December 15, 2014

Manuela Draeger (trans. Brian Evenson), In the Time of the Blue Ball

What a glorious thing this book is.

(From last weekend’s column):

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Are the three Manuela Draeger stories in In The Time of the Blue Ball: Three Post-Exotic Tales, set before or after the end of the world? It’s hard to tell. Meteors rain down upon the earth; the police have disappeared; fire hasn’t quite been invented (though everyone knows what it is) but electricity and marshmallows have.

Approaching In the Time of the Blue Ball in translation (the translator is fantasist Brian DraegerEvenson) means that those of us who do not read French come to it without much context—the publisher’s note that provides some of this context is placed at the end of the book. So it’s only after the un-spoiled reader has read to the end that she learns that these are three of the (so far) ten Bobby Potemkine stories, that in France they are published in separate volumes for adolescent readers. She also learns that Draeger, as the book wonderfully puts it, “belongs to a community of imaginary authors”. She’s a pseudonym for Antoine Volodine, who is himself a pseudonym (or a Pessoa-style heteronym) for an unknown writer.

I was not an entirely unspoiled reader, but there’s something very appealing about taking these stories on their own terms.

Bobby Potemkine is this world’s version of a private detective. In the title story he and his dog Djinn investigate the disappearance of Lili Soutchane, the woman who invented fire. They do this with the help of the battes, insolent flying creatures (on one of whom, Lili Niagra, Bobby Potemkine has a crush), and an orchestra of flies.

There’s an emptiness about the world; a sense that it has been lived-in but then abandoned. Everyone is cold. Factories have been shut down and towns and houses appear un-occupied. The railway station has been destroyed by a meteorite and lies in ruins, still smoking. Children have become increasingly rare. Bobby Potemkine’s world has a past, but it’s impossible to imagine what that past might be.

And yet there is newness everywhere that speaks of beginnings, not endings. In “North of the Wolverines” Bobby Potemkine and his companions must rescue Auguste Diodon, one noodle among many on every plate, indistinguishable from them except for the fact that he has a name and that there’s something not quite right about eating something with a name (though “it can happen to anyone to be eaten by someone or to eat someone. It’s strange, but that’s how it is.”) In “Our Baby Pelicans” (translated by Brian and Valerie Evenson) baby pelicans appear across the city but display no sign of life. Not that our characters think of them as dead; Bobby Potemkine carries his around, strapped to his chest, and speaks to it reassuringly—to no response. It turns out the baby pelicans are merely waiting for their mothers to be invented and thus come into being—which they do when Soraya Gong, a creature who from Draeger’s description I imagine as a gigantic mass of foam, transforms into a mother pelican. Noodles and foam may come to life, living creatures may turn into other things (Lili Soutchane turns into a batte); nothing is fixed in this world and everything has potential.

Volodine/Draeger’s larger project is something he (?) describes as the post-exotic, a concept he’s written on at length in various venues, most of which remain un-translated. But it is a literature of estrangement, one in which things have gone badly wrong, one which treats French as if it too were a foreign language. All of that is visible in these three stories, but so are other things—like kindness, and hope and possibility. A friend compared them to Jansson’s Moomin books, with their small, kind stories against a vast bleak backdrop (“Everything’s happy, yet you feel like everything is destroyed.”) Yet the comparison that sits most comfortably in my head is with Kipling’s Just-So Stories, for their sense of being told, and of being of a time when the world is being set into shape. Volodine again describes the post-exotic as “a literature of elsewhere, from elsewhere, headed elsewhere,” and in In The Time of the Blue Ball I think we may have the Just-So Stories of another world.

 

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December 8, 2014

Douglas Gresham and Pauline Baynes, The Official Narnia Cookbook

Still in the middle of the Narnia section of my thesis, and trying to convince myself that reading things like this counts as work.

It doesn’t.

From a column a couple of weeks ago.

 

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The literary cookbook feels like it ought to be a recent phenomenon, another example of a marketing tie-in. But literary cookbooks have been around for a while—I’ve read, for example, a copy of the Chalet School Cookbook (first published in 1953) in which the characters of that series attempt to create a recipe book for a friend who is about to be married. Not all of the recipes that emerge look particularly tempting; though the book’s take on Chinese food might provide for interesting historical perspective.

Of the hundreds of literary cookbooks that now exist, many have only a tenuous connection with the literary works that inspired them. It’s possible to hunt down foodstuffs eaten in the novels of Jane Austen or the plays of Shakespeare, of course, but arguable whether food is really central to the ways in which we feel about those works.

But then there are the books where food is really a part of the experience. For fans, a big part of the pleasure of reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (or watching Game of Thrones, the TV series based on the books) is in the world these stories exist in—one in which food plays a significant part, and it’s no surprise that a blog, then a book, based on the food mentioned in the series should have become a major success.

And then there’s children’s literature, in which food is everything. Like every postcolonial, English-reading child I grew up reading foods that seemed to come from an alien world—as removed from us by time as by space. It’s a cliché that Indian children grow up not knowing what kippers are and are disappointed by scones when we finally encounter them—what’s more interesting is that the picnics, and not the plots are what we remember the most.

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books are not only filled with descriptions of fantastical meals, but assign food (like everything else, to be fair) great moral import. In the first book within the series’ internal chronology, the not-eating of an apple (Lewis is not subtle in his religious references) is an important plot point. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund Pevensie gorges himself on tainted Turkish Delight from the evil White Witch and is so unable to appreciate the wholesome fried fish and boiled potatoes offered to him by the good beavers shortly afterwards.

In The Official Narnia Cookbook Douglas Gresham claims that Turkish Delight is (un-ensorcelled) also a common Narnian treat. I rather suspect this is not the case; to me it seems clear that the exotic Eastern-ness of it forms part of the contrast with Mrs Beaver’s properly English marmalade roll. This is part of the usefulness of Narnia, and of so many other fantasies; that it can be familiar and strange, self and Other, as required. Even the mud in Narnia is desirable; in a scene in Prince Caspian we see dryads eating different sorts of loam and Lewis makes it somehow appealing.

This might not be the case with the Official Narnia Cookbook, however. Recipes for sherbet and Turkish Delight sit here next to others for sausage rolls and porridge, and those in turn are next to boiled potatoes and scrambled eggs. Distance flattens out difference; Gresham’s book is clearly pitched at American children who are young enough that cooking itself is new, so that things like boiling potatoes might need instructions. And the British food of 1950s children’s fiction is as far removed from them as lobster patties and sherbet might have been to Lewis’ original audience.

It’s this that makes the whole thing rather unappealing to an adult. There’s so much to do with food in the Narnia books—and a lot of it relies on a reader with some level of knowledge. In assuming a reader who knows very little (and perhaps those behind the book are right, though it’s hard to see why such a reader would want such a cookbook) the Official Narnia Cookbook leaves itself little to do but give us recipes for egg and cheese sandwiches.

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December 5, 2014

November Reading

Mostly for work, as is probably obvious.

 

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway: A reread for work, and another of those books that I have a very intense memory of reading when I was younger (I loved it then, I love it now), so that a reread now makes it very clear how differently (how much better) I read now. Perhaps it is also time to revisit To The Lighthouse.

Ghalib Islam, Fire in the Unnameable Country: Years ago my best friend spent ages trying to read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and failing because she was enjoying the first few pages so much that she couldn’t move on from them. I felt a bit like that about Ghalib Islam’s book. It took me months to read, a bit at a time, but I loved it. It’s also the subject of December’s Strange Horizons book club, so more detailed thoughts will be available there in a few weeks.

William Mayne, A Grass Rope: With a group of people who research children’s lit I’ve been reading through the former recipients of the Carnegie medal, one book per decade. I insisted on A Grass Rope because I love it and have complex feelings about it; most people did not feel about it as I did. They were wrong, obviously.

Mhairi McFarlane, It’s Not Me, It’s You: I enjoyed McFarlane’s first two books so got this pretty much the moment it came out. It’s a romance, and it’s partly set in Newcastle, and there’s a comic-within-the-story, so it really ought to be all the things that I like. Except that I found the scene-setting of the Newcastle bits awkward (yes, tell me again about how you had dinner at Rasa and exactly what you ordered) and the comic stuff didn’t feel like it added much, and a dog died. Still, it managed to be nuanced and realistic about break-ups, and often funny, and involved a heist sequence and so made for a good afternoon.

Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners: For work, and often gorgeous.

Douglas Gresham and Pauline Baynes, The Official Narnia Cookbook: I did a column on this and should probably put it here soon.

Lucy Boston, A Stranger at Green Knowe: For the abovementioned Carnegie reading project. I love The Children of Green Knowe, as readers of this blog are probably aware. I loved large parts of this as well–despite the sometimes clumsy depiction of the main character, an orphaned refugee from China. There’s a surprising amount Boston gets right in simply giving us the quiet, believable perspective of a non-white character (even if she imposes a name upon him that is clearly not his own), but perhaps the best way to talk about how awful it is to be a refugee is not to compare that situation to a gorilla in a really awful zoo. It is still less bad at writing about non-white characters than The Child’s Elephant, so well done the 1960s..

Manuela Draeger (trans. Brian Evenson), In the Time of the Blue Ball: Glorious. I wrote a column about this which will also be on the blog soon.

Eloisa James, Desperate Duchesses, An Affair Before Christmas, Duchess By Night, When the Duke Returns, This Duchess of Mine, A Duke of Her Own: During the Courtney Milan accidental book club, the book’s lack of  sexy chess (chess is central to The Duchess War) was raised, and Tansy Rayner Roberts recommended this series as one that contained such a thing. In the event I found the sexy chess itself a bit disappointing (they abandon it for actual sex; anyone could do that, I wanted to know who won the game) but the series itself was enjoyable. I normally like Eloisa James, I’m not sure why I hadn’t read these before.

Romilly and Katherine John, Death By Request: Also the subject of a column, which will be up here soon. I picked this up at Barter Books because it was part of the Hogarth crime series that has in the past contained things I like. I was surprised by it, and that is a good thing.

 

November 26, 2014

Susan Scarlett, Pirouette

Everything relates to my thesis right now, even when Noel Streatfeild is writing ballet stories.

From a recent column.

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 Until quite near the end the most (or possibly only) surprising thing about Susan Scarlett’s Pirouette is that its author is really Noel Streatfeild. The author, who is best known for the children’s classic Ballet Shoes, though her brilliant The Painted Garden has featured in this column before, also wrote fiction for adults – including twelve romances under this pen name.

Ballet Shoes is the story of the Fossil sisters, Posy, Pauline and Petrova. Posy is a naturally talented dancer who is given private lessons by the kindly Madame Fidolia, negotiates poverty, learns not to be insufferable to her sisters, and grows up to bepirouette a successful ballet dancer. Pirouette is very different. It is the story of Judith Nell, a talented young ballet dancer acting out her mother’s thwarted ambitions for her without really thinking about it much (Judith’s lack of thought or personality is as valuable to her employer Madame Tania as her dancing skills), when she meets, and is proposed to by, a friend’s brother and has to choose between marriage and a career. Unsurprisingly, she chooses marriage. Streatfeild is brilliant at character in her children’s books as well as her adult ones, but Judith doesn’t give her much scope. For plot purposes she’s something of a cipher, and that fact makes her romance uninteresting—and makes Paul Conquest’s love for her a bit foolish (what is there to fall in love with?) as well.

Far more interesting is Judith’s mother, flawed and infuriating in the manner of one of the less pleasant L. M. Montgomery characters, and contrasted with her kindly husband in familiar Mr and Mrs Bennet style. Mrs Nell’s neglect of her Judith’s younger brother in favour of her daughter (Mr Nell’s neglect is less of an issue) leads young Tim Nell to act out, lie, and eventually steal. And this is where things possibly get interesting—friends of the family advise the Nells to send him abroad.

“The right place for a boy to make a new start is the Commonwealth; more room for a boy who’s kicked over the traces a bit at home.” This in itself is not unfamiliar—Victorian literature often suggests that the whole of the British empire exists as a sort of reformatory school for British children, there solely to provide an occasion for said children to develop their characters. Adventure novels have their protagonists develop heroism through traversing unchartered terrain; more domestic novels send off the unsatisfactory younger son or the school bully to the colonies to sort them out (the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser do wonderful things with this trope). And that’s not even touching on the real history of penal transportation. What’s interesting to me is that the Nells do not choose to avail of this opportunity. “No, I think the Commonwealth deserves nothing but the best and I’m sorry to say the best is not my Tim, not as he is now.”

Pirouette was published in 1948, well into a number of freedom movements across the empire and after the independence of India. But this idea that Britain owes the Commonwealth a duty of care, rather than the latter existing for the convenience of the former, interests me. It’s far from being an ideal political stance—the comic image it creates is of Britain as nurturing patriarch to a loving global family—but I’m curious as to when and by what degrees this attitude crept into the mainstream. I’ve been reading Nick Harkaway’s 2014 novel Tigerman recently, and that too is struggling with the question (in a very self-aware, 2014 kind of way) of the question of Britain’s relationship with what was once its empire.

In the event, the Nell and Conquest families each send their two eldest children to Rhodesia on the promise that an uncle in that country will find jobs for them. It remains to be seen whether these young people are examples of “the best” that Mr Nell thinks the Commonwealth deserves.

 

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November 17, 2014

Meena Kandasamy, The Gypsy Goddess

(I was a bit nervous about the title of Kandasamy’s new book. “Gypsy” is a term with a huge and uncomfortable history, and I’m sometimes surprised by how many people who are otherwise careful about language will still throw this one around casually. I don’t think Kandasamy is using it casually, though; as I understand it within the book it’s a reference to the Narikuravar.)

I’ve only read scraps of Kandasamy’s poetry before; in the later stages of this book there’s a control over the prose that feels like it comes from poetry but that I haven’t seen before in the little of her work that I’ve read.

A version of this piece was in last week’s Hindustan Times.

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There’s so much about narrative, about the process of turning lives and events into story, that we take for granted. It’s easy to forget that books and narrative formats mold stories into particular shapes, that the truth, to whatever extent such a thing exists, is only available to us mediated through those shapes.

Yet this is a useful thing to remember, perhaps particularly so when we’re writing about real people and happenings. Meena Kandasamy’s The Gypsy Goddess is a novel about the (real) events of the Kilvenmani Massacre of 1968, but it’s also a novel about the process of narrating those events. The book is divided into four segments and in the first two, “Background” and “Breeding Ground” the author treats us to a range of ways of telling a tale. We are never allowed to forget that this is a story that is being told to us; Kandasamy (assuming the narrator and the author to be the same, as dangerous as that may be) will stop, restart, reflect on her narrative choices as she is making them, address her readers directly to inform them that they will not be getting what they expect. Occasionally she will parody the style of the propaganda from one side or the other of the conflict between the landlords and the exploited labourers. The Gypsy Goddess exists in a world of readers who watch viral internet videos (“Is there a single story? No. Of course, I’ve consulted Chimamanda on this too.”), who read widely, who have seen the impossibility of telling stories paraded before them in the past, and who know that it is not a new idea, and Kandasamy acknowledges this as well.

“How does this work of art seek to declare itself? It plagiarizes the most scathing criticism, it prides itself on its ability to disappoint. Why bother about the pain of accomplishing something and arriving somewhere, when failure has been made a flashy trophy in its own right?”

It’s a criticism that the book accepts as valid even if, by pre-empting it, it puts the reviewer in something of a double bind. This sort of self-referential, self-critical writing can become a closed circuit, too focused on its own mechanics to say anything about the world outside it. Which is fine, in some cases, but Kandasamy has chosen for her subject a story that does, for sound political and moral reasons, need to be told more often; and a story that deserves not to be crowded out of the book (and subsequently out of reviews like this one) by the literary pyrotechnics of the author. It’s in this unresolvable clash of writerly ideals, the reporter’s duty to bear witness versus the 21st century novelist’s need to re-examine the act of telling, that The Gypsy Goddess situates itself. Failure is inevitable.

Kandasamy does eventually come to the narrative that we (by this time, somewhat guiltily) crave; in the latter half of the book she tells it effectively and well. “Battleground” and “Burial Ground” form a powerful account of events, with lyrical writing saved from becoming treacly by being undercut with anger. And—this is where the earlier sections pay off—having dwelt so much on structure earlier, we are rarely in danger of losing the critical distance that the author has demanded of us.

A project like this one is never going to work; that is part of the point. Every criticism that the book has already made of itself is valid, and I’d add to that the complaint that a book that sets out failure as a goal renders itself invulnerable to any pointing out of flaws. But there’s something compelling about a political story (and that a story of a massacre) that refuses to sweep the reader up in its narrative. The Gypsy Goddess sets out to do the impossible and (naturally) does not succeed, but it’s the sort of ethical, ambitious failure that we need more of.

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November 14, 2014

Jenny Boully, Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them and J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy

Though it’s not really that much about Boully’s book, since I can only speak of it slantwise. Always useful to be reminded of how big and lonely and yearny a book Peter and Wendy is, though.

From a recent column.

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There’s a play, first performed over a century ago in 1904, and a book, first published in 1911, that is about two children and the inevitability and horror and okayness of growing up. The book is named after both of the children, but it (and the play as well) is really about the girl. It begins with the revelation that a two year old girl cannot stay two forever, and it ends with her, an adult, no longer “gay and innocent and heartless” and aching a little for it. The girl is the plot. But everyone forgets her.

I feel a great deal of anger on behalf of Wendy Darling. Possibly more than is merited by the side-lining of a fictional character.

Because of course J.M. Barrie’s most famous work was originally published as Peter and Wendy. And then it was Peter Pan and Wendy, and so over the course of a few title changes Wendy was eventually as cast out of the title as she is from Neverland.

Of course this is all about sex, and not just in the sense that everything ultimately is. Peter and Wendy (I will stubbornly continue to give it that title) emerges from a nineteenth century in which the image of the child is fetishized, in which childhood and desire and death are all tied up in one another in complex (and to this twenty-first century reader often disturbing) ways. The book may begin when Wendy is two years old, but the main action of the plot can only occur when she is on the cusp of adulthood, playing at “mother” in the knowledge that that is a fate that will be hers, about to be banished (and the book always makes it a banishment) from the nursery to a bedroom of her own. Peter is one of Wendy’s pretend children, but also her pretend partner. Peter is surrounded by girl-women who want him to be something other than “a devoted son”; Wendy, Tiger Lily, Tinkerbell, even the mermaids. Everyone desires Peter in his unchanging, unsatisfying youth—even Captain Hook spends an unreasonably long time looking at his sleeping form. Everyone desires Peter and it’s easy to see why he, rather than Wendy, is the iconic figure (Wendy does at least give her name to the “Wendy Hoboully-merely-cover-largeuse”). And yet. That long line of generations of women, growing up and passing through Peter Pan’s life as a line of indistinguishable “mothers” before passing the mantle on to daughters of their own. It’s a compelling image, and an upsetting one. I can’t help but think that the heart of the book is Wendy.

Which is only one of the reasons that Jenny Boully’s Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them is as stunning as it is. Taking its title from the moment of the pirates’ first appearance in Peter and Wendy, Boully’s short book picks up, plays with and refracts everything in the original that is unsettling and intense, all its sex and death and yearning—and of course Wendy is at the heart of it. It’s hard to know what to call this; a monologue or a critical essay or a prose poem or a remix (quotes from Barrie’s novel make up a sizeable part of the text). It’s a joy to read aloud, but we’re never allowed to simply sink into the flood of words—in part because the doubled/split format doesn’t permit this. There are two parallel and intertwined texts here; Boully divides her pages horizontally as if the lower text functioned as a footnote, but sometimes the footnotes overwhelm the “main” text. You’re forced as a reader to read the two simultaneously, holding both in your head at once.

The result of this is a connection with the original work that is multifaceted and intuitive and very hard to write about. It’s a reminder of the ways in which complex texts work, of the sheer volume of meaning contained in a work, that these meanings can be contradictory or unrelated and still sit together in our heads. It’s the adaptation Wendy Darling deserved.

 

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November 2, 2014

October Reading

October 2014 really could have been better. But it did involve some quite good books, which are the only thing in its favour.

 

Rick Riordan, The Blood of Olympus: At this point I have trouble keeping the plots of these books straight in my head, but they are generally enjoyable and satisfying and nice in ways that not enough things are.

Susan Scarlett, Pirouette: I have a couple of thoughts on this, probably best left for a future column. It is not among the better Streatfeild/Scarlett books I’ve read.

Courtney Milan, The Duchess War: A friend and I exchanged a couple of casual text messages about Courtney Milan and the next thing I knew I was involved in a large twitter book club reading (in my case and that of some others rereading) the first book in this series. I stand by my belief that Milan has grown into a better writer as the series has progressed; but I’m willing to test this by reading all the books again, obviously.

Meena Kandasamy, The Gypsy Goddess: Review to come.

Monica Byrne, The Girl in the Road: For various reasons that don’t belong in a reading round-up I’m hesitant to write much about this book. But I am genuinely impressed by it, I’d love to see more of Byrne, and I’ll be disappointed if this doesn’t show up on the Clarke shortlist next year.

Deirdre Sullivan, Improper Order: Sequel to Prim Improper, which I wrote briefly about a couple of months ago, and which made me very happy. This series is managing to be very funny and sweet and also to deal with bereavement in ways that give it its full due; it’s a difficult balancing act and yet it is clearly working.

Garth Nix, Clariel: I’m not sure Clariel is good; from a genre perspective it’s fascinating. I have about half a review’s worth of scribbled notes that should probably be turned into something more substantial.

Angela Thirkell, Pomfret Towers: The last book by Thirkell that I read was charming but made me uncomfortable on many levels–and not in good ways. This is far more to my taste; Thirkell’s still ruthless with her characters’ flaws, but the book as a whole is far kinder, far less snobbish, and less obsessed with people’s antecedents (High Rising’s treatment of its Jewish and Irish characters was a huge part of my discomfort with it) than the earlier one. Plus the shy, awkward main character is the sort-of heroine and doesn’t end up with the handsome heir to the title.

Kuzhali Manickavel, Things We Found During the Autopsy: I’d read many of these before in the various venues in which they appeared, but a new collection is a lovesome thing. Manickavel is still weird, and still funny, but it’s the overwhelming sense of anger transmuted into bitter laughter that has made them so powerful to me this time.

Jenny Boully, Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Coming Towards Them: A short piece on this soon, which I’ll be expanding from the column. I’ve been wanting to read this for three years now, and it is gorgeous.

Patricia McKillip, Ombria in Shadow: Read in order to follow the discussion at the Strange Horizons book club. I’ve loved the few things by McKillip I’ve read in the past and I loved this. More thoughts at that link, and for those who’d like to follow future book discussions, next month’s book is Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman.

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre: A reread, for work-related reasons. I don’t think I’d read it properly since my first year at university, ten years ago, and it was fascinating to see how much I’d changed as a reader in that time. Still great.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Also a reread, also for work. I don’t think I’m ever really going to be a fan.

 

 

October 27, 2014

Nitasha Kaul, Residue

A short review, because it was originally meant to be for a newspaper. I haven’t been able to resist the urge to add more quotes to this version. Friends who happened to be around me (in person or over the internet) while I was reading the book will recognise some of them.

 

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Leon Ali is a Kashmiri Muslim with a British passport, named after Trotsky, searching for the revolutionary father who went missing in Berlin in the 1980s. Keya Raina is an academic from a family of Kashmiri Pundits, who is caught up in Leon’s search for his father. Nitasha Kaul’s Residue moves between England, Germany and India in the months after 9/11 and centres itself on the mystery of Mir Ali’s disappearance.

It’s hard to say much that is new about the experience of being brown-skinned in the post-9/11 Western world, or about being Muslim in India post-December 1992, or even about the displacement that so many with ties to Kashmir feel; or how these issues tie in with larger questions of home and belonging and memory. Kaul’s choice to focus her novel around a central puzzle is a wise one as it imposes a particular narrative structure upon what might otherwise have been a set of not-very-original musings on identity. The manuscript was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009, and it’s narratively ambitious, with its switches from first to third person and between past and present, an extended section in which Leon becomes Nobody and travels across Berlin on public transport (with maps included).

But Residue is badly let down by its prose. Far too often Kaul mistakes detail for insight; insignificant actions are described step-by-step, as when we’re told that Keya “connecting her laptop to a wireless network […] checks her university email”. We’re shown academic meetings where people say things like “Moreover, she had verified extenuating circumstances on one exam at least”. Weirdly enough, the text occasionally mocks Keya for speaking in just this way, so that it would be possible to read it as self-aware, if only we were not subjected to this sort of thing throughout the novel. Brand names, book titles, film directors all show up frequently as signifiers, but don’t add much weight. This isn’t writing that trusts the reader to do any work—when Kaul’s characters make a joke it must be followed by “I jest”. We’re offered lots of descriptors, often to the point of redundancy (“booming, sonorous voices”). So worried is the prose that it will not be understood that we’re given summaries of things that have just happened—at one spectacular moment, as the protagonists discover through conversation that they both have Kashmiri roots and have lived in Delhi and the UK, Kaul ends by having Leon think “we realize we are Kashmiris who grew up in Delhi and live in England”—for the benefit of the reader who has somehow found this too complex to grasp the first time around.

[Dropping the whole passage in here because I can.]

‘You grew up in India,’ I say neutrally, tone between a statement and a question.

‘Yes, I was born in India, though I have lived in England for many years now.’

Then she adds, ‘I am actually from Kashmir, but I grew up mostly in Delhi. You?’

‘I am from Kashmir too, though I was born in England. Like you, my city has been Delhi.’

We realize we are Kashmiris who grew up in Delhi and live in England.

‘So we are both from the same state in India, grew up in the same city, have connexions to the same country, and now meet in Berlin. That is some coincidence!’

This is not merely a question of aesthetics (if aesthetics are ever “merely” anything). Residue positions itself, both in terms of its subject matter and by having its characters frequently pontificate, as a serious novel of complex ideas. What these complex ideas are it’s hard to discern; I find it hard to believe that we’re expected to take Keya seriously when she has thoughts like this: “Keya formulates a statement: modernity was enabled by a mutation of speed”, or when she contemplates discussing French philosophy with a random Frenchman on a plane “but desisted. He didn’t seem intellectual and may not know,” and yet it seems the book does expect us to see these as deep thoughts.

Perhaps some continental philosophy would have been a good idea, if only for some of that famous prose. Very little can be achieved in the way of complexity if a book cannot trust its readers to follow a sentence.

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October 12, 2014

Courtney Milan, Talk Sweetly To Me

Because why not write the same piece over two weeks and have one half be about narrative poetry and the other be about romance?

Here is that second part; it’s from last weekend’s column and much of what’s in it will be familiar to anyone who has read this earlier piece on Milan’s series and this one on historical romance in general.

 

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Last week in this column I wrote about Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe, and the ways in which it can be useful to challenge our received understanding of history through competing narratives that focus on the things that those better known accounts tend to gloss over. Evaristo’s novel told (in verse) the story of a young black woman, a member of a minority community in the London of Roman Britain. This week I read a very different piece of historical fiction about another young black woman in London, this time in 1882.

I’ve said in the past that I do not often like politics to be explicitly raised in the historical romances I read. Such books tend to focus on aristocrats, and it’s hard to sympathise with them when reminded of things like slavery and oppressive class and gender constructs, especially when the author is pleading with us to appreciate these characters merely for being slightly less awful than everyone else. If I want to read about handsome dukes in period costume, I need to pretend they exist in a magical universe that does not share a history with our own.

Courtney Milan is one of my exceptions to this rule. Her Brothers Sinister series, concluded recently with the novella Talk Sweetly To Me, is set in a 19th century England full of political agitations, strikes, suffragettes. It’s also populated by, among others, clever women who work, queer people, non-white characters, and people with disabilities. Talk Sweetly To Me has for its protagonist a mathematical genius who happens to be a black woman.

The general narrative of the erasure of non-white people from European history tends to insist that such people simply weren’t there to be represented. It’s harder to make this claim about women, but we’re often told that historical gender roles were so rigid that any narrative of a woman doing something spectacular is simply ahistorical (as opposed to unlikely, which tends to be a feature of stories about heroes). An important feature of Milan’s books are their afterwords which, by providing more historical context and pointing to some of the sources she drew upon for research, validate these characters’ and these stories’ right to exist. There’s data on the presence of black doctors in London, as there is on the erasure of women’s work from the history of science. She’s least successful when she puts this justification of these characters’ presence into the text itself (a Bengali character in the book The Heiress Effect is constantly explaining himself), but it’s easy to forgive this.

Which isn’t to say that the world of the books is in any way the historical truth, whatever that may mean. Milan’s occasional deviations from historical records are flagged up when they occur, and some of them are significant enough to turn the whole into alternate history. What is not flagged up but is no less important is the way in which these books joyously take part in the wish-fulfilment that is a part of every hero story: of course we know that in most cases the social forces against them would break these characters, but sometimes we need stories of success, or simply happiness. Talk Sweetly To Me is lighter on both politics and drama than most of the full-length novels, and is certainly not the best of the series, but there’s something wonderful in reading a romance that we expect to be difficult (well-educated and tenuously-socially-accepted Irish writer of low birth falls in love with genius black female mathematician?), and to have it be joyous and pun-filled instead.

In her afterword Milan points out, pointedly, that while her protagonist Rose’s community was certainly a very small minority, there were “at least as many black doctors as there were dukes”. Milan is writing in a genre where dukes are plentiful (they even show up in her other works); to invoke them here is a reminder that we choose which stories to tell, which stories we allow to frame our understanding of the past.

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October 7, 2014

Bernardine Evaristo, The Emperor’s Babe

From last weekend’s columnthing.

 

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Marriage is hell for Zuleika, sold off far too young to be the bride of a rich man. The daughter of immigrant shopkeepers in London, Zuleika has spent her early life wandering freely around the cosmopolitan city with her best friend Alba. All that is changed when she is eleven, when the wealthy Felix comes into her life offering her father business deals; her father, still not fluent in the language, more interested in his son than his daughter, needing the financial benefits of an alliance with Felix, accepts the offer. Zuleika finds herself trapped in his house, in a loveless marriage and desperately unhappy except when she can escape to spend time with her two close friends; the cynical housewife Alba and the more romantic transwoman Venus. And then she falls in love, and this changes everything.

Two things are not particularly evident from this summary. The first is that Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe is a novel told entirely in verse. The second is that it is set in the London (Londinium) of around 200 CE.

In her acknowledgements Evaristo mentions Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, from which she first realised that people of African descent had been living in Britain at least since the Roman occupation. Narratives of history that are presented to us even today (Fryer’s book was published in 1984, Evaristo’s in 2001) tend to elide the ways in which people have always travelled, mingled, shared culture, crossed supposedly rigid boundaries. Fiction that includes characters who do this may be panned for being unrealistic. Authors of fantasy novels based on medieval Europe will give interviews explaining that their lack of non-white characters merely reflects the world as it was at the time. Attempts to redress these assumptions aren’t always taken well; witness the recent hostility directed at the blog Medieval POC (medievalpoc.tumblr.com) merely for providing evidence that Europe before the Enlightenment was more culturally diverse than people might believe.empbabe

Evaristo’s book opens with an epigraph from Oscar Wilde—“The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it”. To me it seems clear that this is a conscious writing back, wielding historical fact (the book was written when the author was writer in residence at the Museum of London) to create a world in which the very scope of the Roman Empire means that people from all over the world are present in Londinium.

And this is best done through language. Evaristo combines Latinised words and phrases with colloquialisms and the rhythms of contemporary speech to create something joyous and alive. Often it’s seamless, as when Zuleika rants about “the city of Roma which everyone/ went on about as if it were so bloody mirabilis”. At other points it draws attention to itself: Zuleika’s father calls Felix “very benignus gentleman, sir […] a boost to oeconomia most welcome, sir”. No opportunity to (cod-) Latinise is missed (“futuo-off, you little runt”) and there’s no reason why it should be. Sometimes it’s beautiful. “And then it rained, it rained et pluviam,/ et pluviam et plurimam pluviam”.

The language adds to the sense of historical and contemporary London as being the same space, inhabited by the same sorts of people and concerns, so that Alba’s thinness can be due to either anorexia or worms, and characters can slip seamlessly into cockney rhyming slang. This sense isn’t necessarily historically accurate either (cities do not transcend time) but it’s a necessary corrective to the dominant narrative, as well as making for gorgeous prose.

With all this challenging of received history, it’s easy to overlook that there’s a domestic story of marriage and love and heartbreak in the middle of all of this. We’re never allowed to, with Zuleika, entirely romanticise her relationship with the Emperor. We know that this is going to end painfully; with her friends, we see most of the signs before she does. It doesn’t matter though because what matters is what love does to Zuleika, setting her free as a poet and a person, even as that person edges closer and closer to death. Her lover may not see her (“Somewhere over my left shoulder,/ had appeared an audience. All the men/ in my life did this, as if their words/ were too important for my ears alone.”) but to the reader he only counts as a necessary step to Zuleika’s love poetry anyway.

 

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