Monday, 14 February 2011

Pictures at an Exhibition by DM Thomas

The early chapters of this novel are strong but it becomes overly complicated in subsequent sections and the plot increasingly convoluted.
Thomas is good at planting information and letting things slowly unravel so that the reader is constantly trying to second-guess him on the true identities of his key players.
Unfortunately the book's blurb tells you exactly what the big twist is in the first section so that Thomas's slow and careful scene-setting that should result in a jolt of horror as you realise what is happening and where is completely undermined.
Two men talking, one of them psychoanalysing the other. The analysts is clearly in a subservient position to his patient.
Visual clues, the smell of smoke constantly in the air and the names of characters - Galewski and Dr Lorenz - and Freudian analysis are all dropped in until about 20 pages in Thomas cranks up the gear and we realise that the action is taking part in Auschwitz, the analyst is a Jewish prisoner and that his patient is one of the commanders responsible for the ongoing massacre.
Thomas details the full litany of atrocities that took place there - the
production-line slaughter of men, women and children and the medical experiments on live humans.
Galewski, who is to an extent collaborating with the concentration camp authorities (soley in the name of staying alive) is not unsympathetic to Lorenz who is suffering from nightmares and a psychosomatic ailments. These turn out not to be the result of participation in the mass destruction of human beings but because of a childhood trauma.
When section one ends, we find ourselves in England in the early 1990s when a new ensemble of characters take up the narration through a series of first-person narratives in the form of letters and counselling sessions.
From the start (and because of the blurb of course) the reader is trying to work out which of them, if any, are Galewski and Lorenz, or one of the other characters we met in part one.
Thomas inserts a series of clues and false trails in against a background of
European high art - Edvard Munch and Gustav Mahler - and Freudian analysis.
Coming after the intensity of the first section the following chapters are soap
operish and sometimes just silly and the lives of the characters tedious. The dramas that the author creates for them are... well dramas, convoluted ones at that.
The combination of Freud and sex are nothing new in a DM Thomas novel. Pictures at an Exhibition has its moments and up until the very end the identities of its main protagonists are still only being hinted at. However, despite a strong start the narrative seems to run out of steam, regaining its momentum in a series of fits and spurts but never quite regaining its early promise.
For my other DM Thomas reviews click here.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño

The story concerns Pierre Pain, a hypnotist and alternative doctor, who has been called in to treat the Peruvian poet César Vallejo who is dying of hiccups.
For most of the story Pain has no idea who Vallejo is, merely that he is South American and that his wife is close friend of a Madame Reynaud, who he is in love with.
The fact that Madame Reynaud called on him despite the fact that he was unable to save her husband's life six months earlier gives Pain hope that he might win her affections.
He is a lonely and introspective person but the world that he is drawn into by agreeing to treat Vallejo soon leaves him confused and alienated.
Bolaño is superb at portraying Pain's growing sense of paranoia as it seems that everyone he encounters knows exactly what is going on while he struggles to understand.
The streets of Paris in 1938, where the novel is set, are claustrophobic as Pain is followed by two Spaniards and told to stay away from Vallejo. The hospital where the poet is being treated is labyrinthine and Kafkaesque. Pain is shunned by the medical establishment and eventually evicted by a receptionist.
There are constant hints that something dark and sinister is going, for example when Madame Reynaud unexpectedly and without explanation leaves Paris for Lille, but while Pain seems to be constantly plagued with a sense of uneasiness he remains baffled as to exactly why and how he should react.
The longest scene in the novel takes place in a cinema where Pain narrates that what is happening on screen as well as what is happening to him, gradually the plot of the movie and the plot of the novel begin to intersect as Pain recognises one of the minor characters as former colleague.
Another former student, Plomeur-Boudou, who studied with Pain and the character in the movie is also in the cinema sitting beside one of the Spaniards who had been following Pain.
Plomeur-Boudou confesses that he is working for the Fascists in Spain and using his mesmeric skills to torture anti-Franco Republicans.
Patterns unfold in this novel, scenes or vignettes that seem to echo through later pages and fold back on themselves.
Monsieur Pain is a stylish tale that is effortless to read, yet richly layered, and left me feeling once again in awe of the late Chilean author.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India by Rory MacClean

Hippie culture, its myths and legends, main players, clothes and music form the backdrop to this travel book with a message. Each of the chapters has a hippie song title and the journey covers the main stop-offs where 'the Intrepids' who ventured from Europe to Asia in the late sixties and most of the seventies made their mark.
MacClean briefly traces the origins of the hippies from the US Beat culture of the late 1950s name-checking Kerouac and Ginsberg, through to its identification with rock music and the anti-war movement in the 60s. Many were drawn to eastern spiritualism thanks to novelist Herman Hess, Kerouac's The Dharma Bums and of course the Beatles flirtation with Transcendental Meditation and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
MacClean writes with a whimsical nostalgia, as a man who came a generation too late to experience at first hand the original hippie trail and the spontaneous, hand-to-mouth existence of those who traversed it. He says they were the first invaders who came “to be colonised” and learn from the countries where they were travelling.
He frequently comments on the carefully laid timetabled trails followed by most modern indepenendent travellers who delude themselves that they will still find an undiscovered beach somewhere.
But the main theme of the book is the societal upheavals that have impacted on the trail in the intervening four decades since the Intrepids first began travelling.
Turkey has become a package holiday mecca, Iran an Islamist Republic, Afghanastan a war zone, Pakistan politically corrupt while India, the former spiritual home of the hippies, is now one of the fastest growing capitalist economies in the world.
MacClean wonders if the arrival of the hippies with their hash and psychedelic drugs, free love, unconventional clothing, or lack of it, and long-haired drop-out attitude acted as catalyst for the changes. He meets a Turkish bar owner who tells him the catering for the hippies made people realise that there was money to be made from the exotic travellers passing by and the millions of package follower who would ultimately follow.
And in Iran, did the experience of the Intrepids cause a stirring in Iran that led to the rejection of the the Western-supported Shah and a turning to Islamic fundamentalism as a barrier against the lose-sex and drug taking manifestation of the Intrepids who for many Iranians were the representation of Western values, even though those on who they were basing that judgment had rejected the societies from where they had come?
Along the way he meets various characters, including Penny a woman in her 70s who has fled the old people's home where she had been stagnating. She turns out to have been at some of the most iconic hippie happenings – with credentials stretching back to the Beats, being one of the first to hand out
flowers in Haight Ashbury in San Francisco (heralding flower power), and was at Woodstock where she led Janis Joplin to the stage.
Other survivors include Roddy Finegan in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu whose “Irishness is worn easily” and who is one of the few to have stayed true to the hippy lifestyle in “genteel poverty”. Another of the originals Geoff Crowther, one of the first writers and researchers of the Lonely Planet, is living in a drunken stupor in Goa, having blown a fortune made from writing travel books.
MacClean keeps a slight distance between himself and those he is writing about, like a ethnologist who has studied an exotic tribe and who envies their lifestyle but knows that he can never actually belong and who has the advantage to time to realise that their days were ultimately numbered.
"The sixties marked a change in consciousness. Ordinary people did extraordinary things. A generation rejected old unfeeling ways, questioned established practices, searched for new values. Then in the seventies the oil crisis and later Regan economics forced them on a financial reality check. Jobs became scarce. Time grew expensive. Borders closed. Hippie chicks swelled into earth mothers and their children needed new shoes. Greenpeace, Apple and MTV went from alternative to mainstream. Revolutionaries reinvented themselves as CEOs. Some kids couldn’t adapt, of course, retreating to log cabins in the Sierras of making a last stand as ecowarriors in mid-Wales. But most of them – like Penny and Roddy – found peace in themselves, even as rainbow bridges were brought down by bombs and rueful self-interest…” P268
Read my travel piece on Goa, the ultimate destination for many who followed the hippie trail , on my website here.