Microviews Vol. 17: Yu, Drndic, Claudel

on Friday, August 17, 2012
Sorry Please Thank You: Stories by Charles Yu
The moment I put down Yu's debut novel, How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, I was so eager to read more from him that I hunted down an old hardcover of his first short story collection, Third Class Superhero, and paid some exorbitant price to have it shipped to my door via express post. Unfortunately, I was bitterly disappointed. It had all the mathematical geekery of the novel but none of the humour. When I saw that his next book would be another collection, I was in two minds. Perhaps he had learnt from How To Live... and would pull out bite sized pieces of everything that made that book so great. Or maybe he would just disappear up the black hole of his arse again. Thankfully, for the most part, he has done the former. Sorry Please Thank You is an excellent chaser, full of wonderful moments of physics-based, hyper intelligent hilarity (with a heart). Highlights include Standard Loneliness Package, in which emotions are outsourced to Indian call centres, Note To Self, where Yu converses with his multiple selves from parallel universes, Yeoman, in which the protagonist joins a space exploration team only to discover that every person who has held the position before him has died an absurd death (in fact it is part of the job description) and Adult Contemporary, a story about literally buying the life you think you want to lead. Sorry Please Thank You is not without its duds, but if you've been hanging out for another dose of Yu's quirky sensibility you won't be disappointed by it.

Trieste by Dasa Drndic
Well here's one hell of a conundrum. Trieste is, without a doubt, the best book I've read this year. It has also become apparent (and subsequently admitted) that some of it was plagiarised from the memoir of an Italian Jewish woman who survived the little known San Sabba concentration camp. The novel, inasmuch as it is one, is a breathtaking examination of an often overlooked aspect of the Holocaust. Starting in almost Thomas Mann style - an old woman sitting alone, surrounded by old photos, awaiting the arrival of a son she hasn't seen in sixty years - Trieste quickly descends into a bleak, unrelenting and obsessive account of complicity, fear and loss. I'm not sure where the plagiarism ends and Drndic's 'imagination' begins, but the story of Haya Tedeschi's relationship with the Nazi monster Kurt Franz and the confiscation of their son as part of the Lebernsborn program is both harrowing and tragic. Yet, it is the structure of the book that lifts it above most other great Holocaust literature. Drndic draws on photographs, maps, Nazi documents and transcripts from the Nuremberg trials, seamlessly weaving them into the narrative. At times, the documentary elements are used to staggering effect. One chapter is just a list of the nine thousand Italian Jews killed during the war. To her credit, this multiplicity of devices works well; there is a strange poetry to their points of collision. Irrespective of the plagiarism controversy, Trieste is a book that demands attention. It will leave you emotionally and intellectually spent, but as the fog clears you will come to appreciate that you have been in the presence of true brilliance.

CORRECTION: The author contacted me to point out a number of issues with this review. You can read her entire message here. Just to say that the allegation of plagiarism has quite flimsy foundations. To the extent that any true story has been used as inspiration (a very common occurrence in literature), it does not amount to anything untoward. I now happily fall on my sword and unequivocally label Trieste a masterpiece.

The Investigation by Philippe Claudel
Any author that self-consciously tries to emulate the great Franz Kafka is bound to fail. Only one person ever did Kafka and that was Kafka. Alas, they keep trying and, I'm afraid to say, the author of one of my favourite novels of all time has fallen victim to - if I might borrow from Achmat Dangor - Kafka's Curse. The Investigation concerns an unnamed man - The Investigator - who turns up in an unnamed place - The Town - to investigate a series of suicides at some unnamed company - um, The Enterprise. You get the point. He is thwarted at every turn by a series of similarly unnamed characters, all identified only by their function. Shades of Beckett bounce around the narrative, and it becomes increasingly apparent that the actual investigation is very much playing second fiddle to a weird existential circle jerk (assuming one person can constitute a circle). It kind of makes for enjoyable frippery, but take away the smoke and mirrors and all we are left with is unsatisfying pastiche.


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