Friday, March 4, 2011

The Joys of Variety

At the moment I am jumping from book to book interspersing some brilliant fiction with some equally brilliant non fiction.   The indomitable Eric Hobsbawm has a new title out, How to Change the World, and, though Terry Eagleton says in his review of it in this week's London Review of Books [3 March] that 'Hobsbawm ... is not quite as omniscient as the Hegelian World-Spirit, for all his cosmopolitan range and encyclopedic knowledge', this is a book that we can all learn from.   It is a collection of essays on Marxism, some of which have been published before but some only in Italian and Hobsbawm has brought them together in an accessible and exciting form.   More later when I finish it!

Two works of fiction I read last week were Tinkers by Paul Harding and Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo, both of which enthralled me.   Tinkers is Harding's first novel and, as with many new writers, it took him a long time to find a publisher but then went on to win the Pulitzer Prize last year.   It is exquisitely written in controlled and spare style but, oh, so beautiful.   There is not one word too many in this short novel - it is only 191 pages - but the pictures he conjures up are deep and lasting.

The narrative is told by George Washington Crosby who grew up in Maine but moved to Massachusetts when he was twenty one.   Now he is at the end of his life and hallucinating in the last throes of his illness which gives the author the scope to dispense with the constraints of time as the narrative moves between George's story and that of his father, Howard, who spent his life travelling through the backwoods of the state selling dry goods from his wagon particularly in the more isolated regions in the hills and woods of Maine.   George is a clock man, both repairing clocks and collecting them and the author gives us some fascinating information on the subject while using it as a source of juggling time and memory.

The book is a meditation not only on the sometimes harsh relationship of father and son but also the reflected hardship of nature in the cold winters of New England.   But it is also a story of love of life with an acceptance of loss.   Howard reflects at one point that 'everything is made to perish;  the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so'.   His description of his father going out of his life is both moving and startling:  'it seemed to me as if my father simply faded away.   He became more and more difficult to see....He leaked out of the world gradually'.   This man is a genuine wordsmith with a simple story to tell but in language few could equal.
Red April by Roncagliolo couldn't be a more different novel!   It is a translation by Edith Grossman  who has also translated Garcia Marquez's  Love in the Time of Cholera.   Roncagliolo was born in Peru and his novel is set in Lima in 2000 following the end of the war against the terrorist Shining Path.   This war, however, permeates the entire  novel but nobody wants to talk about it.  The narrator says at one point, 'the memory of the war had been buried along with its dead .. the memory of the eighties was like the silent earth in cemeteries.   The only thing everyone shares, the only thing no one talks about'.

The story opens with the discovery of a body described in a detailed and precise report by Felix Chacaltana Saldivar, Associate District Prosecutor and those adjectives aptly describe Chacaltana who is exact and precise in all his dealings.   A solitary man who preserves his dead mother's room in his house, talking to her as if she is alive, he deals with the subsequent horror that visits the city in a farcically controlled fashion.  The syntax and precise details of his reports resonate more with him than the events themselves.  The murders that take place are juxtaposed to the elaborate processions and rites that accompany the celebration of Holy Week.   It quickly becomes apparent that this is a most delicious satire of civil strife and the emotion that arises only heightens the author's sardonic approach to his narrative.   Behind the satire, though, is a certain sadness at a society that has been deeply damaged by terrorism.   Fear still underlies all of even the ordinary.

This is a book that bears thinking about when one has read it.   Nothing is quite as it first seems.   I would recommend you read it!

No comments:

Post a Comment