Review: The Ring by Roberto Saviano

In Gomorrah, a book for which Roberto Saviano received both awards and death threats, Saviano’s target was the Camorra (a mafia-like organisation). While that book stood proudly in plain sight on bookshop shelves, the words within unfortunately sent him into hiding. Uncowed, in this slender but powerful book, The Ring, two short stories, told in two distinctive voices, see Saviano once again sets his sights on the mafia, but they are not the only target.

The Ring - Roberto Saviano

The Ring by Roberto Saviano

Opening with a quote from French writer Boris Vian, “If you must have blood, then give of your own, if it so amuses you.”, the thematic tone of the book is set and one can hear it throughout – a subtextual refrain, delivered in a wearied anger. The first story, The Ring, tells of a mafia revenge tragedy, recounted by a friend of the victims. Deft touches reveal cultural traditions without fuss, while the narrator tries to make the reader and an old female friend understand the truth of his situation. His frustration is clear, as she presumes his friends to have been mafioso. The mafia saw them as guilty by association and had them killed, she sees them guilty of being mafioso because the mafia killed them. They’re guilty either way, no matter what, condemned for being alive.

This Catholic idea of original sin runs throughout The Ring, apparently the mafia have found it to be just as useful a tool of social control as the church has. Extending the religious parallel presents the town as a kind of purgatory, the inhabitants of which are eager to leave if only they could find the opportunity. But there are none, there never are. By his repeated emphasis of this point, the author surely intends an implied criticism of the Church. Where are they in all of this tragedy?

In the second story, The Opposite of Death, a young girl is widowed before she can even reach the altar, her husband-to-be killed whilst serving in Afghanistan. The narrative unpicks the negotiation of the aftermath of his death, which death too is put at the feet of both the government and mafia. The young deceased enlisted in the army to escape the clutches of organised crime. Violence seems inescapable. Only the state-sanctioned version has the veneer of respectability, yet it’s clear, through the enumeration into blurred forgetfulness of “the latest war”, that Saviano takes a dim view of his government. For in both organisations, power and reward flow equally to the top, leaving those at the bottom to suffer, and how.

If it is the young men who suffer most directly, their women and families left behind are shattered, destroyed in a different way and able only to mourn and to reach some reconciliation with their fate. It’s not clear that they ever will. Throughout the book, the ring of the title is a recurring motif and an appropriate symbol of the apparent eternal state in which his country and its citizens are destined to reside. Wedded, too – a marriage of convenience to organised crime, with no prospect of a divorce.

Altogether the book runs to an economical 75 pages, but the one thing Saviano refuses to be economical with is the truth. On the front of the dustcover there is a quote from Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago:

I feel humble, almost insignificant, faced with the dignity and the courage of the writer and journalist Roberto Saviano.

I’m with you, Saramago; literary heroes, I’ve discovered, are transitive.

Cultural Architects: Saramago, Byrne & Le Corbusier Partners

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have synaesthesia for a day, just so that I could experiment with different pieces of music and observe the shifting patterns of colour, the dynamic lines and shapes that come and go in response to changing pitch, timbre and volume. Hallucinogenic drugs aside, perhaps the closest I’ll come to this mental light show is when listening to the brilliant song Don’t Worry about the Government by The Talking Heads:

Though hardly a piece of 60’s psychedelia, almost every time I hear David Byrne sing the following lyrics,

That’s the highway that goes to the building
I pick the building that I want to live in

It’s over there, it’s over there
My building has every convenience

I automatically see bright images flash in my mind – I see a tall building viewed from a distance, bathed in a cleansing, brilliant sunlight. Following it comes,

It’s gonna make life easy for me
It’s gonna be easy to get things done

and I’m seeing his sunny picture of optimism, which brings to mind the Modernist movement in architecture, and its ideological belief in the power of architecture to improve lives. This stack of evoked images and sensations isn’t the only thing I think about. A whole other set of associative connections fire in my brain. When I hear that lyric, it’s as if I’m hearing Le Corbusier himself say:

The house is a machine for living in.

This hopefulness shines through in the song, even if there is a hint of a darker under-current of meaning. That’s not the end of it though, more reflexive associations pile on and automatically assemble themselves into a dialectic argument.

In The Cave by José Saramago, we encounter the tale of Cipriano Algor and his daughter Marta, potters both, who must contend with the capricious nature of The Center, the chief purchasers of their pottery. The Center is an ever-growing cloistered city within a city; one that leaves the original host crumbling under an extreme gentrification pressure. When David Bryne sings the praise that his building has every convenience, he is summarising perfectly the nature of The Center, containing as it does, accommodation, entertainment, employment and food. Who wouldn’t want all that within easy reach? While he may be happy, the Algors are increasingly suspicious of The Center, an unease which doesn’t dissipate when they are left with no option but to move in. Who could blame them for their misgivings, when faced with such unsettling slogans as:

We Have What You Need, But We Prefer You Need What We Have.

Still it’s only fiction, so there’s nothing to worry about, or is there?

Earlier this year I visited Cardiff, Wales where, in the city centre, there is a building in this model. Luxury shopping forms the base, interspersed with food outlets, and all topped off with expensive apartments. It’s an attempt at concentrating all the functionality of a city into the same land area as a hamlet. So is this the start of the progression, is this a new Center, a building that will expand ever-outwards and upwards, subsuming everything in its path?

If this building, and this trend, is to be stopped, I doubt that it’ll be protests or organised rebellion that does it, but rather the unruly Internet. Why move to live where the shops are, when the whole world of shops can be brought to you? It hardly needs stating that one can work through the internet, socialise through it, even send a virtual instance of ourselves into Second Life and nest ourselves in it at one level removed.

So perhaps Saramago will be wrong in the detail, but the consequences might turn out the same. It could go either way; the Internet could provide our means of escape, or equally could seduce us into our own imprisonment.

For the purposes of Saramago’s message it probably doesn’t matter. The alienating and impersonal nature of this emblem of pure, efficient capitalism, is preserved whatever. Moreover it is this influence on one family, a father, daughter, son-in-law, and dog, and their attempts to adapt to a new reality, that is the important and universal concept. Indeed, one of the highlights of the novel is Saramago’s delicate and insightful rendering of the tender, playful relationship between father and daughter, workers of clay, yet both of them, with Saramago’s guidance, shape beautiful words of wisdom in their conversation.

And this Saramago suggests is the key to our salvation, to embrace our humanity and, as simple as it sounds, stick together. On this Byrne and Saramago agree:

I’ll put down what I’m doing, my friends are important

And family too we might be inclined to add. If The Talking Heads are saying we don’t need to worry about the government, then in The Cave, Saramago agrees. It’s capitalism and blind materialism that are the prime threats. Saramago provides few solutions to these and we can’t blame him for that, but whatever they might prove to be, the first step, the foundation, is to stick together and value your friends, family and the stray dog that tags along.

I don’t doubt that a man can live perfectly well on his own, but I’m convinced that he begins to die as soon as he closes the door of his house behind him.

The path disappears around a corner, and veers who knows where, but Saramago at least shows us how we should start the journey.

K. rolls the dice

So, it’s the New Year, a time for ambitious undertakings. Here’s one: what is the power of literature? Perhaps that’s a little too ambitious. Slightly less ambitious then: what is the power of a novel? Just how much influence can one wield?

Let’s put aside political or religious tracts, those books explicitly designed to advance arguments and convert the minds of those opposed (or bolster those of the already converted), and consider only novels. Of course, works of fiction can still be constructed to assert (or through satire, to subvert) positions and thereby persuade, through whispers and allegory, reader to concur with author. They must do so by subtle means though, if they wish to succeed in that first and necessary aim of being a ‘good novel’; necessary of course if it is to be a novel that is read, without which there will be no deployment of its arguments.

We might think of Kafka, and the morphing of his name into the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’. His depictions of unyielding, inhumane yet man-made bureaucracy have led to the labelling of similar, less extreme examples in real life. And yet the pithy designation of them has not, it seems, reduced the likelihood of such systems occurring. They still repel, confuse, and control us, and mankind suffers to relive analogous, edited versions of K.’s bewildering experiences. One might argue then that the fate of The Trial was to become one extended dictionary entry. An even longer one, if we include in it The Castle too. And this extensive dictionary entry could in turn be replaced by a few short words, and nobody need read Kafka ever again.

This seems unfair to Kafka, and indeed it is, and yet I feel it’s not a complete exaggeration to say it. Depressing, for all the obvious reasons, to those who care about the rich variety of the written form and the artful expression of imagined scenes, it is surely even more so to the aspiring writer. If this is the fate to befall Kafka, that strange, original, and brilliant author, then what hope for the rest of us? In attempting to engage with the world we become K. evermore completely.

Perhaps the solution is to remove our aim from society, and focus on the individual reader. And with that focus, give ourselves up to chance, forsaking our hoped-for influence.

In the post Thoughts at Intervals? I wrote that Saramago has been a big influence on me, and that continues to be true. The source of this inspiration can be traced back to the first book of his that I read, Death at Intervals. And this is the thing, it was not through advancing arguments, but the shear brilliance of the writing, the form of the expression, the gentle, incisive wit delivered with a warmth for humanity, that persuaded me to act. This writing style, and the revelation of greater and more appealing possibilities in literature, moved me to enrol on a creative writing course and try my own hand at fiction (to be uploaded to this blog in future posts).

Some months later, I happened to read an interview with Saramago in which he claimed that his sentences were constructed not just to carry meaning, and not even just to be elegantly structured, but that they were to possess a musicality that could be heard, so that by reading sentence after sentence something of a symphony would be produced. As excellent as Margaret Jull Costa’s translations are, I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing this musicality that the sentences had possessed when in their original Portuguese. To hear the music then, there was no other solution but to begin learning Portuguese.

The third, but probably not the final, act of this story? Well, you are reading it now, without the creative writing, it is unlikely that this blog would ever have come into being. And what is more, the truly exciting thought regarding all of this is: what further influence on my life will this all have? The contemplation of future possibilities brings to mind the proverb For Want of a Nail .

A final point, or caveat, to make is that the book found, in me, a receptive reader who was minded to act, without which state of mind the book would have been just that, and I would have gone about my life unperturbed. The corollary of this is that the same book read at a different time would likely not have had the same impact, our tastes and personalities changing and maturing as they do, so that it could well be a different author who is now my favourite, and a completely different language that I would now be learning.

And so returning to my earlier suggestion. Writers, having no control over who it is that purchases their books, nor requiring assessments as to their sensibilities or suitability for the book at that time and at that place, really have no choice but to give up their own aims and instead retrospectively adopt those accomplished by their audience. In influencing then, chance is the thing, and possibly the only thing.

And now for some audience participation: if asked to pick the single most influential book (in terms of changing your outlook and particularly your actions) that you’ve read so far, and you are permitted to select only ONE, what would it be and why?

Thoughts at Intervals?

A good description of blogging? I believe so, and at the very least, an apt name for this blog. In long form then: the intermittent, quasi-periodic documenting of the varied strangenesses that populate my mind, the aim being to extract from that continuous quotidian internal commentary of ‘thinking’, solid, distinct thoughts, which thoughts seem to demand the revisiting of my attention, and thus might be worthy of yours.

Aside from, in my view, the euphony of the phrase “Thoughts at Intervals”, there is a degree of homage to its formation. Avid readers of Jose Saramago might have recognised in it the suggestion of the novel title, Death at Intervals, and it is no exaggeration to say that the Portuguese Nobel laureate Saramago has for me been a profound influence, both in literary terms and in general. The extent of this influence I will discuss in a forthcoming post, but today I simply wish to describe the first time that I attempted to read Death at Intervals (Portuguese title: As Intermitências da Morte).

Ordinarily, one might see the word “attempted” and suspect that I gave up reading it through boredom or one of the many other standard reasons we have for failing to finish novels. Nothing so straightforward here.

A few years ago after pleasant time spent browsing in a bookshop, the book caught my eye, probably due to the combination of cover and title, but after reading the summary on the back it was clear that this was a book worth speculating on.

And so, I began to read. However, approximately 70 pages in, I had the sense that the words I was reading, I had read before, and not just similar sentiments, differently expressed, but the very same sentiments, identically expressed. Initially I guessed it was perhaps a literary device, a statement about the repetition of life experience that immortality would bring, pertinent given the novel’s theme, but comparison with the beginning pages confirmed that this book had been bizarrely misprinted, destroying my nascent literary hypothesis. Roughly one third of the content was missing, replaced by a duplicate copy of the first third. Suffice to say, this enforced interruption was a major frustration given just how much I was enjoying reading.

At the next opportunity I returned to the bookshop, who expressed some surprise at the situation, but promptly replaced the book with an unconfused copy from their shelves. I left satisfied and finished reading the book shortly thereafter. The obsession initiated, many further books of his were consumed in the following year, and as I learnt more about this author, something approaching regret surfaced, a suspicion of an opportunity missed.

An author who had written both The Double (about a teacher who becomes dangerously obsessed with his double) and The History of the Siege of Lisbon (about a proofreader rewriting history by inserting the word “not” into a text of the same name), and who counted Borges among his major influences (and here I’m thinking of the stories Pierre Menard Author of the Quixote and The Library of Babel), would surely not have returned the book. No, I had acted in error. I should have kept the first book, and instead bought an additional copy, placing the two of them side-by-side on my bookshelf – Saramago’s proofread copy to the Library of Babel’s loan.