“It’s the end of the world as we know it” (REM)

Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest suggested this week’s title & theme  – I think we all know why.

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Starting with an obvious choice, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (2009, tr. Lisa Dillon 2015), published by the wonderful &Other Stories Press – I wrote about another of their Mexican novels here. Herrera looks at the illegal immigrant experience through Makina, seeking out her brother at the behest of her mother, and desperate to return home.

“You’re going to cross and you’re going to get your feet wet and you’re going to be up against real roughnecks; you’ll get desperate of course, but you’ll see wonders and in the end you’ll find your brother, and even if you’re sad, you’ll wind up where you need to be.”

Makina’s journey is both physical and mythical.  As she travels through her homeland she has to ask men with pseudonyms for different types of help to get her across the border. The places she visits have similarly folkloric names: ‘The Place Where The Hills Meet’, ‘The Big Chilango’, ‘The Place Where People’s Hearts Are Eaten’ and across the border ‘The Place Where The Wind Cuts Like A Knife’. By not grounding Signs Preceding the End of the World in recognisable names and places, Herrera expands the simple journey to something much larger. Any tale of illegal immigration is going to have particular political resonances, but Herrera makes his heroine an Odysseus character and her trials a quest. While the tale is not surreal, there is a sense, as in myths and fables, that anything could happen:

“She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only never-ending front, curving forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds. If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.”

Herrera is a writer who invents neologisms (definitely worth reading the interesting Translator’s Note for this novel) and so is fascinated by language. Through Makina’s journey he tracks the way that boundaries of countries, self and language are all permeable, and how this creates a modern, constantly shifting society:

“Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect  and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent  they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one.”

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a fascinating, multi-layered novel, at once a story for our times but also engages with enduring, expansive themes. Hugely impressive.

And now I pause for thought to wonder if there are enough pictures of kittens in barrels to get me through a single news bulletin right now:

Secondly, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (2015) which I was alerted to last year by the many bloggers who loved this debut novel (written when the author was in her 40s – I must remember to tell my friend C who is coming to terms with the fact that she’s missed her window for those ‘30 Under 30’ type lists). I’m not going to buck the trend on this – I found it a compulsive read which I whizzed through to its gut-wrenching conclusion.

Peggy lives with her parents in the kind of north London middle-class bohemia that keeps Mini Boden in business.  Peggy doesn’t wear Mini Boden though, as it’s 1976 and her mother is busy being a concert pianist while her father gets into arguments with his friends in the North London Retreaters group. This collection of (male) survivalists are convinced nuclear war is imminent. A personal crisis forces Peggy’s father to act on his rhetoric, and he takes her to Germany, to live entirely isolated in “Die Hutte”, in the middle of a forest.  We know this fairytale has unravelled horribly from the opening line, told 9 years later by Peggy who is back in Highgate after a long absence:

“This morning, I found a black and white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer. He didn’t look like a liar.”

The lie Peggy’s father told is astronomical: that the rest of the world has disappeared and they are the only two left living.

“ ‘We’re not going to live by somebody else’s rules of hours and minutes anymore,’ he said. ‘When to get up, when to go to church, when to go to work.’

I couldn’t remember my father ever going to church, or even to work.”

What follows is a narrative that moves back and forth between Peggy’s life in Die Hutte and that in 1985 Highgate with her mother and brother she never knew, Oskar. Fuller handles this extremely well, and I didn’t find the chopping back and forth disruptive or gimmicky. While not a thriller, Our Endless Numbered Days is definitely a page-turner, as Peggy’s comments drip-feed us information about what has gone on: there has been a fire, she has no hair, part of her ear is missing, her teeth are rotten, there is a man called Reuben involved in some way… and her father is no longer around.

The writing style is simple, and I found this a quick read, but the ideas are complex. Fuller is interested in the fantasies we tell ourselves and others in order to survive and the dangers inherent in not questioning these (insert heavy-handed political parallel here). She is interested in the price paid by powerless members of society when the powerful seek fulfilment by disregarding the needs of others (insert… well, you get the idea) and she is interested in the psychological fallout from childhood and our parents.  I saw the twists a mile off, and sometimes Peggy’s voice wavered, but this may have been intentional and it really didn’t matter. Peggy’s complex fairytale was both extreme and subtle, quite a feat.

“Oskar rapped his knuckles on the thick white ice which had risen like a soufflé out of a bucket hanging on a nail beside the back door. I recognised it, it was the bucket my father and I had used…Oskar laughed and turned the handle twisting it hard; his mouth twisting too with the effort. The tap snapped off. And for the first time since I had come home I cried – for the music, for Reuben, but most of all for the waste of a bucket.”

To end, goodbye to a poet and musician whose work is bringing me some comfort – as always – in these troubled times:

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14 thoughts on ““It’s the end of the world as we know it” (REM)

  1. I promise I won’t make a habit of being bossy about your post titles 🙂

    I loved Our Endless Numbered Days (and bought it without knowing much about it). Beautifully written, delicate, terrifying and the kind of ‘suspense’ that grabs me.

    Finally, am now in love with Phillip the Kitten and his sweet little face.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m very happy to receive any and all suggestions for post themes!

      It really was terrifying wasn’t it? Because it felt so believable.

      I’m counting on Phillip the kitten to get me through all news programmes now 🙂

      Like

  2. A lovely post, as ever, Madame Bibi, giving me reasons to laugh as well as the inevitable weeping and shivering that the times bring. Do you suppose that if the whole rightminded world sent Trump, Putin and all that ilk, Philip the Kitten pictures, that the presence of millions of kitten energies would cause the release of oxytocin and encourage the development of compassion and empathy??

    I thought Our Endless Numbered Days was terrific – I have her new one on the Kindle, in the TBR, but am taking a little rest from possible pain and angst by reading Seacrow Island, a re-released book for children by Astrid Lindgren, the author of Pippi Longstocking. It is so, so charming, but is not saccharine. There is even a baby seal (though I’m a little worried about it) and a lovely dog whose heart is, at times, breaking. And the children, the children are anarchic, and wild, and quite, quite wonderful.

    Finally, isn’t it interesting how our sorrow at the loss of Lenny can find some comfort in the wonderful legacy he left. I’m using his songs to console me. I think I always knew his would be the influential popular music death that would cut me the most. I think because of his honesty. And, that rare combination, – someone who clearly loved not only the sexiness of women, ie, women in bed, but the qualities that women bring to the world. I never saw him as a user of women, but, in all ways, someone who loved women. His songs, and the way he sang them, felt like revelations of soul. And, rightly or wrongly, I think many of us felt as if we knew him, despite never meeting him, as you might know a friend who lets themselves be seen. Not something I have ever felt about any other popular musician

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would absolutely love it if Trump et al were on the end of a kitten campaign! If only I were active on social media I may try and get one underway. Those felines would have a serious job on their hands 😀

      I’m very excited to read Fuller’s next book – I’ll look forward to your review. Seacrow Island sounds wonderful, but I would have to know what happens to the baby seal before I picked it up…

      Totally agree about the wonderful Lenny. unlike many of his contemporaries, he seemed to genuinely like and respect women. Absolutely revelations of the soul – his music is so beautiful and moving. Needed now more than ever!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Another very interesting post, Madame Bibi. Everyone seems to love the Herrera – I haven’t seen or heard a bad word against it. Sounds as though there is a sort of mythic quality to this story which sets it apart from the norm.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. First, let me just say that, as much as he will be missed, Leonard Cohen’s death was well timed. I think a lot of us have been comforting ourselves with his music this past week, even more so than usual.

    Our Endless Numbered Days was one of the best books I read last year – your review is reminding me of the depth it has and making me want to read it again.
    Signs Preceding the End of the World has been on my radar for a while. Last month I put a request in for it at the library, but still haven’t seen any sign of it. Something to look forward to – by the time it comes in I will be pleasantly surprised, having forgotten all about it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very true – if he had to go, he couldn’t have chosen a better time to remind us of all his music offers.

      I think Our Endless Numbered Days would definitely stand up to a re-read, and knowing the plot would mean the nuances could be savoured!

      I hope the library comes through soon – Signs really is extraordinary 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love the sound of ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’, and being set in the year I was born is like a nudge from the god of books telling me it’s okay to get it regardless of my TBR pile 😉

    I read a great piece on authors first published in later life, and there’s a rise in those not seeing success until after retirement of when kids have left home. It’s hard to find the time with the hours people work these days!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s definitely OK to add to the TBR in these special circumstances 😉

      I completely believe that more people are being published later, for exactly the reason you say. That’s why I think it would be better if lists etc that focus in young voices focused on new voices, to capture everyone – but maybe I just think that as I’ve a milestone birthday next year (I’m born the same decade as you) and young voices are half my age!

      Liked by 1 person

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