May 8th, 2009
The closest book I can compare Michel Faber’s truly creepy, utterly addictive novel Under the Skin to would be Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I’ve been classifying it as speculative fiction, a book that takes place in a world that looks very much like our own, but slowly reveals itself to be very, very different. Isserley spends her days hunched behind the wheel of a slowly-breaking down vehicle trolling for hitchhikers along the A9 highway in Scotland. Her world is skewed, not only from the giant glasses she wears, but also because of her strange occupation. Little spears in the seat of the car sedate the hitchers once she’s determined whether or not they’ll be missed, and their bodies transported back to a farm where others of her race wait to process the “vodsels.”
Slowly over the course of the narrative you learn that Isserley, although she refers to herself as a human being, is quite different from the rest of us who define ourselves by that term. Her body mutilated so she can appear as close to normal in the “vodsel” world atop the earth, she’s in constant pain and her job takes its toll. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot because Faber’s ability to unwind the story over the course of the novel remains its strength. The further along you get, the further you realize how troubled Isserley is — both physically and psychologically.
The only other book by Faber that I’ve read is The Crimson Petal and the White, which, to this day, remains one of the most frustrating reads I’ve ever suffered through. The book sprawled all over the place, tumbled along for almost 1,000 pages (or at least it felt that way), and never came to a satisfying conclusion. The exact opposite is true of Under the Skin. The narrative is crisp and almost cinematic, you feel your own legs cramp as Isserley spends yet another day behind the wheel trolling for her victims. You shake your head as they get in the car. You feel even worse after the book finally reveals exactly what happens to them once they decend into the depths of the world underneath the farm.
To say this book wasn’t what I was expecting would be an understatement. And it’s it just wonderful when that happens?
READING CHALLENGES: Under the Skin is on the 1001 Books list, so it’ll count towards that challenge, and Michel Faber was born in The Hague, The Netherlands, so that’s one for Around the World in 52 Books too.
January 31st, 2009
The last Milan Kundera book that I read was The Unbearable Lightness of Being. At the time I was living in Banff, Alberta with about six other women in a townhouse that had no furniture barring a really old, uncomfortable couch. We all slept on the floor in sleeping bags, worked awful jobs, drank too much and climbed many mountains (literally). I loved that book. But more I loved the experience of reading that book in that particular time and that particular place. In a way, it’s like Melanie pointed out in the comments here a few weeks ago, sometimes the books just choose us.
Kundera’s Ignorance takes these themes, or maybe ideas would be a better word, of time and place and how experience is tied explicitly to both, and explores them through two characters returning to their homeland after an extended absence. Irena and Josef run into one another in an airport, both having emigrated from their homeland (Prague) years ago, by chance. They make plans to have lunch the next day to catch up. For both, the return home is bittersweet, political regimes have changed, they’ve both moved on with their lives, had families, spouses, entire existences outside of the people they’ve left behind.
Is this right, if I say, “to coin a phrase”? — “You can never go home again.” The saying feels true for so many reasons. The time and the place will never be just the same again, it’ll always be tempered by our particular experiences, and the philosophical implications of such, and that’s what happens to both Irena and Josef. They feel the need to explain themselves: why they left, why it took them so long to come home, and what their lives turned out to be in their adopted countries. It can’t be an easy thing, coming home after years away when everything is different, older, changed, and you somewhat expect it to be the same. Not because of a conscious realization that change didn’t or couldn’t happen while they were away but more so because it’s impossible to imagine how much could be different.
Lives move so slowly in a way. Age catches up with people. Time turns hair gray and adds infinite bits and pieces to memories. But if you go ten, twenty years without seeing a member of your family or your friends, the awkwardness of the reunion will always remind you of how ignorant you are of the day-to-day occurences in their lives. There’s no judgment in Kundera’s novel about the impact of change for these two characters, in a sense, the narrator’s merely observing the moments where they realize the implication of their emigration. For a girl who’s always thinking of what it might be like to live somewhere different, it was an interesting book to read, a little bittersweet, and more than a little sad, but wholly fascinating.
READING CHALLENGES: One of the books from the 1001 Books list so I’ll cross it off from there. Kundera was born in Brno, Czechslovakia, which is now the Czech Republic, so I’ll add him to the Around the World in 52 Books challenge too. It’s interesting, to read a book that’s about returning to a place that has utterly changed since the collapse of communism. The book honestly made me want to go to Prague and isn’t that just the point of my armchair travelling reading?
November 13th, 2008
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading interesting but somewhat bleak fiction. I’m halfway through Oryx and Crake, devoured Hunger and just finished Jose Saramago’s Blindness this morning. All three novels deal very strongly with how absence has an effect upon human society. Represented in the protagonist in Hunger, represented in the landscape in Oryx and Crake, and represented in the society’s blindness in Saramago’s brilliant novel. Why do novels about absence work so well? It’s an easy question to answer: because they force the writer to observe, and observation is always at its sharpest when there’s some sort of tragedy or trauma forcing it forward.
Like in Hunger, the characters in Saramago’s book are not overtly named but referred to by description: “the first blind man,” “his wife,” “the doctor,” “the doctor’s wife,” “the girl with the dark glasses” (even if she’s not wearing them), etc. In a way it makes the plight, an epidemic that causes blindness throughout an entire city (or country), more poignant; it hits everyone and anyone. That is, with the exception of the doctor’s wife, who retains her sight even when the rest of the world has gone blind. The opening scenes of the novel are pitch perfect: a man alone in his car in traffic suddenly goes blind — a form of white blindness (instead of seeing darkness those affected see nothing but white) that spreads like wild fire throughout the population.
Those first individuals who “catch” the virus are quarantined and suffer through a hellish situation as more and more people arrive who suffer from the same plight. The novel doesn’t shy away from its central theme: when humans are pushed away from civilization they will act abominably. That’s not to say that the core group the novel remains centred around — the first residents quarantined after becoming infected — don’t act decently. They do and continue to do so regardless of their increasingly difficult circumstances. But they come across nefarious and despicable people as they try to survive the decimation of their society.
I’m not sure if it’s the translation, but Saramago’s writing style reminds me of Marquez. He writes long, luxurious sentences that examine every aspect of the situation. The allegory (if I’m using that word correctly) of the story almost keenly ascribes the defeat of human society when faced with this kind of categorical tragedy. Old philosophical debates of the essence of the human soul, whether it’s good or evil, are apt in terms of thinking about this book, and that’s probably why I enjoyed it so very much.
But before I sign off, here’s an example of how Saramago’s keen observations bleed into every inch of the novel:
Words are like that, they deceive, they pile up, it seems they do not know where to go, and, suddenly, because of two or three or four that suddenly come out, simple in themselves, a personal pronoun, an adverb, a verb, an adjective, we have the excitement of seeing them come irresistibly to the surface through the skin and the eyes and upsetting the composure of our feelings, sometimes the nerves that cannot bear it any longer, they put up with a great deal, they put up with everything, it was as if they were wearing armour, we might say.
READING CHALLENGES: Jose Saramago was born in Portugal so this novel counts toward the Around the World in 52 Books challenge that has been woefully under represented in my reading this year. There’s no way I’ll catch up now so I’m guessing I’ll give up sooner rather than later.
WHAT’S UP NEXT: Finishing Oryx and Crake and Brideshead Revisited (more 1001 Books!).
April 19th, 2008
Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack explodes even before it starts. The first few pages describe a woman’s first-hand experience with a bomb in Tel Aviv. Her husband, the story’s narrator, Amin, is a surgeon at the local hospital, and it’s only after a long shift sorting through the casualties after the bomb that he finds out about his wife’s death. For Amin, though, this is just the beginning of the tragedy. It soon comes to light that it was Amin’s wife, Sihem, who wore the bomb that caused the blast. The revelation that his wife became a suicide bomber, a fanatic, someone so unlike the woman he thought he married, turns his life upside down.
Unconvinced that he’s heard even an inch of the full story, Amin turns his back on the entire life he’s built in Tel Aviv, pushed away by angry neighbours, by the pressures of a racially charged situation, he retraces his wife’s last steps. And as many know, when loved ones keep secrets, it’s never easy to learn the truth.
The Attack is a powerful novel, it cuts to the heart of the trouble in the Middle East and portrays a man unable to find himself, he turns his back on his own tribe only to find that it’s just as impossible to fit into the society he’s chosen. Despite the urgent nature of the narrative, the dialogue feels clunky to the point of didacticism. You get the feeling that Khadra’s writing a very important book, but on the whole I felt the novel missed a slight emotional edge. That said, I was utterly engrossed in the story from the very first, most excellent, sentence: “I don’t remember hearing an explosion.”
Amin’s journey is heartbreaking, difficult and, in some ways, unbearably pointless. It’s easy to criticize the awkward storytelling, but absolutely impossible to take the author’s motivation, if I can be so bold as to address it, to task. It’s a raw, honest book that wants to open up a discussion about the very real issues driving the conflict. In that sense, it’s terribly successful. And my criticism about the dialogue aside, there are some wonderful bits of prose in the book, and here’s just one of the many passages I marked:
The bottom’s no good for anybody. In this kind of implosion, if you don’t react very quickly, you lose control of absolutely everything. You become a spectator of your own collapse, and you don’t realize that the abyss is about to close over you forever.
PHOTO IN CONTEXT: Simply the book sitting on my desk, no biggie. I am excited about the fact that in a few weeks I’ll be back to taking pictures of the books in context at the cottage. Goodness, I miss the cottage.
READING CHALLENGES: I had The Swallows of Kabul on my Around the World in 52 Books last year and only managed to get halfway through the first third of the novel. This year, I had it back again, but am replacing it with The Attack. Because Yasmina Khadra (the nom de plume for Mohammed Moulessehoul) was born in Algeria, I’ll cross off that country, despite the fact that the novel takes place in the Middle East. It’s also the first of eight books in the IMPAC Challenge. I didn’t realize that The Swallows of Kabul was also nominated for the IMPAC, so it’s nice to see this book on the shortlist as well.
WHAT’S UP NEXT: Until the packages from Amazon arrive with the rest of the books in the challenge, I’ll probably dive into a classic or finish Emma Donoghue’s latest, The Sealed Letter.