Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Antonio Yammara is not a nice man. I hardly liked him enough to read the book again, but I managed to, reading at a slow pace. I got involved in Colombian reality. It was an exciting and at times amusing experience, also an education.

The translation mostly reads well, as if it were written in the original language, except that now and then - not often - there are sentences that are bad, sentences which read as if a word is missing or which made me stumble. As if Ann McClean had delegated the work to a novice. Until now I had always been impressed.

I may not have explored this book in as much depth as it merits. My first reading was quick, to get what I think of as the first level of meaning out of the way.  I knew nothing of Colombia except for the drug cartel based in Medellin and South American culture as portrayed by Herge in one of his Tintin books. (Nothing of the South American literature I have read seems to contradict what I learnt there.) As a gringa who has never visited South America, let alone Colombia, I was sure I was bound to miss the subtext unless I made an effort. And even when making an effort, I believe I missed meaning.

The book's main themes:

Beyond the wonderful opening sentence with the hippopotamus, the early pages announce what this book is about: "The alacrity and dedication which we devote to the damaging exercise of remembering which after all brings nothing good and serves only to hinder our normal functioning," contradicted by the following sentence "...the death of that hippopotamus put an end to an episode of my life that had begun quite a while ago, more or less like someone coming home to close a door carelessly left open." In the long conversation between Maya and Antonio, they agree that it is possible to live without thinking.  I suppose that the book reveals what happens when someone begins to think.

On p. 15, about the relationship between experience and memory - between parentheses: "...we're terrible judges of the present moment, maybe because the present doesn't actually exist: all is memory, this sentence that I just wrote is already a memory, this word is a memory that you, reader, just read."

At the beginning of section 6, I liked the following sentence: "Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control.[...] we associate adulthood with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what happens to us next." And a page later: "It's always somewhat dreadful [sic] [...] when it's another person who reveals to us the slight or complete lack of control that we have over our own experience."


In the first three of the five parts Antonio is a man only concerned with himself. He is the One, this is reflected in the titles: One single long shadow, Never One of my dead, The gaze of absent ones. Aura is attracted to him - why is a mystery: "Professor Yammara introduces her to the law." He sees the caricature of himself at a time when he has been rendered impotent. And from then on there develops a search for meaning. Why would someone want to kill Laverde?

Recurring events and objects

I liked how some features of the story were repeated - in my view for emphasis - though when I spoke of this to other readers they looked at me as if I were mad. You be the judge:

Two scarred men, scarred through no fault of their own, three if you include Elaine's father who returned with one leg missing only to disappear from her life.

Two fathers disappearing, Elaine's father and Ricardo, though Elaine's father never came back - family break-down.
Two beloved little girls, two mother - the goodness of women.
Twice (only) the colour brown in the same location.
Twice the huge penis.
Two sets of grandparents who are ignored - family break-down.
Two instances of shots fired without aiming, one with terrible consequences, one with none
Twice seeing a little girls' expression on the face of an adult woman.
Two green doors - Laverde means the Green One
Listening to the recording twice.
Three air crashes if not more: the sound of things falling.
Two Christs in the church where Elaine and Ricardo  get married.
Two haciendas, two gates.
'I understand perfectly,' once Ricardo to Elaine, once Antonio to Maya. Men lying?

The choice of names: the name Elaine refers to the woman who loved Lancelot  and bore Galahad. And it is in fact related to Elena despite the fact that this is denied by Maya. Elena means sun beam.
Aura: may mean breeze, but also light, ie it is similar to Elena's name.
Both are mothers, viewed as a source of warmth and light. 

Leticia: the 1930s war between Peru and Colombia centered on a town named Leticia which is the Southern most town of Columbia. It was originally founded by the Peruvians under the name San Antonio - the same name as our hero - and was later awarded to Colombia in a secret deal between the two countries. Peru tried to annex the city and surrounds in 1932, Colombia sent in the army and the conflict was finally resolved with the help of the League of Nations. This is the war in which Ricardo's pilot grandfather fought.

I wondered why Maya had been chosen to be a bee-keeper and discovered that there is a famous children's book about Maya the bee, an independent and adventurous bee, loved by the bee colony she belongs to despite her rebellious nature.

Antonio claims to deny Lutecia's and Aura's existence to contain the contamination of pain and fear. Is this the truth or something he is telling himself? He has begun his relationship with Maya on the basis of a lie, so it has no future though he could easily stay with her: "I understand you completely."Returning to Bogota, he confronts loneliness but it is different from before, he seems at peace now.

Here is a question: why does Maya call him a user? He says that all the story he read was about him. How can that be?

One discovery amused me: Elena visits the church where her 'small almost clandestine wedding' will take place. It is the church of San Francisco of Assisi, which fits with the theme of Ricardo's love of animals. She likes the church because she thinks of silence and noise, of light and darkness, both pairs as she is about to become part of a pair. She looks at the illuminated altar and then discovers the two Christs, one on all fours the other in a cage.

This is what amused me: the photo I found online revealed that the illuminated altar is huge and completely plastered with gold. This is the altar that the tourists come to see. It does not impact upon Elena: what impresses her is the little Christ in a box behind the metal bars: The saviour of agony, or maybe the agonising saviour would be a better translation. This Christ is miraculous because his hair is supposedly continuously growing. She puts in a coin and the Christ is briefly illuminated. And then  "Elaine knew she would be happy all her life." And we discover that her happiness will be brief, just like the flash she saw, that Ricardo is the darkness to her light, the noise to her silence.

In this portrayal of the limits of personal power, The Sound of Things Falling (2011, 2013) reminded me of Timothy Mo's outstanding novel The Redundancy of Courage (1991) and  the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's classic Things fall apart (1958). This 2013 translation won the prestigious 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The giver and the receiver

Four stories by Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen

Re-reading after some years: Shadows on the Grass, published in the 60s (Penguin).  The cover illustration is an oil painting by Blixen, of a Somali child  who was one of her servants in Kenya. She came to realise that he was a mathematical genius. When he begged to be to sent to school, she 'scraped the money together', She also bought him a typewriter when he asked for it. Many years later, he wrote to thank her and explained that  the typewriter gave him a significant advantage when he applied for jobs. He became a judge.

She wrote in English, a foreign language for her. Are writers for whom English is not the mother tongue more free to write in unusual ways ? (Thinking of the Pakistani/British writer Nadeem Aslam, for instance.)

Here are the two sentences I most loved:

The first for the way the structure represents Berkeley Cole's leisurely, round-about journey:

"On a day in the beginning of the long rains Berkeley Cole came round the farm from up-country, on his way to Nairobi." (p. 69, The Great Gesture)

Also, for being thought-provoking:'
"A gift may be named after both the giver and the receiver, and in this way my inspiration is my own, more even than anything else I possess, and is still the gift of God." (p. 96, Echoes from the Hills).

All along this book, I heard in my mind the deep longing in Meryl Streep's voice at the start of the film  Out of Africa: "I had a farm in Africa." Great acting.

I have just read Penelope Lively's How it all started, about the unexpected ways in which a person's action can affect others. Clumsy and uncharming in comparison, thought Blixen does set the bar rather high.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Lows and highs

Have I mentioned my book group?

We meet once a month. Our last meeting focus on Illuminations, the story of  Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharrat. I had chosen that book myself, confident it was good because it had won a prize. Disappoinment: the known facts revealed about Hildegard were the only attraction. The writing was poor, the author failing to evoke what it means to be a genius in the body of a medieval woman.The prize - the name of which I cannot remember - is awarded to writing in the New Age genre, which describes this book well. It is facile, though many people raved about it.

Dutch author Cees Nooteboom has written a book I am re-reading called - in the English translation - The Following Story. Having finished it - it is nice and slim - I went back to the beginning, laughing to myself as I realised how much he'd revealed which I only understood at the end. I may have been particularly dense. I believe that he intends for his unwitting reader to embark on a voyage of discovery. I won't reveal more.

Now in his eighties, Nooteboom has won many respected prizes and continues to write. Some of his articles and books are in the travel genre which he derides in The Following Story. Another feature of his writing is that he kindly provides opportunities for digression - he refers to other authors and their works, to artworks, to places. I find myself following his hints with pleasure. In The Following Story his hero walks through Lisbon and I followed his footsteps (thank you Wikipedia and Google), amused and edified.

I have also read Niall Williams for the first time and wonder how come I've not heard of him before, nor had anyone else in the book group.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Ecclesiastes was wrong

A man in his life

A man doesn't have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn't have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses
gets muddled, doesn't learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there's time for everything.

Yehuda Amichai

Monday, 4 January 2016

Slow release of comic effect: Echenoz's list of Queens of France

Reading Jean Echenoz again. (I'd like to read everything he's written.) This time: Queen's Caprice, a  collection of seven short stories. (Caprice de la Reine, Editions de Minuit, 2014).

One of the stories had a delayed effect on me, like a time-bomb. I read it attentively and at first it made me smile. As time went by, it must have gone to my head, because the more I thought about it, the funnier I found the world. I laughed a lot about everything. People thought that maybe I 'd had too much to drink - but no, only orange juice.

It isn't a story. It's a list of twenty items:  the title says it all - Twenty women in the Jardin du Luxembourg, clockwise. It starts like this, without preamble:

"Saint Bathilde, Queen of France, holding a manuscript in her left hand, and the left side of her coat in her right hand. Hairstyle: two plaits, tied back. Jewels: necklace with cross. Expression: determined."

Next paragraph, next Queen: you read about her carefully, her posture, her arms and hands, what she's holding, hairstyle, jewels, expression. It rises in crescendo: you're waiting for that last word, you hope for a surprise - but no - this one is 'volontaire' (I was reading it in French - it means 'wilful'.) I reckon there's not much difference between wilful and determined; the third queen is described as 'decidee', which my Petit Larousse confirms also means determined. They're Queens of France, used to power.

Further down the list, some variation does occur:  Marie de Medicis is 'not very friendly'. (I'd say.) Someone else is 'patient', and the final one, Sainte Clotilde, is 'distant'. In two cases, a further qualifier is added at the very end of the paragraph: 'Presence of big breasts'. If you do need to know, they were Jeanne d'Albret ('inspired' - she was a poet) and Anne of Austria: ('pleasant, but dazed' - probably too many children.)

The breast thing tells you that the observer is a man. OK then, maybe not a man, maybe a 13 year-old boy.

It made me laugh.

The next day, I attended a party in a lovely modern house, art on the walls and canapes served. On one side, windows from floor to ceiling, overlooking the countryside, the lawn outside sloping to bushes, trees beyond and then hills and far away the sea and a glowing pale sky, long whisps of  cloud across it. In the middle of the lawn stood a stick with a narrow container attached, the contraption no higher than my knee. I asked the friend in whose house we were what it was: "B's rain gauge. I did ask him if it needed to be there today." she said. I laughed.

It doesn't matter where you put a rain gauge, as long as it is in the open. This one was in the middle of the view, bearing witness to my friend's ability to compromise and her husband's single-mindedness. I laughed so much I cried.After that, I carried on laughing about everything. I had a good time.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Reviewing The Conductor and The Beauty of Humanity Movement

A bad attack of flu left me very little energy, needing to retreat to bed  every day after only a few hours of mild activity. Besides sleeping, I managed to put in some good reading. Three books by Sarah Quigley, NZ-born author now resident in Berlin, starting with The Conductor (2011, Vintage Book) and today, Camilla Gibb's The Beauty of Humanity Movement (2010, Doubleday). Camilla Gibb is Canadian. Both women have doctorates from Oxford; they're about the same age, I think - mid to late forties. Quigley's D.Phil is in literature and Gibb's in Social Anthropology.

Their books are cultural tours de force: Quigley's conductor is Russian, a musician, living in Stalin's Leningrad during the siege, Gibb's Vietnamese live in modern-day Hanoi. I have not visited either country, so I may be ill placed to evaluate the veracity of their characters. I found myself trusting what was described which doesn't always happen. All the more so when I realised that Sarah Quigley lived for a while in what used to be East Berlin - not the Soviet Union, but a State similar in its Communist ethos. I wonder whether Camilla Gibb has a Zen connection which helped bring Vietnamese Buddhist culture alive for her.

Most of the important characters are male. They proliferate in The Conductor - various friends, teachers, critics. No female voice at all, except for an enchanting chapter dedicated to a girl in love with her wonderful cello. It's a bit like reading Anna Karenina - all those Russian names - though Quigley has done her best to simplify them for us.  Gibb is less demanding: she has limited herself to two men and one woman in Beauty. Her woman, Maggie, who grew up in the USA, is much less interesting than either Hung, the wise, humble man who cooks perfect pho, and Tu, the young tourist guide. These are believable men, according to a aman who read this book .

Quigley writes authoritatively about musi and it was marvellous to be in Shostakovich's mind as he struggled to compose as well as cope with the conflicting demands of his gift and his family. If The Conductor has a fault it lies in the first 100 pages. One has the feeling of wading through somewhat marshy land, hoping for future relief, waiting for the story to acquire a clear dynamic. The characters don't appear very different from each other, being men of a similar age, so that one struggles a little to know whose head one is in. This is not helped by Quigley's tendency to wait to the end of the first paragraph to tell us whose point of view is taken. Having immediately carried on to read two other books by Quigley, Shot (2003, Virago) and After Robert (1999, Penguin), I realise that this slow start and the slight confusion about the characters are a part of her style. I enjoyed all her books. 

Gibb manages transitions in her own particular way - from chapter to chapter and paragraph to paragraph. It is almost amusing to flip the pages and realise that she inserts the POV character's name in the very first sentence - I imagine her going back over her work after the initial drafts and checking that it's there. Gibb's characters are more differentiated - a young man, an old man, a woman, which provides the reader with a track to follow.

I also liked these books because the characters are introspective, complex  and struggling. They struggle like most of us, with complexity, with morality, with their own natures. The writer has approached them with compassion. That compassion awakens a sympathetic chord, at least in this reader.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

How to identify a cliche: the end of a dilemma

A cliche is an expression which is overused, and has been shorn of its original impact in the process. How can one judge when meeting an expression for the first time?

Searching for the words via the search engine of your choice allows an evaluation of the frequency of occurrence.For instance, the words 'technological marvel' - search and pages and pages of references come up.End of dilemma.

Is this obvious? I searched under 'identifying a cliche' and no one mentioned this method. Could everyone be doing this and not writing about it?
  * *
In fact, it is often enough for me to wonder whether I should check, to be practically sure that the expression is a cliche.