Under the Volcano [Malcolm Lowry]

An old woman with a face of a highly intellectual black gnome the Consul always thought (mistress to some gnarled guardian of the mine beneath the garden once, perhaps), and carrying the inevitable mop, the trapeador, or American husband, over her shoulder, shuffled out of the ‘front’ door, scraping her feet – the shuffling and the scraping however seemingly unidentified, controlled by separate mechanisms.

I crept out from Under the Volcano, blurry and spent.  All I remembered was the ending, shocking through it’s unexpectedness, and the love story, the beautiful but doomed and tragic love story.  She came back, like M Laurelle in chapter one, that’s all I could think about for days afterwards, she came back.

The ‘she’ is Yvonne, who has come back to Mexico on the day of the dead festival to try and reconcile with, and rescue her alcoholic husband, the ex-consul Geoffrey Firmin.  The next twelve hours sees Yvonne and his half-brother Hugh trying to penetrate the protective haze of mescal and whisky, to ostensibly save him from himself, and endeavor the Consul knows is pointless, he is too far from the shore to be saved, and lacks the will power to save himself.

Allegedly one of the hardest books to read, Under the Volcano reads like an incoherent stream of consciouness, it reminded me, in style, of The Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa, the incomprehension of what I was reading.  But this is ultimately what makes the book such a hurricane of a read.  Lowry, who suffered from alcoholism himself, creates such a powerful evocation of an alcoholic, Firmin’s consciousness veering from lucid clarity to irrelevant babbling, as he guiltily steals away for a drink, or resists for no reason other than he can, for a time at least.
In defence of this Lowry commented that there were layers in the book that would eventually be stripped away after a second, third or even fourth reading.  He wrote the book mostly from memory (astonishing considering the detail and feel he gives the location) in Canada and read passages out loud to his wife and friends while creating it.  You can almost feel the pen in one hand, bottle in the other, entire chapters re-written (the book took years to complete) in a fit of alcoholic fuelled creativity.  But that is supposition, Lowry so cleverly writes Firmin that you feel like an alcoholic while reading it, and when you finish it’s like sobering up.

In a world turned upside down, the Consul feels more lucid the less sober he is, and there are times when you genuinely believe he will pull through, you want him too.  But as the hours tick by, a storm brews and the Consul barrels along to the end of the day and after the climatic ending, you are left rolling slowly to a stop, taking in everything and let it slowly float away.

Although abstention is recommended for addiction, I have to admit that I will be reading this again.

There the bird was still, a long winged dark furious shape, a little world of fierce despairs and dreams, and memories of floating high above Popocateptel, mile on mile, to drop through the wilderness and alight, watching, in the timberline ghosts of ravaged mountain trees.

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The Notebook [Jose Saramago]

This man, with his mediocre intelligence, abysmal ignorance, confused communication skills, and constant succumbing to the irresistible temptation of pure nonsense, has presented himself to humanity in the grotesque pose of a cowboy who has inherited the world and mistaken it for a herd of cattle.

It seems a long time ago now I read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, over the top of which I struggled for a good long while before I broke through the prose into a rich and sumptuously described Lisbon. Most of Saramago’s translated books followed Ricardo Reis and each did their bit to elevate him to the position of my favourite author. His unique style, delightfully described by Umberto Eco in his foreward, ‘This man who is so careful with punctuation that he makes it disappear altogether’, propelled him up above Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Amado amongst others.

After his death in 2010 I have two or three novels of his left to read and so to postpone the impending end of the line (unless my three words of Portuguese miraculously expand to envelope the fullness of the language) I picked up The Notebook, which Started as a blog, and which chronicles the last year of Saramago’s life.  In it he lays down on the page his personal and political thoughts in his usual articulate manner, but while his novels are beautifully crafted stories with the almost-but-not-quite omniscient narrator, The Notebook is the sharp end of Saramago’s wit, an all too human author whose thoughts and feelings pour out onto the page, yet are still well thought out and reasoned.  There is vociferous condemnation of Israel, reasoned tirades against religion, a sad despair at the state of the world along with brilliantly crafted and funny jibes at George W Bush (including the quote at the top of this post, if you hadn’t already guessed) and Berlusconi (What is to be done about the Italians?), while maintaining hope for Barack Obama.
It is not just weary anger that Saramago posts,  there are generous tributes to Joao Pessoa, Carlos Fuentes, Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Mahmoud Darwish and Maria Joao Pires amongst others and he modestly highlights the work that the foundation set up in his name does.  He clearly takes on the responsibility of posting with energy and relish, as highlighted towards the end, when he stops to concentrate on his final novel, before returning to post  just eleven days later.

While not as absorbing as the novels, It’s a pleasant change to read small chunks of Saramago in this manner, particularly now he is no longer with us, The Notebook gives a chance to know and understand a little more the man behind the pen.

I could see in the seriousness if their expressions, even when their faces broke into a smile, and by the light in their eyes, and the gravity with which they responded to questions, confirmation of an old theory of mine, that happiness is an extremely serious matter.

The Tale of Genji [Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Royall Tyler]

“You must answer him,” the young ladies’ father explained, “although you should avoid any hint of courtship.  That would just incite him more.  He is a Prince much given to gallantry, and no doubt he has little intention of letting the matter rest now that he knows you are here.”  His younger daughter was the one who wrote each time, at his urging; the elder was too prudent to engage in any such banter”

The Tale of Genji, or eleven hundred pages of weeping and sighing, plus a thorough introduction, maps, plans of houses, general glossary, glossary of titles, explanation of colours and chronology. This is an epic piece of work by the original author, and again by Royall Tyler.  Don’t get me wrong, I am aware of the cultural significance of what is considered the worlds first novel, widely accepted as having been ‘completed’ in it’s current form by 1021, but it seems unfair almost, to review it as a novel.  There is no plot as such, just a chronicle of court life over a period of time, the first two thirds concentrating on the shining Prince, Genji, before a blank chapter indicates his passing, and the tale continues, yet the characters and times never quite live up to the grandeur of when he was alive.

I would be interested to know how many of the events were actual happenings, and what sprang from the authors imagination, because while not a novel, this is an extraordinary work that beautifully evokes court life in Japan, with it’s festivals, appointments, traditions, competitions and almanacs. The playful days of the gentleman, playing music, contemplating the blossoms and women, not always in that order, are wonderfully described and capture the strict formal nature of Japanese society at the time.  It’s here that I should mention the encyclopaedic translation by Royall Tyler. He keeps the original manuscripts tradition of naming everyone by their title, there are Majesties, Excellencies, eminence’s, highness’s and ranks of the left and right, who change roles as the story progresses (today’s Excellency of the Left, could be next chapters Excellency of the Right).  But perhaps rather than illustrate my lack of mental dexterity (I was forever checking the beginning of the chapter to remind myself who was who), I should compliment Lady Murasaki for rarely making mistakes (Indeed those that have been highlighted are in the later chapters, thought by some to have been written by someone else, possibly Murasaki’s daughter, Daini no Samni).

Tyler also provides notes throughout the text and, impressively, provides explanations on the Tanka style poems that feature prominently throughout, and even references the original poem the character is riffing on or referring to.  Such depth reveals how much of a labour of love this must have been for Tyler to Translate, it is a definitive translation.

“The light I saw fill the dewdrops adorning then a twilight beauty
was nothing more than a trick of the day’s last fading gleam!”

While the woman lament their lot throughout the book in the end it is the men that somehow cut the more tragic figures.  They copiously weep as much as the women, and after unashamedly chasing the object of their desire, once they have them, they are housed like a collection of fine ornaments. In the rare occurrence they fail in their courting, they either weep themselves to illness or move on as soon as they hear a new swish of silks.  It seems that men have little changed over the past thousand years, although there is probably less weeping.  Gentlewomen are either outrageously complicit with the men or fiercely maternal, commoners are usually uncouth or boorish, or once even described as weeds, I longed for just one chapter about a common family, but no, that would be a different book.

There were times when I didn’t think it would end, and incredibly when it does end, it is mid chapter, if not mid sentence.  While Arthur Waley, who did the first translation in english, believed that it was finished, Edward Seidensticker, who made the second translation believed that Murasaki would not have constructed a story with an ending, but simply would have carried on writing. The chronological style of the tale leaves me agreeing with him.

Liz Dalby, from the LA Times book review is quoted as saying “One of those works that can be read and reread throughout ones life” I can only assume that she has an excessive amount of free time or is planning to live for a good long while, for while I am glad to have read it, I think the once will be enough for me.

With his heart too full for sleep, he anxiously awaited dawn

The Carpenters Pencil [Manuel Rivas]

As she made her way towards the house she felt the trees in blossom were scrutinising her as well, next to the path of white pebbles.  As if the camellias were giving each other a nudge and the Chinese magnolias were whispering gently

Completing my Spanish themed quartet, The Carpenters Pencil took me back to where I started with Jason’Webster’s Guerra, the Spanish civil war.

Herbal recounts the early months of the war, when his life seemed inextricably linked to that of Dr Daniel da Barca, an inmate at a prison in Santiago de Compostela.  While fiddling with a carpenters pencil he kept after shooting it’s owner, Herbal tells a tale of two men, of the war, and through both of them, a beautiful love story that saves one of the men, while dragging the other in it’s slipstream.

Although a relatively short novel, there is so much that is conveyed by what Rivas doesn’t write.  Somehow he fully evokes the brutality of the civil war, in the background, while the spotlight of his poetic prose shines on Herbal and da Barca, yet illuminating the stubborn, unconquerable love of the doctor and Marisa Mallo.

While imprisoned the doctor survives the firing squads while Marisa asks her powerful grand father, on the opposite side to her lover, for help.  And all the while Herbal is in the background, sometimes watching, sometimes intervening, without always understanding why.  Indeed, it is the conflict within him, as well as the fierce devotion of Mother Izarne and the thoughtfulness of Sergeant Garcia, that show how people and their actions make wars more complex than the simple division between one side and another.

For all the majesty of the love story, it is just as much Herbal’s story, the ex Franco soldier, who recounts the tale to try and understand his relationship with the doctor, and perhaps his own life, and as he gives the carpenters pencil to Maria de Visitacao, he draws the final line under his past.

The two of them fell silent, drawn by the sun setting on the stage. It slid behind Mont San Pedro on it’s way to a quay of exile.  On the other side of the bay, the first watercolours from the lighthouse intensified the sea’s ballad.