May 27, 2010

Daniel Clowes: Wilson

Posted in Clowes Daniel at 8:00 am by John Self

I enjoyed Daniel Clowes’ ‘Justin M. Damiano’, his contribution to Zadie Smith’s Book of Other People, and bought his novel David Boring on the strength of it. As usual, I never got around to reading it, and as usual, it ended up being leapfrogged by a new book of his which caught my eye.

It would catch yours too.  Wilson is published as a large hardback, A4 size, with a glossy cover, like a children’s annual.  Its ‘hero’ peers out at us – uncertainly? beseechingly? – looking faintly ridiculous with his too-large head.  This book, we are told, is Clowes’ “first original graphic novel”: his others were serialised before appearing in book form.

This makes Clowes’ structure and format all the more interesting.  The book is a series of around 70 single-page vignettes of Wilson’s life, from midlife to old age.  What makes it especially interesting is how the strips change according to context.  The first strip, for example, in isolation reads like a simple comic ‘reverse':

But after reading the rest of the book, we recognise it as an indicator of his effortful – and always failed – attempts to conquer his worst sociopathic qualities.  He tries – my god, how he tries – but Wilson, sure enough, is not a people person after all.  On another page, his attempts to make polite smalltalk with a stranger at a coffee shop are met with increasingly terse responses, until a silent frame passes (the beat; the comic timing that the graphic format enables) and Wilson shouts, “Hey, shithead – I’m talking to you!”  It’s a joke, but funny mainly because it’s not funny.

Time and again Wilson fucks up by falling back on ‘jokes’, sarcasm and anger.  The emotional heft of the story is between the thick pages, not on them.  This means that the reader is well advised not to rush through from scene to scene (though it’s awfully tempting to do just that), but pace them and space them, like a collection of stories.  We see only the absurd and grotesque moments, and between pages anything from hours to years can pass.  Soon we realise just why Wilson keeps striking up conversations with strangers.

Here again the last frame tops the page off: it’s a punchline, just not a funny one. What Clowes does so well is to trick the reader so that sometimes, what appears to be a silly or surreal moment in the last frame – a WTF! moment – turns out to be straight, sincere and a stiletto-like incision into Wilson’s character.  The drawing style of the strips varies, reflecting aspects of the man: a comic exaggeration, a monochrome dullard, a suffering noir hero.  We learn more about how alone Wilson is, that he doesn’t have a job, that his dog Pepper is his only regular companion, and that he keeps meaning to ring his elderly father, until eventually his father rings him.

Wilson goes to visit his father, leaving Pepper with the dog-sitter (“Nothing serious, I hope.”  “Hell yes, it’s serious!”), and the ill-fated conversations with strangers and the anti-punchlines continue.  Increasingly (“Oh God, it’s so terrible the way people live!”), they seem to represent more closely Wilson’s comment on his own life than on the lives of others (“I mean, Christ – do you realize how ridiculous you sound?”).

As the story continues in its staccato way, we find that Wilson has more family members than we – or he – realised.  The emotional background of the man, and the book, begins to fill up, back to front.  However, Clowes never allows his character easy get-outs, or simplistic – cartoonish – moral development.  Near the end, when Wilson does have a moment of epiphany (“I am a beautiful creature! I’m a living monument to nature’s genius! I’m alive and breathing and strong! A million-in-one fucking miracle”), it is forced, ironic – and, to top it off, delivered to a stranger (perhaps the same stranger) in a coffee shop.

Wilson is embarrassing, excruciating, funny and satisfying.  The artwork is unobtrusive, but essential: the structure of the book would be less effective and the force of the story mostly absent without it.  To conclude in a way as conflicted as the man himself, on the one hand the book feels like a piece of standard literary fiction given wings by its graphic novelty.  On the other, Wilson seems to me to be a small revelation, not just for its structure and form, but for the quality of its content.

May 24, 2010

David Mitchell Interview

Posted in Interviews, Mitchell David at 8:00 am by John Self

David Mitchell has achieved the rare double of critical acclaim and bestseller sales. With an imagination the size of a planet, he is perhaps the only writer for whom the old reviewers’ phrase is true: his best known novel, Cloud Atlas, really does contain more ideas in each chapter than most writers manage in an entire book.  His new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, went to number 1 in the bestseller charts in its week of release.  It is also sure to feature heavily on prize lists this year, because it is very good.

Can you tell us a little about the writing process for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet?  Did the stories of Jacob on Dejima, Miss Aibagawa in the monastery and the English fleet develop from one germ of an idea, or were they separate stories which happened to fit together?  Were there any technical challenges in maintaining a third person narrative voice through so many sections?

I went wrong twice and only succeeded on the third take.  Book 1 (Jacob on Dejima) and the characters of Ogawa the interpreter and Orito the midwife were salvaged from my first attempt.  The end of the novel was salvaged from my second attempt.  Book 2 (Orito in the monastery) and Book 3 (the English frigate) were products of the third, and final, attempt.  All this probably means that it is truer to call the book a composite than it is to call the book a product of a single germ.

The technical challenge didn’t lie in maintaining a third person voice, but creating it in the first place. I’d never really attempted this commonest of forms before because I never knew what to leave out – the third is the infinite voice, whereas the first is the limited one – what first person narrators say is limited (and determined) by who they are.  A few years ago I asked AS Byatt how she decided what to put into third person narratives, and her answer was as simple as it was helpful: What you think the reader will want to hear, that’s what you put in.  Additionally, I devised a sort of ‘thought helmet’ to be worn by only one character per chapter: the thoughts of the chosen character, and that character alone, are ‘audible’ to the reader.  So thanks to AS Byatt and the Thought Helmet, on my third attempt to write the book I deployed the third person narrative, and managed, finally, to get the novel finished before it finished me.

The story in Jacob de Zoet has a more unified feel than in your first three books, where smaller stories made up a whole.  Did you feel under pressure – from yourself or readers – to write a book that had one single storyline?  Indeed, as your books manage the tricky task of matching sales with critical acclaim, does this put pressure on you as a writer, knowing the added attention that the author of Jacob de Zoet will be scrutiny to, that the author of Ghostwritten wasn’t?

It wasn’t that I felt under pressure to write a book with a single storyline: it was that because I hadn’t really done one before, it was an attractive proposition.  I want each book to feel new and distinct: my ideal would be that, in a blindfold test (shades of the Pepsi Challenge here), prose from two of my books could not be identifiable as having been written by the same person.  I don’t achieve that ideal, but it’s one of a small group of inner advisers who influence the shape a book takes.

Pressure about an as-yet-unwritten book’s reception?  Happily, I guess, the task of making any given book work drowns everything else out, for most of the time.

Richard Price spoke of the difficulty when researching a novel of knowing when to stop the research and begin writing. Was this a problem with a novel so “research-heavy” as Jacob de Zoet?  Does research assist the imaginative process by providing a factual springboard, or does it tie you down to what must be known?

I view research as a necessity that is both problematic and pleasureable. If you don’t do any, you can’t get to the end of your first paragraph. If you don’t do enough, historical fiction will be threadbare and implausible. If you do too much, you’ll become a professional Patrick O’Brian or Simon Schama reader and never actually start writing. If you do too much but then forget to submerge nine-tenths of it beneath the waterline, you’ll have ‘look at me!’ sentences like: ‘Shall I light the room with the whale oil lantern, Madam, or will it be the pig tallow candles tonight?’ So with life, so with art: avoid the pitfalls, learn from your mistakes, and keep working until you get the balance right.

Regarding your second question, you need to work out a policy.  This will depend upon how heavily you wish to emphasize the ‘historical’ versus the ‘fiction’ of ‘historical fiction’.  My policy involved using history as a sort of DIY warehouse where I could source the raw materials, but giving myself a licence to assemble those raw materials according to the dictates of the story. For example, an historical HMS Phaeton sailed into Nagasaki in 1808 and demanded the handover of Dejima. When the Dutch didn’t comply the British seem to have set fire to one or two small boats, and left. My novel didn’t want to hang around for 8 years between Books 1 and 3, so I renamed the Phaeton ‘Phoebus’, sailed her in sooner, and had her bombard Dejima with artillery, setting off a chain of events which affect other characters in the book.  If you follow the facts too closely, you end up writing non-fiction.

You’ve spoken before of your admiration for, and desire to emulate in your writing the best qualities of, Perec, Calvino and others.  Are there any direct influences or inspirations for Jacob de Zoet?  (Enomoto’s monastery, for some reason, reminded me of the convent in Black Narcissus.)

Yes, I saw Black Narcissus years ago, so maybe.  My most conscious source for Mount Shiranui was the Temple of Atuan from Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea book, The Tombs of Atuan.  The idea of a menagerie of disfigured people occurs in José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night.  Napoleon-era set naval fiction, notably the Aubrey-Maturin cycle, informed life on my frigate and the attitudes of its crew.  Yasunari Kawabata wrote a (mostly) non-fiction account of a single go match, called The Master of Go.  Eduard Dekker, a Dutch writer who wrote under the name Multatuli published a book Max Havelaar which fed into my Dutch characters, both sympathetic and less so.  My Irish convict’s story draws on Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore.  There are probably 20 or 30 other sources, but I can’t think of them now.

Many of the secondary characters, such as Dr Marinus and Arie Grote, seem to be bursting with life beyond their restricted appearances on the page.  Did you edit much material about them from the final version of the novel?  Are there ideas for the characters that you would have liked to include?

Certainly, I edited about 50 or 60 pages out of the novel for the final MS. There’s much more than meets the eye with Marinus in particular. He will appear in my next novel, set around now. In the book after that he’ll be the main character. That’s what I plan right now, but of course plans can change.

As an Irishman, I’m bound to ask whether living in Ireland is likely to inspire your literary imagination in the future as much as living in Japan has done?

I don’t know: I’d think twice before writing about Ireland, not least because so many Irish writers do it so well. Why bother trying to describe the countryside when McGahern’s on the shelf before you?  Another reason for my reluctance is that my wife and I intend to stay living here for a very long time, and what if the good townspeople of Clonakilty took exception to my portrayal of their culture?  There are only so many bars where you can get a good pint of Murphy’s, y’know…  That said, I’ve got half an idea knocking about for an Irish/ Orcadian/Icelandic sort of a book: maybe if I go back 800 years I’d be safe?  What do you think?

Your sharing a name with a well-known comedian made me think of the difference between your professions: he gets an immediate response from an audience for his efforts, where you work for years alone and get only limited feedback.  Would you swap places with him, professionally speaking?

Never!  David Mitchell the comedian has skills I can only dream about. I kill jokes stone dead, even really good ones, and it takes me weeks of editing and polishing to work out what I want to say, whereas he can produce funny and incisive sentences spontaneously.  He may well evolve into a figure as central to the culture as Stephen Fry… while I’ll still be hacking away in my little hut in West Cork, for years alone…

Finally, can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?

I like Sylvia Townsend Warner, who I guess would qualify as overlooked nowadays. She’s both barbed and gentle, and wry, and wise.  She asks you to concentrate more than many modern writers, but if you do, you find her novels taking up residence inside you, and glowing.  Lolly Willowes from 1926 is a great one about a woman who becomes a witch and meets a Devil as sympathetic as Bulgakov’s, but all of her books are strong, and distinct from one another.

May 19, 2010

Thomas Bernhard: Old Masters

Posted in Bernhard Thomas, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

I approached Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters with trepidation.  His reputation precedes him: long sentences; long paragraphs (no paragraphs!); a relentless assault of misery on the reader.  Penguin, in repackaging the novel for their Central European Classics series, have sought to lighten the reader’s expectations with a jaunty cover by gray318.  It’s an appropriate decision, highlighting the qualities of a book which is subtitled A Comedy, but might otherwise be named A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (and No Paragraphs).

If Old Masters (1985; tr. 1989 by Ewald Osers) can indeed be likened to a play, it is one with three interlocking sets.  It takes place simultaneously in the Bordone Room of Vienna’s Kunsthistorische Museum, in the pages written by its narrator Atzbacher, and in the mind of his friend Reger, who has visited the room every other day for thirty years, to contemplate Tintoretto’s Portrait of a White-Bearded Man.  Bernhard’s narrative slips and swoops so that we move between the three smoothly, each nestled inside another, so the first half of the book in essence is Atzbacher’s account of Reger’s thoughts and memories as he watches him unobserved in the Bordone Room.  The time lines are loose but never confusing. (What is at times confusing is the use of italics in the book, which do not always follow obvious emphasis.  Apparently this is an editorial decision taken by Bernhard’s publishers, based on words and phrases which were heavily underlined in his manuscripts.)

As a reader I have always had a weakness for a first person narrative which draws the reader through its story seamlessly – chapterlessly – from the first page to the last, books which flow from the first word, and I have found much to delight me in examples such as Dr Haggard’s Disease and The Waters of Thirst. But Old Masters takes this to new heights: it flows, yes; it floods, in one unbroken block of text for 250 pages (albeit of large print in this new edition). Fears of this format are unfounded: rather than acting as a block to the reader, the unbroken text dragged me on, resistant to stopping, and I emerged from it like a man resurfacing, gasping and disoriented but invigorated.

Bernhard’s prose, like Reger’s thoughts, circles the reader, spiralling around, returning unexpectedly and reinforcing its effect.  And what of Reger’s thoughts? These are, seemingly, typical Bernhard “rants” against Austrian society, against nature, against much (though not all) art.

Just as I have always been far happier in art than in nature, nature has, all my life, been uncanny to me, while in art I have always felt secure.

For Reger, who “slipped into art to get away from life,” the tragedy of art is that “at first all young people are receptive to everything, hence also to art, but the teachers thoroughly drive the art out of them.”  It is a self-replicating process, just as Bernhard seems at times to have discovered the secret of perpetual motion with his spiralling sentences that divide and recur, whittling away at Reger’s obsessions.  And we should not be surprised by contradiction; despite his preference for art over nature, Reger observes that “even the most extraordinary work of art is only a pitiful, totally senseless and pointless effort to imitate nature, indeed to ape it.”  Respect for the ‘old masters’ for having more integrity than today’s “kitschy and sentimental” artists is misplaced, because

these people, after all, only painted in order to survive and for money and in order to end up in heaven and not in hell…

The use of three adjectives in the excerpt above (“pitiful, totally senseless and pointless”) is key to the delight I took in Reger’s – in Bernhard’s – rage in Old Masters.  The venom is applied with equal force – turned up to eleven – to everything, from the condition of Vienna’s public toilets (“Vienna is quite superficially famous for its opera, but in fact it is feared and detested for its scandalous lavatories”) to Heidegger, Bruckner and Adalbert Stifter.  Reger’s catalogue of criticism for the last is one of the high points of the book: an hilarious broadside which builds with perfect rhythm and timing for page after page, detonating once or twice in moments that made me laugh aloud (“The fact that the man, towards the end of his life, killed himself changes nothing about his absolute mediocrity.”  That towards the end of his life is perfect and brilliant). And the subtitle A Comedy is not misleading, with wonderful scenes such as the one where an Englishman visiting the museum explains how he has the real White-Bearded Man at home (an heirloom “from the Glasgow aunt”).

There are other traditional novelistic concerns at work here too, and Bernhard sparsely and then fully reveals one aspect of Reger’s life which may explain his disappointment with the world.  He is drawn back again and again to those things which are insufficient to console him.  It also reveals his own limitations even as he roars about the limitations of everything else: just as he abhors his relatives while accepting that “within myself I am all those relatives combined,” so he is a character in a book while acknowledging that “we only love those books which are not a whole, which are chaotic, which are helpless.”   The whole and the perfect, he says, are intolerable. Similarly, “art is the most sublime and the most revolting thing simultaneously,” and Reger himself is a part of the line of humanity which he rails against so energetically.  But, contradictory again, he points out that “I am, you might say, a fanatic for human beings, naturally not a fanatic for humanity but a fanatic for human beings.” While we digest that, the punchline comes: “I have always only been interested in human beings, he said, because in the nature of things they repelled me.”

Many of Reger’s agonies sit well with the reader: his views on cultural philistinism in Austria might apply to any country, and who can deny twinges of “what I call art selfishness: where art is concerned I wish to have everything for myself alone … I can scarcely bear the thought that someone else, apart from me, possesses and enjoys the products of these geniuses.”  But it is an unalloyed pleasure that Old Masters will be possessed and enjoyed by others – including me – because of this reissue.  Bernhard, it turns out, is not so hard – and the horrified passion which he and his characters bring to the page in fact is a perfect partner for such high and low comedy.  “The terrible, after all, is always ridiculous.”

May 13, 2010

David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Posted in Mitchell David at 7:00 am by John Self

In writing his fifth novel, David Mitchell had an unenviable task.  After the cumulative nimbleness of Cloud Atlas, he retreated into a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story for Black Swan Green (“I thought it was about time I wrote my first novel”), but all eyes – my eyes anyway – were on what he would do next. In particular, could he break the pattern that had made each of his first three novels, despite their inventiveness and compexity, seem to be less an ocean than a multitude of drops? Could he apply his considerable imaginative talent to a fully unified story?  Or would he be damned either way: accused either of failing to break new ground, or of not playing to his established strengths?

Until I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I didn’t know that Japan shared a common border with the Netherlands.  Well, it did in the 18th century. It was called Dejima, a small artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki, an airlock between east and west, a “walled-in hamlet of warehouses”. It provided Japan with a connection to Europe after the country closed off relations with the rest of the world, and was occupied by Dutch merchants taking delivery of shipments from their port of Batavia (now Jakarta), in Indonesia.  The privilege of being the only westerners to trade with Japan was not an unqualified one: ‘”the Shogun’s hostages” is what the natives dub us,’ observes one trader.  When one young clerk complains that he cannot cross the Land-Gate from Dejima to Nagasaki, he gets short shrift from his interpreter, Ogawa:

‘But [you] may pass through Sea-Gate and away, over ocean.  But I – all Japanese – prisoners all life.  Who plot to leave is executed.  Who leave and return from abroad is executed.’

The clerk is Jacob de Zoet, employed by Dutch Chief Vorstenbosch to investigate the endemic corruption on the island.  “Dejima’s books for the last five years are a pig’s dinner.”  Jacob is a young man of ability and integrity, both factors in his subsequent fortunes.  He is warned by the colourful Arie Grote, however: “Stop all these little perquisites, eh, an’ yer stop Dejima itself,” and also, significantly, that “loyalty looks simple, but it ain’t.” Jacob feels trapped on Dejima but also trapped by the past he left behind – and the future he awaits – back in Zeeland: he is engaged to a girl called Anna, while here on Dejima, his attention is increasingly drawn to midwife and student Miss Aibagawa.  Mitchell sketches the strangeness of the foreign country-within-a-country in quick strokes:

There is a row of stone idols; twists of paper tied to a plum tree.

Nearby, street acrobats perform a snonky song to drum up business.

The palanquins pass over an embanked river; the water stinks.

Jacob’s armpits, groin and knees are itchy with sweat; he fans himself with his clerk’s portfolio.

There is a girl in an upper window; there are red lanterns hanging from the eaves, and she is idly tickling the hollow of her throat with a goose feather.  Her body cannot be ten years old, but her eyes belong to a much older woman’s.

Wistaria in bloom foams over a crumbling wall.

A hairy beggar kneeling over a puddle of vomit turns out to be a dog.

Jacob proves his ability in brokering a successful deal for the sale of mercury to Lord Abbot Enomoto, but Japan is not a meritocracy (nor anything close: “democracy is not a flower who bloom in Japan, I think”), and Jacob, Miss Aibagawa, and Enomoto will become locked in alignment in a horrifying way as the story progresses.  Enomoto symbolises power, and power is at the heart of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  In a story where most – individuals, companies, countries – are interested in their own advancement, it is the powerful who have most to fear.  The Dutch have the power of being the only country trading with Japan, but they would be foolish to forget, for example, that “the English are a vicious race.”

The members of the strongest companies and countries also tend to forget, as one high-ranking character observes, that “power is a man’s means of composing the future, but the composition has a way of composing itself.”   We are reminded of the futility of men’s plans in the face of greater events, and also – in the powerfully affecting closing pages of the book – of how little a man’s own key life events matter to others or to posterity.

As the world turns – as Enlightenment follows “ignoration”, as imperfect democracy flowers across the globe (“In the animal kingdom,” says one Dutch merchant, “the vanquished are eaten by those more favoured by Nature.  Slavery is merciful by comparison: the lesser races keep their lives in exchange for their labour”), Japan retains its closed mystery.  “The Third Shogun closed the country to prevent Christian rebellion,” comments one historian, “but its result was to pickle Japan in a specimen jar!”  Even Jacob, late in the book, must admit, “Obscurity is Japan’s outermost defence.  The country doesn’t want to be understood.”

And while this is the rich unified narrative I was hoping for, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is told in three distinct parts.  The second part is almost a thriller, and brings to mind not only an echo of the subjugation theme of Cloud Atlas, but also of various cultural reference points: Black Narcissus, The Handmaid’s Tale, even Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.  The third part muddies the waters beautifully. Throughout the book, Mitchell frequently uses short paragraphs and paired ellipses which imitates narrative pace despite the stately progress of the story.  Each scene is a small perfection of detail and narrative payoff, and what is remarkable is how Mitchell achieves the sense of immersion while keeping his details spare and unobtrusive.

The book shifts under the reader’s eyes, sometimes about this, sometimes that, and only at the end do we recall the overview.  It is a book about the great shifts in power between countries and ideologies, and the weight of money, but it is also an intricate human drama and an emotional voyage.  “Why must all things,” a ship’s captain wonders, “go around in stupid circles?”  Because nations and politics may change, but people never do.

May 6, 2010

Sławomir Mrożek: The Elephant

Posted in Mrozek Slawomir, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

I’ve always been a fan of those publishers who carry out the often thankless task of bringing us European classics in translation, from Pushkin Press and Melville House to NYRB.  But in the UK at least, the only publisher with the clout to really bring these titles to a wide audience is Penguin.  Cheers, cheers then for their series of Central European Classics, ten primary-coloured volumes of – based on my reading so far – unadulterated bliss.


The series incorporates novels, memoirs, essays and short stories.  It was with only a little shame that I decided to begin my reading with one of the shortest titles in the series, and one which made me smile with its opening paragraph:

In this remote village of ours we are in the grip of terrible ignorance and superstition.  Here I am, wanting to go outside to relieve myself, but at this moment hordes of bats are flying about, like leaves blown by an October wind, their wings knocking against the window panes, and I am afraid one of them will get into my hair and I will never be able to get it out.  So I am sitting here, comrades, instead of going out, repressing my need, and writing this report for you.

Sławomir Mrożek‘s The Elephant (1957, tr. Konrad Syrop) is a collection of very short stories and sketches – more than 40 in 160 pages – offering parody and satire of Poland under a totalitarian regime.  Mrożek is predominantly known as a playwright, but these stories, written in his mid-20s, show a full talent for prose.  His writing is described by one critic as “grotesque-philosophical”, which is another way of saying that it combines comedy with (sometimes brutal) satirical intent.  In ‘Birthday’, a wealthy couple keep “a live progressive” as a pet:

“Perhaps he’s longing for freedom, or action…” I suggested timidly.  “After all, he’s a progressive.”

“Come, now.  He’s never had it so good,” objected the lawyer.  “He has a roof over his head and assured food, peace, no trouble whatsoever. We’ve trained him to eat out of our hands – you saw for yourself.  He isn’t dangerous.  We let him out for the National Day celebrations and for the anniversary of the Revolution, so that he can get some exercise.  But he always comes back.  Anyhow, this is a small town; there’s nowhere for him to hide.”

In the title story, the director of a zoo decides, as his “modest contribution to the common task and struggle,” that “we can make an elephant out of rubber, fill it with air, and place it behind railings.  … In the notice on the railings we can state that this particular elephant is exceptionally sluggish. The money saved in this way can be turned to the purchase of a jet plane or the conservation of some church monument.”  We are in a topsy-turvy world where children are questioned by officials about the political intentions behind the snowman they built, where meteorologists are made to lie about the weather (“We shan’t tolerate any defeatism!”), and where orderliness (of a sort) reigns:

[A]uthors have been put into uniform and awarded suitable ranks and distinctions.  In this way, chaos, lack of criteria, unhealthy artistic tendencies and the obscurity and ambiguity of art have been removed once and for all.

It’s not always subtle, but it is highly entertaining, and the stories are so short that if you don’t like one, there’ll be another along in a minute.  The rules of Mrożek’s world extend beyond 20th century Poland: ‘The Lion’ takes us back to the Roman Empire, where a lion explains to its keeper why the rulers rely on his kind to kill Christians instead of doing it themselves:

“Because of the new truth that is gaining ground.  One has always to watch what’s new and growing.  Has it never crossed your mind that the Christians could come to power?”

“They – to power?”

“Yes.  One has got to be able to read between the lines.  It looks to me as if Constantine the Great is likely to come to terms with them sooner or later.  And then what? Investigations and rehabilitations.  Then those up there in the amphitheatre will be able to say: ‘It wasn’t us, it was the lions.'”

These stories frankly lack traditional literary qualities such as characterisation, and are all the better for it.  Instead, Mrożek’s stories come on, get on with it, and get off without overstaying their welcome or oversaying their piece. However, cumulatively, richer qualities do build up: the pathos of the ordinary man against the party machine, the sadness of lives limited.  Sometimes the surreal elements are curiously touching, as in ‘Spring in Poland’, when hundreds of civil servants are overtaken by the urge to leap from their office windows and fly around the city.  In the last, and longest, story, ‘Chronicle of a Besieged City’, when the narrator offers the following exhausted plea, he is really calling for change more fundamental than his immediate surroundings.

Life in the city tires me.  I feel that it is time to make an excursion, to lie somewhere on the grass, with only clouds above my head.

Books like this face such natural opposition from our worst instincts as bookshop browsers: the odd name, the ‘bitty’ structure, the feeling that a book about life under the regime cannot be entertaining.  But The Elephant is entertaining, it is a riot, and did I mention that it is beautifully illustrated by Daniel Mroz too?  There is no question that, if the day comes when writers really are “put in uniform and awarded suitable ranks and distinctions,” that Sławomir Mrożek will be ranked a General.  I just hope the power doesn’t corrupt him.

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