Evening is the whole day – Preeta Samarasan

Then he’d look up at Amma and lick his lips like a wolf before a kill. “And what special treat have you brought us this time, Vasanthi?” he’d say. “No doubt about it, you’re the genius of the family, no?” Amma would sit on the ottoman with her head bowed, cleaning her nails with a hairpin, dreaming of her escape. Over the years she learned to concentrate on the world outside and hear her father’s cruel words like a chained dog in the rain.

A bitter, bitter-sweet book, this drew me in slowlyslowly, and engulfed me, leaving a sad taste in me that I’m not sure I’ll shake in a while.
At first I wasn’t sure, the story had possibilities, it was set somewhere I quite fancy travelling to, but while the dialogue seemed direct off the monsoon swept streets of Ipoh, the prose didn’t quite flow, it felt like Samarasan was trying too hard.  Instead of flowing onto the page it was as if each sentence had to be creative, couldn’t sit on it’s own merit. Of course it could be me, and there were times when it worked.  I continued on though, and was immensely rewarded, with a story that made me more emotional than any book has done in a while.

Where Samarasan has excelled is with the story’s construction, jumping back and forth in time, allowing glimpses into all the characters heads at various times, while never really leaving any doubt who the main characters are.  Uncle Ballroom, one of the lesser featured but still significant characters is portrayed as a sponging vagabond by the family, yet when he appears, even through their relations with him, as well as the odd glimpse into his own head, a much better, deeper person is revealed, at odds with the family’s portrayal, and this for me is one of the books strengths.

The main characters are the family of Appa, an idealist, rebellious to his overbearing mother, who couldn’t reconcile what he thought he wanted with what he actually wanted, and when he does, it strains him to breaking point.  Amma, his vacuous wife, drags herself up by her own sheer will and hatred of her mother in law to occupy a station in life she dreamed of but was little prepared for.
Out of the three children this ill matched couple bring into the world, it was Aasha who stole my heart, whose tarnished innocence is almost perfectly painted by Smarasan. While Uma withdraws from the games being played by her family that she has no interest in, and Suresh is the most boyish boy I have come across in a book, Aasha strives to recapture a happy family that never existed, and especially trying to understand and overcome Uma’s withdrawal from her and the family.  Her relationship with Uma, with it’s unknown confidences and battles is the one of the most poignant I have ever read. Chapter 8 in particular is touching, the tension builds throughout the chapter and it is not the death which left me sad, it is Aasha’s failed attempt at reconnecting with her sister.

Upstairs, Uma hums “Mrs Robinson” and “The Boxer” and “The Sound of Silence” and goes on with her packing as if nothing happened, as if Aasha still doesn’t exist. Perhaps there’s no atoning for old sins after all. Perhaps it was already too late.

There are a few nods to the turmoil in Asia at the time, and the tensions between the Malays, Indians and Straits Chinese, as well as an oddball assortment of neighbours to the big house, but these merely enriched the story woven by Samarasan, allowing us to glimpse the main characters in a slightly different light each time.

Evening is the whole day made me think of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, but whilst the latter jarred me at the end into releasing the sadness it had sown in me, Evening is the Whole Day filled me with sadness like a slowly filling bath, as Aasha tried to understand more and fix more, without realising she understood less and couldn’t fix anything, and Samarasan’s tale will stay long in the mind after the last page is turned.

At ten-thirty Mat Din loads Uma’s suitcase into the cavernous boot of the Volvo, wondering at the fifteen stamp-shaped stickers of some gap-toothed, wing-eared white boy that emblazon it. He doesn’t know that Alfred E. Neuman is running (albeit unofficially) for president; he doesn’t know Aasha intended the stickers to help Uma recognize her suitcase in the New York airport pullulating with grey people in trench coats. And he doesn’t know, of course, that Uma accepted the stickers merely out of mercy and regret and a sudden, guilty nostalgia, not because she was worried she’d have trouble finding her suitcase.

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The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano

Those boys. Their brains and their tongues were interconnected. One of them could start to talk, then stop in the middle of what he was saying, and the other one would pick up the sentence or the idea as if he’d begun it himself. And when they spoke Cesarea’s name I raised my eyes and looked at them as if I were seeing them through a curtain of gauze, surgical gauze, to be precise, and I said don’t call me senor, boys, call me Amadeo, which is what my friends call me.

Less a novel as an epic investigation, an anthropological study into life and poetry, or poetry and life, where the character narrating the beginning disappears and finally re-appears about two thirds of the way through, where the main characters don’t have their own voice, but are almost entirely painted by others, in a series of anecdotes stretching over twenty years, The Savage Detectives is an epic story, that doesn’t really seem like a story at all, and it was like reading ice cream on a hot day, as much as you eat, more melts away, and even after you finish, you still want more.

Focusing around two direputable poets, Ulises Lima Arturo Belano, and their wider poetic group, the visceral realists, Bolano’s masterpiece is in a world of it’s own. The plot is almost a bystander, a ruse to get Lima and Belano down on the page, so that their lives can be reflected through those that have orbited these two drifting planets, sandwiched between the diary of one of their friends who records the beginning and end of their search for Cesarea Tinajero, an almost mythical poet.

In my never ending quest to find more Latin American authors I am incredibly late to Bolano, and once again I find an author who has sadly passed on and whose back catalogue I will try to savour, as I have done with Jose Saramago.
I remember thinking it was a daunting book, but the premise intrigued me, and I found the diary entries spread out before me a life of a bohemia, as the collective of poets met at cafe’s and around houses, discussing, retelling, screwing, eating and drinking.  Following an alteracation with a pimp, four of them flee Mexico city at the end of 1975.  Then the book switches to a sprawling collection of recollections by an incredible array of people, some having numerous entries, some only one, as they recall meeting, spending time with Lima and Belano.  The sheer scope of these is on a continental scale and they paint a picture of two vagabond wanderers, who seemingly have little to like about them, but which seems irrelevant, they almost seem more real for their oddball characters drifiting in and out of people’s lives, colouring them before moving out of orbit. They are certainly less than perfect, and the memories of them are both hostile and affectionate.

I submerged into this world, I love the minutiae of everyday life, and love when an author can paint even the mundane in a fascinating way and Bolano does that for me.  Another author who can do this is Murakami, but Bolano is different, there is a definite Latin swagger to his picture, compared to Murakami’s more restrained elegance. It explains why I was absorbed reading about a group of young Mexican poets sitting in a cafe listing off names of poets I had never heard of and their works, poetry discussed by those who write it, live it. It was like I was living this life while reading it, my body may have been stretched out on the sofa, sprawled out in bed or scrunched up on the tube, by my mind was with Belano (less so Lima, he was a little crazy, even for me). Bolano spun out my imagination the same way as Malcolm Lowry did in under the volcano. With Lowry I was an alcoholic, with Bolano, I was a Mexican poet.

For some reason towards the end of the book and after, I thought about the adventures and misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis, not for any similarity in any way whatsoever, but because Maqroll is my favourite novel, and this, this bold, brash juggernaut of a story seeped into me and was trying to muscle in to sit at the top of the pile. Although I think Maqroll still edges it, when I read this again (which I certainly will do) I know there will be so much I missed, that it will be just as fresh and savage as when I read it the first time, and maybe it will top Maqroll then.

Silence. Arturo Belano must have taken the package and looked at it. He must have leafed through the books. Two books published so long ago, their pages (excellent paper) uncut. Silence. He must have looked over the questions. Then I heard him thank the maid and leave. If he comes back to see me, I thought, I’ll be justified … All poets, even the most avant garde, need a father. But these poets were meant to be orphans. He never came back.

By the seat of my pants – edited by Don George

I can’t help but let out a shriek. My husband is on his back, eyes closed, concentrating on the business at hand, so he naturally assumes that my cry has something to do with his technique.
‘Was that good or bad?’ he asks, opening his eyes. At which point he too sees the family, who are now standing in a line at the end of our bed.

Out of the generous number books I was gifted by a friend, this one was the one that I was looking forward to the most.  I love travel, I enjoy travel writing, I like to think I have a fairly easy sense of humour, this had to be winner.
For me, the joy of travel writing is that you learn about the traveller, as they learn about the place they are travelling through, what makes a funny travel story is something that happens unexpectedly, or makes the traveller react or behave in a way that they would not normally do, or is so off the wall as to be bewilderingly funny.  What I realised is that when you take these humorous escapades out of that context, they read like any number of inane magazine articles, and in a compilation such as this, it’s as if each writer is trying to outdo the others, trying too hard to turn something that isn’t funny into the funniest story in the world. It wasn’t helped by the sheer number of them, that turned what I thought would be a light read into what felt like a test of endurance.  Indeed had I read them in a magazine I probably would have enjoyed them more, perhaps I should of dipped in and out, but I have a bookshelf of accusing books to work my way through, such is my addiction. If you’re thinking of reading this, my advice is to dip..

There were some good stories, almost all of which were the last ones in the book. Jeff Greenwald’s Left Luggage was genuinely funny, Kathie Kertesz’s The Prince and I highlights how you can really be in the right place at the right time with surprising results but perhaps the best story was Wangara’s Cross, by Joshuah Clark, which remained in my memory for it’s bitter-sweet humour and made a poignant ending to what was otherwise a long slow journey.

At the Dum Dum baggage claim, the single carousel was nearly annihilated; it looked like a model, in miniature, of an Indian train derailment. The metal fins were bent, and forced their way ahead with a shrieking, grinding noise, like sheet metal being fed into a paper shredder. The little burlap curtain, where the luggage usually makes it’s entrance, had been torn off. Even the rubber rail had been removed, no doubt reincarnated as the jury-rigged bumper of a Calcutta taxi,

Paprika – Yasutaka Tsutsui

I was almost tempted to sneak through and not write a review for this.  I’ve been trying to remember if I’ve ever stopped reading a book half way though.  I’m an easy going reader, happy enough if either the plot or the prose can keep me going, but neither could keep me going to the end, indeed, I think I only got as far as I did because this was given to me by a friend and I felt by not finishing I had let them down. Even my guilt wasn’t enough to save Paprika.

The seemingly perfect Atsuko Chiba is a brilliant psychotherapist who uses a device that can allow her to enter patients dreams to help treat them.  New prototypes of these devices go missing and are then used to destroy and modify the personalities of those close to Chiba and as she realises what is going on, formulates a plan to stop this happening.  At least I guess she does, at this point I stopped reading.  The devices are explained through so much jargon, I couldn’t tell if the words or theory was real, or based on anything at all, and I didn’t care.  The culprits, revealed fairly early on, probably because you have already worked it out, are actually diabolical, and insane.  The book seems to veer towards the erotic at times, which jarred slightly with the techno-babble and psychoanalysis, and I’m not sure if this gets more intense the further you go on.

According to the back page blurb, this is widely acknowledged as Tsutsui’s masterpiece, and while I have no doubt that he has a deep and fruitful imagination, I’m not so sure he should write about it.  That said, reading over reviews there are a lot of comments on the translation, and I have to admit, the prose is plain and wooden, and perhaps much has been lost from the original which would be a shame for Tsutsui.

While searching for an image of the cover, it looks like there is an anime of the book, and that seems the perfect medium for this, so maybe I will get to finish Paprika at some point.

Lucia in the age of Napoleon – Andrea Di Robilant

‘Hanging on the wall right above her was Madame Mocegino’s own portrait, painted in her youth…Madame Mocegino is still beautiful, the way one is beautiful in the shadow of old age. I covered with compliments, which she returned. We were lying to each other and we both knew it.’ Chateaubriand

After becoming reacquainted with an almost complete statue of Napoleon in what used to be his families house in Venice, and coming across Lucia while researching the life of her father Andrea (see A Venetian Affair) Di Robilant was intrigued enough to delve further into his great-great-great-great-grandmother’s life, and by doing so uncovered an indomitable spirit who lived a long and fascinating life.

Engaged to Alvise Mocegino when she was just fifteen, even in her first letter to her future husband, Lucia showed poise and thoughtfulness that she would have throughout the rest of her life.  Di Robilant’s functional text embellishes little, preferring instead to let Lucia tell much of it, using the mine of letters and diaries at his disposal, including near daily letters to her beloved sister Paolina, with whom she nurtured a life long affection and intimacy, particularly as her ceaseless striving for her husbands love often fell short.

Lucia and Alvise hopped from one side to the other as Napoleon rose and fell, first putting herself forward in Vienna, working ceaselessly to integrate herself into the upper echelons of society, and then later finding some freedom and indepence in Paris, where she stayed while accompanying her illegitimate son in his studies, and spending time with the empress Josephine. Despite a highly cosmopolitan life, Lucia was first and foremost a Venetian, and despite witnessing the end of the stagnating republic, always harboured dreams of it being re-established, returning to it in her old age.

Her spirit was tempered by three early miscarriages when under pressure to provide a heir to the Mocegino family, and by her husbands almost constant absence.  Yet Lucia did not sit and pine for Alvise, instead managing his estates, trying various agricultural based business ideas and educating herself in Paris, still never giving up that she could still have the perfect family life.  Alvise constantly sought to be on the right side during a tumultous period for Europe, and was often ostracised for his allegiance at one time or another.  He regularly saw other women, and late on Lucia discovers an illegitimate child of his own, but she outlived her husband, and during her later years rented out part of her home to Byron, an arrangement that did not end amicably for either of them.

Lucia died just before her ninety-fourth birthday, an incredible age at the time. Di Robilant’s diligent research is plainly rendered, but provides an insight into Europe at the time, through the eyes of one of Venice’s last grand dames.