Monday, 16 November 2015

Book of the Month: Ordinary Thunderstorms (William Boyd)

William Boyd is one of the most versatile authors writing today. Starting with his debut novel, A Good Man in Africa, more than two decades ago (also made into a moderately successful film), he has published several novels, handling different genres with ease. Restless, the novel for which Boyd won the Costa (formerly Whitbread) novel of the year award, was a departure of sorts for him. It was an espionage thriller, something which he had not written previously. Written in Boyd’s effortless, at times frolicky, narrative style, Restless was an absorbing tale of deep intricacies of wartime espionage, a novel Graham Greene would have been proud to write. Perhaps buoyed by the critical and commercial success of Restless Boyd published another thriller, Ordinary Thunderstorms. And he does not disappoint. Ordinary Thunderstorms has everything the Boyd-fans have come to expect from him.

At the centre of the thunderstorm of Boyd’s novel is Adam Kindred, a climatologist. Kindred, a Brit, grew up and educated in America, where he rose swiftly to the position of Assistant Professor in a prestigious institute. However, after an ill-advised fling with an erotomanic student and the subsequent bitter break up of his marriage, he has decided to return ‘home’. Kindred applies for a job at the Imperial College, London. In the evening after the interview, Kindred has a light supper in an Italian restaurant where he strikes up a conversation with a fellow American, Philip Wang. In the course of the conversation, Wang informs Kindred that he is an allergist. After Wang has left the restaurant, Kindred notices that he has left behind a folder. The folder also has Wang’s business card, which informs Kindred that Wang, a PhD from Yale, is the ‘Head of research and Development’ in a pharmaceutical company named Calenture-Deutz. Kindred phones Wang on his mobile and agrees to meet him that evening in the apartment Wang is staying. It is only to be expected (seeing as Ordinary Thunderstorm is marketed as a thriller) that when Kindred reaches Wang’s apartment, he finds Wang dying. Kindred has inadvertently walked into and interrupted a murder. Wang dies in Kindred’s arms, and Kindred leaves the room, Wang’s file still in his hands, with his fingerprints everywhere, including on the murder weapon—a knife he has pulled out of Wang’s chest. Kindred is now a murder suspect, and, since he has written down the hotel at which he is staying in the visitor’s book, the police know where to track him down. Kindred is faced with two unwelcome choices: either he surrenders to the police, gives his version of the events, and hopes for the best; or he goes on the run, buys himself some time, and attempts to sort things out in an orderly way. It comes as no surprise to the reader when Kindred decides to go underground. What follows is a highly convoluted and intriguing cat and mouse game that puts Kindred in improbably hopeless situations which he (improbably) survives, takes him to parts of London even the police would think twice about going into, brings him in contact with people no respected climatologist would be seen dead in company of, and, to top it all, has him take on the identity of an asylum seeker (who in turn has ‘bought’ it from a dying Italian junkie). There are wheels within wheels, and stakes are absurdly high. Big (and appropriately evil) pharmaceutical company bosses, psychopathic ex-soldier and hit-man who is after Kindred’s life although he has only the vaguest idea as to who his real employer is (and his employers are equally clueless as to the identity of the organization hiring him), a prostitute with a heart of gold (is there any other type?), a clever policewoman who plays an extremely significant role at crucial junctions in the story (even though she does not know that herself), and a loony evangelist who believes that Jesus was the fall guy and John was the real Christ are just some of the colourful characters that bob in and out of the narrative. There are plots and subplots, and each character comes with his or her own story that is but a part of the big jigsaw puzzle. Boyd, the consummate storyteller that he is, weaves all the apparently disparate sections of the story adroitly and eventually leads the reader to a near perfect climax.

Ordinary Thunderstorms seems like homage, at times, to many authors, both contemporary and of the yesteryears. The protagonist, Adam Kindred, bears a striking resemblance in his character traits to many heroes of Eric Ambler, the celebrated British novelist of the 1930s: he (Kindred) is, in many ways, an ordinary man leading ordinary, even unexceptional, life and has quotidian ambitions, until he unwittingly gets drawn into a conspiracy by being the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time; and his life turns upside down. For a considerable time he is in dark as to what is at stake; however being possessed of quick wits he soon cottons on to what is going on and turn the tables on his adversaries. When Kindred goes on the run, he decides that the only way to disappear totally from the 21st century-society and its Orwellian electronic surveillance system, is to opt out of it completely. He discards all the paraphernalia of the modern life; stops using credit cards and mobile; and, in the middle of London, finds a secluded triangle of wooded land near Chelsea Bridge where he leads a fairly primitive, though effective, existence. All of this is very reminiscent of the themes Paul Theroux pursued in one of his novels (Mosquito Coast) as also  of the late J.G. Ballard. The difference of course is that whereas Theroux’s and Ballard’s heroes are disenchanted with the modern society and make a conscious decision to opt out, Adam Kindred is forced to jettison his up-to-then respectable, middle-class existence. Also, Boyd is writing a thriller, which means that he has to leave this interesting strand of the narrative after a while: the hit-man ferrets out Kindred’s hideout, and he is once again on the run, finding succour in the company of the down-and-outs and ne’er-do-wells. Finally, the name of the drug, the cure for asthma, that is being developed by the pharmaceutical industry, is interesting: zembla 4. Zembla is of course the name of the imaginary and slightly sinister kingdom of the mad narrator of Nabakov’s celebrated novel, Pale Fire.

E.M. Forster famously said that every novel tells a story. To that I’ll add that a good novel tells a good story. By this yardstick Ordinary Thunderstorms is a good novel, as it tells a good story that rivets the reader throughout. Boyd takes great efforts to develop his characters and flesh out their individual stories. He is in his elements when describing the world of the rich and the powerful. Some scenes in the novel, for example the party hosted by the feckless aristocratic brother in law of Ingram Fyzer, the CEO of Calenture-Deutz, would have Evelyn Waugh nodding with approval. Slightly less convincing are Kindred’s liaisons with the prostitute, the improbably named Mhouse (pronounced ‘mouse’, we are informed). It is also a tad odd that Adam Kindred, an eminently respectable and clever scientist who has held high positions in eminent universities and whose only act of derring-do until then was to have a brief fling with one of his students, decides to go on the run rather than surrendering to the police when he witnesses a murder. With great ingenuity and cunning (and also with a little bit of luck) he faces situations nothing in his life up to then has prepared him for, survives assassination attempts of professional killers, and, in the end, virtually single-handedly brings crashing down the world of machinating pharmaceutical baddies. All of this is fantastic, perhaps too fantastic. For a person of his intelligence Kindred is curiously not much given to introspection either. He has little to no problem in begging, dossing out with other homeless losers, sharing a flat with a crackhead, and stealing identity of an asylum seeker. Boyd provides no direct explanation as to why a big American pharmaceutical company would want to suppress the serious adverse events in the trials of its anti-asthma drug and go to the extent of hiring a mercenary to bump off the potential whistleblower. The implied explanation—they are greedy bastards with the scruples of an Auschwitz commander—is too formulaic.

Reading Ordinary Thunderstorms is like enjoying the comforts of a luxury cruise as it goes from coast to coast in a leisurely speed—the novel lacks the break-neck speed of a classic thriller—which, while it may not be the most memorable journey of your life still leaves you with pleasant memories. William Boyd is one of the leading British novelists of our times. Ordinary Thunderstorms is a very entertaining novel, very competently told. It lacks the soul of Boyd’s great novel, Any Human Heart, his deeply moving literary chronicle of the twentieth century, but is worth a read.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Book of the Month: Nowhere Man (Aleksander Hemon)

Nowhere Man (the title inspired by a Beatle’s song, a favourite of the novel’s protagonist) is Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon’s debut novel. In six sections (seven, if you add the last one) the novel tells the story of one Jozef Pronek, a refugee from Sarajevo, Bosnia, eking out a lowly existence in Chicago, America, in a series of dead-end jobs.

Moving back and forth in time Pronek’s life-story is told by different narrators, some of whom are unidentified. The details in some of the narrations are so vivid and intimate that it is difficult to imagine them being told by anyone other than Pronek himself or the omnipresent author.

In the terrific opening section of the novel we see Pronek through the eyes of one of the unidentified narrators, a Bosnian like Pronek. The narrator has an interview for an ESL teaching job. When he is taken on a tour of the classrooms the narrator spots Pronek in a classroom, in the company of fellow Eastern Europeans, trying to learn gamely the Past Perfect, and recognizes him as the boy who was in the same school as he in Sarajevo. In subsequent sections we learn about Pronek’s childhood in Sarajevo, his adolescent romances and rebellions (in the third section of the novel, entitled Fatherland, Pronek goes to Kieve, Ukraine, the land of his ancestors, on a cultural visit, and throughout the visit remains oblivious of the  secret crush another Ukrainian-American adolescent has on him), and his attempts to survive in Chicago, America, his adopted land, as he canvasses door-to-door for Greenpeace, attempting gauchely, if hilariously, to raise funds. His fellow-fundraiser, Rachel, herself a descendent of refugees, falls for him and the two move in together, but Rachel’s fatal outspokenness brings out a sudden cathartic outburst of the long-suppressed tormented anger of the drastically polite and perennially excusatory Pronek, which probably takes even him by surprise and brings about a violent end of the relationship.

The curious last section of this curious novel (entitled, like the novel, Nowhere Man) tells the story of Evgenij Pick, a Russian adventurer and shyster, who lives by his wits in occupied Shanghai during the Second World War. The character of ‘Captain’ Pick might have been based on a real life character called Evgeny Mihailovich Kojevnikoff, a Latvian, who led a colorful life in Shanghai and became a Japanese collaborator during the occupation of Shanghai.

With Jozef Pronek we are firmly in the anti-hero territory. At one point in the novel, when asked whether he is a Muslim, Pronek replies that he is complicated. But he is not, really; he is a simple bloke who is unwittingly caught in the whirlpool of events in the Balkans beyond his control (and, perhaps, comprehension), and finds himself washed up in Chicago, America, carryingout hand to hand combat with the language of the natives. Although it is not clarified in the novel, Pronek, with his Ukrainian ancestry, is probably not a Muslim. He consider himself a Bosnian; he has Muslim friends (in the company of one of  whom he even forms a band that destroys Beatle’s songs, in his adolescent years in Sarajevo); and, not  surprisingly, his sympathies appear to lie with his fellow Bosnian Muslims rather than the Serbs, who are viewed as aggressors.  He goes to Ukraine, the land of his forefathers, but he doesn’t belong there; and he clearly does not belong in America despite his heroic efforts where he is less at ease than the Pope in a Vegas bar. Pronek is truly a nowhere man. He is like a leaf going wherever the wind will take it, without direction. But it is like this for him because he is the victim of circumstances. In other times, in another reality, things might have turned out differently for him and he would never have left Sarajevo. But that was not to be. Yugoslavia imploded after the death of Marshal Tito and war arrived in Sarajevo.

The horror of the bloody civil war in Bosnia, the infamous four-year siege of Sarajevo by the forces of Mladic, and the massacre in Srebenica are conveyed through newspaper headlines and television programmes, somewhat sparsely, in contrast to the richly evocative details of Pronek’s childhood and adolescence in Sarajevo. (Sarajevo in the 1980s, still under a Communist rule, the unidentified narrator says, was a beautiful place to be young. “I know, because I was young then.”) While the Bosnian war provides a silent backdrop to many events in the novel, Hemon is too skilled a novelist to allow it to dominate the narrative.  Nowhere Man is not a novel about the Yugoslav civil war; it is a novel about a man who has lost his moorings for no fault of his own and because of events beyond his control.

Many first novels are autobiographical, and Nowhere Man, one suspects, is no exception. Like Jozef Pronek Aleksandar Hemon arrived in America on a cultural visit in the early 1990s and was stranded when the war in Bosnia exploded and the hostilities between the Serbian forces and Bosnian Muslim army commenced. He was granted political asylum and he lived in Chicago doing a series of lowly paid jobs. Hemon apparently taught himself English by reading Vladimir Nabokov with the aid of (one suspects a well thumbed) dictionary, and started writing in English five years later. May be it is because he learnt English late or perhaps because he has a quirky approach to language (not uncommon in other Eastern or Central European authors who write in English, whom I have read), Hemon’s writing bursts with unusual imagery, disingenuous metaphors, and unusual figures of speech. Hemon has a great eye for the quotidian, which, with his unusual gift for the language, opens up for the reader a whole new way of seeing things.  Nowhere Man is quite an astonishing piece of writing, remarkable for its inventiveness. It is sharp, clever, and resourceful writing, which hits the mark most of the time.

My only concern about Nowhere Man is that it seems overstrained. The novel reads more like a series of anecdotes in the life of Jozef Pronek. Each anecdote is entertaining, at times thought provoking, too, but the anecdotes do not cohere into a whole that one can make sense of. It is a fairly compelling read, though, and you find it easy to warm up to the novel's hapless but very likable protagonist.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Irmgard Keun

I came across this book by chance in the local library. On a weekend, having nothing better to do, I had sauntered into the local library, which has a very decent collection of fiction as well as non-fiction. I sat in one of the chairs, contemplating, as I am wont to do from time to time, on the abject stupidity of life, when one examines it deeply, and how this understanding brings one nothing but disillusionment, wondering, for that reason, whether this level of deep insight is desirable and whether people like me who attain this insight were cursed, and, what should be the response when one achieved this deep understanding: the French school of philosophy—Jean Paul Sartre’s Existentialism, or the British school of philosophy—Pythonism—depicted so elegantly in The Life of Brian, when I was distracted by a young couple who came and sat on the sofa opposite me. The man had a repulsive beard which failed to disguise the fact that below it was a repulsive face. The woman had mousy blonde hair, freckles on her face, and improbably large breasts. Both of them were wearing clothes that looked as if they had bought them all in one car-boot sale five years ago (and washed only once, since). The man took out a book from the ruck-sack, opened a page and started whispering something into the woman’s ears, and the woman started nodding and smiling, as if whatever the man was whispering had clarified a problem that was vexing her for years. It was excruciating to see them sharing that sofa, or worse, imagine them sharing a bed—her nipples, like a pair of snouts, getting entangled in the repulsive beard.

There was only one thing to do. I got up and began browsing the shelves. That’s when I came across this book.

It was an English translation of a German language novel entitled Gilgi, and its author was one Irmgard Keun.

I read that this novel, the author’s debut novel, was first published in 1931, when Keun was twenty-six. The novel, its original German title, Gilgi, One of Us, was apparently a best seller, and created sensation upon its publication. The novel was made into a film, which was also a huge success in its time. Keun followed her debut novel with another best seller that came out the next year, in 1932, entitled The Artificial Silk Girl. Keun went on to publish a few more novels—all in all she published eight novels—before falling silent—creatively—in the 1950s. Between 1949, when her seventh novel was published, and 1982, when she died, Keun published just one novel, and, by all available accounts, wrote very little.

There is nothing out of the ordinary in this story. There are plenty of authors or novelists, who publish books which achieve great popularity and commercial success upon publication, but which are forgotten with the passage of time, either because the novels are not as good as that, or, because for tragic reasons the author is forgotten. Some authors, decades later (invariably posthumously) are re-discovered: a manuscript that never saw the light of the day, is fortuitously found in the basement of an apartment in Paris, and is declared, upon its publication, to be a masterpiece, which, in turn, revives some interest in the dead author’s earlier novels (the author by now is long since dead, usually having died in penury, thereby adding a tragic aura, which does no harm to the books' sales, although, admittedly, the author is not in a position to benefit from it).

With the Nazis' ascent to power in 1933, Keun's novels were branded anti-German and were blacklisted. Keun then took the intrepid—insane, if you are of squeamish disposition—decision of suing the Gestapo for loss of earnings! Of course she lost. Her novels were amongst those burned by the Nazis in the 1930s.

By this time Keun, who had stage aspirations in her early life and had managed to get a number of minor film roles before she turned her hand to writing, had married a novelist of minor repute, Johhanes Tralow, who was 23 years older than her. Tralow, who, I guess, is also a forgotten name, was a dramatist and author of historical novels: in the 1940s and 1950s Tralow published four novels on the Ottoman Empire. Tralow, who was in his fifties when Hitler came to power, lived in semi-retirement in the 1930s and worked as a free-lancer.

In 1937, by this time Keun had not been able to get her books published in Germany for four years, Keun divorced Tralow, and left Germany. It is said that Tralow was a Nazi sympathizer, though it is not known whether he was a member of the Nazi party. In his final years Tralow moved to GDR, and his last published work of fiction, published a year before his death, in 1967, was on the life of Prophet Mohammad. With the publication of this novel, on which he worked for many years, Tralow wished to deepen the friendship between the West and the Arabs and hoped to enhance understanding of the Arabs in Europe (an ambitious aim, if there was one). That Keun divorced Tralow suggests that she took the decisive action of deserting the man with whose ideology she differed vehemently; however, I saw on YouTube an interview of Keun’s daughter, Martina Keun-Geburtig, conducted in 2011, in which Martina, Keun’s daughter from another relationship, narrates that it was Tralow who divorced Keun “in the name of German people”, because he did not want to be seen to be associated with the woman who was blacklisted by the Nazi regime.

After she left Germany, Keun led a peripatetic existence in Europe and America over the next three years. She went to America in 1938, but could not stay beyond a few months because she only had a tourist visa. While in Exile, Keun is said to have associated extensively with other anti-Nazi writers such as Heinrich Mann, Ernst Toller (who features in Anna Funder’s excellent All that I Am), and Stefan Zweig. She also had a romantic relationship, which lasted for 18 months, with the Joseph Roth, who, being Jewish, was living in exile in Paris, and was drinking his way to an early grave. (I don’t know who the father of Keun's daughter was, but wouldn’t it be romantic to imagine that this daughter was the love child of Keun and Joseph Roth, although it is unlikely: the manner in which she spoke suggested that the daughter had little first-hand knowledge of her mother’s life in the 1930s and 1940s.) Keun published two novels (After Midnight and Child of All Nations) during what must have been a very turbulent period in her life, which, according to the afterward of Gilgi (written by its translator), are considered to be among her best.

In 1940 Keun was in Amsterdam, Holland, when Germany invaded that country. Keun then took another remarkable decision. She decided to return to Germany. She planted a story in the newspaper that she had committed suicide in response to the news of the fall of France. She then returned to Germany by persuading a German bureaucrat to issue her a passport—years later she recalled in an interview that she spoke to the bureaucrat “until his penis shrivelled up”—if not of a false identity, then under different name: Charlotte Tralow—Charlotte being her second name and Tralow her married name (although she had divorced Tralow). Upon her return to Germany Keun saw off the war years in Cologne, with her parents (where, as per the interview of her daughter, she, too grew up).

Keun apparently edited her books herself, but rarely read the wholes books once they were written. Her daughter, in the interview, offered her insight as to why Keun was forgotten and her books were not widely read and acclaimed in the 1950s, after the Second World War. According to the daughter, people in Germany were still influenced by the Nazis, and saw rather a lot of themselves in Keun’s novels, which, the daughter hypothesized, must have made them uncomfortable. (I find some inherent contradiction in this: how could people see themselves in Keun’s novels without reading them; unless you take the view that the majority of German people, aware of Keun’s reputation as a vehement anti-Nazi, suspected that her novels would also be anti-Nazi and did not run the risk of unsettling their mental equilibrium by reading the novels which, they feared, would hold a mirror up to them?)

I read in an article that Keun ended her life in penury, in a small studio apartment. For six years—from 1966 to 1972—she was committed to a mental asylum in Bonn. Her daughter, in her interview, did not mention any of this. She described her mother as a vivacious and attractive woman (in her prime) who was charming and intelligent company and knew how to “snag men”. The daughter took a long pause, when the interviewer asked her whether Irmgard Keun was a happy woman. She then said that her mother always maintained that the Nazis stole away the best years of her life (presumably between 1933 and 1945—beginning with the year when her books were blacklisted, until the end of the Second World War); which was not what the interviewer had asked her.

Maybe Keun was irretrievably affected by the experiences between 1933 and 1945, and never quite recovered from the trauma of that period. She published very little after the end of the Second World War. A novel came out in 1950 (Ferdinand, A Kind Hearted Man), a collection of short stories in 1954 (If We were all Good), and another book in 1962.  A meagre output in comparison with the six novels she published between 1931 and 1938 (the novels between 1933 and 1938 were published outside Germany).

There is, however, a happy ending (of sort) to this otherwise tragic story. Towards the end of her life, in the late 1970s, Keun was re-discovered, as it were, following an article in one of the literary magazines in Germany; and her best novels of the 1930s were re-issued. Many were subsequently translated into English.

One hopes that Keun died a woman at peace with her destiny.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Book of the Month: Canada (Richard Ford)

American novelist Richard Ford’s writing career can be neatly (if somewhat simplistically) divided into two parts, a game of two halves if you prefer (trite) football-related analogies. The Ultimate Good Luck, one of Ford’s early novel s, for example, was a pacy, hard-boiled thriller with prose that was vivid and taut. These novels—I heard Ford telling in a literary festival—written with one eye on the commercial markets, did not sell, were not particularly critically acclaimed, and triggered a crisis of confidence of sorts. Encouraged by his wife (Ford said) who was happy to be the breadwinner for the family, Ford changed track completely, and published The Sportswriter, which is considered to be his breakthrough novel. In it Ford introduced Harry Bascombe, the novel’s hero who was incapable of letting a leaf fly off the branch of a tree without making a wry, pithy and deeply meaningful observation about. Ford has written two more (hugely critically acclaimed) novels featuring Harry Bascombe. The middle novel of the trilogy, Independence Day, won the 1995 Pulitzer Award for fiction. From time to time, however, Ford has attempted to return to his old territory. His 1990 novel, Wildlife, (which I think is absolutely first rate) described three days in the life of his sixteen year old narrator. The novel had a pervading sense of foreboding and the reader could only helplessly turn page after page; the novel was unputdownable. I don’t think, however, that Wildliife was received as enthusiastically by the critics as Ford’s literary novels.

In Canada, Ford’s eighth novel, published in 2012, Ford tries to find a via media between his literary novels and novels depicting what I have read some reviewers describe as dirty realism.

Canada has one of the most intriguing openings I have read in a novel. “First I’ll tell,” the narrator, Dell Parsons, tells the reader, “about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” In the five hundred plus pages that follow Ford almost manages to live up to the expectations and the sense of anticipation created by the opening.

Canada, narrated by a man in the twilight of his life—who is looking back on his life and the events that shaped it—is divided into three parts. The first part, as the novel’s opening line informs, is about the robbery committed by the parents of Dell Parsons and his twin sister, Berner; the second part is about the murders; in the third and final part, which is in the present, we find Dell Parsons, nearing seventy, still trying to find a closure to the seminal event that had an indelible effect on his (and his sister’s) life. I

In the first part of the novel we meet the Parsons family. Beverley Parsons, a Southerner and a Second World War veteran, his Jewish wife, Neeva (whose parents have severed contacts with their only child after she throws away what they see as a bright future by marrying what they see as a hick from Alabama), and their fifteen year old fraternal twins: Dell—a studious, slightly geeky boy who harbours the ambition of becoming a chess champion—and Berner—a not very attractive girl with a flat face and freckles and a sharp tongue. When the novel begins Bev Parsons has been honourably discharged from the United States air force and is eking out rather precarious existence, in Great Falls, Montana,  by dreaming up dodgy schemes which clearly fall foul of the law and bring him in contact with unsavoury characters. Neeva, who is beginning to regret her marriage to Bev and has been thinking about leaving him, is a teacher in a primary school. Then one of Bev Parson’s risky schemes goes wrong and he ends up owing money to the Indians who leave him in doubt the extent to which they would be prepared to go to recover what Bev owes them. Bev Parsons then hatches a plan to rob an agricultural bank in the neighbouring state of North Dacota. Neeva, who ought to have known better than her husband whose judgement has always been less than robust, goes along with Bev’s reckless plan. The inevitable happens and the pair is apprehended by the police in their home within a week of the robbery and is whisked off to jail. In the days leading to their arrest, Neeva, on whom the gravity of what they have done is dawning, has made some last ditch arrangements for her children whom she does not wish to become wards of the state following their imprisonment which she believes is inevitable. The plan is to send the children to Canada to stay with the brother of a friend of Neeva in Great Falls. In the second part Dell Parsons looks back upon the months he spends in the half deserted town (Maple Creek) in Saskatchewan, Canada, in the company of the mysterious Arthur Remlinger, an American who has a violent, mysterious past, which he is anxious stay concealed. Remlinger is prepared to go to any extent—even murder—in his attempts to ensure that his past deeds lay buried. Fifteen year old Dell, parentless and without a family—Berner having walked out of the house before their mother’s friend turned up to smuggle the children across the border into Canada—is drawn into burying the bodies of the Americans who have driven into Maple Creek to ask Arthur Remlinger a few questions he is reluctant to answer. In the third and final part Dell Parsons, who has led a blameless, middle class existence as a teacher and has enjoyed happy, if childless, matrimony, tries to make sense of the course his life has taken; meets with his sister Berner—who, unlike him, has led a tragic, chequered life—just before she succumbs to lymphoma; and comes to the not-altogether-surprising conclusion, of which he has given the reader a hint in the opening paragraph of this remarkable novel, that it was their parents’ calamitous decision to commit a robbery that set his and sister’s lives on the vastly different courses they eventually followed, and nothing that had happened would make sense without it.

Canada manages the feat of being intense and profound while progressing at a leisurely speed without ever becoming desultory. The languid speed of the novel is very similar to Ford’s trilogy of Harry Bascombe. Ford achieves this by infusing the novel with an inner force, a kind of silent energy. Ford’s sense of time and place is near faultless. The first part, where Beverley Parsons slowly, and with precision, chalks his and his family’s way to ruin, is the literary equivalent of watching a fatal crash in slow motion. It is this part that forms the emotional backbone of the novel. In the second part—where young Dell Parsons finds himself in cold and bleak Saskatchewan in the company shadowy people with mood swings more violent than tropical thunderstorms —the novel lurches abruptly away and risks losing the focus and intensity of the first part. Ford just about pulls this off. The vivid and lyrical, yet haunting, descriptions of the Saskatchewan prairie provide substantial background and depth to this part of the novel. The murders, while they have nothing to do with the robberies committed by the parents serve to add to already increasing burden of guilt of the narrator for the events which are not of his making.

Ford’s prose is simple, prosaic, sparse, unostentatious—there is none of the dense, dandyish prose of the Harry Bascombe novels—yet of great melancholic beauty; and does full justice to the odyssey of Dell Parson’s life—tragic, yes; unfulfilled, perhaps; but also the innate strength and sheer tenacity of human nature to prevail over adversity.

Canada is a gripping tale of the bewildering follies of human nature that come to exert influences on those whose lives are affected by them for years, long after the original act is committed. The novel is almost a masterpiece.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Book of the Month: Inheritance (Nicholas Shakespeare)

Inheritance is the second novel of British writer Nicholas Shakespeare that I have read. Many years ago I read High Flyer, one of his early novels. I don’t remember much about it other than that it was a comedy of manners. It did not work for me and over the next few years I steered clear of his novels. I bought a couple (Dancer Upstairs and Snowleg) which attracted good reviews; the subject matter of Snowleg, set in Cold War Berlin, also interested me. Both these novels have been in my collection for many years but I have not yet got round to read them.

Inheritance is two novels in one. The first one, one with which the novel opens, is a modern day comedy of manners. Andy Larkham is a well meaning if slightly feckless assistant editor in a small-time publishing company called Carpe Diem that sells Self-Help books at bargain-basement prices. Bullied into accepting a low salary by his overbearing South-African boss Rian Goodman, Larkham leads an impecunious existence, depending on the weekly largesse from the only other employee in Carpe Diem, Angela, who is Goodman’s PA, to keep the creditors at bay. It is his lack of solvency that, Andy suspects, is the reason why his fiancée, Sophie (who is a model and earns a lot more than him), has dumped him (in a painfully funny scene where Sophie informs Andy of her decision to leave him over a dinner in his favourite Portuguese restaurant, for which she ends up paying, as Andy’s credit card is rejected; and he is further mortified to discover that the new man in her life was sitting at the next table all through their dinner, having been summoned by Sophie in case Andy created trouble). Then Andy receives a manuscript from his old school-teacher Stuart Furnivall. Furnivall has been an inspirational teacher for Andy. He is now retired and over the years Andy has kept in touch with him, although not as frequently as either would have wished. Furnivall, in his retirement, has produced a volume of work on the 16th century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, which he sends to Andy for his opinion. Andy, mired in editing self-help books (ranging in titles from good sex to efficient guide dogs) simply does not have the time to go through the voluminous manuscript, and he is not impressed by the first few pages he manages to read. Then Andy receives a call from another teacher informing him that Furnivall has died. Wrecked by guilt at not having kept in touch with his old teacher Andy decides to attend the funeral. Except that, upon reaching the crematorium late, he dashes into the wrong funeral, which he is too embarrassed to leave half-way through. He even ends up signing the condolence book. He is therefore flabbergasted to learn a few weeks later, from the executor of the will of the dead man, that by dint of accidentally attending the funeral of a man he had not known or met or heard of until then, he has become rich beyond imagination. The dead man decreed in his will that his vast estate be equally divided amongst whoever attends his funeral service. Since Andy was one of the only two—the other being a sour-faced old woman with Eastern European looks—he is the beneficiary of 17 million pounds.

How does one cope with sudden, unexpected riches which one realises at one level one does not deserve? Pangs to Andy’s conscience are not eased when he learns that the dead man, one Christopher Madigan, has a daughter who is not going to get a penny of her father’s fortune because she reached the funeral service just after it was finished and the pedantic executor refused to allow her to sign the condolence book. The daughter, Jeannine, has been estranged from Madigan for years; she visits Andy on a couple of occasions at his tacky London flat demanding to know how he had come to know her father who, for the last however many years of his life, led, as far as she was aware, an isolated, curmudgeonly existence. Thinking that the daughter intends to contest the will (and panicking) Andy embarks upon the most outrageous lie by weaving the story of his dead teacher and his interest in Montaigne into Madigan’s last years, and only just gets away with it thanks to Jeannine’s having had no contact with her father for several years (plus her total incuriosity about wanting to check—which she could have easily done had she chosen to by speaking to the other attendee of Madigan’s funeral, the old woman who is indeed Madigan’s housekeeper for several years—whether the kind of things Andy tells her about her father’s last years are in fact true). To Andy’s relief, Jeannine decides not to contest the will. He duly receives his manna, and, as the cliché goes, his life changes—for the better for all outward appearances. Andy has revenge sex with Sophie who tries to sidle back into his life; quaffs vintage red wines (a 1982 Petrus, a 1997 Sammarco); buys flash cars; donates his Le Corbusier chair and Warhols to charities; presents his friends with expensive gifts (a friend looks out of the window of his house one day to find a brand new Toyota parked in front of it), and laments that the friends do not appear sufficiently grateful—indeed the more gifts he showers on them the more sullen they become. Money, Andy discovers, can’t buy friendships, in fact it seems to repel his old friends from him.

Andy is curious to find out more about his benefactor. Not being able to find out much in the way of useful information other than that Madigan made his fortune in mines and probably had Armenian ancestry, Andy decides that the only way to find out more about the dead millionaire who seems to have existed below the radar (remarkable given his vast fortune which ought to have earned him a regular place in the Times’s yearly list of 500 richest people in England), is to speak to the man’s housekeeper, Maral, who, like him, has become excessively rich.

The narrative changes its tone and gear at this point. It becomes more sombre as Maral tells Andy the story of Christopher Madigan in a guesthouse in Cornwall, and how this rich man came to be estranged from his only child. Andy discovers that Madigan indeed was of Armenian descent and was born Krikor Makertich in the Syrian city of Appello, to which his grandmother had escaped in the wake of the 1915 Armenian Massacre in Turkey. Indeed Krikor is one quarter Turkish, as his father was born after his (father’s) mother was raped by a Turkish soldier. After his grandmother’s death the family moves to the Australian outback, carving out a hand-to-mouth existence. Young Krikor loses his heart to a young woman named Cheryl, the daughter of his Australian employer, only to be spurned by her family on the grounds that Krikor is not good enough for their daughter. Krikor, over the next few years, fortuitously makes his fortune in the iron ore, relocates to England, changes his name to Christopher Madigan, gets rid of his Australian accent, and leads a quiet life of a rich Englishman. Then he meets Cheryl, fortuitously (there are rather a lot of coincidences in the novel), in a pub where she is now working as a waitress, things having gone spectacularly wrong for her family financially. Her father ill-advisedly invested money in a scheme (that probably gave Bernard Madehoff the idea to start his ponzi scheme) and the fraudster who duped the family and to whom Cheryl was engaged disappeared. Makertich/Madigan marries Cheryl and in due course they have a daughter, Jeannine. Just when life seems to Makertich/Madigan the proverbial bed of roses, the fraudster makes a re-entry and Cheryl loses her heart to him for the second time. When Makertich/Madigan discovers his wife’s infidelity he blows off like an Iraq refinery bombed from above. Cheryl is given the marching orders; she is compensated financially on the condition that she is not to have any further contacts with their daughter. Of course it does not go to the plan. Cheryl manages to smuggle Jeannine away (due to a basic error of judgment from Maral, the housekeeper, which ensures that she will have a lifetime of guilt and regrets), and poisons her daughter’s mind against her father.

The narrative once again lurches into the present. Andy, having heard Madigan’s life story, decides that it is his duty to (a) come clean about the lies he told Jeannine about his non-existent friendship with her father and (b) redeem the dead man in the eyes of his daughter. That duly happens and it all ends well.

In Inheritance Shakespeare does not seem able to make up his mind whether he wants to tell a light-hearted, modern-day morality tale or a reflect on weightier themes such as what it means to individuals to feel that they belong, how people come to terms with loss, the consequences of decisions people make which come to haunt their lives, and the unseen hand of the unpredictable fate that shapes lives.

The novel starts off jauntily enough, and, as one reads the tribulations of the likeable, if hapless, Andy, one settles into the rhythm of the narrative, which is fast paced, and its tone, which is light-hearted. The tone and the pace shift so noticeably when the story of Madigan begins to unfold that you almost feel the jolt. While there is nothing wrong in giving the reader a jolt once in a while, the lengthy sections devoted to Madigan’s story give the novel a sense of disjointedness.

Christopher Madigan’s story is not lacking in drama; if anything it is too melodramatic at times. The circumstances in which Madigan loses the custody of his daughter to his faithless wife and the subsequent breakdown of his relationship with his daughter are, on the one hand very theatrical, on the other unconvincing. It stretches the limit of credulity to assume that a powerful multimillionaire simply goes along with the lie his ex-wife decides to tell their daughter—that he has left the family in England and gone to Australia when in fact he is living practically next door—and the daughter, even when she grows up, does not see through it. The conveniently recurrent appearances of the villain Flexmore (although it is not the only name by which he goes) at convenient junctures in Madigan’s life are almost too convenient. The only purpose, it seems, Flexomore has is to destroy Madigan’s happiness. The ruse Flexmore uses to lure gullible, unsuspecting individuals to part with their money is so crude (and a bit silly) that it is difficult to believe the novel’s projection of him as some sort of master criminal who has evaded the Interpol for decades.

Madigan’s Armenian ancestry and the historical background of the 1915 Armenian massacre provide no new dimension to the story. For all you care Madigan could have been Zlatan Bogdanovic from Serbia and it would have made no difference to the story. The baggage of history Madigan allegedly carries with him has no influence on his conduct or the trajectory his life takes (beyond him sending a chartered flight of aid when an earthquake strikes Armenia in the Soviet times).

Shakespeare, you get the feeling, is at his ease when describing the contemporary world of Andy Larkham; that is his forte. The prose flows smoothly in this section of the novel. It becomes heavy and belaboured when Shakespeare tells Madigan’s story through his mouthpiece—Maral. Maral speaks more like a character out of a Victorian drama than a twentieth century housekeeper. The prose, while free of stylistic and syntactic oddities which abound in the section starring Andy, has a contrived feel to it, but then the whole section has a contrived feel to it with coincidences coming thick and fast.

Inheritance is an easy enough and moderately riveting, if lightweight, read. The story is engaging enough despite being clichéd. Is it a morality tale? The wealth does not bring happiness and fulfilment to Madigan who dies a lonely man, but to Andy, in many ways an undeserving recipient of Madigan’s wealth, it brings happiness and fulfilment. If Inheritance is a parable the message is slightly warped. Six out of ten.


Saturday, 18 July 2015

Greek Bailout: It's Going to Fail

Germany has approved of the latest Greek bailout terms, which would mean that Greece would be handed over £ 60 billion (86 billion euros). This means that Greece would be able to pay two of the creditors: the IMF and the ECB.
Should we celebrate? Certainly not. Should we heave a sigh of relief? I don’t think so.

The firebrand Greek Prime-minister, the forty year old Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greece’s Left Wing party, Syriza, after holding a defiant referendum a couple of weeks ago, in which the Greek public overwhelmingly and decisively rejected the original terms and conditions of the bail out, described to them as humiliating (by Tsipras himself), essentially, capitulated and, after his victory in the referendum—if it can be called that—accepted terms and conditions that were, in many ways, more stringent and humiliating than the original ones. Tsipras came to power in Greece earlier in the year on the wave of anti-austerity feelings in Greece, which has seen her economy shrunk by 25% since the financial crisis. He tried to justify his capitulation by declaring, during the debate in the Greek parliament—which he won comfortably enough despite a significant rebellion by MPs of his own party, including the speaker, one  Zoe Constantopolou, who looked every bit as fearsome as the fearsome speech she delivered, in which she declared the day as the black day for democracy in Europe—by mouthing sentiments such as “It is better to fight an unfair battle than handing in weapons”, and that he had to make a choice between economic hardship and chaotic default.

Quite what weapons Greece currently has which Tsipras is loath to hand over to the enemy (Germany) is difficult to see. Also, he must have known the stark choices he faced even before the referendum. What purpose did the referendum serve, then? As has become clear, it did not serve any purpose. Tsipras was probably hoping (against hope) that a strong No vote by the Greek public would give him negotiating muscles in the bailout talks. That did not happen. The Germans are renowned for many things, but intellectual flexibility is probably not one of them. When Tsipras returned to Brussels, he was told—as he must have feared he would be, notwithstanding his public posturing—that there would be no let up. If he did not want to accept the conditions laid down by the Germans he should close the door on his way out.

So what exactly is the deal? This is the third international bailout Greece has received since the travails of that country began five years ago. This time round Greece will receive a total of 86 billion euros. What are the conditions? The conditions are very harsh, some might say punitive, notwithstanding the extension offered to the maturity of the debt by the debt by the EU. VAT discount will be abolished on the islands (which depend on the tourism for subsistence). There will be more VAT changes. Corporation tax will be increased, as would be the tax on ‘luxury items’. The pensions for the elderly (who have already seen a drop of more than 30%) will dwindle further. (And—shock! Horror!—the public sector workers cannot retire early and will have to work till 67, like they do in Germany.)

There should, however, be no doubt as to who is going to suffer the most by the latest wave of austerity measures launched by Germany: the poor. Public services will be severely affected.

Five years into the crisis there seems no end to the miseries of the ordinary Greeks.

As the IMF has (finally) said, the sheer enormity of Greek debt is such that it has now reached unsustainable levels. The IMF also said that the forecasts for the growth rate of Greece were unrealistic.

I read a few articles in newspapers that described how Greece, for all practical purposes, will become a protectorate of Germany, with little to no economic freedom, little control over its fiscal policies, and having to sell its public assets to pay her creditors. That is obviously a hyperbole, but at the core of every hyperbole is a kernel of truth.

It also raises the wholly legitimate question whether the latest austerity measures are going to do any good. They most probably won’t; they would make things considerably worse. There is every possibility that the continued austerity will only bring further depression, and the inevitable rise of the right-wing xenophobic element.

The Germans would do well to look into the past of their country, in particular what happened between the two World Wars, and the consequences of the victors imposing draconian measures on Germany after that country’s defeat in the First World War. In contrast, the treatment of Germany (OK, West Germany, as it was then), initiated by the Americans under the Marshall Plan, was very different, and yielded a very different outcome.

The terrible (and unnecessary) pain imposed on the Greek people is very difficult to understand (or even justify) in purely economic terms. They will not help the ordinary Greeks or the Greek economy, and, if the Germans think that they are going to get the money back any time soon—if at all—they are deluding themselves. It is highly likely that the Greek economy is not going to be robust enough for decades, at least, to pay the interests on the debts/loan, leave alone the loan. Greece has become an economic basket case. The Germans might as well flush the money down the toilet. (I suspect the austerity measures imposed on the Greeks serve no purpose other than quelling the Revanchist fury in ordinary Germans who are furious at the Greeks for what they (the Germans) no doubt see as their refusal to fess up. The Greeks are stereotyped as lazy, corrupt, dishonest people who don’t pay taxes, don’t want to work hard, don’t want to make any changes to their bloated and unsustainable public sector (as no doubt the Germans view it), and want to live in a Socialist utopia which is bankrolled by someone else (Germany). Does anyone notice similarities, here, with Scotland?)). Even if you subscribe to this stereotype, it beggars belief to assume that the Germans (that is the German politicians) were unaware of this when they allowed Greece to join the single currency in 2001, or whenever it was. The truth is Germany allowed Greece to join single currency, as if they were buying a cheap company (who would buy German goods). Or maybe, the German politicians fear that if they gave Greece an easy ride, other countries like Spain and Italy would demand similar treatment.

It is difficult to see how the unhappy union can last. It cannot last. And when it will eventually melt down—it’s only a matter of time—most people would think that it was a flawed concept to begin with. It was ludicrous to expect that different countries with very distinct national identities and vastly different economies would be able to work together under a single currency.


Thursday, 16 July 2015

Book of the Month: An Object of Beauty (Steve Martin)

Steve Martin is a seriously good comic actor, one of my favourites. Like Michael Cain, he has regrettably not been very choosy in the movies he selects, and has some ghastly films to his credit; however, when he is on fire, as in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (which also stars Michael Caine) or Planes, trains and Automobiles (with the late John Candy), he is superb. When he is on song, there is a kind of manic energy in Martin’s performance which the audience gets sucked into.
In the last decade, Martin, described as ‘indecently multi-talented’ by The Sunday Times, has diverted some of that energy into writing novels, one of which (Shopgirl) was made into a film, I think.

With An Object of Beauty, his third novel, Martin turns his attention to the art world of painting.

An Object of Beauty creates for the reader the world of New York art scene where creativity and talent collide with cold commercial calculations; giant-sized egos of the artists are dwarfed by the elephantine egos of the art collectors; and where, once you have crossed a certain threshold, if you do not find a knife hanging between your shoulder blades, it is only because the price of selling you down the river was not high enough.

In An Object of Beauty, Martin, who is apparently well-known for his art collection, creates the world of fine art high jinks very vividly and entertainingly for the reader. Several works of arts and painters of greater and lesser reputations play important cameo roles in the narrative. Martin obviously knows what he is talking (rather writing) about. When you possess the technical knowledge of the subject, the temptation to dazzle the reader by showing off must be extreme. To his credit Martin is in total control and at no stage does the reader is made to feel inadequate. Thus, if you (like me) know next to nothing about the relatively lesser known twentieth century American painters like Milton Avery or Maxwell Parish, or the 19th century Russian painter of minor reputation (according to the novel) Ivan Aivazovsky, it does not matter. It does not matter because these works of art are not inserted in the novel as mere add-ons; they are weaved skilfully into the narrative and, in many instances help to propel the plot forward. It is not an easy skill.

Martin is at his satirical best while describing the art-parties and pretentions of the nouveau riches who go around hoovering up paintings so that they can have their personal art galleries, to which they invite gallerists and art-critics and bore them to tears with tiresome anecdotes, which are repeated at every party (and to which the assembled react every time as though they are hearing them for the first time).
If An Object of Beauty was only about endless (albeit witty and entertaining) descriptions of gallery openings, auctions of paintings, and the artistic differences between galleries on the East and West sides of New York, readers, barring those possessing an abiding sense of curiosity about the art world, would have lost interest. The novel would have been nothing but a collage of different elements which would have failed to cohere into a whole. That is not the case here. An Object of Beauty is a plot driven novel. Martin may take the reader on a tour of ‘classical’, ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ paintings, but he also has a story to tell; and he tells it with great pizzazz.

An Object of Beauty is the story of Lacey Yeager, who enters the world of New York art scene in the 1990s as a lowly paid minion at the Sotheby’s. Lacey is intelligent, focused, sufficiently ruthless, sexy, and not above using her oomph to get what she wants and reach where she wants to go. Where Lacey ends up, at the end of the novel, and almost twenty years after she first joined Sotheby’s, is where she started, having lost a fortune (and with it, fair-weather friends and acquaintances) during the stock market crash and global recession. However, in the intervening years, she has a hell of a roller-coaster ride, and the reader is with her at every twist and turn. Lacey’s story is told by a friend, Daniel Frank, an art-critic and a friend of Lacey from her college days, and who makes periodic appearances in Lacey’s story. He also plays an important, if peripheral, role—something that will cost him a relationship several years later—in Lacey’s rise in the art world.
If the above description has led you to believe that Martin has some sort of morality tale to tell, you would be wrong. Just as he stops himself from showing off his knowledge of the art world, Martin refrains from taking a moralistic stand on Lacey’s devilish behaviour. The novel is remarkable for its moral-neutrality. Indeed, despite her schemes and deceits, Lacey does not come across as a villainess. When she loses her business and fortune, just as she is nearing forty, you feel a twinge of sorrow for her and have no hesitation in agreeing with Daniel Frank who cannot think of a ‘personality less suited for being marginalised’. The flip side is Lacey does not really come alive for the reader; she remains, despite her plotting and witty repartees and a cunning ability to use sex as a tool to get what she wants, somewhat two-dimensional, a vehicle for Martin to deliver a satirical novel on the art-world and nothing more. An Object of Beauty is a novel dominated by its milieu in which the main characters are lost.

The prose of An Object of Beauty is a mixed bag. Martin keeps a steady supply of witty one-liners, frequently, to great effect. But the tone of the narrative is not even. At times the narration is sardonic, reminiscent of vintage McInerney (Bright Lights Big City, Story of My Life) and Bret Easton Ellis (Rules of Attraction), with its blistering insights and acerbic asides (when a millionaire French art collector, who is ten years older than Lacey,  becomes interested in her and clearly wants to marry her, Lacey, while she uses his connections to further her career, has no intention of settling down with him; one of the reasons why she wouldn’t settle with him is he is older than her, which means, she tells Daniel, that he would be 45 when she is 35, and would be 55 when she is 33, and, in due course would be 65 while she still was 33); but the tone is not sustained and, at times, becomes a tad pedagogic.
The multi-million dollar industry behind the paintings is a world beyond the reach (or imagination) of many. In An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin, with cheerful élan takes the reader on a lively tour of this world and, in the process, also delivers a well-plotted novel. Well worth a read.