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.

Review: The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

Some authors seem to have a few principal obsessions, which they repeatedly examine in their novels. In the case of Diego Marani, author of New Finnish Grammar, these obsessions are language and identity. Luckily there are readers who share these obsessions, and I count myself in their number. In his enjoyable new novel, The Last of the Vostyachs, Marani once again explores the relationship between the Finnish language and the national identity of the Finnish people. Given this thematic similarity, it only seems natural, if not unavoidable, to review Vostyachs by making some reference to New Finnish Grammar.

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani (Dedalus)

If the underlying theme in the two books is the same, the presentation is certainly different; Vostyachs is in many ways a straightforward crime novel. Ivan, a mute, is the last of the Vostyachs and hence the last remaining (potential) speaker of his language. He is encouraged to speak once again by the academic Olga Pavlovna, who has discovered that in Ivan’s language lies a host of treasures. Contacting her old colleague and previous collaborator, Prof. Jarmo Aurtova, she reveals her exciting discovery, and in a classic set-up delivers her linguistic charge to the care of this villain.

Aurtova, it is revealed, is an adulterer, a serial womaniser and a ruthlessly-ambitious personality, which are perhaps not the best characteristics for someone taking sole care of a bewildered man unused to the city and the ways of its people. For Ivan constitutes evidence of a link between the Finnic and Eskimo-Aleut languages, possibly even those spoken by Native Americans, all of which sits in direct contradiction to Aurtova’s painstakingly-constructed theory of Finnish linguistic development. It rapidly becomes clear to the reader that the obliteration of his thesis is untenable to Aurtova and, no matter what the cost, even murder, he will not allow his work, his obsession, to be disrupted. Whether or not he is successful in his quest for self-glorification I leave for you to discover.

For much of the book there are thought-provoking exchanges between Olga and Jarmo, culminating in an amusing, but tense, scene of seduction and counter-seduction. In one such conversation, Olga, saddened by the thought of the loss of a language, tells Aurtova, “And with each one that dies, a little truth dies with it.” Unmoved he replies that, “…the contrary is true: the fewer there are left, the more we’re moving towards the truth, towards the pure language which contains them all.” Somehow these deliberations are sharpened by the knowledge that we are reading a translated piece of literature, and indeed, one that has only been translated into a limited number of languages.

While there are many healthy ways to appreciate language, Aurtova is a fanatic, believing in the superiority of some languages over others. More than that, he is an unprincipled opportunist, who in the end has abandoned the scientific method once it no longer suits his interests. And so for all of the linguistics and talk of fricative laterals with a labiovelar appendix, Vostyachs is a thriller, full of narrative tension. Perhaps because of that the book somehow feels a little less profound or original than Grammar; where that book was mournful and subdued, Vostyachs is tense and unsettling, though there is much humour to be had too. The ending could not be described as an utterly happy one, but it is uplifting, spiritual even, and I can say that, without revealing anything of the plot, language (or the power of language) emerges the winner.

And we the reading public are winners too, as aside from the merits of Grammar and Vostyachs purely as stories, it is good that Marani keeps providing us with these entertaining opportunities to think about language, and all of the things that go with it. Grazie mille Diego!

Review: The Infatuations by Javier Marías

A signal danger with reading or reviewing books from a long-time favourite author is the risk that it will disappoint, and in doing so colour our perception, slowly built yet ever fragile, of both the author and their previous work, both of which we had hitherto admired. And so it was with Javier Marías, and his latest work, The Infatuations. I needn’t have worried.

In this brilliant novel, María Dolz has her daily routine of gentle observation of a happily married couple thrown into disarray by the brutal murder of the husband. Drawn into their world, what follows is her discovery of the possible reality behind his gruesome death.

This is by no means the first of his novels to begin with a death, and yet the subsequent, original development shows us that the interesting story is not the event itself, but rather the effect it has on the people involved, and the efforts they make to accommodate this new and unwanted situation. This is accomplished through verbose, yet never prolix, characters, whose every sentence is a pleasure, and indeed constitute much of the point of a Marías novel. Their exquisitely detailed considerations and peregrinations, forensically examining each potential action, both past and future, reveal much about their own psychology, and that of the reader too. Wordplay suggests María, the first-person narrator, is really Marías, but in a sense, all the characters are him, or at least their opinions are his. For a less-gifted writer, or one possessed of lesser insight, that could be a flaw indeed, but not here.

As far as one can judge without the Spanish original, Margaret Jull Costa is in fine form yet again, handling with aplomb the page-long sentences of an author who inhabits a world of the future and conditional tenses, his moods those of the subjunctive. “That is the awful power of the present, which crushes the past more easily as the past recedes”, by extension, possible future events might possess even greater power than the present, which might explain his fascination with the hypothetical. Or perhaps this is the salient quote, “What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us.”

If Marías’ humanistic streak isn’t immediately obvious from this grim fascination with death, then phrases such as, “What sense does it make that each person should have to experience more or less the same griefs and make more or less the same discoveries, and so on for eternity?”, draw it out. His novels, while never strident, attempt to show ourselves as we really are, and are perhaps his way of gently encouraging us to mend our ways. “That’s the worst thing about losing our old codes of conduct… We have to be guided by ourselves and then it’s very easy to make a blunder.” It’s not necessarily a pessimistic view of our inconstant natures, merely realistic, and one that’s consistently held throughout all his novels.

An admirer of Proust, in a recent interview with the Guardian, he declares, “He says terrible things, but in such a way that you know that you have experienced those thoughts too.” It’s a tradition Marías fully embraces in his own work, but through all the deep exploration of our inner motivations, he never forgets his storytelling instinct, never lets the narrative drive disappear completely. In this there’s something not dissimilar to Kafka, both have a way of building tension through the lengthy and potentially hazardous calculations that their characters make. The basic considerations of his plots, of man as an animal – morality, love, death – is another thing they have in common. Here it is the things that we both do, and don’t do, for love, or because of love, and further, the things we can believe would be done in the name of love, which are the principal target.

As in many of his books, a quote from Macbeth – from which play came the title for his novel, A Heart So White – makes an early appearance. Macbeth, upon learning about the death of his wife and Queen, exclaims, “She should have died hereafter.” Once introduced, this phrase becomes something of a motif, to which the narrator repeatedly returns throughout the novel, each time re-examining its meaning in the light of new revelations. It can’t be mere coincidence that it’s a Shakespearean tragedy from which Marías continues to draw inspiration.

However, perhaps the most telling aspect of his literary philosophy is revealed near the end of the book, when the truth is normally on the verge of being revealed, but no, “The truth is never clear, it’s always a tangled mess. Even when you get to the bottom of it. But in real life almost no one needs to find the truth or devote himself to investigating anything, that only happens in puerile novels.”

Marías has not written one of those, and even if in this book we never quite attain the truth of the story with complete certainty, this doesn’t stop us learning some truths about ourselves. And how very enjoyably unsettling it is.

A Lifetime of Metamorphosis

Chapter 1

‘A mantra is a sentence where every word is where it should be’, said Boris Akunin, giving the 2013 Sebald Lecture at Kings Place, London. By its own definition, this sounded very much like a mantra. But mantra or not, surely we all wish to write sentences which meet this criterion, to organise our thoughts so that every word is where it should be. I wonder if there is an equivalent for the structure of a book: where every sentence is where it should be. Meta-mantra, perhaps.

Chapter 2

Preceding this lecture was the awards ceremony for The Society of Authors’ Translation Prizes 2012, which rewarded the efforts of translators working on novels from French, through Arabic, to Swedish. Margaret Jull Costa, longtime translator of Jose Saramago, Javier Marias, Eca de Querios and many other key figures of Iberian literature, went home with almost a clean sweep, taking commended prizes for translations of Portuguese and Spanish novels, plus the Calouste Gulbenkian Prize for her translation of The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersão. A very impressive achievement, and many congratulations indeed!

Chapter 3

Everything in my life is now broken-up into chapters.

It was the perfect opening to the lecture, a personal revelation, humorous and quirky, literary. Ever since he began to write, Boris Akunin has been unable to let something pass without deconstructing it into chapters; his novels, short stories, his Sebald lecture and even his day, none of them are immune to this sub-division. It’s quite possibly contagious.

Chapter 4

B. Akunin, so the blurb blurbs, is a Russian author, very widely read, and who has been compared to Gogol, Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle. His critically acclaimed series of detective novels, starring the character Erast Fandorin, are rendered into English by Andrew Bromfield.

Chapter 5

For Boris to live a hygienic lifestyle was the principal desire of his mother, and for that there were only two professions which were suitable, medicine or literary translation. Lacking the particular aptitude for science, a life of literature beckoned. To save a real life or translate a fictional one, that would be one way to view it; either way, one can see her point, as both careers aim only to improve lives. Curious though that the act of literary translation is pure, whereas creating the source material is not.

Chapter 6

Grigory Chkhartishvili is a literary translator and academic, who, with pure intentions, diligently transforms Japanese works into his native Russian. The pride of his mother then, who declared, on the occasion of his first translation, that Grigory’s wife had made a good choice.

Chapter 7

In Javier Marias’ novel A Heart So White, the narrator Juan, an interpreter, begins a private conversation with his professional counterpart during one particular assignment, changing the words uttered by his politician client into something far more interesting. It could well be a common phenomenon in those circles. Certainly Grigory became increasingly annoyed with how the writers were telling the story, privately exhorting them to get the preliminaries over with and commence the story, or wishing that the material were structured differently. To maintain his professional integrity, and possibly not trusting that he would leave the text unaltered, Grigory took the cleaner path and instead began to write his own novels. The risk of discovery taken by Juan was averted for the time being.

Chapter 8

Grigory Chkartishvili is Boris Akunin, a man who was born to be a sacrificial lamb, to bear the brunt of the disapproval imposed by Grigory’s colleagues. The metamorphosis was not as easy as it could have been, possibly no better than it was for Gregor Samsa; he, and his novels, had to endure the criticism of his colleagues in literary translation, and delivered in his company at that! Akunin is apparently a Japanese word that translates roughly as villain, it seems to have been a prescient choice given this unfavourable reception.

Chapter 9

The writer is never off-duty he said, referencing Chekhov’s The Seagull. I am beginning to understand.

My eye falls on that cloud there, which has the shape of a grand piano; I instantly make a mental note that I must remember to mention in my story a cloud floating by that looked like a grand piano.

Funny though that clouds are always thought to look like something else, and not merely themselves. Why does no-one ever look at the grand piano and remark that it looks exactly like a cloud? Surely that would reveal just as much about a character as would their interpretation of those airborne inkblots.

Chapter 10

The first book Boris translated, as a teenage amateur, was Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Unfortunately for him, the frustration of referring to the English-Russian dictionary fifty times per page ruined the experience to such an extent that all the works of John Steinbeck became no-go areas. And so they remain today. It’s a salutary lesson for all language learners who are motivated by a desire to read foreign literature.

Chapter 11

If the writer is never off-duty, then continuous working hours are not the only sacrifices to be made. A more surprising sacrifice was his enjoyment of music. Whenever Boris hears a piece of music that evokes a particular mood, he labels it appropriately and then stores it away. Some time later, when writing a scene that requires that particular mood, he re-plays that piece and others similar, a sort-of sonic mood board, to help the process along. Effective it might be, but those pieces, like Steinbeck, is ruined thereafter. It seems that clouds are not the only objects in jeopardy from an author’s attentions.

Epilogue

I wonder how Boris Akunin feels to be on the other side now that his own novels are translated into other languages. Does he ever worry that his translators will undergo their own personal rebellion?