“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:

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” (Vincent van Gogh)

This is my contribution to Small Press September, hosted by Bibliosa. Do head over to her blog to read all about it and join in! The novels are also two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Firstly, Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (tr.Rosalind Harvey, 2011), which I picked up after reading Shoshi’s excellent review.  It is published by And Other Stories, a not-for-private-profit company which concentrates mainly on translated fiction. That sentence makes me feel better about the world 🙂

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Back to the novel: Tochtli (rabbit in Nahuatl, an indigenous language of Mexico), tells us about his love of samurai films, hats, learning new words, and his life as the young son of a drug baron, Yolcaut (rattlesnake).

“I think we have a very good gang. I have proof. Gangs are all about solidarity. So solidarity means that because I like hats, Yolcaut buys me hats, lots of hats, so many that I have a collection from all over the world and all periods of the world. Although now more than new hats what I want is Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. I’ve already written it down on the list of things I want and given it to Miztli. That’s how we always do it, because I don’t go out much, so Miztli buys me all the things I want on orders from Yolcaut.”

The isolation is a necessary part of his father’s business, whose paranoia is an occupational hazard that is no doubt keeping them all alive. The tragic effect that this is having on young Tochtli becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses. Tochtli accepts his life, knowing no different, but to the adult reader he displays worrying signs of severe anxiety: wanting his head shaved because he doesn’t want ‘dead’ hair on him, compulsively wearing hats, constant severe stomach pains, and later, after he sees something his father tried to keep hidden, selective mutism. He also takes violence pretty much in his stride:

“One of the things I’ve learnt from Yolcaut is that sometimes people don’t turn into corpses with just one bullet. Sometimes they need three or even fourteen bullets. It all depends where you aim them. If you put two bullets in their brains they’ll die for sure. But you can put up to 1,000 bullets in their hair and nothing will happen, though it might be fun to watch.”

Although dealing with extremely serious subject matter, there is humour is the novel, such as Tochtli’s description of the preparation for a drug run to Liberia which he also goes on in order to get one of his beloved pygmy hippos:

“By the way, Franklin Gomez started being Franklin Gomez yesterday in the airport. That’s what his passport from the country of Honduras says: Franklin Gomez. There were problems because Franklin Gomez didn’t want to be Franklin Gomez. Until Winston Lopez convinced him.”

In such a short tale (70 pages in my edition)Villalobos effectively widens the narrative of drug trade away from the usual barons/dealers/ users paradigm to show how the fallout from the industry can reach far and wide, including devastating those too young to have a choice about their own involvement. It is a truly moving story, not about drugs (you can read an article by the author where he refutes the term narcoliteratura here), but about children trying to cope with the messy, corrupt world adults create around them: sadly, pretty much a universal theme.

Fellow hat enthusiast, the late Isabella Blow, wearing Philip Treacy's Castle hat

Fellow hat enthusiast, the late Isabella Blow, wearing Philip Treacy’s Castle hat

Secondly, The Notebook by Agota Kristof (1986, tr. Alan Sheridan, 1989) published by CB editions,  a publishing house which focuses on short fiction, poetry and translations. Kristof was Hungarian but was exiled to French-speaking Switzerland in 1956, and wrote this, her first novel, in French.

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Like Down the Rabbit Hole, The Notebook is told from a child’s point of view, in this instance twin boys – we never know their individual names and they always use the first-person plural – who are evacuated to live with their maternal grandmother in the countryside of an unnamed nation, but which is generally thought to be Hungary.

“We call her Grandmother. People call her the Witch. She calls us ‘sons of a bitch’…Grandmother never washes. She wipes her mouth with the corner of her shawl when she has finished eating and drinking. She doesn’t wear knickers. When she wants to urinate, she just stops wherever she happens to be, spreads her legs and pisses on the ground under her skirt.”

This woman shows them no love or affection (although as the novel progresses we learn to recognise the small signs that she does care for them) and life is tough. They work on her smallholding and undertake various psychological ‘exercises’ to try and adjust to their straightened circumstances.

“ ‘My darlings! My loves! My joy! My adorable little babies!’ When we remember these words, our eyes fill with tears. We must forget these words because, now, nobody says such words to us and because our memory of them is too heavy a burden to bear. So we begin our exercise again in a different way…By repeating them we make these words gradually lose their meaning and the pain that they carry in them is reduced.”

The tone of the narration is astonishing. As the boys become more and more detached in an effort to preserve themselves from the horrors they witness, the reader is faced with filling in the gaps regarding what is happening. The delivery is so matter-of-fact that more the once I found myself stopping, thinking ‘Wait a minute, what the…’, going back and finding that something devastating had been described and I’d nearly missed it.

“Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.”

The Notebook is a shattering work, and a challenging read. Human relationships are warped under the pressures of war. More than once, these pretty, golden twins get drawn into adult sex games. A young girl who is named after her birth anomaly – Harelip is apparently her given name – engages in some truly upsetting sexual acts. A neighbour behaves with horrific cruelty toward a group of starving people (presumably Jewish prisoners) and the boys wreak a terrible revenge (which they never admit in the text but you know what has happened and why). It is a difficult read but a powerful one, which does not shy away from the damage done when the acts of nations cause individuals to lose sight of their humanity. It is a political book, but not a polemical one: the twins’ equanimity leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

“Later, we have our own army and government again, but our army and government are controlled by our Liberators. Their flag flies over all the public buildings. The photograph of their leader is displayed everywhere. They teach us their songs and their dances; they show us their films in our cinemas. In the schools, the language of our liberators is compulsory; other foreign languages are forbidden.”

Highly recommended, but go in prepared – brilliantly written and completely brutal.

The Notebook was adapted into a film in 2013, which completely passed me by. From this trailer it looks excellent, and thankfully laws protecting children and animals means certain scenes are guaranteed to have not been filmed, surely?

“There are two types of women in the world: those who like chocolate and complete bitches” (Dawn French)

Happy New Year! (for those of you using the Gregorian calendar).  It is one of life’s small cruelties that if you live in the Northern hemisphere, a grey, dark, cold time of year is also inexorably bound with resolutions to lose weight.  It’s entirely illogical: your body is bound up in layer upon chunky layer of clothing, and all you want to eat is comforting, stodgy carbs.  Far better to start a diet in March – its brighter, starts getting warmer, the prospect of salad is less likely to send you howling in despair from the room (unless that’s your modus operandi all year round, and you are not alone).  There’s a sense of approaching summer and the associated disrobing to act as an incentive to lose those extra layers you’ve acquired that you can’t hang in the wardrobe.  But right now its January. So, until those spring-like days, let us glory in girth, fellow book-lovers, and embrace loose baggy monsters.  This was Henry James’ term for those long Victorian novels, and they are perfect for this time of year.  If the holiday season has left you feeling like a baggy monster yourself, settle down with a huge book: you can wallow, a verb that suits your newly enormous body, in its vastness & lose yourself and the dark days that surround you; you can claim it’s a novella and make your body look smaller by comparison, optical illusion being so much easier than giving up all the fun stuff; and if you go for a paper version rather than an e-book the weight itself will act equally as well as a gym workout for your biceps (er, maybe). ‘Tis the season of the baggy monster!

I’ve gone for an obvious choice of baggy monster, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (published 1871-2. My copy: Penguin Classics 1965). Writing about Middlemarch is really difficult for me as it’s my favourite novel ever.  Ever.  And I find when things are that close to me, I can’t really explain them or talk about them objectively.  Lots of people can’t bear George Eliot and find her too intellectual and moralising.  Fine – I have no come back.  She’s both of those things.  But if you give Middlemarch a chance, the rewards can be huge.  The characterisations of the inhabitants of this middle-England town are fully drawn, as the length of the novel allows for such scope.  There is no reliance on stereotypes (Mr Dickens, take note), and even the unlikeable characters are understandable.  Eliot can be as witty and incisive as Jane Austen (“plain women he regarded as he did the other severe facts of life, to be faced with philosophy  and investigated by science”/ “she held it still more natural that Mr Lydgate should have fallen in love at first sight of her.  These things happened so often at balls, and why not by morning light, when the complexion  showed all the better for it?”), but for those of you who share my brother’s view that Austen is just “full of silly girls giggling behind fans” rest assured she’s also very different.  Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown up people”, by which I think she means that the story continues beyond marriage – the ultimate purpose of the plot is not achievement of a socially acceptable breeding arrangement but more a study of how people work, individually and within society.  There are big themes tackled: politics, education, professional fulfilment, religion…If that sounds dry, I promise there’s enough plot to keep you going, with the various stories of the ambitious Dr Lydgate, idealistic Dorothea, vacuous Rosamond, immature Fred Vincy… and now I’ll stop reducing Eliot’s great characters to a single adjective.  It’s also got Will Ladislaw in it, a Byronic hero who can easily equal Darcy in the “pouting air of discontent” love-god stakes, it’s just that the latter’s PR is so much more tenacious.  One of my tutors once told me he re-read Middlemarch regularly, and the final few paragraphs always made him cry (not that it’s  a tragic ending, just realistic).  I hope if you give Middlemarch a go, that it truly moves you.

In the course of writing the above paragraph I’ve realised that this post will turn into a baggy monster itself if I continue to attempt to capture these vast panoramic books in any sort of meaningful description.  So, like so many New Year’s resolutions, I’m going abandon my good intentions and instead write about a book that (in my copy) runs to a comparatively succinct 222 pages. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (published 1989. My copy: Black Swan, 1994), unlike the baggy monsters, keeps the plot fairly simple – Tita and Pedro love each other, tradition dictates they can’t be together, so he marries her sister to be around her.  You may not get a wallow in the depths of 800+ pages but it’s still a great choice for this time of year.    Firstly, its set in Mexico (and I should admit I read it in translation, if you can read it in the original Spanish so much the better) so if you can’t afford a warm holiday away from all the grey you can at least travel between the pages of a book.  Secondly, each chapter has a month title and an associated recipe and is hugely evocative around food: vicarious calories are delicious and also involve no cheating from your diet if you are insane enough to try and lose weight in January.  Amongst quail in rose petal sauce (March) and northern style chorizo (May) there is also a recipe for making matches (June), just in case you wondered. Finally, it is magic-realist in style: the female protagonist’s birth sees the kitchen awash in tears “When the uproar had subsided and the water had been dried up by the sun, Nacha swept up the residue the tears had left on the red stone floor. There was enough salt to fill a ten-pound sack – it was used for cooking and lasted a long time.” A bit of unreality – just what you need to help face the harsh realities of a northern winter.

So settle down with a great (in terms of both literary value and/or size) book and enough provisions to see you through (e.g. Kendal mint cake, or a family bar of chocolate.  With the latter you can always claim to be striking a blow against sociocultural constructions as a method of control (or something) by eating it all yourself.  This also works for family bags of crisps) and enjoy! I was planning to picture the books alongside some mojito cupcakes that I’d made for a friend’s birthday, but they went totally wrong – possibly due to the fact that my scales broke and so I guessed all the ingredients weights.  Hmmn, thinking about it, that’s almost definitely where my error lay. This succeeded in putting me in a cranky mood and incapable of thinking of another picture so instead here is a baggy monster who lives with me.  Proof, if proof were needed, that the world is a better place for having baggy monsters in it.

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