Microviews Vol. 55: Clash of Classics

on Tuesday, July 7, 2015
The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud
You don't know Harun, but you probably know his brother Musa. Well, maybe not by name but, if you love modern literature, you've definitely met him. Remember? On a beach? In Algiers? With five bullets in his chest? Surely this is sounding familiar. In what has to be one of the most audacious experiments I've encountered in recent times, Kamel Daoud has sought to reclaim the unnamed Arab murdered by Mersault in Albert Camus's classic L'Etranger (I'm not going to offer a translation - they all fail) and, in giving him a name and life story, not only engage directly with the original novel but also explore issues of identity, colonialism and the ownership of narrative. At first it reads as eulogy - Harun laments a brother invented simply to be destroyed, a mere prop in some great masterwork. He revisits many of Camus's lines, analysing them, spitting them back in the author's (and reader's) face. He is as impassioned as Mersault is dispassionate. Then, just as you feel the 'game' might get stale, Daoud shifts gears and reveals Harun's big secret. He too has killed someone - a Frenchman - during the 1962 unrest in Algiers. It is an act of defiance but also an act of revenge. It might also be an act of cold blooded murder. Yes, the loyal brother is caught up in an existential crisis of his own. He just might be Mersault's mirror. It took considerable guts for Daoud to engage so directly with one of literature's sacred cows. That the result should turn out so wonderfully satisfying, that it should be so much more than a mere companion piece to a classic, is both a relief and a thrill.
4.5 Out Of 5 Dead Mothers

These Are The Names by Tommy Wieringa
A ragged group of travellers trudges across an unforgiving wilderness. They are the hungry, the tired, the poor, thrown together by circumstance, forced to flee their homeland in search of safe harbour while a war rages on behind them. Only the the thinnest thread holds them together - they are untrusting and afraid, their tempers set to flare. Meanwhile, in the town of Michailopol, somewhere in an unnamed country, Police Commissioner Beg is on a journey of his own. His sense of identity, formerly secure in a warm shroud of familiarity, has been torn asunder. He is, or so it seems, Jewish in a town where only one other Jew remains, a cantankerous rabbi who has just buried the other Jew whom he despised. Beg wants answers to his past, his culture, the life that has been hidden from him. As he begins to immerse himself in the texts and traditions of his newfound faith, word gets out that a group of emaciated strangers has entered the town. And one of them is carrying a severed head. So unfolds Tommy Wieringa's powerful novel, a multi-layered detective story where the mystery is, in essence, how we seek to define ourselves and our sense of belonging. It is a prescient work in these troubled times, where entire populations are displaced and seek refuge. That the group have been the victims of unscrupulous people smugglers comes as little surprise, but that hardly lessens the rage you will feel as a reader towards those who profit from desperation. In some ways I was reminded of Jim Crace's masterful book, The Harvest, in its portrayal of a quiet community coming undone by its fear of 'the other'. Wieringa takes it a step further, not seeking to wrap the issues up in historical analogy. These Are The Names is a thoroughly contemporary book despite its non-situation in an easily identified time and place. In what it has to say about identity, sacrifice, the ethics of escape and our collective moral responsibility for those who seek refuge in our lands it is also a thoroughly urgent and welcome one.
4 Out Of 5 Dusty Trails

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera
Milan Kundera has never shied away from the playfully absurd. There are moments in many of his novels where the reader will sit back with a wry smile, shake their head and appreciate the rope Kundera has thrown them in what is otherwise an ocean of deep philosophising. The Festival of Insignificance, Kundera's slim new offering, reverses the pattern. Moments of philosophy dot an otherwise humorous story of friends learning to find meaning in the general meaninglessness of everyday life. A chance meeting between D'Ardelo and Ramon sparks a descent into the ridiculous (and sublime) - for no particular reason the former claims to have been diagnosed with incurable cancer. He's throwing a cocktail party, you know, just to say goodbye to everyone. Which means he'll have to actually throw the party... and keep up the cancer charade. It's funny and silly in a very macabre European sense; the 'diagnosis' causes D'Ardelo and his friends to take stock leading to the realisation that life is (you guessed it) a festival of insignificance. Only when you enjoy the nothingness of it all can you cast away the monotony and dread. Wise words from a very wise old man but, in a career that has spanned six decades and countless philosophical eureka moments, it will not go down as an important book in the Kundera canon. Read it for the beauty of the writing and the knowledge that we may not hear from Kundera again. Then go read Immortality.
3.5 Out Of 5 False Teeth

A Brief History of Portable Literature by Enrique Vila-Matas
In some parallel universe there is a kingdom of literary wonders, in which an unrecognisable monarch plants his or her sizeable bum on the throne while being entertained by the greatest court jester of all time. I doubt anyone could name the monarch (indeed, I suspect that, depending on your angle, you might see a different one to me) but I think we can all agree on the identity of the jester: Enrique Vila-Matas. Since stumbling across his hilarious carnival of a novel, Montano's Malady, in which a slew of my favourite authors pop their heads up to clash philosophical swords, I've hungrily devoured any scraps the man has seen fit to throw we lesser beings of the English speaking world. They've all been great fun but, apart from the brilliant riff on Melville's Bartelby the Scrivener, nothing has quite lived up to my first taste. That is, until now. If I could have sat down with Vila-Matas and asked him to write a book especially for me, it probably would have turned out something like A Brief History of Portable Literature. Secret societies, obscure authors, Prague... yep. This is my book. A Brief History... tells of the (appropriately) short existence of The Shandies, a group of writers and artists committed to distilling literature to its smallest possible form while living out fantastical, disgustingly decadent, lives. Walser, Gombrowicz, Duchamp, Cendras, Man Ray and Aleister Crowley all play their part. Meyrink and Kafka get a nod once they hit Prague. The meetings become ever more farcical - for a while they convene on a requisitioned submarine - and the various characters put their very individual stamp on proceedings. A Brief History of Portable Literature is a juggling act by a jester who skirts the fine line between high culture and flat out lunacy. That the book itself is an example of distilled narrative just adds to the joke.
4 Out of 5 Bonzai Books


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