Magical realism based on traditional folk tales can often walk the fine line between twee sentimentalism, and full blown fantasy. Fortunately, Obrecht has done it perfectly in the story of the Deathless Man, who may be my favourite character in the novel, and one of the all time greats. A man who appears throughout Natalia’s grandfather’s life, he seems to appear at moments of great importance. As it turns out, he is akin to Death himself, helping people with their passage out of this world, and as such, has a lot of time for doctors. Of course, the real trick to magical realism is trying to decipher what these symbols mean – who the Deathless Man really is – and I’m still not completely sure what it is he is supposed to represent, though I’m open to suggestions. Perhaps the fact that we first meet him in a church is significant? Is he the personification of religious faith in the Balkans? Does that even work?

The eponymous tiger’s wife, too, toes that line closely. A young girl in a remote Balkan village falls in love with a tiger that escaped from the city zoo. He is, perhaps understandably, immediately feared by the rest of the village, but it is the young girl who takes him in, wanders around the town with him. Subverting the classic fairytale idea that the forest is a dangerous place for young virginal girls, Obrecht shows us a forest and landscape that actually, in many ways, nurtures the young girl, giving her a sense of place and identity. Once she becomes pregnant with the tiger’s baby, the village is torn between helping her and leaving her to rot for the despicable deed she has done.

In direct opposition to these fantastical tales of her grandfather’s time, Natalia’s life in the modern land is far more dull and depressing. Dealing with people who don’t want her help because she is from the “other side” of the war, her frustration is clear to see. It is clear she wants to make a difference in a part of the world that clearly needs help, but when the people who need it refuse, it is difficult to convince them otherwise.

Though the spectre of folklore, tradition and legend looms large, even here. Perhaps as a way of dealing with the horrors that have befallen the landscape, many people in the country re turning to tradition as a way of comforting themselves for what they have witnessed. People resort to a kind of shamanism and spirituality far removed from the Big Three (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), and have reverted to more local, “pagan” traditions of ghosts, spirits, and dead people not staying dead. It’s not done with any sense of irony or judgement, though, which makes a pleasant change, even for someone as cynical about these things as myself. And there’s no sense of glorifying these quaint traditions as a direct attack on anyone else’s

Without ever becoming sentimental, Obrecht has drawn an Eastern Europe with a sense of danger, a sense of past, and perhaps above all, a sense of magic. It is a novel about storytelling and history – about the stories and folktales people tell each other to explain the inexplicable, or make sense of events that are simply incomprehensible. A solid, well-written debut.

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1Q84 (2009) – Haruki MURAKAMI

I need to start this review with something of a caveat – for the most part, I don’t like the work of Haruki Murakami. His works tend to leave me feeling cold, and perhaps more importantly, repetitive. But the amount of hype surrounding 1Q84 was massive – both in Japan and overseas – and so I felt obliged to give it a go. And then it was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, so I couldn’t back out of it. And in case you don’t want to read the whole review (this is slightly longer than I write for most things I review here), this was pretty much my first thought after finishing this 900 page beast: there’s too many hours of my life I’m never going to get back.

I’ve never completely understood the reason for Murakami’s popularity in the West, or indeed, in Japan. Rebecca Suter, an academic at Sydney Uni, offers an interesting thesis that makes a lot of sense in my head. You’ll have to read the whole thing here, but the thrust is that Murakami manages to blend both Western and Japanese cultural backgrounds into his novels, and this appeals to both sides. For Japanese readers, to Western pop culture references are other-worldly enough to be fascinating, while still being grounded in Japanese sensibility. This is reversed for Western readers, who enjoy the glimpses of an exotic other in his work, while still being comfortable with understandable references.

This is helped, no doubt, by the two translators of 1Q84 – Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, both of whom have translated Murakami’s work before. Before we get to the issue of having two translators for one novel (I think it’s a terrible idea), there’s the fact that there seems to be a concerted effort by these translators to make Murakami more palatable to Western tastes – a simple comparison of passages in the Japanese original, and then the English translation, highlight missing words – sometimes sentences – chopped up phrases, and generally weird stuff going on. I’ve always been taught to keep as close to the original text s possible, preserving sentences and words, even if they sound a little funny, but clearly Rubin and Gabriel think differently. If I were a better person, I would have read this in Japanese, but you probably wouldn’t have the translation for a few more months…

This is all, of course, only tangentially related to this novel, but these are the questions I was thinking about as I read 1Q84. And you should all, too. As a widely publicised “magnus opus,” it has become something of a lightning rod for people’s views of Murakami’s work – everything you expect from a “Murakami novel” is here, so if you’re expecting something different, be prepared to be disappointed.

Tengo Kawana has been given an unusual request by his editor – to rework a novella from a young girl called Fuka-Eri, and enter it into the new writers’ prize. He does, but in doing so, is pulled into a world he never knew existed. Meanwhile, Aomame works as an assassin, killing men who perpetrate domestic violence. But when she walks onto a highway exit from a taxi, she too is drawn into a strange world where not quite everything is as she remembers.

Murakami’s characters have fantastical adventures to escape their everyday, humdrum lives. This is, of course, the message he has been sending us right from the beginning – that modern Japanese society is so deeply unfulfilling, so boring, people turn to the magical to fill their days. Tengo is no different to this – his own frustrations as a writer allow him to be more open to the strange request that draws him into the parallel world of 1Q84, a parallel version of the 1984 in which this novel is set.

The world into which Tengo finds himself drawn is a world of strange cults in which supernatural events are an everyday occurrence, where strange creatures are born out of thin air, only to make their own chrysalis to create more people, and where the mother/daughter (maza/dohta in the translation, マザー/ドウタ) relationship is vitally important. Murakami is a frustrated science fiction writer stuck in the wrong literary mode. So many of these ideas would be fantastic, if only Murakami could channel them into a big, bold, proper literary sci-fi novel, and deal with them properly. Instead, they are relegated to quirky post-modern window dressings, in a world of very confused sexual politics.

Which brings me around to Aomame, a character that should be far more engaging than she actually is. I love the idea of a broken woman going on a rampage and carefully assassinating men who beat their wives. There’s an entire novel in that sentence alone. But once Aomame is drawn into the mysterious world of Sakigake (先駆け, or frontrunners, in Japanese) the cult which forms the main focus of the mystery at the centre of 1Q84, she seems to lose that drive, and instead become all consumed with finding Tengo, a boy she went to school with and had a strange, but significant ten second encounter with twenty years ago.

It seems desperately unfair that a big fat horrible man should be allowed to die in a manner of his choosing. In the real world, any middle aged man who has “ambiguous congress” with underage girls is rightly punished, particularly when he says he did it because of some supernatural being. But in Murakami’s world, because these beings are real, it seems somehow more justified. This man is simply doing his job. Which is an uncomfortable thought, to say the least. And for a novel that brings questions of domestic violence, and of poorly treated women, to the fore, I feel like Murakami should be making a better point. There’s also the awkwardly and deeply uncomfortable sex scene between Tengo and Fuka-Eri (which did make it onto the shortlist of this year’s bad sex award). For me, it’s not uncomfortable because it’s badly written, but because Murakami goes out of his way to describe Fuka-Eri as child-like in appearance, and indeed manner, so it reads like Tengo is sleeping with a child. I don’t think I need to explain any further why I found that uncomfortable.

Then, of course, we get to the third section, which feels like an unnecessary addition in so many ways. Written about a year after the first two sections, it introduces a third point of view character, Ushikawa, who in many ways, is completely unnecessary. In other ways, though, he’s quite useful, because he actually has some plot to be getting on with, and his chapters allow you to understand why it is that Tengo and Aomame are being (very poorly) chased by Sakigake.

There are some positives, though. I love the old woman for whom Aomame works – there’s something really cool in the idea of an old woman crusading against domestic violence from the comfort of her upper-class house, getting other people to do her dirty work for her. And some of Murakami’s post-modern tricks work out quite well – there’s a big discussion about Chekov’s gun when Aomame is given a pistol by Tamaru, and the idea that, now it’s been introduced into the story, it must be used. I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s quite cool. Bonus points, too, for making Tamaru a gay zainichi from Sakhalin, filling all of the minority tick boxes. Minus points, though, for making him poorly written, spouting weird dialogue that is comically unnatural and far too self-aware. Saying that he is gay, so naturally he loves interior design, for example.

1Q84 is messy and unwieldy. It’s far too long for its own good, partially because things repeat themselves again and again – perhaps a better editor was needed. But its ideas and politics are messy, too, and while there are some great concepts buried within these 900 pages, Murakami ultimately prefers to obfuscate them with unnecessary post-modern trickery that was old thirty years ago when he repeated it in his earlier novels. I wonder if the title “magnum opus” is being used because it’s so freaking long? Of course, it has everything one expects to find in a Murakami novel, but that’s about it. 1Q84 doesn’t bring anything new or fresh to the table, particularly in the Haruki Murakami canon.

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The Lake (2005) – Banana YOSHIMOTO

This is my first proper dip into the longlist of this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize – that’s quite exciting, isn’t it? I read Yoshimoto’s Kitchen a long, long time ago, and to be fair, the thing that sticks out most about it in my mind is still her ridiculous penname. She’s quite a prolific writer, and has won an unholy number of awards in Japan for her work. Arguably most interesting, though, is that she is one of a small number of both popularly and critically well received female Japanese authors on the contemporary scene.

When Chihiro’s newly acquired sort-of-boyfriend, Nakajima, asks her to accompany him to a lake in the countryside, she is initially unsure. He is a broken man, and she is a broken woman – both have lost at least one parent, and the effects of this is that the two of them look to the other for comfort. She knows, though, he is hiding something. When this secret is finally revealed, it is up to Chihiro to decide what to do.

First things first – not a lot happens here. Yoshimoto is far more concerned with character studies and development than any kind of plot machinations. Chihiro is dealing with the recent death of her mother, and trying to work out what this means for her relationship with her father, who never legally recognised her. Perhaps this has more resonance in a Japanese context, due to their ridiculous citizenship laws, but it’s an interesting dynamic, and Chihiro seems to have resigned herself to having a somewhat distant relationship with a man who is biologically her father, but emotionally, maybe not so much.

But out of our two main characters, it is Nakajima that is the most complexly fascinating. He is at once deeply reserved emotionally and needy. His playing house with Chihiro when they move in together is a nice role reversal from that traditional Confucian male/female gender roles one is likely to see in mainstream Japan. While he clearly enjoys living with Chihiro, and relying on her for emotional support, his lack of desire to do anything in the boudoir points to some kind of clearly messed up childhood. The quest to understand Nakajima is the ostensible plot of the novel, and Chihiro’s own confusion about Nakajima are shared with the reader, forcing us to continue reading in order to find out what that murky past is.

Said secret is not revealed until about two thirds of the way through, though the blurb on my edition makes a less than subtle hint towards what it might be (clearly they were struggling to describe the almost non-existent plot). The eponymous lake has a lot to do with it, though. When Nakajima takes Chihiro out to this lake (complete with some beautiful imagery of a lake shrouded in mist, the only thing visible, a vibrant torii – lovely stuff), he introduces her to two friends, also clearly not a part of mainstream Japan. Mino, and his sister, Chii, live in a shack on the edge of a lake. Mino spends his time looking after Chii, who is desperately unwell, and has trouble talking, or indeed, even leaving her bed.

Nakajima’s relationship with these two is left unexplained for a long time, and Chihiro herself goes to visit them by herself to try and understand just what is going. There is some weird magical realist stuff going in the shack, with Mino claiming he can read his sister’s mind, since she herself cannot communicate with other people. Whether or not this ability is real or imagined is a question Yoshimoto is happy to throw open to her readers. I’m not sure it’s totally necessary, though it’s a nice touch of slight of hand- I thought we were going one way, and I was happy with where I thought we were going, but it all kind of fizzled out once the real twist came around.

This novel(la) is concerned with the periphery, the gaps that people face in their lives. Yoshimoto has gifted us with characters that have been forced to find comfort in each other, because the traditional constructs of Japanese society have failed them. The Lake is not, though, a blistering critique of said society – there is, instead, a positive note in the ending, and there is an understanding that, even on the periphery, stumbling upon other people to help you out can only be a good thing.

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From the Mouth of the Whale (2008) – SJÓN

John Self’s fascinating review of From the Mouth of the Whale intrigued me when I read it, and had it in the back of my mind that I should find this book at some stage. And then, by chance, I found it browsing at a rather wonderful independent Canberra bookstore the other day. So, of course, I had to buy it – I mean, who doesn’t love slightly obscure modern Icelandic fiction?

Iceland of 1635 is very different to that of today. Religion – Christianity in particular – rules the world, and any word spoken against the King, or God, will not be looked upon kindly. Jónas Pálmason, though, has done just that, and has been exiled to an island in the ocean. As he lives out his last days, he relieves how he came to find himself on a barren rock – the people he met, the places he went, and the mistakes he made.

For a modern atheist, it’s difficult to imagine a world where Christianity rules the world, and where daring to say you don’t believe is a corporal offence. But this is the world Sjón gives us. Religion pervades every part of life here, though not perhaps in the most recognisable form. This is a time where Christianity is still violent and naturalistic, where dead bodies can be taken over by souls who have not yet crossed over to heaven come back to haunt. Jónas is a believer, but he is not an idiot, and is deeply interested in the natural sciences, such as they are the 17th century. He knows that unicorns probably don’t exist, even though people try to palm off narwhal horns as unicorn horns to turn a profit.

It gets to the point of almost being magical realism, at times. Jónas has conversations throughout the novel with several birds, a zombie, and a skeleton stuck on the sea bed. Whether this is thorugh divine intervention, or simply a symptom of the wild world in which he lives, we can never be sure. In fact, Jónas’ own sanity is probably questionable – he is an old man living on a barren rock in the middle of nowhere, with no one to talk to save for the occasional errant sandpiper. His unreliability, though, is a gift – seeing the world through his eyes is rather special.

There’s a beautiful passage about a third of the way through the novel where Sjón retells the Genesis myth in all its Icelandic, naturalistic beauty. And that’s one of the main selling points of the novel – Sjón gives us an Iceland that is starkly beautiful, particularly in comparison to the Denmark he shows. We get almost no glimpses of Icelandic cities – instead, we see the country as wild frontierland, where people are a little bit mad, and where the harsh realities of a world completely at the mercy of the elements dictates the way people live their lives.

It’s refreshing, and that the same time deeply depressing, to know that the people of the 17th century are just as petty and cruel as those of the 21st. There is a small section in the middle of the novel where Sjón stops dazzling us with beautiful imagery and metaphoric language, and lays out some actual plot. I don’t mean this to sound dismissive, because both parts work perfectly well, but the plot bit made the whole novel hang together a lot more. It’s a brief description of a trip Jónas takes to Denmark (saying anything else would be something of a spoiler), where he tries to have his name cleared, so he can return to Iceland without fear of being chased with pitchforks by an angry mob. He meets a good friend here, eager for help with ancient Icelandic runes, and the two intellects hit it off straight away. More importantly, though, Jónas receives some good news, that is ultimately useless. Because people are crap.

From the Mouth of the Whale is like nothing I’ve ever read before. It is a novel that conjures up a time of history that is savage, brutal, and harsh, though there are clearly people here with which we modern folk can connect. This is a book that demands rereading – the first parts are mysterious and confusing, and will probably make more sense a second time round. Nevertheless, I’m willing, and indeed, looking forward, to doing do.

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Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) – Haruki MURAKAMI

Haruki Murakami’s new novel, 1Q84, is being released in English translation later this year, and I’m quite keen to read it. As such, I’m trying to catch up on some of his older stuff, since I’m woefully under-read when it comes to the most famous contemporary Japanese novelist. Sputnik Sweetheart is a shorter Murakami novel, which appeals to me, partly because it’s term time, and I don’t want a giant brick of a novel, and partially because Murakami’s big novels tend to leave me cold.

K and Sumire are friends from university, though Sumire never finished her degree. Drifting through life, unsure of what she really wants to do other than be a famous writer, she meets Miu at a wedding, and suddenly realises she is in love. With another woman. Willing to do anything this woman wants, she travels with her to Europe on a business trip, ending up on a small Greek island. It is not until K receives a call from Miu late one night that he realises what a mistake this might have been.

Taking his characters out of Japan seems like a good idea. There’s something to be said for Murakami’s preoccupation with people being sidelined from mainstream Japanese society, but to have them then be sidelined from other parts of the world, too, reveals a much deeper sense of isolation and loneliness than simply being a social misfit in a far too rigid social structure. Rather than simply being another of Murakami’s lonely, quirky Japanese women, Sumire begins to take on a deeper level – Miu’s rejection of her, even on the other side of the world, away from Japanese society, is another realisation that she may never have a true relationship with anyone.

Either I’m reading way too much into this, or perhaps my mind simply works in weird ways, but was I the only one to think that the Greek island they all end up on is Lesbos? Close to the Turkish landmass? Tick. Somewhat undeveloped? Tick. Link to lesbians, all over the world? Tick. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything else – it just came to me while I was reading, and I wanted to know what other people thought.

Our narrator, too, will seem familiar to anyone who’s ever read any other Murakami work – a young man, somewhat isolated from the rest of society, unable to fully function. This time, though, he’s a primary school teacher, having an affair with the mother of one of his students. Professional, I know. This, of course, sets up a chance for K to teach the lessons he’s learned from his experienced in Greece (that you will always be lonely in life, and that love is always fleeting) to a young, fatherless child.Perhaps not the best message to be telling small children, though – that you’ll be alone your entire life, and that everyone you ever love will leave you.

There’s a particularly excellent sequence near the end of the novel, where Miu is explaining her reticence when it comes to matters of intimacy. Essentially, she recounts an out of body experience, and watches herself have sex with a man, which understandably makes her uncomfortable. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but the whole thing reads like a very uncomfortable rape scene, and Murakami pitches it perfectly. Honestly, you could rip out that chapter and turn it into a short story, and it would be brilliant by itself.

I’ve always thought that Murakami’s short stories are better than his longer novels. Fortunately, Sputnik Sweetheart is perfectly a perfectly formed short novel that manages to bring together all of the tropes we have come to expect from Murakami’s work, while never outstaying its welcome. If you’re inclined to start reading Murakami, perhaps here’s a good place to start – an easing in to his magical realist style, without the baggage of a giant, sprawling novel that has too many characters to keep track of.

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Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) – Gabriel García MÁRQUEZ

What do you do when you come up against an author who is pretty clearly established as THE major voice of Latin American fiction of the 20th century? It’s not like I’m going to be able to say anything new here – I’m pretty sure everything that could be said has been said about Márquez. So prepare yourself for some discussion that you’ve probably heard a thousand times before.

When Dr. Juvenal Urbino dies, his widow, Fermina Daza, is met with a letter from her childhood sweetheart, Florentino Ariza. He wants, after sixty odd years, to get back together, and grow old with her. And so our story unfolds, covering the lives of these two people, and how they came to be as they are, all against the background of early twentieth century Colombia.

This is, as the title clearly suggests, a novel about love – but I’m not sure it’s actually a love story. And I think there’s a distinction there that I want to talk about for a bit here. Ostensibly, this is a novel about how Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza (spoliers!) fall in love, fall out of love, and spend their lives with other people. But Márquez does seem to be far more interested in how the concept of “love” actually shapes these two lives, and how it affects the way they interact with the people they meet during their long lives.

Probably the term most people associate with Márquez’s name is magical realism – it almost seems as though you cannot talk about one without the either. Now, either my definition of magical realism is way off, or I’m just really thick. I don’t really see any kind of magical realism in Love in the Time of Cholera. For me, magical realism has always been, essentially, the literary cop out for when a “real” author writes something that has fantastical elements in it, and I usually think that to mean mystical creatures, wizards, or even weird supernatural happenings, a la Murakami. Nothing like that really happens here. In fact, tying it back into what I was talking about above, this is a truly Romantic novel, with a capital R. He’s working with only a few main characters, but the canvas he’s working on is pretty huge, and covers a pretty vast stretch of time. And he does want to deal with the idea of love, and how love affects people – in both positive and negative ways.

The vast majority of the novel hinges around one decision made by an impulsive young girl who, seemingly on a whim, decides that her fairytale romance, conducted almost entirely through letters, is too ridiculous, and ends it. Just like that. One has to wonder what it was that caused her to do this, and it took me a long time to work through it. I still don’t think I really understand the reason for Fermina Daza’s rejection, and it jarred with me for quite a while. Perhaps it was a youth thing. Maybe she thought love couldn’t possibly come to someone as young as her, and so she rejected it, waiting for ‘real’ love to arrive.

Of course, neither Fermina Daza nor Florentino Ariza are happy throughout their lives. Fermina Daza quickly realises that her husband is not someone she particularly likes, and yet remains with him, stubbornly not thinking about what her life could be like. Florentino Ariza, on the other hand, remains obsessed with what might have been, and spends his life waiting for Urbino to die. What interests me most about Ariza is the fact that he can completely dissociate love from sex, so much so that, despite being a giant man whore for the entire novel, he can say to Fermina Daza at the end of it, with a straight face, that he is a virgin, having saved himself for her. His love for her is what sustains him throughout his life, often to his detriment.

Actually, what I find quite ironic about the whole thing is that, having read Roberto Bolaño, and being a pretty big fan, it’s interesting to come back and see what he was reacting against. Bolaño and his crew were all about creating a new kind of South American fiction, one that moved well away from the established voices of Márquez et al. But not really knowing anything about what he was reacting against, it’s nice to come back and see the original stuff. I don’t think this is bad literature – I really enjoyed reading it. But I can understand why someone like Bolaño might get frustrated with Márquez’s work. Márquez sees his world as a truly Romantic place, where love abounds, and there is a romanticised view of the town in which these characters live. Despite the name, cholera is only ever a spectre here. And it is kind of safe. I don’t know if that’s just ’cause I’m reading it 25 years after the fact, but it doesn’t feel revolutionary or genre-bendingly.

And I’ve decided I have to stop reading blurbs. Every time I read one, the twist in the middle of the novel is spoiled, or it is only tangentially related to what the novel is about. Seriously, people.

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Her Fearful Symmetry (2009) – Audrey NIFFENEGGER

I loved The Time Traveller’s Wife. Truly, it is one of the best science fiction novels of the past ten years, and definitely one of the greatest love stories ever told. And told beautifully, mind, with Niffenegger perfectly managing the logic of time travel. So I’ve been hanging out for this book for a long time, thanks to the promise shown in her first novel.

As she dies, Elspeth Noblin makes one last request – her twin nieces are to inherit her London flat, on condition they live there for one year, by themselves. Julia and Valentine are reluctant at first – particularly since their parents don’t want them to go – but go they do, and meet Robert, Elspeth’s widower. Robert, along with the staff of Highgate Cemetary and the twins themselves, are slowly drawn into one woman’s quest to remain alive long after she has died.

This novel is very, very odd.The characters are odd – Robert can’t let go of his dead wife (which is fine, but the way he does this is unusual), the neighbours in the apartment block are weird (one is an agoraphobic OCD man whose wife has just left him), and the twins – Julia and Valentine – are just plain nuts. There’s so much weird, it’s hard to sympathise with any of them – they are almost weird to the point of stupidity. Personally, I thought Martin, the OCD man, was the best character, and his obsession with cleanliness, and the repercussions this has on his relationship with his wife and son are actually quite poignant. His side story has very little to do with the main plot, but actually, I quite liked it. Almost more than the rest of what was going on.

The other characters, however, are less likeable. All of them have their own obsessions and quirks, but instead of making them poignant, they become pitiable – and not in a good way. You kind of don’t want to read about these people, because you know that they will never do what they should do – and they’re a little bit creepy. One reviewer says of the twins: “they are so inseparable that they are rendered infantile to the point of idiocy”, and I would argue that this extends to the other main characters as well. They are so incapable of acting outside their self-imposed parameters, sometimes you just want to scream at them, and tell them to harden up. Though maybe that’s just me…

Julia and Valentine, the central characters of the book, are so stereotypically twinnish, it’s hard to take them seriously. There’s the bossy twin (Julia), and the shy, retiring wallflower twin (Valentine), and yet neither of them can function without the other. Julia actually comes off so bossy as to be almost unlikable, and Valentine is just so passive, you kind of want to shake her out of her self-induced stupor.

I’m going to talk about the ending, because it frustrated me so – so you’ve been warned if you don’t want to spoil the novel. Elspeth actually turns into a ghost, and can eventually communicate with the twins. This is fine, I suppose. But what rapidly becomes ridiculous is the fact that Valentine suddenly decides she’s suicidal, and is happy to kill herself so that Elspeth’s soul can enter her body. I know – it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

What makes this ending even more off-putting is twofold. First of all, while Valentine is arguably the main character, there is almost no indication throughout the rest of the novel that she is suicidal. Then she tops herself. Second, Elspeth is so desperate to get back with her husband, she’s willing to kill her own daughter (yes, it turns out the twins were actually hers all along), and use her body for the rest of its life. The book rapidly descends into madness and stupidity, and nothing can save it. There’s just so little point to what is going on, you really don’t care that all these people are dying and switching bodies and all that jazz. It pushes well past the point of magical realism, and eventually turns into straight up fantasy. Which is fine,but there aren’t really any warnings about ghosts being actual things until we start meeting them left, right, and centre.

I suspect I’m more disappointed with this book because I’m such a big fan of Niffenegger’s first novel. Having said that, there are some serious structural and character flaws with this novel. If she could have picked just Martin’s story, for example, I think it would have turned out well. Unfortunately, the magical realism path she has chosen to go down means the novel suffers as a result.

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