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).
The 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
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.
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.
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.
A little non-fiction this time, in the shape of The Gut by Giulia Enders.
It’s quite surprising really how taboo talking about the human digestive system and its by-products still are. Think about another taboo topic, sex, which has been discussed and shown in public from every possible angle for at least the past 20 years, and has in this process practically lost all of its taboo status. You might discuss your bedroom activities with your girlfriends, but the consistency of your poop? Much more unlikely.
Enders is, without a doubt, doing her part in stripping these topics off the air of secrecy and embarrassment that currently surrounds them. In The Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ (Scribe), first published in German in 2014 and in translation in 2015, Enders succeeds in talking about our digestive system in a way that is engaging and fun, but at the same time maintains a sound scientific backing. The first two sections of the book cover the digestive process from the moment food enters out mouth to the moment it exits, transformed into feces. The third part deal with the little helpers and adversaries that colonise the entire digestive systems, the millions upon millions of microbes, and the effect their workings have on us from protecting us from allergies to giving us a food poisoning.
While the number of books published in translation in the United Kingdom remains low—research by Literature Across Frontiers, a platform for literary exchange, translation and policy debate produced an average figure of 3% over the past 20 years—the success of the likes of Karl Ove Knausgård, Elena Ferrante, and Han Kang is catalysing interest towards books written in languages other than English. The number of literary translations grew by 66% between 1990 and 2015, LAF says. Among the most popular source languages were Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch, alongside Arabic and Japanese. These figures conceal the fact that out of the world’s thousands of literary cultures, only a few ever achieve any level of representation in English. For those who translate from these under-represented languages, it is an opportunity to act beyond the traditional boundaries of a translator.
Mo Yan’s 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature win has yet to ease China’s big break on the Western literary market. “There is a huge canon of contemporary Chinese literature that no one in the United Kingdom has ever heard of,” says Nicky Harman, previously a teacher of translation at Imperial College London and a full-time translator of Chinese since 2011. “I have the privilege of pushing open the window.” Harman is one of the Chinese into English translators who set up Paper Republic, a website that promotes Chinese literature, in 2008. Continue reading
While I was at it, I decided to go for two other short stories from Joseph Conrad. It was actually enjoyable to read fiction of which I had no preconceptions at all—usually when choosing a book I make my decision based on what I assume the story will be like.
Conrad himself apparently held An Outpost of Progress (1897) in higher regard than Heart of Darkness. It’s a much tighter story, taking place in just over 20 pages, and restricted both in terms of place and characters. Two white men, Kayerts and Carlier (presumably Swiss), are brought by steamboat to a tiny trading post by the river Congo, where they join a Sierra Leonean man called Makola, an assistant to the previous station chief who has tragically died of fever, or possibly too much exposure to the sun. Kayerts, the new station chief, and Carlier, the second in charge, are tasked with participating in the ivory trade, and generally improving the station in the hope that it’ll one day be something grander:
“In a hundred years, there will perhaps be a town here. Quays, and warehouses, and barracks, and—and—billiard-rooms. Civilisation, my boy, and virtue—and all. And then, chaps will read that two good fellows, Kayerts and Carlier, were the first civilised men to live in this very spot!”
Surprise! Instead of finishing one of the items on my now-reading-list, I decided to go for a little amuse-bouche and read Joseph Conrad‘s novella Heart of Darkness instead—not that there is very much amusing about this story.
Heart of Darkness (1899) is a real blast from the past for me. It was one of the set texts for a module I took as a first year student back in 2007–2008. I didn’t get very much out of it then, mostly because I was fresh from school and unaccustomed to reading fiction of this level in English. Because of that, rereading it was really experiencing it properly for the first time.
The story is of course so well-known. It’s recited in first person by Marlow, a seaman and explorer, who tells to his fellow sailors, perched on the deck of the cruising yawl Nellie in the Thames, of his nightmarish adventure in the Congo. Marlow, who wants to see for himself the enthralling river Congo, which on the map, unexplored and empty around its banks, resembles
an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.
Map showing David Livingstone’s travels in Africa (1873)