Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Of Love and Other Demons - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I first read this novella when it came out in paperback in 1995.  I liked it then but, re-reading it now and having read much more Latin American literature, I loved it.

The structure is clever.  The prologue, which may or may not be true, tells us that as a young reporter Marquez was sent to report on the exhumation of corpses from the old Clarrisan convent in Cartagena.  While he is there, a tomb in the third niche of the high altar is cracked open and an ocean of red-gold hair spills out.  A skull follows, the skull of a teenage girl.  The inscription tells us that this was once Sierva Maria de Todos Los Angeles.  The remainder of the book is her story.

Back in the late Eighteenth Century Sierva was the only child of an elderly decayed marquis and his crazy bulimic wife.  Sierva has been left to run wild with the slaves.  One day, when she is twelve years old, she is nipped on the ankle by a rabid dog.  Nothing happens but the marquis becomes obsessed with the idea that his daughter is going to go mad and die.  Eventually, after his wife has left him, he places Sierva in the convent where the abbess immediately concludes she is possessed.  The bishop sends his protege Cayetano Delaura to exorcise her.  Instead, he falls in love with the child.

The atmosphere of sweltering decay - the exploration of an alien, debased society imposed on layers and layers of native culture - is spellbinding.  There is a sense of a fairytale, or moral fable, yet it remains of novel of character tested in extremis.  Utterly compelling.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Dangerous to Know - Chapman Pincher

It's quite something to read a book written by a man in his 100th year.  Chapman Pincher, chief investigative reporter for the Daily Express when it was a proper paper and not something you wouldn't even wrap your chips in, lived not only to celebrate his centenary but also to see this final book published.  He died on August 5th.

Of course, we only read Pincher for his spy scoops.  This, after all, was the man who first revealed that the head of MI5, Roger Hollis, was almost certainly a Russian spy and who collaborated with Peter Wright before Spycatcher.  Fortunately, no one knows that better than Pincher himself and this book not only summarizes his biggest coups but even adds new information to some of them.

It's worth knowing, however, that Pincher retired from Fleet Street as long ago as 1979.  For the last thirty-five years he combined investigative non-fiction with novels of all kinds and his lifelong passion for field sports.  Indeed, many of his biggest stories were leaked by friends from shooting and fishing (he doesn't seem to have been a hunting man).

Pincher never sets out to be likeable.  He was a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, incredibly snobbish for a publican's son born in India and brought up in Yorkshire, and an olympic-level name-dropper.  He knew this and is unapologetic here.  The fact is, he might have been wrong in his views but he was the greatest journalist of the last fifty years and was absolutely honest in his revelations.  It seems bizarre, nowadays, to couple journalist and honest in the same sentence, but Pincher might well have been the last of his breed.

The greatest revelation in Dangerous to Know, however, is that Pincher might have had to give up fishing in his late nineties, but at the age of ninety-nine his prose was as elegant and lucid as in his heyday in the 1960s.  Amazing.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Cut - George Pelecanos

As usual, I'm reading the series the wrong way round.  This is the second Spero Lucas novel I've read in the last month or so, but this is his debut.  Luckily, Pelecanos is such a good writer that it makes no difference which way you read them.

Anyway Afghan vet and retriever of lost property Spero is asked by hippie defence lawyer Tom Petersen to find evidence to help the case of an underage driver who has crashed and killed his friend.   Success leads him to the boy's father, another of Petersen's clients, awaiting trial for dealing marijuana.  Here Pelecanos joins his friend and colleague David Simon's crusade to show the stupidity of America's War on Drugs - filling up prisons with nonviolent offenders.

Anyway, someone is stealing the dealer's deliveries and he asks Spero to recover the goods for his customary forty percent cut.  From this point on the ripples of the conspiracy spread wider and wider and the violence ratchets remorselessly up.

The Derek Strange series never really hooked me (Strange gets a witty nod in The Cut, almost an acknowledgement of shared DNA) but I find Spero Lucas properly compelling.  Perhaps it's the way he draws in his former comrades, now shattered one way or another.  The Afghan conflict, right or wrong, adds depth and tone which really chimes with me.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

A Foreign Country - Charles Cumming

I've been keeping an eye out for Cumming's work since he won the CWA Steel Dagger, and the Bloody Scotland Scottish Crime Book of the Year for this very novel in 2012.

As I have stated several times on this blog, spy fiction is not my first choice and I can only tolerate the very best.  Fortunately, Cumming is up there with the very best.  Much more literate than Fleming and not as tendentious as le Carre can sometimes be.

The storyline here is unrolled through a number of clever twists, none of which strain the credulity.  Essentially, it is this: the incoming female head of MI6 vanishes; Thomas Kell, the spy who was effectively thrown into the cold, is given the off-the-books task of tracking her down with the vague promise of reinstatement if successful.  This means we don't have to endure too much office in-fighting and can get down to the chase through Tunisia and France.

The plot deepens, the target changes more than once, and the pace never once relents.  Cumming has stripped down the backstory of his characters to the bare minimum needed to engage our empathy.  Thus he can devote all his authorial energy to making his thriller thrilling.  He succeeds.

I am definitely up for more.  The Trinity Six sounds intriguing...

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion - Yukio Mishima

Mishima's story is based on a real-life incident.  In July 1950 the novice monk Hayashi Yoken burned down the Zen Buddhist temple of Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto.  The temple was rebuilt and Yoken survived his suicide attempt (only to die in 1956, the year the literary world's most spectacular suicide published his fictionalised version).

Mishima changes the Yoken's name to Mizoguchi and ends with his flight into the hills after starting the fire.  The real novice was insane, Mizoguchi is not.  That would be too easy.  Mishima's is an existentialist quest to explain the act of atrocious vandalism.  Mizoguchi's journey turns into a quest for beauty and freedom.

Mishima is one of the greatest 20th century novelists.  His failed coup and ritual suicide in November 1970, when he was only forty-five, has probably eclipsed his literary output.  It certainly meant his achievement was never marked by the Nobel Prize, although he almost won in 1968.  Of course the life of a Buddhist monk is alien to the western reader but Mishima knows that (he had spent time in America) and explains in more detail than I suspect the Japanese reader needs.  In this he is assisted by Ivan Morris's beautifully lucid translation.

The result is a novel of enormous power.  Alien though it is, Mizoguchi's narration draws us in.  His action is appalling, his motives (despite Mishima's efforts) inexplicable save as a form of offensively selfish performance art, and yet we can never hate him because he is so entirely human.

I truly love everything about this book - EXCEPT the trite and patronising introduction by Nancy Wilson Ross, an expert, apparently, on Eastern religion.  This she may well have been, and we have to indulge her because she was writing before literature went truly international.  But the problem is, this is not a novel about religion.  Take my tip and skip the intro.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Ripeness is All - Eric Linklater

Ripeness is All was written in 1934 and published in 1935, by which time Linklater was an established and successful novelist.  He was writing too much and it shows.  The humour here is sometimes forced and the story is not as long as the book.  You sense padding.

Nevertheless, Linklater is a spectacularly talented writer.  The sheer force of his prose keeps you going through the duller bits.  His viewpoint is idiosyncratic.  He takes some unexpected swipes at unusual sacred cows - the blessed state of maternity, for example - and makes no bones about some of his characters being gay and lesbian. Some critics feel his humour is aggressively masculine but I do not find it so.  Here, his male characters are all idiots.  The character he clearly likes best is forty year-old spinster Hilary.

The plot is inventive.  The bachelor John dies and leaves the family fortune to whichever of the progeny of the late Jonathan Gander (his father) has the largest number of legitimate children by a given date.  So begins a comical race to procreate.  The comic twist is that it turns out stern Victorian patriarch Jonathan had a lot more progeny than anyone knew.  I don't think I'm giving too much away by revealing that.  It's set up quite early on.  The problem is, it's never really resolved.  You get the impression Linklater hits the contracted word or page count and then just wraps things up as quickly as he can.

I increasingly enjoy Linklater and enjoyed reading this.  It's not one of his best but it's better than many other comic novels of the period.  It is very English, which is an odd choice for such a proud Highland and Islander.  It is strikingly reminiscent of Linklater's friend and fellow Scottish Nationalist, Compton Mackenzie (who was, of course, English).  Indeed, Ripeness is All is effusively dedicated to 'Monty' Mackenzie.  I wonder if it was meant as a homage.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Mersey Sound - Penguin Modern Poets 10

Yes, the classic collection from 1967, one of the best selling poetry anthologies of all time.  It was and may still be hugely influential, but it is also (naturally) dated and often shallow behind the surface shine.

The late Adrian Henri has dated the most - no doubt because he was the oldest poet represented and also the most tied to contemporaneity.  His Alf Jarry/Pere Ubu references would have been the ultimate in avant garde in the early sixties - they are less so now.  That said, I found Henri's sad love poetry very touching, notably 'Without You' and 'Where'er You Walk'.

Roger McGough was the one I liked best at the time and like least forty years on.  The poems here really are the epitome of shallow.  I know he swapped some for the revised edition and he has certainly acquired depth in his later work. The poems here are heavily redolent of John Lennon in his Spaniard in the Works, sub Spike Milligan phase.

Patten's the one, though.  Only 21 when this collection was first published but even then transparently the most significant poet of the three.  Every single entry here has to be read slowly and carefully to find meaning and fully take onboard the emotion.  I remember seeing Patten and McGough in a show with members of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in 1973 or maybe 1974.  McGough was always a natural performer whereas Patten opted for the nasal whine favoured by modern bards.  This really is the difference.  Henri and McGough's poetry is meant to be read out with actions and voices and comedy where appropriate.  Patten can of course be read out loud but it's really meant for the printed page.

Adrian Henri died some time ago, McGough is a national treasure, but what happened to Brian Patten?  He's still under 70 but I haven't heard anything of him for years.  According to Wikipedia he's still active.  I must look more carefully for more recent collections.