truth

SABRINA BY NICK DRNASO

There’s an app which, when you input some personal information into it, will send you a message from a dead loved one. No one I spoke to about it could understand why such a thing would bother me. The resulting text can be posted on Facebook. Richard, you know I love you and that I’m always watching over you from up here. The poster’s friends can comment sympathetically and like the post. No one understood. They thought I was upset for no reason. Chill out, they said. If it makes people happy, they said. They couldn’t understand how for me it was a symbol of everything that I despise about how we live our lives now, of how we interact with each other and the world; a grim symbol of what we are and where we are going. It could have been any number of other things, other examples. It could have been any one of a million tweets on twitter; the heartless, the idiotic, the hysterical, on all sides of the political and ethical debates. It could have been a video, shared indignantly around the world, of a dog being thrown down the stairs by its owner. It could have been the comments attached to a youtube 9/11 documentary. It could have been almost anything, but it was that, that shitty, insignificant app. I felt like I gave up that day. Not immediately, but over the course of a few hours. By evening, I felt as though some part of me had been hollowed out.

“How many hours of sleep did you get last night? Rate your overall mood from 1 to 5, 1 being poor. Rate your stress level from 1 to 5, 5 being severe. Are you experiencing depression or thoughts of suicide? Is there anything in your personal life that is affecting your duty?”

Sabrina is the first book published in 2018 that I have read this year. The first new work of fiction I have read by anyone for years. I was meant to be at work. I left early in the morning due to a pain in my shoulder that has been troubling me for three weeks. Before going home I dropped into a local book shop. The first book shop I have entered for years. Rarely do they stock the kind of literature that interests me. However, I had a gift card to use. It had been awarded to me, ironically, by my employer for outstanding work. I’d had the card for over twelve months. I immediately headed for the graphic novels and manga section. It was there that Sabrina caught my attention. I knew nothing about it. I had seen no prior reviews nor praise for it. I think it may have been the red, pink and black cover colour scheme that drew me in. There is no synopsis, either on the back of the book or inside the cover. Someone called Tony Tulathimutte is quoted. Sabrina is full of ominous, dead-quiet catastrophe. I had to buy something; the card was due to expire.

The book begins with the woman of the title cat-sitting at her parents’ apartment. Her sister comes over and they chat for a while. It’s the last we see of Sabrina. She disappears, later confirmed murdered. This sounds like the premise of a thriller, but Sabrina certainly isn’t that. There is almost no dramatic action or tension in it. There isn’t a noteworthy police investigation; there are no suspects, no mysteries to solve, and no grisly details, or images, relating to the crime. For the most part, the book maintains the sedate pace of its opening scene. Indeed, there are images and sequences that I never would have expected to encounter in a graphic novel, such as a character putting in his contact lenses or being given directions to a bathroom. There are also numerous conversations about nothing at all, or nothing important; chit-chat, small talk. Yet there is something moving about these banal episodes, as though you are being given access to intimate moments of the characters’ lives that you ought not to see. I think that most artists would have considered these details unnecessary, or likely to bore, and so it is to Drnaso’s credit that he recognised that these moments are, in fact, the most profound. They are when we are truly ourselves. It’s how we spend most of our time.

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Often with graphic novels it is difficult to care about, and certainly difficult to write anything meaningful about, the characters. One’s understanding of their motivations, their psychology, their emotions, their lives is superficial. And yet that is not the case here. Which is to say that, in subtle ways, Drnaso made me care, at least. We get to know very little about Sabrina’s sister, for example, except when she casually mentions that she was once ‘in the hospital.’ It isn’t explained why she was there, but one assumes a issue with her mental health. A couple of pages later she tells an anecdote about riding a bus to panama city beach on her own when she was nineteen and being harassed by three guys who want her to go to their room. Not much is made of it, but I suddenly felt something for this woman, I felt like I knew something about her and her dreams and her nightmares. There is, in fact, a deep core of sadness to Sabrina, one that goes beyond the central crime. Drnaso’s characters, like many of my friends, like me, are drifting aimlessly, lost, confused, making the best of things.

Of course, not everything in the book is mundane, even though at points it is possible to forget that a girl has been murdered in apparently gruesome circumstances. Part of Sabrina‘s focus is on the nature of grief, how it affects us, how we cope [or don’t] when something awful happens. This is mostly explored through Terry, Sabrina’s boyfriend. I’m not sure how much dialogue is attributed to him, but it cannot be a lot. He barely speaks throughout. Indeed, his introduction is as a man sitting silently in a bus station. Terry doesn’t eat either. He is even force-fed at one point. He sleepwalks through the book, as though he has all but shut down, as though he is a robot running low on juice. Yet none of this is surprising, to me at least, nor really all that engaging. The most striking moment is when he has a telephone conversation with Sabrina’s sister. She shouts and swears at him, she denounces him; and one understands that it is because he doesn’t grieve, he doesn’t react to tragedy, in the way that she expects, in the way that the public would expect. One is not allowed to grieve one’s own way, these days, one must not do it quietly and privately. It should be done in the open, at a funeral, and on social media. One must rally round, one must support those also affected, one must share.  Terry does not, and so he is seen as something like a fraud, as someone who doesn’t care.

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Sabrina also has a lot to say about how the public and the media deal with tragedies; and it is in this way that this book most captured my attention. In my experience, whenever something awful happens – 9/11, the Paris shootings, etc – the public make it all about them, about their entertainment, their grief, about their desire for ‘truth’ or ‘justice’ or whatever. They use these tragedies to gloat, to get attention, to gain or wield power, to make jokes even. The media, on the other hand, feed them, whip them up, in order to make money, to get clicks, to sell their shit. Take the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, for example. None of us know what happened to that little girl, and yet that has not stopped us rushing to judgement, analysing, creating conspiracy theories, harassing and reviling the parents. It vividly struck me back in 2007 that the public at large did not care about the crime, nor the girl, nor the suffering of her family, what they cared about was their own agenda. We see this also in Sabrina, where those closest to the situation are accused of being actors and the video of the woman’s murder is called a fake. That video has, by the way, been leaked to the internet, for people to watch. We feel as though we have a right to these things, once they become public knowledge. Even Calvin – the closest we get to a hero – downloads it.

There is much more that I could write about all this but I am concerned that this review is overlong already. Before I finish, I want to praise Nick Drnaso’s subtlety and sense of control once again. The way, for example, that we chart Calvin’s mood through the health questionnaire he completes at work. The way that the artist/author drops motifs, clues and symbols into the text, such as the two times that characters are scared by someone approaching them on the blind side, or the ‘fake’ apples in Sabrina’s parents’ house, or the mysterious disappearance of Calvin’s cat. The way, finally, that the murder is kept from us, the way it is left to our imagination. The trust, to put it in other words, that is placed in us as readers is extremely satisfying. I could say, in conclusion, that Sabrina is the best book published in 2018, or that it will not be bettered, but that would be meaningless coming from me. I probably won’t read another one. So I will simply say that it is something approaching a masterpiece.

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BEAST IN THE SHADOWS BY EDOGAWA RAMPO

I’ve written about this before. My troubled relationship with reality. My mania for narratives. My madness. My doubt. I doubt everything. For every event I could, and quite often do, create multiple stories or explanations. My need to confront the truth of the world means, ironically, that the truth is inaccessible to me. That is if it could be said to exist at all. The truth, I mean. Or maybe not inaccessible, but unidentifiable. The truth  – if it exists at all, if it isn’t a meaningless concept – is simply one possibility amongst many, all of which have equal standing, all of which are equally persuasive. I can work the facets of every case, every event, no matter how banal or dramatic, into a series of believable, logical theories. I doubt everything and therefore I am capable of convincing myself of anything. My mind is hyperactive, oppressive. It attaches itself to things like the Kraken does a ship. I didn’t want to write about this again. I’m wary of boring you all; yet Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo has made this necessary.

“I regret my proclivity to reasoning and fantasy, but regret though I might it is not enough. I feel like walking, searching Japan – no, every corner of the earth – in a lifelong pilgrimage to discover the whereabouts of Hirata Ichiro-Oe Shundai, even though I know it might be pointless.”

As published by Kurodahan Press, Beast in the Shadows is teamed with the more famous, yet seemingly less well-thought of, certainly judging by the reviews I read, The Black Lizard. That story, by all accounts, is a bit of pulp nonsense featuring a femme fatale master criminal – a description that, I must admit, appeals to me greatly – while the novel under review here – although it too has its moments of nonsense and does feature a woman who might not be what she seems – is a more serious, cerebral affair. I don’t know much about Edogawa Rampo, whose real name was Hirai Taro, but his pseudonym, which was chosen as a homage to Poe [say Edogawa Rampo quickly, preferably out loud], displays not only a kind of playfulness, but also suggests a keen interest in, almost reverence for, the major writers working within the genres that he did himself. I mention this because Beast in the Shadows read, at times, like a homage itself to the golden age of crime fiction, and also partly as an essay on what crime fiction is or could be.

The novel is narrated by a writer of detective novels and involves a search for another, the reclusive Oe Shundai. Much is made by Rampo, via his narrator, of the differences between the work of the two men. ‘There are two types of detective novelist,’ is how the story begins. One of these types is what Rampo calls ‘the criminal sort.’ These are people who are interested mostly in the perpetrator, their cruel psychology and gruesome acts. The other is ‘the detective type,’ who is ‘indifferent to the criminal’s psychology’ and concerns himself with ‘the intellectual process of detection.’ The narrator, and the author himself, are the latter, while Shundai is the former. It is clear then that Rampo was making a judgement. He was, at least indirectly, nailing his colours to the mast regarding what he considered to be the superior kind of crime fiction. Indeed, the pages of Shundai’s novels are [disparagingly] said to be full of ‘uncommon suspicions, secrecy, and cruelty’; there is, we’re told, a ‘strange ghastliness’ pervading them.

Yet the cutting critique reveals more than Rampo’s ideas in relation to, and his feelings towards, the crime genre and the different approaches to it. Shundai is the more successful of the two writers, and one can’t help but see in the narrator’s remarks an intense professional jealousy. At one point he calls his rival a man who ‘lived the criminal life with the same passion a brutal killer feels when he commits murder.’ He doesn’t stop at attacking his work either. He is described as an obese, unattractive man who, rumour has it, spends all day and night in bed. He’s a ‘vengeful devil’ and ‘poisonous spider.’ It’s worth noting that when discussing himself he states that he is in ‘no way a bad person’, that, in fact, there are ‘few as virtuous’ as he is. During the early stages of the story it might strike one that not only is the narrator biased, and therefore his words are not to be taken on face value, but also that he is perhaps a leading candidate as a suspect. Indeed, it is usually the case that anyone who insists upon their own goodness so vehemently has something to hide.

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The likely bias of the narrator is, however, only one aspect of an overall sense of uncertainty and unreliability, of confusion and doubt. The basic plot of the novel is that a woman, with whom the narrator becomes involved, is being stalked and threatened by Shundai. Many of the supposed facts of the case – such as the prior relationship between Shizuko and Shundai, and their less than amicable break up – are unproven, are simply one person’s word or interpretation of events. Indeed, rumours and hearsay dominate the story. Nothing is concrete; everything is unstable. No one, for example, has ever met or even really seen Shundai, apart from Shizuko, and that was many years ago [if she is to be believed]. The one occasion he is said to be present in the novel happens at night and he – if it is him, not some vagrant – is dressed as a clown. Moreover, the person who is reporting the sighting admits to being a ‘little drunk’ at the time.

As a consequence of his absence, because we don’t know who Shundai really is, because he isn’t a fixed character, he could in fact be anyone: the narrator, the taxi driver, the journalist, Shizuko’s husband, or even Shizuko herself. I wrote earlier that Beast in the Shadows is a kind of homage to golden age crime fiction, but what sets it apart, what makes more than a flimsy bit of nostalgia, what makes it worth reading, is that, unlike the work of Agatha Christie, for example, there are in Rampo’s novel no answers, there is no resolution. The narrator – who one comes to trust, rightly or wrongly, a little more as the story unfolds – puts together one theory, which is plausible, which one believes, until, of course, he rubbishes it, finds a flaw in it, albeit not a fatal flaw, and then comes up with another. He does this multiple times. He doubts everything, and consequently finds himself able to believe anything, to convince himself of anything. The goal is, of course, to uncover the truth, but the truth – if it exists at all – does not standup and confidently announce itself. It is triksy, supple, and swift on its feet.

CONCLUDING BY HENRY GREEN

I had intended to write this yesterday. But I went out drinking instead. This is my life now. This, apparently, is living. I spent a number of years putting people off, in order to read and write. Excuses and outright lies. I was ashamed of myself, and wished I was different. I am different now, yet not in a meaningful way. Different only in so much as I force myself to engage, while being still disengaged mentally and emotionally. I felt I had to try though, so I am trying. I spoke about Henry Green last night. I was asked, as I am always asked, because it is one sure way to make me speak, what are you reading? I had just finished Concluding. It is usually the case that my brief explanations are met with interest, be it genuine or fake. However, on this occasion the response was lukewarm, almost hostile. And it occurred to me then that Green’s body of work might just be the hardest sell in literature.

There is something singularly unexciting about Henry Green’s oeuvre when reduced to its elements. Of plot and character depth or development, there is very little, and the most immediate compensation – the lovely, awkward sentences – is not exactly crowd-pleasing. Yet Concluding, which I have read twice now, is, for my money, one of the great British novels, and I hope that what I am going to write here will give some indication as to why it is deserving of that status. I’m not holding my breath, though. The book was published in 1948, making it one of the last things the author worked on. Green himself was only 43 at the time, so it is unlikely that he felt as though his own life was coming to an end, but perhaps he did have in sight the last days of his career as there is an autumnal, elegiac quality to parts of it. In one scene, for example, he writes about ‘a glare of sunlight concerted on flat, dying leaves’ and a ‘hidden world of spiders working on its gold, the webs these made a field of wheels and spokes of wet silver.’

The central character Mr. Rock plays into this too. He is an old man, in his seventies, a once brilliant scientist, who now wears thick glasses, consistently mishears conversation due to deafness, and rises ‘with a groan.’ In fact, one way of understanding Concluding is as a novel about old age, and specifically the mistreatment, at least in Britain, of the elderly. Certainly, if one’s sympathies lay with Rock, one could argue that he is a highly intelligent, but vulnerable, man, who is preyed upon by various other, younger, characters who want to strip him of a cottage that sits close by an institute for girls; a property, moreover, which was given to him by the State in view of his former importance and contribution to science. However, one is never entirely sure of him. There are too many contrasting opinions, too much contradictory evidence.

In some quarters he is ‘well liked and respected’; and his granddaughter, in particular, idolises him. But for others he is something more sinister; he is a man ‘not of this world’, he is a ‘curious creature’. At no point in the novel does he do anything truly concerning, and yet one is at times given the impression that there may be, or have been, some form of inappropriate involvement, possibly sexual in nature, between him and one or more of the young female students of the institute. Indeed, it is even suggested that he may have had something to do with the disappearance of two girls, which is the central mystery that provides much of the novel’s momentum and tension. In this way, Concluding is very much like the work of another Henry, Henry James. As I wrote in my review of Portrait of a Lady, James’ genius was the ability to somehow hint and imply without ever outright telling you the juiciest bits of his story. There is, I wrote, a whole world beneath the surface of his work. The same could be said of Green.

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In relation to the disappearance of the girls, it is not only Rock who is fingered as a suspect in the reader’s mind. Almost all of the characters are. Everyone raises suspicion, everyone strikes you as dubious, without ever really doing anything to deserve it; except perhaps Miss Edge, the headmistress, who is the most obvious villain of the piece. In fact, one is never sure whether there has even been a crime. It’s really quite magical. There is an atmosphere of unease and strangeness throughout the novel. The girls, for example, are all called names beginning with M. They are essentially faceless, and without personality, and are often described in sexual terms, such as when reference is made to their ‘golden bare legs’ or the ‘brilliant wetness’ of their mouths. Liz, Rock’s granddaughter, is decidedly odd, having recently had a mental breakdown. Edge and Baker, who run the institute in tandem, are ‘devious’, ‘dangerous’, ‘Babylonian harlots.’ The whole cast appear to be plotting and scheming, and they all talk to each other as though they are having two entirely different conversations.

The characters aren’t all of it, either. Perhaps the most significant scene, in terms of understanding the peculiar power of the novel, and something of Green’s art, is when a doll is found dressed in institute pyjamas. One cannot help but he alarmed by it. Is it meant to represent Mary, one of the missing girls? If so, who is responsible for it? The murderer? The kidnapper? Or does it perhaps belong to her? If so, how did she lose it in the woods, and why the pyjamas? All kinds of macabre thoughts run through one’s mind, and yet it is still only a doll. It does not, in fact, signify anything, even if it does belong Mary, as we already know she is missing and we do not know for certain that she has come to any harm. The doll tells us nothing of note, but suggests all kinds of horrible things. Indeed, one spends the majority of Concluding waiting for a dead body to appear, to be stumbled upon, to float to the surface, or at least for some form of closure, but this is not a book that works in that way. There are no answers or conclusions. As Henry Green himself once wrote: “it’s not the truth that matters. It’s what’s believed.”

AUTOPORTRAIT BY EDOUARD LEVE

I have read a lot of French novels in my lifetime, many of which I consider to be amongst my favourites. Two of these French novels were written by Edouard Levé. I have never had a sexually transmitted disease. I once thought that I might have one, but the test result was negative. I own a cat, but I prefer dogs. I believe that my cat and I are too similar in terms of our personalities. I often think about giving up reading. This would of course mean that I would not read any more French novels, including those written by Edouard Levé. It is a fantasy of mine that I will do more with my life than just read. I once spent a day with a beautiful Russian girl from Sochi who gave me a 100 rouble note to remember her by. I keep it in my wallet. People frequently accuse me of being aloof and distant. I am scared of spiders, but not scared of rats or snakes. It is rare that I enjoy writing about books. I decided to write about Autoportrait in this way out of laziness, and because I do not have a lot to say about it. I am not very generous with money. The company and conversation of most people bores me, including many of my friends. As a child, I once threw away all of my mother’s make up because I thought it might have been tested on animals. I have a tendency to focus on my character flaws, even though outwardly I appear confident and sure of myself. Generally speaking, I am not attracted to white English women. The prospect of my own death terrifies me. One thing I can say about Autoportrait is that it is composed of a series of banal, apparently factual, statements. This is itself a banal factual statement. I do not own a TV. I once let a spider live in my room because it appeared to flinch when I went to kill it. It is possible that I later killed it believing it to be a different spider. I lost my virginity at eighteen. I once drank a pint of tequila and almost died. As a result, I did not drink tequila for years, until a Czech girl ordered it for me in a nightclub in Prague. I do not speak Czech, and therefore I could not communicate to her my aversion to that particular drink. I am convinced that if I met myself I would despise me. I do not believe in God, but I often pray to him and ask favours of him. I do not know how to spell bureaucracy. As a child, I once fell in a river and had to be pulled out by my hair. I found reading Autoportrait an emotional experience. Although individually many of the sentences are uninspired, when taken as a whole Levé’s novel gives you a sense of a real man. It may be the only novel in existence that does this. Having read the book I feel as though I simultaneously know a lot about Edouard Levé and nothing at all. I have never cheated on a partner, although I have been accused of it numerous times. I am left-handed. I know all the words to Stickwitu by The Pussycat Dolls. If asked to sum up Autoportrait I would perhaps say that it is a kind of autobiography with all the important events, all the drama, edited out. I feel as though I consistently punch above my weight in terms of the women I date. I have never kissed a man, and have no desire to do so. I cannot whistle. I have never cried at a funeral. The idea behind Autoportrait is a great one, but I usually find this kind of ‘gimmicky’ literature tedious to read. I am addicted to cigarettes. I smoke cigarettes even though I hated the smell of cigarette smoke as a child. I smoke cigarettes even though I am terrified of death. I did not smoke a cigarette until I was twenty-two. Edouard Levé sniffed the books he was reading, but I do not. However, I did sniff Autoportrait in preparation for this review. It doesn’t smell of anything, except perhaps cigarette smoke. I smoke a lot while I am reading. I was once locked in a bathroom when the handle of the bathroom door came off in my hand as I attempted to exit. I seriously considered jumping out of the window, even though, being far from the ground, I would likely have badly injured myself. I masturbate every day. When I masturbate I usually think about receiving oral sex. Autoportrait is not one of my favourite novels, although I certainly enjoyed it. I once had sex in a photobooth in Paddington station. I brush my teeth three times a day. My favourite Kraftwerk album is Computer World. I find the minutiae of human existence moving. I am 5’9″ tall. I am 5’9″ tall, in the right kind of shoes. My waist is 26″. I do not enjoy live music. I find the posturing of most musicians ridiculous. I have never wanted to play the guitar. I have eight tattoos. I want my hands tattooing, but I am concerned that it would harm my job prospects. I regularly fantasise about winning the lottery. I do not play the lottery. Autoportrait occasionally made me laugh, but most frequently it made me smile. I have never smoked marijuana. I do not like the idea of a drug that would make me sit around on my arse all day laughing like an idiot. I like to dance. I am not shy, I am just unfriendly. I believe that I may be Autistic. My ex-grilfriend’s nickname for me was Rainman. After reading two of his books I am still undecided as to whether Edouard Levé was a genuinely talented writer, or merely a clever one. I consider myself to be unlucky. I find the fetishisation of books, and the cult of reading, extremely tiresome and, quite frankly, weird. I have never wanted to meet a famous person. If I had been offered the opportunity to meet Edouard Levé, I would have turned it down. I read Autoportrait cover-to-cover. I do not own a single photograph showing me with any of my friends or ex-partners. It is not true to say that Autoportrait is a random series of sentences in no discernible order. The final sentence, for example, strikes me as having been carefully chosen. I won an award at the age of sixteen for a short story I had written. I did not go to the ceremony to collect the award. I am more excited by the idea that Autoportrait could be entirely fictional, rather than factual or autobiographical. I would not describe the book as confessional, although my review of it perhaps is. I do not enjoy making other people unhappy. I often find that I enjoy my memory of experiences more than the experiences themselves. I have never seen the Lord of the Rings films. I frequently burn pizza. At some point I intend to review Autoportrait in a more conventional manner, but I probably never will. I have fired a gun. I intensely dislike my brother. My mother loves me, but does not like me very much. I believe that I write better book reviews than anyone else. I do not think that I am especially talented, simply that other writers and reviewers are less talented than me. I do, however, acknowledge that this review is particularly poor, and am prepared to accept that numerous other people will have reviewed Autoportrait better than I.

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.

MASTER OF THE DAY OF JUDGMENT BY LEO PERUTZ

Life, I told someone the other day, has been getting in the way of my reading. Which is, I guess, a good thing. After the recent breakdown of a relationship, a relationship characterised by a familiar resistance to engaging meaningfully with the world around me, I vowed to change. Too late, of course, to hold onto the person that meant so much to me. One of the more distressing aspects of human existence is that often the one who inspired a change or growth in a man, the one who waited so patiently for it, will never benefit from it; no, that benefit will be for someone else, someone who did not have to work with the earlier, shoddier model, and who is therefore not even aware of the improvement; someone who, with blissful ignorance, accepts that this is who you are and have always been.

With this change my engagement with books has slowed to a pace consistent with that of a sane human being, one who is, indeed, not much of a reader at all. It has been two months since I completed Roland Topor’s The Tenant, a period of time, which, when I try to imagine it, strikes me as vast and extraordinary, like the surface of a previously unknown planet. I have picked up a number of novels during those two months, but unenthusiastically, reading only a page or two here and there; none of these books aggressively appealed to me, none of them turned me on in the way that they would once have done, when they would have breathed hotly into my ear and rested a hand on my cock. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Ironically, just as my relationship with my partner soured, so has my relationship with books, such that they now strike me as something like a wife I no longer desire.

I must admit that I was starting to panic, about this, about my blog and the prospect of never again updating it, and that panic became motivating. Was I to give it up? Does having a life outside of books involve becoming like the people I once criticised, the ones who told me they didn’t have time for serious reading, and certainly not for reflecting on what they had read? You have the same amount of time as everyone else, I would say, with predictable arrogance. So, this is, in truth, why we are here, why this review exists. It is pure panic, rather than excitement or stimulation. But this does not, of course, tell you anything about Leo Perutz or Master of the Day of Judgement.

In order to rectify this let me state that Perutz was born in Prague, but spent much of his life in Vienna. I do not know of what interest this is. He wrote, I think I am right in saying, for this is the only work of his I have any real knowledge of, literary thrillers, or ‘page-turners’ [although every book is a page-turner to someone]. One commentator described Master of the Day of Judgement, as critics are wont to do, as the marrying of Kafka and Agatha Christie. Which is nonsense, of course. You can guarantee that any author or novel compared to Kafka bears no significant resemblance at all to the great man’s writings. There is, however, something in the Christie comparison, although I have come to this conclusion from a position of almost total ignorance.

In any case, there are certainly familiar murder-mystery dynamics on display here. A group of people, many of whom are harbouring secrets or are connected to each other in ways that may arouse suspicion should someone lose their life, are gathered together in a house. Before too long a shot [or two shots] rings out, and the body of Eugen Bischoff, a once celebrated actor who has recently run into money troubles, is discovered. Are any of the people present responsible for his death, which, on the surface, appears to be suicide? Indeed, the room in which Eugen’s body was found was locked, and so the possibility of an outsider being involved seems remote, if not impossible. As expected, from this point onwards, although the novel lacks the traditional detective leading man or woman, one is led in stages through an investigation into the ‘crime.’

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[The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch]

While Master of the Day of Judgement moves at a particularly brisk pace, and there is the always intriguing whodunnit element, if this is all it had to offer I would likely not have finished it [especially as the prose is rather workmanlike]. What gives the book its depth is that some of the Prague strangeness, that is so familiar to me, both in terms of literature and my own experiences of the city, filters into the work. First of all, the story is told in the first person, by Baron von Yosch, and because he is the prime suspect one is invited to doubt his version of events. Indeed, he makes no secret of his unreliability. Yes, he declares in the opening pages that he has ‘omitted nothing’, yet soon admits to getting important dates muddled. Moreover, he actually stops himself at one point in his narration to call himself a liar and, more significantly, later confesses to the crime, only to explain it away as a false memory.

There are also a number of allusions as to the [doubtful] quality of von Yosch’s character. In one scene he overhears two people talking about him, and one of them states that he believes the man to be capable of ‘ruthlessness and murder’ [if not dishonourable action]. Waldemar Solgrub, who is one of the book’s main players, tells the Baron that others talk about him with a kind of ‘respectful hatred.’ Therefore, although the focus shifts away from von Yosch as a suspect as the novel progresses, or certainly in the minds of the other characters, as the reader one is given multiple hints that one ought not to be so eager to dismiss him.

“The rhythm of life and death was a banal dance tune. Thus we come and thus we go. What shatters us and casts us down utterly turns out to be an ironic smile on the face of the world spirit, to whom suffering and grief and death are continually recurring phenomena familiar since the beginning of time.”

Yet for me the most engaging aspect of Master of the Day of Judgement, and what provides a legitimate stylistic link to a well-known Prague inhabitant [Gustav Meyrink, not Kafka], are the gothic overtones. von Yosch, in his foreword, describes the events as a ‘tragic and sinister business’ and the investigation as a search for ‘a culprit not flesh and blood,’ and this sets the tone for the majority of the work. There is a suicide note that contains a single word, ‘dreadful’; there are references to monsters and ‘phantoms’; and words such as ‘terror’ and ‘nightmare’ appear frequently. And what of the title? What is the day of judgement? It has, of course, a biblical connotation; it is, our narrator says, the last day, when ‘Satan triumphs over the sinful soul.’ Indeed, one is led to believe that it may in fact be the cloven-hoofed one who is the elusive Master, whom Solgrub and von Yosch are on the trail of. And that is, surely, enough to recommend any book.

THE BLIND OWL BY SADEQ HEDAYAT

Whenever anyone asks me why I like owls I always tell a short story, a fictional story of course, about the first man to ever see one. Imagine blithely walking through the woods, through a forest, late one night and coming upon such a creature; imagine, to be specific, coming upon a barn owl. What is it? A bird, but not really a bird, or certainly one like no other. Lion-headed; razor-clawed; black-eyed…a ghoul, in short, in a bird-like form. There is an abundance of astonishing, disconcertingly weird animal life – the spider, for example – but none of them quite have the captivating, eerie power of the owl. The reason for this is, I think, because, unlike the spider, it has a certain human quality also, but a humanity that has been horribly distorted. It looks like something you would conjure up in a nightmare or a drug-induced hallucination, where the real and familiar combines with the odd and unexpected. In this way, although owls are only briefly mentioned in the text, it is a fitting symbol for Sadeq Hedayat’s compelling Iranian novel.

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The Blind Owl begins without preamble, which is to say that Hedayat does not ease the reader into his narrative, but immediately drops you into a tale of madness and despair. The opening line, for example, describes ‘sores’ that ‘erode the mind.’ These sores are not literal, of course, but emotional or mental; they are the product of a ‘disease’ for which relief, according to the unnamed narrator, is only to be found in wine and opium. Indeed, I have come across few novels that start so intensely, with so much melodrama and hand-wringing. The world, he says, is ‘mean’ and comprised of ‘wretchedness and misery’; and people, moreover, exist only in order to cheat him. He is full of loathing, loathing for others and for himself, but is, even more so, full of self pity about his ‘poisoned’ life and ‘inconceivable suffering.’

The cause of the ‘agony’ he experiences is, predictably, a woman; or, to use his own words, a ‘star’, a ‘ray of sunlight’, an ‘angel’ that disappeared from his life forever, and whom he cannot forget. At this stage I am probably giving the impression that The Blind Owl is something of a Werther-esque story of unattainable sweethearts and lost love; and, in a way, it kind of is, especially the first half. Indeed, the narrator spends much of the early part of the novel repeatedly referencing the ‘extraordinary’ beauty of his beloved, with her ‘prominent’ cheekbones, ‘full’ lips, moon-like pallor, fine limbs, radiant eyes, and slender eyebrows that meet in the middle[!]; she is, he says, an ethereal misty form.

However, as the narrator comes to explain how he met the woman, and how he subsequently lost her, one realises that The Blind Owl has more in common with Poe or the [mostly French] surrealists or something like Jose Donoso’s gothic horror story The Obscene Bird of Night, than Goethe‘s famous novel. I do not, of course, want to give away the entire plot, but, in short, it involves windows that disappear, ‘dense mists’, uncanny images on pen cases [he has taken up decorating these in an effort to stupify himself or kill time, he says] and jars, black ‘skeleton thin’ horses, dismemberment, a hearse, and a great deal of blood, etc. Like The Obscene Bird of Night the timeline of these events is confused, which mirrors, of course, the mental state of the narrator, a man who, as has already been mentioned, is often drunk on wine or high on opium.

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As one would expect, then, there is much in the novel about reality and fantasy. One is invited to ask oneself how much of what you are reading is true and how much is false,  or, to be more precise, how much is real and how much is hallucination or fiction. Indeed, there are numerous references to dreams and visions throughout The Blind Owl, such as when the narrator describes himself as being in a state of mingled horror and delight akin to that produced by a ‘delicious, fearful dream.’ Moreoverhe says of opium that it puts him in a state that is like being ‘neither awake nor asleep’, and, more tellingly, or consequently, that everything he sees, thinks, and feels might be ‘entirely imaginary.’ Yet there is also the suggestion that he may, in fact, simply be making things up, for he admits at one stage that his story might not contain even ‘the slightest particle of truth.’

“I write only for my shadow which is cast on the wall in front of the light. I must introduce myself to it.”

As engaging as all this is, the most interesting element of the novel, for me, is when Hedayat writes about identity or ‘the self.’ The first hint of this is when, at the beginning of The Blind Owl, the narrator says that he wants to ‘know himself’, as though there is some part that is unknown or unknowable. He also claims to be composing the story for his shadow, which he refers to numerous times as though it is a separate, individual being. There is, furthermore, more than one instance in which people become other people, or people are switched, or there is some confusion as to who is who. For example, there is an anecdote told about the narrator’s father and uncle, and how they were locked in a room with a cobra[!] and, due to how similar in appearance they were, no one was entirely certain which one of them came out alive. The concept of multiple selves is, of course, familiar to all of us, but especially those who have an interest in mental illness. Not only are there conditions such as bipolarity, but split personalities and schizophrenia too.

It is also worth focusing, briefly, on the structure, for I was impressed by the way Hedayat brought together the two halves of his novel. The first half is, as I noted previously, a rather confusing, melodramatic story of lost love, involving a woman who may or may not have existed. The second half then goes on to explain, or give the impression of explaining, the events that take place in the first, in a more realistic, or believable, manner. Initially, this irritated me, for it felt a little like a magician performing an impressive trick, then showing you exactly how it was done. However, as I progressed further into the second half it became apparent that the explanation was, in fact, no more credible than the horror-fantasy in the first half.

“We are the children of death and it is death that rescues us from the deceptions of life.”

I want to continue, I want to write about mummy and daddy issues, Freud, and the psycho-sexual, but this is a book review, a long book review already, and it cannot, if I hope to have any readers, be allowed to mutate into a dissertation. However, before I finish I am going to touch upon the translation. I have actually tried to read The Blind Owl a number of times, abandoning it on each of these occasions somewhere around 20-30 pages in, and only recently saw it through to the end. My reservations previously were all related to the quality of the prose, specifically how overwrought it is [although I should point out that the second half is much less so].

Open the book at any point within the first thirty pages, and read a page and you will find a plethora of examples. Fearful abyss! Immense eyes! Profound darkness! Accursed trees!! The first part is so saturated with this sort of thing that it is, at times, amusing, rather than, as you would imagine was the intention, exciting or unnerving. You will notice, also, how almost every word, every noun or verb, is qualified or modified in some way with an adverb or adjective, which is something that I generally associate with bad writing. All screams are bloodcurdling, all glances are penetrating, and so on. Moreover, I was struck by how old-fashioned the language was for a book that was published in 1937, such that it almost felt like a pastiche [alas].

I did wonder whether these flaws could be attributed to a shoddy translation. The copy I own was translated by D.P. Costello, a man who was, as the name suggests, not Iranian himself, and who, I think I am right in saying, was not considered an expert in the language. With this in mind, I sought out the most recent translation by Naveed Noori, who claims, as is always the way, that his version is more accurate. Well, more accurate it might be, but it is also clunky and sometimes near unintelligible. Compare the opening paragraphs:

“There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker. It is impossible to convey a just idea of the agony which this disease can inflict. In general, people are apt to relegate such inconceivable sufferings to the category of the incredible. Any mention of them in conversation or in writing is considered in the light of current beliefs, the individual’s personal beliefs in particular, and tends to provoke a smile of incredulity and derision.” [Costello]

“In life there are wounds that, like leprosy, silently scrape at and consume the soul, in solitude—This agony can not be revealed to anyone, because they generally tend to group this incomprehensible suffering with strange and otherwise rare events, and if one speaks or writes about it, then people, by way of popular perception and their own beliefs, receive it with a doubtful and mocking smile.” [Noori]

Yes, the Costello one is archaic, suggesting a brooding 19th century count, in a dark and windy castle somewhere, contemplating the state of his soul over a snifter of brandy, but it is nevertheless poetic, smooth and readable. This is the perennial problem with modern translators, which is to say that their work tends to be faithful, on a word-by-word basis, but they have seemingly no idea about, or interest in, how English sentences are actually constructed, or how to make them pleasing to the eye or ear. Indeed, reading them is like dancing with someone who has conscientiously learnt all the steps, but lacks grace of movement. So while Costello’s melodrama isn’t perfect, and it may be a bastardised version of Hedayat’s novel, I still greatly favour it over a version that reads as though it is the product of google translate.