Istanbul – Orhan Pamuk

To watch my father scanning the newspaper and trying, with half a smile, to catch the tail of a joke rippling across the crowded room, and at that very same moment to see a picture of him at five years old – my age – with hair as long as a girl’s, it seemed plain to me that my grandmother had framed and frozen these memories so that we could weave them into the present.

More like a letter to a relative or a mentor not seen in a good long time, except the person is Istanbul, where Pamuk was born and has lived all his life, a letter that pieces together the past and the monumental influence it has had on not just one person, but everyone who lives in it.

I’ve not read any of Pamuk’s work before, he seems an infinitely sad and dark man, who takes pleasure in reading about murders within the city, but who eloquently and painstakingly paints a fascinating and rich picture of his childhood and the city he has spent his life, so closely are they intertwined that you are left wondering if Pamuk is in fact the incarnation of Istanbul in flesh and blood, languishing in abject decline and looking at it’s past glories while tentatively trying to modernise and be accepted by it’s peers.

He is fairly open about his mothers and fathers troubled relationship and the impact it has on him, which, in fact, seems slight compared to that of the city that infuses him and it’s inhabitants with a wistful but immovable melancholy, that Pamuk explains as Huzun. He invokes Istanbul’s small but seemingly influential writers into his discussion, and how through his ongoing interactions with their works, there is a juxtaposition between how Istanbullu’s see their city and how outsiders see it, with the former almost craving acceptance, yet disagreeing with what is written by the latter.

Despite the drive for a new Turkish identity following the fall of the Ottoman empire, which Pamuk’s middle class family, and all of their class strive to embrace without understanding what it actually is, Pamuk comes to realise it’s the poor, neglected areas of Istanbul that hold the soul to the city, and the ever present Bosphorus, the one constant in the city, that provides an ever changing view, and yet allows Pamuk and others to anchor themselves and find small solace.

It took me the whole book to like Pamuk, and in fact, it’s only since finishing the book that my fondness for him seems to have grown.  I couldn’t work out if Istanbul was a memoir or a detailed love affair of his home city.  Slowly he made me wonder why I cared, why I had to classify what the book was, it was both, how Istanbul had played an overarching yet intimate part of his life, how he identified first and foremost with it more than anything else. The last chapter, indeed the last line seemed to click a button in me that allowed me to revisit the whole book and appreciate it in a whole different way, I couldn’t tell you why. I struggled to like Pamuk, he seemed a sad, lonely and introspective individual who had only fleeting happiness, a writer with the broken childhood that proves a fertile hunting ground for inspiration. But, he painted a truthful picture of himself, and of a city that is one of the last places in Europe (just) that I want to visit. At first I thought he had put me off, but I feel now that perhaps he has created a desire that may prove impossible to resist.

‘A declaration of love.’ is what the Sunday Times said about this book, and I don’t think I can better that, even though I have spent this post trying to..

Whenever I find myself talking of the beauty and the poetry of the Bosphorus and Istanbul’s dark streets, a voice inside me warns against exaggeration, a tendency perhaps motivated by a wish not to acknowledge the lack of beauty in my own life. If I see my city as beautiful and bewitching, then my life must be so too.

Red Country – Joe Abercrombie

‘Severed heads,’ Cosca was explaining, ‘never go out of fashion. Used sparingly and with artistic sensibility, they can make a point a great deal more eloquently than those still attached. Make a note of that. Why aren’t you writing?’

Joe Abercrombie goes country this was billed as, a lot more cleverly than that obviously, and it is exactly that, although still within the first law universe. There is potentially a character spoiler in here, I’m not really spoiling the plot, but if you’ve read the trilogy, you will probably work out what I’m blathering on about.

As the brilliantly shallow Nicomo Cosca rages havoc in the far country, Shy South and her cowardly ‘father’ Lamb track her stolen brother and sister high up into the mountains, falling in with a caravan being guided by the legendary Dab Sweet, where they meet others swept up in the tide of men seeking fortune, to where where prospectors have been flocking in search of gold.
I spent the book trying to remember if I had come across some of the names before, but at some point early on, there was a flicker, a glimmer, was Lamb..could he be back? There were a few oblique references before he first fights, then the confirmation is almost there, by the time the party leaves Crease, it’s irrefutable, welcome back the Bloody Nine.

For all the pleasure I gained from the return of the Northman, it is Nicomo Cosca who for me was the star of this book. He has the best lines and is one of the best characters I’ve come across in a fantasy book. Hopelessly vain, shallow, selfish and self-centered he is the most mercenary mercenary ever to walk on a page. His relentless drive for money, at the expense of those around him is almost commendable, tempered only by his completely lack of scruples and morality.

Temple comes close to Cosca as an enjoyable character, another flawed good guy, a type seemingly loved by Abercrombie, or perhaps just a truthful reflection of life, only in fantasy would the good be all good and the bad be all bad, this is almost real fantasy.
What I did enjoy, and I thought Abercrombie did really well, and it almost surprises me to be saying this, is the budding romance between Temple and Shy. The shy recognition that something’s there resonated with me, and my own muddling attempts at forging a relationship in the early stages.

There are a lot of references to the past, to it catching up with you, you can’t run and hide from what you do or who you are, indeed perhaps only Temple manages to break from his past, although he is still the same coward he was before. I wasn’t sure how I wanted the book to end, there is certainly food for thought by the time you turn the last page, but mostly it’s the warm feeling of finishing a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing bear-hug of a book.

I love what Abercrombie is doing, a whole world, with characters drifting in and out of all the books. At one point I wondered if the Mayor was Murcatto from Best Served Cold (the standalone books seem to follow a rough chronological order I think). It reminds me again of Terry Pratchett, the world is always there, and the cast of characters grows and grows, allowing Abercrombie to give the reader almost limitless reading pleasure.

‘I was once Grand Duke of Visserine you know.’ Cosca waved down attempts at abashment which had, in fact, not happened. ‘Don’t worry, you need not call me Excellency – we are all informal here in the Company of the Gracious Hand, are we not, Temple?’
Temple took a long breath. ‘We are all informal.’ Most of them were liars, all of them were thieves, some of them were killers. Informality was not surprising.

The Dragon’s Tail – Adam Williams

Not for the first time Julian marvelled at the crassness of the British Army. This had been a remarkable story of ingenuity, not to mention valour, by an enlisted man under combat conditions, and Thomas, in his self-righteousness, appeared unaware of how he himself, for his petty reasons, had sabotaged a potentially brilliant intelligence coup. They might as well be back in the Great War, thought Julian ruefully: lions were being led by donkeys.

The last gift from a friend, and I was back in China, being dragged through the twentieth century as Williams crafts an epic thriller which is crushed by the turbulence of the country it takes place in.

Kicking off with the introduction of Harry Airton, and his early friendship with Chen Tao which is brutally ended by the Japanese invasion, I thought the tension between the two young boys was quickly introduced, created a sense of foreboding in the prologue of what was to come.
Fast forward and Harry is back as a spy in Mao’s China, his handler Julian manoeuvring him to be picked up by the Chinese and turned.  As the Chinese carefully plan a honey trap, the young Ziwei is introduced as the bait due to an old family connection with Harry. Williams bowls along at an amazing pace, but never dropping the detail, The Dragons Tail is a tight taut thriller, as the characters seem to be on top, before everything flips over at the end of part one (which in my opinion could have been a book in it’s own right) and you are left wondering where it is going to go.

It is part two that is the main course, Ziwei emerges as the books main character, the first part merely building up to the full horror of the Cultural Revolution, as she is sent off to a labour camp for failing to do her patriotic duty.  It is this part that I found myself most engrossed in. Having read Jung Chang’s Wild Swans I wasn’t as shocked as I think I would have been, however it is no less powerful for being fiction, it was just as incomprehensible to me reading of the atrocities meted out on the Chinese people by their own leaders as part of a narrative story as it was reading about them in a biography.

I remember feeling that there was no coming back from the characters as Mao finally exits and Ziwei discovers secrets from her mother, and I was deliberating the end I wanted, and whether I really wanted it, the characters deserved a happy ending, but I couldn’t decide whether it would ultimately detract from what was an epic and emotional story.  I think Williams balanced it just right in the end, tying up loose ends without dropping into sentimentality, showing sometimes even if you try, you may not always be able to reach over a gulf of time and experience.

At the end I discovered that this was the third of a trilogy, and that the second book was about Ziwei’s mother, so I expect at some point I’ll be back in Williams’s China once again.

For by now the fruit not only represented Mao. The mangoes had become an extension of Mao himself. They were Mao and were treated with the same veneration. Everybody had heard stories of foolish people who had spoken about them derogatorily. In the summer heat mangoes, even cased in was, rot and, not long into their tour, the treasures had obviously shrivelled. Woe betide any innocent who commented on the fact.

Raised From the Ground – Jose Saramago

They can come in now. The doors are opened and the bulls enter, these are the bulls that will be fought today according to the rules and precepts of the art, taunted with a cape, stuck with darts, beaten with sticks and finally crowned with the hilt of a sword, whose point and blade pierce my heart, ole.

It says Jose Saramago on the cover, it’s set in rural Portugal, based on his own families harsh life in the Alentejo, but I can see punctuation, sentences that don’t go on for a page, how can it be Jose? It is though, an earlier version of the man, before he became the nobel prize winning novelist I fell in love with through the year of the death of Ricardo Reis.

Following the poor Mau-Tempo family through several generations, as Portugal wrestles with both National and International events drift into their lives, sometimes as a breeze, other times as a gale, always leaving them planted in the same soil as before.

I have to confess that Raised from the Ground didn’t swirl the magic as Saramago’s other novels, it was more straightforward, more normal, less Saramago. I always put any of his books I get to the bottom of the to-read pile when I shop, such is the enjoyment I get from them, the whole experience wraps around the story and puts him just above everyone else I read. Although one of his earlier novels, this is Saramago not quite polished into the smooth, well worn prose writer he would become.

The book gives a humble and moving account of what living from the ground truly means, the rituals and rights by which those tied to the soil guide their lives, but without preaching or hammering it’s point home. The beginnings of the Saramago I know and love are there, but sadly for me I couldn’t quite appreciate this as much as his later works.

The Robber of Memories – A River Journey Through Colombia – Michael Jacobs

The old writer sitting on the patio of the boutique hotel reacted to the mention of the river with a depth of feeling I had not expected. He burst into a smile, his eyes glowed and he held tightly to my wrist without seeming to want to let go. He looked up at his brother, like a child asking for a favour, and suggested that I might be invited to their house, where he would love to talk to me at length about the Magdalena, the river of his life, the river that gave him the one reason for wanting to be young again. So that he could sail along it one more time.

He’s confused me, has Michael Jacobs. I read this and remember when I finished I wasn’t sure what to make of it, I hadn’t enjoyed it as much as I had hoped, couldn’t make up my mind about Jacobs, but for various reasons, I didn’t write up my review at the time.
However, then I read Ghost Train Through the Andes, and although it was slow, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and had warmed to Jacobs by the end, and said as much in my review (here).  When I looked back on my shelf at the forlorn books waiting to be reviewed, I realised that this was the very same Michael Jacobs.

After a small meeting with Gabriel Garcia Marquez where he reveals an interest in the Magdalena, which causes the old writer to flare briefly like a firefly in the twilight, Jacobs travels up the great river, pondering on the power of memory, in a country that has has a tacit silence on the terror that has torn at it for decades, perhaps in an attempt to forget, as well as the more personal introspection of his mother’s heartbreaking decline into dementia and his fathers death following Alzheimer’s.

The journey up the Magdalena is slow, and winding and the lower part seems to take most of the book. Jacobs explores as much as he can including the fascinating yet sad story of the paisa strain of Alzheimers discovered in the Central Cordillera of the Andes, where twenty five families had been identified with it, all of whom descending from a single Basque who had settled there around 1750.
Inter-sped with memories of his father and mother, as Jacobs ponders on the effect of memory and life, he finally makes it to the source of the Magdalena, drinking and washing his face in it’s calm waters.  It’s right in the middle of FARC territory and sure enough he crosses paths with the guerrillas. Alongside long tedious lectures on Marxism, they also show a side that seems to want to genuinely boost tourism in the area, despite forcibly detaining people to tell them this.
While celebrating carnival (he seems to always time his trips right for this) he learns that two days after he left the army went in to take control of the area, he had narrowly missed a gunfight.

It is a harrowing ending, set amongst the raucousness of carnival, but one that Jacobs captures almost perfectly, and is a poignant ending to what was, despite my misgivings, an interesting journey.

To the fear that had been mounting in me over the past hours was now added a feeling of experiencing an absurd dream. I had strolled into the pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude, witnessing a war that no longer made any sense, a war based on rapidly diminishing memories of how it had started, a war that was kept going almost mechanically, mindless of it’s shifting, ever more confused objectives.