Last weekend I had the unique experience of staying at a beautiful historic library that’s also a B&B. How cool is that? The Gladstone’s Library is in North Wales and it’s a public library that anyone can join. It was founded by William Gladstone who was a prime minister that served for four terms, but he was also an insatiable reader. He arranged before his death for his enormous collection of books to be converted and housed in a custom-built library and fascinatingly over 11,000 books in this library have his annotations inside them. The library also has a literature festival and an author-in-residence program, but I’d really recommend it as a place to go for a reading getaway. The rooms are cozy, there are several secluded spots to curl up and read around the property and it’s like a grand old house with lots of hidden bookish treasures to discover. Ridiculously, I brought many of my own books to read while there, but didn’t get through nearly as many as I wanted to. I stayed there two nights reading “Anything Is Possible” by Elizabeth Strout, “Tin Man” by Sarah Winman and some stories from Kathleen Collins’ collection “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” If you want to watch a video I made about the journey you can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAloR8A3Cms
Elizabeth Strout’s new novel “Anything is Possible” is the follow up and something of a continuation of her 2016 novel “My Name is Lucy Barton.” In a way it feels as if she is self consciously playing with the structure of the novel to capture an individual’s state of being from different angles. While the former gave fragments of Lucy’s life all centred around the recollection of a hospital visit from her mother, this new novel works more like a collection of interlinked short stories revolving around individuals connected with Lucy’s early life. These are people from the place of her deprived youth in rural Illinois. Many are struggling with issues of continuing poverty, obesity, isolation or emotional insecurity – even those who grew to be financially successful or married someone wealthy are still scarred by the privation of their younger years. Lucy Barton is the big local success story as she’s been in the media because she has a new book out (something of a memoir) which is also displayed in the local bookstore. She hovers in the consciousness of many of these characters prompting feelings of admiration, tenderness, jealousy or resentment. Around the gravitational pull of the (mostly) absent figure of Lucy, we’re given snapshots from these people’s later lives to create a tremendously powerful portrait of a community.
It would be somewhat useful to have a chart to plot out all the links between people portrayed in this novel as I found myself flipping back and forth to get the connections. This wasn’t a problem for me, more like an engaging puzzle. It will also be especially interesting to go back to the first novel to see where some characters have been mentioned previously. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to read “My Name is Lucy Barton” before reading this new novel. It can quite safely stand on its own as there’s no vital information lacking and each individual’s story is complete in itself. Some have nothing to do with Lucy at all, but others lean heavily on memories or opinions about Lucy. However, for readers who want to know more about Lucy Barton, there are some startling and heartbreaking revelations about her past. But overall the stories are wide-ranging from a celibate guidance counsellor to a Vietnam War vet involved in a complicated relationship with a prostitute to a B&B owner who is not to be trifled with. This is one of those books like Sara Taylor's “The Shore” or Yaa Gyasi's “Homegoing” that deals with characters individually so that it might feel like you're reading interlinked short stories, but an overarching conception and worldview binds the text together as a novel.
Set right in the middle of the novel is the story of Angelina, a grown woman who is estranged from her husband and goes to visit her seventy-eight year old mother Mary who lives in Italy. The pair converse about their lives, family and local gossip while awkwardly realigning their mother-daughter relationship as they haven’t seen each other in a number of years. Their intimacy stands out in sharp contrast to “My Name is Lucy Barton” where the extended conversations between mother and daughter were considerably icier. Yet, Mary and Angelina’s relationship is also strained as it feels like the daughter (the youngest in their large family) has never been able to grow out of her childish role. She desires something intangible from her mother just like Lucy Barton, but neither of these women can ever fully articulate what this thing is. The way that Strout relays their interactions and meditations about this strange state of being is moving and thought-provoking. I can’t help but feel she’s making a grander statement about mother-daughter relationships by juxtaposing Angelina & Mary's conversations with Lucy & Lydia's, but I feel like I’d need to reread both novels to fully grasp the implications of this.
Something that Strout does so exquisitely in this novel is portray the way in which people quietly maintain private beliefs throughout their lives. For instance, a man in one section believes that the disaster of his barn burning down was the will of God. Another woman believes that when her final daughter was born she recognized her instantly – whereas her other children felt like strangers at birth. These beliefs are intensely private and it would feel profane for the people who possess them to utter these ideas aloud. They are acknowledged to be totally illogical, yet they seem to guide their lives and influence their value systems like some private form of mysticism. It feels to me like many of us maintain these whimsical beliefs or superstitions which are admittedly absurd but still inform the core of our being. Strout illuminates how these occur in several of her characters' lives. They're examples of why a somewhat fanciful inner life exists simultaneously with the stark reality of our outer lives.
Although many of these stories are filled with vicious conflict there are intensely beautiful examples of kindness and sensitive reflection. Strout gets people's gritty characters while also recognizing the elegance with which everyone imagines a better future for themselves, but inevitably falls short because the world is never what we really believe it to be. One character muses “How did you ever know? You never knew anything, and anyone who thought they knew anything – well, they were in for a great big surprise.” Lucy Barton is viewed by many in her town as a success story, but part of the price of that success is never being able to return to the past. No matter how hard Lucy tries to reconnect with her origin or write about the “truth” of it, she can't fully engage with it. If she'd had a different constitution her story could have been the stories of any one of these people from her humble hometown. But she was determined to make her own way forward.
Something about the liquid imagery and cryptic title drew me to this novel. London has a big Brazilian community so I was curious to read about that cross-cultural experience as well. The novel centres around Andre, a Brazilian man in his later years who has lived his whole adult life in the UK. But he was raised in a privileged white upper-middle class family in Rio de Janeiro. There his family had a maid or an “empregada” named Rita and her mixed-race daughter Luana who also served the family. Andre hasn’t had contact with Luana for many years, but recently he’s received letters from her and it’s forced him to revisit a past which he’s denied throughout his life. Gradually the story of his tumultuous teenage years is revealed and the reason why he’s so stridently distanced himself from his country of birth and his family. It’s a novel that comes with a gripping twist which creates a complex picture of love.
In its concept this book is somewhat similar to Julian Barnes’ novel “The Sense of an Ending” for the way the story forces a man to radically reconsider the dramatic choices he made in his youth. It also teasingly questions our perception of what’s happening around us in relation to how those events are cemented in our collective idea of history. Andre reflects “Young people don’t know the importance of things when they’re happening, but when those images still play in your mind long after your hair’s gone grey and your belly slack, that’s when you know.” It’s fascinating the way events which seem trivial or circumstantial can inflate into having a greater importance we never could have attributed to them at the time. Andre discovers certain facts about the past and what was lost which make him see his life in a more rounded way and develop an empathy for other people’s perspectives.
Part of what motivated Andre’s emotional decisions in his youth was the sudden death of his mother which we learn about quite early in the novel. It left a teenage Andre and his younger brother to be raised by his workaholic father Matheus so that they lived in an entirely male household. Andre’s sharp memories of his mother are beautifully rendered: “Even now, I can see my mother and hear her loud voice, her heels clicking on the floor. She’s like a pop song, the melody and lyrics imprinted in my mind.” There also existed in their household the female presences of Rita and her daughter Luana, but there’s an awkward tension here as they navigate the intimacies of home life, the formality of the women as servants and the developing sexual attraction between Andre and Luana. The dynamic of these relationships highlight the strident class system in place in Brazil at that time.
Matheus worked as a plastic surgeon and it’s also interesting to see the way the class of people their family socialized with was so obsessed with appearance and beauty. However, Andre’s father also had a clandestine after-hours job delivering abortions. Abortion is a controversial issue and laws concerning it are in the process or being amended – where traditionally abortion has only been legal there if the pregnancy puts the woman’s life in danger or if that pregnancy was the result of rape. However, these issues aren’t explored in the novel and I would have been fascinated to read about them – especially as a counterpart to my recent reading of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “A Book of American Martyrs.” The middle of Sauma’s novel lags somewhat as its concerned more with mundane details about tensions in Luana and Andre’s relationship rather than these more complex social issues. However, I can see why the author chose to focus exclusively on the issue of their affair because otherwise it would have become a very different kind of novel. And when the twist comes in this book I was wholly invested and thoroughly gripped. After this point the revelations unfold thick and fast. It’s a promising debut novel and I hope to read more by Sauma in the future.
I’ve lived in London for almost twenty years now. It’s been disturbing and fascinating for me as an immigrant to Britain from America to have witnessed the politically and socially disastrous onset of Brexit last year. Inextricably linked to this public vote was the issue of immigration and no matter who claims this was only about job protection it was really about race, class, language and power. Conservative white colleagues in my office vociferously complained about how we need to stop the flood of immigrants who steal British jobs and drain the benefits system. Amidst my angry arguments with them it felt pertinent to point out that I’m an immigrant as well. I first came to this country on a temporary work visa and took a job which could easily have been filled by a British native before I eventually became a citizen. I also took a British boyfriend who was dating a girl at the time we met. So, watch out people of Britain! I’m taking your jobs and your men! But, of course, my colleagues don’t include me as a threat in their paranoid critique because I’m white, educated, often dress in bland jeans/t-shirts and speak English as a first language (albeit softly with amusing American inflections). Their hatred was really directed at the brown men who deliver their mail and the women in burkas pushing prams in their London neighbourhoods. So rather than listen anymore to the feckless ranting of my colleagues I’d much rather listen to the inspiring range of diverse voices contained in the anthology “The Good Immigrant.”
In the same way that the “Black Lives Matter” campaign reinforces a message that should be perfectly obvious, this anthology makes a simple statement that unfortunately needs to be announced in bold lettering in order to be understood. These essays include a multitude of differing views, opinions, ideas and stories which are consistently engaging because they are written with such personal feeling. The authors include of a range of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) British individuals: artists, comedians, writers, academics, professionals and journalists whose voices speak powerfully about the experience of being seen as “other” or “foreign” within their own country. They include heartrending testimonies about the way people who are not white are regularly marginalized and under-represented within British society. Speaking specifically about depictions of Chinese people Wei Ming Kam observes “We're not seen as human, because we never get to be complex individuals. Our defining characteristic is generally our foreignness.” These essays range from lightly humorous recollections to provocative thoughts to shocking accounts of racial stigma and abuse. It’s so refreshing reading these huge ranging points of view that I found the experience of reading this anthology utterly absorbing.
Several of the essays are written by actors whose combined testimony makes an interesting reflection on the way their profession of performing oftentimes intersects with the compulsion to feel one must perform within racial expectations. These include Riz Ahmed pointing out the extraordinary irony of being rigorously searched at airports when travelling for auditions or acting jobs whilst having just famously portrayed a wrongly incarcerated man in the film The Road to Guantanamo. He also eloquently reflects on the levels of internalized identity conflict which results from such continuous “random” searches and type casting. Actor Daniel York Loh beautifully reflects on his East Asian wrestling role model who was in actuality something very different from what he expected and how his recollections have been muddled by the mechanics of memory. Actress Miss L states how after years and years of acting training she’s doled out the role of a wife of a terrorist and how “being told you can only play one role because of how you look is quite the rap across the jazz hands.” Actor Himesh Patel gives another viewpoint where he explains how he never felt self conscious about being racially different in the small English village he grew up in, but unexpectedly became more uncomfortably aware of it when moving to London. These actors consistently point out how often the non-white roles available to them tragically lack any sort of nuance and it leads a self-confessed fan of television and films like Bim Adewunmi to reasonably complain in her essay that “I like to see myself in the surrounding culture.” So a show like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None comes as a much-needed breath of fresh air.
It’s interesting to think about these perspectives on available acting roles in relation to Reni Eddo-Lodge’s contemplation of how black identity can be partly filtered through characters on television and how dangerous it is to subscribe to the conformist values which Bill Cosby declared in an infamous speech. As an alternative, Eddo-Lodge urges black individuals to “make your own version of blackness in any way you can – trying on all the different versions, altering them until they fit.” A self consciousness about the way to be black in a predominantly white society is also reflected in several other essays including Varaidzo’s exceptional 'A Guide to Being Black' where she notes how someone might be unaware of one's own racial heritage when others expect you to be an expert on it and how race is both “a performance and a permanence.” Salena Godden compellingly thinks through the social connotations of skin shade and Coco Khan recounts her experience of becoming sexually active. After a white lover points out to her that she is his first Asian she finds that when she meets a new lover she frets “does this person actually want me or am I a brown-shaped thing that will do?”
Other essays fascinatingly contemplate the way language and names are entwined with racial identity. Some words are incorrectly appropriated into the British lexicon as noted in Nikesh Shukla essay 'Namaste' where he describes the frustrating experience of being a tired father with casually racist noisy neighbours. Chimene Suleyman considers the ramifications of feeling compelled to change one's name to make it easier for people to pronounce/remember. Vera Chok dissects the way race labels are used differently while also pointing out stereotypes about the perceived sexual submission/compliance of Chinese women. Inua Ellams ingeniously structures his survey of what men talk about in barber shops within different African countries to illuminate and challenge blanket notions of what it is to be African and a black man. Amidst Kieran Yates’ very articulate contemplation on her dual national identity she notes “Even when you get the language, unless you shed your accent, you're continually reminded of your difference.” While she reflects on the pain of not entirely fitting within either her Punjabi or British culture, I found it very enlightening and moving how she also describes the sometimes advantageous position of being an outsider: “that I have a stake in two worlds is what makes me able to love and respect them and absorb the details that simultaneously empower and disempower me.” There's pain in this “plurality of strangeness” but there's wisdom and strength in it too because “Being aware of inadequacies or seeing your own strangeness through different eyes, gives us a wholeness that allows us to see the world with humour, nuance, and complexity.”
This anthology does so much more than politicians’ empty platitudes about wanting an inclusive society. It reflects the experience and complicated sensation of being made to feel like an outsider in your own neighbourhood. It informs and suggests strategies for keeping the conversation going - especially Darren Chetty's forceful essay about including books with racial diversity in schools. It articulates the frustration that so many people must have felt, but never had the chance to express. It annihilates the fantastical notion of idiots who want to “take back Britain” that there could be or ever has been a Britain that isn’t made of individuals with many different skin colours, cultural backgrounds and beliefs. Sabrina Mahfouz astutely observes “The rhetoric around the term 'British' insidiously attempts to equate it with a pre-multicultural England.” This anthology is a book that enriches our understanding of what Britain is. Personally, I would have liked to read one or two more essays about the unique experience of being a queer BAME individual. Other than some references and Musa Okwonga's mention of his bisexuality there isn't much discussion of sexuality in this book. Of course, that's not the focus but I think there's a unique range of experiences there to explore. For recent examples of this writing I’d direct you to new publications like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s story ‘The Other Man’ in his collection “The Refugees” or “No One Can Pronounce My Name” by Rakesh Satyal or Olumide Popoola’s exciting forthcoming novel “When We Speak of Nothing.” Otherwise, I’d highly recommend reading “The Good Immigrant” for its rich range of humour, intelligence, heart and enlightening perspectives. It also makes a wonderful companion to the anthology “An Unreliable Guide to London” which gives a multi-layered diverse picture of the capital.
It feels fortuitous that I picked a remote location to read Megan Hunter's extraordinary debut novel “The End We Start From.” Over the long Easter weekend I stayed at the Living Architecture property A House for Essex designed by Grayson Perry. This is a remote building filled with art and surrounded by fields of yellow rapeseed plants alongside the coast; it’d make an ideal spot to be holed up in if an apocalypse were ever to happen like it does in Hunter’s book. In this brief powerful novel London is flooded at the same time its narrator gives birth to her first child. She and her husband flee to stay with his parents on higher ground, but society quickly unravels in a nightmarish way. However, for the narrator life has just begun as she discovers the reality of motherhood caring for her baby son named Z. The novel gives an extraordinary sense of the way life alters both internally and externally as she struggles to survive.
The characters in this novel are known only by their initials which adds to the creepy sense of anonymity – as if without the language and structure of society people become nothing but faceless groups to be shepherded into temporary camps. Not only do these refugees from the devastated capital become faceless to the government, but friends, family and lovers become estranged and lose each other. The initials also give a sense of how insulated the narrator’s life becomes as her whole world becomes about this child while the civilization around her swiftly collapses. People go missing. Food becomes scarce. Rogue groups seek out isolated havens. Her life is concentrated solely on keeping her new son alive and nurturing him through this crisis.
This is a short book and tumultuous changes taking place over a long period of time are conveyed in brief passages. It’s commendable the way Hunter uses language so sparely with just enough detail to spark the reader’s imagination; a few lines are all it takes to convey a horribly tense dynamic surrounding the central character and her baby. The prose are so stripped down they almost turn poetic. Passages about the world’s end taken from different religious texts are interspersed throughout the narrative. This gives a curious sense of timelessness to the catastrophic proceedings and the feeling of cyclical change. It conveys a sense how the world is always coming to the end, but it’s also rejuvenated through change and new life.
Apocalyptic stories are common fodder for fiction as a way of exploring the unease we feel about the future of our society. Emily St. John Mandel did this so powerfully in her novel “Station Eleven” which (among other things) contemplates the way culture might morph and persist even after a devastating global illness. In “The End We Start From” Hunter flips a refugee crisis on its head so it’s the citizens of a wealthy world city that must flee for the hills seeking shelter. But it doesn’t do this in a polemical way. Rather it strips life down to philosophically enquire what makes us who we are when the people in our lives and place we live in are swept away. At one point she remarks how “Home is another word that has lost itself. I try to make it into something, to wrap its sounds around a shape. All I get is the opening of my mouth and its closing, the way my lips press together at the end. Home.” The story asks us to consider how resilient we would be if forced into an uncertain peripatetic life, but also how strong our sense of self is when transitioning between being a wife and mother, a husband and father or being a citizen and nomad. These are weighty and pertinent things to think about with such uncertain times ahead for all of us.
What compels us to read so much? What relationship is formed between the author and reader in the process? How does our understanding of a book change over the course of our lives? I think there are moments in every committed reader's life when they find themselves reflecting upon these and similar questions – caught as we are in the strange alchemy of this intensely private and oftentimes lonely activity which connects us to the rest of humanity. Yiyun Li intelligently and movingly addresses these concerns and many more through recollections about her life and experience as a reader and writer. Probably not since reading Annie Dillard or Antoine de Saint-Exupery have I encountered memoirist essays that speak so profoundly about the experience of living. The title of this book is taken from a line in Katherine Mansfield's notebooks. Li takes this concept of the way written language straddles time and particular existence to reflect on a life in literature.
I took my time reading these essays over a couple of months, dipping in and out, copying lines and spending a lot of time thinking about their meaning. Li packs a lot into each sentence with concepts that frequently comfort, intrigue or provoke. In an afterward to one essay she explains how long she took over writing the book. It shows in the density of the writing that she spent a lot of time fretting over and reworking her ideas. She seems torn about whether she's getting it right or if writing about herself should even be allowed: “I am not an autobiographical writer – one cannot be without a solid and explicable self – and read all autobiographical writers with the same curiosity. What kind of life permits a person the right to become his own subject?” This says a lot about the intensity of her process and the emotionally tumultuous period in which she wrote this book. References are occasionally made to two different times she spent in a hospital and her suicide attempt.
Reading is her anchor and the thing which makes her feel what she most desires which is to be alone and invisible: “If aloneness is inevitable, I want to believe that aloneness is what I have desired because it is happiness itself.” She suggests in this line that what she must believe (without wanting to) is that the human instinct is to connect to others. Reading is the method which provides such contact that takes her out of the immediacy of time and removes others from witnessing her. Contact with others causes intense self-consciousness: “The indifference of strangers is not far from that of characters, yet the latter do not make one feel exposed.” Although writing provides a more comfortable one step of removal from people she also feels that “to write betrays one's instinct to curl up and hide.” But the process is a necessary one because it assuages her from the sense that existence is pointless: “Often I think that if writing is a futile effort; so is reading; so is living. Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one's private language.”
In these essays Li considers the writing and interactions between authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Thomas Hardy, John McGahern, Vladimir Nabokov, Ivan Turgenev, William Trevor and Virginia Woolf. The essays focus upon subjects such as relationships in literature (between reader/writer, writer/writer, teacher/prodigy), the role of melodrama in our lives and literature, writing exclusively in a second language, creating characters in fiction and the way we mentally turn real people into characters and the challenges of the writing process. She recounts her state as a Chinese immigrant to America, her conviction to become a writer over her profession as a scientist, disturbing/poignant encounters with readers of her own writing and her connections with other writers. Li is beautifully adept at teasing out contradictions between her instincts and logic. For instance, she believes that “A writer and a reader should never be allowed to meet. They live in different time frames. When a book takes on a life for a reader it is already dead for the writer.” So she fully realizes the irony in successfully seeking out a friendship with William Trevor whose writing she worships.
“Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life” inspires that special kind of feeling of being so personal to its author, yet it feels like it was written especially for you. A connection which is more meaningful than ever meeting in person is that contact through the page. Yiyun Li beautifully articulates that special kind of intimacy. It's a book I know I'll permanently keep on a nearby shelf to return to - like a friend I don’t necessarily want frequent contact with but who I want to know is near beside me.
This gripping novel made me immediately flip back to the beginning to search for details I might have missed. I also felt compelled to search for other people’s opinions online to try to figure out what happened. “Fever Dream” is an incredibly creepy and mesmerising story about a woman named Amanda confined in a rural hospital having a tense conversation with her neighbour’s son David. She discusses with him her arrival at a holiday home with her daughter Nina (her husband is due to arrive later) and events involving David’s mother Carla. At first I found this to be quite a disorientating story because it’s largely composed of dialogue taking place in two distinct time periods, but once I had a good handle on the characters I felt completely wrapped in the mystery. I didn’t entirely understand what was happening, but I knew a lot was at stake as David continuously prompts Amanda to skip over parts of the story that are “not important.” Time is limited because he tells Amanda that her life is drawing to a close.
Reading “Fever Dream” felt like the experience of watching a Guillermo del Toro film where reality is slightly distorted as something very sinister is happening just beneath the surface of all the events taking place. We’re in that blurry territory that borders the fantastical and the psychologically disturbed. In this way, the novel accurately recreates the experience of being in a feverish state of mind. There are horses that go missing, a boy that turns into a monster, dead ducks, a disease that’s “like worms” and a poison that permeates the environment. Because of Amanda’s hazy sense of consciousness and uncertain memory, this story has an infectious hallucinatory effect that left me highly unsettled and grasping for understanding.
One of the prevailing themes of the novel is the degree to which we’re connected to the people we love the most. Amanda frequently expresses concern throughout the story that she wants to keep her daughter Nina within “rescue distance,” which is another way of saying within the bounds of her protective reach. She envisions it like an invisible rope connecting them and if Nina roams too far away this virtual rope will snap. This accurately reflects the way the people we love inhabit our consciousness – something which causes us happiness but also anxiety because we fear for their safety. In her debilitated state in the hospital, Amanda repeatedly expresses concern for the whereabouts of Nina. David assures her that this isn’t important, but of course for Amanda her daughter’s safety is the most important thing. The way in which children are individuals we alternately fear and fear for reminded me of the similarly gothic novel “The Children’s Home” by Charles Lambert. It could be that David is reminding Amanda that in the end we are quintessentially alone or he could be a sinister force compelling Amanda to break her connection with the person she cares for the most.
The tension over whether Amanda should trust David or his mother Carla is so interesting. Carla is mistrustful of her son, yet she seems to be the one preventing Amanda from leaving this uneasy environment when she becomes alarmed. Schweblin drops in tantalizing imagery such as the way Carla wears a gold bikini or the ominous dampness which covers Nina’s clothes which Amanda mistakenly assumes is dew from the grass. These are details which feel intensely vivid, yet their meaning is uncertain. The story needles the reader’s sub-conscious playing upon our unexpressed fears and anxieties in a way that simulates how we are helpless participants within a nightmare. For such a short novel “Fever Dream” makes an incredibly compelling and satisfying puzzle.
There's something really compelling and endearing about the prolific maverick Argentinian writer César Aira. He takes an idea and runs with it pulling the reader through madcap, existential or surreal adventures. Previously, I've only read his novel “The Seamstress and the Wind” but I can tell likes to take his characters on trips: both physical journeys and through altered psychological states that warp reality. “The Little Buddhist Monk” (first published in 2005 under the title “El Pequeño Monje Budista”) is about a diminutive monk who feels his life was meant for something much larger than the circumscribed existence in his native Korea. French couple Napoleon and Jacqueline arrive in the country seeking artistic inspiration and cultural edification. The small man has difficulty being seen, but once they notice him he offers to take them to an out of the way monastery. What at first appears like a realistic cross-cultural experience gradually morphs into something much more strange and abstract. In this way, Aira challenges and surprises while making uncommon connections.
The reader first becomes attuned to something off-kilter about Aira’s landscape when the monk and French couple travel to the monastery. Individuals periodically pull the emergency brake on the train and exit onto stations which look slightly off to Napoleon and Jacqueline. The monk confides to them that these people have been enchanted by witches that inhabit the surrounding environment and find it fun to prank travellers into stopping at stations which don’t really exist. This concept of people being controlled by unknown forces repeats in later revelations about the monk’s state of being. It prompts questions about the degree of liberty people are capable of possessing. We often dream of living beyond the bounds of the lives we’re born into, but few people are actually able to break out of the paths created through our particular circumstances and culture. It also asks the degree of difference between one place and another in the modern world: “globalisation, which nowadays had converted all civilisations into one.” The French couple travel to experience some “authentic” kind of other, yet find themselves in a reality that has merely been formatted for their consumption.
Another dominant concept of the novel is about the question of perspective. Napoleon is a photographer who takes 360 degree photos as a way of trying to capture the totality of a particular time and place. The mischievous monks at the monastery dart in and out of the picture frame because they find it funny, but their image isn’t captured due to the long exposure. So does Napoleon’s photo fully capture the reality of this place? Aira questions the validity of realism in artwork stating “The less realist a work of art, the more the artist has been obliged to get his hands dirty in the mud of reality.” It could be that through his absurdist storytelling, the author more fully engages with our psychological reality rather than novels that render a landscape within nature’s laws. One of the final concepts this novel poses is a television program which the monk is desperate to watch as it claims to definitively map female genitalia. This is a humorous joke about some men’s inability to sexually satisfy women because they can’t locate the pleasure spot, but it also says something about our difficulty in really seeing each other even when we’re as intimate as possible and completely stripped down.
It’s challenging to get the reader to truly care about the journey of the characters in such cerebral writing. But I feel Aira shows real empathy for his characters’ situations and takes their struggles seriously even while driving them through the funhouse of his creation. There’s tension in the French couple’s relationship when Jacqueline sees no place for herself in Napoleon’s all-encompassing photographs. She finds that “In real life there were no enchanted princesses, only hopes extinguished by routine, by prosaic and gradual deaths.” Their many journeys abroad do little to bring the pair emotionally closer together. I was even more compelled by the monk’s dilemma who seeks to become larger than the small existence he’s been programmed to live.
Aira is such a curious writer, but I think his novels only manage to be so compelling because they are so brief. There are now over eighty of them! His style of leaping from idea to idea around a central story concept wouldn’t be sustained very well in a larger fictional work. For instance, I don’t think he could pull off a novel as long as Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Unconsolled” or "The Buried Giant" which follow dream-like structures. Nevertheless, Aira’s absurdist imagery peppered with philosophical musing has such a seductive appeal. It’s invigorating writing that has a curious way of lingering in the reader’s imagination.