READERS’ RADAR : A to P listed alpha by title 2011 – 2016

 

A

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A SHORT WALK IN THE HINDU KUSH – Eric Newby

While browsing at a Charity Book Sale, I found a battered copy of  A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush  by Eric Newby, which I’d never read, and knowing it was a classic, I bought it. I don’t know why, but somehow I had an ingrained  notion that it was a boring stuffy account by a military man, a leftover from the famous British Raj; and for this reason, I had always passed over the book on sale tables or library shelves. Was I ever mistaken!

Initially the preface put me off : it’s written by Evelyn Waugh and I thought : oh dear, this is going to be about two limp wristed chaps being precious about the scenery.  Wrong again. Which just goes to prove how mis-leading assumptions nearly always are.

Eric Newby received a cable from  his friend Hugh Carless (a career diplomat in the British Foreign Office) stationed at the time in Rio de Janeiro, pithily asking: CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE?  The year was 1956.  Newby – somewhat oddly – was then working in the London haute couture trade. Prior to that he’d been an army officer, and prior to that had lead an adventurous life travelling around the Mediterranean, plus time sailing.For example:   in 1938 when he apprenticed aboard the Finnish windjammer Moshulu and took part in the “Grain Race” from Australia to Europe by way of Cape Horn.

But a mountaineer he wasn’t; so far as I could see, no experience at all, and yet his chum Carless was inviting  him to climb the wild mountains of the Hindu Kush, north-east of Afghanistan.

I had no idea where Nuristan was, and the maps in the book were hopeless. Whilst they showed the mountain ranges which Newby climbed, they gave no clue as to the whereabouts  of the peaks in Asia. I hauled out my giant Rand McNally Atlas and peered at the maps of North India, Pakistan, Afghanistan to no avail. I did find the words ‘Hindu Kush’ spread out over an area of North eastern Afghanistan, but the area then known as ‘Nuristan’ seems to have vanished.

Once Carless returned to England,  preparation time for the expedition was short. There was equipment and rations to buy, visas to organise, tickets to be bought. Newby’s wife accompanied them as far as Istanbul, and then reluctantly returned home – a good thing, in view of what followed.

Anyway, prior to departure  the two would-be mountaineers managed to squeeze in a three day trip to the mountains in Wales, to receive some hasty training by an experienced mountaineer, but that was the extent of their technical knowledge.  At this point I shook my head in disbelief. In the preface Waugh witters on about the charm of British eccentrics and gentleman explorers. He wasn’t wrong. My jaw dropped when I read that Newby had been unable to source proper mountaineering boots prior to departure, so off he went equipped with PLIMSOLLS (a.k.a. takkies) and unbelievably, wore them on the descent. His boots were mailed to him and never reached him. Naturally he suffered terribly from blisters due to the unsuitable boots he did manage to find.

When I think of modern expedition equipment, state of the art clothing and  kit, plus NASA space-style dehydrated foods – these two survived on tinned food, chiefly Irish stew, and on one occasions dined off a one pound tin of strawberry jam, and a tinned baked apple pudding. The mind reels.  Finding provisions en route was difficult. The area was sparsely populated, and the locals lived on very little, without much surplus to offer travellers. And when the mountaineers  did eat local food, the inevitable result was severe diarrhoea.

Carless’ old and trusted cook was to have accompanied them up the mountain, but he only remained with the expedition for a short while, due to a commitment to his existing employer. Thereafter catering was a hit and miss affair. Mostly miss. Carless was completely disinterested in rations, food or cooking.

They hired a guide, plus two men, to look after the baggage and horses, (the poor old horses had a dreadful time of it, both animals and men were literally skeletons by the time they staggered out of the area.)

In the event they didn’t succeed in reaching their goal, the summit of Mt Samir. 700 feet below the summit of 19 000-plus feet , they took the wise decision to descend, whilst they had sufficient light. And even then, it was perilous. So near, and yet so far.

En route they encountered wild tribesmen, bandits, mullahs, primitive shepherds none of whom could speak the Farsi (Persian) or Urdu spoken by the  climbers. All the local inhabitants spoke ancient  tribal dialects, and the tale is sprinkled with historical graffiti about Timur (Tamerlane) and Alexander the Great. This mind you, only 70 years ago! Nuristan at that time was beyond remote, and I suspect that the passing of time has not brought much by way of modernisation to the Hindu Kush.

When the climbers were not traversing rocky slopes or treacherous windy roads bordered by precipices, they were descending the cliffs to river valleys, watered by icy rivers, bordered by willow trees.  Apricot and mulberry trees provided fruit, wheat was grown. There were cattle, also flocks of sheep. The Nuristanis were renowned makers of butter, and bartered quantities of butter for other goods, but this meant  their men had  to cross mighty mountain passes, carrying enormous goatskin bags of butter to trade.

Reading Newby’s account is like taking a giant step back in time, maybe as distant as the Middle Ages, so far as his account of the land and its peoples is concerned. As for it being an account of an expedition, a journey of exploration, well, I’m not so sure. Part of the blurb on the back jacket says : Impossible to read this book without laughing aloud … the funniest travel book I have ever read.  (The Observer). I didn’t find the book hugely funny – most of the time I was aghast at their foolhardiness, their unpreparedness!

Maybe The Times Literary Supplement sums it up best: A notable addition to the literature of unorthodox travel … tough, extrovert, humorous and immensely literate.’

I’m definitely keeping the book, I like the fact that is battered and worn – kind of like the two men who walked over the Afghanistan Mountains.

AMRITA – Banana Yashimoto

Okay: I’m now done with Japanese novels, at least for the time being.  I’m all Japanned out.  I bought this book on the Book Lounge 40% off-sale, and was peeved to discover that the book was second hand – & if not second hand, then very very old stock,  because the pages have browned, the way that old books do.  I have a feeling that this novel was the personal possession of someone on the store staff.  Or something.  Anyway: not one of my better buys. Which serves me right, because bought it on a 100% whim, based on the writer’s crazy name; also I was also curious to read another Japanese novel, after two from Haruki Murakami.  And having read Banana, I now realise just how good Murakami is.  Also the translation on the Amrita novel was not so great.  I had the impression of a very limited vocabulary – whether this was a fault of the writer or the translator, I couldn’t say.

I had to work really hard to force myself to finish the book – it was a struggle.  Partly because the plot (what plot?) wasn’t very interesting, or at least, wasn’t presented in a way that engaged my interest or made me identify with the characters.  We’re in Tokyo, modern Japan, looking at  an unusual family, Mother, daughter Sakumi the narrator, her step-brother Yoshisho, her cousin Makiko and a  lady friend of the mother, called Junko who decided to live with them. Sakumi falls down some stairs, has brain surgery and returns home, but without her memory; the brother has psychic powers and is moody & withdrawn; Sakumi takes up with Ryu-kan who is the former  lover of her sister Maki who committed suicide; now that I summarise the book it looks quite interesting, but it was presented in such a manner that it wasn’t! Nothing much happens, but we hear a lot about Sakumi’s dreams, and the spirit world (i.e. ghosts) the whole thing reminded me of a self-absorbed teenaged girl’s journal that endlessly describes her FEELINGS, dreams, fantasies. But no details whatsoever about her sexual encounters, although  we do know she’s sleeping with Ryu-kan,  and there’s a sub-plot about her friend Eriko who’s a married man’s mistress and gets stabbed by his aggravated wife – but even this crime doesn’t come across as remarkable

The blurb said “novel is the voice of young Japan”. Well, judging by this novel,  young Japan is not very interesting. The characters all seem to drink a lot, and be fond of staying up all night, wafting around. Quite often we get to hear what they eat – Murakami’s novels  are also very explicit re the menus.

And why it was titled Amrita I’m not sure, although near the end Sakumi has an experience of Amrita, the divine nectar (this is a reference from Hindu mythology {??}  which has not been a feature thus far).

The novel left me stone cold and I can only hope it read better in the original Japanese.  I certainly won’t be trying any more of her books.

A SHADOW IN THE WIND – Carlos Ruiz Zafon 

Carlos Ruiz Zafon  is a Spanish author, six books to his credit, but in the English-speaking world we had to wait for translations in 2004 and 2005 respectively.

I promised myself I would re-read this marvellous novel and I did.  It’s absolutely spell-binding, and such a good meaty read.  It has breadth, depth, it has romance, tragedy, horror, mystery, humour; the blurb describes it as a Gothic novel and I suppose it is – fog, crypts, shadows, tortured souls, furious fathers,  cruel husbands, pining maidens, ruined abandoned house – what more could anyone want?  Most of the women are badly done by, unhappy victims of men, life and Fate.  All this and not a fang in sight – who needs the vampire genre?

Briefly, the plot hinges on a dead novelist: Julian Carax. The novel begins with a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – how mysterious and atmospheric is that?  A father takes his ten-year-old son Daniel to a secret labyrinth visited and maintained by Barcelona’s second-hand booksellers.  The boy must choose a book to treasure and keep with him all his life. He chooses a novel written by Julián Carax, an author who has disappeared and whose books have been sought out and destroyed by a strange, shadowy figure named after a character from one of Carax’s novels – a character who represents the devil.  So we start a story of  intrigue, love, hate and obsession. Like I said: a good meaty read!

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BREATH –  TIM WINTON

Tim Winton is one of my favourite Australian writers. He writes strong, muscular prose – his writing is very physical – and because his writing is pared down, it  works at a straightforward and  powerful level.

Breath is about two boys who catch the surfing bug. Winton captures the breathless rough and tumble of 12 year olds, living in a small, boring Australian town near the coast – you’re THERE, with every page you turn. It’s a coming of age novel that moves from surfing Nirvana, into sexual adventure, the repercussions of which morph into a lifetime of adult struggle.

I’m forever reading respectful praise of Hemingway’s writing – how unadorned it is.  I’m no Hemingway fan, all that macho posturing leaves me stone cold, whereas Winton, equally unadorned, delivers breathtaking novels, every time.
To me he’s the Australian colossus – telling it like it is, with memorable characters, and landscapes that dance before your very eyes.

I wish I could write like Winton does!  If you’ve never tried his books, do yourself a favour and read Breath. I’ve read it twice, and am quite sure I shall read it again in a year or two.

  C

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CATASTROPHE – Oy Vey my Child is gay (and an addict) – Anne Lapidus Brest

The title says it all. The book is quite short and a riveting read. The title is a bit of a giveaway, as it highlights the gayness and adds  almost as  an after-thought: ‘and an addict’.  This is the fate you would not wish on your worst enemy.

The writer’s eldest daughter is a CAT addict and , because the mother is the narrator, her perspective dominates the story.  And: oh! the guilt!  Oh! the denial! Oh! the guilt! Questions, questions: why? why? why me? Why her? followed by even more guilt. I must admit I did get tired of the classic Jewish mother guilt trip.

Anne Brest, a Joburg Jewish kugel, gets divorced, and seemingly this scars daughter Angela for life. Together with the fact that Angela is struggling with her identity as a gay woman – apparently a huge no-no in Jewish social circles, and the community at large, particularly amongst the elders. The family go through endless contortions to prevent Granny from finding out the truth about Angela’s sexuality, and when Granny finally finds out, the situation is incomprehensible to her.  So the slur of having a divorced mother and the burden of her taboo sexuality result in Angela’s drugging.

In the end, Angela gets clean via rehab, recovery group, therapy, together with support from the Shul and the family.  The event is indeed a catastrophe , but it does offer a positive ending.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki – Haruki Murakami

I’m so glad I picked up a brand new copy of his latest novel in Books Galore for only R140 as opposed to the retail price of R360.I’d been  very tempted by pre-release offers from my favourite bookstore,  but had resisted them, and tripped over a bargain instead.  And I will have no trouble in taking this one back to the BG shop & claiming my one-third back on it. It’s not a book I want to keep and re-read.

This said, I have to report that the book has a stunning cover design : vibrant orange, red, indigo, black and white discs – anything but colourless! Plus a large pull-out sheet of small stickers which seem to be related to the story, but are confusing – usually its pre-teen girls who are sticker mad, not adults reading Japanese novels. I don’t know – visualize me shaking my head, shrugging my shoulders, at this point. It’s a mystery, but then this is Murakami.

Suddenly I’m over my Murakami madness. Having now read some of his other novels, I can see how he returns to the same themes over and over again. TT is yet another of Haruki Murakami’s self-sufficient 30-something young men who cook, clean and iron their shirts and lead quiet, modest, regulated lives, apart from a dramatic incident in his early 20s which nearly kills him, but leaves him stronger and even more self-sufficient.

And of course, Music plays a role – a piano piece by Franz List, Le Mal du Pays  seems to be important but somehow isn’t. And there’s the ghostly jazz pianist Midorikawa, who features in Haida’s story, with a maddening clue about a mystery object in a cloth bag, reverently placed atop the piano, prior to playing. Yet another fascinating clue which evaporates  into ..? what? I don’t know: I’m baffled! This is either the charm or the irritation of Murakami’s writing, depending on the reader’s mood.

However, in this book, there are no cats! Often these are a feature of his novels, particularly in Kafka on the Shore.   Also much less of magic realism, or surrealism, or just plain magic, whatever you want to call it. There’s only one magical section where a long story is told to the main protagonist (TT) which – at one point – I thought might be a clue, or a suggestion as to the how & why of  the  murder in the story; but he never develops this suggestion and the story stands alone – a strange almost ghost story – it’s difficult to pin it down.

Another strange element is the introduction of polydactylism – people who are born with six fingers. Very late in the book there’s a short section about lost property on the Tokyo Metro, and one of the bizarre things in the Lost Property is a mayonnaise jar containing two neatly severed fingers in formaldehyde.  Which may or may not be connected to the jazz pianist and the ghost story.

Despite all my grumbles, I  read on, quite intrigued, and continued to the end of the novel. One of the things I like about Murakami is his intense Japanese-ness. There’s a sort of stark minimalism about his work. Despite the oddness of his plots/story-lines, I keep on reading.

My friend Anita thinks his short stories are better than the novels and she may well be correct. I need to read them.

D

 

Desert  by  JMG LE Clezio (translated from the French)

 

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Where to start?  I wanted to read this because I’m fascinated by deserts and this book is about nomads in the Sahara.  Secondly, the writer has a huge reputation, and I was curious to read some of his work.  He won the 2008 Nobel Prize of Literature.  He has written over forty books and been translated into thirty six languages!

The cover blurb said “A writer of something akin to genius”.

His style was to write long lyrical passages about the desert, the heat, the light – which was okay at first, quite spellbinding actually  – but very repetitive after the first hundred pages.  And then he did the same thing, when he was describing the poor areas of Marseilles, long repetitious passages.  Somehow this  approach felt incongruous when applied to an urban setting.

And the book structure. It opened with a historical account of the early 1900s – the great trek of tribal people to the coast, under the leadership of a mystical sheik – and their eventual wholesale slaughter at the end of the book.  I suppose part of the novel – apart from the beautiful prose aspect – was an indictment of European colonial policy in North Africa.  I had to read the Morocco section of Michael Palin’s Sahara   to get a perspective.

The gist of it all was that Lalla – the chief protagonist, a young girl,  – was a descendant of the mystical sheik  – she was filled with wanderlust and had an affinity to the desert – which ultimately pulled her back from urban immigrant life in Marseilles.  You could take the girl out of the desert but not the desert out of the girl.

His portrayal of immigrant urban life was really grim and makes you wonder if they would not have been better off staying in North Africa.  But I suppose it’s the lure of a cash economy.

Apparently this book is considered to be le Clezio’s “definitive breakthrough as a novelist”.  Was quite surprised to read this.  I found I really had to work hard to read the book and to finish it (350 pages).  Had I not know this was such a landmark book, I’m not sure I would have laboured on to the end.

Just imagine: over forty books!  Alexander McCall Smith has a similar (in fact bigger, I think) score, but he won’t be nominated for the Nobel prize – comic novels don’t really count when it comes to prestigious global  prizes.  And look at Terry Pratchett’s output – also over the forty mark.   The master of them all, P. G. Wodehouse wrote ninety six books, in addition to plays, poems, song lyrics and articles. And no Nobel Lit Prize for him!

DESERT FLOWER – WARIS DIRIE    

The biography of a Somali nomad girl made a huge impression on me, for a number of reasons.

My strongest reaction was to the dreadful topic of FGM (female genital mutilation) . Although  I was born in Africa and have  lived on the continent all my life:  having a British Colonial upbringing, the notion of FGM is an anathema to me. Apart from the pain and suffering inflicted on young girls, under the most primitive, unhygienic conditions, it upholds the patriarchal norm that women exist purely as chattels and objects of sexual gratification. I don’t even know where to begin ranting about this issue.  For more on this topic go to Wikipedia.  Not to mention the host of genito/urinary/gynae problems that persist for the unfortunate women’s lives.

Prior to reading the memoir, I had always been baffled as to why generations of women continued to inflict  pain and mutilation on their daughters. I had never understood how or why women could willingly perpetuate barbaric practices upon their daughters. But Waris Dirie’s explanation finally shed a ray of light on the vexed topic. She explained that just as parents in the West might go to great lengths to provide a top notch education for their daughters, in her Somali society, parents felt they had to ensure their girl children were ‘circumcised’ because if they were not, they would be considered ‘unclean’ (by men, of course !!!)and would not be marriageable. Taken in context, the Somali adherence to FGM  makes cultural sense.  In Somali culture, patriarchy rules. In fact, in most African cultures, to the best of my knowledge.   Provided one can swallow the notion that girls are married off at an early age, say 12 years upwards, usually as a commercial transaction; bride price paid in camels.

Apart from the thorny FGM issue, about which Waris was horribly matter of fact, her account of growing up as a nomad in the deserts of Somalia was fascinating. Despite the hard life – little food, and always a scarcity of water, she waxed lyrical about the freedom of a life lived outdoors, and the closeness of family around the nightly campfire. When I recall early films like the Rudolf Valentino Sheik  and contrast it to the real-life account of Waris: well! I think many of us may have had teenage romantic fantasy of being swept off our feet by Rudolf V and whisked away to his silken tents in the remote desert, where he … can you feel the steam coming off this page? As ever, the actuality of life lived in harsh desert conditions is entirely another matter.

Another thing that I found amusing, was Waris’ later comments on the spoilt Western girls in the modelling world of NYC, complaining about trivia and the hard work of being a model (admittedly being a model is no picnic) which Waris views with wry scorn. The gist of her attitude was that the soft Western women had absolutely no idea of what a hard life really meant. And having personally  witnessed rural African womens’ hard lives, I heartily agree with her. Those urban princesses have absolutely no cookin’ clue.

The book shows that Rags to Riches stories really do take place outside the covers of romantic fiction, albeit via a very hard path, in Waris’ case.

And lastly,  the memoir bears out one of my favourite sayings : Truth is always stranger than fiction.

IQ84 – Haruki Murakami

 

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My first Murakami. The  book was so heavy, I had to sit with cushion on lap and prop it up on the cushion, rather than try to hold it.  900 +something pages. Its two days since I finished reading & am still trying to digest it, come to terms with what I read. And I can’t bring myself to start a new, lighter book either. My head feels overfull, even tho’ I’m no longer thinking of the Murakami novel.

To me the novel defies classification. Yes, it’s a love story – Tengo and Aomame (female assassin with name = green pea {huh? I mean, what’s that all about, giving the main female character a comical name?} ); yes, its fantasy, and  not SF – there’s a parallel world, characterised by two moons, a little greenish moon just to the side of the normal yellow moon, that’s the world of IQ84.  Apparently the Japanese word for the figure nine  sounds like our letter Q. Verbal pun.

I found the book very Japanese: I mean – how could it not be? Set in Japan, written by one of  Japan’s  foremost modern authors. Okay;  but what struck me was how extremely POLITE  the characters were to each other – none of  American style foul-mouth ‘mother-f******s’ etc. in fact, no bad language at all. And there was a meticulous-ness to the detail: what the characters wore, the routes they followed; the food they prepared and cooked; what was in the fridge.  But I didn’t find this irritating, as I did in Stieg Larson’s l-o-n-g  novels.

But on the other hand, despite all the Jaapnese-ness, there was a lot of Western cultural influence. For instance, the use of Janicek (obscure Czech composer) work Sinfonietta  as a recurring motif in the novel.

I deliberately didn’t read the review  articles I’d downloaded last year, until I’d finished the book.  Then I read them to try and help me make sense out of what I’d read .  They did help. Apparently Murakami’s books always feature cats – this one had a whole sub-story about the town of the giant cats. And apparently Japanese purists get very cross with HM because of his love of American Jazz, and other Western influences.  This novel did have quite a number of Western cultural touchstones in it. Even I noticed this.

A reviewer talked about the ‘hypnotic effect’ of HK’s book, & I suppose it was hypnotic.  After all, I kept reading, and wondering what was going to happen, so the book did engage my interest, but I’m still not too sure that I (a) got the plot or (b) really understood it.

The book was also disturbingly sexy, at least in book one; book three hardly any.  It was also quite violent too.

HM invented  wonderful characters : Shinake, the misshapen lawyer turned PI; the dowager and her bodyguard; the Leader of the Sakigake cult – fascinating, in fact.

One thing’s for sure: it WAS DIFFERENT, with bells on, and I’m willing to go back and try some more, but preferably from the Library, as I don’t want to buy more HM novels. I ‘m wondering if any of my friends will borrow & read this massive tome, & if so, what their  verdict will be ?  I’m still not sure what my verdict is.  The review articles spoke of the lack of Nobel prize for HM, so I discover he’s seen as a major literary figure, but does this mean I have to like his work? Or enjoy it ?

                                                                                                      

LIGHTNING RODS – HELEN DE WITT

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I was really looking forward to her second novel with happy anticipation.  The wait has been a long one, since her marvellous The Last Samurai one of my fave books, which I have read at least three times, unusual for me. So I bought it at vast expense, on-line, and gloated over the hard-covered book (not available in paperback), and read it very swiftly – it’s not a long book.

Once I’d got over the shock of this outrageous, bizarre novel which – by the by – should be sold in a plain brown wrapper stamped, Age Restricted: 21 and over only, I realize I’m disappointed.  I know it’s unrealistic to expect a second novel to be a reprise of the first brilliant debut, but that said ….

The two novels could not be more dissimilar. Both in content and style. The first one told an unusual story peopled with quirky, interesting, sympathetic characters; I was spellbound from page one. Rods has an arresting cover, with a bright blue background, and three sets of bright blue eyes (painted, not photographed) showing an expression of great surprise. Once you discover the contents, you realize why they look so startled.

In short, the book is a satire on modern American marketing and business methods, and the use of sex in the office environment, purveyed in a clinical, conveyor-belt manner, to male staff, the women serving as lightning rods for otherwise troublesome sexual energy which would – under normal circumstances – give rise to endless sexual harassment suits, low productivity etc. etc. The book has a sweetly reasonable tone which reports in a matter of fact way, the success of ex-vacuum cleaner salesman Joe who succeeds in launching, selling and succeeding with his crazy scheme.  It almost sounds like an anthropologist’s report on a sociological experiment, and less like an article from Playboy.

The dust jacket says that the book is irredeemably filthy and parts of it are – we’re full frontal with male fantasies, and some down to earth language and details on fornication.  But oddly, it also outlines in some detail how two former Lightning Rods go on to make glittering careers in the legal field and Supreme Court, all on their LR earnings.

On finishing the book I continued to feel flabbergasted at the theme and the plot – it is galaxies away from the first book and it’s hard to accept that it was written by a woman . I deliberately didn’t read any reviews of the book mid-read, but will do so now and see what other readers had to say about it. It was much heralded when it appeared.

                                                                                                       M

 

MY BROTHER’S BOOK – Jo-Anne Richards

 

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Not being fond of Struggle Literature, I’ve avoided her books. I recall a huge hullabaloo over her  novel The Innocence of Roast Chicken, (a best-seller in South Africa in 1996).  I remember  the PC brigade hated it. Quite why, I never discovered.  But she has continued to write  and this is her fourth novel .

It’s a novel of great depth with an unusual format – quite a large part of the narrative – perhaps just under one-third  –  consists of letters written by Miranda to both Thomas (her first lover and fellow struggle comrade) and his sister, Lily (unwitting trigger of Tom’s discovery, arrest and 12 year jail sentence).  The Book is in three parts : Part 1 – Lily; Part 2 – Thomas; Part 3 – Bert (their father). The catalyst is the book which Thomas writes about The Struggle, which prompts Miranda to start writing letters to the pair of them, so there’s an oblique, third-person view and analysis of events already related by the other characters. It’s a complicated format, but it suits the novel about three complicated characters.

Lily’s Part 1 is about a nomadic childhood spent in the Eastern Cape with wonderful evocative sections on the landscape, the people, life as a child, with the shadow of apartheid restrictions on their friendship with the coloureds in the little towns.  She adores her father (a  complex mix of conman, drinker,  trader & preacher), is brought up by her brother, but is much wilder and spontaneous than him.  Ironically, towards the end of the book, their roles are reversed – she becomes the care-giver towards her step-brother Arnold and her father.

Thomas’ Part 2 takes us into his tortured soul – he’s tormented by his mother’s abandonment of their family, the fecklessness of his father, his responsibilities towards his kid sister and then her betrayal; his relationships with women, friends, God; his attempted career as a priest …. everything is deeply felt, unacknowledged, and the struggle has twisted him.  How Louise, his girlfriend puts up with him, is a mystery.  He’s remote, a workaholic, unforgiving, driven by anger that he claims he has left behind – he hasn’t of course, but can’t see it.  And of course, despite his impeccable Struggle credentials, he’s abandoned by the New South Africa, when his life’s raison d’etre, an NGO, is swept from under him when the Board insists he be replaced by a Black.  A White man, cannot in these new times, head such an organization …. it’s the ultimate cruel irony.

Bart’s Part 3 was quite difficult to read, he’s got Alzheimers and his view of events/people is all mixed up but it’s a short section only a few pages, from which it appears that Thomas manages to stay with Louise who has now borne his child; Miranda is on a visit from London; and brother and sister appear to have reconciled.

I’m filled with admiration at the complex structure of the book, the depth of the characters, the subtlety of the book. I wonder why it hasn’t won a prize ?

“Richards has an acute sense of place, in it’s small town and big city guises, and a wonderful ear for South African idiom.  … Moving subtly between past and present, it casts a searing light on the way we reveal and conceal our truths in stories.” (Ivan Vladislavic)

“Few South African writers can capture the complicated magic and cultural confusion of a constantly changing country like JR can … wry, moving and beautifully observed.” (Peter Godwin).

                                                                              P

PALE FIRE by Vladimir Nabokov

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I hunted for this book for years. In the end I gave in and bought the Penguin Classic on-line. I’m so glad I did.  I wanted to get beyond the wretched “Lolita” which I’d never managed to read, despite several attempts, finding it heavy going.  I felt sure there must be more to Nabokov, other than his notoriety after Lolita, and I was correct.

The book was not a particularly easy read but every page offered  dazzling prose, magnificent language – and this from a native Russian speaker. The language is extraordinary . I found I had to read with my notebook and pencil at hand, to record the words I didn’t recognize or understand.  I later hauled out my huge Shorter Oxford Dictionary and even that august tome let me down a couple of times.

The scope of the novel is super-ambitious. Nabokov wrote  a detailed foreword, followed by a poem of 999 lines in 4 Cantos, followed by a Commentary on the poem of 173 pages, which is the narrative of the story, as well as  supplying a genuine commentary on the poem! He finished off with an index of nine pages : A – Z of infinite detail – a huge amount of work! !

Furthermore, the actual story has two parallel threads: the story of Charles Xavier, King Charles the Beloved of Zembla (a fictitious Balkan country) who flees to exile in the USA. The second thread is the account by, Professor Charles Kinbote, neighbour and friend of John Shade, the poet.  Kinbote lands up  becoming the editor and custodian of Shade’s monumental poem. Are the two threads connected, or are they not?  The plot is intricate – reminiscent of a set of nested Russian dolls.

And – a big plus point! – Nabokov is very funny, which in the setting of academia , literature and murder, is unexpected. He’s droll, he’s witty.

An anonymous  reviewer wrote “ One of the most original and creative novelists of our time”. I don’t think this comment does justice to the novel.  But the following comment by Martin Amis does do justice:  “The variety, force and richness of Nabokov’s perceptions have not even the palest rival in modern fiction – the nearest  thing to pure sensual pleasure that prose can offer”.

If you’re in the mood for a modern classic, something different, then read “Pale Fire.”

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