My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

I visited the cemetery overlooking the Golden Horn and prayed for my mother and for the uncles who’d passed away in my absence. The earthy smell of mud mingled with my memories. Someone had broken an earthenware pitcher beside my mother’s grave. For whatever reason, gazing at the broken pieces, I began to cry. Was I crying for the dead or because I was, strangely, still only at the beginning of my life after all these years? Or was it because I’d come to the end of my life’s journey? A faint snow fell. Entranced by the flakes blowing here and there, I became so lost in the vagaries of my life that I didn’t notice the black dog staring at me from a dark corner of the cemetery.

A whodunnit, written in a kaleidoscope of voices, including the murderer and starting with the murdered, My Name is Red is a book about snow. I mean, it seems to snow all the time, snow is everywhere, sometimes several times in the same paragraph. Aside from the snow, it’s confusing to start with. In fact, as I reached chapter 9, I realised that Chapters 1 and 2 were completely different people, so that reset my points and pinged me off down slightly different tracks. So I read them again and then continued, oh Pamuk, you can’t outwit me that easily. Well I mean you did. but I get there eventually.

Elegant Effendi has been murdered! I know this because he tells me in the first chapter and he’s quite annoyed and upset about it, and he really doesn’t like his murderer, or the fact that no one know’s he’s been murdered, because he’s at the bottom of a well. A couple of chapters later the murderer is talking to me, but who is it? Black is called in to try and find out what happened to Elegant by his uncle, and as he investigates the world of Istanbul’s world of miniaturists, we are presented the story through the eyes of the people he interacts with as well as himself.

It’s all a bit complicated you see. Black’s uncle, also the father to the beautiful, capricious Shekure, who everyone in the world thinks is beautiful, has been commissioned by the Sultan to create a magnificent book, in the style of the damned Franks. This goes against everything that the miniaturists, the holy men and everyone in between believe in, as well as a tradition stretching back generations. But as in all times, a few coins slipped here and there, some men’s souls do not shine so bright as the luminous reflection of a few gold or silver pieces, the book is slowly put together, without anyone but Black’s uncle seeing the whole thing. What doesn’t help poor Black is that rumours are going around surrounding this book, and a zealous preacher is inciting hatred against everything that is not traditional (now that sounds vaguely familiar). It’s not all inkwells and innuendo about artist’s quill’s though. There’s a love interest. Black is in love (as is the murderer) with Shekure. She has moved back into her uncles following advances made by her missing husbands brother but she cannot hide forever, and her two young children need a dad, is Black man enough? While navigating a murder investigation, Black and Shekure court each other through the seller of wares and local cupid Esther, one of the books more engaging characters.

Pamuk uses a highly original style in My Name Is Red that means you have to think while you read, and being a man, meaning I can’t multitask, it takes a while to get used to, but never the less, it is still hugely enjoyable. The city, it’s people, their habits, their daily chores and errands, their food are all here, observed and followed by the characters as they narrate their way around their work and the murder that has engaged even the Sultan himself.

Not just a captivating murder mystery (a genre I have zero interest in, while I was intrigued about who the murderer was, I did not work it out until roughly the same time as Black) My Name Is Red is also an intricate look at the world of miniaturist painting in Istanbul, and across the Islamic world, it’s great proponents and place in the scheme of the religion and the more earthly rulers. While each of the subjects tell us how they are the best of their time, some rail against the Frankish methods, using perspective, painting portraits, that take painting away from how God sees the world, to how people see it, ultimately making people the centre piece of art, and not God himself. Yet still there is the recognition that everything they have achieved, everything they have striven for and created will be swept away by this new style from the West, a recognition and often fear that resonates particularly loudly today.

I’ve read Pamuk’s Istanbul, which I loved, even if I thought Pamuk himself came across as a little weird, eccentric, let’s go with eccentric. But I loved his prose, his view of the world, and I wanted to read more of his fiction after A Strangeness in my Mind which I also loved. Now, I think I’ll wrap up against the snow, and read another.

Off the waterfront near Jibali, from all the way in the middle of the Golden Horn, I gazed spitefully at Istanbul. The snow-capped domes shone brightly in the sunlight that broke abruptly through the clouds. The larger and more colourful a city is, the more places there are to hide one’s guilt and sin; the more crowded it is, the more people there are to hide behind. A city’s intellect ought to be measured not by it’s scholars, libraries, miniaturists, calligraphers and schools, but by the number of crimes insidiously committed on it’s dark streets over thousands of years. By this logic, doubtless, Istanbul is the world’s most intelligent city.

91k4mu7qmrl

Advertisements

Cloud Road – John Harrison

Many wealthy people did not invest in business. Instead they saved and hoarded, and when they died they bequeathed their loot to the church; that is, if death granted them time to reveal where it was hidden. Even now, when colonial houses are demolished or damaged by earthquake, treasure may spill out among the rubble and dust, testaments to misers who would not trust a wife, son, daughter or lawyer, and died with their secret hidden in their dried-up hearts. The fortunes passing to the church would have embarrassed Croesus. The gold and silver which smothers the church altars is not leaf, but plate, as thick as card. The architects’ only problem was when to stop; frequently they didn’t.

I looked forward to this one. No preconceptions based on random comments in other books for John Harrison. Actually, that’s a lie, I did have preconceptions, but good ones. John Harrison seemed to visit the places I wanted to visit, he seemed to be interested in the things I’m interested in, he has written the books I wanted to write (I mean one day, definitely), so in a sense he has stolen my dreams and made my life pointless. But it did mean that I wanted to read his books.

Cloud Road sees Harrison walking the Inca Road, from Quito to Pisco. Well mostly walking, sometime there were buses, if the Inca Road happened to be under a highway for example, fair enough, it would be rubbish to walk and just as rubbish to read about. It is among the freezing peaks and humid valleys that Cloud Road is at it’s most fascinating, meeting people barely scraping by on subsistence living who never the less offer help and shelter to a weary stranger who was sometimes shouting at a donkey.

While pounding the Andes, Harrison intermingles local and Inca history, in ‘proper’ travel book style, which is one of the reasons I was so looking forward to reading it. If Isherwood was a jaunt through the countries, Cloud Road is a trek through the history. Half way through his partner, Elaine, joins him for a period, including for the hiring of the aforementioned donkey and a more personal side is revealed, normally hidden from the reader.

Like a trek, Cloud Road had points I enjoyed and points that I didn’t. Some of Harrison’s simile’s were incredibly random, now, don’t misunderstand me, I like a random simile as much as anyone, but some of these were so random they just jarred. This wasn’t too bad in itself, but everything was drowning in adjectives, so at times it became an onslaught of words that didn’t quite go together. That said, when it did work, it was beautiful.
While reading, I shoved my bookmark in the back of the book, and on one occasion, on the last page. While taking it out I happened to read the last few lines. I don’t know if this firmed the opinion I already had, or gave me the opinion in the first place, but it felt like the reader was being set up for something. Harrison’s numerous references to Elaine, his feelings, the way he portrayed their behaviour meant that you felt that something was going to happen. When it does, and it does on the last page, it sort of made me feel that this was what the book was about, and in fact, maybe it was, a catharsis that Harrison wrapped up part and parcel with the journey and the book, everything was certainly intertwined. There is no reason why Harrison should not have put it in, it is a human that is travelling and writing, I can’t say why it shaped my perception of the book, it’s just that after finishing, it felt like that was what the book was actually about, and everything else was just filler. I suspect the problem is with me, it normally is.

But my moaning aside, I enjoyed Cloud Road. Harrison is genuinely funny. His description of how travellers with animals normally work things out and then stating how much he hates his donkey was laugh out loud hilarious. His interest in the Inca’s, is pitched at just the right level throughout the book to not intimidate/bore the tears off a casual reader, and, total respect to the man, he walked the Inca Highway, something I would love to do myself. Next up I quite fancy 1519: A journey to the End of Time. Hopefully Dapple will turn up.

I had seen no lake on the map. ‘How far?’ I asked. He gave that strange far-away look that I was used to when details about time and distance were required, as if I had asked him to name all the molecules in a cow. We took the risk, and continued. It was the first tough walking of the day: a steep, dry gully eroded into badlands, but at the top was a reedy lake, half a mile across. A fish leaped, and a retriever dog trotted through the trees and adopted us for the night. The stove behaved, the sun set gloriously and the new moon descended on her back, Venus following. Children’s shouts echoed over the water: they wouldn’t let the day die.

5154tqis39l

The Condor and the Cows – Christopher Isherwood

It was, almost certainly, her idea. He’s a little unwilling. He can’t quite relax. For him, as for so many Americans of his kind, a pleasure journey is just another sort of investment – a sound one, most likely, but he has got to watch it. With his puzzled Colegiate frown, he is perpetually trying to assess the whole undertaking in terms of value and service. He isn’t in the least stingy – all his instincts are generous – but he’s determined not to be gypped. He inspects the ship, the cabin, the food, the stewards, the dance band, the amusements – and asks himself: ‘Are these the best return we can reasonably expect for our money?’

So I knew about this from a reference in Paul Theroux’s ‘The Old Patagonian Express’, which in some ways put me off, it seemed almost a bitchy comment about Isherwood being bitchy in his book when travelling through the same place. Now, admittedly it is absurd to base an opinion on a whole book by an author you have never read on a comment made by another author, but you know, what can I say. I’m an idiot.

To be fair, Paul Theroux was my travel writing tsar, and for a good long time he embodied everything I thought travel writing was and should be, although that has since changed. But throwing all that aside, the lack of travel books about South America that I haven’t read, and want to read, meant that I thought I’d give this a go.

Firstly, for no reason whatsoever, I always thought it was the Condor and the Crows. Hilariously this actually continued after I started reading, until Isherwood explains in his introduction why he called it the Condor and the Cows. Cows? Have I picked up the wrong book? What happened to the Crows?

Leaving my stupidity behind, and ignoring the question that if I can’t even properly read the title should I be reading at all, I ploughed in.
Straight away I loved Isherwood’s style. Slightly patronising, condescending, but off hand, not deliberately mean but sharp and acerbic, poking fun at the locals, other travellers and the reader. It is exactly my humour.

An exquisite flamingo-pink oil tank is recommended to connoisseurs of industrial architecture.

I found it interesting that compared to other travel books I’ve read, where the author was heading into the unknown because of some childhood obsession or chance encounter, or where the author was recreating steps trodden in history, Isherwood travelled because he was commissioned to. I loved that there was no agenda, just a man travelling through various countries giving his opinion on them. I loved the bits at the end of each country where he feels he has to present an opinion on the people and lists out what other people have said that he’s met and throws in his own thoughts. It’s almost like a fake travel book, there is no reason for it, or for Isherwood in particular to be doing it. As Pico Iyer mentions in his introduction, Isherwood’s Spanish was awful and he did pretty much zero research. But it still feels fresh for all that, he is not on a journey of discovery, he is not recreating or retreading history, he has no narrative to squeeze his journey and experience into and so relates what he sees and experiences as it is.

What did throw me every now and again is that Isherwood travelled in 1947. It was before so many things had happened that I am aware of, that the odd mention of something completely threw me and I had to reset the timeline in my head, which far from creating distance, actually gave the book an extra level of interest for me.

Isherwood puts no small amount of effort into the travelling and the subsequent writing of the book, and although Pico Iyer sketches Isherwood the man in the intro, it is the places that Isherwood visits that I’m interested in. That didn’t stop Isherwood forcing himself through into my consciousness, and there are some clever perceptions from him that cropped up now and again, and only became significant when you reset your brain to 1947.

They try to cram the whole continent into an annual vacation which would be barely long enough for a visit to a single city. This kind of total travel is likely to become more and more popular, until we have a generation which has seen all the world’s principal airports – and nothing else. At the Hotel Maury I met a dazed American lady who was suffering so severely from travel-indigestion that she seemed uncertain where she was, where she’d been, or which way round she was going.

I’m glad I got over the one comment from Theroux and read the Condor and the Cows, well done me! As different from a traditional travel book as Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, Isherwood casts an curious and humorous gaze over South America, without a crow in sight.

Later, I wished that I had taken enough to get properly relaxed, for our driver, urged on by a party of soldiers who had joined us, decided to finish the trip at a speed befitting the occasion. I sat down on the floor of the truck, preferring to forsee nothing of the immediate future, and tried, quite unsuccessfully, to fix my mind on what is eternal. Several times, I thought we must surely be airborne. The soldiers treated the ride as a serious sporting event. As each new hazard approached – a twist in the road, a flooded hollow, or a car coming in the opposite direction – they talked together with anxious excitement, weighing our chances. At a particularly alarming bump, one of them was thrown headlong into my lap. Caskey crouched beside me scowling crossly, as he always does on the rare occasions he is scared.

 

cover

 

Zone – Mathias Enard

I remember that the first night in the Ghetto I had no blankets and I was so frozen I rolled myself up in a dusty oriental rug, fully dressed, with my shoes on because the rigid carpet was like a tube and didn’t cover my feet, I read some stories about phantom boats by William Hope Hodgson before falling asleep like a failed fakir or a dead sailor ready to be returned to the sea sewn up in his hammock, far from the eroticism that some attribute to Venice, a guy rolled up like a dusty threadbare cigar, on his own bed, with his shoes and a hat,

Francis Mirkovic, an ex fighter for Croatian independence turned French intelligence agent, is on a train from Milan to Rome, to sell his wealth of knowledge of war criminals, terrorists and arms dealers from the Zone, the Mediterranean rim, that he has criss-crossed since he gave up fighting. Hungover and coming down from amphetamines, the train draws out an endless stream of consciousness from Mirkovic, as he contemplates his actions now, and in the past, and relives the horrors and atrocities of his Zone, intermingled with the women who have gently forced love into his life of strife, nightmares and recollections.

Written as one long continuing sentence, Zone consumed me while I was reading it, to the end that I spent days engrossed in it. I quickly realised I would need to jump in at running speed to enjoy Enard’s racketing prose. Early on it reminded me of Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, who himself is mentioned in the novel several times, in that the relentless drive of thoughts and stories leave you almost disorientated, yet utterly enthralled. In Under the Volcano you are drunk and left feeling hungover, Zone is slightly different, you are hungover, and the erratic thinking is how I would imagine being on or coming down from drugs would be.
It is a visceral look back at a life lived seemingly at the mercy of the current, from the Croatian war of independence to the work as as a security operative. Yet this is not a confession for redemption, while there is emotion when Mirkovic remembers his best friends from the war, or the few women that have managed to pierce his external self, it is an almost forensic examination of what has been, and what has led him to the point he’s at now, giving up himself for a fresh start.

Every now and again Mirkovic is jolted back to the train, or he recounts history and stories linked to each station en route, where he thinks about the passengers around him, or looks out of the window where he sees something that triggers another memory and he is off again, while we are breathless in his wake, slowly, carefully putting everything he has told us together, slotting it in place to understand. A completely different process from Mirkovic himself, who is almost purging himself of the Zone, and perhaps of himself, ready to fully embrace his new identity and life.

Zone is the second book I’ve read from Mathias Enard and he is fast becoming a favourite author of mine. His love affair with his own zone, the Mediterranean and near east, the captivating storytelling that intermingles with history that zooms in and out from whole conflicts to individual lives that blends together into an absorbing narrative that is as fascinating as it is beguiling.

Sadly at the moment it looks like I only have one more translated book to read, and now I’ve emerged from the Zone, I want to head straight to the Street of Thieves.

I thought of Lebihan and his scorn for anything south of Clermont-Ferrand, the old man was right, Athens was disembowelled, they were building a subway line the gods were not very happy to have their cellar drilled into like that and took revenge by sinking newspaper kiosks underground parking lots and inattentive foreigners into the abyss, Hephaestus the lame and Poseidon the earth-shaker caused quite a bit of trouble for the harried engineers, not counting the pompous archaeologists from the Antiquities department who wanted to analyse each pebble taken out of the excavations, which made Athenians say that their subway wouldn’t be ready till the end of days, The Hellenes were a proud people but not without irony,

719xQpurm+L

The White Book – Han Kang

The early hours of the morning and the city is cloaked in fog.
The border between sky and earth has been scrubbed out. The only view my window offers is the blurred suggestion of two poplars, ink-wash contours wavering four or five metres up from where the street lies hidden; all else is white. But can we really call it white? That vast, soundless undulation between this world and the next, each cold water molecule formed of drenched black darkness.

Like Flights, The White Book was picked from the Man Booker Prize International long list, and I’m pretty sure my first South Korean author.

The White Book is, from my simple understanding, a meditation of grief and loss explored through the colour white. Much like Fitzcarraldo Editions books that I am enjoying (Compass, Flights, and currently Zone), Portobello Books have produced a beautiful book that compliments Kang’s strong stark prose. Although I’m not even sure it’s completely prose. With pages made up of a few sentences or a paragraph, and nothing longer than three pages of text, The White Book could almost be poetry.

Reading an interview with Kang, she describes writing The White Book like a small ritual, like a prayer every day and that the transformation hoped for in the first chapter was achieved at the end. The salving balm to a wound, the death of a newborn sister before Kang was born, this book was triggered by a line from one of her own novels that she realised had come from her mum.

In The White Book Kang explores the birth, small life and sad death of her unknown sister, while on a writers residency in Warsaw. Starting with a list of white items, Kang commits to paper the circumstances of the life and death, of the impact it had on her parents, and her mum in particular, and both directly and indirectly, on her own life. The prose is stark and beautiful, rendered more so by the black print on the white paper, and the short paragraphs giving way to the expanse of white page.

It felt to me that this structure and style, while writing about a universal theme, death and grief, seeming otherworldly on the page, gave me a glimpse into the South Korean view of life, which I’m guessing is fundamentally different from mine.

White allows things to be covered over, made fresh, or to start again with a blank canvas, or maybe it allows you to throw into it anything you like and it absorbs it without stain, like sinking into the mist and maybe Kang was trying to make fresh as much as cover over, or perhaps I’m thinking to much. I won’t complain, I barely thought at all reading Flights, but all that white space on the page, it allows you room to think, and appreciate what is there. And that is a graceful reflection on grief. And don’t forget the colour white.

A congregation of white gulls on the winter shore. Around twenty perhaps? The birds were sitting facing out to sea, where the sun was creeping down to the horizon. As though observing some kind of silent ceremony, holding themselves perfectly still in the sub-zero cold as they witnessed the days decline. She stopped walking and let her gaze follows theirs, to that pallid source of light which was about to flush crimson. Though the cold was so severe it seemed to sink it’s teeth right down to her bones, it was precisely the heat from that light, she knew, that kept her body from freezing.

61griet2p4l

Deptford

After a bit of a hiatus I enjoyed the sunshine by doing another one of the excellent walks by Robert Wright that I started many years ago. Today was Deptford, following the beat of an old bobby in 1899.

Deptford

Not a lot of pics but the walk was fascinating and took me back onto the Thames path briefly which I have followed previously when training for the Walk for Life.
Unfortunately Robert Wright’s websites are no longer working so I can’t link to them.

Flights – Olga Tokarzcuk

Nothing happens – the march of darkness halts at the door to the house, and all the clamour of fading falls silent, makes a thick skin like on hot milk cooling. The contours of the buildings against the backdrop of the sky stretch out into infinity, slowly lose their sharp angles, corners edges. The dimming light takes the air with it – there’s nothing left to breathe Now the dark soaks into my skin. Sounds have curled up inside themselves, withdrawn their snails eyes; the orchestra of the world has departed, vanishing into the park.

Flights, and the next book, The White Book by Han Kang, dropped into my view from the Man Book Prize International long list, feted on a couple of podcasts I listen to, so having finally run out of new books on my shelves, I bought two that I thought looked the most interesting.

Flights was the first pick, ‘a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy’, a random combination but I was already interested for the travel, the human anatomy piqued my interest further.
There are numerous stories, from a missing mother and child on a small Croatian island, the old man lecturing on a cruise ship among the Greek Islands, the Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen and his attempts to understand phantom feelings from his amputated leg, and these stories are broken up with small anecdotes and musings by the narrator, interjecting her own story in between the others. Both of these elements are beautifully written and translated by Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft respectively.

What confused me as I read, was the seeming lack of cohesion, the stories seemed to bear no relation in terms of narrative, except that they were seemingly about the body, travel and loss. When I was about half way through I read an interview with Tokarczuk where she described Flights as a ‘constellation’ novel, in that, in a similar way to astronomers looking at the stars and drawing connections between them to form coherent shapes, the reader can look at the elements of the novel and form their own constellation. I thought about what I had read so far, and I can honestly say I feel it’s something I utterly failed to do. Why the themes of anatomy and travel run throughout the book, I just couldn’t conceive the whole as a novel in my head. I can honestly say though that that didn’t detract from my enjoyment.

The stories are delicately crafted, and I sensed that reading a novel with a traditional narrative by Tokarczuk would be a joy to read. It always seemed a jolt when one ended and the narrator stepped in. But then the narrator is wonderfully confidant and perceptive, and the little observations are interesting to read, in that despite seeming so ordinary, are not so easy to do in real life. My favourite was the lady she perceives is listening out of politeness until she can talk, so the narrator graciously concedes the conversation to allow the other to talk, a simple gesture but one that requires a mix of perception, awareness and interest, qualities that generally make a great traveller.

And that was what I felt in the end. I failed to draw a novel out of Flights, but what I did draw out is almost perfect travel book. If a traveller, wrote about where they were (although in this case it’s mostly anatomy museums surrounded by anatomical oddities), as well as throw in stories they hear, or even create while there, while interjecting thoughts and observations the same way Tokarczuk does here, it seems to me, after finishing, exactly what a travel book should be.
In fact Kapka Kassbova, writing in the Guardian, sums it up much more eloquently than me, so it seems a good idea to end with this:
‘Hotels on the continent would do well to have a copy of Flights on the bedside table. I can think of no better travel companion in these turbulent, fanatical times.’

Flight from Irkust to Moscow. It takes off at 8 a.m. and lands in Moscow at the same time – at eight o’clock in the morning on that same day. It turns out to be right at sunrise, whih means the whole flight takes place during dawn. Passengers remain in this one moment, a great, peaceful Now, vast as Siberia itself. So there should be time enough for confessions of whole lifetimes. Time elapses inside the plane but doesn’t trickle out of it.

2142tokwgvl