Tag Archives: Writing

Affections – Rodrigo Hasbún trans. Sophie Hughes

img_20170215_084706.jpg

I’ve just spent a tense couple of days with this book.  Tension is definitely the overriding emotion I take from this compact family saga.  I’m not very good with any sort of familial stress – I don’t cope too well with it, so the tensions between the three sisters in this story and the strain between each of them and their father as well as the mounting political hostility in revolutionary Bolivia, put me on edge.

Hasbún’s fictional account of the Ertl family’s experiences in La Paz, Bolivia isn’t a rip-roaring adventure tale, although they are not a straightforward family by any means, instead he tells their less than ordinary story with an understated air of something falling apart until it’s beyond repair.  German Hans Ertl was a explorer and legendary cameraman, famed for filming Nazi propaganda with Leni Riefenstahl.  He fled Germany after the war.  This book starts shortly after his wife and daughters join him in South America in the early 1950s.  Hasbún chronicles their individual stories and a basic history of revolution in Bolivia through a series of commentaries and accounts told by various characters in and around the family.  As the book progresses it is clear that eldest daughter Monika’s radicalisation and involvement in the Marxist guerrilla movement still just about intact and operating in difficult conditions post Che Guevara’s capture, torture and murder, is central to the story and ultimately the fate of the family.  Monika’s experiences when accompanying her father on a filming expedition in the jungle and her failed marriage into an old German mining family, part of the rising Bolivian expat elite, drive her underground and earns her the title of “Che Guevara’s avenger.”

This is fiction short on factual explanations of the Ertl family’s back story.  There is also no information relating to South American politics or the reasons for the rise in post-war Marxist revolutions and guerrilla skirmishes in countries like Bolivia.  Hasbún does not expand on Cuban and Russian involvement in funding and training radicals, nor does he elaborate on the CIA bankrolling hit squads and far reaching spy networks to stamp out any sign of communism in South America.  I had to do my own background reading to fill in some gaps.  If you like your fiction complete with every factual detail ticked off, you may find this book frustrating.  It’s not Hasbún’s intention to give us a history lesson.  What his narrative suggests and the structure of this novel alludes to is a family never quite unified and now in free-fall.  The eventual geographic dislocation of the Ertl family members and the gaping differences in their values mirrors the national political turmoil and divisions amongst Bolivia’s people.

This is a book about being an outsider; an outsider in your birth country, an outsider in your adopted country and an outsider in your own family.   What Hasbún does so brilliantly is expose how the family members are never quite accepted in their chosen employment or choice of home and cause. On page 13 alone there are two sentences demonstrating two types of isolation:

“La Paz wasn’t so bad, but it was chaotic and we would never stop being outsiders, people from another world: an old, cold world.”

“With her recurring panic attacks she had somehow managed to wangle it so that everything revolved around her even more than before, and Trixi and I had to resign ourselves to being minor characters, a bit like Mama in relation to Papa.”

Hasbún deftly highlights the extremes of values and morals in one family unit by drawing the readers attention to Monika’s actions as antithesis to her father’s notoriety as they act in polar opposite political systems.  There are also flashes of violence and gore, nothing too extreme and often mentioned in passing, just to remind us how tough, dangerous and perilous it is to fight for your cause.  And we don’t only witness conflict on a macro level, Hasbrún also shows us internal strife.  Monika is only one of several conflicted characters; showing utter disdain for her father and what he stands for while idolising him and desperate for his approval.  In such a short narrative he’s invaded our consciousness with all of this information.  Clever.

If you are interested in stories about how our actions affect the lives of others and how those actions can ripple through time or stories about how family members can have opposing values despite having the same experiences or fiction based on fact where not every detail is set out for you so you can investigate further at your leisure, then I absolutely recommend this book to you.  It’s an elegantly put together family chronicle and beautifully translated.  I found it fascinating and a pleasure to read, despite the family tensions putting me on edge.

 

Tony has tipped this book for The Man International Booker Prize long list

Stu is currently doing a Pushkin Press fortnight – check out his blog for loads of great translated fiction

Grant has reviewed this book too

So has Jacqui

Advertisements

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

Shall we talk about love?  I think we should. First, I’ve not shown my blog a lot of love this year and it deserves a bit of attention (don’t we all?!).  Second, I’ve heard enough vitriol, heated words, outright hatred, disproportionate and nasty outrage this year to last me a life time, so, as the year draws to a close I want to reflect on a book I read in August that had a profound affect on me and made me think about the nature of love and friendship on a level I’d not pondered before.  I’ve regularly thought about this book since then; it’s been a perfect foil to all the grimness of 2016.

There are few books capable of initiating spontaneous chest-heave sobbing and huge fat tears from me, but Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent did.  Without warning, it just started, 2/3rds of the way through my first reading. It was five minutes of that really uncontrollable type of crying; when it was over I felt lighter and a huge sense of relief.  The weird thing is, this is not a sad book.  In fact, the opposite.   My reaction was unexpected and has allowed me to cement ideas about things that are important to me.

Told over 12 months, The Essex Serpent is a story set at the very end of the Victorian era. It tells of recently widowed Cora Seaborne, who is seeking change and adventure.  She moves with her son, Francis and companion, Martha, to the remote Essex village of Aldwinter, bordered by the estuary marshes.  Here she meets the Reverand William Ransome, a man desperate to dissuade his parishioners from their superstitions about the local legend of a huge serpent supposed to haunt the local waterways and blamed for disappearances and strange goings on.  The parishioners’ superstitions have been whipped to almost hysterical proportions and Will Ransome is determined to use reason to explain away the sightings of this horrific creature and calm his flock, restore order and peace to this sleepy corner.

The search for the serpent is the frame on which Sarah Perry deftly hangs the rest of the plot in her novel of ideas and deep themes.  The characters go about their eventful year and through their interlocking relationships she introduces and discusses concepts relating to religion and science, politics and society all wrapped in a story delicately balanced on the love and friendships between a beautifully described cast of characters, believable in their actions and motivations because they are not so different from us.  It is not overly sentimental, yet emotionally evocative.

William and Cora are a pair who, on paper, shouldn’t be well suited.  They have a few things in common and there is a lot they differ on.  They debate and argue, they disagree and make up, they sulk and relent, she teases him and he scolds her.  Yet undeniable to them both is the fact that the connection and admiration is instant and heartfelt, intellectual at first and developing into physical attraction.  To Will, this connection is a mystery and he fights it.  He is married to his childhood sweetheart.  He never contemplated he could possibly have room for anyone else in his heart but his Stella.  A lot of thinking and walking brings him to the realisation that he can and he does.  He loves Cora and he bravely, beautifully, lyrically declares it to her because he knows she loves him too.  Honesty is the best option.  As I’m not an award-winning writer, I cannot do justice to the way Perry (who is an award-winning writer) reveals this burgeoning relationship to us.  I make it sound like sentimental mush, it’s not.  It’s exactly as I imagine something like this happening; with a lot of angst, a whole heap of confusion and anxiety.  When Cora runs back to London and avoids Will by not responding to his letters she has these bewildered thoughts:

Will’s letters are prized, read often, unanswered.  How can she respond?  She buys a postcard…and writes I WISH YOU WERE HERE, but what good did it ever do to speak one’s mind?  In his absence – the world grows dull and blunted; there’s no longer anything in it to delight or surprise.  Then she’s struck by her own folly – to feel so dreary because she can’t speak to some Essex parson with whom she has nothing in common! – it’s absurb; her pride revolts against it.  In the end, it comes more or less down to this; she does not write, because she wants to.

As a reader, this behaviour makes no sense – they love each other, why don’t they just sort it out? – because Perry’s version is closer to real life, that’s why…human frailties, vulnerabilities and insecurities stop us from pursuing the very thing we want the most, driving us to upset and offend albeit perhaps not deliberately.  Will is disquieted at Cora’s silence – it confuses him.

Will and Cora’s intellectual and passionate love is not the only form of friendship Perry explores in The Essex Serpent.  We get familial love, platonic love, unrequited love and childhood friendship.  Cora’s friend Luke, a surgeon working at the cutting edge of medicine, is horrified to witness her blossoming friendship with Will.  He takes comfort in his work, but when Cora rejects him and disaster strikes at work, he feels there is nothing left to live for – though there is friendship.  Will’s daughter never forgets her missing friend from school – the elation they feel at finding each other again made me glow inside.  Cora’s companion, Martha, is a striking and astounding character; obsessed with improving housing for the poor, she campaigns like her life depends on it, she befriends a man in need and they agree to live as man and wife but free of the shackles the ceremony bestows.  She is politically aware and has marxist leanings – she is a kick-ass awesome, no-nonsense, emancipated, bright woman who knows her own mind and won’t be dictated to.

This book is about grand ideas and the themes of love and friendship, but it is ultimately a book about acceptance.  Acceptance of reason over superstition, rational thought over doctrine and vice versa, medical intervention over waiting for fate to take its course.  Acceptance of your station in life or not.  Acceptance of change.  Acceptance of intellect over beauty, accepting when your heart overrules your head.

So, why the tears?  Ok, well.  The truth is, Sarah Perry made me think about the sort of friend I am.  I was found to be scoring mostly Cs in the “Are you a good friend?” multiple-choice Graziaesque self-inflicted questionnaire i.e. could do better. For me, showing someone you care about them is more about little things than grand gestures; remembering a conversation from months back and referring to it, messaging them just so they know you are thinking of them, listening when they are being needy without offering advice, being honest when needed and reliable when necessary; I realised, I probably wasn’t doing very well at any of this.  Time to improve.  I’ve got some amazing friends.  As my life gets busier, I have seen less of some people whose company I really enjoy. Some are more dependable than others, some I’ve wondered whether they are truly committed to me as a friend and sometimes it can be easier not to make the effort.  Since that day in August, I’ve made more of an effort to be the friend I want to be.  Then, yesterday, I read a blog post about being positive and a line stood out:

Care for others even when they don’t care for you. All. The. Time.

And having spent months thinking and worrying about what I could possibly write that could describe how I feel about The Essex Serpent, it finally all fell into place.

Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 3

imgres

I am crap at this business of posting regularly.  It’s been over 2 weeks since I saw Kate Atkinson at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and I’ve still not managed to write-up her talk or anything else for that matter.  Having said that, everything she talked about was so fascinating I don’t think it really matters how tardy I’ve been with getting this out.

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson has been an ever present feature of the last 20 years of my reading life.  I have read all her novels in almost the sequence they were written, except this one.  Whilst waiting for Atkinson to take to the stage, I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me.  We chatted as festival goers do; what have you been to? what have you got coming up? I told her my “I’ve read all of Kate Atkinson’s books except this one” story, whereupon the man in front of me, clearly earwigging the conversation turned and said “oh you just must, it’s divine.”  And I guess this is the thing with Kate Atkinson.  She appeals to a broad range of readers, because life in her varied stories is recognisable. She writes about every day, ordinary observations with such vividness that it plays out in my head like a film in glorious technicolor.  Her novels feature her trademark dry wit, always bringing a smirk to my face – they cheer me up.  This was the first time I’d seen her talk and she was no less interesting in the flesh than on the page.

A God in Ruins is a companion book to Life After Life, featuring at its centre Ursula Todd’s brother, Teddy. Atkinson said she knew Teddy would have his own book.  She was saving him for it.  Asked about the timeframe of this new book, she told us the second world war is endlessly fascinating for British people, we can’t seem to leave it behind.  She has always written about being English and this book is no different; it is really about gaining a sense of Englishness in a post war setting.  The reign of Queen Elizabeth II, from her coronation to her golden jubilee, provides the framework for the book although this may not be immediately obvious to a reader.  Atkinson said that when she wrote Life After Life she really inhabited the Second World War period and had done significant research, so when it came to A God in Ruins she already knew how her characters would behave, what they would say and how they would say it.  She had been working with wartime vocabulary for a long time, so everything felt immediately familiar and she did minimal research.

Atkinson also talked about her writing process.  Interestingly, she generally starts a book at the beginning and writes in sequence.  She tends to write the first chapter over and over (sometimes only the opening paragraph) until it is right, then she will move on.  As the book nears its conclusion, she tends to write almost constantly and her work flows more easily.  She holds the whole book in her head, so she knows where she is at any one moment.  Writing sequentially stops the temptation to write all the good bits first and leave the difficult stuff till last – which can only lead to disaster.  She finds writing beginnings and endings simple, it’s the middle bits that cause her problems.  My ignorance of the writing process became obvious to me when Atkinson was asked how long it had taken her to write the passage she read aloud (no longer than 4 pages).  I thought, maybe a morning? It took her a week to get it perfect!  She realises she has an odd attitude to editing and re-writing.  She loves doing it and sees it as a process of constant improvement.

Having an authentic relationship with her characters is vital to her as a writer.  She said “Characters require authenticity and the reader knows and can see when a writer fails at this relationship.”  Her characters always appear to her fully formed and are immediately in her head in all their amazing roundness before she starts a new book.  She is a writer who loves plot and structure, but character is everything to her and the driving force behind her work.  She also said that all fiction is about fiction and identity.  As readers we know we are reading a book, a work of fiction, so we want art, not reality; the skill is in making that art real.

Her final thoughts were on reading.  She told us that when she writes, she never thinks about her readers in terms of what they may want.  There are too many readers to satisfy them all.  Her advice was “You have to be your own best reader first, if the book is good for me as a reader, then I am happy.”   She added that she has spent most of her life reading.  Reading is the best apprenticeship for any writer.  In fact she said “If you want to write, you have to read everything ever written”  I’d better crack on then!

Other Kate Atkinson stuff

Jackson Brodie & Me

Life After Life