Alone In Berlin (1947) by Hans Fallada

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“At least I stayed decent,” he said. “I didn’t participate.” 

I started making notes for this review of Alone In Berlin almost before I’d turned the last page of the epilogue. This was back in February. I must have felt like I had a lot to say about it at the time although, now, after the passage of several weeks, I find that my notes don’t really mean much and the review I started to write is nonsense. Oh well. I do remember getting frustrated at my own inability to say what I meant about this book and this probably explains why it all got put on the back burner for so long. It’s particularly embarrassing because it means that this short, obscure blog post took longer to write than the novel itself. Fallada famously wrote Alone In Berlin – 568 pages in my edition – in a measly 24 days. And he was dying at the time.

Fallada was apparently inspired to write his story about a middle-aged German couple who wage a private resistance campaign against the Nazis after being passed a secret Gestapo file on a real dissident couple. In his version of the tale, Anna and Otto Quangel’s eyes are opened to the truth around them when their only son is killed fighting Hitler’s war in Poland. They start writing anti-Nazi slogans on postcards and leaving them in public places across the city in the hope that other Berliners will find them and be encouraged to oppose the regime too. Of course, they know that their postcards may seem paltry and insignificant in the great scheme of things and they’re also painfully aware that discovery will lead to interrogation, torture, imprisonment and probably execution. But they carry on regardless. Anna and Otto are only a part of the story here and I think really the whole point is that while their small acts of resistance don’t encourage much in the way of active disobedience elsewhere they are important and they have far reaching consequences for their loved ones and for those tasked with investigating and punishing them.  

It’s the sort of story that’s difficult to put down and I think to a certain degree this might be the case even if it was told by a less competent, more indulgent writer than Fallada. By this I mean that he doesn’t dress up the Quangels, he doesn’t make them nice or their deeds heroic, he doesn’t pretend that their postcards changed much. In fact, there’s nothing exciting here; it’s ordinary and small and utterly, utterly chilling at times. The Quangels’ world is characterised by suspicion, fear of denunciation, cruelty and betrayal even before the thought of civil disobedience enters their minds and Fallada doesn’t hold his punches. He doesn’t hold your hand through the unpleasant bits or offer any glimmers of hope to light the way. No. For me, this made the book almost relentlessly harrowing and I read the whole thing with my heart in my mouth, scared of all the things that I knew could and would go wrong. I know that’s a personal response and other readers might not react in the same way but for me that’s how it was. I confess to finding it emotionally gruelling.

And I don’t mean any of this as a criticism of Fallada or his writing. In fact there isn’t a thing I would change about Alone In Berlin and with hindsight I think his unwillingness to indulge the reader is one of the things I like about it. In the hands of another writer it could become dismal, depressing, trite or mawkish and he avoids all of that spectacularly. It just made me very glad that I wasn’t one of his characters or even one of the people who inspired them. I at least had the power to close the book and walk away from it all.  

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An Artist of the Floating World (1986) by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Good grief. I’m so far behind with book reviews at the moment that it’s starting to feel a little bit unfunny. I read An Artist of the Floating World way, way back in February, and I’ve read four (or five?) books since then so my memories are hazy at best. This was a Christmas present from a friend and fellow Ishiguro lover who also lent me Remains of the Day at the same time. I read this one first because I remember hearing somewhere that it was best to read them this way round; apparently An Artist falls a little flat if you’ve read and loved Remains first. I don’t know if that’s true or not but I wanted to give them both a fair chance.

“There is certainly a satisfaction and dignity to be gained in coming to terms with the mistakes one has made in the course of one’s life” 

The artist of the title, and the narrator of the text, is Masuji Ono, a once celebrated and respected painter who now finds himself the subject of suspicion and shame. Over the course of the novel Masuji looks back over his life and particularly at the years immediately before the war when idealistic, nationalist fervour caused him to abandon his early artistic training in favour of a career producing propagandist art for the Imperial government. These were the happiest years of his life but now the war is over and as Japan comes to terms with its past artists like Masuji are an uncomfortable reminder of a time and an ideology that many would like to forget. He has become an embarrassment.

Masuji is a very human, very unreliable narrator and it’s difficult to know what to make of him. While he clearly enjoys remembering those happier days before the war when he was considered a powerful and revolutionary artist, he is at first less keen to call to mind the times when his actions brought destruction down upon others. Instead he tries to gloss over the finer details, preferring to justify his behaviour more generally and to wonder at the embarrassment of the younger generation. The war has taken his wife and only son but he obstinately refuses to see how his decisions may have contributed to the destruction around him. It’s the upcoming marriage of his youngest daughter, Noriko, and the worrying realisation that his reputation might hinder her chances of making a respectable match, that forces Masuji to confront his own past.

An Artist… moves at a fairly languid pace and not a great deal happens for much of the book. Like Masuji, it’s in no particular hurry to say its piece but I quite like the way that Ishiguro takes his time with this novel. He doesn’t rush Masuji’s development as a character, but lets it all unfold on the page quite naturally. In spite of its subject matter it feels like quite a gentle, if uneasy, read at times and this makes its punches seem all the more powerful. I never really knew how I felt about Masuji, or how much I trusted what he was saying, but I think that’s part of this book’s power.  

In spite of swearing that I’d read something a bit more easy-going next I immediately picked up Alone In Berlin. It was not easy going. At all.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016) by Madeleine Thien

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I took the first week of the New Year off work to give myself time to recuperate from all the usual Christmas excesses. It didn’t go exactly to plan because, in between catching up on sleep and reading my new books, I took it in to my head to paint the bedroom and this inevitably took longer, and involved more effort, than I had expected. As these things always do. It meant I ended up reading much of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a gift from P, while sitting on the cold floor of our empty bedroom waiting for paint to dry, although I also snatched a few minutes of reading time in the café at Ikea and in the waiting area of Argos. Ordinarily I’d probably have put the book aside until I had more time but in this case I was enjoying it so much that it wasn’t really an option I was willing to consider.

I don’t know very much about China’s Cultural Revolution although I did take a course on the subject in my second year of university; the module seminar was first thing on a Friday, the morning after the weekly two-for-one deal on drinks at the Student Union, and, I’m embarrassed to say, I very rarely made it to class. I feel pretty bad about it now. Still, I seem to have gleaned enough to know that the characters in this book might have a rough ride ahead of them. And I was certainly right about that. In Do Not Say We Have Nothing Thien takes three generations of one extended family of musicians through more than sixty years of Chinese history, from the early days of the Maoist revolution through resettlement, famine, denunciation, imprisonment and protest. The story begins with Big Mother Knife and her sister Swirl, tea house singers in the days before the war, but focuses most of all on their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, whose lives are changed forever when the government decides that they and their music are undesirable in the new China.  It’s the third generation – two young women who meet in Canada following the Tiananmen Square protests – who piece together their complicated shared family history and try to make sense of all that has gone before them.

I assumed that when the story finished, life would continue and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer and I got smaller and smaller. When I told Big Mother this she laughed her head off. “But that’s how the world is, isn’t it?” 

It would be quite easy for me to do a standard review post here where I list all the things I like (Wen the Dreamer, the Book of Records, Zhuli, the music and the way Thien explains the subtle differences between Chinese characters….) and dislike (nothing much – maybe the slow build up to Tiananmen?) about this novel but that doesn’t seem quite right here because I don’t think these are necessarily the things that stayed with me afterwards. Instead, I think what I will remember most is my emotional response to this novel, or at least to certain scenes. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is powerful, relentless stuff and (oh the cliché) I really found it hard to put it down. Moreover, on one occasion about midway through, when the hysterical denunciations of Conservatory students were reaching their peak, I decided it’d be best to just put the book down and walk away for an hour or two. I think I was starting to feel a bit hysterical myself. It says something about the way Thien sweeps you up into this tale; she weaves its various threads together beautifully and keeps them taut almost to the end so you’re fully entangled in everything you read. I found it very difficult to shake this story off after I turned the last page and I was still wondering about Ai-Ming several days later.

Since finishing this I’ve read a couple more books but I’ve once again fallen way behind on my posts. Expect a quick flurry of reviews very soon!

The Luminaries (2013) by Eleanor Catton

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I finished The Luminaries a week ago and knew immediately that I’d need to give myself a bit of time to mull it over before I could do it justice here on the blog. I’ve given it a great deal of thought since then and now I’m ready – armed with a fried egg sandwich, a cup of tea and some ginger cake (a feast fit for kings) – to try and put my thoughts about this wonderfully complicated, intricately plotted epic novel into words. Whether those words will make sense or not is anybody’s guess but here goes.

“A woman fallen has no future; a man risen has no past.”

I have a special place in my heart reserved just for massive, door-stopper novels like this one. They give you so much more room to settle into the story, especially when the plot is as complex and meticulously put together as this one. The Luminaries takes place in New Zealand – making it the latest stop on my Around the World tour – in the newly established gold rush town of Hokitika. When Walter Moody arrives fresh off the boat to seek his fortune in January 1866 he discovers a town in turmoil; in the past few days a local hermit has been discovered dead in his shack, a prostitute has been found lying insensible in the street and a popular young gold digger has disappeared without a trace. Shortly after his arrival Walter inadvertently stumbles into a secret meeting called by twelve local men to try to make sense of these strange circumstances. As new information is revealed he’s drawn into a bizarre tale involving hidden gold, the opium trade, blackmail, revenge, long lost family and star crossed lovers.

Oh it’s complicated. So complicated, in fact, that whenever I skipped reading for a day or two I almost always had to go back and skim read several pages again to remind myself of all the tiny but very, very important details I might have forgotten in the meantime. I could never tell whether my natural forgetfulness might one day come back to haunt me. Thankfully it never really did, mainly because as new information is revealed the explanations are revised and the tale retold, often several times over so you’re never really sure how much of any version of the tale you can really believe. It’s the intricacy of the plot, combined with the way each character’s fate is intertwined with all the others, that makes this feel like an authentically Victorian novel; there’s something very Dickensian, or even a bit Wilkie Collins about the way Catton does this. It’s brilliant.

The first 360-odd pages of the novel are set during that first evening in the Crown hotel as the twelve gathered men recount their tales to the newly arrived Moody. From hereon each of the remaining 11 chapters gets shorter and shorter, reflecting the changing phases of the moon until by the end each one is shorter than its descriptive title. To take the astrological theme further Catton associates each of her main characters with a star sign and uses charts to determine their changing fortunes as the novel progresses. It’s a clever experiment in form and although I still don’t know what exactly it added to the novel I liked the idea and on the whole I can appreciate the way in which Catton draws all of this together. However, as I think this over now I keep coming back to those decreasing chapter lengths and I wonder whether, if I’m honest with myself, I might not have found them a little unsatisfying really. The problem, I believe, is just that the briefest shrunken chapters come right at the end of the novel when you’re hungry for more information, not less. It wasn’t really something I thought about until after it was all over though.

This is really the only small complaint I have to make about this novel. I’ve been raving about how much I enjoyed it to everyone who will listen ever since. It’s the cleverest, most engaging novel I’ve read in a really long time.

I can recommend doing a google image search for Hokitika if you’re looking for some striking travel porn to make you truly desperate to visit the west coast of New Zealand. Spectacular.

The Bookseller of Kabul (2002) by Asne Seierstad

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I am currently completely and utterly absorbed in Eleanor Catton’s book The Luminaries, which explains my recent short absence from the blog. I’ve been reading it for the past two weeks or so but am only just nearing the end of part 1 so I still have some way to go. It’s eye-wateringly complicated but luckily I’m so in love with it that I don’t really seem to mind that most of the time.

It’s a very different read to the last one I finished, The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist and in September 2001 she entered Afghanistan to cover the ongoing crisis that followed the attacks on New York. In Kabul she met a successful bookseller, known as Sultan Khan in the book, and struck up enough of a friendship that she was able to convince him to allow her to live secretly amongst his family for four months as research for an upcoming book on the war and its impact on ordinary families. This is the result of that stay: a detailed portrait of Khan’s large family (with pseudonyms of course) as they pick out a life in cramped conditions amongst the country’s war ravaged capital. She begins her story with an account of Khan’s marriage to his second wife but goes on to devote a portion of her book to each member of the family in turn.

It’s for the Khan women that Seierstad clearly feels the most fondness and I like the fact that she deliberately tries to shine a spotlight on the experiences of those whom she feels are dominated and repressed by traditional Afghan culture. Khan is clearly a complex man and he and his sons don’t come out of the story quite so well; you get the distinct impression that Seierstad, as a western woman used to more freedom, must occasionally have found their behaviour frustrating. This is all explained in Seierstad’s simple and down to earth style which I really liked, particularly at those times when she provided brief explanations of the background to the war and life under successive Soviet, Taliban and pro-democratic governments. I don’t know a great deal about Afghanistan’s troubled past so I appreciated the uncomplicated writing style here.

Although she lived amongst the Khans for some time Seierstad never actually references herself in her story telling; instead she writes as a sort of omniscient narrator with a privileged insight into the private lives of those she’s observing. I’ve given this some thought now and I think that this is at the heart of my reservations about this book; it’s not obvious whether this is a piece of journalism or fiction and the fact that she never acknowledges her role makes you wonder how many of those secret thoughts and feelings she attributes to the Khan family are real and how many are imposed upon their subjects. Is it true, for example, that Khan’s younger sister hides love letters from her secret boyfriend in her room? And if so, why would Seierstad reveal that information in her book when she’s already gone to great lengths recounting truly horrifying stories of women who have been beaten or even killed by their families for the same behaviour? It makes no sense. And really, when I think about it, I’m not sure I believe that even spending four months fully immersed in a family from another culture would give you this sort of insight into who they are: only the Khans know that.

I think there’s a bit of me that wonders whether this is all a betrayal of the trust of the family who welcomed her into their home. And I also wonder whether I might have more faith in Seierstad if she was more open about how she came to have such an insight into this family, if instead of painting herself out of the picture and treating the Khans like characters in a novel she recounted real conversations and experiences that she shared with them. I can understand that her apparent absence from the storytelling might give the appearance of impartiality but I think more openness might add more credibility to her portrayal of the Khan family. Khan himself, and his relationships with those in family, are probably more nuanced than Seierstad gives them credit for and her tone could be criticised for being occasionally (and I’m sure unintentionally) condescending.

So on the whole it’s fair to say I have mixed feelings on this one. I explained all of this to a friend the other day and was told that I’m possibly overthinking things here and that I might be better off just enjoying The Bookseller of Kabul as it is without worrying so much about all the details. She’s right of course; there’s definitely no enjoyment to be had if you question the reliability of every narrator in every book you read. Having said that, I’ve changed my mind about using this book for my next stop on the Around the World in 80 Books tour. I’ll wait until I’ve read Khaled Hosseini’s book And The Mountains Echoed (still in the TBR pile) before I cross Afghanistan off the list entirely.

War & Turpentine (2013) by Stefan Hertmans

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We turn tough and get sentimental; we laugh as we cry; our life’s a waking slumber, a slumberous wake; we quarrel with our arms around each other; we lash out at each other while shrugging our shoulders; no part of our bodies or minds remains intact; we breathe as long as live and live merely because we are breathing, as long as it lasts. 

Before the Booker International long-list came out earlier this year I hadn’t heard of Stefan Hertmans but I immediately added some of the finalists, including this novel, to my ever growing to-read list as soon as the news came out. I heard so many positive things about it in the months that followed but resisted getting myself a copy until I went to the library to collect Silkworm a week or two ago and it just happened to be prominently displayed on the neighbouring shelf. Obviously it was destiny.

It took me a little while to get through War & Turpentine; not because it’s a particularly dense book but because it soon became clear that this was one worth taking my time over. It’s a strange novel that seems to straddle a couple of genres but essentially it’s based on the memories of the writer’s grandfather, Urbain Martein, which were written down in three notebooks in the later years of his life. The notebooks were passed to Hertmans on Martein’s death but not read until three decades later. In the first and last parts of the novel Hertmans combs over his grandfather’s life and work pre- and post-war: a poor childhood in Ghent, his father’s career restoring frescoes in churches, his early training in an iron foundry, art school, love, marriage and eventual death. Cutting through Hertman’s story is Urbain’s personal account of his experiences in the Great War, as they were written down in painstaking detail many years later. This is the backbone of the novel and its looming presence colours everything you read before and after.

It’s a little difficult to tell where the line between fiction and memoir really lies here, particularly because Hertmans illustrates his story with images of his grandfather’s sketches, paintings by the great masters he loved and photographs of the places he knew. I think this might be one of the things I liked most about this novel though. It’s almost like Hertmans deliberately allows the edges between art and real life to become a bit blurred because, for his grandfather, they were part of the same story. It occasionally makes for some quite painful reading but in amongst the poverty of Urbain’s childhood and the grim horror of the trenches Hertmans shines a light on moments that have the power to both devastate you and uplift you at the same time. One short scene, which takes place in a  small dockyard church while Urbain is in Liverpool recovering from wounds received at the front, made me quite emotional and I found myself blinking back tears and swearing at myself to keep it together at least until I was in a less public place. Hertman really touchingly shows all the brutal inhumanity of the world (a description of a gelatine factory will make your eyes water) alongside the wondrous and the beautiful: Urbain’s paintings, his mother, his short love affair, the Liverpool church, the beautiful landscape surrounding the battlefields, the sight of animals escaping the warefare… It’s a sad novel really but the contrasts give it a kind of hopefulness.

Hertman’s skill as a poet is evident here in the touchingly lyrical language. It’s so finely crafted it feels almost like a delicate work of art in itself. I really enjoyed this.

For Two Thousand Years (1934) by Mihail Sebastian

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“Exactly the same thing happens with that age-old call for death which is always present somewhere on Romanian streets but audible only at certain moments. Year after year it resounds in the ear of the common man, who is indifferent, in a hurry, with other things on his mind. Year after year it rumbles and echoes in street and byway and nobody hears it. And one day, out of nowhere, behold how it suddenly pierces the wall of deafness around it and issues from every crack and from under every stone.”

My last stopover on the Around the World in 80 Books tour was in the West Indies for Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea. For my latest trip I’ve made a completely impractical (but metaphorical) leap over the ocean back to Europe to enjoy a brief stay in Romania – thankfully cost and carbon footprint aren’t a worry here or I might have planned the whole trip better and found a more efficient route 🙂

For Two Thousand Years has only recently appeared in English and I didn’t know much about it before it caught my eye in Waterstones a few months ago. Sebastian’s semi-autobiographical novel takes the very loose form of a diary covering about ten years in the life of a young Jewish man who, when the novel opens in 1923, is an impressionable student at the university in Bucharest. I found the opening passages unsettling, mainly because these were, of course, times of great political and social upheaval and the narrator suffers a great deal at the hands of anti-Semitic mobs on his way to lectures each day. It provokes much argument amongst his friends about what the future holds for the Jews in Europe but the narrator is much more introspective; he wonders what being Jewish means to him personally and whether he will ever really be accepted on his own terms in a Romania which repeatedly rejects and threatens those like him.

The book becomes less brooding – but no less intense – as he moves away from the university and I found it interesting to observe the ways in which his views evolve as he embarks on new ventures and makes new friends. He’s much less self-conscious from here on and there’s less soul searching so I’m sorry to say that I enjoyed these chapters a little more. I hope it isn’t spoiling things too much if I say that the novel takes a quietly sinister turn in the final pages. I was in a noisy hairdresser’s salon at this point in my reading, with a head full of foils, and I wondered later whether the incongruous setting might have made these chapters more shocking than they really were. I’d be interested to know whether anyone else found them as gut-wrenchingly painful to read as I did, much more alarming even than the violence displayed by the racist mobs in previous chapters.

My engagement with this novel went in fits and starts. We didn’t get off to the best beginning but there were several long passages that I loved, I mean really loved. I was so taken with some of Sebastian’s language and imagery that I ended up underlining several long passages in pencil, more than I have with any other novel I’ve read recently. On the other hand there’s no escaping the fact that on some occasions I had a hard time staying focussed. At times I was desperate to finish this novel; at others I wanted to savour every word. My feelings switched from one extreme to the other almost continually until the final few chapters when they suddenly fell very much in the books favour. I didn’t always find this an easy read – for several reasons – but it was beautifully written and haunted me long after I finished.

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys

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And if the razor grass cut my legs I would think ‘It’s better than people.’ Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin – once I saw a snake. All better than people. Better. Better, better than people.

Thanks to my lovely friends and family (and a carefully curated Amazon wishlist) I received a ton of new books for my birthday in June. They’re currently stacked up under the coffee table and will likely remain there for ages and ages while I slowly work my way through them. It’s not often I have nice things to say about Amazon (who need to pay their damn taxes and treat their staff a bit better) but I do kind of love the wishlist feature. It makes birthdays for lazy people like me so much easier.

Wide Sargosso Sea was the first to graduate out of the unread pile. I’d been curious about it for quite a while; it came highly recommended by a friend and I knew enough about it to suspect that we’d probably get along quite well. This novel is Rhys’s attempt to give Antoinette ‘Bertha’ Mason, Jane Eyre’s original madwoman in the attic, a voice and a life before Bronte’s classic story. The first part of the novel is told from the viewpoint of Antoinette and gives an unsettling account of her lonely childhood in Jamaica in the 1830s, shortly after the abolition of slavery. After a traumatic start for Antoinette the novel jumps ahead several years to the days immediately after her marriage to Mr Rochester (who’s never actually named in the novel). His narrative is one of resentment at having been coerced into a marriage with a Creole girl he doesn’t care for and later suspicion when he finds cause to doubt her. For the last few short chapters the novel again leaps forward in time, this time to a point where it overlaps with Jane Eyre; a wild, forgotten Antoinette is now captive in the attic of Thornfield while Rochester lives his life below, trying to forget that she ever existed.

As a Jane Eyre lover I found this last chapter most fascinating of all but in truth I was pretty taken with the whole of Wide Sargasso Sea. It had occurred to me before now that for a character so vital to Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason is given very little page time by Bronte. In effect she isn’t much more than a dramatic plot twist. When I first read the book as a teenager I pushed aside the niggling feeling at the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, Rochester hadn’t treated his first wife (or Jane) very fairly; I argued that the book was a product of its time and that really Rochester, who never claims to be an honourable or a good man, was probably doing her a kindness by not having her locked up in some appalling asylum somewhere. I expect these are the kinds of things that many readers consider and while I’m not usually a fan of prequels I love the fact that Rhys must have wondered about some of the same things.

Rhys’s Rochester is aloof and occasionally cruel, much as he is in Jane Eyre, but she doesn’t really depict him as a liar or suggest that he behaves any differently to other men of his class and time would have done in his situation. Antoinette, on the other hand, is traumatised, desperate, childlike and distant; although she narrates much of the novel she still feels strangely shadowy towards the end. Rhys plays up her sense of isolation throughout the novel by suggesting that she doesn’t belong anywhere; as the daughter of a former slave owner she’s reviled by the island’s black inhabitants but as a Creole she’s not considered civilised by the white Europeans, including by Rochester.  She’s stuck in some lonely, untouchable place between the two so by the end of the novel you’re not really sure who the real victim is here. Were the seeds of Antoinette’s madness sewn in her childhood or was she driven to insanity by her husband’s cruelty? Were Rochester’s suspicions about his wife well founded or did he willingly accept an explanation that offered him an easy way out? I was still pondering some of these questions a week after I’d finished the novel.

Wide Sargasso Sea provided a welcome chance to tick off another destination on my Around the World in 80 Books tour. For Antoinette Rhys evokes the West Indian islands of her childhood as an almost indecently lush, green garden but for Rochester it’s an overwhelming contrast to Thornfield:

“Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.”

It’s claustrophobic and disorientating, much like this novel. And I mean that in a good way.

The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus

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There have been as many plagues as wars in history ; yet plagues and wars take people equally by surprise… 

I picked this up in a charity shop after reading a great online article (that I now can’t find) about the life of Albert Camus and how his experiences in the French resistance helped shape this particular novel. It struck a chord with me at the time, partly because the resistance story was incredible but also because, and I’m aware this might sound a bit grim, I’m kind of fascinated by the history of the plague. It’s obviously not the death and the suffering that do it for me; rather, as an ex-history student, I find it quite interesting to consider how plague epidemics changed the world around them. I’ve read a couple of non-fiction books on the subject but never any fictionalised accounts until the article on Camus encouraged me to give this one a try. And I’m very pleased I did.

The genius of Camus here is that this isn’t really a book about plague. Well, actually it is, but rather than dwelling on all the gory details just for the sake of it he uses his tale of a fictional plague epidemic in his home town of Oran in Algeria to draw subtle comparisons with the experiences of those living under Fascist rule. For the citizens of Oran it begins quietly enough, with the death of a few rats, but it’s not long before the city is overwhelmed and the populace is in a state of panic. The unnamed narrator’s account of the epidemic describes Oran’s year in enforced quarantine in minute detail; he describes the mounting death count, the daily struggle to survive, the fear of being forgotten by the outside world, the dwindling power of hope and the eventual abandonment of all those things that used to give life meaning.

Much of the novel is focused on Dr Rieux and the men who join him in trying to prevent the further spread of the disease. Their stories are told partly through diaries, letters and sermons, so they’re a welcome contrast to the hard, cold precision of the report style used elsewhere. In focusing on the efforts of these men in particular, and in switching the format every now and again, Camus ensures that occasional moments of friendship and kindness shine through every now and again. In fact, Camus often stresses how it is love alone that brings Oran’s inhabitants through these darkest days and keeps them fighting.

The Plague is a powerful novel and a genuinely moving one at that. The writing is simple but commanding; at times I felt so immersed in this novel it was like living in the quarantine zone myself. I shared in Rieux’s despair. I found it completely absorbing and quite disconcerting at times.

 

Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie

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Knees and nose, nose and knees.

Apparently I first attempted to read this book at the height of my BBC Big Read glory days, sometime c. 2006. I really have no memory of it but know it must have happened because ten pages in I found the address of a house I shared with some friends that year scribbled on a post it note, along with the monthly rent, number of bedrooms and phone number of the letting agent. Clearly I didn’t finish the book then, although I can’t remember why I gave up on it, but having had it languishing on my shelf ever since, judging me, it seemed about time to pick it up again and have another go.

Midnight’s Children is actually a monumentally difficult book to write about and, at times, not an easy one to read either. Rushdie weaves together layers of fact, myth, rumour and prophecy so that you often can’t really tell what you’re reading. It’s beautifully done but it does make writing a succinct plot description quite tricky, partly because, if I’m brutally honest, I’m still not quite sure what exactly happens in this book. I can tell you that Saleem Sinai, our narrator, is the original midnight’s child, born on the stroke of the hour at the very moment India leaves its colonial past behind and emerges as a newly independent state. Saleem’s life story is knitted together with that of India so it becomes part family saga, part historical epic and part magical fantasy. Rushdie presents the reader with real events like presidential coups, the war with Pakistan and Bangladesh’s violent struggle for independence but he also throws in a snake-man, children born with remarkable powers, a spinster aunt who infuses dishes with her own bitterness and a small boy with the most powerful nose in all of history.

As a narrator Saleem is absolutely infuriating at times. He drops massive hints, strays off topic, abandons stories unfinished and occasionally just invents stuff. He admits to a certain amount of fabrication, acknowledging that sometimes his dates don’t add up and that, to outsiders, some of his bigger claims must sound of preposterous. It’s his faults that make him such a compelling narrator and his sense of his own centrality to the history of a nation, his belief that his actions dictate the future of India, make his story a consuming one even if you can’t ever work out how much of it has been invented, misremembered or embellished. Through him you get a strange sense of how overwhelming the past can be.

I confess to finding Midnight’s Children heavy going at times. While it’s sparklingly, beautifully written – I mean seriously, I’m in awe – it’s the kind of book that will tie you in knots if you’re not careful. I found that my own poor knowledge of Indian history let me down on many occasions and I had frequent cause to look up things I didn’t understand (some of my recent google searches: ‘Dacca’, ‘Sanjay Ghandi, ‘shikara’ ). I don’t mind doing that – I tend to do it with lots of books because I don’t like not knowing – but I seemed to be doing it more often than usual here. However, even if I’d had some expertise I think I’d have still found plenty to confuse me. Thankfully I managed to just about hold it all together so that I was never so baffled that I lost myself completely or was tempted to give up. As long as I paid vigorous attention, and had Dr Google to hand, I was never confused beyond endurance. Now that it’s over and my poor brain can relax a little I’m convinced that Midnight’s Children was worth the effort. I didn’t always enjoy it at the time but I can now only wonder at Rushdie’s attention to detail, his skill at layering story upon story and his ability to bring characters, countries and a whole nation’s history to life. It’s quite a feat really.

I had planned to read Dr Zhivago next but I’ve somehow managed to lose the copy I bought at the start of the year. How annoying… Now that I think about it, it’s probably for the best because I think I deserve, and would appreciate, something slightly easier for my next read.