Microviews Vol. 54: Laying Waste to the Wasteland

on Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Ok, so I've had a few emails of late asking me whether I've given up blogging... or reading... or writing. Short answers: No, no and no. I just haven't read anything worth yammering on about. Indeed, I'd almost given up on 2015 as the year that had about three good books to slot into an otherwise desolate top ten. Then last week happened... Yep, I read a bunch of great stuff. I mean really great stuff. So, back on this wonky horse I get...

Leica Format by Daša Drndić
Forget everything you think you know about storytelling. It's all a big fat lie, whittled down by barbarians, reduced to its basic blocks for ease of narrative reconstruction. Same goes for life, I suppose, for reality as we experience it. Few writers can push aside the artifice - Thomas Bernhard springs to mind, as does László Krasznahorkai. Of the young guns there is Jesse Ball. Nobody, however, captures experiential actuality quite like Daša Drndić. When I first read her previous novel, Trieste, I was blown away. I'd not read anything like it and, looking back, it redefined my expectations of literary fiction. That a book could not only be propelled forwards but explode outwards, unfolding on multiple (often competing) planes, and yet still draw together as a cohesive whole was a revelation. I clearly wasn't the only one. Trieste was reviewed enthusiastically across the board, most notably in the New York Times, and was nominated for (and, in my mind robbed of) the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Now, two years on, we finally see a second of her novels appearing in English. In Drndić's native Croatia, Leica Format preceded Trieste by four years and yet, strangely enough, it serves as a fitting chaser for the English language reader. The book opens with a woman being stopped by a stranger in the street. Her entire identity, according to the stranger, is a lie. She is known by another name, has another past. Thus begins an entire unravelling of reality, with electric bolts shooting across the synaptic clefts to momentarily light glimpses of what might be going on. Photographic allusions run through the very soul of this book as Drndić lays bare the nature of our interactions with our surroundings; not only do we remember in static image but, to a certain extent, we live as a series of static images, captured in some kind of objective sense, but apt for "photoshopping" as we consciously or, more often, subconsciously see fit. To this end, Leica Format reminds me of Proust if he had been popping madeleines like they were candy. But this is not some Frenchman with verbal diarrhoea and a penchant for sentimental pap. Drndić pokes and prods at the darkest aspects of modern history until the boils pop and smear us with the pus of our own making. It is visceral and unsettling but entirely real; a kaleidoscope of disturbing mnemonics, each one a catalyst for the next unflinching interrogative foray. Like in Trieste, the Holocaust is a recurring motif - it is, after all, the locus of our collective inhumanity. But Leica Format is more panoramic in its vision. Human experimentation, devolution, sexual perversity, disease, 'miracle' cures - the list of human failings goes on in a fugue-like multi-logue that would do well to be read in a single sitting. If it all sounds too disparate then maybe it is. But Drndić skilfully contains it in what I can only describe as a Joycean effort - the strands seem to shoot out as a woman walks along the streets of her old hometown, streets she barely recognises. I suspect readers will have a harder time with Leica Format than they did with Trieste. It is, in form and substance, a rather more difficult book. But it is also a demented catherine wheel of imagination and historical interrogation. Truly superb.
5 Out Of 5 Corrections

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf
Kent Haruf was very much a writers' writer, a craftsman with a gentle touch, able to chisel revelations from the plainest of stone. By no means prolific, his books garnered critical praise and won him numerous awards without ever really propelling him to the commercial heights of many of his contemporaries. Our Souls At Night, completed shortly before his death late last year, is a fitting swan song to a quietly dignified and distinguished career; a tender melancholic tale about getting old and finding meaning in our shared loneliness. Louis and Addie live in the same little Colorado town. They both lost their spouses long ago and are growing old alone, finding ways to pass the time in the slow march towards the inevitable. It is at night they feel it most, the crushing solitude, the curse of outliving those you love. In what seems like an oddly decent proposal, Addie suggests that Louis starts to sleep at her place; it is not a sexual arrangement (though later there is an hilarious scene involving an attempt at sexual intimacy), she just wants someone to talk to, to keep her warm. Louis is not sure at first but he soon relents. So begins a gorgeous friendship, nights spent talking about life, loss, love and, yes, the future. Tongues wag, judgements are passed - it is a small town after all - but Louis and Addie find a new lease on life. They are reinvigorated, excited. When Addie's grandson is dumped in her care it threatens to fracture their bond. The boy's father doesn't approve of the arrangement, finds it scandalous. Yet what the two have forged transcends simple coupling. They may well have found a new kind of love. In spare, unsentimental prose Haruf weaves a life-affirming tale that radiates with gentle warmth. That he wrote it in the face of his own mortality is clear; it is a wise, knowing book, at peace with what is to come but still able to find joy in the final moments.
5 Out Of 5 Hot Water Bottles

Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz by Maxim Biller
Literary ventriloquism is always a risky business. Some writers lend themselves to mimicry, allowing for a certain amount of clumsiness in execution without totally ruining the show. Then there are writers like Bruno Schulz, an artist so unique, a voice so distinct, that a single slip will see the proverbial hand burst through the dummy's mouth. Schulz, of course, has been the subject of considerable experimentation. Cynthia Ozick played with his famous 'lost' novel in The Messiah of Stockholm. China Mieville dedicated a whole novel, The City and The City, to riffing on Schulz's Cinnamon Shops. Roberto Bolano and David Grossman have both tipped their hats. And Jonathan Safran Foer did a literal hatchet job in his not-overly-successful Tree of Codes project. None, however, have had the audacity to become Bruno Schulz. Enter Maxim Biller. Something of a sensation in his native Germany, Inside The Head of Bruno Schulz is a short novella in which the eponymous author seeks to escape his hometown of Drohobych by convincing his hero, Thomas Mann, to help him find a foreign publisher. The clincher: a man has come to the town claiming to be the great German master and Schulz smells a rat. He needs to warn Mann. He needs to know he isn't going mad. He needs to get the hell out of Dodge(rohobych). Biller deftly weaves classic Schulzian imagery throughout the tale: the fantastic becomes real, mundane even. Claustrophobia and paranoia combine to crush the lonely writer as he doubts both his judgement and his sanity. Oh, and of course, he must keep up appearances in his day job as a school teacher. In this short work, Biller has achieved something quite wonderful. He has given us another Bruno Schulz story with the tragically-fated author as its protagonist.
4.5 Out of 5 Talking Pigeons

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
Critics have been quick to slap lazy comparisons on Obioma's quite stunning debut. There's the biblical: Cain and Abel. Yep, it's a story about brothers. It's tragic, cataclysmic even. Next there are the classics: any number of Greek tragedies. Death foretold and played out. Some can't resist the easy African comparison: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Okay, so it's a Nigerian tale in which Obioma addresses the collision of modernity and traditional African life. Achebe's book even makes an appearance or two. But, c'mon... There are still others. Equally applicable but altogether inadequate. If I were to throw my hat into the ring, I might choose The Virgin Suicides; The Fishermen has the same blend of mystery and inevitability, you know where it's going, your heart aches in advance but you can't turn away. To reduce The Fisherman to what it's (kind of) like, however, is to do it a serious injustice. This is a bold and original debut, drawing beautifully upon an entire body of mythology to tell a very contemporary, universal story. The Fishermen of the title are four young brothers growing up in the rural Nigerian town of Akure in the politically turbulent 1990s. Their father has big dreams for them - they will be doctors, lawyers and such - and won't abide their parochial old world leanings. When they are spotted fishing by the town's tattletale, he is bitterly disappointed but is able to spin their dream of being actual fishermen into something more metaphorical. Poverty drives him out of town to find work, leaving the boys to skip school and resume their childish ways. They are, after all, only boys. One day, while returning home, they are confronted by the village madman who warns them of a dire prophecy: the oldest brother will be killed by one of the others. So begins a horrible downward spiral; paranoia compounds normal sibling tensions until the prophecy comes true. Those left behind have only one dream: revenge. Told by Ben, the youngest of the brothers, The Fisherman maintains a childlike wonder throughout. Like make of the best child narrators in literary history, his voice is knowingly assured but perhaps a small step away from full understanding. We, as readers, are left to fill in the blanks, to wade through the mythological imagery and find the real meaning in what he tells us. Ben forces us to bear witness to the collapse of a family that holds within it the hopes and dreams of a new Africa. Did someone say Booker Prize 2015?
4.5 Out Of 5 Marks of Cain