The Sound of Things Falling – Juan Gabriel Vásquez

It was a  black tired-looking German shepherd with a white mark on his tail. He noticed my presence, raised his ears and looked at me without interest; then he walked a couple of times around a mango tree, his nose to the ground and tail stuck to his ribs like a feather duster, and finally lay down beside the trunk and began licking a paw. I felt sorry for him: his fur was not designed for this climate.

Well, I wanted to like this. I really really really wanted to like it. But I’ve never picked it up for some reason. Until now. So I took it on holiday with me, and I thought, let’s see, I can get down by the pool, or on the beach and just gorge on it.

Only I didn’t. I put it down at every opportunity, I used any excuse to stop after a few pages, a few paragraphs, a few lines.

I’m not entirely sure I can say why. I know I struggled with the narrator, Antonio Yammara. I didn’t like him at all, and yet I guess being shot for seemingly no reason at all can make a person like that, I literally have no concept of what that is like. But I’m not sure that was it, I’ve had characters I’ve not liked before (I’ve been trying to think if I’ve had narrators I didn’t like before) so not sure why Yammara should be any different. But coupled with Vasquez’s prose, it just left me cold. While I normally make notes as I read I had nothing for this, by the end I felt like I was powering through it just to finish.

And yet I’m not sure it was the prose alone. I actually enjoyed the story of Ricardo Laverde, and that made the book seem alive, but as soon as it switched back to Yammara I switched off. It’s a shame because it paints a poignant picture of Colombia before and during the reign of cocaine that has terrorised the population for so long, and indeed Yammara’s fascination with Laverde is tied in his desire to understand what happened, and why it happened, why he has become what he has become. Strangely I wanted it to end differently. I could understand why Aura did what she did, yet at the same time in my head I accused of her of not being supportive and understanding, which, perhaps is an accusation that I can point to myself.

I will try another Juan Gabriel Vásquez book, I want to find some new Latin American authors that I can read with the same joy as Garcia Marquez, Jorge Amado, Vargas Llosa and others, hopefully Vásquez can still be that.

Or perhaps there was another reason.
Because keeping Aura and Leticia out of Las Acacias, remote from Maya Fritts and her tale and her documents, distant therefore from the truth about Ricardo Laverde, was to protect their purity or rather avoid their contamination, the contanimation that Id suffered one afternoon in 1996 the causes of which I’d barely begun to understand now, the unsuspected intensity of which was just now beginning to emerge like an object falling from the sky.



The Siege – Arturo Pérez-Reverte

The white queen retreats in disgrace, seeking the protection of a knight who’s own position is far from safe – two black pawns are prowling with malicious intent. Stupid game. There are days when Rogelio Tizon loathes chess, and today is one of those days. With his king pinned, castling is an impossibility; already one rook and two pawns down, he plays on only out of respect for his adversary, Hipolito Barrull, who seems totally relaxed, enjoying himself thoroughly. As usual. The bloodbath on Tizon’s left flank was triggered by his own foolish error: a pawn moved unthinkingly, a narrow opening and suddenly an enemy bishop piercing his home ranks like a dagger, which within a couple of moves has destroyed a Sicilian defence constructed with great patience to little effect.

Welcome to Cadiz, Spain in 1811. A city embodying the last vestiges of a free Spain, not quite crushed under Napoleon’s boot. But it’s hovering over them. Cannons fire every day only the besieged city, and only it’s unfettered access to the sea keeps it alive. If regular cannon fire weren’t enough, young girls start turning up dead and flayed, and Rogelio Tizon, police commissioner, desperate to catch the killer, is caught in a game of chess with the killer, a game that he loses regularly on the board, but cannot afford to lose on the streets.

For some reason I had put this on a wish list for if I ever bought a kindle, but not having been tempted to the dark side just yet I decided to just buy it in paperback and dive in. Pérez-Reverte’s Cadiz is intricate and rich, populated by an array finely detailed characters who, after careful nurturing by the author, are best when mingling with each other on the crowded streets of the beleaguered city.

It is perhaps Tizon who can make a small claim on being the star, and we are introduced to him as he is overseeing a prisoner being tortured for information. For some reason this made me weary of him at first, I mean a divorced alcoholic married to the job is one thing, but a torturer? But I warmed to him, his obsession with the case, trusting his gut instinct when it is completely illogical, as he tries desperately to work out the pattern of the serial killer in his city’s midst. His good friend Barrull, provides justification to feel for Tizon, even if you don’t like him. There is a drive behind the Comisario, and the deaths of the young girls haunt him, reminding him of his own lost daughter.

Moving away from the window, he returns to the desk. Anxious. Prowling like an animal in a cage, he realises. And this does not pleas him. This is not his way. Within him he feels a fury, slender and exact, sharp as a dagger. Professor Barrull’s manuscript still lies on the desk, as though mocking him: ‘here and there I found traces I can identify, but there are others that perplex me’, he reads again. The phrase buries itself in Tizon’s pride like a jagged splinter. In his professional peace of mind. Three girls murdered in the same way within six months. Fortunately for him Governor Villavicencio cuttingly pointed out some weeks ago, the war and the French siege have meant that such crimes have been relegated to the background. But this does little to assuage the comisario’s unease; the curious shame that eats away at him each time he thinks about the case. Each time he sees the mute piano and realises that the murdered girls are almost the same age as the girl who once touched the keys would have been today.

It’s not just Tizon though that we spend The Siege with. Lolita Palma is perhaps my favourite character after the Comisario. A woman succeeding in a man’s world by running her families shipping company, and even her dealing with the Corsair Captain, Pepe Lobo she never loses sight of what is most important in her life, and although she sees the end coming for her and her class, she is still willing to sacrifice in order to save it.

Outside the city, and across the lines we hear from the French, most notably Simon Defossuex, an artillery captain who spends the entire novel trying to get his bombs to the far side of Cadiz to finally take down this last bastion of Spanish freedom.

Into the middle of this world steps the serial killer, who has a set modus operandi that Tizon thinks he has figured out, and tries to flush out. The two are involved in their own game of chess on the streets of Cadiz, a game people barely notice due to the incessant bombing, until the body count starts to mount up and Tizon starts running out of time.

I loved The Siege. Pérez-Reverte sinks you into Cadiz, down to the details of the clothes and daily habits of not just he main characters but the population of a city that knows it is impregnable but still fearfully looks over it’s shoulder. This Cadiz is filled with locals and foreigners, refugees from the war with France which further complicates Tizon’s work. When those in charge start clamouring for the murderer, he knows he is running out of time, but his own fear of never find out drives him deeper into the game with the killer. Meanwhile the other characters flit about their business in the city. Lolita Palma and her business partner commission Pepe Lobo as a Corsair to bring in booty, allowing some beautifully crafted passages on the boat out in the open sea. But even as Tizon closes in on the killer, he senses his time is coming to an end, it all is. The British are forcing the ports open in return for their help and this will ruin the merchants of Cadiz. When close to the end game, Don Cayetano Valdes comments on Tizon and his, methods, that will no longer be tolerated in a new world.

‘Spain has changed,’ he said, before dismissing them from his office. ‘There is no way back, either for you or for me. Perhaps it is best that we all know where we stand.’

Tizon knows he himself is the embers of this time, as does Lolita Palma.

I won’t give away the ending, which I found strangely satisfying, although scant time is paid to the actual murderer and motive when the time comes, and although I’m not sure the Epilogue is required, I can’t work out if I’m glad it was in there or not.

I fell I’ve waffled my way though this review, I just can’t say how much I enjoyed The Siege, Full credit to the translator Frank Wynne, who has done an extraordinary job so that this reads beautifully and engagingly throughout.
For me The Siege has movie written all over it, I’m not sure if a sequel would work, but there is definite scope for some prequels, or even other stories involving Tizon, or even Mojarra or Lolita Palma.

So if I were you I’d transport yourself to a besieged Cadiz in 1811, you, of course, can always escape, but you won’t want to.

Lolita Palma stares at her hands. They are still pretty: she has long, elegant fingers and her nails, though not manicured, are neat. Sanchez Guinea looks at her, his smile pensive. At length, he nods good-naturedly.
‘There’s something about this man…He has spirit, and he is a fascinating character. A little rough around the edges when ashore, perhaps, and you could hardly use the term gentleman. In his dealings with women, for example, he is reputed to be less than scrupulous.’
‘Good Lord, what a dashing portrait you paint of him!’
The old merchant raises his hands in protest
‘I am simply telling you the truth. I know men who despise him and others who worship him. But, as my son says, there are men who would give the shirt off their backs for him.’
‘And the women? What would they give?’
‘That you will have to judge for yourself.’


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.


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.


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.




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,