A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms – George R.R. Martin

Their royal banners bore the three-headed dragon of house Targaryen, red on black. Sixteen years ago, a bastard son of King Aegon IV named Daemon Blackfyre had risen in revolt against his trueborn brother. Daemon had used the three-headed dragon on his banners too, but he reversed the colors, as many bastards did. His revolt had ended on the Redgrass Field, where Daemon and his twin sons died beneath a rain of Lord Bloodraven’s arrows. Those rebels who survived and bent the knee were pardoned, but some lost land, some titles, some gold. All gave hostages to ensure their future loyalty.

A set of three prequel stories to A Game of Thrones, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms sees Martin return (or perhaps kick off) a Song of Ice and Fire with a Hedge knight called Dunk and his squire Egg. The edition is illustrated by Gary Gianni who does an eloquent job of putting faces to names throughout the three novellas.

As usual Martin doesn’t hold back and after the first story a number of high born and royal characters are dead and Egg, himself no minor character, is left in the charge of Dunk. But there was something missing with these that I couldn’t quite get over. Unlike the Thrones series where I spent the entire time on edge because of Martin’s diabolical penchant for killing off major characters at the drop of a hat, you knew that Dunk and Egg would always survive. Indeed, even though Dunk often refuses to uses Egg’s boot to get them out of certain scrapes, he does on a few occasions and it’s a wonder that the whole of Westeros doesn’t know who Egg is by the end of the first book. I know it seems churlish to deny a bond with characters from three novellas compared the epic Thrones saga, but  I didn’t know these characters, I certainly didn’t care about them. In all honesty I think I would have preferred to read these before I read Thrones, they are excellent stories, the plot barely conventional in all three, but they are sketches, roughly worked practices before the masterpiece was created in all it’s glory.

I’m not referring to the quality, Martin is still Martin after all, but they didn’t seem quite the finished product that Games is and if you’re a fan of the series then this is definitely worth a read, however, I would say, if you haven’t yet dived into A Game of Thrones, I’d start with a wander around the seven kingdoms with a young good-hearted hedge knight called Dunk, and his stalwart squire Egg.

“The clothes were Addam’s,” said Ser Eustace, as he led his own grey gelding from his stall. A chequy lion adorned the frsayed silk cloak that flowed from the old man’s shoulders. “The doublet is a trifle musty from the trunk, but it should serve. A knight is more impressive with a squire in attendance, so I have decided that Egg should accompany you to Coldmoat.”
Outwitted by a boy of ten. Dunk looked at Egg and silently mouthed the words clout in the ear. The boy grinned.

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2666 – Roberto Bolano

When they turned, Pelletier and Espinoza saw an older woman in a white blouse and black skirt, a woman with a figure like Marlene Dietrich, as Pelletier would say much later, a woman who despite her years was still strong willed as ever, a woman who didn’t cling to the edge of the abyss but plunged into it with curiosity and elegance. A woman who plunged into the abyss sitting down.

Take 4 students with an intense love of an obscure, enigmatic author, an ageing professor whose daughter is a rope tethering him in existence, a journalist pulled in to cover a boxing match and a spiralling series of horrific murders and mutilations on young women, and place them all in a fictional version of cuidad Juarez in Mexico, and you have the nub of 2666. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the German second world war soldier. Just like it said on the back cover, Bolano’s colossal epic captivated and astonished me.

Published posthumously, Bolano’s request was that this was published as five separate books, the five separate parts of the novel, a year apart. However his family and others considered the work and decided to publish it as one whole novel. In his note on the first edition, Ignacio Echevarria (Bolano’s literary executor)  advises that Bolano himself said he only had a couple of months worth of work left in the book, so it is assumed to be mostly complete.

Aside from Santa Teresa the five books are linked, I thought in the case of The part about Fate, rather tenuously, via the characters and the grisly murders that form one whole part of the book. I’m not sure how Bolano filled an entire part with descriptions of how young women were murdered and mutilated without it becoming too much, without it just becoming a recital of names, places and injuries, but in amongst the litany of dead, that section includes a young kid trying to become an uncorrupted cop and an older crumpled cop trying to find romance in amongst the seemingly endless murders. The part about Fate I struggled to see any link, apart from Amalfitano’s daughter, apart from showing a another, seedier side, to Santa Teresa, that the other books didn’t show.

It was part one, the part about the critics, that Bolano struck a chord with me. I felt an immediate affinity with Liz Norton, Bolano seemed to have picked up my character and filled out a woman’s body with it.

Liz Norton. on the other hand, wasn’t what one would ordinarily call a woman of great drive, which is to say that she didn’t draw up long- or medium-term plans and throw herself wholeheartedly onto their execution. She had none of the attributes of the ambitious. When she suffered, her pain was clearly visible, and when she was happy, the happiness she felt was contagious….She preferred the word life, and, on rare occasions, happiness.

The way Pelletier and Espinoza fall for her is much the same as when I fall for someone, the shared interests, the fun we have when we’re together, it all comes along very naturally, and I suffer in the same way as both men. This is obviously a tiny section of the whole story, but it’s something to recognise something of yourself in a character, especially when it’s a considerable part of yourself.

At first I tried to work out the narrative, to try and detect where Bolano was going, but in the end I gave up. I just enjoyed reading 2666 for the sheer pleasure of reading Bolano. By the time I got to the part about Archimboldi I had lost what was going on, but then Bolano switches from the dry heat of the Sonora desert to the second world war, lived through by Hans Reiter, possibly my favourite character. This throws off the comfort of the first four parts and their slight continuity but Bolano’s style remains remarkably the same.
I tried to work out what it is about Bolano that I enjoy so much, upon reading his prose is simple, almost functional, but his descriptions, his quick characterisations, such as the three examples I have included here are for me perfect. They are never clichés, but somewhat unexpected, yet still wonderfully fitting.

Echevarria adds at the end that among the notes for 2666 was the fact that the narrator was Arturo Belano, Bolano’s literary alter ego and protagonist from the Savage Detectives (which ends up in the Sonora desert), and that he planned to sign off the book with Belano’s, and ultimately his own goodbye, and it is an incredible goodbye.

…at that late hour he could get Mexican channels and American channels, channels with crippled madmen who galloped under the stars and uttered unintelligible greetings, in Spanish or English or Spanglish, every last fucking word unintelligible, and then Juan de Dios Martinez set his coffee cup on the table and covered his face with his hands and a faint and precise sob escaped his lips, as if he were weeping ot trying to weep, but when he finally removed his hands, all that appeared, lit by the TV screen, was his old face, his old skin, stripped and dry, and not the slightest trace of a tear.

Andes – Michael Jacobs

I proceeded without much optimism to the store and found him exactly where he was said to be. But he hadn’t got the key. His wife had it. He helped me track her down. She had the key, but had no idea how much she had to charge me for a European call. One of the many bystanders said the schoolteacher would know. We went to the school and interrupted the teacher in the middle of a class. She had a long talk with me about Spain. She too didn’t know what the call would cost. A discussion ensued, in which some of the school children joined in. The outcome was that I was going to be charged 60 cents a minute. We moved on triumphantly to the office. The phone was not working.

So I’ll open with the statement that this is probably going to be a ridiculous review. In a unintentional best of three, Michael Jacobs has won me over with Andes. I loved Ghost Train through the Andes, but struggled with The Robber of Memories and Jacobs is not far behind John Gimlette as my favourite travel writer (both have currently passed Paul Theroux). Jacobs is extremely likeable and honest and like Gimlette, has clearly done extensive research into the history of his route, there is a lot of Bolivar and Humboldt throughout, but the book wears this lightly. Flying into Venezuela he skirts in and out of the mountains, into Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina as he hops down the spine of the great range.

What’s so ridiculous about that, I know you’re thinking. In Ghost Train, Jacobs was clearly on a train, in the Robber of Memories, Jacobs was clearly on the River Magdalena. In Andes, it didn’t feel like Jacobs was in the Andes.
Now you’re thinking, yes, this is ridiculous, he clearly was in the Andes, and he clearly writes about it, the book, is called Andes. But at the end of the book, it felt like he dipped in and out of the Andes, purely because they were in between where he wanted to go, but perhaps that is the problem with travelling down a mountain range, you can’t really do it properly unless you’re a bird, or some kind of goat, or in this case Alpaca.

My brain blip aside, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book if you love South America, Mountains or Humboldt. Jacobs seems to have an extensive range of friends and contacts, so has plenty of people to meet and places to explore with them. At one point genesis founder and author Chris Stewart joins him for a time as they tramp around Peru, sometimes riding on Stewart’s celebrity and other times keeping it hidden. There are plenty references to previous wanderers down this part of the world, aside from Humboldt, including Isherwood and fleetingly, Theroux.

Despite he’s almost whirlwind tour down the chain there are times when the impact of the mountains is plain, never more so than the in the lives of the bus drivers who plough up and over or round these massive road blocks. I have been over them a couple of times in Peru, thankfully it was either dark or I was sat at the rear of the bus, so was happily oblivious to the precariousness of my journey. Indeed Jacobs dedications at the beginning of the book include the bus drivers.

There are times when coincidences or events are almost too perfect to be real, Jacobs loves setting up an encounter or an incident that allows him to reflect, but there are too few to really affect the reading, he is less grumpy than Theroux, has much more interest in the history, but still enough curiosity about the present to make an interesting read. Given the size of the book it is perhaps more for someone who really likes Mountains, or Humboldt, or South America, or all three. At the same time, reading the book will be a lot quicker, and safer than trying to traverse the whole chain yourself, so, well done Michael, and thank you.

When, in 1838, Darwin finally published an account of his journey on the Beagle, with its enthralled description of the Andean crossing, he timidly sent a copy, with accompanying letter, to the man whose spirit runs through the whole book, Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt’s approbation was the greatest praise he could hope to get. ‘You told me in your kind letter,’ wrote the great German, ‘that, when you were young, the manner in which I studied and depicted nature in the torrid zones contributed towards exciting in you the ardour and desire to travel in distant lands. Considering the importance of your work, Sir, this may be the greatest success that my humble work could bring.’

At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig – John Gimlette

I opened my mouth  to protest, but at that moment the music restarted. She pressed her ear up close to my face, which disappeared into an impenetrable thicket of curls and ringlets. Everything went dark and my nose tickled.
You can’t say that here,’ I muffled. ‘The pyragues…’
The Pyragues was the name everybody used for the secret police. It was a Guarani word which meant – literally ‘the hairy footed ones’. It was a cute reminder that their raids were sudden, silent and invariably savage.

I don’t think it will be long. Paul Theroux’s grip on me as my favourite travel author is surely coming to an end. Two pretenders to the throne are coming up quickly, and out of the two, it is John Gimlette who is probably just ahead (Michael Jacobs is the other).
Having already enjoyed his trek around the top right hand corner of South America in Wild Coast, Gimlette is again back on my favourite continent, this time in it’s deepest heart, Paraguay. Originally there in 1982, Gimlette’s original intention for this book was for it to be a work of fiction, but in the end Paraguay’s incredible past proved larger than fiction and Gimlette trekked around the relatively unknown country, in all directions from the tropical capital of Asuncion.

Like Wild Coast, the level of research here is deep and exhaustive, but never for the reader. Gimlette casts a wry eye over the history, particularly politically or Paraguay, and he admits that he uses frivolity to cover his own anger at what the population have endured almost since their inception at the hands of their leaders. From his attempt to meet Stroessner, “We can’t find him, he must have gone for a walk”, tracking down Nazi runaways, Trekking to the back of beyond frontiers as he follows the massive, absurd figure of Francisco Lopez and his wife, the indomitable Eliza Lynch, Gimlette shares his knowledge in such a way that it is seamless with his travels, you can almost smell the gun powder from the triple alliance war and the tragic war in the Chaco as he travels to some of the remotest places there must be in the middle of a great continent.

Laugh out loud funny, Gimlette is unpretentious, engaging and genuinely curious about Paraguay and it’s colourful history. The engineers and doctors (including a seemingly large contingent of English at various times) that helped Paraguay fight it’s enemies throughout it’s history, as bits were torn off it and it’s population was decimated by the ‘flamboyant stupidity’ of it’s leaders. Talking with friends and other Paraguayans Gimlette probes them as much as he feels he can, in some cases they are piercingly honest and at other times there is almost complicit denial, or an acceptance of this is what it is like.

For some reason, Paraguay had been slowly creeping up on me, I’ve been to the triple frontier while visiting Iguazu falls, but that’s the closest I got. After reading this I definitely want to go, Gimlette has has illuminated the hidden heart of the continent and painted it in vivid colour.

It was obviously an excursion they’d enjoyed many times before and Mrs Berera wasn’t the least bit perturbed when her chair slid backwards and forwards across the truck as Lino whirled along in a tornado of red volcanic gravel. We tried to keep an eye on her in the mirror but sometimes Mrs Berera slid completely out of view and it wasn’t until the next fold in the earth’s crust – and the reversal of centrifugal forces – that she made her stately reappearance.