Tag Archives: postmodernism

Booker Prize 2015: Shortlists and Winners

That’s it!

You’ll notice there are three books missing from my reviews over the past three days – I have read them, but just couldn’t bring myself to expend any energy on writing about them: Sleeping on Jupiter is dull, The chimes is an average example of a dystopian future, and Satin island forgets that a novel has to have emotional heft as well as intellectual.

I’m still worried the Americans have invaded:

So. The shortlist. I’m surprised, slightly, that my own shortlist is actually pretty similar to the official one.

My shortlist:
Did you ever have a family, Bill Clegg
A brief history of seven killings, Marlon James
The fishermen, Chigozie Obioma
Lila, Marilynne Robinson
The year of the runaways, Sunjeev Sahota
A little life, Hanya Yanagihara

Among those six, there are four that I would be happy to see win: James, Obioma, Sahota or Yanagihara. All are spectacularly excellent novels that deserve a wide readership, and really speak to a lot of what is going on in the world today.

But I am going to pick a winner. And I know it’s the favourite, and I know it’s an easy out, but I’m really hoping A little life gets up. I know it’s divisive, but for me, it really was the best thing on this longlist. I don’t think I’ve ever read a 700-page brick so fast, and even though it’s often melodramatic, overwrought and ridiculous, it really is, underneath all that, a book about the incredible strength love can give us if we just let it in.

And that’s it! If I remember, I’ll write a reaction post to the winner – tomorrow night, AEDST.

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Silence Once Begun (2014) – Jesse BALL

I think we all know that I’m a sucker for any book about Japan/set in Japan/written by Japan. And since early reviews for Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun were positive, I thought I’d check it out for myself.

Jesse Ball, an investigative journalist, has come to Japan to solve a mystery. He has heard a story, and he wants to solve it. In the 70s, a man named Oda Sotatsu turned himself into the police, confessing to a crime. What is interesting, though, is that he only did this because he lost a card game. And once he confessed, he remained silent until he was executed. As Ball trawls through the evidence presented to him 40 years later, he finds himself trapped in a web of deceit and lies.

Silence Once Begun is dedicated to K. Abe and S. Endo, and it’s easy to see why. Both Abe and Endo are major Japanese writers, dealing with themes of existential isolation in a post-war Japan, and though that’s not quite what’s going on here, you can delineate the through-line that led Ball to this place. Particularly in the first half, there is a vague sense of unease and oppression—even though the events of the crime took place almost thirty years earlier, none of the affected parties are willing to talk to Ball about it, and when they do, they all seem to contradict each other. Nowhere more has the spawn of the marriage of crime fiction and postmodernism—the unreliable narrator—been more present. And yet, when the key player in the events surrounding the Narito Disappearances himself is dead, perhaps that is all that can be done.

When I read The Cuckoo’s Calling earlier this year, I was struck by how formulaic the formal structure—Strike goes to each person, interviews them, takes notes, and thinks. Perhaps this is simply a result of the genre, but while Rowling seems constrained by this, Ball gets around it by actively drawing our attention to the (un)natural structure of his piece—though this is a novel, it is masquerading as a piece of true crime, so it would make sense for it to look like this.

There’s a weird tension in this novel that I am still trying to wrap my head around. So often in Silence Once Begun, the setting seems irrelevant to the story—despite the general Abe-esque tone of the novel, the fact that this is the story of an American journalist coming to find a story in Japan is rarely touched. Which is a shame, because the novel is set in Sakai, a dirty part of Osaka that is beautiful in its ugliness (I’m allowed to say that—I used to live there). This is particularly apt, since much of the action takes place in the 70s, a time when Japan was still moving fast towards becoming the modern behemoth it is today; and like all developing countries, it was leaving lots of people behind, a fact that opens up narrative possibilities like no other.

And yet, so much of the final act twist revolves around some very particular specificities of the Japanese legal system, including the fact that confessions carry an almost disproportionate weight in trials. It’s like Ball wants us, for long tracts, to ignore the fact that this is a white man telling a story of Asian people—until the very end. I’m struggling to think of another novel that ignores its unusual setting with such abandon for so long, only to make it important for the dénouement.

Silence Once Begun is a short, arresting read. Reading certain passages, you could easily believe this is a lost Abe novel, trying to come to terms with an increasingly isolated world in which we live, where each person’s lived experiences are seen to be as valid as every other’s.

(Unrelated to anything—the cover for this novel only reminds me that any novel about Japan is allowed to have no colours on its cover other than white, red and black.)

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How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) – Mohsin HAMID

I went to a conference for emerging Asian Studies scholars at the end of last year (don’t ask me how I got an invite—I felt horribly out of place), and there were two buzz words/phrases that got pulled out at almost every lecture. The first was “Asian Century”, a reference to the Australian Government’s recent White Paper; the second was “rising Asia”, a term to describe the  many emerging and developing economies of South East and West Asia.

This obsession is not isolated to academia. In the past few months, two novels from prominent Asian authors have dealt with this idea of “rising Asia”, of people coming to terms with rapidly developing economies, and finding their place in this new paradigm. While Tash Aw’s excellent Five Star Billionaire took a somewhat dim view of the way of life brought about in developed Shanghai, Mohsin Hamid seems to revel in it.

Much like Aw’s book, Hamid’s novel is also based around the dodgy advice doled out by self-help books that seem to litter bookstores and airport shops all around the world. But Hamid’s novel is a little more biting, choosing to mercilessly mock these ridiculous books, by subverting the aphorisms they so love to dole out.

I can’t review Filthy Rich without mentioning some stylistic features. anyone who’s ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure Novel—where you get to be the protagonist!—will find themselves in familiar territory. The narrator is ostensibly Hamid, who is having a conversation with “you”, the reader. He tells you the story of your life, in sections corresponding to what we might see in a real-life how-to-get-rich guide, from the first step (“Move to the city”) to the last (“Have an exit strategy”). Each is a snippet of your life, an important moment in time as you move from poor village dweller to one of the richest people in the country, having control of many slightly shady drinking water deals with the local government.

Somehow, your life seems to be blessed. You manage to get all the opportunities everyone in rising Asia wants. You get into a good school, at the expense of your sister; you get into university, dabbling in religious extremism, but never committing; you start a dodgy water cleaning business, selling to enough businesses for you to hire staff; and by the end, you

What this novel does, though, is manage to transcend its cultural and temporal surroundings. It is not only the protagonist that has no name—the country we are in, even the city, are left unnamed. Though there are enough clues to suggest it is probably somewhere in the subcontinent, there is enough ambiguity that it is not a stretch of the imagination to see the action take place in south east Asia, or even Africa.

Drawing on the traditions of authors like Italo Calvino, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia has a depth of both style and substance, and should be a strong contender for this year’s batch of prizes. Along with the recent film version of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it should mark Mohsin Hamid out as one of the rising stars of contemporary postmodern literature.

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The Plains (1985) – Gerald MURNANE

One of Australia’s largest independent publishers, Text, have recently brought out a new line of Australian classics. This has been accompanied with a series of articles talking about why it’s important for Australians to read their own literature, and despairing so many twentieth century novels are out of print. To rescue a book from the scrapheap of out of printness takes great courage, to assume that it can live beyond its own context.

A nameless documentary maker comes to the Plains – the vast, never-ending land in the middle of Australia – to make a documentary for his fellow coast dwellers. As he begins to investigate the unique culture in which he finds himself, though, he begins to realise just how bit a task he has set himself. This will not be easy, and as time passes, he becomes more and more frustrated with both the plains, and his own inability to understand them.

There are echoes of More’s Utopia, but with a uniquely Australian bent. The novel is split into two sections, the first of which outlines some of the basic history and culture of the plainsmen, while the second deals more closely with the frustrations and struggles of the film-maker living “in country”. As in Utopia, the first section is like an introduction to the historical context, while the second finds the observer/narrator interacting with these previously abstract theories.  The created society Murnanme paints is that of the “plainsmen”, a society cut off from the rest of coastal Australia, preferring to live on the plains, and let their culture blossom from the unique landscape in which they find themselves.

Murnane teases out a lot of issues still facing contemporary Australia. The tension between city and country becomes conflated with the Great Dividing Rage, and those of us who live on the coast (which is most of us) spend our time trying not to think about what’s on the other side of those mountains. And so the basis for Murnane’s fictionalised Australian begins to make more sense. I rather suspect those who live inland view people on the coast as city-slickers, with no understanding what the “real” Australia is. So, too, the plainsmen see those who live on the coast as a little backward and stunted, people who couldn’t live up to the culture of the plains which, for the plainsmen, is inherently better. Of course, there could be another explanation. Maybe it’s the tension bewteen Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The relationship between Indigenous Australians and the unique bush of our fine continent is echoed in the plainsmen’s fascination with portraying, and indeed not portraying, the fields in their own culture.

And in the end, none of us are any the wiser. We still don’t understand the relationship between the plainsmen and the plains. We don’t know why Australia has split itself in two. We don’t know what the plains really are. Where do they start? Where do they end? This gets to the crux, I think, of what Murnane is trying to talk about – the relationship between the artist and her subject. Ultimately, the film-maker is trying to make a film about something unknowable, and he fails. Has he spent too long in the plains to be a passive observer? Does one have to be totally detached from the subject to talk properly about it? Or is his problem the opposite? Is he too tainted by the coast to ever understand the plains? I know this is a paragraph made up almost entirely of rhetorical questions, but in my defence, the entire novel is essentially one long question, so I feel somewhat justified.

I lent this to a friend of mine after I read it, and when I asked her what she thought of it, she told me she “hated it”. It’s not hard to see why The Plains originally out of print. Whatever literary merit it might have, it’s not a satisfying read. There are no hard and fast conclusions. In fact, there are no conclusions at all. Murnane paints a continent divided, where two groups of people cannot find common ground, even though there seem to be attempts to find some. There are more questions than answers, which is not always a bad thing.

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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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Beatrice and Virgil (2010) – Yann MARTEL

Finally, I’m getting around to reviewing this novel. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it – probably the longest gap since starting this site – so you’ll have to forgive me if some of the details are a little sketchy. I picked this up, more than anything else, to make sure I was up to date with new stuff. I quite liked Life of Pi, but thought the ending was a giant cop-out. So I was hoping Martel wasn’t going to pull another stupid thing like that again.

Henry is a famous author, who is riding on the success of a famous novel, and is fishing around, trying to find something new to talk about. He has grand plans for a flip book about the Holocaust, but this constantly frustrates him. At the same time, though, his wife gives birth to a child, and his family life begins to take precedence. Until, that is, he meets a strange taxidermist (also named Henry) who wants Henry to read his play, and nothing will be the same again.

Anyone who knows anything about Yann Martel – and even those of us who don’t – should soon realise that Henry is basically Martel in disguise. Indeed, Martel’s original plans for a book after Pi were indeed a flip book about the Holocaust. It is clear, though, that this didn’t work out, because we have this instead. There are some gentle jibes at marketers and publishers in scenes where Henry tries to pitch his new work to his agents, but even he realises the futility of his own undertaking.

Once again, Martel had used animals in a way that is at once both subversive and relatable. The titular Beatrice and Virgil are actually a donkey and a howler monkey, respectively, who are the two characters in the taxidermist’s play, which slowly becomes more significant as the novel goes on. The Taxidermist Henry is a man who has used these animals in his play because of his close relationship with the animal world. As a taxidermist, he has a fascination and obsession with preserving and idolising the animals he stuffs and preserves, and so animals are the only way he can get his message across in fiction. The juxtaposition of the two Henrys becomes more and more important as the novel goes on, with one man simply trying to write about the experiences of the animals, while the other wants to preserve the animals as they are, in memorium eternal.

Maybe I’m just thick, but it took me a while to connect the dots of what was actually going on in this novel – I was probably about halfway though when I realised that the gratuitous amounts of signposting about the Holocaust set up in the first act actually related to the play inside the novel, and the conversations the animals are having. The animals are, in fact, talking about the Holocaust, though they only ever refer to it as an event called ‘The Horrors’, the actuality being too horrible to think about. But just as Life of Pi reveled in its own ambiguity, Martel seems to be in no rush for us to make this connecting – he does not force the reader to instantly understand this metaphor, instead preferring to subtly hint several times. Granted, some may understand faster than I did, but there you go.

Ok, I have a confession to make. I can’t actually remember what happens at the end, though I remember it being good. And appropriate. And violent.

There’s a lot going on in Beatrice and Virgil, but alas, since I read it almost two months ago, I can remember very little of it. I remember wanting to talk about it, though, in a uni class, or with some intelligent people, because there is a lot going on. Martel piles on the metaphors and images, but not in a way that seems forced or pretentious. This truly is a novel that manages to talk about the Holocaust in a new way – one that does not feel forced to resort to an overwrought historical novel and no sentimental flashbacks. This is a Holocaust novel for the twenty-first century, if such a thing can exist.

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Money (1984) – Martin AMIS

And on goes the mission to make my way through Martin Amis’ back catalogue. I picked this up in a second hand bookstore, and had heard that, along with London Fields, was considered one of Amis’ best novels – written at the height of his popularity, and arguably, genius.

John Self is a famous director of ads, and has been finally commissioned to direct his first feature film. But unfortunately, nothing is going to plan. As his drug and alcohol addiction takes hold, so do does the ever rising inane requests of his producer and stars. As everything crashes down around him, he wonders if Good Money will ever see the light of day.

Grimy. There is no other word for it. Reading Money makes you feel unclean and a little put off. John Self is pretty much the grossest hero of any novel I’ve read. He is fat, he is an alcoholic, he takes drugs, and he treats women appalingly. He is so very, very unlikeable. But there doesn’t seem to be anyone else to like. His producer, a young upstart, is smarmy and, quite frankly, a bit of a shit. He is the epitome of the 80s, wanting to subscribe so quickly and so easily to the conspicuous consumprtion philosophy. Self has an idea of where he wants his movie to go – though he is not exactly a man brimming with ideas, he knows exactly what he wants on screen. And so the constant bickering and fighting of his three leads (who are definitely the funniest characters in the novel) means that his script, written by a woman Self treats terribly, goes through so many changes to accomodate these whims, it barely remains the same.

Amis himself manages to put himself into the novel, too, as a novelist with whom Self becomes quite close. It’s actually the most interesting, and real, relationship in the novel, and provides some interesting character developments that highlight to Self (or should, at least) that the life he is leading – a life that sees him miss days on end because of being in a drunken stupor. There is also a clued-up concierge that Self becomes quite close with, and he, too, tries to warm Self of his self-destructive nature. What is most interesting, though, is that Self seems completely oblivious to the life he is leading. He seems to have genuinely no idea that what he is doing might not be the best way to lives one’s life. And for that, we do pity him. As we pity the alcoholic who can’t stop, or the drug addict who needs just one more hit, we pity John Self. He is dirty, ugly, and gross, but he is infinitely pitiable.

This high-flying, typically 80s lifestyle, is contrasted with Self’s humble beginnings. His dad lives in a flat above a pub, and is going out with a woman who thinks that her starring in porn is some kind of higher art. It is clear that Self has managed to extradite himself from this dirty British pub, and make something for himself that he has wasted because he is not used to the wealth. Money is everything to these people, particularly since Self lent his father some money several years ago, and the debt is causing some friction between them, making for a somewhat fractious relationship.

I have to spoil the ending, I’m afraid, to talk about the rest of the novel, so here goes. It turns out that everyone – quite literally, everyone – involved with the film production, is out to get him. They have been forcing him to spend and spend and spend so that he goes broke. And so John Self is spat out at the end of this production line, broken and unwell. There are some hilarious attempts showing him trying to get out of America to return home (fantastic Amis high farce, there), and then, the final denoument. It turns out that Self is actually the son of the pub owner – the pub above which his dad lives. And so he realises something – he can never have all this money. He is not destined to be rich or famous – he should just give up trying now.

This is the best novel about the 1980s I’ve read. Not that, I think, I’ve read tha many. I, certainly, have this image of the 80s as a time of lots of blingy people showing off their material stuff to everyone who’ll look, and this novel deals with the inevitable downfall of this intrinsically flawed philosophy. But hey, what would I know? I was born in 1988…

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The Savage Detectives (1998) – Roberto BOLAÑO

The hype surrounding the name of Roberto Bolaño has been massive over the last year or so. His major works, 2666 and The Savage Detectives, have received the most coverage, so why not start with them, right? And since you could build houses with 2666, I figured I’d start with the (slightly) smaller of the two.

In Mexico in 1975, a group of experimental poets, the visceral realists, are making headways in publishing their new, revolutionary poetry.  A young man is caught up in the excitement of the newness of poetry, and is drawn into the adventures of these poets, led by two enigmatic men – Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.

I don’t think that brief little blurb does this giant novel any justice, because there is so much more going on here. There are three sections: the first and last are told, diary-style, by the young poet caught up in the excitement of the visceral realists. Straight out of school and into university, he meets up with a group of poets raging against the magical realist movement of South American literature worldwide, determined to come up with something different, something unique. What it is exactly that makes this group unique is never explicitly dealt with – instead, the lives of these people takes precedence. In this first section, Bolaño shows us his true genius – characters that are confusing, contradictory, but above all else, normal. They are real people with real concerns. Much of Bolaño’s work deals with his own experiences, and the visceral realist movement is no different – his own work in hyperrealism is here mirrored, and the fractured nature of the visceral realist group perhaps allows him to take out som of his own frustrations with his real-life literary movement.

The middle section (taking up most of the pages), however, is a history of the activities of Lima and Belano between 1975 and 1995. Yet, this history is not told by these characters, or even one omniscient narrator. Instead, we get snippets and short stories from people they have encountered around the world in their travels. This makes pinning down anything definite about these two men very difficult, but also very rewarding. For they are the savage detectives of the title – in a quest to find a young female poet, they do things that are often only hinted at, but also are occasionally explained in graphic detail. From the pieces one can piece together, it seems that Lima is the more adventurous of the two, more willing to go that extra mile – at one stage, he ends up in an Israeli prison. And while each of these narrators is a separate entity, they have similar narrating styles and observations, helping to create something more of a solid image of these two runaway poets. Some of these narrators only give us a few paragraphs; others whole chapters. Some even last the entire novel – the first narrator, Amadeo Salvatierra, has a story that has to be told over several nights, with several bottles of liquor.

There are two main themes here, too: Arturo Belano; and literature. The first, Arturo Belano, is the pseudonym for Bolaño himself, allowing him to fictionalise his own experiences, as I’ve mentioned above. But as a person, how do we see Belano/Bolaño? He is difficult to peg down, but in comparison to Lima, he seems a far nicer, if somewhat more awkward, person. He is more content to go with the flow, and chill out. But hey, I could be completely wrong.

And what do we get of literature? Bolaño is definitely an author concerned with writing, with reading, with reacting to other texts. There are gratuitous references to authors – both real and imagined – and unless you have a very deep background in South American literature, you won’t get most of them. I certainly didn’t. But, then, he mentions Stephen King, too, so that’s nice to see. It’s hard to describe just how important literature is in this novel – it’s woven into the very fabric of what’s going on all the time, if that doesn’t sound too wanky. Arguably, the main plot is Lima and Belano trying to find a lost poet – Cesárea Tinajero – so right from here, it is clear that the written word is important. But each and every character’s obsession with books – writing in particular – is so very ingrained. If someone’s feeling a little sad, they’ll write a short poem. If they’re happy, the same thing. Again and again, we encountered people obsessed with literature, some unhealthily so, as one of them has the self-reflexive nerve to point out.

Look, I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand most of what this novel is trying to say. It definitely needs to be read probably two or three times before you can begin to understand what Bolaño is trying to say. If I reread this novel in five years, I’ll probably look back at these thoughts and hit my past self over the head. But to begin to try and understand, or at least think about, what Bolaño is trying to say is worth it. This truly is a masterwork – the hype is real for a reason.


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The Penelopiad (2005) – Margaret ATWOOD

When I read Salley Vickers’ entry into the Myths series, I was expecting some kind of topsy turvy postmodern reconstruction of old tales. I was disappointed. So when I picked up The Penelopiad, I wasn’t sure what to expect. And it’s been a long time since I’ve read any Atwood, so I had no idea what might happen as I started reading.

Penelope – Odysseus’ wife – is dead. But she lives on in the underworld, and wants to tell us her story. The story of what she did while her husband went to fight the Trojan War, and took a twenty year detour to get home. This is the story of a young girls trying to grow up quickly as the world around her becomes nothing. More than that, though, it is the story of those twelve maids who are killed as soon as Odysseus returns from his rather extended holiday.

It’s a very postmodern thing, this filling in the gaps of famous stories – looking for gaps in the grand narratives, and trying to fill them up with smaller mini narratives that tell stories of those people to whom history did not give a voice. And what a voice Penelope has been given. She is unbelievably average, and I think that’s her weakness. She is the everywoman, the best kind of narrator, because we feel for her. Her cousin, Helen, is not necessarily unlikeable, but she certainly is annoyingly beautiful, and the somewhat sarcastic tone Penelope takes with her is quite funny, particularly since Helen causes no small amount of trouble in her life.

Also important, though, are the twelve voices of the maids. I must confess, I haven’t read The Odyssey, but I do know what happens (who doesn’t?). But I didn’t know about the maids – when Odysseus finally comes home, after killing all the suitors banging on Penelope’s door, he also kills twelve of her closest, and youngest, maids. This is never explained by Homer, but here, Atwood goes out of her way to give these maids a voice. They become the chorus of this Greek tragedy, interrupting the flow of Penelope’s story with their own songs and skits, some of which are excellent. I particularly like the court scene, which is their last aside – with a modern judge trying to rule over a courthouse full of Greek gods and mythical creatures, Penelope trying to give her evidence. It’s funny, but more than that, it’s wickedly good satire.

Is this a feminist novel? Atwood herself has claimed that it is not, citing the only reason people label it feminist is the fact that a woman is the protagonist. And I think in many ways she is correct. This is not a tale of a strong, independent woman in charge of everything around her, but of a woman who is constantly being attacked emotionally from every angle – and she does spend a fair amount of time crying. Not that strong women don’t cry, but, you know.

But if we define feminism as a framework for highlighting the stories of women in history – no matter what they are – then we can definitely take The Penelopiad as a feminist text. Because that is almost all this novel focuses on. Instead of the manly battles of ancient Greece to which we have become accustomed, Atwood gives us the stories of Penelope, of Helen, of Anticlea, of Eurycleia – these sidelined women of history that do have stories to tell.

Even here, Atwood’s penchant for science fiction-ish ideas does not go unassauged. Penelope is telling us this story from beyond the grave, in the underworld of Greek myth. And it’s not much, but it is nicely done, with her meeting people who are already dead, including Helen, and Eurycleia, and even manages some interaction with the present time.

There is quite a lot going on here, and in some ways that works to Atwood’s advantage. But the time shifting that takes place means that you can’t settle into one period for very long, and the whole thing moves along at something of a breakneck speed – particularly the beginning, which doesn’t help set up the growth of Penelope into a young woman, from the timid girl she once was. But this is my only complaint, which I think stems from my wanting more. Because this is a short novel, but it left me wanting much more. If there were more, though, I feel it might drag. So there’s a conundrum for you.

Actually, interestingly enough, there is almost no plot to speak of here. Everyone already knows the conditions under which this story is to take place, so all Atwood has to do is colour by numbers. It’s the way she does it – with such verve, such sympathy for Penelope – that makes this an excellent retelling of The Odyssey, and a good novel in its own right.

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If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979) – Italo CALVINO

Over at the World Literature Forum, a book group has started up, and this month’s pick (the first one), is this novel. Unfortunately, this novel and I have some history – I first tried to read it about five years ago at school, when we studied postmodernism. I didn’t get past the first chapter though. After several more attempts the same year, it lay on my shelf, abandoned, until now. And I’ve finally finished it. It’s only taken five years, but it’s worth all the pain.

You pick up Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and get yourself ready to read this author’s excellent work. As you read, however, you realise that something isn’t right. The first chapter is not of the novel you thought at all. Returning to the bookshop, you realise the wrong pages are in your copy. However, once you read another incorrect novel, you begin to realise that something far bigger is going on here.

The term ‘postmodern’ is bandied around a lot today to describe anything that is even a little bit out of the accepted terms of realism. But here we have a bona fide piece of postmodern literature, commenting on reading and writing as acts of reader and writer, as well as being self-reflexively aware of the stories that are contained within this specific novel. Calvino’s focus is on the act of reading, and how each person approaches it, and how people can come together by reading similar novels, or by investigating the world of the novel as a group. The main character (arguably the person reading the novel at the time) meets the Other Reader, whose world is far more complicated than it appears at first glance, and together they travel across the globe trying to sort out the literary mystery of Ermes Marana, travelling through a whole swathe of literary styles as we go.

There are a lot of sly digs at literary critics in universities and the work they do in relation to telling the public how to read certain novels, and the petty fights they get into about translated and world literature. These caricatures of professors are just one example of something that pervades this novel – humour. With all the literary pyrotechnics going off the background, there was a big chance that this novel could have come off as a giant pretentious waste of time. But it’s not. This is actually a quite funny novel, which is probably for the best, because the premise is so ridiculous and bonkers, that had Calvino tried to treat it as a weighty, serious tome, it wouldn’t have worked. Instead, he is happy to revel in the insanity of his characters and situations, and allow us to remember the reasons we read – for the joy of being able to escape the world, to find out about the world around us, or any one of the many other reasons.

I should make mention of the pieces of text that we read as the story moves along. Some of them are absolutely brilliant short vignettes in their own right, and are playful nods to many literary movements and styles of the twentieth century. Special mentions must go to the first extract, with it’s murky train station and briefcase exchange, as well as the South American one, which I loved for no reason in particular. Of course, these extracts are not just sidesteps from the main narrative – they tie back in, and continue many of the themes that the two main characters are exploring in the real world. Well, in the not fake world. Well, somewhere, anyway. That’s another concern of Calvino’s, by the way, and one that certainly fits in with the postmodern mindset – what is real, what is fake, and can anything be original anymore? Does it even matter? One fictional Irish author had seen someone writing in his style and thought that the end result was better than anything he had ever done.

There’s a lot – and I mean a truckload – of stuff going on in this novel, so I should probably stop now. But this is an excellent, excellent novel. It has so much to say about literature and reading that anyone who calls themself an intelligent reader should read this. Now. I’m sure I’ve missed at least half of what Calvino was trying to tell me, but this is definitely a book that deserves a careful reread.

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