The Lawless Roads – Graham Greene

And so faith came to me – shapelessly, without dogma, a presence above a croquet lawn, something associated with violence, cruelty, evil across the way. I began to believe in heaven because I believed in hell, but for a long while it was only hell I could picture with a certain intimacy – the pitch-pine partitions of dormitories where everybody was never quiet at the same time; lavatories without locks: ‘There, by reason of the great number of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in that awful prison …’;

I feel like I’m a relatively late-comer to Greene, and what I’ve read so far I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, particularly his comedies. I was quite looking forward to reading a travelogue by him, particularly in a part of the world I have a fascination for, and even the guy behind the till in Daunt books said this was a great book.

And, it is a great book, I just didn’t like it. Commissioned to write about the Catholic purges taking place in Mexico at the time, and the reaction of the mostly religious population, Greene packs his bags and sets off with a journalistic eye and poised pen.
Given the situation at the time, Greene depicts his journey honestly, from the transportation to the people he meets, from Generals hidden in the mountains to local guides, as he traverses Tabasco and Chiapas. It is perhaps this honesty that I struggled with, for me this came out as long moan, a whinge, not about what was being done to the Catholics, but about Greene and the labours of his journey.  He spends a lot of time waiting for planes or boats and the slog of the travelling wears him down considerably, particularly by the end of the book, in which he actively hates Mexico.
It could be me, Greene’s honesty amply paints just how hard travelling was then, and how far it has come now where travellers can have everything booked and organised before they leave their front door, but I felt like I was wading through the book. When he commented on the hidden Catholicism and the effect of the purge on the people, I struggled to find an interest, so worn down was I by the travails of Greene himself.

It’s a shame, perhaps I’ll re-read it again one day and see it differently, I love his fiction and while the prose and style was the same, I couldn’t enjoy it.

I have no sympathy with those who complain of the wealth and beauty of a church in a poor land. For the sake of another peso a week, it is hardly worth depriving the poor of such rest and quiet as they can find in the cathedral here. I have never heard people complain of the super-cinemas – that the money should be spent in relief – and yet there’s no democracy in cinema: you pay more and you get more; but in a church the democracy is absolute.

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The Discovery of America by the Turks – Jorge Amado

So why not? Adama was a rough deal, hard to swallow. Facing her called for decisiveness, courage, and the stomach of a camel. Tall, slim, muscular, doltish, Adib was like a dromedary. His youth and greed made him capable of chewing straw and finding it tasty, of standing up against an aging, sour old maid, busting her cherry with delight, raising her up into a frenzy, to beautitude, to peace with life. 

Continuing my tradition of devouring the back catalogue of my favourite authors as much as possible, mostly because they seem to already have died by the time I come to them, I got The Discovery of America by the Turks by Jorge Amado, translated by Gergory Rabassa. A Brazilian take on The Taming of the Shrew, I couldn’t decide in the end how much I liked this. The foreward by probably my favourite author, Jose Saramago, complimented the book and Amado’s ability to wonderfully paint the multiple facets of Brazilian life, particularly in the north, and in this book in particular, Itabuna in Bahia. It is here that Ibrahim Jafet seeks to marry off his remaining unwed daughter to someone who will take over his Bargain Shop. The problem being that Adama is strictly religious and a crabby old maid. Ibrahim seeks the help of his friend the Lebanese Raduan Murad who tries asking Jamil, the Syrian if he would be interested in this task of Herculean effort. As Jamil comes round to the idea, Ruduan also entices the young waiter Adib into the deal to break down the cold walls of the haughty and unobtainable Adama.

While this is unmistakeably Amado, it seemed different from his other novels that I have read. I thought perhaps it was the translation, but Rabassa translated my favourite book of Amado’s, the War of the Saints, so it wasn’t that. In some aspects it seemed crude, but then again no more so than his other books, and it’s precisely that bold, full of life storytelling that I enjoy about Amado. Still I struggled to enjoy it, perhaps that’s just the way it goes, I still love Amado.

They opened and closed the doors of the establishment when it suited their fancy. Drowsy, they continued their billing and cooing behind the counter without giving proper attention to the seamstresses and housewives who, in exchange for a few small purchases – a thimble, a dozen buttons, hairpins, two yards of ribbon – demanded a little talk and consideration.

Catfish and the Bottlemen

I’d never actually heard of Catfish and the Bottlemen before my mate asked if I fancied wandering down to Brixton Academy to watch them. I called them up on youtube and watched the video for Hourglass, marvelling at how much the lead singer looked like Ewan McGregor, oh, it is Ewan McGregor. Loved the song though, so I listened to more, Pacifier, Cocoon, Business. I loved all of these as well. They are really good. Apparently the critics reviews have been mixed, but then, who listens to critics anyway? I’ve never really understood the point of them, it’s so subjective, if I was the only person in the world who loved a band, I would still buy their music and go to their shows, now that would be intimate. Anyhoo, here are a band who have a lot of emotion and energy, whose lyrics give away their youthful attitude (there are times when I can’t escape the feeling that they’ve just come straight from a smoke and a fumble behind the bike sheds) and who apparently sound like the Artic Monkeys and the Cribs to name but a couple.

So we got to the Academy just after half 8, queued up for 20 minutes for a pint of Tuborg, probably the worst lager in the world, and hustled half way down to the front, annoying some Welsh dude who looked like Jesus and seemed to have been standing in his spot since the doors opened and didn’t expect anyone to stand in front of him. We moved to the side. I looked around, I felt like I was in the middle of a school trip. “We are old enough to be everyone’s parents” I whispered to my mate, indeed the few people who we weren’t old enough to have fathered, were in fact the fathers of the ones we could have done. “We’re about twice the age of the band” he whispered back as they swaggered on stage to a rendition of Helter Skelter.

Opening with Rango, the crowd were rocking from the start. I couldn’t sing as I didn’t know the songs, but the crowd knew them, they sung them, they were on shoulders, looking around at their mates shouting and waving their arms. I jumped and clapped though, when the songs came on that I recognised, I got caught up in the infectious atmosphere as the odd pint of beer went arching overhead. Pacifier, Business and Kathleen were big songs, almost anthems, but it was Homesick that blew the roof off, the whole crowd (except me) sung the first verse with the band backing, and it was one of the loudest sing-along’s I have every heard, then the whole of Brixton Academy (including me) jumped to the chorus. There was an acoustic version of hourglass which I sung along to as I did to Cocoon, as they played their debut album, The Balcony, to a sold out audience at Brixton who knew every word.

Afterwards, as we streamed out into the mild Brixton night I couldn’t quite place how I felt, it was a great gig from a brilliant band but I had felt sort of detached. It wasn’t until this morning I realised that it’s because I didn’t know the songs. But not only that, while I was looking around at the kids around me, these songs had meanings for them already, and while I was a generation older, their love and energy took my back to my youth, going to gigs with groups of mates, singing along to songs that had impacted my life, had got me over an ex or soundtracked a holiday, and that’s what Catfish and the Bottlemen do so well, their short, sharp, punching songs will be tied to memories of their biggest fans for years to come, and that is the sign of a great album from a great band.

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The Insufferable Gaucho – Robert Bolano

In spite of everything, his life was happy. It’s hard not to be happy, he used to say, in Buenos Aires, which is a perfect blend of Paris and Berlin, although if you look closely it’s more like a perfect blend of Lyon and Prague. Every day he got up at the same time as his children, had breakfast with them and dropped them off at school. He spent the rest of the morning reading at least two newspapers; and, after a snack at eleven (consisting of basically cold cuts and sausage on buttered french bread and two or three little glasses of Argentine or Chilean wine, except on special occasions, when the wine was, naturally, French), he took a siesta until one.

I have the immense 2666 by Bolano sitting on my book shelf, waiting patiently for me to immerse myself in it’s hundreds and hundreds of pages but I couldn’t face it just yet, not after just finishing After the Ice, so I bought The Insufferable Gaucho for a smaller slice of Bolano.
I always find short stories dark, I don’t know why, perhaps the way they finish but clearly not at the end, and that’s after they don’t really start at the beginning either. They are like finding an old photograph randomly, all you have is that one shot, and you have to make sense of it all, create the before and after try to find any sort of context from it. Or you don’t, it could just be me. Despite this I still love reading them, plus my love of Bolano meant I was always going to be picking this up.

It starts with Jim, and what is there to say except it’s short, and dark, despite being set in the blazing daylight and featuring a fire eater. As always, I was left wondering what or who the inspiration was for that, or what line of Bolano’s imagination twanged to produce it.

The Insufferable Gaucho – How not to grow old gracefully, the well known story of giving up the city life for retirement in the country, but with a bit of crazy thrown in, the bit where Pereda walks into the bar on his horse is brilliant. The end intimating that he had become something of a savage out in the pampas, not suitable for city life, or perhaps that was his natural self restrained all those years in the civilised strait jacket.

Police Rat – A brilliant noir detective story but set in a colony of rats. I loved this, and will confess the blurb on the back about it was the main reason I picked up the book. It was dark but such a simple twist on a detective story, creating an extremely believable life of a rat colony. Pepe the Cop works a case that puzzles and concerns him and at the denouement, he contemplates a code that once broken, seemingly indicates the end of the rat species.

Alvaro’s Rousselot’s Journey – Another simple premise made haunting and ephemeral by Bolano’s eloquent hand. A small time writer travels to Paris to meet the film maker who has used his books for the basis of some of his popular movies. After using the contacts of his old journalist friend and falling in with a French prostitute Rousselot finally meets the film maker, with an unexpected response.

Two Catholic Tales – Written in an almost experimental style, two very different stories with a crucial link that differs completely from each side.

There are a couple of essays put in as well, which I struggled to keep up with, a seemingly random, but actually organised, stream of thought from Bolano as he contemplated his illness.

I enjoyed this brief excursion into Bolano’s world, it’s always easy to slide in and ride the wave of his easy prose that sweeps you up and engulfs you as he paints wonderful stories.

A few days later however, the Argentine economy collapsed. Accounts in American dollars were frozen, and those who hadn’t moved their capital (or their savings) offshore suddenly discovered that they had nothing left, except perhaps a few bonds or bank bills – just looking at them was enough to give you goosebumps – vague promises inspired in equal parts by some forgotten tango and the words of the national anthem.