Closely Watched Trains – Bohumil Hrabal trans. Edith Pargeter

Milos has just returned to work as a signalman after three months off work recuperating from an attempt to take his own life.   His impotence, the cause of his attempt, still weighs heavy on him.  As does the laziness of his forefathers.  He feels constantly watched.  He worries the townspeople and travellers passing through his station in Czechoslovakia are whispering about him.

His station is strategically positioned and trains restocking the German front line or bringing the injured to field hospitals rumble through during the dying days of the 2nd world war.  Some trains are “closely observed” and heavily guarded due to their cargo.

At 22 Milos worries he will remain a virgin forever.  He doesn’t know how to resolve this.  He doesn’t know how to rid himself of his ancestors’ reputations.  And then, suddenly, opportunities present themselves and he acts with decisiveness and passion.

Bohumil Hrabal’s 1965 novel is slim at 96 pages.  Symbolic references to an oppressive dictatorship, national and individual powerlessness and an unwelcome occupying force run through every page.  Yet there is wry humour here, making it a pleasure to read.

Once I finished it, I realised it qualifies for Simon and Karen’s #1965club and having said I had no time to write a review, I found my commute to London this morning was better used to write this than trawl endlessly through Twitter 😉.  And it’s forced me to write my first review since January.  Winning all round.  Head over to Simon’s or Karen’s blogs for more books from 1965 – there are some crackers.

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Death in Spring – Mercè Rodoreda trans. Martha Tennent

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A couple of days before Christmas I woke in the early hours struggling to breathe and feeling sweat trickling down my back and covering my brow. I’d had a bad dream. It’s not unusual for me to sleep badly, I often wake up worrying about stuff but this was unusual for me; I don’t normally dream at all, let alone have nightmares. Something had spooked me though; I sat up startled and confused unable to piece together what had happened in my night terror to distress me so much – faceless people I didn’t recognise lurking in doorways, a beaker full of spit, another containing teeth, a third holding paintbrushes. Metal coat-hangers clattering in the background (this is something I had nightmares about a lot as a child), me emerging from a winnebago confused and feeling and unseen menace. And that’s it. That’s as much as I remember. When I tried to understand what it was all about the following day, an explanation felt just out of reach, as though an important puzzle piece was missing. I couldn’t quite work it out.

This is exactly how I felt reading Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. The Catalan writer’s posthumously published novel is an oppressive read and horrific in places. This story is narrated by an unnamed young man describing life in a restless and rules-driven society governed by weirdness and occult-like regimens. Where the status quo is a given. Noone questions the strange reoccurring activities the villagers carry out every year. The residents are compliant with the horrific traditions they adhere to. Treating each other with contempt and casting out our committing violence against anyone stepping out of line. I never quite got to grips with what was going on or what it all symbolised. Like my night terror, I had a notion that the answer would be on the next page, or perhaps the one after that – and when it didn’t emerge, I wondered whether my capacity to understand was just not quite developed enough; I’m not bright enough to comprehend the meaning. Though I did manage to work out that the oppression of village life symbolised life for many Spaniards under Franco’s dictatorship.

I may not be clever enough to understand what the heck this book is about or what was going on most of the time but I am clever enough to realise the quality of Rodoreda’s writing. Her description of nature, mountains, butterflies, rivers and woodland are utterly sublime, even though most of these natural features are the cause of some of the horrors meted out to the villagers. Her prose is dreamlike and ethereal, shifting and repeating, sometimes surprising you by jerking from one moment to another. Many scenes are described as viewed from a distance; from the back of a crowd, from behind a shrub, from up a tree, rarely straight on, as though described by an onlooker rather than a participant. It’s this style that reminded me of my nightmare where I felt removed from and confused by the scene I dreamt.

The only other thing I fathomed was the source of the oppression:

Let suffering be removed, but not desire, because desire keeps you alive. That’s why they are afraid. They are consumed by the fear of desire. They want to suffer so they won’t think about desire. You’re maimed when you’re little, and fear is hammered into the back of your head. Because desire keeps you alive, they kill it off while you’re growing up, the desire for all things, in that way when you’re grown…

Life without desire of any kind, is a life lived in fear and not worth living at all.

Everyone gets books for Christmas, right?

Everyone in our house does anyway, even the most reluctant of readers (I thought the Ladybird Expert books may help with GCSE revision; let’s see). As usual, mine is the biggest pile. I finished Cassandra Darke by Christmas Day night and have almost finished Death in Spring – which I don’t really understand but am enjoying nevertheless.

The Vegetarian – Han Kang trans. Deborah Smith

20171230_175106.jpgLast January I imposed vegetarianism on my family.  Just for the month.  We all survived.  It was pretty good actually; the challenge of rethinking our entire menu choices appealed to my need to do something different to herald the new year.  We are doing it again in 2018.  The kids aren’t happy but took great delight in the realisation they can eat meaty things at the school canteen, which is beyond my jurisdiction.

Our commitment to going veggie is nothing to the “completely unremarkable” Yeong-hye’s in Hang Kang’s award winning novel, The Vegetarian.  Being vegetarian is not well received in Korea.  In fact, it’s viewed with suspicion.   A violent and disturbing dream is the catalyst to Yeong-hye’s dietary decsion.  The following day she throws away all the meat in the house and refuses to eat anything but vegetables.   Her family is unsupportive and none of them understand her choice.  The isolation spirals Yeong-hye’s mental and physical well-being to beyond even medical help.

Yeong-hye’s story is told from three points of view over a number of years.   The first is her husband’s testament.  He describes how her decision is met by other family members and society in general.  The second narrator is Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an unsuccessful artist who becomes obsessed with her body and it being the key to his much desired commercial success and artistic acceptance.  The last part is told by her sister who guides us through the familial fall-out and feuds that result from Yeong-hye’s decision to turn veggie.

All three sections describe a conservative society not designed to deal with choices outside the mainstream.  It is a society obsessed with how others view you and one constantly concerned with reputation when someone dares to break with tradition.   Yeong-hye is a frustrating character.  She is passionate about her decision yet entirely dispassionate at every point, almost blank and expressionless – we never get her view though and so the 3 narrators describe her with the same lack of passion they are expected to display themselves in a community so obsessed with the “right” image.

This is a visceral and violent novel (there is a force-feeding scene that made me feel physically sick), which goes against the grain of everything I associate with being vegetarian.  Yet it works in this context.  The only means of breaking out of the social constraints placed on Yeong-hye, is for her to abuse her body and maintain control of her mental and physical self.  The unpleasant scenes are necessary.

The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International prize in 2016 for a reason; because it is unique and extraordinary.

 

 

The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler trans. Charlotte Collins

In an effort to write up some of the scribbles I’ve penned in my notebook this year, I’m shamelessly stealing an idea I saw at The Tate bookshop in November.  More of these to come.

P.S. I know my handwriting is appalling – sorry.

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler

on being addicted to books

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