Review of ‘Night Film’ by Marisha Pessl

November 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Review of ‘Night Film’ by Marisha Pessl

Acknowledgement: The review copy of ‘Night Film’ was provided by Scoop Review of Books


Night Film is Marisha Pessl’s second novel, and it is a richly entertaining read, although this experience feels like more than just reading. Pessl takes what might be called a trope – a combination of characters and their surroundings that feel very familiar – and does something spectacular with it. She has created a layered thriller that keeps you wondering, and exploring, well after the last page has been turned.

At the heart of Night Film is the reclusive horror film director Stanislas Cordova. Only those who’ve had direct contact with him know what he looks like. Photographs in the media or on the internet may or may not be him. Pessl has echoed Roeg, Hitchcock, Polanski, Cassavetes and others to create a character who is familiar yet unknown, and taken it to extremes. Readers will find themselves wishing – hoping, even – that he really existed – even though, if he did, they may never have dared see one of his films.

Pessl’s imagination and dedication in creating Cordova’s story is impressive. A full back catalogue of films, both before and after he was driven underground. Actors and family irreversibly affected by the experience of being connected to Cordova. A deep web community – the ‘blackboards’ – where Cordovites share stories, information about screenings and more, and where new visitors are not welcome. A sprawling Gothic estate in the Adirondacks where he made all his films, exerting absolute control over their creation. A university tutor specialising in Cordova’s films, including their symbols and structure. Very quickly you forget it’s all made up, and you want to log into the ‘blackboards’ and join in.

Night Film is told in the first person by Scott McGrath, a journalist who once tried to investigate Cordova but was disgraced for not being able to prove his allegations. Now Cordova’s daughter, Ashley, is dead, and McGrath is back on the case. Pessl’s decision to make McGrath the narrator allows Night Film to both reach its heights and avoid the many traps such a complicated book might set. Because McGrath, as it soon becomes clear, is a less than reliable narrator. Before long, you doubt everything that’s going on, and realise that it is McGrath’s story being told: his obsession with Cordova and Ashley, through his biased eyes and mind.

Not content with creating a complicated, intriguing world, an enigmatic character who dominates the book without being there, and an unreliable narrator, Pessl goes one step further and includes web pages, newspaper reports, photographs and more. There’s even an app which provides more material if you scan certain images in the novel. The web pages are black, the cover black, and at key points whole pages are black, with McGrath’s narrative disappearing and reappearing roughly two pages worth of story later – and the reader left wondering, like McGrath, about what happened.

In the end, it was almost too much for me, but Pessl reigns herself in somewhat as the book draws to a close and provides a perfectly appropriate and mysterious ending. Having seen the story exclusively from McGrath’s point of view – biased, drunk, drugged or just plain mistaken – we know only what he thinks he knows, and are as ignorant as he is about the truth. Near the end of the book, Pessl introduces a character who, while their place is perfectly justified and signalled early on, may be just a little too contrived as a way of telling the reader some of the truth. Without that character, though, the level of frustration about what really happened in the preceding 500 pages would have been too high.

Although McGrath’s language is a little clichéd and clunky from time to time, I’m on Pessl’s side when it comes to criticism of her writing – it’s McGrath’s voice, not Pessl’s, and it is absolutely consistent throughout, coming from the obsessed, flawed, burnt out wordsmith.

I was completely taken in by Night Film, and couldn’t put it down. When it comes to the literary last page test – ‘Do you want to know what happens next?’ – it passes with flying colours, and then some.


Review of Solo, by William Boyd

October 28, 2013 Leave a comment

I enjoy William Boyd’s writing. RestlessWaiting for Sunrise, Any Human Heart. These are what you might call rollicking yarns. The protagonist, male, is at the centre of events much larger than him. He plays an important part – often not entirely intentionally – in the way things turn out. The stories span years, if not decades or lifetimes. When faced with the chance to write a James Bond story, Boyd mostly falls back on this model– rather than the more driven nature of Fleming’s Bond. Fleming’s Bond is pivotal to the plot, not incidental like Boyd’s.

Solo, as a result, is a peculiar book. It is as if Boyd can’t make his mind up. Should he write Bond his way, or Fleming’s way? His indecision is reflected on every page as well as in the overall structure, in which the eponymous solo mission doesn’t start until two-thirds of the way through the book. Faced with a story that unfolds over a shorter time frame than he is used to working with, it is as if Boyd has padded it out. Coupled with generous line spacing and margins Solo is also a shorter book than I’d first thought on picking it up.

Boyd, as with any contemporary Bond author, is also bound by the Bond of the silver screen. It is simply not possible to shake, at best, the image of Connery, at worst Moore, plodding around the screen, valuable minutes taken up with his bathroom regime, his contemplation of the view, his choice of meals. Boyd’s Bond is that Bond, and could never match the brutality of Dalton or the lightning-quick action of Craig.

Boyd’s Bond is forty-five the day the book starts, his story set in the late sixties. The world Boyd shows us is the world we have seen in the films of Connery and Moore, his Bond recast back as Fleming’s original, the ‘right’ age according to Fleming’s authentic backstory which tells us Bond was born in 1924. It means also that Bond should have officially retired as a ‘00’ officer, Bond aficionados knowing that the retirement age is forty-five, but soon he is sent on the mission that takes up the first two-thirds of the book .

So Bond is a veteran – but of what? Instead of showing flashbacks on Bond’s previous career – perhaps he thinks readers will know too much about this already – Boyd is at pains to show us Bond’s doubts about what he is doing, about what he wants, by having him reflect and ponder over coffee, dinner, cocktails and so on, but it is always generalised and wholly unconvincing.

Bond’s interactions with M and others are similarly shallow. The mission is barely described. We see not the slightest preparation or briefing. Things happen as if by accident. Bond casually catches flights, talk to friends and enemies alike, without any clear sense of purpose. Boyd also creates an entirely fictional African country as the setting for part of the story but, because he flies there from London and the USA, this simply heightens the sense of disbelief.

Perhaps I was expecting too much from this book. I was looking for a story that zipped along whereas Solo, at its best, plods. I wanted details that made me believe in the world I was seeing, not endless descriptions of Bond pondering his clothes and food. I wanted him to be more central to the unravelling of the plot and, while he played his part, it always felt incidental. He appears to be, if not exactly bumbling, someone who is never quite sure what is going on. He is, of course, happy to bed the Bond girls that come along. Boyd has made sure to include that ingredient of the Bond recipe.

And it was a recipe that finally killed the book for me. Not for a cocktail, but for a salad dressing, of all things. Boyd describes the ingredients in the narrative but then inserts a footnote setting it out again in detail. The note is completely out of place, unnecessary and, for a third person narrative, self-indulgent.

All of this is a shame, because the story itself had great promise. An aid programme subverted, a African civil war, a deformed villain, a couple of unwittingly helpful bystanders, some attractive women and a clever Brit doing what the Yanks, with all their might, couldn’t. Classic Bond ingredients but, like a good cocktail or salad dressing, when the mixing-up is off, even slightly, you recognise what it is supposed to be, but that doesn’t make it satisfactory.

Review of ‘The Aftermath’ by Rhidian Brook

September 20, 2013 3 comments

‘The Aftermath’ by Rhidian Brook

Published by Penguin

ISBN 978 0  670 92112 6

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of The Aftermath was provided by Booksellers New Zealand.

Have you ever thought about what happens after a war in which you were on the losing side? Specifically, when your country was invaded and your side lost? For some, it is unimaginable. For others, it will be all too real. One of the strengths of Rhidian Brook’s third novel, ‘The Aftermath,’ is the way that in this era of global conflict, with refugees and reconstruction missions so constantly in the news, a story set sixty years ago will resonate with people going through, or at least observing, the same thing going on today.

‘The Aftermath’ is set largely in Hamburg, Germany, immediately after the second world war. Brook acknowledges inspiration from his grandfather, who requisitioned a house there in 1946, and he constructs a story that shows the rebuilding of post-war lives in a way that is both fascinating and horrifying. His website says the book is being translated into twenty-three languages. Assuming one of those languages is German its audience there will, perhaps, react with more emotion than any other.

Those who remember what it was like in Europe in the post-war years are rapidly dwindling in number. My own grandparents, gone now, were in their late teens and early twenties in 1939-1945. My parents were both war babies, and grew up in a time of ration books and austerity. But those days were over by the time they were in their teens, and their remembered youth was more milk bars and mods, Bill Haley and Elvis, motorbikes and day trips to Clacton-on-Sea.

Rhidian Brook’s novel shows us that immediate post-war austerity, from the perspective of both the British who were sent to help Germany rebuild, as well as the Germans who survived. Can you imagine the reaction of the British as their government sent food, supplies and manpower to a country that was, last month, still killing their young men, while children at home went hungry? Can you imagine what it was like to have all semblance of civilisation stripped away – your mayor, your government, your everything – before surrender, and now be faced with the very soldiers who were killing your families arriving and throwing you out of your house?

Once the emotion of the events that frame the novel settle down, the story is somewhat more conventional. The novel hinges on the decision by Lewis Morgan, a British Army Colonel who is allocated a substantial and beautiful house next to the Elbe in Hamburg, to allow the Luberts, whose house it is, to remain living there alongside him and his family. This is highly unusual, and draws concern and criticism from Lewis’s fellow officers, but he insists that to do otherwise would be the opposite of what they are trying to achieve – the rehabilitation of a people and the rebuilding of a country.

It seems almost inevitable that the attention of Rachael, Lewis’s wife, is drawn away from the reserved, English Army officer, always busy with his important work, towards the interesting, cultured and strong-minded Lubert, whose own wife was killed in the war. After all, Lewis is hardly ever home. Lewis and Rachael had their own wartime tragedy which they’ve never come to terms with. And, for his part, Lewis is attracted to the intelligent, interesting women working for the government, helping rebuild a conquered country. Multi-lingual, well read and bright-eyed, they tempt him.

Around these intensely personal and emotional interactions, there is the horrific backdrop of a devastated nation. A city like Hamburg, especially, with its important port, was flattened. There were no services, no government, no jobs. Children roamed the streets scavenging food and cigarettes. Ordinary German men and women were demoralised, destroyed. Brook carefully lets us know that the world is not black and white. Some British army officers are coarse, corrupt and cruel. The Allies were at war with Germany, not all Germans. There are people on both sides who wish the war had never happened, and those on both sides who wish it hadn’t ended. And, in the background, there are the international tensions that led to the Iron Curtain and the Cold War.

‘The Aftermath’, for all its darkness, is a story of hope and it is that which perhaps makes it a lesser novel than it could have been. Its strength is that it shows us a time and place few can remember and few have written about, at least in fiction. It reminds us that winning and losing in war is a relative concept. To be on the losing side – if you survived – is to be denied your very existence and identity, and to be the victor brings extraordinary responsibilities towards the same people who were, yesterday, your mortal enemies.

The book’s weakness is to pick, as it reaches its conclusion, a slice of that time and place where humanity, compassion and good fortune triumph. It is not that the books ends on a happy note – everyone here is damaged beyond repair – but I couldn’t help but think that for most of the people who found themselves in these kinds of circumstances, in the late 1940s, in places like Hamburg or Bonn or Frankfurt, things ended less well.

I believe ‘The Aftermath’ would have been even stronger with a less redemptive ending. Nevertheless, it is brilliantly written, deeply moving and makes a very strong addition to the collection of novels – by the likes of Pat Barker, Ian McEwan, John le Carre and William Boyd – about the wars and related events that shaped 20th century Europe.

Review of ‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter

September 18, 2013 1 comment

‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter

Published by Penguin

ISBN 978 0  670 92265 9

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of Beautiful Ruins was provided by Booksellers New Zealand.

In the early 1960s the movie ‘Cleopatra’ was being filmed in Rome. It remains one of the most expensive movies ever made, and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. It, and the fallout from the high-profile affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor during shooting, forms the backdrop to ‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter.

Beautiful Ruins was first published in 2012 and topped the New York Times bestseller list. The New Zealand edition, published by Penguin, has a bold, retro-coloured photomontage with plenty of accolades on both front and back covers. It can’t, therefore be read without a high degree of expectation. With a quote on the front from Nick Hornby that says, ‘Beautiful Ruins is a novel unlike any other you’re likely to read this year,’ the bar is set high. I wasn’t disappointed.

Jess Walter’s novel is a complex, emotional and moving story. The structure is imaginative and unconventional, but not necessarily ground breaking. We get multiple points of view, often in the same chapter, but Walter’s assured prose leaves us in no doubt as to which character we are with at any given time. There are extracts from books, scripts and unpublished memoirs, sometimes presented as whole chapters, sometimes in the middle of chapters. The reader has to trust that while, moments ago, the prose was a conventional third person narrative in modern day Los Angeles, and now is an account of a treacherous mountain crossing in the 1800s, the author is doing it for a reason that will be revealed when he’s good and ready.

I was reminded me, in a way, of Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad,’ where the form of each chapter can be quite different but works together as a whole. This kind of writing, this kind of structure, can seem contrived and artificial and such criticism has certainly been levelled at Egan and Walter. This kind of approach is successful only when each component has a part to play, and when the reader doesn’t fully realise what those parts are, and how they all fit together, until the end. This is, of course, true with all fiction. Every sentence must do its job. When an author plays around with form – including scripts, letters, or even powerpoint presentations in the case of Egan – then the form itself must do something for the story, as well as the content. Walter has pulled this off brilliantly in ‘Beautiful Ruins.’

At the heart of ‘Beautiful Ruins’ is a love story between an obscure American actress and a young Italian student forced to stay in his remote coastal village after his father dies. Real, famous people rub shoulders and more with Walter’s fictional creations, and the background is boldly coloured with the fallout of the second world war, as well as Hollywood and the Burton-Taylor mythology. Walter spans five decades of the lives that were touched by those ‘beautiful ruins’ – the term comes from a real interview with Burton – and in doing so he tells a story that can’t fail to touch the reader.

In other hands such a story could have turned to schmaltz, but Walter shows incredible control of emotion and time, and does it in a way that makes this novel impossible to put down. While some may regard the ending as a little too neat, it is hard to see how it Walter could have gone any other way.

I can only start to imagine the time it took to write and re-write, the thinking, mapping and exploration it took to weave together this story so that, in the end, it all makes sense. Some of the connections, revealed without any tricksy manoeuvres or contrived circumstances, take your breath away. The cast of characters is large, but they are all there for a reason. It took Walter fifteen years to write this book – or, as he says in the author interview included in this edition, what he means is he ‘…managed to squeeze in two or three years of writing during fifteen years of drinking and self-loathing.’

Having paused for breath I went on to read the author interviews a couple of weeks after finishing ‘Beautiful Ruins.’ I came away with such huge admiration and respect for Jess Walter that I went straight out and bought ‘Tumbled Graves,’ his first novel, and I intend to work my way through his other four books as soon as I can.

‘Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off The Most Audacious Rescue in History’ & ‘Argo’

February 13, 2013 Leave a comment

‘Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off The Most Audacious Rescue in History’

by Anthony Mendez with Matt Baglio


Screenplay by Chris Terrio; Directed by Ben Affleck; Produced by George Clooney

Acknowledgement: The review copy of ‘Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off The Most Audacious Rescue in History’ was provided by Booksellers New Zealand.

It is true that six Americans, employed at the US Embassy in Iran, were ‘exfiltrated’ by the CIA in 1981. It is true that this happened at the same time as 52 other Americans were being held hostage in the Embassy. And it is true that Anthony Mendez, a CIA employee, led the exfiltration mission. Thirty years after the fact, Ben Affleck and Anthony Mendez have presented differing versions of these truths.

The story of how the six Americans were rescued has been told before, most notably in a 1981 TV movie called ‘Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper,’ but because Mendez’ role in the operation was classified until 1997 he was not, until recently, permitted to tell it himself. Readers of the book he has written with Baglio may wish it had stayed that way.

Mendez and Baglio have taken a bizarre approach to the narrative. It is written in the first person, from Mendez’ point of view, yet Mendez didn’t witness directly the events that occur in much of the book, either in Iran or the USA. Despite this, the narrative is presented as if Mendez were present when they happened. This is particularly odd in the sections of the book that deal with events in Iran in the early stages of the crisis, including detailed and mundane dialogue about what the hostages had for dinner, what they were wearing, and the arguments they had. It seems Mendez and Baglio believe that by showing us chunks of the story in this way, they can make it more convincing, but what this clumsy technique actually does is make the reader question its veracity.

We know from the acknowledgements in the book that Baglio interviewed many of the people involved, presumably a considerable time after the crisis. The best description, then, of what is going on is that it is a ‘reconstruction,’ a retelling of events not witnessed by either Baglio or Mendez. Although presented as a truthful account of what happened, it must be a semi-fictional version of the truth; half of it imagined and pieced together third-hand by Mendez and Baglio; the other half Mendez’ recollection of the events he was directly involved in. Even then, Mendez is not telling the story himself; Baglio is telling it on his behalf. Do we really believe that the people who lived through this crisis would tell the whole truth to a journalist about how they felt and behaved when they thought they would die, even if they could remember, even if they hadn’t blocked out and tried to forget that terrifying experience? Of course not.

This puts an interesting perspective on Affleck’s movie. If Mendez’ and Baglio’s book includes details neither men observed, told by a retired spy and a journalist, how confident can we be that is it any more truthful than Affleck’s version? It presumably is more accurate, but it is also less coherent, less convincing, and a much less well told story than the movie.

In Mendez’ ‘truthful’ version of Argo there is no famous Hollywood producer, no script read-through in costume, no witty dialogue about the movie industry, no emotional reconciliation with an estranged wife and daughter (Mendez and his wife are not separated, so there can’t be,) no solitary CIA agent flying to the rescue, no last minute approval by the President, and certainly no Iranian police chasing the plane down the tarmac. Instead there is page after page of CIA logistics and inconsistent explanations of acronyms, a good deal of Mendez’ previous work and success, many colleagues who do lots of the legwork, and plenty of dull, careful preparation.

I found it very difficult to wade through Mendez’ and Baglio’s book. In contrast, I willingly saw Affleck’s movie twice, the first time at the Arclight cinema in the heart of Hollywood, the second time in Wellywood with my family. Watching a film about Hollywood, in Hollywood, surrounded by Hollywood people was one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve had at the movies. Not a single in-joke was missed by that audience. Chris Terrio and Ben Affleck have done an outstanding job of turning this story into a compelling three act experience. Most people who see the film will already know what happens in the end, and to successfully create edge-of-your seat tension in such circumstances is a great achievement.

In stark contrast Mendez and Baglio don’t get to the third act – the actual escape from Iran – until the final few pages of their book. Even a ‘true’ story needs to be told with structure, with dramatic tension and the right amount of detail. Mendez might have done better enlisting someone who understands that to tell his version.

Knowing what to leave out and what to leave in, knowing when to go into detail and when to move on, and rewarding the reader with payoffs and emotional engagement are the bread and butter of Hollywood. Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that the Hollywood professionals did a better job of telling this story – albeit with a significant number of embellishments – than Mendez and Baglio. I have no doubt that with the addition of some professional story-telling expertise the ‘true’ version of Argo could have been told, if not quite as compellingly as Affleck’s movie, so much better than Mendez and Baglio’s effort.

Postscript: Affleck won best director for Argo at the 2013 BAFTA awards, and Argo picked up the award for best film. In his acceptance speech, Affleck – who won an Oscar with Matt Damon for his script for ‘Good Will Hunting’ – said Chris Terrio’s script for Argo was the best he’d ever seen.

Holiday Reading

December 15, 2012 Leave a comment

After writing sixteen book reviews since July, I now have a stack of reading to catch up on including books I’ve received after being picked up by the Guardian Reader Reviews roundup five times. Between now and the end of January I intend to read:

Nicola Barker, The Yips

Ali Smith, There But For The

Peter O’Toole, Loitering With Intent

Damien Wilkins, The Fainter

And soon after that my MA in Creative Writing classmate, Aorewa McLeod, will have her first novel published – Who Was That Woman, Anyway? I’m looking forward to the launch party and reading the finished novel. I hope to get back to reviewing for Booksellers NZ and Scoop Review of Books at the end of January.

Review of ‘New Finnish Grammar’ by Diego Marani

December 7, 2012 2 comments

‘New Finnish Grammar’ by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry

Published by The Text Publishing Company

ISBN 9781922079664

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of New Finnish Grammar was provided by Scoop Review of Books, and was first posted here.

New Finnish Grammar received the Grinzane-Cavour Prize, was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award, and comes with an impressive array of plaudits. The most prominent is featured on the cover: The Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard says, ‘I can’t remember when I read a more extraordinary novel, or when I was last so strongly tempted to use the word genius of its author.’ It is impossible to come to this book without high expectations and, for me, they were definitely met.

On the surface New Finnish Grammar has an admirable simplicity, but its strength lies in its many layers. Marani is a professional translator and there can be no doubt about his love of language. He invented Europanto, a mock European language, in which he writes newspaper columns. It comes as no surprise, then, that New Finnish Grammar is, at one level, about language.

The main character, Sampo, has no memory of who he is or where he came from. Because he is wearing the clothes of a Finnish sailor when he is found in Trieste, the doctor who treats him – a man called Friari, a Finn who left his country many years before – assumes Sampo is Finnish. Friari sends Sampo to Helsinki to better enable him to recover his Finnish identity and re-learn his language.

In Helsinki the conflict known as The Winter War between Russia and Finland features heavily, deeply affecting Sampo as he sees people come and go, and tries to understand some of what is being said around him. Sampo’s loneliness, his despair, and his decisions about what to do with his life are at the heart of the story. This alone would make it special, but it is the way Marani chooses to tell Sampo’s story that takes it to another level.

The novel is presented as a series of extracts from Sampo’s journals as found, and transcribed, by Friari who has finally travelled back to Helsinki, troubled by unresolved issues in his own life as well as his actions towards Sampo. The premise is that Sampo simply did not have sufficient a grasp of Finnish to write coherently, and that Friari has edited, augmented and interpreted Sampo’s journals so they can be understood. Friari also includes some narrative of his own from time to time including a prologue which is, really, Marani’s masterstroke. It is rich in information and foreshadowing, setting the context for everything that happens within the remaining 190-odd pages, without spoiling anything.

The approach Marani has taken is similar to Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music, which I reviewed in July. In The Big Music Gunn claims she was ‘presented’ with boxes of papers, written by someone else, which she ‘ordered and organised’ into the book. The author’s narrative in The Big Music appears not in italics, like Friari’s, but in the form of copious footnotes and appendices. Of course, in The Big Music, the ‘Kirsty Gunn’ who organised the papers and wrote the footnotes is as much a fictional character as Friari.

The idea that Marani wrote this in Italian adds another layer to the linguistic complexity on the page. The subtlety of the story and the language comes through clearly, but I wondered at times whether something had been lost in the translation to English. It feels flat in places and Judith Landry, the translator, employs the term ‘as if’ constantly. Was it more lively, more varied, in the original Italian? Or are we seeing Friari presenting his adaptation of Sampo’s journals in precisely the way Marani intended?

Nevertheless, New Finnish Grammar is a deeply moving novel. It is not long, coming in at just under 200 pages in the English version, but every page conveys the tragedy and the tenacity of Sampo. By showing us Sampo through the double lens of his journals and Friari’s adaptation of them, Marani puts distance between the reader and Sampo. We imagine we hear Sampo speaking directly, but it is Friari’s interpretation of Sampo’s journal. It is as if a beneficial uncle is speaking on behalf of a child, filling in the gaps he thinks the child should know, but really projecting his own thoughts, beliefs and desires. How much of what we read is Sampo, how much is what Friari wants to believe Sampo was thinking, and how much is what Friari wants the reader to believe Sampo was thinking? All of this is coloured and set up from the outset by Friari’s prologue, and results in a novel that is a masterful, subtle construction of personality and meaning.

For me there was yet another layer of intrigue, but it came from the author, not the novel. Thirty years ago I worked at a children’s holiday camp in Devon, in the UK. I was 18. One of the kitchen hands was a man called Diego, slightly older than me. It was only after I’d finished New Finnish Grammar that I looked more closely at the photograph on the back cover. The glasses. The shape of the mouth. I checked Wikipedia – Marani was three years older than me. I e-mailed his publisher asking that they pass my message, and the attached photograph, on to the author. Diego’s reply was waiting for me the next morning.

Diego is coming to New Zealand in 2013 on a promotional tour, and we’ll catch up for sure. Who knows what we might remember about the past, what might come to light about that distant summer, once we start talking?

Review of ‘The Prague Cemetery’ by Umberto Eco

November 26, 2012 1 comment

The Prague Cemetery’ by Umberto Eco, translated by Richard Dixon

Published by Vintage Books

ISBN 9780099555971

Reviewed by C P Howe

Take the fragmented and volatile nature of 19th century European history, mix in a grand cast of real people, show how well read you are by referring to a wide range of real and fictional writing, and invent a thoroughly dislikeable anti-hero to tie it all together. The result is Umberto Eco’s sixth novel, The Prague Cemetery, a book full of intrigue, deception and betrayal, which goes back to the familiar ground of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose.

Eco’s academic credentials include philosophy, semiotics, literary criticism and media and communications. Fifty years ago he first published his ideas on ‘open’ and ‘closed’ texts, and in his novels it seems he has pushed these ideas through into practice. The Prague Cemetery certainly requires the reader to engage, and engage deeply, questioning what is being reported on the page, and by whom. To add to the complexity, readers also need to remember that this is a translation from Italian into English. That such a complex and dynamic piece of writing should retain its integrity after such a process is remarkable.

It is also clear that Eco really meant what he said in an interview with the Guardian in 2011; ‘People are tired of simple things; they want to be challenged.’  Not only does The Prague Cemetery require nothing short of your full attention, moving as it does between a narrator – we are supposed to think this is Eco himself, perhaps – the journal entries of Simone Simonini, and notes made by Simonini’s alter ego, Abbe Dalla Piccola. It also assumes the reader has a very high level of trust in the narrator, whether it is Eco, Simonini, or Dalla Piccola, to recount in great detail the complex shifts in power in 19th century European politics. Eco knows it is unlikely many readers will be as well read on this subject as he is, and spares us no detail.

But he is not just doing this to show off. Simonini is a forger, used by more than one government, or would be government, to supply ‘genuine’ documents to the other side. Who is on the other side, and who is on his side, it is hard to say. Simonini is an unreliable narrator, and it is mostly his account of his life, written nearly thirty years after the events themselves, that we are reading. We cannot be sure that anything he tells us is true. At best it is just a version – his version – of the truth. Add in the brief notes by Dalla Piccola and the interjections by the narrator and we see the world as Eco wants us to see it – complex, confusing and where we can’t know everyone’s true intentions and motivations. Just like real life.

Eco has included monochrome images of supposed engravings of the events Simonini writes about, showing us that Simonini is in fact writing a journal for publication. He is, we are supposed to believe, finally writing down the truth about his colourful life, and the role he played in producing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an account of a meeting of Jewish elders in a cemetery in Prague. The Protocols exist, and are widely held to be a hoax. That did not stop them being used by the Russians and the Nazis, and even today there are claims that they are genuine.

Eco threads layer upon layer of fiction, fact, history and humour throughout this novel. Those who are not experts in this period of European history may find the detail distracting or annoying. I’d recommend setting aside your concerns; don’t try and remember all the characters and who they are aligned with. Never heard of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies? Don’t worry about it. Not sure who Garibaldi was? Never mind. Unclear about the sequence of events with the Prussians, Bonaparte and the French Revolution? Let it go. No-one really knows all the details. Simonini certainly doesn’t, and you shouldn’t try. There are plenty of other books you can read if you’re interested.

Instead, read The Prague Cemetery for what it is: a rollicking tale of a thoroughly unlikeable, anti-Semitic, food-obsessed murderer, at the heart of deception after deception that shaped the course of European history at the time and – in the case of the forgery that sits at the centre of the book, the Protocols – decades to come. For Europeans, especially continental Europeans, the events in this book were not that long ago. They are, still, fresh in the memory. France and Italy are proud republics with volatile political environments. In that sense, they are still very much the countries described in The Prague Cemetery. And this is a serious business; the Protocols were used by the Nazis, in part, to justify the Holocaust.

The Prague Cemetery won’t be to everyone’s taste. Simonini is a nasty piece of work, but unlike most anti-heroes it’s hard to ever feel any sympathy or empathy for him. The historical details can be exhausting. And while we know its Simonini, not Eco, being anti-Semitic, the thoughts Eco puts in Simonini’s head, and the words he puts in his mouth, are disturbing.

If you want a story about conspiracies, European history and deception where you know who the villain is because he’s an creepy looking albino priest who tortures himself, where the world is threatened and saved at the last minute, and where the hero is an American and gets the girl, Dan Brown’s the author for you. For everyone else, there’s Umberto Eco.

Review of ‘The Phoenix Song’ by John Sinclair

November 1, 2012 1 comment

‘The Phoenix Song’ by John Sinclair

Published by Victoria University Press, October 2012

ISBN 978 0 86473 825 7

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of The Phoenix Song was provided by Booksellers New Zealand. This review was first published on their blog.

John Sinclair, with his first novel The Phoenix Song, has created something of a challenge for readers. The story is densely packed with the history of relations between Russia and China and at times this can be overwhelming. He also introduces just enough authentically named Chinese and Russian characters to make it difficult, but not impossible, to remember who they are. We are helped by his decision to include a contents page and chapter headings to signpost some of the shifts in time and place. I had the feeling he could have made it even more complex, and the novel he has given us is a judgement call. It already takes a dedicated reader to commit the concentration required; if he had gone any further he might have lost us all.

The commitment and concentration required to get to grips with The Phoenix Song, however, certainly has its rewards.  Told through a first person narration by Xiao Magou, starting in 1950, a year after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China when she was eight years old, the story reveals remarkable aspects of life in the young nation. With a father who is a party official, the young Xiao’s musical talent is quickly recognised and cultivated, but ever present throughout her story is the all embracing power of the party and the extreme control it exercised over the population. Entangled in Xiao’s story is the complexity of Chinese-Russian relations, with secretive negotiations about treaties and personal relationships; the Russians feature heavily in Xiao’s early life, and her parents’, as well as at the Shanghai Conservatory where she studies violin.

The book does have its lighter moments, usually when the Russians are involved. Sinclair has great technical control of the words on the page, and effortlessly moves into dialogue and flashback when relating events that Xiao witnesses, as well as stories she hears from her mother, or imagines when looking at photographs. Some of the exchanges between the Russians at the Shanghai Conservatory are, while not exactly laugh out loud, highly amusing.

There’s a darker side to the humour as well. Some of the decisions by the Party in relation to musical development in China would be, if they weren’t true, laughable. The demands on citizens to be productive, to labour, in culture as well as the fields and factories, seem absurd to our modern day understanding of creativity. The idea of quotas for symphonies and songs, as if they were tonnes of pig iron, is remarkable. The arbitrary decisions on which western composers are suddenly in favour, and those that are to be discarded, are equally astounding. When students at the Conservatory have to suspend their studies for days just to attack Debussy and his work, to burn his scores, we’d like to think it is purely fiction, but we know it isn’t; Sinclair has done his homework.

The story has an arc which is relatively predictable. Sinclair is a New Zealand writer, and the book is published by Victoria University Press. The promotional paragraph on the cover tells the story moves between China, Europe and New Zealand. It doesn’t take much thinking to work out what is going to happen, especially when Sinclair drops in the occasional paragraph to make sure we know Xiao is telling the story from a point a long way into the future. Nevertheless, the way he weaves together the events is skilful and accomplished, and creating a consistent and convincing voice on the page for a young Chinese girl in the 1950s is quite an achievement.

Sinclair has produced an interesting and technically accomplished novel, but it didn’t engage me quite as much as I’d hoped. Using the first person to relate a mostly chronological story means sometimes the narrative drags. Xiao consistently relates details of what she sees in a colourful way, painting a picture of her surroundings for the reader, but its does tend to slow things down. There are moments of excitement and tragedy, but Xiao is emotionally cold. There’s a reason for this, but I had hoped to see more of her feelings.

The Phoenix Song is a book about a world so different to ours it demands to be read. Music and freedom (or its absence) are its themes, and it reveals frightening truths about the role these played in determining the future of twentieth century society. Xiao’s young life touches decisions and people – Mao Zedong, Deng Xiao Ping, Khrushchev – at the highest level of geopolitics. It might not be as emotionally engaging as I had hoped, but it is certainly a book worth reading. Whether John Sinclair is contemplating writing a second volume of Xiao’s story I don’t know – it will be obvious what this should cover once you’ve read The Phoenix Song – but I would certainly be near the front of the queue if he does.

The Phoenix Song in the window of Unity Books, Wellington

Review of ‘Telegraph Avenue’ by Michael Chabon

October 15, 2012 1 comment

Telegraph Avenue’ by Michael Chabon

Published by Fourth Estate (Allen & Unwin in New Zealand,) October 2012

ISBN 978 0 00 731849 0

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of Telegraph Avenue was provided, and was first published, by Scoop Review of Books

Michael Chabon, with his contemporaries Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, has an astonishing knack for writing about American lives in a way that makes you feel you know personally the places and people behind the stories.

Chabon once found, at his parents house, a box of old comics he’d put away as a child, and was reminded how much he loved them. That led to his most widely acclaimed work, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a book that takes in Houdini, the Holocaust, and the golden age of comic books, through Sammy and Joe’s invention, a hero called The Escapist. To read Chabon is to be in an alternate universe, where the characters and story arcs are utterly familiar, totally convincing, yet completely fictional.

Telegraph Avenue is Chabon’s latest novel. He also writes young adult and science fiction, comic books that bring to life The Escapist titles from Kavalier and Clay, and more. Telegraph Avenue isn’t a slim volume – it runs to 468 tightly spaced pages. Chabon has said, ‘If you want to write novels, they take a long time, and they’re big, and they have a lot of words in them…’ and how he makes sure he writes for four or five hours a day, every day. Even taking this work ethic into account the volume of work he creates is remarkable.

Telegraph Avenue is set on the border of Oakland and Berkeley in California, in the mid-2000s, and follows the owners of a small, independent record store, the existence of which is threatened by a new development – Dogpile enterprises, a music megastore – a couple of blocks away. Chabon’s characters are immense and have great depth; they have real lives, real flaws, real loves. The love of music and records, for one. Complex families and friends, with unfaithful husbands and newly discovered teenage children. Semi-famous pasts as footballers-cum-blaxpoitation movie-actors, or musicians who made sought after classic albums, but never made it big. The sort of people whose collectible cards are now worth more than they are; the sort of people who still play gigs with their old Hammond organs, heavy and expensive to repair.

Chabon has also said that Kavalier and Clay was the first time he was really satisfied with his attempts to write from multiple points of view. We should be glad that he succeeded, because Telegraph Road takes that success and runs with it. We see the world through Nat and Archy, the record store owners; through their children, Titus and Julie; through their wives, Gwen and Aviva; and even through Mr Cochise’s parrot. And throughout, their collective problem looms large – the soon to be built Dogpile Thang, with its promise not of bland mega-mall music, but of a depth and quality of vinyl that Nat and Archy can only dream of. How could they be against something that is precisely what they stand for, even if it means their own demise?

The narrative is dense, complex, and challenging in places, and after 190 pages I started to wonder just where Chabon was going with it. And, at precisely that moment, he absolutely nails it. Although the book is divided into five sections – shown on the cover, as if they were tracks on a record – what Chabon does between pages 193 and 198 splits the book neatly in two. It is as if everything that happened up to that point couldn’t have led anywhere else, and what Archy says as he arrives at Mr Cochise’s funeral sets the second half on an inevitable course.

Telegraph Avenue doesn’t have the big historical themes of Kavalier and Clay, or DeLillo’s Underworld. It is about Archy and Nat, their family and friends, their community, making their way through life, the occasional fleeting touch of fame barely remembered by anyone. And it is about the music, always the music.

I loved the way Chabon has constructed this novel. The incredible dialogue, the sense of place, the complex relationships, all create a vivid world for the reader. His metaphors may be strained sometimes, but a book that includes a pair of seventies Blaxploitation actors, an elderly kung fu teacher called Mrs Jew who claims to have ‘kicked Bruce Lee’s ass, every day,’ and a Hammond organ playing musician who owns a parrot called Fifty-Eight and once made a record called Redbonin’ is allowed to go over the top from time to time.

All the way through to the acknowledgements – which include, for Mythbusters fans, a special thanks to Adam Savage for advice on ‘dirigible liberation’ – Telegraph Avenue is a hugely entertaining, interesting and moving book. Highly recommended.


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