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Short story versus novel

13 Oct

Every story encompasses a world. Every story accounts for a series of actions, whether experienced or imagined. The story, if it is any good, also contains within it a substratum, or an undertow, through which the reader is guided towards some underlying truth – or the possibility of a truth. This may consist of a paradox or even a seeming contradiction, but it will, in some way, be traced or suggested by the contours of the outer story.

This notion, at least, can be applied to the short story. When it comes to anything longer I tend to balk.  Today on the Guardian website, I read an article about the new novel by the admirable Donna Tartt, a monster of a book at 771 pages, and I recall what Italo Calvino once wrote:

‘Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years.’

I don’t know whether or not I entirely agree with this, but the idea of time progressing as a linear continuum does seem to be tied to a social structure where roles (including that of the author) were more fixed, sedentary things. The author proclaimed his (and it was usually a his) authority through texts permeated with the authorial voice, and which sustained that voice, gave it credibility as a constant over a period of calculable time.

And who wants that authority? Not me. Not I, even. Which is why, on days like today, the simple rigour of the short story seems so much more appealing, and far less tiring.

Midday: story of a kidnapping

5 Jul

Bogotá is the kind of place designed to make you feel conspicuous if you are toting a camera around. I have heard and read too many bad things, even if the place is considerably safer than it has been for many years. So I pootle down the main drag with my Argentinian bodyguard, drop into the national museum and see a few relics of pre-Columbian society (the Muisca, who lived in this region before the Spanish conquest, had a great love of gold, thereby giving rise not only the emergence of the myth of El Dorado, but also to their own extermination). In my conversations with Colombian writers and taxi drivers, I encounter a state of general uncertainty, of not knowing what exactly constitutes the New Colombia, or which way the wind will blow. With respect to the taxi drivers, this uncertainty seems to extend to their knowledge of the city, because they never seem to know their way around, and are obliged to ask directions of their customers, or else stop and ask one of the many patrolling police and military. This, in fact, is the most noticeable feature of the city at night: the fantastic quantity of military and police personnel on the streets. Like living in a city under occupation. But for many Colombians this actually comes as a relief, after so many years of lawlessness. Colombia has lost its pole position as the murder, kidnap and extortion capital of the world, but like other south and central American states lives with its legacy of such crimes, carried out on a massive scale. The balance of terror in this part of the world seems to be shifting elsewhere: Mexico we know about already, and yesterday I listened to a long account of the emergence of horrific acts being carried out by juvenile crime gangs in El Salvador.

            All this brings me in a roundabout way to the story of a kidnap, or abduction. The latter term in generally used to describe a politically motivated sequestration, while a kidnapping suggests a demand for ransom. But in English ‘kidnap’ still retains the general flavour of being taken against one’s will whether for political reasons or for financial gain. So we’ll stick with kidnap.

            I reproduce the story that follows with the kind permission of its Guatemalan author, Eduardo Halfon. It is taken from the collection Elocuencias de un tartamudo published in Spain by Pre-Textos in 2012.

MIDDAY

We were lying beneath the branches of a fig tree, watching a group of sailing boats as they crossed the shining, almost breezeless lake, when he told me that the only time that he had wanted to do drugs was after his kidnapping.

             – Mushrooms, in particular.

            He slapped himself on the neck, inspecting his fingers to see if he had got the mosquito.

              – I couldn’t remember the details of the kidnapping. Imagine that! And I reckoned that maybe a psychotropic drug like mushrooms might help me to remember something.

            Voices and laughter drifted towards us from the house and from the Jacuzzi, which was fed by volcanic waters.

               – I could remember, for example, that they had taken me one morning as I was arriving at my clinic. I could remember that a woman helped me out at night, loosening the ropes and shackles so that I was able to sleep better. But not much more.

              He was lying in a deckchair, dressed only in his navy blue Speedo. His skin glistened with oil.

              –  Then I went to see a psychoanalyst in Alabama, and I told him I wanted him to prescribe me some drug, in order to remember.

            A swallow skimmed the pea soup coloured water. It seemed to be hunting something.

               – And the psychoanalyst told me no, that he wouldn’t do that, but was I willing to allow him to hypnotize me.

            A cheerful shout from someone in the Jacuzzi interrupted him.

               – Once I was hypnotized the first thing I remembered was waking up naked on the floor of a darkened room, and not recognising myself. Do you understand? I didn’t recognise myself. An atrocious thing. Everything was so alien to me I had even lost all notion of my self.

            A motor launch was pulling a lone water-skier.

               – I didn’t know who I was.

            He paused, as though wanting to remember something else. On the other side of the lake, between misty green mountains: a burning purple jacaranda.

            – And then I recognized my Kickers.

            He had said this in a relaxed tone, almost a sweet tone, and I laid off looking at his bare feet, his tanned and grey-haired chest, his opaque gaze, his immaculate, old hands trying to shoo away another mosquito.

            – I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know who I was. But all of a sudden I recognised my Kickers in a corner and then I recognised myself as well, on account of or thanks to my Kickers.

            We heard the splashing of wet people as they left the jaccuzzi.

             – But look, it’s midday already – he said, checking the time on his digital watch –,  and the bar opens at midday.

            I watched him get up calmly. At four foot nine, he seemed like a giant.

             – Martini?

© original text: Eduardo Halfon 2012   © translation: Richard Gwyn 2013

The Handless Maiden (conclusion)

29 Oct

 

We leave the beach and set off up a path through a narrow gorge, Goril walking ahead with the French, Kurt following her like a puppy. It is night now, but the moon has risen and we have no trouble finding our way. In a sheltered spot, a greyish puddle of wet, viscous mud lies below a small waterfall, space enough for two or three to bathe. Goril and Ana take off their clothes and do not need to exercise much persuasion to get Kurt to do the same, Germans will strip off at any opportunity; even so, the girls give him a hand pulling off his pants and the three of them plunge into the soggy bath, falling about and smacking each other with dollops of gloopy clay. I cannot help but notice that Kurt has an erection, which he tries ineffectually to protect with a hand at first, but is soon so covered in wet clay that it barely matters, and the three of them lollop like imbeciles in the pool, shrieking, hooting and plastering each other with sticky mud.

With a jolt, I feel the effects of the potion rise through my body, bubbling through my veins, and I am lifted bodily to a place where everything has the semblance of itself but is undeniably other; the rocks, the cliffs, the faces of my friends, the strange mutt belonging to the French couple (which seems to be sporting an oversize Gallic moustache); everything has been replaced by a simulacrum of itself, and I too, am a new and alien version of me, and all my sense receptors, sight and touch and hearing and smell, are lodged not in me but in this impostor who has occupied the zone I once thought of as my body. So long as I keep calm, I tell myself, everything will be all right. I glance over at Callum, who, like me, has kept his clothes on. He smiles vacantly in my direction but I can tell, or think I can tell, that he is going through his own epic moment, and I decide (or whatever it is that has commandeered my brain decides) that, for now, language is something I might try and avoid. But Callum is edging over to me and is speaking, or rather, he is making sounds I cannot hope to understand. The three mud-creatures in the pool are clambering over each other, slithering like hideous aquatic lizards through the slime. I notice how long and red Ana’s tongue seems, and how it ululates as she makes strange noises in the round ‘o’ of her mouth, and how that orifice is enveloped by a grey carapace of mud on her face and in her hair and how this might reasonably be expected to diminish my attraction to her but in fact produces the opposite effect; the three of them have grey slimy bodies but red tongues and blue eyes, and the whites of those eyes are flashing horribly in the moonlight. Goril and Ana are kneeling, facing each other, and they begin to kiss, slowly and lasciviously, and Kurt is lying on his belly, flat out in the muck, staring at them, his pupils massively dilated, and then he turns on his side and begins to masturbate, mechanically, never taking his eyes off the girls. Goril looks up and sees what he is doing, cannot help but notice him thrashing away, and she shrieks, reaches for a handful of mud and throws it at Kurt, and Ana joins in, hurling fistfuls of sludge at Kurt, who rolls over and moans, in sorrow or delight, I can’t tell, he wears an expression of demented, anguished joy while the two women, who are no longer laughing, stand over him, pelting him with slushy missiles as he cowers and grovels at their feet, and I observe this macabre scene without much concern, and I hear, in the distance, the sound of a conch, blasting a hole in the petrified night air.

On cue, the assault ends, and someone, it might be me, suggests a swim and we all run back down to the beach, and the three naked mud-people race to get to the sea first, the rest of us jogging behind. The French have gone home, no doubt wishing to protect their child and dog from further scenes of depravity. Then I am very slowly stepping out of my jeans and laughing uncontrollably, which makes it hard to keep my balance, and Ana and Goril and Kurt are standing by the water’s edge, caked in the dried mud, and as I wade into the sea, the water closes around me with a lovely cool feeling, like acquiring a shiny new skin, and I am impossibly high, floating on my back beneath the moon and the stars, being swallowed up by the unimaginable vastness of the sky, and afterwards I find my blanket and curl up by the fire and weep, although with no sense of sadness, and Ana joins me and both of us sit wrapped in the blanket weeping and looking at the flames, and then Kurt is running up, also in tears, but his are unmistakeably tears of despair, he is yowling, yelping, running up to us and then running off down the beach, out of his head with grief, as well as simply out of his head, returning and asking us where is Goril and us saying, Kurt we have no idea where she is but Kurt keeps asking us where is Goril, then running off, sobbing, then coming back and begging, pleading with us to help him find Goril, he cannot live a moment longer without knowing where is his darling Goril, and when he has gone Ana turns to me and we kiss, and then a minute, or a hundred years later, I look up, and Goril is standing there, her arm around Callum’s waist, head on his shoulder, and Kurt is by the fire, silent at last, but in seething suppressed rage, and we are all tired of this performance and Ana tells Kurt to get a grip, to please, for God’s sake, just get a grip and fuck off and go to sleep.

In the morning I make a pot of coffee and decide to look around. Antonio and Pedro are asleep by the remains of the fire. I find Goril and Callum under a blanket in one of the abandoned houses, and there is no trace of Kurt. We spend all morning combing the beach and searching the gorge but do not find him. What more can we do? Ana says she refuses to feel guilty on Kurt’s behalf, and Goril agrees: that’s life, she says, that’s the way it goes, I mean, no one invited him. Callum and I are silent and uncomfortable. The Andalucians mooch, and we all smoke weed.

Later that afternoon we hear that the body of a young man has been washed up on the beach in the nearby town where we went for beers and tapas. Somehow, no one is surprised.

That same evening, I am emerging from the sea after a swim, with Ana, and we see a column of Guardia Civil moving quickly down the distant cliff path, on foot, a snake-trail of green uniforms, six of them. They must have found Kurt’s car. We rush back up the beach to warn the others.

We arrive at the house that Goril and Callum have occupied, just before the guardia. Goril is naked, and as a young officer, a lieutenant, comes into the room with two of his men, she takes her time, carelessly pulls on a shirt, one of Callum’s, from a pile on the floor, but doesn’t bother buttoning it, sits with the shirt half-open, honey-coloured legs stretched towards the lieutenant, crossed at the ankle, and she talks to him. Without prior agreement, she has become our spokesperson, answering all the questions on our behalf in near-perfect Castilian. The lieutenant is handsome and dark-eyed, interrogates her in a civil, professional manner, scribbling in a notebook as he stands, and smiles at her once, a little too freely, and he tells Goril we were seen by the bar owner talking to Kurt, were seen leaving in his car, and she says yes Capitán, we met him, but this is all we know: he was distraught, broken-hearted after a love affair, we tried to help him, we tried talking to him, to comfort him, but he must have wandered off during the night, he must have walked into the sea. She shakes her head sadly. The young guardia allows his gaze to linger, casts his eyes over her without expression, snaps his notebook shut.

 

 

 

The Handless Maiden (Part One)

28 Oct

Datura Stramonium

 

Following a surprise visit yesterday from Iwan Bala, and a moment in which we discussed the profound influence of the Mabinogion stories on both of us, I fell into that state of reflection, or daydream, in which different ideas coalesce or merge. Iwan had mentioned how the ancient Welsh tribes among whom the stories in the Mabinogion emerged – they were part of an oral storytelling tradition long before they were set first down as texts in the eleventh century – sustained a shamanic tradition whose adepts almost certainly used hallucinogens of some kind; magic mushrooms and quite possibly the datura plant, the properties and effects of which I describe in section 29 of The Vagabond’s Breakfast.

Shamans would, in the cultures such as those of the British Celtic peoples of this period, provide the core transcendental experiences on behalf of the tribe, or group, which would involve visions and engagements with the ‘other world’, the place described as Annwn in the Mabinogion stories. Among such cultures the veil between worlds was perhaps not quite so thick as it has since become.

It was brought to my attention by a recent re-reading of Margaret Attwood’s Negotiating with the Dead that among certain indigenous peoples the shamanistic journey follows well-trodden paths, and overcoming an encounter with the ghost-like creatures of the kind I describe in the VB is a not uncommon feature of the Shaman’s necessary accomplishment. I found this strangely reassuring.

But this was not the only adventure that I have recounted in relation to the deadly and secretive datura plant. Another encounter with datura forms the basis of a very loosely autobiographical short story set in Andalusia. Browsing the internet, I find photos of the very deserted village in which the story is set (which I call Las Perdidas) but is actually San Pedro, in the Cabo de Gata peninsular of Andalusia.

 

 

The brief for the story was, very broadly, the theme of the handless maiden, a story that has haunted me over the years, and which appears in many versions, perhaps most famously that of the Brothers Grimm, which can be found here. It is a deeply poignant story of female disempowerment, which in my version becomes inverted; that is to say the central female character, Goril, might be a handless maiden – and is most certainly damaged – but she has taken control of her life in the only way she knows, with dramatic and, in turn, damaging consequences.

The story was first published last year in the book Sing Sorrow Sorrow (Ed. Gwen Davies, Seren, 2010). I will post the first part today, and the conclusion tomorrow.

THE HANDLESS MAIDEN

She comes in through the window, where I am enjoying a game of chess on the floor with Callum (there is no furniture in the squat) as though it were the standard way of entering a building, sidling under the half-open wooden frame, and swinging her legs over the sill, before alighting, like a cat, on the wooden floor, within inches of the chess-board. She is wearing very short cut-off denim jeans and a man’s white vest, and she springs across the room towards Ana, who lives in the house, and in whom (without going into unnecessary detail) I have an interest, before the two of them disappear out of the door and along the corridor, to Ana’s room, talking in Norwegian.

Callum (tall, Scottish, a slacker) gazes after the newcomer, admiringly. She looks as if she has emerged from an illustrated edition of Oliver Twist, a saucer-eyed urchin, small and slim, with a mess of short, wheat-coloured hair.

Goril is nineteen, perhaps the most accomplished hustler I have met, and over the next few days, due to her friendship with Ana – they knew each other back in Oslo – I get to see her in action. With her sweet, innocent face, few would suspect that her mere presence in a public place constitutes an immediate threat to any carelessly guarded wallet or handbag, which items, in her company, are likely to vanish without trace.  Unlike the other vagrants here in Andalucia, she never begs, nor does conjuring tricks, nor plays a musical instrument, yet she manages to extract money and goods from people with amazing facility; tourists, bar-owners, even, alarmingly, drug-dealers – to the extent that within a week of turning up, she comes to the house one morning with a thick wad of bank notes and offers to take everyone to the seaside. She says she has been given the money by the Norwegian consulate, in order to procure a ticket home before the Guardia Civil incarcerate her for the greater good of the citizenry. I don’t know if she is telling the truth, I don’t even know if there is a Norwegian consulate in Granada, nor do I care. In the idle way that associations are formed and dissolved among vagabonds, she has become a member of our gang, although Goril is most certainly not a joiner.

The place to which we are headed is an abandoned village on a remote and undeveloped outcrop of land jutting out into the Med, east of Almeria. It is called Las Perdidas, which means The Lost Women, and I should have known better than to go there in the first place, but am intrigued by the possibilities. Among which, of course, I include Ana, who looks like a young Björk, and whose feelings towards me are a mystery, due to her apparent reluctance to engage in conversation. There are rumours of natural hot springs and healing mud baths. It sounds like paradise, and as such might provide the ambience for our relationship to blossom.

We take the morning bus to Almeria and have a two-hour wait before our connection. Antonio, along with his friend Pedro, the local boys in our little band, has the idea of buying a yearling lamb, which he acquires off some guy in the nearby market, ready-skinned. Antonio has it wrapped in preserving herbs and sacking for the bus journey to the coast. We have to carry the thing with us, but it’s going to be worth it, Antonio says: this is real food. Goril pays for the bus, the meat, everything.

Las Perdidas, it transpires, is way off the beaten track. The bus stops at a nearby town and we walk along an unsurfaced road for an hour before descending a narrow mule-path down the cliff face towards a jumble of stone cottages near the beach. Some of the buildings look as if they were deserted a century ago and are beyond repair, but others even have roofs, and a semi-permanent settlement of hippies or friquis live in the more robust houses, which are perched at a slight elevation, overlooking the sea. These inhabitants have become accustomed to a drifting population occupying the lower, more ruinous houses, or sleeping rough on the beach, and pay us no attention as we file by, the six of us, carrying our possessions, sleeping bags or blankets, and several plastic containers filled with wine.

When we arrive on the beach, we immediately set about collecting driftwood and scrub for a fire. I make up a search party with Ana, Callum and Goril, and after assembling a small mountain of fuel, we strip off and go for a swim, and although it’s April, the water is not as cold as I expect it to be; perhaps the shape of the cove protects Las Perdidas from cooler currents. Afterwards, Goril stands naked at the water’s edge, vigorously drying herself with a scrap of towel. She suggests we return to the small town where the bus dropped us off, to ‘score some beers and tapas.’ That’s how she talks. Her English, like Ana’s, is fluent, but sprinkled with a gratuitous sampling of time-warped hippy jargon. Perhaps it amuses her to talk this way. The treat will be on her, she says, or rather, on the king of Norway. Long live the King, chimes Callum. Ana, in an unprecedented demonstration of affection, links arms with me. She hasn’t honoured me with one of her rare and random excursions into conversation yet today, but this, at least, is progress. The four of us move up the beach to explain our plan to our Spanish friends.

The beach fire is going strong but will need to burn down before Antonio can start cooking the lamb on his improvised spit, and it’ll be a few hours before the meat is cooked. He and Pedro have a bag of grass and are happy to stay and tend the fire. We have a smoke with them before leaving. By now it’s late afternoon.

We’re on our fourth round of beers when Goril falls into conversation with a young German who is drinking on his own at the bar. He’s a tourist, rather than a traveller. His name is Kurt. He’s predictably blonde and red-faced, but seems friendly enough and a little lonely. Goril buys him a drink and Kurt buys us all drinks in return; in fact we can’t stop him buying us drinks, even if we were inclined to, he seems so happy to have people to talk with in his faltering English. He is staying at the hotel attached to the bar, and has just driven the length of France and Spain, as he tells us, until the land runs out, in order to get over heartbreak with a woman, pronouncing the absurd phrase with such Teutonic sincerity that Callum splutters into his beer (fortunately he is facing me, and Kurt does not seem to notice the indiscretion, although Ana does: she glares at Callum). Travel, says Callum, trying to make amends, in case he has offended Goril also, is a great healer. Travel, and alcohol. Especially alcohol. You are doing the right thing, my laddie. Drink up and forget your troubles. You’re among friends. When Kurt, bewildered by Callum’s accent, enquires of Callum and myself where we are from, he seems delighted by our reply: Ah, the Celtic peoples, he says, this I like. Myself I am a Wandal. From the Germanic tribe, you know, of Wandals.

He beams at us and we smile obligingly. But Kurt is harmless, and generous with his cash, and is obviously enamoured of our blonde Scandinavian talisman, who might be providing him with a glimpse of redemption after his experience with heartbreak woman. So it comes as no surprise that he offers to drive us back along the track in his smart BMW, parking the car where the road ends, and insists on descending with us to the beach at Las Perdidas. The light is fading but the earth is still warm, and there is the edge of a cool breeze from the sea.

The lamb is cooked to perfection, but before we get stuck in, Pedro, who is a connoisseur of plants and wildlife (as well as narcotics) tells us he has brewed a concoction, as an aperitif, he adds, thoughtfully. He seems reluctant, at first, to explain in any detail what is in the drink, but on being pressed, tells us it is made from the hallucinogenic seeds of a plant which grows abundantly in these parts. He passes around a cup filled with the brew. It tastes vile but everyone drinks some; we are a hardened band of psychotropic adepts. When it comes to Kurt’s turn, he looks questioningly at Goril. Pedro has given his explanation in Spanish, which Kurt neither speaks nor understands. Goril nods her head, saying something to him that I cannot hear; and maybe I am the only one to notice this, but she turns towards Ana, and she winks. Kurt knocks back the drink and passes the cup to Pedro to be re-filled. Everyone is in a fine mood. Antonio cuts slabs of flesh from the legs and shoulders of the lamb, and there is more to eat than the seven of us can possibly manage. A young French couple, who live in the hippy colony, venture down to the beach with their baby and attendant mongrel, following the scent of cooking. We tell them to go and get the other hippies, but they say that most of the residents are vegetarian, and would not wish to participate in this carnivorous feast. More fool them, scoffs Pedro. How could anyone resist the gorgeous smell of lamb roasting on a spit? Kurt, having demanded a translation of this exchange, agrees. He tells a vegetarian joke, very badly. He tells us we are a great bunch of guys. We help ourselves from the platter that Antonio has piled high with meat, and tear at hunks of bread and help ourselves to wine, swigging from plastic bottles or squirting the stuff into our faces from the wineskin that Antonio hands around.

Ana, I am pleased to report, is sitting at my side, and she leans close and speaks quietly.

You know, she says, glancing over at Goril, when she was about thirteen, back in Oslo, her father locked her in a room and fed her on raw meat, raw reindeer meat. For three months. And someone found out, a neighbour, he heard her howling like a dog, and called the police. When she got out, and her dad was taken away, she wouldn’t eat anything else, just raw meat.

Hell, I say, and what happened?

She got sick, says Ana.

Is that it? I ask.

Yup, she says, and smiles, pleased with herself for this little foray into anecdote.

I feel a great affection for Ana, but am startled by her story.

Didn’t she have a mother? I ask, didn’t she have someone to look after her?

Ana shakes her head. Her mum died when she was small. Her dad was a junkie. He was very bad news. She grew up on the streets. My mother, she adds, hesitating, said she was a handless maiden.

She did? I ask, curious: why did she say that?

Well, says Ana, it means her father made a devil’s bargain, like he sold her soul. In the story, the girl’s father is a miller and he makes a deal with the devil, because he is greedy, because he wants more grain from his mill, more gold, and the devil cuts off the daughter’s hands and she is left to wander in the forest. That, according to my mum, was what happened to Goril. That’s why she’s the way she is.

I watch Goril for a minute, sitting cross-legged between her admirers, Callum and Kurt. She is eating ravenously. She consumed several substantial tapas not long ago, but she launches into the meat and bread as if she has not eaten for a week.

Although Callum has the hots for Goril, I am pretty certain he will not make the first move, which is probably wise. Kurt, to her left, is picking at his meat between soulful glances at Goril, then looking around to see if anyone has noticed. While I am musing on this tableau, Goril looks up and stares straight at me, as though her radar has picked up on my surveillance. For a split second her eyes spell out an icy, impassive warning, then her face melts into a smile. She makes a little wave at me, fluttering the fingers of her hand, then turns to the French couple and asks them to show us where the mud baths are, the famous mud baths.

(to be continued)

 

 


J.M. Coetzee in Buenos Aires

19 Sep
14. J.M. Coetzee. Oleo sobre tela. 2006

Coetzee came to Buenos Aires to deliver the final reading of the festival last night. I am not really authorized to write at length about Coetzee, having only read two of his novels, which I found admirable, and a collection of his essays. However, I will certainly read more of his work now, and am particularly keen to read his own account of his life, of which there are now three volumes.

There were, of course, the introductions in Spanish: the first brief, the second rather long, both of them adulatory, then Coetzee emerged from the wings like a tall and elegant rock star (think a slightly more reverend Clapton with a tie). I was sitting in the front row, and had been approached by a security guard who told me that the first two rows were reserved for guests of the funding organisation. I told him I was an invited guest of the festival and stayed in my seat. He moved off, unsure what to do about me. Half the seats in the front two rows then remained empty, even though there were dozens of people outside who had been refused tickets, and others sitting on the steps in the foyer watching the proceedings on a big screen and possibly hundreds who had been told the event was sold out. The photographers had clearly been instructed that they could snap away only during Coetzee’s  introduction, and not in the reading proper. In any case, I was able to take a few pictures of my own, and they came out rather well.

Coetzee made a brief introductory statement in faltering Spanish, and then he read a story, set in a house in Spain (perhaps he chose one with an Hispanic theme for the occasion, believing there is not a lot of difference between one Spanish speaking country and the next, one with a few Spanish words in, like ‘vaya con dios’, which no one ever says unless they’re about a hundred years old). The story lasted half an hour, or forty minutes, I’m not sure, I think I drifted off briefly, and it was about a man called John (which is Coetzee’s name) visiting his mother, who lives in a village in Castille, and keeps a lot of cats and the village flasher (yes, that’s right, she has made her home available to the village pervert, because he was going to be taken away by social services and she stepped in and said she would look after him. I’m not sure this is how things work in Spain, but I guess we can let that go in the name of poetic licence). The story was okay, but did he need to fly thousands of miles to read it? Because that was all he did: read a story, then sit down and sign books for his abundant fans, who queued patiently (a very difficult task for Argentinians, or at least for Porteños) who came onto the stage one at a time, were allowed to exchange a few brief words with the great man, then trundled off clutching their books like they were holy relics. I wonder how much he got paid to do this. I wonder if he is doing any sightseeing while he is here. He certainly won’t be tasting the wonderful Argentinian steaks as he is a vegetarian; nor can I imagine is here much of a drinker, so will not be tasting the fine Argentinian wines. Coetzee is however a rugby fan, and since the world cup is on, the festival president tells me, he was able to talk to him about rugby on the drive back from the airport. If it had been me I would have expressed my opinion that his team (assuming he still supports the Springboks and not the Wallabies, after adopting Australian nationality) was extremely lucky to get away with a one-point victory over my team last week, but of course that is done and dusted now and we must press on. At least the world cup curse of Samoa has now been lifted, and if things go well against Fiji and Namibia we will most likely meet the Irish in the quarter-finals, which is do-able.

Coetzee stands in a very upright manner. There is, in fact, something quintessentially upright about him. Someone who know him expressed the view to me that this is related to a self-abnegating Afrikaaner protestant streak (although he did attend a Catholic school, so presumably got the worst of both worlds). This is not a man who will let his scant hair down. According to a reliable source (i.e quoted on Wikipedia) he lives the life of a recluse, and “a colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.” In fact he is so reclusive that the Flash player did not want to upload my photo of him, so I am using a picture provided by Flickr instead. In the Wikipedia picture (which also refused to upload) he is wearing the same tie as last night, or appears to be, unless of course he has several editions of the same tie. The Wikipedia entry also informs me he has expressed support for the animal rights movement. Because he rarely gives interviews and so forth, signed copies of his books are highly valued.

Despite his saying that he was pleased to be here, he did not really give the impression of being overjoyed about the occasion. He was more like a pontiff bestowing a blessing on his devotees, with great dignity and reserve. And the ridiculous notion occurs to me that there are two Coetzees, one of them here in Buenos Aires, reading his story like a monk reading from the sacred text to his silent admirers, the other scribbling away, locked in his cell wherever it is he lives, Adelaide or thereabouts. The one I saw last night is the phantom Coetzee, the one that the real Coetzee very occasionally sends out to commune with his public, a doppelganger Coetzee who is dressed like a banker, reluctantly engaged in the contemporary phenomenon of the Book Signing, that strange ritual in which members of the reading public are able to pretend that they have a personal relationship with the author, and walk away clutching their books tight to their chests as though some of his greatness were now trapped in the trail of ink on the title page, that they have absorbed some of the fallout of his ascetic majesty, and will now, through some mystical process not unlike transubstantiation, be the richer for it.

 

 

 

 

Why write novels?

25 Jul

I just read Claire Keegan’s ‘The Forester’s Daughter’, from her 2007 collection Walk the Blue Fields. It is a story of smouldering regret and awful intelligence, and has the emotional punch of a novel compacted into forty pages. This is a timely read for me, as it revives two questions: why read novels, and the more pressing one of why write them?

The novel, as I was personally reminded in an email correspondence only last week, demands linking passages, backstory, explanation, exposition, all manner of tedious filler that somehow has to be presented as though it were integral to the process.

You might argue that this is what the good novelist does – and that this is what differentiates the good from the mediocre. But why would you go to all that trouble when you can say what you need to say in 40 pages, as Keegan manages so effectively in ‘The Forester’s Daughter’? We are given a small community in rural Ireland, an old house, a farm, and a family: Deegan, Martha, their children (the son who wants out, the simpleton second boy, and the daughter, a rare bird, and a dog). The father, while not utterly wretched, is a man whose poor judgement is capable of snuffing out all capacity for love and trust. The story’s purpose is achieved without the excess 250 pages or more of padding that a novel would necessitate and the reader is left with something like enlightened gratitude rather than that familiar struggle just to get to the end – a condition I almost inevitably find myself in when reading novels these days. In an earlier piece on Borges in this blog I quoted the Argentinian as saying: “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.” If only more people heeded this advice, there would be less junk to get through.

Most novelists I talk to tell me that at least one point in the writing of every book they ask themselves why exactly they are doing this. It is exhausting, obsessive, wrecks your sleep, and, unless you are in a tiny minority, will make you a negligible amount of money, or none at all. And yet there is a widespread prejudice in the publishing world, and among readers, that the novel is somehow the highest achievement for a writer, and it is the writing of a bestselling novel that, whoever might say otherwise, still motivates most students applying for an MA in Creative Writing.

I write to a friend that I am working on a novel that I started five years ago and have been dipping in and out of ever since, trying to find where it wants me to go. At one point I was 35,000 words in. Now I am 20,000 words in, and shrinking. I am approaching the task with enthusiasm for a shorter word count by the day, and also with a healthy skepticism for the genre of the novel itself.

In the past I might have said I read novels in the remote expectation that the writer will tell me something interesting in a new or stimulating way, but now that I write them, I am not so sure. I write for the same reason that I read: to explore, to seek out boundaries, to ask questions for which there are no simple answers and whose scope or complexity cannot be abridged by the shorter form of the story. But after reading a story like The Forester’s Daughter’ I have to wonder whether that is necessarily the case.

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