Sunday, 29 January 2012

A Bend in the River by V S Naipaul

I came to this book by way of recent reading about the Congo. This book is mainly set there, though the country is never named, either as Congo or Zaire. But 'The Big Man', who exerts a distant and baleful influence on events from 'the Capital', is clearly Mobutu. Even his infamous leopard skin hat and fetish stick are described in some detail. But he is never named.

There are many fine qualities to this book. For this white, western European reader, the perceptions and attitudes of the protagonist, an Arab African, are fascinating and refreshing or slightly disconcerting, depending on the context. The author is West Indian by birth but he came to England to study and that has been a lasting influence on his writing. The sensibility of the colonized is a key theme of this book. It is hard to imagine it being so powerfully delineated by someone who has no lived experience of it.

The language is spare and undemonstrative. This becomes hypnotic for the reader and creates an affinity for the languor and aimlessness of some of the characters. It also lends understatement and enigma to the dramatic events that unfold later in the book.

The book also has much to say about the nature of Africa and Africans but seen from the perspective of the outsider - 'the man apart'. It is quizzical, implying of some inner space impenetrable to those not born there.

There are some recurrent, metaphorical, motifs - the invasive water lilies that arrived with the Europeans but which now damage local food production and the way they float down the river, on and on, endlessly; the optimism of the protagonist's mentor, which survives many vicissitudes, finally coming to rest in London's Gloucester Road; and the lure and repulsiveness of Europe for those over whom its influence is unchosen but irresistible.

I confess I did not enjoy the only other book by this author I have read, 'A House for Mr Biswas'. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it. 'A Bend in the River' is a good book, dealing with serious issues. It is a bit of a slow burn and the denouement is slightly hurried. But for anyone with an interest in how cultures understand and misunderstand each other, it is required reading.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

I wanted to read this book as it is about the Congo, a place I have read about quite a lot. It is a pretty brilliant piece of imaginative writing.

The story is about a family that moves to the Congo in the 1950s. The father is a slightly stereotypical crazy Baptist preacher but the novel is structured around the first person accounts of his daughters and wife. You never hear his voice directly.

The beauty of the book lies in the depth of its description of how families work, especially in times of astonishing stress and difficulty. That is really the writer's greatest achievement, although I see from the introduction that she has never actually visited the Congo and the way she describes it is extremely convincing so I admire immensely her ability to write from her imagination.

It is also a novel about race, culture and feminism. As I read the novel, my faith in the characterisation of  the narrators occasionally wavered but by the end I was completely convinced. The psychological depth of the characters is rich and believable.

You could ask whether the father figure is really no more than a cypher, a means by which the narrating characters are brought together. His irrationality and inhumanity in the name of religion are a little bit caricature. But aren't some families like that? You could also ask whether some of the events are wholly plausible  - the invasion of the driver ants, for example. But people do live dramatic lives and this charts beautifully the course of such a life for a group of disparate personalities bound together simply by blood and experience.

The novel's deep description and analysis of relationships made me wonder whether my own life is somehow superficial. Even if I could write, I can't imagine picking over the details and motivations of my own family in anything like the same detail. Which in turn made me wonder whether the writer is describing something true and real about human experience or something that is essentially an artifice, a clever and brilliant representation of something actually beyond our capacity to codify in our own lives.

But apart from that solipsistic interlude, I enjoyed this book a lot and it reminded me, again, of just what an extraordinary and extraordinarily troubled place the Congo is.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

This is an enjoyable novel which raises some big themes but then rather leaves them sitting there, perhaps for the reader to take away and think about (a generous interpretation) or just because the author over reached herself.

The big themes are the misplaced optimism of the 1960s; the enduring influence of parents on children; and the self doubt of people reaching maturity in the early 21st century. When I say 'people', I mean middle class Oxford graduates, about whom this novel is predominantly written.

I actually read it on the recommendation of a friend. We were talking about music and he expressed the view that there is only good music and bad music and the 30 or so years after 1955 had been a golden age. He disagreed with those who thought pop music was just an ephemeral reflection of the times. He believed in its aesthetic value and that it could be differentiated accordingly. I mentioned something my most beloved school teacher had said. He was a product of the sixties and when he said this, in the late seventies, it was prescient. He said that he and his generation should feel a lot of guilt for what they had done with drugs. He died very young, of lung cancer. But I still think of him often.

This is a small aspect of the novel but the larger idea, that the generations that followed the war have all been looking for a defining purpose equal to that which fell to their parents, is central.

There are some quibbles - would someone arriving in LA after driving all the way across America really be  all that amazed by a barbecue? Are some of the characters a bit two dimensional?

But it is an engrossing read, well paced, with some interesting ideas behind the story.

Seven Thousand Days in Siberia by Karlo Stajner

First, an admission - I did not read all of this book. But it is important and compelling and a reminder of how things can be for other people in other lives. Like taking a cold shower - you enjoy a hot one so much more once you know that things, always, can be otherwise.

It is as dispassionate account as one can imagine of one person's experiences of the Stalin-era death camps. As Stajner (Steiner, in the Austrian version of his name) himself says, he did not want to write about feelings and motivations, just about what happened. He was freed in 1956 after Kruschev met Tito and the Marshal asked about a list of missing Yugoslav officials, who had disappeared into the Soviet Union of the 30s and 40s. Kruschev came back 2 days later with an answer - of the 113 on the list, 13 survived, all as prisoners in Siberia. They were then released, Stajner among them. He had been arrested in 1936.

Stajner's account is incredibly thorough and detailed. But it is, because of that, repetitive and the reader's sensitivities become blunted. Its real value is as an authentic record, rather than a narrative masterpiece. He also recounts the stories of the other prisoners he lived with. Many of these are fascinating and you marvel at the appalling waste of humanity sitting in all prisons, everywhere.

This all happened, in Europe, while my parents were alive. Reading of the blank inhumanity and bureaucratic oppression, it makes you wonder where else today such things could happen. Sadly, the list of even the most obvious is not a short one: North Korea, China, several Middle Eastern states, Afghanistan, several African countries, Burma. In all of them, like the Soviet Union, you could be arrested for some transgression, political, religious or social, and taken away from your friends, family and life.

Sure, the Soviet death camps were on a different scale. But that possibility, of the knock at the door and the  unyielding force of the state suddenly and inexplicably destroying your life, is present in too many places.

I would not recommend this book to everyone. But even if you only do as I did, and skim a bit, it is sobering, disconcerting and troubling.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

How to follow 'The Corrections'? That question must have been a tough one, since 'The Corrections' sticks in my mind as a book that really lived up to all the hype and was utterly brilliant as a novel. 'Freedom' is not totally different, in fact. It is all about families, relationships and what it is like to be human in a certain sort of America. But it is also pretty brilliant.

There are endless reviews around so I won't add to them, except to mention two things I especially enjoyed. The first is the writer's insight into how different generations relate to one another. He is very good at looking at things from varying perspectives and living and breathing the preconceptions that come with age, as well as with social background.

The second is the way in which one individual's integrity acts as a pole around which the actions of others circulate. The fact that this integrity is maintained, without ever becoming too improbable, is really masterful.

It is also nice the way the freedom motif increases in prominence as the book progresses.

My only complaint is that it is a bit long - could have done with a bit more editing.

But a deep and enjoyable read.