Dog Bite Degustation: Brink's "A Dry White Season"

on Sunday, May 30, 2010
We all know the saying. The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for the good man to do nothing. Attributed to Edmund Burke (though good luck finding the quote in any of his speeches or writing), it is the practical pinnacle of the good samaritan doctrine. There is a certain cosiness to the sentiment, the thought that tyranny can be toppled by goodness. If you enjoy the warm complacency of Burke's rhetorical fluffy pillow, you had best avoid Andre Brink's devastating masterpiece, A Dry White Season. With the lead weight of despair, Brink unmasks any tangible endpoint of altruistic action as little more than a pipe dream.

I've never understood why Brink has been relegated to the role of the bridesmaid of South African literature. In many ways he towers above both J. M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. He is equally comfortable with the kind of brutal realism necessary to expose the inequity of the Apartheid state as he is with the magical realist folklore of the rich black culture that he often celebrates. As a colonial-cum-post-colonial writer, he probably has more to say about his country and its transition than any of his compatriots. He is also the most consistent. Where Coetzee has choked since moving to Australia, Brink still flourishes in his homeland, continuing to write excellent, important novels.

A Dry White Season is one of the few books that I can truly say shook my faith in humanity. I realise its message could have come out of any Eastern Block country in the 50's, or a fair few colonial outposts, but for some reason this story resonated with me more than any other tyranny lit. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the tale, the way in which a completely ordinary guy, unremarkable in any way, can find himself in the vice of bureaucratic inhumanity, that spoke so loudly to me. Ben Du Toit is a brilliant everyman. Brink does not make him an angel - he is a bad husband, a merely adequate father and, dare I say at times, a fool. When the janitor at his school, Gordon Ngubene, comes to him for help with his son Jonathan, Du Toit sees the potential in the boy and sponsors his education. When Jonathan is killed in suspicious circumstances, Gordon goes on a quest to find out what really happened, only to be crushed by the same fascist machine that killed the boy. It is obvious from the outset that Du Toit would be embarking on a suicide mission if he tries to see justice done for the cleaner and his son. We also know from the first chapter that Du Toit dies. But it is the horrible machinations of the system, the Police Special Branch's virtually unfettered reign of terror and the wilfully blind complicity of the wider South African society that truly shocks.

Midway through the novel, Du Toit meets with a priest who tries to dissuade him from his mission. Du Toit, however, is unflappable. "What I think," he says, "is that once in one's life, just once, one should have enough faith in something to risk everything for it." Noble sentiments indeed, but whether it is worth it is left to the reader. Du Toit dies without a name, without having made any headway in his investigation and having possibly caused the death of everyone he tried to help.

I still love this book, perhaps more than when I first read it, and am glad to have revisited it for the Dog Bite Degustation challenge. It takes the existential terror of some of the more obscure novels I like and slams them into the real world. The fact that a society to which I bore witness, even from afar, could have been more horrific than anything Kafka imagined gave me serious cause for introspection. Brink is an important compass for those whose sense of compassion and morality might be a little askew, but be prepared not to like where he points.

Dog Bite Degustation: Bjorneboe's "Moment of Freedom"

on Thursday, May 27, 2010
There is a great story, probably apocryphal, about Norway's infamous literary rebel Jens Bjorneboe. As founder of the anarcho-sophist movement, he had dedicated his artistic life to antagonising the authorities, even spending time in jail to protest Norway's obscenity laws. Yet Bjorneboe had his eyes on a bigger prize. He would not be content until he had pissed off pretty much everyone. And so he set about writing what he termed "The History of Bestiality". Starting with Moment of Freedom, it was to be a trilogy, in which he would explore the history of man's inhumanity to man, upending any notions of our inherent goodness as well as questioning the place of the individual within what he saw as a society of beasts. By the end, he is supposed to have said, he would come to know so much about the horrid nature of our species that he would no longer, in good conscience, be able to live as part of it. Bjorneboe, if the story is to be believed, certainly had the courage of his convictions. After completing the third book he committed suicide.

I don't know how much I buy into the Bjorneboe myth. I love it but it reduces him to a simplistic idealogue. Sure, he trawled the darkest depths of mankind, and he ultimately did take his own life, but the dates don't add up. The final book in the trilogy, The Silence, was published in 1973. Bjorneboe didn't die for another three years. This wasn't a case of someone laying down his pen and ending it all. The truth, I regret to say, is a little more pedestrian. Bjorneboe was an alcoholic who struggled for years with manic depression. These twin demons undoubtedly fed his dark vision, allowing him to write the sort of books he did. They also killed him. Suicide was not a moral stance, but a sad end to a life of mental illness.

Moment of Freedom is an intriguing opening salvo in Bjorneboe's grand statement, a scathing indictment against barbarism. The unnamed narrator, a Servant of Justice, works in the courtroom of a rural town high in Norway's mountains. By day he cleans the judge's robes, sweeps the court and watches the various characters as they are shunted through what he perceives as a system of injustice. Hypocrisy rules, and he is complicit. Each afternoon, he heads home to the room he rents above a brothel (he has made a point of always living in brothels) and compiles his life's work, "The History of Bestiality". Although we are only ever privy to the first Protocol, dealing with the Nazi doctors' concentration camp experiments, we are told that he has written at least ten and that the manifesto (I figure this is the best word to describe it) is somewhere in the vicinity of eight thousand pages long.

Not much happens in Moment of Freedom. It is more a series of vignettes, some shocking, others humorous and benign. It is structured intentionally like a bullfight - the moment of freedom refers to that point at which the matador stops 'dancing' with the bull and invites the spectators to join him in the kill. Life, according to Bjorneboe, is much the same. We dance a dainty waltz of manners but when the cape is pulled away we face the Inquisition. Or Auschwitz. The realisation is harrowing, a Sartre-style existential punch delivered as a Joycean romp.

I'm not sure that I'd still include Moment of Freedom amongst my top ten books of all-time. I suspect I was too caught up in the romance of the Bjorneboe tragedy to gain proper perspective. Plus, I probably liked the fact I'd found and connected with an obscure author none of my friends had read. Like many of the books I've revisited for May's Dog Bite Degustation challenge it is unremittingly bleak, and has given me cause for concern. Why do I so feel the need for a book to destroy me? Someone really should have given me a few P.G. Wodehouse books as a kid...

Dog Bite Degustation: Ungar's "The Maimed"

on Sunday, May 23, 2010
What is it with Czech writers and their hapless bank clerk anti-heroes? Just when I thought no menial cog ever have had it tougher than poor Joseph K from The Trial, along comes Franz Polzer, slave and sacrificial offering, trapped on a gothic hell-ride into sexual depravity and bodily decrepitude. The Maimed must be experienced to be believed. It offers a world-view so bleak, so discomforting that I quite literally had to stop from time to time to catch my breath and swallow down the bile that had crept up my gullet. I swear, there must really have been something in Prague's water supply back in the 1920's to produce both Kafka and Hermann Ungar. I don't really get why one has been rocketed into the literary stratosphere while the other has faded from view altogether. Fickle finger of fate, I suppose.

I remember loving The Maimed the first time I read it. It was, for me, the only piece of writing ever worthy of that much-bandied about appellation 'Kafkaesque' (I didn't realise at the time that the two authors moved in the same circles). But whereas Kafka shies away from sex - the dalliances in The Trial and The Castle are laughably awkward - Ungar virtually immerses himself in it. Sex is the central, defining feature of all the relationships in The Maimed but it is the animal act, devoid of emotion with which he is most concerned. Forget romance. This makes De Sade look like Mills & Boon.

Franz Polzer is a classic paranoid obsessive, his entire life centred on his need for order. He is perfectly suited to his lowly job at the bank, so much so that he rejects a promotion lest it disrupt his carefully controlled existence. When he takes up lodgings with the widow Klara Porges, all seems as it should be, until the widow begins to make advances. Polzer is at a loss. Klara repulses him. It isn't hard to sympathise. Ungar's descriptions will have your stomach churning as he objectifies every obscene pore on her body. The advances become more aggressive, and when Polzer finally relents he soon becomes the widow's sex slave.

In desperation Polzer turns to his childhood friend, Karl Fanta, who has been left a crippled stump in a bed, but even this avenue of escape merely serves to thrust him back into Porges's clutches. Fanta soon moves in with Polzer and Porges, but they cannot properly care for him and, after much fighting, convince Fanta's long-suffering wife to allow them to take on a nurse. Herr Sonntag, once a murderous butcher, is the kind of unhinged zealot that would give Rasputin a run for his money. Indeed, in a quagmire of freaks, he may well be the most disturbed one of the lot. They all fall under his clutches as he seeks penance for sins by reliving them - a passion play with disastrous consequences. These are damaged people packed together in a cramped apartment. There can be no happy ending.

Whilst the crippled Fanta is the most obviously maimed character in the book (his limbs are successively amputated as the story goes on), everyone caught up in Polzer's world is damaged in some grotesque way. Fanta's wife Dora, their son Franz, Polzer's bank colleagues, even the most minor characters - they are all crippled, whether emotionally, morally or physically. Ungar's world is one of decay from which any sensible mind ought to reel. Every page of The Maimed exudes the stench of gangrene, like your nose has been thrust into Fanta's festering wounds. And yet this book is a revelation. I can't say I've ever read anything quite like it.

Dog Bite Degustation: Doctorow's "The Book of Daniel"

on Friday, May 21, 2010
E. L. Doctorow is the kind of author who makes you want to give up writing altogether. His prose is so beautiful, his ideas so perfectly simple yet profound and original, that you cannot hope to attain literary art of his order. When Horace Engdahl slammed American literature, deeming it unworthy of attention from the Nobel Prize committee, readers worldwide were whipped into a lynch-mob-style frenzy, demanding justice for the likes of Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates. Their protest was sound. Engdahl was an idiot. But in this humble reader's opinion it isn't Roth or Oates who deserve the accolade. Rather, it was Edgar Doctorow who was the baby in Engdahl's bathwater. Sure, he may be less prominent on the world stage, a quiet, humble voice, but he is the greatest living American author and any international body worth its salt must give due consideration to his work. There are many incredible books in the Doctorow canon. World's Fair, Ragtime and even last year's brilliant hymn to New York, Homer and Langley, demand to be read. However,The Book of Daniel is Doctorow's masterpiece and so it was with considerable glee that I dived back in for this month's Dog Bite Degustation challenge.

No novel captures the pulse of a nation at a particular point in history like The Book of Daniel. A thinly veiled fictionalisation of the Rosenberg trial and execution, it perfectly skewers McCarthy-era America, laying bare its pig-headed march towards pointless injustice. The true genius of the novel is its faux-objectivity, the way in which it uses the couple's son to tell the story. Viewing this era of national insanity through the eyes of a child - albeit one intimately involved in the events - works as both metaphor and instrument. It also ensures empathy in a way that simple third person narration or the first-person viewpoint of pretty much anyone else involved could not. This is especially so since the 2008 confession of Morton Sobell who laid to rest any doubts as to Julius Rosenberg's guilt.

The Book of Daniel might be anchored in a single event, but it is a sweeping elegy for post-war America, a wide-angle lens pointed outwards from its molten core. Doctorow rides roughshod over the national self-image of innocence and righteousness that prevailed at the time without ever getting caught up in the almost irrelevant question of whether the Isaacson (read Rosenberg) couple were actually spies. Guilt, he rightly suggests, is a red herring. Or, at the very least, the Isaacsons' guilt pales next to the guilt of a justice system that could allow this travesty to occur. In Doctorow's mind, injustice of this magnitude ripples outward, destroying all in its wake. The futility of the Isaacsons' naive faith in a system blinded by paranoia is shift-around-in-your-seat uncomfortable to witness. And the nigh-pathetic irony of the egalitarian ideologue is not lost. As the executioner flicks the switch we see also the the destruction of children, friends and pretty much anyone associated with the Isaacsons but, more importantly, the crumbling of that glimmering tower called America.

There is so much to love about The Book of Daniel, from Doctorow's exquisite prose (it is probably the most readable literary novel I've ever encountered) to the book's depth and heart. Even the minor asides are symphonic. This is the kind of historical fiction that any other author could merely hope to write, taking a story so familiar, so deeply entrenched in the national psyche, and making it fresh and humane. I could go on, but your time would be much better spent tracking down a copy from your local independent bookstore and letting the master speak for himself.

Dog Bite Degustation: Skarmeta's "The Postman"

on Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Legend has it that an unknown young troubadour named Robert Zimmerman once hitched cross country to sit at Woodie Guthrie's hospital bed and rattle off some of his shaky ditties much to the protest folk hero's delight. Guthrie died soon after, but not before passing the torch to the future Bob Dylan. The rest is history. A similar story of artist and protege exists in the literary world, with Alberto Manguel - possibly the world's greatest living bibliophile - reading to the blind Jorge Louis Borges. I picture the young student sitting by candlelight, gently syphoning words into Borges's thirsty ears. In his gorgeous novella The Postman, Antonio Skarmeta explores the unique connection of two like-minded artists, albeit of greatly differing ability, in the midst of Chile's tumultuous 1973 coup.

I can safely say that The Postman is the only romance that I truly love. Shakespeare interests me linguistically, and I can't help but be intrigued by the way in which generations swoon over Rilke, but even those two greats cause my overactive retch reflex to kick into high gear. I'm also somewhat allergic to poetry. I don't get hives like I do with romance, but my eyes get itchy and nose drips until I am well out of the poet's grasp. God knows I've tried to like it as a form, and there has been the odd exception, but for the most part it just has me reaching for the antihystemines. My point being, I really shouldn't have liked The Postman.

The story is deceptively simple. Owing more to circumstance than direction, Mario Jiminez finds himself working as a postman in a small fishing village on Isla Negra. There aren't many people on the island, and for the most part the mail can be handled by the surly postmaster. However, on the outskirts of the village, set away from the other houses, lives the island's resident celebrity - the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. His mail alone requires a second delivery boy and so each day Mario fills his backpack with letters, hops on his bicycle and rides to the poet's house. Mario is a simpleton, a dreamer, who fails to see the beauty in poetry until he falls for the beautiful Beatriz and calls upon Neruda to be his Cyrano. Neruda, however, seeks to find the words in Mario's heart and have him become a poet in his own right. As the two spar good-heartedly, a political storm rolls in over the horizon. Neruda is touted as the next president of Chile, a chalice he suspects might well be poisoned. The only accolade that he awaits with any true desire is the Nobel Prize. When Allende gets the party nomination he is relieved, even more so when he is chosen to be Chilean ambassador to France. It is while Neruda is overseas that Pinochet takes control and the crushing power of his dictatorship comes to bear on Chile, including our little fishing village. History had it that Pablo Neruda died in September 1973, back home on Isla Negra. Mario's fate is less certain. He sends his entry, a poem that he has been working on for months, to a competition being run by the national paper La Quinta Rueda. And then he disappears. It seems his political convictions, thrown around with naive bluster, might well have guided the hand on his death warrant.

Skarmeta evokes the simplicity of village life, and the rollercoaster ride of Mario's heart without condescension. His Neruda is convincing, and the relationships between the poet, his protege and Beatriz charming. He even writes believable sex scenes. The political tension rolls in so subtly, that when it hits at the end it is like a sucker punch in the guts. I was left a little dazed by the final message, which seems to suggest that, in the wash-up of history, one's life is of little consequence. Or perhaps that was the final tragedy of it all.

Dog Bite Degustation: Hrabal's "Too Loud A Solitude"

on Monday, May 17, 2010
Bohumil Hrabal died like he wrote - ensconced in a whirl of misunderstandings, conjecture and nostalgia. When he fell out of the fifth floor of his Prague apartment building in 1997, various theories immediately began doing the rounds. One had it that he fell out while trying to feed the pigeons on his sill. His deep reverence for nature and gentle heart were there for all to see in his books, and so it was fitting that he should die doing something he loved. Others were more blunt. Old and sick, Hrabal threw himself from the window to end his suffering. Suicide was a continuing motif in his works, with one character throwing themselves from the fifth story of a building. Finally, there were the conspiracy theorists who claimed Hrabal was thrown from the window by political enemies - members of the old guard who still resented his membership of the resistance to Czechoslovakia's by-then-fallen Communist regime. However he came to his end, it was a great, if rather quiet, loss to the literary world.

Hrabal perfectly distilled all that is great about Czech literature. He had the unhinged political perspicacity of Karel Capek, yet managed to combine it with the bawdy humour of Jaroslav Hasek. And though his star might have been eclipsed in the West by the likes of Kundera, Klima and Skvorecky, I still find him the most likeable of all his compatriots. Those that know his work generally point to the novels "I Served The King of England" and "Closely Observed Trains" (both of which were made into great films by Jiri Menzel) as his best, but for me it is the obscure little gem "Too Loud A Solitude" that cements Hrabal in my top ten of all time and, therefore, ripe for revisiting in May's Dog Bite Degustation challenge.

I can relate to no character in modern literature more than Hanta, the tragic wastepaper compacter who narrates this novel. Although his job is to collect and crush discarded books, he is also a saviour of greater works, pulling them from the trash piles and stuffing them in his bag to take home. His little house is crumbling under the weight of all the books, but his love for literature far exceeds his sense of self-preservation. It is also, ultimately, his downfall. Too Loud A Solitude is reminiscent, in this way, of such fantastic books as Elias Canetti's Auto Da Fe and Thomas Bernhard's The Lime Works, in which the protagonist is quite literally consumed by the object of their obsession. For those more celluloid-inclined, same goes for the brilliant film Gattaca.

As a hymn to the beauty and importance of the printed word alone, Too Loud A Solitude is a magnificent literary feat. But there is a darker, more choleric side to the novel which deserves equal regard, for it doubles as a requiem for those caught between generations, at risk of being steamrolled by technological innovation. Hanta's plight reminds me of the Ben Folds song Fred Jones Part 2, in which a man who has devoted his entire life to his job fades into insignificance, left behind in the dust of progress. He is, as the song so beautifully puts it, forgotten but not yet gone. Like Jones, Hanta cannot catch up. His paper press is obsolete - bigger and better presses, operated by faceless, nameless peons, are the way of the future. He will no longer be able to rescue great books from the trash piles of history. Such a world Hanta cannot bear, and so he takes one last drastic step to escape the technological onslaught and be one with his greatest love.

It is disconcerting to see one's own obsessions portrayed to such devastating effect in the pages of a novel. Yet Too Loud A Solitude radiates with such wonderful warmth and beauty that I couldn't help but hear a gospel choir singing me down the road to hell.

Dog Bite Degustation: Coetzee's "Waiting For The Barbarians"

on Friday, May 14, 2010
When I finally got around to writing down my top fifty last year, I made a rather nonsensical rule that any single author could only have one book included on the list. For the most part that proved unproblematic. There was, however, one exception - J. M. Coetzee. For me, choosing between his early novels is like choosing between one's children. And I mean Sophie's Choice style, not just who gets the extra piece of chocolate cake. At least four of Coetzee's novels could rightfully have taken a place amongst my favourite books of all time. Disgrace, The Life and Times of Michael K. and The Master of Petersberg are all worthy contenders. But it is his slim novella, Waiting For The Barbarians that has remained lodged at the back of my throat since the time I first read it and that I consider to be his greatest achievement. It was with a strange mix of giddiness and trepidation, therefore, that I picked it back up for May's Dog Bite Degustation challenge.

On a distant colonial outpost, the townsfolk live quietly under the watchful eye of the local magistrate. He has grown weary and complacent, dishing out minor justice for even more minor offending. Peace reigns, for the most part, save only for an ever present fear of attack by the 'barbarians' who, though we never really see, are said to live beyond the gates. The status quo is interrupted by the arrival of Civil Guard soldiers, sent from the city to ward off this imminent attack. They gallop into the distance and bring back a few scraggly nomads, who they subject to awful torture in an attempt to have them reveal their plans. Amongst them is a young woman, whose ankles are broken and eyes burnt with hot pincers. Finding her begging one day, the magistrate takes her under his wing and, eventually into his bed. Guilt soon gets the better of him, and he takes her back out onto the land to her people. Colonel Joll of the Civil Guard accuses him of treason and so begins one of the most dazzling and complete destructions of a good man that I have ever read.

Waiting For The Barbarians reads like an effusion of claustrophobic paranoia and brutal degradation. From the opening scene of horrid torture committed by the visiting officers of the Civil Guard against an old black peasant, to the magistrate's excruciating fall from grace, one is held by Coetzee at the very edge of sanity. It takes willpower not to cast the book aside, knowing that the author will force you to continue staring the darkest underbelly of our shared inhumanity in the face. Prickling with bleak discomfort, Coetzee lays bare the many facets of white guilt in Africa, juxtaposed with the depredation of imperial arrogance. He asks the rather obvious question of who, in the circumstances, is really the barbarian, but his answer is not what you might expect. Indeed, it is the depth and complexity of Coetzee's exploration of 'the other' in all its possible incarnations that really sets this book apart.

Dog Bite Degustation: Mulisch's "The Assault"

on Tuesday, May 11, 2010
The first time I came upon the twist on the final page of Harry Mulisch's incredible novel The Assault, I was in such a profound state of moral shock that I came to underrate the brilliance of all that came before it. Indeed, it was on the strength of the twist alone that the novel was immediately propelled into my stratosphere of all-time favourites. Of all the books in May's Dog Bite Degustation challenge, The Assault is the one with which I am least intimately familiar but, strangely, the one I have most looked forward to rereading. I wondered how the book would stand up a second time, whether knowing the twist would make it any less shocking. It doesn't. But it allows a more balanced reading, where one can be immersed in the ever-knotting complexities of civilian life during times of war without fear of it all fading into the background on the last page.

The Assault is a spellbinding examination of complicity, allegiance and the moral imperatives of conflict. It is also, rather painfully, a meditation on the vagaries of chance; how bystanders can be sucked into hell with the simple flip of a coin. It starts off at the tail end of World War Two, in the small dutch city of Haarlem, where the Steenwijk family are doing their best to stay out trouble. One night they hear gunshots nearby and peer out their window to see Police Chief Fake Ploeg, the infamous Nazi collaborator, lying dead on their neighbour's sidewalk. To their horror, they then see the neighbour and his daughter rush out, drag the body down the road and deposit it out the front of their house. What follows is terrifying and brutal. The Steenwijk family is slaughtered and their house burnt to the ground. The only survivor is twelve-year-old Anton, who is taken by the authorities to live with his uncle and aunt.

Anton spends his later life running away from his past, but just as chance destroyed his childhood, it also forces him to revisit it. At four different times he comes across people who were major players in the events of that dreadful night. First there are his elderly neighbours, the Beumers. When Anton finds himself back in Haarlem on business, he visits them and is finally told what really happened. Next, during a student demonstration he meets his old classmate, the much maligned Fake Ploeg Junior. Stuck in a dreary, menial job, the assassinated policeman's son makes Anton question the nature of pain from the enemy's perspective. It was, after all, not only his family that was destroyed when those gunshots rang out. Many years later, at a dinner party at his in-laws', Anton chances to overhear a conversation between former Dutch resistance fighters and realises that one of them was the man who shot Ploeg. When confronted he gives Anton the most simple utilitarian argument for the assassination. It was for the greater good. Anton asks whether he would have done it if it had been his own parents that would be killed in reprisal. Of course not, replied the old resistance man. Though he lost both a brother and the love of his life in the operation.

Throughout the novel there is much rumination over people's ever- changing perspectives on good and evil . The delineation between ally and enemy seems fluid, as evidenced by the wars in Korea and Vietnam, not to mention the post-War metamorphosis of Stalin. So too is the border between friend and foe fluid, whether in social or romantic contexts. There is also considerable discussion of the ways in which people are drawn into war. Luck, often bad luck, plays as much a part as conviction.

By the final chapter, Anton has come to understand what happened to his family and, to some extent why. But there is one aching residual question. If Ploeg was killed outside the Korteweg house, why drag the body to the Steenwijks's? Wouldn't it have made the most sense to leave it outside the Beumers's, as Anton's brother had tried to do before being cut down in a hail of bullets? The couple had already lived a full life. They had no children to risk losing. If not the Beumers, then what about those antisocial Aaartses, the couple who lived across the road and didn't speak to anyone? They had set themselves apart and should suffer the consequences. The answer lies in one last chance encounter, when Anton is already an old man, with Karen Korteweg - she who had helped her father drag the body. In that answer comes the twist, one which will set a magnet to your moral compass and strip bare the irrational absurdity of self-preservation and sacrifice. Sometimes, it seems, even the most morally reprehensible act is terrifyingly, absolutely right.

Dog Bite Degustation: Cormier's "I Am The Cheese"

on Monday, May 10, 2010
Looking back, I really feel for my high school English teachers. For the most part I just didn't like them and made no bones about letting them know it. I disrupted their classes, refused to read the required texts and handed in whatever I felt like writing rather than what they had set. The ones I did like had it even worse. They were bombarded with short stories and textual analyses, and I made it very clear that I expected a full written response from them every time.

Poor Mrs. Auster had the misfortune of having to read my first two novellas - hilariously naff murder mysteries starring Samuel Snuff and Anson Green (I recently found them while cleaning out the family home) - after I spent the summer holidays between years seven and eight writing them. "The Right Snuff" scored me a gratifying twenty nine out of thirty. As is often the case with sequels, "Stuntmen By The Riverbank" was a slight let down. It only scored twenty seven.

Miss Begley was the next to fall. A charming school marm in the classic mould, she had me for the subject "Writing For Young Authors". I loved the class and made a point of throwing whatever I had tapped out the previous night Miss Begley's way. At first she encouraged my passion. Then she called in my parents. Apparently she was concerned about the contents of my stories. Mum, rather bemusedly, related the conversation back to me that night. "He writes well," Miss Begley had said, "but can't he write more about nice things like fields and flowers? For Bram it's all blood and guts. Is everything alright at home?" To be fair, at the time I was mainly reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz books, with the odd Edgar Allen Poe story thrown in for good measure. And I was a fourteen year old boy.

Other victims of my prolific adolescent scribbling included Mrs. Jensen who, for every year twelve creative writing assignment got thirty to forty page stories as well as my aunt Randi who, while not being my English teacher, was an English teacher and therefore forced to proof-read my first ever attempt at a novel. A hundred or so pages of turgid crap, sputtered out on an old dot matrix printer. She was very gracious with her time but we both knew that the book was going nowhere.

There is only one teacher who successfully tamed me and for whom I will always have a soft spot in my literary heart. Ms. Rapke knew of my reputation as an English menace. She was aware of my love for drama and showing off. She also knew that the only school book I had read was Bridge To Terabithia, although thankfully she didn't know how much I cried whilst doing so. Ms. Rapke hatched an ingenious plot to make me read that year's set English text. "The book is called I Am The Cheese. In two weeks we are going to have run a trial and Bram, you will be the prosecutor."

So began my love affair with Robert Cormier's masterpiece, not to mention my trajectory into the legal world. Since reading this novel almost twenty years ago, I have made a point of revisiting it every year. Now, on what is probably my sixteenth or seventeenth time, it still packs as much of a punch as the first time I read it. I Am The Cheese is the greatest mindfuck of a book I've ever come across. It is a paragon of literary paranoia, where nothing is certain and every page has a sinister twist. It simply beggars belief that this is considered a young adult novel. It is better and far more complex than almost anything written for adults. Ever.

There is only one semi-reliable narrative thread to speak of - Adam Farmer is the sole surviving member of his family and is now in some kind of institution being probed for answers. His father was an investigative journalist who stumbled across some vast conspiracy involving the government, the mafia and God knows who else. He became a key witness in a senate enquiry and then had to go underground as part of a pilot Witness Relocation Program with his wife and child. Pulling the strings throughout was a mysterious government apparatchik, Mr. Grey who, it later turns out, may or may not have sold them down the river.

The book is split into three equally beguiling narratives. There is the simple adventure of Adam riding his bike to deliver a package to his father in Rutterburg, Vermont. Then there are the interviews, where a shadowy doctor (or is he?) called Brint tries to recover Adam's memories. And between the answers there are Adam's memories of his family's terrifying downfall, from happy middle class city folk to secretive, fearful rabbits on the run. I don't want to give away too much, but suffice to say the three tie together in the most creepy way imaginable. The last two chapters, one of which has a Dorothy-back-from-Oz kind of revelation and the other a final psychiatric report are truly mind blowing.

I Am The Cheese was banned in many American schools back in the 1970's. It was said to have inflamed mistrust amongst flag-saluting, allegiance-pledging youngsters. There is no question it introduces kids to some pretty frightening concepts. And there is an air of Clockwork Orange flowing in its veins. But I can't think of a better written, more morally challenging piece of young adult literature out there.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, I won the case. Mr. Grey was found guilty of murder by a jury of my pubescent peers.

Dog Bite Degustation: Kafka's "The Trial"

on Thursday, May 6, 2010
It is nearly impossible for anyone writing about Franz Kafka to separate the author and his work from the sycophantic hype that surrounds them. As I wrote in a previous post, he has become the Che Guevara of the literary world - a symbol far removed from his reality, feted as much through projection as reason. Visionary. Prophet. Peddler of existential terror. However he is rolled out for popular consumption, his legend is unassailable. And yes, just like the motorbike-riding revolutionary, you can find his image on any number of tacky household items.

I have the unfortunate added difficulty of separating Kafka's books from the weight of nostalgia that accompanies his every word. He was my grandfather's favourite writer, a bridge between generations and, indeed in our case, worlds. I was first introduced to his work when I was accepted into law school sixteen years ago. Grandpa gave me his tattered old Penguin copy of The Trial from 1953 and told me it was essential reading for anyone contemplating life as a lawyer. "Actually, for anyone," he corrected himself. I still have that copy in the drawer of my bedside table. I still flick through it occasionally, its pages torn in half, transformed by the depredations of time into a literary mobius strip. Or flip-book. If I weren't so afraid of destroying this fragile relic, I'd probably enjoy experimenting with it, trying to recreate the story through mismatched half pages.

I have probably read The Trial six or seven times over the years in various translations and editions. Until it was somehow knocked off its perch by For The Good Of The Cause in 2008, I considered it my favourite book of all time for the better part of fifteen years. When Breon Mitchell reinvigorated the novel with his translation of the restored text, I burst with glee. Mitchell presents Josef K. in the most ordinary light of all the versions I've read. K is a working stiff. He chases tail, often to his great detriment. He sees the process as an affront to his dignity rather than some horror visited upon him. The Josef K of Mitchell's translation is the man to whom we can all best relate. From my understanding, it is how Kafka wanted us to know him. Therefore it is Mitchell's translation which I have chosen to revisit this month for the Dog Bite Degustation challenge.

I am glad to report that, unlike the Solzhenitsyn, my love for this book has not faded. Each reading brings with it new perspectives, new delights. When I studied the book at university in Professor Graewe's fantastic German Literature class, I mounted an argument for it as a religious allegory for the Jewish rites of passage, particularly Bar Mitzvah (I also claimed that my grandfather sat next to Kafka in synagogue in the twenties, but that's a whole other story). A few years later I saw it as some sort of fabulous attack on inflexible doctrinal legalism. I now see a host of other possible meanings. In Mitchell's translation one not only finds the crushing terror of bureaucratic injustice but a fine vein of humour to boot. Sometimes, Kafka appears to suggest, you just have to laugh at the predicament in which you find yourself. It is a prescient lesson for our times.

I will always feel indebted to my grandfather for introducing me to The Trial. He claimed not to fully understand it, which as an eighteen year old kid I found a bit silly. Only now, with the benefit of proper reflection do I get what he meant. If only to gain insight into the way in which law privileges itself over reason, this book is worth reading. The chapter on the machinations of the often invisible but omni-present system is one of the most complex, yet engaging, pieces of literature ever committed to paper. And the priest's parable, published elsewhere as the short story "Before The Law" is truly dazzling. I could go on forever. Read The Trial as allegory, as metafiction, as an existential thriller, even as a comedy. Just leave yourself time to read it again and again. Every time it will be as if you are reading it anew.

Dog Bite Degustation: Solzhenitsyn's "For The Good Of The Cause"

on Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has a well-deserved reputation for impenetrability. I have tried and failed to read both The Gulag Archipelago and In The First Circle, making Solzhenitsyn the only author whose books I have abandoned on more than one occasion. Cancer Ward takes up an imposingly large chunk of space on my bookshelf and is, no doubt, as dense as it is long. Even his slim, highly-regarded novel A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich is bleak and laborious which, as a pared down version of the Gulag brick, is what I suppose it is intended to be. Whatever. It bored me to tears. I don't really know, then, what made me pick up For The Good Of The Cause when I saw it on the shelves of an old second hand bookstore in Sydney. Perhaps it was the fact that the author had just died and was at the forefront of my mind. Or maybe it was because this book seemed to not be about life as a political prisoner and I was curious as to whether Solzhenitsyn actually had anything else to say. Maybe I just liked the front cover. Whatever the reason, I felt compelled to make the purchase.

Before you bother trying to find it, I should point out that For The Good of the Cause has long been out of print which is a great shame because, from my experience, it is by far Solzhenitsyn's most accessible book. Set in a rural Russian town, it tells of a small, woefully under-resourced school that is promised and then denied a new premises nearby. The kids get excited, pitch in to help build the place, only to have their dreams shattered "for the good of the cause". As it turns out, the council has decided that the new building is better off used as a research facility for some unknown government department. Granted that might all sound rather unremarkable, but this book is one of the most seething indictments on the idiocy of communist bureaucracy ever written.

When I first read For The Good Of The Cause, I loved it so much that I came to think of it as my favourite novel of all time. On rereading it, I still really liked it but suspect I was a little hasty in putting it on such a towering pedestal. Sure, the novel is still funny. Solzhenitsyn puts himself in for some gentle self-abasement, especially regarding the length of his major works, while showing a nifty propensity for classic absurdist humour. It is also just as frustrating as when I first read it. I really felt for the kids, and hoped there would be some satisfying resolution. And, of course, to a certain extent, Solzhenitsyn out-Kafkas Kafka by bringing the ridiculous machinery of opaque, pen-pushing despotism into the very real world of Cold War-era communist Russia. However, For The Good Of The Cause is not the perfect novel I had thought. I guess the very fact that I had found, finished and actually enjoyed a book by the bearded one caused my rating-radar to go askew. If I remember some of the other books I have for the Dog Bite Degustation challenge correctly, this one is unlikely to keep its place in the top twelve, let alone at number one. Looks like my list is in for a real shake-up.

Dog Bite Degustation: The May Challenge

on Sunday, May 2, 2010
A friend of mine who reads this blog made a rather telling comment a couple of weeks ago.

"Your blog is just an excuse for you to read terrible books," he said. "Either that or you are some totally f*#%ed masochist."

Looking back over my challenges to date, I can't help but feel he has a point. Even though I tried to steer away from rubbish during March's "Books I've Always Meant To Read" (most of which turned out to be vastly overrated anyway), there is no question that every other challenge has been directly geared towards me suffering for your entertainment. This month, however, I'm turning all that around and setting myself up for thirty-one days of unadulterated reading bliss. As the lyrics to one of the most saccharine-sweet songs in musical theatre go, May will be my month of revisiting 'a few of my favourite things'. Hence, the May challenge's title "Dog Bite Degustation".

Lists, as last month's Mile High Book Club amply proved, are arbitrary, artificial and, for the most part, plain crap. That didn't stop me sitting down some time last year and writing a list of my top fifty books of all time. It was quite the task. Given that I read somewhere between one and two hundred books a year (with the ridiculous outlier that was 2008 when I read two hundred and fifty one books), and have been doing so for the better part of twenty years, I figure I must have somewhere in the vicinity of three thousand novels to choose from. I was pretty happy with the list when I finished it and developed the annoying habit of handing out copies to anyone I knew who liked reading whenever the opportunity arose. At parties. At work. At weddings. At funerals. I really had no shame.

Almost a year after compiling the list I think it's time I revisited the top few. Most of them I haven't read for around ten or so years. I remember loving them, but perhaps they merely represented a time and a place. I've decided to hit the top twelve, a number that is not quite as random as it seems. I had intended to just do the top ten, but I love the books at numbers eleven and twelve so much that I'd hate to miss out on rereading them.

So here, sitting in an unruly stack on my bedside table, ready for the May challenge, are my top twelve books of all time:

For The Good of The Cause by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The Trial by Franz Kafka
The Moment of Freedom by Jens Bjorneboe
The Assault by Harry Mulisch
The Maimed by Hermann Ungar
Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
Waiting for The Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee
The Book of Daniel by E. L. Doctorow
The Postman by Antonio Skarmeta
A Dry White Season by Andre Brink
I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon