Experimenting with Form: Six Stories and Sand

I have to admit I still get excited about novels which experiment with narrative structure and confound expectations. There is far too little tolerance for that from publishers (and perhaps readers too, but not as much as publishers think) nowadays. However, if I say that both Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski and Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf are postmodern novels, you will probably yawn and want to run away a hundred miles. However, they both are postmodern thrillers, and one of them worked well for me, while the other didn’t.

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Sand (transl. Tim Mohr)

This mash-up of spy thriller, action movie and film noir is intent on messing with our heads – and it fully succeeded as far as this reader was concerned. I was confused, struggled to keep the various names, narrators and events apart, although the story was roughly chronological. The main character is ‘Carl’, an amnesiac who is found wandering in the desert, and who some believe to be a spy. He tries to find out more about his identity and encounters all sorts of villains, desperate people and a blonde femme fatale along the way.

Here are some of the post-modernist techniques I observed: parody (of thriller genres), black humour, clever little intertextual references (Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind, but also Casablanca and others) and metafiction (multiple possible beginnings, deliberate misdirection, unreliable narrators all undermining the authority of the author).

I have to admit there are flashes of brilliance and farcical situations in the book which made me laugh and gasp out loud (perhaps also wipe away a tear). But they were few and far between, not enough to make me rush back for more. I struggled to finish the book, which I felt became a victim of its own ambition to say something about the overall state of the world. Yet it succeeded, in a way, even if at the expense of coherence. That is, if the bleak message the author intended was the futility of being honest and good in a world where incompetence and stupidity reign supreme.

Matt Wesolowski: Six Stories 

In contrast, Wesolowski did not set out to be ambitiously and deliberately post-modern. Instead, he uses the popular format of serial podcasts to structure his novel and in doing so creates a Rashomon-like controversy over whose interpretation of events do you believe. Patterns emerge, but so do the gaps –  what are all these storytellers deliberately avoiding? Memory is of course notoriously unreliable, and over twenty years the participants in those mysterious events have had time to repress unpleasant memories or to reinterpret them in a self-justifying light.

So we find plenty of misdirection here, as hidden fears emerge and it becomes clear that the youngsters from 20 years ago misunderstood certain events or were projecting different personalities than they came to inhabit later in life. There is also a strong pastiche of podcasts, selfie-culture and our apparently endless appetite for true crime (including the rather bizarre practice of hooded interviews). Aside from Rashomon, there are allusions to The Wasp Factory, A Clockwork Orange, the Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps even Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and other books about disaffected youth and trying to piece together the truth about a so-called accidental death. Finally, here too we have a sense of mourning about the casual cruelty of youth, recklessness, stupidity and the senseless tragedy that ensues.

This book is not pretentiously post-modern and pregnant with weighty themes, it simply wants to tell a good story. And that is exactly why it works. I could not put it down until I finished it. While Sand had the heavy atmosphere of wading to the top of a steep sand dune, Six Stories was an exhilarating gallop through woodland and moors. There was an addictive quality to the writing, tinged with just enough horror and unexplained phenomena to make you shudder and read on, peeking through your fingers.

 

 

Most Obscure on my Shelves – the Viragos

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while others are truly obscure choices bought half a lifetime ago at book sales. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I will spare you my professional books (anthropology, social sciences, business etc.), although I might mention the odd ‘professional’ one which has had a significant impact on me.

I’ll start from the right hand side of my bookshelves to the left, in true Japanese writing fashion. It so happens that all of them are Viragos today.

Gillian Slovo: Every Secret Thing

This is a memoir of Gillian’s remarkable and famous parents, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, South Africa’s pioneering anti-apartheid white activists. It is a wonderful historical picture of a country in turmoil, but also an intimate family portrait, warts and all. What does it feel like to come second to political commitments? What does it feel like to live with two wonderful, difficult, complicated people? As the author says in the introduction: ‘It was written in the heat of my passion to try and work out what my parents meant to me, and what they meant to the country to which they devoted their lives.’

I have a special additional fondness for Gillian, since she was (together with Sarah Dunant) my tutor for a brief but life-changing Faber writing course. So it’s a signed copy and very precious.

Nell Dunn: Up the Junction

When people bemoan the lack of working class voices in fiction, I usually point them in the direction of the Angry Young Men, but it’s true that there have been fewer of those in recent decades. And where were the Angry Young Women? Well, Nell Dunn qualifies as one of them. Although she originally came from a privileged background, she lived in Battersea and South London and came to know at first hand the young girls whose voices she so accurately captures in this collection of short stories, published in 1963. The grimy, less reported side of the Swinging Sixties, the stories feel like eavesdropping on conversations – they’re in equal parts comic and shocking, gritty and resilient. The film based on the book sanitised some of the darker aspects.

I read this book ages ago, borrowing it from the British Council library in Bucharest in my teens. I’ve never found it since, but then came across this battered copy at a charity shop in Manchester a couple of years ago.

Angela Carter (ed.): Wayward Girls and Wicked Women

The third Virago book is this anthology of stories of what one might call today ‘Nasty Women’, extolling those unfeminine virtues of discontent, impatience, sexual disruption and bad manners. These subversive stories by Leonora Carrington, Katherine Mansfield, Colette, Bessie Head, Luo Shuo, Jamaica Kincaid and others are all about being ‘not nice’. We find witches and prostitutes and fraudsters. Some of the stories are dark, some are funny, some are both and might make you squirm. It was one of the first books I bought when I came to London to study for my Ph. D. (about charismatic women in new religions, incidentally). But I’ll leave you with a quote from Angela Carter herself:

And all these disparate women have something else in common – a certain sense of self-esteem, however tattered. They know they are worth more than that which fate has allotted them. They are prepared to plot and scheme; to snatch; to battle; to burrow away from within, in order to get their hands on that little bit extra, be it of love, or money, or vengeance, or pleasure, or respect.

I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Road to Babadag #EU27Project

This is in many ways the perfect #EU27Project read, although three of the countries it refers to are outside the EU.

Stasiuk is a Polish writer who is not smitten with the idea of the West or even Central Europe, as so many other writers and citizens from former Communist states are, in moth-like fascination. Instead he is looking at lesser-known and decaying pockets of Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Albania and Hungary. He is therefore doing those neglected and forgotten places a favour. Yet, by deliberately staying away from the tourist route (there is no mention of Budapest or Bucharest or Brasov or any of the more popular sights), he is presenting perhaps an equally lop-sided view as the Tourist Offices of those countries.

Idyllic village image from Publikon.ro

If Britain or the US might be said to have a nostalgia for empire or world domination, Stasiuk here has a nostalgia for marginalisation and oppression, for what he calls the ‘Balkan shambles’. As if suffering confers authenticity and profundity. This is not so much a tribute to a vibrant and resilient community as a eulogy to a dying way of life.

I’m not sure I agree with this premise, which is why I read this book with a mix of feelings. On the one hand, I loved his atmospheric descriptions of everyday life in villages, which reminded me of summers spent at my grandmother’s house:

From occidentul-romanesc.com

Telkibanya, a village that hadn’t changed in a hundred years. Wide, scattered houses under fruit trees… From windows of homes, the smell of stewing onions. In market stalls, mounds of melons, paprikas. A woman emerged from a cellar with a glass jug filled with wine… Old women sitting in front of the houses on the main street. Like lizards in the sun. Their black clothes stored the afternoon heart, and their eyes gazed on the world without motion and without surprise, because they had seen everything.

The author also has a good grasp of the historical and political nuances of this troubled part of the world, and is adept at conveying all this complexity with a frankness which would be unwelcome from a writer who has not grown up there.

…everyone should come here. At least those who make use of the name Europe. It should be an initiation ceremony, because Albania is the unconscious of the continent. Yes, the European id, the fear that at night haunts slumbering Paris, London, and Frankfurt am Main. Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer…. so I drank black Fernet and tried to imagine a country that one day everyone would leave. They would abandon their land to the mercy of time, which would break open the envelope the hours and months and in pure form enter what remained of cities, to dissolve them, turn them into primal air and minerals.

It soon becomes clear that this is not a typical travelogue. The author criss-crosses these countries, and there is little attempt at chronology or systematisation of his travels. Instead, one memory gives rise to another, themes flow easily from one to the next. Yet he has an uncanny ability to define a region’s main characteristic. Here he talks, for instance, about the fertile hills of Moldova, conveying something of the gentle nature of the Moldavians.

Continual green, continual fecundity, the land undulating, the horizon rising and falling, showing us only what we expect, as if not wishing to cause us the least unpleasantness. Grapes, sunflowers, corn, a few animals, grapes, sunflowers, corn, cows and sheep, on occasion a a garden, and rows of nut trees always on either side of the road. No free space in this scenery, no sudden disjunction, and the imagination, encountering no ambush, soon dozes. Most likely events took place here a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago, but they left no trace. Life seeps into the soil, disperses into the air, burns calmly and evenly, as if confident that it will never burn out.

So what did I dislike about it? I am conflicted regarding his romanticism about the messiness, untidiness, lack of discipline, the sheer ‘Orientalism’ of this part of the world.  He claims to genuinely love the shambles

…the amazing weight of things, the lovely slumber, the facts that make no difference, the calm and methodical drunkenness in the middle of the day, and those misty eyes that with no effort pierce reality and with no fear open to the void. I can help it. The heart of my Europe beats in Sokolow Podlaski and in Husi. It does not beat in Vienna. Or in Budapest. And most definitely not in Krakow. Those places are all aborted transplants.

Yet this to me smacks of traveller’s voyeurism, like the British love for India at arm’s length. ‘Everything half-assed and fucked up’ is a wonderful place to visit for the authentic experience, but it is not necessarily a desirable place to live. I’ve never understood the appeal of disaster movies either, other than a triumphalist affirmation of our own superiority in the face of catastrophe (meanwhile, great swathes of the world are still trying to recover from the previous disaster).

And yet, and yet… expecting all parts of our naughty, moody, spotty continent to behave in consistent and elegant fashion is neither realistic nor desirable. Much of this messiness is not just historically inflicted, but also self-inflicted. So what should those unruly teens aspire to? Especially when some of the older democracies and hitherto solid ‘grown-up’ civilisations seem to be losing their elegance (ahem! naming no names!).

Ultimately, Stasiuk sees himself as a chronicler of the period of transition from East Bloc to post-Communism. Many of the scenes he describes have perhaps already disappeared. So yes, it is a valuable document, rooted in its time and place. Just forgive this reader for not being able to read it entirely objectively.

The depressing and still unrecognised republic of Transnistria, from The Calvert Journal.

Friday Fun: The Architecture of Hundertwasser

Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (literally ‘Kingdom of Peace Hundred-Waters’ – a pseudonym, his birth name was Friedrich Stowasser) is famous for his colourful paintings and architectural designs which seem to defy gravity and bring nature indoors. His humanistic approach to building (for instance: ‘everyone should be entitled to a window to lean out of and contemplate the world’, ‘corridors should be like paths through a forest’ and his distaste for the straight-edged ruler and ‘chicken or rabbits in a cage’ approach of functional architecture) is very inspiring. He was a provocateur and a rebel all his life. My parents used to huff and puff with disdain when they saw him being interviewed on TV in my childhood, but I was entranced. You can read more about his achievements on this excellent website. Here are some of my favourite examples of his work.

Block of flats in Darmstadt, from niftyhomestead.com
The Hundertwasser House in Vienna.
Die Gruene Zitadelle housing estate in Magdeburg, from magdeburg.de
School in Wittenberg, from

 

Kuchlbauer Tower at a brewery, from Touropia.
Incineration plant in Japan, from hundertwasser.at
Ronald McDonald House in Essen, from Touropia.
Spa resort Bad Blumau in Styria, Austria, picture by Anja Fahrig, 2010.
Another aspect of Bad Blumau, from atlasboots.com