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Come-Barbarians

Come Barbarians started life named The South of France. With a title like that, you could be forgiven for expecting humorous observations about obsessive artisan cheese-makers, reflections on tending a herb garden in a hot, dry climate, and odes to breathtaking mountain views of sky and sea. Something like Peter Mayle’s famous Year in Provence, perhaps…  Let me tell you — warn you — dear reader, you are not in for a book like that!

The title change was a very good idea, because Todd Babiak’s fifth novel is a no-holds-barred-thriller that doesn’t simply use France as a fancy backdrop but instead probes the country’s seamy and corrupt underbelly.  When it opens, I found myself experiencing a profound feeling of disorientation. That’s appropriate for the premise: our protagonist, Christopher Kruse, has just lost his daughter to a fatal car accident and his wife, Evelyn, has gone missing. A sense of mystery hangs over these pages, like fog in the tight streets of a medieval town. What the hell has happened?

This is the burning question that propels the narrative forward, and boy does it rip, TGV-style, all over France. Kruse, it appears, has been cuckolded; Evelyn was embroiled in an affair with an aspiring leader of France’s notorious right-wing party, the National Front. That leader, like Kruse’s daughter, is also dead. And Evelyn is suspect number one for his murder.

Kruse’s search for Evelyn is also a search for the truth. It gets him deeper and deeper into interconnected webs of deception, manipulation and political skullduggery at the very highest levels of government, but nothing ever stretches the limits of believability. It does, at times, test the reader’s stomach for violence and brutality. There is an act of torture about halfway through the book that will not help with your insomnia. DOES ANYTHING GOOD EVER HAPPEN IN MARSEILLE?!

Babiak’s book comes at a curious time for those of us who grew up as francophiles. France is still the most heavily-visited tourist nation in the world, for obvious reasons (the Louvre, Avignon, Normandy, the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean – all in the same country?). Sensible Americans envy its world class health care system. And France’s citizens are mostly — and again to the envy of so many — still quite svelte, unlike those flabby and beer bloated hooligans inhabiting the country just the other side of the English Channel. And France’s literary culture still generates considerable excitement and notoriety. Writers like Michel Houellebecq have become national heroes/villains.

But… but… as Babiak’s book so adroitly makes clear: there are two Frances. There is the France of “The South of France,” and the France of Come Barbarians, set, by the way, in the early 1990s. This France is well on its way to becoming the France of today, even less mythic, more conflicted, which passes laws prohibiting public sector employees from wearing the hijab or turban and, tiresomely, inspires a new government in Quebec to attempt a similar act. Each version of France fascinates, intrigues, and enrages those who take the time to get to know it.

In short, France cuts a pretty arresting figure on the narrative scene.

As for Babiak’s prose, it is tight, like an electrical wire. It primarily serves the plot, but like any good power-line, it hums along and goes everywhere: from a nondescript hotel in the ‘burbs to a gendarmerie in an ancient cobblestone town to a crowded political forum. The following brief but telling scene, I think, gives a pretty good insight into the kind of master craftsman’s touches to expect:

The ugly courtyard in front of the Sorbonne was deserted. He could see his champagne breath as he exited the taxi, whose driver was from Afghanistan and longed to be in London or New York, where a man could go from poor to rich in only a year or two. He could not marry and raise a child in this country of whores and faggots because a man does not own his wife and child in France–the state owns everything. La France, yes? La? Even the men are womanly. It is illegal to touch your own wife, to smack your own child if he is misbehaving. What sort of life is that, Monsieur?

Kruse did not give the driver a tip.

CanLit’s detractors sometimes claim our books are too nice, polite and reserved. No one is going to say that about this book. Come Barbarians, like France, compels our attention, throwing dirty punches one second, and charming us with wit and sophistication the next–and never apologizing  for holding us unflinchingly in its callused grip.

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caucasus-lermontov

Lermontov died in a duel just over a year after publishing A Hero of Our Time (1840). For we readers, this is the kind of timing of which legends are made. Imagine if Paul McCartney had died in a fist-fight after writing Live and Let Die, or if Marlon Brando had been fatally wounded by a pit-bull after appearing in On the Waterfront. For Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time stands as the brilliant legacy of a creative mind snuffed out prematurely.

The very title can be considered to be, in the narrator’s own words, “malicious irony.” The novel’s protagonist, Grigory Pechorin (named after the northern Russian river, the Pechora) is manipulative, deceitful, course, and often outright villainous. He frequently sabotages and sometimes even destroys the lives of others, including friends and lovers.

It’s easy to see this is as a precursor to so many of the famous Russian masterpieces of the 19th century, especially a book such as Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But it would be wrong to read this purely for a literary history lesson. This is quite simply an astounding work, ingenious for its construction and flawless in its execution.

There are five story arcs here told by three different narrators – one unnamed, who opens the book, Maxim Maximych, an army captain, who picks up the narrative very quickly afterward, and Pechorin himself, who relays the bulk of the dramatic narrative through to the book’s conclusion. So in a way, we approach Pechorin a bit like a plane breaking through the clouds to get to its destination: we begin at a distance, we get closer, and ultimately we get very close indeed.

Of the five narratives, I enjoyed the first, Bela, and the last, The Fatalist, the most. But this book shouldn’t be confused for a collection of short stories. I do think A Hero of Our Time must be read in sequence: the logic of following the prescribed order is to gain insights en route to the final part’s considerations of some Truly Big Questions – and to bear such weight, we need to live with Pechorin for a while.

In Bela, Maxim Maximych tells the story of his encounter with Pechorin. The events take place in the Caucasus – the Russian empire’s frontier, a rough and wild place. Pechorin falls for a beautiful woman named Bela, and schemes up a cunning way to win her over. It turns out that Bela’s brother Azamat covets the horse of a local trader, and Pechorin says he’ll steal the horse in exchange for Azamat’s sister. (Yes, a horse ends up getting “traded” for a woman – this isn’t exactly a pleasant read for a 21st century reader.)

But here’s the thing: Pechorin sets in motion this awful sequence of events, which ultimately ends fatally for Bela, without having ever really been in love. Before Bela’s demise, she becomes quite devoted to Pechorin, but this only hastens his sense of boredom with her.

Pechorin is a restless figure – seemingly never satisfied, always seeking new adventures, pleasures and schemes, and openly scorns or considers himself unfit for conventional life. In this respect, Lermontov has presented a very modern figure; Pechorin reminded me a little of David di Meola in Michel Houellebecq’s seminal novel 1998 novel, The Elementary Particles – insofar as we’re dealing with somebody almost entirely unmoored from any kind of moral structure.

In The Fatalist, Pechorin takes a break from his sophisticated games of plotting and scheming. What unfolds instead is the tale of a drinking game, rather like Russian roulette, and its aftermath. Pechorin believes that the man pointing the gun at his own head will not survive, and bets against him, believing he has seen some physical sign of doom on the man’s face. This raises questions about fate and predestination — the subjects of the drinking conversation all night.

After the events of the party (no spoilers here!)  Pechorin departs, and we are treated to the following paragraph – a meditation on the rapid decline of fatalistic thinking in society generally:

I walked home through the empty back streets of the village. A full red moon was just showing over the broken line of buildings, like the glare of a fire. Stars shone calmly in the deep blue sky, and I was amazed to think that there were once wise men who imagined the stars took part in men’s pretty squabbles over a patch of land or somebody’s ‘rights.’ While in fact these lamps, which they supposed had been lit for the sole purpose of shining on their battles and triumphs, still burn on as bright as ever, while they, with all their passions and hopes, have long since vanished, like a fire lit by some carefree traveller at the edge of a forest. Yet what strength they derived from this certainty that the heavens with all their countless hosts looked down on them in silent, but never-failing sympathy. And we, their pitiful descendants, drift through the world, without beliefs, pride, pleasure or fear, except that automatic fear that grips us when we think of the certainty of death. We can no longer make great sacrifices for the good of mankind, or even for our own happiness, because we know they are unattainable. And as our ancestors rushed from illusion to illusion, so we drift indifferently from doubt to doubt. But, unlike them, we have no hope, nor even that indefinable but real sense of pleasure that’s felt in any struggle, be it with men or destiny.

I admit, I was pretty shaken by these words. I had to stop and read them again. And again. And then I read them aloud to my wife.

All in all, this book’s mix of nastiness, violence and vice, combined with beautiful insights, popping up in the most unexpected of places, like an obelisk rising from a swamp, kept me utterly enthralled.

The translation I read was Paul Foote’s – the Penguin Classics edition. Thanks, Nick Glossop of the Paltry Sapien, for lending it to me.
Top image: Tiflis, 1837, A painting by Mikhail Lermontov

girl_with_the_dragon_tattoo

The success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and its two sequels, is staggering. Worldwide these books have sold 73 million copies. Stieg Larsson died in 2004 before he saw even a fraction of this eventual success. As the New Yorker reports, the author wanted to leave his then modest wealth to a local branch of Sweden’s Communist Workers’ Party, but because there was no witness, the will was invalid, leaving his family members and girlfriend to squabble over his fortune.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was made into a popular Swedish film, as were the sequels, and then David Fincher of Se7en and The Social Network fame embarked on an American remake a mere two years later. I’ve seen two of the Swedish films—in fact, I committed the supposedly cardinal sin of doing so before I even touched the book. But as the New Yorker points out, these books most probably work better as films. For one, the films are beautiful to look at. (I now really, really want to go to Stockholm!) Also, they’re incredibly violent, and we all know that spectators of the modern era revel in scenes of brutality, torture and revenge. Furthermore, the highly talented cast of actors adds substantial depth to the characters.

Our two heroes are Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander: he is the veteran publisher of the muckraking magazine Millennium (an echo of Larsson’s own career with the real-life magazine, Expo); she is a traumatized bisexual goth-punk with an astonishing acumen for hacking into computers and digging up dirt on people.

Part of what accounts for the book’s popularity, I think, is that it’s incredibly easy for the reader to follow the investigative methods employed by these two purportedly brilliant researchers. At one point, Salander wants to find out more about the unsolved murder of a woman called Magda. So what’s the first thing she does? She types “Magda” and “murder” into the Google search engine. In the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, Blomkvist imparts some journalistic wisdom to a young intern: how exactly do you find out the address of a potential criminal who is trying to evade detection? The answer is the old “lottery trick”: you call the person and say they’ve won a valuable smartphone and ask for their address for the purpose of delivering the prize. It’s the sort of thing a fourteen year-old would think up.

This is the wonderful thing about Larsson: he writes with the unrestrained joy for invention that, with education, is typically beaten out of most writers. There are plot holes, utter implausibilities and scads of extraneous information. In the hands of a professional editor, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would probably be 300 pages instead of its door-stopping 800+. But would 300 pages have kept me occupied during a flight to Edmonton and through the 9-hour delay on the flight back?

Size, in this case, really does matter.

There is an exemplary section of prose that represents well, I think, Larsson’s strange technique. These books were hurriedly translated from Swedish and so allowances must be made, but I’m guessing that since little to no editing occurred, this is a pretty fair picture of how Larsson actually wrote. This is from a scene in which Salander is beating up an arch-villain:

“Do you like pain, creep?” Salander said.

Her voice was as rough as sandpaper. As long as Blomkvist lived, he would never forget her face as she went on the attack. Her teeth were bared like a beast of prey. Her eyes were glittering, black as coal. She moved with the lightning speed of a tarantula and seemed totally focussed on her prey as she swung the club again, striking Martin in the ribs.

Glorious. Simply glorious! Here’s a writer who has no qualms about conjuring the image of a tarantula swinging a club. He’s in thrall to metaphor. What’s important here? That Salander is super-dangerous. What better way to convey it than by comparing her to a deadly spider?

There is a rare optimism in this book. Larsson pits his protagonists against the dark forces of Swedish capitalism, Nazism and corruption, and in the balance, his protagonists fare pretty well. Consider that Blomkvist is a journalist. In the era of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, perhaps we should not be so surprised to see a journalist as a hero, but let’s not forget, Chelsea Manning is behind bars and Snowden and Julian Assange are fugitives. Blomkvist, we are told, is a celebrity in Sweden.

Blomkvist is also inexplicably irresistible to women. Despite being somewhat overweight, a chain smoker, and a compulsive workaholic, women want to sleep with him at every opportunity. Even Salander, who, as is noted several times, is only half his age, can’t refrain from climbing into his bed. It’s as if Larsson is acting out his personal fantasies on the page.

And then there’s Larsson’s obsession with technology. It’s everywhere! Salander doesn’t just buy herself a new computer, she buys herself an “Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHz . . . with a PowerPC 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity Engine, 960 MB RAM and a 60 GB hard drive.” Larsson doesn’t stop to consider how dated this is going to seem five years later, let alone fifty.

To me, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t read so much as a compelling narrative as it does an intriguing insight into the mind of its creator. And in this respect, it’s awfully hard not to like. Larsson entitled the original Swedish version of the book Men Who Hate Women. To make sure we get the point, each part of the novel opens with a statistic about crimes against women. To make even more sure we get the point, all the villains in this book commit crimes against women. And they all pay the price for it. When he was a teenager, Larsson witnessed the gang rape of a girl and forever afterward felt guilty for doing nothing to stop it. These books seem to have served as some kind of lengthy atonement.

Larsson’s been compared to Alexandre Dumas of The Three Musketeers fame, and perhaps that’s apt. As well as being extraordinarily prolific (3+ massive novels in under four years?!) Larsson has returned us to a time when good truly did triumph over evil, or at least had a fighting chance. It’s thrilling to see Millennium, a tiny fictional magazine, its budget probably not much bigger than Montreal’s maisonneuve or New York’s Jacobin, strike genuine fear into the hearts of the rich and powerful, and moreover, actually cause the downfall of international gangsters and titans of industry. This kind of shit just doesn’t happen in real life. In Larsson’s world, every crooked capitalist should be watching his back for the marauding journalist or intrepid computer hacker who is poised to deliver justice, swiftly and mercilessly. This is not the world we live in, but perhaps it should be.

Hamsun

This is the third book I’ve read by Knut Hamsun, and boy, was it the oddest. The first, Hunger, was an absolute revelation for me. Upon completing it, I felt rather dumbfounded that it could have taken me 38 years to discover such a compelling author. He really is one of the greats.

[Hamsun] won the Nobel Prize in 1920… and he had a deep and lasting grip on his public, that of an enchanter. Singer admitted to being “hypnotized” by him; Hesse called him his favorite writer; Hemingway recommended his novels to Scott Fitzgerald; Gide compared him to Dostoyevsky, but believed that Hamsun was “perhaps even more subtle.” The list of those who loved his sly, anarchic voice is long. [Read more in the New Yorker]

Perhaps I hadn’t heard of him because his career was something of a sordid Scandinavian secret. Despite his Nobel Prize and popularity, he died practically penniless. The Norwegian government fined him an enormous sum for treason because of his Nazi sympathies. Hamsun admired Adolf Hitler – even meeting him once – and upon the Fuhrer’s death, wrote a eulogy extolling his virtues as “a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.”

He was clearly a man of extremes. He had encountered extreme poverty (which influenced much of Hunger) not to mention extreme isolation, and extreme exploitation in the shape of back-breaking, relentless physical labour. There is a remarkable anecdote about him that goes like this. During his long stay in the United States, he was working as an auctioneer in Minneapolis, and after a particularly hard day’s labour, he started to spit blood. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which the local doctor said would kill him in three months, but Hamsun would have none of this, and booked himself onto a train to New York, insisting on sitting on top of the locomotive so that he could gulp down mouthfuls of fresh air. His self-prescribed cure worked and he lived many more decades.

I have to admit that Mysteries was not, for me, the same kind of transformational read as Hunger. It’s a very confusing read, perhaps deliberately so. A man named Johan Nilsen Nagel shows up in a small Norwegian coastal town and immediately starts to bewilder and perplex all that meet him. He has several strange, unconsummated entanglements with women. He plays the role of protector to a character known only by the name The Midget. Most of all, he talks—he talks a hell of a lot: in long, strange, seemingly manipulative and deceitful monologues or in long arguments with other characters.

To me, he seemed to be a pathological liar. But unlike other characters one reads or hears about, who are also pathological liars (the Mayor of Toronto?!) Nagel appears to be very honest with himself, or at least, deeply conscious of his own emotional plight. Similar to Hunger, in Mysteries, Hamsun shines a light of enormous intensity on the changing moods and thoughts of his protagonist.

Again, though, I’ll admit: I didn’t quite “get it.” I wasn’t ever quite sure who this man, at the centre of so much commotion, really was. It’s very disorienting to spend over 300 pages in the company of a protagonist who makes as little sense as this.

I decided to embark on this new blogging exercise, “Favourite Fiction Excerpts,” with the aim of extracting from books some pearls of prose that I really liked. This preamble has been so long perhaps because, in fact, I didn’t really find a lot in Mysteries that I could focus on and comprehend—I’ve wanted instead to simply make a very general case for reading Hamsun, despite all the obvious misgivings. There is one rather beautiful moment in Mysteries, though, which opens Chapter 17, that really appealed to me. Hamsun is very, very good at nature, and this brief paragraph is so wonderful because he so simply and effectively brings a halt to all the preceding nastiness and angst, for just an instant, so that we can take a look out of the window (the window of Nagel’s hotel room) and see the outside world:

The next day the same downpour, the same dark, heavy atmosphere. There seemed to be no end to the water that flooded the gutters and streamed down the windowpanes. Hour after hour it poured, and by noon the sky was overcast and still. The small garden behind the hotel was awash with bent and broken trees and floating leaves—covered with mud and water.

That’s it: that’s one of the rare interludes Hamsun grants the reader. Soon after this, the anti-hero Nagel gets out of his room and goes out into the night to stir up more discord and discontent. Several chapters later there is an extraordinary monologue delivered to The Midget by Nagel — most probably all of it an outright lie — about a cat, and a fish hook, and a vial of poison and… no, I won’t get into that because it would reveal too much of the plot.

One thing is for sure: I’ll be reading this book again one day. It was so unlike Hunger in so many respects that I perhaps brought rather unfair expectations to it. It’s a rare author that changes so decisively between one book and the next (Victoria, which I’ve also read, is something else entirely) but clearly I, feeble reader that I am, must work a little harder to keep up with Hamsun’s mercurial temperament!

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