Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Haruki Murakami’s “Town of Cats” was originally published in the September 5, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
I haven’t read this one yet. I’m not a huge fan of Murakami’s work, so I’m not looking forward to it, which may mean delays (and I’ve been delayed much lately) getting my thoughts up. Then again, maybe this story will help me see him a bit better.
It’s been a couple of years since I started reading this trilogy. Though I enjoyed every bit of it, for whatever reason — no, I know the reason: the third volume is huge! — I put off reading the end. The unfortunate result is that I have also been putting off reading other books by Marías that I have been looking forward to. I just couldn’t bring myself to read them when I hadn’t finished this massive work. But now I have, and I can move on, though my suspicion is that someday I’ll return here again. These are impressive books that, no matter how intimidating they may seem and no matter how dense and circular, are surprisingly quick reads.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
This is how this trilogy begins: “One should never tell anyone anything.” Over 1,000 pages later, it ends with Your Face Tomorrow, Volume 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell (Tu rostro mañana, 3 Veneno y sombra y adiós , 2007; tr. from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, 2010). Obviously, there’s a lot this narrator has to say, and he has many many different ways to say it. This final volume is a wonderful culmination of the themes of language and power (my review of volume one here; of volume two here).
This review will not reveal any significant spoilers about this book or the prior ones, but I do want to bring up one of the central events in book two, Dance and Dream. In that book, Jaime Deza, our narrator, spends a substantial amount of time telling us, from every angle imaginable, about the night he and his boss were entertaining a foreign dignitary and his wife at a dance club. Deza and Tupra, remember, are employees of a secret agency that has as its inception the great wars of the twentieth century. It may have even once been an official government agency, but it is now private; Tupra doesn’t really know who sits at the top of the agency, yet he uses his incredible skills of deduction and induction to interpret people — people like foreign businessmen or politicians — for their clients.
As the night progressed at the dance club, a cocky man dances a bit too, uhm, harshly with the foreign dignitary’s wife. The man is a creep with a ponytail, and Deza doesn’t hesitate when Tupra tells him to get the man into the handicapped bathroom. When they three of them get to the bathroom, Deza is surprised and disgusted when Tupra wields a sword and threatens to decapitate the man. For dozens of pages Deza narrates the frightening moment when it looks like Tupra is going to kill the man (it doesn’t — or didn’t to me — get boring). As it turns out, Tupra doesn’t kill the man, though they leave the man badly injured. Deza leaves the club disgusted and tells his boss as much. This third volume picks up about there. Tupra tells Deza to come to his home; he wants to show him something and defend himself:
You criticize me for some trifling, unimportant thing that I did, but you live in a tiny world that barely exists, sheltered from the violence that has always been the norm and still is in most parts of the world, it’s like mistaking the interlude for the whole performance, you haven’t a clue, you people who never step outside of your own time or travel beyond countries like ours in which, up until the day before yesterday, violence also ruled. What I did was nothing. The lesser of two evils. And it was your fault.
What Tupra shows Deza leaves him even more shocked than the episode at the night club. I suppose it would be possible to criticize this angle in the book as something a bit trite or moralizing, but it doesn’t come off that way. We may get a glimpse at the horrors otherwise decent people do to maintain their power, but this books really delves into the different ways someone can manipulate others — or himself — with language. For example, here is how Deza responds after he sees what Tupra has to show him:
[. . .] the images slipped inside me like a foreign body that caused me immediate pain and a sense of oppression and suffocation and the urgent need for someone to remove it (‘Let me sit heavy on thy soul’), but you cannot root out what enters through the eyes, nor what enters through the ears, it installs itself inside you and there’s nothing to be done about it, or else you have to wait some time in order to be able to persuade yourself that you did not see or hear what you did see or hear — there’s always a doubt or the trace of a doubt — that it was the imagination or a misunderstanding or a mirage or a hallucination or a malicious misinterpretation [. . . ]
Deza has never been entirely comfortable with this job. Really, he took it because two of the people he most respects in the world, Toby Rylands and Peter Wheeler, were a part of it their whole lives; in fact, for all Deza knows, Rylands and Wheeler started the whole thing. Still, these revelations with Tupra lead Deza to repulsion. When he really starts looking into the evil the program is trying to grapple with, it is a poison entering into him.
To me, all of this was fascinating, but then Marías takes the book to an entirely different level. In my prior reviews of this trilogy I mentioned the fact that some of my favorite passages dealt with Deza’s estranged wife. She is hardly a character in the first two volumes, though her impact on Deza is felt all over the place. This is her volume, and all of the themes come together in a very personal way as Deza struggles to fight what he now knows he’s capable of while he saves her from an abusive relationship that she may, in fact, be welcoming. I loved it.
John Self posted a review of Europeana (2001; tr. from the Czech by Gerald Turner, 2005) nearly three years ago (here). I immediately went out and got the book, but, as sometimes happens, when it came I put it aside, feeling like it would be a book I’d really enjoy and I might as well save it for one of those moments when I needed to enjoy a book. Well, I have been making my way through some of the Booker Prize longlist (with only a limited degree of joy, sadly), and it finally came time to read the biggest book of the bunch, former Booker Prize winner Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. Well, I hope to get back to that book and review it here in the next couple of months, but let me just say that after reading that book for a week (and getting not very far), I put it down and picked up Europeana. These books are not really comparable, though both range the twentieth century, but let me just say that I got more enjoyment out of this book’s first sentence than I had gotten at any time during the week with The Stranger’s Child (I intend to go back to that book, and I’m hoping I end up really liking it — sometimes you just need a break when it isn’t working).
Europeana is a relatively short book at around 125 pages, but in those pages it meshes together an abundance of events and themes of the twentieth century, from the wars to the introduction of the Barbie Doll, the whole time poking fun at the retrospectively ignorant 1989 essay by Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History”; Europeana‘s final sentence is this:
But lots of people did not know the theory and continued to make history as if nothing had happened.
This book is largely a swipe at any attempt to explain history or predict what’s coming; the one constant, the one thing we can rely on, is human absurdity, which is nicely introduced in Ouredník’s tone in the book’s first, scientifically quantitave sentence:
The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans.
It’s a strange perspective on loss, but my favorite part is that last conclusion – ”and so they were” — which makes fun of the methods and the conclusions we make as we study this stuff and makes us shake our heads as we realize that something as arbitrary as three centimeters can determine how one sits in history. In a way this emphasizes just how mechanical humanity can become when determining how to best mete out destruction — and then respond to it.
There is a lot going on in this book, but a couple of themes burst through the discussion on just about every topic. One is how dissatisfied some were by the past — the inhumanity, the violence, the injustice — and how they wanted to look forward to a better future, made possible by the optimization of the human race, a guarantee of peace and a harmonious society (with convivial entertainment). One of the book’s principal strengths is that it can at once speak of this goal and the horrors people committed trying to realize it: “And in 1914, American psychiatrists urged that alcoholics be promptly sterilized in the interest of preserving a healthy, superior society.” It almost doesn’t need to be said that the book spends a great deal of time discussing the Holocaust (all in that strange tone).
Europeana doesn’t just focus on these blatantly inhumane attempts to optimize humanity. Science promises much. A favorite passage from near the end is the discussion of sperm banks and how a woman could walk in and go through a long list of attributes so they could mix and match to get the perfect offspring. They are even supplied — if they ordered it — with a recording of the dad’s voice:
The text of the recording was HELLO! THIS IS A REALLY LOVELY DAY, JUST MADE FOR WALKING IN THE COUNTRY. I HOPE YOU’LL BE SATISFIED WITH ME. And one woman who ordered the recording wanted to know if she could have a ten-percent discount because the sperm donor had a lisp.
So this particular “dad” might not bring about optimized offspring, but perhaps the price is right — the sentiment itself doesn’t speak well for our progress.
Contrary to those who believe in the optimization of humanity, there are those who believe the past was wonderful, and certainly the twentieth century — with the inhumanity, the violence, the injustice — was a sure sign that the end of the world was nigh. Here’s a wonderful passage that expresses a bit of this sentiment:
In the Golden Age people were more courteous to each other and criminals were more considerate and did not fire at policemen, and young people treated each other with respect and restraint and did not have sexual intercourse until they were married, and when some young man raped a girl in the fields on her way home from work and she then became pregnant, she would put the child in an orphanage where it was cared for at the state’s expense, and when some motorist ran over a chicken, he would get out of his car and pay for the chicken.
I love how this short passage contains, in one line, one of the book’s many deliberate (though always presented in a tone that makes it look blind) contradictions: “young people treated each other with respect and restraint and did not have sexual intercourse until they were married, and when some young man raped a girl in the fields . . .”
Ouredník is not just making fun of the way we view history; he’s also making fun of the way we study it, the way we manipulate it. Here is another, perhaps better, example of how he does this. This passage comes from early in the book:
News came from the military headquarters that the was was nearing its end and melancholy was to be avoided, spirits were to be kept up and patience and a positive attitude were required, and in 1917 an Italian soldier wrote in a letter to his sister I FEEL THAT EVERYTHING THAT WAS GOOD WITHIN ME IS GRADUALLY LEAVING ME AND I FEEL MORE AND MORE CERTAIN EVERY DAY.
And quite a bit later, with no reference back to the original quote, we have this passage:
And one of the commune’s members became a well-known choreographer in Nazi Germany and devised gestural dance for the German workers in order to increase productivity in the arms factories. And in 1917, an Italian soldier wrote in a letter to his sister I FEEL MORE AND MORE POSITIVE EVERY DAY. And in 1930, a French doctor announced the beginning of a new age that would transpire under the sign of Aquarius, which would give birth to a new human being and usher in a world without war and violence.
Besides showing human ignorance with these types of contradictions (this latter one a good example of stripping out context to further one’s point), Europeana also has a load of marginalia, as if we are reading a textbook and some student has gone through it to prepare for a test. Nearly every page has one or two passages written to the side, meant to highlight what is being said, though these passages are often ridiculous because the marginalia leaves out pieces of information, highlights the insignificant portion, completely changes the meaning of the passage, or is just ridiculously pointless (e.g., the marginalia next to the passage on the sperm donor’s voice I pulled above simply said “Country Walks”).
I really enjoyed this book. It was humorous and serious and very skillfully written (and translated — Turner won the 2004 PEN Translation Award for this), and it provides a nice bit of perspective on just how warped our perspectives can be.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). David Means’ “El Morro” was originally published in the August 29, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
I read this story this morning on my way into work, but I’m afraid I’m still a bit lost and will need to revisit it to see whether I liked it. I certainly wasn’t enjoying the first three-quarters (which, to me, were more like “The Knocking,” a story he published in The New Yorker last year (my thoughts here)), but by the end I felt that something was there worth looking into (more like “Tree Line, Kansas, 1934,” also published last year (my thoughts here)). I plan to revisit it very soon (it’s relatively short) and then post my thoughts. At this point, I don’t think I’ll end up liking this one, but I need to understand it better before I decide.
I’m certainly interested in any other thoughts in the meantime.
The Booker Prize longlist this year is quite the mixed bag — at least, from what I’ve read so far (3 of 12 — still). First, there was the “thriller” that I didn’t really take to (my review of Snowdrops here), then the Holocaust novel I really liked (my review of Far to Go here), and now there’s this western, The Sisters Brothers (2011). Has there ever been a western on the Booker longlist? I haven’t checked, but I’m betting no. Nevertheless, this year we get to go to California in the 1850s where fortunes are made and unmade in moments, and usually with the help of a gun.
Review copy courtesy of Ecco.
This novel is told from the first-person perspective of Eli Sister. He’s the younger and fatter of the Sisters brothers. When the book begins, he and his brother Charlie are in Oregon City. Charlie is meeting with the Commodore to get instructions for their next job. Eli is waiting outside, a bit sad as he thinks about his last horse who was immolated in the last job.
Right when the book began I liked Eli’s voice, which deWitt has rendered nicely, even if it probably isn’t realistic that a rough gunslinger in the 1850s could speak so intelligently. There’s a deliberate awkwardness in the sophistication that just rings true to Eli’s disturbed yet ultimately caring personality. Here’s a good example of the awkwardness that, nevertheless, comes off as intelligent: “He jumped at our greeting and was loath to help us with the saddles, which I should have been made suspicious by but was too distracted with thoughts of escape to dissect properly.”
When Charlie comes outside after his meeting with the Commodore, he quickly tells Eli they have a new job. They’re to go to California to find and kill Hermann Kermit Warm. Charlie also tells him that the Commodore made Charlie lead. Eli is annoyed, and they banter nicely. For me the jealousy mixed with a genuine love for your brother came off nicely.
Soon we understand why Charlie is going to be the lead. For one thing, Charlie is not as sensitive. Where Eli pines for his horse, and eventually gets attached to his new, unfit horse Tub, Charlie couldn’t care less. Charlie loves the action; he’s a killer who’s good at what he does and who takes pride in it. Eli is a killer too, and to be sure he doesn’t hesitate when killing is necessary and doesn’t regret it afterwards; but Eli doesn’t really want to make killing necessary anymore. As the brothers head down to California, they stop at a shop and are waited on by a friendly shopkeeper and a silent girl who runs in and out of the room from behind a curtain. The following passage demonstrates deWitt’s control of Eli and Charlie’s personalities and shows how he can turn some fun banter into a moment of introspection:
As we rode away in all our finery I said to Charlie, ‘That is a tidy business.’
‘It is tidier than killing,’ he agreed.
‘I believe I could settle into a life like that. I sometimes think about slowing down. Didn’t it seem pleasant in there? Lighting the lamps? The smell of all the brand-new goods?’
Charlie shook his head. ‘I would go out of my mind with boredom. That mute girl would come rushing out of her hole for the hundredth time and I’d shoot her dead. Or I would shoot myself.’
‘It struck me as a very restful industry. I’ll wager that old man sleeps very well at night.’
‘Do you not sleep well at night?’ Charlie asked earnestly.
‘I do not,’ I said. ‘And neither do you.’
‘I sleep like a stone,’ he protested.
‘You whimper and moan.’
‘It’s the truth, Charlie.’
‘Ho,’ he said, sniffing. He paused to study my words. He wished to check if they were sincere, I knew, but could not think of a way to ask without sounding overly concerned. The joy went out of him then, and his eyes for a time could not meet mine. I thought, We can all of us be hurt, and no one is exclusively safe from worry and sadness.
Certainly the emotions in the story go up and down. In one moment there’s humor, in another the tension rises with some disturbing violence, and in another Eli waxes philosophical as he attempts to understand or justify what is going on as the brother’s cause mayhem on their way to kill Warm.
Much of the first part of the story progresses through brief set pieces. The brothers meet someone on the road, something happens, they move on, and then something else happens that is not necessarily tied to what happened before and may not be terribly important to the plot except inasmuch as it develops our understanding of the brothers, particularly Eli. These set pieces, for me, worked better than the last part of the book when the story’s direction is much more — well — direct. In these set pieces we see Charlie get attached to an idea or, more importantly, to some woman. He falls in love quickly, and the women recognize in him a bit of tenderness they crave. He longs to settle down and love and be loved. Of course, as the story develops, we realize that this is much more a reflection of Charlie’s loneliness since he later finds — and this disturbs him — that he is unmoved to hear something bad happened to one of the women.
As I mentioned above, I was a bit less interested when the brothers finally get to California and the book progresses from A to B to C in a much more direct fashion. That’s not to say that the final part of the book isn’t interesting and certainly not to say it isn’t exciting — they’re on the trail of Hemann Kermit Warm, who has managed to attract (probably in every way) one of the Commodore’s spies. And the book rarely strays far from humor. Here, for example, is a passage I enjoyed from right after the brothers arrived in crazed San Francisco, where people paid more for a meal than I would comfortably pay today:
Charlie was disgusted. ‘Only a moron would pay that.’
‘I agree,’ said the man. ‘One hundred percent I agree. And I am happpy to welcome you to a town peopled in morons exclusively. Furthermore, I hope that your transformation to moron is not an unpleasant experience.’
So, despite the fact that I found the last section of the book less appealing than the first, I really did enjoy The Sisters Brothers, and if this sounds at all appealing I believe you will too. The problem I have with it is when I start putting it in context with what I expect from a Booker book. Eli’s an interesting character, but I don’t think there’s much need to delve into the book to figure him out. When I think of a Booker book, I think of a book that I want to reread a time or two, and I think this is one to read once, enjoy, and move on.
But don’t let that final sentiment turn you away from the fun. It’s a good western — not one that breaks the mold, certainly not one that “revises” the genre (as some reports would have it) — but it’s certainly one I recommend.
“Approaching his fiftieth birthday, the narrator in My Two Worlds is wandering in an unfamiliar Brazilian city, in search of a park.” When I read that on the back of this book, I really couldn’t pass it up. A few of my favorite books have just such a wandering motif: Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room (my review here) and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (my review here) come first to mind. I’ve also wandered my share of Brazilian cities and have loved that country’s parks. So it was with great anticipation that I sat down to read My Two Worlds (Mis dos mundos, 2008; tr. from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson, 2011).
Review copy courtesy of Open Letter Books.
This is a short but slow book. I mean “slow” in a good way, though I certainly wasn’t expecting to take as much time to read it as I did. It begins as our narrator is about to turn fifty and is going to deal with it, in part, with a book:
Only a few days are left before another birthday, and if I’ve decided to begin this way it’s because two friends, through their books, made me see that these days can be a cause to reflect, to make excuses, or to justify the years lived.
He is in Brazil to attend a literary conference following the publication of his most recent book. However, he has just received an anonymous email that his book has been getting bad reviews. He’s going to deal with this by doing what he has always done: go for a walk to the park. That will offer just the right mood:
For me parks are good when first of all, they’re not impeccable, and when solitude has appropriated them in such a way that solitude itself becomes an emblem, a defining trait for walkers, sporadic at best, who in my opinion should be irrevocably lost or absorbed in thought, and a bit confused, too, as when one walks through space that’s at once alien and familiar. I don’t know if I should call them abandoned placed; what I mean is relegated areas, where surroundings are suspended for the moment and one can imagine being in any park, anywhere, even at the antipodes. A place that’s cast off, indistinct, or better yet, a place where a person, moved by who knows what kind of distractions, withdraws, turns into a nobody, and ends up being vague.
But initially his plans to walk to the park are frustrated. His map shows the roads and paths but doesn’t take into account hills, barriers, retaining walls, etc. Just when the thinks he’s closing in, he finds he’s directed another way. It’s an intriguing set up to a book that will take place almost exclusively in the park and in the narrator’s head as he sorts through a variety of thoughts, many taking him in the opposite direction. This process of switching back begins early on. The narrator loves walking, or, at least, the narrators walks; it had “become one of those addictions that can mean either ruin or salvation.” We expect him to build on this some kind of nostalgia for a heightened state of being, particularly when he comments on the pace: “it was optimal for observation and thought.” However, we may be surprised when he speaks personally and says that ”for some time now walking has been losing its meaning.”
This walk in the park, then, becomes almost the exact opposite of what we’re lead to believe (and what walking often represents in literature and life).
I allowed myself to be carried away by clichés of living ruins and well-preserved artifacts, and the experience must have left me with the kind of sensibility that is conditioned, I suppose, to search wherever I’m walking for traces of forgotten days, even when finding them is rarely worth the effort.
Our narrator, rather than searching for some heightened state of being, seems to be longing for the opposite. Throughout the book, he frequently undercuts what he’s saying with noncommittal phrasings, like a teenager saying “or whatever.” He’s no great success with people, as is particularly noticeable with women who always have and continue to ignore him: ”Something about the way I speak must cause this; it’s probable that my lack of conviction in saying even the most obvious things, or the things I most believe in, works against me at times.” Walking is a way out of himself; interestingly, he says walking has also protected him from “the danger of not being myself.” This does make sense as it explains him even as it shows him trying to get away from the past. This attempt to become “vague” or get away from the past comes up often, and the narrator explains what he thinks he’s getting at when he goes for a walk:
I now think I went on walks to experience a specific type of anxiety, one that I’ll call nostalgic anxiety, or empty nostalgia. Nostalgic anxiety would be a state of deprivation in which one has no chance for genuine nostalgia.
He then begins to list his faults (a long list) and sums it up this way:
[I]n short, given such failings, I had no other choice but to walk, which most resembled the vacant and available mind.
To walk and nothing but.
The book and the narrator become “gloomier and more fatalistic” as it goes on, but there’s much else to it, a sense of presence and of discovery. The narrator finally finds the park, and as he wanders, considering the nature of his wandering, he’s also commenting on what he’s seeing around him (though he mostly likes to look at the ground, which give a great sense of the present). Some of my favorite parts of the book are his descriptions of the Brazilian park and what’s going on around it. In particular, when he described the men playing their multiple games — and, therefore, endless game — of dominoes, I was taken to the place and realized just how much the narrator’s ring true.
I must say that when I finished the book (it’s been a little over a month now), I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. It’s meandering (obviously), sometimes feels pointless (deliberately), and takes longer than one would expect to go a such a short distance (which works perfectly with the book’s plot), and sometimes while reading the narrator discuss the Internet or his convoluted thought process I found myself drifting away from the book. But, as time has passed and I’ve had a chance to think about it more and to reread quite a bit of it, I find its power growing. This is Chejfec’s first book to be published in English. He seems to be well known in respected circles of Spanish-speaking writers, and I say let there be more! I’ll read whatever comes right when I get my hands on it — it’s that kind of slow-building power I’ve found here.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s “Gilgul” was originally published in the August 15 & 22, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
Well, I finished “Gilgul” over a week ago now, but haven’t really had a lot of time to write about it. Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s been busy, but the main problem is that I didn’t really care to find time to write about this story. I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. Basically, I ended up being completely indifferent to it, and that’s just about the worst frame of mind to be in when trying to write a brief post about one of these short stories.
That right there isn’t very encouraging, and I guess that I would encourage anyone looking for something to read to stop at “Gilgul.” Nevertheless, as I said, I didn’t hate this story. In fact, as I read it, I was quite intrigued and anxious to see how it came together. The problem, for me, is that it came together in such a “meh” way that the whole story lost whatever steam it had. But . . .
“Gilgul” begins by taking us back four years before the principal narrative. Ravitch was in Jaffa where his friend – perhaps for kicks, perhaps because Ravitch seemed lost — took him to see Gerda the witch. Ravitch considered it ridiculous, but he still told Gerda he didn’t want her to tell him when he would die. In the four years since, Ravitch has lived in New York and written a book (so what if Gerda told him he would write a book?). Ravitch had been on vacation in Greece, but on impulse he packed up and flew to Tel Aviv, “a city he was not fond of. Why had he chosen Tel Aviv? Why had he even come to Israel? No answer. His habitual lucidity seemed to have deserted him. The past four years had not been good ones.” He doesn’t care about Tel Aviv or Israel and, long ago, abandoned his Jewish traditions and whatever he had that resembled faith.
It comes as no surprise when this depressed man makes a call:
“This is Ravitch. Do you remember me? We met four years ago. I was with Mira.” Gerda remembered. “I want to see you again,” he continued rapidly. “Actually, I must see you. This time alone.”
Naturally, Gerda complies. And when Ravitch settles down in front of her to hear what she has to say, we get a bit of Gerda’s play:
“What I am about to tell you,” she began tentatively, “what I shall tell you, you are, of course, free to believe or disbelieve. It will make no difference to me.”
“But I came deliberately to hear what you have to say,” Ravitch protested. “After all, it was I who sought you out, who chose to come.”
“Perhaps,” she said with a passing smile.
Oh, that passing smile! As I said, I was interested in the story. However, at about this time, I started getting annoyed at its rather conventional set up. The lost soul who finally breaks down a few walls of skepticism to seek wisdom from a mysterious source is a bit tired. It got so much more annoying when Gerda asked Ravitch if he knew what gilgul was. Here is his ridiculous response:
“Given that I have been speaking fluent Hebrew to you since we first met, I find it odd that you should ask. Of course I know. Gilgul is the transmigration of souls. Reincarnation. Metempsychosis. Related etymologically to galgal — ‘wheel’ — and galgel — ‘to roll’ — neither of them inappropriate, as a matter of fact. If you mean do I know anything about it, well, yes. The soul, after death, can be reborn in the body of another human, an animal, or some other creature — once, repeatedly, or infinitely, according to the quality of the life one has lived. It’s a give-me-another-chance doctrine, so to speak, ancient, ubiquitous, simultaneously comforting and frustrating. Pythagoreans, Hindus, Buddhists, and Kabbalists all believed in it and spun their own complex variations on the basic theme. I have read some of the Kabbalistic material. Do you want more details?”
Okay, Gerda laughs and says, “Stop, Ravitch, before you overwhelm me with your legendary erudition! No more, I beg you.” I, on the other hand, was simply wondering how on earth this very unnatural passage found its way here. I wanted to say, “Stop, Yosef, before you overwhelm me with your annoying erudition.”
I didn’t, myself, stop, and I got interested again as Gerda told Ravitch about one of her prior clients who had a malady that forced him to uproot himself every few months and move somewhere else when all he really wanted to do was settle down. Sadly, the story never really transcended “typical” for me. Even the images at the end –
Nearby he saw the ruins of an elaborate sandcastle that must have been built the day before. He noticed a few pieces of charred wood and a small pile of tiny scalloped shells that someone had collected and then abandoned.
– felt blatant and, perhaps worse, rote to me.
I really didn’t find much of interest in this “Gilgul.” More interesting, to me, was learning a bit about Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi who, The New Yorker says, “taught at Havard and was the Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History at Columbia from 1980 to 2008. He died in 2009.” This leads me to doubt my impression of “Gilgul” and accept that I’m reading this on another plane from what was intended. Surely there is more going on here, though I’m not sure what.
Last year around the time of Canada’s Giller Prize, KevinfromCanada reviewed and recommended Alison Pick’s Far to Go (2010), which he — and based on his review, I — thought might be on the Giller longlist (KFC’s review here). That didn’t happen. In fact, as far as I know, Far to Go didn’t make any lists for any of the Canadian awards; it certainly didn’t get touched by any of the ones I follow. I didn’t forget about Far to Go because Kevin’s review really did get me interested. However, given the amount of things I have on my reading list, I’m not sure if I actually would have followed up on this one. Thanks be to the Booker judges, then, who did not overlook this wonderful book and gave me new incentive to read it. Sadly, despite its Booker longlisting, if it doesn’t go onto the shortlist, it looks like many readers will overlook this book, if the lack of commentary on the Booker debate forum is any indication.
Before getting into the book, I might suggest a few reasons people are passing on this book. I know many people are a bit tired of the number of World War II era books that appear to have sentimental overtones, and the title and cover of Far to Go do nothing to relieve those concerns — it just feels familiar, in a bad way. I share some of the fatigue with this era, though I wonder how much is fatigue with the era and how much is fatigue with the literary conventions used to render it. It is an easy era to exploit, and there are formulas out there. It seems many such books put the characters through the same process and horrors; we can almost tell the story the minute we know the characters’ names. I certainly don’t want to suggest the horrors are not important to remember and re-remember. It’s just that when they are portrayed so similarly and with similar techniques to develop similar characters, the horrors are more artificial, as if the writer put no thought into it but just rehashed other images, hoping they would carry the emotion in a story that may have little else going for it.
Let’s get one thing straight: Alison Pick’s Far to Go is not that type of book.
Sure, it utilizes some conventions, and I was worried a few times that it was drifting down that path (confused gentile is shaken when she thinks, “You Jew”; trusted friend becomes betrayer), but Pick subverts those conventions nicely — particularly at the book’s conclusion — and has created here a very ambitious debut novel that benefits from Pick’s research into her own family history and, particularly, into some of her own contemporary concerns that stem from that history.
The central event is the wonderful and terrible kindertransport. After Kristallnacht, certain British Jewish leaders appealed to Prime Minister Chamberlain to allow for the transport of around 10,000 Jewish children from their homes and families in Europe to foster families in Great Britain. The stories of heroism to get these children out of Europe are beautiful testaments to the goodness of humanity. While the hope would be to protect these children until the end of hostilities so that they could then be reunited with their families, most of the families were killed in Europe. Many of the children were so young they had no recollection of their real parents. Some grew up Anglican and had no idea of their Jewish heritage.
This central event gives Pick ample opportunity to exploit emotions (again, I don’t think she does). In the book’s opening pages we read a letter from a mother (the letter is filed under “Bauer, Lore, Died Birkenau, 1943″) to a foster mother who has her son. I have two young sons, and I couldn’t read this letter without choking up; this is the line that did it:
He is very fond of fruit, especially of bananas. His favourite soups are: vermicelli, mushroom, potato soup, lentil soup, cumin soup with vermicelli.
It’s simple, sure, but how much does that list of her son’s favorite foods say about the mother’s love. She can no longer be the mother of this child, and it’s possible he will never remember her. As I read Far to Go, then, I had to keep checking myself to determine whether I was so engaged merely because of the emotion, which I could have felt just reading some of these letters, or because the book itself had something to say and was saying it well.
The book begins in September of 1938. Things are getting worse for Jews in Czechoslovakia, and Pavel and Anneliese Bauer are just beginning to glimpse what this might mean for them and their five-year-old son Pepik. The Bauers are Jews, but they are secular and think this will keep them safe. We also meet their nanny Marta. Marta is not a Jew and she is also just in the beginning stages of understanding what’s going on, though she also thinks the Bauers must be safe since they aren’t practising. Hitler is threatening to “liberate” the Sudetenland. These characters can’t quite believe that he can get away with that, but they are getting less surprised by his progress.
There were times as the book was getting set up, as we moved closer and closer to the day when Pepik would be set alone on a train to England, that I thought the book was “conventional,” meaning it was going through the necessary motions to get this family from their relative comfort to the horror. But my worries usually passed quickly as Pick developed the other side to this story.
Between each chapter we get an older woman first-person narrator speaking to some “you” whom we know has recently died. This older woman is a researcher who has spent a lot of time interviewing children who were in the kindertransport. There’s one moment when she says, “There are whole libraries full of books on the subject. It is even possible to construct little narratives, to attempt to give the whole thing order.” Such passages gave me hope as I realized that Pick was very aware of the pitfalls she could step in and that she was carefully navigating around them while maintaining the genuine emotion that comes when you read a letter that says, “Your mamenka and I send you a hug and a snuggle.” Or, “We miss your train tearing around its track. I am almost inclined to set it back up.”
But aside from the genuine emotion (and I have to say I am still very emotionally attached to these characters), I’d like to argue that any of the parts here that seem “conventional” are that way on purpose, that Pick is setting up a convention in order to then step away and discuss other issues. To make that argument, I’d have to discuss more fully the development of this other narrative involving the researcher, and that might spoil the book for some. Suffice it to say, then, that this book is an acknowledged “attempt to give the whole thing order” with an awareness that “there is healing in the telling, but there is also something that gets lost.” The subtext is why such a telling, then, would be desired at all.
As I mentioned above, Pick has done research into her own family history to create this book. While the Bauer’s story is not her own personal family history, I think it’s safe to say that some of the issues the researcher brings up are issues Pick herself came across while conducting her own research: issues such as lost heritage, lost religion, abandonment.
Far to Go is a great book, and I hope it goes on the Booker shortlist so more people can be introduced to it.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Ben Marcus’s “What Have You Done?” was originally published in the August 8, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
Ben Marcus is back to remind me I have yet to read “Rollingwood,” which was published in the March 18, 2011 issue. I’ve already started this one and will take this opportunity to catch up on the past story too. In the meantime, please feel free to comment below. I’ll post my thoughts on the original posts for each story.
This year’s Booker longlist is an interesting one for me, mainly because after looking into them I’m not actually interested in many of the books and find myself disappointed. I’ve been thinking about whether that is appropriate given the fact I have now read only one of the books. Well, it may not be fair for me to criticize the longlist without having read it, but I believe I am completely within my rights when I make a judgment on what I want to read and what I don’t, and I don’t want to read many of the titles. Nevertheless, I want to give this year’s list a good faith effort, trusting the judges. I’ve done that before and have certainly been pleasantly surprised, finding some great books that I otherwise wouldn’t have read. Still, I feel like that has happened less and less. I’m hoping this year proves the opposite, but so far not so good. Snowdrops (2011) is a book I would not have read if it weren’t for the longlisting. I hoped to be pleasantly surprised. Sadly, Snowdrops, touted as a mystery/thriller but with no mystery and no thrill (which is not, for me, its failing), didn’t do it for me.
The following is the book’s epigraph:
Snowdrop: 1. An early-flowering bulbous plant, having a white pendent flower. 2. Moscow slang. A corpse that lies buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw.
Our narrator is a thirty-eight year old English lawyer named Nick. He’s been in Moscow for some years assisting with the legal work behind a variety of business transactions, transactions meant to fully take advantage of Russia’s nascent capitalism as well as its persistent corruption. When the book begins, our narrator has just weathered his last Moscow winter; Snowdrops is about that winter. Suggesting darkness and danger in the story we’re about to hear, as the snow melts and Nick gears himself to leave Russia, Nick stumbles upon some activity surrounding the discovery of a dead man’s body in the melting snow.
Nick is telling this whole story in hindsight. It’s been several years since he left Russia. He is engaged, and this book is what he’s written down for this fiancé as a type of confession, though whether it’s to persuade her to marry him or to run away, it’s hard to say: “I thought it would be easier if I wrote it down. You won’t have to make an effort to put a brave face on things, and I won’t have to watch you.”
Just before we transition to the beginning of that fateful Moscow winter, Nick (or, rather, Miller) places this line:
Snowdrops: the badness that is already there, always there and very close, but which you somehow manage not to see. The sins the winter hides, sometimes forever.
This brings me to one of my main complaints about the book. As good a writer as Miller is — and he is very good, which I’ll get to — strewn throughout are passages like the above that I think offer up too much explanation. It only gets worse when what is being explained are things the author says he should have seen coming, but the reader thinks I saw that coming on page 2 — and so did you!
But before we get to that, let me offer a brief glimpse at the three main threads.
First, as the lawyer who doesn’t want to ask too many questions, Nick is on a new job representing foreign banks as they loan money to a new oil enterprise above the arctic circle, “the kind of deal which, between you and me, made up half our revenue in those days, and which not even our sanitising covenants, undertakings, sureties, and disclosures could quite perfume.” Nick’s main job is to draw up the documents, not do due diligence. When the surveyor who is conscripted to do the due diligence disappears for a few days . . . well, not much mystery there, but the situation is familiar enough and interesting to those who pay attention to such things. Sadly the book doesn’t do it justice.
Second, and this is more of a sub-thread (meant, I can only presume to give the book its mystery since the other two threads don’t have much in that vein), Nick’s old neighbor has a friend who has disappeared from his apartment. He wants Nick to do what he can to find him.
Third, the principal story, which begins on the Metro:
She was wearing tight, tight jeans tucked into knee-high brown leather boots, and a white blouse with one more button undone than there needed to be. Over the blouse she had one of those funny Brezhnev-era autumn coats that Russian women without much money often wear. If you look at them closely they seem to be made out of carpet or beach towel with a cat-fur collar, but from a distance they make the girl in the coast look like the honey trap in a Cold War thriller. She had a straight bony nose, pale skin, and long tawny hair. With a bit more luck she might have been sitting beneath the gold-leaf ceiling in some hyperpriced restaurant called the Ducal Palace or the Hunting Lodge, eating black caviar and smiling indulgently at a nickel magnate or well-connected oil trader. Perhaps that’s where she is now, though somehow I doubt it.
Meet Masha, as described by Nick channelling Marlowe. It’s obvious that Nick, even engaged, is still infatuated with Masha.
I’m about to venture into what may constitute a spoiler, but Miller puts so many clues in the narrative that I can’t help but believe what I’m about to say won’t spoil the book for anybody. Nick, 38, expat, who is invigorated by the awful and awe-inspiring, falls in love quickly and irrationally. Love and irrationality are his excuse for going along with what Masha and her sister / cousin / cohort Katya put him through as they get his help moving the elderly Tatiana Vladimirovna from her Moscow apartment to a new development outside the city.
I think Miller spoils this narrative thread for us, though, because not many pages go by that we don’t see some exchange like this:
I asked Katya, “How were the exams?”
“Your exams at Moscow State University.”
“Yes,” she said. “Exams. They were excellent.”
[. . .]
“What subjects did you take, Katya?”
“Business . . . economy . . . and many more.” She smiled. “I am very good student.”
“First in class,” said Masha, and they laughed. I laughed too.
I found these and similar passages very frustrating. For one thing, it felt like the author didn’t trust that the narrative could maintain tension if he wasn’t always offering clues. For another, it’s hard to believe that Nick, as much of a fallen man he has become as he hides his sins in the winter snow, would really go along with Masha and Katya, regardless of irrational love. It’s hard to believe in Nick. These aren’t covered sins; they are there all over the place for all to see. And this type of phase feels false at best: “but I’ve started to think that all along everyone knew more than me.” He admits he probably knew what was going on the whole time, but I can’t even buy that he was wilfully keeping the truth from himself.
To put it mildly, I found each of the three threads disappointing because they didn’t feel real. Rather, they felt like artificial constructs, based on very real events, meant to show how a man can hide what’s happening from himself. It’s an intriguing concept; I just don’t think it was developed well at all.
That said, I think Miller is a talented writer (leaving aside the structural issues and the point-blank, overly-explained passages). This is his debut novel, but for years he was the Moscow correspondent for The Economist, which shows. Surely the greatest aspect of Snowdrops is the picture of Moscow in the first years after the turn of the century, that mix of the awful and the awe-inspiring (sometimes in the same moment). This aspect makes its way into Nick’s tone and his attraction to Moscow is compelling and believable and does a much better job explaining his character than anything else in his “confession.”