Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Guardian Review of 'C'

Alfred Hickling is rapidly turning into my personal bete noir for his pocket reviews of books he apparently has not fully read. Last Saturday [Review, Saturday Guardian 27.08.11] he did an inaccurate thumbnail sketch of C by Tom McCarthy which did little justice to this powerful novel, probably the best published in the UK in 2010.   This is a book which has been described as an historical novel but it is concerned less with history than with ideas and minds.   It is full of philosophic allusions and learned references that sit comfortably in what is at times a highly amusing book and most readable.

The protagonist, Serge Carrefax, does not wind up in Egypt installing transmitters [as AH says] but is asked to come to Alexandria to write a report or reports on the advancement of a company alluded to as the Empire Wireless Chain.   His 'aerial adventures' [to quote Hickling] give one of the best descriptions I have ever read of flying as an observer over the front lines in the First World War in France [not Egypt, AH].   And the cocaine he uses on his eyeballs is to sharpen his vision, not to get high [AH] - vision being a deep theme of the book.   Serge is at once both in and not in the world; not so much suffering any existential angst but rather with a phenomenological grasp of life around him.   Studying art with his tutor as a boy, he experienced great difficulty with perspective viewing the world as flat, an image that is reinforced as an observer flying with the RFC in the war.

These thumbnail reviews of newly published paperbacks are a useful aid to books one might have missed when published in hardback.   It does us no service to misconstrue them.

Friday, August 12, 2011

New Finnish Grammar

Last week the Guardian lamented the malaise in 21st century [English] publishing but there is hope as long as they continue to buy and translate the gems being published on the European mainland.   One such is the New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, first published in Italy in 2000 and now available in English thanks to Dedalus Books.   Nicholas Lezard commented that he couldn't 'remember when I read a more extraordinary novel, or when I was last so strongly tempted to use the word "genius" of its author'.   Perhaps 'genius' is rather strong as he leaves many questions unanswered in the text but nevertheless, as Josipovici said of it, 'what he has produced is still a cut above what passes for serious fiction in this country'.

The story is deceptively simple and straightforward which will reassure those who tire of the time leaps and split narratives of the postmoderns!   A severely wounded unidentified sailor is found in Trieste in 1943 and taken on to a German hospital ship where he comes under the care of a Dr Friari.   When the wounded man awakes from his coma, he has no memory, no knowledge of either where he comes from or who he is but most profoundly, he has no language.   As he himself says, 'All linguistic feeling, all interest in words, had died away'.   Dr Friari, himself an exile from Finland since childhood, assumes the man is Finnish as the label sewn on his jacket has the name Sampo Karjalainen, a Finnish name.   The doctor determines to get Sampo well enough to return to Finland and, in the meantime, starts to teach him Finnish which he assumes to be his mother tongue.   He could hardly have started on a more difficult course as Finnish has to be Europe's most complicated language where even the nouns have multiple declensions.

Sampo does get to Helsinki where his recovery continues and language skills grow apace under the guidance of an extraordinary pastor, the military chaplain, Olof Koskela. an ebullient, extrovert giant of a man, steeped in Finnish folklore and fond of a daily tincture of koskenkorva.   He also attempts a relationship with a nurse, Ilma.  He realises quickly enough that to rediscover his true past is an impossibility and that Dr Friari was right - 'language is our mother, and it is through language that we come into this world'.   The account of his time in the military installation in Helsinki is fascinating and Marani maintains the suspense and keeps us avid to learn his identity to the very end.

This is a story about war and love and memory and particularly about language - not surprising as the author, Marani, is a linguist in the EU.   There are thorny questions that Marani dodges as he ignores the Ghost in the Machine.   Sampo discovers at an early stage that he recognises objects and what they are for - he has therefore retained the concept of 'knowing how' but not the one of 'knowing that'.   He also acknowledges early on that without language there is no memory but nevertheless he says on the second page that 'even in my confusion I remembered that there was a war on ... my thoughts seemed to well up out of nothingness and then sink down again into the porous soil of my unfocused consciousness'.   Thoughts?   Was he picturing to himself in auditory or visual images?   Thinking is normally interpreted as an operation with symbols such as words and sentences but Marani does not go there.  [For any reader interested in this aspect, Gilbert Ryle has written a very original text on the subject called The Concept of Mind].   The story is told by both Dr Friari and Sampo and Sampo's language in writing gets rather sophisticated at a stage when he apparently can barely make himself understood to others.   However, none of these thought-provoking questions in anyway detract from Marani's exquisite piece of work.

I agree with Lezard that this is definitely an extraordinary book.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Pereira Maintains

One could be forgiven for thinking that Alfred Hickling, Guardian reviewer, fails to read at least some of the books he reviews.   At best this is irritating but at worst it misleads potential readers so they miss out on some veritable masterpieces such as Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi [reviewed by Hickling in the Guardian Review, Saturday 6 August].   Tabucchi is a major Italian author whose book, published originally in Italian in 1994, sold 300,000 copies and was then picked up by Canongate Books, translated by Patrick Creagh and published in 2010 in Britain.   It deserves better than Hickling's faulty summary.

The book is listed as a political thriller and it is, to a certain extent this, but it is more.   It is set in 1938 Lisbon, six years after Salazar got into power and established a repressive, Catholic, fascistic dictatorship.   Salazar was an admirer of Hitler and supporter of the Franco, anti-republican side in the Spanish Civil War.   Dr Pereira, the eponymous hero, is an overweight, lonely man, a recent widower who talks to his dead wife's portrait and who eats vast quantities of omelettes aux fine herbes and drinks highly sugared lemonade.   He is employed as editor of the literary pages of a low circulation Lisbon paper, the Lisboa.   Censorship is of course rife and, though Pereira deplores it, he is also himself guilty of self censorship, rarely pushing the envelope, contenting himself with publishing translations of 19th century French novels.   The closest he comes to rebelling at censorship is publishing the translation of a story by Daudet which includes the phrase 'vive la France' which brings down the wrath of the government and editor on him, Portugal being firmly opposed to France.

This changes however when he comes in contact with a young man, Monteiro Rossi, a university graduate with a first in Philosophy, who draws himself to Pereira's attention with an article on death and the soul which subject obsesses Pereira.   He takes on Rossi to write obituaries for the files, all of which prove totally unpublishable but he continues to pay him even when he discovers Rossi is in fact a revolutionary organising volunteers and raising funds for the anti Franco International Brigade.   The change is not sudden but rather is the theme of the book culminating in a catastrophe which does change Pereira's life for ever evincing a courage and commitment only hinted at to that point.

Tabucchi is a stylist in the postmodern tradition who writes with great thought if though somewhat at times enigmatic. The title is not lightly chosen as it is written in the third person in what is described as a testimonial style.   The phrase 'Pereira maintains' is used continually giving the impression that one is reading a report drawn up by an interrogator - whether fascist or revolutionary we don't know.   I like to think he is in the hands of the revolutionaries as, at one point, Rossi's girlfriend tells Pereira what a help he is being saying 'we of the cause will not forget it'.   The book is littered with references to various authors - Rilke, Mann, Daudet, Marx, Pessoa and so on - none of whom are lightly chosen.   Equally the characters Pereira meets or associates with are at times almost surreal, from the German Jewish lady with a wooden leg to the local priest, Fr Antonio, who is firmly opposed to Franco and, particularly, the waiter in his favourite cafe who supplies him with the international news on a daily basis.   One day, the waiter, Manuel, in a rather perplexed tone, tells Periera that Portugal was mentioned on the news for the first time and that it was described as a dictatorship.   He was genuinely upset to learn that he was living under a dictator!

Pereira Maintains has been made into a film though sadly it is only available in Italian with no subtitles.  It clearly is highly regarded in Italy as representing almost a pastiche of how things were at the time of its writing just following the election of Berlusconi.   Personlly I think it stands as a stark warning against the encroachment of the far right parties now growing in influence everywhere.