Monday, 18 December 2017

Siddhartha - Herman Hesse

I may have mentioned before that I am not religious. Religion has no attraction for me although I am interested in the narrative aspects. In any event, it is not reasonable to shun a novel by an undoubted master just because it happens to be about religion.

I clearly am no expert on Buddhism. I had long thought that Siddhartha the 1922 novel was about the Buddha himself. This is not foolishness on my part - Siddhartha Gotama is one of the generally accepted forms of the Buddha's given names - it is novelistic guile on the part of Hesse. His Siddhartha is not a prince like Gotama but a Brahmin, a hereditary Hindu priest. As an adolescent he becomes dissatisfied with organised religion and joins a band of wandering samana (searchers for truth) with his best friend Govinda. After a few years of fasting and begging Siddhartha and Govinda hear about the Enlightened One, Gotama. They visit him and hear him teach. Govinda is converted to Buddhism but Siddhartha, being a conceited young man, feels the Buddha's teaching is not enough. He does not doubt that Buddha is enlightened, but that teaching - even from Buddha's own lips - is not the path to enlightenment. For Siddhartha, each person must find their own path.

From the very start of what is only a hundred-page novella, you sense that Hesse, verging on middle age, is searching for his own take on the meaning of life. The questions and misgivings that Siddhartha explores are the author's own.

I somehow doubt that Hesse ever ended up in the bed of the most famous courtesan in India but Siddhartha does. To win her affection he becomes a merchant and a gambler. He tries to conduct his affairs in a righteous manner but after twenty years or more realises it cannot be done. He abandons his pregnant lover Kamala to resume his search for enlightenment. He meets Govinda, now a Buddhist monk. He meets again the ferryman Vasudeva, who took him across the river to Sansara all those years ago. Through Vasudeva, he eventually finds the clue to enlightenment, which is the subjugation or eradication of the self in order to achieve oneness with everything else. The ending, when his oldest friend Govinda sees all this through Siddhartha's smile, is profoundly beautiful.

I still have no interest in religion but my interest in Hesse is revived and I really must tackle the late, philosophical-cum-transcendental novels that won him the Nobel Prize in 1946.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Tyger - Adrian Mitchell

Tyger is a celebration of William Blake written for the National Theatre in 1971. Note that word 'celebration'. In no sense is this a play but it is theatrical and it certainly is celebratory. Mitchell is still mired in that period of reverential obscurity that follows death. He is not thought good or bad because he is not thought about at all. Mitchell was such a poet of his time - the Sixties - that one wonders what the next generation will make of him. Those of us who remember the era (OK, the Seventies was more my era but I knew who Mitchell was long before I read the original reviews of Tyger) will recognise it here, with the added bonus of hefty slices of Blake's lesser known poetry.

The problem with the text is that this was very much a musical, with tunes by Mitchell's regular collaborator, the jazz musician Mike Westbrook. Much of the dialogue and the vast majority of the poetry was intended to be sung. Without the tunes, what can we make of the words? In truth, not a lot.

The style is Ubuesque. Blake starts attacking the establishment and ends up being exiled to the moon where he starts to build his New Jerusalem. Inbetween there are some very funny spy interludes and a hilarious turn by Mad King George the Fifty. There is also a toe-curlingly awful sketch in which great poets of the past and present salute Blake's achievement in comic verse. It's a rag-bag but one which is constantly inventive, persistently off-beam and thoroughly subversive, much like its hero. A monument to its day, which I don't see being revived anytime soon.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Istanbul Passage - Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon is like Alan Furst, one of the US writers of grown-up wartime espionage novels. I like them greatly but they don't seem to do so well in the UK market. They definitely deserve to be better known. Perhaps the problem is that they are so similar in style in subject. Perhaps together they achieve bestseller status on this side of the Atlantic.

It will surprise no one to learn that this, Kanon's sixth novel (the immediate precursor to Leaving Berlin, which I reviewed here) is set in Istanbul. It is 1945 and loyalties are in a state of flux. Russia, so recently a US ally, is now the enemy, more so than Germany at any rate. Turkey is seeking a relationship with both superpowers, the surviving Jews are trying to get to Palestine, and the Balkans are by and large up for grabs. Some Balkan states sided with the Nazis, others opposed. Romania tried to out-Nazi the Nazis, the only occupied country to set up its own concentration camps. It is a Romanian Nazi, Alexei, who is passing through Istanbul on his way to the US.

Leon Bauer, a US tobacco executive who dabbles in espionage, is given the job of picking Alexei up and passing him up the line. The pick up is by the Bosporus, late at night. Someone attacks. Leon shoots back - and kills the guy who told him to collect Alexei. This is a great start to a novel. What happens now? Well for starters Leon is put in charge of the investigation. At the reception after the funeral he meets an embassy wife (the embassy being in the capital, Ankara, not Istanbul which only has a consulate) and the begin a guilty affair.

Leon's wife, Anna, is in a nursing home. She has not communicated or reacted since a boatload of her fellow Jews which she had arranged was sunk. Leon's friend Mihai, who was with him at the pick up, is a Romanian Jew, the last person on earth willing to help him get Alexei out of the country.
This is how spy novels should be - deal and counter-deal, shifting priorities, nuanced compromises. There is action but not too much. Yet Kanon can keep our attention for four hundred pages by just piling the pressure onto Leon. The final twist is excellent, the setting - Galata Bridge, joining Europe and Asia - just brilliant. Nothing is as it seems. Everybody is betraying somebody.

Kanon's style takes some getting used to - short, ungrammatical sentences - and it works best in the high-tension passages. One section, a party in the residence of the former harem girl Lily, goes on far too long. It's an important passage, even crucial, but Kanon really needed to divide it up. How long does he think the reader is going to read in one go? I tend to read in half-hour bursts. Three sessions to read one episode (he doesn't do chapters) is frankly two too many. These are minor quibbles though. The characterisation is very good, the plot brilliant, and the research - as ever - faultless.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Even Dogs in the Wild - Ian Rankin

This is the third Rebus and Fox story. I reviewed the first, Standing in Another Man's Grave, a year or so ago and have evidently missed the second, Saints of the Shadow Bible. No matter: Rankin is always able to make his novels sufficient in themselves as well as part of a series.

Rebus is retired and Fox has left Complaints. Somebody is going around murdering people with no apparent connection - Senior Scottish lawyer and peer Lord Minton, a lottery winner up north and Big Ger Cafferty, Edinburgh's gangster emeritus. Actually, the killer takes a pot shot at Cafferty and misses. The cases are linked because each has been given warning, a note shoved their letterbox declaring I'M GOING TO KILL YOU FOR WHAT YOU DID.

Meanwhile a gang of Glasgow thugs are in town looking for a purloined shipment of drugs. A squad of Glasgow cops follows, to which Fox is attached for want of anything better for him to do. Rebus, meanwhile, is the only person Cafferty is willing to talk to. Things develop. The link is obvious from quite early on, sadly predictable and the subject of more or less every contemporary British crime novel nowadays. But what matters here is how the story is unravelled and the strength of the characters.

Which is where the problem lies. Malcolm Fox, no matter how fond of him Rankin has become, no matter how much story he tries to load onto his shoulders, is far too dull to keep pace with Rebus. Any section with him in is instantly forgettable. Rankin is aware of this and relegates him to the gangster subplot. It is Fox who is placed in jeopardy. Unfortunately I was rather hoping it would prove fatal.

Rankin is a great crime novelist. The noir-tinged Scottish procedural is his baby and nobody does it better. But it has become slightly old fashioned. The taste now is for full noir. And he has let his characters grow old, which means their continued involvement in crime is always going to stretch credulity. By incorporating Fox he has diluted the mix. There are so many senior coppers involved here that I lost track. I enjoyed it, but was not blown away. Still, it won't stop me reading the next instalment or seeking out Saints of the Shadow Bible, which, if nothing else, has a much better title.