The Sound of Things Falling – Juan Gabriel Vásquez

It was a  black tired-looking German shepherd with a white mark on his tail. He noticed my presence, raised his ears and looked at me without interest; then he walked a couple of times around a mango tree, his nose to the ground and tail stuck to his ribs like a feather duster, and finally lay down beside the trunk and began licking a paw. I felt sorry for him: his fur was not designed for this climate.

Well, I wanted to like this. I really really really wanted to like it. But I’ve never picked it up for some reason. Until now. So I took it on holiday with me, and I thought, let’s see, I can get down by the pool, or on the beach and just gorge on it.

Only I didn’t. I put it down at every opportunity, I used any excuse to stop after a few pages, a few paragraphs, a few lines.

I’m not entirely sure I can say why. I know I struggled with the narrator, Antonio Yammara. I didn’t like him at all, and yet I guess being shot for seemingly no reason at all can make a person like that, I literally have no concept of what that is like. But I’m not sure that was it, I’ve had characters I’ve not liked before (I’ve been trying to think if I’ve had narrators I didn’t like before) so not sure why Yammara should be any different. But coupled with Vasquez’s prose, it just left me cold. While I normally make notes as I read I had nothing for this, by the end I felt like I was powering through it just to finish.

And yet I’m not sure it was the prose alone. I actually enjoyed the story of Ricardo Laverde, and that made the book seem alive, but as soon as it switched back to Yammara I switched off. It’s a shame because it paints a poignant picture of Colombia before and during the reign of cocaine that has terrorised the population for so long, and indeed Yammara’s fascination with Laverde is tied in his desire to understand what happened, and why it happened, why he has become what he has become. Strangely I wanted it to end differently. I could understand why Aura did what she did, yet at the same time in my head I accused of her of not being supportive and understanding, which, perhaps is an accusation that I can point to myself.

I will try another Juan Gabriel Vásquez book, I want to find some new Latin American authors that I can read with the same joy as Garcia Marquez, Jorge Amado, Vargas Llosa and others, hopefully Vásquez can still be that.

Or perhaps there was another reason.
Because keeping Aura and Leticia out of Las Acacias, remote from Maya Fritts and her tale and her documents, distant therefore from the truth about Ricardo Laverde, was to protect their purity or rather avoid their contamination, the contanimation that Id suffered one afternoon in 1996 the causes of which I’d barely begun to understand now, the unsuspected intensity of which was just now beginning to emerge like an object falling from the sky.



My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

I visited the cemetery overlooking the Golden Horn and prayed for my mother and for the uncles who’d passed away in my absence. The earthy smell of mud mingled with my memories. Someone had broken an earthenware pitcher beside my mother’s grave. For whatever reason, gazing at the broken pieces, I began to cry. Was I crying for the dead or because I was, strangely, still only at the beginning of my life after all these years? Or was it because I’d come to the end of my life’s journey? A faint snow fell. Entranced by the flakes blowing here and there, I became so lost in the vagaries of my life that I didn’t notice the black dog staring at me from a dark corner of the cemetery.

A whodunnit, written in a kaleidoscope of voices, including the murderer and starting with the murdered, My Name is Red is a book about snow. I mean, it seems to snow all the time, snow is everywhere, sometimes several times in the same paragraph. Aside from the snow, it’s confusing to start with. In fact, as I reached chapter 9, I realised that Chapters 1 and 2 were completely different people, so that reset my points and pinged me off down slightly different tracks. So I read them again and then continued, oh Pamuk, you can’t outwit me that easily. Well I mean you did. but I get there eventually.

Elegant Effendi has been murdered! I know this because he tells me in the first chapter and he’s quite annoyed and upset about it, and he really doesn’t like his murderer, or the fact that no one know’s he’s been murdered, because he’s at the bottom of a well. A couple of chapters later the murderer is talking to me, but who is it? Black is called in to try and find out what happened to Elegant by his uncle, and as he investigates the world of Istanbul’s world of miniaturists, we are presented the story through the eyes of the people he interacts with as well as himself.

It’s all a bit complicated you see. Black’s uncle, also the father to the beautiful, capricious Shekure, who everyone in the world thinks is beautiful, has been commissioned by the Sultan to create a magnificent book, in the style of the damned Franks. This goes against everything that the miniaturists, the holy men and everyone in between believe in, as well as a tradition stretching back generations. But as in all times, a few coins slipped here and there, some men’s souls do not shine so bright as the luminous reflection of a few gold or silver pieces, the book is slowly put together, without anyone but Black’s uncle seeing the whole thing. What doesn’t help poor Black is that rumours are going around surrounding this book, and a zealous preacher is inciting hatred against everything that is not traditional (now that sounds vaguely familiar). It’s not all inkwells and innuendo about artist’s quill’s though. There’s a love interest. Black is in love (as is the murderer) with Shekure. She has moved back into her uncles following advances made by her missing husbands brother but she cannot hide forever, and her two young children need a dad, is Black man enough? While navigating a murder investigation, Black and Shekure court each other through the seller of wares and local cupid Esther, one of the books more engaging characters.

Pamuk uses a highly original style in My Name Is Red that means you have to think while you read, and being a man, meaning I can’t multitask, it takes a while to get used to, but never the less, it is still hugely enjoyable. The city, it’s people, their habits, their daily chores and errands, their food are all here, observed and followed by the characters as they narrate their way around their work and the murder that has engaged even the Sultan himself.

Not just a captivating murder mystery (a genre I have zero interest in, while I was intrigued about who the murderer was, I did not work it out until roughly the same time as Black) My Name Is Red is also an intricate look at the world of miniaturist painting in Istanbul, and across the Islamic world, it’s great proponents and place in the scheme of the religion and the more earthly rulers. While each of the subjects tell us how they are the best of their time, some rail against the Frankish methods, using perspective, painting portraits, that take painting away from how God sees the world, to how people see it, ultimately making people the centre piece of art, and not God himself. Yet still there is the recognition that everything they have achieved, everything they have striven for and created will be swept away by this new style from the West, a recognition and often fear that resonates particularly loudly today.

I’ve read Pamuk’s Istanbul, which I loved, even if I thought Pamuk himself came across as a little weird, eccentric, let’s go with eccentric. But I loved his prose, his view of the world, and I wanted to read more of his fiction after A Strangeness in my Mind which I also loved. Now, I think I’ll wrap up against the snow, and read another.

Off the waterfront near Jibali, from all the way in the middle of the Golden Horn, I gazed spitefully at Istanbul. The snow-capped domes shone brightly in the sunlight that broke abruptly through the clouds. The larger and more colourful a city is, the more places there are to hide one’s guilt and sin; the more crowded it is, the more people there are to hide behind. A city’s intellect ought to be measured not by it’s scholars, libraries, miniaturists, calligraphers and schools, but by the number of crimes insidiously committed on it’s dark streets over thousands of years. By this logic, doubtless, Istanbul is the world’s most intelligent city.


Cloud Road – John Harrison

Many wealthy people did not invest in business. Instead they saved and hoarded, and when they died they bequeathed their loot to the church; that is, if death granted them time to reveal where it was hidden. Even now, when colonial houses are demolished or damaged by earthquake, treasure may spill out among the rubble and dust, testaments to misers who would not trust a wife, son, daughter or lawyer, and died with their secret hidden in their dried-up hearts. The fortunes passing to the church would have embarrassed Croesus. The gold and silver which smothers the church altars is not leaf, but plate, as thick as card. The architects’ only problem was when to stop; frequently they didn’t.

I looked forward to this one. No preconceptions based on random comments in other books for John Harrison. Actually, that’s a lie, I did have preconceptions, but good ones. John Harrison seemed to visit the places I wanted to visit, he seemed to be interested in the things I’m interested in, he has written the books I wanted to write (I mean one day, definitely), so in a sense he has stolen my dreams and made my life pointless. But it did mean that I wanted to read his books.

Cloud Road sees Harrison walking the Inca Road, from Quito to Pisco. Well mostly walking, sometime there were buses, if the Inca Road happened to be under a highway for example, fair enough, it would be rubbish to walk and just as rubbish to read about. It is among the freezing peaks and humid valleys that Cloud Road is at it’s most fascinating, meeting people barely scraping by on subsistence living who never the less offer help and shelter to a weary stranger who was sometimes shouting at a donkey.

While pounding the Andes, Harrison intermingles local and Inca history, in ‘proper’ travel book style, which is one of the reasons I was so looking forward to reading it. If Isherwood was a jaunt through the countries, Cloud Road is a trek through the history. Half way through his partner, Elaine, joins him for a period, including for the hiring of the aforementioned donkey and a more personal side is revealed, normally hidden from the reader.

Like a trek, Cloud Road had points I enjoyed and points that I didn’t. Some of Harrison’s simile’s were incredibly random, now, don’t misunderstand me, I like a random simile as much as anyone, but some of these were so random they just jarred. This wasn’t too bad in itself, but everything was drowning in adjectives, so at times it became an onslaught of words that didn’t quite go together. That said, when it did work, it was beautiful.
While reading, I shoved my bookmark in the back of the book, and on one occasion, on the last page. While taking it out I happened to read the last few lines. I don’t know if this firmed the opinion I already had, or gave me the opinion in the first place, but it felt like the reader was being set up for something. Harrison’s numerous references to Elaine, his feelings, the way he portrayed their behaviour meant that you felt that something was going to happen. When it does, and it does on the last page, it sort of made me feel that this was what the book was about, and in fact, maybe it was, a catharsis that Harrison wrapped up part and parcel with the journey and the book, everything was certainly intertwined. There is no reason why Harrison should not have put it in, it is a human that is travelling and writing, I can’t say why it shaped my perception of the book, it’s just that after finishing, it felt like that was what the book was actually about, and everything else was just filler. I suspect the problem is with me, it normally is.

But my moaning aside, I enjoyed Cloud Road. Harrison is genuinely funny. His description of how travellers with animals normally work things out and then stating how much he hates his donkey was laugh out loud hilarious. His interest in the Inca’s, is pitched at just the right level throughout the book to not intimidate/bore the tears off a casual reader, and, total respect to the man, he walked the Inca Highway, something I would love to do myself. Next up I quite fancy 1519: A journey to the End of Time. Hopefully Dapple will turn up.

I had seen no lake on the map. ‘How far?’ I asked. He gave that strange far-away look that I was used to when details about time and distance were required, as if I had asked him to name all the molecules in a cow. We took the risk, and continued. It was the first tough walking of the day: a steep, dry gully eroded into badlands, but at the top was a reedy lake, half a mile across. A fish leaped, and a retriever dog trotted through the trees and adopted us for the night. The stove behaved, the sun set gloriously and the new moon descended on her back, Venus following. Children’s shouts echoed over the water: they wouldn’t let the day die.


Zone – Mathias Enard

I remember that the first night in the Ghetto I had no blankets and I was so frozen I rolled myself up in a dusty oriental rug, fully dressed, with my shoes on because the rigid carpet was like a tube and didn’t cover my feet, I read some stories about phantom boats by William Hope Hodgson before falling asleep like a failed fakir or a dead sailor ready to be returned to the sea sewn up in his hammock, far from the eroticism that some attribute to Venice, a guy rolled up like a dusty threadbare cigar, on his own bed, with his shoes and a hat,

Francis Mirkovic, an ex fighter for Croatian independence turned French intelligence agent, is on a train from Milan to Rome, to sell his wealth of knowledge of war criminals, terrorists and arms dealers from the Zone, the Mediterranean rim, that he has criss-crossed since he gave up fighting. Hungover and coming down from amphetamines, the train draws out an endless stream of consciousness from Mirkovic, as he contemplates his actions now, and in the past, and relives the horrors and atrocities of his Zone, intermingled with the women who have gently forced love into his life of strife, nightmares and recollections.

Written as one long continuing sentence, Zone consumed me while I was reading it, to the end that I spent days engrossed in it. I quickly realised I would need to jump in at running speed to enjoy Enard’s racketing prose. Early on it reminded me of Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, who himself is mentioned in the novel several times, in that the relentless drive of thoughts and stories leave you almost disorientated, yet utterly enthralled. In Under the Volcano you are drunk and left feeling hungover, Zone is slightly different, you are hungover, and the erratic thinking is how I would imagine being on or coming down from drugs would be.
It is a visceral look back at a life lived seemingly at the mercy of the current, from the Croatian war of independence to the work as as a security operative. Yet this is not a confession for redemption, while there is emotion when Mirkovic remembers his best friends from the war, or the few women that have managed to pierce his external self, it is an almost forensic examination of what has been, and what has led him to the point he’s at now, giving up himself for a fresh start.

Every now and again Mirkovic is jolted back to the train, or he recounts history and stories linked to each station en route, where he thinks about the passengers around him, or looks out of the window where he sees something that triggers another memory and he is off again, while we are breathless in his wake, slowly, carefully putting everything he has told us together, slotting it in place to understand. A completely different process from Mirkovic himself, who is almost purging himself of the Zone, and perhaps of himself, ready to fully embrace his new identity and life.

Zone is the second book I’ve read from Mathias Enard and he is fast becoming a favourite author of mine. His love affair with his own zone, the Mediterranean and near east, the captivating storytelling that intermingles with history that zooms in and out from whole conflicts to individual lives that blends together into an absorbing narrative that is as fascinating as it is beguiling.

Sadly at the moment it looks like I only have one more translated book to read, and now I’ve emerged from the Zone, I want to head straight to the Street of Thieves.

I thought of Lebihan and his scorn for anything south of Clermont-Ferrand, the old man was right, Athens was disembowelled, they were building a subway line the gods were not very happy to have their cellar drilled into like that and took revenge by sinking newspaper kiosks underground parking lots and inattentive foreigners into the abyss, Hephaestus the lame and Poseidon the earth-shaker caused quite a bit of trouble for the harried engineers, not counting the pompous archaeologists from the Antiquities department who wanted to analyse each pebble taken out of the excavations, which made Athenians say that their subway wouldn’t be ready till the end of days, The Hellenes were a proud people but not without irony,


The White Book – Han Kang

The early hours of the morning and the city is cloaked in fog.
The border between sky and earth has been scrubbed out. The only view my window offers is the blurred suggestion of two poplars, ink-wash contours wavering four or five metres up from where the street lies hidden; all else is white. But can we really call it white? That vast, soundless undulation between this world and the next, each cold water molecule formed of drenched black darkness.

Like Flights, The White Book was picked from the Man Booker Prize International long list, and I’m pretty sure my first South Korean author.

The White Book is, from my simple understanding, a meditation of grief and loss explored through the colour white. Much like Fitzcarraldo Editions books that I am enjoying (Compass, Flights, and currently Zone), Portobello Books have produced a beautiful book that compliments Kang’s strong stark prose. Although I’m not even sure it’s completely prose. With pages made up of a few sentences or a paragraph, and nothing longer than three pages of text, The White Book could almost be poetry.

Reading an interview with Kang, she describes writing The White Book like a small ritual, like a prayer every day and that the transformation hoped for in the first chapter was achieved at the end. The salving balm to a wound, the death of a newborn sister before Kang was born, this book was triggered by a line from one of her own novels that she realised had come from her mum.

In The White Book Kang explores the birth, small life and sad death of her unknown sister, while on a writers residency in Warsaw. Starting with a list of white items, Kang commits to paper the circumstances of the life and death, of the impact it had on her parents, and her mum in particular, and both directly and indirectly, on her own life. The prose is stark and beautiful, rendered more so by the black print on the white paper, and the short paragraphs giving way to the expanse of white page.

It felt to me that this structure and style, while writing about a universal theme, death and grief, seeming otherworldly on the page, gave me a glimpse into the South Korean view of life, which I’m guessing is fundamentally different from mine.

White allows things to be covered over, made fresh, or to start again with a blank canvas, or maybe it allows you to throw into it anything you like and it absorbs it without stain, like sinking into the mist and maybe Kang was trying to make fresh as much as cover over, or perhaps I’m thinking to much. I won’t complain, I barely thought at all reading Flights, but all that white space on the page, it allows you room to think, and appreciate what is there. And that is a graceful reflection on grief. And don’t forget the colour white.

A congregation of white gulls on the winter shore. Around twenty perhaps? The birds were sitting facing out to sea, where the sun was creeping down to the horizon. As though observing some kind of silent ceremony, holding themselves perfectly still in the sub-zero cold as they witnessed the days decline. She stopped walking and let her gaze follows theirs, to that pallid source of light which was about to flush crimson. Though the cold was so severe it seemed to sink it’s teeth right down to her bones, it was precisely the heat from that light, she knew, that kept her body from freezing.


Flights – Olga Tokarzcuk

Nothing happens – the march of darkness halts at the door to the house, and all the clamour of fading falls silent, makes a thick skin like on hot milk cooling. The contours of the buildings against the backdrop of the sky stretch out into infinity, slowly lose their sharp angles, corners edges. The dimming light takes the air with it – there’s nothing left to breathe Now the dark soaks into my skin. Sounds have curled up inside themselves, withdrawn their snails eyes; the orchestra of the world has departed, vanishing into the park.

Flights, and the next book, The White Book by Han Kang, dropped into my view from the Man Book Prize International long list, feted on a couple of podcasts I listen to, so having finally run out of new books on my shelves, I bought two that I thought looked the most interesting.

Flights was the first pick, ‘a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy’, a random combination but I was already interested for the travel, the human anatomy piqued my interest further.
There are numerous stories, from a missing mother and child on a small Croatian island, the old man lecturing on a cruise ship among the Greek Islands, the Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen and his attempts to understand phantom feelings from his amputated leg, and these stories are broken up with small anecdotes and musings by the narrator, interjecting her own story in between the others. Both of these elements are beautifully written and translated by Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft respectively.

What confused me as I read, was the seeming lack of cohesion, the stories seemed to bear no relation in terms of narrative, except that they were seemingly about the body, travel and loss. When I was about half way through I read an interview with Tokarczuk where she described Flights as a ‘constellation’ novel, in that, in a similar way to astronomers looking at the stars and drawing connections between them to form coherent shapes, the reader can look at the elements of the novel and form their own constellation. I thought about what I had read so far, and I can honestly say I feel it’s something I utterly failed to do. Why the themes of anatomy and travel run throughout the book, I just couldn’t conceive the whole as a novel in my head. I can honestly say though that that didn’t detract from my enjoyment.

The stories are delicately crafted, and I sensed that reading a novel with a traditional narrative by Tokarczuk would be a joy to read. It always seemed a jolt when one ended and the narrator stepped in. But then the narrator is wonderfully confidant and perceptive, and the little observations are interesting to read, in that despite seeming so ordinary, are not so easy to do in real life. My favourite was the lady she perceives is listening out of politeness until she can talk, so the narrator graciously concedes the conversation to allow the other to talk, a simple gesture but one that requires a mix of perception, awareness and interest, qualities that generally make a great traveller.

And that was what I felt in the end. I failed to draw a novel out of Flights, but what I did draw out is almost perfect travel book. If a traveller, wrote about where they were (although in this case it’s mostly anatomy museums surrounded by anatomical oddities), as well as throw in stories they hear, or even create while there, while interjecting thoughts and observations the same way Tokarczuk does here, it seems to me, after finishing, exactly what a travel book should be.
In fact Kapka Kassbova, writing in the Guardian, sums it up much more eloquently than me, so it seems a good idea to end with this:
‘Hotels on the continent would do well to have a copy of Flights on the bedside table. I can think of no better travel companion in these turbulent, fanatical times.’

Flight from Irkust to Moscow. It takes off at 8 a.m. and lands in Moscow at the same time – at eight o’clock in the morning on that same day. It turns out to be right at sunrise, whih means the whole flight takes place during dawn. Passengers remain in this one moment, a great, peaceful Now, vast as Siberia itself. So there should be time enough for confessions of whole lifetimes. Time elapses inside the plane but doesn’t trickle out of it.


Skylight – Jose Saramago

They always left the thermos full, ready for their return home. The five minutes devoted to that small late-night feast made them feel rather special, as if they had suddenly left the mediocrity of their lives behind them and risen a few rungs on the economic ladder. The kitchen disappeared and gave way to an intimate little living room with expensive furniture and paintings on the wall and a piano in one corner. Rosalia no longer had high albumin levels, and Maria Claudia was wearing a dress in the latest fashion. Only Anselmo didn’t change. He was always the same tall, distinguished, decorative gentleman, bald and slightly stooped, and storking his small moustache. His face was fixed and inexpressive, the product of years spent repressing all emotion as a way of guaranteeing respectability.

Oh Saramago, is this finally the end? Or dare I hope for more of your pen, lying hidden or unpublished?
Written and dispatched to a publishers, who never responded, Saramago refused to let Skylight be published in his lifetime, and while having the man still here and writing would be the obvious choice, it was a joy discover Skylight existed and had been translated.

Skylight is probably Saramago’s most straight novel, in terms of structure. If the omnipresent narrator is the same as his later novels, they have yet to find their voice or opinion, but I don’t think it is. Looking at the inhabitants of a single apartment building in Lisbon, the characters are touching on cliche, the old couple who have long ago settled into contentment with their lot and one another, the straight laced businessman, his wife and soon to be rebelling teenage daughter. The couple still together only because barely concealed contempt and tolerance is easier and less scandalous than separation. The mother, her two daughters and sister eking out a living. The failed salesman, his highly strung wife and young boy and the kept woman, her lifestyle seduced from a local business man keeping the whole block teetering on the edge of a scandal.

Yet while they touch they never fully fall. The introduction of Abel into Sivlestre and Mariana’s apartment provokes intimate and strong conversations between the two men, who despite becoming friends, or perhaps because of becoming friends, see each other more clearly and share their painfully observations of the other. The story of Emilio and Carmen, the crazy wife from Spain, who both long to be apart but can see no way out until Carmen is invited to visit her parents back home in Vigo, and both see in their own minds a glimmer of hope, is possibly the most plain of all the stories told here. Emilio’s emotions on the day of Carmen’s departure belie the difficulty in making that break work, even as she dreams of her cousin in the train.

For me the most interesting stories are Caetano and Justina, and Claudinha. Caetano, the most brutal of Saramago’s creations, from whom nothing good comes as he duels with his wife to see who can hate the other more and also who’s pettiness causes scandal later. Claudinha, despite her sheltered upbringing under the stern but doting Rosalia and the hilariously pompous Anselmo, quickly learns to read how her life could turn out, as she unwittingly takes on Dona Lidia, who she has always admired, and realises that although initially out of her depth, she could eventually take her place.

The story of Isaura and Adriana is tender and sad, and Amelia’s desire to find and fix the cause of the inexplicable rift between the two causes her more pain than either of the girls.

By the end though everyone’s life has changed, and it’s fair to say has changed for the worse. While there is the taste of the dry humour that would flow in his later works, Skylight seems considerably bleak for a Saramago novel, although no less enjoyable.

And yet, I couldn’t help thinking, after I finished, that Abel, who at the end of the novel, realises he has to find he’s own way of being useful, becomes the narrator in Saramago’s later novels. It’s an absurd thought, but one that I can’t quite dismiss.

Isaura and Adriana smiled. This argument was merely the latest of many they had heard between those two poor old ladies, entirely restricted now to the domestic sphere, a long way from the days when they had broader, livelier interests, when their economic state allowed for such interests! There they were, lined and bent, grey and increasingly frail, their flickering fire throwing out its final sparks, resisting the accumulating ashes. Isaura and Adriana looked at each other and smiled again. In comparison to that crumbling old age, they felt young and vibrant, like a taut piano string.