Friday, 31 December 2010

Goya's Head by Tom Abrams

Reading this novel could leave you with a huge hangover—the amount of alcohol consumed by its narrator and his cronies is astounding and would have floored even Charles Bukowski.
In some ways Abrams’s fictional persona and writing is slightly reminiscent of Bukowski himself: a hard-drinking misfit most comfortable living at the fringes of society.
James Joyce also comes to mind, for Abrams takes us on an odyssey through Madrid, navigating its streets, plazas, parks and, of course, bars in the same way that Joyce’s Leopold Bloom did through Dublin in 1904.
Much of the time Goya’s Head reads more like a travelogue than a novel. You can almost picture the author sitting at a sidewalk café and scribbling notes and observations on a paper napkin before transcribing them and pasting them into his narrative.
That is not a piece of incisive criticism; the author tells us that this is precisely what he is doing, and the writing of the narrative that we are reading becomes a minor strand of the plot.
Lucas, the narrator, is living in Madrid with a younger woman, Megan, whose full relationship to him is only gradually revealed. She is the adopted daughter of his half-brother, but from the start there is always the suspicion that there is more to it than we are being told.
While Megan studies Spanish and teaches English, Lucas drifts around the city and drinks: three bottles of wine a day is his usual, along with beers and occasional spirits.
Lucas can get by in Spanish but struggles with the finer nuances of the language as indeed with life in Madrid.
The novel’s title, Goya’s Head, is a symbolic reference to how Lucas feels. The Spanish painter’s body is buried in Madrid but his head is missing, possibly in France or in some other part of Spain. For Arbams that sums up the ex-pat experience: the body may be in the country where someone is living but their head is somewhere else, in their homeland or in a parallel place that doesn’t quite relate to the adopted country as it is experienced by the natives.
Lucas has a number of cronies, mostly ex-pats like himself from Florida and other English speaking countries, whose attempts, or in some cases stubborn refusal, to become Madrilleños he chronicles and sometimes implicates himself in.
Into this narrative Abrams weaves reminiscences from his hometown and strands of family history.
In some ways the travelogue aspects hinder the story’s development, but then as Abrams states in his first-person blurb: Madrid itself became a character while he was writing and anyone who has lived or spent any time there will find themselves nodding knowingly as they recognize a street, bar, stock character, or quirk of life reminiscent of the Spanish capitol.
This is a story that anyone who has lived abroad will relate to: living in a city, trying to embrace the lifestyle, culture, and simpler way of being, but never quite getting it—always being an outsider.
This review was first written for and published by the The New York Journal of Books.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

ecopunks review

First review of ecopunks was published by on the Fionnchu blogspot as well as and by the enigmatic John Murphy, who is one of Amazon's most prolific reviewers.

This novel combines the story of a German eco-activist, a Japanese maverick archeologist, and an Irish acid casualty-mystic. In 225 pages, it covers global ground, and links intriguing ideas such as Robert Graves' analyptic analysis, our narcotic addiction to tv, the entrapment of minor celebrity, and Charles Hapgood's theory about prehistoric continental drift. Tony Bailie, a Belfast-based journalist, integrates into this fiction his sober take on the media's creation of and distortion of events so as to caricature those before the camera and how many everyday folks today seek their own sort of secular salvation, lifted up as reality-TV heroes from their obscurity to their own triumphs over adversity.
The three storylines take a while to connect, but there's no disappointment in the wait. Wolf Cliss, the eco-warrior, certainly manages to juggle relationships (for a while) and to traverse the planet as he stays in front of the reporters who mock but dutifully cover his exploits as he seeks, for sincere but easily manipulated reasons, to alert the public to environmental destruction. Meanwhile, Kei Yushiro falls for Wolf, and their child, Irinda, leads the couple separately and together into the path of the third protagonist Lorcan O'Malley's own wanderings, this time less geographical than psychological, as he tries to figure out what the "chink" lysergically prised open after a drug-induced vision in his hippie days may portend as to the discovery in the Sahara that Kei makes.
The plot moves neatly, and (despite a discouraging number of typos, the one drawback) all the pieces fit. Fittingly, the networked nature of the ways activists communicate and connect today serves to emphasize the conjectures that Kei wonders about in her excavation, and that Wolf uses to try to figure out his own origins.
In his first novel, "The Lost Chord" (see my review on Amazon or my blog), Bailie had explored the side of fame less attended to, that of the musician who nearly made it, one who labors in the shadow of one who did. For Lorcan, his stint in an Irish folk trio at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius recalls Bailie's interest in this milieu, and he captures well the collision of Celtic past with countercultural present, as in Lorcan's gig playing in Antwerp while strippers "gyrate their naked crotches inches from his face like real-life sheela na gigs." After Lorcan's sudden come-down from such heady delights to Irish seclusion, his half-scholarly, half-spiritual quest appears inspired by John Moriarty, the late Kerry-born mythopoeic sage. Bailie patiently aligns marginalized speculations with scientific possibilities from our ancient past about how current research, even if maligned by the mainstream, may point to networks as intricate once upon a time as those you and I use to read this review today.
Also, the novel conveys a message that allows its mediators to preach a bit even as they know they are doing so. It's for, after all, a good cause. Nobody's entirely good or bad in this tale (even if a certain corporation with unexplained initials may indeed do evil), and these human qualities in its characters sustain the reader's empathy. There's one lurch into brief violence, but this hastens the climax and in the context of the threat, remains believable.
The plight of a planet in which devastation is seen as the inevitable exchange for jobs and economic growth is compared to a cancer, which may currently break out in isolated regions but has yet to metastasize. The impact of the earth so far may appear small, but it is like pebbles rolling down a slope after the rain: "the mountain--seemingly vast--varied and unchanging, but closely and almost imperceptibly being eroded until one day nothing would be left." (80) Relationships in this novel appear as fragile, and subject to their own global disruptions and sudden upheavals.
In Spain, after Wolf's intervention fails to halt a river diverted to feed a subdivision: "The trees in the forest didn't get a chance to die from thirst as they were chopped down and their wood used to build garden fences, some of them in the new housing development." (85) The wry note combines with the poignant one.
And even a familiar topic such as another hi-tech blight, that of our bodies and minds by television, gets a fresh spin. Instead of saints and martyrs, today we admire those "who just a few days ago was caught in the same drudgery as most ordinary people now has, by the power of TV, been transformed and taken to a paradise on earth." (196) The slow drain of this eight-hour-a-day addiction, as with any sedative, makes one wonder about the long-term effects, on the individual and on our culture.
The denouement, after the rapid pace of most of this narrative, stands on its own as a haunting evocation of what Kei had discovered, or rediscovered. It ties together the ending, but it leaves it open with the careful twist that allows the imagination to enter the reader as the book is closed.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Alexander Solzhenitsyn - A Century in His Life by DM Thomas

DM Thomas is best-known as a novelist and quite often he can't help adding novelistic flourishes to this large, densely-written biography.
But that works well in telling the story of Alexander Solzhenitsyn whose life often reads like an epic Russian novel.
He was an intelligent child who growing up in the USSR was an idealistic Marxist and fought courageously against the Nazis in the Second World War.
However, letters to a friend criticising Stalin were intercepted and he was taken from the German front and tried for treason, earning a ten-year prison sentence. Most of it served in Siberia.
He nearly died a number of times as he worked in the Arctic Circle where the temperature often fell to below minus-50.
On his release he was exiled to the Caucuses where he worked as a teacher but was diagnosed with cancer. He recovered but for several years thought he was living on borrowed time.
He remarried his wife, who had divorced him during his imprisonment, and began writing, producing within a relatively short period of time One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle and Cancer Ward – all of them based on his own experiences and often featuring characters who were drawn from real-life people.
The Gulag Archipelago was a journalistic expose of the millions of people who were condemned to serve time and, more often than not, perish in the Gulags.
Stalin's death brought about a thaw in censorship (and mass executions of political dissidents) and One in Day in the Life... was published to huge critical, public and state acclaim, but Solzhenitsyn's honeymoon with the Soviet Union was short-lived and when Brezhnev came to power he was ostracised and eventually forced in to exile, first in Western Europe and then to the US.
During his years in the US he worked on a history of Russia but his creative juices seemed to have dried up by this time.
Thomas is clear in his assertion that Solzhenitsyn was at his most creative when he was being hounded by the state, moving between various addresses and had a messy personal life.
He was unfaithful to his wife, felt hemmed in by her and spent as much time as he could away from her, eventually leaving her for a younger woman.
This portrait of Solzhenitsyn is full of admiration for his courage and the writing that he produced but acknowledges that he was often dismissive, to the point of cruelty, to those who he was closest to and who supported him most – often putting their liberty and lives in danger.
In the US Solzhenitsyn, lived as recluse in New England, sheltered by his new wife, who had three sons to him.
He was wealthy and devoted himself to writing his history, but Thomas, who is clearly an admirer, laments that loss of his creative spark.
Solzhenitsyn alienated many of his admirers in the West with his devotion to the Russian Orthodox Church and seeming right-wing, authoritarian world view.
Thomas can also be highly opinionated, like his subject, and while his judgments on communism and western intellectuals who supported it reflect those of Solzhenitsyn, some 'little Englander' asides do jar slightly.
Never-the-less this is an insightful biography offering a not-uncritical portrait of a genuinely intriguing character and contextualising the political and historical backdrop to his life.

Friday, 24 December 2010


ecopunks is now available to buy from There are also copies available in Waterstones in Belfast and at The Bookshop at Queens.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

While the Women are Sleeping by Javier Marías

The stories of Javier Marías have a surprising tendency to sneak up on the reader again long after reading them.
It is as if after being absorbed, the stories gestate in the back of the mind and then jump out again and demand attention, requiring that they be pored over again.
In the stories in While the Women Are Sleeping, events are often superfluous to meandering musings and speculation as the narrators are forced into new states of mind and gnawing obsessions by what they have experienced or what they have just been told.
Each story usually ends with the narrator (and quite often the reader as well) sitting at a tangent from the direction their life had been heading at the start of the story.
Quite often there is a vaguely supernatural element, such as when a beggar curses a man who shunned him or a ghost seems to correspond with the son of her dead lover.
And this is where the questions start to plague the reader. The story has been read, absorbed, and reflected on and, with a whimsical chill of satisfaction, understood.
Then a day or so later while driving to work, or cooking the dinner it comes back with an unanswered question . . . “But how did he . . .?” or “How could she do that if . . . ?”
A case in point is the story “One Night of Love,” in which a son starts to receive letters from a woman who says she was his late father’s lover and that he has still not joined her six months after his death. She says this is because the son, who narrates the story, buried his father rather than cremated him.
As an incentive to the son to arrange for his father to be disinterred and cremated, the woman offers the son a night of passion with her.
He does not take her up on the offer but arranges for the cremation. A few days later he receives another letter in the woman’s handwriting, which he leaves unopened and which smells faintly of the cologne that his father used to wear.
Even after two or three readings, just when you think you have got what Marías is playing at, he will throw up a fresh surprise and new unanswered questions.
The Madrid-based writer, translated in this collection into English by Margaret Jull Costa, has a rare ability to haunt the imaginations of his readers.
He is more than just a storyteller—he’s a manipulator of the psyche who can jolt his readers into new states of perception.
This review was first written for and published by the New York Journal of Books.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

New Selected Poems and Translations by Ezra Pound

Reading Ezra Pound can be a demanding experience as he often slips into French, Spanish, Italian, or ancient Greek—using the Greek alphabet of course. Occasionally the reader will also be confronted with a sequence of Chinese characters or even an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic.
His frame of reference is broad as well, drawing on poets and their works from the times of the Roman Empire, and ancient China right through to 20th century Europe.
Yet his verse flows with a musicality that carries the reader along on a well-cushioned boat traversing a torrent of obscure, often archaic, cultural influences.
From simple two-line observations to sprawling quasi epics, Pound can charm and frustrate.
He is one of the major poets of the 20th century, an American who spend most of his adult life in Europe—apart from the 12 years of course that he was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital in his homeland for allying himself with Mussolini’s Fascists during the Second World War.
He was a confidant of T. S. Elliott, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemmingway, W. B. Yeats, and James Joyce.
This volume is comprehensively indexed, translating the non-English passages and elaborating on the more obscure references.
It includes a generous representation of The Cantos, which Pound began working on in the 1930s and continued adding to until his death.
This selection represents the work of a poet who was closely involved with the canon of classic western European literature, not only as a reader but also as someone who was aware that he was adding to it.
He was equally as comfortable with Chinese themes, tropes, and verse forms and adapting them for the English language, both mimicking them and translating other writers.
Perhaps the shortest poem in this selection is “In a Station of the Metro,” it’s title a stanza itself, sums up what to expect from Pound:
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals on a wet, black bough.”
Striking imagery, deftly delivered in a tightly written, rhythmic sequence of words that feel as if they were just waiting for Pound to put them in that particular order.
Reading Ezra Pound is not meant to be easy but this selection—which includes commentaries by John Berryman and T. S. Elliott as well as editor Richard Sieburth—helps make him just a little bit more accessible.
This review was written for and first published by the New York Journal of Books.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Dr Zhivago is a big book, physically and in terms of its themes, multi-stranded storylines and historical backdrop. It is a character-driven novel whose subjects live intense, interweaving lives set against the great sweep of early 20th century Russian events.
At its heart is the eponymous Dr. Yuri Zhivago and his relationship with two women: his wife Tonya and his lover Lara. A supporting cast weaves in and out of the novel, manipulating, inspiring, intimidating, interacting and sometimes simply just being in the vicinity of the central trio.
Although the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and subsequent civil war in Russia form an historical backdrop, their keynote events are hardly mentioned. It is history’s impact on individuals that concerns Pasternak.
However, Zhivago struggles to maintain his individuality at a time when individuals are regarded as canon-fodder to be sacrificed by Czarist Russia in its war against Germany while those who survive find themselves thrust into a fledgling society ruled by the Bolsheviks who regard concepts such as individualism as outdated and dangerous.
Zhivago and those close to him are mere bit-players in the huge social upheaval in which they are being swept along, but Pasternak plucks them from obscurity to dissect their psyches and put a human perspective on the times in which they live.
As millions die during wars and famine, Zhivago is torn between his love for Tonya and Lara and the betrayals that this inevitably brings. His poems, collected at the end of the novel, serve as an alternative narrative, charting his internal obsessions and yearnings.
This is a new translation by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky a novel that is already well established in the canon of great 20th century fiction. For those who have copies of the translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari on their shelves it is tempting to occasionally compare the two versions.
A key passage is one in which Zhivago reflects on the death of the woman who raised him and how this family tragedy and the emotions it stirs in him can be transformed into something positive.
In the 1958 translation by Hayward and Harari the passage reads: “In answer to the challenge of the desolation brought by the death into the life of the small community whose members were slowly pacing after him, he was drawn, as irresistibly as water funneling downwards, to dream, to think, to work out new forms, to create beauty.”
While Pevear and Volokhonsky render this as: “In response to the devastation produced by the death in this company slowly walking behind him, he wanted, as irresistibly as water whirling in a funnel rushes into the deep, to dream and think, to toil over forms, to bring forth beauty.”
Both translations work as an image of the poet reworking a real life tragedy to write verse, but the new translation seems to suggest that this is an innate “response” by Zhivago, rather than a considered “answer.” And then there is the more psychologically nuanced image of water (experience) rushing “into the deep,” with all its inferences of the subconscious, as opposed to the water merely “funneling downwards,” while in the just-published version he “brings forth beauty (poems)” rather than simply creating them.
Perhaps such detailed comparisons are reading too much into what is simply a fresh perspective on Pasternak’s original Russian text. But then Zhivago is, as was his creator, a poet and a complex person whose story lends itself to poetic prose that brings to life the various layers of his persona and the psyche that lies behind it.
At its simplest level, this new translation, extensively annotated to explain the more obscure references, is a welcome opportunity for anyone who has already read Dr. Zhivago to revisit it and experience a richly rewarding fresh take on an epic tale. For those coming to it for the first time it is a chance to read one of the greatest novels of all times.
This review was written for and first published by The New York Journal of Books.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Hooleygan by Terri Hooley and Richard Sullivan

Music impresario, punk raconteur and bar room philosopher Terri Hooley has just published his life story in a book that captures the essence of his character – anarchic, dishevelled and hugely entertaining.
Probably the most surprising thing about Terri Hooley’s autobiography is that it has taken so long to be written.
The man who discovered The Undertones and whose record label put Northern Ireland back on the musical map in the late 1970s has never been too shy when it comes to talking about his own life.
But then someone who once punched John Lennon at a party, was told to ‘eff off’ by Bob Dylan and – ahem – smoked with Bob Marley, definitely has a story to tell.
Hooleygan, co-written with Richard Sullivan, recounts all those incidents but also gives much more depth to one of Belfast’s best-known characters.
Interspersed with Hooley’s own reminiscences are first-hand testimonies from those who have worked with him, who know him best and those whose lives and careers became inextricably linked with his.
Brian Young from Rudi, Greg Cowen from the Outcasts, Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol, John O’Neill of The Undertones and director John T Davis, who made the film Shell Shock Rock, all contribute.
Sitting last week in his Good Vibes record shop in Belfast’s Wine Tavern Street ahead of the book’s publication, Hooley admits that telling his life story quickly became something more than simply recounting anecdotes from his past.
“I found it very difficult talking about friends who had died,” he says.
The early chapters of the book will contain the most surprise for those who thought they knew Hooley. His mother was a deeply Christian woman whose brothers were members of the Orange Order.
By contrast his English-born father was a life-long socialist and atheist.
“He was a staunch trade unionist and proudly boasted that he was the first person to sing The Red Flag in Belfast City Hall,” Hooley says.
“But his trade union activities caused problems for me and my brother. We used to get beaten up when he was standing as a Labour candidate in East Belfast. People thought Labour were a republican party.”
Hooley says his own political radicalisation was driven by global events, rather than those closer to home in Belfast.
“The Cuban missile crisis [in 1962 when the world stood on the brink of nuclear war] really affected me,” he says.
“Then later in the 1960s I became involved in campaigns for nuclear disarmament and against the war in Vietnam.”
“I definitely got caught up in the whole hippie thing and started producing magazines with poetry and articles that tried to capture that.”
It was the Sex Pistols singer John (Johnny Rotten) Lydon who said “never trust a hippy” but Hooley says the punk movement, which emerged a decade later after ‘the summer of love’ was a natural progression.
“A lot of the people who used to go to the first punk gigs in Belfast at the Harp Bar, where former hippies,” Hooley says.
In 1977 he opened his first record shop in Great Victoria Street and it became a gathering place for many of the young punk bands that were beginning to form in Belfast.
“In the 1960s there were about 60 clubs in Belfast were you could go and hear live music from bands like Them with Van Morrison and Taste with Rory Gallagher but that all ended with the Troubles,” he says.”
“But in the 1960s there was never a record industry here. Bands had to sign to English labels and many ended up being exploited. I wanted to put Northern Ireland back on the musical map in the 1970s and give the bands that were emerging an outlet here in Belfast.”
Hooley set up The Good Vibrations record label and began releasing records by Rudi, The Outcasts and, most famously, Teenage Kicks by Derry band The Undertones.
Hooleygan co-author, Sunday World deputy editor Richard Sullivan, says that Hooley’s influence was an entirely positive one during the height of the Troubles.
“Belfast was a very dark place in 1977 – literally. There was not a light on in the city centre,” Sullivan says.
“It is no exaggeration to say that Terri and Good Vibrations kept a lot of people, on both sides, out of jail by pointing them towards music instead of getting involved with paramilitaries.”
Sullivan says the whole tone, design and layout of Hooleygan is an attempt to reflect its subject – pictures, text, ink scratches and scraps of graffiti nestle side by side on the pages.
He has done his job well and perfectly captured Hooley’s tone and his sometimes rambling sentences when he veers off from what he was first talking about into a totally different anecdote before eventually coming back to his main point.
“I didn’t want a standard book, with picture galleries in the middle. Terri’s life has been chaotic. He is a person to whom things just happen and I wanted to reflect that,” Sullivan says.
Hooleygan – Music Mayhem Good Vibrations, by Terri Hooley and Richard Sullivan is published by The Blackstaff Press, £14.99.

I wrote this for the Irish News and it was published on Friday October 1.

For an interview I did with John O'Neill from The Undertones and various others, including Terri, about the Good Vibarations record label click here.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

In Search of the Multiverse by John Gribbin

The scales of time and distance that are involved in astrophysics and quantum science can often leave me floundering and disorientated.
The idea that there at least 1,000 billion stars in our own Milky Way and an equivalent number of galaxies, each on average containing a similar numbers of stars to our own, in the visible universe is astounding.
It gets worse when you also have to struggle with the concept that all those suns – and presumably thousands of billions of planet that orbit them as well – all emerged from a point that at one stage was many times smaller than an atom.
It is impossible to conceptualise yet fits in perfectly well with the most up-to-date theories of how our universe began.
However, John Gribbin piles on the conceptual anguish as he theorises that our universe may be just one of many, numbering much more than a mere 1,000 billion. The figure he comes up with is an estimated 1 with 500 noughts after it.
There is no way this can be demonstrated by observation, but the existence of a multiverse stands the scrutiny of science and, according to Gribbin, is a logical outcome of what we know about the physics of our universe.
Alternative universes may be separated from ours by a miniscule spacial distance, although in one of a possible seven other dimensions than the three we are used to as a result of quantum splits.
He also theorises that new universes could be created by black holes in our universe which are in fact gateways to an entirely new universe. Indeed out universe may be the result of a black hole in another universe.
Gribben runs through all the various theories that allow for a multiverse in this immensely readable book.
Although some of the physics that he draws on to back up his arguments was well beyond me he is good at trying to flesh out his ideas in laymans terms.
A glossary at the back explains the recurring scientific terms.
The last chapter was the most bizarre in which he speculates that our universe may actually be the result of intelligent design – not by an omnipresent deity but advanced alien civilisations.
This is not a sci-fi geek writing here but a respected physicist.
Yet he pays homage to those science fiction writers who speculated on such scenarios and about the existence of the multiverse long before it became a viable scientific theory.
Michael Moorcock, one of the few science fiction writers I like (and former poet-in-residence with Hawkwind), gets a nod.
Not mentioned by Gribben, but the best fictional take on his theory that I have read was The Number of the Beast by Robert A Heinlein in which four interdimensional travellers navigate through a multiverse with three spacial dimensions and three time dimensions, creating a total of six which can be raised to the par of six to the par of six... creating a multiverse based on the biblical number of the beast.
Gribben does mention a story called The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges in which he speculates that each choice made by every human results in a split in the universe and that results in a constantly branching multiverse in which versions of the same people are living a whole series of alternate lives.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell

Jakob Sammelsohn hovers on the fringes of central European history, meeting real life figures and becoming caught up in landmark events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

He is a peripheral figure who seems to epitomize the dilemma for European Jews of that era, wanting to belong but at the same time trying to stay in the background in case they attract too much attention to themselves.

He meets Sigmund Freud and ends up romantically involved with one of his patients—a woman who is inhabited by the spirit of Jakob’s second wife, whom he was forced by his father to marry when he was 12, and who took her own life on their wedding night.

Freud is portrayed almost as a Sherlock Holmes-type figure, able to deduce the life story of those he meets, their preoccupations and phobias, based on the briefest of conversations.
Ghosts and angels mingle with the real-life historical events and Skibell’s fictional creations over nearly 600 pages.

He uses highly stylized prose to portray the intellectual milieu in which his character moves, and while this does work for the overall tone it can grate sometimes.

This is a brave novel, not unafraid to undertake big themes and ideas but it does suffer from being overwritten, with pages upon pages that seem to go nowhere.

Skibell has a tendency to take a joke or humorous situation and run with it. Jakob’s father speaks only in Hebrew, and only using direct quotes from scripture. These are transcribed in the novel in both Hebrew, with their English translation and scriptural citation alongside.
It is absurdist, deliberately so of course, however, it comes across as being clever first time round but showing off after a while. The chapters when Jakob become involved in the Esperanto movement suffer from the same overindulgence.

Criticisms aside this is a hugely accomplished novel, unafraid of taking its readers into the fields of psychology, linguistics, reincarnation, and the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto.

A Curable Romantic is a book that has you constantly Googling events, movements, and characters to see if they are historical realities or Skibell’s fictional inventions.

A Curable Romantic has tangible depth and a well-defined sense of time and place, its comic tone creating an uneasy tension as the story moves into the darker aspects of 20th century European history.

However, it might have been a much better read if it had been more tightly written, with less meandering prose.
This review was written for and first published by The New York Journal of Books..

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño

Even the most enthusiastic admirers of the late Roberto Bolaño must wonder sometimes if there is really a case for posthumously publishing everything that he ever wrote.
You could be forgiven for thinking that some of the material being presented as lost masterpieces originated as a few scribbled notes on a torn cigarette packet.
Certainly the first story in this collection, “Jim,” would seem to fit into that category—a brief sketch of the sort of character who weaves in and out of Bolaño’s novels, but who has gotten lost and ended up stranded here by himself with nowhere to go.
However, the other four stories and the two essays in this collection are pure Bolaño gold.
Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey, rather than the collection’s title story—“The Insufferable Gaucho ”—is the stand-out piece.
Another writer could easily have spun out and entire novel from the premise, but in just under 40 pages Bolaño sets the scene, establishes his main character, takes him through a life-changing adventure, and leaves him on the final page psychologically battered and bruised but with new insights into the world.
Álvaro Rousselot is an Argentinian writer, working in the middle of the last century who realizes that the plots of his novels are being plagiarized by a French film director. Three of Rousselot’s novels are thematically outlined by Bolaño, and the character’s development as a writer analyzed before we are even 10 pages into the story.
It gathers pace when Rousselot is given an opportunity to travel to Europe with a delegation of Argentinian authors, some of whose characteristics are briefly outlined—does Bolaño want us to identify them as Borges or Macedonio Fernandez?
When the rest of the delegation returns to Europe, Rousselot travels to Paris where he intends to confront the plagiarist film director. However, he becomes caught up in a swirl of debauchery, drink, and a passionate affair with a prostitute. The scenario has all the hallmarks of a 1970s French movie—perhaps Bolaño knowingly plagiarized the trope, in a self-knowing reversal to the premise of his short story?
The final story is also worth mentioning. “Two Catholic Tales” contains a pair of seemingly disparate narratives that suddenly come together in a twist that Roald Dahl would have been proud of.
Of the two essays which round off the collection, “Literature + Illness = Illness” is the most illuminating, giving us an insight into Bolaño’s psyche as he comes to terms with his own terminal illness. It is not as grim as it sounds and we are given some enlightening insights into the late Chilean’s take on poetry and poetic inspiration.
The Insufferable Gaucho will please existing Bolaño aficionados and serve as a good introduction to newcomers.
(This review was written for and first published on The New York Journal of Books.)

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Venus on Earth by Dengue Fever

Californian psychedelia fused with Asian pop and clever whimsical lyrics fuse together to give Dengue Fever their signature sound.
Occasionally the lyrics are sung in Khmer by Cambodian vocalist Chhom Nimo. Her Yoko Onoish singing is layered over indie guitar riffs and an organ sound that would not be out of place in a 1960s sci-fi movie.
The strongest tracks on Venus on Earth are the earliers ones on the album, in particular Tiger Phone Card (my own particular favourite) and Sober Driver, both which involve vocal interplay between Nimo and guitarist Zac Holtzman.
Compared to Nimo’s assured delivery Holtzman’s voice by contrast is vulnerable, almost whinging as he berates his Asian muse for mistreating him.
Vocals aside the Cambodian influences are there, but never overstated. Dengue Fever’s sound is said to be based on a briefly flourishing Cambodian pop scene from the early 1970s, whose musicians were mostly murdered by the Khmer Rouge.
Knowing this is not essential to an appreciation of Venus on Earth but it does serve as a dark subtext to its cheery infectiousness.
Dengue Fever have a new album out, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, and an earlier one, Escape from Dragon House, which on the basis of Venue on Earth will definitely have to be sampled.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Tranquillity of Stone

Tranquillity of Stone is my new collection of poems and has just been published by Lapwing Publications. The cover is by critically-acclaimed artist Maurice Burns. You can preview and read the first few pages at Google Books. Copies are available from the publisher at Lapwing Publications, or directly from me.
It includes a sequence called Sweeny King which is very loosely based on the story of a seventh century king who went mad after being cursed by a christian monk.
The 16th century middle Irish text has been translated by Trevor Joyce and Seamus Heaney and even Flann O'Brien in At Swim Two Birds. Joyce's rendition, which is included in the fantastically titled With The First Dream of Fire They Hunt the Cold, is my favourite.
My own take on the story is by no means a translation, although it does use some of the imagery, but a starting point for a modern take on some of the themes.

from Sweeny King


His skin has been gouged
by bramble and briar
torn by wind-whipped thorn
plucked open by whin
and frozen by snow,
flesh, raw and on fire.
Naked and bleeding
half alive
he shivers under a bush
blood drops quiver
like new-sprung blooms
stolen bundles of fruit.

This second poem is a stand-alone piece and I think is my favourite one in the collection.


The rooks chant vespers
in their leafy stalls,
black-cowled monks
croaking pagan prayers
to their crow god,
late comers circle in twilight,
dark angels among elms
that caw
throaty hymns of praise.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

My Life As A Russian Novel by Emmanuel Carrère

Emmanuel Carrère occasionally reaches Dostoyevskian heights of anguish in this memoir. Although he doesn’t actually murder anyone like Rasklonikov in Crime and Punishment, he plunges into states of intense introspection and despair to produce some psychologically tortured prose.
Carrère is a French filmmaker, novelist, and biographer. My Life As A Russian Novel, translated from French, is written mostly in the first person but occasionally in the second, as he addresses both his former lover Sophie, and his mother, a leading French academic. Carrère utilizes various other literary tricks—changing tenses, planting information, laying false trails, and switching story lines at moments of crisis—to keep his readers in suspense.
There are two key strands to this memoir: his Russian ancestry, with a dark family secret, and his emotionally harrowing relationship with Sophie.
In the opening chapters he tells us of how he became involved in a film project focusing on the life of a Hungarian who was captured by the USSR during the Second World War and ended up spending half a century in a Russian asylum.
Carrère travels with a film crew to the town of Kotelnich, where the Hungarian was held, to investigate the story and while there finds Russian—a language that he has not spoken since childhood—coming back to him.
While the Hungarian’s story weaves in and out of the early pages, the focus shifts toward Kotelnich, the people who Carrère and his film crew meet there, and ultimately the writer’s Russian/Georgian background on his mother’s side.
Early on we are told that her father, whose family fled to France from Georgia to escape the Soviet regime, became a Nazi collaborator during the Second World War and disappeared without trace following France’s liberation.
Carrère’s relationship with his mother becomes strained as his interest in his grandfather grows. She fears that her son will write about the shameful family legacy that she has kept secret all her life and taint her with her father’s guilt.
Meanwhile, Sophie, who is much younger than him, has a fairly average job and is uncomfortable in the smug literary circles in which he moves.
A pornographic story he writes and addresses directly to her is published in the leading French newspaper Le Monde. It is supposed to be played out in real time as she sits on a train and contains precise instructions, often sexually explicit, about what she should do on her journey. Carrère, anticipating that other people on the train will be reading the story at the same time, encourages them to observe and take part.
The memoir gathers pace in the second half, and there are some extremely uncomfortable scenes in which Carrère’s domestic life rapidly unravels in a series of dramatic revelations.
My Life as a Russian Novel has a diary feel to it in which the writer has laid bare his soul, and this reviewer was left wondering if he should really be reading something so personal. Carrère’s portrait of himself is unflinchingly self-critical as he comes to realize how self-absorbed he is and the impact of his behavior on both Sophie and his mother.
Several shocks and disturbing twists in the narrative, along with attempts at psychological self-analysis, make this an intriguing, often unsettling, but extremely rewarding read. Fyodor would approve.
This review was written for and first published on The New York Journal of Books.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

BKO by Dirtmusic

A combination of north African desert blues and some indie grunge combine on this album which includes members who have variously played with The Bad Seeds, Sonic Youth and The Lemonheads.
Sometimes it works but at others it is downright annoying – track two, a cover of The Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, being possibly the worst offender.
Once you get past that BKO carries you along on its laid back, slightly edgy vibe but never really reaches the intensity of say a Tinariwen or Ali Farka Touré album.
Most of the tracks were recorded in the Malian capital Bamako, which is where the title comes from – BKO is the city’s airport designation,
Dirtmusic venture into the sounds of north Africa are borrowings and nodding acknowledgements and while many of the tracks feature Touareg band Tamikrest they take on the role as an accompaniment rather than full-on collaborators.
Opening track Black Gravity is a good example of what Dirtmusic are about, a crunching guitar riff that screams sand and heat with a hard indie rock sensibility.
This is a well packaged album, with a DVD included and comprehensive sleeve notes. Worth borrowing.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Two novels by Arturo Prérez-Reverte

The Dumas Club is a literary detective story with a large dollop of Gothic horror dumped in. A Madrid-based second-hand book dealer, Corsa, is asked to authenticate a handwritten manuscript containing an original chapter of The Three Muskateers by Alexander Dumas.
At the same time he is tasked with authenticating The Book of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows, an occult text whose author is said to have collaborated with the devil and who was burnt at the stake in the 17th century.
The two tales intertwine and times even seem to be connected and Perez Reverte displays impressive insights into the life and works of Dumas and the occult.
A series of illustrations give this novel an interactive element that allows the reader to undertake the role of detective and there is a certain satisfaction in spotting clues.
The novel was reworked by director Roman Polanski for the movie The Ninth Gate, starring Johnny Depp, which did away with the Dumas plotline and played up the satanic elements, although it was not a bad film.
Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez Reverte is a former war correspondent and he draws on this part of his career for the novel The Painter of Battles.
A former war photographer, Andres Faulques, lives in a cliff top building on whose inside walls he is painting a huge sprawling anti-war picture. He draws on scenes that he has witnessed and historic battles.
However, a Croatian war veteran turns up and threatens to kill him because a picture that he took of him during the Balkans conflict ultimately led to his wife and young son being singled out and killed by Serbs.
The novel flashed back to Faulques’s life as a war photographer in war zones throughout the world and his haunted memories of the death of his lover who died in the Balkans.
Intertwined are a series of set-pieces meditations and dialogue with his would-be killer on art and war.
Again Perez-Reverte draws on an eclectic range of references but avoids sounding too smug.
The Painter of Battles is in no way as pacy as The Dumas Club and is more a novel of ideas than of events.

Friday, 2 July 2010

En el camino/Sur la route

Figueres, north of Barcelona, is where Salvador Dali chose to leave his last statement to the world. As well as his grave it includes many of his best-known works and some which should probably have been buried with him.
The Dali museum suffers from too many people milling around, not really knowning what they are supposed to be looking at or how to react. It is a combination of tacky kitsch and some genuinely fine art.
From Figueres it was a 150 km drive across the border and into France to Carcasone, a medieval walled city which seems to be thriving on the Da Vinci Code-inspired pseudo history surrounding the Knights Templar.
It is an easy place to be in and the streets below the cathedral were home to a chilled out little hotel with a tranquil garden, some nice wine and decent food.
The walled city itself can get a bit crowded but there are plenty of nooks and corners to explore away from the throng.
From there it was a cross-country track past Toulouse, with a quick diversion to have a look around Lourdes, and into Bayonne.
This small city in the French Basque Country is easy to find your way about in. It was a slightly edgy place, maybe because our hotel was beside the train station, with people lurking in doorways and surreptitiously passing envelopes to one another, which gave it a backstreet feel.
The Bonnat Art Museum was a highlight with a selection of Rubens, Le Gréco and Goyas hanging on its walls. There were also some decent and not-too expensive restaurants.
However, Monday’s are not a good day to visit Bayonne as many public buildings seem to close.
The next day we were back on the road and travelled to the Basque capital Bilbao which is normally one of my favourite cities to visit but which was pounded by torrential rain for the two days that we were there.
Even a visit to the normally excellent Guggenheim was a disappointment - collections by Robert Rauschenberg and Henri Rousseau were nor particularly inspiring, although the work of British artist Anish Kapoor was worth seeing.
Probably the fact that we got soaked walking the short distance from our hotel to the museum and squelched our way through the galleries didn’t help my critical appraisal.
That afternoon the rain got heavier and the hotel reception told me to move out hire car from the underground carpark because it was flooding and I spent an hour and half driving around Bilbao’s rain-sodden streets searching for a new parking place.
Things dried up by the time we set off to Cantabria and the absurdly picturesque village of Santillana Del Mar, pictured above.
With parts of its church dating to the 12th century, cobbled street and musky guesthouses with wooden balconies this is a place to chill out.
A medieval market was taking place compete with comely wenches dressed in flowing robes, smoking a fags and chatting on their mobiles.
Craft and food stalls preched precariously on the village’s cobble streets, while falcons and eagles swooped from rooftops onto a falconers arm.
A drive in to the Pico’s de Europa which straddles Cantabria and neighbouring Asturias was a highlight, as was a dish of razor clams, one of my favourite dishes and one which I seem to spend far to much time trying to find.
However, ultimately it was a sausage which was my downfall, bought from a street stall in Santillana, it nestled for 12 hours in my stomach before pouncing and making its presence known.
It didn’t help matters that I was stricken by the dodgy chorizo on the day when we had to undertake our longest drive - 400kms from Santillana, back through the Basque Country, south in Navarra, passing through the Rioja wine region, and into the dusty desert planes of Aragon.
It was my second visit to Zaragoza where I’d arranged to meet a friend and her partner and after a day of not eating was relishing the thought of food and some convivial company.
However, as soon as we walked into a tapas bar and the smell of food hit my nostrils I felt my stomach churning and the after taste of the deadly chorizo gurgled up in the back of my throat.
Course after course of tapas, raciones and pinchos came to our table into which Sinead and our Spanish friends Raquel and Raul contentedly tucked in while I was forced to nibble on dry bread and drink water and try not to throw up over everything.
Next day the stomach was slightly better and I had some breakfast and enjoyed the sights of Zaragoza and returned to same bar that evening to enjoy some of the food I had missed out out on.
Next day it was back to Barcelona for the last few days of our holiday where we tended to linger in the quieter back streets away from the throbbing mass of humanity meandering up and down Las Ramblas.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Requiems for the Departed launch

What is the collective noun for a group of crime writers?
Three weeks after the event here is a picture taken at No Alibis bookshop in Belfast at the launch of the Irish crime fiction anthology Requiems for the Departed.
From left to right are Stuart Neville, John McAllister, Tammy (TA) Moore, Arlene Hunt, me, Brian McGilloway and Gerard Brennan.
Requiems for the Departed is now available worldwide, with a 28% discount in the US through Barnes & Noble and free shipping worldwide through The Book Depository. Paperback edition is also still available at the Morrigan Books site too, along with the limited edition hardback (now down to less than 30 copies available).

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Requiems for the Departed is due to be launched at No Alibis bookshop on Botanic Avenue in Belfast on Thursday at 6.30pm. It is a collection of crime stories based on a Celtic myth and as well as myself includes 16 other writers, including some every well established ones and others who are making big waves.
For more information visit Gerard Brennan's blog crimesceneni or the publisher Morrigan Books.
In the meantime here is the introduction, as it appears in Requiems for my story The Druid's Dance.
The legend of Tuan Mac Carrell is found in an 11th century manuscript called Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow). Tuan tells a Christian monk that he was born 2,000 years earlier and witnessed many of the waves of invaders who came to ancient Ireland — the Nemedians, Firbolg and the Tuatha de Dannan. As an old man he crawled off into a cave and fell asleep and when he awoke he had been reborn as a vigorous young stag. The process repeated itself each time he became old and he was reborn variously as a wild boar, an eagle and eventually as a salmon. However, during his existence as a salmon he was caught and eaten whole by the wife of a chieftain called Carrell and passed into her womb to be reborn again as Tuan Mac (son of) Carrell. The myth clearly suggests that there was a belief in reincarnation among our Irish ancestors.
So, if Tuan was reincarnated over a 2,000 year period up until the early Christian era in Ireland (circa 600-800AD) who is to say that the process didn’t continue? That leaves the possibility that someone could still be running around today claiming to be the reincarnation of the ancient chieftain (although they fail to mention the bit about also being a fish). It is a scenario that was just crying out to be turned into a gory police procedural story with (at least in my head) a soundtrack by Horslips.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Elegy for April by Benjamin Black

The weather is like a character in this novel, lingering in the background and occasionally being given a few lines. Fog seems to permeate the streets of 1950s Dublin, swirling like an ominous, omnipresent deity, its tendrils creeping along pavements and under doors to invade the sanctity of homes.
Benjamin Black is almost Joycean in his delineation of the city’s geography, name-checking streets, bridges, buildings, hotels, bars, parks, canals, and rivers. His strength is in creating an atmosphere. There is a real sense of time and place as dray horses pull carts loaded with Guinness and tinkerwomen dressed in tartan shawls beg for money on the pavements. Even the poet Patrick Kavanagh makes a cameo appearance.
Elegy for April is the third Benjamin Black novel to feature the alcoholic pathologist Quirke, his daughter Phoebe, and a number of other ensemble characters.
April Latimer, a wayward friend of Phoebe’s has disappeared, and no one from her estranged and influential family—which includes an uncle who is a government minister and a brother who is a senior surgeon—cares.
Phoebe urges Quirke, who is drying out, to get involved. As in the previous two novels in which he appears, Christine Falls and The Silver Swan, Quirke doesn’t really do that much detective work.
If there is a flaw with Benjamin Black’s novels it is the lack of plot. The narrative tends to meander along on the back of a series of set-pieces, vignettes, and character sketches. There is no skilful drawing together of carefully placed pieces of information from earlier chapters to jerk the reader into a sudden realization of what has been happening all along.
Instead, about 15 pages from the end a character simply explains everything, telling us exactly who the baddie was and why he did it. Aside from that flaw, there is a shocking dénouement that has the reader’s eye tripping over the pages to get to the next line.
Benjamin Black is, of course, the crime-writing alter ego of Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville, possibly modern-day Ireland’s most accomplished novelist who is to Irish fiction what Seamus Heaney is to poetry.
I went to hear Banville reading last year. He speaks in the third person when talking about his writing and said that in the time it takes “John Banville” to write a sentence “Benjamin Black” would have finished a page. Despite the languorous pace of the writing of it, a Benjamin Black page still has the feel of a well-crafted artifact, if not the intricately carved art of a John Banville paragraph.
This review was written for the New York Journal of Books

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño

On page 66 of this slim novel, a character called Bolaño is quoted as saying: “Tell that stupid Arnold Bennet that all his rules about plot only apply to novels that are copies of other novels.” Perhaps the author inserted this line into the mouth of his eponymous character as a justification for the total lack of plot in Antwerp.
This 78-page book is described by the publisher as an early novel by the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, who died in 2003 aged 50, as one that contains in embryonic form all that the would later write.
Make no mistake, Bolaño would go on to produce a whole range of excellent works of fiction ranging from the gigantic Savage Detectives and 2666 to shorter novels and short stories—translated into English from Spanish.
And yes, in Antwerp you can see the gestation of the themes, writing style, and narrative voice that Bolaño would go on to develop, but it is like watching a long distance runner warming up on the track with a few leg stretches and maybe a short jog.
Anyone who has heard all the hype about Bolaño but never read him before should not go near this because they will certainly conclude that he is a fraud and wonder what all the fuss is about.
However, those who have read Bolaño and become obsessed by him and want to read everything that he ever wrote (and this reviewer counts himself among them) should indulge themselves.
The outcast living on the fringes of society who reincarnates in various guises in Bolaño’s more mature fiction can be seen hovering in the shadows. The gnarled, staccato prose that often aspires to poetry is already fully formed.
But Antwerp’s 56 “chapters”—never running to more than two pages, and sometimes filling just half a page—are really just a series of vignettes with a very loose detective/murder theme running through them.
Most writers will have something similar tucked away in an envelope: the sketches and outlines of a first novel that got sidelined by more structured and fully realized works.
Most of those fragmentary first stirrings will never be published unless their authors also become publishing sensations with a readership hungry for more. It is presumably that audience at whom this stylishly bound little volume is aimed.
(This review was written for an published on The New York Journal of Books.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Obabakoak: Stories from a Village by Bernardo Atxaga

The subtitle of this collection, Stories from a Village, is slightly misleading, for while some are set in the fictional Basque village of Obaba many of them are not. It doesn’t take away from the stories in themselves and maybe this is part of Atxaga’s strategy for subverting reader expectations, something he does quite a lot—and very well too.
The index page is another example. It would suggest that these stories have been carefully sequenced and should be read in the order that the author intended, but while some do follow on from previous ones most stand on their own.
The stories vary in length from the novella “Words in Honor of the Village of Villamediana” to the three-page “How to Write a Story in Five Minutes.” This latter piece is a superb example of Atxaga’s craft, where in the space of a few hundred words, he layers two stories, that of a writer struggling to write a story and the story that he writes. The story within the story contains all the elements of a novel—characters, plot, denouement, and a twist at the end—in the space of a few tightly written paragraphs.
In other stories Atxaga is less concerned with the beginning, middle, and end than with the process of telling the story itself. Quite often the reader is left hanging, forced to mull over what he has just read and make his own conclusions about what the outcome might be.
In “The Rich Man’s Servant” he takes on a familiar folk tale and tells it in the traditional way and then a few pages later takes exactly the same story as his starting point but gives it his own twist.
There are knowingly contrived fables in which reality warps. A shepherd talking on a mountain walks off and seems to sprout wings and fly away. They can be taken as allegories, but more probably are meant to be taken literally.
Atxaga’s authorial voice almost conspires to make him a character in this collection, emerging from the diverse tales and modern-day parables that he tells as a slightly whimsical observer, probably from the village of Obaba, who has travelled much and is recounting the stories that he heard.
The collection is a translation of a translation. It was originally written in Basque, translated into Spanish by the author, and it is from the Spanish version that the English translation has been rendered. In his novel The Lone Man, Atxaga pondered on Basque identity in the modern-day Spain of autonomous regions, but he spends little time on ethnic or national issues in Obabakoak.
This quirky, highly-original collection reaches will beyond any narrow geographic definitions.
(This review was written for an published on The New York Journal of Books

Monday, 29 March 2010

Bad girls and cherry blossoms

Told over a 30-year period The Bad Girl tells of a man's infatuation with a woman who drifts in and out of his life, always reappearing with a new identity.
The narrator, Ricardo, first meets 'Lily' as a teenager in his native Peru in the 1950s when she claims to be from Chile but her story comes apart and she disappears.
He meets her again years later in Paris where they have a brief affair, although she denies being 'Lily' before she travels to Cuba to be trained as guerrilla.
Peruvian politics form a backdrop as Ricardo follows developments as an exile who feels more and more removed from his native land and never really a part of his adopted one.
This is as much a story about exile and a sense of never quite belonging as it is of a man's obsession with a woman.
There are fine period pieces here, describing the revolutionary fervour that gripped many in South America in the wake of the Cuban revolution. The hippie scene in London in the late 1960's also has an authentic feel.
Other characters drift in and out of Ricardo's life but ultimately die or move off in different directions and he is a lonely man who seems to have got caught in rut.
Each time The Bad Girl reappears he becomes re-infatuated with her even through she treats him with contempt and ultimately abandons him.
Even though he knows that she will betray him Ricardo can not help becoming involved with Lily – saving her life on one occasion and leaving him with a huge financial debt only to be abandoned by her again.
The story moves between, France, England, Japan, Peru and finally to Spain where 'Lily' comes into Ricardo's life for the final time.
Vargas Llosa is a visceral writer whose story flows easily and with a logical inevitability.
A man's love for a woman is also the central theme of the German film Cherry Blossoms.
At times I cringed as I thought it was about to dive into sentimentality or pure smaltz but always it redeemed itself.
Rudi is dying from a terminal illness but his wife Trudi keeps the information from him and tries to persuade him to live a bit more and break from his routine.
They travel from Bavaria to Berlin to see two of their children but find themselves regarded as a nuisance by their offspring who are too caught up in their own lives.
Trudi has always been fascinated by Japan and the highly stylized Butoh dancing but Rudi has no interest in going there to visit their youngest son.
When Trudi unexpectedly dies, without telling Rudi of his own illness, he is left floundering to understand what has happened and comes to realise how his wife had sacrificied her own ambitions to look after him and their children.
He travels to Japan for the Cherry Blossom festival but finds like his other children in Germany that his youngest son has little time for him and resents his imposition.
Rudi's vulnerability and total sense of loss is superbly portrayed by Elmar Wepper and I felt myself squirming for him as, dressed in his wife's clothes, beneath his overcoat, he "took her" to see the sights she had always dreamed of.
Like Butoh dancing there are a number of stylized scenes here, particularly when Rudi meets Yu, and 18-year-old homeless girl who he sees practising Butoh dancing in a park.
She accompanies him to Mount Fuji, where Trudi had yearned to visit, for the final inevitable but genuinely moving finale.
It is a film about selfishness, interdependence and coming to terms with loss, setting the Japanese way of coming to accept death with the inability to cope of many Europeans.
The soundtrack is also stunning and took a bit of tracking down but is now hopefully in the post.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Requiems for the Departed

Requiems for the Departed – Irish Crime, Irish Myths is a short story anthology from Morrigan Books edited by Gerard Brennan & Mike Stone.
It features 17 writers, including one who modesty prevents me from naming, but who is listed in the press release below.
The anthology is due out on June 1, which is my birthday.
Anyway press release reads:

It has been said before, that every story has already been told.
Maybe so. But if you’ve got the gift of the gab, you can tell the same tale as often as you like and still give it a life of its own every time.
Requiems for the Departed flaunts that gift seventeen times over with top shelf stories from Ken Bruen, Maxim Jakubowski, Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway, Adrian McKinty, Sam Millar, John Grant, Dave Hutchinson, and many more.
The children of Conchobar are back to their old mischievous ways, ancient Celtic royalty, druids and banshees are set loose in the new Irish underbelly with murder and mayhem on their minds.
Requiems for the Departed contains seventeen short stories, inspired by Irish mythology, from some of the finest contemporary writers in the business.
Requiems for the Departed

Queen of the Hill - Stuart Neville
Hound of Culann - Tony Black
Hats off to Mary - Garry Kilworth
Sliabh Ban - Arlene Hunt
Red Hand of Ulster - Sam Millar
She Wails Through the Fair - Ken Bruen
A Price to Pay - Maxim Jakubowski
Red Milk - T. A. Moore
Bog Man - John McAllister
The Sea is Not Full - Una McCormack
The Druid's Dance - Tony Bailie
Children of Gear - Neville Thompson
Diarmid and Grainne - Adrian McKinty
The Fortunate Isles - Dave Hutchinson
First to Score - Garbhan Downey
Fisherman's Blues - Brian McGilloway
The Life Business - John Grant

Pre-orders can be made soon

Thursday, 18 March 2010

2017 By Olga Slavnikova

History seems to collide with the present and manifest itself physically in this novel. “Mountain Spirits” and even an occasional ghost also glide through the pages.
Olga Slavnikova’s Russia of 2017 is an ugly consumer-driven society far removed from the dream of a proletarian utopia that sparked a revolution 100 years earlier.
In 2017 everything is a commodity, even death—funerals are as much a lifestyle statement as the clothes people wear, the cars they drive, or the mobile phones they use.
The fictional Riphean region, which seems to be vaguely located east of the Urals in the Asian part of Russia, still contains vast wildernesses, but even these are suffering under the impact of human exploitation. Rivers are polluted and forests are dying, while in the cities a rich elite flourishes as a disenfranchised underclass is kept subdued on a diet of trashy television.
Krylov, the novel’s dysfunctional anti-hero, hovers between the two strands of society, born into the underclass but given access to the elite through his rich ex-wife. He tries to stay an outsider from both. “[T]he main goal of a Riphean man was not to fit into society—including female society—in a nice way. His main goal was to remain an outpost unto himself.”
Krylov is a talented gem cutter whose mentor, Professor Anfilogov, sets off to a remote river in the Riphean Mountains in search of valuable stones. The illegal plundering, cutting, and sale of these rare gems for human adornment is symbolic of humanity’s exploitation of its environment in the name of shallow consumerism, sacrificing the very soul of the Riphean mountains for the sake of vanity.
As Krylov sees off the professor on his expedition he meets a woman at the train station and they begin an affair, conducted at a series of random locations chosen by sticking a pin into a street map. Neither Krylov or his lover know each others’ true name or where one another lives and they thrive on the precariousness of their relationship and the disastrous possibility that if one of them misses an assignation they might never see each other again.
An omnipresent private detective spying on them and Krylov’s ex-wife complicate the relationship in a series of set pieces that combine surrealism and farce.
The characters and scenarios are more Borges than Dostoevsky, the plot dipping into the realms of science fiction. A scene in which White Guards and revolutionary Red soldiers appear to be playing out episodes from the 1917 October Revolution turns violent and the line between reenactment and actual historic events echoing from the past into the modern day becomes blurred.
“The virus of History, which you’d think had been suppressed long ago and barely existed anymore, was spreading freely,” writes Slavnikova.
This Russian Booker Prize-winning novel, translated by Marian Schwartz, sets out to deliberately disorient as reality and the ethereal, past and future, conscious and unconscious intersect, leaving the reader scrambling to find his bearings in Slavnikov’s dystopian premonition of Russia in the near future.
It is an unsettling but satisfying experience.

This review was written for and first published in The New York Journal of Books

Friday, 5 March 2010

Life has taken a slightly 'Eastern' tilt this week, at least in terms of reading and music listening, although all involved are Irish. Gabriel Rosenstock has been looking to Asia for many years now for inspiration even though the bulk of his work is written in Irish.
He is a highly regarded Haikuist and has written about travelling along the Ganges (Ólann mo Mhiúil as an n Gainséis). India was the inspiration for his 2007 bilingual collection Bliain an Bhandé/Year of the Goddess on whose blurb John Moriarty wrote: “Yeats has said that until the Battle of the Boyne, Ireland belonged to Asia. In these poems by an Irish bhakta, the ancient connection is being restored from our side, and that delights me.”
Rosenstock’s most recent collection, Uttering Her Name, is entirely in English and is described as a series of “spontaneous, ecstatic utterances in what the author calls a neo-bhatik style”.
If they are spontaneous (in the sense that they haven’t been reworked) then they are impressive achievements, reminiscent of Robert Grave’s poems to his ‘White Goddess’ – a beautiful, demanding and slightly sinister muse.
The Haiku is a much misunderstood genre of poetry whose Japanese ‘on’ are often clumsily transposed into English (and Irish) as syllables.
Journalist, and former Horslips drummer, Eamon Carr travelled to Japan in 2002 to follow the Republic of Ireland squad during the World Cup. In his introduction to The Origami Crow he writes: “My plan has been to retrace the steps of Matuso Kinsaku, the zen monk known as Basho, who in 1684 began a series of hazardous journeys throughout old Japapn in search of spiritual enlightenment. However, Roy Keane puts paid to my fanciful notions.”
The departure of Keane from the Irish squad and the high drama that surrounded the team’s gallant, but ultimately unsuccessful bid for world cup glory, serve as a slightly jarring backdrop to Carr’s journey through Japan, his musings and scene setting which all build up to a series of rather superb Haiku.
Describing a Robbie Keane goal he writes:
Finnan to Quinn, then Keane
harmony and geometry,
cool zen goal
More orthodox, in terms of Haiku at least, he writes:
warm evening on Ohashi Bridge –
ah, but where is
the sudden downpour?
Kíla have obviously taken my criticism of their gig in Belfast last year to heart and decided to tone things down a bit on their new album. Soisín is so mellow that you could easily drift off into enlightenment while it is playing in the background.
Rónan Ó Snodaigh’s tribal drumming has been tempered to a few bodhrán brush strokes while his multi-instrumentalist brothers (Colm and Rossa) and the band’s other trad players, Dee Armstrong (fiddle) and Eoín Dillon (uillean pipes and whistles) are allowed to showcase their considerable talents.
The album’s sleeve notes say that it had its genesis while Colm Ó Snodaigh was reading a book by Maria O’Halloran and was inspired to write a tune. The note continues: “ Marie ‘Soishin’ O’Halloran was a young Dublin woman who travelled to Japan to join a Zen Buddhist monastery and in three short years came to be regarded as a Buddhist Bodhisattva or saint of compassion. Meaning pure heart, enlightened mind, Soshin, is the English phonetic spelling of he give Buddhist name. We have given it an Irish spelling – Soisín.”
All the tracks are written by the various band members and although clearly in the category of Irish traditional it has more than a passing nod to Eastern influences.

Monday, 15 February 2010


I spent much of last week being driven along twisting dusty tracks in Rwanda, with some Congolese music jangling out from the radio, past fields filled with crops and occasionally banana or coffee bushes, while the scent of eucalyptus and mint hung in the air.
Kids ran out from their homes to wave, their eyes opening with surprise as they saw my reddening Irish flesh, glowing under the African sun after a long winter, and shouted ‘muzungu’ (white man). Even the adults did a double take and then nodded solemnly in greeting.
While there is a modest tourist industry to the north where gorillas can be seen along the slopes of the Virunga mountains foreign visitors are a rarity in Rwanda, particularly in the areas where I was travelling – Kamonyi district a couple of hours’ drive from the capital Kigali and in the Huye district in the south of the country close to the border with Burundi.
It is the second time I have travelled with the Irish international development agency Trócaire (I was in Nicaragua four years ago). Once again I was brought into areas and into contact with people that it would be impossible for an independent traveller to reach.
On Friday I sat in a large room with a group of 40 women in a hilltop village about 40 minutes drive from Butare in Huye district. They were part of a reconciliation project, funded by Trócaire and included women who lost their husbands and other members of their family in the 1994 genocide in which one million people died. Other women in the same group were left to fend for themselves and their families alone because their husbands were in prison for taking part in the genocide.
Euphrasie’s husband was convicted under one of the ‘Gacaca’ courts (traditionally local forums to resolve disputes between neighbours) which were set up in the wake of the genocide. His neighbour accused him of being part of a mob which used machetes to slaughter a child. Other members of the mob who confessed said Euphrasie’s husband had been with them and he was found with the child’s watch.
However, he denied taking part and said he had been at home when the attack took part. Euphrasie told the court that he had not been at home and her husband now blames her for his being in prison. He was sentenced to 19 years but his wife fears his release because under the country’s laws she will not be allowed to refuse him coming into her home.
Euphrasie sat for us to have her picture taken beside a spritely 64-year-old called Cancilda whose husband and son were both killed during the genocide. She was not sure how or when they died although she suspects that a neighbour who had been “like a father” to her son and with whom he was hiding may have betrayed him to the maurading Interahamwe (the Hutu paramilitary gang which turned on their Tutsi neighbours and moderate Hutus who failed to take part or tried to help the Tutsis or had intermarried with them).
Cancilda fled her home and made the 40km journey by foot to Burundi as the genocide gathered pace. She said she saw many people being killed and was in constant fear of her life.
She told me: “There was killing everywhere. I could see people being killed and thrown into rivers. We were drinking water mixed with blood”.
While reconciliation between women such as Cancilda and Euphrasie is inspiring and there are many other examples there are others who have refused and there is still a tangible tension bubbling under the surface.
Against this backdrop is widespread poverty with most people in rural areas depending on subsistence farming. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa and the pressure on land is intense. Overproduction means that each year it is losing the soil capacity to feed 40,000 people each year while the population continues to grow.
Both male and female children share equal rights and so when they inherit their parents’ land it is divided equally among them, and with an average of three children per family this means increasingly diminishing plots for each generation.
I met several farming families who were dependent on the land they farmed to feed themselves. Crop rotation has been encouraged and terracing in their fields to improve irrigation and help prevent soil erosion but a poor crop will inevitably mean hunger.
During a visit to one family I saw a filthy child tottering aimlessly around their yard, its belly distended, eyes glazed and a layer of dried mucus along its upper lip. I thought it was a girl but couldn’t be sure.
While the family we were visiting were obviously poor their children were bright-eyed and laughing with delight as we showed them their pictures on digital cameras but this wee one plodded aimlessly about the place and stared blankly when I tried to engage it. A Trócaire worker took one look and said the child was suffering from malnutrition.
Through our translator I asked the woman of the household about the child. She said it was a boy called Dani who was about two (the child she was holding was also two and the difference in their physical health was stark). She said Dani’s father had been a senior official in the regional cooperative but had stolen money and abandoned his wife and seven children. Dani’s mother was unable to work because she had to look after her children.
We were told the child had been fed at the local health centre but it was clearly not enough. When I asked the woman if she thought Dani would live she sighed and shrugged. It was not a heartless gesture for she was clearly struggling to feed her own family, but it suggested an inevitability and there was helplessness in her face.
I saw Dani on the first day of my visit and in a vastly overpopulated country dependent on subsistence farming can only assume that it is not a unique story.
I’m still writing up my reports for a series which should run in The Irish News over the next few weeks.

Saturday, 6 February 2010


Despite a concerted effort to track down navajas (razor clams) in Barcelona I failed. Not that this should be the basis on which to judge a city - undoubtedly they were on the menus of restaurants I walked past, it is just that I never found them.
Despite that I enjoyed some great meals there - pulpo (octopus), calamares (squid), gambas (prawns) and bacalao (Basque-style salted cod). Some good Catalan wine as well.
Barcelona is an easy city to navigate around and after three days I felt I had sussed out its lay out. La Rambla which runs from Placa Catalunya down to the city's port is as good a place as any to start. It is a great people watching stroll favoured by both tourists and residents alike.
A few steps away into one of the side streets can take you into a contemporary shopping centre or else in cobbled alleyway with Tabac shops, cafes, crumbling churches and private residences.
Closer to the harbour the streets become slightly more tacky, with sex shops and an occasional street walker lurking in a darkened alleyway. It is the territory of Almodovar's Todo Sobre Mi Madre and the novels of Manuel Vazquez Montalban (Offide being the novel of choice to accompany me on this visit).
Last week I watched Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona to put me in the mood for my visit. The film seemed to be partly funded by the Barcelona tourist board as a showcase for the city's delights. Woody had clearly been watching a few Almodovar movies before he shot this. While I'm a fan Allen's movie came across as cloying and derivative - check out the scene where the Vicky and Juan Antonio are watching the guitarist and compare it to the scene where Caetano Veloso sing Cucurrucucu Paloma in Almodovar's Hable con ella.
I also found VCB to be glaringly naive, one of the character's, Vicky goes to Barcelona and raves on about studying Catalan culture, yet she can't even speak Castellano, never mind Catalan but somehow manages to spend lots of times perusing books in libraries.
Despite its artistic pretentions it is an enjoyable movie but one in which all the main actors are totally overshadowed by the performance of Penelope Cruz.
She also starred in Todo Sobre Mi Madre, playing a nun who falls pregnant to a Aids-infected, transexual prostitute. Other characters are a single mother whose only child has been run down and a stage actress who is obsessed with her drug-addled lesbian lover. Can't see Woody tackling this somehow.
It gives only a passing nod to Barcelona's more iconic locations, a brief scene outside the Gaudi cathedral - which features regularly in VCB. Infact it could have been set anywhere as the location is superflous to its dark story of a woman coming to terms with her own grief, by reluctantly becoming a source of comfort to others.
I'm still reading Offside, the fourth Montalban novel I have in my collection, but it was interesting to find myself at the start of the week wandering down the streets where his fictional detective Pepe Carvalho had been a few hours earlier as I read the first few chapters on the plane. Review to follow.
I also picked up a new novel while I was there - La piel fría (Cold Skin - originally written in Catalan and published as La pell fida) by Albert Sánchez Piñol, a novelist from Barcelona. Its main protagonists is an Irishman (a former IRA member) who is working for a scientific expedition in the Antarctic and who ends up confronting killer aliens. There is a psychological undercurrent to this sci-fi story which at first glance I can get the gist of but which will probably take a lot of cross-referencing with my dictionary to get all its nuances. There is an English language translation, but apparently it expunges all references to the central character's Irishness.