Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Lone Man by Bernardo Atxaga

Maybe it is because this novel is a translation of a translation that its prose often seems clunky and occasionally banal. It was originally written in Basque, tranaslated into Spanish and it is the Spanish translation that has in turn been translated into English.
Atxaga's narrative technique is also slightly unusual, much of it takes the form of an internal dialogue in Carlos the main protatagnist's head between himself, a nagging voice of self-doubt who he has named The Rat, his former Eta commander Sabino, and his estranged brother Kropotsly (who is in a mental institution).
It is a claustraphobic novel set mostly in and around a hotel outside Barcelona which is owned by Carlos and a number of other former Eta activists. The hotel is almost symbolic of Carlos's psyche and seems to have trapped him both physically in the same way that his past has trapped him psychologically.
It was bought from the proceeds of an armed bank raid after Carlos and the others were released from prison. They have all more or less cut themselves off from their militant past and are even critical of the direction in which Eta has gone.
However, despite this Carlos has hidden two on-the-run Eta members who police throughout Spain are searching for. Wanted posters for them are everywhere. Things are complicated because the Polish national soccer team are staying in the hotel during the 1982 World Cup and the grounds are swamped with police.
Carlos soon realises that there is more to the police presence than merely protecting the footballers and he suspects that someone has tipped them off that the fugitives are hidding somewhere in the hotel or within its grounds.
His colleagues suspect that something is going on and Carlos is forced into betraying life-long friendships and loyalties as he tries to pretend everything is normal, knowing that if the fugitives are captured his betrayal will land his friends in as much trouble with the authorities as himself.
His attempts to remain calm and act as if everything is normal while under the scrutiny of his friends and police (uniformed and undercover) the blaze of publicity surrounding the Polish squad staying in the hotel and conflicting voices in his head who keep dragging up his past all contrive to pin Carlos down further and further.
He hatches a plan to get the fugitives away from the hotel during a World Cup match between Spain and Germany and focuses all his attention in putting it in place. Atxaga prepares the final tragedy of this novel well, planting information and scenarios that only come in to play in the last few pages with a quickening pace that leads to a conclusion that seemed almost inevivtable despite earlier expectations.
The Lone Man is slightly uneven novel but one worth persevering with.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

The detective theme runs loosely through this novel. The two main protagonists, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, search for a long-forgotten poet. The narrators, dozens of them, are like a series of witnesses recalling their memories of Belano and Lima and weaving in details of their own lives.
Roberto Bolaño does little to disguise himself as a character – as well as having an almost similar name to his creator Arturo Belano was born in Chile, grew up in Mexico before emigrating to Europe and roaming around France and Spain.
In Mexico City, Belano and Lima are the figureheads in the Visceral Realists, a fringe group of a dozen poets. It is these poets and their partners, friends, families and associates who narrate the Savage Detectives, with Belano and Lima coming in and out of view, sometimes on the merest fringes of the action only to suddenly take up centre stage again.
Before turning to fiction Bolaño was a poet and in this novel he lays bare his passion for poetry and his belief that being a poet demands a total way of being and living rather than a pastime or even an occupation.
There are pages where he simply lists the names of poets, and discussions on poetic technique and academic theory. In Ireland poets tend to be regarded as niche figures, unknown and disregarded among a handful of big names (who most people may have heard of but few will have read), but Bolaño’s young poets are rebellious, anarchic, dangerous, hard-living and full of passion.
They are contemptuous of the establishment figures (including Ocatavio Paz – Mexico’s Nobel Laureate who at one point they plan to kidnap and who even makes an appearance as a character).
However, that youthful passion becomes dissipated as the years pass and the viscerals drift apart, marry, hook up with partners, get jobs and get caught up in the cycle of modern life, working, eating watching television and stagnating. Some continue to write.
Opening in 1975 the Savage Detectives follows the lives of Arturo, and to a lesser extent Ulises, into the mid-1990s, always from the perspective of other narrators into whose lives they drift in an out. It is narrative technique that is unsettling and forces the reader to fill in gaps and make assumptions. Added to this is a chronology which jumps back and forward in time so that you can find your self reading a scene that took part decades before the one that preceded it.
There is an almost supernatural subtext to the story and Arturo and Ulises seem to be cursed. Many of the people they come into contact with suffer ill-health, madness, misfortune and death. Both end up in Europe, living in poverty and working at menial jobs, although always with the hint of continual writing going on although Arturo is the only one who eventually has work published.
The supernatural elements come to the fore in a more tangible way when a boy is falls into a disused mineshaft at a campsite in Galicia where Arturo is working as a watchman. Someone is lowered in to the pit to rescue him is hauled out screaming and says he has seen the devil. When Arturo is lowered in to attempt a second rescue he descends deep and then calls for the rope on which he is being lowered to be cut. While those outside believe that he may have fallen to his death alongside the lost boy he eventually emerges carrying the still-alive missing child.
Bolaño doesn’t overplay the supernatural and it is not a major element but, as in his later novel 2666 (reviewed here) it is there.
The Savage Detectives also calls on its readers to make their own imaginative conclusions. There is no tying up of lose ends. We last see Arturo working as a reporter in an African war-zone heading into a possible massacre, but the narrator of this chapter is unable to fund out any more information about him and there is the suggestion that he is still alive. We last see Ulises standing in a park talking to Octavio Paz but don’t get to find out what he is doing or if, like Arturo he is still writing.
The non-linear narrative and shifting perspectives can be demanding and the loose ends frustrating but then like 2666 the point of these novels seems to be the actual reading and experiencing of it rather than getting to the end to find out what happened.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Lewis, Stuart and O'Flaherty

Belfast-born CS Lewis is often cited as a "Christian apologist" but the theology that he incorporates in his 'fantasy trilogy' is distinctly unorthodox.
The first two novels – read over Christmas and arse about face (the second read first and first second) – tell of the journeys of an English university don to Mars and then to Venus.
Out of the Silent Planet (the first in the trilogy) sees Elwin Ransom kidnapped and taken to Malacandra (Mars) where he encounters three distinct intelligent species who live mostly in the deep canyons that criss-cross the surface of the planet. The outer shell of the planet is dead.
During his encounters with the various species Ransom is told that the Solar System was created by Maledil who put various deities in charge of each planet and along with numerous ethereal entitities, "eldila".
Ransom eventually gets to meet Oyarsa, the Malacandran deity, who tells him that his equivalent on Earth (Thulcandra) has become 'bent' and was sealed into Thulcandra's atmosphere following a great battle that took place long before life existed on the planet.
While Oyarsa can communicate with the deities on the other planets in the Solar System, Earth has become known as 'the silent planet'.
Christianity is not mentioned and the cosmology that threads through this novel seemed to mirror the gnostic myths of an overall deity, lesser gods (including one who believed that he was the supreme being and creator of all) and archons (Lewis's eldila).
Describing Ransom's descent from space to the surface of Malacandra, Lewis writes: "Suddenly the lights of the Universe seemed to be turned down. As if some deamon had rubbed the heaven's face with a dirty sponge, the spleandour in which they had lived for so long blenched to a pallid, cheerless and pitiable grey... what had been a chariot gliding in the fields of heaven became a dark steel box dimly lighted by a slit of window, and falling. They were falling out of the heavens, into a world. Nothing in all his adventures bit so deeply into Ransom's mind as this. He wondered how he could ever have thought of planets, even of the Earth, as islands of life and reality floating in a deadly void. Now, with a certainty which never after deserted him, he saw the planets - the 'earths' he called them in his thoughts - as mere holes or gaps in the living heaven - excluded and rejected wastes of heavy matter and murky air, formed not by addition to, but by subtraction from, the surrounding brightness. And yet, he thought, beyond the solar system the brightness ends. Is that the real void, the real death. Unless... he groped for the idea... unless visible light is also a hole or a gap, a mere diminution of something else. Something that is to bright unchanging heaven as heaven is to the dark, heavy earths...
(Out of the Silent Planet P45)
Describing the eldila he writes" "You must be looking in the right place and the right time; and that is not likely to come about unless the eldil wishes to be seen. Sometimes you can mistake them for a sunbeam or even a moving of the leaves; but when you look again you see that it was an eldil and that it is gone." (P94)
CS Lewis is hugely inventive in creating alien landscapes, lifeforms and fauna. He even gives us as basic initiation into the Malacandran language.
Both Out of the Silent Planet and its sequel Journey to Venus (also published as Perelandra) can be read as straight forward adventures, in the same way that his later more famous children's novels can.
Journey to Venus reintroduces Ransom but whereas Malacandra is an old and dying planet Venus is still young and virginal with life still emerging. Ransom finds a virtual garden of Eden, complete with the Venetian equivalent of Eve and Adam (although they are green-skinned).
Again he is superb at creating an alien landscape with islands that float on an ocean and whose landscape warps and flattens with the tides inhabited by dozens of animals, fish, trees and plants.
Weston, one of Ransom's kidnapper's from Out of The Silent Planet, is also sent to Venus (by the Earth's bent Oyarsa) to try to engineer another 'downfall' similar to the biblical one on Earth. Ransom works to stop it.
The third novel in the trilogy That Hideous Strength is in my pile to be read.
Francis Stuart's final novel (novella) also touches on spiritual themes but in a much more gnarled way. King David Dances is by no means a good novel – it is almost entirely lacking a cogent plot – but it does contain some typically Stuartian passages.
An imaginary dialogue between the narrator Lodsi Dormondi and 'The Grand Arbiter runs:
"Grand Arbiter: Tell me, apart from the care of cats and a general rapport with the animal kingdom, what have you mastered.
"Lodsi: The art of succumbing to pain, to the very brink of despair, of teetering on the edge of the pit and then regaining balance just in time. And also in the absence of actual tragedy, an imaginative skill and tendency to evoke, and dream agonies of the most subtle and haunting kind."
(King David Dances P35)
In a superbly inarticulate attempt to describe his warped spirituality Stuart writes:
"We aren't demanding, or begging for miracles or even dispensations, not for the old rewards: eternal beatitudes, reunion with lost ones. It seems to me, though I haven't yet got round to meditating on this that our first concern is the great events, experiences, that illuminate the outer chaos, revealing for a moment a harmony, taking place in obscurity, burning themselves out in an intensity of love and compassion, are preserved. That is that they should not pass and perish and that those who seek this assurance are given it, however fragile and with whatever contradicting asides, for only the pure in heart, if not in the mortal flesh, can clearly decode such signals. (P50)
Despite the appalling syntax this rings as something that is for Stuart heartfelt and struggling to said but he is not quite sure how to say it.
On the final page Stuart writes:
"Here I shall end this diary as I began: confused, emotionally and physically disturbed, filled by vast glimpses, by near visions, but finding each year and month, almost day, ever more difficult." (P61)
Liam O'Flaherty is a much more earthy writer than Stuart or Lewis and his stories are rooted in nature and human interaction.
The Black Soul tells the story of O'Connor, an Irishman wounded in the trenches while fighting for the British army during the First World War. He is an arrogant, isolated and damaged man and clearly a fictional alter-ego for O'Flaherty.
With his sanity is at breaking point and filled with disgust for the society in which he lives he flees to an island of the west coast of Ireland where the people still live an almost primitive existence, dependent on the land and sea for their survival.
O'Connor is just as contemptuous for the island peasants as he is of the urbane Dublin that he has fled but it is in this landscape that he begins to heal, both physically and mentally.
O'Flaherty's prose is raw and poetic: "Red John's cabin lay huddled against the buff of the hill. Around it the wind only sighed and moaned, for none but stray blasts reached it, blasts that had wandered from the storm, fallen in weariness from the whirling coils that rushed eastwards without pausing for breath. But the sea-spray sometimes struck the door, with a slow falling swish, as of a mountain of loose silk being crushed. The cries of the sea-birds that whirled about it sounded dismally. It was as if the lid were wrenched from the mouth of hell and the wailing of the damned came floating up from distant caverns." (The Black Soul P16).
While O'Connor is being healed his presence stirs passion and jealousy among the people he is staying among. Red John, in whose cabin he lives, becomes insane with anger as his wife Little Mary falls for O'Connor and becomes his lover.
The Black Soul is not as gritty as The Assassin or The Informer and less bleak than Skerritt. It comes the closest to the perfection of his short stories and for me it is his best piece of long fiction