Hard times in the Highlands

I was embarrassingly pleased with myself for both purchasing and finishing a Man Booker nominated novel before the winner was announced.

Never mind that I failed to post my review before Paul Beatty was handed his award, because Graeme MacRae Burnet’s His Bloody Project (Saraband 2015) deserves to be discussed long after the literary world has turned its gaze towards the next longlist.

MacRae Burnet begins his book by claiming to have found his 19th century relative’s letters whilst researching the Scottish Highlands. Taken aback by their literary quality, he decides to publish them. The relative, we hear, is Roderick ‘Roddy’ Macrae, a young lad of only 17 who has slaughtered people in cold blood in the tiny, nine-house crofter village of Culduie. The book then consists of his own account of the events, written in an Inverness prison while waiting for his trial, as well as statements from other villagers, medical experts, et cetera. At the risk of sounding like an idiot, I’ll admit I was fooled—for a while at least!

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Culduie today

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Pereira Maintains: a gem of a novel in translation

I did some reading this past week on character vs plot driven fiction, inspired by the comments section of The Guardian’s very interesting podcast on editing. There’s a fair bit of writing on this topic out there in case you are interested in the details. It also made me wonder where I stand on this issue.

I’ve always been drawn to the quality of the language itself in books. It’s not so much about what you write but about how you write it, and in the majority of the cases this overlaps with the characteristics of character driven fiction. I’ve also jotted down some thoughts on what I think makes for interesting books hereAntonio Tabucchi‘s Pereira Maintains (Canongate 2010) is definitely fiction of the character driven kind. This is a book in which nothing much, and a whole lot, happens at the same time—and that is a fantastic combination.

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Pereira Maintains takes place in Lisbon, and I can’t not mention I’ve just booked a holiday to go there myself at the end of September, hooray! I bought this book a while back and forgot where it’s set, but surely it was providence that guided my hand to this slim (only 195 pages) copy in my bookshelf… Tabucchi’s protagonist is the editor of the culture section at the Lisboa newspaper, the veteran journalist Dr Pereira. In the impossibly hot summer of 1938, in the midst of translating French short stories for the paper, talking to a photograph of his dead wife, repeatedly eating an omelette aux fins herbes with a lemonade at his regular place, and taking seaweed baths to alleviate his heart trouble, his uncomplicated life becomes entangled with that of a troubled young man, Monteiro Rossi. Continue reading

Sex, lies, and curly wigs

It’s in itself quite remarkable that a book of of nearly 700 pages leaves such a small mark on the reader’s memory. Sadly, this is the case with An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (1997, Vintage).

220px-aninstanceofthefingerpostThe premise is promising: a story that takes place in my current home town Oxford in the 1660s and involves “lust, betrayal, secrets, and murder”. The same events are recounted from four different perspectives by four different characters: Venetian gentleman and ‘physick’ enthusiast Marco da Cola, Oxford student Jack Prestcott, mathematician John Wallis, and historian Anthony Wood. The Italian has arrived in England to sort out a family business in London that’s in a spot of trouble—or so he says. His true interest lies with physick, a mixture of physics, chemistry, and medicine, and he soon finds himself in the learned but ill-mannered company of Oxford academics, including John Wallis, John Locke, and Robert Boyle. Jack Prestcott is a troubled young man on a mission to clear his father’s name, tarnished in a plot to restore monarchy during the English Interregnum (1652–1659), with the help of an Irish faith-healer, whatever the cost—or so he says. Continue reading

Poetry changes lives

Wow. That was quite something. Like Moby-Dick, Kai Erik’s Paha Kirja (The Evil Book) is unlike any novel I’ve read before—though in a completely different way to Melville’s book.

Reading The Evil Book (2015, Otava) book reminded me of my favourite kind of literature: stories that rise above the mundane and self-evident, and made me question why I would ever settle for anything less. For me, the most enjoyable books tell an entirely new kind of a story, or with entirely new kind of characters, or in an entirely new kind of way. I want to be questioned, challenged, woken up by the book—and that, by the way, doesn’t mean the book will be a struggle to read. So many blurbs I see in bookstores these days seem to me to be about circumstances and people we are much too familiar with and have already witnessed in numerous films, other books, in our own lives. I can see the appeal in wanting to read a story that speaks directly to us by way of familiarity, but I often find that the writers who do write about something new or using a new approach manage to say more profound things about our reality and everyday lives than those who strive to describe it.

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The Åbo Akademi humanities building in which many of the events take place.

Right, rant over. The Evil Book is what you would call humanist horror as it’s set within the literature department of the Swedish-speaking Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland. The main characters are one of the department’s literature professors, the 50-something Mickel Backman, nicknamed Iron Man by the students due to his bad back; and the literature student Calle Hollender, who is struggling to find enough interest to do any of his coursework and prefers instead to dabble in stand up, smoke weed and watch Netflix. The events kick off when one of Mickel’s students, the talented but self-destructive Pasi Maars tells him he wants to write a dissertation on poetry collection by an obscure 1920s modernist called Leander Granlund. The collection was never published, and it carries a horrifying reputation of making anyone who reads it kill themselves. Mickel is shocked by the sudden mention of Granlund: turns out one of his friends from his own student days committed suicide after going mad writing a Master’s thesis on the poems.

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Gone whaling

Herman Melville‘s classic Moby-Dick (1851) is a great book and unlike any other novel I’ve read, but I’ve been at it for so long that I’m very happy to see the back of it!

I first cracked it open in May 2015 on a ferry back to Helsinki from Tallinn, Estonia, where I’d bought it in a nice little bookshop. It all started so well: how lovely to read about “getting to sea” on the gentle glimmering waves of the Baltic Sea! Fine, Melville’s a bit verbose here and there, but Ishmael‘s witty remarks and explorations on shore, such as sharing a bed with the Polynesian harpooner Queequeg at an inn, make up for it. Ishmael meets the broody Ahab, the captain of the Pequod and a man on a mission to kill the whale that maimed his leg—all good. It’s only when the long whale hunting journey begins in earnest that my attention started to waver.

Moby-Dick is about whales, and one whale in particular. The premise is very straightforward: Ahab wants to find the monstrous white whale called Moby-Dick, dissimilar to any other whale cruising the bottomless waters of the worlds, and kill it. This jolly pair have met before, and thanks to that encounter Ahab now clunks around with a wooden leg. Ishmael is the narrator of the story, and hovers somewhere between an omniscient narrator and an active participant in the story as a sailor on the Pequod.

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A Serbian holiday

Sorry about the silence—been trying to get over the Brexit horror. I’m not sure the reality has quite sunk in yet. In addition to the multitude of other consequences, what impact will Brexit have on the future of publishing books in translation in the UK, the number of which has been on a significant rise over the past years ?

Despite all the confusion, fear, and sadness I will try to gather my thoughts and review the great book that is Kati Hiekkapelto‘s Tumma (Otava, 2016)! This is the third book in her series on the Yugoslavian-born detective Anna Fekete, who lives and works in Finland, and will be published in English with the title The Exiled later this year by Orenda Books. Orenda also published the two first installments, and you can read my thoughts on the previous book, The Defenceless, here.

After the murder of her father, also a police officer, in the 1980s and the start of the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s, young Anna flees to Finland with her mother and brother Àkos. But even after nearly 30 years, the past won’t leave her alone. The Exiled begins almost directly where The Defenceless ended: after a long winter, Anna is finally on summer holiday and travels to the borderlands of Serbia and Hungary to visit her family and friends. Her mother has moved back, and even her recovering alcoholic brother, who Anna begins to realise has been her strength and stay in Finland as well as the only link to her roots, is planning on remaining in their home village after falling in love with a local during a visit.

 

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Tiszavirag, the hatching of a local mayfly species, which the locals call ‘the blooming of the river Tisza’

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Viva la Revolución

From the snows of Finland to the heat of Latin America. I decided to continue my streak of Conrads by reading his 1904 novel Nostromo. This was not, by any means, light holiday reading.

Nostromo (‘our man’) is named after one of the characters, the legendary ex-seaman and adventurer, current Capataz de Cargadores (head longshoreman says Wikipedia) of Italian descent, Giovanni Battista Fidanza. Even after finishing the book, I’m not entirely sure why the novel was named after him. Let me explain.

Sulaco is an imaginary coastal town in the imaginary South American country of Costaguana. Conrad, as keen as ever to grab every opportunity to insert generously descriptive passages, sets the scene in the first paragraph:

In the time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of Sulaco—the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity—had never been commercially anything more important than a coasting port with a fairly large local trade in ox-hides and indigo. The clumsy deep-sea galleons of the conquerors that, needing a brisk gale to move at all, would lie becalmed, where your modern ship built on clipper lines forges ahead by the mere flapping of her sails, had been barred out of Sulaco by the prevailing calms of its vast gulf. Some harbours of the earth are made difficult by access by the treachery of sunken rocks and the tempests of their shores. Sulaco had found an inviolable sanctuary from the temptations of a trading world in the solemn hush of the deep Golfo Plácido as if within an enormous semi-circular and unroofed temple open to the ocean, with its walls of lofty mountains hung with the mourning draperies of cloud.

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