Travels with my Aunt – Graham Greene

I remembered, from my cashier days, faces just as timid as hers, peering through a hygienic barrier where a notice directed them to speak through a slit placed inconveniently low. I almost asked her whether she had an overdraft

Fast becoming a staple whenever I’m buying books, Graham Greene is getting an ever expanding grip on my bookshelf. Travels with my aunt, a perfect remedy to the intense The Power and the Glory is what Greene described himself, as one of his entertainments.

As Aunt Augusta travels in her mission to be re-united with her beloved Mr Visconti, Henry ambles along, thinking about home and his quiet life, like a sanctuary in the storm. But when he returns home he misses his flamboyant aunt and her captivating stories, which he fears at first, are somewhat embellished, and her fearless drive and belief that everything is possible, all you need is determination and a professed ignorance of the rules.

Even as almost complete opposites, Henry and Augusta are very real characters, people we have probably met or know in our own lives.  Henry, slowly emerging from his routine lifetime, like a tortoise poking it’s head out of it’s shell, and Augusta, who brushes aside anything that doesn’t fit in with her plans, sucking in people in her slipstream, like poor Wordsworth who falls under her mesmerising spell, find in each other, perhaps what the other one lacks, but needs to continue.
At one point, when he fears he has lost his aunt, Henry  admits to himself:

I was left with the sad impression that my aunt might be dead and the most interesting part of my life might be over. I had waited a long while for it to arrive, and it had not lasted very long

It is not hard to imagine Henry slipping back to his life of dahlias and the Major next door, despite the excitement, he remained Henry even when captivated by his aunt, the time he had spent with her at that point an unexpected blip in his life.  Indeed, to Henry, it is the thought of losing Augusta that makes him appreciate the full impact she has had on him.

That is not the end however, Aunt Augusta returns.  Although there is a darker under current throughout, as the indomitable Augusta whizzes along the edges of the criminal underclass as she homes in on Mr Visconti, Travels with my Aunt is a book you read with a wry smile on your face, a good portion of which is delivered via her cutting wit.
You could say that it is a novel about living your life to it’s fullest, but it’s not, partly because Henry is such a great character who remains grounded, complimenting the flighty Augusta.  It’s a enjoyable story with very real characters, and deep down, most of us would love an Aunt Augusta, to pull us out of our everyday world.

‘He travelled from one woman to another Henry, all through his life. That comes to much the same thing. New landscapes, new customs. The accumulation of memories. A long life is not a question of years. A man without memories might reach the age of a hundred and feel that his life has been a very brief one’

Ghost Train Through the Andes – Michael Jacobs

‘Poor man,’ he sighed. ‘In the few days that are given to us in this life, we must try and enjoy everything, even the simplest things. If we complain or are miserable, we achieve nothing except waste time.’

Pulling us along, Michael Jacobs searches for the grandfather he discovered through letters, on the railways of Chile and Bolivia in what seems like a slow starting journey, yet becomes engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable.

The alternating between his grandfather Bethel’s story and his own seemed at first disorientating, I could not get into either at the start and even after the unglamorous start in Hull I struggled to convince myself that this was a journey I wanted to carry on.  But I have been to Chile, although not the railways and so I continued, and I’m glad I did.
I like Jacobs, I began to compare him with Paul Theroux, but Theroux travels for the experience of the journey, to meet and understand the countries he journeys through. Here Jacob’s was on a voyage to discover the past, he was different.  His writing is unembellished yet descriptive, a few lines giving his thoughts to a city where his main purpose is not to visit but to find out how to jump on a train.

By the north of Chile I was more engaged, he had the kind of fears that grow bigger as you get older yet he continues on regardless.  I have been to Calama myself, all I remember are the packs of dogs crossing at the pedestrian crossing and riding out to San Pedro de Atacama on a bus driven by a man inexplicably dressed as Zorro. It was Bolivia where I felt I had travelled with Jacobs long enough to like him, overcoming his fears while travelling with the irrepressible Ricardo, the best part of the journey (hence both the quotes involve him), where Ricardo’s un-crushable optimism guides them through some terrifying situation, and Jacobs, slowly but surely falls in love with Bolivia.

When he is finally celebrating carnival at Oruro you realise Jacobs is almost ageless, transformed from a foreboding solitary traveller to a boundless carnival reveller, like he is squeezing every last drop of life from his body, in a country that slowly wore his grandfather down.

In Puntas Arenas, in a place that reminds him of Hull and his childhood, Jacobs realises that the journey has been as much about this grandmother as his grandfather, and it is a touching end to an unforgettable journey that I felt I had travelled along with someone who travelled through the present, to get to know the past.

‘Meechell,’ he said, ‘nothing in this life is impossible.  Things are only impossible if you believe they are going to be so. For instance, how many times have you seen an absolutely gorgeous woman and thought with a sigh that she’s well out of your class, and that you’ll never be able to have her.  Well if you think like that, then you never will.  But if you can convince yourself that you have as much to offer her as any Sean Connery, then you can be guaranteed that she’ll fall for you, absolutely guaranteed.
‘But what,’ I pointlessly protested, ‘if she’s happily married, totally besotted with somebody else, or physically repelled by you?’
‘Meechell,’ he replied, ‘there are no obstacles in life other than purely imaginary ones. You must always remember that.’

1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

This man was a high powered operator, but also prone to overwork.  He earned a high salary, but he couldn’t use it now that he was dead.  He wore Armani suits and drove a Jaguar, but finally he was just another ant, working and working until he died without meaning.

On the back of 1Q84, books one and two it states something extraordinary is starting, by the end of book three you’re not quite convinced it has finished, or indeed, what it was.  I’m reviewing  books one and two and book three together as I read them together and I’m guessing if you make the eight hundred pages of the first two, you’ll submerge again into the four hundred and fifty pages of the third.

At the beginning of book one, Aomame, fearing she will be late for a crucial appointment descends a stairway off of an elevated expressway into a world is the same, but not quite, as the one she knows.  The most noticeable difference is the second moon in the sky. In this other world Aomame’s fate inextricably becomes entwined with that of Tengo, as their actions pull a web around them that seems to get smaller and smaller.

1Q84 is told in alternating chapters between the two main characters, until book three, where they are joined by Ushikawa, a private investigator hired to track down Aomame, who cannot fathom where she is or what her purpose is in this alternative world.  She is helped by the dowager and her assistant, the quietly lethal Tamaru.  Meanwhile Tengo deals with his estranged father and the mysterious Fuka-Eri, whose story he ghost-writes and wins a competition with, drawing her into the web surrounding him and Aomame.  Then there are the little people..Ho ho.

I won’t detail the polot, for me one of the great joys of Murakami is losing yourself in the story and the world of his novels, and in 1Q84 he conjures a world that is not quite right, but is not so far off as to not be believable.  Whenever he starts stretching your imagination too far, he rebounds back to absurd normality. Twelve hundred odd pages may be stretching it, but this is a story to enjoy, to sail through at a leisurely pace as Murakami plays with your imagination, taking you somewhere else, that is actually here.

Total Chaos – Jean-Claude Izzo

A loan from a good friend and avid reader, and a rare foray into crime fiction for me, as I wandered down the old and vibrant Marseille streets in search of a killer, or at least a motive.

Total Chaos is book one in the Marseilles trilogy from Izzo, and centres on a washed up cop investigating the death of an old childhood friend that pulls him further and further into the city’s seedy underbelly as the criminals and cops square off to each other, and not always on opposite sides.

While I didn’t struggle reading this, I couldn’t really get into it.  The writing is slick enough, but the genre tends to bore me, and I just couldn’t get into Izzo’s Marseille, it didnt’ feel alive or real enough for me.  As the strands towards the end started to unravel and become clearer, I’d lost track of the names, and so the ending for me utterly lacked any tension or intrigue.  The characters are pretty much standard for the fare, and it is not hard to predict the plot, although there is the odd chicane in the storyline, the overall premise and mundane real life of crime fiction is what generally turns me off of it.  Montale is the cop, I was never quite sure who the bad guys were, and the Marseille’s I was hoping to be immersed in stayed frustratingly out of reach.

As much as I wanted to enjoy this, to get a feel for a city that I have only ever visited at half four in the morning to change trains, I can’t say I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy, and that is a combination of the lack of being pulled into Izzo’s Marseille, as it is my lack of interest in crime fiction.

The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng

A section of Majuba Tea Estate is visible to the east over the fence. The hollow of the valley reminds me of the open palms of a monk, cupped to receive the days blessing.  It is Saturday, but the tea-pickers are working their way up the slopes. There has been a storm in the night, and clouds are still marooned on the peaks.

A novel as lush and intoxicating as the highland jungle it’s set in, Tan Twan Eng follows up the engrossing The Gift of Rain with the beautiful Garden of Evening Mists.  Yun Ling, trying to capture her life’s memories before they slip away, recalls her time with the former gardener to the Emperor of Japan.  Despite being imprisoned by the Japanese during the Occupation of her country, Yun Ling yearns to build a memorial to her sister and approaches Aritomo to help her build a Japanese garden.
Over thirty years later Yun Ling returns to Aritomo’s garden and picks up threads of her past, learning just as much as she remembers about her past and her old tutor, prompted by her own situation as much as by Japan’s sudden interest in one of it’s once revered gardeners.

Tan Twan Eng paints a delicious canvas of Malaysia in turbulent times, with sumptuous prose and a plot that while never tense, never lets you drift away, like a leaf spinning gently down to the ground, not quite twisting and turning, but moving inextricably to it’s destination in it’s own time and path.
Yun Ling battles against her own hatred of the Japanese and what they did to her and her sister as she spends more time with Aritomo, while the communists flit around them like wasps, coming closer and closer to the Majuba tea estate where she lives, a guest of the owner, Magnus Pretorius.

Like The Gift of Rain, Eng includes a solitary Japanese character in a mentor position, whose life story unwinds throughout the book, as indeed does Yun Ling’s.  When she reveals what happened in the camp, I felt a little something of the relief Yun Ling must have felt unburdening herself.  Is Aritomo as far removed from her experience as she at first believes?  By the end of the book it is less clear, and

I loved this book, while reading, it is possible to look up from the book and see the Cameron Highlands in front of you, and almost feel as if you’re there and now I’m patiently waiting for Tan Twan Eng’s next novel.

The clock in the tower above the central portico chimed, its languid pulse beating through the walls of the courtroom. I turned my wrist slightly and checked the time: eleven minutes past three; the clock was, as ever, reliably out, its punctuality stolen by lightening years ago.