Books, 2012 (2)

31. Vyvyane Loh, Breaking the Tongue. 3/2. This was a random pick, a lucky one this time.

Claude Lim is being tortured by the Japanese. In flashbacks he reviews the story of this life. He is nineteen, a sixth-form student in an English-language school in Singapore at the time of the Japanese conquest of Singapore. His parents, Humphrey and Cynthia, are thoroughly deracinated Chinese. They speak no Chinese, disdain the 'locals' (which includes everyone who is not British or, like themselves, an imitator of the British), and are raising their children to be English.

Jack Winchester, the younger brother of Humphrey's boss, arrives in Singapore to take up a position with a mercantile firm. Claude is enlisted to guide him around during his first few weeks.  When the Japanese land in northern Malaya in early December 1941 and then successfully move south towards Singapore, the Lims move to the countryside for safety, leaving Claude behind to continue his studies and guard the house. Jack misses his flight out and takes refuge with Claude.

When Jack becomes ill, Claude encounters a nurse, Han Ling-li. She is also a Chinese patriot and, because she opposes the Japanese more than the British, a spy for the British government. A 'fifth columnist' is watching her and reporting on her activities to the Japanese. After Singapore falls to the Japanese, she disappears. Claude is arrested and tortured to reveal her whereabouts. Eventually he is released, and he and his family live with Ling-li's uncle.  Claude learns Chinese and drops his British aspirations and accepts that he is Chinese.

This is a novel about identity. The Lins, with the exception of Cynthia's mother, Grandma Siok, are Chinese who have lost their Chinese identities but cannot become the English they so admire. Ling-li is Chinese. Jack is British.  Each is not only a character in the plot of the novel but also a representative of the tribe. Jack is a second-rater who can succeed only in a place like Singapore where the system is tilted in his favour. In the later stages of the invasion and the beginning of the occupation, he is helpless and inept. Claude and Ling-li have to prop him up. Ling-li is the noble heroine dedicated to China. Claude is caught between the two but learns to be more like Ling-li. Humphrey cannot give up his aspirations to be English and at the end a stroke renders him symbolically speechless and inert. Cynthia, who has been sleeping with Englishmen for years, takes up with a Japanese general, a symbolic switching of allegiances. Grandma Siok survives with admirable pluck and wisdom. (Why are wise old grannies perennial characters in this sort of novel? They are worldwide in distribution.)

Loh handles all this with a great deal of finesse. Only towards the end of the work does she have her characters cease to be individuals and become representatives of Englishness and Chineseness. She manages not to overdo this, but in a few passages the principals deliver lectures instead of dialogue.

Before Claude's release from the Japanese prison, the novel alternates between his out-of-body dream state (an escape mechanism) and flashbacks to earlier points in his life. Part of his out-of-body experiences include the ability to witness and understand what is going on elsewhere. After the Japanese cease to torture him, he hears them torturing another prisoner in the room next door. That man is repeatedly told to open his eyes and watch what is happening to 'her'. Later, as Claude recovers, he dreams that the woman is Ling-li and the man is Jack. The Japanese mistake Jack for a British intelligence operative and torture Ling-li and gang-rape her to make him talk. It's difficult to know how to take this. It is stressed that in saying good-bye to Claude that Ling-li intentionally kept her destination secret so that he could not reveal it. Yet, Claude is said eventually to tell all to his tormentors. Was he responsible for Ling-li's death or does he just imagine that he is? It doesn't matter because in trying to be English he betrayed the China she represents.

Another of Claude's recurring dreams is that his tongue is being cut out. He always awakes before this happens in the dream, except in the final iteration when he dreams that he is successful in removing his tongue (hence the title of the book). 

That is one criticism I would have of this novel. It relies on such devices to give Claude information he would not realistically be privy to. But it isn't meant to be a realistic novel. Claude's Bildungsroman is a symbolic journey. In the end, Ling-li becomes one of the type-characters of Chinese opera--less an individual than a typical woman warrior who saves the hero.

Another criticism is that Humphrey is so totally ignorant not only about his ancestral society but also about the society in which he lives. He is presented as someone who is so determined to be English that he doesn't even know the sorts of basic words and facts that colonialists pick up as a matter of course from the colony in which they live. He isn't a believable character. He would have been a more interesting person if Loh had exploited the tension of a man who is desperately trying to be something he would not be allowed to become and knows that. Instead he is left to flounder as a symbol.

One of the characters in the novel is known only as 'the fifth columnist', a Chinese turncoat who, out of jealousy, singles out Ling-li in her reports. She stumbles across Ling-li, Jack, and Claude, and incorporates Jack and Claude into her narrative. That is why Claude is singled out for torture. In a deft touch, the fifth columnist becomes a stand-in for the novelist, creating fiction out of reality.

This is a first novel, published in 2004. Amazon does not list other works by Loh, which is a pity. I hope she writes more.

32.  Kazuo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans. 3/4. A first-person narrative told in a series of flashbacks by Christopher Banks, dealing with events in his life from his boyhood in Shanghai till 1957. If I have the chronology straight, the parts of the narrative dealing with his childhood occurred in the 1910s.

Banks is a detective in the school of Sherlock Holmes. He achieves fame in London of the 1920s and 1930s through his brilliant solutions to unsolvable crimes. But Banks is obsessed by a crime that occurred during his childhood in Shanghai, the kidnapping first of his father and then a few months later of his mother. After his mother's disappearance, he is sent back to England to live with an aunt. He attends a public school and then university, before embarking on his chosen career.

Banks's mother was an anti-opium crusader; his father worked for one of the great mercantile firms founded on opium imports. They quarrel about this. During his Shanghai days, Banks's best friend was Akira, a boy his own age, the son of Japanese ex-pats, who lived next door to the Bankses in the International Settlement. Their favourite game is to play detectives. Also on the scene is 'Uncle' Phillip, formerly an employee of the same firm as Banks's father and now an ally in the anti-opium crusade of Banks's mother. Just before Banks's mother disappears, Banks witnesses an odd scene involving his mother, Phillip, and a man he learns many years later is a Chinese warlord involved in the opium trade. Phillip takes Banks on an outing; when they return, they find that the mother has disappeared.

As an adult in London, Banks becomes embroiled in the schemes of Sarah Hemmings, a young socialite who is determined to marry an important man. She eventually finds that man in an elderly diplomat who is dedicated to creating world peace. In 1936, she and her husband go to Shanghai to further the husband's crusade.

Sometime in the 1930s, Banks becomes the guardian of Jennifer, who, like Banks, has lost both her parents, although in Jennifer's case the parents are dead.

In 1937, on the eve of the Japanese invasion of the Chinese parts of Shanghai, Banks leaves England to return to Shanghai. He has amassed information that he feels will allow him to find his parents. In Shanghai he is greeted as the man who will save the day by finding his parents. He runs across Sarah and her husband. The husband has taken to gambling and Sarah has grown disenchanted with her marriage. She persuades Banks to abandon his quest to find his parents and flee with her to Macau, where they will send for Jennifer and depart to a safer place.

Banks almost makes it to the boat leaving for Macau, but he learns that his parents are being held in a house in the Chinese section of Shanghai. The house is located in the area of Shanghai that is being contested by the Japanese and the Nationalists. A Nationalist officer guides Banks to the front lines of the battle. Banks forges on by himself but meets up with a wounded Japanese soldier whom he believes to be the now adult Akira. The two of them make it to the house only to discover a young Chinese girl surrounded by her dead family and a dying dog. Japanese soldiers arrive, arrest Akira, and then escort Banks to their headquarters and eventually to the British legation. Banks says that his experiences in the war zone are his first steps towards adulthood.

Banks then meets clandestinely with Phillip, who has in the meantime become a communist and then an informant for the Nationalists. Phillip reveals to him that his father had not been kidnapped. Rather, he decamped with his mistress for Hong Kong and then Malaya, where he died a few years later. The mother and Phillip invented the story of the kidnapping to save face. As part of their anti-opium fight, the two had persuaded the warlord to interrupt shipments of opium down the Yangzi. The warlord instead confiscated the opium for his own use. When the mother finds that out, she slaps the warlord and berates him. He avenges himself by kidnapping her and making her his concubine. In exchange for facilitating this, Phillip gets the warlord to agree to bankroll Banks's education and give him an inheritance to get him started in life. Banks is appalled by this discovery and returns to England.

In the 1950s he learns that his mother is in an asylum in Hong Kong. He visits her and asks her to forgive him for failing to find him. She does not recognise him but reveals that she has never blamed her son. He also learns that Sarah went to Macau. There she joined up with a French count, and the two of them went to Singapore, where they were imprisoned after the Japanese takeover. Both survived the war and are quite happy together. At this point we also learn that Jennifer is living in a small rural village after attempting suicide. Banks is reconciled to life in London.

There is a lot here about the construction and reconstruction of childhood memories. As an adult Banks meets the army officer who escorted him to England as well as two classmates from the public school he attended. None of them has the same memories as Banks, and all of them have a very different image of Banks from the one he holds of himself. The adult Akira seems to remember his childhood only when prompted by Banks, but he is careful to distinguish nostalgia from remembrance of the truth.

In the end, Banks can progress towards adulthood only accepting the destruction of the childhood that he has up to that point accepted as true. As he traverses the devastation of wartime Shanghai, he sees himself walking over other people's memories, and in the end finds his own memories devastated.

There are other parallels. Sarah is seeking something that doesn't exist yet--marriage to a man that will make a difference. Banks is seeking to restore something that no longer exists. Banks unknowingly almost replicates his father's elopement. Akira as a young boy is sent back to Japan to be educated but returns because he is accused of being not Japanese. Years later, the wounded soldier Akira is arrested by the Japanese army because they are convinced that the only way he survived was by betraying Japan. Jennifer is like Banks parentless but unlike Banks she seems reconciled to it and able to move on. She is moving into adulthood, while Banks is not.

Early in the novel Akira says that society is like a blind composed of slats held together by a cord, and that cord is children. He fears that his parents are coming apart because he is a bad child. Banks entertains similar fears and mentions the notion of the blind to Phillip, who sees civilisation as the cord holding the slats together. Years later, a police detective sees the struggle for good as the cord. It's a nice image.

The novel flirts with great themes but somehow it doesn't work. The Westerners in Shanghai hail  Banks's return and adopt his improbable beliefs that his parents are still alive and being held captive twenty years after their kidnappings and that their return to freedom will somehow solve the problems the world is currently facing. It is not clear why Banks believes this or why the others believe it as well. The Chinese family that is now living in the house the Banks inhabited in the International Settlement welcomes Banks and improbably promises that they will turn the house over to the Bankses when the older Bankses are found. Why are Banks's memories and the childhood he is trying to reconstruct so important? It's important to him, but it strains credulity that it would be important to others and to the world. This conundrum is never explained. The only sense I can make of it is that Ishiguro is suggesting that Banks's monomania colours his understanding of others' views and that he is deceiving himself about their beliefs. If so, this is not made clear in the novel. It's more my attempt to make sense of a mishmash by a novelist I respect. Then there is the whole oddity of the 'great detective' solving a mystery. Is this genre adequate to the task of treating the theme of the personal past we construct out of nostalgia and misunderstandings and a few facts?

Another oddity is the narrative voice. We learn only at the end of the novel that Banks is looking back from 1957. It is apparent from the very fact that he is narrating the story that he survives it and lives into the post-WWII era. But the sententious and ponderous and smug language in which Banks narrates the story is that of a Sherlock Holmes story or a Wilkie Collins novel.  It was an unfortunate choice on Ishiguro's part for a novel taking place in the twentieth century with the horrors of the Sino-Japanese war as a backdrop and dealing with our propensity to cling to ill-founded life stories. There are other problems as well--the other major characters, Sarah, Akira, Jennifer, Phillip do things that are tangential to the main narrative and spin off in wayward directions. What's the point of having Akira steal from a servant? Or of Jennifer committing suicide or of Sarah finding happiness with a French count or of Phillip throwing in his lot with the Chinese communists and then becoming an informant on them? There are points when all this becomes melodrama. The intent seems to have been to add local and historical colour, but these were not happy choices.

I wanted to like this, but it's not Ishiguro's best work. Ishiguro is a wonderful writer, but here he made some unfortunate choices about genre and voice. In the end it's a frustrating work, because it could have been better. Had I been his editor, I would advised him to ditch the mystery plot, write in a modern voice, and start over.

33. Peig Sayers, An Old Woman's Reflections, translation by Séamus Ennis of  Machnamh senamhná. 3/5. These eighteen stories were transcribed from Peig Sayers’s (1873–1958) oral accounts. For the most part they relate ordinary events from her life. There are a few versions of stories. Sayers was the third person from Great Blasket to leave an account of her life. She is perhaps the best known because her autobiography was required reading for secondary students in Ireland for many decades.

One detail from these and the other Great Blasket books strikes me: the islanders could count on receiving lodging and food from their relatives on the mainland and reciprocated it when people visited the island. In one case in this book, a party of a dozen or so pilgrims from the island stopped in a relative’s house on their way to a shrine near Tralee. The woman of the house fed them all and lent them a wagon for the final stage of the journey. People who weren’t generous to passers-by are remembered and criticised.

This pilgrimage was also the occasion of the first and last train trip that Sayers took. She wasn’t impressed, mainly because as soon as her eye found someone interesting, the train moved on and she wasn’t able to continue watching. One gets the impression that she watched her neighbours closely and with great relish.

Sayers on memory and storytelling and youth and aging:

The long years are gone in a gallop, and those who are in the life of my story [the story she has just told] gone too, as the mist goes with the wind. I can see today only the place where they used to live, but they draw me back on the lonely road of thoughts, and ’tis nice how Youth pays me a small visit, when I’m at tight grips with the years. I am young again, I think. There is courage and merriment in my heart. I feel the mind as strong and courageous as ever it was. But when the fine pleasant thoughts go, rust and sourness and weakness of the brain comes on me and I feel some heavy weight coming down on my heart.

Maybe the reader has youth in power. If so, he feels the heart light and secure, the laugh clean, the jump musical, the jollity and the merriment, the brightness and the freshness and fragrance everywhere on his way. I remember having all those little jewels myself, but see how the ugly thief age came and stole them from me! Great as the guarding is, he sneaks upon us. Nobody feels him coming.

Visitors to the island remembered Sayers as speaking exceptionally clear and elegant Irish. In her old age, she spoke the preceding paragraphs spontaneously to round off a story about the post-Famine years she had heard as a child. ‘The laugh clean, the jump musical’—those are wonderful images of youth. There are poets who would kill to write such lines.

34. Ian Rankin, The Impossible Dead. 3/7. The second novel featuring Malcolm Fox, an inspector in the Complaints Department in Edinburgh. The usual complex Rankin plot, deftly woven. Fox is quite different from Rebus--not so much anger or rebellion but just as prone to ignore orders and go off on his own. Good entertainment.

35. William Gibson, Zero History. 3/9. A sequel to the books involving Bigend, Hollis Henry, and several other characters. I kept feeling that I had read this before, but large parts of it were new to me and I am fairly sure that this was a first read. The feeling of deja vu may come from the fact that so much of this is familiar Gibson territory--the usual fetishisation of commodities, Bigend's schemes, etc.

36. Deepak Chopra, The Return of Merlin. 3/10.  This was a random pick, an unhappy one. I read about a hundred pages and then quit when the author had Merlin stop and give a precis of the action and an explanation of the plot. The need to do that is a sure sign of an author in trouble.

37. Barry Unsworth, The Quality of Mercy. 3/10. This is a sequel to Sacred Hunger. In 1767, Erasmus Kent has returned to London, bringing with him the surviving crewmen of his father's slave ship. He has had them charged with piracy and theft and they are awaiting trial.  One of them, Sullivan the naive and querulous Irish fiddler, escapes prison and heads toward the coal-mining village in County Durham that was the birthplace of his mate Billy Blair. He had made a vow to tell Billy's family about Billy's life in Florida and his death.

Billy's family are coal miners. His sister is married to James Bordon, a miner. The two older sons also work in the mines, and the third son, a seven-year-old, is only months away from starting to work in the mines as well.

Erasmus Kent is suing the underwriters who insured his father's slave ship to obtain a settlement on the slaves that were tossed overboard when they became sick. His claim is that the slaves were cargo that was abandoned to the sea when the ship ran short of water. (A dead slave is a loss; a living slave thrown into the sea to assure the safety of the remaining slaves and the crew is an unavoidable but justifiable loss of property and covered under the terms of the insurance contract.)

This suit and the trial of the crewmen attract the attention of Frederick Ashton, an anti-slavery campaigner. Ashton has a sister, Jane, who meets Erasmus Kent at a friend's house. Kent and Jane find themselves attracted to each other.

The owner of the coalmine where the Bordon family work needs to borrow money. This brings him into contact with Kent, who sees the opportunity for profit in a more efficient operation of the coalmine. Kent leases the coalmine and on an inspection tour sees a chance for even greater profit in a plot of land along the banks of a stream that cuts through the cliffs along the coast. Control of this land would give him direct access to shipping in the North Sea.

To sum up, Kent loses the trial for insurance compensation. After many adventures and trials, Sullivan makes it to Durham and there, for the first time in his life, finds a home. He finds Billy's family and tells them about Billy's life. The story greatly affects James Bordon. Later Sullivan remarks that alone of all the listeners, Bordon was the only one with the 'power of sharing', meaning the only one with the ability to empathise with Billy's experiences. All but two of the other surviving crewmen are sentenced to death for piracy. Frederick Ashton's anti-slavery campaign has both a victory in the insurance trial and a defeat in the piracy trial. Kent's scheme to obtain the land giving access to the sea is stymied when the oldest Bordon son obtains the lease of a small plot midway down the stream. His father has always wanted that plot for a market garden, which is his dream of escape from the mines. Eventually Kent has to pay for the right to cross this plot of land, which allows the Bordon family to escape the mines and become the owners of a textile factory. Jane Ashton and Erasmus Kent are headed towards marriage at the end of the novel.

Unsworth has obviously researched the period. Like most writers of historical novels he can't resist mixing the fruits of that research into his narrative. Unsworth doesn't do this as heavy-handedly as many such writers, but still there are a few stilted conversations early in the book as the characters are pressed into service to provide the background necessary for us modern readers to appreciate the setting of the novel. Sometimes, however, he seems to mix in anachronistic present-day concerns--when Kent tries to gain control over the plot of land leased by the Bordons, he attempts to persuade the oldest Bordon son to turn over the lease to him because he wants only to preserve the environment. Was any eighteenth-century capitalist or mineworker a Green?

Another criticism would be Unsworth's reliance on coincidence. Kent happens to gain a lease on the coalfield where Sullivan ends up and just happens to be visiting on a weekend when the entire village turns out to witness the oldest Bordon son compete in an inter-village sporting match, thus allowing him to spot Sullivan among the villagers. Kent happens to meet Jane Ashton and become interested in her just as her brother is becoming involved in the lawsuits against him. Sure, novels depend on such coincidences, but this skirts the boundaries of suspension of disbelief.

Kent and Ashton are driven by principles. Ashton is more than willing to sacrifice anyone to his campaign to outlaw slavery in England. Kent is devoted to the efficiency of the market and the sacrality of property. Both of them view others instrumentally. Both of them seek 'justice' through the law and want laws that uphold their principles. Kent's sister, in contrast, is oriented more towards helping others. She sees others as individuals, and her approach is more through mercy. She is attracted to Kent because she feels naively that his schemes for the coalmine will better the lives of the miners.

Kent is the complex character here. He is driven by a desire to restore his family's name following his father's bankruptcy and and suicide. His desire to have the crew punished is simultaneously a need for revenge for their theft, a fight to uphold the sacredness of property and a means of overcoming his guilt for his failure to see that his father would commit suicide. He is contemptuous of the landowner who borrows money from him and leases him the coalmine not the least because he senses the landowner's contempt for him as a merchant. Yet the rational Kent superstitiously treats a brass button given him by his cousin Matthew Paris, the hero of Sacred Hunger, on his deathbed (a button given Paris by Sullivan) as a good luck charm. Similarly, he encounters Jane Ashton at certain successful points in his life, and part of her attraction to him is that in his mind she becomes bound up in his success.

Kent does grow. Jane Ashton helps him to understand how his feelings of guilt have driven his desire for revenge on his cousin and the other crewman. When Kent discovers Sullivan in the coal-mining village, his initial impulse is to have him arrested. As he enters the pub where Sullivan is working, he overhears Sullivan's remark about James Bordon's ability to empathise, and Kent's desire for further revenge evaporates. This doesn't mean that he is any less devoted to the pursuit of profit, but this devotion is being tempered. Kent agrees to give up the slave trade and his sugar plantations in Jamaica in order to marry Jane. One senses, however, that Jane will not be as successful in reforming Kent as she imagines.

This is a novel about justice and mercy and the roles of law and empathy. It is as much a comment on the present as on the period with which it ostensibly deals. The characters are in part placeholders for various views along the justice/law - mercy/empathy continua. Many of the acts of goodness in the plot derive from the characters' moments of empathy. The oldest Bordon son's acquisition of the plot of land is driven by his understanding of his father's need to escape the mine. The landlord's agreement to this lease comes through another moment of understanding--in his case that the miners who work on his land might wish to have other lives. When Kent attempts to deal the son out of the lease, he discovers in the son's refusal traits that remind him of his younger self. Kent decides not to persecute Sullivan because he comes to see Sullivan as more than a target for his anger and guilt. The lawyers in the two trials ask the judges and jurors to imagine themselves as the slaves and crewmen. It is a plea that law and the dispensing of justice be tempered by understanding.

Empathy is not always successful, however. In response to the lawyers' plea for empathy, the judge in the crewmen's trial reserves to himself, for egoistic reasons, the right to dispense justice and mercy. He is the judge and he determines guilt and innocence. Empathy is not part of the rationality of the law. Frederick Ashton may be a reformer, but he proves unable to understand his sister and sees Kent's interest in his sister as a means of forcing Kent into supporting the anti-slavery cause. Kent, one senses, will operate that coalmine to extract maximum profit. And in the final irony, the Boltons escape from the hardships of the mine only to become capitalists and exploiters themselves.

Sacred Hunger is an incredible novel. I almost could not bring myself to finish it and indeed had to set it aside for several days before reading the last thirty or so pages. Not because it was a bad novel, but because it was too clear that this utopian society that the crewmen and former slaves had established in Florida was about to be done in by the internal forces of greed among some members of the settlement and by Erasmus Kent's desire for revenge upon his cousin and the others. It was one of the most painful passages I have ever encountered in nearly fifty years of reading.

The Quality of Mercy may not be quite up to the level of Sacred Hunger, Pascali's Island, The Rage of the Vulture, Morality Play, or Losing Nelson, but it is still well worth reading.

38. J. M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year. 3/12. An aged novelist is writing a series of essays for a German publisher; they are to part of a book consisting of contributions by six authors of thoughts on the state of the world. The novelist responds with a series of articles on politics, literature, and music, among other subjects--his 'response to the present in which I find myself'. The book is divided into two parts: the first is those essays that make it into the published book, the second of those that the author did not submit for publication. One character refers to them as strong and soft opinions, respectively. The author is a South African who now lives in an apartment house in Sydney, Australia. The essays are being written during the Bush years and many of the essay rail against the Iran war, anti-terror legislation, Bush, Cheney, Blair, and John Howard, the Australian prime minister at the time.

As he is writing the essays, the author meets an attractive young woman, Anya, in the laundry room of the apartment building. He is drawn to her and persuades her to be his secretary, to type up the essays from his notes and dictation tapes. She is not well qualified to do this but agrees to help when the author becomes insistent. She correctly believes the author to be physically attracted to her and is not unflattered by the notion, even though she doesn't want any sort of physical relationship. As she begins working on the essays, she develops opinions about the project and expresses them to the author. A neighbour wrongly informs her that the author is from Colombia, and she takes to calling him Señor C (senior citizen). Anya lives with a man called Alan, a successful businessman.

The pages of the book are divided into three registers. The top one is reserved for the essays the author is writing. The middle one gives the author's thoughts, chiefly on Anya and their interactions. Toward the end of the book, the middle register is used to reproduce a letter from Anya to the author. The bottom register is Anya's account of her relationships with the author and Alan. She often quotes Alan. From the points of view of the two participants, the two lower registers chart the growing relationship between the author and Anya and the impact they have on each other. Alan also reads the essays and his often contrary opinions are quoted in the lowest register. The unscrupulous Alan uses the files Anya types to insert a spyware program on the author's computer and learns that the author is rich but indifferent to money. He devises a scheme to exploit the author's money without being detected. Anya is furious with him when she learns of this. When the essays are finished, the author invites Anya and Alan to join him in a celebration. Alan gets drunk and proceeds to let the author know what he thinks of him. The author seems totally unperturbed by Alan's comments, but Anya breaks off her relationship with Alan. Later, after the author sends her a copy of the published book as well as copies of the the unpublished essays, she writes him a letter confessing her admiration and respect. This, too, seems to have little impact on the author.

The penultimate essay in the book is on J. S. Bach. In another essay, the author praises Bach for his ability to take a small idea and develop it in many ways. The three registers on each page are contrapuntal and exhibit the qualities the author ascribes to Bach's music. Coetzee uses them to ironic effect to show the misprisions of the author and Anya and to give voice to Alan's opinions. The author is a leftist; Alan is an unscrupulous schemer, the sort of person the author is raging against in the essays. The author is an intellectual and a thinker; Alan, though clearly analytical and educated, is a doer. The author is a moral man; Alan is not.

The author and Alan are foils for one another. Anya is caught between them in terms of the plot, but in terms of character and personality she is outside the continuum between them. She is an attractive woman and she understands the sexual effect she has on the author and Alan and indeed on all men. She is not above exploiting that but she does so almost playfully. Alan may pay the bills, but she is not a kept woman. She is shallow--shopping is her main activity--but not unintelligent and not without insight. At first she cares little for the content of the essays and advises the author to write with a lighter touch (the unpublished essays in the second part may well be the author's unconscious attempts to follow her advice). But as she works on them she is not unaffected by the author's opinions, and she grows to respect them. She is practical and sees herself honestly and with a sense of humour. She is the decent person at the heart of the novel. Unlike the author, she is not an observer and a commentator. She acts when necessary. Near the end, she remarks that she and the author had an honest relationship. She is right about her honesty. The author was not completely honest with her, however. At the end she is worried about the author's isolation and his health. 

The final essay in the book deals with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. The author sees them as setting the unobtainable standard that all serious novelists must aspire to--the attempt to be better ethically. Much of the book is devoted to the question of how that might be done and why it so difficult and perhaps so impossible.

39. J. M Coetzee, Summertime. 3/22. Mr Vincent (he is referred to by name only twice in this work) is writing a biography of the late author John Coetzee, a man he never met or contacted. The biography is based on Coetzee's papers and on interviews with those who knew him in the 1970s, when Coetzee returned to South Africa, after being expelled from the United States. The interviews are conducted over thirty years later.

Two sections consist of extracts from Coetzee's diary and notes on this period of his life; these contain short pieces on his life, with Coetzee's notes on how he can develop these pieces into works of fiction. The first series is written in the 1970s; the second presents undated fragments, apparently written long after the fact. Most of these notes deal with his fraught relationship with his father. After returning to South Africa, Coetzee lives in a suburb of Cape Town with his father, a disbarred lawyer who ekes out a living as an accountant with an auto parts importer. The two men are connected more by their sense of duty and convenience than by an emotional attachment.

The other five sections are interviews with people who knew him during this period. Julia is a housewife who lives nearby. She is angry at her husband, who is cheating on her. She seduces Coetzee, more out of boredom and a desire for revenge than out of attraction to him. She finds Coetzee an indifferent lover. Her husband discovers this desultory affair, and she leaves him. Eventually she ends up in Canada where she earns a doctorate in psychology. Her interview is impacted by her training. She sees Coetzee as someone who cannot connect with others.

Margot is a cousin of Coetzee. The other four interviews are presented as transcripts, with questions and answers. Vincent writes up the interview with Margot into a prospective chapter in his book and then reads this to her. He records her comments on the text and presents a transcript of their discussion of this text. Margot and Coetzee were youthful playmates and still retain a glow of affection from that period. Margot is now happily married and sees Coetzee as lacking the qualities that make a good husband. She encourages Coetzee to get married, not because she thinks he will be a good husband but because he is the sort of man who needs someone to manage his life and create the sort of space around him that will allow Coetzee to live out his vision of himself.

Adriana is a Brazilian refugee in South Africa. She is raising two daughters, the younger of whom is studying English with Coetzee. She becomes suspicious of Coetzee's intentions towards her daughter and meets with him as a concerned parent. Coetzee becomes enamoured of Adriana and begins writing her love letters. She sees Coetzee as a madman, a foolish boy who has never grown up and is incapable of an adult relationship. She rejects him violently and remarks that Coetzee was not so much in love with her as caught up with the idea of being in love with someone. Adriana is a dancer, and Coetzee is someone so uncomfortable in his body and with his emotions that he cannot dance.

Martin is a university professor who for a few years was a colleague of Coetzee's in the literature department of a South African university. They taught a course together. He remembers Coetzee as a failed teacher, someone unable to communicate to students the reasons why he loves and admires certain writers.

Sophia is a Frenchwoman who also taught at this South African university. She and Coetzee also taught a joint course--on Black African writers. She and Coetzee had an affair, which she refuses to discuss with Vincent. Most of her comments are directed at an analysis of Coetzee's politics and his interactions with Black South Africa. She sees him as someone more engaged with the idea of politics than a political actor.

The images of Coetzee shift with the interviewee, but he emerges as a stiff figure, so emotionally stymied that he finds it difficult not so much to care for another person as to express that caring in any concrete way. He can't even convey his love for literature. He lives through and because of ideas, not of emotions, not as someone inhabiting a physical body. 'He had no gift for it,' Adriana remarks. 'Best to cut yourself free of what you love,' Coetzee says to Margot. Julia points out the paradox in Coetzee: as a person he could not connect with other human beings, but as an author he presented intimate portraits of others.

This is another of Coetzee's semi-autobiographies. Here he imaginatively projects himself into five people and lets them speak about him. Even the extracts from his diary and notes show a man who steps outside himself and imagines himself as a character in a fiction. In his hands, this tactic becomes an extraordinarily successful way of presenting a character in a novel.

How autobiographical is this? Coetzee invites the question by framing this as a collection of materials that will be used to write the biography of a formative period in the life of an author named John Coetzee. The events in the life of this 'fictional' author correspond with the events in the life of J. M. Coetzee. The two Coetzees overlap. But Coetzee the real writer and author of this work is an omniscient narrator who knows what the five interviewees thought about him and what they will say to Vincent, his alter ego as a narrator. He imagines a fiction about their impressions of their relationships with him.

Sophia asks Vincent why he is relying so heavily on interviews--Coetzee kept a diary, wrote letters and essays, published several lightly fictionlised accounts of his life--why not use those? Why not use Coetzee as a basis for writing his biography? Because, Vincent replies, Coetzee was a 'fictioneer'; he imaginatively revised the image he presented of himself even in his private papers. He created Coetzee. Vincent is trying to find the real Coetzee. But we are all fictioneers, says Sophia. We all continually present fictionalised versions of ourselves. Why privilege the fictions I tell you over the fictions Coetzee told. 'My opinion is irrelevant. What is relevant is what he himself believed. And there the answer is clear. He believed our life-stories are ours to construct as we wish, within or even against the constraints imposed by the real world.'

Near the end of his affair with Julia, Coetzee publishes his first work. She asks him why he writes. So as to leave some record of my having existed, he replies. She responds: 'A book should be an axe to chop open the frozen sea inside us.' And that, I think, is what this book is--an axe.

40. Will Self, The Book of Dave. 3/25. Dave is a cab driver in London in the 1980s to early 2000s. He sleeps with one of his fares, Michelle--a one-off. Michelle gets pregnant. The two marry, live unhappily, and divorce. Michelle gains custody of their son Carl. Dave becomes depressed and angry and writes a book, a misogynistic rant in which he blames Michelle and all women for men's problems, advocates separation of the sexes, and an equitable sharing of time with children between divorced fathers and mothers. He also includes a lot of information from the Knowledge, the body of data about routes, street names and locations, and points of interest that London cabbies have to master before receiving a hack license. He has the book printed on metal sheets and buries them. Later he regains his sanity and writes another, more moderate look at marriage. He sends this to Carl, who puts it in a metal tin and buries it.

At some point several centuries into the future, the first book is discovered and becomes the foundational text for a new religion in what remains of England. Dave becomes the god of this religion and his remarks in the Book of Dave provide the liturgy for this religion and the morals for this society. This religion enforces separation of the sexes, male dominance enforced by violence, a celibate priesthood, strict punishments for heresy. The seas have risen, and only the higher points of ground remain. Society has devolved into something like the stereotypical culture of late feudalism spread out over several islands. One of these is Ham (Hampstead Heath), which is home to a small group of peasants and a strange animal known as the moto, which provides childcare, food, and oil. The motos are the descendants of an experiment in Dave's time that results in a genetically engineered cross involving pigs, humans, and apparently some aquatic creature. In terms of mental age and intelligence, they are like human children. In a very dignified way, they are innocent, naive, trusting, sensual in a non-sexual way, and childlike but not childish. They are very endearing.

 Some five centuries after discovery of the first book, a heresy arises on Ham, based on a discovery of the second book. It is eventually put down by the forces of orthodoxy. Before the young hero, Carl, goes to meet his death at the hands of the orthodox group, he hears a message from the god Dave reminiscent of the Grand Inquisitor's speech from The Brothers Karamazov. The orthodox church does not need or want the truth, Dave explains; it needs only the apparatus of power and coercion. At the end, the agents of orthodoxy on Ham are slaughtering the remaining moto, along with all the heretics--the destruction of innocence and diversity. There's more to the plot than this, but the message here lies in the growth of religions, the tendency for purveyors of religion to become intent on acquiring power and their misuse of that power.

The chapters alternate between the present age and the future. At first neither story is presented in chronological order, and it has to be pieced together. Taken by itself, the story of Dave's life as a cabbie, his marriage and divorce, and his eventual recovery follows a familiar trajectory. When welded to the story of the future, it becomes the source text for a nightmare. The alternation of chapters between the present and the future allows for an exploration of how misogyny and religious beliefs might work out if taken to one possible extreme.

The inhabitants of the future speak Mokni, a hybrid of Cockney, incorporating texting conventions into its written form (4 for 'for', 2 for 'to'). Many terms are adopted from The Book of Dave ('driver' becomes, for example, the word for priest). There is a glossary of the more opaque terms at the back. The transcriptions of this language (thankfully restricted to renderings of speech) are difficult to read at first, but it becomes easier to decipher and decode them after the first chapter or so.

Oddly the issue of renderings of dialect and the creation of new versions of English in novels and their readability was a point of discussion recently on Charles Stross's blog. The consensus seemed to be that renderings of dialect should be restricted to a suggestive level rather than reproduced in full. Readers more familiar with a dialect seemed to be more tolerant of higher levels of representation. New versions of English (Ian Banks's experiment in Feersum Endjinn was frequently cited, but Stross's blog attracts science fiction readers) were less well received. The problem that I see is that these renderings invite self-congratulation. I was quite chuffed when I figured out that an acute accent over a vowel in Mokni indicated that a glottal stop--'u ló' is 'you lot' (loɁ). Decipherment plays into one's opinions about the worth of this work; the invitation of think oneself clever because one can read Mokni (and others can't) is there. Someone who found the renderings of Mokni incomprehensible would probably give up on reading the book.

Self's future society depends upon our notions of peasant life, feudal society, London as it was during the late medieval period (Plantagenet or thereabouts), and church and state as collusive, power-mad entities, but novels need such stereotypes as shorthands. The religious mania of this society and its language evolves from the Book of Dave in a convincing way. It may be horrifying but it's realistic and consistent in its horror. As usual, Self's writing is in turn funny, satirical, savage, exact, poignant, exuberant, and occasionally a bit twee and tiresome.

41. Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. 3/25. An investigation of interpretations of the Adam and Eve story in early Christianity up through St. Augustine. Although there were an incredible number of variant interpretations, most Christians in the period before Constantine's conversion saw the story as a tale of moral freedom--Adam and Eve were free to act. They chose to disobey and were punished. Baptism (by which they meant adult baptism of someone who accepted Christ) cleansed the person of prior sin and restored his or her free will and hence the capacity to act morally. Quite often this meant a rejection of secular authority and either chastity or sexual restraint. 

Once Christianity became the official religion of the empire, rejection of authority became problematic. Enter St. Augustine, with his insistence on original sin. Man (not to mention women) were inherently sinful. 'Through Adam's sin, so sinned we all', as the German hymn has it. Suffering, pain, and death are all punishments for original sin. As the descendants of the original sinners, we cannot but sin. For us, there is no free will. We must sin. We can't help it. 

This was an innovative interpretation and met with much resistance. However, it became the new orthodoxy. One reason is that the guilty sinner needs supervision, which the state and the church were happy to provide. The doctrine fits the needs of the Christian state and the institutional church. Pagels argues that another reason for the enduring attraction of the doctrine of original sin is that it reduces our sense of the chaos surrounding us. Augustine's opponents argued that suffering and death are natural elements in life. She points out that the doctrine assures the sufferer that the blame for suffering and death lies outside ourselves, with Adam and Eve. Submission to God's will as expressed through the state and the Church and the gift of God's grace will bring an end to the suffering and a victory over death. The doctrine also says that suffering has meaning; it exists because our ancestors, who had free will in the Garden of Eden, made a moral choice to sin. Suffering and death are not natural. They are the result of sin. Psychologically, original sin explains our predicament. Guilt is a way of asserting that life has meaning and is not chaotic.

42. J. M. Coetzee, Slow Man. 3/27. Paul Rayment, a retired photographer living in Adelaide, loses a leg in an accident. He hires Marijana, a Croatian immigrant, to take care of him. He falls in love with her, but does not express this. Midway through the novel, Elizabeth Costello arrives. Costello is the novelist who is the subject of one of Coetzee's other novels. Her life story has many parallels to Coetzee's.

Costello treats Paul like a character in one of her books. He came to her and she has progressed to the point in the writing of involving him in a relationship. Now she can't get him to move in any direction. She goads him to talk to Marijana about his feelings for her. He does so, with disastrous consequences for Marijana and her family. He tries to make amends, but his clumsy efforts make things worse. Costello keeps goading him to act, and eventually he does, only to find his way, finally, into maturity.

This is a Bildungsroman of an elderly man. Paul, by himself and under Costello's goading, reflects on his life and its limitations, and on love. In the beginning, he is like his photographs in his collection of early Australian photographs. He is an image of a bygone age. Towards the end, he is moving to be something more real, and to achieve that on his own. His final act is to declare his independence from Costello.  Paul is a slow man--it takes him a long time to get there.

Costello is a wonderful figure in this, and there are many splendid arguments between her and Paul. He finds her presence incomprehensible--who is this eccentric woman who has wandered into his life and speculates about his future courses of action? She is irked by Paul's inability to act, let alone act dramatically, and she continually tries to complicate his life. I wonder if behind her exasperation with Paul lies an experience of Coetzee's with an intransigent character. Coetzee likes to experiment with the form, and his experiments, unlike many novelists, are successful. 

43. Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang. 3/31. Carey's fictionalisation of the life of the Australian folk hero, the bandit Ned Kelly. The novel purports to be a transcription of an autobiographical account written by Ned Kelly for his infant daughter to read later to learn the truth about her father. Near the end, the account includes newspaper stories about the gang's activities and third-person accounts about Kelly's capture and execution. This is both great entertainment and serious fiction. In his written account Kelly presents himself as seeking justice for his family and others like them who are the victims, mostly Irish and Catholic and poor, of the English government in Australia. It's unclear if this is mere self-justification. Certainly the family suffered injustices, but just as certainly they were thieves and murderers. Ultimately, as presented here, Kelly is a sad figure--naive, trusting, unwise, doomed. 

I gather that the account presented here is historical, although the details of conversation and characterisation are Carey's. Carey manages to present an historical account that appears to be thoroughly researched, yet he never parades that research and performs an 'info-dump' on his readers. Yesterday I posted a long, meandering reaction to comments by Christopher Priest about the interaction of environment and characters. Here again this work excels. I know that my vision of the Australian outback owes a lot to films about it and the American West. For all I know Victoria province is green and verdant, but at least in reading this book, I saw dry scrubland and smallholders eking out a living attempting to farm marginal land. Whether that is accurate means little. It's the reaction of the Kelly family to the effort to farm this land that's important and the steps they take to even the odds, which are stacked against them.

44. Val McDermid, The Retribution. 4/1. A Tony Hill-Carol Jordan novel. Jocko Vance, the serial killer in Wire in the Blood, escapes prison and sets out to exact revenge on those who put him away, including Tony Hill and Carol Jordan. This has all the hallmarks of a McDermid novel. She writes great and cunning crime fiction. It also marks a new step in the fractious relationship between Hill and Jordan. As usual in the end the bad guys are stopped, but that isn't ever in doubt and indeed is not the point of the exercise. It's watching everyone work towards that end that is the entertainment.

It must be useful to have a character that is a psychiatrist, especially one noted for his ability to see into the dark places in others' minds. Hill can provide capsule summaries of other characters' personalities and see them quite clearly. Oddly, he seems to lack much ability to see into the minds of his friends and colleagues. Normal people seem to defeat him, a quirk that makes for a hero with interesting flaws.

Why are serial killers such a staple of crime fiction? Obviously writers like them because they commit multiple murders, which helps with plotting. A wife murdering her husband in a rage is structurally a one-off thing and there's much less mystery to exploit. Then, too, serial killers usually murder for quirky and kinky reasons and in inventive ways, which allows for lurid and titillating descriptions. But none of this would matter if readers weren't equally fascinated with serial killers. One part of that has to be the kink and the abnormal psychology of the act. Horror at a safe remove is palatable. Another reason, I think, is the randomness of the kills. Somehow that makes them more evil. It isn't relatives but strangers that are being killed. Often the link among the victims is tenuous, and figuring out what that link is is a major focus of the plot. But the randomness adds to the dramatic interest--the enticing feeling that 'I' might fit the profile of some deranged killer. You laugh, but there could well be someone out there stalking retired editors who take long walks everyday, live a life of leisure centred on cooking, eating, drinking, and reading, write fiction and post it on the internet, and love cats. Who knows what sets these crazies off?

45. Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelations. 4/2. Pagels argues that the Book of Revelations was written towards the end of the first century AD by a member of Jewish sect that regarded Jesus as the Messiah. Part of the book speaks to the author's anger over Rome's persecution of his sect, and another part to his anger over the followers of Paul, who were denying the Jewishness of Jesus. Pagels shows that the imagery and language of the book are descended from the Jewish prophetical tradition and have much in common with contemporary prophetical literature. 

For the next two centuries, the early Christians were ambivalent about the book. Some saw it as mad ravings; others used it as an inspiration during the persecutions. When Constantine accepted Christianity, the parts of the book that speak specifically against Rome were reinterpreted as referring to heretics (variously defined), especially by Athanasius in his struggles with the Arians and the many others who disagreed with him or opposed his rule. Athanasius was primarily responsible for the acceptance of the book as the final element in the New Testament.

Here again, Pagels uses the internal divisions and controversies of the early church to speak about religion. She sees Revelations as offering not only a template for anathematising 'heretics' and dealing with evil but also as a message of hope in the eventual triumph of the righteous. She finds in the example of the early church a lesson of diversity and a willingness to encompass all of creation in God's vision, not just the orthodox.

46.  A. S. Byatt, Ragnarök: The End of the Gods. 4/6. Byatt has often worked elements of myth into her stories of our world. Here she reverses the proportions and works elements of our world into the myth. The main story here is a retelling of the Nordic/Germanic myths of the origins of the universe and the gods and their downfall. She doesn’t modernise the myth. It’s still the same blood-spattered violent world doomed to destruction by the gods’ bad choices and inability to plan a defence. The main figure here is Loki, in whom curiosity and destructiveness and vengeance play equal parts. Interspersed into this fragmented and inconsistent story is a ‘thin child’, a girl in wartime Britain whose family has relocated to the countryside who reads a book entitled Asgard and the Gods, a retelling and a study of the Nordic myths, and uses the myths in part to make sense of her own world and in part to think about storytelling and myths and beliefs, three of Byatt’s perennial concerns. This is a short book (ca. 150 small pages in large type), rounded off by an essay on myths and Byatt’s thoughts on her book and this series of myths, but it ramifies in many directions. And the prose is glorious and intoxicating—filled with images and colour delivered with precision and no little joy in words.

47. John McGahern, That They May Face the Rising Sun. 4/8.  A great glory of a book. There's no story and no plot, just a year's worth of life in a rural area in Ireland near Carrick-on-Shannon, but when a novel hews this close to life, there's no need of a plot. A quote:

'The rain comes down. Grass grows. Children get old,' the Shah [the nickname of a local potentate] suddenly said. 'That's it. We all know. We know full well and can't even whisper it out loud. We know in spite of them.'

48. Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment. 4/12.  Somewhere in the main blog is a posting on my difficulties with reading an old copy of The Brothers Karamazov. The last time I went to the library I searched its copies looking for one with larger type. I finally found one and brought it home only to discover that I had a copy of Crime and Punishment instead.

A couple of things impressed me upon re-reading it. One is how much the way in which stories are told through novels has changed. A novel now might investigate one or two characters in depth; the rest are mostly walk-on or non-speaking roles. Seldom anymore does the narrative come to a complete halt while a character talks non-stop for several thousand words. We expect characters to illustrate ideas not deliver lectures on them. And would any current novelist introduce a major character two-thirds of the way through the book and then let that character take over the action for several chapters near the end? I'm talking about Svidrigailov--granted he's brought in for purposes of comparison with Raskolnikov, but the same point could be made and is made through R's internal monologues and indecisions. Somehow authors and readers alike have lost the leisure for sprawling novels like this.

Another point is how our concepts of evil have changed. Luzhin and Svidrigailov seems rather tame after the twentieth century. That's more a matter of our loss than Dostoevsky's.

49. The Iliad. 4/15. I've been re-reading this for months now, working over a hundred or so lines each day. I've been heartened to discover that I can still read it without too much recourse to a translation and a dictionary. My opinion of the work hasn't changed much over the years. Sure, it's a classic and it should be read if for no other reason that most of the authors you are going to read have read it or have read other authors who have read it. But at the heart of the story is still a spoiled brat who throws a temper tantrum and takes his toys away and won't play with the other boys. Meanwhile the other gang comes out of its fort and starts doing bad things to the brat's gang, including killing the brat's best friend. Everyone apologises to the brat and gives him their best toys, and he finally consents to join the fight. Then he kills one of the few decent people in the story and humiliates his corpse.

I have never found Achilles admirable and find it difficult to imagine a world in which he was admired. I said as much back in college and got roundly lectured by our Greek master, who was a charter member of Team Achilles, for failing to understand the Greek mindset. On re-reading this, I wonder how the author(s) of The Iliad felt about Achilles. In the penultimate book, the gods discuss him in less than flattering terms. His consent to Zeus's command that he grant Priam's request is grudging, although Priam and he share a good cry over the fates of their families, friends, comrades, and selves and in the end he does treat Priam with respect. In the final book, Priam mentions that Achilles has agreed to hold back the fighting until Hector is buried. That is the only mention of Achilles, and the rest of that book is instead given over to the mourning of Hector and his funeral rites. So the last word is given to Hector.

I still have far less tolerance than the Greeks did for descriptions of fighting, especially since most of them are variations on 'X slew Y, and Y's soul went down to the dark place'. It struck me on re-reading this how cursory the descriptions of individual combats are. Even the battle between Achilles and Hector, which is the climax of The Iliad's description of the actual fighting, is brief. After Hector asks Achilles to agree that the victor respect the vanquished's corpse and Achilles refuses, Achilles throws his spear at Hector and Hector ducks. Hector then throws his spear at Achilles and Achilles turns it aside with his shield. Hector then draws his sword and closes in for hand-to-hand combat. Meanwhile Athena has covertly returned Achilles' spear to him and Achilles uses it to stab Hector in the throat before he can get too close. Hector falls to the ground dying and Achilles stabs him. End of battle. Two spear tosses, a drawn sword, a stab with a spear point, and then the coup de grâce. That's it. Over in a minute or so.

If my notions of Greek history are correct, most of those who heard The Iliad recited had fought in wars and would have known if the accounts of fighting were realistic. So perhaps hand-to-hand combat was that quickly consummated. Certainly they would have known that the list of ships and numbers of troops given at the beginning was unrealistic. The victualing of an army of tens of thousands for ten years would have been an unsupportable drain on the Greek city-states' economies. So there is in this regard, I think, some epic inflation of the Trojan War. It's rather like movies in which an assistant editor or a secretary is shown living in a plush apartment in New York City. There's more than a slight tendency towards fantasy in our imaginings of others' lives. Yet whereas those who are familiar with life in NYC can dismiss the exaggerations as a convention of storytelling, those not familiar with it may accept it as realistic. It's one of the dangers of reading--in dealing with the unfamiliar we never know what is realistic and what is not. Daily life in The Iliad is so far removed from ours that it becomes difficult to assess the realism of its depiction. So we are left with character and our notions of human nature, and there the Greeks in general come up short in this tale.

Another thing that struck me on re-reading this is how often the participants blame the gods for their misfortunes but take the credit for their own victories and accomplishments. I think that must be intended ironically since the reader is continually shown that the gods are behind their victories as well as their defeats. In school we were assured that the gods were not to be taken literally but seen as projections of the mental states of the human characters or personifications of things beyond human control. A dubious proposition and a teacher's way to get around the Greeks' belief in gods and their failure to be good Christians, not to mention good sports, and to rescue a tale he wanted us to admire as much as he did. A danger in reading the classics is that we know them to be good before we begin reading, which often leaves us with the problem of explaining away their shortcomings or unpleasant aspects.

50. Iain M. Banks, Feersum Endjinn. 4/15. One of Banks's scifi tales. This one has 10 sections, each of which is divided into 4 parts devoted to a narrative focussing on a particular character: a young woman who turns out to be a cyber construct of the universal computer (the 'crypt'); the head scientist of the earth of the future; a military leader who is assassinated and whose mind ends up roaming the crypt; and a young boy whose function is to communicate with the minds in the crypt. Periodically, the ruler of this world and security service personnel take over the narratives briefly. The young boy has not mastered spelling and his section is written phonetically ('U wil c whan U git thare'). In the ninth and tenth sections, the various narratives come together, earth is saved, and the bad guys are threatened. The phonetic spelling is an unnecessary hassle. It could have been less xstream n stil maid thi poynt. As usual, Banks is entertaining, although the ending leaves a lot unexplained. The problem is quickly resolved, and The End.

I once met an anthropologist who was a fan of science fiction. I asked if he found the imagined societies of the future plausible. He said that what interested him most was the authors' and aficionados' assumptions about what would not change. There were families, marriages, children, adults of various ages; governments, mostly despotic and power-mad, were in charge; wars were frequent; trade and commerce were still necessary. No one, he said, had yet created a totally new society.  Everyone simply extrapolated from human society and assumed that would always be the norm.

51. John McGahern, The Barracks. McGahern's first published novel. Elizabeth Reegan is the second wife of a Garda sergeant. He has three children from his first marriage. They live in a rural police barracks in an unnamed place in western Ireland along the River Shannon--Sligo appears to be the nearest centre. Elizabeth grew up in the area, was a nurse in London during WWII, and, on a visit home, met and married her husband. She married for many reasons, not the least of which is a desire not to become her mother's caregiver and her brother's housekeeper. She hoped to have children of her own and that her stepchildren would come to view her as their mother. The marriage remains childless, and the stepchildren call her 'Elizabeth'. The marriage is not without love, but the husband is emotionally stymied and, when he remembers to do so, demonstrates his feelings in small, unsatisfying gestures. His main emotional focus is his hatred for his immediate supervisor and his desire to leave the Garda and buy a farm.

During her stay in London, Elizabeth had a passionate (on her side) affair with a doctor, who admits to her that he took up with her in order to escape the anomie of his own life. The doctor repeatedly poses the question 'What is all this living and dying about anyway?' The novel is an answer to that question.

Elizabeth develops breast cancer and then a heart condition. Towards the end, she becomes bed-ridden and eventually dies. She is alone for many hours of the day, and this gives her time for self-reflection. She oscillates between despair and joy. She finds solace in religious rites but not in the priests who conduct them. She loves her husband and stepchildren and finds them annoying and irksome. She is, in short, very human, and the answer to the doctor's question is that life isn't about much other than a great many small things.

The novel is not rounded out with her death. Before her funeral is even over, the other characters are moving on to other concerns. The work ends with the husband's showdown with his superior and his resignation from the Garda. Elizabeth has disappeared not only from the novel but from the lives of the other characters.

All this is told is McGahern's wonderfully laconic and straightforward prose.

52. John McGahern, Amongst Women. 4/23. Michael Moran is another of McGahern's repressed and repressive male characters. He was a member of the IRA forces during the Black and Tan era; now he is a small farmer in County Leitrim. He is by turns moody, irascible, filled with self-pity, obstreperous, and angry, and he uses these moods to control his family. By choice, he has little to do with his neighbours and eschews friendships. His three daughters and his second wife watch his moods alertly. All four of them call him 'Daddy' and are devoted to him. The daughters often insist to one another that he is a grand man, but it's hard to tell if they regard this as true or if it is wishful thinking. His rare gestures of empathy and kindness towards his family make for painful reading, and they are often parried or thwarted. One of his acquaintances remarks that he hates to be second in anything. The same acquaintance remarks that he had a reputation for being popular with women. The truth of both remarks is amply borne out in the novel. Other than two sons-in-law, this is the only other man not part of his family with whom he talks in the novel, and their relationship is long over by the time the story starts. It is told in a flashback. He is estranged from his older son and, for much of the story, from his younger son. All five children escape him, three of them to London, and two to Dublin. The daughters keep coming back, however. The younger son returns but is so uninvolved with his father that he escapes any emotional entanglement.

This covers much the same ground as The Barracks. Indeed several details are repeated. Both novels feature a second wife, but the Rose of this novel is far more devoted to Moran than Elizabeth is to Reegan, and Rose is far happier in her marriage.

It's a hard novel to read in many respects, not because it is bad but because it cuts too close to life.  Anger seems for many Irish males the only emotion acceptable to show.

53. Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia: Konstantin Skvorecky's Memoir of the Alien Invasion of 1986. 4/28. A novel about the ability of a grand narrative to cause us to see 'facts' that uphold the narrative and our equal and related ability to see 'facts' that dispute that narrative--our own form of the branchings of quantum realities. Shortly after Russia's victory over Germany in WWII, Stalin assembles a group of five science fiction writers to devise another unifying threat like the Germans, only this time involving an alien invasion. The five concoct a scenario, two of whose manifestations are the destruction of an American rocket and a disaster in the Ukraine. Konstantin Skvorecky is one of the five writers. After the group is dismissed, he ceases to write, becomes a drunk. recovers, and then earns a living as a translator. In the late 1980s, another member of the group, by now a colonel in the KGB, contacts him and Skvorecky becomes involves in what is apparently a KGB attempt to thwart the liberalisation of the USSR by enacting the plot the group devised in the late 1940s. The Challenger disaster is the predicted destruction of the American rocket; Chernobyl is the disaster in the Ukraine. To Skvorecky, it's unclear if the KGB is simply using these events or if aliens really are behind them (nor does Roberts answer this question for the reader).

This is a novel of ideas: specifically the ability of fiction to create 'truth', the role of grand narratives like communism to create a reality and their concomitant inability to sustain reality by themselves, our fascination with UFOs and other imaginaries, and the logic of quantum universes. Here fiction stands in for the quantum branching, allowing the author and us to exist temporarily in alternative worlds, including one in which multiple quantum universes can be experienced simultaneously.

Skvorecky is an ironist, and there is a great deal of humorous conversation, which is one reaction to absurd situations that are outside one's control. Not all of these conversations are realistic, but then this is a scifi novel.

One point of intersection with Gradisil is the theme of forging national unity through a fiction: in that novel the title character engineers her betrayal by her husband and sacrifices herself to forge unity among the near-space dwellers; here Stalin and his successors attempt to use a fictitious alien invasion to unify the Soviet Union.

54. Val McDermid, Beneath the Bleeding. 4/30. This is the predecessor to The Retribution (no. 44 above) in the  Tony Hill - Carol Jordan series. This time, Hill is put in hospital by an axe-wielding patient at the Bradfield Moor Secure Hospital. While recuperating from knee surgery, he manages to sort out a serial murder case as well as a terrorist bombing. Another entertaining example of McDermid's intricate plotting, and a further development of the Hill-Jordan relationship. This book also introduces Hill's mother and the Counter Terrorism Command; both come off as far more evil than the serial murderer (three dead, one saved at the last minute) and the bomber (thirty-six dead).

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