Thursday, January 31, 2013

2,469: 1,001 Book Challenge - Money to Burn by Ricardo Piglia

Ricardo Piglia’s Money to Burn was billed as a novelistic account of a real-life robbery that took place in Argentina in the 1960s and the ensuing siege of the robbers’ hideout in Montevideo, Uruguay.  In summary, a group of four men - Malito, the Blonde Gaucho, Kid Brignone and Crow, together with various hangers-on and acquaintances come together to rob a payroll truck filled with millions of pesos.  Their getaway is disrupted when some policemen spot two of them changing the numberplates on the getaway car and, following their escape to Uruguay, three of them are tracked down to an apartment to which the police lay siege for 15 hours.  Eventually, the crooks burn the loot before the police finally manage to kill two of the gang and seriously injure the other.

There you have it - a seemingly straightforward crime thriller, if maybe a little spiced up by the fact that it is based on truth.  Nothing more to see here, let’s just move along.  Only that would be a big mistake because to describe it as I have done above is a little like describing Animal Farm as an everyday tale of farm animals or saying that The Hobbit is about someone going for a long walk.

Piglia uses the factual framework of the robbery and siege with witness statements, official reports and newspaper articles to create a near stream of consciousness that jumps from reportage to impressionism to a quasi-mysticism that comes out when he delves into the broken minds of the gang members and Gaucho and Kid Brignone in particular.  It moves at breakneck speed and in a kaleidoscope of imagery that gives it the feel of an adrenaline rush or a drug hit that meshes perfectly with the dependency that the robbers have on almost every kind of narcotic you can think of.

It’s particularly skilful the way that Piglia skates along the edge of chaos and confusion, highlighting the sense of confusion that always surrounds events like the robbery, without turning the narrative into a mess.  He jumps around in time and from viewpoint to viewpoint but manages to keep the central thread from getting lost.

He makes an interesting motif of the seeming randomness and casualness of the low-lifes and the flotsam and jetsam of society - prostitutes, washed up singers, shady crooks with links to political extremists - who get caught up in the heist and suffer its consequences.  For example, the teenage girlfriend of Crow Mereles ends up being tortured for information by the police and Fontan Reyes, the failed singer, is murdered for his minor involvement.

But, in a sense, Gaucho, Kid, Crow and the rest are as much the heroes of the piece as the villains.  Despite their nihilistic violence and their sexual transgressions - rape, under-age sex and prostitution pervade the book - there is a fundamental honesty about their relationships with each other and a clarity of outlook on life that Piglia compares almost favourably with the police and the authorities.  These are, for the most part, corrupt, immoral and petty creatures who could even be said to be facilitators of the events through taking bribes and pay-offs from the gang.

And here Crow, Gaucho and Kid get their revenge by burning the loot and thereby both denying their conspirators their pay-offs and share of the booty and, in an environment where money is scarce, they deliver the ultimate two-fingered salute to the society from which they are outcast.  Not even their most gruesome acts can prevent the reader from a bit of grudging admiration for their defiance, even as the mob of spectators outside the besieged apartment try to lynch Kid Brignone as, grievously wounded, he is carried from the building at the end of the affair.

In amongst all this, Piglia explores the circumstances and events that have made Kid Brignone and the Blonde Gaucho into the damaged creatures we see and it is here that the writing becomes almost mystical as we get to read the thoughts and memories of the pair and gradually to recognise the strange but genuine love the two have for each other which, although consummated sexually, is more an emotional love.

This is meaty fare and not for the delicate or faint-hearted.  It is, however, loud, brilliant, thought-provoking and guaranteed to give a rush.  I don;t think this is nearly as well known as it deserves to be or as it would, I suspect, be if the author had been British or American.  If you do read it, don't top before the epilogue as there is a cool anecdote about how Piglia came to write it.  And, as a final note, it is wonderfully translated by Amanda Hopkinson who , despite a couple of clunky Anglo-Saxon slang words, manages to preserve the spirit and voice of the author.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

2,470: 1,001 Book Challenge - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

When The Tenant of Wildfell Hall popped up as one of the next five in my 1,001 Book Challenge, I have to confess that I was definitely underwhelmed by the thought of it.  This may have been exacerbated by the fact that the Random Number Generator had only just thrown up Claudine’s House by Colette, a memoir by one of my least favourite authors ever.  So, having failed to get past page ten of that one, I would have put a big chunk of money (or at least a fiver) on me failing to get much further into The Tenant of Wildfell Hall……….

……….which sum of cash I would have proceeded to lose.  No, I’m not going to proclaim that I’ve seen the light when it comes to the likes of the Brontë’s or Austen or that I’ve joined the serried ranks of their fans in blogland but, having lost my Victorian female author virginity (figuratively only, I should point out), I’m prepared to concede that it wasn’t too much of a hardship to finish it and, moreover, I won’t be dreading the next one to come up in the reading plan.

For those of you out there who are unfamiliar with it, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a melodramatic tale of spousal abuse, frustrated love and the abominable marital mores of early 19th Century England.  It is documentary in form, in part epistolary and in part diary.

As told by its main narrator, Gilbert Markham, it concerns a mysterious widow, Helen Graham, who, unannounced, comes to live with her child in part of the run-down Wildfell Hall, a property owned by Frederick Lawrence, a local squire.  This being the countryside, her solitary life soon gives rise to all sorts of malicious rumours which Gilbert, having fallen in love with the said Mrs Graham, refuses to believe.  Continuing to press his suit, he is rejected and, having accused her of loving Lawrence, is given Helen’s diaries which explain not only the nature of her relationship with Lawrence but also how she has come to be at Wildfell and why she cannot marry Markham.

Without wanting to spoil the story for any of you who have not read it and may wish to do so, it turns out that Helen, whose real name is Helen Huntingdon, is the victim of vicious abuse and betrayal by her husband from whom she has run away to save both herself and her son from his calumnies.  Now, what with this being the 19th Century and all, this would have been scandalous in the extreme as children were considered to be the property of the father and, what’s more, married women were not legally allowed to own property in their own name or to petition for divorce.  And, had the knowledge of Helen’s absconding become public knowledge, Mr Huntingdon would have been socially embarrassed, not so much because of his behaviour but more because he would have been seen as having been disobeyed by his wife and as having required her to earn her own living.

Eventually, of course, all ends well for Gilbert and Helen as Mr Huntingdon dies and a chance meeting ends in them professing their love for each other and, ultimately, getting married and living happily ever after, as they say.

On its publication, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an instant bestseller, successfully shocking polite society and it was so controversial that, after the first edition sold out, Anne’s sister, Charlotte, had the reprint suppressed.  The book is seen as one of the first feminist novels and, given the way it treats Helen as a character and the way it deals with the legal consequences of marriage at that time certainly supports that view.  Indeed, almost all the male characters are either wicked, weak or carry some other character flaw.  Even Gilbert, the male hero, is a tad self-obsessed and a bit of a prig.

Even so, the reality is that, other than Helen (who is almost a caricature of a “perfect” woman), the vast majority of the female characters are also a pretty hopeless bunch.  Helen’s aunt is continually trying to push her younger female relatives into bad marriages, Eliza (the former object of Gilbert’s affections) is a spiteful little cow, most of Gilbert’s female acquaintances and family are gossips and that’s even before we get into Lady Lowborough, Mr Huntingdon’s lover and a thoroughly unpleasant specimen.

Personally, I believe The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a forthright attack on the egregious marital politics of the time and also an overtly Christian tract, with the excessive piety of Helen being ultimately richly rewarded with a happy marriage, great wealth and the preservation of her son’s good character.  By comparison, those who have displayed un-Christian values and behaviour (gluttony, debauchery, slander, vanity, adultery etc.) all seem to get their come-uppances.

It was an interesting light on the prevailing codes of behaviour of the time, both in terms of the explicit sexism of most of the male characters and the complex demands of social intercourse and, I will confess, I was made to keep turning the page to find out what happened next.  But, as a novel, it really wasn’t to my taste.  As well as the overly-melodramatic tone of the writing and plotting and the too neat and tidy ending, I found the whole premise frustrating and most of the characters cartoonish and one-dimensional.

I suspect I am just too set in my beliefs and too much a product of my own time but I found the behaviour of both Helen and Gilbert to be both unbelievable and incredibly annoying.    I struggled with the idea of a woman not being able to move out, initiate a divorce and obtain financial relief.  I struggled even more with the part where Mr Huntingdon becomes ill and she goes back to him to nurse him.  Really?  Even allowing for the period in which the story is set, would anyone really act like that?

Although I can see why it’s a great book to study as there are many themes and issues that can be extracted from it, and although I can appreciate why it is loved by many, it didn’t really do it for me.  I’m glad I’ve read it and it has taught me that the Brontë’s are not as unenjoyable as I had feared but I doubt I will ever pick it up again - unless mini-Falaise has to read it at school!

Friday, January 18, 2013

2,471: Psmith, Journalist by P.G. Wodehouse

I do believe that, given the glorious Wodehouseaness (d’you like my neologism?) of Psmith as a character, the Psmith novels comprise a very rum collection.  Taking them in order, Mike and Psmith only introduces him in the second half and is really the ending of his boarding school phase.  Psmith in the City is the closest Wodehouse ever really got to autobiographical writing (and is by far the best Psmith novel.  Psmith, Journalist we will turn to shortly and Leave it to Psmith is as much a Blandings novel as a Psmith novel.

So what is Psmith, Journalist’s peculiarity?  On the surface, it seems a typically Psmithian plot.  Accompanying Mike Jackson on his cricket tour of the east coast of the USA, Psmith happens to come across one Billy Windsor, editor of a particularly saccharine weekly magazine.  With typical gusto, Psmith appoints himself Billy’s assistant, sacks the magazine’s dreadful columnists and sets about transforming the magazine into a crusading investigative publication.

In pursuit of this, Psmith and his new friends begin a campaign against one of the Rachman-like slum landlords and the condition of his tenement empire.  This set up leads nicely into a lively series of capers involving boxers, gangsters and other assorted characters.  All in all, a worthy Psmith plot and, seemingly, a classic Wodehouse story.

And yet, Psmith, Journalist is unusual.  You see, one of the hallmarks of Wodehouse’s work is his steadfast refusal to engage with the real world and real world issues.  In many ways, it can even be difficult to put a date on any given Wodehouse book just by reading the text.  His last books still inhabit the same golden fantasy England of his first novels.  Granted, there is the occasional reference to changing times and the odd character, such as Spode, an explicit dig at Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts.  But, on the whole, social and political issues are strangers to the pages of Wodehouse.

Apart from in Psmith, Journalist, that is.  In this one book, Wodehouse raises and tries to deal with the social ills of slum housing in New York where, even at this relatively early stage of his career, he was spending much if his time.  There is one passage in particular, where Psmith and Billy are walking through a tenement, in which even Wodehouse’s light, humorous style cannot disguise the outrage.

And guess what?  It doesn’t really work.  Of all the Psmith novels, even taking into account their respective oddities, Psmith, Journalist is clearly the weakest.  Wodehouse’s talents simply do not lend themselves to serious matters.  The outrage is smothered in the writing and he just isn’t able to make the bad guys really bad.  So it becomes too  un-Wodehousean to be funny and too Wodehousean to be a serious novel.

Unfortunately, there’s more.  For someone who spent a lot of time in the US (and who would later live there and take out citizenship), the New York of Psmith, Journalist is strangely unbelievable and even a bit cheesy.  It’s inhabitants seem mostly to speak with weirdly contorted accents and, even allowing for changes in social attitudes and linguistic usage, it comes across as uncomfortable and even borderline offiensive.

Of course, Wodehouse being Wodehouse, it’s not wholly bad – funny in parts and with some moments of authentic Wodehouse genius.  It’s just not one of his best, although it’s still worth reading, even if only as a curiosity.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

2,472: Eight Pieces of Empire by Lawrence Scott Sheets

In first part of Lawrence Scott Sheets’ memoir cum reportage of the two decades immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sheets tells of his first visit to the then-USSR in 1987 where, as a student of Russian, he lodged with a couple in one room of a collective apartment in Leningrad.  Coincidentally, I was also in Leningrad in the spring of that year.

The difference, of course, is that Sheets was a serious language student who went on to live and work in various parts of the Soviet “inner” empire, reporting on many of the ethnic conflicts and political disputes that arose in the years after Mikhail Gorbachev’s formal dissolution of the USSR on Christmas Day, 1991.  Me?  Well I was a teenager on a school trip, more intent on ensuring that the hotel bar stayed open long enough for us to get trollied every night than on the internal workings of Russia.  And I was never going to become a de facto war reporter.

Eight Pieces of Empire is divided, as the title hints, into eight sections dealing with different aspects of the collapse of the Soviet Union.  These include Georgia’s dispute with Abkhasia and then Russia itself, the Chechen struggle against Russia, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, the new “sultanates” of central Asia and post-Chernobyl Ukraine.

I’m happy to say that I found it a fascinating book and I raced through it.  Given the sheer size and complexity of the former Soviet Union, Sheets was only ever going to have been witness to a fraction of its post-collapse life and Eight Pieces is a little like a pointiliste painting, where individual anecdotes sit together to make up a larger picture when one steps back to take an overview of the whole.  By telling the stories of people caught up in the post-imperial seizures of the USSR, Sheets has drawn a compelling picture of the FSU’s recent history.

I would point out that most of the book deals with the Soviet periphery and little deals directly with Russia itself.  Driven by Sheets’ journalistic assignments, it cannot deal with everything and so there is almost nothing on the wholesale theft of Russia’s resources by Yeltsin’s and Putin’s cronies or about Putin’s rise to power and his gradual undermining of the rule of law and reversion to repression.  This is a book that focuses on the warlords of the Caucasus and the new dynasties of the likes of the Aliyevs and the Nurabayevs in central Asia.

It’s also a memoir of Sheets’ life as a correspondent and, compelling as his reporting is, his personal reminiscences are just as fascinating as are his kaleidoscopic group of contacts and acquaintances.  It’s also sobering to read of a series of his friends dying as a result of the conflicts they are reporting on or otherwise caught up in.

For, ultimately, no matter how exciting the action seems or how much humour Sheets manages to extract from the situations he finds himself in, much of Eight Pieces of Empire deals with human tragedy, of innocent deaths, of the destruction of homes and the displacement of families.  The consequences of the artificial imposition of boundaries and the forced deportations and resettlements ordered by Stalin are still being played out and, without Communist repression to restrict them, ethnic and national resentments have led to war and misery.

There’s not a great deal of hope or optimism here.  Most of the conflicts on which Sheets has reported have not really been resolved and there are still more, in places of which we in the West have never heard, that are still to come.  Sheets himself has, by the end of the book, grown weary and, maybe, even a little traumatised by his experiences.  It is salutary to note that he has given up journalism and is now the director of the South Caucasus Project for the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organisation.
I was sent a copy of the paperback edition of Eight Pieces of Empire by the publishers, Crown, for which I am very grateful.

Monday, January 14, 2013

2,473: 1,001 Book Challenge - Chess by Stefan Zweig

Last autumn, I was at a conference in Rio de Janeiro (it’s a hard life but someone’s got to do it!) and the main conference dinner was held at the Copacabana Palace Hotel, a rather beautiful 1920s grand hotel, overlooking the beach.  On our way up to the ballroom for dinner, I noticed a “rogue’s gallery” of photos of famous guests on the walls of the corridor.  Most were recognisable - assorted royals, politicians, Hollywood icons and rock aristocracy - but one picture, a bespectacled late middle-aged man, totally foxed me until I checked the name plate.  It was Stefan Zweig.

This acted as a reminder that I needed to get this post done (a reminder that obviously had little effect, given the time it has taken) and was a bit of a curiosity as I was unaware at the time that his flight from the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany had eventually led him to Brazil, where he was ultimately to commit suicide in 1942.

Chess is a novella, published in 1942, very shortly after Zweig’s death.  The unnamed narrator is a passenger on a ship headed towards Argentina from New York.  Recognising a famous chess master on board, the narrator persuades a fellow passenger by the name of McConnor to play a game of chess against him in the hopes of luring the master into a match.

With this ploy having been successful, the hapless McConnor is being beaten by the master when an unknown stranger approaches and starts giving McConnor instructions on how to play, which result in McConnor being able to turn the game completely around and to salvage a draw from a seemingly hopeless position.  The novella then veers off on a tangent to give a potted biography of the mysterious stranger, a Doctor B. from Austria, before returning to the shop and to the two games Dr B then plays against the master and their fateful consequence.

There is at least one, if not two, decent books fighting for space within Chess but, unfortunately, Zweig didn’t seem able to realise either of them.  On the one hand, there is a nice psychological mystery, centred on the game of chess itself and on the identity of the mysterious Dr B.  On the other hand, there is also a novel examining the psychological and emotional consequences of torture, isolation and obsession, revolving around Dr B’s imprisonment by the Nazis, following their takeover of Austria in the 1930s, and their reprisals against those, like Dr B., who had been close to the Hapsburg monarchy.  The obsession part of the mix arises from the tactic Dr B uses to combat the effects of isolation - a tactic I won’t reveal as it is the key plot point in the novella.

Either of these books would have been compelling if Zweig had fully written them and, to be fair, the novella in its published form is an enjoyable read (especially, if like me, you find Nazis and games to be hooks in stories!).  There is an authentic air of fear and suspense running through it, stemming from the fear of the Nazis that Zweig would have felt as an Austrian Jew who went into exile in the 1930s and it could also be read as a study of the two different approaches to chess of the master, an apparent idiot savant, and Dr B., the ultimate book-taught player.  Nevertheless, it felt almost like a skeleton from which something better could have been constructed.

I should finish by saying that this view isn’t necessarily shared by other, more qualified, readers and many people view Chess as one of Zweig’s masterpieces.  I don’t, but can see that his other work could be very interesting to read.