‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry – A Funny Sad Elegy for Two Aging Irish Criminals.

 

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry   (2019) – 255 pages

‘Night Boat in Tangier is the story of two fading Irish gangsters, best friends, in their early fifties, Maurice and Charlie. Charlie has a severe limp; Maurice has lost one of his eyes. Maurice and Charlie started dealing dope in high school.

Money accrued; ambition was fed. Dope brought girls and money. There was langour by day and violence in the night.”

Since then, they had devoted their entire adult life to smuggling drugs. They have made huge amounts of money at times, nearly all of which has somehow flown away, mostly on bad investments and illegal drugs for their own personal use.

They are at the waiting room of the ferry terminal in Algeciras on the southern coast of Spain expecting Maurice’s 23 year old daughter Dilly to show up. Dilly left Ireland three years ago and has not returned, but Maurice has heard rumors that she might be coming in on the ferry from Tangier today. Early on they encounter a dreadlocked young guy Ben who looks like he might know Dilly, so Maurice and Charlie manhandle him to find out more of Dilly:

I don’t know if you’re getting the sense of this yet, Ben. But you’re dealing with truly dreadful fucken men here.”

As they wait, Maurice and Charlie talk about the old days. Scenes from the past are juxtaposed with scenes of the two waiting, and we readers get nearly their entire life story.

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ doesn’t glorify these hardened Irish criminals but it surely humanizes them. What we are dealing with here is a novel in the Loveable Irish Criminal genre times two. Many of us readers have been here a thousand and one times before.

Of course at times Maurice gets soppy sentimental about his daughter Dilly even though he was not around most of the time when she was growing up.

Twenty years ago I was so sick of cuteness in Irish fiction that I made it a point to avoid it at all costs. However Kevin Barry is so good at Irish cute that I can’t resist.

The scenes in this novel are supremely constructed. There is one brazen incident from the past when Maurice confronts Charlie in a bar. Kevin Barry heightens the menace of this cofrontation by having it told by the bar owner who wishes to maintain order in his bar at all costs.

The scenes are highly climactic and cinematic. I believe there is a strong possiblility that ‘Night Boat to Tangier’ will be turned into a movie, something along the lines of ‘In Bruges’ starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson.

Along the way in ‘Night Boat to Tangier’, Maurice and Charlie give us the “Seven True Distractions in Life” which I think are quite good. The “Seven True Distractions in Life” are want-of-death, lust, love, sentimentality, grief, pain, and avarice.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk – Astrology and the Plight of the Animals

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk (2009) – 274 pages                                                      Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

 

I decided to re-post this article on this day since Olga Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature today.

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ begins with alarming but fascinating stark intensity:

We left the house and were instantly engulfed by the familiar cold, wet air that reminds us every winter that the world was not created for Mankind, and for at least half the year it shows us how very hostile it is to us. The frost brutally assailed our cheeks, and clouds of white steam came streaming from our mouths.”

The old woman who lives in a rural forest area, Janina Duszejko, and her neighbor Oddball find the newly dead body of their other neighbor Bigfoot lying on his kitchen floor. He appears to have choked to death on the bone of a deer. Nearly everyone here has a nickname. The old woman’s reaction is severe:

I disliked him. To say I disliked him might be putting it too mildly. Instead I should say I found him repulsive, horrible. In fact I didn’t even regard him as a human Being. Now he was lying on the stained floor in his dirty underwear, small and skinny, limp and harmless…for someone as foul as he was did not deserve death. Who on earth does?”

I can think of no other novel in which the main character’s reaction to events is so fierce and sharp.

The old woman has two strong beliefs. One is a belief in astrology. There is much talk of which planet or moon is ascendant or in opposition. I usually avoid like the plague books that go too heavily into astrology, but I am happy I stuck with this one.

Her second belief is a love of and a passion for justice for animals. She absolutely detests the killing of animals, especially by hunters. Here is her justification:

“They were more human than people in every possible way. More affectionate, wiser, more joyful… And people think they can do whatever they want to Animals, as if they are just things. I think my dogs were shot by the hunters.”

She becomes livid when she finds the hunters near her home have set up salt licks to attract deer.

And when the Animals come to feed, they shoot at them. It’s like inviting someone to dinner and murdering them.”

She is fanatic about all animals, even the lowliest:

It occurred to me that every unjustly inflicted death deserved public exposure. Even an Insect’s. A death that nobody noticed was twice as scandalous.”

When the old woman reports cases of animal cruelty to the authorities, they see her as “a tedious madwoman who is hopeless at everything, pathetic and laughable”. However in her younger days, she worked as a bridge construction engineer and then a grade school teacher.

At one point the irate old woman tells us of the value of anger:

“Sometimes when a Person feels Anger, everything seems simple and obvious. Anger puts things in order and shows you the world in a nutshell. Anger restores the gift of Clarity of Vision, which is hard to attain in any other state.”

All I can say is that despite the old woman’s beliefs in things I don’t necessarily agree with, she states her views in such a clear straightforward fashion that she won me over as a fictional character.

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ is a powerful passionate intense novel, and I strongly recommend it.

 

Grade:    A

 

‘Cantoras’ by Carolina de Robertis – Five Women Around a Campfire

 

‘Cantoras’ by Carolina de Robertis   (2019) –  317 pages

The small country of Uruguay was supposed to be immune from collapsing into a dictatorship. It was supposed to be a tiny oasis of calm. The country prided itself on being a progressive democracy, a role model. However on June 27, 1973 it fell into the throes of a severely repressive military dictatorship. Citizens were arrested and disappeared for no reason. Many of these were tortured and/or murdered it was found out later. Large numbers of people left the country, escaped as exiles. Not until 1984 was Uruguay returned to civilian rule.

‘Cantoras’ is the story of that appalling time in Uruguay told from the perspective of five women who had thought they had found refuge on a remote beach on the Atlantic Ocean. These women all have a special reason to be concerned about the alarming events in their country because they are women who are attracted to other women. They call themselves “Cantoras” which is the Portuguese word for female singers or songstresses.

There was no future for women in this godforsaken country, must less for women like her.”

We readers are there when one or more of these women fall in love or fall apart or bring in another woman from outside the group.

She had never seduced a woman who was so much older than her before; the thrill of it helped her survive the terror of her days. She was only seventeen years old but she’d been watching men for a long time, the way they acted as if they knew the answers to questions before they were asked, as if they carried the answers in their mouths and trousers.”

We are there when one of this female group is arrested.

There she was, a prisoner flanked by soldiers in plain clothes, and yet she looked as free and normal as anyone else. The essence of dictatorship, she thought. On the bus, on the street, at home; no matter where you are or how ordinary you seem, you’re in a cage.”

I have previously read the novel ‘Perla’ by Carolina de Robertis which is also about the military dictatorship in Uruguay. After reading ‘Perla’ I was already sure that I had discovered a new major world-class novelist in Carolina de Robertis, and ‘Cantoras’ reinforces that view. ‘Cantoras’ is a moving blend of the political and the personal, how these women start, continue, and end their romantic relationships under difficult conditions.

…at twenty-eight, she would never know how much of who she was was deformed by dictatorship, like a plant twisting its shape to find light. That so much had been lost or broken.”

We do not realize how important freedom is to living our lives until it disappears. The significance of living freely and the destruction of lives caused by the loss of freedom are conditions too many South Americans know all too well.

We don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone. Freedom is like that. It’s like air. When you have it, you don’t notice it.” – Boris Yeltsin

 

Grade :    A-

 

 

Richard Yates – One of My Favorite Fiction Writers of the 20th Century

Richard Yates

Born:  February 3, 1926     Died:  November 7, 1992

If you don’t go for realism or portrayals of life as it actually is lived in fiction, you might as well just skip Richard Yates. However I, on the other hand, devoured all of Yates’ works.

If you still want to read Richard Yates, where should you begin? The short stories are spectacular achievements of poignant realism, perhaps the best since Anton Chekhov. The titles of Yates’ two short story collections, ‘Eleven Kinds of Loneliness’ and ‘Liars in Love’, are a good indication of his human subject matter. As for the novels, I would start with ‘The Easter Parade’ even before his most acclaimed work, ‘Revolutionary Road’. I have found no other author who could make me feel the same degree of empathy as Richard Yates does for the two sisters portrayed in ‘The Easter Parade’.

“There were worse things in the world than being alone. She told herself that every day.”

Perhaps this is why I read fiction, to gain insight into the human predicament. Not sympathy mind you, but empathy.

Anothe fine novel by Yates is ‘A Good School’. But, nearly all of Yates’ novels are excellent acute protrayals of their characters, even his two lesser works (in my opinion), ‘A Special Providence’ and ‘Young Hearts Crying’.

Perhaps the most striking quality of Yates is the clearness and lucidity of his prose. From this directness comes his ability to write scenes that resonate with and emotionally move readers.

Blake Bailey wrote a massive biography of Richard Yates which seems to chronicle every little detail of Yates’ sad life called ‘A Tragic Honesty’. Yes, Richard Yates did have a tragic post-World-War-II life. Plagued by TB at a young age, too much alcohol, too many cigarettes, ten nervous breakdowns, always too little money, divorces, too many short-term girlfriends. One time he accidentally almost killed himself by starting his apartment on fire with a cigarette and after that was confined to the psych ward at Bellevue Hospital for a few months. He was too meticulous in his writing method to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter, spending sometimes hours searching for exactly the right word. He had to watch as writers with less talent than he got the awards, the acclaim, and the book sales.

I’m only interested in stories that are about the crushing of the human heart.” ― Richard Yates

Richard Yates’ life might be considered a failure except for his fiction which fortunately is still here for us to read. The one thing Richard Yates could do was capture life on the page. During his life, he was known as a writers’ writer, admired by his fellow writers if not be the book-buying public.

Here is more than fine writing; here is what, added to fine writing, makes a book come immediately, intensely and brilliantly alive. If more is needed to make a masterpiece in modern American fiction, I am sure I don’t know what it is.” – Tennessee Williams on Revolutionary Road.

I love Richard Yates, his work, and the novel ‘Revolutionary Road’. It’s a devastating novel.” – Michael Chabon

‘The Aspern Papers’ by Henry James – A Literary Predator Acts with Hypocrisy and Duplicity in Venice

 

‘The Aspern Papers’ by Henry James    (1888) – 96 pages

Our nameless narrator comes to Venice for one purpose. The ancient lady Juliana had at one time a romance with the famous poet Jeffrey Aspern who died young, and she is known to have in her possession some valuable letters and other papers of Aspern’s, and our narrator wants them at nearly all costs. He concocts a scheme to rent some rooms from Juliana and her niece Miss Tita in their Venice palazzo and somehow get hold of the papers. Although our narrator has no romantic interest whatsoever in the niece Miss Tita, he rents the apartment at an exorbitant fee with a ruse to pretend to court Miss Tita in hopes of gaining access to the Aspern papers that way. Or perhaps he can grab the papers in the confusion that will arise when the old lady dies.

Our narrator in ‘The Aspern Papers’ is a predator, but not a predator of these women whom he makes abundantly clear he has little or no interest in. Our narrator is a literary predator. By his own admission, he will practice hypocrisy and duplicity in order to get the Aspern papers.

I can arrive at the papers only by putting her off her guard, and I can put her off her guard only by ingratiating diplomatic practices. Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance. I am sorry for it, but for Jeffrey Aspern’s sake I would do worse still. First I must take tea with her; then tackle the main job.”

After Juliana rejects his efforts to talk her into giving him the papers, he plays with the affections of Miss Tita. I won’t go any farther into the plot than this, but Henry James does seem to treat this scoundrel narrator more lightly than he deserves. Our narrator’s hypocrisy is that he pretends to like Miss Tita at all.

As is my usual pattern with Henry James novels, I was originally put off by the upper class twit-iness of the writing. When our narrator says he’d like to take care of the garden at the palazzo, he immediately says he will hire some gardeners to tend it for him. Then he also has a gondolier to haul him around Venice and I imagine a couple of servants to clean up his rooms.

However I then got beyond the twit-iness, and became deeply absorbed in the plot. By the end, I was hanging on every sentence. I finally had to admit that this novel or novella was very well done, even though Henry James’ distaste for women shines through to the very end.

 

Grade:   B+

 

 

‘The Tartar Steppe’ by Dino Buzzati – Waiting, A Soldier’s Life

 

‘The Tartar Steppe’ by Dino Buzzati    (1940) – 198 pages            Translated from the Italian by Stuart Hood

‘The Tartar Steppe’ follows the life of a young soldier in such a clear and precise manner that it is as though it were etched in stone rather than written.

When Giovanni Drogo first arrives at the remote Fort Bastiani, he misses the excitement and color of the city, the bars and the young women. On his way to the fort he meets a Captain Ortiz who has been there who gives him some advice.

Watch out,” he said, “you will let them convince you, you’ll end up by staying here too, I have only to look into your eyes.”

Drogo wonders if he should just leave this drab military fort immediately. But then he agrees to sign up for just four months. But the monotonous regularity of military life somehow grows on him, and after four months he decides to stay on for two more years.

The men at the fort are waiting for their enemy, the Tartars, to make an advance toward them. I had to look up who the Tartars were and found they are a semi-nomadic ethnic group that comes from a Russian place called Tatarstan which is about 100 miles east of Moscow.

Before he knows it, thirty years have passed, and Drogo is still at the fort. A couple of times over the years it has appeared that the Tartars were staging an attack.

Never before had the orderlies run up the stairs so quickly, never had the uniforms been so tidy, the bayonets so gleaming, the bugle calls so military. So they had not waited in vain; the years had not been wasted; the old Fort would, after all, be of some use.”

But these indications of activity by the Tartars turn out to be false alarms.

As the decades pass with Drogo and his fellow soldiers waiting for an enemy who never surfaces, his old friends in the city meanwhile have married, had children, and led full lives.

One after another the pages turned – the grey pages of the days, the black pages of the nights, and both Drogo and Ortiz (and perhaps some of the other senior officers) felt a growing anxiety that they might no longer have enough time left.”

‘The Tartar Steppe’ is about a soldier’s life, but its theme of time passing is universal. Life happened while we were waiting, and the years and decades went by before we knew it.

Previously I have read two other excellent books by Dino Buzzati, the graphic novel ‘Poem Strip’ and the children’s story ‘The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily’. This guy Buzzati was multi-talented.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘The Notebook’ by Agota Kristof – Living Through Hell on Earth While Losing the War

 

‘The Notebook’ by Agota Kristof (1986) – 183 pages            Translated from the Hungarian by David Sheridan

‘The Notebook’ has some of the most brutal perverse scenes I have read in a novel. It is painful to read but original, blunt, and powerful. It takes place during 1944 and 1945 in I suppose Hungary whose people welcomed the Germans, but now they are waiting for the invading Russians who will stay there for many decades.

If ever there was a place of Hell on Earth it was Hungary during the last days of the war. The Germans and some of the Hungarians, upset about their losing the war, started murdering the Jewish people in earnest, murdering and destroying whole camps in order to cover their evil tracks. The civilian population, realizing that the war is ending and they lost, either welcome their rampaging Russian liberators or descend into theft, violence, or insanity.

During this time, life is perverse for everyone, not just the soldiers. Life is hard for rural folk, but the situation is even more desperate in the cities.

A mother from the city where there is no food sends her two twin boys to live with their grandmother who lives in a small town and is called the Witch by her neighbors. She is cruel and stingy with the little money she gets through selling vegetables in the town. The grandmother takes the boys whom she calls “sons of a bitch” since the mother agrees to send her money. The grandmother is rumored to have murdered her husband many years ago.

The twin boys always act in unison throughout and are never differentiated from each other. They learn to dispense a rough form of justice during these brutal times. They must do what it takes to survive and will retaliate against those who are cruel to their neighbors. One of these neighbors is a desperately poor woman and her daughter Harelip. The daughter went to the local priest for money just to survive, and the priest would give a little money to the girl if she let him see her slit. When the boys find out about this, they blackmail the priest into providing regular payments to Harelip and her mother.

There are scenes in this novel would make a sailor blush. Along with a rough sense of justice there is a stark sense of honesty here.

At one point there is the following exchange.

A man says:

You shut up. Women have seen nothing of the war.”

A woman says:

Seen nothing? Idiot!! We have all the work and all the worry: children to feed, wounds to tend. Once the war is over, you men are all heroes. The dead: heroes. The survivors: heroes. That’s why you invented war. It’s your war. You wanted it, so get on with it – heroes my ass!”

The chapters in ‘The Notebook’ are all very short and are made up of short and choppy sentences. It is difficult to read more than a few pages at a time. However this rugged crude style is entirely appropriate for this harsh and blunt account.

I plan to read the other two novels, ‘The Proof’ and ‘The Third Lie’, in this trilogy by Agota Kristof after I recover from ‘The Notebook’.

 

Grade:      A

 

 

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