Wednesday, May 23, 2012

From the Mouth...

This is late in the day but the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) was awarded to Blooms of Darkness, which I reviewed recently.

Personally I would have liked to seen the Sjon win or New Finnish Grammar with Blooms of Darkness a bit of a Marmite book for me. I guess you either liked it or didn't but the judges must have done.

Having been a member of the Shadow IFFP prize, which was a real honour, it was interesting to have a debate and see which way we came down on our own choice of winner.

The choice of the panel, which included excellent must-follow bloggers, was From the mouth of the whale by Sjon.

The chair of the Shadow IPPF Stu over at Winston's Dad, summed up the reasons for that book being chosen

"We all liked and some of us loved this book no one really had a bad word about it ,I think from when ever any one of us judges read it we feel for it as a book and Sjon’s voice .We felt Sjon had captured through Jonas eyes the 17th century Iceland so well ,this was helped by Victoria's translation that through its usage of older languages and grammar gave it a feel of a book that had just been unearthed not a modern book .A worthy winner for the fist  shadow IFFP winner 2012."

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

book review: The Great Fire of London by Peter Ackroyd

Having read some Peter Ackroyd before the technique of overlapping history in different parts of London is not something unfamiliar.

But this was the first time he tried it in his debut novel and this sets up what he later on perfected as a style that would become synonymous with him. A few years ago in his London series on television he explained the ley lines and the way that London seems to hold history like a sponge.

What happened in some parts of the City hundreds of years ago still echoes today and in Ackroyd's world has the power to influence the present.

A film maker plans to make a modern day take on Little Dorrit and starts hunting round the old site of the Marshalsea prison. Other characters - often as bizarre as those that populated Dicken's books - are introduced and a cocktail of doom is mixed slowly as the filming begins.

Although Little Dorrit is a work of fiction there is a passage where a professor with a reputation for Dickens explains that it was a method of portraying reality and the conditions and world that are described in that novel - with the great poverty and the grimness of the debtors prison - existed for real.

Remembering that point is key to the story because in some ways the picture becomes clouded with one woman going to seance and having Little Dorrit visit her. Quite how a fictional character could speak from the dead is a point that blurs the edges.

But blurring the edges is what Ackroyd likes doing and he is control here not just of choosing which parts of the Little Dorrit story to use, much like the film maker in the story, but also of which areas of London will act as the backdrop.

London is a character here with its areas of poverty and neglect coming through into the story as areas that spawn the modern day extreme characters that Dickens would have used. There is Little Arthur who is not quite as likeable as Little Dorrit with his child killing history and Pally his friend who comes across as a simpleton but with a darker side.

As you would expect in a City of extremes along side these people live the normalish as well as the younf bright things that dream of dancing and making films where some of the poor people will make great background extras.

It works as a story but perhaps bringing in the other great London event in the shape of a modern versuion of the Great Fire is slightly unnecessary. It's covered in a couple of paragraphs and feels like it needed more room to breathe as an idea on its own. Otherwise a good read and a reminder that London isn a city of myths and legends where the past touches the future.

book review: From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjon

This starts with a biblical come fairy story and the magical imagery of angels, demons and the supernatural stay throughout. Set in sometime in the 1600s in Iceland it follows the story of naturalist and inquisitive minded Jónas Pálmason the Learned who it turns out has ended up being exiled to an island for his knowledge.

As he recounts what happened to him and why he is on the island you encounter a mind alive to only interesting things and a man who has become a victim of politics and powerful Icelandic families looking to counter his particular line in poetry, naturalism and healing powers.

Interspersed throughout the text are entries from the notebooks that Jónas makes to track the things he sees around him with comments about animals and plants. His experiences - a particularly lively spot of ghost hunting - and his determination to share it land him on the wrong side of those with vested interests in keeping some things mysterious.

Those that trade in narwhal horns describing them as unicorn horns are just some of the people who would fear the self-taught naturalist.

Exiled on the rock having vivid dreams Jónas is not allowed to leave unless someone offers him passage on a boat. This finally happens and he is taken to Copenhagen where he meets a like-minded professor who strikes up a friendship with the old man and then does what he can to release him.

But he remains on the rock mourning a dead wife and those of his children that have died and the imagery becomes even more vivid. Passages where he swims to the bottom of the sea to chat with dead sailors are some of the most memorable and had cinematic descriptive qualities.

There is as much said as not said with this story which is describing a genuine world where knowledge could be a dangerous commodity. Strange self-made religious ceremonies and absolute beliefs in sea monsters and unicorns are views held by many. The problem for Jónas is that pricking those bubbles is a dangerous thing to do.

But you can't help but end up liking the old man. He allows you to join him in his strange world where the real, imaginary and mystical merge and it creates a story that is going to linger long in the memory.

Some readers might find the style a bit of an issue, particularly the styart, but this book is well worth persevering with and rewards those that do.

book review: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

You get to the end of this book and its not until you read the bits and pieces that are usually things you skip that you realise the sheer scale of the ambition.

On one level the story is about the nature of conspiracy and how easy it is to invent, embellish and sell to various secret services a lie to further political or personal ends. But on another level it is an insight into what can make someone spend their life hating a section of society and how that hatred can drive them to extreme acts.

The book is written as a series of diary entries by Captain Simone Simonini, a man who has become so well versed at lying he struggles to remember the truth about himself. As he works through his life story you discover a tale of someone that was taught from birth to hate the Jews and distrust and despise those things that he did not understand.

As a result an Antisemitism mingles at moments with other causes, including a fairly regular dig at the Free Masons. But the main character, who is a forger of wills for his day job and an expert at delivering aged documents to help whatever cause he believes in and will reward him, is someone that you don not like. There is little to admire in a man that is so full of hate combined with ignorance imparted to him by his grandfather. Despite moving from Italy to Paris the man continues to see life through a filtered lens that means even when friendships could be cultivated with Jews he snubs that possibility out.

The title of the book comes from the masterpiece conspiracy put together by Simonini where he describes a meeting of Jewish leaders in a cemetery where they plot to take over the world. Even those he tries to pedal the document to can see through the forgery but that doesn't stop it being plagiarised and becoming part of the cultural background of the late 19th century world that Simonini moves in.

He is prepared to kill, lie and steal to get what he wants and even in the time period the story is set against he sees some success for his efforts. The Dreyfus Affair, where a Jewish officer was wrongly accused of pasisng military secrets to the Germans, is a case where proof is lacking but antisemitism manages to imprison an innocent man.

But of course it is what will happen much later with the lies described as fact in the Prague Cemetery document that will sow such hatred in the 20th century.

This is a very ambitious book that covers a fair amount of ground. In parts it seemed to become bogged down and the diary style was sometimes a weakness in that it provided mainly a one-sided view of events.

You are left thinking about the scale of the deception at the conclusion of the book but a bit shaved off would have got the reader more quickly to that moment.