Book Review: Occupation

Occupation

“I told you … about my desire to expand, to go beyond my own petty dramas. To go beyond those beloved people surrounding me, too, to examine others and contemplate their abysses”

Occupation, by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), is once again narrated by the author’s auto-fictional alter ego, Sebastián. In his rightly lauded previous novel, Resistance, the author focused on Sebastián’s parents and siblings – their shared memories and personal mythologies. This latest work is more outward looking while still offering intimate yet clear-sighted observations of family, along with several others the narrator comes into contact with. Some are dealt with briefly while a handful are revisited over several chapters as the tale progresses.

The story opens with two encounters while Sebastián is out walking with his wife. A man in a wheelchair and then a young boy ask for favours. Both want something from Sebastián and he finds himself unsure how to react, unsure how his wife wants him to behave. He fears that making the wrong decision could be his ‘ruin’. This concern – that he could become ‘not a man, merely the ruins of one’ – gains focus from his interactions with the aged and displaced.

The setting shifts regularly to a room occupied by Sebastián’s father who is in hospital and gravely unwell. Chapters focus on how Sebastián now views this man he has known all his life, who has been changed by time and illness.

“That man existed only in photographs, it was he who was guilty of the fate of this other man now pinned to the bed”

While his father approaches the end of his life, Sebastián and his wife are trying for a baby. He mulls what it means to occupy a body, not just with illness or the effects of poverty but also pregnancy.

Sebastián seeks out migrants as part of his research for his planned book, visiting those living in an abandoned tower block that houses the homeless in challenging conditions. He tries to tell their stories in their voices but recognises he is only capable of seeing them through a personal lens. Nevertheless, he empathises with their plights and desires, recalling his own family history.

“Like my family, every family has, if we go far enough back in time, countless displacements in its origin. All humanity is made up of this incessant movement, and it only exists in the way we know it thanks to these displacements.”

In the background, during this time, the reader is made aware that the political climate in Brazil is deteriorating. The narrator may despair of the ‘imbecility of the rulers of the day’ but still believes ‘literature will remain beyond any occupation’. All has happened before, somewhere, and will likely happen again.

“violence against the other is a violence against ourselves, doomed to destroy each of us and all humanity”

Despite some of the more bleak observations, somehow these musings come across as uplifting. Sebastián’s father is still there behind the shell of a body he must now occupy. The migrants taking over another building, preparing it for new occupiers, are forward looking. Sebastián and his wife face challenges but do so together.

Structured in short chapters, the tale told is humane and succinct. The writing is taut yet close to lyrical in places, philosophical and deeply personal. What comes to the fore is the difficulty of understanding human reactions and their affects. In trying to delve deeper, Sebastián offers his readers a chance to contemplate issues – those that cause change through the passing of time and the numbing caused by familiarity. He pauses to step back and consider, enabling the reader to do the same. Thoughts and observations are all the more powerful for the the clear language in which they are conveyed.

Like its predecessor, this book was a joy to read on so many levels. Thoughtful and penetrating, it is a tale for our times.

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

Book Review: The Bureau of Past Management

bureau

“I’d prefer it if people weren’t always looking at things from the outside, trying to explain the crime. Instead, speak of the suffering. I wish people would think about what it is essentially about. Contemplate, rather than commemorate.”

The Bureau of Past Management, by Iris Hanika (translated by Abigail Wender), explores the shadows that national guilt can cast on future generations. It also raises the point that history is monetised as a tourist attraction. All this is told in a tale of two middle aged friends over the course of a few weeks during which their personal lives reach a crossroads. Set in contemporary Berlin, the inheritance of the Nazi era continues to fester.

The story focuses on Hans Frambach, a middle aged bachelor who has long worked as an archivist at the eponymous bureau. Hans is facing something of a crisis, questioning the worth of the work he is now required to undertake. His private life is also largely empty, its highlight the times when his only friend, Graziela, turns to him for advise on the affair she is embroiled in. Hans is happy to offer whatever support she asks for, recognising the value of their friendship.

Hans follows the same habits each day, turning up for work where he tries to act as he believes a normal person would.

“He drew up the corners of his mouth so she would think he was smiling. There would be no other choice. He observed all social conventions, which was why he pulled up the corners – it was customary, that’s how people smiled.”

That he does not consider himself normal adds to the detachment he feels. He ponders the life he is leading, the loneliness he feels knowing he exists with little purpose. He regrets there is no one to ‘hold his hand’.

“In the time he’d found the two records and listened to both songs, a full twenty minutes of his life had been taken from the future and turned into the past.”

When out and about he watches the people around him, his caustic observations bringing to the fore how awkward he feels in company. There is little to suggest he admires anyone else or the lives they lead.

“Another man, young but not handsome, oozed sexual need from every pore. And yet he wore a disparaging look on his face, as though he’d rather torture an animal than have sex, and if a woman did happen to fall into his hands, he’d treat her the same way.”

There are few bright spots in Hans’ days. He looks forward to his regular phone calls with Graziela. When they meet he enjoys her company and conversation. His other pleasure comes when he feels he has bested his co-workers, who he regards with contempt – these small victories are rare and mostly short-lived.

In managing the nation’s past, the bureau is keeping the memories fresh as so many people rely on them for work. Hans can see that this is happening. He tries to discuss his misgivings with Graziela while she shares her own trials with him. Both appear on the cusp of change, something the other encourages, which brings further anxieties.

The irony and wit of Hans’ contemplations sit alongside his loneliness and melancholy. He suffers fearful dreams that are coloured by the Auschwitz archives he is digitising. His suffering is clear, but this is tinged by comparisons to Holocaust victims.

There are occasional chapters that I struggled to fit with the narrative. Perhaps they are internet rabbit holes Hans ventures down during his empty evenings. I do not believe I got from them what the author intended.

In her note at the end of the story, the translator writes that she regards the book’s central question to be ‘how do we understand the past, and what is the purpose of collective, historic guilt?’ While I enjoyed pondering this dimension of the novel, I feel I only garnered what was offered at a superficial level.

An engaging and unusual tale that provides much to consider. Despite being unable to fully grasp every aspect included, the story was well worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, V&Q Books.

Book Review: The Song of Youth

song of youth

The Song of Youth, by Montserrat Roig (translated by Tiago Miller), is a collection of eight short stories that explore universal themes – love, loss, grief, aging, memory, sex – but touched on from angles that tell the reader much about themselves. Although set in a Catalonia shadowed by the Franco regime, the tales explore human experiences and attitudes that will resonate widely. The writing is taut yet expressive, conveying the conflicting emotions of situations without including unnecessary detail. Characters are not always likable but will draw reader empathy.

The collection opens with the titular story in which an elderly woman is lying on a hospital bed, in a ward reserved for those expected to die soon. She is regarded as difficult by the busy nursing staff. She is not yet ready to expire despite being barely able to move. As the woman observes comings and goings around her she relives a key event in her life, prompted by a doctor who reminds her of a former lover. She ponders the changes to her body caused by aging.

“She raised a hand and held it against the ray of sunlight coming in through the window. It was a transparent hand with protruding bones, riddled with swollen blue rivers cut through by clods of earth coloured stains.” 

When youthful and regarded as pretty the woman chose to indulge in an act of rebellion against the path her parents expected her to take. Now approaching her end, she continues to push back in small ways available.

My favourite story in the collection was Love and Ashes, in which a middle-aged woman, Maria, travels abroad for the first and last time with her husband. They must borrow money to make the trip but it is an experience he wishes to indulge in before he dies. There is much humour in this tale, from the frenemy who has travelled frequently and insists on sharing every detail, to the ridiculous husband whose behaviour ends up freeing Maria to enjoy what time remains. 

Mar is another strong inclusion, exploring the impact of a friendship on family and community when a woman will not conform in her behaviour. Both Mar and the narrator are married with children, the latter being an intellectual with socialist ideals that she comes to recognise ‘only existed in our heads’. Early in the story we learn that Mar is now in hospital, kept alive by machines. The narrator is pondering the year they spent together, one that led to the breakup of both their marriages.

“Perhaps I was attracted by what I perceived in her as innocence but which was, in fact, a merry immorality. She unearthed feelings I didn’t care to define but which had long been lurking deep inside of me, as dark as the thoughts I didn’t dare express”

It is posited that those who condemned Mar did so due to their own unhappiness. It is a story of ideals and the lies we tell ourselves about what we believe in, how we wish to be perceived.  

I found the final story, Before I Deserve Oblivion, disturbing. It offers a depiction of a man with sexual proclivities few would admit to. As a boy he masturbated while secretly watching his parents have sex. As an adult he is caught spying on schoolgirls he is teaching as they undress in a changing room. The man also worked as a censor of literature, ensuring the public could not read the erotica he had access to in order to remove it from texts. He is trying to explain his unsavoury behaviour. Whilst acknowledging he will be condemned by others, it is unclear what he believes to be acceptable in thought and deed.

Although covering numerous challenging topics, the stories are relatable in the characters that populate each page. The writing flows easily, maintaining an engaging pace. There is depth as well as humour, a poignancy in the unflinching portrayal of how people judge both others and themselves. A deftly written collection of short form fiction that I am glad to have read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa Press. 

Book Review: Elena Knows

Elena+Knows

Elena Knows, by Claudia Piñeiro (translated by Frances Riddle), tells the story of an epic journey that takes place over the course of one day. The journey recounted is epic not in scope but in effort expended. The titular protagonist, from whose point of view the tale is told, is an elderly woman suffering from advanced Parkinson’s. Her ability to move her limbs relies on the careful timing of medication.

Opening in the morning, as Elena takes her second pill, the difficulties she faces doing a supposedly simple task such as putting one foot in front of the other are laid bare. She is sitting in her kitchen waiting for the prescribed chemicals to take effect that she may walk to the local train station, five blocks away. She must catch the ten o’clock train if she is to reach her destination.

“Today’s the day she’s going to play her last card, to try to find out who killed her daughter, to talk to the only person in the world who she thinks she can convince to help her. Because of a long-ago debt, something almost forgotten.”

Elena’s daughter, Rita, was found hanging from the church belfry. Investigators concluded she committed suicide. Elena knows this can’t be how she died as, on the day in question, it was raining. Rita harboured a fear of lightning and refused to attend church on such days after she learned of its lightning rod. Elena believes she knew her daughter better than anyone else.

Mother and daughter had a tempestuous relationship.

“They fought as if each word thrown out were the crack of a whip, leather in motion, one of them lashed out, then the other. Blistering the rival’s body with words. Neither let on that she was hurt.”

Nevertheless, now that Rita is dead Elena is grieving in her own way. Despite the many difficulties she faces, Elena mostly eschews any help offered, especially by her daughter’s boyfriend, a man Elena despises, appearing to resent that they had a relationship.

“They were two hopeless creatures, two losers in love, or not even, two lonely people who had never even entered the game, who had contented themselves with watching from the stands. As far as Elena was concerned, it would’ve been more dignified at that point for her daughter to abstain from playing altogether.”

After Elena completes the train journey she must travel a further distance to reach a house she has been to only once before, twenty years ago. She remembers directions and a front door but does not have an address. She must then confront Isabel, who lives there, and call in her debt. To continue to function Elena will need to take her third pill on the way.

Throughout the arduous journey, Elena remembers episodes with her daughter, including how disgusted Rita became by her mother’s failing body. There is no shying from detail in the depictions of a Parkinson’s sufferer. As well as difficulty controlling movement, Elena is now permanently stooped. She cannot cut her thickened toenails or remove her dentures. She leaks urine and cannot wipe herself after using the toilet. She constantly drools, including into her food, turning it to paste before she can eat it. Rita was her carer and didn’t hide how the personal tasks she was forced to carry out sickened her, as did the way her mother smelled and looked.

The denouement provides a change of pace after what was a poignant if challenging reveal of the mother-daughter relationship. It asks questions about the ownership an individual can have over their body given the effects of such issues as: illness, duty, domestic abuse. The determination Elena displays in travelling across Buenos Aires played out differently when Rita was younger. Rita herself had a lasting impact on Isabel. Their stories provide a shocking reminder of treatment women are expected to accept from those they look to for care or support, even when well intentioned.

The writing is taut and affecting, with a depth that develops slowly but lingers beyond the final page. In the Afterword, Fiona Mackintosh adds context – how the culture in Argentina, including the dogmas of the Catholic church, loom large and resist change.

I could not warm to Elena, especially when considering how she treated Rita – a doctor’s appointment is particularly traumatic. Even so, the depiction of age and infirmity cannot fail to raise pity – and fear for their own future – in any reader.

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

Book Review: Forty Lost Years

forty lost years

Forty Lost Years, by Rosa Maria Arquimbau (translated by Peter Bush), tells the story of a woman born and raised in Barcelona during the turbulent years of the mid twentieth century, when Catalonia suffered insurrection, war and fascism. It is not a political book but rather one of how ordinary lives were affected by authoritarian change. The author lived through this time and, in an epilogue written by Julià Guillamon, it is suggested that she wrote her own experiences into her central character. This is not memoir but offers a portrayal of lived history.  

The tale opens in 1931 when the protagonist, Laura Vidal, is fourteen years old. She lives with her parents and siblings in the cramped quarters provided for the concierge of their building – her mother’s job. Her father works for a furniture maker but money is tight. Laura has recently become an apprentice seamstress at an up-market workshop, along with her good friend, Herminia. Following elections, the president has proclaimed the Republic of Catalonia leading to widespread if short-lived celebrations.

Laura has little interest in these wider events being more concerned with her day to day existence and social life. She is frustrated by the limitations placed on her through lack of money and parental demands that she conduct herself with decorum. She is impatient to acquire womanly curves, to grow up and gain independence. Although developing an interest in boys, she draws little attention.  

The story follows Laura, her family and friends over the coming four decades. There are times of hardship when food is scarce and the young men, required to complete military service, are endangered by numerous conflicts. Laura is ambitious but requires backers if she is to set up the business she dreams of. Throughout her life she retains a pragmatic approach to securing what she needs.

There are marriages, babies, affairs and deaths as the years pass. In their twenties, Laura and Herminia leave Spain along with many other refugees in an attempt to relocate to Mexico. The trials faced in this period are described in the epilogue as autobiographical in nature. Eventually, Laura returns to Barcelona where she prospers in the opulent post-war years.

In many ways Laura is fortunate, finding those who are willing to help her when she is hungry or in need of accommodation. She works hard and feels no need to rely on a partner, noting the compromises married acquaintances must make. In her fifties, however, she observes how younger women now regard her and feels regret at some of her decisions. 

The spare prose offers little emotion yet succeeds in drawing the reader in. The portrayal of an independent woman as she navigates her way from naive teenager to successful business owner is rendered engagingly. Laura occasionally faces criticism from her family and friends but, despite this, mostly acts as she sees fit. Given her earlier approach to life – her attitude towards other’s expectations of her – I was surprised by the denouement, that she was so affected by what is natural aging. Her reaction to others’ opinion appeared out of character, or maybe this is also a change that comes with age.

Certain sections of dialogue could flow better – I wondered at some of the translator’s choices of spoken words – but this may be true to the region. Encounters with the young idealists who then turn to profiteering offer a reminder that principles are rarely fixed.

An enjoyable read set in a time of great change that refuses to pander to a stoicism that so often veneers survivors who are later regarded as worldly successes. The characters portrayed here have flaws as well as strengths, and this adds to their depth. 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum D’Estampa Press.

Robyn Reviews: Memoirs of a Polar Bear

‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ is literary fiction with a fantasy twist – the protagonists are polar bears. It chronicles the story of three bears across three generations, each of which lead widely different – yet also incredibly similar – lives. Its a deliberately bizarre book, one which falls apart under any sort of scrutiny, but raises plenty of questions about humanity and modern life.

The story is divided into three chapters, one for each bear. In chapter one, a bear who was once a circus performer starts to write her autobiography after a chance conversation with her building’s superintendent. The memoir becomes a bestseller, eventually leading to her being forced to flee the Soviet Union to avoid internment in Siberia, becoming a refugee first in West Germany and, later, Canada. In chapter two, her daughter Tosca, who grew up in East Germany and trained as a ballet dancer, follows her mother’s legacy into circus life. This chapter is divided – told partially from the point of view of a human performer at the circus, and partially from Tosca’s – and is the most surreal of the three. In chapter three, Tosca’s son Knut – left by his mother to be raised at the Berlin Zoo – grows up raised by the human Matthias, knowing only life in his enclosure. He’s the zoo’s prize star, used to raise awareness of climate change and showed off as an adorable polar bear cub. However, when he accidentally injures Matthias, he’s left alone, with only his thoughts for company.

This is an exceptionally difficult book to review, mostly because its less a piece of fiction and more an elaborate work of social commentary The unnamed bear in chapter one lives much like a human, whereas Knut in chapter three lives like any other animal today – caged. This regression of rights throughout the book is only apparent on reflection: on a first read, it’s simply confusing why some bears have some rights and others have none. The entire book leads the reader to make assumptions and then confront why they’ve made them. Where the first bear has an excellent grasp of human languages, Tosca is mute – and thus the reader is lulled into thinking of them as less intelligent, more animal than human. But why should Tosca’s inability to speak a language make her any less intelligent? Humans jump to conclusions and cognitive biases, and Tawada takes them and frames them so subtly it’s easy to miss on a first or even second read.

Alongside these more abstract concepts, the bears make some direct and piercing observations on humanity. Why do humans always lie to try and spare other’s feelings? Why do humans turn some essential functions, like eating, into an elaborate and pleasurable performance, whereas others, like bowel movements and periods, are taboo? The bears see humans as constantly making life unnecessarily difficult for themselves, and spend a great deal of time trying to figure out why.

All the bears are artists, so there are some equally intriguing comments on the purpose of art and performance, and to what extent life is an elaborate piece of theatre. Knut, especially, having spent his entire life in a zoo, is conscious of always performing. His anxieties about this feel all too human.

While the idea behind this book is exceptionally clever, it does have issues in execution. It was originally written in German, so may flow better in its original language. The second chapter in particular starts to blur dreams and reality, leaving it very unclear what is actually happening. This more spiritual, surrealist element comes across as confusing and jarring to me personally, and makes this section quite hard to read. At times, there’s even a temptation to skip over entire paragraphs. This is also very much a book which demands reflection. Without it, it would be very easy to close the final page with a vague air of dissatisafaction and confusion and write the entire book off as failing to tell any real story.

Overall, ‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ is a strong literary novel, despite its fantasy elements, designed more to be thought-provoking than to tell a real story. Recommended for fans of cerebral literary fiction, novels which defy convention, and those with an interest in human psychology.

Published by Granta Books
Paperback: 2nd November 2017

Book Review: Yesterday

yesterday

Yesterday, by Juan Emar (translated by Megan McDowell), tells the story of a day in the narrator’s life – the one before the day on which he is writing down what happened. It opens with the man and his wife rising at dawn that they may attend the beheading of Malleco, condemned by the church for spreading details of the secret of love – for the benefit of his fellow citizens. Tickets to Malleco’s execution are hard to come by, the macabre spectacle proving popular. Much of this first chapter is about how Malleco came to be sentenced to removal of his head. The remainder of the book focuses more keenly on the narrator’s activities and musings.

After Malleco’s gory death, the man and his wife visit the local zoo. This is one of the more surreal chapters. Monkeys sing and the couple join in; observed from the top of a tree, an ostrich swallows a lioness. If there are metaphors to be gleaned they remained opaque to this reader on first perusal.

Following lunch at a restaurant the narrator decides to visit a painter friend, Rubén de Loa, who works only with the colour green. I enjoyed this chapter for how it presented the conceits of art appreciation. There were still plenty of oddities in what was recounted – such as repeated silences of exactly fifteen minutes after which the same nondescript phrases would be uttered. Eventually the visitors study de Loa’s work, the narrator interpreting it based on his past experiences and finding a reflection of his life and philosophies therein. Before such thoughts can cause offence, they leave.

Next stop is a waiting room in which a pot-bellied man sits. The narrator ruminates on how the world changes as one’s mind wanders and time passes. Unable to find the serenity he seeks, he looks elsewhere but is still over-stimulated by minutiae. Exhausted by the direction his thoughts take him, the couple leave.

After a dinner taken at the same restaurant as earlier in the day, they visit the man’s family. Here they become embroiled in a foolish bet set up before they arrived. This leads the man to reflect on the causes of fear and the madness it may lead to – that it’s all in your head but still powerful.

“it is one thing to say that the dead can do nothing to me, directly, personally; it’s another thing, a very different thing, to say that I can do nothing to myself at night, when I am surrounded by the dead.”

“Why not be equally afraid when faced with that chair or that hat?”

I found the ponderings in this chapter of more interest than those woven around the pot-bellied man – although this did offer somewhat depressing nuggets on an individual’s wider value to society.

On leaving the family home, the couple walk through a rain shower before seeking shelter in a tavern. Here the narrator has an epiphany while urinating.

They make their way to their flat where the man, requesting solitude, reflects repeatedly on his day to a point verging on mania.

The detailed digressions, repetitions, observations and considerations wrapped around the bones of a plot set out here reminded me at times of the writing of Simon Okotie. The abstract nature of many of the musings brought to mind a literary Picasso. The wife, a companion throughout the day, remains an undefined shadow by the narrator’s side. There are passing references to: a disgust for all things gelatinous, war and death, a past lover. These appear influential yet remain unexplained. It is a reminder that however much of a day is recorded, there is always more happening – details sidelined.

In the introduction, Alejandro Zambra writes of the author, ‘it’s almost absurd to present Emar as a forgotten writer, since he has never been, so to speak, sufficiently remembered.’ There is much in this book to chew over and I know of many readers who will likely enjoy the challenge. I found it best to read a chapter at a time before pausing to digest and colour with my own interpretation.

An interesting exploration of what constitutes a personal reality that will likely benefit from rereading.

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

Book Review: The Others

the others

The Others, by Raül Garrigasait (translated by Tiago Miller), is set across two timelines. It opens in a Berlin library in roughly contemporary times. The narrator is seeking information on Prince Felix von Lichnowsky, a Prussian gentleman from the nineteenth century whose memoirs he has been commissioned by a small publisher to translate. In amongst the papers he is provided with is a misplaced file on someone else, Rudolf von Wielmann. This manuscript contains incomplete commentaries – diary entries – that intrigue the narrator. The earlier timeline is his attempt to pull together Wielmann’s biography from when the young gentleman was in Spain during the same period as Lichnowsky.

“flanked by his mother’s detached benevolence and his father’s absent severity, he had never had to shoulder a single burden in his life”

Wielmann has left his privileged life in Berlin, the capital of Prussia, at the behest of his father. It is considered that gentlemen from a family of their standing should achieve something of note in their lives. Armed with a letter of recommendation from an uncle – intended to introduce him as a man of consequence, thereby not putting him in avoidable danger – Wielmann intends to join those fighting the Carlist Wars in Spain.

From what I can gather from the story, the Carlist Wars were a series of civil uprisings in which small armies fought to maintain Order – as imposed by the Inquisition – against liberals who wished to introduce a new form of central governance. The contenders each fought to establish their claim to the throne. Despite not being particularly religious, Wielmann was willing to fight on the side of legitimism and Catholicism.

Wielmann catches up with the army of the monarch, Don Charles Maria Isidre de Borbó, as it enters the half-destroyed municipality of Solsona. His interactions with the king lead to him being given orders to remain after de Borbó and his contingent move on towards Madrid.

“Traipsing the solitary streets, he pondered how receiving an order that, for the time being, didn’t require him to do anything or, rather, required him to do nothing, wasn’t a situation altogether different from the lethargic life he had maintained his entire adult existence in Berlin.”

Wielmann befriends a local doctor, Miquel Foraster, visiting him regularly at his home to discuss topics of note and play Beethoven on the piano. Wielmann is living in basic accommodation, housed by a widow who provides his meals silently with little other contact. How he ended up staying here, and for so long, remains opaque. Aware of his family’s expectations, Wielmann is unsettled by the emptiness of his days.

“Not even in the midst of this invisible war that he was theoretically participating in had he been required to do anything even remotely worthy of mention.”

The writing has, at times, elements of the uncanny but is mostly as playful as it is poignant. The actions and interactions depicted lay bare the mundanities of life despite a desire to find meaning.

Episodes recounted are often sensory. The music becomes other-worldly to those who listen. A meal containing mushrooms evoke the forest in which they grew. A carnival party depicts the decadence of participants.

“Far from home, our sense of shame lessens its clutches on the reins.”

About a third of the way through the book I realised I remained confused by what was happening and the apparent lack of direction. By returning to the beginning and flicking through again, the narrative began to make more sense. In the contemporary timeline, looking back through the lens of known history, more depth may be added to Wielmann’s tale.

“For the most part, Catalan troops still lived and fought in a half-primitive state”

The importance – or should that be vanity – of principles is explored alongside the futility of war. The denouement is fitting but searing.

One element of the text that presented me with some difficulty was occasional dialogue that had not been translated into English. Perhaps readers are expected to know a smattering of French – my guess as to the language. I found this a snag in the flow of the story – a small niggle but one I raise as a reminder that not all of us are linguists.

A slow burner of a tale that nevertheless offers a window into a time period and place I knew nothing about previously. The lightness of the writing style belies the seriousness of topics presented. Stick with it for what becomes a lingering and satisfying read.

My copy of the book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum D’Estampa Press.

Book Review: Lonely Castle in the Mirror

Lonely Castle in the Mirror, by Mizuki Tsujimura (translated by Philip Gabriel), was a number one bestseller in Japan where it won two highly influential literary prizes. The publisher explains that, according to a recent UNICEF report,

“While Japanese children ranked first in physical health and often lived in relatively well-off economic circumstances, instances of bullying in schools, as well as difficult relationships with family members, lead to a lack of psychological well-being.”

The success of this story may well be testament to how it resonated with so many readers.

The story is mostly told from the point of view of Kokoro Anzai, a 7th Grade student (age 12/13) living in Tokyo who stopped attending her Junior High School after just a few weeks. This followed a run of upsetting incidents involving her new classmates. It opens in May, the second month in the Japanese academic year. Kokoro wakes up each morning suffering from severe stomach aches and apprehensively tells her mother that, once again, she cannot attend school. Kokoro is an only child and both her parents go out to work. She spends her days cooped up in her bedroom, often keeping the curtains closed and sleeping or watching soaps on TV. She does not wish this to continue but, unable to find the words to explain what happened and how it made her feel, can think of no way to return to a place that triggers her debilitating anxieties.

It is on one such closed in day that the full length mirror in Kokoro’s bedroom starts to glow with a bright light. When she gets up to investigate she discovers it has become a portal to a large castle. Here she meets six other children and the enigmatic Wolf-Queen. The latter – a masked and child-like figure – explains that the group have been brought together to partake in a quest. Until the following March they may come and go as they please by day – so long as they do so alone and vacate the castle by 5pm. Their quest is to find a hidden key by solving clues, some of which she has already given them. If they succeed then the finder will have one wish granted, after which the castle will be inaccessible to all of them.

The children are unsure of the cryptic nature of what the Wolf-Queen reveals. However, the castle becomes their refuge from the upsetting reality of the home lives they are each currently leading. The children are all of an age when they should be attending Junior High School. For a variety of reasons they have not fitted in and lead lonely existences. Within the confines of the castle they are accepted, albeit guardedly. Their experiences have rendered them painfully self-conscious and lacking wider emotional literacy.

The story of these seven misfits is told over the course of the remaining academic year. It employs the language of young people and is distinctively Japanese in its sometimes abrupt and detached expression. Some of the phrasing felt a little off at times but this came to be explained. Until close to the end the reader may be confused about certain elements of continuity.

The children are struggling to navigate a world driven by the cool kids and the teachers who favour them. Kokoro has loving parents who wish to support her but cannot break through the generational language barrier. It is only in the castle that she feels she belongs, despite her occasional missteps. As March approaches, the idea of losing this refuge – and the friends she has made there – must also be managed.

At times the curious directions the tale took made me question what I was reading and whether to continue. Oddities grated and I pondered if I was enjoying the often static and opaque developments. Throughout, however, the story remained strangely compelling. The author has captured the voices of distressed and anxious young people. Their often fraught interactions remain plausible and poignant, even when they behave badly towards each other.

The denouement pulls each thread together with the Wolf-Queen’s role and her clues explained. Dark undertones have the classic fairy tale feel for a reason. Magical elements and use of metaphor may not be for everyone but provide a thought-provoking conclusion, albeit a curious one.

An unusual bildungsroman that powerfully evokes the damage caused by school bullying, familial trauma and abuse. In portraying the impact through interaction rather than lengthy exposition, reader empathy overrides inevitable judgement.

Did I enjoy the book? Not entirely while reading, as indicated above. It is, however, growing on me as I consider it further. A worthwhile read I will be pondering for some time to come.

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

Book Review: Andrea Víctrix

andrea victrix

“The excess of information made it impossible to be reliably informed about anything and every citizen would have required the talents of a Sherlock Holmes to make out the truth from the chaos and misrepresentation on all sides.”

Andrea Víctrix, by Llorenç Villalonga (translated by P. Louise Johnson), was first published in Catalan in 1974. It is set in an imagined future, 2050, when Palma Mallorca has been renamed the Tourist Club of the Mediterranean – Turclub for short. The narrator of the story was in his sixties in 1965 when he opted to begin a cryo-cure. His doctor told him he would come round 85 years later looking 30 years younger. Unlike many, he survived the process but then had to face a world that had changed radically.

He discovers that the political and economic superpowers of old are gone. America and Russia annihilated each other – a mutual unleashing of their nuclear arsenals. The United States of Europe rose up in their wake, exterminating many of the remaining Asian nations. The State is all powerful.

Citizens are now forbidden to form families or have children. Procreation occurs in central facilities that produce only the types of people deemed necessary. Any form of emotional attachment is punished. Gender must never be referred to – this is now regarded as insulting. The ideal is to keep it ambiguous, sometimes achieved surgically. Drugs are available for any sensation desired.

“Our world was founded on the dissolution of the family and so it was essential that love became independent from sex and lost any connection with such an incredibly dangerous concept as intimacy.”

Life revolves around consumption and pleasure. Ubiquitous advertising berates those who do not have the latest fridges and vacuum cleaners, even though housing is mostly tiny, food requiring preservation scarce, and constant purchasing leads to permanent debt. Pleasure increasingly proves elusive, with moral and ethical standards subverted. Individual lives have no value. Consensual violence is rife.

“without sentiment, pleasure was so slight that it must necessarily lead to tedium and aberration.”

The story opens with the narrator, released only a few hours previously from the casket of his cryo-cure, travelling at speed in a car driven by Andrea Víctrix. He is shocked when she (he assumes Andrea is female but his choice of pronoun causes offense) deliberately collides with pedestrians and is then rewarded for doing so. To take his mind off his obvious discomfort, she gives him drugs.

The world he now views has become synthetic. Food is in short supply so is supplemented by chemically enhanced substances that are barely edible. People live with the cacophony of propaganda broadcast from loudspeakers and on radios they are required to buy.

“Secular propaganda is less scrupulous than its religious equivalent, and this is aggravated by the fact that those behind it know they have no absolute truths to draw on. Such knowledge ought to make them question everything like Socrates, but instead it makes them stubborn and disingenuous as Xanthippe. This is what we have come to know as practical sense and cunning.”

Requiring an income, the narrator enquires about employment. It is suggested he become a performer such as an acrobat or dancer. Entertaining others – giving pleasure – is regarded as a worthwhile calling. Daring feats are undertaken in front of an audience, often by young children made carefree by drugs. Death regularly results from such risk taking and nobody cares.

Unhappy with his prospects, the narrator recalls a recent visit made to a bath house. These offer sex or violence – the two often overlapping. He discovers that Andrea, the teenage Head of the Bureau of Pleasure, is a high class prostitute. Her job requires her to entertain wealthy tourists, to submit to whatever deviances they desire.

“Industrializing the masses and exciting them with heady, coarse pleasures, the panem et circenses of ancient Rome.”

Regular drug taking shortens lives but people are disposable. What is marketed as for the collective good underpins decision making and is seemingly accepted by the masses. The health of the economy is regarded as more important than the health of consumers, who can easily be replaced.

“This is why we encourage pleasure and debauchery, but without focusing on a particular person, and without making distinctions between the sexes.”

The world building and story telling appear secondary to the opinions the author weaves into the tale. While there are obvious flaws with the way Turclub is run, he points out the similarities with contemporary arguments for changes in what is regarded as acceptable. He has picked up recent adjustments to moral and ethical ideas and run with them to extreme.

The State places faith in scientific progress, where only a specialist few understand the intricacies and potential repercussions. This is likened to faith in geography. To explain, there is a belief that Greenland exists despite most never having been there. If taken to a frozen landmass, few would know how to use the instruments necessary to prove it was Greenland. People largely swallow what they are told if it is repeated often enough and supported by peers.

“Progress cannot be stopped”

Described as part essay, the portrayal of this dystopia and its citizens explores meaty issues. The author uses the story as a device for expanding his discourse on state coercion – how the public comes to accept what would once have been recognised and rejected as socially and individually damaging. The narrative can be shocking, the point being to raise awareness of the irony in what can come to appear normal, how opinions can be changed by indoctrination. The State survives only when its population acquiesces.

The writing style is engaging if didactic in places. Although published half a century ago, what is portrayed has proved prescient. It is pointed out that when those in power fall, what rises from the ashes may be no better.

A fascinating work of fiction that is both thought-provoking and disquieting. A reminder of the importance of critical thinking when considering widely promoted changes in attitude that are supposedly for the common good.