family

WHO WAS CHANGED AND WHO WAS DEAD BY BARBARA COMYNS

‘She wasn’t going to tell you,’ her mother had begun. And then she – her mother – told me. I, for my part, remarked that I hadn’t noticed anything. ‘It only shows when I’m nervous,’ Megan replied, looking at the floor, or something beyond it. ‘She makes all kinds of noises,’ her mother took up, before imitating her daughter’s Tourette’s. ‘If you ever do get nervous,’ I said, ‘don’t worry about it. Everyone gets nervous sometimes.’ I’m not sure now what exactly I was trying to say. I guess I wanted to let her know that her condition wasn’t a big deal for me, although I knew it would be a big deal for her. ‘See, Megan,’ her mother said, smilingly, ‘even normal people get nervous.’ And then there was silence, long enough for me to wonder whether her mother was conscious of her unkindness. Was there some malice in it? Or was it sheer thoughtlessness? And did it even matter? The effect was the same.

“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.”

Last year I read Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter. I was impressed by the prose style, but thought it a failure as a novel in almost every other respect. Especially irksome was the characterisation, which was so lacking in subtlety, so predictable, as to be soap opera-ish. Alice’s father, for example, is just plain bad, and his every appearance results in him doing something brutish. His mistress, on the other hand, is the archetypal common tart. Everyone in the novel conforms to a cliche, and, in my opinion, calling it a ‘fairytale’ doesn’t excuse these faults. Consequently, the small number of pages – one hundred and thirty in my edition – felt like a slog; and, bearing in mind that The Vet’s Daughter is often described as Comyns’ most accomplished work, I was reticent to try another. I’m glad, however, that I overcame my reticence as Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, her third novel, might be the best thing I have read this year.

The term ‘gothic’ is consistently applied to Comyns’ books, and the title of this one certainly suggests dark and creepy. Indeed, there are a number of gothic motifs, such as a thunderstorm and a monstrously ugly man with a scarred face; and references are made to ‘tormented screams’ and the ‘stench of evilness.’ Moreover, the novel begins with a flood, with, therefore, disaster; but more tellingly it begins with death. A pig is said to float by, ‘its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding’; then ‘a tabby cat with a distended belly passed, its little paws showing above the water, its small head hanging low.’ As the narrative progresses, the corpses increase in number, and are not at all limited to the animal kingdom. However, unlike with The Vet’s Daughter, I felt as though the violence and bleakness of some of the content serves a purpose, which is to tell us something significant about the characters, and, by extension, people-in-general.

In terms of death, therefore, what is important is not the event itself but people’s reactions to it. When the flood hits one of the first questions asked is: has anyone drowned? And more than one character is eager to see a dead body. Likewise, the turn-out for funerals is high. This sort of gruesome voyeurism is not news, or certainly not to me. There is a reason why there is a spike in newspaper sales, online hits, tv viewing figures, whenever a tragedy strikes; and there is a reason why the death toll is so relentlessly reported. We enjoy this stuff. The higher the count, the grislier the details, the better. The book focuses on the Willoweed family, and it is interesting to note how the two eldest members deal wth death. First, Ebin seeks to make money out of it, to further his career, by writing articles about the quickly expiring locals and selling them to The Daily Courier. The grandmother, on the other hand, gleefully wishes it upon others, bantering with Ives about who will croak first. Finally, both mother and son feel sorry for themselves when one of the family passes away.

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As I criticised the characterisation in The Vet’s Daughter I should point out that I had similar misgivings about Grandmother Willoweed, the ‘bad fairy’ or ‘dreadful old black bird’ of the story. The family matriarch is a violent bully, who hits out at her maids with a carpet-beater and calls them names, such as ‘sluts.’ The rest of the Willoweeds, and many of the other villagers, except perhaps old Ives, are fearful of her, and one gets the impression  – as with all sadists – that she enjoys it, or at least mistakes it for respect. Yet what makes her slightly more interesting than Alice’s father, what gives her a smidgen of depth, is her age, and therefore her vulnerability. During the course of the novel she has her seventieth birthday. To be that grand age is, I would imagine, to feel powerless, and so one might understand her desire to dominate in terms of that, i.e. as a way of avoiding feeling pathetic. Moreover, one wonders how much of her behaviour might be due to dementia; certainly, she appears to have gone mad towards the end.

As already suggested, Ebin Willoweed is another notable character, and he, thankfully, is not painted in quite such broad strokes. He is initially described as a ‘slothful’ and ‘ineffectual’ man, who is something of a failure, even a fool. His favourite daughter, for example, is clearly not his – Hattie is mixed race – and he is only living with his mother due to having been dismissed from his job because of ‘carelessness.’ However, although he might be a fool, he is evidently not harmless. Emma, the heroine of the novel, states at one point that her father has made her hate men, and for such a compassionate child this strikes one as a telling claim. Yet it is his son, Dennis, who receives the harshest treatment, and who reminded me of my friend Megan. Dennis is a nervous and insular boy, whom Ebin refers to as a ‘cissy.’ When the father takes his son swimming, and Dennis struggles and clings onto the boat, Ebin hits his hands with the oar. It’s the kind of insensitive, small-scale sadism that I wrote about in my introduction, and which is often justified as ‘tough love.’ In this way, and many others, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead struck me, not so much as concerning itself with life’s big questions or issues, but with its little, yet still painful, tragedies.

THE BLUE FLOWER BY PENELOPE FITZGERALD

I grew up in a home in which a washing machine, for example, was an extravagance we could not afford. However, we did own a large selection of hardback books, which my father – perhaps in an effort to convince my mother that he was a sensitive and high-minded man – had purchased during the early stages of his marriage. Yet most of these books – including the complete works of Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, and some hefty poetry anthologies – remained untouched until I was old enough to understand that they were not simply a decorative feature. Of course, I could not make sense of the greater part of what I read, but I found comfort in emotions and situations that were alien to me and beyond my personal experience, in being able to transport myself away from my dreary surroundings. When I read, say, a poem by Dylan Thomas I felt as though he was trying to tell me something, was reaching out to me, but, at the same time, had endeavoured to make that message as beautiful or interesting as possible, like a woman putting on her best underwear before jumping into bed with her partner.

By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I was writing my own poetry and short stories. I wrote terribly, of course, but it was something that I felt compelled to do. It didn’t seem strange to me then, although it does now, that I chose to express myself in words rather than with violence. My parents did not encourage me to be creative; I don’t think they even knew that I spent most of my time reading and writing. They had no expectations for me, wanted nothing for me, as far as I could tell, except that perhaps I would not ‘get into trouble’ like the majority of my contemporaries. I was fifteen when my English teacher entered a story I had written in a competition, and I won. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t attend the prize-giving. I was awkward, insular and unambitious. My father was a bed maker, my mother, when she could find work, was a cleaner or barmaid. I wasn’t ashamed of them, I was ashamed of myself. I subsequently went to college, then to university, to study English literature and Philosophy; and at each stage I felt unfit for purpose.

“But even more heavenly than the flashing stars are those infinite eyes which the night opens within us, and which see further even than the palest of those innumerable hosts.” – Novalis

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald concentrates on a few years in the life of young Fritz von Hardenberg, who later made his name as the romantic poet and philosopher Novalis. Approaching the novel, one might expect that the aim would be to show his development as an artist, and there is some of that, but what came through most clearly, and movingly, for me was a portrait of a man who is unsuited to a practical existence, and who is at odds with his most practical parents. Indeed, the Hardenbergs are said to not invite neighbours to their home, and not accept invitations, as this ‘might lead to worldliness.’ When the French revolution is reported in the newspaper the Freiherr believes the people to have gone ‘mad’ and bans the paper from the home. He is strict man who does not like new ideas, and will not tolerate frivolity in his children. Fritz’s mother, on the other hand, is described as having a ‘narrowness of mind’; she sees the disturbances in France as being ‘no more than a device to infuriate her husband.’

Yet it would be wrong to give the impression that Fritz’s parents are hard and unloving. The Freifrau is simple, yes, but she is a good, affectionate woman. She, for example, offers Fritz her bracelet – the only one she considers truly her own – from which he might fashion his engagement rings. Even his tough old father breaks down in tears after visiting his son’s sick wife-to-be and proposes to give her some of his property. The Hardenberg’s are, in fact, a happy family, who would, says Fritz, give their lives for each other. It is simply that there is a generational clash, between the parents and all their children, but which is most keenly felt in their relationship with Fritz. So while the Freiherr wants his eldest son to be educated ‘in the German manner’, to take a year of Law so as to be able to protect the family’s property, Fritz instead enrols in courses for philosophy and history. The old man expects him to begin a career as an inspector of salt mines, while the ‘dreamy, seemingly backward’ son is only really fit for being a poet and writer. The novel, therefore, is not really concerned with the creative process, but rather with how an artist responds to being raised in an environment that doesn’t nurture, or even acknowledge, his creativity.

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The Blue Flower is often described, or sold, as a love story, and yet for me his relationship with Sophie von Kuhn is simply further evidence of Fritz’s impractical, romantic nature. First of all, she is only twelve years old when they meet and so is not, and could not be, his intellectual equal; in fact, she can barely write. Moreover, she is portrayed as being somewhat uncouth, which is of course not unusual in a child. One of the central questions in the novel is, then, why does Fritz love Sophie? Certainly, it is not due to her supreme physical attractiveness, for we are given to believe that the ‘decent good-hearted saxon girl’ is very ordinary looking. Nor is the answer simply that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, as some have tritely argued. It is the case that Fritz sees in her childish ways something natural, free and easy. She represents for him, as women do for a number of men, nature, innocence, etc. She is uninhibited. The most significant moment in the book in terms of understanding her appeal is when Erasmus asks her for a lock of her hair, and she laughs at him because, unknown to the boy, she has lost her hair due to illness. Her lack of embarrassment and ego is charming. In this way, there is a subtle change in the way that one reacts to the novel, for the real issue is not can Sophie make Fritz happy, but can he do the same for her, for she has no romantic ideals on which to build her love.

“A word of advice. If, as a young man, student, you are tormented by a desire for women, it is best to get out into the fresh air as much as possible.”

There is one other, perhaps more interesting and tragic, love story in The Blue Flower, which involves Karoline Just’s unrequited feelings for Fritz. Sophie von Kuhn dies, and this is upsetting, of course, but, as noted above, at no point did I believe that her marriage to Fritz would be a successful one. Karoline, on the other hand, is, at least on the surface, perfect for him. She is mature, intelligent, warm-hearted, and, most crucially, believes in him and looks up to him. With her Fritz would have been happy, and yet he fails to see it. In a novel that is full of wonderful character portraits, she is, if not my favourite, then certainly the most emotionally affecting, for her cross is that she is not exciting enough. She is not poetry, she is not philosophy; she does not encourage romantic ideas; she is too practical, too conventional a choice for a man of genius.

THE HEARING TRUMPET BY LEONORA CARRINGTON

It was three years ago that my grandfather walked onto the blade of the sword that old age had, for some time, been holding out to him. If we – his family – were honest with ourselves, we would have had to admit to feeling relieved. None of us had known what to do with him, before death had intervened and took control of the situation, with the great authority that only it is capable of. His behaviour had been increasingly erratic, like that of a young bird learning its trade. Sometimes his mental processes were graceful, even though impossible to follow; at others, reality impinged upon his flights, causing him to stumble. He was a once tough and capable man, who had been reduced to a curio; and I sometimes wondered if, or how often, he was aware of his own failings and, worse still, ours.

“You may not believe in magic but something very strange is happening at this very moment. Your head has dissolved into thin air and I can see the rhododendrons through your stomach. It’s not that you are dead or anything dramatic like that, it is simply that you are fading away and I can’t even remember your name.”

The Hearing Trumpet was published in 1976, when its author, Leonora Carrington, was fifty-nine. It is, therefore, perhaps no surprise that, as she approached her sixtieth year, she would make the concerns and experiences of the elderly, specifically elderly women, the focus of her work. Indeed, it is narrated by Marion Leatherby, who, at ninety-two years old, is put in a care home against her wishes by her son and daughter-in-law. However, the book is much warmer and light-hearted, and strange, than that brief synopsis might suggest. Much of that is due to how engaging and eccentric, and funny, the narrative voice is. Marion writes, for example, of having a little grey beard, which ‘conventional people would find repulsive,’ but which she considers ‘rather gallant.’

While Marion could not, of course, be said to be in the prime of life, she refutes the idea that, at such an advanced age, she is mentally and physically incapable. In fact, she highlights, or accentuates, her abilities. So, yes, she is almost completely deaf, but her sight is ‘still excellent’; and although her skeleton has been bent by rheumatics, it does not prevent her from sweeping her room once a week. Likewise, she may be prone to sudden flights of fancy, but her mind wanders ‘never further than I want.’ What one gets from Marion is, then, a picture of a woman who is totally at ease with who she is, and who is, moreover, less sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of others, which is to say that she is accepting of others and their foibles. All told, she is a likeable and charismatic creation.

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Less likeable, however, is the behaviour of some of those around her. As already noted, her family pack her off to an institution for the senile, without seeking her opinion on the matter. They appear to believe that Marion is at an age, and in a condition, such that she cannot make decisions for herself, an attitude consistent with the idea that being old is a kind of second childhood. In this way, The Hearing Trumpet is, in part, a kind of social commentary or criticism, relating to the perception and treatment of the elderly. This is made clearest when – in the book’s least successful scene, in my opinion – the family discuss Marion, without her being present, or at least without being aware of her presence, in the most disparaging and callous way. She has been, Muriel says, ‘a constant anxiety’ to them. Worse still, Robert, her grandson, declares that she ‘can hardly be classified as a human being.’ She would, he concludes, be better off dead.

“I am never lonely, Galahad. Or rather I never suffer from loneliness. I suffer much from the idea that my loneliness might be taken away from me by a lot of mercilessly well-meaning people.”

Anyone coming to The Hearing Trumpet looking for surrealism such as one finds in Carrington’s paintings would likely be disappointed with the first third of the book. It is, for all its charm, fairly conventional, having more in common with writers like Muriel Spark than Ithell Colquhoun or any of the French novels usually gathered together under that umbrella term. Yet once Marion arrives at the ‘sinister’ Lightsome Hall, the tone of the work changes and it becomes, well, curiouser and curiouser. It is run, first of all, by a couple of religious fanatics, who say things like ‘we seek to follow the inner meaning of Christianity’ and make the residents do strange dances called Movements. Stranger still is the caper involving the winking Abbess, the search for the Holy Grail, and the concluding apocalypse section.

I must say that while I enjoyed the unpredictability, and was particularly engaged by the Abbess’ story, I wasn’t as enthused as I was by the early stages. This may have something to do with not fully understanding, or being all that interested in, the symbolism involved. Certainly, Carrington appeared to want to say something about women, femininity, etc, what with the references to Venus, a Bee Queen, and so on, but I thought she dealt with that more elegantly when Marion imagines herself beautiful, and through the character of Georgina, who, although severely wrinkled, still considers herself attractive and sexually alluring [for which she is mocked]. In any case, The Hearing Trumpet is a fine, and fun, novel, but more than that, it is a comforting one, for, with its gang of rebellious and resourceful pensioners, it makes one feel as though getting old will not be as horrifying as one might think.

THE LOVER BY MARGUERITE DURAS

I looked at my face in the mirror. I was fifteen. For the first time I wondered what others saw, when they looked. Those eyes, those lips. They aren’t so bad, I thought. Pleasing, could be worse. Soft and feminine, like my mother’s only dress. I wasn’t conscious of wanting approval, or attention. Not yet. It was simply an experiment. Just like it was two years later, with L. I was at a funeral. I had been noticed, she told my mother afterwards. Or words to that effect. Everyone noticed me that day, for I didn’t cry. Without the distorting ugliness of grief, she noticed. Those eyes, those lips. She validated the fifteen year old. L. was twenty-nine then. She became my first lover. My first lover without love. There have been many since. Too many, perhaps.

“He says he’s lonely, horribly lonely because of this love he feels for her. She says she’s lonely too. She doesn’t say why.”

The Lover by Marguerite Duras was published in 1984, when the author was seventy years old. Everything that I had read, or heard, about the novel prior to picking it up had led me to believe that it was a largely autobiographical account of a love affair between a young girl and a significantly older man. As I become increasingly mired in my memories, this of course appealed to me, bearing in mind my own experience. I wanted to compare notes. Yet while it is fair to say that the relationship is central to the book’s action it certainly isn’t its true focus. It is more the case that it is used to illustrate or highlight other, more important, or more interesting, themes or ideas.

The novel begins with the narrator telling an anecdote about an unknown man approaching her in the present and declaring: ‘Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you you’re more beautiful now.’ He prefers her face ‘ravaged,’ he says. One is immediately drawn to that ‘everyone’. It suggests something romantic. A once popular and dazzling beauty. One believes that one now understands his motivation. Her man. The lover. However, everything that the narrator writes about her physical self as a child gives lie to these conjectures. Indeed, she seems at pains to emphasise, if not her unattractiveness, then the unconventional nature of her appearance.

The hat is part of it, of course. The gentleman’s hat she wears almost at all times. But there are the clothes ‘that make people laugh’ too; the dresses she wears ‘as if they were sacks, with belts that take away their shape.’ Her appeal, it is made clear, has little to do with traditional feminine charms. Her body is ‘thin, undersized almost.’ No, this is no dazzling beauty. And yet he is dazzled. One of the questions The Lover makes you ask is, what is the basis of someone’s attractiveness? What makes this wealthy man ‘adore’ the young, tomboyish, white girl? The author herself writes: ‘I know it’s not clothes that make women beautiful or otherwise, nor beauty care, nor expensive creams, nor the distinction or costliness of their finery. I know the problem lies elsewhere. I don’t know where. I only know it isn’t where women think.’

Yet this is, of course, not an answer. Is there an enigmatic something? An essence. An attitude. Or is it, in this instance, her race? One cannot ignore that. The man cannot ignore that either. It makes him nervous. His hand trembles. ‘He’s not white, he has to get the better of it, that’s why he trembles,’ she states. He is dressed in European clothes. He smokes an English cigarette. He has spent time in Paris. He doesn’t, one presumes, want a Chinese girl. No, he wants this white girl. Or a white girl, perhaps. Exotic. Other. Or could it be that she gives the impression of being sexually available, and this supersedes all other considerations? She has a face for pleasure at fifteen, we are told, and there are certainly numerous hints at there being a business element to her relationship with the man.

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Her brother is said to have attempted to prostitute her, for example. And for the mother, and the narrator herself, her appearance is that of a child whore. The ‘transparent’ dress, let’s not forget. It is never explicitly stated that the man, the lover, pays for her company, but money is at the forefront of the relationship. The girl’s family is poor. Poverty is ‘the ruling principle’ of their lives. The hat speaks to that too. ‘The only thing left is the girl,’ her mother thinks, ‘perhaps one day she’ll find out how to bring in some money.’ The man is rich, as I have said, and interested, and ‘the child already knows how to divert the interest people take in her to the interest she takes in money.’ When he meets the family he is expected to take them to expensive restaurants, of course.

But the man is, I believe, less of a client, and more of a distraction and a comfort. A distraction from the family. From the poverty. From herself. For she is afraid of herself, she says. Her elder brother, the one who wanted to prostitute her, also tried to rape the housemaid. He is a man of ‘cold insulting violence.’ The girl, quite naturally, wants to kill him. Her mother is a depressive, and all around her are ‘wildernesses, wastes.’ Her sons. Her whore of a daughter. Her own failures. She attempts to breed chickens, but she bungles it and they are born unable to eat. They die of starvation. This is symbolic, of course. A family of stone. They feel ‘a fundamental shame at having to live.’ The younger brother’s heart gives out. Dead. His heart gives out, of course. This is symbolic too. The man, then, the weak Chinese, with his ‘supreme elegance,’ is a distraction from all this, and a comfort. In love, in sex ‘the waste is covered over and all is swept away.’

“When it’s in a book I don’t think it’ll hurt any more …exist any more. One of the things writing does is wipe things out. Replace them.”

When she grows older she will write. She does write, of course. We know. I wrote myself that The Lover is not about love, not really about a love affair. It isn’t. It is about many things, but not really that. Ultimately, it is, I’d argue, most of all about memory and writing. The book unfolds in a non-linear fashion. What of a story there is, one must piece together. As she must piece it together. In her mind. On paper. She admits, at one stage, to not knowing which shoes she was wearing at a particular moment. Yet she always wore a certain pair, and so of course it is those shoes she was wearing. She guesses. It doesn’t matter. She uses the image of her own son, years later, to describe herself as a girl. Memories superimposed upon memories. To tell the truth one must not worry about what is true. I know.

VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS BY VÍTĚZSLAV NEZVAL

Maturation is, of course, an ongoing process; a process that, you might argue, ends only with your death. It is, therefore, difficult, perhaps even absurd, to attempt to pinpoint a moment in your life when you became aware of yourself as a adult. Yet, when I cast into the pool of my memories, I am able to dredge up a number of incidents or experiences, which at the time struck me as pivotal in my development towards becoming a man. My first ejaculation, for example. My seed has adorned the faces, the bellies, the breasts, the backs, and backsides, of various women; it has been swallowed and spat out; it has dried slowly into bedsheets and t-shirts; but none were as significant, as world-shaping, for you are the world, as the afternoon it made its debut, dribbling down my own hand.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Vítězslav Nezval is not, you may be relieved to hear, about masturbation, or not explicitly anyway. It could, however, be described as a sexual coming-of-age story, if you’ll permit me that trite phrase. The girl of the title is seventeen years old, and very early in the novel, on the first day in fact, she feels ‘a thin stream of blood trickling down her ankle.’ She has, of course, started her period, her first period we’re led to believe, an event that, at least for society at large, indicates that she is now no longer a little girl, but a woman. Not everything that follows is as easy to decipher, nor as directly related to menstruation, but it is telling that the action takes place over seven days, which is [the upper end of] the length of time a period can last.

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Also telling is that Valerie is said to feel ‘great dismay’ when she notices the blood, suggesting that she isn’t happy about leaving her childhood behind. It is interesting, in this regard, that the novel’s action is so fantastical, so reminiscent of a certain kind of children’s literature – Alice in Wonderland immediately springs to mind, of course – and of the games and fantasies of children themselves, what with the strange creatures, hidden rooms, magic phials, and so on. These peculiar, often frightening, situations, characters, and objects represent Valerie’s inner turmoil, the sturm and drang of her emotions and the changes occurring in her body. Yet one might also regard them as a product of her imagination, as the girl fighting against the onset of adulthood by retreating into a childish fantasy world, which is, one ought to note, scary, yes, but never genuinely harmful.

In any case, there is much in the novel about the importance of age, and this is often linked to sexual desire or appeal. For example, one of Valerie’s friends, Hedviga, agrees to wed a much older, and richer, man. When Valerie asks her grandmother why he would want to marry a poor girl, her grandmother replies that ‘she’s young. That explains everything.’ The idea is that youth equals sex appeal, that the old man wants her because she is firm and virginal; and so he uses his money to snare, and in turn fuck, this local beauty, who otherwise he would have no chance with. Later, the grandmother bargains away her house in order to be made young again for a week. What Elsa – who, by the way, is only given a christian name once the transformation has taken place – does with this gift is endeavor to seduce, and at times succeeds in seducing, people younger than her real age.

In addition, there are repeated references to Valerie’s own sexual awakening, such as when she attends the instruction of virgins at church. During the service the minister speaks lustily of buds that ‘will burst when the time is ripe’ and ‘uncleft pomegranates’, and his words are said to touch ‘the girl’s very body.’ There is also more than one occasion when she witnesses people copulating, and makes no move to depart, being, in one instance, ‘unable to stop her eyes from feasting on the strange looking crab writhing on the bed.’ Furthermore, there is the suggestion that others can sense her ripeness, her newfound sexual potency. Indeed, one of the people Elsa attempts to seduce is her granddaughter. The Polecat, who at times is said to be Valerie’s father, does likewise. It struck me that the incestuous element of the narrative is a way of indicating how powerful the sexual urge is, in that it can transcend moral boundaries. This is backed up when the minister intends to rape Valerie.

“Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted.”

It is said that, both in style and content, Nezval was paying homage to old gothic serials [and the marvellously silly Pulp genre]. I don’t have much to say on that, in the way of insightful criticism, beyond what I wrote earlier regarding Valerie’s turmoil/retreat into childish fantasy. Yet, even if you dismiss those theories, it is certainly the case that the ‘wonders’ element of the novel is its most immediately appealing feature. Indeed, were I attempting to convince someone to read the book I would, without question, mention the vampire polecat; the plot to steal a boy’s heart and transplant it into another; the hanging, the accusations of witchery, the despairing crowing of a cock, the burial ground, the ghost. In relation to this, Nezval himself wrote in his foreword that his work is ‘bordering on the ridiculous’, and there is, as far as I am concerned, no greater selling point than that.

VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL BY SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH

Voices from Chernobyl has been sitting on my bedside table for months, and numerous times I have approached it cautiously as though it were a wild animal. There necessarily exists, between the reader and any given book, a one-sided relationship; I knew that if I were to read Voices I would be taking something from it, without giving anything back, except perhaps a review. It was, however, the something that concerned me. There are, for me at least, certain books that ask of you: do you need this? It is a genuine question. Do I need whatever I am going to take from this? I am aware that there is tremendous suffering in the world, and I can quite easily imagine what the contents of a book such as this will be, so why put myself through it? What, if you frame the question selfishly, is in it for me?

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[The ferris wheel is part of an amusement park that was scheduled to open on May 1 1986, in Pripya, near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Of course, it never did.]

On April 28th 1986, there were a series of explosions at a nuclear power plant in the city of Pripyat, Ukraine. As a result of this accident, the worst nuclear accident in history, a large part of Europe was contaminated by radiation. Voices from Chernobyl is not, however, a truncated history of the event, nor is it strictly a record of it. It is, instead, a collection of transcribed interviews, mostly monologues. These interviews were conducted by Svetlana Alexievich; the interviewees are people who were in some way affected by the disaster. Therefore, as one would expect, there are many disturbing, often gruesome, details or anecdotes. There are faces ‘all puffed up and swollen’; there are bodies covered in ‘black spots’; there are sheets covered in blood; there is cracking skin, flaking skin; and there are, of course, deaths, many, many deaths.

Yet, as hinted at in my introduction, this sort of thing holds little interest for me. I am not, to quote my own phrase, a literary ambulance chaser. I do not get my reading kicks gorging myself on death, distress and destruction; I don’t need the grisly particulars; I don’t want them in my head. That being exposed to radiation results in disfigurement and pain is not something of which I require proof. I get it; I already got it long before opening this book. This is not to say that I do not understand why the people involved want to share this information. They, as a number of interviewees themselves declare, ‘want to bear witness’; they want, I imagine, to put on record the truth, the unadulterated truth as they witnessed it and experienced it, especially as some of them believe that the Soviet government have tried to cover up the full horror of the event. Their loved ones didn’t just die, they suffered, and they – the government – ‘want us to forget about it.’ And so it is of course important to them that this suffering is acknowledged, in their own minds and memories, and by the world-at-large.

“Death is the fairest thing in the world. No one’s ever gotten out of it. The earth takes everyone – the kind, the cruel, the sinners. Aside from that, there’s no fairness on earth.”

Voices from Chernobyl‘s longest section, or interview, is the opener; told by Lyudmilla Ignatenko, it details the last days of one of the first-response fireman, Vasily. Yet the real focus is on Lyudmilla herself, and her dedication and bravery in refusing to be put off by the authorities from caring for and visiting her husband. It is, in essence, a love story. However, while I certainly do not wish to underplay how emotionally affecting her account is, her actions and her love for her husband are not what make it compelling. She says at the beginning that she doesn’t know what she ought to talk about – ‘about death or about love? Or are they the same?’ And then goes on to show how she came to believe in a connection between these two things.

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What I found fascinating about Lyudmilla’s account – and I write this with the utmost respect – is that it reads like fiction, not so much in terms of the content, but the structure. Perhaps it is a consequence of having thought so much about these events, or of having retold them so many times, but one gets the impression that the details have been worked, or moulded, into a narrative, a story, that most satisfies. This is something that I think about a lot, about how we – unintentionally or unconsciously – shape and refine our experiences, internally, i.e. in our own heads, and then often via our sharing them with others.

I have noticed myself doing this, as I have worked on my own life stories or memories, and how, over time, I have left bits out, have edited, rewritten etc, have streamlined, until they have maximum impact. I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not accusing Lyudmilla, or Alexievich, of cynical manipulation or untruths; I am merely stating that many of the stories in this book impressed me, moved me, by virtue of what they communicated to me about the way that we engage with our memories or experiences, which is to say that we perfect them.

“Chernobyl is like the war of all wars. There’s nowhere to hide. Not underground, not underwater, not in the air.”

Yet most moving, for me, was the realisation, or the continued proof, of the fact that ‘ordinary people’ are capable of such relentless compassionate wisdom and insight. Hardly a page went by without some line, or image, or idea that almost took my breath away. Pytor S. says: ‘the future is destroying me, not the past’; Nikolai Fomich Kalugin says: ‘Chernobyl is a signal. Everyone turns their head to look at you’; Nadezhda Petrovna Yygovskaya  says: ‘we didn’t understand then that the peaceful atom could kill, that man was helpless before the laws of physics.’ These are examples that I picked out by opening the book at random. When I selfishly asked at the beginning of this review: what is in it for me? Why, in other words, should I read Voices from Chernobyl? It is in these lines, these words, and others like them, that I found the answer.

SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH BY TAYEB SALIH

A while ago I was in heated conversation with a man, a British man, about the subject of immigration and asylum, and at the end of this conversation he said something like ‘obviously coming here is better for you lot.’ It became clear to me at that point that he was under the impression that I wasn’t English. It is better for me and my kind? Better in what way, sir? ‘Nicer, not like where you came from.’ Putting aside the insignificant detail that I am actually English, the suggestion was that uprooting yourself and moving to a different country, a superior and more civilised country[!], is always an entirely positive endeavour. It is the unfortunate locals who have to put up with us – and our weird rituals, food, smell, etc. – and whose jobs we steal – that one ought to consider and sympathise with.

Perspective is a strange thing. There are some that appear incapable of seeing things through the eyes of others, who seemingly cannot comprehend that one’s cultural practices and values – i.e. what seems right and normal to you – are subjective, are related to your upbringing and experiences; and that to someone else, who has had a different upbringing and experiences, your practices and values may seem equally absurd or immoral. It strikes me that were I to have told this man – who, I am sure, wasn’t trying to offend me – that actually many people who come to England prefer their home countries, and in some cases did not want to come here at all, and that for them this – being in England – is not akin to winning the lottery, but often a sad, yet necessary event, he would not have believed me. Because, well, being a foreigner, my word is hardly the most reliable, is it?

“By the standards of the European industrial world we are poor peasants, but when I embrace my grandfather I experience a sense of richness as though I am a note in the heartbeats of the very universe.”

Tayeb Salih’s The Season of Migration to the North begins with a return, with the unnamed narrator, or partial narrator, discussing his arrival in the ’obscure’ village of his birth after seven years abroad, in England. He returned, he says, with ‘a great yearning’ for his people; he had ‘longed for them, had dreamed of them.’ At home, he re-familiarises himself with ’the room whose walls had witnessed the trivial incidents of my childhood and the onset of adolescence’ and the unique sound of the wind as it passes through palm trees. There are so many novels written from the European perspective, that focus on what it is like, as a European, to visit such a place, and the majority of them accentuate the hostility or strangeness of the landscape and people, and so it is refreshing to read something that provides an alternative point of view, one that is positive and loving. For the narrator this is where he has his roots, and where he feels once again as though he has ‘a purpose.’

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While there is much in the village that is familiar, there is one thing, a man, that is new and unknown, and, perhaps because he stands out in this way, the narrator is excessively curious about who he is and why or how he came to be there. I use the word excessively, because, at least initially, Mustafa Sa’eed does nothing to raise suspicion; he, we’re told, ‘kept himself to himself,’ and always showed extreme politeness, as one would naturally expect of someone who has moved to a new place. In this way, Salih subtly probes the concept of ’the outsider,’ for even in a village of men of the same race, religion, etc, Mustafa Sa’eed is viewed as not quite ‘one of them.’ However, one day he mentions that he has a secret, and it is this secret that provides Season of Migration to the North with one of its two compelling central storylines.

When the two men get together to discuss the secret, Mustafa Sa’eed begins by relating some details of his childhood, details that, I think, say much about his character and give strong hints as to his future behaviour. He was, he says, essentially given the freedom to do as he pleased; he had no father, and his mother was emotionally distant. Of more significance, he describes himself as emotionally distant also. When he is given a place at a school in Cairo he leaves home with little more than a shrug of the shoulders and later admits to feeling no gratitude towards those who help him. Indeed, the more the highly intelligent, but strangely cold Mustafa Sa’eed says, the more it becomes clear, long before the big reveal, that he is at least a sociopath, but probably a psychopath. In this way, the novel could have become simply another in a seemingly endless line of existential dramas focussing on intense, disturbed loners – such as Camus’ Mersault or Sabato’s Juan Pablo Castel – and their terrible crimes, and on the most basic level it is one of those, but it is also much more besides.

I flippantly said to someone the other day that Tayeb Salih must have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for magic literary powers. This, I joked, was the only explanation for what he was able to achieve in Season of Migration to the North in approximately 130 pages. However, I am going to overlook, or only briefly touch upon, many of the complex and challenging themes and ideas present in the novel, not because I am not interested in them, but simply because I have to maintain control over my work and not allow it, as I said in a previous review, to mutate into a dissertation. Therefore, although colonisation, and the effect upon those who are subjected to it, certainly underpins much of the action I am going to leave it for others to tackle, aware that this is generally what reviewers focus upon. I, on the other hand, prefer to look at the more controversial, or uncomfortable, elements of the book.

“He used to say “I’ll liberate Africa with my penis” and he laughed so widely you could see the back of his throat.”

For large parts of Season of Migration to the North Tayeb Salih investigates and challenges liberal and conservative, Eastern and Western, attitudes towards sex and race; indeed, the nature of Mustafa Sa’eed’s ‘villainy’ is both sexual and racial, and even political [but, as stated, I am not going to linger over that]. When he moved to England his chief aim was to bed as many white women as possible, in the process playing up to the stereotype, and playing upon the fear of conservative white Europeans, of the savage, sex-obsessed invading African black male. Yet Salih takes this one stage further, for the women who succumb to his charms do so with his race, and the accompanying stereotypes, at the forefront of their minds, even when they believe that they are dismissing it or ‘accepting’ of it.

For example, one woman appears to be under the impression that Mustafa has just crawled out of the jungle, wearing a loincloth and smelling of mangoes. For her, this fantasy, which he encourages, adds an exotic flavour, an alien quality, something quixotic, to the proceedings. Another of the women imagines herself, and calls herself, Sa’eed’s slave, a woman who wants to be dominated, of course, and who clearly associates the subjugation of women with Arab culture. Words and phrases such as ‘savage bull’ and ‘cannibal’ are thrown around; and Jean Morris outright calls this ‘showpiece black man’ ugly. Yet, once again, Salih wasn’t satisfied with presenting only one side, for he makes it clear that Sa’eed also finds the novelty of these kind of couplings exciting [he comments on their bronze skin and the intoxicating but strange ‘European smell’]. All sexes, all cultures, all races can experience the allure of ‘the other.’ This is fascinating, thrilling stuff.

The only criticism I have to make of the novel, which is as beautifully written as it is brave, is in relation to the murder of Jean Morris, which is preposterously melodramatic, although I guess it is purposely reminiscent of the conclusion of Othello. Regardless, this act is not, for me, the most heinous in the novel, nor is this death [or Sa’eed’s fate] the most tragic. Throughout Season of Migration to the North one is led to believe that the European women, with their sexual rights and freedom to choose [even a black man], are a symbol of modernity or modern attitudes. In contrast, when the aged lothario Wad Reyyes falls in ‘love’ [which for him is the same as lust] with Hosna Bint Mahmoud, who outright refuses him, he declares, ‘She will marry me no matter what you or she says.’ In this village, he continues, men make the decisions. In short, Reyyes wants to fuck the woman, and so she will be fucked. However, when he, with great violence, attempts to take her by force, and Bint Mahmoud follows through on her promise to kill Reyyes and herself, one comes to realise that it is she who is the modern woman, not the so-called liberal, free Europeans. Why? Because Bint Mahmoud kills to make a statement, to say no when no is not permitted.