‘The Sound of Things Falling’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez – The Novel That Beat ‘My Struggle’

The Sound of Things Falling’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez  (2013) – 270 pages  Translated by Anne McLean

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A literary award that I follow closely is the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.  This award is truly a world literary award, and they seem to get it right a lot of the time.  Of their nineteen award winners since 1996, I’ve read eleven including ‘A Heart So White’ by Javier Marias, ‘Wide Open’ by Nicola Barker, ‘The City of Bohane’ by Kevin Barry, and ‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones.   The judges so far have seemed to pick novels that will last, that people will be reading fifty years from now.

This year’s winner is ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, the first South American to win the award.   Vásquez’s novel beat out seven other nominees including ‘My Struggle’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Vásquez is from Colombia, home of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.   In ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ there is a playful mention of Cien años de soledad which translated is the title ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’.  The girlfriend of a main character says of the novel, “The only thing I have here is a book the senor gave me as a going-away present, and I’ve tried to read it, I swear I’ve tried, but the Spanish is very difficult and everybody has the same name. It’s the most tedious thing I’ve read in a long time, and there’s even a typo on the cover.”  This is Vásquez having a little fun at the expense of the master.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is known, of course,  as the great practitioner of magical realism.   Vásquez is no great fan of magical realism.

 “I want to forget this absurd rhetoric of Latin America as a magical or marvelous continent. In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics.” – Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

 ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ covers a violent time in Columbia’s recent history, the years when drug lord Pablo Escobar was controlling the world cocaine trade.  Yet this novel is in no way a drugged-out tale.  It is more about how many Columbians on the sidelines inevitably got caught up in the turbulence.

It begins with a hippopotamus which had escaped from Escobar’s old private zoo which had “during that time of freedom destroyed crops, invaded drinking troughs, terrified fisherman, and even attacked the breeding bulls at a cattle ranch.”  Marksmen shot the hippopotamus dead in 2009, thirteen year after Escobar’s reign ended.  This causes the narrator Antonio Yanmara to recall his own injurious brush with the Escobar years.

Through him we get the story of the life of Ricardo Leverde.  Ricardo as a young man meets the love of his life in American Peace Corps volunteer Elaine Fritts.  Ricardo flies private airplanes, and why not fly some stuff if they are willing to pay a lot of money?

The writing here is a wonder of superior storytelling that will leave you enthralled from beginning to end. As I mentioned before, don’t get the impression that this is a drug novel because that is far from the case. The story of Ricardo and Elaine captures the story in part of Columbia during the Escobar years and how even people not involved were severely affected. I strongly recommend this novel.

 

Fifteen Excellent Novels Since 1969 That Did Not Make the Booker Prize Short List

Man_Booker (1)There has been a lot of talk about novels that were overlooked by the Man Booker judges this year.   However this talk is not new. The Booker has overlooked great novels from its very beginning in 1969.  Neither Graham Greene nor Angela Carter were ever shortlisted, although in Greene’s case most of his great work was done before 1969.

I have read each of the novels below.  Each is so well done that it is a mystery to me why these eligible novels would not have made the Booker Prize short list.  The novels are listed in chronological order.

42864‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles (1969)    This Victorian novel influenced A. S. Byatt to write ‘Posession’ which did win the Booker in 1990.

‘Fifth Business’ by Robertson Davies (1970)   This amazing Canadian novel was the one that got me started down the path of world literature.

‘The Eye of the Storm’ by Patrick White (1973)  For whatever perplexing reason this Australian masterpiece did not make the Booker short list, although White’s previous novel ‘The Vivisector’ did make it in 1970.

9780143116950_p0_v1_s114x166‘Money: A Suicide Note’ by Martin Amis (1981)   Instead of shortlisting one of Amis’s wonderful wild early novels, the Booker shortlisted one of his lesser later novels, ‘Time’s Arrow’ in 1991.

‘A Good Man in Africa’ by William Boyd (1981)  This one did not get shortlisted, but Boyd’s equally good ‘The Ice-Cream Wars’ got shortlisted the following year.

‘Time After Time’ by Molly Keane (1983)   Although Booker did shortlist her equally good previous novel ‘Good Behavior’ in 1981.

‘Golden Gate’ by Vikram Seth (1986)   This delightful novel-in-verse was never shortlisted nor was Seth’s 1349-page ‘A Suitable Boy’ which I have not read.

41NC8M1pXDL._SL160_‘A Far Cry from Kensington’ by Muriel Spark (1988)  – Spark was shortlisted three times but not for this great novel.

‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton (1991)     This Australian favorite was not shortlisted, but two of Winton’s later novels were.

‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh (1993)   Another novel that apparently was too wild, too gross, too risqué for the Booker.

‘The Blue Flower’ by Penelope Fitzgerald (1995)   Fitzgerald was shortlisted four times which is a record, but it is still hard to imagine why this novel wasn’t.

landgirls ‘Land Girls’ by Angela Huth (1995)   Barbara Pym used to be England’s most overlooked writer; now it must be Angela Huth.

 ‘The Englishman’s Boy’ by Guy Vanderhaeghe  (1996) –  Vanderhaeghe is a Canadian writer who somehow hasn’t been shortlisted yet.

‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’ by Salley Vickers  (2000) –  Salley Vickers is a well-kept secret apparently even to the Booker.

 ‘The City of Bohane’ by Kevin Barry (2011) – Too edgy for the Booker?

 

“The Other Language” by Francesca Marciano – An Engaging Collection of Stories

“The Other Language” stories by Francesca Marciano  (2014) – 287 pages

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In ‘The Other Language’, Italian author Francesca Marciano has written nine exhilarating stories that capture the mystery, humor, despair, and romance of lives lived.  Each of these stories sets you down in a person’s circumstances so effectively that for a short time you become that person and see the world through their eyes.

This is the first book I’ve read by Francesca Marciano, but I will definitely read more.  There are not many writers beyond Alice Munro who can successfully write the sustained short story of fifty pages or so.  Now we can add Francesca Marciano to that short list.

Alice Munro usually sticks fairly close to her Canadian home in her stories, while Marciano’s characters travel the world over.  Stories in ‘The Other Language’ take place in Greece, Tanzania and other parts of Africa, India, and New York.  What the two writers Munro and Marciano do have in common is the ability to get the reader fully engaged in the lives of their characters.

Perhaps my favorite story in ‘The Other Language’ is called ‘An Indian Soirée’.  In this story a husband and wife travel to India.  He had been to India before, and enjoyed playing the India expert for decades. His wife had never been to India before, and she loved everything she saw unconditionally.

“He only wished she had stuck to wearing her own clothes instead of those Indian clothes that were slowly multiplying inside the suitcase, which she didn’t know how to wear.”

From this vague dissatisfaction, their marriage breaks down.  The criticized wife starts having intense dreams about a previous boyfriend, while the husband becomes entranced by a real Indian woman, a dance instructor.

“It took a surprisingly short time for sixteen years of marriage to come undone. Later, neither one of them was able to recollect how the sequence had unfolded – which phrase had prompted the next, nor how it had been possible that a mild irritation, an unpleasant remark, had revealed truths that had seemed impossible to reveal until this moment.“

Neither the husband nor wife views their marriage falling apart as a tragedy but rather as the bittersweet result of a strange dream, a strange Indian dream.

All of the stories in this collection are strong and memorable.  They are usually written from a woman’s point of view, but I did not have any trouble relating to them at all.  Most of the stories are told from the point of view of a woman looking back at an earlier episode and fitting it into the rest of her life, what she learned about herself from it, what she didn’t learn.

It has been quite a long while since I have read a story collection that is as smart, engaging, and satisfying as “The Other Language”.

 

‘Your Fathers, Where Are They?…’ by Dave Eggers – Another Angry Incoherent Young Man

‘Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?’ By Dave Eggers    (2014) – 212 pages

 

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This new novel by Dave Eggers is about a young man who takes several hostages and chains them to fixtures at a decommissioned deserted army base (Fort Ord?) in California in order to ask them questions that are important to him but certainly not important to me.  His hostages include an astronaut, a Congressman, a sixth grade teacher, a policeman, and the young man’s own mother.

The young man kidnaps the astronaut, because the young man is upset that the NASA space shuttle program was cancelled.

 “And now we kill it all, and we pay the Russians for a backseat on their rockets.  You couldn’t write a sicker ending to the whole story.  How do the Russians have the money for rockets and we don’t?”

 I’ve read and liked two of Dave Eggers novels before, ‘Hologram for the King’ and ‘The Circle’.  Both of these novels made my yearly Top Ten lists.  However ‘Your Fathers, Where Are They?…’ did not work for me at all.  I found this novel with the very long title a very thin gruel.

The main problem I believe here is that Eggers is trying to have things two opposite ways at the same time.  First he has as his main character a young man who is extremely angry and frustrated almost to the point of incoherence.  This young man is acting out his anger and frustration by taking these people hostage and asking them strident questions like those he asks the astronaut about the space program.  Yet somehow Eggers apparently thinks this inane dialogue between this confused young man and his hostages will be meaningful and scintillating to the reader.  It is not.

There is a half-hearted attempt at providing a more valid reason for the hostage taking which involves the policeman’s shooting and killing of the young man’s friend  who apparently was molested by the teacher as a boy.  However the first two hostages have nothing to do with this incident at all.

Later the young man meets a woman on the beach to whom he is attracted, but that situation is tacked on and has nothing to do with the hostage taking.

The novel is all dialogue, all conversations between this disturbed young man and his hostages.  With no outside context for the dialogue, it all seemed terribly sparse.  I know it would be artificial if a young person today were eloquent and well spoken, but perhaps sub-expressive people should not be allowed to talk much in a novel.  All this dialogue is less than interesting as it is. There is not enough variation in talking styles, so the dialogue all seems monotonic.

From now on, I won’t automatically read Dave Eggers’ next novel without making absolutely sure it is worth reading.

 

‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ by Vladimir Lorchenkov – Dark and Hilarious

‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ by Vladimir Lorchenkov   (2008) – 197 pages    Translated by Ross Ufberg

 

22020936According to ‘The Good Life Elsewhere’, everyone living in the Republic of Moldova wants to get out of the country.  Even the president of Moldova dreams of escape to Italy; he wants to open a pizza stand there.  Moldovans will even sell a kidney in order to get out of the country; some of them make the mistake of selling both kidneys.

A woman convinces her husband to sell his tractor to get the four thousand Euros to get to Italy.  When the deal turns out to be a fraud, she hangs herself in a tree.  The husband leaves her body swaying there for several weeks to help dry the garlic.  He misses his tractor.

“When things in this country are in the pits, start a war with somebody.”

 Sadly there is no country weaker than Moldova that they could beat in a war, so they will start a civil war against themselves.

For the Moldovans, Moldova is hell and Italy is heaven.  Some Moldovans question whether or not Italy really exists.

 “Fate is fate.  What I want to know is does it exist?  Italy, I mean?”     

 The Republic of Moldova is an actual country, a landlocked country in Eastern Europe stuck between the Ukraine and Romania.  It is the poorest country in Europe.  Moldova also has the highest per capita pure alcohol consumption rate of any country in the world according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Life in Moldova was bad when it was part of the Soviet Union.  Since then things in Moldova have progressed to terrible.

‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ by Vladimir Lorchenkov is a riotous black comedy. This novel manages to be bleak, sad, and outrageously funny at the same time.  Lorchenkov has taken an idea about Moldova that probably is based on some truth and gone with it to absurd levels. I found ‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ wicked fun to read.  Unlike some of these comic novels, it sustains its dark energy and imagination even to the end.

Lorchenkov, a Moldovan, has taken sharp ridicule of one’s own country to a new outlandish level.  I wish some writer in the United States had the guts to write a novel making fun of the Tea Party and their Koch Brothers paid stooge politicians who are doing so much damage to our neighborhoods with their hatreds and willful stupidity, but so far no writer has dared approach that subject.

There is a grand tradition of absurdist black humor in eastern European fiction from Nikolai Gogol in ‘The Nose’ and other stories to Jaroslav Hasek in ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’ to Vladimir Voinovich in ‘The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin’ to several others, and ‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ is perhaps the most absurd and black of them all.

If you are always on the lookout like I am for really humorous novels, you don’t want to miss ‘The Good Life Elsewhere’.

 

‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’ by Tom Rachman – Sophomore Slump

‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’ by Tom Rachman   (2014) – 380 pages

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All of the characters in Tom Rachman’s new novel ‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’ have a surface charm that keeps things interesting for about a third of the novel, but none of them has the depth to sustain interest for the entire book.

The central character is Tooly Zylberberg.  At the start, Tooly is a 34-year old bookshop lady who owns the World’s End bookstore in Wales which has thousands of books but only a few customers, some of whom “used World’s End Books only as a showroom for online purchases.”

The novel is organized in mosaic tile fashion as we have interspersed chapters that take place during three different times in Tooly’s life.  Some chapters are devoted to when Tooly is eleven and living in Thailand, others are devoted to when she is living in New York in her early twenties, and then there are those in the present day with the 34 year-old Tooly.

Tooly is taking a drawing course.

 “Each medium confirmed her lack of talent: each arm is longer than its leg; ears were tea saucers; fruit resembled basketballs.  Lousy though she was, Tooly adored it, and even improved in a plodding way.” 

 As I mentioned nearly all the characters here are cute and charming.

 “As for Humphrey, he was never renowned for tidiness.  “My nature abhors the vacuum,” he said. 

These witty lines sustained me for a while in the novel.  However we never really get inside any of these characters, not even the main character Tooly.  On the surface things are pleasant enough, but after about 100 pages, I wanted something more than cleverness   I never developed strong feelings for any of the people in this novel.  The characters lack intensity, and reading about them became something of a slog.

Tom Rachman is, of course, the author of that popular and critical success, ‘The Imperfectionists’.  That novel had the number one spot on my Top Ten list of novels for 2010.  One can remember that that novel was actually a collection of connected stories about people who worked for a newspaper.  A writer can charm his or her way through a short story much easier than through an entire long novel.  A reader invests a significant amount of time in reading a novel and wants to get something deep and meaningful out of it.  ‘The Rise and Fall of Great Powers’ was a disappointment for me, because it never got any deeper than its surface charm and cuteness.

 

‘A Month in the Country’ by J. L. Carr – A Summer Idyll

‘A Month in the Country’ by J. L. Carr  (1980) – 135 pages

 

60707‘A Month in the Country’ by J. L. Carr is a novella that has been highly praised by a lot of people.  Two fine reviews for it can be found at Pechorin’s Journal and at KevinFromCanada.  It was time for me to find out what all this acclaim is about.  As it turned out ‘A Month in the Country’ proved worthy of all the applause it has received and then some.  It is one great little novella.

Did you ever have a time in your youth when the sun seemed to shine brighter?  A time when the world seemed more alive, and the people in it seemed to make a more vivid impression?

It is 1920, and twenty-five year old Tom Birkin has just made it through World War I.  As a soldier he has been through the hell that was the battle of Passchendaele coming out with a case of shell shock and a facial tic and stutter, but he is alive.

Tom came home to London and found that his wife has at least temporarily run off with another man.  He gets a commission from a village church in Oxgodby in northern England to uncover a mural from the Middle Ages thought to be buried under many coats of whitewash on the church walls.   He will stay in a little room inside the church attached to the furnace room. The job will take all summer.

During that summer Tom meets Charles Moon, another ex-soldier who has a special project of his own.  There are also the testy reverend of the church and his lovely wife and the Ellerback family and assorted other characters.

Tom has been through a lot with the war and with his wife and everything, and during these few months in Oxgodby he engages again with life relearning the small pleasures of being a civilian.

“If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy?  No, I suppose not.  People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief  that there will be another marvelous thing around each corner fades.  It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.” 

 J. L. Carr presents this story with a kindly humorous attitude that makes it a pleasure to read.  The narrator is Tom Birkin as an older man telling this story from his younger days.  He views his younger self and the other characters with a generous winking detachment.

‘A Month in the Country’ is a very traditional novel told in straightforward fashion that takes us back to life as it was lived almost a century ago.  I realize that some of the appeal of this novel is nostalgic, but it is so well done it is near irresistible.

If I had not already created my list of the best novellas, ‘A Month in the Country’ would certainly be on that list.

 

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