Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Detour [Gerbrand Bakker]

This book will haunt you if you read it - and you should.   Bakker has the extraordinary gift of writing compellingly about empty spaces.   Much like his first book, The Twin [which won the International Impac Award], Bakker has written a page turner bereft of the usual signifiers - we don't even learn the correct name of the protagonist until the final pages - but which pulls us in with an intensity that few writers achieve.

The very first sentence warns us that things are different for our protagonist: early one morning she saw the badgers.   To see badgers is rare as they are nocturnal creatures.  Then the fourth chapter which is only five pages into the text starts one day her uncle had walked into the pond in what turns out to be a failed suicide attempt.   This sense of things being not right, of there being something hidden permeates the book producing that haunting quality that draws the reader in.

The protagonist is a Dutch academic running away from her life, heading for Ireland but ending up in Anglesey in a remote cottage in the shadow of Snowdon.   There, over a few months, she sets out to live a solitary life, creating a garden and spending some time on her current work on Emily Dickinson whose first name she borrows but whose work she treats with contempt.   We learn early on that she has left Holland and her husband following a scandal but there are intimations that there is some other heavy shadow hanging over her.   Slowly, she meets the local Doctor, Baker, Hairdresser and a local Farmer, all of whom define her in a certain way but with none of whom she establishes an amical relationship.   Then a young man, Bradwen, literally falls into her garden while mapping a new long-distance path for hill walkers.   He turns into the 'man who came to dinner' and prolongs his stay with Emily, helping her with heavy work, cooking and shopping.   But of course, this is Bakker and nothing is quite as it seems.  The geese that live beside her cottage are disappearing one by one.   And Emily becomes obsessed by what she identifies as the smell of the old lady, Mrs Evans, who died in the cottage.

Meanwhile back in Rotterdam, the Husband has struck up an odd relationship with a policeman who arrested him for setting fire to his wife's office after she fled. Together they have managed to track 'Emily' and they set out to find her which odyssey Bakker handles with a lovely quiet humour reminiscent of episodes in The Twin.

This is a very moving book which deserves to be read.   On the penultimate page, Bakker writes that Bradwen thinks sometimes a day's work is for nothing because it leads nowhere but he is on the wrong side of the mountain - is there a right side?  The translation is faultless in capturing both the essence and atmosphere of Bakker's writing.   Ironically, in one brief episode, 'Emily' spends a long time attempting to find the correct words to translate one of Emily Dickinson's poems, none of which are quite right.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Firmin by Sam Savage

I am in love with a rat!   Not the two legged variety - which exist, believe me! - but a genuine real hairy  chinless wonder of a rat called Firmin in a delightful story by Sam Savage.   Firmin is a literary rat born in the basement of a bookshop in Scollay Square in Boston in the sixties on a bed made by his mother, Flo, from the chewed up pages of Finnegans Wake.   As Firmin describes it,'I was birthed, bedded and suckled on the defoliated carcass of the world's most unread masterpiece'.   Being the thirteenth and runt of the litter, Firmin starts to chew the pages of books to keep himself alive and shortly discovers that as he chews, he starts to read and so begins his literary career which reaches the point where he can read 400 page novels in an hour, Spinoza in a day.

As he makes headway with Russian and French novels and simple works of philosophy, so his love affair with humans grows and gradually he eschews the company of his peers and identifies with the Other.   He falls in love with Norman, the owner of the quirky bookshop, and is appalled when he catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror discovering that he is short, thick, hairy and chinless, no match for his adored Norman.   He nevertheless sets out to try and communicate with the Other by teaching himself sign language leading to an episode that is not only outrageously funny but full of pathos.   Though he ventures rarely outside the bookshop, he does find the local cinema, the Rialto which is mostly avoided by other rats because of the vermin, a voracious population of fleas and lice and also the stench of old people!   There he finds the unattainable goddess of his life, Ginger Rogers.

Through various misadventures, Firmin eventually becomes the pet of a failed sci-fi writer until the projected renovation of Scollay Square, involving the demolishing of the bookshop,  brings tragedy into his life.

This is a light, totally endearing novel and a measure of Sam Savage's skill that he can made a rat so lovable.  His descriptions of Firmin coping with his precocious intellect combined with physical weakness are masterful as are his insights into the characters who make up the regular customers to Norman's bookshop.  I guarantee you that reading this will make you hesitate - if only briefly - before putting down that rat bait again!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

From the Guardian

Christopher Frayling [Saturday Guardian   05.05.12 Review], in discussing Bram Stoker, claims that 'it has .... become fashionable to reclaim Stoker as an Irish author - just as Francis Bacon has been reclaimed as an Irish painter and Wilde as an Irish playwright'.

It is news to me that one's birthplace is a question of 'fashion'!   Or does Frayling resent the literary success of the Irish?   Maybe he also considers Joyce and Beckett French?