Saturday, 30 April 2016

Anti-Semitism in British Politics



Ken Livingstone (who should always be referred to by the prefix ‘controversial’), the former mayor of London, has been suspended by Livingstone’s old rabble-rousing pal, Jeremy, who now heads the British Labour Party.
A Labour MP from Bradford (a piss-poor Northern town in England), called Naz Shah (I hope I won’t be called racist for mentioning, here, that Ms Shah is a Muslim, whose parents were migrants to the UK from that cradle of democracy and secularism in South East Asia, called Pakistan, and she herself spent her teen-age years in that country, no doubt imbibing liberal attitudes and tolerance towards all faiths), before she became an MP in the UK general elections of 2015, shared on her Facebook page (with dozens of people) a poster that suggested that Israel should relocate to America as the transportation cost would be worth it. The poster further commented that Americans would welcome the Israelis with open arms and it would also bring peace to Middle East by ending foreign interference.  Alongside the poster Ms Shah posted her own comment: “Problem solved.” And, in order not to leave any doubt in the minds of the people with whom she shared this poster on her Facebook page about how she felt about this proposal, Ms Shah added a smiley face. (Was Ms Shah ironic when she posted ‘problem solved’, the renowned British irony which the Americans don’t get because they are not very clever? Did she mean exactly the opposite of what she posted and the smiley face represented an emotion exactly opposite of that which she was experiencing at that time (anger, despair, sadness)? Impossible to say. It is not easy to express irony effectively when you are posting on Facebook.) Ms Shah's Facebook poster was unearthed by a right-wing blogger with a ridiculous sobriquet, in April 2016, almost two years after Ms Shah posted it (I am guessing this is the full time job of the right wing blogger with the ridiculous sobriquet—not obsessively following Naz Shah on Facebook, as that would be stalking—but blogging). Predictably politicians whipped themselves into a frenzy. Naz Shah issued several apologies, including one in a Jewish rag, which, if you are of a gullible nature, you would say were sincere and from the heart of her bottom—I mean the bottom of her heart—and not a last-ditch attempt by a desperate politician to save her skin. It did not work. Pressure mounted on Jeremy Corbyn, the man who exudes the charisma of a Batchelor soup packet, to do something about it, and eventually Ms Shah was suspended from the Labour party for bringing it into disrepute; but not before Jeremy’s spokesperson provided some unintended entertainment to public. This is what the spokesperson said: “We are not suggesting that she [Naz Shah] is anti-Semitic. We are saying she’s made remarks she does not agree with.” How is that possible? There are a few instances when someone says things they do not agree with. For example, people might be forced to say things they secretly do not agree with. Since this post is about Jews and anti-Semitism, I shall follow Ken Livingstone’s example and give a historical instance to illustrate this point. On the eve of the Second World War, the Nazis finally allowed Sigmund Freud to leave Vienna and go into exile in England, but not before they fleeced Freud off his wealth. And that was not enough. Freud had to sign an affidavit before he left Vienna that he had been treated very fairly and with courtesy by the Nazis. Freud signed the affidavit (I suspect he did not have a choice). After he signed the affidavit, Freud added a comment: "I recommend the Gestapo to everyone." (Now that is irony for you). Another example: people might say things they do not actually believe in because they feel that saying such things will bring rewards. Like the Tory Prime-minister of the UK, Cameron, saying that he deeply cares for the poor people of his country, even though he knows (he does; don't ask me how; he just does) that they are a bunch of selfish, boorish, stupid people who have not done an honest day’s work in three generations. David ("Call me Dave") says these things which he probably does not believe in himself because he also believes that that is the thing to say to project an image of compassionate Tories. Sometimes people might say things they do not agree with just to irritate the other person (I have done this many times). However, I can’t think of a single instance when someone would knowingly say things they don’t agree with without a reason or motivation, when they are in full control of their faculties. So the explanation given by Jeremy Corbyn’s spokes-person to explain Naz Shah’s Facebook comment was strange at best, disingenuous at worst, and ridiculous at all times.

You would have hoped that that would be the end of it; the nutters on the Labour’s left would keep their traps shut and let the controversy die, which is what, you will remember, the Tories did when Boris Johnson made comments about the ancestry of the American President, Barak Obama.

However, to expect the lefties to act and talk sensibly, when there is an opportunity to embarrass everyone with their deranged wittering, is like expecting a raging bull to ignore the China shop as it charges down the high street.  Ken Livingstone decided to come out in support of the suspended Naz Shah. The nicest thing one can say about Ken is that he is unbearable; his very existence is an affront to everything that is decent. The man does not have many sensible ideas in his head, and, to compound the problem, little to no control over his mouth: there is no filter between the muscles of his brain and mouth.

Never shy of offering his opinion, Ken went round giving interviews the day after Ms Shah was finally suspended from the Labour party. What did Ken say? He was dismissive of the claims that there was anti-Semitism in Labour. Never in his 47 years in the Labour party did Ken hear “anyone saying anti-Semitic.” Ken had “heard a lot of criticism of Israel and its abuse of Palestinians”, but he had “never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic.”  You hear that, and you think to yourself, well, that’s is, like, Ken’s view. If Ken never heard anyone in the Labour Party say anything anti-Semitic, that could be because either no one in the Labour party said anything anti-Semitic, or because what they said was not deemed to be anti-Semitic by Ken because—some might argue; indeed, John Mann, another Labour MP with impulse-control issues, has suggested this publically—Ken himself is an anti-Semite and (to quote John Mann, again) a “disgusting Nazi apologist.” On a general note, I have come across hardly any racists who accept that they are racists; it’s others who think they are racists. Most racists are shocked and deeply offended when it is suggested that they are racists. Anyway, coming back to Ken’s interview, you might say that so far what he said might be interpreted as denial, lack of insight etcetera, but not in itself deserving of suspension from the party. Next, Ken offered his insight on Naz Shah’s Facebook comment. Ken gave Naz Shah the moral X-ray and concluded that everything was ship-shape. “It [Naz Shah’s Facebook comment] is over the top but it is not anti-Semitism,” declared Ken, in his nasal tone. (To say that Naz Shah’s Facebook comment was just ‘over the top’ is a bit like saying Jeremy (Clarkson) was a bit over the top when he threw punches at the producer of Top Gear and inflicted ABH on the poor Irish man, because there was a 4 minute delay in the steak or the curry or whatever disgusting food Clarkson shoves down his gullet, after a day's filming of the Top Gear.) Back to Ken and his interview. To emphasize his point that Naz Shah was not an anti-Semite, Ken obviously believed what he needed to do was to bring Hitler to the discussion (thereby revealing his magnificent grasp on the fabric of the universe). “Let’s remember,” Ken reminded, “when Hitler won his elections in 1932, his policy, then, was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism—this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” It was this comment which landed Ken in hot waters and left his mate Jeremy (Corbyn) with no choice but to suspend him. Ken made a few more comments in the interview, which, interestingly (though not surprisingly) enough, sought to support Corbyn: Ken saw deep conspiracy in all this to smear Corbyn and “his associates” (presumably Ken included himself in this group, though he did not say this explicitly) as anti-Semite, neglecting to mention, somehow, that Corbyn himself had suspended Naz Shah, and Shah had issued grovelling apologies. (This suggests that Ken questioned the judgment of his mate, Jeremy, or else, he was suggesting that Jeremy did what his spokesperson said Naz Shah did, when she posted her comment on the Facebook: took an action he did not agree with.)

Coming back to Ken’s comment about Hitler and the Jews, it must strike those amongst us who have got a shred of decency as offensive and wrong on so many counts. Even George Galloway thought Ken’s comments were poorly judged (which is saying something; when it comes to making poorly judged insane remarks Galloway is the world-leader). Taking at face value, Ken seems to suggest that in 1932, when Hitler was elected, he was this nice, sensible, humane person, who was deeply compassionate towards the Jews; he supported Zionism, and was supportive of their wish to be relocated to Israel (which did not exist then, and would not come into existence for sixteen more years); until, regrettably, a few years later, he was struck down by mental illness (what was it? Schizophrenia? Bipolar Disorder? Adult ADHD?), and somehow ended up killing six million Jews. (Perhaps, Corbyn's spokesperson, if asked for a comment, will say Hitler did things he did not agree with.) If Hitler had not blown his brains away in 1945 and was captured instead, continuing with Ken’s logic, all that the man would have needed was a good barrister who would have put in a successful plea for manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility. Leaving aside all this, I fail to understand the logic of bringing in Hitler when Ken, for all outward appearances, was bleating about how Naz Shah’s comment was not anti-Semitic, not even offensive, but just “over the top”. Ken’s logic seemed to be as follows: “Look, even uncle Adolf, that paragon of humanity (before he went mad, of course), was supporting Zionism and doing what he could to “transport” the Jews to Israel, so what’s the problem with Naz Shah’s support to the suggestion that Israel should be relocated to America?

Here is a suggestion: if you are a public figure and are trying to defend your friend against the accusations of anti-Semitism, it is advisable not mention Hitler. Leave Hitler out of the debate. Chance are your comments will be misconstrued (or worse, people might see you as a racist); you will get suspended from the party; and you will end up dragging the party you purportedly hold so dear into unnecessary and wholly avoidable controversy.

Ken shows no signs of regret or repentance (which is entirely in keeping with the man's character: he has no insight) and is saying that everything he said about Hitler and Jews is a historical fact, which he can prove (Ken has George Galloway's support in this, which, if you ask me is a kiss of death). John Mann, the aforementioned Labour MP, publically confronted Ken after Ken's interview, and, when he managed to take a breather from hurling abuses at Ken, suggested that Ken needed help. (The consensus seems to be that Mann did not stage this performance; he just lost the plot, something which, ironically enough, he declared Ken had lost when he shouted at Ken. It was, to say the least, an unedifying spectacle.) My assessment is that Ken cannot be helped. (Come to think of it John Mann is beyond help, too. I think that both Mann and Livingstone have lost the plots. The kindest thing for them, and for the British public, is to throw both of them in a deep dungeon (and leave them to fight it out between them (with George Galloway as the referee)), and then throw the key in the sea.

Are Ken Livingstone and Naz Shah anti-Semite? The problem, here, is that racism, like most prejudices, is mostly subconscious for most people. What you are left with is a deep dislike for a group or people, which you try to rationalise using a variety of means. It is also worth keeping in mind that a racist person need not be prejudiced against all races. You may go on marches with the Africans and the Asians and the Arabs; and could be racially prejudiced against the Jews or Americans or Europeans or Russians or Scandinavians (either singly or in combination).

To paraphrase Brecht, when the Labour dies by its own hand (the next general election, in 2020) Corbyn, Ken Livingstone (I am sure he will be reinstated) and John McDonnell will be that hand.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Book of the Month: The Emperor of Lies (Steve Sem-Sandberg)




Steve Sem-Sandberg’s Emperor of Lies was a huge success in his native Sweden when it was published. It won Sweden’s most prestigious literary award, the August Prize. Since then the novel has gone on to become an international bestseller, and has been translated into 25 languages.



Emperor of Lies is a Holocaust novel; it can also be described as historical fiction. It gives the reader a view—that is panoramic and intimate at the same time—of the Jewish ghetto the Nazi established in 1939 in Lodz, a Polish city 70 miles from Warsaw (which the Nazis renamed Litzmannstadt, after Karl Litzmann, a German general who defeated the Russians near the city in the First World War). The ghetto, at one time, had a quarter of a million Jews—both Polish and those deported from other parts of Europe—living in it. It was liquidated in August 1944.



A dominating figure in the novel is Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the eponymous emperor of lies, the ‘eldest of the Jews’ and the ‘Chairman’ of the Lodz ghetto, who presided over it and its inhabitants (with the conniving eye of the Ghetto’s civilian German administrator, Hans Biebow, the real power in the ghetto), in the four years of its existence, in a manner that ensured that he (Rumkowski) would, forever, remain, a controversial figure in the history of the Holocaust.



Rumkowski, it should be noted, is only one of the many real life (and fictional) characters that populate this behemoth of a novel (640 pages). Indeed there are so many that after a while you lose track of them, especially those who make periodic appearances and zoom in and out of the narrative.



Rumkowski might be the central, even pivotal, character, but the novel is—despite its title—not about him; or not only about him. There are large sections of the novel where he is completely absent, as Sem-Sandberg goes into the minutiae of the lives of other characters. What Sem-Sandberg has attempted here, for the best part with great success and panache, is to create for the reader the day-to-day existence—if it could be called that—of its benighted Jewish residents. In his endeavours Sem-Sandberg was no doubt helped by the extensive records (more than 3000 pages) of the life in the Lodz ghetto, created, bizarrely enough, at the behest of Rumkowski, which survived the liquidation of the ghetto (and which, in addition to the accounts of the survivors of the ghetto, made him a villain, a Nazi collaborator, in the eyes of some). It is clear that Sem-Sandberg has painstakingly researched the novel. One of the consequences is that on several occasions the dividing line between facts and fiction gets blurred. Indeed there are instances when the writer makes it clear that he is telling a fact within the fiction (by quoting references). Some of the speeches delivered by Rumkowski—for example, his now infamous speech to the first departing families when the Nazis began liquidating the ghetto in 1943—and Biebow seem to have been quoted directly and are printed in a font that is different from that of the rest of the novel.  



There are so many characters in the novel, each with his own riveting story, that it is difficult to do justice to all of them in a single review. As the reader reads the travails of the ghetto’s denizens, their daily struggle for survival, and the unspeakable misery that pervaded what passed for their lives in the Lodz ghetto, the overriding feeling you are left with is of numbness. Sem-Sandberg’s achievement is that with only very occasional tendency towards melodrama, he depicts the full horror of the ghetto life. Indeed at times Emperor of Lies reads less like a novel than an account of the daily lives of Jewish families living in the Lodz ghetto. Some of the stories, like that of Adam Rezpin, are dealt with in some detail, whereas stories of some others, like that of Vera Schulz, the daughter of a Czech Jewish doctor, who is plucked out of Prague and deported to Lodz, are left without a closure. As a result the novel does not have an organized, concise feel to it. Only those readers with interest in and knowledge of the Lodz ghetto would be able to tell whether the wide cast of characters in the novel were true historical figures (who lived through those times) or whether they are the products of the writer’s creativity. Does the distinction matter? The answer is yes, but probably not a great deal. The stories of the several characters in the novel are variations of a single theme: the depredations of the human mind (in this case the Nazis) that make people commit abominable crimes against fellow human beings. If one assumes that the characters in the novel are purely imaginary (with the exception of the obviously historical characters such as Rumkowski and Hans Biebow to name just two; Heinrich Himmler, too, makes a guest appearance), then one wonders whether the theme couldn’t have been conveyed as powerfully with a smaller cast of characters. Their stories, however, are told extremely well, and have a kind of appalling fascination about them. Sem-Sandberg has created some bravura characters, such as the fat Jewish smuggler in the ghetto who is nick-named ‘The Belly’ in reference to his overhanging gut ‘between his flabby arms’, and Princess Helena, the highly eccentric bird-loving sister-in-law of Rumkowski. 



Sem-Sandberg goes in and out of the minds of the novel’s myriad characters with great ease. The exception is Rumkowski. Strangely enough he does not come alive for the reader the way many others, even the German administrator, Biebow, do. Sem-Sandberg does not attempt to enter the head of the man who presided over the lives of a quarter of a million Jews in a manner that—you are encouraged to conclude by the end of the novel—was autocratic to say the least. The inner world of Chaim Rumkowski does not lighten up for the reader. The reader is left to draw his own inferences about the character of the man from what he sees of his action through the prism of Sem-Sandberg’s prose.



The Rumkowski that emerges from the novel is a mixture of vanity, grandiosity, ruthlessness, perversion and pathos. Not a great deal of information is provided about his past. He is a failed businessman, and a ruthless and unscrupulous seller of insurance certificates. He is childless. When his first wife dies in 1937 (Rumkowski was 60 by this time) he has a kind of religious conversion, and he opens an orphanage for Jewish children, which, at its peak, houses several hundred children. The novel depicts Rumkowski as a paedophile, who sexually abuses his son whom he adopts in 1943.  (The son, along with the rest of Rumkowski’s family, was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and was murdered on arrival.) I do not know whether the paedophilic element introduced in Rumkowski’s character is based on historical evidence or is a product of the author’s imagination. If the latter is the case, one wonders whether it was necessary to make the man a paedophile in addition to his other myriad character defects—for which there is historical evidence is a-plenty. Rumkowski is chosen by the Nazis to run the ghetto (which lasted the longest, although all but 900 of its 230,000 inhabitants—Rumkowski included—were eventually murdered by the Nazis. When the Russians ‘liberated’ the Lodz ghetto there were only 877 inhabitants left in the ghetto.) Rumkowski has his own Jewish police force, headed by the wily and corrupt Dawid Gertler (who, the novel’s Afterward informs the reader, incredibly and unlike Rumkowski, survives the liquidation, and emerges in 1961 to testify against Fusch, the German commander in charge of ghetto). The Jewish police force is scarcely less ruthless than the Germans and, when the deportations begin, goes to great lengths to ferret out the hiding Jewish families so that they could be sent to their deaths. Corruption is rife (as are infectious diseases), and those in the good books of, or are close to, the ‘Chairman’ are higher in the pecking order. The ghetto has its own currency, called ‘Rumki’, and even postage stamps that bear the face of Rumkowski! There is no doubt that Rumkowski is a man fully convinced of his importance in the order of things.



When the novel opens, the ghetto has been ‘functional’ for almost three years. The war is turning against the Germans, although they will not accept it, at least not outwardly, and certainly not to the Jews. As Biebow informs Rumkowski matter-of-factly, Germans have to feed their own first. The dictate has come from Berlin that 20,000 of the ghetto’s Jews will have to be deported to the incinerators of the concentration camps. It is Rumkowski’s job to do that for them. Rumkowski gives a speech to the ghetto denizens and tells them that the only way to ensure that the ghetto exists is to give the Germans what they want. That means the old and the infirm and the children will have to go. In a speech (quoted in the novel verbatim from Rumkowski’s original) that is an odd mixture of pathos and grandiosity (“For 66 years I have lived and not yet granted the happiness of being called Father, and now the authorities demand to me that I sacrifice all my children”) Rumkowski ‘demands’ that the parents volunteer their children younger than 9 years to the German administration. That, he says, is the price the ghetto has to pay if the rest want to survive.



This seems to have been Rumkowski’s position all along. He would appear to have convinced himself that if only the Jews made themselves indispensable to the Germans by their ‘hard work’ and ‘production’, they would be allowed to survive in the Third Reich. Indeed he even imagined—so the novel tells you—that the Nazis would allow an autonomous Jewish state (of which of course he would be the ruler, the satrap of the Nazis) in their Reich. Hence perhaps his acquiescence to the German demands, and his constant mantra that only labour and hard work would save the Jews. Hence also perhaps his insistence that children as young as nine should do hours of back-breaking work to support the Nazi war-machine. That, he probably felt, was the only way to make sure that they did not end up on the transport carriages to incineration camps.  In this, as in his many other suppositions, Rumkowski was tragically wrong. While the Lodz ghetto survived longer than other ghettos (and made profits for the Nazis worth millions of deutschmarks), the Nazis liquidated it eventually, and Rumkowski’s life (as also the lives of his family members) ended like hundreds of thousands of Jews: in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. However, since the Nazi civilian administrator Biebow—who fought an increasingly desperate battle to keep Himmler’s SS from taking control of the ghetto—put Rumkowski and his Jewish police in charge of what he euphemistically put as organizing transport, it meant that the once-failed businessman was deciding who amongst the denizens of ghetto would stay back and have hopes of surviving and who would be transported to the death camps. And the novel suggests that he was ruthless about it.



In the Afterward to the novel Sem-Sandberg asserts that he has not taken any ideological position as to whether Rumkowski was a monster, a corrupt administrator who collaborated with the Nazis, or whether he—despite his character faults—did what he did with the genuine belief that that was the best way to ensure the survival of his people. That said the novel drops large hints that Sem-Sandberg belongs to the ‘Rumkowski is a monster’ camp (clue is in the title of the novel). His distinction lies in the fact that at no stage does he forget (and does not let the readers forget) who were the real villains: the Nazis. Rumkowski might preen as much as he wants, presiding over the fates of his fellow Jews, but the Nazis step in whenever they choose and put him in his place, such as the instance when Biebow slaps Rumkowski publically. They were the ultimate monsters who reduced a race to sub-human level.


As one finishes reading this absorbing, if somewhat rambling, account of a Jewish ghetto in Poland and its elderly Jewish administrator, one is left with indescribable feelings of sadness for the human condition. A remarkable novel on a tragic episode in the twentieth century European history, translated in faultless English by Sarah Death.  







Monday, 21 March 2016

Book of the Month: A Small Circus (Hans Fallada)



Michael Hoffman’s 2009 translation of Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin was a great success (the novel sold more than 350,000 copies in the UK alone).

Inevitably, the success of Alone in Berlin led to more works of Fallada (real name Rudolf Ditzen) being released for the consumption of the Western readers among whom, it would appear, there is an appetite for European novels about totalitarianism.

A Small Circus, published in the UK in its (excellent) English translation by Michael Hoffman, was Fallada’s debut novel. He submitted it for publication in 1930 and the novel was published the following year.

According to the foreword (by Jenny Williams), A Small Circus, like many other debut novels, was inspired by Fallada’s experience as a journalist working for a provincial newspaper in the small German town of Neumunster in the district of Schleswig-Holstein. Fallada worked for the local newspaper for two years and was an observer of not only the workings, machinations and petty politicking of provincial journalism but also of the political situation developing in Germany which would bring an end to the Weimer Republic and pave way to the rise of Hitler.

All of which is described in with great bravura in the blackly funny A Small Circus.  

Neumunster becomes Altholm in A Small Circus. It is the late 1920s and the German economy, burdened by the reparation demands of the Treaty of Versailles, is in a freefall. The democratic Weimer Republic is on its knees. In Altholm the Social Democrats (SDP) are in power, led by its frighteningly capable, larger than life, mayor Gareis. In his capacity as a mayor Gareis is also the Chief Commissioner of Police. Gareis is accountable and answerable to the district president Temborius who is based in Stolpe (another fictional town). Gareis’s work is cut out. He has to steer his way through what he sees as obstacles put in his path by other political parties in the region including the Democrats, the Communists, the right-wing Volkspartei, the Reichswirtschaftspartei which represents the interest of the middle-classes, and last but not least the National Socialists who are on the rise with their populist, xenophobic agenda. Then there are the local newspaper such as the right wing Chronicle with its menacing and devilishly cunning chief reporter Stuff who feels obliged to oppose tooth and nail every policy of SDP, the Volkszeitung which supports the SDP, and the highest-selling News which considers itself to be holding the centre position.

The situation in the district of Stolpe is like that which will be described as prevailing in Austria on the eve of its annexation to Germany a few years later: serious but not desperate. However it is about to become desperate for the ruling SDP. The farmers in the region, most of whom not rich and land-owning but small and independent, are seething with rage at what they see as very unfair taxation by the Republic, which they have come increasingly to view as anti-farmers and only having the interests of the working-class at its heart. The farmers form their own movement, Bauernschaft (based on the real life Landvolk movement formed by the farmers in Schleswig-Holstein in the 1920s, bitterly opposed to the taxation of SDP). The proverbial last straw that breaks the camel’s back is an attempt by a couple of hapless employees of the tax department to confiscate the oxen of farmers who are unable (unwilling as the administration sees it) pay the taxes. The tax officials are driven away but the identities of the assailants is captured in a photograph taken by Tredup, the perennially impoverished advertising manager of the Chronicle and a freelance photographer. Tredup sells the photographs to the district administration in Stolpe and Reimers, the headman of the village of Gramzow where the trouble with the tax-officials began, is arrested and thrown in jail in Altholm. The farmers’ movement decides to organize a huge demonstration in Altholm. Gareis, the mayor of Altholm, much to the displeasure of the district president Timborius, decides to give permission for the demonstration to go ahead. Once the decision is made all sorts of characters and forces swing into action vying with each other to add more spice into what is already promising to be a vindaloo. These include in no particular order the Fourth Estate, factions within the farmers’ movement, the district administration in Stolpe, and some fly-by-night characters who have no personal interest or stake in the local affairs in Altholm other than to have a damn good ruckus. No one—including mayor Gareis—is a saint, here, and every trick in the book—including threats, calumny, misinformation, blackmail, bribing—is employed by all the parties. The demonstration duly takes place on the due date and is dealt with unusual severity by the Altholm police force, inexpertly led by the bungling and bombastic Frerksen, the commander of the Altholm police force, who also happens to be a member of the SDP and probably owes his position to him being a lackey—as is accused in the right-wing Chronicle—of mayor Gareis.

The demonstration is a fiasco. To compound the problems for the Altholm businessmen and bourgeoisie the farmers in the region embark upon an unofficial boycott of the town which hurts the already ailing economy of the town. It is very clear that someone is going to have to take the blame for it; heads are going to have to roll. The question is: who would that person be. The person who, for many, is for the high jump is mayor Gareis, who makes it clear that try as he might he is simply unable to comprehend how it was his fault and the chances of him relinquishing the post willingly were less than slim. Frerksen is in trouble, too, for his inept handling of the farmers’ demonstration. District president Timborius’s role in the whole affair is also of interest partly because of his insistence that the farmers’ demonstration should not be permitted under any circumstances but also because of the ‘secret order’ he is supposed to have sent to Gareis on the eve of the demonstration about which the Altholm mayor is acting more coy than a Bollywood virgin looking at her beau with trembling lips,  knowing fully well what is it that is on his mind but acting ignorant all the same. The state brings charges against the torchbearers of the Altholm demonstration. This gives rise to a fresh round of back-stabbing, skulduggery and perjury in which all parties involved come out with flying colours.

When this sprawling, humongous novel of almost 600 pages draws to a close no one, unsurprisingly, emerges as a winner; and most characters get their just desserts.

A Small Circus is anything but small in its scope and the ambition of its author. The cast of characters populating it is extensive. A list given at the beginning of the novel of all the ‘dramatic personae’ that, in small or big way, propel the story further, is very handy, but despite that it tends to get a tad confusing at times. This is (I think) because of the sheer number of characters each and every one of them is up to some or the other shenanigan, but also because of the way the story is told so that the links amongst different strands of the story are not always apparent. The plot is revealed to the reader piecemeal, in snatches and, if you find yourself, from time to time, going back in the story trying to decipher the significance of a comment, say, you wouldn’t be the only one.

A Small Circus, on the face of it, depicts German life in a small rural town at a particular period in the history of Germany in twentieth century. The novel, several decades after it was first published is, still, relevant, not just because what we now know of the events in Germany in the 1930s, the rise of National Socialists and subsequent tragedy, which the novel—in its realistic and, frankly, terrifying, portrayal of Germany’s implosion—so superbly helps the reader to gain an insight into, but also because Fallada touches themes in the novel that ring true even now: the corruption in politics, sycophancy, the poor becoming poorer and rich richer.

A great pleasure of reading A Small Circus is the way the story progresses, which is mostly in dialogues, which, for the most part are quirky, idiosyncratic and funny. The credit for this should also go to the translator Michael Hoffman.

A Small Circus is an impressive novel, a caustic and piercing commentary on the greed, treachery and petty bickering that made Hitler’s dramatic rise to power possible.

Hans Fallada, according to various biographies I read of him on the Net, was a tortured soul. He died a broken man in 1947, of morphine overdose, at a relatively young age of 53, in East Berlin, East Germany where the Soviets had banned A Small Circus because of Fallada’s less than flattering description of the Communists in the novel. The success of Alone in Berlin (which heralded the revival of his works) and subsequent novels, in the West may have come too late for their creator, but it is still a deserving recognition of the genius.





Sunday, 7 February 2016

Book of the Month: Old Masters (Thomas Bernhard)



Old Masters is Thomas Bernhard’s penultimate novel (and my first foray into the Austrian novelist’s dark, misanthropic world). In it we meet 82 year old Austrian music critic, Reger, who, recently widowed, has arranged to meet with a younger critic, Atzbacher, in Vienna’s Kuntsthistorisches museum. Atzbacher has met with the old critic the previous day, at the Ambassador hotel in Vienna, and is curious to know why Reger wants to meet with him again.

As the novel opens we meet Atzbacher, who has arrived at the museum an hour before the appointed time of the meeting with Reger, and has taken a position in the “so called Sebastiano room” of the museum, so that he can observe, unobtrusively, the old critic—who, Atzbacher knows, will be sitting on a settee in the “so called Bordone room” of the museum, in front of the Tintoretto-painting of a White-Bearded Man, as he apparently has done for the past thirty tears—in profile. The day before, Reger had waxed eloquent about the “so called Tempest Sonnata”, and lectured young Atzbacher on the “Art of the Fugue”.

So the novel begins.

It is hinted that Atzbacher is a philosopher who is working on philosophical work over many years which is yet to be published; indeed Atzbacher, as the reader learns later in the novel, has never published anything. Atzbacher watches Reger, as the old man takes his position on the settee which he has appropriated, over the years, as some sort of personal property, sitting on which he has held many a public court, giving others—Atzbacher included—the benefit of his views on matters ranging from Austrian public lavatories to the Old Masters. Atzbacher watches Reger interacting with Irrsigler, the museum attendant, who is happy to serve as Reger’s personal attendant.

As Atzbacher watches Reger, he remembers his conversation with Reger the previous day in the hotel Ambassador. The reader soon learns that Reger is a man who holds the state of Austria in contempt. It is not, however, just Austria of which the old critic disapproves. Reger’s view of the contemporary culture is dismal. Come to think of it, it is not just contemporary culture that Reger rails against; he does not think highly of the old painters: El Greco is overrated; he can’t even draw a hand properly. That the Kunthistorisches museum does not even have an El Greco is proof enough for Reger of the inferior quality of the museum. (The museum does not have a Goya—a “tougher nut” although he, too, can’t paint a hand, either—who holds a slightly higher place in Reger’s esteem.) The old painters are imperfect. They “tire quickly” if you subject them to close scrutiny (as Reger obviously has done with ‘The White-Bearded Man’, over more than thirty years). They always disappoint if we “make them the ruthless objects of our critical intellect.” The closer we look at them, the more flawed they appear. And they mean nothing to us “in the crucial point of our existence.” They are nothing more than survival artists; their art has the despicable Catholic halo around it, patronised by the brainless Hapsburgs who were essentially anti-culture, and did not understand literature or painting. The Hapsburg promoted music only because they found it harmless. Austrian writers have nothing to say and cannot even write down that they have nothing to say. Their books are rubbish, the products of two or even three generations that never learnt to think. Reger has a visceral hatred for Catholicism (you will not be surprised to learn), as he has for Austria. Austria is a pigmy country, full of coverer-ups of crime, a country full of “congenital opportunist cringers”, and a country in which politicians have committed “murderous frauds”. Austria and Vienna have no culture. The Viennese are as monotonous and lacking in taste as the Germans. You walk through Vienna and all you see is “depressing faces and tasteless clothes.” The newspapers report scandals daily, but their calibre has sunk so low that that in itself is a scandal. Austria is apparently one of the dirtiest country in Europe. Vienna’s pissoirs are the dirtiest in Europe. The Austrians have the vilest characters in Europe; they are masters of deceitfulness. Irrsigler, the museum attendant who has served Reger untiringly over decade is a good man—particularly stupid but also particularly honest and undemanding. Not so his wife, though, with her “hysterical voice and hen like walk.” And he can’t stand Irrsigler’s children, either, who hang on to Reger’s coat-tails like burs.

And so it goes on.

The Old Masters, at almost 250 pages, is a spectacular and never-ending rant, which is presented in one continuous paragraph. (If I remember correctly Updike tried this—writing a novel as one continuous paragraph, in Seek My Face, with insipid results). The passages and sentences progress in loops: certain phrases are repeated—not for emphasis, you get the impression, but to convey the contempt—despair, even—of the narrator. Reger is the main protagonist of the novel, and he has his unique way of expression; however, other, even minor and peripheral characters in the novel sound exactly the same. It is as if there is an invisible omniscient puppeteer is controlling all the characters in the novel. I wasn’t sure even after I reached the end of the novel whether Old Masters was just a dyspeptic rant that represented, well, just that; or whether it was a of very sly commentary on art; or whether it was a (deliberately) skewed animadversion of life. It is, however, not random: you get the feeling that the whole novel is a cleverly and intricately plotted performance. The English translation (translated from German by Ewald Osers) I read was described on its jacket as ‘devilishly funny’. I was, again, not sure that Bernhard meant it as a comedy, even though his prose, style, and the nature of the narrator’s rant makes you wonder whether the narrator really means any of what his rant; and, if he doesn’t, is it all tongue-in-cheek? I wasn’t sure. The only thing I was sure about was that Old Masters was not like any of the novels I had read. I loved it.




Sunday, 24 January 2016

Book of the Month: I Served the King of England (Bohumil Hrabal)




I first became aware of the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal a few years ago, when I was, as was my habit, then, browsing through the fiction section of the local Waterstone’s. Two of his novels were prominently on display, and, importantly, were available for the price of one. On the front page was endorsement by Julian Barnes, who had described Hrabal as a ‘superb writer’. The combination of a bargain and recommendation from Julian Barnes was too much to resist, and I bought both the novels. They were entitled Closely Observed Trains, and Loudness of Solitude. I added the two novels to the ‘to-read’ list and forgot about them. Sometime ago, in an Oxfam book shop, I came across another novel by Hrabal(The Little Town Where Time Stood Still) and bought it (£1.99, another bargain). I have yet to read this novel as well.
The only novel of Hrabal I have actually read is I Served the King of England, and I borrowed it from the local library.
The narrator of I Served the King of England is a diminutive waiter called Ditie (the meaning of which is ‘child’, apparently). Ditie’s ambition is inversely proportional to his size. He may be a munchkin, and he may be a waiter, but he does not want to remain a waiter (although he would, forever, remain pocket-sized). He wants to open his own hotel and become a millionaire. Ditie works in various hotels, starting with Golden Prague, then The Trichota, and finally Golden Paris. Along the way he meets some memorable characters, such as a co-waiter at hotel Trichota, called Zdenek. As the second world war looms and the country comes under German occupation, Ditie marries a German woman. While Czech patriots are being detained and hanged, Ditie serves the Nazis in various hotels and retreats. After the war he becomes rich by selling rare stamps his wife (who dies during the war) has stolen from the Jews who were sent to their deaths in the concentration camps. With the ill-gotten money Ditie finally achieves his ambition and opens a hotel—the Hotel in the Quarry—and becomes a millionaire. Ditie’s fortunes nosedive with the 1948 Communist takeover of the country, although he does not quite see it that way. As the novel ends Ditie has ended where he began all those years ago: penniless doing manual job in a remote corner of Sudetenland; and indescribably happy.
I Serve the King of England has a picaresque, anecdotal feel to it. The novel, as it moves from one section to the next, seems more like a shaggy-dog story with which some old codger might regale his listeners over a pint of ale (or whatever the preferred alcoholic beverage in Bohemia was in the middle part of the twentieth century). The novel is more than a story; it is a story of stories. And all the stories—whether sunny or dark (and they do get darker as the novel progresses and the Germans invade Czechoslovakia) are fantastical in their tone, be they of the bandmaster uncle of Zdenek, the headwaiter at the Hotel Tichota, or the bets between Ditie and the maĆ®tre de at the Golden Paris Hotel (who actually served the king of England). It is almost as if reality is filtered through a prism which adds a magical dimension to everyday, mundane, happenstances. The writing is not stream of consciousness, but it takes the form of apparently unorganized juxtaposition Ditie’s perceptions and images as he trundles through life. Yet, as in a collage, it somehow comes together to form a whole that is more than a sum of its part.
Ditie, the narrator and protagonist of I Serve the King of England, comes across, at the beginning of the novel, as a man who is unequal to the task of viewing the world without frivolity. He is a man incapable of looking underneath the surface of things. Ditie is a hedonist. He also emerges as a man, as the novel progresses, lacking in conscience. While working in Hotel Paris in the 1930s Ditie starts learning German. Soon, he is practically the only waiter left in the hotel who would be prepared to serve Germans. The reader is not surprised when a German woman, ‘as short as’ Ditie and with sparkling green eyes, falls in love with him; and Ditie, forever in search of pleasure, marries her. Soon Germans invade the country and the novel enters a darker phase. As the Czech patriots are tortured and Jews are boarding the trains to concentration camps, Ditie subjects himself to the deranged Nazi project of producing ubermensch Aryan children (and produces a son who is mentally retarded). After the war ends Ditie makes his million, but his ‘German past’ continues to haunt him, and he remains persona non grata amongst his old acquaintances. Slowly, but surely, Ditie turns away from his obsession about material wealth and achieves (you hope) inner peace.
I Serve the King of England (the title is a bit of a mystery, as the narrator and protagonist, Ditie, never serves the king of England; he serves Haile Selassie, though, the exiled king of Ethiopia; it is Ditie’s boss at the Hotel Golden Palace, a peripheral character in the novel, who has served the king of England) is a bawdy, rumbustious and, at places, dark satire, which is, at the same time, a commentary on the mid-twentieth century Europe. Via his apparently unscrupulous narrator—who is funny precisely because he refuses to take anything and anybody, least of all himself—seriously— Hrabal is commentating on the emptiness of our existence, which is comic in a macabre way. The language is combative, at times hyperbolic, at times alarming. An intriguing novel.

 





Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Books Read in 2015





Below is the list of books I read in 2015.
Fiction
  1. The Apologist (Jay Rayner)
  2. Things Fall Apart (re-read) (Chinua Achebe)
  3. The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion)
  4. The English Teacher (R.K. Narayan)
  5. Kipling and Trix (Mary Hamer)
  6. Barracuda (Cristos Tsiolkas)
  7. The Old Masters (Thomas Bernhard)
  8. Woodcutters (Thomas Bernhard)
  9. The Last Word (Hanif Kureshie)
  10. The Blazing World (Siri Huvstedt)
  11. Boys and Girls (Joseph Connolly)
  12. To Rise Again at A Decent Hour (Joshua Ferris)
  13. Tigarman (Nick Harkaway)
  14. Where’d You Go Bernadette (Maria Semple)
  15. The Windsor Faction (D.J. Taylor)
  16. The Position (Meg Wolitzer)
  17. Lights Out in Wonderland (DBC Pierrie)
  18. The Interestings (Meg Wolitzer)
  19. The Legend of Holy Drinker (Joseph Roth)
  20. Stoner (John Williams)
  21. Strange Bodies (Marcel Theroux)
  22. Meatspace (Nikesh Shukla)
  23. The Dog (Joseph O’Neill)
  24. Empire Falls (Richard Russo)
  25. The Great Fortune (The Balkan trilogy) (Olivia Manning)
  26. The Spoilt City (The Balkan Trilogy) (Olivia Manning)
  27. All Quiet on the Western Front (re-read) (Erich Maria Remarque)
  28. The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing)
  29. Americanah (Chimimamnda Ngozi Adichie)
  30. Last Friends (Jane Gardam)
  31. The Wife (Meg Wolitzer)
  32. Gilgi (Imgard Keun)
  33. Accidental Apprentice (Vikas Swaroop)
  34. Marriage Material (Sathnam Sanghera)
  35. All the Birds Singing (Evy Wyld)
Non-Fiction
  1. The Back Story (David Mitchell)
  2. How Do  They Do It (Robert Hutton)
  3. Romps Tots and Boffins (Robert Hutton)
  4. The Wicked Wit of Winston Churchil (Winston Churchill)
  5. Selfish Whining Monkeys (Rod Liddle)
  6. Antidote to Positive Thinking (Oliver Burkeman)
  7. Serge Bastarde Stole My Baguette (John Dummer)
  8. My Story as an American Au Pair (Linda Kovic-Skow)
  9. The Shrink and the Sage (Julian Baggini and Antonia Macaro)


    2015 was slightly less disappointing a year than 2014 was in terms of the number of books I managed to read—I read 45 books, 5 more than the books I read in 2014—but nowhere near 2010, when I reached the dizzy heights of reading more than hundred books.

    When I went through the list of books I read in 2015 I noticed that the first book I finished reading was The Apologist by Jay Rayner. I began reading this novel on Kindle between the Christmas of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, but could not finish it before 2014 ended. What is the novel about? If my memory serves me right, it is a satirical novel about a bloke who is very good at apologising (the clue is in the title of the novel) and is hired by multinationals and even the UN (I think) as their apologist. This guy makes a living by telling the world that he (or the organisation for which he works) made a mistake. I can’t now remember how the novel ends—whether that is because I have forgotten the ending or because I did not reach the end of the novel, I have forgotten (which, apparently, is a tell-tale sign of Alzheimer’s; except that I have remembered that I have forgotten, though I can’t be sure). Why did I even buy this novel? Seeing as I bought the novel on Kindle I am sure that there was probably a deal, and the novel was available for 99 p or 50 p or some such ridiculously low price. Also, I was a tiny bit interested in its author. I do not think anyone outside of the UK would have any reason to know who Jay Rayner is—The Apologist is his first foray into the world of fiction writing. Those who are from the UK could also be excused for never having heard of Jay Rayner if they either (a) do not read the culinary section of The Guardian or (b) have never watched the BBC cooker programme Masterchef. Jay Rayner, I am happy to announce, is a celebrated food critic. I have seen him on Masterchef where, with minimum of fuss he is known to turn the contestants into aspic jelly (which, he informs them, with the slight curl of his lower lip—enough to convey the disgust that has filled him at being subjected to the horrors of wading his way through the inedible chicken chaud froid—has not been blended properly with the roux) and make them rue the moment of insanity when they applied to be in the contest. A tad heavy on sarcasm, Jay, and, for that reason, I thought that his debut novel would be the showcase of his trenchant observation and cutting wit. I was disappointed.

    A few of the novels I read in 2015, while they all had widely different themes, had the common factor of utterly absurd plots, which, nevertheless, did not make the novels less entertaining for that.

    Strange Bodies is a novel by Marcel Theroux, son of the prolific novelist Paul Theroux, and the nephew of the (less prolific) novelist Alexander Theroux. Strange Bodies is a bit like Never Let Me Go in that it has the trappings of science fiction but fancies itself as literary fiction. Marcel Theroux takes inspiration from the transhumanistic philosophy of Nicolai Fyodorov (Fedorov, in English), an obscure nineteenth century Russian philosopher who put forth theories about the perfection of the human race and, by extension, extension of human life (or consciousness), which could be described as interesting (or bat-shot mental), and weaves a metaphysical thriller that rivets you from the first few pages and keeps you under its thrall till the end.

    Another novelist who boasts of impressive pedigree is Nick Harkaway (pen-name of Nicholas Cornwell), who is the son of the legendry John le Carre (real name David Cornwell). The plot of Tigerman, Harkaway’s third novel, is as improbable as the pseudonym of its author. The best way to describe Tigerman is that it is a comic book thriller. It is not an easy novel to read (neither is it particularly memorable) but Harkaway is a writer who has a great feel for language, and there are passages in the book remarkable for understated dry wit. The novel has one of the most surreal openings I have read in recent years (a pelican swallows a live pigeon).

    Vikas Swarup, the Indian diplomat who also writes fiction, and whose debut novel, Q and A, was made into the film Slumdog Millionaire, has a female protagonist, Sapna Sinha, in his third novel, Accidental Apprentice. Sapna, a lowly paid employee in a television shop, is selected out of the blue by an eccentric millionaire, Vinay Mohan Acharya, as a potential candidate for the job of the CEO for his empire, which may or may not be in trouble. But there is a catch (there always is). In order to qualify for the job Sinha has to pass seven tests (and let me tell you that these tests are very different from those set by Alan Sugar in his UK television series, The Apprentice), which, Acharya believes, would test whether Sinha has leadership qualities. To make matters more interesting (for the reader) and difficult (for Sinha) she would have no prior inkling as what the tests are and when they would commence: they are ‘life tests’, you see. Accidental Apprentice is the second book of Swarup, which I have read (the first one was Six Suspects, his second novel). Swarup has a penchant for the hyperbole, and the way he uses language ensures that there is a constant undercurrent of hysteria and emotions that are threatening to run out of control. The plot is preposterous and some of the twists test the limits of your credulity; however, for all that Accidental Apprentice is an enjoyable romp. Vikas Swarup can be called as an Indian Jeffry Archer (and I say this as a compliment).

    The Irish/American novelist Joseph O’Neil’s earlier novel, Netherland, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize a few years ago. I had liked that novel. For that reason I had expectations when I began reading The Dog, O’Neil’s most recent novel; and these expectations were largely met. If you like your novels to be plot driven, The Dog is probably not the novel for you. If you like humour, but prefer it to be as subtle as the performance of a circus clown, The Dog will not appeal to you. The Dog tells the story of its unnamed protagonist (his name, which, the reader is informed, begins with the letter ‘X’, is so embarrassing that he refuses to divulge it), an attorney, who takes up a job in Dubai for an old school acquaintance, a scion of an extremely wealthy Lebanese family which may or may not have made its fortune in shady business deals. (As an aside, The Dog is the first literary novel that I have read, where the action—in a manner of speaking—takes place in Dubai.) You will not be surprised to know that it does not end well for the unnamed protagonist, who, for an attorney, shows a touching (if ultimately misplaced) faith in the essential goodness of human nature. You can view The Dog as a commentary on things that are going awry in modern existence.

    Christos Tsiolkas, like Joseph O’Neil, had one of his novels shortlisted for several prestigious literary awards—the brilliant The Slap. I had enjoyed The Slap very much, and with great anticipation I read Barracuda, Tsiolkas’s next novel, only to be disappointed. It did not work for me. I have reviewed this novel earlier on the blog.

    Unlike O’Neil and Tsiolkas, DBC Pierre (another novelist with a pseudonym; real name Peter Finlay) won the Booker Prize for his (debut) novel Vernon God Little, way back in 2003. Vernon God Little was a novel that divided readers and reviewers, if I remember correctly. There were those who liked the novel, and there were others, who, paraphrasing a friend, felt that to call the novel shitty would be to malign faeces. It had taken me a while to get into that novel, but once I did I’d thought it was hilarious. Lights Out in Wonderland, the novel of Pierre which I read in 2015, has a ludicrous plot that is adorned with outrageous set-pieces. The prose lurches between banal (I lost count of the number of times the words ‘limbo’ and ‘nimbus’ appeared) and coruscating. On the whole, it is an uneven effort by the 2003 Booker-winner, but, still, a testimony of the outrageous imagination of DBC Pierre.

    Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, has, at its heart, a hoax its (dead) protagonist plays on the art world. It also attempts to provide a wry commentary on sexism in the art world. The Blazing World is (for the want of better phrase) an intellectually sophisticated novel that is a meditation on identity and how a life can be perceived differently, as if through a kaleidoscope. The novel drags on a bit but is not as boring as Joseph Connolly’s Boys and Girls (see later) which, admittedly, is not saying much.

    I read, for the first time, The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing feministic totem, in 2015 (although in the preface of the edition I read Lessing was at pains to point out repeatedly that she did not consciously set out to write a feminist novel). One strand of the novel deals with the intellectual tortures of the middle-class English Communists of the 1960s: as the news of the atrocities in Russia begins to leak out, their rose-tinted view of Uncle Jo can no longer be sustained without premier league intellectual somersaults and distortions, which many of them are incapable of performing. Reading this bit of the novel fifty years on, when the full horror of the Communist regimes all over the Eastern Block has been laid bare, makes it difficult to appreciate the impact of these revelations at the time. (It may also be argued that Communism in England was never really taken seriously by the British public, and did not, for that reason, enter mainstream politics. The miseries and vexations of the Communists in the novel over whether or not they should stay in the party, borne out of an inflated sense of self-importance and the misplaced notion of the impact of the ideology they hold so dear on the wider society, are, inadvertently, amusing, almost comic.) The other strand, the one Lessing was so reluctant to own, but which has ensured the place of The Golden Notebook in the pantheon of the great novels of twentieth century, is of feminism. Anna Wulf, Lessing’s heroine, is a free woman, a feminist. There is a kind of self-consciousness about this portion of the novel. The situations (for example, between Anna and Molly’s husband, or between Anna and Molly’s son) and the dialogues (for example, between Molly and Anna) have theatricality about them; they seem like (very obvious) devices for Lessing to make her points. This part of the novel did not flow easily for me. Maybe that is just me.

    Joseph Connolly’s Boys and Girls, described on the blurb as a ‘superb satire of modern morality’, was, and it gives me no pleasure to say this, the most boring novel I read in 2015, beating Evy Wyld’s All the Birds Singing by a whisker (although All the Birds Singing won hands-down when it came to pretentiousness). Boys and Girls is set in the modern times, alright, but it is more of a high-octane melodrama than a satire. Connolly has taken a kernel of an interesting idea and tried to inflate it. Most of the novel is written in the stream of consciousness style, with inner monologues of the characters. Most of the characters do not have anything interesting to say, and they all sound exactly the same. A lot of the novel sounds like just drivel. Connolly was once described as ‘Wodehouse on acid’. In Boys and Girls he sounds more like ‘Wodehouse with Alzheimer’s’.

    Evy Wyld’s All the Birds Singing was strongly recommended by a member of my book-group. This guy does a job at the local council that should not even exist (the job; not the council); supports Labour party (he is overjoyed now that Comrade Corbyn is in charge); and is forever moaning that is good-for-nothing, brain-addled son, who is incapable of holding down a job because of his ‘issues’, is not getting Disability Living Allowance because the bloody psychiatrists wouldn’t accept that the boy is severely depressed and not a lazy skunk-smoker. The man has managed to get himself on some sort of group for the local library that selects ‘summer reads’ every year. Apparently All the Birds Singing was the unanimous first choice of this group (no doubt comprising morons like him with as much relation to literature as of a beef burger to haute cuisine). All the Birds Singing is about an Australian woman who lives on an unnamed island in Britain. The story of this woman has two strands. The present, which is told in the past tense; and the past, which is told in the present tense (and, in case that is not irritating enough, in reverse order, that is going back in time). We learn that the woman, who has a man’s name (Jake), was a prostitute in Australia after she ran away from home before she was kept a prisoner by an elderly Australian pervert. She then escapes from the clutches of the pervert and washes up in Britain where she becomes a sheep farmer. Evy Wyld is apparently on the Granta list of the most talented or the most exciting young novelists (or some such ludicrous title) in Britain. If that interests you, you can give All the Birds Singing a go. Or you can subscribe to my view that stabbing yourself in the foot would be less painful than reading this novel.

    I can’t quite figure out how I ended up reading three novels of the American novelist Meg Wolitzer, in 2015: The Position, The Interestings, and The Wife. Of the three The Wife was the most uninteresting; The Position was the most interesting; and The Interestings was not all that interesting. Wolitzer, however, writes extremely well; it is a pleasure to read her prose which manages the feat of keeping its distance from the dramas going on in the protagonists of her novels, and yet remaining connected.

    RK Narayan, the novelist Graham Greene admired the most, wrote many novels in his long life, a significant proportion based in the fictional town of Malgudi in South India. The English Teacher is supposed to be Narayan’s most autobiographical novel, based on Narayan’s short-lived marriage to a woman much younger than him and who died young (leaving behind a daughter whom Narayan, who did not remarry, raised alone; the daughter, too, pre-diseased Narayan). I have read a few novels of RK Narayan, which were much lighter in their mood and tone than The English Teacher. The English Teacher, like Narayan’s other novels, touches your heart with the simplicity of its prose, more alluring than any linguistic pyro-technique.

    I read two translated novels of the great Austrian novelist, Thomas Bernhard: The Wood cutters and Old Masters. It is impossible not to get sucked into the cantankerous, nihilistic rants of Bernhard’s protagonists who view death as a welcome solution to the bleak existence.

    Another member of my book-group, when I asked his opinion about Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, waved a dismissive hand, and followed it with the dismissive comment, “literary Mills and Boons.” Undeterred, I started reading the trilogy, and read the first two books: The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City. I greatly enjoyed reading the two novels which turned Rumania and Greece as the grand canvas on which a vast array of characters play out the dramas of their lives. The novels depict the advent of the Second World War from the eyes of the expatriate British who are ultimately outsiders in the Balkans. I have not read any of the Mills and Boons novels, but I can see why the member of the book-group felt the trilogy was “literary Mills and Boons” (primarily because he is a stuck up, snobbish ass who is incapable that women can be serious writers, but, perhaps, also because the novels focus more on their quotidian concerns and problems as the World War looms). A great strength of the novels is Manning’s keen eye for the absurdities, the foibles and the pretentiousness. The prose is addictive. I am at a loss to figure out why I did not complete the trilogy by reading the last of the novels, Friends and Heroes, probably because I was waylaid into reading some book selected by the Bookgroup which I otherwise would not have read (and should never have read). I shall read Friends and Heroes this year.

    Top 10 novels read in 2015
  1. The Old Masters (Thomas Bernhard)
  2. The Great Fortune (The Balkan trilogy) (Olivia Manning)
  3. The Spoilt City (The Balkan Trilogy) (Olivia Manning)
  4. Woodcutters (Thomas Bernhard)
  5. The English Teacher (RK Narayan)
  6. To Rise Again at A Decent Hour (Joshua Ferris)
  7. Empire Falls (Richard Russo)
  8. The Dog (Joseph O’Neill)
  9. The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing)
  10. Things Fall Apart (re-read) (Chinua Achebe)