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Palace Walk – Andy pays a visit to WWI-era Cairo

April 21, 2014

So here we go. Naguib Mahfouz is the first of three (in a row! Netty, did you think this through?) Nobel Prize winners that we will read for the blog this year – Seamus Heaney and Doris oh-dear-god-please-can-she-be-m0re-readable-than-Nadine-Gordimer Lessing being the other two. There was no design here; they are just writers (Mahfouz in my case; Heaney – with enthusiasm from me – and Lessing – with, ah, something other than enthusiasm from me – in Netty’s) that we wanted to read.

mahfouzBut anyway. Palace Walk. Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, and it’s presumably no coincidence that Palace Walk was published in English two years later, more than three decades after it was first published in Arabic  in 1956. It’s the first of what is known as The Cairo Trilogy, which apparently covers three generations of the al-Jawad family (I’m not great on Arabic naming conventions, but I’ll take a stab and assume that’s the family surname). Obviously I haven’t read the other two volumes, although there’s a very good chance I’ll get there one day (maybe when they’re available as e-books – currently the trilogy isn’t). As a sweeping family saga they don’t get much more  involving than this – the minutiae of Arabic family life set against the backdrop of World War I and the subsequent Egyptian push for independence from the United Kingdom.

Mahfouz makes his Cairo family atypical – the patriarch, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd Al-Jawad (from now on known as Ahmad, cos it’s shorter), is a monster of a man, deliberately choosing to treat his family with brutally aggressive authoritarianism, showing them no love or affection, cloistering his wife and daughters while the women of his friends’ households are allowed far more freedom; meantime, of course, allowing himself the freedom of alcohol, mistresses and general carousing (don’t you just love that word?) – the sort of behaviour for which he would banish any other member of his family (and at one point, for a quite trifling offence, he does). So atypical within context, although many Western readers in the early 21st century will find their Islamophobia affirmed here. And to some extent that’s probably fair enough – while Ahmad is an extreme example of the head of a Cairo family at the time, the overarching culture is still deeply sexist and hypocritical (although not terribly “Islamist”, as Islamic fundamentalism has been styled over the past decade or so). It’s of absolutely no relevance, but I have to admit to being reminded of the rather horrid Captain Woolcot in Seven Little Australians, set 30 years earlier, while reading of Ahmad’s appalling treatment of his family. (Coincidentally, while different in almost every conceivable way, both stories have a rather similar conclusion. Call that a spoiler, if you will.)

I don’t think I was ever terribly keen to know what it might’ve been like living in Cairo as a Muslim in the early 20th century but, having read Palace Walk, I can comfortably say the glimpse I’ve had was rewarding and fascinating. And revolting, to some extent. Mahfouz is especially interested in the place of women in this society and his judgment is withering – although ironically, once Ahmad’s daughters are married, they almost completely disappear from the narrative. Even Amina, Ahmad’s wife and from whose perspective readers are introduced to this world, fades into the background as the story progresses. The carousing (!) is amusing – Islam forbids alcohol, among many other things, but Ahmad spends most of his nights shitfaced (and takes his share of other forbidden fruit as well). The novel contains plenty of references to specific passages of the Koran – I’d be curious to know (and probably would, if I’d done my research) if Mahfouz was a practising Muslim and included these references for the enlightenment of his readers, or if it’s for ironic effect, or if at the time in Egypt such references had to be included in texts, fiction or otherwise. I don’t own a copy of the Koran, incidentally, although Netty does.

There are a number of references to “the Australians” throughout the novel that brought back memories of the movie Gallipoli. The film presented Australian troops posted in Egypt during World War I as happy-go-lucky, cheeky larrikins who didn’t mind causing a bit of trouble now and then; Palace Walk’s depiction is much darker. The suggestion of racism, abuse, aggression and outright violence against Cairo’s residents is not remotely romantic, and not remotely in line with the sense of national pride Peter Weir and David Williamson were trying to build upon with their movie.

Finally, one of the things Netty and I expressly disagreed on: For me, while the first two-thirds were enjoyable, it was all really just a bit of a soap opera until the political and colonial elements – present and hinted at but in the background beforehand – came to the fore. That’s the point at which the novel’s ideas about change, and resistance to change, came together. And that’s probably the point at which I thought, Yeah, I reckon I want to read the other two.

I could write a bit more – maybe about Mahfouz’s slightly odd style, or at least the way it’s been rendered by his translators; the way he explicitly states his characters’ states of mind, rather than allowing that to filter through their words and actions. But no. I think I’ll leave it for now.

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In which Netty goes on a trip through Americana with author-of-choice deLillo …

March 19, 2014

ImageI could have chosen Phillip Roth. Or Kurt Vonnegut. Or William Faulkner. Or Ernest Hemingway. Those are the authors who have made the biggest impression on me during the past six years of ANRC. Along with, I should hasten to add – and in order to retilt the gender balance somewhat – Nadine Gordimer and Joan Didion. Neither of those women was on the short list simply because I have already made good on the promise to myself to make further inroads into their back catalogues.

But no, I picked Don deLillo, an author with whom I have been intrigued since Andy and I read Falling Man for ANRC several years ago now.  (You can check in with what I had to say about it here.) Indeed, when I did my end-of-year round-up that year, deLillo came in second behind only … Didion. I have since only read one more of his books – 2003’s Cosmopolis, a mere slip of a thing at just over 200 pages. Because that’s the other thing about deLillo. He has written some seriously fuck-off-mammoth books. Several of which I have committed myself to reading this year. God help me …

Like Andy’s Adventures in Iris Murdoch (that should be a book title in itself!), I chose to go back to the very beginning with deLillo. His first novel, published in 1971, was Americana – and that’s where my deLillo mini-challenge starts. My 2011 Penguin edition features an endorsement from none other than Martin Amis on its cover. “A writer who, once you read him, makes you want to read everything he has done,” Amis has penned. Three books in, I can but concur.

DeLillo, a native New Yorker, worked as an advertising copywriter before quitting the industry and devoting himself to fiction writing. Write what you know is a common mantra for first-time novelists, and it’s no surprise that deLillo’s first effort is set in his hometown and features characters involved in the advertising and television industries.

Americana is the first-person narrative of 28-year-old New York City television executive David Bell. Bell, who hails from a comfortable east coast family – both his grandfather and his father were scions of advertising – has rather effortlessly scaled the heights of his cut-throat industry. But he constantly needs to stay on top of and negotiate the poisonous, dog-eat-dog politics of his office. On a personal level, he maintains a friendly relationship with his ex-wife Meredith, who lives in the same apartment building and with whom he still occasionally sleeps; otherwise he does not want for female company.

Bell is planning a new project for the TV network, a documentary series on the Navaho Indians, about which his colleagues remain unsure. Undeterred, he sets out with a cache of film equipment into the heart of the Midwest, en route to Arizona, in a campervan with three travelling companions – Sullivan, a thirtysomething sculptor in whom Bell has a wary interest; Pike, a 60-plus ex-military man; and Brand, an ex-junkie, would-be novelist (“The whole country’s going to puke blood when they read it,” he declares).

Bell, meanwhile, wants to make his own movie (“A long messy autobiographical-type film … a long unmanageable movie full of fragments of everything that’s part of my life”). As the trio inadvertently set up shop in Fort Curtis – with Bell reckoning he has a couple of weeks before he needs to be on-set in Arizona  – the project takes on a life of its own. It becomes Bell’s singleminded, obsessive focus, as he ropes in local townsfolk, and a couple of actors he meets en route, to take on roles in it – eventually jettisoning the planned Navaho doco and, thus, his big-time TV exec job.

With filming of his project finally complete and his travelling companions ready to return back east, Bell decides to push onwards and hits the road solo. He meets a wealthy Texan businessman called Clevenger and joins him on a road trip that culminates in a depraved orgy. From there, Bell’s journey quickly peters out until there is only one thing left for him to do – go home.

Americana is divided into four parts – the first introduces Bell and outlines his current-day situation; the second delves into his youth and family background; the third involves the road trip and making of his film; and the fourth is its immediate aftermath. DeLillo reportedly worked on the novel for several years, before his prolific 1970s period (in which he published six books, including this debut). Even for a first novel, there is a certain cool, considered assurance behind the prose, foreshadowing what is to come. But while I really enjoyed the first three parts, I felt the book ran out of steam and veered off course in the over-the-top final section, which jars against the tone of its predecessors and is a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to wrap it all up.  

Bell is not a particularly likeable character – he is smug, arrogant and overly self-assured, sort of a Don Draper meets Patrick Bateman (without the serial killing, obviously). But he is also teetering on the edge of a certain type of madness, and as the book progresses and the more tenuous his grip on reality becomes, the more he elicits a certain sympathy from the reader – especially played against the poignant backdrop of his family background, particularly the relationship with his late mother, in part two.

Americana is a book very much of its time and place – the disintegration of the idealism of the 1960s and the heralding of a new, hard-edged decade, viewed through the lens of the quintessential road trip and the death of the American dream, full of slick, slyly dark humour. As such, it has much in common with Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or even Kerouac’s On The Road, thematically speaking. Which is why I can forgive it a few flaws in its latter pages. It is also interesting to note that deLillo revised Americana for later editions – as my copy was published in 2011, I presume that that is the version I have read, although I am also curious enough about the original to want to track it down.

Overall, Americana is a promising first step on my year-long deLillo journey. Like they say in Bell’s TV business, stay tuned.

 

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Under the Net – Andy gets reacquainted with Auntie Iris

March 17, 2014

“I’ll certainly be snuffling out a bit more of Auntie Iris.” So wrote I in 2008, Year Zero of the Reading Challenge, after Netty and I had read The Black Prince. Six years later I’ve finally got around to snuffling. And I’ll be snuffling all year. I’ll be reading six of Iris Murdoch’s novels, along with the 12 novels Netty and I read together, while Netty will be reading six Don Delillo books.

under-the-net-2I started with Murdoch’s first published novel. Under the Net came out in 1954. She shares my surname, and she’s from Ireland, like my predecessors. And so allow me a little self-indulgence. Twice – in short succession, around the middle of this novel, its writer-narrator, Jake, said things that I felt applied to me in alarmingly accurate ways. The first requires significant ego on my part: “…you are a talented man who is too lazy to work, and … you hold left-wing opinions but take no active part in politics,” is what Lefty, a slightly crazed Socialist activist, says he’s heard about Jake. “You were not misinformed,” Jake tells Lefty. “Talented” is a stretch, on my part. Later Jake says of himself: “I am the sort of man who will prefer to walk for twenty minutes rather than wait five minutes at a bus stop for a five-minute bus ride.” That is totally me. Totally. Totally me.

Although there are loads of people, like that, I guess.

Jake wants to be a writer, but not that hard to make a serious effort. Instead he translates rubbish French novels into English, and makes enough money to get by (though barely). The novel opens with his return from Paris and his booting from his current lodging. What follows isn’t exactly disjointed, but it is too bizarre to describe briefly. Jake is noncommittal in almost every sense, except when his male associates, and alcohol, are concerned. His exploits entail an avant-garde mime theatre, a stay at a pharmaceutical company’s cold-cure farm, a swim in the Thames, police brutality at a union protest at a film studio, the theft of a film-star dog, crossed wires over a film script, crossed wires over romance – actually crossed wires over pretty much everything, really.

The title refers to the “net” of language, and the suggestion – by Jake’s mate Hugo – that language cannot express anything genuine about existence or experience, and that we are forever caught in the dishonesty of what we say, and how we say it. It also, I think, suggests Jake’s escape from that net, at novel’s end. Murdoch was a philosopher as well as a novelist and she used her novels to explore and expound her take on philosophy. Under the Net is her rejection of the idea that language is a trap. It can be a trap, she seems to say, but it can be used to explore and reveal the truth as well.

Although that’s what everybody else says about it. I thought the philosophical stuff wasn’t that well done – the recreation of the philosophical dialogues between Jake and Hugo is easily the novel’s weakest element. It works best as a highly intelligent, witty, political romp. Philosophy might be  driving that romp, to be sure, but the romp is the thing. Perhaps not in Murdoch’s eyes, but certainly in mine.

In hindsight, what did my head in a bit about The Black Prince was that it wasn’t just a novel written in the voice of an unreliable narrator, but an unconsciously ironic narrator. Bradley did manage to hold the reader’s sympathy for the most part, but he was full of shit and a lot of the humour was at his expense – which is hard for a novelist, given that the story’s written from his perspective, in the first person. I suspect rereading The Black Prince with that in mind would make the first half much funnier – it’s only later that I (and I think Netty) got the joke. In her first novel Murdoch uses a similar technique – Jake doesn’t really know what’s going on around him, and he gets a lot of it wrong, and he cares about the things he thinks – which he’s got wrong. And this is the source of some of the humour – although not the majority of it. The majority of the humour is so … I don’t know, it makes me wonder if the Python band did their Masters in Murdoch. Murdoch may, as some analysis notes, have taken her philosophical influence from the French, but the humour in Under the Net often seems very British, and very fifties. Which makes sense, I guess.

Under the Net gets a big thumbs up, and leaves me looking forward to reading more Murdoch. It’s also the first book I’ve read in its entirety electronically. I am a reluctant convert to the iPad Mini, but if you saw my bookshelves you’d know it makes sense. I’ll be reading most if not all of Murdoch’s books on the iPad this year, and possibly quite a bit more. The reading experience itself is not that much different to a book, although the “flicking back” element is obviously quite problematic – and I am an inveterate flicker-back. That said, I found the two quotes I wanted to use early in this post within minutes. It might’ve been a bit quicker with an actual book, but not much.

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In which Netty peers into The Well, is not quite sure what’s down there, but discovers it ultimately doesn’t matter …

March 8, 2014

ImageLike so many other writers, there was more to Elizabeth Jolley than meets the eye. Considerably more. After becoming acquainted with her work for the first time, via the 1986 novel The Well, this turns out to be not too much of a surprise.

One of Australia’s best-known, multi-award-winning novelists, English-born Jolley – a nurse by training – started writing in her early 20s, but did not make it into print until her early 50s. She quickly made up for lost time, publishing 15 novels, three non-fiction works and several collections of short stories and plays before her death in 2007, at the age of 83. She won just about every award going around the local literary traps, including two Miles Franklins – one for The Well.

Latter-day pictures of Jolley show the stereotypical grandmotherly type – bespectacled, not terribly well-dressed, perhaps ever-so-slightly dotty – an image she apparently cultivated and encouraged. Of course I had heard of her, but she had never really been on my reading radar. And then, by chance, I stumbled across an episode of Australian Story broadcast on the ABC late last year.

Susan Swingler (nee Jolley) was a four-year-old girl when her father Leonard left her and her mother Joyce. For Elizabeth, who had borne him a child around the same time (they had met during World War II and began an affair; at one stage a pregnant Elizabeth even lived under the Jolleys’ roof, with an also-pregnant Joyce who was presumably oblivious to the fact that Elizabeth was also carrying her husband’s child). Leonard and Elizabeth eventually emigrated to Western Australia, married and had two more children. However, in the interim – according to Swingler – Elizabeth would pen letters to Leonard’s family in England that were made out to be from Swingler. Because Leonard had neglected to tell his parents and siblings that he had left his first family. All of which is detailed in Swingler’s 2012 memoir The House of Fiction.

Extraordinary stuff.  

Reviewers and commentators subsequently have opined that this, in hindsight, explains a lot about Jolley’s writing and themes; obviously I can’t pass comment on that, having only read The Well. But, rightly or wrongly, I can’t say I didn’t go into reading the novel without my opinion having been slightly coloured by these revelations. “You manipulative, home-wrecking old biddy!” I thought to myself, “I don’t want to read your books!”

But Andy firmly put down his foot and insisted on Jolley’s inclusion; seeing that I had finally – after several years – persuaded him to add Anna Funder’s Stasiland to the Reading Challenge, I didn’t really have a leg (a foot, a leg … ha ha, geddit? Sigh) to stand on. (Coming up in November, thrillseekers! Stay tuned!)

Now, I’m no “literary sexist” – and nor do I think is Andy, despite several protestations to the contrary. I freely admit that my reading preference is overwhelmingly older Caucasian males, for reasons I can’t put my finger on. And in addition to my probably unreasonable personal misgivings about Jolley, initially I wasn’t too sure about The Well. Until I got to the end. And then it all made sense. Well, it didn’t really – but that was actually the point. Jolley is one helluva clever writer – and I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense – and The Well is one helluva book.

As it opens, countrywoman Hester Harper and her young charge Katherine are driving home from a party in the nearby township (somewhere unspecified in rural Australia) when their vehicle, commanded by the latter, hits something on the winding dirt track. From there, the reader backtracks through Miss Harper’s immediate past.

The only daughter of a successful, wealthy farmer and landowner, the never-married Hester lives with her elderly father. An astute businesswoman herself, she is nonetheless psychologically burdened by her disability – a lame leg – and plain looks. She takes in Katherine, a young girl from the local orphanage, with whom she forms a strong bond that fast develops into an exclusionary, co-dependent relationship, marked by profligate spending and lavish extravagances atypical of Hester’s previous austerity.  

After her father’s death, Hester is persuaded by her father’s friend and advisor Mr Bird to rent her homestead to Mr Borden and move into a small cottage on a secluded corner of the property. Hester eventually agrees to sell her property, excluding the cottage, to Mr Borden, considerably boosting her financial bottom line. The only threat to Hester’s happiness is the impending visit of Kathy’s orphanage friend Joanna, whose correspondence the older woman possessively monitors.

The Bordens throw the celebratory party from which Hester and Kathy are returning when they hit something in the home stretch. Hester gets out of the car to examine, declares to Kathy that “it’s not a roo”, that it is entangled in the vehicle’s bumper bars and needs to be immediately despatched into the well next to their cottage.

Then the novel really kicks into gear, sending the reader down twists and turns, throwing out red herrings aplenty and provoking doubt on every page. Is the well’s inhabitant actually one of Borden’s itinerant workers who has robbed Hester? Is he still alive? Was it Kathy who really stole Hester’s money? Or is all this just a feverish figment of the delirious imagination of Hester, caught in the grip of a horrendous migraine? The reader is left none the wiser, especially when the novel takes a post-modern turn at the end, turning Hester into the storyteller and thus granting her the ability to literally write her own ending.  

By the end of the book I had done an about-face, from initially fearing it was a wandering, meandering mess in need of a good editor to really getting it by the final pages. I finished The Well having a grudging admiration for Jolley’s masterful ability to break the literary rules and get away with it. Pretty impressive stuff, all round.

It’s still weird for a grown woman to write letters to her husband’s family pretending to be her step-daughter though …

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The Well – After close to 30 years, Andy finally gets around to reading Elizabeth Jolley…

March 5, 2014

… and is pleasantly surprised, and impressed, if also slightly creeped out, and maybe even a bit confused.

I’m pretty sure Elizabeth Jolley was on my literary radar in the mid to late 80s, if not at high school then certainly at uni. But for whatever reason I never got around to reading her, apart from (possibly) the occasional short story here and there. I’m not even convinced I’ve ever read a short story of hers. I am, as I said a couple of times last year, an outrageous literary sexist.

thewellThe Well is one of Jolley’s best known works, although to my knowledge she doesn’t really have a stand-out work and there are others – Palomino, Foxybaby – that Netty and I could have read. But The Well it was, on my suggestion, and I won’t be surprised if those other couple of novels, and maybe a few others things, have been downloaded to my iPad Mini in the next 12 months. Because, yes. She passed the test. She is worth revisiting. Although, admittedly, that is partly influenced by the fact that most if not all of her books are around 200 pages long. As opposed to someone like Orhan Pamuk, whose Red Book was great, but whose books are all insanely huge.

So anyway. The Well.

If this novel (and, if I remember rightly, some others of Jolley’s) lodged in my brain long before I read it, it’s because of a reputation for its kind of weird, kind of creepy, kind of not-quite-there lesbianism. Neither of the main characters is explicitly attracted to other women – in fact Katherine, the young “servant”, is obsessed with John Travolta (insert gay joke here), while her employer, Hester, is moved to tears at one stage by the innocent reminder that she never married, was never desired, has never been in love. Although she was, maybe, at one point, in love or at least obsessed with her nanny – who was in love with – and pregnant to – her dad …Anyway. There is a rather poignant point in the novel where Hester is reminded of the fact that no man has ever desired her (or at least that’s how she sees things), and this causes her some anguish, and it’s really nicely done. It’s a few lines. It’s nothing huge. But it reverberates. It sticks. It works well.

But also, Hester has this seriously weird shit going on with Katherine. And Katherine, at the beginning of the book, is 15. And Hester is what – in her 60s, maybe? I assume. That was Jolley’s age when she got this novel published. Not that those things necessarily have any correlation whatsoever.

There is a creepy, possibly homophobic, undercurrent to this novel. Hester dotes on Katherine and Katherine sometimes seems to take advantage of that, although at other times seems to be ignorant of it. Hester is deeply jealous of Katherine’s friendship with another girl from the orphanage, Joanne, who seems to know a bit more about the world than Katherine (and maybe even Hester) does. Another creepy element – Hester insists on reading all communication between Katherine and Joanne, and Katherine is OK with that. My family moved from Melbourne to country Victoria when I was 10 and I maintained, for a few years, mail contact with one friend (just the one. It was Glenroy. Fucksake, you think there were that many people worth maintaining contact with in Glenroy in 1979?). My mother was a bit of a religious nutjob back then but even she did not insist on reading my letters to my friends. Seriously. That is messed up. But Katherine has no objection.

Weird.

The novel revolves around an accident in which a thief (bizarrely, erroneously referred to as a “mysterious creature” on the back of my secondhand 1987 edition as well as Netty’s brandspanking new edition) is caught in the bullbar of Hester’s four-wheel drive, and then dispatched by Hester down the titular well. This is where things get weirder, and creepier, because as Hester lies in bed with a migraine and Katherine manically rants about her conversations with a man (yes, a man, not a mysterious creature) in the well who is alive, not dead, and who is sometimes charming and sometimes psychotic and sometimes generous (a $100 note? In Western Australia? In the ’80s? Didn’t Aussie greenbacks only come in when the Aussie currency went plastic in the early 90s?). And you start to think Hang on, how much of what Katherine is saying is true, but that sort of pushes you a bit further and you have to start to think Hang on, how much of what Hester is saying is true? Because while the novel is written in the third person it is written entirely, in the third person, from Hester’s point of view. We’ve all heard about the unreliable narrator. But unreliable third-person narrative? Not something that’s really ever occurred to me before, although a quick google search reveals “unreliable third-person narration” is in fact a thing. So there you go.

Anyway, Jolley, with her queasy, odd story, her slightly left-of-centre approach to grammar and punctuation – not breaking rules in the way other writers did before her, simply nudging and stretching- makes her a little unique. And while the novel isn’t remotely political the farm ownership sub-plot is interesting because after Glenroy I ended up in rural Victoria and, in the mid-’80s, family farms were becoming a thing of the past, being bought up by the rich neighbours to form bigger, more efficient, more profitable businesses. That’s an inadvertent element to a novel that is mostly concerned with much stranger things.

And it’s good, Not great, maybe. But really good.

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In which Netty discovers that good things sometimes do come in small packages …

February 11, 2014
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You really should read this guy and Imma tell you why …

Really, this was a bit of a cop-out on our behalf. Or should I say my behalf, seeing I was dead keen on adding Roberto Bolano – an author in whom I have long been interested, but had never previously read – to this year’s Reading Challenge.

I would love to read 2666 or The Savage Detectives, but those babies clock in at 900-plus and 700-odd pages, respectively. Maybe I’ll get around to it some day; I hope that I will. I suppose I could have even plumped for Distant Star or Amulet, both at a far more respectable less-than-200 pages.

So for those in a similar position to me – wanting in, but unsure of where to start – American writer Junot Diaz reckons Amulet is a better starting point into Bolano’s canon (you can listen to Diaz’s thoughtful treatise about the author and his work on Jennifer Byrne’s The Book Club here). In fact, Diaz urges his fellow panellists to read Amulet, then reread By Night In Chile. And seeing the latter – the book that kicks off this year’s Reading Challenge – is a mere slip of a thing at 130 pages, it’s a perfectly feasible proposition.

However, be not fooled by its brevity. There is a helluva lot of meat on this novella’s seemingly slim frame. It’s not the easiest book I have ever tackled, but that owes a lot to its format. As Andy noted, it is one paragraph. Well, two, actually – but the second paragraph is a seven-word sentence right at the end of the book. It is obviously meant to be read in one sitting, which is a perfectly viable proposition, but the lack of breaks, of pauses, ratchets up the degree of difficulty. Think of it as the literary equivalent of traversing a slight incline – it’s not steep by any stretch of imagination, but you’ll still be out of breath and really feeling it when you finally reach the top.

The other thing about By Night in Chile – you will get so much more of it if you’re familiar with the country’s recent political and social history. I have never been to Chile and have only a very nodding acquaintance with its immediate back story – Allende, Pinochet, “the disappeared”, all of which come into play in these pages. Bolano, who was born in Santiago, moved to Mexico with his family at the age of 15, but returned five years later as a young political activist to support then-president Salvador Allende’s socialist regime. After Augusto Pinochet’s September 1973 coup d’etat, Bolano was arrested and briefly jailed on terrorism suspicions. He was released and returned to Mexico, before relocating to Spain five years later; he died there in 2003 at the age of 50, as a result of liver failure.

Much of Bolano’s work is political in nature, and draws heavily on the Latin American/Spanish traditions, as expected. He crammed a lot into a 30-year writing career, producing a dozen novels and several collections of short stories and poetry – some published posthumously. Interestingly, about half of Bolano’s books – including our copy of By Night In Chile – were translated by Australian academic Chris Andrews. I have long pondered the influence of a translator on a particular work, especially as I am not proficient enough in any foreign language to read a whole book in it! I suppose the fact that so many of Bolano’s works were translated by Andrews is its validation.

The premise is a simple one: Chilean priest Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix lies alone in bed, dying (or, at least, he thinks he is dying). What follows is fevered reverie; a lengthy confession to a nearby mocking “wizened youth” who probably represents the young Lacroix; a flood of past incidents and memories of a lifetime now undergoing hasty re-evaluation as the father believes his final breath draws near. There is nonetheless an order to this seemingly random jumble of thoughts as Lacroix looks back over his life, from his teenage entry into the seminary, to his parallel career as a literary critic and sometime poet, and his involvement in the Chilean literary intelligentsia.

The turning point comes when Lacroix is sought out by a pair of men, Mr Raef and Mr Etah, who supposedly represent an import-export company. They prevail upon the father to embark on a European voyage to evaluate the state of the continent’s churches and their preservation methods. This, fantastically and satirically enough, involves the deployment of falcons to counteract the pigeons whose shit is having an acid-like effect on the physical structures, hastening their decay. Mission accomplished, Raef and Etah later return to co-opt Lacroix to tutor General Pinochet and his minions in Marxism. Meanwhile, the father starts to attend literary salons, hosted by a writer, Maria Canales, in her home on the outskirts of the city. In time he becomes aware of the atrocities behind the civilised veneer of the society he inhabits – but he can, and does, seek shelter behind his cassock, as he has done throughout his life. Much like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the veil is removed at the end; while Kurtz was left to lament “The horror! The horror!”, Lacroix’s final words are, “And then the storm of shit begins”.

The impracticality and difficultness of the one-paragraph presentation aside, and the criss-crossing across time and country, the story still unfolds beautifully; there is definitely an order to the chaos. The words are languid, and often take on a somnambulant quality – a testament, I guess, to both author and translator. Marieke Hardy notes in the aforementioned The Book Club episode that it like being lulled to sleep, and I can hardly add a better description.

So if you’re a newcomer to Bolano, perhaps take Diaz’s advice and start with Amulet. Andy read By Night In Chile twice; I am going to seek out Amulet, then reread Night. Then there’s 2666 – and hopefully I won’t have to wait that long to getting around to reading it …

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By Night in Chile – Andy knows a paragraph when he sees it.

February 9, 2014

chileAnd By Night in Chile is not a paragraph. It’s not even two paragraphs (if you’re counting the last line). Or at least it shouldn”t be. That’s probably the first thing that struck me as I started reading this book: Roberto Bolano had composed the entire 130-page novel as a single paragraph (with one separate line at the end) when, clearly, it could easily and should have been broken up, conventionally, into a series of shorter paragraphs.

The next thing that struck me, perhaps even more annoyingly, was that it didn’t actually matter. Bolano, here at least, is so readable that a 130-page paragraph passes like a dream. This is the first Bolano I’ve read, but I previously had the impression he was quite a difficult writer. By Night in Chile is not a difficult book.

That said, while it’s beautiful to read and relatively easy to comprehend on a superficial level, trying to nut out what Bolano’s getting at is more difficult – certainly early on. A dying priest’s memories of meeting poet Pablo Neruda at a country estate in the ’50s, and another person’s recollections of an impoverished Guatamalan artist in wartime Paris, are interesting and amusing enough, but why Bolano includes them is harder to fathom. Later accounts of the priest’s visit to Europe and his encounters with Pinochet shed some light on what Bolano is up to. In exploring the life of a priest who has been prepared to compromise his principles, if in fact he has any, from the outset, Bolano is apparently critiquing his home country and its history over the last half of the 20th century.

Or at least I think that’s what he’s up to. There are some early clues: Lacroix’s deathbed willingness to take responsibility for his “immaculate” silences, his concern at the country estate about whether to wear his cassock or a suit – a concern that resurfaces later as he is driven to meet General Pinochet – suggest a man who does not speak when he knows he should, and who is more concerned with what the world sees him to be than who he actually is. And of course there’s the persecuting “wizened youth”, presumably Lacroix’s own, dessicated, conscience. But this is on another level a novel about Chile, and as Netty and I both said when we chatted about it, it would help if you knew a bit – quite a bit, actually – about Chilean history and culture. Of the handful or so Latin American books I have read, this is arguably the most insular – although, paradoxically, it’s also one of the more enjoyable.

There were a few things about the book that surprised me, for fairly mundane reasons. Father Lacroix belongs to Chile’s literary elite – an average poet, a better literary critic. His best, older friend is Chile’s most highly regarded literary critic. And yet they react with horror to the election of the Socialist Allende government and relief to the Pinochet coup. I had foolishly assumed that this sort of intelligentsia would be left-leaning, not fascist sympathisers. Silly me. Later in the novel Lacroix teaches Pinochet and his minions about Marxism and communism so they may know their enemies better. Still later Lacroix realises he has been attending literary soirees at a house used by an American operative to torture leftists – a section based on historical fact.

Although I may be misreading this element of the book somewhat. Bolano was a leftist – he was arrested after Pinochet’s coup – and in critiquing the Chilean artistic elite’s conservatism he’s maybe condemning their refusal to support and engage with society more widely. But this may relate to Chile specifically, and again probably requires more detailed knowledge of Chilean history and culture than I possess.

Some of the writing about this book assumes Lacroix is gay and repressed. This surprised me a bit, although it might make sense. His friend the literary critic is certainly gay and occasionally betrays his sexual infatuation for his younger friend, an infatuation which the priest awkwardly fends off. His sexuality did not strike me in particular, and I read the book twice; but then there are almost no women in the book, and none of them are discussed in terms that suggest he finds them sexually attractive (quite the opposite, usually). And on his European jaunt he becomes “good friends” with “the splendid” Fr Charles, and they go on bike rides together and have picnics and drink wine, and I suppose “heard my confession on the bank of a small river that flowed into a big river, on the grass, surrounded by wildflowers and tall oak trees” might be a euphemism. Actually now that I look at that again it pretty obviously is a euphemism. Dirty fucking papists.

Bolano is best known for his “big” books, The Savage Detectives and 2666. He does have a couple of other, shorter ones, though. I’ll be tempted to check those out before I head for the behemoths. But By Night in Chile gets a not-particularly-tentative thumbs up from me.

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