Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Reykjavik Nights - Arnaldur Indridason

Arnuldur Indridason is an outsider in the Nordic Noir boom, largely because Iceland is so alien, even compared to Norway and Sweden.  The use of first names because of the patronymic problem, the so-called delicacies of blubber, sheep's head and - in this story - the "appetising aroma of dung-smoked meat"; it all takes a bit of getting used to. Here the problems are magnified because this is a "young" detective story, a flashback to an unspecified time (I suspect the early seventies) when Indridason's main character Erlendur was a rookie traffic cop and his usual oppo Sigurdur Oli doesn't feature at all.

Hannibal, a tramp Erlundur is vaguely acquainted with, is found drowned in a puddle on a building site.  It's a very shallow puddle and Erlundur isn't satisfied that even an hopeless drunk can drown in it.  In his spare time, which he has a useful amount of because he's working the light nights of the Arctic summer, he looks into Hannibal's life and wonders if his death is in any way linked to the disappearance of a young woman in the same area at about the same time.

The plotting, as always with Indridason, is the key element.  He kept me guessing wrong right to the denouement.  I first discovered him with perhaps his best-known novel Jar City, which is also an excellent Icelandic film.  Hypothermia is the one, if I remember right, which reveals the big secret of Erlundur's youth which is only hinted at here.  Now Jo Nesbo has become repetitive, his fans should probably consider some of his less heavily-promoted and frankly less-successful peers.  Indridason is one of the best of them.

The God of Glass - Peter Redgrove

We're into the dark meat here, only for those of obscure tastes.  Redgrove, of course, is best known as a poet, but he also wrote lots of fiction and drama.  God of Glass was originally a radio play, in which form it won the 1978 Imperial Tobacco award for best original radio play.  That is what brought it to my attention. As regular followers will know I am a Doctor of Radio Drama, perhaps even the only Doctor of Radio Drama.  My current exploration of the original radio work of Ted Hughes brought up the link with Redgrove (which is very apparent in this novelisation).  I haven't tracked down the radio script yet, but I will, and I have just acquired some more of Redgrove's plays which I will review here in due course.

Anyway, first and foremost The God of Glass reminds us that the Seventies were a long, long time ago.  I was doing my first Drama degree when the play was commissioned and dropping out in my native Lancashire witch-country when it was produced.  I remember those times but I had forgotten the sort of ultra-sexualised earth-goddess cult which Hughes and Redgrove explored in their work, even though I was living in the middle of it and knew many pre-New-Age practitioners.  I probably forgot about it because it was so over-the-top and - as the cover image of the 1979 original hardback above suggests - bloody.

Geoffrey Glass is an African man who, released from a life sentence, appears in Cornwall as a perfectly civilised shaman.  The village is being plagued by pubescent girls in the throes of demonic possession.  The vicar is killed in a failed exorcism (this was the era of The Exorcist, remember) and Glass, who hasn't been involved in any way before - that is to say, he did not create the possessions - joins in the cure with more success.  He is espoused by the mothers of the victims and soon a Glass movement is spreading across the country.  Glass becomes a national icon - only to submit himself to the judgement of his peers, the officers of his movement, chiefly from the Cornish village where it all began, when his past comes to light.  Then, in a worldwide live telecast, all hell literally breaks loose.

As to why it is subtitled "A Morality", who better than Redgrove himself to explain?

...because it seeks, by adopting the mode and idiom of a horror story of exorcism, to redirect attention to the serious themes of adult rebirth, and the dire consequences of masculine non-participation n feminine blood-mysteries, behind the usually conventionalised currency of the modern supernatural tale.
It is all very, very weird.  Even the style - disjointed chapters, of startlingly different length, with occasional poetry thrown in - is unique.  How anything like this was achieved on BBC radio I cannot imagine.  But I was completely hooked and am intrigued to explore further.  This is writing on the furthest frontier, not just in its day but now.  Further dispatches from the front will follow.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

A Colder War - Charles Cumming

Cumming first came to prominence with A Foreign Country, which won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for best thriller of the year and the Bloody Scotland crime book of the year, both in 2012.  The protagonist of that book, the forty-something disgraced SIS operative Thomas Kell, returns in A Colder War.

The premise is similar.  Still under investigation for his role in unlawful rendition and torture Kell is called back to action by the misfortune of an old friend and colleague, in this instance Paul Wallinger, chief British spy in Ankara, is killed in a dubious flying 'accident' immediately after a high profile operation he was running with the Americans goes spectacularly tits-up.

It's a mole-hunt with the personal undertones - Kell becomes passionately involved with Wallinger's daughter, and she becomes unexpectedly involved with the mole-hunt.  We know who the mole is fairly early in proceedings but Cumming is nevertheless able to maintain the suspense levels to the very end.  He has, in many ways, taken up the spy world where John le Carre left it.  Kell is not entirely dissimilar to George Smiley, though he does have a much more active personal life.  Cumming is now a major player in the genre.  I look forward to Kell's next appearance.  In the meantime I must try one of Cumming's standalone novels, perhaps the first, A Spy by Nature.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Casanova's Homecoming - Arthur Schnitzler

Set, naturally enough, in Italy in the 18th century, this novella is a variant on Schnitzler's usual microscopic analysis of fin de siecle Viennese society.  The theme, however, is his usual - the self-indulgence of sex.

The aged roue is marooned in Mantua, desperate to be allowed to return to his home city after 25 years.  He meets, by chance, Olivo, a local landowner who, fifteen years earlier, Casanova loaned money to in order to marry.  Being Casanova, his motives were not disinterested.  He had already slept with the bride's mother and now slept with Olivo's intended, Amalia, before agreeing to the loan.  Olivo, however, knows nothing of this.  He is delighted to see Casanova, invites him to his country house and insists of repaying the loan.  Amalia is equally pleased to see Casanova.  He even convinces himself that she is eager to revisit their earlier tryst.  But his true target is Olivo's neice and ward Marcolina, a mathematics prodigy a third of Casanova's age.  He determines to have her at any price.  After all, he reasons, she is not a virgin.  He has seen the dashing Lieutenant Lorenzi leaving via her window at dawn.

Schnitzler doesn't moralise.  He wants us to form our own judgements.  It seems to me that while Casanova considers himself the great lover he always in fact contrives to pay for sex like some hideous eighteenth century kerb-crawler.  He is a predator, devoid of conscience.  He is vile, and he returns to Venice to become a paid informer for the Senate, a vile profession.  I was startled, initially, that there is no comeback for his theft of Marcolina's favours.  I had assumed that the tables would be turned and he would himself have been decieved by Amalia or one of the other women he now disdains.  But there wasn't, and that's the point.  The likes of Casanova always get away with their crimes.  The only price he has to pay is that he has to live with himself.  Only in his dreams does his essential humanity surface in horror and disgust, which it does in the sex-sated dream he has immediately after having his way with Marcolina.  You know Schnitzler has a point to make when his paragraph stretches over pages.

The Night Watch - Patrick Modiano

Our hero is unnamed, although he sometimes claims a name, or a father.  He is known by two codenames, Swing Troubadour and the Princesse de Lamballe, because he is a double or triple agent for opposite factions in occupied Paris - the Khedive and his collaborationist gangsters, and the Lieutenant and his Knights of the Shadow, ex-army men dedicated to resistance.  Our hero, only twenty, is an accomplished hotel thief, and theft of any kind is child's play in a Paris abandoned by anyone with anything worth stealing.  He had built himself a small fortune, commandeered a fine townhouse, and taken in a pseudo family, the blind giant Coco Lacour and the wizened child or girlish old woman Esmerelda.  They might not exist, though.  None of this may be true.  Our hero is a criminal, the putative son of the pre-war fraudster Stavisky.  Lying is his stock in trade.

He has been recruited by the Khedive and Philibert to infiltrate the Knights.  The Lieutenant orders him to infiltrate the Khedive's operation.  The Khedive orders him to lure the Lieutenant into a trap and betray him.  Our hero is torn.  He plays for time.  He tells the Khedive there is someone higher than the Lieutenant, a prize really worth taking.  His name?  The Princesse de Lamballe.

So the circles widen and become enmeshed.  And our hero continues an endless looping tour of nighttime Paris, listing the names of streets and squares and the other bizarre denizens of the demi monde like an incantation.  The colours and sounds and meaningless chatter become hallucinatory.  Perhaps he betrays the Lieutenant, perhaps he doesn't.  In the end...  Well, in the end he tries to break out of the labyrinth he has buried himself in, a final desperate bid for normality.  Does he make it?  Modiano, even in his early twenties, was far too fine a writer to offer us the security of resolution.

Certainly there were creatures like our hero in Occupied France.  He mentions some of them among the flamboyant fabrications.  The criminally-inclined who played both ends against the middle.  But what else was a young man without family or prospects supposed to do in the bizarre situation of a city that looks the same as ever but which is regularly bombed by its allies to Brits?  Life was short, the opportunities varied.

This is the essentially the question that Modiano asks.  His hero might lack a name but he doesn't lack character or, despite his best efforts, common humanity.  A superb book by the 2014 Nobel Prize winner.  Essential reading for anyone interested in modern French fiction.

Monday, 4 January 2016

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea -Yukio Mishima

Perhaps Mishima's best known novel in the West, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea is set in the era of the post-defeat reconstruction.  It is a novel of the early Sixties.  The characters, even the children too young to remember, are touched by the aftermath of the war and the subjugation of their nation.  The peephole in Noboru's bedroom and the 'dry dock' where the gruesome denouement takes place, are both relics of US occupation.

The focus is kept tight on Noboru, his widowed mother Fusako, and the new man in Fusako's life Ryuji, the titular sailor.  Aside from the actress Yoriko and the assistant manager Shibuya, who represent the two sides of Fusako's character, passion and punctiliousness, other key characters are not named.  Noboru's schoolmates - his gang - are simply the chief and number one, number two, and so on.  Noboru is number three.  They are all good students from good families, but we soon discover there is very little good about them.  They consider themselves superior.  They disdain their inferiors.  They set their own rules.  The chief has a book of Japanese law.  He knows time is running out for them.  Consequences will be different when they turn fourteen.

Mishima is such a genius in his structure.  We get drawn in to the nob of the story via the gang.  Noboru finds the peephole and watches his mother naked and masturbating.  Soon after he watches Fusako and Ryuji having sex.  As romance blossoms, sex turns to love, and their lovemaking becomes more private.  Noboru starts listing Ryuji's offences, perceived slights to the boy's elite status.  All of this he shares with his gang, the first intimation we have that these children are not normal.  In the middle of the book Mishima shows us just how abnormal they are, setting us up for the ending which he brilliantly doesn't show because what we imagine is so horrible.

In many ways this is Japanese noir.  The tension, the torrid atmosphere - literally, the fall from grace.  A modern masterpiece without any doubt.  My only criticism is that translator John Nathan (admittedly doing the work in 1965) is too quick with American colloquialisms.