Archive for March, 2009

Liminal (2007)

Chris Keil

Alcemi, 194pp

“You’d be walking down the street, and on your right you’d see an archway that you’d somehow never noticed before, and you’d turn through it, without thinking… and there would be no way back… and nothing would ever be the same again.”

That is Geraint speaking, the central character in Welsh author Chris Keil’s second novel, Liminal. Geraint, with his ex-wife and son’s fiancée, have gone to Greece to hunt for Aled who has gone missing there. In Greece they have met Jessica, an American teacher who met Aled and spent two weeks with him before he left a note explaining he had to go. As they wander the sun-crested hills and beaches near Corinth seeking their loved on Geraint considers history – he is also seeking the place St Brygga settled, for she too left from the same Welsh village as them to come to this place, thousands of years before – and he considers the idea of liminality – that Aled is undergoing some transformation, a rite of passage in the Greek islands.

Structured around this central disappearance, Keil’s novel during its middle long section comes to resemble a thriller, and has the pace of one – the rushing across Athens to a police station where a confused boy has been arrested and whom they think might be Aled, to the tracing of ancient pathways through temples and remote places, to the bustle of the city – there is a strong energy to Keil’s writing, a drive to know what it is that has caused Aled’s disappearance. The mystery is augmented by Geraint’s friend at home emailing him the latest developments in her novel where a character, also called Geraint, is lost in a foreign land and being hunted by mysterious agents. We suspect that maybe fiction and fact might collide, that the liminal threshold will shatter between two worlds. It is credit to Keil that his novel is not overwhelmed by all these different threads. However, like all books with such a mystery at its central core – once we have worked out what is going on all energy is taken away from the work, and the last few pages work out the rest of the novels mysteries the deflation has negated some of the power. This is not a major criticism, though, but merely a minor one, and one inherent in all thrillers.

It is obvious from reading that Keil knows Greece very well, just as he knows his part of Wales, and the two worlds are created with graceful ease through a few simple brushstrokes. He also has the ability to create successful secondary characters – Nick the Greek police officer, the Grey Goose – characters we know and recognise.

Liminal is a quick entertaining read that shows true ability and genuine compassion and marks Chris Keil out as someone to watch; he is a writer engaged with deeper philosophical questions and with ones place in the world. These attributes should serve him well. I look forward to his next novel.


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Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) (2006)

Jonathan Littell

Chatto & Windus, 975pp

Translated by Charlotte Mandell

No recent novel has, I am certain, caused as much controversy as Jonathan Littell’s second novel, Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), the story of Maximillian Aue, an SS Officer during the Second World War and the question of complicity. It is a provocative subject that Littell wrestles with over a thousand pages, perhaps ultimately reaching no decision, but the reader is left with the sense that, perhaps, that is the point.

Les Bienveillantes has become an international success. Littell, American born but French speaking, published his novel in 2006 in France and it enjoyed immediate critical success. Probably because of its length, it has taken three years to reach British shores in an astute translation by Charlotte Mandell.

Told by Aue himself, sometime after the end of the War, when he is again living in France, Les Bienveillantes is split into seven sections, most of which take their name from the composite elements of a symphony. Near the end of the introductory first part – Toccata – Aue tells us: “I live, I do what can be done, it’s the same for everyone, I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!” Littell has laid the challenge down to the reader: can you sympathise with a man who does bad things? What is those bad things are done because they must be done, as part of a job, as commanded, as the only way to survive?

Aue shares little with other men, though. He is not like me, nor I suspect is he like you. To talk more fluidly about this novel I must reveal one of its big secrets, so if you have not read this novel I would suggest you cease reading now. Aue’s secrets are slowly revealed to the reader, through the slow drip of information, though long before he says what he has done, we already suspect him of it. When he was a boy Aue was banished from his family home and sent to an abusive boarding school because he was involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister. This relationship overshadows every encounter Aue has, whether they are romantic or purely sexual, and what all these relationships prove is that Aue is a repressed homosexual with a fixation on the anus. All of this reveals that he is not like every men, he is a distinct man with his own complications and fetishes. Many critics have commented that this undermines Aue and empathetic stance with him, but had Aue been a bland figure, swept along by this tide of history, I believe he would have become less empathetic – he needs these personal and social disfigurements to become real.

Again to this question of complicity. Aue says: “I too could have asked to leave… so why then didn’t I? Probably because I hadn’t yet understood what I wanted to understand. Would I ever understand it? Nothing was less certain…” What is it he needs to understand? The Reich’s policy of extermination? The human ability to kill and inflict suffering? Himself? It is perhaps all of these things, and more. It becomes the constant refrain of this novel.

Littell’s novel fetishises military terminology: “Administratively, we’re subordinated to the Sixth Army. But tactically we receive our orders from the RHSA, via the Gruppenstab, and from the HSSPF. Is that clear?” Only if we know Reich military organisational structure. It shows Littell has done his research, and at times through this novel he seems to batter us about the head with it: whether it is in military matters, historical matters, linguistic questions, anthropological questions, classical questions: Littell seems to know it all, and at times he seems to have cut and paste from an encyclopaedia all that he has learnt. I was reminded of an old creative writing class adage: do your research but don’t let your reader know you have, let it be revealed through the characters and plot. Littell wants to show us, time and again; and yet this is not a criticism. Aue is narrating long after the events, so if anybody is showing off it is Aue, for us. I think Aue is trying to tell us he considered matters, closely, by showing us how much he knows. I do not believe for a moment that Doktor Voss lectures Aue in such detail: Aue is showing off. If this is my misreading of Littell then so be it. Aue is trying to forgive himself by having us ‘understand’.

Another criticism I have is that Littell engineers his narrative in such a way that Aue is present at all the critical moments of the Reich’s War, causing at times, his narrative to resemble Zelig, the Woody Allen comedy. He’s on the front, he’s at Stalingrad, he’s at Auschwitz, he’s retreating from the oncoming Russian army, he’s in Berlin during the bombings, and he’s in Hitler’s bunker just before the end. It’s the greatest hits of the Third Reich, and at times this undermines the authenticity of Littell’s novel. Was any one man present at so much? As to the biting of the nose incident…. is this Aue trying to show us: look, I realised how wrong we were and I tried to do something. The two detectives who hunt Aue near the end also seem to appear too relentless and appear with too much ease at critical moments. The last hundred pages of his work come across more as farce than considered apologia.

My final problem Les Bienveillantes is the same problem I have with Schindler’s List and other such Holocaust works – it comes across, as David Mamet put it, of being pornography for the emotions. Littell certainly plays it up. It poses the question of whether one can truly write about such events without becoming manipulative. Okay, so Littell’s work doesn’t have such obvious symbolism or a little girl in a red coat, but he does manipulate. At times his manipulation turned my stomach. Would such tragedy be better represented by its absence? I do not mean denial, I mean in its absence but suggestion, as a ghost behind the narrative, because none of us can forget, but should the dead not be allowed to rest?

Les Bienveillantes will continue to cause academic and literary debate for some time to come, and I have not analysed it in the depth that it deserves, but these are my few thoughts upon reading it once, and quickly, written in a day of constant disruption from outside elements. Is it the great work some have hailed it? I’m uncertain. I think only time will tell. What is though is a filthy, degenerate romp through Germany’s war, and certainly worth the effort of reading, despite its problems, or perhaps, indeed, because of them.

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Az Ajtó (The Door) (1987)

Magda Szabó

Vintage Books, 262pp

Translated by Len Rix

Magda Szabó was widely regarded as Hungary’s foremost female writer, and following her death in 2007, her reputation has only increased. She was known as a novelist, dramas, essays, and poetry, though she came to the first three of those after the era of Stalinist rule ended in Hungary. Prior to Stalinist rule she had at least two books of poetry and was awarded the Baumgarten Prize in 1949 only to have to taken away from her the same day.

Az Ajtó (The Door), then, is a late entry in her canon. It tells the semi-autobiographical story of a writer, called Magda, who struggling for success, employs an elderly woman as a housekeeper. Emerence has her peculiarities, but Magda and her husband are pleased with her work. If she cannot be there for work during the day she will come in at night and do the work, and sometimes she leaves small presents for her employers. Emerence is known and loved through the neighbourhood, though only the Lieutenant Colonel has ever been in her home and will not speak of what he has seen there. Emerence, then, is an enigmatic creature, who believes in not speaking unless it is necessary, and in constantly working.

From this simple premise Szabó builds an incredibly tense narrative, at times frightening, at times deeply moving, and always human in its understanding; it reveals Szabó as a writer of great skill. She is aided by a beautiful erudite translation by Len Rix, which saw this novel shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and being awarded the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize.

In a novel of such brevity, and with a writer with a poet’s eye at the helm, Az Ajtó never falters, even in its harrowing denouement. There is much in this novel that plays on surface tensions, but it is the deeper waters hinted and that menace behind this surface, that give Az Ajtó its incredible power. There is little more I want to say about this novel other than read it, it is a triumph.

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Them (2007)

Nathan McCall

Pocket Books, 339pp

Nathan McCall, once-famous as a reporter for the Washington Post, and subsequently for his autobiography Makes Me Wanna Holler (1994), detailing the determination of this young African American to escape his neighbourhood and the life his peers fell into, of crime and injustice, and though he spent three years incarcerated, McCall turned his life around.

Them, his 2007 novel, is his first work of fiction. It concerns the gentrification of an Atlanta suburb, close to where Martin Luther King Jr was born and raised, and where the civil rights movement began. Barlowe Reed, a wonderful creation, lives with his ex-con nephew who breeds pigeons, and who spends his days looking after his neighbourhood, chasing women, and working hard. When a young white couple buy the house next door not only is the scene set for a clash of personalities but a clash of culture, causing a division that will split the neighbourhood in half.

McCall’s greatest strength in this novel is his characterisation of Barlowe Reed, who we first meet rallying against Caesar (his term for official institutions) by refusing to buy stamps with a flag on them – he wants the ones with the buxom beauty on – and this small incident cements Reed brilliantly. We know he is an agitator, but that he will not resort to violence for his ends, but prefers to sway people with kinder actions. He has a plan. He is contrasted with his nephew who uses violence – and who is clear will cause the downfall of his uncle and his neighbourhood. Where McCall fails is in his characterisation of Sean Gilmore, the white man who moves next door who becomes an obvious antagonist, afraid of all black men, afraid they all carry guns, and commit crimes. McCall needs this antagonist, but where he has taken care and detail to portray the African Americans in his novel, Sean comes across as two-dimensional. It is also a shame that McCall felt it necessary to end his novel with a gunfight in a club, which is surely now a cliché of black fiction (cinema). The character of Sean is offset by his wife, Sandy, whose burgeoning and begrudging friendship with Barlowe provides the novels central arguments and allows them room to breathe.

The faults of Them are dwindled by this novels achievements. McCall holds a mirror up to contemporary American culture, to the turbulence still found in many black neighbourhoods in America, and for that reason alone it becomes an important book – with Toni Morrison concerned only with the past – there are few African-American writers detailing this world. It is good someone is.

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2666 (2004)

Roberto Bolaño

Picador, 898pp

Translation by Natasha Wimmer

Santa Teresa, in the state of Sonora, on the Mexican-U.S. border, becomes a figurative hell in Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous novel, 2666, published a year after his death in Spain and translated into English by Natasha Wimmer (who also translated his Los Detectives Salvajes (1998)) and published in 2009. It is some kind of masterpiece, a book whose impact will be felt in fiction for the next fifty years. Some critics have called this the first great novel of the twenty-first century, and they just might be right.

The novel is divided in five sections – originally to have been published as five novels, if the authors estate had listened to his original demands for his work – and each can be read as distinct of the other, but motifs, themes, characters and plots unravel across them all, finally forming an echo chamber. Here is a brief summary of the five sections:

The Part about the Critics

In the first volume of this novel we follow four European academics whose careers have been built upon their study of the elusive novelist Benno von Archimboldi. These academics become romantically involved, they travel the globe and they reread their literary hero, until finally they chase a lead that suggests Archimboldi is living or has been in the Mexican town of Santa Teresa.

The Part about Amalfitano

Again we are with an academic, Oscar Amalfitano, who works at the University of Santa Teresa, and who is slowly losing his mind – in one of the more surreal moments he hangs a book of mathematics on a washing line for years, a book that had been seen by the academics in the first part – and who is afraid that his daughter will be caught up in the violence of the city and become lost to him.

The Part about Fate

For me the strongest section of this novel, it concerns an African-American journalist who is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, only to hear constant whisperings of “the murders”, of a serial killer operating in the city who has killed hundreds of women. He meets a fellow reporter and travels to meet a man arrested for the killings.

The Part about the Crimes

A chronicle of the murders, of the victims, of their lives, and of the crimes that plague Santa Teresa. We meet the detectives investigating them and their unsuccessful attempts to solve them. They arrest an American, who owns a business in Santa Teresa, and from prison he begins to fight for his freedom as the murders continue.

The Part about Archimboldi

Finally we meet Archimboldi. We learn of his youth in Germany, his role in the Second World War and his eventual rise as a novelist of much critical note. He becomes reclusive, travelling incognito around Europe. His sister learns that her son is in prison in Santa Teresa for murder and she contacts her brother to help save him.

As a brief summary of the work this is an injustice. 2666 contains such richness, such intricate tapestry. It is a novel that will become a mainstay of academia, pored over by critics who will find increasing depths within it. Its place in the pantheon of modern greats will become assured and its importance, already, to South American fiction is seismic.

Bolaño had not finished 2666 upon his death, though the first draft has been sent to his publishers. I felt, especially in the last part, that there was some repetition that could have been excised, but it is such a minor point. In his notes he stated that the narrator of 2666 would have been Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s alter-ego, and a character from his previous works, and learning this one cannot help but think back through the novel to see how this would work. The novel’s title also proves elusive – it is not in the novel, not as a year or of any significance – yet it does appear in another story by Bolaño, Amuleto (Amulet) (1999), which has as its narrator a minor character from Los Detectives Salvajes, and which describes Mexico City as looking like “a cemetery in 2666.” It begs the question of whether one reads Bolaño’s work as one long work, a collection of interconnected and symbiotic novels, and if they should be, what impact would it have upon our understanding of this cryptic, brilliant novel.

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