Lawrence Norfolk: John Saturnall’s Feast

Norfolk, Lawrence (2012), John Saturnall’s Feast, Grove Press
ISBN 978-0-8021-2088-5

DSC_0163 So I guess we all have these writers – writers whose every book we read as soon as possible and whose future books we wait for, refresh amazon pages for, look up bookseller news for – or maybe that’s just me. Two of these writers have kept me waiting for an especially long, long time. One is Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry who hasn’t as much as announced a followup novel to Family Matters (2002), and whose name I punch into Google at least once a month. The other writer is Lawrence Norfolk, who had let 12 years pass between his third novel and John Saturnall’s Feast, which is his fourth. Rumors about Norfolk’s fourth novel had been floating around for years, various titles and plots were offered. As for me, I bought it the instant it was published (or rather it was bought for me; I was hospitalized at the time) and read it within two days of receiving it. And I loved it. This is no hyperbole. I was reading the book carefully, slowly, and loved every minute of the experience. I loved every page of it, loved the way the book looked (the Grove hardcover is such a handsome production…). And yet – after I finished it, it did not give me the frisson of having just read the new novel of a favorite writer which is just as good or better than his previous books. Most of us remember the excitement when Pynchon’s tremendous Against the Day (2006) came out and the goodness, the excellence of the book stayed with you for days – it was not just that a fairly long wait since Mason & Dixon (1997) was finally over, it was also excitement over how good the new book was. Not as good as M&D, but very clearly among his best work. Even the smaller in every way next novel gave me a similar sense (here’s my review of that one). All this is to say that that is how the experience should have been, but it was not. What I found instead was a well executed, very readable, very enjoyable book. As I will point out further down, I think it’s a technical exercise in romanticism. Pretty good. But as a followup to Norfolk’s other work, it was a bit of a disappointment. It’s hard not to recommend it – it’s so much fun to read, especially in winter, but it’s also…not a masterpiece. So you might ask: wait, you’re saying this book is very good – and a disappointment? Yes. Maybe I should explain.

DSC_0206I have to admit to a slight bias here, I guess. Norfolk’s previous three novels are very good. Very, very good. I have reread all three in the past month and they all hold up, even improve on rereading. His debut was Lemprière’s Dictionary, published when its author was a mere 27 years old. On its face, it is a retelling of the creation of John Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary containing a full Account of all the Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors, which is a real book, written by a historical person really called John Lemprière who, like Norfolk’s protagonist, came from Jersey. That is where the similarities end. Norfolk’s novel is a historical conspiracy novel that features a cabal of French protestants who are secretly behind the East India Company. It’s a book deeply steeped in myth, visions, and history – but it’s also a book with very odd steampunk underpinnings, with steampunk-like cyborgs (well, kinda) and automatons. All of this is done in a style that is so assured, so clean, that it can carry the complicated plot which teems with characters and descriptions and preposterous ideas and not confuse the reader beyond the intended confusions. It has held up remarkably well, and I strongly recommend you read it – but only in the British edition (the American edition has been mutilated). There has been criticism of its anglocentricity and orientalism, but Norfolk’s main goal is disorientation. The basic idea of historical novels, drawing intellectual connections between then and now, infusing a seemingly fixed situation with understanding, Norfolk sets about unmooring its fundamental pillars.

DSC_0207His second novel, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, basically takes the style and ideas and thrust of the first novel and splashes them over a vastly bigger canvas. Not only does the novel have about double the size of the debut, the same explosion happened to plots and characters. While the debut novel mostly took place in Jersey and London, with small trips to places like La Rochelle in France, the second novel spans across all of Renaissance Europe. I am not even going to attempt to offer a summary, but the novel contains monks traveling through Europe, artists, soldiers, and a mythical sunk city. While the first novel played with myth as an element in disorienting the audience and its protagonist, the second novel makes a full grab for a full religious and mythical framework. Religion, power, sexuality and art were all toys in the manic hands of 27 year old Norfolk, but The Pope’s Rhinoceros feels like the work of someone who thought through the concepts he used in his debut and applied them more deliberately in his second attempt. The Pope’s Rhinoceros, as was Lemprière’s Dictionary, is very well researched but doesn’t care to be accurate about the facts of history (or rather, is intentionally inaccurate). There’s a larger emphasis on myth as compared to steampunk automatons, but the mind is the same, just more mature. It’s a dense novel that frequently seems to just burst with material and descriptions and plot and good god all those characters, but it never really feels self-indulgent. Norfolk has a story to tell and ideas to convey, and everything in The Pope’s Rhinoceros feels absolutely necessary. It’s also really well written.

DSC_0132In his first two novels, Norfolk has developed his own style, highly recognizable, and perfectly adapted to the mad novels it was created for. In his third novel he cut down on the style. In many ways, this is no longer the Norfolk we know. While the first two novels occasionally invited comparison to the intellectual and philosophical romps through history of Umberto Eco’s novels, the new one is nothing like that. The progression from the first two novels seems to be cut short: page count alone seems clear: Lempriere’s Dictionary had about 500 pages, The Pope’s Rhinoceros roughly 900 and the third novel, the severely underrated In The Shape of a Boar, came in at just above 300 pages. Instead of being set in a distant period in England’s past, it’s set in World War II Romania and postwar Europe. For writers mainly associated with a specific setting and writing to transition to a much more modern period or setting can be difficult, even great writers struggle. The British and American sections of Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and the entire nonredeemable awfulness that is Rushdie’s Fury can serve as sad examples. Given the history of such ventures, it’s a bit surprising that In The Shape of a Boar is an absolute triumph. It’s split in two parts, the first one is a philological account (with footnotes) of the mythical Calydonian boar hunt. It takes the archival concerns of the first two books, both of which share and foreground a concern with the production of knowledge, and turns it inside out by offering sources in a clipped, but musical account of the myth. There is a third part that returns to the first, but it’s much smaller.

DSC_0130The second part, larger than the first one, is a very thinly veiled account of the life of Paul Celan (with one big deviation) and especially the Goll-Affair that haunted and broke Celan. The book offers us disquisitions on truth and storytelling, it’s an exercise in naming and sourcing; even the philological footnotes are already infiltrated by opinion and doubt. We are asked to transpose the mythical structure on the contemporary events, we are made players in a postmodern game, but unlike the cushy historical fantasy backgrounds of the earlier novels, this one offers us higher stakes. I can’t possibly do justice to the book within this summary, so I won’t attempt it. Suffice to say that at the center of it is a text called “Die Keilerjagd” (“The Boar Hunt”), written by Norfolk’s stand-in for Celan (the poem itself alludes to the Todesfuge via the Goll affair link, and “In Gestalt eines Ebers”, the poem that lent the novel its title). Subsequently, the authenticity, accuracy and plain truth of “Die Keilerjagd” is called into question. The Celan character is not necessarily at the center – it’s really the text and the question of historical truth and representation. The time-lines in Norfolk’s book can be shown to correspond to events in history, which helps read certain events. For Norfolk, this book represents the pinnacle of his achievement to that point. It takes up his concerns with truth, power and myth, with archives, art and vision, and transports them to a different platform, offers them different contexts. It’s a very brave undertaking, breaking with a certain part of his audience, and seemingly breaking with his previous work, but actually, it sharpens it, it re-focuses some concerns in his previous books. In The Shape of a Boar is a surprising step forward, but just as The Pope’s Rhinoceros, it’s also a development of his previous work. It’s stylistically acute, offering a shift even in writing to accommodate the subject matter. With In The Shape of a Boar, Norfolk established himself as a great writer. What would be his next masterpiece? Where would he go next?

DSC_0129Given these expectation on my side and many other readers of his work, when John Saturnall’s Feast came out, a medium-sized, easily read little book that had a small portion of myth, to go with a historical background and an engaging story, previous readers of Norfolk had to feel a bit let down. If you reread the effusive praise I have just offered for his other books, you could claim that I just had unreasonable expectations. That may be so. But I can’t help but feel that this step back is deliberate. In The Shape of a Boar was not as well received as his previous work and it had to have sold much fewer copies. In writing this short, very pretty book, he clearly appealed to the audience of his earlier books, and maybe, after the rumored failure of a much more ambitious project that was abandoned during the 12 years between novels three and four (one of the rumors was based on titbits like this note from a British Council webpage ca. 2006 that said “He is currently working on a new novel, The Levels, about the effect of gravity on human relationships.”), this smaller project helped him center, retool his writing. I don’t know and generally I don’t like this kind of speculation. So let’s move on to the book itself.

DSC_0164What kind of book is John Saturnall’s Feast? Set in the years just before, during and just after Cromwell’s reign, it is a novel about the English countryside. We meet Norfolk’s protagonist in a village in the middle of a green and gorgeous valley. He is the son of a village witch, who watches over a pagan rite of fertility and renewal. Her murder pushes the newly orphaned John Saturnall away from his home and into the kitchen of a manor whose lord, Sir William Fremantle, rules over the valley. With him, Saturnall carries a book of recipes his ancestors have kept and worked with. Saturnall quickly rises within the household due to luck, skill and his preternatural taste that allows him to distinguish all ingredients of a dish. He is tasked to coax Lucretia, the daughter of the house, who is on a hunger strike of sorts, into eating, and what ensues is a beautiful dance of seduction centered around food. As Cromwell takes over the country, the waves of history engulf Fremantle manor as well. Violence, war, religion, love and food spin together, carrying Saturnall through years of upheaval, through love and pain. If this summary sounds a bit bland, I can assure you I am not misrepresenting the book. The slightly mad, disorderly myth that ate at the archives of knowledge in the previous novels is very neatly stowed away here. Its most powerful appearance is early in the novel, in an evocation of the mythical power of nature and pagan rites, of the feasting tables of nature, and the intrusion of the “Priests of Jehova”. But once we enter Fremantle’s manor, it becomes background noise. It’s a means to characterize Saturnall, give him a distinctive motivation that is different from the other workers in the household. It also provides motivation and structure to the book. The book’s handful of characters are odd, but they don’t remind the reader of similar characters in Norfolk’s work – instead we feel like we are looking at a novel whose sense of interiors and history is inspired by Gormenghast without having that novel’s genius.

DSC_0162I’m not trying to be harsh. I really like this book even today and there’s a lot that’s interesting here. The narrow focus on English history allows Norfolk to combine tendencies from mythography and historiography to provide a very strong sense of place, of a profound Englishness. That’s why the recipes he prints at the beginning of every chapter have no real intrigue, they are purely decorative (but beautifully so). Wonderful books like How to cook a Wolf, a cookbook that also reveals the stress of life during hard times, or Günter Grass’ Der Butt, a novel about carnality in the baroque and today, use recipes to add to a story, to offer relevance and substance from a different medium. But for Norfolk the goal is a kind of grand essay on general Englishness, and he marshals an army of details to create this sense of place. This starts with his choice of Cromwell’s time as the setting for the book. In his great study of Cromwell, Christopher Hill has pointed out how much of a role Cromwell plays for the structure of English history, for its development and interpretation. He goes so far as to say that Cromwell in his revolution “combine[s] the roles of Robespierre and Napoleon, of Lenin and Stalin, in theirs.” Norfolk clearly has a strong sense of that. His focus on one rural village evokes no period of literature so much as Romanticism itself. It’s a period novel in a double sense: written about a certain period but also written in the style of a different period. Even the choice of topic might point back to Romanticism, if we remember that one of the most famous manifestos of Romanticism was Hugo’s preface to his play about Cromwell. This book doesn’t play fast and loose with historical facts, it doesn’t offer you facts in the first place. The book itself, in the Grove edition, just adds to this sense. Every chapter is dedicated to a different recipe in the cookbook, offering the recipe and a woodcut-style picture to accompany it. The recipes and chapter beginnings are printed in burgundy ink. It’s just so overwhelmingly pretty. I have included pictures of it somewhere in this review.

DSC_0134And this is why I can’t help but think that its superficial blandness is intentional. It is, as if it was intentionally written and conceived as a romantic period artifact. Even the writing itself, which at times seems a bit sloppy is, I think, intentionally written as a pastiche (not parody) of period writing. The modernity of the language is what allows us to read it as more than parody. I think this book is extremely clever, and a lot of its blandness is intentional, and it’s honestly a fantastic, joyful read, but intentional blandness is still blandness and this book, with all its cleverness and all its formal accomplishments, feels like a step back for a writer that I consider to be vastly underrated. And there’s the distinct possibility that I am reading these accomplishments and this cleverness into a book that doesn’t have it. That is not such a well constructed artifact. However, it is the rest of Norfolk’s work that allows for this reading. If Norfolk really were such a minor writer, Lemprière’s Dictionary would have looked more like Iain Pears’ fun but forgettable Rashomon-in-England fable An Instance of the Fingerpost. But it doesn’t look like that because Norfolk is, indeed, a very good writer, and ultimately, saying that John Saturnall’s Feast is ‘merely’ a great read is burying the lede. In a time of dull but ‘clever’ books written by novelists without a sense of style (Blake Butler’s work comes to mind), such a readable work, with such commitment to sumptuousness and beauty, and written by such a capable hand, is not only rare, it is absolutely laudable. Overall, it’s a bit like comfort food – like a slice of your favorite pizza. If you haven’t had it in a while you’ll absolutely die for a slice. Look, I am waiting for his next book, just as impatiently. But I was also, speaking of Hugo, reminded of this passage in the Préface:

En somme, rien n’est si commun que cette élégance et cette noblesse de convention. Rien de trouvé, rien d’imaginé, rien d’inventé dans ce style. Ce qu’on a vu partout, rhétorique, ampoule, lieux communs[...].

John Saturnall’s Feast is very formulaic, and in danger of meriting such criticism. But compared to other books in the genre, this one is much more competent, much more fluid in the use of myth, and much more aware of the period style it uses and adapts. It feels like a watershed moment for Norfolk. Where does he go next? I can’t honestly wait to find out.

****

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Denise Mina: Field of Blood

Mina, Denise (2005), Field of Blood, Little, Brown
ISBN 0-316-15458-x

DSC_0197So when I said there would be shorter reviews as well as longer ones, I actually had this book in mind. Denise Mina’s crime procedural Field of Blood is a fairly straightforward crime novel set in Glasgow in 1981. I read it on one long train ride between two university libraries and I enjoyed it so much that I somehow started to take notes on it (I can’t tell you why that’s a sign of enjoyment for me, it just is). While I find the genre very entertaining, I don’t actually read mysteries a whole lot; I am nevertheless aware that there’s a specific Scottish tradition of that kind of writing, although most of those books, like the vast oeuvre of Ian Rankin, are set in Edinburgh. While the basic tradition is mostly dominated by brooding male detectives, whose inner demons make for excellent drama to supplement the murder mystery, there have been quite a few important female writers. I have to admit to not having read any British examples, but the American writers I’ve read are all really good, among them Laura Lippman and Sara Gran. I even enjoy the faux-British mediocrity of Elizabeth George. It’s not a huge coincidence that the first names that came to mind are American or English. In a recent review/interview with brilliant Scottish novelist Janice Galloway, the interviewer writes: “[a]lthough Scottish fiction can boast a line of hard men [...] its hard women have been less visible”. Galloway herself points to the dearth of role models when she started out. This translates into mystery writing, but just as there’s now a whole series of female Scottish writers (my personal adoration of A.L. Kennedy’s work is well known), the field of female writers of crime novels has also greatly expanded.

And yet, amidst the growing competition, Mina’s book stands out. Field of Blood is many things at once: a mystery, a brisk psychological study of a young woman in a male dominated field, but it’s also a tentative discussion of the cultural background of 1980s (and 1960s) Glasgow. It may be a reviewer’s cliché to say that a book is many things at once, but as I’ll point out later, it’s a salient observation in this case; it contributes to the way we read and understand the book. Field of Blood is constructed with all the trappings of the genre, but the material is smartly dealt with. The novel is a bit strangely structured, and while you get a clean resolution, Mina has sidestepped the temptation of tying everything up in a clean knot. In novels like these, finding the killer usually means finding someone complicit in the social struggles depicted. Unraveling the case leads to an unraveling of a part of history or contemporary society that the author intends to examine. Massimo Carlotto’s fascinating investigative noirs are an example, or to stay in Scotland, the very good crime novels of Val McDermid. In Field of Blood, however, the murder case and the social issues are -in many ways- separated, allowing the writer to offer a resolution to the plot without a solution to the broader issues. The protagonist may be personally connected to the case, but that’s just a plot device. There are other connections too, some reaching into old criminal history. It’s just a really well executed intelligent crime novel with an overwhelming sense of place and time.

The place in question is Glasgow which gives the book a more working class background. Glasgow and Edinburgh have been rivals in Scotland for centuries. According to Robert Crawford’s book On Glasgow and Edinburgh, the latter is a more European kind of city, filled with old buildings, centered around the arts (and banking these days), while Glasgow is a city of heavy industry, the Scottish equivalent of the North of England. And like in Liverpool and Manchester, the thatcherite 1980s were no joy for working class Glaswegians. As heavy industry slowly lost its importance, and the Tory government cracked down on unions and workers, these communities suffered greatly. But Mina goes a bit further and situates her protagonist in an Irish Catholic community. Back in the 19th century, a huge amount of poor Irish fled to Scotland and most of them settled around Glasgow and Dundee. The UK has had a difficult relationship to Catholicism in general and with the Irish in particular and so it’s no small wonder that the Irish Catholics in Scotland were not especially welcome. In 1929, not that long ago, the Church of Scotland published a pamphlet titled “The Menace of the Irish race to our Scottish Nationality”; the division between Catholics and Protestants has been an impactful one for Scotland, a division that extends to their two big football clubs, Celtic Glasgow (Irish Catholic) and the Glasgow Rangers (Protestant). The misgivings of the broader protestant society and administration and the resulting insularity and defensiveness of Irish Catholic communities plays a large role in Field of Blood, which is as much about a young woman coming into her own as it’s about the murder of a small child at the hands of two slightly older children.

DSC_0199That last remark is not a spoiler. In fact, the book leads with the scene of the murder and presents us two boys, unequally complicit in a horrible crime. The question that needs to be answered by the plot is whether the boys did the heinous deed alone or whether they were made to do it or maybe enticed into doing it. And even though I called it a procedural at the beginning, it doesn’t focus on the police at all. Instead, the focal point is a female journalist called Paddy Meehan. Her real name is Patricia, but everybody calls her Paddy, which has two effects. It confirms the social/ethnic background, literally naming her (Paddy is a stereotypical Irish name), and it ties her to a different (not fictional) person with the same name. Patrick ‘Paddy’ Meehan was at the center of a miscarriage of justice debate in the 1970s. A Glaswegian Irish Catholic, he was framed for a murder he did not commit. It took seven years for him to be pardoned, even though, shortly after the trial, someone else came forward and confessed to the murder. In his later years, ‘Paddy’ Meehan came to believe that he had been a spy for the Soviet Union, and had been involved in a prison escape by a British double agent, none of which was ever proven to be true. Field of Blood incorporates a retelling of Meehan’s life story in alternating chapters. They offer an uneasy current of counter-history that undermines the legitimacy of stories told in the present tense of the novel.

The main task of Meehan’s life story is to show and remind Patricia/Paddy of the unreliability of the police, especially where minorities are concerned. If they had had no problems framing Paddy Meehan for a murder, would they flinch from framing two Irish Catholic boys in order to have a presentable result to a tragedy that outraged the public? However, Mina also tells us about Meehan’s life as a spy and she does this in a way that does not really inform the reader of the truth of the matter. The situations that she vouches for as an author are ambiguous, involving unseen locations, cells, blindfolds. Other, less ambiguous scenes are offered us through Paddy Meehan’s voice, a cracked, slightly off kilter kind of voice. She never really ties these memories/delusions of her protagonist’s innocently jailed namesake to the main narrative, leaving it in the book just as a queer disturbance of epistemological clarity. This is especially important since the mystery genre has a particular relationship to that idea (I went on about it in my reviews of brilliant novels by Pynchon, and childishly flat novels by Charles Stross), and while we are not following detectives or policemen around, a similar connotation follows investigative reporters.

Patricia/Paddy isn’t quite an investigative reporter, but her investigation of this story represents her first attempt at being one. Her struggles as a woman at a newspaper filled with men is made explicit, and represent a variation on a theme that readers and viewers are fairly familiar with. And while we can assume she is about to carve out a place for herself in this male dominated world, that is not the most interesting emancipation. As an Irish Catholic, she is also strongly involved in that community, almost imprisoned by it. With no sexual experience, she is engaged to be married to a young man from the same community. She lives with her parents (as he lives with his) and goes to church every Sunday. While we soon understand that this community is oppressive to her, we are not asked to condemn the closely knit web of families and friends. Denise Mina makes it clear that this is a supportive community, with a closeness born from necessity and poverty. There is none of the common pat judgment of somewhat insular religious communities. When Paddy appears to betray them by writing an article, the community turns against her. However, this shunning of Paddy inadvertently frees her long enough to see why she has not been happy following the community traditions and eventually allowing her to emancipate herself from the ties that bound her.

DSC_0198The portrayal of Irish Catholics in Fields of Blood is done in broad strokes, which makes sense, given that it happens in brief intervals during breaks in the mystery plot. At the same time, it is fairly complex, an effect that is achieved by the mosaic-like technique Mina uses in her novel. She throws out all these elements (and there are more, including body image struggles and sexuality) and hopes for the sense of place that permeates everything to make it all cohere. In a sense we are cast as detectives here, as well, connecting all the elements of the book in order to see the whole picture. Choosing a female protagonist allowed Mina to also present to us, like fellow Glaswegian novelists Galloway and Kennedy (part-time in her case) did before her, the experience of growing up female in working class Glasgow. The book is not on par with Galloway’s or Kennedy’s work, but it doesn’t aim for that kind of literary discourse. It’s literary goals are different and clear – and clearly met. There are minor incongruities that have the effect of sometimes making the book read like somebody’s debut novel (it’s actually her third book), but they are fleeting. If you enjoy reading crime novels, this is the book for you.

 

****

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Damon Galgut – The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs

So as promised in my announcement, here is a new review.

 

 

Galgut, Damon, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, Grove Atlantic
ISBN 1-84354-462-8

DSC_0156 When I read my first novel by Damon Galgut a few years ago, I instantly knew that this writer I had – for some reason – never heard of would become one of my favorite writers. You go and read my review of that book for a sense of my enthusiasm. I have since read multiple other novels of his (and really can’t wait to get my hands on his most recent one, Arctic Summer, waiting for the more affordable paperback…) and have not been disappointed. The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, originally published in 1991 is a particularly exciting discovery among his books. Throughout his work, Galgut would increasingly work in allegories (The Quarry), complex figures of deception (The Impostor, The Good Doctor) and morality debates, but this, his first novel, is tense with a firm, tantalizing sense of place, with an urgency of meaning. As with all his books, it is written in his characteristically terse style, almost Hemingway-esque, much as I hate using that term. It is poetic without being overwritten, it is also emotionally and politically astute. That said, the book I read (and whose ISBN I give above) is not the original novel Galgut wrote. It’s a 2005 revision, prompted by Galgut’s own misgivings which he admits to in a note preceding the main body of the novel. He didn’t like “the rhythms of the language” and revised it enough to feel comfortable. This explains the maturity of the style, as well as the fact that it is, overall, better than, for example, The Quarry, a novel published later, but, so far, unrevised. I have to admit I don’t really care, as long as the novel I get to read is as good as this one.

In The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs we are offered three kinds of journeys: the journey of a nation, the journey of a mother and her son through the South African borderlands, and finally, the journey of a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality and at the same time with the privileged position that having white skin in 1980s South Africa afforded him. The book offers multiple opportunities to link it to other books and texts. It is a very self conscious literary artifact, but as we, like with Hemingway, follow the step by step process unveiled in his paratactic prose, we are frequently breathless with the tension that this novel’s route creates for its readers. Despite all its similarities and borrowings, it is a remarkable, original novel that is impossible not to recommend. Some of his later novels are better, but that’s just because Galgut keeps getting better, despite occasional missteps. He manages to combine a deep awareness of political contexts, literary traditions, and a sense of how family, personal identity, sexuality are connected to the larger currents of political change. The microcosm of sexual identity and the macrocosm of a continent in the process of change are tied up in a single, well written story. This being a debut, there is some simple and accessible symbolism that could have been handled more subtly, and in much of his later work, that’s what he does.

cropped-dsc_0233.jpgThe novel is set on the eve of the first free Namibian elections in 1989. Much as the whole African continent has been ravaged by the indiscriminately brutal hand of imperialist European nations, Namibia has maybe suffered more than most. After all, at the turn of the century, it witnessed what is generally regarded as the first modern genocide, a dubious honor, perpetrated by Germany, who murdered 80% of the Namibian Herero. After WWI, it was occupied by South Africa, which kept a tight, and brutal, grip on “West South Africa” until 1988, instituting a colonialist Apartheid regime in the country. The last two decades of occupation were marked by violent fights between the South African army (and counterinsurgency paramilitary) and the SWAPO, a guerilla movement that went on to sweep the first elections. Namibia’s eventual independence (which came in March 1990) preceded the end of Apartheid and many activists fighting the Apartheid regime were also involved in the fight for Namibian independence. In hindsight, it appears like the death toll that was rung for the oppressive regime across the border. And despite Galgut writing his book before Apartheid shuffled off its mortal coil, we get that same sense from The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs.

DSC_0154It’s a book staffed with minor characters that represent all kinds of historical aspects. Among others, it features a German who left Namibia to open a shop in Germany, but came back for the election, in order to vote “for us” (and indeed the two runner up parties in that election were conservative white-dominated parties, one with a German name, one actually white supremacist, keeping the SWAPO from a two-thirds majority). The protagonist himself fought in the South African army, and his heritage is partly Afrikaans, partly a more cosmopolitan British heritage. The plot of the book follows Patrick Winter, a young conscript to the South African army who travels with his mother Ellen and her black boyfriend Godfrey north through South Africa to Windhoek to assist with the elections. Godfrey is an avid activist for the Namibian cause and the protagonist’s mother appears at first to be similarly impassioned. We soon learn, however, that political passions don’t run as deep with her as carnal passions do. She is portrayed as a typical white well off do-gooder who teaches at a university and who has no real connection or understanding of the causes she champions, she is in it for the feeling of being on the right side, and for the status this affords her in society. A clean conscience. Sexual relations with attractive activists are a bonus, but one Patrick’s mother clearly relishes. On their way up north, they pass by a farm, where Ellen’s mother, Patrick’s ouma, lives with her black servants and her animals.

Despite being so thin, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs pursues basically three plots. There’s Patrick’s mother and her quest to support her lover in his activism, and then there are two stories involving Patrick. One is Patrick’s own journey alongside his mother. The other is the time in his life, just a year before, when Patrick completed his military service in the South African army in Namibia. This part of the story is the most elliptical and enigmatic part and yet it’s clearly intended to be the emotional heart of the story, the center that informs and gives meaning to all the other conflicts in the book. It’s difficult not to give away important pieces if a book is this densely woven and yet this short, but I will try. Suffice to say life in the army is confusing and challenging for the young recruit. On the one hand, it confronts him with his sexual desires, on the other it forces him to become a murderer. In Galgut’s hands, those two become inseparable. His sexual awaking, which takes place with a lot of fumbling in a dark corner of the army camp, in complete silence, with grunts, sighs and groans as the only background music, comes on the heels of his first encounter with ‘the enemy’ and his first dead enemy combatants. “We killed four of them” he says, and later he looks at one of the dead opponents and the enormousness of this death being on his conscience overwhelms him. The sexual encounter that follows the next day is thus framed as a way to recover an identity, to locate a self in the middle of an anonymous, unjust, violent situation.

DSC_0152Galgut is very intent on showing us the masculine dynamics at work in the camp, how violence and the military is connected to tropes of masculinity and heterosexuality. Patrick has been found weak long before he discovered his homosexuality. “There was a brotherhood of men, I clearly saw, to which I would never belong” – this definition of brotherhood at the limits of sexuality and male violence is reminiscent of Mario Vargas Llosa’s stupendous debut novel The Time of the Hero, which also charts a complex world of sexuality and violence, of adolescent angst and mature power, of male fears and masculine domination, in the context of a military education. While Vargas Llosa’s novel is set among cadets, i.e. students at a Peruvian military academy, and Patrick is a young man among other men, the perspicaciousness of their observations mirror each other. The similarities between the two books on this topic are interesting given that they belong to different literary contexts: Vargas Llosa’s book more among the many novels of male adolescence in boarding school-like situations like Musil’s Zögling Törless or Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, and the military portions of Galgut’s novel more among the even vaster array of novels about the awfulness of war. But Vargas Llosa’s novel is so interested in the elusive maturity and the broader contexts of the military, as well as the topic of sexuality, and Galgut’s book is so insistent on glossing Patrick’s short lived military career within the context of his own adolescence and his misgivings about being a boy among much ‘manlier’ boys that the two novels end up overlapping.

I won’t tell you how Patrick’s career in the South African army ends, except that he leaves it as a man who has developed a sense of distance between himself and various groups around him that want to enlist him. As he, his mother and her lover enter Namibia, we know him to be a man at odds with other men, and with his family. The divisive atmosphere surrounding the elections also confronts him with the fact that other white people around him assume he is part of their group and shares their prejudices. When the German man I mentioned earlier announces he would be voting “for us”, he does it while looking at Patrick. “For us”, that means for us white people, against the black people whose fault it is that the country is “going down the toilet”. Patrick’s experience in the army shows him two things, however. One is the easy one: he does not share the ideology of the bigoted members of his group., whether they are academic, mild bigots like his mother, or major bigots like the German shopkeeper or the (presumably German) white man who sells Nazi memorabilia right in the middle of Windhoek. His distance to his family and to the other soldiers and finally to the Germans on the Namibian streets ensures this. But this is, as I said easy. This is his mother’s path: the simple proclamation ‘I am not like them’. Galgut is, however, a morally more interesting writer. The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs makes it abundantly clear that while Patrick does not share the ideology of his group, he still belongs to it in terms of the historical and current oppression that is exercised.

DSC_0150One example of that would be the dead SWAPO soldiers that Patrick had a hand in killing. Another example is the difficult political situation in Namibia that Patrick, as a soldier, helped maintain, and finally, in his own family and society he is part of the group that upholds and profits from Apartheid and from the colonialist occupation of Namibia. His family has black servants and his personal history is one of wealth. Galgut finds a metaphor for this complicity very early in the book, it’s where the title of the novel is from. When on his ouma‘s farm a pig is killed, Patrick explains to us

There is no sound on earth like the sound of a pig dying. It is a shriek that tears at the primal, unconscious mind. It is the noise of babies abandoned, of women taken by force, of the hinges of the world tearing loose. The screaming starts from the moment the pig is seized, as if it knows what is about to happen. The pig squeals and cries, it defecates in terror, but nothing will stop its life converging to a zero on the point of that thin metal stick.

This terrifying sound has accompanied him through his childhood, and has always been a source of terror to him. As he and his mother stop by his ouma, however, and another pig is killed, he is soothed by the sound. These sounds, they represent childhood for him, tradition. In the memories that Patrick then dredges up, his time in the military comes up, as well as a particularly shameful memory of a childhood friendship with the daughter of a servant, who he threatened to have fired. That shame “only touched [him] now” that he’s all grown up. The comfort of a childhood of inequality, discrimination and killing makes him complicit. And there’s no clean resolution at the end of the book. Galgut offers us a difficult situation, ties it into a vast variety of contexts, offers us a brutal but clean central metaphor and then leaves us with it. Written in 1991, it’s clearly the work of a South African writer calling for a change. There many smaller and larger ways he does it (one actually involving recent German history), but it’s a line that’s threaded throughout The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs. And while the concerns shift in his other books, they are all good, and all similarly knotted and written.

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News, I guess.

So I will attempt to post reviews again. I am also finishing up both a translation of Uwe Kullnick‘s stories and my actual PhD, but I find writing reviews helps me clear my mind. So they are going to be, well, maybe not very good. I will try to sustain it for longer than I have managed before, and the signs are good, because I prewrote 4 reviews already, so even if I get another breakdown or get stuck in something else, there’s material that goes up. There might also be personal essays. I am sort of aiming for once a week, but we’ll see. If you want to support me doing this, there’s a Paypal Button somewhere on this site. I think I moved it to the left side of the blog at the moment. If you have suggestions, comments, love letters or poems for me, you can leave them in the comments or send them to shigekuniblog [at] rocketmail [dot] de. It’s a snazzy address, I know. I am very proud. Despite the hedging earlier, I genuinely hope you like the reviews. They are not going to all be of the same length or kinds of books, but they are all going to be written by me. Whether that’s a threat or a boon is up for you to decide.

Thank you to all readers who have stuck around. Have a nice day. First review up early tomorrow morning. We’ll go from there.

Pictured below my Russian family. I am the blonde (yup) boy held up by the very tan old man, my step-grandfather who died some 12 years ago.

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Frank Smith: Guantanamo: UPDATE

You might or might not remember my review of Frank Smith’s extraordinary book Guantanamo. If you don’t, I urge you to read it. But then I would.

If you have not read my review, you might not know that Frank Smith, despite his anglosaxon name, is, in fact, writing in French. This has put books of his, especially the largely excellent Guantanamo out of reach for many of my friends. This sad circumstance has now, however, been amended.

The very talented Vanessa Place has just translated Guantanamo. It will be published by LES FIGUES PRESS in August 2014 with an introduction by Mark Sanders.

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