Archive for April, 2013

April 30, 2013

Adam Foulds, The Broken Word

Apparently when white guys write about Africa I must compare them to Conrad (it is possible that I am overdoing it in this case). Oh well. This must be why I’m always nervous about writing about poetry. There’s a lot more I’d like to say about The Broken Word though–particularly with regard to its treatment of one rape and one attempted rape (why must so many books be ruined for me by dubiously-done rapes?) but perhaps that’s for a later post when I’ve gathered my thoughts more.

From this weekend’s column:

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The announcement of Granta’s once-a-decade list of the Best of Young British Novelists created something of a stir earlier this week. One of the names I was pleased to see on the list was that of Adam Foulds, whose 2009 novel The Quickening Maze impressed me (and others, presumably, since it made it to the Booker shortlist that year). Foulds’ presence on the Granta list provided the impetus to read his second book, a verse novel titled The Broken Word.

The Broken Word is set in Kenya and England, during the years of the Mau Mau Uprising. At the centre of the book (most of it is told from his perspective) is Tom, a young English boy just out of an English boarding school who has returned to Africa before going off to university. Tom finds himself working to violently suppress the rebellion; at no point a particularly purposeful character he almost drifts into the awful things he will do. Eventually he will return to England and to university, yet his life has been touched by extreme violence and that fact cannot be escaped.

And the violence of the British reaction is inescapable in this book. Foulds allows these horrors to unfold in a series of almost cinematic images rendered vivid and alien by unlikely metaphor (this is all very much in the tradition of Craig Raine, who is mentioned in the afterword). We see “sores growing on the prisoners like coral”, men, “heavily edited. Between them: / nine fingers, two ears, three eyes, no testicles”. One man Tom kills by beating him with his gun “swung and swung/ across the breaking stave/ of the man’s forearms and collar bone”, the image ruthless in its sheer economy, evoking the act, the broken body and the form of the poem itself.

It’s either a sign of that book’s greatness or of my own lack of imagination that I can’t help frequently going back to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. One of many possible criticisms (see, for example, Chinua Achebe’s for the most famous) of the book’s treatment of race lies in its relegation of Africa and Africans to the background. Colonialism is bad, it seems to suggest, not because of the violence committed upon Africans but because it is making good Europeans into monsters. In The Broken Word it’s Tom whose eyes we see this story through, Tom whose future life at university is marked by violent dreams and acts—including the attempted rape of a young woman. One of the few moments when we slip out of his perspective seems engineered so that someone else, not he, will be responsible for a brutal rape.

And I think Foulds is at least partly aware of this—which does not absolve him of perpetuating the pattern. Against the attempts of the European characters to reduce the Africans to objects is the text’s insistence on our knowledge of their humanity. The fact of violence is forced upon us, and the civilised rituals of the European characters appear monstrous in comparison.

But there’s another reason I think Foulds might be drawing directly upon Conrad. At the end of Heart of Darkness, as Marlow takes the news of Kurtz to a woman whom he’d left behind, we see a piano with its ivory keys. Ivory from Africa; a reminder of why we (I say “we”, not “they” because the reader is never given the possibility of shared subjectivity with anyone other than the European man) are there in the first place.

Tom’s courtship ends with his girlfriend (the woman whom he attempted to rape) suggesting that he ask her to marry him and buy her an engagement ring: “…usually/ young men start looking,/ you know, do I have to/ spell it out? In jewellers’ windows”. By now it ought to be difficult for a twenty first century reader to think of the traditional diamond engagement ring and not immediately think of blood diamonds.

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April 27, 2013

Justin Landon and Jared Shurin (ed), Speculative Fiction 2012

Not a review, for reasons that will be obvious. This is just to let people know that Speculative Fiction 2012 is now available in its paperback form here or here, and will be available for the kindle (and in epub form, I think?) soon. This is a collection of some of the “best”  writing about speculative fiction published online last year.

I’m don’t just mention this because I’m in it (though I am! Twice!). It’s full of things by properly smart people with whom I’m both honoured and slightly bewildered to be sharing a TOC–people like Abigail Nussbaum, Dan Hartland, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Adam Roberts, Lavie Tidhar, Maureen Kincaid Speller. And the proceeds from all sales go to Room To Read, which is another good reason to buy it.

As far as I know, all the pieces included in this book are available to read online anyway. But collecting them in this way is an attempt to create a record of sorts. This is what the speculative fiction community was reading, thinking, arguing about in 2012, these are the conversations we were having. And while my first instinct is to question that “we” and that “community”, I think this is going to be a useful project (it is to become an annual thing) as well as a way of preserving some excellent critical writing. I’ve just started reading, and I’m curious to see what Landon and Shurin’s choices say about us (and about Landon and Shurin, I suppose). Ana Grilo and Thea James will be editing the 2013 volume, and they have already made the submissions form available.

April 23, 2013

Zen Cho, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo

In case anyone on the internet hasn’t seen it (how have you managed to miss it?), the spoken word piece I refer to is this one: To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang

From this weekend’s column:

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Over the past week, multiple people have directed me to a video of a spoken word poetry performance. The poem in question is “To J.K. Rowling, From Cho Chang” by Rachel Rostad and, as the title indicates, is an indictment of Rowling’s portrayal of that character in the Harry Potter books. Rostad lays out a number of criticisms here- including the very low number of students of colour in Rowling’s Hogwarts and the likelihood or otherwise of Cho Chang’s name (though since the video went viral a number of Chinese readers have defended Rowling on this count). But most interesting of her arguments is that Rowling has placed the character in a tradition of stereotyped East Asian women, who fall in love with a white, male hero and then are either killed off or spend the rest of the plot (and their lives, presumably) pining for him. Rostad mentions Madame Butterfly and Memoirs of a Geisha as examples of stories that perpetuate this trend, but it’s far too easy to think of others.

A good antidote to that particular narrative is The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Author Zen Cho is better known for her science fiction writing (she figured on the recently-announced list of John W. Campbell Award nominees for best new writer). But The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is a romance set in early twentieth century London and centering itself around the literary and artistic life of Bloomsbury. Jade Yeo (or Geok Huay) is a Malaysian-Chinese woman who lives in London and makes a (tiny) living writing – mostly about books but occasionally fluff pieces, because hey, money. Most of her literary reviews are carried in the relatively obscure Oriental Literary Review, run by a young Indian man named Ravi. But both Jade and the OLR achieve fame when the journal carries her scathing review of a book by literary society darling Sebastian Hardie. Hardie’s attention is arrested; he and Jade have a whirlwind romance (note: this is not the usual outcome of writing a negative review). But though Hardie may look like a Romantic poet, Jade is not that smitten. Or only temporarily. (“I see the source of all my problems: a Bronte was completely the wrong thing to be reading unless it were an Anne. I should have been reading George Eliot.”)

In the past, this column has talked about E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady and Joyce Dennys’ Henrietta books, both examples of how the intimacy of the diary or epistolatory forms can make a book funny and engaging. Jade has a wonderful voice; enthusiastic, curious, cutting, original. This is the sort of character who complains that “all I have done as an unaccompanied maiden in London is read and write and cook. This is hardly tasting the delights of debauchery in the immoral West”. She exposes us to the full absurdity of people who ask if they have tea in China. She dismisses Hardie’s attempts at seduction by complaining that he has “the heavy-lidded gaze of a romantic tapir”. She is glorious.

For many of us who grew up on a steady diet of very light ‘English’ fluff, the lack of non-white people is something we very carefully do not think about—I’d rather not know what P.G. Wodehouse or Georgette Heyer would make of someone like me. But with this novella, Cho writes us into the period in ways that are politically astute, affirmative, and above all joyous. It’s clear she’s having as much fun paying tribute to books she likes (Wodehouse fans will be pleased to know that Jade has an article in Milady’s Boudoir) as she is undercutting those works and placing herself at their centre, rendering them feminist, anti-racist, political, and still lighthearted and funny. It’s short and never particularly deep, but The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is the happiest thing I’ve read in a long time.

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April 21, 2013

Mridula Koshy, Not Only The Things That Have Happened

A short review of Mridula Koshy’s first novel, published in The Hindustan Times this saturday.

 

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In one sense, the events of Mridula Koshy’s first novel take place over a period of less than two days. In another, they span over four decades. At the centre of the novel are Annakutty Verghese and the son she had out of wedlock, and whom she was convinced to give away. Divided into two halves, set (mostly) in Kerela and the American Midwest respectively, Not Only The Things That Have Happened tells the story of this separation and what it means to both mother and child.

Both learn to structure their lives around a single great absence. Annakutty never gives up the search for her son, tracing his outline on the sheets of her bed, his growing in the teenaged mannerisms of young boys she sees on the bus. She relives her time with him constantly through the stories she tells her niece Nina, and as the stories themselves change so does her understanding of her own loss. Meanwhile Madhu, now named Asa Gardener, struggles with his status as “a child without history”, something his adoptive parents specifically asked for. Asa doesn’t know where he comes from, has no language with which to understand the scraps he remembers, and for much of his young adulthood compensates for his lack of a real story by creating a series of fake histories of himself.

Both Annakutty and Asa, then, structure their lives around the possibility of things that have not happened. Annakutty will find her son, or at least will live on in him as her last message for him suggests. Asa will learn who he is.  Not Only The Things That Have Happened is a story about absence and memory and the telling of stories. While I describe it above as being roughly divided into two, memories don’t work that way; it leaps nimbly between times and styles and its characters’ points of view. The sheer quality of Koshy’s prose is probably the best reason to read her, and in the earlier sections in particular the book’s structure offers her a great deal of scope to play with style, as well as to weave in the cadences of colloquial Malayalam.

Koshy manages to touch upon the politics of adoption, language, exile, identity. Such a novel could easily have fallen into the trap of being dull and worthy. That is doesn’t is something of a triumph; this is a fantastic book.

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April 17, 2013

Indira Goswami, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar

Translated by Aruni Kashyap, whose first book (out this year) I am genuinely looking forward to.

I wrote about this for last weekend’s column. I’m still not sure what to make of this book, but I think I liked it.

 

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I had never heard of the Bodo heroine Thengphakhri until I came across Aruni Kashyap’s translation of Indira Goswami’s last novel, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar. Apparently I’m not alone in this—although the character is mentioned in folk tales she has largely been forgotten, even in Assam.

As a result, not much is known of this legendary figure, and Kashyap’s introduction to the book suggests that Goswami had to weave together scraps of stories from local folklore with historical research. What we do know about her is that she was a Bodo woman from the Bijni Kingdom, and probably the first female revenue collector (or tehsildar) and that she would become a freedom fighter.

The first woman tehsildar, the only woman in the area to ride a horse, stunningly beautiful and the owner of a bronze sword, all of these mark Thengphakhri out as a heroic figure, as indeed she is. But Goswami chooses not to have her novel follow the trajectory of the traditional hero’s story. The bronze sword of the title is never used here, and the book’s focus is never on Thengphakhri’s anti colonial activities (surely the most obvious plot for a story about a freedom fighting heroine).

Because The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar isn’t really a hero narrative at all, but something quieter and more introspective. Set in the late 1800s during the years in which Thengphakhri is a revenue collector for the British, Goswami’s novel depicts a society in which the British presence may be cause for unease, but individual Britishers and the East India Company still inspire loyalty, gratitude and admiration among many. If their taxes are exploitative and their increasing control over the region worrying, they also protect the region from Bhutan.

For much of this story Thengphakhri is depicted as an observer rather than an actor. Her position as an official working for the British marks her as something as an outsider within her community. She has close friendships with two British men, and is particularly affected by the death of her mentor, Hardy.

Hardy, Macklinson and the other British characters in this novel are never mere villains and it’s perfectly possible to see them as decent men making a genuine effort to do what is right. Yet the British presence in the novel is a sinister one, made doubly so by the fact that much of the time the Indian characters from whose perspective we read have swallowed the party line. It’s Macklinson who teaches Thengphakhri to be hard-hearted while collecting revenue—and Thengphakhri’s silence will implicate her later when we see a family ruined by their inability to pay the state what it claims is its due. This growing unease with the role of the British is not just played out publicly, then, as revolts and raids increase and overly-political men are ‘accidentally’ shot; it is played out privately within the heads of its characters. And we are only privy to a fraction of those thoughts.

A big part of what makes the novel interesting, then, is what it doesn’t tell us. Beyond a couple of fleeting references to a husband we know nothing about Thengphakhri’s status as a widow. We don’t see her in the moment when she finally chooses her side. And we don’t see her in what is arguably the most heroic phase of her life. As a result, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar is odd, and often abrupt. Filled with descriptions of the beauty of the local landscape it’s also surprisingly impressionistic.

Aruni Kashyap’s translation feels a little uneven. The vivid imagery of the novel comes across clearly, but the interactions between characters feel awkward and stilted, as if everyone were speaking in a language unfamiliar to them. None of this hides the fact that The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar is nuanced and consistently surprising, and I’m glad it’s finally available in English.

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April 11, 2013

James Joyce, The Cats of Copenhagen

(On the question of dogs vs cats in literature, this might be relevant)

From last weekend’s column:

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Recently Maria Popova of the website BrainPickings brought the existence of a children’s book by Sylvia Plath to the internet’s attention. The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit tells the story of a little boy called Max who comes into possession of the perfect suit. It’s always a little strange, and rather nice, to find literary figures known for their writing for adults show that they could be pretty good children’s writers as well. Like many people I was introduced to Ted Hughes not through his poetry, but his children’s books The Iron Man and (this one was a little after my time) The Iron Woman. And James Joyce wrote two children’s books- The Cat and the Devil and, published for the first time last year along with illustrations by Casey Sorrow, The Cats of Copenhagen.

Both of these books are in the form of letters sent to Joyce’s grandson Stephen—there was some controversy upon the book’s publication over whether all of Joyce’s writings or only those previously published, belonged in the public domain once the copyright had expired in 2012.

Apparently, along with The Cat and the Devil Joyce had sent Stephen a toy cat filled with sweets, a filling of which the grown-ups in Stephen’s life would probably have disapproved. The first lines of The Cats of Copenhagen are possibly an apology for his inability to send another cunningly concealed cache of candy: “Alas! I cannot send you a Copenhagen cat because there are no cats in Copenhagen”.

Joyce appears to have loved cats. There’s an episode in Ulysses in which Leopold Bloom, also clearly a cat person, feeds and speaks lovingly to his pet, who answers with an evocative “mkgnao!”, far more catlike than the more traditional “meow”. It’s fitting that he should have dedicated two books to the creatures. Children’s literature is full of faithful hounds and naughty pups. Cats (except in rare works like Anushka Ravishankar’s I Like Cats) tend to get short-changed; the only iconic figure they have is Puss-in-Boots.

If there are no cats in Copenhagen, Joyce’s book seems to suggest that the city would be vastly improved by the introduction of some. The Copenhagen invoked here is a city in thrall to its policemen, who sit at home reading and smoking in bed and drinking buttermilk (how does one apply for this job? I am very well qualified), sending out boys in red to carry out their orders. Meanwhile the citizens depend entirely on these orders, apparently lacking the ability to do such basic things as cross roads without instructions.

Casey Sorrow’s art lends another layer to this odd little account of the city. There are no cats, we’re told; but Sorrow’s illustrations are full of them. Cats crossing roads, cats on bicycles, policeman-cats lying in bed and gorging themselves. Is the author lying to his grandson? Would cats, were they introduced to the city, behave like humans? What does it mean to be a cat?

A cat, of course, being independent sort of creature, can “cross a road without any instructions from a policeman”. There’s an element of anarchy in the book’s proposed plan, which is to introduce cats to the city so that they may teach by example, render the policemen obsolete, and eat fish. Copenhagen, we’re told, has many fish.

Joyce’s insistence on the city’s abundance of fish has created, for me, a nice little linguistic mystery. “There are lots and lots of fish/ and bicycles but/ there are no cats,” he says. For most people the bringing together of fish and bicycles will recall a famous feminist statement. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” was popularised by Gloria Steinem, but she credits it to the Australian writer Irina Dunn, in 1970. Long after Joyce, then; The Cats of Copenhagen was written in 1936. But Dunn in turn credits the fish-and-bicycle wording to an unnamed philosophical work; perhaps Joyce read the same book? Or the whole thing is a complete coincidence.

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April 10, 2013

Bet Me, choice and body horror

About halfway through Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me, the protagonists have decided that they want to stay away from one another. Neither of them particularly wants a relationship with the other person (though they are attracted to one another), and (naturally) a series of increasingly unsubtle signs that they are destined for one another makes them uncomfortable.

Bet Me was recommended to me as a funny, fat-positive romance novel. It’s certainly the first, and to some extent the second–though I take issue with some aspects of it. It’s also a book that bases its plot on a well-worn trope of the genre, only to completely to undo it. Because the bet plot is a staple one. Our hero (or in at least one book I’ve read, our heroine) bets he can seduce our heroine (or our hero, presumably), but finds himself falling in love with her; heroine finds out about the bet at the worst possible time and will not believe he really cares for her; true love prevails and our hero is forgiven because men will be men or something. In Crusie’s book this is all a misunderstanding– it’s Min’s evil ex-boyfriend who tries to make the bet with Cal, and though Cal doesn’t accept it, Min, overhearing, thinks he has (we’re not told if she is a romance reader).

But as these characters struggle to deal with their increasing tolerance for one another,it seems fate has other things planned for them. A childhood treasure lost by Min turns up again after she has joked about loving Cal forever if he’ll get it back for her. Attempts by both parties to avoid one another result in their sitting next to one another in a movie theatre. As Min’s friend Bonnie complains, “True love is beating you over the head to get your attention”.

A lot of the romance I’ve read (and I can’t claim to be an expert) is in dialogue with the idea of love as irresistable, overpowering force that overrides the free will of its protagonists and gives them no choice but to be together. Characters seen as resisting this (because who wants to lose the ability to choose?) have to learn to trust in whatever higher power is in this case seen as being in charge of things – destiny becomes an external, supernatural force that a) cannot be countermanded b) knows what’s best for us all anyway.The supernatural force that, at multiple points in the book, is literally yelling “THIS ONE” in Min’s or Cal’s ears. If Bet Me bases its plot on the undoing of one of the genre’s tropes, it also literalises one of its most enduring metaphors.

And so I don’t think the violence of Bonnie’s “beating you over the head” metaphor is accidental, particularly when it turns out to be less metaphorical and more violent than you’d expect.

 

“She said yes,” Cal said, reaching for his toast. “However, I cannot bring her because I will not be seeing her ever aga—” His fingers brushed the metal top of the toaster and he burned himself and dropped the phone. “Damn it,” he said and put his scorched fingertips in his mouth.

“Calvin?” his mother said from the phone.

He picked up the receiver. “I burned myself on the toaster. Sorry.” Cal turned on the cold water and stuck his fingers underneath the stream. “Anyway, I will not be seeing Minerva Dobbs again.” He stepped away from the sink onto something hard and his foot slipped out from under him and smacked into the cabinets. “Ouch.”

“Calvin?” his mother said.

“I stepped on a knife.” Cal bent to pick up the peanut butter knife and smacked his head into the counter. “Hell.”

 

Cal and Min will [spoiler alert! except not really] get together, of course, and the book suggests they will be very happy. But you have to wonder to what lengths destiny would have gone had they not succumbed exhausted to its machinations. From the middle of the book onwards Cal and Min are hostages, not protagonists, of the romance plot–a supernatural entity that they cannot see or control is forcing them together and inflicting physical violence upon them when they do not immediately go along with it. Imagine destiny as a child playing with dolls, smashing their faces together and making kissing noises. Now imagine those dolls are sentient.

 

April 9, 2013

Amruta Patil, Adi Parva

My review of the first volume of Amruta Patil’s version of the Mahabharata was published in this weekend’s Sunday Guardian. Here it is, with more pictures–though said pictures were taken with my awful cellphone camera, since I was too lazy to make the trip downstairs to the scanner.

 

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“We are an unbroken lineage of storytellers nested within storytellers. When I open my mouth you can hear the echo of storytellers past.”

Copyright law is entirely unequipped to handle an epic storytelling tradition. Harper Collins’ sumptuous edition of Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva wisely proclaims itself to be “via” rather than “by” Patil, but the copyright page has all the usual wording asserting the writer and artist’s “moral right to be identified as the author of this work”. It’s fitting in a way that this conflict between a single author/single version of the story and the vastness of the whole should play out in this book’s paratexts, when the question of what aspects of the Mahabharata are told, and how they are interpreted, is such a major part of Patil’s book.

Because the sheer scale of the Mahabharata is something of which Adi Parva is constantly aware. To get to the beginning of this story, Patil has to begin with the origins of the universe. At one moment the whole is played out with the whole of the cosmos as its canvas, at the next, at a microscopic, cellular level. In a stunning spread the conflict between the cosmic dog Sarama and king Janmajeya is depicted with its main characters portrayed as constellations. But we also hear of rishis whose role is to “intervene with the necessary genetic data” (read: sire important children), and the universal conflict between good and evil is illustrated through the positive and negative charges in an atom. Ganga likens the story to the Indrajaal, the net of rubies that extends infinitely in all dimensions, and each of whose gems reflects all of the others.

Ganga is the sutradhaar for this part of the story,though we are informed that Ashwattama will be telling the next part. Emerging in the dusk in a small town square near the place where Janmajeya is holding his snake sacrifice, Ganga’s story has attracted a small crowd of listeners. But this is no spellbound audience, staring with eyes open and mouths shut. Her listeners have their own opinions – on her appearance or the propriety of a woman wandering about alone at this time of the day, but more importantly, on the story itself. “Is there a curse coming up? I sense a curse coming up”, complains one woman. The abundance of blessings and curses are “to distract from a plot full of holes”, complains one moustachioed gentleman, adding “I write plays for a living” to give his remarks more weight. (“How can anyone make a living writing plays?” asks an old man, with some justification.) Audience members complain that the asuras get given a raw deal in some situations, that women aren’t given their due in retellings. They also bring the story back down to earth when they request, for example, that more stories about dogs be included.

Patil has claimed elsewhere that she had to learn to paint for this book. Adi Parva is gorgeous, shifting constantly from watercolour to charcoal to pencil to collage with a range of styles on display. There’s a knowing use of familiar iconography as well. A page depicting the serpents about to be victims of Janmajeya’s sacrifice has them against a whimsical board game background of ladders. An apsara rising from the water to disturb the peace of yet another meditating rishi (as the text notes, this is something of a recurring motif in the epic) is a clear reference to Botticelli’s Venus. Blue gods and grey-brown asuras are a part of a visual tradition perhaps best known to modern readers in the form of Amar Chitra Katha. Though there’s very little sense, at least so far (Patil has indicated that there will be at least one more volume) that this iconography is being interrogated.

Then too, as much as the structure of Patil’s rendition seems to leave space for a multiplicity of interpretations, there can be only one sutradhaar. Her Ganga often shuts down avenues of debate, apoliticising the story to some extent and dismissing an audience member’s attempts to do the opposite as “partisan politics. Which is all very well, and one might argue that the last few years have seen a number of retellings of myth that examine these areas of the epics. But to bring them up and refuse to address them does this book no favours.

“In any case, you are not held captive by old narratives. Tales must be tilled like the land so they keep breathing. The only thing you owe allegiance to is the essence.”

There’s much to be said here about which versions of a tale are retold and disseminated, and how “write your own” is sometimes too glib a response. But Patil’s faith in the myth shines through; if any story can stand up to infinite retellings, it is this one.

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April 3, 2013

Andrey Kurkov, Death and the Penguin

I discovered after I’d written this that Kurkov was in India recently. I suppose that makes this topical.

There’s so much more to say about Death and the Penguin. People who know more about it than me could probably say a lot about the novel’s depiction of post-Soviet Ukraine (or people who know less about it but also have less of an aversion to the pontificating of ignorant foreigners).

I also found that the flat acceptingness of its characters’ reactions to the things that go on around them had one unexpected result–that I found myself reading it as a queer novel when this same attitude was extended to the relationships between its men. You have Misha non-penguin who has met Viktor only a couple of times arranging the death of a man only because Viktor’s quite proud of the piece he wrote on him. Sergey, who takes Viktor and his newfound charge into his home to celebrate an intimate Christmas, sitting together watching Sonya and Misha playing on the ice.

From this weekend’s column:

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When Elizabeth Taylor died a couple of years ago, it was revealed that the principal writer of the New York Times obituary for the actress had in fact predeceased her by quite a few years. This was the first time, I suspect, that many readers had come across the practice of publications keeping obituaries of important people ready, and updating them occasionally.

When Viktor, a failed writer in Kiev, gets a job writing these premature obituaries for a newspaper, things seem to be going very well for him. He may not have the immediate satisfaction of seeing his work in print (his subjects remain stubbornly healthy at first) but he has a steady job and is making extra money from freelance work. He also meets and befriends a militiaman named Sergey and forms a bond with the daughter of one of his clients. Until this point Viktor’s only companion has been a rather unusual pet.

Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin begins with a joke. A military man sees a subordinate standing with a penguin and orders him to take it to the zoo. Later, seeing the same man with the same penguin, he asks why his orders were not obeyed. But he did take the penguin to the zoo, says the subordinate, and to the circus, and now the pair are on their way to the cinema.

Within the novel, the presence of a king penguin within Viktor’s household is given a plausible, if not particularly likely, explanation. Apparently the Kiev zoo can no longer afford to keep all its animals and has distributed them among citizens who are willing to take them. Hence Misha, who spends a great deal of time staring at himself in the mirror, and enjoys cold baths (he comes “plip-plopping” at the sound of running water) and fish.

Yet soon the subjects of Viktor’s columns begin to die in mysterious circumstances; one of them “fell from a sixth-floor window – was cleaning it for some reason, apparently, though it wasn’t his. And at night”.  A man who has occasionally given him work disappears, leaving Viktor in charge of his daughter, Sonya. Various threatening figures seem to be taking an interest in Viktor and he and Sonya are forced to go into hiding. And who is the mysterious plump young man who seems to be collecting information about him?

On the surface Death and the Penguin could easily be a crime thriller. But Kurkov is less interested in the events of the plot (who is killing these people? why? how are the breaking into Viktor’s home and leaving him money?) than he is in Viktor himself, an ordinary man caught in increasingly absurd circumstances. George Bird’s translation captures much of the book’s willingness to play with the genre. On the first page itself we get the dramatic “a shot rang out”, but the book will never tell us why or who fired it; instead Viktor writes a story about it and it is forgotten.

In addition there’s a curious flatness to these characters’ reactions to the strange and alarming things that are happening to them. Informed that his new friend is on the run from assassins, Sergey shrugs and invites Viktor to spend the holidays with him. Sonya hardly seems to notice her father’s disappearance. The only person who seems to react to his circumstances as you might expect is Misha the penguin who, apparently, has been diagnosed with depression, has heart trouble caused by being too long in the wrong climate, and is clearly lonely for the company of other penguins.

It’s the presence of Misha, usually to be found staring mournfully at Viktor, that gives Death and the Penguin more emotional power than one might at first credit it with. This is an accomplished, bleakly funny story of a man in an increasingly absurd world, but with a heartbroken penguin at its centre it is also something more.

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(Image stolen shamelessly from here.)

April 1, 2013

March Reading

I’m on the jury for this year’s SFF translation awards, so some of my non-column reading time has been taken up by the things I’m  reading for that. Which means (since I’ll not be talking about the books I’m reading for the award publicly) that my monthly reading lists are probably going to look a bit shorter for a while.

Leaving out the books for the award, it seems I read one book by a man this month. My twitter followers will be heartened by this clear evidence of #misandry.

 

Ankaret Wells, Firebrand: I’d been hearing good things about Wells’ books for a while, and then this one showed up on the Tiptree list. I really enjoyed it, and wrote more about it here.

Samhita Arni, The Missing Queen: Arni is now a friend, which means I’m not going to review her books anymore. But I enjoyed this, a noir-ish thriller in which a naive young journalist goes off in search of The Truth in a city where this is all rather inconvenient.

Noel Streatfeild, The Painted Garden: A reread for the column, which is here.

Tamora Pierce, Trickster’s Choice/ Trickster’s Queen: A friend asked why I found these books so awful (I like a lot of Pierce’s other books) and I didn’t have a strong recollection of them beyond “white girl fixes colonialism”, so I decided to do a reread. At some point I should write about them; for now, yep. They’re awful, un-nuanced, racist, and rereading them was very unpleasant.

Amruta Patil, Adi Parva: I should have a review of this out soon, and will link to it when I do. It’s not perfect, but it is very beautiful.

Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Reviewed in the column, here.

Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki, Tina’s Mouth: This was also reviewed for the left of cool column, here.

Andrey Kurkov, Death and the Penguin: I wrote a column, and will post it on the blog in a few days. I loved this.

Elsie J. Oxenham, Finding Her Family: I’ve written in the past about Enid Blyton’s suddenly-terrible parents and guardian figures; I think with Finding Her Family Oxenham may have outdone her. This book is about a girl who discovers in her teens that the person she thought was her mother was actually her aunt; her mother died when she was a baby, her aunt didn’t have a child but wanted one, and “naturally” her father couldn’t take care of such a small child. The aunt is dead, the uncle (who has never seemed to love her that much) wants to go abroad for a job and hits on the clever idea of sending her back to her biological family. Which consists of her two older siblings (both too young to remember her existence), her father (who is abroad and uncontactable) and his second wife and their children.

Things are going well-Hazel and her “new” sister Audrey are close friends and Hazel also becomes close to Audrey’s best friend Brenda. Hazel looks nothing like the rest of her family-she resembles Brenda’s mother. Who died, when Brenda was very young, along with her baby. In the same house as Audrey and Hazel’s mother died, and around the same time. What a coincidence!

Obviously, it turns out that the babies were switched- there was no hope that Brenda’s mother would survive, and Audrey’s father thought that his wife might have a chance of living if she thought her own child was alive. Fair enough, I suppose, but what I’m more interested in is how the father who has been reliably loving and honourable (at least as far as his daughter is concerned) up to this point is suddenly revealed to be a coward who transfers the whole family (barring Hazel, obviously) to another continent rather than face up to what he has done. Once again adults in children’s literature world are proven to be horrible people.