#6Degrees of Separation: June 2019

It is always a pleasure to participate in the Six Degrees monthly link-up organised by Kate. The starting point this month is a book I haven’t read but which recently won the Wellcome Book Prize, Murmur by Will Eaves. I am interested in the subject matter but need to work up my courage to read this one, since it is a reimagining of the strain and suffering that Alan Turing must have gone through in the last few years of his life.

The title of the book, however, made me initially think it was about a heart murmur, perhaps a heart transplant. The best book (or perhaps the only book) I’ve read on that topic is Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living (published as The Heart in the US).

This book won the Prix Orange in France back in 2014. Another winner of the same prize (in 2018) is Haitian author Louis-Philippe Dalembert’s Avant que les ombres s’effacent (Before the Shadows Fade). A novel based on the real fact (that I was not at all aware of) that the Haitian state passed a decree in 1939 granting Jewish refugees passports and safe passage to Haiti.

The Haitian state was born out of slave rebellion and its hero was the beautifully named Toussaint Louverture, born a slave but, as he declared himself, ‘nature gave me the soul of a free man’. Much has been written about him, especially in French, but I have an English language biography and reassessment of his legacy written by Charles Forsdick and Christian Hogsbjerg on my bookshelves, which I have yet to read.

Since we are talking about revolutions, and with the Paris Commune on my mind quite a bit this past month, let’s turn to another book, a novel set during a very tricky revolutionary time: The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov, one of my favourite Russian writers. It’s the story of a family in Kiev (somewhat similar to Bulgakov’s own) having to live through the consequences of the Russian Revolution, and all the warring factions of the Ukrainian War of Independence – the Whites, the Reds, the Imperial German Army, and Ukrainian nationalists. Although this book was banned for decades, the stage version of the book was apparently one of Stalin’s favourite ways to relax.

Many plays were banned, of course, in Communist times in Romania. One play that censorship consistently fought over with the theatre directors (and censorship usually won) was Caligula by Albert Camus. I’m not quite sure why it was seen as so inappropriate that even the filming of the performance was stopped (and the film destroyed), except that it perhaps shows the descent of a hitherto kindly despot into absolute mad tyranny.

And so we end with one of the classics of historical novels: I, Claudius, written by Robert Graves in first person, as if it were the memoir of Emperor Claudius, who was despised and marginalised by his family because of his stutter… and therefore managds to survive to become emperor and tell the tale.

From Turing to France to Haiti to the Ukraine, with a short stopover of sorts in Romania, and a slightly lengthier stint in the Roman Empire. It’s been quite a journey in time and space this month. Where will your links take you?

Six Degrees of Separation from No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

I’ve had a short break from this meme, but I enjoy it so much that I have to join in again this January. Especially since it starts with the first book in a series which I initially enjoyed a lot. The premise is simple: create a book chain starting with a book set every month by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, and see where it takes you in six quick rolls of the dice.

This month we start with Alexander McCall Smith‘s gentle detective fiction set in Botswana, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective AgencyI loved Mma Precious Ramotswe, with her womanly figure and straight-laced charm, her kindness and thoughtfulness, but also relentless pursuit of criminals. Besides, it was delightful to read about Africa in a more positive light for a change. After 4-5 books, however, I abandoned the series: it started to be a bit too similar and unchallenging for my taste.

Another series set in Botswana is much more to my taste. Michael Stanley‘s Detective Kubu series also features a cuddly, larger-than-life detective, with enormous empathy and family feeling. The view of Botswana is much darker, however, and the crimes are much more tragic: political corruption, illegal organ transplants, the dark side of traditional medicine, oppression of Bushmen and so much more. I have Dying to Live still patiently waiting for me on my TBR pile and I always look forward to a new one in the series.

If books dealing with political corruption are your thing, there is one above all others which perfectly captures the Cold War paranoia (and is, perhaps, once more topical): Richard Condon’s The Manchurian CandidateA sleeper agent controlled by the Russians is about to assassinate political figures one by one. This frightening concept has been given the movie treatment twice, in 1962 (starring Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra) and in 2004 (with Liev Schreiber and Denzel Washington), and has given rise to a political term describing a candidate running for office who publicly supports one group to win election, but once elected uses executive or legislative powers to assist an opposing group. I could say something at this point about Theresa May and Brexit, but I will desist!

Manchuria is a region in China that was invaded by the Japanese in the 1930s with horrific brutality. There aren’t many Japanese books depicting this gruesome period in their history, but Abe Kobo‘s harrowing (and possibly semi-autobiographical) novel Beasts Head for Home shows a Japanese man returning after the end of the war to this region where he grew up, witnessing the consequences of those atrocities and questioning what it means to be one nationality or another, and what one might call home, in a period of fluid borders.

Abe Kobo is best known for his enigmatic novel The Woman in the Dunes, which has also been adapted into a film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. I remember both the book and film as been hugely suffocating, like being buried alive in that relentless onslaught of sand.

 

 

Another enigmatic book which also makes me think of endless sand and of being buried alive is Albert Camus’ L’ÉtrangerThe main protagonist Meursault’s act of violence on the beach in relentless sunshine and his complete lack of remorse hurt me profoundly as a teenager, but each time I reread it, I found different nuances and depths to this story. It’s one of the defining books of the 20th century and explains human indifference and passivity.

 

But before we get too bleak, let’s end on a more cheerful note, as befits Mma Ramotswe. Another outsider and free spirit is the joyous Huckleberry Finn (Adventures of…) by Mark Twain. He resists all attempts to be ‘sivilised’ or kidnapped or restrained, and has amazing adventures in the process. Although we could and should argue that it is escaped slave Jim who is the true outsider in this story and Twain is not shy about pointing out the hypocrisy of a system that treats Huck and Jim so differently.

So from Botswana to the Mississippi, via Manchuria, Japan and Algeria. Where will your book chain take you?

A Year in First Lines

I’ve done one version of it in previous years (listing the first line of each month on my blog), but I’ve seen a number of bloggers like Annabel Gaskell and Eleanor Franzen do a different version of it: first lines of books that they read each month. So I will attempt a combination of the two, with the aim of recreating something akin to found poetry and giving a snapshot of my year.


By this year, the year ’45, the Germans had already lost command of the air-space over our little town. Scorching heat of a midsummer Sunday in Obor market…
The young woman runs burning along the side of the marketplace… I’ve stupidly invited the outside world in. Repeat after me: summertime, and the living is easy… And, if it is not, we like to pretend it is.

Jim closed the blinds, unplugged the telephone and put the tape in. Today’s programme is all about stomach ulcers… Aardvark primogeniture, he exudes all the confidence, but I avoid his eyes. My whole life seems to consist of being really happy in some wonderful places – and then having to tear myself away from them. GPS tells me it’s eleven minutes. I don’t think that’s right, it’s too short.

Last night I dreamt that I met up with an old friend of mine at her new house on the lake. Doorways into secret gardens bring the promise of forbidden delights. This had been a happy home once. The radiant afternoon sunlight of early September was so brilliant that it still seemed like summer. There’s no swell to speak of, just little lapping waves. The voice was quiet, smiling, ‘Is that Miss Clarvoe?’

Tomorrow I will sit demurely. Tomorrow is absolutely fine.

From The Secret Garden of Heligan

For a year which started with a lot of pain, anxiety and rejection, it has ended very well. I really like my full-time job and am doing the things I love in my spare time (reading, writing – in drabbles, reviewing for Crime Fiction Lover, promoting literature in translation for Asymptote Journal). My boys are becoming more independent, kinder and wiser every day, while my cat is ever more gentle and cuddly. And I am laughing, joking, feeling younger and freer every single day!

While the money worries have not been resolved, we still have a roof over our heads and can afford to heat the house. (I have been taking Christmas packages to those less fortunate in the area, and believe me, it’s not a small thing at all to be sheltered and warm). My income may be less than during my freelance life, but at least it’s regular (plus, the novelty of paid holidays has not worn off yet!)

Camus by Cecil Beaton

Au milieu de l’hiver, j’ai découvert en moi un invincible été. (Camus)

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.