Book Review: Jolts

“I don’t know what I was before; I only know that I became Argentinean abroad”

In 2002 Fernando Sdrigotti fled the economic turmoil of his home country, Argentina, and flew to Dublin where he knew a friend would put him up temporarily. The morning after his arrival in Ireland he started work washing dishes – a kitchen porter job in the canteen of an office building. He spent the next seventeen years moving countries and cities, acquiring the visas and paperwork that would enable him to apply for British citizenship.

Jolts is a collection of nine short stories that offer snapshots of the author’s experiences living in transient places. As with any memoir there are elements of fiction.

“I may be sitting in a cafĂ© in London reading these words. And I may be trying to figure out what is actually real, and what made-up. Or I may be rejoicing in the uncertainty. Or aware of the fantasy, I might be rejoicing in the fabrication.”

What comes through is a picture of the life of a writer as he attempts to establish himself, and the adaptations he goes through to fit his changing circumstances. There is a great deal of alcohol and drug taking along with anger and cynicism. There is also humour, particularly in the representations of those he meets along the way. The narrator appears to possess a degree of self-assurance that I have observed in others – mainly males – and always perplexes me (that they can be so sure of themselves and their opinions). He is not, however, averse to turning criticisms on himself.

The collection opens with the titular story. This is structured as a series of brief vignettes set across several decades. They help explain why the narrator left Argentina and provide a basis for several episodes recounted in more detail in subsequent stories.

“the piece is called ‘Jolts’ and is precisely about jolts in time and space, about how some of us are more sensitive to fragments and how some of us are more fragmented than the rest, particularly on some days.”

Several of the stories are set in London where the author now lives. In Only Up Here the narrator has quit a bar job and is taking in his surroundings having spent days festering in bed. He shares a studio flat with another guy in similar circumstances. Both have experienced the high of potential change before crashing to inertia from which the narrator is now trying to extricate them.

Turkish Delight portrays a different type of acquaintance. The cash-strapped narrator accepts an invitation to Sunday lunch from a financially successful Englishman who has plans for an afternoon of mutual drinking and drug taking. High on whatever has been snorted, the narrator can suppress his concerns at feeling out of place amongst ‘beautiful people’.

Methylated Spirits is a story about shopping in Sainsburys in the week before Christmas. From the items purchased and the amount spent the reader may assume that the narrator is now doing better financially.

Barbecue and Exhumation in Victoria Park Village is a biting exposĂ© of casual xenophobia that the characters portrayed would probably deny. One is a ‘published author’ with opinions about writers and their road to success. The guests at the barbecue talk condescendingly on many topics, trading insults as competition amongst them builds with alcohol consumption. The narrator observes this group of friends while trying to fit in.

As well as London there are stories set in Dublin, Rome, and a childhood holiday in coastal Argentina. In this latter tale, the narrator is spending a summer with a young friend’s family, to keep the boy company. The montage presented is piercing in its evocation of the ordinary experiences children must suffer at the hands of peers and those charged with their care.

The final story, Notes Towards A Return, is set in Buenos Aires towards the end of the period covered by this memoir.

“Unlike Dublin, Paris, and later London, Buenos Aires was too much for me – I couldn’t tame it, own it, call it my own. I used to spend many a weekend in Buenos Aires but I would spend this time couch surfing, mostly off my head after rock concerts, preparing a landing that never materialised. So I miss the possibility of Buenos Aires.”

The narrator does not return to his hometown, Rosario, on this visit. When friends there express disappointment he stops responding to their messages.

“Others stop replying to my fake apologies. The important part is that a heavy ballast is dropped: we should have stopped talking years ago – we have nothing in common anymore – we were victims of the Dictatorship of Nostalgia that comes with social media.”

Although each story in this collection contains an interesting plot and well developed trajectory, it is the keen observations and elucidation that provide their vigour and entertainment. The writing style and taut structure offer an acutely pertinent if wry portrayal of humanity and their treatment of incomers. Whatever truths are being conveyed about the author’s life, it is as short stories about people’s behaviour that they may be savoured. Whilst I couldn’t empathise with many of the choices made – situations beyond my experience – the first person narrative offers a window into the life of a traveller whose circumstances are more relevant than location.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

Book Review: Shitstorm

Shitstorm, by Fernando Sdrigotti, is the first in a series of pocket sized novelettes from Open Pen. It offers a wickedly entertaining take-down of contemporary attention spans and media fuelling of public outrage. Although a work of fiction it is built around actual events and the associated input from bizarrely popular public commentators. As well as being witty this story is vexingly accurate in its observations.

The opening sequence tells the tale of an American dentist who travels to Zimbabwe to kill animals for his own skewed pleasure. He ends up causing the death of a protected lion named Cyril who was much loved by wealthy celebrities. Newspapers and social media soon pick up the story and the hunter becomes prey. Hashtags trend and column inches fill with barely considered click bait opinions. A shitstorm is generated.

The dentist and his family receive death threats and require relocation and police protection.

“So maybe it was about his stupidity, maybe it always boils down to people doing stupid things, being incredibly stupid all the time, or just once, being stupid at the wrong moment. And our never-ending hunger for content.”

The outrage goes on for days, building momentum, airtime and petitions, until a bomb goes off in the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras International. The President of the United States of America uses this latest tragedy to spread his message of hatred and fear of Islam. The dentist is forgotten as commentators turn their attention to garnering supporters for whatever message they wish to peddle.

“Some of us have changed our avators to one with the Union Jack or a photo of Big Ben while others have chosen a black square while others did nothing. Many of us have announced ourselves safe over Facebook while others have articulated in the strongest terms that we are against doing this, in order not to play at the hands of the terrorists, whoever these might be. And of course all of us are now policing people’s reactions to an atrocity, as is the tradition these days.”

A mosque in Birmingham is petrol bombed. A driver attempts to run over a group of young Muslim girls in Milton Keynes. Then a blogger from Archway goes viral after news breaks that she is making bread from her own vaginal yeast and selling it.

“now we can all stop thinking about bombs for a while”

And so it goes on: the patriarchy, Holocaust, transphobia, terrorism, conspiracy theories, the President of the United States of America accused of sexual harassment – there is always another shitstorm with its requisite opinion pieces in newspapers and on social media. Judgements are quickly made, written about and shared. Boycotts of companies are supported by people who never bought from them anyway. Insults are exchanged when points of view are not openly agreed with. Then everyone moves on to the next happening.

The denouement of this little tale is neatly executed by looking at what happens to those in the eye of the storm after public attention diverts from them. I was amused by the addition of a Russian connection.

In fact I was wryly amused by this entire book and its depiction of how easily so many are being manipulated. Wanting change in this world is understandable, armchair activism smugly comforting, but proper understanding of issues and their wider repercussions is vanishingly rare.

An intelligent and quirky little book that may (or may not) make readers reconsider their reaction to whatever shitstorm comes next. Astute and entertaining, but also important in its cogency, this is a recommended read.

Shitstorm is published by Open Pen.