Misfits, Taggers and Horror Builds Up

This grouping of reviews will puzzle you, perhaps, but the three books provoked a similar reaction in me, albeit with different degrees of discomfort. They are all about misfits, and give a rather brutal picture of Scandinavian societies, which to many of us seem a haven of egalitarianism and tolerance.

somerainKarl Ove Knausgaard: Some Rain Must Fall (My Struggle 5), transl. Don Bartlett

I admit I’m a bit addicted to the long, rambling, self-absorbed outpourings of Knausgaard. It’s a little like reading all your unedited jumble of thoughts (somewhat better expressed). The author is so hard on himself (or on his younger self, which I still believe is a bit of an alter ego rather than his real self), particularly in this volume. Karl Ove is now 19 and has followed his big brother to Bergen, where he will attend the writing academy. He stays in Bergen for fourteen years, during which he feels he is not making any progress as a human being or as a writer, despite his utmost efforts. He has no one but himself to blame: he is constantly sabotaged by his own ego, envy of others, awkwardness, drinking and lust. He feels hurt when others criticise his writing efforts, plagiarises someone’s work, gets drunk and violent, is a lousy boyfriend, tries to be part of a band although he can barely play the drums, doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. This is such a powerful, unvarnished portrait of a young man trying to rise above the average but fearing that there may not be anything of substance within him.

Yes, all the usual criticism of Knausgaard applies: it is overlong, it goes off on tangents all the time, it feels unfiltered like life itself, but it is eminently entertaining and readable. Disquieting? Yes, especially when I read the book below straight after. Unfair to compare Karl Ove with Anders Behring Breivik? Well, in the sixth and final volume of My Struggle, Knausgaard explores that connection himself, looking at the darkness inherent in human nature and the choices young people make. The difference being, of course, that while both Karl Ove and Anders are self-conscious and awkward youngsters who want to believe they are the best, Karl Ove is also self-aware and self-deprecating.

oneofusÅsne Seierstad: One of Us – The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, transl. by Sarah Death

On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb outside the Norwegian prime minister’s office in central Oslo, killing eight people. He then proceeded to a youth camp on the wooded island of Utøya, where he gunned down sixty-nine more, most of them teenage members of the country’s governing Labour Party. In this book, journalist Seierstad explores not only the life of the perpetrator, but also of a few of his victims, and examines the inadequate police emergency response on that day, as well as the debates surrounding his trial and plea of insanity.

We get a glimpse into Breivik’s childhood, his distant father, life with his depressed single mother, attempts to ingratiate himself with the hip-hop community and make a name for himself as a graffiti tagger, a right-wing activist, a successful entrepreneur, and then an Internet game addict and self-styled master warrior who believed he could save Europe from the threat of Islam and multiculturalism. However, Norwegian society is also closely examined: the official rhetoric of feminism and tolerance compared to real-life examples on the ground. We see that Breivik was far from alone in his beliefs, although few were willing to openly voice them and no one else was prepared to take such violent action. And we wonder if it was liberalism or indifference which allowed him to pile up such an arsenal of weapons and bomb-making equipment in a derelict farmhouse.

This was really hard to read at times: detailed, fascinating and distressing in equal measure, and at times it felt voyeuristic and too graphic in its description of the massacre and the grief of the survivors. An important book, however; no doubt about it.

girlbombJari Järvelä: The Girl and the Bomb, transl. by Kristian London

We move to Finland, to the small town of Kotka, near Helsinki. Rust and Metro are graffiti taggers and lovers, always trying to stay one step ahead of the law. Just like in the real-life account of Anders Breivik’s teenage years, the police are cracking down hard on graffiti artists, whom they perceive as ‘vandals’ and often outsource the catching of them to private security firms. As they are being chased one night by these security guards, Rust falls to his death. The guards try to cover up the incident and Metro is determined to take revenge for her boyfriend’s death.

I really enjoyed this short, sharp, clever novel, with its alternating points of view. I liked both of the main characters, feisty Metro and hapless security guard Jere, who only wanted a quiet life but finds himself taking the blame for somebody else. I kept wishing that they weren’t on opposing sides and that there would be an explanation between them and a ‘happy ending’ of sorts. But of course no such happy ending is possible when violence, accusations and misunderstandings escalate. An intriguing peek into an urban subculture, as well as a deep-dive under the seemingly serene surface of Finnish society to the murkiness below.

 

January Reading Round-Up

Another busy month of reading, partly because of holidays and children’s illnesses, when I wasn’t able to do much else. Not so much reviewing, although some of the crime novels below will be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover. A lot of rather dark reading, too, as befits this time of year. I have travelled all over the globe via books.

Crime fiction set in diverse locations

Panorama of Sarajevo, from Wikiwand.
Panorama of Sarajevo, from Wikiwand.
  1. Dan Fesperman: Lie in the Dark – Sarajevo under siege, who cares about a murder when people are dying every day?
  2. Yasmina Khadra: Qu’attendent les singes (What are monkeys waiting for?) – the impossibility of investigating murder honestly and openly in politically corrupt Algeria
  3. Johan Theorin: The Voices Beyond (transl. Marlaine Delargy) – vengeance and deadly rivalry on the island of Öland in Sweden
  4. Margie Orford: Water Music – crimes against young women and children in the beautiful surroundings of Cape Town
  5. Brooke Magnanti: The Turning Tide – London and the Hebrides alternate in this entertaining cross between chick-lit and political thriller
  6. T.R. Richmond: What She Left – suicide or murder of a young student at Southampton University?
  7. Angela Clarke: Follow Me – social media stalking and hashtag murdering in London
  8. Alison Bruce: The Promise – death of a homeless man opens up a can of worms in Cambridge
  9. Ian Rankin: Standing in Another Man’s Grave – Rebus is back and investigating a serial killer along the A9 heading north of Edinburgh
  10. Raphael Montes: Perfect Days – a crazy road trip with your kidnapper through Brazil

Non-Fiction:

Palace Hotel Gstaad, Switzerland, from betterlivingny.wordpress.com
Palace Hotel Gstaad, Switzerland, from betterlivingny.wordpress.com
  1. Padraig Rooney: The Gilded Chalet: Off Piste in Literary Switzerland
  2. Andrew Solomon: The Noonday Demon – a personal account into depression, but also an investigation into how depression is perceived and handled in the US and other parts of the world
  3. Anne Theriault: My Heart Is an Autumn Garage – a memoir of depression and hospitalisation in Canada

Other Fiction:

Dmitry Shostakovich, from allmusic.com
Dmitry Shostakovich, from allmusic.com
  1. Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time – a fictional account of the life and compromises of Shostakovich in the Soviet Union
  2. Jenny Erpenbeck: Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (Go, Going, Gone) – understanding the challenges of being a refugee in Germany
  3. Christos Tsiolkas: Dead Europe – an Aussie travelling through a rapidly changing Europe which has lost its innocence
  4. Lauren Holmes: Barbara the Slut and Other People – young Americans trying to find a purpose to life
  5. Anthony Anaxagorou: The Blink that Killed the Eye – life, art and death in an impoverished British society

The three crime reads which I most enjoyed were Margie Orford, Ian Rankin and Dan Fesperman, but I would find it difficult to choose between the three of them for a Crime Fiction Pick of the Month. The best book for dipping into was The Gilded Chalet – a real coffee table book if you have any interest in literature or Switzerland. Finally, the most memorable books of the month were by Julian Barnes, Anthony Anaxagorou and Jenny Erpenbeck.

Fiction Set in Dysfunctional Societies

Yasmina Khadra’s Algeria

KhadraSingesThis is the work of an Algerian writer disillusioned with his country. Disguised as a crime novel and a murder investigation, it is actually an indictment of the corruption of Algerian politics, law, police force and journalism.

A young girl is found dead in a forest outside Alger and Nora Bilal, one of the few female officers in the Algerian police, is entrusted with the investigation. Her methods are questioned and she is personally disrespected at every turn, especially when it turns out that some political figures may be involved in a complicated story of prostitution and thirst for power. Brutal, with a high body count and utterly merciless protagonists, as well as some very brave (or foolhardy) police officers, this is not a pleasant story. Khadra can come across as preachy sometimes, but he can also weave an exciting story, which ends in a very unexpected and dramatic fashion.

Other powerful fictional (more or less) representations of Algeria: Yasmina Khadra’s What the Day Owes the Night; Assia Djebar’s Algerian White; Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation.

Dan Fesperman’s Sarajevo

fespermanThe war in Yugoslavia: it’s about 1994/95 and Sarajevo has been under siege for about 2 years now. Vlado Petric has escaped army conscription by being a police officer, but even he has to admit that his job is utter nonsense: what does a domestic murder matter in a city where so many die daily in mortar attacks or shot by snipers?

Yet one night, when he stumbles in the dark upon a victim of shooting, close inspection reveals that this is no sniper incident, but a deliberate murder at close range. The victim is a head of security in the newly formed Bosnian Ministry of Interior, and it appears he trod on many toes: smugglers, black marketeers, local militia and so on. However, Vlado soon becomes convinced that something much bigger was at stake.

How is it possible to investigate in a city ravaged by hunger, corruption and desperation? How is it possible to keep your head and your integrity when all about you there is nothing but darkness and greed? This is an outstanding portrayal of a city and society driven to the utter limits, and you can forgive any plot inconsistencies or the rushed ending for the atmosphere it evokes.

Other books about Sarajevo which have stuck in my mind: Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Alma Lazarevska’s Death in the Museum of Modern Art and Zlata Filipovic: Zlata’s Diary, for a child’s perspective on war.

barnesJulian Barnes’ Soviet Union

Barnes is a keen Francophile and has lived in France, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has adopted the French habit of a mélange between biography and fiction for his latest novel, an imagining of three key moments in the life of composer Dmitry Shostakovich.

In the first instance, we see a young, anxious Shostakovich waiting with his suitcase beside the lift in his block of flats, fully expecting to be taken in by the KGB for questioning during Stalin’s worst purges in the 1930s. His recent opera was denounced as bourgeois and unpalatable, and he wants to spare his family the pain of being carted away in front of their eyes. The second moment occurs ten years later, when he has survived the war and even emerged as a leading composer, reliable enough to be sent to a congress in the US, but nevertheless very fearful of saying or thinking the wrong thing. Finally, we see him old, resigned and somewhat complicit with the arguably more liberal regime under Khrushchev.

Although the biographical detail is fascinating and probably quite accurate, it’s the human and individual reaction to an oppressive regime, the attempt to create something of lasting artistic value within the constraints of prescribed Communist values, which makes this book really interesting. The daily fears and gradual compromises are described with great insight, candour and compassion. I will be writing a full review of this remarkable (and quite short) work for the next issue of Shiny New Books.

Other unforgettable books about the Soviet regime: Martin Cruz Smith Gorky Park; Tom Rob Smith: Child 44; Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago; Solzhenitsyn: The First Circle.

 

Short Stories for Millennials

Another pure coincidence: in the same week, I read short story collections by an American and a British millennial trying to find themselves, love and a purpose to life. But, oh, how different their approach!

slutLauren Holmes: Barbara the Slut and Other People

One story is told from a male point of view, another from a dog’s perspective, but in fact all the stories share the same first-person angsty young person’s voice, recognisably white American female and from a privileged background (regardless of how broke they might be at present). The stories are also not really constructed as stories, more as a slice of life, with no seeming conclusion or character development. They almost feel like writing exercises to me – and, as such, they do succeed. They are funny, often outrageous, with that deadpan honesty and wide-eyed egocentricity that is often endearing even if it makes you squirm a little.

I particularly liked: ‘New Girls’, the story of a youngster moving from America to Germany with her family and having to fit into her new school – although it did feel a little superficial; ‘Desert Hearts’ about a young woman who pretends to be a lesbian to get a job as a sales assistant in a sex shop; the interaction with a confused patient at a sex clinic in ‘Mike Anonymous’; and the title story ‘Barbara the Slut’, which seems almost like a nasty fairytale about American high schools. The 16-year-old Barbara is an absolutely brilliant student but also somewhat indiscriminate with her sexual favours (because she doesn’t believe in men and love), until she turns down one of the boys and gets labelled a slut and publicly bullied/shamed. Oddly enough, another recently read book, Viral by Helen Fitzgerald handles the same topic of labelling and bullying, although in that case it’s largely internet-based.

Perhaps my own high-school years were too long ago or not traumatic enough, perhaps I can no longer relate to the aimless and self-centred rambling of young people (at least as depicted in these stories), but I struggled to empathise with the characters in Lauren Holmes’ stories. The situations described were often quite sad, quite hopeless, yet I never felt emotionally involved.

Anthony Anaxagorou: The Blink that Killed the Eye

blinkBy contrast, these stories punched me in my emotional gut!

We come back to the grey shores of Great Britain, except there is nothing ‘great’ about it. It is perceived as a diminished, impoverished island, with fearful people and dysfunctional families, in this collection of loosely related short stories. We find here stories about birth and death, love and work, stories of violence and unfulfilled needs, of having hope leached out of you again and again. This is a much bleaker view of life, and there are many different and distinct voices, of all ages.

In ‘Bad Company’ we first meet Alex, the person who appears in almost all of the stories and acts as a sort of connection. He is a young man working on a building site and hurts his back badly, but dreams of becoming a poet. In a separate story, ‘Keep Still’, we meet Rupal, stuck in a violent marriage with a drug addict husband. This is a virtuoso monologue chronicling her life of abuse and her feelings of abandonment. In the third story, ‘Building Six’, these two characters come together in a rather unexpected way, seen through the eyes of a young security guard working in an office building. Alex is his older colleague and a stickler for correct procedure: with his inflexibility, he torments Rupal when she forgets her ID pass. She has a nervous breakdown as she attempts to humanise the unforgiving Cerberus. The third time we encounter Rupal, she is dead, viciously stabbed by her husband, whose time in prison we witness in ‘Yellow Daffodil’. Alex reappears in another story, ‘Cowboy’, which seems to take place earlier. He is waiting patiently in the car for his girlfriend to say goodbye to her mother as she prepares to leave home and move in with him, but in the next story their ‘great gamble of life and love’ is falling apart in a morass of expectations drenched in failure, shame and reproaches. Alex then tries to work for a charity dealing with patients with brain injuries and meets Arthur, an old man who shows him ‘an entire universe trapped in a wheelchair’.

I read this book before I met Anthony, but I was familiar with his poetry. This short story collection is certainly the work of a poet: despite the gritty subject matter, there is something so right about the choice of words and the emotional fireworks we are witnessing. These are stories made to be read out loud and to be reread.

The Refugee Problem in Germany

Jenny Erpenbeck has written THE most timely novel about refugees, although of course it’s just a coincidence that her book (which must have been written a few years back) was published just as Europe reached boiling point in discussions about the refugee crisis.

gehengingGehen, Ging, Gegangen [Go, Going, Gone] is the story of refugees, but (wisely, perhaps) Erpenbeck does not write it from the point of view of the asylum-seekers themselves. Instead, we become acquainted with them through an intermediary: a retired and widowed German classics scholar, Richard. This is very clever, because Richard represents any one of us who is ignorant but a bit curious about the plight of refugees, and then finds his mind and heart expanded through his regular contact with them. Yet he is by no means an altruistic saint: he hesitates and makes silly mistakes at first, and when he finds his house broken into at some point, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that one of ‘his’ refugee visitors has burgled him but cannot quite confront him with this. And, although there are hints of selfishness in his personal life (and talk about a mistress), at the very end of the book, we discover some additional things about his marriage which put him in a rather unflattering light.

So Richard is very human, rather lonely and bored, and he happens to pass in front of the Red Town Hall in Alexanderplatz in Berlin and sees a group of men on hunger strike, protesting and refusing to reveal their identities or nationalities. At first Richard keeps his distance.

As a child, he’d learnt all about hardship. But that’s no reason, just because someone is desperate enough to go on hunger strike, for him to starve. So he tells himself. It wouldn’t help the person on hunger strike.

Richard was born during the Second World War and grew up in East Germany, so throughout the book he contrasts the poverty and deprivation of the young men he encounters with the life of his friends and neighbours under Communism. He starts out with a scientific curiosity and a rather comically naive questionnaire for the refugees, who have been moved to a hastily repurposed old people’s home. Gradually, however, he opens up his own heart and allows the men themselves to open up and talk freely, all the while treading a fine line between pity and patronage, companionship and superiority. He begins to distinguish between the men coming from Nigeria, Niger, Libya, Syria, Chad, even Touaregs. He learns how to pronounce their names: tall Ithemba, quiet Abdusalam, shy Osarobo, massive Raschid (and initially thinks: all refugees can’t be doing too badly, if Raschid is so big). Sometimes he creates his own nicknames: young Apoll, sad Tristan, thin Caron, who believes in ghosts…

He helps out with their German classes, he invites some of them back into his home to play piano or to read Dante (his only book in Italian). He is often embarrassed when he is invited to eat with them, knowing how they struggle to live on the tiny sums of money allocated to them. Most of them are boat people, who landed on the shores of Italy, and so have no right to claim asylum in Germany. They want to work, they don’t want to live off charity. They miss and worry about their family back home. Slowly, Richard befriends them and starts believing that he and a small group of friends can make a difference, that it is all about personal relationships, about small-scale understanding. He wonders about the artificiality of borders, the divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that people are at such pains to maintain:

Was the dividing line, the trench, between them really so endlessly deep and that’s why it caused such turbulence? Was it between black and white? Between rich and poor? Between stranger and friend?… Between one language and another? And how many borders were there anyway in this one universe? Or, to put it another way, which was the real, ultimate border? Perhaps the one between the living and the dead? Or between starlit sky and the clod of earth that he stepped upon each day? Or between one day and the next?… If you think about all these possible borders, then it seemed to Richard that the difference between one human and the next is ridiculously tiny and no deep trench at all.

jennyerpenbeck
Author photo from Deutsche Welle.

Of course there is no conventional happy ending: all the refugees have to return to Italy or be deported. There are only 12 exceptions out of 476 cases – mostly because of attempted suicide or ill-health, in which case they have been given a few weeks or months’ additional permission to stay before being deported. So Richard and his friends jump in to help and offer accommodation and there is a final note of humanity and warmth, despite the sadness of the last few pages.

For a really excellent review of this book (which we hope will be translated soon into English, all the translations above are my own weak attempts), see Tony Malone’s blog. There is also a fascinating interview with Jenny Erpenbeck on Deutsche Welle about the problem of being ‘visible’ only as a refugee.

Quick Crime Reviews: One Out of Four

Would it be fair to say that about one in four books being published today constitutes a memorable read? Judging by my current crop of crime reads, I’d say that proportion is roughly right. It may seem ungracious to say that, especially when I have yet to finish my own novel! (So they are all clearly better than me for a start.) So let me qualify this somewhat.

None of them were bad enough to make me want to stop reading them. In fact, they were entertaining and quite accomplished for debut novels. However, after just a few days, I can barely remember the storyline or the characters. I am sure they will all do well in terms of sales, however, probably better so than the last one, which I liked and remembered most. Is that because publishers or the reading public think of crime fiction as a ‘disposable genre’ – easily read, all about a puzzle and a twist and a quick entertainment, and then forgotten? Or am I being too harsh? Many of my fellow bloggers enjoyed them a lot, so why do I always need a ‘bigger theme’, an exotic location or a social context to keep me happy?

disclaimerRenée Knight: Disclaimer

Quick and easy to read, but failed to rise above the run-of-the-mill for me. Another middle-aged woman with a secret alternating with chapters from the POV of an older man who has suffered loss and is seeking revenge. A set-up which is intriguing – what would you do if you found the worst moments of your life story displayed in a novel? –  but the execution doesn’t quite live up to it.

 

whatsheleftT. R. Richmond: What She Left

An interesting concept of reconstituting a person and their last few days through all the documents and detritus of life that they have left behind. You’ll find a good variety of voices, from lecherous middle-aged professor to wide-eyed naivety. However, overall, the story strained belief – so many gathered by the river’s edge on a winter’s night! – and did not quite live up to the premise.

 

followmeAngela Clarke: Follow Me

Once you manage to suspend your disbelief that the police would be so unfamiliar with Twitter and would depend on a 23-year-old freelance journalist to be their social media consultant, this is quite an entertaining and fast-paced read, although the end is a trifle predictable. It raises some interesting issues about online privacy, but I felt that the issue of what Nas and Freddie had done in their teens was deliberately obfuscated and hidden just to create some artificial suspense.

watermusicMargie Orford: Water Music

This is the fifth novel in the series featuring social worker Clare Hart, working with abused and missing minors in Cape Town. So yes, I jumped midway into the story arc about Clare and her boyfriend, the cop Riedwaan Faizal, but I was still captivated by the interactions between the characters and the storyline. South Africa is a place where life is not easy for poor young women and children, and the author reflects that in this emotional story about an abandoned child and a missing young cellist. This is not the touristy Cape Town we like to imagine, although the natural setting is very beautiful, but a gritty story about violence against women and the consequences of poverty. Corruption at the highest levels and the conflict between police and unions in a post-apartheid South Africa are also tangentially addressed. My first Margie Orford, but most certainly not my last.

How much Richard Yates can one bear?

Richard Yates: Young Hearts Crying

youngheartsIt’s no secret that I am fond of the way in which Richard Yates cynically pierces the bubble of the American Dream, and thereby makes us all cringe as we recognise our own undesirable tendencies to envy others, to keep up with the Joneses, to be self-absorbed, to be unable to live up to our ideals, to be unrealistic and so on. Self-flagellation is alive and kicking in his novels and the rather sentimentally entitled ‘Young Hearts Crying’ is no exception. It is the story of a mismatched couple, as is so often the case with Yates, but interestingly enough, it does not end with the dissolution of a marriage and tragedy (as Revolutionary Road does). In fact, it might even be said to have a mildly upbeat ending. At least there is some hope that life goes on and that the characters have learnt a bit of a lesson.

Michael Davenport is a young war veteran determined to succeed as a writer without recourse to his wife’s trust fund. He is confident he will be able to support his family through his job without compromising his art. His motto seems to be:

Once I get the hang of it, I’ll be doing [this job] with my left hand.

His wife, Lucy, is initially adoring and supportive, but as Michael gets stuck in one dead-end job after another, and never gets around to writing, she becomes increasingly disenchanted. As in all Yates books, a lot of drinking is involved. It doesn’t help that the young couple keep comparing themselves with the Nelsons, who seem to be able to effortlessly combine artistic merit with commercial and social success. The grass is always greener on the other side and Michael believes that the mark of a true professional is to make difficult things look easy. However, he personally finds writing very difficult, so he becomes bitter and twisted in the process.

After the marriage breaks down, both of them drift. Lucy attempts to find herself through acting, writing and art, each time grasping at the straw of an artistic mentor. Meanwhile, Michael has a nervous breakdown and searches for ever-younger female company. Each of them reaches some kind of conclusion, although I would hesitate to call it ‘wisdom’, more like a ‘compromised way of life’.  But the journey there is marked by the fierce humour and cringeworthy anecdotes, as well as the quietly controlled style that makes Yates such a master of discontent.

Despair would have to wait at least a few more hours, because this was a party night at the Nelsons’.

DorothyParkerI remember a friend advising me not to read Revolutionary Road (which was my first book by Yates) unless my own marriage was happy and I felt fulfilled. I have to admit he is so ruthless in his dissection of human flaws and so pessimistic in outlook that he does not make for the most comforting of reads. I can certainly not bear to read more than one of his books at a time (and then move on to lighter things). However, unlike Jean Rhys, he is not unremittingly tragic (perhaps because his characters are so pitiable but not likeable at all). There is a lot of satire and comedy in his work, which occasionally reminds me of Dorothy Parker’s (woefully underrated) tragicomic short stories.