Sunday, 29 May 2016

Our Game - John le Carre

First the Wall came down, then the Soviet Union fell apart. The Nineties were a decade in which old enemies lost their edge, former certainties simply evaporated. Eastern Europe suddenly comprised new counties and potential states we had never heard of and knew absolutely nothing about. Chechnya, South Ossetia and, most relevant to le Carre's 1995 novel, Ingushetia - which I have still never heard of.

Many spy writers went out of business overnight, or turned to period espionage fiction. Le Carre, the great master of the form, used his genre to explore the uncertainties. Tim Cranmer is an old-style spy - Winchester, the Treasury - put out to grass. Fortunately he is stinking rich, his inheritance including a Somerset manor and vineyard. His schoolfriend Larry Pettifer, the enfant terrible of Soviet Studies in his day, was Cranmer's agent and later double agent. Old Wykehamists look after one another, and Cranmer has found flighty Larry a sinecure at Bath University. Larry has repaid the favour by absconding with Timbo's trophy girfriend Emma. Then Larry is reported missing. The police call on Cranmer. This comes as surprise to Cranmer, who thought he might have killed his friend some weeks before he went missing.

Has Larry gone back to the Game? Has he involved Emma? Cranmer sets out to find them, his quest taking him from Paris to the wild homeland of the Ingush. I'm not sure that the enigma is ever fully resolved  but what we do get is a vivid picture of one of the world's largest landmasses, a political empire, at the moment of implosion, and the black hole lurking beneath.

Our Game is not le Carre's finest novel. It is not an easy read - it is by no means an easy subject - yet it contains some of the master's finest writing.  He has to stretch his vocabulary in order to pin down the themes that emerge as the exercise progresses.  It is therefore a key work, not only within le Carre's oeuvre, but within the spy genre itself.

And this cover, on the Penguin Classic ebook, has to be the best of any le Carre ever...

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Spies of the Balkans - Alan Furst

On the face of it, Furst works in a limited canvas - war comes to ... wherever. But that's the beauty of a World War; it tends to happen everywhere. This time we are in Salonika: the year is 1940 and our hero is Costa Zannis, in charge of a Byzantine special unit of police, part Special Branch, part Diplomatic Corps.

Zannis is good-looking and single. He starts off sleeping with an English spy, hatches a plot with a German Jewess married to a Wehrmacht officer to facilitate the escape of Jewish escapees to Turkey, and ends up seducing the wife of the dubious local millionaire who financed the said escapes. Inbetween time he is called up to active service as the German army masses on the border and recruited to evacuate an English agent from Paris.

As well as exploring the various facets of Zannis's character, Furst also brings to life his family and associates. This is what brings me back time and again to Furst's novels.  So much detail, such effective writing, faultless research, a labyrinthine plot - and all in less than 300 pages. The sheer rigor is astonishing, the results captivating.  Absolutely my favourite writer of World War II spy fiction.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim - Jonathan Coe

I like Jonathan Coe, I like his irreverence, his depth of knowledge, his wit, though all these can, of course, become pitfalls. I like him best when he combines natural satire with compassionate characterisation.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim falls midway in his range.  The story is slightly too convoluted, the titular protagonist just a shade too bland to evoke much empathy.  The writing, however, is a joy, and the ending just brilliant. But the fact remains, the journey of personal discovery just isn't that interesting.  I'm not surprised Max's wife left him, nor that his father doesn't like him that much.  Indeed one of the sub-stories - a really clever device, revealing Max as others see him - shows him to be rather a selfish, spiteful piece of work.

Some characters are not given as much time as I would have liked. Poppy's uncle Clive, for example. That said, the risky device of anchoring Max and his journey athwart that of the round-the-world sailing cheat Donald Crowhurst works like a charm. Like Coe, I remember following the Crowhurst story in the Sunday Times as a youngster; it has had more effect on me through Coe's novel than the reality ever did.

An excellent novel, a fine example of its kind - but Coe can do better.

[I'm loving the cover art, by the way. By gray318, apparently.]

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami

Having discovered Murakami in a roundabout sort of way by happening on the third volume of his magnum opus 1Q84, I was naturally keen to try more.  Tsukuru Tazaki is a more recent (2013), much shorter work. It is equally good.

The story is this: Tsukuru and four other high school students do voluntary work one summer and become the closest of friends for the rest of their secondary education.  The four others, two boys and two girls, happen to have references to colour in their names, hence the 'color' part of the book's title. Tsukuru doesn't; his name means 'builder of things'. As such, he has to go to university in Tokyo because only Tokyo offers a course in his specialism, the building of railway stations.  He comes home for the vacations and, to begin with, everything as it was before he left. His friends are delighted to see him, desperate to hear news of the big city.  But then, for reasons unknown, they cut him dead. They refuse to take his phone calls. When one does finally speak to Tsukuru it is only to tell him that they have all agreed they want nothing more to do with him.

For five months thereafter Tsukuru thinks only of dying.  His life, without his friends, has thus become 'colorless'.  He recovers, graduates, gets the job of his dreams and stays in Tokyo. Sixteen years later he starts dating a woman whom he can at last envisage a future with. She tells him he seems blocked by what happened with his friends.  She convinces him that they only have a future together if he can relieve himself of the burden of his past.  With her help, he tracks down his friends. One of the girls, Shiro, has been murdered.  The other lives with her husband in Finland.  The two boys, Aka and Ao, are still in their home city.

Tsukuru visits them all, even making the trip to Finland to track down Kuru.  They are all pleased to see him.  They all regret having cut him off like they did.  But what else could they do when Shiro told them what Tsukuru had done?  Naturally, I'm not going to reveal what that was.  The important thing is the way Murakami handles the revelation.  Did Tsukuru do it?  Did he later go back and murder Shiro.  If he didn't do either, who did?  And the beauty - the mastery - of his technique is that we never find out.  It's four or five days since I finished the book and the questions are still rattling round in my head.  High art - downright brilliant.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Ted Hughes: An Unauthorised Life - Jonathan Bate

When Bate's book came out at the end of 2015 I thought, here it is at last - a comprehensive, authoritative, objective analysis of Hughes's life and work.  I thought it was an odds-on favourite for the big literary prizes.  It didn't go on to win.  I now know why.

Bate brings very little that's new to the table.  This is understandable, given that Hughes lived all his professional life in the media glare, his grim personal life far outweighing his literary output, save where, at the beginning and end of his career, the two were the same.

Bate began the work as an authorised life, with the full support of the notoriously controlling Hughes Estate. He fell from favour when he started throwing in more extra-marital lovers.  He comes across as somewhat petulant, therefore, when discussing the two women who, until just after the book came out, controlled the Estate.  Hughes's sister Olwyn, who died earlier this year, is treated harshly.  Bate is by no means the first writer on Hughes or Plath to do so, but Olwyn was sister and agent and even publisher (through the Rainbow Press) and was thus the last surviving participant in the process.  Bate makes one very unsavoury inference which, without the proof that can never be produced, is unpardonable.  Hughes's second wife Carol is understandably offended by those who dwell on the scurrilous side of the great man's activities and she is not a poet,  Bate's solution is to ignore her more or less entirely.  His assessment of her character boils down to young, uneducated, irrelevant - yet she was Hughes's wife for the thick end of thirty years.  She ran his home and raised his children.  She should be treated better than this by any objective biographer.

Considering the poetry Bate is naturally on confident ground - he is, after all, Professor of English Literature at Oxford.  I didn't see that many original insights, though.  Hughes might have been inspired by Wordsworth and Yeats but he ploughed his own poetic furrow and I felt that Bate rather overplayed the parallels.  On Robert Graves and The White Goddess, which Hughes later took forward in his own Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Bate really came into his own, treating the now old-fashioned and eccentric theory with fairness and thoroughness because however off-beam it might seem to us, this was a concept deeply held.

I was irked and frustrated that there is no discussion of the early plays for radio, which after all paid the bills during the period most people are interested in - the Plath years.  It doesn't bother me so much but anyone who wants to know more about Hughes's writing for children (other than The Iron Man) will be equally frustrated.

Is The Unauthorised Life worth reading?  Yes - absolutely.  Is it definitive or even a significant advance towards a definitive understand of Hughes's life or work?  Not, not at all.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Grotesque - Natsuo Kirino

I really am in two minds about this book.  On the one hand I read all 467 pages and never thought about packing it in.  On the other, it never gripped me.  The end neither surprised or disappointed me - yet I can't get Grotesque out of my mind and on balance that has to mean Kirino is doing something right.

The blurb on the back tells us Kirino (a pseudonym) is a leading Japanese crime writer.  This seems to be the case, but Grotesque is not really a crime novel.  Our unnamed principal narrator is neither the victim nor the perpetrator.  She is merely a dispassionate observer of the effect the crime has on others.  This is strange and unsettling, given that she is the sister of one victim and a purported friend of the other.  The strange and unsettling tenor of the book is actually what keeps you reading.

It is no secret who killed the sister, Yuriko, but he flatly denies murdering the second, Kazue.  In Japan, apparently, the defendant is expected to write a pre-trial statement, explaining himself and either justifying his legal arguments.  He - the Chinese illegal immigrant Zhang thus becomes the least reliable of our unreliable narrators.  Both Yuriko and Kazue tell their versions through their journals: Yuriko became a prostitute to monetarise her beauty, Kazue does it as a hobby - she is otherwise a successful professional career-woman.  Both do unspeakable things.  That's the kind of novel this is - even the beautiful blind Yurio, Yuriko's abandoned son, is manipulative and utterly bound up in self-interest.

The fact that none of the characters are in any way likeable is what makes Grotesque as book hard to like.  The title is absolutely correct - everyone here is grotesque in one way or another, indeed less than fully human.  What is it actually about?  Well, I suppose in one aspect it is about the dehumanising effect of modern cross-cultural life, particularly on woman.  It is certainly not about the methods women use to carve out an identity for themselves because everyone here has an identity imposed on them by others.  If I had to plump for a single definition it would have to be 'a novel about perversion in the widest sense - social, cultural, psychological.'