Month: April 2007

Dai Sijie: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Time to broaden my literary horizons with another handsome little edition in the Vintage East series: this time, Dai Sijie’s 2001 novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

Or am I broadening my horizons? Sijie’s novel seems to owe more to the glut of comfortable, easy-going eastern literature that followed in the wake of Memoirs of a Geisha, than to the much more … other work of writers like Yukio Mishima or Kobo Abe.

Which is not to say that Sijie doesn’t have the credentials to tell an interesting tale that will be foreign to most of us. In his youth in 1970s China he was a victim of ‘re-education’ during the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress takes a readable, relatively light look at such an experience. The narrator is sent away from the city for ‘re-education’ among the peasantry owing to his unfortunate status as a ‘young intellectual’ and the offspring of ‘enemies of the people': his parents were doctors who committed the unpatriotic crime of being ‘stinking scientific authorities.’ His friend Luo is from yet worse stock: his father is a dentist who dared to tell people that he had fixed Mao Zedong’s teeth. “It was beyond belief, an unpardonable, insane crime, worse than revealing a secret of national security.”

Luo and the narrator are fast friends and become even closer when sent away. Their escapades are described in a pleasing, quietly humorous way. One of these involves the metal alarm clock which the boys have, and which fascinates the villagers, who have never seen such a thing before. It becomes the authoritative timepiece in the village, and:

One day Luo had a brainwave: with his little finger he slid the hands of the clock back by one hour. We got back into bed to enjoy our lie-in. … After that historic morning we got into the habit of readjusting the time on the alarm clock. It all depended on how we were feeling, physically and mentally. Sometimes, instead of turning the clock back, we would put it forward by an hour or two, so as to finish the day’s work early.

In the end we had changed the position of the hands so many times that we had no idea what the time really was.

Along the way they meet the little seamstress of the title, with whom Luo falls in love, and Four-Eyes, whom the boys bribe to loan them his contraband: banned books of Western literature, from Balzac to Flaubert to Dumas. And so the story becomes a likeable tale of the humanising, transformative effect of art, and the possibilities of the imagination in a time and place where the remainder of the self is stifled.

Where Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress falls down is in its very lightness and readability. The potential to tell a story of the harrowing effects of the Cultural Revolution and re-education is lost, and even the feelings of the boys at losing their families is never explored. It has a fairy-tale tone but lacks the secret horror of most real fairy tales. It needs more shocks. In fact the most surprising thing about the book is contained in the copyright page, where we learn that this story of Chinese culture based on the real experiences of a Chinese writer is translated by Ina Rilke. From the French.

Bernard MacLaverty: Cal

I’ve been a fan of Bernard MacLaverty’s powerfully tragic debut novel Lamb since studying it for GCSE, but until now had never got around to reading his second novel Cal (1983). That might be something to do with how, growing up in Belfast in the 1970s and 80s, I hated any fiction based on the Northern Irish ‘Troubles,’ which seemed too close to home in their depressing realism to be diverting. Now that such works have the value of historical documents of another age, they seem much more palatable.

At 150 pages, Cal is as skinny as its lead character, and as full of bright-eyed, grim life. He’s a lad of twenty or so, and part of the last Catholic family in a housing estate in an unnamed Northern Irish town. Cal’s mother died when he was a child and he and his father, who works in the local abattoir, are under threat to get out from Loyalists who are itching to coin the phrase ethnic cleansing a decade or so early. “Fear had driven the others out but his father would not move. He was stubborn at the best of times but if he thought pressure was being applied to him he was ten times worse.”

If all that makes you feel like shutting the book before you’ve even opened it, please don’t. What lifts Cal above its almost satirically grim subject matter is MacLaverty’s deliciously precise detailing and his dedication to his main character. The sense of setting evoked by just a few lines of description is exceptional right from the start:

He stood at the back gateway of the abattoir, his hands thrust into his pockets, his stomach rigid with the ache of want. Men in white coats and baseball caps whistled and shouted as they moved between the hanging carcases. He couldn’t see his father, yet he did not want to venture in. He knew the sweet warm nauseating smell of the place and he had had no breakfast. Nor had he smoked his first cigarette of the day. Smells were always much more intense then. At intervals the crack of the humane killer echoed around the glass roof. Queuing beasts bellowed in the distance as if they knew.

And where normally I tend to dismiss the view that readers should care about the characters in a book, MacLaverty expertly turns over your heart and leaves you desperate for Cal (and his father) to get a break. But the only breaks Cal looks like getting stop around the kneecaps: he’s trying to get out of the IRA without ever intending to get in; he’s torn up with guilt over something terrible he took part in; and he’s crushed with love for a woman who doesn’t know he played a role in ripping out the family happiness from her life.

In its handling of what makes a normal lad get tied up with terrorism, Cal is an interesting comparison with Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist: and comes out far on top, for its humanity and balanced wisdom. Here, there are no goodies and baddies: just thugs thinking they are following some chosen path, and ordinary folk trying not to get involved.

Cal also manages the difficult trick of moving along at a fair pace while also giving us time to digest everything that we see and feel along the way. The ending is as punchy and apt as was Lamb’s, and not the least pleasure of reading it is to rediscover in Bernard MacLaverty another Northern Irish writer who can stand toe to toe with the rest of them, and with the great Brian Moore in particular.

Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The use of quotes by other authors on the cover of a new novel is a curious business.  Whatever it states, the implication is always “This book is a bit like mine.”  Hence the praise from Booker-winning Penguin stablemate Kiran Desai on the front of Mohsin Hamid’s second novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  It seeks to cover Hamid with a little of Desai’s kudos.  But the quote which interested me more is on the back cover, from Philip Pullman: “More exciting than any thriller I’ve read for a long time, as well as being a subtle and elegant analysis of the state of our world today.”

Now I would be very surprised if Philip Pullman reads many thrillers, and excitement is not really the mode of the book.  In fact it is a meticulous and leisurely tale, taking its time to tell its story, despite coming in at under 200 pages.

It is narrated by Changez, a young Pakistani who has returned home after working in the USA for several years, and is now relating his life to an American seated next to him at a cafe table in Lahore.  The title gives the game away somewhat, and what we are witnessing is Changez’ transformation – gradually and then suddenly – from wealthy westernised operator to an altogether more dangerous prospect.  That in itself is a particular Western viewpoint, and the book reminds us of the angle that as a lackey of corporate America, he was arguably part of something plenty dangerous to begin with.

His job in New York was with a company called Underwood Samson, which values companies ripe for takeover.  As such he and his colleagues are typically unwelcome and mistrusted wherever they go: an obvious parallel to Changez’ position in the US after September 11.  He falls in love with a girl called Erica, but she can’t get over her first teenage lover who died of cancer.  And eventually, when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre collapse, Changez feels he has become a traitor to his own people:

Then he asked, “Have you heard of the janissaries?”  “No,” I said.  “They were Christian boys,” he explained, “captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world. They were ferocious and utterly loyal: they had fought to erase their own civilisations, so they had nothing else to turn to.”

And so Changez – the name with obvious symbolic intent – returns to Pakistan, where he becomes a figure of controversy.  The final transformation is convincing – we are used to the demonisation of people like the man (and terrorist?) he has become – even if the steps up to it are less persuasive.  What keeps the story together is Hamid’s control of the narrative voice, which is impeccably moderate and almost Ishiguro-like in its calm authority.

I had mixed feelings about the overarching story of Changez and his American table companion, which is narrated to us almost in asides at the start and end of each chapter.  It gives the novel a structure, but all the signposts it offers – “this burly fellow is merely our waiter, and there is no need to reach inside your jacket, I assume to grasp your wallet” – are jarringly obvious (particularly in comparison with the minimalist style) and nothing the reader anticipates fails to materialise.

Joshua Ferris: Then We Came to the End

Good novels that reflect the politics, repetition and futility of most people’s working lives are few and far between, and are most successful when they also deal with the other parts of the subject’s (inner or outer) life. Among the best of my experience are Magnus Mills’s The Restraint of Beasts, Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and Joseph Heller’s mesmeric masterpiece Something Happened. Concentrate solely on the working environment and you get something like Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, which was wildly entertaining for a quarter of its four hundred pages but ran out of steam long before it ran out of words. And this, unfortunately, is the model which Joshua Ferris has adopted with his debut novel Then We Came to the End: except for ‘wildly entertaining,’ read ‘mildly.’

In the acknowledgements Ferris credits as the source for his title, Don DeLillo’s Americana, and the comparison is invidious. DeLillo, while as much hated as loved, is a master stylist, and the style that Ferris has (no doubt intentionally) adopted for his story is the gossipy voice of trivia and minutiae. It’s set in a Chicago advertising agency and the USP is that the book is narrated in the first person plural – something I haven’t seen since The Virgin Suicides – although the ‘we’ of the book is really a tool to enable Ferris to fly omnisciently into all the employees’ experiences and actions. So the anecdotal style is seductive and pleasurable to begin with, but soon palls. It’s at its most amusing when the ‘creatives’ are working on an ad appealing for information on the missing daughter of one of their colleagues:

Genevieve dropped the image of the girl into Photoshop and started playing up the girl’s hair and freckles. [W]e feared that if she was washed out, people would look right past the flyer.

Genevieve didn’t lack for more suggestions. “Pump ‘MISSING’ up a little,” said Jim Jackers.

“And play up the $10,000 reward,” suggested Tom. “I don’t know how, just … use a different font or something.”

“And you have some kerning issues,” Benny reminded her from the sidelines.

We all wanted to help. Genevieve worked on it another hour, tweaking this and that, until someone recommended that she fix the little girl’s smile to be less crooked. Jessica would look prettier that way.

And in this vein the book is diverting enough for a time. We get the usual office scenarios: petty minded bureaucracy, the vexed question of who owns which chair, the desire to appear busy while doing as little work as possible, and the constant fear (justified or not) of lay-offs or, as Ferris puts it, ‘walking Spanish down the hall.’ It strains toward significance in touching on issues like obsession and grief, and aims for something slightly epic with a long time break toward the end, but it never really tickles the heart or makes the reader jump or start.

The best of the novel comes halfway through, with a break into the life of Lynn Mason, the ballbreaking boss of the agency who is rumoured to have been diagnosed with breast cancer. For a quiet, resolute chapter, Ferris breaks out of the first person plural, cuts the background babble and gives us a surprisingly affecting and effective portrait of a woman who daren’t risk losing control. Once normal service resumed after this, I hoped it might have an added resonance, or made richer from being informed by what went before: but it was business as usual.

Patricia Highsmith: The Black House

Over the past year or two I’ve become a swooning admirer of Patricia Highsmith’s. I had read a couple of the Ripley novels before that, but when Bloomsbury began to reissue her other books in handsome new jackets, I discovered her extraordinary suspense novels. The best of these were her titles from the 1950s and 60s, like Deep Water, This Sweet Sickness and The Cry of the Owl. Three more will be published in October of this year, which seems a long way away; so to tide me over until then I read her collection of stories The Black House.

It’s fairly clear that in 1981, when this collection was first published, Highsmith had her best work behind her, and although it’s a stronger range of stories than 1987’s bizarrely bad Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, it’s a real mixed bag.

Several of the stories, such as “Something the Cat Dragged In” and “Not One of Us,” turn on stretches of implausibility which may have passed unnoticed over the length of a novel, but which jar in a twenty-page story. They feel draft-like, and insufficiently worked out. Others have the air of being workings for her novels, and end abruptly, as though Highsmith ran out of patience, or interest. As ever, her prose is rarely more than functional, and when there’s no distracting style, the weaknesses show all the more clearly.

The best are those which combine Highsmith’s high-grade interest in human venality and perversity, with a snappier storyline. “When in Rome” has a rich society wife bribing her stalker to kidnap her husband. “Under a Dark Angel’s Eye” shows a man who’s had thousands of dollars stolen from him by his lawyer, finding that the world (or Highsmith’s world) has a way of exacting revenge. “Blow It” approaches a potentially farcical situation – one man, two girlfriends – and makes something satisfying and complete from it.

Perhaps the strangest and most interesting story in the collection is “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” where a woman becomes spooked by her own easy ability to repair a basket, fearing that some atavistic impulse or collective consciousness is at work in her, and that “she was part of the stream of evolution of the human race”:

She felt that she was living with a great many people from the past, that they were in her brain or mind, and that people from human antecedents were bound up with her, influencing her, controlling her every bit as much as, up to now, she had been controlling herself.

It shows Highsmith stretching herself beyond her normal boundaries and abilities: though it’s those ‘normal’ abilities that make her such an interesting writer, and that have me counting down the days until October.

Dan Rhodes: Gold

Dan Rhodes and I have a chequered past, though he probably doesn’t know that. I didn’t care at all for his debut collection of stories, Anthropology (which comprised 101 stories each of 101 words), but his first novel Timoleon Vieta Come Home was my favourite book of 2003, and the only novel ever to make me literally cry on one page and laugh on the next. Now he’s back with Gold, whose cover screams cool all the way down to its smoothly curved page corners. Not pictured.

And Gold is set in a Magnus Mills-ish unnamed village in Pembrokeshire, where Miyuki Woodward (who looks Japanese but isn’t) spends two weeks a year because – but, like most things in Gold, it would constitute a minor spoiler to explain this, since so much of the pleasure of it is in the gradual revelation of the story. I also can’t say why her sneezes are significant. If we can’t talk about what happens then, what about the other characters? The villagers all skirt the edge, mostly successfully, of whimsy (my pet noire, as Victoria Wood would say): there’s Tall Mr Hughes, Short Mr Hughes and Mr Puw, all propping up the bar at the Anchor. There’s Mr Edwards the barman, who never really says anything other than “Holy Mackerel”. There’s Septic Barry and the Children of Previous Relationships, who both are and are not what they seem.

Gold never really hits the heights of Timoleon Vieta Come Home: it’s affecting but only in brief snatches, and although there are good jokes (like the landlord who decided to be rude to people to drum up business, or inappropriate pub quiz team names), they didn’t make me laugh aloud so much as smile aloud. Often the background stories of the characters seem like stand-alone stories – like the scenes in the second half of Timoleon Vieta – though mostly they integrate well enough into the book as a whole.

Rhodes’s lightness of touch – which occasionally can seem naive or cliched, but I think deliberately so – enables him to develop a sort of anti-humour from the banal occurrences, rather like Scott Dikkers in Jim’s Journal, or a mild celebration of the ordinariness of life as in Sylvia Smith’s Misadventures. And the book seems overall to be about the transience of things – holidays, our experience of art, pleasurable memories, relationships, even life – and the importance of enjoying what we have for its own sake, without trying to prolong it and thereby causing it to stagnate. In that vein, Gold will not take long to read, but is enjoyable while it lasts.

Patrick Hamilton: The Slaves of Solitude

Patrick Hamilton is one of those mid-20th century writers who is forever in danger of being forgotten. His books slip in and out of print, so we are fortunate that – for the time being – his best works are all readily available. Hangover Square and Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky are in a (larger branch) bookstore near you in Penguin and Vintage Classics respectively. And just recently, his last great novel The Slaves of Solitude (1947) has been reissued, in the UK by Constable & Robinson, and in the US by New York Review Books.

Hamilton was an alcoholic who died from cirrhosis of the liver and who at the time of writing The Slaves of Solitude was, according to his brother, getting through three bottles of whisky a day. This seems to have been his optimum working level, because The Slaves of Solitude is pretty much flawless and the best of his work that I’ve read.

It is set in Hamilton’s favoured milieu, the grim and grimy streets of the wrong parts of England: sticky pubs, notorious parks and down-at-heel boarding houses. Much of the action (and it’s mostly verbal and psychological) takes place in the Rosamund Tea Rooms, where a disparate bunch of loners and misfits are staying during the second world war. The Rosamund Tea Rooms – no longer tea rooms but a boarding house – is in Thames Lockdon, a “half-village, half-town” at the end of the line outside London, “a place to pass through, above all,” which speaks poorly for those who end up lodged there.

And Hamilton does love nothing more than to speak poorly of his characters. For this reason The Slaves of Solitude will not delight everyone – lovers of Richard Yates are probably a good bet, though – and readers who find themselves ground down by relentless cynicism and misanthropy may not get on with it at all. But it’s terrifically funny while doing all this, and Hamilton’s winking, sly character portraits are a joy, as of the central character Miss Roach:

She had, she knew, the complexion of a farmer’s wife and the face of a bird. Her eyes, too, were bird-like – blackly brown, liquid, loving, appealing, confused. Her hair was of a nondescript brown colour, and she parted it in the middle. She was only thirty-nine, but might have been taken for forty-five. She had given up “hope” years ago. She had never actually had any “hope.” Like so many of her kind – the hopeless – she was too amiable and tried too hard in company and conversation, and sometimes gave an air, untrue to her character, of being genteel.

Or her (first) adversary Mr Thwaites:

In his large, flat, moustached face (with its slightly flattened nose, as though someone in the past had punched it), in his lethargic yet watchful brown eyes, in his way of walking and his way of talking, there could be discerned the steady, self-absorbed, dreamy, almost somnambulistic quality of the lifelong trampler through the emotions of others, of what Miss Roach would call the “bully”. That steady look with which as a child he would have torn off a butterfly’s wing, with which as a boy he would have twisted another boy’s wrist, with which as a man he would have humiliated a servant or inferior, was upon him now as he looked as Miss Roach; it never entirely left him. He had money of his own and he had lived, resounded through private hotels and boarding houses all his life. Such places, with the timid old women they contained, were hunting grounds for his temperament – wonderfully suited and stimulating to his particular brand of loquacity and malevolence.

And it is the conflict between Miss Roach and Mr Thwaites (and later, others) which drives the storyline of the book. But what Hamilton manages is to make these scenes simultaneously horrible, very funny (Mr Thwaites’s pretentious use of language is a particular comic highlight) and eventually highly involving. Even those of us who don’t care for whether or not a book has characters we care for, will find ourselves rooting for Miss Roach as the final conflict approaches. And given all that has gone before, the ending is somewhat surprising too.

In addition the book contains scattered fine snapshots of life in wartime. The blackout material around the “Open” sign in a pub makes it look like “a waterside brothel instead of a healthy public house”; the conscripted soldiers in the village who would tramp by but “said nothing, giving expression to their slow sorrow and helplessness in their boots”; the wartime newsreels with “a curiously menacing voice, threatening to the enemy, yet admonitory to the patriot, and on one tireless note.” The blackout also neatly reflects Hamilton’s pitch-dark humour and world-view. Well, alcohol is a depressant, after all.